Darker Than Night
by Anne

TEN YEARS FROM NOW...

Maybe it was something to do with the earthquake, maybe it was something to do with destiny and the Fates. Faith didn't really care. All she knew was that it was making her life a hell of a lot harder. And that was something she could really do without. She had been at work when she had seen the report on the TV in the lounge, and saw the signs of trouble that were definitely of the supernatural kind. Waiting until she could slip away, she called Angel. He was pacing angrily as he picked up the phone and yelled "What?" into the receiver. Not exactly the type of welcome that the hopeless wanted to hear when they called, thought Faith dryly. She looked out at the bright sunshine and realised he was filled with the same desperation she was, only at least she could at least walk out and do something before sundown.

"Hey Angel, it's me."

"Faith. Erm...sorry. I take it you've heard the reports as well. No- one else is here, so I'm stuck."

"Look, I finish here in about half an hour, you want me to swing by your place and pick you up?"

"That would be good. I'll start getting all the things ready here. Do you have any of your own weapons with you, or do you want me to pack some?"

"I've got some in the trunk of my car, but if the news broadcast is anything to go on, then I think backup would be good."

"Ok."

"Later." Faith hung up the receiver and looked at the kids that were left in the main room. Anne would be coming to take over soon. One of them looked up at her and smiled. She felt a tug at her heart which was becoming frighteningly familiar these days. These kids had enough pain in their lives, it was the least she could do to protect them from the uber-evil that threatened to come crashing into the world at any point. She walked back into the office and tried to concentrate on some of the paperwork that Anne usually did.

Faith didn't usually get involved with that side of the shelter, but today she needed something to take her mind off the fact something bad was on it's way. There were too many other things that had coincided with that earth movement, she felt certain it couldn't be natural forces alone. Something was brewing, and the effects of the disaster told her that it was much bigger than anything she had seen for a long time.

She let her mind drift as she ticked various boxes on a form, her hand acting on autopilot. She had no leads, other than the idea of starting at the so-called earthquake's epicentre. If some demon had broken through its earth bound prison, then that would make it the logical place to start. She just hoped that they would not be too late. Whatever it was would have at least a five hour head start on them, and when it came to all things magic and dark, five hours was one hell of a long time.

Faith looked up as Anne walked in the room, ready to take over. "Hey." "Hey. Not like you to be doing that stuff." She pointed at the papers Faith had managed to get everywhere. "What's the matter?" she added as Faith leapt up from the desk.

"Bad news," she said in a whisper, so the group of kids that were nearest the door would not hear. "Looks like there is another big bad about to hit L.A. I want you to make sure that you stick to curfew tonight ok? Make sure everything is locked up nice and tight. I don't know what's going on, but I don't want you to take any risks ok? Keep an eye out for anything unusual, and look out for them as well,"

Faith flicked her head in the direction of the lounge.

"Ok, no problem," Anne nodded. She was used to Faith having to run off to fight monsters and demons, but it was unusual for her to get so worked up about it. If Faith thought that it was serious, then Anne was going to treat it as such. Satisfied with Anne's reassurance, Faith threw her bag over her shoulder, fishing out the keys to her car from the side pocket as she did so. She checked her watch. She had just enough time to get to Angel's, change into something a little more practical for demon hunting, and formulate a plan before the sun went down.

 

Faith and Angel walked as quietly as they could towards the disused warehouse. Their senses were alert to anything out of the ordinary, for any sign of mass vampire activity. They were also wondering where the hell their backup was. Cordelia always called by the office, no matter what assignment she had been on throughout the day, and could usually be relied on to assemble the rest of the team together quickly. Despite the fact that Angel had been paging her all day, she had yet to reply to any of them by the time they had left. It had finally become impossible to leave it any longer. Through one of the tiny vent windows at the top of the wall, they could both see a faint light, telling them that they were in the right place at least. There was no other reason why anyone would be this far out of town. If this was a vamp get together, then Faith and Angel were ready for them, and for the guard that would inevitably be waiting on the door. That was assuming there were vampires inside of course. Both of them were aware that there may be something much worse, but they were going to have to wait until they got inside to find out. Backs flat against the wall, they edged their way to the corner, uncertain as to where the entrance would be. The building had clearly been deserted for some years now, and the main doors were all boarded up. That threw the original 'burst in and ambush' plan straight out the window. Faith led the way, Angel glancing behind them, making sure that nothing followed them around.

Approaching a corner, she heard a slight scuffle, the sound of feet on loose stones, quiet enough that anyone else probably would not have heard it. She guessed that the vamp who was standing there was close, right around the corner, which meant there was a good chance that she could get the stake in without a big fight, and avoid alerting the others inside to the fact that they were here. She turned to Angel, and placed a finger against her lips, and he nodded, ready to leap in behind her should she need it.

Adrenalin coursing through her, she braced herself and pounced around the corner, grabbed the vamp by the shoulder and thrust her stake forward. She was disconcerted by its quick response as she felt its hand on her shoulder, movements just as quick as hers, and the stake plunging towards her. Both stopped just in time, and the two girls were facing each other, stakes almost touching the material of their clothes. The adrenalin that had shot through her then drew back out just as quickly, leaving her feeling sick inside. Buffy. For what seemed like an eternity, they just faced each other, neither knowing what to say and both knowing that they had nearly staked the other. Finally, Buffy loosened her grip on Faith's shoulder.

"Faith! What are you doing here?" she hissed, clearly pissed off and angry to see the other slayer.

"What do you think, B? Same thing as you. Oh, and I live here. Now, do you want to get this done or just chat the night away?" Faith wondered where that had come from, that spark of aggression and confidence that she had been keeping in check for the past ten years. But then again, she hadn't seen Buffy in the last ten years either. There was something about the girl that brought out the fire in her; she had known that from the first moment that they had met. Part of her hoped that Buffy would return the banter, like they had been able to when they had first met, before she had...

Faith allowed her thoughts to trail off in her head, knowing that was a train of thought that always led to the same thing, and this was neither the time nor the place to go there. They had a job to do, and Buffy was just the backup they needed. They could go in and slay, then go their separate ways again. That way they would avoid the big fight that would always happen if they talked afterwards. Buffy still hated her with a passion, she could see by the look in those green eyes. They were not the eyes of indifference, the eyes of a stranger. No, they were the eyes that still had the fire in them, and Faith did not want to be in the position where she provoked Buffy to want to finish the job that she had started all those years ago. They were still staring at each other, and Buffy nodded, finally letting go of her shoulder and lowering the stake. Faith mirrored her actions.

"How do we get in?" Angel asked, breaking the tension between the two girls. "There's nothing back that way."

"Nothing this way either." Buffy sighed, realising that this was going to be even harder than she had anticipated. The only other options were the roof or tunnels, and of the two, Buffy preferred the first. If it came to the tunnels then they would be stuck, as the entrance could be anywhere, and they had no place they knew for certain that they could start looking. Angel glanced around, trying to find some indication, and spotted a skip pushed against a drainpipe along the opposite end of the wall where he and Faith had come around. It would be easy enough for vampires to climb, and certainly not a problem for two slayers. It worried him slightly. If the vampires in there were climbing onto the roof rather than simply tearing the boards off the doors, then they must be cautious about their discovery. Which meant that this was more than a lodge meeting. Buffy and Faith followed the line of his eyes, and saw what he was getting at. Buffy nodded and they made their way back along the wall. Faith was acutely aware of the blond behind her, stepping in time with her own feet. The climb to the roof was any easy one, and sure enough, the emergency access panel was open. Vampires just never seemed to learn the lessons of their fore-sires, the roof was empty, not a single vamp placed on guard. Angel was relieved that there was a least one weakness which improved their chances. The three of them peered into the dimly lit room below them, filled with left over industrial machinery and waste, and a circle of vampires, their faces flickeringly lit by the small fire that was in the centre of the circle. Fragments of Latin drifted up, voices rising as the incantation progressed. Gone were the street clothes of those in the circle, and had been replaced by robes.

"This cannot be good," whispered Buffy.

"We need to move now. Do you think we can handle this many?" Angel replied, desperately realising that even if Cordy and the gang turned up now, they would be too late to do anything.

"Six against one," muttered Faith, her own voice from the past echoing in her head. She felt Buffy tense at her side and then look across at her and Angel.

"Yeah, we can manage that," she smiled, a look in her eyes that Faith was unable to place.

"One, two, three," Angel counted them in, and they plunged into the room, taking out a vamp each as they landed.

The fight was fast and furious, each taking whatever was thrown at them, unable to work as a team because of the sheer numbers, it was a 'kill or be killed' situation. Buffy moved with fluid movements, practical, moving from one kill to the next, always watching her back. Angel tried to take on the bigger and stronger of the vamps where he could, ending up fighting more than simply staking. Faith was pulling all the moves she could, refusing to surrender to that tunnel vision that was threatening to engulf her. The voice in her mind reminding her that this was her job, not something personal. The numbers of vamps were getting less, but the number of bruises and cuts on their bodies were increasing. Angel had been a little too close for comfort several times. When his face vamped out, it made easy for the others to know exactly how to hurt him.

Buffy had somehow got into a fist-fight with the one who she assumed was the leader of the group. In each hand he held an axe, more primitive than any weapon Buffy had seen a vampire fight with before, and she realised that they must have held some kind of ceremonial purpose rather than as a form of defence. She knocked them easily from his hands, landing a series of punches in his abdomen. She reached for another stake from the pocket of her jacket.

"Slayer. You are already too late. You can kill us all now. But there are many more of us. We will keep coming. Cirus will have his victory."

"Good for him. Still bad for you though." She plunged the stake in easily, committing his comments to memory in case they would come in useful later. Over the years, she had yet to meet a bad guy who didn't have to confess to something just before you killed them. She guessed it was some way of having the last victory, imparting words of wisdom and doom before they were sent off to hell. A kick in the base of her spine sent her to the floor, sprawling into a commando roll that was less than successful as her wrist bent backwards the moment it connected with the floor.

Faith plunged the stake deep inside the heart of the vampire in front of her, just as his hands were about to close around her neck and he flinched inwards, turning to dust and dropping to the floor. As her vision became clear, she could see legs sticking out of an industrial bin, and the body that was being held down by a vampire was thrashing around weakly. Faith felt her knees buckle as the flashbacks hit her, time seeming to freeze again in that moment when she had first been here, and watched Buffy appear to drown, unable to break away, unable to help her, pull her out of the water and hold her close. She could hear her own voice screaming "Buffy!" and she wasn't sure whether it was the memory in her head or the echoing in the room. And then her feet were moving, pounding the concrete under her, slow motion seconds as she moved towards Buffy, mind faltering but body strong and determined. And then fist connected with face, even as her other hand was reaching into the bin and grabbing frantically for the neck of the jacket in the water. As the vampire's back hit the floor, Faith felt her hand clasp around leather and she pulled, the weight of body forcing against water and then blond hair breaking the surface, mouth opening to gasp in much needed air, and then both bodies were collapsing. Faith realised that Buffy was breathing and then a searing pain at the back of her head. Everything went black.

 

"Faith. Faith!" she could recognise Buffy's voice becoming increasingly desperate as the world began to swim slowly back into view. There were strong arms holding her, and she wanted to sink back into Angel's embrace and forget about the pain that was pounding its way through her skull. Then the sense of relief washed through her that they were all ok, they had made it. This was rapidly followed by the sense of fear when she realised that she could no longer high tail it out of there without having to talk to Buffy. She opened her eyes, and was instantly looking into green ones that were filled with as much apprehension as she felt.

"Are you ok?" Faith looked at the cuts and bruises of her fellow slayer, and the murky water marks that were streaking her face. "Hey, you know me. I'm the slayer they all love to drown. But yes, I'm okay. They weren't going to get me this time. Thank you." The last part seemed as if Buffy had to force it from somewhere deep within her, but at least she had managed to get the words out. She extended her hand to Faith, who allowed herself to be pulled up, aided by a push from Angel. Once she was standing, she took a good look around. Angel was bleeding pretty badly, and somewhere along the line, she had managed to get her arm cut up enough for it to bleed all over her tank top, staining the light blue into dark claret. And somehow Buffy was bruised and beaten and soaked yet still looked as enigmatic as the first moment that Faith had looked at her. She resisted the urge to reach out and tuck a damp blond strand behind Buffy's ear. It was something that she would have done for Cordy or Anne, but not Buffy. She was pretty sure that the road to redemption did not lie along that path. The grudging truce that was lying between them now was something that could be broken more easily than it was made.

 

They got back to the office to find that Cordy was nowhere to be seen, and the note that Angel had left for her was in the same place. While he checked the answer phone, Buffy and Faith were left in an awkward silence. A shiver racked its way through Buffy's body, the cold clothes sticking to her skin.

"Sit down," Faith's voice came out as more of an order than it was originally intended, but Buffy complied. Spotting a green shawl that had to be Cordelia's on the back on a chair, Faith grabbed it and draped it around Buffy's shoulders. Buffy smiled in thanks, and Faith simply nodded. After all, it was the kind of smile that said 'thanks, but I still haven't forgiven you'. Her lips had moved but the feeling had not reached her eyes. The silence stretched out between them, each trying to think of something to say that would not lead to anything confrontational, until Cordy burst through the door, Lorne in tow. What initially appeared to be a dramatic, hero-to-the-rescue style entrance soon disintegrated into a fit of giggles and a refreshing whiff of alcohol. Buffy responded to the scene with a raised eyebrow, while Faith just smirked at the pair. Angel's face was grim and threatened to break the good mood that had suddenly made its way into the room. Faith put a calming hand on his crossed arms, like he had done to her over the years so many times. There was no point in trying to reprimand them now, it would be like telling off a group of schoolchildren. Faith also noticed that Buffy's response to Lorne's presence was less than welcoming, she knew the look in those eyes from all the times they had been directed towards her. Boy, for someone who was so shiny bright, the girl sure knew how to hold a grudge. Angel had told her about the time Buffy had come to L.A. and Lorne had been very insightful about her personality. In the way only he could, and Buffy had failed to take it in good humour apparently. Sometimes there was just no way to get through that thick skull of hers that she might be wrong about something. Maybe being this stubborn was a Slayer trait, and that was why they had always ended up battling against each other even when they were on the same side.

 

Faith walked into the kitchen, in desperate need for a cup of coffee to get her going.

"Oh, it's you," came a voice from by the fridge.

"Good morning to you too," replied Faith sarcastically, as she pushed past the blonde to get to the coffee machine. Confrontation was the last thing that she needed this morning. She was still a little sore from the fight the night before, and a gash in her shoulder had meant that she had spent a restless night in bed. To top it off, she knew that she had a difficult day at work to look forward to, and all she could do was hope that Buffy would have returned to Sunnydale by the time she got back.

"Up a little early aren't we?" Buffy just couldn't hold the bitchy comments back this morning. She too had spent a restless night, and sleeping in a strange bed didn't seem to help soothe her aching body. "Didn't think you were a morning person." She could see Faith's shoulders go tense as she poured herself a cup of coffee and added three sugars. "What is it, meeting with your parole officer?" she added in an icy tone. She wasn't even sure why she was talking this way, it almost seemed as if her voice was acting under its own volition. She watched as Faith stirred the sugar in slowly before turning round to face Buffy.

"Listen to me B. I did the crime, I did the time." She spoke with her voice carefully controlled. "Just like you wanted me to. Ok? I played this all the way that you wanted and guess what? I did it. I made it. I have my own life now, and I am going to spend it making up for what I did. So I don't have to justify myself to you or anyone else. Are we clear on that? Now, if you'll excuse me, I gotta get ready for work." Without waiting for an response, she picked up her cup and headed up to her room to finish getting ready, leaving Buffy sitting at the kitchen table in a stunned silence.

Faith knew that she was being snappy, but she didn't care all that much. Buffy had pushed her after all, had been since they met. And not only with her words. Last night as they were all talking about the events of their respective evenings, she could feel Buffy's eyes on her, that cold stare that was supposed to remind her all the time that she was not forgiven. Faith truly did not know what it would take to be forgiven, but she figured that if she ever was, then she would have really given redemption her best shot. But nevertheless, no matter what she told herself, it had made her feel uncomfortable, and had lead to a night of restless tossing and turning. Finally, she had managed to drift off around six am, only to be woken by the alarm ringing on the other side of the room at seven. She had to keep it there, it was the only way to ensure she didn't reach out in her sleep and break the damn thing. After about a minute of insistent buzzing, she had dragged herself out of bed, wishing that she hadn't agreed to go in early while Anne was at the meeting with the bank manager.

Normally, she did not have to get out of bed until eleven - the other great thing about working at the shelter, she could suit the hours to fit her lifestyle - and wander around slowly getting ready and mulling over the events of the previous evening. Wesley would usually come in around then with a box of doughnuts and Cordy would brew up a pot of coffee. Faith would have a cigarette sneakily out of the window (Cordelia didn't like smoking in the office), jelly doughnut in the other hand, listening to what the other guys had got up to and watching the people out in the street. Now Buffy had turned up and everything seemed to have got whacked out of synch. She knew that logically this was not the case, but in her sleep deprived state, logic never played much part in the way that she felt. Definitely not a morning person, Buffy had been right about that. Then to go down and find Buffy as the first person that she had to confront was just not the way that she wanted her morning to start.

She stomped around her room getting ready, throwing last night's battle stained clothes in the direction of the laundry basket and searching her closet for something clean to wear. Failing to find anything that she felt like putting on, she shrugged out of her robe and made her way to the shower, hoping that the hot steaming jets would ease the tension in her muscles.

The moment that the first drop of water hit her, she made up her mind to stop thinking about Buffy Summers. There was something about their history together that made her the one person that Faith couldn't get out of her head. Sometimes she just wanted to make everything up to her, other times, like this morning, she just hated her. Mostly she just wished that things could be how they were all those years ago. As Faith began to rinse the shampoo out of her hair, she realised that the tension was starting to slowly slide its way out of her shoulders, and she rolled her neck, trying to ease them even more.

She towel dried her hair, swore at the clock when she realised she had been in the shower thirty-five minutes, and reached for her pack of cigarettes. A bad habit that she had picked up in prison, something to make the day go faster. It was also a time to think, staring as the blue-grey smoke curled up through the air, something to focus on while the thoughts you didn't want to share with anyone floated randomly around your brain. Now, it was a nicotine fix that Faith was going to give up any time soon. Really. She felt the first drag hit her brain, making her a little light headed, like her first one of the day always did, and instantly felt calmer. Letter the air dry her body, she walked around the room, throwing the sheets back onto the bed, and trying to remember where she had put her clean underwear when she had last done the laundry. As she stubbed out the remains of the cigarette, she shook her head vigorously to get as much of the water out of her hair as possible, and began to pull on her clothes. She was already going to be twenty minutes late, but she didn't really care. Most of the kids would still be crashed out anyway. They had nothing to get up for, so most of them didn't bother until late morning. It made for a busy afternoon, but Anne never kicked up a fuss about it. After Faith finally located her car keys on top of the air conditioning unit under the window, she headed out, walking through the stillness of the front foyer, no sounds to indicate that Buffy was still around downstairs. As the morning sun hit her as she stepped out onto the street, she felt glad to be alive. And glad to be out of the way.

 

"Erm Angel? I notice that Faith went off to work." Buffy had been working out how to broach the subject. She was feeling a little ashamed about the way that she acted that morning. Faith's comment also reminded her just how much she had cut herself off from her friends in L.A. Over the years, she had insisted on not wanting to know anything about Faith and her life, commenting that when a new slayer arrived, she would know everything she needed to know.

"And?" Angel wondered what Buffy was getting at.

"Well, I kind of assumed that she worked for you."

"No. Well, she did for a few months right after she came out of jail, but she found a job that she wanted to do."

"Hired hitman?"

"Actually, she works at a shelter for disadvantaged kids." Angel ignored Buffy's sarcasm. "The homeless, those with drug problems, that sort of thing." He said it in that calm tone that made Buffy feel about an inch tall. "Then in the evenings, she either goes out on patrol or helps me if we have a case."

"Oh."

Angel returned to the papers on his desk, knowing that he had successfully made his point. Before Buffy could say anything else, she was spared by Wesley and Gunn walking into the office, both looking very much the worse for wear.

"Angel. Goodness Buffy, what are you doing here?" He said it with the affection and admiration which only being the longest slayer to live in history can inspire.

"The usual trouble Wes. Which it looks like you ran into as well."

"Yes, Angel, we need to talk. There appears to be a problem. Gunn and I spent the evening hunting a group of vampires. We didn't kill to many of them, I'm afraid."

"We are talking about some seriously freaky shit going down," Gunn added, throwing himself down on the couch and placing his feet on the coffee table. Buffy stood stiff.

"Obviously, I need to do some more research before I can be certain, but I recognised some of their activities from my time as a Watcher." Wesley walked over to the coffee pot and poured himself a cup, nursing an injured shoulder on the way. He turned to Buffy. "As I am certain you know from Rupert, part of the training as Watcher is learning and researching the history of demonic activity, even if it is thought to be no longer active. Well, the group of vampires Gunn and I faced last night seemed to be very old. There were several things that gave it away as we were watching them. The way they spoke for one. And the way they dressed."

"Let me guess?" Angel stood up and walked around to the front of his desk, crossing his arms across his chest as he leant back upon it. "Robes? Simple cotton cloth like the monks used to wear?"

"Yes, how did you...?"

"We ran into them last night as well. It seems like they were linked to the tectonic activity that everyone is saying was the cause of the earthquake. Light brown robes."

"No." Wesley spun on his heals, sloshing some of his coffee onto the floor as he did so.

"Yup," nodded Buffy. "I got up close and personal, and they were definitely not of the leather pants persuasion."

"No, I mean the robes they were wearing were light brown? Not black?"

"Well, they might have been once. Several centuries of washing can do that to your clothes, no matter what brand of powder you use..." Buffy trailed off as she watched Wesley make his way over to the bookcase and begin frantically searching for a book. When he had located the correct one, he began leafing through the pages.

"Angel, did they say anything to you, anything that could be of use?" Wesley flipped another page.

"No, nothing. What about you Buffy?"

"Well, there was the usual, 'there are more of us on the way' blah blah blah. Oh, and he said something about a guy named Cirus."

"Cirus?" Wesley looked up with a glint in his eye that Buffy had seen from Giles a million times. He flicked the pages back to the index of the book and began scanning down the entries with his finger. "A-ha!"

Having located the references he needed, he proceeded to turn to the correct page and quickly read the passages. Buffy hated this part. Whenever a Watcher, or ex-Watcher for that matter, got excited about something in a dusty old book, it usually meant the worst. "Go on," she sighed. "Hit us with the big bad."

"Well, many centuries ago, no-one is entirely sure when, vampires still held quite a strong position in this reality. I'm sure Giles has told you this before. They were divided into small groups, clans if you will, each headed by a prince. This was a tradition that continued into the eighteenth century, albeit in a much smaller form, when our books became more detailed," he added as a throwaway fact. "The only thing that held them together was the fact that the princes were all powerful, and if you weren't the member of one clan or another, then you were, in essence, non-existent. Many of the clans were fierce enemies however, and there were frequent clashes between them." He looked up as Cordelia made her way unsteadily through the door, shades still firmly in front of her eyes despite the fact that she was now inside. The previous night had been a little too much for her, and she felt her stomach sink when she realised she had walked in on the middle of one of Wesley's lectures. That must mean that there was immediate evil to deal with. The sort that was selfish enough not to wait for your hangover to clear before they unleashed impending doom on the world. She waved slightly and walked over to her desk, relieved that there would be some aspirin in there. She always kept a large bottle in her desk in the event of vision migraines. She waved for Wesley to go on.

"Well, over the years, the clans became fewer in number as they became conquered, until there were only two major clans. These were distinguished by the colour of their robes. One tribe wore only black, the other brown. Light brown specifically. For many years it has been thought that the clans died out naturally over the course of the centuries when man's grip on the reality became stronger. The last known prince of the brown robed clan, the Valdemar's, was named Cirus." He lifted up the book so that everyone could see the picture." "Ooh! That's the one. The weapons." Buffy pointed to the etching. "The lead one was carrying those. They seemed a little pointless to me."

"I need to do more research on this Angel. It is imperative that we know what we are fighting. If it is true that Cirus is still a prince, then by now he will be very strong. To remain hidden from the sight of the council is indicative that they have been storing up their strength specifically for an occasion. We really need to know what that is."

"Buffy," Angel turned to her. "I think that you ought to stay around for a while until we can sort this out. If that's ok with you?"

"No problem. I'll give Xander a call and he can keep an eye on things in Sunnydale. For once things seem to be quiet there anyway."

"You can stay here at the hotel for as long as you need to."

"Thanks." Buffy forced a smile. She wanted this to be over as quickly as possible. When she had left Sunnydale, she expected to be gone for two days, three at the most. The thought of having to stay here filled her with a feeling of dread that she just could not place. Not to mention the fact that she would have to go shopping and get some more clothes. This whole week was turning into too much trouble.

 

"Aha!" Wesley leapt up from the table, clutching the book in his hands. It had been a long day of researching, interrupted only by two phone calls from potential clients. "The weapons that you saw Buffy are called acheulians. They are a ceremonial axe make from flaked flint. They are symbolic and necessary to call for Ictinius."

"Ictinius? Why do I know that name?" Angel was certain that he heard it somewhere a long time ago, but he couldn't quite place it. "He was the first."

"The first what?" snapped Cordy. She hated the big build up. And her head was still throbbing. She was going to kill Lorne when she saw him later.

"Vampire. He was the original human-demon hybrid."

"Hey folks!" Faith swaggered through the door and threw her bag on the couch. "Wassup?"

 

"The ritual to bring Ictinius back from the demon dimension has only been recorded once, and this was an unofficial documentation. Back in the seventh century, the cult attempted to perform the ritual. They had moved from the mainland of Europe into Britain and Ireland. A monk called upon the ancient teachings of the Christian church which have long since been lost to invoke the power of the cross to stop the demon being raised."

"Invoke the power of the cross. You wanna translate Wes?" Gunn laughed.

"Before that time, crosses had no effect on vampires. Nor did Holy Water. Christianity and vampirism had no reason to cross paths. But the monk, St. Adamnan performed a ritual of some kind to give them power over the vampires. Of course, it has all been kept very hush hush by the church, but it damaged the clan enough to warrant them not trying again as far as we know."

"So we just kill them before they get to do the ritual, right?" Faith grinned.

"I'm afraid it is not as simple as that."

"It never is."

"Ictinius was the first vampire. Those he sired, and whom they in turn sired, were the ones that went on to form the clan culture. If both are here, then I think we know what we are dealing with." "We do?"

"Both of the tribes have the power, theoretically at least, to perform the ritual. Whichever one actually summons Ictinius will have him for their new prince. The power that he wields will guarantee their dominance over the other tribe."

"So why don't we let one of them summon him and they can kill each other off. Save ourselves a job," Gunn shrugged.

"Think about it. If he had the power to destroy a clan that has managed to survive for several thousand years..."

"Think what he could do to us," Buffy finished.

 

"Hey." Cordelia poked her head around the panel door to the office. Anne spun around in her seat, hand to her chest.

"Oh, it's you. Sorry, I mean, hey. I guess I've been a little on edge after the other night." Several nights earlier, the demon world had crossed into hers. Again. Anne was beginning to wonder if it was something about her that caused them to find her. She always felt so stupid when she remembered the time when she had actively sought them out, when she naively thought that it was the way forward. So, when a vampire had come into the shelter four nights ago, she was glad that Faith had been working late. Well, not exactly working, just talking to one of the kids who had come in. The girl had really seemed to open up to Faith, and Anne knew better than to ask what it was about and get Faith to break a confidence. Faith had quickly, and discreetly, disposed of the vamp before he could do anything to terrorise any of the kids any more than the world already had.

"That is more than understandable." Cordelia's voice snapped her out of the thought. "Though, if it's a good indication, I come in daylight. I brought you these." Cordelia held up a bag. Ever since she had been getting a regular paycheck from Angel Investigations, she had moments when she slipped a little into her old ways. Even now. Okay, her clothes were still from the designer rails, but mainly from the sales. The few acting jobs paid for most of them. She had been working late at the office when Faith came back from the shelter, more than a little pissed about the fact that a vampire had dared to come and even attempt to prey on them. Cordelia had been surprised the first time she had seen Faith get so protective about the people who needed the shelter, especially the younger ones. But since she had first met Anne, she made a point of taking a batch of her clothes down there every once in a while. That night she had made Faith a cup of coffee, and talked to her about what was going on down there lately, and it reminded her that she had no been down for a while. Angel Investigations took up so much of her time that she did not even have room in her schedule for a social life any more, let alone acts of civic virtue. She knew that this offering was the least that she could do. Not that you ever saw many street kids wearing Prada, but it was the only thing that she could really think of, and her closet was getting more than a little overcrowded again.

"Thank you," Anne said with a wide smile, putting down the paperwork she had been sorting and walking over. She took the bag from Cordy and glanced at the blouse on the top. "This should make some of the kids happy."

"It's too dressy isn't it, I knew it was, if you don't want it..."

Cordelia responded brightly trying to hide the fact that she was feeling crestfallen. An acting job a few months ago had given her the power to go even more overboard than usual.

"No really. A lot of the kids in here, we try to find them jobs, but they have nothing to wear to interviews. Most of the clothes people donate to us are ones that they were going to throw out anyway."

"Glad to be of use."

"Cordy, you know that your clothes are always of use. And it is always appreciated. How about a coffee? Do you have to be anywhere?"

"Nowhere important."

"Great," Anne moved over to the kettle. "It seems like it's been ages since we've had the chance to chat."

"Well, you know how work is. No rest for the wicked. Which unfortunately means I don't get any either."

"Tell me about it. I love the kids here and everything, but it seems like such a long time since I've done anything that isn't connected to this place. Even when I go out it's to some fundraiser or other."

"We ought to go out together one night. Thanks," Cordelia took the mug of instant from Anne. "Forget about work, have a few drinks, a few dances, keep an eye out for the local talent..."

"That there is no way we could get because our lives mean that we would never see them," Anne finished for her, laughing.

"Agreed. But there is no rule against looking."

"True."

"That's settled then." Cordelia took a sip from her mug. "Friday night, you and me, out on the town."

"Friday's always such a big night here, I'm not sure I can-"

"Faith will cover for you," interrupted Cordelia confidently. "Buffy's here, so something tells me that Faith will take any excuse to be out of there."

"Faith told me. They still having problems?"

"Those two will always have problems. And not just with each other," she added dryly. "Besides, Faith loves working here, she won't mind doing a few extra hours. Ask her when she comes in later. Before that new woman of hers gets in there first."

"She's seeing someone?"

"Yes, didn't she tell you?" Frowned Cordelia. She knew how close the two women were. It seemed unusual for Faith not to have mentioned it. "It's probably nothing. She only mentioned it to me in passing."

Cordelia dismissed the subject. "I'm sure she won't mind anyway. So is it a deal?"

"Okay then." Anne was still distracted by the fact that Faith hadn't told her she was seeing someone new. Normally she would be the first one to be told. Anne just hoped that Faith wasn't keeping this one under wraps for the wrong reasons. Not that she could imagine what those reasons would be, but Faith's choice of women at times had been dubious to say the least.

"Fine, leave it to me. I'll find the best place to go. We can meet at the Hyperion, say, about nine?"

"I'd love to. So, what's happening at the moment then?"

"Vampires, would you believe," laughed Cordelia, as she began to fill Anne in on the week's events.

 

There was a knock on her door. Buffy rolled over and squinted at the clock. Somehow she had managed to sleep her way through the most of the morning. "Come in," she mumbled in the direction of the door. Fred came through, brandishing a cup of coffee.

"Angel thought you might need this to help you get up."

"Thanks Fred."

"No problem. So what's going on between you and Faith?" Fred's directness was something that never failed to surprise Buffy. They had never really spoken that much, but whenever they did, Fred was perfectly willing to speak her mind. Buffy suspected that it was something to do with the fact that when she came back to L.A. from that demon dimension, wherever it was, Angel had left it to Cordy to re-educate her in the ways of human life again. In her bitchiest moments, Buffy wondered whether getting a real human to do it would have been a wiser choice. Thinking like that reminded her of how she really didn't know any of them any more. Angel, Cordy, Wesley, they had all been so close at one time. Close in the sense that they knew and understood each other. Now, she was the one who was distant from them. Not wanting to face the fact that it was a problem of her own making, Buffy pushed the thought from her head.

"What do you mean, me and Faith?"

"You are both Slayers, right? You're both trying to find away to stop this uprising thingy, and all you do is fight each other. I spoke to her and she said that you were the one with the problem."

"Oh did she?" Buffy was enraged. She had a good mind to march straight down into the office and put Faith straight. She was the one with the problem! "I do not have a problem with Faith. Oh, apart from the fact that she tried to kill me, tried to kill Angel and fucked my boyfriend's brains out. If I want to hold a teeny weeny grudge then I can."

"Oh."

"Indeed."

"No, I meant, she was right. You are the one with the problem. She's got over all of that now. I mean," Fred sat on the bed, "Faith came out of prison a couple of years after I got back from Pylea. I judge all my life by that you know. There were all the times before Pylea, and I really don't remember them much, and then there has been all the years since. I relate everything to it. It was a life changing experience you know." She looked up at Buffy, who had a 'get on with it' expression on her face. "Well, Faith got out of prison, and she was still really upset about everything that she had done. She told me that she wasn't angry any more. Just upset and guilty about all the things that she had done. And she was always sorriest about the things that she had done to hurt you. But that made her feel even worse, because she said she should feel sorry for all the other people she hurt just as much as she felt sorry about you. Angel told her it was because she was human."

"She always knew how to say the right thing Fred."

"Yeah, but she started working, and after a while, she stopped feeling sorry for herself. She said that there was nothing she could do to make the past go away, and there was no way that you would talk to her and give her the chance to show you that she was sorry. But there were all those people she was helping, regular people was what she called them, and she said she was going to stop other people from getting hurt the way she used to be. I mean, the way she used to do." Fred got up off the bed with a big smile. "So by my logic, she really doesn't have a problem any more. And if it's not her..." Fred let her voice trail off as she headed out of the door. Buffy took a sip of the coffee. She hadn't had morning lectures since she was at college.

 

"Hey guys. Faith left her bag over at the shelter, so I thought I would drop it by." Anne breezed through the doors of Angel Investigations. Buffy looked up from the book she was reading and then jumped up in surprise.

"Lily?"

"Buffy?" the young woman looked as surprised as she did. And shocked by the fact that someone was calling her by one of the names that she had not used for such a long time. It felt odd hearing it coming out of someone's mouth. "Erm, and it's Anne now." She smiled shyly, remembering how she had acquired the name. Buffy looked at her with a smile and nodded.

"You two know each other?" Faith came down the stairs and into the foyer of the building.

"Long time ago," said Anne dismissively. "You left your bag at work. I didn't know whether or not there might be something in there that you would need for patrol, so I though I would drop it off on my way home."

"Thanks. Never know when the extra stakes will come in handy."

"Do you want me to give you a lift somewhere? I'm on my way home now."

"Sure, just drop me off by your place and I'll do a sweep of downtown."

"No problem. Nice to have met you again Buffy."

"You too."

"Later guys." Faith threw her bag over her shoulder and led the way out of the building. Buffy sat back down in her chair. It seemed strange that the girl she had heard so much about was the same one who was once so weak. She allowed herself a smile of satisfaction. It wasn't very often that you got to see the end result of your actions when you helped someone. More often than not you just vanished into the night and never let them know what had happened. But every once in a while, you got a little reminder that you were doing the right thing. That it would all be worth it in the end.

 

It was quiet downtown. As Faith lazily patrolled the cemetery, she was relieved to find that she appeared to be the only one there. She needed to think, and here was the best place to do that. She also needed an early night if she was going to cover for Anne tomorrow. It would make for a long day, and her sense of duty meant that she knew she would sneak out after curfew to get in a quick patrol. So the peace was welcome tonight, just her, her thoughts and a few thousand dead bodies to share them with. At work it was always too busy for quiet reflection, and the atmosphere back at HQ, as she jokingly referred to it, was so tense that even alone in her own room she found that she was distracting herself from thinking about all the things that had been going on in her life over the course of the past week. She reached into her jacket pocket and pulled out a packet of cigarettes. For some reason, she had avoided smoking in front of Buffy, instead having sneaky ones in her bedroom, and cramming in as many as possible on the way to and from work. She lit one and inhaled deeply, before finding a convenient tombstone to lean against.

She knew that she should really be happy. Things were going great with her new girlfriend, and she was confident that she would defeat the latest vampire uprising. She was scared, yes, but she knew that fear was a safety valve for her. It stopped her being too confident, when she would make stupid mistakes and put her life in danger. Or worse, the lives of her friends. But somewhere inside, she was feeling deeply unsatisfied, and trying to find the cause of this was the thing that she had been trying to avoid thinking about. Because she knew the basic reason. Buffy. Hell, it was always Buffy. They had not spoken for years, and Faith had always had the good grace to keep out of the way whenever Buffy had visited L.A., even stopping at Anne's some nights just to make extra certain that they would not bump into each other. But now they were living in the same building, working together, and there seemed to be no escape for her.

It didn't help that the two weren't getting along. She didn't know what she had expected, but somewhere she had hoped that when they finally met once more, she would have been forgiven and the two of them could start over. Faith knew that she had been given more than her fair share of second chances, and she was wrong to expect another one, but it would mean so much to her. The chance to make it right with the one person who she had hurt the most. Not physically of course, but on the inside. It seemed odd that out of everyone that Buffy knew, she was the one who had understood what made her tick, where all her weak spots were and how to connect them. They had talked many times, back in Sunnydale when they first met, about the Slayer connection and what it meant. And Faith certainly remembered Buffy meeting her in her dreams when she was in a coma. It was something that they had never had chance to discuss, and probably never would, but when she was in prison, Faith had thought about it a lot. That was probably their closest moment, despite the fact that they had tried to kill each other, and since then it had all been downhill.

She lit another cigarette from the butt of the last one, before flicking it away. Out of habit, she quickly scanned the graveyard for signs of trouble, but on seeing none, she returned to her thoughts. Her new girlfriend. Could she even call her that? They had been on several dates, and they were certainly lovers, but girlfriend implied a possessiveness and commitment, something that Faith was not sure that she could give to the relationship. The sex was good, hell, it was fantastic, but like the majority of the women that she had slept with, the times that they had spent together had largely been built upon lies. The irregular hours, the sudden date cancellations and invariable late arrival for the ones that she did make, tended to annoy them to the point where they no longer wanted to see her. She always just shrugged it off. Rejection was something that she had grown used to over the course of her life, and it was no longer such a big deal. Besides, she was never in love with any of them. They were never The One, the person who she could give her heart and soul to.

Faith had talked about this with Angel. No one else. She wanted his opinion, and he seemed to have the most experience in affairs of the heart. She needed to know whether she would ever be capable of love. He told her that of course she would. That if she was capable of hate then she could be capable of love, because the line between them was such a fine one, and both required passion. Emotion. That just because she had not found it yet did not mean that she was never going to find it at all. That was what she liked most about Angel. He never tried to convince her that she wasn't fucked up, he just took it as a given. What he did do was give her his belief that she would get better, that she could if she helped herself. Let herself. How with her background it was no surprise that her head was messed up and she had trust issues and emotional problems. But he also pointed out to her the fact that she had been able to convince other people of her good heart, and the fact that she had changed. He reminded her of the friendship that she now had with Cordelia, and the fact that they trusted each other. If she could let herself have friends that she felt that deeply about, then one day she would be able to do the same with her lovers. When she found the person she was supposed to be with.

Which just brought her whole train of thought back to Buffy and the cycle began again.

 

Knowing that Anne was comfortable with the whole 'demon thing', Cordy knew that there was one place in town with a wild enough nightlife and even the prospect of finding out why she was attracted to a strong and confident blonde. Part of her mind reminded her all of a sudden Buffy Summers in a Prom dress, but she quickly shoved it away. Cordelia Chase was most definitely not into women. Not that she was into men either, she reflected with a sigh. Most of them just seemed to want to impregnate her with demon spawn. Still. You would think by now they would have gotten over it. They could probably still smell the evil vibes that came from spending the first eighteen years of her life in Sunnydale.

But one thing that Cordy knew for certain about evil was that you needed a break from it every once in a while. Anne spent far too much time at the shelter as far as she was concerned, and Faith had confided in her that Anne could do with a break. Even if it was only for one night, just to take her mind of the responsibility she felt towards the teen shelter that had become more or less her entire life over the past decade. So Faith had agreed to cover for the evening, just as Cordelia had promised that she would, and Anne was able to go out for the evening with Cordelia. A few drinks, a laugh at a Gruhnmar demon trying to do karaoke, and a chat with Lorne at the end of the evening, well after closing time she hoped, sounded like a very good idea. And in doing so, she had convinced herself that her actions were nothing but deeply charitable.

Anne and Cordelia had become good friends over time. There was a lot to be said for someone who actually understood when you said that you felt there was something that you had to do with your life. It was nice to be able to talk about it without fear of the raised eyebrow and someone thinking that you were a lunatic. It also came in handy when the less savoury elements of the demon world made their way through your doors and you needed someone to turn to. True, most of the time they were caught up in their work to see each other regularly, but whenever Cordelia was having a slow day at the office she knew that she could phone the shelter and find either Anne or Faith there to chat to.

And, in truth, Anne liked Cordy's company. She spent so much time working at the shelter the only relationship that she had been involved in for a while was with Faith. Not that you could even really call that a relationship. It had been born out of a mutual understanding and need, but without the passion and deeper emotion. Obviously, after the initial need had fizzled out, there was nothing really left to them. From what she could remember, they hadn't really talked about it; they had both known when it was over, and got on with their lives working together amicably. She knew that Angel had known about the fling, and suspected that the others did as well. What she was pretty certain of was that they did not know was the fact that she and Faith had slept with each other again just a few months ago. Faith had called by the shelter after a particularly frantic patrol, just to make sure that everything was okay there. Anne had been feeling lonely, and Faith had been oozing adrenaline and sexuality, so before they really had time to question what was going on, they were kissing each other, perched on the main desk in the office. One thing had led to another, and whilst it wasn't bad by any means, it was a one off that neither of them felt any great desire to repeat. Just by the looks that they gave each other as Faith pulled her boots back on, they both knew it was something that would never go any further than those four walls of that office.

So apart from that minor tryst, Anne spent much of her time without company. Cordelia was attractive, but more importantly, they got on. Anne appreciated Cordelia's dry sense of wit, or cutting sarcasm as others called it, not to mention the fact that the woman was a part time actress. Such things have a certain appeal, even to those devoted to saving whatever little bit of humanity that they could. A pretty face was always a bonus.

"So what are you two lovely ladies having?" Lorne marked them out for special treatment as they walked up to the bar.

"Tempting as it is to say champagne, I'll have a glass of your finest house white," smiled Cordelia.

"The same please," nodded Anne. She liked coming here. It was the only place in L.A. where you could be surrounded by demons and still feel safe at the same time.

"No problem. Do you think you can manage that?" he said in a tone of exasperation to the bartender. "Wine chilled, clean glasses. Take the carafe over as well, the rest of it is on the house for my two favourite customers." Just then a loud howling filled the place as a demon began sending out a rendition of "California Dreaming." Difficult when you had only a limited number of sounds at your disposal. Lorne winced. Then smiled. "Well, there's one good thing," he said in whisper in the direction of the two women. "According to my reading at least he'll never be singing here again. Excuse me, I gotta find a way to break the news to him gently." With that he minced off, grabbing a G&T that was conveniently positioned on the bar as he walked past.

Cordelia and Anne walked off to the nearest table, followed by the bartender carrying to glasses and the bottle of wine. Cordy had warned Angel that she might be in late in the morning, as she was planning to have a good night out, and Faith had agreed to cover for however long it took for Anne's hangover to clear. So she was prepared for a no holds barred night of fun and games. The games especially, she smiled to herself.

"So are you going to sing?" asked Anne with just the slightest hint of a smirk as she tucked a strand of blond hair behind her ear.

"That depends. Are you?" Cordelia counter-challenged.

"I don't think so. Maybe we could compromise and do a duet?"

"Given our sense of alternative lifestyle, 'I Will Survive'?"

"'Devil In A Blue Dress!'"

"Hmm, let me think, 'Bat Out Of Hell'? No, wait, 'Road To Hell' would be better!"

"Good choice," Anne raised her glass in mock salute. "Let's just see how drunk we get first though. I don't want to make a complete fool of myself."

"You couldn't make more of a fool of yourself than him," Cordelia nodded towards the stage. "Or her, or it. Whatever it is."

"I suppose."

"No really," Cordelia reached across the table and placed her hand on top of Anne's. "I don't think you could ever look stupid." She smiled, then suddenly felt embarrassed and pulled her hand away. "Thank you." By the faint hint of colour making its way into Anne's cheeks, she was a little taken aback by the comments. Cordy opted for a quick subject change.

"So, anything in here you like the look of? We are supposed to be checking out the local talent after all," she said with a wink.

"Erm, something in my own species would be good, so I'll tell you if one comes in. What about you?"

"No thanks. I am happy with the two eyes I already have."

"Point taken," laughed Anne, draining the rest of her wine and refilling her glass and then Cordelia's. They raised their glasses, and shared another awkward smile.

The awkwardness that sat between them tonight was unusual. Normally when they were together, they laughed and joked in easy conversation, but tonight the tension seemed to be palpable. Cordelia thought she knew why, and believed that much of it was her fault. Either that or Buffy's. How she came to that conclusion was a mystery, but it seemed to make some kind of twisted sense. Since Buffy had come to L.A., all of their senses seemed to have been heightened, and they were on edge in the way that only Buffy Summers could make you feel. Faith had been almost withdrawn for days. The two of them still laughed and joked, but Cordelia had noticed that Faith was spending more time in her room than usual, and even when they were researching, Faith appeared to become lost in thoughts totally unrelated to the vampire threat that faced them. It did not take a genius to work out why Faith was so engrossed in herself, but she had noticed that it had affected Angel as well.

For her part, seeing Buffy again was making her realise one thing. That she was no longer in school, and that they were all adults now. This had stopped being the exciting game that it had been when she was younger, but now at times a weary sense of responsibility. The visions did not help. She knew that she could not walk away, or opt for a career change. This was her life and she had to deal with it.

But it could be lonely. Seeing Buffy there reaffirmed just how lonely it could be. Buffy who always had the boyfriend, the painful relationships, the best friends, was now very much alone, and distant from them all. The years of service to the good of humanity seemed to have taken its toll. Cordelia was determined that the same fate would not befall her. And that meant taking charge of her own life and feelings. She was just not sure how to go about it any more. She sighed to herself, realising that the shit-hot cheerleader and queen of Sunnydale High was well and truly gone, and it didn't look like she was ever coming back. She licked her lips, tasting the fruitiness of the wine that lingered on them, and decided that she would put into action all the moves that she had left.

 

"Let me get this clear. There are two Slayers now. In the same place at the same time. And they managed to defeat you before you could complete the first stage of the ritual?"

"That is correct my liege."

"Do you realise how far this puts us back? We must now wait until the quarter moon to perform the ritual again."

"Yes sir."

"Why was I not informed of this earlier?"

"An error. My apologies. I was led to believe that you had been told. Forgive us."

"So the plans for the second stage are now worthless. We are one step further away from greatness."

"I cannot express my sorrow that you were not informed of this earlier, my Prince."

"But do we know how our enemies faired?"

"Word has it that they too came under attack and were temporarily defeated as were ourselves."

"By demons? Which demons dare question the rule of my greatest enemy?"

"Not a demon my liege. For all accounts, it was the work of mortals."

"Humans?"

"It would appear so. They killed less of our enemies clan, but nevertheless halted their ritual also."

"But their blood was spilled was it not? They will no longer harm the attempts of our enemies to perform the ritual at the quarter moon?"

"It is reported that they live. They escaped with only minor injuries which their mortal bodies could survive."

"Impossible! And why, pray tell, would they be aiding us in the defeat of our enemies?

"It is our belief that they act as assistance to the Slayer. Sorry, Slayers."

"But the Slayer always works alone, save for her mortal watcher. It has been that way for many centuries since."

"It appears that this is no longer the case. The Slayer is no longer a girl, but a woman."

"She has passed her twenty-fifth year?"

"By all accounts, both have. It is rumoured that they surround themselves with experienced fighters, who know of our existence and the methods necessary for our demise. The Slayers no longer hunt alone."

"This is not the kind of news that I had hoped to wish for. We must make haste. The ritual must not be stopped this time. Be discreet. Find again the tools needed to complete the first incantation, and another sacred space in which to perform it. We cannot go back to the last, the danger of discovery is too great. Go now, and begin the preparations."

"Yes, Cirus, my Lord." The vampire bowed and backed out of the room. He had escaped with his life, something that he had not expected when he went in to inform his prince of the news.

 

They walked back to Cordelia's apartment. Teetered back might be a more appropriate term. Cordelia had not asked Anne to go back, it was just an unspoken decision that had been made when they had left the club and the cold night air hit them. Linking arms for support, they had headed back in the same direction, both feeling somewhat grateful. Cordelia for the break from evil and the sense of impending doom, and Anne for the respite from paperwork and rescuing those with no place left to go. It had been a good night, and despite the fact that they had been surrounded by demons for the most part, they had been able to forget that their lives were anything out of the ordinary. They were both two normal, single, out on the town twenty something's, without a care in the world. Both knew that tomorrow it would be back to the real world, but they pushed that thought to the back of their minds. Cordelia knew that she had a nice bottle of Chardonnay chilled in the refrigerator at home, and clean sheets in the spare room. If it came to that. Another thought which she tried to push to the back of her mind, this time with much more limited success.

Phantom Dennis was waiting for them when they got back. Cordelia could sense his presence much stronger now. Oh, and the fact that the TV suddenly switched from the adult channel to a documentary on the killer whale also gave it away.

"Dennis? I'm home." She looked around the room as Anne sat down on the couch. "Which means you can go to bed," she whispered. The response was a chirpy knocking sound, which made Cordelia blush. She also had become very familiar with his taps over the years, and she had a good idea what he meant with this one. As he left the room, she opened the wine and took it over to where Anne was sitting, and poured them both a large glass.

"I've had a lovely night. Thank you," smiled Anne.

"Me too. A toast." Cordelia raised her glass. "To..." she broke off, insure of what to toast.

"Many more good nights?" suggested Anne.

"To many more good nights," smiled Cordelia, raising her glass and gently clinking them together. The both took a hearty swig of wine, the amount that was already inside them making them less than sophisticated.

"I am going to have a hangover tomorrow."

"Don't sweat it. You can go into work late."

"I can't do that. I have to open up, there's all the-"

"Nope. I had a word with Faith. She agreed that you needed a good night out and so she's covering until you get there."

"You arranged that for me?"

"Well, when Cordelia Chase has a good night out, she doesn't let anything get in the way."

"Oh really? Nothing?" There was a hint of double meaning in the tone.

"Nothing." Cordelia's voice was firm in response, as she took another sip of wine and leant further back into the couch. The silence stretched out in front of them once again, and yet another exchange of awkward smiles.

Cordelia did her best to stifle a yawn, but Anne noticed.

"Perhaps we should head off to bed."

"Yes, erm, I guess we should. Erm, the spare room is next to mine."

Cordelia swallowed, cursing herself for being such a gutless wonder. "Great."

"Well," they both stood up and made their way out of the lounge. "That door there," Cordelia pointed. They both hesitated outside the door.

"Thank you. For such a good night." Anne pulled Cordelia into a hug and placed a kiss on her cheek. She pulled back slowly, their faces an inch away from each other. Neither moved for several long seconds. "My pleasure." Cordelia smiled. Then once again the pair seemed overcome by embarrassment and slowly pulled away from each other. "I'll be in my room if you need anything. Sleep well." Cordelia leaned forward and returned the kiss on the cheek.

"You too. Sweet dreams." Anne gave Cordelia another smile before opening the door and slipping through.

"Yeah," whispered Cordy with a sigh before making her way falteringly into her own room.

 

"Hello?"

"Tara? It's Buffy."

"Buffy, how are you? I tried your apartment but just got the machine."

"I'm in L.A. With Angel." Buffy had sat alone in her room with nothing but her own thoughts for company. Now she felt like she was reaching rock bottom and needed a friendly voice.

"I sense trouble."

"I don't think it's anything that we won't be able to deal with. As long as we get to it in time, that is. Actually, I wondered if we could just talk."

"You've been thinking about her as well." It was a sad statement of fact. Not a day went by when Tara did not think about Willow. She didn't cry as much now, not as much as in the early days by any means, but sometimes, she still sat alone at night and let herself shed a few tears.

"Yeah. It's strange being here, that's all. I don't belong in L.A. but I need to be here. I don't have a choice."

"You've been avoiding going there for so long, except for two day trips. You know that it had to happen some day. Be honest with yourself Buffy, it was the last thing that you had to run away from. It's good that you're facing it now."

"It's just...just that it's like the way it used to be in Sunnydale. It's like they have the whole Scooby gang thing going here. Apart from the fact that they don't have all the real Scoobies, and I'm just not part of it."

"You have to make yourself part of it. No, I didn't mean it like that. You have to let yourself be part of it. Not fight it. The old Scooby gang has gone, Buffy," she added gently. Tara could hear the sniff on the other end of the line that told her Buffy was close to tears. She did not want to be hard on the girl. After all, there was no way that she could have known, and even if she had, Tara knew that there was nothing she could have done. Even the Slayer in her could never have hurt her best friend. The bond went deeper than that. "It will never be like the Scoobies Buffy, you know that, but you can still be a part of it." Tara paused for a second, bracing herself to ask the question. "How is she?"

"She's..." the words seemed to stick in Buffy's throat. "She seems happy here. How can they forgive her like that?" Unconsciously her voice rose.

"Buffy, it's been a long time. You know that. People change. You ought to be glad that she's happy. Buffy, you should be glad that she made it back to the right path. Give her some credit for that. We both know how hard it is to make wrongs right."

"But if she could do it then why couldn't Willow?" Buffy yelled, her emotions finally getting the better of her. The anger passed away quickly and Tara could hear the sobbing on the other end of the telephone.

"I don't know Buffy." Tara sighed. "I wish that I had the answers, but I just don't."

"Is it my fault?" whispered Buffy, years of self-doubt heavy in her voice. She and Tara had had this conversation many times over the years; nothing that they could say ever removed the guilt from the other, no matter how willing each of them was to take all the blame onto their own shoulders.

"No Buffy, it's not your fault."

"But if she hadn't tried to bring me back to life-"

"Then the world would have been a much worse place." Tara cut in. "Besides, that wasn't the start of it Buffy. You know that was my fault. If Glory hadn't gotten to me that time, then Willow would never have considered using those magics in the first place. Would she? Huh?" Tara coaxed gently. Part of her was trying to ease the pain of her friend, but mostly, she believed every word she said. It seemed so long ago, and yet at times like this the pain was as fresh as if it happened yesterday. Tara could barely remember getting back from that dark place in her head, it had all been too much of a shock to her system. All she remembered was Willow holding her, and knowing that it felt so good to be back. It wasn't until days later, after they had buried Buffy in that quiet little ceremony, that the rest of them had filled in the blanks for her, the places where she had no memory or self. Dawn told most of the story, breaking down repeatedly as she came to terms with the fact that in the space of a few months she had lost the two people that meant the most to her. The only two people in the world that she could call her own. Dawn told Tara, with a hint of pride breaking through, how Willow had gone after Glory to take revenge. Of the power that Willow had when Glory had come after them again and again. The freaky way that Willow's eyes went completely black when she was unleashing her power.

Tara knew that she should have taken heed then. But she was so hurt by the loss of Buffy, the shock of returning to the world after living so long inside her own head, that she was just glad that Glory had been defeated and that Willow had saved her. She had told herself that Willow had taken desperate measures, but only those merited by the severity of the situation. It just felt so good to be in Willow's arms again that she had found it easy to dismiss the tingle of fear that had pricked her spine at the thought of the power that Willow had flowing through her. Besides, they had argued about it once before, and it was because of that she had wondered off alone and been captured by Glory. So Tara really did blame herself.

Buffy blamed herself as well. Tara knew that. If Willow hadn't thought it possible to raise Buffy from the dead, if only she had rested in peace like she should have done. But Willow was overcome by grief, and her new-found sense of power told her she could try it. That there would be no harm in at least giving it a go. The world would be a better place with Buffy in it, that was the one thing she knew for certain. So if she had to dabble in the darkest heart of black magic for a while, then surely it would be ok as long as Buffy came back to them. This was the precise reasoning that Willow had used on Tara. The pleading in her voice half convinced her, and Tara decided that at least if she helped Willow, she could be certain that things would stay under control. And she could take some of the burden, stop Willow from having to absorb it all. And they did it. They had managed to bring Buffy back to life, as she was, and they had returned hope to the hellmouth. Tara had believed that it was the end of it. Buffy had not understood just what had been involved in the spell.

It wasn't until a few months later that Tara had begun to get the slight feeling that something was wrong. Willow was using magic for her own personal benefit, rather than for the greater good. Tara knew that this was the downfall of many witches in the past. It was so tempting to try to change the world around you to make it the sort of place that you want it to be. To make it easier and more pleasant for you. Yet Tara had gently chastised Willow, who had cried and apologised, and promised her that she would not do it again. And Tara had wanted to believe her. She thought that they had made it through another milestone in their life together, another thing that they had managed to overcome. And their love was stronger for it. They undeniably grew closer. Tara's happiness at this had blinded her to the fact that Willow was drawing further away from the rest of the gang, spending more time on her own when Tara was at the library or in class. She had been so willing to believe, she had allowed her love to get the better of her senses.

"Tara?" the voice on the other end of the line broke her from her reverie.

"Sorry. We should stop blaming ourselves for this. We have to Buffy. Otherwise we will never be able to get on with our lives properly."

"But it's been so long. Why won't the pain go away?"

"Some pain never goes away. It will get easier. We just have to let it happen. Stop fighting it by looking for blame in everything we do or think. Like Amy."

"How is she?" gulped Buffy. The mention of Amy at this point in the conversation was almost too much to bare. After all, she was the one who had suffered most. Suffered in silence and fear. Indebted to Willow for making her human again, she was, in effect, her slave. Willow had known her fa¨ade was slipping. This was something that they could realise now. Willow needed someone else to help her, someone whose loyalty she could depend on, no matter what she needed from them. She had de-ratted Amy using a dark spell, one that bound Amy to her.

"Amy's ok. She's still holding down her job. I think she's starting to like it." Tara tried to put a smile into her voice, for her own benefit as much as Buffy's. "I spoke to her last week, and she seemed happy. When I spoke to Xander about it, he seemed to think that she might have a date." Tara could not help but chuckle, and Buffy followed suit.

"That's good. I'm glad for her. Look, I better head off. Angel doesn't know that I'm calling long distance."

"Sure thing. You know where I am if you need me. You can always call."

"I know. Look after yourself. And stay safe."

"You too. Bye Buffy."

"Bye." As she hung up the phone she found she was crying again. Miles away in New York, Tara was doing the same.

 

Cordelia bounded into the office, pleased with the way her second audition had gone. She had been called back into the casting area after a forty-five minute wait and told by the dour faced director that she had got the part. It was a small one, but saving the world never left you much time for serious acting anyway. She had given up that ambition a few years after coming to L.A. Now the work that she did paid for little luxuries that her Angel Investigations paycheck never quite stretched to. Her last acting job had been a bit part as a victim in a TV sci-fi series. Quite literally in fact. Yep, she got to be killed by a vampire before the opening credits even came on. She hadn't had the heart to tell the people in make-up that they'd got it all wrong. But this new job appeared a little more promising in terms of cash.

"Hey guys," she said with a coy smile.

"Somebody give you a happy?" smirked Gunn.

"No, stupid!" she swatted his arm playfully. "I have just been given the part in the next Fruzles ad."

"Fruzles? The tangy chewy candy thing?"

"The one and only. I am going to get paid a nice wad of cash to put one in my mouth and say 'mmmm, Fruzles, the tangy, chewy whatever it is.'"

"Sounds like easy money."

"And so much easier on the skin than slaying demons for a living." She turned to Angel. "So, assuming that the world doesn't end and there is a next week, then I'm going to need two days off."

"No problem. What kind of a name is Fruzles anyway?" he muttered to himself absent-mindedly as he walked back into his office.

 

"I'm running out of ideas," sighed Angel. His usual sources had dried up. Many of them seemed to have gone to ground. Whenever that happened, it was a good indication that there was something very wrong going on in the city. But it didn't help him much when it came to stopping it. Most of the demons he knew didn't want the world to end, but when it came to stopping it, they were only of minimal help. Their first instinct was always to run for their lives and screw everyone else who got left behind.

"Maybe Kate could help," suggested Wesley. "See if she's heard anything about mystical items that have arrived here. Or have been purchased from any of the mystical specialists in the city. If nothing else, she can keep an eye out for anything even more suspicious than usual."

"Good idea." Angel walked over to the phone and hit a button. Kate was on speed dial. He looked at the clock on the wall. At this time of the morning, she should be in her office checking the mail. After three rings she picked up.

"Lockley Investigations."

"Kate, it's me."

"Hey Angel. How's it going?"

"Heavy. What about you?"

"Pretty routine. A few undercover jobs, nothing much. Now, is this a social call, or are we going to get down to business?" she laughed.

"I'm not sure what I'm looking for exactly. All we know is that an ancient vampire cult has come here. Presumably to perform a ritual. Or to get the things they need to complete it. You heard anything from any of your contacts?"

"Let's think." Kate flicked through her blue notepad. It was the one she kept especially for the more unnatural cases that she handled. Not that she did many, Angel had most of those, but sometimes one came her way. She was a P.I. working mostly for companies who wanted to keep tabs on suspicious employees, or for her to investigate strange happenings at their workplace. Sometimes, these happenings were of a demonic nature, though her clients generally did not know that when they hired her. She always kept her ear to the ground about matters of the occult to be on the safe side. She was even building up a little network of informers, a thought that filled her with not a small amount of pride. There was nothing in her notes that seemed to be of relevance.

"Sorry Angel. I don't have anything for you. What's the timescale on this one?"

"We're not sure yet."

"Give me a few days, and I'll put some feelers out. Okay?"

"Thanks."

"No problem. I'll give you a call if I get anything. Look after yourself."

"Will do. Bye."

"Bye."

Angel put the receiver down and hiked his shoulders at Wesley. "Nothing from her. But she's going to keep an eye out for us. Hopefully she can find something more useful than what we've been able to get our hands on so far."

 

"Hey guys, I'm outta here!" Faith bounded down the stairs. Cordelia looked up from her desk.

"You look nice. A bit overdressed for patrol aren't you?"

"That's coz I have a date." Faith waggled her eyebrows suggestively.

"Another one? That's three this week."

"I'm a popular girl!" she said with a laugh. Angel closed the book he had been reading and stood up to put it back on the shelf.

"Same woman?" he asked with a smirk.

"For your information, yes."

"Sounds like it's getting serious." He winked at Cordelia, hoping that she would take his cue to continue teasing Faith. She did. It was always too easy.

"What do you think Angel? I think Faith's falling in love," she finished in a singsong voice. Gunn smirked, but as he was within arm's reach of Faith, wisely decided to stay quiet.

"Whatever." Faith rolled her eyes and slipped a stake into a discreet pocket in her jacket. Better to be safe than sorry.

"See, she's getting all defensive. Definitely in love. Before we know it, there'll be roses arriving at the office. How sweet." Cordelia laughed as Faith flipped a finger at her. "Cute."

"Oh, you know I only have a place in my heart for you C." Faith raised her hand to her chest in an exaggerated motion and pretended to swoon.

"Okay, now you're just being gross. Get out of here before you're late for her again."

"Damn vamps," sighed Faith. "They always seem to know when I have a date. Page me if you need me." She blew Cordelia a kiss mockingly, and then bounced out of the door. They all laughed and returned to the books. Researching these robed guys was turning out to be a difficult task. Because they had been presumed extinct for so long, nobody had bothered to keep any real recordings of their history. Wesley had even been forced to call Giles in England to see if there was anything there that could be of use to them. It was proving futile. Gunn tossed another book back onto the table.

"Guess we're not going to find anything worth paging her with anyways."

"Probably a good thing," remarked Wesley, dryly. "She has to be running out of excuses by now anyway."

"Yeah. Bet you have the same problem, huh Buffy?" Gunn asked. They all looked up expectantly.

"I, erm, haven't been on a date for a long time. It's not worth the hassle." She added by way of an explanation when she saw several sets of raised eyebrows. She felt so set apart from them. She had stayed silent when she watched the way the banter flowed easily between them. The way it had been for her in the beginning with Xander and Willow. She swallowed the lump that always formed in her throat when she thought about her old best friend. Willow was something that was definitely best kept at the back of her mind, especially when there was a vampire threat as big as this one looming over them. She let out a breath, and, as casually as she could, "So Faith is dating a woman then?"

"Didn't you know?" Cordelia looked up surprised. "Oh, that's right. You haven't wanted to hear a word about Faith for years. How could you know?" the sarcasm was thinly veiled, and Angel shot her a look.

"I didn't think that would be a problem with Wil- erm, Tara and everything." Angel had only just corrected himself in time. He kicked himself mentally. He knew how much it could upset Buffy. In fact, whenever they had talked over the past few years, really talked, it had always been about Willow. It touched a nerve somewhere deep within Buffy, and she kept it bottled up tight inside her. But every now and then, it was bound to surface.

"It's not a problem, I guess I was surprised that's all. I always thought she was into boys. Men, I mean."

"She wasn't even eighteen the last time you spoke to her about stuff like that Buffy. People change. You have to try and remember that she's a different person now. Has been for a very long time. Try to let it go and give her a chance, okay?" Angel watched Buffy intently. She smiled weakly at him.

"I'll give it a go." There was so much anger that she still carried around for Faith. She wasn't even sure why any more. Whenever something bad happened in her life, no matter how unrelated, it somehow always seemed to make her angry with Faith. It was as if she needed somewhere to place her anger, so she turned it on Faith and let it seethe under her skin and in the back of her mind. Looking back, even with Willow, she had managed to make a reference to Faith. Having to make the spell that would allow her to get her body back from Faith, that was the first time that Willow and Tara had tried to perform any real magic. Dangerous magic. And when it had succeeded, they had gone on and improved, inciting more and more dangerous rituals. All of which Buffy had been thankful for until it was too late and she suddenly saw what had been happening in front of her. Until she noticed Tara's eyes were increasingly red and swollen from nights crying. She remembered thinking then, if only they had never had to do that spell to correct the harm that Faith had done. Deep inside, she knew that if it had not been that, then there would have been some other reason for Willow to step into the realms of powerful magic, but in her conscious thoughts, it was all too easy to blame it on Faith. She felt the tears begin to prick at her eyes, and quickly excused herself to the bathroom before the others could see them fall.

They all watched her go in silence, guessing what, or rather, who, she was thinking about. It hurt them all on some level, but they knew it was nothing compared to what Buffy must feel. Most of the details they had only heard through the grapevine, usually from Xander, but even he had been unwilling to talk about the more gruesome elements. Only Angel had been told the full story, and it sickened and saddened him. It made him think about Faith also. Even though he was proud of her, he would always have bet that Willow had a stronger sense of self, more willpower, an inherent good within her. It shocked him to think how wrong they had all been. And how helpless. There were times when nearly all of them wondered if they had at some point played a part in her downfall, and whether there were signs that they could have picked up on. The calls she made to that exact office for details of rituals that she told them were necessary to fight evil in Sunnydale. Details they were therefore only too willing to give to her. Should they have been able to tell that there was something not quite right by the tone of her voice? Or the fact that they had heard nothing about this evil from any of the others? It was all too easy to look back now and read the signs. It also made it easier to blame themselves for their ignorance.

 

She actually made it on time. That was a first for this relationship. The vampires really did seem to know when she was out to have fun and insisted on getting in her way. Tonight had been different though. She had made it to the bar without having to get out her stake once, though she did nearly pummel a cat that startled her in an alley on the way there.

So she had made it on time, and from then on the evening had just got better and better. A tequila slammer competition which, on the basis of supernatural speed and slayer metabolism, Faith had naturally won. Then dancing to some seriously wicked tunes and a cab back. Not to the Hyperion, but to her girl's apartment. Faith liked going there. It wasn't the best pad in the world, but the thing that made it nice was the fact that it was so normal. There were no associations with anything at all in the rest of her life. It was a safe space, a place where she could just be Faith. At least, that was what she kept telling herself.

"Would you like a drink?" asked Samantha from the walk in kitchen.

"Sure, whatever you're having is fine."

And that was how their night together started properly. Or would have been if Faith could have concentrated on the matter in hand. But for some reason, her body seemed to be separated from her mind, and as she lay there being kissed and caressed, she remained impassive, willing herself to feel something, but nothing came. Even her kisses seemed mechanical to her, though Samantha didn't seem to notice.

Which was something that Faith was very grateful for. After nearly an hour, her body refusing to become responsive on its own, Faith opted for faking it. Convincingly apparently, from the way that Sam crawled up her body and nestled in her arms with a satisfied smile on her face. Faith was lost. She wanted to go home to her own room and just be alone. But she did not want to have to face Buffy. She stared at the ceiling and prepared for another sleepless night.

At three in the morning, Faith stole a look at the clock. She was nowhere near sleep, and part of her was craving a good slay. Everything seemed to be going wrong already. This relationship was doomed to be over before it even began, all because Buffy had turned up. Faith realised this with a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach. She let out an audible groan, causing Sam to stir and roll over, out of her arms, but thankfully not wake up. What was it Angel said about redemption again?

 

Buffy thought about calling Xander but knew that it was too late. Three AM social calls were not something to be undertaken lightly. Not that he would complain, but it was hardly fair when he had a full day of work ahead. And even though she knew he wouldn't object, she suspected that Anya would be very vocal on the subject.

Her room at the Hyperion was nice. Simple, but all that she needed for her short stay. She lay on the bed, listening to the occasional car drive past outside, hating the fact that she was alone again. Faith was out on a date. That was fair enough. But she had not even invited her to go out with her on patrol the other nights. Not that she wanted to go, but it would have been nice to be asked. But after her outbursts the first few days she was here, she couldn't really blame Faith for not asking her out, just so that the invite could be slapped back in her face. Her icy manner since their grudging truce hadn't helped anything either.

And then there was that little bit of emotion that was surprising her.

Blond she was. Blind, no way. Back in Sunnydale, she had known that Faith was chatting her up. She had seen that look in the eyes of all the boys that she had dated. Seen that look in Angel's eyes as well. At the time she had told herself it was nothing more than a crush from someone who really understood what it was like to be a Slayer, and admired her for the successful job that she was doing.

Now, she was aware that it might not have been a crush at all. Not some phase that girls supposedly often went through. It struck Buffy that Faith had always known her own mind, so why she hadn't realised that she could be just as definite on this issue seemed ridiculous in hindsight. Now it was just making her uncomfortable, and she wanted to leave as soon as possible. She had caught the look in Faith's eyes, just the once, that seemed to tell her that the spark might still be there. And she did not want to lead her on, give her some false sense of hope by hanging around in L.A. for any longer than was absolutely necessary. It seemed like a fair and sensible way of reasoning to her.

So, if that was the logical way of thinking, why on earth was she lying there with the overwhelming urge to say sorry to Faith? To give her a hug and admit that she had been wrong. If she really didn't care that much then why was she always thinking about her and everything that they had ever done together. It didn't make sense. Every one else seemed to be able to forgive her, and deep down, Buffy could see why. Faith had changed beyond all recognition. There were things still very much the same, like the way that Faith oozed sex and used it to her advantage. The teasing and smutty sense of humour. But now Faith was quietly confident, not having to be loud and brash to prove a point. This more humble Faith was definitely a more attractive character. But whenever Buffy looked into those chocolate brown eyes, she was taken on a swift ride back to the past, and that was not a happy place. There was nothing that she could even do to fight it, the instinct and fear. Some deep-seated sense of self- preservation took over. Faith had hurt her so many times before; there was no way that she was going to be vulnerable again.

She got out of bed, restless, and fiddled with the air conditioning, just for something to do. She had one ear open for Faith's return, though she knew with a sinking feeling that she would not be returning tonight. Faith would probably spend the night at her lover's apartment and return the next day, glowing with sex, and with that smile on her face that told everyone where she had been and what she had done. Buffy could feel her guts coil inwards with an old familiar feeling.

As she got into bed and turned out the lights, she finally remembered where she had felt it before. Much to her dismay, it was something that she believed she would never feel in regard to Faith.

Jealousy.

 

The search was a fruitless as ever. They had been through the same books time and time again, hoping to find something that they had missed on the previous occasion. All the references were obscure enough to be rendered virtually useless, and Giles had informed them that there was little more that the council knew. Simply that there was a series of rituals that needed to be performed before the real drama began. But why they had chosen L.A. was still a complete mystery, and how close they were coming to the deadline seemed to be an increasing worry. Angel had insisted they put as many cases as they could on hold for a while, so that they could concentrate the better part of their energies to defeating this particular problem. Slaying had become a matter of 'go out, grab whatever you can and get back'. The frustrations were starting to show on the gang as well. Cordelia had hit Wesley over the back of the head with a particularly hefty fifteenth-century book when he had asked her if she was going to get round to one of those 'nifty little visions,' asking him if he liked the pain. This had been followed by a snort by Faith, who had the good grace to hide her amusement when Cordelia shot her a death stare. Faith knew better to play with the pros.

But despite that light relief, things were beginning to wear them down. They were starting to give up all hope when the telephone rang. Assuming that it was a potential client, Cordy answered the phone. "Angel Investigations, we help the hopeless."

"Cordy. It's me."

"Hey Kate! Please tell me that you have something useful before we all kill each other."

"Do you want the good news first, or the better news?"

"Sounds promising. What have you got?" Cordelia grinned at the others, giving them the thumbs up.

"Contact of mine says he had some vamps come in his store, looking for some ancient relic. He knew enough to say that he hadn't got it, but directed them to a place up town. From what I gather, he was saved by the fact that a group of Shalek demons chose to come in at that point. Otherwise the vamps would have probably killed him anyway."

"So he told them where they could get the things they need for their ritual?" Cordy started to panic.

"Relax Cordy. He had them in his store all along. They are now in hiding and he won't even tell me where they are. He's gone into hiding himself. Apparently they need a cup of, hold on," Kate checked her notes, "a cup of Cheregon. That's what it sounds like, not sure how it's spelt. He was in a bit of a hurry when I spoke to him. But at least it has made it harder for them to perform the ritual. They have to wait until the next station of the moon, or something like that. I think that was what he said."

"Thank God. So what's the better news?"

"You are going to love this. There appears to be a nest. From what I can gather these vamps are pretty old, so they sound like they could be your guys. They are living just outside the city limits, on the edge of the desert. There's a shack at Pine Creek that might be the place." Over the line, Kate could hear Cordelia scribbling down the name on the legal pad that she kept by the phone.

"That's great news. Thanks Kate."

"Hey no problem. All part of the service. Speaking of which, how much are you going to pay me?" she laughed.

"We don't pay cash but the favour can be returned at your leisure," responded Cordelia with a returning laugh. This was the break that they had all been waiting for. She hung up the phone, and turned on her heel. "Good news guys," she said with a huge grin.

 

As Cordy passed on the news, Buffy began to formulate a plan. She suspected that the others would come up with something along the same lines. A shack in a deserted area made the job much easier for them. The best thing they could do was attack by daylight, forcing as many of them out into the sun as possible. There was also the element of surprise that they could use to the fullest effect. The one thing that they knew for certain about these vampires was their age. Well, not specifically, but Buffy thought it stood to reason that the older ones were more traditional, and would probably stick to the ritual of sleeping through the sunlit hours. If they could attack then, it would be perfect, and their advantage might make up for the fact that Angel obviously couldn't be part of the plan. She began churning these thoughts over in her mind while the others talked excitedly about gathering weapons. One thing they all agreed on though, was the sooner the better, and tomorrow was as good a day as any. She silently slipped out of the room as Cordelia picked up the phone to call Faith and let her know the good news.

 

"Hey Buff! Good to hear from you."

"Still holding up on the hellmouth for me Xander?"

"You bet! I think all the badstuff followed you to L.A. Which is a good thing believe me. I'm feeling a little tired, if you get my drift."

"Not just work related?" Buffy said with a chuckle.

"Believe me, that doesn't help. I'm working nine to five to sort out all these orders, go home, shower, perform on demand, and then patrol looking for undead creatures of the night. Buffy come back," he broke down in mock sobs.

"Anya still working you hard then?"

"I just wish she'd just get pregnant already. She's starting to get snippy. Our entire life is comprised of charts and temperatures and ovulation cycles. And she can't even blame me any more."

"You of the above average sperm count."

"Don't mock my manhood slayer."

"Wouldn't dream of it. Have you ever mentioned the theory of trying too hard to her?"

"Oh, believe me, I've tried. She didn't get it. In fact, she insisted that we try harder."

"Not good."

"I don't know if I can take much more of this. If we ever have a baby I swear I'll hate it for the suffering it caused me -" he broke off as the door to his office slammed open and Anya walked in. He groaned quietly into the other end of the phone and Buffy chuckled.

"Xander it's time!" she waved the thermometer in front of his face as if to prove a point. The fact that the air conditioning was on, and it appeared to show that Anya was positively at room temperature no longer phased Xander.

"Anya, honey, I'm on the phone."

"Well, get off. I need you to impregnate me now. Or we'll have to wait another month."

"Buffy, am I so glad you're not a client. I have to go and impregnate my wife, if you'll excuse me." He said with a mock serious tone.

"Go, you man, you!" she laughed down the phone. "Talk to you later. Oh, and good luck!"

"Thank you. See ya Buff," he said with the gentle affection of years of friendship. Buffy was still laughing when she hung up the receiver.

"So what's up B?" Faith's voice came from over her shoulder. She turned around to see that the brunette had returned to work, a tired look on her face.

"Just catching up with Xander. Rough day at work?" Buffy squeezed the words out with an over-bright smile, her earlier conversation with Angel fresh in her mind.

"Yeah." Faith eyed Buffy suspiciously as she crossed the lobby. The blond hadn't had a good word to say to her since she arrived in L.A. Not that Faith gave a shit any more. She had given up making things right with Buffy a long time ago. She felt sorry for her after everything that had happened with Red, but Buffy didn't need her sympathy. Now she genuinely seemed to be at least trying to appear interested, but Faith was more than a little reluctant to let the guard down straight away. She decided to play along for a while. "Some kid came to the shelter. Didn't know it was there before, yunno. Just wanted a bed for the night. You should have seen him B," she threw herself down on the couch with a sigh. "I don't think he'd eaten anything for weeks. He knocked back three cheeseburgers that I'd got for my lunch then threw them straight back up again. Body couldn't handle it. Poor kid. Too young for that kind of messed up shit."

"How old was he?" Buffy crossed the room and sat down sideways on the couch, facing Faith, unable to keep herself distant from the anguish that had somehow slipped into Faith's voice.

"He said he was eighteen, but they all say that. Means we don't have to report them or anything. I'd say he was about fifteen. Remember when you were fifteen B? Imagine not having those super powers to help you out." Faith shook her head, obviously feeling the boy's pain. She hated this part of her job. The bit where she came home and still felt the hurt that they were going through. Hated to see kids being ruined before their lives had even really begun. And the thing that she would not admit to anyone. The suffering that seeing them there always brought back to her. The memories of what it was like to have to fend for yourself, to just want somewhere safe to go, with someone who would take all the pain away, and let you get a good nights sleep and enough food to take away the ache in your stomach. She knew what it was like to need somebody. Now she had the responsibility of being that person, of taking that pain and suffering. She did it gladly.

"I can't imagine what it would be like. The closest I get is the time when I ran away. After," she swallowed, "killing Angel. Ran away to here. Strange. Did Anne tell you how we knew each other?"

"No, she said to ask you about it. I guess you saved her life at some point huh?"

"Kinda. Do you um, want to know?" Buffy looked at the tired expression of Faith's face and thought she might not want to hear another story like those she had spent the day dealing with.

"Sure B." Faith was craving a cigarette, but still couldn't bring herself to light up in front of Buffy. Instead, she made began making herself a cup of coffee, settling for a blood rush of another kind. Doing something also meant that she didn't have to look to long at Buffy, hands ever so slightly shaking.

"Well, I came here. I needed to be away from Sunnydale, away from being a slayer. I couldn't handle it anymore. I wanted to be alone so much. I stopped using the name Buffy, knowing that it would be too easy for Giles to find me. I used my middle name, because it's so popular. I got a job as a waitress. All anyone knew about me was that my name was Anne." Buffy paused and watched as Faith turned her head and raised her eyebrows questioningly, as she began to guess where the story was heading. "I met Lily, er, I mean Anne, and she needed my help. She remembered me from Sunnydale. I'd helped her there as well. She was the one who made me come home. She made me remember that there were people who needed me. I decided to go back to Sunnydale. She was going to stay here. But she was so alone. So weak." Buffy laughed at the look of disbelief on Faith's face as she came back to join her at the table. "It's true, I promise. She'd had so many identities in her life, she didn't even know who she was any more. So when I left, she became Anne. I gave her my name and my job."

"You're saying that she took your personality on?"

"Oh no, she just took my name, really. The rest of it came from her. She just needed to see that she could do it. That she had the strength inside her. There's more to the story, but that's hers to tell you."

"Oh." Faith seemed lost in thought for a second before she noticed that Buffy was staring quizzically at her. "It's nothing I guess."

"You must have been thinking about something," smiled Buffy, temporarily forgetting that she was still supposed to be angry with Faith for reasons that she could no longer even really remember.

"Well..." Faith stole another glance at Buffy. They hadn't opened up to each other like this since the time they used to go patrolling together just after she had first arrived in Sunnydale. It felt nice though. "It's just that Anne and I get on really well yunno. But there never seemed to be much of you in there. Does that make sense? I mean, I think I know her better than anyone else."

"I thought she and Gunn went way back?"

"They do. I mean, all the others have known her for way longer than I have, but we work together. We talk and stuff..." Faith trailed off.

"And stuff?"

"We kind of dated for a while." Faith said it quietly, but trying to sound offhand, not really knowing how Buffy would react. Willow and Tara were one thing, but she didn't know whether or not Buffy would make the same exception for her.

"Oh..."

"It wasn't meant to be. She just knew about all the things that went bump in the night, and knew what a vampire slayer was. Looking back, I never thought to ask how she knew. Guess it all makes sense now. She was someone who understood. That was what I needed at the time. But it was never going to work."

"Why?"

"The same reason why most couples don't work. It just wasn't meant to be. It only lasted a few months anyway. And we're good friends now. That's more important to me."

"What about this new woman?" Buffy found she was having to swallow as a lump suddenly formed in her throat. She continued, aiming for what she hoped was the same conversational tone. "Does she know about you?"

"Not yet. Though if I have to bail on her one more time I think she's going to end it all. But I know it would be too much for her to deal with. She'd just think I was some psycho and finish with me anyway. I guess I'll just ride it out until it's over. Another one bites the dust."

"It sucks, doesn't it?" said Buffy with a low laugh. Faith looked up at her.

"Sure does."

The smile held for a few seconds before the sound of footsteps made them both turn their heads. It was Angel, looking even more tense than usual, the frown that creased his forehead marring his eternally youthful skin. "Preparing for tomorrow?"

"Kinda," smiled Faith.

"I just wish I was going with you." The frustration was clear in his voice. He hated the thought of them going off into battle without him, even though he knew that were both more than capable of looking after themselves when it came to taking out a vamp nest. "So what's the plan?"

"I guess Faith and I will go in first, break down the door and get what we can. Then the others can come in as back up and get to the ones that manage to avoid the sun."

"Sounds like as good a plan as any," Angel nodded.

"It works. We've done it before." Buffy looked over at Faith. The tension filled the room once more. Faith stood up abruptly, unable to sit there any longer.

"Well, I guess I have an early night then. Could be a busy day tomorrow." She wasn't tired at all, in fact, she was feeling kind of wired, but she needed some more time to herself. She had made some progress with Buffy at last, and wanted to get out before her luck could change. "Good Night."

"Night," said Buffy, taking one last look at Faith as she headed out of the room. She knew that she ought to get some sleep as well. After all, they had no idea just how many vamps they would find tomorrow. The fight could be a long and bloody one, especially if everything didn't go to plan. After all the years as the Slayer, Buffy liked to prepare for every eventuality.

But she knew that if she went to bed now, she would just spend hours tossing and turning, and that would leave her feeling much worse in the morning. "I think I'm going to go out for a quick patrol. Nothing heavy, just get any stragglers that are out there." She stood up and walked to the door. "I'll see you in the morning," she said in a tone that said she did not need Angel to make any further comment. He understood, and let her leave the building. He knew that she was finally facing up to a lot of things she had spent years denying to herself. He could tell by the way she had changed demeanour in the space of the week that she was starting to confront some of her darkest demons. He was convinced that she and Faith had not been talking about their plans for tomorrow when he had come into the room. And if they were talking about things on a more personal level, then that was fine by him.

If only they knew there was so much more they had to say.

 

Cordelia realised that it was early, but she didn't care. She knew that Anne usually arrived at the shelter before dawn, so it wouldn't be a problem if she turned up unannounced.

Normally, when there was a crusade against evil, she just went along without really questioning the implications. She knew all about The Powers That Be - she was, after all, the earthly link with them. They would not let her die until it was her time, the moment when she was destined to go to...wherever it was she would go to. That was another part of the job that she did not want to think about too closely, but somehow fear never got the better of her.

Last night though, she had a strange sense of foreboding. It was nothing like a vision, nothing that intense, more of a queasy feeling of unease in the pit of her stomach. She could just be suffering from an unexpected bout of PMS, but either way, it was an uncanny how it coincided with the impending evil. She had tried to dismiss it - all her friends would be there anyway, fighting alongside her. All except one. That was when, lying in bed trying to sleep despite her worry, she had made up her mind to come to the shelter the next day before they set off.

She knocked briefly on the half open door and stepped into the office. As she had guessed, Anne was already there, making a 'things to do' list.

"Hey. Ready to face the big day?" she smiled. Cordelia could not help but notice that she looked a little anxious as well.

"How did you know?"

"Faith called. She needed to take the time off to do whatever it is you are going to do. I never ask details. But she did mention that you would be going with her."

"Oh." Cordy felt slightly stupid. It made sense that Faith would have called and let Anne know what was going on.

"I was hoping that you would come here first though." Anne looked back down at her list, making it impossible for Cordelia to read her face.

"Really?"

"Yeah. Just in case..." she trailed off, unwilling to give voice to the thought.

"Well, that's why I'm here I guess. Just in case."

"I'm sure everything will work out fine. It always does."

"It can't always." Cordelia did not want anyone to know about the sinking feeling she still had. Her legs were shaking slightly as she sat down on the couch while Anne got up and put some coffee on.

"I take it you've time for one before you head off?"

"Please. That would be wonderful. I need the caffeine rush to keep me on my toes," she laughed, "in case I have to look after Wes."

"In that case, I'll make it strong!"

They sat there in silence while Anne finished making the coffee, both waiting for the other to speak first. Finally, Anne picked up the two steaming mugs and joined Cordelia on the couch. Cordelia accepted the mug with a smile, holding it as if she were trying to warm her hands. It did, indeed, make her feel better, provided her with some small sense of comfort on a psychological level.

"So why were you hoping that I would come to see you?" Cordelia finally asked the question. She was only half-surprised when Anne looked down, her coffee apparently becoming the most interesting thing that she had ever seen.

"You're my friend," she said simply. She wondered if she should continue, but her thoughts wouldn't seem to organise themselves in her brain. There were several things that she wanted to say, but she was not sure if this was the time and the place for things like that. She cursed herself for always getting emotionally attached to the wrong people. Take Faith for example. There was a good chance that if she told Cordy how she felt, then all she would get in return would be a terse smile and a polite brush off. Sure, they had been friendly for a long time, and the other night was filled with gentle flirting, but it was no more than she had ever seen when Faith and Cordy were together. And there was nothing going on there, well, at least not as far as she knew. So she could have been reading far too much into a simple friendship. "I worry about you." It was a lame ending and she knew it.

"Thank you." Cordelia shuffled along the couch and closed the distance between them. "That means a lot to me," somehow her voice had become husky and thick with unspoken emotion as she pulled Anne into a hug. A hug that lasted a little too long, but there was something reassuring about the way that Anne allowed her hand to roam up and down Cordelia's back. They pulled back an inch, arms still wrapped around each other, while each searched the others' eyes for something. "I'll be careful, I promise." Cordelia's voice was still a whisper as she closed her eyes and leaned forward. She placed a kiss on Anne's cheek, but it was a parody of her actions a few nights earlier. This time, the gesture of friendship was laden with feeling, and Cordelia stayed there, feeling Anne's skin, soft against her own cheek, for what seemed like the longest time. She opened her eyes, and realised that Anne was trembling ever so slightly within the circle of her arms.

She pulled back, skin moving against skin, so slowly that Anne's face gradually began to form in the periphery of her vision. When she was certain that Anne had no intention of pulling away from her grasp, she repeated the gesture, her stomach coiling in anticipation, but this time on Anne's lips rather than her cheek. Just the gentlest of brushes as their lips met, before fear overcame her again, and she hesitantly drew back. She could not disguise the surprise that flickered across her face as she realised that Anne's arms were still firm around her waist. She stood still, staring ahead, as Anne leaned forward and returned the kiss to her cheek, repeating the gentle movement. As she pulled back, their eyes met again, and without waiting any longer, Anne leaned in once more, placing her lips against Cordelia's, firmer this time, and holding them there longer, uncertain as to whether or not to pull away.

The decision was made for her as Cordelia's tongue flicked out almost involuntarily, and the tip brushed her lips. The electricity it caused to flow through Anne's body made her gasp, a sharp intake of breath that seemed to fill her mouth with the taste of Cordelia's lip gloss and the lingering hint of bitter coffee. Then her head was tipping back, her eyes flickering closed as she returned the hesitant intimacy, slowly becoming bolder until the kiss deepened, tongues gently probing new found spaces, light-headedness replacing all other thoughts.

Slowly, reluctantly, Cordelia pulled back, as a small voice at the back of her mind reminded her that she had places to be. The rest of her mind screamed that this was the only place that she wanted to be, rest of the world be damned. She opened her mouth to say something, when there was a sharp knock on the office door. They both sprang back, nervousness kicking in, as the door opened.

"Anne, sorry to interrupt, but there's a delivery here. They want you to sign for it."

"Thanks Tommy. I'll be right there."

"'K." The boy pulled the door closed behind his retreating head.

"I'd better go too," said Cordelia with forced brightness. "Places to be, demons to slay," she realised that she was close to babble, something which Cordelia Chase never sank to. Anne reached out to her and it promptly shut her up.

"Look after yourself. Promise." The voice was insistent, demanding.

"I promise."

"Call me later. I think we need to talk." Anne reached up and placed another kiss firmly on Cordelia's lips. "I'll be thinking about you. Good luck."

 

"Okay." Buffy let out a deep breath as she talked the plan through yet again. "Faith and I will go up ahead. When we give you the signal, you guys leave the car and follow us up."

"Sure thing," shrugged Gunn. "You gonna tell us what the signal is?"

"Us kicking the door down." Buffy's voice was grim, her face set with determination. Faith just fiddled with a strand of loose cotton dangling from the sleeve of her jacket. "Let's get this over and done with."

"Be careful," Wesley said quietly. He watched as the other two nodded their thanks and, using the sparse bushes for cover, made their way in the direction of the shack. The chances of there being a look out were slim, they couldn't be expecting anyone to find them all this way outside of town, but it was better to be careful and make sure that their job wasn't any harder than it needed to be. They had no idea how many vampires were inside, so the more things that were to their advantage, the better.

They crouched by a bush ten feet away from the house, surveying it more closely now that they could see it in detail. As they had expected, the windows were boarded up sturdily, making it difficult to guarantee that they would be able to get any sunlight through them. They hadn't really believed it was an option, but, as always, they had hoped.

"What do you think B?"

"I wish there was some way in other than that door."

"We could try around the back, see if there was another way in." She paused, and swallowed, almost nervously. "Um, are we certain that this is the place?"

"Who else would live like this?" Buffy wrinkled her nose in disgust.

"True. I, erm, kind of made a back up plan." Faith stumbled over the words. It seemed from the outset as if Buffy had taken more control than she had. Faith first had the idea the night before, but, for some reason she couldn't quite fathom, had held back from voicing it.

"Back up plan?" Buffy was mildly surprised. Trapped by her stereotyping as always, she now realised it had not crossed her mind that Faith might actually have been able to formulate a plan, especially one that could rival her own.

"Well, we're in the middle of nowhere right? And that's a boarded up wood shack filled with who knows how many vamps. We could go in there, have a rumble, risk our own lives, or we could take the two tanks of gas that I put in my trunk this morning and torch the place. No one is going to see us, and chances are no one is even going to care that an abandoned place is burning to the ground." She stopped and looked closely at Buffy. Part of her was seeking approval, the other part knew it was an easy alternative with a much greater chance of success.

The plan was obvious. Simple. Not the kind of dramatic antics that Buffy still expected from Faith. It was such a good idea, she couldn't quite believe that neither Angel nor herself had come up with it. All they had to do was scoot around the place and check for signs of humanity, then stand back and be rid of them. It was such a bizarrely good plan, she had the urge to hug Faith. Of course, she stopped herself in time, but still could not prevent the huge grin spreading across her face. Faith saw it and grinned in return.

"Let's have a look around and make sure there are no people in there. I don't think that there are, but I want to be certain. Then we'll go back to the car and tell the others.

 

"What's taking them so long?" Wesley glanced at his watch for the fourteenth time since Buffy and Faith had left them standing by the car. He had watched until their backs had disappeared behind some scrub. For ten minutes now, he had been waiting for them to emerge, his stake poised and muscles tensed ready for the sprint to the shack.

"Maybe Faith's finally convinced Buffy into a quick make out session?" commented Cordelia dryly.

"Faith and Buffy?" snorted Gunn. "Last time I heard, their version of making out included weapons and blood loss."

"Are you kidding?" Cordelia waved her stake exasperatedly. "All that tension between them? There is no way that is all non-sexual. Besides, you never saw them together before Faith went AWOL to the dark side." She felt a surprise pang of jealousy as she remembered the events of that morning, as she thought of Anne and Faith together.

"Is that right Wes?" Gunn was more than a little disbelieving. Sure, Faith having the hots for Buffy made sense, Faith had the hots for anything cute in a skirt. But Buffy? No chance. Was there?

"Well, they did, uh, have moments when they, um, seemed quite...intimate?"

Cordelia rolled her eyes. "Translation: they wanted each other bad. Now they are back in the same place at the same time, believe me, we can just sit back and watch the tension grow. One of them will explode sooner or later."

"Sounds messy," smirked Gunn waggling his eyebrows. Cordelia mock slapped him.

"Fascinating as this conversation is," Wesley tried hard not to show his discomfort at the thought of Buffy or Faith exploding, separately or together, "don't you think we should be concentrating on the matter in hand? What do you think that they are doing?"

"I think we covered that one already..."

 

Signs of human life were negligible, signs of human death, palpable. The stench of rotting flesh made its way into the Slayers' nostrils as they made their way to the back of the shack. Even if the place had a human rather than vampire occupier, then at least they would be getting rid of another serial killer. Either way, it made Faith's plan the best option that they had. They both wrinkled their noses at each other in silent agreement and made their way back round the front.

"Change of plan," Faith said to the three astonished faces waiting for them. She went to the back of the car and opened the trunk, picking up one can of gas for herself and handing the other one to Buffy. "We're going to torch the place instead."

"Torch the place?" Wesley looked shocked. Then, rolling his eyes, "why didn't we think of that earlier?"

"It's Faith's plan," explained Buffy with a hint of a smile at her fellow Slayer. "We needed to check the place out first."

"Come on," Faith was aware of a slight blush forming on the top of her cheeks at Buffy's acknowledgement. It was not something that she wanted to share with the others when it turned into full-scale rosiness. "Let's get this over with. I got a million better things I could be doing." She marched off in the direction of the shack, not even bothering to try and be inconspicuous. Screwing the top off the can, she began sloshing it liberally over the front door, effectively sealing off the vampires only exit once the place started to go up.

Buffy followed suit, coating the walls and trying hard not to inhale the fumes. They met again at the front door, empty cans in both hands. "Erm, Faith. This was a great plan and everything, but how are we going to light it?"

"With this." Faith put her hand into her jacket, narrowly avoided pulling out her box of cigarettes, and grabbed the matches instead. "You want to go back to the guys? This is gonna go up pretty fast."

"Will you be ok?"

"Sure. Growing up, I set fire to a lot of things," Faith's tone was unreadable, but Buffy hoped she was being sarcastic. Though, knowing Faith...

"Okay then, I'll see you back at the car. Erm, be careful." Without waiting for the smile that Faith sent her way, she turned on her heel and broke into a brisk run back to the car.

Faith turned back to the building, judging the distance she needed. The smell of the fumes was almost overpowering as the gas vaporised in the desert heat. She lit the match, thankful for the lull in the breeze, and waited for it to burn down halfway, rolling the wood between her thumb and forefinger. Suddenly she flicked her wrist, and backed away as the flame touched the damp wooden step. "So long, suckers," she muttered, half under her breath. Then she felt the sudden blast of heat as the ignition spread, and began to run back to the where the others were waiting. By the time that she got there, the entire front of the building was ablaze, and screams were beginning to come from the inside. Suddenly the door was flung open, and several figures came running out.

As their robes caught the flames that licked the building, they began to burn. A few steps further into the daylight made them disintegrate completely.

 

The journey back was filled with whoops of victory, and frequent congratulations were sent Faith's way. She accepted them with good grace, and refused to take full responsibility for the plan. Apparently it was something that she had seen in an Angelina Jolie movie a few years ago. But when Buffy looked at her with a smile that almost hinted at something along the lines of "well done," Faith felt her composure collapsing around her as if she was seventeen again. She had to keep looking out of the window to hide her grin from the others.

 

Angel was pacing nervously, waiting for the remaining shards of sun to set, when they walked through the door, victory written clearly across their faces.

"You did it! Anybody hurt?"

"Faith's jacket has a slight singeing around the sleeves, but other than that, nope." Buffy smiled at him and his obvious confusion. "Her idea. Why fight when you can just burn the whole place down and let nature do the work for you."

"And we didn't think of this before because?"

"I think," laughed Wesley, "we overcomplicated things a little. Faith's plan worked along the lines of a rather beautiful simplicity."

"Look guys, I keep telling you, it was nothin'." Faith shrugged out of her jacket and threw it carelessly down on the coffee table in the middle of the room. "But I think I might blow off patrol anyways."

"Good idea." Wesley was clearly caught up in the ease of victory. "But I think that this calls for a celebration nonetheless. Anybody else want to 'hit the town'?"

"I'm in," Gunn thrust his hands into the pockets of his jeans and headed for the door.

"Me too. You can tell me all about it." Angel grabbed his coat from the stand and began to put it on, while Faith simply shook her head, feigning tiredness. "You coming Cordy? Fred's at the library."

"No I think I might go over to tell Anne the good news." Several sets of eyebrows rose quizzically. Then simultaneously looked at the telephone. Only Faith continued looking at Cordelia. The woman obviously had something in mind. Faith wasn't sure what it was, but realised enough to know that backing her up certainly wouldn't hurt.

"Good plan Cordy, say hi to Anne for me." She said it with a smile, effectively ending the subject. As the others continued to get ready to go, none of them noticed the smile of gratitude that Cordelia sent. "You going with them too B?"

"No I think I might just have an early night. I'm not really in the mood for patrolling either."

"Take it easy guys," Gunn made his way out. As the others followed him, the three girls stared uneasily at each other, lost to some degree in their own discomfort that stood totally apart from the events of the day.

 

Faith kicked off her boots as soon as she walked into her room, and reached inside her jacket for her cigarettes. She had somehow managed to survive all day without having one, even after the adrenalin rush of their victory. As she lit the match, she automatically began to mull over the days events. Why had she been so happy when Buffy praised her for the plan she had? It was nothing special, no need for blue prints or strategic moves. In fact, Faith had been genuinely surprised that none of them had thought about it earlier.

But for them, fighting evil was in many ways a war, and they approached it like a war. For her it was different, it was a job to be done, and the most important thing about that was staying alive. Self-restraint was a way of life for her now, and that meant that she thought in those terms all the time. She would never go any further than she had too, except in those occasional dark moments still, when the fight overwhelmed her and somehow became her whole world. Then, only thoughts of her friends blunted her recklessness, and kept her safe and alive. Luckily, those times were few and far between now, but she knew that they were there. They would always be there - it was just in her nature.

She pulled off her top and threw it carelessly in the general direction of the closet. As she inhaled from her cigarette, her other hand carelessly traced the pattern of the tattoo on her arm. It was starting to fade now, ever so slightly, and like her, it no longer bore stark defiance against the rest of her arm. Another reminder of the wild child she had been, the thing that she did not want to be again.

A knock on the door brought her quickly out of her thoughts. Fred must be back. Whenever she spent late nights at the library she would always, at Faith's insistence, check in with her so Faith knew she had got home safely.

"Come in," Faith didn't even look up from where she was staring out of the window, not giving a damn that she was topless. As far as she saw it, the rats in the alley below could look all they want, and any people that were there probably needed all the cheering up that they could get. Fred had seen far more interesting things in her lifetime to be bothered by Faith's nudity or any other woman's any more.

"Hi," The voice was not Fred's, and Faith spun round, torn between covering up her body and stubbing out the cigarette that she was still holding. In her panic, she did neither successfully. With no clothes within easy reach, she brought her arm up to cover her breasts, unfortunately for her, it was the same one which had the hand holding the cigarette attached to it.

"I made some cocoa," explained Buffy, finding the picture above Faith's bed fascinating suddenly, "I thought you might want a cup as well." Without looking, she extended the cup in Faith's general direction. Wisely, Faith took the time to grab a tank top from the floor and pulled it over her head, before flicking the remains of her cigarette out of the window.

"Thanks," she said gruffly, taking the mug out of Buffy's hand.

"No problem." Buffy finally made eye contact with her. "It's been a long day, and well, with everything..." she trailed off, uncertain of what to say. Would Faith guess why she was here? It was another one of those nights. Those times when she felt almost unbearably lonely. When she needed to be with someone. Sure, she knew that she could call up any number of people, even make an international call to Giles in England, but it was not the same. Just a disembodied voice coming down the phone line, it was something that always seem to make Buffy realise just how alone she was, rather than act as some kind of comfort.

No, she needed company. When she was in the kitchen making herself a warm drink, she had heard Cordelia leave. Not that they had much to say to each other after all this time, nothing more than superficial conversation, but Buffy liked to at least have it as an option. The loneliness was increasing, becoming intense to the point of despair, and as Buffy's hand spooned cocoa into a second mug, she knew that she would go and see Faith. Right now, someone who had been her worst enemy for so long was turning out to be her sole source of comfort. It was something that disturbed her; a week spending time with Faith, and she was already starting to forgive her. There was some rebellious part of her that was ignoring everything that her brain was saying, all those things about being strong, about never forgetting. It even told her to think about Riley, something that she avoided doing on most occasions for obvious reasons, just to try to fuel that anger. But still, there was something deeper that was reluctantly beginning to see Faith for the person she was now, and forgetting the person that she had been all those years ago.

Over the past week, while they had been researching, Buffy had found herself watching Faith. Her easy interaction with the others, her quiet self-confidence. That was the thing that had moved her the most. Faith knew who she was, the good and the bad, and made no apologies for the fact. She no longer sought her approval, something that had been obvious in Sunnydale all those years ago. Maybe if Buffy had been more willing then...she had let the thought trail off as she added milk to the powder and stirred slowly, starting to concentrate a little too hard on the task in hand, just to keep her mind away from where that thought was leading.

Steeling herself for the time ahead, Buffy had picked up the cups and made her way to Faith's room. Listening for a few seconds outside the door, she had realised that there was no sound inside, and wondered if Faith was already asleep. Glancing at the crack under the door, she had seen a faint light coming through, and decided to knock, something that was quite difficult when you were carrying two boiling hot cups, even if you were a Slayer.

Now she was watching Faith move around, adjusting lights and trying to hide the fact that she was cleaning up discarded clothes from the floor. Buffy looked around the room, Faith's room; her place, her space. There were a few photographs tacked to the walls, one of her and Cordelia in what appeared to be a tequila slammer competition, one of Angel on the karaoke stage at Lorne's bar, a group photo of them all grinning into the camera, one where Faith appeared to be picking up Gunn with just one hand. And over on the closet door, a picture she remembered Angel taking. She had been only seventeen, her eyes were still bright, flickering with the candles that Angel had littered around the mansion. A Nuevo-riche couple lived there now, the place no longer felt the same. This was the inane thought that went through Buffy's head as she stared at the younger version of herself. Angel must have given it to Faith at some point.

She glanced back at Faith, who was now standing with her hands clasped together in front of her body. Buffy couldn't tell whether she was welcome or not, but for some reason, Faith appeared to be nervous. She fleetingly wondered if Faith ever bought her lovers back here. Understanding the unease, Buffy decided to take pity on her as best as she could.

"It's your room. You can smoke if you want."

"Thanks," Faith let out a breath she hadn't realised she was holding.

 

Anne's glance kept flicking towards the door as she sorted bedding for a new kid who had made his way to the shelter. Battered, beaten, she knew that she should give him her full attention. Yet she had one eye on the door, one ear listening out for the phone. She was so experienced in this routine, the taking care of the needy, that no one noticed that she was a tiny bit distracted. Since that morning, she had been thinking things through, the obvious attraction that existed between the two of them, what it meant and where it could go, and just where had it started. Faith had been in prison when they first met, which meant that it was at least a lifetime ago. Her stomach had been tight with terror all day, wondering what their relationship, if it did indeed come to that, would hold, and praying to whatever God in whatever dimension that Cordy would be kept safe. She knew that Cordelia would be the second line of fire, something that she was grateful for. She trusted Faith to protect her friends, even protect Buffy if she had to, no matter how horrible Buffy had been to her over the years. And it was that belief that had got her through the day at the shelter and stopped her from jumping in the car and heading out to the desert to lend a hand.

So when the door finally opened to reveal Cordelia rather than one of the kids residing at the shelter, the relief that washed through Anne's body was almost too much to bare. She found herself almost running to the door, absently wondering when she had started to care this much, and threw her arms around the woman, not caring as everyone in the TV room looked on.

"Your safe!"

"Of course I am silly," laughed Cordelia, returning the hug tightly. "Everything went well, look, not even a scratch." She pulled out of Anne's grasp with a smile and did a twirl to prove her point.

"What happened?"

"Well," Cordy looked over Anne's shoulder at a scruffy young boy who was hovering by the couch in the main room. "Why don't you finish what you were doing here while I go and put some coffee on, and then we can talk all about it."

"OK." Anne glanced over her shoulder in the boy's direction, and her caring instinct once again took over. "You know where everything is in my office, don't you? I'll be finished in ten." She smiled again, unable to stop the relief returning with force. She watched as Cordelia smiled back at her, and then made her way through the half- open door that lead into her office. Then Anne turned around, and forced herself to focus on the one person who really needed her attention more than anyone else.

Cordelia put the coffee on and then wondered aimlessly around the room, her stomach a tight bundle of nerves. She hadn't felt this way since she was a kid and secretly dating Xander, she thought with half a smile. It was a vaguely disconcerting thought, and at thirty she knew that she was really too old to be crushing on someone. A bitter thought that it might just be loneliness passed through her mind, and she dismissed it quickly. Living in L.A. you soon realised that everyone was lonely in some way. The people that turned to Angel, the people who she dealt with on a day-to-day basis, were some of the loneliest people in the world. They were desperate and had nowhere to turn except to complete strangers. At least she had her friends, and that meant a hell of a lot more than simply having someone she could call her lover. No, she was certain, that was not the basis of the attraction she was feeling now. There was no basis for it, the feelings were there simply because they were, no need to attempt to rationalise something into clear-cut emotions.

She walked back over to the side of the office and began to pour the coffee into the two clean mugs that were there. Several dirty ones lined the surface, and she realised that either Anne had had a very busy day, or she had been too distracted to concentrate on the most simple of housekeeping tasks. She found herself hoping it was the latter, and that she was the cause of that distraction. Staring at the mugs, she did not realise that Anne had joined her until she heard the soft click of the door shutting behind her. She turned around and wondered if she was looking as shy and bashful as Anne was. Unable to think of anything else to say, she picked up one of the mugs. "Coffee?"

"Thanks." Anne took a couple of paces forwards and took the cup from her, then, realising that her hands were shaking slightly, placed in quickly down on the edge of her desk. The last thing she needed now was scalding coffee on her fingers. "So how did it go?"

"Surprisingly well. I didn't even break a nail." Cordelia mocked herself. "In fact, I didn't even have to fight. Faith came up with a plan to set fire to the place, so I just got to sit on the hood of the car and watch the fireworks go up. My favourite type of demon hunting. The type where they stay the hell away from me."

"I've been worried about you all day. I mean, especially after this morning." Anne looked down at the floor again, surprised that she had bought up the topic so soon in the conversation. All the times that she had gone over it in her head during the day it had always been Cordy who started talking about it first.

"We need to talk." Cordy said it with grim determination and sat down on the couch, patting the space beside her to indicate that Anne should sit next to her. She felt nervous again and mentally chastised herself, after all, the two of them had been friends for a long time, and what had happened between them that morning should not have any effect on that. That kiss had not been a one-off, something born from fear or desperation. It was something that had happened because they had both wanted it to, and Cordelia was sure that this attraction was something that they were both feeling. "About what happened this morning," she added unnecessarily. "I'm not sure when I started thinking like, this, but..." she trailed off again.

"Neither am I. I mean, you're one of my best friends and everything, I don't want to ruin that."

"Neither do I. Would we ruin it?"

"Are you sure you want this?"

"Are you?"

"I think so. But if you don't, then I understand -"

"I do." Cordelia interrupted with a certainty that surprised even her. She was used to be headstrong when it came to the things that she wanted, but today she hadn't always been entirely sure that this was the right thing for them to do. Sitting there now, she just wanted to go out for a drink with Anne, have a good time like they always did when they were together. Not this awkward 'first time' conversation that was happening between them. It was going to remain awkward until one of them actually got round to doing something positive. With her mind made up, she reached over and took Anne's hand in her own. "I'm sure," she whispered, and leaned forward.

It had nothing of the spontaneity of that morning. The kiss was new. Tender. For Anne it was filled with relief that Cordelia was alive and was just here with her. It was a life-affirming moment, when it all just seemed to make sense. Everything that the two of them chose to do with their lives was for moments like this. So they, and the rest of the world, could find the sanctuary of another person's touch. Then, as Cordelia's tongue gently probed between her lips, she felt her eyes fluttering shut, and all such thoughts were forgotten. She felt Cordy's hand slide around the back of her head, making the tiny hairs on the back of her neck prickle as the kiss deepened. She found herself reaching out, needing to hold Cordelia, pull them together.

As she did so, Cordelia gently pulled out of the kiss, sliding closer to her on the couch, and touched the side of her face with her fingers. There was an intensity in her eyes that told Anne she had enjoyed the kiss every bit as much as she had. "What time do you finish here?"

"In about an hour. Why?"

"Do you want to come for dinner at my place? Maybe then we could go out somewhere afterwards."

"I'd love to."

"About nine?"

"Okay." Anne felt a huge smile break out on her face. Dinner sounded so normal. And things would have to be normal between them.

"Good." Cordelia stood up, and took Anne's hand in her own, pulling her up in front of her. She leaned in and kissed her again, gently, with the merest hint of desire. "I'll see you then." The smile and tone were more seductive that Cordelia had intended, but Anne didn't seem to mind.

 

"Master!" the vampire's tone was frantic as he rushed into his Prince's chambers. He had news, good news, but he was certain there was some bad in there somewhere. There had been nothing mystical to indicate that they would be receiving help to defeat their enemies.

"What is it?" Cirus looked down at the floor and then back up rapidly, indicating that his protˇgˇ should be on his knees bowing before him by now.

"Sorry, my liege." The vampire dropped down rapidly and humbly. "I bring you news, sir. Our enemies have been subjected to yet another attack. They are dead."

"All of them?"

"The clan is gone my Lord. Burnt as they slept. Our enemies of centuries have been destroyed at this most crucial time."

"What force has aided us in defeating our greatest enemy?"

"I cannot be certain, as you can appreciate. But we believe it was the Slayers who bought about their demise."

"The Slayers?" His voice rose in rage. "Do you not understand what this means? They are determined to stop the ritual being performed. They are not aiding us! They would destroy the clans one by one if they had to, in order to get to us. For centuries we have lived a careful and most glorious existence. Now I fear that we are to be bought out into the light, and the master, our one true father, will not rise to lead us to greatness. For centuries we have been waiting for his return, willing him to use his power, guide us and restore us to our rightful place in the world. The Slayers could ruin all of that, and now we do not even have our enemies to distract them and afford us some protection."

"What do you suggest we do, Prince Cirus?"

"We must advance the rituals. We cannot afford pomp and ceremony any more. We must initiate the most basic of rituals. The sooner we can complete the set, the better. We still have to wait for the next station of the moon, however," he mused, tapping his index finger on his lower lip as he did so. "There is no way that we can change the night for the ceremony, but everything else must be fully prepared. Leave nothing to chance. Explain the situation to everyone. Make it clear that if they are not diligent in their preparations, they will end up flaming in hell like our enemies."

 

"Since Willow, erm, died," gulped Buffy, avoiding looking Faith in the eyes, "I've been feeling so alone. Willow had been my best friend for so long. Even at the end, I still thought of her as the person I was closest to, even though it wasn't the truth any more."

"Why?"

"Because Willow couldn't be close to anyone any more. The power, the darkness, whatever you want to call it, had taken over her. It was all that she could think about. I kept telling myself she was still my Willow, but I knew that she wasn't. The Willow that I loved had been gone for some time. I hadn't even noticed."

"I don't think that there was anything you could have done B. When you feel it, that badass feeling, only you can get yourself out of it. Take it from me, I've been up close and personal with the dark side of the force."

"But why couldn't she do it? Tell me Faith, if you could do it then why couldn't she?" She looked up as her voice rose in anguish, and she realised too late the way that had sounded more like an insult than she had intended it to be. She watched as Faith visibly bit her tongue and turned away towards the window. "I didn't mean...it wasn't meant like that. Faith?" In the reflection on the windowpane, they made eye contact, and she exhaled as Faith nodded slightly.

They were still keeping an uneasy distance. Even now, in the same room, when Buffy had come to her.

Faith knew the way that it worked, she faced it every day with the kids at the shelter. Just like them, Buffy would open up to her, just for a while, one conversation, and then withdraw, as if nothing had changed between them. From her experience, Faith also knew that it was a waste of time trying to convince or push Buffy. She was making each of these steps on her own, and if Faith got too involved, then there was a good chance that Buffy would cease the dialogue between them altogether.

"At least you have someone Faith. To take the loneliness." She stopped, waiting for Faith to reply, watching the reflection for any sign that she had let her earlier insult pass by.

The silence was starting to become overpowering.

"We broke up." Faith wasn't sure why she was lying, all she knew was that she hated herself yet it felt the right thing to do. She found herself torn between searching Buffy's face for a response and turning away so that Buffy would not be able to see her eyes. There is nothing more overpowering than wanting someone that you can't have. For Faith it was the biggest head-fuck of her life, and it had been this one same person for such a long time. She knew that Buffy didn't want her, would never want someone like her. And not just because of the female thing. She was everything that Buffy despised, everything that she never wanted to be. Faith couldn't pinpoint the exact day when these decisions had been made, but now they might as well be engraved in stone. Nothing she had done could change that.

 

Cirus paced the room anxiously. The others were either out preparing for the ritual or hunting. He could feel anger and frustration building up inside. Things had been going so well until they had come here. They needed to be in a place of mystical convergence. This was not the Hellmouth, but the waves of energy that spilled out from it across the state of California was intense enough for them to perform the ritual.

He knew that the Slayer lived on the Hellmouth. She who had slain so many of his kind, even some of his clan who had made the initial journey to these parts in search of the mystic place where their ritual could be performed to perfection. He was certain that when he had raised their one true Father, brought him back to his rightful place in the earthly dimension, he would dispose of the Slayer and lead them to ultimate power. And he was to be the right-hand man, absorbing some of the power and making the name of his clan famous across the realms. Each dimension would come to know of him and his followers who raised the most powerful of all vampires and dragged him back from the curse of his Hell, to take over the earth.

For centuries, Cirus had been dreaming of this power, this glory, and now it was finally within his reach. But without the last stage of the ritual, then it would remain nothing more than his dream. Years had passed since he had been the notorious warrior-leader of his clan, and now he was nothing more than a seldom-mentioned legend. He had lost his glory and his power once before, and he was certain that it would not happen again. This time he would be more glorious, more feared, and the Slayers would cower before him and his master. Their blood would be the sweetest he had ever tasted, and he tipped back his head, imagining the sensation of the dark warmth he would feel as he sank his teeth into the tender flesh, and the liquid would bubble and ooze over his lips, slide down his throat and trick over his chin. They would be the most memorable feeds of his long life. He knew that the moment was to be special, the execution of the most powerful forces for the fight of the good that this world had ever seen. And he would be the one to defeat them.

But first he had to stop them from reaching him. They would meet, but only when he went to them, they would not come to him. Having made the decision, he smiled to himself and marched into the room where his evening meal was waiting for him, bound and gagged on the table.

 

Why Faith had lied was a mystery to her; it just felt right. She knew that she should question her motives, but in many ways, they did not need questioning. She knew now the same things that she had known all along. Besides which, now wasn't really time for questioning anything that she did. She was running on autopilot in a way she had avoided since her time back in Sunnyhell. There was no evil attached to her actions, just the deep-seated sense that she was finally making something right in her life. Something which all the redemption in the world could not help her with. As she waited for Buffy's reaction to the news that she was now apparently single, Faith had to fight down the urge to begin pacing the room.

"Oh." Buffy's response wasn't the one that Faith had been expecting, and there was no indication in her tone or her words that gave away what she was really feeling. If indeed she was feeling anything. It suddenly struck Faith that Buffy might not actually give a shit about what she did. She never had before, why should a few days of conversation without weapons change ten years of anger and hatred?

"Well..." Faith said, more to fill in the gap, rather than anything else.

"People just don't understand. What we do."

"Tell me about it."

"It's been hard for me too. I just keep wishing, hoping that one day someone will want me for all the bits of me, Slayage included. I used to think it would be Angel. Then Riley. Then Chris. But it always turned out the same." Buffy nursed the gritty dregs of her hot chocolate. "Maybe one day, if I live that long, I'll find that person, the one who loves me for who I really am. Maybe, one day, you will too. And someone you can love just because who they are as well." Buffy looked up and watched Faith turn back towards the window. "Maybe. Maybe I already I have," Faith gulped as to her surprise, tears sprang to her eyes.

 

Buffy had known. She didn't say anything, but she knew. Even staring at Faith's reflection, noting the way the brunette was avoiding making eye contact with her, the way that she had lowered her voice; it had all made a complete picture. Maybe I already have. It struck a chord with her, and Buffy had known. That for Faith, she was the one. The one that Faith had been waiting for, hoping for all these years, that someone special who understood.

Buffy realised it must be hard for Faith. She could not be the one. She never had been, and was sure now that she never would be. Faith must realise that as well, know that it could never happen. She did, didn't she? Buffy had realised that her hands were shaking with some unconscious emotion that she couldn't place. But suddenly the walls seemed to be closing in around her and the air was so thick it seemed tangible. Buffy had to fight the urge to run out of there, but in the end, that was what in effect she had done. She had made her excuses and left, to the sanctuary of her own room, and away from all the emotions that Faith was feeling and making her feel. Trapped like she had been with Angel and Riley, and in the very end, with Willow. Trapped like when her mother had died and she had felt helpless and her life was spinning out of control. She realised that was exactly it. With Faith her life was never in control, the reins slipped out of her hands as a matter of course. More sleepless than she had been when she had decided to go and see Faith, Buffy had settled down to a restless night, filled with disturbing dreams.

 

When she had woke that morning, it was a feeling that she still couldn't shake. She went to the kitchen to prepare breakfast, painfully conscious of the dark circles under her eyes, and hoping that the others would put it down to the stress of what they had yet to face. The impending vampire threat should have always been at the front of her mind, but being here seemed to constantly be raising demons of her own.

"Hey." Fred's voice came from behind her, and Buffy could tell that she was smiling. The woman always seemed to be smiling, regardless of what was happening. It was unnerving. "Is there enough coffee for me as well. I can make another pot if there isn't, but if there is then I might as well have some of yours."

"Sure, there's plenty." Buffy turned around and returned Fred's smile. "How are you?"

"Oh, I'm good. I'm always good."

"Oh, good."

"Yes, good." Fred nodded. "Especially knowing that I helped you. I like helping people. I want to work more with Angel, but I have the university, and I have to work there, and working with Angel is like working three jobs anyway, so I don't get to do it as much as I want, but I help whenever I can. Like now."

"Not wanting to, um, sound ungrateful or anything, because I am sure that I am, but how have you helped me?"

"With Faith, of course."

"Faith?"

"Our talk the other day. About your problem with her. You seem to have got over it. Which is good, because the weird thing about life is, you never know when it was all going to change," she seemed to drift off, staring somewhere in the middle distance, which Buffy supposed was some long lasting effect of Pylea. Buffy shivered at the thought she had been dead for some of the time that Fred had been there. Her long-lasting effect, she supposed. Fred snapped back to attention with a smile, and began to walk out the kitchen. "Bye."

"Bye. Oh, uh, Fred? Is Faith still around?"

"No, she left for work already. She went in early because she couldn't sleep."

"She spoke to you? What time did she leave?"

"Oh, about five A.M. Something like that." She smiled at Buffy's quizzical look. "Oh, I hardly ever sleep. Not any more." She walked out the room leaving Buffy feeling bemused. The woman was freaky. Nice but freaky. Ignoring some nagging disappointment that she had missed Faith, Buffy sat down with her coffee and debated the virtues of donuts versus meusli. Thirty seconds later, the donuts won out, and she went upstairs to get dressed.

 

"Well," began Wesley. "One thing is certain. The vampires we saw running yesterday were definitely wearing black robes. Which makes them the clan that Gunn and I fought, rather than the ones that you faced." He indicated at Buffy and Faith with his glasses. "So we have another rival clan we have yet to successfully dispose of. As this is the group that informed us of most of what we know now, we can assume that they are still intent on continuing the ritual. In fact, they may have been the clan that is most capable of doing so. Cirus is the most mentioned of the old clan leaders, and was widely considered to be the most powerful, it would seem. Now, by my calculation, the next station of the moon is four days away. That would," he paused to look down at his notes, "be the last of the initial rituals necessary for raising Ictinius. After that, if legend is true, the final ritual, the one for raising this creature, can take place any time. Fred has been so helpful as to do some calculations," he looked down at another page of notes, this time written in a different hand, "none of which I can, erm, actually understand. But the gist of it is, we are far enough away from the hellmouth for the latent energy to be sufficient to avoid the relocation of the clan to a more mystically potent area."

"Say again Wes?" said Gunn with a frown. "Street speak."

"Well, my main fear was that they would have to be closer to the hellmouth to perform the last ritual. Where the energy would be more powerful. At least while they were here, we have some chance of knowing where they are. If they had to go closer, they would be forced to move, and not necessarily to Sunnydale itself."

"So they'll be staying here?"

"Assuming that moving the entire clan would be quite a lengthy process, and finding somewhere to stay would require someone going ahead to find a suitable location, and then reporting back." Wesley paused as Gunn snorted.

"What is it about damn vamps. They never heard of a cell phone? Or a Greyhound?"

"Well, we must remember that this clan has survived for centuries. They are based on a long tradition. If we consider that they have never changed what is essentially their uniform, then seems that they are traditionalists. In their eyes, they are true vampires, not bastards born without a clan."

"You know all this from those books Wes?"

"Yes. But unfortunately, I don't know where they are or really any more detail concerning the ritual. I just hope that we can use what little knowledge we do have against them somehow. That's all the information I have? Anybody else? Angel?"

"I'm meeting a contact tonight. Kate's fixed me up with him. Apparently he's done some research into the ancient cults of the world, and that includes this Cirus guy. But that's about it. Anybody else?" He looked around the table as everyone else shook their heads miserably. The victory of the day before seemed less of a momentous occasion now.

Besides which, two people in the room had other things on their minds, both of which were currently arguing over whose turn it was to do the shelter's laundry. Faith was claiming vamp-exhaustion, and Anne was calling overtime. In the end, Anne told Faith that she had spoken to Cordelia the night before, and Faith's vamp-killing for the day had included a not-so-tiring lighting of a single match. Anne won and Faith stormed off to get clean sheets, flipping the finger at Anne's smug grin.

Over at the Hyperion, Cordelia was wondering what Anne was doing, and hoping that she would see her again that night. Then she was racked with self-doubt that it might be too soon and she would look too pushy. They had both been determined to take it slow. They had semi- discussed it over dinner the night before. It was something that they felt they should do, almost out of respect for the other. For Cordelia there was an element of fear and inexperience as well, that she did not have to courage to voice to Anne. She had never made love to a woman. Sure, she had seen the girl on girl action in the porn movies, had even been offered a part in one by her agent once, but something told her they weren't the most realistic of examples. Anne's private life was something she knew a little about, and she knew that she was far more experienced in that department. After all, she had slept with Faith. Just spending time with Faith had a tendency to broaden your horizons, so sleeping with her must have been a revelation of sorts.

Buffy, on the other hand, was emotionally torn. She wanted to see Faith and let her know that things were still okay between them, the fact that she had almost fled from the room last night was playing heavily on her mind. But the feeling she had received from Faith, the fact she believed that her suspicions had been confirmed, made her feel uneasy. She found herself repeatedly wishing that things could have been different, that maybe if she had never met Faith her life would be very different now. Less complicated maybe. She sighed inwardly, knowing that the powers that be had a plan, and there was nothing that could be done to change it. She had doubted that when she was younger, she had believed that you had some control over your own destiny. But when Cordelia had become vision girl, it was another aspect of herself she had doubted. There was definitely a plan, and her coming back from the dead had reinforced the idea permanently. She knew that Faith had existed for a reason, that they had been bought together for a reason. She just wished she knew what it was. There was a nagging doubt that is wasn't just so they could fight evil.

 

"Hi, I wasn't expecting you?" Sam looked surprised when she opened the door to her apartment and Faith was standing there. Then she noticed the look on her face, and knew just what kind of surprise visit this was. She didn't invite her in.

"I, er...I'm sorry."

"It's over isn't it?" It was a statement, not a question.

"It's just..."

"It's her, isn't it?"

"Who?" Faith was shocked. Sam didn't know anything about her life, especially not about any of the other women in it.

"Her. Buffy." The tone was bitter.

"How did you-?"

"You talk in your sleep Faith. And one name has been popping up since we got together. Look, I don't know who she is, and I don't want to know. I agree with you Faith. It's over. See you around." Faith was left staring at the wood of the door. It had been surprisingly easy, but that didn't make her feel any better. Sam had done nothing wrong, and now she was just another name on the list of people who she had hurt in her fucked up little life. The guilt ran deep, and the fact that it was happening to somebody every day, in every part of the world, did nothing to assuage it. Sighing to herself, she flicked a cigarette from her softpack and turned to go home. She probably had worse things there to face, and relished the prospect even less than the idea of finishing with Samantha.

When she got back to the Hyperion, she hesitated outside the front door, before making her way round back. Silently thanking her slayer abilities, she climbed through the window to her room. At least now she wasn't lying to Buffy about being single. But after Buffy had high-tailed it out of her room at break-neck speed last night, Faith was even more certain that Buffy couldn't care less about her dating arrangements.

 

As Faith walked down the stairs, resigned to the fact that Buffy appeared to be in her room, and therefore it was up to her to patrol alone, she was surprised to see Cordelia still at her desk, and apparently doing nothing. Not that it was anything unusual for Cordy, Faith reflected, but this did look more like loitering than anything else. "Hey Cordy, I'm off out now." Faith really wasn't in the mood for talking to anyone. She hadn't seen Buffy since she had got back from work, and couldn't work out who was avoiding who, or whether anybody was avoiding anyone at all.

"Faith, can I talk to you for a minute?" Cordelia opted for a tone somewhere between wheedling and begging.

"What's the matter C?" Faith mock-pouted. "You got a little man trouble?"

"That's, erm, kinda the problem."

"What, no man? Thought you'd be used to that by now Honey." Faith turned the mock pout into a fully-fledged smirk.

"Exactly. Well, sort of. Well..."

"Spit it out Cordy. I've got to patrol tonight and it's ten already. The vamps'll be all tucked up in their nice cosy crypts by the time I get there." She really wasn't up for a deep and meaningful, not now.

"You're not going to make this easy for me, are you?"

"Look. I have to go and kill the undead creatures of the night, come back and do my laundry otherwise I'll be going to the shelter tomorrow covered in vamp dust, not to mention what'll happen if I run into a slime demon or something. I'm trying to help the homeless, not look like one of them. Now you want me to give you advice on some guy. In case you're forgetting C, I gave them up along with my evil ways."

"Someone's touchy tonight. Anyway, it's not about a guy." Cordelia retaliated to Faith's sarcasm, wondering what was getting her so wound up anyway. Faith was usually so laid back these days. Probably some girlfriend problem. Cordelia wondered if that was in store for her as well. Girlfriend problems sounded good right now.

"But I thought you said-"

"No Faith, you said. I never said anything about a man. Jeez, don't you think I know how to get one of them. I was practically born with the knowledge."

"Then how come you've been the dateless wonder for the past two years. Go out and get one then and put all that knowledge into practice."

"Will you stop interrupting and listen to me!" Cordelia practically screamed. This was difficult enough as it was, and if she had known that Faith was going to be in such a bad mood then she probably wouldn't have bothered. But now she had started, she was sure as hell going to finish.

"No need to shout-"

"It's about a girl Faith. Happy now!" Cordelia clapped her hand to her mouth, surprised that she had actually said it out loud, and now it was out in the open, what it meant on the wider scheme of things.

"If I'd have known you felt that way about me..." Faith began to tease, then took one look at Cordelia's expression and thought better of it. She sighed and sat down on the edge of the desk. "It's Anne, isn't it?"

"How did you...?"

"Well, much as I know you love me Cordy, I know you don't love me in that way. Buffy's hardly your high school sweetheart, and Wesley and Lorne, though coming a very close second, aren't really girls. Don't let them fool you." Pleased to see that her comment had brought a smile to Cordelia's face, she continued. "We've been cutting back on clients thanks to those robed guys, so that only leaves Anne. Besides, you've been seeing a lot of her lately, and she has been taking a keen interest in you at work. She's been subtle about it, of course, but I can read her like a book. And my gaydar can spot a girl crush at a thousand paces. So, am I right?"

"You're right."

"In that case, spill. What's the problem?"

"I'm not sure. I like her and everything. I didn't mean that to sound like it did. I, um, like her a lot, and we've sort of started dating, but it's not really gone past the kissing stage..." Cordelia trailed of uncertainly as a deep shade of crimson made it's way across her cheeks. Faith burst out laughing. And kept laughing until tears ran from her eyes and she was having to hold her sides where they seemed just about ready to split open.

"You're," she gasped, trying not to laugh again, "You're asking me for sex tips aren't you?" She began to laugh again as Cordelia stood up, hands on her hips in a defiant gesture.

"No I am not."

"Yes you are!"

"Ok, so I am, but it's not something you should be laughing at. Please Faith," she lowered her voice so that Faith could see she really was embarrassed. When Faith realised that she was on the verge of upsetting her, she sobered up.

"I'm sorry. Really. Sorry. What do you want to know?"

"Just, what it's like I guess. What you have to do. That sort of thing."

"Cordelia, do you remember the first time you had sex with a guy?"

"Vaguely."

"What did you do?"

"Durr Faith, we had sex."

"You just did it, right?"

"Well, yes, but that was different..."

"No it wasn't Cordy. It's just the same. You just go with the flow. Do what feels right. And just because it's with a woman, don't expect it to be perfect the first time. That's just straight bullshit. Don't expect too much, just try and enjoy it. Have fun."

"Really?"

"Yeah, really."

"It's just..." This was the part that Cordelia really did not want to talk about, but for her own peace of mind, it was something that she felt had to be said. "You and Anne, you, um, dated for a while."

"Are you asking if we slept together, coz you know that we did." Faith was puzzled. Everyone had known that they had been sleeping together for a while.

"I know you did. God, this is so embarrassing."

"Hey, Cordy." Faith said gently, and took the other woman's hands in her own. "You're one of my best friends. You don't have to be embarrassed about anything with me. C'mon, talk to me."

"This is going to sound so stupid, all jealous and paranoid."

"What? You're jealous of me because I slept with her first?"

"No!" Cordelia rubbed her hand over her eyes, and took a deep breath. "Faith, you practically ooze sex appeal. You always have. I mean, the first time we all met you, Xander only took his eyes off your breasts to look at your pouting lips. I just, I don't know, how am I going to live up to that?" Cordelia serious question was met with a raucous laugh.

"That's what you're worried about? That you aren't going to be as good in bed as I was! Cordy, trust me, I'm no great lay."

"You're just saying that."

"I wish I was. I'm not that hot in the sack, scout's honour. I'm bossy, far too demanding, and that wonderful slayer strength means I keep going for longer than the fucking Duracell bunny. I'm either not satisfied or I just wear all my girls out," she finished with a wink.

"But-"

"No buts. If I was that great and it was all so good, then Anne and I would still be together, and we're not. If she likes you as much as you seem to like her, then the sex really won't be a problem. Okay?"

"I guess." Cordelia was doubtful.

"Come here," Faith opened her arms and Cordelia sat on her lap and let herself be embraced. Once, being held by Faith was like sticking your head into the jaws of a particularly hungry lion. Now, it was just comforting.

"Thank you," Cordelia mumbled.

"No problem." Faith smiled as Cordelia untangled herself and stood up. Faith reached out and ruffled her hair playfully.

"Now that's sorted, I really do have to go out and slay."

"Why don't you ask Buffy to go with you?" Cordelia frowned as Faith turned her head away uncomfortably. "What?"

"I don't think that's a good idea."

"Why not? The two of you have been getting on okay haven't you? Don't tell me you've had another argument with her?"

"No, nothing like that. We've been talking. She's actually been treating me like a human being. I just don't want to push it. What if she says no?"

"You don't want her to say no, do you? That would really bother you."

"Yes. And before you say it, I know that it shouldn't. I should be used to her treating me like crap. But I keep wanting her to let me be her friend again. I've always wanted that Cordy, and you know it."

"You still love her, don't you?" Cordelia said quietly.

"What?" Thoughts and feelings which Faith had thought she had kept well hidden beneath the veneer of redemption seemed to find their way out into the open.

"You don't have to hide it from me Faith. You fell in love with her back in Sunnydale, and when she chose Angel instead of you, you decided to hate her instead. That was when it all started to go wrong, wasn't it? It was because you loved her that you couldn't handle things any more. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that you were the sanest person in the world before all that. But she was the one who tipped you over the edge."

"You have a vision or something?" Faith said flippantly.

"We're friends, you said that yourself a minute ago. Friends know things about each other. They understand each other. Just because we don't say it out loud doesn't mean that we didn't know."

"Oh, so much for my incredible covering up skills."

"Faith, I can't tell you that Buffy is somehow miraculously going to fall in love with you now. She's got a lot of her own issues still to deal with. She'll probably never feel that way about you, and you know it."

"Way to rip my heart out C..."

"Would you rather I lied to you?"

"No."

"Exactly. So what if she doesn't fall head over heals for you? Wouldn't you rather be friends with her than nothing at all? Instead of avoiding her and hoping that you don't get hurt again? You're a different person now, a little rejection isn't going to send you off the rails and tripping over to the dark side anymore. And if it does, I'll kick your ass all the way back over here. You think Angel's good at the whole redemption kick? Wait till you see me!" she punched Faith playfully on the arm and was rewarded with half a smile. "I suppose."

"Stop doubting yourself Faith. You've gone past that. You know it as well. Just be yourself. Go take your confident ass up to her room and ask her to patrol with you."

"Okay. What about you?"

"I'm going to go home and call Anne and see if she wants to come over."

"Go Cordy!"

"Thank you Faith." She said sincerely.

"No. Thank you. I guess I still need my butt kicking every once in a while, huh?"

"And it'll always be my pleasure. Now go!"

"Yes Ma'm" With a mock salute, Faith made her way up to Buffy's room as Cordelia collected her jacket and her bag.

 

Buffy lay on the bed, staring at the ceiling. She knew that she really should go out and patrol, but she had heard Faith heading downstairs a while ago. One slayer was usually more than enough anyway, and she didn't have much enthusiasm for walking the streets of LA on her own. She wasn't scared by anything that they had there, next to the hellmouth, LA was usually like Kindergarten, but it could be boring when you were out on a mission all alone.

Faith at least knew all the clubs around here. So she would probably go out on patrol, then head off somewhere to find another girlfriend to replace the last one, Buffy thought bitterly. Then she kicked herself mentally for feeling that way, thinking that there was still more than a little residual anger within her when it came to Faith. She had really enjoyed the time that they had spent together lately, and she could now freely admit to herself that Faith had changed, but surely that didn't mean that a lifetime's resentment had to go away immediately.

Who was Faith now? Once Buffy had thought she knew what it was like to be her, trapped for twenty-four hours in that body, seeing the way that people treated her. The tiniest hint of some of Faith's own feelings and emotions trapped inside that skin-and-bone shell with her. She hadn't liked the feeling, but after she found out that Faith had slept with Riley, any feelings of sympathy she may have had rapidly disappeared. Faith was designed to hurt people, it was what she was made for, and the way she had people treat her was just a response to that. Buffy had believed she deserved all the hatred that could be thrown at her. But that was no longer Faith. She was no longer treated with contempt. None of the others feared her. But Buffy did. Buffy was more afraid of Faith than she would admit to anyone, more than she liked to admit to herself.

Faith could still hurt her more than she could hurt the others. Buffy couldn't rationalise this, but she didn't need heightened slayer senses to feel it. Whenever they were in the room together, even over the past few days, Buffy had that little warning light going off, warning her not to get too close, not to get sucked into those big brown eyes. There had always been a connection between them, something she had never been able to define, something she had always put down to being a slayer connection. Whatever made you a slayer was inside the both of them. Whatever it was, they were the only two people in the world who had it, and that was something special. In many senses of the word. But just as it was a connection out, it was a connection in. Faith could get into her somehow, she was certain of it, and it made her feel uncomfortable, somewhere in her unconscious.

She was jolted out of her thoughts by a knock at the door. Out of habit, she didn't say come in, and instead hauled herself off the bed to answer the door in person. Her first thought was that Faith might be returning the visit after the cocoa last night, but there was very little chance that she would be back from patrol this early. And Buffy really wasn't in the mood for talking to anyone else, not even Angel. She pulled back the door and prepared herself to force a smile for whoever was there. When she saw Faith standing on the other side of the threshold, the grin that spread across her face was completely natural, and she let it out before she could stop herself. "Faith."

"Erm, hi."

"I thought you were out on patrol?"

"Not yet. I stopped to talk to Cordy for a while."

"Let me guess, man trouble?"

"Something like that," Faith said uncomfortably. "I was just wondering, if you're not doing anything else that is, if you wanted to come out on patrol with me." Faith's slight hesitancy was the only thing that revealed her nervousness. She felt like she was asking Buffy out on a date. Okay, asking someone to go out and kill things with you was a pretty weird-assed kind of a date.

"Sure. Why not. I was just sitting here getting broody anyway. It must be spending time around Angel."

"He's getting better, and you get used to it. Anyway, he's gone out with Wesley to meet one of his mysterious contacts. I thought I'd be better off patrolling. Keep the vampire population down, and you never know, we might find something useful."

"Sounds like a good plan to me. I'll just grab my boots." Buffy turned away from the door and then turned back. "Why don't you, um, come in while I get ready." She smiled when Faith nodded and followed her into the room. As Buffy sat on the edge of the bed, pulling on her boots, Faith glanced around her.

Buffy had been living in the room for just over a week now, but she had left her mark on it. As she stood there, Faith could feel the unmistakable presence that was Buffy Summers. She had put some pictures up, presumably to remind her of home, and Faith was not surprised to see that she was not in any of them. There was one of Buffy, Willow and Xander, taken a long time ago it seemed, Buffy looked like she was still young enough to be in High School. There was another one of her mother, on the bedside cabinet, the only one in a frame, and Faith felt a twinge of regret that she and Joyce had parted on such bad terms. Joyce had always been so good to her, and she had repaid her in the old Faith style of doing things. The only other one was of Dawn and Tara, and that one looked the newest. Dawn was quite the young woman now, and according to Angel, had qualified as a doctor. That was so like Dawn. But the photograph didn't show that side of her. She and Tara were dressed up in costume, presumably for Halloween or something like that. Faith bit back a smile as she realised that Dawn was starting to look more like Buffy as she got older. Something in the eyes and the smile.

It was the seriousness and the hurt that lay behind them. That was what made her look like Buffy.

Buffy stood up and picked up a few stakes from her dresser. "Ready." "Let's go." Faith led the way out of the room, surreptitiously taking one last smell of the air around her. It was a scent that she could have smelt at any time, any place in the world, and know that Buffy had been there. She thought about what Cordelia had said earlier, and stopped her train of thought. It would be enough if the two of them could just become friends again. One miracle was a lot, expecting two would be foolish.

 

"Thank you for inviting me out tonight Faith."

"Hey, this gig is nothing to thank somebody for if you ask me."

"It's better than sitting alone in my room, or walking around here, also alone I might add. It's good to have some company." She smiled across at Faith who seemed to be unsuccessfully trying to hold in a grin. They exchanged glances and Buffy thought that she could see it again. That spark somewhere behind Faith's eyes. She didn't want Faith to feel that way about her, couldn't let her. It was wrong, it felt wrong, it shouldn't be there between the two of them. Faith would hurt her.

Then she reminded herself that Faith wasn't in a position to hurt her. So why was she feeling that in that one exchanged glance, she already could?

Buffy shook off the feeling. "It's quiet tonight again. Where is everyone?"

"Angel seems to think that they've all left town for a while. Seems like a bigger fish has come to visit the little pond."

"I've never heard LA be called a pond before."

"I was being nice. Actually, I've come to like the place. Somewhere to call home, yunno. I feel safe here B." She looked across, realising she was coming close to starting a deep and meaningful, and hesitated. She was better at polite conversation where Buffy was concerned. Deep and meaningful seemed to mean opening herself up to attack.

"Yeah?" Buffy's tone was interested. Faith bit back the feeling and decided to continue.

"You'd guess that being the slayer, sorry B, a slayer, I'd feel safe anywhere. I mean, I can handle myself pretty good, in fact, there's only you who's ever whipped my ass, but that's not just what being safe is. I guess I learnt that from the shelter. There's kids who come in there who could cut you up with a knife before you even saw it coming, but they don't feel safe. It taught me that feeling safe is where you don't have to have faith in the fact that you can cut someone up, or you having magic slaying powers. Where you don't have to use them is where you feel safest."

"Wow."

"What?"

"I suppose I never really imagined you thinking about all this kind of stuff. But it sounds like you think about it a lot. You'll be telling me you write poetry next."

"You're safe on that one B," laughed Faith.

"I suppose I misjudged you that's all. A lot."

"No problem Buffy. Look, we don't have to talk about this."

"No, I want to. I want to - fuck!"

"Huh?" Faith was momentarily dazzled by the right words and the wrong tone before her slayer senses kicked in on overdrive. There was something evil, and it was right behind her. She watched as Buffy's arm pulled back and ducked as it whistled past her ear and firmly collided with whatever it was at her back. Crouching into a roll, she got out of the way and got to her feet behind Buffy, who was now throwing a string of punches at two vampires. The third was heading for her. As she tugged her stake from the back of her waistband, the adrenalin rush gave her a moment of clarity, separate from the fight. Buffy had not been so surprised because of the greatness of the vampires. They were just damn fledglings that hadn't had the sense to get out in time. Three between them wasn't much of a fight either. No, Buffy had been surprised because she had been so caught up in what she had been saying. As Faith whipped the stake in and out of the chest of the vampire in front of her, she knew that what Buffy had been saying was important. As Buffy staked the last one and looked over at her with a grin, Faith realised Buffy was teetering on the brink of forgiveness. Maybe Cordy had had a vision after all. "You okay B?"

"Yeah. Just when we were saying that things had got so quiet. Me and my big mouth."

"I'll forgive ya. Could have done with some action anyway." Faith stretched her muscles out. They were not as supple as they had been. Sudden use left her feeling it, and made her feel old at the same time. She wondered, like she often did, how she had been able to get away with it so long. They had both lasted such a long time, and being a slayer never came with a pension plan. She voiced the thought. "Man I feel old."

"You seem quicker than ever."

"You too." They smiled uncertainly at the exchange of compliments. "Do you think that there's any more?"

"I doubt it. I've been hitting three a night tops, what about you?"

"The same." Faith agreed.

"I guess," Buffy looked at her watch, "we've been walking for a couple of hours now, so we could call it a night and head back to the hotel."

"Sure. We've got to spend tomorrow working out what to do next about a favourite vampire clan, and planning is something that I need my beauty sleep for."

"I remember a time when slaying a vampire made you juiced and ready for more action."

"I'm not saying we can't grab pizza on the way back," said Faith with a smirk.

"And I was thinking you'd be heading off to a club to grab yourself a different slice of action," Buffy said slyly walking past her. She laughed when she glanced back at Faith's expression. The banter was easy to fall into after a fight, it always had been. Buffy was pleased with herself just knowing that it was still there, and she could give as good as she got. She paused and waited for Faith to catch up with her. They exchanged knowing smiles and began the walk home.

 

"Kate, are you sure this is the place?" Even to Angel, the underground crypt looked completely inhospitable.

"Yes, I'm sure."

"But what kind of demon lives down here? Your source is a demon right?"

"What do you think? A vampire, idiot." Kate rolled her eyes at the apparent obviousness of it all. Wesley turned around quickly, nearly knocking her over in the process.

"You have vampires as sources these days?"

"Well, Angel is on my list of contacts in case you've forgotten."

"Angel has a soul."

"Yeah, and this one has good information and tends to pick up child molesters in the park. Either way, it's a win-win for me."

A sudden sound in front of them made Kate and Wesley jump. "No need to whisper yunno. Vampires can hear that. I see you've brought one of my kind round Kate. How you doing mate?" He extended his hand towards Angel with a friendly smile.

"Erm, my name's Angel. I thought you might be able to help us with something." The vampire was wiry and dark, but there was something in his manner that was disconcertingly like Spike. There was a mischievous twitch around the eyes, and his lips seemed to instinctively twist into a smirk. If his first impression was correct, Angel suspected he would not be above playing games with them to get his kicks.

"They stealing your food as well?"

"Huh?"

"Snotty pretentious vampires. Think they're bloody monks by the looks of them. Warned me off my own ground. Take it they got to you too?"

"Erm, no. But they sound like the ones I'm looking for."

"There's a few of them you know."

"I know. But let's see if I can't have a quiet word with them and then we can have you back on your own turf. Sound like a deal?"

"Fine by me. As long as they don't think that I've sent you. So no casual name dropping ok?" He sent a look of warning in Kate's direction and she nodded.

"Okay," she agreed. "So what have you got for us?"

"Three blocks west, on the edge of the park. Row of buildings that've been condemned. Look completely fine to me. You know 'em?"

"I think so." Kate looked to Angel for confirmation, and he gave a terse nod to let her know he had some idea of where they were.

"Seen a couple of them heading into there after they'd given me a little roughing up. Now, you going to grease my palm?" He looked at Kate expectantly.

"You sure you've got nothing else for us, Billy? More info means more cash, you know that."

"I'd like to give you more stuff as much as I would like to bite that nice little neck of yours Kate, but I ain't got nothing else to give." He held out his hand further and coughed by way as a demand. She reached into the back pocket of her jeans and pulled out a wallet. She counted out five crisp twenties and handed them over to him. He nodded and waved them away. "Nice to meet you mate," he said to Angel, with a smile that made him shiver uncomfortably.

After the stale air of the crypt, the night seemed particularly clean and wholesome. Kate and Wesley both breathed it in deeply, trying to feel clean again.

"Angel," Kate held out her hand, "that's a hundred bucks you owe me."

"You could charge it to my account," he grinned.

"You have no account and you know it. Now cough up." She smirked at him as he reached into his pocket. "So what are you going to do now?"

"Well," Wesley looked at his watch, "it's getting late and I wouldn't recommend going there now, just the three of us. I think the best thing to do is to go home and tell the others the news. Tomorrow, we can all try to formulate the best course of action with everyone on board. What do you think Angel?"

"I don't think we really have any choice. Thanks for your help tonight Kate."

"No problem. You'll have to come round for dinner sometime when all this is sorted. I'll do you something special. Like put it in a bowl rather than a mug and make you eat with a spoon." She bit back a laugh at his expression. "You can tell me how it went."

"I will." He leant down and kissed her gently on the cheek.

"Be careful. Both of you." She smiled as they began to go their separate ways, shaking her head in disbelief. Why did all the hot men in LA have to be dead?

 

When they got back, the place was virtually silent. Only Fred could be heard pottering about in the kitchen, making a cup of coffee, while somehow still clutching a heavy textbook to her chest. She jumped when they entered, spilling some coffee from the cup.

"I'm sorry," she smiled apologetically, reaching for a cloth to wipe the table. "I didn't hear you come in."

"That's okay Fred, we vampires are supposed to be stealthy, remember?"

"Sure," she giggled, and then looked curiously at Wesley, as if she was wondering what his excuse was. "How was Kate?"

"Most helpful," said Wesley. "I take it the others aren't in?"

"Cordelia went home earlier and Buffy is in her room. She seems kinda strange," she added in a confidential whisper. "Faith went out on patrol and told me not to wait up. But I'm not feeling tired at all."

"Well, I think Buffy has the right idea. I'm off to bed as well. Busy day tomorrow. See you all in the morning." Wesley masked a yawn and headed for the sanctuary of his room. Now they seemed to have their biggest lead yet, the battle seemed to be rapidly approaching.

 

Faith stared at the ceiling, blowing smoke rings towards it. She was lost in a contented feeling until the sudden ringing of her phone startled her. She reached over and snatched it up. "Hello?"

"I wondered if you were still up. I couldn't sleep." Buffy's voice was quietly sensual down the line.

"Me either. I was just lying here thinking."

"I wanted to see you, but my bed is just so warm and comfortable..." the voice trailed off.

"I hope you're not expecting me to come to you," smiled Faith, taking a final drag from her cigarette. She looked around for a handy ashtray but couldn't see one within arms reach. With slayer precision she flicked the butt out of the open window.

"Oooh," the voice was laden with mock disappointment. "In that case can we just talk awhile?

"Sure B. What do you want to talk about?"

"Anything, nothing."

"Sounds like it makes for interesting conversation. Do you always call people in the middle of the night to talk to them about nothing?" Faith teased. Something felt strange, out of place, but Faith couldn't decipher the feeling.

"Only when I want to listen to their voice. Of course, it would sound better if you were lying here next to me."

"Nice try Buff."

"Do I get points for trying?"

"It's a start. But if you really want to hear me up close and personal, you gotta convince me that it's worth my while."

"Oh really?"

"Well, I'm comfortable enough here B. Had no plans to leave this bed until morning. If you think that there's some reason I should, then you have to give me a damn good reason." Faith smiled to herself with satisfaction. Two could play at this game, and she would put money on the fact that she was better at it than Buffy.

"My beds really warm..."

"So's mine."

"Mine has me in it..."

"Mine has me in it. So?"

"Yeah, but my bed is sooo warm," Buffy said in an exaggerated tone, "that I'm having to lie in it naked. I bet yours isn't that warm, is it? I mean, are you naked?"

"No."

"I know you like to sleep naked Faith. So if you come into my hot little bed, then it would make it so much more comfortable for you." Buffy sounded like she was trying not to laugh. Rather than killing the moment, Faith founding it endearing.

"Go on." Faith was more interested now in listening to what Buffy had to say rather than banter. In the back of her mind the feeling that something was not quite right here continued to nag at her, but she pushed it away.

"And I'm so tense," Buffy stretched and let out a low moan as she did so. "If I could just get a massage from somewhere, I could go to sleep all relaxed."

"Where are you tense?" Faith's voice was unintentionally husky.

"My back. My shoulders. Even my legs."

"You could massage your own legs."

"You're so right Faith. I could do that while I'm talking to you. Do you mind?"

"Go for it." Faith was desperately trying to play it cool, but it was getting harder. She had to admit it, Buffy was good. She listened while Buffy began to massage her thighs, allowing tiny moans to slip from her throat. "Does that feel better B?"

"Much, much better."

"Where are you massaging?"

"My thighs. The insides are so tight. I really need an extra set of hands to help me out here Faith. I think I pulled a muscle right at the top of my thigh while we were working out. But I'm not sure I want to touch myself right there."

"Why B?"

"I think it needs a more expert touch than the one I've got. I wish you would come here and do it for me Faith. The thought of you sliding your hands up my thighs...stroking me...releasing all that tension..."

"Hold that thought B. I'll be right there."

Faith went to get out of bed, but instead ended up sitting bolt upright, her body confused and uncoordinated, a thin layer of sweat covering her. She groaned and covered her eyes. Things we difficult enough with Buffy on a day-to-day basis, without having dreams like that to make things worse. Trying to block the smell of her own arousal she stomped towards the shower with a scowl, making sure that the setting was on cold.

 

"Xander's palace of lurve."

"You sound happy, laughed Buffy.

"You could say that," he looked at Anya curled next to him and wondered whether it was a latent demonic trait or the fact that she was a woman that meant she could always sleep through the phone ringing.

"Anya still putting you through your paces with the whole baby-making thing?"

"She sure is. But let's just say that she found some pretty inventive ways of doing it, so I'm not complaining. So what's up?"

"You know, impending apocalypse yadda yadda yadda. I just hate the wait sometimes. I mean, I know we're going to get these guys, coz that's what we always do right? But I'm sick of hanging around here waiting for it to happen."

"Wishing you were back in Sunnyhell Buff?"

"A little. It's just, well, things here are kind of awkward."

"Angel or Faith? No, let me guess, Cordy?" He realised his mistake as Anya's eyes flew open and she looked at him suspiciously. She would sleep through bombs going off around them, but mention his teenage crush and she was awake in an instant. He pointed at the phone and mouthed 'Buffy' at her, but she didn't look too convinced. He rolled his eyes.

"I don't know. There's always just so much history there. Sometimes it still feels like it happened yesterday. Did we grow up too fast?"

"Just a little. You know what I think it is? Living on the Hellmouth, well, it's intense. Everything just sort of gets sucked up along with it, and before you know it, it's just one huge emotional roller coaster. Everything matters Buff, even the little things."

"Not to mention that in this case, 'history' tends to refer to killing and maiming more than failing to turn up for a date."

"Precisely. So what time's your appointment with the big bad?"

"Well, my schedule's pretty hectic, but I'm planning to fit him in, say Tuesday," she quipped.

"Two days away? That's pretty soon."

"I know. Angel and Wesley went out to get some more information last night, so I'm waiting for them to get up and fill us in on all the details."

"Hope it's good news."

"You and me both."

"Just make sure you take care of yourself Buffy. You need anything, just call. We can be there."

"Thanks Xander. Give my love to Anya. Hopefully I'll see you guys soon."

"Will do."

"Oh, and Xander? Don't let her wear you out too much." She finished with a chuckle, hanging up before he had chance to retaliate with a remark of his own.

She glanced over at the clock by the side of her bed. It was 11:30am, but everyone seemed to be taking advantage of the fact that it was Sunday to avoid getting out of bed. Everyone except Fred, of course. Buffy had been lying awake when she heard the familiar shuffle of feet making their way downstairs. Since then, there hadn't been a sound. She decided to go downstairs and have some coffee and perhaps do a workout. She needed to be in tiptop condition for the next few days, and hell, she wasn't getting any younger.

 

"Mmm, this is nice," Anne opened her eyes to the faint rays of sunlight coming through the drapes in Cordelia's bedroom, and rolled over. The moment she awoke, she had realised by Cordy's breathing that she was already awake, and lying there, waiting for her. She rolled over and nestled her head on the brunette's shoulder, draping her hand across the firm stomach.

"Nice?" murmured Cordelia, placing a gentle kiss on the top of Anne's head.

"Yeah. Waking up with you, having a lie in, Sunday mornings, the works. Don't you think it's nice?"

"I do."

"It would be even better with a cup of coffee," Anne said with a teasing smile.

"Oh yeah?" smirked Cordelia, looking down at her. "You want me to get out of this nice warm bed, just to make you a cup of coffee? You know I'm not going to, don't you? And you know why?"

"Why?"

"Because that's what Dennis is for. He's getting good at all this psychic energy stuff. He even makes mean pancakes. Pity he can't go out and get donuts though. Still, you can't expect a ghost to be able to do everything can you?" Cordelia grinned as Anne propped herself up on her elbow and leant over her.

"So you don't have to get out of bed then?" She kissed Cordelia gently on the lips, lowering her body down so they were pressing against each other. She tugged gently on Cordy's lower lip.

"Not just yet." She could feel an old familiar pit of fire starting in the base of her stomach, the sensation of Anne's hand resting around her waist prickling the skin. She suppressed a groan as Anne leant further down and began kissing her neck gently.

Last night, Anne had been more than willing to stay over, but when they went to bed, both had been content just to kiss and hold the other. Now, waking up together, both women could feel the presence of a more urgent desire in the other. As Anne continued to place kisses along Cordelia's collarbone, Cordy let her free hand wrap around Anne's waist, pulling her in for closer contact. Suddenly, the things that she had read about in the scripts that her agent had sent her over the years made alarming sense. The soft satin of her oyster camisole seemed to be such a great barrier that was separating their bodies, and one which she was desperate to remove.

Anne tried to regulate her breathing to some degree, to suppress her desire, afraid that this would all be too soon for Cordelia. The slow spread of desire was already working its way through her body. She tentatively slid her thigh in between Cordelia's, pressing their bodies closer, trying not to cause too much friction between them, just trying to get closer. She could taste the faint hint of Cordelia's perfume from the night before on the tip of her tongue as she flicked it across the soft skin of her shoulder. She gently scraped her teeth across the soft flesh, feeling it bump under the pressure of her mouth, and the involuntary arching of Cordelia's back underneath her, pressing them closer. She could feel the heat spreading from Cordelia against the top of her thigh, the thin layer of her panties unable to conceal the fact.

Emboldened by the reaction of Cordelia's body to her touch, her mouth began the ascent back up her neck, finally capturing Cordy's mouth with her own. She kissed her, slow and deliberately, feeling the passion and fervour increase with the depth of the kiss. Instinctively, she brought her hand up to gently caress Cordelia's left breast through the thin material, feeling her nipple harden almost instantly under the pressure of her thumb. She felt Cordelia groan into her mouth, a groan that communicated her need, the desire for her to continue. Cordelia's tongue plundered deeper inside her mouth, faster, harder as she moved her thumb in lazy circles, piquing her desire. Bracing herself with one arm, she hooked the other more firmly around Cordy's waist, pulling her up into a sitting position, not breaking the kiss between them.

She pulled away from the kiss after a short time and, maintaining eye contact, reached down and pulled at the hem of the camisole, easing it over Cordelia's head, leaving her exposed and vulnerable in front of her. Kissing her again, she lowered them both back onto the bed, her hands seeking contact with the skin that had been covered up until now. Her mouth began its slow decent again, to the base of her neck, and then lower, her tongue trailing across the flesh. As she took a hardened nipple into her mouth, she looked up, conveying her arousal and longing. She heard the gasp and felt the sudden intake of breath as her lips closed gently, sucking the hardened tip into her mouth, holding it firmly and lapping the tip of her tongue over it until she felt Cordelia's hands on her shoulders, grasping her tightly, the grip of one caught somewhere in between pleasure and pain. She released the grip of her lips, and reached up to cup the swollen breast, replacing her tongue with her thumb, as her mouth sucked and nipped its way over to Cordelia's other breast feeling the grip on her shoulders turn to one of anticipation.

As Anne's mouth descended on her second breast, Cordelia began to feel tiny shocks reverberate their way to the pit of her stomach, and the tingle that she had started to feel transformed itself into an ache. She needed something to take it away, needed release, and her desire removed any thoughts of taking it slow from her mind. She felt Anne's hand slide down her stomach onto the top of her thigh, agonising close to alleviating the throbbing ache she was feeling. She heard herself whimper and open her legs a fraction wider, inarticulate in communicating her desire. Anne's hand snaked its way higher, back up her thigh, her fingertips brushing against the fabric of her underwear. She felt Anne release her breast and whisper to her, voice husky with desire, "Are you sure?" Cordelia looked down at her, more sure than she ever had been of anything else in her life, and nodded. She couldn't remember anyone asking her such a question before.

The feel of Anne's fingers walking gently up her inner thigh made a thin sheen of sweat break out over Cordelia's body. She lay, waiting, as Anne took the weight of her body on one elbow, and gently lowered her mouth towards Cordelia's. Neither woman closed her eyes as their lips met in a slowly deepening kiss. Anne's hand snaked its way under the soft fabric of Cordelia's underwear, and began to ease the garment down her thighs. Anne did not want this first time to be an awkward fumbling, she wanted everything to be perfect between them, the way everything in their relationship had been up until now. Cordelia helped her, kicking them off as they reached her knees, allowing Anne free reign of her body.

Cordelia knew that there was no turning back now, that this was what she wanted and needed. Her stomach was tight with emotion, the mix of fear and anticipation combining with pent up desire. She began to kiss Anne more furiously, slipping her arms around her waist and pulling them closer together, parting her thighs further on instinct alone. She gasped at the first touch of Anne's fingers against her, all the muscles in her body tensing in reaction to the hesitant brush of Anne against her. She could feel Anne grinding slightly against her thigh in response, the heat of arousal as obvious as her own. She ached for release, but Anne seemed intent on exploring her body, discovering her, rather than anything else. And she couldn't deny that it felt good, moaning slightly as Anne slid the first finger into her, slowly and tenderly, eyes searching her own for the reaction, still hesitant about moving things along to quickly. Cordelia's answer was to wantonly splay her legs wider apart, inviting Anne in, craving the feel of her inside. She could tell by the gliding motion of flesh against flesh that she was wet, more aroused than she could ever remember being, and the faint musky aroma was something new and yet somehow familiar to her.

Anne could feel how turned on the woman underneath her was; everything about her made it obvious. Cordelia was beginning to rock her hips back and forth against her hand, trying to gain more friction and a greater pace to their lovemaking. Anne took pity on her, and gently eased another finger inside, letting Cordelia's body adjust to it before thrusting it in and out, allowing the rhythm to build up between them naturally. The movement of Cordelia's thigh rocking against her own body was sending spirals of sensation through her, and she found herself pressing harder into her in time with the movement of her own hand. Anne pulled away from Cordelia's lips, nuzzling into her shoulder, nipping at the skin there, something which caused Cordelia to dig her nails firmly into Anne's shoulders, as if she was trying to lock her firmly in place. Anne could tell that Cordelia was on the brink, the slight trembling of the muscles around her fingers heating the desire within herself. She reached upwards with her thumb and pressed it in slow circular motions against Cordelia, causing the brunette to cry out as the first wave of her orgasm swept through her, forcing her hips to arch violently against Anne, sending her spiralling towards orgasm herself. Anne struggled to maintain the pace between them as Cordelia continued to spasm tightly around her fingers, whilst her own body shook beyond her control. They both rode out the waves of their orgasm, until Anne allowed herself to collapse onto Cordelia, breathing heavily. She found herself wanting to say 'I love you' but instead chose the only word she trusted her mouth to form: "Wow."

 

"My Lord, Prince Cirus. We have good news." The vampire bowed low in front of his master.

"Well?" Cirus was tired. These days, good news was invariably accompanied by bad news.

"The rituals are complete." The vampire bowed even lower, the sleeves of his robe brushing the floor.

"The next station of the moon is two days away. Everything is prepared?" They had made very good time. That at least reassured him that his power and privilege as crown prince was still holding. He suspected that there may have been some impatience from the younger ones, those only three or four centuries old, but they seem to have been brought into the clan well.

"Yes, my liege." The vampire was relieved to be the bringer of good news. For the first time in the clan's history, things had been going against their plan. All those vampires of this brethren knew that this was the moment that they had all been waiting for. This was why their clan was the ruler amongst vampires, destroyers of the other tribes, and more than the bastard undead that roamed the planet like a virus with no respect for the grand traditions. Now, it seemed, all his lip service to the order over the past millennium was going to pay off. The power of belonging to Cirus was going to reap its rewards.

"Go." Cirus watched as his minion backed out of the office. Since the destruction of his enemies, no word had come to them about the slayers. He was still safe from them, of that he could be sure. His senses were not telling him otherwise. If things could stay that way until the moon was right and the final ritual was performed, then he would be the greatest vampire that had ever lived. More famous than that bastard Dracula even. He pursed his lips thoughtfully. He was so close, but it was best to be safe. He decided. Extra guards needed to be placed at all vantage points. The ritual must not be stopped or it would fail. And he was certain he would not fail. He clapped his hands loudly, and was answered almost immediately by the return of the vampire.

"How many are we?"

"Our clan is widespread across the lands of..."

"How many are we here?" Cirus interrupted the speech, rolling his eyes.

"Forty two all told, including your greatness, my liege."

"Place six at each entrance. Arm them against mine enemies. If the slayers come to us, we must be certain that they cannot interrupt us. Go, make good your word of allegiance to me." Cirus waved his hand dismissively, and the vampire once again backed out of the room. Satisfied that the plans were going well, he returned to the young boy, drained to the point where he was slipping in and out of consciousness, and lifted his wrist. Cirus placed it to his mouth and tore at the flesh there, reopening the wound. He drank deeply, feeling the power surge through him, and the blood tasted like victory and power.

 

It was two thirty when they began to congregate in the lobby. Everyone seemed to be sharing that lazy Sunday feeling, with the obvious exception of Faith, who was stomping around and scowling at everyone and everything. Cordelia had arrived with Anne, and it didn't take everyone long to work out what was going on. Both were grinning from ear to ear, and Cordelia had a faint mark on her neck that looked suspiciously like a hickey. Besides, the fact that they were holding hands and making gooey eyes at each other gave the game away somewhat. Faith snorted and stomped off for more coffee, Buffy wondered if it was something in the water, while the three men just grinned at each other appreciatively. At least, until Cordelia shot them the death-stare and they all decided to get on with things.

"Ahem," Wesley coughed to get their attention. "Last night turned out to be something of a success. We have a good idea of where the clan of Cirus has located itself. For obvious reasons of safety, we are assuming that they would not move this close to the ritual. However, until the actual night of the ritual, which we have calculated will be Tuesday night, we cannot guarantee that they will all be in the same place at the same time. I therefore propose that we wait until then before we make our attack. It will also give us more time to prepare ourselves for the fight. After all, we will almost certainly be out numbered."

"I say we go and kill the bastards right now," muttered Faith in the middle of her pacing, and then knocked the remains of her coffee back as if she was taking a slug of cheap bourbon. She noticed several pairs of raised eyebrows sent in her direction. "What?" she snarled, and the others looked away rapidly.

"Erm, yes," Wesley continued. "So what does everyone else think? Buffy?"

"As much as I would love to rush in there and take those guys out as soon as possible," she shot a look at Faith, "I think it would be sensible to wait. I mean, if we go in tonight and two of them escape, they could still be enough to complete the ritual two nights later. I agree with Wesley, I think we should try to interrupt the ritual as much as focus purely on killing them. Anyone else?" She looked around the room and everyone else shook their heads, with the exception of Faith who seemed to be avoiding making eye contact with her. "In that case, I think we should discuss weapons."

"Let me pack the crossbow B. Put an arrow through their motherfu-"

"Faith!" Angel interrupted, seeing where this bad mood was leading. Before long Faith would step over the line with someone, and if that someone turned out to be Buffy, she would not be as forgiving as the rest of them.

"What?" She knew she was being unreasonable, but she had this paranoid feeling that people could take one look at her and guess what she was feeling. Being in a room with Buffy also had the effect of bringing disturbing flashbacks from her dreams, and when Buffy spoke, Faith's mind kept putting different words in her mouth. She watched as Angel gave her a 'look' and made a smoking motion with his hand.

He was right of course. She needed an excuse to get out of there before she either yelled at someone or jumped Buffy. Neither of which were good options at this time and place. She nodded and headed out into the street, feeling the heat of the sun touching her face and instantly felt a little calmer. She lit her cigarette and focused on her nothing, merely watching the smoke as she exhaled and it spiralled upwards. The calming exercises that Angel had taught her all those years ago were not something she used very often any more, but now she tried to recall them, tried to focus on nothing rather than the turmoil she was feeling inside.

Back inside the Hyperion, Angel shot them all a glance, warning them not to say anything about Faith or her behaviour. He noted the worried look on Cordelia's face and wondered if she knew what was going on. He was concerned. Faith needed to be focussed on the fight that they had ahead, or she could end up killed. Or get one of them killed. He just wished he knew if there was something he could say or do that would put her mind at rest. He smiled to himself, ruefully. Sometimes it was clear to him that the old Faith was still very much there, always lurking, ready to surprise them all in the blink of an eye.

 

TWO NIGHTS LATER...

It was a clear night, and as they drove in silence, they watched the moon ascend like a luminous warning of the events that were to come. Faith sat in the back seat, and twiddled her stake around with her fingers, trying to keep her hands occupied to stop them from shaking. Buffy sat next to her, stony still. Faith could not begin to guess what was going through her mind. She seemed the epitome of poised, she knew her job and was prepared to do it, without any thought beyond that.

Wesley and Angel had made some failed attempts at conversation, but no one seemed to be interested in making small talk, they just wanted to get the job over and done with, and make it through to the other side alive. It had been a while since they had faced a threat as large as this one, something that went beyond the power crazy lone wolf. This was to be a battle and there was no escaping the fact. It was still quite early, ten thirty, and the ritual was not due to be completed until the early hours of the morning.

The headlights of Gunn's car followed them steadily as he, Fred and Cordelia bought up the rear of the attack. Only Anne had waited back at the Hyperion, not experienced enough for battle to keep her out of harms way even if they had simply waited in the car. None of them wanted to take the risk of getting her injured, the chance of it being fatal weighing heavily on their minds. When the car stopped, Faith began to feel the adrenalin kick in, loosening her tense muscles, bringing the part of her that was the slayer to the fore. She looked across at Buffy who seemed to be feeling the same thing, her mouth set in a grim line of determination, and Faith allowed herself to speak. "Good luck."

"You too." Buffy smiled at her, the steely surface cracking for a second as she reached over and gave Faith's hand a squeeze. As she let go, the expression was gone, replaced by the hardened look of a slayer once more.

One by one they got out from their cars, and walked with a quiet sense of purpose towards the fragile looking buildings that snaked around the edge of the park. Angel pointed to one three in from the end of the row, his senses picking up the presence of many vampires. The others nodded and Faith and Buffy took the lead, stakes to the ready, and Faith could feel the heavy weight of a cross underneath her shirt.

From inside the building, they could hear the low murmurs of voices, chanting in perfect synchronization a language that sounded vaguely familiar to Wesley, though he couldn't quite place where he had heard it before. Through the slats in the boarded windows, the light came in irregular flickers as the procession of vampires with candles passed by. The two slayers could feel their inbuilt warning systems flashing brightly, and Angel could feel the overwhelming force of evil associated with one of his kind. Such power was something he had not felt since he had been in the presence of the Master when he was in his heyday. For all three, it forced their thoughts and determination into focus.

They crept in silent procession towards the main entrance, nearly falling over each other when Buffy and Faith in the lead suddenly stopped. There were six vampires on guard at the door, fangs already bared, lined against the entrance ready for the prevention of an attack. So, they were expected. It threw the balance against them slightly, as the element of surprise had been removed. The two slayers looked at each other and nodded. Behind them, Wesley and Gunn raised their crossbows, taking aim. Buffy mouthed the count, 1-2-3, and then the two of them surged forwards with lightening speed. Faith could feel the burn in her thighs from the force of the run, but nonetheless plunged her stake clean into his chest before he had a chance to call out and raise the alarm. Like a mirror reflection, Buffy had done the same. The whiz of arrows passed by their ears, and two more of the vampires turned to dust in an instant. The two that remained lunged out at the slayers, landing a stinging series of punches which were returned with equal force. Faith managed to duck under an incoming blow, stepping in closer to the vampire and plunging her stake deep into his heart, her close proximity leaving dust on her face as he disintegrated. Buffy quickly dispatched the final one, but the scuffle had been loud. It was now or never.

With a hard kick, the door of the condemned building gave way, permitting them entrance. All that remained were the columns that held the building up, the rest of the room stripped bare. It afforded them no protection, nor any place of hiding, but instead placed them face to face with the clan. Those on the outside charged them, whilst the inner circle continued their chant unperturbed. Furthest away from them, on a crudely constructed dais, Cirus stood, raised above the rest, and he shot the slayers a look that was almost approving. Final battles always had to be worthy ones, and the two slayers seemed to be the most worthy opponents that he had faced in many centuries. But even they would be no match for Him when he arrived. Ictinius, the First, the Father of them all. He would destroy the Slayers as if they were nothing more than children's toys.

Contented that his outer circle was keeping the Slayers and their little band of followers at bay, he returned his attention to the ritual. Only a few minutes more and it would all finally be complete. The centuries of waiting, of selective breeding and worship, it would all pay off tonight.

Years of slaying had honed the skills of the slayers to near perfection. Both were capable of fighting, but equally, they could go in for the kill pure and simple. Time was of the essence; they had to keep the engagement with each individual vampire as short as possible. Cordelia was wielding her stake like a pro, her long legs landing heavy kicks, and she also took advantage of those that were temporarily stunned in their fights with Wesley, Gunn and Angel.

Angel had chosen his favourite weapon for the fight, a broadsword that had come into his possession two years earlier. Its blade was heavy and sharp enough to decapitate, and certainly made it useful for defending yourself against unarmed opponents. He cut a swathe through the vampires, leaving a trail of dust in his wake, determined to make it into the inner circle. No one was sure how many was needed to chant the ritual, but Angel was determined to destroy every one of them.

Faith was close behind him, trading blows only briefly before staking and moving onto the next one. She was not aware of Cirus stepping down from the dais, his surprise that they were reaching him so quickly was evident. It was time that he became involved, as apparently his clan could not be depended upon defending him completely. With the powers of drinking life blood for centuries strong within him, he extended his hand, feeling the power extend in invisible waves from his fingers towards the brown haired slayer, extracting her own power into him.

Faith, mid-blow, felt her arms weaken, a blanket of fogginess overcoming her mind. Her legs no longer seemed to have the strength to support her, and it crossed her mind that she might have been bit. Was this what the end was like? She couldn't seem to get enough air into her lungs and her eyes wanted to close so badly. She was so tired, she really couldn't keep going any longer.

Buffy's body was following her leg round as she completed a powerful spinning kick, when she noticed Faith collapsing to the ground, revealing a vampire, ages old by the lines on his face, hand extended towards her. He laughed, throwing his head back, seeming to revel in the power of the slayer that was flowing through him. Faith's head hit the concrete floor with a hard bang, and all movement.

"Faith! No!" Buffy heard herself calling out the words as her legs powered her forward, crossing the distance in less than a second, throwing herself forwards, briefly passing through the stream of power entering the outstretched hand in front of her before she made full contact with the body. It toppled, bringing her with him, a sickening crunch as her elbow connected with the floor, even as her other hand was gripping harder on the stake, making a connection with the chest of the vampire with even more force that she normally used.

His scream was loud, but he did not disintegrate. Buffy, laying next to him as his fangs distended even further, staked him repeatedly in a frenzy of blows, until with one final howl of defeat, his body exploded. She tried to stand, knowing she was vulnerable and exposed, her arm hanging limply by her side. Looking around, remaining vampires were each engaged in a fight. Sobbing, she sank to the floor, holding her arm, feeling where the broken bone had torn through muscle and skin, the blood dripping in a pool by her feet. She felt weak and sick as she crawled across the floor towards Faith, each movement making her feel more and more light-headed.

It seemed to take forever to cross the small distance that separated them, but when she got there, Buffy could hear Faith groaning in pain. Relief washed through her as she realised that she was not dead. Not yet at least. Buffy reached forwards with her good arm and shook Faith's shoulder firmly.

"Faith? Faith? Wake up. Please wake up."

"Errm, oozat?"

"It's me. It's Buffy."

"Uff?"

"Yeah. Try to sit up."

"Can't. Hit by truck. Thin' I'm dead. You dea' too Buff?"

"I'm not dead and neither are you. Come on sit up. You weren't hit by a truck."

"Wanna sleep..."

"Faith!" Buffy screamed. "Sit up! You need to stay awake." She was dimly aware of the others arriving at her side, Angel taking her arm in his hands and creating a makeshift sling from his shirt. She watched as Cordelia lifted Faith's head into her lap and shook her gently, stroking her face and softly telling her to stay awake. As Angel finished wrapping her arm, the adrenaline left her body and the pain kicked in with full force; as she sank into the darkness, she dimly heard Angel saying something about hospital. Then there was nothing.

 

Faith woke up staring at the ceiling of her bedroom. Her head was throbbing, but at least she could move her legs. She had a vague recollection of thinking that she was dead. Which she obviously wasn't. She got out of bed shakily, realising she was naked and idly wondering who had undressed her. Feeling to weak to hunt for clothes, she fished a robe of the hook behind the door. It was something that she never usually wore, hence the fact it wasn't lying on the floor somewhere. She noticed that the clothes she had been wearing before had been folded neatly over a chair, her boots regimentally placed underneath. So Fred had been the one to undress her. She shrugged to herself. Better than Wesley. He would have been so clumsy he probably would have done more harm than good.

All she needed now was a coffee and a cigarette. She made her way slowly down the stairs, not caring less if there were any clients in the reception. Hell, chicks walking around in bathrobes in the middle of the day would probably be good for business, not bad. As she walked she could feel the strength returning to her muscles, and it felt good. She hated to feel weak, she hated to feel vulnerable. As she reached the bottom of the stairs, she was relieved to see everyone there, and her bravado of earlier left her when she realised she wished she had put on something that covered her legs a little more.

"Faith, you're up." Angel leapt to his feet and bounded over to her. "How are you feeling?"

"Better. What the hell happened to me back there? We won, right?"

"Yes, we won. You had a little mojo pulled on you, but you should be ok. It's Buffy you should thank. She was the one that saved your life." He stood back, and Faith saw Buffy sitting on the couch, her arm in a sling.

"Erm, thanks Buffy." She felt slightly embarrassed as the blonde stood up.

"I guess that makes us even now Faith," was all Buffy said as she made her way out of the room.

 

It was over. They had fought together and won, but Faith knew that it might be the last time that she ever saw Buffy again. After all, they were a little too old to invite each other for sleepovers, thought Faith wryly. Not that she could recall ever being invited to a sleepover. All night parties, sure, but not that cosy girl-bonding thing. Now Buffy had no reason to delay her departure back to Sunnydale, just as she had no reason to return in the near future. She had noticed Buffy withdrawing from her last night, refusing her offer of help packing her bags, not going out on patrol with her, not even wanting to go out for a victory drink at Caritas. Instead, she had hardly said two words to Faith, packing her bag in silence, the same frosty air about her as when she had turned up in LA out of the blue a few weeks ago.

Faith had tried to strike up the same kind of conversation that had happened between them over the course of the last week, but Buffy was unresponsive. Faith became increasingly frustrated and eventually left the room biting back the tears. Under the pretence of going out on patrol, she walked out into the chill night air and finally let the tears flow freely down her face. She hastily wiped them on the sleeve of her jacket as she walked aimlessly, heading somewhere downtown, away from the lights and the people, where no one asked any questions or looked at your face.

Somehow she ended up in Caritas, though it certainly hadn't been her intention to find herself among familiar faces. Sighing, she decided that she might as well have a beer since she was here. She sat down and nodded at the barman, knowing that he would bring her usual over to the table. Shrugging out of her jacket, she leaned back in her chair and sparked up a cigarette, realising ruefully that it was only her third of the day. She inhaled deeply and then blew a steady stream of smoke at the table lamp in front of her, feeling the nicotine kick into her system.

"Feels good huh?" Lorne's voice accompanied the land that she felt on her shoulder, and she nodded without looking up at him. "Oh, I sense some conflicted energies here sweetheart. Wanna talk about it?"

"Nope."

"Doesn't matter, your aura is telling me all I need to hear baby, and let's just say its not music to my ears."

"Lorne," she sighed, putting her hand up to her face and rubbing her eyes as if they hurt. "What am I going to do?"

"About what?"

"About the way I feel."

"I wish I could make all the pain go away, really I wish I could. But that's something only you could make better. I can tell you what I know though."

"Hit me."

"Well, I think you know that telling her how you feel will only make her head of back to Sunnydale faster. I know you think that you are running out of time, but believe me, you're not. She knows how you feel, but she's not ready to face it yet. Whenever I see Buffy, the amount of conflict I see in her always blows me away. She feels like there is still so much she has left to do, but never gets round to doing it, because her life could end tomorrow and she knows it. And it scares her. The only thing that has ever been permanent in her life is Sunnydale, and killing things there. It is the only life she knows. Let's face it, it's the only death she knows as well," he concluded with tasteless wink. Still, it made Faith chuckle a little.

"So tell me Mr. Insight. How long is this going to keep hurting me for?"

"Now that, I can't tell you. But I can tell you something that might cheer you up a little. Your destiny is bound with hers. Even now, so it's not just for this latest crusade the two of you have been on. This is not the last time that you will see Buffy, I promise. You'll see that she needs you as much as you need her. Does that help?"

"I guess. A little." Faith sighed again and lit another cigarette from the butt of the last one.

"Keep your chin up little soldier. Put on a brave face for her when she leaves tomorrow. It's the only thing that you can do."

"Thanks Lorne."

"No problem, it's what I do."

"No, not for that. For not making me sing first."

So here she stood, watching Buffy leave the Hyperion for Sunnydale.

"Thanks for your help Buffy." Angel handed her the bag that she had packed the night before. With Cirus defeated, she felt there was no reason for her to stop in LA any longer. She was looking forward to be back in her own in room in her own bed, seeing Xander and Anya again. She was determined about one thing she was going to do when she got back though, her trip to LA had made certain of that. She was going to call Dawn and talk to her properly. She knew Dawn had a busy life, and her own slaying duties made for very unsociable hours, but the two of them no longer talked as much as they used to. Or as much as they should. Buffy was aware now that Dawn was another piece of her life that was quietly slipping away in the background. She did not want her to be another thing that she didn't realise she had lost until it was too late.

There had been a time when Dawn had been everything to her, her reason to live and her reason to die. Buffy had been suffering one loss after the other for so many years now, to the point where the names and the faces sometimes seemed to merge in her head. Slowly, ever since Willow had been gone, she realised that she had been raising her defences again, determined not to let anyone in our anything out. Tara had become her closest confidant, because there was no way that she could lie to her. Even Xander sometimes failed to see through her defences, but Tara had an uncanny knack of knowing. She could somehow just feel what was happening inside Buffy's head. Tara had been telling her for some time that she ought to spend more time with Dawn, and she thought that she had been sincerely trying to find the time. But now she realised that she had found all sorts of excuses not to go out of her way to visit.

Now was not the time to analyse it too deeply, but she was determined to do some soul searching when he got home.

"I'll see you all again soon." She said it out of politeness more than anything. Her trips to LA had always been few and far between. She smiled at Angel and then pulled him into a tight embrace, wincing a little as he made contact with her bad arm. It was healing rapidly, but she could still feel a slight twinge.

"You take care Buffy."

"I will." She turned away and hugged Cordelia, Anne, Gunn and Wesley. Brief, polite hugs. She was pulling away from them all to stop herself from getting hurt for reasons she could not understand. She noticed that Faith was hanging back, not sure after all this time whether or not she would be included in the displays of affection. Buffy felt a little guilty. She knew that since the fight, she had been withdrawing from Faith, and even though she knew that she shouldn't, this was the one person more so than the others that she felt she needed to escape from. She just couldn't shake the feeling that Faith could still get to her in some way, and she knew that she wasn't ready to have her defences broken by an ex-psychotic just yet. She looked around and realised that everyone was waiting to see what she would do next. Swallowing at a lump that had suddenly appeared in her throat, she moved to where Faith was standing, her hands clasped tightly in front of her. "Look after yourself Faith." She put her arms around the brunette in an awkward embrace, shocked to feel as if something was melting within her when it was returned. Faith's hands on her back were strong and somehow reassuring. Buffy looked up, and saw that look in Faith's eyes again. Swallowing hard, she pulled away, and Faith nodded, either unable to speak, or feeling that she did not have to say the words. Buffy noticed that her eyes were glistening with threatening tears, and nodded in return. She put her bag in the truck and climbed in the car without another word. As she headed for the bus station, she had to wonder how the past few weeks had changed her, possibly for ever.