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Salt of the Earth

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Prologue (Cloak and Dagger)

She could hear the sound of her heart pounding in her chest and feel the adrenaline coursing through her veins. There wasn’t a single part of her small body that wasn’t violently aching. Her blonde hair was matted with blood but she wasn’t entirely sure where it had come from. If she didn’t act soon there was sure to be more. One of the assailants lunged forward at her, but she was quicker than he was and managed to dodge his attack, albeit slightly clumsily. She took advantage of his momentum and sent him flying into the wall that she had been leaning on. There was no time for any sense of victory yet as the second assailant recovered from the last blow she had delivered. The plodding of his boots alerted her to his whereabouts, allowing her to deliver a roundhouse kick successfully. Her foot connected with a sharp crack, and she was delighted in knowing that she had likely just broken his jaw. Unfortunately it didn’t seem to slow him down at all. He returned the blow quickly, knocking her straight back into the first guy. The next moments were nothing but a blur as she felt herself tossed across the dark alley and crashed, inelegantly, into a dumpster. When she had first been cornered in the alley she had been confident that she could handle this fight; she may have even been looking forward to a good fight, if she was being honest. Now, that confidence was long gone and there was an intense sense of fear replacing it – she was likely going to die in this alley.

Despite this fear, she felt a smile involuntarily break out from behind the blood and dirt. She wiped blood off her lips with the back of her hand and supressed letting out a laugh. She figured she was losing her mind, but at the same time she was hoping that it made her more dangerous. Maybe she could win after all. With her resolve bolstered, she lunged forward at the two vampires, ready to do some real damage. Her collision with the dumpster had slowed her movements down, but she was not ready to give up quite yet.

“That all you got?” She taunted, spitting some blood out onto the ground.

The two vamps grinned as four more vampires came out of the shadows, surrounding her and blocking any chance of retreat.

“Sure, more can join the party, if you really need the help,” she said, hoping that they couldn’t hear her voice shaking.

There was a brief moment in which it seemed as though the entire alley paused. No one moved. With baited breath she waited for any flash of movement, but none seemed to come. It was worrisome at best; what were they waiting for? It did, however, allow her a chance to come up with some semblance of a plan for what she was going to do. She was severely outnumbered and absolutely exhausted. There didn’t appear to be anything nearby that she could use as a weapon, nor did she have anything with her. If she made it out of this alive, she silently promised herself to never leave home without some sort of weapon to protect herself with. Based on current circumstances, fighting did not seem like a viable option. Retreat was also unlikely – the group of vampires had her completely surrounded. Vaulting over them required more strength than she had after her collision with the dumpster and was quickly ruled out as an option. Rolling under left her far too exposed unless she was able to create a distraction. It wouldn’t be easy, but this was her best bet of getting out of here alive. Now all she needed to do was figure out how to scramble their attention.

Her thoughts were interrupted by the sound of arrows landing with a resounding thud and two of the vampires across from her falling into a pile of dust. She didn’t care who, or what, had delivered the two arrows. Right now, she saw an opening and she took it. Her hands lashed out at incredible speed and knocked the nearest vampire back. She still had no weapons and had no idea if the new addition to the tussle was friend or foe, but there was no way she was willing to stay back and find out; running was her best option. The small window of opportunity for her to escape was quickly snatched away from her as another vampire dropped down in front of her, blocking her last route of escape.

“Hey!” A voice called out from the shadows, “catch!”

From somewhere to her side, a stake was tossed towards her which she caught with ease. It was surprising how a simple wooden stake was enough to make her feel as though this fight was once again winnable. The vampire took a powerful swing towards the small blonde. She dodged it just in time, but was unable to avoid the follow up strike which caused her to stumble backwards. There was new blood trickling down her cheek and her recovery from the blow was a touch slow. When he lunged for her again, she moved to the side to let him sail past her. From behind, she drove the stake through his back and into his heart. She fell into the new pile of dust, entirely spent.

From behind her, the blonde could hear the last remaining vampires also fall into dust. She could finally catch her breath as she pulled herself up off the cold cement. It took the last of her strength to get to her feet again as she fought to slow her racing heart. The alley swirled around her as she stood up too fast, but finally came still once more as she steadied on her feet. It also allowed her to finally see who had come to her rescue. Two men sauntered over to her, one brandishing a machete and a taller one slinging a crossbow over his back. She strained her eyes to try and make out who these figures were.

“You Tess?” The shorter one asked, breaking the silence.

“Who’s asking?” She retorted.

“Take that as a yes,” the taller one nodded.

“D’ya know that each one of you we’ve found have given us the same answer? Does that just come with the Slayer powers or –“

The taller one cut him off, “what he means to say is that he’s Dean. I’m Sam.” He stretched his hand out to the small girl.

Tess looked at the hand and rolled her eyes, “that’s great and all, but who the hell are you?”

“Right to business then, I like it,” the one called Dean grinned. “We’ve been sent to recruit you.”

“Recruit me? For what exactly?”

“Several months ago you woke up feeling different. You were stronger, more agile, more in tune with what was around you, right? There are other girls just like you, and they’re all working together,” Sam explained slowly, gauging how she reacted to this information. When she gave a slow nod he continued, “We’re friends of the girl trying to find you all.”

Tess wasn’t sure how to react to what was being said to her. He was right, of course. She had felt different for quite some time now. In that time she had been attacked several times over, and each time she had been surprised that she had been able to not only defend herself but eliminate her opponents. As time went on she had heard them call her a “Slayer,” and her curiosity had led her to weird corners of the internet. There she learned about vampires and demons and things that go bump in the night. Once upon a time she might have thought that it was all some weird fanfiction or something, but there was too much that made sense. Too much that she understood directly. She wasn’t entirely sure what it meant to be a Slayer, but she did know that if she was given the ability to stop these things from hurting people, then that’s what she had to do. Anything she had read had said that there was only one Slayer, so she didn’t understand what these guys meant. Were there really others like her?

“How did you find me?”

“Magic,” Dean winked.

Tess scoffed.

“Actually, he’s telling the truth,” Sam nodded. “There is a lot about this world that you don’t know; a lot that you don’t understand yet. Our friends can help you.”

“Well, where are these ‘friends’ of yours?”

“Cleveland.”

“Cleveland? Like, Ohio Cleveland?” Tess asked incredulously.

“I know it sounds kind of…odd,” Dean admitted, “but the people there will be able to explain everything a hell of a lot better than we can.”

“It’s safe there?”

Sam nodded, “It’s safe. Buffy, our friend that sent us to find you, is the best of the best. She’ll look after you.”

Tess mulled it over for a minute. This was totally crazy, but then again, what about her life hadn’t been crazy these last few months? She had been a normal girl, as normal as anyone could be anymore anyway. She lived alone in a small studio sized apartment in Olympia. She had a good relationship with her parents and she saw them for dinner once a week. Her younger brother was her best friend and he had always looked up to her. School had never been her thing, but she did her best while she was there. Everyone was surprised when she managed to graduate high school, but no one was surprised when that was the end of her academic career. All through school, Tess had been making her own money working special events and functions. She was now well on her way to being an event coordinator. Maybe her life wasn’t much, but it was hers and that was enough.

Then one morning she woke up and things were…different. Tess couldn’t put her finger on what exactly was different, it wasn’t just one thing. Everything felt different; she was different. For days after that she had found herself more aware of what was going on around her. She had been able to catch a bottle that someone had accidently dropped behind her simply because she had felt the shift in the air. The walls were thin in her apartment building, but she was hearing more from the other apartments than she had before. The myriad of broken items in her apartment stood as evidence that she had also become much stronger. What was harder to explain was the sudden feeling Tess had of being deeply connected. Connected to what, she wasn’t sure, but the feeling was unmistakable.

A couple of incidents led Tess to looking into what had happened to her, and what these things were that kept attacking her at every turn. That was when she discovered that there was a whole world living just out of sight of the regular people. Demons, vampires, magic, and all things that go bump in the night really existed. Those dark corners of the web weren’t lying to her. She also learned that there was always someone, a girl with immense power, destined to hold them back. Everything seemed to click once she read that tale. She cried herself to sleep that night and left town in the morning. She didn’t want to put anyone in danger and she needed to find out more about who – or what – she was. Tess never looked back.

So in the last couple of months she had gone from a regular person who blended into the background to someone connected to some ancient power. She had learned that monsters existed and the world wasn’t as simple and safe as she had been taught all her life. She had dropped everything about her previous life and had been living on the run ever since. She had been fighting real monsters every night. So a trip to Cleveland? That seemed pretty easy.

“Okay, let’s go.”

A look of shock crossed Dean’s face, “really? Just like that?”

She nodded, “just like that.”

“I mean we could be psychos or something, and you’re just gonna come with us?”

“Are you psychos?”

“It depends on what day you –“ Dean started.

“We are not psychos, I promise you,” Sam interjected, “It’s just that most of you girls that we’ve found have been…slower to trust us than that.”

Tess shrugged, “meh. I figure what’s a little more crazy on top of everything else. But can we eat first? I’m starving.”

Dean chuckled, “I knew I liked you.”

ӁӁӁ

There weren’t a lot of options for places to eat - not in a small town and not at this time of night. It was nearly four in the morning when the three of them finally stumbled upon a greasy truck stop. Even just looking at it made Tess’ stomach queasy, but hey, food was food. Maybe she’d be lucky and Slayers would be more resistant to food poisoning. Probably a far-fetched hope but a girl could dare to dream. She had a crazy craving for eggs benedict, but naturally the place wasn’t serving breakfast yet. Tess decided to bury her disappointment in a mountain of fries.

“So what exactly is waiting for me in Cleveland?” Tess asked, shoveling fries into her mouth.

“Honestly, we’re not sure,” Sam admitted.

Dean jumped in quickly, “but we know that there are people there who know what you’re going through. They’re going to teach you to use this ability you have so that you can help people.”

“And there’s others there? Girls like me?”

Sam nodded, “and more going there every day.”

“Now, I read into the Slayer stuff a bit – “

“You did?” Dean asked, a level of surprise in his voice.

“The things I was fighting – vampires? They kept using that name,” she shrugged, “I was curious. Anyway, it always said that there was only one.”

Tess could tell that she had directed the conversation in a way that the two boys were hoping to avoid. Sam and Dean shared a couple of looks which seemed to be conveying an entire conversation. At that moment she decided that they must be brothers. There wasn’t much in the way of familial resemblance, but she had seen this a thousand times over. Plus, only siblings could look this annoyed with each other. They were clearly arguing, but she wasn’t entirely sure why this was a source of disagreement. Sam seemed to have won the silent battle as Dean sighed and turned back to face Tess.

“This is one of those things that’s better left for Buffy to explain to you.”

Tess was disappointed, but she had a feeling that was the answer she’d get. She was just hoping that this Buffy had the answers to questions that she had. There was so much that she didn’t understand and she was sure that there was more to come.

“What’s this Buffy like?” Tess asked, hopeful that this was a question they’d be able to answer.

Throughout the conversation, Tess had been watching the men closely as they spoke and as she asked questions. She was trying to get a read on them – trying to pick up on any information she may be able to find in the way they reacted to what was said. So far the one called Dean had been rather uninterested in anything that was being said; he seemed much more concerned about how much coffee he had left than taking part in the conversation. That was until she asked about Buffy. He practically snapped to attention and she was pretty sure she had seen his eyes light up completely. Curious. Tess would keep that in mind for later.

“She’s uh...incredible,” Dean said, with a faraway look on his face.

Sam rolled his eyes as if in annoyance, but Tess noticed the hint of a smile on his face. She figured that he enjoyed giving his brother a hard time, but was just happy for Dean. There was clearly something about this girl.

“Don’t get him started,” Sam chuckled, “he’ll never shut up.”

Dean shot his brother a look before continuing on, “she’s a good leader. Strong. Determined. Compassionate. And she knows a great deal about being a Slayer. She actually was the only one for a long time. Chosen and everything.”

Tess took in what Dean had said, but it really didn’t give her any useful information. Figuring that she wasn’t going to get anything more than that, she decided to let it go for now. She was going to learn for herself soon enough anyways. Hearing that Buffy knew what it was like to be a Slayer was enough to put her mind to ease, at least a little bit anyway. Ever since this had happened, Tess had wanted to know more about it all. Who wouldn’t though, right?

The sound of a phone ringing pulled Tess out of her thoughts. She watched as Dean rifled a phone out of his pocket and then sigh as he rolled his eyes. Clearly not a call he wanted to take. Dean wandered off to talk to whoever it was, leaving Tess and Sam alone. Finally.

 “Did I actually thank you for saving me earlier?” Tess asked, playing with the spoon in her coffee mug.

“Not necessary. I’m just glad we got there when we did.”

Tess smirked, “a little sooner may have been nice. Might have avoided some damage.”

She was of course referring to the gash by her eye, the crack in her cheek, the split in her lip, and what she was sure was at least two broken ribs. It was an awful lot of trouble for simply leaving work. Tess may have been able to defend herself just fine, but she wasn’t stupid. Even with her new found skills, Tess made sure to stick to the main roads and well-lit corners when she was out at night. Each job was temporary – a couple weeks at most. If she kept moving, she thought that maybe these creatures wouldn’t be able to find her. Clearly she had been wrong. All she had done was step out her work’s back door while her manager locked up behind her.

The vampires had taken no time in descending upon her. At first they had seen her as easy prey – a quick meal and nothing more. It wasn’t until they were practically on top of her that they realized she wasn’t just another blonde girl in an alley. It’s like they can smell it on her. Eau de Slayer or something.

“Ah well,” she shrugged, “can’t be too upset when you get rescued by a gorgeous man with a crossbow.”

Sam nearly choked on his coffee. Whatever he thought she might say, that certainly wasn’t it. He could feel warmth in his face and sincerely hoped that she couldn’t see the pink creeping into his cheeks.

She could.

“Oh, uh,” he cleared his throat.

Tess laughed, “and humble too, apparently. I like that.”

“You’re, uh, quite attractive too?” Sam stuttered.

She had caught him entirely off guard and he was exhausted. The two had driven all night trying to track her down, so he hadn’t slept in nearly two days at this point. Coming out of mission mode always left Sam a little disoriented. It was a mix of circumstances that left Sam’s brain lagging a little behind. He of course now noticed that she was, in fact, incredibly attractive. She had a fierce look to her with her dark make up, sharp features, and stark blonde hair. The leather jacket and her bloodied face did a lot to reinforce that image. Her eyes, a piercing grey tone, seemed to look right through him – like she knew all his secrets already. There was a softness to her too though, and it was intriguing. It was in the way she smiled, he thought. It was a smile that lit up her entire face.

Of course he couldn’t find his words.

Just then Dean walked back over, hanging up his phone. With a grim look on his face, he slid back into the booth. “Change of plans,” he said, tossing his wallet out on the table.

Sam, grateful for the interruption, coughed out his response, “w-what’s up?”

“Garth caught wind of a case, needs us to check it out. In Beckville.”

“Texas? That’s not exactly on our route,” Sam reminded Dean.

Dean shot him a look and Sam knew exactly what that meant. Case or not, it was time to go.  Sam and Dean were still a big secret and that meant that they couldn’t exactly drop the girl off at Buffy’s front step. It also meant they couldn’t be here when the retrieval team came for Tess.

“I already called Buffy. She’s got a team nearby that she’s gonna reroute.”

That meant that Dean had a voicemail from Buffy letting him know that her crew would be here soon. Phone calls had not been their strong suit lately. Sam couldn’t help but feel bad for his brother, but he was sure that it was temporary. At least he hoped.

Tess was still grinning from the fun that she had just had, but now she was a little confused. She had just gotten used to the idea that Sam and Dean were going to be her new travel-buddies, but now it sounded like they would be parting ways. She also wasn’t too sure what they meant by Buffy sending out a team and that uncertainty wasn’t welcomed. Trusting two guys she could see right in front of her was alright. She could actually see them – she knew what she was getting with them. There was a lot Tess had discerned about Sam and Dean in their short time together. There was something in the way that they carried themselves that told Tess that they had seen a lot of bad in the world. She could see it in the way they watched the whole room as they sat and talked, ever alert of everything that was going on around them. Tess could hear a tiredness that bordered on weariness in the way they spoke about the world. Despite this, it was obvious these brothers were on the good team. They had seen a lot and had come out on the right side of it all. They were weary from fighting against the darkness that infected the world. If she were asked to explain it, she wouldn’t be able to, but it was obvious to her that they were protectors. It was possible she was being lured into a trap, but she really didn’t think so.

“So what’s going to happen to me?” Tess inquired.

“Buffy has retrieval teams all over the country. One should be here within the day to take you back to Cleveland,” Dean explained.

Tess sunk a little bit, “you guys are really leaving me?”

Now she was being asked to trust someone, a group of people, she had never met. People she couldn’t see in front of her. It seemed like a much larger gamble than going with the brothers. With the sense of trust she had towards them also came a sense of comfort. She liked the guys already and it was disappointing to know she was being handed off to total strangers. For a moment she thought about refusing – just staying here, on her own. It was almost time to move on to a new town anyway. There was nothing saying that she had to go to Cleveland. That thought didn’t last long, though. The promise of information, of learning and understanding this new world she found herself in, was much too captivating to ignore. There was no other option.

Dean nodded, “sorry Tess. Big case that needs us.”

“You’ll be in good hands, whoever Buffy sends. You’ll be safe,” Sam added.

“Okay,” Tess said glumly.

The bill was paid and the three filed out of the truck stop. Dean had given his motel number to Buffy in a returned text message and so the plan was that Tess would stay in the motel until the team could meet her. It wasn’t really an ideal plan to any of them but there also weren’t a lot of options. Sam and Dean didn’t like leaving the girl alone, and Tess wasn’t thrilled with the idea either. The issue was that the case that Garth had caught wind of really couldn’t wait or else they risked losing its scent again. Maybe it wasn’t as pertinent as they claimed, but they had to split before any of Buffy’s people made it here. In an effort to put their worries to ease, the boys tried to remind themselves that the girl was a Slayer, equipped with extra strength and tuned senses. Of course they had to ignore the fact that she was completely untrained and still learning how to even use those powers. Tess had survived on her own for the last few months, she was sure she could do it again. She was probably much less worried than the boys were, but she couldn’t figure out why exactly they were so worried.

The motel room wasn’t much to look at, but at least she didn’t have to be here long. Which was probably a good thing as it didn’t look terribly safe either. Beyond that, it looked about as grimy as the truck stop had been. Joy.

“Okay. The room has been paid off already, so just stay here for the night. Lay low, don’t go anywhere. Someone will be by soon for you,” Dean said, packing up the last of his stuff from the room.

“How will I know that it’s Buffy’s people?” Tess questioned.

“They’ll knock at the door and ask ‘are you free tonight or will it cost me?’” Dean said with a glint in his eye. He was clearly pleased with the code he had devised. Sam rolled his eyes as Dean continued, “you’ll respond with ‘more than you can afford’.”

Tess groaned, “seriously?”

“It’s catchy, right?”

Sam rolled his eyes again, “I’m sorry for my brother, he’s still a thirteen year old boy. Ignoring that, is there anything else you need?”

She shook her head, “nope, I think I’m good.

“One more thing. When they get here, don’t mention us,” Dean said.

That was perplexing. Why would they not want her to mention them? Alarms starting going off in Tess’ head. That sense of trust started to slip as she processed what Dean had just said to her.

“What? Why?”

Sam and Dean exchanged apprehensive looks before Sam spoke, “it’s a long story – “

Tess interrupted him, “are you going to tell me anything?”

Dean breathed deeply, “look. Her friends don’t exactly know that we’ve been helping them find Slayers. They wouldn’t be comfortable with that idea, so we just kinda do it on the D-L. That’s all.”

“Sure. Whatever. I won’t mention you,” Tess agreed, slightly begrudgingly.

“Alright, then we’ll be off,” Dean nodded, “take care of yourself.”

“You guys too.” Sam and Dean turned to leave the motel room, still feeling a little guilty for leaving her on her own.  “Sam?” Tess called after them.

Sam stopped and turned back, but Dean only grinned as he carried on to the car.

“Yeah?”

“Hope to see you soon,” Tess said with a wink.

“Oh uh,” Sam cleared his throat, “y-yeah. You, you too.”

Tess leaned up to give him a quick peck, revelling in watching a blush spread across his face. She wasn’t sure if she kissed him because she wanted to or because she just wanted to see how he reacted. Either way, it was funny.

“And I mean real soon,” she said in a sultry voice.

Sam nodded awkwardly and headed out, leaving Tess alone finally.

She looked around not entirely sure what to do with herself now. A hot shower would have been perfect, but one look at that bathroom dissuaded Tess from that luxury. Instead she hopped onto the bed and turned on the TV.

It was going to be a long night.

Chapter Text

Chapter One - Hard Life to Love

“You have twelve new voicemail messages.”

Buffy groaned as she listened to the list of messages she had received over night. She had slept for all of three hours and this is what she was greeted by in the morning. The work never seemed to stop, but she really wasn’t surprised. Between all the weird occurrences that had been happening across the country, all the new Slayers to find, and trying to set up the Slayer HQ, she knew there wouldn’t be time to rest. Each message she heard was another job that required a follow up, confirmation, or approval from her. Eight or nine of the messages were from people she had sent out to find the Slayers they had awoken; some had good news, others not so much. The remaining three or four were regarding issues with the house they were constructing or the training that was going on. Why the people in the house couldn’t just leave notes rather than bogging down her voicemail, she may never know. Regardless of what each call was about, they all seemed to share a common message. They all had something to do with how they were going to make this whole thing work. No matter how many calls she took, or from whom the calls came in from, the messages had started to repeat like a broken record. They had no money and no amount of honest work would ever bring in enough money to sustain a household of this size. The Watcher’s Council bank account was sure to run out eventually. Sometimes it was to do with the repairs to the buildings, the renovations to the lot, or something about how to use the space they had. Often she was being informed about another new girl that had been identified and tracked down. There was the occasional time she was called in to deal with a fight between the inhabitants of the house, but that was rare; everyone was too busy to fight much anymore anyway. There was a lot that Buffy found herself in charge of.

Being the one everyone looked to was nothing new but it was a much bigger job now than it had ever been. For years she had been the centre of her group of Scoobies and the one to always make the last call. It was a lot to handle back then, being a teenager and trying to save the whole world. It was followed by a year of being an unofficial General of not only her friends but a group of scared teenaged girls who were thrust into a role that none of them had been prepared for. She remembered feeling like them once, but she’d had strength and power the whole time. For as long as she knew this world existed, she was the Slayer. She couldn’t imagine being part of this world, in danger like they were, without the ability to protect herself. Without the ability to fight back. Of course she was in charge then – she was the only one that could be. It had all led to her now irrevocably being the General of an entire army and it was exhausting. It was a heavy responsibility, and one that she was shirking right now; she skipped every single message. She’d have to listen to them all eventually and find some solution or response to each of them, but for now they just didn’t matter. Finally she got to the message she really wanted to hear.

“Hey Buffy,” the familiar voice played through her phone’s speaker, “sorry I missed you. We’ve been terrible at this lately, huh? Just wanted to check in and let you know we’re okay. Sam and I are on our way to another case down south that doesn’t sound right to us. Sorry we couldn’t wait around with Tess until one of your recovery teams could make it but we had to get a move on. Made it easier to conveniently ‘miss’ your team though. We were glad to hear she made it back to Cleveland safe and sound though.” Dean paused, taking a deep breath, “I miss you, ya know? I think we’re gonna try to head your way after this case. Hope things are good on your end, hope to hear from you soon.”

Buffy smiled despite the tears that were welling up in her eyes. She had lost track of how many voicemails they had exchanged between one another. They hadn’t spoken since she had called him from the motel room after losing Sunnydale; they just kept missing each other. Voicemails weren’t the same as actually talking and it was wearing on her. She had long lost track of the number of times Dean had ended a message with the hope that he could come visit sometime soon. Each time he said it, he sounded like he really meant it. Like he really believed it. Each time he said it, she believed it too. Or at least she wanted to. But something always came up. Things kept coming up. That was the life they lived, though, and she knew that. She hated that, but she understood. It didn’t make the distance any easier though. At least they both knew what was going on. That was kind of nice.

The brothers had alerted Buffy to the weird stuff that had been going on; all the monster cases that made no sense and the grotesque victims that were being left behind all over the country. Thank god the hunters were out there to clean up some of these messes; she didn’t have enough girls to look into all these cases right now. Sure, some of their older girls, the ones that came before the battle with The First, were out looking into some of these cases too, but they had so few that were able to do that. They were spread far too thin with trying to establish themselves and trying to find new girls and just simply getting the girls trained. How was it possible that, even with all of these Slayers, they still weren’t enough? They were getting more girls every day, but it felt like it was never going to be enough. Hell, these guys were even helping round up some of the girls who were on their way to the newly formed HQ. Sam and Dean had done more than she could have ever expected or hoped for. All without ever being asked.

Looking at her missed call list Buffy noticed that the call had come in just thirty minutes before she had woken up. Her eyes lit up with hope at the idea of being able to finally catch Dean on the phone. She hurriedly hit the callback button and held her breath as she waited. The phone rang once. Twice. Thrice. Four times.

“This is Dean’s other, other cell so you must know what to do.”

Her heart sank but she tried to perk her voice up as she spoke. Anything to hide the disappointment she felt. She knew he felt just as crummy about always missing each other as she did, so she didn’t want to add to it.  “Tag, you’re it. Thought I could catch you this time, but you must be driving. Sorry about the text message last time, we were in the middle of an awful meeting. Thank you again for finding Tess. Meant a lot to me.” Buffy sighed, “you know I’d love for you to come here, but there’s more important jobs going on right now. Unlike those cases, I can wait. It’s okay. Have you gotten anywhere on figuring out what’s been going on with all these weird things? I’ve never heard of a vampire with claws like a werewolf, but it can’t be good. We’ve been looking through our books when we get the chance, but so far nothing has cropped up. I’ll let you know if we do find anything. Hopefully we’ll talk soon…I miss you too…”

Buffy sighed as she hung up. Weeks of missing each other told her that no, they would not be talking soon. It was nice to hope though. Even if it did just breed eternal misery. Looking at the clock Buffy started to think that maybe she had enough time to get another couple of hours of sleep before the requirements of the day pulled her into action. Even just another twenty minutes of peace and quiet in her bed would be absolute bliss. No one had to know that she was awake already. She could just slip back into sleep and pretend for a moment that she could stay in bed all day. She had just nuzzled her head back into her pillow, blankets pulled up tight to her chest, and closed her eyes when she heard a banging on her door.

“Buffy!”

Her eyes flew back open and her face pulled into a pout.

“No!” She called back.

Willow sighed, “we need you, let’s go!”

Buffy groaned as she pulled herself out of bed, “fine. Let me shower and I’ll meet you downstairs.”

This is how the mornings had been ever since they had moved into the old farmhouse. She hadn’t had any time to herself and she was constantly being pulled in different directions. Everywhere she turned there was a new problem to fix, a new fire to put out. The only moment of silence she ever had was the ten minutes she got to spend in the shower. Even then, there were days when the hot water would run out or someone would bang on the door. There was no true reprieve for her anywhere. For all the time Buffy spent dealing with people each day, she still felt as though she hadn’t talked to anyone in weeks. Every conversation was about work. She didn’t know a damn thing that was going on with any of her friends because, at least for now, no one thought it mattered. It was lonely and made her feel completely disconnected from everyone in the house.

Such was the life.

Then again, was it really that different from being in her little house on Revello Drive? Did she feel less alone then? Not really. Maybe she thought things would be different now, but that was nothing more than a fruitless hope. There was that misery that hope bred again. It almost made Cleveland feel just as much of a home as Sunnydale had been, even if it wasn’t necessarily a good thing. Except that it wasn’t Sunnydale at all. For all the faults that town had, Buffy had really missed Sunnydale since settling into Cleveland. She missed the warm weather, the palm trees, even The Bronze. Most of all, she missed her home. She missed the way the fifth step from the bottom of the stairs squeaked no matter where you stepped on it. She missed how the one photo of her and Dawn that hung by the kitchen would never hang straight, no matter how many times they fixed it. She missed how the light on the front porch flickered, even when they had just replaced the bulb that day. She missed all the comforts that came with having a home, not just a house.

Buffy missed her mom. The house had always felt like Joyce to her. Her mom had been gone for years, but the whole house felt like her mom’s still. It wasn’t just the pictures on the wall or the furniture that was left behind or even just the memories in the house. It was all of it. It was the comfort of home…of mom. Before they had loaded up that stupid bus, Buffy had snuck away from the group. It was her that had passed down the rule to only take those items that may help them in battle – weapons, magic items, anything that could be used as armour. She broke her own rule, snatching up a photo from the table at the top of the stairs. That photo was still stashed inside her weapon’s chest. It was the last photo taken of her, her mom, and Dawn all together. Each day, before heading downstairs to handle the drama of the day, Buffy stopped to take a look at it. To try and find that connection to home and comfort and mom again. It didn’t help. Her mom, her old life, still felt so far away.

But that was the new normal. And Buffy would have to learn to cope with that.

The urgent matter she needed to attend to was, predictably, about how they were going to operate once they had the Slayers trained. Willow believed that the Slayers should all stay here and operate out of one hub, whereas Xander thought the best way to run the show was to have cells out in the world, each with their own leader and sovereignty. Giles was already in a snit about the state of the Watcher’s Council, or more accurately the lack of one. He needed more people and wasn’t sure he could even train them properly. Then there was the question regarding how it would work. Would each girl have a Watcher? Would there be one Watcher for a group of girls? Would they just be consulted as needed? Were they needed at all? Question after question after question was posed. There was so much to decide now that they had changed the game, and no easy answers. There was no precedent they could draw on for this one. They were standing on the precipice of a new era, and the decisions they made here would have a profound effect on the way the battle against evil would be waged. It would change the lives of not only the Slayers, but every single person in the world. It was staggering just to think about. So far, for all their ideas and arguing, nothing seemed entirely feasible. Nothing seemed right. They couldn’t fight evil if they couldn’t find a way to operate in a world with hundreds, if not thousands, of Slayers.

It was vastly important to discuss this, and Buffy knew that more than anyone. She had seen what had happened when Slayers were trained too strictly – that resulted in automatons like Kendra. She had also seen what happened when Slayers were left to fend for themselves – that resulted in…in Faith. Both were tragic and disastrous in their own way. She knew she needed to devote her energy to making these decisions, but she could hardly pay attention anymore. Meetings like these made Buffy’s head hurt, her heart ache, and her whole body restless. She was meant to be fighting things and saving people, not tied up in what was essentially bureaucratic nonsense. It wasn’t really getting anywhere anyway. The only conclusion they were able to come to was that there needed to be more than just the four of them in charge of things. The list of candidates to help them out was desperately short, and that didn’t really solve any of their more pressing issues. There was only so much arguing that Buffy could take, especially with her best friends. She called the meeting short and had Dawn gather the girls that she was going to work with today. She needed to vent her frustrations. She almost felt bad for this group. Almost.

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Coming downstairs and into the kitchen, Tess was greeted with a cup of coffee, which was more than she’d had the last few months. It was rather cheap coffee, probably because there were a couple dozen of people drinking coffee day in and day out. Tess had been here for just over two weeks now and she was sure that the place was hemorrhaging cash. She wasn’t even sure where they got the money to begin with, but she was fairly certain there was no money coming in. While the people in charge had not said anything about money issues, Tess had overheard some whispers about it when no one realized she was around. She had learned a lot that way, actually.

“Thanks,” Tess smiled, graciously accepting the coffee.

Dawn smiled back, “gonna be a busy one, figured you could use it.”

“Oh?” Tess asked, grabbing the toast that had just popped up from the toaster.

“Buffy’s taking you and a couple of the other new girls out to run drills,” Dawn informed her.

So far Tess had run drills with some of the other new girls, but she had never worked with Buffy. Actually, in the two weeks she had been here, she had barely even seen Buffy. Her first night here, Buffy had greeted her graciously at the door. She had spent hours with her, talking to her and filling her in on all that she could. Buffy had answered a barrage of questions, all with grace and patience. If she was tired of answering the same questions over and over again, if she was tired of telling the same story over and over again, she showed no sign of it. Tess had appreciated that. Sam and Dean were right, she figured, this did seem like the best place for her. After that night, however, Tess was mostly left to deal with the other members of the house. The few times she had seen Buffy since that night, Tess noticed just how tired and worn down the veteran Slayer seemed. She couldn’t help but feel bad for Buffy. She made every effort to hide it, but Buffy was straining under the pressure of being in charge of so much. Tess didn’t know her before the headquarters was established so she didn’t really know what Buffy was like, but she could see more than most realized. She could see the cracks starting in Buffy, wearing her down.

Hearing that she was now going to work directly with Buffy was a little nerve-wracking. Tess knew that Buffy only trained with the girls that were ready for it, but she couldn’t help but feel as though she wasn’t ready at all. There were girls that had been here for weeks, even months, longer than her, and they had never been taken out with Buffy. The girls who had gone out with Buffy often came back exhausted, and some of them came back totally downtrodden. Most of those girls went back to earlier training programs – obviously not ready to move on yet. Buffy had high expectations, and Tess was afraid she wouldn’t be able to meet them. She was used to not meeting expectations.

Dawn must have noticed Tess’ hesitation as she made an effort to relax the Slayer, “oh don’t worry. Buffy isn’t as bad as some of the girls have made her out to be. I promise.”

Tess forced a smile, “okay. When are we heading out?”

“As soon as she’s done the morning meeting. Whenever that is.”

Previous experience dictated that the meeting could wrap up in the next ten minutes or even the next hour. Tess needed to kill some time, but be nearby so she didn't miss the callout. Dawn may insist that Buffy wasn’t the hard ass the others coloured her to be, but it was well known that Buffy was not patient.

“I’ll just be sitting on the front porch then. Thanks for the coffee,” Tess smiled as she headed out to the front.

Tess sat herself down on the front step, relishing the feeling of the sun on her face. This didn’t feel like home yet, but she really thought it could one day. The seclusion was a little strange to get used to after living in the same city her whole life – a city where she knew everyone in the neighborhood. Even still, it was beautiful here. The people were pleasant. The other girls were wonderful and those who were in charge were great too. Tess had taken a real shining to Xander, finding that they had a lot in common. Most of the girls that came in tended to avoid Xander - uncomfortable around him because of the eyepatch, but Tess wasn’t squeamish about it. She made a Metal Gear Solid reference her first day in the house and ever since the two of them had made fast friends. He was a gentle soul, and Tess found a comfort in that.

Then there was Faith. She was one of the veteran Slayers and she commanded a high level of respect. That level of respect was given to all of the senior Slayers, but not one of them seemed comfortable with it. It hadn’t taken Tess long to see that Faith was the least comfortable with her role in the headquarters. The reason was one that didn’t come to Tess immediately. In fact, getting a read on Faith was the biggest challenge Tess had faced since making it to Cleveland.

In her first couple of weeks, Tess had learned a lot about all of the people she now lived and worked with. She knew that Xander and Willow had been friends long before Buffy showed up. She knew that Dawn was Buffy’s sister, but she hadn’t always been…whatever that meant. Andrew had once been working on the wrong side but had come around. The only topic that no one dared touch was anything to do with Faith. No one talked about how she was called as a Slayer. There was nothing said about her history with Buffy and why she wasn’t around for a long time. It was obvious that there was tension between Buffy and Faith - that was the first thing that Tess had picked up on. Someone would have to be pretty oblivious to miss that though. The reason for that apprehension and wariness had eluded Tess so far, but she was determined to figure it out.

In her efforts, Tess had eventually found out a great deal about Faith. She got the feeling that no one else had ever really tried before and that broke her heart. It seemed entirely too cliché to say that under that rough exterior was just a girl desperate to be loved, but it wasn’t far from the truth. Whatever had happened before still weighed heavily on Faith and she seemed to never let herself forget it. She would do anything for the chance to be forgiven. More than anything, she wanted Buffy’s forgiveness. It wasn’t that Faith looked up to Buffy, not quite anyways, but she did regard her with the utmost respect. Faith admired Buffy’s strength, which differed from her own, and she admired the inherent goodness in Buffy’s heart. Tess saw what no one else, especially not Faith, could see: that Faith had that same goodness. She just hadn’t recognized it. Just like Faith hadn’t recognized that the forgiveness she so sorely sought had already been granted to some extent. It was a cautious acceptance, and there was still some damage to repair, but her sense of exile was mostly self-imposed.

Tess had also befriended Dawn in her short time being in the house. She was really sweet, and actually reminded her a lot of her little brother back home. Thinking of home still stung Tess’ heart more than she’d like to admit. There wasn’t much to miss about her tiny little apartment and repetitive job. Tess hadn’t even had a whole lot of friends either, so it wasn’t like she had a lot of people to miss. It was still her life though, and she had loved it all the same. But her family? She missed them tremendously. When she had left home, it had been so quick and sudden that she hadn’t even had time to say goodbye. She was too afraid to put them in danger. That fear still existed, but it had simply been too long now. Tess often wondered if her parents thought of her, if her brother missed her as much as she missed him.

Sitting here, Tess was watching the familiar morning routine starting up. She had started to take comfort in the regularity of this routine each day. Growing up, Tess always followed a set routine, and it was something she had always taken comfort in. Even when she moved out on her own, there was a routine she followed. Working events there was always some schedule to follow. Everything in her life had been very clear cut, scheduled down to the minute. The last few months had seen that all shot to hell, and it had kept her off balance ever since. Getting back into a routine was the first step into getting control of her life again. Across the field she could see Kennedy running laps. Kennedy was pretty far off, but Tess was sure that she had her headphones in, some hip hop playing full blast in her ears. In half an hour she would be done with her laps and she would collect the newest batch of Slayers. She would bark orders at them and start whipping them into shape. Tess’ first day had been brutal. Kennedy picked on Tess through the whole day, but Tess had refused to let her take her down. Tess didn’t get angry and she didn’t let it change her performance. Kennedy had respected that and the two slipped out that night to the edge of the property to have a smoke. They had been friends ever since. Kennedy had never said it, but Tess had quickly picked up on the disdain Kennedy had for this place. She wasn’t happy here, but Tess couldn’t quite put her finger on it. Whatever it was, it was enough to instigate arguments between Kennedy and Willow. The two tried to keep it private, but it was always obvious when the two had fought the night before. Willow would be quiet and distant in the morning, and Kennedy would work her trainees substantially harder than normal. Those nights, Tess could be sure that Kennedy would drag her out of bed for a late night smoke just out of sight of the house.

Tess also took solace in knowing where most of the other inhabitants of the house were at by this time in the morning. The senior Slayers like Faith, Vi, and Rona were all out recruiting new girls and investigating some weird occurrences that had concerned them. Rona was interesting, though she wasn’t sure if Rona was too pleased with the whole Slayer thing. Vi was one girl that she had come to admire a great deal since she had been here. Vi seemed to be prone to leadership and was a fast favorite of the new girls that came to the house. She was still working on getting to know everyone, but so far it felt like maybe she had found a new family to fall into. It was comforting, in a way.

She was still lost in thought and observation when Buffy came up to her.

“Tess? Let’s go,” Buffy said, her voice strong but tired.

Ready or not, it was time.

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Buffy started the day out easily with some stretches. The girls were used to that kind of thing and so that had gone just fine. Buffy tested out their ability to block, parry, and deliver kicks and punches. She had them practice in a line so she could see their form. It was important to tighten up any loose movements, minimize blind spots, and point out any flaws they may have in their performance. Once Buffy was confident that the girls were warmed up and competent enough, she moved them into slow sparring within the group. Light combat wasn’t particularly difficult, but Buffy noticed a few of the girls were a little more rambunctious than others. That led to Annie and Polly taking a couple hits that had been harder than Buffy had wanted for the start of the day.

“Sarah, Min Jae, since you two seem incapable of following directions – “

“You said to spar! That’s what I –“ Sarah started to argue.

“I’m fairly certain I said to touch-spar. Katie, what does that mean?”

The girl Tess had been sparring with spoke up nervously, “to just barely make contact.”

“If you two have so much extra energy, why don’t you burn it off in the shuttle run with the new recruits?” Buffy suggested. Though everyone knew it was more of an order than a suggestion.

Min Jae looked as though she was about to argue, but then thought better of it. The two girls sighed and headed off to where Kennedy was training.

Buffy hated being like this. She hated being the cruel general. She hated being hard on them. Each time she took girls out to train, she told herself that she would be kind. She swore to herself that she would be like the Buffy she used to be. This wasn’t her, and she knew it. Then, each time she took girls out there was always one girl that didn’t do what she was told. Or there was a girl who talked back. Or a girl who didn’t take it seriously. That brought out a rage in Buffy that she couldn’t ignore. It wasn’t a problem of the girls being disrespectful or anything of that sort. Buffy couldn’t count the number of training sessions she had with Giles that ended with her copping an attitude and talking back. It didn’t make someone any less prepared to battle or any less of a Slayer. It was that girls who were impetuous or couldn’t follow orders usually met an unfortunate end. That, or they went rogue. A rogue Slayer was almost as dangerous, if not more, than any demon or monster they may come up against. When she thought of all the good people she had lost over the years because someone else had failed to do what they were supposed to, Buffy lost any semblance of patience or kindness. She wished she could still take the compassionate route, but it just wasn’t in her anymore. She was tired. She was tired of losing people.

“Annie, Polly, you guys good?” Both girls nodded. “Good,” Buffy smiled. “Let’s pick up the pace then.”

She had the four girls spar for another hour or so. She’d call out for them to pick up the pace, and they would. Buffy was impressed. This group of girls showed some promise. Buffy watched every move. Annie was quick on her feet and very spry. No matter what hit was thrown at her, it was unlikely to connect as she was already gone. Her attacks were fast and didn’t leave much time for a block or counter. Polly stood her ground. She was never knocked off her feet and she could take a hit without faltering. Her hits were exceptionally hard as well, making her formidable. Tess seemed to always know where her opponent was going to be. She could dodge and counter almost any attack thrown at her. It was as though she knew what the other person was thinking. Katie was the only girl that hadn’t shown her strength. Buffy filed that away for later. Maybe she wasn’t suited for the field, or maybe she just hadn’t found that strength yet. Either way, Katie would need some more work and was not ready to be out on the road.

“Stop,” Buffy ordered.

The girls each stopped, dropping to the ground. They were slick with sweat and panting for breath, but not yet tired. That’s what Buffy was hoping for.

“Okay. We’re almost done for the day guys. You’ve done well. Take a minute to catch your breath, have some water, and we’ll start again.”

After five minutes, Buffy called them back, excited to see how this drill would go. This was the real test. This is what she had been working towards with them, and it would show her who was ready to be a Slayer and who needed to train with Kennedy and her crew a little longer.

“Alright. Let’s get started. You have one goal. I don’t care how you meet it. You can work together or separate and you can take any approach you choose,” Buffy said, shifting her gaze among the girls. “You ready?”

“For what?” Annie asked, obviously nervous.

Buffy grinned, “to hit me.”

She let the shock settle on the girls faces as they realized what she had said. Every group always had the same surprised etched on their face, and she had started to take a pleasure in it. It was never what they expected, but what better way to test their mettle but to put them up against someone battle tested?

“What?” Polly asked, unsure she had heard Buffy right.

“You heard me. Hit me,” Buffy repeated. “You have ten minutes to do so. Go.”

The four girls looked at one another and dashed forward. Each girl swinging, desperate to make contact of any kind with the veteran Slayer. Each hit was skillfully dodged or blocked, but Buffy never struck back. She flipped, rolled, and used momentum to deliver the girls away from her. There was never a return blow or a counter and Buffy didn’t even break a sweat. The four girls threw their all at Buffy but they posed no threat or trouble at all. They tried all rushing her at once, but Buffy easily leapt over that attack. They tried coming from different angles, but Buffy was able to redirect the attack so they collided with one another instead. They tried attacking from above and below at the same time, but she easily side stepped that one as well. One at a time, no girl stood a chance at landing a blow. For someone who was as tired as Buffy felt, she hadn’t lost her edge.

Finally, Buffy called out, “time!”

The girls all backed off, failing to have landed a single hit. They were defeated and disappointed. Buffy saw the look on their faces, and it was the same look she had seen time and time again. No one had been able to hit her yet. Buffy had been discouraged at first, thinking that perhaps none of the girls were ready. Then she realized that this showed her who had heart. The girls who didn’t give up? They were the ones that were ready.

“You did well,” Buffy smiled. This was one of the first times she actually meant it.

“We couldn’t even touch you,” Katie exclaimed.

Buffy nodded, “I know. You weren’t expected to. This was simply to show you what combat will be like. It’s to start to get you ready.”

It was exercise to test them, to see if they could actually put their training to real use and to show them what it was like to be in a real fight. A fight with someone better than they were. To show them that it was not like sparring within the training drills, that it would not be as easy as it seemed. Buffy felt pleased. She had not expected to hear a scoff from amidst the four girls.

“What was that?” She questioned. “Who was that?”

The blonde girl, Tess, spoke up, “that wasn’t real combat. In real combat the opponent fights back.”

“You’re right, but you’re not ready for that,” Buffy said gently. “Combat is not like the sparring you’ve done so far. That comes with time, though.”

“Ready or not, this was useless in teaching us combat.”

Buffy arched her eyebrows, “do you think it would have been better if I fought back?”

“Feeding off of your opponent’s reaction is what combat is all about, isn’t it? I’ve fought before, you know.” Tess stated boldly.

“Okay. Then attack me.”

“What?”

Buffy shrugged, “if you’re so sure that it will make a difference, we’ll spar. You and me.”

Tess tried to hide how afraid she had suddenly become. She wasn’t entirely sure why she had spoken up anymore. Tess was sure she was about to get her ass beat by Buffy in front of the other girls, but that wasn’t what she was upset about. No, she was more upset that she was about to have her foot firmly shoved into her mouth. Pushing that all down, Tess inspected her opponent. Buffy had dropped the grin and was now decidedly blank-faced. This left Tess nothing to go on from her face, which she was sure was Buffy’s intention. She had no lean to her stance, neither was she particularly guarded on either side, suggesting there were no injuries she could exploit. In fact, Buffy looked casual, relaxed. Her arms were crossed in front of her and her feet were anchored strong on the ground. Tess, who had been taking advantage of her ability to read people all this time, had come up empty.

Her time was up though. Buffy had grown impatient. Her foot flew out at an incredible speed, landing directly into the centre of Tess’ stomach. The impact was enough to not only knock her off her feet, but to leave her completely winded.

“You wanted a real combat situation, well let’s go then,” Buffy said as she returned to her beginning stance.

Tess stood up gingerly and drew several deep, heavy breaths. She had to make a move, even without her usual insights. Without any wind up, Tess threw a fist hoping to make contact with the side of Buffy’s face. Even though she had given no indication of which hand was going to make the move or the direction she would move, Buffy easily deflected the blow. In the same fluid motion as the deflection, Buffy followed up with a strong counter attack which split Tess’ lip open. Tess recovered swiftly and returned with kicking at the side of the Slayer’s knee with the intention to drop Buffy to the ground. She was too slow, however, and her intended target was no longer in the location she had aimed for. Buffy used the momentum to swing Tess around, throwing her down to the ground. This time, instead of letting Tess succeed in her attempt to get to her feet, Buffy kicked her in the side. Buffy grabbed on to the novice Slayer’s shoulders and tossed her back against the ground again. She remained still this time.

Tess could probably have continued this fight, but she knew it would be foolish. She already looked like a prize idiot and the girls around her had just witnessed it as well.

“You can all head back to the dorms,” Buffy said, heading back to the house herself.

Despite what they probably thought, Buffy was not the least bit pleased by what happened. She had held back a great deal and she had still injured Tess. That wasn’t what she wanted. This was not the way to lead the girls. This was not how to win their respect. She wasn’t entirely sure how she wanted to run this place, but she did know that she didn’t want anyone to be afraid of her. Then again, if fear was the only way to get these girls to learn, then so be it. She was not going to send out girls who were half-cocked and aching for a fight. There was enough blood on her hands from girls like that.

Chapter Text

Chapter Two - Let Me Ride

“Another missed call?” Sam asked, barely looking up from the pile of papers they had collected from across the country.

He must have noticed the slump in Dean’s shoulders when he saw who the missed call had been from.  

“Yeah,” Dean replied, sullenly.

“What’s this message say?”

Dean held his finger up, indicating to give him a moment to listen to it. Afterward he hung up the phone and took a sip of coffee before answering his brother.

He shrugged, “just another tag message.”

“Sorry Dean. Why don’t you give her a call now? Might be able to catch her before she heads to bed?” Sam suggested.

A glance towards the clock on the motel room nightstand and some quick math told Dean that it was too late for that already. It was closing in on four in the morning in Cleveland, and Buffy was probably either fast asleep or nose deep in research. Either way, this was not a time to call. Which seemed to be the new normal ever since she closed down the hellmouth. That was the price of this kind of life, though. Or at least that’s what Dean wanted to believe. He didn’t want to think that maybe this game of tag was a hint that whatever was happening between them was already over.

“I’ll try in the morning,” Dean said, stifling a yawn as he opened yet another old book.

“Maybe you should get some sleep? Those books haven’t been helpful yet,” Sam said, indicating the stack of books surrounding Dean.

“Well if you’re gonna keep finding cases for us to look into, I figure I should keep trying to figure out just what the hell is going on,” Dean shook his head.

Sam looked as though he wanted to argue, but there really wasn’t anything he could say to change Dean’s mind and he knew it. He was also fully aware that Dean was waiting for him to go to sleep so he could break out the whiskey. Dean wouldn’t admit it, but he was a lot more concerned about the radio silence between him and Buffy than he was letting on. Sam just let it roll of his shoulders for now, and sunk into his motel bed. It was better to just let Dean be at this point, and at least one of them should get some sleep.

It didn’t take long for Sam to fall asleep and Dean was indeed quick to grab his faithful bottle of whiskey. For some reason, Dean kept it buried in the bottom of his duffle bag, as if he was actually hiding it from Sam. They both knew that wasn’t the case. The two of them had been going hard the last few months and they really hadn’t had the chance to stop very often. It was wearing on the both of them, but neither was really willing to say it out loud. He had seen it on Sam’s face that he was almost at the breaking point. Dean probably was too, but he didn’t care. Between weird cases popping up all over the country and waiting and hoping to actually catch one of Buffy’s phone calls, Dean had plenty of reason to stay up. The whiskey was just good company. Or so he kept telling himself. Sam didn’t believe that little story any more than Dean did, which is why Dean had taken to waiting until Sam was asleep before cracking open the bottle. That or he’d go down to the bar and stagger back sometime before the sun came up. Waiting until Sam was asleep was definitely the better option. It wasn’t that he thought he was being sneaky or hiding it from Sam, but it meant that he didn’t have to see the look on Sam’s face or hear the comments about it either. Now that it was quiet in his motel room, Dean was ready to indulge in his little escape from reality.

And then his phone rang.

“Now what?” Dean answered, practically growling into the phone.

“Well that’s no way to greet your old friend Garth!”

“I don’t have the patience for this, Garth. What do you need?”

“I have a line on an Alp. I know it’s not one of those weird cases that you guys have been tracking, but I figured you’d wanna know.”

A sick feeling formed in the pit of Dean’s stomach. The brothers had never come across an Alp before, but they had read about them plenty of times. Their father had followed the destruction of one on one of his trips out with Bill Harvelle and even just reading about it in his journal was enough to strike a measure of fear into Dean. They were brutal and deadly in a way that the regular, run-of-the-mill vampires weren’t. For starters, the ability to shapeshift made them significantly more difficult to identify – they could be the woman next door or the stray cat pouncing down the alley. Their speed, strength, and stamina far surpassed what normal vampires had, bringing any fight with one to another level. Even just their saliva posed a danger, with a single drop having the ability to render their target unconscious. Not only that, but their scream could send shockwaves through the air, knocking anyone nearby to their feet. John’s journal mentioned that the things could damn near fly around the battlefield, making it almost impossible to get a swing in on them. Alps were dangerous and deadly and hard to find. They could wrack up a massive body count before moving on, slipping away into the night. That seemed to be the way the Alp that John and Bill came up against operated: feed to it’s heart’s content and then lay low for a few years. The chances that this Alp was the same was slim to none, but Dean still felt almost obligated in a way to take on this case to make up for his dad not being able to. He and Sam had agreed to set their focus on those weird cases and nothing else unless it fell into their lap - at least until they found the source of these mashed up monsters and made it history – but this interruption was well worth it.

Dean cleared his throat, “where?”

“Grand Blanc, Michigan. I got the call less than an hour ago. If you move fast you should still find a hot trail.”

Dean groaned, “we’re just outside of Arizona right now. It’ll take us days to get there.”

“I don’t know anyone else nearby,” Garth continued.

“Okay,” Dean rubbed his eyes, “we’ll head out now. Call us if you hear anything at all.”

“For sure. Thanks, Dean.”

Dean cast a glance over to his brother. A pang of guilt struck him then. Sam had just dozed off after driving for the last ten hours, and now Dean was gonna pull him back into the car. If it wasn’t an Alp, Dean would have been fine waiting until first light, but this case? It needed his attention now. Especially if they had a chance to find a hot trail – or at least a warm one. Sam would get over it, but Dean still felt guilty. The fact that Sam could sleep in the car didn’t exactly make him feel any better, either.

ӁӁӁ

This morning seemed entirely typical and completely unfair. For the first time since they had moved into the farmhouse there had been no one banging on Buffy’s door. Not just that, but her phone had not rang even once that morning. It was already ten a.m., and not one person had come to rouse Buffy from her sleep. Of course, if they had, they would have found that this was the morning that Buffy couldn’t sleep. Not at all. She had woken up just after five and had not yet been able to get back to sleep. It didn’t matter how many times she rolled over, snuggled into her blankets, or buried her face into the pillow, sleep continued to elude her. The unfairness of it all was almost heartbreaking. Finally, Buffy decided that if she couldn’t sleep, and she hadn’t been dragged off for some pseudo-emergency, then she should test her luck. Maybe she’d be able to have a long, and actually hot, shower. The idea was tantalizing and absolutely luxurious. Oh yes, this was happening.

There were too many girls in this house for everyone to get hot water, and somehow Buffy had always managed to get to the shower just as the tank was emptying. It had honestly started to feel as though the water tank was plotting against her. Today was not the same. The water was heaven. She closed her eyes and let the hot water run over her face. The steam filled the bathroom, enveloping her and hiding her from the world. The scent of vanilla and lavender surrounded her as the bubbles from her wash soaked into her skin. This was exactly what the doctor ordered; just the hot water and a rare moment of silence.

Until she heard a knock at the door, followed by the sound of it swinging open. It was inexplicable how everyone seemed to sense whenever Buffy had a moment to herself.

“Buffy?”

It was Dawn’s voice that came wafting in through the steam in the bathroom.

“Yeah?” Buffy sighed. She already knew what was coming next.

“You’ve been summoned.”

Buffy whined, “is this house on fire? Is the apocalypse starting in the next fifteen minutes?”

Dawn laughed, “not quite, but they’re getting antsy to start the morning meeting.”

Buffy reached out from behind the shower door and grabbed for her towel. She could practically hear Giles pacing a hole through the rug while they waited for her; he was the only one that ever got his panties in a bunch when they got off schedule. It wouldn’t kill them to start without her, at least once and a while.

“Why did we ever decide on morning meetings anyways?” Buffy griped as she stepped out in her towel, “I mean, we could have done mid-afternoon meetings, or like, dinner meetings or something.”

“I already held them off so you could sleep in for a bit today, sorry Buff,” Dawn said as she plopped herself down on Buffy’s bed.

“You’re a gem and I love you.”

The entire house had already been up for hours and was buzzing with activity as Buffy and Dawn made their way to where the rest of the gang was waiting for them. Considering that, Buffy found herself hard pressed to complain about not getting to stay in bed or her shower much longer. She actually started to feel a little guilty for hiding out so long. Her guilt compounded into shame when she saw the look that Giles shot her once she had taken her seat. That was not a happy face.

“Ah, Buffy. Thank you for joining us,” Giles said, also taking his seat.

She had yet to figure out exactly why they needed to meet every day like this. Honestly, most of these meetings went the same way every single day. It was starting to feel like an endless loop - a broken record. They didn’t seem to be getting anywhere, either. The only thing that seemed to come out of these meetings were more arguments, more frustration, and less sleep. There was no decision on how to govern themselves, where everyone was going to live, how they were going to sustain themselves, or what to do about the girls who were clearly unhappy here.

Buffy found herself starting to doze off while Giles and Xander argued about…well…whatever it was they were arguing about. The two of them had been butting heads more than normal the last while, and it had gotten to the point that she blocked out even this part of the meetings. As she dozed her mind wandered. There was a lot she should be thinking about – worrying about. That’s not where her brain went, though, when it roamed. Invariably her thoughts would always return to Dean. She wondered where he was at that moment and what he might be doing. It felt like it had been years since she had last seen him. The last time he had come to see her, she had sent him away. Buffy didn’t regret that decision in the least, it was possible that she had saved his life by doing so. It didn’t make her feel any better about forcing him to leave when all she had wanted was for him to stay. She wanted him to stay and never leave. She hadn’t been able to tell him that, and now she wasn’t sure she’d be able to. It had been so long since she had talked to him. Relaying her stories to him over voicemail and hearing his the same way just wasn’t the same as having an actual conversation with him. They called each other almost daily now, and they still weren’t able to catch each other. Buffy couldn’t help but think that maybe it was intentional. Maybe he had grown bored of her. She didn’t want to think it, but the evidence was damning. Dean very well could be avoiding her on purpose.

It wasn’t until Dawn elbowed her in the ribs that she snapped back to attention. Her friends were all looking at her expectantly, which made her realize that she had clearly missed some question or suggestion.

“Sorry, what?”

“We were talking about the vampire activity not far from here,” Dawn whispered.

“Oh. Well, we should definitely look into it, right?” Buffy nodded as she spoke.

Willow frowned slightly, “do we have the capacity to right now, though?”

Xander chimed in, “there’s a lot to get done around here still. Not sure if a boring vamp nest is worth the time.”

Buffy furrowed her brows, “no. Taking out vamps is kinda what we do. We should definitely check out the nests before too much damage is done.”

“We are stretched kinda thin,” Willow reminded.

Giles cleared his throat, “Buffy’s right, we should at least look into it. It’s practically in our backyard, and just because we are in a time of turmoil doesn’t mean we should shirk our responsibilities.”

“It’s probably just a couple of vampires getting a little rowdy. It’s what, a few hours, half a day, to drive there? I’ll go and be back before the weekend.”

“Is that the best idea?” Xander asked.

“Buffy, you should really stay here ya know?” Willow said gently.

Buffy sighed. She got where her friend was coming from. If Buffy was their leader, although she hated referencing herself that way, then it made sense that she should remain at the house. New girls were coming in every day, and each of them needed to be trained and taken care of. Willow, Xander, Giles, Dawn, they were all great with the new girls. They could get the girls settled in, get them a schedule set up, and even explain and answer any questions the girls may have. Despite that, hearing it all from someone who understood, really understood, was invaluable. She had seen the comfort in the eyes of every single girl who arrived here when she introduced herself as the Slayer. The Veteran Slayer. Buffy got that, but she was starting to go stir crazy being stuck at the house all the time. It was too much to be the centre of the household all the time. It was weird, but she really did miss patrolling and all those little things that came with being a Slayer. All those things she hated in high school.

“Will, I gotta get out of here. It’s a quick case. I’ll be back before anyone even notices I’m gone. Please. I’m losin’ it here.”

Willow gave her famous half smile and nodded, “I feel ya. You’re right. It’ll take you less time than anyone else.”

“I still think we should send some of the new girls. It would be good for them to try their hand at real combat without you there for them to rely on,” Giles added.

“Giles is right, Buff. Sooner they get some experience under their belts, the sooner you can get some real reach,” Xander nodded.

Giles seemed just as surprised as Xander that they were in agreement about…well anything, really. It had been a long time since that had happened. It was a nice reprieve, and Buffy was going to enjoy it now out of fear that it was to be short lived. She felt sullen for a moment, though, as she realized the two men were right. It was time for these girls to learn what it’s really like to fight. To be in danger. Training with Kennedy, or Faith, or even Buffy was nothing compared to what they would encounter in the real world. The real world had real danger. The real world wouldn’t take it easy on them. They had to learn sometime.

Her eyes lit up suddenly, “what if I take one of the girls with me? I’ll let her take the reins and only step in if totally necessary.”

Giles seemed to contemplate this for a moment or two, and nodded his head slightly, “Yes, I suppose that could work, if – “

“Great! I’m gonna go grab Tess. Bye!”

Buffy was out the door. Giles sighed tiredly.

Buffy was practically skipping as she searched the dorms and the grounds for Tess. She had been wound so tight lightly that this was exactly what she needed. All her years complaining about having to patrol and now she missed it. Funny how those things work. She hadn’t been lying though, it was an easy case. One that would take a night or two at most, and then she’d be home. Even still, a day or two away was going to be a great refresher. Even just one day without people pulling at her from every direction would make all the difference. It may not be peaceful, it may not be quiet, and it may not be alone, but it was something. She’d take it.

After about half an hour of searching, Buffy managed to find Tess finally. She should have known that Tess would be sitting and watching the new girls train with Kennedy. Observing. It’s what Tess liked to do the most. She was damn good at it too. Sometimes it felt like she knew everything you were thinking. It was going to be an incredibly useful skill for her in the field. It was part of what made her ready sooner than most of the other girls. It was also part of why Buffy had decided to take her out on this case, to see how well she could put it to use in a real combat situation.

“Tess!”

She looked up, “Buffy? What’s up?”

“I’m going out on a case. You’re coming too.”

“I am?” Her eyes were wide, obviously surprised.

“Yup. Nothing major. Just a simple vamp nest a couple of towns over. We’ll probably be back in a day or two.”

“You’re not taking Staci o-or Val? They’ve been here much longer than I have…”

Buffy furrowed her brow, “why, would you rather stay back?”

“No! No, I just –“ Tess shook her head. This was her chance, and she wasn’t going to let a little something like nerves get in her way. “When do we leave?”

“In an hour. Grab one of the cars and meet me at the main door.”

Although it was a short conversation, Tess had found herself having a great internal debate the entire time. It had been a few days since her last training session with Buffy and the other girls, and while her physical wounds had healed, her pride was still hurting. Based on that alone, she was pretty sure she had proven that she wasn’t ready yet. Just because she had the Slayer powers doesn’t mean she was ready to use them. Tess was sure that Buffy was making a huge mistake. She just hoped it wasn’t one that would cost her, or both of them, their lives.

Her concerns were distracting, costing her any and all focus she should have had while packing. The small pack thrown over her shoulder signified that yes, she did pull some things together for the next couple of days, but she had no idea what she actually had in the bag. Hopefully they proved to be useful items. She was sure that her hour was almost up, which meant that fear or no, it was time to go. The thought of stopping to say goodbye to someone crossed her mind briefly, but after the previous night, Tess wasn’t sure that it would be a welcomed conversation. Her gaze lingered a second too long on her rumpled bed, memories of the previous night floating through her mind. A warmness rose in her cheeks before being replaced by guilt for leaving so abruptly. It was starting to feel as though she was always leaving without saying a word, but at least this time she was going to be coming back.

“Tess, hey.”

For all her powers of observation, as acute at they were, she had failed to notice walking straight into Kennedy.

“Oh,” she fiddled with the strap over her shoulder, “hey.”

Kennedy nodded her head towards the bag hanging at Tess’ side, “you leavin’?”

“I’m not – I wasn’t leaving without - ,” Tess breathed deeply, “just for a couple of days. Some case out in Irving.”

A look of realization dawned on Kennedy’s face. It was soon replaced with a hot anger. Tess had seen this expression a few times, but she had never been on the receiving end of it before. In other circumstances, Tess was sure she would be feeling a great deal of fear. Instead she was relieved that it was not a cold indifference, which would have signified a lack of feeling of any kind. Though the reason for Kennedy’s anger escaped her.

“So, you’re Buffy’s new little favorite, huh?”

Then it clicked. This was the same fight Kennedy and Willow had at least once a week. Tess had heard about them all since coming here, but she never thought she’d find herself in one.

“It’s just a case, Kennedy. I don’t get why you have such a problem with her.”

Kennedy scoffed, “I don’t really make an effort to hide it.”

“No,” Tess agreed, “but you keep blaming her for stuff that was out of her control.”

“Wow, already defending her. I’m not sure why I’m surprised,” Kennedy turned to leave. “Have fun on your case.”

Tess grabbed the other Slayer’s arm, “wait. I don’t want to leave things like this. Please. Not after last night.”

“I just can’t believe her!” Kennedy exclaimed, “no, actually I can. That’s the problem.”

If she was being honest, Tess wasn’t even sure what it was this time that had Kennedy so worked up. It seemed like every other night she was roused from her bed to come out, have a smoke, and let Kennedy rant until she wasn’t angry anymore. Tess genuinely liked Kennedy, but she also really liked Buffy; try as she might, she just couldn’t understand why Kennedy had such an issue with Buffy. It really did seem like Buffy couldn’t win, regardless of what she did – and she’d heard about it all. Buffy didn’t give her enough freedom to train the Slayers, but then she didn’t give her enough direction. Buffy sent out trainee Slayers too soon and was putting them at risk, but then she wasn’t sending them out soon enough and was babying them. Buffy never let her have any say in anything, but then she asked for her input only when she clearly had nothing to add. Tess had heard it all.

“What happened” Tess asked, adding ‘this time’ silently in her head.

“I should be running this show,” Kennedy glowered before shaking her head, “you know what? I don’t want to get into it tonight. I’m so over it.”

With that, Kennedy sat down next to Tess, settling herself into the dewy grass.

“Chilly tonight,” Tess said, pulling her sweater tightly around her.

Kennedy agreed, “far cry from California, that’s for sure.”

The dark haired Slayer handed a cigarette over to the blonde who nodded her thanks. It was funny. For most of her life, Tess had actively avoided girls like Kennedy. Sure, Tess was a little rough around the edges, got herself into trouble more than once, but girls like Kennedy were different. Their edges were jagged and sharp enough to cut not only themselves but all those who got too close. Maybe it had something to do with everything that had happened in the last several months, but right now this was exactly the kind of girl she wanted to be around. They were incredibly different but at the same time, oddly similar; like the opposite sides of the same coin.

“I’ve never been that far out west. What was it like?”

“Oh ya know, it was great, as long as you didn’t mind watching your friends die every couple of days,” Kennedy exhaled a puff of steam and smoke, “who knows, if you stick around here long enough, you may get to see it too. Not a damn thing has changed.”

Tess shrugged, “I guess, but at least you had beaches and sunshine.”

Kennedy shot her an incredulous look; she had obviously been expecting a different response. She looked almost angry until Tess burst out laughing. The glee was contagious and Kennedy too joined in the laughter.

“So,” Kennedy started, exhaling a puff of smoke, “what was home like for you then?”

The best word to describe it, and the only one that came to mind at this moment was ‘normal.’ She described for Kennedy what her small town had been like; it was a simple town and a simple life. It was painfully cliché, but she did miss home. For the first time out loud, Tess admitted how much she missed her family. Kennedy seemed to understand how hard it was to leave without saying goodbye, which made Tess wonder if she’d had to do the same as Tess did – disappear in the middle of the night.

“That was the hardest part, for sure,” Tess said, “leaving without saying goodbye. They must hate me.”

Kennedy shook her head as she drove her cigarette butt against the cool ground, “I don’t think so. Terrified would be more likely. You should call them.”

“Wouldn’t that put them in danger or some shit?”

“It might,” Kennedy admitted, “but we can protect them if we need to.” Kennedy smiled as she watched

Tess breathe a deep sigh of relief. She had left because she was afraid of something bad happening to her parents, to her brother. If Kennedy believed she could call them without putting them at risk, then that was enough for her. She could hardly wait until the next night when she had some free time. The chance to hear her mother’s voice again made her heart feel significantly lighter.

Kennedy carried on, seemingly unaware of the immense joy she had just bestowed upon Tess.

“What about your friends back home? Boyfriend?”

Tess shrugged, “didn’t really have anybody else. There was one girl, but I was never sure she uh, felt the same way. I was pretty on-my-ownish even before all this crazy stuff happened.”

Kennedy smiled coyly, “good.”

The brunette slipped her hand under Tess’ jaw and pulled her closer. Before Tess really knew what was happening, Kennedy’s lips were pressed softly against hers. Maybe her edges weren’t so jagged after all. She felt a twinge of disappointment when Kennedy pulled back, but that disappointment was quickly replaced with confusion.

“But what about Willow?” She whispered, her brows knitted tightly together.

“We can worry about her later.”

There was a pit forming in her stomach. Tess genuinely liked Willow and everyone knew that she and Kennedy were a thing. Everyone also knew that they fought often, and quite viciously at that. Even still, Tess knew that Kennedy was off-limits and that she should stop whatever it was that was happening before they did something they would both regret.

But then she looked at Kennedy and for that brief moment she forgot about her feelings of hesitation. She forgot about Willow, about leaving her family behind, about training and Slayers and the monsters that lived in the shadows. In that moment, everything was simple and carefree; they were just two girls who had slipped away for some time alone together. Who could blame her for wanting to hold onto that for a little while longer?

Tess smiled as she sought out Kennedy’s lips once more.

The scowl on Kennedy’s face softened, “Fuck, I’m sorry, it’s just – “

“A sore spot. I get it,” Tess shrugged it off, not really sure what she was expecting from the other girl.

Kennedy took a deep breath, “look, this is, uh, new territory for me – this talk about your feelings bullshit. But when you get back we should talk about last night.”

Tess let her hand slip down the other girls’ arm, their fingers gently entwining at the end for a moment before letting go completely. A final glance was cast over her shoulder as she wandered off to meet with Buffy. If Tess hadn’t been distracted by Kennedy before, she certainly was now. Thoughts of everything that had happened between the two of them floated around her head. It was embarrassing, really. Here she was, a grown-ass woman for god’s sake, and she was practically giggling like a school girl. It had been one night of fun; it wasn’t like they were going to go off and get married or anything. There were certainly more important things to be thinking about.

Like this case she was off to investigate with Buffy. Tess couldn’t help but wonder why on earth the veteran Slayer had chosen to take her along. There were so many girls back at the house that were far better trained than her. If she was being honest with herself, Tess knew that she was rather unremarkable, especially compared to some of the others. Even as she crawled into the car with Buffy, Tess felt like this was all some big mistake. Tess’ head had become a very loud place to be. In fact, they had been driving for two hours already and she hadn’t heard a single thing Buffy had said yet.

“- you should have seen the look on his face! I mean seriously he could have – “

“Buffy?”

Buffy stopped, “sorry. I’ve been talking way too much. It’s just that it’s so nice to be able to have a conversation without hearing – “

“I need to ask you something.”

“Exactly!”

Tess shook her head, “no, seriously. I need to ask you something.”

“Oh! Go for it. What’s on your mind?”

“Why me?”

Buffy was curious now, “what do you mean?”

Tess sighed, not sure if she really wanted the answer to this question. She had thought about this for the past several hours, and she hadn’t come up with a single good answer yet. The uncertainty was killing her though. She had to know, even if she didn’t want to.

“There are girls way stronger than me. Better fighters than me. You could have taken any of them. Why me?”

“I didn’t want them. I wanted you,” Buffy explained. “You’re good, Tess. Better than you think. You’re cut out for this.”

“…but I lost when we sparred. I lost bad.”

Buffy stifled a laugh, “so? You fought. You have heart. That’s something the other girls just don’t seem to have.”

“You think?”

“I know,” Buffy smiled. “I hit you, and you got up. I hit you again, and you got up. Getting up again, that’s what matters. Winning comes later. I can’t tell you the number of times I was knocked down and had to force myself back up.”

Tess seemed surprised, “really?”

This time Buffy couldn’t help but laugh out loud. Not so much at Tess, but at herself. She had been built up to be so fantastic to the girls that she had almost reached legendary status. It wasn’t exactly something that she approved of, but it was almost impossible to curb. Buffy never thought that the girls would start to think that she had never been defeated before. Buffy nearly cried she was laughing so hard now. God, she had lost count of the number of times she got her ass kicked. She even got stabbed by her own wooden stake once, for crying out loud. Just the idea that someone would think she was that powerful, that perfect, was too much. How could it be possible that the new Slayers didn’t understand that she started out just like them? Buffy thought back to when she first starting teaching Dawn how to fight. It had been a messy first attempt, but no messier than when Buffy had first started. For god’s sake she missed the heart of the very first vampire she ever fought! When she had shared that with Dawn, it had encouraged her little sister to keep trying. Maybe that’s what she needed to do with the new recruits? Buffy had wanted to instill confidence in the girls, which to her meant not confronting them with the possibility of their own mortality. It was something to consider, at least, showing that even as a veteran Slayer, Buffy had made plenty of mistakes, a lot of wrong calls. Maybe it would humanize her a little bit, and give the same encouragement that Dawn got from it too.

For the first time since she met Buffy, Tess saw her as just a person instead of the legend that she had been built up to be. She wasn’t made of stone like some of the girls had insinuated, and she wasn’t the devil incarnate as some of the others had claimed, either. Xander had always said that she wasn’t what everyone thought, that she was “just Buffy,” and now Tess finally understood what that had really meant. She wasn’t so different from the rest of them. It was comforting. This was the first time they had really connected, and it felt really good. Also for the first time, she started to feel like she was right where she belonged.

ӁӁӁ

“I just wish you guys would let me help more,” Dawn said, stacking a book onto the shelf in front of her.

Willow gave her a sympathetic look, “I know you do Dawnie, but – “

“I know, I know – you think I’m too young. You guys want to protect me,” Dawn huffed.

It wasn’t that Dawn didn’t understand the reasoning that made her upset, not at all. Dawn understood perfectly why Buffy, and even the rest of the gang, didn’t want Dawn to be more involved in the cases they came across. It was a dark world they lived in. It was full of danger and terrible, ugly things. This world had left a dark stain on Buffy, Willow, Xander, Giles, and anyone else they had let in. Many of them died because of their involvements. They couldn’t stop her from knowing it existed at all because it was too late for that. What they wanted to do, what they were trying to do, was stop Dawn from being engulfed by the same darkness that had taken Tara and Anya. It was hard to argue against that sentiment.

Still, Dawn had instigated this same argument a countless number of times over the years. She wanted to be helpful. There were a few times Dawn had managed to get into the research grind, and she had loved it. Not only that, but she had been helpful. All she wanted to do was keep being helpful. She knew, just knew, that she could do a lot of good in the world. If only they’d let her.

“I mean, I like helping out with the girls. Really. Getting to meet them all when they get here is so much fun,” Dawn continued. “But I want to do more. I can do more.”

Willow looked contemplative for a minute, “why don’t I talk to Buffy when she gets back. Maybe we can have you working with Giles and the Watchers. Especially since you have such good relationships with the Slayers.”

“That’d be great, but I was thinking more…” she hesitated, “more like working with you. With magic.”

Willow stopped and it was as though the air had been sucked out of the room.  

“No.”

Dawn scoffed, “no? Just like that?”

Of course the answer was no. Willow always hoped that Dawn would never ask anything like that. It had long been a thought, a fear, in the back of Willow’s mind that Dawn would want to play in the world of magic. She had taken such a liking to Tara, to Willow, that it seemed clear to Willow that the day would come. It was something she never wanted for Dawn. Willow, just as much as Buffy, wanted to keep Dawn safe. The guilt she felt for exposing Dawn to magic was immense. It was a feeling that had persisted ever since that night with Rack. She had put Dawn in significant danger, and because of her, Dawn had actually gotten hurt that night. Buffy and Dawn had come to forgive her, but Willow would never forgive herself. They had all forgiven her for losing control to magic, but she couldn’t let go of the grief she felt. Magic is dangerous. It had taken over every aspect of her life and it nearly took everything from her. It takes and takes and takes until there’s nothing left. Once magic latched onto her, it never let go.

Maybe it wouldn’t be the same for Dawn. Maybe she would hold control over magic. It wasn’t for certain that Dawn would fall down the same dangerous path as Willow did. It was possible that Dawn saw how it consumed Willow and would be able to avoid the same destruction. There was something else, though. Something Willow couldn’t quite put her finger on. As much as she tried to forget the awful things she did and felt when she lost control, she just couldn’t. Willow remembered every single part of being dark. When she had nearly killed Giles, he had imparted a different magic in her. It had connected her to every being, every little part of Earth. It was overwhelming, feeling everything, but out of the haze there was one thing that Willow had become sure of. There was something different about Dawn. It wasn’t just because she had been The Key before, but there was something that had drawn her attention to Dawn above all else.

It made Willow uneasy, thinking about how she could sense Dawn. It left her with an imprint of fear even now. She had never told anyone about it; she wasn’t even sure what she would say if she tried. Whatever she had sensed, she still couldn’t tell if it was power or darkness or goodness. It didn’t matter though, because she knew that adding magic to the equation could possibly be volatile. Willow already knew that it wasn’t worth the risk. She couldn’t let Dawn open herself up to the same darkness that had broken her. The only issue was that she didn’t know how to explain any of this to Dawn.

“Leave it alone, Dawn.”

There was something in the tone of Willow’s voice that dissuaded Dawn from arguing any further. Dawn wasn’t ready to let the issue go entirely, but for now she remained silent.

“When Buffy gets home, I’ll talk to her about letting you be more involved,” Willow said as she returned to placing books on the shelf in front of her

Dawn’s shoulders slouched. She expected this answer, but she had hoped for a better outcome. With Buffy gone, they needed the extra help. It would have been a perfect time to let Dawn slip in and help with some of the research. A locating spell or two. Just something to feel more useful than simply greeting the new girls. In all honesty, she was beginning to feel like a Wal-Mart greeter. There was no use arguing about it anymore, though. It all had to wait until Buffy got home. Dawn always felt antsy waiting for Buffy to get home from a case or a patrol; she was always afraid that Buffy wouldn’t come back. But of course Buffy would come back. This time she could hardly wait.

Chapter Text

Chapter Three - Reckless Life

With the back of her hand, Faith wiped the blood from her cheek leaving behind a smear of blood that was not her own. She wasn’t really sure if this was an improvement, having wiped it away, but at least it was something. Although she could no longer see him, Faith could still hear the sound of frantic footfalls long down the alley. Good she thought to herself, taking the time to wipe his blood from her cheek now, too. Bastard deserved more than he got.

This trip was supposed to be about work, but they were crazy if they thought Faith wouldn’t mix in some pleasure too. Her case had wrapped up which meant she could finally cut loose and have some fun for once. Which is why she had let this guy lead her out back from the bar. Faith was always up for a good rough and tumble and she made no bones about it. The line between fighting and having it a little rough was rather thin with her, but it did exist. He had crossed it real fast when he had backhanded her as soon as they had made it outside. She had grinned wickedly, which had confused him. He didn’t know that he had picked the wrong girl to try that bullshit with. Better her than someone else, but not for this sap. A mean right hook had connected with a particularly nasty crack. She had definitely broken his nose. She wasn’t entirely sure if she would have stopped there or not, but thankfully she didn’t get the chance to find out. He had turned tail pretty fast after that, not even pausing long enough to sling some insult her way. Pansy. There was a time when she would have killed him for pulling that stunt. But that wasn’t her anymore. She was better than that. At least she hoped so.

Faith briefly considered going back into the bar to see if she could find a guy that wasn’t a total loser that she could throw down with. She also considered going on a quick hunt and seeing what kind of nasty she could put down before sunrise. Surprisingly, neither of these options really appealed to Faith. Instead, she put the night down as a bust in her books and headed back to the sleazy motel. Settling back into the motel made her second guess her choice almost immediately. Sleazy was an understatement and being out and about doing literally anything else was bound to be better than kicking it here. Faith was used to pretty shifty places, and she wasn’t really picky about where she slept either. But even by her standards this place was dire. It was the kind of place where she felt she should have gloves on before touching anything. Literally. Her hand had started itching after the first time she grabbed the pillows on the bed to move them.

Despite that, it felt good to be on the road again. After spending so much of her past running, Faith never thought she’d say that, but there it was. Sitting still wasn’t really her style, and being cooped up in a house with a bunch of girls that wanted to follow her around like lost puppies was enough to drive her crazy. Going out to find more brats wasn’t exactly what she wanted to do either, but Faith had been itching to get out. She had even managed to jack a cheap truck for her journey. Not that she was going to be telling anyone back at the compound about that; it wasn’t exactly a role model worthy move on her part. Old habits die hard, Faith supposed. The truck wasn’t much, and it was likely to leave her stranded somewhere any day now, but it let her cover ground. Sure beat the bus, anyways. Faith had promised herself years ago that she would never use a bus as her transport ever again. She’d rather hitchhike across the country than spend even one more hour on a sweaty bus with a bunch of freaks and creeps. She had too many stories that would have ended up as an episode of Criminal Minds if she hadn’t been a Slayer. Buses and her no longer mixed.

Even though the night had been a total bust, she’d had fun. It had been a long time since Faith had been able to cut loose and forget that there were people relying on her. She could go to the bar. She could have too much to drink. She could go home with ‘questionable’ men. Why not? When it was time to go home, she’d settle back into the new normal of being in charge and all that, but until then, she was going to have some fun. In the past, Faith would have continued on this way for weeks. Hell, she may even just stay on the road. This wasn’t the past though. This was now, and she had people counting on her back at base and this wasn’t meant to be a vacation. Willow had sent her to chase down four different leads. Each of them had been a waste. With nothing to show for her trip except for a few nights she couldn’t remember, Faith decided it was time to check in.

“Hello?”

“Red, it’s Faith.”

Faith could practically hear Willow smiling through the phone. That was another unfamiliar feeling. One that, even if she’d never admit it, was starting to become a comfort. There was a time when Willow would have immediately hung up on her. Then again, back then Faith wouldn’t have been calling anyway.

“Did you find any of the girls?”

Faith frowned, feeling as though she failed, “no dice. That Clarke chick had been in Lewisburg, but that was weeks ago. I haven’t found a trail on any of the other girls since.”

“Damn,” Willow sighed. “Alright, well you may as well come on back. Un-unless you have stuff you wanna do. I just meant that I have nothing else for ya to do right now.”

“What about the Queen B? She have anything she needs done?”

“Actually, she’s not here right now. She went out on a case with one of the new girls.”

“When she supposed to be back?”

Willow hesitated to answer that question, “uh. That’s the thing…”

That peaked Faith’s interest, “what is?”

“She should have been back by now. She hasn’t checked in, either.”

Faith snapped to attention. That wasn’t like Buffy. It was Buffy’s idea that those on the road check in daily which, admittedly, Faith had scoffed at. If anyone blew off on the whole check in thing, that wouldn’t cause for alarm since most people out on the road didn’t always have access to a phone. But Buffy? She’d find a way, of that she was sure. If Buffy hadn’t checked in, that meant that something was up. Something wasn’t right.

“Where did she go?”

ӁӁӁ

Of all things Xander missed, and it was a lot, there was at least one that ranked above most others. He missed his depth perception, that was a given. The number of times he had bumped into the wall or missed the table and dropped his glass was just atrocious. He missed being able to wink, not that he was ever good at that kinda thing. At least before he was able to get his point across, now it was just a pathetically sad blink. Just saying ‘wink’ didn’t really help matters, either, as funny as he thought it was. Playing video games had become substantially harder since losing his eye, but at least he was still better than most. Sure, losing those abilities was pretty rough, but he really missed being able to roll his eyes. Rolling one eye just didn’t have the same impact as both. His sarcasm skill had taken a great hit after the incident, which was something that this whole conversation could have desperately used.

“- which we both know is false. It’s actually less convenient that they don’t turn into dust, don’t ya think?” Andrew carried on, seemingly unaware of how little Xander had wanted to be in this conversation.

Xander knew this was all his fault. He had left his bedroom door unlocked, after all. He had left his book out on his table rather than stashing it away in the drawer like he always did. He could have at least left a comic or two overtop of the telltale cover, but he didn’t. All it took was Andrew finding one Supernatural book and now he was stuck in an endless conversation about inaccuracies, plot holes, and ‘what do you suppose this means’ theories. He was pretty sure he’d never stop kicking himself for this one. Sure he liked the books, but good god did he ever miss the peace and quiet he had before Andrew found out about it. They weren’t that deep, after all.

Xander sighed, removing a row of nails from his lips. He turned to Andrew, who was sitting behind him absentmindedly thumbing through blueprints and measurement pages. “Andrew!”

Andrew stopped and looked up at the other man, “what? I’m just making conversation.”

“Really don’t need to. I have work to do, why don’t you go bother one of the other adults?”

“I dunno,” he shrugged, “what you’re doing is way cooler than anyone else.”

“I don’t need supervision,” Xander said, darkly.

Maybe that wasn’t the reason Andrew was here, but Xander couldn’t help but notice that anytime he was working on a project like this, there was always someone hanging around. Sometimes they were there because they ‘wanted to help.’ Sometimes they just wanted to hang out with him, and other times it was under the guise of wanting to have some input in the project. Just last week, Dawn had sat with him while he made the new tables for the library. She had said that since she’d be the one sitting at the table the most, she wanted it to be perfect. Was it possible that it was all merely coincidence? That they just happened to show up when he might need a hand? Sure, anything was possible.

Xander knew it wasn’t true though. They had all been there to watch him. Make sure he didn’t hurt himself, to help him when it came time to line up pieces or to cut the wood. And it all had to do with the eyepatch that he was sporting. He understood well enough, and if it was anyone else he’d probably be doing the same thing. It was him, though, and he already felt useless enough; he didn’t need everyone treating him like he couldn’t handle himself. It was infuriating to be given a babysitter every time he replaced a weak section of flooring or put up a new wall. The lack of an eye made it easy for people to pity him. It made it easy to assume he couldn’t handle things on his own anymore. He also knew that he wasn’t actually mad at his friends. They were just looking out for him. This was the only thing he was good at, the only value he brought, and he couldn’t even do that right anymore. He couldn’t do anything anymore. He was mad at the world, it just so happened that his friends were the ones he could resent for it. He had never voiced this, though. It wasn’t worth souring their relationship over his own insecurities.

Today, though, it was Andrew. And Xander had no problem taking it out on him.

“That’s not why I’m here. I just – “

“What, you’re just so interested in making chests? Shelves? Screwing hooks into walls?” Xander spat bitterly.

Andrew averted his gaze and Xander thought that maybe he looked a little embarrassed.

“I, uh,” he stammered, “I thought maybe I could help. Be useful somehow? Maybe I can be in charge of this…stuff later?”

Xander surprised himself by softening a little bit after hearing that. It was possible that Andrew was lying, trying to cover up that he was sent as a babysitter today. What was more likely, and only because Xander recognized something in those words, was that Andrew really did want to feel useful. Up until now, there hadn’t been much Andrew could do. He had gone out to recruit a few girls, but didn’t really enjoy it. He was good with research, but there wasn’t a lot of that going on yet. Building probably wasn’t for him, either, but weapons? Ya, Xander could see Andrew being good at keeping those maintained and organized. So, if the kid wanted to help him build the armory, then why not? He almost felt kind of bad for snapping at him. But only almost. It was still Andrew after all.

Xander smiled slightly and handed Andrew the hammer. A peace offering of sorts. Andrew’s face lit up as he took it and resumed the work that Xander had just been doing. Surprisingly enough, he didn’t whack his finger with the hammer. Instead, he knocked the nail into the wood with just a few hits. Maybe he’d be alright down here after all. At least, it didn’t seem like Andrew was going to kill himself, or worse, destroy all the work Xander had already done. Xander smiled again and busied himself with measuring out pieces of wood to be cut for later. He would never admit it, but having two people working was going to make this much easier. It suddenly felt much less like being babysat and more like he actually had a partner to work with him, and that wasn’t so bad. And the company wasn’t all bad, anyway.

“Do you think they have all that bad luck because they broke like, a million mirrors back in the early books?” Xander asked, keeping his eyes on his work.

ӁӁӁ

The drive was entirely a haze of billboards and scenery that she was sure was meant to be beautiful and awe-inspiring or some shit. The signs signalled what town she passed through or what intersection she blew through barely even registered as they blurred past. Faith wasn’t even sure how fast she had been driving, and if she was being honest, she really didn’t give a fuck. It wasn’t like Buffy to not check in. It sure as hell wasn’t like her to take several days to take out a vamp nest. Faith needed to find out what happened.

It was weird for Faith to have someone to worry about, and most people wouldn’t expect that person to be Buffy. The thing was, no one understood. Hell, it took Faith years to really understand it. Buffy was the first person in her whole life who had really cared about Faith. The veteran Slayer didn’t care about Faith because she was important to some big plan; she didn’t care because she had to, and not because she needed her. The truth was, she didn’t need Faith at all. Buffy didn’t do it because it was easy, because it absolutely fucking wasn’t. Buffy cared. Period. For a long time, Faith had figured it was just because they were both Slayers, but she finally saw beyond that.

There was the Mayor as well, of course, that had cared about her. Faith wasn’t stupid - she knew that he wasn’t a good guy. He had done some shitty things, and he had seen and used her vulnerabilities to do many of those things. Even still, he had showed her a kindness that Faith had never known before. Even though she knew that she should hate him, lump him in with all the other monsters in the world, she just couldn’t bring herself entirely to do so. There would always be a part of her that remembered him for his kindness. Even if it was because he could use her to further his twisted plan. It was easier to pretend that wasn’t the case – a self-preservation thing. Maybe in another lifetime he could have cared for her without using her.

Buffy was different - completely opposite actually.

The Mayor had always said he understood Faith. Maybe he had in one way or another. The thing was, no one really understood her. Some days she wasn’t even sure she understood herself. Time and time again she did things – said things – that she would later wonder what the hell she had done. Sometimes it was like someone else was taking the controls. What she did know was that if anyone had an idea of what it was like to be her, it was Buffy. Buffy knew that sharp pang of loneliness that came with the Slayer powers. She knew what it was like to wake up every day wondering if it would be the last time. Buffy saw that, she knew all about it, and still saw her as just a person. Not some tool to use in battle. Buffy had tried to see beyond the Slayer, beyond the tough girl from Boston. She had wanted to know Faith. Just Faith. And she had thrown it all back in her face. It was because of those poor choices that she and Buffy had spent the last years on edge with each other. Maybe it would never be a better relationship than it was now, one of cautious respect, but Faith would have to take it. She made that mess, and she wasn’t sure she’d ever be able to clean up all that shit. She was sure she could never make it right. Right now, she couldn’t think about that. It didn’t matter. Buffy was potentially in danger, and Faith had to find her.

Her knuckles whitened as she gripped the steering wheel tighter.

ӁӁӁ

It didn’t take Faith long to get onto Buffy’s trail once she made it to Irving. If there was one thing that Buffy wasn’t good at, it was remaining off the grid. Which is what made this whole situation even more unnerving. It wasn’t by choice that Buffy had gone dark - that was for sure. There had been no activity on her cell phone once Buffy and the wannabe Slayer got to town, giving Faith very little to go on. This job was meant to take a day or two at most, so there was no motel room to check, giving her even less. Willow had mentioned that the Scoobies had suggested that Buffy start out by questioning the bartender at a place that several victims had visited frequently. They figured that this was at least one of the hunting ground locations for the vamps that had taken up residency here. It was the only lead Faith had, so the bar became her first stop as well.

Even just being in this place made Faith’s skin crawl. It wasn’t the sticky floors, although that was enough to make her gag, and it wasn’t the smell of stale beer and vomit either. It was the eyes she could feel on her as she walked. Lecherous stares were nothing new, but these looks pricked under her skin like something completely different. It was like those stares were telling her she didn’t belong here. Well, she was just fine with not belonging here; she just wanted to finish what she came to do and get the hell out of here. She quickly noticed that there was more than one vampire in this place, they weren’t hard to pick out of the crowd of the normal human creeps, and their eyes had snapped to her immediately. Any other day and she would move through the crowd until she found every single one of them and dusted them. This wasn’t any other day, though. Faith was here for a reason, and that reason was Buffy. They probably couldn’t help her and she had no time to waste. Faith walked directly to the bartender, and for his own benefit, ignored the low whistle he gave as she sidled up to the bar.

“Well hello there, little lady. What can I do for you? The tender asked, leaning down on the bar.

“I’m looking for my friends. Woulda been here a day or so ago. Two blondes.”

The bartender stood back up, suddenly seeming weary of the brunette already. As though he realized that she was there for a reason, and that reason was not to fuck him stupid, he resumed his task of leaning back against the counter behind him and watching the static-filled TV.

“Seen a lot of blondes come through. Can’t help ya.”

Faith persisted, “they would have been asking about the girls who have been dying and going missing. They probably wouldn’t have talked to anyone before coming to talk to you. Ring any bells?”

“Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t,” he said, placing a toothpick between his teeth, “like I said, can’t help ya.”

Faith sighed, “I’m going to give you one last chance to tell me what you know before I knock your face into this bar and rearrange your teeth for ya. Two blondes. Asking lots of questions. You wouldn’t have seen them before that night.”

If her words had managed to scare the bartender, he was very good at hiding it. His eyes remained trained on the TV above the bar as he absentmindedly passed the toothpick between his teeth. It was obvious that he couldn’t give two shits about her or what she wanted from him. Alright, if he wanted to do this the hard way then they could do it the hard way. Faith placed her hands down on the bar top and with one fluid motion hopped up and swung her legs over the bar. She landed gracefully in front of the smarmy little man with only the sound of her heels clicking against the cement floor. That definitely caught the bartender’s attention. He looked at her with wide eyes, and Faith was pretty sure she could see him shaking slightly. Silently Faith laughed when she realized that he was literally quaking in his boots. That would be her favorite part when she told this story later.

“Now, I feel like you’re not really taking me seriously,” Faith took a step towards the man, “and that’s a really, really bad idea. Are ya sure you don’t have anything to tell me?”

“Th-they were here. Two blondes, asking about a couple-a regulars. Taylor and Micah. They thought those boys were up to somethin’, but they’re good kids. I tolds them as much, but they didn’t care. Wanted to know where they were, so I sent ‘em off to the park they lives in. Over on Pine and Stevenson. I figured they found what they were lookin’ for, ‘cause I ain’t seen ‘em since, and – “

“Stop talking,” Faith suppressed a laugh. A minute ago she couldn’t get a word out of this guy, and now words were spewing out of his mouth a mile a minute. “Where’s this park?”

“Like I said, over on Pine and – “

“Stevenson, yeah. Got that. Maybe you might have missed this, can’t blame you really, but I’m not exactly from around here. Directions. Now.”

The bartender nodded his head, his eyes still wide. He quickly scratched out some directions on a napkin from nearby and handed it to Faith, careful to not make any kind of contact with her. Faith reached out and clapped the man on his shoulder, causing him to flinch.

“See that wasn’t so hard, was it?”

With that Faith hopped back over the bar, taking note of the patrons who had been watching the little show. Not one of them was brave enough to say a word to her as she made her way back to the door. They wouldn’t even look at her. Before leaving, Faith stopped at the door and turned back to the bartender.

“Thanks for your help!” She called back, with a sweet smile on her face and a wink of her eye.

She even pretended not to notice how every single patron had snapped their eyes away from her when she turned back to face them. There was a time when she’d be proud that she was able to squeeze answers from some stubborn bartender. Then again, back then, she would have jumped straight to smashing his face into the bar. Now she just felt shitty that she’d had to resort to threats. Buffy clearly had gotten answers out of this guy, and probably without threatening him at all. This was no time to wallow in self-pity though. Faith needed to find this trailer park. She was either going to find Taylor and Micah and get some answers, or maybe she’d be lucky and find Buffy there. Either way, she was on the right track at least, at the trailer park wasn’t far.

Faith probably shouldn’t have been surprised when she found neither Taylor and Micah or Buffy and Tess. What she did find was a broken front door, a ransacked trailer, an upsetting amount of blood smattered across the home, and a jacket that she was sure belonged to Tess. None of this was particularly good to find, and Faith was starting to get a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach. It wasn’t clear what happened, but at least it looked like no one had been inside since then. This was good. It meant that Faith had a chance to look around before it was screwed up by cops trotting their shoes all over and moving things. It meant Faith had a chance to find some sort of clue, anything, to help her follow the trail. It also meant that she needed to work fast. No one would believe that she just found the place like this if the cops were to finally show up. That was a situation she didn’t want to have to try and talk her way out of.

Moving further into the trailer, Faith found the source of at least some of the blood that had all but painted the interior walls. In the far corner, just visible from the door of the trailer, was a girl – tossed into the corner with no thought or remorse. Her face was visible and had such a look of terror that Faith was sure she would have a hard time forgetting it. There was no need to check on her, it was obvious the girl had long been dead and there was nothing Faith could do for her. Besides, there was no time for that. The dead girl couldn’t tell her where Buffy and Tess had gone, and Faith needed to get back on the trail. She apologized to the girl, though she wasn’t really sure what good that would do, and continued to pick through the mess.

Unfortunately, the trailer gave Faith very little to go on. That jacket was the only sign that Buffy and Tess had been here, if it was even Tess’ jacket at all. There were bound to be thousands of jackets out there that looked the same, right? There was nothing to even hint as to why they had come here in the first place. These guys must be involved somehow, but Faith couldn’t find that connection here. The trail was getting colder the longer she stayed here, and she wasn’t getting anywhere. What she did know, however, was that she needed to get out of here before the cops did show up. The last thing she needed was to be caught this close to a dead girl.

As Faith was closing the door she noticed a smear of blood separate from the rest. This one was different. This one was warm and still tacky. Faith looked at the stain and tried to figure out if it was from someone going inside or leaving. If it was fresh, maybe she wasn’t as far behind Buffy as she thought? If there was more blood outside she might be able to follow and -

“Can I help you?”

Faith looked to her side to see an older woman, her hair pulled up in rollers, staring at her suspiciously. Faith took a look around and saw nobody else outside of their own trailer but her. She figured this woman must be the park’s nosy neighbor. Of course she’d draw attention. Why not?

“Oh, uh. I was just looking for a couple of friends. They were visiting Taylor and Micah the other day, I was hoping to catch them.”

The woman was still looking at her a little doubtfully, but seemed to relax a bit.

“Do you mean those two blonde girls?” When Faith nodded the woman continued, “oh you just missed them! They were here, alright, but didn’t stay long.”

Faith cussed under her breath, “you didn’t happen to hear them say where they were heading?”

The woman looked indignantly at Faith, “of course not! I don’t make it my business to listen in on other peoples’ conversations. Especially strangers.”

Faith put on her sweetest smile, which she had to admit probably looked as strange as it felt on her face, “oh no, of course not. I was just hoping that maybe they had asked you for directions or something. You seem like the type of person that knows this area really well.”

“Well,” the woman smiled back, appeased by Faith’s backtracking, “I did point them in the direction of the logging site on Pritchard. That’s where the boys work, dontcha know? It seems like they spend all their time there now, and I keep telling them that – “

Faith was already halfway back to where she had parked her shitty truck. She had stopped listening when the nosy old broad had said logging site. Faith had passed it on the way in and if that’s where Buffy and Tess had been heading, and if that blood was as fresh as it had seemed, then Faith had to get there before they moved on again. Her tires squealed as she tore down the sleepy streets of Irving. No one seemed to pay her much mind, though, and that was perfect. She didn’t have time for some wannabe cop, desperate to abuse his power, to give her shit right now. She did, however, slow down once she made it to the logging site. In fact, she stopped at the top of the long winding driveway that led to the actual work site. There was a large metal bar across the entrance to the site, one that was locked with a particularly large padlock. Given the time, Faith could probably pick it, but there wasn’t time for that. She would just have to abandon the truck and make the rest of the trek on foot. Just to be safe, Faith grabbed the hatchet from under her seat before heading inwards.

The whole site was eerie with a side of creepy and actually managed to send a chill down Faith’s spine. It took a lot to get that reaction from her and she wasn’t fond of it. The entire site appeared to be empty, and there was a palpable feeling of dread hanging in the air. Something wasn’t right here. Faith couldn’t place her finger on it, but it was obvious that this had something to do with all those people showing up dead. She’d place a fucking bet on that one. Faith was fully aware that she was walking into this place blind; she had no real idea what to expect here. It made her a little more cautious than she was used to being. Her eyes passed over every corner and hiding spot, searching for even the smallest hint of someone - or something - else being here with her. There was nothing, not even a shadow out of place. Then she noticed something she hadn’t before. It was silent. Not a single sound was heard. No saws. No people. No engines. Not even a bird chirping or leaves rustling in the breeze. Nothing. Faith gripped her hatchet tighter.

Then, out of the silence, came a bone-chilling scream. A scream she had heard before. One she had never wanted to hear again. Buffy. It was Buffy and she was terrified. She was in pain. She was in danger. Faith broke out in a full tilt run towards where the sound had come from. Her mind was blank as she ran, just focused on that single scream she had heard. The silence had returned, but as she ran she started to notice the sounds of a struggle getting louder and louder. She rounded a corner of a building and finally laid eyes on Buffy. She was fighting another woman and struggling to keep herself up. There was blood, a lot of it, but Faith couldn’t see where it was coming from. It wouldn’t be until later that she’d realize its grisly source, but for now, Faith knew she needed to help the veteran Slayer.

Buffy’s head snapped back at a fierce blow, though Faith wasn’t sure she had even seen The Woman move.

“Buffy!” Faith cried out as she ran to join the fray.

The Woman turned to her and smiled so inhumanly that it nearly caused Faith to pause. She snapped out of it quickly and continued her run. The next thing she knew, Faith was sprawled out on the ground with sharp pains shooting through her ribs. At least two were broken. A confusion clouded her brain as she tried to sit up. Her hatchet was still in her hand, but she struggled to keep her grip on it. Faith tried to stagger to her feet but couldn’t find her balance. What the fuck did that bitch do to her? Faith placed her hand on the ground next to her for support, and felt something cold. Steel. A sword. Next to her was a girl. Small. Her shirt was shredded up the front, revealing layers of muscle and sinew. Her hair, once blonde and vibrant, was soaked through and stained dark. Her throat had been slashed to the bone, just shy of being entirely decapitated. Her hand was still wrapped tightly around the sword’s hilt, although the wrist was bent at a sickening angle.

Tess.

Later, Faith would remember the look in the girl’s eyes as she laid there. The pallor blue tone was already seeping in. They were stretched wide, and she could still see the imprint of horror on Tess’ face. She’d recall how this young girl was able to see more than anyone she had ever met. She had seen straight through Faith. No one had ever been able to do that. It was appropriate, she figured, that the only memory she’d keep of this girl would be her eyes. The way they bored into her soul at that moment. For weeks it would be this sight that would wake her in the dead of night in a cold sweat while she fought to find her breath. Of all the gruesome things she had seen in her life, all the ugly things she herself had done to people, this was the one that would stick with her.

Another scream brought Faith’s attention back to the battle. The confusion had not yet lifted from Faith’s head and everything seemed to be out of focus. It was as though Faith was looking from behind a piece of frosted glass. Even the scream which had brought her attention back was dull and muffled. Her limbs felt heavy and every move felt as though it was in slow motion. Her gaze finally focused in on where the scream had come from. Buffy was still fighting for her life. Faith dug the handle of her hatchet into the ground and propped herself up with her hatchet’s hilt. She slowly made it to her feet, her balance already beginning to be regained. This was no time to be down and out. Her shaky legs carried her to the battle. She was not about to let some witch-bitch take her out that easily. She didn’t make it soon enough though. The Woman had grabbed Buffy by the throat and had her lifted off the ground. Buffy flailed her feet, but it was to no avail. She could not break free. She could not spare herself from The Woman’s grip. Faith thought she had heard The Woman say something, she saw her lips move, but she couldn’t quite make out what it was. All Faith could focus on was getting to Buffy.

The Woman reached out with her free hand and placed it on Buffy’s forehead. Buffy struggled against the chokehold she was under, but she couldn’t gain an inch. A bright red light emanated from the Woman’s hand. Buffy let out another scream, this one piercing through the veil that surrounded Faith. Whatever the Woman was doing, it was hurting Buffy deeply, maybe even killing her. There wasn’t much that Faith could do at this point, and she knew it. Her wobbly legs would never make it in time. Her only hope was that her aim was still impeccable. She hauled her arm back, briefly wishing she had grabbed her crossbow, and pitched her hatchet towards The Woman with great ferocity. It soared through the air with precision and embedded itself in The Woman’s arm. It failed to break the hold she had on the blonde Slayer, but the red light faltered slightly. It was just enough of a distraction to allow Faith to cross the last bit of distance there was between them. With all of her strength and momentum, Faith hurled herself at The Woman, causing them to tumble to the ground in a tangle of hair and limbs as both fought to gain the upper hand. They finally came to a stop with The Woman on top of Faith. Before The Woman had a chance to latch onto Faith, Faith kicked her legs against the ground, sending them both flipping over. The Woman was sent over Faith’s head and Faith kicked herself up to her feet. When Faith turned to face The Woman, she was gone. As if she had never been there at all.

If she had stopped to think, Faith would have been more confused. She probably would have made sure that she was truly alone now. That’s not what she did, though. Her first priority was to get to Buffy. The brunette ran to where Buffy had fallen to the ground, crumpled in a heap and still covered in blood. Her eyes were closed and she wasn’t moving. Her throat was already bruising and there was a mark left on her forehead from where The Woman had touched her. Faith grabbed onto the girl’s wrist and found no pulse. Then again, Faith had no clue what she was doing.

“Buffy!” Faith called out as she grabbed onto the Slayer’s shoulders. “C’mon B, wake up. Buffy you’re fine. You’re not allowed to quit on me now, do you hear me?”

There was no response and panic welled up in Faith. She gave the Slayer a light shake and called her name again. Finally a small sound escaped the blonde’s lips. It was so quiet and faint that Faith almost missed it entirely.

She was breathing. That was good enough for her.

Chapter Text

Chapter Four - Right Next Door to Hell

Earlier:

“It’s one of those towns where everyone kinda knows everyone.”

Tess scrunched her nose, “oh, those always give me the creeps.”

“How come?” Buffy questioned.

She shrugged, “it just ends up feeling so Stepford.”

Buffy had to admit that it was a fair assessment. The only small town Buffy had ever lived in was Sunnydale and it had always given her the wiggins. She had figured it was more to do with the Hellmouth, but maybe it did have something to do with the fact that everyone always seemed to know everyone else’s business. With the case bringing them to such a small town, it meant there was a good chance they’d be able to drum up some information about the dead and missing girls. It was also probable that someone would be able to point them in the right direction. Most of the girls were around the same age, and a few of them were actually friends. This increased the chance for someone to have some sort of idea of where the nests might be, even though they wouldn’t know what it was they knew about.

The first conclusion that Buffy came to was that there was something more going on in this town than just a vampire problem. There were girls missing, a lot of them, at they were disappearing at an alarming rate. For the last few weeks, anywhere from 2 to 5 girls were going missing each week. Buffy suspected that more than the predicted 15 girls were actually missing – it always seemed to go that way. Most of them were never seen again – no signs of them either. No bags or clothing items or even blood or hair had been found. They were just gone. Poof. If they truly had been taken by a vampire nest, then these symptoms were generally a sign that the girls had been turned. It was unlikely, though, that a vampire nest would have turned as many girls as there were missing – and especially not at such at rapid rate. It didn’t matter how brazen the vamps were, or how much they wanted to have a big “family” – no nest wanted to draw that much attention to themselves. The bigger the group, the more likely they’d be found by hunters or a Slayer, after all. A quiet hunting ground was much more advantageous to their survival. Vampires weren’t really known for hiding their kills, either. It was curious that so many of the missing girls hadn’t been found yet. Unless they weren’t killing these girls. Then the question was, what the hell were they doing?

There were actually some girls that had been turning up over the last week or so. Dead, of course. Willow had gotten hold of the autopsy reports for each of the girls to add to the vague news stories that they had been reading. Buffy had gone over them during the drive with Tess, and that was where the case took a turn from kind of weird to downright bizarre. The girls had been drained of their blood, which was what had sparked interest back at the house and led them to believe that this was the work of an overzealous vamp nest. What didn’t add up, though, was that the tell-tale double holes in the throat were missing. There were no defensive wounds or bruising either, which was exceedingly rare. One or two girls without any other wounds would be normal, but for not a single one to fight back? Not one? No, something wasn’t right with that. The only wound found that was found on each of the girls was a small circle on their chest. The circle was perfect, with three dashes at the centre, creating a smaller circle the was completely separate from the first. That didn’t sound like any vampire Buffy had ever come into contact with. Her only guess then was that this was something like the cases that Dean and Sam had been chasing down all over the country. Either way, it was going to be interesting; a great way to get out of the house and get Tess’ feet wet.

While it was an advantage that the victims seemed to all know each other, at least when trying to find where they may have come in contact with whatever it was that had attacked them, it definitely added some extra challenges. The drawback of the small town mentality was that all the girls were connected – there was no way to tell which of those connections actually meant something. It was natural that they would have people, events, and places in common. Trying to decide what was a real lead and what was a result of the small town was the first real hurdle Buffy and Tess faced. They had spun their tires for hours trying to decide what was worth looking into and what would be a complete waste of time. A lot of the leads they had talked to had turned out to be a waste of time. In the meantime, Willow had found out that most of the girls had been seen at one of the bars rather frequently in the days leading up to their disappearance or murder. Lara, the last girl to have gone missing, had gone to the bar to meet up with some friends. The friends Buffy and Tess spoke to said that she was going to meet Taylor and Micah, a couple of guys who had dropped out of high school the year before.

“They spend most of their nights at The Garrison. If you wanna talk to them, you should start there,” the girl’s best friend said.

Tess looked at Buffy with a wink, “guess we’re goin’ drinking.”

ӁӁӁ

“I mean, she’s older than we were when we started,” Willow stated.

Xander shrugged, “she’s got a point, Giles.”

Giles paced his glasses back on his face, “that is true, but do you suppose she has the temperament for such a task?”

“Don’t underestimate the Dawnster,” Xander replied.

“I think it’s worth a shot, don’t you? You want to train people to take over the role of Watchers, right? Who better than someone who has been around it already? And she has a great rapport with the Slayers already!”

“We’ll of course have to discuss it with Buffy,” Giles ceded, “but perhaps you are right.”

The conversation was interrupted by the sound of wood splintering and a loud bang. The group leapt to their feet and ran out to the front hall. The sound was followed by a familiar voice.

“Will! Giles! Anyone!”

Faith was standing in the doorway, her clothing dark with dried blood and what looked to be mud. She had blood smeared across her face and dripping from her hair. Her eyes were wide with a mix of fear and concern – two expressions that, when seen on Faith, were disconcerting. In her arms lay a small blonde Slayer. Buffy’s head was lolled back and her limbs poured limply over Faith’s arms. Her lip was split and there was already some bruising appearing around her throat. There was blood spattered across her face, her clothes, her hair. It was enough to knock the wind out of their lungs.

“Bring her this way,” Giles said, gesturing for Faith to follow.

He led her to the living room where Willow cleared space on the couch for Buffy.

“What happened?” Xander asked, his brows knitted together.

Faith searched her brain, tried to find her thoughts, but there were no words. She didn’t know what had happened. The last thing she remembered was picking Buffy up off the ground and running. Just running. Any memory after that – the walk back to her truck, the drive to the compound, even getting up to the door - it was as though they had all been erased. But answering questions just didn’t matter right now. All that mattered was helping Buffy. Except there was nothing left, nothing at all that she could say that might point them in the direction of helping her.

“I uh – she was attacked and I…I tried to,” Faith pushed her hair back off of her forehead and breathed deeply. “You can help her, right?”

Willow and Giles glanced at one another and then nodded.

“We always do,” Willow said quietly before turning to Xander, “grab some towels for me so we can clean her up.”

Xander nodded, “back in a flash.”

“It’s not all hers,” Faith said in a bit of a daze.

“If you could remember any of what happened, it would be helpful,” Giles prodded.

Faith shook her head, “I remember a red light? The Woman who attacked her touched her forehead.”

Giles nodded, an obvious expression of confusion on his face, “it’s alright, Faith. It’s not important right now.”

Xander came back and passed a couple towels and cloths to Willow. They had all been caught up in the panic and worry for Buffy that they had failed to notice there was someone missing.

“What about Tess? Where is she?” Xander asked, casting a glance around the room.

Faith lowered her gaze, “she was already gone.”

“Is she still out there?”

“No,” she shook her head and spoke quietly. “She’s in the truck.”

It was not the ending that anyone deserved. Faith felt sick to her stomach just thinking about the girl she had in the backseat of her truck. She was crumpled on the seat, blood dripping onto the floor with a quiet sound that made Faith feel sick to her stomach. It was all so dehumanizing - but she couldn’t leave her behind. Faith barely remembered bringing Tess to the truck, haphazardly tossing her into the backseat in all her rush to get the hell out of dodge. She did, however, remember that she almost left her behind. Faith’s priority had been to help Buffy. It was too late for Tess, but it wasn’t too late to save Buffy. It was sickening to think that Faith had seriously considered leaving the poor girl out there. All alone. She could barely breathe through the sense of shame she felt and it was part of the story that Faith couldn’t bring herself to share.

A silence took over the room as the weight of what Faith said finally settled over them. Xander found himself needing to sit down and Willow fought against the tears that welled in her eyes. They had always known that casualties would become a normal part of operations, but it didn’t make it any easier to cope with. The first was always the hardest. Tess hadn’t been with them long, but she had become an anchor in the household. She didn’t just show promise as a Slayer, but as someone who they all genuinely liked.

“Hey, you saved Buffy,” Willow said gently, trying to provide some comfort to not only Faith, but everyone in the room.

Giles and Xander nodded in agreement. They meant well, but all Faith could hear was that she had failed to save Tess. She knew she had gotten there too late. It was her fault and Faith knew she couldn’t escape from that. So why didn’t they blame her too? The three of them were looking at her with nothing but sympathy in their eyes, and it was just too much for Faith.

“I can’t do this.”

Faith pushed past Giles and left the room. It was too overwhelming between losing Tess, Buffy being hurt, and a level of sympathy that she wasn’t used to.

ӁӁӁ

Earlier:

“I can’t believe you threatened that bartender!” Tess exclaimed as they walked towards the trailer park.

Buffy frowned. If she could help it, Buffy avoided threatening innocents. She had always prided herself on the ability to sweet talk any sort of information out of the people she met. The bartender had been not only stubborn but absolutely obnoxious about it to the point that she knew she wasn’t going to get anywhere. It was a waste of time to try any other tactic and she knew it. It had been a long time since she’d last had to use her “scary Buffy” voice and she wished she hadn’t had to. Oh well, at least Faith would have be pleased with her tactics she thought with a grin to herself.

She shrugged, “I guess I’m just glad it got us an address finally.”

“So what are we expecting to find when we get to their trailer?”

The truth was, Buffy wasn’t sure. This case was so far unlike anything she had ever dealt with. It was not a vampire nest that was preying on the girls of Irving - that much had been made abundantly clear. What kind of monster was ravaging this town though, Buffy wasn’t sure. They could be walking into literally anything. They were going in blind and they could end up being in way too deep. But it was too late to back out now. The trailer loomed in front of them and going home empty-handed was not an option. Buffy was not about to leave so another set of girls could wind up dead too. Not when she could stop it.

After a couple knocks on the trailer door that went unanswered, Buffy got the feeling that there was no one home. That or whoever was home was less than excited to speak with her. While she waited (im)patiently at the door, Tess wandered off, presumably to take a look around the yard.

“Well now what? Buffy asked.

“We could always just break in,” Tess replied over her shoulder as she continued meandering down the length of the trailer. She was mostly kidding.

Buffy laughed, “yeah, we only really do that if we know something’s up. Right now we only know that the girls knew these guys, which isn’t that weird in a small – “

“Buffy,” Tess interrupted. She was standing on the tips of her toes and peering in through one of the windows on the side of the trailer. “Kick the door down.”

There was something about the look on the young girl’s face, something about the quaver in her voice, that told Buffy not to question the direction. Buffy turned back to the door and kicked the handle and lock out of the aluminum door. Stepping inside, Buffy saw the junior Slayer’s reason for wanting immediate entrance to the trailer. There was blood splatter across the walls and pools of it on the floors. There were drag marks leading to the back of the trailer, ending at what they assumed was the source of at least part of the blood inside of the trailer. Slumped against the back wall of the trailer was a young girl. They had found Lara. Her dark skin had taken on a pale tone, suggesting that not only had she been dead for a while, but that her blood had been completely drained. Just like all the rest. They’d probably find the same puzzling circular wound somewhere on her chest.

“Well, maybe she can tell us something,” Buffy said. “Why don’t you take a look, see what you can find.”

Tess recoiled slightly, “is this some kind of initiation or something? Give the newbie the dead girl?”

She shrugged, “gotta start some time. I’m gonna go rummage through their rooms, see if I can find any clue as to what the hell is going on here.”

Buffy headed off to the other half of the trailer and leaving Tess alone with the victim. For the first time since she had been called, Tess felt completely out of her depths. She was starting to feel a little shaky, but this wasn’t the time to have a freak out. After they found the monster and put it down, then she could have her meltdown if she needed to. With a deep breath, Tess removed her jacket and set it on the back of the couch nearby. It probably already had blood on it, but she was hoping to keep it mostly clean.

She kneeled down next to the girl and whispered a quiet apology. No one deserved to die alone like this. She wasn’t really sure what she was looking for, but there had to be something here. Just as expected, this girl had the same circular mark on her chest, but no other wounds. With the amount of blood in the room, it told Tess that whatever monster they were hunting was a messy eater. Or maybe this wasn’t the first victim that had found their end here.

“Hey Buffy?” Tess called over her shoulder, “just like the others. She has no defensive wounds. The blood has to be from the…feeding process,” she finished with a shudder.

Tess continued to look over the dead girl, hoping to find something new. Suddenly she felt a shift in the air in the room. She spun around and threw her hands up just in time to catch the sword that was swinging down towards her. The blade sunk into her palm, causing her to cry out in pain as the blade drew through her flesh. She released the blade, letting it rattle to the floor, and rolled away from her assailant. Tess sprung to her feet and rushed at the man that had managed to sneak up on her. With her momentum, she managed to knock him off his feet as she came down on top of him. Her fists flew towards him at rapid speed, each hit delivered with a lack of skill and discipline but a high level of brutality. Even in the heat of the moment, Tess knew she was letting herself be governed by fear and the sadness she felt for the girl who was dead on the floor.

It was her franticness that allowed Tess to be overpowered by the man she thought she had pinned down. His hands latched strongly onto her shoulders and he tossed her like she weighed nothing. In the distance Tess could hear the sound of a fight that was not hers. She figured that Taylor and Micah must have come home. They were much stronger than any vampire she had ever fought before, and in the panic of the fight Tess started to worry that she wouldn’t be able to match his strength. The man got to his feet swiftly and picked Tess up and tossed her again. Her body crashed into the wooden kitchen chair, shattering both the chair and at least one of her bones on impact. Probably in her wrist, based on where the pain was radiating from. Tess’ suspicion was confirmed when she tried to push herself up from the ground and collapsed to the floor once more. The assailant’s hands grabbed onto the front of her shirt and hoisted her up towards him.

It was the first time she had the chance to get a really good look at the man. His face was gaunt and sallow and his eyes lacked any of the tell-tale light of humanity. His hair was black and slicked back tightly. From what the bartender had said earlier this must be Micah. This was her last coherent thought while she struggled helplessly against his grip. Any ability Tess had to think straight was chased from her mind as Micah’s eyes bored into her own. Her mind was flooded with fear as his jaw opened, unhinged to an unnatural angle. A growl emitted from deep in his throat as a second set of teeth emerged from somewhere behind his human set. The circular ring of teeth extended outwards towards Tess’ chest. With a renewed fervor, Tess tried to loosen the grasp Micah had on her. Her fumbling hands found purchase on the table just above her, but it did little good. The table tipped over, away from Tess, throwing the pair slightly off balance. Even in the moment of confusion, Tess was unable to regain the upper hand. As the protrusion of teeth continued to close in on Tess, she frantically clawed and kicked at Micah. She was running out of time and she was already out of options. The flesh surrounding the ring of teeth settled on her chest, and Tess prepared herself for the feeling of teeth sinking into her. What she felt instead was a gust of air and a splatter of blood in her face. Hesitantly, Tess opened her eyes just in time to see Micah’s head fall to the floor. Just behind his listless body stood Buffy, sword hanging limply to her side and her chest heaving.

Tess kicked the corpse off of her and stumbled to her feet.

“We gotta get out of here, now. No way no one heard that,” Buffy said, handing the sword over to Tess.

“Right behind you,” Tess said, appreciative to have the blade in her hand, even if she had to wield it in her non-dominant hand.

They could already hear voices just outside of the trailer. Being found with blood, a sword, and two dead bodies would not be ideal. The two blondes turned to leave, but was stopped by the sound of movement behind them. When they turned around, they could see the corpse of Micah started to twitch. Both Buffy and Tess looked at each other, the confusion obvious on their faces. Before they could figure out what was happening, both parts of Micah burst into nothing more than a puddle of blood, splattering the walls with fresh blood.

“Never seen that happen,” Buffy said, cringing at the grisly sight.

Tess propped herself against the frame of the door for a moment, desperate to catch her breath. Buffy shot her a questioning look, as if to ask if she was alright. She nodded her head in response, and the two of them were off again. Whatever lead they needed, it wasn’t going to be found here.

ӁӁӁ

Buffy was running. She crashed through the trees with a panic rising in her. Her cheeks were wet from tears that blurred her vision. Her side was bleeding profusely and it was enough to weaken her strides. A sharp pain emanated from her palms and it felt as though something was buried in her hands. Her back stung and she could feel the cool air whipping across an open wound. She kept running. She didn’t know why she was running, but she knew she could not stop. Breaking branches and the rustling of leaves behind her spurred her on.

She had to keep running. Never stop running.

ӁӁӁ

Faith was pacing back and forth in the hallway when Willow caught up to her.

“Hey, she’s going to be okay.”

She ran her fingers through her hair, “I should have done something.”

“You did what you could.”

Faith just shrugged. To anyone outside of her brain it looked like she was freaking out for no reason; Buffy had certainly survived worse, much worse, and there was no reason to think Faith was to blame. How could she explain what she was feeling right now? Sure, she was worried about Buffy. She felt bad for not getting there sooner. That wasn’t it though. She still felt like she was under a fog. Something wasn’t right. It was like her brain had skipped a track and it hadn’t caught up yet. She felt like she had lost all control, and it all started with not being able to help Buffy. Not being able to save Tess.

Buffy would have saved you.

Her brain was relentless in playing this thought over and over. It bombarded her every second that Buffy was out of it. Of course it was the truth, she knew it. There was a heat resonating through her system and it was making it hard to think straight, to breathe.

“I just feel so useless!” Faith exclaimed, tearing her jacket off and tossing it to the ground in an effort to cool down.

Willow’s eyes grew wide, “you’re bleeding!”

Faith looked down and for the first time noticed that the blood she was covered in did not belong entirely to Tess. Her jacket had been hiding the gash, but it was clear to see that Faith had taken more damage than she had expected in her tussle with whoever Buffy had been fighting.

Willow placed her hand on Faith’s shoulder, “c’mon. Let me get you cleaned up.”

“It’s fine,” she said, shaking herself free.

A mix of emotions washed over Faith. She felt bad for snapping at Willow, but it was the only response that came to mind. She was embarrassed that she was practically falling to pieces and she couldn’t handle any more of the sympathy in Willow’s eyes. Mostly though, Faith just wanted her to pay attention to Buffy. It was Buffy that needed the help right now, not her.

Willow sighed, “at least let me clean the gash out.”

Faith shook her head, “why don’t you go play doctor for Buffy, yeah? She actually wants your help.”

Willow flinched slightly at Faith’s words. For a moment, it seemed as though she was going to say something more to Faith, but then thought better of it. Instead she simply nodded her head and turned to leave.

“We’ll be here, if you need us,” Willow said with a grim half-smile.

Faith was now alone in the hallway. Not really sure what to do next, Faith paced a few times in the small space. She could go back inside. Apologize to Willow. Be there for Buffy. Try to be goddamn useful for once. That was probably the right choice, but Faith wasn’t sure if she could bring herself to do so. Willow had just been trying to help and she had thrown it back in her face. It seemed that was the way things went now. Willow was one of the only ones here in the house that Faith felt may have actually forgiven her. So why was it that Faith couldn’t just accept that? She was fucked up enough that she had to work to make Willow hate her again, was that it? Faith breathed out heavily and buried her fist into the drywall next to her. With one last glance towards the room where Buffy was, hopefully already healing, Faith stalked off down the hall. She couldn’t deal with all this melodramatic bullshit.

She had to go clean her truck.

ӁӁӁ

It was dark. Still. A wave of flames splashed out from the center of the darkness in tendrils lighting numerous torches that lined the stone walls. She could feel that she wasn’t alone, but there was no one in sight. She could feel a jagged wall of rock behind her and the cold metal of chains cutting into her wrists and ankles. She rattled her chains as she pulled on them, desperately trying to break free. A force pushed against her, holding her still. The feeling of claws dug through her flesh as she screamed with agony.

Buffy sat bolt up on the couch, the edges of her hair damp with sweat and blood. She looked around frantically trying to suss out where she was. Xander, who had just come back into the room, set the glass of water down and dashed towards Buffy.

“It’s okay Buff, you’re safe,” he said quietly to Buffy before calling out for Willow and Giles who both rushed into the room.

“Xander,” she breathed out and grappled him into a hug, “what are you doing here?”

Willow handed Buffy the glass of water Xander had brought in, “you’re home, Buffy. How are you feeling?”

The cold water was appreciated greatly as her throat was dry and she had found her mouth bitter with the taste of copper. There was a stinging in her throat and she swore she could feel fingers wrapped around it. Unconsciously she ran her fingers along where the bruising was already quite prominent, which elicited a wince. It was nothing, though, to the throbbing in her head.

“What happened? Why does my head hurt?” Her voiced sounded much smaller and weaker than she had hoped.

“You were out on a case and you were attacked.”

Giles sat down in the chair next to Buffy, “you don’t remember?” He asked gently.

 “Attacked? No I uh, I don’t remember…”

“What do you remember?” He prodded.

Buffy squeezed her eyes shut. A small space. She could see blood. A lot of it and not hers. They had run, Tess and her. Chasing after someone, but the reason escaped her. The smell of pine was still on her clothing, but she had no idea why. There was still an ache in her limbs, a tiredness in her joints. She had been in a fight. More blood, some of it hers this time. Tess was there, but so was someone else. Another woman? There were flashes of thoughts, but nothing was coherent; nothing made sense.

Giles placed his hand on hers, sympathy brimming his eyes, “it’s okay Buffy. It’s not important now. Just rest.”

“Just glad you’re back in the world of the living,” Xander chuckled. Willow and Giles shot him a pointed look. “Just a figure of speech! We’re glad you’re okay, Buff.”

“You sure you’re okay?” Willow asked, her voiced heavy with worry.

Dean’s voice echoed in her head, “Slayer, this is the third time since we found the river. You sure you’re okay?”

The pain that ripped through Buffy’s head was blinding. She cried out in pain as she clasped the sides of her head tightly. She didn’t understand – couldn’t make sense of whatever was happening. His voice had come through so strong and clear that she could have sworn he was in the room with them – but he couldn’t be. Buffy knew she had been unconscious for a while. Had she really been in a forest while on her case? Was she in a fight with whatever it was she was running from? Buffy checked her wrists, frantic to see if the marks she had dreamed about were real.

There was nothing there.

What the hell was happening?

“Did I hit my head?” If she had a concussion, it could at least sort of explain this weird disconnect.

Xander shrugged, “we dunno. You know about as much as we do.” Buffy looked up at him confused, and so he clarified. “Faith brought you home.”

“Faith?” Buffy asked, her eyebrows knitted tightly together. “I don’t understand.”

“You hadn’t checked in a-and we were worried. Faith volunteered to go see what was up,” Willow explained gently.

“Where is she?” Buffy asked, looking between the other three in the room.

“I think she went outside. Do you want me to go get her?”

Buffy nodded and Willow moved to get up.

Xander stopped her, “I got it, Will. You stay here.”

Buffy slumped back into the cushions of the couch. Her mind was racing, desperate to understand all the thoughts tumbling around in her head. Minutes ticked by as she tried to organize her thoughts, to find the words she needed. To find the bravery needed to actually speak those words.

“Willow,” Buffy started, her voice small. She couldn’t remember much after leaving Cleveland, but she knew she hadn’t left alone. There was a face missing in this room and it left her feeling incredibly uneasy. “Where’s Tess?”

Something between pain and sympathy crossed Willow’s face, but she couldn’t seem to find the right words to say. “Buffy, I – “

“It’s okay,” Faith interrupted, “I got it from here.”

Faith sat down and watched as Willow and Giles left the room, joining Xander out in the hall.

“Glad to see you’re awake,” Faith started, obviously feeling awkward in the situation.

Buffy was pretty sure she knew the answer to her question, but she had to ask it all the same. It was nagging at her - pricking under her skin like a hot iron. She could hardly think clearly and really had no memory of just what the hell had happened, but the one thing she did know was that Tess had been with her. She had taken Tess out into the field for the first time and it was her job to make sure she was safe.

“Where’s Tess? Did she come back with us?”

Faith shook her head slowly and Buffy’s heart sank.

Buffy nodded her understanding and fought to hold herself together. She couldn’t fall apart – not yet anyway. There was another big question she needed answered.

“What happened out there?”

“You don’t remember?”

“I remember leaving here, but the rest is like…it’s like that staticy stuff on the TV? I get little blips of clarity, but the rest is fuzz.”

The best place to start was at the beginning, which was at least the part that Faith remembered vividly. The dread that had ripped through her when she had heard that Buffy was, for all intents and purposes, missing, was a feeling she wouldn’t soon forget. Of course, that wasn’t what Buffy wanted to hear about, and she knew it. Buffy didn’t care that she pushed her truck to nearly the breaking point that day.

No, what she wanted to know was why she was hurt and why Tess was gone.

Faith wished she had an answer for Buffy, she really did. The fact that Faith had been there, had followed their trail, was enough to almost demand that Faith had an explanation – but she didn’t. Faith hadn’t asked questions about the case and she hadn’t tried to piece anything together since. Her priority had been to simply find Buffy. What she did know, however, she took the time to explain. She recounted starting at the pub in Irving and talking to the bartender. Buffy said she had a blurry memory of a dive bar and a slimy bartender, and it had something to do with the missing girls, but she had no idea what had come of it. While Faith had managed to strong-arm a location out of the bartender, she was pretty sure Buffy had learned more than she had. Whatever information may or may not have been learned at that bar was probably lost now, not that it really mattered.

Although it didn’t bring total clarity, knowing that Faith had followed her steps told Buffy a great deal more about the blips of memory she did have. The small space she had seen must have been the trailer she had been led to. Neither of the girls could come up with an explanation for the amount of blood that was found there, but at least it told Buffy that the blood wasn’t part of a nightmare – it had been real. Just as the smell of pine had been real; she had been found in a logging site.

“Kinda goes dark after that,” Faith fidgeted awkwardly in her chair. “I remember a Woman fighting with you, or at least I think I do. I remember a red light, but I’m not really sure what the fuck that means.”

Buffy had been really hoping that Faith would be able to tell her what happened, but it sounded like she had a lot of static too.

“Whatever we found there must have done something to us,” Buffy said, “we’ll figure it out.”

“Do you remember anything?” Faith asked.

Scenes flashed in Buffy’s mind, but none that made any sense. Nothing Faith had said, even with the gaps in her memory, seemed to explain what she had seen while she was out. A bar, a trailer, and a logging site had nothing to do with a dark forest, a cave, or hearing Dean’s voice.

She figured maybe it was best to keep it to herself.

“You didn’t, um, see what happened to Tess…did you?”

Faith shook her head slowly, doing whatever she could to avoid making eye contact with the other Slayer.

“She was already…I got there too late,” she took a deep breath, “god, Buffy I’m sorry.”

“It’s not your fault.”

But Faith knew. She knew she should have made it there sooner. She knew she should have gotten the information from the bartender faster. She should have spent less time at the trailer. She should have driven faster. She should have been there, been her back up. She should have. She should have. She should have…

Then Buffy wouldn’t have been hurt and Tess wouldn’t have been lost.

Buffy finally had a chance to interrupt Faith, “you did what you could.”

“You’re hurt and Tess is gone. I should have been there,” Faith fought to stop her voice from quivering.

“I’m okay,” Buffy said gently, “and Tess…that isn’t on you.” ‘It’s on me,’ Buffy silently added.

“I uh, I think Dawn wanted to talk to me about something,” Faith said, suddenly desperate to leave this conversation. “Just, uh, know I’m sorry.”

With that Faith practically bolted from the room. She could feel tears starting to prick at her eyes, and she wasn’t ready to bare that much of herself quite yet. There was already an immense feeling of humiliation radiating through her as a result of gushing as she just had. It was all just too much.

ӁӁӁ

“Are you sure you’re okay?” Willow asked, watching Buffy wavering on her feet.

Buffy smiled weakly, “mhm. I need to be here.”

Willow smiled back that classic Willow smile that said ‘I don’t believe you, but I know calling you out on it won’t make any difference.’

The two of them watched as Xander dropped the first shovel of dirt onto the lost Slayer. Instinctively they reached for one another, latching their hands together. Willow had asked a fair question, Buffy knew. She had been home for a couple of days now and she had been a wreck of a human being. Her injuries had mostly healed already, but she had been struck on and off, by severe migraines ever since she got home. Sometimes they seemed to be brought on by something someone had said, but otherwise there didn’t seem to be any real reason for them to happen. It had left her weak on her feet and sick to her stomach. Beyond that, Buffy’s memory was still mostly black holes, and not much had really come back to her. Little blips had come clearer as time had passed, but they didn’t seem to make sense together. Sometimes she’d see herself driving with Tess or snooping through a messy bedroom, which Buffy felt confident was a real memory. There were other times, though, she’d see or hear something that didn’t seem connected with…anything really. She would hear Dean’s voice from somewhere within the din of the migraines. It made her feel light and at ease. She saw a dark winding forest, a tall imposing mountain, a wild rushing river. It was dark and made her feel a terror she couldn’t describe. It didn’t make a damn bit of sense. The only thing she could think was that her mind, in all the chaos that was going on, was mixing dreams with nightmares.

Buffy shook herself out of her own thoughts and realized she had been absently staring at the mound of dirt next to the open grave. As Xander dug his shovel into the pile again, the sun glinted sharply off the edge of the metal. A now familiar pain drove through her head.

She could see a knife glinting in the sun. There was water nearby that she could smell. There were small shoes on the ground – her shoes. A heaviness in her limbs and a pain in her side.

She could hear Dean’s voice

“I don’t even know what this place is.”

“Welcome to Purgatory.”

Then she saw nothing but darkness. Somewhere in the distance she could hear Willow calling her name.

ӁӁӁ

“We were this close! This close!” Dean exclaimed, frustrated.

They had managed to catch up to the Alp, but it had gone about as well as the hunt had gone for their father. They had followed a trail of suffering and death, only to come up empty handed. To say they were disappointed was an immense understatement. They’d also taken a little more damage than they’d hoped for, both boys having received quite deep gashes from the Alp’s razor claws.

“We’ll track it down, Dean. Always do.”

Sam tried to sound like he really believed that, but it was tough. Alps left a wide path of destruction, but they were rarely active for long. By now, the monster was probably already back underground, so to speak. It wouldn’t be heard from for a while, and nothing guaranteed that they’d pick up on the trail when it started up again.

It was most likely that they had missed out on their chance to put it down.

“Ya well, at least we’ll know it when we see it,” Dean grinned a little.

They may not have been able to kill the damn thing, but Dean had left it a little reminder of their encounter. A perfectly aimed bullet had lodged itself in the monster’s eye. It had howled in immense pain, and even though it looked like it had dug the bullet out, the eye was left completely useless. It wasn’t much, but it still made Dean feel better.

Sam grinned a little at that too before taking on a more serious expression.

“We should really get back to trying to figure out what the hell is going on with all these mutated monsters, though.”

Dean nodded in agreement, “just wish we had more to go on.”

Sam looked as though he had something to say in response, but was quickly cut off by the sound of Dean’s phone ringing. The sound of the tone told Sam that it was his other, other cell. Whoever was calling was sure to be much more important than the two of them spit-balling ideas until they came up with some shaky-at-best course of action. As Sam watched Dean’s eyes light up and a rare smile break out onto his face, he knew he was right. This phone call was infinitely more important. Timing had been a real bitch for them lately, and this was the first time in what felt like ages that this phone call was actually going to connect.

“Buffy? How are - ”

She cut him off quickly, “something’s wrong.”

No hello. No pleasantries. Nothing. Dean knew it had to be something pretty serious to warrant that. The words were troublesome to say the least, but it wasn’t what made the panic start to build in his gut. There was something in her voice that struck a nervous feeling deep to his core. The words that followed made little sense and Dean struggled to keep up with her. He understood every word she said, but it was as though she didn’t. Everything she said was scattered and her voice had a far-away sound to it.  There was a franticness to it as well. That’s what really grabbed Dean’s attention. Something was seriously wrong, even more so than she was trying to let on.

He tried to piece the haphazard message together as she spoke. He caught something about weird dreams or visions. Headaches. She was attacked maybe? Nothing seemed to make sense, and she struggled to find a way to convey whatever it was that she was trying to say.

Then, for the first time she was clear and lucid.

“I need you.”

Chapter Text

Chapter Five - Send Me an Angel

It felt like it had been forever since Dean had pressed the doorbell. He was getting antsy waiting and his concern was doing nothing but multiplying in his head while he waited. The last phone call with Buffy had struck an immense amount of fear into Dean's heart. To hear her ramble and mumble through her words with no real sense to be made of any of it was disconcerting at best. All that mattered was that she needed him. He wasn't sure what was happening, but something wasn't right. It didn't really matter what was wrong, there was no way that Dean wasn't going to be here now. It had been months since they had seen each other and if she was in trouble there was nowhere else Dean would want to be. Anything and everything else could damn well wait. He was about to hit the button again when the door finally opened. A larger man with dark hair answered the door. The eye patch gave it away; this was Xander.

"Uh, hi? Can I help you?" Xander asked, shifting his gaze between the two men.

"Ya, is Buffy here?" Dean asked.

"Maybe. Who are you?" Xander made no effort to hide his sense of uneasiness. Everyone that Buffy knew was in this house, so who were these guys and how'd they find them?

"We're, uh, friends of hers. Look is she here or not?"

"Guys, it's okay, they are actually friends," Buffy called from behind.

By this point more than just Xander had gathered at the door. Willow, Dawn, and even Faith had now collected at the door to see who Xander was talking to. Evidently visitors were not a common occurrence around here. The entire group turned to look back to see Buffy coming down the stairs. She had a tight grip on the railing and it was obvious that she was struggling to keep herself upright. Exhaustion played on her face, making her look older than she should have, more worn down. It was obvious that she was in pain, and a lump formed in Dean's throat at the sight.

"Buffy, what are you doing up? You should be in bed resting," Willow exclaimed, her voice full of worry.

Buffy rolled her eyes, "ya, 'cause that's what I'm gonna do. Hi Dean, Sam."

"So you know these guys?" Willow asked, obviously skeptical.

Buffy started to nod her head, but the movement proved to be too much for the small blonde. She stopped her movement down the stairs and gripped tighter onto the railing as though it were a lifeline. She was obviously trying desperately to stay upright as the room swirled around her, her head throbbing with every breath.

"You okay, Buffy?" Dawn asked, concern in her voice.

"Yeah, yeah I'm good. I'll be fine," Buffy said, her voice straining. "Come in guys. It's good to see you."

"Are you sure Buffy?" Willow asked, still not trusting that her friend knew what she was saying.

Buffy nodded in response, though she was much more cautious in that movement the second time around.

"You heard her sweetheart, she's happy to see us," Dean grinned slyly.

Suddenly an image came screaming into Buffy's head, playing like a movie in front of her. It was that same forest again, twisted and mangled and dark. Dean was standing in front of her, wiping a knife across his jeans to remove blood from it. He looked up at her, a coldness in his eyes like she had never seen before. A distance between them.

"You good, sweetheart?"

"Yeah, I'm good. Ya done with the sweetheart thing yet? It's not as endearing as you think," she heard herself snap back.

"Who said I thought it was endearing?"

Another migraine ripped through her head with enough pain to completely blind her. The room swirled around her, blurring into a mess of colours and shadows as her head continued to pound and ache and scream at her. She could feel her knees buckling below her and she tightened her grip on the railing. It was too late though, she lost her grasp on consciousness. The group watched helplessly at the bottom of the stairs as Buffy's eyes rolled back in her head before she tumbled down the last couple of stairs, landing in a heap at the bottom.

"Buffy!" Willow cried out.

Dean dashed past the small redhead, reaching Buffy before anyone else had had time to react. He grabbed onto her quickly, checking her for her pulse. It was easy to find, and it was racing at concerning speeds. Her breaths were much shallower than what he was hoping to find and her skin was hot to the touch – like she was burning up.

"C'mon Buff, open those eyes," Dean pleaded, tapping at her cheek hoping to bring her back.

When there was no response he looked up to Xander to see the same concern on his face as what Dean could feel on his own.

"Is there somewhere more comfortable we can take her to?"

"Ya, let's get her back to her bed," Xander said, moving forward to help.

Dean easily lifted Buffy from the ground, holding her close to his chest. He looked at Xander for directions before heading up the stairs. Xander led him up the stairs towards Buffy's room, casting a glance back to the group to signal that he would keep his guard up. As Dean disappeared around the corner the rest of the remaining gang turned and looked at Sam, who, up until this point, had been standing in the door quietly. They all stared at him expectantly.

Sam's eyes shifted amongst the group before raising his hand to wave, "Uh, hi. I'm Sam. That was Dean."

Dawn smiled sweetly at him, "hi Sam. Wanna come in?"

Sam nodded, "thanks."

"Would you like a drink or something? We probably have coffee or tea in the kitchen right now. Maybe even some cookies or something," Dawn continued, trying to lessen the awkwardness that hung in the air.

"Uh, sure," Sam stammered, "that'd be great."

Dawn smiled at Sam again and led him towards the kitchen, leaving only Willow and Faith in the foyer.

"Since when is B friends with hunters?" Faith asked, leaning back against one of the doorframes, a look of amusement on her face.

Willow furrowed her brow, "hunters? You think they're hunters?"

Faith nodded, "I've met enough in my time to recognize 'em when I see 'em. Those two pieces of eye candy are definitely hunters."

Willow thought about that bit of information before her eyes grew wide with realization, "oh! That must be the hunter she worked with a couple of years ago!"

"You knew about them?"

Willow shook her head, "not really. Just that there was a hottie she was getting all smoochie with."

"Huh," Faith marvelled, "B's throwin' down with a human. Guess she's alternating her men and monsters." Willow rolled her eyes before climbing the stairs as well. "What? C'mon that was funny!" Faith called after her.

ӁӁӁ

"How long has she been like this?"

Dean had always been taught to conceal his emotions, especially in the presence of a stranger. He had been taught to keep a stoic expression and to not reveal too much. Through everything they had been through, his brother and he, Dean had failed on several counts, but never when strangers were involved. Until now. There was a lump in his throat as he spoke, a crack in his voice, and with every passing second he could feel the worry carving deeper on his face. Seeing Buffy like this was enough to knock all of the air out of his lungs and there was a tightness in his chest that made it feel impossible to breathe. Her skin was pale and her breaths were shallow and ragged. Her face pulled and contorted into looks of intense pain and turmoil. She was suffering and there was nothing he could do about it. There was nothing to fight. He just had to wait, and the waiting was excruciating.

Buffy had yet to regain consciousness, though she had stirred a couple of times which did nothing but give the boys false hope. Dean and Xander had remained at her side, anxious to see the blonde Slayer awaken. Dean just wanted to help her, and the fact that there was nothing that he could do was absolute torture.

"About a week, maybe a little longer. The days all sorta bleed together," Xander answered, sighing heavily as he shifted his position on the floor. "It was worse at first. When Faith first brought her home she wasn't even conscious. She's been shaky ever since, but mostly okay. Awful headaches though…" he trailed off, realizing that Dean was only partly listening.

A week was a long time, but he had been expecting a lot longer. Buffy was always stubborn and he had figured she would have hidden what was happening from him until it was serious. As it turned out, she had called him almost immediately. There was little comfort to be found in that right now though.

"What happened to her?" Dean's voice had never sounded so small.

Xander shook his head, "we're not really sure."

"How are you not sure?" Dean snapped his eyes to Xander's.

"Hey, don't shoot the messenger," Xander snapped back, with none of his token humour to be found, "Faith found her while on a case. She wasn't really sure what she stumbled upon."

Dean nodded slowly, though nothing was all that clearer now. When Buffy had called him, she had been in a complete haze. He had got the sense that even she really didn't know what was happening to her. Dean was never going to forget the panic he had heard in her voice as she tried to articulate what was happening. With his heart aching, Dean turned his gaze back towards the small blonde. He had come here to help in any way he could, but being here now he realized there really was nothing he could do. He couldn't bring her any comfort right now. There was no foe to vanquish, nothing he could swing a machete at, nothing he could aim a gun at. Not yet, anyways. He'd be here when it was time for that, and he'd relish in it. For now, it was research time, and he knew it. How to research a mystery, for once Dean wasn't sure. It wasn't an optional step though. Fixing this was his priority as of right now.

Dean tucked a strand of hair behind Buffy's ear, taking a moment to savour his chance to touch her again. Despite the concern he was feeling deep in his heart, Dean found a sense of calm. Just being this close to her was enough to ground him. The entire drive here, he had been on pins and needles and the voice inside his head had been screaming at him. Now it was all quiet. That hollowness in his chest all but gone.

The room brightened substantially suddenly, jarring Dean from his thoughts. He looked around and found a small orb of light floating in the corner of the room, a quiet hum emanating from the ball. It almost looked like the fireflies that Dean used to watch floating in the night sky as a kid.

"What the hell is that?"

Xander smiled, "Willow. It's her sign that we should come downstairs."

"I'm not leaving her," Dean shook his head.

"It's okay," Xander assured, "that little guy is gonna keep an eye on her. Let us know if she wakes up."

Dean was obviously hesitant to leave, and Xander got that. It wasn't often that the Buffster was out of commission, and when it did happen, it was hard to leave her alone. She had never abandoned them, but he knew she'd be okay. Dean ceded and after shooting a loathsome glare at the light floating in the corner he followed Xander down to the kitchen. As they neared the room, Dean could hear Sam talking animatedly with a couple of the girls. Of course he was.

Sam turned towards Dean as soon as he entered the room, "how is she?"

Dean shook his head, "still out cold."

Sam tried to hide the concern that he felt, but did so poorly. It was okay though, for he was simply mirroring the look that Dean was sure was plastered on his face. No reassuring look was going to change that.

"Where's Will?" Xander asked, mouth full of a cookie he had snatched from the table.

"She's out on the porch."

Xander nodded his thanks and headed out of the kitchen, grabbing a handful of the cookies on his way.

"Dean? Would you like some coffee? Dawn asked, her smile glittering.

"Please," Dean said as he sat down next to his brother.

Dawn slid a mug towards to Dean, eying him intently. She was trying to get a read on him, but there wasn't much to glean from him. Observation was Tess' thing, and she hadn't been able to teach her yet. What she did notice was that both of the guys were tired – really tired. Their eyes were bloodshot and the bags under their eyes went on for days. There was a greyness to their skin that she recognized from the countless nights her sister and her friends had been buried in books and tomes. It was probably by sheer determination that the two men had remained on their feet. Adrenaline was a hell of a drug, after all.

"So, how do you guys know – "

"Where's Faith?" Dean cut off any questions from Dawn. Especially ones that he wasn't sure how to answer quite yet.

Sam shot his brother a look to let him know that he should try to be at least a little polite. Dean pretended not to notice. Politeness had its place, but in the midst of panic and uncertainty, politeness was nothing but a waste of time. Politeness brought them nowhere closer to finding out what the hell had happened.

"Uh, she's probably out in the field running. Or she's in her room," Dawn answered, taking note of how he had avoided answering her question.

Dean turned to his brother, "she's the one that found Buffy. She's the closest thing to a lead we have."

"A lead?" Sam asked.

Dean nodded, "something happened to her, Sam, and we have to figure out what it is. Maybe Faith can tell us something to set us on the right path. Get some research started. Show us where she found Buffy. Something. Anything." Dean was desperately grasping at any straw he could find.

"What are you thinking? A spell? Curse? Demonic parasite?"

Dawn piped up, "it's not a curse. Whatever it is? It's not magic. Willow already checked."

Sam smiled at the small brunette, "That's a start, but it doesn't narrow it down in a good way. Anything else you can tell us?"

She shook her head despondently. Dawn was happy to help, but there wasn't much else she could offer. "I wish I could help more."

"Don't worry about it, Dawn," Sam consoled.

She grinned at the tall hunter, but it was obvious that she didn't feel any better.

Dean stood up and slid the mug of coffee away from his seat, "don't worry. We'll figure it out. But we need to go see Faith, now."

"Sure," Sam said, also standing up and smiling towards Dawn, "thanks for the coffee."

ӁӁӁ

It had taken a while to track down which room was Faith's – she had claimed a space as far from the rest of the house's inhabitants as she possibly could. It had proved to be a wasted effort, though, as not only was it empty, but it looked like it had been empty for a while. If they had to guess, they'd say the full week or so since she brought Buffy back. The room had all the tell-tale signs of not being slept in. They didn't find her out running along the track etched around the house, nor did they find her with the Slayers training. No one else seemed to have any other ideas about where the other Slayer could be hiding out. As they were walking back to the house, thinking that maybe she was somewhere around the back porch, they heard a sound coming from behind one of the vacant barns towards the edge of the property. It took a moment, but it was Dean that finally recognized the gritty voice of Joan Jett blaring through a set of shitty, crackling speakers. The music caught their attention, but it was the string of expletives that followed that led them to finding Faith. They came upon her while she was buried deep under the hood of a beat up old pick up. There were rusted parts strewn about on the grass around her and a little portable stereo resting on the open tailgate. The Slayer herself had smears of oil on her arms and all across her dark jeans. Her dark hair had been pulled back from her face with a bright bandana, tattered and torn. She was intent on her work and gave no sign that she was aware of their presence. The boys cast a glance at each other before Dean reached down and clicked off the stereo.

"Did ya have to kill my tunes?" Faith said, still bent over in her truck's hood.

"Sorry," Sam started, "we didn't want to startle you."

Faith chuckled wryly, "you've been standing there awkwardly for about five minutes now. You weren't gonna startle me."

"What are you trying to do?" Dean asked.

"Fucking timing belt gave way. The bolts are all rusted so it's being a little bitch." She sighed and set down her wrench. Faith stood up and turned to face the two boys. She tried to wipe a smear of grease and grime off of her face with another bandana that had been hanging out of her pocket, but it stubbornly stayed put, "you're here about B, right?"

"I was hoping there was something more you could tell us," Dean said, trying to sound nonchalant.

There was a shift in her shoulders. It was small and subtle enough that Dean almost missed it. Something told him that this wasn't a topic the brunette Slayer wanted to touch on. Tough luck, he needed to know. He could see the way she tried to shake it off, but there was something different in her demeanor now. Faith walked over to the small toolbox next to the truck and Dean watched the way she moved. He had expected her to move like Buffy did: gracefully, carefully, with a sense of lethality. Those were there, but there was something more to it. Faith moved in a way that reminded him a great deal of the way Buffy moved in Purgatory. There was a fierceness to the sway of her hips; it was almost feral in a way. Unhinged. Dangerous.

"Well I got nothin' for ya," Faith said, turning back to the open hood next to her.

Dean scoffed, clearly not amused by this answer. He was about to come up with some retort when he felt Sam's hand on his shoulder. Sam nodded his head towards the back of the truck and the sight gave Dean pause. The back of the truck was empty where it was clear a seat used to be, the seatbelts resting uselessly on the floor.

"What happened to your seat?" Dean asked, ignoring the very pointed look from Sam.

Faith stopped what she was doing, but didn't turn back to face the boys, "couldn't get it clean."

It was something that neither of them had really thought much about. They had each heard the story of what happened, or at least what was known of what happened. It didn't take a genius to connect the dots here – the seat was probably too stained with blood to salvage. Or too hard to look at the way it was. The floor below it was still wet with large spots of carpeting that were startlingly clean compared to the rest. Dean figured that was the source of the strong bleach smell that was hanging in the air and pricking at his nose. He hated the smell of bleach. Sam found himself acutely aware at the lack of impact the sight had on him. They had seen so many people meet a grisly end in the course of their lives, so many people who deserved better ends than the ones they got. After a while, all the names and faces kind of blurred together, but Sam still carried the dull ache of loss with him. He still remembered the sharp pain each and every time someone died on their watch. So why didn't he feel that same twinge of pain at hearing that Tess had fallen in battle? Where was the grief and sorrow for the loss of life? For the loss of someone he had known? Sure, the brothers had only known her for a short time, really only a handful of hours, but shouldn't he still feel something? Plenty of their cases had ended with someone they had just met dying, and Sam had still felt a sadness for the loss. So why not for Tess? It made sense, he guessed, that eventually they would be desensitized to it all. Maybe that was finally happening. It was an uncomfortable thought that nagged at the back of Sam's mind.

Dean cleared his throat, "look I'm sorry about what happened – "

"Then stop asking about it!" Faith snarled. "I don't know anything more and I am sick of talking about it."

Sam flinched back at the bite in her words. He looked at his brother and nodded his head back towards the house. Dean hesitated but nodded back at Sam.

"Alright, alright" Dean sighed, "just…let us know if – "

"If I remember anything else? Oh is that what I'm supposed to do? I thought I was supposed to keep my mouth shut. Thanks for clearing that up."

Faith gave them both one more venom-filled look before turning back to the open hood of her truck. The two boys figured that there was nothing more to be gained out here and turned to head back towards the house.

"We're uh, sorry for bringing it up," Sam added as he walked away.

If Faith heard him, she gave no sign of it. She waited until they were well enough away before slamming the hood of the truck down.

ӁӁӁ

It was dark and cramped. Buffy didn't know where she was, but she knew she would die here if she didn't get out. It felt like she was being pushed on from all sides and every time she tried to draw in breath an influx of dusty, sandy material rushed into her lungs. She couldn't call for help – she was on her own. All alone. Buffy couldn't see any way out of wherever she was. Her limbs kicked uselessly against her surroundings, desperate to grab purchase on something. Anything. There was no way to tell how to get out, and she could see nothing.

Suddenly, out of the darkness, a strong arm wrapped tightly around her waist. With an abrupt yank, Buffy felt herself pulled through the dense material around her.

Then, just as quickly, she was in a bed. It was soft and warm and it felt just as real as wherever she had been. As she regained consciousness, Buffy started to recognise that she was in her own room. She was back in Cleveland and she could breathe. She was safe. Her sigh of relief was cut short, however, as she started to feel the hair on her neck stand up. She was not alone. Buffy knew she wasn't in danger, but she also didn't recognize the feeling of whoever was with her.

"Hey, you're awake," came a gravelly voice. One that sent a shiver up her spine.

"Dean," she said, her voice still groggy. A tired sort of smile still managed to find its way onto her face.

Dean handed her a glass of water as she sat up in the bed, "how ya feelin?"

Buffy chuckled wryly. If she was being honest, she felt like she had been hit by a semi-truck. Dean chuckled as well. It didn't seem to matter that they were laughing and smiling though; there was a heaviness in the room and an innate sense of seriousness that they couldn't shake. A silence persisted for a moment or two while Buffy fiddled with the glass in her hand and Dean tapped his fingers absentmindedly on his knee.

Finally it was Buffy that broke the silence, "how long was I, uh…how long was I out?"

"A while," Dean nodded his head slowly, "Sam and I got here yesterday afternoon."

Over the last week, Buffy had lost hours upon hours of time. Even when she was awake, it felt as though she wasn't really there. Even still, she wasn't prepared to hear that she had lost almost an entire day. The worst part of it all, and it really spoke to how tiring life had been since they had set up in Cleveland, was that she felt no more rested than she had before. How could she spend that much time essentially sleeping, and feel even more exhausted? It was like she had actually been running for her life through trees and darkness - but that was all just a dream, wasn't it? No. A nightmare.

Finally it sunk in that Dean was here. He was sitting in her room less than two feet away from her and not across the entire country. Not only that, he looked worse than she felt, if that was even possible. There were bags under his eyes which made it look as though he hadn't slept in days and an inherent tiredness in his eyes that had nothing to do with a lack of sleep. She noticed that his clothes were creased and rumpled, even by Dean standards, which lent to the idea that he had driven non-stop to be here.

"You don't remember calling me, do you?" Dean asked, picking up on the confusion crossing Buffy's face.

Buffy dropped her gaze, "sort of? I remember talking to you, but I have no idea what we talked about."

"I couldn't tell ya either. You weren't making a whole lotta sense. Something about seeing things and headaches?"

For the first time since this all started, Buffy explained everything that was happening, everything she was seeing, and everything she was feeling. She felt bad, not telling her friends the same things, but it was different with Dean. It was always different with him. Being in charge here meant that she had to be in control and she needed to be 'always on.' Here, Buffy was the Slayer and she couldn't afford to lose any of the confidence the rest of the girls had in her, not even with her friends. Not again. With Dean though, she didn't have to be any of that; she could be just Buffy. She could be honest and vulnerable and he wouldn't look at her with pity or fear or expectations. Buffy told him about the sharp pain she had felt in her head before blacking out. She told him about seeing a dark and twisted forest around her. She explained the feeling that she had to keep running – the feeling that she wasn't alone. As difficult as it was to share, Buffy even shared that, in the middle of the nightmares she found herself in, she had heard his voice. His voice had pierced through the darkness and fear as clear as he was right now to her. Somehow in all those nightmares, he was there.

"It's like my brain is mixing up nightmares or something, but it's real enough to be an actual memory somehow. Isn't that bizarre?"

Dean found his throat suddenly dry as he searched for the right words to speak. He hoped that Buffy hadn't noticed the apprehension that had flooded his system. In an effort to hide it, Dean buried his shaking hands by crossing his arms and splashing the most genuine smile he could muster across his face.

"Bizarre is definitely a word for it."

Buffy smiled, a look of relief on her face, "I'm really glad you're here, Dean. Thank you."

As if he would have been anywhere else.

But right now, that was exactly where he needed to be: anywhere else. Staying with Buffy was all he wanted to do, but he knew he could do much more help if he left her for a little while. He didn't know how it happened, but it was perfectly clear to Dean what was happening now. The memories of Purgatory were bleeding through, the partitions between her constructed memories and the truth were thinning and it was wreaking havoc on her system. It was exactly what Cas had warned him about. It was everything he had worked to protect through the last year. He had been so careful not to disturb those memories no matter how much he wished he could. And yet, somehow, those memories had been disturbed anyways. By being near her, Dean had the chance of making it all worse, of causing her more pain, and that was something he didn't want to be responsible for. Not only that, but he needed Cas' help. Dean sure as hell had no idea why the hidden memories of Purgatory were bleeding through, but if anyone would know it would be Cas. Cas was probably the only one that could be of any use to Buffy at this point.

Dean was in the middle of trying to figure out a way to casually slip out of the room when Willow, Xander, and Giles all poured into the room. They must have heard her voice carrying down the stairwell and realized she was awake. In the excitement he was able to give Buffy a small wave and slip away before she could say anything. Quickly and quietly Dean slipped down the stairs and headed towards where he could hear the voices of Dawn, Sam, and another male talking.

"Well, didn't she go crazy before and see stuff that wasn't real?"

"She's not crazy!" Dawn exclaimed. "Unless you sent another demon after her?"

The sound of the man pouting was evident in his response, "I said I was sorry…"

Dean found the three of them sitting around the kitchen table, steaming mugs of coffee between them. Sam had said he was going to ask Dawn more about what she knew and apparently another person had joined them. While the conversation topic was a little heavier than anyone would prefer, the whole tableau looked so strikingly normal. Just friends talking over coffee. Sam was leaned back in his chair, his ankle crossed across his knee and a wide smile on his face as he sipped his coffee; he looked comfortable and happy. In any other situation, Dean may have just let him be - let him enjoy the moment of normalcy rather than drag him back into the darkness that was their lives. This wasn't any other situation, though. This was about Buffy and time was likely running short as it always did. He didn't want to see the damage that Cas had assured him would come with the sudden shock of what had really happened to her. Dean didn't really have much of a plan to stop it yet, but he knew he'd need Sam's help. Without interrupting the conversation, Dean caught Sam's attention. A quick upwards nod of his head, and Sam understood that he was needed and quietly excused himself from the chatter.

Sam waited until they were out in the hall before questioning his brother, "what's up? Did you find something?"

"Ya, and I think we're gonna need some, uh, higher help."

Sam nodded his head and followed his brother out of the house and towards the Impala. If they were calling Cas in, it was best they weren't at the house when they did so. They had already showed up out of the blue and put her friends on edge. They figured that calling an angel into their lives might be a little too much too soon. The brothers drove a ways down the road from the house until they found somewhere they could pull over and make their emergency call. It wasn't much of a highway shoulder, but it would do.

"Cas," Dean called, "Cas, c'mon man. We gotta chat."

They stood in silence, waiting, but nothing happened. No flapping of wings, no shift in the air. Nothing.

"Maybe he didn't hear you?"

Dean shot his brother a skeptical look. It wasn't like Cas to not come when they needed him. He called his name a couple more times. Sam even tried praying in the traditional way just in case heaven had decided that even the Winchesters had to go through the proper channels. It all appeared to be in vain. They had no response. Nada. Not from Cas, not from anyone. The brothers hung around the shoulder of the road for close to an hour before they came to the conclusion that no, Cas was not coming. The two brothers weren't really sure what to do now, but it was starting to get dark so they figured it was time to give up and head back to the house. There wasn't much they could do without Cas, but standing around in the dark was the least productive thing they could do.

ӁӁӁ

"Hope you guys don't mind sharing a room. It's the only one we have left," Willow said apologetically.

Dean had already decided that he wasn't leaving until he knew Buffy was alright. There wasn't much that was close to where the Slayers had set up their headquarters, but Sam and Dean had managed to locate a motel just thirty minutes away. It wasn't ideal, but it was the best Dean could manage. Or so he thought. When Dawn had overheard them talking about heading to the motel, she had protested immediately. The house was full to near bursting, but she insisted that they'd be able to find some space for the brothers to stay for as long as they'd like.

"Not a problem," Sam smiled in return, "we usually share a room."

"Oh! Maybe I could charm the room," Willow joked, "make it a little bigger for you two?"

Dean glared at the redhead, "do you really think you, of all people, should be playing around with magic?"

All the colour drained from her face, "oh…Sorry. I uh, it was a joke. Let us know if you need anything."

Sam waited until Willow was out of earshot, "what is your problem, Dean?"

Generally speaking, Sam was much more accepting of the idea of shades of grey than Dean was. On more than one occasion, Sam had defended and even protected witches throughout their travels. Even still, Dean couldn't believe that he'd defend a witch who had almost ended the world. Who had killed people and had tried to kill more – including her own friends. Sometimes he forgot how forgiving Sam was. The excuse that she had been nothing but nice to them since they got there just wasn't flying with Dean. Witches were dangerous, especially ones powerful enough to actually bring someone back from the dead. Any level of magic was dangerous, even those seemingly cute and harmless spells like charming a room. It was a slippery slope, especially for someone like her.

They didn't have time to get into any sort of real argument though. As soon as the door to their room closed, there was a rustling sound all around them.

"Oh hey, look, you finally made it. Bad reception where you were?" Dean asked a little shortly.

Sam shot Dean an exasperated look, "please excuse Dean, he missed his afternoon nap and apparently is a little cranky."

"I assume that was a joke. I also assume you called me down for something drastically important?"

"It's Buffy. I think whatever it was that you did to her…I think it's – "

"Failing. Yes I know," Cas nodded, "it is."

Dean look surprised, "wait you knew? You knew and just, what, didn't think to say anything?"

In the moment, Sam was seeing something that Dean couldn't. Sam was seeing a weariness in Cas' eyes. If angels could be tired, he was sure that Cas would look exhausted.

"I am sorry Dean, but I have been occupied with the strange creatures that have been seeping out from every dark hole across this country," Cas explained in a tone that bordered on a warning to not press any further buttons.

Sam quickly interrupted, "wait, the guys upstairs are interested in this stuff too? We've been tracking them for months."

"Yes I know," Cas replied, "there have been some…troubling signs that we have identified."

"So you know what's causing this?"

"We have some theories – "

Dean finally lost his patience and cut in, "that's great and all, but right now I don't give a damn! Can you help Buffy or not?"

"And how exactly would you like me to help her, Dean?"

There it was. The big question that Dean had known would be coming from the moment he figured out what was wrong in the first place. It was said so casually, so simply, that the gravitas of it could easily be missed. Even though Dean knew it was coming, the weight of the question dropped on him with a very real sense of crushing him. He hadn't had much time to mull it over, but he was sure that he could have an endless amount of time and never be sure in his answer. What Cas was asking wasn't as light of a question as it seemed. He was asking what Dean thought he should do: repair the partitions and memories, or remove them completely. When Cas had first told him that he had altered Buffy's memories, Dean had resented the decision. He had felt as though Cas had overstepped his bounds by making such an immense decision for Buffy. After seeing what it was that Cas had stopped her from having to relive, Dean started to see Cas' logic. How could you let someone so beautiful inside and out suffer through that torture twice? While Dean didn't like messing with her mind like that, he had started to understand that it may have been the right choice. No matter what, though, Dean had always maintained the same core thought: the decision was not Cas' to make. It wasn't Dean's to make either. The only person who should have been consulted regarding Buffy's mind was Buffy herself. No matter how Dean felt, he knew that she was the one that needed to be asked. Especially now that she had the chance to answer.

"You don't think that would be a little…overwhelming for her? Especially right now?" Sam asked.

"She's tougher than you know. She'll adjust. It's her brain and it's her life."

His decision was final.

The three men walked down the hall towards Buffy's room like a funeral march. There was no lightness in their gait or on their faces. Dean knew that giving the control to Buffy was the right decision, but it didn't stop him from worrying about how she was about to react. She had been through an entirely new type of hell in the last week and they were about to drop a bomb on her. As they neared her room the sounds of a struggle reached their ears. The sound of panic was obvious in the voices they could also hear from the room. A terrible feeling sunk deep into Dean's gut, urging him to break out into a run. The men burst into the room to find chaos.

Buffy had her head in her hands, anguish pulling on her features. Dawn and Willow were calling her name, trying desperately to bring her back from whatever waking nightmare she had found herself in. They couldn't quite make out what she was saying, but some phrases would come out crisp and clear.

"You're not even really here, are you?" she muttered. "Why didn't you leave?"

"She's back on the mountain," Dean whispered to himself as the image of that fight crashed back into his mind. "We have to do this now, Cas."

"We need to make a decision, Dean. What do we do?" Sam questioned.

Cas nodded, "she isn't coherent enough to answer, Dean. What do you want me to do?"

Dean looked at Buffy and his heart hurt. Whatever break was happening in her head was too much for her. Ever since he had arrived, all Dean wanted was to help her. He wanted to alleviate her pain and fight whatever it was that had caused this. Now he finally was able to do something. He had his enemy, it just happened to be the walls holding back a lifetime worth of torture and agony. Now that he could finally do something, he didn't know what the right decision was.

"No, you! Let me go!" Buffy cried out, her hands grasping at her head manically.

"Will, she's burning up!" Dawn exclaimed. She was struggling to pull Buffy's hands away from her face where small gashes from her own fingernails were starting to show up. "We need to do something."

"Dean, we're running out of time. What do you want me to do?"

Chapter Text

Chapter Six – The Memory Remains

"Take them down."

What other decision could be made?

Cas took a step forward and, ignoring the looks and questions from the two girls on either side of the Slayer, stood next to the bed without another word. Gently he placed his fingers flat on Buffy's forehead and almost instantly a soft blue light began to glow where their skin connected. Cas' eyes shared a similar glow as he focused on the small blonde in front of him. Buffy's body tensed up as the light grew in brilliance and soon she was struggling against Cas' touch. Cas did not break his contact despite the strength and fervour behind the Slayer's thrashing. Slowly her face contorted into expressions of agony and her hand grasped tightly at the blankets around her. She opened her mouth as if to scream, but no sound came out. They could hear her gasping for air.

"What are you doing to her?" Willow cried out

At the same time Dawn screeched "you're hurting her!"

Uncertainty plagued the room as everyone watched the event as it unfolded. No one knew what to make of it, what to do about it, but the feeling of concern was clear. Even Dean was starting to feel nervous. He hadn't been sure of what to expect when Cas stepped up to do whatever it was that he needed to do, but he sure as hell wasn't expecting anything like this. They were supposed to be helping her, making it better, but this didn't look like they were doing her any favours; it looked like they were making it worse. Dean watched as she writhed under Cas' touch and ached to help. He fought against his every instinct that was telling him to rip Buffy away from the angel and protect her from whatever pain she was suffering through. To stop whatever it was that Cas was doing to her. What he did instead, though, was exactly what he knew he needed to do: he stood still and watched, doing his best to ignore the bile that was building up in his throat. He had to trust that Cas was actually helping her. That this was what taking down the built up walls and memories looked like. That it would soon be over and the suffering would soon be nothing but a distant memory as her mind healed. It didn't stop the bile rising in his throat though. He balled his hands into fists and focused instead on the pain of his nails biting into the soft flesh of his palms. It was a small relief.

Finally, after a moment that had felt like hours, Cas removed his hand from Buffy's face leaving behind a pale blue glow. At the loss of contact, the small blonde girl slumped back against the bed and stilled. With a heavy exhale, she slipped into unconsciousness, but for the first time since Dean had arrived, she seemed peaceful. Calm. Her breathing was even, her eyes didn't flutter wildly behind her eyelids, and her hands weren't balled up in the blankets. She looked comfortable even, like she was simply sleeping. That offered some relief to Dean and everyone in the room. Dean relaxed his hands and ignored the tacky feeling of blood that had seeped from the marks he had created.

"Okay, somebody explain what just happened. Right now," Willow demanded, a flare in her eyes. "Starting with you. Who the hell are you?"

"I am Castiel. I am an An-"

Dean cut him off swiftly, "Cas is a good friend of ours. We knew he could help Buffy, so he came."

"And how exactly did he help?" Dawn asked, touching her hand to her sister's forehead as if she was thought she could find some trace of what he did.

Cas turned to face Dawn, "I was able to – " he stopped abruptly, his train of thought entirely derailed and lost. "You."

Dawn looked a little uneasy, "me?"

"Clavis," Cas said, barely audible to the people in the room. He looked at the small brunette, his eyes wide with amazement.

Willow shot a warning look towards Cas, one that he remained unaware of. He continued to gape at Dawn, almost as though he had forgotten that there was anyone else in the room. All he could see was the brilliant light that emanated from the small girls' chest. The way the air around her swayed and pulsed with every movement she made. He'd never seen it before, certainly not in person. Stories were told in heaven of this girl, but to actually see it? See her light? Her power? It was more than he could have ever imagined.

"The key," he said, "I-I thought that…I mean…It's so bright..."

The colour drained from Dawn's face at those words and her heart leapt into her throat. She hadn't heard that word, that name, to describe her in so long now that it was like she had been hit by a cold wave of water; it was a sudden shortness of breath and a numb feeling throughout her body. It froze her to her core and knocked the air out of her lungs. She felt sick.

"I'm gonna go and check on the girls," Dawn said, her voice strained.

While specifically avoiding eye contact with anyone, Dawn swiftly exited the room. Behind her she left an awkward and tense feeling in the room. It was as though Cas hadn't noticed that she left as his eyes did not leave the spot where she had previously been standing. All he saw were the echoes of the girl as they rippled through the air. Dean, Sam, and Willow on the other hand, exchanged curious glances, each looking for an answer from the other, but no one seemed able or willing to say anything.

"Cas?"

If he had heard his name, he gave no indication of having done so. He stood there, frozen in silent awe.

"What was that about?" Sam asked, not of anyone in particular.

Willow looked hard between the two brothers, trying to gauge what, if anything, she should say about Dawn. The Key was ancient history by this point, something that'd had no impact on their lives for a very long time. Maybe it didn't need to be a secret anymore, but it had always been treated that way. It was something that they all hadn't talked about since they had defeated Glory. Since Buffy had died. It had always been a touchy subject, what Dawn was, what she had been. The damage caused in Glory's search for The Key. But just because time had passed, that the imminent threat had also passed, didn't mean that it shouldn't still remain a secret. Buffy seemed to know and trust these two men, but she also would put protecting Dawn above everything else. Willow was still hesitant to trust them, and she didn't know what Buffy would want in this case. Telling them anything would be putting a lot of trust in someone who could still prove to be unpredictable. They didn't know anything about Dawn, and she decided that, at least for now, it would stay that way. Willow couldn't be really sure why Cas had reacted the way he had so maybe nothing needed to be said. Then again, she had definitely heard the word "key" somewhere in there. That alone would be concerning, even without the whole display they had just watched between the man and Buffy.

The two boys were looking at her though, expecting some sort of answer or explanation. She didn't want to tell them anything, but Willow had never been good at lying. Thankfully, she didn't have to say a word at all.

Cas coughed and brought his attention back to those in the room, "sorry. Uh, where were we?"

"You were about to tell me who you are," Willow answered, trying to hide the relief that she felt.

She wanted to know what had just happened with Dawn, but for now the more pressing matter was Buffy and what he had done to her. Whatever he had just done, Willow wanted to know if he was someone they could trust. Or something. It wasn't just magic that he had performed, it was something much more than that. It was something she had never seen, never felt, before. There was something about the strange man as a whole that felt off to her. She couldn't put her finger on it, but she knew, clear as day, that there was something more to Cas than the hunters had let on.

"And he will," Dean cut in, "but maybe it can wait until everyone is here? Better than going through the whole spiel a half-dozen times. Wait until Buffy wakes?"

While she wanted to know everything immediately, she could begrudgingly accept that it made sense to have everyone hear it at the same time. Especially Buffy. But it would have to be soon, because he was putting her on edge and she didn't like the uncertainty of having a stranger that had some sort of power that she didn't understand in their house. Especially having them near the Slayers they were training.

She nodded slowly, "fine. But at least tell me what you did to her."

"Buffy's mind was attempting to reconcile real memories with fabricated ones, trying to make sense of it all. Essentially her mind was tearing itself apart. I have attempted to – "

"He's helping her brain put the pieces back together," Sam interjected.

Sam wasn't trying to hide the truth, but he knew what Cas had done and he knew how difficult it was going to be for Cas to explain it in a way that they would all understand. Cas didn't know how to be gentle with his explanations – he didn't know he was meant to be. This was one of those times where tact was needed to soften the blow of the truth. Not just that, but he felt that it was something that Buffy should hear first. The truth was very personal and it would be up to her if she wished for everyone to know the truth. If she wanted them all to know that she had been in Purgatory and not heaven, then that would be her decision when she awoke.

Willow sighed. That didn't really make things any clearer, but for now it would have to do. There would be answers once Buffy was awake – regardless if the hunters and their friend wanted to answer them. There was no way that Buffy would take a no for an answer. There would be no stalling, either. It just meant that Willow had to be patient until then, which was never really her strong suit. Until she awoke, though, Buffy needed to be left to rest, and there wasn't much to do until then. There was no way, though, that Willow was leaving Buffy alone after she had been in such obvious distress. Willow would never forgive herself if something happened to Buffy while she wasn't there. Plus, someone needed to be there in case something went wrong, and there was no way she was going to leave her alone with the two guys she had never met before. So Willow curled up in the nearby chair and kept watch over her best friend. Even if she had to force herself to keep her eyes open, she would be here for Buffy until she woke up.

At some point in her vigil, Willow lost track of how much time had passed. Other people of the house had floated in and out of the bedroom throughout the day and night, but Willow remained sitting next to her best friend. She wasn't even sure who had come and who had gone; her focus was entirely on Buffy. Any change in her demeanor would be cause for alarm in this situation, and Willow didn't want to miss a single sign. Willow watched for a change in Buffy's pulse, but the Slayer's heart seemed to be beating calmly and steadily. There was no expression of pain or anguish or fear on the sleeping girl's face, and no further screaming or crying happened. The only flicker behind her eyes was that of a dreamer's. No fever had returned. Everything appeared to be…normal. It should have been a relief that she seemed to be recovering – that she was in a better state than she had been before. Instead though, it was almost more unsettling that everything seemed to be calm and still. There was no sign of, well, anything. It was hard for Willow to just sit and watch; she wanted to be able to actually do something.

It must have been hours of sitting stalwart next to Buffy's bed, but Willow finally came to the conclusion that maybe Xander had been right earlier: she could let Buffy rest without a constant vigil. At some point, she honestly couldn't remember when, Xander had brought her something to eat and tried to convince her to get some sleep. Maybe he had noticed the way her eyes kept fluttering shut, only to fly back open a moment later. Or the way her head would bob down slowly before she'd fight to wake herself up once more. Getting up to pace the room or to drink some coffee had stopped making any difference and it was getting difficult to keep herself awake. There wasn't really anything she could do at this point anyway, and she knew it. She hated knowing that the health and safety of her best friend rested entirely on some stranger with an awkward presence and a strange manner of speaking. She hated knowing that she had no idea what was happening at all. Whatever he had done to her, whatever was meant with his talk of memories, Buffy was down for the count. Begrudgingly, and only because Xander insisted, Willow agreed that maybe some rest would be good for her.

Or at least she decided to head to her room. She suspected that no sleep would greet her there. It had taken the walk to her room for Willow to decide that there was something she could do in the meantime, so much so that it would make sleep impossible. The idea of doing nothing until Buffy awoke seemed less and less of a good idea the longer she was out. There were books to hit and websites to surf and facts to find. She didn't have much to go on, nothing really, but there was bound to be something in some book or in some dark corner of the internet that could tell her what she had just seen or what had happened to Buffy in the first place. If she was right, and there was something interesting about Castiel, then there was a chance that she could find something about him as well. Nothing could remain a mystery forever, and it wasn't in her nature to just wait for answers to find her. Maybe, if she was really lucky, she'd stumble upon some sort of clue as to what was causing this massive heave of monsters and demons that had been sweeping the country. They didn't have many Slayers ready to fight, but those who could were doing what they could to fight the sudden surge. With so many of their girls out on the road trying to stem the flow, it'd be nice to be able to pinpoint just what the hell was going on. There was some sort of danger lurking just out of sight, and Willow didn't like not knowing when it might rise up and bite them all in the ass. Mystery danger is nobody's friend.

It didn't take long before she had books surrounding her and a ridiculous number of tabs open. Research mode was in full swing and Willow's brain was running in any and every direction it could find. Despite that, her focus was locked on the task at hand. She needed to find something – anything. She was starting to notice, however, just how soft and cozy her bed was. It was becoming increasingly obvious that setting up on her bed had been an error in judgement. Willow's eyelids were starting to get a little heavy and the words on her screen were starting to blur together. Rubbing her eyes, Willow gave her head a shake. She had managed to rally once, she could do it again. She needed to focus, to find something that she could act on, so sleep once again took the back seat to everything else that was going on. The thought of getting yet another cup coffee started to float through her head as she noticed her head starting to bob once more. Maybe after this next webpage.

"Hey can we talk?"

The sound of a voice out of nowhere should have startled her, but the voice had been a comfort for so long that it did nothing but bring a tired smile to her face.

"Hey you," Willow said, barely taking her eyes from her laptop screen, "I feel like I haven't really seen you much lately."

It was something that Willow hadn't really noticed until Kennedy was standing in their room, which felt a little strange. She couldn't even remember the last time they had a conversation – shouldn't that be something she noticed? There had been some arguments the last while, and it seemed like that was all Willow could remember right now.

"Yeah, I guess I've just been really busy with the new girls and training. That's actually what I wanted to talk about -" Kennedy stopped and crossed her arms, "can you look at me please?"

Willow half turned to face the small brunette, "hm? Sorry, it's not really a good time, hon. Can we chat later?"

"Let me guess, Buffy asked you to do something, right?"

Instantly, the reason Kennedy had come to talk to Willow was thrown onto the back burner in a flash of anger and resentment. It was the start of the same fight they had almost every time they talked nowadays. It seemed no matter what was going on, or what they had been arguing about, it always came back to Buffy. They were both sick to death of it, but for different reasons.

Willow was tired of hearing about the grudge against her best friend. Kennedy had never liked Buffy much, and it had gotten no better over the months they had spent working together. It didn't matter what Buffy did or said, Kennedy found some way to twist into a clash between the two of them. Willow had been caught in the middle of it all for months on end now and it was an awful feeling. She wanted to support her girlfriend, but Buffy was her best friend. There were times when either one of them, or sometimes even both of them, were wrong, but Willow couldn't say anything right. Buffy may not like when Willow disagreed, but she at least listened and took whatever had been said into consideration. Kennedy had never been quite so forgiving, and it seemed no matter what she said, it was assumed Willow was taking Buffy's side. Unless she came out strongly in favour of whatever it was Kennedy's stance was, it would turn into a fight. It was getting tiring hearing someone constantly tearing down her best friend. Even more tiring was being told that she never stood up for herself and that she should stop being just the sidekick. Honestly, Willow was quite happy being the sidekick in this ensemble, and she never felt like she was "just" the sidekick. More than anything, she just wanted Kennedy to let go of this bitterness, of this rancor, and maybe find some sort of truce with the veteran Slayer. For the whole house's sake if not only her own.

Kennedy, on the other hand, couldn't believe that Willow was still letting the Slayer treat her as a sidekick and nothing more. There were people here more powerful than Buffy, but none more powerful than Willow. How can someone be a sidekick when they could easily destroy the so-called hero? If it was just that, Kennedy may have been able to let it go, since it never seemed to bother Willow much, but it wasn't her only problem with the veteran Slayer. Buffy acted like she was the law and knew better than anyone else. It was like she hadn't gotten the memo that she wasn't the "only girl in all the world" anymore; she had to share that title. She wasn't better than anyone else and she wasn't different from everyone else anymore. She wouldn't even entertain other ideas and that drove Kennedy crazy. Buffy may be dismissive with others, but when it came to Kennedy, she was sure Buffy took pleasure out of shooting her down. Everything Kennedy ever said got nothing more than a frosty reception and a rejection. Kennedy had been with them since the First had started to show it's ugly face, and she was still seen as nothing but a "potential" Slayer – and not the real deal she is now. After all her training and field work, how could she possibly still be sidelined? She wasn't the one that led girls to their deaths. She wasn't the one that let people be hurt and maimed and lost in battle. Buffy wasn't some infallible leader, so why did she get to stay in charge? It wasn't fair and she just knew it was because Buffy didn't like that Kennedy was challenging her. How could someone as amazing and lovely as Willow stay friends with such an awful person?

Willow sighed, "I'm so tired of this fight, aren't you?"

"I am tired of it, but it doesn't mean I'm done having it. Not until you admit that Buffy needs a damn reality check."

"Whatever you think it is that she did this time, it wasn't because of some personal vendetta against you. Just like it wasn't personal when she didn't send you out to deal with the black dog in Bainville, or when she assigned you to training instead of putting you on the road, or that time she disagreed with your new security plan, or – "

"But why does she get to decide all of those things? This isn't some dictatorship. We're not at war anymore. There's no reason to follow her like children."

"She doesn't just decide these things," Willow said, for what felt like the hundredth time, "me, Giles, Xander, Faith, even Andrew – we all talk about what's happening and how we'll deal with it. We help make those decision. But Buffy is still kinda our leader. We've followed her for years, and we've learned to trust her instincts and the choices she makes."

"And how many people are dead because of the choices she made? How many more are going to die because of her?" Kennedy practically screamed, "maybe it's time for someone else to be in charge, because at this point she's the only one that's had a chance."

It was the same argument over and over again. No matter what had started it, it always came back to the ones they had lost back in Sunnydale. Buffy had to make a lot of difficult decisions, ones that no one should ever have to make, and in an incredibly short time. There was no guidebook for what they had been dealing with. There was no time to weigh the options and no way to know the consequences of their actions. Everyone, Buffy included, had been flying by the seat of their pants. It was just jumping from one crisis to the next, one encounter to the next, and hoping that they were making the right calls in those impossible moments. Nothing was easy. No decision came without doubts and fears. How many times had Willow tried to explain that they were at war? War has casualties. Losing people is never fun and it's never easy, but in this life it's inescapable. Willow knew, more than anyone, that losing people was a side effect of being involved in the supernatural world. There were times where someone could be blamed for those losses, but sometimes they just…happened. Sometimes there was nothing they could do – no action they could have taken to prevent it. Willow wasn't just defending Buffy because she was her best friend but because she truly believed she had done the best she could in a terrible situation. No one asks to become a war general overnight.

Now that they weren't at war, now that they had some time to breathe, Buffy was still doing her best. Maybe she wasn't perfect and maybe there were times when she should have accepted the help that was offered, but Willow could hardly blame her. For years, Buffy was the only one who could lead them. She was the "one girl in all the world" for so long that to suddenly have other people who at least partially understood all that came with that title would be hard to adjust to. It would take time for her to feel comfortable sharing the burden of leadership. It would take the new Slayers longer to gain the experience to make the same hard decisions that Buffy had faced over the years. Growing pains were to be expected, and they wouldn't just go away because they wanted them to. It all took time. Kennedy wanted it all to happen now. She wanted to be on the same level as Buffy without all the work and sacrifice and years behind her. Somehow she thought she had already earned it – deserved it. It wasn't just arguing with her over decisions, either. Ever since Kennedy had set foot inside that little house on Revello Drive she had been trying to undermine Buffy. There were cracks in the foundation that they were building their network on, and most of them all started at Kennedy's place in that foundation. She actively chose to ignore all the times that Buffy shot down ideas from the other Slayers, from Xander, from Giles, even from herself. Instead she twisted into some ongoing war between the two of them. Willow had watched for months as Kennedy fought against all the progress that Buffy was trying to make.

And it was tiring. And she was done with it.

"I can't keep having this fight and I can't keep watching you trying to sabotage my best friend. I think you should go."

Kennedy didn't look upset or even surprised. Willow had been expecting her to blow up and scream and yell and maybe even throw something, but nothing came. There wasn't much of a pause between them, but it still hung heavy in the room.

"I was going to say the same thing." She slid her hands in her pockets to give them something to do. "Buffy isn't a leader. She isn't the god she likes to pretend to be. She doesn't care about anyone but her damn self." She paused. "She let Tess die, and I just can't…I can't be here."

Hearing her say Tess' name that way caused a sharp pain in Willow. She had seen the way the two girls looked at each other and it didn't take a genius to figure out that something was going on between them. It probably should have bothered her more than it did, but maybe that was just a sign that this thing – whatever it was between them – had been over for a long time already. To be honest, it probably shouldn't have ever started to begin with. It was nothing more than an hour of desperation at a time when Willow was sure she was looking her own mortality in the face. Perhaps a part of her never thought they'd make it out of that war and Kennedy had been a last grasp at feeling alive. Nothing more. There wasn't some big, deep connection there. If Kennedy felt the same then that was fine. It didn't bother her. What did bother her was that Kennedy would rather hide it from her and run around with another girl than just say something. Willow hadn't had the guts to ask Kennedy about it yet, but she needed to hear her say it. At least to know that she was right.

"So there was something going on between the two of you?"

Kennedy, showing no sign of regret or shame, nodded her head. "Yeah, there was. Not that you would have noticed, you were always too busy jumping to attention every time Buffy called for you."

"I'm not doing this anymore; I've heard enough of it. Please leave." Willow said, the exhaustion clear in her voice. Her eyes returned to her laptop without a second glance at the brunette Slayer. There were more important things to focus on.

"Gladly."

ӁӁӁ

It had been a long time since Dawn had found herself sitting on the floor of her bedroom, leaned up against her bed desperately trying to keep herself from screaming and crying. She thought that maybe she had left that habit behind in her teen years, but apparently she hadn't. Then again, it had been a long time since someone referred to her as a key. Been a long time since someone gawked at her like she wasn't even there. She hadn't been expecting it, but even if she had, Dawn couldn't imagine having handled it any better. It was like her entire system froze. Her brain completely blanked and the familiar need to run and hide and washed over her almost instantaneously. Old habits die hard after all.

So here she was, staring at her bedroom wall trying to figure out exactly how this random guy knew anything about her at all, let alone that she was, once upon a time, nothing but a ball of energy. She knew she shouldn't have left – her sister needed her right now, but she just couldn't be there. The way he was looking at her felt like needles pushing into her skin.

"I upset you earlier."

Dawn jumped slightly at the sudden sound. She looked over and Cas was standing by her bedroom window.

"How did you get in – "

"It was not my intention. I was not expecting to encounter The Key, especially when we had heard that it had been destroyed," Cas continued.

Perhaps, he realized, it should have been obvious that The Key still existed. The portal had been closed and the Slayer had lain dead at the bottom, so it had always been assumed that the Slayer had simply died in battle, but now Cas understood what had happened. The Slayer and The Key shared the same blood and therefore the Slayer could close the portal just as The Key could, the ritual would end and The Key would remain intact. Perhaps he did not understand humans and the attachment they had to those around them, to family, but the Slayer he did understand. She was made to be a guardian of the people – of course she would wish to protect someone who, to her, appeared to be an innocent child. It was her duty to protect those who could not protect themselves. His respect for her grew.

Dawn shook her head slightly, "no, I just…it's something I don't ever think about."

She caught the confused look on Cas' face and before he could speak she quickly cut him off.

"Do you see this scar here?" She indicated a four-inch long line, bright white against the rest of her skin that ran over her elbow. "I got this scar when I was 12. I was riding my bike down the hill on Sycamore Lane and I couldn't slow down. I hit something, a crack in the pavement maybe, and flipped over the handle bars. I must have flown ten feet from my bike. When I landed I scraped my elbow across the pavement where a piece of glass embedded in my arm. God, I thought it would never stop bleeding. Except that never happened."

She continued, her eyes taking on a slight sheen, "I remember…it was my eighth birthday. It was animal themed. I-I can still remember sitting to pretend tea with my friends. I was dressed as a lion. There was a zebra, a tiger, a mouse…My dad was supposed to come. My mom tried to tell me that he probably wasn't coming but I refused to believe her. I just kept saying 'no, no, he's just late.' I stayed up as late as I could waiting for him. It must have been close to one in the morning before I let my mom carry me off to bed. I can remember every single time my dad didn't show up. Did you know it still aches when I think of it? He was never there, not even when Mom died, and I never forgave him for that." Dawn let out a wry laugh, "what's the point of giving me the memories of a shitty father if it wasn't real? Couldn't just let me think that I had a dad that loved me?"

"Or how about the time my mom, Buffy, and I went to the beach when I was six. It was the first day my mom had off in weeks and she wanted to do something fun, just the three of us. I met a girl there, Marcy or Macy, something like that, and we spent the whole day building sandcastles together. We had so much fun. We collected a whole bucket-full of seashells together and we each picked our favourite ones to keep. I think it was about mid-afternoon when the skies darkened and it poured rain. I didn't want to leave though, I wanted to stay with my new friend. We promised each other to be friends forever. I uh, never actually saw her again though." Dawn paused, a ghost of a smile on her lips, "do you think there's some girl out there that has that same memory? Is she even real?"

Cas shook his head, "I cannot give you those answers."

"I didn't expect you to," Dawn said.

"Then why – "

"To try and make you understand, even just a little, why it's not something I like to remember. Why it's something I don't think about."

Cas nodded his head, though he wasn't entirely sure he understood her point. He figured it was better not to push the matter though as she had taken on an expression he had often seen on Sam and Dean's face; it was one that said the conversation was over.

"Anyways," she sighed, "I'm not The Key anymore, so it's all ancient history. You just caught me off guard is all."

Cas furrowed his brows in confusion, "of course you are still The Key"

There was so much that was unknown about The Key: how it came into existence, how old it truly was, why it exists at all. Just how immense its power was. It wasn't even clear how the monks had managed to harness that power into a human girl; no one in heaven had ever understood how it was possible. One thing that was crystal clear though, no matter who was asked, was that The Key was infinite.

The human body, however, was not infinite. Being The Key had not granted her immortality or any sort of immunity. The ritual with Glory would have destroyed the physical form of The Key, but the energy would continue on. Her plan had been to use The Key to essentially break in to her old realm. The short window of time she was dealing with had nothing to do with The Key, but the ritual itself. Her chance wouldn't come around again for another half of a century at least. While Glory knew that if she missed her chance she may never get another one, not even she understood that The Key would not be destroyed no matter what she did. Glory wasn't the only one who was misinformed about the nature of the key. The Scoobies had always had very limited information regarding The Key and its nature. The energy within Dawn was not a one-time use thing and she wasn't meant to only open the gates between the realms. No, she was much more than that. Held within Dawn's small stature was astounding power. Her abilities could tear the world asunder if she wished it. She could also be its savior in its time of peril. The power granted by the energy within her allowed the world to be merely a toy in her hands, if only she knew how to use it. The small brunette could be a formidable asset in the coming battles, more than she could ever imagine.

"Even I do not know the extent of the abilities The Key possesses," Cas admitted, a sound of awe in his voice.

It had never been recorded, at least not in any of the records that Heaven kept. Truth be told, no one was even sure where The Key had come from; it had always been there. The energy was ancient though, older than most anything else in the universe. The only thing Cas was certain of was that there was so much more that Dawn could do than she even realized.

"But you know a lot, don't you?" He nodded in response. "Then teach me."

A commotion started out in the hall that halted any reply that Cas may have had. Opening her door a crack, Dawn poked her head out into the hall to see what was going on. There was a parade of people streaming past her door all talking excitedly amongst themselves. Dawn tried to cut into the conversation but no one paid her any attention.

Xander appeared to be bringing up the rear and Dawn called out to him. It took a couple of attempts but she finally caught his attention and mouthed the words 'what's going on?'

With a bright smile, Xander simply said "she's awake."

Chapter Text

Chapter Seven – Lady Evil

The small room belonging to the blonde Slayer was nearly filled to bursting as news spread through the house that she was awake. It had been no secret that she had been in a state of distress for some weeks now, but the uncertainty of whatever had happened earlier in the day, at the hands of a stranger no less, was too tempting for anyone to stay away from. Among those who had collected in her room were the usual suspects: Giles, Willow, Xander, Dean, Sam, and now Dawn and Cas. In addition there were a countless number of the new Slayers who had somehow managed to slip in without anyone noticing. The room was louder than it had ever been as well with nothing but a cacophony of noise as everyone, all at once, bombarded Buffy with questions of "are you okay," "how are you feeling," "what happened," and "can I get you anything?" The attention slowly turned to Cas once he made his appearance; everyone wanted to know who or what he was and what exactly had he done to her. If he had noticed the strange looks he was garnering, Cas gave no indication of it. He stood there, his eyes intent on the Slayer as she slowly roused herself back to the conscious world.

Buffy, still in a daze, put up with the noise and the crowd as she slowly brought everything into focus. Then again, she looked confused enough that she may not have even noticed the throng of people around her. If she had, it mattered very little to her as she had a whole slew of problems to focus on first. Her eyes took a little while to adjust to her bright surroundings, and even then she wasn't sure what it was she was seeing. Her limbs were aching, and she was fighting an epic battle to keep from vomiting - a fight she was barely winning. Her head was on fire and yet her whole body felt cold. Whatever the hell had happened to her, her system was less than amused by. Slowly but surely she tried to force her mouth to find language again. It felt strange, like it was a movement she didn't know how to make. Her tongue laid uselessly in her mouth, refusing to move and force the words out. Her lips couldn't find the right shapes. Frustration and confusion welled up inside of her, but fear took over. Her foggy brain couldn't comprehend what was happening and she was suddenly very afraid that she would not know how to form words ever again. A gurgling sound came out of her mouth, the closest sound to language she had yet to make, but it did nothing to quiet the worries screaming in her mind.

Then, images exploded in her head. First it came through like it was playing on an old projector: blurry and full of skips and cracks. Soon everything came into focus and everything rushed at her at once. It was an information overload that her brain struggled to make sense of; it was desperately trying to find how it all fit together and put it into boxes so that she could cope with what she was seeing. There was no warning. No context. Just images like a slideshow being snapped in and out of place. No image stayed long enough to make sense of. To identify. It was like watching hundreds of movies all at once as images and sounds skipped through. There was nothing she could lock onto. Nothing except the feelings that came with those images. Buffy was suddenly feeling months – years – of pain, agony, fear, loss, and hopelessness. She could hear the rustling of dead leaves. She could see the twisted roots jutting out through the hardened earth. There was a sudden ache deep in her limbs as though she had been running and fighting for years. A cold, emanating from deep within her bones, raced through her and all but turned her lips blue. The pain of starvation. The pain of dehydration. More pain than her system knew how to cope with. The threat of going into shock was suddenly very real as all her nerves fired off at once. The feeling of pain and agony overwhelmed her. And fear. Fear. Fear. Fear. A terror she'd never known before.

Everyone watched with a mix of horror and concern as Buffy suffered. Her mouth moved in screams of agony, but no sound came out. Her eyes were closed tightly against the world around her. She kicked and thrashed on the bed and no one dared get within striking distance. All they could do is watch on helplessly until she stilled. She slowed, like the tide, until she came to a rest. Her breaths came hard and heavy as she fought to regain control. The grimace of pain had not yet moved from her face, but she was able to gain control of all the sensations coursing through her system. Buffy took deep breaths and focused on what she knew. She knew she was home. In her own bed. The images she was seeing, all that she was feeling, it wasn't currently happening. All her focus was on grounding herself. Then her eyes snapped open and landed on Castiel. Determination on her face.

"Everyone out. Now. Except you," she said, her vision all but boring a hole through Castiel.

A few voices rang out in protest, but the murderous look on the Slayer's face quickly silenced any and all protests. There was clearly something they didn't know, something that obviously Castiel did know, but this was not the time to push questions. Even still, those who left the room grumbled as they went. The newer Slayers simply streamed out of the room, a little disappointed at the anti-climactic ending to the whole scene. The others, most notably Dean, had scowls on their faces at being booted out by the person they had been worrying about for what felt like months already. While some of the others wandered off to get some coffee or to wait in the living room, Dean camped himself outside of the bedroom door. There was no way he was going anywhere that was away from Buffy. He would wait right here all night if he had to. Once again his hands balled into fists, breaking open the small divots in his palm once more.

All the noise and commotion slowly drained from the room leaving nothing more than a silence that seemed to coat the room like a blanket. The two regarded each other in the silence of the room. Buffy was trying to get a read on the odd man in front of her, her eyes searching for anything she could lock onto. Her brain was still foggy, still struggling to make sense of the world around her. The images still flashed, one after another, clouding her thought process. Her sense were dulled, but that wasn't going to stop her from trying to parse out exactly what the hell just happened. There was something strange about this man, that much was obvious, but there was very little else that she could discern about him that made any sort of sense to her. His manner was bizarre and there was something almost other-worldly about him that made her Slayer senses perk up. At the same time, Castiel was trying to understand the look on the small blonde's face. Identifying facial expressions had never been his strong suit, but the last time he saw a similar face, it was on Dean and it prefaced a great deal of yelling. Though he still wasn't sure why. The fact that she had remained silent thus far was slightly disconcerting.

Finally she broke the silence.

"What did you do to me?"

Buffy had what felt like hundreds of questions for him. The questions came like gunshots through her head and all she wanted to do was spew each question at him as fast as they shot through her head. She wanted to know what she had just seen flashing through her mind. She wanted to know what those scenes all meant and why they had elicited so much pain and agony deep within her, especially if they were just memories. Why they had felt so familiar – were they all true? Every last one of them? How had she ended up in Purgatory? Why? She didn't understand everything she was now suddenly remembering, but she somehow knew, beyond a doubt, that those memories of heaven were not real. The reality was that she had been sentenced to live out her afterlife fighting in Purgatory. The memories had all flooded back, but it was still just a mess of clips in her head. Actually understanding all that she saw would take time, but it all started with getting answers from the man standing in front of her. Of course, that brought her to the question of who this man was exactly. Why was he even here? However, at this particular moment, one question was at the top of her priority list above all others, and it went back to before she woke up in her own coffin. Before had to claw her way out and find her way home.

"I merely allowed the memories that had been partitioned off to be recovered in a more humane way than – "

Buffy interrupted him, "Ya, ya, we'll come back to that. I meant before. There's something about you I recognize. Somehow I know you caused this. All of it. You did this to me."

"Ah," he said. "Yes, we would have, uh, 'met' when you were between Purgatory and here," Cas said, awkwardly stuttering over is words as he spoke, something the angel was not used to doing.

Buffy just stared at him, not really sure what to make of what he was saying. So far he seemed well versed in answering a question without actually giving an answer. It had the potential to be absolutely maddening, but Buffy had dealt with a teenaged girl as she grew up. She knew how to needle answers out of people. So that's fine she thought, she just needed to be more direct.

"What are you?"

Cas stood up a little straighter when he answered this time, "I am an Angel of the Lord."

At that, Buffy burst into a sarcastic, mirthless laugh. It felt good to laugh. It felt like she hadn't done so in ages. Through eyes which were tearing up, she noticed that the man she was speaking with wasn't laughing or even grinning. There was no mischief on his face, which led her to the notion that perhaps he was telling the truth, or at least he thought he was.

"Oh, you were serious," then she realized what that meant. The memory of a conversation floated to the front of her mind. There was a time when she had spoken to Dean about dreams, about a conversation that he'd had. "Wait, I remember Dean saying he talked to an – "

Cas nodded, "yes, that was me."

That had been something bugged her the rest of the time in Purgatory after Dean told her about his conversation with his friend, the angel. It was not something she had ever expected to hear. She wasn't even sure that angels existed before then. Dean mentioning them had made no difference to that. Truth be told, she thought maybe that world had been getting to him – affecting his sanity perhaps. Or maybe it was something he needed to believe to make sure that he survived. Now that all those memories had come flooding back and she was starting to parse through them in her mind, the same gnawing feeling had also returned. How was it possible that he could reach deep into Purgatory to have a conversation, but not be able to pull them out. Weren't angels supposed to be powerful and have command over such realms? Weren't they supposed to protect people?

"I explained this to Dean, but you are right, I never got the chance to explain to you. I did not have the power nor the strength to reach into a place such as Purgatory."

Buffy arched her eyebrow at him, "Willow did."

"Yes, Ms. Rosenberg – "

"Willow."

Castiel cleared his throat, "Yes, Willow is exceptionally strong and talented. No one in heaven thought it possible to exert any sort of power over Purgatory, and yet she was able to."

Osiris, God of the After-life, was notoriously stubborn and uninterested in the pleadings of man. There were few occasions in history in which he troubled himself to interfere in the life and death of any mortal. In truth, there were only slightly few more cases of mortals being able to reach Osiris' ears at all. Somehow Willow had not only been able to make herself heard by the God, but had compelled him to lend his aid. The thing was though, that it wasn't Osiris that reached into Purgatory and plucked the Slayer out. All he did was allow the crossing. Essentially he opened a window so Willow could rescue her friend from that horrid place. It was something that had sent shockwaves through the supernatural world – everyone had felt it from the depths of hell to the top peaks of heaven. There wasn't a single being in the godly realms that did not know who Willow was and what she was capable of. They had heard her loud and clear.

Buffy smiled, "that's my girl."

"But I am sure you have other questions. Please, ask them, I do believe I owe you some answers."

"You were about to explain what it was that you did to me, something about partitioning memories?"

He then started to explain, or do his best to explain, what it was that he had done when he encountered her soul traveling from Purgatory back to her physical form. He had recounted these events before, with Dean, but somehow found it much more difficult with the subject of the story staring at him. He had been able to talk about her, but talking to her made the words stick in his throat a little more. He found himself softening the message, something he was not accustomed to doing. Perhaps he had expected some form of hysterics or rage as he relayed the details, or at very least the same look of contempt that Dean had exhibited. It came as quite a surprise that, despite the sensitive subject matter, the Slayer appeared entirely unfazed by the facts of the event. The only slight rise he saw in her was when he explained that he had feared for her sanity and well her brain would have coped with the memories and damage done by Purgatory. There had been a very obvious and pronounced eye roll, but it lacked any real venom behind it. Human behaviour truly was impossible to decipher.

It hadn't just been a way to protect the Slayer's mental well-being when he intervened, but an act of compassion. A compassion he rarely extended to anyone, let alone a human he had never met before. There had been nothing he could do to prevent her from returning to the mortal coil, hard as he tried. No, her companion Ms. Rosenberg – er, Willow - proved exceptionally powerful while invoking Osiris, an obstinate god who did not care for his actions to be disrupted. In the short time he had to formulate a plan, Castiel did the only thing he could think of. He could not truly give her the heaven she deserved, that she had earned through years of battle and service to the forces of good, but he could at least give her the comfort it would have afforded her by altering her memories. She would remember the reward she deserved but that had been snatched away from her in some cruel twist of magic and fate. In place of the twisted forest she would have somewhere light and warm. Instead of torture and constant danger, all she would remember would be peace and safety. It was unfortunate that her memory of Dean also had to be removed, but that was the price of removing Purgatory from her mind – the two were irrevocably connected within her memories.

Upon hearing the rationalization Castiel had used, the Slayer softened slightly. It was obvious that he'd had the best of intentions and it was hard to continue to shoot daggers at him after hearing that. It was hard to know that she was meant to be in heaven, not Purgatory where she truly ended up. It was a relief, however, to know that being the Slayer didn't mean she was destined to follow the monsters into the afterlife. There was comfort in that. Plus, he had said that he greatly admired the strength she was showing under the weight of such mental strain, which was a great compliment coming from an Angel of the Lord that not even Buffy could ignore.

"That doesn't make it okay to mess with someone's life like that," Buffy said with some frost in her tone. She wasn't entirely ready to forgive him quite yet.

"For what it is worth, I am sorry. It was never my intention for it to be seen this way. I was simply trying to give you some form, however small, of reward for all your years of service; for all your years of good."

It was, without a doubt, the most sincere apology the angel had ever uttered. Though, not knowing him well enough, this fact was lost on Buffy who was mostly unmoved by the statement. She'd be lying if she said it didn't afford her some modicum of consolation, but at the same time it didn't mean much when, at the end of the day, she didn't get a damn thing out of it. She still ended up in Purgatory and she still ended up with false memories and a fractured mind that was struggling to repair itself. But dealing with that would have to come later.

Buffy sighed, "as much as I'd like to continue to be mad at you for this, maybe throw a nice nonsensical rant or two in, I'm not going to. No, we're not cool, but there are much more important things to deal with right now."

She swung herself out of bed, wobbled for a few seconds, before landing hard back on the bed. With a deep breath, Buffy tried once more, slower this time. The blood rushed to her head all the same as it throbbed and the room swirled around her. Buffy kept her footing this time and with slow, deliberate steps she made her way towards the door with a slight stagger akin to a gazelle learning to walk for the first time. She had hoped that when Castiel had done his little magic trick it would have helped heal the damage that had been done by the previous attempt at the same thing. Unfortunately, she found herself still weak, but at least she could feel her system recuperating now. Apparently this wasn't something she could simply walk off. She took a pause at the door to catch her breath, to steady herself before heaving it open.

"You might want to come for this, too," Buffy said over her shoulder.

Whatever Buffy had been expecting when she opened the door, her friends to be waiting or just an empty hallway maybe, she had not prepared herself for the possibility that Dean would be camped out just outside her room. Buffy stopped, the surprise obvious on her face, and met his gaze which was full of uncertainty and maybe even a hint of fear. He had been in her room just a bit earlier, she knew that, but she had barely noticed him as she had sought out Castiel in the crowd of people. She also knew that she had seen him throughout the last couple of days, and a few more times over the last year or so. Even still, the only image she could see of him was the moment she had thrown him back through the portal and watched it close into nothingness. Now that she knew all about him, about their time together, it was all she could see when she thought of him. Nothing else seemed to stick anymore. She remembered the look on his face and the pang of pain and guilt in her heart. She remembered it all, and it was too much to bear. But there was no time to deal with that yet. She had to swallow her feelings and keep her Slayer face on.

"Buff – "

"Bring everyone to the war room. Now. We have a problem."

Without another word, Buffy walked past him and disappeared around the corner of the hall. He watched her as she walked away, his mouth slightly agape. He wasn't sure what to expect when Buffy finally surfaced. He'd be lying if he said he hadn't hoped for her to all but fall into his arms – those three words finally spoken out loud. It was unlikely that she'd simply ignore the fact that he'd been lying to her, though. He had been prepared for anger and distrust, but he hadn't considered the possibility that he would be met with the cold shoulder. He was at a loss as to what to do. Cas followed out of the small bedroom shortly thereafter, his face grim as always. If Dean had been hoping for some sort of explanation from Cas, he was, once again, set up for disappointment.

"What the hell happened?" Dean asked, clearly exasperated.

"She remembers."

In that moment, Dean was hit with such a strong feeling of mixed emotions that he could hardly breathe. His chest felt tight as his heart constricted. It was an immense relief to know that Buffy's mind was no longer struggling to hold itself together under the strain of the falsified memories. Dean would no longer need to watch what he said lest he destroy the work Cas had done to protect her from Purgatory. Maybe she could finally heal.

Of course, that also meant that now she no longer had the protection she was afforded by those fake and partitioned memories. She would be weighed down by all that they saw, all that they faced, while they had battled for their lives. When Dean had returned to this world he had struggled to adjust. It took a long time to box away the nightmares of Purgatory and everything that came with them. It took even longer to stop waking in a cold sweat when those nightmares infected every night that he had been able to sleep. Not only did Buffy now need to do the same, she also had to find a way to cope with the memories she had, for lack of a better term, lost now that she knew they weren't real. She needed to learn what was real and what wasn't – what had actually happened and what she had never experienced. She needed to reconcile every thought in her mind. More than that, though, was the fact that he had been in Purgatory for a fraction of the time that Buffy had. There wasn't as much damage to sort through. He had seen less of that world than she had. He had also been able to wade through the memories and nightmares, treading water until he could find his footing. Buffy didn't have that luxury. She had been tossed into the deep end without being told she had to learn to swim. He knew that she could float, but did she?

Some part of him had always known that there would come a day when Buffy would learn the truth of her time in the afterlife. Nothing lasts forever, and in the life they both led, that was especially true about the things that protected them from the darkness that pressed on them from all sides. That same part of him, no matter how much he tried to silence it, knew that the day would come that he would have to answer for his choice not to tell her the truth. He may not have been the one to play with her mind, but he may as well have. What Cas had feared was that Dean would, by accident or not, disrupt the memories that had been so carefully built for her. There had been a countless number of opportunities to do exactly that, and Dean had decided against it every single time. All it would have taken was one time, one time for him to tell the truth. But would that have done more damage than he could have anticipated? Would it have been worse to find out that way than for the walls to be taken down? He had told himself time and time again that it was what was best for her; he was doing it for her. The truth, though, was that there had always been some voice whispering from the depths of his mind that told him otherwise. There was a constant murmur that he was being selfish. It was all so she wouldn't know that he had lied to her, all so they could have better start than Purgatory had allowed them. In those moments just before sleep would take him, the voice would remind him that, should she ever find out the truth, she would never forgive him. And really, how could she?

Alone in the dim hallway it became especially difficult to silence that voice. It screamed louder than anything else in his head. Was it right? A familiar ball of self-hatred unwound itself in his gut threatening to bring up bile and the copious amounts of coffee he had consumed while waiting for Buffy to awaken. He let out a disappointed breath, allowed himself a moment or two of self-pity, and then headed off in search of the rest of the group just as Buffy had asked. That voice would just have to keep screaming, but for now he did his best to ignore all the venom it was filling his head with. He had to squash all those feelings of hope that he had been harbouring – hope that things wouldn't change between the two of them. It wasn't like he had been expecting her to leap into his arms or anything of the sort, not really anyway. He had thought about it over and over, again and again, but even still he hadn't been sure what to expect when he next came face to face with Buffy, but it had certainly been more than a slightly surprised glance and a 'down-to business' type of order. He silently squashed down the sinking feeling that joined that ball of self-hatred. There was obviously something big about to go down, and in that case they did not have time for some hurt feelings.

ӁӁӁ

To say the war room was tense would be a vast understatement. When they had all filed in and taken a seat, there had been some degree of anxiety, but mostly it was just a sense of uncertainty mixed with a touch of concern. There had been no time to ask Buffy if she was okay. No time to ask for details for what had happened. Buffy focused on what she felt was important to the immediate situation, whatever it was exactly, and that didn't include her own role in the story. She needed to get the gang up to speed, and evidently she believed there was no time to waste. She was probably right. There had been a lot of information thrown at them and, despite years of practice, they had struggled to wrap their heads around it all. So many moving parts. So many new concepts.

"So let me get this straight, just to make sure we're all on the same page here," Xander said, the first to speak after the barrage of information had temporarily subsided. "Angels are real," he looked at Dean, "but they're douchebags." He turned to face Castiel, "he's an angel, but not a douchebag."

"Most days, anyways," Dean grumbled.

It was the first of the information that had been shared within the quiet room. The first thing Willow had done was ask Buffy if she was okay. After that, she insisted that Castiel not only introduce himself but explain just who the hell he was. The answer had come as a collaboration between Dean, Sam, and Castiel, during which they tried to explain that angels were in fact real and that they weren't exactly what people thought they were like. Dean, of course, had to make sure to let them know that most angels were total douches and he did not at all enjoy working with them. It probably wasn't terribly important to the current situation, but Dean felt it worth mentioning. They were, in fact, much less pleasant than people would likely assume. Sam had rolled his eyes, but definitely didn't disagree. Following that, there was a brief explanation given as to how they knew Castiel and that he could be trusted.

"Okay," Xander nodded, "and you were able to help Buffy now because you kinda started it?"

"I am not entirely sure what you mean by 'started it,' but I was able to help her because I had previously altered her memories. Something else had attacked the work I had done – I simply completed the transition."

Trying to explain what exactly Castiel had done had proved much more difficult than any of the other news that had to be broken to the group. Building walls and memories made sense in theory, but really understanding the ramifications of it had proven much more complicated. Of course, Willow and Giles had wanted to know more about the process, but there wasn't enough time to go into detail about it at the moment. Castiel tried to explain, just as he had with Buffy, that he had acted with the best intentions. He explained his reasons and the damage that Buffy had suffered. He was met with the same icy-yet-somewhat-accepting reception as he had received from the Slayer. It did not faze him in the least.

Xander pointed at Buffy, "because you weren't really in heaven, but Purgatory – a place we had thought was a myth." Xander stopped to look at Giles as he touched on his contribution to the conversation, "and is basically utopia for any and every beast and monster that has ever existed?"

"Hey it was news to me, too," Buffy said, her hands up in mock surrender. Leave it to Buffy, in spite of the pain she was in, to still make a joke.

"And that's how you," he indicated Dean and his brother, "actually know Buffy?" Dean nodded, "and you ended up there in some big cosmic joke after defeating some weird black-goo demon thing?"

"More or less, ya, that's the gist of it," Dean agreed.

"And there's still more Earth-shattering news to come?"

Buffy nodded, glancing around the room to see how everyone was coping with such an overload. Not surprisingly, it was proving to be a little hard for everyone to keep up. She didn't relish in dropping another bombshell into their laps. There was no time for wading into the news, though. No time for coddling or sugar coating. Not based on what she had seen anyway.

Xander took a deep breath, "okay. I think, uh, I think we're good. Continue."

"Wait, can I ask a question?" Andrew cut in. He waited until Buffy nodded her head before continuing to speak. He turned to face Dean, "are those Supernatural books really about you guys?"

Dean only scowled in response. There was also an audible growl, which discouraged Andrew from any further questions. It did, however, confirm what he had suspected since the two hunters introduced themselves. There were so many follow questions needed, but even Andrew recognized that this wasn't the time to press beyond the growl. It took a lot of willpower to not squeal like a little girl, but he did allow himself the pleasure of smiling widely at Xander. Xander pretended not to notice. Xander also pretended that he wasn't excited to have that confirmed for him. Most of the others in the room were unable to contain a chuckle or two at the exchange. While Andrew's question may have been unnecessary and asinine, it had done something right. Some of the tension had seemed to have evaporated from the room; everyone was breathing a little easier. It probably wasn't his intention, but they were all willing to pretend that it had been. Slowly their attention all turned back towards Buffy, the only one who looked no less tense, and if truth be told, no less frightened either. It was the hint of fear behind her eyes that set them all on edge once more. Seeing Buffy afraid was sobering – and it meant that whatever she had to say wasn't going to be good.

Upon waking up, a lot of memories had come rushing back, and there was a lot that she was going to have to sort out, deal with, and talk through, but one in particular took precedence. It was the last recovered memory that had come through crystal clear and it had been the source of the great chill that had gripped her refused to let go. She had seen everything that had happened in Irving with perfect clarity for the first time. She had been forced to watch the silent tragedy as Tess fell again. She saw it over and over again, each time a stab to her heart. She had been helpless to help her then, and she felt that same feeling grip her as she remembered it without any of that fog that had persisted before. Every blow was felt again, and the searing pain she had felt as The Woman had touched her forehead had come rushing back.

The Woman hadn't looked like she had before, a different face, a different voice, a different body, and it was almost enough to hide who she truly was. It was her, though. Unmistakably so. She had spoken in that same careless sing-song voice that had so long ago grated on her nerves. Power radiated off The Woman causing Buffy's stomach to knot and the hair on the back of her neck to rise. Just as confusing as the first time she had encountered this Woman, no sense of evil accompanied the immense power that surrounded them. All she knew was that she was ancient. Powerful. And here. Somehow she was here.

"Oh, Buffy. I'm wounded," The Woman said with mock offense, "how could you forget me? I thought we had something special."

Buffy stared at the dark-haired Woman in front of her but said not a word. She took notice of the murderous smile on her face, the eyes that seemed to look straight through her. The Woman's hands were red, coated in blood. None of it her own. Buffy had to block out the image of the small blonde crumped on the ground behind her, dead long before her time. She had to ignore the pain radiating from her head, from her sides; ignore the tiredness in her joints. She had to focus. Whoever, whatever this Woman was, she was strong. It didn't matter what Buffy threw at her, it made no difference. She had not slowed down, not been injured.

Buffy was vaguely aware that Faith was there, but she had no time to check on her. The blow The Woman had dealt to Faith was sure to be devastating. Maybe even fatal. But there was nothing she could do for her now. She wished more than anything that Faith had not found them. Another life damaged, maybe lost, and again she was helpless to stop it from happening. How many more times was she going to lose someone because she wasn't enough?

"It is because of you after all, you and your little friends I mean, that I am able to be here. How could you forget such a powerful connection?" Realization dawned on The Woman's face, "oh, I see. It's so obvious, but you don't see it, do you? No, doubtless you have no idea of what was taken from you. What was stolen. Would you like to? It would be so easy. Just a little touch and you'll be whole again. You want to be whole, don't you?"

The Woman latched on to Buffy's throat and lifted her high into the air. Buffy kicked her legs out, desperately hoping to make contact or at the very least make it difficult to keep hold on her. It was all to no avail.

"Stop fighting, Buffy. This won't hurt a bit," that vicious smile returned, "I'm sure it'll hurt a lot, though."

The Woman's free hand came up and placed it on Buffy's forehead. A bright red light filled Buffy's vision as she felt the skin singe where The Woman's hand rested. Her brain was rending apart within. The scream that escaped the Slayer's lips barely sounded human – Buffy wasn't even aware that the noise had come from her. That red light was the last thing she remembered, the last thing she saw before waking in her own home.

The Woman had been a mystery when she first woke up. Faith hadn't seen much of her and whatever she had done had scrambled Buffy's brain enough to block out any chance of identifying her. Now she knew that The Woman had tried to do what Castiel had just done – lower the walls and destroy the lies he had planted in her mind. Faith had interrupted the process, halted it, and left her stuck in a limbo between the real and the false. Her mind could not find what belonged anymore, at least until Castiel intervened once more.

"I know who she is now, The Woman from Irving," Buffy nodded towards Dean briefly before turning back to the room as a whole, "and so does he."

"I do?"

"It's Eve."

Chapter Text

Chapter Eight – She's the One

"Are you sure?" Dean asked, his voice firm to hide his skepticism and concern. Skeptical that it would be true and concerned at the prospect that it could very well be true. If it were true, then things just got a whole lot more complicated and a whole lot bleaker.

Buffy nodded her head, "I am." It took a great deal of effort to keep the shake out of her voice when she spoke.

Most of what Eve had said in Irving was still lost to her, scattered in fragments of memories that were all fighting to come to the surface. Bits and pieces would come through and then fade away into nothing, leaving Buffy to wonder what was real and what wasn't – what was said in Purgatory and what was said in Irving. The one thing that really stuck, however, was something Eve said about how she had made it out of Purgatory. She had said something about how it was Buffy's own fault – with the help of her friends. When she had first stumbled upon Eve in Irving, she had said something that hadn't made any sense at the time, but suddenly Buffy had some new clarity on the matter.

"It's quite foolish to go around opening seals found in old basements. I shouldn't complain, though. Without that I couldn't be here today. I should really be thanking you, Buffy. You've done so much for me, after all."

Had opening the Hellmouth somehow helped Eve escape? It wasn't as though they had lowered the walls between dimensions, just simply unlocked a door to one. If that were the case, then Eve must have somehow found a way out of Purgatory on her own. In her time there, Buffy hadn't uncovered any way to exit other than the one that Dean had gone through. It had taken Willow bargaining with Osiris to allow Buffy to return. What method had Eve found that they didn't yet know about? There was a real fear that other creatures and beings could make their way through to another realm, too. That was something that needed to be stopped.

The last time Eve had walked the Earth it had been because some foolish people had summoned her and thought they could control her. They had paid dearly for their stupidity, which was exactly what should happen, but the damage was done and it stretched far behind those responsible for bringing her here. A wake of chaos had followed Eve's every step. Towns suffered, people met unfortunate ends, and new creatures inhabited the Earth, ones that were difficult to kill and even more difficult to track. Suddenly much of the last few months clicked into place for Sam and Dean. All those cases that just didn't add up had been missing part of the equation, but here it was. Their missing link hadn't been some weird coincidence or some prophecy about to be fulfilled. No, it was Eve. It was Eve and her ability to make grotesque monsters, mashed up and combined in ways they were never meant to be all in search of creating the perfect creatures. It made so much sense that it had been Eve all along that the boys felt almost silly that they hadn't connected the dots on it long before now, but the last they knew was that she had been killed. Destroyed. That battle was long over and far behind them. Dean had seen her in Purgatory trapped and weak and without any hope of escape – or so he had assumed, anyway.

The idea of facing Eve again did not thrill either of the brothers. The amount of carnage she had already caused was substantial and they knew there was worse to come. The creature, whatever she really was, had significant power, and the boys had a sneaking suspicion that they had never seen the true extent of that power. By now, she had spread her influence across half the damn country. She had an entire army at her beck and call, enough that there was no hope in hell of ever being able to find and gank all of the grotesqueries she had created. It was a grim future they faced, one filled with new monsters and creatures that they had no clue of how to defeat. Hell, they didn't even know how to defeat Eve – or if she could be defeated. They had barely been able to lay a hand on her and there had only been one method to killing Eve. That was too close to "immortal" for comfort, and they didn't look forward to dealing with it again.

"To be fair though," Sam explained, "we had no reason to believe that she had found her way back from Purgatory."

"Last I saw her, she didn't even have the strength to make herself corporeal," Dean added. "She had power, but she had to rely on her monsters to do pretty much anything."

Throughout the conversation, Giles had sat silently. He listened intently while Sam and Dean explained what they knew of Eve and recounted their last encounter with the being. Their friend that they mentioned, Bobby Singer, had been their saving grace at the time. He had just so happened to have a reserve of the Phoenix ashes that were required to terminate Eve's free reign on Earth. Giles had never heard of the use of Phoenix ashes as a weapon, mostly just in incantations and summonings, but it seemed to have done the trick. It was interesting, to say the least. Also interesting was the name Bobby Singer. It was one he had heard before, merely in passing of course. Giles had always been more aware of the hunter community than he had let on. It was important to understand the faction and know their movements, especially when those movements brought them too close to Sunnydale and to the Slayer. The name was popular in the hunter circles. Well known. Bobby Singer, to his understanding, was simply one of the best in the business. It had been a devastating blow to the community when he had fallen. To the two Winchester boys as well, he presumed. Perhaps it was worth asking about at a later time.

His thoughts were already running a mile a minute through his head and he was itching to take to his books. Despite all his years buried deep in tomes and records, he didn't recall coming across the name Eve, save for when in reference to the biblical figure. If this Eve had so far been able to escape his notice, he knew it was going to require a great deal of digging to locate anything on her let alone something useful. It was too much to hope for that the two hunters would have access to any of the books or materials that had once belonged to Bobby Singer, so Giles suspected that they were very much on their own in the endeavour of not only identifying Eve, but locating a method in which to dispose of her. Preferably in a more permanent fashion. Silently, Giles lamented the loss of not only his own library back in Sunnydale, but the collection that the Watchers Council had amassed over the centuries. He knew it would be a much simpler task with either of those collections, but they were now long lost. Since setting up in Cleveland, Giles had been able to start collecting some books, but it was far from what he would call a respectable library. He had made phone call after phone call to his old friends and contacts, and they had parted with what they could, but so many rare books had been lost forever. It put them at a severe disadvantage but that didn't mean it wasn't worth trying, though.

Giles finally spoke, "You said that you defeated her how? Phoenix ashes?" Dean nodded in response. "Interesting…" Giles again returned to listening intently but silently.

"Any chance you have some left over?" Andrew piped up.

"Hey, no one said you could talk," Xander said irritably. He looked towards Sam and Dean, "but seriously, any chance you still have some?"

Sam shook his head, "no. We're not even sure why Bobby had any to begin with."

"Damn," Willow sighed, "no way for us to deus ex machina this one."

The room was quiet for a moment as the enormity of their task set in. They had very little to go on, even less than they were used to. Not only that, but they had only a sliver of the old book collection they'd always had to look through. Giles, who had always had some idea of what they were facing, had no prior knowledge or experience with an 'Eve.' Sure Sam and Dean had come up against her before, but they hadn't been able to find much about her then, either. The only thing they had going for them that they had lacked in all their years was a substantial amount of manpower, but that was going to go to waste if they couldn't find some sort of lead. It felt like they were standing at the bottom of a very tall mountain, one without a path for them to climb. They didn't even know where to begin to look for a way up. No matter what, though, it was clear that the crew needed to start scouring the books they did have.

Buffy took a deep breath, "Sam, why don't you join Giles in research mode. You have way more insight into this thing than we do."

"Yes, that is an excellent idea. We don't have anywhere near as many books as we used to have," Giles said to Sam.

"That's alright, I just need some wi-fi," Sam replied, "you'd be surprised how much you can find online nowadays."

Giles visibly shuddered, eliciting a giggle from the original Scoobies. Even Giles himself gave a half-hearted smile as he thought back to when Jenny had tried to catalogue his book collection online. It was a shame they had never finished…

"Willow, you should be research gal too."

"On it!" Willow grinned widely.

Xander looked expectantly at Buffy, "what about me. Please don't say hit the books…"

Buffy shook her head, "ah, I wouldn't do that to you, not yet anyway. Could you go let Vi and Dawn know what's going on? We're gonna need to get these girls ready for battle a little sooner than planned. After that you should probably get back to work on that armoury. We're going to need it."

"That I can do," Xander saluted jokingly.

Dean finally piped up, "And me?"

"Uh," Buffy hesitated, "there could be some late nights coming up. Best for you just to get some rest for now, I think."

"Are you sure? I could help with the web search or – "

Buffy interrupted him, "I think we got it covered."

Dean slumped, "okay."

"We'll come grab you from your room when we need you." Buffy looked back to the whole group, "okay, everyone has their assignments?"

Everyone pushed away from the table and headed off in their respective directions. Buffy remained behind, standing alone in the cavernous room. Surrounding the table she stood at was a chorus of chairs, standing in empty judgement of the veteran Slayer. Judgement for all the decisions she had made leading up to this moment, and all the decisions she would once again have to make. There was no explanation for it beyond a feeling deep in her gut, but she just knew that this was big; bigger than The Master, bigger than Glory, maybe even bigger than The First. She suddenly felt very small.

"Glory is nothing on me, sweet cheeks. My children are going to tear you limb from limb, just as you have done to their brothers and sisters. When they're done I'll suck the marrow from your bone."

Buffy sank back into the chair behind her, her head slumping into her hands. The dull ache had yet to go away, a constant reminder of the hell she just went through. If she was right, that was the least of her troubles. Things were about to get much worse long before they got any better. The idea of being a war general all over again…it was just too much. They had barely recovered from the last venture. They had lost so much. Could they really do this all over again? Then again, there wasn't much of a choice. Turning a blind eye to something so horrific, so evil, was never an option. They were Slayers. Witches. Hunters. Watchers. They were the warriors of the people. Of course they would fight, that's what they do after all.

With her head aching and her heart heavy, Buffy sat there, all alone in a room designed for war, and prepared to don her armour once more.

ӁӁӁ

"She hates me."

"She doesn't hate you," Sam replied gently.

"Sam, she sidelined me. Everyone else has something to do and I basically got sent to my room!" Dean flopped down on his bed. "She doesn't trust me, if nothing else. Not that I blame her…"

The two boys had headed off to their room after the war meeting had broken up. Sam to grab his laptop and Dean apparently to pout. Sam tried to put on his best reassuring smile, but in this situation it was tough. It wasn't that he agreed with his brother, but it wasn't an easy situation to sort out, either. Buffy had barely looked at Dean ever since she had learned the truth about what happened. When she did look at him, it was a strange sort of expression – kind of like the one someone gives to a stranger on the street when their face looks familiar but they can't quite place it. She had talked to him the same way. Except Dean wasn't a stranger at all; in fact it was quite the opposite. Buffy was trying to reconcile two sets of memories of the same person into one coherent understanding. It was understandable that she needed some time.

That was the only thing Sam was really sure of: that Buffy just needed time. He thought back to their first meeting when he and his brother had tracked the Suvolte demon to Sunnydale. At the time, Sam had pretended not to notice it, but the bond between the Slayer and his brother was undeniable. He had watched as the tension and world-weariness melted off of the two of them while they were together to be replaced by a softness and joy he had never seen his brother experience. In all his life, Sam had never seen his brother look so peaceful. Sam remembered the way Buffy looked at Dean: with total acceptance and a fondness that he dared to believe might have been love. Sam knew it was only a matter of time before she forgave Dean. No matter what had happened between them, he just knew, deep in his bones and his war-torn soul, that she wasn't about to drop everything and walk away. It was too rare, in this life, to find what Buffy and Dean had. Sam just hoped that he wasn't letting his own determined optimism cloud his judgement.

"Would you rather be in the library with us?" He said jokingly, trying to lighten the mood.

Dean groaned, "not really, but at least there I'd be useful."

Sam nodded in agreement. That much was true.

"Just give it time. I should go meet them – "

"Yeah, go. It's fine. I'll just be here if anyone needs me, I guess."

Sam gave a slightly sad smile and headed off with his laptop. There wasn't anything else he could really say anyway. It was just one of those things that needed to run their course.

Dean took a deep breath and squeezed his eyes closed. It felt like everything was crashing down around him. He wanted to believe Sam, but he had a feeling deep in his gut that nothing would ever be the same. How could it be? Things had been a little weird between them even before those walls came crashing down; they had done nothing but play telephone tag for months. Now everything had come undone and she knew he had lied about - well…everything. Lied about what he was doing in Sunnydale that night. Lied about how he knew about her. Lied about not knowing her. Lied and lied and lied. Sure he had his reasons, but would she see it that way? Or would she see it as him taking advantage of her? If Dean found out that someone did nothing but lie to him, keep things from him, he'd be pissed too. That was probably the worst part of it – Dean knew that if the roles were reversed he wouldn't even give it a second thought: she'd be nothing but a ghost to him. And now he desperately hoped that Buffy was more forgiving than he. Now she remembered everything. She could remember what they went through in that horrible place. It wasn't Dean alone that knew the bond that they had developed while they were there. She knew they had fought side by side for an eternity. Buffy would know he kept his word in checking in on Dawn. She'd see that he fought to win her over again. She'd understand how he felt about her. It was almost enough to make Dean feel hopeful that something could be salvaged. But could any of that make up for the betrayal she was sure to be feeling right now? Dean wasn't sure he could make this better. Not this time. How could she ever trust him again?

He realized that right now he was actually glad to be off on his own. Dealing with other people, having to be around her and feeling like this, would be far too hard. It's easier to wallow in self-pity and self-loathing without other people around. The peace and quiet suited him just fine.

Then came a tapping at his open door.

"What?" He barked, not moving from his spot sprawled out on the bed.

A meek voice returned, "can I come in?"

Buffy.

Dean sat up straight immediately, "yeah, of course."

Buffy took a couple careful steps into the room, hovering awkwardly by the door. Her eyes scanned the room, as if she had never been in here before. As if she was trying to avoid Dean for as long as she could. She let her hands fiddle with the lamp that was sitting on the table next to her before leaning back on her arms against the wall.

"I uh, wanted to talk to you," Buffy was struggling to find the words she wanted to say. Every word felt foreign and clumsy in her mouth. It felt like nothing was going to come out right and that made it all the harder to say anything at all.

"Look, you don't have to say anything. I get it," Dean ran his fingers through his hair. "I'd be pissed at me too."

Her eyes widened and she felt her chest tightened, "Dean no! That's not…no. I –"

"I could still be useful, though. You didn't have to sideline me."

She didn't know what to say. Buffy had come up here with her thoughts clear and words poised on her tongue. The sight of Dean had made the words hard to find, but her message remained clear in her mind. There was so much to say and she was so afraid to get it wrong. To miss something important. To emphasize the wrong thing. Her mind was still struggling to gain control again, and she refused to let that cloud the message she wanted to get across. As soon as Dean spoke, however, everything seemed to dissolve into nothing but disjointed thoughts and fragmented words and her message was all but lost. Dean was upset at the meeting - that much was obvious, but she hadn't expected this. A pit formed in her stomach when she realized exactly what he was thinking, what he was feeling. The worst part was that it wasn't true. At all. Buffy vaguely remembered coming up here to explain why she hadn't assigned him to anything in particular, but suddenly that didn't matter anymore. Shop talk was the furthest thing from her mind.

Instead, new words ran through her head and danced on her tongue. None of them conveyed what it was that she needed to say. Her heart was aching as she desperately searched for what to say. How to translate what she felt into something that he could understand. That she could understand. How could she ever explain what Dean meant to her? Dean was….Dean is…

In Purgatory, Dean had awoken in her something that she had tried for an interminable amount of time to kill. In a world like that, Buffy had learned early that it was dangerous to think of anything but your own survival. She had to close out any sense of humanity. Humanity was, in a world of evil, weakness. And weakness got you killed. Being human got you killed. Buffy became cold and almost mechanical because that was what was required of her if she had any chance of survival in a place like that. She became the embodiment of a Slayer and nothing else. She had never felt less like herself than she did there and it was a version of her that she never wanted to be again. She didn't want anyone to see her like that, not then, and certainly never again. Maybe that was just what Purgatory did to the humans who were unlucky enough to end up in that place: broke down everything they were and turned them into the same monsters that already lurked within its boundaries.

But then there was Dean. Just like that, out of nowhere. He didn't care if she was cold or callous or cruel. He didn't ask her to warm up to him or to even like him. Everything was about survival. Despite that, Dean had pulled back the layers of grime and blood and pain and found more than just the Slayer but the girl hiding below it all. He had found where her heart had been buried and pulled it back out of the depths. He hadn't meant to, or even tried to, but it happened all the same. That was just who he was, and even then she had understood that, no matter what he was like in Purgatory, he was a protector just as much as she was. No matter how monstrous he let himself become, he was still a protector. And he found Buffy in the middle of a nightmare.

Buffy couldn't even fathom what the past year had been like for Dean - knowing everything and not saying a word. Letting Buffy live without the scars that Purgatory had left. She knew, at least now she did, what those felt like; that constant ache and throb of a world that left a permanent mark on a person's soul, if it didn't burn it out of them. Dean had the same mark, the same scars and pains and aches, and yet he suffered without saying a word. He was there for her through everything, even when he was the only one who knew their history. Through it all, he protected her from feeling this way. He let her live a world of blissful ignorance, anything to let her have some sliver of happiness in a lifestyle that very rarely allowed any. Dean wore the burden of Purgatory for both of them and he did it without any hope of appreciation or gratitude. Buffy couldn't imagine how that had felt, but the word "lonely" came to mind. Despite that, he shouldered it all so she didn't have to.

How could she show him how much even part of all that meant to her? Everything she felt, everything she was thinking, and everything she wanted to say fought to come out all at once, but she just couldn't find the words. Her eyes threatened to spill over with frustration and pain and…

"You think I'm mad at you? Or-or that I don't trust you?" She finally managed to ask.

Dean couldn't bring himself to hold her gaze and found himself looking anywhere but at the small blonde in his room. His silence was all the answer Buffy needed.

"I-I could never – " her voice broke, but Buffy was very careful to make sure her message came through clearly, "you have been my goddamn salvation, my home, my lifeline."

He finally looked up to face her once more, his expression a mix of confusion and pain and maybe even some relief. The words she had spoken echoed through his head but he couldn't quite make sense of it. Not only did it sound like he was forgiven…but hadn't needed the forgiveness at all. It wasn't a feeling Dean was used to. He was forgiven. The words that followed were distant and muffled because all he could focus on was that he was forgiven.

When Cas had lowered those walls, she had to experience Purgatory all over again. She felt every ounce of terror and pain rush through her system. Every monster that her brain told her couldn't possibly exist came flooding back and wreaked havoc in her psyche. It had been bad enough living it once, but twice? It was more than she should have been able to bear. But he had also given her back something else: the light that Dean had brought her. Buffy got to learn that this man, this beautiful man that sat in front of her now, did everything he could to keep her safe and protect her from the nightmare locked away in her mind. How something so wonderful could have happened in the middle of such a dark and lonely life, she didn't know. Dean had done more for Buffy than she would have ever expected someone to do. There had been people before who had tried to save her. The thing was, and it would always be this way, she didn't need some knight in shining armor to swoop in and protect her and rescue her; she was more than capable on her own. That was where Dean was different - he didn't save her, not in the traditional way anyway. He let her save herself. He had shown up just when she needed him the most and helped remind her that she was strong enough, that she was good enough, and Purgatory didn't get to win this one. There was a light in him that not even Purgatory had been able to snuff out, dampen maybe, but not douse, and it helped her to find her way even in the midst of all that darkness.

And he did it all not once but twice. He did it all without ever being asked and without asking for something in return. He was just…there – when no one else. He took her hand, helped her to her feet, and stood beside her rather than expecting her to lead or follow.

Dean listened in silence, still in awe that this amazing person in front of him wasn't mad at him – not in the least. He heard every word she said as she told him exactly what he meant to her, but the only thing he could focus on was that he had been forgiven.

"Why would I be mad at you," Buffy asked, "how could I ever be mad at you when all I feel for you is –"

Buffy stopped, a lump in her throat. There was no going back after this and she knew it. This was the point of no return, there was no backspace, no undo. The words that hung back in her mouth would change everything and there was no way to take them back once they were out there. Then again, she wasn't sure that she wanted to ever go back. With a deep breath, Buffy kneeled down to the floor, bringing herself to eye level with Dean, and cradled his face in her hands. She wanted to make sure that he saw her. That he heard every word she said.

"How lucky am I to have gotten to fall in love with you twice?"

She kissed him then. Deeply and passionately. They had kissed before, but this time it was different. Something sparked inside of her that she had thought long dead. Over the last year she had felt herself come alive again, but there had always been something missing – something she couldn't put her finger on. Now she knew what it was. It was him. It was them and the history that had been ripped from her and it was the warmth that he spread through her. It was so cliché it hurt, but it really was like coming home. It was like finding herself all over again through finding him.

Buffy wrapped her arms around his neck as she darted her tongue between his lips. Dean's hands trailed down her frame before coming to rest on her hips. He squeezed gently and pulled her towards him so that she was buried into his. Buffy softly moaned against Dean's lips instigating a new urgency between them. She wanted more. Needed more. She wanted to dance her fingers up his chest, to trace lazy shapes across his skin. She wanted to dig her nails into his back in shared ecstasy. She wanted it all – she wanted every bit of him – and she wanted it now. She needed it now and she was sick of waiting. Roughly, and without leaving his lips, Buffy grabbed onto his flannel shirt and pushed it down and off of his shoulders. Her hips felt cold and abandoned for a moment while Dean quickly flicked his shirt off into the darkness of the room. The feeling was short-lived and replaced with shivers as his hands found their way under the hem of her shirt and wrapped around and up her back, nails lightly grazing her soft skin as his hands moved.

Buffy reached down, hands fumbling with anticipation, and tangled her fingers into the hem of his t-shirt. With a coy smirk, she pulled the shirt up and over his head to be tossed away, discarded like his flannel had been. Her fingers deftly traced down his bare chest, feeling every toned muscle as she went. Her mind briefly wandered as she traced over ribbons of silver skin, remnants of old battles and old wounds; she thought about all that Dean had been through, all that he had seen. It reminded her of her own skin, marred and hardened by death and fighting, and she absently wondered if her marks were as beautiful to him as his were to her. She wondered if anything could be as beautiful and perfect as he was to her. She brought her eyes back to his, searching through the field of spring green, the colour that, since childhood, she'd attributed to the feeling of something new and exciting, of rebirth and newness. It seemed more appropriate than ever at that moment when she was getting a chance to begin again. With him.

Staring into Buffy's eyes, Dean felt electricity shoot through his body. They were the colour of emeralds, items of perfection, something that had always been just out of reach for someone like him. Just as she should have been. People like him didn't deserve someone as incredible as Buffy; they too were always just out of reach. And yet here she was, right with him in the same moment, looking at him like he was the only person in the entire world that mattered. Dean felt his heart thump into his throat; how could he be so lucky to have her like this? She was perfect, and right now he needed her more than he needed anything else. He returned her smirk with his own playful one and hooked his fingers into the waist of her pants, quickly lowering them down off her hips. Buffy tangled her fingers into Dean's hair as he scattered soft kisses across her hips, nipping gently as he went. A breath escaped Buffy's lips that vaguely sounded like 'Dean' and immediately ended any sort of restraint that he had so far been able to muster. His hands slid under the hem of her shirt once more, and pushed it up over her head. He brought his lips crashing down on hers as he stood up with her, arms wrapping tightly around her small frame. He could feel her fingers at his belt buckle but all that mattered was the feeling of her lips on his and the taste of her tongue. All he could focus on was how her skin felt under his hands. He lowered his grip to her hips once more, and with strong arms lifted the small blonde off the ground. Instinctively, Buffy wrapped her slender legs around his waist, her arms closed around his shoulders. Dean's hand wandered up her back, creating a shivery trail as it went, and expertly unclasped her bra. Buffy fumbled out of the small garment and let it fall to the floor, quickly forgotten as she brought her lips back down onto his. With their lips still locked, Dean moved them around and smoothly laid Buffy down on the soft bed, lowering himself down to her. Dean trailed his fingers down to her bare breasts and massaged at the soft skin. His fingers flicked over her nipples, eliciting a soft moan from Buffy as he went. He placed soft kisses along her jawline and up her neck. He wanted to explore every bit of her. He wanted to find every touch that would send shockwaves through her system and make her moan his name again and again and again.

"I love you," he whispered next to her ear, "I love you."

His lips found their way down her neck, scattering light kisses on every bit of her that he could. A quick flick of his tongue replaced his fingers at her nipples, letting his hand work its way down to where the last fabric barrier remained. Carefully he nipped at her, his teeth just barely grazing her nipples, as he slowly slipped his fingers below the lace. Buffy arched her back into his touch as his fingers drew over her folds. Every stroke sent a shock of pleasure through her. Her hands gripped tightly into the blanket at her sides as moans and gasps fell from her lips. Buffy was beyond simply wanting Dean; she desperately needed him and his every touch made that need almost unbearable. Her heart and body yearned together to be with him completely. She wanted all of him.

Dean needed her. He had been aching for her since he had lost her in Purgatory. It was a need that he had never felt before – one that he didn't quite understand. He didn't just want her physically; it was more than that. It was a need than ran deep into his heart, into his soul, like finding the missing piece. To finally be touching her was mesmerizing, but he needed more. It was driving him crazy and he just couldn't take it anymore. Dean glanced up at her, making sure she was okay to continue. Her heavy breathing and the way she moved against him should have been permission enough, but part of him still couldn't believe that this was happening. She gave a small nod, she couldn't wait any longer either, and that was all he needed. The last remaining pieces of fabric were ripped away and sent off to join the rest without a second thought. Dean brought his hand up to cup her face, his thumb caressing her cheek softly, and kissed her once more. Keeping his eyes with hers, and savouring the way they sparkled in the dim lighting, he slowly pushed into her. Buffy's name fell from his lips as he watched the pleasure wash over her face.

Dean brushed a loose strand of hair from her face and pressed a soft kiss to her forehead. He moved against her slowly at first, gently rocking his hips with hers. There was no rush; in this moment they had all the time in the world to revel in this ecstasy. He let her set the pace and rhythm, let her take control as he moved against her. As he lost himself in the depths of her eyes and the feeling of being connected to her. It wasn't long before she was urging him on. Buffy's hips started to grind against his as the words 'faster' and 'harder' were mumbled against his lips. Trailing kisses down her neck, he obliged, moving faster and harder within her. With her he didn't need to hold back – and he couldn't if he tried. He pressed kisses and nips to her neck before capturing her lips once more, his tongue moving with hers.

Buffy wanted more. She needed more. Her arms gripped tighter around him, her nails digging into his back to leave little half-moon marks scattered like stars in the night sky. Buffy pushed her hips against him, grinding as he moved. With every grind, every thrust, she could feel Dean shudder against her, a moan pressed against her skin. Everywhere he touched was like fire. Her skin tingled and warmed with every pass of his fingers. Of his tongue. She pulled him closer still, desperate to feel every inch of him pressed against her. There was nothing left in this world but him and this feeling of ecstasy. She could feel it all building to a fever pitch, to a crescendo of carnal pleasure. Every touch, every movement, brought her closer and closer. Dean's hand caressed her side, trailing down and down, finding rest at her hot spot. They were both close, so close to losing control. His fingers moved deftly, stroking deliberate circles. Buffy mewled as the whole of her body tingled at his touch. Her breathing came faster now as she begged him not to stop. Please god don't stop. His name spilled from her lips as she fell into complete rapture. The sound of his name in her mouth like that was more than Dean could bear and together the two of them tumbled into the abyss.

They stayed tangled together, their sweat slicked skin still pressed tightly together, as their breathing returned to normal. Dean pressed a gentle kiss to her forehead before resting his head there. His fingers tangled back into her hair, combing through her locks gently. Buffy's hands remained on his back, on his shoulders. She drew gently, lazy circles across the scars that were scattered across his skin. Their eyes stayed locked, searching through the fields of green. He doesn't trust himself to speak yet, but he wants to say it again.

I love you.

I love you.

I love you.

He's not sure if it actually makes it out of his mouth, but she seems to understand all the same. She loves him too.

Chapter Text

Chapter Nine – A Glimpse of Home

"You know, I was thinking," Dean said, absentmindedly trailing his fingers up and down Buffy's arm, "it hasn't been that long, we might be able to pick up a trail or something else useful if we went back to where you saw Eve last."

"You're terrible at pillow talk," Buffy muttered against his chest.

He chuckled, "Sorry. I'll be better at it in the future."

The truth of the matter was that she just didn't want to spoil the moment. It had been so long coming and all she wanted to do right now was bask in the warmth of it all. Even if it was just for these five minutes, she was just a normal girl in bed with the man she loved. She wasn't a Slayer, there was no impending war, and there wasn't the weight of the world on her shoulders. She had no to-do list and no one was banging on the door to drag her to some boring meeting where she had to make more boring decisions. There was no darkness in the world. There was only this – and it was everything light and pure and good. She was safe behind the walls of Dean's arms and lulled to a dozy state by the light thudding of his heart. It was a glimpse of the life she thought she'd never have. The life that she wasn't allowed to have. But for now she could. Just for a few more minutes she wanted to pretend.

It was especially nice to pretend for a little while longer because Buffy knew he was right. She had been thinking the same thing and that was exactly what she had come up here to talk about in the first place. Research was well and good, but they had the chance to pick up a real, physical trail. Even if there wasn't a trail to find, there might be something else in Irving that could help them. Whatever Eve had been doing there, it was clear that she had been lurking around the town for a while. There had to be something left behind that would help them figure out what she had been doing. Or why she was there. Or more importantly: how she was there. The last they had seen of Eve, she was locked away in Purgatory. Dean was able to go through the exit portal because he was human – with a soul and everything. Eve couldn't use it even if she had found it again. If she could have freed herself, if she could have escaped on her own, she would have done so long ago. So how did she manage to finally escape? Not even an angel could reach into that world and pluck someone out – it took a very powerful witch invoking a very powerful god to manage that feat. Irving may not answer those questions, but it was all that they had to go on. It was the only place that they knew Eve had been. If they were going to have any hope in hell of finding answers, Irving was their best bet.

It wasn't really an option - they had to go back.

But for now, they still had time. They could still stay in this moment a little while longer. The world outside could wait. And Buffy wanted to take every advantage of this rare moment of peace. The feeling of his skin on hers, his musky smell, the way he touched her, it was intoxicating. In that moment, she couldn't help herself. She didn't want to. She just wanted him.

Buffy looked up at Dean, a coy smirk playing on her lips.

"What?"

She brought her lips up to his, relishing in the feeling. He was here. This was real. He wasn't going anywhere. And they had a lot of lost time to make up for.

ӁӁӁ

All Sam had wanted was to make some tea. It seemed like a pretty straight forward task, and he really didn't think he was asking for much. The library had been silent but for the hum of his laptop and the occasional sound of a page turning. It was the first bit of silence Sam had been able to enjoy since…god he couldn't even remember. Every day was punctuated by the roar of the Impala, the din of traffic on the highway, or the loud voices of the motel patrons. He had almost forgotten what silence sounded like. If it hadn't been his, and everyone else's, need for caffeine, Sam may never have left the comfortable confines of the library. It may be a brand new library, but it somehow still managed to have that old-library charm to it and Sam couldn't help but to have a soft spot for it. Maybe it was the smell of the old books that Giles had managed to save and used to fill at least one of the book cases. There was always a comfort to be found in the smell of old books and parchment. Maybe it reminded him of the peaceful nights spent at the Stanford library. Studying alone. Studying with Jess. Maybe it reminded him of all the nights spent researching with his brother, not peaceful at all, but some of the fondest memories he had all the same. Maybe he just enjoyed libraries. Regardless, he was slightly disappointed to leave it behind, even for a short jaunt to retrieve the much needed caffeination.

After the peace of the library, walking into the kitchen was a jarring experience. The brothers had been in the house for a couple of days now and in that time they hadn't really gotten a sense for just how many people were currently living there. More specifically, Sam hadn't realized how many teenaged girls were in the house. He learned quickly, however, as apparently they were all in the kitchen right that minute. It was utter pandemonium in the small kitchen and for a moment Sam seriously questioned whether or not they really needed that next pot of coffee. They did. Maybe even some tea now that he realized he was getting a case of the jitters. Sam did his best to slip by the groups of girls unnoticed and somehow reach the kettle without getting swept up in whatever drama or incident was happening along his path. The sheer volume of noise was astounding, an utter cacophony of sounds, but even more so was the flurry of activity and disasters going on. Sam didn't know what to pay attention to first, which fire to put out – and that wasn't entirely an exaggeration. Sam could clearly see at least two small-ish fires burning. There were a handful of girls crying and a handful more giggling like school girls. It all seemed like the ending to some terrible, cliché joke, one that Sam couldn't believe was actually happening. Keeping his head down, Sam stood in the corner waiting for the kettle to boil. So far, by some miracle, he hadn't been noticed and that was just fine by him. After hours of research he was a little less than keen on making small talk. Particularly not with a bunch of rambunctious teenaged girls.

"Sam!"

Damnit.

Dawn made her way through the crowd of girls towards where the hunter was currently hunched, doing his best to blend in with the cabinets. Sam smiled, relieved that it was Dawn and not one of the other girls that he'd met but had no recollection of their name or anything else about them.

"Hey, Dawn."

Dawn smiled, "taking a break from the research thing?"

"Much needed caffeine reload," Sam said, indicating the kettle behind him.

"You're going to need more than that," Dawn laughed, "you're not gonna get away without sharing with Giles if you're bringing tea."

"Good to know." Sam added a few more tea packets to the pile and filled the kettle a little more.

This was the first chance the two of them had the chance to chat when things were calm. Or at least, as calm as they could be considering there was an apocalypse on the horizon anyway. Calm was definitely a relative term in their lives, but at least this time they weren't in a panic over the condition of their veteran Slayer. Dawn decided to take advantage of this rare opportunity to get to know the mysterious hunters a little better. After all, all the house knew about them was the little bits and pieces that had come up in conversation. They sort of knew how Buffy had come to know the boys and that they'd been in contact for the past year or so, but really that was it. Or maybe it was because the only new people that Dawn had the chance to talk to of late were the new Slayers who came to the house. It was nice to talk to someone totally different again.

"So do you guys really just…drive around the whole country hunting monsters and stuff?" Dawn asked, to which Sam nodded his head. "What's it like?"

It was a question that he'd heard a countless number of times before. People who had always had a home couldn't wrap their heads around what it was like to live on the road. He had yet to come up with an actual answer for that question though. For him, home was always temporary. How do you explain the freedom of going where you wanted when you wanted? The feeling of the wind on your face and the music cranked loud? The feeling that home is open road and a black Impala, his brother next to him, some dumb joke or song lyric ready on his tongue? How do you explain that when it's all you've ever known? The years he spent at university, living away from that life and being on his own, had never felt quite right. Jessica had been home. Or at least, he thought she was. There was always that restless feeling when he sat in the living room of their house, reading whatever textbook or writing some paper. There was something that didn't feel right about sinking into the same bed every single night. It wasn't just a restless feeling, not quite, it was more than that. It was almost as though he knew that none of it was real. That he didn't belong there – he was an imposter in his own life. The same life, day in and day out, that wasn't the life meant for him. It was all wrong no matter how much he tried – how much he pretended. Then Dean showed up. And Jessica was suddenly gone. And his view of home reverted back to that idea of temporary. And he would never admit it, especially not out loud, but there was almost a relief to that. Not what happened to Jessica, definitely not that, but the return to the Winchester lifestyle. It didn't matter what he did to try and leave it all behind, home would always be the Impala and his brother. He couldn't imagine being anywhere else.

He didn't say any of that, of course. Instead he settled for saying that it was all he'd ever known and that the idea of being stationary for too long was weird and, if truth be told, a little unsettling. He didn't know how to stay still anymore. It wasn't a great answer, but what else could he say?

"So no friends? No family? That must get lonely"

Sam shrugged, "I've got Dean. Otherwise, family has been long gone. Most of our friends are hunters." And dead, he added to himself. "I guess it gets lonely sometimes, but we don't really notice it."

"No girlfriends either?" Dawn quirked an eyebrow.

Before Sam could answer the kettle began its shrill whistle, startling the both of them.

"Time to get back," Dawn said with a wink, "try not to die of boredom." She wandered off back the way she came, casting one last smiling glance back before disappearing into the crowd of girls.

Sam shook his head in an attempt to shake off the awkwardness of that interaction. He filled the teapot he had managed to find in one of the cupboards and grabbed the full coffeepot that had been waiting for him. He looked forward to returning to the quiet library and the soft glow of his laptop screen. It was nice to have a reprieve from the doom and gloom of the research subject, but he couldn't avoid it forever. The fact of the matter was that the whole situation was pretty doom and gloom itself and time was always working against them.

The dim lights. The quiet rustling of pages. The smell of old books. Sam instantly felt more relaxed as soon as he stepped back into the small library. With his tea in hand, Sam felt perfectly content here. It was a far cry from the fluorescent lighting of the motel rooms and the moldy smells he was used to. If he wasn't careful, he could get used to this. Before settling back into his seat, Sam went over to the largest stack of books which he knew was where Giles was hiding. He had never seen someone so intensely focused on research before. Then again, he had never met anyone that knew as much about the supernatural world as Giles – not even Bobby. He could spend hours picking the old Watcher's brain and it felt like he'd never run out of information to share. Years as Ripper, years as a Watcher, Giles had seen a lot in his lifetime, and he had some amazing stories to share. There had been limited chances for listening to the stories so far, but Sam had practically hung on every word when they'd had the chance. Sam felt like he could learn a lot from the old Watcher, like he had from Bobby. Like he had wanted from his dad. Sam found himself wishing that he'd had the chance to go through Watcher training – but the time for that had passed. Hopefully after this was all over they'd have some time to exchange stories and information. But now was not the time, and he knew that. Without a word, for Giles was pretty intent on the musty old tome in front of him, Sam poured some tea into the long empty mug.

Giles shook his head without looking up, "I couldn't possibly drink any more coff – "

"It's tea," Sam interrupted him.

Giles looked up, a look of pure gratitude painted on his face. He clasped the mug and inhaled deeply before taking a large sip.

He cleared his throat, "Yes, uh thank you, Sam."

Sam smirked and nodded before heading back to his table. He offered the tea to Willow who shook her head.

"I'm still good with coffee," Willow whispered, looping her fingers through the handle of her mug to warm her hand.

Perhaps Andrew wanted tea as well, but Sam was not willing to start a conversation with him quite yet. He couldn't handle any more questions about those stupid books that told and exaggerated all their cases. For the first few hours, Sam had been willing, and even excited, to answer whatever it was that Andrew wanted to know. It got to be too much pretty quickly though. It was obvious that Andrew was harmless; he was just an enthusiastic nerd excited to meet someone he enjoyed reading about, excited to know the books were real. He did look forward to the day when the novelty wore off, however, and they could just talk easily. Today was not that day, so he left it up to Andrew to come get some more coffee or tea. Instead, Sam returned to his research and the library fell silent once again and remained as such for several hours. Until the sound of a phone vibrating against the wooden table interrupted the near silence the researchers had been sitting in. Willow smiled apologetically at Sam across the table and quickly snatched the phone up. Whatever the message she had received caused the smile on her face to reach up to her eyes, a look Sam had yet to see on the small red-head's face since they had come to Cleveland.

"Good news?" He whispered. Funny. It wasn't a real library and yet no one had spoken in more than a whisper for the last two hours.

Willow looked up to Sam with a look of surprise, as though she had forgotten he was there at all. A light blush spread across her cheeks, which Sam politely pretended not to notice.

"Oh, uh. Yes, sort of," She replied. "Tavia, the head of that coven in Oxford? She said that they're all looking into the books over there to see if they can find anything to help us."

"That is good news," Sam said with a knowing smile, "hopefully they find something, because I've been coming up empty so far."

His time in the kitchen, which was terrifying to say the least, had also been informative on the gossip side. As much as he had tried to block it out, there was at least one piece of information Sam had heard that had the whole kitchen agog with chatter. Willow and Kennedy were no longer together. It was none of Sam's business, and honestly he wasn't concerned with anyone's love life, but it made this little exchange all the more interesting. That smile had been about more than just the help with research and he found it hard to believe that the message had been just shop talk. No one smiled like that about research, not even himself. Sam had been on the receiving end of teasing from Dean about the same sort of thing a countless number of times before. Considering the weight of their current circumstances, somehow teasing just didn't seem appropriate at the time. Honestly, it was just nice to see a moment of light, however small or silly, in the midst of all this bleakness. Romance was hard at the best of times in this kind of life, so any of those little moments had to be cherished for what they were. There was something about the innocence of that little smile that brought a smile to his own face. Sometimes he forgot that there was some sort of purity in the world. And honestly, after hearing about what Willow had been through in this world of monsters and darkness, Sam figured she deserved any moment of happiness she could find. He found that he was already quite fond of the small red head, though he wasn't entirely sure what it was about her.

They had all just returned to their books when the door swung open, smacking into the wall behind it with a thud. Giles, started by the noise, spilled some of his tea down his tie and shot the intruders an annoyed glance while he wiped at the spillage. Buffy, who had opened the door and jumped at the noise more than anyone, looked apologetically around the room.

"Note to self, remind Xander to put stoppers behind the doors," she said, crossing the floor and leaning against the back of an empty chair, her fingers looped through the railing on the back.

Dean trailed behind and stood next to Buffy. If anyone had noticed that his hand had been on her waist upon entering the library, no one was brave enough to mention it. Sam did quirk an eyebrow though, which Dean ignored emphatically. Doom and gloom or not, that moment was going to get some teasing later, Sam would make sure of that. Mostly, though, he was just happy for his brother – the two had made up after all.

"To what do we owe this pleasure of you gracing us with your presence?" Sam said with a small laugh in his words.

"Going to help us with the books?" Willow asked, already sliding a few over to the empty seats across from her.

"Uh, no. Definitely not," Buffy grimaced. "Actually, Dean and I had the same idea. I, uh, we think that we should head back to Irving."

"It was the last place we saw Eve. Might be able to pick up a trail. If nothing else we may be able to find some sort of clue as to what she was doing there in the first place," Dean continued.

Sam nodded, "makes sense."

"Are you really sure you want to go back there?" Willow knitted her brows together in concern.

Buffy shook her head, "no, not really. But I have to. Just another one of those times where it doesn't matter what I want, I'm the Slayer."

"Not the only one anymore, though," Andrew piped up from the back corner.

"Just something I have to do."

Willow and Giles exchanged glances, concern clearly etched on their face. With nothing more than small head gestures and eye contact, the two carried on an entire conversation. Whatever other conversation was happening in the room remained unobserved by the two as they, very clearly, argued. Finally Willow's shoulders dropped, obviously after having lost, and she cleared her throat to gain attention.

"I agree, we should check out Irving but, Buffy…" She took a deep breath, "maybe you shouldn't go. You can hardly stand, Buff."

It was true. Buffy wasn't just leaning against the chair because she was tired. It was honestly the only thing that was keeping her on her feet. She had hoped that no one had noticed that part, but she should have known that Willow would.

"If you're not up to it, Sammy and I could go," Dean said gently, and quickly enough that Buffy knew he had been thinking the same thing as Willow was. "You don't have to go."

"You're wrong. I do."

"I'm going, too," Faith said from behind them.

She had been wandering down the hall when she saw Buffy and Dean heading deliberately for the research room. Nothing was being said, but Faith figured that something was going down, it didn't take a genius to figure that out. She had slipped in behind the pair and made herself comfortable on top of the small bookcase next to the door. If this was where the action was going to happen, where else would she be anyway? Now that she knew what was in motion, she was damn glad she'd stumbled upon the two in the hallway. Going back to Irving was something Faith had been thinking about anyway, just this way she wasn't going alone. And neither was Buffy. It seemed like she was the only one that thought it was a good idea. There was a lot of hesitance when it came to sending their two veteran Slayers away at the same time, especially together. Faith didn't care – just like Buffy had said, it was just something they had to do.

"It wasn't a suggestion. I'm going. So is B."

Buffy struggled to hold back the shock that was trying to cross her face, but she wasn't sure what surprised her more. That Faith was agreeing with her, that Faith wanted to go on a simple recon mission, or that Faith wanted to go on that mission with a team and not solo. Any case that Faith wanted to go check out had always been on her own – she hated working with others. Buffy turned back to face Faith and any sense of confusion or surprise was immediately erased. Everyone else seemed to be missing it, but Buffy could see it etched on Faith's face as clear as the words in a book: they had the same reason for wanting to go back. She saw the same guilt over the loss of Tess. The need to see this whole thing through. The same desperate desire to find the bits and pieces they lost and slot it all back together; to erase the static that still plagued their memories. For all that they recovered about that day, so much more was still lost. Buffy finally realized that she wasn't the only one that left something behind in Irving. They both needed to go back. The two Slayers locked eye contact. For a brief moment Buffy understood Faith explicitly. Faith nodded slowly, imperceptible to anyone else.

Without taking her eyes off of Faith, Buffy spoke. "We leave in the morning. Better get some rest."

ӁӁӁ

"You didn't have to walk me to my door ya know?" Buffy laughed, leaning on her door jam.

"Well of course I did," Dean smiled, placing his hand on her hip just to feel the contact. And partly to prove to himself that she was really there.

Buffy leaned into his touch, "well thank you kindly, good sir. However can I repay such chivalry?"

"I'm sure we'll think of something," he said before kissing her, pulling her hips against his. Her tongue snaked out to dance with his, and he pulled her tighter against his body. He broke the kiss and rested his forehead on hers. "Are you sure I can't stay here tonight?"

Buffy sighed, obviously unhappy by the answer she had to give. "There's just too much for me to sort out. The logistics of both Faith and I leaving are – "

"Okay, okay. It was worth trying again," he said, running his hand up under the edge of her shirt.

Buffy gasped, "you're terrible, you know that." She pulled herself away, "there's plenty of time for us." Dean smirked. He could hear the unevenness in her voice and relished in the effect he'd had on her. "Goodnight, Dean," Buffy said, opening her door and slipping through.

Buffy leaned back against her closed door, trying to recover some sort of composure. Then again, she wasn't sure she wanted to. What she really wanted to do was grab Dean by his shirt and drag him in after her. Why couldn't she shirk her responsibilities for the night and do something just for her? Her heart was racing and her breath was ragged and for once it had nothing to do with monsters or slaying or a near death experience. It was a nice feeling.

"I am glad you have forgiven Dean."

Buffy yelped at the voice out of nowhere, her eyes flying open. Her fear was instantly assuaged, but that did nothing to lessen the mini heart attack the intrusion had caused.

"Castiel, you can't just pop into my room whenever you choose. God!"

He furrowed his brow, "I apologise for startling you. I merely wished to ensure that you did not blame Dean for my actions. I see now that my concern was unwarranted."

It was a nice gesture, but it was infuriating that Castiel had yet to realize the difference between 'we're cool' and 'you're forgiven.' Sure, Buffy had swallowed all her feelings of anger and contempt for the time being, but it didn't mean she was ready to be buddy-buddy with this man – angel – yet. They weren't going to have slumber parties and braid each other's hair. She obviously should have been more clear.

"I understand," Cas said, though he wasn't entirely sure that he did. "I know it is not worth much, but I am sorry that my actions caused you harm."

"Great, whatever. If that's all, you can be on your way. There's a lot to do before we leave tomorrow."

Sam and Dean had informed the angel of the plans they had made because, well, of course they had. Unfortunately, there was not much help that either Castiel or the rest of heaven could offer. Even still, Castiel wanted to make sure that the Slayer and the rest of her associates knew that he would offer help however he could. Buffy couldn't really understand why Castiel cared enough to help, but she wasn't about to turn him down. This had the possibility to be a brutal war. Eve was strong and she had a sneaking suspicion that they had only seen a fraction of her power. Her troops were largely unseasoned and they were still trying to adjust to their new normal here in Cleveland. Why couldn't the apocalypse been nice and held off for a little while longer? Maybe a year or two?

"I admire the bravery it takes to go back to Irving," Castiel said, trying his best to sound sincere. He had been warned by Dean that he often lacked sincerity in his inflection. Buffy nodded, appreciating the sentiment. "I admit that I underestimated the strength of a Slayer, but I still feel the need to warn you. Your mind is still mending, and struggling to do so. You should not push yourself yet, or you may never recover," Cas continued.

"What do you mean?"

"That throbbing in your head is not merely tiredness. You may experience this feeling for quite some time. You may find trigger points that makes it much worse. Perhaps something as simple as someone saying something that you heard during your time in Purgatory. You may experience painful flashbacks or headaches while your brain continues to heal. You will need to be careful."

Buffy sighed, "well, thanks for the warning. But careful isn't exactly a word in a Slayer's world. The apocalypse isn't gonna take it easy, so neither can I."

She had to admit, it was a little disconcerting that Castiel could sense what was going on in her head so easily. It bothered her almost as much as knowing that he could teleport around the house without any warning whatsoever. She guessed it was just something she was going to have to get used to now. Add it to the damn list.

"I am told that it may provide you some comfort to know that Ms. Kevlin – sorry, Tess – is okay. She made her journey to heaven and is safe with her family again."

Without another word, Castiel popped out of her room and Buffy was alone again with nothing but the weight of his words. With her heart in her throat, Buffy sunk to the floor against her door. She is okay. The thought kept tumbling around through her head, repeating over and over again. Something about thinking of Tess, safe and happy with her family in the afterlife, made one of the items on Buffy's ever-growing to-do list move to the very top. What had truly motivated her, she would never be sure, but that didn't really matter. Maybe it had something to do with learning the truth about her time in the afterlife; something about getting closure on difficult times, but there was a conversation she'd been meaning to have for a long while now. Somehow it kept getting pushed to the side; it was just never the right time. The right time, though, may never come. Now, suddenly, she couldn't ignore it any longer. Buffy pulled herself up from the floor and went in search of Giles.

Predictably, she found him in the library hunched over some book, his eyes scanning the pages at a speed that made her question if he was reading even a single word of it. For the first time in a long time, Buffy got a good look at the man who had been her mentor – her surrogate father. He had aged considerably in the last few months. The last few years. How had she not noticed that? The lines in his face were deeper now, many of them probably caused by her in one way or another. His eyes looked tired and there was more grey in his hair than she had realized. There were a lot of years of fight left in the old Watcher, but it was easy to forget that just as she was growing up, he too was growing old. It was hard to take and something she needed to learn to remember more often. That whole 'appreciate someone while you have them' thing.

"Giles?"

Giles looked up from his book, but if he had been startled by the sudden break in the silence he gave no sign of it.

"Yes, Buffy? Is everything alright?"

Buffy nodded as she crossed the room to where Giles was sitting. She hopped up onto the table and sat with her ankles crossed, slowly swinging her legs. It felt almost too casual for what it was that she wanted to ask him, but at the same time casual seemed like the right way to go.

"I, uh, wanted to ask you about something. About when you came back after…after I came back," Buffy said, failing to hold eye contact.

"Oh," Giles replied, "alright. What would you like to know?"

Buffy took a deep breath before starting. She had thought about this so often and for so long that by now she should have no issues putting her thoughts into words. When it came time to finally say something, though, Buffy found it hard to say what she actually meant. It was a delicate subject and she wanted to be elegant and poignant and mature and all those things that people are supposed to be when asking hard questions – or at least she thought that's how it was supposed to be - but right now, with him looking at her expectantly, all those planned sentences went right out the window.

"Why did you leave me?" Buffy asked, her voice small.

When she first came back to life it had felt like a part of her hadn't quite made the leap. She had been lost, floating in a sea of uncertainty and pain. The feeling that she had come back wrong was so pervasive that it had been all she could think about. That, and all she had lost by being ripped out of heaven – or at least thinking she had. Not only that, but she had come back to find that the life she had left wasn't waiting for her quite the way she remembered it. They were drowning in a sea of debt and had no way of paying down that debt because they had no money left. The house was in desperate need of repairs. Buffy had no work experience and a huge gap on her resume for while she had been dead – something she sure as hell couldn't explain to employers. Dawn was struggling at school and getting into trouble – so much so that she could have lost her sister to the system because they didn't think she was a fit guardian. Truth be told, she wasn't. How could she be a good legal guardian when she could hardly pull herself out of the depression she was facing? Here she was, twenty years old, and she had the weight of the world on her shoulders – not even taking the Slayer duties into consideration. How the hell was she supposed to be able to handle all that?

"I needed you an-and you left me," Buffy said, her voicing threatening to crack. "I was twenty years old, Giles. Twenty years old and completely alone. How could you abandon me when I so obviously needed help?"

Giles had remained quiet while Buffy explained to him what she had gone through after being brought back. He'd never imagined that she had been going through as much as she had been. Or maybe he did. Maybe part of him had always known just how desperate and bleak things had felt for Buffy when she first returned. He had often wondered himself why the hell he had left her. At the time he had been convinced that he was making it all the harder for her. By coddling her he was encouraging her to never grow on her own – to never learn how to cope with the trials the world would throw at her. He was afraid that all she'd ever do would be to rely on him to fix everything – to wave his magic wand and everything would be perfect again.

But if anyone in this world needed to be taught that life doesn't always work out the way you want it to, it was certainly not Buffy. He knew that, and he should have known it then, too. She wasn't looking for him to baby her or protect her from the big, bad world. She needed someone to teach her how to handle all those obstacles life was going to throw at her. It's okay to let someone stumble from time to time, but not to throw them overboard without a life preserver. And that's exactly what he did. He had expected her to learn how to do all these things, to be the adult, without any guidance whatsoever. He left her to drown in her feelings of despair and hopelessness because he, misguidedly, thought it was the right thing to do.

Of course, saying this all out loud was much more difficult than Giles had hoped it to be. He should have answered to this long ago – long before she had to ask him.

"I guess what I'm trying to say," Giles took a deep breath, "is that I was foolish to leave you like that. I am sorry, Buffy. I know it doesn't make up for it at all, but I really am. Grown-ups make mistakes too, and that is one that I deeply regret."

The tension between the two of them, the strain on their relationship that had developed in recent years, had all stemmed from him choosing to leave her when she needed him the most. To know that it was a mistake, an error in judgement, didn't do much to make Buffy feel better. She'd hoped that whatever reason he had would be something that would make her understand. She'd hoped that it would be reasonable and they could move on and let it go. She always thought he'd had some sage reason for leaving – full of wisdom and logic. It was a letdown to find out that no, it was nothing of the sort. But at least she had a reason now. In her mind, she had come up with dozens of reasons, dozens of scenarios, and while the truth was underwhelming, at least it was exactly that – the truth.

Buffy reached her hand out, placing it over Giles'. It wasn't just the truth she had gotten from him, it was a sense of closure, too. That chapter could be put to rest now.

ӁӁӁ

"This is the car you rustled up?" Dean asked, laughing so hard he could hardly breathe.

Buffy nodded, her lips slightly pouted. There was no doubt that it paled in comparison to the black, 1967 Impala that had long been synonymous with her two hunters, but she still had a lot of love for her little neon. She loved it despite the chips in the red paint, the cracks in the back bumper, the check engine light that came on anytime they fueled her up, and even the way it vibrated and shook any time it idled. The little switch she flicked for the signal lights didn't work quite right and the only controls that worked properly were those that controlled the locks. She even loved the hubcap with the hole in it that made it whistle in the wind. It may not be perfect, it was far from it honestly, but it was everything to her.

"She's just fine. Besides, the other car we had is probably scrap in Irving by now."

The idea of just all piling into the Impala had been passed around, and had been greatly supported by both the Winchester boys. Even Buffy would have preferred it, honestly. She had long dreamed about sitting in the Impala's front seat, feet up on the window's edge, hand comfortably entwined with Dean's. It made much more sense, unfortunately, to have two vehicles to get around in. If they managed to pick up a trail, the four of them could be on the road for a lengthy amount of time; having two vehicles for long trips was generally a good idea. Plus, it gave them the ability to split up if necessary.

"Well I am not driving that…I'm not even sure I can call it a car," Dean teased.

"Fair," Faith agreed, knowing full-well that it was going to end up being her car for the next while. Buffy could drive, sure, but Faith really didn't feel like dying in a fiery crash. Driving was one of those things that the blonde Slayer had never really gotten the hang of. Besides, Faith liked driving.

"Well what are you driving?" Faith continued.

Dean led Faith around the corner to where Baby had been parked since he pulled up the other day.

"Oh, damn!" Faith exclaimed, moving closer to the black beauty.

She cast a glance back to Dean who nodded her head, the look of a proud papa on his face. Then, and only then, did Faith place her hands on the car. She ran her fingers down the side, tracing every curve of the metal. The car was pristine – mint condition. There were no chips in the paint and the wax job had turned the Impala into a mirror.

"She's yours?"

"Well, my dad's. He's been dead for a few years now, though. So yeah, mine," Dean grinned.

"She's beautiful. Any chance I can take 'er for a spin sometime?"

Dean laughed, and he laughed deep. "Oh no, no no. I'm the only one to drive her. Sometimes Sammy. That's rare. She's my baby."

Faith pouted, or as close as to a pout as she could come up with. Dean seemed satisfied with that, but he didn't know Faith well enough. She was already plotting how to get behind that wheel. It was going to happen. Of that she was certain. They headed back to where they had left Sam and Buffy to find that Giles had joined the going away party. In his hands was a plastic bag, stuffed full with…something.

"G-man!" Faith called out, "come to see us off? Bring some snacks did you?"

"Uh, yes. I wanted to wish you all good luck in the hunt. This is for Buffy, though."

Buffy looked puzzled, "for me?"

She took the bag that Giles had stretched out towards her. From inside she pulled out a small, pink, stuffed pig.

"Mr. Gordo…"

"I-I know you said not to take anything that wouldn't help us in the battle, but I guess I couldn't help myself. I'd forgotten I had grabbed the silly thing that night. I'm not sure what possessed me to – "

Buffy threw her arms around Giles. She knew it was just a stuffed pig, but it was her stuffed pig. She'd had it for as long as she could remember. It was home. It was the home that she could never go back to. It was a piece of that home…and Giles had brought it to her. She didn't have the words to truly thank him, so 'thank you' would have to do. She promised that somehow she would find something of the same importance for him. Buffy had no idea what that could be, or how she could deliver on that promise, but she made it all the same.

"Just come back in one piece," Giles said, a glimmer of humour in his eyes.

"Will do. Don't let those girls drive you nuts."

Buffy hugged the small pig to her chest, more than happy to bring it on a cross-country drive. They said their final goodbyes and got ready to head out.

The four piled into their respective cars with small duffle bags filled with just the essentials. There was no telling how long they'd be gone, but that didn't change the fact that most of their trunk space was taken up by various weaponry. Magic scythes take up a surprising amount of space. With the Impala in lead, they headed out down the drive way. No one had said it out loud, but everyone had the sense that this was the last time they'd be seeing their large-but-quaint-in-a-way house for a long while. They knew they were trading in their own beds in their own bedrooms for barely-private motel rooms with walls so thin that they could have been made with tissue paper. They were trading home cooked meals for greasy diners and fast food joints. It was funny though, not one of the four was complaining about it.

For the boys, it was just another day in the life. The break the last couple of days had been nice, but the open road was where they had always belonged. There was a comfort in the long stretches of road, billboards lining their way. Driving at night, nothing but the stars and their headlights to guide them to their next stop. The Impala had long been the only home they truly knew. It was a life not unfamiliar to Faith, either. Buffy was the only one of them that always had a home. She had those solid four walls, a bed all her own, and a family around her every day. Maybe that was why Buffy was so antsy to get out of the house now – she needed a change of pace. Though it was all in their own ways, all four of them felt trapped by that big house. Besides, it wasn't where the action was. No, that was out there, in the world. Where else would they rather be?

With a grin on his face, Dean popped a cassette into Baby and drove his foot down on the pedal. Hello open road.

Chapter Text

Chapter Ten – Into the Fire

Dark. Alone. Floating on the darkness, her limbs weightless. She was sat on something solid, small slivers tearing into her clothes. She felt a jolt of movement below her. Tendrils lashed around her, biting into her skin. She felt herself being pulled, dragged under. Water filled her lungs and panic filled her head. Her heart raced as she thrashed against what held her. Her strength was waning…she couldn't fight anymore…

"Hey, we're here, B. Wake up."

Buffy blinked awake and slowly rediscovered her surroundings. The sun was bright on her face and the seatbelt was cutting into her shoulder. She could feel cramping in her leg from trying to curl up in the small seat of the car and her hand was asleep from her wrist being bent to support her head against the door of the car. Mr. Gordo was resting in her lap, his head pressed against her chest. All these sensations helped her ground herself back to reality – away from the nightmare. Buffy yawned, stretching as much as the tiny car allowed and stepped out of the car to join the boys who were talking amongst themselves while leaning against their own car. There was no darkness, no tendrils, no floating. She was not alone. She sidled up next to the boys and grabbed a coffee from the tray they had rested on the hood of the car. Dean slipped his arm around her waist, pulling her against his side.

"If Irving was this close, why did we need to leave so early?" Dean asked, glaring against the brightness of the sun.

Sam chuckled, "at least it was a quick drive."

"It would have felt a lot quicker if Sleeping Beauty here had stayed awake to keep me company."

Buffy grinned apologetically. She wasn't sure how long she had managed to keep her eyes open, but she was sure that she deserved a damn award for it. After her talk with Giles, she had stayed in the library with him for a few more hours. Originally it had been under the pretense of helping to research, but it had quickly turned into talking about what was to come and all the challenges they faced. She felt like it had been ages since she had the chance to hear Giles' take on everything they were doing with the headquarters and the training. After that, it had been a long night of trying to organize the girls following Kennedy's departure as well as her and Faith being away. For all the complaining Kennedy did about not being given enough credit or responsibility, that girl was doing a lot to keep the place running. Without her, there were far more roles to fill than anyone could have expected. Kennedy had left a pretty sizeable hole in their operations, but Buffy would be lying if she said she was sad to see her go. She expected a great deal more harmony in the house without Kennedy around.

On top of all that, she had to sort out some of their budget restraints when it came to repairs and renovations of their home which was fast becoming more of a compound than a home. It wasn't until the sun came up that she realized she had made a grievous error in trying to sort it all out before leaving. This was much more grown up and in charge than she had ever anticipated. Then again, she couldn't remember the last time she didn't have the weight of the world on her shoulders. She probably wouldn't even recognise that Buffy anymore; that Buffy was probably significantly less tired than this one.

"So where do we start?" Dean asked, snapping Buffy awake again. She hadn't realized she was dozing off on her feet.

"Well you both said that the first sign of something being really off was at the trailer park. Go back there?" Sam suggested.

It was a fair suggestion - that trailer home was definitely where things started to go to hell. It had finally started to come back to Buffy even just by being back in this town. All the blood that Faith had found when she visited the run-down trailer was all that was left of the monsters that were once Micah and Taylor. She remembered Tess nearly falling victim to those…things. That was how they had acquired the sword that Faith had found them with at the logging site – it had been found in the closet of one of the bedrooms, oddly enough. Even still, Buffy couldn't remember what had led her and Tess to the logging site from there. Faith had told her that one of the neighbors had pointed them on their way, but how this neighbour hadn't noticed the blood and sword they had was beyond her. She did remember that she had checked the place pretty thoroughly before the fight had broken out. There wasn't anything in that trailer that explained what was happening in the town, what had happened to them, or where all the missing girls were. Besides, by now the trailer was sure to be all boarded up or still crawling with cops. Not worth it.

"Alright, straight to the logging site then. We'll follow you guys," Dean said, hopping back into the Impala.

Hopefully the logging site wasn't discovered as a crime scene yet. Neither cops nor a cleanup crew would be very beneficial to their investigation. There was really no reason for it to be identified as a crime scene anyway. There were no victims there that Buffy or Faith remembered seeing. Apart from the blood-soaked ground, there was nothing to indicate to anyone else that something had gone horribly wrong there. In a little perfect town like this, it was almost hard to believe that they hadn't noticed that the logging site had fallen silent. Faith hadn't noticed just how creepily perfect this town was on her first visit, but it was hard to miss this pass through as she took her time driving the route to the work site. It was a quaint town to the point of cliché. White picket fences and matching landscaping, houses all painted in pastel colours and nauseating. It could be the perfect setting for a Stephen King novel if only they were in Maine. She didn't feel like she had missed anything after all.

Somehow the logging site was still even creepier than the perpetual suburb feeling. The air was thick and heavy – there was really no other description that was as appropriate. The part of their brains responsible for the fight or flight reaction was all but screaming 'run!' at them as the hairs on the back of their necks began to stand on end. To say it was unsettling would be a gross understatement, and yet they had to push forwards. There was no such thing as self-preservation when you spent your life fighting monsters and demons.

The boys slung shotguns over their shoulders, just in case. Both girls brought a blade with them – Buffy grabbing hold of her scythe while Faith opted for her trusty hatchet. The weaponry allowed them some sense of security at least, but did very little to dispel the creeping feeling of something being very wrong here. It was a rather grim walk as they left their vehicles behind and wandered down the long, dusty pathway that led to the main site. There were no signs of police vehicles or tape, which seemed promising; hopefully that meant no one had stumbled upon the blood spatter and empty site and found it worrisome. And empty it certainly was. There was no sound coming from the work site. No voices. No buzzing of saws. Not even a breeze blowing through the leaves or birds chirping in the air. It was still utterly abandoned. Was that thick feeling obvious even to all those normal people in the town? Had it been enough to keep them away? They started to wonder what had happened to all the people who worked here. The possibility that Micah and Taylor had been the lucky ones was disconcerting.

"We had gone through and explored some of the buildings when we got here. Looking for other people," Buffy recounted.

"Did you find anyone?"

Buffy shook her head, "I…I don't think so?"

The gaps in her memory were growing smaller and smaller even just by being back here, but there were still a good number of black spots that seemed to never fill in. There were some moments she'd rather not relive, but having entire time slots completely wiped clean was not on Buffy's list of 'okay things to happen.' Even if it meant reliving horrific moments and encounters, she'd rather have her mind intact – whole. She tried to ignore the dull ache that started to pound against her skull – a feeling that had only increased since stepping foot on the soil in Irving.

Following whatever part of the trail she could remember, she picked her way through the site once again. The other three followed quietly, only piping up to try and prod for further memories. The first building they came to probably wasn't one that she and Tess and gone through – it was locked tight and no windows appeared open or broken. Once Buffy re-oriented herself then carried on to another and another. Nothing was found in these buildings this time around, either. Buffy remembered the feeling of frustration when she and Tess had explored, a feeling that was once again welling up inside of her.

"There's nothing here," Dean commented, blowing the dust off of a desk.

"Not even blood," Buffy shook her head, "there had been so much before. Or at least, I thought so…maybe that was just the trailer…"

Usually a lack of people would mean something horrific had happened. It was all but certain that something terrible had taken place here, but there was no evidence of it save the heavy feeling in the air. There were no bodies. No signs of a struggle. No blood.

It had been upon exiting this little building, obviously an office of some sort, that Buffy and Tess had run into Eve. At least she thought so. There was a gap in her memory there, a blackspot with nothing to follow it except for the appearance of Eve. Perhaps they had meandered some more before Eve showed up. When Faith had arrived, she had run headlong into the logging site without a second thought, prompted by hearing Buffy scream. Buffy's discovery of Eve was much murkier than that, however. For all she knew, Eve could have found them and not the other way around.

"I'm not even sure how to find where we were when Eve showed up," Buffy admitted.

"I do," Faith said grimly. She could already see the patch of blood where she had discovered what was left of Tess.

It wasn't until she was standing over the bloody patch that Buffy could remember what had happened there. For once there was no static. No gaps. No questionable moments. And it was the one moment, if it had to happen at all, that she would have rather lost altogether. She wanted to stop it, to burn it out of her mind. That ache turned sharp and she felt as though she had been struck in the back of the head. Her lungs felt tight, but she refused to look away. This was what she had come here for, and she could not shy away from it now.

Faith spoke quietly, inaudible to the boys as this was something just for Buffy, "what happened to her?"

Buffy's gaze didn't lift from the patch of red soil and rocks as she spoke. When they had encountered Eve, the brunette woman, her back had been to them. Eve had spoken to them without ever turning around. Her voice seemed to echo from all around them, surrounding them and separating them from the world outside of this small site. That was how it felt anyway. She remembered wanting to cover her ears as the voice was loud and booming and shrill all at once. The first thing Eve had said made no sense at the time, but Buffy wished it had. She asked if Buffy remembered her. Things might have been different if she had known who Eve was the moment they stumbled upon her.

She remembered a sense of death and dread emanating off of the brunette. Of power. Not necessarily an evil sense of power, but certainly an ancient one. Now she remembered that same sense in Purgatory too. Without that information, though, Buffy and Tess hadn't even hesitated in attacking Eve. They both moved in to attack, a blade still tight in Tess' hand. They had come up against an invisible barrier that separated them from their target. Before they could even try to break through the barrier, Eve responded with her own attack. Without moving even a finger, Eve threw them both off of their feet. Eve cackled at them and asked if they had thought it would be that easy.

Dean interrupted her, "that's what she said in Purgatory."

"What?"

"You ran at Eve to tackle her, but went right through her like she was a projection or something. She laughed and said 'you thought it would be that easy?' That was in Purgatory."

Buffy knew she had been mixing up the nightmares, but she thought she had finally been able to separate them. It made it harder to piece together just what the hell she had lived through when she couldn't tell what memory belonged to what nightmare. Maybe Eve had said the same words here, but the fact that she didn't even remember that those words had been spoken in Purgatory made it all the harder to try and remember if something else had been said. She continued on, constantly checking with herself that she was remembering correctly. The lines were blurred and it was hard to bring it all into focus. Dean mentioning that Eve had been incorporeal during their battle on the mountain reminded her that Eve had been significantly less strong at that time. Whatever limit to her power Eve had in Purgatory didn't seem to exist here. Buffy wasn't sure how long they fought, but she knew that they were losing the entire time. At one point, Buffy had attracted all of Eve's attention. She was going on about how Buffy couldn't win before and she wouldn't be able to now. Somehow Eve had become distracted enough that she lost track of Tess, allowing Tess to get up behind her. Tess had drawn back the sword and plunged it straight through Eve's chest. Eve stopped her tirade she had been pouring on Buffy and grinned maliciously. Inhumanly. Tess realized that her attack had done nothing and withdrew the sword, ready to swing again but -

Buffy stopped. Her words caught in her throat. It was hard enough to see it happen all over again, but to speak the words? To say it out loud and make it real again? The loss of Tess, especially in such a gruesome way, had affected Faith as well. She needed – deserved – closure as well. Even still, this just wasn't something Buffy could do. Looking at Faith, the small blonde shook her head apologetically. She was so sorry. Faith seemed to understand. It was for the best. The images of what happened had been burned into Buffy's memory, and Faith didn't need to suffer the same.

But that didn't stop the whole scene from unraveling in her mind as she stared down into the stained ground. Buffy didn't know how to describe what had happened first. Eve had reached her hand out towards Tess who froze in her tracks. Tess tried to struggle against the invisible hold that Eve had on her, but it made no difference – there was no way to break free. What she had seen next was all too familiar having suffered the same at Eve's hand. Eve tightened her hand into a fist, and Buffy now knew that Eve was twisting the girl's insides into knots, squeezing her lungs, her heart. Blood erupted through Tess' lips as Eve tore at her organs. It was a gruesome scene and Buffy couldn't bring herself to put it into words. Faith didn't need to know that Eve had latched onto Tess' throat and dug her nails into the girl's soft flesh. She didn't need to imagine the sound of blood gurgling through Tess' lips as Eve ripped her throat out before tossing her aside like nothing but a rag doll. Buffy could still hear the clang of the sword hitting the ground as Tess landed. Even though it was hopeless and foolish, Buffy had hoped that maybe, just maybe, Tess would fight to her feet. Buffy remembered a scream, but she wasn't sure if it was Tess' scream of pain or her own in terror and anguish. She did remember the sinking feeling that she would be joining Tess, but before she could fight back, Eve had returned her attention to the veteran Slayer.

"She had me by the throat and asked again if I remembered her," Buffy continued.

Realization dawned on The Woman's face, "oh, I see. It's so obvious, but you don't see it, do you? No, doubtless you have no idea of what was taken from you. Would you like to? It would be so easy. Just a little touch and you'll be whole again. You want to be whole, don't you?"

"Stop fighting, Buffy. This won't hurt a bit," that vicious smile returned, "I'm sure it'll hurt a lot, though."

Buffy furrowed her brow, "I remember an agonizing pain when she touched me. There was a bright light – red. I fought against her but couldn't shake free. Then suddenly she let me go and I was falling to the ground. It all goes dark after that."

"I hit her with an ax," Faith added. She remembered the moment well. "That's why she let you go."

The two Slayers looked at one another, both unsure of where to go from there. Buffy wanted to say thank you again, but it somehow didn't feel like the right thing to say. It didn't seem like enough. Faith wanted to say she was sorry, again, but what difference would it make? Instead they stood there in a quiet stalemate, eyes locked.

"We should look around here then," Sam's voice interrupted the reverie, "maybe you found her doing something? Or you stumbled on something she didn't want you to see?"

"Sure," Buffy agreed, "let's spread out." She wandered off on her own before anyone could argue the suggestion. She knew the suggestion was stupid, but she needed some space. She could only hope that the others understood that.

This search turned up about as much as the previous ones had. Nothing. There was no trace of Eve. No trace of what she was doing here or why. No trace of any people – neither survivors nor victims. The more time Buffy spent looking at the site, seeing the entirely normal trees and the very solid ground, the less she mistook the area for Purgatory. The twisted trees and stench of death and decay seemed farther and farther away. She started to separate the heavy air feeling here from the stagnant air in Purgatory. It was still hard to come to terms with the fact that both nightmares were real, but being able to reconcile them brought her one step closer to being at peace with it. Maybe the lines would stop being so blurred eventually.

"Hey I got something over here!" Sam's voice called in the distance.

They found him standing in front of a building larger than any of the others. It was probably a storeroom of some sort, maybe to store the logs after being cut down, or maybe to store equipment. It was their best guess anyways. There were no windows to give them a view of the inside of the building, giving it a sense of mystery and, when paired with the rest of the site, a sense of foreboding as well. It would have been completely innocent looking if it hadn't been for the smear of blood across the main door. It was long dried on, but it was very clearly in the shape of a large, but definitely human, hand. The print trailed towards the seam of the doors, as if someone had been dragged inside. More blood was found on the padlock that crossed through the handles on the door. The lock was old and rusty, but it looked like it had been recently disturbed, making it look out of place. Nothing else in the entire site looked like it had been disturbed at all.

"I could pick that, but it might take a while," Faith said, looking closely at it. The butt of a shotgun came crashing down on the padlock, breaking it into three pieces. "Eh, good enough," Faith shrugged as Dean smiled cheekily.

Faith and Dean took hold of the doors and reefed on them. The doors seemed to be stuck on something, but they were able to pry them open by digging their heels into the ground. Daylight didn't reach through the opening, instead casting shadows of the four people standing at the threshold. Further in, all that greeted them was darkness. There was no reason to believe that there was still power running through the logging site, but they had to hope there was. Dean reached in to the side and fumbled for the panel that should bring the lights to life.

A buzzing sound echoed through the cavernous building. The lights flickered once. Twice. Grotesque shadows were thrown through the room before disappearing into darkness once more. The lights flickered a third time and finally held. Now they knew where all the people were.

There were images that had been burned into their heads over the years. A countless number of grotesque monsters and grisly scenes. Death and despair and horrid victims that would never leave them. The loss of friends and family. Even their own deaths. What they saw in the storeroom joined those in being etched forever into their minds. The workers had fallen victim to Eve's sick experiments. Some of them had clearly not been able to withstand the transformation she had tried to force them through. Their bodies were contorted and bent into awkward angles. There was blood on their faces, carving trails of pain into their skin. Some of them had vomited a mix of stomach acid and blood. It was an awful way to go, but they were the lucky ones. Those who had survived the transformation didn't appear to have lasted much longer. The mutations must not have been sustainable. The bodies were in varying stages of transforming when they had died. Some looked as though their insides had been liquefied while others looked like they had turned to not much more than mulch. Whatever creature Eve had tried to create had obviously failed, and spectacularly so.

Taking a step closer, Buffy tripped over something that her foot had got caught on. Under her feet was a body of a girl, just a few years younger than herself. She was dressed differently than the rest, probably the office girl. It was probably some part time job, maybe just for the summer. Maybe she was still in high school. None of that high school innocence was present on her face, though. Her mouth had lolled open and resting against her lip was a secondary mouth with sharp looking fangs. Her eyes, stuck wide open and staring into nothingness, were no longer white but stained entirely red, a haunting look if Buffy had ever seen one.

"I think she was going to turn into the monsters that Micah and Taylor did," Buffy said, kneeling down to take a better look.

"So they were here?" Faith asked, joining Buffy.

It seemed likely that the two men had been a part of the mass transformation but had escaped somehow. Maybe they had been the ones to padlock the door. They couldn't have known what was happening to them, they probably thought they were going to be safe if they got away. They had probably been terrified.

Buffy got up and wandered away from Faith. She started looking through the rest of the bodies, looking for anything that may help them to understand what had happened here. Dean, who had seen this sort of mess left behind by Eve before, tried to help her, but she didn't seem to be paying much attention.

"You good?" Sam asked.

"Great. Five by five," Faith answered, with a sarcastic thumb's up gesture.

"Ya, that lack of smile really helped sell that."

Faith shrugged, "good as it gets, then. Can I ask you something?"

"Shoot."

She was curious as to why Sam had come with them. Buffy and herself? They had to do this. They needed the closure and they needed to face the horrors they had forgotten here. Dean had come because he was very obviously in love with Buffy. He wanted to protect her and help her where he could – even Faith could tell that there was no way that Dean was going to let her do this on her own. But Sam? He could have stayed back. He could have just kept researching with the nerd crew and done way more good. He didn't have to see this carnage and put himself at risk. Why put himself through this?

Sam clearly took offense to that statement, but shook it off quickly. Research was important sure, but so was staying with his brother. They were a team and they had always found sticking together was better. There were too many times in the past that they would have died if not for the other. There was no way to know what they'd run into in this town when they came back. Plus, he could do the research thing on the road, too.

"You didn't think your brother would be safe with two Slayers?"

"Not that. Just…he's my brother, ya know?"

Faith didn't, but she could respect it. The fact that he cared enough about his brother to stick with him was sort of…touching? As long as he could handle himself, that was good enough for her.

"Well, it's a good thing that you're good company," Faith said, doing her best to give him a smile.

Sam smiled back.

"Can we get out of here now?" Dean asked as he walked up, his hand tightly clasping Buffy's.

"Please."

ӁӁӁ

"It takes time, Dawn. Patience."

Dawn sighed, "I am patient! But literally nothing is happening."

After she'd had her talk with Castiel about The Key and power, Dawn had kept everything they said to herself because she knew that if she told anyone they would all freak out. All she'd hear would be 'but it's not safe Dawn' or 'you shouldn't do that Dawn' or 'you're too young to do that Dawn.' She was so sick of being treated with kid gloves. Finally she had the chance to do something on her own - to be something more than just the Slayer's kid sister. Finally someone believed she could be more than just some liability. Someone was finally letting her do something. She wasn't even sure that she believed Castiel, so really, why worry everyone for nothing?

When Buffy left the house to go chase down leads, Dawn thought it was the perfect opportunity. Buffy wouldn't be hovering over her shoulder and Willow and Giles would be too busy in Buffy's absence to really even notice Dawn. Castiel had seemed hesitant to start so soon, but if there was some big bad threatening the world and an apocalypse on the horizon, soon was the best option. Maybe Dawn could even be of some assistance in the coming battles. After all, Castiel did say that both her power and Eve were unknown to the angels. Maybe that was a sign?

"I understand your frustration, but the slow progress may be vital to your success."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"Once you are able to tap into your power, it may be difficult, even dangerous, to control," he explained, "perhaps it is best if a great deal of patience is built before then." His hope was that she would be able to better control the power that would be unleashed. At this time, if she could tap into the power of The Key, there was a good chance that it would not only harm the girl, but quite possibly others as well.

That was another source of frustration for Dawn. She had no idea what she was supposed to be tapping into. She had no idea how to even try. Castiel wasn't sure either, and that made it all the more frustrating when she was expecting him to be her sensei or whatever. If it was tied to emotions or feelings somehow, the angel certainly wasn't going to be much help, either. It was basically trial and error at this point, and any thought she had of what to try and access in her mind had so far proved ineffective. Try as she might, she couldn't get anything to happen. It didn't matter how much she focused on her attempt, she couldn't get anywhere.

"Shouldn't I feel…something? Like a tingle or something?"

"I cannot tell you. Only you will know what it feels like when –" He was cut off by Dawn shushing him

Xander wandered into the kitchen where Dawn and Castiel were standing. Xander was the least likely to care that Dawn was experimenting with power or magic, but she still didn't want him to find out.

"Score, you made coffee. Thanks Dawnster," Xander grinned sleepily as he grabbed the pot. He had been working almost non-stop trying to get their armoury into a functional state. "I think Will was looking for you."

"Oh, okay. She in the library?"

Xander nodded and Dawn headed off in search of Willow without so much as a glance back at the angel. Xander nervously drummed his fingers on the coffee mug he held in his hands. This was the first time he had been alone with Castiel and a sense of awkwardness loomed in the air. Ever since it had been revealed that he was an angel, Xander had been going over this moment in his head. He needed an answer, but he wasn't sure how to pose the question. He wasn't even sure he was ready for the answer. But he was ready to quiet his fears and halt the nightmares that had been plaguing him since they left Sunnydale.

"Castiel?"

The angel seemed surprised that Xander was speaking to him. It was the first time since arriving in this house that the man had acknowledged the angel. It was the first time that anyone seemed to actually want to talk to him at all. He encouraged Xander to continue.

"You uh, you know where people end up, right?" Xander asked.

Cas furrowed his brows, "I am unsure as to what you are asking."

"When someone dies, you know if they make it to heaven or…elsewhere. Right?"

Castiel nodded and so Xander continued on. There were so many different dimensions just outside of their understanding that he had never been concerned. Upon finding out that a place like Purgatory existed, he couldn't banish the worry from his mind. If monsters went to Purgatory when they died...then…is that where Anya ended up? She had spent thousands of years inflicting pain and torment on humans. Her soul, if it still existed at all, was far from clean and pure. She had done a great deal of good in her last years, fought beside the Scoobies to save the world time and time again, but could it have been enough to avoid the punishment of Purgatory? Or was she sentenced to suffer just as Buffy had?

A long pause hung in the air. Castiel closed his eyes and said not a word as the minutes ticked by. Xander was unsure what to do in this time, so he settled for drumming his fingers against his coffee mug just to give his hands something to do.

"I cannot sense her signature," Cas said, as though that would answer Xander's question.

"And that means?"

"I do not know where she is."

Not being able to lock onto someone's signature meant that she was out of reach of angels. It meant that she was not in heaven, which was where Xander had hoped she'd go. It was a bit of a pipe-dream, he knew that, but he still dared to hope. What else could he do? No one ever wanted to hear that the person they love ended up anywhere but the paradise that was supposed to be heaven. It also meant, however, that she wasn't in hell, which was a small bit of good news. At least she was not living in the torment and despair that hell promised. Castiel was sure he would find her if she was stuck in limbo, but there was no trace of her there, either. Not being able to find her did leave the distinct chance that she had been sent to Purgatory.

That was not the answer Xander had wanted to hear and even Castiel could see the anguish he had caused by relaying the information.

Cas did his best to soften his voice, "for what it is worth. I do not believe she is in Purgatory. She may be in a dimension I cannot reach. There are several dimensions that have remained uncontacted by heaven, and therefore I cannot read who, or what, resides in those dimensions. Or perhaps I cannot lock onto her signature because she only had a human signature for a short period of time. Her soul was long destroyed."

It did not offer the comfort that he had hoped. The uncertainty was just as bad as if Xander had learned that she was in a hell dimension if he was being honest. Xander tried to remain hopeful that whatever dimension she had found herself in was one of the good ones. The thought that she was living somewhere dark and evil was more than he could handle. No matter how many awful things she did, Xander still couldn't bring himself to believe that Anya deserved punishment for her centuries as a demon.

But either way, she was gone. Gone beyond anything they could do to reach her.

ӁӁӁ

The four were sat around a picnic table in a park, the logging site far behind them. They wanted to put as much distance between it and them as they could, but they felt like they couldn't leave Irving quite yet. They hadn't discovered anything. No new leads. No idea of what Eve was even doing here. Other than filling in some blank spaces for Faith and Buffy, this entire trip had been a waste of time. A total bust.

Buffy got up to pace, "so what, we go back? Empty handed?"

"Not sure what else we can do," Sam answered.

"We needed something to go off of. This was all we had."

There really wasn't a clear path anymore. Coming back to Irving had been obvious, but now what were they meant to do? The books had turned up nothing on Eve so far, as evidenced by the lack of phone calls from back home, and they had no idea where she was. She could be halfway across the world by now. Were they meant to just wait until she showed up again? Killed another one of their own? Massacred an entire town rather than just a small work site? The body count was already staggering, and Buffy was loathe to let it get any higher.

"What we saw back there? We can't let it happen again," Faith said.

Buffy was resolved on that front, "it won't."

"Except it will. Over and over until we find her and stop her," Dean said grimly.

The boys had already explained to Buffy and Faith how it was that Eve made new monsters. The experiments she did in piecing together different aspects in hopes of making something perfect. They had already shared everything about their previous encounter with her, right down to way she could shapeshift almost flawlessly. She was a formidable foe, and one that they had gotten lucky to defeat at that. As much as they wanted to agree that they would stop another massacre like the one at the logging site, they knew it wasn't true. Eve would wrack up an even more staggering body count long before they would find her. That was the grim truth of it.

The thought of going back home empty handed did not appeal to Buffy. In a last ditch effort to avoid that, she decided to call back and see if there was any news. Maybe the crew back home had found something that could point them in a new direction. Something. Anything.

"Buffy! I was just about to call you," Andrew answered.

"Hey Andrew. Do you have something for me?"

"Can I talk to Sam or Dean?" He asked excitedly.

Buffy looked towards the boys, "you wanna talk to Sam or Dean?" The two men shook their heads, a look of fear and desperation in their eyes. Buffy had to do her best not to laugh. "They've actually just gone to get us something to eat. I'll just have to suffice."

Though he was disappointed, Andrew proceeded to share the information that had been found since the four had left the Cleveland house. Nothing had yet turned up in the books, but the news had shared some interesting information. Apparently there had been several towns in New Mexico and now Texas that had been reported seeing what they called a Mujer de la Muerte – a lady of death.

People had been reportedly seeing a dark haired woman lurking in the shadows just before a tragedy took place. She was seen on the porch of a house peeking in the windows the night before a man supposedly killed his entire family and then himself. Andrew was pretty sure that wasn't what actually happened, based on the autopsy reports that Willow had retrieved from the police files. The woman had also been seen on the rooftop of the elementary school the morning that it burned to the ground. The weird thing was, though, not one of the students were found in the burnt out wreckage. No survivors. No bodies. It was like they had vanished before the fire began.

There were several other reports like these which had piqued the interest back at headquarters. It may not be much to go on, but it was certainly worth checking out. It wasn't like they had anything else to do for the time being.

"Andrew, that's amazing. How did you find all these stories?"

She could hear the excitement in his voice as Andrew spoke, "I've been working on this program. It scans for patterns in news stories and kicks back reports to me. Right now I'm getting a lot of things that don't really matter to us, but if I can tweak the coding I should be able to have it search for key words and then we can get reports from all across the world not just the states. And I'm hoping that we can –"

"Okay, okay!" Buffy interrupted him. She was interested, impressed even, but they were definitely wasting time. She needed to know the nitty-gritty and she needed it now.

Apologising, Andrew continued to explain what else they had learned. There seemed to be a pattern in the way this Mujer de la Muerte moved. It seemed to be appearing in towns with very large Mexican communities – hence the name, he supposed. It was also moving decidedly south-western. It wasn't a sure thing, but he was pretty sure he could identify the next two or three towns that may be visited by this spectre.

"Good enough for me. Text me the details and we'll get a move on."

"Sure thing."

"Oh, and…thanks, Andrew. That was good work," Buffy added on. She was pretty sure she could hear him smile through the phone as he hung up.

"Did I hear right? That we're moving on?" Faith asked, also up and pacing the grass.

Buffy nodded.

It was time to get back into the car. They had a long drive ahead of them – almost an entire country to cross – but it would probably be more useful than this trip had been. This tour of the country was just getting started.

Chapter Text

Chapter Eleven – Call of the Wild

"That's actually a really good idea," Willow said, nodding her head along in agreement.

"Yes, I believe that will aid us immensely in organising not only ourselves but the girls as well," Giles added.

Andrew beamed. He had put a lot of thought into this. Maybe the powerpoint presentation was a little much, but he was pretty sure it wasn't. Sometimes it takes flashy packaging to be heard. It seemed like a pretty obvious plan to Andrew, but no one else seemed to have thought of it. Everyone was scrambling trying to find a way to organise all the girls they had and make the best use of them. So he figured, why not create teams of girls?

Divide the girls into groups and then keep them with each other. Keeping everyone together built a trust with one another and they would be able to work together effortlessly after a time; they'd get to know each other just like Xander, Willow, Giles, and Buffy had over the years. They could do rotations of which teams go out on cases and which teams could stay in and rest. Some groups could remain on the road for extended periods to combat the lack of mobility they currently had. Each team could have girls with different strengths so that they could each be balanced. All they needed to do was set up a roster of girls. It would no longer be such a bogged down process in deciding who to send out to check out a case. So much time had been lost trying to decide which girl could go alone or what girls couldn't work together. It didn't seem like much, but it was an absolute game changer.

He was pleased with himself for coming up with something that actually made a difference. More than that - he was pleased that it was recognised. Maybe he'd finally prove that he could be useful. That he really was on their side. It felt good.

Andrew then turned and looked expectantly at Xander, "well?"

"Well what?" Xander asked.

"You had an idea too, remember?"

Before the meeting, Andrew had been helping Xander finish off more of the shelving and storage for their armoury. Xander had grown to actually enjoy Andrew's company while they worked – not that he would ever admit that of course. When they first started working together, it tended to be in silence. Now, Xander had taken to chatting more with Andrew while they worked. Maybe he wasn't quite ready to forgive Andrew for the death of Anya, but he was at least ready to admit that it wasn't really Andrew's fault. In their chatter today, Xander had started talking about plans for a functional armoury and the way to run it. Andrew had been impressed with what he had come up with, but Xander was a little hesitant to suggest it at all. Hence why he was prodding him now.

"What did you want to say?" Willow asked, encouraging him with a smile.

With all the weaponry they had amassed over the years, the Scoobies actually had a pretty impressive armoury. So much so that it would be impossible to keep it organized if everyone was free to go and grab what they needed. They clearly needed someone in charge of doling out weapons and maintaining them. That was a no brainer and Xander felt pretty confident that he could handle that job – once all the renovations were done anyways. It could be a part of training as well. Girls could rotate through the armoury to learn how to take care of the weapons they were using and just learn to be more comfortable around them. He also figured that girls who were less inclined to be in the field could not only join the research teams, but the armoury team as well. Not every Slayer they'd found wanted to fight for their life, after all.

"I mean, I have some other ideas too," Xander said, "but I think it'd be a good start." And I could actually be useful, he thought.

"I would say that is an excellent start," Giles agreed.

Willow seemed pleased too, "well, it looks like we're finally making some progress."

They knew progress was needed now. They had been lucky so far, to be setting up and settling in during a peaceful time. That peaceful time was at an end now, and they needed to get a move on.

ӁӁӁ

"So, uh…" Buffy started, fidgeting with the stuffed pig that she was holding in her lap.

Faith glanced over at her, "How's training the girls been going?"

"Oh, good. Good. But now I'm sorry for all that I put Giles through."

Faith laughed wryly, "teenaged girls…"

"How's it been, ya know, getting used to living in a house full of people?"

"It's different…"

"Yeah…I bet."

The two girls fell back into silence. Buffy resumed staring out the window and Faith leaned her head on her hand in the window. Uncomfortable with the silence, they both reached to turn the radio on. Buffy apologised and let Faith pick the station. Some song that Buffy didn't recognize filled the little car, doing very little to break the tension between them. They were less than halfway through their thirty-some odd hour drive down to Texas, somewhere in Kentucky. Or maybe it was Indiana. It all looked the same to Buffy. So far, they had exchanged a handful of awkward words and grasped at random straws hoping to find something to talk about. Whatever friendship they'd had back in high school was long gone. Now they found themselves unable to connect – to find any way to get back to that place where talking came easy. How do you go back through all the blood that was spilled? All the tears that fell? All the venomous words spat at each other and all the disappointment and regret? Redemption didn't mend relationships. If Finch hadn't died, things would be different. Maybe.

"We should stop soon," Buffy said, breaking another hour long silence. "Starting to get hungry."

Faith nodded, her eyes still on the stretch of highway ahead of her, "yeah, I could use some food too. Call the boys, we'll stop in the next town we come across."

Having left about an hour or so before Buffy and Faith, the boys were somewhere up ahead of them. Predictably, they were both more than happy with the idea of stopping for something to eat – even though Buffy could hear the crinkling of a chip bag in the background. The boys were about fifteen minutes from the next town, or so Dean said. If Buffy had learned anything about him in the time they'd known each other – and she felt she had learned quite a lot – it was that he had a terrible notion of time. It was probably closer to an hour, which meant Buffy and Faith had another two hours or so before they'd come across anything. Regardless, Sam and Dean would be waiting for them there. It probably wouldn't be much, but there was sure to be a diner with at least somewhat edible food there. It was a little concerning that his standards were that low, but Buffy figured she would just have to get used to it. Isn't that what road-tripping was all about anyway?

Just barely edible was probably all they were going to get, of that Buffy was sure as she walked into the small diner the boys had found. There was a vaguely mouldy, stale smell in the air and when she walked across to the table, her shoes slightly stuck to the old linoleum. Honestly it reminded her of the place she worked at in L.A., right down to the surplus of missing children posters that practically covered the walls. For such a small town, there were a lot of kids missing.

"Well, the coffee is awful, but at least it's…sort of warm?" Sam grimaced as he slid two mugs towards the girls.

"Oh good, exactly what we hoped for," Faith sighed.

Dean smiled up at Buffy as she slid into the booth next to him. He reached his hand out and placed it on her thigh. He gave a light squeeze and winked at her. She returned the wink and twined her leg around his under the table before reaching for one of the coffee mugs. It was absolutely wretched, Sam hadn't been wrong, but it was still better than the stuff they had been finding in the shitty little gas stations they had been passing. It was a small victory, but a victory nonetheless. Hopefully the food was better than the coffee, but something told the girls that it was wishful thinking and nothing more. The waitress was quick to come over to the table once she saw that the girls had joined the party. She greeted them with a warm smile and a friendly voice – a pleasant surprise in a grimy looking place like this. Buffy could feel her stomach rumbling at her, making her even more grateful for the quick service. They had food on the table within ten minutes of sitting down – an impressive feat for any diner, let alone one that had every table filled with people. She was a little less grateful when the food arrived at the table. It looked half-decent, but was just barely warmer than room temperature and was in dire need of some sort of flavour. It was honestly one step up from cardboard and Buffy started to wonder if they were better off stopping at some gas station and getting questionable hot dogs.

But hey, at least it was food, right? Faith hadn't realized how hungry she had been getting until Buffy suggested stopping to eat. Apparently she was starving, which made the fact that snappy service much appreciated in her eyes. Sure the food was crap, but it was better than what she usually ate while on the road, and it was better, but just marginally, than the slop she got in prison.

"Thought you were hungry, B?" Faith asked, mouthful of lukewarm hash browns.

"Food's not that bad, is it?" Dean added on.

Buffy, who had been picking at her food with her fork the last five or ten minutes, snapped her attention back to the table. "Huh? Yeah, I uh, I am."

Dean chuckled, "the food ain't that bad, is it?"

"It's fine, just a little distracted is all."

Her stomach, which had been yelling at her for a couple of hours now, was no longer bothering her. It wasn't that she'd forgotten that she was hungry, and she wasn't put off by the barely-acceptable food either. Her focus had just been shifted elsewhere. There was something about the missing kid posters that had been bothering Buffy since she walked into the diner, something she couldn't quite put her finger on. There was just so many of them. There were layers upon layers of posters stapled to the walls and taped to the windows and left in magazine racks on the counter. They were everywhere, almost like they were simply part of the decor. It looked as though no one had ever taken a poster down. Was it laziness? Apathy? Or had the kids never been found? If she had to guess, Buffy would probably go with that last option; there were so many repeated posters with aged photos or a larger reward promised. It didn't seem like a lot of these stories had happy endings.

The boys followed the blonde Slayer's gaze and realized what had messed with her appetite. Dean seemed unfazed by it having spent years staring at the same kinds of posters all over the country. He had learned how to block them out and ignore the silent pleadings the posters all but screamed out. He had learned long ago that you couldn't save them all, and there was nothing a monster hunter like him could do to help combat the evil that people did to each other. He had barely paid them a second glance, instead focusing on the burger in front of him, dripping with grease and barbecue sauce. Sam, on the other hand, saw what Buffy was seeing. He recognized that there was something weird about these posters.

"Dean, there's a lot more here than even we could consider normal," he said, taking a closer look at the newest one that was pinned to the board next to their booth.

There was one poster in particular that had drawn Buffy's attention. It looked different from most of the others, and it was buried beneath a countless number of layers. The only bit she could see was the bottom corner where the date the child had gone missing was printed. Curious and not quite believing her eyes, Buffy got up to take a closer look. She peeled back poster after poster, layer after layer. Amy Secord. Lance Wood. Tina Mack. Clark Sawyer-Brown. Jeremy Larson. She flipped through the years, a chronology of broken families and lost children. Name after name flipped by until Buffy landed on the poster she was looking for. There was no photo and the poster had been written by hand. There were a few smudges on the lettering and the paper had deteriorated over the years, yellowed and crumbled, but the name and date were still clear enough to read.

Adelia Brewer. Missing as of June 17, 1886.

Whatever had been happening here had been going on for hundreds of years. Kids were going missing as a part of regular life here. There didn't seem to be any pattern to the dates on the posters; it didn't look as though it was based on a cycle or a specific date, or any of the normal stuff she had seen. No predictable cool-down period. No preference to boys over girls or vice-versa. Nothing seemed to link any of these kids together.

"Been a lot of 'em over the years," a voice interrupted Buffy's thoughts.

Buffy looked over to find one of the waitresses standing next to her, empty coffee pot in hand. The woman wasn't looking at Buffy but rather at one of the posters, a boy who had gone missing about a decade ago. There was a wistful look in her eyes that hinted that perhaps she had known this boy – it was probably her own son that had gone missing all those years ago. Buffy found herself feeling bad – it was easy to get caught up in the tragedy of missing children, but it was even easier to forget the life that the parents had to continue to live. And what do you say when faced with that reality? 'I'm sorry for your loss' had never seemed more useless.

"Have any of them been found?" Buffy asked in a small voice.

The woman shook her head, "it's like they all just…vanished. Went out to play one afternoon and never came home." The service bell rang out and the woman carried on her way, leaving Buffy alone staring at the posters of hundreds, if not thousands, of missing kids.

When she rejoined her party at the booth, Buffy noticed that the boys had taken down some of the more recent posters and were looking them over.

"Look at this," Sam said, pointing to the date on one of them, "this kid went missing less than a week ago. This one just a few days before that."

"I have one about a month before that," Dean said, shuffling another poster to the front of his pile.

They too had started to take notice of how long this had been going on – and the fact that it was still happening. There was definitely something going on in this town – the type of something that they specialized in dealing with. And that something had been devastating this town for too long.

"How far are we from San Augustine?" Buffy asked.

Dean shrugged, "probably another couple of hours or so. Why?"

"You thinkin' of stickin' around here for a bit?" Faith guessed.

Buffy nodded. She knew full well that this Mujer de la Muerte they were tracking was likely to be connected to Eve, if not Eve herself. She knew full well that their number one priority and the only lead they had was in Texas right now. She knew full well that they needed to catch up to her before her body count rose any higher. She knew full well that they should move on and forget about this town. But how could they drive off from this place knowing that there was something out there hunting the kids of this town? Knowing that they could do something about it. She couldn't just ignore the people that needed help.

"I don't want to lose time either, but we gotta do something. Why don't you guys keep heading on and Faith and I can deal with…whatever this is."

Dean shook his head, "four of us can wrap this up faster than two. We'll probably only lose a day that way."

That much was true, four people together had a better chance of figuring this out than two. Plus, having the boys' expertise was something Buffy appreciated immensely. She was better at being pointed at the thing to kill, not discovering what it was. The boys, who always had a set of suits in their car at the ready, agreed to go talk to the Sheriff about the more recent cases, try to get a line on the beast that way. The girls, less versed in talking to law enforcement, with good results anyway, agreed to head to the library and scroll through the microfiche and see what they could dig up from the reports over the years. There was no obvious pattern in the dates of the missing children, but maybe there would be something in the details that could lead them to where they needed to get to. There had to be something linking them all together.

"Call us if you find anything," Buffy called to the boys as they loaded back into their cars.

"You guys too," Sam replied.

ӁӁӁ

Faith drummed her fingers on the table in time to some beat that was playing in her head. She really didn't know how to help at this stage and the quiet, boring pace of the library was getting to her. The research thing really was far from her favourite part of being a Slayer. She had paced through the stacks a few times, but found that it was a pretty standard library. No secret sections full of mystical books and ancient tomes that she could find, anyway. There didn't seem to be much of anything in this library, making the presence of a microfiche at all rather surprising. When she had gotten bored of wandering and looking at dusty old Stephen King novels, she returned to Buffy and kicked back in the nearest spare chair.

"Find anything useful?"

Buffy shook her head as she continued to scroll through old newspaper after old newspaper after old newspaper. The disappearances went all the way back to when the town was first established. There was no way to tell, but Buffy was pretty sure they went back even further than that. All the reports seemed to say basically the same thing. Kid went out to play, kid went out to collect firewood, kid went out to bring his sister in for the night, kid walked to the corner store. Kid is never seen again. Not a trace. No amount of searching would turn up anything and no remains were ever found. It happened in the middle of the day, in the evening, at night. It didn't coincide with any days of power or full moons – at least not regularly enough to link it together. The ages ranged from six to sixteen. There was nothing to string all these disappearances together. Except for the woods.

"It's gotta be a forest creature or something," Faith guessed. "Maybe the forest is protected or something."

Buffy stopped. Something about Faith's suggestion dragged a memory out from some recess of her brain. For some reason Buffy remembered talking about forest creatures with Giles back when they used to spend night after night in the library going over countless monsters, demons, and things that go bump in the night. There was a forest…thing that really liked to take kids, she knew it. She just had to remember the name.

"I can't imagine it's any good, but there is a 'mythology' section here, if you wanna take a look?" Faith suggested.

The chances of there being anything in the mythology section that would help them were rather slim at best. It was, if nothing else, worth a try though. It'd be nice to figure this out without needing the help of the boys, or even Willow or Giles back home. Faith seemed a little more interested in searching for books than she did scrolling through the old microfiche, but still not terribly thrilled about it. Buffy couldn't blame her in the least, but it was still a welcomed change of pace. If nothing else, it would speed up the process of finding the book – if it existed here at all.

Surprisingly, the selection in this little library wasn't half bad. As she went through, Buffy found books about Greek mythology, ancient trickster myths, and even a few books that looked as though they may have real spells in their pages. Buffy flipped through a few books that had promised her monsters and demons from the 1800's, but so far found nothing that she recognized or that seemed to match anything they had found in the old cases. She was starting to really hope that Sam and Dean were having better luck than they were when Faith called her over to the shelf she had been searching through.

"The Big Book of Woodland Creatures. Seems pretty on point, don't you think?" Faith asked, holding up a large book with a cover that was partly torn off.

Buffy smirked, "someone wasn't good with names. Seems like it should be a winner though."

A quick scan through the contents and Buffy found the name that had been on the tip of her tongue since Faith first suggested the idea of a protected forest. Her eyes lit up with excitement as she flipped to the page. Both of the girls scanned the page and looked to each other in agreement – this had to be it. Guess something that Giles taught her had stuck after all. And here she thought those nights were a waste of time.

ӁӁӁ

Dean had just slid in behind the wheel of Baby when his phone rang with that oh-so-distinct ringtone.

"Buffy, hey. We're just wrapping up here. Not much to go on other than a general area that seems to be troublesome. You guys got anything?"

"Yeah, I think so," Buffy answered. "Sounds like this town is within the playing field of a Leshen. A Leshy? I dunno, whichever one is singular. I guess it's found a taste for children over the years. Explains why it's been going on for as long as it has, too."

Dean nodded his head, "got a funny suspicion that you're right on that one. We probably have a good lead on where its totem is hiding out if that's the case. Meet us back at the diner, we'll go from there."

"Girls have a lead?" Sam asked after Dean had hung up the phone.

He nodded his response as he pulled out of the parking lot to the Sheriff's office. With what little information they had managed to gather, it was impressive that they'd managed to come up with, what Dean figured, was a likely candidate for the staggering number of missing children in this town. A Leshen made perfect sense, really. They were known for luring people, generally travellers or children, off the beaten path, and they lived for hundreds of years. No victim had ever been found again, so it was really up to the imagination of the people left behind to decide what a Leshen really did with its victims. Normally they stuck around the same area after binding themselves to a person in the town or village, but that didn't seem to be the case here. Which really only left them one option – destroy the totem and kill the Leshen. The only problem was finding that totem. There was a lot of forest space around the town, and the chat with the Sheriff only provided a slight narrow to their search field. This had the potential to be a long, long search. Sam looked a little grim at that conclusion, knowing that for every hour they spent here was another hour lost on the trail to Eve.

"But you're right, we can't just leave," Sam said as they pulled up to the diner.

Splitting the party is, perhaps, one of the dumbest things that can ever be suggested. In this situation, however, it seemed to be their best bet at wrapping this up quickly. Time was wasting and Eve was getting further and further away from them. Plus, if there was ever a group that could handle themselves if they split up, it was probably the one that consisted of two veteran hunters and two veteran Slayers. So deciding to split up was exactly what they did, against better judgement and logic. It was going to be dark soon which would work to their advantage. It was unlikely they would come across any townspeople in the woods at night, meaning they could work unimpeded and without putting anyone at risk. It also meant that flares could be easily used to signal each other if they found anything and lead the others to a specific location. Apparently flares were seen a lot around these parts and no one would pay much attention to them. If that wasn't a piece of convenient luck for the gang, they didn't know what was. They loaded up from the trunk of the Impala, Buffy and Faith once again both favouring blades over any of the firearms, before heading out. They weren't entirely sure what to expect with fighting a Leshen, but it sounded vaguely like they'd be dealing with an animated tree – just deadlier. How hard could it be?

"Okay, so apparently seeing a bunch of crows is a sign the Leshen is nearby," Buffy said, swinging her scythe into its holster on her back.

"Look for birds or sketchy branches and roots, got it," Faith nodded, spinning her axe in her hand.

Dean slid a pistol into the waist of his jeans, "and send up a flare if you find the beast or the totem. Got it. Should be able to wrap this up long before sun up."

"I appreciate your optimism. Let's hope you're right," Buffy replied. She couldn't help but be nervous – their lead on Eve was getting thinner and fainter the longer they were here.

With a final nod towards one another, the four of them split off in different directions out into the woods. It wasn't long before they had all been engulfed by the trees and leaves, cutting them off from all sources of light save for the half-moon that hung lazily above them. The leaves rustled lightly in the breeze, but the forest was otherwise quiet. Still. Perhaps even a little unsettling.

As Buffy walked she fought the urge to hum to herself as she had been wont to do on most of her patrols. But this wasn't a Sunnydale cemetery and she wasn't chasing down some lowly vampire fresh from the soil either. Leshen's were big. Powerful. Ancient. And this forest was anything but familiar or safe - safe being a relative term in this case. She put on her best resolve face and focused on the task at hand even though she wasn't entirely sure what to look for. All she could do was keep going deeper into the woods. The woods which suddenly seemed a lot darker. Where had the moon gone? The woods which suddenly seemed more twisted. Had the trees always been twisted and bent that way? Buffy's foot caught in a root that was jutting out form the forest floor. She hit the ground hard, her chin scraping against the roughage. Buffy groaned to herself as she dragged herself back to her feet and when she looked up she found herself lost in a different world.

Shockwaves of pain coursed through Buffy's head as her surroundings flickered and morphed around her – like glitches on a computer screen. Reality was becoming harder and harder to hold onto. She knew she couldn't be back in that place…right? She wasn't in Purgatory fighting for her life. This forest wasn't that forest. These trees weren't twisted and bent, they were just normal trees swaying in a light breeze. At least, that's what she was telling herself. Her eyes and her brain weren't registering the same sights around her that Buffy was insisting on. Buffy brought her hands to her head to try and assuage the pain and the confusion, her eyes squeezed tightly shut against the imagery around her.

There was the sound of breaking branches and twigs all around Buffy, noises that she couldn't identify as part of this world or Purgatory. She was so focused on trying to separate the two worlds in her head that she hardly even noticed the roar that sounded behind her – a roar that was unmistakably real and very much an imminent threat. It wasn't until the beast sent a long tendril of roots slamming into her that Buffy was aware that she wasn't alone. The impact was enough to anchor Buffy back to the real world and, even if she was still a little shaky, she was able to snap herself back to reality and to the fight at hand. She detangled herself from the roots that had erupted from the ground and dodged another shockwave that had been sent against her. The Leshen was relentless in pressing its attack, keeping Buffy constantly moving.

Buffy slid her scythe from the sling across her back, ready to hack at the wooden arms that were reaching for her. As soon as the beast was within distance, Buffy swung the blade down at its limbs and made little more than a dent in the bark. Before the thing could react, Buffy rolled beneath its reaching arms and aimed to put some distance between them. She dashed between a couple of the nearby trees, hoping to tie up the roots and branches that kept lashing out from the monster. The roots snaked around the trees and found themselves looping through themselves, but continued to grow in length without any sign of pause. It was nowhere near as effective as she had hoped for, but it bought her enough time to go for her flare gun to call in the cavalry.

Except that her holster was empty. There was nothing there. With an exasperated sigh Buffy looked out to where she had been knocked to the ground and there, in the brush, was her flare gun. Damnit. The Leshen seemed to have recovered from its slight setback and was lumbering towards her once more. She had to make a break for the flare gun – her only hope at dealing some damage to the living tree that had her pinned down. Buffy waited until the Leshen drew back its arms again before darting out from her cover behind the tree. Another roll beneath the creature's legs brought Buffy to where her flare gun had landed. She swiveled back around to face the beast, finally getting her first good look at it.

It was, indeed, a walking tree. It was entirely made of wood – or at least what looked like wood. It's arms and legs were long and spindly, not at all as sturdy as she had expected to see. Smaller branches jutted out from the limbs seemingly with a mind of their own as they pulsed and moved separate from the rest of the beast. The only give away that this wasn't just another tree was the fact that the thing had a face – or at least what passed for one. It looked like a bare skull of an animal – probably a deer or something similar as a set of antlers extended up and beyond the skull. The eyes were hollow and yet still had some sort of light behind them creating a haunting stare. Buffy was so caught up in the beasts gaze that she almost didn't notice the glowing shape at its core. The shape pulsated as though it were breathing and seemed to be protected by what passed for a ribcage made of branches and possibly some vines.

Bingo.

Holding the flare gun steady, Buffy took aim and fired a shot straight it the core of the Leshen. Her aim was, of course, true, and the flare round flickered and sparked in the centre of the monster. It staggered back, but before Buffy could even muster a satisfied smirk she realized that the flare didn't seem to do much else. Somehow a creature made entirely of wood – or at least that's what she had been led to believe it was made of - didn't burn. The core continued to glow and pulse, nothing more than a slight smolder to hint that anything had happened to it at all. Without hesitation Buffy shot off another round straight up into the sky above her – she had no other plan to enact at this point. She could only hope that at least one of the others were nearby.

It wasn't long before Buffy could hear the sound of fast footsteps padding their way to where she was currently dodging the attacks being thrown at her. The long arms of the Leshen reached out once more and tightened around the Slayer's small frame, reefing her off her feet and sending her flare gun tumbling to the ground. A shotgun blast sounded off somewhere behind the monster, sending splinters of wood flying towards Buffy. She could hear Dean laugh as he cocked his shotgun for another shot. The blast drew the beasts attention, but it did not let go of it's blonde prize until an axe buried deep into what passed for its shoulder. Buffy gave an appreciative glance up to Faith who was just wrenching the axe free.

"Can't let you have all the fun, B," Faith smirked as she reached down to give Buffy a hand up.

The core that Buffy had hit, which they all assumed was as close to a heart as this thing was like to have, was still glowing behind layers of wood and vines. Dean took aim at it, firing round after round straight into the smoldering sphere. It had no effect. From a distance it might look like they were missing their target, but it was more like the bullets couldn't reach through to the soft center.

'It's like Adam,' Buffy thought to herself, 'just gotta rip 'er out.'

While Dean and Faith split the attention of the monster between them, Buffy dashed between the sweeping limbs to reach its center. Every desperate claw out to the core was interrupted by another flail of the branch-arms. She got close a couple of times, but couldn't get between the wooden ribcage that protected the core – it wasn't even weakened from the flare hit it had taken just moments ago.

Sam, who was the last to reach the scene, quickly saw what Buffy was attempting to do and rushed to join her attempts. He dug his hands into the ribcage and yanked back, splintering the wood and making a hole just big enough for Buffy to dig her hand through and tear the core out. At first nothing happened – the Leshen continued to swing its limbs and press the attack. And then, all at once it trembled and shook like an earthquake had passed through it before falling into a pile of wood and dust.

Dean smirked, "guess he should have branched out while he had the chance, huh?"

Buffy and Sam both groaned. Faith let out a deep laugh as she swung her axe through the totem on the outside of the clearing. Buffy must have stumbled upon it by accident.

"Well, that seemed…too easy," Sam said.

"Ya," Dean agreed, "if I didn't know better I'd think it was a distraction or something."

Buffy shrugged. It didn't feel easy to her – but then again, she was the only one struggling to separate the real stuff from the nightmares.

"Either way, totem is broken, Leshen is a pile of kindling, it should be over."

"Ya, the kids are safe now," Buffy nodded. "Hopefully."

They all knew, however, that it was a pretty hollow victory. None of those missing kids were going to come home. There was no rescue for them to do. No one left to save. At the end of the day, they had put a stop to the missing kid count, but they couldn't save anyone.

Faith interjected before any sort of melancholy could take over, "hey we should get a move on, it's gonna be damn near 2am before we make it to San Augustine."

"Ain't no rest for the wicked," Dean said, slinging his shotgun back over his shoulder.

With everything carefully stowed back in the trunk of the Impala, there wasn't much left for the gang to do but head out. Both Faith and Buffy had said something about getting a bite to eat, both having worked up quite an appetite after dealing with the Leshen, but there wasn't time for that now. San Augustine wasn't far, but they needed to get a move on if they didn't want to lose the trail they were on. Anyway, Faith was pretty sure there were some munchies in their back seat to tide them over. Buffy heard the word pretzels and was happy enough with that and let her sore self sink into the front seat of the neon. Looking in the review mirror, she used the sleeve of her jacket to wipe the blood off her face, wincing slightly at the gash on her cheek.

"We'll see you at the first motel we come across, ya?" Dean asked, leaning against the open passenger window.

"Or the first decent one," she grinned back.

Dean chuckled and agreed. Maybe he and Sam were used to dodgy motel rooms, even Faith seemed to be well accustomed to them, but Buffy was new to all this. Easing her into a transient lifestyle was mostly just a common courtesy, really. Once more he confirmed that she was, indeed, alright after her encounter with the Leshen, gave her a quick kiss, and strolled back to the Impala.

Before slipping behind the wheel, Dean called back, "Sammy, make sure everything is actually secure this time. We sounded like a damn rattle going down the highway last time."

"Yeah, yeah, I got it."

"Ya had some pretty good moves back there, ya know?" Faith said, sliding up next to Sam at the open trunk.

Sam gave a shrug, "I guess. I was a little late to the game…"

Faith quirked an eyebrow, "took a lot of strength to rip that things ribs open like that. At least, a lot of strength for a human. Colour me impressed."

The two shared a grin before Faith strolled back to the neon and headed back to the highway. Sam watched them drive off for a bit, still with a hint of a grin on his face. How could someone like him impress a Slayer?

The horn of the Impala sounded, startling Sam just a bit. He sighed, shut the trunk and plunked himself into the passenger seat.

"Geez, thought you were taking a nap back there or something. Good to go?" Sam nodded his head Dean grinned. "Alright let's get outta here."

The Impala roared to life with some CCR song blasting through the speakers.

"Did ya see how hot my girl was back there?" A wide smile on his face.

With that he threw Baby into gear and tore out of the small town leaving nothing more than a spray of gravel and red taillights in the distance.

Chapter Text

Chapter Twelve – Dark Lady

"Remember that glorious time when we believed we'd make it here by 2am? It was a happier time," Buffy sighed.

"Ah, 4am ain't so bad," Faith said, not even fooling herself.

She wasn't wrong, though. There are worse things than losing 2 hours while driving down the highway. Except for a - when you're not sure how or when it happened, b - when most motels no longer had people working their desks after 3am, and c - when you're on a loose and easily lost trail of some sort of hell-bitch.

They were exhausted. It had been a long, long day, and they were sure it was the first of many. At this point they may be lucky enough to get a couple hours of sleep before hitting the pavement in the morning. Buffy groaned in her head – she was pretty sure she was getting too old for these long days that turn into long nights that turn into long weeks. Was this part of why Slayers didn't get to be her age? The girls sat in their little neon, the radio softly playing some song that neither of them recognized. This was the third motel they had stopped at after having passed several more with the "no" illuminated on their vacancies signs. At this point, they were starting to think that they'd be sleeping in their cars in some parking lot. Really, they were just gonna get a nap at this rate anyway. At this point, though, it was a determination thing. Dean insisted that they'd find somewhere to crash, and somewhere that wasn't totally flea-ridden.

Dean and Sam emerged from the motel's office and nodded their heads towards the girls. Bingo.

"Two rooms side by side," Dean said as the girls pulled their bags out of the neon's trunk.

"Well that's lucky," Buffy said, "wonder what's gonna go wrong then."

Dean chuckled, "I asked the same thing."

The adjoining rooms really were a bonus. It was nice to be close and all that, but the door between the two rooms was a great safety feature. Or at least that's the reason that Buffy and Dean both supported anyway. It has nothing to do with being able to sneak between rooms easily. Not at all. Don't be ridiculous. It was definitely decided to leave it unlocked so they could reach other if they needed to. You never know when someone may try to catch them unawares and attack in the middle of the night.

"You guys all settled in?" Dean asked, leaning against the doorframe between their rooms.

Buffy took a look around a nodded. It wasn't home, that's for sure, but it wasn't as bad as she had thought it would be. She could get used to this eventually.

"I think so. Alarms set for 7?"

They had been hoping for a 6am wake-up call so they could get a head start on the day, but it was already closing in on 4:30am and at that point every hour of sleep counted.

Dean grimaced, but agreed. No matter how often they woke up early on a case, he knew he was never going to get the hang of it.

"Well then, goodnight."

Dean placed two fingers below Buffy's chin and raised her lips to his. He had been waiting for ages to get the chance to kiss her goodnight and he'd be damned if he was going to miss a single night of it. He noticed a wet, slightly tacky feeling under his fingers. Buffy winced at the touch but didn't seem phased by it.

"You're cut," Dean said, taking a look at the mark under Buffy's chin.

She shrugged, "yeah, probably. It's nothing – gone by morning."

He chuckled, "I wish I healed like that. You took quite the hit and bounced back like it was nothing."

"It's what Slayers do best. Now get some sleep. Probably gonna have another few long days ahead of us."

He placed another kiss on her lips and waited until she closed the first door before closing his. She could definitely get used to this. Buffy, with an annoyingly dreamy smile on her face, curled into bed and hoped that future beds were a little less…concrete than this one. She clicked the table lamp off and tried to find a spot that moved the spring that was digging into her back.

"Hey B?" Faith asked, just illuminated by the neon light outside the window. "You uh…you alright?"

"Just a little stiff, took a few hits there, nothing a mediocre night's sleep probably won't fix."

Faith stayed silent for a moment before pressing further, "it's just…you seemed a little out of it when we found you earlier."

Her head was still aching from the split she'd had from reality. Castiel had warned her that it would take some time for her brain to heal - to reconcile what was real to what she had believed for so long. Castiel had warned her that she wasn't ready to be out in the field yet. He had told her she needed time to heal. She had told him that he obviously didn't know what a Slayer was. She'd never admit that he was right and maybe she did need to start slow…Only there was no time for slow. Not now, with everything that was happening. Not with Eve out there making a mess of the world.

"I took a pretty good blow to the head before I got the flare off," Buffy said, "everything was a little bit blurry still is all."

"Oh, okay."

A pause hung in the air. Buffy wasn't entirely sure that Faith had bought her answer. At the same time, she wasn't entirely sure she cared either way. The time for the two of them to share in honest pillow-talk was long gone now. Maybe for a second Buffy was tempted to tell Faith the truth. In that brief moment Buffy wanted to give in to that temptation. There were times, even now, that Buffy wished they could go back. Go back to before everything fell apart. She and Faith had been friends once, and sometimes Buffy wished they could find their way back to that. But there was so much between then and now that she wasn't sure there'd ever be a way to fix that. And so, Buffy stayed quiet. Besides, there was no need to worry anyone now. It was too late to turn back and she wasn't about to give them any reason to sideline her. There was a clock ticking down to some unknown apocalypse, and until that was handled, there really was to be no rest for the wicked.

Finally Faith broke the silence.

"Ya got a pretty fine one there, hey?"

Buffy smiled, "yeah, I think so."

"Like, damn B. How are you not jumping his bones all day?"

It was more than a fair question. Just one look at Dean was enough to drive her absolutely crazy. But at least Buffy knew that Faith probably hadn't yet figured out how many times Buffy and Dean slipped out of the rooms to get some alone time away from the other two. For a Slayer, Faith wasn't exactly the most aware of what was happening sometimes. It was almost like she had been slipping out of an empty room; it was just that easy.

ӁӁӁ

"Sam. Sammy," Dean whispered, giving his brother a shake.

Sam's eyes fluttered open, his fist ready to make contact. Dean quickly grabbed his hand and lowered it.

"It's just me."

Sam yawned, "Whasit? Everything okay?"

"Come with me."

"What time is it?"

"Late, but it doesn't matter, just come," Dean said.

He knew he should argue. It was close to five in the morning and he had been in bed less than an hour. Tomorrow was going to be a long day of investigating and researching – hell it was gonna be a long few months probably. Sam knew full well that he should take this opportunity to sleep for a few hours because he may not get another chance like this for a while. But there was something in Dean's voice, a kind of childish excitement, which intrigued Sam. There was a mischievous glint in his eyes that told Sam that whatever it was that Dean was about to do, it was a terrible, no good idea. And damn that sounded fun.

Sam, knowing he should know better, sat up and reached for his jeans on the floor next to him. Dean shook his head, which only made Sam more confused. What were they doing that didn't require pants? At 5am that was a strange question to have to ask. When he tried to ask, however, Dean hushed him as they stepped out onto the walkway outside of their room. Whatever it was they were doing, Sam was far too interested to turn back anyways. Even if it meant wandering around in his unmentionables at 5am in a dingy motel. He followed his brother down the stairs and across the courtyard, but it wasn't until they came to the fenced off area that Sam figured out just what Dean had been thinking. He couldn't help but smile that same childish smile Dean had had when he woke Sam up. They were at the motel pool.

The boys had all but grown up in motel after motel after motel, many of them just like this one. Not all of them had pools, but it never mattered. The boys were never allowed the opportunity to play around in the ones that they did come across. It was one of those weird rules that John had been firm on but had never really given a reason as to why. There must have been some rationalization, Dean had reasoned as a kid, that they weren't allowed to go for a swim. Sam was always more put out by the stupid rule than Dean was and therefore was more vocal about his wish to take a swim 'just this once,' but it never made a difference. They remembered countless summers when the temperature climbed easily into the triple digits. Those days they could smell the heat radiating off of the pavement surrounding the motel and what few trees were around would be wilting in the afternoon sun. Even just breathing felt like too strenuous an activity in that kind of heat. Often they stayed at places without air conditioning, and on the off chance that a place did have an A/C unit, it was broken more often than not. And so they'd sit, in the stifling motel room, not even allowed to open a window, for that would violate several of John's safety rules. Not that opening a window would have done much good, but at least the air would have been less stagnant in the motel room and, they always hoped, a little less suffocating. Sometimes they'd risk the possible lecture and crack the window open while John was out. It never really made a difference.

Usually the pools at these places left a lot to be desired, too. The water was usually a murky sort, sometimes even bad enough to be tinted green or brown depending on how long it had been since it was cleaned. The chlorine levels were enough to burn their eyes just by simply walking past it and the smell was sickly – enough to turn their stomachs. In all honesty, the pools did everything they could to convince Sam and Dean that, no, they didn't really want to go swimming. They succeeded too, but it became a goal, not because the pools were so alluring, but because they were so strictly forbidden from ever setting foot within the pools.

Now they were adults. Dean had long learned that his dad's reasoning for some of his rules were non-existent. Now they were adults and those rules didn't mean shit anymore. Sure it was after hours and the pool was probably locked, but that didn't mean anything either. They were going for a swim, rules be damned. They took a quick look around to make sure no one was watching and expertly climbed over the fence. The very obvious sign which said "Closed after 10pm. No trespassing" was entirely ignored. Again, rules be damned.

"Mm, even more disgusting than I remember as a kid," Sam grimaced as he sidled up to the unoccupied pool.

Dean nodded in agreement, "yup, pretty gross. But it's the principle of the matter, Sammy."

He figured there was no time like the present and so Dean jumped into the pool causing a splash that was nothing short of a tidal wave to douse Sam. With nothing left but to get into the pool, Sam too jumped in, keeping his head above the questionable water. The water was a little slimier than he had hoped for, but it was at least somewhat refreshing since it was definitely not a heated pool. Probably not as good as he used to think it would be as a kid, but hey, it was something. Better later than never, and all that jazz, right?

"Well it could be worse, right?" Sam said, treading water in what as probably considered the deep end. He had to scrunch up his legs to avoid hitting the bottom, but that was likely a side effect of his height and not the actual depth of the pool.

"Sure! Not really sure how, but…"

"So, uh," Sam started, "what do you think about that whole Slayer HQ thing?"

"Not gonna lie, it's pretty impressive. Once they're set up it'll really lighten the load on us hunters."

"It's just incredible to see the Slayer abilities up close like this, ya know?" Sam said.

"Wait, wait," Dean chuckled, "this whole 'love for the Slayers' thing isn't 'cause of Faith now, is it?"

"What? No!" Sam shook his head, "Why would you think that?"

"Oh, no reason at all…" Dean winked as he sent a small splash towards Sam who responded with an annoyed look as he dodged the foul water. Dean dipped under the water again and came back up, "what, ya afraid to get your hair wet?"

Sam started to reply, to say something along the lines of 'it takes forever to dry' or 'I don't really want this water anywhere near my face' but he didn't get the chance. He could see that same mischievous look in Dean's eyes that he'd seen thousands of times before. He was pretty sure he knew what was coming next. Even being taller than the pool was deep wasn't going to help him here.

"No, no, no, no..."

Dean leapt out of the water and tackled Sam with his entire body weight behind him. If he'd really wanted to, Sam probably could have defended himself, but why spoil the fun? With mock defense, Sam succumbed to the 'attack' and slipped below the water's surface. And yes, it was every bit as gross as he thought it was going to be.

As he surfaced, Sam ran his hands down his face and shook the water out of his hair, "oh, oh you're dead."

An epic battle of splashing broke out. It was each brother for himself. If any water remained in the pool afterward, it would be a surprise for everyone. Each splash was punctuated with a very brave laugh as they tried to avoid swallowing any of the putrid water. For a minute, even if it was just a minute, the two boys got to be just that…boys. They were six and ten and having a splash war for the sake of having a splash war. For that moment, they were little kids again and the world of monsters could wait.

At least until the flood lights came on and they heard a man's voice call out – one that sounded awfully like the man that had given them their keys just a few hours ago.

"What the hell is going on out there?" The voice yelled again.

Sam and Dean looked at each other guiltily before jumping out of the pool. They weren't really sure what kind of trouble they'd be in if they were caught in the pool after hours, but they were pretty sure the Slayers would kill them both if they got kicked out of their rooms – especially at this time of night. Or morning. As quickly and quietly as they could, the brothers dashed towards the back of the fencing and climbed back over – leaving a not-at-all suspicious trail of water behind. It was a good thing they were short-sighted enough to forget towels as they wouldn't have been able to bring them back.

By the time they heard the gate to the pool swing open, the two boys were already darting up the stairs back to their second floor motel room, holding back laughter as they went.

Sam gasped for air between chuckles, "well, at least we had a little fun."

Dean laughed in response, "must be getting old, I think I pulled something on that climb."

"I'll be glad to wash this chlorine out of my hair. It smells rancid."

"The sooner you open the door the sooner you can do that."

Sam stopped, "I thought you had the room key?"

"I very obviously do not have the room key," Dean shook his head and indicating his dripping wet boxers, "why didn't you grab the room key?"

"It was in my jeans, ya know, the ones you told me I didn't need? I assumed since you dragged me out of bed that you would also have the key."

"Fuck."

Well. At least there was someone who could let them into their motel room. Though the boys were pretty sure they weren't going to be happy about this. There was a short delay between Dean knocking on the door and the door swinging open. A dozy blonde Slayer stood in the doorway, half leaning against the edge of the door. She probably would have looked more confused if she was more awake, but for now she didn't really seem to be processing the sight she encountered upon opening the door.

"Heyyyy," Dean started, "we, uh, kinda locked ourselves out. Good thing we left that center door unlocked, huh?"

Buffy furrowed her brow, "what? Why are you – I mean what are you – no, you know what? I'm not gonna ask, I don't wanna know."

She moved aside to let Sam and Dean inside of the motel room, who in turn nodded their thanks as they passed by and closed the door behind them.

"Getting up to some trouble?" Faith asked, a sly smirk on her face. She gave Sam a once over and gave a nod as if she was approving of the sight in front of her.

Sam gave her an awkward sort of wave, though he wasn't entirely sure why, and continued on towards the door, only pausing to throw a glance or two back over his shoulder towards Faith. A guilty trail of water followed the two boys as they sulked towards the door that joined the two rooms.

Buffy, who had shaken the cobwebs out of her head, was watching intently as Dean passed by. She couldn't help but notice the way the water dripped down Dean's chest, tracing out every muscle as it went. She bit her lip as her eyes moved downward to how his boxers, still drenched, clung tightly to his frame. Damn did he ever look good wet. Then again, he looked pretty damn good dry, too. Why weren't they sharing a room again?

"Dean?" She called out.

He stopped and moved aside to let Sam pass by and into their room. Dean turned to face Buffy and was greeted by her lips crashing down onto his. Her nails raked gently across his bare back causing shivers to follow the trail. He groaned against her lips, wanting nothing more than to pull her in tight – to feel her pressed up tight against him.

"G'night Dean," she said huskily as she turned and headed back to her own bed.

And with that, he needed another dip in the cold pool.

ӁӁӁ

"Am I boring you?" The woman huffed.

Buffy tried to cut her yawn short as she shook her head, "I am so sorry. I didn't get into town until early this morning. Please, continue. What did you see that night?"

No amount of coffee had been able to snap Buffy into any sort of shape that could be called 'awake,' but she had a job to do. Faith was busy investigating the burned out school while the boys were talking to the town's Sheriff trying to get information that wasn't available in the newspapers. That left talking to the neighbours of the family that was slaughtered. So far two people had closed their doors in her face and it wasn't looking good for gathering information. That was until she knocked on Helen's door just across the street from the murder house.

"Well, we were sitting here on the front porch and – "

Buffy interrupted, "we?"

"Oh yes, Nora from down the street was her with me. She makes the best apple crumble I have ever tasted. Did you know she won the neighborhood bake sale four years in a row with it? We finally had to tell her that she wasn't allowed to bring it anymore because it simply wasn't fair. Well she got all in a huff about it and – "

"So what did you and Nora see that night?"

Helen stopped, a look of annoyance on her face, "right, right. It was a beautiful night that night, much nicer than the scorcher it had been all afternoon, so we took our sweet tea on the porch. We were having a lovely chat about the upcoming social at the church when we noticed there was someone on the Miller's porch. At first we thought it was Mrs. Miller, but the figure was much too narrow for her, don't ya know? Anyways, Nora says to me 'Helen, who is that over there?' but of course I had no idea. I've never seen this woman in this neighborhood before. She obviously doesn't live here, I would know. I know every person that lives in this area."

Buffy kept up her polite smile and tried to sound as cheery as possible, "could you describe who you saw?"

Helen nodded emphatically, "she was very slender, like I said. Her hair was black as night and very long. How girls these days can stand having their hair that long without tying it up I'll never know. She was wearing a black dress. Or was it blue? No it was definitely black because I remember thinking 'how on Earth is she wearing a black dress when it's been so hot as of late?'"

"What was she doing, could you see?"

"Why, she was just standing there," Helen exclaimed, "it didn't look like the dear was doing anything. She just stood there, facing out towards the street. She stood there the entire time Nora and I were on my porch. Gosh, I think she was still there when I went to bed. I do hope she left before all that unpleasantness occurred."

"You don't think she had anything to do with…with it?" Buffy questioned further.

Helen shook her head, "oh my no. I'm very good at reading people, and she seemed like such a gentle person. Maybe a bit strange and lost, but lovely all the same. That Mr. Miller though, I never liked him. I always said that something horrible would happen to that family if he was around."

"Was he known to be violent? Or to have a temper?"

"No, it was just a feeling I had about him. Like I said, I'm a very good judge of character."

Willow had emailed a copy of the autopsy report, and based on what was found it was all but impossible that Mr. Miller had done anything to his family at all. It was true that he had died last that night, but the circumstances around his and his family's death were…odd. The children's hearts seemed to have simply stopped beating. There was no cause for it to be found. No substances were found in their systems that shouldn't be there. They had no pre-existing conditions to explain a sudden death. There was no gas leak in the house and they did not appear to have struggled to breathe. No petechial hemorrhaging, no strangulation marks, no signs of a struggle. It was like they had simply just…stopped. They had been sitting at their desks in their separate rooms and just stopped. At the same time.

The wife's death was different. She suffered. By the way her remains were described, she suffered immensely. Her body was found twisted and contorted. Almost every bone in her body had been broken. Her lungs and her heart had been crushed, but it was not obvious how or by what. A look of utter panic had been left on her face at the time of death – assumed to be shortly after the children.

Mr. Miller was, indeed, last to die. He was also last to be found. The cause of death was obvious – though how it occurred was not even speculated in the report. Every organ in his body had been liquefied. His bones remained – holding his skin like a grotesque tent of flesh over the liquid mess that had once been a person. His eyes had been burned out of their sockets – though there were no scorch marks on his skin. The newspapers left out that little bit. They left out a lot actually. A nice bow was placed on the story – one that tied it all together by painting Mr. Miller as a sick, deranged killer who poisoned his children and threw his wife down a flight of stairs before poisoning himself. It was no wonder that Helen believed the tale – who would ever believe the truth?

"One last question, have you seen this woman since? Has she come back at all, or have you seen her around?"

"No," Helen said, "I would remember if I'd seen her again, and I certainly have not."

Buffy thanked the older woman for her time and slipped out as quickly as she possibly could without insulting her once more. The very lengthy, very dull, conversation gave her little to go on, but it was something nonetheless. Her chat with Nora turned up even less than with Helen, but at least she didn't get the door shut in her face again. Then again, she'd have about the same amount of information if she hadn't talked to anyone. It was a waste of time. Her head was throbbing, her eyes burned from exhaustion, and she was in desperate need of caffeine. Buffy just hoped that the others had better luck.

ӁӁӁ

"There is goddamn nothing in these books!" Willow slammed another tome shut.

Giles winced as though she had struck him, "that is a very ancient book…"

"Yeah, well, apparently not ancient enough," she huffed. "How are we supposed to research someone – something – that seems to predate any story we have written down in books? So far all we've found is a couple passing mentions of a 'Mother of Monsters' and one mention of a feminine being that 'words cannot describe' that may or may not be her. It's infuriating."

"Breathe, Will," Xander said, "we'll find something."

It had only been a few days, a week or two at most, since they had started scouring their books trying to find something, anything, on this Eve. Willow knew just as well as anyone that they couldn't rush it – a break-through would happen when it would happen. They had been going through these same motions for years now, and Willow had lost count of the times that it took them weeks, if not months, to find the information they needed. Hell, sometimes they found nothing at all and just sort of fell into their solution. This time was different though. This time there were no breadcrumbs to follow. They had always found something to lead them down the right path. Even a small anecdote that seemed similar to what they were dealing with could be enough to help them find what they were looking for. So far they hadn't even been that lucky. Their research was getting them nowhere and she was pretty sure that they weren't going to stumble upon a solution by accident. Not this time.

Maybe before that would have been okay. If they were back in Sunnydale, slogging through texts in Buffy's little living room, nestled comfortably in the familiar house on Revello Drive. But they weren't. They were miles away in Ohio. This was the new world order – a world where Slayers were all over the world, and the Scoobies of old were now in charge of all these girls. They had an army to fight back the darkness and kick some ass…and they were failing their first test. It was one thing to set up an organization like this, to train girls and talk all about how they were going to save the world. It was another thing entirely to actually do it. The stakes felt much higher somehow.

"Have you heard from the coven at all? From Tavia?" Giles asked.

Willow shook her head, "nothing good yet. They're having about as much luck as we are right now."

The coven was powerful. With even the smallest bit of information the coven could completely change the game they were caught up in. Give them a name, something more concrete than Eve, something from the stories of old, and the coven would give them every bit of information to have ever been even talked about. Give them a piece of hair or a droplet of blood and the coven could tell them exactly where she was at this time. Give them an identity and the coven could very well tell them how to stop Eve.

But they couldn't give them any of that. Because they had nothing. Willow had nothing.

"What did that book say about the Mother of Monsters again?" Xander asked, picking up the large book.

Willow sighed, "not a whole lot, honestly. It was discussing a time when monsters roamed the Earth and how the Mother of Monsters, as an act of defiance and vengeance for how she was wronged, is supposed to bring that time back to the Earth."

It was the most complete mention they had found of Eve so far. At least, they were pretty sure it was about Eve. Based on what the two hunters had said, Eve was able to create monsters – called herself their mother. Even Castiel had referred to Eve as the Mother of Monsters. The other two mentions had mostly just said that this Mother existed or that she created certain beasts.

"We know Phoenix ashes can kill her – or at least send her back to Purgatory. Tavia said that they were trying to track some down, but even if she does –"

"It's a short term fix," Xander finished. Willow nodded.

"And we know that she was summoned through fire and the use of a virgin girl," Willow concluded, fully aware that it basically amounted to nothing. Nada. Zero.

"Fire and virgins don't really narrow the field any either," Xander shook his head. "You'd think the baddies would try and be a little more original. Just plain rude is what it is."

Willow shoved another book away from her as she got to her feet, "I need some air. I'll be back later."

The door slammed behind her just loud enough to draw Giles' attention out from the massive text he had buried himself into once more.

"Where'd she go off to?"

Xander shrugged, "probably just needs to talk to someone."

ӁӁӁ

Faith hadn't been there that day. She didn't watch them as they laced the library with explosives and armed a teenaged army. She didn't get to see Buffy drop the trigger down and annihilate both high school and foe in one fell swoop. Faith didn't feel the heat on her face or the ash fall on her as everything burned. Faith didn't get to see any of it. She wondered if the high school looked like this afterward. Hollow. Nothing but a scorched skeleton standing as an eerie monument to what had happened. A fire and an explosion are not the same thing – but standing in the middle of what was once an elementary school? Could have fooled her.

What was it that she was hoping to find here? Clues of some sort, that much she knew, but what could have survived the blaze? The walls that remained, and there were very few, were unstable at best and threatened to come down around her with every slight breeze from outside. The floor was tenuous under her feet, threatening to send her crashing down to the basement every time she took a step forward. The warning signs out front had warned her about this, but since when did Faith listen to those? Besides, she was here to search, and search she would. All that she had found so far, though, was destruction and despair. Most of what she saw was completely unidentifiable. There were small back packs and shoes melted to the floor. The charred remains of what she could only imagine was once art made by the kids in each class. Initials were etched into the cement that had been below the tiles that used to cover the floors. Very little remained of the desks that had filled each class room, with what was left being twisted and curled into cruel shapes. But there was nothing else.

The reports had been right on that count – there was not a single trace of any of the people who would have been inside the building when it went up in flames. No charred remains. No tell-tale marks that someone tried to escape the inferno. Not even a sign that someone tried to stop the fire or alert anyone to it. Not a single one of the alarms had been tripped. School had been in session when the fire erupted; the bell had rung and happy parents had watched their little ones file into school ready for a day of learning. No one came out of the building again. They were not here…so where did they go?

The newspaper story that Andrew read said that the blaze broke out sometime around 9:30 in the morning. There had been no warning signs beforehand. No smoke. Reports had slowly trickled in from the people who lived and worked near the school, even those who simply drove past it. They all said the same thing. There was a woman, dressed all in black, standing on the roof of the school. She did not appear to be doing anything, just standing there. Staring out into the abyss. Some even claimed to have still seen her standing there as the building was engulfed in flames.

This had happened just days after the Miller family murder-homicide, so a connection was drawn between the two. The parallels to the Mothman Prophecy started being pointed out. The name Mujer de la Muerte was penned. Now this whole town lived in fear of seeing the Woman of Death anywhere near them. They locked themselves in at night, kept guns at the ready, and stayed at home when they could. Faith couldn't blame them, but all that extra precaution wouldn't do them a damn bit of good.

The question was, why death? Eve supposedly was looking to build an army of monsters – the perfect monsters. What good came out of killing a small family and burning a school to the ground? What was her game plan here? And where the hell did the entire school population go? Faith had so many questions it was making her head spin. A bunch of questions and no answers to be found here. The only thing Faith had learned was because of an absence. An absence of smell. An absence of a signature. An absence of an origin point. The fire was not started using an accelerant – she would have smelled it as she wandered what was once the halls of the school. The flames didn't appear to follow a path, either. No burn marks showed how the fire spread. Hell, she couldn't even find where the fire may have started. These were all things that fire needed…

Faith stooped down to touch the charred remains of a desk, "so what the hell happened here?"

ӁӁӁ

What the hell happened here? That was the burning question of the night as the four sat, sprawled out across the two beds in the girls' room and munching on what was quite possibly the world's saltiest fries and greasiest burgers. After a long day of pounding the pavement, all anyone wanted to do was sleep, but sleep would have to wait. They had come all this way and they'd be damned if it would result in the same that they found in Irving – nothing.

"All the Sheriff gave us was basically the same stuff Willow managed to scrounge up," Sam said between each mouthful of fries.

Dean nodded in agreement, "they're just as stumped, to be honest. They're not as quick to believe that the Miller case was a murder-suicide, but they're not willing to tell the public that."

"Aren't they worried that people might start to question why the Woman of Death was around both incidents?" Buffy asked.

"It's the whole 'Mothman Prophecy' bullshit all over again. The people will believe what they want."

Buffy could cede Dean that point. The convenient answer always out-won the real answer. How many times had weird occurrences been explained away in Sunnydale? In L.A.? She had seen it over and over again, and yet she was still always surprised at the lengths people would go to keep themselves blind to the truth. Then again, could she really blame them? She had been shown what was behind the curtain when she was sixteen and it had horrified her. Wasn't there a time when she wished she could put that curtain back up?

"Well, there was nothing at the school. Just a charred and hollowed out husk," Faith added. "And I really do mean nothing. No signs of anyone or anything there at all."

"Yeah, the Sherriff's office didn't really have any theories for that either. Their best guess is that the fire burned all the inhabitants completely."

Buffy looked at Sam, "they have to know that there's no way the fire burned hot enough to reduce bone to ash? That's ridiculous."

Sam shrugged, "again, they'll believe what they want."

It was ridiculous to say the least. How anyone would buy that theory was beyond Buffy. The suspension of disbelief had to end somewhere, right?

"And Red had nothing to add?" Faith asked.

Buffy shook her head, "not when I called her, no. She said she was working on a theory, but it was just that – a theory still. Andrew may have something, but he had passed out an hour or so ago and she didn't want to wake him. I'll give them a shout tomorrow and see what Andrew may have drummed up. In the meantime…"

"We got nothing,'" Dean finished, to which Buffy nodded glumly.

She tried to piece together what they knew. It seemed pretty clear to them that this was, in fact, Eve. Perhaps the Miller family was an experiment for a new monster type? Or a new mode of infection even? But that didn't account for the varying methods of death. It also didn't account for why it was such a small test. No other individual had died under strange circumstances in the weeks before the Miller family died – and nothing had happened since, either. In fact, all had been quiet except for the fire at the elementary school. They had nothing to go on there. Why would Eve want to burn a school full of children? What use was that to her? It was possible that she had taken the children and burned the school to cover her tracks – but the boys were pretty clear that it wasn't part of her MO to hide her tracks like that. Was the fire unconnected perhaps? Maybe she saw an opportunity and merely jumped on it? But no, that didn't sound right either. That fire was unlike any fire Buffy had read about or been a part of. So that question came back – 'What the hell happened here?'

"Alright, so we start at the beginning again. There must be some piece of the puzzle we're missing," she suggested.

The others groaned, but started from the top all the same.

Chapter Text

Chapter Thirteen – Memory Motel

"Okay, I thought I knew hot. I lived in California and I thought that was hot. I knew nothing, good god."

Dean laughed as he leaned back against his windshield, "Texas is a whole 'nother level of hot, that's for sure."

"No, but like, it's been dark for hours. How is it still this hot!?"

The motel room had been uncomfortably hot. Hot enough to keep Buffy wide awake as she tossed and turned. Faith had passed out almost as soon as her head hit the pillow, leaving Buffy to stare at the ceiling alone. In the midst of the silence and heat, Buffy's mind had started to wander. She worried about Eve and where she was. She worried about what the hell they were going to do about her. She worried if they could possibly be enough to take her down. Stress welled up in her gut and gnawed at her as she realized that they were getting nowhere. It was all too much and she knew, for her sanity's sake, that she needed to turn her thoughts to something better. Something that may actually be conducive to sleep in some capacity. She found herself jealous of Faith who was in the next bed over – deep in sleep and sleeping silently. She obviously wasn't finding it difficult to sleep at all – she hadn't even tossed or turned once since turning in for the night.

Not for the first time, and certainly not the last, when Buffy went to happy thoughts, her mind went to Dean. She found her mind floating to Dean a lot lately. She spent a lot of her nights trying to piece together their history from the fragments that were floating around in her head still. This time though, all she could think of was when he had traipsed through her motel room, dripping wet. She remembered the way the water trailed down off his hair, across his broad shoulders, tracing down the muscles on his chest and back…It had taken her approximately thirty seconds to go drag him out of bed with the pretense of going for a drive. Which she also wanted, but it was definitely not her priority at the moment. This was not at all conducive to sleep, but she was hard-pressed to care.

"I'll admit, though," Buffy continued, "it's nice to be able to see the stars. I don't remember very many places in Sunnydale that I could actually see the stars."

Buffy slid off of the hood of the Impala and walked towards the edge of the hill they had parked on. She assumed this was probably this town's version of 'make-out point' since it looked over the entire town but was still out of the way of the main path. The trees were thick, making the main street behind them almost impossible to see and preventing any beam of light from the streetlights to reach through. Honestly, Buffy wasn't too concerned about being off the beaten path, being hidden away, but it was a nice little touch.

"Can't beat that view," Dean agreed, sliding down off the hood as well. "We're not here for the view though, right? Was there something you wanted to talk about?"

Buffy turned back to face Dean, a wicked grin playing at her lips.

"I'm a little tired of talking at this point, aren't you?"

Buffy wrapped her arms around Dean's waist and brought her lips down on his.

"And here I thought you were tired," Dean chuckled against her lips.

Buffy nibbled at his lower lip, a playful look in her eyes. She pressed herself tighter against Dean, backing him against the hood of the Impala.

"Tired, yes. Too tired? Never."

The truth was that the two of them hadn't really had much time alone since being at the house – and even that was far too brief. They had snuck out during the night when they could, but that too was always too brief. There was never more than a couple of hours available for sleep, meaning any rendezvous was kept short to try and get as much sleep in as they could. The problem was that every time she looked at Dean she could feel heat rising into her cheeks. How she had managed to keep her hands to herself, she wasn't really sure. So forgoing a couple hours of sleep? Easy choice, if not always the smartest.

She felt Dean's hand tighten around her hips, his fingers wandering below the waist of her pants. His other hand found its way up to tangle into her hair, tilting her head back slightly so he could trail kisses down her neck, leaving little nips as he went. Her heart was racing and every touch sent shivers straight to her core. Her knees were turning weak standing there as she let herself melt into his touch. Buffy pushed back, taking control once more. Her hand trailed down to undo the buckle on his belt. Even through the jeans she could feel his arousal. Through the thin fabric of his boxers, Buffy stroked at his hardness, taking pleasure in the moans that fell from his lips. Her free hand found its way under the hem of his shirt to rake her nails against his flesh. The small town below them was forgotten. The stars above them floated away. All there was in this moment was Dean. The musky smell of gunpowder and leather. The feeling of his hands on her skin, his lips on hers, his tongue dancing with hers – that was all that mattered. Everything else was forgotten. She wanted more. She needed it. She wanted to feel him push into her, hard and fast and without reserve.

He breathed out her name and something that sounded as though he was asking her if they should move to the backseat.

"No. Here. Now," Buffy said back between heavy breaths.

Or she thought she did. Honestly, she wasn't sure if she only imagined it. Dean seemed to get the idea anyway, as he wrapped his arms right around her and lifted her off the ground. He set her gently on the hood of the Impala, his lips never leaving hers. Buffy bit at his lip as he reached down to pull the waist of her pants down. Dean groaned against her mouth as her teeth nipped at his lip. Buffy brought her hips closer to Dean to urge him on, her fingers digging intensely into his shoulders.

Dean slid his hands under the lacy fabric that kept her heat from him. He ran his fingers across her slit and felt how wet she was for him. It was enough to almost make him lose all control. He stroked across her opening, relishing as he felt her shudder each time he reached her clit. Buffy gasped his name as he slid a finger inside of her, stroking at the spot within her. Buffy's head fell back, a moan caught on her lips. Her back arched under his touch and he felt like he could burst then and there. He slipped a second finger inside her and watched as pleasure washed across her face. He buried his face in her neck, sucking and nipping as he trailed across her jaw and down to her collarbone. Buffy's legs came up and wrapped tight around his waist and he could feel her dancing on the precipice of losing all control.

"Dean, god, please," she all but begged through heaving breaths.

He pushed into her then, hard and fast. She cried out at the sudden thrust and dug her nails into his arms – the only part she could grab purchase on. Every thrust came harder, faster. When they both finally crashed over the edge, the only thought in either of their heads was each other. The only words to pass their lips were each other's names. Suddenly the stars were back above and it was all either of them could see as they felt their release. It was a good thing they were in a secluded spot.

ӁӁӁ

Somehow the following morning was even hotter than the previous day. The thermostat was already showing 95°F and it wasn't even noon yet. The four of them sat in the park under the shade of what might have been the only tree left that wasn't wilting in the heat. Perhaps an iced coffee may have been a better choice this morning, but it wouldn't have been iced for long anyway.

"Little too hot for you last night, B?" Faith asked. "You sounded pretty restless last night."

"I'm not sure what you mean?" Buffy responded as she shoved the coffee cup back into her mouth.

Faith and Sam shared a look and a grin but didn't press the matter further. As much fun as it would have been to draw attention to the scratch marks on Dean's arms and the strange limp in Buffy's step this morning, they also felt it best not to intrude. Faith felt even a little proud of her little blonde Slayer. They could have mentioned hearing the motel room doors opening and closing a couple of times, but it was almost more fun to keep it to themselves that they knew. The other two obviously thought they had been pretty sneaky and stealthy, so they may as well let them keep thinking that. If Dean and Buffy noticed this look the other two shared, they were unwilling to acknowledge it.

"We should call in and talk to Andrew soon. We're wasting the day," Dean said, happy to change the subject.

"Oh, are you volunteering?" Buffy asked. "Please, feel free."

A look that seemed pretty similar to panic crossed both Sam and Dean's faces, joined by a chorus of 'no' and 'please no.' Buffy laughed before assuring them that she would not subject them to that – at least not this early in the morning. The barrage of questions and fan-boy excitement was a lot to handle, especially with only a single cup of coffee in their system. They just hoped that Willow had been right the previous night and Andrew did have some sort of information to share. Otherwise they were at a dead end already, a thought too discouraging to entertain so soon.

"Buffy! Willow said you'd called last night. What can I do for ya?" Andrew answered, chipper as ever.

"We checked out the Woman of Death. Probably Eve, but there's nothing here for us. Nothing we drummed up makes any sense and it looks like she's long gone. We need a direction to move in – a fresher lead. Got anything?"

Buffy could hear the clacking of a keyboard in the background mixed with the sound of printers whirring and voices chattering. Andrew was silent for a moment or two and she started to wonder if he had gotten distracted as he often did.

"So I ran a few algorithms this morning based on the path that it looks like Eve has been on and – "

Buffy interrupted, "how do you know it's Eve's path?"

"Well, I don't know for sure, but I used the scanning code I developed to try to filter it the best that I could. I used the elements that were most clearly Eve's to try and capture all the reports I could find. There may be some outliers, but I think it's as accurate as I can make it at this point," Andrew answered. "So I took those paths and extended them out to try and dial in to what her next move may be if she follows a pattern. At first no pattern really emerged, but she does seem to be moving in a vaguely regular direction. It looks like she might be moving sort of north-west-ish."

"Okay, well. We're as south as we can go in the US right now, so that's a pretty wide area to try and cover."

Andrew wasn't discouraged in the least, "it is. But! A newspaper in Fort Morgan ran a story about a gang that rolled into town – a gang that sounds inhuman to me. We hit on abnormal strength, having doubles wandering around town, and a couple reports of strange teeth."

"Not just a vampire thing?" Buffy asked.

"No," Andrew answered, "I don't think so at least. Besides, I don't have much else for you at this point, so you may as well check it out?"

Buffy sighed, "yeah, sounds good. It'll take us just over a day to get there, less if we drive fast. Thanks Andrew."

"Of course! I'll let you know if I find anything else to go on."

"Hey, Andrew? You're doing good work. Keep it up."

She could practically hear Andrew beaming through the phone before they hung up. She had to admit, she was nervous about keeping Andrew around. He was never exactly evil, per se, but he sure as hell hadn't been one of the good guys. He did kill his best friend, after all. Learning to trust him was definitely a challenge, but so far it was really paying off. If what Willow said was true, Andrew had made a huge difference in sinking all this work into designing codes and algorithms to detect different cases across all the country. Soon, he was going to extend that to anywhere in the world. Not only were they going to be able to find where they needed to be, but one day they'd be able to send well-trained and prepared Slayers out to deal with those. Even Buffy was willing to admit that not keeping Andrew would have been a huge mistake. As weird as that was to think. Even all his annoying qualities had started to become more…endearing. Which was even weirder to think.

"So, Colorado?" Sam asked.

"Colorado."

ӁӁӁ

The kettle squealed at her, dragging her nose back out of the book she had buried herself in. Whether or not it was going to help her at all remained to be seen, but it was pretty interesting nonetheless. Without setting her book down, Dawn pulled together her cup of tea and returned to the cozy armchair she had abandoned back in the living room. She had received the book from Cas a couple of days ago after a particularly good training session. She had finally made some progress in the last week or so and she was finally feeling like maybe Cas wasn't wrong about her. It was nothing Earth-shattering yet, but it was something.

"But all I did was make a shimmery ball appear in the air!" Dawn said, exasperation clear in her voice.

It had taken hours that afternoon, but finally she had something to show for all her efforts. At the tips of her outstretch fingers a small little ball of light had flickered into existence. Small was not an understatement, only coming to be about the size of a candle flame, and it didn't do anything but float there at her fingers. It wasn't much to look at, but it was something she had made all on her own. It was the start of something – of having the ability to tear open little holes and gaps in the dimensional walls. But that's all it was – a start. It had taken weeks to get this far and it felt so painfully underwhelming that it felt like she had done nothing at all.

Cas nodded, "yes, but that is progress Dawn. Eventually you will be able to open windows, maybe even portals, to other dimensions, other worlds."

"Do you still think so?"

"I do. You may even be able to travel between them with ease one day."

"May? You're not sure?" She knit her eyebrows together.

"No, I am not. Dawn, your power is…undocumented and unprecedented. I can only estimate what that power may look like."

She had been excited by the idea that she could look into other dimensions one day, and that excitement had led Castiel to gifting her this book. When asked, he wouldn't tell her where he got it from, but he seemed excited to be giving it to her. The book was filled with tales of inter-dimensional windows and travel. The tales included how beings – witches and demons mostly – accomplished this throughout the years. So far nothing had really resonated with her; no stories that gave her a direction to pursue. It was a pretty neat read though. She was so engrossed in it that she didn't even notice people coming and going through the living room as she read.

"Dawnie? Whatcha readin' there?"

"Oh!" She started. "Hey Will. Uh, just a book that Cas gave me."

"Any mention of a 'Mother of Monsters' in there?" Dawn shook her head. "Dang. Worth an ask."

Dawn smiled, "does that mean the research thing isn't going well?"

Willow shook her head, "not great anyway. Feels like we're stuck in the same spot."

"You know, I could help. An extra set of eyes, ones that aren't already exhausted, may help."

She paused, "we never did ask Buffy when she was here."

Willow knew that Dawn could be helpful, just as she had been in the past. Dawn had helped them time and time again, and even Buffy had said that she wanted to stop trying to protect Dawn from the world. Having her help with the new Slayers was one thing. She was good with people and she was well liked; Dawn understood being inducted into this world and she knew how to slow the girls into it. Research though? It exposed people to more darkness and gruesome details than anyone should have to see. If they could keep that away from Dawn, even for a few more years, then they should.

Dawn nodded, knowing what that meant. It meant no. At least for now.

"I noticed that you've been spending a lot of time with Castiel lately," Willow prodded.

It wasn't like they had been very subtle about it. Honestly, nothing subtle could be done in this house anyway. It was like its own little small town here – everyone knew everyone else's business all of the time. Nothing could be said or done without it reaching everyone's ears by the end of the day. The teenaged rumour mill was brutal like that. No one had asked any questions yet, but Dawn had known they were coming eventually. Years of coming up with stories and lies had made it easy for her to come up with an excuse that she could use when it finally happened. She kept it vague so as not to pin herself into specifics in case it came up later. Something about picking his brain about angels and heaven. Until he showed up in their house, the idea of angels had never even crossed their minds, so of course she was curious.

"He tells good stories," she shrugged.

"I bet he does," Willow agreed. "Alright, Dawnie. I'm gonna head up to bed. You should soon, too."

"Night, Will."

"Oh, you never told me what that book is about."

"Just stuff about dimensions and stuff. There really is that world without shrimp, ya know."

"Is it just stories about them, then?"

"Sorta? It like, talks about which dimensions connect and stuff. I guess it makes it easier for people – or beings – to move between them. There's windows and stuff that can be opened. Like in this one story, this guy sent some fire demon to a water world by using one of those windows."

Willow looked as though she had been lost in thought. Or maybe she was just falling asleep standing up. That was possible too. Dawn snapped her fingers to bring her back to the world of the living, to which Willow absentmindedly thanked her and hurried off towards the library. So much for bed.

"Wonder what she thought of…"

Suddenly Dawn remembered her tea and picked it up. Cold. Naturally. The hours had ticked by so quickly, so imperceptibly. Good books often did that to her. The fact that this might make her stronger? Better? That was just a bonus. Maybe soon she could make more than a shimmer in the air.

ӁӁӁ

It was just a couple hours shy of sunrise when the Slayers and hunters rolled into town. The horizon was just starting to lighten on one side, kissing the landscape with hints of pink and orange and purple. There was a slight chill in the air, a feeling that Buffy was grateful for after the long days in the Texas heat. They had driven all day, topping speeds that were most definitely not appreciated on the highway. The poor little neon had damn near overheated, but it had somehow managed the drive. Instead of taking 27 hours to make it, the gang made it in about 20 hours. Honestly, it was a nice change of pace to arrive at the start of the day rather than the end.

"Let's hope we have better luck finding a motel this time."

The rest agreed with Sam as they slowly drove down the quiet streets looking for that welcoming 'vacancy' sign glow. The first place they came across seemed fine enough, so they stopped and the four of them wandered in, all hoping that the vacancy was more than one room.

The office was about as dingy as they had expected based on the outside. The carpet was old and musty and covered in holes and mystery stains; it was not the kind of carpet they really wanted to even walk on. The wallpaper was peeling, revealing the bare drywall behind – yellowed with age and what looked like nicotine. Hanging from the ceiling in one corner was a couple TV monitors showing what the cameras, wherever they were, were seeing. A radio crackled from somewhere in the room, an old-timey tune hidden just under the static. If nothing else, at least the lights all seemed to work fine – no flickering here. The reception desk was empty – not an unfamiliar sight. Dean couldn't even begin to count out how many times he and Sammy had rolled into a motel and waited around until someone finally showed up – beckoned by multiple rings of those stupid little bells. And so Dean struck that stupid little bell. Once and waited. Twice and waited. Thrice and waited.

"Oh this is ridiculous – HEY! Anybody home?" Dean called out.

The curtain that, presumably, led to the back office finally parted. The small framed boy that came out to join them looked young – much too young to be working the night shift at a dingy motel. Buffy thought about saying something to that effect but decided against it – it was none of her business. Besides, there was a time when she was too young for her job, too. He walked up to the reception desk, his eyes darting between the four people standing in front of him and across the entire room. His hands, held down low in an effort to hide them, looked to be shaking. His skin looked a little pale, as though he hadn't seen the sun in months, but that could probably be owed to working the night shift. Dean figured the kid was high, a fair assumption considering his nervous behaviour, but whatever. As long as he could give them two rooms to crash in, the kid could be seeing purple dragons for all he cared.

"Ca-can I help you?"

"Hope so. Got two rooms open?" Dean asked, leaning down on the desk.

"Uh, I think so? One sec," the kid said, his voice just barely above a whisper.

The group waited as the kid tapped at various keys, his eyes glued to the computer screen in front of him. Sam's eyes began to wander around the room, taking in and cringing at all the grimy and musty details. This place certainly wasn't going to win any awards. Out of the corner of his eye, Sam caught a light flashing. Turning towards it, he couldn't quite place where it had come from. Then, just as before, a light flashed. The TVs in the corner showed the room as it was, with a retinal flare replacing the kid's eyes each time he looked even slightly up from the computer screen. Sam elbowed Faith next to him and nodded towards the screen. He wasn't sure if she'd know what the glowing eyes would mean, but he was sure she'd recognize that something wasn't quite right. A subtle approach seemed smart since neither Sam nor Dean were currently armed and Dean was within damage range of whatever the boy really was. Faith looked between the screen and the kid and then nodded to Sam. She understood. Casually she walked up to the desk, her eyes never leaving the kid. She said something to get his attention, and as soon as he looked up from the computer he found her hand around his throat, lifting him up from the ground.

"Faith!" Buffy yelled out.

"He's a shifter!" Sam called back.

Dean backed up and instinctively reached back for his gun – the gun that had been left in the Impala. Damnit.

The shifter struggled under Faith's grip but could gain no quarter. His hands clawed at hers desperately to try and loosen her grip or cause her to let go. Faith didn't even break a sweat as she hauled him over the counter.

"So what are we looking at? Decapit – FUCK," Faith stopped as a sharp spike jabbed straight through her wrist.

She dropped the kid involuntarily, blood rushing from her wrist.

"Jefferson Starships?" Sam exclaimed, the confusion obvious in his voice.

The Starship lunged towards Sam, knocking him to the ground. He gnashed his teeth as Sam struggled to shove the assailant off of him. Hands, one well bloodied by now, landed on the Starship's shoulders and tossed him across the room as though he weighed nothing. Faith reached down and offered her hand to Sam, which he gladly took to help him get back to his feet. Dean and Buffy had then joined the fight, corralling the Starship in the one corner farthest from any sort of escape route he could take. Buffy narrowly missed a few swipes of the Starship's spike which was still dripping with Faith's blood. Cornered like this, the Starship was starting to behave erratically, much like a wild animal. It's swings were desperate and ferocious, it's teeth biting at any inch of skin it could possibly reach – a certain game over if he managed to make contact. Sam cast his glance to the reception desk, looking for anything that could serve as a weapon. If these were indeed Jefferson Starships, then there was very little they could do to kill this thing. The Slayers were strong, but he wasn't sure they were strong enough to rip it's heart out through it's chest. Even if they were, getting that close would be a dangerous game as long as he still had teeth to bite with. So they needed something sharp and silver to claim the thing's head. Standing in a wire basket was a collection of pens, paperclips, pushpins, and a letter opener. He wasn't sure what the chances were that the letter opener was actually silver, but it was all they had at this point. He vaulted the reception desk and snapped up the small letter opener, hoping against hope that there was even a trace of silver in it.

"Dean!" Sam called out before tossing the blade to his brother.

The blade was caught easily but using it was another thing. The Starship's movements had become more erratic and panicked as it realized it was not only out-numbered, but for all it's strength, out-muscled as well. For a brief moment, the Starship turned it's attention to Buffy as it recognized the sheer amount of power and strength she had as she pressed her attack. The short shift in attention was all that Dean needed to drive the letter opener deep into the Starship's neck. The shriek that emitted from the thing was encouraging – it meant that there was enough silver to do at least some damage. The Starship howled as it turned on Dean, slashing viciously with the spike extending from it's wrist. Dean dodged the blow and countered with a strong right hook. The Starship didn't even seem to notice the attack as it connected with it's face. Dean continued to assault the Starship with a flurry of hits, anything to keep it's attention. From behind, Buffy took the opportunity to grab hold of the small bit of handle that was protruding from the Starship's neck. With a strong pull, Buffy yanked the blade through the remaining section of it's neck, severing the head clean from it's body. The head bounced to the ground accompanied by a sort of squishing sound before coming to a rest at it's own body's feet.

Breaths were caught by all as they did a quick sweep of the back room to make sure that they were actually alone now.

"So, what the hell? Jefferson Starships? Again?" Dean asked, giving the remains a light kick with his boot.

"Jefferson Starships?" Faith paused, thinking it through, "…'cause they're fucking awful?"

A wide grin broke out on Dean's face, "I knew I liked you."

"Alright, alright," Buffy laughed, "so what now, keep looking for a motel?"

Faith shook her head and climbed over the reception desk. It took a little rummaging, but she managed to find keys to two rooms side by side.

"C'mon, free room, B!"

"Well, all our rooms end up being free…" Sam pointed out.

Which was a fair point, but they weren't about to pass up a double-free room, right? They grabbed their bags and headed down to the end of the building where their new rooms were located. Hopefully no one would notice that they weren't actually signed in the log book. Once settled in, Dean and Sam explained their previous run in with the Jefferson Starships. At least it wasn't just some vamp nest that had settled in, which would have been a complete and utter waste of their time. If there was ever to be a sign that Eve had been around, this was definitely it, which was actually a good sign. The fact that it had taken over almost an entire town before did not bode well for Fort Morgan, but they could still hope they arrived in time to put a stop to a total wipe out. They didn't think Eve often repeated her created monsters, so they had to wonder what it was about this town, about the Starships, that made her want to do so. Was there something they needed them for specifically? Or did she recognize how successful those things would have been if the Winchesters hadn't shown up?

"So there's more of those things around here, yeah?" Faith asked, wrapping a roll of gauze around her still bleeding wrist.

"Most likely. Doubt Eve put all her hopes on a pimply teenaged motel worker," Dean said.

Buffy looked grim, knowing the answer to her question even before she asked it, "and there's no way to…reverse it?"

Both Sam and Dean shook their head. It was worth asking anyways.

That made their next course of action clear – they had to try and track down the rest of the Starships. There wasn't a lot to go on, and Fort Morgan was a bit bigger than the normal hunting ground. There was a lot of ground to cover. The last time she had created these things, the bar seemed to be Eve's favourite location to spread the infection so it seemed to be the obvious place to start. There were two bars nearby which seemed the obvious choices based on proximity. The ability to split into two groups and still use the buddy system was probably the best part of traveling as a group of four. They could cover both bars in half the time and take no stupid risks that could get one of them hurt, or worse, killed. It took a little coaxing, but in the end they decided that Buffy and Dean would check out Murphy's while Sam and Faith would canvas The Gallery. One of these days Dean would be less hesitant to split up from his brother, but today was apparently not that day.

"No stupid risks, call if you find anything," Dean said, mostly to Sam rather than Faith.

They loaded up with silver knives small enough to hide on their person and made sure that each one was easily accessible. Buffy was partial to her scythe that was well protected in the back of the Impala, but it wasn't subtle enough to get away with in the middle of the day. She tried, and failed, to hide her disappointment. She held out hope that she'd get to use it before the day was out, though. She really loved that scythe. Equipped with the gear they needed, the two of them headed out to see if they could muster up a path to follow.

"How's your wrist?" Sam asked once the two of them were alone.

Faith shrugged, "it stings like a sonuvabitch, but it'll heal."

Sam couldn't help but be impressed. He had seen firsthand, a couple times now, just how lethal a Slayer was. Buffy was disciplined in her movements, every attack calculated and sure. Faith was almost wild in her approach, using sheer strength to overwhelm her foe. Both had speed, agility, and amazing instincts in battle. He had watched both Buffy and Faith fight, with all their similarities and all their differences, and the results were the same: a very dead monster. Slayers were built for this, that much he had known since he first stumbled across the legend in one of his dad's books, but until he saw it for himself, he had completely underestimated it. They were formidable.

"Must be nice to heal fast."

Faith agreed. There were a lot of perks to being a Slayer, perks that Buffy never seemed to relish in like Faith did. The healing factor was definitely one of them. She never had to sit one out because of some lucky shot a monster got on her. Even now, she could feel the tendons mending themselves in her wrist and the strength returning. She'd be surprised if there was any trace of it left by the end of the day.

"Good to head out?" She asked.

Sam nodded and the two headed the same way Buffy and Dean had gone just moments ago.

"So what exactly are we hoping to find?"

Sam shrugged, "honestly? Any sign of more of those things. We gotta take 'em out before they infect the entire town."

"And hope to find Eve? Or do you think she's already moved on?"

Sam shook his head, "no, she's probably still here. Especially if her goal is to infect the entire town."

The bar they were checking out – The Gallery – was the closest to both the motel and the edge of town than any other in Fort Morgan. The sign above the door had seen better days, with letters 't,' 'g,' and 'a' having fallen off long ago. The remaining letters were rusted, leaving red streaks to fall below. The sign had once been illuminated but that was no longer the case. All that remained were broken bulbs and some exposed wiring. The place wasn't open for the day yet, and so the front door was locked up from the previous night. If the sign was any indicator, the lock was probably just as worn out. Faith shot a quick glance around before reefing the door open and breaking the lock. So much for not leaving a trace. Sam handed Faith an extra flashlight as they entered the dark bar, blades at the ready just in case. The bar looked about as nice as the outside did, with broken chairs, holes in the wall, and ceiling tiles hanging from their tracking.

"What a charming place," Faith muttered as she wandered her way towards the back of the building.

The whole building was quiet, as would be expected of a bar closed for business, and they seemed to be alone. Even still, neither Slayer nor hunter were willing to speak louder than a hushed whisper. Most of their communication came from pointing and nodding their heads in various directions. It was as though they were afraid that the walls had ears, which was always a possibility when hunting beasties and monsters. A full sweep of the building resulted in nothing. There was no one left inside – no Starships, no humans, no bodies, not even a sign of a struggle of any kind. It looked like just another dive bar waiting to open for business. It was kind of a letdown, truth be told. Hopefully Buffy and Dean would turn something up, because so far they had nothing.

"Let's check out back before we head out, just in case," Sam suggested as he unlocked the backdoor.

Faith quickly grabbed onto Sam and stopped him from opening the door. He couldn't hear it, but there were voices out back. Human or not, Sam and Faith didn't really want to encounter anyone. They had, after all, just broken into a bar and rummaged around for a while. They stood together in silence for a minute or two to listen to whatever was being discussed out back. Faith could just barely make out at least half of the conversation, which wasn't much but it was better than nothing.

"Didn't you hear about Jimmy? He's dead, man! Just like, fell to pieces last night." A pause filled with a voice just a bit too far away to hear. "Well he better fix us soon or we ain't gonna make it much longer." Another pause. "Let him hear me. I ain't afraid of him. If he's so tough, why are we doing all his dirty work?" A longer pause. Obviously the other voice had a lot to say to that. "Whatever. Don't forget you're up next. He's expecting you in a couple of hours."

The other voice responded with something. The sound of a door slamming shut followed the voice and then it was silent.

Faith held up a finger for Sam, indicating that there was at least one person – or monster – out there still. Sam nodded that he understood and pulled out one of his blades. Together they burst through the door and took the thing unaware. The Starship bared it's teeth at the noise, confirming it's identity. It was unable to overcome the element of surprise and did not even get a blow in before Sam relieved it of it's head. Faith looked impressed as she eyed Sam up and down again.

"Nice swing, big guy," She said, tossing the head inside the bar and out of sight. "Now, where'd the other one go?"

"Cellar door?" Sam nodded to the side as he wiped the blood off his blade.

Faith's first instinct was to dive headfirst into the cellar and wipe out whoever, whatever, was hiding down below. In any other situation that is exactly what she would do, and she wouldn't even think twice about it. But the Starship they'd just killed had said some interesting things. Like the one down below was supposed to meet someone who was obviously their boss. That alone was worth acting with some caution. Plus, she was curious what he meant about getting "fixed." So, instead of running in with blades and wiping out whatever they could find, Faith snuck over and slowly opened the door. She listened quietly until she heard what she wanted – the sound of a couple of those things moving around and talking. There were definitely some Starships hiding out down below. Quite a lot of them by the sounds of it. It was time to call in the other two.

"Let's get out of sight until they get here," Sam suggested.

Buffy and Dean arrived not long after they were called. They found Sam and Faith stashed up on the roof of the bar, keeping one eye on the cellar door to make sure their little friend hadn't left yet.

"Whattya got?" Buffy asked as she saddled up next to the other Slayer.

She and Dean had been glad to get the call from Faith. They had found absolutely nothing at Murphy's. There was no hint of anything fishy going on there – a total dead end. They were just about to head down the road to see if the next place would prove any more useful when they found out that Sam and Faith had hit the jackpot. After hearing what Faith had overheard, Buffy was practically giddy about it.

They hadn't been sitting long when the cellar door swung open again. One guy, dressed as though he had just got off the construction site, emerged and headed down and out of the alleyway. They had planned to split up once more, with Buffy tailing the lone Starship while the other three cleared out however many remained in the cellar before catching up. The goal was, of course, to eliminate as many of these monsters as they could, but they knew that following that one to whatever meeting he could possibly have was probably going to prove pretty lucrative for them. What kind of monsters have meetings, anyway?

Buffy waited until the Starship was a ways down the block before dropping down off of the roof. She landed silently about a block behind it and began her skulk down the street. As she trailed him, she couldn't help but wonder just what the hell she might be getting herself into. The Starship walked without any sort of caution, greeting every single person he passed as he walked. To her, this didn't seem like a monster that was trying to blend in at all. But then again, he looked just like someone who belonged here, so why would he try to slip by unnoticed? From what Dean and Sam had told them earlier, these things didn't really seem like the type to report to anything that wasn't Eve, so just what was this Starship going to meet?

Just a few blocks behind her she could hear the other three pulling up the rear. She was glad that they were staying a ways back – made it less obvious that this thing had a tail at all. Eventually they were led down the highway out to what looked like an abandoned factory. Why did baddies always shack up in factories and warehouses? Could they be any more cliché? Buffy hung back while the Jefferson Starship took a look around – suddenly behaving as though he had a reason to be nervous. Seeing nothing around, he slipped into the building. When the remaining three caught up, the group followed him into the building – blades at the ready. Dean handed Buffy the scythe from the Impala – to which she smiled in a giddy sort of way.

They moved quietly through the empty halls, trying to keep the noise and echoes to a minimum. As they got deeper and deeper into the massive factory, they started to worry that maybe they had lost the Starship they had been following. There was no sign of it – or any others for that matter. They were just starting to feel a little discouraged when Buffy and Faith started hearing voices. Up ahead by a large door stood two Jefferson Starships, clearly guarding whatever was through that door. At least they were going the right way for something. Dean tapped Sam on his shoulder and nodded towards the two guards up ahead. Sam nodded and the two boys moved forward, each taking a path towards the door on the opposite sides of the building. Silently, like shadow assassins, they both descended on their respective targets and severed the heads clean from their bodies. The heads fell in unison, not even a look of shock registering on their faces. No other foes seemed to be around, so they signalled the girls to also move up. Through the door, they continued to move quietly. Voices were louder now and easier to pick out. There were probably another half-dozen of these things up ahead. The crew had the element of surprise on their side and they were definitely pretty equally matched for strength, but a pack of these things were more concerning than they'd like.

"We're not gonna be able to sneak up on them this time," Dean whispered.

"Let's just go in guns a-blazin' then," Faith said. "Blades a-blazin'."

Buffy nodded and gripped her scythe tightly. She was more than ready for a good fight and so was her blade.

"Then let's do this," Sam agreed.

The four of them burst through the door, ready for a battle. They weren't expecting to find what they did. There were just about a dozen or so, a few more than expected, of the Jefferson Starships in this room, but a battle it was not. The creatures were sprawled on the ground, some were barely conscious. Not one of them made a move towards the four humans that had entered the room. All they did was stare at them with unfocused eyes. Their flesh was falling away from their frames, leaving bone exposed all across their bodies. Hair was falling out of some of their skulls and a few looked to have lost a limb or two. They were falling apart.

"They're sick?" Buffy looked around the room, taking in the scene.

"This must be what that one was talking about, needing to be fixed?" Faith suggested. "Have you seen this before?"

Sam shook his head, "no. This strain looks like it's…unstable, maybe?"

Whatever it was, it made for easy elimination. They went around the room putting the pathetic things out of their misery. Even if they couldn't get all of the Starships that had been created, at least they now knew that they all had an expiration date.

None of the creatures they had killed so far was the Starship that they had been tailing. So he was still here somewhere. There was a stairwell in the back corner of the room. There was no external door in the room, so the stairs were the obvious choice.

"Going down?"

Chapter Text

Chapter Fourteen – Dance With the Devil

Their footsteps echoed as they descended the dark stairwell. The air felt different down here, like there was a sudden change in the pressure or density. Except that wasn't it, not quite. It was just…heavier down here. Whatever was down here, they knew it wasn't going to be anything good. Something big was coming and they were blindly walking right into it's den.

"So, what do you think we're gonna find down here?" Sam asked.

Faith shrugged, "I dunno. Some big kahuna I guess."

Stop now. Go back.

Buffy stopped, "what the hell was that?"

Dean also stopped, "you heard that too?"

Sam and Faith both nodded their heads.

It was a rumble, somewhere deep within their own skulls. It rattled their bones but made no sound in the outside world. The sound could have ripped their minds apart, but instead it merely wanted them scared. It couldn't be called a voice, not really, but it sure as hell got the message across. Something did not want them coming down here.

You cannot win here. Turn back or perish.

It obviously didn't know who they were. The four of them pressed on.

The stairs below their feet changed the further they went down. What had started out as solid concrete steps slowly crumbled away to concrete dust and then to wooden steps. If this basement had ever been in use, it was long, long ago now. It was clear that no one had gone down these stairs in years but had once been well used as the steps were well worn. The lights dimmed as well and soon they were trudging along a dark corridor with nothing but the Slayers' ability to see in the dark to guide them. As they continued to walk they realized that this hall went far beyond the outside wall of the factory. Wherever this led was not part of the original building and they had no idea where they really were anymore. Buffy wondered where this path was going to spit them out. They were just starting to get a little nervous about the path when they finally saw light up ahead. Torch light flickered against the walls, casting long shadows down their dingy corridor. Shapes passed in front of the light source, breaking the light that passed down.

Buffy looked back to Dean and held up three fingers to indicate what was up ahead. Encountering enemies was always a good sign that they were getting close to whatever it was they were making their way to. Dean nodded that he understood and passed the memo back to the other two. They broke into the small alcove, catching the three sentries by complete surprise. It worked to their advantage as they were able to eliminate all three Starships without even breaking a sweat. With the toe of her boot, Buffy rolled one of the dead Starships over to reveal the face of the one they had been tailing. At least they knew they had eliminated that one.

"There's so many of these damn things," Buffy said.

Dean nodded, "they're easily made – just a quick bite and ya got another one."

It was a grim thought, but it was lessened by knowing that they seemed to have that expiration date. Once they got sick, they weren't biting anyone. Even if the gang didn't manage to take down all of the Starships, the infection would soon run its course and the town would be free. Whatever Eve had planned for this town, for this creature, had obviously failed. It was a small victory, and one that they hadn't exactly earned, but Buffy would take it all the same. It meant that Eve had a failure on her side and that was good enough for now.

A door loomed in front of them, torches stationed on either side. The wooden planks and metal hinges screamed as they pushed the door open, mentally preparing to face whatever they would find on the other side. The small alcove opened to a cavernous room, the ceiling so high they couldn't see it in the gloom. The walls were lined with about a dozen Jefferson Starships all watching intently as the four humans entered their space. These ones were not falling apart like the ones before. They weren't sick, at least not yet anyway, and therefore they had a much more dangerous, lethal air about them. But not one of them made a move, ordered by the dark mass that stood at the center of the room.

You should have turned back. I will crush you and deliver Her your heads. I am Her General and I will not fail Her.

It's eyes glowed green in the darkness and it's mouth did not move as it spoke. A telepath. It was how the monsters in Purgatory communicated with Eve. Buffy remembered how in sync the monsters were in battle, all without saying a word. It all made sense now – they didn't have to say a thing out loud, if they even could speak at all. She wondered if she had come up against one like this 'General' while she was there. It looked like those things that Buffy and Dean had fought together for the first time, but something wasn't quite the same. A much deeper, darker sense of power radiated off of the beast, enough to remind her just how dangerous that world really was. Suddenly she could smell that familiar musty smell of rotting flesh and muddy earth. The walls around them flickered in and out of existence, replaced by twisted trees and a dark, starless sky. 'No, please no. Not now. Not again' she thought. She knew what was coming and she couldn't let it happen. She reached her hand out, groping for one of her crew that was with her. Her hand landed on Dean's, who grabbed back immediately. He could feel her hand shaking and gave a squeeze. He probably thought she was scared, she thought, but that didn't matter to her right now. What mattered was grounding herself – reminding herself that Purgatory was long behind her now. She was here. In Texas. With each squeeze from Dean, with each deep breath from Buffy, the trees faded away. The scent disappeared. She wasn't going to break – not even crack. She was stronger than that. With determination she stared back up at the creature, her eyes aflame.

"You should have stayed where you belong," Buffy said, her voice strong and even.

The monster stretched to it's full height, towering over the four humans. A barbed tail, long and lethal, swished behind the creature. It's neck was lined with what looked almost like gills, but did not appear to move like would be expected – it did not use these to breathe. Where one would expect it to have ribs, the creature had spikes protruding from it's flesh. That was familiar and Buffy knew that they could retract at will, and she also knew that they had the ability to an exceptional amount of damage if one got too close. At the center of it's chest, amidst the armour it's flesh provided, a red amulet glowed and pulsated eerily. Something about it seemed familiar, but Buffy didn't know why. What she did know, only because her instinct told her as much, was that it represented a threat. A threat to her, to them, to the world. This monster was important somehow. More than that, it was Eve's. It had to be eliminated.

Buffy looked at Dean and he nodded. She could only hope he knew what her look had meant. She didn't have time to wait and find out. With her scythe at the ready, Buffy lunged at the creature using both her own momentum and the thing's own girth to launch herself up and over the looming beast. As she passed over it's head, Buffy drove impossibly sharp blade downwards, slashing at it's neck. The armoured skin absorbed most of the blow, leaving only a small slash where the scythe had been and nothing more. Dean was close behind, coming in low and slashing at the thing's sides with the hope of damaging or even removing some of those deadly spikes from it's side. Buffy grinned as she heard the thing wail in pain. Dean grinned as well, just as ready to continue the dance they had perfected in Purgatory.

Buffy's move had been so sudden, so rash, that there was a moment or two in which the room hadn't realized a fight had broken out. Faith and Sam took advantage of the lag and set to work on the Starships that had them surrounded. They were able to drop two before any of them realized what was happening.

"Ten against two. I like those odds," Faith hissed. Sam looked a little less sure about it.

The remaining Starships descended on them with spikes reaching out and teeth gnashing. They clawed their way towards the hunter and the Slayer, ready to tear them apart. Faith brandished her blade, an errant sword that had been stashed in the trunk of the Impala, and charged into the mass of Starships, dropping another one before any of them even got close to her. Faith started to envy Buffy her scythe; the blade she had didn't quite have the reach, the lethality, she wished for. Her wrist was healed well enough, but it still throbbed enough to remind her of what happens when you get too close to these things. Her blade was able to decapitate just fine, though, and while the Starships had super human strength, they weren't able to compete with a Slayer. Faith and her sword cut through them like butter.

Somewhere in the fray, Faith lost track of Sam. He could hold his own, that much he had proved already, but this was beyond anything she'd expect even a well-trained hunter to handle. With two Starships pressing their attack, however, Faith had no time to stop and look for the giant hunter. She had one knocked to the ground, unable to stand on it's now broken leg. It was crawling towards her slowly, still intent on bringing her down. The second monster was closing in on her, swinging it's spike wildly at her in a desperate attempt to make contact. Not looking to have another spike go through her today, Faith dodged the attacks and drove her blade deep into the thing's neck. But the angle was all wrong and the blade became embedded in the spine of the creature and refused to budge again. She tugged on it, but the blade refused to let go. Too late she sensed an attack from behind. With her blade currently embedded in the neck of one Starship, somewhere deep in the bone she imagined, she was limited in her reaction to the surprise attack. Faith spun, dragging the Starship around with her, hoping like hell she could deflect whatever was coming at her. 'Please let it be a spike and not teeth,' she thought. The Starship that had tried to sneak up on her was less than half a foot away by the time Faith managed to spin around, it's mouth wide open ready to take a chunk of her flesh. She let go of her blade's handle, leaving it stuck in the one creature's bone, and latched on to the monster that was within seconds of taking her down. Her wrist throbbed and ached – the wound leaching strength from her grip as she struggled to keep the creature at bay. The Starship with the broken leg was still advancing and was now grabbing at her leg, trying to find purchase long enough to sink it's teeth into her ankle. She kicked at it's face while trying to wrestle the other one away from her, but it was starting to be a losing battle. The word 'fuck' was muttered a couple of times as she struggled against the small mob.

A spray of blood coated her face suddenly as a knife erupted through the open mouth of the Starship in front of her. The knife dragged upwards which cleaved the head in two. The Starship fell to the ground, where Sam quickly took it's head off with a swing of the axe he'd been carrying. He took a swing at the Starship with the broken leg and easily parted it from it's head. Faith wiped the blood from her face and nodded a vague 'thanks' to Sam, obviously both appreciative and impressed, before she finally managed to yank her blade free from the one creature's spine. The battle continued.

"Watch it!" Buffy called as the monster's gills spewed forth a large volume of sickly red liquid. Another hole appeared in the concrete floor, bubbling and steaming with a pungent odour of battery acid and lye.

Buffy and Dean's battle also raged on, and it wasn't immediately clear who was winning and who was losing. The liquid that the monster was able to spew at them was a devastating attack, especially in close quarters. Both Dean and Buffy had avoided the attack so far, only having small drops reach the intended target. Mixed in with the smell of battery acid and lye was the smell of burning flesh. It was sickening. Buffy was bleeding profusely from her shoulder and back, both spots where the barbed tail had managed to bite in. Dean, too, was bleeding after having taken a spike through the hand at one point and a claw across his chest a few others. They weren't the only ones hurting though. The creature had suffered damage at their hands as well. Most of the spikes that lined it's side had been broken and destroyed. The armoured flesh around it's chest and head had been worn away and a black and red goo seeped through the wounds as the creature's movements slowed.

Buffy stabbed the stake end of her scythe into the thing's tail, separating a few of the barbs from the stem as she did. The creature roared and spun to face her, swinging it's claw wildly but without making any contact as she could move faster than it. Taking the opportunity, Dean dug his machete deep into the gill-like structure the creature had at it's neck. He tore through it, hoping to destroy whatever allowed it to create or spew that retched liquid. Red and black goo gurgled up from the wound without any force behind it and uselessly dribbled down the creature's side. Dean took that as a good sign but moved away all the same. The monster wheeled around again to gnash it's teeth at Dean, but it's movements were far too slow by now. Buffy and Dean had kept it moving constantly and together with the damage they had inflicted, it seemed to be wearing it down. With it's tail now much less lethal, Buffy dashed in close for an attack. Using the tail as a launching point, Buffy leapt up and drove her scythe down through the thing's skull and didn't stop until her blade would go no further, until she felt the muscle and sinew separate inside of that thing's head. The creature flailed for a moment or two, but with no life left was unable to do anything of worth. The familiar rumble worked its way up from the monster's gut, and Buffy jumped off of the mass just in time for it to burst into that same black and red goo that had been seeping from it's wounds. Buffy and her scythe dropped to the ground as the goo ate away at whatever bit of concrete remained after the fight. Soon, the only thing that remained of the creature was that red amulet, still glowing and pulsating in the darkness. Buffy snatched it up before anything could happen to it.

"Well that was bracing," Dean said, wiping the blood from his cheek.

"Not awful this time?" Buffy winked. "Look at us, still got the moves."

They shared a quick high five before wandering over to where the other two were finishing off the last of the Jefferson Starship that remained. It looked like a few more had entered the fray, but even more had run off when they realized it was a losing battle. That was fine – they'd all be dead soon anyway. Especially without that General to extend the period of stability, which is what they assumed was the meeting the Starships had referenced. Before anything, a check for any bite marks was done. It was unnecessary in the end, but everyone felt better having done so. Afterwards, they took a glance around the room and at the carnage left behind. There were smouldering holes in the concrete floor, a circle of dead Starships strewn about, and spatters of blood on just about every surface within the room. Their eyes fell on each other, worn from the battle. Torn clothing, blood, goo, and dirt was all they could see of one another. The sense of relief, of victory, was palpable in the room. And then they burst into laughter. It was that kind of laughter that started out as a one small smile but soon snowballed into a deep belly laugh with tears on cheeks and breath hard to draw. It felt good. As the laughter died down, they realized they had come to the end of the road once again.

"So what now?" Buffy asked, taking deep breaths.

"Yeah, General is dead. Starships are practically eliminated. Town is saved. But we're no closer to Eve," Sam said.

Faith looked between the Slayer and the hunters. With a grin on her face she said the only thing that made any sense at the time:

"I say we party."

ӁӁӁ

It was almost impossible to know that this town had come dangerously close to disaster if the mood in the bar was anything to judge by. The music was up, the dance floor was crawling, the tables were packed, and the patrons were lost in the atmosphere. There was no sign of worry or fear – just joy and excitement. Faith, who was used to bars being grimy, musty, and mostly empty, felt a little out of place. They were fortunate enough to find a booth in the back corner that was still empty. Settling into the seats they breathed a sigh of relief. It had been a non-stop marathon for the past few weeks and it was a much needed, and much deserved, break for the crew. Especially for Buffy who'd had a bomb dropped on her and then immediately had to hit the road. The four of them had been together nonstop ever since, but this felt like the first time they had actually talked with one another. The only rule? No shop talk. They weren't really sure what else they were going to talk about, but it was still a pretty important rule.

Dean stood back up, "beers?"

Faith nodded, indifferent to whatever drink would show up in front of her. She just wanted booze.

Buffy shook her head, "not beer. Definitely not beer. Beer bad. Here, I'll help carry."

Faith was quick to fill the extra space across from her by kicking her feet up on the booth's seat. Without a beer to keep her hands occupied, Faith began to pick and pull at one of the soggy coasters that remained on the table from earlier in the night. She cast glances around the bar, not really focusing in on any one particular sight. Really, it was anything to avoid the gaze of the hunter across from her. Things felt a little awkward between the hunter and the Slayer since they had hit the road, and it was a feeling that Faith wasn't really keen on dealing with right now. They hadn't really been big on conversation during the time they had spent together and it made it hard to know where to start now. Faith had never been good at small talk or even striking up a conversation with people, so she wasn't very good at finding the words to use in these sort of situations. With the brother, Dean, she at least had some common ground. They could talk about music or cars or guns or even the love of the hunt. They were cut from the same sorta cloth and all that. But Sam? He was pretty to look at sure, both the brothers were, but what else was there for her to relate to? He was smart – bookish. He'd been to university for fuck's sake – Faith hadn't even finished high school. From what she could tell, everything she had in common with Dean was everything the two brothers didn't have in common. What the hell could they have to talk about?

Faith's attention fell to some of the kids on the dancefloor. She wondered how many of those girls were gonna end up in the same sort of situation she was in just a few weeks ago, with some creep taking advantage of them or getting a little too aggressive, but without the ability to defend themselves. She could intervene if she saw something going down, but she'd never be able to protect all those poor girls from the creeps of the world. Unfortunately, Slayers had vampire sensing capabilities which didn't apply to creeps and rapists. Faith wished it did.

"Vampire?" Sam asked, breaking the silence.

Faith turned her attention back to her table companion, "hm?"

"You're staring pretty intently at the dancefloor. Just wondering if you found a vamp or something."

"Oh," Faith shook her head, "no, just watching."

"That's something that you can do, right? Slayers I mean, they can sense vampires and monsters?"

Faith nodded and the two fell back into a sort of stilted silence punctuated only by Faith tapping her fingers on the table. Until Sam thought of another question.

"Is it something you learn or that you get as soon as you're….activated? Called?"

"Uh, both. Sort of. We can all do it, but Watchers teach their Slayers how to use it properly, to really pick up on the feeling. It's why B is better at it than I am."

"Didn't you have a Watcher too?" Sam asked.

Faith snapped at him, "what's with all the Slayer questions? It feels like you've been interviewing me for some damn book or something since we hit the road."

"I'm just trying to get to know you, I guess," Sam stuttered out, feeling a warmth in his cheeks that he hoped she couldn't see.

"Then ask me my favourite band, or where I grew up, or what I like in bed, or what my middle name is. Something." Faith said, an edge to her words as she spoke.

"…I'm sorry."

Faith felt bad immediately after she snapped at Sam but refused to say so. She couldn't pinpoint exactly why it bothered her that he had been asking all these questions, it just did. Maybe it reminded her how many people only cared that she was the Slayer and didn't give a damn about her. Maybe she just didn't like nosy questions. Maybe it was because she didn't really have any answers. She honestly didn't know why it got to her as much as it did. A part of her, deep down inside, wanted to also apologize but instead she returned her gaze to the dancefloor watching for any sign of trouble. Or just avoiding the awkward situation they were now in. Either way.

"So what is your middle name?"

Faith grinned, "if I told you that, I'd have to kill you."

Just past Sam, Faith could see that Buffy and Dean had finally made their way to the front of the line at the bar. She noticed that Buffy had slipped her hand into Dean's back pocket and the two appeared to be deep in conversation while they waited for the bartender to come by. The way they looked at each other was sickening. In a good way of course, but still sickening. Faith couldn't remember a time when Buffy looked that happy and it wasn't an entirely doomed situation. It was a nice change of pace. She couldn't help but notice that Dean was returning a similar gaze as he stood there. There was no question in her mind: that boy was in deep with no hope of ever escaping.

The pair returned with drinks, still lost in their own conversation. They remained completely unaware of the silence that had been hanging over the small booth since they had left. In fact, they seemed pretty unaware that there was anyone else at the booth with them at all. Whatever conversation they were having, and Faith was doing her best not to listen in, seemed to be pretty enthralling. Buffy's laugh seemed to come effortlessly while she was with her hunter. It was almost easy to forget that she had been fighting for her life every single day since she was fifteen. Actually, if anyone were to pay any sort of attention to their table at all, they would see nothing more than a group of friends out for the evening. For once, they were just being normal people. Even if it was pretend, Faith was going to enjoy it for all it was. It felt oddly nice to not be drinking on her own, a sensation she was not at all used to. If she wasn't careful, she could get used to this.

Out of the corner of her eye, Faith saw Buffy lean in towards Dean and whisper something in his ear. He bit his lip as she smirked at him and then slid out of the booth. He was close behind, his hand in hers and neither paid any attention to the two who remained at the table. It was like they weren't even there. If Faith had been listening in she would have heard Buffy whisper to Dean a reminder of a promise made the year before. If she had been watching them, she would have noticed the way that Buffy had pressed up against Dean and the way her hands roamed.

"I think it's time we finally got that dance in that I promised back in The Bronze."

Faith downed the rest of her beer and slid the empty glass across the table. Another beer had been waiting for her and without hesitation she started in on that one. She watched as the couple made their way through the crowded bar, slipping between the patrons with ease. It wasn't long before she lost sight of Buffy and Dean, but still she scanned the crowd for them. She wasn't sure why.

"I'm from Kansas. Lawrence."

"What?"

"I was born in Lawrence," Sam repeated. "So was Dean. I kinda grew up all around the country though, so I don't think I've ever considered it my home town."

Faith hesitated for a moment or two. She hadn't actually meant for him to ask those questions. Honestly, she'd rather carry on knowing that he can handle himself in a fight and that he was easy on the eyes. Nothing more needed to be shared between any of them, really. It wasn't like they were gonna keep being all buddy-buddy once this was all over. They didn't need to get all deep and connected and shit. She figured he was harmless though, so it wasn't the end of the world to indulge him – at least for a little while.

"Boston. Though you probably guessed that already."

Faith had learned long ago that it was hard for her to lie about where she was from. It was particularly difficult when talking to someone who had traveled around at all. Her Boston accent had long faded, but it still slipped out from time to time. Then there were always those certain words that took on the Boston sound no matter what she did to try and stop it. It was a little piece of her old life that she just couldn't seem to hack away.

Faith continued, "I moved around a lot too. Until I was called, anyway."

"When was that?" Sam asked.

She had to think about it. She had long lost track of her birthdays or how old she was. When you lived on your own for as long as she had, the dates and years seem to float by without any notice. There was no fanfare for turning a year older when you were struggling to find where your next meal would be coming from.

"I was…sixteen I think. I remember The Council being surprised it was me – I was almost too old to be called by that point."

Sam looked surprised, "too old?"

Faith nodded, "girls are usually called at fourteen or fifteen. By seventeen, eighteen, it's almost guaranteed that the girl will be passed over."

"Why would they choose such young girls?"

"Man, if you can figure out why they thought that unstable teenaged girls were the best choice to save the world, feel free to let me know 'cause I always thought it was ridiculous."

Sam figured it had something to do with the life expectancy of ancient civilizations. Back then, people were lucky to make it to thirty, so someone in their early teens were probably seen as being mature. Old decisions and prophecies aren't known to change or update, so the Slayer line didn't keep with the times. Or maybe they thought that teenaged girls were easier to manipulate. It didn't matter now, though. Buffy and her friends had changed the Slayer line forever. Whatever flawed thought process once existed made no impact on how the girls became Slayers now. Which was probably for the best, honestly.

"So what about you guys? How does some little family from Kansas get wrapped up in monster hunting? Thought you'd be all white-picket fence and family barbecues."

"Um, well. My mom was killed by a demon and my dad decided to hunt it down. He took us with him and it's a hard life to leave."

"It is," she nodded knowingly, "how old were you?"

"Not even a year old when she died. We were on the road pretty much from there on out."

Sam shared more of his childhood than Faith had expected. There was a lot about this conversation that Faith didn't expect. Like hearing about someone who grew up in totally different circumstances than she did, but having the same sort of experiences she did. Faith wasn't stupid. She knew that she didn't have the only shitty childhood in the world. She knew other kids grew up just the same she had. She just hadn't met them before. Or if she had, they sure as hell hadn't shared their tale as easily as Sam just had.

"What was your childhood like, before you were called?" Sam continued.

Faith chewed on her lip. She took a deep drink from her beer, emptying the nearly full glass. She used this time to look around the bar and find something she could use. Anything. Then she spied it. The far side of the bar, close to where they had entered, were a pair of pool tables. The felt was well worn, with rips and tears plaguing the surface. The legs looked a little wobbly and the cues were definitely more bowed than not, but it was the 'anything but this' that she was looking for.

"You play pool?" She asked.

Sam furrowed his brows, obviously a little thrown by the sudden change in topic.

"Uh, yeah. My brother and I used to play a lot to get some pocket cash."

Faith nodded her head towards the tables and shot Sam an inquisitive look. Sam, figuring a round or two of pool could be fun, grinned and agreed.

"I'll get us a couple more drinks and meet you over there."

On his way back to the tables, Sam kept an eye out for his brother and Buffy, hoping to let them know that he and Faith had abandoned their table. There had been no sight of the two for over an hour now, so he wasn't exactly sure why he thought he'd see them now. Ah well. They'd figure out where he and Faith went off to. Plus he was pretty sure he didn't want to interrupt their time together. Dean had been pining for well over a year for some quality time with Buffy and Buffy only just re-learned all the history the two of them shared. This had been their first kind of chance to be alone without having to sneak off and without some grim monster or battle looming over them. In some aspects, Dean had been acting almost like high school Dean all over again when it came to Buffy – and Sam had seen more than enough of high school Dean back in the day. Whatever those two were up to, Sam was more than happy to not have to witness it.

Sam handed a pint to Faith, "you any good?"

Faith shrugged, "I'm not bad. Better at darts."

Turned out that Faith's 'not bad' was pretty much equal to Dean's 'not bad' when he was hustling tables to make some extra cash. He got the sense that Faith had used some of the same tricks to make money over the years. Nothing had been said to hint to that, but just the way she carried herself told Sam that she'd had a bit of a rough and tumble life. If someone was this good at pool, they'd be stupid to not use it as a way to make cash – and Faith was anything but stupid. That was another thing that she didn't let on – just how smart she really was. The girl was clever, quick-witted, and difficult to fool. Sam had learned a lot just from watching her when she didn't think he was paying much attention. He figured most people hadn't paid much attention to what was below the surface – hazard of being a beautiful girl he supposed.

"Well if this is 'not bad,' your dart game must be pretty amazing," Sam said, racking up another game.

"Oh pool! I haven't played in ages," Buffy said, sliding up to the table.

Dean wasn't far behind her, obviously a little worn out from their time away. His hair was a little more ruffled than it had been when the couple had departed and Sam was pretty sure he spied a button or two in the wrong button holes. Sam tried, and failed, to stifle a chortle. Dean noticed and turned a lovely shade of red when Sam indicated the buttons that needed to be corrected. With a sheepish grin Dean fixed his buttons and returned to his beer. Buffy, who looked no different than when she left, pouted slightly when she realized that her glass was empty. The slight lean in her stance and the red tint to her eyes made Sam wonder just how many drinks the couple had downed in the time they had been off on their own. He supposed it didn't matter, though. What really mattered was that they both seemed to be taking advantage of their moment, however short it was going to be, to breathe. They weren't really allowed to be 'carefree' – but this was probably as close as they would get. That went for all of them.

So when Buffy called out 'shots!' with vigor, not one of the gang hesitated. Shots were exactly what they needed.

"Best idea you've ever had, B," Faith grinned, clapping the other Slayer on the back.

Of course, shots and pool don't necessarily mix and soon their games, which had started as a skilled competition, devolved into each of the four barely being able to strike the cue ball at all and attempts being punctuated by slurred speech and grand stories that seemed to go nowhere. But that was fine. All they needed was just a few more shots. Eventually, after half a dozen shots or so, the four abandoned their attempts all together and slid back into a booth. They were thankful for something solid to sit on that didn't appear to be spinning.

"Shots!" Faith called out once more, downing the latest shot of whatever the hell Dean had brought over.

ӁӁӁ

The house was asleep. Or at least as asleep as it could be. The lights were out anyway. The Slayers had all crawled into their beds exhausted and were now dead to the world. The training grounds had fallen silent, waiting for the girls to return early in the morning. The armoury, finally completed, or at least enough to begin to be functional, sat in a half-stocked state with boxes and chests still scattered around the space. The kitchen, for the first time since they moved in, and quite possibly the last time ever, was quiet and empty. Not even the coffee machine was chugging along.

Xander was buried in a book, one of those books that he would hide before leaving his room lest Andrew find it and strike up a conversation about it. He felt kind of weird now, reading books about the Winchester's when he knew they were real and…kind of his friends? Ya, that made it weird. Maybe he just wouldn't tell them. Willow was curled up in her bed, but her brain would not let her sleep. She had made a valiant effort, but eventually had given up and had retrieved her laptop from the library. Now she was deep in the mythological sites hoping for some sort of hit – some better luck than they had been having up until now. Dawn was still completely captivated by the book that Cas had given her and was trying some of the methods the book had described. If nothing else she was hoping that maybe, just maybe, she could finally open one of those inter-dimensional windows she had been reading so much about.

Lit by candlelight and the light glow of a computer screen, the library was the only room of the house that never stopped. The computer ran at all times, constantly running the algorithms and programs that Andrew had designed and coded. As the machine chugged and beeped along, Andrew saw next to it, eyes heavy and threatening to close, but still focusing on the ancient pages in front of him. Every so often his head would dip, but he would catch himself before he fell asleep completely.

"You can go to bed, you know," Giles said, leaning in the doorframe.

Andrew was startled by the sudden voice in the darkness. He had gotten used to the silence and, at this time, he wasn't expecting anyone else to still be awake.

"It's okay, I'm not tired," Andrew said, stifling a yawn.

"The books will all be here in the morning. Everyone else is getting some well-deserved rest – that should include you." The irony of that statement was not lost on the old Watcher.

It wasn't the books that Andrew was afraid of losing – it was time. They didn't know what they were really up against, they didn't know what her plan was, and they didn't know how long they had before that end game came to fruition. He wanted to prove that he was useful – Andrew wanted to help. So if that meant losing some sleep to keep up the research and try to find the information they needed? That was fine by him. Giles took a seat across from Andrew and slid a warm mug of tea towards him. Andrew smirked, realizing that Giles had been well aware that Andrew wasn't about to turn in for the night.

"You here to keep up the research too?"

Giles shook his head, "no, I'm much too old to stay up this late anymore. Which is what I wanted to talk about."

"Being old?"

Giles chuckled, "essentially yes. You may remember that the Watcher's Council was eliminated during our battle with The First." Andrew nodded so Giles continued, "I need to recruit and train new people to replace those we lost. I will need help with that. I will not be here forever, so I will also need someone to take over for me after I am gone. I think that should be you."

Andrew sat there stunned while he let Giles' words sink in. Him. Giles wanted him to take over. Everyone knew that Willow and Giles were working together to rebuild whatever they could of the Watcher's Council, but no one had ever thought of what would happen when Giles was gone. It was still years away, but Giles was right. Someone needed to be trained to take over – the more years of training the better. He needed someone who understood the world of monsters and the world of men. He needed someone who could lead and teach and research. He needed someone reliable and loyal.

And Giles had chosen him.

Andrew pointed out a lot of reasons that he felt made him unqualified to be a Watcher, let alone to take charge of the Watchers one day. He talked about how he killed his best friend. How he tried to hurt Buffy. How he was just some kid from a small town who knew nothing of the big, vast world around him. He reminded Giles that he had summoned demons to rip the world asunder. What Andrew failed to realize was that he was talking to a man that had the nickname 'Ripper' for a reason. Giles hadn't always been as responsible and proper as he was now. All of Andrew's accomplishments also seemed to be forgotten as Andrew listed all the reasons he thought Giles was making a mistake. The way he organized the Slayers. The way he helped them all get accustomed to living and training here. His commitment to righting the wrongs he had done by nearly tenfold. The algorithms and programs to search out for supernatural cases. His knowledge of monsters and demons and languages. Even some magic. All the things that Giles saw in Andrew, Andrew had failed to notice in himself.

Andrew cleared his throat, "I don't understand."

Giles simply smiled. They weren't so different, Andrew and Giles, and it was something that Giles would never, not in a million years, have expected himself to say.

ӁӁӁ

Riiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiing. Riiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiing.

Buffy groaned, the sound of a phone somewhere within the small motel room stirring her awake. She didn't even have to move before her head began to pound and her whole body to ache. By some miracle, Buffy appeared to have made it to her own bed when they got home last night, though she didn't exactly remember how she got here. She did remember, however, that they had all crashed in the girls' motel room, presumably to continue drinking as she could just barely make out the silhouette of a few bottles on the nightstand across from her. At least that explained why she could feel the warmth and comfort of another body below her, curled up under her blankets. With a lazy grin she curled in closer, not quite ready to start her day.

Riiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiing. Riiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiing.

Oh yeah, the phone was ringing. With blurry eyes, Buffy scanned the room trying to see the offending phone. She succeeded in finding more bottles strewn across the room, which definitely explained why the inside of her head felt as though it was lined with fur. In the bed next to hers, Faith was still out cold. She too had made it to her bed – mostly. It looked as though Faith had passed out while attempting to turn off the light between their beds, or maybe in an effort to reach the next bottle of beer that was sitting on the table. Either way, Faith's head was rested on the nightstand, far from her pillow and her bed. How someone could sleep like that, Buffy wasn't sure.

Riiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiing. Riiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiing.

Whoever was calling was persistent, she'd give them that. That time the ringing disturbed Faith's sleep, as evidenced by the groan and plea for someone to answer that damn phone. She herself made no move to find the phone or to right herself.

On the far side of the room, slumped on the floor and using a chair as a pillow was Dean, his hand still wrapped around the last beer bottle. How the hell that bottle hadn't spilled yet, she'd never know. It was downright impressive. He seemed comfortable enough, but the kink in his neck later was sure to be unbearable. She smiled at his ruffled hair and the fact that he had, at some point, attempted to shrug his jacket off resulting in one arm being free while the other remained in its sleeve. Below her head, the chest that she was sprawled across began to move. Then, slowly, a thought started to form in Buffy's head. It took longer than she was proud of, but the cogs of her brain weren't quite up to full running capacity yet. Dean was sleeping across the room from her. She had yet to locate Sam within the small motel room.

Riiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiing. Riiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiing.

Slowly, as to not make the room spin, Buffy pulled herself up and off, not at all surprised to find Sam with her. Perplexed, certainly, but not surprised. She started to vaguely remember Sam sprawling out on the bed at some point. She also vaguely remembered that she was adamant that she was going to sleep in her own bed – a bed she had only acquired that morning but it was hers all the same. She insisted that Sam not move though. She didn't want to take his bed, she just wanted to sleep in hers.

Drunken logic is weird.

Riiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiing. Riiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiing.

Buffy finally realized that the phone that was ringing was somewhere below her, under the pile of blankets and pillows that had somehow been knocked from the beds. She groped along for it until she managed to grasp it.

"Finally!"

Buffy groaned, "not so loud, Will."

Willow laughed, "sorry to wake you. Sounds like you had a fun night. But you gotta get up."

"Mmkay," Buffy sighed, "why?"

"We have a lot to do today. We're gonna send Eve back."

ӁӁӁ

The diner was a little louder than they would have liked, but at least the coffee was hot and the food was greasy. It was a better start to their afternoon than they had to their morning and that was a relief. After Willow had explained the plan, the four of them had managed to pull themselves together and drag themselves out of their motel rooms. It had taken only minimal scolding from Willow even.

Willow wasn't wrong. Their day was going to be long and busy. But before anything else happened, they needed food. Probably a barrel of coffee each too, but definitely food.

"So how exactly are we supposed to find Eve? We've been on her trail for weeks and come up with nada," Dean asked, piling a forkful of hash browns into his mouth.

"We don't have to do anything," Buffy explained, "all we have to do is hold onto this gem thing we found – Will was really excited about that by the way - and I guess Tavia will take care of the rest. And don't give me that look," she warned.

Dean tried his best to hide his disdain, but he wasn't pleased by it. Magic. Witches. They could track Eve on their own, he knew. A little more pavement pounding and they could find her. They didn't need her and her bullshit spells.

"We do magic too, ya know. Is it so different?"

Dean shot Sam a cross look, but had nothing more to say. Any argument he could come up with seemed to fall flat before he even said the words. Instead he asked Buffy how the gem would help them find Eve. Buffy had been just as skeptical about something as small as a gem helping someone who was thousands of miles away across the ocean to find a being that they hadn't been able to find after weeks of tracking. Willow hadn't gone too far into the details, mostly because she had already lost Buffy, but Buffy at least understood that finding that gem had been a great stroke of luck. Tavia would be able to lock onto the gem by focusing on the resonance it made through touch. Then it was simply a case of following the strings attached to the red gem and tracking the resonance of the gem's owner, the one who gave the monster that gem – Eve. Buffy was sure there was a lot more to it than that, but she was fine with the simplified version.

"Then we get the call and get a move on?" Faith asked.

Buffy nodded, "that's about it, yeah."

"And what happens when we find her?"

"Willow figures she can send her back to Purgatory. Said she'd fill us in a little better in Creston."

There had been some confusion at the mention of heading towards Iowa. So far they had been told that Eve was likely heading North West, and no other lead had surfaced as of yet. If they were waiting for a sign of Eve or for Tavia to locate her, it seemed strange to head in a direction contrary to what they had been following her in already. According to Andrew, though, Eve had changed her direction. Strange cases had been popping up heading back towards the east of the country. All those weird reports that had been happening in and around Colorado and Wyoming had all but ceased. They had dispatched Slayers to check out the pings Andrew's algorithm had reported and to do any clean up along the way to try and keep the damage to a minimum. That left the four of them free to head directly to where they'd find Willow waiting. Creston seemed a fair meeting point, almost equal distance for both of them and likely to bring them close to where they'd find Eve – if the algorithm was accurate anyways.

Sam shrugged, "well, it's something at least. We should get a move on."

Sam was right, it wasn't really an ideal plan, but what else were they going to do? They had spent weeks just following a trail of destruction – not able to stop any of it. They were always one step – or more like five steps – behind Eve. Her plan before had been to overrun the world with monsters, so it was a fair guess that was her end goal this time around as well. The thing was, though, they had no proof of that. They hadn't even got close enough to confirm or deny her motivations. The closest they had been to Eve was when she had her hands around Buffy's throat. They were woefully unprepared for dealing with her.

Hopefully Willow's plan was a good one.

Chapter Text

Chapter Fifteen – Cold As Ice

She drummed her fingers on the table. She picked at her coaster, soggy from the moisture traveling down her glass. She checked her phone for the twentieth time in last minute or two. She checked the time, she checked for messages, she checked for something to do. People who passed her by, if they paid her any attention at all, assumed she was nervous – waiting for an important meeting or a first date. Willow wasn't nervous, though. She'd say she was more anxious than anything. Anxious to find out if her plan was going to work. Anxious to track Eve down. Anxious to get started. If there was one thing that Willow wasn't good at, it was waiting. And, for now, waiting was all she could do. Out of boredom and the need to do something with her hands, Willow had ordered a small plate of fries. She was half-heartedly picking at them when Buffy and the rest of the crew joined her. It was a relief to see that everyone was okay. They looked a little worse for wear with a few bumps and scrapes and a look of pure exhaustion, but that was to be expected. Before she had left, Buffy had been weak on her feet and fighting her own mind – but that looked to have passed now. Buffy looked happier than she'd been in a long time; that was the only thing more obvious than the exhaustion on her face.

Willow stood up and hugged her best friend. They paused before letting go, giving each other a small nod, only perceptible to them. With a deep breath, Willow sat back down.

"How's Dawn? Everyone back home?" Buffy asked.

"Everyone is fine. Dawn is fine," Willow began. "But we can talk about that after. We could get the message from Tavia any minute, and we need to be ready when it comes."

Faith snatched a few fries from Willow's plate, "can we at least get some food first. I'm starving."

After living off of fast food and greasy diner fare, Willow couldn't blame them in the least for wanting what could almost pass for real food. While they munched, Willow did her best to explain her plan. It was hard, she discovered, to explain that it had been born out of a conversation with Tara and a story from a book Dawn was reading, but the magic was solid – of that she was sure enough to build a strong case in favour of her plan.

The fact of the matter was, and remained, that they didn't really know who – or what – Eve was. Without that information, it was going to be all but impossible to find a permanent solution. It wasn't even guaranteed that there was a permanent solution. Even using the Phoenix ashes to kill her wasn't permanent – it just sent her back to Purgatory. Sending her back was the only thing they could try to do for now. Purgatory was their best bet of holding her somewhere that wasn't their own world. Of the two instances of her escaping Purgatory, both appeared to be a once in a lifetime sort of deal. Not many people, or even monsters for that matter, seemed to be lining up to try and summon Eve back into the world. This time, she had managed to slip through a dimensional split, and even that wasn't a normal split – it was probably they themselves that had opened that door and allowed her through, if Eve's ramblings were to be believed. Purgatory would hold her, of that Willow felt confident. And if by some chance Eve managed to escape again, hopefully they'd be better prepared. As far as plans went, that part was all pretty obvious. Of course they were going to send her back. It was the "how" that had Willow a little nervous. First and foremost she had to appeal to a Goddess to help her open a backdoor to a world that, for all intents and purposes, should not have a backdoor to begin with. If she wasn't strong enough, if her words weren't right, then their plan wasn't going anywhere. It basically came down to her own ability to, essentially, shove Eve back through those windows and doors into the Purgatory dimension without taking any walls down. It was like a binding spell but without the actual binding. At least, that was how she explained it to the Slayers and hunters. It was easier that way.

"Sounds like some pretty serious magic," Dean said.

He kept the disdain out of his voice and he kept his face neutral, but still Willow knew what he meant by that. She could hear the accusation in his voice no matter how well he tried to hide it. He didn't think she could handle it without losing control again. She tightened her jaw, her mouth becoming a hard line across her face. So far she had done her best to ignore his attitude, but she was getting dangerously close to saying something that she would regret.

"What do you need us to do for it?" Sam interjected, sensing the tension that was building.

Willow shot Sam an appreciative glance, as did Buffy, before continuing on. "Why don't you help me with the actual ritual? I'll need a second set of hands for the set up and to use as a sort of ground."

Sam nodded in agreement. He didn't actively advertise it, but out of the two brothers, Sam was definitely the one to have at least a slight proclivity to magic. The way that Willow had looked at him during their short time together made him wonder if Willow could sense that. If she could sense that, could she sense the darkness that was there too? The darkness that Ruby had exploited? That the Yellow-Eyed demon had been connected to? Just the notion of her, of anyone, knowing about those mistakes…Sam hoped it was still his own secret. He wasn't ready to share that with anyone.

Willow turned to the others, "I don't know how much attention the ritual may bring. I don't even know if she'll notice what I'm doing, but I need someone to keep her distracted from me. She's probably going to take a real interest in Buffy, so hopefully that's enough to keep her attention. In the meantime, I'll need you two to copy out a couple of sigils in charcoal. It'll pave the way for the incantation and then you can join Buffy in keeping Eve distracted and making sure no other monsters join in." She stopped and turned to Dean, "you can handle that many jobs, right?"

Dean huffed, but before he could reply Willow continued on to describe the sigils that needed to be used to direct the magic she would be throwing at Eve. Once she was confident that everyone understood what it was they needed to do, all that was left was tracking down Eve.

"You have that gem, right?"

Sam nodded, "yeah, we left it in the Impala's trunk. We figured having it somewhere warded was probably a good idea."

Unfortunately, when Buffy said 'toss this in the trunk of the Impala to keep it safe,' neither boy thought to secure it somewhere. So when they opened the trunk, the gem was nowhere to be seen. It was in there, most definitely, but it was somewhere amongst the weapons and ammo and books and whatever the hell else they had shoved in the trunk over the years. With a sigh, Buffy and Dean began rummaging through the mish-mash of stuff. The occasional grumble could be heard from behind the open trunk, but none of the other three paid much mind. Instead they decided to sit in the sun and enjoy the warmth that – at least for Sam and Faith – was a nice change from the sweltering heat of Texas and the luke-warm weather in Colorado.

"Got it!" Dean grinned, pulling the gem out from underneath one of the shotguns they had.

Buffy wasn't paying attention, however. She had found something else that was much more interesting to her.

"Is this you and Sam?"

He then realized what had caught her attention. A photograph, one that had been used as a bookmark once or twice while going through the few books they kept in the trunk, was clutched in her hand. There was a look of amusement and nostalgia on her face as she took in all the little details of the photograph. He knew exactly which photo she held – there was only a small handful of photos of them in existence. All of the photos were safely kept in his dad's journal, but one had slipped out at some point in their travels and they had yet to find it. That must be the one Buffy was now holding. The only one where they were a happy family of four. The last time they were a normal family.

"Your mom was beautiful," she said softly.

Dean nodded, "yeah, she was."

Buffy smile, knowing how bittersweet photographs like these were. She had managed to rescue one family photo before Sunnydale became nothing but a crater, but it was a sad substitute for the real thing. Unlike Dean, she'd had her mom her whole childhood but even that didn't feel like enough. She couldn't imagine losing her mom so young. With the mood turning a little more morose than it should be before a battle, Buffy made the effort the change the subject. Looking a little more closely at the young Dean, a wide smile broke out on her face.

"Look at you, rocking that bowl cut. Is that a little mullet starting?"

Dean chuckled, "hey now, that was all the rage in the 80's ya know? Plus I was, ya know, four."

"Mhmm," she winked, "a good excuse. Good thing you were a pretty cute kid."

Buffy leaned into Dean and rested her head on his chest. She couldn't take her eyes off the sweet photo. It was hard to imagine that this cute little family had been broken apart and subjected to the darkness of the world of monsters and demons. They looked like the kind of family that made pancakes every Sunday and read bedtime stories every night. They looked like family trips and movie nights and kids wanting to help with dinner. They looked like a family that always said 'I love you' when parting and hugged every time they came back together. They looked normal. The people she was looking at didn't have any idea what awaited them. They just looked so happy and safe. She wished more than anything that they could have stayed that way. Buffy herself had no choice in the matter, she was destined and all that…but the Winchesters? They deserved better than this.

Dean wrapped his arms around Buffy and pressed a gentle kiss to the top of her head. He reminded her that they had a job to do, and they couldn't let themselves get caught up in an old picture. He was right, of course. There would be plenty of time for reminiscing and story sharing one day. But for now, they had a job to do. Buffy nodded in agreement and went to store the picture in the front of the Impala so it wouldn't be lost again. She smiled as she found the best place for it that she could find – clipped to the sun visor. Somewhere it would be seen every day. Somewhere it could look over them and remind them that it wasn't always darkness and monsters.

Buffy came back around and took the gem from Dean's hand. It was larger than any gem she had seen outside of the various research books she had read over the years. There was a strange feeling coming off the gem – a vibration of life or something like it. It was warm in her hand as though it had its own source of heat. If she looked at the gem from the right angle, it also seemed as though it had a slight glow to it. Whatever it was made of – whatever its use was – it was something powerful, that much she knew.

"Alright," she nodded, "let's get this to Willow so we can put this thing to bed."

Dean was more than happy to agree with that sentiment. There was one question he had, though. Perhaps it was a selfish one at this moment, but he couldn't help but ask anyway. They seemed to always have a reason to put off talking about it – one crisis or another had to be averted. He was starting to think that there'd never be a 'good time' to have this discussion. This quiet moment with just the two of them, with a battle looming over them, was going to have to be good enough.

"What happens after that?"

Buffy seemed to hold her breath after Dean posed his question. She was just as aware that there was a sense of uncertainty between them. There had been a time when Buffy had dreamed of leaving her house and home behind and driving across the country in that Impala with her hunter. That had been before she found out that they had this whole history between them that she didn't know. That had been before she discovered how much work was required to run an entire household dedicated to finding, training, and organizing all the Slayers of the world. That had been before Eve had showed up. Of course she still wanted that road trip. She wanted her hunter more than anything. But could she have what she wanted? She was in charge of so many people now, so many lives. The idea of leaving the group so soon seemed not only reckless and irresponsible but also selfish. It would be a long time before Buffy could shirk her role and do something just for herself. No matter what Buffy wanted, she didn't belong just to herself – she never had.

That was something Dean understood well. Duty had been drilled into his head from a very young age. She knew there was no way that she could ever ask him to stay with her. He had to be out on the road, tackling cases as they popped up all across the country. He deserved the open road and freedom anyway. She could never tie him down. So where did that leave them? She had no idea. What she did know was that they had time to figure it all out. For the first time since she had been called, Buffy felt like she had nothing but time on her hands.

"You're right, we have plenty of time to figure it out," Dean said.

It was obvious that neither of them were satisfied with that answer, but it would have to do for now. They had a battle to prepare for and that was the only future they could focus on. But Dean wasn't ready to let go of this little moment yet. Deftly, Dean slid his hands up to Buffy's jaw, his fingers tangling in her hair and his thumb caressing her cheek. He looked deeply into her eyes, green eyes boring into green, and said the words that he had promised to say to her every day. 'I love you.' He pressed his lips to hers. Buffy's arms wrapped around his waist, pulling him in closer.

For that moment, they were lost to the world.

"Ahem."

Willow stood there, her eyebrow quirked and a smirk on her face. Woops. Buffy and Dean both laughed as Buffy placed the gem in Willow's outstretched hand. Tavia must have called and said she was ready to get started. They'd had their fun, but Willow's presence told them that it was definitely time to get this show on the road. If Willow was disconcerted by the vibes the gem gave off, she showed no sign of it. In fact, she didn't even seem to notice the warmth the small item radiated. She didn't pay much attention to it at all. She kept it in the flat of her hand and, with a deep breath, closed her eyes. Buffy watched with fascination as Willow stood perfectly still, save for her lips which moved as she silently repeated some incantation or prayer. Until the Coven honed in on Eve's location, they were a small army with no enemy to fight. And so they watched and waited. And waited. And waited some more.

They were starting to get anxious. They had been ready for a fight, but now fear was starting to settle in. It was a fear that, once they found Eve, they wouldn't be able to beat her. But more importantly, they were starting to worry that this wouldn't work – that they wouldn't be able to find her. The longer it took to get a lock on Eve, the less and less sure Buffy and the rest felt about the whole plan.

Then the phone rang.

Willow's eyes snapped open and her hand closed around the gem. She answered her phone without a word to anyone else. It was a brief phone call, with not a word uttered by Willow. Then, still without speaking, she hung up the phone.

"Okay," she said finally, "coordinates have been sent to all of your phones. We've got about a day's drive."

Buffy furrowed her brow. She was hoping they'd be closer to where Eve was. A lot could happen in a day and they could easily lose Eve in that time. It felt like they were still going to be steps behind. Willow brushed off the concern, however. As long as she had that gem, the connection to Eve could be used. The Coven would be tracking Eve nonstop and relaying information to her. Even if Eve moved on before they could reach her, they'd be able to follow. They would catch up eventually, and she was confident that it would be sooner rather than later. Buffy didn't quite feel the same level of confidence, but she trusted her friend. It wasn't a perfect plan, but it was all they had.

ӁӁӁ

Just as Buffy had feared, Eve had moved on from the location they had first honed in on. And the second. And the third. They had driven through town after town and were now in an entirely different state than they had started out in, but they had not yet found Eve. The Coven assured Willow that they were closing in on their target, but to Buffy it just felt like Eve was slipping out of their grasp. Throughout the drive, the group had argued about how viable this plan really was. Everyone seemed to have varying opinions on if this was going to just be a wild goose chase or actually result in something worthwhile. More than once it had been suggested that they give up and try something else, but no one had a suggestion for what that 'something else' should be. Eventually it stopped being mentioned entirely, but the feeling of it being rather hopeless didn't dissipate at all.

They had been driving for well over a day now, but if they truly were getting close to finding Eve, they didn't want to waste a moment of time. Faith and Dean, who had been driving for the entirety of this drawn out trip, were both getting tired and bleary eyed. As such, they finally relented and let someone else drive while they crashed in the back seat. For the little red neon, that meant Willow was now behind the wheel – she too didn't feel like dying in a fiery crash.

"Hey, Will?"

The car had been quiet since Willow and Faith had swapped places. Willow had thought that, like Faith, Buffy had dozed off in the passenger seat, so the sudden interruption of the peaceful quietness startled her. It had suited Willow just fine so far – any conversation was likely to circle back to the upcoming fight and the magic she was going to have to perform. She didn't want to focus on any of that. Instead, she was more than happy to lose herself in the road ahead of her and watch the streetlights sweep across her windshield as she cruised through the darkness.

"Ya?"

"I'm, uh, I'm really sorry about…about Dean. Contrary to what you've seen, he's really a good guy."

Willow awkwardly avoided any chance of eye contact and made a conscious effort to keep her eyes on the road. She wasn't really sure what to say in response. An apology was exactly what she wanted, but it wasn't Buffy that should be apologizing so it was hard to accept the apology in this situation. She opted to stay quiet.

Buffy continued, "he just…hasn't met someone like you before. He's never before met a witch that wasn't evil and his mind is hard to change. His world is black and white and I wish it was different, but he'll come around, really he will. I'm just so sorry."

Willow laughed and Buffy was confused by her friend's response. To Buffy, the way that Dean regarded Willow was anything but funny. The thing was, this wasn't the first time they'd had this exact same conversation. Of course, Willow had been on the other side of it before. She had apologized on Kennedy's behalf a countless number of times before. She had tried to smooth the waters between the two Slayers nonstop since the two met. This was all the same old song and dance. Before, though, she hadn't realized how tiring it was being on the receiving end as well. The whole situation was just awful.

"It's tiring, isn't it?" Willow asked, a smirk still on her face.

Buffy nodded, "it is. I won't give up though. He just needs to let his old way of thinking go…"

Willow was less optimistic about the situation – like she said, she'd been on the other side of it not long ago. Willow and Dean were likely to never get along, but she did recognize that he made Buffy happy and that he treated her well. After all that Buffy had endured over the years, she deserved a relationship like the one she had with Dean. If that meant that Willow had to put up with a little animosity, she'd deal. Or at least she'd try to. Buffy seemed legitimately surprised by Willow's attitude about the issue, but there was a look of sheer gratefulness on her face. As far as Willow was concerned, though, it shouldn't be a surprise at all. She'd seen the way Buffy smiled around Dean, after all.

Buffy quirked an eyebrow, "speaking of, I'm not the only one smiling like a moron lately…How's Tavia?"

A blush creeped across Willow's cheeks. Foolishly, she had thought that she'd been subtle. Of course, living in such close quarters made it hard to hide anything – especially from her best friend. She should have known that Buffy would pick up on something.

"She's, uh, sh-she's good. She's been helping a lot," Willow stuttered out.

Buffy chuckled, "Wow. A stutter. You must really like her. What's she like?"

Willow looked toward her friend and saw the same sort of smile she was used to seeing in high school. It was like all the shit going on had fallen way and they were just two friends on a road trip. Most importantly, though, was that she looked genuinely interested in her answer. Buffy looked excited for her. So she let herself say out loud all those things that she had been thinking since she had met Tavia in England. She shared how kind Tavia had been when she arrived at the Coven, fresh from the hell of her own making. Tavia had taught her so much in her short time there, and it felt like she had so much more she could learn from her. Tavia was one of those old souls – she had wisdom far beyond her years.

That wisdom extended beyond her life in the Coven as well. Tavia was actually a professor at Oxford – she taught literature courses. While they were very academic courses, Tavia herself had a soft spot for science fiction novels – especially the really bad ones. She and Willow had spent a ridiculous number of hours talking about various books and stories and tropes when she was in England. They had spent even more hours talking since she had left. It felt like every time she looked at her phone, she had a message from Tavia. It was nice. For the first time in a long time, she felt like she found a friend that just…got her. If she was being honest, it reminded her a lot of when she first met Buffy. It was like being found in the middle of a crowd by exactly the person that was supposed to find her. It was like meeting Tara again.

"I just…I wish I knew her better."

For all their talking, it never seemed to go into a very personal place. She wanted to say that it was because they were keeping it more of a professional relationship, focusing mostly on magic and literature, but that wasn't exactly true – no matter how much she tried to convince herself that it was. She couldn't even say that it was because the opportunity never presented itself, because that would be a blatant lie.

"Well, stop being a big doofus and go for it!" Buffy laughed. "Seize the day, remember?"

Willow smiled, and for a brief second she was meek little mousy Willow and they were sitting in The Bronze. That felt like several lifetimes ago now. The two girls made eye contact and laughed again.

"I really miss you, ya know? You and Xander and moments like this," Buffy said.

"You haven't been gone that long, Buff."

Buffy shook her head, "no I mean…I miss the way things were. Before. When it was just us."

A sort of sadness creeped into Buffy's smile. She missed the high school library. She missed afternoons in Giles' apartment. She missed The Magic Box. She missed the friendship they'd had. They had all been through so much and it felt like nothing was the same anymore. They had lost trust and faith in each other. They had lost sight of each other. Somehow it was like their lives had split on their own paths that didn't include each other anymore. They were still friends – that was never a question – but it was different now. After all, there had been a reason that Buffy felt the need to keep Dean and Sam a secret for as long as she did.

"I think we just all need to take a vacation. Like a couple's therapy retreat or something," Buffy laughed.

Willow nodded her head, "definitely. Somewhere tropical. Like Bora Bora. Sunshine and beaches and mojitos."

"I suppose Giles can come too. He could probably use a vacation too."

I suppose," Willow sighed, "but he'll just complain the whole time!"

The girls both laughed. In the back seat, Faith stirred in her sleep. They had practically forgotten that the other Slayer was passed out in the back after having driven nonstop for over a day. They supressed their laughter, the smiles still plastered on their faces. Of course they couldn't actually leave. Not yet at least. Maybe one day, but that day was long in the future. The sentiment wasn't wrong, though. The relationship between the original Scoobies had been strained for a long time. They all felt it. It ate at all of them. That was something they had to fix.

"I miss you, too." Willow whispered.

Then, as if on cue, the gem that Willow had bunched up in her free hand started to hum. They were getting close. The coordinates that Tavia had sent them were leading them directly to Eve. Finally. All they had to do was keep on this path and they'd finally find the battle they had been waiting for. Buffy then noticed a change in Willow. Her face was strained and she fidgeted with the gem in her hand. She was nervous. Buffy understood that. Willow always got nervous when performing intense magic now. Ever since…

The last big spell she had performed, she was turning all the girls into Slayers. Sure, she had performed smaller feats since then, but she was nervous each and every time. The risk was always there. The power Willow had was attractive and it took a lot to resist its pull. It would be so easy for her to lose control again.

But if Buffy ever had faith in anyone – it was Willow.

Buffy reached her hand over and placed it on her friend's, looping her fingers into Willow's, "hey, you got this."

Willow gave her a half-hearted smile, obviously less convinced. She kept driving.

ӁӁӁ

"So she's in there?" Faith asked, nodding towards the large, foreboding building in front of them.

"Looks like," Buffy confirmed.

"And you can tell that just from that little gem?" Sam asked.

Dean scoffed and muttered under his breath, "witches shouldn't have that kinda power."

"Okay!" Buffy interrupted, "let's get into position. Faith, Dean, let's go."

"Be safe!" Willow called after them.

Sam looked towards Willow, waiting for his instructions. He knew what needed to be done, but he wanted to make sure Willow was in control so that nothing would be missed. Using ashes that Willow had brought with her, Sam circled the entire building, with a stronger line at any entrances. It was a strange material to use, Sam thought, but he didn't question it. If she thought ash was needed, then it was needed. He returned to Willow, who had placed a single candle on the ground in front of her, a wet circle around her in the dirt. He noticed, then, just how shaky she seemed. Her hands trembled and shook as she attempted to light the candle she had placed in front of her and she seemed to be mouthing words to herself – some sort of comfort or reassurance. It was no secret that Willow had been getting more and more nervous as time had drawn near, but this was the first time that Sam had seen it firsthand. It seemed that having as much power as Willow did meant nothing when it came to having confidence in that power. He supposed, though, that having lost control before – and in a rather spectacular way at that – could do that to a person. Sam understood that feeling all too well. It wasn't too long ago that he too had lost himself to powers greater than he. That nervous feeling was more than understandable.

"So what else do you need me to do?" Sam asked gently.

Willow may be the one performing the spell, but she needed someone else with her – someone to ground to and connect with. Sam's job was probably the easiest of all of them: all he had to do was sit across from Willow and hold her hands.

"And, if something happens, you need to take over."

Sam furrowed his brows, "what could happen?"

Honestly, Willow wasn't entirely sure what could go wrong, but there was always something. Having Sam there was a failsafe – a back-up plan. She hoped he'd recognize if she lost control. More than anything, she just wanted this all to be over with. Across the way, she could see her best friend marching towards battle. She wouldn't let Buffy down, so that left success as the only option. With that thought, Willow summoned up as much courage as she could muster and started to recite the words she needed.

"Ignis. Glacies. Ritus in me auxilium."

Ӂ

Buffy, Faith, and Dean headed towards the looming building, various guns and blades in tow. Were they ready for this fight? No, but that didn't matter. They were more than ready to be done with it all. They had about five minutes to be ready. Dean, who had faced Eve successfully once before, was feeling more confident than the two Slayers and therefore tried to encourage them. It somehow fell short, with both girls remembering what their last encounter with Eve was like. Buffy, of course, had more to remember. She remembered the torture she had suffered at the hands of Eve after Dean had escaped Purgatory. The wounds had stayed in that world; they had not transferred to her body when she was brought back, but she could still feel each and every one of them. She remembered the burning, the piercing, the broken bones. She remembered the fear. But she wasn't afraid anymore. She was angry. She wanted answers.

"You guys ready with those sigils?" Buffy asked, pausing at the front door to the massive building.

Both Sam and Faith held up their chunk of charcoal and nodded. For once, not even Dean seemed in the mood to complain about the level of magic being used – and by who.

"You ready to face her?" Dean asked, but without any trace of the tenderness she was used to hearing. His game face was on and there was no time for heart right now.

Buffy nodded grimly. She had been waiting for this meeting since their last – maybe even longer. She may not have always known this battle was coming, but she had been waiting for her chance to show Eve what a Slayer is really capable of. With a final glance between the Slayers and Dean, Buffy pushed her way through the heavy double doors. With two feet into the cavernous room, Buffy scanned the room looking for her target. The room was empty save for a few old and moldy boxes and some shelves that were largely empty and dilapidated. There was no one waiting for them. She was about to say something to that effect when she heard the heavy doors slam behind her. She caught just a glimpse of Dean and Faith's confused and concerned faces before the doors sealed shut behind her, a smoking veil covering the doors and preventing any attempt at prising them open.

"Just us now, Sweet Pea," Eve's voice floated through the room with that same sing-song tune.

Buffy whirled around and found Eve standing alone in the middle of the room. The malicious grin on Eve's face was disconcerting and was enough to shake some of Buffy's confidence, but it was the way that Eve stood so casually that really got under Buffy's skin. Knowing how much power Eve had, and how easily she had overwhelmed Buffy the last time they met, it made it difficult for Buffy to posture in response.

"Your little witch won't succeed, you know. It's cute that she's going to try, though."

Behind her, Buffy could hear Dean and Faith banging on the door. It was a frantic sound and she knew that they were both panicking on the other side. There was no way they were going to make it through that door, not until Eve allowed it. Buffy was going to have to take this battle on alone – just like she always had before. She could only hope that they would remember they needed to paint the sigils on the walls, even if it was further from Eve than they had planned for.

"Oh, they're not going to be able to help either. They can draw those little pictures all they want," Eve laughed wickedly. "I'm going to turn this little rock into the paradise that I deserve, that was always supposed to be mine. No longer will Purgatory be locked away, a prison for beautiful creatures. My perfect children will roam this world and help me bring it to its knees."

Buffy listened to every word that Eve said. It was obvious that she assumed the fight was already won – that Buffy had already lost. Buffy knew that the fight was uneven. She knew that she was unlikely to win. But she also knew that she wasn't going to die here today. She knew that Eve was underestimating her. And if in the prelude to the fight, Eve wanted to run her mouth and share some of the information they so desperately needed, that was even better.

Eve continued with the same baiting tone in her voice, "I'm going to make him very sorry he cast me out. But first, I'm going to make you very sorry you came here."

Eve devolved into rambling about how she was going to make Buffy sorry. She wasn't going to reveal anything more. With nothing else to be done about it, Buffy lunged forward at Eve. She had to hope that she could catch Eve off guard, it may be her only hope. As she lunged, Buffy lowered her shoulder to collide with the other woman's chest. Her strength, momentum, and unexpected attack was enough to catch Eve off-guard and knock her balance. Buffy was able to dig her dagger into Eve's side as they tumbled to the ground, sinking into her flesh. By the time they hit the ground, Eve was gone. She had disintegrated into thin air, leaving Buffy alone to crash into the concrete ground. She leapt back to her feet and whirled around, trying to locate Eve before she could retaliate.

A whip-like tendril of flame shot out from the distance and wrapped around Buffy's wrist. Her dagger clattered to the ground and Buffy could hear her skin sizzling under the tendril. She cried out in pain as she tried to wrench her wrist free. Eve let her go as she descended on the blonde Slayer. Buffy dodged the claw-like hand that snapped out towards her and swung back around with a kick aimed at Eve's side where she had dug the dagger in. Eve didn't even flinch at the contact; the wounds that Buffy had inflicted had already been healed over. Buffy took the opportunity to free her scythe from the strap across her back. The blade slashed through the air at voracious speeds as Buffy sought out her target. The blade bit into Eve's shoulder, bringing blood to the surface. It was the first time that Buffy had seen the mysterious being had the ability to bleed. That was a good sign; it gave her hope. Another good sign was that the wound from her scythe, unlike the one from the dagger, did not immediately heal over. Buffy grinned and attacked again with a renewed vigour. For the first time, she felt like she was really in this fight and not simply at the mercy of Eve.

Eve too realized that the weapon held by the Slayer posed a threat to her. Before Buffy could get another strike in, Eve vanished in a puff of smoke. Buffy turned frantically, looking for where Eve was going to reappear. She wasn't naïve enough to believe that Eve had run off from this fight and she did not want to be caught off guard. A puff of smoke appeared to her side, a sure sign of where Eve had teleported to. Then, behind her another puff of smoke appeared. And another. And another. Each column of smoke faded to reveal Eve standing in its place. Buffy was suddenly surrounded by four different Eve's – all grinning and laughing viciously.

"I think I've seen this movie before," Buffy said, more to herself than Eve. "Never lived it though…"

All she had to do was find which Eve was real, the one that she could damage. There was no hints or clues; Eve had no tell. At random, Buffy lunged towards one of the copies of Eve, her scythe slicing downwards at the other woman. The blade made contact, once again drawing blood from Eve – a wound that appeared on the other three forms as well. They couldn't all be Eve, could they? Buffy swung her scythe around again, reaching for another Eve. Her wound too appeared on the other copies. Buffy felt a sharp pain in her ribs as one of the copies kicked out at her. Another soon joined the fight, reaching out with a claw-like hand. Buffy was suddenly on the defensive, desperately attempting some semblance of crowd control as all four Eve's attacked at once. It was all she could do to stop them from tearing her apart. She felt a pain explode in her cheek as it split, the result of a fist connecting with her face. She tried to dodge and roll out from the circle that had tightened in on her, but it was no use. With every push back, the Eve's pressed closer inwards. But before they could strike out at the Slayer again, they all stopped – frozen as though someone had hit the pause button. Their images flickered, their faces shifted to others. Each form became someone else before the bodies fell to the ground convulsing and crushing.

"What the hell?" Buffy asked, looking at the bodies at her feet.

"Oh darn. Why does that always happen?" Eve floated down to the main floor. "At least they lasted longer than that family in Texas. Still a shame though."

Buffy turned to face Eve, her scythe held strong in her hands. Without a word, without hesitation, Buffy lunged towards her foe. Eve didn't move, didn't blink. There was no concern etched on her face. In fact, she looked almost bored with the whole thing. Without exerting any energy, Eve lifted Buffy off the ground. Buffy wanted to struggle, but she had no idea how she could do so. Her legs kicked out and her hands clasped at the invisible hand around her throat. She knew she needed to break the hold, but there was no obvious way to do so. Flames surged from the ground, lapping at Buffy's feet and enclosing her. How was she supposed to fight against this alone?

A cold energy suddenly pulsed through the room. The flames were doused and Eve faltered just long enough to drop Buffy to the ground. Her landing was rough, and she felt a crack in her ankle. Broken? Sprained? She had no idea at that point, but she also couldn't care right now. Eve attempted to grasp Buffy again, but couldn't muster the power. Whatever Willow was doing, Buffy figured it must be working; Eve had no magic left. A grin broke out on Buffy's face and she lunged towards Eve once more, ready to fight on even ground finally.

Ӂ

Willow continued her incantation, repeating the lines continuously, "porta. Purgatorium. Ergo non tenetur. In quo pertinent."

As Willow spoke, her voice getting stronger and surer with each word, the air around her and Sam changed. The temperature plummeted and the breeze that had been gently blowing halted. The ash that Sam had encircled the building with exploded in fire, the blue flames licking high into the air and obscuring the building from sight. Sam felt a chill creep up his body, originating from his hands as he held onto Willow's.

"Te oro ut quibus Hecate, in potestate et glacies igne transire per eam."

The cold at his hands became almost unbearable. It was then that he noticed that Willow's hands were trembling – but not from nerves. Frost was spreading down her arms. There were ice crystals in her hair. Her lips had taken on a blue tint. It was smart, combating a being that uses fire with cold, but it was clearly taking its toll on the redhead. If she could actually feel any effects of that cold though, she gave no indication of it.

At least until she started the incantation over again.

"Ignis. Glacies. Ritus in me auxilium. Porta. Purgatorium," Willow repeated, her voice now shaking and shuddering.

Willow continued repeating the incantation over and over again. It became almost mechanical as she spoke, doing all she could to get through the words. Neither Sam nor Willow had any idea if what they were doing was actually working, actually weakening Eve, actually working at sending her back to Purgatory. All they could do was keep going and hope that they could get that portal open for Eve to be pushed back through.

The cold persisted and even Sam's hands started to go numb. He couldn't imagine how Willow was coping with the icy cold her words were calling into existence.

And then her voice stopped. She couldn't go on – the cold finally overtook her. Sam, without missing a beat took over the incantation, holding fast onto Willow's hands.

"Te oro ut quibus Hecate, in potestate et glacies igne transire per eam," he continued clearly, no shuddering or shaking in his voice.

Ӂ

Eve faltered. Both girls were bloodied and weary, but they were still standing. Buffy was favouring her right side, her ankle shooting pain through her bones, but she was far from done. Eve, on the other hand did look done. Perhaps she should have taken advantage of the momentary lull in the fight to get the upper hand, but instead Buffy paused to see what would happen. Maybe Willow's spell had finally taken hold?

Eve tried again to throw fire at Buffy, but only managed a few sparks. Shaky, Eve struggled to stay on her feet.

"No!" Eve screamed.

She cried out a phrase in a language Buffy didn't understand. As Eve finished, Buffy saw fire in her eyes. A wicked laugh escaped Eve's lips as she regained her strength. Buffy braced herself for the next round, but Eve simply tossed Buffy across the room. In a swirl of lightning, Eve disappeared leaving nothing more than an echo of laughter and a residue of smoke and ash on the ground where she had been standing. Finally alone, Buffy slumped to the ground exhausted. Defeated. They had failed. Her ears were still crackling from the lightning that had been created in that room. Her ankle was throbbing and she could feel blood trickling down her face. Honestly, the floor was an alright place for her right now. In the distance, she heard the doors crash open. Whatever force Eve had used to bar the door had obviously dissipated when she made her grand exit. She could hear the heavy footfalls of people running.

"Buffy, are you okay?"

Faith had reached Buffy first and was already trying to help her to her feet when Dean caught up. Buffy, with her head clearing, gladly took the assistance from the other Slayer, letting Faith take some of her weight until she got her footing back. Both Faith and Dean started asking her questions, but Buffy just shook her head. Right now, she just really wanted to be outside and breathing in some fresh air. She limped her way back out through those double doors that had slammed on her before, separating her from her back up. As she went, Buffy took note of the two sigils that had been etched in charcoal on either side where Dean and Faith had been trapped. She was glad to see that they did what they could. Outside, the three found Sam and Willow leaning against the Impala. Willow was wrapped in Sam's jacket, a piece of clothing that could easily have fit three of her with room to spare. Even still, a tint of blue could be seen on her lips and some frost remained on her eyelashes and the tips of her hair. Buffy also noticed that the roots of her friend's hair were a little darker than they had been when they pulled up. She grimaced at that but didn't say a word.

Dean was the first to speak, concern and curiosity taking over for tact, "what the hell happened?"

They had failed. They all knew it. What they didn't know was why. Eve had obviously known they were there – she made that clear when she separated Buffy from Faith and Dean. The sigils were, therefore, further from Eve than they had been instructed by Willow, but could that really be why the spell hadn't worked? Sam shook his head, also fairly certain that a few feet of distance wouldn't have been enough to cause failure. Weaken the spell, sure, but not enough to allow Eve to shake it off so easily.

"I think I wasn't enough to finish the spell," Sam said, explaining how the incantation had frozen Willow and prevented her from speaking.

"N-no," Willow stuttered, still not quite recovered from her throat freezing. "I-it wasn't you."

Eve had been strong. Stronger than Willow had anticipated. Silently, she berated herself for not better preparing for the resistance she had encountered. Eve had fought against every word she spoke. Whoever – whatever – Eve was, she was more powerful than Willow had ever come up against one on one like that.

"She made sure I knew that she was stronger than me," Willow admitted, rolling the sleeve of Sam's jacket up.

On her wrist that, up until just a few minutes ago had been covered in frost, was a scorch mark. A ring around her wrist as though she had also been lashed with the whip Buffy had been attacked with. The skin around the scorch mark looked as though it was still bubbling and sizzling as Willow showed the group. The edges were jagged and angry, and it was clear that the shape was intentional – whatever it was meant to be.

"She spoke to me. She said: witches will burn."

Chapter Text

Chapter Sixteen –Ride On, Baby

"She said that she was cast out?"

Buffy nodded, "she wants to punish him for it by taking over the world."

She wished that Eve had said more. Weren't villains supposed to ramble on and on about their plan when they thought they'd already won? That was what the movies had already taught her anyway. All she had to do was mention a name or the place she came from and it could have set them on the right path. Maybe the next step in her grand master plan? Even just one more little bit of information could have made all the difference. If Buffy had been thinking clearly, maybe she would have thought to egg her on – ask questions. Instead she had stood there, more afraid of Eve than she'd like to admit. She just…froze up. It would be a long time before Buffy forgave herself for that.

"She said something about turning Earth into the paradise she was supposed to have, whatever that means," Buffy added, trying to find any sort of clue to grab hold of.

Willow let that sink in. It was more information than Buffy realized it was, and it might just lead them to finding the information that they needed. It meant that there was some sort of historical dispute or battle that Eve was connected to. Something must have happened, big enough to warrant this bitter grudge. It meant there was something she could try and tie to Eve and maybe, just maybe, figure out who Eve really was. Eve was ancient, that much they knew, and she had been in Purgatory for centuries. That meant that Eve was holding onto a clash that had happened even before she ended up in Purgatory. That was an awfully long time to hold onto a grudge. Unless of course it was some imagined slight that Eve was stuck on, which was certainly not unheard of when dealing with ancient beings. But Willow had to hope that it was the former and not the latter.

"At least it's something to work with. She didn't happen to name drop, did she?" Willow smirked. Buffy shook her head. "Figured. Well, I'll head back to the house and hit the books again. Hopefully that goes a little better than it has been. We can at least add ancient battles to our watch-list."

Buffy gave her friend a sympathetic look. Willow had tried to hide it, but she was taking the failure exceptionally hard. The drive into town to find a motel for the night had done nothing to lessen Willow's disappointment. Everyone had been so hopeful that this would all be put to bed and she felt like she had let them all down. It was a longshot, she had known that going into this, but she really had thought that she'd be able to pull it off. The only failure she'd had on her periphery was that she'd lose control of the magic – not that Eve would shrug it off like it was nothing. Swat her grip away like it was nothing more than an annoying fly buzzing around. It also meant that they had lost any semblance of a trail that they had been following. The connection to the gem, which was no blackened and dull, had been severed when Eve dissipated from the battlefield, preventing any use of it again. There was no sign of power of life left in it – as if Eve had burned everything out of it. If she hadn't known before, Eve certainly knew now that they were looking for her. Any pattern that she may have been operating in before was sure to be destroyed now. Their plan of following the trail of destruction was no longer viable.

The only plan they had now was to regroup. It didn't feel very productive, but they weren't sure what else to do at this point. It wasn't exactly going back to square one, but it may as well be. For all the work they'd put in, all the books read, all the roads travelled, they hadn't gotten anywhere. The only hope at this point was that, with all hands on deck and a little more direction thanks to Eve's comments, the research would be more successful. It was really the only move that they could make. At least that's what they kept telling themselves. Honestly, more than anything it felt like they were retreating – admitting defeat. They weren't proud of it.

"Do we even have any books left to hit?"

Willow shook her head, "not really. We'll go back through the ones we have, though. Maybe find something new. Tavia sent a list of books that might be useful, but we haven't had much luck in tracking any of them down."

"We probably won't have much more luck, but ya never know," Buffy said, taking the small list from Willow. "You sure you don't wanna ride back with us?"

Willow had already said that she was going to rent another car and head back to the house. As much fun as a mini-road trip with her best friend would be, she just wanted to get back. And she wanted to do that alone – an option that would no longer be afforded to her once she made it back to the house. Willow was really starting to miss the solitude she'd been able to enjoy in Sunnydale. Plus it bought her some time to figure out just what the hell she was going to do. Under the sleeve of her sweater, the burn mark that Eve had gifted her with had started to change. It was growing, snaking further up and wrapping around her arm. It was unlike anything she had ever seen before – ever felt before. The burning feeling had long ceased, replaced by a sharp ache like when a burn comes in contact with hot water. She had to wonder how much further the mark would extend. What the hell had Eve done to her? She didn't know, and she didn't want anyone to know anything more about it until she did.

"Okay, we'll meet you back home, then."

They said their goodbyes and Buffy hugged her friend.

Going back into the motel room, Buffy was instantly greeted with the overwhelming sense of disappointment and frustration. It seemed that no one was taking this defeat well. Everyone felt like it was their own fault that their plan had fallen apart – and each person seemed to be punishing themselves accordingly. The thing was - it was a group effort. No one person was to blame. They weren't prepared and they didn't really know what they were up against. There was nothing more they could have done to be any more successful than they were – no matter what their self-deprecation and disappointment tried to tell them.

"Geez, feels like a funeral in here," Buffy said, without managing to inject any humour into what was supposed to be a joke.

It fell flat. Faith continued to sharpen her blade, a cold beer at her elbow and a grim expression on her face. Dean and Sam both continued to clean out the components of their guns, their focus razor sharp on the task at hand. They all just wanted to focus on something, to keep busy, to distract themselves. It felt productive to some extent, and that was what they needed to feel right now. Defeat was nothing new to any of them, it came with the territory, but this one was particularly crushing. Maybe that was because they had made what they all saw as rookie mistakes. They hadn't done enough research. They allowed themselves to be split up. They didn't push for more information. Most of all, they let themselves be naïve enough to believe that they were about to wrap up this case. It was too easy. Too soon. Even with no confidence they had managed to be over confident.

"So what exactly are we gonna do back home?" Faith asked. "Feels like we're kinda going backwards here, B."

"We are," Dean agreed without looking up from his task.

Buffy nodded, "We have to. We need to regroup. We need to find out what we're really up against. We gotta go back to square one."

"What's that?" Sam asked, nodding towards the paper in Buffy's hand.

"Oh, uh, list of books Willow gave me. She said the coven thought they might be of some use to us. I told her we'd keep an eye out for them."

Sam took the list and was immediately lost to any of the conversation that was happening in the small motel room. He knew that some of the books on the list were rare – really rare - and there were some titles that he didn't know at all. There were a few, though, that Sam recognized. He had seen the titles before, maybe in passing or maybe he had read from one or two of them – he wasn't quite sure. It was hard to remember exactly where he'd seen them, but he had a pretty good idea of where to start. And it started with a small detour on their way "home" – which meant even more driving.

It had been literally a non-stop rollercoaster for the four of them since they left the house in Cleveland. They had been pedal to the metal since they left, driving from sun up to sun down. Sometimes they drove all night. They had fought and battled against monsters and strange creatures. Wounds and scars had been received and their blood had spilled. Saying that they had put their blood, sweat, and tears into the cause would be not only cliché but true, too. They were exhausted. It was time for a break, and that was probably the most important reason for the group to head home for a while. Time was probably still short – but the difference this time was that their timeline was a complete mystery. It was a bit of a gamble, but they were hoping the odds would be in their favour and Eve would be slower to get going after having lost some momentum. Maybe they had managed to actually damage her, at least a little. Their hand had been a bit forced now that following a trail of destruction wasn't going to help them any, but some downtime was exactly what they needed. So they played it like there was no rush – they'd take the night off and head home in the morning after what was meant to be a good night's sleep.

Which brought them to now. The sun had risen hours earlier and they had been able to sleep until they woke up on their own – not to an alarm set for dawn. They piled back in their cars, still feeling a little cramped and cabin-fevery and defeated. Even Sam and Dean, who grew up driving around the country in the Impala, were starting to crave a break; to have more than two days in a row that they didn't have to drive for 20+ hours. Any misgivings from the night before had since faded. Home, or whatever they thought the HQ was, would be nice – even if it did still feel like defeat.

Faith was tapping out a beat on the steering wheel as they drove down the highway. The quiet was not as awkward as it had been at the start of their journey. Now it was more of a reflective quiet, almost comfortable. Still, the drive was silent as they still hadn't found that easy way to talk quite yet. Baby steps. They passed a sign, the first one for miles, that let them know a gas station was coming up soon. Buffy wasn't exactly sure where they were anymore, but she knew that Cleveland was still about a day's drive out. Whatever town or rest stop was coming up might very well be one of the last ones they'd see today, if their drive so far was any indicator, so it was probably a good idea to stop. Plus, Buffy had been hoping for a food and stretch stop soon.

"We need gas to go much further anyway, we should stop there," Faith said, eyes never leaving the road.

"Better give a honk so they know."

The black Impala was cruising down the highway just ahead of the two girls. Every so often, Buffy guessed based on which song was playing, tunes would float back from the boys as they cranked the volume. She could just imagine them singing along while, in her own car, Faith drummed along. They flashed their tail lights a couple times to let the girls know that they heard the horn from the neon and would pull over in the next town. The boys hadn't fueled up at the last stop, so they probably needed fuel even more than the neon did. Also, the boys never argued stopping for food.

Gravel skittered under the tires as the two cars pulled into the parking lot, empty save for themselves and, presumably, the attendants. It wasn't out of the ordinary to be the only ones at the gas station in the middle of nowhere, but there was still a strange feeling here, like reality had abandoned the small rest stop. Buffy and Faith exchanged knowing looks, having both sensed something off. For once, though, it had nothing to do with Slayer instincts. It seemed like the "off" feeling was normal. There wasn't anything wrong here, but both girls were already looking forward to leaving the site sooner rather than later.

This had all become a routine by now – almost like a well-choreographed dance. Dean would head inside and pay for the fuel for both cars. He would be followed by called out reminders to bring back some sort of terrible junk food to tide them over until the next town, even though the reminders were never truly needed. Sam would, dutifully, hop out and pump the gas, take a quick lap around the Impala to clean the windows, sometimes have a short conversation with the girls, and hunker back down in the front seat. Buffy felt it was only fair that she pump the gas for the girls' car, therefore letting Faith do whatever it was that she wanted to do with her short break from being behind the wheel.

This time around, Buffy felt the need to perk herself up a little bit, evidently the month's fatigue was finally starting to settle in on her. Their routine had been established to get them back on the road faster, and since they were in no real rush, Buffy was able to interrupt the routine. Instead of fueling up the little neon right away, Buffy took a wander around the parking lot. The hope was that a little jaunt around the block, as it were, would help to get the blood flowing again, shake the sleep out of her limbs, and wake herself up a bit. The chilly breeze rustled her hair and made her tighten her sweater around her frame. She shivered, definitely awake now. As she wandered, Buffy realized that she really and truly did not recognize any of her surroundings. That shouldn't be a surprise, not really anyway. This part of the country had never been her home before and she wasn't even sure what state they were currently in. She did know that they hadn't made it back to Ohio yet, but she didn't think that would make much of a difference; she didn't think she'd recognize Ohio either. Road trips had never been a standard part of her life back in California, but it never mattered what part of California she had been in, Buffy recognized her home. It all looked different, but there was always a sense of familiarity in the palm trees and warm breeze. Not for the first time, it really started to sink in that she was no longer home – and she would not be going back there. She wondered if Ohio, or anywhere for that matter, would ever feel as homey as California had.

Just as her thoughts were starting to turn a little too maudlin for her taste, the sound of gravel spitting and tires squealing snapped her to attention. She looked up just in time to see the back end of the Impala speeding away from the parking lot. At first she was concerned; had she missed something going down that would require them to get the hell out of here in a hurry? A mischievous grin slipped onto her face as she started to figure out what exactly had just happened – especially considering the fact that she could still see Dean through the window of the small station and an empty neon sitting at the pumps.

Dean, with an armful of chips, jerky, and bottles of soda, was standing in line waiting to pay. He was slightly confused, though, as to why, and more importantly how, such a line existed when there was literally not another parked car for miles. Bored and a little irritated, Dean started to tap his foot and fidget his hands underneath his stack of junk. He wasn't paying attention to much, at least not until he heard the sound of tires screeching and gravel grinding under tires. Helpless, he watched as Baby flew down the highway – without him. The snacks were forgotten instantly, dropped to the ground without a second thought. The money he'd kept in his hands, probably much more than the balance owing, was thrown at the attendant behind the counter. Dean dashed outside, far too late to do anything but watch as Baby disappeared down the slope of the highway and off into the horizon.

Confused, Dean searched around the area looking for something that would clarify what the hell had just happened. Across the lot he saw Buffy, standing and watching the same direction the Impala had just disappeared down. When she noticed that he was looking at her, she gave a shrug to show that she was also just as confused. She did an excellent job of hiding the smirk on her face – and supressing the giggle that would be at Dean's expense. That was when he realized that he didn't see Sam anywhere – or more importantly he didn't see Faith anywhere. Of course she was the one behind the wheel. Dean cursed loud enough to hear the phrase echo back to him. Somewhere a flock of birds took off. Dean jogged over to Buffy who by now had wandered back to the neon.

"C'mon, we gotta get after them!" He said, pulling the driver's side door open.

"We won't get very far. Still need to gas up," Buffy answered.

Dean groaned and sunk into the driver's seat, keeping his eyes trained on the spot that the Impala had last been visible – as if he would be able to wish it back into sight. Buffy filled the tank as quickly as the machine would let her, still supressing her laughter as she did. In the car, Dean was getting antsy. There was no sense in racing after the other car and he knew that. There was no chance that Faith had actually stolen both his car and his brother without any intention of returning them. Faith had wanted a chance to be behind the wheel of Baby since the moment they had met. At that time, she had promised him that she'd drive his car someday. He almost had to admire that determination. Almost. And of course, just because it wasn't stolen didn't mean that he wasn't going to worry about his car. That concern was the driving factor behind Dean as he tore out of the parking lot as soon as Buffy had slid into the passenger seat. It would have been nice, though, if he had let her at least shut her door first, but apparently there was no time for that.

"It's cute the way you keep clenching your jaw," Buffy said, finally laughing out loud.

She knew that he was quite displeased by the situation, but she couldn't help but laugh. The whole situation was so ridiculous, so funny, that it was impossible not to enjoy the moment of levity it had created. Even despite himself, Dean chuckled. There was something about the way she laughed, deep and carefree, that he couldn't resist.

Still laughing, Buffy added on, "you know, you look pretty good behind that wheel."

"I look good behind any wheel," Dean muttered, not quite able to hide the pout in his voice.

Buffy looked at Dean, taking in the silhouette of him in the driver's seat. The breeze from the window ruffled his hair and caused hers to trail out the open window. The radio was low, all but forgotten in the rush of getting out of the gas station. The engine hummed along and the treeline soared and blurred along beside them. How many times had Buffy imagined cruising just like this? Well, in her mind they were in the Impala and they weren't chasing down a wayward Slayer who had just kidnapped said Impala and the brother. Then again, how often are expectations ever met? It didn't matter anyway, this felt pretty damn good.

Maybe it was time to change up the driving situation – she'd love to get a turn in the passenger seat of the Impala. The way Dean had always talked about it, almost like it was freedom incarnate, had carved a little soft spot in Buffy's heart. She wanted to cruise the highways with her love and his first love – Baby. When she suggested changing things up and swapping out Sam for Buffy, Dean didn't have much to say, but even just the thought brought a wistful smile to his face. Maybe that passenger seat was closer than she thought. He seemed to relax a bit after that, too. Instead of being on edge, Dean released his hard press on the gas pedal and the couple settled into a comfortable cruise on the way to finding where the other two had got off to. Eventually he even released his whitened knuckles in favour of resting an arm out the open window. Time slowly assuaged his tension and worry. They continued their western route, following the way back to headquarters. Somewhere along the way they were bound to catch up to the Impala or find where Faith had parked it to wait for them. Once Dean had let go some of his anger, which had only taken about an hour, the car had been filled with singing and laughter. It was easy. It was always easy with Dean, though.

Faith had, very obviously, been driving with the pedal to the metal; she had put some pretty impressive distance between the two cars. They were starting to wonder how far they were going to have to drive before the Impala came into sight. Daylight hours were beginning to run out, which made them wonder if Faith had already found somewhere for them all to crash for the night.

"Looks like rain," Dean said, indicating up towards the sky.

The sky had been slowly darkening with each mile they drove to the west. The clouds had been slowly but surely rolling in, but they had been unassuming and thin looking. To be honest, they hadn't thought much of them. The further west they had made it, however, the clouds had started to take on darker shades of grey with plenty of deep purple and even black. A storm was brewing. Off in the distance, lightning could be seen carving through the sky and casting an eerie glow in the haze ahead. It was hard to tell just how far out the storm was, but Buffy kept hoping they'd reach it soon. Nothing beat a good, solid, loud storm. The rain pouring from the skies to dance on the pavement and patter against the windows. The rumble of thunder that could rattle the walls and bring a deep, foreboding feeling to any time of day. The lightning that gave the air a charge that could set you on edge, cracking through the sky. Everything about a storm delighted Buffy; she would stop whatever it was she was doing to watch a storm tumble and roar across the sky. Nothing, however, could beat the smell that accompanied it all. It was fresh and growth and clean. It could clear away the dust and anything else that was lingering about. In all their travels these weeks, it had been nothing but sunshine and clear skies, reminiscent of her life in California. Sunshine was high on the list of her favourite things, but god, she couldn't wait for this storm.

The sky started to lightly spit about the same time they saw the sign for the upcoming motel. Without any real reason to believe it, both Buffy and Dean were quite sure they'd find the Impala parked in the lot at the motel. The clouds were threatening to completely let go and give them a torrential downpour. The neon, as they had learned, was not well suited to wet weather. With older tires and wipers that seemed to be missing their blades entirely, the rain was making their drive treacherous. So perhaps it was hopeful thinking that drove them to feel as though they were close to finding Faith and Sam. It wasn't long before they caught up to the rain – exactly the torrential downpour they had been expecting. Through the rain and haze of early evening settling in, a neon 'vacancy' sign became clear. The motel didn't look like much – it was small and looked rather dilapidated – but it probably did quite well since it was the only one for miles. And, just as they had predicted, the black Impala was parked in the front lot, lights off and a dry patch of pavement below. It had been here a while.

Dean pulled Buffy's neon into the stall next to the Impala and, despite the rain, hopped out to inspect his car for any sort of dents or scratches that Faith may have inflicted on his baby. Below the layer of water on the black car, Dean saw nothing that stood out. Using the sleeve of his shirt, Dean cleared some of the water off the window to peer inside – presumably looking to see if she had scraped up the interior or left something behind. When he pulled his face back, Dean quirked his eyebrows and smirked at Buffy.

"Well well, check this out," Dean said.

Buffy looked into the vehicle and on the front seat, illuminated lightly in the neon glow from the 'vacancy' sign, was a large plaid shirt, clearly discarded and, if she were to hazard a guess, missing a few buttons.

The door directly in front of the Impala suddenly swung open and a bright light cut through the drizzle, washing across the hood. In the doorway stood Faith, ice bucket in hand and a look of surprise on her face. Her jeans had obviously been pulled on without much care, not even bothering to do up the button or zipper. She hadn't had the same care for her shirt, which was probably strewn somewhere on the floor. She did, at the very least, throw her bra back on, strikingly dark against her pale skin. Her feet had been left bare, probably because she wasn't aware that the rain had started to fall yet. Evidently, she hadn't expected them to catch up as soon as they had. The shock was quickly covered up with a sly grin and a casual stance as she nodded hello to both Buffy and Dean.

"We were gonna call you guys soon," Faith said, sliding the ice bucket under her arm, "weren't we, Sam?"

Faith took a step back from the door to allow a better view of the motel room. Sam perked up at the sound of his name, but otherwise made no effort to rise from the bed – the bed that was missing its blanket and even its sheets by this point. With a great deal of effort, Sam gave a slight wave of his hand and apathetically reached for the blanket to somewhat cover his bare chest. He abandoned the effort and slumped back against the mattress.

"Hey, Dean."

"Guess we can change up more than just the driving arrangements," Buffy said, still suppressing a laugh. She recognized that exhausted look on Sam's face all too well.

Dean returned the smirk to Buffy, but still wasn't quite sure if he wanted to give Faith hell or high five his little brother. Probably both. The order was yet to be determined.

"Tell me you at least got us a second room?" Dean asked.

Faith nodded. What kind of monsters did he take them for, anyway? She went back into the motel room and, from underneath her discarded shirt on the nightstand, fished out the keys for the Impala. With a clean toss, she passed the keys to Dean who was now standing in the doorway. Buffy had also joined him inside and was currently trying to wring some of the water out of her hair. A drippy mess collected at her feet as she started to shiver in her wet clothes.

"She's quite the ride. Sorry for the 503. Sorta."

Dean tried to keep the scowl on his face but found it harder than he wanted to admit. An appreciative grin found its way across his lips as it always did when someone complimented Baby. He'd remember to be mad later, for now he'd just take the bonding moment for what it was.

"We should grab the bags," Dean said, nodding towards Sam.

Sam nodded and very carefully extricated himself from the bed, slipping on his boxers at some point in the operation. Clothing was haphazardly tossed on so he could join Dean out in the rain. His movements were rather stiff, but eventually he was able to follow Dean out to the car. Buffy, who had by now tracked down a towel requested that the boys also bring in the bags from the neon. Her love of rain was only eclipsed by her love of not being cold, and that rain was definitely not the warm rain she was used to back on the sunny shores of California. Dean agreed with a mock salute and the boys disappeared into the haze of rain.

Buffy looked at Faith and decided she'd had more than enough of the awkward air in the room. However, she couldn't seem to find any words to dispel that feeling. Everything she came up with sounded lame or a little too friendly for their weird, strained, estranged-sister-esque relationship. Instead, she settled for arching her eyebrows at Faith. Faith responded with an equally quiet shrug of the shoulders and a coy grin.

"So which ride was hotter, the car or the hunter?" Buffy asked, glad that the tension was broken.

Faith's mouth dropped open in fake shock, "why Buffy Summers, what are you asking me?"

The two girls laughed together as different jokes about Faith's joy rides were layered upon one another. It was an oddly comforting bonding moment, much like the easy conversations they used to have back in high school. Maybe those moments weren't completely lost after all? In the distance, thunder could be heard and lightening would light up the sky for a brief moment. They were damn glad that they weren't out in that storm.

Unfortunately for the boys, they were. Sam went to the Impala to pull the boys' bags from the back. He asked for the keys and Dean shook his head.

"Oh no, you've had your turn with her tonight. You can get the bags out of the neon," he said, tossing the keys to the small car.

Sam rolled his eyes but said nothing in return. He skulked over to the red car and brought out the small duffels the girls had packed for their road trip, which had proven to have been packed by grossly underestimating the length of time they'd be gone. It was probably a hopeless attempt, but Sam tried to shade the trunk from the evenings drizzle.

Dean's muffled voice called from within the Impala's backseat, "so what the hell?"

Sam's head drooped. There it was.

"Hey man, that whole…thing wasn't my plan."

Dean gave him a look, "you didn't think to, I don't know, stop her from stealing my car? Call me to let me know where you guys ended up?"

"She was, uh, very persuasive about our little…escape. And then there wasn't a whole lot of time to," Sam coughed, "pick up a phone."

"Persuasive?"

A bright red blush exploded across Sam's face. This delighted Dean to no end, and so he continued to look expectantly at his brother. Never mind that they were both getting drenched, embarrassing his brother was always too good of an opportunity to pass up. Plus he was genuinely interested in what method the Slayer could have employed to make his no-fun brother forget all responsibility.

"Well, she hopped in the car and said 'let's go.' I was caught off guard and then," Sam ran his fingers through his hair, "then her hand was down my pants and the car was tearing down the highway and – "

Dean put his hand up, "okay, think I got the picture. Maybe next time at least send a text my way."

Sam nodded as they locked up the cars for the night. They each headed to their respective doors, both feeling a little odd about not sharing a room for the first time in…god they couldn't even remember. It was a good 'odd' though. Comfortable in a way. Before they completely parted ways, Dean called out to Sam. His fist was outstretched, a wide grin on his face. Car theft aside, he had to give his brother props for his little adventure. Sam returned the fist-bump with a matching grin on his face before heading inside his room.

Dean headed a few doors down to find Buffy waiting for him. Tired of wearing wet clothing, Buffy had left her clothing to dry in the bathroom and had wrapped herself in one of the jumbo towels while she waited for the retrieval of her bag. With an appreciative look, Buffy grabbed her bag and rummaged until she found a cozy pair of sweatpants and whatever shirt she could lay her hands on. The rain was really coming down now, and she was glad to be inside with a warm bed she could curl up into. Even if it did look a little grimy. That could easily be overlooked, though, since she had not failed to notice that Sam and Faith had at least got them a room with just the one bed.

"Wouldya look at that," Dean said, "we don't even have to sneak out tonight."

Buffy flopped down on the bed, sprawling out across the entire surface. Dean tossed his wet clothing into the bathroom with Buffy's and fished out something dry to toss on.

"Do you snore? You better not snore. Faith snores if she's overtired by the time she gets to bed. I'd really like a night of no snoring."

Dean chuckled, "never heard any complaints from Sam, but that kid sleeps like the dead so…"

Buffy shrugged, "well, if ya snore I'll just have to find a way to keep you awake instead."

With a light push, Dean knocked Buffy over to one side of the bed so he, too, could flop down on the bed. It wasn't as comfortable as he was wanting it to be, but after the day he'd had, he was just glad there was some sort of padding between him and the springs of the mattress. As he stared up at the ceiling feeling the warmth of the blankets below him and listening to the rain showering down, Dean could feel his body accept the ache of tiredness. He started to notice the room getting darker as his eyes slowly drifted shut despite any effort he made to keep them open. With Buffy next to him, her arm looped with his, Dean started to doze and drift off effortlessly. Peacefully.

"Hey," Buffy said, giving him a nudge, "you left the light on."

"I left the light on?" He mumbled.

"You were the last person standing up, you were supposed to turn the light off. Them's the rules."

Dean's eyes opened and found that, yes, the ceiling light had indeed been left on. He had no problem simply sleeping with the light on, but the fact that Buffy brought it up told him that there was very little chance of him going to sleep without first getting up and turning off the light.

"You're really gonna make me get up and turn the light off?"

Buffy just smiled at him. Seeing just the expression on her face, Dean couldn't help but chuckle as he dragged himself up off the bed and over to the light switch. For such a small motel room, that light switch was much farther away than he had been hoping for. Then again, anything not within arm's reach of the bed was much farther away than he would have liked. After a few pathetic swipes at the light switch, he managed to connect and flick the light off. With the clouds and rain outside, the light from the neon signs and streetlights was dulled and obscured. It had been a long time since Dean had spent the night in a truly dark motel room and it almost seemed like a luxury. Rather than wait for his eyes to adjust to the darkness, Dean picked his way back through the darkness - only stubbing his toe on the bed once.

In his absence, Buffy had slipped under the blanket, laying claim to the side of the bed closest to the outside door. He frowned. That was his side of the room – his side of the bed. By placing himself between the door and whoever else was in the room with him, Dean was putting himself in the path of danger. Just by simply being in that position, he was protecting his roomie. Growing up that meant protecting Sam. Hell, even now he made sure that he was between Sam and the door. He knew all too well that Sam could protect himself, but habit was habit. Even now, with a Slayer taking the protector spot, Dean felt like it was wrong. Just as much as he wanted to protect Sam, Dean wanted to keep Buffy safe. But he knew that she didn't need him to take care of her or protect her. He needed to pick his battles, and this was not one that he was willing to fight. He'd end up losing anyways. In silent acceptance, Dean tossed his t-shirt to the nearby chair, wondering why he had bothered to put one on anyway.

Dean joined Buffy below the blankets, which were surprisingly soft and plush considering the state of the rest of the motel. He turned to face Buffy, who had curled up on her side facing towards him. Using his thumb, Dean pushed a lock of hair off of her face, still damp from the rain that continued to pour outside. His hand trailed down before coming to a rest on her hip, just below the hem of her shirt. Contact. It was all he wanted. He just wanted to feel that she was there – that she was real. It had been weeks now, but Dean still feared waking up one morning and discover this had all been some dream – something cooked up by his desperate brain. Just in case, every moment he had spent with her had been spent taking in every detail – everything he had missed while they were fighting for their lives. The small ring of gold at the center of her eyes. The cute little freckle at her collarbone. The slight downturn at the corner of her lips, soft and perfect.

He captured her lips with his, grasping lightly at the soft skin at her hip. Her lips parted, allowing him to reach closer and tangle his tongue with hers. His hand found hers, and their fingers knotted together, holding on like it was all there was left in this world. As far as he was concerned, she was all there was right now anyway. Their lips parted, and Dean rested his forehead against hers, still not ready to let her move too far from him.

"I love you," he rasped.

"I love you."

They hadn't defeated Eve; their adventure was not yet over. It was not something he should be happy for, but Dean couldn't help it. He wanted to put Eve down, send her ass packing, but the sooner they did that, the sooner this was over. The sooner they would have to figure out the 'what now?' of it all. When he had brought it up before, Buffy was hesitant to talk about it at all. She had tried to pass it off as just not the time to talk about it. She tried to say that there was plenty of time to figure it out. There was something else there, though – something he couldn't quite put his finger on. Then he finally stumbled upon it: she was scared. There was something about the future, their future, that scared her.

It didn't take Buffy long to realize that Dean was drifting away into his own thoughts; she noticed the faraway look in his eyes as he slipped away from the moment. Her face fell, a look he never wanted to see, when he told her what he was thinking about. That same hesitation he had seen before came crashing back into their conversation, but this time she didn't shy away. With a deep breath and no eye contact, Buffy tried to find the words she needed.

"Because I'm afraid I'm going to lose you," Buffy said, her voice sounding smaller than he ever thought possible.

Dean knitted his eyebrows together, "lose me? I'm not going anywhere – "

"But you have to," she said. "Your life is out there, on the road, roaming the country. Total freedom. But mine? I have the house and the girls. I'm mostly stationary now. I can't ask you to stay…and I can't go with you."

He saw her eyes fill and a slight tremble to her lip. She had spent almost her whole life thinking about others and sacrificing anything she had if that's what was needed of her. All she saw was another sacrifice – another loss. She was right, though. His whole life was with Sam on the open road. Hunters didn't know how to be still; they didn't know how to stop and have a home. And Buffy, the veteran Slayer? She had to be at home. Even with all those girls worldwide that could step up and take over the protection of the world, not one of them could fill her shoes – not yet anyway. She had a lot of work to do before she could step aside. Once again, they were confronted with the fact that they had the same life, but in two very different worlds.

Maybe the two different worlds couldn't be reconciled. Maybe they weren't meant to meld them.

But then Dean felt her hand in his, perfectly fitted. He felt the calm and peacefulness of being here with her. He felt the warmth of her body tangled with his. He felt the sharp pain of emptiness at the thought of having to leave her behind.

He knew then, even more than he had already known, that he always wanted to be wherever this girl was.

Chapter Text

Chapter Seventeen – Pictured Life

Though the room was still mostly dark, Dean slowly and vaguely became aware that it was, indeed, morning. A storm still rumbled outside, the quiet sound of rain pattering on the window floating through the room. Against his side, Dean could feel slow, shallow breaths as Buffy continued to sleep peacefully, her legs intertwined with his. Their hands were still clasped together, hinting that they had not moved once they had fallen asleep. Dean didn't even remember falling asleep – they must have dozed off while still talking. Falling asleep talking was one of those things that Dean didn't think people actually did, kind of like playing footsies under the table and being too scared to dial a number. Chalk that up to another one of those things that Buffy introduced to his life. With a quiet smile, Dean looked down at the blonde sleeping against him and decided that this was the right way to start a day.

Unfortunately it couldn't last forever. The road to home wasn't long now, but their to-do list wasn't getting any shorter while lying in bed. A shower was going to be needed if Dean was going to be able to tackle that mental list. If he wanted that shower to be hot, he should probably go ahead and beat Buffy to it. Slowly, cautiously, Dean worked to extricate himself from the mess of limbs and blankets and bliss that he was entwined in. He had managed to plant one foot on the ground when he felt the small figure stirring next to him.

"Noo," Buffy groaned, sleep still heavy in her throat.

Dean chuckled softly as he let himself be pulled back to the warmth of the covers. To the warmth of Buffy. She wasn't having any of his excuses about showers or to do lists or even breakfast. She didn't want him to go anywhere. With every word from him, Buffy pulled him back further and wrapped tighter around him, making it impossible for him to escape. He opened his mouth once more to offer another reason for why, as much as he'd like to stay in bed and ignore the outside world, the day needed to get started. He didn't manage to say a word as all attempts were halted by Buffy's lips crashing down on his. Any further attempts to extract himself from the bed were also ceased as Buffy swung her leg over Dean's and brought herself up to straddle him. Honestly, it also immediately stopped any thought Dean had of ever leaving that bed again. Ever.

Her lips abandoned his and traced out a lazy, meandering path down his neck, nipping lightly at his jawline as she skimmed by. As she trailed her lips down his chest, lightly sucking and nipping, her hands roamed further down and stroked at his already evident excitement. Dean exhaled harshly, a murmur of a moan beneath the breath, and with it exhaled any coherent thoughts that he may have been able to form. Any attempt he made to return the pleasure in kind was quickly thwarted. Buffy made it clear that she was in control and he was more than happy to let her do whatever it was that she wanted to do with him. He was her play toy. He hardly noticed as Buffy slid further down his body, still kissing and stroking, and removed his boxers.

A shock of pleasure raced through him as he felt her mouth wrap tightly around his member. An expletive, roughly in the sound of her name, gushed from his mouth as he gripped onto the sheets below him. Buffy locked eyes with Dean as she sucked and swirled her tongue around, taking joy in the moans and gasps for breath she was eliciting from him. He was barely holding together now and he could feel his muscles tightening and his toes curling. She knew just how to change her tempo to keep him just at the precipice without boiling over and it was driving him crazy. His head rolled back, pressing into the pillow as he felt her hum and moan against him.

And then nothing.

She departed from him like a whisper in the night. He only had the briefest of moments to protest, however, as he looked down in time to watch her lower herself onto him, taking him all in with a look of pure ecstasy on her face. He damn near lost control right then, but somehow managed to balance himself delicately on the edge of release. She moved slowly at first, rising and falling with the ghost of a moan on her lips. Dean drank in the view of her, completely lost in the feeling of being inside of her and feeling the weight of her on top of him. He licked his lips, desperate to place them on her. To kiss her. To lick that dip at her collarbone. To bury himself between her legs and taste every bit of her. He was desperate to touch her. His hands reached out to place on her hips before sliding up the beautiful curve of her waist to cup her breasts. Gently, Dean massaged her breasts while flicking his thumb over the points there. With every touch he laid on her he could feel her pleasure rising. Buffy's eyes met his as she bit at her lip.

She arched into his touch, begging for more from him. She wanted to feel him all over. Her pace increased as she moved up and down against him. Her breathing was coming hard now as she could feel that sought after loss of control creeping up on her. Buffy let her head fall back as she continued to build her pace to a fever pitch. Dean's hands roamed back down her curves to her hips where he gripped tight and pulling her deeper. One hand trailed further down to rub and caress the nub between her legs.

"Oh god, Dean," Buffy cried out.

It was enough for Buffy to completely lose herself and go crashing over that edge of pure carnality. Her body shuddered as she climaxed, still pumping against him. She gripped into the sheets as Dean continued to rub and pull her through her orgasm. Dean himself could not control himself any longer. Watching Buffy finish on top of him like that and feeling her tighten around his hardness was more than he could bear. His fingers dug into her waist as he followed her to the end.

For a moment or two, the couple stayed still. They fought to find their breath again and find their way back to reality. Buffy leaned forward to rest herself on his chest, both of them slick with sweat. Breathing hard and with a heavy feeling in his limbs, Dean brought his hand up to run his fingers across her bare back. They had no idea how long they stayed there like that.

Finally Dean managed to find language again.

"If that's how mornings go, we should have changed rooms sooner."

They both burst out in a fit of comfortable, lazy laughter.

"And all it took was Faith kidnapping your car and your brother." Buffy stirred herself up enough to meet eyes with Dean. She gave him a quick peck, "now I'm gonna beat you to the shower!"

With that, Buffy dashed off towards the bathroom, laughing as she went. Dean chuckled. That's his girl. Without hesitation, Dean followed after her. He did need a shower, and they really should make up some time, after all.

ӁӁӁ

"Heeeey! There they are!" Faith said with a wide grin and a wink.

"And here we thought you were going to, er, sleep through the whole day," Sam laughed.

Any fear that the morning was going to be awkward quickly dissipated as Buffy and Dean were handed cups of coffee and some sort of sweet pastry that definitely did not count as breakfast. The underlying tension that had been prevalent ever since their encounter with Eve also seemed to have been chased away by the new day. A reset, and a little stress relief, was so desperately needed for the crew, but now they had to make their way back. The vacation was over and it was back to the books. Back to the war they had found themselves in.

"We should head back," Buffy said.

Dean sipped at his coffee, "Actually, Sam and I are gonna make a little detour, couple of hours or so, then we'll meet you back at the house tomorrow some time."

"Sure, whatever you need."

"So, no chance of me taking a quick spi – " Faith started, nodding towards the Impala.

Dean cut her off, "oh no, you had your fun with my Baby. Don't think you're gettin' another turn anytime soon."

Buffy shook her head with fake admonishment, "ruined it for the rest of us…"

Faith laughed and shrugged her shoulders. It was a damn fun ride.

It didn't look like the rain was going to be letting up anytime soon, so they all made a mad dash out from under the overhang they had congregated under. Dean felt much more at ease once he was behind the wheel of his faithful Impala with his brother in the passenger side. It was one thing to change up the sleeping arrangements, but the open road with his brother by his side was a time honored tradition; it was going to take some time before he could change that up. Buffy would take that seat one day, but that day the sun would be shining and they'd be able to drive wherever the hell they wanted to. For now, though, Sam and Dean had a little pit stop to make. After Willow had left that night, Sam had shared the list of books with Dean. Sam wasn't the only one that recognized a few titles off that list, and neither brother was surprised to see them listed in their dad's journal. At some point, John had at least three of the books in his possession, and the hope was that maybe he still did. If Dean remembered correctly, and he was pretty sure he did, Dad had a storage unit somewhere nearby. Their dad had storage units all over the country, filled to almost bursting with weird occult weapons, ancient tomes and scrolls, mystical doo-dads, and pretty much anything else that could be used during a hunt. There was no guarantee that any of those books would be found in this one, or that they would find anything useful at all, but it was at least worth a look. At this point, anything was worth trying just to get some sort of lead on Eve and what the hell to do about her. But he also didn't want to raise hopes just to have to smash them again if they found nothing of worth. It was better to just take a detour the two of them and take a look through their dad's stuff. So, with a little Tom Petty coming through the speakers, the two brothers were off.

The girls sat in the neon and watched as the Impala drove into the distance and disappeared around the bend. That same tense atmosphere that had plagued their extended road trip persisted even now, even despite the leaps and bounds they had made in recent days. The radio, unable to pick up a station at this point, remained silent, leaving the squeak of the windshield wipers to be the only sound in the small car. Out of the corner of her eye, Buffy saw Faith attempt to find a conversation starter a few times, but then give up and return to tapping out some drumline from whatever song was rolling through her head. She watched as the raindrops rolled down the window, racing each other to some imagined finish line. Finally Buffy had to break the silence. It was exhausting, having this strained relationship with Faith. The more time they spent together, the more cumbersome the tension between them became.

"So…" Buffy started, "you guys been…uh…a 'thing' long?"

Faith laughed to herself. The fact that Buffy hadn't picked up on the fact that her and Sam had been fucking pretty much since they started on this road trip was amazing. Girl was pretty smart, but sometimes she wasn't the most observant. They probably could have carried on in secret, but it was too good an opportunity to pass up. Even still, for some reason Faith wasn't really ready to admit that it'd been going on for a while now. Plus, she knew that Buffy was quite proud of her ability to 'sneak' out of the motel room without being caught. She couldn't bring herself to tell Buffy that she was usually sneaking out of an empty room. That or Faith was simply waiting for Buffy and Dean to take off so her and Sam could have some fun. Faith figured Buffy would figure that part out on her own. Eventually.

Faith smirked, "probably not as long as you've been waiting to ask that question." The two girls laughed. "But no. It wasn't exactly a planned thing. But c'mon, B, you see a mountain like that, you wanna plant your flag in it, ya feel me?"

Buffy quirked her eyebrow, "want, take, have?"

"Now you're gettin' it. It's all just for fun anyways."

"Does Sam know that?"

Faith shrugged, "he should. What about you and the brother? You guys gettin' serious?"

Buffy smiled and hoped that Faith couldn't see the pink that had tinged her cheeks. It wasn't that she was embarrassed by her feelings for Dean or their relationship at all. It was more that this was the first time she'd really thought about how serious it all actually was. They hadn't been 'together' for very long, not really anyway, but it felt like they'd been together for years. Maybe that was what it felt like when it was right? She knew she loved Dean, and she knew she loved him very much, but it hadn't really sunk in just how much he meant to her. A part of her kept waiting for when he'd leave. When he'd get bored of her or scared of the life she led. Part of her expected him to be like all the rest. Maybe, and it was an unfair comparison and she knew it, she kept expecting him to turn out like Riley: incapable of understanding her. But he wasn't Riley. He wasn't Angel, either. He was Dean. And somehow, even despite herself, she knew that he wasn't going anywhere. Did that scare her? There was so much about this new relationship that was complicated. Different. Maybe she just hadn't permitted herself to think that this was permanent. The real deal. If she hadn't been ready to admit it to herself, then she definitely wasn't ready to admit it to Faith. Hence the blushing. Of course, not one bit of her thought process was put into words – instead she just kept quiet, blushing away.

"Wow, that serious, huh?" Faith laughed, obviously noting the hint of pink on the other Slayer's cheeks. "I'm happy for you, B," she added a little awkwardly.

Buffy knew that Faith had been trying, trying for years now, to bridge the gap between them. To try and fix the damage she had caused so long ago now. She also knew that she hadn't made it easy for her at all. Even still, the sincerity in Faith's comment had Buffy slightly taken aback. She could count on one hand the number of sincere things that she had heard Faith say in the time they'd known each other, and for one of those to be regarding Buffy's own happiness? It meant a lot. And it showed Buffy a lot, too. It was hard letting go of all those past hurts and wounds that had been suffered between them, but maybe it was time to try – to really try. The Faith that had done all those horrible things didn't even exist anymore. The Faith she was sitting next to was a completely different person – and maybe, just maybe, didn't deserve to be punished for those long-ago made mistakes. And like she said, it was exhausting to carry with her all that resentment.

Buffy smiled and thanked Faith, though it seemed an awkward response to an awkward sentiment.

"What do you suppose is up with all that plaid?" Buffy asked, her voice still light with laughter.

Faith shook her head, "that is a good question. Is it like, a uniform to them? Their lucky shirts that they don't wash while on a hunt?"

"Those shirts better get washed," Buffy cringed.

The car that had been filled with silence and tension for weeks on end was finally silent no more. Laughter and lightness had found its way into the small space and hung there comfortably. Anyone who looked in would be hard pressed to guess that these two had ever been anything but friends. Faith had once said that they were never meant to exist together and maybe that was why they could never get along. Maybe she was right, maybe she was wrong, but there had been a time where that thought hadn't even entered their minds. Buffy remembered when Faith had first rolled into town and the easy way the two had gotten along. Her friends had said that Faith brought out a bad side of her, but she was just having some fun for once. Back then, she remembered, feeling like she had found someone who actually knew what her life was like – who understood. Maybe that didn't have to be nothing but a memory?

The laughter calmed down a bit, but the light feeling remained between the two girls. All those bad feelings didn't just go away at the snap of a finger, but this was a good start. This was what it should be like. This was what both girls, in one way or another, wanted. With relaxed smiles on their faces they even managed to finally pick up some radio reception and had some rock beat filling the car. A warm breeze through the windows was now all that was missing, but the rain was coming down harder than ever now.

"Ya know, I gotta say B, damn do you ever pick 'em fine. How do you always find these guys?"

"It's a gift," Buffy laughed. "Apparently all ya gotta do is end up in some hellish dimension fighting for your life and the universe will drop a hottie in your lap."

"Ah damn, I knew I was doing something wrong."

"Well, if it happens again, I'll try to make sure he also has a cute brother before I let him follow me home," Buffy quipped.

"Oh, uh-uh, if Dean-o doesn't work out for you, I'm next in your line," she said with a wink.

Another burst of laughter took the car before settling into a comfortable silence that would take them all the way back to the chaotic house in Cleveland. Just a few hours out from making it to the headquarters, Buffy dozed off due to the built up exhaustion from the strenuous few weeks they'd had. But before she drifted off, she broke the silence once more.

"Faith?" She said, her voice already dozy, "I'm really glad you stayed. At the house. With us."

Faith kept driving, a soft smile on her lips.

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The rain had been falling over the large house, oppressing and confining all its inhabitants, for well over a week. As the grey days wore on, those trapped within the house became more and more agitated. There was plenty of space between the four walls, but it had not been built to withstand this many people together all at once and for so long. Nerves were being hit and spats were happening more and more frequently. Each morning, the residents would throw open their curtains and look up, hoping to see even a sliver of sunshine or blue sky. So far, they had been let down – the grey skies stretched on into infinity. The tensions were raised even higher when Willow returned home from what was meant to be the big battle with Eve with nothing but bad news. She was greeted at the front door by Dawn, Giles, Xander, and Andrew, each with a look of anticipation and hope on their faces. With one glance at Willow though, her sullen expression, face etched with exhaustion and disappointment, they knew that they had failed. By the time she finished sharing what had happened, the welcoming party felt just as devastated as Willow did. They hadn't thought they could feel any more downtrodden than they did already, but apparently they were wrong.

By the time that Buffy and Faith rolled up the long driveway, just a day or two later, they had come to terms with failing and had already started to double down on the research game. It took a great deal of effort, but they were finally able to push out of their minds the fact that the research so far had been nothing but a bust. They had to believe, or at least try to believe, that they would get somewhere eventually; that they would find the information they were looking for and solve the big question mark that was Eve. The Slayers were given space when they first got home, something that caught Buffy by surprise. It was perhaps the first quiet moment she'd had in this house since they had moved in. Faith had gone directly to her room to crash out for the night and so Buffy headed into the main house by herself, bracing for the cacophony of voices she expected. After being gone as long as she had been, Buffy had been expecting an ambush at the door and an onslaught of requests, complaints, issues, and updates. Instead she was greeted very quietly by her sister. Dawn hugged her, happy to see her sister home, safe and sound.

"It's good to have you back," Dawn smiled.

Buffy nodded, "it's good to be back. Believe it or not, I missed this hurricane. Where is everyone? I should get caught up."

"They're all in the library doing the research thing. They've been going pretty hard since Will got back. Tough break. Sorry that it didn't work out."

"Yeah," Buffy sighed, "me too. I guess I'm library bound too then, huh?"

Dawn shrugged, "or we could make some hot cocoa and curl up on the couch? Just you and me. Like we used to."

Buffy looked at the way her sister's eyes sparkled with excitement. It was hard to resist Dawn when she was like this, and hey, the rest of the gang had agreed to give her the night off if she wanted it. So why shouldn't she have some hot cocoa and relax? Dawn bounded off to the kitchen, eager to catch up with her big sister. Sinking into the couch was by far the best part of returning to the big house. Buffy flopped into the overfilled cushions, instantly melted into the seat, and felt as her eyes started to drift towards closed. Behind her was a plush blanket, which she pulled down across her lap to cuddle into. She hadn't been caught out in the rain again, but even just hearing it pattering against the windows had passed a chill through Buffy. When her hot cocoa finally arrived, Buffy gripped onto the mug with two hands and revelled in its warmth and comfort.

It wasn't long before Dawn's excitement also lost its edge and the exhaustion that had been held off started to seep back into her system. Soon the two sisters found their speech slowing and turning lazy. Dawn wanted to hear all about life on the road – where they went, what they did, how it all happened. Buffy didn't think there was anything exciting to share, but Dawn hung on every word. To Dawn, the life of a Slayer, especially her sister, was infinitely interesting, and it always had been. Now it was almost like the life outside this house was just as exciting.

"Where are the boys, anyways?" Dawn asked.

Buffy wasn't entirely sure. The only answer she could honestly give was that they simply weren't here. Whatever pit stop they had to make must have been important, so much so that they didn't want to let anyone else in on it. Buffy couldn't decide if it was because the Winchester boys were inherently secretive or if it was something else. Maybe they didn't trust Buffy and her crew. Even though they had spent a lifetime together in Purgatory, or at least it felt that way, Buffy had been slowly realizing that she probably didn't know Dean as well as she thought she did. She didn't really know anything about him. At least she knew enough to trust that he was, indeed, coming back. And that was a nice feeling.

Those thoughts she couldn't share, though. At least not yet. Instead she answered simply:

"They had some errand to run. They'll be back soon."

Dawn nodded as though she had made some decision.

"I like them," she said, matter-of-factly.

Buffy smirked, "good. 'Cause I'm pretty fond of them, too."

The two sisters sat together. Peaceful. It took them years to get to this place, but now that they were there, it was worth taking a moment just to enjoy it. Sisters fight, it's just something that happens, but the malice that used to drip in each conversation they had was now long gone.

"But enough about me," Buffy said, setting her, sadly, empty mug down on the table. "Will was saying that you and Cas have gotten pretty close."

Dawn rolled her eyes, "not in the way that you're thinking. He's just…he's fascinating, really."

Buffy quirked an eyebrow, "fascinating?"

"He has stories, Buffy. So many stories. And not even just that, but he knows about the stuff that we've dealt with, ya know? He knows about The Key, more than we ever found out. I-I know that's all behind us now, and none of it matters anymore, but it's kind of nice to fill in all those gaps we had when it came to…well…me." Buffy listened carefully and urged her sister to continue. "I dunno. It's just…I like learning more about the world that we know exists, you know?"

"I get that," Buffy acquiesced. "Just…be careful, okay? I know Sam and Dean trust him, but he's still an unknown…thing."

"I just want to be useful in some way. Maybe I'll learn something that will let me actually help you guys somehow."

"Willow said you want to join the research thing."

Dawn nodded, "yeah. Buffy, I want to help. I've always wanted to help."

"I didn't mean to stop you from researching. I just thought you would rather work with the new Slayers. I guess it must have seemed like I meant that's all I wanted you to do. You're just as much a Scooby as any of us."

The two sisters smiled at each other. Dawn was pleased to hear that she was free to help however she could. Buffy felt herself start to doze off and decided that her bed was calling out for her. Just the thought of sleeping in her own bed, in her own room, was an indescribable joy. Though she had to admit that it would feel a little empty without Dean next to her. It was way too soon to be that attached, and she knew it…but she couldn't help it. He should roll on through the front door sometime tomorrow, and that would just have to be enough.

A fresh pair of pajamas. A crisp, clean set of sheets. The soft glow of her digital clock on her nightstand. The novel, still bookmarked in the first 50 pages, resting atop of her clock. Her own pillow. Her own bed. Her own room. This was exactly what she needed after everything the journey on the road had thrown at them. With a deep breath, Buffy curled into bed and was asleep almost immediately. Weeks of motel rooms with questionable sheets and cramped naps in the tiny neon had started to take its toll. Before this, Buffy hadn't realized that this new house, this new place in a new state with new people, had somehow become home.

Her sleep was anything but restful, though. Buffy woke to a start, gasping for breath as she came crashing into consciousness. A cold sweat had broken out over her face and her heart was beating into her throat. It took her a moment or two to realize that she was home. She was safe in her own room. Her breathing slowed as she leaned herself back against her headboard. The nightmares were getting to be fewer and far between, but they still reared their ugly heads often enough that Buffy's sleep was suffering. Part of her had hoped that being somewhere familiar would help stave off the poison her mind kept reminding her of, but it had probably been a long shot. The nightmare was already fading into nothingness. The trees that had twisted around her fell away and the voice that taunted her was not much more than a whisper. The grip that Purgatory had on her was weakening and her mind was finally starting to understand the reality of her time there. It didn't – wouldn't – break her. Her mind was going to heal. She was going to heal.

With bleary eyes, Buffy sought out her clock. 3:17 am. The bed that had welcomed her so openly suddenly felt very lonely. Buffy had gotten accustomed to waking to the sound of someone else's breathing. There was a comfort in that – a way to ground herself back to this reality. What really struck her, though, was how quickly she had gotten used to having Dean right next to her. The warmth of him nestled against her. The sound of his quiet breathing with a slight wheeze. The gentle patter of his heartbeat. Is there a word that is more than comfort? Because even after one night, that's what he was. Maybe she was remembering what it felt like to sleep with him watching over her. Keeping her safe. Or maybe it was because he had always been just one room over and now she didn't even know where he was. And without him, it seemed like she couldn't wind down enough to get back to sleep. That was inconvenient. Buffy sighed, and dragged herself out of the warmth of her bed. Sometimes an aimless wander around the house was enough to quiet her mind down enough to get back to sleep. She grabbed her robe off the hook on her door before heading out of her room. Light from the moon streamed in from the windows, a sign that perhaps the clouds had finally started to move on, and dimly illuminated her path as Buffy quietly moved down through the hall. The house was silent – a sound she hadn't heard since before Giles showed up at her door with the first three potentials. It was almost unsettling. At least until she heard a faint tapping and rustling sound. She noticed a light splashed against the wall which led her to the library. Buffy smiled to herself. Of course Giles would be up, still working away. Some things never change. With her aimless wandering suddenly having a destination, Buffy quickened her pace and slowly pushed open the large wooden door to the library. She was looking forward to having a chance to sit with Giles and talk about everything that had been going on. It felt like it had been a long time since the two of them had a chance like that without any tensions between them. What she wasn't expecting was to find Andrew all alone, sitting in the library and staring intently at the computer screen. He seemed completely unaware that she had entered the room at all, let alone that the lights had been turned off at some point and he was now sitting in dark room, save for the sliver of light from his computer screen and a lone table lamp.

"Andrew?"

"Hm?" He replied without even looking up from the screen.

"It's late, what are you still doing up?"

"Tracking activity. Looking for clues. Trying to make connections. Anything that can help us."

Buffy pulled out a chair next to him and dropped herself into it. She had to admit, she was a little taken aback to see Andrew like this. In all the time she'd known him, which granted was not a whole lot, she had never seen him this focused on something. This intense. It was a completely different side of him. It was admirable, but it was so, so late. He needed to get some sleep, and a few hours away from the data wasn't going to be the end of the world - at least she hoped anyway – and she honestly hated to think just how long Andrew was willing to sit here just to try and find something to help them. She placed her hand on his shoulder and was about to gently encourage him to get some sleep, but her touch startled him. It was as though he wasn't even aware that he had been speaking to anyone, let alone that someone else was in the room with him.

"Buffy! When did you get back?"

She laughed gently, "several hours ago. Do you even know how late it is?" Andrew nodded. "Why don't you go get some sleep?"

He shook his head, "I'm fine. Someone has to keep an eye on the program I have running. It's not as useful to simply read the log in the morning, we need to track in real time."

Buffy wasn't sure if that was entirely true or if this was Andrew again pushing to prove himself useful to the Scoobies, but it was pretty obvious that there was no way she was going to convince him to go to bed. Even as he spoke to her, he kept glancing back to the screen, watching for something to happen. She also knew that there was no way that she was going back to sleep anytime soon; the feel of Purgatory was still too close to allow her mind any sort of peace. With a shrug, Buffy nudged Andrew's chair over and slid hers closer. She curled into the chair, wrapping her robe tighter around her frame, and took up the watch with Andrew.

"What am I looking for?" She asked.

Andrew seemed confused, but he didn't question her. Instead he explained how the program worked. He explained how it looked for keywords in news stories across the country, how it picked up on bizarre events that were being reported through 911 calls and dispatch conversations. He explained how that had led to tracking Eve and her parade of monsters as they made their way across the country. And it wasn't just for Eve. Andrew was confident that this could be used to find any sort of supernatural occurrences instead of simply waiting for them to become huge problems.

"It's all about signatures, really," he finished with a shrug. "I was hoping we'd be able to use it to send teams of girls out."

"Teams?"

For a moment Andrew looked…embarrassed? Concerned? She couldn't quite figure out what was wrong, but it was as though he realized he had said something he shouldn't have.

"I mean, obviously we were going to talk to you about it first, but we had been talking about making a team roster or something for the Slayers. It would make it easier to mobilize against whatever demon or monster is terrorizing some town and we'd be able to better keep track of who is out on a case and who we have available." When Buffy didn't say anything, Andrew continued. "Especially now that Wood is set up in Europe and Kennedy has settled into Vancouver, they could do the same thing. It'd be like…this whole network of Slayers."

"Wow," Buffy exclaimed, "that's…an incredible idea. Teams of girls, each with different strengths. No solo missions. And a program to help send the right girls to the task. It's all so…organized. Official. We could finally do so much better than we've done before…"

Andrew smiled tentatively, "so…you like the idea?" Buffy nodded. "Then I guess we'll get started with building our roster."

"Talk with Dawn. She knows the girls the best."

Buffy had to admit, she wasn't used to seeing Andrew so serious. It was completely out of character for him and it felt like she was talking to someone she had never even met before. It was nice to see him taking something seriously and putting a real effort in. Hell, a real effort that was going to make all the difference in the way this new HQ operated. But she missed the sense of humour he had. She actually missed the groan-inducing, eye-roll-causing comments he made. This life took its toll on people and she was afraid that he was going to lose his sense of humour and lightness that he had somehow managed to keep hold of after everything they had already been through. Even if he was an annoying pain in the ass sometimes, she'd hate to see that light extinguished.

"Oh my god!" Andrew suddenly said. "It'll be like I'm Charlie and they're all my angels! Though…I guess Giles was technically already Charlie, but he never called dibs. I'm totally calling dibs."

Buffy smirked. There it was. Much better.

The two returned their eyes to the screen in front of them. Nothing seemed to be happening, at least not as far as Buffy could tell, but it was almost…calming in a way to watch the scanner as it worked. The soft click of Andrew's keyboard droned on as he continued to search separate of the scanner for anything that might point them in the right direction. Anything that could help them identify Eve or to find a way to stop her. The library was chilly, something that could never have been said about the high school library. Somehow that cavernous room had always been pleasantly warm no matter how late they all stayed past the school closing. Buffy made a mental note to find a way to do something about the draft that would occasionally blow between the tables and stacks. She knew she could rely on Xander to find some solution. It was only raining, how miserable would it be in here when the snow started to fly? As Buffy and Andrew watched the screen in silence, that long to-do list that Buffy had before she went on her adventure started to flutter back into her head. There was still just so much to do to get this place running well. To be able to do some good in the world. Before long, Buffy could feel her eyes starting to get heavy and her head bobbing ever so slightly. She was getting tired. She gave Andrew a sheepish grin, some semblance of an apology for leaving him on his own, and headed her way back out of the library. He hardly acknowledged her parting words and moved back to the centre of the screens he was watching. She had to wonder if he even noticed that she had stayed with him.

Once back out in the hallway, Buffy could really feel the pull of sleep that was beckoning her back to her bed. She wasn't really sure how late it was now, but at least the sun wasn't up yet. Or at least, it didn't look like it was. She was looking forward to sinking back into her bed and hopefully into a dreamless sleep. Buffy dragged her feet down the hall and met Dean and Sam at the corner. Dean carried a stack of books and dusty old tomes, obviously ancient and barely holding themselves together and ready to tip out of his arms at any second. Behind him, Sam had his hands looped through a couple of rusted handles that didn't look anywhere near strong enough to actually lift the old chest that they were attached to. Somehow, and it was surely a miracle of some kind, the chest was remaining in one piece. The padlock on the front looked to be even older than the chest and looked as though it had been rusted shut. Whatever was stored inside had obviously remained safe for a long time. Obviously the boys had smashed it open, and whatever was inside was worth dragging it along with them.

"Buff? What are you doing up?" Dean asked, shuffling his stack of books to prevent them from falling so he could lean down and kiss her.

Buffy kissed him back and then took most of the book stack from him effortlessly, "I was having a hard time sleeping, but was just on my way back to bed actually. What are you doing here, I thought you weren't going to make it back until sometime late tomorrow?"

He shrugged, "decided to drive back instead of staying in some motel."

That explained why both of the men looked as tired and worn down as they did. She had no idea how far they had actually driven, but she had a feeling it was significantly further than her and Faith had gone, and she knew how tired they were when they finally made it back to the house.

The boys had brought back quite the stash of stuff, but if they were being honest, they weren't even sure if it was going to be helpful at all. They could only hope that the books they brought back would turn up something. Only one of the listed books had been found at their Dad's storage unit – which was honestly more than they had been expecting to find. Even if the books weren't much help, they were hoping that Giles could assimilate them into his growing collection. They'd be much more helpful here, with the people who can make the most use of them, than they would be collecting dust in the corner of some abandoned storage unit. The chest was an even bigger question mark for them. Once they had broken the lock open, they'd found a collection of vials and tubes and jars of various materials. The labels had long worn off and disintegrated, leaving no clue as to what each powder or liquid might be – or more importantly what they might do. Dean was hesitant to agree, but the chance that Willow could not only identify the contents but put them to good use was exceptionally high. High enough that it was worth bringing along.

But of course, that could wait until morning. The items were deposited in the library and Sam bid his brother and Buffy goodnight before heading off towards the room they had settled into when they first arrived at the house. Buffy and Dean, both running out of the energy that kept them going, also headed towards bed. Dean discarded his clothes on the floor, leaving a trail from the door to the bed, before falling into the soft mattress. It wasn't often that he got to enjoy the pleasure of a decent bed, and sinking into the plush covers was damn near like heaven to him. As soon as Buffy curled in next to him, her soft skin up against his and her head nestled into his chest, it was heaven. The scent of warm vanilla wafted up to him and again he found himself wondering just how it was that she always smelled like what he always imagined home would be like. With a kiss to her forehead and an 'I love you' whispered in the darkness, the two drifted off to a peaceful sleep.

This was home.

Chapter Text

Chapter Eighteen – Inside Information

With the morning came the sun. The rain had stopped at some point in the early hours of the morning, leaving the smell of freshness and renewal. The stagnant and sour atmosphere that had hung over the house seemed to have dissipated along with the grey clouds and the bustling house was once again a comfortable and happy place to be. The library windows were opened to let the fresh air in while the research team poured over books and news articles and webpages buried in the deep recesses of the internet. Xander moved his tools outside and worked in the sunshine. Coffee was enjoyed on the porch instead of the claustrophobic kitchen and Slayers trained outside in the dewy grass.

Sam had taken up a tree nearby to lean on and watch the girls as they trained. It was incredible to see them move gracefully and effortlessly. He found himself thinking that they looked as though they were built for this, but, of course, they actually were. Every part of their DNA was coded to make them perfect fighters. Watching them as they picked their way through and activated those skills was awe-inspiring, especially after having watched how Faith and Buffy fought and knowing that one day that would be how all these girls would be. It was going to be a formidable army – one that might just be able to prevent other families suffering the same wounds his had all those years ago. An army to finally even the playing field.

"Careful, or we're gonna have to start charging you for this peep show," Faith joked, giving him a light elbow to the ribs.

Sam chuckled, "gee thanks. I'm just…trying to understand how Slayers work, I guess."

"Work?" Faith furrowed her brow, "we're not like, machines or anything, ya know? We're just people."

"People with extraordinary power and strength. Even complete novices like those girls…their reflexes are impeccable. It's amazing."

"Man. What is it with you and Slayers?"

Sam turned a light shade of pink and stammered over some words, trying desperately to find some reason – some excuse – for being so interested in Slayers and the lore behind them. He couldn't think of any legitimate reason that would end this conversation before he had to admit –

"Wait, who is that?" He pointed across the field to one of the girls that was running one of the training drills. She was wearing a little rainbow beanie on her short red hair and a brightly coloured skater shirt with some cute cartoon character splashed across the front. "The uh, the redhead, who is that?"

Faith looked over, shielding her eyes from the sun, "Who? Vi? Right, she was out when you guys got here. She's one of the Slayers. One of the ones that fought The First with us."

"Vi?"

Sam couldn't believe his eyes. The resemblance was uncanny. The way she walked, the way she dressed…even the way she laughed. It was possible that she had a sister, maybe even a twin. To be honest, they didn't know a whole lot about her. All they really knew was that she was good with technology, she was a major geek, and that she was brave enough, or maybe crazy enough, to step up and do the right thing even though it was incredibly scary and completely out of her comfort zone. Nothing else seemed important at the time, but now Sam wasn't so sure.

"Sam, what are ya doin' creepin' on the barely legal girls out here?" Dean winked as he wandered up, steaming coffee mug in hand.

He ignored the joke, refusing to even acknowledge that it was the second time he'd heard it today. Instead he pointed over to the group of girls training.

"Who does that look like to you?"

Dean looked over, squinting through the sun, and scanned the group of girls. He wasn't exactly sure who he was meant to be looking for, but then again he didn't really know any of those girls. At least, until he found Buffy in the crowd. She was watching as some of the newest girls ran simple fitness drills. He watched as she walked between the rows carefully correcting postures and helping them to find their balance. Even from across the field he could see the focus on her face as she made her way through all the girls. It was the same sort of focus she found right before a big fight – like she was going into the Slayer zone or whatever she wanted to call it. For a moment, Dean forgot that he was supposed to be looking for someone in particular and let himself be lost in simply watching Buffy. He always felt like he needed to soak all of her in – like she was going to be suddenly ripped away from him like she was nothing but a pleasant dream. Considering everything they'd been through, all the losses they had suffered, it wasn't an unreasonable fear, he supposed. So he wanted to commit every bit of her that he could to memory. Like the way the sun, which had been gone far too long, shined off her blonde hair. Or the way she passed her fingers across the other girls, just barely correcting their stance. The little hint of a smile she tried to suppress each time someone did well. The flash of sadness each time she had to be the drill sergeant barking out orders. How effortlessly she was able to pull off even the most difficult of poses or stances.

"Dean?"

"Hm? Sorry." He shook his head, "who do you mean? I just see a bunch of girls I've never met."

"The redhead."

He looked over again, but where Sam expected a look of recognition he saw instead a look of confusion. Dean looked back at his brother and shrugged his shoulders with a short shake of his head.

"Who Vi? Is she supposed to look like someone?"

"You don't see it?" Dean shook his head again in response. "She looks just like Charlie!"

Dean scoffed, "what, just because she has red hair? Does Willow look like her too?"

"But – "

Sam couldn't believe it. How could Dean not see it? That girl looked just like Charlie, almost eerily so. Any argument he tried to pose to his brother was quickly shut down. Maybe Dean just didn't want to see it. Sam couldn't blame Dean if that was the case – it had been so long since they had seen Charlie and he knew that his brother missed her. Maybe after all this was over they could track her down. It'd be good to see her again. To make sure she was still okay. He'd always felt a sense of guilt that they'd dropped her into this world of monsters and demons and then just let her on her own.

"Anyway, we should get going. We've got some research to bang out," Dean said, finishing off his coffee.

Faith shook her head, "that sounds like a 'you guys' thing. I'mma go show the girls how to really throw a punch. Looks like B could use a hand."

"Are you sure?" Dean asked with mock surprise. "It's clearly way more fun to search for a needle in a haystack with us."

"As tempting as that sounds, I'm gonna go with option 'a' on this one. Come get me when it's time to lay a smack down. Later!"

ӁӁӁ

"I don't know why everyone always says Canada is cold. I mean, it's no California, but it's been pretty nice since I got here," the speaker phone crackled.

Sam and Dean slipped into the library quietly, nodding at the rest of the group as a greeting. They took a seat close to the back and Dean kicked his feet up on the table. Another cup of coffee in hand, Dean used his free hand to grab the book closest to him and started flipping through the pages. Whatever conversation was happening, he couldn't care less about.

Giles sighed, "yes, that's wonderful Kennedy. I meant how is it going finding the other Slayers in the area…"

"It's been fine. A little harder on my own, but I'm making progress. Two of us took out a vamp nest last night."

"Alright. Get in touch if you need anything from us. We'll send a few girls up shortly to help you better establish yourself," Giles said.

"Great. Catch ya later."

The call with Kennedy came to an end with an abrupt click. Wood had already checked in with an update from Europe earlier in the morning. There wasn't much to update them on as he was only just getting settled into his place in Germany, but it was still good to hear that he had finally found somewhere to set up base camp, at least for now. The hunt for Slayers was proving to be a little more difficult throughout the European countries, but so far Wood had found and helped at least a dozen girls. If nothing else, it was a start. The idea of having a network of Slayers was quickly becoming a reality. Soon they would be able to set up bases in Asia, Africa, South America…anywhere to further their reach. To close the distance between each base.

"Good morning Dean, Sam," Giles said, turning to face the boys.

Willow smiled, "glad to see you came back. Thought maybe we scared you off."

Sam laughed, "Well, we considered just taking off, but we thought these books might be useful and then we just had to come back."

Willow chuckled along with him. "I still can't believe you managed to find one of the books Tavia suggested. Hopefully she was right and it will be of some use."

"Yes, I have been looking through the other books that you retrieved. They are certainly very old, older than almost anything that I still have in my collection. Where did you find these?" Giles inquired.

"They belong to our dad. No idea where he dug 'em up, though," Dean answered.

"We know he has a log of where he found all his mystical items, but honestly we have no idea where that log is. He was…a little secretive," Sam added on.

"Or paranoid, take your pick. I'm surprised he listed out these books in his journal," Dean shrugged.

Giles looked disappointed, "that is a shame. At least two of these tomes were thought to be nothing but a myth. I very much look forward to going through them."

"Hopefully they'll help us out now. If not, I'm sure they'll make a great addition to your collection. They're bound to help out one day," Dean shrugged.

"Oh," Giles smiled excitedly, or at least excitedly for him, "I very much appreciate that. Thank you, Dean. These will make an excellent addition, yes. Once this is over I'll have to take the time to read through all of them and…"

Giles then trailed off into an excited discussion of the books and how much he looked forward to examining them and discovering all the information they contained. He didn't even seem aware that he was mumbling to himself and that no one else was paying attention to him anymore. Willow smirked to herself, remembering all the times that Giles had done the same thing back in the high school library. It was the little reminders of home that always brought a deep feeling of nostalgia to her heart. She hadn't decided if it was more bitter than sweet yet, to be reminded of the home they lost, but no matter what, memories of the old library and all the hours spent together there always brought a smile to her face.

But there was no time for that right now.

"I spoke with Tavia earlier. Not surprising, but all tracking on Eve has gone dark ever since our…encounter. No one at the coven has been able to pick up on her signature. There wasn't even a trace left behind when she vanished," Willow explained.

Sam noticed the way that Willow smiled a little differently as she mentioned Tavia. He also noticed the slight hue of pink that tinged her cheeks when she noticed that he was smirking at her. How no one else in the room seemed to pick up on it was beyond him.

"So I guess that means you already caught everybody up on – " Sam was cut off.

"Yeah," Willow nodded, still clearly being too hard on herself, "I filled everyone in when I got home. Hence why the research team has been working so hard."

"If we can't track her, then where the hell is she hiding?" Dean asked.

Willow shook her head, "honestly, we have no idea. We know she's powerful, but she shouldn't be able to hide so completely from Tavia and her coven. They're strong."

Dean sneered at that, but it was hard to tell if it was because of the coven or because Eve was alluding them, "guess she's stronger."

Sam cleared his throat in hopes of breaking the tension before it even started, "so what can we do to help? We can jump in on research or whatever will be the most useful."

The research team was mostly made up of the new Slayers that had come to live and train with them since they had moved to Cleveland. With Buffy off training with the older recruits, Dawn probably somewhere with Cas asking a thousand and two questions, Andrew getting a much deserved rest after the night watch, and Xander working on getting the armoury stocked, it was feeling a little thin in the library; Willow was much appreciative of the offer to aid in the research thing. The two extra set of eyes would be invaluable, especially with a new stack of books to go through.

"Well, I was about to go through that chest you guys brought us last night. See if I can figure out what the mystery substances are. Sam, want to help me with that before hitting the books?" Sam nodded in agreement. "Dean, maybe you can find something online that'll help?"

Dean shrugged and agreed without saying a word. Anyway, he had a little research project of his own that he wanted to test out. Spending the day on the laptop would definitely allow him the chance for that. He was hoping to go give Xander a hand at some point, too. He had watched the way the guy worked while building, even with only one eye, and it was pretty incredible. He also knew that he was being too stubborn to ask for help, and he had a sneaking suspicion that an extra set of hands, or at least a full pair of eyes, would make a huge difference as he finalized the details of the room meant to store all the priceless and dangerous weapons. At least someone should give him a hand moving all those blades to their new home. Besides, Dean could only sit still for so long before he started to lose his mind.

Sam grabbed the chest and he and Willow headed off to a back corner of the library so as not to disturb those who were nose deep in the dusty old books. Sam wasn't entirely sure why this was a two person job, but maybe Willow had something she wanted to talk about. That ritual they did together was pretty intense and he was kind of hoping to talk about it himself. However, that didn't seem to be the case. They cracked open the chest in silence and Willow simply got to work. She'd pull out a vial or a jar and inspect it. She'd spin it one way, then another. Give it a gentle shake. Some of them she'd unstop the top and give a quick whiff, while others she'd carefully dip a finger into.

"Wouldn't it be faster just to…"

"Use magic?" Willow asked. "It would be, yeah. But…I prefer the old fashioned way to doing stuff when I can."

Sam nodded knowingly. Dean had shared the story of what happened when Willow started to rely too much on magic and its ability to do pretty much anything if you knew the right way to ask it. Sure, this was the slower way to go, but if it also meant it was the safer route, then that was worth it. He wondered if maybe that's why she made it a two person job – to make sure she didn't give in to temptation. They continued in silence for the next while, focusing on the task at hand and making sure to record anything that they discovered as they worked through the various bottles. They had identified a handful of the vials so far – different magical compounds, elixirs, essential oils. Some were common items – honeysuckle, special breeds of moss, vervain, nettle…But there were many that Willow had never encountered – at least not in the form that they were in the chest. She was equal parts perplexed and excited at the prospects of having new items to add to her growing library of magical compounds.

"Hey Sam?"

"Hm?"

Willow paused, obviously feeling hesitant to say anything more, "I'm really sorry that you had to take over that spell."

Sam furrowed his brows, "what? Why are you sorry? It wasn't your fault."

"It was, though. You shouldn't have had to jump in like that. I should have kept better control of the situation. I should have been stronger."

Sam could see the insecurity and the self-loathing etched deeply on her face. He'd seen it a few times and each time he found that it stung him a little to know that someone like her felt this way. It was in stark contrast to her cheery demeanor and her gentle nature and it hurt to watch her struggle to find the balance between power and control. Sam had no doubt that she could have performed that ritual on her own if she had just let her power take over. She was powerful – probably more powerful than Eve if she could allow herself to be, but she couldn't let herself lose control. It all sounded so familiar to him – to when he indulged his own dark side thinking he was doing the right thing. He could blame Ruby for leading him astray as much as he wanted, but the truth was she wouldn't have been able to do so if he hadn't been so susceptible to it. In a way, he and Willow weren't all that different. Maybe that was why he felt such an instant bond to the small redhead – he understood.

"Willow…there is absolutely nothing to apologize for, so stop. You're stronger than you give yourself credit for. If anything, I'm sorry for not being able to finish it off. But we didn't know what we were getting ourselves into – we were just out of our league on this one. We'll get her next time."

Willow smiled sadly, "thanks, Sam."

Something told him that she wasn't finding any comfort in his words. It wasn't too surprising and he couldn't really blame her, either. If Sam understood anything, he understood the inability to forgive oneself and he understood self-loathing. If he ever found a way to let go of those toxic feelings he would absolutely pass the information on to allow her some sense of peace as well. For now though, there wasn't any comfort he could give her.

"So, how's Tavia?" He asked, changing the subject. Willow looked at him questioningly, but Sam just rolled his eyes. "Oh c'mon. We both know your call to her this morning was much more than just asking about Eve."

Willow smiled meekly, "she's good. She gushed for about an hour about this book series she's recently picked up. It was…nice, ya know? To talk about something other than doom and gloom."

"I get that. She's uh, a literature professor, right? All about the classics?"

"She is, but she's actually a huge sci-fi nerd. The cheesier the better," Willow laughed. "But this time she's reading a black comedy-fantasy series. Johannes Cabal? She's absolutely in love with it. I can only imagine how excited she looks when she talks about it."

Sam thought he had a pretty good guess how Tavia looked when she talked about the books that she loved. It was probably pretty similar to how Willow looked when she got excited about something she found in one of the old tomes in the library. Or how Dean looked when he talked about the Impala. He also had a sneaking suspicion that the look on Willow's face right now, full of life and excitement, was probably the same way Tavia looked while the two of them were on the phone. He had spent hours researching with Willow, and there was no way that all the text messages the redhead received from Oxford were simply to update her on the progress, or lack thereof, being made across the ocean. It seemed as though the threat of the apocalypse had brought more than just Buffy and Dean together. If he wanted to be cynical, he'd say that he and Faith and Willow and Tavia were all acting out of desperation – the fear of impending doom. That whatever was driving the relationship – love or lust or whatever – was nothing more than a frantic plea to feel alive in what was beginning to feel like the eleventh hour. Sam had more than enough of cynicism, though, and chose to take pleasure in seeing that people like his brother, people like Willow, even people like him, could find some modicum of happiness even in bleak times.

"I think these last vials are going to have to wait," Willow said with a sigh, interrupting Sam's thoughts.

"Maybe Giles will have some idea. Or Tavia?" He smirked.

"I will most certainly ask her. Oh no, I guess I'll have to call her and talk to her again. Shame, that," Willow joked.

Sam much preferred seeing her smile and joke than sinking under the weight of her own guilt and fears. The levity was a nice change of pace as well. They could use more of those moments. It was a shame that finishing off with the chest meant that it was time to hit the books again. The prospects there were significantly less optimistic than the chest had been, what with all the lack of progress and all. Sam could only hope that the books he and his brother brought with them proved useful in some way. Hopes were exceedingly high that the book Tavia had suggested would bring the solution to all their problems. It was a long shot, and hope was well known for breeding eternal misery, but it was also infectious. It was hard to not feel confident that they would find some sort of breakthrough now. He grabbed a couple of the tomes, not entirely sure if Giles even noticed that the stack next to him had gotten any smaller, and grabbed a chair at the table that Dean had set up with. Dean was also pretty intensely focused and didn't acknowledge Sam either. Without paying it much thought, Sam simply opened the book and started reading. It was going to be a long day

If Sam had taken a look at what Dean was doing on the laptop, he would have concluded it was going to be a much longer day. Maybe Dean had started out looking for some sort of information or lead on Eve, but by this point he had abandoned it in favour of his own research project. Ever since Buffy had found that embarrassing picture of him as a kid he had been thinking of finding one of her. Of course the picture was one that he loved, of his whole family before the yellow-eyed demon showed up and destroyed it all, but it was a picture for just Sam and him. That bowl-cut-mullet hybrid was reason enough to keep the picture hidden from sight. Of course, finding a picture like that of Buffy was all but impossible. Any photos that once existed, like those safely glued into albums and displayed happily on shelves, or those framed behind glass and lining the walls of the family home, were all gone now. They were at the bottom of the crater that was once Sunnydale, if they survived at all. Buffy had no photos left to illustrate her life up until this point. There was nothing left of her mother who was long gone now, and nothing to show the memories she had built before she had been called to be the Slayer. Sam and Dean had never had family pictures or albums or walls lined with memories. The chance for that was over before it even really began. Next to nothing survived the fire that ruined their lives. Since that day, there was only a small handful of photos that had been taken. The picture of Bobby, Ellen, and Jo was still taped to the visor of the Impala, never far from sight – the only other family photo in existence. Up until now, Dean hadn't realized that he cared about the lack of pictures that he and Sam had over the years. Maybe it was because he realized that Buffy did have those photos once upon a time, and now they were all gone. He wanted better for her, and he wanted to be part of it. Maybe now it was time to start taking photos. To make sure they documented those moments they never wanted to lose. If he lost Buffy tomorrow, he had nothing to hold onto. He couldn't handle that thought. Pictures needed to be a part of their lives again, no matter how hard it was to get used to that idea. Memories needed to be made physical before it was too late. But for now, he was determined to find the only embarrassing pictures of Buffy that he thought he'd be able to find online: those in her high school yearbook. They weren't quite the same as embarrassing childhood photos, but it would have to do. Plus he was pretty sure he'd heard someone say, once upon a time, that no one had a flattering yearbook photo.

Honestly though, it was mostly curiosity that made Dean plunk in "Sunnydale High School Pictures" into the search engine. He still knew he should be researching like everyone else in the house, but that curiosity thing was getting the better of him. Curiosity and that petty need for revenge, of course. If he got busted, if anyone asked him what he was doing, he could always lie. Dean could cover by saying that he was trying to find pictures of Buffy, of the whole gang as a gift. Something to hang on the wall to remind them where it all started. Actually, now that he thought about it, that wouldn't be a bad idea. It wasn't just family photos that were lost after all. There was nothing left. How many moments had Buffy, Willow, and Xander documented that were now lost forever? Maybe there would be something in the yearbook or on those old 90's style websites that would include the three of them. Something to memorialize all the years they'd had together. Dean mentally wrote that down on his to-do list, to find something they could put up on the wall, but for now he was on a mission.

He couldn't believe his luck when he came across a website that had the entire yearbook catalogued from 1997. It looked like some high school project, probably for whatever passed for a computer class back in the late 90's. It wasn't much to look at, but at least it existed. Though the experience was soured when he learned that Buffy had somehow escaped the entire yearbook. He'd have to ask her about that one day. She was probably in her first year of high school that year, so the fact that a freshman didn't show up in any of the random photos wasn't too surprising, especially since she was too busy saving the world to join the debate club or anything, but how she managed to miss even picture day was surprising. The rest of the gang was here though. Xander looked exactly like someone Dean probably would have shoved in a locker, which made him feel a pang of guilt. At least until he realized how silly it was to feel guilty about something that never actually happened. Still, knowing that he probably would have picked on someone like Xander, who had proven his mettle in battle repeatedly and was fighting the same war he was at that age, was definitely a bitter realization. He moved on. Giles was in the yearbook of course, and he looked pretty much the same, less some grey hair of course. He was pictured in the library, which was unsurprising based on the stories Buffy had shared with him. He looked right at home in that library. He could see why the Scooby gang had felt so comfortable with the older man – he looked so kind and gentle. It wasn't just the fatherly look, but a sense that he would always have your back, no matter how badly you messed up. Dean could have used someone like that while he was growing up. Hell, he could still use one someone like that now. The one that really surprised him, however, was Willow.

Willow: the witch that nearly ended the world. The one that turned all the girls into Slayers. The powerful-as-all-hell witch who could make the darkest forces of the world shake in their collective boots. Here she was a complete wallflower. He had almost missed her in the club photos, but he had found her easily in the student section. She was the most unassuming and meek looking girl he had ever seen. She was wearing overalls and a pink fuzzy sweater. Most of the photos showed her wearing knee high socks and Mary Janes. She had barrettes in her hair which was long enough for her to hide behind. In every photo it looked like she wanted nothing more than to be part of the scenery: always in the back, making herself as small as she could, smiling just to enough to call it a smile. Even in the photo of her on her own, Willow looked as though she wanted to hide. Unlike Xander, who he probably would have picked on, Dean was ruefully aware that he wouldn't have even noticed Willow. Not even enough to pick on her.

How could that sweet little girl become what she was now? He looked up from his laptop screen and scanned the room, looking for wherever she was now. She was sitting just a couple of tables over, books all around her. She had a cup of tea that she was absentmindedly tapping with her fingers as she flipped through the pages of whichever book was in front of her at the moment. There weren't any barrettes in her hair and the fuzzy sweater had been replaced with something much more ordinary looking. She wasn't trying to hide and she didn't look like she was ready to run away at any given moment. But oddly enough, for the first time since he'd met her, he saw something a little different. He didn't see the dangerous witch that tried to end the world - that had tried to kill every person she knew and loved. He didn't see power and magic and darkness. He just saw Willow. She wasn't actually different from that girl in the yearbook, not really anyway. Grown up, yes. Stronger, yes. But still the same quiet, dorky looking girl she always was. How could he have missed that? Had he really been so quick to judge that he let his own feelings cloud his judgement? He tried to remind himself that she was, in fact, dangerous. She was always just one step away from losing all control and going back to that dark place that could have destroyed the world. She was a witch, and a witch couldn't be trusted. Still, a deep sense of doubt started to root in Dean's chest. Doubt that threatened to turn to guilt. It was much more difficult to see danger and darkness there. It was much more difficult to hold onto the feelings of disgust and distrust. Suddenly the idea of sitting to research became a little too much for him. He needed to get up, to move, to do something useful. Even if he was looking through books and websites, this didn't feel useful. He needed to make progress. He had wanted to go help Xander later, but he decided that now was as good of time as any. He gave some poor excuse to Sam about being too antsy to sit still and headed off in search of the carpenter. At least there he could work with his hands. But first he needed a beer.

ӁӁӁ

With one beer down and a second one in hand, Dean was already feeling better. Of course, the fresh air from being outside and in the sunshine made a huge difference as compared to the dusty stagnant air of the library. He could do the research thing, but Dean always felt much more comfortable doing something with his hands – he was a man of action, not of books. Dean wandered down past the training grounds where the girls were going through various different drills. Voices floated through the air, different leaders calling out different orders to different groups. He was able to pick Buffy's voice out of the crowd with ease. She was a couple groups over, working with some of the girls who had been here the longest.

Dean paused for a moment to once again watch as Buffy worked with these girls. To him it was crazy to see just how easily she was taking it on them and just how hard the other girls were working. While the trainees looked like they were about to drop dead from exhaustion, Buffy hadn't even broken a sweat. What was most interesting to him though, was just how at home she looked there. She had told him how strange and awkward she felt teaching these other girls how to fight when she herself still had so much to learn, but there was no trace of that uncertainty in the way she instructed them. Maybe it was just an air of confidence she put on, but something told Dean that she was truly in her element there. She must have felt his eyes on her as she suddenly looked up and smiled widely at him. He waved in response, wishing he could stay here all day and watch her work. He probably could, actually, but he did really did want to go give Xander a hand before he hurt himself. Xander was no longer stationed at the workstation he had set up outside, so Dean headed off towards the armoury building.

"Oh for fuck's sake, just snap in place you piece of shit – "

As soon as Dean opened the door he knew he had managed to track down Xander. He found the carpenter trying to install a shelving unit against the back wall that was not only significantly taller than he was, but looked to be made out of substantially heavy material. Anyone would struggle to get the unit anchored to the wall on their own, and it had nothing to do with missing an eye or not. Without a word, Dean lent his hands to hoisting the shelving into the framework that had been attached to the wall. It snapped into place with little difficulty. The remaining shelves all snapped in quickly without a word passing between the men. It wasn't until the last shelf for this unit was installed that Xander acknowledged the assistance he had received.

"Thanks, man," he said, still breathing a little heavier from the exertion.

"Hey, no worries. Figured you could use a hand down here and man, research gets old real fast."

Xander nodded in agreement, "yeah, I'm more of a hands-on guy too. As you can probably tell." He indicated the woodwork around him. "I didn't think I'd need help, but I was apparently wrong on that one. I'd be glad to have some company too. It gets a lil' weird when the tools start to respond, ya know?"

Slowly but surely the additional shelves and racks started to get installed and the various chests and lock-boxes were assembled and stacked in their respective places. The room had been finished for a while now, but apparently Xander felt the need to add extra shelving and racks, just in case. Or maybe he just wanted some busy work so he wouldn't have to be in the research brigade. He too was a man of action and not books. The conversation between Dean and Xander started and stopped and had been stilted throughout, but it was definitely better than an awkward silence, so they kept finding things to talk about. Dean could tell that there were a few questions that Xander had been dying to ask but, unlike Andrew, he was able to have some self-control and keep them to himself. It was greatly appreciated after being constantly hammered with questions by the very eager Andrew, and so Dean tried to share stories from the hunting trips with Sam. The more he could slip in the stories that had been included in the books, the better. Pretty soon, Dean learned that Xander had some pretty impressive stories of his own; stories that Buffy hadn't shared yet. They had been through a lot in high school, including the swim team being turned into fish-monsters, the substitute teacher being an insect-monster, and even being turned into Halloween costumes. Hell, they'd even broken into a military base to steal that rocket launcher she'd used. He had a lot of respect for Xander before, just knowing that he had chosen to take on the supernatural world without any real reason to beyond 'hey, why not?' Dean had even more respect after hearing those stories and knowing there was plenty more to be shared. Buffy had powers – she was the 'chosen one'. Willow had learned and developed magical abilities. Giles had been trained to handle the occult and the world of the supernatural. Xander didn't have any of that, yet he always stepped up and braved the unknown. He and Sam didn't have any powers either, but they, like Giles, had grown up with it all. Xander got thrown into it and had to find some role to fill. He made joke after joke about how he was 'just the carpenter' or 'just here to fix the windows' – but he offered so much more than that. Dean had to admit, he was impressed.

"Hey, while we're on the subject of high school…" Dean started.

Xander groaned, "ugh. What a terrible time. Ya know whoever said those were supposed to be 'the best years of your life' clearly never spent them being shoved in lockers."

Dean shrugged, "eh it wasn't so bad."

"Yeah, but look at you man. If I looked like that, I'd have been cool in high school too. Or at least less of a dork."

"What was Willow like back then?"

"Willow?" Xander asked, confused and unable to hide the surprise in his voice. "What about her?"

"I was uh, looking through an archive of your guys' yearbook. I guess I just have a hard time believing that the girl in those pictures grew up to be – "

Xander nodded, "to be a super strong witch with the power to shake the world to its foundation? Yeah, I didn't see that coming either. I mean, she was always just Willow, ya know? The dorky girl who used to help me with my math homework. We grew up together. She used to come over every Christmas to watch Charlie Brown 'cause her family wouldn't let her watch it. I used to be an excellent Snoopy dancer."

"So, what happened?"

"I'm sure I'm still excellent, just haven't – "

"I meant with Willow," Dean chuckled.

He knew very well what Dean had meant, but it wasn't a conversation that Xander had really wanted to get into. Mostly because he wasn't exactly sure how to answer that question – it was one that he had been asking himself for years now. It wasn't something that just happened. It wasn't like she flipped a switch and stopped being the overall-wearing Willow and became powerful Wiccan lady. Then again, as far as he could tell, she was the same Willow. She didn't really change, she just…found herself. Better than he ever did, anyway. It just went a little too far. After everything she went through growing up, to finally have something that made her special and strong and, even though she'd never say it out loud, better than others, he couldn't blame her for falling completely into it. The idea of needing control had never really dawned on any of them. Xander certainly never thought that anything would push her beyond the brink.

"Losing Tara was just…too much. After everything else…"

Xander knew a little more than he let on, of course. Most of what Willow said to him that day, and in the days that followed her return from England, he kept to himself. Not even Buffy knew all that Willow had said to him. Willow shared what she wanted to share, and it wasn't Xander's place to decide what others should know. Somehow, in between all the repair work, Xander had become the secret keeper, too, and it was a job he took seriously – even more than the carpentry. He offered Dean a shrug of his shoulders and apologised for not being able to shed any more light on the situation. Dean seemed to understand.

"I know you have a thing about witches, and I can't really blame you for being a little sketchy about it all…but I wish you'd give her a rest. She's good people. Just, lay off her. And pass me that hammer."

ӁӁӁ

The library had been quiet for hours save for the rustling of book pages and the tapping of Andrew's keyboard. Every so often Dawn or one of the other newbie Slayers would come by with coffee, tea, or food. Otherwise, it was like the library was stuck in a time loop of research and stress. Tensions were high and the exhaustion was running rampant throughout the group. Willow's eyes had long started to burn as she continued to pour over ancient pages of text of which she was able to read less than half of the passages. Wherever Sam and Dean's dad had found these tomes, it was absolutely a one-in-a-million-type find. Sam, her, and Giles had been taking turns going through each book – desperate to not miss anything that could help them. Her eyes currently roamed over a page that had been looked at by two other people, at least twice each. She looked at every word, every sentence, every line. She tried to look behind the letters to see if anything could be hiding amidst the page. They couldn't keep turning up failure. They needed to find something. It had been weeks. Weeks of nothing. Weeks of let-downs, of being so close and yet so far. Her exhaustion came second to her determination to find something. She refused to believe that Eve had existed for as long as she had without ever being discovered – without anyone ever learning anything about her beyond Phoenix ashes being a means of destruction. She refused to believe that there was nothing they could do.

By now the sun was getting ready to set, and the pinkish hue of the sun was streaming through the windows. The light was perfectly at eye level, causing most everyone to squint as they read and wipe away tears as their eyes began to water. There was no way they were closing the curtains quite yet, though. Having natural light instead of the grey overcast they'd seen for weeks was far too much of a treat to block out now. It sure made it hard to read the faint ink on the thin pages Willow was reading, though. They had, of course, started with the book that Tavia had recommended as potentially useful, but so far had found nothing of value within it. At least, not valuable in this instance. There had been the mention of a great battle, but it didn't seem to include anything about a banishment or other dimensions, so it was probably not what they were looking for. Willow wasn't sure who had that book now, but Willow herself had moved onto one of the tomes that Giles had mentioned as being considered a myth. Giles had poured over the two mythic tomes at first chance, but had not found any text that seemed connected to Eve, to the Mother of Monsters, or to Purgatory. Willow was not willing to give up that easily and had been almost obsessive in her read through of the ancient pages, but she was starting to fear that she would miss something being drowned out by the blinding sun. Willow finally got to the point where she wasn't willing to risk missing something in this tome just because she wanted a little extra daylight. A tome this ancient was bound to have something important in its pages, right? She was just starting to think they'd have to suck it up and shut the curtains to block out the sun when something caught her eye as she turned the page. In the low sunlight, a faint image became visible through the thin pages. Willow flipped the page back and forth a couple times just to make sure she really saw what she thought she saw.

"It's a palimpsest," she whispered, her eyes lighting up with excitement.

Sam looked up at the sudden sound, the loudest noise that had occurred in hours. "What?"

Willow's entire face lit up as she tapped the table with her hand, "Sam! Giles! It's a palimpsest. Look!"

She held the page up to the sunshine streaming through the window and sure enough, just below the text, was a different set of text with an image in the middle. The chances that this hidden text meant anything to them or their current situation weren't exactly high, but it was simply the possibility of something new that was so exciting. Even if nothing came of it, for now it felt like progress. Using the lights in the room, they moved and twisted the book to try and reveal what it was that first caught Willow's attention – the image behind the text.

"Is that a tree?" Sam asked, straining his eyes to try and make out the faint image.

Willow nodded, "I think so. It's split down the middle at the binding. Look. One side is dead."

Sure enough, half of the tree was bushy and full of life while the other half, on the other page, was long dead, the branches bare and twisted at bizarre and grotesque angles. At one point, the image must have been incredibly detailed, they could see where lines had once been on the image, now too long faded to make out. The text surrounding it was equally as difficult to read, both because it was too pale to read and because it was written in ancient Sumarian – a language that Sam and Giles both knew, but not well enough to translate the text before them. Maybe if the text was less worn-down they'd have a better chance, but at this point there was very little they could do about that. Even still, one set of symbols stood out: Sam had translated that phrase before and nothing good ever followed. Purgatory.

"It's talking about Purgatory," Sam said, grabbing the book closer to himself. "And here, they're talking about a dark, o-or maybe tainted woman – all powerful." Slowly but surely more words became easier to make out as he kept scanning through the faint text. "She was cast out. Destined to suffer. She created Purgatory to – "

"To what?" Willow asked, her eyes wide as she prodded him to keep going. This was the big break they'd been waiting for. This was what every late night and every pot of coffee had been leading to. This was what they needed.

He sighed, "that's all I can get. Even that is a pretty rough translation. It could be totally wrong – I'm just guessing based on context for some of those words. It looks like we're missing a page, too. Look, it just trails off here."

"Still," Giles said, "your ancient Sumarian is very good. I'm impressed. I will admit, my own is rather rusty, so I'm glad you're here."

Sam smiled proudly, "it'd be better if we could figure out the rest of this."

"What if we could find a way to recreate the pages? Make it like was before it was printed over?" Willow said, obviously thinking out loud. "Sam, hold the pages over the light. I need a clear image of the palimpsest.

"What are you thinking?" Giles asked.

"I can probably recreate the pages. If I can get a decent enough picture of the tree and some of the inscription, all it'll take is a trace back spell. I should be able to essentially pull the palimpsest out and transfer it to a blank book. It won't be perfect, but it should make it easier for you two to read and translate. I'd translate it if I could but all I can do is recreate it."

Sam was surprised that she was offering to do something like that. She had seemed hesitant to do the ritual that was supposed to send Eve back to Purgatory, so hearing her volunteer to do another spell after that was not what he was expecting. The ritual had been much more intense, requiring much more power, but wasn't it just the simple, mundane stuff that had led her down her dark path? Whatever she was willing to do, though, he could do his best to help. Hopefully he'd be able to translate the text after she makes it easier to read.

"What do you need for it?"

"Ink. Mugwort oil. Ginger. A couple of crystals. Nothing special. There should be plenty in the cases in my room. I'll be right back. See if you can find an empty notebook or something for me."

Willow returned quickly and got to work. She pulled together the potion she needed without saying a word. She worked quickly and diligently, almost as though she was afraid that if she took her time, this big break would somehow slip past them and it would be lost forever. She worked as though time was going to expire before she could finish her next breath. The first time she spoke again, her voice was not her own. It was full of power as she spoke phrases in Latin than Sam had never heard. She spoke low. Precisely. Then suddenly, with every word she spoke, the blank notebook took on colour. Ink seeped into the pages and slowly the tree faded into existence, in brilliant colour and detail. As though they had been typed, symbols scrolled across the page. The bottle holding the potion drained and drained until there was nothing left, and the notebook was a text of its own. Her incantation slowed to silence until she had no words left to say. If she hadn't been so worn out by the deceptively simple spell, she may have been surprised to notice that her hair was still red – no hint of black at all.

"Now it's up to you guys," she rasped, her voice obviously worn out.

"Guess we better get to translating," Sam said, settling in for a long night.

"I'll put the coffee on," Giles added with a sigh.

For yes, it was going to be a long night.

Chapter Text

Chapter Nineteen – I'm Your Witch

"I guess my Sumarian is a little rustier than I thought," Sam said, rubbing his eyes.

Exhaustion was beginning to take its toll as he worked through the book. Every symbol, every word, every sentence was transcribed as he went, but it felt like he was taking two steps backward for every step forward. He'd make mistakes, he'd change his mind - the context would alter what word was actually spelled out in front of him. Sam made a mental note: brush up on his ancient languages. Just a few years ago, this would have taken him an hour or so at most. Now it was only with the help of Giles, a bottomless cup of coffee, and several hours that Sam had gotten even this far. Truthfully, he would be ashamed of himself if he wasn't so goddamned tired.

The sun had long set, but the house was still bustling with activity into the midnight hours. The research team had grown as the night wore on: Buffy, Dean, Faith, Xander, and Dawn had filtered into the library as they each finished their own day's to-do list. The research continued with the same intensity as before. Even though their hopes were high that the Sumarian text would be the key to everything, experience had so far taught them that it could all amount to zero. They had to keep trying to move forward in case they came up with nothing. Therefore, the coffee kept coming and books that had been read and read and read got read again. Tavia and the Coven at Oxford had been in on a conference call, relaying any information they had found, but nothing seemed to come up. Everything found just kept leading to dead ends and false leads. As much as they didn't want to put all their hopes on the translation that Giles and Sam was working on, it was starting to look like there wasn't much else they could do. They were running out of resources.

"Sam, I think you've got it," Giles said, finally breaking the concentration that had gripped the two of them.

Sam sighed, "I still can't figure out what that last sentence means. Somehow I doubt it's talking about how untrustworthy salt is, but I think the rest is at least close to the right message."

"What's it say?" Willow, too tired to be excited, simply murmured.

Everyone was listening intently as Sam started to describe the tale that the palimpsest text had been hiding. There were gaps in the tale and some translated sentences didn't fit quite right, but the story of how Purgatory came to be started to come to life. The inscription around the tree told the tale of a Woman who committed an atrocity. The atrocity didn't translate well, but Sam could only guess it had something to do with disobeying or insubordination of some kind. At least that's what he thought the word was saying – for all he knew she may have just made disparaging comments. It wasn't clear who had cast her out, either, or why her actions had warranted such a punishment, but the rest had come together pretty well as far as he could tell. Sure, he had lost some of the eloquence he was sure the passage had been written with, but he just didn't care anymore.

The Woman was cast out as punishment for her disobedience, forced to live in an empty realm – a prison all her own. This Woman was destined to suffer in a world with nothing around her – no pain, but no joy either. No beauty. No riches. No comfort. No salvation. No escape. No one else. All alone. But this Woman was clever. Not only that, but she refused to suffer her punishment quietly and decided to make the realm her own. In her exile she had become powerful – creating power out of the nothingness that surrounded her. Sam lost the translation, and the source of her power remained a mystery at this point. What he could gather was that she was going to use the power she had to alter the world around her. She could not free herself, so she decided to make it a better world to be in for herself.

In defiance of her banishment, The Woman created her own world to fill the void that she was trapped in. She imbued the ground with power, with life, and from it pulled trees up all around her. They grew to impressive heights and rooted deep into the soil. But even her power was tainted by the atrocity she had committed, and the trees were twisted and infected. She could not be allowed to create a world of beauty like that which she was cast out of. Anything she raised from the ground would wither and die, monuments to her disobedience. She willed living creatures into existence, but they too became grotesque monsters. The Woman was angry at first, devastated that her attempts were being thwarted, but eventually she came to accept it for what it was. The Woman embraced the idea of being the Mother of Monsters and kept making new creatures – each bigger and stronger than the last. Soon, monsters that died elsewhere found themselves called to this realm. Called to her. It became a realm made for the darkness in the world – those with tainted souls. A salvation of their own making. The Woman sunk into the darkness, let herself be consumed by it. In it she found the joy, beauty, and comfort that had been denied her. She continued to create a dark world, a stark contrast to the one she lost. She wanted to spread this darkness across the entire world, to punish Him for banishing her to such a place. She wanted to make him suffer as she had suffered. And so she continued creating, but always planned for her own escape.

But her escape had been made impossible. When she had been sent to this desolate realm, He had bound her to the ground, creating a tether that she herself could never break. A life must take the place of a life. The only living thing that had ever existed there before, a large tree full of life and renewal, was torn from the ground and they traded places. Until the day she finally left this place, not another living thing could exist here. It was not enough. Any chance of escape had to be prevented, and thus a gatekeeper was created. What – or who – the gatekeeper was could not be translated. It was a group of symbols neither Sam nor Giles had ever seen together. It was likely a proper name, ancient and predating most translated texts, and therefore likely lost forever.

Reading on, Sam described a ritual for summoning Eve from her realm – the Purgatory she created. Save for a few translation issues, it sounded an awful lot like the way she had been freed the last time she had visited Earth. There was mention of Phoenix ashes being able to send her back – to break the spell that only temporarily loosened the realm's hold on her. There was something more, though. It seemed more like a failure or an overlooked mistake than a built in escape plan for her. If a living creature ever did exist in this realm, one with a soul still intact, then The Woman would be able to attach to that soul. If the soul was ever freed, then The Woman too could be freed by, essentially, hitching a ride. It wasn't so simple, however. There was a small caveat even to this avenue of escape – she needed to be invited or called through an open door. Or an open seal…Sam admitted that his translation of that section was a little looser than he was proud of. After that, it was too hard to translate what would happen.

"Roughly, it talks about corrupting the other realms – spreading her Purgatory across the dimensions for her to rule over."

"That's why she's called Eve," Willow said, still processing all the information that had just been dropped on her.

"Did I miss something?" Buffy asked, obviously confused.

"Being punished for something supposedly awful she did. Mother of creation, at least of sorts. She basically created her own garden, just a little less utopian."

Giles nodded in agreement, "yes, her name does make sense now, doesn't it?"

"But we still don't know who she is," Dean grumbled.

"Strong, scary hell-bitch. Good enough for me," Xander interjected.

Sam shrugged, "my best guess is that she's a god from another dimension. A lesser god, probably, considering she was cast out by someone more powerful than her…but a god nonetheless."

"And she was able to escape Purgatory because Willow pulled me out? That's what happened, isn't it? When I saw her in Irving, she thanked me. I wasn't sure what she meant but, it makes sense. We opened the Seal of Danzalthar and she walked right through the doorway."

Buffy looked down, fidgeting with her hands. She knew exactly what was coming next. Someone was going to reassure her that it wasn't her fault that Eve was set free, that she shouldn't feel guilty or badly about it happening. She also knew that they were going to be correct. Buffy knew just fine that it wasn't her fault – it wasn't her choice to be taken out of Purgatory. When she pushed Dean through that exit, she had already made up her mind. She was sure that she would never leave, that she would spend all of her afterlife subjected to that place. Buffy had made a sort of peace with that. Even still, if it wasn't for her, Eve would have stayed locked up where she belonged. Opening that seal also wasn't an option. If they hadn't have done that, The First and it's army of Turok-Han's would have won. They did what they had to do – and there was no sense in regretting that now, even if it had set Eve free in the world. It wasn't her fault, not really, but a feeling of guilt still started to sink in and take root in Buffy's heart. Looking over at Willow, she could tell her friend was also feeling the same guilt. Buffy smiled at her, trying to reassure her that she also was not at fault. Not just that but they were gonna send Eve back. They would put things right again. To Buffy, it seemed obvious what needed to be done. She knew no one was going to like what she was about to say, hell she didn't like it herself, but she didn't see any other way. It had to be done. It had to be her.

"So if I go back there, I just need to find a plant or something? And we can send her back? Seems simple enough."

"Buffy!" Giles exclaimed. "Let's not get ahead of ourselves."

"All I heard was that someone needs to go into that place and find some living thing to bring back. I've been there, Giles. Will. Nothing there can be considered alive. But if anyone has a chance of finding their way through there, it's someone who has already taken the tour."

"There's no way we're going back there," Dean said, crossing his arms.

Buffy shook her head, "I didn't say we, Dean."

"Well you can't go alone," he replied.

Faith interjected, "she won't go alone. I got your back, B."

Sam frowned, "I don't think you should be going at all. You barely survived the last time. I saw the damage that place left on you. And Dean."

A silence fell over the room. Everyone looked amongst themselves, but no one seemed to have anything to say. The tension was palpable. Sam had brought up a good point, even Buffy knew that. But she also knew, beyond any misgivings, that she was right. She had to go back. It had to be her. She and Eve were connected now in some way or another. This all started with the two of them, so it only seemed fitting that it would end the same way. Looking at Willow, Buffy could tell that she understood; she wouldn't have to convince Willow that it was the right plan. Faith understood as well. And for once, Buffy understood Faith. She wasn't surprised that she had offered to go with her, and truth be told, she was kinda glad. Purgatory was the kind of place that the buddy-system was well suited for, especially when that buddy was just as strong and capable as she was.

"What if you get stuck there?" Dean posed. "What if we can't get you back?"

"That is a very real possibility," Giles agreed, wiping his glasses off methodically.

Willow had to agree, "it wasn't an easy feat to bring you back last time."

"So what, I just do nothing? We just sit back and wait for Eve to strike again and again until, what, until she wins?"

"That's not what we're saying!"

Dawn, who up until now, had been sitting so quietly at the back of the group that they had all pretty much forgotten that she was even in the library, finally piped up.

"Well…" she started, unsure of herself, "why couldn't we do something like a tether? Like when you go orienteering or hiking. A magic one, of course."

"So they won't lose their path and we can pull them back when they're ready…" Willow considered the thought.

Giles nodded, "I'd say that's an excellent idea, Dawn. We could also make sure that Buffy and Faith are bound together so they cannot lose one another. So they must return together."

"So we go in, find some poor plant and bring it back. Then what?" Buffy asked.

"Well, then we use a spell or incantation to pull Eve back to where the plant or other living thing was taken from, like the book said."

"We tried to push her back last time, maybe it's a pull door?" Xander clarified. Willow nodded back.

"And the gatekeeper?" Sam asked.

Giles thought for a moment. He reread the translation that Sam had provided and then reread the original text. He furrowed his brows as he considered the information.

"I'm not sure a gatekeeper is necessary. We don't know if the original gatekeeper did much of anything to prevent Eve's escape, especially considering she has escaped before. We also don't know if the gatekeeper is still in place or not. It's entirely possible that he, she, it still lives."

"Besides, wouldn't a gatekeeper mean…sending someone to Purgatory…to stay?" Dawn asked.

Giles nodded, "if this inscription is to be believed, then yes, that is precisely it. Someone would need to remain behind. The gatekeeper acts as more of an anchor than a guard, really. They serve as a stronger bond between Eve and the grounds of Purgatory."

"Okay," Buffy nodded, "then we'll just stick with the binding spell. Hopefully that's enough. In the morning, Faith and I will be sent into Purgatory. Willow will have a tether on us so we can't get lost. She'll keep an escape hatch open for us until we signal that we're ready to come back. We get back, she plays swap-a-roo and Eve goes back."

"Sums it up nicely," Faith nodded.

"What about you, Will? This is all on you," Buffy turned to her best friend. "You up for this?"

Willow took a deep breath and nodded slightly, "I've got your back too, Buff. If it's magic we need, then I'm your witch."

"Then it's decided," Giles said, standing up. "I suggest we all try and get a decent night's sleep with what's left of the night. Tomorrow is going to be taxing."

ӁӁӁ

"You've been awfully quiet, ya know?" Buffy asked, shaking her hair out of her elastic.

Once it had become clear that Buffy was, in fact, returning to Purgatory, Dean hadn't had much to say. Or anything to say at all. At first Buffy hadn't really noticed his silence. There was so much momentum and excitement as they figured out the plan for tomorrow that she had been caught up in it all. Honestly, she wasn't even sure who said what in that timeframe, just that a plan had come together and she and Faith were being sent to Purgatory. After, once the meeting and broken and Dean and her headed off towards her room, Buffy noticed that Dean hadn't said anything. They walked to her room in silence. She had tried to start a conversation a few times now, but he just kinda shrugged at anything she had to say. Even now, he was just sitting on the edge of her bed, silent.

"I know you're not happy with everything, but it's all we have, Dean," Buffy continued.

"You shouldn't be going back there," he finally said.

Buffy sighed, her shoulders dropping, "yes, you've made your feelings about that abundantly clear. Do you have a better idea?"

"I just think this was a rush decision. We could find some alternative if we just apply the brakes here. We're pinning a lot on some book we only just found."

Dean couldn't sit still anymore, he was feeling too antsy. Too much adrenaline coursing through him to allow him to remain seated on the bed. He got to his feet just as an excuse to move and it took all the self-control he had within him to keep himself from pacing the floor.

"We don't have the luxury of time, Dean. You know that. Every minute that we waste she gets stronger. She builds her army. People die. I know I don't have to tell you that!"

She didn't, she was definitely right. Dean knew full well that they couldn't drag their feet on this one. They had found a weak point and had to go for it. In all his years of hunting and fighting, he had never once suggested that they slow down and consider the options. But the idea of Buffy going back to that place? Putting herself in danger like that, where he couldn't even help? It was too much. He wanted more than anything to protect her, and letting her go into Purgatory was the exact opposite of that.

"So what great plan do you have? What sort of magical plan that puts no one at risk and we all live happily ever after?" Buffy continued, her voice starting to shake.

"I just don't think we should be pinning so much on some witch and her magic," Dean replied coldly.

Buffy gave a short, mirthless laugh. Some witch? She wished she could say that she was surprised or taken aback by what Dean had just said, but she would be lying. It had been made abundantly clear that Dean not only disliked extensive use of magic, but specifically distrusted Willow. It had been difficult trying to keep the peace over the last few weeks and Buffy had all but given up trying to get Dean to accept Willow and learn to accept the shades of grey that existed in her world. This time, there was something about his tone of voice, the cold expression on his face, the way he referred to her as just 'some witch' as though she wasn't spectacularly strong and powerful, lit a fire in Buffy. She lost her patience.

"How dare you?" Buffy shook her head as she spoke. "If it wasn't for 'that witch,' I wouldn't even be here. I wouldn't have even made it out of high school! She's not just 'some witch' – she's my best friend. She deserves trust and respect – because she's earned it."

Buffy wasn't deluding herself – she knew very well that Willow had lost control. She knew what magic had done to her best friend and she knew that, just like any other addiction, the risk was always there. But she had watched as Willow found her balance again. She had watched Willow resist the darkness that lurked just below the surface. More than anything, though, Buffy trusted Willow. Even at her friend's darkest, Buffy trusted Willow. If Dean couldn't learn to trust Willow, then he at least needed to trust her. And he needed to grow the hell up and start to live in the shades of grey that made up the world – not this 'good vs evil' binary he had locked himself into. And she damn well told him as much. Maybe this time he'd hear her.

And hear her he did. Dean couldn't find any words that seemed appropriate in response, and so instead he changed the topic. Another plan, another desperate try to prevent Buffy from going back to that wretched place.

"Maybe just Faith could go?"

Buffy glared at Dean, her arms crossed. Even he didn't agree with that suggestion. He was grasping at straws and they both knew it. There was no other plan; this was their only chance. It was a lucky break, finding that book; an even luckier break that they were able to carry out what needed to be done. It was risky. Chances of survival were low. That was what Dean hated about this plan.

"Buffy," he tried again as he ran his fingers through his hair, "you're not the only one that can do this. Let someone else risk themselves for once."

Buffy scoffed, "like who? Send in the newbies? They're not cannon fodder!"

"No, but they gotta learn sometime. You can't always be the one to do these things!"

"You don't think I'll succeed." Buffy realized, setting her jaw tight, the tension obvious in her stance. "You think I'll fail. Succeeding means surviving, but you're afraid I won't make it back. You'd rather it be some girl that's faceless to you. Just another disposable Slayer."

Dean shook his head, "no! That's not what I'm saying. I just don't think you should always be the one throwing yourself into danger. Without thinking first. There's other Slayers now. Let them do the heavy lifting for once. You're the one in charge, you don't have to do these things anymore."

"So you want me to order some poor girl to her death? Again! I can't ask them to do something I wouldn't do. I can't ask them to do this."

"This isn't like Irving. This isn't like with Tess."

Buffy's face turned stony. Whatever words she may have had died instantly in her throat. She clenched her teeth for a moment and swallowed hard. She'd had enough.

"Get out," she said, her voice calm and level. "You obviously don't understand a damn thing. Get. Out."

Dean glared, frustration and anger coming off of him in waves. For once, he didn't argue. He didn't try to have the last word. He turned and walked out, the door slamming hard behind him as he stalked off. He left Buffy alone in her room, still seething.

ӁӁӁ

Somewhere in the house, Sam heard a door slam. He wondered if something was going on, but only for a moment or two. He honestly couldn't be too fussed about much of anything at this point – he was still waiting for his brain to start functioning again. If Faith noticed the door slam, she didn't acknowledge it either. Throwing the covers back, Faith slipped out of the bed and crossed the room to her dresser. She pulled some old t-shirt over her head and pulled it down, not quite meeting the band of her underwear. With a deep breath, Faith started to move around her room, stretching out her muscles as though preparing for some great fight. With each movement, with each pace across the room, she became more and more uneasy. She hadn't seemed anxious before, but then again they had been a little distracted. As Sam watched her, he too started to feel a little disquieted. The plan for tomorrow was a little…unsettling to say the least.

"Why'd you volunteer to go?" Sam asked, sitting up to lean back on the rickety old headboard.

Faith shrugged, "I have my reasons."

"I'm not sure you know what you signed up for."

"What, danger? Possible death? Welcome to being a Slayer every day," Faith replied nonchalantly.

Sam winced at how easy she accepted that danger. "Doesn't that scare you?"

Faith kept a stoic face, but Sam could see the hard way she swallowed and the way her eyes flashed downwards ever so briefly. Before she even replied, Sam knew she was about to lie to him. He also knew that he wouldn't call her out on it. They definitely hadn't been big on words in the time they'd spent together, but he wasn't stupid. It was obvious that Faith wasn't big on opening up, and Sam wasn't about to push her on it. She'd open up when she was ready – he just needed to prove that she could trust him.

"I know I'm scared," Sam continued.

Faith looked surprised, "what? Why are you scared? You're not the one throwing yourself into the pits of darkness to look for a goddamn flower."

Sam furrowed his brows, "well, 'cause I'm worried for you." Faith rolled her eyes. "What, is that surprising? Am I not supposed to care that you might not come back?"

Faith was taken aback. She hadn't considered that her decision would matter to anyone else. And why would she? Her life had always been just that – her own, with no one else having any sort of vested interest in it. No one really ever cared what she did with her life, which is probably why it ended up all going to hell the way it did. When all that matters is doing what you want, it becomes easy to give in to temptation. To impulse. Want, take, have becomes a way of life when no one cares enough to stop you. No one even cared if she lived or died.

At least, not until she became a Slayer. Then all of the sudden she was part of something bigger. Her life meant something all of the sudden. She was meant to actually do something with it. Her life was no longer her own to do with as she pleased. There were rules now, and Faith was expected to follow them. The right thing had never been important to identify, to follow through with, but suddenly it was. Faith had to live her life how she was told because it mattered if she lived or died. But it only mattered because she was the Slayer. They cared about the Slayer – not Faith. If she hadn't been called by some 'higher power' or whatever, then she would have continued on – unimportant and unnoticed.

She crossed her arms, "what, 'cause I'm the Slayer, right? That's why you care?"

Sam looked like she had just struck him. "What? Why would – "

Faith scoffed, "that's all that ever matters, isn't it? Everyone always treating me differently just because of some stupid bloodline. Even you with your questions all the damn time. Being the Slayer is all that matters to anyone!"

"That's not – it has nothing to do with you being the Slayer. It's because you're…well…'cause you're you. I care about you, Faith. Not you being the Slayer and whatever that means to anyone else. I just want you to be safe. I saw the scars that place left on Dean. On Buffy. I don't want you to have to go through that too. You deserve better than that."

If he wasn't mistaken, Sam saw Faith soften a little bit. The anger she had been holding in her shoulders seemed to loosen off, letting her shoulders drop a little. Her expression, which was usually a mask of sharpness and resentment, had started to lose its edge – as though the mask was slipping. She started to chew on her lip, an obvious nervous tick – one that Sam had not seen before now. He had noticed a lot of her habits, especially when she was uncomfortable. He'd seen her chew her nails, drum her fingers on tables, and fidget with whatever was within reach, but he'd never seen her chew at her lip.

A silence hung over the room as Sam waited to see what she would do. Part of him expected her to leave – the room and him. She had stopped pacing and her arms, which had been tightly crossed over her chest, dropped to her side. Even still, she seemed tense – off balance. Her fight or flight response was at war with itself and even she didn't look sure of what the outcome would be. He knew he was pushing it by being this honest. He knew that she preferred to not talk about much of anything let alone feelings of any sort. But he couldn't just say nothing. Maybe he couldn't say all that he wanted to, not yet anyway, but he could at least try and show her that she was more than just some girl – some Slayer – to him.

After what seemed to be an interminable amount of time, Faith finally seemed to make up her mind. She came back across the room and climbed back onto the bed. For the first time, sitting with her knees up to her chest, her head resting on her knees, she looked small. She looked unsure of herself and…scared. Vulnerable. It was a side of her that Sam hadn't seen yet. A side that he was pretty sure no one had seen yet. Sam desperately wanted to reach out and touch her. To pull her into his arms. To brush the hair from her face. Any kind of contact that could convey everything he wanted to say but couldn't.

"Faith, I don't know what kind of life you've lived," he continued, "but I'm willing to bet it wasn't always fair. I get that. I understand feeling like all you are is some title, some prophecy fulfilled. But you're more than that. At least, to me you are."

There was something about the way that Sam spoke that caught Faith's attention. It wasn't the words he was saying. Anyone can say words and put on a sad face. She'd heard enough lies and lines from men over the years to know how easy it is to string together some pretty sentiment and tie it off with a bow of puppy-dog eyes as a means of manipulating someone. It was something else. There was something in the way Sam spoke that struck a chord with her. It was…He was…sincere? More than that. He truly meant what he said. There was something about the way he looked at her, like he really did see just her. Not the Slayer. Not the damaged girl from a broken home. Not the gigantic fuck up that she had always been. Just her. And he looked at her like she was perfect. It made her heart ache. Something inside her broke, like a levee giving way.

Shaking slightly, Faith reached out to place her hand on Sam's cheek. She caressed his face gently as she moved closer to him. Nibbling at her lip again, she looked at Sam questioningly, as if she was asking if what she was doing was okay. With a half-smile, Sam gave a slight nod as he placed his hand on Faith's waist. Faith brought her lips down on his, slowly moving closer to him until she was sitting in his lap. Her hands slowly came to rest on his shoulders as she kissed him tenderly. It was a new feeling to Faith to not want to simply throw him down on the bed and have her way with him. She found that she wanted to take her time, to explore him and lose herself in him. To let him take over. Her fingers ran up through his hair, impossibly soft. Her skin prickled and shivered at the feelings of his hands on her waist. She wanted to feel more of him. She shifted to be closer to him, pressing herself up against his chest and her hips grinding against his.

Sam loosened his grip on her waist, sliding his hands up under the loose t-shirt she had pulled on just moments ago. His strong hands trailed up her back, leaving lines of shivers wherever he traced. She couldn't help but let a gasp pass through her lips as his lips pressed against her neck. Sam's fingers traced her skin at the hem of her shirt before grasping the fabric and pulling it up and over her head. The item was tossed to the floor without a second thought. His hands once again found their way to her hips, and moved upward, tracing her sides, running his fingers over her breasts. She arched into his touch and, for the first time, let herself surrender over to him. She allowed herself to be lost in his touch.

Sam felt Faith melt into his touch. He felt how she responded to his every movement, how she pushed to be closer. As their tongues moved together he felt her grip tighten on him. Without breaking contact, Sam slowly rolled them, nestling her softly into the pillows that were now below them. He kept waiting for her to push back, to take control again, but instead she simply gripped on his back a little tighter. Kissed him a little deeper. His lips still on hers, their tongues still dancing together, Sam's hand trailed downward, leaving a trail of shivers as it went. Faith let out a gasp as his fingers deftly found her spot of pleasure, already wet and waiting for him. His fingers trailed across her folds, eliciting moans and expletives with each pass over the nub at the centre. Hearing the pleasure he was causing her, Sam was barely able to keep control of himself. He was relishing in the chance to lavish her with attention, but it was so damned hard to not just take her here and now. The way her back arched as he gently fingered at the edge of her opening, teasing her with a firmer touch as he kissed and nipped at her neck, trailing down to her collarbone and back up. She moved her hips against him, begging for more. Desperate to feel him. He slipped his fingers inside of her, provoking a moan vaguely in the shape of his name to fall from her lips. The sound of his name, uttered like that, was almost enough to drive him to the damn edge. He wanted to hear it again and again and again. He worked his fingers against her sweet spots, rocking her closer and closer to the edge. Her hands reached up behind her, looping through the slats on the head board, just avoiding where they had broken the board earlier that night. Her hands tightened around the rungs as her breathing became ragged, as she neared release. Wood splintered under her grip as she tipped over the edge. At the sound of his name on her lips, Sam lost any ability to wait any longer. He pushed into her then, as the pleasure of her climax continued to course through her. Slowly, he started to rock into her. Her hips grinded slowly against him – she too wishing to take her time. Sam reached his hand up to push a strand of hair out of Faith's face and found his hand lingering there, caressing her cheek and pulling her closer still. His lips came back to hers, desperate to feel their softness against his. Her hands found their way into his hair, raking through as her tongue snaked out to meet his. Slowly, gently, the pace increased. Faith pulled Sam tight against her, pressing against him to feel every bit of him. She whispered in his ear, begging for more. She needed more. She needed him. He pushed deeper. Harder. She nuzzled into his neck, kissing and sucking as they moved. Faith moaned as she found release once more. His name once again fell from her lips and pulled him with her into ecstasy.

For once, she didn't pull away. She didn't even get up. Instead, she stayed with him. She curled up in his arms and enjoyed the moment of quiet. The moment of peace. Not a word passed between them for a long while, and the only sound was that of his heartbeat below her head.

"Sam?" Faith finally asked, breaking the silence.

"Hm?"

"Can I ask you something?"

Sam nodded, his thumb still drawing lazy loops on her back, "anything."

"What is it with you and Slayers?"

Sam paused. Faith could tell that she had asked a question that he wasn't quite ready to answer just yet. Maybe he hadn't expected to ever have to answer that question – he certainly didn't expect her to be the one to ask, that much she knew. She was just about to change the subject when Sam spoke up.

"When I was a kid, maybe five or six, I got into a few of my dad's research books," he started, his speech slow at first. Unsure. "I uh, wasn't supposed to read any of the books unless Dad gave it to me directly, but I think I couldn't sleep? Or maybe I was bored. I dunno. Either way, I found a passage that talked about a Chosen One. Some girl with the power, the responsibility to fight monsters and demons and all the things that we were dealing with. I was confused. I didn't understand why we had to do these things, hunt these creatures, if there was a Slayer out there.

"I asked my dad about it, but he said Slayers were a myth. They weren't real, just some bogeyman made up to scare vampires and monsters into staying in the shadows. I didn't believe him, though. I kept researching the myth. I looked for any and all information I could find on them. It was fascinating to me that they were made for this world. They were made to protect people. I kept researching and trying to find something – anything to prove to my dad that Slayers were real. But there was so much conflicting information, I think I did more harm than good. He got mad about it. He was tired of hearing about it. But I kept looking. I kept hoping to find something more recent, something that could help me figure out who the current Slayer was. Where she was. All the information was so old though. I couldn't find anything, but I refused to give up. I guess a part of me thought…desperately hoped that –"

Faith looked up at Sam and could see that he was struggled to explain his thoughts. There was something in his eyes that she hadn't seen before: pain. She hadn't given much thought to what Sam's life had been like so far. Honestly, she hadn't cared – there was always a much more pressing matter at hand. Now, though, she was seeing more depth than she had expected from him. Suddenly she recognized that he was sharing something with her that he probably hadn't told anyone – not even Dean. She cupped his cheek, running her thumb along his jawline, as encouragement for him to continue. At least that's what she thought she was supposed to do in this situation.

Sam took a deep breath, "I guess I thought that if I could find the Slayer…she could go after the Yellow-Eyed Demon for us. Then we could stop. We could stop moving around a-and fighting monsters. We could find a place to stay. A home. We could be a family again. I thought that finding the Slayer could fix my family." Sam laughed dryly, as if mocking himself. "Over the years I kinda forgot about it. I grew up and realized that there was nothing coming to save us. We were in it. I got out, but then Jess died. Then Dad. Eventually I let go of any notion of getting out of this life. Nothing, not even a Slayer, could change that.

"So I guess meeting you, meeting Buffy, kind of brought those old thoughts back. I mean, I don't think anything is gonna change now but…my old childhood curiosity came back. All the books were always so confused on what a Slayer actually was, what power they had…I just wanted to…check, I guess. I'm sorry if it got old fast. I just wanted – needed – to satiate that curiosity."

Faith didn't say anything in response. There was nothing she could say that didn't feel wrong or like it fell short of some emotional marker she was supposed to hit. Having emotions and caring weren't exactly in her wheel-house, and everything about this had felt foreign to her. Whatever answer she had expected, that certainly wasn't it. She thought about young Sam, hopeful and optimistic that this world of darkness was only temporary. She felt a pang in her heart knowing how deeply its claws had been in him, in his family. She felt bitter, knowing that Slayers were meant to protect people so that hunters didn't need to exist, but also knowing that a single Slayer could never have been enough.

There were no words Faith could utter that didn't feel wrong. Instead, she reached up and kissed him. He seemed surprised at the gesture, but happily kissed her back. He pulled her in tighter against him and kissed her forehead as she curled back in against his side. They sat that way a while, until Sam fell asleep. Faith couldn't sleep, though. There were thoughts she couldn't get out of her head. Thoughts she couldn't quiet no matter what she did.

Quietly she extricated herself from the bed, from Sam, and padded over to her dresser. In the dark she quietly removed a set of clothes, got dressed, and slipped out of the room. She hoped she'd been quiet enough to not disturb him, to not alert him to her leaving. When she made her way out into the hall, she found that the entire house seemed to be silent. She was probably the only person left awake at this point. They say that the only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it. Faith hoped that the same went for thoughts and concerns as well. She headed towards the library. There was something she needed to learn before tomorrow.

And maybe, she hoped, focusing on something would help drown out the feelings of guilt she had towards Sam. She knew he was a genuine person. She knew he was nice and sweet and one of those honest-to-god nice guys. It hadn't really bothered her before, but then again maybe she had just ignored it. After all, she didn't make it a habit to think about how other people may feel. Want, take, have, remember? She wanted him, so she took him, and had her way with him. Who gave a shit if he had feelings for her? Who gave a shit if he wanted more out of this? It was just for fun and that was all she intended to have with it. Eventually she'd grow bored and move on to the next one she came across. It was suddenly a lot harder, though, to think that way now. It was one thing to be aware that he was a good guy, it was another to have it thrown in your face like that. Now she felt bad for treating him like nothing but a toy. For wanting nothing but to just have fun. It was just for fun, wasn't it?

Faith shook her head. She needed to focus on finding that book.

ӁӁӁ

"Hi baby," Willow smiled, choking back tears.

Her fingers, hovering in the air in front of the headstone, gently traced the lettering of Tara's name. Just as she had done in Sunnydale. Just as she had done every night this week. It was a poor substitute for the person, but it brought a small measure of warmth and comfort.

She knew Tara wasn't here, not really anyway. That grave was long lost in Sunnydale. Her heart ached to know that she had left Tara behind, and the guilt had been chipping away at her since they left. Once they had landed here in Cleveland, once they had settled and started to make a home here, it was then that a hollow feeling had started to take over. Something wasn't right. Something was missing. Someone was missing. She hadn't left Tara behind, not really, but that didn't stop her from feeling as though she had betrayed Tara. Abandoned her. So it wasn't long after they had set up a home here that Willow had started finding times to sneak away from the rest. For the first while, it was something she did when she couldn't sleep. Willow would steal away while everyone else was fast asleep. This little corner of the lot was far enough away that no one from the house could see her. The light from the house didn't reach this far, and she was able to actually see the stars in the night sky. It was secluded, with trees overhanging and gently swaying in the breeze. The time she spent here provided more solace than she could have ever hoped for. This is what led to Willow sneaking away more and more often. Anytime it got to be too loud and chaotic, or if it was too quiet and lonely, Willow would disappear for a little while. No one had caught on to what she was doing or where she was. So far, as far as she knew, no one had noticed a thing.

"I know I've been here a lot lately. I guess there's just a lot going on," Willow sniffled, "we've barely even started an-and it's already all kinds of scary."

She paused to take a deep breath. It was true. The events of late had been a lot to take in. This was a big bad, and it was as big and as bad as they came. Willow had thought that after dealing with The First, nothing else could even phase her. Boy was she wrong. It didn't help that every day she felt like she was fighting her own battle. It had been a long time since Willow had to deal with someone who hated her simply because of who she was. She had done a lot of bad, she knew that. She'd never forget that. It wasn't that she thought she deserved to have what happened be forgotten, but she didn't need it thrown in her face every minute of every day that she couldn't be trusted.

It was exhausting. And it stung more than she cared to let him see.

"I just feel really alone without you. I miss you."

Suddenly Willow felt a prickle under her skin. Someone was nearby. Someone had found her. With a quick flick of her wrist, the headstone disappeared into the night sky. She spun around to see who had been coming up behind her.

"Who's there?" She called out, practically imploring the darkness to speak to her.

"Just me," Dean said, coming out of the shadows by the trees. "Didn't mean to invade your space."

Dean had gone down to the kitchen for a beer or six, but had found the room full of people who also couldn't sleep. This wasn't one of those times that he wanted someone to commiserate with – he just wanted to be left the hell alone to wallow in misery and anger and a little bit of self-pity. So he had taken to wandering outside, looping around the large property, trying to calm his thoughts. Trying to clear his head. He hadn't expected to come upon anyone outside on this chilly night, certainly not Willow.

Willow sighed internally. She was not prepared to share her secret hideaway, and she certainly wasn't prepared to explain to Dean what she was doing. More than anything, Willow didn't want to have this argument with him right now. Before he could say anything more, Dean took a moment to really pay attention to the small red head in front of him. She had been kneeling in front of a headstone, one that he noticed was no longer there. It was impossible to miss how glassy her eyes were as well. He was suddenly reminded of the girl he'd seen in the yearbook. The one that Xander described. That Buffy described. For once he saw weakness there. He saw fear and uncertainty. Maybe he finally saw the Willow everyone else did. He hadn't come here to fight, and there was no way he could bring himself to now.

"You can keep it there, ya know?" Dean nodded, indicating where the headstone had been.

Willow didn't say a word but gave another flick of her wrist. A small stone headstone glimmered back into existence. Her eyes stayed on Dean, but his went to the tombstone. He read the name to himself and felt his heart sink. Tara Maclay. She was talking to Tara. He suddenly felt bad for intruding on such a private moment. But at the same time, he felt like he should stay. He wanted to stay. With a nod of his head, Dean motioned to a spot on the ground across from the small red-head. She nodded, which he hoped meant she approved of him sitting with her.

"I'm sorry I never got to meet her," he said, almost awkwardly. "Buffy told me about her, though. She sounded like an amazing person to meet."

"You probably would have hated her, too. She was a witch, after all," Willow spat.

Dean winced. He deserved that and he knew it. To say he had been unkind to Willow was an understatement. At the time he hadn't really cared, despite the fact that he knew was being cruel. Even if he had cared, he wasn't convinced he could have stopped himself. It was like a knee-jerk reaction by this point. Still, he now knew he wasn't just being unkind, he was being unfair.

"I don't hate you, Willow. I know, funny way of showing it," Dean laughed nervously.

He and Sam and met several witches over the years, none of them good. They were all about bodily fluids and hex bags and turning people inside out. They were bad news. Anyone who trifled with magic was dangerous. Sure, he and Sam dabbled from time to time, but it was never the heavy stuff and it was never the first choice. It seemed anyone they ever met who let themselves get too deep into the world of magic couldn't be saved; they got trapped in a dangerous habit. It wasn't until he was saying it all out loud, explaining to Willow with her staring at him, that he realized how ridiculous he had been. It didn't matter which story he shared or how bad it had all seemed, nothing seemed to justify assuming Willow was just as bad as them.

The truth was, she wasn't them. After he heard about what went down before when she tried to raise the Temple of Proserpexa, it was hard to separate her from the rest of the evil witches he had dealt with over the years. But that wasn't her anymore. It was never her. Dean just failed to see beyond the magic and his distrust of witches to see how incredible she really was.

"I guess what I'm trying to say, and poorly at that, is that," he took a deep breath, "I'm sorry, Willow."

While he spoke, Willow had found it hard to believe what she was hearing. It was perhaps the sincerest words she'd heard from Dean since he arrived, save for anything he said regarding Buffy. More, she could even understand where he was coming from. It wasn't a secret that people were distrustful of magic, and even more so distrustful of her using magic, but some part of her had hoped that someone who grew up in the world of the occult and supernatural would be more understanding. Some of the experiences he and Sam had over the years, however, would make anybody, herself included, a little wary around magic users. Maybe it was because she understood, or maybe it was because Willow was long used to being treated poorly, but she found that she had already forgiven Dean.

"To forgive is to move forward" Willow said, smiling.

Dean smiled back, "it uh, sounded like you were nervous about tomorrow."

Willow nodded, "it's a lot, ya know? There's no room for error, here. It's powerful stuff that we're messing with."

"I don't know if you've noticed, but you're pretty powerful too."

"That's what I'm afraid of."

"You're afraid to lose control again," Dean stated.

Willow breathed hard, "yeah. Yes. What if I can't…"

Dean reached out and placed his hand on hers. He wasn't sure there was anything that could be said to put her mind to ease, especially if it came from him, but he had to try. Truth be told, he felt a little silly.

"You awakened all these Slayers. You reconstructed a book from bits and scraps. You went toe to toe with Eve. You can do this. Your friends – all of us – we'll keep you grounded. You've come a long way, Willow. And you're stronger than whatever darkness tries to pull you back. I know it doesn't mean much but…I trust you. I believe in you."

Her voice shook just enough to notice it, "thanks, Dean." Maybe it meant more to her than he realized.

"Just promise me one thing. You bring her back to me, ya hear?"

"Of course. She's going to be fine. Her and I, we've gone to darker places before. I brought her back then, I can bring her back now." An image flashed through her head of watching Buffy greet Dawn as she came home. Of watching her put the same book on the same shelf over and over again and again. Of holding her as she cried, realizing that Dawn had been taken. It all felt so recent, but a lifetime ago all at once. "I'll always bring her back."

"Good, that's settled then," Dean grinned, leaning back on his palms. He looked towards the ghostly tombstone that floated between them. "Tell me about Tara."

Willow smiled back.

And so they sat, until the sun came up.

Chapter Text

Chapter Twenty – Back to Eden

In the morning, the walk to the library felt like a funeral march. Sleep and rest had been low. Tensions were high. Uncertainties were higher. It didn't seem like anyone was prepared for what they were about to do. It didn't matter though, because they were running out of time and running out of options. It was practically the eleventh hour and no other course of action had revealed itself; no last minute epiphanies to change the plan. There was no backing out now. Willow was going to perform some pretty serious magic and Buffy and Faith were going to be sent into that place. They were willingly going into Purgatory.

They funneled into the library in silence; not a word was exchanged. The sound of their racing hearts was nearly loud enough to be heard throughout the house. They didn't know what to expect from the day. It was one of those times where it felt like either everything would go incredibly right, or very, very wrong. No one was willing to bet on which was more likely. No matter what they had been expecting, though, it certainly wasn't to find Faith already in the library, sitting at a table with coffee in hand. It was a pretty well known fact that Faith had never once been out of bed before the rest of them and no one was willing to believe that she was just that excited about being sent to Purgatory that she had been motivated to get out of bed.

"Faith, you were up before us? Really is a weird day," Willow said with a half-smile.

Sam's eyes met Faiths – he knew full well that it wasn't that Faith had gotten up early, it was that she hadn't gone to bed yet. It was normal for him to wake up alone after spending a night with Faith, but this time he was genuinely surprised. He thought that things may have been different this time. They had sure felt different the night before, but apparently not. If Sam was being honest, he'd have to admit that it stung a little bit deeper than he'd anticipated. He wished she had stayed. He wished he could ask her why she didn't, but he knew that there would be no time for that today. There were more important things at hand – such as getting the Slayers to and from Purgatory safely. He could wait.

Faith wouldn't – or maybe couldn't – hold his gaze. It was as though she wished he wasn't there at all. For a brief moment, Sam thought he saw regret there. Guilt. But it was over too soon to tell. She broke the eye contact quickly, giving away no clue as to what she was thinking. Sam called her name once, hoping to say something – anything – so that he could at least wish her luck. Or maybe even say goodbye if things went horribly wrong. Faith didn't acknowledge that he spoke at all. Instead she looked at Willow and shrugged before focusing back on her coffee – the fourth one of the day already. It was a good thing she was used to operating on little to no sleep.

"I wish I'd got coffee first," Buffy pouted. "Is there still time?"

Giles shook his head, "we really should get started. It could be a long day for all of us and it's better to get an early start, yes?"

A collective deep breath was taken.

The binding of the two Slayers together came first. Afraid that the journey to Purgatory would destroy the binding, Willow opted for one of the most powerful bindings she knew how to do. It wasn't her first choice, to bind them by blood, but there were too many factors at play to consider doing anything less. Weaker bindings may not hold as they portal into Purgatory, may not be strong enough to prevent them from getting separated, may let them lose each other there. That couldn't happen. So blood magic it was. Even if it was something that Willow had never wanted to do. Even if it was something that Willow had always despised.

"Still sure?" Willow asked both Slayers, though it wasn't clear if she was checking with herself more than the other two. Both of the Slayers nodded. "Okay. I need a knife, something sharp."

Dean reached behind him and passed a small dagger to Willow, flipping it in his hand to allow her to grab the handle. "Careful, it's real sharp."

She nodded her thanks with a smile, but otherwise made little acknowledgement of the gesture. While neither Willow nor Dean seemed to react to what had just happened, most of the room looked between the two of them in silent surprise. No one dared say a word, just in case neither of them had realized what had just happened. The high tensions between the witch and the hunter had made life in the house uncomfortable for all. Pretty much everyone had given up on them ever finding a way to get along. If they somehow found a way to make it work, then it was better to let sleeping dogs lie, right?

The knife was pulling quickly across the palms of both Buffy and Faith, drawing a thin line of blood from each of the Slayers. Willow whispered, just barely audibly, as she moved. The Slayer blood mixed and joined in the small bowl that Willow held, glowing and sparkling as Willow's words fell over it. Willow's fingers dipped into the bowl, coating the tips in the glowing red liquid. A sigil was drawn on each Slayer's forearm, the blood turning black and then disappearing without a trace as Willow glided her fingers across their skin.

"Is that it?" Faith asked, looking at the spot where Willow had drawn the image.

"I thought it'd be…something more," Buffy added, also looking vaguely disappointed. "I thought I'd feel different or something?"

Willow laughed, "sorry to let you guys down. I promise the next spell will be much flashier."

That wasn't an exaggeration, either. What was required to send Buffy and Faith into Purgatory safely was intense. Safely, of course, was a relative phrase considering where they were going and the powers that they were messing with just to do so. The amount of power and strength needed to create even just the tether was staggering – enough that Willow required the help of Giles, Andrew, and Sam to be added to her own when it came time to open the portal. With so much magic having to be constantly exerted, she knew that there needed to be more than one person holding onto the two Slayers. That's why Andrew would be linking with Willow to keep the portal open and the tether strong.

"Are you sure you can handle it?" Willow asked.

Andrew nodded, "I can do this."

Willow took a deep breath. There was no other stalling method left: everyone was as ready as they'd ever be and time was wasting. There was nothing to do now but start the process. First was the tether, something to make sure that Buffy and Faith, already tethered to one another, would remain bound to this world. It was one thing to make sure they wouldn't lose each other, but she needed to make sure that the Slayers would be able to find their way back. To do that, all she had to do was extend the binding she'd already placed to someone who would be remaining behind and, essentially, create an anchor point for the two Slayers to return home to.

"It's gonna be me," Dean said, raising the hand with his coffee mug in it.

"I thought you hated this plan?" Buffy asked, crossing her arms.

Dean crossed over to Buffy, placing his hands at her side, grasping her arms. In all the time he spent talking to Willow, he'd been thinking about the fight they'd had the night before. It was a stupid fight and he knew it. He said things he didn't mean and he meant things he didn't say. He let himself get worked up over something he had no control over – and he shouldn't have control over. It was her life and it was her decision. He knew that danger was just part and parcel of being a Slayer and no matter how worried he was or how much he wished to protect her, there was nothing he could do to change that. To love her meant to love and accept that he couldn't protect her – and that he didn't need to. He had also realized that he didn't want her to go – to head into Purgatory – thinking that he didn't support her. He didn't want to leave the fight just lingering between them like it was. What if something did happen, and she didn't come back. How could he ever live with himself if the last words between them were a fight because he was a stubborn asshole about it? Dean refused to think about the chance that she wouldn't come back, but if it did happen, his last words needed to be of love.

"I did. I do. But I know that I trust you. And I trust her to bring you back. And I just have to deal with being worried." Dean sighed, "I'm sorry, Buff. I love you and all the stuff that comes with being a Slayer."

Buffy chewed on her lip, obviously still feeling some of the irritation and anger from the night before. She'd had the same argument before and it preceded the end of things. Buffy couldn't change who she was, and Riley had been unable to accept that. It hurt to let Riley go, but she wasn't going to compromise who she was for anyone. Hearing the same sentiments and attitudes coming from Dean had sunk deep into her chest and tore at her heart. It brought up memories and pain that she had thought long buried. It had hurt. It made it hard to let it go. It didn't change how she felt about him, but she wasn't quite ready to bury the argument yet. It couldn't just be forgotten because he was sorry.

"We'll talk about it after, okay?" Buffy said. "I love you."

"Okay," Dean turned to Willow, "let's get on with it."

Willow frowned, "I appreciate your willingness, but it can't be you. Whoever holds the tether has to continuously keep it up, and that's going to take some serious magic. So it'll be me while Andrew and Giles keep the portal open."

"What do you need me for, then?" Sam asked.

"My power will be diverted between the tether and helping to open the portal, so we just need a little boost," Willow explained.

Dean had never felt so useless. He wasn't going on the mission to further their progress against Eve. He wasn't part of the spell to anchor Buffy and Faith here. He wasn't helping to open the portal. He wasn't doing a damn thing. It wasn't what he was used to, but all he could do was sit back and watch everyone else contribute.

"Hey," Dawn said, a sympathetic smile on her face, "you can join me in the research brigade, if you want?"

Dawn saw the look on Dean's face and knew exactly what he was thinking. She knew because she was feeling the same way: absolutely useless. She knew she could be of more help – she just knew it – but there was no way that Willow or Buffy would let her help out with such powerful magic. She was older than they were when they first started messing with magic and spells, but that didn't stop them from wanting to preserve her childhood a little while longer, she supposed. She also had a sneaking suspicion that it had something to do with being the Key once upon a time. Maybe they were afraid of some weird magical interaction? Either way, it resulted in the same thing every time: she wasn't allowed to be involved in spell-working. No matter how much they let her get involved with anything else, magic was still off limits.

It did mean, however, that she had more time to devote to helping with research. So far it seemed to be something she was actually good at. Maybe if she kept at it, they'd let her train to be a Watcher one day, something that even she was surprised to be interested in. It also meant she had more time to work with Cas, to practice what he'd taught her to do. Maybe one day she'd be able to help that way, too. She was just so sick and tired of feeling useless all the time. That's why she knew immediately just how Dean was feeling. He just wanted to be given a job, a role; something to contribute and to make a difference. Research may not be the top choice of what to do, but it was still something. The fact that he agreed, without hesitation, showed just how much he hated being on the sidelines. Even if he did refuse to stick around the library afterwards. With that decided, her attention went back to Willow, eager to see what was next.

Willow pulled the blade across her palm as well, drawing a thin line of red as she went. Dean wasn't kidding when he said it was sharp. She flexed her hand as she adjusted to the stinging sensation. She etched the same symbol onto her forearm using a mix of the blood from all three women. A second symbol was drawn below, something different than what the two Slayers received. Once the sigil was completed, the red lines glowed a bright white and then disappeared leaving a faint trail of smoke trailing up from her arm. Buffy and Faith both felt a sharp pain shoot through the arms, emanating from where Willow had drawn on them previously. Between the three women, a rope glittered through the air before disappearing into nothing. It didn't seem like much, but a very strong binding now threaded them together. Willow was now an anchor, the point which the breadcrumb trail would lead the two Slayers back to once they entered the other world. It was their tie to their own world.

"Did you bring the weapons?" Buffy asked, turning to Xander.

Xander nodded in reply, "yes ma'am. Got your scythe here, just sharpened last night. Same with your machete and hatchet, Faith."

Xander handed over the blades to the Slayers. He had also brought the holster for Faith and the sling for Buffy, so they could keep the weapons close without having to carry them at all times. Both girls tightened the holsters on themselves before inspecting their blades. Satisfied, they thanked Xander. There was no way in hell that Buffy was going back to that place without a weapon. It had been much more luck than skill that Buffy had managed to survive with only rocks and sticks before. Dean's knife had saved their asses a countless number of times, but there was going to be no lucky breaks this time. They had to go in prepared and Buffy wasn't taking any chances with any other weapons. The scythe – her scythe – was like an extension of her. She also knew that it had managed to do some damage to Eve the last time they met. She expected that meant she could deal some real damage to the inhabitants of Purgatory as well. With this, she was almost unafraid to return to Purgatory. Almost. With both Slayers armed, they had a fighting chance of making it out alive. Of making it out at all.

"I have something for you too!" Andrew piped up excitedly.

Buffy looked at Willow who simply shrugged, obviously unaware of whatever Andrew had for them.

"Okay? What is it?" Buffy asked, hesitant to ask.

Andrew pulled a round, clear gem from his pocket and handed it to Buffy, a wide grin on his face. It was obvious that he was proud of whatever it was and couldn't wait to contribute it to preparations. It was heavy in her hand, much heavier than its small size suggested, but was otherwise unimpressive.

"It's a…marble?"

"It is actually! But that's not all. It's kinda like a dousing rod. It will start to glow as you near something alive – other than you two I mean. It should help lead you to anything that can be considered living in Purgatory. It's a big world, after all. If you can't use a locating spell, then this is the next best thing."

"Oh," Willow said, obviously impressed, "I hadn't even thought of that. Well done, Andrew."

"Thank you, Andrew. This will be a huge help," Buffy said.

Buffy slid the marble into her pocket. She wasn't exactly sure how a marble could sense something living, but if Andrew said it'd work then she'd believe him. There wasn't much more they could do to prepare any further. If they weren't ready now, then they never would be. At least that's what they told themselves. They then turned their attention to opening a portal to let Buffy and Faith enter Purgatory. Of course, teleportation would be preferred, especially since it was more controllable and more reliable for where the two girls would end up once sent in. Unfortunately, whatever protective shield was around Purgatory prevented any sort of magic from penetrating its dimensional walls. It was why Cas couldn't reach in and save Dean while he was there. It was why it took appealing to Osiris to let Buffy cross over. It was why Eve couldn't simply teleport her way out of her intended prison. A portal would just have to do. Opening one, however, was a plan that carried a lot of uncertainty. It wasn't even a sure thing that they'd be able to open a hole in the wall of Purgatory. If Willow couldn't do that, then it was all for naught, so she knew that it was going to take all she had – all that Giles, Andrew, and Sam had too. It took her imploring Osiris with some pretty serious magic to bring Buffy out of that place; magic she had been barely able to control then. Now she was older. Stronger. She hoped that she could pierce the veil, just enough to let the Slayers slip through, without bringing gods and demons into the mix. This was no time or place for doubts or second-guessing. This had to work. Willow had to make this work.

"Dawn, can you bring that sand over, please?"

Dawn, still a little put out that she wasn't able to contribute in a meaningful way, brought over the small bag of black sand. She drew a square on the ground, careful to connect each line without a single break. Once that was done, Dawn retreated to a safe distance, keen to at least watch as the spell was performed. Willow once more tested to ensure the binding was still holding tight between herself and the two Slayers. Once she was satisfied that it had not broken, that it was still keeping hold of them, she was ready to proceed. Buffy and Faith stood just outside of the square, facing one another across the gap. Buffy tightened her grip on her scythe as Faith flipped the machete around her hand, spinning the blade with deft hands. They looked formidable. They looked ready for battle.

Sam, Andrew, and Giles came forward next, each taking a spot at a point of the drawn square and surrounding the two Slayers. As grim looks were exchanged they linked hands, creating an unbroken circle around where the portal would open. Willow began to speak. Her voice was quiet at first, barely audible, as she appealed to the forces-that-be to allow her to open a portal.

"Per spatium temporis et porta, fores aperi meo sanguine. Ut liceat nobis bonum passagium supra quod iacet."

Willow's voice grew louder and stronger than before.

The four voices joined together, "Purgatorium."

Willow continued, louder than before, her grip tighter on the hands she was holding.

"Venite per custodes. Harena harena temporis spatium pro nobis fas est!"

She started again, her voice becoming low, almost gravelly, as she repeated the words, a chorus of three more voices lent to hers. The sand at their feet started to move and shake, slowly vibrating as power swelled at the makeshift doorway. They continued speaking aloud, the words rolling quicker and more easily off their lips by now. Willow's grip tightened again and again on the hands she held, her hands shaking as she did so. Her voice was no longer recognizable as hers as power transferred from the others to herself. Finally a light started to emanate from the sandy lines and the floor within the borders became dark, blackened, as though it was no longer there. The faint light finally exploded into a bright white light, sand and smoke scattered into the air as the floor dropped out from below.

It was time.

Buffy and Faith looked at one another, linked their hands together, and gave an affirming nod. Buffy flipped her scythe in her hand once, as if she was confirming to herself that she still had it, and slid it into its sling. Faith checked her holster for her axe, making sure it was locked in tight. Together the two stepped forward into the abyss and disappeared from sight.

ӁӁӁ

It felt like being pulled apart at the seams as they fell and fell and fell through the nothingness that surrounded them. They felt twisted and compressed, pain radiating through every cell of their bodies. They fell for what felt like a lifetime, desperately wishing to finally hit the ground. Desperately afraid that they had been lost to the ether. Then finally, without warning, the ground came up beneath them, greeting them without any give. The wind was temporarily knocked out of both Slayers, leaving them splayed out on the ground until they could regain their bearings.

"I think my knees now bend backwards," Faith groaned.

"Welcome to the club," Buffy moaned in reply.

"At least we didn't get separated. Guess Red's spell did the trick."

If there was any plus to the journey that the two Slayers had just undertaken, then it was most definitely that they had managed to stay together. Not only that, but they had kept a firm grip on the weapons they had brought with them. Faith was the first to get to her feet and the first to shake off the impact of their crash landing. She extended her hand to Buffy, who took it appreciatively, and helped pull her to her feet. Buffy dusted herself off before taking a look around her. She never thought she'd be back here. Not even in her darkest nightmares had she ever expected she would truly be in this place again.

It was all too familiar. The twisted trees. The barren ground. The blank sky. Everything was pressing in on Buffy, surrounding her, crushing her. Any memories that had still survived in fragments came screeching into focus. She remembered everything. Every fight. Every wound. She could feel it all again. Could feel the blood seeping from those wounds. Could feel the slices in her skin. Fear flooded her system all over again. Every single minute of every single day that she spent in this place pressed on her, tore at her, threatened to break her down into the shell of a person she had been while she was trapped here. Her head was pounding, her heart was tightened in a vice, and her lungs deflated. It was too much. The world swirled around her as memories crashed through her mind.

She remembered falling to the ground, her palms bleeding profusely, her staff pierced through the neck of a creature. She had twisted it's head off in a battle that she had barely won.

She remembered running. Always running. Never stopping. She remembered starvation and dehydration and sleep deprivation. She remembered the relentless onslaught of monsters and creatures. She remembered cowering in caves at night, fighting to stay awake lest she be taken unaware. She remembered being found.

She remembered being thrown from a mountain top and crashing through branches and trees before crashing into the ground. She remembered feeling bones crack and break. She remembered her broken useless arm at her side, unable to pull herself to her feet. She ran. She ran from a floating brunette who chased her relentlessly. Eve. She remembered bones protruding from her flesh. She remembered claws breaking through trees, piercing her. She remembered shackles breaking skin.

Buffy fell to her knees, her stomach turned and purged anything that was left. Bile and acid passed her lips as she heaved and sobbed on the hard ground. It wasn't going to be easy, coming back here, that much she had known, but Buffy had never imagined that it would strike her as hard as it did. The agony that ripped through her mind was excruciating and suddenly she fully understood exactly what Castiel had done for her. If everything had hit at once, she would have broken exactly as he had feared. As she breathed heavily on the ground, trying to calm herself, to stop her stomach from turning again, Buffy made a mental note to thank him when they returned.

"Buffy?" Faith asked, concern heavy in her voice.

Buffy nodded, " I – I think I'm good. That was…bracing."

"Maybe Dean was right, you should have stayed back."

"No, I have to be here. I'm fine. Just had to get all the bad stuff worked out."

With a clearer head, and apparently an empty stomach, Buffy was able to get a better look at her surroundings. Something was wrong. Different. The smell of stagnant air, of death and decay, was missing. The air certainly didn't meet the definition of fresh, but it was…cleaner, somehow? The trees were still dead, grey and hollow, but the limbs and branches were almost normal looking. The twisted, grotesque imagery that Buffy was expecting was nowhere to be seen. In fact, they almost looked like they could even start growing again. Almost. The grey sky had shades of blue in it, something she had never seen in all her time here. The most unsettling difference, however, was the peace they had been in since they arrived. For all the time they'd been standing out in the open like this, not one creature had come out to greet them. Not one monster had attacked. In fact, Buffy didn't sense anything around them at all. Slayers were like beacons here. Alarms should be ringing as far as the borders of this world, so why had nothing showed up yet?

This wasn't the world Buffy remembered. The death and decay and danger was absent. Purgatory wasn't the type of place to change – that was kind of the definition of this world. The only difference that Buffy knew of was that Eve was no longer here. Was that it, then? Was it Eve that caused this place to be mangled and twisted? Did she taint the world that she had created? It wasn't like it became a paradise without her, but it was certainly an improvement over the hell that it once was. It said a lot about the power that Eve had. And her anger. Her rage was toxic and it infected this land, allowing nothing but death and evil to exist. If that was true, then finding something alive, something growing, may not be as impossible as Buffy had previously thought. She had never seen anything growing here, not that could be considered 'alive' anyway, and she had been terrified that nothing would ever be found. How long would they spend searching before giving up? This was their only shot – no other option had presented itself and they were running out of time. But if Purgatory had changed this much without Eve's influence there was hope. It could still take a lifetime, but there was a chance that they could find something.

"We don't need something with a soul, right?" Faith asked.

Buffy shook her head, "no, I think it just needs to be alive. A living thing. Like an animal or something? Oo! Maybe a plant – like Wall-E!"

Faith quirked an eyebrow, the reference obviously lost on her. Buffy assured her that it was funny.

"So…any thoughts on where to start?"

Buffy looked in each direction around them. She had no idea where they were. Had the landscape shifted as well? The nomadic way of life she had here had taught her how to navigate Purgatory. She hadn't been everywhere – hadn't seen all that the wretchedness this world had to offer – but she knew enough. This she didn't recognise. If everything had shifted, then she was totally lost. At that point, any direction would work. The only plan they had was to start walking and hope they stumble upon something useful. That was one thing that hadn't changed apparently, the need to just keep moving. Never stop moving.

Buffy flicked her wrist causing the invisible tether to move and twirl, becoming visible for just a split second. It was a lot, to trust something they couldn't see, but it was all they had to make sure they could find their way back to this spot. No matter what happened while they were here, this spot was all that mattered; it was their ticket out of here. It was too much to trust to the binding – even if they did trust Willow completely – and so they decided that as they moved, they would etch X's into the bark of the trees. They weren't as noticeable as they'd hoped, but it was at least something to track their path through the dense woods. There was no way they were going to be lost to Purgatory. Not if she could prevent it. With some sort of piece of mind, all that was left was to finally take those first steps.

Buffy dug into her pocket and pulled out the marble that Andrew had given her. It was still just a clear orb, but she knew better than to hope that she'd find it already glowing. God she hoped this thing worked. She kept the sphere in her outstretched hand and aimed it as she circled around, hoping that it would flicker or something. Anything to point them in the right direction. Nothing happened. Buffy sighed and picked an arbitrary direction. There wasn't much else to do at this point. She kept the marble in her hand and watched it as she walked.

"You coming?" Buffy called back to Faith.

"Wait. That's our plan? Just wander off into the woods and follow a marble?" Faith sighed as she realized just how much this was like finding a needle in a haystack, "I knew we should have brought a stereo or something."

ӁӁӁ

The bright light faded from the square on the floor leaving nothing but a low glow from the lines of sand. The smoke dissipated, revealing the hole that remained in the floor. Giles and Andrew remained standing across from each other, focused on the portal, words mumbled under the breath. They would remain this way until Buffy and Faith returned from Purgatory. The portal had to remain open so that they could return, which meant that Andrew and Giles had to continue to pour their power into it. It was going to be exhausting, but letting the portal close was not an option. Sam and Willow cautiously removed their hands from the circle, connecting the two remaining hands of Giles and Andrew to ensure that the circle would remain sealed.

"Sam, keep an eye on them," Willow said. "They have to stay focused. If that portal even starts to close, we could lose Buffy and Faith completely."

Sam nodded, "got it. What about you?"

"Me?" Willow said, swaying on her feet. "That binding is surprisingly draining. I'm just…I'm just gonna sit down here."

Willow sat down on the ground just outside of the portal's sphere of influence. She needed to remain close to the portal to make sure that the binding was firmly anchored and able to guide the two Slayers back. She also needed to be close to Andrew, who was also helping to power the rope that held the Slayers together. With her legs crossed, Willow placed her hands on her knees. All of her focus went to maintaining the hold that she had on all three of them. Sam watched as she slowed her breathing, entering a trance-like state. There was a hint of a glow at where her hands rested at her knees, the only hint of the power that was currently coursing through the small redhead. It was impressive to say the least.

Sam set his laptop up at the nearest table so that he could watch the three of them as they maintained the magic they were using. He wasn't much able to help in that department, but Dawn had been right before. There was still work to be done. It was one thing to find what they needed in Purgatory, but if they had no way of using it once the girls returned, then the whole thing was an exercise in futility. The book he'd translated had been useful, but it didn't give them the spell to use to send Eve back. They needed some way to pull her back to Purgatory rather than pushing her back in. It needed to be a pretty powerful spell, which narrowed the search down considerably, but it also meant that it would be a much more difficult search. Most of what they were looking for would be in ancient texts, nearly impossible to get their hands on, and quite possibly in a language they could not translate. Despite all the progress they had made in the last day or two, it still felt like they had an insurmountable amount of work left. While Dean helped Dawn and the others in the research crew by going through the books they did have, Sam busied himself hunting through occult collections that were archived online to see if he could find anything useful. If that meant bypassing some security measures of various libraries, museums, and personal collections, then so be it.

"Hey, can I ask you something?"

Xander sidled up next to Sam.

Sam nodded, "sure, what's up?"

"What're you guys gonna do once this is all over?"

Of all the questions that Sam was expecting, that certainly wasn't one of them. It caught him off guard, but not just because he wasn't expecting it, but because he hadn't given it much thought since they first arrived in Cleveland. He and Dean hadn't really talked about it, either. When they had made the drive to Cleveland, it had been simply to check on Buffy. They hadn't anticipated on staying, not this long at least. Leaving wasn't an option, though. Not once they discovered what had happened and that their weird cases and what the Slayers were dealing with was actually the same case. Of course the hunters had stayed to help fight this battle. But was that all they were doing?

To think what would happen once Eve was dealt with was a lot. He and Dean belonged on the open road, driving in the Impala, tracking monsters and demons across the country. They were meant to be out there, saving people, hunting things. There was a time when Sam would have never even entertained the idea of Dean wanting to leave behind that life. But now? After seeing the way that Dean looked at Buffy. How Buffy looked at Dean. He wasn't so sure. They wouldn't stop hunting, that was for sure, but maybe they'd stay here? Maybe finally make a home. Have somewhere to come back to in between cases rather than some dingy motel room. It'd be nice to have somewhere to call their own. To have beds to call their own to come back to after being on the road. Besides, Sam wouldn't mind the chance to stay either. Staying meant more time with Faith. Maybe even make a real go at having a relationship – something he hadn't thought much about since he lost Jessica. He really didn't think he'd ever think about that again at all, to be honest. But he also hadn't planned on meeting someone like Faith. Someone that he felt like he really understood, even despite the air of mystery she liked to put on. It was something pretty special to find another soul that had been cut up the same.

But for every reason there was to stay, Sam still wasn't sure if that's the way things would go. It had been decades since the two boys had had a home to call their own. They were used to the crappy motels and greasy fast food. The Impala was their home, no matter where the road took them. Were they really ready to leave that behind? It didn't sound like much of a life, sure, but it was all they knew. It was their life.

Sam shrugged, "I, uh, I don't know yet. Dean and I haven't really talked about it. Too much going on, ya know?"

"I get that. I just ask 'cause…I think it would be good if you guys stayed here. With us."

Tactically speaking it was, of course, the best for the HQ if the two hunters stayed. More strength and more knowledge of the supernatural was always a good thing. They were still spread thin after the battle with The First, and it was going to take a lot of work to get fully operational. Having two hunters to help take out monsters and demons alike? Two hunters with access to books and magical doo-dads? Two hunters who could help in weapons training? Could be nothing but helpful. It was more than that, though. He wouldn't say it, not out loud anyway, but Xander saw something that no one else really saw. Dean leaving would destroy Buffy. Sure, it was obvious that he made her happy and that she loved him, anyone could see that. What Xander saw was the fear she had that Dean would leave – just like everyone before him. It was subtle, but it was there. Hesitation. Xander couldn't blame her, though. How could he? Buffy had had enough tragic loves to last a lifetime and then some. Sure, the prophecy said 'she alone' and all that fun stuff, but Buffy had already proved time and time again that she didn't give a damn about prophecies or ancient rules. She created an army of Slayers in direct violation of that prophecy. She had friends to help her. She should have love too. If anyone that Xander knew deserved love, it was definitely Buffy.

Before Sam had a chance to respond, an alarm blared out through the room. The entire house was filled with a shrieking sound as the alarm rang out. Sam clapped his hands to his ears as he looked to Xander for answers. He'd never heard a sound like this before and he wasn't entirely sure where it was coming from.

"Something has breached the perimeter!" Xander called out over the alarm.

It was something that Willow had set up when they first moved into the empty lot. They had learned from their mistakes in the past. Eve, the potential Slayer that had never actually made it to safety, had been possessed by The First and living with them for days. The sword with a demon trapped inside had been brought into their house. Hell, even a curse had been placed on their home. So Willow set a trip wire. If anything evil or monstrous crossed the line, an alarm would sound so they would know. They could protect themselves. They'd always hoped it wouldn't be needed, but a part of them knew that it was only a matter of time before it would be used. But not so soon. Not now. Not when they were in the middle of this.

Willow, Giles, and Andrew were all pulled from their trance by the sudden deafening sound. They fought to keep hold of the magic they were using as they tried to identify what was causing the alarm. A burning sensation ripped through Willow's arm as the mark left by Eve started to glow and expand, wrapping further around her arm, spreading to her chest and up her neck, the image of a giant snake moved along her body. She cried in pain, but refused to let the tether fall.

"Knock knock, pretties!" A shrill voice called throughout the house. It seemed to come through the walls as the woman spoke. "I thought it was time I repaid your kind visit. I hope it's alright that I brought some of my little friends."

Xander ran to the nearest window to look out over the yard. In the distance he could see a small brunette, floating high in the air. He didn't have to see her any closer and he didn't need anyone else to tell him that this was Eve who had found them. She had, indeed, brought friends with her. An army of werewolves crossed the yard between them, lumbering and running towards the house. Except there was something off about them. They didn't look like any werewolves Xander had seen before. Whatever she had crossed them with had given them the ability to turn no matter the moon and had added a considerable amount of size to them. It was also clear that they were sentient and intelligent – they not only could the think for themselves, but they could reason and react as they moved across the field. He dreaded to see what other abilities they had been granted.

"Dawn, get the Slayers, now!" Xander cried out. "We need to get to the weapons stash in the basement."

Dawn nodded and ran off, eyes wide with terror. They hadn't prepared for this. They weren't ready to have the fight brought to them. All they could hope for was that they could win by sheer numbers alone, but even that looked grim. Eve had brought an entire army to their door. More than they could hope to take down, even if they had Slayers with experience at the ready.

"We need to stop them from getting in!" Willow called out, her voice weak from exertion. "I-I can't – "

"On it!" Andrew responded.

Together, he and Giles were able to find another ounce of strength somewhere within them. What looked like a holographic bubble emanated from where the two men stood, just large enough to encompass the square of sand. Then suddenly, in a great burst, the bubble grew and expanded to encompass the whole house. They were too late to block all of the creatures from getting through, but many of them were halted in their tracks – burned to ashes at the contact. Many more still made it through. Far too many for them to deal with. It wasn't long before they could hear screaming in the levels below.

"They need help down there!" Sam exclaimed.

"I'll go. You need to protect them! Nothing can happen to them or we could lose Buffy and Faith," Xander called back as he dashed from the library.

He was right - someone needed to stay and protect Willow, Andrew, and Giles. It was only himself and a couple of the newbie Slayers, those who preferred the research aspect to the fighting aspect, that remained in the library. It was a bleak situation. Sam grabbed a sword, one of the ones that neither Buffy nor Faith had wished to bring to Purgatory with them. He'd had worse odds before, but still he was scared. He hadn't felt that sort of feeling in a long time, long enough that he thought maybe he couldn't feel it anymore, but there it was, as if it had never left him.

"Willow, we're losing the portal," Giles said, his voice strained and hardly audible.

She looked over and sure enough the low glow was flickering and the hole in the floor was shrinking. It wouldn't be long before they lost the only way into Purgatory. Holding a shield and a portal was taking too much power and it couldn't last forever. Willow threw her strength in with theirs, bolstering the hold they had to keep the gateway open. She could feel the binding loosen as she did so, but she held on tight. More power was drawn from the Earth, more than she ever wanted to draw again. Inside her, Willow could feel a darkness rising. She could feel the magic awakening in her. It didn't matter. She couldn't let the magic fall. She just couldn't.

The sounds of battle from outside and below were louder now. The clanging of blades and the crashing of furniture breaking filled the space. They needed help down there, but Sam had to remain here. He felt useless, like he was abandoning those who needed him right now. But he knew he had to hold the line. If anything got in this room, Willow, Giles, Andrew, they had no way to protect themselves. All their strength was waning – he couldn't believe they were still going. He knew that the shield took more energy than either man had anymore. Outside, the beasts were throwing themselves at the shield and every hit came as though the men had been physically struck. Willow was fighting to keep hold, but cracks were starting to show – a tinge of black crept into her hair once more as she pushed further. If this didn't end soon, there was no way they'd be able to keep up.

The sounds of battle came closer. Sam could hear fighting just outside the library door. He looked to the other girls and gave them a small nod as if to say 'it'll be okay.'

"Don't let anyone through this door, got it?" They nodded in return and Sam went out to join the fray.

The hallway was a grisly sight. Blood spattered the walls, dripping and pooling on the ground. Wood splinters had exploded from the walls and the staircase and an axe was stuck protruding from the library door. There was a beast, dead on the stairs, with a sword still stuck in it's neck. Except it wasn't a beast – not exactly anyway. The hair that had covered the werewolf was falling off in chunks. It's claws were receding back to normal fingers. It's face was small and childish and looked no older than five or six. It wasn't a monster at all – just a child transformed. With a sinking feeling in his gut, Sam realized that he had just discovered where all those kids from the elementary school were.

They weren't children anymore though – he had to remind himself of that. There was no trace of humanity left in the beasts that they were fighting. The kids were long gone – had probably not even survived the fire. Eve had needed humans to create the werewolves, nothing more, and the human was no longer there. There was no saving them. There was no time to focus on that though, no time to mourn and grieve for the lost children. The battle still raged on around them and he knew that there was no reversing what Eve had done. Three Slayers were working together to take down another one which was taking wild swipes with it's exceptionally long claws. One Slayer lay dead by the door, her head split down the centre so that Sam couldn't even identify who it had once been. Another beast ascended the stairs and made a lunge directly at Sam. Sam dodged just in time, leaving the beast to run head first into the wall.

It was Sam's first chance to get a close look at the creatures that Eve had set upon them, one that was still living and breathing, and what he saw was nothing short of grotesque. At their foundation they were werewolves with the fur, yellow eyes, claws, and teeth, but there was so much more to them. There were several rows of teeth in their mouths, which would make any bite be like going through a wood chipper. There were spikes on their backs, like alghouls had, meaning that any attack from behind would not only be useless, but put the attacker in grave danger. What was the most menacing, however, were the claws they had. Each claw was like a dagger attached to their hands. Liquid dripped from the claws, eating holes through anything they touched. Whatever it was, it was like acid, corrosive and highly destructive. Sam could only imagine that it was also toxic. Each attack the beast made was devastating and highly fatal.

The beast shook off it's missed attack and lunged again, leading with it's long claws. Sam swung his sword, glancing off the side of the creature. It was met with a clang as the beast turned to catch the blow with the spikes on it's back. The kickback threatened to throw Sam off balance, but he was able to stand his ground and prepare for whatever attack was about to come his way. The beast wasn't even phased by the blade connecting with it's spikes, and instead barreled towards Sam with it's teeth gnashing. It's jaws moved faster than Sam anticipated and all he could do to avoid being bitten was to throw his sword into the thing's mouth. He wasn't sure if it's bite was like a werewolves with the ability to infect it's victim with the curse and he sure as hell wasn't about to find out. Sam pushed back on the sword, throwing all his weight against the blade, and drove the creature back. Some part of Sam was hoping he could drag the blade through the creature's head and end the fight here and now, but the claws swinging at him prevented Sam from getting close enough to make such a maneuver. He could feel the claws swiping at his middle, desperately trying to reach him. He heard his shirt tear but there was no time to think about how close he'd just come to being slashed. He had to focus on pushing the beast back. He'd gotten himself stuck, though. The moment he removed that blade, the teeth would be lunging at him again. The only other option he had was to let the blade go, but Sam had nothing else he could grab; losing that sword was a death sentence.

Moving quickly, Sam dragged the blade lengthwise out of the beast's mouth and drove it forward, hoping to pierce straight through it's throat. The monster moved faster, though. It's teeth bared down on the sword like a metal vice. The two were in a stalemate, neither able to move without making a fatal mistake, but there was also no space for either of them to gain an advantage. Sam had to figure out what to do and he was running out of time to do so. Some desperate move was all he had left, but before he could even try that, an ax embedded in the beast's neck. It let out a piercing howl as it let go of the sword. Without hesitation, Sam swung the sword with all his strength and weight behind it and drove it through the monsters neck. It's head slid to the side and dropped to the floor with a wet thud. Behind it stood a wide eyed, blood stained Dawn. Her eyes met his and he nodded his thanks before turning to the next beast that came up the stairs.

"Dawn, go to the library!" Sam called out as he attacked the monster.

"No!"

She had cut her way through the main floor. She had watched girls fall in battle. She had seen even more beasts meet their end. She had watched as Dean, joined by the more veteran Slayers, held back an onslaught at the front door. She knew has desperate the situation was. She wasn't going to hide and cower. She was going to fight. She was going to help hold the line. From the sheath across her back, Dawn pulled a sword free. Her ax was lost for now, too embedded in bone for her to pry loose; a sword would have to do. She lunged into battle with Sam. She was going to hold the line.

"Something really needs to be done about that pesky shield," Eve's voice resonated throughout the house. "So many of my children are feeling so very left out."

"Hold that shield!" Willow cried out, her hands shaking as she fought to maintain the magic she was working.

Andrew and Giles were starting to show signs of the fatigue. Their colour had drained from their faces and their knees were beginning to give way. And still they held. Every hit the shield took zapped more strength from the two men, and it was clear that they weren't going to be able to hold much longer.

Eve's voice came once more. A simple word was uttered and nothing more, but it was enough to send a chill down the spine of all those trapped in battle.

"Dissolve."

Andrew and Giles pushed harder, but there was nothing they could do. The shield was coming down under Eve's power. The two forces pressing against one another was too much to bear. The shield shattered, exploded like shards of glass. Blood erupted through Andrews lips as he desperately grasped to whatever he could to hold on. To keep the shield up. To keep himself together. His hands shook and his head ached, but he stayed standing. He started the spell again without hesitation. There was no time to waste. His strength alone was not enough, but Giles could not join him.

Giles cried out as the shield burst, blood poured from his mouth. From his nose. From his eyes. Organs burst and failed under the strain. His body shook has Eve's power swept through him like a hurricane. There was no strength in him left to fight with. The spell slipped from his hands as Giles fell to the ground. His body went through spasms as he convulsed on the floor, red foam seeping from between his lips. He twisted and contorted into grotesque angles. A sick cracking sound came with every twist. And then he fell still.

"Giles!" Willow screamed out.

Without thinking she threw all her strength in with Andrew. She bolstered his power just enough to be able to bring the shield back up. There was no telling what had gotten through in the time it was down, but that didn't matter now. The power Willow added was more than anyone had expected. As the shield expanded once more, it burned away any and all monsters in its path. Bodies fell to the ground, nothing but husks and ash. Eve screamed in the distance, an agonizing sound, as she too was thrown from the yard.

A burning sensation exploded on Willow's arm. The tether glimmered for a moment before crashing to the ground, shattering into pieces and severing any hold she had on the other two women. The gateway to Purgatory flickered once, twice, and blinked out of existence. As if it had never been there at all. They lost Purgatory. Buffy and Faith. Everything. Everything was lost.

"Giles!" Willow cried again.

He did not move. He did not rise. He would not rise again.


Chapter Text

Chapter Twenty-One – Disposable Heroes

"How the hell did you spend so much time just walking around here?" Faith asked with a sigh. "This has been the dullest hours of my life."

"Never a dull moment before. Couldn't walk ten feet without being attacked," Buffy said grimly.

Not only had they not been attacked since crash landing in Purgatory, they hadn't seen a single monster or creature. There had been no rustling in the leaves, no footsteps following them, no eyes on them. Nothing. Maybe it should have been a relief, but it did nothing but put Buffy more and more on edge for every passing hour, every passing minute, without a monster attacking. For a world that was full to bursting of things that wanted her dead before, Purgatory was starting to feel…empty. And it was disconcerting.

"Maybe they don't want to mess with two Slayers?" Faith chuckled.

Buffy wished she could believe that, but if experience taught her anything it was that the monsters of Purgatory didn't give a damn who or what you were. You were a toy to knock around and break. What Faith had said, however, did make her think. Purgatory didn't just seem different, it was different. And it wasn't just the scenery. The whole place just felt less hostile. It almost felt like it was taking on a life of its own. It was still a dead and desolate place, but there was something about it that almost struck Buffy as new. As renewal. Maybe she was right and it had something to do with the absence of Eve. Without Eve and her twisted anger and resentment, maybe Purgatory was able to become a living, breathing place again. Maybe it would thrive. It was all just guess work, but what other explanation was there? Then again, maybe it didn't really matter. They were here for one thing and one thing only – to find a way to send Eve back here.

"Hey Faith?"

"Hm?"

"Why were you in the library so early today?" Buffy asked.

Something about Faith getting up early, especially earlier than the rest of the house, hadn't sat well with the blonde Slayer. She was pretty sure that Faith had never gotten up before noon of her own volition and certainly wouldn't choose the library as a place to pass the time. There was something about the exhaustion on her face that also seemed to hint at a restless night. Nerves over this journey was one thing, but she couldn't help but wonder if it was something more than that. Not just that, but Buffy was concerned that Faith hadn't slept much, or at all, the night before. Fatigue and Purgatory had proven, repeatedly, to be a lethal combination.

"Oh, uh," Faith stammered, "Just couldn't really sleep. I guess I was nervous."

"Ya know, it kinda looked like you'd been there most of the night."

"Did it?"

Buffy nodded, "it did. Maybe doing some research in that translated book or something?"

"I don't know what you're talking about," Faith responded.

Buffy sighed. It made no difference what she asked, how she asked, or how many times she asked, she wasn't going to get anywhere with this. When Faith didn't want to share something, there was no way to drag it out of her. She knew damn well that Faith had been up to something last night, there was no question about that, but Buffy had to let it go. All she could hope was that maybe Faith would decide to share sometime later. And that it wasn't something that would bite her in the ass later, either. Buffy turned her focus back to following the marble and scanning the ground for any sign of new growth or really anything that could help them. She bent down to brush aside some of the fallen leaves and branches just as she had been doing as they had made their way through the woods. Every etched 'x' on a tree was accompanied by rummaging around the ground, hoping like hell they'd find something. Just like they weren't willing to put all their hopes on the binding Willow had created, they weren't willing to blindly trust that Andrew's marble would detect a living item.

So far though, obviously, nothing had been found. This attempt was no different and Buffy found nothing hiding below the brush on the ground. The search continued. Buffy stood up and dusted the dirt and dust from her jeans, the marble still safe in the palm of her hand. As she turned back to the path, however, something caught her eye. Just a subtle glint in the sunshine, or at least what passed for sunshine here. There was something buried in the ground just a few feet from where she had been examining. Whatever it was, it was snug in the ground and required some coaxing to remove it. Buffy's fingers dug around the edges and slowly worked it free. It was well worn now, with new scratches and scrapes in the metal casing. It was stained in places with old blood, signs of old battles and newer ones too. The elements in Purgatory had not been kind to it, but Buffy recognized it immediately. It was a zippo lighter. It was Spike's. Which could only mean one thing: he was here. Somewhere. Of course he was, she knew all too well that monsters – vampires included – ended up here. Part of her had hoped that maybe he'd escaped this fate. Maybe his soul would stop him from ending up here, lead him on to greener pastures and away from this nightmare. Shouldn't saving the world and closing down the Hellmouth count for something? She had hoped more than anything that he had gone into the ether – anything was better than being here.

Buffy stared at the lighter, flipping it over and over in her hand. She flipped it open, smiling at the old familiar sound, but of course nothing happened. The fluid must have run out ages and ages ago. After all, time passed differently here. Spike had spent several lifetimes here already. The fact that it had been abandoned didn't bode well for the platinum vampire, and Buffy knew it. She heard Faith call her name and quickly pocketed the small lighter. She wasn't sure why she felt like she needed to hide it from Faith. It just felt so personal. So intimate. And she wasn't sure that Faith would understand.

"You find something or what?" Faith called back.

With the lighter stashed Buffy rose and turned to face the other Slayer, "uh, no. I thought I did but it was nothing."

"Damn, would have been nice to wrap this up. This place is startin' to give me the creeps."

Buffy laughed, "ya, this place does that. There's a reason Dean wouldn't come back."

"Yeah, he didn't seem thrilled with you coming back, either. Is that why you guys were so distant this morning?" Faith asked.

"We, uh, had a fight about it last night," Buffy replied, the disappointment clear in her voice and on her face as well. "It got a little heated. I kicked him out of the room. So I hadn't seen him until this morning."

Faith knew exactly the fight they had. She didn't know what was said and she didn't know who led the charge, but she still knew the fight. It was the same fight that she and Sam had been heading towards that night too. She had a feeling that it was the same fight every Slayer in history had with any significant other they ever had. It was the conflict between the Slayer's duties and the want to protect the person you love. Faith knew that it was a little different for Buffy and Dean, though. Dean knew exactly what Buffy would be facing by coming back to this place. He knew the damage Purgatory had already done – he knew how awful this place was. But he also knew, just as much as everyone else did, that Buffy was at a higher risk by coming back here. Those scars left on her mind hadn't healed yet, and by coming back here she risked succumbing to those wounds. Faith could understand where Dean was coming from. She also understood Buffy completely in this case. Slayers have a job to do, and this one was definitely one that Buffy had to do herself.

"Ya can't fault the guy though, B," Faith added. "He just wants what's best for you."

Buffy nodded, "I know. I guess I just hoped I wouldn't have to have that fight with him, ya know?"

"Just don't let it be a thing. Figure somethin' out, 'cause you guys can't let it come between you."

Buffy looked at Faith with surprise on her face. Relationship advice was probably the last thing she ever expected to hear from the other Slayer. She would have expected Faith to say something more along the lines of 'dump him and move on' rather than suggesting that she try and work it out. Maybe Sam had influenced Faith a little more than she had realized? Faith did happen to be right, though. It was just something that she couldn't deal with before journeying back to Purgatory.

"When we get back, I promise he and I will – "

Buffy stopped suddenly as a sharp, hot pain stabbed in her forearm. Faith cried out in pain as well. A thin strip of light shimmered between them before disintegrating from each end, like a rope that had been lit on fire. The spot where Willow had drawn on their arms illuminated in black before turning to ash and falling from their skin. They didn't need anyone to explain to them what had just happened – it was painfully obvious. Their tether was no more. Their binding had broken.

The pain, still dully emanating from their arms, was immediately disregarded and ignored. Instead they focused on the panic that was welling up from deep within their guts. They knew, without saying a word, what this meant. Willow wouldn't lose grip on the binding unless there was nothing she could do about it. It would take something pretty dire for her to let the tether break. It was hard not to imagine the worst case scenario, which of course was that something was happening back at the house. Willow, and maybe everyone else there, was in danger of some kind. That thought was enough to run a chill up their spine. And there was nothing they could do to help or even know for sure if something was going on. That fear was quickly followed up with another chilling thought. If the tether had broken, what did that mean for the portal at the other end? Was it still open? If it wasn't, they were trapped. Buffy had found the escape hatch once, but chances were slim that she'd be able to do it again. Chances were slimmer that they'd both be able to pass through even if they did manage to track it down again. Without another word between them, they broke out in a dash back to where they had come from. They followed the marks they had etched into the trees, thankful for that little bit of forethought that they'd had. They crashed through the forest, all thoughts to being quiet long forgotten. There was a nagging thought in their mind that the portal would be gone, but if there was even a slim chance of reaching it before it closed, then they had to try. They ran, full speed, until they reached the first tree that they had marked. And found nothing. There was nothing left, not even a hint of where the portal once was. Nothing.

They were stranded.

"No, no, no, no," Buffy panicked, pacing in a circle. She couldn't do this again. She couldn't be trapped here.

"What are we gonna do, B? There's gotta be something."

"Nothing! There's nothing we can do now. Don't you get it?" Buffy all but screamed. "We're trapped here."

Faith was taken aback by the sudden outburst from the usually well-composed Slayer. She had never seen Buffy panic like this before. Or maybe she had and she just hadn't noticed at the time. Buffy always knew what to do, didn't she? Always had a plan, always knew what needed to be done and how to do it. That was the Buffy that Faith knew, but she had to wonder just how real that Buffy was. Or had she built Buffy up to live on this pedestal just like she'd seen all the newbie Slayers do? It was easy to believe the front that Buffy put up, but for once Faith was seeing it not only crack but break entirely. Even back when things were going sideways with the Mayor and all that shit, Buffy kept up the façade that she was in control. For once she was seeing unmitigated panic and fear on the Slayer's face. For once she saw Buffy feeling completely lost. Truth be told, that alone scared her more than being stranded in Puragtory ever could.

"Hey, hey," Faith set both her hands on Buffy's shoulders, preventing her from continuing to pace, "look at me. We're gonna figure this out, okay? We're not licked yet."

"Like what, huh? There's nothing we can do. That portal was it. That tether was it," Buffy said as she shook herself free.

"There's always something. You're just gonna have to trust me," Faith replied. Buffy stopped pacing long enough to shoot Faith an incredulous look before continuing. "Hey, if you don't trust me, then trust that everyone back home is doing everything they can to fix this, ya?"

Faith was acting much more confident than she felt. If there was one thing that Faith was good at, it was pretending she was good with something. Putting on a brave face came as easily to her as breathing at this point. She figured that this was exactly how Buffy had gotten through the worst of the worst, just like her. Just for once, it was Buffy's turn to be reassured by the same act. All Faith could hope was that Buffy couldn't see right through it. She needed Buffy to believe it.

"For now, let's just do what we came here to do. We got a job to do," Faith added.

"Seriously? You want to keep searching? What's the point, Faith?"

Faith shrugged, "what else are we gonna do in the meantime? Play I Spy?"

Buffy rolled her eyes and scoffed. The thing was, though, that Faith was right. What else could they really do? All they could really do was wait and hope that the people back home really were doing everything they could to reopen that portal. All they could do was hope that those back home were even able to do something. If they managed to get home, then they'd need something to show for it. If nothing else it gave them something to focus on. Something to hold onto and work towards. It was a distraction.

Buffy took a deep breath, "okay. You're right. Let's keep looking."

Before the two Slayers could even take a step, a deep roar, like the rumble of an earthquake, sounded from the nearby brush. It was too much to hope for that the monsters of Purgatory had truly disappeared, but Buffy had started to think that maybe, just maybe, they were going to escape detection. Hope really does breed eternal misery, apparently. Just as they turned to face where the noise was coming from, the sound of rustling branches and breaking twigs came from their other side. Pretty soon they realized that they were being surrounded as at least a dozen creatures poured into the clearing.

"When it rains it pours, huh?" Faith grinned.

Buffy swung her scythe out of its sling while Faith gripped both her machete and her hatchet tightly in each hand. They stood, back to back, ready to take on the horde that had stumbled upon them. Taking in the full situation, both Buffy and Faith started to question how likely it was that they could hack and slash their way through this one. Buffy had already learned, multiple times over, that running was only a temporary fix. Once they got the scent, especially of a Slayer, they would be relentless; they'd never be able to put enough distance between them. Then again, maybe that was their only option. Try and spread out the monsters – even the playing field.

The monsters, however, were not about to grant them any space to retreat. They all charged in at once, instantly overwhelming the two Slayers. It was all they could do to keep the long claws from making contact as they swung their blades at the behemoths. The best they could do was to keep pushing the creatures back, try to keep the onslaught at bay, and try to take down one at a time. Faith managed to fell one creature while deflecting and avoiding the attacks from the small army that was circling around her. With all the experience she had already, Buffy was able to bring down three of the beasts but it still made no dent in the mass of monsters around her. All they could do was keep picking them off, but even if they could avoid being killed, fatigue was sure to settle in long before they could clear their way out of here.

The women tried to stay together, to protect themselves from being attacked from behind, but the creatures weren't making it easy on them. One of the monsters in front of Buffy started to rumble, preparing to spew the oh-so-familiar caustic goo at her. She cried out to warn Faith before rolling out of the way. Faith too rolled out of the way, just narrowly being able to escape becoming a smouldering hole in the ground. The creatures that remained, more than they had hoped for, quickly filled the space between the two Slayers, effectively cutting them off from one another. Without each other, retreat was no longer even an option; they were going to have to fight their way back to each other first. With every move towards each other, however, the creatures seemed to push harder back. It was almost as if they actually had their own thought process now – enough to know that they needed to separate and surround the Slayers.

"Any plan here, B?" Faith called over from somewhere behind the wall of beasts.

"Uh," Buffy panted out, "don't die?"

That was really their only plan at this point. Even though they had taken down at least half a dozen of these things, they were still completely surrounded. They were cut off from each other, unable to help each other. Any path of retreat was blocked. Fatigue was, as feared, beginning to settle in, and they were beginning to wonder how much longer they were going to be able to keep this up. Buffy swung her scythe down on the nearest creature, cleaving through it's neck and relieving it's head from it's body. She dashed out of the way of the goo explosion that was sure to follow, driving the wooden stake end into the next closest monster, gashing an eye out as she went. Somewhere to her left, another monster fell, it's bloated corpse dissolving into dust. She was about to call out praise to Faith when she realized that Faith was within eye sight – on her right. Another beast fell to her left, collapsing into another sickly, oozing liquid. Someone dashed between the next two creatures, and all Buffy could see was a streak of white disappear further into the sea of monsters. Whatever had joined the battle was obviously focusing on the beasts, which meant that, at least for now, it wasn't something she was going to worry about.

She did at least want to see what exactly was fighting those monsters, but she didn't catch another glimpse. There wasn't really any time for that anyway – another beast was lumbering towards her, it's barbed tail flicking along behind it. Before she could react, the tail swung out and wrapped around her midsection, one of the barbs biting into her skin. Buffy gasped in pain and swung her scythe, desperately trying to do anything to get it to let her go. Finally her blade dug into the thing's flesh and with a strong pull, Buffy was able to drag it through the coil around her. Not only did the monster let her go, but a section of tail also fell to the ground – the barbs were no longer an issue. Buffy fell to the ground and quickly flipped herself back to her feet. She wasn't about to give that monster any chance to regain it's footing, and so Buffy spun around, swinging her scythe in a large arc. Her blow landed in the creature's shoulder, just below it's neck. It took some effort to pry it free, but the next blow she landed hit its mark – in the middle of it's head. With a strong yank, Buffy was able to drag the blade through it's face, cleaving the top of it's skull right off.

The creature fell to the ground, ready to explore into caustic goo, and also revealing that Faith was within eye sight once more. Buffy ran forward to meet up with the other Slayer. They shared a quick nod before taking on a different creature each. The clank of blades against claws rang out, echoing through the woods around them. Monsters kept falling. They could ignore the aches in their muscles and the blood soaking into their clothes – but only because they knew the battle was coming to an end. Whatever had jumped into the battle had taken down almost as many of the monsters as they had and had definitely saved their asses. Without that, this battle would be far from over – and would likely have ended in a retreat due to fatigue. Finally the last two beasts fell to the ground, exploding once more into nothing but goo. The two Slayers finally stopped, their breaths coming hard. But they couldn't relax quite yet. First they had to find out if their joiner was a friend or a foe. Just across the clearing, finishing off the very last of the creatures, stood a figure. The jacket was long tattered, with holes and even chunks missing. The boots were worn and the soles were barely attached. The hair was shaggy and dirty, but it was still bright and white. There was no question – it really was him.

"Spike?"

At the sound of his name, Spike looked up and towards where the two Slayers were standing. The expression on his face was blank – vacant. It made Buffy think that it wasn't his name that caught his attention so much as it was simply the sound of a voice. It didn't even seem as though Spike had noticed that there was even anyone standing in the clearing with him. Slowly, cautiously, Buffy walked over to the vampire. She kept her hands visible as she approached him, anything to make her look less intimidating.

"Spike?" Buffy asked again.

His eyes floated up to meet hers but there was no recognition in that blank stare. It was as though he was looking straight through her. She said his name again but he gave no reaction to it this time. He stood still, swaying slightly on his feet, staring into the distance. His face was deeply bruised and scarred – obviously remnants of older battles that he had fought while he was here. Old blood and wounds cut across his face and his chest. Through the tears on his t-shirt Buffy could see more cuts and bruises. How he was still standing was beyond her. It appeared as though the monsters of Purgatory had been less than kind to Spike. There was new blood already seeping through his shirt, dripping onto his stained boots. It was like he didn't even notice.

"I don't think he even knows you're here, B," Faith said.

"Spike, it's me. It's Buffy. Can you hear me?"

"What's wrong with him?"

That was a good question. Purgatory took its toll on all those who ended up here, Buffy knew that all too well. But this? This wasn't something she'd seen before. When she had ran into Ford last time, he had been tired, sure, but not vacant like this. He had been tired, sure, but his mind had remained intact – as much as she could tell, anyway. The difference, and it was the only thing that made any sense, was that Spike had a soul. Unlike any of the other monsters here, Spike had that little spark in him, a spark of humanity, and maybe souled creatures in Purgatory suffered a significant strain. She too had a soul while she was here, but she didn't have the years of horrifying acts and guilt weighing her down. When Spike had first got his soul back, the guilt and shame was enough to drive him insane – maybe Purgatory was able to wreak the same kind of havoc. It was the only thought she had.

"I think this place broke him," Buffy said sadly.

He said not a word. No expression crossed his face. His eyes just kept staring at some distant point, unfocused and glassy. There was nothing she could do for him. He was destined to be this hollowed out, broken shell of what he once was while wandering this place for eternity. He was lost. Suddenly she realized there was something she could do. It wouldn't fix him and she was pretty sure he wouldn't even notice it, but it was the least she could do. Buffy reached into her pocket and pulled out his trusty old zippo. She ran her fingers along the surface once more, finding some sort of comfort in the small piece. With a sad smile, Buffy reached out and grabbed Spike's hand. For a moment the trembling and fidgeting in his hands stopped. His eyes dropped down as she pressed the lighter into his hand and closed his fingers around it. She stood for a moment, her hands wrapped around his, and silently said her goodbye. A goodbye that she had already said once before. A goodbye she didn't know how to say again.

"I'm sorry, Spike," Buffy whispered.

She let her hands drop from his – his which remained in the same place as she had moved them to. His gaze didn't move from his hands, from his lighter, not even when Buffy took a step back from him. Buffy swallowed hard, took a deep breath, and turned away from Spike. There was nothing she could do for him so she had to do the only thing she could – she had to walk away. Without a glance back Buffy walked past Faith, her hands clenched tightly at her sides. She wasn't quite ready to take up the search again, but she sure as hell couldn't stand here any longer.

"B-Bu…"

She stopped, not sure if she really heard anything.

"Buffy," his voice croaked, so quietly it was barely perceptible.

Buffy turned back to see that Spike was still staring at the lighter in his hand, except now he was fidgeting with the lighter. His fingers ran across the scratches in the metal, tracing the lines and shapes. His expression was no longer blank, taking on some modicum of life. It still didn't seem as though his gaze was totally in focus, but the haze seemed somehow less heavy. Without hesitation, Buffy walked her way back to where Spike was standing. There was no hint of caution in her approach this time. Maybe she should have been less trusting of the situation, but she couldn't help herself. The sound of her footsteps drawing nearer pulled Spike's attention up from the zippo and onto Buffy. Buffy smiled warmly, finally seeing some level of recognition on his face. He wasn't looking through her anymore, but instead was regarding her with a great deal of confusion.

"Why are you here?" He muttered. "You were free. You can't be dead. Not again. Please no. No. No. No."

Spike reached his hand out and placed it on Buffy's face, as if he needed to touch her – to make sure she was real. That she was really here and corporeal. It didn't seem as though he wasn't entirely sure he was speaking out loud, but at least he did realize that she was here and who she was.

"What are you talking about?" Buffy asked.

"How are you back here?" Spike's voice rasped.

Whatever followed his question, Buffy couldn't quite manage to hear. She thought she heard something about him questioning if some conversation had actually happened or if he had imagined it, but she really wasn't sure. Instead all she could focus on was the fact that he knew she had once been here. She didn't know how he could have known that, but it seemed pretty obvious that he did. Then again, maybe he had been imagining her before. Considering how many times The First had used her image to torture him, it wouldn't be a surprise. A mind that had been torn and strained would be able to imagine the most vivid of images. It wasn't clear if he had truly lost his mind in this place, or if he simply had moments in time in which he was more lucid than others. She wasn't sure which was worse.

"I'm not dead, Spike," Buffy assured him, "I – we – came here to look for something."

"You chose to come here? That's a wrong bloody call, innit?" Spike almost had a tinge of humour as he spoke this time.

She had to admit he wasn't wrong on that one. More and more she really was regretting her decision to come back to Purgatory. Considering the information they were working with, however, it was the only choice she could really have made at the time. It was hard to explain the danger that Eve posed, but she tried to paint a pretty strong image for Spike in her explanation. Until someone saw Eve, though, really saw her and the supreme power that she wielded, it was hard to comprehend. It was hard to explain that this was the only plan they had. All their research pointed to sending Eve back, and to do that, they needed some living thing from this hell hole. When saying it out loud, especially the abridged version, Buffy realized just how crazy and brash this plan seemed. No wonder Spike was looking at her like she was certifiably insane.

Spike shook his head, "seen a lotta dead things here, haven't seen any livin' ones."

"We know it's a long shot, but we're going to keep looking," Buffy replied.

"May as well join you, then. Trouble seems to follow you around, probably the same here."

Spike slipped the lighter into his pocket, ready to join the fruitless search. Not like he had anything better to do anyway. Besides, now that he was no longer looking out from behind a fog, a little company might be nice. Why he was able to suddenly think clearly, he wasn't exactly sure. It was something about Buffy, when she touched his hand, that sparked something within him. It was some piece of his soul that awoke, some piece of home returned to him. It had been like a curtain lifting. He wasn't sure how long this clarity would last, but if it really did have something to do with Buffy, he wanted to bask in every moment of it. It felt good to be himself again. It felt good to be near her again.

Before they carried on, however, Faith wanted a moment to discuss something with Buffy. A moment without the vampire present. A discussion for just the two Slayers. Spike rolled his eyes and walked ahead, uninterested in whatever inane chatter was about to happen. Whatever it was, though, Buffy recognized that it was important.

"Do you remember what Red said? About The Guardian?"

Buffy nodded, but she wasn't really sure what that had to do with anything right now. Their main focus was on finding something to use in the binding spell, followed very closely by finding a way to get the hell out of here. The use of a Guardian wasn't really necessary as far as they could tell, so why bring it up now? Sure, they were both trapped here now, so one or both of them could, theoretically become the new Guardian, but it wouldn't do a damn bit of good without them bringing some living piece of Purgatory back. And Buffy wasn't particularly fond of anyone staying behind if they had any say in the matter.

"And besides," Buffy finished, "we don't even know how to do that part of the spell."

Faith chewed at her lip, "yes we do. Or, I do anyway."

Realization settled in Buffy. "That's why you were in the library all night…"

"Yeah," Faith admitted. "I figured that…that I could stay behind. The spell is strong enough to break Red's tether on us and that way I could keep Eve on lockdown from here. Make sure she never got out again."

"Faith…why?"

Reason after reason after reason flashed through Faith's mind. All the wrong she had done. She saw her stake plunge into Finch's chest. She saw her knife plunge into person after person after person. She saw the look of fear on Willow's face as she held her captive. She saw herself attack Buffy time and time again. She saw the looks of betrayal from those who she once called 'friend.' She saw the faces of all the potentials that fell. She saw Tess, bloodied on the ground, lost too soon. She saw Buffy in the hands of Eve, close to the same fate that befell Tess. She saw every failure and all those things that pecked at her mind when she closed her eyes. It didn't matter what else she did, all those things stayed with her. Maybe this was the way for her to make up for all the awful things she did. It was finally the time for her to do something heroic and strong. It was finally time to make the same sort of sacrifice that Buffy had made time and time again. But none of those things she could put into words. She remembered all the time she spent, even if it was a mockery, practicing saying 'because it's wrong.' This time all she could say was:

"Because it's right."

Buffy shook her head, "no. No it's not. Why are you telling me this now?"

Faith cast a glance towards where Spike was waiting for the two of them to catch up. When her eyes met Buffy's again, she knew that Buffy understood. Even if they could find a way out of Purgatory and back home, there was no way that Spike could come with them. No matter how many times he fought for the side of good, no matter that he had retrieved his soul of his own volition, at the end of the day, Spike was still a monster. A creature of darkness. Purgatory was where he was destined to go. To take him out of here would be messing with the order of life, and that was something they weren't meant to do. It didn't matter how much Buffy wished he wouldn't have to stay here, in this wretched place, she knew there was nowhere else for him to go. This was where his story ended. This was always where his story was destined to end. Buffy realized that Faith had a point. Why not let someone strong, someone worthy and just, and someone already trapped here take on the role of Guardian? There was no peace here, but at least then Spike would have a role in the world. He could keep doing good just like he had back home.

Spike, who had been eavesdropping through the entire conversation, agreed. Without any hesitation.

"Hell, kinda sounds fun to me."

ӁӁӁ

"How many lost?" Sam asked, his voice strained and tired.

The answer 'too many' came to mind immediately. Several Slayers had been cut down, lost to the beasts that Eve had sent in at them. It was surprising, though, that they hadn't lost more than they did. So many of the Slayers here were the new girls, the ones unprepared for battle. Each girl that had been felled had been retrieved and brought to one of the dormitory rooms that they had built for the trainees. There was no time for digging graves right now, they had too much to do. Nothing else could be done until they found a way to bring Buffy and Faith back from Purgatory. They couldn't lose them to that place. Willow refused to believe that there was nothing they could to find their Slayers. To find their friends. Xander was the only one that had focused his attention on busy work – insisting that repairing the broken doors, windows, and anything else was a pressing matter, just in case that Eve decided to return. Or anything else for that matter. Really, though, it was because he didn't know what else to do. He couldn't help when it came to bringing Buffy and Faith back, so he may as well do something productive. Anything to distract himself from the feeling of loss that was crushing his chest. There wasn't time to grieve yet, but even still, Willow too could feel a heaviness in her heart and tears in her eyes that threatened to spill over. It wasn't just Slayers they had lost in the battle, but a part of their family. The image of Giles falling to the ground played over and over in Willow's mind and every time felt like a blade being dug into her flesh. How were they going to go on?

It was hard to consider themselves lucky after that fight, with all that they lost, but the truth was that they were lucky. Injuries were minimal amongst those who survived. Andrew had taken the most damage of the survivors, but was already recovering. He wasn't quite out of the woods yet, the threat of internal bleeding was still quite imminent, but so far he seemed to be alright. It could be a while, though, before he had the strength to do any sort of magic let alone stand on his own. Willow herself hadn't suffered any injuries at all; Sam had made sure of that. By all accounts, the house had been lucky to have the two hunters at the house. Dean had staved off an onslaught on the front lawn, preventing a countless number of beasts to get into the house at all. When the battle had ended and all the creatures fell, Dean returned to the house to check the damage. He was coated in blood but had, by some stroke of luck, remained unharmed. Sam had done a similar task, keeping any creature from getting past the hallway and into the library. It was because of him that those in the library had remained relatively unharmed. He, like Dean, had avoided harm as well, making their fights as successful as possible. Except…

Willow's eyes widened, "Sam, you don't look so good."

She hadn't noticed before, but Sam had been a little off ever since the battle had ended. Or maybe it had taken until now for his condition to progress enough to be noticeable. His skin had suddenly grown excessively pale and there were red rings sunken below his eyes. Not only that, but he seemed to have developed a fever if the sheen of sweat on his face was to be believed. As he stood there in front of her, Willow could see that he was swaying on his feet and relying a great deal on the chair in front of him to keep him standing. He looked deathly ill.

"I'm, I'm fine. Just a little warm. Probably just from the adrenaline," Sam said, shaking her off.

"Are you sure?" Willow asked, walking over to Sam. "Oh! You're bleeding!"

Sure enough, blood was soaking through his flannel over-shirt. His t-shirt was shredded, revealing where a claw had dug through the fabric, nicking into his skin. He didn't even remember being caught by one of those creature's claws, but it must have happened before Dawn had intervened in his struggle with the one that had clamped down onto his blade. Whatever that liquid was that had been dripping of the beasts' claws was likely responsible for the fever that was warming Sam and weakening him. He was about to insist that no, really, he was fine, when his knees started to give way. He ended up leaning on Willow more than the chair and didn't have the strength to pull himself back off.

"Dawn?" Willow called out, "go get Dean. I think he's helping Xander patch up the front of the house."

Dawn nodded and headed off in search for the hunter. In the meantime, with help from one of the spare Slayers nearby, Willow moved Sam back to his room to let him rest. It would take some time to figure out how to help him, but the least they could do was make sure he was somewhat comfortable in the meantime. She passed a cold cloth over his forehead, trying to reduce the perspiration on his face. Another cold cloth was placed on his neck, anything to try and cool him down. It didn't seem to be doing much – whatever toxin was in his system was working harder than anything they could do right now. The only thing that was going to really help at all was if Willow could identify the substance that was causing his fever and hope that she had something that could work as an antidote.

"Sammy!" Dean exclaimed as he dashed into the room.

He had practically dropped the two-by-four he had been helping Xander affix to the door when Dawn had explained to him what was happening. He couldn't understand how Sam could have succumb so quickly to an injury when he had been fine after the fight. If he had known that something – anything – was wrong, he would have never gone to help Xander. Seeing him now made Dean wonder how they hadn't noticed anything sooner. Willow had already wrapped the gash in his side, so Dean couldn't see how bad the wound really was, but just seeing Sam's face, that white and damp from sweat, was enough to know that it wasn't good. The both of them had pulled through much worse and Dean knew that Sam would be just fine, but it didn't make it any easier to see him suffering this way.

"What do you need?" He asked Willow, trying his best to speak around the lump in his throat.

"Time, mostly. And to identify the toxin in his system. Don't worry, Dean, I'll figure it out," Willow assured.

"What about Buffy and Faith?"

Willow's expression fell slightly, no longer the picture of assurance. "Andrew's looking for a way to open another portal with…with just the two of us. But it could take a while if – "

"If you find a way at all," Dean finished for her.

That's what he was afraid of. With Sam down for the count and both Willow and Andrew still recovering, there wasn't a lot of ability to open up portals between worlds anymore. No one was strong enough at this point. Especially without Giles. He hadn't known Giles long, hadn't been around the Scoobies long, but Dean could feel the hole that had been left by the loss of the older man. The sense of panic, the feeling of losing all direction, was heavy in the air. A ship without a rudder. It was a feeling that, no matter how dire things had been, he had never seen or felt in this house. It wasn't a coincidence that it was happening after they lost Giles. Whether they had known it or not, Giles had been their guiding force. He had held everyone together and he always knew what to do. Even if he didn't know, he still knew what to do. It reminded him a lot of Bobby…and the pain of losing him. He understood with perfect clarity what it was they were going through. He understood what it felt like to be unable to even deal with the loss because they were in the middle of a war. They had to just keep on keeping on.

Dawn, who had been standing silently in the doorway, watched the exchange between Dean and Willow. The two of them were focused squarely on saving Sam before the toxin in his system took over. She couldn't fault them, but the concern for her sister made her feel almost resentful that Sam had been injured. She was embarrassed by her own feelings, but she couldn't help it. They needed to save Buffy and Faith too. Time was short for them as well, not just Sam. Andrew was looking into it, trying to find another way to open a portal, but no one thought the prospects looked good. Still, if she was going to be doing anything, it was going to be joining the hopeless search of books to try and find a way to save her sister. But she knew that the books weren't going to be of much use this time. It was going to take nothing short of a miracle to save her sister. Without much of a word, Dawn dipped out of the room and headed back towards the library. She picked her way around the blood and debris, focusing solely on her end goal. There was no time for anything else. She would save her sister.

Chapter Text

Chapter Twenty-Two – Gone, Gone, Gone

Another book slammed shut. Dawn winced, waiting for an admonishment that never came. With a deep sigh, she pushed the book aside and pulled another towards her without much hope that this one would be any more useful. Her feelings toward this set of research had so far been confirmed – it was pointless. But it was pointless in the most frustrating way possible. It wasn't that they couldn't find spells and rituals to open a portal between dimensions or worlds or anything like that. No, they had dozens upon dozens. The problem was trying to open a portal to Purgatory specifically. Every spell required four people, five people, six people, eight people. Never just two. Not even just three. They needed people that had abilities – had power. It took an immense amount of power to open the way to a place like Purgatory. It had taken almost every drop of strength they had to do it the first time – and that was when they still had…before they lost…

Dawn rubbed her dry and burning eyes. They were tired. She was tired. By now she had lost track of how many hours had passed, how many books had been read, how many cups of coffee had been consumed. She had lost track of how many times she had gotten excited about a spell or incantation in a book to only have them dashed when she saw how much power was strength was needed to use them. The worst part was that it wasn't even their only issue. Even if they, by some miracle, found a spell they could do, that they could handle with the people they had left, how could they ever hope to find Buffy and Faith in such a vast world? There was no way to hone in on them until the portal was opened, but once the portal was opened, there was no way that they would have the strength to locate them. It wasn't like they could just open a portal and hope that Buffy and Faith would stumble upon it. Without that tether, without the binding, there was no way for them to communicate to the Slayers, to pull them back. It just all looked so hopeless, a feeling that was obviously affecting everyone else in the library as well.

Willow and Dean had rejoined herself and Andrew in the library a few hours ago. Or at least, it felt like it had been a couple of hours. They had muttered something about Sam needing to rest, but not much else. It had been a relief to hear some good news, but you'd never guess it by the grim look on Dean's face as he flipped through books absentmindedly. It didn't look like he was seeing any of the words on the pages, but he could hardly be blamed. With Sam injured and Buffy seemingly lost, he was carrying a heavy burden. Though he tried to put up a strong front, it wasn't hard to tell that he was all but cracking under the strain. Willow wasn't looking anymore hopeful than the rest, but she seemed determined to find something. Anything. Still, though, it all just looked so bleak and desperate.

But maybe it didn't have to. The realization dawned on her slowly, almost like slipping into a peaceful sleep. She knew what needed to happen. What she needed to do. Somehow she knew with perfect clarity what it was that would bring Buffy and Faith back from Purgatory. And it was going to be her that did it. Wasn't this exactly the kind of stuff that Cas had been training her to do all this time? She hadn't been able to do much yet; she had barely been able to create windows to other parts of their own world let alone other dimensions, so it was entirely possible that she wouldn't be able to do this. She had to try, though. There was no way she couldn't try – sometimes it was the most desperate of moves that worked. That was something that the Scoobies had proven time and time again. No one was paying much attention to her – in fact she was pretty sure that no one even noticed she was still in the library. With a deep breath, Dawn got up from her chair and made her way to the centre of the room where the old portal once stood. Where blood still stained the wooden floor. She hoped that there was something residual here – some sense of Buffy or some spark of power remaining. Anything that could help her do this.

With shaking hands, Dawn reached up and out. With palm outstretched, she focused in. She still wasn't sure what Cas meant about focusing, but this time she at least had something to focus on. She knew where she wanted to open a doorway to, and she even had someone there that she could think about. Maybe that's what she needed to focus – someone she cared about on the other side. So that's exactly what she did – she focused on searching out her sister. She needed to find her Summers' blood – the blood that was the same as what was flowing through her own veins. The image of Purgatory was unknown, but Dawn conjured an image of her sister and tried to seek her out across the borders of all the dimensions. The familiar shimmer started to hover in the air at the edge of her fingertips. Dawn's hand began to tremble as the shimmer grew and expanded and then started to flicker in and out of existence. It was the same as it had always been, but Dawn refused to let it end there, refused to let it fade into the nothingness that had been the result of every attempt before. She kept her thoughts concentrated on Buffy, on the idea of Purgatory, and pushed herself further. Soon a small breeze started to waft through the room. Her hair started to move slightly around her face and behind her she could hear the light sound of pages rustling. The small shimmer continued to expand. It was far beyond anything she had been able to do before, but still barely the size of a paperback novel. It wasn't enough. The more Dawn focused, the more real she made the image of Buffy in her mind, the more the breeze picked up. Soon it was enough to shake the inhabitants of the library out of their research. Willow, Andrew, and Dean all looked up from their books to scan the room. Their gaze landed on Dawn and confusion crossed their faces almost instantly. At first they didn't know what they were looking at, but realization started to dawn on them as they noticed the transparent centre of the flickering spot at Dawn's fingers. Of course it was a portal that she was trying to open, but it was quite the surprise to see Dawn doing so. It took years of practice, of building up power and strength, to be able to do anything like this. And yet Dawn appeared to be succeeding in something that it had taken Willow years and years to be able to do – and it still took others adding to her own power to do so. Willow stared in awe, in surprise.

But then she could see that Dawn was struggling, she was faltering. It was too much. She wasn't enough. The light at Dawn's fingertips as beginning to flicker, almost like a candle in a breeze, and Willow could see that it wouldn't be long before the small brunette lost whatever grip she had on the portal she was trying to open. The strain was etched on Dawn's face, but her stubbornness meant she refused to let go; she would push through and try until she had no way to go on. Summers' stubbornness knew no bounds – and Willow knew that Dawn would continue until it killed her if it meant she might get closer to saving her sister. Willow knew exactly the feeling that Dawn was going through – she knew the exhaustion that would be flooding her system and wearing her down. She knew that Dawn was about to fail. Without a word, Willow got up and joined the small brunette at the centre of the library. It didn't seem like Dawn was even aware that people were looking at her, let alone that Willow had come over to her. She jumped slightly when Willow placed her hand on Dawn's shoulder, but still kept her eyes focused tight on the light at her fingertips. The flickering stopped and slowly the portal's start began to expand once more. Willow hadn't recuperated quite yet, she was still exhausted and suffering from their failed attempt, but whatever power she was able to find in her depths, she lent to Dawn. Together they were able to open a window – about half the size of the original portal, but still big enough to be useable. The blurred image at the centre slowly sharpened and came into focus – the sight of dead trees and a blank sky. The smell of dead leaves wafted into the room. The smell of decay. There was no way to know – not for sure anyway – that this was truly the Purgatory they had been looking for. It was suddenly an exercise in blind faith – faith that Dawn had managed to find where her sister was located. If she had found Purgatory, the problem she now faced was finding some way to lead Buffy to this portal, or to bring the portal to her.

"Now what?" Dawn asked, her voice full of excitement, confusion, and even fear. This was all-new territory for her and the uncertainty was immense.

Willow shook her head, "I don't know, Dawnie. We have to find Buffy and Faith."

"I think I can help," Andrew croaked, still weak and in pain. "I have another orb like the one I gave them. I should be able to connect the two – "

"And use it as a homing beacon," Willow finished.

Andrew nodded in return. He hadn't said anything before, but he had always had a slight nagging fear in the back of his mind that something would go terribly wrong. Of course Andrew hoped that everything would go perfectly, but they had needed some sort of back-up plan just in case. This was it. Andrew rummaged around his books and items at his table, trying to find the marble he had connected to the one carried by the two Slayers. He found it buried below a stack of parchments and old scrolls, safely kept away from sight. A quiet word was whispered to it causing it to glow and hum with magic as it sought out the other orb. He joined the other two girls, his hand also placed on Dawn's shoulder. The orb rested in his palm, the hum increasing in pitch as time went on. There wasn't much else that they could do – they had no strength left for anything else. They just had to hope that what they were doing was enough. They had to hope that the other orb was reacting in the same way. That Buffy and Faith understood what it meant. That they could find their way to the portal. That it wasn't too late.

All they could do was hope. Wait and hope.

Hours passed. The weight of the portal was taking its toll on Dawn, Willow, and Andrew. It was nothing short of a miracle that they were able to keep this up as long as they had. It was nothing more than obstinate determination that kept them going at this point. Dean had remained in the library, keeping watch over them and waiting on pins and needles for something to happen. He knew that this was basically a Hail Mary type of move, but on the off chance that it did work, he wanted to be here when if it did. He felt useless, but there wasn't much else he could really do, so he resigned himself to simply watching and waiting. He watched as Dawn, Andrew, and Willow each struggled to keep their strength up, to keep their eyes open. As the minutes ticked away and turned to hours, it became harder and harder to keep his own spirits up. It felt like Buffy was getting further and further away from him. He felt like he was losing her. What if she never made it back? What if he had lost her to that place all over again? He never should have let her go. He knew that there was nothing he could have done – she would have gone no matter what – but he still felt as though he should have fought harder. He should have gone in her place. She didn't deserve to be trapped there.

Dean's thoughts were interrupted by the sound of rustling and branches bending and snapping. The sound was emanating from the small tear in the air that Dawn and Willow was fighting to keep open. The sound brought Dean to his feet and jolted the other three back to full alertness. Something was changing, something was happening. The sound of feet beating on the ground came louder now, as though it was right in the room with them. They could hear growling, snarling. It was so loud, so clear, that the fear that another attack was being launched was very much real. Dean recognized that sound as it threw shivers down his spine. Except there was nothing with them; it was all coming from the place at Dawn's fingertips. The sounds built and built and built, coming to an almost deafening crescendo. And then the sounds stopped abruptly – like a mute button had been pressed. They looked between themselves, searching for answers as if anyone had any idea of what had just happened. Before anyone could say a thing, a light exploded from the portal, filling the room with a sharp cracking sound – like that of a lightning strike. Dawn was blown off her feet, landing with a hard thump on the ground. The others shielded their eyes from the blinding light as they fought to remain standing. The light faded almost as quickly as it had filled the room, leaving everyone to readjust their eyes to the dim library. As they did so, as everything came into focus once more, they found two additional figures had joined them in the room. On the ground, just below where Dawn had torn a hole between worlds, were the two Slayers in no rush to find their way back to their feet.

Dawn all but leapt to her feet and ran to her sister, throwing her arms tightly around her. Buffy didn't look like she was fully aware of her surroundings yet – her eyes still showed signs of confusion and uncertainty. Even still, she returned the embrace in kind, throwing her arms tightly around her sister and burying her face into Dawn's shoulder. Fully coherent or not, Buffy understood one thing: she was home. Against all odds she had escaped that place twice. Purgatory was once again behind her and somehow she was safe. The ins and outs of how she and Faith had made it home could wait – for now she just wanted to ground herself back in reality and find her footing once more. From over Dawn's shoulder, Buffy could just see Faith sitting on the ground. She looked just about as worse for wear as Buffy felt, and just as slow to get to her feet. Faith looked up and caught her gaze, and gave a small, reassuring nod. They exchanged smiles of relief, of gratefulness. Gratefulness for being home, but mostly gratefulness for having had one another's back. It hadn't been said out loud, and Buffy was pretty sure it never would be, but it was a comfort to know that after everything and all the years that had passed, they could finally rely on each other again. They had kept each other safe, and they would always do so.

Still held tightly by Dawn, Buffy shifted her gaze, seeking out who else was in the room with them. Andrew was towards the back, dried blood on his face and hands. His face was grim and tired and there was no trace of humour to be found. It looked like it was taking a great deal of effort to stay on his feet. Whatever had happened while they were gone had obviously left a deep mark on Andrew. Not far from Andrew was Willow, off to the side and looking worn down. Her hands were still shaky and it looked as though the only reason that she was able to remain standing was because she was able to lean back on one of the sturdy research tables. The relief was clear on Willow's face, but there was something else, too. Something that Buffy couldn't quite suss out. She was about to ask Willow what was wrong, but before she could, she heard the sound of boots on hardwood from somewhere behind her. She knew those boots well. She knew the feeling of him being nearby. Dean. Buffy turned her head abruptly – her eyes seeking out the familiar and comforting face. Her heart instantly found rest as he came into sight.

She pulled back from Dawn and, with a little help, rose to her feet. Her steps were a little uneasy at first and she all but fell into Dean's arms. His arms wrapped around her tight, pulling her against him as though by doing so he'd be able to protect her from anything and everything. If it had been up to him, they would have stayed like that forever – they could just let the rest of the world fall away around them. It wasn't up to him, though, and there was no time for that. Eventually Buffy pulled back, her eyes slightly more watery than they had been before, and Dean took a moment to look at her – really look at her. There were scrapes and scratches on her face. A gash here and there on her arms and chest. There was blood seeping through her shirt at her side and her clothing had tears all throughout. There were twigs and leaves matted into her blood-strained locks. There were a few wounds that were already healing, too. Whatever they had faced in Purgatory had been just as brutal as what they had faced together the last time they were there. Buffy had come out on top, though, just like he knew she would. He slid his hand to her chin before pressing his lips to hers. He kissed her deeply, relishing in the soft feeling of her lips and the way that, even covered in blood and dirt, the smell of warm vanilla floated all around her. It was like home. He rested his forehead on hers and took a deep breath.

"Told you I'd come back," Buffy whispered with a cheeky smile.

Dean smirked, "yeah, yeah."

There would be time for reconciliation and comfort later. Right now there was a great deal of work to be done and even more debriefing. They needed to share what had happened in Purgatory and figure out their next steps. It didn't make it any less disappointing, but Buffy knew that she had a job to do. She pulled away from Dean and turned to face the room, finally acknowledging it as a whole. Now it was clear that something awful had happened while she and Faith had been running around Purgatory. She could see splinters of wood on the ground, gashes in the walls, and a chair or two that had been broken and tossed to the corner for the time being. Buffy could see where the old portal had been opened – obvious by the marks on the floor around it and deep blood stains. Blood stains from whatever fight had been brought to the house in her absence. What was interesting to note was that there was nothing to show where the new portal had been opened. Not a mark or a candle anywhere. She was instantly more curious about what exactly had happened – and how it was that they had brought the two Slayers home.

"What happened, guys? And where is everyone? Sam? Xander? Giles?" Buffy asked, looking between the small group around her.

"Eve brought the fight to us," Willow started, "came down on us with an army of creatures. Dean held a lot of them off at the front door. Sam guarded the library door to keep us safe in here. He got hurt, but he's recovering."

"Xander is doing repairs. He didn't want to waste time in case…in case they came back," Dawn added.

"And G-Man?" Faith asked. "Thought for sure he'd be part of the welcoming committee."

The entire room took on a hushed tone. That feeling that Buffy couldn't identify on Willow's face before had now flooded in and affected even the air in the library. Suddenly not one of her friends would look up into her eyes. Feet shuffled and hands fidgeted. The air became heavy and stifling. A wave of nausea hit Buffy as the reality of what wasn't being said started to unfurl in her mind. Her heart lunged into her throat and she felt a heat rising up through her centre. The acid in her stomach roiled and she could feel bile rising in her throat. The answer was palpable in every movement in the room. In every stillness. In every heavy breath and every bit of the silence. The answer was a ticking bomb, ready to blow their lives asunder. All it was going to take was a single uttered phrase. A few words and everything was going to come crashing down. The answer was obvious. She didn't need to ask this question. She didn't want to ask this question. If she could simply just live in this moment forever she would. This moment before knowing. This moment before it was all ripped away from her.

"Will, where's Giles?"

Willow's voice was miles away. Willow's voice was muffled through a dense fog. Willow's voice was warbled and unable to be understood. She spoke for what seemed like an eternity, and yet Buffy heard not a word of it. She didn't need to hear any of it – she knew what was being said. She could see the sympathy in Willow's face. In Dawn's. In Andrew's. In Faith's. In Dean's. They were all looking at her with such pity that it made her feel sick.

"No," she shook her head, "no. He's fine. Giles is fine, so where is he?"

"Buffy – " Willow said gently.

"No!" Buffy cried out, "just take me to see him. I want to talk to Giles."

Dean reached out and tried to take Buffy's hand only to be shaken off. She didn't want sympathy. She didn't want pity. She didn't want comfort. She wanted to see Giles. She wanted to talk to him and see that he was okay. Whatever it was that they were all trying to tell her, it simply wasn't true. Giles was fine. He was always fine. No matter what they had been through over the years, no matter how many times they had been attacked or how many impossible battles they had faced, Giles had always been okay. Just like the rest of them. This time was no different, right? He was fine. And if he wasn't, then he would be. No matter what was wrong, they could fix it. They could heal any wound and undo anything that had happened. But nothing had happened and there was nothing to undo. He was fine.

"Take me to him," Buffy repeated again.

Willow nodded and headed down the long hallways that led to the room that Giles had claimed as his own. As they walked, Buffy took notice of but paid no attention to the damage they passed by. The doors broken in pieces. The hacks and slashes in the walls and floor. The blood spatter and bone fragments that were scattered about. She didn't notice where Min Jae had fallen in battle, a claw separating her head from the rest of her body without any hesitation. She didn't see where Sarah had been mauled by a pack of the beasts. Later, when she passed through again, her heart would be heavy and she would feel sick at the loss. She would shed no tears, though, for by that point she would have none left to shed. For right now none of it mattered. All that mattered was getting to Giles and seeing that he was okay.

The door to his room was plain. No adornments hung on the wood. No fancy door knob or ornate sign to signify who this room belonged to. It was simple and understated, just like Giles. There was no light shining under the door, a sight that no one was used to seeing. Even in the dead of night, there was sure to be the soft glow of a table lamp emanating through the spaces around the door. Giles always did fall asleep before turning the light off. It was a running joke, trying to figure out just how high his electricity bills had been back in Sunnydale if his bedroom light was never turned off. Now it was just unsettling to see nothing but black around the door's edge. Willow reached for the doorknob, but Buffy stopped her. It was rude, after all, to enter someone's room without knocking – without being invited in. Willow tried to say something, but Buffy interrupted her by rapping on the wooden door. She tapped once. Twice. Thrice. On the fourth time, Buffy called out his name. Dean reached past Buffy and turned the knob, letting Buffy slowly push the door open. The light from the hallway spilled into the room, illuminating the first few steps of flooring. Buffy called Giles' name again, making sure that he knew she was entering the room. It was weird that he wasn't saying anything back. Maybe he was asleep? Any other time she would have slid back out of the room, closed the door tight, and waited for him to surface for tea in the morning. But right now she needed to talk to him. To see him. To make sure that he was okay. So instead, Buffy slid her hand along the wall next to the door, fumbling around for the light switch that would bathe the room in light. Finally she got it and the light flickered on.

There on the bed was Giles. His eyes were shut tight and his hands were resting at his side, one dangling off the edge of the bed. She wanted to say he looked peaceful, but that wasn't quite right. His clothing was bloodied and torn, showing evidence of the battle they had faced without her. Blood had soaked into the blankets below him, dripping onto the floor. Those stains would take forever to remove and Buffy knew that he would be disappointed in that. It made her sad to see the blood still caked on his face, sinking into the creases in his skin. She hadn't noticed before just how deep those lines went. They had all grown up over the last year or so. They had all grown old. Why didn't she notice that Giles, too, was growing old? He had seen so much in his time, been through so much. Even still, she had never seen him as actually old, despite all the jokes she had made over the years. Never seen him as frail. And yet, standing here, next to him on the bed, that's exactly how he looked. Old. Frail. Tired. Done. Buffy sat down on the edge of his bed, careful not to disturb him. She brought his hand to rest on the bed rather than hanging off the edge. There was a heaviness to his hand as if it did not want to be moved. She smiled down at Giles as she reached out to trace some of those lines with her finger. She wanted to wipe some of the blood from his face, but it was already long dried on. With her hand placed on his face, Buffy felt the chill of his skin. There was no warmth there. Not even the warmth of her own hand made a difference. She could see the ashen hue of his skin, no colour of life left. There was no life left.

"No. Please no."

Willow stepped forward cautiously. The only one brave enough to enter the old Watcher's room. Ever since they had moved him here, no one had dared pass the threshold. It felt wrong, somehow. She knelt down next to the bed, her hand placed gently on Buffy's leg. She didn't notice. She gave a light squeeze and still Buffy paid no attention.

"When we were attacked, Giles and Andrew put a shield up around the house. Without that, we would have been completely overrun. It was hard to keep up, though. And whatever Eve was doing…every time she hit the shield it was like she was hitting Giles and Andrew directly. I…I think that she managed to break the protection that he had made. And it – "

"No. Please no. This can't be real. It's not true. Please," Buffy's voice broke.

"I'm sorry, Buffy – "

"Why didn't you stop it? Why didn't you save him?" Buffy asked, no real venom or vitriol in her voice. "We can bring him back, right? We-we can help him. He can't be…" She begged and pleaded, the desperation clear in her voice.

Willow shook her head slowly, "he's gone, Buffy. I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry." Willow's voice and heart broke as she spoke.

There was a pause. No one spoke. No one moved. Buffy clasped Giles' hand with hers. She held tight as if maybe if she held onto him tight enough it would somehow make a difference. As if she could drag him back from wherever he had gone.

Willow stood and placed her hand on Buffy's shoulder. "C'mon, Buffy. Let's go and – "

"No," she shook her head. "I'm not leaving him. Please leave."

Willow looked back to where Dean and Faith were standing in the doorway, the only other two who had come with them. They both shook their heads, neither wanting to leave Buffy alone. She shouldn't be alone right now. There was nothing they could do to make any of this easier on the small blonde, but staying here was sure to cause more pain and agony than any of them wanted her to suffer. Faith was also finding it difficult to come to terms with the fact that Giles was gone. Seeing it didn't make it any easier. Despite everything that had happened, Faith had always harboured an odd love for the man. What hurt most was seeing the devastation on Buffy's face. It was watching her break right in front of them as he was ripped from her.

Dean stepped forward, still hesitating at the threshold of the room. He tried to say something, some words that would convince Buffy to leave with them, but there were no words. When he offered to remain behind, Buffy all but screamed at them to leave them be. There was no way to change her mind, and so they did what she asked. Willow was the last to leave, closing the door shut behind her and leaving Buffy on the bed, still clasping tight to her Watcher. Her confidant. Her friend.

"Please don't leave me," Buffy whispered to the still form.

ӁӁӁ

The library felt more somber than it ever had as Willow, Dean, and Faith returned. A simple shake of the head warned Dawn and Andrew not to ask any further questions. Once again, there was no time to linger in those feelings of despair. Eve was not going to give them time to mourn or to regroup or anything of the sort. No matter how hard it was, no matter how much they felt like rolling over and letting it all go, they had no keep pressing on. They had a job to do, and it started with a debrief of everything that had happened since Buffy and Faith walked through that portal.

"Okay, before anything. Did you guys find what you were looking for?" Willow asked, clutching a new cup of tea to herself.

"No, first I want to know how Sam is. What happened?" Faith said, looking towards Dean for answers.

If anyone was surprised that Faith was more concerned about Sam than she was about the current situation with Eve, they kept it well hidden. Only Dean really knew that anything was going on between the Slayer and his brother, and even he had to admit that he was caught off guard by the concern she was showing for Sam. He'd kinda got the impression that she wasn't one to get too attached. He had also gotten the impression that she wasn't one to advertise her personal feelings. If he had learned anything about Faith it was that she liked to keep her private life exactly that – private. It was obvious to him that she was expecting him to keep things nonchalant as he answered the question. But she did want an answer, and if the look on her face and the tension in her stance said anything, she wanted it now.

"Ah, he's fine. Just sleeping off an antidote. Got a little cozy with one of the monsters Eve sent in. Turns out they had some sort of toxic sludge on their claws," Dean said, a casual smile on his face. One that was definitely in contrast to how he actually felt about the whole situation.

Faith breathed a sigh of relief, audible only if someone knew to listen for it. She could get the whole story later, but for now she was just content to know that Sam was going to be fine. There had been enough loss in the house already. That's the only reason she was concerned after all. At least, that was the reason she was telling herself. Faith didn't really understand why she felt so worried for Sam in that moment. She had gone into Purgatory thinking she would never return – and all without saying anything even remotely resembling a goodbye. She couldn't understand how she was willing to do that, but felt a chill run through her at the thought of Sam being gone when she returned. It was all so confusing and blurry. But this was not the time to focus on her own fucked up feelings. Willow was right, they needed to all get caught up so they could close the book on this whole debacle.

"What the hell happened while we were gone, Red? How did Eve even find this place?"

Willow sighed, a look of guilt and disappointment on her face, "I, uh, I think she could find me because of that mark. The one she gave me last time."

She might not thought much of it if it hadn't started burning just as the attack took place. It had felt like she was being branded as the mark came alive. If that wasn't how Eve found them, Willow honestly had no other ideas as to how it could have happened. It was no wonder Eve marked her if this was the goal she'd had.

"And it-it's gone now."

Willow rolled her sleeve up to reveal that the mark Eve had left her was no longer on her skin. The mark had disappeared entirely as soon as Eve had been thrown from the headquarters. There wasn't even a trace that remained of where it once was. Somewhere, deep in her own mind the phrase 'witches will burn' played again and again. She knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that it was her and that mark that had led Eve right to their front door.

Dean shook his head, "stop blaming yourself, Willow. I told you, that bitch would have found us with or without that thing. It was a matter of time."

Willow shrugged her shoulders. It was obvious to Faith that the two of them had already had this conversation a few times over. It was nice to see that the tensions between the witch and the hunter had chilled out finally. Even nicer to see that he was trying to help, even support Willow in some way. Faith knew firsthand how personal Willow took this kind of stuff, so she knew how awful she must have felt.

"I think we should move on. Hopefully to something a little cheerier," Dean continued. He turned to Faith, "tell me you have good news. Anything?"

Willow also turned to face Faith, "yeah, I'd really like to know too. Did you find what you were looking for?"

"It didn't look good at first. That place is bleak, man. We wandered for what felt like days and everything there is just dead and decaying. Totally twisted."

"Yeah," Dean nodded, "sounds about right."

Faith shook her head, "B said it was totally different this time. Less twisted somhow?"

Neither Dean nor Willow really knew what to make of that. The whole point of Purgatory was that it was unchanging. If it was shifting, changing, then they understood even less about that place than they thought. For now, all they could do was add it to the puzzle that was Eve and try and sort it out later. It was more important to hear anything and everything that Faith had to say, so they encouraged her to continue.

"But yeah, we found what we were looking for. I handed it off to Andrew before coming with you to see Giles," Faith added.

A large smile broke out on Willow's face as the good news sunk in. It was refreshing to see such a look of excitement and joy on the small red head's face. Even Dean, as stoic as he had been in this entire endeavour, broke out into a joyous laughter. Faith could almost feel a collective sigh of relief ripple through the group. Finally there was some sort of good news in this whole thing. Finally something went right. Even the smallest victories felt like huge moments in a search that had been fruitless for so long. Even after the losses they suffered, they felt like they deserved a moment of celebration. For the first time since this whole thing started, they had found exactly what they had set out to look for. For the first time, they felt like maybe, just maybe, they had a chance to win. Andrew held up the small water glass that he had saved the small plant in with a tired grin. All they had to do now was keep the living thing just that – living.

It wasn't much of a 'living thing' to be honest. It was the smallest little sprig of something green that they had found. It was so small that they had almost missed it completely. Buffy and Faith had stopped to get some water from one of the lakes that were spread around Purgatory. They had been in the process of trying to figure out what to do next, of where to go. Could they really keep just wandering around aimlessly and hoping for the best? The little orb that Andrew had given them to try and find something living had been glowing brightly and vibrating for a while now, but so far they had found nothing in the area that it was indicating. Faith had become convinced that it wasn't working the way that it was supposed to, which was endlessly frustrating to her. The sense of hopelessness had started to take its toll on the two Slayers and they had really started to question if they could actually do this. Faith had absentmindedly picked up a rock on the edge of the lake with the intention of skipping it across the water. There, buried in the sandy soil, below the stone Faith had pried out, was the hint of something green. Faith dug her fingers into the soil once more and uncovered a small sprig. It looking nothing like any plants Faith had seen back home, but it was obvious that it was new. It was growing. It was alive.

"So, now it's just waiting for you, Red," Faith concluded. "Turns out Buffy wasn't kidding when she said that the lake was full of monsters. That thing did not like a rock being thrown into it's home. Damn thing chased us all the way to the portal."

"Huh," Dean chuckled, "and here I thought she made that up."

Faith laughed along with Dean. It was a fair assumption. "Oh. One more thing, actually. That, uh, Guardian thing?"

Willow nodded, "yeah. It would have been nice to use that too, but we'll make it work somehow."

"Well, I think Buffy and I found one, actually. We found Spike in Purgatory."

"Really?" Willow was surprised, and a little saddened, that Spike would be found in a place like that. Then again, he was a vampire. It was something that they tended to forget, especially after working with him for so long.

"Yeah. He's gonna be our Guardian. Seemed a good fit and it gives him something to do in that place. And gives us a better shot at keeping that bitch locked up. Seemed to be a win-win."

"That's amazing, Faith," Willow said, "but how can we use him? He doesn't know what his end of the ritual is."

"Actually, he does. He'll be waiting," Faith answered.

"But how?"

Faith knew she was going to be asked that question, but it didn't mean she had figured out what to answer it with. Telling the truth felt too…exposed? She wasn't really sure why she was so embarrassed by the truth, but it felt so strange to say it out loud. Dean must have picked up on her hesitation as he jumped into the conversation and take the attention off of Faith.

"Didn't you say you'd need something else for the spell if we were creating a Guardian?" Dean asked.

"Oh, shoot. You're right. The Ad Episcopum Cleri Gemma, the Gem of the Guardian. I didn't bother looking into it beyond its name. I'll have to see what I can find, maybe give Tavia a shout. I'll probably need you to go and pick it up, though."

Dean looked over to Faith, "up for a road trip?"

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She had nothing left inside of her. Her throat was parched. Her eyes were red and dry. Her sides ached. Her body felt heavy as she rested against the bed. Thoughts and memories played in her head in a blur. All those conversations that seemed like nothing at the time. Laughter shared. Arguments had. The last thing she said to him – she couldn't even remember. Wasn't that something that was supposed to stay with her forever? Last words were meant to mean something and she couldn't even remember if it was something mundane or of importance. Soon she could think of nothing but what those words might have been and she could feel it weighing on her heart already. After everything she had been through, all the pain and agony, Buffy had thought that she could handle anything the world threw at her. She thought that maybe part of her had turned to stone – like she was afraid of in Purgatory. She was wrong. She knew she was wrong because she could feel her heart breaking and tearing into pieces. It didn't matter how tightly she held onto his hand or how much she begged and pleaded or how deep she let her denial run, nothing was going to change the fact that he was gone. There was nothing she could do about it. She wasn't here to stop it from happening. She had failed him.

Buffy knew, without a doubt, that staying here was doing no good for anyone. She had a job to do – a war to fight. People were relying on her. She couldn't fail them, too. Staying here was making no difference to anyone – certainly not to him. And yet, she couldn't bring herself to leave her vigil. She couldn't imagine lifting herself up off the floor and moving forward. It was all too much. Buffy raised her head off the edge of the bed, where she had been resting against his side, and looked up at the man that she loved. Without a doubt, she knew that he would be lecturing her right now if he could. He would be telling her that she needed to be strong – that she needed to focus on the task at hand and not on something she could do nothing to change. She could still hear his voice, clear as day, but she was afraid that it would start to fade away. Fade into the nothingness that the memory of her mother's voice had disappeared into. No matter how tight she held on, the people of the past always faded into a ghost of who they once were. It was like losing them all over again. Every time she realized that she had lost another piece, it was like losing them again and again. Every day she lost them again. And she was so very tired of losing people.

"Buffy?"

She hadn't even heard the telltale sound of fluttering wings to signal that Castiel had entered the room. She wouldn't have noticed if the room had crashed down around her. Nothing else around her mattered much to her at this point. No reply was given to the angel; she couldn't even bring herself to look at him. She had no energy left to send him away. She had no words left. Other than his first attempt to talk to her, Castiel did not seem to mind that she remained silent. Instead, he remained standing in the corner of the room, his eyes on the Slayer and the still form of her Watcher. Even though human emotions often escaped Castiel, he understood that the Slayer was experiencing grief. It was one of few emotions that angels were well-versed in dealing with – they saw it plenty of times. Deep grief and tremendous joy were the most common emotions when angels were called upon, after all. He had been annoyed when Dean had asked for him to talk with the Slayer, but now he understood why his presence was required. The war could not be won without the Slayer, but the Slayer could not fight without being given some peace. It had been centuries since Castiel had been called upon for comfort, but he thought that maybe he still remembered how to do so. In this instance, Castiel knew that he simply needed to be patient.

Time ticked by, neither of them saying a word. Neither of them moved. The holding pattern extended on for so long that Castiel was startled when Buffy finally broke the silence. Her voice was rough. Raspy. And it cracked as she spoke. It was clear that she was fighting to get her words out, but she was not willing to let someone see her actually break.

"He was always so afraid that I was going to die. His biggest fear…his nightmare…was that he was going to have to bury me. It was expected. I guess we always took that for granted. I never imagined that – " Her voice broke as a lump formed in her throat.

"I am sorry for your loss," Castiel said, understanding that this was the phrase he had heard many times before.

"I should have been here."

No matter what memory she tried to focus on. No matter what words of wisdom she desperately tried to pull out of the din. This was the only thought that had come through clearly in her haze. The worst part was that it was true. She could tell herself that she was just doing her job. That she didn't know that something would happen while she was gone. That there was nothing she could have done if she had been here. None of that mattered. The only thing she could think was that she should have been here when he fell. She had left him alone when he needed her the most. She didn't even know what was happening while she was gone. Her thoughts were a million miles away from him as she wandered through Purgatory. She couldn't help but wonder if he knew that his time was up. Where did his thoughts go in those moments? Did he realize that the portal had closed? God she hoped not. She didn't want him to have that guilt weighing on him, as she knew it would. He had helped to save everyone that she couldn't in that moment. It seemed fitting that his battle ended trying to protect everyone else. But he deserved better than such a lonely, twisted end. She should have been here.

"I didn't even get to say goodbye," Buffy whispered.

"Would that have helped? Made it easier somehow?

"…no." Her voice broke once more as tears she didn't think she still had rolled down her cheeks. "After losing my mom I just didn't want – " She couldn't find the words to finish.

The silence returned for a moment or two while Buffy fought to find her breath again. When she lost her mom, Buffy hadn't had the chance to say goodbye. She missed her chance. She was too late, just like she was too late to save her. For it to happen again…to lose him that way…it was a sharp pain in her heart. It was a heaviness on her chest. Somehow the loss felt all the worse without that chance to say goodbye. It wouldn't change a thing, but at least then she could have said all those things that she never said. All those things that she thought she had a lifetime to say…to show. He knew, she knew that he knew it all. Or at least, she hoped he did. But she wanted to say it out loud. She wanted to tell him how much she loved him. How much she appreciated all that he had done for her over the years. She wanted the chance to show him. And in the blink of an eye, her chance was gone. It was over and done and she would never get it back.

"At least he's safe now, right? He's not in Purgatory…or here in the middle of a war," Buffy asked, finally looking up to where the angel was standing.

Castiel nodded, "yes. He is in heaven. A heaven all his own."

Buffy's eyes were glassy once more, "and what's his heaven look like? I'm picturing a lot of books. And tea."

"It is a high school library, books and tea included," Cas nodded. Buffy laughed quietly through the tears. "He is already training with you. He has been waiting for you to make it home from Purgatory. He cannot wait to watch over you here. He spends each night with a woman name Ms. Calendar. She had been waiting for him for quite some time."

Despite the pain those words brought her, Buffy felt immense relief. He was safe. He was happy. He was with Jenny. It had been so long since she had heard that name. With a great deal of guilt, Buffy realized that she had almost forgotten her entirely. Another person lost before she could say all the things she should. Buffy had been so angry at her, hated her, all for something that was not her fault. It was because of that anger and resentment that Jenny had been lost – because she was trying to make amends for what her ancestors had done. She had been drive by the desire to be forgiven – especially by Giles. Buffy knew that just as she knew how deeply he had loved her. It felt strange to find a smile on her face in the face of everything, but there it was. She knew that would be what he would want from her right now. If she couldn't keep him, at least he was given the reward that he deserved. If even just a small bit, hearing that made the loss somewhat lighter. Easier to bear. Giles was happy and at peace. Safe. And she was grateful for that.

"I know you are mourning, but I need to remind you that there is much to do now," Castiel said as gently as he could.

He was, of course, right.

Buffy looked toward the still form of her Watcher, "I understand. I can't fall apart now. This…it can't be for nothing."

With a deep breath, she was finally ready to say goodbye. It didn't mean that he was really gone, it just meant that she needed to be the Slayer right now. Slayers didn't have time to mourn. They had to fight. It was hard, to be strong in a moment like this, but he had taught her well. Even now he was teaching her. He would always have lessons for her, even from the beyond, and as long as Buffy continued to learn from him, he would never truly be gone. More than anything, he had taught her that she had to keep fighting. Eve was strong, but Buffy was stronger. Her friends were stronger. This was not a war they were going to lose. Eve had to go down, and the first step towards that was pulling herself up off the floor, pulling herself together, and joining the team in the library. It felt like the hardest battle to win, but it was time.

She gave his hand another squeeze.

"Goodbye."

Chapter Text

Chapter Twenty-Three – Yesterday's Papers

He was angry. It was the only emotion that Xander was focusing on because if he let anything else in, then he would be devastated. He would feel grief and pain and the loss of Giles. He would have to face the fact that Giles was really gone and that was unacceptable. Anger was all Xander had. He couldn't focus on anything else. Repair work sat idle throughout the house, each task left in the early phases of being started, and with no indication that they were to be continued. Xander had instead retreated to the barn house around back – the site of the armoury that he had been working on – to try and gather his thoughts. He had thought that he just wanted to be alone, away from all the looks of pain and loss that had surrounded the original Scoobies since that fateful battle, but he found the solitude to be more overwhelming than he had expected. It wasn't long before the silence felt crushing and he felt restless in his own skin. Time and time again, Xander had found himself feeling useless when something big went down, but it never got any easier. How many times was he going to sit there and watch those he cared about – those he loved – get hurt? Was he really destined to just stand by and watch his friends die, one by one, all around him? Was he, the least useful person, destined to be the last man standing? The anger boiled over again – anything to prevent the sorrow from rooting in.

"Fuck!" Xander cried out as he picked up his hammer and threw it across the room, crashing into one of the shelves on the wall. The wood splintered on impact.

He felt no better. The outburst did nothing to quell the anger that continued to well up within him as he fought back the tears that stung behind his eyes. With a deep breath, Xander looked around him. He saw the shattered shelf toppled to the floor and felt a pang of guilt and disappointment. Those feelings were once again replaced with anger – anger that needed an outlet. His heart was racing as he grabbed onto a plank of wood next to him and threw it across the room as well, where it met with a nearly completed rack, shattering both upon impact. He lashed out again and again. Shelves were toppled. Chests were thrown. Racks were torn to pieces. Each crash was punctuated with expletives cried out in anguish and frustration. The sound of something crashing, of wood splintering, echoed across the field surrounding the large house. Xander felt the anger pouring out of him until there was nothing left. Tired and hurt Xander sat himself down in the middle of the chaos of broken things that he had created. As he leaned back against what had once been a finished counter, Xander could feel his hands shaking and tried to steady them, but it was of no use. He clutched them into fists instead, and drove into the floor repeatedly. His knuckles bloodied, but he didn't care.

"Xander?"

"Hey, Dawn," Xander replied without looking up.

"You okay?" She asked as she picked her way towards where Xander was sitting.

"Sure, great, why?"

Dawn looked around at the rubble across the room, "I went to help you patch up the front door but couldn't find you. I thought to check out here and then I could hear some…excitement. I thought I should come check it out."

"I'm fine, Dawn," Xander snapped.

Dawn gave a knowing half-smile and settled in on the floor next to Xander, "then we'll be fine together."

They sat in silence for a long while, just taking in the disorder around them. Letting everything sink in. Neither said a word for what felt like hours. Outside they could hear people carrying on, life carrying on, but for even just this moment, Xander and Dawn let themselves take a time out. They hit the pause button for their own sake.

Xander finally broke the silence, "you okay, Dawnster?"

"I, uh, I don't know, actually," she admitted. "I thought it would feel like losing mom again."

Dawn didn't know how to say that she thought she should feel differently. When she had lost her mom, it had felt like the whole world had come crashing down around her and she had been willing to give up anything to have her back. There was nothing else that mattered and even just the thought of carrying on without her had all but paralyzed her. It felt like the whole world had come to a halt and would never start again without her mom. The loss of Giles would never compare, that much she knew, but Dawn couldn't help but feel as though she should feel something more than she was. She could feel pain in the absence of Giles, and she knew that he wished he was still here, but she felt as though she was ready for the world to carry on. She was ready to keep living and move on – even without the old Watcher. A deep feeling of guilt had rooted inside of her and she couldn't help but feel as though she wasn't reacting the way she should.

"But it doesn't?"

Dawn shook her head, "no, it doesn't. But I guess I never really thought about it before. I guess I didn't think we would ever lose him…"

"Yeah," Xander exhaled deeply, "I think I always kinda thought the same. I wish I hadn't argued with him so much."

Xander drove his bloodied knuckles into the floor once more, breaking open the wounds that hardly had any time to close over. All he could hear was the last conversation that he'd had with the old Watcher – the last fight they'd had. There had been so much venom between them lately. Any trace of the light-hearted bickering they used to do was long gone, replaced by anger and stubbornness. Xander couldn't even remember the last time he had spoken with Giles without getting into some dispute. Was that really the last memories he was going to have of the man he had grown up with? Was that really the way Giles was going to remember him as he went on to wherever it was that he was going? God, Giles must have thought that Xander hated him, and that realization was as hard to swallow as the loss itself was.

"Why did I always make a thing out of everything? Take things the wrong way?" Xander asked quietly, his voice shaking.

For years they had always bickered with each other, argued and disagreed, but it had never been anything serious. If he was being honest, he kind of enjoyed their squabbling over the years for exactly that reason – it was just fun. Even in the darkest of times, they were able to have some lightness in silly little quarrels because they knew that when it came down to the real stuff, the important topics, they would always find common ground. At least they used to. He was pretty sure Giles had felt the same then too. It was just how they were – it didn't mean they cared about each other any less. He remembered when they lost Joyce, how he and Giles had silently supported one another. He remembered when they lost Buffy, how Giles used to call the apartment each week – sometimes more – just to say hi. He remembered when Willow lost control, how Giles had believed that Xander could save them all.

"Didn't do it this time, did I? Of course not, not useless Xander. I wasn't even there when he – "

Dawn interrupted him, "hey, you did save people. You got us armed. You fought. Without you Briar and Tanna both would have died."

When the monsters had descended on the house, Xander had been quick to get blades into the hands of all the Slayers. Without even a second thought, he had jumped into the fight even though he was fighting far out of his class. Dawn and everyone else in the house saw it for what it really was – brave – but Xander could never see it that way. All he could think about was how useless he felt, how unworthy he felt to be part of the Scoobies. Especially now. With each new denizen of the big house, Xander felt less and less like he belonged here. What the hell could he contribute now? It wasn't just a handful of them trying to fight back against evil anymore; there was plenty of people that could not only fill his shoes, but do it better than he ever could. Even Andrew and Dawn were more useful Scooby members than he was. At this point, all he was good for was building and repairing, and he was better at that when he still had both of his eyes. How long before someone else would take that job, too? And how long before building and repairing wasn't as useful as it currently was? There was one thing, he knew, that they would always need, and it weighed heavy on him.

"I'm just so tired of building coffins, Dawn."

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"Depending on how fast you want to drive, and how far in a day, it should only take you a few days to get there and back," Willow said, pointing to the map that was splayed out on the table.

"It's what, 24 hours there? Give me enough coffee and I'll make it back in a day and a half," Dean shrugged.

"Or we could share the drive?" Faith suggested with a sly grin.

"Oh no, you already had your fun."

The three were hunched over one of the library tables, a map splayed out in front of them. This was it, they were closing in on the final leg of this long, drawn out journey. If it hadn't been for the change of plans, they could be ready to put this thing to bed already, but it was well worth it to hold off. Using a Guardian to protect the barrier between worlds, to prevent Eve from escaping ever again, made it much stronger than their original plan. Much more final. To them, it felt like they were actually taking on Eve rather than just slapping a band-aid on the issue and calling it a day. Sure, they were technically losing time in the process, but not only was it worth it, it gave them all a chance to catch their breath. To recuperate. No one had the strength to take on Eve again, not so soon, and there was little to no chance of them being even remotely successful in this state. Give an inch to gain a mile and all that.

"A-are we going somewhere?" Buffy asked, her voice quiet and raspy.

Buffy had quietly entered the room and was standing off to the side, her arms crossed tightly across her chest as though trying to make herself seem as small and removed as possible. She wasn't really ready to get back to work, but that was beside the point. It was time to put on a brave face and pull herself together. Like she always did. Like a Slayer was supposed to. Buffy did her best to etch a smile onto her face, but with no heart in it, it probably looked just as fake as it felt. She dropped it, knowing it was fooling no one.

"Buff, what are you doing here?" Dean asked, concern lining his face.

He had thought that she would be down for the count, at least for a while longer yet. Maybe he should have expected that she'd want to get back to work, after all that was exactly the way he dealt with stuff too.

"It's not like Eve is going to take a break - I can't either. So fill me in," Buffy answered, leaving no room for argument.

Willow looked hesitant, but started to explain anyway. She knew that there was no use in arguing with her best friend in this moment. There was no changing Buffy's mind – she needed to get back to work not just as the Slayer but as a person who had just suffered a substantial loss. Buffy needed this, and Willow wasn't about to take that from her. Besides, she was right, Eve wasn't going to take a break, and they needed to move fast before she had time to strike again.

"Well, Faith filled us in on Purgatory – how you found Spike? I just don't have what I need to be able to perform that spell – the Guardian side of it I mean," Willow explained.

"Oh," Buffy said, "so what, we have to track whatever it is down?"

"It's a gem of some kind and Red already tracked it down. We were just about to drive out to Pinedale to grab it," Faith answered.

"Well, Tavia tracked it down," Willow interjected, "but that's the gist of it. We would have let you know, kept you in the loop and all that but –'"

"It's fine," Buffy shook her head, "I get it. Let's just get a move on."

There wasn't much else to say about the attack on the house – nothing that Buffy wanted to hear anyway. She didn't want to talk about all that they lost, how Eve had found them, or all that would need to be done to repair the damages. There would be time for that later – after they got the last of the items they needed.

"You sure you wanna come, Buff?" Dean asked. "I thought you'd want to stay here, you know, with – "

"We gotta deal with Eve first," Buffy stated firmly. A funeral would have to wait. Grieving would have to wait.

Faith smiled, "it'll be good to have you along, B."

"Then let's get going, we're just wasting time talking about it," Buffy said.

Dean, Faith, and Willow all shared a look between the three of them. They had been talking about heading out right away when Buffy had walked in, but the more they had discussed what it was they needed to do, the more they felt the weight of the day sinking in. The events of the day had taken their toll, and the fatigue was finally starting to make itself known in each person in the room. Limbs felt heavy and eyes were starting to drift closed despite all attempts to prevent it. Only Buffy seemed willing to ignore that feeling so as to continue the push towards confronting Eve. Her energy was artificial, though, powered through grief and the desire to avoid any of the feelings that were sure to follow. It was nothing more than sheer determination that was keeping the blonde Slayer standing – though it wasn't enough to prevent her from swaying on her feet. It was only a matter of time before she could no longer pretend she had the energy to go on, but it was pretty obvious that it wasn't going to be Buffy herself that mentioned that part.

It was finally Faith that said something, "I'm beat, B. I've been up for, what, two, three days? I could use a night's rest before any other road trips."

"Oh, okay. Well, just Dean and I could go then. You guys said yourselves that it was a quick trip."

"I know you want to get going," Dean started, "but I'm with Faith. That fight took a toll on me. I don't think I could handle the drive."

"But you were just saying that – "

Dean shrugged, "guess we didn't realize just how beat we really are. We could all use a rest."

"Head out in the morning," Faith added. "It can even be early morning."

Buffy knew that heading out on her own wasn't really an option, and she also knew that there was no way she was going to convince anyone to leave tonight. She was annoyed knowing that without her they would probably head out tonight, but she wasn't willing to sit this one out – even if it meant leaving in the morning. It was frustrating knowing how important it was to get a move on before Eve could make her next move and still taking a break to get some rest. It almost felt like they were giving Eve a chance to strike first. But the others did have a point – no one had the energy to do much of anything right now. Maybe part of her was relieved at the chance to get some sleep, not that she would ever admit it. A Slayer's job was to keep going after all. Begrudgingly, Buffy agreed with the others and followed Dean to bed. The closer she got to her room, to the comfort of her bed, the more Buffy allowed the fatigue to set in. They were only going to get a handful of hours of sleep, but it would do a world of good for her aching bones and tired muscles. Plus it meant that it was only a few hours before they were back on the road, back on the path to put an end to this whole thing.

But for now, her bed was soft and impossible to resist. As soon as she sunk into it, Buffy felt the draw of sleep and fatigue. She felt the weight of the last few days pull her deeper into the covers of her bed and she knew that leaving in the morning was the best choice. Her eyes started to drift close.

"Hey, before you say anything, I just wanted to apologize for, ya know, before," Dean said as he tossed his boots off into the corner. "I should have trusted in you, in your decisions. It just…it scared me, the thought that I could lose you."

"I," Buffy sighed, "I don't wanna talk about it anymore. Let's just…let's just let it go."

She didn't want to have this fight again. Not ever, but especially not now. Maybe it was foolish to put their fight to bed without as much as another word about it. Maybe they should have talked it out and let their feelings flow freely. To Buffy, that just sounded exhausting. What else was there to say? They both knew where they stood. There was nothing Buffy could say or do to assuage the fears that Dean had, and there was nothing Dean could say or do to change how he felt. In no other situation, no other battle, had Dean ever tried to stop her from doing something risky – it was just because it was Purgatory. In her time away, Buffy had come to that realization. They both knew what Purgatory was, what it meant, and Buffy would have done anything to stop Dean from having to go back to that place. How could she blame him, how could she still be mad, when he had done exactly what she would have. In his desperation, he had said things he didn't mean, and she could see the regret he felt. He had felt it even before the words had finished being spoken – she just couldn't see it for the anger clouding her judgement. Maybe they should talk about it, but Buffy was too tired. She couldn't see the point.

"Oh, okay. I guess," Dean replied.

"Dean," Buffy assured, "it's fine. We're fine."

Dean discarded his clothes onto the chair in the corner to join Buffy at the bed. He sat on the edge, hesitant to get too close – to crowd her during a time of vulnerability. He wasn't sure that he believed her – how could she ever forgive him for the awful things he had said? Maybe she had, but it didn't mean that everything was all fine now. Years of experience with his dad, his brother, and most definitely with himself had taught Dean that she needed her space right now. There was no use in pushing her on anything, but he couldn't help but do it anyway.

"Can we at least talk about Purgatory then? And how you're doing?" Dean asked cautiously.

Buffy sighed, "it was Purgatory, Dean. It was…fine. No day at the fair, but we knew it wasn't going to be some sunny beach vacation."

"So knowing that Spike is there, that's fine?" Dean turned to face Buffy, "I know that he was important to you."

Buffy looked away from Dean, her breath caught in her throat. There had been much discussion about Spike being in Purgatory since her and Faith had returned, but there had been a distance about it. It was like she had separated herself from anything to do with Spike and Guardians and what it meant that Spike was in Purgatory at all. She had distanced herself from everything since she had returned from Purgatory, as if she was on the outside looking in on someone else's life. But how else was she expected to keep moving forward? In Purgatory, Buffy had feared that she would turn to stone – become nothing more than a mechanical being just surviving one moment to the next. She no longer had that fear, but sometimes that was exactly what she needed. How else could a Slayer – a person – survive all that she had seen in her years? She hadn't even let herself think about Spike being trapped in Purgatory – she didn't really know how she felt about it yet. When it came right down to it, though, it didn't matter how Buffy felt about it anyway. There was nothing she could do about it. Nothing she could do to change it or save him. She could not dwell on that feeling of hopelessness or uselessness – she just had to focus on how he was going to help her. Again.

"There is something that's been bothering me, though," Buffy added. "It was something that he said to me. Something that didn't make any sense. Somehow he…somehow he knew that I'd been in Purgatory before…"

Dean sat up a little straighter, a movement that did not escape the attention of Buffy. He had forgotten the chat he'd had with Spike outside of Buffy's home after some impromptu visit. It was something he hadn't told Buffy about and now he had no choice but to do so. He had told the vampire all about Purgatory – that Buffy had been there and not in heaven, that it was very much real and just as bad as the tales had told. Later, when he had been told that Spike had gone off and gotten himself a soul, Dean couldn't help but wonder if it'd had something to do with that conversation – a desperate action to try and prevent an afterlife stuck in the agony of Purgatory. Dean would never admit it out loud, but part of him had hoped that when Spike had died, sacrificing himself and all that, that he would somehow escape the clutches of Purgatory as some sort of reward. Even he was a little dismayed to hear that it hadn't worked out that way, so he could only imagine how Buffy was feeling about it all. Besides, he knew the torment that place could wreak on a soul – and it wasn't pretty. He couldn't help but feel like all the good that the vampire had done should have accounted for something. But the universe didn't always work like that, and the powers-that-be were fickle son's of bitches.

"I, uh," Dean took a deep breath, "I told him. I ran into him after that night I patrolled with you."

"You did?" She asked. Dean nodded in response. "That was before he – "

And suddenly realization dawned on her. Spike had gotten his soul to try and be the man that he thought she needed, that she wanted. It was because of that soul that he was able to shut down that Hellmouth once and for all – even if it did cost him his life. A life which he gave up without hesitation because he knew that it was the only shot they had. He knew it was right. He had saved them all without any thought to himself. That sacrifice had filled Buffy with pride, but so much guilt and pain that it had come down to that. But now she knew that he did that knowing full well that he was probably, almost definitely, going to end up in Purgatory. To monsters and demons and creatures alike, Purgatory was equal to eternal damnation – a cautionary tale for what happened if you were dumb enough to let your immortality be cut short. Spike had to know what having a soul in Purgatory would be like…what it would do to him. The damage and agony that it would case. And yet he got his soul back anyway. And yet he wore that amulet anyway. And yet he had sacrificed himself anyway. All without a word. All without hesitation.

"He knew…he knew what could – would – happen..." Buffy said softly.

Dean nodded, "and he did the right thing, just like you said he would."

Buffy sighed, "just like I said he would."

She could feel her chest tighten and her eyes fill. There had been a lot to process since she and Faith had made it back from Purgatory, and this was just one more to add to the list. There wasn't anything more to say – anything more to do about any of it. All she wanted to do was close her eyes to the world and try and get some sleep. Buffy curled in tighter to Dean's chest, her reprieve from the world, and let herself be soothed by the feeling of his arms around her and the sound of his heart beating. Without that, without him, Buffy may not have found sleep at all that night. It was the peace he afforded her that allowed Buffy to slip into a world of unconsciousness, though she would be hard pressed to call it restful. Dean, on the other hand, couldn't find his way to sleep. Instead he sat, leaned up against the wall, and watched Buffy as she slept, as though he was somehow able to protect her from her own mind if he stayed awake. He snatched small handfuls of sleep over the few hours they had, but more than anything he kept watch. He would be there if she woke.

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After only a couple hours of restless sleep, and a struggle to drag themselves out of bed, both Buffy and Dean were relieved to find a fresh pot of coffee awaiting them in the library. Willow, Faith, and Andrew were already there and looking just as tired and run down as Buffy and Dean felt; it seemed like no one had any real rest the night before. Andrew looked like he had been through hell. Everyone had been surprised that he had managed to drag himself from his bed to meet in the library – and no one would have blamed him if he had spared himself the effort. He had taken one hell of a beating when Eve had attacked the house and he had the wounds to prove it. It would be a very long healing process if he healed at all. Any wounds that Faith had accumulated in Purgatory were already fading – almost gone completely. To anyone on the outside looking in, it would appear as though any trace of Purgatory had left the brunette Slayer. Unless they were looking at the dark circles under her eyes and the faraway look on her face. She wasn't ready to admit it yet, but Purgatory had not yet let go of her. Her war wounds ran much deeper than just a few gashes and scrapes.

It didn't matter how dire things felt, it seemed as though the library had always been abustle in the mornings – full of quiet chatter, pages flipping, keyboards typing, and people coming and going. It didn't matter what the day had in store, there was always a cheery greeting for any who came in, just as it had always been at the high school library, the Magic Box, and the little house on Revello Drive. Today was not like the others. No one had the energy to rally this time. Today the library was silent as Buffy and Dean pulled up chairs and coffee mugs to join the others.

"Guess we should get started then?" Willow asked, her voice gravelly and worn.

Buffy nodded, "you didn't sleep well either, huh?" Willow shook her head in response.

"I know I slept like shit, if I slept at all," Faith added. "Gonna add a whole 'nother level of suck to this little road trip."

"Should we just take my car?" Dean suggested.

The truth of the matter was that Dean had already been thinking that it would be better if the three of them stuck together on this one. It was one thing to split up when they were crossing the entire country and needed to have the ability to split up and investigate separately. This was different though. This was a quick trip to retrieve some magical doo-dad. With any luck, that would be all the trip would entail, and it would be faster to take just one car. Beyond that, however, was another reason – one not centered on practicality or efficiency. After everything that had happened in the last couple of days, no one was mentally prepared to split up now. There had been a lot to deal with and enough splitting up already. This wasn't another case of him wanting to protect Buffy or try and keep her safe. This time, Dean needed to have them stay together for his own sake. He just wasn't willing to say that out loud – to show that he was starting to feel the strain of it all. Faith admitting she was likely too tired to drive another leg of this journey made for the perfect excuse and Dean was relieved when everyone else agreed to leaving the little neon at home.

"Okay, I've texted you with the address of the shop in Pinedale. The door is in the alley – "

"Because of course it is," Dean interrupted.

Willow rolled her eyes and continued, "there'll be a small sign – an inverted triangle with three dots around it. You'll have to ask for Sneak. He should have the gem ready for you. Then just get back here."

"Well, no time like the present. May as well get going," Buffy said, downing the last of her coffee.

"I'm coming too."

They all turned to see Sam leaning in the doorway of the library looking like absolute hell. If he hadn't been leaning against the doorframe, it was unlikely that he would have been able to remain standing at all. His skin still had a slightly grey tinge to it and it looked as though his wound had ripped open again – there was fresh blood on his shirt.

"Sammy, what are you doing up?" Dean asked, a cross between angry and concerned.

"You should be resting, Sam," Willow added.

"I feel fine, guys. Fine enough to go with you guys."

"No," Dean shook his head, "you're staying right here – you can help Willow or whatever, but you're not coming with us."

"I can't sit this one out, Dean. I can't."

That was something everyone could understand. Not one person in that library, in the whole house really, would be willing to get benched at a time like this. They had come so far, done so much, lost too much, to not keep going. Not even Dean, with all his older brother protective instincts, could disagree with that. Besides, it seemed fitting that it would be all four of them going to get the last piece they needed. After everything they'd been through together, it just wouldn't feel right to leave Sam behind.

"Alright, fine. But you're not driving."

Just as quickly as the library had filled just minutes before, it emptied again. The group left, single-file, through the large wooden door. Buffy gave a nod and a reassuring smile to Sam. It was the first time she had seen him since they had gotten back and for the first time she regretted not making it to see him sooner. She knew he understood, though, and she made a mental note to make some time to sit down with him soon. Dean wasn't sure if wanted to smack or hug his brother, so he settled for a pat on the shoulder and a shake of the head as he passed by. Finally it was Faith's turn to pass by, and Sam couldn't wait to hear, in her own words and own voice, that she was alright. Whatever he had wanted, whatever he had hoped for, fell completely flat. Without even a glance towards him, she walked out of the library. The most contact he had was when she shouldered past him, just hard enough to knock him slightly off balance, as she continued on. Not a word. It was more of the same, and he didn't understand why. This was not the time, though. He simply followed behind, trying to bolster his strength to make this last journey.

They all headed down to where the Impala was parked and tried to psych themselves up for one more leg of the journey. Not even the sun was able to rally for this one – the sky was grey and overcast. The breeze was cold, enough to cut through any layers they were wearing. The clouds above were threatening rain, adding to the somber feeling as they headed down the drive way. If all went according to plan, they'd be back by the next afternoon. Buffy knew it was risky to hope that it would all actually go off without a hitch, but she couldn't help herself. She was more than ready to put this to bed and get back to organizing the new life here in Cleveland – and that all started with getting the gem that Willow needed.

ӁӁӁ

As tired as Buffy was of sitting in cars and long drives, she had to admit she was kind of looking forward to finally being a passenger in Dean's much beloved Impala. She had been dreaming of this ever since she heard Dean talk about his baby and saw the peaceful look on his face as he described life on the open road. This wasn't exactly the way she had pictured this moment – just the two of them, feet up on the window sill, radio playing, sunshine on her face – but this would just have to do. When this was all said and done, though, she was going to finally live that little dream of hers. They had no idea where their relationship would be after this, didn't know if they'd make it past this adventure, but Buffy figured they deserved at least one road trip that didn't center on death and destruction and the end of the world. She clasped at Dean's free hand and smiled over at him. Sure, this wasn't what she had pictured, but at least she had him.

Buffy wasn't the only inhabitant of the car to be lost in their own thoughts; everyone seemed to be in their own world as the car coasted down the long stretch of highway in front of them. Save for the quiet hint of music floating from the speakers, the car was silent. It seemed as though no one had really got any of that rest that they had cited as a reason to leave the next day. It seemed as though no one really had their heart in it today, either. Faith was in the backseat, dozing in and out while watching the lights and billboards blur by. As the rain started to fall, she watched as the drops trailed and raced down the window. Every so often she looked as though she wanted to say something, but thought better of it and stayed quiet. Next to her, Sam was curled up, as best he could be anyway, fast asleep. Despite his insistence that he was feeling fine, it was obvious that Sam was still feeling the effects of not only the toxin but whatever antidote that Willow had given him. He had nodded off as soon as he had crawled into the backseat of the Impala, and now sat with his head leaned against Faith's shoulder. When it had first happened, Faith had barely even noticed. Actually, she even seemed to enjoy it, taking extra precaution to stay as still as she could – at least one of them should get some actual rest if they could. At least, that was the rationalization she used for herself, anyway. However, the moment that Buffy or Dean looked back and noticed the arrangement, Faith was quick to put a scowl on her face – anything to make it look as though she was merely tolerating the situation. Yet still, she let him sleep.

It wasn't long before Buffy had also started to doze off. She could feel her head nodding every so often, which she fought against every time. She hadn't said much, to be sure, but she would feel bad if she dozed off and left Dean to be the only person awake. That would be a different level of loneliness altogether.

"You can doze too, ya know? It's okay," Dean said quietly.

Buffy shook her head, "no, I don't want to leave you by yourself."

"I'm pretty used to it by now. Get some rest, Buff. You've earned it."

"Ah, we're almost there anyway. Not worth it now," Buffy said as she pointed out a mile marker just up ahead.

Dean furrowed his brows. They were about five miles out from Pinedale, but they hadn't passed a single car coming in or out of the area. He hadn't really noticed it before, but now it struck him as odd. Sure, Pinedale wasn't a big place, but they were still on a major highway. Shouldn't they have seen someone? They had passed farms aplenty, but now that he thought about it, Dean couldn't remember seeing anyone out working on any of them.

"Do you remember passing any cars lately?"

Buffy shook her head, "not since the last town, no."

She, too, realized how peculiar that was. It was odd enough that it was almost impossible to simply write it off as a slow day on the highway. Even Faith, who hadn't said a word since leaving the house in Cleveland, piped up to comment on the strangeness of it. Dean switched from whatever cassette was playing to the radio and scanned the channels for anything he could find that might be local. Maybe the highway was closed up ahead? Maybe there was some sort of weather warning on that they didn't know about? They had long driven through the rain and haze, but there was a chance that it had been a much worse storm when it blew through this area. It was unlikely, but it was the only explanation he could come up with off the top of his head. What he found instead was nothing but static. No music or commercials or talk shows came through as Dean tuned through the various channels on his radio. Every station seemed to be nothing but dead air. That added another layer of strange to the mix, one that set off alarm bells for hunter and Slayer alike. Dean hit the accelerator a little harder.

By the time they rolled into Pinedale, each inhabitant of the car was wide awake and were watching intently out their respective windows. Sam had been stirred from his sleep just before reaching the town's border and filled in on the downright bizarre isolation they had been travelling in for the last hour or so. Even as they passed the border, they saw not one other car. Not one other person. The radio remained nothing but static. It all did nothing more than put them all on edge as anxiety welled up from the base of their guts. Something wasn't right. They weren't really sure what to expect when they pulled into town, but nothing could have prepared them for what they found there. It was eerie, the sight that greeted them as the Impala rolled down the main street of Pinedale. Cars lined the street: still in the lanes, stopped at red lights, stopped at green lights, parked at the curb, in the midst of turning onto another street. Shop doors were open, small signs still illuminated to show they were open for the day. A few of the wind chimes swayed in the breeze, causing a soft melody to float on the air. A stroller sat on the sidewalk, empty and with no parent in sight. And still, they saw no sign of any of the people who belonged to said cars or businesses. There was nobody within eyesight at all.

Dean slowed the car to a halt as he reached what was an impassable traffic jam of immobile cars. The group stepped out of the Impala and continued their exploration of Pinedale on foot. The cars they passed seemed to all have keys still in the ignition; the cars must have been running when they were abandoned. Of course, none were running now having long run out of fuel and battery power. Inside the shops that lined the street, the group found lights still on, tvs and radios still on. A few cash registers sat open, in the middle of a transaction. Phones were left off the hook, dial tones quietly hummed through the speakers. As they walked further into the town, they kept looking, almost desperately so, for anyone who was still around. The silence was oppressive as they wandered the streets further and further. They moved together as a group, never straying far from one another. There was no telling what it was they were wandering into it and no one felt safe enough to be on their own even with all their skill and strength. Something just didn't feel right about this place, and the further they walked, the worse the town felt. As they reached the residential streets, the eerie feeling became heavy. Haunting. A river of water ran down the gutter from houses with sprinklers running. From houses that were filling kiddie pools and washing their cars. They found tools left on driveways. Bicycles tipped over on lawns and sidewalks. Baseball bats and balls and gloves dropped wherever they'd been used.

They found windows and doors left open – like standing invitations to explore further in. Buffy took the lead, stepping through a randomly selected open door. She had chosen a house that still had a car in the driveway, the door ajar as if someone had been just getting ready to leave for their day. Or just returning home.

"Hello?" She called out, standing carefully in the front entrance.

No answer came, so she called out again. Still no response came. Next to the door, Buffy saw some hooks, three of which still had keys hanging. There were shoes strewn on the rug at the front, both adults and what were very obviously the shoes of a little kid – maybe more than one. Jackets were still hung in the closet, and a briefcase still sat next to the front door. Slowly, cautiously, Buffy pressed further into the house, but the only noise she heard was that of a kid's cartoon playing somewhere inside. She reached the kitchen first, still empty and abandoned. There were plates on the table, obviously breakfast for the family, food still on the fork. The coffee pot sat half empty, a mug waiting right next to it. The sink was full of pots and pans, left over from the previous night's dinner. The kid's cartoons were found on the living room's tv, where the floor was scattered with various toys and playthings. Upstairs, Buffy found bedrooms, the beds still unmade and lights still on. For all her searching, though, Buffy found not a single of the house's inhabitants; not even a sign or a clue of where they had gone.

The next house on the block was in about the same state as the first. And the next after that. And the next after that. And the next. One house they had to pick their way through a shallowly flooded main floor – the result of a shower being left running. In another house, they encountered the smell of something hot and found that a burner had been left on. A kettle was sat next to the stove, full of water and waiting to be boiled. One house had a load of laundry in the washer, long dried and stuck together having never made it to the dryer. House after house after house was found empty and abandoned, in various states of preparation for the day. Some with beds made, some without. Some with taps running and water flooding the building. Some with flooded lawns. Alarm clocks were blaring and radios playing. Hair straighteners were burned out, obviously left on for too long. But it didn't matter what they found or what state the houses were in, not one gave any semblance of a clue as to what had happened or where everyone had gone. There was no blood left behind. No damage to properties. No bullet holes or slashes in the walls. No bodies found. It was like everyone had just vanished – leaving everything behind completely undisturbed. It was like they all just left. Left in the middle of eating breakfast. In the middle of reading the paper. In the middle of showering. In the middle of cooking. In the middle of driving to work. In the middle of opening shop for the day. In the middle of life.

A shiver ran down Buffy's spine. There was nothing about this place that felt comfortable or safe and all she wanted to do was get away from it. Her flight response was screaming at her to run – to leave and never come back. They couldn't leave Pinedale, though, not yet anyway, but she sure as hell didn't need to keep looking through these homes, these mausoleums. She didn't need to keep seeing the signs of a life interrupted – of a life sliced with surgical preciseness. Of a life that would likely never continue.

"Let's just get what we need and get the hell out of here," Buffy said, leading the way back to where the Impala had been left.

"Shouldn't we try to figure out what hap – " Dean started.

Buffy interrupted him quickly, "this was Eve, right? Has her stink all over it. There's nothing we can do here, just like there was nothing we could do in Fort Morgan, or San Augustine, or Irving. All we can do now is get this gem and send that bitch back. You were right, okay? I get it now. It's going to happen over and over again until we stop it. And we can't stop it – her - by staying here."

Buffy looked between Dean, Sam, and Faith, a grim look on her face – one that almost looked like she had ran out of hope, out of drive. She hadn't said it in so many words, but it was clear to her traveling companions that Buffy had finally had enough. Every event, every loss, every weird beast that they had come across on this path to Eve had been another small cut to Buffy – and she couldn't take anymore. She had been dying of a thousand cuts and this one was just too much. Too deep, right to the bone. She just wanted to be done with it all and her frustration was showing. Buffy slammed the door shut behind her, the last comment she had to make.

Dean looked back to Sam and Faith, "I'll go with her, try and track down that gem. Why don't you guys take a look around? See if you can find anything that makes this all make sense."

"I got B, you should stay here with Sam – " Faith started, heading off to follow the blonde Slayer.

Dean shook his head, "nah, I got this."

She understood that he was probably not going to be willing to let her too far out of his sight for a while. Purgatory hadn't just messed with her and Buffy after all. There was no arguing with him on this one, so she may as well accept it. Faith's shoulders sunk, but she nodded in agreement anyway. With that, Dean went off in search of Buffy, leaving Sam and Faith on their own to search. Maybe this search would prove more useful than the school in Texas.

Chapter Text

Chapter Twenty-Four – Beast of Burden

"How does a town of almost two thousand people just disappear? Poof. Gone." Faith asked, picking up a stuffed bear from a little girl's bed.

"I don't know," Sam admitted, "I wanna know why we've had to ask ourselves the same question twice recently."

It was the most she had said since they had been left alone, and if it had been up to her, it was all she was going to say. She preferred the silence, to be honest, but her curiosity had become too much. Faith had been wondering the same thing as Sam since they had pulled into town. It was impossible not to link the two events together. Other than the fire that obliterated anything left behind, Pinedale and that school in Texas had a lot of similarities. People disappearing without a trace wasn't something that often happened, especially not en masse like this, so it would be hard not to draw parallels. It was more than that, though. There was something inherent that connected the two cases – something in the way the air felt. That eerie, almost haunted, feeling was all too familiar. It was a feeling that Faith hadn't been terribly excited to experience again and she couldn't wait to get the hell out of here.

With a deep breath, Faith carefully placed the teddy bear back down on the bed. She was oddly concerned with making sure that it was exactly how it had been when she found it. There was something about the ghostly state of the town that begged to be left alone – like a museum or memorial to those who once lived here. It was like she didn't want to disturb anything. Not because she thought the people would come back, but it was almost as though Faith wanted to give them the opportunity to pick up right where they left off if they did, in fact, return. Faith knew that it didn't make a lot of sense, but it seemed like Sam had the same feelings about it all as he, too, had been gentle and careful about returning items to where they belonged. They left nothing disturbed as they continued to search through the remnants of the lives lived here. Faith continued to pick through bits and pieces knowing full-well that she wasn't going to find anything of any sort of value or worth to their investigation. Sam, on the other hand, had been using some sort of scanner to try and find something that could explain how Eve was doing this. A soft-squeal would emit from the handheld device, changing in pitch as it passed through the air and picked up on some sort of supernatural signal. The equipment looked to be a modified walkie-talkie, something that both confused and amused Faith.

"What exactly is that thing?" She asked.

"What this? It scans for various signs of demons, ghosts, magic, and whatever else. Kind of like an EMF scanner."

"An old walkie-talkie can do that? Gee, I knew you were a nerd, didn't take you for a techy nerd," Faith chuckled.

Sam shook his head "actually, this is Dean's gadget. I was surprised, too."

Faith had to admit she was impressed. Having spent weeks upon weeks with the two brothers, Faith was pretty sure they had them pegged: Sam as the brains and Dean as the brawn. Sam had surprised her a few times now: he was just as capable in the field as his big brother, he was strong and clever and could handle himself. Now she was finding out that Dean was a hell of a lot smarter than he let on. It was almost as if he was hiding that fact. It made people underestimate him, just like she had underestimated Sam in battle. Those Winchester boys were just full of surprises; they were definitely more than eye candy.

"Well, is that thing finding anything?" Faith asked as she continued to look for whatever she thought she'd find.

"No," Sam sighed, "nothing useful anyway. I'm not really sure what I was hoping for with this thing, but it was worth a try I guess."

Even still, they continued to search. There seemed to be no sense of hope or reason to continue to pick through the abandoned houses, the empty shops, the ghostly streets, but what else could they do? At least this way they were doing something that felt productive – felt useful. Really, though, neither of them were relishing in their time being spent here. Being surrounded by evidence of all the lives that were lived here, all the happiness and normality that was experienced here, and knowing that had all come to an abrupt halt was hard to take. Knowing that, wherever these people all were now, they were suffering; they didn't go to a better place, of that they were sure. This entire town was now inhabited by the ghosts of these people – the ghost of the lives denied to them due to Eve's intervention. It was true that, no matter what they did, there was no way to save everyone all the time. Both Faith and Sam had long come to that conclusion and, in their own way, learned to cope with it. Somehow it didn't make this moment any easier.

With every artifact found, with every house searched, questions and thoughts tumbled through the brunette Slayer's mind. Faith couldn't help but wonder what