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The Devil's Gate

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Her dad was the first spirit she ever saw.

Ten years old, sleeping in her narrow bed, and she couldn't recall any more what she'd been dreaming, but she remembered the exact moment she woke: opening her eyes in the darkness of her room, simple, sudden. No mom yelling at her to get out of bed and get ready for school, no rowdy hunter banging on her door on his way to take a piss. Just one moment asleep and the next awake, like a hand had pushed her forward.

She looked at the foot of her bed and her dad was standing there. That was strange, because he was supposed to be in California, hunting. And also because she could see him so clearly, every line in his face sharply lit, even though it was dark. She sat up in bed and was about to say, the question on her mind was, Daddy, you're back, when did you get back?

He opened his mouth like he wanted to speak.

Just then, the phone rang in the bar. It was loud enough to be heard over a drunken crowd, harsh and jangling in the stillness. Her mom must have forgotten to turn it down when she closed up for the night. Jo's eyes automatically jerked toward the sound, and when she looked back--

Her dad was gone. There was nothing in her room but the darkness.

A few minutes later her mom came in. She laid down next to Jo on the bed and wrapped her arms around her. She didn't seem surprised that Jo was awake. She said into Jo's hair, in the worst voice Jo had ever heard: "Baby, something's happened to your dad."

Days later, she heard John Winchester tell her mom he'd salted and burned her dad's bones. A goddamned thing, he said, gruffly, but he had to make sure. He didn't think she'd want --

"No," her mom said quietly, "no, I understand." She put down the cleaning rag she'd been fiddling with and walked away.

John stood there for a second, then moved down the length of the bar to where Jo was sitting on a stool. He pushed something toward her, wrapped in a piece of cloth. "For your mom," he said.

She picked it up: her father's knife. Her fingers traced the carved lines on the blade that formed his initials, W.A.H.

"Blade's pure iron," John said. "Real good against spirits."

She didn't look at him, just kept running her hands over the three letters.

Her dad never came back. And she never told her mom what she'd seen. She never told anyone.

*

Her mother was the first person to hand Jo a gun. She was thirteen years old when that happened. When she left for school, she was eighteen; a year older when she came back home. Twenty-one when she learned the truth about the night her father died. A lot of things happened to her between those times, but those moments stood out tall, the rest of her life strung between them.

In college, in one of the few conversations she and her roommate had before the knife collection scared her away, she'd opened up about how it'd just been her and Ellen for eight years. Nina's father had disappeared when she was just a kid, too, but for her having a single mom instead of a mom plus a drunken abusive dad had actually been a blessing. They chatted on the phone every other day, sharing everything, Nina describing her latest hookups like she was just gossiping with another girl friend. "My mom's totally my best friend," Nina confided in Jo, "I mean, we're all we've got, you know?" and Jo, mystified, said, "Sure, yeah."

It took her a couple weeks after she'd played her part in Sam and Dean Winchester's private little family thing before she could pull enough cash together to get moving. Normally she could have won the money she needed in half as much time as it took to waitress it. But the chill on the waterfront could freeze the marrow in your bones, and most nights the bar was occupied by just a handful of diehard regulars. She could only beat the same group at poker so many times before they got pissed and started making trouble.

Really, though, she took her time because she wasn't sure yet what she wanted to do. In her mind her father was a gruff voice, a blondish beard that scratched her cheek, an iron blade. She'd lived longer without him than with him. Her first instinct, after the door shut behind Dean, had been to call her mother, but that was the instinct she'd had at eighteen, nineteen, and now she knew better. There was a right way and a wrong way to process what had happened to their family eleven years ago, and the right way was always going to be Ellen's way.

So Jo let it fester, and in the meantime she looked through the cases Ash sent her. Hunters could get touchy about sharing their leads, but sometimes one or two would stop by the Roadhouse with too much already on his plate, and Ash would collect what he could for Jo. Bitching up a storm the whole time about how her mom would string him up by his manly jewels if she knew he was still helping her only daughter find hunts, but he'd do it. Normally she followed them wherever they required, picked up a lead in one state and surfaced in another to track it down, then got her resources together and picked up the next. Her only criteria was whether or not she thought she could solve it, what she thought she could learn from it, whether it could serve her that same thrill.

But she kept thinking about Sam and what he'd told her about their dads, and finally she figured she knew what she had to do, where she had to go. She'd always known she'd make her way there one day, but maybe it took hearing those words to realize why, to understand just how much of herself lived in a place she'd never once been. Either way, any reason for not going would have been bullshit. This was her dad, the ground where William Anthony Harvelle had drawn his last breath on earth. She was going, no more thought required.

So, then. Devil's Gate Reservoir in Pasadena, California. She looked it up and saw parts of it were all smoothed over with a park and a golf course now, not even really a functioning dam anymore. But it had been a bad place before Bill Harvelle and John Winchester ever set foot there. Four children had disappeared into the rocky land surrounding it when her own father was probably just learning how to talk in complete sentences. Groups practicing the black arts had met there on occasion, amid rumors of human sacrifices and animalistic orgies. And she knew, from hearing hunters talk about her dad, that it was one of those places that drew demons and hellspawn, a magnet for things most people -- if they were normal people -- would go crazy from thinking about too long.

And she could feel it drawing her, too. She wrote in the small journal she'd started when she was a teenager, on the other side of a page of Southern ghost stories: Maybe the air there is different. Maybe you can feel all the things that have happened there; like it's the kind of place where any event leaves an impression, like writing on carbon paper.

She paged through the other entries, sporadic and short. Hunters at the Roadhouse sometimes passed their journals around, swapping stories, trading knowledge, but she kept hers to herself, hard-won.

She played one last poker game and made her move. Built herself an ace-high flush and wagered a free tune-up on her old Dodge Dakota, a boxy piece of shit with peeling paint and a tendency to stutter stupidly whenever she tried to start it in the freezing mornings, and won both that and three full cans of unleaded. Enough to get her on the road. She had a camper shell on the back of the truck, covering a thin pallet, a sleeping bag, the toolbox with her guns and knives and holy water.

Two days of driving, almost a thousand miles laid out flat beneath her tireless wheels, punctuated only by stops for gas and sleep and greasy food that she barely remembered an hour later, with more road left behind her. It put her south enough and warm enough to sleep in the truckbed instead of motels: hard on her back but good for saving money, although she never really managed a full night in either. Too much stuff going on in her head. Mostly fitful dreams about getting lost in the hills around the reservoir, but on one memorable occasion she dreamed she was riding Dean Winchester, straddling his lap in the backseat of that car of his, while Sam drove and watched them in the rearview mirror with black demon eyes.

That woke her up. Her hands didn't stop trembling on the steering wheel until the sun had fully risen behind her, and by then, she'd hit the California border.

*

She called Ash for reconnaisance info. Predictably, he started freaking out as soon as she told him where she was and where she was going. "No, no, no, and no," he said, sounding just like her mom. "Bad idea. Real bad. You best just get your ass home, Jo, Ellen's been giving me the evil eye."

Her mom, who'd done her level best to keep from disclosing all the details for years. "You can't tell her what I'm doing," Jo said. "I mean it, Ash."

"Something ain't right about that place. Bad shit goes down there all the time, man, I mean it's like infested with everything from demons to vampires to spirits to--"

"Ash, I know all this already, okay? I just need you to tell me what I can do to clean the place up." She stopped as soon as she'd said it. She hadn't realized until just then what exactly she wanted to do, what she thought she'd accomplish on this odd pilgrimage. She said the idea again in her head, testing it out, and was only surprised at how little surprise she felt.

"Oh, gaw," Ash bitched. "First of all you'd need an army of hunters armed to the hairline, second you'd need an act of God, and third you'd probably need the Devil himself, 'cause that'd be the only thing could scare 'em all away."

Jo made an exasperated noise. "Coming up short on all three, so how about you give me some advice I can use on my own?"

"Try prayer," was his immediate response.

He ended up directing her to a place where she could find more supplies: weapons and talismans, books on the appropriate lore. When she got there she saw it was a little store above a tattoo parlor in Venice -- strange place for hunters to congregate, a wide concrete boardwalk following the line of the beach beneath a blue ocean sky, full of skateboarders and stoners and storefronts selling t-shirts with cannabis designs. Jo was used to the flannel-and-leather-clad gun-toting beer chuggers who congregated at the Roadhouse. She couldn't imagine these born-again hippies hunting anything scarier than a housefly.

The entrance to the store was at the top of a dark, narrow staircase. A hand-lettered placard above the doorway, strung with a beaded curtain that rattled as Jo stepped through, read simply, "Anya's."

Inside the dim and cramped space she found a veritable Sam's Club for hunters. The shelves were crowded with charms, ingredients for spells like jars of newt eyes and twisted rootlike objects, other items she looked at and felt her skin crawl, and more than a few that defied description entirely. Books, of course, tons of old books, and finally the entire back wall hung with weapons: swords, bows and arrows, knives, a rather large and oddly-designed hammer. And a sizable collection of guns, which Jo headed straight for.

"Can I help you?" a voice said behind her.

It belonged to a mousy-looking girl around Jo's age. Her face was pleasant enough, but her eyes were watching Jo carefully.

"Just looking to round out my collection," Jo said, just as pleasant. "You've got nice pieces."

"We do try to acquire the best."

Jo pointed to a handgun in the lower corner of the display case. "I've been dreaming about the SW1911 since it came out," Jo said. "Heard it's real reliable with different types of ammo. How much for this one here?"

The girl produced a set of keys on a chain at her waist and started unlocking the glass. "We retail at eight-fifty. A fair markdown."

Jo picked it up, cocked the safety, sighted down the barrel. "Or a good start."

The girl waited until Jo was done with it, then put the gun back and locked the glass with an air of playtime's-over. "If you're looking to purchase firearms, the state of California requires you to undergo a background check."

"Already done." She pulled out the form Ash had filled out for her and handed it over. "Need anything else? I got extra copies of my fifth grade report card, too."

"I think this will be fine," the girl said smoothly. "I'll just go run it through our system."

When she'd gone, Jo got a closer look at the weapons hanging on the wall. She lifted down a sweet little crossbow, testing the weight and balance of it. She hadn't just been making small talk -- it looked like all the weapons in the store were like this one, constructed with care and craftsmanship, scaled a little smaller, perfect for her hand.

She ended up deciding on the crossbow over the gun, and lingered over the bookshelves. Looked like there was a lot of useful lore contained between those old, dusty covers, the kind of knowledge you couldn't get from a bunch of hunters who basically just taught themselves, but she was going to run low on cash if she wasn't careful.

"I'll take a bag of rock salt, too," Jo said.

The girl looked up from wrapping her bow strings and bolts. "Rock salt?"

"Yep. You have it, right?"

The girl furrowed her brow. "It's not one of our more popular items. I'll go check if we've got some in the stockroom. Hey, Hilary?"

A tiny brunette came toward them from the back of the store. She was so short Jo must have missed her in the shelves. "'sup, Alicia?"

"Can you watch the store for a sec? I need to check the inventory."

Jo gave them both a cheerful smile: no worries, girls, not gonna run off without paying.

The brunette put her hand on the top of the cash register counter, which was nearly as tall as she was, and boosted herself up in a single bound. "Hey! Nice to see a new face. How'd you find us?"

"Uh, just got into town this morning."

"Seen much action?" the girl asked.

"Yeah, I've been on a few hunts."

"Wild, huh? The first vamp I ever took down on my own, man, what a rush."

Jo raised her eyebrows. "So you mostly hunt vampires?"

"Nah, anything really. Vamps, demons, the occasional big bad. L.A.'s been full of 'em ever since Wolfram & Hart imploded. Or so they tell me. I'm from Seattle originally, just got here a few months ago."

"So you came here just for the hunting." Jo looked the girl over. She was pretty much a toothpick, but her shoulders were hunched, her elbows facing out like a bulldog, like she'd have no problem wading right into a barfight. It was a bit comical, but damn, Jo wished her mother were here, just so she could see her jaw hit the floor.

"Yeah, it's so awesome -- they've got one of the originals here, you know? And she's finally letting me go out on squad patrols. Kept saying it was too dangerous for me to slay by myself before." She rolled her shoulders, looking mutinous.

Jo grinned. "So slaying's what you call it in California?"

"It's what we call it everywhere." She gave Jo a quizzical look. "You don't?"

"We've just always called it hunting where I'm from."

"Are there a lot of other girls there?"

What an odd question. "Uh, no. Mostly it's guys hunting, actually."

"You mean, not watchers? 'Cause outside of those we don't really get a lot of guys. L.A.'s pretty much a slayer town."

Jo was, with some unease, about to start a line of inquiry that began, The hell are you talking about?, but she stopped herself. She didn't like the speculative look the girl was giving her, as if she were some interesting new animal that needed categorization, and more than that, she didn't like feeling she'd walked into a situation where she was the only one not knowing something. Like this girl, launching herself one-handed onto the counter, bragging about taking down vamps and demons like she did it every day.

She was saved from further conversation by the mousy one coming back. "We had a couple of bags of rock salt left," she said.

"I'll take both," Jo said, pretending not to notice the look the two girls exchanged. "Thanks." She paid in cash, made sure the crossbow wasn't peeking out from her bag before she had to go out into the bright hippy sunshine, and made for the door.

"Hey, see you around," the brunette called after her.

Jo nodded and got the hell out of there.

*

"Freaky dice," Ash said on the phone later.

"So you don't know what a watcher or a slayer is, either?"

"Nope, no idea."

"Well, how'd you find the place?" Jo switched her phone to her other ear and leaned over to check the crossbow bolts, which had been soaking in the dead man's blood for about an hour now. Good tip from the Winchesters, she had to admit.

"We had a hunter stop in a few months back, specializin' in werewolfs. He told me about it. Said it was weird 'cuz they wouldn't sell him any silver bullets, but they had most everything else he needed."

"They barely had any rock salt. I'm telling you, Ash, something about that place gave me the heebies."

"Well, don't go back there, then."

"Don't plan to."

"And while we're talkin', don't tell me what you are plannin', neither. Need to preserve a little thing I call plausible deniability."

"Yeah, I got it, Ash."

"Damn straight," he grumbled to himself. "But hey, I mean, don't do anythin' stupid?"

Jo smiled. "I won't. Thanks, Ash." She hung up and peered out the dirty window of the camper shell. The sky behind the houses, crowding close to the beach, was reddish purple. The sun had just slipped below the edge of the ocean. Time to get her shit together, get out there and see what she was made of.

She took it easy going back inland on the freeways, letting the flashy L.A. drivers pass her on their way to their own lives. She'd memorized the route on her maps, but like most things, it was different in the dark. She was traveling through an urban jungle, full of fast-moving half-obscured shapes and lights that weren't quite enough to illuminate. Maybe there was someone out there right now, some innocent person with a demon in her, making her do evil. Maybe there was a vampire moving through a crowd, looking for a meal to take back to its nest.

Signs directed her to Devil's Gate Reservoir and the large dam that held back the waters of the Arroyo Seco. Below the dam, she drove over the ravine itself on a high bridge, catching a glimpse of the rocky cleft beneath, too black to see all the way to the bottom. With the truck windows open and the freeway following its own path some distance away, she could hear the water laughing. It was a strange, eerie, disembodied sound.

She parked the truck on the side of the road and loaded up with her .45, extra rock salt cartridges, crossbow, quiver slung on her back, a flask of holy water at her right hip and talismans around her neck (pentagrams and other charms, and a silver crucifix in case her flask got emptied), and her father's knife up her sleeve. She felt weighted down, hated having her hands busy with the gun and the crossbow, felt like if she broke into a run she'd be hampered by the flask banging against her hipbone. But better safe than sorry, or safe as she could be, anyway, walking right up to a devil's gate.

Loose dry earth slipped and skittered beneath her feet as she made her way into the ravine. Overhead, the moon was full and bright enough to make shadows, but not enough to disclose pitfalls or rocks waiting to trip her up. She stumbled a few times, adrenaline flashing awake and leaving her trembling a little, her stomach queasy and untrustworthy.

It wasn't the residue of past evils she was feeling, exactly, but it was definitely supernatural. She was walking into a place that had been claimed by things not of this earth, clawed back from the normal world and hoarded like the prey of an unknown beast. She felt eyes on her back, multiple sets of eyes watching her, tracing the outline of her body with a hunger and a malevolence, and knew it wasn't just her fear conjuring up the feeling. Her fear was trying to slow her down, make her turn and walk back to her truck and drive away like she'd never had the foolheaded idea to come here in the first place. But that was just a reaction, an instinct of self-preservation in response to perceived danger. It was something else in her, more primal than fear, that was doing the perceiving.

The water gurgled all around, playful in the dark.

She never would have seen it if she hadn't stopped to adjust the strap of her quiver, if her eyes hadn't fallen on the ground in front of her: a quick, aborted motion, a shadow coming to rest just a second too late. Jo whipped around.

There was a man standing behind her, not three feet away.

They evaluated each other for the space of a few heartbeats, during which Jo saw the entire spectrum of possible battles. If it was a spirit, the .45 and a hunt for bones; if it was a demon, her talismans and holy water; if it was a vampire, the crossbow. And if it was just some creep following her, he'd still be in for a goddamn lesson in not sneaking up on women.

She didn't think he was human, though. Her skin was crawling too much for that.

"Nice night," he said finally. "Here by yourself?"

His face was too shadowed to see clearly. But she knew now he wasn't a spirit. She'd felt the cold filthy touch of one of those, and there was something more...present about this one.

He spoke again: "Kind of dangerous to be walking around by yourself." The repetition of "by yourself" was almost gleeful, the s sound a little too sybilant. Then the man tilted his head and she caught a gleam in the dark cavern of his face, too odd to be either human or a human possessed.

Vampire, then. Her heartbeat kicked to life, and it was all she could do to keep her voice steady. "I'm not alone. I brought a few friends with me."

Crossbow swinging up, balanced on her wrist, aiming, firing -- all you gotta do is hit him somewhere in the flesh and let the blood take care of the rest -- the recoil socking her arm back and almost making her fall -- damn, should have practiced that more --

The vampire made a noise of pain and rage, and she could see the bolt sticking out of its shoulder. But instead of collapsing where it stood or even swaying a little, it was suddenly, blink-of-an-eye, looming above her, its cold hand wrapped around her throat.

fuck how'd it move so fast?

She couldn't breathe. The vampire leaned its face closer and she could see how inhuman it really was. She'd heard about the teeth, but no one had ever told her vampires looked like that, with that ridged brow and monstrous yellow eyes.

Jo brought her shotgun up between them, angled it into the vampire's abdomen, and fired. The recoil on this one was much worse: the vampire's grip around her neck didn't slacken, completely unaffected by having rock salt pumped into its gut at point blank range, and a muscle screamed in her neck as her body tried unsuccessfully to encompass the recoil's force.

"That was annoying," the vampire said. It bent her head to one side with its bloodless, iron-cold fingers, exposing her jugular.

"No," Jo rasped. She kicked her boot-clad feet, brought her hands up to its wrist and struggled--

"Hkkkgg." The vampire dropped her, clasping its suddenly smoking fist to its chest. The charcoal smell of burning skin rose between them. "Why do they always have crucifixes?"

Every hunter who'd ever set foot in the Roadhouse had sworn the vampire crucifix thing was just a myth. Jo didn't stop to think about it. Still gasping for breath, she yanked the chain from her neck and thrust her fist in front of her, the small cross dangling. "Come any closer and I'll stick this in your goddamn eye."

"You couldn't move fast enough, little girl." The vampire crouched, ready to spring.

"But I can," said a familiar voice.

It was the tiny brunette from Anya's. Before Jo could process it, she'd hurled herself at the vampire, one punch sending it flying. Jo blinked. "You're -- how did you--"

"Sorry, Jo, dust first, talk later."

The girl was completely unarmed except for a piece of wood in her hand the length of a soup ladle, sharpened into a point at one end. Even so, she attacked the vamp again, smacking it in the face with the back of her fist, pivoting into a roundhouse kick -- she moved as fast as it did, and barely seemed to register the impact when it managed to land a blow on her.

Jo did a quick mental calculus: girl obviously not quite human, but probably in the process of saving her life. The least she could do was help. She got another bolt in her crossbow and started to take aim.

A strong hand grabbed her wrist. "Don't do that. You hit my girl, I'm not gonna be happy."

Jo took in the new person. She looked a little older than Jo herself, dark hair, dark eyes, full lips -- almost exotic in her beauty. Her grip on Jo's wrist was strong, but unlike the vampire's, warm. Jo pulled away from it, letting the crossbow drop to her side. "I don't miss."

The girl broke into a grin that was slightly alarming, all cast in shadows by moonlight. "Me neither. But that target's moving a little fast for you. Just sit back and let Hil take care of it. She needs the practice."

It took Hilary only another minute or so. And then -- Jo took a step forward, uncertain of what she'd just seen. It looked like she had stabbed the vampire in the chest with her wooden stake. And suddenly the vampire was gone.

"Dusted," Hilary crowed.

Jo stared at her. "The hell just happened?"

"A slayer just happened," said the older girl. "Let's go. This is no place for talking, and definitely no place for you."

The unabashed superiority in her tone was like a punch in the face, the kind that made Jo want to haul off and smack a good one back. But the girl had already turned and started walking back up the side of the ravine, and beside Jo, Hilary was motioning her forward. Jo took one last glance around the rocky riverbed, as if the vampire might suddenly appear again, but there was nothing but shadows and laughing water. She turned and followed.

"So what's your name?" she asked the older girl. "I guess you already know mine."

"Faith."

"And how'd you know I was here?"

"Followed the scent of stupid."

"Don't mind her," Hilary whispered to Jo, when Faith had climbed a few yards ahead of them. "She likes it if you think she's a bitch."

Jo made a face that no one could see in the darkness. "She must be real happy right now, then."

When they reached Jo's truck, she saw that a motorcycle had been parked next to it. "Hil," Faith said, "call Deanna and do some patrolling around the cemeteries. We haven't hit Pasadena in a while. But don't come back here with them or I'll kick all of your asses myself."

"Sir, yes, sir!" Hilary gave her a smart salute, the corners of her mouth lifting in a grin, then hopped on the bike and started it up. "See ya, Jo."

Faith turned to Jo, eyebrow raised expectantly. "She your ride home?" Jo asked. "You might want to call her back, 'cause mine's full."

"So make room."

She thought about just not -- taking a stand right there and demanding she be told exactly what the hell was going on before she moved another inch. She could tell, just from the way Faith was standing, the way she carried herself, that she probably could kick Hilary's ass, and logically, Jo's. But she wasn't afraid. She hadn't grown up matching shout for shout with Ellen Harvelle without cultivating a pretty damn strong backbone.

"Jesus H.," Faith said. "The girls are always telling me I need to mellow out, but you're seriously working my last nerve here. Get in the damn truck and we can heart to heart all the way back to L.A. But it's not safe to stick around here, get it?"

"Fine," Jo snapped. She unlocked the driver's side, slid in, and opened the passenger side for Faith. Still, she took her time unloading all of her gear before starting the ignition, enjoying the impatient rapping of Faith's fist against the window. "So if this place is so dangerous," Jo said, "why didn't you bring any weapons?"

"Not like you gave us your travel plans ahead of time. Get back on the freeway, head for Wilshire."

They drove in silence for a while. Now that the initial rush was over, Jo could feel the usual reckless triumph that came at the end of a hunt, the feeling that she could go back there and do it all over again. Never mind that the vampire had almost killed her, that Hilary had been the one to kill it. She'd survived. She could survive anything. It was an irrational and stupid feeling -- she didn't even need her mother's voice in her head to tell her that -- but undeniable nonetheless.

"So are you guys human?" Jo asked.

Faith snorted. "Long story. But yeah, we're human."

"How many of you are there?"

"Right now, maybe two thousand of us, all over the world."

Jo nearly floored the accelerator in surprise. She'd expected something like those psychics of Sam's: just a handful. "And you're all girls like Hilary? And you're as strong and fast as her?"

"Yeah." She could feel Faith watching her. "You're not, are you? You're just normal. Otherwise, that vamp woulda never gotten you like that."

"I'm about as normal as snow in July." Jo glanced in her rearview mirror and changed lanes. "But as far as physical stuff goes...no, nothing special."

"So that's why you got the whole Rambo get-up? You some kind of vigilante?"

"Somebody's got to do it."

"Yeah," Faith said, "we do. Not you."

"It's all I've ever known. Not just vampires, I mean, but like, spirits and poltergeists, demon possessions. Anything supernatural, anything evil, I hunt it down. And there are plenty of others like me."

"What, girls?"

Jo hesitated. "Mostly not, but--"

"Right, ghostbuster geekboys acting out their favorite scary movies. Yeah, sometimes they come to the magic shop asking for books about exorcism or ectoplasm or whatever. We just figured you were something else."

"It's not only stuff in the movies," Jo said tightly.

"Sure. Never saw a ghost myself, but other people I know have, and it's not like I got room to disbelieve. But all those guys're amateurs."

"My dad was a great hunter." Fuck, her voice was not shaking. Not, dammit.

Faith was entirely without sympathy. "But he didn't teach you shit about vampires."

"So, maybe there are different kinds. Maybe they're different in California."

"I've fought vamps on both coasts and a bunch of states in between. Except for the oldest ones, they're all the same."

"And what are the oldest ones like?"

"Uglier," was all Faith said.

*

She directed Jo to a large, sprawling building on Wilshire Boulevard. They parked on the wide L.A. street, Jo scraping her tires nervously against the curb and making Faith smirk, and then Jo followed her through a pair of old-fashioned iron gates, a courtyard, and into a warmly-lit lobby where two grand staircases sloped down to meet them before taking a few more steps down to the floor itself. Jo realized with some surprise that it was a hotel, and a pretty empty one at that. There was no one at the front counter, no guests milling around waiting to be checked in or served.

"Everyone's out patrolling," Faith said. "But usually there's at least one person guarding the fort." She raised her voice: "Hey! Anyone home?"

"You own this place or something?"

"Not us. A friend. Only place in America we could fit three hundred baby slayers."

Jo was still wrapping her mind around "three hundred" when a man came out of the small office next to the front counter. He was very pale, almost to the point of looking ill, although it might've just been the contrast between his skin and his dark clothes. His movements were touched by a slight stiffness, almost too faint to be discernable, but when she looked closer she saw he was just moving a little more carefully and deliberately than a normal person. Familiar as she was with patching up wounded hunters, Jo recognized it as the walk of a man still in the last stages of healing, getting used to himself again.

"You're back early," he said. His gaze locked on Jo. "Who's this?"

"Jo meet Angel, Angel meet Jo. Guess you could call him a non-geekboy guy hunter."

He was...well, he was pretty hot, in a dark and brooding kind of way. His low, serious brow kind of reminded her of Sam, if Sam'd had more years of sadness on him. "I don't hunt so much these days," he said.

"Yeah, Angel's...what's that big word you like to use? Convalescing. The hotel is his -- he just lets us all crash here for free." Faith's expression softened a little as she looked at him. Angel met her gaze, giving the impression of rolling his eyes without actually doing it, then inclined his head toward Jo. "We picked her up at Devil's Gate," Faith explained. "Jo was almost snack food for a vamp."

Surprise flickered across his face. "What were you doing there?"

"Hunting." Jo shrugged.

"She's not a slayer, though," Faith said. "She just knows the weird stuff. Or some stuff, anyway. I brought her back here for a jaw session."

"Not by choice," Jo interjected.

"You're from Nebraska," Angel said. "But you've been around. Wisconsin recently?"

"How'd you know that?"

Faith leaned back against the front desk, crossing her arms. "Angel's been studying accents. One of his latest hobbies."

"I spend all my time taking care of girls who come from every place you can think of," Angel explained. "You start to pick up things."

"I take care of them!" Faith said. "Actually, we take care of ourselves."

"Uh huh."

Jo sat carefully on the round gray couch in the middle of the lobby. "I don't understand how no one's ever heard of you. No one notices anything out of the ordinary about a huge group of supergirls? At all?"

"Same way no one believes vampires or demons are real," Faith said. "There didn't used to be two thousand of us. Used to be just one at a time. Well, and then there were two at a time, but we'd be up all night telling the whole story of that one. Point is, the watchers were all about keeping slayers secret and they did it real well."

"And who were they?"

"Bunch of old guys in England who basically up and decided they'd run the whole show, even though most days they couldn't find their own asses with two hands, a flashlight and an ass detector."

"That about sums it up," Angel agreed.

"They trained the one slayer each generation, usually from birth if they could find 'em, then kept 'em in line and pointed 'em at things to slay for the rest of their lives. Which were usually pretty short. Kinda hazardous occupation we have here. But the way it used to work was, as soon as the one slayer died, another one got called, got all the superpowers and the great big destiny and all the rest."

"So how'd there get to be so many of you if there's supposed to be just one?"

"That's pretty much all Buffy. Guess you could say she's our leader." Faith's mouth quirked, half-amused, half something else entirely. "She's heading up the biggest group of us, about five hundred slayers in Scotland. Anyway, I'll give you the thirty second commercial version: a while back B died, and that called another slayer, but then she got revived, so there were two. Then B outlived that one and I got called, so she and I ended up being the two. But if you want the full details, like I said, long story."

One of the originals, Hilary had said. Jo tried to process. Goddamn, Ash was going to cream his pants when she gave him all this new data to sort. She had a sudden, horrible thought. "Did you create all these new slayers like that? Dying and then reviving yourself?"

"Dude, are you twisted or what? No, we did a spell. Makes all the girls who could have been called into actual, official slayers, without any of the scary shit."

"Two thousand of you," Jo repeated slowly. "I bet you could wipe out every kind of evil out there."

"That's the plan."

"And three hundred right here. You're practically an army."

"That we are." Faith's lips spread in a brief smile, like a cat swallowing a mouse.

"Damn," Jo said. She felt flushed, her breathing a little shallow, her palms kind of sweaty. This whole other world she'd never known about, right beneath the one she did.

"So who do you run with? 'Cuz somebody trained you, even if they forgot the basic talking point about not going to places like Devil's Gate without backup or superpowers." Her dark eyes on Jo were sharp.

"No, I've been told that." Jo licked her lips. "I guess you could say I was born into it. My mom runs a saloon back in Nebraska. It's kind of a stopping place for other hunters. I've known them all my life."

"And you wanted to be a hunter like them," Angel said.

"Hey, I hear that," said Faith. "So why'd you leave Nebraska if that's where all the hunters are?"

"They go all around the country, actually. They follow cases. That's what I was doing."

"Devil's Gate isn't a case," Angel said. "It's exactly what the name says it is: a way into hell. Not as big as a hellmouth," -- Faith smirked, "--or that place in Wyoming, more like a weakness in the wall than an actual portal. But it's enough for things to slip through, and it attracts serious evil."

"Like cockroaches on a rotting corpse," Faith said.

"So what," Jo said, "you just let it sit there?"

"Course not," Faith said. "It's just not priority one right now."

"But if you've got three hundred girls who can do what I just saw Hilary do--"

"They're not all Hilary. Most of 'em come here with these brand new superpowers scared out of their minds, no idea what's happening to their bodies, trying to learn which end means business on a pointy stake before I even let 'em see a real vamp. They're my responsibility, and they're not ready for a fight like that, not yet."

"Mostly we've just been focused on cleaning up L.A.," Angel said.

"Yeah," Faith said. "Some shit went down a couple years back, shook some things up in the demon world -- that's how Angel got hurt. We're still dealing with the fallout."

Jo cast back to her conversation with Hilary. "The wolf thing? Hil mentioned it."

Faith and Angel exchanged a look. "Damn, do I need to talk to that girl again about keeping her mouth shut?"

Jo raised her eyebrows. "I guess that was another big secret?"

Faith shrugged. "It's not like we care so much anymore -- with every evil piece of shit in town making trouble these past few years, thinking they can just pick up where Wolfram & Hart fell down, it makes more sense that people know we're here. Plus Buffy's got this theory that one day we're gonna need a lot more than just us.... But see, public relations means knowing the right time to let stuff like that out."

Just then, the crackle of a cell phone on speaker piped up. "Twenty-five to HQ. Come in, HQ?"

Angel reached behind the front desk and passed the phone to Faith. "HQ here. What's up, Mel?"

"Ran into a pack of hellhounds near the old Caritas place. They clawed up Shandee pretty bad. We can't seem to shake 'em."

"On my way. HQ out." Faith tossed the phone back to Angel and started grabbing weapons out of a glass cabinet on the wall. "Stick around, Jo. Keep Angel company."

Jo leapt to her feet, her heart beating that reckless tattoo again. "I can come with you. I know how to fight."

Faith shut the cabinet door. "No. And if you try to come after me, I'll take you down." Her voice brooked no argument.

"Be safe," Angel said. He sounded a little envious.

"Five by five." And then she was through the door, grinning, dark hair whipping around her shoulders.

Jo glared at Angel. "I can fight."

"I believe you," he said calmly. "But she can fight better. You'd just slow her down."

"Fine. Then I'll just leave and do my own thing. Plenty of night hours left for hunting. Maybe I'll even go back to what I was doing when I was so rudely interrupted."

"I think you should stay. And you should definitely stay away from Devil's Gate."

"Why, what are you gonna do about it?"

"I can't keep you in the hotel. I wouldn't, not against your will. But I'd stop you from going back there."

Jo squared her shoulders. "You're injured and you don't hunt. If you came after me, I'd just take you down."

"Don't be so sure," Angel said, his voice quiet.

She stopped, brought up short by a sudden wariness. She thought of Sam, suddenly, and felt goosebumps rise. Angel wasn't menacing her, didn't give off a threatening vibe. But he'd spoken with the matter-of-fact manner of simple truth. He could stop her if he wanted to. "You know, you can't watch me all the time," she said.

"Why do you want to go back there so much? What does it mean to you?"

"It's a bad place. I guess unlike you, I can't just sit back and do nothing about it."

"We do enough. When you do what we do, you learn to pick your battles."

She could not take hearing from one more person how to do her goddamn job, much less a stranger. "Look," she snapped, "you don't know anything about me, what I've been through, nothing. We only just met half an hour ago. So why don't you stop acting like you own me and mind your own damn business?"

"Because it'd be a shame to not have time to know you better," he said quietly. "And we wouldn't if you went back out there and got yourself killed."

"I've been in bad situations before," Jo snapped. "Got out of them just fine."

"Trust me, not like you'd encounter in L.A."

"Trust me, I learn quick. Now I know: all you gotta do with vamps is stake 'em in the heart. And demons, they get out of hell all the time. I've met one or two myself." Sam singing in her ear, his body caging her against the bar. "But you can always send 'em back."

"Not these demons. These were born into flesh. You can't just exorcise them with a few verses of Latin." There was an intensity to his voice now. "Look, we can help you. I've been alone, and I've learned time and again it's better with people."

"Oh, you want to help me, now? The only thing I care about is that place, and Faith already said she wouldn't take the girls back there."

"She said she wouldn't take them yet."

"So what, I'm supposed to just wait until she's ready? Three hundred girls with super strength and speed -- you could clean the place out in minutes."

"Even if we could, the evil would just come back."

"Right, gateway to hell and all that."

"It's like a sore -- you can clean out the wound, but if you can't heal it, it'll just get infected again."

She crossed her arms, thinking of her father, a gunshot in the night, a clean kill abbreviating a long, slow one. "So how do you heal it?"

Angel shook his head. "There are ways to close portals. Spells. But this is a little different than your ordinary -- there's no magically open door which can be magically shut. I had...people, before, who were good at researching this kind of stuff. But they're--" He cut off, his face going abruptly closed. "I know a lot of things, but with everything else we have going on, I can't cover the ground as fast by myself."

"Well," Jo said, and her heart was beating a little harder again, "if you're not gonna let me fight, maybe this is something I can do."

"You think you can research a way to close the Devil's Gate?"

"Most of what a hunter does is research. And I went to college, you know. Was gonna be a history major. I only did it a year, but I wrote research papers."

Angel didn't answer her at first, just stood there, looking at her like she was a map he was trying to figure out. She wondered how she came off to him: a small, pushy blonde who wasn't anywhere near as strong as the girls he dealt with on a daily basis. A stranger still. Broody as he seemed, he didn't look like the kind of guy who just let strange women bully themselves into his life like that.

But then, she supposed, apparently he did -- three hundred women from all over the world taking advantage of his hospitality. She began another salvo. "Look, if all it would take is one spell, shouldn't we do our best to find it?"

"It probably wouldn't take care of the vampires or demons who are already there physically," he said, circling the same arguments, which in her experience meant a person was giving in. "Like I said, it's not like exorcism -- if the soul is bound to the flesh, you have to dispose of the flesh first."

"So we'd do the spell, heal the weakness, kill the stragglers. The important part would already be done."

She knew she was on her way to beating him, but he surprised her with how quickly he caved. "Okay." His expression had opened just a little, his body moving toward the office with new grace. Sitting around learning people's accents when he used to hunt -- if it were her she'd have been clawing the walls.

She followed him into the office and paused just inside the threshold. "Damn." The walls were lined with bookcases which in turn were stacked haphazardly with books and papers, most of them lying on their sides as if left there by a careless hand. There were also books on the floor, strewn across the desk, and in the seats of two chairs which were, for some reason, sitting back to back in a large doorway that opened onto the area directly behind the front counter. The only clean space she could see was the chair behind the desk, where Angel must have been sitting when she and Faith arrived.

"We keep most of Wes -- our books in here," Angel said. "I've been trying to stay on top of everything, but with so many people needing to look up some demon or another...things might be a little out of place."

A little out of place turned out to be total chaos. Some of the books didn't even have titles -- at least none she could discern -- their ancient covers dusty and cracked with age. The pages of some were filled with markings that resembled no language she knew. Others were completely blank, the paper thin and translucent.

"Okay," Jo said, after about five minutes of flipping uselessly through the mess. "I can't work like this. You need a filing system."

Angel just stood there, looking expectantly at her.

"Uh uh." Jo put on her best Ellen Harvelle look. "I don't see you out there fighting, either, so you're helping. Let's get started."

Chapter Text

They worked for hours. She designated one bookshelf for demon lore, another for vampires, another for slayers, another for spells. Angel hadn't been lying -- he did know things, could read some of the strange writing and at least had an idea about subject matters and dates. Occasionally he'd stop and answer her queries, his voice sure and familiar -- vampires couldn't go out into the sunlight and werewolves could be killed by things other than silver bullets, it was just that the bullets made it horribly painful -- and she'd tuck the knowledge away for later, for the next time.

"Hey, did you see this?" Under a pile of papers that looked like handwritten journal entries, she'd found a slim little tract with a promising title: Hypotheses, Experimentations and Theoretics Relating to Portals to the Underworld.

"Huh," Angel said. "That...looks like it'd be helpful."

This one had actually been written in English, albeit in some kind of old, flowery print where the little s's looked like f's, making her think of her college history classes and slide presentations she'd dozed off during. She sat at the desk, trying to puzzle out the words, wishing for once that she'd spent more of her nights in her dorm room studying instead of stalking the campus for spirits.

Angel continued working around her, bending stiffly, silently.

She was in the middle of reading about naturally occurring portals to the underworld, as opposed to portals purposefully made or unmade by magic, when she fell asleep. And then she wasn't doing that anymore, but instead unsticking her face from the hard surface of the desk and blinking owlishly, because there were girls milling around in the now-sunlit lobby just on the other side of the office door, laughing and talking. It was morning.

Angel was gone.

"Rise and shine, blondie," Faith said, striding cheerfully into the office. "Looks like you had a busy night."

Jo stood, running her hands through her hair, blushing a little at Faith's bold grin. The office looked like a different room entirely: all the books vertical and ordered on the shelves, the floor clean, the chairs straightened. And apparently there'd been a filing cabinet hiding in the corner, where most of the loose papers had likely gone.

"We got breakfast set up in the courtyard. Better move now, it's going fast."

Faith led her through the crowd of girls. Although none of them were any older than mid-twenties or so, they truly did look like they came from all over: a spectrum of skin and hair and eye color, some tall and skinny, some bulky with muscle, others shorter and curvier, some wearing makeup and dressed to the nines, others in jeans or track clothes. Jo heard snippets of accents as she passed conversations in progress, not all of them American. A few girls were sitting around sharpening knives, whittling stakes. None of them gave Jo more than a curious glance, but they all nodded respectfully at Faith. Jo suddenly felt each of the two days now she'd gone without a shower, the near week she'd gone without a decent bed.

In the courtyard, Hilary was perched on a wrought iron table regaling a circle of girls with tales from the night: "So these vamps were trying to corner us, right, and I'm all, bam, I'm gonna kick your asses--"

Jo grabbed a bagel and an orange and sat on the edge of the fountain. Faith sat with her, tilting her face up to catch the rays of sunshine coming in through the entrance. "So," she said, eyes closed, "Angel told me your idea about the spell."

"Is he still awake? I wanted to ask him about this thing I found."

"Nah, he's catching some shut-eye. When you're conva-whatever it is, you need your beauty sleep."

"How'd he get hurt, exactly?"

"Fighting, how else?" Faith opened one eye and looked at her. "Think your spell's gonna work?"

"Well, I only just started looking for one. But something has to."

"We could use someone who's good with books. Willow's always crazy busy, and the time difference is a bitch."

Jo swallowed a piece of bagel. "You saying you want me to stay? Join the team or something?"

"Stay as long as you want to." Faith shrugged. "Angel's probably already given you the Jerry Maguire speech," -- Jo raised her eyebrow, "--you know, help us help you? So I'm not gonna bother. You can stay until you finish your breakfast or until you stop breathing, whatever. But if you choose option B, you gotta make yourself useful to the rest of the team. Get it?"

"Depends," Jo said. She dug her thumbnail into the orange, spraying mist from the rind. "I want to come out on hunts with you. Not always," she clarified, when Faith opened her mouth, already shaking her head, "just occasionally. I need to stay sharp."

Faith looked her up and down, a slow sweep of her heavy-lidded eyes that made Jo want to sit on her hands so they wouldn't fidget. "Fine," Faith said. "B runs with civilians, so did Angel. Guess I can, too. But you clear any missions with me first, and you only ever go out with a squad, not by yourself."

"Okay," Jo said. "Guess you got yourself a librarian."

She finished up the rest of her breakfast, observing Faith's interaction with the other slayers who came up to where they were sitting. Faith didn't bother to introduce her, apparently occupied with business. Most of what they talked about was reports from the night before, the things they'd encountered and where. Jo kept her mouth shut and listened, learning.

"How many times do I have to tell you Triloc demons hate open space? Dodger Stadium's right next to the nest. You can herd 'em in and take 'em down while they're panicking -- easy."

Melanie, the slayer Faith had been lecturing, snorted. "Right, in the middle of a game?"

Faith rolled her eyes. "So fucking wait until it's over."

"They leave the nest at sundown, and after last night I am not taking the squad through any old tunnels."

"Shandee's just a little scratched up is all."

"She can't even walk!"

"She's fine." Faith rested her hands on her knees and leaned forward. "You need me to come do this for you or what?"

"No," Melanie said, sullen.

"Fine. Then don't fucking argue with me or I'll bust your ass down from squad leader before you can blink. This is an easy one -- the squad can handle it."

"Whatever." Melanie rolled up out of her crouched position and stood.

"So I can see you run a pretty tight ship," Jo remarked. "Real disciplined."

Faith just raised one dark eyebrow. "Shouldn't you be researching, blondie?"

"I need a shower and a place to stow my stuff. The desk didn't exactly make a good pillow."

Faith drafted one of the girls to show Jo around and get her set up in a room. It was the mouse-haired slayer from the magic shop; she introduced herself as Alicia, born and raised in Rochester, New York.

"You're a long way from home," Jo said, as they climbed the stairs.

"We all are," Alicia replied, "even the ones from right here in L.A."

The room was small, with a full-sized bed pushed beneath the large single window. A sheet covered the glass instead of curtains, and half of one wall was painted a fresh pale green while the other half still had strips of wallpaper falling off.

"Sorry about the mess," Alicia said. "Most of these room restorations are still kind of in progress. But you're lucky to get a single -- the rest of us are in doubles. And you can make any changes you want as long as you don't knock down the walls or punch holes in the ceiling."

"I'll try to keep my fists to myself." Jo slung her crap onto the comforter.

"A few other house rules: there's no fighting between any of the girls and no going on unassigned patrols. And--" she eyed the guns Jo was laying out on the mattress, "--no firearms. Well, at least not loaded ones."

"I've seen all the weapons cabinets you got downstairs. What's your beef with guns?"

"Buffy doesn't like them."

"She's the one in charge of this whole slayer thing, right?"

"Yep. She's got her inner circle that's supposed to make decisions all together, but Buffy has the first and last call on missions, hierarchy, training regs, so, you know, pretty much everything important."

Jo nodded. She'd already gathered, from just her short time here, that for all the lip Faith got from the girls, they also had a real awe and wonder for her, and Buffy would probably get that much more. They talked about her like she was the Second and Third Coming. "But Faith's in charge here?"

"Our fearless leader," Alicia confirmed.

"She seems pretty tough. How'd she end up here?"

"L.A. was always Angel's town -- he and Buffy and Faith all go way back, but I think there was this unspoken policy of no turf-sharing. But you heard about the Wolfram & Hart shakeup a few years back?" Jo nodded. "He got hurt pretty bad. I don't know the details, but I think it wouldn't be lying to say he had to get scraped off the concrete when it was all over. Faith took care of him for a while, and Buffy sent some slayers to help with the situation in the city. And it just kept growing and growing, and eventually Buffy asked her to help make it an actual division."

Jo took it all in. She couldn't get over how the whole slayer thing had apparently been building for years, on the very same turf trafficked by hunters. Guess none of them were as good at tracking the supernatural as they'd thought. Swapping stories over beer and jotting down info on paper napkins, yeah, real advanced.

"So you work in that store during the daytime and go out, uh, slaying at night?"

"I don't work there everyday. We take shifts. Yesterday Hil and me had the afternoon."

"Is the store Angel's too?"

"Actually, it's a chain of stores, three in the city and more around the world, wherever we've got a division based. They all belong to Buffy -- well, technically I guess you could say the organization, but really Buffy."

"So that background check I gave you," Jo said, "it wasn't just for buying firearms, was it?"

Alicia smiled sheepishly. "You're in our database now," she confirmed.

Well, the least Jo could do was put them in hers. When Alicia left, she started an entry in her journal: Slayers are girls, chosen by some cosmic lottery to be more than they were. Seems like in the past few years, they've broken all the rules and started making new ones.

Instead of calling Ash to say she was all right, Jo left him a voicemail. She figured in his non-drunken pool table dozing time, he was probably hovering by the phone, worried he'd have to report to her mother about her untimely demise, but she didn't feel up to dodging all of his questions. She figured it could at least wait until she had more answers.

*

She spent the next couple of days finishing the book about the underworld and settling into life in the hotel. The girls were divided into twenty-five squadrons of a dozen slayers each. Every night the squads went out on assigned patrols, and once she'd gotten used to the busy, buzzing life of the hotel during the day, it was downright eerie how empty the place seemed at night, without them. But every morning they converged on the Hyperion again, rotating through the day's routine of sleep, food, and training. It was like the world's biggest military school for girls, but there was a chaotic, random feel to it despite the regimentation. In their off hours Faith let the girls do whatever they wanted, shopping at Rodeo Drive, hitting a club (although no one ever brought a hookup home), passing around a bottle or a cigarette in the courtyard.

A lot of them swung by the office to introduce themselves. Mimi who'd taken a boat all the way from Japan because she was afraid of flying; Petra from Maryland who'd been in L.A. already, clamped groupie-style to a rock band; Tina from Ukraine who'd almost been married to a boy her parents chose for her when she was twelve; more and more until their names and faces and stories began to blur together. They all seemed to know everything about her already; she thought, amused, that even girls with superpowers liked to gossip. No one seemed to make much of her utter normalcy, but she couldn't deny it was straight-up weird to go from being the only girl in college with a knife collection to being the only girl with a knife collection smaller than everyone else's.

On the second day, Petra came into the office with three other girls to serenade Jo with a welcome song. "Wrote it myself." Petra grinned. "I could've been in a band, too, you know."

"Yeah, if you weren't so busy blowing 'em," Hilary snorted, and got shoved off the desk for her trouble.

On her third night in the hotel, in the middle of scrounging dinner from the pizza boxes littering the lobby, Jo caught Angel coming downstairs. She dropped the slice she was going for and herded him into the office.

"So," Jo said.

"Hmm?"

"You're a vampire."

The surprise on his face was almost laughable, but she really didn't feel much like laughing. "Who told you?"

"I can read, you know. Kind of an essential skill for this job I signed on for." She slid the Watcher's diary she'd been studying across the desk toward him, opened to the first entry on Angelus, complete with a sketched likeness.

"Ah," Angel said. "I don't think this Watcher liked me very much." He glanced up and caught the look on her face. "O-kay, jokes on hold."

"I assume all of the slayers know?"

"They do."

Well, she hadn't been totally forthcoming with them when it came to her own shit, either. "And since they haven't, well, slayed you, I assume you've given up on the whole Scourge of Europe thing? Unless -- they're not feeding you girls for room and board, are they?"

He blanched. "You really do have a colorful imagination. No. I'm...different now. I have a soul. It gave me back my conscience, I guess you could say. Keeps me on the straight and narrow." He paused. "Well, for the most part."

"So all that stuff you told me the first night, about sunlight and stakes through the heart and beheading. It all applies to you?"

"Yes."

"You're a vampire."

"Yes."

"I hunt things like you."

"You've only ever met one thing like me," he said calmly.

"But you don't even look like that one. It had this face..."

"I have a face like that, too."

She thought for a second he was going to show it to her, and she knew if he did, and she reacted badly, whatever fragile friendship they'd been building would snuff right out. But he didn't do anything like that, just watched her without speaking, waiting for her to break the silence first. So she sat there and let it sink in, all the horrible things she'd learned about vampires from other hunters, all the horrible deeds of his she'd been reading about while the girls noisily went about their days, while he'd been sleeping upstairs, hiding from the sun. Of course he'd been sure he could stop her from going back to the Devil's Gate. Of course.

"I guess neither of us knows very much about the other," she said finally.

"You can ask me anything you want. My life's an open book." He gestured at the diary. "Has been for centuries."

"Okay." Her mind whirled and settled on the first thing it could. "How old are you?"

"Not counting my human years, I'll be two hundred and fifty-four this year."

"Huh."

"I've been ensouled for a hundred and nine, minus about six months."

"How did that happen?"

He paused. "Which part? It's kind of a long story."

"I keep hearing that from people," she said. "But seeing as how I sort of live here now, I've got time."

"Okay," he said. And slowly, haltingly, he told her.

It took until midnight to get through his life to date, and even then she suspected he was still holding plenty of cards close to his chest. She reflected that with each new thing she learned in California, she was getting better at taking in the next: evil law firms, a gypsy curse, an evil other half in this person sitting so quietly and seriously in front of her. And so much more. She could see why three hundred rowdy slayers were just a blip on the radar of all his life experiences.

"Okay," he said, "you look like you need some time to decide whether or not I need staking, so I'll leave you alone with that. I need to check on Shandee, anyway. She's supposed to have her bandages changed every night."

"The one attacked by the hellhounds?" She hesitated. "I know something about patching up wounds."

"You want to come with me?"

"Sure."

If she didn't know better, she'd have thought he smiled.

A suite of rooms on the top floor of the east wing had been converted into a makeshift infirmary, with a few rollaway beds in each. There were a couple of girls sleeping, and another sitting at a desk with some papers, apparently on monitor duty. She nodded at them both as they came in.

"Jamie," Angel said. "How's Shandee doing?"

"Bitching up a storm, as usual."

"Stomach wound done healing yet?"

"I did say she was still bitching, didn't I?"

He dug around in a dresser drawer that had probably once held a Gideon Bible, pulling out a roll of gauze and a tub of medicinal ointment. Then he led the way into the next room, where only one of the beds was occupied. A thin black girl lay in it, looking young enough to have not yet grown into her height, her limbs skinny beneath the sheets. She groaned when she saw Angel. "Get the hell away from me. This is torture and it ain't right."

"This torture is keeping you from getting infected and us from having to amputate your legs. So shut up and take it." But Angel's voice was gentle. He drew back the sheet and the smell of ointment came up strong and biting.

"Ow! Careful," Shandee snapped, when he started unwrapping her bandages. She looked past him to Jo. "Who're you?"

"Jo, the new research girl? But, uh, I've treated wounds before -- thought I could help."

"Are you any better at this than him? Because this is the kind of shit they like to take pictures of in Abu Ghraib, seriously."

Angel gave a long-suffering snort. "I've tortured hundreds of people. Trust me, if I was torturing you, you'd know it."

Shandee guffawed. "Ohhh, you went there!"

"Here." Angel handed Jo the clean roll of gauze. "Maybe she'll be nicer with you 'cause you're new."

"He just doesn't understand normal people's pain," Shandee explained to the ceiling, as Jo bent to apply the ointment. The wounds were ugly, ragged, but the hellhounds' claws hadn't damaged too much of the underlying muscle. She'd probably scar, but Jo had been reading up on slayer healing and strength. She'd fight again. "Wait," Shandee said, motioning to Jo. "She knows about you, right?" Angel nodded. "Yeah, like I said, he doesn't understand normal people's pain."

"You're hardly normal," Angel said. He held her foot up so Jo could wrap the new bandage. "And I'd say that even if you weren't a slayer."

Shandee snickered, then gave a small hiss as Jo went too tight.

"Sorry," Jo murmured.

"Nah. I'm tough." She ignored Angel's snort. "So where you from, Jo?"

"Nebraska."

"For real? I'm from Lincoln. Straight up. We were like the only black people in the whole damn city."

Jo grinned. "I'm from Jenkins Falls, a ways north of you. We're like the only people there, period."

"Yeah, we live on the shit side of Nebraska. Ever been out to the Sand Hills?"

"Yeah, I hunted a poltergeist out there once. Thought it was gorgeous."

"Oh, yeah? So you got the call too, huh?"

"Not exactly," Jo said, tucking the end of the bandage in, leaning over to check Shandee's stomach wound. "I'm just a civilian."

"I wasn't even talking about that call." Shandee smiled, and after all the crankiness, she was beautiful, like a window opening onto a storm-cleared sky. "Some of us, we knew we were meant to fight evil before we ever had the strength to do it."

Jo smiled back at her. "Then yeah, I got the call."

They sat with Shandee until she fell asleep, Angel resting his fingers on her slender wrist. "She was one of the first to come here," he said. "The ones who went to Buffy, back in Sunnydale, they were really the first, but Shandee was one of the first to come to L.A. She was only fifteen."

She wanted to ask what evil Shandee had been talking about, what baggage she'd brought with her. But she'd had enough stories for the night. It was time for work.

Just before dawn brought the sun spilling into the hotel, down in the lobby where they'd spread out their books and notes, Jo said, "I've been over and over this, and I think we need to find out if the weakness in the barrier is natural or if it was purposefully made."

"Okay, why?"

"Well, if it's the second kind we'd have to find out what exact magic made it and figure out its direct counter. That'd be the harder road, because apparently there's like an infinite number of spells you can use to get into hell. But the first kind of opening is easier, because then we could probably make any spell work for us." She pointed at the page she'd just been reading. "I think we could use this to tell us for sure what kind we got. Basically it's like a spell for detecting spells."

"Okay," Angel said. "So, what's the poker face for?"

"In order to do it, we have to actually be at the opening itself. As in, standing right there or right near there."

He mulled that over. "Faith's not going to like it."

"So we'll convince her. Why's she so damn protective, anyway?"

He looked at her. "You've never lost people on your watch, so you might not.... She led the first potentials for a short time, before their slayer powers got activated. Apparently they were tricked into setting off a bomb. Some of the girls were killed, others were wounded. I think she's always carried that with her."

"But girls have been hurt on her watch since then. Look at Shandee."

"And she deals with it, in her own way. But it doesn't mean she's okay with it." Angel pursed his lips. "I'll ask her."

"You sure?"

"Yeah. I think I can talk her into it." He looked at her. "You've still got that poker face. What else is there?"

Damn, he was good at reading people. She took a breath. He'd shared a lot of himself tonight; she supposed she could, too. She pushed the book over to him so he could read the spell for himself.

"Asphodel roots, purified soil, whatever that means, oh, hmm. Virgin's blood. Yeah, that's pretty common. I guess we could ask the girls -- some of them are young enough."

"We don't need to ask anyone else," Jo said.

It was a full beat before he'd processed. "Oh. I didn't -- are you sure?"

She almost laughed. "I think I would have remembered. Not to mention my mother would have pumped whoever it was full of lead, before throwing him out of the bar. She didn't like hunters sniffing around me."

"You mean, not even in college?"

"No one at school I could really open up to. I mean, I did things...but I didn't want it to be just anybody." She shrugged. "Guess I'm old-fashioned." She thought of Dean Winchester, who could be clear across the country for all she knew, thought of the way his eyes could sometimes look straight through her, not into, but through. And she didn't want to, but it slipped through anyway: his brother, bending her over the bar with his body, his breath hot on her face.

Then, firmly, she pushed them both away.

"Hey," Angel said, "take it from me, it's complicated no matter who you do it with." And if he weren't undead he probably would have been blushing. She knew then that they were going to be all right.

*

True enough, Faith took her time deciding on the matter. It wasn't until two days after Angel spoke to her that she knocked on Jo's door.

She stepped over the threshold, looking bemusedly down at the line of rock salt Jo had laid in the groove created by the wood slat, but when she glanced up at the ceiling, she stopped cold. "The hell is that?"

"A devil's trap," Jo said. She sat on her bed, crossing her legs Indian style. "If a demon walks into one, it can't get out."

"You're planning on trapping demons in your bedroom...why, exactly?"

"So they can't run away when I exorcise them."

Faith shook her head. "You and your weird hunter crap."

Jo decided not to tell her just yet about the devil's traps she'd scattered through the rest of the hotel. She'd asked Angel about it beforehand, not wanting to construct no-go zones on his own property without his permission, but it turned out they didn't even work on him. Probably something to do with that difference he'd tried to explain, a demon bound to flesh versus a demon possessing flesh. He'd actually helped her draw the rest of the traps, his artist's hand steady and sure.

"So how long is this spell of yours gonna take?" Faith asked.

"Ten minutes, start to finish."

"A lot can happen in ten minutes."

"Consider it practice. The actual closing spell might take even longer. But I think this battle is worth it. It's worth it to have one less thing helping the other side."

Faith leaned against the wall. "Angel said he told you about the bomb."

"Yeah." Jo cleared her throat, willing herself not to break eye contact first. "It's not like we were -- it's just, you know, hard to keep secrets in this place."

Faith gave a short laugh. "You know, B, she had all this experience sending her own friends into battle. And Angel, too, back when they were.... So when it came to potentials, all these girls she barely even knew? She could make decisions like that, no problem. So I thought I'd have no problem either, 'cuz I mean, I didn't know any of those girls." She broke off and laughed again. "I don't know why I'm telling you this. Like you said, hard to keep secrets here."

"People die," Jo said quietly. "Even when you've got a plan, something can still go wrong."

Faith straightened. "Doesn't mean you stop being careful. Give me a plan, and if I like it, we'll do it." She looked Jo over. "I guess if you're doing the spell, you're gonna be right in the middle of the action. How do I know you won't get yourself killed?"

Jo lifted her chin. "I haven't yet."

"Yeah, but you're young still. Come on, grasshopper. Lemme teach you some things."

The ballroom on the second floor was where the slayers trained. It was a scarred room, the walls scratched and gouged, parts of the floor missing, random bits of debris cluttering the corners. It was mostly empty now, in the middle of the afternoon when the division tended to rest. As far as Jo knew, Faith hadn't slept since the middle of the afternoon the day before. She looked a little purple around the eyes, and her hair was in the process of escaping its loose ponytail. But Jo didn't doubt she could still kick pretty much anyone's ass, including her own.

Jo had learned how to fight from hunters, big guys, scrappy guys, older and younger -- all of whom had advantages on her in weight and muscle mass and experience. She'd learned from them under her mother's careful eye, just enough to defend herself. And then she'd kept going. Despite the not-so-occasional snort and remark from some guy -- or Ellen -- who thought the best thing Jo could do for herself was learn how to handle a gun, despite the bruises and sprains and the broken rib that had her mother screaming at the unfortunate hunter who'd been stupid enough to throw Jo against the icebox -- despite all of that, she'd kept going. She'd wanted to know more than just one side of a fight.

Faith had basically the same physical stats as Jo -- height, weight, build -- except that she'd been built like Jo could never be, from magic and an ancient wish. She held up her hands, not even bothering with sparring gloves, and said, "Okay, let's try some kicks."

High and fast, just like she'd been taught. Her heavy boots connected with Faith's palms, wrists, forearms. Faith barely blinked, but she nodded and called out, "Good, that was a good one, now try and get past my block." Jo did everything she'd been told: maintain eye contact with her target, watch her opponent's eyes for signs of attack. But Faith gave nothing away -- she hadn't even broken a sweat, and Jo was already panting, her tanktop soaked through.

"Okay, hand-to-hand," Faith said, and switched it up before Jo could get her balance, lashing out and tapping Jo in the solar plexus with her fist. It felt like a Mack truck. Jo stumbled, tried to recover, and crashed onto her back on the blue mat.

"Oh, fuck," she wheezed.

Faith stood over her. "You gotta be able to see it coming, blondie."

"I'm not as fast as you," Jo said, and immediately wanted to punch herself in her own whining mouth.

"But you're gonna be as fast as vamps and demons? C'mon, I thought you hunters were all tough and shit."

Jo shut down the yammering pain in her chest and got up. She and Faith squared off, Jo's fists raised in the ready position. Faith circled her, hands relaxed on her hips, looking amused. "Cute," she said, "real cute. I know whenever I'm fighting vamps, they like to wait for the ref to say go."

"You're all talk. Thought you were gonna teach me something?" And in the middle of talking, Jo jabbed with her right, quick like a lightning bolt.

But Faith seemed to duck almost as soon as Jo formed the intention. She managed to graze her on the cheekbone, then forced herself to reel back, anticipating Faith's counter. Faith overbalanced but recovered instantly, and Jo found herself doing all she could to block her attacks. Faith was stronger, quicker, everywhere at once.

Jo was pissed, dammit. No, it wasn't a fair fight, and no, she wasn't going to let that be any kind of fucking excuse, but what the hell? Faith seemed to like it, though -- she kept saying, "Good, faster, get your hands up, good--" and all the while she was backing Jo up with her offensive, off the blue mat, their feet thumping onto the hardwood floor.

Finally, Jo felt the wall against her back.

"Okay, so you're cornered," Faith said, a smirk on her face. "What're you gonna do?"

Jo launched herself forward, straight into Faith's fists, one of them socking her right in the eye and holy fuck it felt like her eyeball was going to burst -- and grabbed one handful of her throat and one handful of her hair. She used her momentum and the surprise to keep going, pushing Faith back, hooked her leg around Faith's ankle and took them both down, landing half-on and half-off the blue mat with a mutual "oomph!"

Jo got her legs around Faith's hips, straddling her and holding her in place. "Then I pick up a rock and brain you," she said. "Or I choke you to death. Or I get out my stake. Either way, you're dead."

"Dead when I let you win," Faith snorted.

Jo flexed her hand around Faith's throat, feeling her pulse and the swallow of each breath. "You didn't let me win."

"Oh yeah?" Faith bucked and flipped them, warm and implacable as an ocean wave, and then it was her hand on Jo's throat.

"Yeah," Jo said. And Faith looked down, surprised, at Jo's father's knife, the sharp point of it pressed right beneath her breast. Jo spat hair out of her mouth. "I can poke a hole in your lung or your heart. Take your pick."

"That little pigsticker wouldn't do shit against a vamp."

She heard Dean Winchester, saw him reading her dad's initials, and it froze her right up. "If you were a vamp, it'd be a stake. Get off me. You made your point."

Faith hopped up and extended a hand down to Jo. After a moment, Jo took it. "Not bad for a civilian," Faith said. "You might do all right."

"So glad I got your approval."

"You should be, otherwise I wouldn't be letting you go on this little field trip. Go slap some ice on that eye and get to work. I want to hear whatever your plan is during patrol assignments tonight." She grinned at Jo, sleepy eyes suddenly awake and assessing, a wicked glint in them. "Nice job, blondie." Then she turned and strode out of the ballroom.

Jo sheathed her knife with hands that were inexplicably trembling. "Sir, yes, sir," she muttered.

*

Jo's plan called for a supporting task force of one squad, which she figured would be enough to assuage some of Faith's fears about safety, and not so many as would be a crippling loss if something went wrong. She had to admit, for all she considered Faith's overprotectiveness simply an obstacle to get around, the balancing of that -- twelve girls out of three hundred -- made her skin crawl. She wrote in her journal, I can walk right into a spirit's lair and be the blonde-haired bait. But it's different, making casualty projections when the numbers include more than just yourself.

She went up to have a visit with Shandee before bringing the plan to Faith, and found her just getting discharged. Jamie dropped the end of the bandage she'd been wrapping around Shandee's stomach and said, "Holy shit, Jo, let me look at that shiner."

Jamie whistled, and Shandee squawked, when Jo told them about the sparring session with Faith. "I can't believe you actually took her down," Shandee said. "You are one hardass bitch."

"Not like you," Jo said. "That's some freaky slayer healing. You look good as new."

Shandee propped one thin leg on Jamie's knee. The scarring wasn't nearly as bad as Jo had predicted. "Don't front, now. Sexy like Tina Turner, amIright?"

"Hell no," Jamie said. "Her geriatric ass is still hotter than your skank."

"Eh," Jo said, pulling a Dean. "I'd do you."

"No lie." Shandee smirked. "We're all hard up. Too many damn girls in this place and not enough Angel." She laughed at Jo's expression. "Nah, he doesn't date anymore. Believe me, many have tried and failed."

"Failed spectacularly," Jamie agreed.

Jo laughed, somehow managing not to blush. "And Faith?"

"Why you wanna know?" Jamie grinned hugely. "Your sparring session that good?"

"Just curious." And...blushing now. Weird. Like she hadn't grown up around a bunch of men bragging about all their hunting and fucking exploits.

"Faith'll roll anybody but slayers," Shandee said. "She's got a mom complex about us."

"Oh," Jo said, thinking, anybody?

She told Shandee about the Devil's Gate expedition on the way downstairs, and by the time they reached the front counter, where Faith and Angel were meeting with the squad leaders about the night's patrols, Shandee was chomping at the bit to go along.

"No way," Faith said. "It's actually a surprisingly unstupid plan, but I pick the personnel. And you're not going."

"Come on, I've been stuck in that ward for days! You need to let me out."

"I don't need to do anything. Everyone takes two days out after discharge. Those are the rules."

"Like you and Buffy don't go right back out when you get hurt. How come y'all get to break the rules?"

Faith turned to Angel. "Am I the only one who gets tired of these bitches constantly arguing with me? Tell me I'm not the only one."

"Oh, nice. Why you always gotta resort to profanity? It lowers the level of discourse and it hurts my fucking feelings."

Angel pulled Jo off to the side. "She'll approve the mission. You sure you can do the spell?"

"Mimi brought all the ingredients I needed from Anya's this afternoon. I'm just worried about screwing up the Latin. Been practicing, but it's my first spell."

"Yeah, it doesn't get any easier, even after a quarter millennium."

Jo grinned.

They left for Devil's Gate two hours later with Squad 24, Shandee stalking off to sulk somewhere and Angel shutting the van door on the fourteen girls inside with a brief "Good luck." Jo sat in the front passenger seat clutching the bag from Anya's, mouthing the words of the spell over and over again.

Faith leaned forward from the seat behind her, one hand on Petra's headrest, the other on Jo's. "How much longer?"

"Just a few minutes," Petra said.

Faith turned back to face the rest of the slayers. "Okay guys, almost game time. This is strictly guard and defend. If we come up against something badass, we abort and fall back immediately. Don't take any chances and you won't get dead. Am I coming through?"

"Five by five," the slayers chorused.

Petra pulled the van over at the top of the ravine and the task force spilled out, sleek and dangerous like a pack of panthers, every movement silent and economical. The moon had grown to fullness since the last time Jo had been there. Its light cast everything in dark silver. Jo moved among the slayers, armed with only a small battleaxe where others carried swords, maces, crossbows, like women warriors straight out of a medieval tapestry. Surrounded by their strength, she felt safe as houses.

Faith led the way deep into the ravine, up the babbling Arroyo Seco, toward the large rock that gave the place its name: a hooknosed devil face looming out in the moonlight. "Christy, Erin, Maria -- longrange weapons get up on lookout. The rest of you spread out and cover." She turned to Jo. "You're on, blondie."

Jo knelt in the wet riverbank and started setting up the small wooden altar: black candles, asphodel roots in a carved pewter bowl, a glass crystal. She took out her dad's knife and slid her thumb gently along the blade, letting a few drops of blood into the bowl to sink into the dry skin of the roots. Then she lit a match and set the candles and the roots aflame.

She turned to Faith. "Can you grab me some mud from the river? Make sure it's beneath the waterline."

Faith raised an eyebrow, but got her the mud, cupped in her two hands. "What now?"

"Come here." Jo poured a bit of holy water over her cut thumb, trying not to flinch at the sting, and washed the blood and water into the bowl of Faith's palms. She swirled the mixture around with her fingers, brushing Faith's skin now and again, then said, "Okay, uh, let some of this get into the fire."

Immediately the contents of the bowl began to give off an acrid smoke. "That'll draw 'em out," Faith remarked.

Grasping the crystal in her bleeding hand and the spellbook with the other, Jo began to read, stumbling a bit over the Latin at first and then (for fuck's sake, girl, the s's are f's!) gaining more confidence. Her voice was the only sound above the crackling fire and the gurgling river.

It only took three repetitions of the spell before the crystal began to glow, pale white. "Oh," Jo said.

"What?"

"It's naturally occurring."

"What's that mean?"

"It means we can do this. We can fix it."

"Great. Let's get the hell out of here so you can start working on that." Faith signaled the other slayers and started helping Jo clear up.

She couldn't quite pinpoint what she was feeling. She didn't think she'd even convinced herself the spell would work, for all her confident front about the plan. Her tools of choice had always been weapons, not spellbooks and magic plants, and her time in the Hyperion had proved -- painfully -- that not only was she lacking in any kind of special mojo, but also much of the essential knowledge even required to do the job. Before arriving in L.A., all she'd had was her determination and a faded collection of memories.

And yet the crystal had glowed in her hand.

A scream shattered the silence from above, where the lookouts were. "Shit," Faith breathed, "that was Erin."

Then chaos descended.

Jo's first, stupid thought was: monsters. They were black-scaled, red-eyed, sweeping along the ground like billowing smoke. Later, even when she'd had time to process, the only word she could think of to describe their attack was swarm. She saw two of them envelop a girl -- Neesha, who had once lingered over breakfast to describe how, not two years earlier in another life, she had danced in India to ward off demons -- ripping the skin from her face.

"Move, move, move!" Faith was shouting, swinging her sword, sending one of the things flying before it turned and came at her again.

Jo ran. She saw another one dive toward Petra and threw her axe, fear-blind. It hit the thing on one end and sent it shrieking into the river.

"Hurry," Petra gasped, and grabbed her above the elbow, hauling her toward the slope of the ravine.

Girls were all around her, scrambling up the rocks. She could hear some of them gasping, high and desperate. She could hear others screaming, further below.

The moon shone its cold white eye on the crest of the slope, outlining the pale figures waiting for them there. Vampires.

Above her, Petra shouted, "Jo, get back!" and leapt at the closest one.

Someone put a stake in Jo's hand and she swung at the first non-female body she saw. The stake sank sickeningly into flesh before continuing its inertial path as the vamp burst into dust. Straightening, panting for breath, she looked around just in time to see a vamp claw Petra across the face. She charged toward them. Raised the stake, rammed it into the vamp's back, where the heart should be. Dust.

"Thanks," Petra said, spitting blood. "We're rockin' and rollin' now, huh?"

They broke a path to the van, fleeing the black swarm, the snarling vamps. Somewhere in the madness Jo saw that Faith had climbed the ravine and entered the fray, streaked in dirt and blood, moving faster than anyone, faster than possibility. She dusted two vamps with stakes in both hands, got an arm around Maria and dragged her into the van. Jo, gasping, scrambled to the front to reach the steering wheel, start the ignition, hit the gas.

And then that was it: Faith, Maria, Petra, Jo. They were the only ones left.

"Do you want me to go back--" Jo sobbed, "the others--"

"Keep driving," said Faith, her voice wooden. "Don't stop 'til we get home."

*

Later, Jo couldn't remember how she got them to the Hyperion. She drove into a long dark tunnel, and on the other side were the bright lights of the hotel, Angel's stunned face, the other slayers surrounding them and holding them up simply by being there. The darkness followed her in patches: she remembered Jamie's hands cradling her head, shining something into each eye, but not how she got to the infirmary. She remembered Shandee pulling off her muddy jeans, covering her naked legs with a bedsheet, but nothing Shandee said, her lips moving without sound. She didn't remember falling asleep, but she remembered waking in a part of the night that felt like all the rest of the world had gone quiescent except for Faith slumped in a nearby chair, head bent, Angel cleaning a wound at her temple.

She swam awake for the last time when the clock had almost gone all the way around: it was dark again and the ward was silent. She found she could help herself out of bed, although her muscles were sore and angry, her head dizzy. In the next cot over Petra was sleeping, her face still and pale beneath her bandages. Jo smoothed her fingers over the other girl's short hair, taking care not to wake her, and hobbled out of the infirmary.

"Jo, Jo," the girls downstairs said. It seemed like they were all there, all three hundred minus ten of them. No one had gone out on patrol, but instead were milling around the lobby and the courtyard, sitting on the stairs and the countertop and the floor, waiting. She walked through a sea of hands, each reaching out to caress her gently as she passed.

Angel and Faith were in the office, bent over a laptop. Angel looked up when she came in. "Jo, you should be in bed. Go back upstairs."

She just shrugged at him and collapsed into the spare chair.

"It's connecting," Faith said hoarsely. She looked like she'd been worked over with a sledgehammer, and then once more with a baseball bat: two black eyes and a split lip, a bandage wrapped around her head, mottled bruises on one cheek. She didn't spare Jo a glance.

A trio of tinny voices came from the laptop. "Faith, geez." "My word." "That looks like it smarts."

"Thanks for the kind wishes, guys. B?"

"I'll get her."

Jo scooted her chair around the desk until she could see the laptop screen. It was split into three panels: in one, a redhaired woman was just moving off-camera; in another sat a blackhaired man; in the last, an older man wearing glasses.

"You and everyone in Los Angeles have my deepest sympathies, Faith," said the older man. He spoke with a soft English accent. "I know this loss must be exceedingly difficult."

"Thanks," she said again, her voice clipped.

Then the redhead came back into the frame, followed by a thin blonde woman. Buffy Summers.

Faith swallowed, her throat clicking audibly. "Hey, B."

Buffy nodded. "Faith, Angel."

The redhead adjusted something next to her, read the date and time aloud, and then said, "Begin debriefing on mission number two-four-seven, codename Dolce & Gabbana, Los Angeles division, Squadron 24, supervised by squad leader Petra Lalone and division leader Fa--"

"Guys," Faith said, "can we cut the military crap? I lost ten girls here. I don't want to fucking read their names and serial numbers into a tin can."

There was an embarrassed silence from all three panels, and then the blackhaired man said, "Faith, you can't take it personal--"

"Xander, last thing I need is you telling me not to take this personally."

"And what's that supposed to mean?"

"It means everyone knows what you did in Cairo."

Jo could tell, even through the pixelation, that he'd paled a little. "So what? So I learned from that. You don't have to let something like this take you apart."

Angel put a hand on Faith's shoulder, but she shook it off. "I'm fucking well together, all right? But excuse me if I can't just turn right around and dress it all up in the same bullshit as you. Like you can cover up the fact that ten girls died last night if you just file it in the right folder!"

"Faith," said the Englishman, "that's not what these procedures are meant to do."

"Right, it's all about order and organization. Grow a fucking heart, Giles."

"Guys," Buffy said, cutting off Xander's reply. "Let me talk to Faith alone."

"Fine with me," Xander snapped. "Harris out."

Giles sighed. "Giles out."

"Rosenberg, uh, off to the kitchen." The redhead got up and left.

"Another successful satellite chat, brought to a close by the party from L.A." Faith laughed bitterly.

Buffy frowned. "Faith, I want you to know I'm sorry."

"Sorry I lost you almost an entire squad?"

"Come on, Faith, they weren't mine to lose. I know you never wanted to lead them, that you were happy running around on your own, but you've done a good job. You train them, you live with them. You're closer to those girls than anyone, I get that."

"Really, B? You haven't been back to L.A. in a whole year. All you get are my stupid debriefings. So how the hell would you know anything about anything?"

"I didn't abandon you. I haven't been back because I trust you to lead. The fact that this is your first major loss means you're a good leader, Faith. But we all have losses and we all have to deal with them and move on."

"Sorry if I'm having a little trouble moving on from the fact that this all happened not even twenty-four hours ago!"

"Faith," Buffy said. "Take all the time you need to have a crisis or be angry at the universe. You can even be angry at me. But do it in private. The girls look to you for how to act -- if they think it's crippling your ability to stay focused--"

"Who says it is? I'm being a fucking rock for them--"

"Great. That's all I'm asking. Help the division through this, get it back on its feet. You still have the closing spell to do, and they need to be focused for that."

Faith's voice went deadly. "What?"

"We're moving the mission up to priority one. It's up to you how many you want to take next time, but I'm allotting a week for prep work. Willow and Andrew can join in the research effort with your girl over satellite--"

"B, you're not serious."

"I'm completely serious. Giles says if we keep letting that thing grow, it could turn into another hellmouth in its own right. And you can bet whatever's hanging out there now got even more riled up last night."

"You want us to go back there--"

"Faith. That place is dangerous and it's time to shut it down. And it's time for the girls, too -- they need a big mission like this; it's been too long since the last one."

"I'm not taking them to get slaughtered just 'cuz they might be bored."

"I'm not asking you to take this mission. Can you do your job or not?"

Faith stumbled to her feet. "Fuck you, B. Fuck you. Faith fucking out." She lurched back out to the lobby, leaving the connection open. Jo, not sure whether to follow or let Angel talk to Buffy in private, hovered awkwardly.

"You think I was too hard on her," Buffy said. "You always do."

"She only gets that angry when she knows you're right."

Buffy snorted. "If only I could have figured that out years ago." Then her voice softened. "How's the healing going?"

"It's going fine. Well, in fact."

"Good. I'm glad." There was a strained pause, and then Buffy said, "She was right about me not coming to L.A. But I'd like to, when things get a little less busy around here."

"Me, too," Angel said.

"Good night, Angel. Buffy out."

Angel shut the laptop and looked over at Jo. "You must be starving," he said. "Want me to cook you some breakfast?"

"You can cook?"

His mouth did that thing that was almost a smile. "I used to cook for my friends Wesley and Cordelia all the time. Kind of hard to do it these days, because if I cook for one girl I have to cook for them all. But I can make an exception just this once."

Jo pursed her lips. "Gotta admit, I'm curious. Let's see what you got."

He made her an omelette with fried potatoes on the side, moving easily around the huge hotel kitchen with its oversized oven range and a deep freezer big enough to swallow a man. It was the most delicious thing she'd ever tasted. She tried not to be grossed out when he sat across from her at the island, sipping a mug of blood he'd warmed in the microwave.

He waited until she'd cleaned her plate, mopping up the grease with a piece of toast. Then he said, "You know, you never answered my question."

She'd never answered a lot of questions. "What do you mean?"

"Why Devil's Gate means so much to you. You said it was a bad place, but that wasn't the whole truth, was it."

And of course, there wasn't really a possibility of dodging the question now. Not when she'd planned a mission that had gotten ten girls killed, most of them no older than herself. Sometimes it was easy to forget that Angel, despite his inherent solitude, still had centuries more experience dealing with people, manipulating them, than she ever would. His question wasn't just idle or coincidental: she had to show her hand now, if only out of respect.

"My father died there," she said. "He was on a hunt, and he got hurt, and I guess it was bad enough that his partner had to put him down. Mercy killing."

"How old were you?"

"I was ten. But I didn't find out what really happened until about a month ago."

"So you came here."

"Yeah." She wrapped her arms around herself, feeling small and cold amid all the smooth hard surfaces of the kitchen. "I never meant to keep it from you, not like that, and I swear I wasn't trying to manipulate anyone into doing this just for my own personal reasons. I just, whenever you asked me, I just couldn't."

"I wasn't trying to catch you in a lie. You saw the same discussion I did just now. The mission would have happened eventually, with or without you."

"But they weren't ready."

"They were," Angel said, "or as ready as they could be. Despite what Faith believes, you don't always win every round."

"Yeah, but." She hesitated. "Could we win the next one?"

Angel's dark eyes spoke of experience, of nearly three centuries of walking away from battles both great and small. "If we don't," he said, "there's always the one after that."

Chapter Text

Things were tense around the Hyperion for the next day or so, if tense meant feeling like you'd jump right out of your skin if someone looked at you funny, or like the walls might explode, leaving them all a pile of ash and rubble on Wilshire Boulevard, if someone said the wrong thing. Jo divided most of her time between the office and the infirmary, between research and nursing, talking spells and spell theory with Willow and Andrew and feeling like an absolute fraud because what the fuck did she know about magic?, talking Maria and Petra through their infirmary time and never once feeling like she could bring up the ten girls. Not after she'd tried to say to them, "Look, I just wanted to tell you I'm so sor--" and Maria set her jaw and Petra croaked, "Shut up, bitch, just shut up. No one in this whole damn hotel needs to say anything like that, okay?"

So instead they talked around the subject, about how Faith was being even more drill sergeant than ever, how Angel was letting her because he never could tell Faith no, how Shandee had gone on patrol again with her squad and singlehandedly brought down a Nagorsa demon with a grenade and a machete. She gave them silly quizzes out of glossy old copies of Cosmo, answer (a) (b) or (c) to the question If your man had a close female friend, how would you deal with your jealousy? She dialed the international calling card for Maria and held the handset to her ear when she wanted to talk to her parents.

And finally, she told them about her dad.

"That's rough," Petra said. "But you know your mom was just protecting you."

"I know." Jo drew her knees up to her chest. She hadn't been sure how they would take it. "But still."

"But nothing. I wish my parents had bothered to show me that kinda concern. Maybe then I wouldn't have followed a band called Skulls Kill Willy out here when I was sixteen."

Maria laughed. "You didn't."

"What, are you the only two people here who haven't heard that story?"

Jo smiled with them, but said, "You're not angry I didn't say anything before?"

"I'm not gonna lie," Petra said. "We're not some hivemind, you know, we don't all think the same. Some people might be pissed you didn't tell the whole story, yeah. But the Big Four across the pond would have stomped the idea before we went if they didn't think it was worth it -- so you got the mandate from on high, Jo. This was something we had to do."

Maria didn't quite meet her eyes, which Jo told herself she could take, she hadn't expected to get off scot-free, after all. But then Maria said, "My brother was killed by a vampire. When I got my powers, my parents were so happy, they wanted me to come here. They even donated my university money to the organization."

"What?" said Petra. "You never told me that about your parents."

Maria shrugged. "Manuel was the oldest. They had a lot of plans for him."

"My mother had plans for me, too," Jo said. "Funny how we ended up in the same place."

She didn't mean to have Angel there holding her hand when she went up to Faith's room to make confession, but he was already there when Jo arrived, occupying an armchair while Faith sat on the floor whittling a stake. And just the thought of him leaving them alone together...Jo figured she could admit that Faith made her nervous. A little nervous.

"I have to tell you something," she said, shutting the door behind her. Her breath didn't quite catch up with her speech, though, making her sound like someone had just thwapped her in the gut. Good start.

Faith didn't look up from her whittling. "This important, blondie?"

"Might be. It's about why you first found me at Devil's Gate."

Faith put down the stake, but not the knife, and finally raised her eyes to Jo's.

Jo took a breath. "My father was killed there when I was ten. He was hunting and things went wrong, and he got killed. And so I came out here with this idea that I'd clean the place up. Finish the job, I guess. Make his death right."

She waited approximately the length of a lifetime for Faith to respond. When she did, her voice was quite calm. "And you saw an army of supergirls and thought we'd do the job for you."

"No--"

"And now you feel guilty. And you want to get it off your chest."

"No, I didn't mean to fool you into doing anything. But I was pretty much hiding it from you when I should have been completely open, and I'm sorry for that. It's just when I first got here, I didn't know if I could trust anybody."

"You didn't think maybe when we were getting ready to go out and risk our lives for you, you didn't think that might be a good clue?"

"Faith," Angel said.

Faith threw the knife down and got to her feet. "No, don't even. I know exactly what she wants, she wants someone to tell her it isn't her fault that Neesha died, it isn't her fault Ulan died, or Erin or Christy or Laoting -- no, she just--" she'd been addressing Angel, but now she turned a furious glare on Jo, "--she just wants to unload her shit on us and then walk away feeling like a brave little hunter again, like just because she's not one of us, her actions don't affect us. And I'm not gonna let her fucking do that."

"I already did," Angel said. "I told her it wasn't her fault. And it isn't. I don't think she needs that from you."

Jo tried to speak. "I just--" Dammit, why couldn't she get the words out? "I'm just trying to be open about this finally."

"Okay, fine, you were open about it. You're done." Faith made for the door. "Now get out."

"Faith," Angel said again. "You don't hold a monopoly on losing people."

She swung back around, dark hair flying, and came charging toward him. "Just what the fuck is that supposed to mean, Angel?"

He got to his feet as well. Tall and dark and solid, not giving an inch against her, and for the first time Jo had an inkling of the vast wealth of things she didn't know about them, of everything she was missing from their histories, both shared and personal. "It means," Angel said, "you need to deal. Maybe if you were anyone else right now, you could be as selfish and angry as you want. But you're leading this group and you don't have that luxury."

Faith gave a bitter, brittle laugh. "I cannot believe my fucking ears. I am tired of all these people playing grief counselor who are like the fucking encyclopedia for not dealing. Xander, Buffy, Willow for fuck's sake today tried to tell me how to do it. And now you of all people."

"Because we've been through it before. So we messed up in the past -- you can learn from our mistakes."

"Past? The hell's so 'past' about taking three years to heal up from a bad fight, Angel?"

Jo didn't even need to look at him to know that had been the wrong thing to say. The air in the room was suddenly ten degrees cooler, fifty pounds heavier. "Don't go there," he gritted out.

"Oh, I'm going there. 'Cuz it's long past time somebody laid your shit bare. What, just because you let us all crash here and you change some bandages every once in a while you think you're the poster child for how to grieve properly? Just 'cause you're not living on the streets eating rats again doesn't make you well-adjusted, Angel. There's more than one way to quit your life."

Jo chanced a glance at Angel while Faith railed. She'd never seen him so -- he was absolutely seething, thunder in his expression, jaw twitching, fists clenched. "I told you, the Senior Partners didn't just spare me by accident -- they still think they can use me--"

"So you got two great excuses. You want to quit being the big champion and all that other shit? Fine. But don't pretend those are the real reasons."

"And you're going to tell me what those are. Because you just know so much about it."

Abruptly, Faith dropped her combative stance, shoulders falling, resting back on her heels. Even her next words were soft. "I know what you lost, okay? I know exactly who. And I kept my mouth shut for so long because of that. And I'm not trying to say that what I -- what the division lost is the same as Cordy or Wes -- or anyone else. But it's not nothing either. And you should get that about me, instead of telling me what to do."

The tension radiating from Angel didn't fully dissipate, but as Jo watched, it did ease, his face relaxing that crucial minuscule degree which allowed her to breathe again. "Don't I always tell you what to do?"

Faith didn't quite smile, although it was there, in her eyes. "You used to. Haven't done it in a while. Guess I'm just used to being my own person now."

Angel stood there looking at her. "The girls," he said, "they aren't nothing to me."

"Yeah, I know," Faith said, "I know. You don't have to tell me that either."

*

The slayers held a memorial service that night. Candles had been set up around the lobby, the flames swimming in glass holders and the overhead lights dimmed so that all was suffused in an orange glow. The entire division was present, the overflow of girls spilling out into the courtyard and blanketing the stairs and leaning on the upstairs railing, looking down. Jo sat between Hilary and Shandee on the front counter, the only place left.

There was nothing formal about it. For Jo, the rituals would have included salting and burning, which John Winchester had done for her own father when he'd died where the girls had, and which she knew his sons had done for him. It was the way of hunters. But it would be impossible to do without going back for the girls' bones, and not all of the slayers had grown up believing in spirits, or would have understood the act as anything other than desecrating the dead. The group had only one way of saying goodbye, and this was it.

Faith held a long white taper high. "Laoting was a kickass slayer, a great team member. And unlike most of you, she never once gave me any lip."

She passed it to a tall slayer named Felice, whose brown face was already glistening with tears. "Laoting was my roommate. And she sucked at it. I was always stepping on her god-damn wet towels. But you couldn't have paid me enough to live with anyone else." She took in a long, hitching breath. "Stay strong where you're going, babe."

Petra took the candle next. "Laoting loved to tell American jokes, but only one of them was ever funny, mostly because she messed it up every. damn. time." A wave of laughter rolled toward her, followed by a shout: "The singing blowjob!"

And on it went. The candle burned down and another had to be relit, and another, and another. Jo took it once, for Neesha. She breathed in deep, feeling all the girls' eyes on her. "Neesha was going to teach me the names of the Hindu asuras. She knew every single one, and a different dance for all of them." She passed the candle back to Faith, the flame at the top trembling a little. Faith met her eyes above it and held her gaze for the space of a few breaths, then nodded, once.

It lasted well into the morning, and by the end Jo, who'd already been coming down off the fight in Faith's room, felt like she'd been steamrolled. It looked like everyone else had run the same emotional gamut, so many bleary eyes and worn faces, but there was a feeling of peace in it, as though the weight that had been bearing down on them all was gone. People could smile, hug each other, laugh. She saw Faith chatting with a small group, arm slung around Mimi's shoulders, and the sight of it made Jo inexplicably giddy.

She was following the crush toward the stairs, intent on her bed, when she spotted Angel in the opening to one of the downstairs corridors, sheltered from the sun.

She went over to him. "You didn't speak."

"No, I didn't."

He had a faraway look in his eyes, and after that confrontation with Faith, she wondered what he was thinking of, or who. But when he didn't seem to be forthcoming with an explanation, she offered, "Things are going good with the research. Willow and Andrew kept geeking out today about stuff that's way over my head. I think they're actually going to try and write a spell themselves."

"It'll probably work, too. Willow's very good."

Jo bit her lip. "They say whatever we end up with, it'll be much bigger than the last one. We'll probably have to take a bigger force this time. Like, almost everybody."

"I think we would have done that anyway. And I wouldn't miss it, either."

"You're going to fight with us?" She didn't know why, but the thought of him fighting sent bolts of both fear and happiness through her. "Are you, are you well enough for that?"

"Yeah." Angel straightened. "Yeah, I'm well enough. Go get some sleep. We've got plenty of time for battle planning."

*

Three days later, Willow and Andrew began writing the spell.

Jo hadn't been able to contribute much. She could read through an exorcism as well as any other hunter, and by now she knew her way around the books and could even manage basic translations of Latin and demonic Latin, albeit with much reliance on Wesley Wyndam-Pryce's carefully compiled translation matrices. But magical theory was beyond her. She listened to the other two arguing across their panels, taking notes in her journal like she knew what they were talking about, but really, she subscribed more to Faith's perspective: when the slayer stuck her head in the office one day and got an earful of bickering, she'd snapped, "No one gives a shit about the goddamn square root of Hecate! Get something done, already!"

Willow tried to explain what they were doing to Jo. "It's funny, 'cuz I never really paid attention in Hebrew school. I mean, I learned Hebrew, but anyone could do that. But I didn't realize that the old Jewish mystics were actually kinda warlock-y. To them, God was the original spellcaster. He used the letters of his own name in the Hebrew alphabet to write the world into existence. Coolest thing ever, huh?"

"Get to the point, Rosenberg," Andrew sighed. "Can't you see the glassy lack of focus in her eyes?"

"I'm paying attention!" Jo protested.

"Fine!" Willow said. "Okay, the point is, we can apply those same principles to this -- I mean, I actually got the idea from Wesley's old Watcher diaries, which you so rock for scanning those over to us, so I can't really take credit. But he was working on this theory after the Quortoth thing, this idea that you could manipulate the barriers between dimensions by manipulating the demonic runes that constituted their names. Kind of like writing them into existence all over again."

Jo thought she was following so far. "But I thought this was an opening to hell? What's hell's name, other than, uh...hell?"

"Well," Andrew prissed, "technically there is no one dimension which conforms to the Islamo-Christian conception of Hell. There are in fact many different hell dimensions catalogued in the Watcher databases, each uniquely classifiable by characteristics such as climate, species populated by, accessibility to our dimension, spells required to achieve that accessibility, et cetera."

Willow met Jo's eyes from her panel, shaped her right pointer and thumb into a gun, and pointed it at her own temple.

"I saw that, Rosenberg! Continuing on. Quortoth was such a dimension. The dimension opened by Acathla, to which Buffy sent Angel, was another. As is yours. The demons you encountered at Devil's Gate -- you know, those scaly black ones with the red eyes a la He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named? -- well, after a long and thorough search, I think I can confidently classify them as Cardjen dragons, native to the Cycthus dimension." He paused. "AlsoWillowcorroboratedmyfindings."

"So," Jo said, "you've got the name of the dimension and you think you know how to do a spell to fix the barrier. What else do we need?"

"Just time, basically," said Willow. "We have to make sure what we come up with will do the job. 'Cuz, it's not like we can run lab tests on it or anything--"

"Objection," Andrew said. "If we can write a spell to stop a leak we can most certainly write one to create a leak."

"Um, except, kind of dangerous to be creating openings to hell just for spell practice?"

"I suppose you'd know. Technically you're the only one of us who's actually been an evil big bad."

"Wow, great case of selective amnesia there for someone who was one third of a wannabe big bad trio and had an evil older brother!"

Jo rolled her eyes as they started arguing again, and went back to scribbling in her journal. Quortoth = hell dimension. And Angel told me he was imprisoned in one for a hundred years (which he elects not to count in his age). I don't think he ever knew its name. And I doubt my father and John ever knew what they were dealing with: a leak to another world, named Cycthus, containing dragons.

She went in search of Faith to summarize their progress, and found her in the upstairs ballroom supervising training drills. She walked up to where Faith was standing at the side of the room, observing the ranks of girls moving in tandem: one group practicing kicks and punches, another going through the fluid circles of tai chi, another split into pairs for sword practice. Shouts and grunts and clanging metal reverberated through the large space, mixed with the voices of squad leaders counting out rhythms and fight positions, bringing order to the chaos.

Jo watched, thinking of her sparring session with Faith, thinking of the grassy yard behind the Roadhouse, shooting down a row of glass bottles and tin cans, one by one.

She hadn't spoken to Faith since the day of the memorial service. "Training looks like it's going good," she offered.

Faith shrugged. "It'd look better if demons fought fair."

"Still better than nothing, right?"

Faith looked at Jo finally. "Something on your mind, blondie?"

So much for making nice with praise. "I thought I'd give you an update on the spell."

"Okay, let's talk," Faith said, and led her out of the ballroom, down the hall, to her suite of rooms.

She gestured toward the armchair, but when Jo remained standing by the door, she flopped down into it herself, all boneless easy sprawl -- a deceptive pose, as if she couldn't explode into violence at a moment's provocation.

"Great," she said, when Jo told her Willow's news. "The sooner those two geeks get it done, the sooner we can get this over with."

Jo ventured, "You're expecting the worst, aren't you?"

"Yeah, wonder why."

Jo didn't have a response for that. Despite the lightness she had seen in Faith immediately after the memorial, despite her consistent and in-command demeanor in front of the other girls, it was clear Faith still wasn't over it. Even just the way she was sitting there, present but not quite present, drawn into herself like a star inside an event horizon -- it was an almost palpable change from the Faith who had snapped at her for being stupid the first time they'd ever met.

Jo kept hovering by the door, trying to work up the courage to say something.

"Well, if you're gonna stay--" Faith stood and went over to the small refrigerator against the wall, of the type Jo's freshman year roommate had owned, "-- then I oughta be a good hostess."

"No, it's not like, I just, uh--"

"Sit, blondie. I don't actually drink that much, since I got a mom who basically drank herself to death and I like to think I can learn from other peoples' examples. Plus I get my kicks just fine from other stuff. But it's not bad with company."

She passed Jo a tall glass of pure unmixed Armadale, the kind Ellen Harvelle liked to take out whenever a hunter'd had a particularly special kill, poured one for herself, and then brought the whole bottle over. Jo knocked back a swallow that went down clean and sharp and cold.

Faith folded herself into the lone armchair and motioned Jo to the end of the bed. Jo sat and, feeling like she needed to say something, said, "I don't drink that much myself."

"Thought your mom ran a bar."

"Yeah, that's why. Saw too many stupid drunk hunters throwing barstools around and trashing the place when I was growing up. Kind of took the cool factor out of it."

"Substitute 'drunk hunters' with old lady Lehane and you got the picture of my childhood." Faith peered at her. "I bet your mom's the complete opposite, huh?"

"She ain't all hearts and flowers either."

"Whatever." Faith tilted her head. "She know what you're doing out here?"

"Not yet."

"What, you don't like your mom?"

"I like her just fine."

Faith appeared to think about that. "So this ritual," she said. "You gonna be donating blood again?"

"Willow says not."

"Yeah, well, the way magic works, that just means it'll take something else from you instead."

"It'd be worth it."

Faith just took another swallow from her glass.

They drank in increasingly more companionable silence. Jo tried to pace herself -- she knew from seeing the other girls drink that she'd be under the table in no time if she tried to keep up with Faith's slayer tolerance. Of course, that concern seemed to get less important the closer she got to the bottom of her glass.

"So when this is over," Faith said, her voice slow and deliberate in the way of one aware of imminent intoxication, "you heading back to Jenkins Falls, Nebraska? Gonna tell your mom how you avenged your dad's sainted memory and all?"

Jo evaluated the landscape before answering, didn't see anything dangerous in Faith's expression, and said, "I wouldn't go just to see her. Maybe if there was an interesting case. See, 'cuz I follow the cases, see."

Faith managed to pour a little more into Jo's glass, clinking loudly, only spilling a little. "I was in Nebraska once." She said the word like she was either spitting on it or thought it was the most awesome word ever, Jo couldn't really tell.

"Really."

"Yep. Not for long, just passed through on my way to Cali. Killed some vamps. Told you before, they're all the same."

"Maybe," Jo said doubtfully. "I got reliable sources who schooled me different, though."

"Well, you got your five senses, too. Trust those first."

Jo couldn't debate the logic of that. "You know, I wish I coulda known about you guys before. I wish my dad coulda known. Maybe he woulda known to stay away from that place. Then he wouldn'a died. But then," she frowned, "then I wouldn'a come here either. Probably."

"Maybe if you knew about us and we knew about you, we'd'a just made you cannon fodder."

Jo found that oddly hilarious. She snickered. "You know something? I'm so intimidated by you."

Faith laughed. "Yeah, you should be." Then, "Wait, why?"

Jo dropped her voice to a whisper. "We call you the drill sergeant."

"Please, blondie, I gave myself that name."

"Oh." Strangely disappointed, Jo sipped her vodka. She could barely feel the burn now which, yep, meant she should stop.

She took another sip.

"So," Faith said, "you'd really just take some other case once you're finished here. Like, even if it was all the way across the country in Titfucker, Arkansas."

"I go where the job takes me. I'm non-discrim-- non-discrimatory."

"But I mean, izzer something wrong with your job here?"

And then the thing in Jo's head that had been dangling all through the conversation, as well as every time she'd ever spoken to or thought about Faith or bitched about her overprotectiveness or just bitched about her bitchery, fell down and clicked into place. She was lonely. Had been lonely a long time, in fact. Jo suddenly felt sober as anything, as the thoughts crystallized: Faith and Angel were two of a kind, only unlike him Faith hadn't lived two hundred and eighty years of people leaving and dying. Absence and loss were closer and more constant companions to Angel than any human or vampire could be. No, Jo thought, Faith was more like her mom, who'd only had enough of absence and loss to know how to dread them.

Jo uncrossed her legs and put her feet carefully, very carefully, down on the floor. "I won't go anywhere if," she said, "people didn't want me to."

"Hmm."

"Have people been saying things?"

"Maybe," Faith said. "Not to me personally, I mean."

It was ridiculous how giddy that made her. She'd blame it on the vodka later, for unguarding the both of them, but now she said, "You and my mom are like the same person, you know that?"

"How's that?"

"You both," Jo waved her empty glass around, "you both can't stand the idea of me leaving."

"First of all, I wouldn't care if you took a leap off my balcony right now. Because a) I've done that before, and b) I just wouldn't. Second of all, you think I'm your mom?"

Jo paused, remembering what Shandee had said about Faith and her mom complex, and how she'd just been curious, just casually curious, that was all. "No," she said now. "I really don't." And she got up off the bed, propped her hands on the arms of Faith's chair, and leaned down.

In the middle of it she remembered something important: she had never, actually, kissed a girl on the mouth before. Nor had she ever, actually, thought about kissing this one. Or at least, not in any conscious fashion. It had just been something her body began before her brain quite caught up with it. There wasn't even any art to the kiss: just two slightly parted mouths moving together, tasting slightly of vodka, softer than anything she'd ever experienced.

Her belly began to feel warm and queasy in a way completely unrelated to being drunk, and she pulled away fast, almost stumbling. Faith just sat there and looked at her with heavy-lidded eyes surrounded by greenish-purple bruising that had still healed faster than the black eye she'd given Jo. Her lips were red and wet.

"Uh," Jo said, "sorry, I -- are you, are you straight? Because I am. I mean I--"

"Chill, blondie." Faith sounded amused, her voice a little scratchy. "You're not the first girl here to try and put the moves on me when Angel wouldn't put out."

"I never--!" Jo sputtered.

"Don't worry about it. You look like you'd be fun, but I wouldn't de-virginize one of the few girls here who'll actually cop to it." She paused. "Not while you're hammered, anyway."

Jo felt her cheeks burn, took a breath, got her composure back. "O-kay. I think I'm just, gonna call it a night."

"Yeah, sounds about right."

"Thanks for the drink."

"Thanks for the share." Faith smiled, teasing, and the sly look in her eyes did something to Jo, snapped closed that one last connection between brain and body she'd been missing before just now, before she'd just completely gone and made an ass of herself. Well. Interesting. And a far cry from Dean Winchester.

She tried to look dignified as she exited, but banging her shoulder on the doorjamb probably wasn't the best way to do it.

*

"See, this is why I don't drink," Shandee said. "'Cuz the next morning in the harsh light of day? You just look like a fool."

"You're not even old enough to drink," Jo groaned. After some fumbling with the laptop, she managed to figure out how to lower the brightness settings. So much better.

"What's physical age? I have the emotional maturity to choose not to."

"Do you want me to drop this laptop on your head?"

Shandee grinned. "Yo, you totally just regressed to like age eight. So as the senior person in this office now, I order you to get to work."

"Was doing that before you came in and distracted me," Jo muttered.

"Okay, so get back to work then," Shandee said. "Besides, I can tell when someone's plotting my death. See you, blondie."

Jo grimaced. She'd never quite been able to ask Faith to stop calling her that, reasons for which had possibly only just become apparent, which meant these days everyone in the hotel -- except Angel, of course -- was doing it. And speak of two devils. She could hear them both now talking to Shandee just outside the door, obviously on their way in. Jo put her head in her hands and groaned.

"Rough night, Jo?" Angel said. He came in and sat in one of the two remaining chairs, his face looking genuinely concerned. Faith, for her part, plopped herself down in the other chair, kicking her boots up onto the desk, smirking a little to herself with her dark red lips.

Did it mean Jo was easy if she had the fleeting thought -- clearly because she was still a little bit drunk -- that she wouldn't actually kick either of them out of bed for eating crackers?

She attempted to focus on the more important crisis at hand. "Willow called," she said. "She and Andrew pulled an all-nighter with the spell. I think only the hundreds of miles separating them prevented them from killing each other, but, the good news is, they made some real progress and they think they'll be ready by Buffy's deadline."

Faith's smirk evaporated. "Okay. So we need to start thinking battle plan."

"Yeah," Jo said. She flipped through her journal. "I've got notes on the kinds of things we could possibly expect there, but they're pretty sketchy. Vamps, obviously. Those Cardjen dragons. Assorted demons. Maybe spirits of dead children and others who died there by unnatural means."

"I think it'd be safe to assume we should expect anything and everything," Angel said quietly. "Word's probably gotten out that ten slayers died there. That alone would attract any evil thing in a hundred mile radius. And if they're predicting we're gonna go back there and finish the job, they'll all be spoiling for blood."

Faith was looking at him. "We?"

He looked right back. "Yeah, we."

"Okay." She folded her hands in her lap. "So. Considering we're going there for extermination rather than just defense and recon, I say we take a dozen squads."

Jo waited for someone to respond, and then realized she was the only one in the room who would. "That's, uh, that's not even half the division. You sure that's enough?"

She expected Faith to shut her right down, to say it was her damn job to choose the personnel and that was it, decision final. But instead Faith said, "No. Actually. I'm not."

Jo was proud of herself: she didn't even miss a beat. "So then...what if we asked the squad leaders what they thought?"

Silence. Then a slow smile spread over Faith's face. "What, you mean act like this is a democracy or something?"

"Uh, I think technically the term would be oligarchy," Angel murmured.

Jo grinned. "Take it from a failed history major. Either way, you're making forward progress."

They presented the issue to the squad leaders before patrol assignments that night. Jo watched the surprise flicker across the girls' faces when they realized what Faith was asking, that she was asking. It was just as quickly replaced by excitement.

"I don't think we should take anything less than fifteen squads," Melanie said. "And I'd rather we took twenty."

"You're talking about a hundred and eighty slayers," Angel said. "Over two hundred on the outside."

"Yeah, but she's right," said Rachel. "We can't afford to go in there with too few."

Deanna nodded. "Plus at least this way, you still leave a good number to watch the city." The rest of the slayers made noises of agreement.

"Last big battle we only took ten," Faith mused.

"Yeah, but Malibu wasn't an opening to hell," Melanie said.

"Not to mention," Jeanette pointed out, in her slow Georgia drawl, "that was over a year ago. And we had a string of good fights before then. This time around they've been gettin' at more 'n more of us. So they've had a long time thirstin' for our blood."

"Yeah, and what happened last week is just gonna make 'em worse," said Rachel. "I vote we split the difference: take seventeen squads. I bet you and Angel could count for half a squad between yourselves, anyway."

"Them, me and Maria," Petra said, speaking for the first time. She darted her eyes defiantly at Faith. "'Cuz we're going."

"No doubt," Melanie cackled, her quick impish grin mirrored around the rest of the group. "No doubt."

To her credit, Faith didn't react to the statement like it was anything unexpected. She just nodded. "All right. Let's vote by a show of hands. Proposal's for seventeen squads. Blondie, you count the yays and nays."

Jo didn't need to, though. The vote was unanimous, all in favor.

*

She felt restless and charged up and ready to fight after the meeting. When she saw Angel weaponing up next to Shandee, she shouldered her way between them. "So. Where we headed?"

He opened his mouth like he was going to protest, and she opened hers to start arguing, but Shandee just slapped a battleaxe into her hand. "Stick close to me and don't let Faith see you."

She hadn't been out with a squad since Devil's Gate. Hadn't even picked up a weapon. And even before then she'd been more used to shotguns, rock salt cartridges, and above all hunting through knowledge and research: the location of bones, the things that kept spirits haunting the earth, the spells that sent demons to hell. This kind of hunting was different. Their quarry was flesh; they fought hand to hand, strength against strength, and the only research required was whether you wanted blood or dust.

Melanie led them to the old warehouse district, still more populated by blank, empty-looking buildings than legal residences. It looked like a prime vampire breeding ground, perfect for nesting and preying on the homeless, and sure enough, Angel caught the scent of human blood within minutes.

Jo suppressed a shiver at the reminder of his nature, of what he shared with the things they were hunting. Just looking at him, the preternatural way he moved, quicker than a human and pulled by the thing that both gave her life and that he was made to consume -- he was alien, other, a thing that shouldn't be. She was suddenly unsure just what, exactly, separated him from creatures like him.

He seemed to sense her looking at him, and turned to meet her eyes. It was too dark in the sewer tunnel to make out his expression. She tried to smile, to reassure him that all was well. He faced forward again.

Melanie ran a somewhat tighter crew than Petra, the girls moving like a well-oiled machine, easily incorporating Jo and Angel into the unit, communicating with only glances and hand signals, everyone knowing who would take a corner or an entrance first. Jo watched as two girls broke off and easily scaled a network of scaffolding on the side of a building. The quickness and lightness of their progress were as unnatural as Angel, in their own way.

And it struck Jo, understanding it fully for perhaps the first time, how different she was from everyone here. Hunting had always been something she'd understood as best done alone -- hell, she'd had to do it alone, just by virtue of what she had between her legs. She'd only ever worked with others to learn from them, as a means to eventually strike out on her own. And how many times had she said it, defiantly, the words themselves a snatch for independence: hunting's in my blood. Now, among these thirteen people, people who had hunting in their blood in a way she never could, she finally was on her own.

"HAH!" one of the lookouts on the rooftop shouted, alerting them to vamps approaching, and the sound of her voice calling out above them yanked Jo right back to Devil's Gate, to Erin and Christy and Maria screaming from the walls of the ravine.

"Don't freeze up, blondie," Shandee said beside her, alert as a predator. "Them or you going home tonight."

Jo breathed. "Don't worry, I don't need reminding."

Shandee had explained to her a while back that most of the city's vamps, in response to all the patrolling slayer squads, had taken to running in large gangs rather than ragtag handfuls. Bigger numbers meant better odds for survival, so long as the bloodsuckers could keep together without infighting.

But the squad plus Jo and Angel were fourteen fighters, more than a match for any group of vamps they might come across. The look of fear that rippled through the gang when they saw Angel standing next to Melanie, tall and black and smirking, confirmed it.

"Angelus!" one of the vampires gasped. "But -- you're supposed to be dead!"

"Rumors, exaggerated, you know the deal," Angel quipped. "Did you miss me?"

The vamps muttered amongst themselves, but one stepped forward. "I'm just happy to give the streetcleaners something to sweep up tomorrow."

"Yeah," Shandee snorted, "you. Get some better comeback lines."

The vampire's grin exposed sharp fangs. "Heard you girls got spanked last week. It's all over the city. Too bad we missed it."

"Oh, honey," Shandee said sweetly. "Don't worry. We'll give you a spanking for free."

And then it began.

Jo got in and helped where she could, but everything she'd been thinking was true: she wasn't as strong, wasn't as fast, couldn't swing a broadsword over her head the way Angel did, couldn't match blows with two vamps at once like Shandee. But she could aim a stake at a heart, bring her axe down on a hamstring or an exposed neck, stay alive and not dead.

They ran into some demons on their way out of the area, obviously drawn by the fighting. When that was over, Melanie took one look at Jo, clothes torn and lip split and bloody, and said, "Why don't you take Angel back to the Hyperion? He should be taking it easy on his first night out."

Angel didn't look much better than she did, truth be told, but the transparent attempt still stung a bit. Jo rolled her eyes. "Nice try. See you in the morning."

He was practically thrumming with excitement the whole way back, talking at a fast clip about the demons, their unpronounceable names rattling off his tongue as easily as he'd fought them, barely noticing how the fight had worsened his limp. She'd never seen him so...well, alive. Once they got to the hotel, she tamped down the braided threads of envy and worry and hustled him up to the infirmary, leaving their gunky weapons behind.

"So what's the story with Jamie?" Jo said, when the other girl had finished checking them out. "She's always in here. They don't take shifts in the infirmary?"

"You didn't know? Jamie doesn't fight."

"What, is she injured too?"

Angel shrugged. "There are girls who just don't. Some don't even bother joining -- they'd rather live their own lives. Jamie came to the hotel because she had nowhere else to go, so they gave her something she thought she could do."

Thinking about her earlier realizations, she said, "Jesus, if I had her powers I couldn't imagine just sitting around here doing nothing--" She stopped and snuck a look at him through the heat suddenly suffusing her face. To her frustration, a crowbar did not magically appear to help unwedge her foot from her mouth.

But Angel appeared unruffled. "Powers alone don't make a slayer. You've got to want the job, too. You know that better than most."

She guessed she did. "But what would have happened," she wondered aloud, "if there was still only one of them at a time, and Jamie was the one? How would they have made her fight if she didn't want to?"

"She wouldn't have been the first girl to follow her own will. But she also wouldn't have been the first to put her will aside, once she understood how much she was needed."

The absurd image of Dean and Sam Winchester fighting alongside an army of girls flashed through her brain. She smiled a little and said, "Well, I don't know about need, but I could have used a few slayers when I was hunting by myself. Other hunters, too," she added, echoing the thoughts she'd drunkenly voiced to Faith. "I can think of a few situations."

"You've handled things pretty well up until now. You're still here, aren't you?"

Not all of us, she wanted to say, thinking of her father, of more than one father. Wanted to say, but didn't.

*

When they were finished getting themselves bandaged, Angel went to feed and clean the weapons, and she wandered into the office, still coming down from the high of the fight. There was an hour yet to go before dawn, and the empty shell of the hotel lobby seemed to reverberate with its own silence.

She called Willow, ostensibly to check on the spell's progress, really just to have another voice to interrupt the quiet. "Can't talk long," Willow said, "we had a major breakthrough just a couple hours ago. I'm making Andrew figure out the grammar -- who knew closing a leak from hell required future imperfect tense combined with inchoative aspect? I mean, really! Except it turns out we have to do it from scratch, because when we started we were drafting in demonic Latin in the pre-Rotharian form, even though I told him it lacks the grammatical subtleties introduced by the Holfarin demon priests, not like it isn't all right there in Wesley's diaries, 'cuz at least he recognized the creative benefits of not being all, classical demonic languages only! But noooo, Andrew just had to be the wannabe Watcher--"

"So, when do you think it'll be ready?" Jo interrupted.

"Oh, um. I think if we work straight through, we can have it done by afternoon tea. Minus fine tuning, of course."

"Wow," Jo said. "That's -- that's technically today." Her mouth went suddenly dry. "Damn."

"Yeah." Willow furrowed her brow. "Jo, don't take this the wrong way or anything? But I'm kinda thinking you shouldn't do this alone. It's a pretty heavy ritual, even for someone experienced in magic. I mean, the amount of power alone that would be flowing through you, that's not something to take lightly."

"Angel's got the most experience out of all of us, but I'm thinking we're gonna need him to fight."

"Hmm," Willow said. "Well, don't worry. I'm sure Andrew and I will think of something. Or I will, and he'll nitpick it until we finally work it out."

A noise from out in the lobby caught Jo's attention. "Sorry, gotta go."

It was Faith stumbling in with Squad 8, all of them looking like they'd gone ten rounds with a bulldozer. "Get up to the infirmary," Faith ordered. "Kim and Deanna, you help Jamie with the others."

Jo watched the two uninjured slayers guiding the others toward the elevator. "What happened?"

"Got jumped by a band of demons near the Hollywood Bowl." Faith grimaced, twisting around and lowering the wide strap of her tanktop to peer at a nasty gash on her shoulder. "Pretty cocky, running near the rich and famous."

"But everyone's okay."

"We lost Jenna B. and Tamara out of Squad 4," Faith said, like she was reporting the weather. She made for the fridge behind the counter. "Did anybody else call?"

Jo paused, absorbing the news. "I haven't heard it ring. Here, let me get that." She took the towel of ice from Faith's hands, twisted it closed, and pressed it to the wound. Faith hissed but didn't jerk away.

"They're riled up just like we thought," Faith said. "Coming after us hard. Mel said they ran into a Curloth demon after you and Angel split. Told her the whole damn underworld's been having a weeklong party."

"Willow thinks they'll be ready with the spell tomorrow."

"About fucking time," Faith muttered.

Jo edged around to get a look at a cut on her hairline. The movement made Faith sit back a bit and look up -- their eyes met, and Faith looked away just as quickly, but not before Jo saw what she was hiding beneath all the toughness. The silence in the lobby rose up around them like a wave.

Gently, Jo lifted blood-matted hair from the wound. "This one looks pretty shallow," she said. "Why don't you go upstairs and let Jamie look at the other one?"

"It'll heal. First I gotta call Buffy." She started to move past her, but Jo got a hand on her other shoulder and pushed her into a chair. Surprise and annoyance flickered over Faith's face. "Get off me, blondie. I'm okay."

"C'mon, if you were okay I wouldn't have just been able to do that."

Faith smacked both of Jo's arms away; her elbow banged into the edge of the counter, hard, and she dropped the towel. Ice scattered on the floor. "Surprising me's a pretty stupid move. Didn't anyone ever tell you that?"

"What, you gonna beat me up now? If you're not gonna go upstairs, sit here and wait until I at least get a bandage on that."

She turned and hunted under the counter for the first aid kit, hiding the trembling in her hands, listening for the sound of Faith getting up anyway. But Faith remained where she was, and by the time Jo found the kit she had enough of a handle on herself to rip open packets of ointment and gauze and alcohol wipes without dropping them.

"Hold your hair up," she said, and Faith did, exposing her neck. The warm glow from the lamp nearby caught the jagged circles of two scars, slanting below her jaw. It looked like -- Jo reached out, before she knew she was going to, and touched the silvery marks with her finger. "A vamp bit you."

Faith turned her head a bit, but kept her eyes focused on the office doorway. "Long time ago."

There was a story in those three words; there was a story behind everything the people in this hotel said to her. Jo kept bandaging and waited to see if Faith would tell it. But she remained silent, keeping her own counsel. Some things never changed.

Jo unwrapped another alcohol wipe and swabbed the wound on Faith's head. The medicinal scent was overpowering the bloodsmell now, but her fingers were redstained, dried blood beneath her nails. She unwrapped a butterfly bandage and placed it gently over the cut. "You hurt anywhere else I should know about?"

Faith shook her head. "Nope. Think you're done here."

"You're welcome," Jo said, glaring at her.

And she meant to step away and start cleaning up, because she was suddenly pretty damn pissed, and she doubted Faith was going to be very accommodating of that, given her own mood. But here they were again, and was it only last night that she'd been standing in front of Faith, leaning a kiss into her? Twenty-four hours. It felt like years ago.

"Guess you're not done," Faith said, glaring right back. But true to her word she didn't make any moves, so it was up to Jo, then, to recapitulate their earlier encounter, to pull Faith up as easy as she'd pushed her down, and kiss her again.

This time neither of them were drunk. Jo felt everything: the unexpected softness of Faith's mouth, her hair tangling around Jo's fingers, the press of her breasts as she moved closer. The cut in Jo's lip split open a bit and she tasted blood -- she thought Faith would stop, but instead she just kissed Jo harder, her tongue sweeping inside Jo's mouth. Faith's sudden hands on her hips were strong and warm, and her thumbs stroking the bare skin above Jo's waistband made her shiver even as a hot throbbing began between her legs. "I swear to God," Jo said, tilting her head back as Faith kissed her neck, "if you make me stop this time--"

"What, you gonna beat me up?"

"Yeah," Jo gasped. "Just might."

She was serious, goddammit, but Faith pulled away like she'd just said the complete opposite thing. "I still need to call B. And the others are gonna be back any minute now. Sun's coming up."

Jo gaped at her. "You're kidding, right?"

"Not even a little bit. This job pauses for no woman." But the corners of her mouth turned up slightly. "Go upstairs, blondie. I'll be there when I'm done."

Jo got off the desk which, when had she gotten on it? -- and walked away on rubbery legs. She didn't look back, but she didn't need to, to know Faith was watching her.

Because Ellen Harvelle didn't raise a stupid girl, Jo went straight up to Faith's room. She got into the shower and turned the water as hot as her cuts and scrapes could stand it, lathering up with Faith's soap and shampoo, the same plain, no-nonsense brands she'd found in her own bathroom her first morning in the Hyperion. When she got out of the shower, she found that the medicine cabinet held only a tube of toothpaste, a toothbrush like the kind the dentist gave you for free, and an unmarked tub of scentless lotion. Somehow that seemed both fitting and comforting, that Faith kept things so simple, but still, as she stared at herself in the slowly de-fogging mirror, she could feel her heart beating a little faster, her hands trembling a bit. She was in another woman's space, naked, eyes closed, vulnerable. She had no idea what was going to happen next.

She wrapped herself in a towel, debated whether to pull her clothes back on despite the rips and bloodstains, and then went hunting through Faith's dresser. T-shirt, trackpants. She toweled her hair as dry as she could get it, then stretched out on the bed above the covers, muscles grateful to be horizontal, brain humming blissfully at the feel of the pillow. Her eyes drifted shut.

It was the mattress dipping to one side that woke her. She rolled over and saw Faith sitting on the edge of the bed, wrapped in a towel, still mostly wet from her own shower. She was attempting to re-bandage her shoulder. The gray-lavender light in the room told Jo it was still early morning.

"Here," she said, and sat up behind Faith, taking the bandage and tape and re-doing her earlier work. She paused and yawned in the middle of it, still sleep-blurry.

"You should go back to sleep," Faith said, her voice low even though they were the only two people in the room. "You need it for healing."

"I got enough. What did Buffy say?"

"Said we got work to do. We're going in tonight."

"You weren't kidding about the job never stopping."

"Nope."

Finished with her work, Jo traced her fingers along the top hem of Faith's towel, just beneath the bandage. "I'm sorry about Jenna and Tamara."

"Yeah, well, there'll be more tomorrow morning."

Jo lifted her hand. "You want me to go?"

For a moment, she thought Faith wasn't going to answer her. Then: "Stay if you want."

Jo took a moment to just kneel there, admiring the nape of Faith's neck and the line of her back, and then she brushed aside the sweep of Faith's dark hair, smooth and still heavy and cool from moisture, and pressed a kiss to her jaw. She smelled clean and fresh, just the way Jo did.

Faith let her kiss her way toward her mouth, leaning her head back for better access, bringing her hand up to cradle Jo's neck for support. The strangeness of kissing Faith from such an angle and the freakiness of kissing her at all were balanced by the measure of control Jo felt, the power, like their positions made her the strong one, leaning over Faith and taking what she wanted.

Faith slid her hands down Jo's arms, twined their fingers together, and brought Jo's hands up to cup her breasts through the towel. God, that was weird, thrilling and weird, the familiar curved shape of them yet how they were still so different from her own. She eased the towel loose, letting it fall open so she could test the softness of Faith's skin, the way her nipples puckered and dragged on her moist palms.

Faith moaned a little when Jo flicked her thumbs gently, and the sound of it went straight down through Jo. She kissed harder, her breath going ragged, rearing up on her knees so she was almost draped over Faith now, her hair falling down to brush against her knuckles.

Then Faith broke the kiss and flipped them both over, quick slayer strength, towel sliding off to the floor as she hooked her fingers in the waistband of Jo's pants and pulled them down. Jo got the T-shirt off herself, shivering a bit from the sudden chill and her own self-consciousness.

"Cold feet?" Faith smoothed her hands along Jo's thighs, wicked eyebrow raised.

"Not even a little bit," Jo parroted, and then gasped as Faith pushed her legs apart, dipped her head and took one long lick between them.

Furtive fingering was about as far as Jo'd ever gotten down there. She propped herself up on her elbows, shivering again as Faith looked up and met her eyes, held her gaze the whole time even as her tongue and fingers drove Jo crazy, like she was daring Jo to call the whole thing off. Like she fucking could.

It rose and rose and her hips jerked, and then she had to break their staring match, had to throw her head back and arch and writhe, and Faith looped her strong arms around Jo's thighs and buried her face between them, hands holding her down and -- "Ohshit, oh god, god -- unh," Jo babbled, and came like a thunderclap.

Faith crawled up her body while she was still aftershocking and kissed her thoroughly, pushing Jo's taste inside her mouth with her tongue. "Get up, blondie," she said against Jo's mouth, and pulled her up so they were kneeling in front of each other. She guided Jo's hand between her own legs and rubbed Jo's fingers through the slick, and Jo'd had plenty of practice with this, at least, albeit at a rather different angle. She gathered what was left of her conscious thought and found Faith's clit and gave her what she needed until Faith shuddered against her, breasts rubbing deliciously against Jo's.

She was leaning against Faith, her forehead resting on her uninjured shoulder, contemplating whether she could fall asleep still kneeling. Faith's hands were smoothing over Jo's back in wide circles. "Had enough yet?" Her voice had that slightly hoarse edge of amusement to it.

"Bitch, I could go all day," Jo groaned.

"That's what I like to hear." Faith swept her hands over Jo's ass, caught her beneath her thighs, and lifted her up.

"Ahh -- god, what--" She wrapped arms and legs around Faith, pure instinct. Faith walked on her knees until she had Jo against the headboard, holding her up like Jo weighed less than a feather, cold hard wood pressing into Jo's back, Faith's smooth belly pressing between Jo's legs where she was still wet and quivering. "Holy shit--" Jo managed, before Faith covered her mouth with her own.

Faith pulled out of the kiss just long enough to stick her thumb between her own lips, her other hand moving to grip Jo's ass and hold her in place. She pulled her thumb out with a slippery pop and brought it down to Jo's clit, circling. "Like that?" she breathed, her dark eyes watching Jo. "You better tell me, or I might stop."

"Yes, okay, yes, Jesus." Jo arched her back, knocked her head against the wall, spread her arms out along the top of the headboard for purchase even though Faith was propping her up, easy as a pillow. "Don't you goddamn stop."

"Nice little virgin like you, what happened to asking politely?"

Jo thrust her hips, making the headboard bang the wall. "Don't you goddamn stop, please."

Faith smirked at her. "Like you were saying, we got all day."

Chapter Text

"We're going to do a thing," Willow said. "It's kind of scary, and Giles, you're gonna hate it. But I've had a ton of practice. I could do it in my sleep, even. Well, okay, it kind of requires me being in a meditative state bearing all the characteristics of sleep, but--"

"Will," Buffy interrupted. "Could you get to the actual explaining what it is part?"

Andrew sighed, long-suffering. "It's basically a bastardized combination of a channeling and enjoining spell that Rosenberg's been using to have psychic phone sex with her girlfriend."

Jo waited for the resulting uproar to die down. "Okay, want to explain that in words the normal person can understand?"

"Renee and I use it to communicate," Willow said. "It's sort of like a telepathic link, but deeper. I can feel what she's feeling, see what she's seeing -- nice, harmless things like that."

"Sex things," Andrew interjected.

"Yeah, I'm with the geek," Faith said. "That's pretty kinky, Will."

Jo didn't even have to catch Faith's wink at her -- the blush was already there.

Giles, frowning, ignored them all and said, "Renee isn't a witch. And you've been channeling yourself into her? What if she gained control over you and accessed your powers?"

"We don't even do it that much. It's just a way to be closer when the satellite connection isn't enough. Anyway, it's completely consensual. Nobody's controlling anybody!"

"So you want to use it on me," Jo said, "so I won't have to do the big spell alone."

"That's the idea. I'd sort of, guide you through it from inside your head. Like, um--"

"Like a puppet," Faith said. She'd lost her teasing tone.

"Or possession," Angel said.

Willow wilted a bit. "It's totally not like that. She wouldn't be doing anything she didn't want to do."

"Still sounds like bodysnatching." Faith shot Buffy a dark look. In her small window on the laptop screen, Buffy furrowed her brow.

"Any alternatives, Will?"

"I could telepor--"

"No," Giles said sharply, and on his heels were Xander and Andrew, a little more panicked. Buffy just continued to look troubled.

"O-kay, then, I guess there's always my frequent flyer miles. Or we could just let Jo do the spell by herself."

"I like the first option," Jo volunteered.

"Buffy?" Giles said.

She took her time answering. "The thing is, we need Will here for the rising tomorrow. But I don't want to wait another day on this mission, especially after the new casualties. Are you sure it's safe?"

"As a kitten," Willow said.

"Okay. Then tonight's the night. Los Angeles, you'll head out at sundown."

Jo tried to pay attention to the rest of the planning session, but her head was buzzing and she couldn't concentrate on anything except tonight, tonight. Eventually, Andrew complained that he needed enough time to doublecheck his verb conjugations, and the conference call broke up.

Buffy stopped just before logging off. "Faith. Some of the girls here, and some in the other divisions as well -- they've had dreams. Did yours report any?"

Faith just looked at her with an expression Jo couldn't read. "What do you think?"

"What about you?"

Faith had -- not meanly, exactly, but firmly -- sent Jo back to her room before either of them could fall asleep. "Five by five, B."

"Just like always," Buffy said.

"Just like. See you at the debriefing."

"You'd better. All three of you better." Buffy's window blinked out.

"Do you not want me to do it?" Jo asked quietly.

Faith got to her feet, chair legs scraping the floor with more force than any normal woman her size would be able to give it, her dark eyes communicating nothing. "Doesn't matter. We all gotta do the job, blondie." She didn't quite slam the office door on her way out, but Ash would have called it close enough for government work.

Angel, who'd been leaning against a bookshelf for the entire conference call, straightened and shot Jo a curious look. "Guess I'll...go make sure the weapons are still clean." He headed out the way Faith had gone.

Jo sighed and moved to hit the disconnect button which would turn off the satellite link.

But she didn't click. Her fingers hovered over the laptop's touchpad, and on the screen, the mouse arrow hovered over the disconnect. And still she didn't click.

The silence and solitude in the office seemed to shout at her, to call out for shattering.

She dialed another number.

"Girl, where you been?" Ash's image, created through his homemade webcam, was fuzzier than the ones that bounced over from Scotland and Italy and Kenya, but it was still Ash, his ugly face so familiar to her that she had to take a breath before she forgot to. He ran a hand through the top of his mullet. "Your mom's been asking me for updates and every time I'm like I don't know where'n hell she is, she gives me this look like she just can't wait to marinate my balls in tobasco sauce -- still attached." He shook his head, muttering, "Been weeks of that."

"I'm okay, Ash." Jo smiled. "I'm still in L.A., I'm with good people. See, they're all tech'd out, just like you."

"What, those ones from the magic store?"

"Yeah. And I want to tell you all about it, I mean, there's this whole other world going on that I don't think any hunter even knows about." He looked doubtful, and she had to suppress a wild giggle. "But I don't have time to go into it just now. I just -- can I talk to my mom?

His expression cleared. "You got it."

She sat fiddling with her father's knife while he went to fetch her mother, the screen transmitting the inside of his tornado-hit bedroom. She tried to think back -- she'd sent her last postcard almost four weeks ago, and it'd been months before that since she'd even heard her mother's voice. Too long since they'd been eye to eye. This was going to be brutal.

Then her mother came into the frame and sat down, and Jo put the knife away and leaned closer.

She was dressed in her robe -- of course, the time difference meant it was still early in Nebraska, and she'd probably been up late tending the bar. Her hair was mussed, her eyes a little puffy, but her sleep-soft face went stone cold as soon as she saw Jo.

"Hi, Mom."

Her mother's voice was perfectly, dangerously calm. "Joanna Beth."

"Okay. Before we start fighting, I have to tell you something. I know how Dad died. I know all of it." The way her mother's eyes widened, not so much curious as alarmed, told Jo all she needed about exactly how much she'd known and kept hidden. So be it, then. "I'm not mad at you for keeping it from me, leastways not anymore, because I know it must have been horrible for you to even think about much less try to tell me. But when I found out, I just had to do something. I had to see the place for myself."

"Are you trying to tell me you went there--"

"Mom, let me finish. Okay? Turns out it's a worse place than probably Dad or John Winchester ever knew. And I've found some people who're going to help me fix it. They're strong, good hunters, so I'm not alone, Mom. We can clean it up and make it right again."

"No." Her mother was shaking her head. "No, no, no, and no."

"And I don't want you to come out here to try and stop me again," Jo said, and her voice broke, broke like a door kicked open, she hadn't even known it was going to happen until it did. "This is my choice to do this, and every time you take that away from me--"

"Honey, you don't even understand what you'd be dealing with--"

"I do understand. More than you do, Mom, more even than Dad did. I mean, you keep trying to hide these things from me, but you can't keep me from my own damn life."

"I've already lost one too many people to that life and I am not losing you, too!"

"You don't get to make that choice for me. I'm sorry this scares you and I'm sorry it's not something safe like getting a college degree, but you can be angry at me forever or you can accept this and let me do what I need to do to make his death right."

"Jo, you can hunt all you want, all right? You're not livin' under my roof anymore. Go all around the country just like your dad and send postcards home whenever you feel like it. But you're not thinking with a clear head and I don't want you doing something this dangerous just because you can't stand that I didn't tell you the truth!"

"I told you, that's not what this is about."

"Isn't it? Honey, all I'm saying is, this rebellious stage of yours is gettin' a little long in the tooth."

"I'm sorry," Jo repeated. "I can't go through this with you again. I just called so you'd know what I was up to. Please don't hang up angry."

Her mother started to say something, stopped, pressed her knuckles to her mouth. When she spoke again, her voice was trembling the way it did when she was holding back tears, the way Jo's voice did when she was doing the same. "I'm not angry at you."

"I'll call you, okay? When this is all over."

Ellen reached her hand out, the pads of her fingers touching the screen on her side. "And if something happens to you?"

"Then I love you."

"Dammit, Joanna--"

"Tell Ash not to bother tracing the call. It's been scrambled." She took one last look, and part of it was waiting for her mother to say something, to finally give her what she wanted, but her mother just looked back at her, doing her own waiting.

Jo closed the connection.

*

She didn't get to see Faith again until just before the squads set out. The hotel was crazy with activity when she finally emerged from the office, girls rushing around getting weapons and orders from their squad leaders, Faith never in one place for longer than a few minutes. It didn't let up until just before sundown, when the squads began leaving for Devil's Gate, and by then Jo and Angel were bringing up the rearguard with Shandee and Melanie in Squad 25 again, and she thought Faith had already gone.

"What, no goodbye?" Jo muttered, collecting her papers and weapons. "Not even an inspirational speech for the troops?"

"Not really my style," Faith answered, behind her. "Let's go, blondie. You and me're riding in the Plymouth."

Somehow, Jo had never pictured Angel for a classic car type; she'd always thought of him as a medieval fish out of water, someone who made more sense wielding a broadsword and a battleaxe than an ignition key. But in a way she found it comforting: the familiar smells of oil and leather and age that told her the car came with a history and a carefully selected pedigree, that she had found yet another hunter who took pride in that kind of thing. Angel put the top down while Faith hopped into the back and Jo slid into the front, letting the engine rumble and thrum before floating the car down the city streets. They accelerated onto the freeway and headed east, the sky orange and purple behind them.

Faith was silent -- they all were, but Faith's silence spoke, so Jo didn't interrupt.

Next to her, Angel was big and solid but gave off no heat other than what he took from his surroundings, and yet the familiarity of him as Angel seemed to lessen the things about him that weren't human. Instead of seeing only what separated them, this time she felt as though she could contain their differences, deal with them at a distance and, following logically from that, defeat them. She clutched that newfound confidence tightly.

Willow was supposed to make contact with her at eight o'clock. She watched the hands on her wristwatch move inexorably closer to it, until it got so dark that she couldn't quite make them out anymore. They were almost at their exit, too close for comfort.

Then she felt it: a presence in her mind that was completely outside of herself. It was gentle, like a spirit's hand brushing her back, but still undeniable. She felt her mind recoil.

It's okay, she heard Willow say, as clearly as if it were her sitting beside Jo instead of Angel. Just relax, just give yourself time to get used to it.

It felt like she had to think about breathing, like she couldn't do it automatically anymore. She turned panicked eyes on Angel. "Is it Willow?" he asked. When she nodded, he looked away from the road for a moment and peered straight into her, as if he could actually see Willow there. He took her hand in his cold one.

She felt a flutter of...emotion, memory, an image accompanied by sensation: Angel hugging her in the lobby of the Hyperion. Only, not her, not Jo, but -- Willow. There were others standing behind Angel, watching them, and she knew their faces and their names: Wesley Gunn Fred Lorne. And when she and Angel broke the embrace and she turned to leave, she saw Faith waiting for her beside the door. Just the sight of her, despite their history, made her feel that the world was an ordered place again, that things were coming together, falling into place, that maybe Buffy could actually win this--

"Whoa." Jo reeled, gripping the door handle.

"The hell?" Faith said from the backseat, knife-edged.

Sorry, Willow said. We just need to figure out the balance and the boundaries of this. Takes a little practice. Here, maybe this'll help.

She felt Willow send her another image/sensation, this time of Willow herself, sitting peacefully on her bed in what Jo suddenly understood was Scotland, the upstairs bedroom of the little country cottage she shared with Buffy and Dawn and whoever else happened to be planning battles with them. It was still dark out in the UK, but with that deep purple quality that meant the sun was coming.

She felt the mental equivalent of goosebumps. She looked down at her arms: nope, physically there, too. Christ, this was weird.

Yeah, but still pretty cool, huh?

She didn't answer in words, but tried to send Willow a sense of calm that she didn't quite feel, drawing the emotion from the image of Willow sleeping, echoing the sensation back to her.

Hey! Check you out! You're getting it already.

Well, that was something. She sat back and breathed in the dry desert air. "I'm okay," she said. "Just...it's a weird feeling, is all."

"Sure it is, it's fucking unnatural," Faith griped.

"I can handle it."

"So far."

"We're almost there," Angel interrupted. He was already decelerating to enter the exit lane.

They were all -- Willow as well -- quiet until they reached the meeting point a half mile from the Devil's Gate, where half of the taskforce had assembled. The other half was on the other side of the ravine, set to descend at Faith's signal. Jo got out of the car, a little breathless at the sight of them all waiting beneath the shadowy trees, dozens and dozens of girls armed for asskicking.

Pretty awesome, huh? Willow said, and sent her: Buffy at the front of her own army, striding forward into battle.

"Everyone accounted for?" Faith asked. She got a round of confirmations from each squad leader, their voices clear in the night. "Who checked in with the other side? Any traffic jams over there?"

Melanie stepped up. "All accounted for."

Faith nodded. "Okay, let's head."

As one, they started jogging toward the edge of the ravine.

"Hey girl," Shandee said, coming up alongside Jo, breathing easy. "Nervous?"

"Little bit."

"Don't even worry about it. You're gonna rock that magic mojo shit. Just get it done quick, okay? We want to be picking off stragglers, not whatever manages to get out before you lock the door."

"Yeah, I hear you."

The first slayers swept over the ridge without stopping. Jo looked around and saw that Faith was already among them, and Angel with his sword raised. Shandee flashed her one last grin and sped ahead to catch up, her long legs consuming the distance.

Just you and me, Jo thought, and felt Willow send her some calm.

She scrambled down to the bottom in a diagonal direction, toward the laughing river and the rock shaped like a devil's head. Across the ravine she could hear the warcries of the other side hurtling down, and from the bottom she could hear sounds of fighting already, snarls and shouts -- goddamn things must've been waiting down there the whole time. She tuned it out, focused on her task.

Kneeling in the wet mud of the riverbank, just on the edge of all the action, she took out her father's knife and cut the circle of incantation right into the earth. She drew in each rune the way Willow and Andrew had instructed her, Willow occasionally interjecting small corrections over their link. She remembered sketching the devil's traps around the hotel with Angel, setting cages down in every corridor. Now she was drawing a door she was about to close.

When she finished, she washed the blade in the river and wiped it dry on her jeans, then set up the three black tapers in the middle of the circle and lit them, one by one. Her hands were steady as anything.

Okay, Willow said. Looks good. Now, I know you remember the runic progression, but I'll be chanting with you the whole time. So if you get lost, if something distracts you, just listen to me. Okay? I won't stop.

"Okay," Jo said out loud. And fuck, there it was, her voice shaking like a rag doll. She swallowed and stepped into the circle, kneeling again in front of the burning candles, tilting her head back to look at the stars.

First the manifestation.

She chanted the words, Willow's voice echoing just beneath hers: "Mogesh hartha kana yol..."

The first flame blinked out, and at the same time a swirl of fire expanded out of the sky into a long, ragged dark patch blacker than the night. The flames outlined the borders of the darkness, clearly illuminating the rip between the dimensions: the Devil's Gate.

Jesus, she had created an opening to hell. Never mind that it had already been there -- she'd made it visible and now there it was, existing and completely undeniable. The sounds of fighting paused as everyone looked up at the fiery tear, but it was only the length of a breath. Hurry, Willow said, this magic's gonna call every big and little bad in a ten-mile radius, and we don't even know what else will come out of there.

"Dragons," Jo breathed, but only because the dragons had already arrived, swooping out of the trees, more from the opening itself. Screams pealed out all along the river, and it was just like before, just like that night, only worse: somewhere out there, Faith and Angel and Shandee and Petra and Hilary and Mel, everyone -- they were all fighting, and the things just kept swarming out of the darkness, unstoppable.

You can't think about that. Gotta focus. C'mon, Jo.

She steeled herself. Next, the mending. The runic progression, writing the opening out of existence.

The runes, uttered in her human voice, were guttural, awkward in her attempt to wield a non-human power. "Cycthus. Cyl, thirah, semrot. Sehl, thirhar, cylthe. Thoce, silhar, cehm." She chanted them over and over, the variations increasingly more complex, Willow's voice a guiding track.

Suddenly, a bolt of something dark and ancient slammed through her, yanking her head back, thrusting her body rigid. Everything...sharpened. The stars, the tree branches, the fire, the screams.

There it is, Willow murmured, my old friend. Oh, Jo, we shouldn't have let you do this.

Jo reached her hand out toward the stars. It was burning, flames licking each finger, but there was no pain, no heat. She moved her hand so that it covered the rip in the sky, the two fires overlapping.

"Jo!" someone shouted. "Jo, baby, don't."

She looked down the river. There was a man lying on a pile of tree branches, draped and broken, burning alive.

"What--" Jo whispered, stumbling forward. "Daddy?"

Jo, wait--

She reached him, close enough to see the blond stubble on his cheek, his eyes dark brown like hers, welling with tears. He looked exactly like the last night she saw him. "Daddy, how did you--"

"He killed me, Jo. That son of a bitch John killed me. Left me here to die, salted and burned my body like I was just some spirit."

"I don't understand."

"I've been holding on this whole time. No place to go from here but hell. Been waiting for you to help me out -- I knew you'd come."

"I'm gonna fix it, Daddy, I'm closing the Gate."

"No!" He thrashed violently, sending tree branches down to spark against others. "If you do it'll suck me right in. You gotta take me out of here, Jo."

Jo, stop this, it's a trick.

Her shotgun with the rock salt cartridges was propped against the wall in her room at the Hyperion. But it was just a flicker of an image rather than a thought, and she wasn't even sure it came from her. The sounds of the fighting floated toward her from further upriver, but it was background noise, nothing to do with her.

"Jo, help me," her father said. "It hurts so much."

Her hands were already burning, so she reached out to wrap her arms around him and pull him off the fire. He touched her face, warm hands cradling her just as if they were living, his beautiful smile. William Anthony Harvelle. "I knew you'd come and save me, Jo, I've been waiting so long."

She helped him into the river, washing the flames away.

"I missed you, Dad," Jo said, cradling him in her arms.

"Missed you too, babe."

Jo, Willow tried again. Jo, when you lose people, you lose them. They don't come back like this. You have to let them go.

She knew that, dammit, knew all about spirits and their ways, and she knew it a hell of a lot better than some girl thousands of miles away who for all her magic powers and shit had probably never met a real spirit in her life. She thought of a wall, concrete and thick, and slammed it down between them, silencing Willow in mid-thought.

"Take me away from here," her father said. And that was all he wanted -- he was dead, had been for over half her life, no denying that. But he wasn't just some stupid crazy spirit that missed its chance to leave. Her dad had a reason for staying, and all he wanted now was for her to help get him where he was supposed to go.

"Don't worry," Jo said, "I got you." She helped him onto his feet, draped his arm across her shoulders and propped him up. Together they waded back toward the riverbank.

"Goin' somewhere, blondie?"

Faith was standing by the burning pyre, bloody and battered, looking at her with a shrewd expression.

"This is my dad," Jo tried to explain. "I gotta help him."

Faith didn't even spare him a glance. "That ain't your dad."

"It's his spirit -- close enough."

"Jo." Quick as lightning, quick as magic, Faith reached out and grabbed her wrist. "Don't make me have to stop you."

"If he stays here when I close the Gate, it'll take him. I have to get him out of here."

"Where the hell do you think he came from?"

Jo tried and failed to shake her hand off. "I'll be back to finish the job once he's safe."

"The fuck? There are slayers dying right now and the only reason they're here to begin with is 'cause of you and you are not gonna have some personal freakout in the middle of it."

"Fuck you, get the fuck off me." She turned, clumsy beneath her father's weight, unwrapping her arm from around his waist to pull out his knife, wanting only to cut, just enough to make her lose her grip. But Faith knew Jo by now, and her reflexes were better. She shoved Jo away, took the knife and had it pointed directly at her by the time Jo regained her balance.

"I will fucking kill you myself if more people die because of you. Open your goddamn eyes and let him go."

"Jo," her father said, "don't leave me here."

She started shaking her head, communicating silently with Faith. Please understand. Please.

Faith's expression changed, but it wasn't sympathy. It was realization, followed by resolve. Jo only just had time to shout, "Don't--" before Faith grabbed her father, spun him around and held him in front of her, the knife pressed to his throat. "Do the fucking spell, Jo," Faith said.

Jo stared. The blade was touching his skin, and he was talking, pleading, "Jo, help me, get me out of here," his eyes locked with hers. And the blade was touching his skin, pure iron, and it kept touching, and nothing was happening to him, nothing at all.

"You're not a spirit," Jo said, wooden. "You're not him."

"Jo, I'm your father, you've got to save me, Jo --"

"You're not him!" she shouted. "You're not! You're nothing!"

The thing that looked like her father burst into flames, sending Faith stumbling backward.

"Oh, God," Jo breathed. Legs suddenly watery, she collapsed onto her knees. "I--"

"Like I fucking said, freak out later." Faith pulled her to her feet again and led her back to the circle of incantation. "How many times I gotta tell you the job doesn't wait?"

"I'm sorry," Jo said. "Jesus."

"Don't think he's listening. And I'll accept your damn apology later. We got work to do."

She didn't know how to get Willow back, but the runic progression was so embedded in her memory that she could have said it in her sleep. She started the chant from the beginning, losing herself in the structure, forgetting for a moment how she had almost given it all up. As the magic grabbed hold of her again, Faith gasped. She took in the flames engulfing Jo's hands and shook her head, closing her eyes briefly.

"Go and fight," Jo said. "I got this."

Faith nodded and turned back. Jo watched her disappear into the crush of women and demons.

Above her, the rip began to pulse. She held her hands over it, exploring how the energies matched, the way they hooked into each other, pushed and pulled with a certain tension. The Gate resisted her, but she was channeling a power as elemental as the natural forces that had created the opening: this magic allowed her to revise it, rewrite it, recreate the world in its place. She was connected to the very fabric of reality -- deeper, even. No wonder then that Willow had worried for her safety. The sheer scope of it dazzled her, the dark depth of it made her recoil. She wanted to let it go as soon as she touched it, or hold onto it forever.

But, as Faith had said, she had work to do.

Jo closed her hands into two fists, and just like that, the rip vanished. A roar went up in the night, as all the creatures connected with the Gate reeled from the backlash.

Third and final stage: locking the door. Jo paused, collecting Willow and Andrew's instructions from her memory. She saw, with the power running through her veins now, how she could do it faster than their way. She had magic in her now, stronger than any of the others; she need only flex her will and it would be finished. But she thought of all the things she'd learned and been before she ever set foot at Devil's Gate, thought of the knife against her father's throat, or whatever that thing had been, and she decided to follow the rules she'd been given instead of trying to make her own.

The third candle had just blown out when Angel came limping toward her, sword propped on his shoulder, flat side down. He helped her to her feet, held her up until she got strength in her legs again and could stand on her own. "Good work," he said. Behind him, up the river, she saw that the fight was mostly over. More slayers left standing than demons, anyway.

When the dizziness passed, she busied herself smearing the incantation circle out of the mud with her boot. "Faith?"

"Rounding everyone up."

She let the relief wash over her, filling the place she'd allotted for the worry she hadn't actually let herself feel. "Did we have heavy losses?"

"Yes," he said quietly.

"Is she okay?"

"I don't know. I think so." Angel paused. "Are you?"

She dragged her foot across the spiky rune for cyl, sweeping away its existence as if she'd just stomped on an insect. There was nothing left now but the blurry outline of the circle. "No," she said finally. "I'm not okay."

She gathered up the three candles, broke them in half, and threw them into the laughing river. Angel didn't say anything, didn't touch her, didn't try to make eye contact: all good choices, because she would've -- well, she didn't know what she would have done, if he'd done something different. Just knew she was glad he hadn't. Instead they walked together, silently, back toward the others.

*

The division spent days putting itself back together. The Hyperion was a house that had been gutted, too empty in the mornings, too quiet at night, even before the slayers left for their patrols. Jo had only been there for a blink of an eye compared to everyone else, but still, she saw all the empty spots, felt the loss of people she'd never gotten a chance to speak to, the ache they left behind. It was palpable, something the entire group felt and echoed back in on itself, amplified by each girl like voices in a chorus.

Jo thought about hiding, and even did so for a day, lying in her bed staring for hours at the devil's trap on her ceiling. Hiding was easier than dealing. Easier than talking to people about two thirds of Squad 10, or half of Squad 6. Or about Melanie. Or Hilary. Or Maria.

But then she woke up to find Faith stretching out next to her, as easily as if she slept in Jo's room every morning, yawning and throwing one arm over her eyes to block out the rising sun. She didn't even acknowledge it when Jo stiffened and took a breath to speak, just fell right to sleep, giving Jo nothing to defend against but peaceful, even breathing.

When she woke again, Faith was already up, sitting on the ledge of the open window, whittling a stake. The wood shavings scattered to the street below, probably startling normal Angelenos just going about their day. "Get dressed," Faith said. "We got another debriefing in twenty minutes. Buffy wants to talk to you."

Jo didn't ask if Faith had told her what happened with her father. She figured Willow would have, anyway.

She took a shower, washing off the fitful sleep, walked out naked into her room and pulled on some clean clothes without even bothering to towel off or comb her hair. "Come on," Faith said, and led her downstairs.

Buffy's face was grave, her voice hard. "You messed up," she said. "Or maybe we messed up, because we didn't fully realize how much of a weakness your father was. But either way, you put everyone in danger."

Angel crossed his arms. "We were in danger anyway."

"And that's why this was so serious. We can't have someone working for us who might be a liability in a crisis."

"It was a pretty personal liability," Willow said. "I mean, I don't think this is something that would happen again, right, Jo?"

"Right," Jo said, her voice hoarse.

Buffy was unmoved. "How can you guarantee that?"

"She doesn't have to," Faith said. "You're supposed to trust, B. She's not the only person in this conversation who's done wrong."

"Then I want a promise."

All eyes looked to Jo. Jo cleared her throat. "I'm sorry," she said quietly. "I won't do it again."

Buffy didn't answer for a long time, and Jo wondered if she'd been expected to give a speech or something, make some eloquent plea that was supposed to convince Buffy that her regret was sincere, that she wanted this job, this place in the division with these people she hadn't even known existed a month ago. But she wasn't even sure of all that herself, really. All she knew was there was more grief filling the hotel than anything else, and it hadn't been that way before she'd arrived.

"Okay," Buffy said finally. "Then don't do it again."

The rest of the call was for administrative things, re-arranging the squadrons, the ripple effect on the rest of the city's demonic activity, the progress of the wounded. Jo slipped out of the office, letting Faith and Angel handle it.

She met Shandee in the lobby, and let herself be enveloped by a fierce hug, all skinny arms and long thin torso and voice muffled in Jo's hair, rendering her no-doubt smartass comments unintelligible. "Glad you're okay," Jo whispered, interrupting her. She felt her eyes pricking, tried to swallow it, and then just let it all come out. Shandee just kept holding her as if she'd expected it, stroking out the tangles in Jo's hair.

"So what did God say?" Shandee asked, when Jo finally dried up. "You staying?"

"She said I can if I want."

Shandee raised an eyebrow. "You're saying that like maybe you don't."

"Wouldn't you think twice about it, if you were me? If I hadn't -- hell, if I hadn't come here in the first place, all those girls, Mel, Hilary--"

"Would have gotten her reckless ass killed by something sooner or later. And Mel was gettin' old and slow, and Maria should've stayed in the infirmary, and everybody else was just -- it was their time. Don't be playing the blame game, Jo. It's beneath you. Hell, if you were moping like this for me instead of them, I'd come back as one of your ghosty things just to beat your ass."

Jo shook her head.

"Come on, girl, what'd I say to you when we first met? You got the call. This is what you're supposed to do."

"I can still hunt by myself, you know. Did that for years, even, and nobody got hurt but me."

"Yeah, but you had it all wrong then. You got peoples, now. And better for it, too."

"And you're better for it?"

"Hell, yeah. All we were doing before was playing D. You think Faith would've had the balls to take on that Gate, like, ever? You think Angel would've ever gotten off his broody ass? Anyway, did anybody actually tell you you're bringing us down? And don't say Buffy -- grumpy bitch don't count."

"Fine, no, I'm moping solo, but still--"

"Nope. You gotta trust, blondie."

Which was what Faith had said to Buffy about her, not thirty minutes ago. She felt the motherfucking tears start up again. Tried to speak, hated the way her breath shivered as she drew in, and just shook her head again.

Shandee grinned, oblivious to Jo's complete inability to string two words together. "So look, if you end up moving into Faith's room, which by the way Jamie owes me like fifty bucks for that, can I have yours?"

*

She didn't move into Faith's room, not quite, but she did spend a fair amount of time there, learning her way around sex, learning her way around Faith. They didn't talk much about anything big, but the night after the memorial service, after several minutes of Jo lying on her side and trying to sniffle quietly into her pillow, Faith said, "Christ. Get over here." And she wrapped Jo up in a full body hug, arms and legs, Jo's face tucked into her neck, wetting the throbbing beat of Faith's pulse with her tears.

"I keep fucking doing this," Jo said.

"I haven't seen you do it."

"Well, it sucks and it gets old real fast."

"I'll be the judge of that." A flippant enough reply. It meant nothing and everything, even more than the fact that Faith didn't let go.

She didn't go back to her own room for almost a week, which was probably how Angel finally clued in enough to know where to find her. He seemed surprised to see her anyway, when she opened the door to his knock. "You and--? Really? But I thought you were a--"

She grinned. "Well, the past tense is right."

He gave her a small smile back. "I guess I'm happy for you?"

"Thanks."

"I just, uh, came to tell you I'm taking off for a few days. I'm driving up north to visit -- somebody."

"Yeah? Where?"

"Um, Palo Alto. Stanford, uh, specifically. I'm leaving tonight, so I can get there before morning. But, I'll be back in a few days, though," he said again.

"Sounds cool."

"Yeah. I hope so."

She walked him down to the street, where the Plymouth sat parked by the curb. "You already say goodbye to everyone else?"

"Yeah. They're doing patrol assignments now, so I figured I'd come find you."

"I'm glad you did. Drive safe, okay?" And it occurred to her suddenly that this was probably the first time in years he'd be away from the hotel for more than a night. She stepped forward and gave him a hug. Seemed to be working for her lately, anyway. And although she'd never really thought about hugging Angel before, it wasn't awkward at all: he hugged her back, long enough for her to feel his body warm up, taking in her own heat.

"You be safe, too." He let go of her, got in the car, and drove off. She stood on the edge of the sidewalk and watched as his taillights faded out down the long straight length of Wilshire Boulevard. Then she turned and pushed the courtyard gate open.

"Jo."

She whipped around. And there stood Dean Winchester, and a little ways down the street behind him, leaning against their own black classic car, was his brother Sam.

Dean gave her one of his stupid grins. "How you been?"

She found her voice. "Jesus, did my mom send you?"

He didn't even try to front. "She said she hadn't heard from you, and we were already in town for a case, so. Ash tracked down your address from -- well, I didn't understand what exactly he said, but--"

"I talked to her not even two weeks ago."

"She said she had reason to be worried." Dean flicked his gaze down the street, where Angel had gone. "So -- does she? I mean, I never could trust a man who drove a Plymouth."

Jo felt a bubble of hysterical laughter building up in her throat. "We're just friends." But the girl inside -- well, her I might have to fight you for. She looked past him at Sam, who quickly cut his eyes back over to some innocuous thing on the other side of the street. "Your brother too scared to talk to me or something?"

"Maybe a little."

She rolled her eyes and called out to Sam, "Hey, get down here. I won't bite."

Dean glanced back at Sam, then at her, uncertain. Sam unstuck himself from the side of the Impala and loped down toward them. His face was crumpled with worry. "Jo, I'm so--"

She smiled, showing teeth. "No hard feelings. So. You guys checked up on me. I'm alive, I'm safe, you can tell my mom I'll send her another postcard when I get around to it."

Dean stepped a bit closer, lips pouting some, his face simultanously concerned and gorgeous, like God had sculpted him just for women to admire. She felt her pulse stutter, thinking about whether or not to race. "She said you were talking about going to Devil's Gate."

"Yeah, I was. And I did."

He and Sam looked surprised. "By yourself?" Sam asked.

"Nope, I had some help."

When she didn't offer any other explanation, Dean grimaced. "Look. We never got a chance to talk to you about all of that. But as for what our dad did, I guess I just wanted to say--"

"Save it. I don't need it. Wasn't your fault, anyway."

"I just -- want to make it right. And I know Sammy does, too."

"Yeah," Sam agreed.

Maybe. Maybe they did actually think about it during those long stretches when they didn't see her, maybe it was something that ate at them the way it had eaten at her for years. But mostly she thought that any wrongs their father had done, unless they were confronted with the consequences directly, they didn't really think about them at all. She couldn't blame them for that -- it was the way most people dealt with life, even when it came to the wrongs they'd committed themselves. You had to move on. How else could you survive?

"It's okay," she said. "I don't need you to make it right for me. I did that myself."

She heard voices coming from the courtyard, and then the gate opened behind her, slayers spilling onto the sidewalk, heading out for their patrols. Some of them waved and called out to her, "Hey, Jo!" "See you in the morning, Jo!" before they formed up in squads and separated, running off into the night.

She glanced back at Dean and Sam -- Sam who had a surprised look on his face, and Dean who looked surprised with a helping of lustful on the side. She almost laughed. Had she really thought he was that different?

"It was good to see you guys again," she said, before they could start asking questions. "Give me a call if you're ever back in L.A. Me and my crew, we could show you some good hunting." And she left them standing there, and turned and walked back into the hotel.

Faith was just picking out a sword from the weapons cabinet when Jo came into the lobby. "Did you see Angel off?" she said, without even turning around.

"How'd you know it was me?"

"Slayer sense," Faith said, enigmatic.

Jo came up to her, stepping in under her sword arm, and kissed her thoroughly. "Next patrol, I want to come along. Okay? You did promise."

"Sure did. Tomorrow night, then." Faith leaned in for another kiss, as well as a lewd grope, wicked twinkle in her eye, then pulled away and headed for the door. "I'll be back in the morning."

"I'll be here," Jo said.

 

_____________________________

 

end

 

February 10, 2007
May 21, 2007

 

Notes: Devil's Gate Reservoir is a real place, to which I have never been, so any inaccuracies in its depiction are all mine. As described in this story, however, there are indeed some interesting and sad local legends surrounding it, easily Googled.

I cribbed the big closing spell from another ATS story of mine, "Theodicy," which I in turn cribbed from certain beliefs in Jewish mysticism. It's all there in Willow's explanation.

Finally, if you made it all the way through this Supernatural/Buffy story which really had very little to do with Dean, Sam, or Buffy, then let me just say: dude, thank you. I hope it was as fun to read as it was fun to write.

Comments and criticism welcome.