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Forever Bonds

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The bullpen was eerily silent. Cat’s shoes squeaked on the linoleum floor as she wove between unmanned desks. She’d expected Jane to be there. Working.

Working? Really? Tara’s good-natured mockery lit the bond.

Cat scowled. “I didn’t exactly plan to beat the entire squad today.” Jane was always the first one in the door and often the last one out, too. “I don’t even know which desk is mine.” As soon as she spoke, Cat wanted to take the words back. Dear Fate, she sounded like a five-year old.

Luckily, the two women entwined in her mind didn’t call her out. Much. Stiff upper lip, tiger, Faith told her as two pairs of mental arms wrapped around her.

No one mentions how much bonds can suck, Cat answered back. All she wanted was to turn around, flag down a cab, and crawl back into bed with her mistresses. Pretty much the same thing she’d been doing every day of their combination bonding and collaring leave. With a deep breath and a silent apology, she slid a barrier over their connection. Not a full-on block. Warmth continued to surround her. Enough to function. See you tonight.

The squad room was even emptier now that she was along in her mind. Cat stalked (she refused to acknowledge how her steps more resembled stomping) to Jane’s desk and dropped into the battered chair. The wheels squeaked and the faux leather sagged in places.

“Maura keeps threatening to buy me a new chair.” Jane’s voice, coming from the shadows behind Cat, caused her to start in surprise. “From the look on your face, I should let her.” She walked up and dumped an armful of files onto the desk. “You’re a sight for sore eyes.”

“At least I slept in recent memory.” Between bouts of incredible sex, but Cat didn’t mention that part. “You look like shit. The bags under your eyes permanent?”

Jane curled a lip at Cat. “You’ll be the same way in less than a week.” She gripped Cat’s shoulder and manhandled her out of the chair. “Sit over there,” she said, pointing toward Frost’s adjoining workstation. “Frost finally decided to accept that promotion Cav’s been offering.”

“What the hell?” Cat stared at Jane in mingled confusion and disbelief. “I’m gone a couple of months and the whole unit changes. You gonna tell me Korsak retired now?”

Shuffling the files and avoiding Cat’s eyes, Jane didn’t immediately respond.

“Fuck!” Cat dropped into Frost’s…her desk chair.

“You’ve been spending too much time with that Southie lady of yours. And I haven’t retired.” Korsak strolled into the bullpen and pulled Cat into a bear hug. “Jane’s pouting because Frost chose a computer as a partner over her. I mentioned retiring one time in passing and she decided I was going to pack it up tomorrow.”

Korsak thinks I spend too much time with you, Cat told Faith without waiting for a reaction. “So you aren’t leaving? If you are, change your mind. Otherwise, Cav’ll think I’m the Summer Glau of the squad.”

His bellow of laughter filled the room. “Welcome home, kid. Tell those ladies of yours Dana has plans for a get-together as soon as we catch this latest bastard.”

Welcome home. Cat settled into the chair. Looked around the squad room. At the cluttered desks and chipped paint on the walls. “I’m here now. Shouldn’t take long,” she told Korsak, “polishing” her nails on her shirt. “After all, I single-handedly took down the Legion.”

Before she could continue boasting, Jane tossed several of the files Cat had noticed earlier onto Cat’s desk. “Put up or shut up, Legion Killer.”

And so it began. Cat left her desk for a cup of black sludge from the nearby coffee machine before digging into the information Jane had given her. “I thought you’d all still be working on the Bloodsucker fallout,” she murmured as she stared at a shockingly brutal series of crime scene photos.

“Bumped up to Organized Crime.” Korsak straightened his tie, piles of paper spread on the normally-pristine surface of his desk. “You caught the killers.” His wink was timed perfectly so that Jane couldn’t catch it, and Cat bit back a grin at the sour expression his comment gained from the other woman. “All the bookwork and money-chasing belongs to the white collar guys.”

At least Cat and the team had gotten the glory first. Only Frost would have enjoyed digging into the complex funding and black market connections. “Murder never stops,” she answered. Reaching into her backpack, Cat pulled out some of the supplies she’d removed from her old station. Pens (her lip twitched at the rainbow-hued colors), a couple of spiral notebooks, a box of nitrile gloves, a small digital camera, and a mismatched collection of flash drives.

***

Tara shifted and bit back a sigh. Over ten years of Council reforms didn’t make the briefings less mind-numbing. The young Watcher at the front of the conference table handled his tablet and the projection screen behind him with aplomb.

His voice was nasally and droning. His comments inane and not worth her time. She stood. Unfortunately, the Watcher didn’t notice. He simply continued to lecture the assembled Senior Witches and Senior Slayers. “We are still unclear on the size or location of the threat.”

Unclear. It was a common theme. “The Legion fell a month ago,” Tara announced. “Yet you have no new information. I’ve seen the reports.” Pored over them with Faith and Willow (via Skype). “Why is that?”

“Ms. Maclay.” The Watcher – what was his name? – stared at her in obvious shock.

The man’s name hit Tara in a flash of memory just in time. Being able to speak to him personally would hopefully give her scolding more weight. “Eric,” he had lost the privilege of a title, “we’re done here.”

Several of the Senior Slayers at the table sagged in relief.

“You called an emergency meeting of all senior staff in the region,” Tara snapped. “The most important people in three states. For what?” Her right hand rose in a sweeping motion. “Nothing. Absolutely nothing. This meeting was a waste of time. You took Slayers and Witches from key positions and spent four hours reviewing the same data we’ve all been studying for weeks. Who ordered this meeting?”

“I…well, I…” Eric floundered.

One of the Slayers stood. “You got the same call out we did.” Everyone else at the table began to move as well. “Priority meeting of all Regional Senior Staff. Only two people in the Region have that kind of power.”

Tara had asked the question for effect. She met the Slayer’s gaze impatiently. “Since Buffy didn’t order the meeting, that leaves your boss, Eric.” The Senior Watcher in the New England Region. Tara had never met her in person. “Get her on the line.”

Most of the meeting attendees who’d started to leave resumed their seats, all more interested in this conversation than the previous one.

“That wasn’t a request.” All of Tara’s lingering politeness disappeared at Eric’s lack of action. He scrambled toward the polycom phone in the middle of the table. “Oh, and I’d like you to conference in Buffy, Willow, and Giles.” She could see the tremor in his fingers as he began jabbing at the touchscreen. I might be a little longer than I thought, she told Faith through the bond.

Need me to spring you, T? Laughter lit the thought. Sure I can come up with a reason to drag you out. An image of Faith draped naked over the end of their bed forced the air from Tara’s lungs.

You’ll pay for that, my Slayer. Tara had to pull a curtain across the bond to the mental sound of Faith’s husky laugh.

Her inattention had allowed Eric a chance to recover some of his moxie. “Ma’am, Ms. Maclay made me call you.” More than a hint of whine turned his voice shrill.

“Senior Watcher, thank you for taking my call.” Pushing Faith’s teasing completely out of mind, Tara strode to the table. “I’m afraid there were some questions during the emergency session. Let me just bring in a few other people.” She hit the “Flash” button and dialed Buffy’s personal cell phone.

Two rings later, Xander answered. “Tara? Hey! We haven’t…”

Cutting him off with a silent apology, Tara said. “Is Buffy there? I have a situation and I need her on the call for a few minutes.”

“Yeah. Yeah, she’s just in the shower. Hang on; I’ll go get her.” He was all business.

“I’m going to pull in Willow, too. Don’t hang up if I’m not on the line when Buffy is ready.” Tara hit the “Flash” button again, leaving Xander, Buffy, and the Senior Watcher in conference call limbo.

Giles and Willow were easier. Both were in Scotland at the International HQ. With a sense of triumph, she sat down in the chair Eric had used during his lecture. “Sorry to bother all of you,” she announced. “We’ve got a problem in Boston.” That wasn’t right. Now that she was on a roll, Tara realized she was still angry over the Boston HQ’s inability to gather solid information about the Legion and its connections with local vampires. Their incompetence had put Cat at risk. “Actually, in the whole region.”

“What do you need?” Tara smiled at Buffy’s immediate response.

“An investigation into recent personnel decisions as well as a review of all actions taken by the Senior Watcher. I’m sitting at a table with every single Senior-level Watcher and Slayer in the New England Region – and I have no idea why.” Scanning the room, she noticed a few shocked expressions (including Eric’s). Most of her counterparts were nodding in agreement, though.

“Giles? Will? Any objections? I know we’re stretched tight right now,” Buffy said.

There was a brief pause. “What gives you the right to question my decisions?” The Senior Watcher suddenly came alive on the call.

“You mean something other than the fact Tara’s the highest-ranking witch in the US?” Willow asked. “Oh, not to mention that rank isn’t even your biggest problem at the moment. ‘Cause Tara’s an Adept.” The ever-present typing sounds that followed Willow everywhere emanated from the room’s speakers. “And once I send her this file of memos and emails I lifted from your Council accounts, you’re going to be praying to every deity you can think of that she doesn’t turn you into a rat.”

Angry huffs and sputtering overrode the typing noises. Tara didn’t notice. She was wrapped up in Willow’s sharp voice and the news there were irregularities with the Senior Watcher. “Willow?”

“I know you aren’t at a laptop, Tara,” Willow answered. “I’ll fill you in, though.”

Before that happened, Giles and Buffy jumped into the conversation. “What have you found?” Giles first. “I’m already drafting a personnel change request.”

“Do I need to head back to Boston?” Buffy, always ready to personally involve herself in any Council hotspots.

“Don’t fire up the jet yet, Buffy,” Willow answered. “I mean, Tara’s got the top Slayers in the Region with her. Plus, I’m sure Faith would be more than happy to protect her – not that she’ll need to. Senior Watcher Featley can’t do more than throw a tantrum now. I’ve frozen all of her Council access and sent an electronic personnel request. Giles, I hacked your account. It always takes you forever to fill out the forms. You type slower than you drive.”

Not even the solemnity of the moment prevented the laughter at Giles’ expense. Chuckles came from the conference call and from the conference room. “Perhaps I’ll have a conversation with the head of Global Information Systems and Security. Hacking into my account should surely require more time and effort. What do you think, Ms. Rosenberg?”

“Ah, your Head Hacker’s pretty busy, Giles. Don’t rely on her to help you stop me.” Willow’s voice was chirpy then it sobered as she continued. “Tara, I’m really sorry I didn’t catch any of this when I was in Boston.”

A loud bang exploded from the speakers. The Senior Slayer shouted something that was overridden by a curt voice, “By order of Director Summers, you’ve been removed from your current position as Senior Watcher in Charge of the New England Region and detained for questioning.”

“Something you forgot to mention, Will?” Buffy asked.

“Oops!” Tara could easily imagine Willow’s gamin grin. “I sort of arranged for Watcher Featley to be arrested. You’d have done it, too, if you’d read the crazy stuff she’s done.”

One of the Slayers in the conference room spoke up. “What, exactly, did you find?”

Good question. Tara settled into the hard, uncomfortable chair and waited for Willow to flood the call with facts.

Chapter Text

“I must have dozed off.” One of the Senior Slayers, Tara thought she was from one of the DC-area HQs, mumbled. The girl played with a strand of braided hair, staring dazedly at Willow’s image on the screen. “You didn’t just say the Lead Tweed was part of the Legion.”

Willow grimaced on the massive LED screen at the front of the room. “Well…not part of. Exactly.” Her hands waved as she started to break down her earlier explanation. “I mean, Watcher Featley wasn’t listed on the Legion membership lists. We would have discovered that a long time ago. She just seems to have done favors for them.”

The Slayer surged to her feet. Tara wanted to do the same; however, she was too busy grappling with enough anger to possibly level the entire Boston HQ if she didn’t regain emotional control. “I don’t fucking care if she had a membership card!” Striding forward, the Slayer planted herself in front of the screen. “The bitch pulled all of us away from our posts. With all the recent personnel changes – which fucking Featley arranged, too – my HQ’s being run by a first-year Watcher and a handful of Juniors that just got promoted to Wing leaders.”

A chorus of “mine, too!” came from the rest of the Slayers at the table.

Dread wrapped leaden tentacles around Tara’s heart. Faith! I need you at the conference. She rarely asked Faith to attend Senior-level meetings. Faith’s rank and experience hadn’t worn away her Slayer’s dislike of sitting in one place or lessened the chances of a Dark Faith appearance. Today was definitely an exception. “Buffy, we need to get backup to the Region.”

“I’m already working on it.” Expression grim, Buffy’s attention was off-screen. “I’ve got calls out to any House or HQ within a three-hour travel radius.”

“Widen the scope.” Tara grabbed for her own phone even as she met Willow’s gaze on-screen. “I’m scrambling all available witches, too.” Change in plans, she said via the bond with Faith. Get every single magic user in Boston to the Main Hall! I don’t care if you have to pull in fortune tellers from the Psychic Network.

There was no verbal response, simply a wave of determination and worry.

“We’re going to started teleporting Senior Slayers back to the largest HQs. Giles, make a priority list. We won’t be able to move everyone, and I need to know who goes first.” Tara didn’t wait for anyone to tell her how insane her plan was. Instead, she called the High Priestess of Boston’s largest coven.

***

“Sam!” Faith was glad the kid was the first Junior she spotted as she sprinted down the tenth-floor hallway. “Get the Wings moving. I need every Slayer, Watcher, even the fucking cleaning crew for this one.”

Eyes wide, Sam nodded then bolted.

“Get ‘em in the Main Hall!” she shouted after Sam. Not that Faith had any idea how the hell they were supposed to force Boston witches to come to the Council. Even when she’d been new to the Council, it had been clear most “good” witches already worked with the Slayers and Watchers. Anyone left over…well, Tara’s comment on fortune tellers wasn’t far off. Skeazy fuckers who promised grieving family members they could talk to the dearly departed or made Love Potions.

But Tara had ordered. And Tara, using her Lady Tara voice, got anything she wanted as far as Faith was concerned. Shoving open the office door on her left (her original destination), she headed past the secretary manning a small desk on one side of the room.

“Hey! You don’t have…” The boy was cute and built but couldn’t match Faith no matter how hard he tried. She ducked his outstretched hand.

Willow’s Boston minion didn’t look up when Faith barged in. “Don’t speak,” the burly, bearded man behind the massive, paper-strewn workstation snarled. “I think there’s a bald patch on one side of my face from when my boss used her laser vision over the internet.”

“Guess you didn’t get the memo about your boss then. The rest of us already know. Willow’s a bitch when the world’s about to end.” Faith didn’t sit down. She needed to be downstairs in the Main Hall to corral the Juniors and support staff. “Unlucky day for ya’ since I’m close enough to hit ya’, and Willow can only yell over the phone.” His head popped up. “Gimme a list of all witches worth a fuck in the city. Start with the ones we can drag here in the next thirty minutes.”

His expression was absolutely unimpressed. “I once laughed when a Watcher mentioned most Slayers couldn’t think their way out of a paper bag. Thanks for proving that uptight asshole right.”

Faith took a threatening step forward at the insult.

“What do you think Willow was having a high-speed come-apart over?” Faith stopped her advance. “Her typing skills rival Slayer speed. She beat you here by a good fifteen minutes. The list is on the printer, and I sent an electronic copy to you, Willow, Mr. Giles, and every Senior Slayer in the Region.”

“Uh…” Feeling like an idiot, Faith rubbed the back of her neck.

A dimple popped up under the man’s beard on the left side. “Get the list. Get out.” The dimple deepened. “Or my boss will call back. My girl happens to love my beard. She’d try to take Willow on if Willow managed to really heat-vision it off.”

Faith snorted. “And ya’ don’t want that ‘cause then Janna’d get involved.”

“Exactly.” A thick finger pointed at the printer sitting on a bookcase near the door. “List. Go.”

Shaking her head, Faith did as he’d ordered. “Thanks. You need help with Will, let me know. I got a personal connection with a witch who can beat her with one hand tied behind her back.” The man’s laughter followed Faith out of the office.

It was the only humor about any part of the Council’s current situation. Faith descended into a Hellmouth of confusion, egos, and burgeoning panic in the Main Hall. Junior Slayers from Boston stood toe to toe with Senior Slayers who’d arrived for the bogus conference. Witches and bangle-wearing gypsies stood shoulder to shoulder in every corner. Ripples of magical energy sparked the air.

Faith’s patience was shot before she’d taken more a single stride into the massive open room. Sticking two fingers into her mouth, she whistled, the sound slicing through the shouts and attitudes. “Yo, T! Where ya’ want the troops?”

In the deepest, darkest hole you can find, Tara’s mental voiced snarled. Out loud, though, the response was delivered in Tara’s usual cool calm. “We’re about to do the first transport. Would you please move everyone away from the Magic Crew?” Faith might not be able to see Tara in the mass of people in the hall, but telling a witch from a Slayer (or even a Watcher) wasn’t difficult. The smell of patchouli alone was enough.

“On it, boss.” Shoving – gently, of course – Faith maneuvered two Watchers. “If ya’ ain’t wearing sandals, move your asses. Now!” She glared at two Junior Slayers. “And if you work for me, you should be hittin’ the streets. All the Wing leaders and Seniors got the list of people we need. Go find them and get out of the way of the real work!”

The crowd thinned immediately. Faith didn’t stop scanning the room, though. She and Tara hadn’t been in Boston long. There were pockets of angry and resentful Seniors still stationed at the HQ. Girls who’d been expecting to take over the day-to-day operation of the massive facility.

Girls who were doomed to disappointment. Faith had never wanted to run anything. Not even a tiny House in the middle of nowhere like Sunnydale. Life or Fate or sheer bad luck had spit on Faith’s lack of ambition. Buffy had laughed her fool head off and promptly told Faith to get the lead out of her ass and fix the HQ that had somehow managed to miss a Vampire Master rising to power down the street.

“Who’s first, T?” Faith finally spotted Tara. She was seated on the floor, legs bent up and crossed in a way that made Faith’s muscles hurt just seeing it.

Tara barely glanced up. That’s when Faith heard the murmur of chanting. Saw the glitter of salt on the floor.

She stopped talking and froze in place. The Magick was already underway. Faith cursed under her breath. She’d been so fucking distracted she’d nearly walked into a warded Circle.

A warded Circle with enough Power flowing to suddenly set Faith’s teeth on edge. Pressure built behind her eyes and between her ears. A thousand times worse than take-off in an airplane. The full, pushing increased until Faith ineffectively slapped hands over her ears. Until a scream rose in her throat.

With a sharp, soundless explosion, the pressure dissipated – and the Slayer in the Circle with Tara was gone. There was another Slayer hovering outside the salt marker. A wave of Tara’s hand, a slight fluoresce of blue light, and the new Slayer jumped over the salt ward and inside.

Chanting. Pressure. Fuck! Faith reeled under the repetition.

So, apparently, was Cat. What the…going on? Head…I can’t…Disjointed words flowed sluggishly through the bond.

Fuck! Faith chanced a look at Tara. Face ghostly white. Lined with strain and sweat. Leakage was normal at this level. Even an Adept couldn’t completely close the bond while handling raw Power.

Faith was kind of used to it. Now. After a million years with a witch sharing her head. No time to explain, Faith responded. Knowing Cat needed more information than she could possibly give at the moment, she stuck to curt orders. She’d have to smooth any ruffled feathers over once they survived the current shit storm. Close the bond. Now, tiger. Close it and don’t open it no matter what. Suiting actions to words, Faith did her best to completely cover the link to Cat.

The lack of connection  - and the knowledge that Cat wouldn’t understand being locked out – added to the pounding in Faith’s head. She stumbled under the increased onslaught. There was no time to collapse or recover. A callused hand grabbed her arm.

“We’ve got trouble.” Beka, the oldest of the Boston Senior Slayers, announced.

“No shit.” Faith wrenched her arm away, nearly capsizing in the process. Her balance was still off. Her legs shaky and her head whirling. “’Case you missed it, the witches are beaming people all over the fucking place.”

“I wish that was our only issue.” Beka’s tone was so serious that it pulled Faith through the pain and nausea.

A new sprinkle of fear edged Faith’s emotions.

The Senior turned away. “Buffy needs you in the conference room.”

The world was ending. Faith was sure of it now. Buffy didn’t need Faith unless the world was about to be sucked into a Hellmouth. She used a burst of speed to clear the Main Hall. Five flights of stairs and a warren of hallways later, Faith skidded to a stop in front of the large, circular conference table. Buffy’s image took up the entire screen at the end.

“We were too late,” the image said.

“Too late for what?” Faith didn’t really want to know.

Buffy’s face disappeared. What replaced her on the display would haunt Faith’s nightmares forever.

Bodies of young girls. Slayers. Baby fucking Slayers. All dead. Slaughtered. The screen splintered into a dozen images. Different backgrounds. Faith recognized some of them. Rooms from HQs in New York, Baltimore, and DC.

“How…” The rest of the question stuck in her throat.

“I missed it, Faith,” Buffy answered. Self-loathing dripped from every word. Words that sprang from the speakers lining the conference room. The screen went blank, the horrific pictures gone but not replaced. “All the transfer notices. Dozens of them over the last year. Most of them moving people who weren’t qualified into critical positions. I didn’t check over any of them. I didn’t even see the mountain of complaints that poured in from Slayers or Watchers already at those HQs.”

The Legion? How long had they been around? What the fuck was their endgame? This wasn’t an overnight arrangement. “We ain’t got time to wallow, B.” Faith heard the waver in her own voice. She wanted to wallow as much as Buffy. They were two of the oldest and most experienced Slayers left on the Council. They should have seen this coming. They hadn’t, and hundreds of people had died. “We have to find who did this, and we have to figure out why. What happened in Boston with Master Phillip… This is way the fuck bigger.”

An incoming call notification blinked in one corner of the screen. Faith numbly reached out and pressed the button to answer. “Hello?” The voice on the other end of the call didn’t wait for Faith to say anything. “I hope you can hear me.” Faith’s hand knotted on the tabletop. The voice was so fucking young. Young and shaky and terrified.

This wasn’t going to be good. Muscles taut, Faith braced for…whatever horror the kid on the phone would reveal.

She still wasn’t ready.

“Someone’s here.” The voice grew soft. The next words a mere whisper. “I don’t know who.”

Throat burning, Faith responded in a similarly soft voice. “Is there..is there anyone with you?” Was Faith going to have to listen to this little girl die? She couldn’t. She couldn’t stand here and do nothing.

“Three of us are hiding.” The words devolved into a sniffle.

The sound broke something in Faith. “Where are you?” Her question was louder. Harshly demanding. Driven by fear and anger. “Which HQ?” She’d run all the fucking way there if she had to.

When there was no response, Faith slapped a shaking hand over her mouth. “Buffy?” There had to be a way to figure out where the baby Slayer was from.

“I’m tracing the…” Buffy’s voice started, only to be cut off.

“Camden House,” the little girl whispered.

Faith shouted over her shoulder as she ran from the room. “I’m on the way, kid. Don’t you dare get killed before I get there.” She shoved people out of her way as she used every bit of speed she could muster on the way back to the witches.

Ignoring the pulse of Power that bore into her mind, Faith crossed the Main Hall in a blur. “Sam!” She didn’t even know if the Junior was nearby. If the kid was there, she’d hear. If not, someone else better step the fuck up. “I need a loaded up squad at Tara’s Circle yesterday! We’re going in hot.”

There were two Slayers standing at the Circle now. Seniors, not Juniors. Seniors trying desperately to save their own Houses or HQs. Faith jumped line. The baby Slayer in Camden House was getting help first. “Take down the Circle, T!” Faith ignored years of training and opened their bond to its fullest. Open the fucking door. Now!

Exhaustion and pain blew through the bond. Wait…a minute.

They didn’t have a minute. Faith’s hand rose, almost touching the invisible wall of Magick cutting her off from Tara. She counted five. Ten. Fifteen seconds.

Come in.

Faith did – and yanked the two Seniors with her. Five other Slayers, one of them Sam, surged into the Circle, too.

Tara met Faith’s gaze. Blood trickled sluggishly from Tara’s nose. Crimson droplets marked a few spots beneath solid-blue eyes. “We can’t send all of you.”

“You can.” Faith pointed to the street witches that had been dragged to the HQ. “Add ‘em to the Power Pack. Whatever ya’ got to do,” she snapped. For once, she didn’t buckle beneath Lady Tara’s Dominance. Faith had a mission and no one was standing in her way.

One of Tara’s hands rose. “I need every witch we can fit inside the Circle.”

People scrambled to obey. Faith and the rest of the Slayers stood shoulder to shoulder, bunched in a tight pack. As the chanting and Magick started, Faith filled in her army. “Unknown attackers at Camden. Most of the HQ’s probably down. Be ready for anything.”

The Magick peaked. The world thinned then disappeared in a swirl of blinding colors.

Chapter Text

The magic portal vomited Faith and her band of Slayer into hell. Over a decade of cemeteries, demons, and saving the world hadn’t prepared Faith for the carnage in the main living area of Camden House. Her stomach heaved. The weapons in each hand wavered.

“Holy fuck!” Sam breathed – and then puked. One of the other Senior Slayers steadied the younger girl. Faith was too busy trying not to follow suit.

Slayers and Watchers lay helter-skelter around the space. Their killers hadn’t bothered with the usual tools of the trade for the Council. No arrows. No knife wounds. Gaping wounds marked the path of bullets rather than crossbow bolts.

The coppery stench of blood mixed with the even less pleasant scent of bodily fluids and death. “Suck it up, kid,” Faith snapped. She was too on edge for even a semblance of control. “We have to move. Spread out. Groups of two. Search every fucking room under every fucking pillow.”

Face ghostly white with bright spots of red on each cheek, Sam wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. “I’m with you.” She met Faith’s gaze.

“Let’s rock and roll, Junior.” Faith was barely aware of anything other than the horror around her, the need to find the baby Slayer and her friends, and the desire to kill anything or anyone involved in what had happened at Camden House. “Stick close. Keep your eyes and ears open.”

A hallway at one end of the large room held a collection of doorways. A staircase sat at the end. That was Faith’s destination. With Sam trailing like a cartoon shadow, she crept in that direction. Doors opened in succession behind her. The other teams following her orders.

One way or another, they were finding the kids and getting the fuck back to Boston. Who would have thought Faith would ever consider Boston her safe haven? Her footsteps brushed along the carpeted runner on the stairs, following the flattened pile that spoke of a million pairs of feet rushing along the same path.

A path that was dotted with blood. The handrail was liberally smeared with it. So much blood it had dripped from the rail to the spindles and dried in irregular drops. A Watcher sprawled on the first landing, eyes staring sightlessly up the next set of stairs where it climbed to the second floor. The Legion had done its job. The Watcher had been old. Paunchy. His hands, as Faith observed on her way by, soft. He hadn’t used a weapon in forever. A completely useless figure in a fight, just like the Legion had planned. Like the fucking bitch in charge of the Region arranged.

The second floor was worse than the first. Not the body count. No. Only a few Slayers sprawled unmoving on the carpet.

It was the way they lay. Face down. In pools of blood. They hadn’t been running to fight off the attackers. They’d been fleeing. Running from whoever or whatever had attacked the House. Faith knelt and gently turned the first body over.

The Junior Slayer was barely old enough to have been trained to use the dagger Faith found trapped between the body and the floor.

A choked sob spun Faith around. “Ah, kid.” Sam’s hand was pressed over her mouth. She was still vampire-pale. Faith understood. She desperately wanted to curl up at Tara’s feet and hug Cat close. Wipe the sights and smells in this House from her memory.

Faith couldn’t do that. The baby Slayer and any other survivor in Camden House needed her – and by extension Sam – to Slayer-up. “Don’t make me sorry I chose you as my wingman, Junior. Figured you had what it took after you saved Cat. Was I wrong?”

She could see Sam’s chin jerk upward at the curt question. “I’m fine.” The wavering voice and shaky grip Faith noticed on Sam’s dagger indicated otherwise.

Faith didn’t call Sam on the lie. Instead, she nodded in approval. Let that approval paint her voice as she responded, “Trust you to have my back, kid.” Skirting the next two bodies, Faith shoved open the first door. A bedroom. Bunk beds took up most of the room. Two desks had been built into the space under the top bunk. Papers and books covered the light gray carpeting. No blood. No bodies.

No baby Slayers.

At least, none Faith could see. “You feel anything?” Faith’s senses were still clanging with the shock of Tara’s Magick. She wouldn’t be able to feel an army of baby Slayers or demons an inch from her nose.

Expression now locked into grim determination, Sam nodded. “Yeah. Not here, though. I…I don’t think. It’s weird. Muted? Like someone turned the volume all the way down but the bass is still rumbling.”

Faith stepped back. “Follow it.”

Sam sprang out of the room. Faith trailed her, weapons still drawn and ready. Like Shaggy and Scooby hunting a ghost in a haunted fucking castle, she dogged Sam’s heels in and out of the rooms along the hallway. At the fifth door, near the end of the hallway, Sam took a deep breath. “This one,” she said.

All Faith could do was trust. Sam dropped back while Faith put a hand on the doorknob. She didn’t lunge inside. Scared baby Slayers with weapons didn’t mix. Faith didn’t want to end up a pincushion.

The door opened silently, as had all the others. This room was pristine. Not a wrinkle in the bedspreads or a book crooked on the short shelves. Faith turned her head and raised an eyebrow at Sam. She’d been practicing that move to use on Cat.

Too bad Cat wasn’t there. Sam didn’t wilt under the expression. She shrugged. “This is the place. I swear.”

The Council, especially the Old Council, had a thing for hidden rooms. The whole rescue mission was getting more and more Scooby Doo by the minute. If there had been candlesticks on the desks or sconces on the wall, Faith would have been yanking them in hopes of a sliding wall panel. “Hey, kid,” she called out instead. “It’s Faith. Told ya’ I’d be here. Can you hear me?”

There was no sound. Not really. Faith didn’t hear anything. She felt it instead. Not the twinge of Slayer senses but an ethereal shudder of relief. Sam was right. The remaining Camden House crew was in this room somewhere.

Faith closed her eyes. Centered the way Tara had taught her all those years ago in Sunnydale. “Don’t mock me, Slayer,” she’d said with a grin. “It is completely possible to stop thinking. It takes practice. Push everything out until you feel the silence inside. Then, when all that quiet takes over, you’ll be able to…reach out. To find things, inside and outside, that you can’t always see with your eyes.”

It took longer than Faith liked to find that quiet place. Urgency crawled through her veins alongside a need to find the Legion and punish them for what they’d done at Camden House and the other Council locations. She kept trying to use her short-circuited Slayer senses. Listened for the footsteps of the other Slayers who’d come from Boston.

Slowly, though, Faith managed to shove her awareness of the real world away. A heavy blanket of peace and quiet draped her mind. For one breath. Two.

That’s when Faith realize where the survivors of Camden House were.

Right under her nose. “It’s OK, kid. Drop the spell. We’re here to take care of you.” Faith sheathed her sword and dagger, turning to face the shadowed corner between the foundation of the tallest bunk bed and the far wall.

A corner that seemed to repel the light. A corner that Faith had to struggle to look at, as her brain insisted there were other places and things to see.

Without warning, the shadows slipped away. Three tiny as fuck Slayers huddled next to an equally-tiny boy. He clutched a crystal shard in his right hand, and blood dripped from his nose and both ears.

“Call 911,” Faith snapped. The Council didn’t have the resources to send in magical specialists and combat psychologists. The local hospital would have to do. Faith stepped forward. Four bodies met her, arms locking around her with desperate strength. “You did good,” she told them over and over again.

 

***

“Everything OK?” Jane didn’t glance in Cat’s direction, but Cat knew her new partner was closely observing her.

There was no way Cat was giving a truthful answer. “Yeah, just… you know, trying to get back in the groove.” It was an acceptable lie.

Acceptable if your partner wasn’t a police detective. “Sure. I remember when me and Maura went back to work. It sucks, but she kept reaching through the bond so I wouldn’t shoot Crow.” The car stopped at a red light, and now Jane’s piercing stare hit Cat hard. “Pretty fucking sure I didn’t look like I hadn’t heard from my Domme all day.”

Cat prayed her poker face held. “Pretty sure I don’t, either,” she responded. She silently dared Jane to call her out more.

The light turned green, and Jane stepped on the accelerator. Halfway through the intersection, she laughed. “Didn’t we have this conversation once before?”

A reluctant smile pulled at Cat’s lips. “It does sound vaguely familiar. You don’t trust me, partner. Hope that changes or this new job is going suck big time.” Not that she had necessarily done much to earn Jane’s trust. Meeting Faith during the Bloodsucker case had set Cat back on her heels. She’d been off-kilter (at best) and a complete maverick (at the worst). Now she was hiding the throbbing headache and nausea from the leakage in her link with Tara and Faith.

Something big was happening with the Council. Faith’s blunt order just before Cat’s Junior Dominant had slammed the link closed had been rife with fear. Faith was never afraid. Angry, yes. In fact, usually. But not afraid. Cat’s muscles twitched with the need to run back to the HQ. To do whatever it took to protect Faith.

It was Tara, though, who occupied most of Cat’s attention. From raw power that had sparked through the link until Cat had wondered if she was glowing to a completely black wasteland of sheer nothing. Almost as if the bond had been severed the way Cat’s original bond with Faith had broken.

Cat was functioning. Barely. Only because she’d spent years as a Red Cuff. Experience allowed her to keep putting one foot in front of the other. Responding to the people and situations around her.

But inside…inside, Cat was a terrified little girl, screaming for Faith. For Tara. Needing their thoughts and emotions. Their love. Their support. What was happening to Faith? Was she hurt? In trouble? Where was Tara? Tara was Cat’s rock. Calm and collected in the face of whatever Fate threw their way.

Now Tara was gone. Cat couldn’t reach her. Couldn’t feel her.

Panic sat like a lead balloon in the pit of her stomach. She locked her muscles, refusing to let her emotions show through twitches or tells. Jane was too sharp. The other woman would immediately know that something was wrong and that Cat had lied.

“Not you,” Jane mumbled. “I blame Maura. She’s got me…I don’t know…caring about people and shit.”

Cat laughed. She couldn’t help it. Jane looked completely devastated at the realization. “You’re a cop. I think that comes with the territory.”

A bevy of flashing lights ahead derailed the rest of their conversation. Both of them sobered as Jane navigated through the radio cars and unmarked sedans already parked outside a large building.

This case was going to suck, Cat thought as she climbed out of the car. Murder was never pretty. But a murder like this one was guaranteed to be a fucking mess.

Sure enough, a reporter dodged one of the uniformed officers lining the perimeter of the crime scene. “Detective McClaren,” why couldn’t the weasel-y little bastard head for Jane, “do you have any leads?”

In the background, Cat picked up the sound of chanting. On the other side of the street, protestors with picket signs screamed comments in unison. “Let the pots run dry. No more Honey Houses. Let the pots run dry…”

Expression shuttering, Cat shouldered past the reporter. “No comment.” She stalked into the building with Jane hard on her heels.

Despite the hoopla outside, it was quiet and serene inside. Soft music played from hidden speakers, detracting from the squawk of distant, unseen police radios, and the lighting was lowered. Like a restaurant after five, encouraging intimacy. No one was naked or dressed in short, satin robes, and there wasn’t a single erotic painting or statue anywhere in the lobby.

“I was expecting something different,” Jane muttered.

Cat didn’t answer, even though she had been, too. Academies for Dominant/submissive Relief were legendary. Licensed (the legal ones) places for single Dominants or submissives to go for companionship and dynamic training classes. They’d been dubbed Honey Houses by the lurid tabloid press.

“Bet they pulled all the red velvet down before we got here.” Cat saw two women coming their way. “Looks like the welcome wagon’s here.”

“Detectives.” The younger of the two women held out her hand. A thin gold collar ringed her neck, displayed by the wide neckline of her tunic. “I’m Jasmine. This is my Academy.”

Cat tuned out Jane’s standard apology for Jasmine’s loss. Her attention went inward, probing inside the bond.

Still nothing. Only silence. Faith! Her mental scream echoed in her mind, and the bright lobby became filled with dancing black dots. Cat struggled to breathe.

“McClaren?” Jane’s voice caused Cat to flinch. “Let’s go. VJ’s going to show us the crime scene.”