Twice Chosen

by DragonWriter17

Copyright © 2006

Rating: R (for language, violence, and sexual situations)
Disclaimer: All of the materials borrowed from Buffy the Vampire Slayer belong to Joss Whedon and to the entities and companies associated with their creation. I have borrowed them for creative and entertainment purposes only. No compensation has been or ever shall be received for the writing below. No copyright infringement is intended.
Distribution: The Mystic Muse:
Forever Faith:
Cyber Lair:
If you are interested in posting my story on your site, please contact me first for permission.
Feedback: Yes, but only if it's of the non-flamey variety.
Spoilers: BtVS Season 3's Faith, Hope, and Trick and especially Beauty and the Beast
Author's Notes: (1) The first chapter of this story was originally written for Lilly as part of the Watchers Auction for WriterCon 2006. Lilly and I had been chatting for some time about a possible Buffy/Faith story idea of mine which basically rewrote Season 3 to put the two slayers together ('cause, hey, Fuffy is hot!). When Lilly won me at the auction, she said that I could use that same story to fulfill the bid. Since then, that original short piece has grown very long. (2) I have borrowed liberally from some episodes, especially the two mentioned above. When borrowing, I have used the Buffy-vs-Angel website for transcripts and basic BTVS research. Many thanks to that invaluable website! I have deviated from the canon storyline in that Angel does not return at the end of "Faith, Hope and Trick" after Buffy has left her Claddagh ring at the mansion. After Part 03, the story moves into mostly original territory. (3) For Faith's backhistory for this series, I am using the novel Go Ask Malice: A Slayer's Diary by Robert Joseph Levy (excellent book, by the way). I may not use all of its plot details or use them exactly as they appear in that novel, but I am assuming that Faith's past in "Twice Chosen" is very similar to Faith's past in Go Ask Malice. (4) Most importantly, I would like to thank Lilly for her beta reading and editing. In fact, Lilly won Best Beta in Round 11 of the SunnyD Awards for her work on this story. Congratulations!
Pairing: Buffy/Faith

Summary: The slayers bond after defeating Kakistos. After a tragic incident, the two become even closer. When they finally act upon their feelings for one another, they must overcome a curse and more in order to stay together.

Part 1    Part 2    Part 3    Part 4    Part 5    Part 6    Part 7    Part 8    Part 9
Part 10    Part 11    Part 12    Part 13    Part 14    Part 15    Part 16
Part 17A    Part 17B    Part 17C    Part 18A

Part 1

Faith froze. Though she could hear Buffy fighting near her, her eyes were fixed on the figure approaching her. Kakistos!

"Faith! Don't die!" she heard Buffy yell to her.

She turned just in time to catch the crowbar Buffy had thrown to her. She raised it to strike, but Kakistos was too fast and too strong. He punched her hard, knocking her into a row of wooden beams leaning against the warehouse wall. Both Faith and the beams went tumbling to the floor.

As Kakistos drew near, Faith scrambled back against the wall, cowering in fear, her mind overcome by the reality of the nightmare before her. She screamed "no" as the vampire jerked her off the floor by her shirt, but any further outcries were stifled as Kakistos began mercilessly pummeling her face. With a final, massive punch, he made her see stars, and she barely felt the floor as she slammed into it.

When she came to, Faith saw Kakistos looming over a dazed Buffy.

"I guess you need a bigger stake, Slayer!" she heard Kakistos say to the blonde.

In a blur of action, Faith grabbed one of the wooden beams near her, leapt to her feet, and shoved its broken end into Kakistos's body, dusting him instantly.

The next thing Faith knew, Buffy was beside her. They were breathing hard as they grimly looked down at the vampire's ashen remains.

"You hungry?" Buffy asked flatly.

"Starved," Faith answered in the same tone.

Then they both headed out of the warehouse.

A short time later, Buffy and Faith were at a late-night diner, with a table full of food before them: several hamburgers, with the works; three large orders of fries, one of which was topped with chili and cheese; two side salads heaping with dressing and croutons; and a couple of chocolate shakes.

Faith watched Buffy take an especially large bite out of her second cheeseburger. Then she gave a small laugh. "Glad to see your whole post-slayage-nonfat-yogurt thing was a buncha crap."

Buffy laughed too as she finished chewing. "If my friends knew how much I really ate, they would die. They have no clue how much it takes to keep a slayer running."

"Bet your mom has a cow every time she adds up the grocery bills, huh?"

"Are you kidding me? I'm sure she thought I had an eating disorder till she found out I was the slayer. Now she understands." Buffy got a confused look. "At least I think she understands."

"Your mom seems cool."

"I guess," Buffy said. "She's thrilled beyond words about you being here. I think she thinks I can retire or something."

Faith was silent a moment. Then she asked, "And what do you think?"

"About retiring?"

"No," Faith said, lowering her gaze to her hands. "About me being here."

Buffy ducked her head and thought then looked back up with a smirk. "You're a pain sometimes," she said, which caused Faith to look up too and flash a grin. "But I have to admit...I like the idea of there being another slayer here." Buffy's light tone vanished. "It's like...I'm not so alone anymore. There's somebody out there that knows--really knows--what I'm going through, what it's like. You know?"

Faith looked back at Buffy as if she did indeed know exactly what the other slayer was talking about. She didn't allow the serious expression to remain long, though. Instead, she laughed and leaned back in the booth, resting both arms on the back of the seat. "That's us," she said with a broad smile. "The Chosen Two."

Buffy smiled back, but the somewhat somber mood descended once again, and the two slayers remained silent. They picked at their food and took a few drinks of their shakes. After a few minutes, Buffy asked softly, "What will you do now?"

"Not go back home, that's for sure," Faith replied. "It totally sucks." Faith gave what she hoped was a nonchalant shrug. "Watcher's dead. Can't go back to her place." Just for a second, Faith allowed a deep sadness to show on her face, then it was gone. "She mighta been an uptight Brit like Giles, but at least she got me outta that hellhole called home." Faith flashed an impish grin at Buffy. "Maybe I'll just stay here and give you a run for your money for Slayer of the Year."

Buffy rolled her eyes. "Give me a pain in the neck is more like it," she teased.

With the mood lightened, the two slayers returned to their eating with gusto and soon finished off their meal.

Buffy and Faith came out of the diner with satisfied looks on their faces. They both looked refreshed and rejuvenated by their meal. They stood outside, not quite knowing what to do next.

"So...what do you wanna do now?" Faith asked.

Buffy looked around. "It's kinda late," she said. "I should probably go home."

Faith scoffed loudly. "It's way too early for that," she said. "Come on, I know where we can go." She started walking down the sidewalk, and Buffy went along. "It's this cool bar I found. Really rocks. Way cooler than the Bronze."

Buffy stopped walking. "A bar bar? As in we're-too-young-to-get-in bar?"

"Ah, don't worry about that," Faith assured her. "I can get us in."

Buffy hesitated. "I don't know..."

"Oh come on," Faith persuaded. "We slayed the bad guy, we deserve to celebrate!"

Buffy looked unconvinced at first, but she was eventually swayed by Faith's insistent and utterly irresistible smile. "Okay," she said with confidence. "You're right. We saved the day. A little fun is definitely in order."

At that, the two of them headed down the street, ready to party.

A couple of hours later, Faith and Buffy were in the bar, heating up the dance floor. They danced with half a dozen different guys and put on a show dancing with each other. They never paid for a single drink the entire time. After they finally grew tried, they headed for the exit, much to the dismay of most of the patrons.

As Buffy came out of the bar, she giggled and swayed a bit on her feet. Faith followed, seemingly as steady as she could be.

"I can't believe I let you talk me into drinking alcohol," Buffy said, the rhythm of her words slightly off. "How did you get it anyway? How come we didn't get carded or something?"

Faith just gave her an I-have-my-ways smile.

Buffy grinned and pointed accusingly at Faith. "You let me get drunk."

Faith smirked but shrugged innocently. "Hey, how was I supposed to know you couldn't hold your liquor, B? 'Sides, you needed to loosen up."

Buffy put on worried look. "Oh...Giles will be so ashamed of me." She didn't sound particularly repentant.

"Only if you tell him," Faith pointed out.

"Well I guess I won't tell him then, will I?" Buffy announced as she gave Faith's arm a goofy poke.

Faith grabbed Buffy's hand and swung her around in a sort of dance move before pulling her close. She released Buffy's hand then put her own hands firmly at Buffy's waist. Buffy laughed and rested her arms on Faith's.

Faith caught Buffy's eyes and said, "Stick with me. I'll show you how to have a good time."

Buffy just giggled.

Faith tightened her grip on Buffy, running her hand along the blonde's back. She leaned closer, letting her gaze drop to Buffy's mouth for a moment before meeting her eyes once again. "Yeah...I bet there's a lot I can show you..."

"Yeah..." Buffy said, leaning unconsciously forward until her lips were just inches away from Faith's. "I bet there is..."

They stood there, practically frozen--glances darting from eyes to lips and back again, breaths growing heavy and husky--until Buffy slowly closed her eyes.

At that, Faith blinked. And blinked again. Then she cleared her throat and put a little space between herself and her fellow slayer.

Buffy opened her eyes. She seemed a little confused until Faith put on a sparkling smile and teasingly linked her arm in Buffy's.

"Come on, let me get you home, Little Miss Tipsy," Faith said.

Buffy's momentary confusion was gone, and she snickered. "But it's your fault I'm tipsy."

"Yeah, yeah," Faith said as she led the drunken slayer away from the bar.

Once Faith had gotten Buffy safely home and in her room, she slipped back down the stairs and out the front door. She walked down the sidewalk but stopped when she reached the curb. She looked back at the house, gazing up to the second floor.

For a moment, her expression was troubled--sparks of happiness tinged with longing, followed by flashes of fear and doubt. She frowned and looked away.

Without another glance at the house, Faith strode away.

Early the next morning, Buffy lay a bit sprawled in her bed. The covers were slightly askew, and she turned her head from side to side, clearly dreaming.

In her mind, she was with Faith again, outside the bar. Faith was holding her. She was laughing at something Faith had said, but when she stopped, she found herself just inches away from the dark slayer. She could feel the other woman's breath on her face, the heat rising between them, and although she tried to keep her gaze on Faith's eyes, she was drawn repeatedly to the slayer's full, red lips. Before she knew it, they were kissing.

Hungrily, desperately...

 Arms pulling tighter and tighter...

  Open mouths, tongues exploring...

      Hands caressing backs and necks then tangling in hair...

       Fingers aching to roam elsewhere, not enough skin...

          Yes, touch me there, for god's sake don't stop, don't--

With a gasp, Buffy awakened from her dream, snapping to an upright position. Her chest was heaving, and sweat covered her body. She glanced around the room in a panic as if she were unsure how she even got there. Her right hand went to her heart, and she left it there until she finally got her breathing under control.

She looked out her window, her brow furrowed deep in thought. She lifted her hand to her lips and gently touched them with her fingertips.

Was it real? Did it happen?

Buffy didn't know. She quickly dropped her hand.

But when her thoughts returned to the details of the dream, she found her heart racing once again.

Part 2

With her heart still racing from her dream about Faith, Buffy jumped out of bed. Instantly, a wave of dizziness hit her, and a sharp pain hammered its way into her brain. She grimaced and closed her eyes, tilting her head down and resting it against her palm.

When she opened her eyes, she noticed what she was wearing. She was still in the same clothes from the night before, but she wasn't wearing her shoes. She glanced around the room and found them sitting right beside her closet. She didn't remember putting them there.

" much did I drink last night?" she groaned to herself.

Just then her alarm went off, blaring loudly. Buffy grimaced again as the shrill noise seemed to be intensified a hundred times. She quickly shut off the alarm. Then she trudged away in the direction of the bathroom to get ready for school.

Later that day, in the Sunnydale High School library, Buffy was meeting with Giles and Willow. Buffy was sitting on the long table while Willow sat in one of the table's chairs. Giles stood nearby, holding a stack of papers.

"The Council has approved our request," Giles informed them. "Faith is to stay here indefinitely. I'm to look after you both until a new watcher is assigned."

"Good," Buffy said. "She really came through in the end." Buffy paused and made a sympathetic frown as she recalled the previous night's events. Then she shook off the memory and turned back to Giles. "She had a lot to deal with, but she did it. She got it behind her."

"I'm glad to hear it," Giles said.

Buffy slid off the table. When her feet hit the floor, another sharp pain invaded her skull. She groaned a bit and made a face.

"Are you all right?" Giles asked.

"'s just the hangover." Buffy's head shot up as she realized what she had just said. Giles was looking at her curiously. Willow was too. Buffy started backpedaling. "Uh, you know...the, um, the post-battle, feel-all-the-bruises-the-next-day thing." She gave a quick laugh. "I-I-I'm just assuming it's similar to a hangover because, as an under-aged non-drinking teenager, I would know nothing about hangovers."

While Willow smirked behind Buffy, Giles merely stared at her intently. When she didn't drop her innocent look, he chose not to say anything. Instead, he cleared his throat and turned his attention to his papers.

"I wanted to talk with you about Acathla again," he said in a serious voice while sifting through his pages.

Buffy's entire demeanor changed. Her face fell, and a deep sadness entered her eyes. She directed her gaze to the floor and didn't speak.

"I wanted to ask you about--" the watcher continued.

"Angel was cured," Buffy said softly, interrupting Giles.

Giles instantly looked up. "I'm sorry?" he said, not sure he heard correctly.

Buffy met his eyes. "When I killed him, Angel was cured." Then she turned to her friend. "Your spell worked at the last minute, Will."

Willow looked on in shock as Buffy went on.

"I was about to take him out, and, um...something went through him...and he was Angel again. H-H-He didn't remember anything that he'd done. He just held me. Um, but i-i-it was too late, and I...I had to. So I-I-I told him that I loved him...and I kissed him...and I killed him."

Tears were shining in Buffy's eyes. She looked at the floor again while Giles and Willow remained silent. When she had recovered enough, she looked back up.

"I don't know if that helps with your spell or not, Giles."

Giles pulled off his glasses. "Uh, y-y-yes, I, um, I believe it will."

Willow stood up and walked around the table and touched Buffy's arm. "I'm sorry."

Buffy gave them a small smile. "It's okay. I've been holding on to that for so long. Felt good to get it out." Buffy pushed her hands into her pockets and rocked on her feet a bit. "So...have you guys seen Faith today?"

Giles and Willow both shook their heads. Buffy looked a little disappointed.

"Oh, well, I guess I'll just catch her later then," Buffy said. "I, um, I should really get to class."

After giving two quick waves, Buffy hurried from the library. Willow watched her friend go then caught Giles before he could return to his office.

"Giles, I know you don't like me playing with mystical forces," Willow told him, "but I can really help with this binding spell."

Giles sighed and said, "There is no spell."

As the watcher headed for his office, Willow finally realized what Giles had done: he had created the story of the binding spell in order to force Buffy to admit what had really happened. Willow glanced at the door once again, a worried expression on her face.

As Buffy headed down the hallway between classes, she kept her head down and wasn't really paying much attention to where she was going. As a result, she bumped into someone coming out his classroom. When she looked up to apologize, she was surprised to find Scott Hope standing in front of her.

"Oh," she said. "Scott." She gave him a smile.

"Uh, hello," Scott replied flatly as he pulled on his backpack.

"I'm, uh, I'm glad I ran into you, actually," Buffy said awkwardly.

"Oh. Why?"

"I, um...I wanted to explain, if I could."

As Buffy and Scott were talking, Faith came down the hallway. They didn't see her, but she saw them. She stopped and ducked behind a corner to watch.

Buffy kept her gaze on her hands. "There was someone a while ago, and, uh, the ring sort of confused me." She looked back up. "But I liked what you said about friendship. I liked it a lot. And Buster Keaton. Big fun. And I'm capable of big fun, even though there's no earthly way you could possibly know that about me." Buffy got a little embarrassed. "Wow. If I knew I was gonna go on this long, I probably would've brought some water," she muttered. She let out a deep breath and went on. "What I'm trying to say is...if you would still like to go to the film festival--and I would understand it if you didn't--I'd pretty much love to go with you."

Scott looked around uncomfortably. "Uh...ahem...I don't know, Buffy. I'm...I'm really gonna have to think about this."

Buffy seemed a little hurt but nodded in understanding. Scott started to walk away, went a few steps, then stopped and came right back with a grin on his face.

"Okay, you know what? I thought about it, and I'm in," Scott said, widening his grin. "When do you want to go?"

Buffy returned his smile. "Oh, well, I'm booked for tonight, but after that I'm good."

The two beamed happily at one another.

Down the hall, Faith frowned. She watched Buffy with a mixture of sad longing and miffed jealousy.

Just then, Buffy happened to turn in Faith's direction. For the merest of seconds, they locked eyes, and Buffy caught the expression in Faith's eyes. Before she had time to wonder what was up, however, she saw Faith turn and walk away.

Later that day, shortly after sunset, Buffy returned to Angel's mansion. She slipped in to the great room where Acathla had stood and where she had sacrificed Angel to save the world. She looked down at the floor and began to cry. She slowly crouched down and looked at her Claddagh ring, which she held in her hand.

"Good-bye," she said softly.

Then she placed the ring on the floor. She stared at it for a long moment before standing back up and walking away.

After leaving Angel's mansion, Buffy headed for the cemetery to meet Faith for patrolling. When she arrived, she saw Faith sitting on a headstone. Buffy paused for a moment and took a deep breath. Then she made her way over to Faith.

"Hey," she said. "Been waiting long?"

Faith shrugged. "Nah, ten minutes or so."

"I, um, I'm sorry I didn't get to talk to you at school..."

"No prob," Faith said nonchalantly as she stood up. "Had to talk to Giles anyway."

Both of them were quiet for a long moment. They looked at the ground and their hands but only fleetingly at each other.

Finally, Faith put on a forced smile and gestured for them to begin patrol. Once they had started walking, she said, "You seemed pretty chummy with Scott. Are you two going out?"

"Um...yeah," Buffy replied. "We are. Tomorrow. Some kinda film fest."

"Good. Good for you," Faith said flatly, trying to hide her disappointment. "He's a cutie," she commented.

"Yeah, he is," Buffy agreed. "A-A-And he's nice, too."

Once again, the conversation lulled, and the two stole awkward glances at each other.

After a full minute of silence, Buffy spoke. "So...has your hangover been as bad as mine?" She cast a rueful grin in Faith's direction. "My head's been killing me all day."

Faith chuckled. "You gotta learn how to drink, girlfriend!" she teased, giving Buffy a body nudge.

Buffy nudged back, pretending to ignore how her heart leapt at the innocent use of the word 'girlfriend'. "No thank you," she said firmly. Then she put on a cavewoman voice. "Booze bad, make Buffy's head go boom."

Faith gave a big laugh, with her wide smile in full-dimpled form, and Buffy couldn't help but notice how beautiful the dark slayer was. It was several seconds later before she realized she'd been staring. Faith was staring back, with an expression of slight amusement in her eyes. Buffy cleared her throat and looked ahead.

"So...we, um, we had a lot of fun last night, huh?" Buffy asked. "'Cause, um, I can't exactly remember everything that happened."

"Ohhhh yeahhhh," Faith said with confidence. "We definitely had a lot of fun."

Buffy worriedly cut her eyes toward Faith. "How much fun?"

Faith grinned. "Don't worry, B. Nothin' happened that'll land ya on the front page of the Sunnydale scandal sheet."

Buffy laughed, even though she didn't appear to be particularly reassured. Then her face took on a look of gratitude. "Thanks for bringing me home," she said sincerely. Her expression immediately changed to worry and she stopped walking. "It was you that brought me home, right?"

Faith merely smiled and kept walking. Then she turned to face Buffy. "Wouldn't you like to know?" she said teasingly before turning back around and striding quickly away.

Buffy raised her hand with her index finger up. "Ummm...yes, please..." she said. But Faith didn't answer; she just laughed and continued walking. "Faith!" Buffy said with a bit of a whine before hurrying to follow the other slayer.

Part 3

It was late at night, about a week after Kakistos, and Willow was "Oz sitting" in the high school library. It was some time after midnight when Xander came in to do the last shift. Willow was giving Xander the run-down on watching Oz.

"...he's more manageable tonight and on the third night. Tomorrow night, the total full moon, that's when he's a real wolfer." Willow reached across the table for something. "But in case there's trouble...there won't be, but if..." She held up the tranquilizer gun.

Xander took it from her and slipped his finger into the trigger guard. "Sleepy time," he said. "Gotcha."

"Thanks again for doing this," Willow said. "I wouldn't have asked, but I have this test and..."

"No big," Xander said. "You can count on me. I got my coffee, magazines. Figured I'd read, maybe run the stairs over there a little bit. I'm good."

Willow didn't look happy with the way Xander was waving the gun around, so she eased it out of his hands and set it aside. Then she made her good-byes and headed out.

After Willow had left, Xander climbed onto the long table, put a book under his head for a pillow, and settled in for a nap. In the locked cage, Oz let out a loud growl.

At the same time, Faith and Buffy were in one of the local cemeteries, strolling through on patrol. While Buffy carefully scanned a nearby row of graves, Faith had her eyes on Buffy. She watched the blonde intently until Buffy suddenly turned to face her.

"So..." Faith said, putting on a smirk and pretending that she hadn't been staring, " ever catch kids doing the diddy out here?"

"No," Buffy replied. "There's a smooch spot up by the woods. That's usually where kids go."

"Yeah? Bet you and Scott have been up there kicking the gearshift." Faith grinned as if she were teasing, but behind the façade, she didn't want to hear a confirmation from Buffy.

Buffy gave Faith a look. "Hardly," she said. "Only been on a few dates."

Faith forced herself to go on, to press a little further, all with a big smile on her face. "But you like him," she said. "And when you think about him, you get that good, down-low tickle, right?"

"No, not really," Buffy said, shaking her head. "I mean, I like him. It's just a little early for--" When Buffy realized what Faith might have meant, she stopped and gave Faith the eye. " low?"

"You tell me," Faith said, more seriously than she intended. She covered by giving Buffy a playful nudge and another grin.

Buffy rolled her eyes. "How about not?"

The two slayers walked along in silence for a time until Buffy spoke up once again.

"He asked me to the homecoming dance," Buffy announced.

Faith nodded and tried not to frown. "Good. Good for you."

Buffy could feel the awkwardness of the conversation, but wasn't sure why it was happening. "A-A-Are you going to the dance?" she asked.

Faith didn't answer immediately; instead, she kicked the ground with her feet. Yeah, right, she thought to herself. Me in some fancy dress. Faith pushed the thoughts aside and looked up at Buffy. She shrugged nonchalantly and said, " dance...way too tame."

Buffy seemed a little disappointed at the news, but quickly covered it up. "Well, tame or not, it'll be fun to go, especially with Scott. He's nice, and he's funny..."

"And quite a muffin," Faith added. If you like the wimpy, sensitive type, she thought to herself.

"Blueberry...with that crunchy, munchy stuff on top," Buffy confirmed. "But my most favorite thing so that he doesn't seem to be any kind of hell beast."

"All men are beasts, Buffy."

Buffy was surprised by Faith's statement. "Okay, I was hoping to not get that cynical till I was at least forty."

"It's not cynical," Faith replied. "It's realistic. Every guy has beast in him. I don't care how sensitive they act. They're all still just in it for the chase."

Buffy reluctantly nodded, forced to agree that Faith might have a point.

Elsewhere in town, in a wooded area, a boy ran through the bushes in a panic. From behind him came the sounds of a creature growling and breathing heavily. The boy attempted to look back, but ended up tripping over a branch.

When he hit the ground, he rolled onto his back and tried to push himself away with his feet. It was too late. The creature was upon him. He screamed loudly before the creature attacked and dragged him away.

The next day at school, Willow and Oz and Buffy crossed paths with Scott and his two friends, Debbie and Pete. When the group stopped to talk, Buffy noticed that Debbie was holding a bouquet of flowers.

"Those are pretty flowers," Buffy commented.

"Thanks," Debbie said. "Pete brought them for me." She smiled happily at her boyfriend.

"Yeah," Pete said, smiling. "Well, I-I-I'm sure Scott does that kind of stuff for you, too, Buffy."

"Oh well, we're not up to flowers," Scott interjected. Then he turned to Buffy. "Are we? Up to flowers? Did I miss flowers?"

"No, we are pre-posy," she reassured him. "Definitely." As Scott gave a relieved nod, Buffy suddenly grabbed his watch. "What time is it? I have to go see Mr. Platt today."

"Platt? The school counselor?" Debbie asked.

"I get to convince him that I'm 'Little Miss Stable' so I can stay in school," Buffy explained.

"Platt creeps me out," Debbie said disgustedly. "I would totally quit going, but I'm flunking senior bio, and my teacher says I have 'success issues'." She gave an unconcerned giggle.

"Senior bio?" Oz said. "I kinda aced that final."

"And how did you do that?" Willow needled playfully. "Oh, right. You showed up."

Oz grinned at Willow's jibe, then turned to Debbie. "If you want my notes, they're yours."

"Thanks!" Debbie said with a grateful smile. "That'd be great!"

"Well, let me find 'em, and I'll give you a call," Oz said. "We can meet sometime tomorrow."

"Super!" Debbie said. Just then the bell rang.

"We'd better go," Buffy said to Willow and Oz. Then she turned to Scott. "I'll see you."

"Yep," he said. Then the two of them shared a quick kiss.

Buffy turned and headed into the building. After giving a final wave, Oz followed Willow inside. Scott sighed and gave his friends a contented look.

Meanwhile, in the library office, Xander and Giles were looking in alarm at an article in the local paper.

"We need to recheck every possible exit avenue," Giles said, heading into the main area of the library.

Xander followed anxiously after. "I'm telling you, it's a waste of time. I was here all night."

As the two headed for the book cage, Willow and Oz came into the library. Giles and Xander stopped in place, a startled look on their faces.

"Right. It's good to see you," Giles said to the couple, forcing a smile. "Um, no need to panic."

"Just a thought," Oz told Giles, "poker: not your game."

"What's the deal, Giles?" Willow asked worriedly.

Giles began to pace nervously. "Now, uh, bear in mind, uh, most likely, there, there, there is no deal," he said, glancing at Xander briefly, "but um, if, if, if there was a deal, then it, um, would concern murder...last night. A male student was, was found i-i-in the woods."

"Which student?" Willow asked.

"Jeff Orkin," Giles answered.

"Jeff? He was..." Oz began. He looked over at Xander, who just looked down at the floor. "I knew him," Oz finished.

"I'm afraid he was, he was, um, terribly mauled," Giles said. "Now, uh, much as I hate to think it, i-i-it could be the handiwork of, of..."

"Me," Oz said.

Willow touched Oz gently, concern in her voice. "Wolf you, not you you."

"But it's not," Xander insisted. "Not wolf you, not you you. The room was secured, the gate was locked..." He headed into the cage to prove his point. "...and the window was unbreakable,!" He rushed out of the cage, pointing at the still-open window.

"Oh, God..." Willow said.

Giles and Oz went into the cage to see for themselves.

"Not to freak," Xander said. "I rested my eyes now and then. That's all."

Willow shot a look of betrayal in Xander's direction. Giles and Oz came out of the cage. Oz just stared into space as if contemplating the serious implications of these events. Giles strode directly over to Xander.

"How long...exactly...did you rest your eyes for?" Giles demanded with a glare.

"A little now, uh, a little then," Xander said. "But I never heard Oz leave, and he was here in the morning when I, um...when I..."

"Woke up?!" Giles supplied angrily.

"You could put it that way if you want to, Mr. Technical," Xander said defensively.

Oz walked over to Willow and gazed at her sadly. She took his hand to comfort him. He looked at Giles imploringly.

Meanwhile, Buffy went inside the office of the school counselor, Mr. Platt. She closed the door behind herself and stepped up to the desk. Mr. Platt was sitting in his chair, facing away from the door, looking out his open window, smoking a cigarette.

"Two o'clock. Miss Summers," Mr. Platt said without turning around.

Buffy pasted on a smile. "Buffy Summers, reporting for sanity," she said cheerily.

Buffy's smile faded when Platt didn't laugh or even turn around. Instead, he just blew out a huge cloud of cigarette smoke.

"Look," Buffy said in a serious voice, "I know that I have to do this, and I-I-I'll cooperate, and I'll look at your ink blots and everything, but...I don't wanna talk about my life or my childhood or...anything, for that matter, actually. And, uh...I don't wanna be friends here."

"We're not going to be friends," Mr. Platt said, finally turning around. He gave Buffy a smile. "You have friends already...I hope. Friends are a good thing." He took one last drag on his cigarette and then crushed it into the ash tray. "They like you, agree with you, tell you what you want to hear." He pulled a can of air sanitizer from his desk drawer. "That's not what you need right now. What you need is a trained, not too crazy professional who will always give you his honest opinion."

While Platt sprayed the air around himself, Buffy didn't say anything. She just looked at him oddly and waited.

"Which I offer," the counselor finished. He met Buffy's eyes and then gestured to the chair in front of his desk. "Have a seat."

While Platt returned the can to his desk drawer, Buffy sat down in the chair. "Not too crazy?" Buffy commented. "Those are your credentials?"

Mr. Platt grinned, got up, and came around his desk to sit in front of Buffy. "Look, Buffy, any person--grownup, shrink, pope--any person who claims to be totally sane is either lying or not very bright. I mean, everyone has problems. Everybody has demons, right?"

Buffy glanced away and stared at her hands. "Got to say I'm with you on that."

"Excellent," Platt said. "So, the hope I bring you is: demons can be fought." Buffy looked up at him in surprise as he went on. "People can change. You can change." He paused a moment and then said, "Now. Your turn. Let's start with why you ran away."

Buffy began to fidget. "That's a long story."

Platt shrugged. "Bore me."

Buffy once again pasted on a smile. "You know, I'm...I'm really over it. I-I-I'm moving on, I feel good, I'm...I'm even dating someone new."

"All good things," Platt noted. "But're bringing me in at the end of the movie."

"I was dating someone," Buffy answered awkwardly. "Uh, i-i-it ended badly. My mom and I were fighting, and I...kinda freaked."

"Well, tell me more about this guy. The 'Bad Ending' guy."

For a long moment, Buffy didn't say anything. Then she let out a deep breath and looked down at her hands again. "He was my first...I loved him, and then he--"


Buffy looked up at him, surprised that he filled in the blank so perfectly. "Yeah," was all she could say.

"He got mean."


"And you didn't stop loving him," Platt said. "In fact, you still love him now, don't you?"

Buffy stared in shock for a time. Then she finally admitted, "A part of me does." When Platt simply waited for her to go on, she said, "But he's gone now. A-A-And it's over. I'm ready to move on."

Platt stared at Buffy intently, trying to read her. Buffy wouldn't meet his gaze for more than a second or two at a time. When Buffy didn't crumble under his stare, he leaned back in his chair and said, "Glad to hear it."

After her session with Mr. Platt, Buffy made her way into the school library. There she found Giles pacing nervously. Willow, Oz, Xander, and Cordelia were sitting on the steps looking worried. Buffy set her bag on the table and approached the gloomy group.

"I'm afraid to ask," the slayer said, steeling herself.

"Oz ate someone last night," Cordelia announced.

"He did not!" Willow instantly denied, giving Cordelia a glare.

Xander tried to smooth over the situation. "Oz does not eat people. It's more...werewolf play. You know, I bat you around a little bit, like a cat toy. I have harmless, wolf fun. Is it Oz's fault that, you know, side effect, people get cut to ribbons, and maybe then he'll take a little nibble and...I'm not helping, am I?"

"No," Giles told him before turning to Buffy. "Oz may have gotten out of his cage last night."

"Or maybe there's a...another werewolf roaming the woods," Oz said with hope-filled eyes.

"Perhaps," Giles said. "Perhaps it's something else entirely."

"It's okay," Buffy said. "We'll work together, and we'll figure this out."

Giles thought a moment then began doling out the plan of action, albeit somewhat hesitantly. "Buffy, uh, you, uh, patrol the woods. Uh, the others, um, check out the morgue. I have some research materials at home I need to look up, and Oz..." Giles looked up at the clock.

Oz followed the watcher's eyes, and when he realized it was close to sunset, he sighed and headed for his cage.

Buffy moved closer to Giles and tilted her head slightly toward Oz. Giles leaned over and whispered, "I'll call Faith and have her watch him tonight." Buffy gave a nod of approval.

While Willow, Xander, and Cordelia were breaking and entering at the morgue, Buffy checked out the woods where Jeff Orkin had been attacked. Buffy spent several hours patrolling that area and others, but she found nothing that could explain the vicious attack. Having come up empty, Buffy decided to return to the school library.

In the library, werewolf Oz growled and paced in his cage. Faith paid no mind as she danced to the loud music blaring in the headphones of her portable CD player. When she felt a tap on her shoulder, Faith instinctively spun around and landed a swinging backhanded punch to the person behind her. She ripped off her CD player and headphones, pulled out her stake, threw the person to the floor, and raised her stake--ready for the kill. Then Faith realized who it was.

"Oh! Buffy!" Faith said, surprised. "Are you okay? What are you doing here?"

Buffy groaned but gave a smidgen of a smile. "Uh, bleeding internally, but I'll live."

"God, I'm sorry," Faith said. Then she shrugged in the direction of the CD player lying nearby. "I guess I didn't hear you."

"Figured as much," Buffy said.

As Faith put away her stake and moved aside, Buffy sat up. After Faith helped her to her feet, Buffy shook her head a little dizzily. Faith steadied the blonde with a hand on her hip and another under her forearm.

"Damn, that's quite a punch you've got," Buffy said, rotating her jaw a bit.

Faith touched Buffy's cheek and looked deeply into her eyes, trying to gauge her steadiness. "Are you sure you're okay?"

The two locked eyes, their hearts thudding in their chests. After a long stare, Faith let her gaze drift to Buffy's mouth, and she gently brushed Buffy's cheek with her thumb. When she brought her eyes back to Buffy's, she found the blonde still staring. Then, as they had done before, on the night of Kakistos, the two slayers began to move almost imperceptibly closer to one another...until Buffy finally looked away and cleared her throat.

"Yeah, I'm fine. Really," she said, backing out of Faith's arms.

The briefest moment of confusion and hurt flashed in Faith's eyes, but then she just stuffed her hands into her back pockets and gave a nonchalant shrug.

"So...what're you doing here?" Faith asked. "Find something on patrol?"

"Oh, um, no," Buffy said, wringing her hands nervously. "Woods patrol was a total strikeout. No sign of any maul-y type beasties. So...I figured I'd come give you the rest of the night off."

"Get out of jail free, huh?" Faith noted. "How come? You know you could just go home and get some sleep."

"I-I-I don't think I could sleep. Figured I'd, uh, cram for my French test."

"That's cool," Faith admitted. "I was going kinda crazy in here, but I can get in a

few stakings before sunrise." She smiled and handed the cage keys to Buffy, ignoring the spark of attraction she felt when their hands touched.

As Faith headed for the door, Buffy followed the slayer with her eyes, a worried expression on her face. She called out her name. When the brunette turned around, Buffy said seriously, "Be careful, okay?"

Faith grinned widely and held out her arms. "You know me, B..."

Buffy rolled her eyes. "Exactly. Hence the 'be careful'."

Faith just laughed and gave Buffy a wink. Then she left the room.

After Faith had gone, Buffy turned away from the door, let out a deep breath, and hugged herself. Her brow furrowed as she sank into heavy thought. It took only a few seconds before she turned back around and looked longingly at the library door.

After leaving the library, Faith walked quickly away, a serious expression on her face. She stopped at the water fountain and took a long drink. When she was done, she wiped her mouth and slowly turned back toward the library entrance.

What are you doing? she asked herself. This girl's got 'mistake' written all over her. You two are actually getting real friends even. Don't screw that up.

Faith gave a big sigh and let her head drop back against her shoulders. She looked at the ceiling briefly, then shut her eyes and took in a deep breath. She let her breath out gradually and lifted her head. Then, without another glance at the library, she strode away.

The next morning, Giles came into the library carrying a cup of coffee. He first checked the book cage and found Oz safely transformed into his human self. Giles unlocked the cage and headed over to where he saw Buffy asleep in a chair, her French book lying open in her lap. As he sipped his coffee, Buffy slowly woke up and looked up at him.

"Hey," she said in greeting.

"Hmm, hello," Giles replied, taking another sip of his coffee.

Just then, they heard the doors open, and when they turned to look, they saw Willow coming in with a box of donuts. Willow looked at Buffy curiously.

"I thought Faith was on duty," Willow said.

"Oh...change of plans," Buffy said.

Willow held up the box of donuts. "Glazed or cake?" She gave a goofy grin. "It's fun to watch them make them. They use this spritzy thing, and they drop the batter into this--"

"Couldn't sleep, huh?" Buffy cut in.

Willow sighed in affirmation. "I've been at Mister Donut since the TV did that snowy thing."

Behind Willow, a half-dressed Oz came out of the cage.

"How come you're the Wakey Girl?" Willow asked Buffy. "I mean, this time, it's not your boyfriend who's the cold-blooded..."

Willow trailed off when she saw Buffy's eyes widen. Still slipping on his shirt, Oz walked up next to Willow.

"...Jelly donut?" she said with extra cheeriness as she held out the box to her boyfriend.

Oz ignored the donuts. "Everything all right?" he asked.

"Yeah," Buffy told him. Then she turned to Willow. "Uh, what happened with the inspection of the body?"

Willow kept up her fake smile and stayed on the topic of donuts. "Anyone? They're yummy delicious!"

"Willow, come on," Buffy prompted. "Was it a werewolf?"

Willow's smile disappeared, and she set the box down on the table. Then she forced herself to say, "I-I-It wasn't conclusive."

Oz looked down at the floor, and Buffy glanced at Giles worriedly.

Later that day, Buffy was coming out of the cafeteria line. On her tray was a plate containing various flavors of Jell-O and nothing else. She scanned the area for a place to sit and saw Scott waving to her from the other side of the room. She smiled and headed that way, where Scott sat with Debbie and Pete. She put her tray on the table and sat down.

Scott frowned at what was on her plate. "Hey, uh, I can't back you on that lunch. Nutritional demerits."

Buffy looked down at her plate. "My stomach doesn't want hard food today." She pointed at the green Jell-O. "But there's fruit in it."

"Those are marshmallows," Scott whispered.


Pete and Debbie looked at Buffy strangely, but she just sighed.

"I'm...I'm really out of it today," she tried to explain. "I didn't sleep well last night."

"Just don't tell Mr. Platt you have insomnia," Debbie warned. "He'll make you start a dream journal."

"Oh, what's that? Like a Barbie thing?" Pete joked. "Dear Dream Journal, how come Ken hasn't come around since he got that earring?"

Debbie giggled. "I never did it. He's a quack."

"I kinda liked him," Buffy offered.

"Really?" Debbie said. "I guess, I guess he's kinda funny and stuff. It's just...sometimes I just don't like the things he says."

Pete's eyes narrowed for the briefest of seconds, and he clenched his jaw tightly as he looked at Debbie. Then, as quickly as it had come, the expression was gone. None of the others noticed his change.

"Oh, he definitely marches to the beat of his own drummer," Buffy noted. "A-A-Actually, I think he makes his own drums."

"Well, my mom says that therapy can be completely helpful," Scott said.

"Yeah, but your mom has the wattage of a Zippo lighter, Scott," Pete quipped. Once again, Debbie giggled away.

Scott took the jibe good-naturedly and turned to Buffy. "I hope you realize I don't actually know these people," he told her. "It's just...I thought you would like me better if I had friends, so I hired them."

Buffy gave him a weak smile. Then he turned to face her completely.

"So...I, uh, I wanted to tell you that you look great today. But now I wanna raise that to amazing because you didn't sleep well."

Buffy smiled a bit awkwardly. "Uh...that's really sweet. Um..." She trailed off when she saw Faith pass by the cafeteria entrance. She stared at the doorway for a full second or two before turning back to Scott. "...and I-I-I wish I didn't have to, but I just remembered that I do, so...uhhh...I'll see you later." Then Buffy stood up, patted him on the shoulder, and walked away, leaving her uneaten Jell-O behind.

"Uh, yeah," Scott said, slightly confused. He and Debbie and Pete followed Buffy with their eyes as she headed for the door.

"Check out Scotty," Pete teased. "Liking the manic-depressive chick."

Scott shot a glare at his friend.

Buffy hurried down the hallway until she caught up with Faith. Then she called out the slayer's name. When Faith turned around, the two of them stopped and stepped out of the crowd to talk.

"Hey," Buffy said with a sincere but slightly hesitant smile.

Faith returned the smile. "Hey yourself."

"'d it go last night?" Buffy asked. "Find any action?"

"I can always find action when I want it," Faith said suggestively, grinning widely.

Buffy couldn't help but blush. "Of the vampire variety," she added pointedly, though not loud enough for any of the passing students to hear.

"Hey, you're the one with those inclinations, not me," Faith teased.

"Shut up," Buffy said with a grin, reaching her hand forward to give Faith a playful poke in the side.

Faith laughed and flinched at the same time, but swiftly caught Buffy's hand in hers before the poke could actually be administered. The two slayers instantly felt what seemed to be a faint electrical charge pass between them, and they froze in place, still smiling but without releasing each other's hand. This time it was Faith who pulled away first.

"Gotta be faster'n that, B," she said, making a dramatic show of letting Buffy's hand go. At Buffy's eye roll, she added in answer to the earlier question, "It was pretty slow. Got one vamp near the Manchester crypt. That's about it."

"Good!" Buffy said, nodding a bit more than was really necessary. Then she stopped and shook her head instead. "I mean, not good for you 'cause I know you wanted to get with the slaying, but good in the sense that things in general, I mean, as a whole, um, were a little less, well, demon-y." Buffy cringed inside at her stupid babbling.

Faith gave her a smirk. "If you say so."

After that, there was a long moment of awkward silence as the two slayers shifted nervously in place. Finally, Buffy spoke.

"Well, I should probably get to class," Buffy said.

"Yeah, you should."

"Catch you later?"

"If you're lucky," Faith replied with a wink as she backed away and then turned and headed for the library.

Buffy laughed and watched her go, unconsciously resting her hand over her heart. When she turned to head off to class, she was still smiling.

As Faith walked down the hallway, she worked the fingers in her hand. It still tingled from the spark of Buffy's touch.

When she got to the library entrance, she stopped and looked curiously at her hand. As she lightly drew the fingertips of her other hand across her palm, she immediately thought of Buffy, and her heart began to beat faster.

After a moment of daydreaming, Faith scoffed disgustedly and dropped her hands back to her sides.

"Don't be so stupid," she chided herself. Then she went inside the library.

Later that afternoon, in English class, Buffy sat quietly in the back, doodling in her journal. The teacher had given them a writing assignment, but Buffy couldn't concentrate on it. She looked at the page full of silly doodles and sighed. She turned to a fresh page and set her pen at the first line.

She wanted to write down what she was feeling, but the thought of actually recording it on paper was terrifying. To write it down would make it real, make it an undeniable admission, and she wasn't sure she was ready to do that. She gave a low, frustrated growl and forced herself to begin anyway.

Something's happening to me, she wrote. Something I don't understand. Something that really scares me.

Buffy paused, her pen tip hovering over the paper. She took a deep breath and started writing again.

I think that I...


The sound of the bell made Buffy jump in her seat. She looked down at what she had written, slight alarm in her eyes. Faintly in the background she heard her English teacher telling the class to finish their journal entry for homework. With a heavy sigh, she closed her journal and gathered her books.

Meanwhile, as students moved between classes, Pete and Debbie slipped into a rarely-used hallway near a supply room.

"Debbie, come on," Pete said. "Just for a minute."

He grabbed Debbie's hands and tried to nudge her against the wall, but she pulled away, giggling coyly.

"No, I can't," she insisted though not convincingly. "I have to meet a friend."

He pulled her back to him by both wrists. "So you'll be late but happy."

He kissed her, pulling her inside the dark supply room with him. Once inside they kissed passionately until Pete broke off the embrace and backed away toward a shelf behind him.

Debbie reached out and stopped him. "No, no. Let's stay here."

"Relax, Debbie," Pete said. "What's wrong with you today?"

They kissed once again. Then he noticed an empty jar on the shelf. All that's left in it is the last few drops of a fluorescent fluid.

"What is that?" Pete asked.

"Nothing," Debbie said, turning his face to hers and kissing him again. "Nothing. Kiss me."

"No," Pete said as he pulled away. "Debbie, you did not drink that, did you?"

"Drink it?" Debbie said with a nervous giggle. "You know I didn't."

Pete looked at his girlfriend intently. "What's going on?"

Debbie's giddiness faded, and she looked back at him nervously.

In the counseling office, Buffy reported for her appointment with Mr. Platt. She took a deep breath and went inside, closing the door behind herself. She found the counselor turned away again, looking out his open window, his signature cigarette held between his fingers.

"Two o'clock," she announced. "Buffy Summers, right?"

He didn't say anything in reply, which was okay by her because she really didn't want him to. She reached out toward him in a cease-and-desist gesture.

"You don't have to say anything," she told him. "I'll get right to it." She began pacing behind her chair, looking at the floor. "To be honest, I really didn't know what I was going to talk about today, but I've been thinking about what we talked about...a-a-about moving on?" She looked up with cautious hope in her eyes. "I think...I think I might be ready."

Once again, Platt didn't answer, but Buffy didn't seem to notice. She dropped her gaze to her hands. "A few months ago, it was like, 'I'll never love again.' It just...hurt too much." A deep frown came over her face.

Buffy looked back up and began to walk again, this time with a more brightened expression. "But now...I've met someone. Someone who really seems to care about me, someone who..."

Buffy trailed off when she noticed Mr. Platt's hand. The cigarette in it was burned all the way down to the filter, yet the ashes were still hanging there, never having been tapped off. She rushed to his chair.

She found Mr. Platt dead, his face and body severely mauled by a sharp-clawed beast.

Meanwhile, back in the supply room, Pete was seething with anger. He snatched up the empty jar and thrust it toward Debbie.

"So the bottle just jumped out of the cabinet and spilled on its own?"

Debbie shook her head. "O-O-Of course not. I-I-I was trying to get rid of it."

"You were trying to get rid of it?"

"To help you. You know how you get."

"How I get?" Pete demanded. Then he grabbed Debbie by her arms, causing her to whimper in fright. "I get the way I get because of you, Debbie! You and your stupid...grating...VOICE!!!"

Pete gave a roar of pain as his neck muscles tensed and then thickened and his veins began to bulge out. He jerked his head back and forth, whipping it around violently, as Debbie watched in terror. He screamed a final time then looked at Debbie with rage in his eyes, his transformation now complete. Pete shook Debbie hard.

"You're the reason I started the formulas in the first place: to be the man you wanted!" Pete growled. "And you pay me back how? By whoring around with other guys and taunting me!"

"No! I don't!" Debbie insisted through her frightened sobs. "I don't even look!"

Pete let her go and then immediately backhanded her across the face, knocking her to the floor. She touched her face in shock but still stood back up to face him. Pete closed in.

"Is that something your shrink taught you, Debbie? Huh? Huh? To share? To communicate? To piss me off?!!"

He hit her again. When she hit the floor this time, she stayed down and merely cowered at his feet.

"Well, guess what?" Pete told her. "Even he's not going to listen to your pathetic ramblings anymore. I'm all you've got, Debbie. Do you hear me? I'm all you've got!!!"

A short time later, Buffy and Giles and Willow and Faith were discussing the school counselor's unfortunate death.

"The attack on Mr. Platt was especially brutal," Giles said. "A 'slice and dice' I believe the coroner called it. Thankfully, though, he did confirm that Platt was killed shortly before Buffy found him."

"Which means that he was killed during the day," Faith supplied.

"Yes!" Willow cried out, raising her fist in elation. When she realized the others were giving her horrified looks, she lowered her hand. "Sorry. I got...I've just's horrible, horrible."

"It's okay, Will," Buffy assured her. "We're all glad Oz is off the hook."

"Indeed," Giles said before checking his watch. "Shouldn't he be here by now? The sun will set at 5:30."

Meanwhile, Oz was standing on the quad waiting, holding a folder of notes in his hands. He looked around one last time then started to head for the library. Debbie caught him just as he was about to leave.

"Sorry, I'm late," she said, smiling. "Did you bring the notes?"

Despite her attempts to hide it, Oz noticed her black eye. " okay?" He held out the folder.

Debbie laughed and took the notes. "What? Oh, yeah...I'm such a klutz. I, um, I..."

"Fell down?" Oz prompted. "And hit your...eye?"

From around the corner, Pete watched the exchange intently.

Debbie laughed again. "Door knob," she lamely supplied. "Um...thanks."

As Debbie turned to go, Oz stopped her with his hand. "Hey, um, if you wanna talk..."

Debbie instantly shook her head and gave him a fake smile. "Thanks again for the notes." At that, she hurried away.

"Yeah..." Oz said worriedly.

Then he looked up at the sky and quickly headed for the library. From his hiding place, Pete turned around and stalked off.

Back in the library, Giles was continuing the discussion about the creature that attacked Mr. Platt.

"Our task now," he said, "is to determine what sort of killer we are dealing with. Clearly, we're looking for a depraved, sadistic animal."

"Present," Oz chimed in as he came in.

Willow smiled broadly, jumped to her feet, and ran to him, pushing Giles aside in her eagerness to reach him.

"Hey, I may be a cold-blooded jelly donut," he deadpanned, "but my timing is impeccable."

"But you aren't!" Willow told him excitedly. "I-I-It's a kill-in-the-day monster! A hundred percent for sure."

Oz smiled in relief. "Okay."

"Uh, I wish we had time to celebrate properly," Giles interjected. "However, we have two victims: Jeff Orkin and now Platt. Perhaps there is something they had in common."

"Missing internal organs?" Faith suggested.

"Besides that," Giles replied.

"Debbie," Oz announced. When the others looked at him expectantly, he said, "Well, victim number one, Jeff. He was in jazz band with us. They used to horse around."

"And Debbie knew Platt, too," Buffy added. "She was seeing him and was way vocal about not having love for the guy."

"Now add this and stir," Oz said. "I just saw Debbie a minute ago sporting a nasty black eye."

"Okay, so pretend Debbie wanted Platt dead," Willow offered. "Maybe he fought back."

Buffy shook her head. "No, I don't think so. I'm thinking Pete may be the one doling out the punishment."

"We should find them both immediately," Giles ordered.

"Well, Debbie was in the quad a few minutes ago," Oz said.

"All right then," Giles said, "we'll split up. Um, Faith, you and I will team up. Willow, stick with Buffy."

Willow gave her boyfriend a saddened look and then followed the others out.

"And I'll...go lock myself in the cage," Oz said.

Moments later, Buffy and Willow found Debbie in the girls' locker room. She was looking in the mirror, applying makeup, in an attempt to hide her black eye.

"It's tricky, covering a fresh shiner like that," Buffy said as she walked over. "You know what works?"

"What?" Debbie said, putting away her makeup.

"Don't get hit," Buffy said. She pinned Debbie with a stare. "What's going on, Debbie? I'll bet the farm you know."

Debbie shook her head. "You're wrong. I don't know anything."

"I don't have time to play 'I have a secret'," Buffy told her sternly. "People are dying here!"

Debbie looked at Buffy and then at Willow. "'s not his fault. I mean, he's not himself when he gets like this."

"You mean Pete," Buffy prompted.

"I-I-It's me. I make him crazy. He-he just does what he does because he loves me too much."

"Pete's not like other guys, is he, Debbie?" Buffy asked knowingly.

When she realized how much Buffy and Willow seemed to know, Debbie got frightened. She grabbed her purse and started to leave. "I-I-I've gotta go."

Buffy grabbed her and stopped her. "You have to talk to us. We can't help you until you do."

"I didn't ask for your help!" Debbie shot back.

"Well, when are you going to?" Willow said. "I mean, if Pete kills you, it'll pretty much be too late."

"Debbie, we're running out of time," Buffy said. "Where can we find him?"

"I-I-I don't know," she answered.

"You're lying," Buffy said.

Debbie tried to take a brave stance. "What if I am? What are you gonna do about it?"

"Wrong question," Willow said as Buffy took Debbie by the arm and pushed her up against the sink in front of the mirror.

"Look at yourself," Buffy said. "Why are you protecting him? Anybody who really loved you couldn't do this to you."

Debbie took a few steps away then turned around to face them. "Would they take him some place?"

"Probably," Buffy said.

Debbie began to cry. "I could never do that to him. I'm his everything!"

"Great," Buffy said disgustedly. "So two live out your Grimm fairy tale? Two people are dead! Who's gonna be next?"

Debbie just shook her head and said nothing.

Back in the library, Oz was alone in the cage, pacing, waiting to change. Just then, the door opened, and Pete walked in. He went right up to the cage.

"Since when do you touch my girl?" Pete said furiously as he grabbed the cage.

"Hey, Pete," Oz said. "This is kind of a bad time."

"Well, I guess you didn't think about that when you put the moves on Debbie!" he accused, rattling the cage door.

Oz glanced briefly at the window before turning back to Pete. "We talked, yeah, but it was move-free."

Pete rattled the cage even harder.

"About this cage?" Oz warned. "When that sun sets..."

"You won't be alive to see it!" Pete promised before stepping back, rage pouring from him.

"I'm serious," Oz said. "Something's gonna happen that you...probably won't believe."

Pete screamed and whipped his head around as he transformed into his violent alter ego. When the change was complete, he looked at Oz with murder in his eyes.

" might," Oz said simply as he took a step back.

Pete lunged at the cage and seized the door. He yanked at it a few times, and it suddenly broke free. He hurled it aside and roared at Oz. Then he ran into the cage, grabbed Oz, and threw him out the door and onto the floor.

Pete picked Oz up and raised him over his head then slammed him down onto the wooden table. It smashed under the strain of the impact. Pete immediately yanked Oz back up and punched him hard in the face. Then he grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him hard.

"Did you kiss that whore?" Pete snarled. "Huh? Did she like it?"

He lifted Oz again and flung him across the room onto the stairs. When Pete came at him again, Oz raised his leg and kicked him away, sending Pete sliding across the floor. Oz turned and looked at the window again, this time seeing that the sun had set. He looked over at Pete, who was just now getting to his feet.

"Time's up," Oz told him. "Rules change."

Oz morphed into his werewolf form and growled, baring his teeth at Pete. He leaped onto Pete, and they started to wrestle on the floor. When the fight caused them to crash into the stairs, Oz was finally able to snap his jaws around Pete's arm. He bit down hard, making Pete scream out in agony.

In the meantime, Buffy and Willow were leading the traumatized Debbie along the hallway. When they heard Pete's scream, they all took off for the library. Giles and Faith soon joined them from another corridor.

"What was that?" Giles asked as they dashed away.

Seconds later, Buffy and the others burst through the library doors. In a flash, they took in the broken cage and then the two fighting on the stairs. Oz still had his jaws clamped on Pete's arm, but Pete was pummeling Oz with repeated gut punches.

"Get the dart gun!" Giles yelled.

Buffy ran behind the counter and grabbed the tranquilizer gun. "Got it!" she cried out before cocking it and taking aim at Pete.

Just as Buffy pulled the trigger, Debbie shoved Buffy aside. "Pete, watch out!"

The dart sailed past Pete and Oz and embedded in the distant wall.

Oblivious to the whole affair, Pete flipped Oz and slammed him on the floor, making Oz finally release Pete's arm. Now free, Pete dashed from the room via the stacks. Oz, on the other hand, growled and blew right past Buffy and the others and out of the library.

Buffy tossed the rifle to Faith. "You get the wolf!"

"Got it!" Faith said before running out of the library with Willow close behind.

"Wait!" Giles cried out after Faith. "You'll need to reload!" He grabbed a handful of darts from behind the counter and ran after Faith and Willow.

When Buffy went in the opposite direction after Pete, Debbie looked confused about what to do. She looked at the stacks then turned and ran out the main entrance.

At an intersection of hallways, Pete came running through a set of doors, clutching at his wounded arm. He glanced back, knowing that someone was pursuing him. He looked frantically for an escape route and found it in a window high above a bank of lockers. He leaped on top of the lockers and crawled through the small window, leaving streaks of blood on the wall.

Seconds later, Buffy skidded into the intersection. She looked in all directions but didn't see Pete anywhere.

Elsewhere in the building, werewolf Oz came bounding around a corner and ran down the hall. Faith and Willow and Giles were right behind him in hot pursuit.

Meanwhile, in the supply room, Debbie was sitting on the floor, leaning against a crate, waiting for Pete to show up. When he came in, she jumped up and ran to him.

"Pete! You're all right! God, you're all right!"

She threw her arms around him and hugged him tightly, but he didn't hug her back.

"She almost shot you," Debbie told him. "Did you see? I stopped her."

She pulled out of the hug and looked at Pete.

"You have to leave, get out of Sunnydale," she told him. "She knows."

"And how did she know, Debbie?" Pete said menacingly. "Did you run your big mouth?"

Frightened, Debbie took a step back. "No! She just knew. It seemed like she just knew."

"So you filled in the blanks!" he accused before shoving her to the floor.

"No!" Debbie instantly denied. "No!"

Pete roared and lunged at Debbie. She screamed in terror.

In a nearby hallway, Buffy heard Debbie's scream. She turned and ran in that direction.

In the student lounge, Oz came leaping down the stairs, with Faith right behind him. When Oz stopped by the vending machine, Faith started to rush him, tranq gun in hand.

"Faith! Wait!" Giles shouted, stopping the slayer in her tracks.

"What?!" she demanded impatiently.

"The gun has to be reloaded," Giles said, panting breathlessly, as he and Willow came over.

"Do it," Faith said, tossing the gun to Giles.

When Faith turned back around, Oz jumped her, knocking her to the floor. Willow screamed.

Buffy found her way to the supply room. She listened intently at the door then forced it open. Inside it was dimly-lit and quiet. She slipped in cautiously.

She looked around and soon found Debbie on the floor in the back. She rushed over to check her out. Debbie's neck had bruises and claw marks on it as if she'd been violently strangled, and Buffy couldn't feel a pulse.

"Oh, God..." Buffy said, pulling her hand away.

Just then, Pete grabbed Buffy from behind and threw her across the room and into the stack of crates there. She hit them hard and then rolled onto the floor. Pete smiled cruelly as he closed in on the dazed slayer.

In the lounge, Faith was on the floor with Oz on top of her, trying desperately to keep him from biting her. Nearby, Giles was struggling to get the dart gun reloaded and ready.

"Where's the gun?!" Faith screamed. "Where's the gun?!!!"

Willow ran over and grabbed Oz's tail. "Get off her!" Willow shouted as she tugged him away from Faith. Then she took off down the hall with Oz chasing right after her.

"Get the gun!" Willow cried out as she ran. "Hurry!"

As Faith scrambled to her feet, Giles finally finished loading the gun. He took aim and shot, hitting Oz right in his rear-end. The werewolf yelped, whimpered for a moment, then fell unconscious.

Faith turned to Giles. "You and Willow get wolf-boy back to his cage. I've got to go help Buffy." Giles nodded, and Faith took off.

In the supply room, Buffy was still on the floor by the crates, being kicked mercilessly by Pete.

"You're all..." Kick. "...the same!" Kick. "All..." Kick. "...the..." Kick. "...same!" Kick. Kick. Kick.

When Pete stopped, Buffy groaned and tried to crawl away. Pete picked her up and flung her across the room, where she slammed into the metal rack near Debbie's body, sending bottles and jars crashing to the floor.

Before Buffy could recover, Pete was on her, wrapping his clawed hands tightly around her neck. Buffy pulled uselessly at his fingers as he began to squeeze the life from her. She kicked and pushed and flailed about, but could not shake him away. She reached blindly around herself until her hand found the top of a broken bottle. Just as she was about to lose consciousness, she gripped the glass in her fist and then swung the jagged end directly into Pete's neck.

Pete's eyes went wide, and he gave a wet gurgle as he released Buffy's neck to reach for his own. As Pete's blood began streaming down her arm, Buffy gasped and let go of the bottle. She tried to scoot back, but Pete had her legs pinned. She watched in horror as he reverted to his human self, stared at her in shock and betrayal as he clutched at his cut throat, then collapsed on top of her.

"Oh God, Oh God, Oh God..." Buffy repeated maniacally as she pushed Pete off her body, flipping him onto his back in the process. She scrambled backwards into the corner past Debbie's body. Then she turned away and faced the corner, unable to bear the sight of Pete's bloody form. She pulled her knees against her chest and wrapped her arms tightly around her legs as if she were trying to pull herself into an impenetrable ball. She began to cry and rock in place.

Moments later, Faith rushed in. She saw Pete's body first, a large pool of blood surrounding him amidst the broken bottles and jars.

"Oh God..." Faith whispered before a whimper from the corner drew her attention. "Buffy!"

Faith ran over to the distraught slayer and knelt beside her. She called her name again, but Buffy didn't acknowledge Faith's presence. Faith reached out and stopped Buffy's rocking and slowly made the crying slayer uncurl herself.

Tears were rolling down Buffy's blood-spattered face. She wouldn't meet Faith's eyes. She just shook her head over and over, repeating, "I didn't mean to...I didn't mean to..."

Faith gently turned Buffy's face toward hers so that she could look at the blonde. When Buffy finally met Faith's concerned gaze, she stopped her rant, her body trembling as she grabbed Faith's arms.

"I killed him," Buffy confessed in a quiet and tortured voice. "I..." She didn't finish her statement. Instead, she fell sobbing against Faith's chest.

Not knowing what else to do, Faith wrapped her arms around Buffy and pulled her close. "It'll be okay," Faith whispered, her own eyes filling with tears. "I've got you."

Moments later, Giles arrived on the scene. He came running up just as Faith was leading the traumatized Buffy out of the supply room.

"Good God!" he exclaimed when he saw the two slayers covered in blood. With Faith's arm wrapped around her, Buffy clung to Faith's body; she didn't even seem to register that Giles was there. "Are you girls all right?" he asked frantically.

Faith ignored the question and said, "She had to do it, Giles."

His eyes widened in realization, and he shot a glance at the supply room. Faith grabbed his arm, bringing his attention back to her. She looked her watcher right in the eyes.

"She had to do it," Faith repeated, more slowly this time. "So you call the Council, you do whatever you gotta do, but you make this go away."

The two stared at each other for a long moment before Giles finally nodded in acquiescence. Faith nodded back and said, "I'm taking Buffy home."

As Giles watched Faith lead Buffy away, his shoulders drooped, and he let out a defeated sigh. "Heaven help us," he whispered.

Part 4

After leaving the high school, Faith walked Buffy home, intentionally keeping them in shadow so that their bloody clothes would be hidden from curious eyes.

Buffy no longer clung to Faith; instead, she walked numbly and silently beside her--her eyes red but vacant. It was as if she had simply turned herself off.

Faith kept her arm protectively around Buffy as they walked, using it to guide her when necessary, but mostly to provide what she hoped was a comforting touch. She could sense the pain radiating from Buffy, but she knew it must be only a fraction of what was really on the inside.

When they got to the Summers home on Revello Drive, Faith saw Joyce's SUV parked in the drive. She glanced at the front windows of the house, but they were dark.

Maybe she went to bed early, Faith hoped.

Faith carefully led Buffy up the walk and to the front door. When they got close, the motion sensor set off the front porch light. Faith froze and listened, but she heard no activity from within the house. Faith quietly tried the door but found it locked. She cursed under her breath, then reluctantly turned to Buffy.

"Buffy?" she asked softly to get the blonde's attention. "We're here, but the door's locked. Do you have your house key?"

Buffy looked confused for a moment. She glanced at the front door and blinked several times as if trying to place it. Then she reached into her pants pocket and fished out her key ring.

When she raised the key to give it to Faith, she saw the blood on her hand. She started shaking and dropped the key. She lifted her other hand and saw the blood on it as well.

"No..." Buffy said, her eyes fixed on the blood. She started to back away, as if she could somehow separate herself from her hands, what they represented, what they caused her to remember.

Faith quickly stopped her retreat with a tug on her arms. Then she put a hand on each side of Buffy's face, gently encouraging her to take her eyes off her bloody hands and to lift them to look at Faith. When she finally did, Faith could see new tears streaming down Buffy's cheeks.

"Everything is gonna be okay," Faith promised her. She held Buffy's gaze until the blonde finally gave her a small nod.

Faith smiled reassuringly at her then pulled her hands away so that she could retrieve the key that Buffy had dropped. Key in hand, Faith quietly opened the front door and led Buffy inside.

Very carefully, Faith helped Buffy upstairs and into the bathroom without alerting Joyce, who could be heard watching television in her bedroom.

Once the two slayers were in the stark white light of the bathroom, the horror of the night's events could be seen more vividly, particularly on Buffy. Her shirt and pants were so soaked with blood that they were still wet and sticky. The smears and spatters on Buffy's face and arms were mostly dried but no less disturbing.

Faith made eye contact with Buffy and said, "I'm gonna go get you some clean clothes. You get out of those and get in the shower, okay?" Once she had gotten a nod out of Buffy, Faith left the room.

As soon as Faith had shut the bathroom door and turned around to cross the hallway, Joyce came out of her bedroom. Faith gave a startled jump but then tried to act nonchalant.

"Hey, Mrs. Summers," she said in greeting.

Joyce's eyes instantly went to the blood covering Faith's shirt. "Oh my God! Where's Buffy?"

"Don't worry, she's fine. She's in the bathroom cleaning up," Faith said. She pointed at her shirt and added, "We kinda had a messy night with the slayage. Damn think they'd have the decency to bleed elsewhere, ya know?" She gave a light chuckle.

"Buffy's okay, right? You're both okay?" Joyce pressed.

"Oh yeah. Sure. Just the usual bumps and bruises. Same ole, same ole. Be gone by tomorrow probably," Faith assured her.

Joyce visibly relaxed, letting out a sigh of relief. "Thank goodness!" Joyce reached out and touched Faith's arm. "I am so glad you're here, Faith. I'm so glad that Buffy doesn't have to face all this alone. I may never get used to it, but I feel better knowing that you're here."

"Sure. No problem," Faith said, fidgeting uncomfortably at Joyce's words. She quickly changed the subject. "I'm gonna clean up and stay here...i-i-if that's okay?"

"Of course," Joyce said. "You're welcome any time. There are plenty of towels in the downstairs bath, food in the fridge...just make yourself at home."


"Well, get some rest, and I'll see you girls in the morning," Joyce said, stepping back into her bedroom.

"Okay. 'Night!"

Once Joyce had shut her bedroom door, Faith let out a long breath. Then she headed for Buffy's room.

Moments later, Faith came out of Buffy's bedroom with a stack of clothes in one arm. She returned to the bathroom door and gave a soft knock. When she didn't get an answer, Faith slipped inside.

She found Buffy still in her bloody clothes, just standing in the middle of the bathroom, hugging herself and crying. Faith put the clothes down on the hamper top and walked over to Buffy.

"What's the matter?" she asked, gently touching the slayer's arm. "Why aren't you in the shower yet?"

Buffy looked at Faith and said in a choked voice, "It hurts."

Faith's eyes widened in alarm, and she grasped both of Buffy's arms. "You're hurt?" she said in a panicked voice. "Where are you hurt? Shit! I should've taken you to the hospital." Then she forced herself to slow down and to calmly ask, "Where does it hurt?"

Buffy let out a small sob and then laid her hand over her heart. Faith relaxed somewhat, realizing that Buffy wasn't referring to a physical injury.

"I...don't understand...why it hurts so much," Buffy said through her sobs. "Even when I killed didn't...and I loved him so much...and Pete...I barely...Oh God..." Buffy hugged herself tightly again, doubling over in pain as she cried.

Faith pulled Buffy into her arms and held her and just let her cry, not knowing what else to do. "It's not your fault," she whispered as she stroked Buffy's back. "Not your fault."

A few minutes later, Faith came out of the bathroom, having finally gotten Buffy out of her clothes and into the shower. She was carrying Buffy's bloody garments in one arm. She paused in the hallway and took a moment to just breathe.

"Jesus," Faith muttered, running her free hand through her hair.

Although she was trying to calm herself, it wasn't working. Her mind kept coming back to Pete. You son of a bitch, she thought. You're lucky you're already dead. 'Cause I swear to God if you weren't, I'd kill you myself.

Faith forced herself to let out another long exhale. Then she headed downstairs to use the other shower.

A short time later, Buffy entered her bedroom. She was freshly showered and dressed in the pajamas Faith had brought her. Although she still looked haggard, she looked much better than she had before. She found a damp-haired Faith just then pulling a large sleep shirt over her head and body.

When Faith heard the door, she turned and faced Buffy. "Okay if I borrow this?" she asked, pinching a piece of the shirt and holding it up.

Buffy didn't say anything, but she did nod her permission.

"Cool. Thanks."

After that, the two fell into an awkward silence. Except for fidgeting slightly in place, neither one moved or met the other's gaze. After a long moment, Faith finally walked over and spoke.

"I, um, I put our clothes in the wash downstairs, and, um...I put your key over there, on your dresser," Faith said, pointing in that direction.

Once again, Buffy merely nodded.

"I, um, I saw your mom in the hall," Faith went on. When Buffy's eyes widened in alarm, Faith continued quickly. "I didn't tell her what happened. I just said that we'd had a messy run-in with a demon. Didn't want her freakin' over the blood, ya know?"

Buffy let out a relieved breath and gave Faith a small smile. "Good. Thanks."

After another long silence, Faith cocked her thumb over her shoulder and began backing toward the door. "Well, your mom said I could stay here tonight, so I'm just gonna go downstairs, watch a little TV, and crash on the couch."

Buffy frowned but said, "Okay." When Faith turned around and put her hand on the door knob, Buffy called out her name to stop her. When Faith was facing her once again, Buffy gave her a longer, deeper smile. "Thank you," she said simply.

Faith returned the smile. "Sure. No problem." Faith turned back to the door and started to pull it open.

"Faith!" Buffy called out again, a little more urgently this time, even reaching out toward her with her hand. When Faith once again turned around and looked at her expectantly, Buffy just shook her head and said, "Never mind."

Faith left the doorway and walked back to Buffy, who was busy staring at her hands. "What is it?" she asked her.

Buffy didn't answer at first. She shifted on her feet and wrung her hands, not daring to meet Faith's gaze. Finally, she looked up and said in a softly pleading voice, "Will you...will you stay with me tonight?"

The three seconds it took Faith to answer seemed like an eternity, but then Buffy saw Faith smile and heard her say, "Yeah, sure."

Buffy let out the breath she had been holding, practically laughing in relief. "Thank you," she said.

"I'll get the light," Faith said.

Buffy nodded and headed for her bed. Faith returned to the door, shut it, and then turned off the overhead light. Faith paused a moment to let her eyes adjust to the moonlit room; then she walked over to the bed and got in.

"You better not steal the covers," Faith joked as she settled in, earning a laugh from Buffy.

"Don't worry, I think you're safe," Buffy replied. After a lengthy pause, she said, "Well...good-night."


At that, the two slayers turned on their sides away from one another and tried to go to sleep.

It was after about ten minutes of tense, shallow, wide-awake breathing by both parties that Faith detected a change on Buffy's side of the bed. She felt a slight tremor as Buffy tried her best to cry silently. An involuntary sob soon gave the stricken slayer away. Faith turned over and reached out to touch Buffy's back.

"Hey," she said softly, "it'll be okay."

Buffy instantly rolled over and fell crying against Faith's chest. Faith gave an oomph of surprise and had a momentary flash of panic in her eyes, but then she just wrapped her arms around Buffy and pulled her even closer, gently stroking her hair and whispering reassurances to her. It wasn't long before emotional exhaustion took its toll and Buffy fell asleep, with Faith following shortly after.

The next morning, Buffy was the first to awaken. She blinked her eyes groggily and leaned up a bit. When she was finally able to focus, she immediately realized she was lying in Faith's arms. Her eyes grew wide, but she managed to stifle an impending gasp of shock. She looked around herself, as if trying to figure out how to escape without waking Faith, but it didn't seem possible with the dark slayer's arm firmly around her.

Calm down, calm down, she told herself. Just lie back down a-a-and pretend to be asleep. Let Faith be the one to wake up first and deal with the awkward, yet oddly comforting, slayer snuggle. Buffy's eyes grew wide again. Unless she already woke up first and is waiting on me!

"Oh God..." Buffy said out loud, completely unintentionally. She slammed her mouth shut, but it was too late. Faith's eyes began to flutter open.

"Whaaaat?" Faith said sleepily. Then a split-second later she abruptly sat up, bringing Buffy with her. "What is it?" she asked, grasping Buffy's arms.

"I-I-I...ummm...I was just...because..." Buffy rambled nervously, blushing a deep red. As Faith waited expectantly with true concern in her eyes, Buffy suddenly blurted out, "I drooled on you!"

When Faith looked at her like she was crazy, Buffy meekly pointed at her shoulder, which was indeed rather damp. Faith glanced down and took in the sight. After several long seconds of inspection, Faith laughed. She released Buffy's arms, and the two of them laughed some more, quite heartily.

"I'm really sorry," Buffy squeaked out between laughs.

Faith just shrugged and said, "Hey, it's your shirt."

When their laughter tapered off, though, a somber mood descended, and the two became very quiet. They avoided each other's eyes but didn't move away.

"Guess we should get up," Faith finally said, raking her hand through her mussed hair.

"Yeah, I guess so," Buffy replied.

When Faith turned to go, Buffy reached out and took her hand, stopping her. When Faith turned back around, Buffy looked deeply into her eyes and pulled Faith's hand into both of hers.

"Thank you," she said sincerely. "For staying with me," she clarified.

"Don't worry about it," Faith answered just as sincerely. Then she smirked and added, "Drooler!"

Buffy smirked back and turned her eyes to Faith's hair, which she then poked. "Bed head!"

"Slobber bucket!" Faith countered, making a wipe at Buffy's chin.

"Bride of Frankenstein!" Buffy shot back with a big grin.

Unable to devise a snappy comeback fast enough, Faith grumbled and shook her head but was still smiling. "Oh, you're gonna pay for that one, missy!" she told her.

"Is that soooooo...Oh!"

Buffy found herself suddenly flipped onto her back with Faith over her but not on top of her. Faith wasn't holding her down or impeding her movements in any way, so Buffy did not feel threatened or reminded of the previous night's events. In fact, she felt a completely different kind of feeling, one that got her heart to racing. Breathing heavily, she looked up into Faith's dark eyes and simply got lost in them. Faith returned her stare, breathing quite heavily herself.

"I thought you were going to make me pay," Buffy whispered.

"I plan to," Faith whispered back.

Both of them spoke without conviction, their game of mutual teasing completely forgotten in the heat of the moment, but neither made a move...until a knock at the door startled them into a quick separation.

"You girls up yet?" came the voice of Buffy's mother through the door.

Buffy sat up in bed and called back, "Yeah, Mom, we're up."

"I've got breakfast," Joyce continued. "If you hurry, I can drop you off at school."

"Be down in a bit," Buffy assured her.

"Okay," Joyce said before heading downstairs.

Faith and Buffy stole darting glances at each other for a full minute before Faith saw a shadow of sadness pass over Buffy's face.

"School," Buffy said in a small, vulnerable voice. She dropped her gaze to her hands.

Faith watched her for a moment, then announced dramatically, "Forget school. You're staying home today."

Buffy gave a quick smile to show she appreciated the thought, but then she said, "I really shouldn't miss. I'm on thin ice with Snyder as it is."

"Screw Snyder!" Faith said. "You're in no condition to go back there today. You're staying home, and that's final."

Buffy grinned for real this time. "A-A-And since when are you the boss of me?" she said sarcastically, raising an eyebrow in Faith's direction.

"Since I got to Sunnydale," Faith explained with mock seriousness. "Thought you'd figured that out by now." Then she gave Buffy a full-dimpled smile and a sparkling wink.

Buffy's heart gave a goofy giggle and then melted. She nearly succumbed to dreamy staring before shaking it off and saying, "Okay on no-school, but you're explaining it to Mom."

Faith gave an unconcerned wave of her hand. "Hey, no prob. Me and Joyce, we go waaaay back. Couple of weeks at least."

A short time later, the two t-shirt-and-sweats-clad teenagers were finishing up breakfast with Mrs. Summers. Joyce took her plate and coffee cup to the sink then came back to Buffy. She ran her hand through her daughter's hair and looked at her worriedly.

"Are you sure you're okay, honey?" she asked. "Maybe I should take you to the doctor."

"I'll be fine, Mom, I promise," Buffy said. "I just need a day of rest."

"Don't worry, Mrs. Summers," Faith added. "I'll keep an eye on her for ya."

Joyce smiled and said, "If you need anything, call me."

"I will," Buffy assured her.

At that, Joyce grabbed her purse and headed for the door. Buffy and Faith sat silently, waiting until they heard Joyce's SUV pull away. Then they gave a sigh of relief.

After washing the few breakfast dishes, Buffy and Faith wandered into the living room.

"So...what now?" Faith asked. "Watch some TV?"

"No," Buffy said in a tired voice. "I think I'll just go back to bed."

"Okay. I'll just hang out down here then."

"You got me out of school, Faith. That's enough," Buffy told her. "You don't have to baby-sit me."

Faith shrugged. "It's not like I got anything better to do." Then she grinned and put her index finger to her chin as if thinking. "Wait, I do have that audience with the Pope." She gave a dismissive wave. "Ah, JP'll understand."

Buffy ignored the lame joke and gave Faith a hopeful glance. "You know what you could do?" She paused briefly then said, "Check in with Giles...see what's going on?"

"Oh, okay. I can do that," Faith said brightly. "I'll just pop over, check in with Jeeves, and be right back." Then she sobered and touched Buffy's arm. "You sure you'll be okay?"

"Yes, Mom," Buffy teased before moving toward the stairs. "There's an extra set of keys by the door. Just take those and then let yourself back in."

"Got it," Faith said. "Be back soon."

A short time later, Willow and Oz and Xander and Cordelia were talking with Giles in the library.

"It's all over school, what happened with Debbie and Pete," Willow said. "Except for the Pete-was-a-monster part."

"Yeah," Oz agreed. "A freshman told me that Pete had eight iced cafe mochas and just lost it. He and Debbie got into it and just killed each other."

"That's better than the estrogen theory," Willow countered. "I heard he took all of his mother's birth control pills."

"He didn't?" Cordelia said, confused. She turned to Xander. "Pete was a monster?" When Xander nodded, she shook her head and said, "Where have I been?"

"In your special place, Cor," Xander said, "which is why I adore you."

"So...what's the true story?" Cordelia asked. "What happened?"

"Well, we got a hold of Pete's lab books and stuff," Willow said, "and Mr. Science was doing a Jekyll-and-Hyde deal. He was afraid Debbie was gonna leave him, so he mixed this potion to become super macho."

"The only problem was," Giles interjected, "after a while, he didn't need his concoction to become the monster...he did it quite well on his own. He murdered Debbie and then tried to do the same to Buffy."

"So, it was like a real killing? He wasn't under the influence of anything?" Cordelia asked.

"Only himself," Willow said ruefully.

Cordelia frowned in thought. "So...Buffy killed a human."

"Um, well, yes, I-I-I'm afraid she did," Giles answered uneasily.

"No, no, no, she didn't," Xander said in firm denial. "She killed a monster that just happened to look human at the time. Isn't that right, Faith?" he added as an aside when he caught a glimpse of the dark slayer entering the library. As soon as the significance of Faith's arrival clicked in his brain, however, both he and Willow rushed right over.

"Faith!" cried Xander. "How's Buffy?"

"Is she okay?" Willow asked worriedly.

"Was she hurt?" Xander pressed.

"I-I-Is she freaking out?" Willow asked. She turned to Xander. "She's probably freaking out. We should--"

A shrill whistle stopped the anxious rant, and they turned to Faith, who was making a "T" gesture with her hands.

"Time out," Faith said. "Everybody just chill, okay?"

Willow and Xander nodded meekly and returned to their seats.

"How is she?" Giles asked in a calm but serious voice.

"She's fine," Faith said. "Physically, anyway. Other than some nasty bruises, she wasn't seriously hurt."

"And...emotionally?" Giles prodded.

"She was pretty messed up last night," Faith admitted, "but she seemed a lot better this morning. I talked her into staying home from school today. I didn't think she needed to be over here gettin' all reminded of everything."

"Good idea," Willow agreed.

"What about the cops?" Faith asked Giles.

"As far as they're concerned, Pete and Debbie killed one another," Giles answered. "Case closed."

"Good, good," Faith said, relieved. "Buffy can just take her time, get back on her feet, and everything'll be fine."

"I'm afraid it's not that simple," Giles announced. "Buffy is in more danger now than ever before."

"What?!" Xander exclaimed.

"W-W-What do you mean?" Willow asked, fear in her voice.

"'Slayers aren't supposed to kill humans'," Giles replied. "It's a mantra we watchers teach our slayers, emphasizing it over and over--not just because it's morally wrong to kill another human being, but also because it's literally dangerous to the slayer herself."

"What are you talking about?" Faith demanded.

"The-the power that a slayer possesses...i-i-it's quite dangerous, you see, in the wrong hands," Giles explained. "Imagine if a sociopath had the powers of a slayer...the damage that one girl could do i-i-if she didn't value human life."

"But Buffy is not a sociopath," Oz pointed out.

"Yes, I know," Giles said, "but it doesn't matter. The deed is done, a-a-and the consequences...well, they've already begun, I fear."

"What...Consequences?" Faith asked slowly and emphatically.

Giles let out a deep sigh and went on. "Slayers in the past who have killed humans--and thankfully there have been but a few--they've always had the same ultimate reaction...they lost their minds."

"Are you saying Buffy's gonna go bonkers?" Cordelia asked.

When Giles began to give a rueful nod, Willow became very distressed. "! Not Buffy! She's strong, she'll get through this!" Tears began streaming down Willow's face, and Oz put his arm around her to comfort her.

"What exactly do you mean when you say 'they lost their minds'?" Xander asked.

"Of the ones we have records for, the majority became so despondent, so lost in their own despair, that they...well, they took their own lives," Giles said.

"Oh God..." Xander said.

"And the minority?" Faith asked.

"They became unstable, violently insane, resulting in their having to be locked away," Giles answered. "That was if the Council had been able to take them alive, which didn't happen in most cases." He gave an unhappy sigh. "Even those that were captured didn't last long. They always managed to either kill themselves or get themselves killed."

"You're telling me that all of these slayers died?" Faith said in a harsh tone.

"I'm afraid so," Giles replied. "Most within weeks of making the kill."

"None of them survived?" Faith pressed.

"Well, there was one," Giles said. "In the fourteenth century, if I recall. She managed to pull out of her depression and return to her duties. Unfortunately, shortly thereafter, she was killed, by a nest of vampires she was trying to wipe out."

"And you suspect that she may have let herself be killed too," Oz said to Giles.

"The Chronicles don't say that, but,'s possible," he admitted.

"A-A-And this is happening because of her slayer powers?!" Xander said angrily. "Because of some stupid, anti-abuse, backlash clause?!!"

"Xander's right," Faith said in a fury. "This should not be happening! She shouldn't be punished for doing her fucking job!! That bastard was trying to kill her!!"

"What do we do?" Willow pleaded. "Giles, what do we do?"

"Well, the first order of business is that Buffy is to be told none of this," he said sternly. "Her awareness of the, um, 'backlash clause,' for lack of a better term, could very well become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If she learns what has happened to the other slayers in the past, she could become convinced that her fate is sealed. And if she reaches that point..."

"...she's lost," Cordelia finished sadly.

"Yes," Giles confirmed. After a brief pause, he went on. "Secondly, Buffy is to be suspended from her slayer duties, effective immed--"

"What?!!" Faith yelled.

"It's only temporary," Giles insisted. "Until she recovers."

"You mean until you and your Council bigwigs figure she's gone wacko so you can lock her up!" Xander accused.

"Look!" Giles shouted, quieting Xander and everyone else. "Buffy is in a very fragile state. Exposing her to any kind of violence could-could trigger a downward spiral that she'll never come back from! Is that what you want?!"

Xander didn't reply; he just looked away. No one else responded either, until Faith spoke up.

"Buffy won't see it that way," Faith said simply. "She'll see the suspension as a punishment, as confirmation that she did something wrong. She already feels bad enough as it is!"

"I'll tell her that it's standard procedure," Giles suggested, "that it's part of a, um, cleansing ritual that the slayer must go through before she's ready to return to duty."

Giles looked at Faith to gauge her opinion, and she nodded. Then he looked over at Xander and Willow for the same reason.

"Okay, that seems reasonable," Willow said. "I-I-I think she'd buy that." Willow turned to Giles and asked, "What else can we do, help Buffy?"

"Keep an eye on her without letting her know we are doing so," Giles said. "But most of her, support her, let her know how much you care." Giles smiled and added, "Buffy has something that no other slayer has ever had...she has you." He let his eyes meet those of everyone else in the group as he spoke. "She's not alone...she's not 'one girl in all the world'...not anymore. And surely that will make a difference. It must!"

All of the Scoobies nodded resolutely at that, but behind the determination in their eyes lay a deep, dark fear that nothing they did would make any difference at all.

Part 5

At the school library, Faith and Giles and the others sat brooding for a moment, trying to get their heads around the situation that faced them. Finally, Faith broke the silence.

"I'm going back to check on Buffy," she announced.

"We should go too," Xander said. "Buffy needs us."

"Right," Willow agreed. "She needs her best friends." She turned to Faith. "No offense."

Though the comment truly stung, Faith shrugged it off. "None taken," she said.

"Xander, Willow, I think you should stay here," Giles said, stopping the duo as they prepared to leave.

"What?" Xander protested.

"Why not?" Willow demanded.

"You don't want to rush over there en masse and set off Buffy's suspicions," Giles explained. "She'll wonder why you're hovering over her so."

"Because we care," Willow countered. "There doesn't have to be impending doom in order for us to show we care."

"True," Oz said, "but you skipping school...definitely a diversion from the Great Order of Things."

"You can go over there right after school, both of you," Giles promised. "In the meantime, Faith can keep an eye on Buffy."

After frowning unhappily for several long seconds, Xander and Willow finally nodded their reluctant agreement. At that, Faith rushed from the library.

When Faith got back to the Summers home, she let herself in using the spare set of keys she had borrowed. She found Buffy up and seemingly watching TV in the living room. In actuality, Buffy wasn't paying any attention to it at all. When she saw Faith come in, she quickly wiped the tears from her face and pretended that she hadn't just been crying--which did not go unnoticed by Faith.

"Why aren't you in bed?" Faith asked.

"I tried to go to sleep," Buffy said, "but I just couldn't. Kept thinking about what happened." Her face creased in pain for a moment, but she forced herself to move past it. She looked up at Faith. "What did you find out?"

"Everything's cool," Faith said, joining Buffy on the couch. "Giles fixed it so that the cops think that Pete and Debbie killed each other. There won't be any additional investigation."

Buffy didn't seem relieved by that. "Good. I guess..." She took a deep breath. "I guess it's okay that Debbie gets the blame for something I did...I mean, she's not around to defend herself, so--"

"It's not like that," Faith said, cutting her off. "There's no 'blame' here. What you did was in self-defense, totally justified. You get that, right?"

Buffy gave a small 'maybe' shrug in response.

Faith went on, "Problem is, we can't trust Sunnydale's finest to get that right. We can't afford to have the Slayer locked up or bogged down in the so-called justice system. Okay?"

"Okay," Buffy said, although her tone indicated she was less than convinced.

"Giles wants you to take some time off, though," Faith said, "let me handle patrol for a while."

Buffy nodded gratefully at that suggestion, having no objections to that plan. "Sounds good. Don't think I'm up for patrol, anyway."

"Oh, one more thing," Faith said "Willow and Xander will be by this afternoon. They're worried about you. Or about me watching over you. I think they think I've got you tied down to the bed or something."

Buffy's eyes went wide as her thoughts clearly went a different direction than Faith's had. Faith noticed Buffy's reaction.

"Not like that, ya perv," Faith chided, nudging Buffy playfully.

Buffy blushed a bright red and gave an embarrassed laugh.

Faith went on to explain. "Like nursing home abuse or something. I guess 'caregiver' isn't the first thing that comes to mind when they think of me. my mind, actually."

Buffy smiled reassuringly at Faith. "Well, I know better. You've been very good with the giving of care. And I do appreciate it...very much."

Buffy reached out and clasped Faith's arm, causing the slayer to become a little embarrassed herself. "Well, don't get used to it," she warned. "I got a rep to maintain, you know."

Buffy put on an expression of mock seriousness. "Keep Faith's bad-ass reputation intact. Check."

Faith grinned then glanced about the room. "So...what do you want to do now?"

"TV's a wasteland," Buffy said with a shrug.

"You got a deck o' cards?" Faith asked.

" the drawer there," she answered, pointing at the table.

"You know how to play Gin?" Faith asked, retrieving the deck.

"Yeah. It's been a while, though."

"We could go a penny a point," Faith suggested. "Just to make it interesting," she added, raising her eyebrow at Buffy.

Buffy smirked and said, "You're on."

Meanwhile, back at the high school, Willow and Xander sat pouting in the back of their science class. Neither seemed to be concentrating on the teacher's lecture.

"I can't believe Giles wouldn't let us go check on Buffy!" Xander whispered angrily to Willow.

"I know," Willow complained. "Buffy's teetering at the edge of a possible Abyss of Despair, and he sends Faith to watch her!" Willow gave a disgusted huff. "I mean, Faith's got about as much sensitivity as Cordy at the homeless shelter last Christmas."

"Exactly!" Xander agreed instantly. Then he corrected himself. "Wait."

Willow lifted an eyebrow and gave Xander a think-about-it look.

"Right. Good point," he had to admit.

Later that day, Faith and Buffy had abandoned the cards and were now sitting on the couch right next to each other with a photo album spread across both their laps. Several other photo albums, as well as empty soda cans and food wrappers, were resting on the table next to the playing cards.

"Ugh! Don't look at that one!" Buffy said as soon as Faith turned the page of the album. She even covered up the picture with her hand.

"Lemme see," Faith said.

"No, it's stupid," Buffy said, refusing to move her hand.

"Move your hand."


"Move it."


Faith grabbed Buffy's hand, and the two slayers engaged in a mini-battle over photo album dominance. Despite Buffy's squealing denials, Faith won out and was able to see the forbidden picture.

It was of a five-year-old Buffy, standing on a chair pulled up to the kitchen counter. The flour-covered little girl was supposedly "helping" her mother bake a cake, but she seemed to be making more of a mess than anything else. Young Buffy was turned toward the camera and smiling widely...all without her two front teeth.

As Faith examined the picture and began to snicker, Buffy groaned in embarrassment and hid her face behind Faith's shoulder.

"God, I hate that picture," Buffy whined.

"What? It's cute," Faith said. "In a dentally-challenged sort of way."

Buffy pulled away from Faith's shoulder and gave it a smack with her fist. "It's not fair," she said. "I don't have any embarrassing pictures of you to make fun of."

"Be grateful," Faith said. When Buffy looked at her curiously, she added, "Trust me...I wasn't always as stunningly hot as I am today."

"And apparently not as humble either," Buffy teased.

They shared a laugh, and then Faith's attention was drawn to a large photo showing a ten-year-old Buffy gracefully ice skating.

"Hey, you look like you really know what you're doing there," Faith commented.

"Yeah," Buffy said, "I was pretty good." Then she gave a small groan. "Thank God it's not one of my 'Dorothy-do' pictures."


"My Dorothy Hamill phase," Buffy said ruefully. "My room in L.A. was pretty much a shrine. Dorothy dolls, Dorothy posters, I even got the Dorothy haircut."

"The Dorothy-do."

"Yep. Thereby securing a place for myself in the geek hall of fame."

Faith laughed.

"I used to go skating all the time," Buffy said. "And then I moved to Sunnydale. Haven't had a lot of time for non-demon-y hobbies since then. Last time I went was..." She trailed off, her expression darkening. "...with Angel." She sighed and said, "It wasn't long before he..."

"...turned evil on you?" Faith finished.

"Yeah," Buffy said sadly. After a long pause, she looked at Faith and asked, "Have you ever...lost someone? Someone you cared about?"

"My mom," Faith replied with a shrug. "No, said someone I cared about."

Buffy frowned sympathetically, but Faith gave her a don't-bother glance.

"My mother was a drunk, a bitchy drunk," Faith explained. "I'm better off without her."

"What about your watcher?" Buffy pressed but in a gentle voice.

There was a flash of pain in Faith's eyes, but she quickly covered it up. "I...I didn't really know her that long."

"You saw her killed," Buffy said. "How did you get that...image out of your head?" Her brow furrowed as she remembered Pete's bloody death.

"I didn't," Faith answered, thinking of Kakistos' violent murder of her watcher. "I don't think I ever will."

After a long moment of silence, Faith drew their attention back to the photo album.

Several photo albums later, Buffy and Faith were still at it. While Faith was pouring over the photos, Buffy was leaning comfortably against Faith's shoulder. When Faith came across a picture of interest, she pointed to it.

"Hey, what about this one?" she asked. When she didn't get an answer, she looked over and found Buffy sound asleep on her shoulder. She sighed and said with a roll of her eyes, "Great. I guess she'll drool on this shirt too."

Faith closed the photo album and set it aside. Then as gently as she could, she eased Buffy from her shoulder and into her lap. When Buffy stirred momentarily, Faith pulled her hands away and waited, not wanting to do anything that might wake her up. But Buffy merely snuggled more closely against Faith's thigh and quieted once again.

After several long seconds, Faith slowly let out the breath she had been holding. She looked down at Buffy with a deeply concerned expression. She rested her hands on her lap, without touching Buffy, then sighed and looked around the room with a what-do-I-do-now expression. It wasn't long, however, before she brought her eyes back to Buffy.

Almost involuntarily, Faith's hands found their way to Buffy's hair. She tentatively touched the ends that lay on Buffy's shoulder. Soon she was tenderly stroking Buffy's hair, smiling at her with a warm softness in her own eyes.

When Buffy gave a murmur of contentment from her sleep, Faith stopped and yanked back her hand. Pure panic flashed in her eyes, and she looked like she wanted to escape. She grabbed a pillow and began to slide herself out from under Buffy's head, slipping the pillow into the place vacated by her legs. The move worked. As Faith managed to extricate herself, Buffy remained asleep and snuggled into the pillow.

Once free, Faith exhaled in relief. She pulled the blanket off the back of the couch and laid it over Buffy. Then she knelt beside the couch and pushed a strand of Buffy's hair out of her face, letting her fingertips gently touch her cheek. She did it only for a second, though, before frowning and pulling away. Then she got to her feet and headed for the bathroom.

When Faith went in, she shut the door quietly and then turned on the faucet. She kept her gaze on the sink and the running water.

What is the matter with you?! she mentally chided herself. You can't just-- She's--

Faith gave a frustrated growl, splashed her face with cold water, and turned off the faucet. After drying off with the towel, she put her hands on the counter and leaned against it, still keeping her eyes on the sink.

Back in the living room, Buffy frowned and shook her head in her sleep as if she were having a bad dream.

"No..." she whimpered as her dream took her somewhere she didn't want to go.

In her mind, she was at the cemetery, standing at Pete's grave. It was night, and she was alone, and she was crying. She stood there without speaking for the longest time, simply unable to form the words.

Finally, she pulled herself together and whispered, "I'm so sorry..." Then she hung her head and turned to go.

Before she could take one step, she ran into someone. When she looked up and saw who it was, she gasped and stumbled back.

A blood-covered Pete glared maliciously at her.

Back in the bathroom, Faith was still leaning against the counter. Finally, she let out a deep, sad sigh.

"She's not like you," she said out loud.

Then she lifted her eyes to her reflection and added, "...and you're not like her."

Faith straightened up and sighed again.

So just stop this...this...whatever it is you're doing, she thought to herself. Just stop it now before--

A scream from Buffy cut off Faith's mental debate, and Faith dashed from the bathroom.

When Faith came running into the living room, she found Buffy frantically trying to untangle herself from the blanket covering her. Faith rushed over.

"Buffy, it's okay," she called out while trying to capture Buffy's flailing arms. When she was finally successful, she held the blonde firmly in her grip and attempted to make eye contact. "It's just a dream," she told her. "Just a dream."

Buffy eventually stopped fighting and met Faith's gaze. Then she burst out crying and just let herself fall slowly forward against Faith's shoulder.

After the briefest of hesitations, Faith ignored the warning her brain was screaming at her and wrapped her arms around the sobbing slayer, pulling her close.

Back at the high school, Giles sat in his office with a pile of books. He had several of them open and stacked on top of one another. He had been taking notes on a legal pad about each slayer in Council history that had killed a human.

There has to be something here, Giles thought. Some small clue, some vestige of hope.

He reviewed the list several times, flipping the pages with increasing frustration. He finally snatched his glasses off and rubbed the bridge of his nose.

After a moment, he put his glasses back on and opened his desk drawer. He pulled out an address book and turned to the T section. He ran his finger over the name "Travers, Quentin" for several seconds. Then he closed the book and put it back inside his desk drawer.

Back at the Summers home, Buffy had long since stopped crying. Now she simply luxuriated in the sense of warmth and safety she felt in Faith's arms. She let out a breath that was a near-sigh.

Faith gently separated them and gave Buffy a concerned look. "Are you okay now?" she asked.

Buffy met Faith's eyes. "I'm always okay when I'm with you," she whispered.

Buffy dropped her gaze to Faith's cheek, reached out, and cupped it gently. Buffy brought her eyes back to Faith's.

Don't, Faith's internal voice told her. Don't let her do this. Stop her now. But Faith didn't stop her.

Buffy leaned closer, letting her hand move down to Faith's neck. Then ever-so-slowly, Buffy planted a soft kiss on Faith's lips. When Buffy pulled back, she found Faith breathing hard, trembling, but staring intently.

Faith's heart was about to beat out of her chest. Her gaze darted from Buffy's eyes to her mouth and back again a hundred times, a mixture of conflicting emotions flashing across her face.

A worried expression came over Buffy. "Faith? Are you--?"

Buffy's question was cut off when Faith reached up with both hands and pulled Buffy's face to hers, kissing her hungrily. Buffy eagerly returned the embrace, wrapping her arms around Faith. They kissed and kissed again, their hands roaming as the heat rose between them.

Suddenly and unexpectedly, Faith grabbed Buffy's arms and pushed her roughly away, holding her at an arm's length with a bruising grip. As the two slayers panted breathlessly, they locked eyes. Buffy's expression was startled and confused. Faith's was shocked and anguished.

Before Buffy could say anything, Faith released the blonde's arms, jumped up from the couch, and began backing away.

Now truly worried, Buffy called out, "Faith? Faith...what's wrong?"

Faith just continued backing away, nearly tripping on the table.

Buffy's worry became total fear. "Faith, to me," she said. "Oh God...I shouldn't have...I'm sorry...I thought that..."

"I-I-I've gotta go," was all Faith could say as she turned toward the door.

Buffy jumped to her feet, "No! Faith, please!" Tears began streaming down Buffy's cheeks. "Don't go!" she cried. Then she reached out in a pleading gesture. "Please don't leave me!" she wailed.

Faith shut Buffy's pleas out of her mind, snatched open the front door, and dashed out, not even bothering to close the door.

Buffy sank back onto the couch, sobbing uncontrollably.

Faith ran as fast as she could, cursing herself the entire way, running until her breath finally gave out. When she stopped, she found herself in one of the cemeteries. She plopped onto a stone bench.

What did you do?! she accused herself. You shouldn't have let her-- And you sure shouldn't have--

"Oh God...this is so fucked up..." she said out loud, dropping her head into her hands.

Just minutes after Faith left, Xander and Willow arrived at Buffy's house. They found the front door wide open and Buffy crying on the couch.

"Buffy!" Willow and Xander both exclaimed before rushing to the slayer and sitting beside her.

"What happened? What's wrong?" Willow asked, touching Buffy's shoulder.

"Faith...l-l-left," Buffy barely got out between sobs before falling into Willow's arms.

"It's okay," Willow said, holding Buffy tightly. "We're here now."

As Buffy cried, Xander put a comforting hand on her back. "I knew we shouldn't have trusted Faith with Buffy!" Xander whispered to Willow urgently.

"How could she do that?" Willow said. "Just leave Buffy when she was so upset?"

"I don't know, but she's not getting another chance--not if I have anything to say about it," Xander promised.

Part 6

Giles sat silently in the passenger seat of Joyce's SUV as she drove them both to the Summers home. He had stopped by the gallery after school to tell her what was going on. Now the two of them were on their way to check on Buffy. Joyce gripped and re-gripped the steering wheel several times, her jaw tightening each time.

"I hate this," she said finally. "You know that, right?" she asked, turning to Giles for a moment. There was no mirth in her eyes as she said this.

"Yes," Giles said, hanging his head. "I'm well aware."

Another long silence ensued. Then Joyce spoke up once again.

"I mean, she risks her life night after night--and not by choice, mind you, no, she has to because she had the misfortune to be 'chosen' by this-this slayer power whatever it is--she puts her life on the line, and how does this 'power' repay her? By punishing her for defending herself!" Joyce shook her head.

"I know this is difficult--"

"Do you?!" Joyce demanded.

"I do," Giles said softly. "Not to the extent you know it, of course, but...despite the difficulty, we must focus on getting Buffy through this. Cursing her calling, however deserved it might be, won't help us do that."

"Fine," Joyce said, pulling into her drive and slamming the car into park.

When Joyce and Giles entered the house, they found Willow and Xander on the couch with Buffy, who was still crying after Faith's abrupt departure.

"Buffy!" Joyce cried as she rushed over to her daughter.

Willow and Xander instantly stood up, freeing the space on both sides of Buffy so that Joyce could take her place next to her daughter.

"Mom," Buffy sobbed as her mother wrapped her in a warm hug.

"Baby, I'm here..." Joyce reassured. "I'm here."

While Joyce tried to comfort her daughter, Willow and Xander slipped over to the front door to talk with Giles.

"What's going on?" Giles demanded in a hushed voice. "What's got Buffy so upset? And where's Faith?"

"She left!" Willow replied angrily. "You should have let us come check on Buffy! We wouldn't have left her."

"What do you mean Faith left?" Giles asked.

"When we got here, Faith was gone," Xander explained, "and Buffy was crying her eyes out on the couch. Just a coincidence? I think not."

"She probably took off this morning and left Buffy alone all day," Willow speculated.

Giles softened his voice. "Look, I know that Faith's not known for her sensitive side, but--"

"But what?!" Xander shot back. "She left Buffy alone, and now Buffy's a basket-case. You do the math. One plus one is two, and Faith's the two." Xander paused, rethinking what he had just said. "Okay, that didn't make any sense, but the point is...Faith let us down."

"She let Buffy down," Willow corrected.


The voice came from behind Willow, Xander, and Giles, and they turned to see Buffy standing there.

"She didn't," Buffy said.

"What?" Xander asked, confused.

"She left because of me," Buffy explained. "It was my fault."

Joyce got up from the couch and came to stand beside Buffy. She put her hand on her daughter's shoulder. "Honey, you don't have to try and cover for her. She said she'd keep an eye on you, and she--"

"No!" Buffy nearly shouted, pulling out of her mother's grasp and stepping away to address the whole group. "You don't understand! I don't want you blaming her for something she didn't do!" Buffy stopped to take a deep breath. "She left because I...I..." She looked down at her hands for a long moment before looking back up. New tears were in her eyes as she said in a flat voice, "It wasn't her fault."

Without another word, Buffy turned and went upstairs, leaving the others shocked and bewildered.

Later that evening, after having a long talk with Giles, Willow, and Xander, Joyce bid them goodnight and went upstairs to Buffy's room. Although the bedroom door was almost completely open, Joyce gave a short rap on it and stepped inside.

Buffy was on her bed with her knees drawn up against her chest and her arms wrapped around her legs. Dressed in her pajamas, she sat staring blankly at her window, with only the bedside lamp on. She turned slowly at the sound of the knock and saw her mother standing there.

"Hey," Buffy said in greeting.

Joyce smiled and said the same.

"Giles give you the scoop?" Buffy asked.

"Yes," Joyce answered, sitting on the edge of Buffy's bed. "Yes, he did."

Buffy merely nodded in reply.

"Honey, I wish you'd told me. Now that I know about your slaying, you don't have to hide things like this from me."

"I just couldn't," Buffy said, glancing away, her voice nearly breaking. After clearing her throat, she looked back and gave her mother a grin. "'Sides, you really don't want to know the gory details of my daily life as a slayer. Trust me on that."

"I want to know when you're hurt and when you're in danger," Joyce insisted.

"Mom, that's every day," Buffy replied softly, dropping her gaze to her hands. There was no sarcasm in Buffy's tone--just quiet, inescapable truth.

Disbelief and denial flashed in Joyce's eyes. They were quickly replaced by anger and fear until they too were replaced, this time by reluctant resignation. Joyce hated her daughter's calling--truly hated it. Intellectually, she understood the importance of the slayer in the safety of the world, but emotionally she couldn't help questioning why it had to be her daughter. This latest news had only increased her resentment and her worries. She reached out and took Buffy's hand in hers.

"Please, Buffy," she said gently. "Keep me in the loop? You don't have to give me all the 'gory details' as you put it. Just tell me what's going on. Good or bad. Slayer-related or not." She gave Buffy's hand a squeeze. "Because I love you and I want to know what's happening in your life. Okay?"

Buffy's eyes were wet with tears as she whispered, "Okay."

After giving her daughter a long, warm hug, Joyce got to her feet. "Can I get you anything?"

Buffy shook her head.

"Maybe you should lie down," Joyce suggested. "Try to get some rest?"

"I will, Mom," Buffy promised. "In a little bit."

"If you need me, I'm right across the hall."

Buffy forced a small smile. "Thanks."

At that, Joyce turned and headed out of the room. As she left, she made sure that she left the door fully open. Buffy didn't even notice. She had already returned to her sad staring.

Meanwhile, outside the Summers home, Faith watched Buffy's window from the shadows. With pain and longing in her eyes, she watched until she saw the faint light inside Buffy's bedroom go out. She dropped her gaze to the ground and sighed heavily. After one final glance at Buffy's window, Faith went on her way.

Later that night, Buffy lay tossing and turning in her bed, clearly in the throes of a nightmare. She shook her head from side to side, her face creasing in a frown.

In her dream, Buffy was in the high school's supply room. She did a slow 360, peering at the room with a confused look on her face. When she finished her turn, she found Pete suddenly right in front of her. Blood was gurgling from the wound in his mangled neck.

"Look at what you did," Pete accused.

Buffy took a step back and looked down at her hand. In it was a broken bottle covered in blood. She screamed and dropped the bottle. When she lifted both her hands, they too were covered in blood.

"Oh God, oh God..." Buffy said in horror. She looked back up at Pete, tears streaming down her face. "I'm sorry...I didn't mean to..."

"You're sorry?!" Pete replied, outraged. Pete closed in on Buffy, backing her towards the wall. "You gouge a gaping hole in my neck and make me bleed to death, and you're sorry?"

Buffy hit the wall, cowering as Pete loomed over her.

"Did you hear that?" Pete asked, looking over his shoulder. "The slayer is sorry."

Instantly, the person that Pete had been addressing appeared. It was Angel. He was thin and pale with dark, hollow eyes, and his shirt was covered in dried and caked blood.

"She's not a slayer," Angel said coldly. "She's a killer."

Buffy awoke from her dream, screaming and crying. Within seconds, her mother was at her side. Joyce pulled her sobbing daughter into her arms and held her tightly.

The next morning, as Joyce was sipping her first cup of coffee, she was surprised when Buffy came into the kitchen, already dressed and ready for school--though not with her usual attention to appearance. She had paid only minimal attention to her hair and makeup and had put on a well-worn pair of jeans, an old t-shirt, and a faded zip-up sweatshirt. When Joyce started to object to Buffy's obvious intention to go to school that day, Buffy instantly raised her hand and stopped her.

"Mom, I know what you're about to say, but I need to go to school," Buffy insisted.

"Honey, don't you think you should--?"

"No," Buffy said, shaking her head. Then she looked at her mother and said, "I can't stay home forever."

There was a mixture of determination and vulnerability in Buffy's eyes, as if she were steeling herself to do something that she really didn't want to. Joyce frowned worriedly.

"Look, sooner or later, I gotta face going back," Buffy explained. "It might as well be sooner. Get it over with, you know?"

"Okay," Joyce agreed. "But not without breakfast," she quickly added.

As her mother began making preparations for a hot breakfast, Buffy's stomach churned. Eating before fear-faceage...probably not a good idea, Buffy told herself. Then she added, Better play along. Otherwise, she'll worry even more. Buffy sighed and settled on the stool at the bar.

As Buffy walked toward Sunnydale High, she felt her heart rate increase. The closer she got, the faster it raced. She had thought that walking the short distance would calm her mind and allow her to collect her thoughts, but it had had no effect on her ever-growing anxiety. By the time she had reached the school's entrance, Buffy was a wreck.

As she entered the school, Buffy pulled her small book bag against her chest and wrapped her arms tightly around it as if she were shielding herself from the world. She lowered her gaze to the floor, allowing herself only occasional darting glances elsewhere; then she hurried through the lobby.

You can do this, you can do this, she thought, trying unsuccessfully to concentrate. Just focus on school. School, school. Teachers, classrooms, books, students. Pete. Debbie. Blood. Oh God, so much blood. Get a grip! They're gone, it's done, get over it! I wonder where Faith is. Why did she leave like that? Why? You know why. Stop whining! Just--


Buffy froze at the commanding voice in front of her. She slowly looked up. It was Principal Snyder.

"Buffy Summers," Snyder said dramatically, crossing his arms in a stern stance. "Who just happened to be conspicuously absent the day after a double-murder."

Snyder uncrossed his arms and stepped deeply into Buffy's personal space, looming over her, glaring accusingly. Buffy shrank under his stare.

"If the police hadn't assured me that the two lovebirds had killed each other," he whispered harshly, "then you, Little Miss Violent, would have been the first on my suspect list."

Buffy couldn't even speak or meet his eyes. She just stood there, trembling, seconds from bursting into tears. Snyder's lips twitched upwards at the sight. He stared silently at her, savoring the moment.

"Get to class!" he finally barked, earning a jump from Buffy, which brought an even bigger smile to his face.

When Snyder stepped aside, Buffy wasted no time in complying with his order. She scurried off without so much as a word to him.

As Buffy hurried around the corner of a hallway, she ran headlong into someone, sending his books flying from his hands.

"Oh my God...I'm so sor--" She stopped mid-sentence when she saw who it was.

"Buffy," Scott said, surprised but happy.

His elated expression fell when he saw Buffy back away from him with a look of horror on her face. She dropped her bag and tried to speak, but no words came out. Tears sprang to her eyes, and she covered her mouth with her hand. Scott looked on with confusion.

From across the hall, Willow caught a glimpse of what was happening and rushed over. But, just as Willow arrived on the scene, Buffy bolted.

"Buffy!" Willow cried out. When the slayer didn't stop, Willow turned back to Scott and let out an apologetic chuckle. "Buffy, she's, well, she's just upset...about what happened, you know?" She bent over and picked up Buffy's bag. "A-A-And she just doesn't know what to say, that's all." She began backing away. "I'm sorry, but I should really go check on her."

Without waiting for an answer from Scott, Willow turned and ran in the direction that Buffy had gone. Scott was left looking hurt and bewildered.

Willow found Buffy in the girls' restroom. She had heard Buffy crying the minute she had stepped inside. She followed the sound to the last stall.

"Buffy?" she called out. "It's me. Willow."

Willow gave the stall door a test pull and found that it wasn't locked. She called out Buffy's name again and then slowly opened the door. She found Buffy sitting on the edge of the toilet seat, just sobbing. She set Buffy's book bag on the floor and then knelt in front of the stricken slayer.

"Buffy?" she ventured again, reaching out to place a reassuring hand on Buffy's knee.

Buffy looked up and met Willow's eyes. "I-I-I shouldn't have come back, Will," she said, still crying. "I s-s-saw Scott a-a-and totally freaked out."

"I know, I saw," Willow admitted.

"H-H-He probably hates me," Buffy wailed.

"No," Willow said. "I'm sure he doesn't. He could never hate you. I-I-I told him you were upset and that you just didn't know what to say."

"Really?" Buffy asked, hopeful. "What did he say?"

"Ummm, nothing...that I know of," Willow explained. "I kinda came running after you." When she saw Buffy's face fall, Willow quickly added, "But I'm sure he'll understand when you talk to hi--"

"No, no," Buffy interrupted, jumping to her feet and shaking her head vigorously. "I can't talk to him, I can't face him, not after what I did, I can't, I can't..."

As Buffy's words trailed off into more crying, Willow stood up and pulled her friend into a tight hug, trying to comfort her as best she could. "It'll be okay," she told her.

Buffy held onto Willow fiercely, but then, between sobs, she said, "I wish Faith was here."

A deep hurt flooded Willow's eyes. She felt a lump form in her throat, but she forced herself to speak past it. "Well, she's not," Willow said, trying to keep her voice even. "But I am. I'm here."

"Thank you," Buffy whispered against Willow's shoulder.

The upset expression on Willow's face didn't soften at Buffy's words.

Later that day, a calmer but still dejected Buffy trudged into the library. Giles was putting away some books, but he immediately came down from the stacks to stand beside his slayer. He put a gentle hand on her shoulder and looked into her eyes.

"How are you?" he asked. "How are you feeling?"

Buffy put her hand on top of her watcher's hand and gave him a rueful smile. "Like somebody ran me over with a Mack truck...about a hundred times. But other than that, I'm fine." She tried to sound convincing and optimistic but failed miserably.

Giles gestured at the chairs at the table, and they both sat down. "Are you sleeping?" he asked.

"Not really," Buffy said, dropping her gaze to her hands. "Every time I go to sleep, I dream...about what happened. I feel like I'm going crazy."

Deep worry flashed in Giles's eyes, but he pushed it down and said, "That's perfectly normal, Buffy. You went through a very traumatic event. It's going to take time for you to fully recover. The important thing is not to bottle up your feelings."

"Oh, no bottling here. More like bawling my eyes out every half hour."

"Good! That's good!" Giles blurted excitedly, earning him a strange look from Buffy. "You know what I mean. It's good that you're expressing your feelings."

"Tell that to my mascara," Buffy deadpanned.

Giles looked confused for a moment, but then he eventually got it. After his quick chuckle, the two fell into an awkward silence. After a minute, Buffy finally spoke.

"I, um, I just wanted to say thank you know...arranging things," Buffy said.

Giles smiled back at her. He knew that she was referring to the police investigation of Pete and Debbie's deaths. "It was the right thing to do," he said.

Buffy fidgeted and looked nervously around the room before finally asking the question that was on her mind. "Have you, um, have you seen Faith?" she asked in a vulnerable voice.

"Um, I haven't," he said.

Buffy looked away, clearly upset.

" know Faith," Giles quickly interjected. "Not unusual for her to drop out of sight from time to time...only for a short while, of course."

Buffy nodded wordlessly.

"Buffy, do you want to talk about what happened yesterday...why Faith left...what got you so upset?"

Buffy shook her head. "No, not really. Just a...difference of opinion." I like her, she hates me, that's all, she quipped sadly to herself. "Not uncommon with us," she added, forcing a small smile. "But thanks."

At that, Buffy got to her feet and headed for the door. Giles watched her worriedly as she left the library.

That night, Buffy and Joyce were alone at home, sitting at the dining room table, eating supper. Actually, only Joyce was eating; for the most part, Buffy was simply pushing her food around on her plate, pretending to eat.

" was school today?" Joyce asked. "You know...going back and all?"

Buffy froze, and it took her several moments to answer. "Hard," she finally said, without looking at her mother. "Harder than I thought it would be, but...I survived." She spoke the last two words without much enthusiasm. After a few final pushes of her food, she set her fork down. "I, um, I think I'm just gonna go to bed," she said, looking at her mom, "i-i-if that's okay."

"Of course," Joyce said sympathetically. "I wish you had eaten more, though."

"I know," Buffy said. "I'm just not very hungry." She pushed away from the table and got to her feet. "If anybody calls or comes by, just tell 'em I went to bed, okay? I'm not really up for conversation."

"Okay, honey," Joyce said, giving her daughter a nod.

Buffy turned and took a step toward the doorway. But then she suddenly turned back around. "Unless it's Faith," she added with hope in her voice.

Joyce frowned but didn't comment.

"But she probably won't come," Buffy said dejectedly. "I mean, she's got to patrol and everything." She dropped her gaze to the floor and muttered, "What I should be doing."

Without another word, Buffy trudged out of the dining room and headed for the stairs.

Later that night, Buffy tossed fitfully in her bed. Once again, her sleep was disturbed by nightmares.

In her current dream, Buffy was walking along a hallway at school. It was dark, and the corridor was lined with people. Though they were standing and moving, it was clear that they were dead--quite dead. Some were pale with punctures on their necks; others looked like they'd been savaged by beasts. As she passed each one, they glared at her with cold hatred, hissing accusations at her.




"Your fault."

Buffy's face creased in pain, and tears began streaming down her face. She stopped and turned in place, trying to address them all. "I'm sorry..."

They didn't seem appeased. They started to close in behind her and around her. Buffy's expression became panicked, and she turned and ran, screaming as hands reached out for her. Soon the crowd thinned, but before she could fully escape, a wall of bodies stopped her forward progress. She stumbled back then looked up to see familiar faces.

Jesse. Principal Flutie. Dr. Gregory. Theresa. Jenny. Kendra. Mr. Platt. Debbie. Pete.

"Oh God..." Buffy whimpered.

"You were supposed to save me," said a pale and drained Jesse. "I tried to be your friend."

"I believed in you," said Dr. Gregory, carrying his own mutilated head in his hands.

"Because of you, a Slayer died," a bloody Kendra added, crossing her arms in judgment.

"Pathetic," Jenny pronounced sharply, despite the awkward tilt of her broken neck. "Fallen. Unworthy of the calling. It was your duty to protect us, and you failed! Faith is the only true Slayer now. Time for you to go!"

As Jenny and the other victims rushed forward, Buffy screamed...and then awakened in her bed with a gasp of fright. She pulled her pillow to her chest and curled herself around it, muffling her cries into its softness.

Outside Buffy's room, a robe-clad Joyce tiptoed through the hallway carrying a glass of milk. She stopped when she thought she heard a sound coming from Buffy's room. She peeked through the open door and saw her daughter apparently crying into her pillow.

"Buffy? Are you all right?" she called out. She heard Buffy get her sniffling under control then saw her glance briefly over her shoulder.

"I'm fine, Mom. It's just another bad dream," Buffy said. "Just go back to bed."

Something in Buffy's tone told Joyce she shouldn't intrude this time. Though her maternal instincts urged her to do anything but leave, she reluctantly stepped away and returned to her bedroom.

Near dawn the next morning, Faith was still on patrol. Though she was already exhausted, she had stayed at it all night, hoping that the business of slaying would keep her mind off Buffy. It hadn't succeeded.

As she passed through one of the older cemeteries, she clenched and unclenched her fists over and over as her mind replayed the last images she had of Buffy: Buffy's hurt expression when Faith had shoved her away after their kiss, Buffy crying in anguish and reaching out to her, Buffy pleading with her not to leave.

Faith began shaking her head in frustration. "Stop it, stop it, stop it!!!" she screamed before lashing out at the nearest tombstone. She kicked it multiple times until it cracked. Then she slammed both hands against it and pushed, causing it to crumble to the ground in pieces. She stood over it, panting with exertion, before finally plopping down onto the largest piece. She groaned and dropped her forehead into her hands as her own thoughts began to assail her.

What is wrong with you?! You're pathetic!

You got yourself into trouble and what did you do? You ran. Like always.

It's all you're good at. B was right. You're a real bad-ass when it comes to packing and running.

Faith sighed sadly and then opened her eyes. She was surprised to find five demons closing in on her.

"Shit!" she cursed, jumping to her feet and whipping the stake from her back pocket.

The shaggy demons walked upright, but with a hunched-over, beast-like gait. As they neared, they growled and swiped their clawed hands in the air.

After a quick glance behind herself, Faith began backing away. After making a few steps, she looked behind herself again, gauging her escape route.

"Whatcha gonna do now, s-s-s-slayer?" the lead demon hissed. "Run?"

Faith's expression hardened as she instantly abandoned the idea of a wise retreat. Instead, she roared and attacked, rushing the lead demon first. She let him make a couple of useless swipes at her, then took advantage of an opening and kicked him into two of his comrades.

When the demon to her left moved in, she side-kicked him to give her a moment's reprieve while she took on the demon to her right. When he swiped at her, she grabbed his arm and spun him, then slammed her stake into his chest. He screeched and went down.

By then the demon to her left was back, and he grabbed her around the neck with his arm and dragged her several yards away, trying to choke her. The lead demon had regained his feet and came back mad. He sent his two comrades ahead, and each grabbed one of Faith's legs at the other demon still kept his hold on her neck. Faith kicked at their clawed hands but failed to keep them from latching on.

The lead demon smiled and made a clean swipe right at her torso. Faith managed to free one of her legs and twisted away at the last second. As a result, instead of being sliced across her stomach, she caught the swipe on her right side directly above her belt. She screamed in pain as the claws raked through her flesh.

She kicked her other leg free and then backpedaled the demon choking her into a large monument. When he slammed into the stone, he released his hold on Faith. She flipped him, grabbed his head, and quickly snapped his neck.

The lead demon seized her from behind, picked her up, and threw her hard against a large headstone. She hit it with a thud, landing on the same side where she'd already been sliced. She groaned loudly and rolled off the far side of the headstone, temporarily out of the sight of the three remaining demons. They rushed the headstone.

Seconds before they got there, Faith popped up, a small throwing knife in each hand. With synchronized slings, she let the daggers fly. Each one hit their mark: right between the eyes of the lead demon's comrades. It was just Faith and the lead demon now.

When she came from behind the large headstone, he rushed her. She moved sideways to the tombstone she had broken earlier and tried to high kick him. He grabbed her leg mid-kick and slammed his forearm onto her knee. She screamed in agony as her left knee joint was forced into full hyperextension.

When Faith hit the ground, she rolled onto her stomach and began dragging herself way. Just as the demon leapt upon her, she got her hand on a chunk of granite that had broken off from the tombstone. She turned and bashed his head with the jagged rock. When he went down, she rose to her good knee and smashed his head three more times until his blood began splattering her upper body.

Finally, she dropped the rock and surveyed the damage: all five demons were dead, she was safe. She gave a high-pitched hysterical laugh that very nearly turned into a sob. She choked it down before it could do so, however, and then let herself fall back onto the ground. As she lay still, waiting for the dawn, a few tears trickled down her cheeks.

The next morning, after Joyce had arrived at her gallery, she called Giles at the school. She tapped her pen impatiently on her desk as she waited for the librarian to answer.

"Library, Mr. Giles speaking," said the voice on the phone.

"Mr. Giles, this is Joyce Summers."

"Oh, Mrs. Summers, is everything all right? Is-is Buffy all right?"

"No, she's not!" Joyce replied angrily. "She's having nightmares all night. When she's not having those, she's crying...she won't eat anything...the only thing she ever asks about is Faith, though I don't know why after she deserted her the other day. We have to do something!"

"Yes, well, I, um, I'm not sure there is anything that we can do," Giles admitted. "Other than watch over her. The powers at work here are--"

"If Buffy's not better in the next day or so, I'm taking her to the hospital," Joyce said, interrupting Giles. "There has to be something they can do to help her."

"If her condition does worsen, hospitalization might be a prudent course of action."

This was not what Joyce wanted to hear. She sighed unhappily.

A short time later, Giles arrived at Faith's motel room. He walked up to the door and gave it a couple of polite raps. When he heard no sound from within the room, he gave the door a hefty series of knocks.

"Faith, are you in there?" he called out.

"Jesus Christ!" he heard Faith yell from inside. "I'm coming already."

Within a few seconds, the door opened. "What?!" Faith demanded. Giles's eyes widened at the sight.

Faith's hair was damp as if she had just gotten out of the shower. She was wearing a very thin and very short robe that was only barely tied closed. Her body was covered in bruises, and her left knee in particular was quite swollen. Through the opening in her robe, Faith was holding a bloody towel against her right side.

"Dear Lord! What happened?" Giles exclaimed.

"What do you think happened?" Faith said, leaving the doorway and walking back to her bed. "Got jumped by some demons. One of 'em clawed the shit out of me."

Giles immediately took off his jacket and started rolling up the sleeves of his shirt. "Let me see," he said in an all-business tone.

Faith shook her head. "I don't think so," she said defensively and sarcastically.

Giles put his hands on his hips. "Faith, I am your watcher. Treating wounds, wherever they may be, well, it comes with territory, so lie down and let me see." His tone was stern but not mean.

"Fine," she huffed.

Faith lay on her side with her back to Giles and opened her robe. She stuffed her lumpy motel pillow under her arms and let out an annoyed sigh.

While Faith got settled on the bed, Giles washed his hands in the bathroom. When he returned, he took a look at the first aid kit she had already laid out. He pulled out the things he would need. Then he turned back to Faith and began examining the wound.

It was a series of long, ragged gashes about eight inches long that stretched around her side at her waistline. All were red and angry-looking and still bleeding.

"Faith, this looks very bad," he said, squinting worriedly at the wound. "You should go to the--"

"No," Faith said firmly. "I hate doctors, and I hate hospitals, so just clean it up, put a Band-aid on it, and I'll be fine."

Giles gave an exasperated sigh. "Very well."

He poured an antiseptic into the long gashes, making Faith flinch and groan. She cursed softly into her pillow.

"Sorry," Giles said.

"Just hurry up," Faith growled back.

Giles applied an antibiotic ointment and then covered the wound with a large adhesive bandage. "Done," he announced.

Faith let out her breath and pulled her robe back around herself and sat up.


Giles went to the bathroom and washed his hands again.

"So...what brings you to the poor slayer's side of town?" Faith called out to him.

"It's about Buffy," Giles said as he came out of the bathroom and sat at the end of the bed.

"What about her?" Faith asked, concerned. "Is she okay?"

"No, not really," Giles replied honestly. Then he said, "I want you to go see her."

Looking very uncomfortable, Faith said, "Why?"

"She needs you, Faith," he told her simply.

Faith shrugged. "What does she need me for? She's got you, her mom, all her super-friends."

"She needs you, too," Giles said sincerely.

Faith scoffed loudly and got off the bed. She limped over to the TV and grabbed the bottle of Jack Daniels sitting on top of it.

"What for? I mean...who am I, Giles? Just some fucked-up girl from Boston she's known less than a month." She opened the bottle, took a big swig and then another.

"You're a slayer, Faith."

Giles got up from the bed and walked over. He took the bottle from Faith, closed it, and returned it to its place on the TV.

"And being a slayer is a very...lonely place to be. She needs someone who understands the calling...and-and the sacrifices that often come with it. She needs you, Faith. She's been asking for you."

Faith frowned and looked away, fidgeting nervously. Finally, she gave an unhappy sigh and said, "Fine. I'll stop by."

Giles gave her arm a squeeze. "Thank you." As he headed for the door, Giles added, "And skip patrol tonight. Give yourself some time to heal."

As Buffy moved between her classes, she eyed the bustling crowd with trepidation. While her fellow students talked and joked and got things out of their lockers, Buffy crept cautiously down the hallway--the memory of her nightmare picking at the back of her mind.

Suddenly, in a group of students by the water fountain, Buffy saw Pete standing and staring. Buffy gasped and stopped in place, causing the person behind her to run into her.

Buffy didn't even notice the grumbling complaint of the person who moved past her. Her eyes were locked on Pete's bloody figure. She backed frantically into the far side of the wall and hurried sideways into the opposing traffic. She kept going until she was beyond the fountain and then broke into a run.

When she got to the end of the corridor, she stopped and looked back, breathing heavily--more from fear than exertion--but Pete wasn't there. She took a moment to get her breathing under control and then headed for her next class.

Meanwhile, Faith lay in her bed, staring at the ceiling. Despite her wounds and exhaustion, and several more shots of whiskey, she had been unable to sleep. With a painful groan, she reached over to the nightstand and plucked a Polaroid from between the phone and the wall. She looked at it sadly.

It was from the night of Kakistos, the night Faith and Buffy had gone out to the bar. Faith and Buffy were hugging, cheek to cheek, with their inside arms wrapped around each other's waists, and their outside arms held together with their hands clasped as if they were striking a tango-like dance pose. They were both smiling wildly. Buffy had several tiny drink umbrellas stuck in her hair.

Faith gave a small laugh and shook her head. Then her sad frown returned. She lay back down, bringing the picture with her, letting it rest right over her heart.

At the end of the school day, Buffy was once again in the hallway. After the earlier event, she was even more nervous than before, expecting to see Pete or some other dream victim hovering nearby. When she made it to the end of the corridor and into the lobby without incident, Buffy exhaled in relief. Not only had she managed to avoid seeing Scott all day, but she had also not had a second encounter with Pete. She thought she was home free. She was wrong.

Just as she turned the corner, Pete was suddenly in front of her. She cried out and pressed herself against the wall, drawing the attention of the other people in the lobby.

Pete leaned closer. "Look at them," he said, motioning toward the gawking spectators. "They know." He moved to the side so that he could whisper in her ear. "They know what you are...they know what you did..."

Buffy shut her eyes tightly and shook her head repeatedly, clutching her book bag against her chest. "You're not real, you're not real," she told herself several times before opening her eyes once again.

Pete was still there. He smiled and said, "Thaaaat's riiiight. I'm here to stay."

Buffy looked at him with fear and disbelief. Then she backed her way to the front entrance. When she got to the door, she ran through it and dashed down the steps.

As Pete smiled wickedly, the onlookers merely shook their heads, wondering what was up with the crazy chick.

Later that night, Faith finally left her motel room to go over to Buffy's house. As she walked, she limped noticeably and often cradled her arm against her side. Despite Giles's order to skip patrol, she made a sweep through several cemeteries in an effort to postpone the inevitable, but without even a fledgling vamp to distract her, she eventually had to make her way over to Revello Drive. She stood on the sidewalk looking up at the Summers home. She saw that the lights in the living room were on and that someone was watching TV. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly.

Okay, make it quick, she told herself. Keep it light, see how she's doing, then get the hell outta there.

She took another deep breath and headed for the front door, still limping at bit and favoring her side. She knocked on the door. She heard someone turn the TV off and walk to the door. When it opened, a sad Buffy was standing inside the doorway.

"Hey," Faith said simply.

"Faith!" Buffy said, her expression brightening at the sight of the brunette. When Faith didn't echo Buffy's enthusiasm, Buffy's face fell. She looked away for a moment, then made herself speak. "Y-Y-You wanna come in?"

"Yeah, thanks," Faith said.

Faith forced herself not to show any sign of her injuries as she stepped inside the living room. Once Buffy had shut the door, Faith made no attempt to move further into the room; instead, she hovered only a few feet from the door.

At first, neither of them said anything. Finally, Buffy said, "'s it goin'?"

"Good," Faith replied. "Just...doin' the patrol thing." She shrugged and said, "Giles said I should stop by, so..."

"Oh," Buffy said in a hurt voice, dropping her gaze to her hands.

Faith mentally smacked herself. Stupid! She quickly went on, trying to gloss over her mistake. "So, um, how are know...feelin' and stuff?"

Buffy looked back and gave Faith a fake smile. "Good, I'm good." She dropped the smile and said, "Well, not so good really, but you?"

"Good, I'm good," Faith said, fidgeting a bit. "Five by five."

"Good. That's good," Buffy replied, fidgeting just as much. "'s patrol?"

"Good. In a way. It's kinda slow, actually. Tonight, anyway."

"Hey, don't complain," Buffy told her. "You'll jinx it and get an apocalypse for sure."

They shared a laugh but then immediately fell into silence. Their eyes darted nervously about the room, refusing to meet the other's gaze.

Ask her, ask her! Buffy's inner voice told her. Buffy frowned but then raised her head and looked at Faith. Just as she was about to speak, Faith beat her to it.

"Well, I'd better get back to it then," Faith announced. Then she turned around and headed for the door.

With a pained expression, Buffy watched her go. Then she called out, "Faith?"

Faith stopped in place, but she didn't turn around. Instead, she spoke over her shoulder. "Yeah?"

With tears welling in her eyes, Buffy said softly in a very choked voice, "I, um, I've missed you."

Faith closed her eyes and swallowed hard. When she opened her eyes again, she said lamely, "Yeah, um, thanks. Gotta go." Without another word, Faith opened the door and left the house, closing the door behind her.

The tears that had formed in Buffy's eyes slid over her lids and spilled down her cheeks. She covered her face with one hand, and after a moment, she pulled it away, wiping at her tears.

"Did you see that?" came Pete's voice as he appeared beside her. "Did you see how fast she wanted out of here? She couldn't stand to be near you. She was just...disgusted by you."

Buffy pulled away from Pete, shaking her head, not meeting his eyes. "No! That's not true."

"Giles had to make her come over here," he went on. "What does that tell you?" He moved closer. "It's bad enough that you're a disgrace to your calling, but then you went and kissed her," he said cruelly. "I'm surprised she didn't just puke right there on the spot!"

Buffy turned and faced Pete, pointing at him desperately. "No, no," she said in denial. "She kissed me back."

Pete just looked at her and shook his head as if breaking some bad news to her.

Buffy turned away and started to cry in earnest. "She kissed me back..." she said in an anguished voice, full of doubt, but wanting so desperately to believe.

Behind her, Pete merely smiled.

The next day, Buffy once again returned to school. She looked even worse than she had before. Her clothes were rumpled, and her hair was a bit flat. Her face was pale and haggard, with dark circles under her eyes. She looked like she was fighting a bad case of the flu and had just dragged herself out of bed to come to school.

More than a few students stared at her as she passed through the lobby. Some even seemed to be whispering about her, as if they had seen her actions the day before. Buffy did her best to ignore them and went on to her classes.

She went through the morning in a kind of distracted withdrawal, speaking to no one unless they spoke to her first, just trying her best to blend in and disappear. When she met Xander and Willow in the lunchroom, they tried to engage her in conversation but couldn't get more than a few words out of her. When lunch was over, Willow and Xander lingered with Buffy outside the cafeteria.

"Buffy, you gonna head to the land o' books with us?" Willow asked.

"Yeah, we can mess with Giles and un-alphabetize the encyclopedias," Xander added, waggling his eyebrows invitingly.

Buffy actually grinned. "Sure, I could use a little...Scott!" Buffy's grin faded to shock as Scott joined the group.

"Scott, hey!" Willow said in a nervous and high-pitched voice.

"Hey man," Xander added.

Scott nodded politely at Willow and Xander but then turned his attention to Buffy. "Can we talk?"

"Um, yeah, sure," Buffy replied, trying not to panic. She turned to Willow and Xander. "I'll see you guys at the library, okay?"

"Okay," Willow said. But she didn't leave until Xander pulled her away.

As her friends left, Buffy dropped her gaze to the floor. "Look, I'm sorry about the other day," she said. When she looked up, she saw Pete standing several feet away. She tried unsuccessfully to avoid being distracted by his presence. "I was just, um, shaken up, a-a-and I know I've been all avoid-y, and I know we need to talk about Homecoming..." She dropped her gaze once again, and there was no hint of enthusiasm in her voice as she continued. "...coordinate colors and all."

"Actually, we don't," Scott said.

Buffy's head shot up. "What?" she asked, confused.

"I lost my two best friends, and you've been avoiding me like I'm the one that did it or something!"

"No, that's not it at all," Buffy tried to explain. "I just--"

"I don't want to hear your excuses!" Scott said hotly. He took a calming breath and then added, "Just...consider yourself uninvited."

At that, Scott walked away, leaving a devastated Buffy behind. When Scott had gone, Pete moved in. He circled menacingly around the distraught slayer.

"One by one...they're all going to abandon you," he told her. "Because you're a freak! A pathetic...failed...freak!"

Buffy flinched at his every word. When she could take no more, she ran away with tears streaming down her face.

Minutes later, Buffy was crying hysterically in the library with Willow and Xander and Giles hovering worriedly nearby. The three couldn't get close to Buffy, however, because she was pacing frantically at the base of the stairs to the stacks. Unseen by the others, Pete stood just a few feet away from where Buffy was pacing.

"It's not fair," Buffy wailed. "All I wanted was a normal life. Is that too much to ask?"

"No, it isn't," Willow said gently.

"Can't have a normal relationship," Buffy went on. "Can't even have a normal date." She stopped pacing, and her face creased into a pleading expression. "Why can't I just go to a dance and for one measly night have everything be perfect? Why?"

"Because you're a failure," Pete stated. "A mistake. A Slayer that should never have been."

Buffy didn't look in Pete's direction, but she did drop her gaze. Xander took a step toward Buffy and started to speak but was cut off.

"Shut up," Buffy said to Pete, but without conviction.

"I haven't said anything yet," Xander pointed out, confused.

"That's why things have gone so badly for you," Pete said. "You and the calling were never meant to be."

"Buffy, things'll get better," Xander said. "You'll see."

"No," Buffy cried, shaking her head, not wanting to believe Pete's words.

"I mean, really," Pete continued. "Do you honestly think you belonged on the list of potential slayers?"

"Xander's correct," Giles told her. "I know that things seem rather bleak at the moment, but I promise won't always feel like this."

"You're a mistake," Pete repeated, his tone becoming harsh and cold. "One that needs to be erased before you kill someone else."

Buffy cringed in guilt.

"Buffy, please...let us help you through this." Giles reached out and put a comforting hand on Buffy's shoulder.

"NO!" Buffy screamed, wrenching away from Giles's grasp. She pushed past her friends, turned, and pointed an accusing finger at them. "You don't understand. None of you understand!" She dropped her hand and just stared at them. "There's nothing you can do...there's nothing anyone can do to make this better! My whole life is going to hurt and suck and end in disaster until I make it stop."

Without another word, Buffy turned and ran from the library. Willow, Xander, and Giles instantly took off after her. They chased her through the school hallways and out the front entrance, but once outside, she quickly outpaced them and left them wheezing and panting at the far edge of the campus.

"Giles! What are we gonna do?" Willow asked in a panic. "She's gonna hurt herself, I just know it!"

"You go to my office and find the locator spell," he told her. "You know the volume. Get as much set up as you can. I'll go to the magic shop and get the additional supplies we'll need." Giles turned to Xander. "You call Faith and get her here. If you can't get her on the phone, then drive to her place and get her."

"Faith?" Xander objected. "She's part of the reason Buffy's in this state."

"Yeah," Willow agreed.

"No, she's not," Giles said firmly. "It's the backlash that's causing all of this. It's taking every negative occurrence in Buffy's life, no matter how small, and blowing it completely out of proportion. The truth is...we need Faith's help. Now, hurry, both of you!"

At that, Willow and Xander ran back inside the school, while Giles headed for his car in the faculty parking lot.

A short time later, Buffy trudged her way up steep, narrow gravel road until she was at a precipice hanging over a rocky canyon far below. The sign nearby read "Kingman's Bluff."

Buffy wasn't crying anymore; instead, she just seemed dead inside. She walked numbly to the edge, a few feet from the brink of a very long drop, and stood there waiting.

Soon Pete walked up behind her. He leaned over and whispered into her ear, "There now...that wasn't so hard, was it?" He moved to stand beside her. "It's for the best really. With you gone, another slayer can be called. One that isn't broken." His voice turned mean. "One that doesn't kill the people she's supposed to be protecting!"

At the library, Willow and Giles were just completing the locator spell. They were standing over the table, watching as a glowing trail of magic indicated a particular spot on the map of Sunnydale.

"We've got it!" Willow cried. "Kingman's Bluff!"

Giles snatched up the radio sitting nearby. "Xander! Faith! It's Kingman's Bluff! That's where Buffy is!"

"That's just a few miles from where I am," Faith said over the radio. "I'm on my way!"

"It'll take me longer," Xander said from his car, "I'm on the other side of town."

"Meet us there," Giles said. "We're leaving now."

At Kingman's Bluff, Buffy was still standing on the edge. Tears were slowly rolling down her face.

"There's nothing for you here, nothing to hold you back," Pete told her. "No duty, no life, no love..."

Buffy put her hands to her face.

Faith had made her way to the gravel road leading up to Kingman's Bluff. She was desperately trying to run up the steep hill, but her injuries were slowing her down. She was limping badly and clutching her side, which was bleeding again.

"Buffy, please don't do it, don't do it," she panted as she ran. "Please don't..."

"Do it!!" Pete screamed.

Buffy dropped her hands. She was crying hard, but forced herself to get it under control. Once she had done so, she took a step forward, resigned to her fate.


Faith poured every ounce of her voice into that call as she tumbled onto the cliff-top, her injured knee finally giving out on her.

Buffy turned around and saw Faith getting back to her feet. But Buffy didn't move or speak.

Practically dragging her injured leg, Faith limped over. "Buffy, please...step back from the edge...let's talk, okay?"

"Don't listen to her!" Pete ordered.

Buffy lifted her eyes to Faith's. "There's nothing to talk about," she said flatly.

"Yes, there is," Faith insisted, moving closer. "We've got unfinished business, you and me."

"It's all finished, all over, everything," Buffy said in a voice devoid of hope.

"No, it's not," Faith countered, still several yards away. Buffy, however, was only a small leap away from the drop.

Buffy didn't answer. She simply turned back around and took one step closer to the edge. Now a mere lean in the right direction would take her over the side.

"No!" Faith called out desperately.

She rushed over as close as she dared, knowing that too much momentum could easily send Buffy or herself or both slipping over the edge. She fell to her knees and skidded the last few feet. Ignoring the searing pain in her knee and side, she reached out with her hand.

"Buffy, please!" Tears were rolling down Faith's face, and her voice caught in her throat as she begged, "Please don't leave me!"

Something about Faith's words--the way they echoed Buffy's earlier ones, the way they came in a voice choked with anguish--made Buffy turn around again. She stared at Faith for the longest time, a mixture of conflicting emotions passing over her face: despair, fear, sadness, anger, hope.

"Don't listen to her," Pete urged. "Just get it over with!"

As Faith held her breath, Buffy continued staring, hovering uncertainly between two decisions. Finally, though, she gave a huge sob and held out her hand toward Faith. She took two stumbling steps before collapsing to her knees. Faith scrambled the few remaining feet between them and pulled Buffy into her arms.

"Oh thank God!" Faith whispered, holding Buffy close and burying her face in the long blonde hair. "Thank God," she repeated.

Buffy didn't speak. She just clung desperately to Faith as the tears came.

Once they had both calmed a bit, Faith pulled away enough to touch Buffy's cheek and to look into her eyes. "I don't know what I would've done if..."

Faith trailed off, unable to complete the sentence. Buffy merely looked imploringly at her and remained silent. Finally, Faith abandoned words entirely and pulled Buffy's face to hers, kissing her warmly, thoroughly, and with all her heart.

When Buffy did the same, Pete's image simply faded away.

Part 7

As Buffy and Faith enjoyed their post-crisis kissage on Kingman's Bluff, two cars roared up the gravel road and into the clearing. Giles, Willow, and Xander piled out and rushed over. When they got to the edge, all three froze in place. They found the two slayers still making out, totally oblivious to their arrival.

Giles squinted and ripped off his glasses. "Good Lord!" he exclaimed.

Willow's eyes widened. She squeaked an "oh" and looked away, but only for a moment. Soon her eyes were drawn back.

"Holy moly macaroni," Xander said, dropping his car keys but never taking his eyes off what he was seeing. "Not the scene I expected to find. My mind went through many and varied scenarios, but I must say...that was not one of them." His lips began to inch up in an involuntary smile.

"I-I-Is this part of the backlash?" Willow asked. "Buffy losing her mind?"

"If so...what a wonderful mind-losing it is..." Xander said, pleasantly entranced. Willow smacked him.

"No, I, um, I don't believe so," Giles said rather prissily, shoving his glasses back on. "I think it's a matter of a whole lot more going on behind our backs than we were made aware of!"

"Darn tootin'," Willow said, equally miffed.

Xander merely snickered, still staring with delight.

Willow smacked him again. "Straighten up, or I'm telling Cordy!" she warned.

Xander cleared his throat and straightened up; then he looked down at his pants. He gave a sheepish giggle, then purposely slouched again. Despite his awkward stance, he managed to put on a stern expression for the kissing slayers.

Suddenly, Buffy and Faith froze, mid-kiss, realizing only just that second that they had an audience. They slowly turned to face the staring trio. They opened their mouths, but no words would come out.

"Faith, what is going on here?!" Giles demanded as he and the others moved closer.

"Uhhh...I saved Buffy," Faith offered awkwardly.

Willow crossed her arms tightly. "Oh, and I suppose that was mouth-to-mouth resuscitation you were giving her just now?!"

"If that was mouth-to-mouth," Xander interjected, "then I have sooo been doing it wrong."

"No, that was kissing," Faith shot back to Willow. "Maybe you should try it some time."

"I-I-I know about kissing!" Willow spluttered, outraged. "Oz and I kiss. Don't we, Xander?"

Xander shrugged apologetically and gave Willow a how-should-I-know look.

"Can we get off the topic of-of kissing, and focus on what's important?!" Giles interrupted. Then he turned to Buffy and asked, "Buffy, are you all right?"

Buffy gave him a solemn nod. "Yes, I'm okay now," she told him, making eye contact with the others as well. "I-I-I don't know how to explain it, but...I feel like myself again."

A sincere look of relief came over the watcher's face. "Good, that's very good. You seemed so...distraught earlier. I'm glad that the, um...mood has finally been broken."

Buffy turned and smiled at Faith. "Thanks to Faith."

Faith smiled back, and for a long moment, the two slayers were locked into each other. Buffy reached for Faith's hand, and Faith let her take it. They took no notice of the others growing increasingly uncomfortable around them.

"Yes, well, um, perhaps we should head back," Giles finally suggested.

"Good idea," Faith said in a tired voice. "I think I need to crash."

"Me too," Buffy agreed wearily.

As the two slayers got to their feet, Faith noticeably favored one leg, but when she tried to straighten up, she groaned in pain and reached for her side.

"Damn," she swore softly.

Buffy immediately went into alarm mode. "Faith, what's wrong?"

"It's nothing," Faith insisted, forcing herself to stand up straight.

It was then that Buffy, as well as the others, could clearly see a large patch of blood staining Faith's shirt along the lower edge of her rib cage.

"Oh my God, Faith, you're hurt!" Buffy exclaimed. "Why didn't you say something?"

Faith gave the blonde an incredulous look. "Like when?"

Buffy ignored Faith's sarcasm and pressed on worriedly. "When did this happen?"

"Night before last, on patrol," Faith answered with a shrug. "It's just a scratch. Messed it up running here, I guess. It's no big deal."

"Faith, you're a slayer!" Buffy said. "If it's still bleeding after two days, it's a big deal. You're going to the hospital." Without allowing time for an objection, Buffy turned to Xander and held out her hand. "Xander...keys!" she ordered in no-nonsense fashion.

Buffy's suddenly commanding tone made Xander instantly comply. He picked up his keys and tossed them over without question.

"Come on," Buffy told Faith, moving into place beside her to lend assistance.

"No. No doctor," Faith said, shaking her head. "I'll be fine. Slayer healing will take care of it."

As Buffy helped Faith walk to Xander's car, the others merely watched, a mixture of emotions on their faces. After the two slayers had gone a few steps, Buffy turned back to the group.

She gave them an apologetic look. "I'll catch you guys later, okay? We can talk then?"

The three gave Buffy a collective nod, not knowing what else to say. Buffy smiled in return and then went back to assisting Faith. Giles frowned a bit until he overheard the slayers as they walked away. Faith was objecting that she wasn't going to the ER, and Buffy of course was insisting the contrary. As the debate between the slayers continued, Giles couldn't help but smile.

A short time later, Willow and Xander were riding back from Kingman's Bluff with Giles. In the front passenger seat, Willow once again had her arms crossed tightly in front of her.

"I can't believe Buffy didn't tell me about her and Faith," Willow pouted. "I mean, this obviously didn't happen just this second. Something's been going on for a while, it had to, but she never said anything. I'm supposed to be her best friend. I'm supposed to know about these things."

"To be fair, she hasn't exactly been herself of late," Giles said. "Not since what happened with Pete." He gave Willow a reassuring smile. "I'm sure she would have told you...had she not been under such stress."

"Why are you worrying about this?" Xander said frantically. "What's past is past. Let's worry about something that really matters. Like my car. Buffy Summers is driving my car."

"You gave her the keys," Giles reminded him.

"Well, she got all commander-y," Xander said defensively. "What was I supposed to do?"

"Stop drooling?" Willow suggested.

Xander shot her a mini-glare.

The crowd at Sunnydale Hospital's emergency room had been surprisingly small, and Faith had been taken back and treated fairly quickly. Buffy had stayed at her side, but the two of them had kept their conversation light, unwilling to have any serious discussion amidst the hustle and bustle of the emergency room.

The doctor had first treated the wound on Faith's side, cleaning and stitching it. Then he had examined Faith's knee. After x-rays and a thorough series of manipulations, he judged it badly strained and bruised, but nothing more. He gave Faith a shot of antibiotics and a tetanus shot then gave her two bottles of pills. One contained a full series of antibiotics, and the other contained a few days' worth of heavy-duty painkillers. Despite her objections, the doctor made Faith take one of the pain pills right then and there.

Once she had done so, he finished up the paperwork and approved the slayer's release. Soon the two girls were on their way out of the hospital.

Within minutes, the two arrived at Faith's motel room. Buffy led Faith inside and helped her over to the rumpled bed. Faith shook her head groggily as she sat down.

"Man...I think that painkiller's kickin' in," Faith said with a slight slur in her voice.

"Good," Buffy said as she began rummaging through Faith's dresser for some fresh clothes. "Maybe it'll..." She turned back to the bed with a t-shirt in her hand and found Faith passed out on the bed. "...knock you out."

Buffy sighed and set the t-shirt aside. She walked over and knelt at Faith's feet. She took off the slayer's boots then gently shifted her legs until Faith was lying in the bed properly. After that, Buffy pulled the thin sheet over Faith's body. When Buffy picked up one of the pillows to place it beneath Faith's head, she found a photograph underneath.

It was the Polaroid of the two slayers dancing at the bar after they had defeated Kakistos. Buffy took one look at the image of herself with the drink umbrellas stuck in her hair and shot a mock glare at the sleeping Faith. Then she chuckled and set the photo aside.

After easing a pillow under Faith's head, Buffy took off her shoes and slipped into the bed on the other side. For the longest time, Buffy just stared, her eyes softening at the sight of the slayer.

God, she is so beautiful, Buffy thought as she pushed a strand of dark hair off Faith's forehead. She gave a small smile then shook her head in disbelief.

I can't believe this is happening. I can't believe I'm here, right now, with Faith. I was so sure that she just...hated me. But she doesn't. She likes me, she really likes me.

Buffy made a mental snort. Okay, stop channeling Sally Field and get real.

She sighed heavily and then continued. Does she like me? Really? She hasn't said. Well, technically I haven't said either, not to her anyway, but...she kissed me, Buffy offered with a hopeful tone. Soon her face creased into a smirk.

Boy, did she ever! Mmmmm, kissing Faith, definitely wanna do more o' that...put that one on the ol' to-do list...

Buffy immediately began fanning herself. Is it hot in here, or is it just me? What was I saying? Oh yeah. Faith. Does she like me?

With a kiss like that, I'd have to say that's a definite...She looked over at Faith, and worry crept into her eyes....maybe?

Buffy groaned in her mind. You're thinking about this too much! she chided herself. Just go to sleep. You can ask her when she wakes up.

At that, Buffy snuggled in close to Faith and rested her hand lightly on the slayer's stomach. Ahhh, much better...She closed her eyes, and it wasn't long before she too was sound asleep.

Several hours later, Faith woke up. She blinked her eyes in slow motion as if she were still somewhat groggy from the pain medication. After several seconds of blinking and a few deep breaths, the fog cleared, and Faith realized where she was: in her motel room, in her own bed, with Buffy curled up next to her.

Faith's gut immediately tightened into a knot as she instinctively reacted in typical morning-after fashion. It took her body a minute or so to catch up to what her brain was trying to tell her. Eventually, she relaxed and allowed herself to enjoy the feeling of Buffy's body next to hers. She leaned down and nuzzled into Buffy's blonde hair. Faith's moment of peace didn't last long; soon her inner voice began badgering her.

What are you doing? the voice asked. Not gettin' comfy, are ya? Cause we don't do all that lovey-dovey bullshit, remember?

Faith let out an annoyed grumble at her inner self.

Look, don't kid yourself, the voice told her. Relationships ain't our thing. You know that.

Faith's expression changed as mere annoyance became serious worry.

You've already gotten yourself in deeper than you should have, the voice went on.

Faith closed her eyes and frowned. "Shut up," she told herself, not realizing she had spoken out loud. Not until Buffy stirred awake beside her.

"Whaaat?" Buffy asked sleepily. "Was I snoring?"

"No," Faith replied quickly. "I was just...never mind."

Now fully awake, Buffy sat up and looked at Faith with concern. "Are you okay?"

"I was just about to ask you the same thing," Faith replied seriously as she also sat up in the bed.

"Hey, I'm not the one who was too 'bad ass' to go to the doctor when she got hurt," Buffy teased.

"No, you're the one who just tried to walk off a cliff, that's all," Faith teased back. Buffy's light expression fell away, and Faith instantly regretted her words. "Shit! I'm sorry...I didn't mean it like that...I was just..." Faith said, trying her best to salvage the conversation.

"No, no," Buffy corrected, nodding her head. "Valid point, I...I did try to do that."

Buffy's face creased into a frown as she remembered the day's earlier events. Faith frowned too as she watched Buffy stare at her hands in her lap, but she didn't speak; she just waited for Buffy to go on. After an eternity of silence, Buffy finally continued.

"I can't explain it," Buffy said softly. "I was just...going crazy, I guess, and I look at it now, and I can't believe that was me. It's like I was under some kind of spell, and then boom! I wasn't anymore." She looked up and met Faith's eyes.

Faith's thoughts went to the backlash curse, but she chose not to mention it. "And now?" she asked.

"I remember how I felt," Buffy replied. "I mean, all that's still there,'s not...I don't know." Buffy shook her head in confusion.

"What's still there?"

Buffy took a deep breath and returned her gaze to her hands. "Guilt over killing Pete, for not saving Debbie...what I did to Scott...feeling like I failed Giles, failed my calling..."

"None of that was your fault," Faith said, reaching out to place a comforting hand on Buffy's arm.

"I know," Buffy whispered, not lifting her eyes.

After another long moment of silence, Faith asked, "What else?"

Buffy gave a small shrug and said, "I guess there's some pain in there. It hurt so much when Scott broke up with me."

Faith froze then pulled her hand away. Buffy's head shot up, and she looked at Faith with panic in her eyes.

"Not because I--I mean, he's nice, but I didn't want to be with him. It was you I wanted, but when he--It was too much, I couldn't--Not after you'd just--"

Buffy's frantic babble was cut off when Faith gave her an earnest and passionate kiss. After it was over, Buffy sighed and reluctantly finished her last sentence.


Faith's eyes filled with guilt, and she looked away. Buffy dropped her gaze to her hands, and once again, the conversation stalled.

Eventually, Buffy looked up. Her eyes were slightly wet, and she had to clear her throat before speaking, but she made herself go on.

"The other night," she said quietly, "you kissed me like you wanted me too...and then you just left. Why?"

"Why I kissed you or why I left?"

"Both, but mainly why you left."

It took a long time for Faith to answer. "Why do you think?" she finally said with a rueful chuckle. "I was scared. Scared shitless."

"Of what?" Buffy asked. "W-W-Was it because we're both girls...?"

"Hell no," Faith said, smirking a bit. "I've made it with a girl before. More'n one, actually. But never one that I--"

Faith stopped, and Buffy looked at her expectantly. A flash of fear entered Faith's eyes, and she glanced away. When she looked back up, she forced herself to finish.

"--never one that I gave a damn about seein' again after."

At Faith's last line, the two slayers locked eyes for a long moment. Then Faith hung her head, directing her gaze at the bed.

"Hell, I'm probably not makin' any sense at all," Faith said.

"Yes. Yes, you are," Buffy assured her.

"Look, I'm sorry," Faith said, glancing up and taking Buffy's hand in hers. "I didn't mean to hurt you. That's what I was trying not to do. I knew if we got involved, I'd do what I always do--get some and get gone--and you'd get hurt, and I'd feel like shit, and--"

Buffy snatched her hand out of Faith's grasp. An angry expression was on her face. "Is that what you're gonna do? 'Get some and get gone?' Stay with me long enough to bed me and then leave?"

"No!" Faith insisted. "At least I don't think so, I'm not planning to, I don't want to--" Faith clenched her fists in her lap and growled in frustration. "Why is this so fuckin' hard??!!!"

Faith forced herself to take a couple of deep breaths. Then she lifted her head and looked at Buffy intently.

"Listen, B, what I'm trying to say is...for the first time in my life, I don't want to 'get gone'."

She paused and searched Buffy's eyes, but all she saw was a pair of stony walls. Faith shrugged and went on.

"I don't know what that means," she admitted. "All I know is..." She took Buffy's hand again. "...I don't want to be without you."

Buffy's walls slowly crumbled, and her expression softened as tears slipped over her lids. She gave a small laugh and wiped the tears away. Then, in a slightly choked voice, she said, "You know, coming from such a cynic, that was pretty damn beautiful..."

Faith's expression widened into a large smile. "Well, you'll notice I didn't deny still wanting the 'get some' part of the equation..."

"I did notice," Buffy said, laughing but also blushing a little. "And I'm very glad to hear it."

After exchanging playful grins, the two sobered, and Buffy went on. "Faith, I'm just as confused as you are. I don't know how it happened or how it happened so fast. All I know is...when I'm with you, it feels wonderful, and I haven't felt that way in a very long time. I want to see this through, wherever it goes."

Faith nodded in agreement. "Me too."

The two smiled lovingly for a moment then leaned in for a kiss. It was a sweet, slow kiss, full of warmth and gentleness, but it left them no less breathless when it was done.

"So...what are you gonna tell the others?" Faith asked.

Buffy groaned and plopped back against the pillow. "I have no idea. I mean, I'm having trouble explaining it to you. I don't know how I'll explain it to them." Buffy let out a long, deep sigh. "I should call them, though. Set up a time at least."

"Sounds good," Faith replied. "And while you're doing that, I'm gonna grab a shower." She lifted her shirt and sniffed. "I smell like antiseptic."

Faith threw the sheet off and swung her legs over the edge of the bed. When she stood up, a small grunt of pain escaped her lips. Buffy was instantly at her side.

"Are you okay? Do you want me to help you in the shower?" Buffy offered.

Faith's mouth quirked into a sexy grin. "Oh, I want you in the shower all right," she said, grasping Buffy by the hips and pulling her close. She kissed Buffy hungrily, passionately, and Buffy eagerly did the same. After planting a line of kisses along Buffy's neck, Faith breathed into Buffy's ear, earning a small shiver from the blonde slayer. "But...I'd rather be a 100% for that endeavor. Okay?"

Buffy couldn't form words at the moment, so she just nodded vigorously when Faith pulled away and looked at her.

The dark slayer grinned, pleased with the reaction she was getting from Buffy. "Be back soon," she promised.

"Okay," Buffy replied, but in a voice much higher pitched than normal. She was over-nodding again, too.

At that, Faith turned and headed for the bathroom. When Faith had gone in and shut the door, Buffy let out the breath she had been holding. Her face was flushed, and she began to fan herself.

"I think I need a shower, too," Buffy mumbled. "A cold one."

After a final fanning, Buffy headed for the phone to call Giles.

Part 8

As soon as Buffy hung up the phone from calling Giles, she immediately dialed her mother's gallery. She waited a few rings, and then her mother answered.

"Hi, Mom," Buffy said into the phone.

"Hey, Honey," Joyce answered cheerfully. Then a little worry crept into her voice. "Is everything all right?"

"Everything's fine, Mom," Buffy said. "I just wanted to check in with you, let you know I was okay..."

Just then, the bathroom door opened, and a barely-towel-clad Faith came walking out. Buffy's attention was instantly drawn toward the freshly-showered slayer.

"...I, um, I know you've been, ahem, worried about me, and I wanted you to know that..."

Faith released the towel from her body and tossed it over in the corner beside the small dresser. She pulled out a pair of underwear and started to put them on. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Buffy staring. Faith grinned mischievously and then quite intentionally turned in Buffy's direction, giving her a nearly-full frontal view as she finished pulling on her panties.

Buffy froze for a solid second, almost dropping the phone. Then she rapidly ducked her head so that her gaze was safely averted.

"...I'mfeelingmuchbetter," she said hurriedly to her mother. Then she gave a small, awkward laugh before continuing at a more normal pace. "Much much better. Yeah. Feeling pretty good. Right now. Uh-huh..."

Faith grinned and turned back around to complete the task of getting dressed.

A few seconds later, Buffy finished her call to her mother, making sure that she told her about the meeting with Giles that night. After saying good-bye, Buffy made a point to hang up the phone with a noticeable amount of noise; then she loudly cleared her throat. She waited a full second after that to finally peek up and look in Faith's direction. Finding her mostly dressed with only shirt, socks, and shoes to go, Buffy got up and walked over.

"'s your side?" Buffy asked.

Faith turned and examined the wound. "Not bad," she said. "I probably shouldn't have gotten the stitches wet, but hey...not like I'm gonna need 'em for long."

"Do you want another pain pill?" Buffy asked as she pointed out the medicine bottle on the dresser.

"No way," Faith answered as she slipped on her shirt. "That stuff knocked me out."

"No kidding," Buffy teased. "I turned my back for one second, and you were passed out. I had to tuck you in and everything."

"I guess we're even then," Faith teased back. "Miss I-Can't-Hold-My-Liquor."

"Funny you should bring that up," Buffy said pointedly as she stepped back to retrieve something from the night stand. When she turned around, she was holding up the Polaroid from the bar.

Faith tucked her hands in her back pockets and gave a laugh that was only slightly repentant. "Cute, huh?"

"Oh yeah. Love my new fashion accessories," Buffy added, calling attention to the drink umbrellas in her hair. "I suppose there's one for every drink I had?" she asked as she set the picture on the dresser.

Faith shrugged. "Well, not counting the shots..."

Buffy groaned and covered her face with her hands. "God, no wonder everything is a blur from that night."

"So you don't remember anything?"

"Bits and pieces...flashes..." Buffy said. "I kinda remember this one part, but I don't know if it was real or a dream."

"What was it like?"

Buffy's brow creased in thought. "We were sorta...dancing. Outside the bar, though. And you were holding me. Really close..."

Faith pulled Buffy into her arms. "Like this?" she asked, holding her hands firmly at the small of Buffy's back.

"Yeah, like that," Buffy answered slowly, a little huskiness entering her voice.

The two slayers stared at one another for a long time before Faith finally said, "And then what happened?"

"I-I-I don't know, I..." Buffy paused to think. "Sometimes I think we kissed, but...Did we?"

Faith's face spread into a broad grin as if she were going to tease Buffy by not answering, but then she said, "No, we didn't."

"Oh." Buffy seemed disappointed by that response.

"Don't get me wrong," Faith added. "I wanted to." She gave Buffy a full-dimpled smile and a wink. "I mean, who wouldn't?"

When she got a small smile in return, Faith leaned in for a kiss, but Buffy moved her head back and made eye contact instead. "So, why didn't you?" she prompted.

Faith froze for a moment, apparently stumped by the question. She pulled back a bit and looked away. "Uhhh...I don't know...I mean, I could have...but you were all...and I didn't want to--"

It was Faith's turn to have a babble cut off with an embrace as Buffy pulled her close and kissed her soundly.

"Thank you," Buffy said sincerely when they finally separated.

The two then exchanged warm glances, although it was clear from Faith's expression that she wasn't exactly sure what she was being thanked for.

" hungry?" Buffy asked, changing the subject.

Faith smirked widely but chose not to twist the innocent question into more. "Starved," she replied simply before nodding at the door.

About an hour later, Buffy and Faith were at the late-night diner where they had eaten the night of Kakistos. They had pretty much the same fare: cheeseburgers, fries, milk shakes, and more. When they had finished and paid the bill, they leaned back in their booth with satisfied expressions on their faces.

"Man, that was good," Faith said, patting her stomach. "Just what I needed."

"Me too," Buffy agreed. "Oh, don't forget these," she added, pulling a medicine bottle from her pocket. "ER doc said you should start these tonight."

"Oh yeah," Faith said, taking the bottle of antibiotics from Buffy's hand. "Thanks." She twisted off the cap, took out a pill, and washed it down with a big gulp from a mostly-melted chocolate shake. Then she tucked the bottle into her own pocket.

Buffy looked at her watch and then cast a nervous glance at Faith. "It's, um, it's almost time for the meeting. We should--I mean, I should, you know, get going, I guess..." Buffy eased out of the booth and stood up, and Faith did the same. "I mean, you can come...I-I-I wish you would come...but you're probably tired, and-and rest would be good for you right now, so I'd understand if you didn't want to come, but--"

Faith took Buffy's hand to stop her ramble. "I'll come," she said simply.

Buffy's face immediately brightened. "Thanks."

At that, the two left the diner, hand-in-hand.

A short time later, Buffy and Faith were outside Giles's apartment. Buffy hesitated in the alcove, eyeing the door with more than a little unease. When Faith stepped up beside her, Buffy gave an embarrassed laugh.

"Sorry, I-I-I'm a little nervous," Buffy said. "Stupid, huh?"

Faith stood in front of Buffy and put a hand on her arm. "Look, they're your friends, they love you. All they care about is making sure you're okay."

Just then, Xander dashed from the apartment. When Faith turned around, he blurted, "Where is she? Is she all right?" When Faith stepped aside to reveal Buffy, he grabbed the blonde's arms and asked frantically, "Is she still in one piece?"

Buffy rolled her eyes and pointed at the curb outside the complex. Xander rushed out of the alcove toward the street.

"Okay, so much for that theory," Faith quipped.

"Buffy!" Willow said excitedly when she saw her best friend through the doorway. When she stepped outside, she then realized Faith was also there. "A-A-And Faith," she added much less enthusiastically. She turned back to Buffy and smiled again, pulling her friend into a warm hug. "I've been so worried about you, all day." When she ended the hug, she put her arm around Buffy and guided her toward the open front door.

Faith's jaw clenched tightly, but she said nothing as she entered the apartment behind the two friends.

Once they were inside the apartment, Buffy left Willow to greet her watcher, who was standing beside his desk. Giles placed his hand on Buffy's shoulder and smiled at her, but Buffy wasn't satisfied with just that. She wrapped her arms around him, and though a little surprised at first, Giles happily returned the gesture.

Faith and Willow passed by them and each took a seat in the den: Willow in the middle of the sofa and Faith on the loveseat across. The two eyed each other suspiciously but didn't say a word.

"Are you all right?" Giles asked Buffy as they pulled out of their hug.

"I am," she said, nodding with confidence. "Really, I am."

"Glad to hear it," Xander said cheerfully as he shut the door and came over. As Buffy held out the keys, his expression grew serious. He took the keys, tucked them in his pocket, and then grasped both of Buffy shoulders. "Really, I am," he said, repeating her words with total sincerity. "You know that, right?"

Buffy put one of her hands over his and smiled. "I do."

After giving Buffy a big hug, Xander moved into the den and sat on the far side of Willow on couch. When Giles gestured Buffy toward the seating area, Willow expected Buffy to sit next to her, but instead, Buffy headed straight for the loveseat, where Faith sat sprawled with her arms draped across the back. Willow frowned a bit as Faith shifted over to make room for Buffy to sit next to her. Once Buffy was seated, Giles sat down next to Willow. Then all three looked in Buffy's direction and waited.

Before beginning, Buffy looked nervously at Faith. Faith gave her a reassuring smile and touched her back briefly. Buffy took a deep breath and turned back to face the others.

"First, I want to say thank-you for everything you did today. Faith told me how you all rallied to my rescue," Buffy said. "A-A-And I wanted to say thanks, too, for understanding when I just ran off at the bluff without explaining anything." Buffy reached out and touched Faith's leg and shot her a quick glance. "I-I-I was just worried about Faith, and I wanted to make sure she was okay."

"And how are you, Faith?" Giles asked. "What did the doctor say?"

"I'm good," Faith replied. "Got stitched up, got some meds, knee'll heal on its own. Like I said, it's no big deal."

Buffy rolled her eyes and shook her head at Faith's nonchalant attitude toward her injuries.

"Well, good. I'm happy to hear it," Giles said. "You should stay off patrol for another day or so at least, though," he pronounced. Then he added, "Both of you."

It was Faith's turn to roll her eyes, but she didn't object to her watcher's orders. And neither did Buffy.

Giles inched forward on the couch and said, "I, um, I wanted to talk to you, Buffy, a-a-about what happened today. I--"

"I know, I know," Buffy interrupted. "It's crazy. I was telling Faith earlier, I can't believe I did that. It's like I lost my mind or something." Then she promptly clarified, "I don't feel that way now. Crazy, I mean." She sighed and shrugged. "I can't explain it. I don't know why it happened."

"Well, that's what I--we--need to talk to you about," Giles went on. After a short pause, he said, "We know why this happened."

"What?" Buffy said with a confused look on her face. She glanced about the room, making eye contact with each one. "I-I-I don't understand."

"It's because of what happened with Pete," Willow explained. "When you...when you killed him, triggered something."

"A backlash effect," Xander added. "A kind of...guilt curse."

"Yes, it's-it's built into the slayer power itself, you see," Giles continued, "as a kind of, um, safeguard to prevent slayers from using their powers against humans."

"It's what made you crazy, not you," Faith said.

Buffy looked appalled at what they just told her. She got up from the loveseat and walked away. She kept her back to them for a long time before turning back around.

"You knew about this?" she said. "All of you? And you didn't tell me?"

"We wanted to tell you, we did, but we were afraid," Willow insisted. "Afraid that..." She stopped and looked at Giles imploringly.

"...afraid that if you knew about the curse, it would only increase your sense of guilt," he finished for Willow. "That you'd feel that you deserved the curse and whatever consequences it brought."

"We were trying to protect you, Buffy," Xander added. "Slayers who kill humans...well, they don't exactly have a good track record when it comes to beating the backlash. We didn't want to lose you."

Faith leaned forward and rested her arms on her knees. She wouldn't meet Buffy's gaze. "I was supposed to keep an eye on you, but--" Willow and Xander's loud scoffing stopped her. After a brief pause, she went on. "But then things got..." She stole a quick glance at Buffy. "...complicated." She shook her head and looked down at the floor. "And I thought I had screwed things up, so I figured you'd be better off if I left."

"And what a brilliant idea that was," Willow grumbled.

"No kidding," Xander said.

Faith pointed angrily at Willow and Xander. "Look, you weren't there, okay? You don't know what it was like!"

Xander shot a glare at the watcher at the other end of the sofa. "We weren't there because Giles wouldn't let us be there."

At that, everyone but Buffy started into a simultaneous argument.

"Another brilliant idea..." Willow said.

"I didn't let you go because..." Giles began.

Willow scoffed again. " Faith would be a good idea."

"Hey!" Faith objected.

"I wanted to go," Xander insisted, "but nooo..."

"...I didn't want to set off Buffy's--"

An ear-piercing whistle from Buffy stopped all four in mid-argument.

"Enough!" she shouted.

Then she glared at each one until they calmed down. When she was sure that they wouldn't pipe up again, she took a moment to calm herself and to gather her own thoughts. She let out a long exhale and then spoke.

"I think I understand why you did what you did. I know you were doing what you thought was right. But you can't keep information like that from me," she told them. "It's hard enough being the slayer when I know everything. So no more secrets, okay?"

Everyone nodded in acquiescence except for Willow. "We weren't the only ones keeping secrets," she pointed out.

Buffy sat down next to Faith again and hung her head. "I know." When she glanced back up, she kept her eyes fixed on Willow. "I would've told you, but...I didn't know what was going on myself." Buffy turned and gave Faith a rueful smile. "Still don't know exactly." Faith returned the smile, and Buffy turned back to the group. "But we're going to find out," she said. "Together."

There was a bit of a warning in that last word as Buffy spoke it. And for a very long series of moments, no one said anything. Then Xander grinned and broke the ice.

"Together," he said rather whimsically. "I like together. Especially the kind of together I saw earlier today. Will we get to see more of--Ooooommpphhh!" Xander cradled his arm against his side where Willow had once again elbowed him. "Jeez, I was just tryin' to lighten the mood."

After a few chuckles, the group sobered again, and Faith turned to Giles. " this backlash thing over now?"

Giles shrugged uncertainly. "I, um, I honestly have no idea. The records didn't indicate any kind of specific timeline. It's possible that the effects might last for weeks, perhaps even years. Buffy herself will probably be the best judge of that." He turned toward the blonde. "Buffy?"

"I definitely feel different now," she answered. "I told Faith I felt like I had been under a spell and that when we were on the bluff it seemed like the spell had been suddenly broken. I guess I was right." She dropped her gaze to her hands. "I mean, I still feel bad about what happened. I don't think I'll ever get that image out of my head." She frowned a bit and then added in relief, "But at least I don't have Pete screaming in my ear any more."

All four listeners blurted "What?" at exactly the same time.

"When things got really bad," Buffy said softly, "Pete was there. N-N-Not 'in my head' there, but 'out here' there. Kind of like a ghost or something." She paused a moment, her eyes filling with pain. "He was taunting me, reminding me of what I had done, blaming me." She hung her head once again. "He told me that I had failed my calling...that I was broken now...that the world would be better off without me."

Anguished expressions crept onto the faces of Buffy's friends as it finally became clear to them the degree of torment Buffy had truly been under the last several days. Faith reached out and took Buffy's hand in hers.

"Buffy, I'm so sorry..." Giles said.

Buffy forced her frown away and looked up, but there were tears in her eyes. She wiped them away and said, "But he's gone now. At least I think he is. I haven't seen him since..." She didn't finish that sentence; she just looked at Faith and smiled.

"If you see any sign of him," Giles commanded, "or experience any hint of what you felt before, you must tell us immediately. Understood?"

Buffy nodded in agreement.

"Good," Giles said. Now satisfied with her compliance, he moved on to a relevant side topic. "Have you, um, have you spoken with your mother yet?"

"I called her after I talked to you," Buffy replied. "Just to let her know I was okay." Alarm suddenly came over Buffy's face. "Does she know about all this too?"

"Yes, I'm afraid so," Giles answered. "Well, about the curse, yes. But not about what happened today, at the bluff."

Buffy let out a breath of relief. "Good. I don't think I'm ready to tell her that part yet. She's worried enough as it is. If I tell her any more, I'll be spending the rest of my senior year under house arrest."

Everyone laughed, and then Willow said, "No kidding. Remember when she grounded you when we were trying to stop the Harvest?"

"Do I ever," Buffy said. Then she sighed and said, "Oh, I'll explain it to her somehow. Without the scary details. And when enough time has passed, like twenty years or so, then I'll tell her what really happened."

"A-A-And what were you just saying earlier about no secrets?" Xander reminded her.

"That was just for us," Buffy said with a hint of a pouty whine. "Moms don't count."

As the meeting fell into pleasant small talk, Willow excused herself to go to the bathroom. When she came out, she found Buffy waiting in the hallway outside.

"Oh, sorry, were you waiting for the bathroom?" Willow asked.

"Um, no, actually I was waiting for you," Buffy replied. "I-I-I was hoping we could talk. You know...just you and me?"

"Okay," Willow said. "Y-Y-You wanna go outside?"

Buffy looked toward the den, turned back to Willow, and said, "Yeah. Maybe we should."

When the two friends had stepped outside into the alcove, they took a seat on the bench nearby and continued their conversation.

"I'm sorry I didn't tell you what was going on," Buffy said, reaching out to touch Willow on the arm. "Since Pete, I just--"

Willow took Buffy's hand in hers. "I get it, Buffy, I do," she said sympathetically. "I just wish I had known what you were going through. It must have been awful."

"It was," Buffy said, dropping her gaze to her hands. When she looked up, she said, "A-A-And the whole thing with Faith got mixed up in all that, so that's why I didn't say anything...I just couldn't."

" did this happen? This thing with Faith?" Willow asked in a whisper. "I mean, since I've known you, you've've never inclined?"

"Believe me, I know," Buffy agreed. "But there it is, and I guess I am, at least with Faith, anyway."

"But, but...Faith?" Willow asked skeptically.

"I know it seems weird, but there's something between us," Buffy said. "And it's...powerful."

"But...Faith?" Willow repeated, still incredulous about the whole matter. "She's about as trustworthy as Ethan Rayne in a chaos shop. She ran out on you, Buffy. When you needed her the most."

"No, honestly," Giles insisted.

Xander and Faith looked at Giles with doubt in their eyes.

"Unicorns are not a fable," the watcher repeated. "They really do exist."

"Unicorns?" Faith asked skeptically.

"I'll prove it," Giles said, rising to his feet. He turned to his bookshelf and began scanning the shelves. "I know there's a reference in the Compendium..."

Both Faith and Xander rolled their eyes and shook their heads. After a few seconds of waiting for Giles to find his reference, Faith glanced worriedly at the front door. Xander noticed, got up from his seat, and joined Faith on the loveseat.

"They're talkin' about you, you know," he said.

Faith dropped her gaze to her hands. "Yeah, I figured." Then she looked at Xander. "I'm surprised you're not out there, jumpin' on the ol' bash-Faith-bandwagon."

Xander shrugged. "Well, I can't say I haven't got reason to," he admitted. "Still more than miffed about the night you left Buffy."

Faith didn't reply. She just nodded ruefully.

"But...the fact of the matter saved Buffy." Xander looked at her intently. "We wouldn't have gotten there in time. And even if we had, I don't know if we could have stopped her. You did, and that's good enough for me."

Faith took that in. Then she grinned and said, "Plus you got to see two hot chicks with superpowers makin' out."

"That was a definite bonus, yes," Xander replied, grinning as well.

"Well, don't expect a repeat performance," Faith teased. "I don't usually work with an audience."

"Oh, just a glimpse every now and then shall be sufficient," Xander said. "I'm sure my vivid imagination will fill in the gaps."

"I'm sure," Faith quipped.

"I, um, I don't understand this," Giles said, having turned around to face Faith and Xander once again. "I was certain I had the proper volume..." Giles seemed quite put out.

Xander and Faith tried not to burst out laughing at the unhappy watcher.

"No, that wasn't her fault," Buffy insisted. "It was my fault. I made her run."

"Oh come on, Buffy! What could you have done to make her run away?" Willow scoffed. "I mean, really..."

"I kissed her."

Willow did a double-take. "W-W-Whaaat?"

"I kissed her." Buffy gave an embarrassed shrug. "I had a nightmare, and she was comforting me, a-a-and I kissed her."

Willow's mouth dropped open. It stayed there for a few seconds and then began to move. "I, uh, ee, oh, um..."

"I think I've rendered you speechless, Will," Buffy quipped. "Either that or you're picking a very strange moment to practice your vowel sounds."

Willow's brain was still struggling to process what Buffy had just told her. It simply did not compute. If anyone was the initiator in this affair, it had to be Faith. Didn't it? "W-W-Well, w-w-what happened?" she finally managed to ask.

"She kinda froze," Buffy answered, "with this look of shock on her face. I got worried. I thought I had totally screwed up. But then...she kissed me back." Buffy's eyes lit up, and her lips skewed into a smirk. "And I mean," she added, emphasizing each word.

"I-I-It was good?" Willow asked nervously but with more than a little curiosity.

"Ohhh yeahhhh!" Buffy confirmed.

"So, how did you get from you thinking 'oh yeah!' to her going 'I'm outta here!'?"

"She just freaked," Buffy said. "She shoved us apart, backed away from me toward the door, and just ran. Of course, the state I was in, her leaving was world was coming to an end." Buffy's expression became pained. "And the things Pete said to me..."

Willow gave Buffy's hand a squeeze. "But she still ran," she pointed out. "Doesn't that bother you?"

"Maybe a little, but she explained why she freaked, and I understand where she was coming from."

Willow didn't look convinced, but she chose not to press the matter further.

Just then, Faith came out of the apartment. She approached cautiously and said, "Hey, you ready to go? You said you wanted me to walk you home."

"Yeah, um, sure," Buffy said. "Let me say bye to Xander and Giles, and I'll be right out."

At that, Buffy went inside, leaving Faith and Willow alone. The two made darting glances at one another but didn't speak. At least not until Willow began eyeing Faith with suspicion once again.

"You got something to say, Red?" Faith finally asked, turning to face Willow.

"I sure do," Willow said, turning to confront Faith. "If you hurt her, I will beat you to death with a shovel. Got it?"

Faith's eyes widened, and her mouth opened slightly. She couldn't believe the mousy redhead was actually threatening her. She was even more surprised when Willow didn't back down. Instead, Willow gave Faith one final glare and stomped inside.

"Damn," Faith said, impressed.

Within seconds, Buffy came back outside, having made all of her good-byes to the other Scoobies. Then they two of them headed down the steps from Giles's apartment.

"So...that went pretty well," Faith commented as they reached the sidewalk at the curb and started toward Buffy's house.

"Yes, it did," Buffy said with a smile. Then she sighed and added, "Only one more hurdle to go."

"Mom?" Faith inquired.


"Piece o' cake," Faith said as she wrapped her arm around Buffy's shoulders.

"That's easy for you to say," Buffy replied.

"It is, isn't it?" Faith shot a smirk in Buffy's direction.

Buffy rolled her eyes, but then she quickly put her own arm around Faith's waist, and the two slayers walked down the street together.

Part 9

After leaving Giles and the others, Buffy and Faith headed toward Revello Drive. Holding hands, they walked very slowly, intentionally prolonging their time together. They didn't speak of the day's events; instead, they made light banter and simply enjoyed each other's company.

When they reached the Summers home, they stopped on the sidewalk out front, reluctantly releasing each other's hands. Faith tucked her hands into the back pockets of her pants and struck a laid-back pose. Buffy fidgeted and swung her arms a few times before finally hitching her thumb over her shoulder.

"Well, this is it," she said. "My house. Where I live."

"Yeah, it sure is," Faith said, going along with Buffy's statement of the obvious.

Buffy twisted her hands nervously. "I'd, um, I'd invite you in, but I kinda need to have that 'Mom talk' I mentioned."

Faith shrugged nonchalantly. "No big. I get it."

"Good," Buffy said, letting out a relieved breath. "I didn't want you to think I was blowing you off or anything. 'Cause I'm's just...Mom doesn't know what's happened...with the curse o-o-or with us and...I need time to explain it all."

"Like I said, I get it."

"Thanks," Buffy said as she gave Faith's arm a grateful squeeze. Then she looked down at her hands. "To be honest, I wish I could just skip the 'Mom talk' and go directly to the 'snuggle with Faith' part."

Faith's lips curved into a smirk. "Is that right?" she asked before reaching out and pulling the blonde into her arms. They stood close, resting their hands at each other's hips.

After a shy pause, Buffy said with confidence, "Absolutely." Then she leaned in for a kiss.

It started slowly, warmly, sensuously, but soon it became something more-- something powerful and passionate, something that wouldn't stand for still hands. When the two slayers separated moments later, both were breathing heavily.

Buffy managed a chuckle and said, "You are really good at that."

Faith flashed her a full-dimpled grin. "I got the maaaad skiiiiiillls." Then she gave Buffy a nod of approval. "You're pretty good yourself."

Buffy blushed and ducked her head. "Really?"

"Hell yeah!" Faith confirmed without hesitation, earning her a smile from Buffy.

After a long gaze between them, Buffy eventually pulled away. "I'd better get inside," she said, taking a backward step toward her house. "See you tomorrow?"

"Sure. I'll stop by the school."

"Okay. I'll see you then. Have a good night."

"You too."

They both hesitated, not really parting, until Buffy finally turned and walked to the front door. After unlocking her door, she looked back and saw Faith waiting. The two exchanged quick waves, and then Buffy went inside.

Once she had locked the front door, Buffy went upstairs to find her mother. When she got to the top of the stairs, her mother's bedroom door opened, and Joyce stepped into the hall.

"Buffy, thank goodness," Joyce said. "I was just about to call Rupert and tell him to send you home."

Buffy made a pouty frown. "Mommmm..."

"No, I don't like the way he monopolizes your time," she stated firmly. "It's slayer this and slayer that. You need time to rest." She reached out and caressed her daughter's hair. "Especially after what you've been through."

Buffy smiled, and the two moved into a long, warm hug. When they pulled away, Buffy looked her mother in the eyes.

"I know you've been really worried about me," she assured her, "but I'm okay now. That backlash thingee I was under...I think it's broken."

Joyce's expression became worried. "You know about the curse? But Rupert said that--"

"I know," Buffy explained. "He was just trying to protect me. But I kinda had a breakthrough today, and after that, he figured it was okay to tell me. That's what we were talking about tonight, actually."

"A breakthrough? I don't understand."

"I got really upset at school, a-a-and I kinda freaked and ran," Buffy said. When she saw the alarmed look on her mother's face, she quickly continued. "But Faith found me and talked to me, and after that, I just...felt 'right' again."

Joyce folded her arms tightly. "Faith?" she asked, her voice dripping with skeptical sarcasm.

Buffy sighed. "You sound like Willow."

"Do you blame me?" Joyce countered. "She was supposed to be watching over you, and she left."

"I know," Buffy admitted. "But that wasn't her fault." Joyce merely rolled her eyes in disbelief. "Please...just trust me on this, okay?"

Joyce didn't look the least bit convinced. "So she just 'talked' to you, and suddenly you were all better?"

"Well, not 'suddenly'," Buffy pointed out. "Not instant-like or anything. It took some...very special..." She paused to consider how to word the next part. "...persuading," she finally said. "Eventually, though, it sank in, and I got it, and I felt like a burden had been lifted off my shoulders." Buffy shrugged. "I can't explain it. I think it must be some kind of 'slayer bond.' All I can say is...Faith reached me when no one else could."

Joyce still seemed doubtful, but her eyes softened a bit. " really think it's's broken?"

"Yes, I do," Buffy told her.

Joyce pulled her daughter into another hug and kissed her on the top of her head as she tightly held her. "I was so worried," she said, "and I felt so helpless."

"I think we all did--me included," Buffy answered. "But I guess it just had to run its course. Like a fever or something."

When mother and daughter moved out of their hug, Buffy took a step toward the bathroom. "It's been a long day," she said. "I'm just gonna grab a shower and hit the sack."

"Sleep well, honey," Joyce said. "And sweet dreams."

Buffy gave a rueful laugh. "Let's hope so."

At that, Joyce returned to her bedroom, and Buffy headed for the bathroom.

A short time later, after she had finished her shower, Buffy returned to her room and got dressed for bed. When she turned away from her dresser, she suddenly heard a tapping at the window. Tugging down on the hem of her nightshirt, she cautiously approached. When she peeked around the curtain, she saw Faith on the other side of the pane, kneeling on the roof of the house. Buffy's eyes lit up in surprise, and she instantly opened the window.

"Faith!" she chided. "How did you get up here?"

"I'm a slayer, remember?" Faith quipped as she crawled inside the window.

"A slayer with a strained knee! Not to mention thirty-something stitches in her side," Buffy scolded. "You're supposed to be taking it easy, not scaling houses in the middle of the night."

Faith shot her an unrepentant smirk. "In case you hadn't noticed, I don't always do what I'm supposed to."

"Yeah, I had noticed that," Buffy replied as she closed the window.

"Admit it," Faith teased. "You're glad I'm here."

Buffy couldn't contain her smile. "I am," she said. Then she glanced worriedly at her bedroom door. "But what if my mom finds you in here?"

Faith gave a big shrug. "We'll just tell her it's another 'slayer sleepover'."

Buffy rolled her eyes, walked to the bedroom door, and locked it.

"What?" Faith asked with a grin. "She didn't have a problem with it the last time I was here."

Buffy let out a deep sigh as she walked back to Faith. "That was before."

Faith lost the grin. "Before I ran out on you, you mean," she stated evenly.

"Well, yeah," Buffy confirmed, "but I was thinking more like...before she knew we were seeing each other."

"So you told her?"

Buffy shook her head. "No, not yet." She let out another sigh. "I'm still working on the 'I'm really okay now' part and the 'Stop blaming Faith' part."

"Oh." Faith dropped her gaze to her hands. "She's pretty mad, huh?"

"Yeah," Buffy answered with a nod. "But...she's getting there. It's just gonna take a little time." Buffy reached out and put her hand on Faith's arm. "I didn't tell her about us because I think she's got all she can handle right now. I'll give her a day or two to let all that other stuff sink in, and then I'll break the news."

"How do you think she'll take it?" Faith asked, finally looking up.

"Don't have a clue," Buffy confessed. Then she put on a smile. "But you last significant other turned out to be a hundreds-year-old homicidal vampire, so..."

Faith laughed. "True. Guess I gotta like my odds against that."

Buffy walked over to the bed and turned back the covers. " gonna join me for our 'sleepover'?"

"Only if you promise not to braid my hair or give me a magazine makeover," Faith said.

"Don't worry," Buffy chuckled. "I think you're safe."

As Faith started pulling off her boots, Buffy went back to her dresser and got out the same big t-shirt that Faith had worn the last time she had stayed with Buffy. She walked over to Faith and handed it over.

"I hope you washed it," Faith teased. "All that drool last time..."

Buffy swatted Faith's arm. "Hey, you're lucky I don't make you sleep naked."

"Oh, you wish!" Faith needled.

Buffy blushed furiously, cleared her throat, and blurted, "Never mind." Then she scurried back to her nightstand to switch on the bedside lamp. After that, she turned off the overhead light and returned to the bed--all without glancing in Faith's direction.

Faith snickered to herself, set aside the borrowed t-shirt, then started to pull her own shirt off. When a sharp sting shot through her side, she hissed in pain, which caused Buffy to rush over.

"See?" Buffy chided. "You hurt yourself getting up here, didn't you?"

Faith scoffed and shook her head as she tossed her shirt to the floor. "It just hurts when I move certain ways sometimes." She leaned aside to allow Buffy to see the stitched area. "I'm fine," she insisted. She felt Buffy reach out and gently place her hand on the wound. She expected it to hurt, but she found the touch to be surprisingly warm and soothing.

Buffy frowned and looked at Faith. "I'm sorry," she told her. "I should've been with you. You wouldn't have gotten hurt if--"

"Stop," Faith said, turning to take Buffy's hands in hers. "No more o' that, okay? The guilt trip ends here."

Buffy just stood there blinking for a long moment before finally nodding. "Okay," she whispered.

Faith released Buffy's hands. While Buffy returned to the bed, Faith finished undressing. After she had put on the borrowed t-shirt, Faith joined Buffy in bed. Buffy leaned over to switch off the lamp; then she turned back over to lie facing Faith. With the faint light from outside, the two could still clearly see each other. They were close, within touching distance, but not snuggling. It was a long time before one of them finally spoke.

"What a day, huh?" Buffy commented.

"Uh, yeah," Faith deadpanned.

"Went from being the worst day of my life--almost the last day of my life, in fact--to being one of the best days."

"One of the best, huh?" Faith asked. "Hmmm...emergency room fun, group intervention with Giles and friends, and mega-talk with mom...yeah, that's my idea of a good day."

Buffy refused to be swayed by Faith's sarcasm and continued insistently. "Know why it was one of the best?"

Faith just looked at her without answering.

"Cause I was with you," Buffy said sincerely.

Faith felt a slight blush creep into her cheeks, and she looked away. When she glanced back up, Buffy gave her a warm but very sweet kiss. When they pulled apart, Faith cleared her throat and changed the subject.

"Hey...did you know that Giles believes in unicorns?"

"What?" Buffy replied incredulously.

"Yep. When you and Willow went outside to talk, he tried to convince me and Xander that unicorns were real."

"No way!"

"He even tried to look it up in his books to prove it," Faith said. "Couldn't find it, though."

Buffy grinned mischievously. "Oh, I am soooo gonna tease him about that."

"You should get him a unicorn paperweight or something," Faith suggested.

"I should," Buffy replied, pleased with that idea.

An awkward silence entered the conversation. But Faith soon broke it. "So...ummm...what did you and Willow talk about?" She hoped her question had sounded nonchalant.

Buffy's teasing grin told her it hadn't. "What do you think we talked about?" Buffy countered.

"I'm guessing me."

"And me," Buffy answered with a nod. "You me and me me. The whole 'us' thing. You it happened, why I didn't say anything, and did I really know what I was getting into."

Faith didn't reply. She just listened.

Buffy laughed as she recalled the earlier discussion. "She totally freaked when I told her that I kissed you first."

Faith grinned at that. "Yeah?"

"Totally," Buffy confirmed. "It reduced her to vowel sounds." Then she paused to think about the matter more deeply. "I don't think she expected that."

"I sure as hell didn't," Faith interjected. When she realized how her words might have sounded, she instantly began correcting herself. "I mean, I knew that something was happening. I felt it."

"I did too," Buffy added.

"But you were--And I was--" Faith stopped and let out a long breath and then started over. "When you went to kiss me, my brain kept screamin' at me to stop you, to not let you do it, but the truth is...I didn't want to stop you. I didn't want to stop myself either."

"But you did," Buffy said softly, with a little hurt in her voice. "You stopped it." You definitely stopped it, she thought sadly to herself.

"Yeah...too late, though. Then I just fuckin' panicked. Jesus..." Feeling guilty and embarrassed, Faith ran her hand through her hair and looked away. "I made everything worse. Willow and Xander...they should be mad at me."

"They're not mad..." Buffy said, trying to be consoling. When Faith pinned her with a stare, Buffy added, "...much."

Faith scoffed loudly. "Maybe not Xander," she said, "but Willow? She threatened to beat me to death with a shovel if I hurt you."

Buffy's eyes widened in total surprise.

"And she wasn't kidding either," Faith went on. "Red's got guts, I give her that."

"She's just being protective," Buffy said, once she had gotten over her shock. "You friend duties and all."

Faith didn't reply. She just nodded, not really very comforted by Buffy's explanation. Buffy tried again.

"She's just worried."

Faith looked away. "About what?"

Buffy hesitated at first. She didn't want to say anything to hurt Faith, but at the same time, she wanted to be honest about Willow's fears--and her own.

"I think she's afraid that..." Buffy lowered her gaze. "...that you're gonna run out on me." She looked back up and searched Faith's eyes. Are you? she asked Faith silently in her mind as she held her breath and waited.

Faith felt her stomach twist into a knot under Buffy's stare. She felt her internal voice begin to nag her. Don't make promises you can't keep, it told her. You know how you are. You don't know where this is going.

Faith took a deep breath and looked into Buffy's eyes. The more she stared, the more she felt her inner voice fade away. "I'm not going anywhere," she told Buffy before moving over to give Buffy an earnest kiss.

After the brief kiss, Buffy let out the breath she had been holding, and it very nearly came out as a sob. She wrapped her arms around Faith and pulled her close. Faith returned the embrace, and the two of them lay warmly entwined until exhausted sleep finally overtook them.

The next morning when Buffy woke up, she found herself being spooned by Faith. The dark slayer was snuggled against her back and had her arm draped over Buffy's side.

Buffy smiled and sighed, basking in the sense of safety and contentment she felt at being wrapped in Faith's embrace. She liked this feeling; she liked it a lot. Plus, for the first time in several days, she had slept the whole night through without a single nightmare. And that was definitely a good thing.

Buffy smiled again and then very carefully turned over. Despite Buffy's repositioning, Faith remained asleep. Buffy reached out and gently moved a strand of dark hair aside so that she could see Faith's face more clearly. She studied her features as if awestruck, as if she were seeing them for the first time, as if she wanted to memorize every part of them: the long dark lashes of her eyes, the slight hint of a cleft in her chin, the full red lips. Just as Buffy felt a lump form in her throat, her reverie was interrupted by a voice.

"Take a picture," Faith mumbled with her eyes still closed. "It'll last longer." Then she opened her eyes and grinned.

Buffy grinned back and said, "If I had a camera handy, I would. I'll have to settle for a mental snapshot."

Faith ran her hand through her bed-head hair. "Gettin' me back for that bar picture, huh?"

"No, I'm reserving that revenge for a later date," Buffy promised. Then she added, "This is just me liking what I see. Ha! And I even rhymed when I said it."

Faith snorted and rolled her eyes. "You're goofy in the mornings."

"At least I'm not grumpy," Buffy countered, giving Faith a nudge.

"Who you callin' grumpy?" Faith threatened. "I'll show you grumpy."

Faith began to tickle Buffy, making her squeal and laugh. Buffy fought off the attacking hands and managed to throw back the covers and jump out of bed. Faith quickly crawled across the mattress and grabbed the blonde before she could fully escape, and the two of them ended up in a tangle on the floor. Faith got in a few extra tickles before finally straddling one of Buffy's legs and pinning her arms above her head.

Buffy giggled once or twice more, then found herself mesmerized by the look that Faith was giving her. It was a smoldering stare that made Buffy flush with excitement. Her heart began to race, and her breathing became rapid and shallow.

Without releasing Buffy from her stare, Faith slowly slid her body down Buffy's and then just as slowly slid it back up again. She held her face directly over Buffy's and said, "Still think I'm grumpy?"

Buffy didn't answer. Instead, she wrested one of her arms free and yanked Faith down into a crushing kiss, which Faith eagerly returned. She released Buffy's other arm and pulled the blonde up to sit in her lap, wrapping her arms around the smaller slayer's body. They kissed again and again--deeply, urgently with their hands roaming, along arms and over shoulders and down t-shirt-clad backs, before sneaking under shirttails so that fingers could touch skin.

When they finally pulled apart to catch their breath, Faith whispered huskily, "I want to see you...touch you."

Buffy froze, and Faith instantly felt the tension in Buffy's body. Faith put a little more distance between them, but she kept her eyes on Buffy, trying to gauge her reaction. Faith waited a few moments, and when the heat between them didn't dissipate, she took off her own shirt and tossed it aside.

Buffy swallowed hard then shyly looked down at Faith's bare chest. Her heart rate immediately kicked up a notch. She was breathing hard when she looked back up and met Faith's eyes. She saw intense desire there, but no pressure, no judgment. Buffy gave Faith a small, vulnerable smile and then slowly pulled her own shirt off.

Faith returned the smile; then she dropped her gaze to Buffy's breasts. She stared at them appreciatively for quite a long time. To Buffy, it seemed like an eternity of staring, but she resisted the urge to cover up during Faith's scrutiny. Finally, Faith looked back up and gave Buffy a sexy smirk.

"This is me liking what I see," Faith said, her eyes sparkling.

Buffy laughed in relief, but only for a moment, before Faith planted a hungry kiss on Buffy's lips. They kissed passionately, over and over, letting their hands now run freely over each other's bare skin, their fingertips leaving trails of fire everywhere they went.

When Faith left Buffy's mouth, she took her kisses to Buffy's collarbone and then up the blonde's slender neck. Buffy gave a shiver and leaned her head back, sinking her hands into Faith's long hair.

"Oh God..." she moaned when Faith's hand touched her breast.

Faith softly caressed the breast several times, then gave it a squeeze as she lightly bit into Buffy's neck--not enough to cause pain or even to bruise the skin, but enough to render Buffy incapable of forming words. The blonde was able to make only a strangled groan as she pressed her hands against the back of Faith's head as an encouragement to her to continue exactly what she was doing.

"What the hell is going on here?!!!"

At the sound of Joyce's angry voice, Buffy and Faith instantly separated. The two slayers had been so caught up in each other that they had not heard Joyce knocking at the door and then opening it. When they saw Joyce scowling furiously at them, they immediately snatched up their shirts and put them back on.

They nervously shot guilty glances at one other and at Joyce until Buffy finally attempted to answer her mother's question. "Uhhh...I...we...uhhh..."

When Faith saw Buffy floundering, she tried to step in. "Yeah, we...ummm...we were just--"

"Wrestling!!!" Buffy suddenly blurted out, interrupting Faith. "A-A-As in the...Greek fashion," she went on awkwardly. "Hence the...mostly nakedness and the..." She growled in frustration and dropped the guise. "You're not buying any of this, are you?"

Joyce gave her daughter a harsh glare as an answer and then turned her attention to Faith. "How could you do this?!" she accused. "First you run out on her and then you try her?! What kind of a person are you?!!"

"Mom, no! It's not like that," Buffy insisted, getting to her feet.

Joyce ignored Buffy's pleas and stayed focused on Faith. "I want you out of my house. Right now!"

Faith didn't say a word. She just got up and walked over to where her pants were lying on the floor. She picked them up and started pulling them on.

"No, no," Buffy said to her mother before backing up to talk to Faith. "Please...don't go," she told her.

Faith glanced at Joyce then back to Buffy. "I think I better." When she saw the distraught look on Buffy's face, she added softly, "I'm not 'leaving.' I'm just leaving here. I'll catch you at school later, okay?"

Buffy still seemed unhappy, but she whispered "okay" back anyway.

Once Faith had fastened her pants, she grabbed her boots and other clothes and headed out the bedroom door. Buffy watched her go, but as soon as Faith was out of sight, Buffy turned on her mother.

"Why did you do that?!!" Buffy demanded.

"This is my house, young lady," Joyce shot back. "And I'll decide who stays in it and what's...what's..." She paused, trying to come up with the right words. "...done in it!" she finished.


"NO!!!" Joyce said sharply, cutting off Buffy's objection. "This is not open for debate!" She pointed toward Buffy's dresser. "Now get dressed and get to school," she ordered. "We'll talk about this when I get home from the gallery."

At that, Joyce stomped from the room and slammed the door, leaving a stunned Buffy behind.

Part 10

After parting ways with her furious mother, Buffy rushed to school. She hurried down the hallway toward the library. When she pushed open the double doors, she found Willow at one of the tables, dutifully studying before class.

"Oh, Willow, thank god you're here," Buffy said as she joined Willow at the table, dropping her bag on its wooden surface.

Willow looked up and saw a very upset Buffy in front of her. "What is it?" she asked worriedly. "What's wrong?"

"Something happened," Buffy replied. "With me and Faith."

"I knew this was gonna happen! I knew we couldn't trust her!" Willow exclaimed angrily. "What did she do?!" she demanded, leaning aggressively forward on the table.

Despite her distress, Buffy's lips curled into an amused grin. "Hold on there, Will. Don't get out your shovel yet."

Willow sat back in her chair and crossed her arms. "No thank you," she said resolutely. "I think I better hang onto it." She quickly uncrossed her arms and leaned forward again, though this time with curiosity and concern. "Seriously, what happened?"

Buffy rested her arms on the table. "Well, after Faith walked me home, I went inside and talked to my mom. I told her that I was okay and that the curse seemed to be broken and that Faith had been an important part of that."

Willow lifted a skeptical brow at that.

"Yeah, she took it about as well as you did," Buffy said, giving Willow a look. Then she went on. "I didn't tell her about me and Faith yet. Figured I'd give her a couple of days before I dropped that bomb on her."

Willow nodded her head in approval.

"Anyway, after the talk, she went to bed, I took a shower and went back to my room. When I got inside, Faith was at the window. I let her inside, and...well...she spent the night with me."

Surprised, Willow lowered her tone. "You snuck her into your room, and she stayed the whole night?"

Buffy gave a small nod and then shrugged. "Neither one of us had really wanted to say goodnight earlier, and we had a lot to talk about." After a brief pause, she continued. "So anyway, we got dressed for bed and turned in. We talked for a while, and then we went to sleep."

Willow pinned Buffy with a glare of doubt.

"Yes, we really did go to sleep," she told Willow firmly. "But this morning when we woke up, we were kinda fooling around, and things got..." Buffy blushed deeply. ""

Willow swallowed noticeably. "H-H-How hot are we talking here?"

Buffy ducked her head for a moment and said, " hot that we were mostly clothes-less?"

Willow's eyes got really wide.

Then they heard a loud thud coming from the stacks above them. They turned in that direction.

"Giles?!" Willow called out in alarm.

A sheepish voice drifted from the stacks. "Sorry. Dropped a book. A very large book. Sorry to have startled you."

A look of outrage came over Buffy's face. "Were you eavesdropping?!"

Giles came to the railing above the girls. "Certainly not!"

Willow and Buffy gave him a look of disbelief.

"Not intentionally anyway," he corrected.

Willow and Buffy glared at him.

"It's not my fault that voices carry in here," he justified.

Willow and Buffy rolled their eyes and turned back to each other. Giles slipped back into the stacks. Willow and Buffy leaned closer and spoke in a slightly lower tone.

"So what happened? Did things get weird or something?" Willow asked. Anger flashed in the witch's eyes, and she leaned forward again. "Did she hurt you? Did she try to make you do something you didn't want to do?"

Appalled, Buffy said, "No! It was nothing like that." Then she smiled, a glow spreading over her face. "It was wonderful, actually." Her smile became a naughty grin as she added, "And good."

"So what went wrong?" Willow suddenly reached across the table and grabbed Buffy's hand. "She didn't go evil, did she?"

"No!" Buffy instantly denied. Then her tone became chiding. "Willow!"

Willow gave an embarrassed chuckle. "Sorry,'s" She cleared her throat and said, "You were saying?"

Buffy took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Mom found us."

Willow gasped, lifting her hand to cover her mouth.

"She came in my room, and she saw us," Buffy said ruefully. "In the flesh. Yep, doin' the flesh thing."

"Dear Lord!" came Giles's distressed voice from the stacks.

It was quickly followed by a small crash that sounded like an avalanche of books. Buffy looked up at the railing.

"Not to worry...I'm all right," they heard the watcher say.

Buffy sighed and ignored Giles. Willow stayed focused on Buffy.

"What happened? What did she do?"

"What do you think she did?" Buffy replied. "She completely freaked. I mean, she just got an eyeful of me and Faith rounding second base in the middle of my bedroom floor. She--"

"Oh. My. God."

Willow paid no mind to the interruption; she merely stared off with a puzzled expression on her face. Buffy, however, let her shoulders slump and then turned toward the shocked voice. She found Cordelia and Xander standing a few feet away. Cordelia tilted her head in Buffy's direction.

"Did I just hear that correctly?" Cordelia asked pointedly, her eyes shining.

"I sure hope so," Xander added, grinning unrepentantly.

Buffy dropped her head into her hands.

Willow seemed to be still picturing the bedroom scene. "You were on the floor?" she asked, confused. "Why were you on the floor?"

"Who was on the floor?" Oz asked as he joined the group at the table.

"Buffy and Faith," Cordelia immediately answered, savoring the juicy gossip. "They were totally indulging in some shared slayer lust when her mother came in and found them."

Oz thought about that a second, his expression never changing. "Oh. Okay."

Buffy groaned loudly and dropped her head to the table. Somebody shoot me, she thought to herself.

Cordelia turned to Buffy. "Are you two a couple?" She didn't wait for an answer; instead, she turned to the others. "When did this happen? Why am I just now hearing about it?"

"Sorry," Xander said. "I haven't had time to tell you."

"You knew about this?" she accused.

"Well, it only just happened yesterday," he explained.

"Yesterday?" Cordelia turned back to Buffy. "Boy, you two sure are workin' fast, aren't you?"

"Too fast," Willow added emphatically.

Buffy suddenly straightened up and smacked her palms on the table. "Okay, that's enough." She got to her feet. "I'm leaving now. You'll be able to hash out my utter humiliation much better if I'm not here."

Buffy grabbed her book bag and angrily walked off.

Willow stood up, concerned about her friend. "Buffy? We didn't mean to--"

Buffy didn't even look back. She just waved her hand in a save-it gesture and kept walking.

Just then, Faith came into the library. When she saw how upset Buffy was, she reached out and stopped her. "What's wrong?"

"You mean other than what happened with my mother this morning?!" Buffy shot back. "Ask them!" She pointed back at the Scoobies and then stomped out, leaving a confused Faith behind.

Faith hesitated, not sure whether to follow Buffy or not. As Giles made his way down from the stacks, Faith finally walked over to the Scoobies, who were sporting a mixture of expressions.

Giles seemed nervous. Willow looked guilty. Cordelia was in defensive denial. Oz was...well...Oz. Xander looked afraid.

"What the hell is going on?!" Faith demanded as she scanned the group.

Angry slayer, angry slayer! Must flee! Xander thought to himself. "Nothing!" he blurted when Faith's glare landed on him. His eyes darted around the room. "We were just..." He grabbed Cordelia's arm. "Leaving!"

"No, we weren't," Cordelia said. "I want to hear what--Oooohhh!"

Cordelia couldn't finish her statement because Xander dragged her away.

Oz looked at Willow, and Willow gave him a nod. At that, Oz left the library. Willow then turned to Faith. "Buffy was talking about what happened this morning."

"She told all of you?" Faith demanded.

Giles awkwardly dropped his gaze to the floor. "No, not exactly. She, um..."

"She told me," Willow said, shooting a glare at the librarian. "Giles eavesdropped."

"I did not eavesdrop," Giles said in useless denial. "I-I-I merely overheard. By accident."

Willow shook her head and went on. "The rest just blundered in on the whole thing."

"Oh," Faith said. After a brief pause, she asked, "So...Buffy...she's upset?"

"Well, yeah! Do you blame her?" Willow shot back, taking a step in Faith's direction. "For God's sake, Faith, what were you thinking?!"

Faith flinched under the sudden attack.

"Did you want her to get in trouble? Is that it?" Willow accused. "Or are you so gung-ho on earning another conquest that you don't even care what happens to Buffy?"

Faith's eyes blazed as she turned to confront Willow. "Another conquest? Is that what you think I'm doing with Buffy?"

Willow didn't back down. She crossed her arms tightly. "You tell me."

Faith didn't answer right away. She just fumed for a moment. "I don't have to tell you anything!" she finally spat back. "What happens with me and Buffy is between me and Buffy. Got it?"

"Fine!" Willow said before stomping off in a huff.

A few steps later, she realized she had left all of her books on the table. Refusing to be embarrassed about the mistake, she walked purposefully back to the table, slammed her open book shut, and scooped her things into her book bag. Once she had swung her pack onto her shoulder, she looked right at Faith.

"Fine!" she repeated and then stormed out of the room.

Once Willow had left, Giles and Faith were alone. Neither spoke for a long time. They just stood in awkward silence, lost in their own thoughts. Eventually, Giles turned his gaze to Faith. She glanced his way briefly then sighed and ran her hand through her hair.

"Looks like I messed things up again," she said wearily.

Giles looked on sympathetically and simply waited for her to go on.

"I think I left the door unlocked," she explained in a quiet voice.

"The bedroom door, you mean?" he asked.

"Yeah," Faith answered sadly. "When I got up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night." She shook her head disgustedly. "If I hadn't done that, then Buffy's mom wouldn't have been able to come inside and catch us."

"It was a simple accident, Faith," Giles told her. "Nothing more."

Faith wouldn't meet his eyes.

Giles tried again. "What happened between you and Buffy was something you both wanted, was it not?"

Faith looked up and nodded.

"Then you mustn't shoulder the whole burden yourself. Any blame to be assigned isn't yours alone. It's Buffy's as well."

Faith gave a rueful shrug. "Tell that to Buffy's mother."

Giles frowned a bit. "She, um, she didn't take it well, I presume?"

Faith scoffed loudly. "That's an understatement. She kicked me out of the house." She guiltily dropped her gaze. "Accused me of running out on Buffy then trying to seduce her." Faith raised her head and gave Giles a pleading look. "I swear that's not what I'm trying to do."

"I believe you, Faith," Giles said sincerely.

"I mean, the last thing I wanna do is hurt Buffy," Faith said. "But maybe being with her is hurting her more than not being with her." Faith looked away sadly. "Maybe she'd be better off without me."

Giles reached out and touched Faith's arm. "It's a bit early to make judgments like that, don't you think?"

Faith let herself feel his touch and concern for only a few seconds before she pulled out of his grasp and stepped away. "I mean, who am I kidding, Giles? I'm not relationship material. I've been fucked over so many times that I'm totally screwed up myself." She began pointing dramatically. "Willow knows it. Buffy's mom knows it. Hell, you probably know it too, you're just bein' all nice about it."

Giles smiled at her gently. "I assure you, I know nothing of the kind."

Faith refused to accept that. "What's the matter?" she challenged. "Didn't the Council give you a nice fat file with my name on it? Full of all kinds of juicy tidbits like 'lifetime of physical and emotional abuse' and 'prone to violent outbursts' and my personal favorite 'no chance of becoming a fully functional individual'?"

"Faith, I know your life's been difficult, but--" Giles began.

Faith scoffed softly. "Yeah. Right. 'Difficult'." Her pained expression quickly turned to one of anger and disgust with herself. "I mean, I don't know why I even care. She's not my mother." She crossed her arms tightly. "I don't owe her anything."

Giles sighed then softly said, "You care about what Joyce thinks because you care about Buffy."

The phone at the check-out desk began to ring, and Giles started moving in that direction. Faith followed along with him as they continued their conversation.

"Just remember that Mrs. Summers in shock right now," Giles told her. "Once she comes out of it, I'm sure she'll be much calmer and more understanding. You'll see."

When Giles got to the desk, he picked up the phone and answered it. "Library. This is Mr. Giles."

"Rupert," came Joyce's angry tone through the receiver.

Flustered surprise came over Giles's face. "Oh, Joyce, um, Mrs. Summers, I--"

"Do you know what I found Buffy doing this morning?!!!" Joyce's voice was so loud that Giles had to pull the phone away from his ear.

Faith's expression fell. "I'm outta here," she said before trudging away.

While helplessly watching Faith leave, Giles tried to form words to reply to Joyce's question but couldn't.

Joyce didn't wait for an answer anyway. "I need to see you immediately! I'm coming over there right now."

"Oh, um...why don't we meet at the coffee shop on the corner?" Giles managed to interject. "Neutral ground, as it were?"

"Fine," Joyce replied, clearly not happy. "I'll be there in ten minutes." Slam!

Giles grimaced at the sound. Then he sighed and put the receiver down.

Giles was already at the coffee shop when Joyce arrived. She was frowning as she walked over. Giles smiled at her, trying to smooth things over, but it didn't work. She just scowled back.

"Ah, Joyce...please sit down," he said. "It's, um, it's good to see you."

"Good?" she said sharply as she sat down. "There's nothing 'good' about any of this. I assume you know what happened."

Giles cleared his throat. "Well, um, yes. Buffy came in this morning and spoke with Willow about it, and I-I-I happened to overhear. She seemed quite upset about it."

"She's upset?!!" Joyce replied, incensed. "I just walked in on my seventeen-year-old daughter, half naked, in her room, making out with...with...Faith!"

A few nearby customers gave the two strange looks. Giles flashed them an embarrassed smile and then turned back to Joyce. When he opened his mouth to speak, Joyce interrupted.

"It was bad enough when I learned about her having sex with Angel, but this..."

Giles tried once again to interject but failed. Joyce was on a roll.

"I just don't get this...she's into girls now? I mean, where did this come from? She's been boy crazy since puberty for goodness' sake! Is she gay now?" Joyce leaned angrily across the table. "What has Faith done to my daughter?!!" she demanded.

As the other customers again looked at them strangely, Giles tried to calm Joyce down. He made a placating gesture and spoke slowly and gently. "I know you're upset, and you have every reason to be, but there are some things I need to tell you."

Although she was still far from calm, Joyce gave Giles a small nod, indicating that she was willing to listen.

"First of all," Giles told her, "you need to know that what is happening between Buffy and Faith is very real and it's entirely mutual. Faith is not in any way attempting to seduce your daughter. Her feelings are completely sincere, as are Buffy's feelings for her."

Joyce kept a stoic demeanor. "Go on."

"Secondly, you need to know that their relationship, as young and fragile as it might be, was critical in Buffy's breaking free of the backlash curse."

Joyce softened a bit at that. "Buffy said that Faith reached her when no one else could." She looked to Giles for confirmation.

"It's true," he said. "Buffy was extremely distraught right before the curse was broken. It was Faith who brought her back from the edge." He cleared his throat. "Metaphorically speaking, of course."

Joyce thought deeply about this, clearly not wanting to accept it. She finally sighed and slumped back in her chair. "I just don't understand how Buffy can be involved in this kind of relationship. I mean, my daughter, a lesbian?"

"Well, i-i-it's my opinion, actually, that Buffy may be bisexual, not lesbian," Giles explained. "In fact, Council records indicate that many slayers in the past have had partners from both sexes at one time or another. It's possible that bisexuality is more prevalent among slayers than the general female population. Or that the slayer power somehow brings forth the bisexuality inherent in the most people."

Joyce gave Giles a clear frown. "Was that supposed to make me feel better?"

"Uhhh, well, I, umm...I hoped it might."

"My little girl is sexually active, and she's not even out of high school yet," Joyce said. "I don't know how to feel good about that."

Giles reached out and put his hand over Joyce's. "She's growing up," he said softly, but in a tone designed to remind Joyce of the stated fact's inevitability. He gave her an encouraging smile. "But just remember this: No matter how grown up Buffy becomes, she will always need her mother. And right now, she needs her mother very much."

Joyce's eyes filled with tears as she considered his words.

After refusing to speak to her friends all morning, Buffy sat at a lunch table alone, staring at her tray and picking at her food. When she heard a shuffling of feet in front of her, she looked up and saw Willow and Xander standing there. Willow gave her a sheepish smile and shrug. Xander waved a small white flag made from a napkin and a straw.

"Truce?" Willow offered.

"Maybe," Buffy replied evenly.

Encouraged that the slayer had at least spoken to them, Willow and Xander eased into the empty chairs at Buffy's table.

"Look, Buffy, we're really sorry about this morning," Willow said.

"Yeah," Xander added. "You were trying to tell us something really important, and we--"

"Us? We?" Buffy asked pointedly, making Xander backtrack.

"Uhhh...I were trying to tell Willow something...something I had no business hearing, and which I have now completely erased from my memory!"

He flashed Buffy a smile, but she just scoffed and rolled her eyes. Erased from his memory...yeah right, Buffy thought to herself. More like permanently etched into his brain.

"I-I-I should've done something," Willow said. "Stopped everybody before it got too..." She struggled to think of an appropriate word. Failing, she simply said, "I'm sorry."

"It's not your fault, Will," Buffy said. "I should've known better than to discuss my private humiliations in gossip central."

"You know what we need," Xander interjected, a teasing expression on his face. He made them wait and then said, "A cone of silence." He ignored the twin eyebrow lifts and went on. "That way, any time two of us need to have a private conversation, we'll just activate the cone of silence."

"Yeah 'cause that worked so well for Maxwell Smart," Willow commented.

Buffy's mind instantly imagined herself and Willow in the library inside a transparent plastic device, yelling ineffectually at each other.

"My mom caught me half-naked with Faith!" Buffy screamed.

"What?!" Willow screamed back.

At a tapping, Willow turned to look outside the device where Xander yelled, "She said that her mom caught her half-naked with Faith!"

Willow mouthed "Oh" and turned back to supposedly-secure conversation.

Buffy shook her head and laughed, unable to prevent herself from chuckling at the scene transpiring in her head.

Xander and Willow laughed with her, grateful that they seemed to be getting past the kink in their friendship.

Buffy's light mood quickly vanished, though, and she dropped her gaze to the table, frowning in worry.

Willow reached out and touched her friend's arm. "It went bad this morning, didn't it?" she asked softly.

Buffy just nodded her head in reply. "Mom was...furious," she said. "I don't think I've ever seen her so mad."

"She's just in shock, Buf," Xander said. "She'll calm down. You'll see."

"I don't think so," Buffy said ruefully. "She went off on Faith pretty bad."

Good! Willow thought to herself. She deserves it! As Buffy prepared to go on, Willow took a deep breath and pushed her angry thoughts aside and tried to think of a more diplomatic way of expressing herself.

"She kicked Faith out of the house," Buffy said, "ordered me off to school, and said we'd talk when she got home from work."

"Your mom's just worried about you," Willow suggested. "She doesn't want to see you hurt. And Faith's already hurt you once. She just doesn't trust Faith." Willow glanced away while continuing. "She sees her as the potentially heart-breaking sl..." At a glare from Buffy, she corrected herself. "...uh...slayer that she i...may be."

Willow managed to look a little repentant under Buffy's stare, but then the witch's eyes grew serious.

"I'm worried too," she told her best friend. "After all you've been through...losing Angel, getting hit with that curse...if she hurts you, I'm just scared that--"

"That's not going to happen," Buffy said, cutting her off. She looked Willow in the eyes and did the same for Xander. "I believe that," she said resolutely, her gaze coming back to the redhead.

After a long, wordless stare, Xander finally broke the silence. "Well, I'm glad we got that settled, eh?" Willow and Buffy didn't reply, so he went on. "Now...let's talk about more interesting topics, like what we are going to do to make up for our little bout of insensitivity this morning." He gestured at himself and Willow.

"Right," Willow said, brightening somewhat. Buffy looked at her friends curiously.

"We're gonna give you and Faith the rest of the week off on patrolling," Xander said proudly.

"Yeah, all of us," Willow added. "Even Giles."

An amused grin spread over Buffy's face. "You're kidding."

Xander put on an offended expression. "Hey, we handled patrol just fine while you were gone. Didn't we, Will?"

"You bet your sweet bippy, we did!"

Buffy tried not to laugh too hard. "Okay then, apology accepted. I will leave patrol in your capable hands." She reached out and shook Willow's hand to seal the deal. When she took Xander's, she could stop herself from adding, "Nighthawk."

"And don't you forget it," he told her, shaking her hand firmly.

At that, the three friends fell easily back into their usual comfortable banter, putting their heavy thoughts aside, at least for a time.

When classes were over that afternoon, Buffy and Willow were walking out of school together. Buffy moved at a pace only slightly faster than a snail's, and she kept her eyes trained on the ground. She sighed heavily about every five feet.

Willow decided to broach the subject. "So...almost time for the big talk, huh?"

"Uhhnn," Buffy whined as she stopped in place. "Don't remind me."

"I-I-I'm sure it'll go fine," Willow stated, trying to be positive.

Buffy rolled her eyes and looked over at her friend. "As fine as my 'coming out as a slayer' went over with Mom?"

"That was different," Willow insisted. "Everything was kinda crazy then, and it all got thrown in her lap at once in some big shocking surprise, a-a-and I'm not helping, am I?" The witch frowned.

"It's okay," Buffy replied. "I appreciate the effort."

The two friends smiled at each other. Suddenly, Willow's expression hardened when she saw Faith approaching. Buffy noticed and turned around.

"I'll see you later, okay?" Willow told Buffy, causing the blonde to turn back to her. "Call me tonight and tell me how things went."

Without waiting for Faith to arrive, Willow turned and left. Buffy seemed torn about what to do, turning toward Faith and then back to Willow again. But Buffy didn't call out to the witch.


Buffy turned toward the greeting and found a somber Faith standing in front of her. "Hey," Buffy answered.

Faith nodded her head in Willow's direction. "I probably should have worn a jacket. Gettin' cold around here."

Buffy gave an explanatory shrug. "She's still a little mad about this morning, that's all. Speaking of which...I'm really sorry I bailed on you at the library. Me makin' with the angry stomp-off, it didn't have anything to do with you. I just had to get out of there."

Faith didn't seem worried about that. "Yeah, Giles filled me in after you and everybody else left." She paused before adding, "Then your mom called."

A mortified expression came over Buffy's face. "My mom called Giles?"

Faith winced and nodded. "She was kinda yellin'."

Buffy's whole body slumped in defeat as the dread of what awaited her just took over. Faith instantly pulled her girlfriend into a warm hug. Buffy exhaled deeply and just let herself sink into the embrace, not realizing how much she needed it until she was in it.

After a long moment, she whispered, "I wish you could come with me."

Faith chuckled. "Don't think that's such a good idea right now."


They pulled out of the hug and stepped apart.

"Can I call you? You know, after?" Buffy said, twisting her shirt tail nervously. "I, um, I have a feeling I'm going to need to talk."

Faith gave her a smile of affirmation. "I'll be at my place."

"I also have a feeling that I'm going to be grounded for the rest of my senior year, so you may get to be the Slayer of the Year after all."

Faith waved that notion away. "Ah, it won't come to that. Slayer stuff trumps everything, even moms."

Buffy let out a scoffing snort. "Oh I'm sure that little motto's gonna go over great with my mom. She'll probably cross-stitch it on a doily and keep it right by her bed. NOT!"

Faith saw a shadow pass over Buffy. She could see that the blonde looked quite frightened and very close to crying.

"What if..." Buffy began in a strained voice. "What if she tells me I can't see you anymore? I don't think I could--"

Faith covered Buffy's mouth with her hand to stop her impending emotional rant. Then she put her arms around Buffy once again and locked eyes with her, smiling as she did so.

"Not gonna happen," Faith told her. "I mean, she can't stop us. We can see each other as much as we want outside of her house. 'Sides, in a couple of months both of us will be eighteen anyway, right?"

Buffy nodded.

"See? Nothing to worry about."

At that, Faith linked her arm with Buffy's and began leading her down the sidewalk.

A short time later, Buffy trudged home to wait for her mother. When she found her mother's SUV already in the driveway, she groaned unhappily.

"Oh crap."

Resigned to her fate, Buffy went inside.

When Buffy shut the front door and stepped into the living room, she found her mother on the couch waiting for her.

"You're home early," Buffy noted.

"Yes, I wanted to be here when you got home from school," Joyce replied tersely.

Buffy entwined her fingers in an anxious gesture and said, "Time for the talk, huh?"

When Joyce nodded, Buffy slinked over to the other end of the couch and sat down. She cast only occasional glances at her mother, spending most of her time staring at her hands or the floor. It seemed like an eternity before Joyce finally began to speak.

"I want to say first of all that I don't like the idea that you are being sexually active at seventeen. I know that probably makes me sound like some kind of old-fashioned prude, but there it is." Joyce straightened her back and pulled her shoulders back as if to emphasize her statement. "I think you're too young."

Buffy remained silent, not wanting to interrupt her mother's speech. She glanced at her briefly then contritely looked away.

Joyce went on. "But I also realize that short of a slayer-proof jail cell, there's very little I can do to stop you. I had hoped that your unfortunate affair with Angel would have taught you not to jump into things so quickly, but I can see that hope was wasted."

Buffy hung her head even lower and didn't reply. A long time passed before Joyce went on. When she did, her voice was a bit softer.

"I talked to Mr. Giles this morning. He, um, he said that your feelings for Faith and Faith's feelings for you were very real and that those feelings were what helped pull you out of that backlash curse."

Buffy looked up in grateful surprise. "He said that?"

Joyce nodded then asked, "Is that true?"

"Yes," Buffy answered, tears forming in her eyes. "I don't know how or why, but it's true."

It was Joyce's turn to remain silent. She just looked at her daughter expectantly, waiting for her to go on.

"I-I-I know it seems weird that I've got feelings for another girl, but..." Buffy just shrugged, not knowing what else to say.

"And she feels the same way about you?" Joyce forced herself to ask.

Buffy looked her mother in the eyes and said with confidence, "Yes."

Joyce became quiet as if she were thinking very hard about something--and not necessarily liking what she was thinking about.

"I know you're worried that Faith might hurt me--that she's going to leave me or use me or run away," Buffy told her mother. "But that's not going to happen. You haven't gotten to see the Faith that I see when we're alone."

Joyce scoffed loudly. "Oh, I think I got a pretty good glimpse of that Faith this morning!"

Buffy turned red and dropped her head for a moment. "Not like that," she said, finally looking back up. "I mean her sensitive side. After the Pete thing, she took really good care of me. She did. She held me while I cried, she talked to me, she listened to me, she--"

"--ran away when you needed her," Joyce interjected.

Buffy sighed heavily then pressed on. "She ran away because we kissed," Buffy explained. "As in, for the first time."

A look of realization came over Joyce's face. "Oh."

"And for the record, I kissed her first," Buffy pointed out. "Still, Faith thought that she'd screwed up by letting us get involved when I was such a basket case, and basically, she just panicked and ran."

Joyce didn't seem impressed with Faith's reaction. She shot a skeptical look in Buffy's direction.

"I know, I know," Buffy admitted. "Not the smartest of choices. And I didn't take it well either. That curse had me so messed up that I just fell apart."

Buffy frowned for a moment, remembering. When she looked up, her expression was brighter. She began to speak strongly and passionately. Her mother watched and listened intently.

"But...she came back to me," Buffy said. "She reached out to me, with her whole heart, and I felt it, and that's when it stopped."

Joyce was confused. "When what stopped?"

"The curse. It ended right then and there. Because of Faith."

Her mother just stared, stuck somewhere between doubt and belief. Buffy's eyes began to fill with tears, and she went on in a very choked voice.

"When all I could think about was..." Buffy paused as if struggling to get out the next words. "...killing myself," she said finally, "just ending all the pain...she was there." A sob slipped out, and the tears started rolling down her face.

Joyce's eyes widened in alarm at what her daughter was confessing, but she was still frozen in her place on the couch.

Buffy met her mother's gaze. "She made me want to live again, Mom. She made me want to live..."

Joyce shook herself out of the shock she was in and rushed to the opposite end of the couch. "Oh Buffy..." she exclaimed as she pulled her daughter into a tight hug.

Buffy wrapped her arms around her mother and let the crying come. Her mother did the same, and for a long series of moments, that was all they did. Eventually, they pulled apart, though.

Buffy gave a rueful chuckle and wiped at her eyes. "God...I sound like some sappy romance novel, don't I?"

"Yeah, you do," Joyce said. "But I'm a sucker for sappy romance. You know that."

They shared a laugh, but once again, they went silent. After calming her breathing a bit, Buffy spoke up.

"I was going to tell you," she said. "About me and Faith, I mean. I just didn't want to dump everything on you all at once. The curse alone was enough."

Joyce nodded at that.

"I guess I didn't count on gettin' caught." Buffy tried another chuckle but quickly sobered when her mother didn't reciprocate. "I'm sorry you had to find out that way," she said sincerely.

"Thank you," Joyce said.

"When I invited her in last night, we didn't know we were gonna end up all...well, you saw." She made a quick head duck then went on. "We just wanted to be together. And this morning, we, um, we got a little carried away, that's all. And totally forgot to check the door first. Next time we'll be sure to lock the door," Buffy assured her mother.

Joyce gave her an I-don't-think-so glare.

Buffy instantly backtracked, correcting herself. "O-O-Or we could just not have a next time. Any time soon. Here in your house."

"Good answer." Joyce sighed and looked at her daughter. "Buffy, I can't say that I'm happy about this relationship. I see too many potential problems to give it my blessing."

Buffy's expression became very sad. She looked down at her hands, dreading the words to come.

"But I know that it would be fruitless to ask you not to see her."

Buffy looked back up in shock.

"So...we've got to find a way to deal with this," Joyce said seriously.

Buffy's heart started beating fast. "Okay," she said, trying not to sound too excited.

"First, I want to see Faith, talk to her myself," Joyce said. "Do you think she would come over for dinner tonight?"

"Um, yeah," Buffy replied, nearly bouncing on the couch. "I mean, I think so. I can call her."

Joyce nodded but remained stern. "Second, I'll have to set some ground rules. I want the two of you to slow things down. That means no fooling around. No locked bedroom doors, no sleepovers, and absolutely no spending the night at Faith's."

Buffy started to object but immediately backed down when her mother glared at her. "Okay," she agreed, albeit somewhat reluctantly.

Joyce gave her daughter a small smile. "You're young, Buffy. You don't have to rush things. Get to know each other first."

Buffy nodded in dutiful acquiescence.

Meanwhile, Faith paced nervously in her motel room. She cracked the knuckles in one fist, then did the same for the other. She glanced at the phone for the thousandth time. When it didn't ring, she sighed and resumed pacing. The second she looked away, the phone rang. She whipped back around and ran over to snatch up the receiver.

"Hello?" she answered, a bit of trepidation in her voice.

"Do you want the good news or the bad news first?" Buffy said without so much as a greeting.

"Gimme the bad news first."

"Sorry, gotta give you the good news first," Buffy said teasingly.

"Why did you even ask me?" Faith groused, though not angrily.

"Just messin' with ya," Buffy said, laughing.

Faith visibly relaxed at the positive tone in Buffy's voice. She plopped on the bed and leaned back into her pillows.

"The good news is Mom's not ballistic anymore," Buffy went on. "And the even better news is that you and I can still see each other! Isn't that great?" At this last, Buffy practically squealed with glee.

Faith couldn't help but laugh at Buffy's reaction, and her face lit up in a truly happy smile. "Cool," she said. "What's the bad news, though?" she made herself ask.

"The bad news is she wants you to come to dinner tonight so that she can talk to you."

Faith paused then answered with an unenthusiastic "Oh."

Buffy sounded undaunted. "Looks like you get to have a 'Mom Talk' of your very own!" she said before succumbing to giggles.

Faith snorted. "Swell. A heart-to-heart with Mrs. Cleaver. Just what I need."

Stifling her giggling, Buffy said, "So, can you come?"

"Yeah, sure," Faith replied. "Long as I'm done in time for patrol."

"Faith!" Buffy chided. "You're still hurt. Giles told you to stay off patrol for a few days."

"No, he didn't," Faith corrected. "He said 'another day or so', meaning approximately one day, which would be last night."

"Noooo," Buffy countered. "He said 'another day or so at least', meaning last night and, at the very least, one more night, which would be tonight." When Faith started to object, Buffy cut her off. "Which is why....he and Willow and Xander are handling patrol tonight...and for the rest of the week. So no patrolling for you, missy!"

Faith groaned loudly and reluctantly said, "Fine." After a playful huff of a sigh, she asked, "What time tonight?"


"Okay, I'll be there. With bells on," Faith added. "Whatever the hell that means."

"Thank you," Buffy said with all seriousness.

"No prob. See you tonight." When Faith hung up, she let out a long deep breath and draped her arm over her face. "Oh boy."

Part 11

After setting the table for three, Buffy hurried back into the kitchen where her mother was putting the finishing touches on a salad.

"What's next?" Buffy asked with a smile.

When Joyce looked up, she saw her daughter practically bouncing in place, ready for the next task. At first, Joyce had assumed that Buffy's eagerness was a simple case of her wanting to placate her mother, but now Joyce saw more.

The girl is downright giddy, Joyce thought to herself, suppressing the smirk that threatened to emerge. "You can stir the sauce," she told Buffy, who immediately rushed to stove and did just that.

Joyce watched her daughter out of the corner of her eye as she slowly and carefully stirred the large pot of sauce. She saw a series of emotions play across Buffy's face and repeat themselves in much the same pattern: irrepressible excitement then deep worry then determined optimism.

After about a minute of stirring, Buffy set the spoon aside and replaced the pot's lid; then she turned to her mother. "What else can I do?" she asked.

Joyce looked around the kitchen and nodded her head toward another large pot. "How about getting the water on the stove for the pasta?"

"I'm on it," Buffy said cheerfully.

As Buffy grabbed the pan and started filling it up at the sink, Joyce saw her glance nervously at the clock: 6:20 p.m. Her eyes didn't stay there for long, though. She quickly finished her task and turned back to her mother.

"Anything else?" Buffy asked, unconsciously cutting her eyes back to the clock.

"Yes, you can go get ready," Joyce told her. "I can see the primping countdown already starting in your brain," she added with a grin.

Buffy blushed a bit but definitely grinned back. "Are you sure?" she asked seriously.

"Go," her mother teasingly commanded.

"Okay!" Buffy chirped before all but skipping from the room.

Joyce laughed and shook her head. She's got it bad, she thought. A glowing smile lingered on Joyce's face for a time, until a concerned frown took its place. I just hope she doesn't end up with another broken heart. With a sigh, Joyce picked up the salad bowl and headed for the refrigerator.

"Nope. Nope. Nope."

One by one, Buffy tossed aside yet another trio of outfits that she had pulled from her closet.

"Arggghh! I have nothing to wear!"

Buffy plopped onto her clothes-laden bed and slumped in discouragement. After a moment of pouting, she straightened up and pulled her shoulders back resolutely.

"Okay, get a grip, Buffy," she chided herself. "This isn't an audience with the Pope or the President; it's dinner at home with your mother and your girlfriend. That's all. You need something nice but simple. You wanna look good but not slutty. So think!"

After several more minutes of sorting, she settled on a pair of tight black jeans and a sleeveless black top with a slightly-ruffled v-neck. She put her hair up but kept her accessories simple but elegant: moderately dangly earrings and a thin gold necklace. She refreshed her makeup then appraised her reflection in the mirror.

She tilted her head and then sighed. "It'll have to do."

Meanwhile, across town, Faith was having a fashion debate of her own. She had already laid out her own small wardrobe on the bed and, with her arms crossed tightly over her chest, she was now inspecting the possibilities with clear disappointment. Nothing, she decided, had the least bit of "mom appeal."

She sighed and uncrossed her arms. Her eyes caught a glimpse of the tattoo on her right arm. She pulled her arm around and glared at the black tribal design.

"I'm not exactly the 'bring home to mother' type," she grumbled to herself.

Faith thought back to the morning's events, frowning as she remembered the fury in Mrs. Summers' eyes.

"Ah, screw it," Faith said, exasperated. "She's gonna hate me no matter what I wear."

At that, Faith just picked some things from the pile and pulled them on: a maroon tank top, blue jeans, and a denim jacket. She brushed her hair and applied a fairly tame version of red lipstick to her lips.

She stepped from the bathroom and posed in front of the full length mirror on the wall.

"It'll have to do," she said with a shrug.

When Buffy stepped out of her bedroom, she met her mother in the hallway. Joyce had changed too, and they gave each other a look-over.

"You look nice," Buffy said sincerely.

"You too," Joyce said. She reached out and tucked an errant strand of hair behind Buffy's ear. "I like your hair up. You should wear it that way more often."

Buffy smiled at the compliment.

"Shall we?" Joyce said, indicating the stairs.

When Joyce turned to go, Buffy reached out and touched her mother's arm, causing her to turn back to her daughter. Buffy's face was creased with worry.

"Mom?" she asked. "Don't be too hard on Faith. This hasn't been easy for her either."

Joyce placed her hand over Buffy's. "Honey, I'm not going to be an ogre, for goodness' sake. Don't worry." She gave Buffy's hand a pat and then headed for the stairs.

"Easy for you to say," Buffy mumbled to herself as she began to trudge after her mother.

Just then, the door bell rang, and Buffy jumped into alert mode.

"I'll get it!" the slayer blurted before rushing past her mother on her way to the stairs.

She dashed down the steps and practically skidded to a halt in front of the door. She took a second to right herself and to smooth her hands over her hair and clothes. When she had taken a deep breath, she opened the door.

She found Faith standing there on the stoop, holding a small but colorful bouquet.

"Hey," Faith said simply, her light expression hiding the fear that was churning in her gut.

Buffy's heart nearly burst with pride when she saw the flowers in Faith's hand. Her face lit up in a huge smile as she gave Faith a "Hey" back. Buffy motioned for Faith to come inside, and when she had done so, Buffy shut the door.

"You got flowers," she said sweetly, just beaming at Faith.

Faith shrugged nonchalantly and handed them over. "They're kinda lame," she said. "Got 'em at the grocery store."

Buffy shook her head. "They're not lame at all," she assured her.

Buffy reached out for Faith and pulled her into a grateful hug. Faith returned the gesture, wrapping her arms around the blonde. Both sighed in relief, feeling their shared anxieties dissipating in the warmth of their embrace.

Meanwhile, from the stairs, Joyce quietly observed the exchange. Despite her disapproval of the relationship, she wasn't immune to the depth of emotion radiating from the two slayers. Involuntarily, her face softened at the sight of the girls, at how "right" they seemed to look together.

Soon, however, Joyce's critical side reasserted itself. She shook off the warm-and-fuzzies and put on a stern expression. Then she cleared her throat and started coming down the stairs.

At Joyce's throat-clearing, Buffy and Faith instantly separated, putting several feet of respectable space between them. Faith shoved her hands into her back pockets. Buffy pointed obviously at their visitor.

"Mom! Look!" Buffy announced. "Faith's here."

"Yes, I see that," Joyce stated evenly as she reached the bottom of the stairs.

"A-A-And she brought flowers!" Buffy said, lifting the bouquet in her hand.

Joyce gave her daughter a small smile and a nod of acknowledgement. "Why don't you go to the dining room and find a nice vase for them?" she suggested, although her tone made it sound more like a command.

Buffy's gaze darted nervously to Faith then back to her mother. "O-O-Okay," she said before reluctantly starting in that direction.

"And take your time," Joyce added, making clear eye contact with her daughter.

Buffy nodded and then slipped from the room.

Once Buffy had gone, Joyce and Faith were alone in the living room. They exchanged several uncomfortable glances before Faith finally spoke.

"Mrs. Summers," the slayer said in greeting.

"Faith," Joyce replied coolly.

After a long moment of silence, Joyce extended her hand. Though surprised, Faith took it, and they shook hands.

"Thanks for coming," Joyce said as she pulled her hand back.

"Thanks for inviting me," Faith replied. After a beat, she added, "I think."

Joyce smiled at that and chuckled a little. Faith smiled with her, until Joyce's expression grew hard. As another awkward silence descended, Faith directed her gaze to the floor, wishing that she could be anywhere but right here right now. She'd rather face a dozen vampires than this one angry woman. She pulled her hands from her pockets and started to speak.

"I, um..." Faith had to stop and clear her throat. "I'm sorry about this morning," she said, finally lifting her gaze to meet Joyce's eyes. "I..." Faith trailed off, not really knowing what else to say.

Joyce folded her arms across her chest and looked down at the dark slayer. "You understand why I was so upset?"

"Yeah. I imagine there's a whole buncha reasons you're pretty peeved about it." Faith tried to maintain eye contact, but felt herself glance away several times anyway.

"I won't lie, Faith," Joyce said. "I have concerns about where you and Buffy are headed. And I'm frightened at how fast you're moving."

Faith just nodded, letting Joyce have her say.

"But...both Buffy and Mr. Giles have told me how important you were in helping Buffy break the backlash curse. And for that, I am so grateful." Joyce unfolded her arms and took a step closer. She didn't reach out to the slayer, but she did gaze at her deeply. "You brought my daughter back to me," she softly told her. "Thank you."

Faith bore the intense stare as long as she could; then she looked away. "You're welcome," she mumbled, fidgeting in place.

Joyce waited until Faith looked up. Then she went on. "I said some harsh things this morning. Things I regret now. Things that were based on my own misinterpretations. I apologize for that." Joyce's apology was genuine, but her tone was completely neutral, as if her regret were still tinged with some of her earlier anger.

Faith merely shrugged in response. "I've heard worse."

Joyce nodded, considering Faith's words an acceptance of her apology. But then, once again, the two women fell into uneasy silence. Eventually, Faith spoke up.

"Mrs. Summers," she said, "I want you to know that I would never do anything to hurt Buffy. Never."

Joyce gave Faith a small and only slightly forced smile. When it didn't appear that Faith had anything more to add, Joyce spoke up, this time in a much lighter tone. "So..." she said, taking a step back and bringing her hands together in an almost-clap. "I think we're probably over the worst part. How about we eat now?"

Faith smiled and said, "I'm in. It smells good. What are we having?"

Before Joyce could answer, Buffy made a perfectly-timed re-entry into the room. "Grilled girlfriend," she said with a smirk. "It's the house special."

"Well, stick a fork in me," Faith said, chuckling. "I think I'm done."

After joining Buffy and Faith in a quick laugh, Joyce said, "We're having spaghetti. You like spaghetti, don't you?"

"Love it!" Faith answered enthusiastically. "There's not a pasta out there I don't like."

"Spam and gouda goulash?" Buffy offered impishly. Faith and Joyce both shot her twin looks of disgust.

"Nobody makes that," Faith scoffed, though with a twinkle in her eyes.

Buffy giggled and linked her arm in Faith's as the three moved from the living room. "Yeah, but you said..."

With the mood substantially lighter, they made their way to the dining room.

A short time later, the three were sitting down to the table, digging in to the Italian feast. The vase of flowers that Faith had brought was now at the end of the table.

"This is really good, Mrs. Summers," Faith said as she stuffed a forkful of spaghetti into her mouth.

"I helped, you know," Buffy claimed pointedly, gunning for a compliment.

"Well, kudos to you too," Faith added.

"You boiled the water," Joyce reminded her daughter.

"That's helping," Buffy whined, though with a grin.

"You mean like you were 'helping' in that baking photo?" Faith asked.

Buffy shot a mock glare at Faith. "Thou shalt not discuss the embarrassing photo of snaggle-tooth Buffy. Have you forgotten the first commandment?"

Joyce's face lit up. "Oh, that's one of my favorite pictures. Buffy was so cute!"

Buffy just groaned.

"It took me two hours to clean up the kitchen after Buffy's 'help', though," Joyce said.

"I bet," Faith replied. "I liked the ice skating picture, too."

"With or without the Dorothy-do?" Joyce inquired.

"Without," Faith answered. "The one where she looks so...I don't know...intense, confident, something."

Joyce instantly knew which photo Faith was referring to. "I like that one too."

Buffy sighed and rolled her eyes as the two continued to talk as if Buffy weren't even there. "I'm doomed to be the invisible topic of conversations everywhere..." she muttered melodramatically.

Joyce and Faith continued to ignore her, but Buffy didn't mind. She was just thankful that the two were talking at all, that her mother and her girlfriend had been able to put the morning's events behind them and have a normal conversation. Buffy smiled to herself and tuned back in.

"Buffy actually won several skating competitions," Joyce said. "She was very good."

"I'm glad somebody is," Faith grumbled.

"You can't ice skate?" Buffy said in surprise. "'re from Boston. Isn't that, like, mandatory in New England?"

"I only went once," Faith said. "Totally sucked at it. Spent most of the afternoon with my ass on the ice." She poked at her garlic toast with disgust.

"I'll take you some time," Buffy told her. "Show you the ropes."

"Gee, thanks," Faith said teasingly. "That way I can cross off 'learn to ice skate' on my 'Ten Things I Want To Do Before I Die' list."

After laughing with the two girls, Joyce turned to Faith and said, "Boston...that's such a long way from here. How did you end up in Sunnydale of all places?"

Faith and Buffy both froze at the innocent inquiry.

Buffy glanced worriedly at Faith, knowing the topic would raise painful memories for her. So before Faith could even form an answer, Buffy spoke up for her. "The Hellmouth!" she blurted. "That's where the Slayer is supposed to be, right Faith?"

After a moment's hesitation, Faith decided to play along with Buffy's plausible but entirely fabricated explanation. "Uhhh...yeah. Right."

Noting the averted gazes and fidgeting hands, Joyce eyed the girls suspiciously and waited. Eventually, Faith caved.

"My watcher was killed," Faith said, softly but matter-of-factly. "And the vamp that killed her came after me. Truth is...I didn't know where else to go." She paused and gave Buffy a grateful glance. "Luckily, Buffy helped me kill him once he tracked me here."

Joyce leaned toward Faith, a troubled expression in her eyes. "What about your family? Aren't they worried about you being so far away from home?"

Buffy looked at Faith with a combination of concern and curiosity, realizing for the first time that she herself didn't know much about Faith's past.

Faith barely blinked at the question. "I don't have any family," she stated flatly. "Not anymore."

Buffy and Joyce frowned and looked away. When it seemed that the two were gearing up for apologies and sympathies, Faith quickly interjected.

"Trust me," she told them with a large but forced smile, "I'm better off without them."

Buffy and Joyce smiled back, but they didn't appear to be reassured by Faith's statement.

Meanwhile, in one of the local cemeteries, Willow and Xander and the rest of the Scoobies were staking out several new graves. While Xander, Cordelia, and Giles were watching two graves about a hundred yards away, Willow and Oz were camped near another that was beside a large mausoleum. The two sat on a blanket with an array of snacks and weapons laid out in front of them.

Willow glanced over at the freshly dug grave and sighed in annoyance. "Is this guy ever going to rise?"

"Well, if we're lucky, he won't," Oz replied.

"Yeah. Right," Willow admitted but without a hint of enthusiasm about the idea.

"You wanna talk about it?"

"About what?"

Oz reached out and touched his girlfriend's lips, tracing her frown with his index finger. "About what's got my Willow-smile turned all upside down."

That got him a small smile, but it didn't last long. Soon Willow was frowning again.

"It's Buffy, isn't it? You're worried about her."

"Of course I'm worried about her!" Willow answered. "Aren't you?"

Oz put a hand over Willow's. "I'm sure things are going fine. It's just dinner."

"It's not dinner I'm worried about," Willow explained. "It's Faith. Sure, she's acting all devoted now, but what happens when the thrill is gone, when the thrill is gone away?"

"First of all," he said with a grin, "bonus points for the shout-out to B.B. But secondly...I don't think she's acting."

"Oh, come on, Oz! You've heard her stories. She's all about having fun and moving on, and Buffy's not like that. I just know this is going to end badly."

"People can change, Will."

Willow shook her head, and her expression became pained. "Losing just about killed her."

"But it didn't," Oz softly pointed out. "She's a slayer. She's tough."

"Physically maybe, but she's still a girl...a girl who can get her heart broken."

Oz just shrugged in acknowledgement.

"A-A-And what about the backlash curse?" Willow went on, getting more upset as she went along. "What if it's not really gone? What if Faith dumps her and the curse comes right back?"

Oz didn't have an answer for that.

Willow dropped her gaze to her hands. When she looked back up, her eyes were filled with tears. "I don't want to lose her..." she said in shaky voice.

Oz reached over and cupped Willow's cheek, using his thumb to catch the tears that had begun rolling down her face. "You won't," he assured her. Then he gently kissed her and pulled her into a warm hug.

After they had finished dessert, Buffy and Faith cleared the table and washed the dishes while Joyce put away the food. Within minutes, the chores were completed, and the three women stood awkwardly in the kitchen, wondering what to do next.

Buffy finally broke the silence. "Thanks for dinner, Mom," she said. "It was really good."

"It sure was, Mrs. S.," Faith added. "Thanks for inviting me."

"You're welcome," Joyce said sincerely. But then she pinned both girls with a serious look. "Before we call it a night, though, I have a few more things to say."

Buffy and Faith exchanged nervous glances then turned back to Joyce.

"I told Buffy this earlier," Joyce said, "but I want to say it to you as well, Faith."

"Okay," the dark slayer answered.

"I know that I can't possibly police your behavior outside this house, but I do have ground rules that I expect both of you to follow," she told them. "No bed-sharing sleepovers. No sneaking in during the night. No locked bedroom doors if you're visiting. And no overnight stays for Buffy at your place either."

Faith nodded dutifully. "Yes ma'am."

"I want you girls to take things slow," Joyce said before putting on an encouraging smile. "You're young. You have all the time in the world."

Although Buffy and Faith gave Joyce brief smiles, their minds went simultaneously to the same unvoiced thought: Unless we get killed slaying.

Buffy shook off the pessimism to press her mother for a favor. "Mom, is it okay if I drive Faith home?"

Joyce eyed the girls warily.

"I'll come straight back, I promise," Buffy said.

Joyce stared at them a little longer then finally relented. "Okay," she said, "but be careful. And come right back."

"Thanks Mom!" Buffy said before giving her mother a big hug.

As soon as they had shut the front door behind them, Buffy tugged Faith to her and gave her an earnest kiss. When they pulled apart, Faith's expression lit up in a smirk.

"Mmmm...what was that for?" she asked.

"What? Can't I just kiss you 'cause you're cute and sexy?" Buffy countered playfully.

"Hey, you can kiss me 'cause I got five toes on each foot if you want to--especially if you kiss me like that."

Buffy laughed, and the two of them walked down the porch steps arm in arm. "It was just to say thank you," she explained. "For going above and beyond the girlfriend call of duty."

Faith gave a small shrug. "Wasn't as bad as I thought it was gonna be," she admitted. "Not sayin' it was a barrel o' fun, but it could've been a lot worse."

They separated, and Faith walked over to the passenger side of the SUV. Buffy opened the driver's side door and popped the locks. She and Faith got in and put on their seat belts.

Once they were settled into their seats, Faith turned in Buffy's direction. "Your mom's all right," she said sincerely. "She could've totally flipped her lid over this, but she didn't."

"Uhhh...excuse me, but that was you in my bedroom this morning, wasn't it?" Buffy asked pointedly as she put the key in the ignition and started the engine.

"I don't mean then," Faith explained. "She had every right to freak out then. I'm talkin' about after. She could've stayed mad, done something crazy like call the police on me or ship you off to boarding school. But she didn't."

"Yeah, she didn't," Buffy said with pleased wistfulness. "Thank God," she added, as the thought of those alternatives finally sank in.

Buffy put the car in reverse and concentrated on backing out. When she had done so, she shifted into drive and headed down the street.

"I think Giles had a lot to do with that," Buffy said, picking up where the conversation had left off. "They had a long talk today, and I think he really got through to her."

"Remind me to send him a big thank-you card, then," Faith joked.

"From both of us," Buffy added with a smile. "Seriously, it's nice knowing that he's behind us, you know?"

"Yep, Giles is pretty cool as watchers go."

"What was your watcher like?" Buffy asked cautiously.

At first, Faith didn't answer, but then she said, "She was cool too. Tough, but...I think she really cared." Faith chuckled. "Had a sweet old mansion in Cambridge. Definitely a step up from what I was used to. Hell, it was a whole staircase up!"

Buffy laughed with Faith, and the two of them continued on their way to Faith's motel.

A short time later, Buffy pulled into the parking lot of the cheap motel that Faith called home. They got out, and Buffy walked Faith to her room.

"I guess this is good night then," Faith said as they stood outside her door.

"I guess so," Buffy replied unhappily. "Wish it wasn't."

"Yeah, me too."

The two then moved into a long, warm hug. They didn't rush it; they just drank in each other's presence.

"I'll miss you," Buffy said, still entwined in Faith's arms.

"I'll miss you too," Faith answered.

"I slept so good last night," Buffy went on. "First time in a while that I didn't have any nightmares."

"Yeah, me too."

Buffy pulled back and looked at Faith. "You've been having nightmares? How long?"

"Long time," Faith said ruefully, drawing out the first word. She shrugged dismissively and added, "It's no big. It's not like I have 'em all the time."

"Are they 'slayer' dreams?" Buffy asked, a little worry in her voice.

"Sometimes," Faith answered softly, not meeting her eyes. Then she looked up and said, "Ehhh...most of the time they're just crap from my past. If V was here, she'd say they were 'unresolved issues' or some other bullshit."


"Vanity Collins," Faith replied. "My case worker before I went into foster care."

Buffy frowned deeply at the term 'foster care.' When it looked like she was going to press Faith for more information, the dark slayer cut her off.

"You'd better start back," Faith said, diverting the focus from something she really didn't want to discuss. "Otherwise, your mom's gonna send out a search party."

"Right. Good idea," Buffy had to agree.

With a final hug and good night, the two reluctantly parted. Once Buffy had gotten in her car and driven away, Faith went inside her room.

As she shut the door, Faith felt the warmth of Buffy's embrace fade. Now alone, she sighed unhappily and glanced about her motel room.

It wasn't much, but at least the lights and water worked, and the door and window had been repaired since Kakistos's attack. She usually felt a small sense of pride when she came into her room; after all, it was hers, damn it, dinginess and everything. It also provided her with a greatly appreciated private space--one which she fiercely defended from unwanted occupancy. If she brought someone home with her, she made sure they took care of business and then got the hell out, sometimes shoving them out the door, clothes in hand.

But tonight her room just felt...lonely.

She sighed again and sank onto the bed, leaning back against the pillows. It was then that she realized just how tired she really was. The emotional roller coaster of the last few days had taken their toll, and she was completely exhausted. She sat up long enough to take off her jacket, kick off her boots, and turn off bedside lamp. Then she plopped back down onto the mattress and closed her eyes.

When the light from outside peeked through the curtained window and landed on her face, Faith grumbled and draped her arm across her eyes. Now in darkness, she tried to go to sleep. Unfortunately, her mind had other ideas as it dredged up unpleasant events from her past.

Being shuffled among relatives who clearly didn't want her. Being left with strange men while her mother disappeared for weeks at a time. Being forced to fend for herself in an apartment without food, heat, or electricity. Longing and praying for her mother's return only to wish soon after that the woman had never come back.

Faith growled in frustration at the onslaught of memories. "Just shut up," she told her brain. Then she turned onto her side and faced away from the window.

"Foster care?" Buffy repeated to herself once she had pulled away from Faith's motel. "I knew she had a hard life in Boston, but I didn't think it was that bad."

Buffy's thoughts immediately went to numerous well publicized cases of abuse in the foster care system. She frowned in concern.

"How long was she in it? She told me she had lost her mother. Is that why she went into foster care? Or did she go in before that...because of something her mother did? She hasn't mentioned her father. Where does he fit into all of this?"

Buffy didn't have answers to any of her questions. She slumped and sighed heavily. After a moment of thinking, she straightened in her seat, a determined expression on her face.

"I'll just ask Faith," she said. Then her resolve failed a little, and she got an uncomfortable look. "I-I-In a completely sensitive and totally non-invasive way, of course." She slumped again. "A-A-And in the years that is going to take, I'll ask Giles."

When Buffy got home, she found her mother in the living room watching TV. Buffy gave her mother a big smile and held up the car keys for her to see.

"Keys," Buffy announced as she put the ring on the table beside the front door.

Joyce nodded and asked, "Everything go okay?"

"Yes, everything went fine," Buffy replied as she made her way to the couch and sat down. "I managed to go three whole miles without hitting a single object." After grinning at her mother's eye roll, Buffy sobered and said, "Seriously, Mom...thank you. For everything."

Joyce smiled and rested her hand on her daughter's arm. After a moment of silence between them, Joyce pulled her hand back and looked away. When she glanced back up, she said, "I, um, I have to admit that Faith really impressed me. She wasn't what I expected."

Buffy gave her mother a curious look. "What were you expecting?"

Joyce shrugged uncertainly. "I don't know...defiance, maybe? Like she hadn't done anything wrong?" She shook her head. "Or at the very least, false regret. You know, just telling me what I wanted to hear so that she could get what she wanted?"

Buffy nodded, acknowledging that her mother's expectations were understandable. After thinking a moment, Buffy shyly asked, "'re okay with her...with us?"

"Yes, I'm okay," Joyce said with another smile. "But it's a tentative 'okay', okay?" she quickly added. "I still have my concerns."

"That's cool," Buffy said as she got to her feet. "You've got your concerns, and Will's got her shovel."

Joyce's face creased into a confused expression. "Huh?"

"Oh nothing," Buffy said, waving off the comment. "Let's just say that, between the two of you, I'm fully covered by my overprotective life insurance policy." She gave her mother a teasing grin. "In fact, if I don't get to my room and call Willow right now, she's going to be sending over a SWAT team."

Meanwhile, at the Rosenberg home, Willow was pacing in her bedroom.

What's going on? Why hasn't she called yet? Willow thought worriedly.

Just then, the phone rang. Willow leapt onto her bed and snatched up the receiver.

"Hello?" she answered.

"Hey, Will," Buffy said.

"Buffy! I'm so glad you called. I was starting to get worried."

"Starting to?" Buffy teased.

"Very funny," Willow said. "So tell did things go?"

"Things went wonderful," Buffy replied. "Mom was so cool. I mean, she had her say, you know, but she didn't go nuts or anything, and Faith was...just..." Buffy made a contented murmur before blurting, "She brought flowers, did I tell you that?"

Willow could practically hear her friend glowing through the phone as she related the details of dinner. Willow sighed and leaned back against her pillows, her smile fading away.

I should be happy for her, Willow thought. I mean...listen to her. She hasn't been this happy in a long, long time.

I want to be happy for her, I do. But how can I be when she's a heartbreak away from another Kingman's Bluff?

"Willlllllow? Willlllllow?"

Buffy's voice broke into Willow's reverie. "Huh?" the redhead asked.

"Where did you go?"

"Uhhh, nowhere. Sorry. Y-Y-You were saying?"

"I was saying that I wished you would give Faith a chance, too."

"Oh." Willow didn't know what to say beyond that.

After a moment of silence, Buffy went on. "I know you think she might hurt me, but she's not like that. I swear. Not with me, anyway. If you'd get to know her better, you'd see that."

Willow still didn't speak. She opened her mouth several times, but didn't say anything.

"Please, Will...for me," Buffy said. "Would you try?"

Willow sighed heavily and closed her eyes. After a second or two, she opened her eyes and said, "Ohhh-kaaaay. I'll try."

"Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you!" Buffy said happily.

Willow smiled at Buffy's excitement. At the same time, she silently prayed that her friend's trust in Faith wouldn't turn out to be misguided.

The next day at school, as Buffy was coming out of class, she was thrilled to find Faith waiting for her.

The dark slayer was leaning against the far wall, with her thumbs hitched nonchalantly in the front pockets of her tight black jeans. She wore heavy black boots, a black leather belt studded with silver grommets, and a black tank-top that clung to her body, revealing every curve.

Buffy's face instantly lit up in a pleased and somewhat lusty smile. She waited until the crowd of students thinned and then crossed the hallway to where Faith was standing.

"Hey," Buffy said.

"Hey yourself," Faith said, returning Buffy's smile. "Headin' to the library?"

"I sure am."

The two slayers walked side by side as they slowly made their way toward the library. Neither put an arm around the other, and they didn't hold hands, but they walked close enough that their arms were touching most of the time. They barely watched where they were going, having eyes only for each other.

By the time they had gotten about halfway to the library, the hallway had cleared out. When the bell for the next class rang, Buffy suddenly grinned, grabbed Faith's hand, and yanked her into the girls' restroom. After a quick glance at the stalls to see that no one else was in the room, Buffy dropped her book bag, pulled Faith to her, and gave her a ardent kiss, which Faith eagerly returned.

When they pulled apart, Buffy said, "God, I missed you."

Faith smirked as she let their noses touch. "Ya did, huh?"

"Did you miss me?" Buffy asked mischievously.

Faith cocked her head and thought. "Mmmm...maybe a little." Then she flashed Buffy a full-dimpled grin.

Buffy gave Faith a mock-glare and then a swat on her arm. "Faith!" she accused.

In a split second, Faith grabbed Buffy's wrists and held them behind her back as she maneuvered the blonde against the bathroom wall. When she had her in place, she gave her a long, searing kiss that left Buffy breathless when it was over.

"Okay...maybe more than a little," Faith said with another grin.

Faith released Buffy's wrists and started to take a step back. Buffy reached out and grabbed Faith by her hips and pulled her close. Then she locked her fingers behind Faith's back to hold her in place. Faith didn't seem to mind and wrapped her own arms around Buffy.

"I missed holding you last night," Buffy complained. "And I missed waking up with you."

"Yeah, me too," Faith agreed.

At that, the two moved easily into a warm hug which lasted for a full minute. When they finally separated, Buffy put on big pout.

"Mom's rules suck," she pronounced.

Faith reached up and gave Buffy's lower lip a pluck with her finger. "Yep, they sure do," she told her. After giving her a quick kiss, she said, "We'll just have to find a way around them, won't we?" She pulled away and hitched her thumb over her shoulder toward the door. "Come on. We better check in with Jeeves."

Buffy rolled her eyes as she picked up her book bag. "You know he hates it when you call him that."

Faith just grinned. "I know."

After a quick lipstick check, the two girls headed out of the restroom.

Meanwhile, in the library, Willow and Oz were seated at the far table across from Xander and Cordelia. Giles was in his office.

"I can't believe we're going to the dance in a limo!" Willow said excitedly. "We'll be like movie stars, all glamorous. Ooo! Can we stick our heads out of the sun roof and woo-hoo down Main Street?"

Cordelia snorted condescendingly. "Yeah, 'cause that'd be so glamorous."

"Now, now, Cordy," Xander chided, "don't begrudge us our fun. We mere peasants are unaccustomed to the pleasures that the Chases know so well."

As Cordelia rolled her eyes, Oz turned to Willow. "So...have you told Buffy yet?"

Willow's enthusiasm fizzled. "No," she said. "I haven't had the chance. I--"

"Tell me what?"

At the sound of the voice, the four turned to see Buffy and Faith standing at the end of the table, looking at them expectantly.

Willow got a deer-caught-in-headlights expression. "Uhhh...about, um...uhhh..."

"About the limo we're getting!" Xander quickly interjected. "You know, for the dance."

"Uh-huh," Buffy said tersely as she gave them a disbelieving glare.

One by one they all looked away, except for Cordelia, who gave an annoyed sigh at her tablemates. "It's about Scott," she announced.

"What about Scott?" Buffy asked worriedly.

Once again, Willow and Xander couldn't get out the words, so Cordelia said, "He's going to the dance with Danielle."

There was a long, silent pause as everyone stared at Buffy, waiting for her reaction to this news.

"Oh," Buffy said simply as she took a few steps away from the table.

Faith didn't follow her. She just watched with concern in her eyes.

"He's going to the dance...with someone else," Buffy went on. She dropped her gaze to her hands. "He didn't waste any time, did he?"

As everyone continued to stare at Buffy, Faith just clenched her jaw and shoved her hands in her front pockets.

"Not that I care," Buffy announced as she turned back to the group. She quickly looked over at Faith. "'Cause I don't," she told the brunette. Then she looked back down at her hands. "It was just a stupid dance, after all."

"You can go with us," Willow offered. At Buffy's skeptical glance, Willow said, "Come on, it'll be fun. All of us in the limo, the original Scoobies showing up in style..."

Buffy shook her head as she looked at the two couples at the table. "No, that's okay. I don't wanna be a fifth wheel. Besides, I haven't even shopped for a dress or anything." Once again, her eyes fell to her hands.

After another long pause, Faith stepped over to Buffy and gave her an elbow nudge. "Hey, what'd'ya say we crash the dance and me?"

Buffy looked up at Faith with a vulnerable and yet hopeful expression. "Really?"

Faith gave her playful grin. "Really."

Buffy's face lit up into a big smile.

As the two slayers indulged in a hug and kiss, Willow just scowled and crossed her arms.

Part 12

As Buffy gave Faith a grateful kiss for the dance invitation, Willow was not a happy camper. "Oh, it's okay to go with Faith, but it's not okay to go with us," she grumbled to herself, heard only by Oz. "I see how it is."

Oz gave his girlfriend a pat on the leg, which did little to appease her.

"Oh my God!" Buffy cried excitedly. "I totally need a new dress for this!"

"Guess I'll have to splurge and get one too," Faith said with a shrug. "I sure as hell didn't pack one for my trip here."

"Are you sure you can afford it?" Buffy asked with concern. "I can ask Mom for some extra--"

"Don't worry," Faith said, cutting her off. "I got it covered."

Buffy looked at Faith intently for a second or two as if gauging the truth of her girlfriend's answer. When Faith didn't waver, Buffy went ecstatically back to her original topic. "I saw this awesome dress at April Fools about a month ago...totally had my name written all over it! I'll get Mom to take off work tomorrow afternoon and go shopping with me..."

As Buffy rattled on about the shopping spree to come, Faith looked away worriedly and sighed.

Later, when school was out, Buffy stayed behind to talk to Giles. He had requested some time with his slayer, and they had spent the good part of an hour discussing the ramifications of recent events, namely the backlash curse.

"I know I've said this before," Giles instructed, "but it's very important. If you begin to feel anything even remotely like what you felt under the curse, you must tell me right away. Understood?"

"Yeeesss, I understand," Buffy said in mock weariness.

Giles rolled his eyes but didn't comment on Buffy's sarcasm. "Good," he merely said as he got up from his chair. "And don't forget, you and Faith are off patrol until after the dance."

"I won't argue with that," Buffy replied with a grin.

"Yes, both Xander and Oz have agreed to help me patrol tonight and tomorrow night, and since Saturday is Halloween, things should be quite calm."

"It better be," Buffy said in a firm voice, as if she were calling out a warning to the evil powers-that-be. "'Cause if I don't get my dance night, I might get cranky."

Giles grinned at his slayer's pronouncement. "Well, I'll see you tomorrow then," he said as he turned to go to his office.

Buffy thought deeply for a moment then called out to her watcher to stop him. He turned back and waited by the check-out desk until she had walked over.


"I-I-I kinda have something else to ask you about," Buffy said.


Buffy looked around the library then gestured toward the office. "Can we go in there?"

"Of course," Giles said, motioning her to go inside and take a seat. Once he had come inside and shut the door, he sat down and asked, "What is it?"

"I wanted to ask you something about Faith," Buffy said.

"All right."

"Faith told me that she had gone into foster care in Boston. Do you know anything about that?"

Giles paused before answering. Then he said, "When the Council assigned Faith to me, they sent an extensive file on her. Just like they did when you were assigned to me."

"Great!" Buffy said, excited to have a source of information. Then her expression changed. "Wait...the Council's got a file on me?" she asked in alarm.

"Yes, although it's not as detailed as Faith's, due to the fact that you were not identified as a potential early on."

Buffy made a disgruntled frown, clearly unhappy with the ramifications of a Council file on herself. Soon, however, she shook off those thoughts and refocused on her present inquiry. "So, you must know all kinds of stuff about Faith."

"Yes, I do," he confirmed. "But unfortunately, I can share none of it with you."

"Giiillles," Buffy whined.

"Faith's file is confidential, and I will not break that trust," he told her firmly. "If there is something you want to know about Faith's past, then you'll have to ask her yourself."

"Well, can you tell me this?" Buffy asked. "How does she support herself? She doesn't have a family, and she doesn't have a job...that I know of, anyway."

"I'm supporting her, for the time being," Giles admitted. "I've requested a special circumstances stipend for her from the Council, but it has yet to be approved and processed."

"So, you pay for her motel room and everything?"

"Yes, I pay for her room each week, and I give her money for food and other necessities, but it's barely enough, really."

Deep concern filled Buffy's face. "Well, I-I-I wanna help. What can I do?"

"Nothing, I'm afraid," Giles warned. "Not to Faith directly, at any rate. She's rather sensitive about...about being seen as a charity case."

"Can I give money to you and then you give it to her?" Buffy suggested.

Giles considered the matter and then said, "Yes, that would work out nicely and be most helpful."

Buffy smiled brightly, pleased that they had found a way for her to help. "I'll talk to Mom tonight!"

Later that night, Buffy sat slumped on the couch in the living room. In her hand, she held a wad of tissues, which she was using to wipe away the tears that were streaming down her face.

"I don't know why we do this," she sobbed, tossing aside her used tissue and yanking a new batch from the box on the coffee table.

"I don't know why either," agreed the person next to her.

Buffy looked over at her mother, who was crying just as hard. "It's stupid. We know it's going to make us cry."

"I know, but it's sooo good," Joyce said, pointing to the videocassette box. The title read An Affair to Remember. She smiled through her tears. "I mean, you just know they're going to be spite of everything."

Buffy gave a small laugh and nodded. "Anything's possible," she quoted.

At that, mother and daughter shared a warm smile.

Out on Main Street, Faith was definitely not smiling. She was standing in front of April Fools, Sunnydale's premiere provider of formal wear. Her thumbs were hooked in the belt loops of her jeans as she stared through the front window at the elaborate display of dresses and tuxedos.

After several minutes of perusal, she reached into her front right pocket and pulled out a small wad of cash. She unfolded the crumpled bills and counted them: $27 dollars.

She let out a small groan, shoved the money back into her pocket, and shuffled off down the sidewalk.

After helping her mother clear the living room of their post-movie trash, Buffy finally decided to raise the issue of Faith's situation.

"Mom, I need to ask you something, but I'm not sure how to ask it 'cause it's about a not-so-fun topic."

Joyce got a concerned look. "What kind of not-so-fun topic?"


"Is this about the dress for the dance?" Joyce asked. "You didn't get your heart set on something outrageous, did you?"

"No, it's not about the dress," Buffy said. "And I promise I won't pick anything outrageous. It's about Faith, actually."

"Faith?" Joyce was confused.

"I'm worried about her," Buffy admitted. "She's seventeen years old, and she's living in a crappy motel. She doesn't have a family or a job. She basically has no income at all, except for what she gets from Giles."

"Giles?" Joyce asked.

"Yeah, he's paying for her room and food and stuff, but it's all out of his own pocket, which means it's not a lot."

"Shouldn't the Council be supporting her?"

Buffy nodded. "Giles has put in a request for her, but so far, the Council hasn't approved it. Stupid British bureaucrats."

Joyce gave a huff of disgust at the Council's lack of expeditiousness.

"Anyway," Buffy went on, "I was hoping that maaayyybe we could help out?" She said this more as a question than a statement and then glanced at her mother expectantly.

Joyce narrowed her eyes, trying to ward off the can-I-keep-the-puppy look she was getting from her daughter.

"I-I-It doesn't have to be much," Buffy said, getting nervous now that her mother hadn't immediately agreed to the proposal. "A-A-Any little bit would help. We just have to give it to Giles, though. He said Faith probably wouldn't take it directly from us or anyone else. She doesn't want people feeling sorry for her, like she's some kind of charity case." After a pause, Buffy wrung her hands and said, "So can we? You know, help out a little?"

Unable to resist making her daughter squirm for another moment or two, Joyce continued her glare. But soon she smiled sincerely and said, "I can't make any promises, but I'll see what I can do."

Buffy's face lit up into a huge smile, and she gave her mother a big hug. "Thank you, thank you, thank you!"

Back at her motel, Faith paced the room, stopping periodically to stare at her dresser. Eventually, Faith stopped her pacing and walked over to the small wooden chest. She went to a particular drawer and pulled it completely out. She turned the drawer until she could see its back. There she pulled off something that had been duct-taped to the back.

It was a tattered piece of cloth wrapped around something long and narrow. Carefully, Faith pulled off the duct tape and unwrapped the cloth. Inside was a small gold dagger about eight inches long. She moved the blade into the light and looked at it intently--her brow furrowing and her eyes filling with sadness. After about a minute, she sighed and set the dagger aside. Then she returned the drawer to its dresser.

The next day at school, Willow and Buffy were walking down the hall together, having just come out of class.

"Hey, I was thinking," Willow began.

"That's my Will," Buffy teased. "The big thinker."

Willow rolled her eyes. "I was thinking...that maybe we could hang out tonight?" She gave Buffy a hopeful glance. "You know, have our own little best-friends-only pre-dance celebration?"

Buffy's scrunched her face into an apologetic wince. "I'm sorry, but I can't. I've already made plans with Faith." When she saw Willow's expression fall, Buffy immediately tried to right things with a counter-offer. "But, um, w-w-why don't you come shopping with me and Mom? A girl always needs her best friend's POV when it comes to dress-buyin'."

For a moment, Willow looked torn. But then she just shook her head and said, "I can't. I--I have somewhere else I have to be." At that, she began backing away. "But I'll see you tomorrow," she promised. Although the redhead was smiling, there was hurt behind her eyes.

Before Buffy could say anything in response, Willow turned and walked away in the opposite direction. Buffy watched her go, a troubled look on her face.

Later that afternoon, Buffy and Joyce started their shopping at the video store. When they came out, Buffy was carrying a bag full of videotapes. When they stepped out onto Main Street, they took a right, heading toward April Fools to find a dress for the dance. Before they got very far, though, Joyce stopped her daughter on the sidewalk.

"Before we go into the dress shop," Joyce told her, "let's get a few things straight."

"Okay," Buffy replied soberly.

"I've thought about what you said about Faith's situation, and I've decided that we should do something to help Faith out financially." Joyce raised her hand to stave off Buffy's impending outburst of gratitude. "However," she emphasized, "being able to do that depends on you making some sacrifices."

Buffy began nodding enthusiastically. "I can do that."

"Which means," Joyce went on, "no big budget on clothes...especially when it comes to dances."

"Got it," Buffy assured her. "Goin' frugal on the formal wear."

Buffy started to say something more, but her eyes were drawn to a figure in front of another shop across the street. Joyce turned to see what Buffy was looking at.

It was Faith, outside the local pawn shop. She pulled something from her pocket, unwrapped it, and stared at it, glancing hesitantly between the object and the pawn shop as if trying to decide what to do. Finally, her shoulders slumped in defeat, and she went inside the pawn shop.

Moments later, Faith stood waiting impatiently in front of the pawn broker as he examined the gold dagger in detail. He raised an impressed eyebrow and gave a murmur of approval.

"I'll take it," the man said.

"How much?" Faith asked. "And how long do I have to get it out of hock?"

"For the loan," he said, "two hundred dollars. And you've got thirty days to pay it back with interest."

"Two hundred bucks?!" Faith replied in outrage. "Is that all?"

"Well, if you let me buy it outright, I'll give you three hundred."

"It's solid gold, man!" Faith objected.

The man set the dagger on the counter and crossed his arms. "Three hundred. Take it or leave it."

Faith looked down at the gold blade, a pained expression on her face. After a long moment, she sighed and looked away. "Fine. I'll take the three hundred."

The broker grinned greedily and said, "Great! I'll be right back with the paperwork."

A few minutes later, Buffy and Joyce saw Faith come out of the pawn shop tucking a stack of bills in her jeans pocket. Even from a distance, they could see that she didn't look happy about the new infusion of cash. They watched her trudge away.

As soon as Faith was out of sight, Buffy grabbed her mother's hand and said, "Come on!"

Then she and Joyce hurried across the street to the pawn shop.

Once inside the shop, Buffy went straight to the broker behind the counter.

"Excuse me," she said politely, "but...the girl who was just in here...can you tell me what she was here for?"

"Yeah, sure," the man replied. "Had something to sell, and it's a beaut."

He pulled the item from under the counter and laid it out, unwrapping it for Buffy and Joyce to see. Their eyes grew wide when they took in the sight of the solid-gold dagger.

"May I?" Buffy asked, pointing to the dagger.

"Help yourself," the man said, giving Buffy permission to touch the piece.

Gently, she lifted the dagger from its tattered wrapper and raised it into closer view. She could see that the flat of its blade was engraved with a message. She tilted it in the light and read the words out loud.

"To Faith, In honor of your calling.--Diana."

Buffy stared at it in awe for a moment and then turned to her mother. "Oh my God...Mom, this was from her watcher. We can't let her give this up; it's too important."

Joyce nodded in agreement and then turned to the broker. "How much?"

"Sorry, I can't sell it yet," the man said, plucking the dagger from Buffy's hands. "Have to hold it for the mandatory thirty-day wait period."

"We'll give you twice what you paid Faith for it," Buffy suddenly interjected.

The broker's eyes lit up, and he licked his lips. "Hmm...that'd be six hundred dollars...but it'd have to be cash."

"Six hundred dollars?!" Joyce balked. "Buffy, we can't--"

Buffy grasped her mother's hands desperately. "I don't need a new dress," she pleaded. "Or an allowance or anything. Please...she did this for me, I know she did...just to get a dress for the dance."

Joyce still didn't look completely convinced.

"I know!" Buffy suddenly said. "Make Dad pay it! Tell him I had to...I don't know...get a-a-a root canal or something."

At that, Joyce's lips slowly curved up into a wicked grin. "Okay," she said, causing Buffy to emit a thankful squeal.

A short time later, after Joyce had returned from the bank with the necessary cash and had completed the purchase, she and Buffy left the pawn shop with the dagger in their possession. Buffy was carrying it, holding it in both hands, unable to keep herself from staring at it and smiling.

"So...what now?" Joyce asked, tilting her head toward the dagger. "Are you going to give it to her tonight?"

Buffy shook her head, her eyes now worried. "No, I don't think so. She'd probably think we'd been spying on her or get all defensive about her money situation."

"True. She might."

"Well, m-m-maybe I could give it to her on her birthday," Buffy suggested. "It's only a month or so away."

Joyce smiled and nodded in approval. "I think that's a capital idea!"

"'Capital idea'?" Buffy commented sarcastically. "You've been spending way too much time with Giles."

Joyce gave her daughter a mock-glare. "Come on, dress-less girl," she needled, linking her arm with Buffy's. "Time for you to get home and figure out what to wear tomorrow."

Buffy's eyes widened at the thought of that task. While her daughter let out a pitiful whine, Joyce just chuckled and led her away.

That evening, Faith was walking along the street on her way to Buffy's house for pizza and movies. She had spent the afternoon picking out a dress plus all the necessary accessories. Although she had been pleased with what she had found, she couldn't silence the nagging voice inside her.

I can't believe you pawned your dagger! her inner self accused. Professor Dormer gave that to you. Your watcher. And you sold it! You've disappointed her all over again! And for what? Some hot chick you wanna sleep with?

"No," Faith said out loud, stopping on the sidewalk. "It's not like that," she told herself, even gesturing as she spoke.

When a passerby gave her a strange look for talking to herself, Faith quickly resumed her walking. After she had gotten a few yards down the sidewalk, her inner voice started back up.

What's it like, then? it asked cruelly. Do you think you're in love with this girl?

Faith stopped her in tracks once again. Her expression was troubled, and her mouth opened as if to speak, but no words came out.

Puh-lease, the voice continued, dripping in sarcasm. As if you were capable.

Faith closed her eyes and hung her head, clenching her fists tightly.

It always ends in disaster. You know that.

Every time you let those walls down, every time you start to care...either you ruin it or they do. It's inevitable.

The dagger proves it. You've gone over the line.

If Diana were here, she'd--

"Just shut up!" Faith told her inner voice as she opened her eyes and shook out her hands. Then she let out a long, sad sigh. "Just...shut up."

Without another word, Faith hurried up the street to make the turn onto Revello Drive.

After a quiet and somewhat awkward dinner at the Summers home, Faith and Buffy moved into the living room to watch videos. Joyce reluctantly left the two girls alone and excused herself to go upstairs.

As Faith plopped down at one end of the couch, Buffy sat near her but turned so that she could face her.

"You were pretty quiet at dinner," Buffy commented, hoping to encourage Faith to open up.

Faith merely shrugged in response without looking in Buffy's direction. "Didn't have anything to say."

A long silence ensued.

Buffy tried again. "I-I-If there's something on your mind and you wanna talk about it, then--"

"There isn't," Faith insisted, turning her head just long enough to say those two words.

"I mean, we don't have to watch movies. We can just--"

"Look," Faith replied sharply as she sat up to face Buffy. "I said I didn't wanna talk about it! Okay?"

The harshness of her girlfriend's voice momentarily stunned Buffy, but she quickly covered up her own hurt and pressed her advantage. "So there is something bothering you..."

Faith sighed wearily and plopped back against the couch, slouching even more. After another long silence, she simply said, "Can we just watch the movie?"

Defeated, Buffy swallowed hard and then gave Faith a nod. "Sure," she said in an even voice.

She got up from the couch and retrieved the video store bag. As she began shuffling through its contents, she went on in a slightly nervous tone.

"I-I-I wasn't sure what we'd be in the mood for, so I got a variety," Buffy explained as she started to pull the videos from the bag. "I think I can assume these are off the list," she stated as she set aside Titanic and As Good As It Gets.

"You assumed right," Faith confirmed.

"That leaves us with comedy..." She held up Austin Powers and Men In Black. "Or action..."

"Oooh! G. I. Jane!" Faith called out when she saw the video in Buffy's hand.

"What? No Ripley?" Buffy asked as she also held up Alien Resurrection.

For a second, Faith looked undecided. Then she said, "First Jane, then Ripley."

Buffy chuckled. "Jane, it is." After turning on the TV and VCR and inserting the tape, she pressed the play button on the remote and handed it to Faith. "I'm gonna go get the leftover pizza and some drinks."

"Okay," Faith answered as the FBI Warning appeared on the screen.

By the time Buffy returned from the kitchen, the video was well into the previews. She set the food and drinks on the coffee table but hesitated before sitting down. She glanced briefly at Faith and then deliberately chose to sit at the opposite end of the couch. She pulled a pillow into her lap and began fiddling with the fringed trim.

Her actions did not go unnoticed by Faith, who cut her eyes but didn't turn in Buffy's direction. After nearly a full minute of awkwardness, Faith said, "You don't have to sit so far away, ya know."

"I just thought maybe you needed some space," Buffy replied without moving from her spot.

Faith pressed the pause button on the remote and turned to face Buffy, who cautiously met her gaze. "Look," Faith explained softly, "what I need is a talk-free space, not a Buffy-free space."

It took a moment for Buffy to respond, but slowly a grin eased onto her face. She happily tossed aside the pillow in her lap and moved down the couch until she was seated right next to Faith. "Better?" she asked.

"You tell me," Faith answered before planting a passionate kiss on Buffy's lips.

"Mmmm," Buffy murmured as they ended their kiss. "Definitely better," she declared, grinning once again.

The two shared a sincere smile and then snuggled together to watch the movie.

Meanwhile, at the Rosenberg home, Willow was plopped on her bed, pouting as she talked to Oz on the phone.

"Don't you think she's gone overboard with this Faith thing?" Willow complained. "She never does anything with us anymore--the real Scoobies, I mean. She wouldn't even go to the dance with us until Faith asked her."

"She's in love, Willow," Oz said. "So the whole Faith obsession kinda makes sense."

Willow made a snort of disbelief. "I wouldn't go that far," she said. "It's a little early to be applying the L word here."

"I don't know," Oz commented. "They way they look at each other..."

Willow frowned. She really didn't want to consider that possibility, and she wasn't even sure why.

"It's only been a few months since Buffy had to kill Angel," she pointed out.

"Almost six, actually," Oz corrected. "And over nine since he lost his soul."

Willow's expression got defensive. "Which is like no time at all in the timeline of the heart!" she huffed in reply.

"The timeline of the heart?" Oz repeated with emphasis.

"Okay, okay, I know that sounded like a bad Lifetime movie," Willow admitted, "but I'm just worried--worried that she's going too fast, that it's too soon."

"But...she's happy," Oz stated simply.

Willow knew this was true. And it wasn't that she didn't want her best friend to be happy. She did, more than anything, especially after the previous year's heartbreak. It was just that she was concerned about what would happen if Faith failed to live up to Buffy's expectations.

Or was it just that?

Willow sighed. "Maybe I'm just being selfish."

"Could be..." Oz said gingerly to avoid the appearance of taking sides.

"I-I-I like having Buffy all to myself, and I don't like sharing," Willow went on.


"But I've gotta get over that and let Buffy be happy."

"Yes, you do."

Willow rolled her eyes at the phone. "That's what you've been trying to tell me for days, haven't you?"

"Pretty much."

"Well, you better keep telling me because it's gonna take multiple repetitions for this one to sink in."

"I can do that," Oz said before making a suggestion. "Willow...this's really important to Buffy, so whatever you can do to make that a success, I think you should do it."

"Okay, I'll try," Willow agreed.

"That's my girl," Oz said. "Look, I gotta run. I'm helping Giles and Xander with patrolling tonight."

"Okay, be careful."

"I will. See you tomorrow."


As Willow hung up the phone, she sighed once again and stared at the ceiling, deep in thought.

Several movies later, the two slayers were sound asleep on the couch. Buffy was curled up against Faith's shoulder, resting peacefully. Faith, however, frowned in her sleep and shook her head, clearly dreaming.

In her mind, Faith was back in Boston, in Mount Auburn Cemetery, in the catacombs beneath the Dyer Kakistos's lair. She was there to save her watcher, who had been kidnapped by Kakistos. Faith found them both in the main chamber, at the altar of the one who called himself "the Father."

Sitting upon a throne made of human skeletons, the ancient vampire held Faith's watcher in his lap. The gray-haired woman was naked and broken, her body covered in bite marks and bruises. She was still alive, but not for long. As soon as Kakistos knew that Faith had seen her watcher, he raised one of his sharpened, hoof-like hands and shoved it into the woman's back and out through her stomach; then he gleefully and violently ripped her body in two.

"DIANA!!!" Faith screamed, both in her dream and in reality.

Mid-scream, she sat up straight on the couch, her sudden movement inadvertently tumbling Buffy away from her. Faith was sweating and breathing hard and glancing around the room as if she were confused about where she was.

Buffy righted herself and instantly moved to Faith's side. "Faith, are you okay?" she asked. When Faith didn't seem to hear her, she placed a gentle hand on her girlfriend's back.

Faith made a startled jerk in reaction; then she growled and whipped around, seizing Buffy's upper arms and pinning the blonde in place.

Despite Faith's painful grip, Buffy resisted the urge to struggle or fight back. She remained still and spoke slowly and softly. "Faith, it's me. Buffy. You were just having a bad dream. That's all."

It took several seconds for Faith to register Buffy's face and voice. Once she did, she blinked and loosened her grip, then pulled her hands away from Buffy's arms.

Just then, Joyce came running down the stairs, calling her daughter's name to see if she was all right.

Buffy instantly jumped to her feet and put herself between Faith and the stairs. "We're fine, Mom," she called out just before her mother came into view. "Sorry 'bout that. We just got a little too into the movie, you know?" Buffy forced a chuckle.

Annoyed, Joyce glanced at her watch. "It's one o'clock in the morning! Movie time should be over. Make your good-byes and then take Faith home. Got it?"

"Yes, ma'am," Buffy replied dutifully.

At that, Joyce stomped back up the stairs.

Once she heard her mother's door slam shut, Buffy let out a sigh of relief. When she turned around, she found Faith gone and the front door open.

"Faith!" Buffy cried out before dashing out the front door.

She rushed down the steps and onto the sidewalk and looked frantically for any sign of her girlfriend. Just as Buffy was about to take off in one direction, she heard Faith's voice pipe up behind her.

"Hey! I'm right here."

Buffy turned around and followed the voice back up the steps and onto the porch. Faith was sitting on the bench at the far end. Buffy's panic softened into simple worry. Though she was quite relieved, she gave Faith a mini-glare.

"It's not like I ran away," Faith pointed out, emphasizing the last word. Then she shrugged and said, "But...I had to get out of there."

Faith lowered her head and said nothing more. When Buffy sat down beside her, she ventured a glance in the blonde's direction and saw deep concern in her eyes.

Faith looked away and said, "I'm sorry."

"For what?" Buffy whispered sympathetically. "Having a bad dream?" She reached out and caressed Faith's back, but Faith didn't relax under her touch. "Do you wanna talk about it?"

NO, Faith thought to herself, but out loud she merely sighed and said nothing.

"It was about your watcher, wasn't it?" Buffy prompted. "Wasn't that her name? Diana?"

Faith nodded ruefully then went on in brutal tone. "Yep, Dr. Diana Esteemed Professor of Folklore and Mythology at Harvard University...and a Highly Respected Representative of the Watchers Council...and ultimately the Unfortunate Guardian of the So-Called Second Chosen One."

"Faith, you're being too hard on yourself," Buffy told her. "You were going up against Kakistos--the Worst of the Worst. There was nothing more you could do."

"You weren't there!" Faith shot back, jumping to her feet. "You don't know that!"

"I do know it," Buffy insisted as she too got up from the bench. "Here in Sunnydale, it took the both of us to bring him down--took everything we had--so I know you did all you could in Boston." She moved closer and put her hand on Faith's arm and gave it a gentle squeeze.

Faith looked away, lost in thought for a moment. When she finally spoke, it was in a quiet, strained voice. "She just looked at me," Faith said as she met Buffy's gaze. "When Kakistos had her," she added in explanation before staring off again. "Her eyes were just...begging me to do save her somehow...but I just...stood there." Her jaw tightened, and she continued through clenched teeth. "I just stood there and let her get ripped apart, and now I've--" Faith just stopped and shook her head, unable to go on.

Knowing the sacrifice Faith had made earlier that day, Buffy reached out with both hands and forced the dark-haired slayer to look at her. With tears welling up in her eyes, Buffy told her, "Faith, I promise's not always going to feel this way." Then Buffy pulled her into a strong, warm hug.

Although she desperately needed the comfort of Buffy's arms, it took every ounce of Faith's resolve not to break down right there on the porch. She endured the embrace for as long as she could; then she carefully separated them.

"I should go," she announced as she stepped away from Buffy and toward the steps.

"Wait, I'll drive you," Buffy said.

"That's okay," Faith replied, holding up her hands in refusal. "The walk'll do me good."


Faith hurried down the steps but stopped on the sidewalk and turned around. She now wore a big smile on her face. "I'll see you tomorrow night," she said. "And you better bring your dancin' shoes 'cause I don't plan on sittin' down the whole night!"

With a laugh and a wave, Faith was off before Buffy could get in another word.

After Faith had abruptly left, Buffy went back inside. She set the videotapes aside for return and tidied up the living room. Then she went upstairs. She was extra-quiet as she passed her mother's room, not wanting to disturb her again.

Once she was inside her own bedroom, Buffy kicked off her shoes, removed her clothes, and slipped on a baggy nightshirt. She grimaced a bit as she moved her arms; they were sore from where Faith had grabbed her. She gingerly touched one arm, letting her thoughts wander back to Faith's reaction to her nightmare. Then she shook herself out of her reverie and turned out the overhead light.

As she climbed into bed, she turned on her bedside lamp and reached for the phone on her nightstand to call Willow. She stopped when her eye caught the time on her clock-radio. Nearly 1:30 a.m.

"I better not," Buffy told herself. "'Sides, don't think Willow would be too keen on me waking her up to talk about Faith."

Buffy sighed wearily, then turned off her lamp and settled down into bed.

"I have got to get those two talking and getting along," she grumbled. "Maybe I can do that at the dance," she added in a hope-filled voice.

With that idea in mind, Buffy closed her eyes for sleep.

The next evening, Willow's mother dropped her off at Buffy's house, where the gang was meeting for the limo drive to the dance. As Willow moved up the sidewalk to the porch, she was giving herself a lecture.

"Okay, tonight you're gonna be cool with the Buffy-and-Faith thing," she instructed. "No matter how much Faith annoys you, you're gonna be polite and civil, and you're gonna have a good time. Got it?" She stopped and took a deep breath and then answered herself. "Got it."

At that, she strode up the steps to the front door and gave the doorbell a determined push.

Within seconds, Buffy's mother answered the door.

"Hey, Mrs. Summers," Willow said with a wave.

"Willow, come in, come in."

Once Willow was inside, Joyce gave her a warm hug. Then she stepped back from the redhead so that she could see her more clearly.

"Willow, you look just lovely," Joyce said sincerely.

Willow beamed and thanked her.

Then Joyce went on. "Now, Willow...I've agreed to Buffy's request that her curfew be lifted for tonight--senior year, last homecoming dance, and all that. But I've done so only on the condition that she stay with the group." Joyce gave the redhead a pleading look. "Do me a favor...try to keep Buffy out of trouble?"

"I'll do my best, Mrs. Summers," Willow assured her. Just then, they heard Buffy call down from the second floor.

"Is it just you, Will?" Buffy yelled down the stairs.

"Just me, myself, and I," Willow answered, raising her voice so that she could be heard.

"Good! I need your help--and fast!" came Buffy's reply.

After she and Joyce shared an eye roll, Willow headed up the stairs. As she concentrated on managing the steps in her dress shoes, Willow smiled to herself. Buffy needed her, and that felt good.

When Willow entered the bedroom, she found Buffy at her dressing table. The blonde was wearing a long housecoat over her slip and underclothes, and she was putting the finishing touches on her makeup.

Buffy made a final sweep on her cheeks with a soft brush and then turned to her friend. Her face immediately lit up into an impressed smile. She stood up and walked closer to get a better look.

"Wow!" Buffy told her. "You look awesome, Will!" She gave the redhead a playful poke. "You're gonna make Oz go all wolfy, and it's not even a full moon."

Willow's face went rosy. Although the compliment pleased her, she covered up her temporary blushing by turning to set her purse on the small table by the door.

"Well, let's hope not," Willow said. "Having you slay my boyfriend is not my idea of a fun date," she joked. After they shared a laugh, Willow reminded Buffy of her earlier request. "You said you needed my help with something?"

"Oh! Right!" Buffy pulled Willow over to the closet door where she had two formal gowns hanging up--one silky and red, the other beaded in a soft white with gold accents. "I can't decide. Sexy or demure?"

Willow looked confused. "Uhhh, are these new? 'Cause that looks like the one you wore to--"

"It is."

"And that looks like the one you wore to--"

"It is."

"But...I thought you and your mom were going shopping yesterday..."

"We did, but..." Buffy glanced at her clock radio. "...ahhh, it's a long story, too long to tell between now and the impending limo arrival. So, what's it gonna be?" She pointed at the dresses in turn. "Red or white?"

Willow paused to peruse the choices. "Well, the red is its slinky material and strategically-placed gaps in the side at the hip, but the white is so's all shiny and goldeny, like--"

"I need the short answer, Will, not the essay response."

"Oh, um, white, then."

"My thoughts exactly," Buffy said with a smile as she took the red dress down and put it away. After shutting the closet door, she took off her housecoat, put on the correct shoes, and pulled the white beaded dress from its hanger. "Help me get it on?" she said, asking for assistance.

Willow gladly helped ease the dress over Buffy's head and into place on her body, then began pulling up the long zipper in the back. As she did so, she noticed the beginnings of dark bruises developing on Buffy's upper arms--bruises that were clearly finger-shaped, as if she had been grabbed roughly by someone who was very strong. When Willow finished closing the zipper, she touched the back of Buffy's right arm. "What happened?!" she asked in an alarmed voice.

"What?" Buffy tried to look at the place where Willow had touched her. "Did I get makeup on me or something?"

"No," Willow said unhappily as she guided Buffy over to the full-length mirror. She lifted Buffy's arm and revealed the bruises. "That."

"Oh. That," Buffy said, giving a nonchalant wave. "That's just from Faith." Then her expression became worried. "They don't show too much, do they?"

Willow gave Buffy an appalled look. "Do they show too much?" she replied, completely aghast. "Is that all you care about? Buffy, your super-powered girlfriend apparently grabbed you hard enough to leave bruises on your arms. Most people would consider that abuse!"

Buffy held her hands up to ward off her friend's conclusion-jumping. "Willow, it wasn't like that, I swear. Just let me explain."

Willow crossed her arms tightly and lifted her eyebrows, daring Buffy to come up with an adequate explanation.

"First of all," Buffy told her, "I'm super-powered, too, so I can take care of myself when it comes to Faith, okay? Secondly, she didn't mean to hurt me, she was just--"

"Oh, for God's sake, Buffy," Willow interrupted angrily, "when are you going to stop making excuses for her? She didn't mean to abandon you, she didn't mean to get you in trouble with your mom, she didn't mean to squeeze bruises onto your arms. What are you going to do when she doesn't mean to break your heart?"

Willow's harsh statements nearly shocked Buffy into speechlessness. But then she took a step back and pointed at Willow. "You don't know what you're talking about," she told her. "There are things about Faith that you don't know and--"

"And you know why I don't know them, Buffy?" Willow shot back. "Because you don't talk to me anymore. Ever since she came to town, it's like I don't's like none of us exist."

Buffy hesitated in her reply. "That's...that's not true..." She didn't sound too sure of her words.

Willow walked over to the door and reclaimed her purse on the table. "I'm going downstairs. It doesn't look like my help is really needed...or wanted."

Buffy called out to Willow, but the redhead didn't turn back; she just left the room and shut the door behind her.

Tears sprang into Buffy's eyes and trickled over her lids. She sniffed and wiped at them with the back of her hand.

"What is happening?!" Buffy complained to herself. "This is not the way this day is supposed to be going!"

Just then, she heard a fancy car horn blow outside. She ran to the window and looked outside. She saw a long, black limo parked along the curb.

Buffy got a flustered expression on her face and began to speed up her getting-ready process. She found the right purse to go with her dress, put a few items in it, and set it on the bed. She pulled a sheer wrap with a thin gold weave from the closet and laid it on the back of her chair. Then she looked frantically around the room as if she were trying to remember something she had forgotten. A sudden knock at the door startled her.

"Hey, what's the holdup in there?" she heard Faith say on the other side of her bedroom door.

"I'm coming," Buffy called out as she scurried to her makeup table.

When Faith stuck her head in the door, she found Buffy doing some final primping. "What's the matter? Did ya poke your eye out with the mascara wand or something?" she said teasingly.

Buffy didn't look Faith's way. She was too busy redoing her makeup to hide where she had been crying. "No, just touching up, that's all."

She gave her hair a quick fluffing, then moved from her mirrored table to her bed, again without looking in Faith's direction.

"Just let me get my purse, and I'll be--"

When Buffy turned around, she finally looked up and saw Faith, really saw her. She instantly froze in place, her mouth dropping open in thunderstruck awe.

Faith was wearing a simple, curve-hugging black dress with gold trim. One side had a daring slit that went far up Faith's leg, much farther than the pair of side-cuts on Buffy's dress. Buffy's eyes went up and down Faith's body several times before the brunette laughed and walked over.

"You'll be what? Catching flies?" Faith took her index finger and pushed Buffy's mouth closed.

Buffy laughed, too, and ducked her head, embarrassed for gawking. But she quickly brought her eyes back to Faith. "I can't help it," she told her. "You're so beautiful..." Then she just got lost in wonderment once again.

Buffy's intense gaze made Faith uncomfortable, so she chuckled and made a joke. "I clean up good, don't I?" she said, making a sweeping gesture with her hand from head to toe.

When she looked back up, she found Buffy inexplicably tearing up. Faith didn't know what to do. She was even more surprised when Buffy suddenly kissed her--urgently, desperately. After the kiss was over, Faith was still at a loss, so she fell back on the light banter.

"Okay, that was a kiss worth redoing lipstick for," Faith commented.

Buffy laughed and wiped away the tiny tears on her face.

"And for the record, you look pretty gorgeous yourself," Faith added. She reached up and brushed Buffy's cheek with her thumb, then ran her fingers down Buffy's hair. A little awestruck herself, she whispered, almost involuntarily, "My golden girl."

Of course, that only made Buffy choke up more. "Stop it," she said. "You're gonna make me cry again."

Secretly mortified by the sappiness of her last line, Faith cleared her throat and immediately changed gears. Her face lit up in a wicked grin as she said, "Well, we can't have that!" Then she gave Buffy a sharp smack on the ass. "Get moving, girl!"

"Oh!" Buffy let out in a yelp that was more from surprise than pain. "Ohhh," she added as Faith then began nudging her toward the door.

"Lipstick check..." she called out, pointing at her mirrored table.

"We'll check it in the car," Faith said.

On the way, Buffy quickly nabbed the wispy shawl that she had draped over her chair and scooped a few items of makeup into her purse before Faith ushered her out the door.

"Come on, Cinderella," Faith announced, "your magical carriage awaits."

"Hey everybody," Buffy greeted as she and Faith got in the limo.

Oz gave a nod, and Xander said, "Hey Buffster...looking good."

Cordelia took in Buffy's apparel, lifted an eyebrow, and pronounced, "Last year, but good choice."

"Yes, I's not a new dress," Buffy said, giving Cordelia a mini-glare. "Yesterday's shopping didn't go as planned, but I am not sweatin' it. Tonight is about having fun--not about being on top of the fashion food pyramid."

"Hear, hear!" Xander said, lifting a clear plastic box containing a corsage.

"Oh, yeah, that reminds me," Faith told Buffy with a bit of a wince. "I, um, I didn't get you a corsage."

Willow huffed and rolled her eyes.

Buffy ignored Willow and gave Faith a smile. "I don't care," she reassured. "All they do is get in the way, anyhow."

"I wouldn't know," Faith said with a shrug, returning Buffy's smile.

After that, an awkward silence settled inside the limo. Willow was conspicuously un-bubbly, and Buffy kept looking down at her lap and wringing her hands.

Faith reached over and took Buffy's hand. "You okay?"

"Yeah, I'm fine," Buffy replied. "Just a little nervous, that's all." When Faith gave her a puzzled look, Buffy went on to explain. "I mean, I'm going to the Homecoming Dance with my girlfriend. I haven't really had time to think about the whole 'coming out to the entire school at one time' aspect of that scenario."

"What do you care what they think?" Faith said with a grin. "I mean, who are they, anyway?"

"They're her friends," Willow interjected sharply. "Of course she cares what they think."

"No, Faith's right," Buffy said, causing another Willow eye-roll. "My friends--my real friends--are right here." She swept her eyes around to each person. "And if you're okay with the girl-plus-girl dance date, then the others will just have to deal," she announced, throwing her shoulders back bravely and putting on a determined smile.

When Buffy's smile began to waver, Faith said, "But we can still play it cool if you want."

"That's good too!" Buffy instantly agreed, nodding vigorously, suddenly not so brave anymore.

A short time later, the limo pulled up to the Sunnydale High School Gymnasium, and the Scoobies piled out and went inside. Once they had made it past the faculty chaperones, the three couples headed for the seating area.

Buffy and Faith were at the head of the group as they wove their way through the sea of people. As they approached a gap in the crowd, Buffy suddenly froze. When Faith and the others looked ahead at what had caused Buffy's abrupt stop, they saw Scott with his date, Danielle.

Faith's eyes narrowed, and she said, "Let me handle this."

She pushed past Buffy and walked over to Scott and Danielle, with the Scoobies discretely following. Scott and Danielle were slow dancing next to a set of tables. Faith gave them each a tap on the shoulder, and the couple pulled apart.

"Scott? There you are, honey!" Faith greeted loudly. "Hey, good news. The doctor says that the itching and the swelling and the burning should clear up, but we gotta keep using the ointment." She put her hands on Scott's chest and turned to his date. "Hi!"

Danielle was stunned into silence and just glanced away. Safe from Danielle's view, Faith turned back to Scott, grabbed him by the lapels, and pulled him close. She gave him a quick glare, then released him and walked away.

Scott turned back to his date, thoroughly embarrassed. "Uhhh..."

Buffy and the others slipped past Scott, grinning and giggling to themselves. Even Willow was smiling until she saw Buffy sidle up to Faith and link her arm with her girlfriend's. At that point, Willow's scowl returned.

Buffy leaned her head against Faith's shoulder and said, "My hero."

"Shut up," Faith grumbled, but with a smile on her face.

Throughout the early part of the evening, the tension caused by Willow and Buffy's argument over Faith was greatly affecting the group. Despite Oz's attempts to lighten Willow's mood, she remained angry and sullen any time Buffy and Faith were together. And although Buffy tried to look past it and to enjoy her time with Faith, it was clear that the situation was weighing heavily on Buffy's mind.

At one point, Willow was left alone at the table. Oz was off chatting with his band buddy Devon. Xander and Cordelia were dancing. Buffy and Faith were hitting the food bar. When the two slayers returned with food plates and drinks, they found Willow doodling on a cocktail napkin.

"Hey, Will, you want a cream puff?" Buffy asked, trying to make a peace offering.

"No, thanks," Willow replied rather coolly before returning to her drawing.

Buffy sadly dropped her gaze.

Faith picked up one of the cream puffs and said with a big smile, "Just leaves more for us!"

She took a big bite, inadvertently causing the soft white cream to smear onto her face. Buffy laughed and used a napkin to help Faith wipe away the errant pastry filling.

Willow made a disgusted huff at the two slayers and got up from her seat. As she walked past them toward the food tables, she slapped her cocktail napkin into Faith's hand.

"Here, you missed a spot," Willow said rudely and then stomped off.

Faith clutched the napkin in her hand and then watched Willow walk away. "Geez, what's got her panties in a wad?" Faith said after turning to Buffy. "She's been glaring at us all night, well, at me mostly."

Buffy gave a sheepish shrug. "She and I kinda got in a fight earlier," she confessed. "About you."

"What about?"

Buffy lifted her wrap and pointed to the bruises on her arms. "About these."

"Oh." Faith hung her head. "I didn't realize I had...I'm sorry."

"It wasn't your fault," Buffy said, touching Faith's arm. "And I was about to explain all that to Willow when the limo arrived. So I never got to." Buffy paused and looked away. "She, um, she was worried you might be abusing me."

"What?!" Faith was appalled. "I would never--" She stopped and looked at the bruises, guilty sadness entering her eyes. "Not on purpose anyway." She sighed dejectedly. "Maybe she's right to be worried."

Buffy squeezed Faith's arm as a discouragement to that notion. Then Faith opened the cocktail napkin that Willow had stuffed into her hand. When she saw what was on it, she gave a rueful laugh.

"Certainly explains that," she said as she plopped the napkin on the table where Buffy could see. On it was the clear outline of a shovel.

"Okay, that does it," Buffy said. "She and I are gonna have this out right now."

Faith put her hand on Buffy's arm and stopped her. "No, this is between me and Willow." She got to her feet and picked up the napkin drawing. "I'll be right back."


Buffy didn't want her to go but let her; then she anxiously watched her cross the room to where Willow was hovering a short distance from the food table.

As Faith approached Willow, she saw that the redhead made no move to leave. Instead, Willow straightened her posture and put on her resolve face.

When Faith reached her, she held up Willow's napkin doodle and said, "What's this supposed to mean?"

"Consider it your second warning."

"For what?"

Willow leaned close and said in an urgent whisper, "I know what you did!"

"Yeah?" Faith replied sarcastically. "And was it last summer?"

"That is so like you," Willow accused. "Making jokes over something like this."

"Well, according to Buffy, you don't even know what 'this' is yet. You never let her explain."

"What is there to explain?" Willow countered. "Did you put those bruises on Buffy's arms?" she asked point-blank.


"Were you sparring when it happened?"


"Well, there ya go. We have an admission of guilt. Can we go to the sentencing phase now?"

"It's not what you think," Faith insisted.

"What I think is that you grabbed my best friend's arms so hard you put bruises on them, and given the fact that she's pretty damn hard to bruise, that's saying something."

"I didn't mean to," Faith said lamely.

Willow snorted in disgust.

Faith dropped her gaze and said, "I didn't know it was her."

Willow did a double-take at that. "What?"

"I didn't know it was her," Faith repeated as she met Willow's eyes. "When I grabbed her."

"I-I-I don't understand."

Faith hesitated before proceeding. She swallowed hard and made herself go on.

"Last night, we fell asleep watching movies, and while we were sleeping, I..."

Faith paused again and clenched her jaw, not wanting to share the details but knowing that she needed to. She let out a growl of displeasure and said, "I had a nightmare, okay? And when Buffy tried to get me out of it, I...I grabbed her." Faith let her gaze drop to the floor once again. "I-I-I didn't know it was her, and I just..."

When Faith glanced back up, she found an unsympathetic Willow looking at her. "Every time you turn around," Willow said, "you're unintentionally hurting her. So you can see why I'm concerned."

Faith's face tightened into anger. She shoved the napkin against Willow's chest, making her take it back. "Well, right now, you're the one hurting Buffy. Your sour mood is spoiling what should be a special night for her."

"My sour--I am not--" Willow blustered before finally realizing that Faith was right. But then she didn't know what else to say.

"Look," Faith said, "I'm not sayin' we gotta act like we're best friends or anything--'cause that ain't ever gonna happen--but for Buffy's sake, we need to get along. Especially tonight."

Willow had to nod in agreement to that.

"So...truce?" Faith suggested while holding out her hand.

Willow engaged in a long stare. Then she reached out her hand and firmly gripped Faith's. "Truce," she said as they shook on the deal.

"Thanks," Faith said, pulling out of the handshake.

"But," Willow added, lifting her napkin drawing into the air, "I'm not giving up my shovel!" She gave Faith a determined look and then headed back toward the table.

Faith just rolled her eyes and sighed before she too headed in that direction.

After her encounter with Faith, Willow lightened up, and the rest of the evening was more enjoyable to everyone. Although the night didn't afford the opportunity for Buffy and Willow to talk privately, the two best friends made a concerted effort to get along and to have a good time.

At one point in the evening, the Scoobies were laughing raucously at a story that Faith was telling. When Principal Snyder walked by and gave them all a suspicious glare, they all raised their plastic glasses in a mock toast. Snyder glared even more but went on his way.

Later that night, the three couples were group dancing to a fast song, dominating the center of the dance floor. Halfway through the song, Buffy and Faith began a hot threesome dance with Xander, sandwiching him between them as they moved in time with the music. Within seconds, Snyder was on the scene, breaking up the dance and sending the six Scoobies back to their seats.

Thus far, Buffy and Faith had not danced together alone. Any time they had danced, one or more of their friends had been with them. During the slow numbers, Buffy and Faith had merely sat on the sidelines. On the one hand, Buffy hadn't minded this arrangement. She wasn't too keen about announcing her relationship with Faith in quite so public a manner. But on the other hand, Buffy longed to share this special experience with Faith in the same way that she would have done with a male date. As yet another slow song began to play, Buffy sighed and enviously watched her friends move onto the dance floor.

As Buffy watched her friends, Faith watched Buffy. She saw the longing in Buffy's eyes and decided it was time to do something about it. She got up from her chair, stood before Buffy, and held out her hand in invitation.

At first, Buffy just looked at Faith in shock. Then she glanced nervously at the other students around them.

Faith flashed her a smile. "Come know you want to." She tilted her head at the students nearby. "And they'll deal, remember?"

Buffy returned Faith's smile and took Faith's hand.

Slowly but surely, Faith led Buffy onto the dance floor, and she didn't settle for a safe space in the shadows either. Faith led her directly to the center of the gym floor, into a large patch of spotlight underneath the mirrored ball, right where everyone could see them.

Buffy was nervous at first, but once she moved into Faith's arms, nothing else mattered; it was as if the rest of the world just disappeared as she met Faith's stare. The same was true for Faith, who couldn't take her eyes off Buffy and her glowing smile. Buffy moved closer and leaned her head on Faith's shoulder. In response, Faith tightened her arms around the blonde, resting her head against Buffy's.

Being so wrapped up in each other, Buffy and Faith were oblivious to the reactions of those around them. The Scoobies, of course, were smiling happily at their friends; even Willow herself wasn't immune to the love and happiness emanating from the couple. The rest of the onlookers were not so supportive and understanding. Most were merely surprised or curious; some were laughing and pointing; a few were downright disgusted. Luckily, Buffy and Faith didn't notice; they were in their own little world.

When Buffy pulled back from Faith's shoulder, the dark slayer reached up and gently cupped Buffy's cheek. "Better?" she asked.

Buffy smiled and intentionally repeated Faith's words from the previous night. "You tell me," she said before leaning in and giving Faith a passionate kiss, which Faith eagerly returned.

About five seconds into the kiss, the two slayers found themselves violently separated by Principal Snyder.

"You two...OUT!!!" he ordered, pointing at the exit across the room.

"Out?!" Faith complained. "For what?!"

He glared at Faith and said, "Lewd..." then glared at Buffy and said, "...behavior."

"We were just kissing!" Buffy objected.

Snyder crossed his arms, implacable.

When the rest of the Scoobies arrived, they too questioned Snyder's ruling, causing quite a scene in the middle of the dance floor. It was too no avail, however, for within minutes, the entire gang found themselves ushered from the dance and shoved out the gymnasium's doors.

As the doors slammed shut, Cordelia let out an annoyed huff and turned to her friends. "What we do now?" she asked. "The Bronze is gonna be lame 'cause everybody's here!"

The Scoobies seemed at a loss until Buffy and Faith exchanged a look and shared a wicked smile.

Faith turned to the group and said, "Well, I might know a place."

Sure enough, Faith took them to the bar that she and Buffy had gone to the night they had defeated Kakistos. Outside the bar, Faith was having an intense conversation with the bar's owner, who was refusing to let the group in.

"Come on, Jose," Faith pleaded. "We got kicked out of the Homecoming Dance, and it's too early for us to go home." She gestured at their formal clothing. "I mean, look...we got dressed up and everything."

Jose was unmoved.

"Please? All we wanna do is dance and have some fun."

Jose instantly perked up. "Dance?" he asked, his interest definitely piqued. "You mean you and your lady?" he added, nodding at the two slayers.

Faith glanced at Buffy, who rolled her eyes but nodded her agreement. Faith grinned and looked back at Jose. "Yeah, me and my girl'll dance for you guys."

"Is this a strip club?" Xander suddenly interjected. "Oh please, let this be a strip club." Xander immediately received four slaps in a row, one from each of the girls. "Ow. Ow. Ow. Ow." Then Oz threw in an elbow jab for good measure. "Ow."

"Okay," Jose said before shaking his finger at Faith. "But no alcohol this time! Cops drop in, I'll get my ass busted if I let you kids drink."

"Deal," Faith said, giving Jose a handshake.

At that, the group let out a "woo-hoo!" and went inside.

The bar was well attended but rather calm. Once Faith and the others joined the mix, though, the party definitely picked up. The DJ took them into a long dance mix, and the Scoobies took full advantage. Soon the bar was hopping with energy and excitement.

Winded from dancing, the Scoobies plopped into their chairs at a table near the dance floor and ordered water and soft drinks. After they had rested and regained their breath, Faith got up from her chair.

"Where ya goin'?" Buffy asked.

"Gonna see the DJ about a song," Faith answered. "Be right back."

Buffy watched as Faith made her way across the dance floor to the DJ booth. Faith and the DJ spoke animatedly for a minute or so until the current song neared its end. As soon as the song ended, Faith pulled the DJ's microphone over and said, "Okay, Jose...this one's for you."

As her chosen song began to play, the crowd hooted in response and looked at Jose behind the bar. He gave Faith a thumbs-up, and she laughed and pointed back at him in reply. Then Faith moved onto the dance floor and headed in Buffy's direction.

During the song's slow buildup, Faith danced her way over to Buffy and then crooked both index fingers at her, calling her from her chair. Buffy ducked her head in embarrassment but rose to her feet and joined Faith on the dance floor.

Faith took both of Buffy's hands in hers and pulled her close, moving them in time with the music. "Don't worry...this is the same song we danced to last time."

"I don't remember last time, remember?" Buffy reminded her.

"Ahh, it'll come back to you," Faith said with a grin.

Just then, the song stopped its slow intro and started a new, fast beat. Faith broke from Buffy and began to dance around her, seductively running her hands along Buffy's body. Buffy was hesitant at first, but soon she too gave herself over to the music and cut loose. Despite the constraints of their formal dresses, the two girls gave the bar's crowd a very entertaining and very hot version of slayer dirty dancing.

When the song ended, the bar erupted into applause and shouts for more. Buffy and Faith looked over at the bar and saw Jose smiling and patting his chest, as if they had almost given him a heart attack. The girls just laughed and fell into an exhausted hug. In the middle of their embrace, Buffy heard the DJ come on to the microphone.

"And, Buffy," the DJ announced, "Faith says this one is for you."

When Buffy heard the music begin to play, she immediately recognized it as the song that she and Faith had been slow dancing to before Snyder had kicked them out of the Homecoming Dance. In surprise, she pulled away from Faith and looked at her, a tearful smile appearing on her face.

Faith shrugged and said, "We didn't get to finish it before. Wasn't right."

Buffy just beamed at Faith for the longest time before leaning back against her and enjoying the closeness of their own special dance.

While Buffy and Faith were dancing, Oz snuggled up behind Willow and placed his chin on her shoulder. "See?" he said, indicating how happy and in love Faith and Buffy seemed to be.

"Yeah," Willow admitted before turning to give Oz a smile. The smile was sincere but a bit sad. "I do," she said. Then she touched his cheek and kissed him soundly.

As the song played out its final notes, Faith pulled Buffy into a tight embrace. She closed her eyes and just held on as if she never wanted to let her go. Then, with her arms still locked around Buffy, Faith suddenly blurted out, "God, I love you!"

In about two seconds, Faith's eyes flew open, and she separated herself, holding Buffy at arm's length. "Uhhh..." was all that came out of her mouth.

Oh shit! What did I just say? Faith thought frantically to herself.

Faith looked at Buffy, who had a shell-shocked expression on her face.

Fuck! B's freaked out! I shouldn't have said anything. Why did I say anything anyway? I don't say 'I love you'; I never say 'I love you'! Fuck, I need a drink.

Faith glanced at the bar, still in a panic. With her gaze elsewhere, however, she couldn't see Buffy's shock change into a huge smile.

"I love you, too," Buffy said, even though Faith wasn't looking at her.

Faith's mind did a mental record scratch upon hearing those words. Her eyes whipped back to Buffy. "Huh?"

"I said, 'I love you, too'," Buffy repeated, still wearing her big smile.

"Oh. Good. That's good. I-I-I think." Faith seemed confused.

"You think?" Buffy challenged.

Faith was back at "Uhhh..."

Buffy grinned. "Relax, I'm just yankin' your chain."

Faith still couldn't speak.

"You're totally wiggin' out right now, aren't you?"

Faith just nodded.

Buffy took Faith's hand. "Come on, I think Jose owes us a drink."

A squeaky "Okay" managed to escape Faith's lips as Buffy led her away to the bar.

A short time later, after Faith had downed a couple of shots (her own plus Buffy's), she had calmed down, and the two had retired to a booth in the back room of the bar, where it was darker and quieter. Faith was leaning against the wall, and Buffy was leaning against her with the brunette's arms wrapped securely around her waist.

They weren't doing anything, not even talking; they were simply luxuriating in the warmth of each other's presence and touch. Then Buffy leaned up and turned around so that she could face Faith. She stared at her for a long moment, then let her gaze drop to her hands.

"Did you mean it?" Buffy asked. "What you said?" She lifted her eyes to Faith's and waited for her answer.

Faith kept her eyes steady, and without wavering, she said, "Yes." After a short pause, she asked Buffy the same thing. "Did you?"

Buffy immediately gave an emphatic series of nods and then said in a choked whisper, " much."

They moved toward one another at the same instant, bringing their lips together in a fervent and passionate kiss.

Meanwhile, across town, a disturbance was occurring in the darkened great room of an abandoned house--one that Buffy knew well. It was the stone mansion that Angel had called home.

In her most recent visit, she had left behind the Claddagh ring that Angel had given her, and she had made her good-byes to him.

But now a white light came out of nowhere and illuminated the ring on the floor. The air rolled and twisted and crackled as a dimensional portal suddenly burst open, filling the room with an unbearably bright light. With a snap and a thud, a partially-clothed male body fell through the portal and hit the stone floor, facedown. Then, in a flash, the portal was gone.

At first it wasn't clear if the man left behind was even alive. Dressed only in a ragged pair of trousers, he wasn't moving or breathing, and his body bore the marks of one who had endured years of torture. Some of his wounds were still new; others were older and halfway healed; still others had long since turned to ugly scars. Where once a dragon-tattoo had graced his back, deep ragged cuts now seeped fresh blood.

Slowly, movement and sound became discernible. With the little strength he had, the man was trying to turn himself over. After a long series of pants and groans, he finally pushed himself onto his back. He cried out in pain when his ravaged back hit the floor, but the front of his body was no less abused.

His face now visible, it was clear who the man was.

Angel was back.

Part 13

In the back room of the bar, things were getting heated between Faith and Buffy. Their kisses were becoming deeper and more desperate, and their hands were roaming freely over one another's bodies.

Suddenly, Faith separated them. With one hand, she shoved the table to the other side of the booth, giving them more space. She pulled Buffy back to her and leaned her against the edge of the table; then she dove back in, turning her attention to Buffy's neck.

She started kissing behind Buffy's ear before slowly working her way toward her shoulder. Once there, she followed the strap of the dress down to the bust line, where she planted a line of teasing kisses along the top of Buffy's breasts. When she heard the blonde moaning in pleasure, Faith made her way back up Buffy's neck, pulling her even closer as she ended with a particularly deep kiss on the lips.

When they separated, they didn't go far; their mouths were mere inches apart as they struggled to catch their breath. Faith reached up to touch Buffy's cheek, looking at her intently as she did so.

"Damn, B! I want you so bad I can hardly stand it," she whispered urgently.

Buffy swallowed hard then whispered back, "I-I-I want you, too."

Faith stared at her a moment then asked, "Wanna go back to my place?"

Buffy didn't speak; she just gave an eager nod in reply.

Faith's expression lit up into a sparkling, full-dimpled grin. "Let's go," she said.

Hand-in-hand, Buffy and Faith returned to the main area of the bar, where the music was still booming. They rejoined their friends but didn't sit down. Instead, Buffy cocked her thumb over her shoulder at the exit and yelled over the music, "Faith and I are gonna head out!"

"We'll send the limo back here after the driver drops us off at my place!" Faith added.

When Buffy saw Willow's eyes light up in alarm, she sped up their good-byes. "I really had fun tonight! See you later!" At that, she tugged Faith toward the door.

"Wait!" Willow called out, but the two slayers didn't hear her. "Buffy!" Willow's expression fell when she saw the two girls disappear out the front entrance. "What about your curfew agreement?" she said even though it was clearly too late.

Just then, the loud music ended, and a soft slow song began. Cordelia took advantage of the lull to speak up.

"They're gonna do it," she announced and then looked to the others for their reaction.

Willow groaned and let her shoulders slump. Oz just shrugged. Xander was staring off in reverie, clearly already imagining the suggested scenario.

Cordelia rolled her eyes at her boyfriend and said, "Oh yeah...they're totally gonna do it."

Oh my God, Buffy thought to herself, we're totally gonna do it!

She shot a forced smile at Faith, who was settling into her seat after the limo driver had shut the door.

What am I doing? Buffy thought in a panic. I don't know what I'm doing! I've never done this before!

Faith returned the smile and said, "C'mere you."

Buffy swallowed down her fear and moved to sit next to Faith.

Faith reached out and caressed Buffy's hair, tucking it behind her ear, then letting her fingertips trail across her cheek. She eased her hand behind Buffy's neck and pulled her close for a kiss.

With her heart pounding--half in desire and half in fear--Buffy returned the kiss, her mind whispering a silent prayer for help.

After the two slayers got out of the limo, Faith handed the driver a five-dollar bill. "Thanks, man," she said.

He handed it right back and said, "No...thank you." He lifted his eyebrow and winked.

Faith laughed aloud. Buffy, however, blushed a deep red. She covered her face and said, "Leaving now..." Then she began walking off toward Faith's room.

Faith gave the driver a final wave and then ran to catch up with Buffy.

Once they had gotten inside Faith's room, the two immediately kicked off their shoes and sighed in relief. As Faith set her money and key on the dresser, Buffy did the same with her small clutch purse. Then she removed her thin shoulder wrap, folded it, and laid it over the back of the chair.

When the two faced each other again, Buffy wrung her hands and fidgeted in place. Then she forced another smile and said, "So..." But that was all she got out before trailing off.

Seeing how jittery Buffy was, Faith headed over to the dresser and picked up her bottle of Jack Daniels. She held it up and said, "Want a drink?"

"Will it calm me down?" Buffy asked in a slightly high-pitched voice.

"Yeah," Faith replied, "it'll probably help a little."

"Okay," Buffy said. "But just one. Don't wanna end up with umbrellas in my hair again."

Faith laughed and poured each of them a shot in the motel's complimentary plastic cups. They touched their glasses together and then downed the shots of whiskey.

Buffy instantly coughed and wheezed as the liquor made its way down her throat. Faith didn't have this problem; she chuckled at Buffy's reaction.

"Gaack! I think the used oil from my mom's car would taste better." Buffy began to fan herself. "'s making me hot."

Faith gave her a lecherous smirk. "You were already pretty hot, I thought."

Buffy rolled her eyes and handed over her cup. Faith took it and set both glasses aside. Then she pulled her girlfriend in for a searing kiss. Buffy gladly returned the embrace. But when they pulled apart, Faith could still see the nervousness in Buffy's eyes.

Faith gently cupped her girlfriend's cheek. "Don't worry," she assured her. "I'll steer you around the curves."

Buffy exhaled in relief and nodded in gratitude.

Faith kissed her again, and the kiss seemed to last forever before she pulled away and moved behind Buffy. She wrapped her arms around the blonde's waist and began nuzzling behind her ear, causing Buffy to breathe hard and fast.

When Faith let her hands slide up to her girlfriend's breasts, Buffy let out a strangled groan.

Faith swept Buffy's hair aside and began planting kisses along the nape of her neck. Then she moved her hands up so that she could gently slide the straps of Buffy's dress from her shoulders. As Faith began to kiss the blonde's shoulder blades in turn, Buffy involuntarily reached for the top of her dress, clutching it against her chest.

Suddenly, an image of Angel flashed into Buffy's mind. It was the night that they had tried to prevent Spike and Drusilla from reconstructing the Judge--they had failed and barely escaped with their lives and had then taken refuge at Angel's apartment. In her mind, Angel was gently examining a wound on Buffy's back. His touch was cool but comforting.

Buffy shook the unsettling memory from her mind and focused on Faith, who was now beginning to unzip the back of her beaded white dress. She felt her stomach lurch in anxiety as Faith slowly slipped the dress down Buffy's body until she could step out of it. When Buffy had done so and then turned around, Faith reached down and grabbed the hem of Buffy's slip and pulled it over her head before tossing the silky white undergarment aside. Buffy was left in just her strapless bra and panties.

Faith took a moment to enjoy the view, making Buffy duck her head in embarrassment. Faith instantly moved closer and lifted Buffy's chin, forcing her to meet her eyes.

"Don't," she told her. "You're beautiful."

Buffy felt a lump form in her throat, and she swallowed hard before kissing Faith fervently. "So are you," Buffy said. " are you."

Faith grinned wickedly. "And you ain't even seen all o' me yet! Well, except for the peekin' you did when you were on the phone with your mom that day."

As Buffy blushed and laughed, Faith reached behind her own back and made quick work of the zipper on her black dress. Within seconds, she too was down to just her bra and panties, and she pulled Buffy back into her arms.

"Mmmm...this is much better," Faith murmured as she let her hands roam over the bare skin of Buffy's back. Then she moved in and pressed her lips against Buffy's.

As the two slayers indulged in a slow, deep kiss, Faith carefully maneuvered them until they were standing at the foot of the bed. Then once again she turned her attention to Buffy's neck, knowing it was one of the blonde's get-me-hot spots. She was rewarded with a small shudder from Buffy. After nipping her way down the slayer's neck, Faith stopped at her pulse point and bit down harder.

When Buffy felt Faith's bite, she let out a husky groan and threw her head back, giving Faith greater access to the sensitive area. She sank her fingers into Faith's hair and pushed the brunette's head harder against her neck.

At that, Faith nudged Buffy backwards until they tumbled onto the bed--Buffy on her back and Faith on her knees, straddling Buffy's leg. Faith kept up her welcome assault on Buffy's neck, moving to the other side and nibbling her way up to the blonde's ear, where she swirled the tip of her tongue along the outer edge, causing Buffy to quiver in delight.

Faith pulled away and grinned, pleased with the reaction she was getting from Buffy. She looked down at her and said, "Scoot up. Let's get some workin' room here."

Buffy moved up the bed until she was lying against the pillows. Faith moved along with her, keeping her all-fours position over Buffy's body. Once they were in place, Faith paused and sat back, once again enjoying the sight that was before her.

When Faith reached down and touched her face, Buffy closed her eyes. As she felt Faith's fingertips trail down her body, Buffy's mind once again took her back in time.

She and Angel were in bed together. They were both naked, and he was touching her with wonder in his eyes. Then the memory flashed forward to Buffy waking up in Angel's bed alone, a worried expression on her face. It flashed forward again, this time to Buffy's post-love-making talk with the man she thought was Angel. "You got a lot to learn about men, kiddo," Angelus taunted. "Although I guess you proved that last night."

Buffy suddenly reached out and grabbed Faith's hand just as she was about to undo the clasp on Buffy's bra.

"I'm sorry!" Buffy cried out in a choked voice. "I can't do this!" Then she shot up out of the bed and walked a few feet away, keeping her back to Faith and hugging herself tightly.

Faith leaned back on her heels and let her hands flop to her sides. "What the hell?" she said in a frustrated tone.

Buffy glanced briefly over her shoulder, and it was then that Faith could see that Buffy was crying. She instantly regretted her harsh words. She got up and cautiously moved to Buffy's side.

"I'm sorry," she told her. She lifted her hand to touch Buffy's back but stopped before doing so, not sure whether Buffy wanted to be touched or not.

"Nooo, i-i-it's my fault," Buffy said, turning around and wiping at her eyes, though refusing to meet Faith's gaze. "I-I-I shouldn't have led you on like that...not when I knew I wasn't--Well, I didn't know I wasn't until I wasn't...but still...I-I-I shouldn't have been all green-lighty when I was really yellow. Ha! Yellow, that fits, being scared to death and everything and--"

Buffy found her panicked babble muted by Faith's fingers over her lips. After continuing to murmur for a second or two, she finally quieted down.

When Faith was certain that Buffy wasn't going to start babbling again, she removed her fingers from Buffy's mouth and then gently gripped both of her shoulders.

"It's okay," Faith told her firmly. She kept eye contact with Buffy and nodded until Buffy mirrored her actions. Then Faith smiled and released Buffy's shoulders.

Buffy didn't seem particularly reassured, though. She fidgeted a bit and then said, "I, um, I need to go to the bathroom." She pointed across the room.

"Help yourself," Faith said, stepping aside.

Buffy hurried in that direction but then stopped suddenly and turned back to Faith. "Do you, um, have something I could change into?" she asked.

"Uh, sure," Faith replied. She dug into her dresser and pulled out an old t-shirt and some sweat pants. She walked over and handed them to Buffy.

"Thanks," Buffy said before heading into the bathroom and shutting the door.

When she heard the door click shut, Faith ran her hand through her hair and let out a long sigh.

"Jesus Christ..." she muttered before shaking her head and returning to her dresser.

She pulled out a big baggy nightshirt and a pair of shorts and set them aside. After removing her bra, she pulled on the nightshirt and let it fall past her hips; then she tugged on her shorts.

When she turned around, she cast a glance at the bathroom door. She considered going over there and knocking on the door, just to make sure Buffy was all right. But she decided it would be better to wait for Buffy to come out in her own time.

"Yeah, she needs her 'Faith-free' space right now," she told herself bitterly as she plopped onto the bed and leaned against her pillows.

Inside the bathroom, Buffy was leaning against the door. Her eyes were closed, and she was hugging her borrowed clothes tight to her chest.

Great. You've just totally ruined everything.

Buffy straightened up and moved away from the door. She stood in front of the sink and looked at her reflection in the mirror.

And why are you thinking about Angel, anyway? He's gone...he's never coming back...

Her thoughts trailed off, and her eyes became sad for a moment. Then she let out a scoff of self-disgust.

It was bad enough when she had to deal with your guilt-curse breakdown. Now she has to put up with your stupid sex-with-your-ex issues?

Buffy groaned and covered her face with her hands. When she finally pulled them away, she cast a worried glance at the wall separating the bathroom from the main room.

She's probably in there packing her bags right now...

Buffy hung her head sadly. After taking a deep breath, she went about the task of changing into the clothes Faith had given her.

Faith was stretched out on the bed with one hand tucked behind her head. Her position suggested that she was calm and relaxed, but her mind was anything but.

What did I do wrong?

Musta done something, the way she shot away from me like that.

Her forehead creased as a look of confusion came over her face.

I don't get it...she seemed like she was into it.

But maybe not.

Maybe she wasn't likin' it as much as I thought.

Maybe I went too fast.

Faith shook her head accusingly.

I knew I shouldn't have said "I love you"! It's too much, too fast, it was stupid, I don't know why I said it anyway.

Her expression fell into a sad, dark frown once again.

She probably only said it back 'cause I said it first, and now she's freakin' out about it.

Faith's eyes flicked to the bathroom.

She's probably in there thinkin' up see-ya scenarios right now...

Faith turned away and closed her eyes, sighing heavily.

Seconds later, Faith heard the bathroom door open. She shot up and moved to sit on the edge of the bed. As she saw Buffy come around the corner, she felt her stomach tense into knots.

Now dressed in the t-shirt and sweats she had borrowed, Buffy briefly met Faith's eyes. Then she walked over to where her white dress lay on the floor. She picked it up and draped it over the chair with her wrap, laying her bra on top of it. After taking a moment to compose herself, she turned back around to face her girlfriend.

"I-I-I'm sorry," she said as she sat down at the end of the bed. "I thought I was ready, but I guess I'm not." She kept her gaze on her hands, which were clasped tightly in her lap.

Faith scooted down the bed until she was knee-to-knee with Buffy. Then she reached out and covered Buffy's hands with one of her own, causing the blonde to look up.

"Like I said," Faith emphasized, "it's okay."

Buffy dropped her eyes once again, and Faith removed her hand from Buffy's.

"But it must be some serious shit goin' on. You wanna tell me about it?"

Buffy nodded in agreement to the request, but it took her nearly a minute to finally start speaking.

"I, um...I'm not exactly experienced when it comes to sex," Buffy admitted softly. "But I guess you probably knew that."

She looked up at Faith expecting to see the same expression of contempt that she had seen on Angelus's face, but it wasn't there. So she cleared her throat and went on.

"In fact, I've only done it once, and that was with Angel." Buffy hung her head. "It didn't exactly turn out the way I expected."

"Guess not since he went all evil on ya shortly after that."

'Shortly after,' Buffy thought to herself. Yeah, right. How about 'immediately after'? As in one caused the other?

For a brief moment, Faith saw intense pain in Buffy's eyes. She knew there was more to this story than Buffy was telling, but she chose not to press the matter.

Buffy forced the pain back down and went on. "Anyway, there's that, and then there's my first-time-with-a-girl freak-out." She sighed and shook her head in self-disgust.

"Hey, it's not like I'm the expert when it comes to the girl-on-girl action," Faith confessed. "I've only been at it for a few months myself. Just since leaving Boston."

"Really?" Buffy asked, looking back up.

"Yeah, I mean, I was totally into guys in Boston," Faith explained. "I refused to even consider the notion of makin' it with a girl. But then I met Sam in New York."

"Sam?" Buffy asked, a bit confused.

"Samantha," Faith corrected. "She came on to me at a club one night, and I told her point-blank, 'I don't do chicks'."

Buffy had to snicker a bit at that. "What did Sam say?"

"She just laughed and said, 'Don't knock it till you've tried it'."

"So what happened?"

"Oh, she basically dared me into it--and you know me, I ain't turnin' down a dare."

"Annnnd...?" Buffy's curiosity was definitely piqued now.

"And now I do chicks," Faith answered proudly. "I do them quite well, as a matter of fact," she added, leaning over to give Buffy a mischievous wink.

Buffy blushed furiously and dropped her head. Then she cleared her throat and said, "Well, ahem, based on my admittedly limited experience, I would have to agree with that assessment."

Faith's expression lit up with grin, but it soon faded as an awkward silence fell over the two slayers. They looked away and then back several times. Finally, Faith spoke up.

"So...what'd'ya wanna do now?" she asked.

Buffy shrugged. "I don't know." She glanced over at Faith's clock-radio. "It's pretty late."

"Your mom's not expecting you, though, is she?"

Buffy shook her head but said nothing.

Faith reached out and took Buffy's hand. "Then stay here with me."

Buffy looked unsure.

"We don't have to do anything," Faith told her. Then she put on her biggest, brightest smile. "I're safe with me."

Buffy smiled and said, "Okay."

At that, the two slayers pulled back the cover and sheet and climbed into bed together. Buffy curled up against Faith's shoulder, and Faith wrapped her arms around the blonde. They settled into a warm embrace, and for a while they just relaxed in each other's presence.

Buffy took in a deep breath and let it out. "God, I didn't realize how tired I was."

"After all the dancin' we did, I'm not surprised," Faith said. "Not to mention all the drama."


Another long silence ensued. Both slayers were frowning slightly as if deep in thought. Then Buffy pulled away so that she could look at Faith. She stared at her for a full minute, tears welling in her eyes.

"What is it?" Faith asked worriedly.

Buffy swallowed hard before answering. "I just...I love you so much..." She closed her eyes and shook her head before looking back at Faith. "It' strong and..." Buffy trailed off as if she were trying to think of the right word.

"...scary?" Faith supplied.

Buffy merely nodded.

"I'm scared too," Faith admitted. Then she quickly added, "But if you tell anybody I said that, I'll have to kill ya."

Buffy chuckled at that, but then she gently asked, "What are you scared of?"

Faith's light expression fell. She looked away, clenching her jaw repeatedly. "Of waking up," she finally said as she turned back to Buffy.

Although Faith kept her expression guarded, Buffy could sense the anguish behind her words. After all, she herself had the same fear. Buffy looked deeply into Faith's eyes.

"It's not a dream," she told her. "It's real."

After sharing a smile, the two slayers kissed warmly and then settled back into their cuddle. Soon they were both asleep.

It was pre-dawn on Sunday morning when Buffy woke up in Faith's motel room. Her eyes flew open, and she took in a sudden breath, as if she were waking up from a bad dream. She relaxed and smiled, though, when she saw Faith's face just a few inches away on the other end of the pile of pillows.

Faith had one arm tucked under her pillow and the other draped across Buffy's hip. Buffy reached out and ran her hand gently over Faith's shoulder and down her arm, causing the dark slayer to take in a deep breath and open her eyes.

"Hey there, Gorgeous," Buffy said with a grin.

Faith merely made an incoherent groan.

"Sorry, I forgot...Grumpy's not a morning person," Buffy teased.

"First of all," Faith said, glancing at the darkness outside the curtained window, "if there's no sunshine, it's not morning yet, and second of all," she added, turning back to Buffy, "we settled that whole 'grumpy' issue over at your house." In a quick snatch, she reached out and pulled her girlfriend close. "With me on top, if I recall."

Buffy giggled and then gave Faith a playful and deliberately noisy kiss, finally coaxing a smile out of her girlfriend.

"What are you doing waking up so early, anyway?" Faith asked, pulling away slightly and propping up on her elbow.

"Just woke up," Buffy replied with a shrug. Then a shadow passed over her face, causing Faith to reach over and lift her chin.

"What's the matter?" she asked.

"Nothing," Buffy answered. "It's nothing."

"Don't give me that," Faith teased. "I know a something when I see it."

"It's just more stupid Angel stuff," she muttered, shaking her head. After a sigh, she went on, "The morning after we...he was gone. H-H-He just left without..." She trailed off, not finishing that thought.

"Son of a bitch," Faith swore.

After a long, awkward pause, Buffy lightened her tone and said, "Anyway, in spite of the bad memories, it feels really good waking up with you." She shot Faith a smile, which the brunette returned.

"Back at ya," Faith said before pulling Buffy into her arms once again.

The two slayers indulged in a few moments of cuddling and kissing before Buffy reluctantly separated them.

"I really hate to break this up," Buffy said, "but I need to get home before Mom wakes up."

"Well, you better get up and get goin' then," Faith said, giving Buffy a poke in ribs.

"Hey, none of that!" Buffy warned as she quickly slipped out of bed. She looked down at the t-shirt and sweats she was wearing and then over at her dress on the chair. "Guess I'd better change back."

Faith got out of bed and walked over to her. She glanced at the t-shirt and then Buffy's head and noted, "Yeah, the Boston College tee and the bed-head hair might not be the first thing you want your mom to see when she wakes up."

Buffy gave a sheepish laugh and touched her hair. "Good point."

At that, Buffy changed out of the clothes she had borrowed and donned her homecoming dress once again. Then she went into the bathroom and gave her mussed hair a good brushing.

When she came back out, she asked, "How's that?"

"Much better," Faith confirmed.

Buffy walked over and wrapped her arms around Faith. She gave the brunette a warm kiss. "Thanks for last night--for everything. It was wonderful."

"Yeah, I had a pretty good time, too."

After sharing a smile, Buffy pulled away and headed for the door, which Faith opened for her.

"Want me to walk you over there?" Faith offered.

"That's okay," Buffy said. "It's not far. I'll be fine. But do you happen to--?"

Anticipating Buffy's question, Faith handed over a stake.

"Thanks," Buffy said.

"Call me later, okay?" Faith called out as Buffy stepped through the doorway.

"I will," Buffy promised as she turned to walk backwards down the sidewalk so that she could blow a kiss to Faith.

Faith chuckled and shut the door.

Faith kept smiling for quite a while after Buffy left. She lay back down and curled up in the bed, a look of complete contentment on her face. But soon she began to frown, when her thoughts returned to the things Buffy had said about her vampire ex, Angel.

Angel messed her up, Faith thought to herself, scowling as she did so. That son of a bitch hurt her--way more than she's saying.

Faith wanted to know more, but she knew that Buffy wasn't ready to talk about it, so asking her outright was off the to-do list, at least for now.

And the 'super-friends' weren't exactly dishin' out the details when they told me about Buffy and Angel.

Faith let out a frustrated grumble.

I don't wanna look like I'm goin' behind her back and bein' all nosy, but I don't wanna accidentally do something to set her off either...something that reminds her of Angel.

Faith sighed and considered her options. Giles was out of the question. That much was certain.

Intimate details about Buffy and Angel's physical way B's gonna be talkin' to Jeeves about stuff like that.

Or Xander either.

Nah...this is girl talk. If she'd talk to anybody about it, it'd be to Willow.

Faith groaned and rolled her eyes at the thought of asking Willow for information.

"Great," she said with exaggerated, and totally fake, enthusiasm. "My favorite person in the whole wide world."

Faith plopped her pillow over her face and groaned again.

At the Summers home, Buffy was carefully opening the front door and entering with as little noise as possible. Once inside, she eased off her shoes and crept quietly up to the second floor, gritting her teeth at every tiny squeak the stairs made. She tiptoed past her mother's closed door and slipped inside her own room. It was only after she had shut her door that she let out the breath she had been holding.

Whew! I made it, Buffy thought to herself as she felt her body relax a little.

She walked over to her closet and began removing her dress.

Now, as long as Mom didn't freak out and call Willow's house, I'll be free and clear.

Buffy's shoulders immediately sagged, and she scrunched her face up in a wince.

Oh my gosh...Will...she is probably so pissed at me right now.

She let out a heavy sigh. I'm gonna have some serious sucking up to do to mend that over.

She sighed again. Besides, I really need someone to talk to about all this Faith stuff. Buffy got a worried look on her face. I hope she understands...She glanced at her phone and then the clock.

For a long moment, Buffy mentally debated about whether or not to call Willow. But in the end she decided that it was just too late--or too early, actually. She began undressing and was soon reaching for her robe.

I'll shower, get a little sleep, have some quality time with Mom, and then head over to Will's. Buffy winced again when she imagined Willow's reaction. Maybe by then she won't be so mad.

She made an unconvinced whine and trudged off for the bathroom.

Joyce awoke to the smell of coffee. She breathed in and murmured in pleasure at the scent. Then she got out of bed, put on her robe, and followed the coffee trail downstairs.

As she neared the kitchen, she realized that the scent of coffee was now tinged with the smell of something burning. She crinkled her nose and reluctantly stepped inside the kitchen.

She was greeted by what looked like a disaster area. A smoking pan was sitting in the sink, still sizzling. The counter was cluttered with a bowl, a whisk, a pile of cracked eggshells, and an empty egg carton. Buffy was covered with scrambled egg spatters as she pouted at a stack of blackened pieces of bread.

"What in the world...?" Joyce commented as she surveyed the damage.

Buffy's eyes shot up at the sound of her mother's voice. "I-I-I was trying to make you breakfast, but i-i-it didn't turn out so good," she explained, thoroughly embarrassed. She glanced around at the mess. "I don't get looks so easy when you do it."

Joyce rolled her eyes and shook her head.

"I-I-I'll clean it up," Buffy promised, "but...I don't think there's anything even remotely edible...well, I think the coffee's okay."

Joyce chuckled and walked over to the refrigerator and opened the freezer door. "That's why God invented microwaves and frozen pancakes."

Buffy laughed with her mother and went to get some plates. Within a couple of minutes, the two were sitting at the table enjoying their breakfast.

About halfway into the meal, Joyce raised an eyebrow at Buffy and asked, "So, what did you do this time?"

Buffy got a panicked look on her face. "Uhhh...what do you mean?"

Joyce gave her daughter a knowing glance. "If you're attempting to make me breakfast, it usually means one of two things: you're trying to sucker me into some outlandish request or you're trying to soften the blow of some unfortunate 'accident.' Since we already went the outlandish request route the other day at the pawn shop..." She trailed off and waited for Buffy to chime in.

By then, Buffy had regained her composure and matched her mother's smirk. "As it so happens, it's neither one of those things," she said smugly. "I just wanted to say thank-you for letting me stay out last night. So there." She stuck her tongue out as a final answer.

The two shared another laugh. Then Joyce asked, "So you had a good time?"

Buffy beamed in response. "I had a wonderful time. We rode in the limo, we got pictures, we ate party food, we was awesome!" Then she added, without thinking, "Till Snyder kicked us out."

"What?!" Joyce asked in alarm. "What happened?" She directed a glare at her daughter. "You didn't try to burn down the gym, did you?"

"No!" replied an appalled Buffy. "We weren't doing anything, and he just--"

"Well, you must have been doing something..."

Buffy let out an exasperated huff and said, "We were dancing, okay? Me and Faith." She paused a moment and then went on. "Slow dancing." She let the implications sink in. "And he just broke us apart, told us we were engaging in 'lewd behavior,' and threw us out of the dance!"

"'Lewd behavior'?!!" Joyce objected angrily. "For two girls dancing?!"

Buffy slumped and glanced away. "Well, there might have been some kissing..."

Joyce didn't seem to hear her. "I'm going to give that little toad a piece of my mind! He has no right to--"

"Mom...Mom..." Buffy had to wave her hands to get her mother's attention. "Look, I appreciate your whole PFLAG-y intervention here-- really I do, more than I can say--but Snyder's already got me on his hit list. If you go down there..."

Joyce calmed down a little. "I just don't think that he should be allowed to--"

"I know, I know," Buffy told her. "But the truth is...we had way more fun once we left the gym and went to the bar." Instantly realizing her error, she immediately added, "Onze. The Bronze." Luckily, her mother hadn't caught the inadvertent admission, so Buffy went on cheerily. "It wasn't as crowded, and we got to dance as much as we was really wonderful."

A smile brightened Joyce's expression, and she reached over and patted her daughter's hand. "I'm glad, honey. Things haven't been easy for you lately, and you needed a happy night."

Buffy smiled back, but as soon as Joyce turned her attention to her food, Buffy let out a silent breath of relief and then joined her mother in finishing off breakfast.

Later that morning, Willow was in her bedroom, attempting to work on a research paper for school. She was too distracted to concentrate, however, and soon pushed her laptop aside.

I wish Buffy would call, she thought worriedly.

Then she crossed her arms and scowled. I still can't believe she ditched us last night.

It was probably Faith's idea, she thought, her eyes narrowing.

Yeah, you butter her up with a few romantic slow dances and lure her back your motel room, then you get what you want from her and push her out the door, completely breaking her heart, re-triggering her guilt curse, and dumping her into a sea of despair!

Willow paused and reconsidered her mental rant.

Okay, maybe I'm going a little overboard here, but still...

Just then, Willow heard a tapping at her balcony. Her eyes lit up, and she jumped from her chair and ran over.

"Buffy?!" she said excitedly as she opened the French doors.

Her face fell when she saw that it was Faith, and not Buffy, standing on her balcony.

"Hey," Faith said.

"Faith! W-W-What are you doing here?" Willow asked, confused and a bit miffed.

"I kinda wanted to talk to you about something."

Willow crossed her arms. "And you came to my window because...what? You have a front-door phobia?"

Faith hitched her thumb over her shoulder. "Oh. Well, Buffy said that she--"

"Faith, what do you want?" Willow said wearily, cutting the slayer off.

Faith made a dramatic wave with both arms. "Well, can I come in?" she said sarcastically.

Willow rolled her eyes and gestured Faith in.

"We're supposed to be in a truce, remember?" Faith said as she stepped inside Willow's bedroom.

"Truce ended when you dragged Buffy out of the bar last night," Willow said.

"I did not drag her out of the bar!" Faith objected.

Willow shot a cold glare in Faith's direction. "So tell me...Did you get what you wanted from her? Is that why you're here? To tell me you're dumping her now and I'd better get ready for a Buffy breakdown?"

"What?!!" Faith exclaimed in outrage. Then she glared and pointed at Willow. "You know what? Fuck this! I came over here because I was worried about Buffy, because I thought maybe you could help me out, but obviously, you're too busy thinking the worst of me to care about what might be going on with your supposed best friend!" Faith turned to leave.

"Wait! Wait!" Willow cried out, instantly changing her tune. "Don't go, I'm sorry."

Hearing the concern in Willow's voice, Faith reluctantly stopped and turned back around.

"Y-Y-You're worried about Buffy?" Willow asked. "W-W-What's wrong with her?"

Faith dropped her gaze to her feet, took a deep breath, and let it out slowly, not really knowing how to say what she needed to say. Then she looked back up at Willow.

"I think she's having some post-Angel issues," Faith told the redhead, "but she's not exactly goin' into detail, ya know what I mean?"

Willow let out a sad sigh and made her way over to her bed. Faith followed and sat beside her.

"Buffy really loved Angel, a-a-and he loved her, too. And what they was something special...very once-in-a-lifetime-y."

Faith glanced down at her lap, frowning at bit, before Willow went on.

"When he lost his soul, Buffy was crushed. The man she loved was gone, and the only thing left was"

It was Willow's turn to look away for a moment.

"And then she had to kill him, right?" Faith asked in a soft voice.

Willow nodded. "I tried to re-curse him, to restore his soul in time, but I-I-I was too late. Angelus activated Acathla, I finished the soul restoration right after, and then...Buffy didn't have a choice."

"Damn," was all Faith could say.

"She ran away after that. Stayed gone for, like, three months. She had just come back home when you got here."

Faith nodded in understanding. Then she asked, "But what made him go all un-cursed in the first place?"

Willow began to fidget and look decidedly uncomfortable. "I...I don't think I should say any more. We're starting to go over the privacy line here."

"Look, all I'm doin' is tryin' to not screw things up with Buffy. Anything, anything at all that you can--"

"No," Willow said, shaking her head.

"I'm just afraid I'm gonna do something or say something that--"

"I said no," Willow insisted.

Faith stared at Willow and waited, but the redhead's resolve face was firmly in place.

"Fine," Faith said in an annoyed voice as she got to her feet.

"Fine is right," Willow replied somewhat defensively. "I am not going to betray Buffy's confidence just because you're feeling unsure of yourself."

"Whatever..." Faith growled over her shoulder before walking through the French doors and then nonchalantly vaulting over the second-story balcony.

A short time later, Willow heard another knock at her window. She let out a huff and stomped over to the French doors.

"Look, Faith, I've said all I'm gonna say," she complained loudly as she pulled open the glass doors.

She couldn't have been more surprised when she found Buffy, and not Faith, on her balcony.

"Buffy!" she said with a deer-in-headlights expression.

Buffy gave Willow a puzzled look. "Faith was here?"

"Uhhh, yeah, she was...earlier..."

When Willow didn't elaborate, Buffy leaned forward and said, "Because...?"

"Oh, um, she just wanted to, you know, follow up on that whole, um, truce thing. From last night. That we talked about."

"Ohhh-kaaaay," Buffy said, not really believing Willow's answer but not that interested in pressing the matter either.

"W-W-What are you doing here?" Willow countered.

Buffy scrunched her face into a wince. "To beg forgiveness?"

"Oh, right. I'm supposed to be mad at you," Willow said. "Wait, I am mad at you. You ditched us last night!"

"I know, I know," Buffy said, truly apologetic.

"I promised your mother I'd keep an eye on you," Willow went on, "and you promised her you'd stay with the group! What if she had called here last night?"

"I know...I'm sorry..."

Willow crossed her arms and wouldn't look at Buffy. She was that furious. The sight of her best friend so angry made tears fill Buffy's eyes. She dropped her gaze to the floor.

"Be mad, okay?" she said in a choked voice. "But please don't hate me..."

Willow immediately softened and stepped closer to Buffy. "I don't hate you, Buffy...I could never hate you..."

The two friends exchanged an intense glance before Willow looked away.

" hurts that you're always choosing Faith over me." She shrugged and went on. "Okay, maybe it's not always, but it feels that way."

Buffy's expression became pained. "I'm sorry. I don't mean to be a bad friend, I don't, but..." Suddenly, Buffy burst into tears.

"Oh! Oh, Buffy! Don't cry." Willow pulled Buffy into a hug. "No, I'm the bad friend, I am!"

Buffy pulled away, still crying. "No, you're not a bad friend. It's just...things are happening so fast, and I really need somebody to talk to...but I know the last thing you wanna hear about is Faith and--"

"No, I am being a bad friend. Here you are, going through something--a critical, life-situation kind of something--and I'm not being there for you!" She reached out and grasped Buffy's arm. "But...I'm here for you now." She led her to the edge of the bed. "What is it? What's going on?"

Buffy took in a shaky breath. "It's me and Faith. We took a really big step last night, and it's kinda scary..."

Willow's eyes widened. Oh my God! They really did do it! She held her breath as she waited for Buffy to finish.

"We said 'I love you' to each other."

Impossibly, Willow's eyes widened more. She hadn't expected that revelation. Sex yes, but love? "Oh my God..."

Buffy nodded emphatically.

Willow stared at Buffy for a long moment before speaking again. Then her curiosity got the better of her, and she dared to ask, "Did you and Faith...?" She trailed off, not saying the words but giving Buffy a look that said it all.

Buffy ducked her head in embarrassment when she realized what Willow was asking. "No," she replied, her eyes still averted. "We started to, but...I-I-I couldn't go through with it."

When Buffy didn't look back up, Willow touched her arm. "She didn't try to...?"

"No!" Buffy instantly replied. "No," she repeated firmly. Buffy wasn't angry at Willow's implication, but she wanted to make sure that her friend got the message. But Buffy didn't dwell on that. Soon she was smiling brightly. "She was so sweet about it, actually. She's..." Buffy was just glowing. "God, I love her sooo much, Will. After Angel, I didn't think I'd ever be able to love somebody again, or this much."

Willow could see the love beaming from her friend, and she knew that Faith was the reason for it. She gave Buffy a sincere smile, which quickly turned to a rather impish grin.

"What did she do when you told her?" Willow asked. "It was during the slow dance song, wasn't it? That's when you told her, right? Had to be."

"Yeah, it was," Buffy confirmed, "but...I didn't tell her first."

Willow's mouth dropped open in utter disbelief.

"Yep, that's pretty much how I reacted, too. And come to think of it, that's how Faith reacted after she said it. I think she freaked herself out." Buffy laughed and then smiled widely again. "But it was easy to say it back. It felt right, you know? It all feels so...'right'."

"Then...why are you so scared?"

Buffy teared up once again. "Because that's when bad things happen..." She looked down at her lap. Several tears landed on her hands. "The night Angel and I made love, it was so...perfect," she said in a barely audible whisper. "And then..." She trailed off, frowning sadly as she remembered everything that had followed their lovemaking.

Willow reached out and covered Buffy's tear-stained hand with her own. "But that's not gonna happen with Faith," she said gently. "It can't. Far as I know, she's totally curse-free...a-a-and unlike Angel, that's a good thing."

"I know it won't be that," Buffy said, "but I'm just afraid it'll be something." She sighed and then said sadly, "Sometimes I think that I'm not meant to find happiness...that being the Slayer is always going to make happiness a complete impossibility."

"No, Buffy, that's not true," Willow insisted. "Being the Slayer, yeah, it won't be easy, but you can be happy. You just need to find the right person, that's all." She paused and looked at Buffy intently. "Do you, um, do you think that Faith could be that person, you know, who makes you happy?"

Buffy thought seriously for a long moment and then looked up, her face aglow with a totally smitten smile.

"I'll take that as a 'yes'," Willow quipped.

"Oh!" Buffy said, suddenly changing to an excited tone. "Did I tell you about the pawn shop? No, I couldn't have. I haven't talked to you since then. But that's okay; I'll tell you now."

"Pawn shop?" Willow looked confused.

"Remember when you asked me about why I didn't buy a new dress for the dance?" Buffy prompted. Willow nodded. "Well, turns out, I had to make a different purchase instead."

"At...the pawn shop?" Willow was still confused.

Buffy reached into her jacket pocket and pulled out a long narrow item wrapped in a small cloth. She handed it to Willow, who carefully opened the cloth. She was amazed when she saw the golden dagger.

"Oh wow...this looks like solid gold..."

"It is, and it wasn't cheap. Mom about blew a gasket."

"But why did you--?"

Buffy pointed at the dagger. "Read the inscription."

Willow flipped the dagger over until she saw the engraved area. Then she took a moment to read the inscription out loud. "To Faith, In honor of your calling.--Diana." Willow's head shot up in shock. "Oh my--This was from her watcher!"

"I know," Buffy said. "She pawned it, took half of what it was worth, just so she could buy a dress for the dance. For me."

Willow was overcome; she felt her eyes fill with tears. She couldn't believe it. She'd never seen a romantic gesture that was so...No, it wasn't just a gesture, and it was so much more than 'romantic'. This was an act of true love, and it had come from Faith.

"She doesn't know I have it," Buffy explained. "It was just pure luck that Mom and I saw her coming out of the pawn shop. But once we saw what she'd done, we couldn't let her give that up."

Willow quickly gave the dagger back, her trickle of tears changing to an all-out cry, setting off Buffy's alarms.

"Willow, what's wrong?"

The witch was shaking her head in horror. "I-I-I was so...mean to her," she said, hiccupping through her words as she cried. "I thought...she was just...using you...and I was so...jealous...but all along..."

Buffy pulled her best friend into fierce hug.

"I'm so sorry, Buffy...I didn't know..."

"It's okay, it's okay," Buffy whispered. She kept whispering it until Willow finally calmed down--or stopped crying at least.

"What am I gonna do, Buffy?" Willow pleaded. "How can I make this up to her?"

" her friend," the slayer answered. "Be our friend."

Willow sniffled a little more but nodded. Then she said in a lighter, somewhat frenzied tone, "I can do that. I can be a friend. I've been a friend before. I-I-I know I haven't been excelling in the friend category of late, but I can still be--"

Willow found her rampant babble stopped by a hand over her mouth. Buffy gave her a mock glare and said, "So, do you want the juicy details or not?" She removed her hand.

"Yes, please!" Willow said in a chipper voice.

Buffy grinned.

Meanwhile, Faith was over at the Harris home, having fruit punch with Xander in his bedroom.

"Thanks, Mom! We're good. No more punch," he called out the bedroom door, the tone in his voice indicating that his mother was really getting on his nerves.

When he shut his door, he let out a long-suffering sigh, then instantly shot back to his place on the bed next to Faith and reverted to his eagerly rapt pose.

"So...back to what you and Buffy were doing after you left the bar," he said, wearing a huge grin. "And remember, don't be shy on details. I love details."

Faith rolled her eyes and then glared at him.

"Okay, forget the details. Just some generalized description. I'll fill in the gaps."

Faith glared more.

Xander slumped in defeat. "Okay, fine. What do you want?"

"Information," Faith said. "About Buffy and Angel."

Xander's expression became a bit guarded, but he said, "What do you wanna know?"

"What he did to her," Faith replied grimly. "I tried to talk to Willow, but she wouldn't tell me anything."

"Not surprised," Xander said with disgust. "She always was on the Buffy/Angel bandwagon."

"I take it you weren't."

"No," Xander replied firmly. Then he went into sarcastic explanation mode. "Angel was a vampire. Vampires are bad. That's why slayers are supposed to kill them." He gestured dramatically with his hands. "But no, Angel was different...Angel had a soul. Like that made a damn bit of difference to the thousands of people he killed when he didn't have one!"

"But he was good when he had his soul, right?"

"I wouldn't say 'good'."

"Not evil, then."

Xander shrugged. "He was...useful on occasion, but I never trusted him. Turns out I was right."

"What did he do? When he was Angelus, I mean?"

"He tormented Buffy for weeks, stalking her, leaving notes and pictures behind at her house, sending minions after her with cryptic messages. He threatened all of us, even Buffy's mom, and then he killed Miss Calendar and left her body in Giles's apartment. He almost killed Willow, nearly tortured Giles to death, and oh yeah, he tried to destroy the world."

"And Willow still tried to restore his soul?"

"Yeah. It was to try and stop his activation of Acathla, but in the back of her mind, I know she was thinking, 'Maybe Buffy and Angel can be together again...they're so in love'." He let out a frustrated growl. "I mean, helllooo? Buffy and Angel can never be together! Them together equals Return of Angelus. It's all part of that stupid gypsy curse."

"Okay, wait...I'm confused. What does the curse have to do with Buffy and Angel being together?"

"Y-Y-You don't know about the clause? The happiness clause?"

Faith shook her head.

"The gypsies cursed Angelus by restoring his soul so that he would feel guilty and miserable the rest of his undead life. Sounds great, right? Well, the idiots added a clause--the happiness clause. If Angel ever experienced a moment of true happiness, his soul would be ripped away again. They couldn't bear the thought that he might one day achieve happiness, but duh! What happens to the rest of us when he does and Angelus gets unleashed on the world again? Well, we found out...the hard way."

"And being with Buffy made Angel happy?"

"Not just being with," he said. "Being with..." he added with emphasis, tilting his head at the bed to get his point across.

Faith's eyes widened, and she dropped her gaze to her lap. "That's why she was so freaked," she whispered to herself.

"What?" Xander said, not having been able to make out what Faith had said.

"Nothing, never mind," she said, getting to her feet. "Listen, thanks...I owe you one."

"But--" He was too late; Faith was already out the door. "My details..." he pouted.

It was Sunday night, and Faith lay brooding in her motel room. She had tried to catch up on some rest, but sleep had evaded her every effort. She was waiting for Buffy to call, but she hadn't heard from the blonde since she had left the motel room in the pre-dawn hours. Worry started to set in. But just as Faith reached over to call the Summers home, the phone rang, startling her.

"Hello?" she answered.

"Hel-lo!" Buffy chirped happily.

"Hey," Faith replied, smiling at the sound of her girlfriend's voice.

"How are you?" Buffy asked in the same overly cheerful manner.

"Gooood," Faith answered with mock suspicion. "Just many cappuccinos have you had?"

"None!" Buffy insisted. "I swear."


"No, seriously, I had coffee with Mom this morning, but after that, I was completely caffeine free." She sobered a bit. "It's just been a really good day," she said sincerely. "What have you been up to?"

"Not much. Just hanging out here. Went out once, but that's about it."

"Willow says you had a follow-up talk about your 'truce'."

Faith straightened up in the bed, a worried look on her face. "Um, yeah, we did," she said hesitantly, not knowing what the redhead may have told Buffy.

"Well, we talked about it, too, about the whole thing, all day practically, and we really got a lot of stuff worked out, so I think you'll find a very different Willow the next time you see her."

Faith gave a disbelieving snort. "Really? Just like that?"

"Well not 'just'," Buffy said. "It did take all day." She let out a playful laugh. "So...did ya miss me?"

Faith laughed and then got a mischievous look on her face. "Maybe."

"Maybe? Maybe?" Buffy pretended to be outraged. "It better be more than 'maybe,' or I'll have to come over there and show you 'maybe'," she teased.

"Bring it on, girlfriend," Faith challenged.

The verbal one-upmanship was on as the two slayers traded teases long into the night.

Many blocks away, a sleeping dog abruptly awakened in his back yard. The hair on his ruff rose, and a deep growl began in his throat. His eyes scanned the brush at the back of the yard. He rushed forward, barking ferociously.

Suddenly, there was a louder growl and then a squeal, followed by the sound of ripping flesh.

When Buffy arrived at school on Monday morning, she found Faith waiting for her outside. As soon as she walked up to Faith, she cocked an eyebrow at her and said, "So...did ya miss me?"

Faith groaned. "We're not gonna go through that again, are we?"

Buffy laughed. "You're just grumpy because I won the verbal duel." She gave Faith a playful poke in the arm.

"I'm just grumpy because somebody kept me up all night...talking." She pulled Buffy into her arms and leaned in close, a wicked grin gracing her lips. "I can think of better things to do with my mouth than talk," she said huskily before giving Buffy a deep and lengthy kiss.

"Mmm...I agree," Buffy murmured. Then she scrunched her nose and grinned. "Kinda hard to do that over the phone, though."

The sound of snickering interrupted Buffy and Faith's warm greeting. Staying in each other's arms, they turned to look, and when they did, they saw that they had attracted a small group of onlookers. The snickering had come from a trio of freshmen boys who seemed to be about as mature as Beevis and Butthead. A few others, both girls and guys, were just standing around looking surprised. Harmony and her clique of Cordettes, however, had their arms crossed and were looking at the two slayers with disdain.

"For god's sake, get a room!" Harmony pronounced before turning away in a huff. "It's not like we didn't get a eyeful of that Saturday night..." The crowd began to disperse.

Blushing furiously, Buffy pulled out of Faith's embrace and giggled. "Guess we better put a stay on the least on school grounds."

Faith was glaring at the backs of Harmony and the Cordettes. She pointed at them and asked, "Are they demons? Please tell me they're demons."

Buffy gave a deep sigh of longing. "Ohhh...if only..." she said as she began moving toward the front entrance.

As the two slayers made their way through the school, Buffy reached over and took Faith's hand in hers, interlacing their fingers. Faith cut her eyes at the blonde.

"Thought you were playing it cool on the public displays," she commented in a teasing voice as a few wide-eyed glances were cast in their direction.

"Holding hands...that's cool," Buffy insisted with a grin. "It's barely even chilly, really." She let out a giggle. "Ha! I rhymed!"

Faith just snorted and shook her head as they pushed open the double doors to the library and went inside.

As soon as the two slayers had set foot in the library, Faith found herself under attack. She heard her name called, she saw a flash of red, and then, suddenly, she found herself trapped – caught in the arms of her attacker.

Faith stiffened and let go of Buffy's hand. Then she ventured to look down. Her eyes grew wide when she realized it was Willow giving her the mother of all bear hugs. Startled and thoroughly confused, Faith glanced over at Buffy, who tried her best not to laugh.

"I'm so sorry, Faith," Willow said, her face still buried against the dark slayer's shoulder. "I was wrong about you, and I've been such a bitch, and I'm so so sorry!"

"What did you do?" Faith asked Buffy as Willow finally removed herself from Faith's body. "Conjure up a pod person?"

Willow merely grinned at the comment, even after Faith took a clear step away from her.

"We just talked," Buffy said with a shrug. Then she smiled. "I think she just finally saw what I've been seeing all along."

"Totally," Willow agreed.

"Ohh-kaay," Faith replied evenly, not knowing what else to say.

A throat-clearing from Giles drew their attention to the far side of the room. There the two slayers saw Giles set up at a table. With him were Oz, Xander, and Cordelia.

Giles stood with his hands on his hips. "If you are all quite through with your 'hug-fest,' perhaps we can get started," he complained. Willow instantly headed in his direction, and the two slayers did the same.

"Oh! I didn't get my hugs!" Xander said, jumping to his feet. He held his arms out to the approaching slayers. A glare from Faith stopped him in his tracks. "Then again, I'm good," he said, backing away. "My fuzzies are quite warm enough." He quickly sat back down, getting an elbow from Cordelia.

When Faith and Buffy sat down at the table, Giles held up a newspaper for all to see. The headline read, "Animal mutilations puzzle local police." It was accompanied by a gruesome picture of a gutted dog.

"Giles! Like, ewww..." Willow said, making a face.

"I'd like to echo that 'ewww'," Buffy said, holding up one finger.

Oz grabbed the paper. "When did this happen?"

"The first incident was Saturday night, and the second was last night," Giles answered. "Neither of which was a full moon," he added to Oz, "as you know, of course."

"Saturday night?" Xander said. "I thought the bad guys were supposed to take the night off for Halloween."

"Well, as we saw last year," Cordelia said with bitter sarcasm, "that notion is a complete crock."

"So, what's the plan, Jeeves?" Faith inquired.

Giles's eye twitched momentarily at Faith's manner of addressing him, but he answered her question. "I'd like for you and Buffy to patrol tonight in the areas where the attacks occurred. That is, if you're both a hundred percent?"

Buffy and Faith looked at each other and nodded.

"Okay," Buffy said.

"You bet," Faith added. "I'm ready to do some damage."

"We are on it," Buffy finished in a determined voice.

Willow leaned over the table. "Buffy, are you sure you're ready? I mean, i-i-it's your first patrol since, well, Pete."

Buffy paused and thought about that. After a moment of serious contemplation, she looked up and said, "I'm good. I think I'm ready."

"Excellent!" Giles said. "I believe these-these animal attacks will make a fine way of-of getting back on the horse, as it were."

That night, Buffy and Faith met up for patrol. They checked out the areas where the mutilated animals had been found but had no luck in finding a trail or the monsters responsible. As they took a shortcut through the nearest cemetery, a dog suddenly ran across their path. Buffy jumped in fright and pulled out her stake.

"Hey, it's just a dog," Faith reassured.

Buffy put her stake away, but it was clear that she was spooked.

"You've been really jumpy tonight," Faith commented. "Are you sure you're okay to patrol?"

"I'm just a little rusty," Buffy said. "A-A-And a little nervous," she admitted. She gave Faith a smile. "I'm glad you're here with me."

Faith smiled back, and the two of them moved into the cemetery. It wasn't long before they came across a nest of vampires holed up in a mausoleum. The slayers eased up to the structure, peeking over the top of a large tombstone.

"How many do you think there are?" Buffy whispered.

Faith's brow furrowed. "I don't know. Feels like a lot." She clenched her fist around her stake several times as her breathing quickened.

Buffy concentrated a bit more. "I'm picking up six, maybe seven."

"You can actually get a count?" Faith asked.

"Yeah, if I have time to concentrate, I can," Buffy replied. "Can't you?"

Faith shook her head. "If it's only two or three, I can, but any more than that, it overloads my vamp sensing or something. It just becomes one big scream, 'Look out! Vamps! And lots of 'em!' Get 'em, get 'em now!'" She ended her whispered explanation with a growl to illustrate how strongly she felt the urge to slay at those times.

"That is really interesting," Buffy said sincerely. "We need to tell Giles about this. Maybe there are other differences in our slayer abilities that need investigating. I mean, there aren't supposed to be two slayers alive at the same time, so it could be that our powers complement each other."

Faith just shrugged noncommittally; then a gleam entered her eyes. "All I know is...right now I really need to slay something...preferably lots of somethings."

A similar gleam entered Buffy's eyes. "Let's do it," she said.

The two of them rushed down to the mausoleum. Together they kicked down the double doors and entered the stone structure.

"Hi, honey..." Buffy quipped to the six surprised vampires.

"...we're home," Faith added on cue.

And then the fight was on. Buffy took the left side of the tomb, and Faith took the right side. Both quickly dispatched their first attackers, leaving them with two each. The remaining vampires were formidable, however, and the two slayers were pushed to their limits in slaying them. For several minutes, the small space of the mausoleum was filled with the sounds of punches, kicks, grunts, and groans until, finally, there was the familiar whooshing of a vampire's dusty demise, followed quickly by three more just like it. As the air swirled with fine ash, Buffy and Faith glanced at one another, breathing hard.

"You all right?" Faith asked.

"Yeah," Buffy said. "You?"

"Five by five," Faith answered, grinning widely. As Buffy made her way over, Faith looked around the tomb at the damage they had done. "Slayers six, vampires zero...sounds like a hundred percent to me."

"It does to me, too," Buffy agreed as she and Faith slapped their hands in a high-five. Then the two of them slung their arms around each other's shoulders and strode out of the mausoleum.

Later that night, Buffy and Faith were still on patrol. They had hit every area where animal mutilations had been reported, but they had had no luck in spotting whoever or whatever was responsible for the gruesome attacks. In fact, other than the vampire nest they had dealt with earlier that evening, they'd seen nothing out of the ordinary.

As they came over a hill, Buffy suddenly stopped in place. Her eyes were locked onto a large stone house on the next rise.

Faith noticed her reaction and followed her line of sight to the abandoned mansion; then she looked back at Buffy. "What is it?" she asked. "You picking up something?"

Buffy continued staring for a moment longer. Then she slowly shook her head. "No," she said softly. She turned to Faith and met her eyes. "The's Angel's place." She turned back to the mansion. "Or it used to be." Buffy wrapped her arms around herself and frowned.

Faith stepped closer and put her hand on her girlfriend's back. "Are you okay?" she asked gently.

Buffy didn't lean into to Faith's touch; instead, she took a small but deliberate step away; she tried to soften the move by putting on a forced smile. "I'm okay," she answered. "It's just weird, you know?"

"Yeah," was all Faith could say.

"Come on," Buffy said. "I think we can call it a night."

At that, Buffy turned and began walking back the way they had come. With a look of concern on her face, Faith hurried to catch up.

A short time later, after a somewhat abrupt set of good-night's on Buffy's part, Faith dragged into her motel room. She kicked off her boots and tossed her stake on the dresser. Then she plopped onto her bed on her back, not even bothering to undress first. She let out a heavy sigh.

She tried not to think about the way Buffy had distanced herself at Angel's mansion and afterwards, but it was useless. Her mind could think of nothing else. She began to wonder if Buffy was reconsidering their relationship.

What's up with her? she wondered. Every time his name comes up, she pulls away.

Faith worriedly furrowed her brow as her thoughts went to a very unhappy place.

Maybe she's realizing that what she has now isn't anywhere close to what she had, she considered ruefully. I mean, I don't exactly qualify as 'once-in-a-lifetime-y.'

As she repeated Willow's earlier descriptor of Angel and Buffy's relationship, there was bitterness in her voice, but it was tinged with a sort of sad resignation.

Faith felt her stomach tighten. She closed her eyes and rolled over on her side. She pulled a pillow to her chest and curled around it.

Meanwhile, Buffy was at home crying. She was in the shower, leaning against the far wall with the water spraying her lower back. Her mind kept replaying the events of nearly six months ago when Buffy had been forced to kill Angel in order to deactivate Acathla.

She had cried almost every night that summer in L.A., but since making the decision to return to Sunnydale, she had come to a certain level of acceptance. The pain was still there, but at least it was tolerable. Tonight, however, the pain had surged once again, and she had been momentarily overwhelmed.

After crying for a time, she shook her head and let out a groan of frustration.

"Stop it," she told herself, wiping at the tears on her face. "You're supposed to be over this," she chided. "Well into moving on. So deal."

As she stepped back fully into the stream of water, she continued her mental chastisement.

Besides, she thought, you've been by the mansion probably a dozen times since you got back, and you didn't have a breakdown then.

She sighed aloud and then reached for the shampoo.

Hours later, Buffy tossed and turned in her bed. Nightmares had plagued her all night, and one in particular kept repeating.

Buffy was back in the mansion, standing before the statue of Acathla, watching in disbelief as Willow's curse took effect and Angel's soul was returned. She lowered her sword and allowed him to embrace her. When the truth finally hit her, she started to cry and eagerly returned the hug.

Then, over his shoulder, she saw Acathla begin to change; the expected dimensional vortex was forming. She pulled away, gently touched his face, and kissed him. They whispered I-love-you's, and then she asked him to close his eyes. Angel seemed confused, but with a reassuring nod from Buffy, he did as she asked. She kissed him once more and took a step back. Then she drew back her sword and thrust it forward, shutting her eyes against the sight.

When Buffy heard a startled gasp and a groan of pain, her eyes flew back open. Her expression changed to horror when she saw not Angel before her, but Faith, the sword protruding from her chest. Blood was pouring from around the embedded blade, and the dark slayer reached out to Buffy with a blood-smeared hand; a look of confusion, surprise, and betrayal was on her face.

Faith opened her mouth to speak, but that was when Buffy awoke in a panic, bolting upright in her bed, gasping for air as her heart raced frantically. Tears were already streaming down her face, and it took her several moments to realize that it was just a dream...again. That realization didn't stop her tears, though. She plopped back against her bed and pulled her pillow against her chest, curling into a fetal position around it as she let the sobs come.

The next morning at school, Faith was once again waiting for Buffy's arrival. Her stomach rumbled, and she winced in discomfort. When Faith had first gotten up, she had felt a little queasy, so she hadn't eaten any breakfast. Her nervousness about seeing Buffy after an awkward parting the night before had only added to her stomach's unhappiness. When she saw Buffy's appearance as she approached the school's entrance, Faith's gut clenched even more.

Buffy's hair was dull and pulled back into a hastily formed ponytail. She was wearing an old pair of baggy jeans with an equally worn t-shirt and sweater. Her face was pale and drawn, and there were noticeable dark circles under her eyes.

Faith's expression instantly scrunched into one of extreme worry. As the blonde slayer drew near, Faith started to speak, but she was cut off when Buffy moved right past any possible greeting and into Faith's arms, all without saying a word. Faith was confused and concerned, but she didn't press matters; she just tightened her hold on her girlfriend and waited. It was a long moment indeed before Buffy finally said something.

"I needed this last night," Buffy whispered, not pulling out of Faith's embrace. There was a catch in her breath as if she might start crying again, but she didn't.

Faith stroked Buffy's hair reassuringly. "What's wrong? What happened?" she asked.

Buffy gave her head a small shake against Faith's shoulder. Then she let out a deep, shaky breath and murmured, "Just...bad dreams."

After another long moment and another deep breath, Buffy finally pulled away from Faith, but didn't look her in the eyes for more than a few seconds at a time.

"I'm sorry," she said. "I'm being such a total basket case, and I know it's a downer."

When Buffy eventually let her gaze settle on Faith, she found the brunette just standing there, looking at her expectantly. Faith was frowning, but there was no judgment or disappointment in her eyes.

"You gonna tell me what's got you so upset?" Faith asked.

Buffy ducked her head. "More Angel dreams," she reluctantly admitted. She looked back up and found Faith's expression now guarded. She pressed on anyway. "I-I-I think seeing the mansion last night just got to me more than usual. I'm not sure why..." Buffy trailed off as she dropped her gaze once again.

While Buffy was glancing away, Faith let her pain and fear come out in her eyes. She swallowed hard and then forced it all back down.

"Big love, big loss," she said, shrugging nonchalantly as she shoved her hands in her back pockets. "Takes time, I get that."

Buffy looked up and gave Faith a grateful smile before moving in for another hug. "Thanks for being patient with me," Buffy told her sincerely.

"Sure, no problem," Faith said evenly as she pulled her hands from her back pockets and wrapped her arms around Buffy.

Despite the warmth of their embrace, Faith didn't seem comforted. Worries and insecurities flashed behind her eyes. She let out a deep breath and hugged Buffy tighter.

A short time later, Buffy and Faith were in the library with Giles, discussing their patrol the night before.

"We hit all of the places you listed," Buffy told Giles, "but we didn't see anything."

"We wiped out a vamp nest along the way, but that was about it," Faith added. She grinned at Buffy before raising her hand for a high-five. "Decimated it, didn't we, B?"

"We sure did," Buffy agreed, slapping Faith's hand.

"Excellent," Giles noted, pleased that the two slayers were back in fighting form. Then he sobered and said, "Unfortunately, whatever is committing these mutilations was busy elsewhere." He passed over yet another gruesome photo spread in the local newspaper.

Faith and Buffy glared at the articles and photos in disbelief until Buffy let out an annoyed huff. She tossed the paper aside.

"Sneaky demons," she complained. "You think they'd have the good grace to be where we're looking."

Faith smiled briefly at Buffy's pouting, but Giles remained serious.

"I'd like you two to patrol separately tonight," he said. "See if you can find any sign of where the creature, or creatures, might be hiding."

When both Buffy and Faith seemed hesitant, Giles went on to explain.

"I don't want you to engage anything. Just track," he emphasized. "And carry your radios. If you encounter any demons, of any type, call one another and wait for backup. And radio in to me regularly. Is that clear?"

At their watcher's stern look, the two slayers nodded in the affirmative.

That night, Buffy and Faith met Giles at the library. After receiving their individual patrol areas from him, they gathered their weapons, snapped on their radios, and headed out. When the two slayers reached the street outside the school where they would part ways for patrol, they paused and indulged in a long hug.

"Be careful," Buffy instructed firmly as she gave Faith an extra squeeze before pulling away.

"Who me?" Faith quipped. She flashed a dimpled grin at Buffy. "Hey, 'Careful' is my middle name."

Buffy snorted and rolled her eyes. Then her expression grew serious, and she reached out and touched Faith's cheek.

"I love you," she said. "You know that, right?"

Smiling, Faith said sincerely, "Yeah, sure." She pulled Buffy to her once again until they were nose to nose. "I feel the same way, remember?"

She gave Buffy a wicked grin and then a searing kiss. One kiss led to many more, and it took an act of total will power for Buffy to finally separate herself from Faith. She was flushed and breathing hard.

"Whew...any more o' that and I don't think we'd get any patrolling done," she told her girlfriend.

Faith chuckled unrepentantly. "I won't tell if you won't..." she offered, raising her eyebrow mischievously.

"Don't tempt me," Buffy said, forcing herself to focus on rechecking her weapons and radio.

Faith laughed again but didn't renew her offer. She started walking backwards down the sidewalk, moving in the direction of her patrol assignment.

"Keep in touch," she said, pointing at Buffy with both index fingers.

"Will do," the blonde replied, patting the radio at her belt.

At that, Faith turned and trotted off. After a moment of watching Faith, Buffy turned in the opposite direction and headed off as well.

After several fruitless sweeps in her area, Buffy let herself wander a little further. Before she knew it, she found herself on the hilltop that overlooked Angel's mansion. She felt her entire body tense up as it had the night before. She stood there staring at the stone structure, a mixture of emotions on her face. After a moment, her expression steeled, and she headed toward the house, determined to defeat this nagging unease.

Within minutes, Buffy was at the front door of the mansion. She swallowed hard and forced herself to go inside.

As she stepped into the house, she paused and let her eyes adjust to the darkness. She also cocked her ears and listened. When she didn't hear anything unusual, she moved into the great room, where only a short time ago, she had left her Claddagh ring and made a final good-bye to Angel. Buffy's face creased into a frown when she approached the spot where she had left her ring.

The ring was gone. In its place was what looked like a large burn mark--a black, ashy residue singed into the cement--in the middle of which was an outline that was oddly shaped, almost like that of a body.

Suddenly, Buffy heard a low growl emanate from the shadowy area behind the staircase. She whipped out her stake and crept in that direction. The growl grew louder as she approached.

"You can growl all you want," she warned, "but you are going down."

When the growling figure lunged at her from the shadows, she instantly grabbed him by the neck and slammed him on his back on the hard floor. She raised her stake to strike and then froze, a look of complete shock on her face.

A vamped-out Angel lay on the floor beneath her, groaning from the impact with the floor.

Buffy immediately backed away, tripping over Angel's legs as she did so. She was shaking her head and saying "no" over and over, refusing to believe what her eyes were seeing.

Meanwhile, Angel recovered from Buffy's initial attack and rolled over into a kneeling position. He swayed weakly and had to steady himself with a hand on the floor. But he quickly turned glowing yellow eyes back toward Buffy and resumed his growling.

Buffy was unable to move; all she could do was stare. With tears rolling down her face, she took in the sight of his battered body, recognizing the dragon tattoo but clueless as to how he had become so injured – or, more importantly, how he had come to be here at all.

As she started to say his name, the feral look in Angel's eyes flashed, and he lunged at her once again. She snapped out of her shock and reacted, landing a solid punch to his face, dropping him instantly. In his weakened condition, he went down hard and didn't move.

Buffy warily approached him. She reached out to touch him but pulled back at the last second. She glanced around the area, searching for something. When she didn't see what she was looking for, she left Angel where he was and searched elsewhere. Within minutes, she was back with a set of chains. She quickly looped the chains around the railing of the stone staircase and clamped the heavy manacles around his wrists, tucking the key into her pocket. When she was done, she stepped back and resumed her anguished, confused staring.

"Yo, B...what's up?"

Faith's voice coming over the radio startled Buffy so badly that she completely fumbled her grab for the walkie-talkie, causing it to crash to the floor. Luckily, the device wasn't broken. She snatched it up and answered Faith's call.

"Uh, hey...where are you?" Buffy said.

"Green Meadows. You?"

"Ummm..." Her eyes grew panicked. "Uhhh...Cedar Lane," she lied.

"Well, I'm finding a whole buncha nothing," Faith went on. "You havin' any luck?"

"Um, no...uh, no luck at all."

"Why don't I head your way and we can check in with Jeeves?"

"No!" Buffy answered too sharply before softening her tone. "Just, um, stay put. I'll meet you there. I'll be there in five."

Buffy paused to look at Angel once more, then turned and left the mansion.

When Buffy arrived at Green Meadows, she found Faith perched on the low stone wall that enclosed the perimeter of the cemetery.

"Hey," Buffy said in greeting.

Faith hopped off the wall and walked over. "So, how'd it go?"

Buffy shook her head. "No sign of any beasties."

"Yeah, none for me either."

Buffy was shifting her weight from foot to foot and fiddling with her radio's antenna. She was also clearly avoiding Faith's gaze. Faith noticed and took a step toward her.

"Are you okay?" she asked, concern in her voice.

Buffy froze and didn't say anything at first. Should I tell her? After a moment's debate, she mentally shook her head. No, not yet. Not till I find out exactly who he is.

"Yeah, I'm fine," Buffy insisted with a smile. "Just a little shakier than I expected. You know...patrolling by myself post-Pete." She reached out and took Faith's hand. "It was a lot easier when you were with me."

Faith smiled back and tugged Buffy closer. "What'd'ya say we radio in and tell Giles we're calling it a night?"

"Sounds good," Buffy replied gratefully.

"Annnnd...since your mom thinks you're on patrol, maybe you could come over to my place...?"

Faith trailed off suggestively and leaned in for a kiss. Buffy returned it, but not with the eagerness Faith had hoped for. After the kiss, Buffy quickly pulled away and ducked her head.

"I'm really tired," she said. She looked up but met Faith's eyes for only a moment. "I think I'd just like to go home. Maybe I can catch up on the sleep I missed last night."

"Oh," Faith said, surprised and a little bit hurt. She took a step back. "Yeah, okay, sure. No problem. I'll, um, I'll walk you home."

"Thanks," Buffy replied.

At that, the two slayers headed off in the direction of Revello Drive, an awkward silence settling over them.

At the Summers home on Revello Drive, Faith dutifully smiled as she watched Buffy open her front door and go inside. When Buffy turned and gave her a final wave, Faith lifted her hand and waved back. Once Buffy had shut the door, however, Faith's smile faded.

"Something's goin' on with her," Faith stated softly to herself. After a sigh, she added, "I wish she'd tell me what's up."

Faith gave her head a rueful shake before turning and walking away.

"Buffy, what are you doing home so early?" Joyce asked as she came down the stairs and saw her daughter coming in the front door.

Buffy snickered. "Don't you have that backwards? Aren't you supposed to be saying, 'Buffy, what you are doing home so late?' "

Joyce rolled her eyes. "I just meant that you seemed to be getting home early from doing your slayer thing."

"It's called 'patrol', Mom," Buffy continued to tease, "and you're right. I am home early."

"Why? Was there a problem?" Joyce asked, concerned.

"Yeah, the problem of having a total lack of anything to slay."

"But...that's a good thing, right?"

"Not when we're trying to find what's been attacking so many of Sunnydale's beloved family pets."

Joyce grimaced. "You mean those animal mutilations that have been mentioned in the paper?"

"One and the same," Buffy replied. "But so far, we're battin' zero against this thing. Whatever's doing's a lot sneakier than we expected. Which is why I'll be getting up extra early for some pre-dawn patrolling. I figure maybe we're looking at the wrong time of day." She glanced away and back, hoping her mother wouldn't suspect her of lying.

"But Faith will be going with you, right?"

"Um, yeah, of course."

"Okay then, but please be careful," Joyce instructed.

"We will," Buffy reassured.

"Oh, speaking of Faith, I've got something for you!" She reached in her purse and pulled out a folded set of twenties. She held it out to Buffy. "For you to give to Rupert for Faith. It's not much, but it's all I could muster after we broke the bank with that pawn shop purchase."

Buffy's face lit up into an enormous smile as she took the money. She gave her mother a huge bear hug. "Thank you, thank you, thank you!"

"You're welcome," Joyce said as her daughter released her. As she headed back up the stairs, she told her, "Stop by the house in the morning so I'll know you're okay."

"Yes, ma'am," Buffy answered. She watched her mother go. When Joyce moved out of sight, Buffy let out a long breath.

Once in her room upstairs, Buffy pulled out a duffel bag from her closet and started packing it. She included a first aid kit, several towels, and a small blanket as well as a change of clothes for herself. She paused and looked intently at the footlocker at the end of her bed. Reluctantly, she opened it and pulled out a bottle of holy water and an extra stake. She placed them in the bag and zipped it up. Then she sat down on her bed and waited.

After about ten minutes, Buffy carefully opened her bedroom door and crept into the hallway. She paused to listen outside her mother's bedroom. Satisfied that her mother was asleep, Buffy headed downstairs.

She grabbed a few bottles of water from the kitchen and added them to her bag. Then she grabbed the writing pad on the counter and jotted down a note. It read, "Mom, everything went fine. Later! Buffy."

She folded the note and carried it to the table by the front door where she carefully nudged the note under her mother's keys--a place she knew her mother wouldn't check until she was ready to leave for work. The note would serve as her backup in case she didn't return to the house in time. Buffy then grabbed her own keys and headed out the door, locking it behind her.

A short time later, Buffy entered Angel's mansion. Her duffel bag was still slung over her shoulder, but in her hands was a crumpled brown paper sack. She made her way to the stairs and peered around the corner.


He was growling, crouched low on the floor. Suddenly he leaped at her, his vampire eyes flashing hungrily. Buffy jumped and gave a startled gasp. She hastily retreated until she saw the chains stop Angel short. He yanked furiously at the chains and then sank to the floor, too weak to fight any longer.

Buffy waited until Angel's exhausted, rage-filled breaths calmed somewhat. Then she eased her duffel bag off her shoulder and onto the floor.

"You know," Buffy told him as she started unwrapping the brown paper sack, "you're lucky Willy had some in stock this time of night."

She pulled out a plastic container full of blood and tossed the sack aside. She grabbed her stake from her back pocket and moved forward to place the container near Angel. Just as he snarled and snatched up the container, she jumped back out of his reach.

Buffy's face scrunched into a mixture of a frown and a grimace as Angel savagely devoured the blood. He even ripped the container into pieces and licked the inside walls clean.

As soon as he had finished, Angel's eyes began to blink closed. A heavy sleep was coming over him. Wavering in place, he slowly lay down on the floor. When Buffy took a step toward him, he growled fiercely at her, making her backtrack.

Buffy's eyes filled with tears. "Angel, are you in there?" she asked in a choked voice. "Some piece of you?"

He showed no sign of being anything other than a completely feral vampire. Buffy turned away, crying.

While Buffy had her back to him, Angel pushed himself up with his arms, de-vamping as he did so. As his demonic features faded, he crawled onto his knees. He steadied himself with one hand on the floor and reached out to Buffy with the other.

"Buffy?" he whispered.

Her eyes widened in surprise when she heard her name. She whipped around and saw Angel reaching out to her.

"Angel?" she asked as she cautiously approached him.

She could see tears streaming down his battered face as he dropped his weary arm back to his side. When she reached out to touch him, he jerked away, startling her once again.

"No!" he said in a strangled voice. "You're not real! You''re...just in my mind..."

Buffy eased closer and then knelt beside him. She touched his shoulder and said, "I'm real. I'm here."

Angel turned and fell against Buffy, wrapping his arms desperately around her. A shocked and confused look came over Buffy's face, and she mechanically returned Angel's hug. After a moment, though, she closed her eyes and tightened her arms around Angel.

Later, after Angel had fallen asleep, Buffy separated herself from his embrace and retrieved her duffel bag. She quickly removed its contents. She opened a bottle of water and wet one of the towels. Slowly and gently, she began cleaning the wounds on Angel's body. When she was done, she covered him with the small blanket and then sat down nearby to watch over him.

Early the next morning, shortly before dawn, Buffy woke up in the mansion. She found herself curled up on the floor, having accidentally fallen asleep some time during the night. When her tired mind finally registered where she was, she gasped and turned to see if Angel was still there. He was – still sleeping beneath the blanket she had laid over him. Buffy calmed a bit then, though her eyes remained troubled.

She pushed herself up from the hard stone, grunting slightly in discomfort as her body protested the previous night's sleeping conditions. After gingerly stretching her limbs, she sorted through her belongings, setting aside in the corner all but the change of clothes she had packed for herself. She left those in the duffel bag, zipped it up, and swung the strap over her shoulder. She then tucked a stake into her back pocket and turned back to Angel.

She crept closer and stared down at his battered form, frowning sympathetically. For a moment, pity nearly made her consider unlocking his chains, but thankfully, prudence won out, and Buffy backed away, leaving his manacles clamped in place.

She glanced away and sighed heavily but with determination in her eyes. Time to find some answers, she told herself. Then she strode from the room.

After leaving the mansion, Buffy went straight to the high school. She sneaked inside and spent a few minutes washing up and changing clothes in the girls' restroom. Then she headed for the library.

She pulled out an armful of books from Giles's special collection and began systematically researching two particular topics: souls and hell dimensions. After about two hours, she had gone through quite a number of books and had narrowed her inquiry to a trio of volumes that seemed to hold the most promise for her most important quest: a spell to determine the presence of a soul.

She turned page after page in one book before pushing it aside. She instantly started in on the next, but soon she shoved it away as well. She then turned to the third book. After several minutes of scanning, her page turning slowed, and she drew the volume closer, her eyes widening with hopeful expectation.

"The Repertus Animus," she whispered. "When done properly, the spell will climax with an illuminative signification within the orb that will indicate either the presence or the absence of a human soul."

She smiled widely and immediately rushed over to the photocopier with the book. After feeding the proper number of coins into the machine, she made copies of the pages detailing the Repertus Animus spell. When she returned to the table, she set the book down and stuffed her copies into her duffel bag. She then hurried into Giles's office and retrieved the Orb of Thesulah, one of the items Willow had used in recreating the gypsy curse. Luckily, the Orb had been buried under a pile of old documents and likely would not be missed for at least a few days. She carefully placed the fragile glass ball inside her duffel bag and zipped it up. Just as she started to sit back down, she heard the library doors swing open. She jumped, so startled that she nearly knocked over her chair.

"Ahhh!" she cried out before she saw that it was only her watcher. "Geez, Giles! What are you trying to do? Give me a heart attack?"

"Buffy?" Giles asked in surprise when he saw her. "What are you doing here?" He looked truly amazed to find his slayer there actually reading.

Buffy gave him a nonchalant shrug. "After me and Faith quit for the night, I couldn't sleep. Figured I'd just come here and bore myself to sleep with some research." She added an intentionally melodramatic eye roll.

Giles tilted an eyebrow at her in response. He glanced at the large number of books on the table. "I take it the research sedative didn't work?"

"Unfortunately, no," Buffy pretended to complain. Then she sobered and said, "Actually, I came across some pretty interesting stuff."

"What were you researching?" Giles asked curiously.

Buffy pulled one of the books over to her. "Well, I wanted to learn more about hell dimensions," she replied. "Remember when I told you about that demon in L.A. that kidnapped young runaways and took them back to his hell dimension?"

"Yes, you said that they would enter the portal a teenager then emerge greatly aged only a short time later."

Buffy scrunched up her face in confusion. "I don't get that. How is that possible?"

"I-I-I'm not exactly sure how it works, but time simply moves more quickly in certain hell dimensions. One day in our world could easily be the equivalent of a year or more in a hell dimension."

"So...someone who had been in a hell dimension for, say, six of our months..."

"...could have been there, in reality, for as much as a century."

"A-A-And all that time they'd be..."

"...tormented, tortured, enduring suffering beyond imagination...yes, I'm afraid so."

Buffy's expression grew pained, and she had to blink back the tears threatening to form in her eyes. She cleared her throat and forced herself to quip, "Talk about a vacation in hell."

Watcher and slayer flashed tiny smiles at the joke, but then they were silent for a while, their minds weighed down by the current topic of conversation. After a moment, Giles broke the silence.

"I, um, I don't mean to pry, but...would I be amiss if I suggested that Angel might be the ultimate goal of your inquiry?"

Buffy's head shot up, fear in her eyes. "What?" she asked in alarm.

"I'm only asking because...Well, with the guilt curse, we can't be certain that...I'm just afraid that you might be dwelling on the past, on-on what you had to do to Angel in order to save the world."

She let out an internal sigh of relief when she realized that Giles didn't actually know about Angel's return. "I'm fine, Giles," she reassured her watcher. "I'm not feeling anything like what I felt under the curse. Honestly."

"Good, I'm-I'm very pleased to hear that."

"But Angel has been on my mind," she admitted. "Mainly because of Faith. You know, relationship stuff." She gave a small shrug, and Giles nodded in understanding. After an awkward pause, she announced, "I should probably check in with Mom before she heads off to work." She tilted her head toward the library door and picked up her bag.

"I'll go ahead and put these away, then," Giles replied amiably as he started to neatly stack together the books Buffy had pulled out.

"Thanks." She turned to go but then remembered something and turned back around. She reached into her pocket, pulled out the twenties that her mom had given her, and handed them over to Giles. "For Faith," she explained.

"Oh!" Giles said, his face lighting up in a grateful smile. "Wonderful. I'll see that she gets this right away."

"Thanks, Giles!" Buffy said as she headed back toward the door. "Be back later!" she said cheerily as she headed out the door.

As soon as Buffy passed into the empty hallway, though, her smile fell away. She pulled her duffel bag more firmly onto her shoulder and hurried for the exit.

Minutes later, Buffy was easing in her front door. She could smell coffee in the kitchen but couldn't hear any sounds coming from the other room. She quickly turned to the table by the front door and looked under her mother's keys. Her hastily written backup note was still there. She snatched it up and shoved it in her pocket just as she heard her mother coming down the stairs.

"Mom! Hey," she called out when Joyce stepped into the living room, already dressed for work.

"Buffy!" Joyce said with a smile, happy to see her daughter home safe and sound after yet another night of patrolling. She gave her a quick hug and then started gathering her personal items from the table by the front door. "How'd it go this morning? I didn't even hear you slip out."

"Another bust," Buffy answered with a shrug.

Joyce gave Buffy a pat on the shoulder. "I'm sure you'll find the monster soon, honey." She grimaced at her own words. "This is not what a normal parent should be saying to her child," she complained good-naturedly.

"Guess you'll just have to be abnormal," Buffy shot back with a mischievous grin.

Joyce narrowed her eyes into a mock glare before sharing Buffy's grin. "There's coffee in the kitchen," she said as she opened the front door. "But don't dawdle. You don't have too long before school starts."

"Yessss, Motherrrrr," Buffy droned on cue.

At that, Joyce rushed out the front door, closing it behind her.

After her mother left, Buffy headed for the kitchen. She fixed herself a large coffee and a toasted bagel, then sat down to examine the pages she had photocopied. On a separate sheet of paper, she made a list of the items she would need for the spell. She already had the most critical item, the Orb of Thesulah, which now sat upon the kitchen bar on top of several of her photocopies. When she was done writing, she looked over the list again and re-read the details of the ritual itself.

"It looks simple enough," she said, frowning worriedly at the Orb, once again relegated to menial duty as a paperweight. Then she let out a heavy sigh. "I wish Willow could look at this..." She glanced at the phone and debated whether or not to call her best friend and seek her assistance.

On the one hand, Willow was a real witch. She had proved that fact with her re-cursing of Angelus the previous spring; as a result, she would have a greater chance than Buffy of pulling off the spell successfully.

On the other hand, Willow had made her feelings about Angel more than clear. "Kick his ass," she had told Xander to tell Buffy, all without bothering to mention her plan to re-attempt the gypsy curse. Sure, she acted like she felt all guilty about it now, but...

Buffy shook her head. She knew that, given what Angel had done to them, none of the Scoobies would blink an eye at killing him, whether they knew he had a soul or not. And Faith...well the last thing she wanted to hear about right now was Angel. No, Buffy resolved, she would have to do this alone.

And if he turned out to be Angel and not Angelus, then she'd find a way to let the others know, and they'd go from there. But if he turned out to be Angelus instead of Angel...

Buffy closed her eyes and hung her head. The idea of reliving the events of last spring – Angelus or not – was more than she could bear. She forced herself to shake off the thought and to focus on the task at hand.

Buffy didn't go to school that morning. Instead, she went and camped out in front of the local magic shop, waiting for it to open for business. As soon as the owner had unlocked the door and turned over the "We're open" sign, Buffy hurried inside.

The owner scanned Buffy's list and quickly collected the items on it. He rang up them up on the register and gave her the total. Buffy handed over the necessary cash. He opened the drawer, removed her change, and gave it to her with the receipt and the sack of items she had purchased.

Buffy tucked the sack into her duffel bag, thanked the owner, and then rushed out, this time on her way to the butcher's shop.

In less than a half hour, Buffy was back at the mansion. She was still carrying her duffel bag, but in her arms she was carrying another paper bag from the butcher's shop. When she rounded the corner to the stairwell, feral Angel growled and rushed her. His chains held him back, but Buffy jumped anyway.

"Angel?" she called out in a soothing voice. "It's me...Buffy."

Angel just growled more and pulled angrily on his chains before sinking weakly to his knees.

"Remember? I-I-I was here before?"

His growling lowered, but he didn't de-vamp, and he didn't show any recognition of Buffy. Instead, his eyes were locked onto the paper sack in her hands.

She set her duffel bag down, pulled a container of blood from the sack, and cautiously approached Angel. As she had done the night before, she rapidly set the container down and backed out of the way. Once again, Angel snatched it up and devoured its contents in gruesome fashion. Within minutes, Angel morphed out of his vampiric visage and fell into exhausted sleep, his need for blood temporarily sated.

When she was sure that Angel was fully asleep, Buffy started making her preparations for the spell.

"Let's hope I've paid enough attention to Willow's witchiness to make this work," she mumbled to herself, "and that my natural slayer supernaturalness will give me an edge."

She laid the Orb of Thesulah on the floor several feet from Angel. Beside it she set down two candles: a white one and a black one. She lit both. She got out a smudging stick and a strange powder in a clear plastic bag. She used the powder to create a circle around Angel's body. Then using that same powder, she drew a line from the circle to where she had placed the Orb of Thesulah on the floor. She drew another smaller circle around the Orb. As she did all of this, she recited some highlighted words from her photocopied spell. She read haltingly at first, her nervousness very apparent, but she grew more confident as she went along.

With that portion complete, Buffy set aside the powder and took up the smudging stick. She placed the end of the stick into the flame of the white candle and then into the flame of the black candle, making more recitations from her script. She took the smoldering stick and awkwardly waved it in the air over her powder line, first around Angel and then around the Orb, again reading from the spell. Then she stubbed out the smudging stick and set it down.

Finally, she knelt before the Orb. She took a deep breath and recited the major commands of the spell – the words that called upon the spirits to reveal whether or not Angel's soul was present. When finished, she swallowed and anxiously waited to see what happened.

The smoke in the air from the smudging stick began to glow, and its swirling took on seemingly conscious movement. The lines Buffy had drawn on the floor erupted like gunpowder, encircling Angel, then the Orb, before fizzling out and transferring their fire to the Orb itself. The Orb lit up, and inside it two clouds of energy, one white and one black, twisted upon themselves and each other as if vying for dominance inside the globe. After a moment, the white won out, and the Orb flashed in a brilliant light of white, causing Buffy to shield her eyes. When the flash stopped, she looked down and saw that all the glowing had ceased. The black candle's flame had been snuffed out, and only the white candle still burned.

Buffy smiled widely. The spell had indicated that Angel had a soul. She exhaled a long breath and let her shoulders sag in relief. She picked up the candle and held it before her. She thanked the powers she had called upon and then blew out the candle.

She put her spell items away and then came to kneel next to Angel, who was lying on his back. As she looked down at him, tears filled her eyes.

"It really is you," she whispered. But then she frowned as questions and uncertainties hammered her brain.

Angel, how did you get here? she asked him in her mind. Who sent you, and why are you here?

Her eyes grew pained as she remembered the conversation she had had with Giles earlier that morning about hell dimensions. Then her mind continued its wondering.

What happened to you there? How long were you there?

Buffy closed her eyes and shook her head, turning away from Angel for a moment. God, I still can't believe this is happening! How is this even possible? And what am I going to tell the others?

"Hey guys, guess what? Angel's back! Isn't that swell?" she tried out with heavy sarcasm before letting out a mental groan.

I know I have to tell them, she thought. But how? They're all gonna freak!

Maybe Faith won't, she speculated, trying to find some bit of hope in the scenario. I mean, she wasn't around when all the Angelus stuff happened, so it's not like she's got a personal history with him...

She trailed off in her thoughts as she realized the complete ridiculousness of her speculation.

Oh yeah, Faith'll be thrilled that her girlfriend's ex is back in town.

Buffy groaned in frustration, this time out loud.

Meanwhile, at the school, Willow and Xander were in class, whispering to one another across the aisle between their desks.

"Where's Buffy?" Willow asked anxiously. "She wasn't in homeroom either. What is she doing?"

"Uhhh, let me guess," Xander joked. "It starts with an F, and it rhymes with..." Xander trailed off, realizing he couldn't think of a word that rhymed with 'Faith'.

Willow gave him a glare in response. Then she said, "You're probably right." After that, she let out a bit of a sigh.

"Not having a relapse of the Faith-hate, are you?" Xander teased.

"Noooo," Willow insisted with another quick glare. "But I do miss her," she added sadly. "Buffy, I mean."

"Yeah, me too," Xander agreed, letting out a sigh of his own.

While Willow and Xander were in class, Faith was walking into the library. She looked around but didn't see Giles, so she headed behind the checkout desk toward his office. She found him sitting inside, sipping tea while perusing a library supply catalog.

"Good morning, Faith," he said amiably when he saw her appear in his doorway.

"Hey," Faith replied. "Takin' the mandatory midmorning British tea break?" she teased.

"Indeed," Giles said, grinning slightly. "Would you like some?" He gestured for her to come in and sit down.

As she sat down in the chair near his, she melodramatically rolled her eyes, which Giles interpreted as a "no" answer to his offer. Faith then grew serious and asked, "Have you seen Buffy?"

"Yes, I saw her early this morning," Giles replied. "I was surprised to find her here, actually. It appeared as if she'd been here most of the night."

"For real?" Faith said, her voice showing her own surprise at the news.

"You didn't know?"

"No, I, um...I haven't seen her since last night when we called you and went off patrol. What did she say?"

"She said she couldn't sleep, so she came here to do some research. A-A-And it seemed as if she truly had, which surprised me even more."

Faith frowned and glanced away, clearly thinking deeply. Giles noticed and reached out and touched her arm.

"Is everything all right? You know...between you and Buffy?"

"Oh, yeah...sure," she said confidently, putting on a smile. "We're five by five."

On the outside she was nodding in affirmation, but on the inside doubts were plaguing her mind and heart. She wondered why Buffy was acting so strangely, why she was being so distant and evasive. Her gut told her Buffy was hiding something, but she didn't have a clue what it was.

"Good. I'm very glad to hear it."

At this reply Faith snapped out her reverie and turned back to Giles, who was continuing his statement.

"You two seem to be, um, very well suited for one another," he finished.

Faith nodded and then said abruptly, "You heard anything from Tweed Central about my money?"

Giles seemed thrown both by Faith's change of subject and by her phrasing, but he did answer her question. "Oh, ummm, no, I haven't. Every time I call about your stipend, Quentin's assistants just mumble on about paperwork and proper channels."

Faith huffed in annoyance. "How much paperwork does it take? It's not like the Council's got thousands of slayers all over the world to support and keep track of. They've got two, and only one of 'em's askin' for a handout."

"Well, they do have quite a number of potentials, but as you say..." He trailed off, indicating his agreement with Faith's assessment of the situation. "I know it's frustrating," he told her, "but I do happen to have a bit of extra cash for you." He pulled the bills from his jacket pocket and handed them over.

Faith's expression lit up. "Cool. Thanks." She tucked the money in her jeans pocket.

"Unfortunately, the Council has said nothing regarding the assignment of a new watcher for you, either," he went on. "And at the rate they are proceeding, you'll be thirty by the time he or she is sent here."

Faith flashed a gleaming smile at Giles and leaned in his direction. "I don't need a new watcher anyway," she told him sincerely. "I like the one I got just fine."

Giles modestly ducked his head, but it was clear that her comment pleased him very much.

Faith got up from her chair. "Well, if Buffy shows, tell her I'll see her tonight for patrol."

"I will," Giles replied.

At that, Faith headed out of the office.

Back at the mansion, Angel was still asleep on the floor with Buffy sitting right next to him. With her brow furrowed in both disbelief and concern, she examined his features intently--his dark hair, his masculine face, his broad shoulders. On his chest, amidst a variety of wounds old and new, she saw a ragged scar a few inches long that was right over his heart. It was where she had stabbed him with the knight's sword when she had sent him into Acathla's vortex.

With pain in her eyes, she reached out and touched the scar on his chest. "I'm sorry..." she whispered in a choked voice.

Suddenly, Angel reached up and grabbed her wrist. She jumped in fright and tried to pull away, but she froze when Angel's eyes flew open and met hers.

"Not your fault," he told her as he released her hand and sat up.

Buffy pulled her arm against her chest and leaned away from him, still shaken. "How did you--? I thought that you couldn't remember what you had--"

"I remembered," Angel grimly said, cutting Buffy off. "Eventually." He glanced away, his face tightening in pain. "I remember everything," he added in a soft voice full of regret.

Buffy let her gaze fall to her lap as she shook her head. "You must hate me."

"I could never hate you..."

Buffy looked up, an anguished mixture of emotions in her eyes – guilt, loss, longing. Similar emotions appeared in Angel's eyes as they stared deeply at one another. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, they moved closer, unconsciously drawn by the bond they still shared. As their faces grew near, their lips parted slightly in anticipation. At the last second, however, Buffy's conscious mind asserted itself.

What are you doing?! it chided her. You're not with Angel anymore. You're with Faith. Remember her? Your girlfriend? The one you claim to love?

Buffy instantly put her hand against Angel's chest and gently pushed him away, stopping the impending kiss. She kept her gaze averted and got to her feet.

"I, um...I gotta go..." She backed away. "There's, um, more blood in the bag," she said, pointing at the paper sack nearby. "A-A-And here are the manacle keys." She tossed them over. "I'll, um..." She stopped, not knowing what else to say. "Bye," she blurted then left without another word.

Angel looked hurt and bewildered as he picked up the keys from the floor and squeezed them in his fist.

A short time later, Buffy showed up at the high school. She waited outside until she heard the bell ring. Then she sneaked inside and slipped into the crowd of students moving between their classes. She stopped at her locker, picked up her books, and headed for her own class. When she got to the room, she found Willow and Xander already there.

"Buffy! Hey!" Willow called out, relieved to finally see her best friend. "We've been so worried about you. Where have you been?"

"Oh, um, I was know...doing some impromptu patrolling with Faith," Buffy replied. "We're still trying to figure out what's causing those animal attacks."

"You sure it wasn't some other kind of impromptu-ness going on?" Xander teased, waggling his eyebrows suggestively. "Something deliciously improper perhaps?"

"No!" Buffy answered way too quickly. Then she softened her tone. "Uh, no. No improperness going on whatsoever," she insisted with a wave of her hand.

"Riiiiight," Xander said, giving Buffy a wink.

Willow, however, narrowed her gaze suspiciously. Her internal lie detector had definitely been set off, but she chose not to say anything to Buffy. Not yet, anyway. She tried her best not to jump to conclusions, especially not to guilt-curse-related ones, but it was hard not to be concerned when Buffy's behavior had been so erratic lately. Willow sighed. She would wait and see, she decided. She flashed Buffy a small smile and then turned her attention to their teacher, who was just beginning to call the roll.

That evening, shortly after sunset, Faith was getting ready to head to the school library, where she was scheduled to meet Buffy for patrol. Faith hadn't tried to find Buffy since that morning; instead, she had hung out at her motel room, brooding over the events of the last few days. She wondered why Buffy had been so fidgety the night before and why she had lied about needing to go home early to rest when she clearly had plans to go back out.

Well, you don't know that she lied, Faith's logical self suggested. Maybe it happened just like she told Jeeves; she couldn't sleep, so she headed back out.

Faith's skeptical side snorted in reply. No way. She's acting way too weird for that explanation to fly.

Faith's brow furrowed. Maybe she's having second thoughts. Maybe all this Angel stuff is just her way of giving me a heads up.

Her forehead creased even more until her logical self reasserted itself. Just talk to her, it said. You've got all night on patrol. Take advantage of it.

With that thought firmly in mind, Faith left her motel room.

Faith's determination fell away, though, when she found Buffy just as evasive and fidgety as she had been the night before. When they had met at the school, they had embraced only briefly and had gone straight to work – conferring with Giles, gathering their weapons, and securing their radios. They had been all business, focusing their conversation only on patrol issues.

Once they were out of the school and on the road, the situation didn't improve. Both were quiet and rather restless, fiddling with their weapons or radios, darting furtive glances at one another, but neither saying what was really on their minds.

Buffy's thoughts were centered on Angel and the best way to tell Faith the news of his return. She was testing different scenarios for bringing up the matter.

'Faith, we need to talk,' Buffy practiced in her mind. Then she groaned mentally. Not that pathetic line. Everybody always starts out with that, and the other person instantly knows that something horrible is about to be revealed.

Buffy tried again. 'Faith, you know all those Angel dreams I've been having? Well, it turns out they weren't dreams. I mean, they were dreams in the sense that I had them in my brain while I was sleeping, but they weren't dreams in the sense that – Oh god, could I possibly be any more incoherent?!

While Buffy struggled to find the right words, Faith was doing the same thing. But every time that she got halfway into a potential sentence, her fears would interrupt.

Just ask her, Faith finally told herself. Flat out. I mean, what's the worst thing that could happen?

"I think we should split up."

Stunned by Buffy's statement, Faith came to an abrupt halt. "What?!" she blurted in a wounded voice. "You're breaking up with me?!"

"What?!" Buffy replied, turning around in shock. "No! Of course not!"

"Then what did you--?"

"I meant split up for we did last night."

Faith stared at Buffy for a long, intense moment before finally realizing the truth. She ducked her head in embarrassment and gave a rueful chuckle. "Well don't I feel like a moron?"

Buffy snickered a bit but then sobered. She stepped closer and put her hand on Faith's arm. "Why would you even think that?" she asked softly. "Have I done something to make you think that I--"

"Well, yeah," Faith said sarcastically, backing out of Buffy's grip. "You've been bein' all weird and everything the last two days. It's Angel this and Angel that. What am I supposed to think?"

Buffy straightened her shoulders and said resolutely, "Angel is--"

"No, he's not," Faith countered, cutting Buffy off.

The blonde's eyes widened in horror. How did Faith--?

"I know what you're gonna say," Faith went on. "Angel's 'ancient history.' Right? Well, it sure doesn't feel that way."

Thank god, Buffy thought to herself when she realized Faith hadn't learned about Angel's return on her own. Her feeling of relief didn't last, though; deep anxiety soon replaced it.

When Faith saw the troubled expression on Buffy's face, she hung her head and let out a tired sigh. "I'm sorry," she mumbled. "I'm bein' stupid. I'm...I'm bein' jealous of somebody who's not even here."

Buffy's eyes darted away guiltily, but Faith didn't see.

After another sigh, Faith looked up and walked back over to Buffy. "I'm expecting you to just act like the whole Angel/Angelus/Angel thing never happened, and..." She reached out and lightly grasped Buffy's arms. "...I'm sorry."

"I'm sorry, too," Buffy said, falling against Faith and wrapping her arms around her. "So sorry."

Faith returned Buffy's embrace, but she didn't seem comforted by it. She hugged Buffy tighter, trying to let the physical contact ease her worried mind.

After a full minute, Buffy moved back slightly so that she could look into her girlfriend's eyes. "I know I'm pretty messed up," she told her, "but there's one thing I'm sure of..." She gently touched Faith's cheek with her fingertips. "...I love you."

For a few seconds, Faith's expression remained tense and vulnerable, but then she pulled Buffy close and kissed her, pouring all of her emotions into that one kiss. It was an embrace that Buffy eagerly returned.

When the two slayers finally separated, Faith looked at Buffy intently. "I love you, too," she said in a ragged voice. "I love you so much it makes me over my head, scared shitless crazy."

Buffy smiled. It wasn't a Shakespeare sonnet or even a Hallmark, but coming from Faith, it might as well have been. The important thing was sincere. Buffy knew she had to do right by Faith; she had to find a way to handle this Angel situation. She didn't know what that 'way' was going to be yet, but she'd find it. All she had to do now was buy herself a little more time.

"Come on," Buffy said as she reached down and took Faith's hand in hers. "We've got all night. We can split up later." She shot a smirk in Faith's direction before adding with emphasis, "For patrolling."

As they resumed their walking, Faith let out a long-suffering groan but with a grin on her face. "I'm not gonna live that one down, am I?"

"Nope," Buffy assured her as she leaned against Faith's arm.

After several hours of patrolling together, the two slayers eventually did split up to cover more ground. Buffy waited until she was well out of Faith's line of sight before changing direction and sprinting toward Willy's demon bar. After bullying him for two containers of blood, she hurried toward Angel's mansion, making sure that she got there before she could possibly cross paths with Faith during her patrol.

When Buffy entered the mansion, she found Angel leaning precariously against the wall, obviously in mid-attempt to walk from the stairs to the great room. She quickly set down the paper sack she had been carrying and rushed to Angel's side.

"What are you doing, mister?" Buffy playfully accused as she draped his arm over her shoulder and helped him shuffle to the nearby loveseat.

"Trying to get to a softer surface," Angel admitted.

Six months of dust poofed out of the cushions as Buffy let Angel drop onto the loveseat. She coughed and waved her hand in the air, but he just settled into the dusty cushions with a sigh of relief. Buffy remained standing and was now at a loss about what to do or say.

"H-H-How are you feeling?" she asked, wringing her hands a bit.

"Better. Not much, but...better."

"Good. That's good," Buffy said, nodding repeatedly. Then she hitched her thumb over her shoulder and added, "I, um...I brought some more blood. Do you want me to--?"

"No," he replied. "I'm good. I, um, I know...what you brought before." He trailed off, uncomfortable with expressing in words his vampiric need to feed on blood.

Buffy got the message. She eased down to sit on the opposite end of the loveseat. "Y-Y-You look better. A-A-A little, anyway."

"Thanks," Angel replied, though he suspected she had said that only to make him feel better.

The two fell quiet for a time, neither knowing how to bridge the gap between them. So much had happened since they had made love ages ago, since Angel had actually been himself and not his evil alter ego Angelus. It was difficult to know where to start or how to begin.

"How long has it been?" Angel finally asked. "Since I left," he added for clarification.

"About six months," Buffy answered. When Angel nodded, she forced herself to ask, "H-H-How long was it for you?"

Angel met her eyes, but he quickly looked away. "I lost count," he said, clenching his jaw tightly. "Long time." When he looked back up, he saw Buffy's gaze become pained; he immediately intervened. "So...catch me up. A lot can happen in six months, especially here in Sunnydale."

Buffy gave him a grateful smile for the diversion, but it didn't last long. Her expression soon grew somber once again.

"After you...left," she said, intentionally falling back on the same descriptor Angel had used, "I-I-I ran away. To L.A. I just couldn't be here, you know?" She glanced away briefly but then resumed. "When I came back, everybody was pretty mad at me. Especially Mom. She had just found out about the slaying thing before I left, and we'd had this huge argument, and then I ran away, so...she was pretty pissed. Oh, and we had zombies, too. Did I mention the zombies?"

Angel's mouth quirked into a smile at Buffy's segue, or lack thereof. "No, you hadn't mentioned the zombies." He gingerly resituated himself in the loveseat so that he could face Buffy more easily. "Personally, I've always hated zombies. I mean, the stench alone..."

"Tell me about it," Buffy agreed ruefully. Then she sobered and asked, "Do you remember Kendra?"

Angel's brow furrowed in guilt as he nodded. "The slayer who tried to kill me and then helped save me. The slayer Dru killed."

It was Buffy's turn to nod. "When she died, another slayer was called, a-a-and she came to Sunnydale, too. Her name's Faith."

"Where's she from? What's she like?"

"She's from Boston, and she's really cool..." Buffy answered, beginning a long ramble about Faith.

Buffy's whole demeanor lit up at the mention of Faith's name. Buffy herself was completely unaware of that fact, but Angel noticed. He was glad that something good had happened while he was away, that Buffy had gained a fellow slayer as a friend.

"...of course, we didn't get along at first 'cause she had this whole attitude thing goin' on, like, 'I'm so hot, I'm such a bad ass, and everybody wants me, but nobody can take me.' It was really annoying. I mean, arrogant much?"

"A slayer being arrogant," Angel commented. "Imagine that."

Buffy shot Angel a mock glare before smiling again. "But after we hung out for a while, I realized there was a real person under all that attitude. She's--"

"Yo, B! Where ya at?"

Buffy froze at the sound of Faith's voice coming over the radio. Her eyes grew wide and somewhat wild as she snatched the device from her belt and stood up, walking a distance away, keeping her back to Angel.

"Faith! Hey, I'm, uh, uh...just coming out of the woods near Crestwood."

After a pause, Faith's voice returned. "Well, meet me on Main in ten. Looks like this night's gonna be another bust for the slaying."

"O-O-Okay. Be right there. Out."

Buffy turned around and gave Angel a sheepish shrug. "I, um, I gotta go." Before he could say anything, she started backing toward the door. "I'll-I'll check on you tomorrow, okay? Around lunchtime?" Without waiting for an answer, Buffy rushed from the mansion, leaving a troubled Angel behind.

Meanwhile, Faith stood in place, staring off in shock and incredulity. She looked at her radio and then at the wooded lot down the block. Finally, she glanced up at the street sign just a few yards away. It read "Crestwood."

Faith's eyes grew hard, and she clenched both fists tightly. Within seconds, she heard the walkie-talkie begin to crack under grip. She stopped squeezing the device and clipped it back on her belt. Then she headed in the direction of Main Street.

When Buffy arrived on Main Street, she found Faith leaning against a lamppost, facing the pawnshop with her back to the street. As she approached, she could see the tenseness in Faith's posture. She assumed that she knew the reason for it – the gold dagger that Faith had recently pawned in order to buy a dress for the Homecoming Dance. Unfortunately, Buffy's assumption was wrong...way wrong.

"Hey," Buffy said, causing Faith to slowly turn around.

"Hey," Faith replied, crossing her arms tightly over her chest.

"Have you been waiting long? Sorry I didn't get here sooner, I was on – "

"Crestwood," Faith supplied. "So you said."

Buffy sensed a glitch and backtracked. "Did I say Crestwood? I-I-I meant Crescent. Crescent Lane."

"Uh-huh," Faith said evenly.

Buffy knew that Faith could tell she was lying, but she had dug herself in now. There was no point in trying to climb out now...not until she was ready to come clean about everything. She changed the subject.

"So, um, what do you want to do now? We could go play some cards at my house." She shot Faith a hopeful look, but Faith was unmoved.

"I'm really tired," the dark slayer said, sarcastically repeating Buffy's words from the previous night. "I think I'd just like to go home."

"Oh." Buffy was stung by Faith's reply, but she knew she had no one else to blame but herself. "Okay."

Without another word, Faith turned and strode away.

"I'll see you tomorrow," Buffy called out, but Faith didn't even give her a wave.

Buffy slumped and closed her eyes. After a moment, she opened them and ran her hand through her hair. Then she turned around and headed for home.

The next morning, Buffy went to school as usual. She was disappointed when she didn't find Faith waiting for her as she often did. In her classes that day, Buffy remained quiet and withdrawn, despite Willow and Xander's efforts to draw her out of her funk. The two longtime friends had talked at length the night before, Willow expressing her concerns about the guilt curse re-emerging and Xander slowly coming over to her point of view. They had made a pact to keep an eye on Buffy and to reach out to her before the situation could progress.

At first their attempts to engage Buffy had been light-hearted and teasing, but now there was real concern in their eyes. During their last class of the morning, they saw Buffy go from introspective moping to anxious clock watching. When the bell rang, they once again tried to step in.

"Hey, Buff, you gonna join us at the cafeteria?" Xander suggested. "It's corn dog day. You know how much I love corn dog day."

"You only love it because you know we won't eat ours," Willow needled.

"Quite right. And it's my solemn duty to ensure that no corn dog ever goes to waste," he quipped back to Willow before turning to Buffy. "So, what d'ya say?"

Buffy was already backing away from her friends. "I-I-I can't. Sorry. I, um, I have somewhere else I have to be right now." When she saw the sad expressions on her best friends' faces, she stopped backing up and added, "But...rain check? I do have something to talk to you about, but I need just a little more time. Okay?"

"Yeah, sure," Willow agreed amiably.

"No problem," Xander added in the same tone.

At that, Buffy rushed away.

Willow turned to Xander, a worried expression on her face. "Xander, what are we gonna do?"

"I'm gonna follow her," he answered, "and you're gonna cover for me."

Willow nodded firmly, and Xander set off after Buffy.

Meanwhile, across town, Joyce was working at her gallery. She was pointing out some new acquisitions to an older couple when she heard her office phone ring. She excused herself from her customers and hurried to get to the phone.

"Sunnydale Gallery," she answered cheerfully.

Her light expression fell away as an official-sounding voice on the other end of the line made a rather lengthy speech.

"I understand," Joyce finally said, her voice grim. "I promise you...I will get to the bottom of this. Thank you."

As soon as Joyce hung up the phone, she instantly picked it back up again and angrily punched in a number. She drummed her fingers on the table impatiently until she heard someone answer her call.

"Library. This is Mr. Giles."

"Did you know that Buffy's been skipping classes?" she demanded without so much as a how-are-you. "Is this your doing? Are you sending her out slaying when she's supposed to be in school?"

"Mrs. Summers! I...I...I assure you I, um, I have no idea what you're talking about."

"I just got a call from the school," she explained. "Apparently, Buffy's been randomly skipping classes whenever she pleases."

"Well, if-if Buffy's skipping school, I sincerely doubt that there's anything random about it."

Joyce let out a skeptical snort.

"I-I-I just mean that...I'm sure she's got a very good reason."

Joyce's eyes grew worried, and she gripped the phone with both hands. "Rupert, what is going on?"

Unfortunately, Giles didn't have an answer.

As Xander came out of the school and scanned the area for Buffy, he saw Faith come out of hiding ahead of him and pick up Buffy's trail.

"Guess me and Will aren't the only ones who think something's up," he murmured to himself.

He waited a moment then discretely began following behind Faith.

As Buffy headed toward the front door of Angel's mansion, Faith crested the hill and paused, watching Buffy go inside.

"Great minds think alike, eh?"

Faith nearly jumped out of her skin at the sound of Xander's voice behind her. Startled, she drew her stake and whipped around. When she realized who it was, she grabbed him by his shirt and pushed him back out of sight of the house.

"What the hell is the matter with you?!" Faith accused. "You tryin' to get yourself killed?!"

Xander held up his hands in apology. "Sorry...Just trying to find out what's up with Buffy. Like you."

Faith released Xander and nodded her head toward the house. "Come on, then. Let's go take a look."

Inside the mansion, Buffy found Angel asleep on the loveseat. His legs were folded with his knees almost to his chest as he attempted to fit his tall form onto the small piece of furniture. She crept over quietly, not wanting to startle him.

She knelt beside the loveseat and whispered his name. He frowned slightly but didn't wake up. She said his name more loudly, but he only mumbled in his sleep. Finally, she reached out and touched his shoulder.

This time Angel jolted awake, gasping in terror, fighting blindly at whoever was touching him. Buffy used her slayer strength to hold him down as she tried to talk him back into reality.

"Angel...Angel! It's me. Buffy."

Angel eventually realized where he was and who was with him, and he slowly calmed down.

"Sorry," Buffy told him. "I was trying not to scare you, but I guess I didn't do a very good job on that, did I?" She scrunched her face into an apologetic wince.

"It's okay," Angel reassured her, although his eyes were still a bit wild.

Grunting in pain, he started pushing himself up into a sitting position. Buffy had to fight back the urge to help him in his task. But it was clear that he wanted to do it alone, so she simply stood up and waited. It took him nearly a minute to get there, but he finally did.

She dropped her gaze to the floor. She hated to see Angel in so much pain, especially when she knew she was the reason for it. She was the one who had caused him to become un-cursed in the first place. She was the one who had professed her love then coldly stabbed him in the chest. She was the one who had sent him into a century or more of torture and torment.

"Help me up."

Angel's request caused Buffy to snap out of her guilt-fest and raise her head. She found Angel holding out his hands.

"Please. I need to move around a little," he said.

"A-A-Are you sure you're strong enough?"

"I'll have to be," Angel replied. "Only way I'm gonna get better."

Buffy pulled Angel to his feet then steadied him with an arm around his waist. He leaned on her heavily as he took his first few steps around the room. When he paused to rest in the middle of the room, Buffy stayed right at his side.

Meanwhile, Faith crept around the mansion until she found a place where she could look inside. It was one of the windows to the great room; its heavy curtain was hanging slightly askew, creating a narrow slit that she could see through. She leaned in close, cupping her hands around her eyes so that she could take in the dimly lit room.

She saw Buffy with a man that she didn't recognize. The man was shirtless, and he had his arm draped over Buffy's shoulders. In turn, she had her arm wrapped around the man's waist.

Faith growled dangerously, "You have got to be kidding me."

"What?" Xander asked.

Faith shook her head and stepped aside. "She's with some guy," she told him. "I don't fucking believe this!"

Xander moved into position in front of the window and peeked inside.

Still in the center of the room with Buffy beside him, Angel just stood in place and stared at the far wall, his mind clearly deep in thought. Buffy could sense the anguish inside him, but she chose not to press him. He would speak when he was ready, and within a few minutes, he apparently was.

"When I was in that hell dimension," he whispered hoarsely, "all I could think about was you..."

He turned so that he could face her, and Buffy could see that his eyes were moist with tears. He reached out and ran his hands gently over her shoulders as he went on.

"...what it had felt like to hold touch you..."

Buffy began to breathe heavily--her body automatically responding to Angel's touch, her mind indulging in precious memories of the past, her heart relishing the bond that still existed between them.

" was all I had."

Xander squinted and repositioned, trying to get his eyes to pick up what was happening inside the mansion. When he was finally able to see, his jaw dropped.

"No way," he said. "No freakin' way."

"What?" Faith asked, concerned by the disgust in Xander's voice. She pulled him away and looked him in the eyes. "What is it?"

"That's not just 'some guy'," Xander bitterly informed her. "That's Angel."

Faith's expression fell into stunned disbelief. "That's...That's not possible."

"We live on a hellmouth," Xander reminded her. "Anything's possible."

Faith pushed him aside and started looking through the window again.

She saw Buffy and Angel still standing in the center of the great room, but now they were holding one another, staring into each other's eyes. She saw Buffy reach up and run her fingers gently along Angel's jaw line as they continued their intense gaze. She saw Angel pull Buffy closer and lean his face down to hers. She felt her whole body seize up when she saw the two of them suddenly move into a crushing, desperate kiss.

"No," Faith whispered, her voice cracking. "No..." She began backing away from the window, horror and agony on her face.

"Faith?" Xander prompted worriedly.

He reached out for her, but before his hand could make contact with her arm, Faith turned and dashed away.

"Faith!" Xander called out urgently, but she was long gone.

He turned back to the window and looked inside. There, he saw what Faith had just seen: Buffy and Angel passionately kissing.

"Son of a bitch," Xander cursed under his breath.

He clenched both of his fists tightly, and then he too turned and hurried away from the mansion.

Part 14

Buffy pushed away from Angel, ending their intense kiss. Then she backed away, refusing to meet his gaze. She held up her hand in a weak gesture of denial.

"We can't--" she started to say.

"Right," Angel instantly agreed, over-nodding as he cut her off. "The curse."

"Right. The curse," Buffy echoed, although her thoughts went primarily to Faith.

Buffy's and Angel's eyes darted frantically about the room, refusing to linger on each other for very long. Buffy wrung her hands nervously, trying to build up her courage. Finally, she spoke, with both her head and her voice lowered.

"I...I never thought I'd see you again," she explained in advance. "I..." She hung her head even more. "I'm...I'm seeing someone." Buffy winced and then risked a glance up.

Angel's face was full of shock and deep hurt. He looked away and swallowed hard. After a long moment, he simply said, "Oh." He cleared his throat and walked a few feet away. "Can't say I blame you...given the situation."

"I'm sorry," she said sincerely. "I didn't want to hurt you, but you needed to know."

"Fair enough," Angel said through clenched teeth. He wanted to ask who and how and if they were in love, but he forced himself not to. He dropped his gaze to the floor and said, "I goes on...I get that."

As Angel's expression grew pained, Buffy could only watch. I stabbed him in the heart once, and now I'm doing it again, she thought to herself as guilt filled her mind.

With tears stinging her eyes, Faith ran blindly, racing at slayer speed as if hordes of demons were hot on her heels. Her mind shrieked in pain and rage as she ran. Her mental screams were raw, feral, beyond the scope of words. And when she somehow ended up at her motel room a short time later, they were finally given voice.

After slamming the door, she sank her hands into her hair, doubled over, and let out a piercing cry. When its sound had faded, she stayed bent over and rested her hands on her thighs, her breath going in and out with huge gasps. After a lengthy moment, she stood up straight, shaking her head.

"No, no...." she said in an anguished voice, trying to will away the truth of what she had just seen--Buffy passionately kissing Angel in his mansion. "Noooo..."

She started to slip her fingers into her hair again but stopped, curling them into fists instead. "NOOO!!!" she screamed long and hard.

She began to pace the room, her hands still clenched into tight fists. "How could she do this to me? How could she fucking do this to me?!!!" She stopped and put her fists against her forehead. "I gave her--" Her voice cracked, and she had to swallow and take a breath. She went on in a choked whisper. "I gave her everything...all of me...How could she...?"

Her words disappeared in a sudden sob as tears flowed down her face. She nearly doubled over again, but then pain gave way to rage, and she let out a frustrated cry that was half growl and half scream.

Meanwhile, Xander arrived at the library and told the others what had happened. As Willow, Giles, Cordelia, and Oz exchanged concerned glances, Xander hurriedly punched in Faith's number on the desk phone.

Just then, the telephone in Faith's motel room rang. It startled her, and she jumped, but then fire rose in her eyes. She rushed to the phone and snatched it up, base and all, without answering it. Then she yanked it away from the wall so hard that its cord was snapped from the jack.

The ringing instantly stopped, but Faith wasn't finished. She slammed the phone back down onto the nightstand--once, then twice, then several more times until the device fell into pieces. What was left in her hand she threw across the room where it smashed against the wall.

Faith didn't stop there. She grabbed the lamp off the nightstand and hurled it across the room as well. The nightstand itself soon followed, heading for the TV but missing. When she saw that the television set remained unscathed, Faith stalked over to it. She ripped it off its security stand and threw it to the floor. Before the TV had even stopped moving from its forceful crash landing, Faith sent the heel of her boot right into the glass screen, shattering it.

Xander stayed on the line as the phone call rang repeatedly, but no one ever picked up. He let it ring a few more times before hanging up and turning back to the others.

"No answer," he told them. "She must not be there."

"Even if she were," Giles said, "I doubt that she feels like talking at the moment, given what you've described."

"She must be devastated," Willow said sadly.

She and the others looked at one another with both worry and helplessness on their faces.

Back at the motel Faith was pummeling the wall between the bed and the bathroom. She slammed her fists into the sheetrock over and over until her knuckles were bloody and the wall was in shambles. Eventually she stumbled back, exhausted, her gasping breaths slowly changing into sobs. She slipped to the floor with her back against the side of her bed and let her tears overtake her.

A short time later, Buffy left Angel's mansion, returned to school, and entered the library. She found a very somber group awaiting her. Giles was standing, but the others were sitting. She noticed that all of the Scoobies were present except for Faith. She approached the group warily.

"What's with all the tragedy masks?" she asked. When Buffy saw her mother stand up behind Giles, she instantly feared the worst. "Oh my god," she said, rushing over. "Is Faith okay? Did something happen to Faith?"

"Do you care?" Xander replied bitterly.

"Xander, please," Giles said before turning back to Buffy and gesturing for her to sit.

Xander rose from his chair and gave it slight kick so that it moved to the head of the table. Then he moved away to stand next to Cordelia's chair.

Buffy didn't budge from her position. "Please...tell me what's going on!"

Joyce pointed at the empty chair and said, "Better take a seat, Buffy."

Buffy reluctantly sat down in the chair. She started to speak again, but Giles cut her off.

"We know Angel is alive," he said. Buffy's eyes widened, but she said nothing, and Giles went on. "Xander saw you with him. It would appear that you've been hiding him and that you lied to us."

Buffy glanced away, trying to get her bearings.

"Nobody's here to blame you, Buffy," Willow said with a measure of sympathy. "But this is serious. You need help."

Buffy looked over at Willow. "It's not what you think."

"Hope not," Xander accused. "Because I think you're harboring a vicious killer."

Buffy's expression crumbled under Xander's attack.

Willow immediately interceded. "This isn't about attacking Buffy," she said. "Remember, 'I' statements only. 'I feel angry.' 'I feel worried.' "

"Fine," Cordelia spat back. "Here's one: I feel worried...about me! Last time around, Angel barely laid a hand on Buffy. He was way more interested in killing her friends."

"But...he's better now," Buffy insisted.

"Better for how long?" Xander pushed. "I mean, did you even think about that?"

Tired of the attack, Buffy suddenly stood up. "What is this? Demons Anonymous?" She started to walk away. "I don't need an intervention here."

"Oh, don't you?" Giles shot back, causing Buffy to stop in place and turn back to face him. "You must've known it was wrong hiding Angel, or you wouldn't have hidden it from all of us."

"Buffy, how could you keep something like this from us?" Willow said, the hurt evident in her voice.

"I was going to tell you, I was," Buffy answered desperately. "I-I-It was just that I...I wanted to make sure he was really Angel, so I had to wait."

"Wait for what?" Xander said. "For Angel to go psycho again the next time you give him a happy?"

"I'm not going to gi--!" Buffy shot back defensively before calming herself and raising her hand to make a point. "We're not together like that. I'm with Faith now, remember?"

Xander gave her a 'don't-be-so-sure' snort.

"But you were kissing him," Oz pointed out.

Willow gave Oz a quick, scared look. Then she glanced at Buffy worriedly, waiting for her reaction. For a moment, Buffy considered the implications of Oz's comment. Then she turned angry eyes at Xander.

"You were spying on me?" she said, taking a step towards him. "What gives you the right?"

Cordelia moved to stand between Buffy and Xander. "What gives you the right to suck face with your demon lover again?"

Buffy stepped back, faltering in the heat of the accusing stares. "It was an accident," she lamely replied.

Joyce shook her head chidingly. "Buffy..." She watched her daughter drop her gaze to the floor.

Xander let out a disgusted huff and crossed his arms tightly. "Yeah, I'm sure that's the way Faith saw it, too."

Buffy's head shot up. "Faith was there? She saw?"

Xander's only answer was a hard glare.

"Oh God..." Buffy looked away, an anguished expression on her face. When she turned back to the others, tears were filling her eyes. "Look, it was wrong, okay? I know that, and I know that it can't happen again. But you guys have to believe me...I would never put you in any danger. If I thought for a second that Angel was going to hurt anyone..."

" would stop him," Xander finished for her. Then he added, "Like you did last time...with Ms. Calendar."

Crushed by Xander's words, Buffy could offer no response.

Willow once again attempted to mediate the situation. She took a step toward her friend. "Buffy," Willow said, "I feel that when it comes to Angel, you can't see straight. And that's why we're here. We're all gonna help you face this."

"But he's better now," Buffy emphasized. "I swear." When the others didn't believe her, she looked to her watcher. "Giles, remember when you found me researching? I found a spell...the Repertus Animus. I did the spell, and it proved that Angel does have his soul. It's not Angelus that's back."

"Oh, Angel's got his precious soul back," Xander said. "So, what? We're supposed to just forgive and forget what he's done? I don't think so."

Xander started to storm out of the library, clearly intent on going after Angel. Buffy grabbed him by the arm and spun him around to face her.

"You would just love an excuse to hurt him, wouldn't you?" she said.

Xander pulled out of her grip. "I don't need an excuse. I think a bunch of dead people actually constitutes a reason."

"Right," Buffy replied, her voice dripping with sarcasm. "This is all nobility. This has nothing to do with jealousy."

Xander gave her a haughty grin, but his impending reply was cut off by Cordelia.

"Hello?" Cordelia said snidely. "Miss Not-Over-Yourself-Yet?"

Buffy pointed a finger at Cordelia. "Don't you start with me," she warned.

As Cordelia looked to Giles for support, Willow was becoming more and more upset with the way the meeting was falling apart. "Giles," she whined, "no one's doing the 'I' statements!"

"That's enough! Everybody!" Giles barked, quieting the entire group. "Now...Buffy knows our concerns, and her actions, however ill advised, can be understood." Cordelia shook her head in disgust, but Giles went on anyway. "I suggest that we take some time to calm ourselves. We can discuss this further at a later date. In the meantime, all of you, back to classes."

One by one, Buffy's friends gathered their belongings and left the library until only Giles, Joyce, and Buffy remained. Once the others were gone, Buffy eased closer to Giles.

"Thanks for the bail," she told him uneasily.

His gaze averted, Giles clenched his jaw but said nothing. It was obvious that he was quite furious. Nevertheless, Buffy felt compelled to go on.

"I know this is a lot to absorb, but--"

"Be quiet!" Giles ordered, silencing his slayer immediately. He slowly turned to face her. The severe expression on his face and in his tone frightened Buffy. "I won't remind you that the fate of the world often lies with the Slayer. What would be the point? Nor shall I remind you that you've jeopardized the lives of all that you hold dear by harboring a known murderer. But sadly, I apparently must remind you that Angel killed the woman I loved and then tortured me...for hours...for pleasure. You should have told me he was alive. You didn't. You have no respect for me, or the job I perform."

Buffy dropped her head in shame as Giles stomped off to his office. After a moment, she looked up, hoping to find some support from her mother. But Joyce merely crossed her arms and shook her head in disapproval. Without another word, Buffy turned and left the library.

Once outside the library doors, Buffy fell against the wall, crying. Suddenly, she lifted her head, and horror filled her eyes.

"Faith!" she said urgently before dashing off down the hallway.

Meanwhile, back in the library, Joyce took a deep breath and walked into Giles's office. She found him standing with his back to the door, fiddling with his electric teakettle.

"I'm sorry," she said softly, not knowing what else to say.

"It's not your fault," Giles said, turning around.


Giles nodded silently, understanding Joyce's need to apologize and appreciating her concern. Neither one spoke for a time. Finally, Joyce hitched her thumb over her shoulder.

"I should get back to work," she said. "Thanks for calling me."

"If anything happens, I'll let you know," Giles told her.

"Thank you," she said. "I'll do the same."

At that, Joyce turned and walked away, leaving Giles alone with his thoughts.

Across town, Buffy was cautiously approaching Faith's motel room. She walked up to the door and paused. She started to knock on it twice before stopping to take a deep breath to calm herself. She wiped away her tears and forced herself to knock on the door.

"Go away." Those growling words were all Buffy heard from the room.

She leaned against the door, attempting to speak through it. "Faith, it's me. Buffy."

"Go away!" They came as a shriek this time.

Buffy's tears returned. "Faith, please..." she begged. "Let me explain. It's not what you think, I swear..."

"GO...A...WAY!!!" Faith screamed as she flung the door open and bore down on Buffy with rage-filled eyes.

Startled, Buffy took a step back. When she started to speak, Faith cut her off.

"Are you deaf?!!" Faith shouted. "I said, 'Go. The Fuck. Away!!!' "

Faith's loud voice caused another tenant a few doors down to open his door and step outside. "What's going on?" he asked, clearly annoyed.

Buffy's eyes darted in the man's direction, but Faith kept staring straight ahead. Buffy shrank under Faith's glare. She lifted her hand to her mouth as tears came pouring down her face. She tried to force out an apology, but her throat felt like it was closing in on itself. With a sob, Buffy dashed away.

Faith blinked several times and swallowed hard before steeling herself and glancing down at her fellow tenant. When the man saw the intense look on her face, he closed his mouth and scurried back inside his own room.

With no one else watching, Faith felt her chin tremble. She closed her eyes and clenched her jaw, willing the anguish down. She stepped back inside her room and pushed the door shut behind her.

Stunned and shaking badly, Faith didn't even notice that the door to her motel room remained slightly ajar. Her heart was racing erratically, her breathing was increasing, and her head was pounding; she could tell another cry was threatening to descend.

In a panic, she scrambled over the debris to her undamaged chest of drawers. She yanked open the top drawer and pulled out her bottle of Jack Daniels. She twisted off the cap and downed an extra long swig. When she pulled the bottle from her lips, a hitch caught in her breathing, so she took two more quick drinks.

She waited a moment until she felt the pain shift into something else. It didn't matter what that 'something else' was as long as it wasn't the heart-wrenching agony that brought sobs to her throat and chest. She recapped the bottle and set it on top of the dresser.

Once again dodging debris, she made her way back to the other side of the bed. She plopped down on the edge and stared at the damaged wall. She wasn't really seeing it, though. Her eyes were unfocused as recent events replayed in her mind. As the kiss between Buffy and Angel flashed in her brain over and over, she felt the rage begin to build again.

After leaving Faith, Buffy ran without thinking for a time. When she finally came to a stop, she was crying hard. She was devastated, falling apart, and she had no one to go to--no friends, no family, no watcher, no girlfriend.

Well...there was one place, she remembered.

She considered the prospect for a moment then made a decision. After getting her tears somewhat under control, she headed off toward Angel's mansion.

As soon as Buffy came inside, Angel could see that she was upset, that she had been crying...a lot. He got to his feet and waited as she slowly crossed the great room and came to stand before him. She had her arms wrapped tightly around herself.

"What's wrong?" he asked, touching her arm gently.

Buffy didn't respond to his touch; instead, tears began rolling down her face. She gave them a quick, useless wipe with the back of her hand and then said, "Faith saw us kissing!"

Angel blinked and then nodded knowingly. "And she told the others," he assumed, dropping his hand from her arm. "They must be pretty pissed."

Buffy shook her head and began to cry harder. Angel then realized that there was more to the story than that--much more. But he had no clue what.

"What is it?" he asked, trying to make eye contact with Buffy but failing.

Buffy met his gaze then looked away several times before finally forcing herself to look at him steadily. She cleared her throat and said in a halting voice, "Faith... she's...we're..." She trailed off, unable to say the words, but she stared at Angel right in the eyes, praying he would understand.

After several long seconds, Angel put the pieces together in his mind. His mouth fell open, and his eyes widened in shock. "Oh." He paused and then said, "You a-a-and Faith are...Oh." He took a step back and turned away.

Buffy's expression became even more anguished when Angel said nothing more and kept his back turned to her.

Back in the motel, Faith still sat brooding upon her bed. When she heard a knock at the door, she growled loudly, "I said go away!"

After another quick knock, she saw the door crack open and watched as Xander walked in. Faith sighed heavily and said in a flat tone, "I said go away."

Xander was carrying a bag of weapons and had a crossbow slung over his back. He glanced around the demolished room and nodded in approval at what he saw.

"What do you want?" Faith wearily asked as she got to her feet and headed for the bathroom.

"I want to go put a stake in Angel's heart," he answered. "How about you?" He smiled when Faith stopped in place and turned to face him, fury flashing in her eyes. His smile then gave way to a stern expression. "Buffy can't think clearly when it comes to Angel," he said. "We have to save her from herself."

Faith focused her gaze beyond Xander's shoulder as she let herself imagine the encounter he was suggesting.

"Soul or not," Xander went on, "he's a vampire, and he deserves to die. Are you in?"

Faith's mouth curled into a hate-filled smile as the imagined scene played out in her mind. Xander was behind Buffy, holding the bound slayer in place. As Buffy screamed and cried, Faith mercilessly beat Angel, then stabbed him repeatedly until she was splattered with the vampire's blood. When she saw Buffy sink sobbing to her knees, Faith gleefully pulled out a stake and plunged it into Angel's heart, dusting him instantly.


At the sound of Xander's voice, Faith came back to herself. "What?" she asked, annoyed.

"I said, 'Are you in?' "

Faith clenched her jaw and said grimly, "I'm in."

Meanwhile, at the school, Willow and Oz slipped into class about a minute before the bell was about to ring. When Willow moved down the aisle, she saw Cordelia sitting alone in the next row.

"Where's Xander?" Willow asked, a little concern in her voice.

Cordelia appeared confused and then worried. "I thought he was with you."

The three Scoobies shared a frightened look.

"He's gone after Angel," Willow said.

They rushed from the room and ran to the library to find Giles.

Back at the mansion, Angel was still turned away from Buffy. She tearfully bore the silence, knowing that Angel would speak when he was ready, and soon he was.

He slowly turned back around. "I mean, I know you said you were seeing somebody, but..." His mouth remained open, but no further words came out.

"I-I-I know it seems sudden...a-a-and weird," Buffy told him, "but...I love her." A lump formed in her throat, and she had to swallow it down. Still, her voice was choked as she said, "She's everything to me."

Angel stared for a moment longer before glancing away with a rueful chuckle. "I guess I should have seen it." When Buffy's face grew puzzled, he sighed and said, "When you told me about her earlier, you just...lit up when you spoke her name. I should have realized she was more than a friend." His gaze fell to the floor. "I guess I didn't want to realize it."

Buffy closed the distance between them and took Angel's hands into hers. She looked into his eyes and said, "I'm sorry for this...for everything. I know you're back for a reason, but that reason isn't me. It can't be...we know that." Angel sadly nodded in agreement as Buffy went on. "I do love you--a part of me always will--but my heart belongs to Faith now. Do you understand?"

Angel reached up and stroked Buffy's cheek with his thumb. "I do," he said.

Suddenly, a male voice intruded. "Thought you said it wasn't like that," the voice accused.

Buffy and Angel turned to see Xander standing several yards away. He aimed a loaded crossbow directly at Angel. Buffy instantly put herself between Angel and Xander.

"It's not," Buffy replied, "and I was just explaining that to Angel."

Xander circled to his left, forcing Buffy to do the same. "Step aside, Buffy," he told her. "You know this has to be done."

"No, it doesn't!" Buffy insisted. "Angel is just...Angel. He's not Angelus. He's not going to hurt anyone."

"He's a vampire!" Xander argued. "It's in his nature to hurt people. He can't help himself. But I'm going to make sure he never hurts anyone again."

"Maybe you should do what he says," Angel told Buffy. "I don't want you to get hurt."

"I'm not," Buffy replied, "but I'm not going to let him hurt you either." She turned back to Xander and took a few steps toward him, cutting down the angle of his shot. "Xander, just put the crossbow down, and let's talk about this."

Xander shifted his position again, causing those in his sights to move directly in front of the alcove to the stairwell. Just as Buffy took another few steps toward Xander, Faith suddenly leaped out of the alcove, stake in hand. Angel turned just in time and caught Faith's wrist with both of his hands. In his weakened state, Angel was no match for the dark slayer's strength, and his arms began to shake with the effort.

"You're gonna die, vamp," Faith growled as she forced the stake closer.

Buffy whipped around and rushed to Angel's rescue. She grabbed Faith by the shoulders and yanked her away from Angel, sending her flying to the floor a few feet away. The momentum of Faith's departure caused Angel to stumble forward and then back, but he managed to stay on his feet. Once he had righted himself, his eyes instantly went to Buffy.

As soon as Angel had straightened up, though, Xander took his chance. He pressed the trigger on the crossbow. With a twang, the bolt flew across the room and sank into Angel's chest. Angel fell back against the wall, his hand reaching for the bolt.

"Angel!" Buffy screamed in alarm, but the vampire didn't turn to dust.

Xander cursed when he realized he'd missed Angel's heart. He immediately began to reload the crossbow.

Buffy tried to move toward Angel, but Faith jumped to her feet, grabbed her by the arm, spun her around, and decked her hard in the jaw. Buffy's head snapped to the side from the impact, and she nearly went down. When she straightened back up, she gingerly touched her jaw and looked in shock at Faith.

"Don't look so surprised," Faith told her as she circled around her. "You deserved that. Especially after you couldn't wait to leave my door to come running to his."

Buffy shook off her shock and held her hands out in a placating gesture. "Faith, I know you're upset, but I need to expla--"

"Upset? UPSET?!!" Faith shot back. "Is that what you think I am?!!"

Xander couldn't get the crossbow to reload properly, so he tossed it aside and rummaged through his weapons bag for a stake. He drew it out and glanced menacingly in Angel's direction.

Faith went on, pointing accusingly at Buffy. "I get an eyeful of my girlfriend making out with her ex--her vampire ex who's supposed to be long dead--all the day after that same girlfriend swears she loves me? Oh, I am way more than 'upset'!"

"I wasn't 'making out' with Angel," Buffy countered. "It was one kiss, that's all!"

"You're goddamn right it was just one kiss...'cause me and Xan, we're taking Angel out before there can be any more kisses."

Buffy turned to see Xander heading straight for Angel, his stake raised high. "Xander, no!" Buffy screamed and tried to run to Angel's aid.

Faith grabbed her by the arm with one hand. "Don't you turn away from me, bitch!"

Buffy whipped back around and sent a punch toward Faith's face, but Faith caught it in her other fist. As they grappled, Buffy warned, "Faith, don't do this."

"Already done," Faith said with a maniacal grin.

At that, the two slayers broke into an all-out brawl, Buffy trying to free herself to help Angel, and Faith trying to prevent Buffy from doing just that.

A few yards away, Xander descended on Angel, sweeping his stake toward the vampire's heart. Angel, however, somehow managed to block the blow. Unlike Faith, Xander lacked slayer strength; consequently, even in his weakened and wounded condition, Angel was able to hold him off, at least for a time. It was a struggle, though, and he wouldn't be able to keep it up for long.

Just then, Giles, Willow, Cordelia, and Oz came upon the scene. In the middle of the great room, between them and the far side, they saw Buffy and Faith fighting like mad women. Near the entrance to the stairwell, they saw Angel and Xander struggling over a stake. Willow and the others called out to those battling one another, but their shouts went unheard.

Suddenly, Angel shifted his position and caused Xander to lose his balance. Using the last bit of strength he had, Angel smashed his fist into Xander's head, knocking him out cold. As Xander fell to the floor, Angel did too, now bleeding even more. Unfortunately, Giles and the others couldn't get to either of them because of the slayers fighting in the center of the room.

In that fight, the tide was turning in Faith's favor. While Buffy was trying to free herself without hurting Faith too much in the process, Faith was becoming completely enraged. The more Buffy tried to get to Angel, the more Faith's heart screamed out in pain and betrayal, and the more she hurt inside, the more fury filled her.

At one point, the two slayers were grappling fiercely hand to hand, and their faces were mere inches apart. Buffy looked into Faith's eyes, and what she saw there frightened her. It was as if there was no Faith in those eyes at all; there was only black, blind, burning rage. The fear that shot through Buffy made her falter, and Faith was able to take advantage. She landed a punch that stunned Buffy; then she kicked the blonde across the room, where she hit the loveseat and tumbled over.

Faith turned her eyes to Angel and stalked towards him. As he pushed himself to his knees and straightened up, she pointed the butt of her stake at him and said, "Time for you to go back to hell!"

As Faith raised her stake and surged forward, she could faintly hear Willow and Giles screaming, "No, stop!" but she didn't stop. All she could see was a helpless vampire ready to be dusted, so she swung the stake down with all her might. She smiled when she felt the stake meet its target and penetrate both cloth and flesh. But then she saw gushing blood instead of vampire ashes. In alarm, she looked up and saw that it was Buffy she had staked, not Angel. At the last second, Buffy had apparently jumped to her feet, raced over, and thrown herself in front of Angel, taking the stake thrust directly in the stomach.

Buffy's face was creased in pain. She slapped her hand over Faith's, which still gripped the stake jutting from Buffy's abdomen. She felt her own blood wet and slick on Faith's hand, and she looked up to meet Faith's eyes. She tried to speak but couldn't.

In horror at what she'd done, Faith yanked her hand off the stake and backed away. Angel called Buffy's name and weakly reached out for her, but Buffy stumbled forward out of his reach. After looking at Faith once more, Buffy crashed to the stone floor.

Faith began backing up in a hurry, already in flight mode. As Cordelia ran to Xander and as Willow and Oz ran to Buffy and Angel, Faith backed right into Giles, nearly tripping over him.

"Faith," Giles said, reaching out to her with concern on his face.

Faith moved away from his grasp, then turned and ran away. Giles started to go after her, but then he stopped, knowing he'd never catch her. He turned back and rushed to help the others.

Hours later, at the emergency room, Buffy was groggily coming to in her hospital bed. Willow was standing on the side of the bed farthest from the door. She held Buffy's hand and waited for her to look her way. Buffy blinked her eyes several times before she was able to focus and realize where she was and who was with her.

"Will...?" Buffy mumbled.

"Yeah, it's me," Willow said with a small smile. "Your mom's talking to the doctor, but she'll be back real soon."


"Everybody's okay, far as we know," Willow began explaining. "Xander's here in the E.R. He's got a mild concussion, but it's nothing serious. Cordelia's with him."

In his room down the hall, Xander slowly regained consciousness. When he saw Cordelia next to his bed, he asked, "What happened?"

"You nearly got yourself killed, you big idiot," Cordelia complained but with genuine care in her eyes.

"What about Angel?" he asked desperately, attempting to sit up. "Did we get him?"

Cordelia winced and ruefully shook her head. Xander fell back against his pillows, angry and despondent. Cordelia started to relay the details, but Xander held up his hand and stopped her.

"I don't wanna know," he said, turning his head away to stare at the wall.

Back in the other treatment room, Buffy was becoming agitated. "Where's Faith?" she asked frantically while trying to get out of bed.

Willow pushed her back against the pillows. "Oz and Giles are looking for Faith," she told her. "They'll find her. Don't worry."

Buffy allowed Willow to restrain her. Between blood loss and anesthesia, Buffy was too weak to fight much anyway. She laid her arm over her eyes and cried, "God, I screwed up so bad, Will..."

Just then, the phone rang, and Willow answered. Buffy stilled her crying and watched with hope in her eyes as Willow listened for a while and then ended the conversation.

"Did they find Faith?" Buffy asked.

"No," Willow said sadly. "There's no sign of her at the motel, or anywhere else for that matter." When she saw Buffy start to cry again, Willow hurried to reassure her. "But don't worry. We'll find her. I promise."

As tears poured down her cheeks, Buffy shook her head. "No...she's gone...I just know she's gone..."

Buffy was sobbing now, her body heaving with them. Willow was concerned about Buffy re-injuring herself, so she stroked Buffy's arms and hair and tried her best to calm her friend down.

"Everything's gonna be okay," Willow said soothingly. "We'll find Faith. It's just a matter of time. You know her. She'll turn up. And-And Angel's okay, so that's a good, right?"

"I know I messed up," Buffy sobbed, "but I can't lose Faith...I just can't..."

Faith had run until her legs could no longer carry her. When she finally stopped, she found herself on the outskirts of Sunnydale near the connection to the Interstate. On weak legs she stumbled along the local highway, not really caring where she was going. Her eyes were distraught but tinged with a mixture of betrayal and hopelessness.

When she reached the exit to the Interstate, where most of the local traffic was veering off on its way to Los Angeles, Faith paused. As the smell of exhaust and tar and the high-pitched hum of tires on concrete assailed her senses, she took in the sight of the high overpass. She stared at it blankly for a long moment before trudging in its direction.

When she was about a quarter of the way across the bridge, she came to a halt. Mechanically, she climbed over the stone barrier and onto the top of an overhang that jutted out from the exterior of the bridge's wall. When she looked down, she could see the southbound side of the Interstate beneath her--three lanes full of late afternoon traffic speeding along. It was at least thirty feet to the pavement below. She closed her eyes as voices assaulted her.

Oh God, what have I done?

You've crossed the line, gone too far.

Got some payback, that's what.

I messed this up so bad...Jesus Christ, I stabbed Buffy!

So what? She deserved it.

Your violence may have taken a life.

This is her blood on my hands.

You know there'll be can't help yourself.

That bitch cut your heart out. It's fucking justice!

Oh God...

Faith covered her face with her hands and cried. The sobs hit her so hard that she nearly slipped from the concrete overhang. After scrambling, she regained her balance, and once again she looked at the drop below. She hovered there with tears blinding her eyes.

It would be so easy to just let herself fall. To end the pain that she had made herself vulnerable to. To cease the ravages of guilt that tore through her soul. To stop the violence that she clearly couldn't contain.

But she didn't fall. Instead, she slumped in despair and resigned herself to the only path left to her--the path that she both despised and relied upon.

She would run.

With that decided, Faith turned and climbed back over the stone barrier and returned to the small highway. Then she began walking back to town. Soon she'd be packed and on her way to anywhere but here.

A short time later, Joyce returned to Buffy's room. The doctor had given her all the details and had reassured her that, barring any unusual complications, Buffy would be fine. As soon as her daughter was fully conscious, he had told her, she would be released from the hospital.

Joyce was glad to find Buffy awake, but she could see the fresh tears on her face, and that concerned her greatly. Willow had filled her in on what had happened after the intervention meeting--as much as Willow knew at any rate--but still her mind struggled to take it all in. With Buffy and Faith at odds, Joyce worried that the guilt curse would re-emerge, but for now, she pasted on a smile and crossed the room to the near side of Buffy's bed.

When Buffy saw her mother, she began to cry again. She managed to croak out a single "Mom" before surrendering to more tears.

"I'm here, baby," Joyce crooned, squeezing her daughter's arm and running gentle fingers across her forehead.

Willow took that opportunity to release Buffy's other hand and walk to the end of the bed. Buffy instantly sought out her best friend's eyes, not willing to have her leave the room yet.

"I'm going to help search for Faith," Willow told her. "Okay?"

Buffy nodded wordlessly and relaxed again. Joyce gave Willow a smile of gratitude and then turned back to Buffy.

As Willow headed for the door, her eyes narrowed in determination. I bet I know right where she is, too, she thought to herself.

After Buffy had gotten her latest cry out, she wiped her eyes and blew her nose. Then she adjusted herself in the bed so that she was sitting up against her pillows more.

Joyce frowned when she saw Buffy grimacing in pain from the small movements. When Buffy was settled, Joyce rested her hand lightly on her daughter's stomach. "I hate this," she said. "I hate to see you hurting."

"You should try it on my end," Buffy quipped.

She dropped the teasing tone when she realized that her mother didn't appreciate the attempt at a joke. Truth was, she herself didn't feel much like joking either. But that was the Scooby make light in the face of darkness.

"I'm sorry, Mom," Buffy whispered hoarsely. "I never meant for any of this to happen."

"I know you didn't, honey," Joyce said. "You made a bad decision, and Faith--"

"This wasn't her fault," Buffy instantly interjected. "She didn't mean to hurt me. She was gunning for Angel, a-a-and I got in the way. I swear, Mom, she--"

Joyce held up her hands to stop Buffy's ramble in Faith's defense. "Rupert and Willow told me what happened. I know this was an accident," she said, giving Buffy's stomach another soft touch. Then she shrugged and added, "And I can't exactly blame Faith for trying to do what I would've liked to do myself."

Buffy's eyes grew pained. She was well aware of how her mother felt about Angel, even though she knew she didn't have all the facts. "I know it's hard to understand, but...I had to help him. I owed him that."

"Why?" Joyce demanded. "He's a killer! What could you possibly owe him?"

Buffy took a deep breath and then answered her mother. She decided it was time that her mother knew everything--the soul curse that had been laid upon Angel, the loophole in it that had led to the lifting of the curse when Angel and Buffy had made love, the torments the soul-less Angelus had put her through the previous year, the climactic battle before the statue of Acathla, the restoration of Angel's soul just before Buffy was forced to kill him, the pain in her heart that had been so severe it had made her run away from home, the joy she had felt when she discovered she could love again, the mixture of emotions that had hit her when Angel had miraculously returned. Finally, Buffy detailed the events of the last few days that had led to where she was now.

When Buffy finally grew quiet, Joyce didn't speak right away. How could she? How could she bear the knowledge of what her daughter had endured, what she was still enduring even now? Joyce let her gaze fall to the hand that was clasped tightly around Buffy's. She felt tears roll over her lids and saw them splash onto the crisp white sheet.

"I'm so sorry," she said, lifting her eyes to meet Buffy's. "I didn't know, I didn't know..."

Buffy gave her mother's hand a squeeze and then pulled her into a hug that was much needed by both of them.

Meanwhile, Willow followed her hunch to the bus station. She knew that Faith's first instinct would be to run. That was her M.O. after all. She had proved that time and time again.

When Willow entered the station, she quickly scanned the waiting areas. Sure enough, there, in the rear, next to the exits to the bus bays, was Faith. She sat slumped in her chair with her back to the front door. A packed duffel bag was on the floor next to her chair. Willow headed that way.

In the reflection of the glass wall before her, Faith saw Willow approaching. She felt her gut tighten in reaction, but she made no move to leave or even to glance in Willow's direction. When Willow planted herself, with arms crossed, right in front of Faith, the dark slayer still didn't look up.

"Is Buffy okay?" Faith asked, continuing to avoid the redhead's gaze.

"Yes, she is," Willow replied.

Faith let out a small breath and nodded in relief. Then she looked up at Willow. "Where's your shovel?"

"Outside," Willow replied tersely. "I'm hoping I won't need it."

"Too late," Faith said. "It's done. So go get it and have at it."

"I think I'll beat you with words instead," Willow answered.

Faith groaned aloud. "I'd rather have the shovel."

Willow looked around the bus station and made a sweeping gesture at it. "Well, at least you're being consistent," she said sarcastically. "Hit a glitch, hit the road."

"This wasn't a 'glitch'. It was..." Faith trailed off, not knowing what to call the disastrous series of events that had just occurred.

"Doesn't matter what you call it," Willow said, crossing her arms again. "Running away isn't the answer."

"Why not?" Faith shot back. "It's over. She's got her 'once-in-a-lifetime' demon lover back. She doesn't need me. So that's it. We're finished."

"No, you're not," Willow insisted, her voice softening as she sat down in the seat next to Faith. "At least you don't have to be. Buffy was just temporarily confused when Angel came back. You're the one she loves."

Faith just shook her head in disbelief.

Willow went on, undeterred. "You two love each other, and love can overcome anything. I believe that."

"Whatever love we had," Faith said sadly, "it's gone. After this, it's just...gone."

"That's a lie, and you know it!" Willow accused.

"I'm not the one who's been lying!!!" Faith nearly shouted, her pain-driven anger once again rising to the surface. When she saw nearby passengers looking in her direction, Faith lowered her voice and went on. "She lied to my face--right to my face--about where she'd been, and all that time she was--" She stopped, unable to put into words what she had seen happening between Buffy and Angel.

"She lied to all of us," Willow answered, "but...I can kinda understand why. I mean, try putting yourself in her shoes. The man she loved more than anything, the man she had killed to save the world, was-was...back. She had to be freaking out." Willow paused for a second and then went on. "But don't stop there. Imagine her then trying to tell her friends that he's back-- her friends that she's sure are all card-carrying members of the Angel Haters Club."

"I'm her girlfriend," Faith complained, refusing to be moved by Willow's argument. "She's not supposed to keep secrets from me."

"And I'm her best friend, and Giles is her watcher, and...well, you get the idea. It was hard. But she was getting there. I know she would have told us soon."

Faith let out a long sigh. It took her a long moment to speak again. "It's not just the lying," she finally admitted.

"I know," Willow said sympathetically.

After clenching her jaw several times, Faith continued. "She stood there and told me that she loved me, like it was the surest thing in the world, and the next day, she was kissing her ex...looking at him, touching him, like she had just done with me the night before. I can't forgive that," she said, shaking her head. Can I? "I can't," she forced herself to repeat.

Willow didn't know what else to say. The kiss was a crushing blow; she knew that. She looked away and remained silent, racking her brain for anything she could use to keep Faith from leaving. She looked back when Faith spoke up again.

"And even if I could, I know Buffy can't," Faith said, her expression devoid of all hope. "Not after what I did."

Willow turned in her seat to face Faith. "That's not true."

Faith snorted derisively and mirrored Willow's position. Then she held up one finger to count by. "I just tried to kill her ex right in front of her." She added a second finger. "I hit her...repeatedly." She popped up a third finger. "And, oh yeah, I stabbed her in the gut with a stake." She sat back in her seat and dropped her hand into her lap. "I'm pretty sure I'm the last person she wants to see right now."

"You're wrong," Willow told her, grasping her arm and giving it a squeeze of encouragement. "Buffy desperately wants to see you. She wants try to explain, to try to patch things up. Please come back with me and talk to her."

Faith pulled out of Willow's grasp and got to her feet. "Why are you even doing this? Begging me to stay? I know you been actin' like you had some big change of heart, but in reality, you're probably thrilled to see me go."

Willow also rose from her seat. Then she looked Faith in the eyes. "I haven't been acting, and I don't want you to go."

More than anything, Faith wanted to believe the things that Willow had said, but she knew that Willow didn't understand--she knew that Willow couldn't see the darkness living inside of Faith, that black pit of irrepressible rage that threatened everyone around her. She needed to make Willow understand.

"I hurt her, Willow," she said in a choked voice. "I attacked her. I swore to her mother that I'd never hurt her, and I..." She broke off, unable to go on.

Willow reached out and touched Faith's arm once again. "I know you did," she said gently, "and she hurt you, but you didn't mean to--neither of you did."

Faith let out a small huff. "The 'didn't mean to' doesn't matter. You told me that at the dance. And you were right."

"No, I wasn't. I see that now."

Faith shot her a confused look. "Why?"

"Because I see how much you mean to her, how much she means to you, how much you two need each other. Yeah, okay, you both made mistakes, but you can get past this. You can."

Faith looked away, thinking deeply, but she didn't speak.

"Please," Willow begged. "Give it another day. Talk to Buffy. Things will work out. I promise."

Faith didn't share Willow's optimism. She knew it was useless. No amount of talking would make Buffy forget the dark, violent rage she had seen in Faith's eyes. No amount of talking would heal the jagged gash in Faith's heart. No, it was only a matter of time before the love inside them-- what little was left--simply died.

But Faith was too tired to argue anymore. So she just said, "Fine. One day. One talk."

Willow lit up with a hopeful smile.

That evening, after getting clearance from the emergency room doctor, Buffy was finally released from the hospital. The clothes Buffy had been wearing had been soaked with blood and then cut away during treatment, so Buffy was stuck wearing a baggy set of green scrubs. At least she got to wear her own shoes, she thought to herself.

Joyce had pulled her SUV up to the E.R. entrance and was now attempting to help Buffy inside the vehicle.

"I've got it, Mom," Buffy told her. "Slayer healing's already kicking in."

Joyce complied but not without letting out an exasperated sigh.

Once Joyce had driven them home, pulled the SUV into the drive, and turned off the ignition, Buffy reached out and stopped her from getting out of the car. "Mom, I need to go see Faith...tonight."

"Absolutely not," Joyce told her. When Buffy looked at her with pleading eyes, Joyce argued, "You just got out of the hospital!"

"Mom, please," she begged. "I have to talk to her."

Joyce succumbed to the desperation in Buffy's eyes. "Fine," she said. "I'll drive you."

Buffy let out a small whine. "I can't talk to her knowing that you're waiting outside. Besides, this is probably gonna take a while."

"Can't this just wait until tomorrow?" Joyce countered. "After you've had a little time to regain your strength?"

Buffy shook her head. "You heard Willow. She only got Faith to agree to stick around for one more day. I have to talk to her now. Please."

Joyce glance away for a moment then turned back to her daughter. There were tears in her eyes as she cupped Buffy's cheek and whispered, "I love you. You know that, right?" Buffy nodded. "But sometimes it's tough being your mother." She gave her a small smile and then handed over the car keys.

With her heart thudding in nervousness and her gut in knots, Buffy stepped up to Faith's door and knocked. This time, there were no angry screams--just the soft click of the door opening.

The two slayers stared silently at each other for an entire minute--their eyes full of poorly masked pain--before Faith stepped away from the door and walked to the other side of the room, where the nightstand had once stood. Buffy took Faith's actions as an invitation to enter, so she came in and carefully shut the door.

Buffy didn't notice the demolished condition of the room; she had eyes only for Faith. She took a few steps toward her, but no more, since Faith had put clear distance between them. When Faith didn't speak, Buffy decided that the ball was in her court.

"Thank you for agreeing to stay...a-a-at least long enough to talk," Buffy told her.

Faith only nodded her answer, so Buffy went on, her words tumbling out as fast as they came into her brain.

"I know that what I did hurt you, and I'm so sorry for that. I should have told you about Angel, I should have trusted you to understand, but I was so freaked out, and I didn't count on all those feelings coming back, and--"

Buffy stopped short when she saw Faith's face crease in pain before growing hard again. Buffy then burst into tears, knowing that she had screwed up once again, unable to even voice an apology without hurting the woman she loved.

"I'm so sorry..." she sobbed as she walked over to Faith and dropped to her knees before her. "God, I'm so sorry..." she repeated, bowing her head as she cried. "I love you so much...please forgive me...please..."

Continuing to beg for forgiveness in plaintive hiccuppy breaths, Buffy leaned forward until her face was buried against the front of Faith's jean-clad legs.

Faith, however, made no move to touch her. She just stood there, unmoving, except for the trembling in her hands and the tears streaming down her cheeks.

After what seemed like an eternity, Faith closed her eyes against the tears and reached out with a single hand to caress the top of Buffy's head.

Part 15

At the mansion, Angel lay in a restless sleep on his bed. Willow and Oz were nearby, keeping watch over him. The two Scoobies had removed the crossbow bolt from his chest and bandaged him up as best they could. They had also picked up several quarts of pig's blood, knowing that feeding would be the best medicine for the injured vampire.

When Angel awoke with a start, Willow and Oz rushed to his side.

"Buffy!" Angel called out as he tried to sit up.

"She's okay," Willow assured him, guiding him back against the pillows.

Angel's eyes went instantly to Oz for confirmation.

Oz nodded. "She's already out of the hospital even."

"She's at home, then?" Angel asked, relaxing a bit.

"No, she's at Faith's," Willow answered.

"What?!" Angel replied in alarm, trying to rise once again.

As Oz tried to push him back down on the bed, Willow took Angel's hands firmly in her own. "They're trying to work things out," she told him. "They need to," she added, looking deeply into his eyes.

After a moment, Angel's expression changed from frightened concern to pained acceptance, and he let his body fall back against the bed.

Willow and Oz exchanged sad glances as Angel stared silently at the ceiling.

When Faith noticed that Buffy's crying had begun to lessen, she wiped the tears from her own face and finally spoke.

"Come on," she told the blonde gently. "Time to get up."

She took Buffy's hands and helped her to her feet. Once standing, Buffy winced audibly and clutched at her wounded stomach. Then she looked up and met Faith's gaze. Buffy could see the deep pain in the dark slayer's eyes. Faith immediately pulled away and took a sizeable step back.

"I'm so sorry..." Buffy said in a choked voice.

"I know," Faith replied. Then she shrugged and said, "But I stabbed you with a stake while I was in a jealous rage, so maybe we're even." She didn't say this angrily or spitefully; she merely stated it as fact.

The two slayers stood there in awkward silence for what seemed like eons. They cast nervous glances at each other, never letting their eyes meet for more than a few seconds at a time.

Faith shoved her hands in her pants pockets. "A-A-Are you okay?"

Buffy gave a small smile and tugged at the green scrubs she was wearing. "Yeah, I'll be fine. I've had worse."

Faith allowed herself a small smile of relief; then she sobered once again. After another long moment, she asked, "So, what do we do now?"

Buffy looked down, but after a few seconds, she glanced back up. "Can we talk?" she suggested. "You know, about everything that's happened?"

Faith nodded and gestured at the bed. They both took a seat, although with a defined distance between them.

After another lengthy period of silence, Buffy turned to Faith and said, "I'm sorry I didn't tell you about Angel being back."

Faith didn't reply. She just kept her eyes on her own lap, where her hands were tightly clasped. Buffy sighed and went on.

"At first, I was just wiggin' out about the whole thing," she explained. "A-A-And after that, I was trying to figure out if he was Angel or Angelus. I knew if he was Angelus, I'd have to..." An image of herself stabbing Angel before Acathla flashed in her mind. She trailed off and glanced away, unable to complete the sentence.

"You didn't have to face that alone, you know," Faith said coolly. "I would've helped. Everyone would have."

"I didn't know that," Buffy replied softly. "But still...I-I-I should have said something."

"So, why didn't you?"

She shrugged her shoulders. "He was hurt so badly, and I just wanted to take care of him, and I didn't think anyone would understand. Last they saw of him, he was evil, and we were all trying to kill him. I mean, you saw how Xander reacted. And you...there was no way you were going to be happy about him being back."

Faith didn't have a response to that. She remained silent, neither denying nor conceding Buffy's point. Buffy was forced to go on with her explanation.

She took a deep breath and let it out. "Plus, I...I felt guilty about what I had done."

"Like what? Moving on?" Faith said, annoyed.

"No, not that. Well, not completely, anyway," Buffy answered. "I meant killing him, sending him into that hell dimension." She ducked her head and added, "It was Angel I sent there, not just Angelus."

Faith acknowledged that with a nod and then glanced away. She clenched and unclenched her fists several times, debating whether or not to ask the question she really didn't want to know the answer to. Without turning back, she forced herself to ask, "You still love him?"

"A part of me does," Buffy replied honestly. "Part of me always will." When she saw Faith's body stiffen, she quickly added, "But it's nothing compared to what I feel for you. I swear."

"But you were kissing him," Faith pointed out as she shot a glare in Buffy's direction. "And it wasn't some 'let's be friends' kiss, either."

Buffy nodded. "You're right. I-I-It wasn't. But it wasn't a 'yay, you're back, be my soul-mate' kind of kiss, either."

Faith snorted in disbelief. "Coulda fooled me."

"It was...intense," Buffy admitted, dropping her gaze back to her hands. "I still felt drawn to him, like before. And when we touched, it just...brought everything back...everything I had lost when he...changed." She looked back up and stared at Faith intently. "But then I thought of you, and I knew I had to stop it, and I did. I told him it was over, Faith. I told him it was you I was in love with."

Faith stared back, reading Buffy's eyes for some sign of untruth. Buffy held her gaze and willed Faith to believe her. But Faith only looked away.

Not knowing what else to say, Buffy played with the drawstring on her scrub pants. "I was going to tell you when I saw you next, but you and Xander..."

Faith hung her head in shame. She knew that she and Xander had crossed the line, but she wanted to try and explain to Buffy what it had been like.

"When I saw you kissing him, I just..." She stopped and swallowed the lump in her throat. When she began again, her voice was nothing but a husky whisper. "It hurt so much..." After a brief pause, she went on more strongly. "It was like you'd just ripped my guts out and left me there to die. Only I couldn't die. I just kept hurting and hurting..."

Buffy's face creased in guilt and pain, and new tears rolled down her face. "I'm so sorry..."

Faith continued as if she hadn't heard Buffy. "I swore I'd never let anybody hurt me like that," she said vehemently. "I'd never be some stupid loser who got her heart broken." She took several quick breaths and let the last one out slowly. "That's why I just 'get some and get gone.' Hell of a lot easier that way."

Faith fell silent, but Buffy didn't speak. After a while, Faith went on. The anger in her voice was gone, now replaced by intense anguish.

"But I couldn't do that with you," she confessed. She looked into Buffy's eyes for a moment before turning away. "That's why it hurt so much when you..." Faith cleared her throat and clenched her fists tightly. "It made me crazy. I just lost it, went nuts." She gestured at the trashed motel room. "As you can see."

Buffy looked away briefly to take in the sight. One wall had obviously been pummeled into dry-wall smithereens. The nightstand had been dashed into pieces. The TV had been wrenched from its stand and smashed on the floor; it now sported a boot-sized hole in its screen. Buffy frowned intently as she eyed the damage, her stomach tensing in a mixture of guilt and fear. Buffy let out a deep breath and then turned back to Faith, who went on.

"When Xander came over with his bag of weapons saying 'saddle up,' I was glad. I wanted to make somebody pay, and Angel would do just fine. We told ourselves it was only about saving you, but it wasn't." Faith stopped and looked down at her battered knuckles. Then she moved her hands to her sides, resting them palm-down on the bed. "I shouldn't have gone over there. It was wrong." Faith brought her gaze back to Buffy. Her expression was pained as she looked at Buffy's midsection. "I'm sorry..."

Not wanting Faith to blame herself for the staking, Buffy put her hand over Faith's. "It's okay," she whispered. "I understand."

Faith jerked her hand away and angrily stood up. "No! It's not okay!" she practically shouted. "I could've killed you!"

Buffy stood up and took a step towards Faith. "But you didn't," she insisted, reaching out to Faith with one hand.

"But I wanted to!" Faith growled back, her eyes burning with that same black rage she had shown in the fight at the mansion. "I wanted to hurt you like you had hurt me!"

Buffy's eyes widened in horror, and she jerked her hand back out of pure reflex.

Faith's heart fell when she saw Buffy rapidly pull back. That's it, she thought. The last straw. She looked away.

"I'm bad, Buffy," Faith said in a strained voice. "Full of hate and-and darkness and violence and...when it comes down to it, that's all I'll ever be. You're better off without me."

Buffy stared in shock, trying to absorb what she had just seen and heard, but thankfully, it took her only a moment to recover.

"That's not true," she stated firmly. Then, closing the space between them, she reached out to touch Faith's cheek, and the dark slayer actually let her do so. "You're just damaged," she said. "I am too. We're like the walking wounded...just stumbling through life, doing the best we can." Buffy looked deeply into Faith's eyes. "But I don't wanna do all that stumbling without you."

Faith closed her eyes and swallowed hard, forcing down the waves of emotions that were threatening to overtake her. When she opened her eyes, she found Buffy already starting to cry again.

"Please," Buffy begged. "I'll never betray you again, I promise...Please give me another chance...give us another chance."

After a long, agonized stare, Faith turned away and hung her head, saying nothing.

With her shoulders slumping in defeat, Buffy dropped her arms to her sides. She let out a small sob and covered her face with both hands. The only sound in the room was her crying, but her mind was filled with a wailing roar. God, it hurt so bad... She just wanted to curl into a ball, to wrap her body around her chest so tightly that she could press the pain from her heart like squeezing liquid from a sponge. She hadn't thought it could hurt this much, but it did. Mainly because she had allowed herself to hope--she had dared to believe, just a little, that Faith might be able to forgive her. But how could she when Buffy couldn't even forgive herself? You deserve this. This is what you made her feel, and--


At that softly spoken word, Buffy's mental railing abruptly stopped. Her head shot up. "W-W-What?" she hiccupped.

Faith sighed and turned back around. "I said, 'Okay'."

After blinking in disbelief for a couple of seconds, Buffy rushed to Faith and threw her arms around the brunette, crying hard against her chest, saying "thank-you" over and over. After a brief hesitation, Faith wrapped her arms around Buffy and pulled her even closer, finally surrendering herself to her own flood of tears.

As she held Buffy tightly in her arms, Faith tried to lose herself in the rightness of their physical embrace. Still, her inner voices bombarded her with accusations.

          Have you lost your fucking mind?!

                 & nbsp; She betrayed you, she ripped your guts out!

                 & nbsp;           And now you just say 'okay' like none of that happened?

                 & nbsp; She'll betray you again, she'll hurt you all over again!

          Can't you see that?

I don't care, she told the voices. I need this...I need her.

As the voices resumed their ranting, she pushed them down, deep down, until she could hear only a faint grumbling. Then she took a deep breath and let it out slowly. After that, she wiped her eyes, cleared her throat, and pulled back to look at Buffy.

"Hey, don't ya think it's time we ended this blubber-fest?" she suggested.

The blonde gave a sniffling laugh. "Yeah, we probably should."

The two slayers separated and then stood a few feet apart. They went right back into nervous mode, wringing their hands and fidgeting in place.

"I-I-I don't know how I'm supposed to act," Buffy said.

"Me neither," Faith said with a shrug.

"All I wanna do is touch you and hold you, a-a-and I feel like I don't have that right any more..." Buffy dropped her gaze to her feet.

Faith looked down as well. "Yeah."

Once again, the two slayers just stood in awkward silence. Finally, Buffy spoke.

"I-I-I should probably go," Buffy said, hitching her thumb over her shoulder at the door. "Mom's waiting up."

At the mention of Buffy's mother, Faith's expression fell. "Oh."

"She's not mad," Buffy said in reaction. "Not at you, anyway," she added ruefully. "She understands that this wasn't your fault." She gestured at her stomach and then sighed. "Actually, she's kinda in the Xander camp. She thinks the only good Angel is a dead Angel."

Faith didn't reply; she just nodded quietly. The two shot darting glances at each other, but they never let their eyes lock. After a moment, Buffy turned toward the door, stopped, then turned back around.

"Can I...?" Buffy began. "Can I get another hug?"

Faith gave her a small smile. "Yeah, sure."

She crossed the room until she was right in front of Buffy. Slowly and cautiously, the two slayers moved back into each other's arms. Fortunately, their momentary discomfort quickly dissipated in the warmth of their renewed embrace. They set aside their pain, their anger, and their guilt, and just took refuge in the strength of their love that lay underneath.

After a lengthy period of silent hugging, Faith whispered, "Don't go."

Buffy pulled away and searched Faith's eyes.

"Please," Faith added. "Not yet."

"Okay," Buffy said, smiling gently as she nodded. "I should call my mom, though," she added, "and tell her I'm all right."

"Good idea," Faith said. Then both of them turned toward the phone's former location, where the nightstand used to be. "Oh. Right. I kinda smashed it." Their eyes searched the room until they saw the broken remains on the floor by the dresser.

After briefly raising her eyebrows at the shattered phone, Buffy asked, "Is there a pay phone close by?"

Buffy stood at the pay phone in the motel's front parking lot. She squinted in the dim light as she funneled in the change Faith had given her; then she waited patiently for the requisite dial tone. As soon as she heard it, she punched in her home phone number. It rang only once before it was answered.

"Hello?" Joyce said, her voice somewhat frantic.

"Hey, Mom, it's me."

"Buffy! Oh thank god, I was getting so worried."

"I'm fine," Buffy assured her. "That's why I wanted to call--to let you know I'm all right. We're both all right. We're just talking."

"Good, good," Joyce said, still sounding immensely relieved. Then she blurted, "I think you should come home now. You need to rest, to--"

"I know, Mom, I know," Buffy told her. "And I will. Soon. I promise. But I need a little more time. Faith and I are working things out..." Buffy's face lit up in a teary expression of hope. "...I really think we're working things out, but we're still talking. Okay?"

There was a long moment of silence before Buffy heard her mother let out a weary sigh. "All right," Joyce said. "But you be back before morning," she ordered. "And don't even think about going out tomorrow, not even to school. You're staying home to rest. Do you understand?"

"Yes, ma'am," Buffy replied dutifully. Then she smiled and said, "Thanks, Mom."

Buffy couldn't make out her mother's final comment since it was buried under an unhappy grumble, but she was still smiling as she hung up the receiver and turned back to Faith, who was waiting nearby.

Faith had her hands stuffed into the front pockets of her jeans. Her shoulders were hunched in a stiff, defensive posture, as if she were bracing herself for bad news. "How'd it go?" she made herself ask.

"She's not too keen on the idea, but she okayed it," Buffy told her. "As long as I'm home before dawn."

"Okay. Cool."

Noticing that Faith still hadn't relaxed, Buffy stepped closer and linked her right arm with Faith's left, praying she wouldn't pull away. "Come on," she told her. "Let's go back to your room."

Faith didn't pull away, and after a few strides through the parking lot, she actually slid her left hand from her jeans pocket and intertwined her fingers with Buffy's. Hand in hand, the two slayers made their way back to Faith's room.

A short time later, Buffy and Faith were snuggled together on Faith's bed. Carefully avoiding the debris from the demolished lamp and television, the two slayers had removed their shoes and climbed into bed fully clothed. Despite Buffy's insistence to her mother about needing more talk time, they hadn't said more than a few sentences to one another since returning from the pay phone. Both were deep within their own thoughts. Every so often, one of them would frown in pain and then snuggle closer, needing the comfort of the other's touch.

Eventually, Buffy leaned up so that she could look into Faith's eyes. "Thank you," she told her sincerely.

"For what?" Faith asked, somewhat confused.

"For asking me to stay tonight," she answered. "For agreeing to try again."

Faith swallowed hard. She couldn't speak, even if she knew what to say at a moment like this. All she could do was reach up and touch Buffy's cheek, then pull her down until their lips met.

The kiss was so intense that Buffy found herself crying again. She lay back against the bed and draped her arm over her eyes. Faith turned onto her side to face her.

"God, Faith," Buffy said in a choked voice, "I don't know what I would have done if I'd lost you..."

Faith reached over and placed her hand gently on Buffy's stomach, causing the blonde to uncover her eyes and look at her.

"I know what you mean," Faith said quietly.

Buffy stared at Faith intently before turning on her side and drawing the brunette close. She kissed her warmly, thoroughly, fervently. Then she whispered, "Let's not find out, okay?"

"Okay," Faith agreed.

After several more desperate kisses, the two slayers snuggled once again into each other's arms and soon fell asleep.

Shortly before dawn, Giles and Cordelia were helping Xander out of his wheelchair and into his mother's vehicle. Mrs. Harris hovered close by.

"I wish you'd tell me who did this to you," Mrs. Harris nagged. "He shouldn't be allowed to walk free."

He sure as hell shouldn't, Xander thought to himself, gritting his teeth and clenching his fists tightly. Then he repeated in a weary voice, "Nobody, Mom. I fell down."

"That's not what the doctor said. He said--"

"I don't care what the doctor said!" Xander snapped, startling his mother. He calmed himself and said, "Just take me home." At that, he slammed the car door.

Mrs. Harris took a moment to clear her throat; then she turned to the others. "Mr. Giles, Miss Chase, thank you for seeing to Xander. I hope that he wasn't too unpleasant."

"He was fine, Mrs. Harris," Cordelia assured her. "He's just a little grumpy. A bang on the head will do that to you."

Xander's mother gave them a final smile of gratitude and then got in the car. Within seconds she was driving away.

Cordelia turned to Giles and let out a tired sigh. He put his arm around her shoulders and gave her a small hug before walking with her into the hospital parking lot.

Meanwhile, back in her motel room, Faith lay curled up with Buffy on the bed. Although they were both asleep, Faith wasn't resting peacefully. She was frowning and jerking in her sleep, clearly caught in a vicious nightmare.

In Faith's mind, she was back in Boston, in Mount Auburn Cemetery, in the catacombs beneath the Dyer the lair of Kakistos, the Worst of the Worst. She was surrounded by dozens of vampire minions, who held her immobile before a throne made of human skeletons.

Kakistos leaned down from his throne and met the slayer's eyes. "You are full of such beautiful darkness," he told her, "and when I place my mark on you, you will truly be mine."

"No!" Faith defiantly spat back at him. "I won't!"

Kakistos leaned back up, smiling, then nodded to his minions. The crowd began a low rumbling chant and then parted to Faith's left. There she saw a vampire stirring a long metal rod in a burning brazier. He pulled the rod out and turned to face her. The rod was actually a branding iron. Its head was heavy and wide, and its thorny spiral pattern glowed a bright orange.

"Noooo!" Faith cried out, though her voice could barely be heard over the now thunderous chanting.

She struggled with all her might to free herself from the vampires holding her, but it was no use. She could only watch in horror as the hot branding iron drew ever nearer. She screamed in agony when it was placed--sizzling, searing, charring--upon her upper arm.

Her screaming seemed to go on for an eternity, but when she finally stopped, she realized that she was no longer being held by the vampires. Instead, she was on her hands and knees on the cavern floor, with the minions around her but keeping their distance a few yards back.

Breathing hard, she got to her feet. She pulled her arm forward to look at the brand. Burned into her bicep was a pair of tribal spirals flanked by thorny wings. Her flesh was raised and black where the glowing iron had touched her; the surrounding skin was scorched an angry red. Though the pain must have been unbearable, she merely studied the brand with a dazed expression.

She heard someone approach and then felt him lift her chin. Kakistos stood before her boring his eyes into hers, stroking her cheek with his hoof-like hand.

"Daughter," Kakistos said to her.

Faith stared at him for a long moment and then said, "Father."

Kakistos smiled. "I have a gift for you, Daughter."

He gestured to his left, and once again, the crowd of minions parted. Faith saw another captive being brought forward. It was Buffy.

Her hands were bound behind her back. She was bruised and battered, her clothes dirty and torn. Multiple bite marks lined each side of her neck. Despite her weakened condition, she still struggled against the vampires who held her firmly in their grips--then she saw Faith before her.

"Faith!" Buffy cried out in concern for her girlfriend. With more than just herself at risk, Buffy increased her struggles. "Faith!"

The newly branded slayer just blinked in confusion, as if she didn't recognize Buffy. Kakistos came up behind Faith and leaned down to whisper in her ear. She cocked her head to the side to listen.

"This one must pay for what she's done," he urged her. "Free the fury within you! Unleash it!"

Faith looked down and found a wickedly curved dagger in her right hand. She watched the blade gleam in the torchlight and then slowly lifted her gaze to Buffy.

Buffy's fears morphed into sheer terror when she saw the roiling black rage that now burned in Faith's eyes. She tried even harder to break free from Kakistos's minions but failed.

"Faith, I'm sorry, I swear!" she begged as Faith stalked toward her, dagger in hand. "You don't have to do this! I know I screwed up, but please don't do this!"

Faith merely growled and grabbed the blonde by her hair, savagely pulling her head back as the vampires held her in place.

Buffy was crying now, pleading. "Faith, please..."

The dark slayer ignored her sobbing pleas and plunged the dagger straight into Buffy's heart.

Faith was screaming as she jolted awake and out of her nightmare. Buffy called her name and tried to reach out to her, but Faith didn't seem to hear. Faith stumbled out of bed, breathing so hard that she was nearly hyperventilating. She caught herself against the damaged wall, turned and put her back to it, then let herself slip to the floor. She touched her right bicep and ran her fingers over the smooth skin of her tribal tattoo. When she didn't feel the ridges of a brand, she let out a relieved laugh that almost became a sob.

Buffy called Faith's name again and eased her way to the other side of the bed. Once again, though, Faith didn't answer; instead, she pulled her legs up, rested her forearms across her knees, and laid her head on top of her arms. Buffy knelt in front of her and carefully put a hand on the slayer's arm.

"Faith...are you okay?"

Faith didn't lift her head right away. She got her breathing under control and then looked up. Even then she didn't speak; she just nodded.

"Nightmare?" Buffy asked.

Again Faith merely nodded.

"Musta been a doozy," Buffy said.

Faith waited a long time before answering. Then she pulled away from Buffy's touch. "Yeah," she said as she got to her feet.

She walked over to her duffel bag, which was propped beside the door. She opened it and pulled out her bottle of Jack Daniels. She took a big swig and then another. Then she set the bottle on the undamaged dresser and replaced its cap, but she didn't take her hand off the neck of the bottle.

Buffy stood up and walked over. Even in the faint light, Buffy could see that Faith was shaking badly, so she put a hand on Faith's back. When the dark slayer didn't pull away from her touch this time, Buffy rested her head against the nape of Faith's neck and slipped her arms around her waist.

It took a while for Faith to respond to Buffy's touch. But eventually she closed her eyes and drew in the warmth coming from Buffy. She let go of the bottle and covered Buffy's arms with her own, leaning back into Buffy. When she had calmed somewhat, Faith turned around in the embrace, resting her hands at the blonde's hips.

When Buffy saw Faith keeping her gaze down, she reached up and caressed Faith's cheek until she looked up.

"Whatever it is, you can tell me," Buffy whispered.

An anguished expression came over Faith's face. When she spoke, her voice was hoarse and quiet. "I can't," she said, beginning to tremble once again.

"It's okay, it's okay," Buffy instantly said, trying to soothe the stricken slayer.

She reached out with her other hand and pulled Faith to her, kissing her earnestly. Then she wrapped her arms around Faith and hugged her tightly. Faith returned the hug, burying her face in Buffy's hair. The two stood like that for the longest time until Faith finally separated them.

"The sun's about to come up," she announced, clearly changing the subject and distancing herself once more.

Buffy turned and looked at the window. She sighed heavily and turned back to Faith. She debated whether or not to press Faith a little more but ultimately decided not to. Whatever the nightmare entailed, it could wait. So she shrugged and said, "I guess I should probably go home. Put Mom's mind at ease."

Faith nodded and then asked, "How ya feelin'?"

Buffy looked down and lifted the scrub shirt. She touched the bandage on her stomach and said, "Not too bad." She looked up and winked at Faith. "Sleeping with you is good medicine."

Faith's mouth creased into a smile, but it was far from her usual full-dimpled grin.

"Can I see you later today?" Buffy asked a bit hesitantly as she retrieved her keys from the top of the dresser.

"Yeah, sure," Faith said.

"I don't know when it'll be. Mom wants me to stay home from school."

Faith shrugged and said, "Well, since I'm phone-less, why don't I just find you later?"

"Okay," Buffy agreed with a smile.

Buffy made no move toward the door. The forced lightness of their last few exchanges didn't last, and somber expressions returned to the slayers' faces. Still, they stared at one another intently.

"I love you," Buffy said, a slight quiver in her voice. "So much."

"I love you, too," Faith replied sincerely.

At that, Buffy gave Faith one final hug and then left the room. Within minutes, she was in her mother's SUV and on her way home.

As Buffy let herself in the front door, she immediately heard her mother's voice.

"Buffy, is that you?"

"Yeah, Mom, it's me," she called out. As she turned from locking the door, she saw her mother hurrying toward her from the dining room.

Joyce had on a faded set of flannel pajamas. Over those she wore a full-length white apron that was currently smudged with what appeared to be silver tarnish. In her hand she held a dirty polishing cloth, which she quickly stuffed into her apron pocket before tugging her daughter into a desperate hug.

"Oh, I'm so glad you're home. You had me worried sick."

Buffy happily returned the embrace. "I'm fine, Mom," she assured her mid-hug. Then she pulled away and met her mother's eyes. "I promise," she added firmly.

Joyce touched her daughter's cheek and said, "You look tired. Come on, let's sit down." She guided Buffy to the living room, and they sat on the sofa next to each other. "How's Faith? You said that you two were working things out?"

Buffy nodded and smiled, her eyes filling with grateful tears. "We did. I mean, we are. Still. It's kind of an in-progress thing, but we're back together, and we're gonna make this work. I know we will."

Joyce smiled back and gave her daughter's arm an encouraging squeeze. Buffy then went on in a quieter voice.

"It was so hard, Mom. I didn't realize how badly I had hurt her. She tries to be so tough, you know? But she's not--not on the inside. She's had so much hurt in her life, and I just added to it and--"

Buffy had to stop and swallow down the sob that was gathering at the back of her throat. Joyce just waited patiently until Buffy was ready to continue, and soon she was.

"I begged her to forgive me and to give us another chance. At first, I didn't think she was going to say yes, but she did." Buffy let out a tiny laugh of relief and wiped away her tears. "Thank god, she did."

Buffy turned to her mother and grasped both of her hands. "Thank you for letting me go over there. I don't think I would have gotten another chance to make things right with her if I hadn't gone when I did. I know it was hard on you, though, so...thanks."

"I think 'hard' is an understatement," Joyce quipped, but then she sobered and said, "Until you're a mother yourself, you can't know what it's like--to see your child in pain, to send that child into a situation that could cause her even more pain, even more heartache." Joyce shook her head ruefully. "I don't know how many times I picked up the phone to call a cab to head over there to check on you."

"I'm sorry I put you through all this..." Buffy said, frowning.

Joyce smiled and touched her daughter's cheek again. "Comes with the territory. When my little girl hurts, I hurt too."

Buffy let the sobs come this time, crying as she fell into her mother's arms. "I love you, Mom!"

"I love you too, Sweetie."

After a long moment, Joyce reluctantly separated them so that she could look into her daughter's eyes. "And how is Faith? Honestly? This can't be easy for her."

"She's pretty messed up," Buffy admitted. "We both are. She's hurt, like I said, but I don't know what's hurting her more--what I did to her or what she did to me." When Joyce looked confused, Buffy explained. "The staking," she said, pointing to her stomach. "I told her that it wasn't her fault, but she's taking it pretty hard. Total guilt fest."

"Understandable," Joyce said.

"But not fun," Buffy noted sadly.

"No, I suppose not," Joyce replied. Then her eyes lit up as if she were just remembering something. "Oh, before I forget...Rupert and Willow both called while you were at Faith's." She started counting off items on her fingers as she recited them. "Rupert said that Xander would be released from the hospital some time early this morning. Willow said that Angel was okay, that she and Oz were taking care of him. And she said to tell you that she'd be by to see you after school."

Buffy smiled in relief at the news, but behind her eyes was a deep worry at the unfinished business that she knew awaited her--with Angel, Xander, Giles, even Willow. Joyce noticed the shadow that had come over Buffy's face, so she reached over and took her daughter's hand.

"I think it's time for you to set all this aside and get some rest, don't you?"

When Buffy nodded in agreement, they both got to their feet. Buffy swayed a bit, and Joyce immediately put her hand at her daughter's back to steady her.

"Yeah, rest sounds good about right now," Buffy said.

After helping her daughter up the stairs and into bed, Joyce left Buffy's room and headed to her own. Once inside, she shut the door and picked up the phone. She punched in a number and let it ring.

"Hello?" came Giles's tired voice over the phone.

"Hi, it's Joyce."

"Oh, um, Joyce. I-I-Is everything all right? Is Buffy--?"

"She's fine." Then Joyce corrected herself. "As fine as she can be, I suppose. She got home just a while ago."

"And her talk with Faith?" Giles prompted.

"It went well, Buffy said. She seemed very optimistic about things."

"So Faith isn't leaving? She's staying to work things out with Buffy?"

"Yes, that's right."

"Good. That's...good."

Joyce could hear the relief in his voice, and she knew how it felt. She was still feeling it herself. But deep concern continued to nag the back of her mind.

"They're so hurt and so fragile, Rupert. How will they get through this?" she asked. "And what if they don't? What if--?"

"They will," Giles insisted. "Of that, I'm certain. They're strong and-and determined, and most importantly, they love each other very much. Obviously, they won't emerge unscathed--it's too late for that--but they will come through this. You'll see."

Joyce nodded her head in silence, trying to let the words sink in. After a moment, she perked up and spoke again. "Well, I'm going to call Willow," she announced. "I'm sure she's anxious for some news."

"Would you like me to do that for you?"

"No, that's all right. Thank you, though. I promised Willow I'd call her as soon as Buffy got home."

"Very well, but if you need anything, anything at all..."

"I know," Joyce replied. "Thank you, Rupert. For everything."

"You're very welcome."

Joyce hung up the phone and let out a long exhale. Then she picked the phone back up and entered Willow's number.

After a quick conversation with Buffy's best friend, Joyce hung up the phone and glanced at the clock. She let her shoulders sag wearily. Then she took in a deep breath, pulled back her shoulders, and rose to her feet.

"No sense going to sleep now," she muttered before heading for the master bath.

Meanwhile, back in her motel room, Faith tossed restlessly on her bed. She had tried to sleep after Buffy had left, but she'd had no luck. Her mind was too troubled to allow sleep to come.

Her thoughts kept returning to her nightmare--how easily she had succumbed to Kakistos's command to unleash the fury inside of herself, how gleefully she had ignored Buffy's pleas for forgiveness, how violently she had plunged the dagger into Buffy's heart.

She tried to tell herself it was just a dream, but then she remembered what she had imagined herself doing before she had set out with Xander--beating and staking Angel as a helpless Buffy watched, smiling as Buffy fell weeping to her knees. Then she recalled the fight itself at Angel's mansion--the surge of power that she had felt when she'd hit Buffy for the first time, the rush of adrenaline that had raced through her as they'd battled one another, the sense of righteous satisfaction that had filled her as she'd descended upon Angel with the stake.

Why are you beating yourself up about this? her inner voice accused. You are the victim here. You deserved some payback, and you got it, so get over it!

Even though the wounded part of her felt vindicated, Faith couldn't shake the sense of guilt. She couldn't dislodge the gut-twisting fear that her words to Buffy the night before were all too true. "I'm bad, Buffy," she'd told her. "Full of hate and-and darkness and violence and...when it comes down to it, that's all I'll ever be..."

Buffy, of course, had said it wasn't true, but what did she know? With her happy little middle-class home and a mother who actually gave a damn, Buffy couldn't possibly understand what Faith had been through and what that experience had turned her into.

Faith thought back to her last year in Boston. She remembered how she had begun sinking more and more frequently into rage -induced blackouts, how she had emerged from them with her hands bruised and bloody and no memory of how they'd gotten that way. She remembered waking up in a mental hospital after dragging a man from his car and repeatedly smashing his head against a curb. She remembered reading a letter from her former case worker to her watcher that included a telling assessment of her psychological prognosis: "Thanks to a lifetime of physical and emotional abuse and neglect at the hands of her mother, Miss Lehane stands little to no chance of becoming a fully functional individual." Funny how she could visualize every single word of that letter as if each one had been hand-carved into her brain.

Faith growled in frustration at her mind's relentless onslaught. She got out of bed and stomped toward the bathroom, determined to burn the thoughts away with a scalding shower.

A short time later, Faith emerged from the bathroom, combing her damp hair. She was now clean but not particularly refreshed.  Her face was pale with shadowy circles under her eyes. She set her comb down on the dresser next to her bottle of Jack Daniels and then tugged some clothes from her packed duffel bag. She quickly donned them, putting her dirty clothes on top of the dresser. After pulling on her boots and buckling her belt, she straightened up and sighed heavily, trying to figure out her next move.

A sudden, booming knock on the door startled Faith, causing her to jump. When the knock was repeated, she approached the door and called out, "Who is it?"

"Manager. Open up!"

"Shit!" Faith cursed through clenched teeth. "Shit, shit, shit!" she repeated as she turned around to look at the demolished room. "Uhhh...just a minute..." she called out, attempting to stall.

"I've had complaints, so open!"

Faith circled in place with her hands held to her temples. She was at a complete loss on what to do. She couldn't possibly clean all this up fast enough, and even if she could, she--

She heard the lock turn and swung around just in time to see the heavy-set manager open the door and step inside.

"What the fuck?!" he said upon seeing the room's condition. His chubby unshaven face turned firecracker red, and his eyes nearly bulged out of their sockets as he descended upon Faith. "What did you do in here?!!" he bellowed, gesturing at the destruction.

Faith held her hands up in apology. "Look, I'm sorry, okay? I-I-I know I trashed the room, but I'll, um, I'll pay you back. I'll pay for the damage, I promise!"

"Like hell you will," the manager spat back. "I'm calling the cops...let 'em haul your ass off to jail. I knew you were trouble the minute I laid eyes on you."

When the manager headed for the door, Faith stepped into his path. "Please don't call the cops. I'll do whatever it takes to make this right, I swear!"

The manager saw how distraught Faith was, but he still eyed her with suspicion.

"Can't I, like, work it off somehow? Wash the linens, clean the rooms, something?" she pleaded.

A slimy smirk quirked the corners of the manager's mouth before he made his face stern again. He glanced around the room and said, "Maaaybe I could work out a deal."

Faith stepped forward to stand right in front of him. "Please," she said. "I'll do anything. Just...don't call the cops."

Before Faith could even react, the manager latched his meaty hands on her upper arms and yanked her forward until he was right in her face.

"You can start by gettin' down on your knees and usin' that pretty little mouth of yours to make me a lot less angry than I am right now," he said menacingly.

When he went to push Faith to the floor, however, he found that he couldn't. She just wouldn't budge. Furious, he bore his eyes down on hers once again. It wasn't a desperate, powerless young girl staring back at him now, but he didn't know that.

"Get...your me..." Faith warned in an icy tone as she clenched her fists tighter and tighter.

"If you don't want me to call the cops, then I'll put my hands on you any time I like," the man sneered, releasing one of Faith's arms so that he could grope her breast.

With a roar, Faith broke his hold, grabbed him by the throat, and shoved him against the damaged wall with his feet barely touching the floor.

"Don't you touch me!!!" she screamed maniacally. "DON'T YOU FUCKIN' TOUCH ME!!!"

With tears streaming down her face, Faith continued to squeeze the manager's throat in a blind rage. She couldn't see the manager scrambling for traction against the debris-strewn carpet. She couldn't see him clawing at her hand and arm with his fingers. She couldn't see the terror on his face as he fought for air. All she could see was the blackness burning blood-red before her eyes.

Part 16

Just as the motel manager's eyes began to roll back in his head, something broke through Faith's rage, and she stopped choking him. She released his neck, and he dropped to the floor with a thud, coughing and sucking in air. She backed away from him, heaving in shuddering breaths herself, trying frantically to get herself under control.

"You fuckin' bitch," the manager croaked from the floor. "I'm callin' the cops on your ass for sure now!"

"You do that!" Faith shot back, pointing at him accusingly. "And I'll tell them how you groped a seventeen-year-old girl and tried to force yourself on her!" Her voice was hoarse and high-pitched, and she hated how weak and pathetic it sounded.

The manager's mouth twisted into a snarl. "Just get the hell out, then! I ever see you around here again, I will call 'em, and we'll see who they believe! Fuckin' slut..."

As Faith tried to shut out the rest of the manager's tirade, she quickly crammed her dirty clothes, comb, and bottle of Jack Daniels into her duffel bag. After swinging the bag over her shoulder, she dashed out of the room.

Faith fled from the motel, her bag thumping against her back. She ran until her lungs forced her to stop and catch her breath. Letting her bag slip to the pavement, she bent over at the waist and took in huge gulps of air. She was still shaking badly from her encounter with the motel manager, but she fought down the growing urge to puke her guts up.

"Son of a bitch...fuckin' son of bitch," she hissed before standing upright again.

She desperately wanted another shower. The memory of the motel manager's hands on her, the smell of his breath in her face, made the bile rise in her throat again. She closed her eyes and forced it down once more. She focused on her breathing and calmed herself until she could reach for her bag again.

As she swung it over her shoulder, she turned and realized where she was: the bus station. She looked around in confusion, unsure if she had meant to come to the station or if she had ended up there by accident. For a long moment, she stared at the front door, her brow furrowed into a pained expression. Then she started for the entrance.

When Faith walked into the bus station, she paused before the ticket counter. She reached around her duffel and into the bag's front pocket. There she felt the hard edge of the ticket she had bought the day before--the one she hadn't used when Willow had talked her into staying another day.

I could trade it in, get it changed to today...

That would be the easiest solution, she told herself. If she left Sunnydale, she wouldn't have to apologize or make amends or rip open her chest to make things work. She couldn't screw up and hurt anyone she cared about, either. Most importantly, nobody could hurt her. She could leave behind all this relationship bullshit and start fresh somewhere else. And next time she'd make damn sure she didn't make the same mistake again--the mistake of getting involved.

But she knew it wasn't that easy. She couldn't just leave her emotions behind as if she were cutting off a loose thread that was dangling from her sleeve. No, those feelings would go with her wherever she went, pain and all.

As much as Buffy's betrayal had hurt, though, the thought of leaving her, of never seeing her again, hurt more. It made her stomach lurch and her throat constrict. Faith pulled her duffel bag tightly against her chest and buried her face against it.

I should just go, she thought. But I can't. I just can't.

She forced herself to breathe through the moment, and when she had relaxed enough, she left the ticket counter and headed for the lockers, her intended destination. She found an empty one and stuffed her bag inside. She shut the door, locked it, and tucked the key in her pocket. Then she left the bus station.

Once outside, she stopped on the sidewalk out front. "Now what?" she asked herself.

She thought back to what she had been brooding over before the motel manager had arrived--her Kakistos nightmare, the battle at Angel's mansion, her life in Boston, whether or not she really was capable of being something other than 'bad.'

She closed her eyes and shook her head ruefully. If she wanted her relationship with Buffy to work, if she really wanted it to work, then there was only one thing she could do. Yet that one thing made her body clench into knots almost as much as the thought of leaving Buffy had.

After letting out a resigned sigh, Faith trudged away toward Giles's apartment.

As Giles was getting ready to go to work, he heard a knock on the door. He hurried to answer it and found Faith standing outside.

"Faith," he said, his eyes widening in surprise. "I, um, ah, come in, come in," he added, motioning her inside. "I'm glad you're here. I was going to stop by on my way to work to see how you were."

When Faith stepped into the light of the apartment, he could see that she was in a state of distress. She had her arms wrapped around herself, and her eyes were...well, 'haunted' was the only way he knew to put it. He reached out and placed a gentle hand against Faith's shoulder.

"Are you all right?" he asked.

Out of habit, Faith nearly lit up in a smile and said her usual "five by five," but she stopped herself. Instead, she just cast her gaze to the floor and shook her head in the negative.

"Joyce said that you and Buffy had talked. Did something else happen between you two?"

"No," Faith answered, shaking her head again. Then she looked back up and made herself speak. "But I'm afraid that it will."

"If you're thinking that Buffy would..." He trailed off when he realized that another betrayal wasn't what Faith was worried about. It was something else, something deeply troubling. "Faith, why don't we sit down?" he said, gesturing toward the sitting area. "Then you can--"

"Why don't we just cut through the crap?" she snapped testily, no longer able to endure the pitying gaze Giles was directing at her. She walked to the sitting area but remained standing, folding her arms into a defiant stance.

Giles followed her in. "I'm sorry?" he said, confused by her reply.

"Did the Council give you a file on me?" she asked. She tried to be matter-of-fact, but there was more than a little accusation in her tone.

Although still perplexed by Faith's line of thought, Giles answered truthfully, "Yes, um...yes, they did."

" know what it was like for me in Boston...what happened to me...what I did?"

Giles sighed and said somewhat sadly, "Yes."

Faith took a moment to pace in front of the fireplace and loveseat. Despite her attempt to maintain a tough exterior, she was beginning to feel the tide of emotions rising within her. She tried to force it down, to regain some semblance of control, but she wasn't succeeding.

Giles could see Faith struggling with the turmoil inside herself, but there was nothing he could do except wait for her to go on.

Finally, Faith stopped pacing and turned back to him. Her fists were clenched at her sides, and tears were in her eyes, but they didn't fall. She wouldn't let them.

"I'm not...'right'," she confessed before quickly ducking her head. "I don't know if I even can be." She glanced back up, her expression now desperate. "But I have to try. I have to do something! I can't--" Hurt Buffy. "I can't--" Hurt Buffy. "I can't--" Fuck! Why can't I say the goddamn words?!!

Just as Giles started to approach her, she made a loud 'grrrrr' and then shouted, "I need a shrink!" With the admission finally out, she let her shoulders slump and said in a quiet, weary voice, "I need a fuckin' shrink."

At last, Giles could see what Faith had been trying to share. Though his heart broke for her, it also swelled with pride, for he knew what it must have cost her to come to this point. Asking for help was definitely not Faith's way. And for her to ask for help with something so personal, for her to choose a path that would most certainly cause her to relive her traumatic was...simply remarkable. He wanted to tell her all of this, but he realized she couldn't bear it right now. What she needed was quick action, and he knew just the person to call.

"All right," he readily agreed. "I'll make the arrangements today."

Faith's head shot up. Her watcher's reply wasn't what she had expected. She didn't know what she had thought it would be, but it must not have been this because now she didn't know what to do or say. So she just mumbled, "Uhhh... okay...thanks."

When Giles saw Faith's surprise change to a nervous eyeing of the door, he took the risk of approaching her and touching her once again. He took both of her shoulders in his hands and was pleased when she didn't immediately look away or pull out of his grasp.

"You look exhausted, Faith," he told her. "Why don't you rest here for a while before you head out? I'll be leaving for work shortly, and you'll have the whole apartment to yourself."

"Okay," she said, shrugging nonchalantly.

Inside, however, she was immensely relieved to have a place to be, at least for a few hours. She considered telling Giles about the motel manager but then decided not to. She didn't really want to talk about it, and besides, it was her mess, her problem, and she'd have to be the one to fix it.

"Would you like something to eat?" Giles offered as he stepped away to finish getting ready.

"Nah," Faith called out. "Not really up for eating right now."

"Perhaps later then," he replied amiably. After sliding on his tweed jacket and picking up his leather satchel, he paused at his desk. "Well, make yourself at home. Lock the door on your way out. And check with me later today. I may have some news on your request."

"Okay. Thanks."

She gave him a small smile then. He sent one back and tacked on a reassuring nod as a bonus. Then he was out the door.

After Giles left, Faith let out a long, shaky breath and sank onto the loveseat. She rubbed her forehead with her hand and then ran her fingers through her hair. She truly was exhausted. She hadn't gotten more than a few hours of genuine sleep in the last few days, and all the emotional upheaval had just sucked the energy right out of her.

She dragged herself to her feet and moved to the sofa. She plopped her body down and stretched out. She pulled a nearby afghan over herself and tucked a battered throw pillow under her head. Curling up on her side, she closed her eyes and prayed that the nightmares wouldn't come.

But the nightmares always came, especially when she was alone, especially after she'd been upset, after she'd been remembering. And now, after only an hour of sleeping, one hit, and she jerked awake in a fright. Within seconds, though, she lay back down, too tired to even curse the dream. It had been an old one, and although it had been no less frightening, she took some solace in its familiarity. She rested her forearm across her eyes and tried to go back to sleep.

Meanwhile, across town, Buffy lay tossing and turning in her bed. She frowned in her sleep and then whimpered before awakening with a loud gasp.

"Faith!" she cried out and sat up straight in her bed.

She glanced around her room in confusion, breathing hard as she tried to distinguish between what was dream and what was real.

After a few minutes, her breathing calmed, but her puzzled look remained. She lifted her hand and placed it over her heart. As she looked toward her window, she whispered Faith's name once again.

Downstairs, Joyce was busying herself with more unnecessary chores. When Buffy scuffed, bleary-eyed, into the kitchen, she saw her mother standing on the dining room table doing something with the chandelier.

"Hey Mom," she called out, not really registering what she had seen. Then she stopped, backtracked, and glanced into the dining room again. "What are you doing?" Buffy asked.

Joyce adjusted her position so that she could look in Buffy's direction. "Oh, just cleaning the globes on the chandelier," she replied with a smile. She carefully set the last globe in its cradle and then climbed down off the table. When she noticed Buffy staring at her like she was crazy, Joyce blushed a bit; then she pulled back her shoulders and said, "They were filthy. I don't know how we could even see our food."

"If you say so," Buffy replied, rolling her eyes before continuing into the kitchen. Joyce hurried behind her.

"What are you doing up, young lady?" Joyce chided. "You're supposed to be resting."

"And you're supposed to be at work," Buffy countered.

"I have a sick child at home. That's my excuse. What's yours?"

Buffy sighed and shrugged. "Just woke up."

"Bad dream?" Joyce guessed, reaching over to touch her daughter's arm.


"Want to talk about it?"

"Not really," Buffy replied. "I don't remember much about it anyway. It was weird, almost like..."

"Like what?"

Like it wasn't mine, she thought to herself. She shook her head and said, "Never mind. Just the usual 'bazaar of the bizarre' that is my brain."

Joyce smiled and gave Buffy's arm a squeeze. "Do you want breakfast?"

Buffy gauged her inner hunger meter and said, "Yeah, I could eat."

Joyce headed for the refrigerator. "Do you want eggs and bacon or pancakes and syrup?"

"Yes, please!" Buffy chirped as she eased atop one of the bar stools. When her mother shot her a mock glare, she merely grinned unrepentantly.

A short time later, Buffy and her mother were enjoying a breakfast big enough for a pair of lumberjacks. Joyce smiled to herself when she saw Buffy eating heartily. She knew her daughter's appetite was an extremely accurate indicator of her emotional state, and the way Buffy was chowing down, things were definitely looking up.

"It's good to see you eating," Joyce commented when Buffy went for a second stack of pancakes.

"You say that now," Buffy quipped. "Just wait till you add up the grocery bills."

Mother and daughter shared a smile and a chuckle as Buffy sat down and drenched her pancakes in syrup.

Then Joyce sobered a bit. "I don't want to ruin your appetite by bringing up a painful subject, but...what do you intend to do about Angel?"

Buffy's forkful of pancakes stopped mid-air before reaching her open mouth. She closed her mouth and carefully set her fork back down on her plate.

"What do you mean 'do about Angel'?" Buffy asked, her eyes suspicious. "I'm not going to kill him if that's what you're--"

"It's not," Joyce instantly interjected, holding up her hands in a placating gesture. "Although, I admit, there's a part of me that wishes you would." When Buffy folded her arms and glared, Joyce quickly went on. "What I mean are you and Faith going to handle Angel being around? Or is he even going to be around?"

Buffy uncrossed her arms and let her shoulder sag. "I don't know," she admitted. "I haven't really had time to think about it."

"You need to think about it, honey. For your sake and Faith's."

"Think about it and do what?" Buffy demanded. "I don't know what you're asking me to do!"

"You need to ask Angel to leave Sunnydale."

Buffy's mouth dropped open, but no words came out.

Joyce reached over and touched her daughter's arm. "Your relationship with Faith is so fragile right now," she said in a soft voice. "Do you really think it could handle another Angel-related blow? Do you think she could?"

Buffy lowered her gaze, sadly shook her head, and whispered, "No."

"Then find a way to make him leave," Joyce pleaded.

Meanwhile, at the high school library, Giles was in his office making a call to Los Angeles. He sat at his desk with his address book open in front of him. He nervously tapped his fingers on his desk as he listened to the requisite ringing. Finally, he heard someone answer.

"Hello?" said a female voice.

"Helen? Um, Dr. Fielding? It's-it's Rupert Giles."

"Rupert! How good to hear from you!" replied Dr. Fielding in a genuinely pleased tone. She had a British accent, but it was one that had been softened by prolonged exposure to American English. "I'm sorry we couldn't get together earlier. I was in New York at a conference when you called a few weeks ago."

Giles had tried to call her when Buffy was in the throes of the guilt curse, but by the time Dr. Fielding had returned to California, Buffy was better. "I regret that as well," he told her, "but I hope that your trip was enjoyable."

"It was," she replied. "But enough about me. How is life on the hellmouth?" she asked, the curious smirk evident in her voice.

"Oh, ah...stimulating, as always," Giles answered with a smile.

"I hear you've got your hands full. Two slayers instead of one."

"Yes, that's correct. In fact, they're the reason I've contacted you."


"I-I-I know you're no longer employed by the Council, but, um, I could really use your help."

Giles went on to tell Dr. Fielding about Faith and her request for a psychiatrist. He didn't go into detail, but he did mention that Faith was romantically involved with her fellow slayer, Buffy. Dr. Fielding gave a long 'hmmmm' in reply, indicating her interest was definitely piqued.

"A-A-As I said, I know you don't work for the Council any longer," Giles stated, "and I realize that your schedule is probably completely full, but I was hoping that perhaps, at-at some point in the future, you could find time to--"

"How about tomorrow?" Dr. Fielding interjected, cutting Giles off. Without waiting for him to answer, she went on. "Reserve a room for me for tonight and tomorrow night. A nice suite with a sitting area where Faith and I can meet. Make sure the hotel desk knows I'll be a late check-in. I have an appointment this evening that I can't miss. I'll call you for the details when I'm done and then drive up directly after."

Giles held his mouth open in momentary surprise before finally answering. "That...that would be wonderful!"

"Plan to have Faith at my suite at ten o'clock sharp tomorrow morning," Dr. Fielding instructed.

"I will," Giles promised. "And thank you," he added sincerely.

"You're very welcome," she said. "I'm looking forward to seeing you again," she added. "I'll call you as soon as I get settled into my room."

At that, the two made their good-byes. After hanging up the phone and closing his address book, Giles leaned back in his chair and exhaled in relief. If anyone could help Faith, it was Dr. Fielding. Of that, he was certain.

With his Faith worries eased, Giles allowed his mind to wander. He thought back to his early days with the Council, when he'd first met Dr. Fielding. As he indulged in a brief walk through memories of the past, his eyes took on a sparkle, and his lips quirked into a wistful smile.

After breakfast, Buffy convinced her mother to return to work. After garnering from Buffy sworn promises to rest, Joyce reluctantly got ready and headed out for the gallery.

Once Buffy was alone in the house, she tried to call Willow. The phone rang several times but was picked up by Willow's answering machine.

I should've realized Miss Perfect Attendance would be at school, Buffy quipped to herself. She left a message on Willow's machine and then hung up the phone.

Per her mother's orders, she tried to go back to sleep but couldn't. So she went downstairs and stared at TV shows for several hours. When her eyes could take no more, she trudged back to her room and crawled into bed. Sleep, however, continued to elude her. Her mind was simply too preoccupied with the Angel dilemma.

Mom's right, she admitted. Angel needs to go.

Buffy's expression saddened. But how do I tell him that?

She tilted her head from side to side as her thoughts took on a sarcastic tone. 'Hey, sorry about your century in hell, Angel, but I've moved on. Maybe you should, too. Like somewhere else? Hint, hint...'

Buffy groaned aloud. This would have gone sooo much easier if Xander hadn't interfered.

At Sunnydale High, Willow hurried out of her class but skipped going to the cafeteria. She headed for the library instead. She had wanted to speak with Giles earlier, before first period, but she had arrived at school with only enough time to go straight to class. Besides Giles, she was the only one of the Scoobies who had come to school that day. Oz was watching Angel, and the others were home resting.

After arriving at the library, Willow took a quick glance around the room. When she didn't see Giles among the tables or stacks, she went behind the checkout desk and looked into the librarian's office. She found him at his desk, unwrapping a sandwich. She dropped her book bag outside the door and then went inside.

"Giles, hey," she said as she sat down in the chair beside his desk.

"Willow," he replied, "I'm afraid you've caught me nabbing a bite to eat. Can I get you something?" he said, offering her a half of his sandwich.

She shook her head. "Have you heard from Buffy?" she asked, all business. "I haven't talked to her since the hospital, and I'm really worried. I mean, her mom called, but that was hours ago. And I haven't seen Faith at all."

"I saw Faith this morning briefly," Giles answered. "She seemed..." He hesitated to weigh his words. "...tired," he finally said, "but otherwise all right. I haven't heard from Buffy directly, but Joyce called about midmorning to say that she was going back to work. At Buffy's insistence," he quickly added.

Willow chuckled a bit. "Sounds like Buffy. She probably said something like, 'A hovered-over slayer never heals'."

"And attributed it to me, no less," Giles said with a grin.

For a moment, witch and watcher shared a sincere laugh, but soon a somberness fell over them, and they glanced away in silence. When Willow looked back, she leaned on the corner of the desk and met Giles's gaze.

"I-I-I know Buffy didn't handle things well, but she never meant to hurt anyone."

Giles stiffened in reaction, but his eyes remained warm. "I'm aware of that, Willow, but the truth is she did hurt someone. She hurt all of us. Some more than others, of course," he said as he thought of Faith. "And Buffy will have to deal with consequences of her deception."

"And she will," Willow promised, "but we can't let her mistake destroy the team. We need to stick together, talk this thing through."

"What do you suggest?"

"Another intervention," Willow answered, "but this time we let her explain. Last time we were so busy attacking her that she never got the chance to tell her side of the story. Not fully at least. I mean, I'm not saying that we shouldn't be mad and hurt. I just think we owe her an honest listen. You know?"

Giles thought a moment then gave a reluctant nod. "Agreed."

Willow's face lit up in an optimistic smile. "Great! I'll talk to Buffy after school and set everything up." She rose from her chair and moved toward the doorway. "I'll probably have to drag Xander kicking and screaming, but--Faith!"

Willow had caught sight of Faith entering the library and now rushed in her direction, with Giles quickly following. Before the dark-haired slayer could utter a simple "hey," Willow wrapped her up in an earnest hug.

"Oh my god, Faith!" she exclaimed mid-hug. "Are you okay?"

Faith fought down the instinct to immediately wriggle out of the embrace. Although a small part of her did relish the sincere concern being shown toward her, she mostly felt awkward, exposed, vulnerable. She gave Willow's back a few pats and then separated herself from the redhead.

"I'm fine," Faith replied. At a raised eyebrow from Willow, she added, "Really." Faith cast a glance at Giles, but he didn't dispute the claim. She turned back to Willow. "Thanks for convincing me to stay."

"So...what happened?" Willow prompted. "Mrs. Summers said you guys talked, that things were okay..."

Faith shoved her hands into her front pockets and attempted to shrug her tense shoulders. "Yeah, she came over, and we talked." Faith glanced away for a few seconds, her expression brightened by a small, hopeful smile. "We figured we both screwed up on this one, so we decided to give it another try." When she looked back, though, she tensed up again, uncomfortable with all the sharing. "That's basically it."

When it looked like Willow was going to press for details, Giles stepped in and put a hand on the redhead's shoulder, stopping her impending comment. "I know it's been difficult for you, Faith, but we're very glad to hear that you and Buffy are working things out."

"Yeah, me too," Faith said.

Just then, Oz entered the library and made his way over to the group. Willow's eyes lit up and then clouded over. She shuffled in place and cast a few nervous glances in Faith's direction before asking Oz, "So,'s that 'thing' going? You know, that 'thing' you were working on earlier...?" She flicked her head in an obvious gesture.

"It's okay," Faith said, smirking a little. "You don't have to talk in code. I'll just go over there, and you can talk about Angel all you want."

As Faith stepped away toward the tables and chairs, Giles followed her in order to speak with her privately. "While I have you alone," he said in a low tone, "I've made that, um, 'arrangement' you requested."

A flash of terror showed in Faith's eyes. "Already?"

Giles nodded. "I contacted a friend of mine in Los Angeles. Dr. Fielding. Dr. Helen Fielding. She's worked with the Council before, and she's agreed to take on your case. She's driving up tonight and wants to meet with you tomorrow morning, ten o'clock."

Dread settled in Faith's gut. She clenched her jaw and folded her arms tightly against her chest. "Good. That's good. Thanks."

Giles touched Faith's shoulder. "She can help. Trust me. I know."

"Yeah?" Faith said, hiding her fear and transitioning into her usual bravado. She flashed her watcher a teasing smile. "You seen her help another fucked up slayer?"

"No, but I've seen her help a very 'fucked up' watcher once." Giles smiled to himself as he watched Faith react to both the wording and the implication of his statement. When he saw Willow approaching, though, he quickly sobered and told Faith, "Dr. Fielding can help. Let her."

Faith swallowed hard and nodded, then turned to face Willow as she arrived without Oz.

"Oz is heading home, and I gotta get back to class," Willow told both of them. Then she turned to Faith and asked, "Are you gonna see Buffy this afternoon?"

"Uhhh, yeah...I mean, maybe. I don't know. We didn't exactly set a time."

"Well, if you see her before I do, tell her I'll be by sometime after school. Just as soon as I can, I promise."

"I'll tell her," Faith replied.

"Thanks. See you guys later."

After a quick wave, Willow collected her book bag by Giles's office and hurried away. After a moment of silence, Giles turned to Faith.

"Willow wants to have a group meeting," he told her. "To discuss everything that's happened." Faith groaned, but Giles went on. "She's going to talk to Buffy about it. I thought I should give you fair warning."

"Thanks," Faith said unenthusiastically.

"I, um, I know it won't be fun, but I do hope you'll come."

"Don't see how I could get out of it," Faith grumbled. "Not unless you can manufacture a timely apocalypse that only I can prevent." She gave her watcher a playful wink.

He chuckled. "I'm afraid you'll have to grit your teeth and suffer through it like the rest of us." Then he grew serious once again. "A-A-As I said, it won't be fun, but I believe it's the right thing to do."


After a period of awkward quiet, Giles asked, "Are you going to Buffy's house when you leave here?"

"Well, that's kinda what I came by to talk to you about. I want to go by there, but I don't know if I should. Buffy said her mom wasn't mad, but..."

"Actually Joyce isn't home at the moment," Giles informed her. "She went back to work this morning."

"Oh." Faith didn't seem to know what to do with this information.

"I'm sure she wouldn't mind if you went by," Giles said. "And I know Buffy would be very happy to see you."

Faith nodded. "Well, maybe I'll go by there, then."

Giles gave her a smile.

A short time later, Faith was walking toward Buffy's house. When she came to the intersection that led to Joyce's gallery, Faith stopped and glanced down the street.

"Sure she wouldn't mind, huh?" she said, repeating Giles's earlier statement as she reconsidered her decision to drop by Buffy's house.

Faith shook her head. No way Mrs. S is okay with all of this. Uh-uhn. I could tell she wasn't happy when B called her last night from the pay phone.

She sighed and let her body slump. I should just stay away probably. She ran both of her hands through her hair. "Shit..."

You're gonna be seeing the shrink tomorrow, her inner voice told her. What would she tell you to do?

Faith sighed again and said, "She'd say, 'Deal with it. Head on.' Shit."

After taking a deep breath, Faith turned and headed toward Joyce's art gallery.

As Faith approached the front door, she nervously rehearsed her plan.

"Okay, don't beat around the bush. Just tell her how sorry you are and then ask if you can see Buffy. It's not that hard. I mean, it's not like she's gonna bite your head off. And even if she does, hey, been there, done that, right?"

Faith's stomach twitched and churned as she thought back to the morning Joyce had discovered her in Buffy's bedroom and promptly kicked her out of the house. She closed her eyes and clenched her fists.

"Suck it up," she told herself. "You deserved it then, and you deserve it now, so if she starts dishin' it out, you take it. Got it?"

Faith opened her eyes and went inside.

Once she heard the door close behind her, Faith felt her courage desert her. She wrapped her arms around herself and glanced nervously about the gallery. Her breathing became quick and shallow as she stepped further into the building. As she rounded a corner, she saw Mrs. Summers talking on her cordless phone while making adjustments to the position of a small bronze statue she had just placed on a pedestal. Faith unwrapped her arms and stuffed her hands into her front pockets. Keeping her arms close to her body, she headed toward Buffy's mother.

When Joyce ended her call, she noticed Faith coming towards her. In surprise at seeing her, she called out Faith's name. Then she took a good, long look at her. There was no sign of the cocky, confident new slayer she had met weeks ago. Instead, there was only a scarred and scared young woman who appeared to be barely holding herself together.

When Faith arrived, she simply said, "Hey."

Joyce set down her phone and approached. "Are you okay?" she asked with genuine care.

Faith gave a slight shrug. "Depends on how you define 'okay,' I guess."

Joyce could see the pain in Faith's eyes, even though the slayer never let her gaze meet hers for very long at a time. Joyce started to speak again, but Faith beat her to it.

"Look, Mrs. Summers, I know I shouldn't be bothering you at work, but I have something I need to say."


"I'm...I'm sorry about hurting Buffy..." Faith felt her throat start to close, but she pressed on hoarsely. "...I told you I'd never do anything to hurt her, and then--" Her voice hitched, and she had to stop for a moment to regain control of herself, but there were tears in her eyes as she went on. "I swear I didn't mean to stab her. I was going for Angel, and the next thing I knew Buffy was there, and I--"

Once again, Faith's voice caught, hard this time, and when she took in a breath, it shook with a near-sob. Joyce took advantage of the break and spoke up, moving within a few feet of the slayer.

"It was an accident, Faith," she told her. "That's all."

When she tried to put a comforting hand on Faith's arm, the slayer moved out of her reach and shook her head, unwilling to accept either Joyce's words or her touch. After a moment, Faith cleared her throat and briefly looked up.

"Anyway, I just wanted to say I was sorry. I know it's just words, and words don't mean crap when your daughter's got a hole in her stomach courtesy of her girlfriend. But I wanted to say it just the same."


"Thanks for listening," Faith said, backing away. "I gotta go."

At that, Faith turned and left. And all Joyce could do was watch her go.

Faith was panting when she got outside the gallery. After moving several yards down the sidewalk, she leaned over and tried to catch her breath.


When her breathing returned to normal, she straightened up. Immediately she groaned and let her head fall back against her shoulders--she had forgotten to ask for permission to go see Buffy. After cursing herself repeatedly, she raised her head and looked longingly toward the way to the Summers home. Then she turned and glanced back at the gallery.

Maybe she wouldn't mind...

Faith spent a full three minutes mentally debating the matter. Eventually, her need to see Buffy overcame her other concerns, and she made the decision to head toward Revello Drive.

With her palms sweating, Faith knocked at the front door of the Summers home. When no one answered right away, she rang the doorbell. She leaned toward the door and listened, but heard no one approaching.

Must be asleep, Faith speculated.

She sighed in disappointment and turned away from the door. She walked to the top of the steps and stopped, fidgeting in place as if unsure of what to do next. Letting out another sigh, she started down the steps. Just then, the front door opened behind her. Faith turned and found Buffy standing in the doorway.

Buffy was dressed in a faded pair of sweat pants and an oversized t-shirt--the same shirt she had given Faith to wear during their two sleepovers. Her hair was slightly damp as if she'd showered within the last hour. A bright smile spread over her face when she realized who was at the door.

"Faith," she said in a surprised but pleased tone.

Faith moved back up the steps. "Hey. I-I-I wasn't sure if you were up or not," she replied, putting on a grin and stuffing her hands into the back pockets of her jeans.

Buffy could tell that Faith was troubled. Even though her mouth was smiling, her darting eyes were full of shadows. Buffy felt her heart clench. Was Faith having second thoughts? Was she there to take back what she had said the night before?

Buffy forced down her fears. Whatever was going on, Faith would have to raise the issues in her own time and in her own way. Too much pressure and Faith could bolt. For now, the best plan was to make with the small talk.

"I-I-I just got up a while ago," Buffy said. "Figured a shower and some munchies would do me good. You wanna come in?"

Faith glanced nervously about and then said, "Ummm, sure. Okay."

As Faith followed Buffy inside, she saw the remains of a cookies-and-milk snack on the coffee table. Buffy picked up the plate and glass and gestured with them.

"You want some? There's more," she offered.

"No, um, thanks, though," Faith said, raising her hands in polite refusal.

As Buffy took the dishes to the kitchen, Faith wrung her hands and paced.  When Buffy returned, Faith stopped doing both, but seemed no less anxious than before.

"Are you okay?" Buffy asked, stepping closer.

Faith gave a small, disgusted huff and looked down at the floor. "Everybody keeps asking me that."

"Only because we're worried...because we care," Buffy said. When Faith didn't appear comforted by her words, Buffy reached out and touched her girlfriend's arm. "Faith, what's wrong?"

Faith shuffled her feet and then said, "I suck at apologies, that's what." At Buffy's confused expression, Faith added, "I went to see your mom."


"I wanted to tell her I was sorry, but I just ended up sounding stupid. She probably hates me even more now."

"She doesn't hate you."

Buffy tried to get Faith to make eye contact with her, but she wouldn't cooperate. Buffy eventually took hold of Faith's chin and gently lifted it until the brunette had to meet her gaze.

"She doesn't," Buffy insisted.

Faith endured the stare for a few seconds then backed out of Buffy's grasp. " ya doin'?" she asked, changing the subject.

"Not too bad. Tired more than anything," Buffy replied. "Didn't sleep very well after I left your place."

"Yeah, me neither."

An awkward silence fell, so Buffy put on a cheery face, determined to put a positive spin on things.

"I got to take my bandage off," she announced. "Well, actually, it kinda came off in the shower, but still. See?"

Faith reluctantly looked down to where Buffy had lifted the hem of her t-shirt.

"Another day or so, I'll hardly know it was there. Well, except for a bad case of itchy stitches." Buffy gave a playful laugh.

When she glanced up, she found that Faith wasn't laughing with her. The dark slayer's eyes were fixed on the stab wound. Buffy reached over and took Faith's hand in hers. Carefully she placed Faith's hand over the wound and held it there. She waited until Faith looked up at her.

"It's okay," she told her. "I'm okay. Okay?"

Faith just ducked her head again. Despite the reassurances, she couldn't bring herself to affirm Buffy's 'okay.' What had happened, what she had done,  was definitely not okay.

Buffy's brow creased in concern. She brought her hands up and placed them on each side of her girlfriend's face. "Faith, talk to me...please..."

Faith shook her head at first. Then she answered in a soft, broken voice, "I'm scared. I don't know how to do this." She wasn't even sure what she meant by 'this.' She just knew that she was lost and afraid.

Buffy leaned her forehead against Faith's and then let her hands slide to Faith's shoulders. "You do it with me," she whispered. "Together."

When she got a nod from Faith, Buffy gave her a fervent kiss and pulled her into a lengthy hug. After a few moments in Buffy's warm embrace, Faith finally relaxed a little.

When they separated, Buffy took Faith's hand again. "Come on," she said and led her toward the couch. After they had sat down, Buffy caressed Faith's hair a few times before burrowing under it to massage her knotted neck muscles.

Faith moaned appreciatively. "Mmm...that feels good..."

"Good. It's meant to."

Buffy continued the gentle kneading for a few more minutes, then gave Faith's hair a final caress. She smiled when a drowsy Faith turned to face her.

"I think I could go to sleep right here," mumbled Faith, slowly blinking her eyes. "Sittin' up and everything."

Buffy yawned. "Sounds like a good plan to me."

They each took a deep breath and slowly let it out before snuggling up together and closing their eyes. They were both asleep within seconds.

Several hours later, Joyce pulled her SUV into the driveway outside her home. She got out, opened the side door behind the driver's seat, and retrieved her purse from the floorboard. After swinging her purse over her shoulder, she hooked the handles of several plastic grocery bags over her left wrist and closed the door. She walked around the car and went through the wooden gate and into the backyard. After climbing the deck stairs, she opened the kitchen door and laid her purse and bags on the bar inside. She paused then and leaned against the counter.

Her mind kept coming back to her earlier encounter with Faith. Buffy had told her that Faith was in a 'total guilt fest' over the accidental staking, but Joyce hadn't realized just how hard Faith was taking it. It had broken her heart to see how torn up Faith was.

We have to get through to her, she thought. We've got to convince her to stop punishing herself over this.

While still debating the Faith issue, Joyce walked from the kitchen to the dining room and then into the living room, intending to set her keys in the basket beside the front door. As she did so and turned from the foyer table, she started to call out her daughter's name to announce her arrival. She stopped short when she saw Buffy and Faith asleep together on the couch.

She watched them for a moment, relieved to see the worry lines and dark expressions gone from their faces as they slept peacefully in each other's arms. She hated to wake them, but the truth was she needed their help with dinner. She decided a dramatic throat-clearing would do the trick.

At the sound of Joyce's voice, Buffy and Faith instantly separated themselves and shot to their feet.

"Mom!" Buffy cried out in alarm.

"Mrs. Summers!" Faith called out at the same time.

The two slayers eyed each other guiltily even though they had no reason to.

"We weren't doing anything!" Buffy blurted in a pre-emptive strike.

"We were just sleeping together!" Faith added in explanation before realizing her poor choice of phrasing. She grimaced. "Uh, I mean, well..."

Buffy came to her rescue. "Sleeping as in resting," she emphasized. "Resting that just happened to take place while we were..." She paused to consider how to word the next part. " close proximity to each other."

Joyce fought back the urge to snicker at the girls and instead kept a fairly stern look on her face. If they had been able to notice, they would have seen the amusement gleaming in her eyes, but as it was, they merely continued their rambling defense, or Buffy did at least.

"Technically,yes," she stated, "we were sleeping together, but we weren't--"

Buffy stopped when she saw her mother raise her hand for silence.

"I need to speak with Faith," Joyce said firmly.

When Joyce turned to address Faith, Buffy opened her mouth to say something but was once again stopped by a halt gesture from her mother.

"Faith?" Joyce began.

The dark slayer swallowed hard and cringed slightly. "Yeah?"

"Would you like to stay for dinner?"

Faith did a double-take. "Ummm...Huh?"

Joyce let the smirk show on her face now. "Dinner. You know...we sit around a table, we eat, we talk..."

"Oh. Um, I guess..."

"Good!" Joyce announced. "You two wash up and then join me in the kitchen." At that, she turned and walked away.

As soon as Mrs. Summers had left the room, Faith let out a long breath and grabbed her stomach, which had twisted itself into a pretzel. She shook her head and said, "I don't get it. I apologize for stabbing her daughter and then show up at her house uninvited, and I get dinner?" She turned to Buffy and asked, "What does it mean?"

Buffy was beaming as she answered, "It means she forgives you."

Completely incredulous and more than a little confused, Faith shook her head again, but this time with the hint of a real smile forming on her lips.

A short time later, Buffy and Faith were assisting Joyce in the kitchen. Buffy was preparing a large salad while Faith was peeling potatoes. Joyce was sliding a pair of pork tenderloins into the oven. When she had finished, she turned to face the girls.

"How's it coming?" she asked them.

Buffy sighed at her half-filled salad bowl and the sea of salad ingredients surrounding it. "It's coming."

Faith groaned and pointed at the pile of potatoes that were still waiting to be peeled. "I think they're multiplying when I'm not looking."

Just then the doorbell rang. "I wonder who that is," Joyce said.

"Oh, it's probably Willow," Faith said. Then she turned to Buffy. "She told me to tell you she'd be by this afternoon. Sorry about that. Slipped my mind."

When Buffy started to head for the living room, Joyce motioned to her. "You girls keep working. I'll get it."

Joyce made her way from the kitchen, through the dining room, and into the living room. When she opened the front door, she found Willow standing outside.

"Willow, come on in," Joyce said in greeting.

"Hey, Mrs. Summers," Willow said as she dragged a  heavy book bag over the threshold and rested it beside the foyer table.

"We're in the kitchen," Joyce told her. "Do you want to stay for dinner?"

Willow's face lit up in both gratitude and anticipation. "That'd be awesome! I've been running on nothing but doughnuts and double mochas lately."

When they entered the kitchen, Willow went straight to Buffy and gave her a warm hug. "Are you okay?"

Buffy nodded as they separated. "I'm fine. Slayer healing is taking care of everything."

Faith ducked her head and returned to her potato peeling.

"I got your message," Willow said. "I'm sorry I couldn't come by sooner."

"It's okay. You missing school for something other than life or death? If that ever happens, it'll be a sign of the apocalypse for sure."

Willow chuckled along with Buffy before moving closer to Faith and giving her a wave. "Hey Faith!"

Faith turned and held up an egg-shaped potato which had so far lost its skin only on the top rounded point. "Just call me Patty the Perpetual Potato Peeler," she said with a shrug.

"Oh! That reminds me!" Willow turned back to Buffy. "Before I left school, I went to see all your teachers and got all your assignments."

Buffy's face scrunched in confusion. "Patty the Perpetual Potato Peeler reminds you of my teachers?"

"Not Patty. Her potato," Willow replied, pointing at Faith's partially peeled spud. "Mr. Tremaine? French class?" She made an arcing gesture with her hands and then repeated it by her head, indicating the teacher's baldness. Buffy burst out laughing, and the others joined her.

"Oh my god," Buffy said, now breathless from laughing. "That gives a whole new meaning to Mr. Potato Head." She turned to Willow and put on a scolding expression. "You realize I won't be able to go into French class without snickering the whole time, don't you?"

Willow just grinned wickedly. When the merriment subsided, though, she cut her eyes nervously between Buffy and Faith and between Buffy and her mother. She had more she wanted to say, but she didn't want to say it in front of the other two. Both Faith and Joyce picked up on Willow's vibe. Faith just went back to her potato peeling, but Joyce decided to create an out for the two friends--and give herself a moment alone with Faith.

"Buffy, why don't you go look at what Willow's brought you from school? That way, you'll know exactly what you need to work on this weekend."

"Oh joy," Buffy mumbled. "School work on the weekend. And I was so worried about how I might fill all those empty hours." Then she dutifully followed Willow out of the kitchen.

Faith went through the motions of peeling, but her mind wasn't focused on it. Her thoughts zigzagged from Buffy in the other room to herself being alone with Buffy's mother. The latter took precedence when Joyce came to stand right beside her.

"Faith, I know you're still reeling from everything's that happened," Joyce told her, "but I'd like to say some things to you, if you don't mind."

"Uh, okay," Faith said before setting down the potato peeler and turning to face the older woman.

"First of all, I'm sorry that Buffy hurt you. I know what that kind of betrayal feels like, and it's...well, it's hell. There's really no other way to put it."

Faith dropped her gaze to the floor. "Yeah."

"But she loves you. With everything she is. And that's a lot."

Faith nodded and looked up. "I know."

"Good," Joyce said with a glad smile. Then she grew serious once again. "Secondly, I know you feel bad about staking Buffy, but the truth is it was an accident--an accident that happened while you were trying to protect her." She paused and made sure Faith was looking at her. "I don't blame you," she stated with emphasis.

Multiple emotions rippled through Faith's expression: pain, relief, doubt, release. It was more than she could process. As her eyes filled with tears and a lump formed in her throat, she turned back to the counter and gripped its edge with both hands.

Meanwhile, in the living room, Willow dragged her book bag over to the sofa and opened it. But she stopped before reaching inside.

"Do you want the bad news or the good news first?" she asked.

"There's bad news?"

Willow nodded.

"Well, tell me," Buffy pleaded. "Is it Angel? Did Xander--?"

"No, nothing like that," Willow instantly answered. Then she grimaced and handed over an envelope. "It's this."

"A letter from the school? From Snyder?" Buffy said in disbelief as she read the letter.

Willow winced guiltily. "He caught me just as I was leaving. I tried to tell him I wouldn't see you until next week, but he knew better."

Buffy plopped onto the sofa in disgust. "He's giving me detention all next week for skipping classes! That little Nazi freak." She turned back to Willow, who had sat down next to her. "What's the good news? Snyder's head exploded after he gave you the letter?"

"If only, but...ewwww..." Willow replied with crinkled nose. Then she softened and said, "No, the good news is completely non-school-related. It's about Angel."

"He's okay?" Buffy asked.

Willow nodded. "He's still very weak, but his wound's already healing. He'll be fine."

"Good. That's...good." After wringing her hands in her lap, she asked, "How's he doing, you know, with the, um, the non-physical stuff?"

"Emotionally, he's...hurting, of course," Willow said. "And he's, well, broody, but that's Angel for you." When Buffy's expression grew pained, Willow quickly added, "But it's a resigned kind of brooding. He knows it's over, and he's dealing. It'll take time, but he'll get there."

"Good, I was really worried. He was already so messed up from--" She stopped for a moment and then finished her sentence. "-- from being where he was. From being in that hell dimension where I sent him."

When she saw the guilt in her friend's face, Willow reached out and touched her arm. "It's not your fault," she said. "You did what you had to do."

Buffy turned angry eyes on her friend. "You mean I 'kicked his ass,' right?" she accused. "That's what you told Xander to tell me, wasn't it? When I went after Angelus at the mansion?"

"What?! I never said that!" Willow objected. "I told him to tell you that we were going to try the spell get you to stall."

The two stared off in twin looks of shock.

"Oh my god..." Buffy finally said. "How could he do that?"

Willow wore a very grim version of her resolve face. "Alexander Harris," she growled, "you are deep in the dung pile now. We're gonna--"

Buffy roughly wiped the tears from her cheeks. "No. I don't wanna talk about Xander anymore. Right now, I don't care if I ever speak to him again!"

Willow was divided. She was mad at Xander, too, but she feared that his actions--and Buffy's reactions--would further tear the group apart. She could see in Buffy's body language, however, that now was not the time to press the Xander issue. She steered the conversation to a happier topic.

"Okay, okay...enough about the men folk," Willow said, putting on a smile. "I want to hear about you and Faith. All I've gotten is Faith's cryptically short version, 'She came, we talked, I surrendered.' "

Buffy's brow furrowed in puzzlement. "She said it like that?"

"No," Willow teased, "that's just my summary, but that's about the same number of words I got out of her. Come it out. I need details!"

Buffy smiled and began her account of the previous night's events.

Back in the kitchen, Joyce gave Faith time to collect herself. Then she went on to make one final comment.

"Faith, it says a lot that you chose not to leave town, that you gave Buffy another chance, that you came by to see me today. I'm proud of you."

Joyce  knew Faith had already hit her emotional limit when it came to the heavy talk, so she quickly shifted the tone of the discussion. She gave the girl's arm a playful poke.

"So, are you going to finish peeling those potatoes any time today, or should I call in reinforcements?"

Faith gave a relieved laugh. After clearing her throat, she said, "Well, at the rate I'm going, you better call for backup. Otherwise, it might be Thanksgiving or even Christmas before we eat."

"Have two starving slayers in the house for several weeks?" Joyce quipped as she gave a mock shudder. "Scary!"

After earning another laugh from Faith, Joyce walked to the doorway that led into the dining room. She leaned through the doorway and called out to Buffy and Willow in the living room.

"Hey you two! You wanna eat, you gotta help, so get in here!"

About an hour later, Joyce and the three girls had finished with their meal and were now enjoying dessert. Well, actually, only Buffy and Faith were digging into Joyce's chocolatey creation.

Willow merely pushed at the dessert with her spoon. "Ugh, I have no room for hot fudge brownie. No fair."

"I know what you mean," Joyce said, doing a similar pushing of her dessert.

They both looked across the table and watched the two slayers devouring their hot fudge brownies with delight.

"And to make matters worse, they won't even gain an ounce," Willow went on. "Damn slayer metabolism."

Joyce put down her spoon and rested her chin in her hands. "No fair."

"It's your own fault," Buffy said after polishing off the last bite of her dessert. "If you didn't make dinner so good, you wouldn't get stuffed with the good stuff before the really good stuff gets here."

"Really, Mrs. S," Faith agreed. "This dinner rocked!"

Joyce straightened up and smiled proudly. "Why thank you!" Then she rose from her chair and said, "Well, if you girls will help me clear the table..."

"Oh, um, Mrs. Summers," Willow interjected, "i-i-if you don't mind, I was hoping I could talk to you guys about something first."

As Joyce sat back down, Faith thought, Here it comes...

"Actually, it's something I wanted to ask Buffy," Willow continued, "but it involves the rest of us, too."

Buffy glanced at Faith briefly then looked back at Willow while she went on.

"I know you're not too keen on talking to Xander, but--"

Buffy leaned back and crossed her arms. "You're right about that."

"But I really think we need to get together as a team and-and talk about everything that's happened."

"Yeah, 'cause the last 'team talk' we had went so well," Buffy grumbled.

"That's why we need to have another one," Willow argued. "A-A-And we need to do better this time."

"Better at attacking me, you mean?" Buffy countered.

"Wait," Faith interrupted. "Another one? There was a first one?"

Willow turned to Faith and nodded. "After you and Xander followed Buffy, Xander came back and told us what happened. We called everybody together--except for you 'cause you weren't answering your phone--and we decided that we needed to...approach Buffy about what was going on."

"Ambush is more like it," Buffy complained.

Joyce leaned onto the table and looked at her daughter. "Honey, I know it must've felt like we were attacking you, but you have to admit...some of the points that were raised were valid."

"Which I acknowledged," Buffy pointed out, sitting up straight again. "I admitted that I screwed up, but when I tried to explain, I got shot down. With machine guns."

"Which is why you need to come to this meeting," Willow insisted. "This time we'll listen. I promise." She gestured at herself, Joyce, and Faith before saying, "I mean, we've heard your side, but the others haven't. Not straight from you anyway."

Buffy sighed heavily. "Do you really think they'll care?"

"Oz will," Willow proclaimed.

Buffy gave Willow a pointed look. Given Oz's help with Angel's care, she figured he was already favoring her side. Then she sobered and asked, "What about Giles?"

It was Joyce who answered this question. "Rupert will listen. You know that. But you need to realize that your actions hurt him. Deeply. No matter how logical they seemed, no matter how understandable they were, they hurt."

At this, Buffy lowered her gaze. She nodded her head in silent acknowledgement of her mother's point. Then she ventured a glance at Faith. She found her slumped back in her chair, staring at the table's edge.

Buffy turned back to Willow. "What if all we manage to do with this meeting is hurt each other more? We could end up worse off than we already are."

Willow and Joyce exchanged a look, but neither had an immediate answer to Buffy's question. Everyone was surprised when it was Faith who spoke up.

"It's a risk," she said softly before looking up and meeting Buffy's eyes. "But so are most things worth doing. Don't ya think?"

While the two slayers engaged in an intense stare, Willow and Joyce held their breaths and waited. They let out dual exhales of relief when Buffy finally turned to Willow and simply said "okay."

"Great," Willow said, trying to inject at least a little enthusiasm into her voice. "I'll, um, I'll set everything up." She turned to Joyce. "I-I-I was thinking maybe we could meet at the school tomorrow afternoon, say two-ish?"

"That'll be fine, Willow," Joyce said, giving her a smile. "Thank you for taking this on."

Willow nodded in reply. When the room became uncomfortably quiet, Willow pushed up from her chair. "I should probably go. I still have a lot to do before I'm done for the night."

"I'll walk you out," Buffy said, forcing herself to perk up a bit.

Faith watched the two best friends move into the living room. Then she rose to her feet and picked up her glass and dish. "Still need a hand?"

Joyce gave her a big smile and said, "I sure do."

As they approached the front door, Willow stopped near the coffee table and pointed at the book bag still sitting beside the sofa. "All of your books are there, a-a-and a list with all your assignments."

"Thank you," Buffy said sincerely. "For talking to Faith, for taking care of Angel, for everything. You've gone above and beyond on all of this, and I'm really really grateful. I know I'm not being Miss Enthusiasm about the meeting, but I appreciate all you've done and all you're still doing."

"That's what best friends do," Willow said. "They go beyond the call of duty for each other."

Buffy pulled Willow into a big hug. "When all this is over, I'm gonna give you a humongous medal! Bestest Best Friend Ever!"

After a small squeal, they separated and exchanged warm smiles. Then Willow went on her way.

Meanwhile, Faith was completing dish duty. As she set the last plate in the drying rack, Joyce thanked her and then shooed her out of the kitchen. Faith grinned and then headed back to the dining room. As she stepped inside, she could hear the murmuring of Buffy and Willow making their good-nights.

Guess I'll have to go soon, Faith thought to herself.

She tucked her hands into her front pockets and frowned. She didn't relish the thought of spending the night in the bus station, but she didn't have a choice. Eh, she'd survive. After all, it wasn't the first time she'd done it; it probably wouldn't be the last either. She'd have to figure something out soon, though, before the others could find out what had happened at the motel.

"Faith, what's wrong?"

Faith's head snapped up. She found Buffy right in front of her, wearing a very concerned expression.

"Uhhh, nothing," Faith said. "Else, I mean. I'm just...thinking about tomorrow." It wasn't exactly a lie, she told herself.

Buffy moved closer and put her hands on Faith's arms. "You don't have to go if you don't want to. I'll understand. You've probably heard as much Angel stuff as you can stand."

Faith pulled her hands out of her pockets and wrapped her arms around Buffy. "I'm going."

Buffy smiled gratefully and gave her a fervent kiss. "Thank you," she whispered. "I don't know what else to say but that. Thank you."

"You're welcome," Faith said, returning the smile. Then she released Buffy and hitched her thumb over her shoulder. "It's getting kinda late. I should probably head out."

"Wait! Not yet, okay?" When Faith gave her a curious look, she explained, "I'm gonna see if Mom will let you stay the night."

Faith immediately snorted. "Yeah, right. Like that's gonna happen."

"Just wait, okay?"

Faith rolled her eyes but then nodded her assent. At that, Buffy hurried into the kitchen.

When Buffy stepped inside, she found her mother making a final wipe-down of the stove and counters. Joyce gave her a smile until she saw the serious look on her daughter's face.

"What is it?" Joyce asked.

Buffy twisted her fingers into tangles and then made the leap. "Mom, I know you're not okay with the slayer sleepover thing, but could you make an exception for tonight?"

Joyce crossed her arms and put on a stern expression.

"Please?" Buffy continued. "We'll leave the door open, lights on, whatever you want, and Faith, we really need to be together tonight."

Joyce looked into her daughter's eyes. It wasn't the usual teenage girl's 'gimme' mentality that she was seeing there. It was something much deeper than that. Still, Joyce wasn't convinced.

"I don't know, Buffy," she said warily. "You need your rest."

"I'll rest better with her here. And she will, too. And we'll need that rest for tomorrow."

Joyce put on a skeptical look.

Buffy took a step closer. "I don't know how to explain it, but...when we're together, it makes the hurt go away, at least a little. Does that make sense?"

"Yes, it does, but--"

"It's not just that." Buffy glanced over her shoulder at the doorway to the dining room and then turned back to her mother. "I'm worried about Faith," she said, lowering her voice somewhat. "When I was at her place last night, we fell asleep for a while. We were just so tired, both of us. Well, right before I came home, Faith had a really bad nightmare. She woke up screaming. I've never seen her so shaken up. Whatever it was, it was so bad she couldn't even tell me about it. Please, Mom...I don't want her to wake up like that alone. At least not for tonight."

Joyce closed her eyes and sighed. She tried to make a mental list of all the reasons that she should refuse Buffy's request, but all she could think of was how peaceful they had both looked earlier when she had found them asleep on the couch. They had been through so much. Was one night really too much to ask? Joyce finally opened her eyes.

"All right," she said, "but just for tonight." When Buffy tried to rush into a hug, Joyce stopped her with a raised index finger. "There will be no fooling around," she ordered. "Clothes stay on, door stays open. Got it?"

Buffy held one palm over her heart and the other up and out as if she were taking a solemn oath. "I swear."

"Okay then," Joyce added in a less than happy tone.

At that, Buffy moved in and gave her mother an earnest hug. "Thanks, Mom," she told her. After flashing her a grateful smile, Buffy hurried back into the dining room to tell Faith the good news.

As she watched her daughter sprint away, Joyce shook her head and muttered to herself, "I have got to dig out those parenting tapes, How To Say 'No' To Your Child...."

A short time later, Buffy and Faith were in Buffy's bedroom. Faith was already in bed, dressed in another of Buffy's oversized sleep shirts, but Buffy was standing at the doorway, calling out to her mother down the hall.

"We're going to bed now," she announced teasingly. "Clothes are on, and door is open, as ordered by Major Mom..."

"Just go to sleep, Miss Smarty Pants," Joyce called out in reply.

Buffy snickered and came back inside the bedroom. She turned off the overhead light and climbed into bed. She immediately scooted over to Faith and curled up against her, draping her arm over Faith's stomach.

"Your mom said no fooling around."

"Snuggling is not fooling around," Buffy defended. "Besides, she said she wanted me to get some rest, and that requires snuggling." Suddenly worried, Buffy leaned up on her elbow. "Unless you don't want to...?"

"Shut up," Faith joked before pulling Buffy back down against her shoulder.

Buffy happily resumed her former position, snuggling even closer. After a long, contemplative moment, she asked, "Do you remember the first time we slept in the same bed together?"

"Yeah, you drooled on me," Faith answered with a smirk.

"No, not that time," Buffy corrected, giving Faith a nudge in her side. "I meant the first time we slept together as a 'we'--you know, after we were officially a couple. The night you snuck in."

"I remember the next morning," Faith said ruefully. "Wrath of Joyce."

Buffy leaned up on her elbow again so that she could look at Faith in the dim light of the room. "Before that," she said softly. "When it was just you and me. Between the disasters. Before all the mistakes and bad decisions."

"I remember."

"It felt so good," Buffy said. "And I want that again. I want...full-dimpled smiles  a-a-and...snuggle hugs that last for hours and...slow dance I-love-you's and--"

"More Greek wrestling?" Faith offered.

Buffy's face lit up in a smile. "Definitely more Greek wrestling." Then she quickly added, "Just not here."

The two shared a mischievous chuckle. Then Faith saw Buffy's brow furrow and her eyes mist over. Faith turned over onto her side so that she could face Buffy as she went on.

Buffy took a deep breath and said, "I want all of that again. I want you, Faith. Nobody else."

Faith felt her heart thudding in her chest. Conflicting emotions roared through her like raging rivers, but love calmed them all. She pulled Buffy close and kissed her.

"You've got me," she whispered before kissing Buffy once again.

Part 17A

While Buffy and Faith were settling into bed at the Summers home, Giles was at the Hyatt, standing outside Dr. Fielding's hotel room, his leather satchel at his feet. He nervously straightened his tie and smoothed the front of his jacket before knocking on the door. When he heard the locks being disengaged, he picked up his leather satchel and waited.

"Rupert," Dr. Fielding said with a wide smile after she opened the door.

"Helen," Giles replied, returning her smile. "I-I-It's good to see you again. You look..." He stopped to take in the sight of his former colleague.

Dr. Helen Fielding was in her early fifties but looked as if she were barely into her forties. She was wearing heels and a shimmering brown cocktail dress that matched her long, light auburn hair. Though she usually wore it up in a neat bun, her slightly wavy hair now lay spilled about her shoulders. Her grayish green eyes appeared nearly hazel in the context, and she cocked an eyebrow at Giles as she waited for him to continue his compliment.

Giles's smile grew bigger, and his eyes sparkled as he finally drew his gaze back to hers. "...absolutely stunning," he finished.

Helen pursed her lips and purred, "Flattery will get you everywhere." Then she stepped aside and gestured Giles into the suite. "Have a seat," she said, pointing out the sofa in the sitting area as she passed it on her way to the bedroom just a few feet away. "I haven't had time to change. I packed my car earlier today and drove straight here from the party."

Giles watched her disappear into the bedroom and then sat down on the sofa, setting his satchel on the floor. He noticed that she hadn't closed the bedroom door.

"Some special event?" he called out to her.

"Just a reception for a friend of mine at the university," she called out in answer. "I had promised him that I'd be there."

"Oh. Well, of course," Giles said, fidgeting a bit. "I, I, I do hope you didn't cut things short on my account," he stuttered apologetically.

Now dressed only in her slip, Helen peeked partially out of the bedroom door and gave Giles a smirk. "Do you really?"

When Giles blushed in response, Helen merely chuckled and popped back to finish changing her clothes. Within a few more minutes, she came out, her petite and trim form now covered by a pair of black yoga pants with a matching hooded jacket and a white tank top underneath. She padded in her bare feet over to the sofa and sat down at the end opposite of Giles. She curled one leg under her and propped her arm on the back of the sofa.

"It's good to see you," she said sincerely. "It's been too long."

"Indeed," Giles said.

After a moment of quiet staring, Helen broke the silence. "So...tell me about these slayers of yours, especially Faith."

Meanwhile, across town, Willow was stepping onto the front porch of the Harris home. She had seen the television glowing behind the living room's curtains, so she figured Xander was up. She gave the doorbell a lengthy buzz.

When Xander opened the front door, he didn't seem happy to see her. Willow refused to be deterred, however; she matched him glare for glare as they engaged in a mini-standoff at the threshold.

Before he could tell her to leave, she abruptly announced, "We need to talk," and pushed past him to enter the house.

Xander scowled and shut the door. "Well, come on in and make yourself at home," he said with exaggerated sarcasm. "I'm fine, thanks for asking." Then he followed her into the living room. He planted his feet and crossed his arms. "I don't want to talk," he said defiantly.

"Well, you're going to, mister," Willow told him. "Whether you like it or not."

"Is that so?" Xander replied. "You can't make me talk if I don't want to, so why don't you just--"

" 'Kick his ass'," Willow interjected angrily, cutting him off.

Her statement threw Xander completely. "Um, what?" he asked, totally confused.

" 'Kick his ass'," she repeated. "Is that what you told Buffy I said before she went after Angelus?" When Xander didn't answer right away, she demanded, "Is it?!!"

Xander ducked his head in shame but only for a moment. When he raised it back up, there was fire in his eyes. "I did what I had to do," he stated firmly.

She shot him an indignant look, though her expression was more pained than angry now. "My god, you have any idea what you've done?"

"I was trying to help save the world," Xander defended. "Buffy needed a nudge, and I gave her one."

"The spell would've worked," she said sadly. "In fact, it did work. Buffy told me that Angel's soul was restored--right before she had to kill him. He didn't remember what he had done--what Angelus had done--but she still had to kill him. Can you imagine what that must have been like?" Willow paused to let that question sink in; then she pressed on. "What if it had been Cordelia who had to die? Or me? Could you have done it? And if you had, could you have lived with yourself afterwards?"

Xander actually managed to look somewhat guilty as he lowered his gaze.

Willow took a deep breath and let it out. Then she went on in a rueful voice, "If Buffy had known to stall, maybe she could have prevented Acathla's activation in time for the spell to kick in. Maybe we could have saved the world without making our friend kill the man she loved."

At first Xander said nothing and kept his eyes fixed on the floor. But then he uncrossed his arms, lifted his head, and looked directly at his best friend.

"What do want from me?" he asked wearily.

Willow moved to stand in front of Xander. "I want you to try to work things out with Buffy."

Xander let out a small huff of a laugh, but Willow ignored him and went on.

"We're having another 'intervention' tomorrow," she told him. "A 'Team Talk,' actually. At two, at the library. I want you and Cordelia to be there."

When Willow saw Xander start to shake his head, she reached out and grasped his arm. "Xander, if we don't deal with this, it could tear the whole team apart. Is that what you want?"

Xander clenched his jaw several times before meeting Willow's pleading gaze. "Fine, I'll come," he said. "But if you're expecting me to be the whipping boy for all of this, forget it. Ain't gonna happen."

Willow gave Xander a 'fair enough' nod before slipping around him and heading for the front door.

Hours later, Giles and Helen were sitting next to each other on the sofa with an open folder spread across their laps. Giles had already given Helen a brief summary of the events of the last year, focusing most of his attention on the weeks since Faith's arrival in Sunnydale. Helen was now frowning at a document many pages in length--a report from a psychiatric facility near Boston. Finally, she sighed and shook her head and then closed the folder.

"She's very troubled," Helen said, turning to Giles. "Very...damaged."

"Yes, she is," Giles agreed. "But...I-I-I'm encouraged by the recent events, despite their severity. I haven't known Faith long, but I've seen a definite change in her. When she first arrived, she was so...insular. Of course, she was quite capable of being charismatically social when she wanted to be, but she never let anyone get close."

"Perfectly understandable, given her history," Helen commented as she set the folder on the coffee table and then stood up to stretch.

"But she's beginning to open up," Giles said as he too rose to his feet. "Just a tiny bit, mind you, but it's a start. And she's asked for help. That alone speaks volumes."

"Very true," Helen said, continuing her stretches.

Giles reached out and touched Helen's shoulder, causing her to stop and look at him. "You can help her, can't you?" he asked worriedly.

Helen smiled warmly and touched Giles's cheek. "I helped you, didn't I?" she said earnestly. Then she pulled her hand away and made a mock buffing of her fingernails on her jacket. "And I hadn't even finished my residency yet."

Giles took her hand in his. "You were a master even then," he said gently before kissing the back of her hand.

"I told you...flattery will get you everywhere," Helen reminded him before tugging him toward her and kissing him on the lips.

Giles eagerly returned the kiss, moving his hands to her hips then up her back to pull her even closer.

When they parted to catch their breaths, Helen whispered, "Stay with me tonight..."

Giles smiled but averted his eyes. "I...I wish I could but..." He backed out of their embrace until he held only her hands. "...I don't think it would be appropriate...given the circumstances."

Helen tilted her head and raised an eyebrow. "It wasn't appropriate before, either, but we still--"

"I know," Giles told her, "and I have no regrets about that. None at all." He gave her hands a squeeze to emphasize his surety. "But this isn't just us."

"I suppose you're right," Helen admitted reluctantly while giving him a playful shove. "Damn you."

Giles gathered his belongings into his satchel. "I'll, um, see you tomorrow morning then," he said as he swung the strap over his shoulder and moved toward the door.

"Ten o'clock sharp," they both recited at exactly the same time. They paused for a second then burst into laughter.

Helen gave Giles a small slap on the shoulder. "Get outta here, you."

Giles did as he was told and headed down the hallway. Helen followed him with her eyes until he disappeared around the corner. Then she softly shut the door, her smile still lingering on her lips.

The next morning, Joyce arose early. She'd been second-guessing herself all night on the decision to allow Faith to sleep over. Now she donned her robe and tiptoed down the hallway to her daughter's bedroom. She peeked her head in the door and let out a sigh of relief when she saw the two girls sleeping soundly but separately (and thankfully clothed). Then she took a full step into the room and watched them for a moment.

Buffy lay on her side, near to Faith but facing away from her. Faith was on her back with the sheet and blanket crumpled across her legs as if she'd shoved the covers off herself some time in the night. Now that Joyce was closer, she could see that Faith was frowning and mumbling in her sleep, apparently dreaming. Joyce frowned with her until she saw Buffy turn over and, without waking, snuggle against Faith's body. Joyce was amazed to see the tension instantly drain from the dark slayer's face. Faith's mumbling ceased, and her body relaxed as she unconsciously returned Buffy's embrace.

In that moment, Joyce felt her misgivings about her decision slip away. She had done the right thing. It might not be the right thing in the future, but for this one night, it had been what the girls needed. Secure in that knowledge, Joyce turned and left the room.

About an hour after Joyce's check-in, Faith woke up. She took a deep breath and blinked her eyes open. When she realized Buffy was snuggled up against her, she smiled and hugged the sleeping blonde closer.

Gotta admit, she thought to herself. I could get used to this.

Faith glanced at the clock radio. It was almost eight o'clock. She had two hours before she was due to meet Giles--two hours before she'd have her first meeting with the shrink. She felt her stomach tighten and her heart begin to race.

Seemingly sensing Faith's discomfort, Buffy woke up. She too blinked her way into alertness and then smiled when she saw Faith beside her.

"Hey you," she greeted happily. "Did you sleep okay?"

Faith thought a moment and then said, "Yeah, I think I did."

"Me too," Buffy noted. "Felt good." She leaned up on her elbow. "This feels good...waking up with you."

"You read my mind," Faith said with a grin before planting a kiss on Buffy's lips.

Just then they heard Joyce call out to them from down the hallway. "Girls! Breakfast'll be ready in ten minutes!"

Faith gave Buffy another kiss, then hopped out of bed and headed for the bathroom.

As Faith exited the room, Buffy rolled out of bed, stood up, and stretched. She pulled back on her overhead stretch when she felt a twinge in her stitches. She walked over to the dresser, lifted her shirt, and examined her stomach. The wound was still a little tender, but otherwise, it was healing nicely.

Buffy opened the bottom drawer of her dresser and pulled out a pair of sweat pants and tugged them on. She figured Faith would need to do the same, so she pulled out another pair and tossed them on the bed. Then she sat down to brush her hair.

As she picked up the brush from her dresser top, she noticed a small bundle tucked into her jewelry box. She glanced at the bedroom door to see if Faith was coming back yet. When she didn't see Faith, Buffy grabbed the bundle and unwrapped it. Inside was the small gold dagger that Buffy and her mother had bought from the pawnshop--the item Faith had sold to buy a dress for the Homecoming Dance. Buffy smiled widely as she thought about Faith's upcoming birthday and how excited Faith would be to get her dagger back.

For just a moment, Buffy balked when she considered the fact that she was keeping an important secret from Faith. After all, they'd just gone through a whole lot of hell because of a secret, so maybe it wasn't a good idea to keep this one from Faith either.

But this is a good kind of secret, Buffy justified in her mind. Like when you keep a surprise party secret. Suddenly, a mischievous sparkle entered Buffy's eyes. Yeah...a surprise party...

As Buffy tucked the gold dagger back into the box and began brushing her hair, she let a full grin cover her face. When she finished brushing, she pulled her hair back into a ponytail and secured it with a band. While perusing her reflection in the mirror, she couldn't help but notice the bruise along her jaw where Faith had punched her. Buffy frowned as she gingerly touched it, her mind taking her back to the fight at Angel's mansion.

I've got to talk to Angel, she told herself. And right away.

Just then Faith came in from the bathroom. "These for me?" she asked as she pointed to the pants on the bed.

"Yeah," Buffy answered as she rose to her feet. "I laid those out for you."

"Thanks," Faith said, then quickly donned them. She ran her hands through her hair and turned to Buffy. "Do I look decent enough?"

"You look fine," Buffy replied. "But I want to talk to you about something first."

Faith eyed Buffy a bit warily. "Okay."

"I know you don't want to hear this, but...I need to talk to Angel today."

"What?!" Faith demanded incredulously.

"Just hear me out, okay?" Buffy pleaded. When Faith appeared to comply, Buffy went on. "I need to talk to Angel so that I can ask him to leave town. I don't think it's good for any of us if he sticks around."

Faith didn't say anything. She just balled her hands into fists and clenched them tightly at her sides. Finally, she announced bossily, "Well, you're not going there alone."

Faith's tone immediately pushed Buffy's buttons. "What?" she shot back. "You don't trust me?"

Faith turned angrily on Buffy. "Well, duh! You just lied about him to my face a couple of days ago, so yeah, I'm runnin' a little low on trust right now."

Buffy instantly held her hands up in a surrender gesture and blurted apologetically, "You're right, you're right. I'm just having a knee jerk. No, I'm a jerk." She took a deep breath and added, "I'm sorry. You are totally right about the trust thing. I'm sorry."

Judging Buffy's apology to be sincere, Faith slowly calmed down. So Buffy went on.

"I guess I'm just feeling defensive," Buffy explained. "With the team meeting and everything."

Faith nodded in acknowledgement, but she didn't say anything in reply.

Buffy put on a pleading look and then said, "Plus, I really want you to believe that it's over between me and Angel."

"I know you do," Faith said, "but I can't just forget what I saw."

"I know. I'm sorry."

The conversation stalled at that point, and the two slayers fidgeted in place for a long, awkward moment before Buffy spoke up once again.

"So...are you saying that you want to go with me when I see Angel?" Buffy asked for clarification, wincing a bit at the thought of Faith having to go through that. "I mean, I can get Mom or Will to go with me..."

"No, I can go," Faith said. She tried to make her voice sound bravely nonchalant, but she wasn't sure she succeeded.

Buffy forced a smile and said, "Okay. How about right at sundown?"

Faith shrugged her shoulders and shoved her hands into the pockets of the sweat pants. "Works for me."

"Great," Buffy said without enthusiasm. Then she added, "I guess we'd better get downstairs."

"After you," Faith said, gesturing at the bedroom door.

At that, they headed out of the room and down the stairs in silence.

Within minutes, the two slayers were at the dining room table, digging into piles of pancakes, courtesy of Buffy's mom.

Joyce watched the girls for a moment, pleased that they both showed a good appetite. As she poured syrup over her own stack of pancakes, she asked, "Did you girls sleep okay?"

The two slayers glanced at each other and smiled. Then Buffy said, "Yeah, we did." Then she turned to her mother. "Thanks, Mom."

"I'm glad," Joyce replied. "You two seemed to be sleeping very peacefully when I checked on you this morning."

"Mommmmm..." Buffy whined in mild embarrassment.

"That was the reason for the open door, remember?" Joyce reminded.

Buffy pulled her shoulders back and proudly stated, "Well, as you saw, we were completely fooling-around-free. Right, Faith?"

Faith had just stuffed a forkful of pancakes into her mouth when Buffy elbow-nudged her. All Faith could do was nod enthusiastically in response to the question.

Joyce raised an eyebrow at the girls but smiled as she did so.

After they had helped Joyce with the breakfast cleanup, Buffy asked Faith, "You wanna hang out until it's time for the 'Team Talk'?"

"Sorry. Can't," Faith answered. "Got some things I gotta do." When Buffy tilted her head in puzzlement, she said, "You know, laundry and stuff. Plus I'm meeting with Giles."

"What about?"

"Just some personal stuff," Faith replied, glancing away momentarily. "And patrol," she added to change the subject somewhat. "Gotta get back on that animal mutilations thing, ya know."

Though her curiosity nagged her, Buffy didn't press further, especially since her mother was still within earshot. "It's okay," she said with a smile. "I don't need to know the details. Giles is your watcher, too. You're entitled to private chats."

Faith cocked her thumb over her shoulder. "Is it okay if I grab a shower before I go?" she asked, trying to sound nonchalant. "That motel room shower really sucks. Never know when it's gonna have hot water or not." It wasn't a lie, she told herself. It just wasn't the whole truth.

"Of course," Joyce said. "Help yourself."

"Thanks!" Faith replied before heading upstairs.

As she watched Faith leave the room, Buffy frowned unhappily. She didn't like the living conditions Faith had to endure at that ratty motel. Not one bit. A glance at her mother told Buffy that Joyce felt exactly the same way. Would her mother consider allowing Faith to move in with them?

No, Buffy thought. Not likely. She smirked to herself as the wheels turned in her mind. But not impossible. I just need to play my cards right.

A short time later Faith had finished her shower and had changed back into her own clothes. Just as she was leaving and telling Buffy that she'd see her at the school, Giles was calling Faith's motel room. He wanted to make arrangements to get Faith to Dr. Fielding's hotel at the proper time. Although he had let the phone ring for a long time, he never got an answer. As he hung up the phone, he glanced nervously at his watch. He'd wait another ten minutes and try again.

By the time Giles had made another fruitless call to the motel, Faith arrived at the bus station. She quickly got her duffel bag out of her locker and headed for the restroom. As she hurriedly changed into a fresh set of clothes, her thoughts went to her impending session with Giles's shrink. She felt her stomach start to churn with dread.

After brushing her teeth and finger-combing her hair, Faith gripped the sides of the sink and gave herself a good stare in the mirror. She forced herself to take in a deep breath and then slowly let it out.

"You can do this," she told herself.

Then she left the restroom, returned her bag to her locker, and rushed out of the bus station on her way to Giles's apartment.

Just as Giles was about to call Faith for a third time, he heard a knock on his door. He replaced the receiver and answered his door. A look of relief passed over his face when he saw Faith waiting outside.

"Faith! Excellent!" Giles said with a smile as he invited her inside. "I was just trying to contact you to see if you wanted me to pick you up at the motel, but I didn't get an answer."

"Yeah...the, uh, the phone's out," Faith lied, still unwilling to explain the motel situation. "Told the manager. He said he'd get to it when he got to it." She shrugged and forced a smile. "Crappy place, I know, but hey...better'n sleepin' at the bus station, right?"

Giles let the phone issue slide for the time being and said, "I'd like for you to patrol tonight. If you're able, that is."

"Sure, I'm up for it."

"You'll need to be careful," he reminded her. "You'll be on your own."

Faith tried not to think of the reason why she'd be patrolling alone. Instead, she flashed a cocky smile. "Don't worry, Jeeves. I can handle it."

Giles rolled his eyes and then guided Faith toward the sitting area. Once they had both sat down, he said, "I want to brief you a little before your appointment. The woman you'll be meeting is Dr. Helen Fielding. She's a very gifted psychiatrist. She used to work for the Watchers Council, but now she's a professor at UCLA. She still practices, however, accepting only a few clients a year. She's taking you on as a favor to me."

"She must owe ya big time."

"Actually, I owe her. When I was going through a very difficult time, she helped me. If it weren't for her intervention, I sincerely doubt that I'd be alive today."

"What did you do?" Faith asked before correcting herself. "I mean, why were you in such a bad place?"

"I don't know if Buffy has told you or not, but when I was young and at university, I was quite the rebel. I refused to follow in my father's footsteps and become a watcher. In fact, I did quite the opposite. I began to dabble in the dark arts. I had a talent, and I found the danger and power associated with dark magic to be especially thrilling. Unfortunately, it didn't take long before I was in over my head."

"What happened?"

"My friends and I tried to summon a very dangerous demon. It went very badly, and one of my friends died. My father and the Council intervened and forced me into a sort of rehab. Dr. Fielding was my primary counselor during that time."

"And she helped you get better?"

"Yes," Giles replied. "It took quite a long time, but she persisted, and eventually, I recovered."

Faith thought deeply on all of this. Then she asked, "So...what does she know about me?"

Giles glanced at his watch. "I'll explain on the way," he said as he rose and gestured Faith toward the door. "We mustn't be late. Helen always insists upon promptness."

About five minutes before ten, Giles and Faith arrived at Dr. Fielding's hotel suite. Faith's stomach twisted and turned, but when she looked at Giles, she realized she wasn't the only one who was nervous. Grateful for the distraction, she watched as Giles straightened his vest and tie before knocking on the door. As he waited, he repeated the unnecessary clothing adjustments. When the door was opened, Giles's face lit up in a beaming smile.

Dr. Helen Fielding was dressed in a sleek gray suit with a crisp white shirt that flared open at the collar. Her long auburn hair was up in its usual bun, but the look was professional, not severe. She wore simple but elegant jewelry--just enough to complement her clothing without being pretentious or gaudy. Her gray eyes shined warmly as she greeted her guests.

"Good morning," she told them. "Come in, please."

After being led to the sitting area, Giles began making introductions. He turned to Helen and said, "This is Faith Lehane, the slayer I've told you about." As Faith and the doctor shook hands, he said, "Faith, this is Dr. Fielding."

"Hey," Faith said.

"Very nice to meet you," Helen replied.

"Well, I-I-I won't keep you," Giles said. "I'm sure you want to get straight to work." He smiled at Helen again before turning to Faith. "Would you like me to pick you up later?"

Faith waved him off. "Nah, don't bother. I'll walk."

"Miss Lehane, why don't you have a seat," Dr. Fielding said, "while I see Mr. Giles to the door?"

"Sure. Thanks."

As Faith sat down on the loveseat, Helen followed Giles to the door. "Shall I call you later?" Giles asked.

"Please," Helen replied. "I imagine we'll have much to discuss."

"Would you be interested in holding that discussion over dinner?"

Helen smiled widely. "Sounds perfect."

After seeing Giles on his way, Dr. Fielding returned to the sitting area. Faith had her elbows on her legs and was nervously wringing her hands. When she saw Dr. Fielding take her place in the chair opposite her, she straightened up and waited.

"Miss Lehane," the doctor began before immediately interrupting herself. "May I call you Faith?"

Faith shrugged. "Sure."

"Thank you. Faith, has Mr. Giles filled you in on my background?"

"Yeah, a little," Faith replied. "Said you worked for the Council, but now you don't. Said you helped him once when he was in a really bad place."

"Did he tell you that he spoke with me and gave me your Council file to read?"

Faith nodded.

"Good, then you have some idea of what I know about you. According to the Council, at any rate. I'm actually much more interested in what you have to say about it all."


Dr. Fielding picked up a notepad from the end table and then went on. "There are two more things I'd like to clear up before we get started. First of all, how much information about your sessions do you want me to share with Mr. Giles? We can make our sessions completely and totally confidential; I share not one minute speck of data with Mr. Giles. Or you can give me permission to share only certain information with him, such as your overall progress or current state of mind, but no deeply personal details of any kind."

Faith thought for a minute. Then she asked, "If you tell Giles about our sessions, what kinda stuff are you gonna tell him? And is all that gonna end up in another file going off to the Council?"

"I will tell Mr. Giles only very general information and only what you want him to know or feel comfortable with him knowing," Dr. Fielding assured her. "None of these sessions will be part of your Council file. This arrangement is between me and you, and tangentially Mr. Giles."

Faith was still hesitant. "But who's paying for this? I mean, somebody like you don't come cheap."

"I'm doing this pro bono, as a favor to an old friend."

"You and Giles go way back in the Tweed Brigade, huh?"

Dr. Fielding's lips quirked into a smile at Faith's choice of words. "Indeed, we do."

Faith thought a moment more, then shrugged and said, "You can tell him stuff."

Dr. Fielding made a note on her writing pad. "All right. The second thing is I'd like to give you an idea of what to expect in these sessions. I don't even like to call them 'sessions' really. I prefer to call them 'talks.' That's what they are, really. Just two people talking. But talking isn't always fun. We'll be discussing some difficult topics. I may ask you to share--and struggle with--things that make you extremely uncomfortable."

"I don't care about that," Faith said. "I just know I gotta do this."

"All right, let's get started then. What I'd like to focus on today is the purpose of these talks--specifically, why you asked for these sessions, why you think you need them, and what you hope to gain from them."

Faith couldn't answer at first. She had been so determined to do this, but now that she was here, actually in a session, she couldn't seem to come up with the words.

Emotions rushed through her as images flashed in her mind: the sense of righteous satisfaction she felt when she first punched Buffy at Angel's mansion and saw the look of shock on her face; the black, boiling rage that consumed her as Buffy recoiled in fear; the exultant revenge that changed to horror when she realized she had staked Buffy and not Angel.

"Faith?" Dr. Fielding prompted.

"I...II hurt Buffy," Faith finally answered.

"Buffy...yyour girlfriend...the other slayer?"

Faith nodded.

When Faith didn't elaborate, Dr. Fielding prompted her again. "How did you hurt Buffy?"

Visions of the mansion fight assaulted Faith's mind once again, but this time other images slipped in. She saw herself at seven years old being slapped by her mother and called a 'worthless little bitch.' She saw herself at ten being dragged by her hair into the kitchen before being beaten with a broom handle. Then she saw her current self gleefully stabbing Buffy in the heart during her Kakistos nightmare.

"I hit her and...stabbed her with a stake."

"This was the incident at..." Dr. Fielding consulted her notes. " Angel's mansion, yes?"

Faith nodded. "Yeah." She hung her head and stared at the floor for a moment. When she lifted her eyes, they were damp with tears. "I didn't mean to hurt her..." Faith looked away again. Great. You're lying already, and you're barely five minutes into your first session. She let out a sigh and added, "Not like that, anyway."

"How did you mean to hurt her, then?"

Faith balled her hands into fists, opened and closed them several times. Then she looked back up. "I wanted to take Angel away from her. I wanted to make her watch while I sent him straight back to hell."

"But she didn't allow that, did she?"

"No," Faith responded testily. "She protected him." Faith then shook her head. "But that only made me madder, more determined than ever to get him--and her."

"So the hitting and the staking you mentioned...they occurred during this altercation over Angel?"

Faith shrugged. "Basically, yeah."

"Who hit first?"

"Huh?" Faith asked, confused.

"Who threw the first punch?" Dr. Fielding clarified.

"Oh. Um..." Faith thought for a few seconds. "Well, Buffy yanked me away from Angel, but landing an actual punch? I guess I did."

Dr. Fielding gave her an eyebrow raise. "You guess?"

Faith gritted her teeth. "I did," she repeated with annoyed emphasis.

"And how did it feel?"

" 'How did it feel?' ?!" Faith shot back, disturbed by the question.

"Yes," Dr. Fielding replied simply before waiting calmly for Faith's answer.

Faith huffed and looked away, but then she forced herself to consider the question. She squirmed uncomfortably in her seat as she remembered the surge of energy she had felt when she had seen Buffy's head snap from the impact of her fist.

"It felt good," she admitted. "I wanted to do it again." She dropped her gaze to her hands in her lap. "If Buffy hadn't been a slayer..."

Faith frowned in pain as she imagined herself savagely beating a powerless Buffy. Faith's stomach clenched into a knot, and she wrapped her arms around herself and bent over slightly.

"God, I'm sick!" she said in disgust. "I'm fuckin' sick for wanting to do that!" She rocked in place a few times. "I said I loved her. How can I love her and want to do that?"

Dr. Fielding waited until Faith looked up and met her eyes. Then she gently said, "Because you are sick, Faith." She quickly added, "Not in the way you meant the term, but sick nonetheless. But you've done the right thing. You've sought out a doctor, and I can help you get better." She paused and then went on. "But this isn't something that can be cured overnight. I can't hand you some pills and say, 'Take two and call me in the morning.' Do you understand that?"

Faith nodded.

"This 'illness' of yours is deeply rooted in your childhood."

Faith couldn't help herself. She gave the doctor a weary groan and eye roll.

"I know," Dr. Fielding chuckled. "The last thing a patient wants to hear from her psychiatrist is 'We need to talk about your childhood.' But in your case it truly is crucial. Do you believe that?"

"I guess," Faith said before correcting herself. "Yes, I believe that. I mean, I know I'm screwed up, okay? And I know my mother did most of the screwin' up. But...I just don't see how talking about all that crap is gonna help. It'll just make me mad all over again...make me hate her even more. Which has nothing to do with me and Buffy."

"Trust me. It will help. And yes, it will make you mad, and it will hurt, and it will make you feel that hatred for your mother more intensely than you'd care to. But that's what it's designed to do. To make you feel. To make you experience those emotions that you wouldn't allow yourself to feel when you were a child. You couldn't handle them then. You weren't strong enough. But you are now."

Faith stared at her intently as if taking it all in.

"Will you trust me?" Dr. Fielding asked. "Will you let me lead you through this?"

After a long moment, Faith nodded. "Okay."

Part 17B

While Faith poured out her heart to Dr. Fielding, Giles paced the floor in the school library. Having been through intensive therapy himself, he had some idea of what Faith was going through. However, being familiar with many of the tragic details of his slayer's past, he shuddered to think of what Faith would be forced to relive. He hoped that she would be strong enough to endure it.

He hoped that both she and Buffy would be strong enough to make it through the difficult road ahead. They'd hurt each other very deeply, and Buffy's deception with regard to Angel's return had fractured not only her relationship with Faith but also the unity of the entire group. He hoped that Willow's "Team Talk," which was scheduled for that afternoon, would at least initiate the healing process.

Giles brought his pacing to a halt and sighed wearily. Then he shook his head and scolded himself. "Stop wasting time, and do something productive."

At that, he headed for his office desk, where he had laid out a number of volumes from his library. His intention was to research the spell Buffy had used on Angel--the Repertus Animus. It was critical that he determine the efficacy of the spell and evaluate Buffy's casting of it. If there was even the slightest chance that Angel was actually Angelus, action would have to be taken.

About an hour before the Team Talk was set to begin, Buffy and her mother arrived at the school library. When they entered, they found the sitting area empty. Buffy frowned as she glanced around the room.

"Will? Giles?" she called out.

Giles immediately stepped out of his office. "I'm here," he called back, joining the Summers women near the study tables.

"Hello, Rupert," Joyce greeted.

"Joyce," Giles replied.

"Where's Willow?" Buffy asked. "I figured she'd be here, plotting out the seating arrangement or something."

"She and Oz are picking up the requisite donuts," Giles answered with a small smile.

Buffy echoed the smile then sobered. After rocking nervously on her feet and making pretzels with her fingers, she said, "I, um, I was hoping we could talk. You know, a little pre-talk talk?"

"Of course, let's go into my office."

As Giles led the way, Buffy glanced back at Joyce. After getting a nod of encouragement from her mother, Buffy turned and followed after Giles.

Once they got into the office, Buffy shut the door, and Giles sat on the corner of his desk and crossed his arms.

Buffy twisted the fingers of her hands together then took a hesitant step forward. "I'm sorry I didn't tell you about Angel being back. I should have. I didn't think about how it might have hurt you, and I'm sorry."

Giles uncrossed his arms and let his hands rest in his lap. "Thank you," he replied sincerely.

"A-A-And I do respect and appreciate what you do as my watcher." She moved closer and touched his arm. "I owe you my life, Giles. I know I wouldn't have made it this far without you."

Giles smiled briefly then dropped his gaze. After a moment he squeezed her hand, stood up, and cleared his throat. "Yes, well, I must say that I was impressed with one thing you did with respect to Angel."


"Yes, the Repertus Animus," he replied, turning to pick up some papers from his desk. "You did the necessary research, discovered the appropriate spell, and apparently completed the ritual successfully--all on your own. It was excellent work."

"Thanks. I was so scared, though...that it wasn't the right spell or that I wouldn't do it right or worse that I would do it right and--" She stopped, ducked her head, and didn't go on.

"It would show that Angel didn't have his soul," Giles finished for her.

Buffy just nodded, tears forming in her eyes. Then she looked up and said, "I couldn't bear to think of killing him again, I just couldn't..."

Giles looked on with sympathy. However much Buffy's actions had hurt him, he had to remember that she was still just a girl--a seventeen year old girl who had already seen and done things that no girl should ever have to see and do.

"I understand," he said simply. Then he cleared his throat again and glanced at his clock. "Since we have a few minutes, I'd like to discuss the spell itself...if you don't mind?"

Buffy wiped the tears from her face and nodded. Then she proceeded to answer Giles's questions about the ritual.

A short time later, Giles and Buffy emerged from the office to find Willow and Oz setting out the donuts and drinks they had picked up. Buffy glanced around the room but didn't see Faith, Xander, or Cordelia yet. As Giles drifted over to speak with Joyce, Buffy headed for Willow and Oz. Willow immediately stopped what she was doing and walked over to her friend.

"How did things go with Giles?" Willow asked.

"Good," Buffy replied. "I think we're okay."

"Good, I'm glad," Willow said.

Buffy glanced around the room again. "Faith's not here yet?"

Willow looked around, too. "She didn't come with you?"

"No. She said she had some stuff to do," Buffy answered before frowning a bit.

Willow noticed Buffy's uneasy expression. "She's still gonna be here, isn't she?"

"She said she would be, but honestly...I wouldn't be surprised if she decided to skip out. Especially after this morning."

"What happened this morning?" Willow asked, concerned.

"I told her I needed to talk to Angel tonight--to ask him to leave Sunnydale. She didn't take it well."

"She should've been glad."

"She was. About the Angel leaving part. But she refused to let me go see him alone. So we'll be heading over there at sundown."

"So you think she might skip this meeting because of that?"

Buffy shrugged. "I don't know. She might be on angst overload. I know I am. I think that's why she suddenly 'had stuff to do' this morning. I think she needed the space. And I get that, I do, but I sure wish she would be here."

Willow smiled as her eyes caught a figure coming in the library doors. "Looks like you're getting your wish."

Buffy turned around and saw Faith walking her way. Buffy smiled in relief and walked over to meet Faith in front of the checkout desk.

"I'm so glad you came," Buffy said as they hugged briefly.

"Well, I said I would," Faith replied.

Buffy could sense that something was different about Faith, but she didn't know what it was or whether it was a good change or a bad one. "I know, but..."

"C'mere." Faith took Buffy's hand and led her into Giles's office.

Unsure of the reason for Faith's abrupt need for privacy, Buffy felt her stomach tighten in dread. Thankfully, that dread slipped away when Faith shut the door, yanked her close, and kissed her fervently.

When the need for air made them end the embrace, Faith placed her hands on Buffy's cheeks and said, "I love you. You know that, right?"

Buffy gave a small smile and reached up to pull Faith's hands into hers. "I do. I love you, too." After another passionate but brief kiss, Buffy got a puzzled expression on her face. "Something happened today," she said, casting a worried look into Faith's eyes. "Didn't it?"

"Yes," Faith admitted. "Something good, I hope."

"What was it?"

Faith pulled away, shaking her head. "I don't wanna jinx it, okay? I'll tell you about it soon, I promise."

Buffy warred within herself before replying. Although her curiosity was itching to be satisfied and her insecurities were planting suspicions in her mind, she forced them all down. She knew she was in no position to demand full disclosure from Faith. "Okay," she assured her.

Just then there was a knock at the door. When the door cracked open, Willow stuck her head inside. "Sorry to interrupt, but Xander and Cordelia are here now, so we can get started whenever you're ready."

Buffy glanced at Faith, who gave her a nod. "We're ready," she said before she and Faith followed Willow back into the main library.

Despite Willow's best hopes, the Team Talk wasn't going well. Xander and Cordelia had arrived with their sarcasm sharpened and their defenses fully up, which only served to set Buffy on edge. It didn't take long for the discussion to devolve into a shouting match of blame and accusation. Even Willow finally gave up the "I" statements.

"You weren't even close to Miss Calendar!" she shouted at Xander. "Why do you keep throwing her in Buffy's face like she's the one who killed her?"

"Because she did get her killed!" Xander countered. "Every day Buffy went without killing Angel was--"

"Angelus..." Willow corrected harshly, hinting at the Angel vs. Angelus argument that had occurred earlier in the discussion.

"What. Ever," Xander growled in an annoyed tone before continuing his point. "The truth is...every one of those days was a day somebody died. A day when one of us could have died."

"It wasn't that simple," Willow defended. "She--"

"No, Xander's right," Buffy said, gently interrupting. "I should've killed Angelus sooner. But I didn't. And people died."

Buffy cast a sad glance at Giles, but his look was neither forgiving nor blaming. Buffy went back to her explanation.

"But that was then, and this is now," she said. "When Angel came back, I did not, for one second, put any of you in danger. I locked Angel up until I confirmed who he was."

"And, as I noted in our previous meeting," Cordelia snarked, "you then proceeded to suck face with him."

"I did not 'suck face' with him!" Buffy yelled before taking a breath to calm herself. "It was one kiss," she said, looking at Faith, who stoically met her gaze. "It didn't last long. I pushed him away and told him I was seeing someone else." She turned and made deliberate eye contact with the rest of the group. "It wouldn't have happened again."

"But you still kept Angel a secret," Oz noted, surprising Willow.

"I should have said something," Buffy admitted. Then her voice took on an accusing tone. "But would you all have listened? Or would you have started gathering stakes and lighting torches like a lynch mob?" She let her eyes meet Xander's for a moment. "I couldn't let you guys go all vigilante on him when I didn't even know if he was really Angel or not."

"But, once you did the spell and you knew it was Angel, you still didn't say anything," Oz continued, much to Willow's dismay. "Not that day, at least."

"No, I didn't," Buffy confessed, "and I'm sorry." Then she turned to Willow and added in her defense, "But-But I told you and Xander before I left that I did have something to talk to you about, didn't I? I said I just needed a little more time."

Willow nodded vigorously in agreement. "She did," she told the group. "She did say that."

"A little more time for what?" Xander shot back to Buffy. "Enough to give Angel another 'happy'?"

Faith jumped up from her chair and pointed furiously at Xander. "She said it wasn't like that! Okay?!!! If you'd get your Underoos out of your ass long enough, maybe you'd hear what Buffy's trying to say!"

"Oh, Jesus Christ, Faith! Are you really that stupid?" Xander said. "Even after she knew what she had done to you, where did she run? Huh? Right into Angel's arms!"

Faith's eyes darted around the room as Xander's words re-ignited all her inner fears. Buffy reached out and touched her arm, but Faith didn't respond other than to pull away from Buffy's touch and ease mutely back into her seat as if on automatic.

"I won't do that again," Buffy pleaded with her, tears filling her eyes. "I swear!"

The whole group was quiet for a moment, the air roiling with a tumult of emotions. Eventually, Oz broke the silence when he addressed Buffy again.

"You can't blame us for being scared, Buffy," he said gently but truthfully. "I mean, one slip-up, and we'd be deja-vu-ing a very unpleasant last year. We want to believe you, but...we know people are weak."

Buffy didn't even turn in Oz's direction. Her gaze was fixed on Faith as she waited to see her girlfriend's reaction. Finally Faith lifted her eyes to meet Buffy's.

"That's why she's gonna ask Angel to leave Sunnydale," Faith said without emotion. She turned toward the group, and Buffy reluctantly did the same.

"She's gonna 'ask' him," Cordelia commented sarcastically.

"Yes," Buffy stated, clearing her throat and sitting up straight in an effort to regain her confidence. "I am. I'm going over there tonight, as a matter of fact."

Cordelia merely snorted in response.

"Do you really think he'll go?" Xander challenged.

"If I ask him, yes," Buffy replied.

"He thinks you're his soul mate, Buffy," Xander said, sounding as if he were speaking to an idiot. "He's not gonna leave when he feels obligated to hover over you and protect you."

"I'm telling you he will," Buffy insisted.

"And if he doesn't?" Joyce asked, giving a surreptitious nod of her head toward Faith for Buffy's benefit.

Buffy paused uncertainly for a moment. Then she affirmed, "He will. He won't stay here if he knows it will hurt more if he does. He'll do what's right, I know it." She glanced at Faith, but the dark slayer didn't return her gaze.

When another awkward silence fell over the group, Giles took the opportunity to make a comment. "I spoke at length with Buffy about the Repertus Animus spell that she cast. I'm confident that she performed the ritual correctly and that its results were conclusive. Angel does have his soul. As such, he's no threat to us or anyone else."

Xander was ready to refute that point, but Buffy spoke up first. "Look, I know it seems completely weird that he's back," she tried to explain, "but this happened for a reason. I really believe that. The Powers-That-Be must have some kind of plan--"

"Maybe it's not the 'Powers' that brought him back," Xander pointed out. "Maybe the 'Plan' is for him to get horizontal with his favorite slayer again and hello hellacious--Heeeeeere's Angelus!"

"Well then the 'Plan' won't happen!" Buffy barked, her anger toward Xander returning.

Willow reached out and placed her hands on top of the table. "See...maybe that's why they brought Angel back now," she tried to explain. "Buffy's moved on, found love again. Maybe they knew there was no way the happiness clause could be reactivated. It was safe for Angel to come back and fulfill whatever destiny they have for him."

Cordelia sighed and shook her head. "Sounds like a whole lotta 'Maybes' to me."

"Look, this is pointless," Xander said, rising to his feet. "Buffy is never going to admit that she was wrong, and neither I am. So all this talk is a total waste of time." At that, he turned and headed for the exit, followed by Cordelia.

"Xander..." Willow complained to no avail. As the doors swung shut, she turned back to Buffy and tried to put on a hopeful expression. "He'll come around..."

"Maybe it's better if he doesn't," Buffy said wearily.

"No, don't say that," Willow replied. "We're a team, and we need to find a way to deal with this."

"Some things take time, Willow," Giles pointed out.

"Rupert's right," Joyce said before standing up. "We've done all we can do for today. We should all go home and get some rest."

Reluctantly, Willow packed up her donuts and drinks, and she and Oz trudged out of the library.

Giles turned to Faith and said, "I, um, I know it's been a difficult day, but I'd still like for you to patrol tonight if you feel up to it."

"I'm ready, trust me," Faith nearly growled.

"Don't worry," Buffy said to Giles. "I can--"

"--stay home and continue to recover," Joyce emphasized, intercepting Buffy's intent to accompany Faith on patrol.

"Mommmm," Buffy whined.

"Your mother's right," Giles told Buffy. "You're not ready to resume patrol yet. However, you can monitor Faith's progress by radio. In fact, I have a new radio set I'd like you to try out."

He led them over to the book cage and unlocked it. As Faith claimed a few weapons for patrol, Giles dug out a large box and placed it on the nearby table.

"Willow picked it out, actually," he said as he started to point out things printed on the box. "It has a base unit and six handheld radios with headsets, each with a thirty-five-mile range, and they're, um..." He hunted for the proper line in the product description. "...voice-activated. Yes, that's right." He held up his hands in the air. "Hands-free, as it were."

"Cool," Buffy said in a pleased voice. "We'll take it home and figure out how it all works. Right, Faith?"

"Yeah, sounds good," Faith said but without Buffy's enthusiasm.

"Come on, girls," Joyce instructed. "Let's go pick up some comfort food. I'm thinking one of Crazy Bob's BBQ Bonanza party platters is in order."

At that, Joyce led the two slayers from the library.

A little over an hour later, Buffy and Faith were sitting on the couch in the living room of the Summers home, tinkering with the new radio--or pretending to at least. Faith had been semi-social at best during their meal with Buffy's mom. Once Joyce had gone upstairs to read, Faith had retreated into distracted silence. Seeing the tension in Faith's body, Buffy moved closer and put her hand on Faith's back.

"Are you okay?" she asked.

"What do you think?" Faith shot back.

"Sorry," Buffy said, removing her hand and ducking her head. "Stupid question."

Faith got up and walked over to the window. She clenched her jaw several times then turned around to face Buffy. "I wasn't enough that I had to go through your betrayal once. No siree, I had to hear about it all over again from Xander. Guess I really am ‘that stupid'."

Buffy rose to her feet. "He shouldn't have lashed out at you like that. He--"

"And what if he's right, huh? What if Angel won't leave, what then?" Faith's expression was anguished as she went on, her voice beginning to crack. "How can I know you won't betray me again? I want to believe you, I really do but...God, it's just too much..." She turned back toward the window.

With tears rolling down her cheeks, Buffy rushed to Faith's side. "I won't betray you," she promised. "I swear I won't."

When Buffy put her hand on Faith's shoulder, the dark slayer slipped out of her grasp. "I need time to think," she said, backing toward the front door. When Buffy looked at her with stricken eyes, Faith stopped in place. "I'll be back," she assured her. "I just need to clear my head, work off some of this energy."

Buffy wiped the tears from her face and nodded her understanding. At that, Faith turned and headed out the front door. As soon as she heard Faith's footsteps leave the porch, Buffy let the new tears come.

Not looking back at the house, Faith strode quickly toward Revello Drive. As soon as she reached the city sidewalk, she moved into a jog, letting her body fall into a comfortable rhythm. After a few blocks, she upped the pace, just enough to work up a sweat. Her inner voices, though, refused to be silenced by the physical demands of her exercise.

You can't trust her, one voice warned. She's already hurt you once. She'll hurt you again.

She can't help herself, another voice added. Not when it comes to Angel. He's her 'once in a lifetime,' remember? You can't compete with that.

You'll see tonight, the first voice predicted. He'll refuse to go, and she'll make excuses for him. Soon they'll be manufacturing reasons to see each other, and the next thing you know, she'll be ripping your heart out with another slayer/vamp kiss...or worse!

Faith growled at herself in annoyance and took a sharp turn into Elmwood Cemetery. Then she pushed herself into a grueling run, darting in and out between markers, hurdling rows of headstones, and occasionally vaulting onto the top of a larger monument before leaping off it in a forward flip, never losing her stride. For over an hour, she drove the voices from her mind, forcing them into the background, as her body focused on the rigors of her workout.

Eventually, though, exhaustion took over, and she collapsed onto her back on a grassy knoll. As her limbs trembled and her chest heaved for air, Faith stared up at the late afternoon sky, enjoying the momentary brain silence.

It didn't take long, however, for those nagging inner voices to return. Faith groaned in frustration and crawled to her feet. After brushing herself off and taking a few deep breaths, she reluctantly started back toward Buffy's house.

As the sun slowly dipped behind the trees, Buffy paced the living room floor. For the umpteenth time, she questioned whether or not she should go out looking for Faith. Just as she prepared to once again answer herself in the negative, she heard the front door open. She turned and saw Faith come inside. Buffy's face lit up in both joy and relief. Not wanting to crowd her girlfriend, though, she curbed her urge to rush into an embrace.

"Hey," she said.

"Hey," Faith replied.

"Did you have a good...?" Buffy trailed off, not sure what to call Faith's temporary absence.

Knowing what Buffy meant, Faith just shrugged and glanced away. "I guess," she said before looking up to meet Buffy's eyes. "Sorry I had to take off like that..."

"No, it's okay," Buffy immediately insisted. "I understand. You've got a lot to deal with."

More than you know, Faith thought, remembering the intense session she'd had with Dr. Fielding that morning. She shook off the painful memories and focused on the task ahead. "It's sundown. Are you ready?"

Buffy straightened her posture and answered firmly, "Yes, I am."

"Let's go and get this over with, then."

At that, the two slayers left the house and headed for Angel's mansion.

The short walk to Angel's place was a quiet, uncomfortable one. With their thoughts and emotions awhirl inside them, neither slayer had much to say. Buffy worried about how Angel would react to her request and how Faith would react to his reaction. She kept remembering the uncontrollable fury she saw in Faith's eyes during their fight at Angel's mansion.

Faith, on the other hand, was trapped in a vicious loop of repeating pain, rage, and horror as her mind kept replaying scenes she wished she could forget--the kiss between Buffy and Angel, the first punch Faith had landed in her fight with Buffy, the moment when she realized she had staked Buffy. By the time the two slayers arrived at Angel's mansion, they were both very much on edge.

When they got to the front door, Buffy stopped and turned to Faith. "Okay, I know you're not gonna like it, but I want to talk to Angel alone."

"What?!" Faith demanded.

"I know you don't have any reason to trust me, but I need you to anyway. Angel will be a lot more receptive to the idea if you aren't in there glaring at him."

Faith scowled and huffed and glanced away.

"Faith, please..."

The dark slayer shook her head then looked back at Buffy. "If you aren't outta there in two minutes," she warned, "I'm comin' in."

"Deal," Buffy said. Then she turned and knocked on the door.

When Angel opened the door and saw Buffy, his face lit up with relief. "Buffy! Are you--?" He stopped mid-question when he realized Faith was also there.

"I'm fine," Buffy interjected immediately. "I-I-I was hoping we could talk." She gestured between herself and Angel in order to clarify. "You and me, I mean."

"Sure," Angel said.

As he held the door open for Buffy, he locked eyes with Faith. She stared right back, clenching her fists. Buffy noticed the stare-off, so she turned around to speak to Faith before going inside.

She grabbed Faith's hands in hers. "I won't be long, I promise."

Faith, however, was still glaring at Angel, so Buffy touched Faith's cheek to make her turn her eyes to Buffy.

"Nothing is going to happen," Buffy reassured her.

When she saw a flash of pain in Faith's eyes, she gave her a fervent kiss. She made eye contact once more before turning around and going inside.

Once the door had been shut, Angel waited until they had walked a few yards into the great room before stopping Buffy and giving her an urgent look.

"How can you still be with her after what she did?" he demanded. "She's not like you. She's violent, unpredictable, she's...dangerous!"

Buffy remained calm and merely said, "Sounds like what everybody told me when I started seeing you."

"And they were right," Angel reminded her.

Buffy was immovable. "I love her, and she loves me," she stated. "And we're going to work this out."

Angel moved closer and looked at the hint of a bruise along Buffy's jaw line where Faith had hit her. Angel lifted his hand to gently touch it, but Buffy backed out of his reach.

Angel let his arm drop back to his side. "Doesn't it bother you that she hit you, that she wanted to hurt you?"

"Of course it does," Buffy answered. "But I can't blame her. I hit her first. Sucker-punched her. Right here. When I kissed you."

"It was just a kiss..."

"It wasn't...and you know it," Buffy said, shaking her head. Then she looked Angel in the eyes. "It was a betrayal, and it hurt badly. And it can't happen again. Ever. "

"It won't. I promise."

"A promise isn't good enough," Buffy replied. After pausing to gather her resolve, she announced firmly, "I can't see you anymore."

Angel's mouth dropped open in surprise, but Buffy forged on.

"I know that I won't make that mistake again," she told him, "but Faith doesn't. She wants to believe--to trust me again--but how can she? She's too hurt right now, and I don't want her hit with that doubt, that fear, every time our path crosses with yours."

Realization came over Angel's face. "You want me to leave."

Buffy nodded sadly. "I'm sorry, but yes."

Angel turned away and didn't speak for a moment. Then he turned back around and said, "And if I don't?"

Buffy seemed surprised for a moment. But then she shook it off and shrugged uncertainly. "I don't know. I can't exactly make you go, have to don't really have any friends here. Not after Angelus."

"I don't need friends," Angel said. "I need to know that you're safe."

"If you mean safe from Faith, I am," Buffy emphasized. "But if you mean safe in general, well, I'm as safe as a slayer ever can be. More so, actually, because Faith is with me."

Angel didn't answer, but his posture indicated that he didn't buy either of Buffy's statements. She stepped closer and softened her tone.

"I know you're hurting, Angel...I am, too, and so is Faith, but we can't change what's already happened. All we can do is try to make things better now, and if you's only going to make the hurting last longer. For all of us."

Still Angel didn't speak, but it was clear from his expression that Buffy's words were having an impact.

"You have a destiny somewhere else," she said. "I don't have any proof of that, but I feel it. Don't you?"

Angel looked away. He did feel that, but he didn't want to feel it. After nearly a minute of silence, he finally said, "Fine. I'll go. As soon as I've gotten my strength back."

Buffy's tense expression relaxed. "Thank you," she said sincerely. "And...I'm sorry."

As she turned to go, Angel called out to her. "I want to talk to Faith."

Buffy froze in place then slowly turned back around. "Ummm...I don't think that's such a good idea..."

Angel crossed his arms over his chest. "Ask her."

Reluctant to comply with his request, Buffy walked to the door, opened it, and stepped outside.

As she waited for Buffy to come out of the mansion, Faith wrung her hands and paced the small stone stoop. When she realized what she was doing, she shoved her hands into her back pockets and forced herself to stop walking. Just then, she heard the front door open.

When she saw a somber Buffy come out of the mansion, Faith immediately stepped towards her and asked, "Are you okay?"

Buffy nodded and gave her a small smile.

"How did he take it? Is he gonna leave?"

"Yes, he's going to leave, but...he wants to talk to you first."

Faith's eyes narrowed in suspicion. "What does he want?"

"I don't know," Buffy replied. "You don't have to," she then told her. "I mean, if you don't want to, then we can just--"

"No, I'll talk to him," Faith said, pulling her hands out of her pockets and heading for the door. "If it'll get him outta here faster, I can handle a little chat."

As Faith started to open the door, Buffy reached out and grabbed her arm. "Please don't hurt him..."

"I won't. Not unless he gives me a reason to."

At that, Faith opened the door and went inside, leaving a very worried Buffy behind.

After closing the door, Faith stepped cautiously into the great room. She put her hand in her jacket pocket and closed her fingers over the handle of a wooden stake.

"You think I'm gonna try something?" Angel said after watching Faith's wary progress towards him.

"Don't know," she replied. "Not gonna take any chances."

"First of all, I'm not strong enough right now. And, even if I were, it wouldn't do any good because Buffy and I can't be together because of the curse. But even if we could be, I still wouldn't do anything." He gave her a snide stare. "Unlike you, I would never try to kill the person she loves."

Faith scowled at the implied insult. Then she crossed her arms in defiance. "She's not in love with you anymore."

Angel flashed Faith a knowing smile. "She does love me. She always will. But you know that. That's why you wanted to kill me."

Faith had no response. She just glanced away.

"But you're right," Angel said. "She's not in love with me. Not anymore."

He walked up to Faith and began to circle around her. She matched his moves.

"Do you even know what you have?" he asked. "How lucky you are to have it?"

"Yes. I do," she answered. "And I'll do whatever it takes to protect it--to protect her."

"How are you going to protect her from yourself?" he shot back, stopping in place to glare down at her.

Faith clenched her jaw several times. Then she said, "I'm workin' on it."

"Work fast," Angel warned menacingly. "Because if I get word that you've hurt her in any way, I will hunt you down."

"So much for not tryin' to kill the person she loves..." Faith snarked back, rolling her eyes.

"Oh, I won't kill you. I'll just make you wish I would."

Faith gave a disgusted huff. "Yeah, well, take a number," she said before heading for the door. "If I do hurt her--and I won't--you'll have to get in line behind everybody else. First up'll be Willow and her shovel. Or maybe Joyce and her baseball bat. Buffy tells me she's got a helluva swing."

Faith didn't wait for a reply. She yanked open the door and strode outside where Buffy was waiting.

When Buffy heard the door open, she turned to check on Faith. Before she could say anything, Faith stomped right past her, causing Buffy to have to hurry to catch up.

"Did e-e-everything go okay?" she ventured to ask. "I was getting close to rushing in to check on you, but since I hadn't heard any smashing furniture, I figured I could wait another minute."

"Oh, he just had to get his little 'unhappy-ex' jabs in," Faith said over her shoulder. "You know...'if you hurt her, I'll get you'."

Buffy grabbed Faith's arm to stop her. "He threatened you?" she asked, anger now entering her voice.

"Yeah, and I took it about as serious as I did Willow and her shovel," Faith replied before trying to resume walking.

"That arrogant jerk!!!"

The sudden exclamation stopped Faith mid-stride. She turned back around and glanced at Buffy, who was now seriously pissed off.

"I bend over backwards to break the news as gently as I can," Buffy growled, "and he turns around and threatens my girlfriend?!!"

Faith's eyebrows rose in surprise at Buffy's outrage.

"Who the hell does he think he is?!!" Buffy continued to rant. "I'm gonna go back in there and set him straight. Stupid jerk..."

As Faith's mouth quirked into a pleased smile, she quickly grabbed Buffy before she could barge in on Angel.

"What are you doi--?" Buffy objected before Faith cut off her words with an ardent kiss, which Buffy eagerly returned. When they eventually separated, Buffy asked, "Mmmm...what was that for?"

Faith leaned in and pressed the tip of her nose against Buffy's. "For being my hero." At Buffy's smile, she added, "I've never had a defender before."

"Well, you've got one now," Buffy told her. Then she grew serious and reached up to caress Faith's cheek. "I'd do anything to protect you. Anything."

Moved by Buffy's words, Faith felt a lump form in her throat. She glanced away long enough to clear her throat; then she met Buffy's gaze once more. Flashing a grin, she said, "Back at ya." She linked her arm with Buffy's and guided them away from Angel's mansion. "Come on, I need to get ready for patrol. Unfortunately, the vamps won't dust themselves."

"They are so inconsiderate," Buffy joked. "Somebody should teach them some manners."

"That'll be me," Faith replied. "Just call me Miss Manners."

Buffy snorted and shot a smirk in Faith's direction. "Miss Something..."

"Watch it, girlie, or I'll start with you."

"Yeah, yeah..."

About a half hour later, Faith was finishing up her preparations for patrol. As Buffy held up a long black coat, Faith eased her arms into the sleeves. After settling the coat onto her shoulders, Faith opened the left side of the coat.

Inside the left front panel was a scabbard sewn into the lining. When Buffy handed her the short sword, Faith placed it into the scabbard. A dagger and a couple of stakes went into similar places inside the right front panel.

Faith tested her range of motion and practiced removing each weapon. When she was done, she turned to Buffy and smiled. "This coat rocks!"

"Yeah, it's pretty handy," Buffy commented. "Especially when the weather's cool. In the summer, not so much."

"I totally need to get one," Faith added.

Buffy's mind immediately reminded her of Faith's upcoming birthday. Smiling to herself, she made a mental note to talk to Giles and her mother about getting Faith a similar coat of her own.

"Okay, time for the fancy-schmancy radio," Faith said, popping Buffy out of her thoughts.

Buffy handed over a small walkie-talkie. Faith turned it on and locked it in the on position; then she clipped it onto her belt at the small of her back. Buffy placed a small headset on Faith's head and then stuffed the cord down Faith's back between her coat and shirt. Buffy came around to Faith's front and reached around her to retrieve the end of the headset cord and plug it into the radio at Faith's belt.

As Buffy groped blindly for the cord, Faith teased, "Hey now, no funny stuff. Don't have time for you to feel me up. Least not with your mom in the other room."

Buffy chuckled but finally got the cord and radio connected. Then she pulled Faith into a real hug, which the dark slayer gladly returned. "Guess we'll just have to arrange some alone time, then, won't we?" Buffy whispered suggestively.

"Hell yeah," Faith whispered back before capturing Buffy's lips with hers.

After kissing themselves breathless, they reluctantly parted and started to test the radio. Just then, Buffy's mother entered the room.

"Everything good to go?" Joyce asked.

"Looks like," Faith answered.

"Now you be careful out there," Joyce instructed. "Let us know where you are at all times."

"Yes ma'am," Faith dutifully replied.

From behind Joyce's back, Buffy silently mouthed the word "ma'am" and made the motions of a mocking snicker.

Turning away and heading toward the front door, Faith rolled her eyes and sighed. She's never gonna let me live this down. Guess I better get used to it.

Later that evening, as Faith patrolled Sunnydale under the watchful ears of Buffy and Joyce, Giles was having dinner with his favorite psychiatrist, Helen Fielding. In a candlelit corner of the local French restaurant, Giles and Helen caught each other up on the details of their lives since their last meeting. They also laughed and reminisced, reliving special moments from their past. It was only when they had nearly finished their desserts that Giles raised the question of Faith's progress.

"How did Faith's session go this morning?" he asked. "I didn't have the chance to speak with her privately this afternoon."

"It went well," Helen replied. "She seems committed to doing what is necessary to get better. She answered questions thoughtfully and honestly, though not always as thoroughly as I would have liked. For the most part, she allowed her emotions to show, but there were times when she shut down completely. This being our first meeting, I didn't push her too hard."

"I'm glad the meeting went well," Giles said. "You'll be meeting with her again tomorrow morning, yes?"

"Yes, that's right."

"Good," Giles said. "After today, I imagine she'll have a lot to discuss with you."

"The ole 'Team Talk' didn't go well, I presume."

"Unfortunately, no. I'm afraid the group remains bitterly divided over the Angel issue. Some very hurtful things were said."

Helen reached across the table and covered Giles's hand with her own. "What about you? This must've been very difficult for you as well. After all, it's been less than a year since you lost Jenny."

"It has been difficult," Giles confirmed. "I was very angry with Buffy for keeping Angel's return secret. But we spoke this morning. She apologized for the pain she had caused me and also explained her perspective in more detail." He looked away for a moment and then met Helen's eyes once again. "You know...I sometimes forget how young Buffy really is. Although her life as a slayer has certainly forced her to mature more rapidly than her peers, she's still just a teenaged girl who can't be expected to have the judgment of an adult. Particularly not in matters of the heart."

"You're a good watcher, Rupert Giles," Helen praised. "Buffy and Faith are lucky to have you."

Giles actually blushed a little, but he covered it up by turning to summon the waiter for the check.

After walking back to the Hyatt, Helen and Giles stood in the lobby making their good-nights.

"I had a wonderful time tonight," Giles said.

"So did I," Helen replied. "Thank you for inviting me."

"You're most welcome," he told her, nodding his head a bit nervously.

Helen brushed his arm with her fingertips and tilted her head. "Would you like to come up to my room for a nightcap? Annnnd perhaps more?"

Giles loosened his tie and cleared his throat. "I, um, I'd like to, of course, but, um, I really should check in with Buffy about Faith's patrol...I-I-I should be home and available in case they need me..."

Helen shot him a sultry grin. "My room has a phone, and don't have to stay all night, although you're certainly welcome to."

When Giles still hesitated, she changed her tone from seductive to sincere. "I told you this strings. You're still mourning Jenny, I'm still mourning David, a part of us will always mourn them, I suppose." She gave his arm a squeeze and then said, "Think about it. You know where to find me."

At that, Helen turned and headed for the elevators. While she waited for the car to arrive, she couldn't help being a little disappointed at Giles's refusal. Her attraction to him certainly hadn't waned over the years, so her situation was rather frustrating to say the least.

Just as the elevator beeped to announce the car's arrival, however, she noticed Giles walking up beside her. When the doors opened, he stepped inside with her and stood right next to her without speaking a word. She punched the button for her floor, and as the doors slowly closed, a smug smile spread over Helen's face.

While Giles was accompanying Helen to her hotel room, Willow was knocking at the front door of the Harris home. When the door opened, she was surprised to find Cordelia, and not Xander, on the other side.

When Cordelia saw who was at the door, she didn't waste words. "He doesn't want to see you," she announced.

Willow frowned worriedly. "Like, at all? Like, ever?"

"Like, today," Cordelia corrected. "That's all I know."

"He's still pretty upset then, I guess."

"Well, duh," Cordelia stated, shutting the door and joining Willow outside. "He hates vampires, he especially hates Angel-slash-Angelus, and you took sides against him. Not a lot to be happy about."

"I'm not 'against him.' I just think he made a mistake, and I think he needs to own up to it."

"Oh, and I suppose Buffy the Perfect Hero is blameless in all this."

"No, I think she made a mistake, too," Willow said, "but at least she's admitted that she screwed up."

Cordelia gave a small shrug of acknowledgement in reply.

"Buffy should have never kept Angel's return secret. That's true. But I can kinda understand her point of view. If I had been in her shoes, I would've been freaking out, too."

"I get it, okay?" Cordelia huffed in frustration. "Mentally I get it. The whole Angel/Angelus distinction, the epic love, how it must have crushed Buffy to kill Angel. But all I can think about is Angelus--how if Angel's back, then the possibility of Angelus is, too."

"That's not going to happen," Willow insisted. "Buffy is with Faith, and Angel's leaving town, so therefore, it won't happen."

"What if Angel falls in love with someone else?" Cordelia offered. "The curse isn't specific to Buffy. So, what if Angel gets all Shiny Happy People with somebody else down the line? It could be Angelus all over again."

Willow seemed momentarily stumped by this scenario, but then she said, "Angel didn't know about the happiness clause before. He does now. He'll make sure it doesn't happen again."

Despite Willow's prediction, Cordelia didn't look reassured.

Meanwhile, Buffy and Joyce were watching TV while manning the radio base during Faith's patrol.

"Yo, Dorothy-Do!" came Faith's voice over the radio. "Are you there?"

Buffy rolled her eyes while her mother smirked at her. Buffy pressed the talk button on the radio. "I read you, Boston Butt," she replied.

"Good one," Faith chuckled. "Anyway, I'm over in Glenwood Park now, this side of the bluff. So far, nothing. I'll do a sweep and then--Wait!"

Faith's voice stopped and was replaced by the sound of her running through brush.

"Faith, what's going on?" Buffy asked worriedly.

"Heard something," Faith answered in huffs as she continued running. "Hang on."

Buffy and Joyce moved closer to the radio base. When Faith's running stopped, they heard what sounded like a dog squealing in pain and a large beast snarling viciously.

"Hey! Get away from him, you ugly excuse for a hellhound!" they heard Faith yell.

Frightened beyond words, Buffy and Joyce reached for each other's hands as they hung on every sound coming from the radio.

Suddenly, Faith's call erupted into a cacophony of blows and tumbles, grunts and growls. Buffy slammed her hand on the talk button and frantically called out Faith's name, but all they could hear was the sounds of the ongoing battle.

At one point the beast seemed to be snapping right at Faith's face, as if it were very near her headset. Then they heard Faith give a kind of roar, and the snarling moved away slightly. A second later Faith cried out in pain. There was a thud, then nothing. The radio signal went dead.

Part 17C

"Faith!" Buffy practically screamed into the radio. "Faith!"

When she got no answer, Buffy jumped to her feet. "I'm going after her."

"I'll drive you," Joyce replied, following after Buffy.

Before the two women could get to the front door, though, they were stopped by the sound of Faith's voice coming back onto the radio.

"B, you still there?"

Buffy rushed back to the radio. "Oh my god, Faith, are you okay?"

"I'm good...just...a little out of breath."

"Thank god! You just scared the daylights out of me and Mom. We were two seconds from heading over there when you came back on."

"Well, don't send the rescue squad yet," Faith laughed. "I'm fine. Damn thing got away, though. I'm gonna start tracking it as soon as I catch my breath."

"Oh, no you won't," Buffy said. "Not by yourself."

"I can handle it," Faith insisted. "Besides, this is the first break we've had. We can't let it slip away."

"No, it's too dangerous," Buffy countered. "It already gave you a run, and there could be more of them out there. You need to wait."

Faith was silent for a while. Then she let out a big sigh. "Okay," she agreed. After letting out another sigh, she said, "It's just as well anyway. Damn thing messed up my clothes. What is this? Demon slobber? Ugghh!"

Buffy and Joyce shared a laugh.

"Look, do me a favor and call Giles, will ya?" Faith asked. "Let him know the sitch? Tell him we can get with the research tomorrow now that I've seen one of these things. Maybe I can I.D. it in his dusty old books."

"I'll call him," Buffy radioed back. "We can meet at the library first thing in the morning."

There was a noticeable delay in Faith's answer. "Uh, no," she said, "actually afternoon is better for me."

"That's right. Grumpy doesn't do mornings," Buffy teased. "How about 1:00?

"Yeah, sounds good. See you then."

"Love you," Buffy said, smiling warmly.

"Love you, too," came Faith's reply.

After ending her call with Buffy and turning off her radio, Faith finally let herself groan in pain. She was lying on her back on the ground in a wooded area along the rear side of a residential area. She reached into her coat pocket and fished out a small flashlight. Grimacing, she sat up, turned on the flashlight, and shined the beam onto her body.

Although her shirt was indeed covered in what appeared to be 'demon slobber,' the right leg of her jeans was wet with her own blood. Above the knee, the jeans had been ripped, and beneath the torn denim, ragged claw marks ran down her leg.

"Damn," Faith said.

After steeling herself for the pain, she got to her feet and started limping her way to the bus station.

When Faith got near the bus station, she buttoned her borrowed coat to keep her bloody leg out of sight. Once she reached the sidewalk out front, she forced herself to walk normally. Gritting her teeth, she went inside to her locker, removed her duffel bag, and then headed for the handicapped restroom. Once she had locked the door and set down her bag, she pulled off her boots and coat and then carefully stripped off her jeans. After wiping the blood off her leg, she gave the wound a good look-over.

"Not as bad as that clawing I got a while back," she told herself, "but's probably a good thing I didn't go after that demon after all."

With a sigh, Faith dug her first aid kit out of her duffel bag and began cleaning the wound.

Meanwhile, Buffy was in the process of calling Giles. She had already called once but had gotten no answer. She shot a puzzled look at her mother as the phone continued to go unanswered.

"He's not home," Buffy said. "Huh." When the answering machine picked up, she left a message, "Hey, Giles, just checking in about Faith's patrol. She ran into that demon we've been looking for. Fought it pretty hard, but it got away. She got a good look at it, though, and wants us to do the research thing tomorrow around 1:00." She started to hang up the phone but then brought it back. "Oh, by the way, Faith's phone in her room is still out, so if you need to talk to her before then, you'll have to drop by her place. I don't recommend it, though, 'cause you know she's not a morning person." She shot a smirk at her mom before saying goodbye and hanging up.

"Faith's phone isn't working?" Joyce asked, worry on her face.

Buffy paused, unwilling to share the real reason for the phone's demise. "Yeah," she finally said, "half the stuff over there doesn't work." Anymore, she added in her mind as she thought of the demolished motel room.

"I don't like the idea of her being in that room without a phone," Joyce said. "That motel is not in a good part of town."

"I agree completely. We should get her out of that place," Buffy announced. "If only someone had an extra room..." she added in an exaggerated tone while batting her eyes at her mother.

Joyce merely rolled her eyes and gave her daughter's arm a swat. "Get to bed, young lady. You've still got some healing to do."

"Okey-dokey," Buffy chirped before heading up the stairs.

After Buffy left the room, Joyce stared off, thinking intently.

Later that night, after getting ready for bed, Joyce picked up the phone on her nightstand and called Giles's number. It rang multiple times before the answering machine picked up. She let out an impatient huff and waited for the requisite beep.

"Rupert, where are you? You need to contact that motel Faith's staying at and get them to fix her phone. It's simply unacceptable for her to be without a working phone. What if something happened? And just this morning, Faith said that the shower has hot water only about half the time. It's not right. So do something."

Joyce hung up the phone with a flair, satisfied that she had fulfilled her motherly duty to nag others into action.

Meanwhile, at the Hyatt, Giles lay naked and sated in the bed of Dr. Helen Fielding. The two were entwined in each other's arms with Helen resting her head against his shoulder.

"I'm glad you stayed," Helen said.

Distracted by his own thoughts, Giles took several seconds to answer. "What? Oh, yes, yes, I'm glad as well." He gave her a kiss on the top of her head.

Realizing that Giles was preoccupied with his slayers, Helen let out an amused snort and gave him a playful shove. "Go!" she ordered. "I know you. You won't be able to concentrate on anything else until you check on your girls."

"I'm sorry," he said sincerely. "I don't mean to be distracted, but..."

She waved away his apology. "You're a watcher through and through. I know you'll do whatever you must to see that your slayers are taken care of."

"Thank you," he said with a smile. He got out of bed and began hurriedly redressing. "I'll see you tomorrow, yes? When are you leaving for Los Angeles?"

Helen rose from the bed and walked over. "Well," she said, dragging her index finger down Giles's chest, "I was planning to leave after my morning session with Faith unless someone could persuade me to stay another night."

Giles pulled her into his arms and gave her a passionate kiss.

Helen chuckled and said, "Consider me persuaded."

When he entered his apartment, Giles headed straight for his phone, intending to call Buffy. His eyes grew worried when he saw that he had two messages. He rushed to press the play button.

His expression showed relief as he heard via Buffy's message that nothing bad had happened to Faith on patrol. When he listened to Joyce's message about the motel, however, his expression changed to irritation.

"Bloody, useless manager," Giles grumbled as he punched the delete button.

His mind took him back to Helen's earlier comment. You're a watcher through and through, she had told him. I know you'll do whatever you must to see that your slayers are taken care of.

Giles drew his shoulders back in a posture of resolve. "I'm going to give that manager a piece of my mind right now. I don't care how late it is."

At that, he was out the door.

Giles strode up to an unnumbered door around the corner from the tiny motel lobby. He banged loudly on the weather-worn wooden door. After a few seconds, an irate voice could be heard inside.

"Go away!" yelled the manager. "I'm not on duty!"

"I insist on speaking with you this instant!" Giles yelled back.

After cursing freely, the manager flung open the door. When he saw who it was, he looked nervous for a moment. Then he returned to his usual, obnoxious personality. "Oh, it's you. The British Benefactor."

"I need to speak with you. Now."

The manager glanced nervously up and down the sidewalk outside as if checking whether anyone could see them. Satisfied that no one was watching, he pulled Giles inside and shut the door.

Once inside, the manager walked to the other side of the room, shaking his hands in denial. When he turned around, he said, "Look, I don't know what that bitch told you, but I didn't touch her..."

Giles appeared confused, but the manager just kept going.

"I mean, I mighta grabbed her 'cause I was pissed about her trashin' the room, but I did not touch her. You understand what I'm sayin'?"

Giles's confusion suddenly became realization. With icy fire behind his eyes, Giles put on a bland smile and said, "Yes, I believe I understand everything now."

Just as the manager's lips began quirking into a smug smile, Giles rushed him and grabbed him by his shirt. The manager started to protest, but Giles just shoved him back until he had the pudgy man pressed against the wall.

"You didn't touch her?" Giles demanded. "You didn't touch her?! "

Giles swept his hand to the manager's crotch and applied a crushing squeeze to the man's private parts. When the manager cried out with a squeal, Giles covered the man's mouth with his other hand. Then he got right in the manager's face.

"You and I are going to have a lengthy chat," Giles told him, "and you are going to tell me everything I want to know, yes?"

The manager let out a high-pitched whine and nodded.

"Now," Giles slowly growled, "where exactly did you 'not touch' her?"

After leaving the manager whimpering on the floor of his motel room, Giles went to search for Faith. He tried the all-night diner and the donut shop, but then he remembered something from their conversation earlier in the day, before they had left for Faith's session with Dr. Fielding.

Crappy place, I know, she'd said about her motel room, but hey...better'n sleepin' at the bus station, right?

Without delay, Giles headed for Sunnydale's Greyhound terminal.

Once at the bus station, Giles wandered through the facility until he found his missing slayer. She was in the waiting area, curled up in a corner chair, using her duffel bag as a pillow.

When she heard her name being called, Faith jerked awake. She looked startled for a moment then sat up.

"Giles...hey..." she said, pasting on a fake smile. "What's up?" Seeing her watcher's grim expression, she quickly added, "I-I-I wasn't trying to run or nothing. I was just--"

Giles held up a hand to halt Faith's impending explanation and probable lie. "I know what happened at the motel," he said as he sat down beside her.

"Oh." Faith dropped her gaze to the floor. Hoping he didn't know the whole story, she decided to focus on the room trashing. "I'm sorry about the room. I--"

Giles cut her off once again. "I don't care about the room!" he replied more harshly than he meant. He took a breath and let it out, then reached out and touched her arm. "Did he hurt you?" he asked with sincere concern. "In any way?"

Faith cringed, refusing to meet Giles's eyes. He knew. God, he knew. What the manager had done to her, what he had tried to do to her, what she had nearly done to him.

"No," she answered in a small, quiet voice.

After an almost unbearable period of silence, she felt Giles remove his hand. When he didn't say anything else, she ventured a look in his direction. He sat with his elbows on his knees. With one hand, he massaged his forehead right above the bridge of his nose.

"I'm sorry," he said. "I-I-I should have gotten you into a better place. I never should have allowed you to stay there after Kakistos..."

"It's not your fault," Faith replied. "Hell, if it wasn't for you payin' the bill, I woulda been sleepin' here in the bus station all this time."

"Still..." Giles said, not willing to forgive himself. After another long moment of silence, he cleared his throat and looked her way. "I, um, I got a message from Buffy. She said that you encountered our missing demon on patrol?"

"Yeah, it was attacking somebody's dog. I tried to take it down, but I couldn't. It was a lot tougher than it looked."

"Were you hurt?" he asked worriedly.

"Nah," Faith said with a shrug. "Nothin' major, anyway."

Knowing his slayer's proclivity for underestimating her injuries, Giles raised an eyebrow at her.

"It's just a scratch," she insisted.

Deciding not to press the matter, Giles got to his feet. "Well, gather your things. You're coming home with me," he informed her.

Though secretly relieved, Faith made a show of sighing as she picked up her duffel bag. Once again willing herself not to limp, she followed Giles out to his car.

After getting Faith settled into his living room, he sat down to speak with her once more.

"I know you're a very private person," he told her, "but it concerns me that you didn't ask for help when you were evicted from the motel."

"It was my fault. Didn't think you oughta have to deal with it. That's all."

"I want to 'deal with it,' as you say. Faith, you need to realize that you have people who care about you now, people who can help and who want to help."

"Just not used to that," she mumbled embarrassedly.

"Well, get used to it," Giles told her in a lighter tone, "because you're stuck with us. Now get some rest. We'll talk more in the morning, before your appointment with Helen. sure to tell her what happened at the motel," he said as he got to his feet. "In your own way and time, of course."

Faith nodded and gave a small smile in return. "Thanks," she told him sincerely.

At that, Giles retired to the loft, leaving Faith alone in the living room. She sighed heavily and slumped back against the couch cushions.

Great, another shining moment in my life to share with my shrink, she thought ruefully. Yeah, can't wait to tell Buffy either. 'Woo-hoo, guess what, honey? You're girlfriend's so screwed up she has to see a shrink! That'll earn me brownie points with your mom, won't it?'

She growled in frustration at herself and sat back up. As her thoughts went to her next therapy session, her stomach started to churn. Although the first one had gone well, she knew that the sessions to come would be much more intense. She'd have to go places she really didn't want to go.

As unwanted images from her past began flashing in her mind, Faith closed her eyes and shook her head. She drove the memories away and then stood up. After grabbing a t-shirt and a pair of shorts from her duffel bag, she trudged off to the downstairs bathroom to shower and change her clothes for bed.

The next morning, Giles and Faith rose early, got dressed, and shared a simple breakfast of tea, toast, and jam.

Afterwards, as they walked out of the kitchen together, Giles asked nonchalantly, "Did you sleep all right?"

He knew quite well that she hadn't. Unable to sleep himself, he had heard her jolt awake at least twice that night. She hadn't woken up screaming, but she had gasped aloud as if a nightmare had frightened her from her sleep. He hadn't let on that he had heard, not wanting to cause her to feel even more self-conscious. Even now, though, it made his stomach clench to think of the memories she must have been reliving in her dreams.

"Yeah, fine," came Faith's answer.

He chose not to dispute her claim. "Excellent," he said, turning to face her. "I'm glad to hear it."

Faith nodded her head and then shoved her hands into the pockets of her jeans. " wanna talk about that demon thingee I saw last night?"

"I do indeed," Giles replied. "But...I'd like to ask you something first."


"Is it your intention to continue keeping your appointments private?" When he saw Faith's expression show alarm, he hurriedly went on. "I just wanted to know so that I can prepare an appropriate response, should anyone ask your whereabouts."

"By 'anyone' you mean Buffy," Faith challenged.

"Yes, for the most part."

When Giles simply stared at her, waiting for her reply Faith pulled her hands from her pockets and walked a few feet away. "I'll tell her, okay?" she huffed defensively. "I just don't know when yet."

"Faith...seeing a's nothing to be ashamed of."

Easy for you to say, she thought to herself. "Can we just talk demons?" she said as she turned back around. "You know, the literal kind?"

"Of course," Giles replied. "Let me get my notepad."

Meanwhile, an unhappy and poorly rested Buffy woke up in her bedroom. She'd had bad dreams about Faith all night--about her being hurt or about losing her somehow. She frowned as she recalled some of the images from her dreams. Wanting to check on her girlfriend, Buffy immediately reached over for the phone on her nightstand. She set the phone right back down, however, when she remembered that Faith's phone in her motel room no longer worked.

"Stupid phone," Buffy grumbled, poking her bottom lip out in a significant pout. Then she cocked her head and rethought her statement.

I probably shouldn't blame the phone, though. I mean, it's not the phone's fault it got smashed to smithereens. It was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Her expression saddened. It was just an innocent bystander in all this. Just collateral damage. Poor thing.

Buffy's frown returned when the ridiculousness of her thoughts finally hit her. "Oh, god, I need coffee..."

Buffy dragged herself out of bed and headed downstairs.

When Buffy entered the kitchen, she expected to find a pot of coffee already brewed and her mother in the process of making breakfast. She found neither. Her pout returned, accompanied by a whine. Then she noticed a piece of paper lying on the counter. When she picked it up, she saw that it was a note from her mother. The note read:

I went in to the gallery to get some work done.
How about a mother-daughter brunch at Sophia's?
After all the upheaval lately, we could use a little
pampering, don't you think?
Call me when you get up. -- Mom

Buffy smiled at the note. "Mmmm...Sophia's. We haven't done that in, like, forever." She picked up the phone.

A short time later, Buffy was showered and dressed for brunch. After bounding down the stairs, she stopped and glanced at her watch. "Plenty o' time to run by Faith's and visit for a while."

When Buffy arrived at Faith's motel, she found the door crossed off with fluorescent yellow caution tape. She knocked on the door several times and called out Faith's name, but there was no answer. Buffy hurried away toward the motel's main office.

As she entered the tiny lobby, she saw the manager, bruised and limping, slowly making his way back behind the front desk. She walked toward him.

"I saw my friend's room taped off," she said, pointing her thumb over her shoulder toward the front door. "Room 3? Did she move to another room?"

"Hell no!" the manager barked, his face reddening in anger. "I'm not lettin' her stay here after what she did to that room. Kicked that bitch's ass to the curb two days ago."

Buffy was too confused to take issue with the manager calling her girlfriend a bitch. "Two...? Two days ago?" she asked, completely baffled. "Well, where did she go? Where is she staying?"

"I don't know, and I don't care! So fuck off!!!" he yelled before going into his office and slamming the door.

Buffy stood there in shock for a moment. Then she rushed out of the lobby and ran straight to Giles's apartment.

After Faith had left for her session with Dr. Fielding, Giles had turned on some soothing music and settled in at his desk to sort through his mail. A banging at his door nearly caused him to fall out of his chair. When he answered the door, a very upset blonde strode right past him and into the living room.

"Have you seen Faith?" Buffy frantically asked as she turned to face her watcher. "Do you know what happened at her motel?!!"

Giles opened his mouth to speak but hesitated since he wasn't sure what Buffy knew or didn't know. It didn't matter because Buffy didn't wait for his answer anyway.

"She got kicked out! Like, two days ago! I went by there this morning and found her room all taped off, and the manager said he had kicked her out for trashing the place. But that was two days ago, and she never said a word, and now I don't know where she is!"

Giles held up his hands to calm Buffy down. "Faith is fine, I assure you. She stayed here last night."

"What?" Buffy exclaimed, looking a little betrayed. But that quickly gave way to concern, "Well, where is she now?"

He cleared his throat and spoke the lie he had prepared. "She's, um, making a quick run to where she encountered that demon last night. To see if there are any visible tracks or additional clues before our meeting this afternoon."

"Oh, okay," Buffy said, her indignation now somewhat deflated. She plopped down onto Giles's couch, and he sat beside her. " did you find out the motel thing?" she asked. "Did she just show up at your doorstep?"

"No, I'm afraid not," he answered. "I discovered it much the same way you did. When I found out what had happened, I went out looking for her."

"Where was she? Why didn't you call me?!"

"I would have called if I hadn't found her, but I did," he told her. "She was at the bus station, asleep in the waiting area."

Buffy stared off for a moment and then let out a small huff. "She didn't say anything when she went off patrol last night. I mean, I knew she had trashed her room, but I didn't know she'd been kicked out because of it. Why didn't she say anything? She could've stayed with me!"

"I don't know, but I imagine she was ashamed. You know how sensitive she is about asking for help."

"But she has help now. She doesn't have to do everything by herself."

"I know, and I reminded her of that last night. But just remember, Buffy, this is all very new to her. She's never had any kind of support, any kind of stability. She's never had a family before."

"Well, she's got one now, and I'm going to prove it to her," Buffy said, getting to her feet. "I'm gonna go find her, and we're gonna have a nice long talk about--"

Giles instantly rose and stopped the blonde from leaving. "I don't think that would be a good idea right now. I know you want to help her, but she needs to handle things in her own time. Just be patient. I'm sure she'll confide everything to you very soon."

Buffy was divided. She knew Giles was right, but she certainly didn't like it. Not one bit. Eventually she rolled her eyes and sat back down. After Giles also returned to his seat, she asked, "So is Faith gonna be staying here now?"

"For the time being. Until I can arrange for a room at another establishment. Hopefully one that isn't so..."

"...sleazy?" Buffy supplied.

"Quite," Giles said. "I suppose it was all she could afford when she first arrived in Sunnydale. I've assured her that we'll find a more suitable place of lodging."

"In the meantime," Buffy added, "I'm gonna start working on my mom. We have an extra bedroom. I don't see why--"

"Just tread very carefully, Buffy," Giles interjected. "For your mother's sake and Faith's."

Buffy let that sink in then nodded solemnly. When her eye caught the clock, she stood up. "I gotta go. I'm meeting Mom for brunch, but I'll see you at 1:00 at the library?"

"Yes, of course. Give your mother my best."

"I will."

At that, Buffy headed for the door.

Meanwhile, Faith was in the hotel restaurant with Dr. Fielding. Having completed her morning session, the dark slayer was now enjoying the Sunday brunch buffet, courtesy of her psychiatrist. And, much to chagrin of the restaurant's host, Faith wasn't holding back. Currently on her third round, Faith had one plate heaped high with eggs, fried potatoes, and biscuits as well as bacon, ham, and sausage, while a second held a Belgian waffle smothered in syrup and melted butter.

Having finished the main portion of her own meal, Helen now had a generous helping of strawberry cheesecake before her. As she sipped her tea and nibbled at her dessert, she watched with amusement as Faith enthusiastically consumed the feast in front of her.

Good lord, the doctor thought. I knew slayers could eat a large amount, but this is incredible. I've never seen the like. Thank goodness it's a one-price, all-you-can-eat. If I had to pay by the pound, she'd bankrupt me.

"Didn't think I'd feel like eatin' after all that talkin'," Faith commented, "but this is good stuff. Thanks!"

"I wanted us to close on a positive note," Helen said. "And food always gets a plus sign in my book."

"Mine too," Faith agreed. "Especially when it's this good. Don't ever get food this good 'cept when Buffy's mom cooks."

"She's a good cook?"

"Oh yeah! Real good." Faith snickered a little. "Doesn't look like Buffy inherited any of her cooking genes, though."


Faith shook her head. "Nope. She's about as useless in the kitchen as I am. Us slayers...we're made for throwing knives, not chopping up onions with 'em, ya know?"

Genuinely curious, Helen leaned forward and said, "Tell me what you like about Buffy, what you love about her."

Faith lowered her fork and finished chewing. "Well, she's hot, for one thing," she stated with a smirk, earning an eye roll from Helen. Faith gazed off in thought for a moment. "She's got eyes you can dive right into. I don't think she has a clue how sexy she is." After thinking a bit more, she said, "She makes me laugh. She is so damn funny. And she can totally kick ass as a slayer. She may look all petite and helpless, but she's not. She's amazing."

Helen grew a bit serious and asked gently, "What else?"

Faith shrugged and picked at her food for a while. "I don't know how to explain it, but...when she looks at me, she sees me. She sees the real me, but she doesn't..."

As Faith trailed off, Helen teasingly filled in the blanks. " away screaming into the night?"

Faith snorted a laugh. "Basically, yeah."

A short time later, Buffy entered the Hyatt and walked through the cavernous, atrium-like lobby to the back, where the hotel's main restaurant, Sophia's, was located. She was early, so she chose to wait outside the restaurant rather than go inside.

A good portion of the restaurant's seating area jutted into the open air of the lobby; decorative rails, planters, and trellises marked the perimeter. On the near side of the boundary lay several clusters of leather chairs and sofas. To the right of this area was the alcove containing the elevators.

Wanting to keep an eye out for her mother, Buffy headed for a sofa that was backed against a trellis that served as the corner of the restaurant's border. She plopped down, picked up a magazine that was lying on the coffee table, and started leafing through it.

After a few moments, Buffy heard her name being called out. She looked up, expecting to see her mother, but it wasn't Joyce who had spoken. She was surprised to find that it was Faith.

Just as surprised as her girlfriend, Faith couldn't do anything but repeat herself. "Buffy?"

Buffy stood up to answer the greeting and then noticed that another person was present--a woman she didn't recognize. "Hey...uh...hey."

"What are you doing here?" Faith asked.

"I'm, um, I'm meeting my mom," Buffy answered. She cocked her thumb over her shoulder toward the restaurant. "We're gonna do the Sunday brunch thing." Her eyes briefly darted to the mystery woman and then back to Faith. "What are you doing here?"

"Uhhh, same thing. Basically," Faith said, somewhat flustered. " 'Cept not with my mom. Obviously. Since she' know...dead and everything." She made an inner groan and gave herself a good mental kicking. God, I sound like a total idiot.

When Buffy's gaze fell on her again, Helen stepped forward and stuck out her hand. "I'm Helen," she introduced. "I'm an old friend of Mr. Giles, in town for the weekend."

"Oh," Buffy commented in surprise as she shook Helen's hand. "I'm Buffy, Buffy Summers. I-I-It's nice to meet you. I-I-I didn't know you were going to be here. In town, I mean. Giles didn't say anything about it." She instantly waved her hand in the air to correct her words. "Not that he has to. I mean, he's a grownup. H-H-He can have visitors any time he wants. It's not like I have to know about it, right?" Holy imbecile, Batman, could I sound any more moronic?

Helen made no adverse reaction to Buffy's babbling; instead, she merely excused herself with an apology. "I'm sorry to rush off," she told the two slayers, "but I have an important call to make in my room. I enjoyed your company at brunch, Faith. And, Buffy, it was very nice to meet you." At that, Helen strode away toward the elevators, smiling to herself about serendipity.

After Helen had left, Buffy and Faith found themselves in a highly awkward position. Buffy knew there was more to this Helen story, but she didn't know how or whether to ask. And Faith knew that Buffy knew, but she didn't have a clue about how to start explaining it all to her. As the seconds of silence ticked by, both slayers just rocked on their feet, wrung their hands, and glanced at anything but each other. It was Buffy who finally bit the bullet and spoke up.

"So, I, um, I thought you were out patrolling. You know, checking out that demon spot during the daylight hours. At least that's what Giles told me."

For a moment, Faith considered lying, but then she decided against it. "I wasn't patrolling," she admitted. "I was here. He only said that 'cause I asked him not to say anything about me coming over here."

"Oh...okay," Buffy said, although still confused. When her girlfriend didn't elaborate, Buffy felt compelled to press the issue. "Faith, what's going on? This is really wiggin' me out, and I don't even know why. Who is that woman, and why are you meeting with her, and why are you and Giles keeping her a secret?"

Faith sighed and then gestured at the sofa. "Let's sit down. I don't think I can have this conversation standing up."

As the two sat down on the sofa, Faith felt a streak of pain in her injured leg. She grimaced in response, which Buffy instantly noticed.

"Are you hurt?" Buffy asked. Then her tone became accusing. "Did you get hurt last night and not tell me?! God, Faith! What else are you keeping from me? Being kicked out of the motel...then getting hurt...then whatever it is you're doing with that woman!"

"You know about the motel?" Faith looked worried.

Buffy nodded. "I went by there this morning. The manager filled me in. Quite colorfully, I might add." She reached out and took her girlfriend's hand in hers. "Why didn't you tell me? You could've stayed with me."

Faith's expression scrunched into a small wince. "I'm on thin ice already with your mom..."

"She would've understood. Especially if we'd known you were hurt!"

"It wasn't bad," Faith insisted, pulling out of Buffy's grasp. "It's not like it needed stitches or anything."

"That's beside the point," Buffy countered curtly.

"What is the point, then?" Faith shot back.

Buffy took a calming breath and let it out. Then she met Faith's eyes. "The point is that I love you, and I wanna know when you're hurting, when you're going through something."

"Like you let me know when the whole Angel thing was going down?"

Buffy glanced away in pain and shame.

Faith immediately apologized. "Sorry. That was a low blow."

"Not that low," Buffy admitted. "But it seems like you're trying to get me back with triple the secrecy."

"I know," Faith said. "But I did tell you the truth yesterday. I said I didn't wanna tell you yet 'cause I didn't wanna jinx things."

"Things with this Helen person, you mean?"

"Yeah. I was gonna tell you about her, I swear. Just as soon as I knew it was working."

Buffy shook her head in confusion. "It?"

Faith sighed, resigned to telling Buffy everything. "Her name's Dr. Fielding, and she really is an old friend of Giles's. She used to work for the Council, but now she works at UCLA. She, um..." The dark slayer ducked her head in shame. "...she's a shrink."

Buffy's eyes widened. "A shrink? As in psychiatrist?"

Faith nodded ruefully but still didn't raise her head. "I'm fucked up, Buffy. You just don't realize how much and how bad."

"No, you're not," Buffy insisted. "You're--"

Faith held up her hands to stop Buffy's objection. "And don't give me your 'we all are' speech again, okay? As sweet as it was, it didn't really tell the whole truth, did it?"

Buffy looked on with sympathy but didn't speak.

"The truth is, " Faith continued, "some of the 'walking wounded' are a lot more wounded than others. Some of 'em have been ripped apart so much they're hardly worth saving. They're like...pit bulls, you know? That've been trained to fight? They get beat down so much till hurtin' and fightin's all they know."

Buffy reached out and put her hand on Faith's arm. "You're not like that, Faith. You're not."

"I am," Faith insisted, pulling away again. "You think this thing with Angel's the first time I went berserk-o-violent? It's not. When the Council found me in Boston, when I was still a potential, I was in a mental hospital at the time." She let out a breath and then leaned over, resting her forearms against her knees. "I attacked somebody," she explained. "Just yanked him outta his car and bashed his head against the curb over and over. I didn't even know the guy. There were others before that, but that one...that one got me locked away."

Buffy was momentarily struck dumb. How was she supposed to respond to such a confession?

"So I guess the cat's outta the bag," Faith went on sadly. "Your girlfriend's a certified psycho. Literally."

Faith held her breath and waited for Buffy to react. But Buffy only remained silent as she continued to process the information Faith had shared. The longer it took for Buffy to respond, though, the more Faith's fears assailed her. Luckily, when Buffy finally did reply, it wasn't what Faith expected.

"I guess it takes one to know one."

Faith's head shot up in confusion. "What?"

"Wanna know what I did on my summer vacation before moving to Sunnydale?" Buffy asked and then answered. "Oh, I spent a lovely series of weeks at Spa Lunacy, courtesy of my parents."

"No way!"

"Wayyyy," Buffy replied. "After I became the slayer and blew up the school gym and ran away to Las Vegas, my parents thought I was losing my mind--can't imagine why--so they had me committed. I wasn't crazy, but...I was pretty messed up...for a lot of different reasons. So, what I'm trying to say is...if you're 'certified', then I am, too, and you know what? I don't care."

Faith smiled for a second, but then she said solemnly, "I care. If we're gonna have any kinda chance, then I can't be like that. But the problem is...I don't know how to not be like that. That's why I asked Giles to get me a shrink."

"You asked? I just figured Giles must've suggested it..."

"No, I did."

Buffy thought for a moment and then asked, "When?"

Faith glanced away for a few seconds; then she turned back and answered. "The morning after you stayed with me at the motel."

Buffy thought back to how they had woken up that morning--with Faith screaming and shaking, so rattled that she couldn't even speak. "It was that nightmare, wasn't it? It was about us?"

Faith nodded. Then she said, "It wasn't just that, though. It was everything that had happened. I had to make sure it never happened again. And if that means I gotta sit through sixteen hundred hours of ink blots, then I'll do it. I love you, B, I really do."

"I love you, too," Buffy said before pulling Faith into a fierce hug.

A few minutes later, Joyce arrived at the hotel and made her way to the sitting area beside Sophia's. It didn't take her long to spot her daughter, but she was surprised to find that Buffy wasn't alone.

When Buffy saw her mother walk up, she smiled and stood up. "Hey, Mom!" she said cheerfully before pointing at Faith. "Look who I found."

"Hello, Faith," Joyce greeted amiably.

Faith gave a small wave and got to her feet. "Hey, Mrs. S."

"Have you recovered from last night's excitement?" Joyce asked.

"Oh yeah, totally," Faith replied. When Buffy slightly cleared her throat, Faith amended her description. "Mostly."

"Good, I'm glad you're okay." Joyce then pointed out the restaurant. "We're about to head into Sophia's for the brunch buffet. Would you like to join us?"

"Oh, um...nah," Faith answered, waving her hand nonchalantly. "I just ate, actually. Totally stuffed my face."

"You could come sit with us," Buffy suggested. "You know, while we stuff our faces." She looked to her mom for confirmation.

In invitation, Joyce tilted her head toward the entrance. "Come on, let's go."

When the three women got to the host's desk, the dour older man scowled when he saw Faith in their party.

Faith raised her hands in defense. "I'm not eatin' this time, I swear."

"She's just going to keep us company," Joyce told the host.

"Very well," he grumbled. He pointedly grabbed only two napkin-wrapped sets of silverware and then nodded his head to indicate that they should follow him. "Girl eats more than a football team," he muttered under his breath as he led them toward their table.

Having overheard the host's muttered comment, Buffy snickered and gave Faith an elbow nudge.

Faith smirked and nudged back. "Hey, I'm a growing slayer," she defended.

An hour of so later, Buffy and her mother trudged slowly out of Sophia's with Faith following behind.

"Mmm," Buffy said, smiling and gently patting her stomach. "I love all-you-can-eat."

"Me too," Joyce added without the smile. "Until the end of the meal when I'm miserable."

As the three slowly made their way toward the hotel's main entrance, they passed through a sitting area where a large television was built into the wall. The TV was currently showing a local news program. Something about the program caught Buffy's eye. She stopped and looked, causing Faith and Joyce to do the same.

Together they read the banner beneath the reporter: "Breaking News: Mutilated Human Body Found at Kingman's Park."

Turning to each other, the two slayers exchanged grim and worried looks.

Part 18A

Buffy, Faith, and Joyce were riveted to the spot before the large television in the lobby of the Hyatt. As the news anchor reported the breaking story about the human body found at Kingman's Park, the three women watched and listened intently.

After a moment, Joyce patted her daughter's shoulder and said, "I'll pull the car around."

"Okay," Buffy replied, not moving her eyes from the television.

When the anchor eventually moved on to another story, the two slayers turned away, shaking their heads at the news.

"Damn it!" Faith complained. "I knew I shoulda gone after that demon last night!" She put her hands on her hips and paced.

"No," Buffy countered. "You were hurt, and you didn't have any idea what kind of demon you were dealing with or how many there were or anything. Faith...this was not your fault."

"Okay, well it's your fault then! You're the one who talked me outta going after that thing. Maybe if you hadn't done that, that guy wouldn't be dead."

Buffy frowned in pain and retreated a step. "That's not fair."

When she saw Buffy's hurt expression, Faith immediately regretted her words. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry," she said, closing the space between them. "I-I-I shouldn'ta said that. I just...I feel we shoulda stopped this already."

Buffy nodded her acceptance of the apology then took Faith's hands in hers. "We'll stop it now. Okay?" When Faith nodded back, Buffy turned toward the exit. "Come on, let's go. It's almost 1:00."

At that, the two slayers headed out of the hotel to meet Joyce at the car.

When Buffy, Faith, and Joyce arrived at the school library, they found Willow and Oz setting out books to be used for research and Giles laying out photocopies of the sketch he had made based on Faith's description of the demon she encountered.

Buffy glanced around the library but didn't see anyone else there. "Xander's not here?" she asked tentatively, a bit of sadness in her eyes.

"No," Willow answered. "I called and left a message, but..." She trailed off and shrugged.

"Must be at home still poutin', huh?" Faith said.

"Probably so," Willow replied ruefully.

"Figures," Faith commented before following Joyce over to the tables to see what Oz and Giles had laid out.

Buffy dropped her gaze to her hands, knotting her fingers for a moment before looking back up at Willow. "It feels weird not having him here. I'm not happy about what he did, feels weird."

"Don't worry," Willow told her. "He'll come around. You'll see."

Meanwhile, Giles was greeting Buffy's mom. "Joyce, I'm surprised to see you here."

"I thought I'd lend a hand since things just got a whole lot more serious." When Giles's expression became puzzled, Joyce called out to her daughter, "Tell him what we saw, Buffy."

Once everyone had gathered around a table and sat down, Buffy described what they had seen on the television at the Hyatt. "The reporter said that the victim was male, in his twenties probably. He said that an unnamed source at the police department had described the attack as a 'Jack the Ripper slice up,' complete with organ removal."

"Did it appear to be an animal attack?" Giles asked. "Or do they suspect murder?"

"The news didn't say," Buffy replied, "but it was pretty gruesome, apparently."

"Think it's connected to the animal mutilations?" Oz asked the watcher.

"I have no idea," Giles said. "Not without more information, at any rate."

Willow got up, moved to the computer station, and started logging on. "I can hack into the coroner's office and the police department, get the autopsy report and crime scene photos."

"That would be most helpful," Giles said.

"Well, while she's doing that," Faith said as she got to her feet, "I can go take a look around Kingman's Park, maybe backtrack to where I saw that demon over in Glenwood."

When Faith headed straight for the book cage where the weapons were stored, Buffy got up and followed right behind her.

Oz held up the photocopies of the pencil sketch and said to Giles and Joyce, "I guess that leaves the book work to us." The three divvied up the demon books and started sifting through the pages.

At the book cage, Buffy didn't say a word. She merely mirrored Faith's actions of selecting weapons.

"Where do you think you’re going?" Faith asked, turning to confront her girlfriend.

Buffy turned toward Faith and put her hands on her hips in a determined stance. "Where you’re going," she replied resolutely.

"I don’t think so," Faith emphasized, making an obvious stare at Buffy's stomach, which was still healing from the accidental staking Faith had given her three days earlier.

"I'm almost healed. You're not," Buffy shot back, giving Faith a light poke in the thigh she had wounded the night before.

Faith winced in pain then made a reluctant growl of agreement. After they had both selected their weapons, she handed a walkie-talkie to Buffy. "We'll have to use the old radios. I didn't bring my new one back."

"Me either," Buffy said. "The rest of the set's at the house."

Faith snapped another on her belt and then grabbed a third radio. Now armed and dangerous, they headed back to the group. Faith handed the third radio to Giles.

"We're heading over to the crime scene," Faith informed him.

" 'We'? " Joyce questioned, raising an eyebrow in her daughter's direction.

"Yes, 'we'," Buffy told her. "But it's strictly surveillance."

"We'll look for tracks, see if they lead anywhere," Faith said. "Then we'll check back in here."

After a nod of approval from Giles and a "be careful" from Joyce, Buffy and Faith left the library.

As Buffy and Faith moved toward the wooded area described on the news report, they passed a gravel road that led up a steep hill. The sign at the turn read, "Kingman's Bluff." The two slayers stopped and solemnly looked up the hill where Buffy had almost taken her own life while under the guilt curse.

"A lot's happened since we were up on that bluff," Faith commented.

"Yeah, seems like ages ago," Buffy added.

After a long moment of silence, Faith turned to Buffy and said, "I don't think I've ever been as scared as I was when I ran up that hill looking for you. I was so afraid I'd be too late."

"You weren't," Buffy gushed with a love-struck smile. "You were right on time." Then she gave Faith a warm and passionate kiss, which Faith eagerly returned. When they pulled apart, Buffy snickered and said, "And the looks on their faces when they found us kissing...God, that was priceless!"

Faith joined Buffy in chuckling. "It sure was. Giles and Red all huffy and puffy 'cause they were outta the loop...Xander totally gettin' woody on us..."

The two laughed for a while until Buffy sobered, her thoughts drawn once again to the rift between herself and Xander. "Willow says he'll come around eventually. Do you think he will?"

"He will," Faith affirmed. "Once he gets over himself and admits he screwed up. But it might take a while. You just gotta give him his space till then."

Buffy nodded, and then the two of them continued on their way.

A short time later, Buffy and Faith came to the crest of a hill about fifty yards from the edge of the large wooded area where the body had been found. In the graveled flat at the base of the woods were several police cars, a television news van, plus a small crowd of curious onlookers and their vehicles. The Sunnydale PD had run yellow crime scene tape across the entire front of the wooded area and had placed police officers on both sides of the start of the trail that led across a small meadow and then into the woods.

"Shoot!" Buffy said. "We really need to get in there."

"We could hit the canyon, climb up the side, and come in the back side of the woods," Faith suggested.

Buffy shook her head. "It would take too long--climbing the canyon wall then wandering around till we found the site."

Faith surveyed the scene again then pointed to the other side of the flat. "Look, see that line of boulders? It goes almost all the way to the woods. I bet we can sneak in there."

Buffy smiled and said, "Let's go!"

The two slayers made a wide sweep around the flat and around all of the vehicles. Then they carefully crept behind the line of boulders until they came to its end. It was at least another twenty yards across the meadow and to the woods--all on open ground where anyone could see them. They peeked over the boulders.

A female reporter from the news van was set up right in front of a cluster of police vehicles. With the woods in the frame behind her, the reporter was dramatically reciting her story for her cameraman. Nearby, the police kept the gawkers at bay. Buffy and Faith ducked behind the boulders again.

"How's your leg?" Buffy asked.

"Good enough," Faith replied, "but we need a distraction."

Buffy thought a moment then picked up a baseball-sized rock. "How's your pitching arm?" she asked as she held it up.

A huge grin spread over Faith's face. "Like the Rocket's," she replied.

They each gathered three rocks and then got into position. "You take the camera and the news van, I'll take the police cars. And don't hit anybody."

"How come you get the police cars?" Faith complained good-naturedly.

"Fine," Buffy said, rolling her eyes indulgently. "You take the police cars."

"Sweet!" Faith said as they swapped places.

They did a silent count to three then shot up and let the first rocks fly. Buffy's knocked the video recorder right out of the camera man's hands while Faith's demolished the flashing lights of a police cruiser. As people screamed and ducked for cover, the two slayers rained down two more rocks each, shattering the side windows of several more vehicles and setting off at least one car alarm. Then they took off for the trees at slayer speed.

Once they had crossed the meadow and were safely in the woods, they looked back at the chaos they had caused. No one was pointing in their direction; no one had any idea they'd even been there. After giving each other a smile and a thumbs-up, the two slayers crept deeper into the forest.

A short time later, Buffy and Faith finally made it to the actual crime scene. It was a small circular clearing in the woods where the ground was sandy and rocky. The perimeter was cordoned off with more yellow tape, but the slayers paid it no mind as they ducked underneath it and entered the area.

Once inside the clearing, they could see arcane symbols painted in blood on the boulders that dotted the perimeter. In the center was a large flat rock that appeared to have been used as a sacrificial altar; its surface was stained with blood.

Faith frowned at the sight. "Guess this is where the guy bought it."

"Yeah," Buffy sadly added. She let out a breath and turned her attention to the ground that encircled the altar. "Looks like the police and the crime scene folks did a good job of trampling any tracks that might've been left behind."

"Let's fan out," Faith suggested.

Little by little the slayers widened their circle of examination, working on opposite sides, until they reached the outer edges of the clearing. It was then that they started noticing the signs of tracks in the dirt--dog-like tracks, only bigger.

"I got something," Faith called out.

"Me too," Buffy answered.

"Make that two somethings, no, three," Faith corrected. "Multiple trails leading off in different directions."

"I got at least that many on this side, too."

They turned and glanced at each other, puzzled looks on their faces.

"Let's check in," Buffy suggested. "Maybe they got something for us." As Faith crossed the clearing and met her in the center, Buffy keyed her radio. "Giles? Are you there?"

"Yes, I'm here," Giles answered.

"We made it to the scene," Buffy reported. "It looks like some kind of ritual sacrifice took place here. There's a stone altar covered in blood, and there's these strange symbols painted on the rocks around the altar."

"Painted in blood," Faith added into Buffy's radio.

"What do they look like?" Giles asked.

Buffy scrunched her face up as she tried to decipher the designs. "They're kinda hard to describe--very slashy and swirly and...well, drippy."

"I'm sure they'll be in the crime scene photos," Giles said. "Willow's downloading them now, she said. We'll see what we can make of them."

"We also got multiple trails leading away from the scene," Faith told him. "Maybe made by one or more of those hound things I saw. We're gonna check those out."

"Do not engage these creatures," Giles ordered. "Not until we know more. Just track and locate if possible. I don't want you girls getting in over your heads."

"Roger that, Giles," Buffy said. "We'll let you know what we find."

After clipping her radio back on her belt, Buffy followed Faith to the nearest trail, where they started tracking.

Unfortunately, the various trails in the woods went around in circles, crisscrossing one another, ultimately leading nowhere. After once again being led back to the crime scene, they both stopped and huffed in frustration.

"This is really startin' to piss me off," Faith complained.

"How many do you think there are?" Buffy asked.

Faith glanced around. "This many tracks...ten or so? Hell, I don't know."

Buffy shook her head worriedly. "Just the one gave you a hard fight. I'm not looking forward to running into a whole football team of them."

"First we gotta find 'em," Faith reminded her.

"Hmmm..." Buffy mused. "They went to a lot of trouble to hide their real trail. Why?"

Faith smiled, catching Buffy's drift. " 'Cause they're close," she said.

"Okay, so forget the trails," Buffy said. "If we were demons up to no good, where would we go? What's close?"

Faith thought a moment then snapped her fingers. "There's a cave near the bluff. Or at least I think there is. I found this opening one night when I was patrolling, but I never got around to exploring it. It might just be a hole in the rock, but if not, then it could lead under the bluff itself."

Buffy's face lit into a smile. "That's it. It's gotta be."

At that the two took off for Kingman's Bluff.

Once they returned to Kingman's Bluff, Faith led them down a steep path to a ledge that jutted out from the canyon wall. The ledge was lined with tufts of desert scrub growing out of various cracks and crevices in the rock. When they got to a particularly tall and dense concentration of the brush, Faith pushed it aside and revealed a large opening in the face of the cliff.

"Here it is," she announced.

Buffy examined the opening, then reached over and pulled something from the branches Faith was holding back. It was a clump of what looked like dog hair.

"By George, I think she's got it!" Buffy teased. "When did you find this place?" she asked nonchalantly while shaking the clump of hair off her fingers. "You never mentioned it to me."

Faith's entire expression changed--a split second of panic followed by intense guilt. Then she looked away without answering.

"Faith?" Buffy prompted, now concerned.

"I-I-It was that week after we kissed...that first time," Faith finally said, reluctantly meeting Buffy's eyes. "After I freaked and ran."

"Oh." Buffy dropped her gaze for a moment, remembering how Faith's abrupt departure had left her in emotional agony. She looked back up when Faith went on.

"I musta patrolled non-stop for three days straight after that," Faith admitted. "I couldn't stop thinkin' about what I'd done, how I'd fucked everything up. I thought if I just focused on slayin' and nothing else, maybe I could make my brain shut up. But it didn't work."

"I know what you mean," Buffy said sympathetically. "After the Angel thing...when I woke up in the hospital, all I could think about was how much I'd hurt you. I kept replaying it all in my mind, over and over, wishing I'd done things differently."

After a long moment of silence, Faith smiled and tugged Buffy to her. "But hey...all that bad stuff's over now. Nothin' but the good from here on out, right?"

Buffy smiled back. "Nothing but the good," she affirmed as the two slayers indulged in another lengthy kiss.

When they separated, Faith nodded her head toward the opening in the rock. "Wanna check it out?"

Buffy considered it and then said, "Yeah, but only to make sure it really is a cave. After that, let's head back."

After nodding in agreement, they drew their daggers, and then Faith led the way through the opening in the rock.

The interior was musty and dark, illuminated only by the light filtering through the brush-covered opening. The slayers paused and allowed their eyes to adjust to the darkness.

After a moment they could see that they were in a tunnel of some kind. Ahead they could make out another entrance--or at least a turn in the tunnel. They didn't know what it led to, but they could see a dim light emanating from what was beyond.

"Is your spidey sense goin' off?" Faith asked nervously.

"Big time," Buffy answered.

"Think we should go in?"

Buffy shook her head. "The sun'll be setting soon, and I'd really rather know exactly what we're going up against before we head in there."

"Good idea."

"Come on, let's head back to the library and see what Team Research has come up with."

"Let's run by your house and get the new radios," Faith suggested. Buffy nodded in reply.

As the two slayers eased out of the cave and onto the canyon ledge, Buffy said, "Feels good to be back to the joint-slaying, doesn't it?"

"Oh yeah!" Faith heartily agreed. "The Chosen Two are totally gonna kick some demon ass tonight."

After a quick high-five, the slayers made their way back up the canyon wall.

When Buffy and Faith arrived at the library, they found the others still researching. As Faith went straight to the weapons cabinet to return the old radios, Buffy headed straight for the study tables and set down the large box that contained the new radio system Giles had purchased.

"Whatcha got for us, guys?" she asked.

"A possible name for our perpetrator," Giles answered.

He held out a book written in Latin that contained a crude woodcut of what looked like an emaciated, nearly skeletal figure. Though its shape was basically humanoid, its head and hands were clearly demonic. Buffy made a disgusted face as she looked at the print.

"The Vorator Animae," he told her.

Buffy glanced up from the picture, tilted her head, and gave Giles a look. "English, please."

" 'Soul-Eater'," he replied.

"Oh, boy, he sounds like a fun one," Faith quipped as she arrived at Buffy's side.

"Depends on your notion of 'fun'," Willow said. "This one likes to drain your blood till you're dead, then carve your organs out of your body. Presumably for consumption, possibly for ritual purposes, or both."

"But what's the connection between this soul-eater guy and that hell hound thing I fought last night?" Faith asked.

"This type of demon usually has a pack with him," Oz answered.

"Yes, the Lupi Inferni," Willow added.

Buffy scrunched her nose in confusion. "The loopy what?"

"Lupi Inferni," Willow explained. "It's Latin for 'wolves from hell.' We figure they're the ones responsible for the animal attacks."

"So they're like hell hounds?" Faith pressed for more information.

"Yes, only bigger, badder, and harder to kill," Oz supplied.

"Yippee," Buffy said unenthusiastically. Then she took in a determined breath and let it out. " we've got a pack of mutant-sized hell hounds and a beast master who likes to eat humans. Gimme the details: What can they do, and how can we kill them?"

"Well, the good news is that the hell-wolves can be killed just like any other animal," Willow explained. "But stabbing is best-- long-distance stabbing if possible. You really don't want these things getting too close to you. Their teeth and claws are extremely sharp."

"Tell me about it," Faith grumbled.

"What's the bad news?" Buffy asked.

"The Soul-Eater can be killed in only one way--with his own scia fulminis," Giles answered. When he saw Buffy starting to roll her eyes at yet another Latin phrase, he quickly translated, "His 'dagger of lightning'."

Buffy grimaced. "Please tell me that's figurative and not literal."

"Sorry, no can do," Willow said before showing the slayers another woodcut, one in which the Soul-Eater was brandishing what appeared to be a lightning-struck short sword.

"This just keeps gettin' better 'n better," Faith commented darkly as Buffy sighed and let her shoulders slump.

After a few moments of somber silence, Giles asked, "Were you able to locate the demons in question?"

Buffy brightened at that. "Yeah, we think so. We tracked the hell-hound-y things to a cave in the bluff. We think it leads directly under the woods where the Soul-Eater did his sacrifice."

"I say we hit the place tonight," Faith urged. "Before that soul-sucker can kill somebody else. I mean...he's just gonna keep on killing until we stop him, right? This wasn't just a one-time thing?"

"He'd definitely be a repeat offender," Oz said.

"Then let's saddle up," said a voice from the other side of the room.

When everyone turned, they saw Xander standing beside the checkout desk. He had a duffel bag slung over his shoulder. Cordelia was with him.

"Xander..." Buffy said, a bit flustered. "I-I-I didn't think you were coming."

"I'm still a Scooby," he said defensively, "and if there are demons to fight, then I'm there. So what's the skinny?"

As Giles began to summarize the situation for Xander, Buffy and Willow locked eyes and traded smiles. "Told you," the redhead mouthed silently.

"See?" Faith said, giving Buffy a light elbow nudge in the ribs. "Nothin' but the good from here on out." Buffy's smile grew wider.

Joyce joined the slayers and pulled them both into a hug. "You two be careful. I mean it."

"We will," Buffy promised.

"We got it covered, Mrs. S," Faith added.

Smiling, Joyce released the slayers and told them, "I'm going to see if Rupert needs me to do anything else."

When all the planning was done, the group packed radios, weapons, flashlights, and other gear, and divided up for transport. Faith, Buffy, and Giles went with Joyce in her SUV. Willow, Xander, and Cordelia rode with Oz in his van. Within a few minutes, the two vehicles pulled onto the gravel top of Kingman's Bluff and came to a stop.

Once they had unloaded their gear, the Scoobies began making their final preparations. As Cordelia set up the base radio in the SUV, Joyce handed out the individual units with headsets to those who would be entering the cave--Buffy, Faith, Giles, Xander, Willow, and Oz. Joyce and Cordelia would remain at the SUV and monitor the team over the base unit.

After getting radioed up, the team of six grabbed flashlights and other gear, then started choosing weapons. Willow snapped around her waist a hip pack of magic supplies. Giles attached a similar pouch around his waist; then he selected a short sword in a scabbard that he could clip onto his belt. Oz donned a small backpack containing a first aid kit and some bottles of water, then took up two spears--one for himself and one for Willow. Xander claimed a shiny but deadly broadsword.

Buffy and Faith stuck their daggers into their belts, tucked a few throwing knives into their back pockets, and then swung crossbows over their shoulders. When they both went for the same battle axe, Faith snatched it up before Buffy could even touch it.

"Hey!" Buffy objected.

"First touch, first have," Faith teased.

Buffy made a loud sniffle and said as sadly as possible, "I guess I'll just have to settle for this little bitty stake..." When Faith turned to look at her, the blonde held up the wooden weapon and put on a melodramatic pout.

Faith sighed, rolled her eyes, and tried not to grin. "Gimme that," she growled, handing over the battle axe for the stake.

As Faith put the stake in her jacket and grabbed a spear instead, Buffy laughed and said, "I'm getting you back for the cop cars."

"Yeah, yeah..." Faith said.

"What the hell?!!" they suddenly heard someone exclaim. When they turned around, they saw that it was Xander confronting Angel.

The eyes of both slayers widened in surprise. Within seconds, though, Faith's expression tightened into a scowl while Buffy's furrowed into disbelief. When Buffy saw Xander step menacingly toward Angel, she hurried over with Faith right on her heels.

"Angel, what are you doing here?" Buffy asked, stepping between him and Xander.

"I heard about the murder," Angel replied. "Thought I'd check things out. Maybe help out."

"Well, thanks for the thought, but we got this," Faith told him dismissively. "We don't need your help."

"If this is what I think it is," Angel went on, "then you're going to need all the help you can get."

"You know about the Soul-Eater?" Willow asked as she arrived on the scene with the others.

"I know they're tough to bring down," Angel answered. "Especially when they've got their pack with them." He looked back at Buffy. "You need another set of hands here."

Xander made a loud huff of disgust. "See? I told you he would never leave! He's always gonna have some kind of excuse to be near Buffy."

"Please be quiet, Xander. Now is not the time," Giles chastised before addressing Angel. "What do you know about the Vorator Animae?"

"Just what I've heard here and there," Angel answered.

Xander huffed again. "He doesn't even know anything!"

"I don't have to know anything to be able to fight," the vampire snapped back.

"Look, man," Faith told Angel pointedly, "you're nowhere near a hundred percent. You're fifty at best. You won't be any good to us in a fight."

"More like seventy," Angel insisted. "I'm good enough."

"And he's a vampire," Willow interjected, taking the side of safety and practicality. "His seventy percent is way more than my hundred. Physically, I mean."

"That's true," Oz had to admit.

For a full minute, no one else spoke. Most of the group looked back and forth between Giles and Buffy, waiting to see who would settle the issue. Giles, though, put the ball into Buffy's court, giving her a nod to let her know that it was her decision. Buffy nodded back and then turned to Faith.

She reached out and gently touched her girlfriend's arm. "Faith, I know this is awkward, but...he's already here, and honestly, we're not a hundred percent either, so I'd feel safer having an extra man on the team. This could be big. It wouldn't be smart to refuse his help."

As Faith glanced away to think, Xander just grumbled to himself, "Typical..."

Buffy cut annoyed eyes in Xander's direction but then quickly brought her gaze back to Faith. She waited anxiously while the dark slayer considered her request. After a seemingly eternal ten seconds, Faith finally looked back.

"Fine," she replied, gritting her teeth. She pulled the stake from her jacket and slapped it flat on its side against Angel's chest. "Try not to impale yourself." Then she stalked off toward the bluff.

Xander did the same, followed by Willow, Oz, and Giles. When Joyce and Cordelia retreated to the SUV, Buffy and Angel were left alone.

When Angel started to head for the bluff as well, Buffy stepped in front of him. "This has to be the last time, Angel," she told him. "If you're good enough to fight, you're good enough to leave."

"Fine," Angel growled before moving around her to head toward the bluff.

"Fine," Buffy shot back in similar tone. Suddenly she remembered what Faith had told her the night before--that Angel had promised to hunt Faith down if she ever caused Buffy any harm. Buffy's eyes narrowed grimly before she dashed off to catch up to her ex.

When Angel was almost to the path that led down the cliff, Buffy stepped in front of him again. This time she put her hand on his chest and pushed him back until he stopped and looked her in the eyes. "And by the way," she told him in a fierce promise, "if you ever threaten Faith again, I will hurt you."

Angel started to look away in an 'okay, I'm backing off, but I don't believe you' gesture of mock capitulation, but then he discovered that he couldn't escape Buffy's stare. With that one look, she told him all he needed to know--that she had meant every single word of what she'd just said. And the reality of that truth shook him to his very core.

When she saw that her message had gotten through, Buffy turned and headed down the path, leaving a stunned Angel behind.

After blinking out of his surprise, he shook his head, pushed down the pain, and hurried after Buffy.

While Buffy was talking with Angel, Faith led the others to the cave entrance. Along the path, Xander continued his grumbling rant about Angel.

"This is exactly what I was talking about in the meeting," he said. "I knew he would pull this shit, I knew it! And Buffy just can't see it. No...correction...she won't see it. It's right in front of her face, and she just refuses to--"

"Will you just shut the fuck up?!" Faith yelled, whipping around to face Xander. "We get it, okay? You hate Angel. You don't have to keep beatin' us over the head with it."

"Maybe if I felt my words weren't falling on deaf ears..."

"We're deaf 'cause you won't fuckin' let it go!"

Willow reached out for Xander's arm. "Xan, she's right..." He didn't even look in Willow's direction. He just pulled his arm out of Willow's grip and kept his eyes on Faith.

The slayer took a few seconds to draw in a deep breath and let it out. Then she met Xander's gaze. "You know, I used to think you were just wanting to protect everybody...that you were just harping on it because Angel was a very real danger, but now I think it's more about you being right. Now you're just being an arrogant bastard."

"Is it really arrogance if I'm right?" Xander retorted. "I mean, come on! This is exactly what I predicted would happen, and here we are. Angel still loitering around, hoping against all hope. Buffy torn between two lovers. And you--and everyone else here, it seems--in complete and total denial! My God! Am I the only who sees th--"

"That's enough!"

Xander stopped mid-sentence at Buffy's command. When he looked back down the path, he saw a furious blonde slayer headed his way. He swallowed hard but stood his ground.

"You have made your feelings about Angel known loud and clear," Buffy told him. "And let me emphasize the 'loud' part of that because, thanks to you, our element of surprise has been completely shot! And since our stealthy sneak-up is no longer a possibility, I won't mind raising my voice when I tell you...once again...that ANGEL IS LEAVING!" She sent a scathing glare around the entire group. "Is everybody...completely and totally clear on that?!!"

No one dared do anything other than nod nervously or mumble some kind of affirmative response.

"Great. Now if you don't mind, I'd like to go in there and take care of the demonic threat that we came here for."

Buffy walked past both Xander and Faith and entered the hidden cave. Without another word, the rest of the group, including Angel, followed after her.

Once everyone was inside, the team eased their way through a series of torch-lit tunnels. After many twists and turns, they came to a large cavern. Buffy signaled for silence as they crept inside to look around.

It was a circular cavern with a somewhat low ceiling held up by a ring of narrow columns formed as tall stalagmites met their stalactite counterparts. Three other tunnels connected to the cavern--one on the left and one on the right of the tunnel they were in and another on the opposite side of the circle.

The Scoobies could see the Soul-Eater in the middle of the cavern with close to ten of his hell-wolves around him. He was much more horrific in person than the woodcut had portrayed. His thin body was clothed in a loose tunic that left his arms and legs free. His emaciated limbs looked to be nothing more than skin over bone. The fingers of his hands were long and ended in dangerously sharp nails. His mouth was full of dangerously sharp teeth as well.

And in a scabbard belted at his waist was his infamous 'dagger of lightning.' At the moment, the weapon appeared ordinary, although clearly larger than a mere dagger. Who knew what it would be like once it was unsheathed?

The Soul-Eater appeared to be doing some kind of ritual--one that involved the human blood and organs he had earlier harvested. Both he and the stone altar before him were covered in blood. His hell-wolves were whining and whimpering in anticipation of whatever magic he was working. They all seemed unaware of the presence of the Scoobies.

Buffy and Faith shot each other a look of relief that their element of surprise was still intact. They traded a few whispered comments; then they motioned for the group to withdraw from the cavern.

Once they were back inside the tunnel, Buffy knelt on one knee and gestured for the others to gather around her so that she could speak in low voice. Then she drew a crude clock face in the sand of the tunnel floor.

"Okay, we're at 6 o'clock here," she said, scratching in the drawing. "We've got other tunnels at 8 and 4 and 12. Faith and I are gonna sneak around behind the circle of columns and come at them from 10 and 2. We need you guys to just keep them contained."

"Just keep 'em on our side of the clock," Faith added. "We'll do the rest."

After nods from all, Buffy said, "I'll give Mom a report, and then we'll go in."

Buffy walked a few feet away and stood by the tunnel wall, then keyed her radio. "Hey, Mom, are you there?"

"Honey! There you are!" came her mother's voice through the headset. "I was beginning to worry."

"No, no...nothing to worry about...we haven't even gone in yet. We, uh, had to work some stuff out first," Buffy said, glancing briefly at Xander and Angel. Both had been glancing her way, too, and each looked away when her eyes met his. "We're headed in now." She forced herself to sound chipper on the next line. "I'll give you a holler when we're done."

"Be careful, honey," she heard her mother say.

"I will," she replied before turning back to the group.

Faith watched as Buffy's agonized gaze fell on Xander and Angel on the other side of the tunnel. She moved to the blonde and stepped in front of her, blocking her line of sight; then she reached up and caressed Buffy's cheek.

"Everything's gonna be okay," Faith assured her. "It's just gonna take time."

"I know, but right now..." Buffy said, her voice cracking a little. " just hurts..."

Faith didn't say anything else. She merely pulled Buffy into her arms and held her. "I love you," she said.

"I love you, too," Buffy replied.

When she finally felt Buffy relax a little, Faith gave her a final squeeze and let her go. "Come on...time for the Chosen Two to go kick some demon ass." She was rewarded with a warm smile from Buffy. "Plus," Faith added, nodding her head toward the cavern entrance, "I think Giles wants to confer."

Buffy looked in Giles' direction and then turned back to Faith. "Let me go see what he wants." Before she left, she gave her slayer an earnest kiss, which Faith happily returned.

Faith watched Buffy join Giles and listen to him intently. Then she felt an unwelcome presence behind her. "What?" she growled without turning around.

"I just wanted to say..."

When the speaker didn't continue, she turned around and repeated her question, though with more weariness than annoyance this time. "What?"

"Keep her safe," Angel said in a resigned but sincere voice.

"Don't worry. I will. From myself and everything else," she said, her annoyed growl back in action. When she saw a flash of pain in Angel's eyes, though, she tempered her tone before continuing. "I won't let anything happen to her," she promised him. "No matter what it takes."

Any further discussion was cut off by Buffy's voice over the radio. "Okay, everybody," Faith heard Buffy say through the radio, "go to voice-activated, but keep the chatter to a minimum. Once Faith and I are set, we'll go for it, so be ready."

At that, Faith took her place beside Buffy, and the two slayers led the group back into the cavern.

To be continued...

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