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“Oof,” Faith grunted, as the unexpected blow knocked her on her back.  But she was back up in a heartbeat, not ready to back down.  Instead, she kept a sultry grin across her lips as she moved back in towards her opponent, bare feet moving with precision and arms up in a defensive posture.  “That the best ya got?” she teased, waggling her eyebrows suggestively.

“Oh please, like I don’t know you’re just trying to cover up the fact that I caught you off guard just now.”  The retort was taunting but playful.  Faith made her move in an instant, but she put any effort into masking her intentions.  The two traded a couple of soft blows that were easily blocked, both of them analyzing the other’s stance and movements.

“You get that one, Blondie, but it’s not my fault I got distracted.  Have you seen your outfit?”  Her sparring partner was small, blonde, and incredibly sexy.  Buffy wore a soft pair of pants, loose but clingy in the right places, and a simple, but distractingly tiny, tank top.  Her tanned skin glistened with the mild sweat she had already worked up, even though they had only begun their sparring session a few minutes ago.  Her muscles were perfectly toned, a testament to the work the two Slayers had put in that summer.

Their defeat of the ascended demon formerly known as Mayor Richard Wilkins III months earlier had included both the destruction of the high school library they had previously used as a makeshift training space, and the Slayers’ declaration of independence from the Watcher’s Council.  Shortly thereafter, Giles had rewarded their work by renting them a small space to set up a sort of Slayer gym.  The small room, 400 square feet of space, was located in the back part of a business building roughly halfway between the Summers’ house and the campus of UC Sunnydale, and it was outfitted with two punching bags, a few weapons racks, and copious amounts of thick padding on the floor and walls.  Buffy and Faith had been meeting there at least three or four times a week ever since, honing their skills and toning their bodies.

Buffy sidestepped a punch, sliding behind Faith as she began to wrap one arm under Faith’s shoulder and the other around her neck into a firm hold.  Buffy was pressed tightly against her, their bodies moving in a familiar rhythm as Faith anticipated the hold and threw her body forward before Buffy could get a good grip.  The blonde flipped forward over Faith’s body, gracefully catching herself by pressing both hands to the ground and using her momentum to push herself into a continued flip, landing on her feet a few feet away from Faith.  Buffy spun, her arm already extended to counter the charge she anticipated from Faith.  “Felt me comin’, did ya?” Faith asked as she ducked Buffy motion, and the two resumed their sparring stances. 

“I always do—ugh, Faith.”  Faith’s raised eyebrows had clued the other Slayer into the hidden meaning of her suggestive comment, and Buffy blushed as she caught onto it.  It was so easy to make the blonde blush these days, and it happened to be one of Faith’s favorite pastimes.  “I really hope you aren’t this crass at The Gallery.”

“I am, but Joyce ain’t as dainty as her princess of a daughter.”  Faith winked as they continued to circle each other, trading blows in a delicate, dangerous dance.  “She thinks I’m hilarious.”  After everything had calmed down and Faith had moved back into the Summers’ house, she had begun to work part-time at the shop Joyce owned and operated.  As a high school drop-out, Faith couldn’t exactly join Buffy, Willow, and Oz at UC Sunnydale, but she wanted to make something out of herself.  She didn’t want to be a mooch, and Joyce had suggested that she could use some help at The Gallery.  Though Faith thought ‘gallery’ was an odd choice of term for the business.

From what she had gathered in the months she’d been working with Joyce, the elder Summers woman had been kind of a big deal in the LA art world before moving to Sunnydale.  She’d had a pretty well-known art gallery there, but after Buffy burned down her high school gym fighting vampires, they’d been forced to move.  Sunnydale wasn’t big or fancy enough to support the sort of art gallery Joyce had built from the ground up in LA, so she’d had to improvise.  The Gallery in Sunnydale was equal parts art gallery, antiquities shop, and event space, and Faith suspected business was only as good as it was through the sheer charisma, skill, and force of will Joyce poured into it.  So far, Faith hadn’t learned to do much more than move the heavier inventory and work the cash register.  But it gave her something to do during the day, and honestly, Faith just enjoyed hanging out with Joyce and learning from her.

“I think you’re screwing with me,” Buffy pouted.

“I’d certainly like to be,” Faith purred, and Buffy groaned dramatically. 

“I walked right into that one.”  Taking it easy on her opponent, Faith walked right into a poorly disguised countermove by Buffy.  In a heartbeat, she found herself pinned against the padded wall, Buffy’s forearm pressed lightly against her neck, holding her to the wall.  Buffy’s breathing was heavy, and Faith couldn’t help but notice that the other Slayer’s body was closer than strictly necessary, enjoying the light points of contact between their knees, thighs, and chests.  Buffy’s breasts rose and fell against Faith’s own to the time of the other Slayer’s breathing.  “You goin’ easy on me?” Buffy teased, and she seemed like she was enjoying the contact every bit as much as Faith was.

“Maybe I just like having you on top of me,” Faith growled.  Surprisingly, Buffy pushed a little tighter.  Usually, a comment like that was enough to lead Buffy to force some space between them.  Their sparring had always carried with it a bit of flirtation, and there had been more than a little body-on-body action.  But Buffy always pulled back before anything could cross a line, and Faith wasn’t looking to push beyond flirting.  Not yet. 

But if Buffy was ready to take things a little further, go with the flow, Faith wasn’t about to resist.  Without another word, Faith ducked, slipping free of Buffy’s arm and kicking her feet out from under her.  As Buffy toppled to the floor, Faith leapt atop her, straddling her hips and searching her face for a reaction.  Buffy’s eyes were wide, and Faith willed herself not to read into how open and dark her pupils were.  Buffy’s lips were quirked into the faintest of smiles, and Faith pressed down against her, leaning forward just a little as she pinned Buffy’s arms to the floor.

“So, tomorrow’s the big day, huh?”  Faith asked the question nonchalantly, as if she wasn’t at all distracted by the warmth rapidly pooling between her legs.  As if there was nothing at all out of the ordinary about her body and Buffy’s pressed together like this.  As if she couldn’t feel Buffy’s racing pulse under her hands. 

“Yup,” Buffy whispered, breathless as she kept her eyes fixed firmly on Faith’s.  Her arms tensed as if she was going to fight Faith, force her off, but it she didn’t actually want to break their connection.  She just wanted to do the bare minimum required to keep up the façade that they were still sparring.  Faith grinned, pressing down a little harder against Buffy’s hips and ignoring the increase in the pace of her own breathing.  “You sure you don’t wanna come help out?”

Buffy was moving into the dorms tomorrow, and Faith knew that the other Slayer was more than a little nervous about beginning her big college adventure.  The dorms came with furniture—beds, dressers, desks—but Joyce was still taking the day to help move what stuff Buffy did need.  Willow’s parents were helping out too, and honestly, Faith wasn’t looking to join in on all the family time.  She leaned in a little closer, only a few inches separating her lips from Buffy’s.  “Nah.  I gotta hold down the fort at The Gallery.  But I’m sure I’ll find a reason to come visit soon.  Any classes in particular you lookin’ forward to?”

Buffy’s eyes darted back in forth between Faith’s, and she could’ve sworn Buffy’s head lifted ever so slightly off the mat, bringing their lips that much closer.  “Will says our psych professor is this world-renowned lady psychologist, so that might be cool.”  Faith could feel her the slight quiver in Buffy’s breath on her lips, the anticipation.  Then those lips curved into a silly smile.  “Say, how do you think a person gets to be renowned?  I mean, like, do you have to be 'nowned' first?”  Buffy’s eyes looked no less sultry, even though her voice was playful and joking.  Faith bit her lip, unable to fight the grin that broke out along her lips.  How the hell does she manage to be so adorable and so sexy at the same time?

“Yeah, I’m not an expert on language or whatever, B.  Might wanna try askin’ Red.”  Faith glanced down at Buffy’s lips, for just a moment.  Her mouth was slightly open, the very tip of her tongue tracing nervously along her top row of teeth.  “So, a badass lady prof, huh?  I could get behind that.”

“Oh yeah?” Buffy whispered, and Faith could definitely feel both of their heads moving, their parted lips slipping closer and closer to each other.  Her eyes fluttered closed, and her chest tightened in anticipation.  But then, at the last moment, Buffy thrust her hips up into Faith.  For the briefest second, Faith thought it was about to go down, but then she realized Buffy was just pushing her off.  She didn’t fight it, respecting Buffy’s boundaries and rolling off the other Slayer.  She pulled herself away from Buffy, to where she had a water bottle waiting for her at the edge of the mat.

When Faith glance back at Buffy, the blonde was on her feet again, going for her own water bottle and blotting at her face with a small towel.  “Have you heard anything about Xander?” she asked, her voice betraying how much another almost kiss had gotten under her skin.  Faith rolled her eyes at the back of Buffy’s head, as they both started to put their shoes back on.

“I think he should be back from his summer-long road trip soonish.  That’s what he told Anya anyway.”

Buffy chuckled, then turned to face Faith again.  “I still can’t believe you two hit it off so quickly.  That girl is so weird.”

Faith laughed at that.  “No doubt.  But the girl has wicked great stories.  And I like her whole blunt honesty thing.”  She pushed up onto her feet.  “We done for the night?  Wanna get in a quick patrol before we head back to the house for your final night living with your mom?”

“Oh god, that makes it sound so …”  Buffy frowned.  “I don’t know.  Something.”  She shrugged, stepping closer to Faith.  “I know I’ve already asked a couple times, but are you sure you’re going to be okay staying there once I’m gone?”

“As opposed to what exactly?” Faith challenged.  She didn’t wait for an answer, throwing an arm around the other girl.  “It’s gonna be great, B.  You know Joyce and I are cool now.”  Faith still hadn’t told Buffy that she was saving up to get her own place.  She was determined to make something of herself, but she wanted to wait before she confided any of it to Buffy.  Faith wanted to impress Buffy with what she had accomplished, not set up an expectation that she might fail to meet.

Buffy smiled at her, a flash of joy in those emerald eyes.  “Okay.  Sorry.  I know.  It’ll be great.  Everything is going to be different, but it’ll be fine.  I’m sure.”  Faith hip-checked her, cutting off the rambling. 

“B, it’s gonna be great.  You’re the big bad college girl now.  Embrace it.”

                                                  

As Buffy opened her eyes, an unfamiliar ceiling greeted her.  She blinked several times, fighting away the remnants of sleep as her ears began to register the soft but insistent beeping sound beside her.  Sun streamed down through the thin curtains over the two large windows behind her.  To her right was an oak nightstand, its surface home to a simple lamp and a white alarm clock whose red digital numbers read ‘7:00.’  She turned off the alarm, then sat up in her twin-sized bed.

To her left was her weapons chest, the only piece of furniture she had brought with her.  Beside it was a six-drawer dresser, a small mirror hung on the wall over the top of it, and just beyond that was the door to her closet.  The dresser and the door featured the same oak finish as her nightstand and bed, as did the chair at her desk on the wall directly in front of her.  The desk itself was white, with matching shelving building into the wall above it.  The door to the room was the dividing line between her side of the room and Willow’s, which was a mirror image of Buffy’s.  As she finally glanced all the way over to her right, Buffy saw that Willow was also awake, watching her with an amused smile.

“Weird waking up to a new room, huh?”  Buffy nodded, making a face that was broken up by a long yawn as she stretched languidly.  It was her first day of classes, and Buffy could already feel a small knot of anxiety forming in her chest.  “How did you sleep?”

Buffy cracked a mischievous grin.  “Slept pretty great once I was able to get past all your snoring.”  Willow’s bright face fell, first to a frown, then a full-on pout.  Buffy was lying—Willow didn’t snore.  Not that she had noticed anyway.  But it had taken her a long time to fall asleep.  She didn’t do well sleeping in new places, and her mind had taken over an hour to stop racing. 

Yesterday had been eye-opening.  Campus felt like a massive, beautiful labyrinth.  Even simple tasks like getting her student ID and buying her necessary textbooks had been daunting challenges that tested Buffy’s patience and willpower.  The center of campus, the Quad, had been the most terrifying, filled with a crowd of loud, aggressive students inviting her to everything from Bible study to a massive frat keg party.  Willow’s steady guidance had been the only thing that got Buffy through it, and she had never been more grateful that the witch had not only chosen to come to UC Sunnydale, but to be her roommate.  But that still wouldn’t prevent her from a few playful roomie jabs.

“I don’t snore,” Willow insisted, huffing.  “Do I?”

“No,” Buffy admitted.  “I’m just being a big meanie.”

“Oh, I see,” Willow mused, a hint of mischief in her own tone now.  “Someone had trouble sleeping without a certain sexy brunette Slayer sleeping just down the hall?”  Buffy fixed Willow with an immediate glare, but there was no real enmity in the expression.  In fact, she found herself fighting against her lips’ instinct to curve upwards at the mention of Faith.   

I wonder if she’s awake yet?  Joyce usually tried to get to The Gallery by nine, to prepare for the day before opening shop at ten.  But Faith wasn’t really one for early mornings, often rolling out of bed a mere ten or fifteen minutes before jumping in the car with Joyce.  Faith hadn’t contributed to Buffy’s inability to sleep, but Willow was right that it felt weird being away from the other Slayer.  The two of them had forged such a familiar and comfortable routine over the summer, and now instead of sharing a comfy home bathroom with Faith, Buffy was faced with the unnerving task of sharing a communal dorm bathroom with a floor’s worth of strangers.  It was going to be an adjustment.

Buffy threw off her covers and stretched further as she pushed herself up and out of bed.  As she rummaged through her dresser, then closet, Willow’s voice called out from behind her.  “So … how are things between you two?”  Buffy wasn’t sure how Willow managed to make such a vague question sound so pointed.  Her best friend had been slowly and surely pushing Buffy more and more about the obvious closeness between the two Slayers of late.  For a long time, Willow had been the only person who knew about the mutual romantic feelings growing between Buffy and Faith since Christmas last year.  But those feelings had been confused and awkward and put on the backburner by Faith’s brief, but fraught, turn to the dark side. 

Things had shifted after they took out the Mayor, who had manipulated Faith’s inner darkness and brokenness to turn her against Buffy.  She could still remember watching the sunset that night, not yet in any kind of place where she could explore anything romantic with Faith, but confident in the path they were finally on together.  And over the course of the summer, that path had led them to an intense and fulfilling friendship, which Buffy could no longer pretend wasn’t constantly on the verge of falling off a cliff into something else entirely.  Except that Buffy still wasn’t ready for it.  Not yet.

“Things are good.”  If Willow was going to ask vague questions, Buffy would provide vague answers.  She continued searching for a day one outfit, eventually settling on a cute, lacy, white spaghetti-strap tank top and a patterned pink skirt. 

“Buffyyyyy,” Willow whined plaintively.  “You gotta give me more than that.  It’s been months.  You’re telling me you two haven’t even kissed yet?”  Buffy sighed, laying her outfit out on her bed before grabbing a towel and going in search of her toiletries.

“Willow, I don’t know what to tell you.  Things with Faith are complicated.  They always have been.”  Buffy gathered her things, ready to head to the bathroom.  “Neither of us is looking to rock the boat.  Things are good.  They’re nice and comfortable, and yeah, a little flirty.  But … that’s enough for now.  Especially with me going to college, and everything changing.  Okay?”  Willow shrugged, as if to say ‘if you say so,’ and Buffy rolled her eyes.  “I’m gonna go take a shower.  This is going to be so weird.”

                                                  

Why does every door have to look the same in this building?  Buffy was still on edge from the insanely rude way she had been shamed out of the room by the professor teaching an elective that she would definitely never be taking.  She was just trying to find one last course to fit into her schedule this semester, and the guy had been so damn full of himself, he couldn’t bear to have a student whispering quietly while he ranted away about how somber and important media studies were.  Now she was in the psych building, but she couldn’t seem to find the doors she was looking for.

Psych 105 was in the big lecture hall in the building, but as far as Buffy could tell, there was nothing to set the lecture hall apart from any of the other classrooms, not based on the numbers on the doors, or even the doors themselves.  I knew I should’ve brought a map.  Or at least my schedule.  That had the number of the room on it right?  Buffy couldn’t believe how overwhelming and stressful college was.  And UC Sunnydale isn’t even that big a school! 

Buffy craned her head to the side, her attention focusing on the passing doors, trying her best to look in through small windows in search of her class.  As such, she didn’t see the empty soda can littering the floor in the front of her, and she suddenly found herself thrown forward as it kicked out from under her foot and threw her off balance.  Buffy caught herself, but not before she plowed into a tall, broad-shouldered guy with sandy blonde hair and a pained expression on his face as he toppled down to the floor and back into the nearby wall.  “Oh god, I am s-so sorry!” Buffy stammered immediately, wincing as his expression shifted from pained to embarrassed.   

He attempted and failed to hide how gingerly he stood as he collected himself, before assuring her, “I’m okay.  It’s okay.”  He brushed back the bangs of his slightly off-center parted hair and flashed a soft smile at her, and wow, he was really cute in a down-to-earth, corn-fed farm boy sort of way.  He was wearing jeans and a rust-colored button-up with only the bottom button done, exposing much of the dark red shirt underneath.   “That was, uh, bracing,” he quipped.  “Are you alright?”

Yes, let’s just pretend that it’s normal that the girl who is a foot shorter and at least sixty or seventy pounds lighter than you tossed you forcefully to the ground just by accidentally stumbling into you.  Buffy genuinely hoped she hadn’t hurt him.  In addition to being difficult to explain away her disproportionate strength, he had a kind face that made her instantly worry about him.  And why is he staring—oh right!  He asked me a question.  “Uh, I’m fine.  Just tripped.  There was a soda can, and then I was stumbling forward, and then everything was bad.”  She smiled sheepishly, hoping he wouldn’t judge her for her tendency to stumble through an explanation when she was feeling awkward. 

“Can I help you find your way to a class?”  He smiled brightly, and yeah, it was a very nice smile.  Still, Buffy couldn’t help noticing how peculiar his stance was.  His expression and tone were so casual that they were an odd juxtaposition against his posture, back straight, shoulders back, and head held high as if at attention.

Buffy pouted.  “Ugh.  Is it that obvious that I’m lost?”

“Only a little,” he chuckled.  “Seriously though, where are you headed?  I know this building like the back of my hand.” 

“Psych 105,” she answered, and his eyes lit up in recognition, a slight grin playing at the corners of his mouth.

“Well, you’re in for some fun.  Professor Walsh is quite the character.”

Buffy looked at him with equal parts curiosity and puzzlement.  “Is that so?”

“It is.  And lucky for you, I’m headed there now.  I’m actually your TA for that class.”  Buffy hadn’t realized he was that much older, but she smiled up at him nonetheless.  At least the view this semester will be nice.  “I’m sorry,” he added, wincing a little as a thought occurred to him, “I must’ve forgotten my manners in all the concussion.  I’m Riley.”  He held out his hand, and she took it softly.

“Buffy,” she introduced herself, noting the crooked grin that formed in reaction to her name.

“Nice to meet you, Buffy.  Gotta say, that name’s a new one for me.”  Buffy shrugged awkwardly, and Riley thankfully moved on.  “Anyway, the lecture hall is right through here.”  He pointed down a nearby hallway, to his left and Buffy’s right.  “Come on, I’ll make sure you get there without any more nasty run-ins with stray bits of litter.”  She giggled.  Normally Buffy would’ve found the whole protective nice guy routine annoying, but Riley seemed genuine, and she was still worried she might have hurt him more than he was letting on.  Plus she still had no idea where she was going.  She was more than happy to follow her TA to the big double doors of the lecture hall, which did in fact look different than the doors to the smaller classrooms.  She had just been in the wrong part of the building. 

“Are you sure you’re okay?” she asked cautiously, as they approached the open doors.

He nodded.  “It just stung a bit.  And I lost most of my basic motor functions there for a couple seconds.  No biggie.”  He grinned mischievously, and her lips moved to match his expression.  “Here we are.”  He gestured as if to say ‘ladies first,’ then followed her into the room.  She immediately spotted Willow and Oz saving her a seat.  She turned back to Riley, but as she did so, her eyes lingered on the podium and the big desk in the front of the room.  Her brows furrowed as she remembered her most recent classroom experience.

“Hey, so … I was just wondering.  Professor Walsh isn’t planning on yelling at me and kicking me out of the class, is she?”  Her shoulders slumped, and she was fully aware of how dumb the question sounded now that it was out of her mouth.

Riley’s eyes darted back and forth in slightly amused bewilderment, and he leaned in towards her, conspiratorially.  “It’s not in her lesson plan,” he assured her, and he was obviously holding in a laugh at Buffy’s peculiar behavior. 

“Great,” she muttered, feeling fully embarrassed now, and she turned on a dime and headed up to where Willow and Oz waited for her in the third row.  They only barely had time to exchange pleasantries and for Buffy to brush off Willow’s question about the pop culture elective she had been considering before Professor Walsh marched through the doors to the classroom with an authoritative, “Okay.”

Riley handed her a piece of paper, and she took it without breaking stride, setting her briefcase down on the table and turning her piercing blue eyes on the crowd of students for the first time.  “This is Psych 105, ‘Introduction to Psychology.’  I'm Professor Walsh.”  She was a tough-looking woman in her late forties or early fifties, and she made an immediate impression on Buffy.  Her presence was commanding, almost regal, and her short, choppy blonde hair and chiseled jaw gave her a sort of masculine edge that only added to her mystique.  She wore a simple dark blue v-neck sweater with the sleeves pulled up to her elbows, exposing surprisingly toned forearms.  Professor Walsh paced back around the podium and around to the front of her desk as she continued her introduction. 

“Those of you who fall under my good graces will come to know me as Maggie.”  She paused, a wry grin playing along the edges of her thin lips.  “Those of you who don't will come to know me by the name my TAs use—and think I don't know about—'The Evil Bitch Monster of Death.’  That drew a chuckle from a few people, including Riley.  Buffy honestly found it a little much, but the silly, overwrought nickname didn’t make Walsh any less intimidating.  “Make no mistake, I run a hard class, I assign a lot of work, I talk fast, and I expect you to keep up.”  Her eyes darted from student to student, and Buffy had the distinct impression that she was sizing each of them up in turn.  “If you're looking to coast I recommend Geology 101.  That's where the football players are.”

Faith would love this woman.  The thought sprang to mind out of nowhere, and Buffy couldn’t really figure out what it was about Professor Walsh that she thought Faith would appreciate.  The professor had moved into a discussion of the syllabus, the coursework, and the exam schedule for the class, but Buffy’s attention was now elsewhere, as always happened when her mind turned to Faith.  She rolled her eyes as another thought followed that earlier one.  Faith does have a thing for strong women, I suppose.  She could just picture Faith slouching in the chair next to Buffy, leaning in to whisper, “Damn, B, think I might be hot for teacher,” right into Buffy’s ear in that way that always sent a tingle down her spin, Faith’s cool breath tickling her earlobe. 

Part of Buffy wished the other Slayer could be there, along for the ride on the terrifying new adventure that was college.  But at least the additional space and time apart would give Buffy the freedom to take her time in figuring out what she really wanted from Faith.  Whether she could ever really let that turn into something … more than friendship. 

Despite all the chemistry and the undeniably strong connection between them, Buffy dreaded the day when Faith inevitably forced a conversation about what there was between them.  What there could be.  For whatever reason, she just felt like she couldn’t let it happen.  A relationship with Faith felt at the same time unfathomable and inevitable, and the whole big mess of it confused Buffy to no end.  Which is probably why, as much as the thought of Faith’s sultry whisper in her ear gave Buffy the most delightful fluttering in her gut, she was grateful that Faith was a high school drop-out with no real shot at a college career.  The less time they spent together, the less likely it was that things between them would have to change.  Buffy wasn’t ready for that kind of change yet.  She had enough change on her plate as it was.

                                                  

“Alright fine, I’ll admit it.  This burger is fucking delicious.”  Oz’s only recognition of the praise was a slight nod of his head in Faith’s direction, and she rolled her eyes at the stoic ginger.  She had met up with Buffy, Willow, and Oz at this burger joint near campus that Oz had vouched for, hoping to hear about the first day of classes for the intrepid college kids over dinner.  She had pretended to be skeptical of the place, even though the smell of the food had won her over the minute they walked in.

Beside her, Buffy picked at her fries quietly, the dainty princess to Faith’s sloppy knight, as always.  But she was even quieter than usual, and she seemed distracted.  Faith leaned over and nudged Buffy’s shoulder with her own.  “Hey there, college girl.  What’s on your mind?”

Buffy’s eyes sprang up to look at Faith.  “Oh.  Uh, I just … there's this student missing.”

Faith narrowed her eyes, pretending to be interested.  “Oh?”

“Eddie.”  Buffy looked over at Willow.  “He’s in our psych class!  … Or, uh, he would’ve been.  He's supposed to have left school but... I just don't think he did.  I met him outside last night, and then I went back where we met, and it looked like there had been a struggle.

“So, what?” Faith asked.  “You think vamps got him?”

Buffy’s eyes darted back and forth, and she bit her lip nervously.  “Well, yeah!  And Eddie's RA said kids disappear a lot.  There could be a gang of vampires working the campus.”  Faith didn’t think much of it.  She figured people dropped out of college.  It happened, and Buffy, of all people, should understand being overwhelmed by it all.  But, it couldn’t hurt to dig a little deeper.

“Tell you what, B.  Let’s finish up our dinner.  Red can talk a little more about her new Wicca group, and Oz can sit there quietly, offer the occasional heavy one-liner.”  Oz pursed his lips but nodded playfully, in good fun.  “And after that, you and I will go see G, and see if we can’t put a plan together.  Maybe he’s heard something about a gang of vamps operating around campus.  Either way, you and me can patrol a little.  You can show me around campus.  It’ll be a hoot and a half,” she joked, utilizing her Joyce voice for that last part.

Buffy rolled her eyes, but Faith could tell she was feeling better.  She just needed someone to take her seriously and support her.  College was big and scary and clearly a little too much for the blonde, and hunting a pack of vamps was exactly the sort of simple and familiar task that Buffy thought might help ground her.  Of course Faith was happy to help.

They finished off dinner just like Faith suggested, and she couldn’t help but notice an interesting twinkle in Willow’s eye as she talked about her Wicca group.  Something to bug her about later.  Tonight was about Buffy’s thing.  They said goodbye to the ginger couple, and Buffy followed Faith out to her car.  It was a dark blue 1991 Jaguar XJ Sovereign, which had turned out to be a fairly distinctive car in Sunnydale, maybe second only to that grey hunk of junk Citroen that Giles drove.  The car had previously belonged to Faith’s first Watcher Diana, and it was the only thing Faith had left of her.  Not even Buffy knew what the car meant to her, and even though it was going on a decade old at this point, Faith had done enough homework to know how to take care of the old beauty.  Diana’s murder at the hands of an ancient vampire had been what drove Faith out of Boston, eventually landing her in Sunnydale.  Even in death, Diana had pushed Faith to find a better life for herself.

And she was a hell of a lot better Watcher than Rupert Giles.  As they drove towards his apartment in relative silence, Faith wondered how Diana would’ve handled Faith’s Cruciamentum.  It hadn’t come up—Kakistos murdered Diana when Faith was only sixteen.  But she had to believe that Diana would’ve warned her.  Even if she didn’t openly revolt against the Watcher’s Council, she wouldn’t have betrayed Faith the way Giles betrayed Buffy.  She wouldn’t have covertly poisoned her for days, stealing her powers in preparation for an unexpected battle to the death with a vampire.  Before she had come to Sunnydale, Diana was the only person who had ever cared about her.  The only person who had given a single damn—she had offered her a home, clothes, food, and most of all, a purpose.  For a few wonderful months, Diana had provided encouragement, support, and structure, things Faith couldn’t remember having had at any point growing up.  She wouldn’t have done that to me.

With her eighteenth birthday coming up, Faith was thinking about the Cruciamentum more and more lately.  She didn’t know what to expect, given that she and Buffy had cut ties with the Council.  And she wasn’t ready to talk to Buffy about it yet.  The blonde didn’t even know when her birthday was, and Faith blew out a frustrated breath.  She hated how much trouble she had letting Buffy in.  She wanted to, so badly.  But it was so fucking hard for her.  You don’t live the life Faith had lived without building up very thick, very tall walls around your heart.

She parked in the street outside Giles’ townhouse, and before she could get out of the car, Buffy stopped her with a hand around her wrist.  “Hey, are you okay?”  The girl’s voice was soft and earnest, her emerald eyes shimmering with concern.  Guess I’m not as good at hiding my emotions as I used to be.

“Five by five,” she assured her. 

“Are you still wiggy about being around Giles?”  Faith shook her head, meeting Buffy’s gaze.

“No.  Honestly, it’s fine.  I might not ever trust him or care about him the way you do, but he’s proven himself.  That shit is in the past.  We’re cool now, especially with him covering the rent for our little home away from home.”  Buffy blushed slightly, as she always did when Faith referred to their training room that way.

“Okay,” she conceded, finally removing her seatbelt.  “You’d talk to me if something was up, right?” 

Faith rolled her eyes, deflecting Buffy’s honest worry as best she could.  “Yes, Mom.”  The jab was enough to get Buffy to back off a little, and they both got out of the car and headed straight for Giles’ front door.  It was unlocked, so they didn’t bother knocking, opening the door and walking in like always.  

As they walked in, Faith could sense a different vibe than the last few times they’d been to Giles’ place.  There was a classic rock band playing softly from the speakers hooked up to his antique record player, and the faint aroma of recently burned candles in the air.  The former Watcher was nowhere to be seen, and Faith hung back a little even as Buffy barged right into the apartment.  There were a couple of stray noises from the kitchen, which were followed closely by a silvery voice calling out, “Rupert, is this Bleu cheese or is it just cheese that's gone blue?”  Faith caught sight of the woman through the opening in the wall that served as a window around the bar area, directly into the kitchen.  Then she was around the corner and facing them, warm eyes appraising the two Slayers carefully.  “You're not Giles,” she mused, lips quirked slightly.  The woman was drop-dead gorgeous, probably in her early- to mid-thirties.  She wore nothing more than a slightly over-sized, pale blue men’s dress shirt, which ended just below her hips and exposed long, dark legs.  Her short braided hair didn’t quite touch the collar of the shirt, and Faith could tell from her delightful accent that she was British.

Faith flashed a sultry smile at the woman, but Buffy just stood their sputtering.  B never did know how to handle herself around a sexy lady.  “Umm ... you know the door was open, so I just ... uh, Giles does still live here, right?”  Buffy looked as though she might flee the conversation at any moment, and Faith took a step towards her, putting a soft hand on her back to steady the other Slayer.  She could hear Giles making his way down the stairs now, but Buffy continued to gape at the half-naked woman.

“He does,” the woman confirmed, smirking at the silly question.   Then Giles himself coughed quietly before turning off the record player.  Buffy and Faith turned to face him.  “Rupert, you have some guests.”  Giles fixed them with a wry grin and greeted them both.  He was wearing nothing but a long dark robe, made of something like velvet maybe?  Faith did her best not to giggle, immediately comparing the former Watcher to Hugh Hefner in her mind.  It was very clear to her what the two Brits had been up to before the Slayers arrived.  Buffy, on the other hand, continued to act like she had been stricken deaf, dumb, and blind by the sight in front of them.

“Is this a bad time?” she gasped, and again, Faith got the distinct impression she was one wrong word from running out of the room with her tail between her legs.  It was adorable.

“No!  Oh, uh, forgive me.”  Giles came to stand by the woman. Hands in the pockets of his robe.  “This, uh... this is, uh, Olivia.  She's, uh, an old friend, she's staying here for a few days.”  Right, friend.  Sure, G.

“Couldn't pass through sunny Cal without looking up ole Ripper,” Olivia clarified, and Faith couldn’t pretend she didn’t find the woman’s voice enthralling.  Ripper, huh?  The only person Faith knew who called Giles by that name was Ethan Rayne, and she wondered if this Olivia had run in their little black magic gang.

Buffy continued to flounder, and Giles explained, “Buffy is a, uh, was a student of mine.  And, uh, Faith is her … friend.”  He said ‘friend’ in the exact same tone as when he referred to Faith as he had when he introduced Olivia, and she couldn’t pretend not to catch the implication.  He looked slightly embarrassed when Faith raised an eyebrow, but then turned his attention back to Buffy.  “How’s university?”

Buffy chuckled nervously.  “Pretty much the same as high school, in the sense that I need … help.”

Giles narrowed his eyes, looking between the two Slayers curiously.  “Ahh... help... yes.”  Faith got the distinct sense that he figured he was going to leave his quasi-Watcher duties behind once Buffy went to college, which made zero sense to Faith.  Just because Buffy was nominally an adult now, with Faith trying her best to get there as well, didn’t mean the Slayers suddenly had all the wisdom, knowledge, and books that Giles did.  He was every bit as necessary a part of the team as always, so why was he being weird?

Buffy continued to squirm, then took a step back, forcing Faith to drop her hand to her side.  “This just looks like a bad time.”

Olivia waved her hands in a small motion of reassurance.  “No, no.  You guys talk.   I'll just go slip into something a little less comfortable.”  She and Giles shared a knowing, amused look, and Olivia headed upstairs.  Faith’s eyes watched her walk away, her toned legs moving with such grace that the brunette couldn’t help but be captivated.  Then Giles cleared his throat pointedly, and Faith’s eyes snapped back to him, her cheeks reddening slightly as she realized she had been caught ogling his girl.

“I take it this is a Slayer issue?” he asked, but only after giving Faith a stern look.

Buffy shook her head, eyes darting between Faith and Giles.  “This is a bad time.”  Again, she chuckled nervously.

Giles crossed his arms, eying her curiously.  “You keep saying that,” he teased.  Holy shit, G is teasing her.  He’s enjoying this as much as I am!

Buffy’s nose crinkled and her nostrils flared, and she took a step towards Giles.  “Well … it looks pretty bad!  I think someone had just a little too much free time on their hands.”  Her voice sped up and lifted about half an octave in that way it did when she was uncomfortable about sex and sex-related things.

Giles and Faith exchanged a bemused glance before he asked, “I'm not supposed to have a private life?”  His eyebrows raised and his face was a mask of faux confusion, but Faith could see that he was messing with Buffy.

No!” Buffy whined.  “Cuz you're very, very old, and it's gross.”

Faith stepped in, placing a hand on each of Buffy’s shoulders and turning her away from Giles.  “B, that’s pretty rude.”  She kept her face stern and scolding, fighting the urge to break into hearty laughter.  “First of all, G ain’t that old.  And second of all, did you see Olivia?  Dude has excellent taste in lady friends, and we should be congratulating him, not judging him.”  Buffy pouted.  “’Sides, I thought we were past your whole repressed, ‘I can’t imagine my parental figures as sexual beings’ phase.”

“We are so not,” Buffy murmured, but her fixed gaze on the floor told Faith that she had sufficiently shamed the girl into feeling bad about her outburst. 

Giles shot Faith an appreciative glance.  “Well, before I succumb to the ravages of age, why don't you tell me what brings you here.”  Buffy looked back at him, appropriately chastised.  Then she explained the whole situation with the missing psych student.  She had run into him after getting lost on her first night on campus, and they had traded stories about security blankets they brought with them to help adjust to the big scary world that was a small suburban college.  Faith did her best not to scoff.  Apparently, the dude’s security blanket was some book about bondage, which Faith appreciated.  For a nervous guy lost on campus, gotta give him props for being open about his kink.  But he hadn’t shown up for class, and when she’d gone by his dorm, all his stuff was missing.  Save for the book.  That’s what set off Buffy’s Slayer instincts, and now Faith understood that maybe this wasn’t a wild goose chase after all.

After Buffy finished, Giles fixed them both with a long, searching look, then he turned and poured himself a glass of whiskey on the rocks.  “I appreciate the visit, Buffy, but I still don't see where I fit in.  You haven't described anything that you and Faith can't handle yourselves.”  Faith thought he had a point, actually.  This wasn’t some big bad, not likely.  Probably just a pack of vamps like Buffy suspected to begin with.

Buffy wasn’t having it, though.  “Ok, remember before you became Hugh Hefner when you used to be a Watcher?”  This time, Faith couldn’t help but laugh out loud.  She sees it too!

“Officially you know longer have a Watcher,” he corrected, as if they weren’t well aware of that fact.  He fixed Buffy with a caring, but impatient look.  “Buffy, you know I'll always be here when you need me.  Y-your safety is more important to me than anything but, you're going to have to take care of yourself.”  He nodded at Faith, as if to say ‘I already know you can take care of yourself, please excuse the focus on Buffy here.’  Then he continued, “You're out of school and I can't always be there to guide you.”

 Buffy deflated rapidly.  “I'm sorry to bug you,” she whispered.  Faith felt bad for her, and she could tell her reaction hurt Giles.  Faith tried to right the ship.

“G, we just wanted to know if you’d heard anything.  About a pack of vamps around the college campus, or any news reports about missing students.  Surely that’s not outside your purview as our cool older not-Watcher friend, right?”

Giles looked absolutely befuddled by Faith’s pointed comment, and he took another sip of his whiskey.  “Well, no.  I’m not aware of anything.  And obviously, you two can come to me for information and guidance when you really need it, but if you’re right about this being the work of vampires, I believe you can handle it.  You certainly don’t need me for this.”

Buffy had softened, realizing that she was letting her general anxiety about college life overtake her Slayer instincts.  She exchanged a confident look with Faith, and they both knew Giles was right.  Nothing they couldn’t handle.  “Alright.  We’ve got it.  Sorry to, uh, interrupt … whatever.  We’re on it.”  Buffy turned to leave, not able to look at Giles again after the ‘whatever’ comment, and Faith nodded a quick goodbye before following Buffy out.

“Good luck!” he shouted after them, and Faith turned just enough to toss him a joking salute before closing the door behind them.

                                                  

Despite all of her earlier misgivings, it was nice to have Faith on campus with her.  It was different at night, less labyrinthine.  A little less crowded, though there were still enough people around that slaying vamps was going to be difficult to keep covert.  When they’d first parked on the outskirts of campus, Faith had been as playful and flirty as ever, but she kept her distance, just enough that Buffy noticed it.  And while she refused to think too hard about it, that bugged Buffy.  She had hip-checked Faith, staying close to her until the taller Slayer put her arm around Buffy like she usually did when they were on patrol together.

Faith didn’t call attention to it, and neither did Buffy.  But it just felt right.  Safe.  Buffy tried not to laugh at herself.  For all the talk about Mr. Gordo being her security blanket, maybe Faith was the more effective one.  Buffy’s first couple of days on campus had been horrible.  She had no idea what she was doing, and it wasn’t like she could admit how lost she felt, since everyone else seemed to be thriving.  Seriously, how did Willow know where everything was already?  It was like she had been in college for three years already, and it kinda pissed Buffy off how easy she made it look.

So, she guessed maybe it wasn’t so bad that she felt the urge to hold onto Faith and try to maybe integrate her into college life.  Faith was the most confident, laid back person she knew—maybe some of that would rub off on Buffy.  Maybe her presence, even just for tonight, and hopefully a few other times in the next few days, would help demystify everything.  Help make it all seem a bit smaller and more manageable.  Because deep down, Buffy was starting to wonder if she wouldn’t have been better off getting crappy day job and focusing on her slaying.  It certainly sounded appealing right then.  She wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or a bad thing.  She tried not to dwell on it, pointing out the few landmarks and buildings that she recognized to Faith and answering questions about her first day and life on campus.  Until she saw him.

“Eddie?” she whispered under her breath.  Buffy pulled herself free of Faith’s arm, but just as quickly grabbed her by the wrist and led her after the tall guy with the dark hair.  Faith followed without another word.  “Eddie!” Buffy called out, “Eddie, hey, wait up!”  Either she was wrong about who this was, or he was a vampire.  Or maybe he just changed his mind about dropping out?  Deep down, it wasn’t the prospect of a gang of vampires or some other big bad that had Buffy freaked—it was college itself.  Focusing on evil things afoot was like a lifeline, and if she could just save Eddie, maybe she could tackle the rest of college with a bit more poise.

“B,” Faith cautioned from behind her, already sensing the thing Buffy was avoiding.  Sometimes, Buffy wondered if Faith’s Slayer senses and intuition weren’t more finely tuned than her own.  It felt like Faith could just sense vampires nearby, like she could pick up on their lack of a heartbeat from across a room.  Or maybe it was the lack of breathing?  Buffy wasn’t sure.  For her, it was just a general ‘having the willies’ about someone or other obvious signs, like an outfit still stuck in the ‘70s.  Faith, though, was like a vampire bloodhound.  But sexier.  Still, the closer she got to maybe Eddie, the more Buffy could feel that something wasn’t right.  She ignored her senses anyway, holding onto some hope that she was wrong.

“Eddie!  God, I was worried that something had happened to you.”  She caught up to him, and that was when he turned to face her finally, vamp face in full effect.  “And of course you’re not, cuz you’re a vampire.”  She frowned, and her heart sank.  “I’m sorry.”

“I’m not,” the demon wearing Eddie’s face growled.  He moved to attack, but Faith’s stake was in his chest before he could take a step.  His look of shock was momentary, fading into dust in seconds.

“Sorry, B.”  Faith tried to reassure her.  “But at least you were right.  We got ourselves a definite vamp problem goin’ on.” 

“Oh, you have no idea.”  The taunt came from behind them, where a blonde vampire stood atop a concrete dais.  “So, you’re the Slayer.”  The vampire had eyes only for Buffy, and she assumed word hadn’t made its way to the college campus that Sunnydale was home to two Slayers now.    The vampire looked like if a spoiled rich girl was trying way too hard to seem goth, resulting in a sort of bubblegum punk rock look that just screamed tacky.  She looked at Buffy without any fear in her eyes.  “I heard you might be coming here.”

That was when she sensed the other vampires surrounding them, at least four or five of them.  Eddie had been bait to lure her in.  Faith took up a defensive position behind Buffy, the Slayers now back-to-back.  “This is, I mean, what a challenge!” the vampire mocked.  “The Slayer!”

“Slayers,” Faith corrected, emphasizing the final ‘s’ in the word.

The vampire looked the slightest bit wary now, surprised by Faith’s assertion, and Buffy took a step towards her.  “And you are?”

At this point, the wannabe goth got cocky.  “Oh, I’m Sunday.  I’ll be killing you here in a minute or so,” she sneered.  Buffy couldn’t help herself.  She fought the laugh, but it found its way out anyway.  She glanced behind her, and she could see Faith was smirking too.

“I’m sorry,” Buffy waved her hand at Sunday apologetically, and she caught her breath.  “Your name is Sunday, and you dress like that?  Irony much?”  Sunday growled at her, but the vampire to Sunday’s right just watched them in puzzlement.  He looked like the stereotypical stoner, chilling his way through the college afterlife.

“Uhh…. Are we gonna fight?” he asked, and Buffy nearly started laughing again.  His voice sounded exactly the way you would’ve expected it to, equal parts surfer drawl and stoner airiness.  “Or is there just gonna be a monster sarcasm rally?”

“I’m in for a piece.”  This came from another girl vamp, a thicker girl with curly red hair. 

“Everybody gets to play,” Faith quipped, though she stayed close to Buffy, not wanting to give up their position.  They both knew it was easier to fight a crowd back-to-back like this.  Buffy had other ideas though. 

Sunday wasn’t done speechifying yet.  “Guys, the blonde is totally mine—”  She turned to dust before she could finish her thought.  Sunday’s superiority complex had gotten too annoying, and it was very clearly unjustified.  She hadn’t even registered Buffy’s hand moving until after she had already released the stake, slinging it straight at Sunday’s chest.  Buffy and Faith both sprung into action as Sunday crumbled into nothing, Buffy running to retrieve her stake before the stoner could attack, and Faith getting the drop on the redhead.  The Slayers moved with practiced precision, their hard work over the summer put to good use.  All six vampires were dust in minutes.

This was familiar at least.  Slaying was simple, straightforward, and yes, fun.  With the energy flowing through her, her breath just a bit heavier than normal and that Slayer strength tensed in her muscles, Buffy felt like herself for the first time on campus.  With Faith at her side, the pack of vampires had been a piece of cake.  Faith thought so too.

“Good work, Blondie.  Guess you’ve got a decent grasp on this college thing after all.”  Faith waggled her eyebrows as she pocketed her stake.  “Now, I need a tour of you and Red’s dorm room.”

                                                  

Faith stepped out of the bathroom in the back just before opening, as she did nearly every day.  In order to maximize her ability to sleep in, usually after a late night of slaying, she often woke up only a few minutes before Joyce left for The Gallery, threw on some clothes, grabbed whatever breakfast was available, and jumped in the car with Joyce.  She handled her hair and makeup at the store, and as a result, she wore significantly less makeup at work than in her private life.  Which actually worked out well.  Joyce liked that she didn’t have such a hard look when she interacted with customers, and Faith got the opportunity to get used to a different side of herself.

“Good to go, Joyce.  You got a crowd lined up, just beggin’ to be let in yet, or what?”  Faith always made a joke about opening the shop in the morning, since they rarely got more than a customer or two before lunch.  Joyce, as always ignored her, and unlocked the front door before turning back to Faith just as she took her spot behind the cash register.  “Well now, Faith, honey.  Don’t you look beautiful for someone who woke up less than an hour ago.”

Faith cracked a smile, and though she would never admit it, Joyce’s compliments always made her feel valued and seen.  “What can I say?  Vamps got a little rough with me last night, and a Slayer needs her beauty sleep.”  Often, Faith felt like kind of a different person at The Gallery, a softer version of Faith Lehane.  But the wisecracking remained the same. 

Joyce hummed distractedly, then headed back into her office in the back.  Faith surveyed the empty space, which had become sort of her domain in the mornings.  Joyce usually went in the back to make calls, coordinate new pieces or shipments, and check over the books, leaving Faith mostly alone, save for the occasional customer.  The front desk was right at the front of the store, along the right wall as you entered through the front door.  There was a wide open corridor that led from the door past the desk and back into the antiquities space, which took up the bulk of the store. 

But to the left of that corridor, directly in Faith’s line of sight from her perch behind the cash register, was the art gallery space.  As opposed to the rest of the store, which was all dark wood and muted colors, the gallery space was a bright white, with sleek lines and asymmetrical half walls that perfectly accented the art.  The floor of the gallery space was a step down from the corridor, which gave the customer a feeling of stepping into a different world.  Smart design, in Faith’s opinion.  The artwork was mostly canvas pieces hung on the walls, but there were a few sculptures as well, the larger ones standing freely in the open spaces and the few smaller pieces on raised pedestals and protected by glass cases.  They didn’t make many art sales, maybe one or two a week, but there were a range of pieces at varying price points. 

In the corner of the far wall, which was exposed brick that contrasted nicely with the large windows of the front wall, was a small raised stage.  The Gallery hosted an open mic night on Tuesday nights, and there was usually some sort of small acoustic set or jazz quartet or poetry reading on a couple of nights on the weekends.  The whole thing was really an impressive business model, and Faith was blown away by Joyce’s creativity in pivoting from her previous career that focused solely on the art world.  She genuinely appreciated the lessons she was learning here.

Which was crazy!  She only started working at The Gallery because she hated being a charity case.  Joyce had been good to her, even after Faith had fucked up and gotten all violent towards Buffy and Angel and even a little bit towards Willow.  But Faith refused to just mooch off the woman’s kindness.  She wanted to give back, and this seemed the most straightforward way.  Faith had never expected to actually want to learn more about the business.  Yet here she was.  A brave new world in Faithland.

There were no customers this morning, and Faith spent her time studying, careful not to get so deep into her GED prep book that she lost track of the flow of foot traffic just outside the shop.  It was important to shoot the customers a flirty grin the second they walked in the door.  The GED had been Joyce’s idea, but Faith had jumped on it.  The next test was scheduled in early December, so Faith had plenty of time to prepare.  Which was good, since this school stuff was wicked boring.  Even if she hadn’t been expelled for fighting, she probably would’ve dropped out anyway, especially once she was living on the streets.  Book learning just wasn’t her thing.  But this was important, even if Faith couldn’t exactly explain why.  She just felt like it was something she needed to prove to herself.

After a couple of hours, Joyce came back into the front of the shop.  “I can take over for a bit if you wanna grab your lunch, Faith.”  Faith shrugged, but her stomach growled at the same time, so she conceded the point.

“You want anything?”  Most days Faith just grabbed something from the nearby Doublemeat Palace.  She much preferred Happy Burger, but the DP was just down the street. 

“I really don’t see how you can live off a burger and fries every day, sweetie.  Slayer metabolism must be black magic,” Joyce mused.  “No thanks, dear.  I have the salad I brought from home.”

“Sure thing, Joyce.  Be right back.”  And she was right back.  There was still no one in the shop, so Faith decided to eat right at the front desk, where she could talk with Joyce.  “You talked to B in the last couple of days?” 

Joyce looked up from her book.  “No, not since I moved her into the dorms.  Why, is something wrong?”

Faith immediately felt bad, eyes darting away from Joyce as she took another large bite of her grilled chicken sandwich—fine, Joyce’s comments get to me sometimes.  “No, umm.  Shit.  I didn’t think this through when I brought it up.”

“Faith, it’s fine.  You’re her friend.  She’s gone to college, and she doesn’t need her mother anymore.  Not that she really needed me all that much to begin with.”  Joyce smiled brightly, just to be sure Faith didn’t take that comment the wrong way.  “My point is, I get it if you don’t want to rat out any of her secrets.”

“Thanks, Joyce.”  She was such a cool mom.  Faith didn’t really understand why Buffy kept her at such a distance, but then again, Buffy seemed to have this whole weird thing where she didn’t think of the adults in her life as real people.  Faith hoped she would grow out of that tendency soon.  “And it’s not a biggie, no huge crisis or anything…  She just seems a little overwhelmed by it all.  Which is weird, because she’s Buffy, ya know?”

She swallowed a few fries, eyes watching as a group of three pedestrians strolled past the front windows, looking in but not stopping to enter the store.  Joyce caught her gaze.  “You know that Buffy’s allowed to have flaws, right?  I mean… she’s a remarkable girl, but she’s still just that: a girl.  She’s got plenty of learning and growing to do.”

“Oh, believe me, I get that.  I’m well aware of B’s many, many flaws,” Faith joked, flashing a devious grin.  “But this feels weird for her.  Being a little fraidy cat isn’t really one of B’s flaws.  It’s just school, only bigger.  It’s nothing she hasn’t done before, other than living on her own.  But even then, she’s with Red.  I don’t get it.”  Faith shoveled a few more fries into her mouth, adding as she chewed, “Plus I think she’s kinda bein’ like … clingy all of the sudden.”

“Well, sweetie, maybe you could just give her a little nudge, you know?  Encourage her to really explore herself and her new environment.  Make new friends, that sort of thing.  College isn’t going to get any less scary unless she just jumps in and embraces it.  You don’t have to push her away exactly, just encourage her.  Make sure she knows you believe in her.”

Faith laughed.  “Sounds like some real mom shit there, Joyce.  But yeah, maybe that’ll work.  We still got patrolling together and training, but she doesn’t need me there for every dinner, party, and study session.”  She grinned, and Joyce smiled back.  It still baffled Faith that Joyce hadn’t seemed to notice the massive crush Faith had on her daughter.  She was pretty sure Joyce knew Faith was gay … or at least, she should know, if she was paying any attention.  But they’d never really had a conversation about it—Joyce was cool, but people still got plenty weird when it came to the whole gay thing.  Whatever, they could talk about it once Faith had her own place, when she wasn’t at risk of being kicked out of the house.  Not that Faith really thought Joyce was capable of that, but … it was a convenient excuse to continue avoiding anything close to a vulnerable conversation.

“Alright, back to work.  Gotta attend to all these many customers who need our help,” Faith jested.

Joyce sighed dramatically.  “Wednesday is our slow day!  You know this.”  Joyce pouted at her, looking more like Buffy than in any other expression she made.  “You don’t have to be so mean, Faith.  I could fire you, you know?”

“You won’t, though,” Faith said as she threw away the remnants of her lunch.  “The Gallery has never been as much fun as it’s been since I came around.  You’d be dying of boredom in less than an hour.”

“Fine.  You do bring a certain amount of youthful vigor to the place,” Joyce conceded, her lips quirking up just slightly at the corners.  “But you are on thin ice.”

                                                  

As she entered the Bronze with Willow and Oz, her eyes found Faith immediately.  And right there next to her was Xander, and unsurprisingly, Anya.  Guess Faith was right about those two.  “Xander!” she and Willow shouted in unison.

Her friend’s smile was big and dopey as she rushed forward to hug him.  “The whole world in front of ‘em,” he snarked, looking from Buffy to Willow to Oz as he then moved to hug Willow, “and they come back to this dive!”  He turned to Oz.  “Do we hug?”

“I think we’re too manly,” Oz deadpanned.

“When did you get back?” Buffy demanded, as she took a seat between Faith and Willow.  

“Couple days ago,” he muttered, taking a long swig of his soda in anticipation of the combined outrage by Buffy and Willow.

“You freak of nature!” Buffy shouted.

At the same time, Willow’s brow furrowed and she demanded, “Why didn’t you call us?”  Xander shrank away from them, but it was Anya who answered.

“We were busy having sex,” she explained matter-of-factly.  Faith snorted in laughter.  Buffy and Willow both made faces.  Oz watched passively.  So Faith jumped in.

“I think what B and Red were trying to say was that they missed you, dorkus.  How was your trip?  Bet I’ve got better roadtrip stories.”

Xander made a confusing face, then looked between Faith and Anya like he wasn’t really sure what to say.  Buffy figured she would help him out.  “Come on, Xan.  What'd you do?  What'd you see?”

“Well...”  His voice drifted off awkwardly, and this was starting to get suspicious.  A waitress stopped by and dropped off a soda for Buffy, but it was in a smaller glass than usual, with a tiny straw.  She raised an eyebrow at Faith.

“Easy there, B.  I ordered you a drink.  A real drink.  Just give it a shot.”  Buffy rolled her eyes, but she couldn’t avoid the grin that broke across her lips.  She was surprised by the warm feeling she experienced low in her gut at the idea that Faith felt comfortable ordering her drinks.  Willow hadn’t paid their back and forth any attention, though, instead insisting that Xander tell them where he went.

“Grand Canyon!” he sputtered, and Anya shot him an amused look.

Buffy asked, “You saw the Grand Canyon?”

“Well, I saw the movie Grand Canyon on cable.  Really lame.”

“Dude,” Oz muttered.

“Xander, what the heck?” Willow asked, almost at the same time.

Xander sighed, wilting under all the confused looks from his friends.  “Basically, I got as far as Oxnard and the engine fell out of my car, and that was literally.  So, I ended up washing dishes at The Fabulous Ladies Night Club for about a month and a half while I tried to pay for the repairs.  No one really bothered me or even spoke to me until one night when one of the male strippers called in sick, and no power on this earth will make me tell you the rest of that story.”

“It’s a really good story,” Anya butted in.  “I have masturbated while thinking about it several times.”  She smiled brightly, and while Buffy felt intensely uncomfortable by the anecdote, Faith snickered beside her. 

Xander looked embarrassed and decided to just keep going.  “Suffice to say I traded my car in for one that wasn't entirely made of rust, came trundling back home to the arms of my loving parents, where everything was exactly as it was except I sleep in the basement and I have to pay rent.  How's college?”

“College is good,” Buffy muttered, and she could tell immediately that no one was buying her sincerity.

“Ok, uh, once more with even less feeling,” Xander mocked.

“N-no, really!” Buffy tried again.  She could feel Faith’s eyes on her.  “I-I mean, Willow's in heaven with classes and her Wicca group and stuff.  A-and Oz has this really cool house off campus with the band.”  Oz shrugged, and Willow nodded enthusiastically.  Bless you, Will.  “Plus, uh, Faith and I took out a whole pack of vampires on campus last night.”

Xander’s eyes went from Buffy to Faith and back to Buffy, and he grinned at her in this knowing way that Buffy didn’t care for one bit.  “Oh yeah, Faith’s been comin’ to see you on campus, huh?”

“Easy there, bro,” Faith snarked.  “I grabbed dinner with all three of our crazy college kids, and B mentioned a kid going missing.  We touched base with G, then did some patrollin’.”  Just when Buffy thought she was actually going to play nice for once, Faith turned and leered at her hungrily.  “Did get a nice tour of B’s dorm room though.”

Buffy blushed before she could stop herself.  Dammit Faith!  She took a first sip of the drink Faith had gotten her.  It tasted mostly like soda, but much harsher, with a bite and just a hint of something like vanilla.  She managed not to make a face, and the warm feeling in her throat after she swallowed was actually kind of nice.  She and Faith hadn’t done anything during the so-called dorm tour, but Faith had made a few pointed comments on how small Buffy’s bed was and how two people would practically have to be on top of each other to share it.  She could tell from the shimmer in Xander’s eyes that his mind was jumping to awful conclusions, though.  Buffy rolled her eyes, then shook her head emphatically at him, wordlessly conveying that he was wrong about what was going on.

Just a moment of awkward silence passed, and that was enough for Anya to try to jump back in with her own special form of small talk.  “Xander’s story reminds of this time, back when I was a vengeance demon—”  Buffy opened her mouth to cut Anya’s story short (she really didn’t wanna hear about whatever torture Anya had thought up back when she was a demon), but Faith put a hand on her thigh to stop her.  She mouthed ‘let her talk,’ as she smiled brightly, and she squeezed Buffy’s thigh just a little.  No one else could see Faith’s hand, since it was under the table, and Buffy couldn’t pretend that she didn’t feel a pleasant electric thrum from the contact.  Buffy raised her eyebrows, then mouthed ‘fine,’ dramatically at Faith, then she put her own hand down softly on top of Faith’s, as nonchalantly as she could manage as she turned back to Anya.

“So, there was this man, and he had broken up with his girlfriend because she had syphilis.  Or … maybe it was herpes?  Yeah, I think it was herpes.  Anyway!  The thing was that he was the one who gave her herpes, and it turns out, he got it because he was cheating on her, like constantly.”

“That’s awful,” Willow gasped, her eyes wide and horrified. 

“I know!” Anya agreed enthusiastically.  “What a dick.  I enjoyed punishing him, let me tell you.  She wished that no woman would ever touch his disgusting penis ever again, and I may have gone a little overboard.”  She bounced a little as she said this, shrugging as though she had just added a little too much laundry detergent to the wash or something.  “I covered him from head to toe in herpes sores, permanently.  I guarantee you, no one ever touched his penis again, or any part of him.  It was hilarious!”

Faith laughed at the story, and Xander chuckled uncomfortably, but everyone else just looked at Anya in dismay and disgust.  Faith squeezed Buffy’s thigh again and made a really cute face.  Buffy shrugged.  “I guess maybe the guy got what was coming to him, but you eventually fixed him right?”

Anya looked at Buffy like she was crazy, and Faith jumped in to change the subject from the obvious answer to the question.  “See B, I told ya Anya had great stories.”

“Yeah … um, great,” Willow muttered.  “Hey wait!  What did that have to do with Xander’s story?”

“Oh!”  Anya remembered what had prompted her tale in the first place.  “The girl was from Oxnard.  Or … was it Oxford?”  She shrugged again, and Faith continued laughing softly beside Buffy.

“Hey so—”  For once it was Oz changing the subject, and Buffy took another sip of her drink.  “Did you guys hear that Cordelia is working for Angel in LA now?”  The mention of Angel caught Buffy off guard, and her stomach sank a little at the mention of his name.  She was mostly over him, and all the flirting with Faith—as confusing as it was—had been a tremendous help on that front.  But it still felt weird to talk about him.  Apparently, he had set up some sort of detective agency in LA, helping solve mysterious cases and assisting people with supernatural problems.  The Cordelia thing was news to Buffy, though.

“What the heck could Cordy offer Angel?” Xander blurted.  “Did he need a stylist or something?  All black all the time isn’t good enough in the big city?”

“I think she’s sort of his assistant and she handles the money and … yeah, it’s weird to me too,” Willow explained.  “Guess the acting thing wasn’t working out for her?”  Buffy drank the last of her drink, swallowing what should probably have been more than one sip in a long, slightly painful gulp.  And of course, Faith noticed.  Her hand moved from Buffy’s thigh to her wrist.

“Hey B, how about a dance?”  The music had just switched to something a bit more upbeat, and Buffy was feeling all warm and tingly inside from the drink.  She was grateful for the lifeline Faith was throwing her. 

“Count me in.”  Faith led her to the dance floor, and she could hear Willow scolding Oz just slightly about the Angel mention as they walked away.  “So, what was in that drink?”

Faith smirked, one hand resting lightly on Buffy’s hip as the two of them began to move with the beat, a few inches of space separating their bodies.  “Just a regular ole vodka soda, B.  You liked?”

Buffy bit her lip, then nodded.  “Don’t tell my mom!”  Faith chuckled.

“B, she wouldn’t care.  You don’t give her or G nearly enough credit, you know that?”  Buffy did actually know that, but it was hard not to see them as just her mother and her Watcher.  She understood, in the abstract, that moving out of the house and going to college was the first step into adulthood, and that part of adulthood was becoming more like … equals or whatever with them.  But it was still so weird imagining Giles having a sex life, much less with a hot woman a decade younger than him (she guessed).

“Hey, are you doing alright?”  Faith quirked an eyebrow in question, not sure what Buffy was really asking.  “I mean … with me not living at home anymore, and not being around all the time and stuff.”

“B, I’m five by five.  Not to say I don’t miss your sexy ass, but it’s fine.”  Buffy rolled her eyes again, but she also inched a little bit closer to Faith, enjoying the warmth of her body near her own.  “I think the real question is how are you doin’?  And don’t bullshit me.”

Buffy frowned, knowing that Faith had seen through her.  “It’s that obvious how pathetic I am, huh?”  This time Faith was the one who moved closer, draping her other arm over Buffy’s shoulder.

“Hey, no!  Not pathetic.  But … yeah, it’s obvious that this whole college this is a little overwhelming for you.”  Faith licked her lips ever so slightly, and Buffy’s body tensed in immediate reaction.  Faith’s brown eyes looked warmly into her own.  “You know I believe in you, right?  Like … I dunno what it is about the big college life that is so rough, but I do know that you can handle it.  No matter how scary it seems.”  The sheer nakedness of Faith’s compassion took Buffy’s breath away.  She knew the other Slayer cared, but it was rare for her to express her feelings for Buffy in forms other than flirting and innuendo.  Buffy wasn’t exactly sure what to do with it.

“Really?  You do?”

“Fuck yeah, B.  You’re a badass.  I know everything is new and different, but you’ve stopped how many apocalypses now?  You can handle this.  I promise.”  The music shifted again, and again, Faith moved a little closer.  “Still, I figure the best way to get past your nerves is to just jump in, head first.  Be the brash, bold Buffy Summers we all love.”  She smiled softly, and seriously, this was the sweetest Faith had ever been to Buffy.  It was like a whole new side to the girl.  A side that was giving Buffy even more confusing ideas.  “You and I never really patrolled much up by the college campus, but last night proved there’s definite baddie activity around there.  Maybe you should do a bit of solo patrolling around the school the next few nights.  Get to know the area, build some confidence doing what comes natural, really spread your wings, ya know?”

Buffy smiled back at her, feeling a distinct gooey warmth inside at Faith’s support for her.  But she was still a little worried.  “You sure you can handle the normal haunts on your own for a few nights?”

“Oh come on, you know I can.  We’ve been trainin’ our asses off all summer.  Ain’t nothin’ can stop us.  And trust me, I’m not gonna feel left behind or anything.  I’m still here, like always.  You just gotta really take the time to find your new rhythm.  Can’t do that if you keep blowin’ off the college life to hang with me.  As much as I love the company.”  Faith smiled brightly at her, and Buffy resisted the very strong urge to lean in and kiss the other Slayer.

Instead, she bit her lip and whispered, “Thank you.  It means a lot to know you care, Faith.”  She tried to say the other girl’s name with all the affection and appreciation she was feeling. 

“I do,” was Faith’s quiet response.  And it felt like something between them had shifted, ever so slightly.  Oh boy.