The Varos Triad
by Steff

The only good thing about the rain was that it made the streets glisten, thought Buffy darkly as she and her companions hurried through the precipitation on their way to The Bronze. She tugged her dark brown jacket round her more closely and felt the comforting dig of a stake as it nudged her in the back. A girl could never be too prepared. Riley swung an arm round her and she leaned in close, sheltering from the drizzle but she could not glean any warmth from his body. Buffy wondered absently if it was for physical reasons or psychological ones. Ever since his return, the blonde slayer had pondered over their relationship and was beginning to think that perhaps she had lost the feelings she once harboured for the ex Initiative member.

Willow and Tara were right behind them, holding hands and walking briskly, heads bent slightly against the poor weather. As a group, they hadn't visited The Bronze for some time and it had been Xander's eager suggestion that they rectify that scandalous oversight as soon as possible. He and Anya flanked the two wiccans in a move that surprised everyone. Anya was usually inseparable from the dark haired man.

The small, blonde slayer had agreed to a night out but knew that she would have to cut it short and go patrolling. Demon and vamp activity had both escalated dramatically in the last month, yet they were still no closer to finding out why. She also had a niggling thought in her head that she was using the increase to keep her distance from Riley.

As they continued down the street, Buffy and the scoobs heard the roar of engines behind them and realised as the noise crescendoed that the sounds belonged to two motorbikes, both of which were obviously going ridiculously fast.

Even as the group looked up, they saw the approach of the vehicles. The motorbikes were neck and neck in the middle of the road and the riders seemed intent on beating the hell out of each other, despite the fact that the bikes were both veering dangerously as each punch was swung.

"Wow," breathed Xander. "Real life Road Rash," he remarked in awe, referring to one of his older play station games.

The small slayer stopped and watched the incident closely and as the two combatants roared past she realised that her slayer sense was going off the scale. The gang watched as the bikes continued down the street before ploughing into a row of small trees, catapulting the two riders into the nearby cemetery.

All of them remained motionless for a fraction longer before Riley broke the spell and began jogging toward the cemetery. With his movement, the others quickly shook themselves out of their reverie and ran after the tall man, Buffy instinctively taking the lead as soon as she caught him up.

As they approached the graveyard, the gang could see that the fight had not abated. The two fighters were physically uneven. One towered over the other and was almost as broad as he was tall. His face was misshapen and had an unearthly green hue, glowing iridescently with the light emitted from the gibbous moon reflecting off it. The other was lithe and sleek, dwarfed by the demon's height. The fighter was totally decked out in black leather and heavy black boots. Despite the physical differences, there appeared to be no mismatch in ability and the two pugilists continued with their onslaught into each other in a spectacular fight and the scoobs came to a halt to watch, mesmerised by the sheer brutality of the battle before them as the opponents exchanged blow after vicious blow.

The smaller fighter still wore a crash helmet, but it was suddenly grabbed and yanked off, releasing a waterfall of dark brown, tousled hair that cascaded gently over the combatant's shoulders. With its release, both Xander and Willow got an uneasy feeling of recognition but for Buffy, the long dark hair merely confirmed the identity of the fighter.

"Faith."

The others glanced round at Buffy and then shared nervous looks as she breathed the name of the rogue slayer but their attention was drawn back to the fight as Faith continued to slug it out with her opponent.

Her newly released hair accentuated the sudden movement of her head snapping round as the big fighter swung the newly acquired crash helmet straight into her jaw, sending the slender figure flying over two gravestones and crashing onto the ground.

All the scoobs winced at the ferocity of the connection but their faces became round in astonishment as the fallen fighter sprang back up and attacked once more, barely acknowledging the previous blow.

"She's in good shape," commented Buffy neutrally as they continued to watch the battle.

Tara stared at her. "Aren't you going to help her?" She queried. She had heard about Faith's exploits in great detail from Willow and the others but she was not prepared to watch anyone suffer at the hands of a demon, whatever their history.

"No," returned Buffy in an icy voice that brooked no argument. Willow and Xander both nodded their heads in agreement.

Tara wanted to say more but returned her attention to the fight as she wracked her brains for a spell that might assist Faith. Her only experience with Faith had been when she had been cruel to her whilst occupying Buffy's body. Despite the hurtful words that had made Tara feel extremely uncomfortable at the time, the blonde witch firmly believed that Faith was not pure evil. She had no reason to hate the woman and would not jump on the bandwagon and join in her condemnation.

Faith swung her leg round to deliver a crunching kick to the demon's jaw and quickly followed it up with a sharp right jab. Her head was still spinning from the hit to her face but she was in automatic fighting mode now and would not appreciate the full extent of her injuries until the adrenaline rush wore off. She could hear the demon's breathing becoming laboured and dodged a wildly swinging attack from one of his huge fists. As she ducked, she swept a leg out and connected with his right shin, prompting an enraged howl of agony from the demon. He threw his fists at her again and Faith had to work hard to bob and weave, avoiding his attacks and wearing him out.

After connecting a powerful roundhouse kick to the demon's chest, the rogue slayer yanked a bowie knife out from her right boot as he reeled back before circling him cautiously. There was still plenty of fight left in the huge monster, and now that Faith had advertised that she was tooled up, she suspected that he was going to play hard.

Her suspicions were confirmed as the massive demon came thundering towards her. She blocked his first punch easily but was swamped by his sheer bulk and the two of them went rolling to the floor in a tangle of arms and legs.

Buffy remained motionless as the two fighters crashed to the ground. She watched carefully as they traded jabs and elbows, neither one of them able to put any real force into their attack. Suddenly, Faith's knife glinted in the moonlight before being buried deep into the demon's chest. It let out a howl of indignant rage before slumping onto the ground, it's sticky black blood hissing and steaming as it escaped its body.

Faith retracted the knife and wiped the blade on the clothing of the fallen demon before sheathing the weapon. She dragged herself to her feet, and then perused the body that was melting slowly into the wet earth of the graveyard.

Xander frowned as he watched the demon disappear and wracked his brain for a throwaway comment but he was still reeling from the shock of Faith's return to force any words out of his already open mouth.

The lithe brunette knelt down next to the steaming mass and rummaged through the demon's clothing methodically before pulling out a small object. Her teeth gleamed in the moonlight as she smiled, pocketing the object in triumph before dragging herself back to her feet, only now groaning at the injuries she had sustained during the encounter.

The taller slayer turned round to face her audience and looked at them carefully before speaking. "Thanks B. Couldn't have done it without you."

Her statement caused Buffy, Xander and Willow to remember their first encounter with Faith outside the Bronze and all three stiffened. The blonde slayer sneered at the sarcastic comment and stepped forward to face her nemesis. "Shouldn't you be in jail?" She accused.

"Done my time, B," replied the Bostonian. "I was released last year."

"Since when has a murderer only had to serve three years?" Exploded Willow from behind Buffy.

"It's a long story Red," replied Faith. "And I'm sure you ain't interested anyway."

Buffy took charge once again. "What are you doing here Faith? You're not wanted."

Faith smiled again, but it failed to reach her eyes. "Just doin' my job, B."

Buffy snorted at the remark. "You mean murdering people again."

"Last time I heard, people didn't melt into the ground when you stabbed 'em," rejoined Faith, starting to feel a little cornered by the interrogation. Truth be told, she had never intended to come here but the damn demon wouldn't give up the fight and she had chased him all the way from LA to retrieve the artefact it had in his possession.

"No, you dispose of those bodies in a different way," retorted Buffy bitterly.

Faith's mask of indifference cracked just for an instant and a look of painful remorse ghosted across her features before her barriers once again asserted themselves. Tara was the only one to notice the emotion and examined the aura surrounding Faith. It was plain to see that the woman had changed. Her aura was less chaotic, with a more balanced feel to it. The blonde witch could not sense any evil radiating from her.

"Just get out of here you psycho," threatened Riley, moving up to stand just behind the blonde slayer.

Faith barely spared the man a look before returning to staring at Buffy. "I'm done with all that shit B," she began.

"I told you last time I saw you Faith, do not apologise to me," warned the smaller slayer. She had unconsciously adjusted her feet into a fighting stance and had tensed her muscles, prepared for another fight.

Faith saw the movement and sighed inwardly. Just returning to the outside world had been hard enough. Making up for her previous wrongs looked like it was going to be impossible. As she was about to reply, she felt her cell phone vibrate in her top left hand pocket. She had put the phone there before setting off after the demon but had been unable to field the calls. It had been buzzing periodically for the last two hours. Automatically, she shoved her right hand into her jacket to retrieve the phone.

Buffy saw Faith reach inside her jacket and reacted purely on instinct. Already on the balls of her feet, she sprung forward and knocked Faith to the floor, holding onto Faith's right forearm with her left hand so that she was unable to retrieve the weapon she was concealing in her jacket. Her right hand whipped back and then punched the chestnut haired girl in the jaw hard.

Faith winced as Buffy struck the same spot as the crash helmet had hit her only moments before. She looked up at Buffy, who had straddled her and moved her knees up to pin the younger slayer onto the ground by her shoulders.

"B, is there some law in Sunnydale that prevents people from answering their phones?" Faith asked carefully, forcing herself not to struggle back and perhaps provoke another attack.

"Huh?"

"My phone just buzzed, B. I was trying to answer it," Faith explained slowly, trying desperately not to allow any more sarcasm to creep into her intonation.

Buffy jammed her hand into Faith's jacket and rummaged round till she located a hard object in the inside pocket. She yanked the thing free from the jacket and stared at it momentarily. A second later, she had the decency to blush before getting up slowly. As she released the Bostonian, her mask of hatred returned. "Pardon me for not believing you, F," she retorted icily as she returned to stand with the scoobies, tossing the cell phone at Faith when she was level with them.

Faith sat up slowly, rubbing her jaw gently before picking up the phone that had bounced into the dirt. She glanced at the display and realised that she had missed 24 calls. Tapping in a number she knew by heart, the dark eyed slayer stood up as she waited for the other end to pick up, noticing that Buffy and the others were scrutinising her carefully.

"Hey, it's me," she announced into the receiver when the connection was made. There was a fractional pause before she continued. "Guess where I am."

There was a longer pause this time before Faith's face split with a rueful grin. "Jeez, you'd think I'd have learnt not to play that game with a seer by now."

Buffy and the scoobies looked at each other in surprise. Faith appeared to be totally at ease with whoever she was talking to. They were then startled by a soft chuckle of genuinely amused laughter before Faith continued. "I know. Is dead boy there?" Faith looked at the others with an unreadable expression as she waited. The scoobs made the connection. She was talking to someone in the office in LA. Buffy was feeling uneasy about Faith's behaviour. For someone who had subjected an ex-watcher with the five basic torture groups and tried to kill Angel, she was conversing with them in a remarkably relaxed manner.

"Hey Soul boy. What's the what?" There was another pause as she listened to Angel. "I've got the artefact but my bike's fucked. I won't be able to get back to you tonight." Faith started to pace as she listened to Angel reply, looking nervously at her audience. Tara instinctively smiled sympathetically, realising that Faith's nerves were of their making and wanting somehow to put the young woman at ease. Faith's eyebrows rose slightly at the gesture before a tiny smile tugged at the corners of her mouth in a grateful response. Noticing the look, Willow stepped closer to Tara and snaked a protective arm around the blonde wicca. Tara was just too trusting.

"Er, I dunno Soul boy. I'm not exactly Miss Popular round here," Faith was protesting. "Oh yeah, I've already bumped into her," she verified. The brunette stopped her pacing abruptly as she continued to listen. "I don't think that's gonna be a good idea," she hedged as she looked up at the group. Finally, she extended her arm and offered the phone to Buffy. "Angel wants to speak to you," she explained.

Buffy snatched the phone and held it to her ear. "Look Angel," she began without preamble. "I don't know what stunt she's pulled on you but I don't buy it. I don't want her here." Buffy stopped and allowed the brooding vampire to speak. "No, I don't own Sunnydale, but I'm sworn to protect people from evil. She just happens to be a human evil.."

Faith blinked at the words but steeled her face into a blank look.

"Just tell her to stay put there then. If she starts parading round town I'm gonna kick her ass back to Boston." Buffy ended the conversation by throwing the phone back at Faith.

"Hey, it's me again," Faith spoke into the receiver in a hushed tone. She turned away from the group as Angel spoke to her. "Okay, but I'm not dusting...Yeah you too big guy, bye." She ended the call and returned the phone to her jacket. The dark haired slayer then swung back round to face the others.

"I don't know how you've managed to fool Angel, but be warned," Buffy spoke in an almost growl. "Do not attempt any of your old tricks here, Faith. I won't mess up next time." With that she ground on her heel and stalked off, Riley following quickly after shooting Faith a venomous look.

Xander paused before speaking for the first time. "Stay away from me and my friends," he warned simply before slipping an arm round Anya and leading her away from the cemetery.

Faith turned to Willow and Tara, bracing herself for the next onslaught. She did not have to wait long. "I won't be messed with again Faith," Willow hissed. "And I won't need a shovel. I have far more power than any physical instrument can provide and I'll use it against you if you cause any trouble." She put her hand into Tara's and tugged at her to get her moving.

To Faith and Willow's surprise, the blonde witch released her hand from the grasp momentarily and stepped forward. "I can see the change," she told Faith cryptically and offered the dark girl another smile before returning to Willow's side.

The auburn haired girl looked at Tara in surprise. "What's all that about?"

"You'll see," replied Tara enigmatically and followed after the other Scoobies as Willow shot Faith a final hard stare before falling in with Tara.

"Well, that went well," remarked Faith to herself. Sighing, she trudged over to where her bike lay in a tangled heap with the other motorcycle. She rubbed her neck absently as she surveyed the mess before yanking the bike back onto it's wheels. The front forks were bent and the handlebars and mirrors had taken a good bashing but other than that, the bike was reasonably sound. Fighting against the pull of the bike, Faith began the long walk up towards Angel's mansion.

 

Buffy looked at the grim faces of her companions as they sat squashed into their usual booth at The Bronze. She knew her face reflected the sombre mood but she was determined that Faith would not ruin their night out. "Just forget about her tonight. She won't be going anywhere," she insisted.

"You hope," added Willow as she reached for her drink. She took a sip quickly before continuing. "I'm sorry Buffy but Faith being here is just too disturbing for me to sit back and relax."

Xander agreed though he was equally annoyed that their night out had soured so quickly.

"Well, perhaps we should all just go home," suggested Anya. "We need to have sex," she told Xander candidly as the others just shook their heads.

"Perhaps Anya's right," sighed Buffy. "Well, about the first part I mean," she qualified as she was met with four looks of astonishment and one look of smug satisfaction from the ex vengeance demon. "We'll just put this night out on hold for a few days. Faith will be gone as soon as she repairs her bike and then we can all go out without worrying what she's up to."

Tara shifted uncomfortably in her chair. She knew how deeply the feelings ran in the group concerning Faith but the shy woman knew it would be wrong of her to ignore what she had seen and not tell the others. "Buffy, Faith's c-changed," she began, realising that her stutter had returned for the first time in a long while.

The slayer narrowed her hazel eyes at the blonde witch. "Tara, you'd see the good in Satan if you met him," she returned, hoping to stop Tara's comments before she really began them.

Tara, however, was not fazed by the retort. "I saw her aura Buffy," she explained softly.

"Then she's tricked you into thinking that it's showing something else," decided Willow. She was starting to get upset by Tara's continued defence of the rogue slayer. "It doesn't matter what you say, I'll never trust her."

Tara sat back slightly at the comment. Willow had meant it to be a damnation of Faith, but the shy wiccan couldn't help but take it personally too. "D-don't you b-believe me?"

Willow, realising that she had upset her lover, though unsure how, closed the distance between them immediately and placed a reassuring kiss on her lips. "It's not that, honey," she demurred quietly. "But what you're seeing isn't Faith."

"Damn right," agreed Xander forcefully. "That bitch can't change. And I'm not sure I'd want to know her even if she could."

Tara looked round miserably as she saw everyone else's heads nod in agreement. "You're wrong," she told the group determinedly.

"Let's just forget about Faith," repeated Buffy, irritated at how the dark slayer had managed to dominate the entire evening mostly without even being present. She stood up abruptly. "I'm going on patrol." She leant down and brushed her lips across Riley's, backing away before he had the opportunity to deepen the embrace. He looked at her uncomfortably but remained silent as she nodded to the others before leaving The Bronze.

Her departure effectively broke the night up and the others went their separate ways shortly afterwards.

As they strolled hand in hand back home, Willow mulled over Tara's behaviour since the arrival of Faith. "Why are you defending her?" She asked suddenly.

Tara stopped and turned toward the red haired witch. "B-b-because she hasn't had an opportunity to defend herself yet," she replied carefully.

"And she won't get one. She let everyone down time and again, before she even went bad. You don't know her Tara. You don't know what she's capable of doing."

"I saw her in the graveyard, Willow," Tara began. "I've seen the strength she possesses. You've told me all the stories so I do know what she's capable of. But what I saw today was not what I saw when Faith was occupying Buffy. I know I'm not going to convince you or anyone else Will, but at least respect my opinion."

Willow's eyes opened at the determination behind Tara's statement. She allowed the words to sink in slowly before wrapping her arms round her lover. "I'm sorry, Tara. I didn't mean to tell you what to think. I just don't want you to get hurt."

Tara returned the embrace tightly before kissing Willow sensuously on the lips. "I love you Will, and I know you want to protect me."

Willow recaptured Tara's lips, deepening the kiss. A slow moan escaped her as they continued and she pulled away reluctantly. "Home.....now," she gasped and tugged Tara's hand to underline the breathless statement.

 

Buffy twiddled her stake in her right hand. After marching out of The Bronze she descended on the nearest cemetery in the hope that she could take out her frustrations on the undead. Unfortunately the undead apparently did not want to play today and she spent a fruitless two hours patrolling mulling over the day's events. She was surprised at how Faith's reappearance had affected her. After seeing Faith give herself up in LA, Buffy had determinedly set aside her feelings for the dark slayer and allowed the well of hatred for Faith build up and enshroud every memory of the woman. There would be no more chances, no more opportunities for Faith to get under her skin only for the rogue slayer to hurt her again. When she looked up, she was surprised to find herself outside the door to her home. The blonde slayer looked steadily at Riley as he leant against the door.

"Wondered when you'd show," he commented softly.

"How long have you been waiting?" She asked him as she closed the distance between them.

"I came straight here. I didn't want to miss you."

Buffy winced as they embraced. He'd been waiting for over two hours for her, and she couldn't think of a single thing that she really wanted to say to him.

Riley sensed her discomfort and pulled back. "We need to talk."

The blonde slayer rolled her eyes at the statement. "What about, Riley? About you disappearing without so much as a goodbye, or your return, without an explanation?"

"Is this what all this is about?" Riley asked, perplexed.

"Yes. No. I don't know," hedged Buffy. "What I do know is that it just isn't the same as it was before."

"But we can make it the same," protested the tall man. He tried to pull Buffy back into his arms but she resisted and broke free altogether.

"Riley, you could explain everything to me a million times and it still wouldn't be right. I just don't have the same feelings for you anymore."

"Is there someone else?" Accused Riley, an angry edge tainting the words.

"No. Jeez, why does there have to be someone else? Why can't it be that I just don't love you anymore?" As soon as the words were out of her mouth Buffy went through a myriad of emotions. She was shocked that she had said the words so harshly and initially confused because it wasn't what she had intended to say at all. As soon as those thoughts were processed however, she realised that she had uttered the truth, and unfortunately hurt Riley deeply in the process.

"So that's that then?" He made the question sound like a statement and stepped past the small woman. "For what it's worth, Buffy, I still love you. I just can't compete with the whole 'Slayer' thing though, can I?"

Buffy remained silent as he stalked off, watching until he disappeared from view. "I never wanted you to compete," she murmured to his retreating form.

Once he was no longer visible, she let herself in and collapsed onto the couch, content to brood over the day's events wondering if anything else could go wrong. Her thoughts were rudely interrupted by the harsh tones of a ringing telephone.

She picked it up halfway through the fourth ring. "Hello?"

"Hey Buffy,"

"Angel. Two conversations in one day, people will talk." Buffy didn't mean to take her irritation out on the vampire but for the moment he was an easy target.

"Sorry to disturb you again. But this is something you need to know."

"Don't tell me, the world about to end again?"

"Possibly. More likely to be thrown into a torment of perpetual Hell though," replied the brooding vampire steadily.

"So you need my help then," sighed Buffy.

"No, actually we were going to offer our help," returned Angel calmly.

"What?" Buffy sat up. "What are you talking about, Angel?"

"The demon that Faith chased to Sunnydale..."

"Oh God, not Faith again!" Exclaimed Buffy in exasperation.

Angel tried a second time. "The demon was just a soldier on an errand. The artefact he held can be used to perform a summoning when it is joined with two other artefacts. It forms part of the Varos Triad. Now that he no longer has it, more demons will be sent to retrieve it. Sunnydale's about to get invaded."

"Why don't you just ring Faith and tell her to destroy the artefact?" Asked Buffy. "No more artefact, no more triad, no more summoning."

"The artefact can't be destroyed by simple means. It can only be destroyed when all three are bound together"

"What? That's ridiculous, and insanely unsafe."

"I have an artefact with me. Now that Faith has one, we only have one more to find..."

"Wait a minute," interrupted the blonde slayer once again. "What do you mean we? You got into this mess, surely you can get yourselves out of it?"

"That demon was headed to Sunnydale for a reason, Buffy" replied Angel, unperturbed by Buffy's rant.

Buffy rolled her eyes as she sank deeper into the couch. "When are you getting here then?" She asked in defeat.

"Tomorrow. Can you set up a meet with the others? Early evening?"

"I take it Faith has to be involved in all of this," remarked Buffy acidly.

"She's not the same person, Buffy. Give her a chance."

"Oh no. She's already used up more than her fair share of chances. If she has to be part of this, then so be it. Just don't expect any welcoming committees for her. Well, none of the pleasant variety anyway."

"I'll see you tomorrow, Buffy." Angel decided not to push his luck and hung up.

"Yeah, bye," returned Buffy into the buzzing receiver. She looked at the handset before returning it to the cradle and pinched the bridge of her nose. Well, it was her own fault for wondering if the day could get any worse, she decided.

 

Faith threw herself onto the couch and groaned. Her jaw still hurt and an ugly purple bruise had spread along her chin. She also had bruised ribs and a broken knuckle but her injuries would fade and become dull memories by the morning. She had been hungry earlier when she arrived at the mansion but Angel's fridge had been as empty as her stomach. Not wanting to provoke Buffy or her friends, Faith decided to stay put and had eventually managed to persuade the local pizza place to deliver to the mansion. The poor guy at the other end of the phone had eventually caved in when Faith told him that she'd serve his tongue as a topping if he didn't deliver it. Faith had felt bad about threatening the guy but a girl had to eat. She broke the habit of a life time and tipped the delivery boy before wolfing down the pizza with a large bottle of Coke.

Now she felt like she was splitting at the seams but it had been worth it.

Lying back into the couch, Faith drowsily relived the day's events, grimacing as her memory reminded her of the reunion with Buffy and the scoobies at the cemetery. The dark slayer almost regretted giving chase to that damned demon. She had sought out the demon in a deserted warehouse in LA, staking the place out after a tip off. Faith hadn't intended fighting the thing. It had taken Angel, Gunn and herself to down a similar demon earlier in the week. That demon had in it's possession a small gold casting that had been of great importance to Wesley. He had gone into research mode along with Angel who believed the object to be of great magical value. When Faith spotted the second demon, she had decided to report in so they could ambush it properly, but before she got the call in, Faith noticed that it held a similar artefact and was making plans to leave town. After a hurried phone call to Angel, she'd jumped on her motorbike and chased the thing all the way to Sunnydale, wondering how the hell they hadn't been pulled by the cops during the chase. Unfortunately Faith never managed to land anything more solid than the odd punch as she pursued it. The demon had obviously headed to Sunnydale for a reason. 'Probably the Hellmouth,' thought Faith sourly. It usually was. Unfortunately, it meant that she suddenly had a lot more to deal with than big ugly demons with wicked right hooks.

Her cell phone buzzed and rumbled across the table. Faith looked at it balefully as she decided whether to answer it or not. The second time it moved, she rolled off the couch and snatched it. "Yeah?"

"Hey Faith,"

"Soul boy! What's the what?" Faith brightened immediately. Angel might be over 200 years old and predominantly moody but he was on her side.

"We've just completed some research on the artefacts. Can you describe the one you've got?" Angel jumped straight in. Faith frowned slightly. She could smell trouble brewing.

"Hang on a sec, I'll just go and get it," she told him. The brunette woman moved into the kitchen and rummaged around in the pockets of her leather jacket that she had thrown over a chair. She had managed to spread the few belongings she possessed all over the ground floor of Angel's mansion. "It's the same as the other one, only it's not made of gold," she continued after retrieving the artefact. "It's some sort of green stone. Jade maybe?" Faith suggested hesitantly.

"Jade definitely," confirmed Angel. "There's another one of those statuettes out there somewhere Faith, so keep your eyes open. And be careful too. They'll want it back."

"They? What the hell is going on big guy?" Faith was confused and nervous now. Angel's tone when he warned her to be careful was definitely on the more serious side.

"I'll tell you everything when we get there."

"You're coming here? When?" Faith couldn't help but smile, until she had a nasty afterthought. "I haven't gotta stick around here by myself for a few days have I?"

"No, we'll be there tomorrow. Just keep your guard up for tonight."

Faith frowned. "Don't worry soul boy, I can look after myself," she reassured him. They exchanged goodbyes and hung up. Faith threw the phone onto the kitchen work top and then sat down to examine the artefact closely. It was a solid piece of jade, about 30 centimetres tall in the shape of a rotund man. It reminded Faith of the Buddha statues she'd seen in various shops but she'd never seen a Buddha that was standing before. Or one with such a fierce expression carved on it's face. It felt heavy too. Almost too heavy for it's size. On the base were tiny runic inscriptions that meant nothing to Faith. Perhaps Giles might have some info. The young slayer curled her lip at the thought of meeting Buffy's friends again, yet she knew it would be inevitable. For Angel to return to Sunnydale and expect her to remain here could only mean that there was a massive threat to be dealt with - one that could not be dealt with by Buffy and the scoobs alone.

She ran a hand through her thick black mane absently as she brooded over what she knew. When her butt started complaining about the inactivity, she shifted, yawning in the process. The ride from LA and her subsequent fight had taken it's toll. Deciding that the safest place for the statuette was on her person, she tucked the jade object back into her jacket and returned to the couch. Snuggling down with the coat thrown over the top of her body she decided to rest her eyes for ten minutes.

Faith rolled off the couch and was on the balls of her feet in a crouched fighting stance before she was aware of what woke her up. Consequently, the demon's punch swiped at empty air before landing amongst the couch cushions.

Even as it turned to attack Faith, the young slayer whipped round in a vicious leg swipe that floored the thing. Before it had time to recover, she yanked the knife from its nestling place inside her right boot and skewered the demon, ending the fight before it had really started.

Until the second demon attacked her from behind. Fortunately, her slayer instinct saved her again and she managed to turn a potentially fatal blow to her head into a glancing one as she leapt to one side. It still hurt like hell and made her ears ring. Faith shook her head in an effort to clear it but succeeded in making herself feel more nauseous. After that, she didn't know how she felt because her only instinct was survival as she traded blows with her attacker. Using her size and speed to her advantage, Faith sprinted to Angel's weapons room, hoping that the vampire had left something for her to use. Unfortunately it was locked and as Faith raised a leg in an effort to kick the door down, she found herself slammed against it instead. She grunted and realised that she must have bitten her lip as she tasted a familiar salty iron tang in her mouth. The small slayer spun round, leaving her elbow raised and heard a satisfying crunch as it connected with the demon's face. It didn't slow the thing down though and Faith felt herself flying back across the room as the demon yanked her arm. Determined not to lose her focus through rage, Faith stood up carefully and awaited the next attack, her eyes darting everywhere in an effort to find anything that could be of use to her. The demon wasted no time in closing the distance between them. It swung wildly at her, hoping to connect a heavy blow and down the lithe woman but Faith kept out of the way, dancing round the thing and waiting for an opening. When the demon produced a large curved knife, the slayer knew she was in real trouble. Suddenly, she saw something that could be of use to her and without making it too obvious, she manoeuvred the demon towards the fireplace.

Her attacker was similar to the one from the cemetery, but not as large. Unfortunately, this made him quicker and he surprised Faith with a snake like strike with his knife. She body swerved instinctively but winced as she felt the knife slice across the side of her abdomen. Her side became slick and hot as blood flowed freely from the wound. Faith dropped her shoulder and rolled across the floor, getting to her feet right by the fireplace. The demon was on her in an instant but the rogue slayer snatched the poking iron from beside the fireplace and whipped it across the thing's head, bending it with the ferocity of the blow. Faith almost dropped the implement as the violent shock waves shuddered up her arm, but instead she adjusted her grip slightly as the demon staggered and imbedded the black iron poker deep into the guts of her foe. It hissed angrily as it folded onto the floor before melting across the carpet.

Faith yanked the poker from it's resting place inside the melting demon's guts and then searched the mansion cautiously. She kicked herself at her own stupidity when she realised that she had left the back door open after depositing her bike in the yard. At least she now knew how they got in without disturbing her. After carefully securing the property, Faith then tended her own wounds. The incision to her abdomen was not too deep but very sore. Locating a stash of first aid equipment, she bound the wound tightly, hoping that her slayer powers would do the rest. The blow to her head had produced an egg sized lump that would disappear by morning along with the fat lip.

Finally, after checking her jacket and confirming that the artefact was still tucked into a pocket, Faith returned to the couch and folded herself into the corner, knowing even as she sat there, that sleep would remain elusive for the rest of the night.

 

Buffy marched purposefully up to the mansion and knocked loudly on the door before trying to push it open. Realising that it was locked, she put her hands on her hips and waited impatiently. She raised a clenched fist to pound the door once more when she heard several clicks of locks and bolts being manipulated. The door was opened fractionally and she peered into bloodshot brown eyes as Faith looked out at her.

"Hey B, come in," Faith swung the door open and moved back into the mansion before Buffy had the opportunity to say anything.

The blonde slayer started talking even as she entered. "Faith, this isn't a social call. Angel rang last night and wants a meet..." She trailed off when she saw the remains of the two demons still soaking into the carpets. "Hmm, I think you're gonna need a professional stain remover."

"Don't ya just hate it when they leave a mess," Faith returned as she turned round to face Buffy.

"What happened?" Buffy put aside her contempt for the rogue slayer, noticing the dried bloodstain on Faith's T-shirt and the bandaging around her abdomen.

"I was stupid. Fell asleep and they jumped me. One of the fuckers had a knife." Faith slumped into the couch. Her side hurt but it wasn't as painful as before and she knew that her face had healed.

"You Okay?" Buffy stepped closer involuntarily. She might hate Faith but if anyone was going to kick her ass it should be Buffy, not some popsicle demon.

The brunette slayer smiled humourlessly at Buffy. "Five by five, B. Didn't know you cared."

"I don't," responded Buffy instantly. "Damn, these guys mean business. You still got the artefact?"

"Yep. It might be an idea if Giles takes a look at it," she suggested nervously.

Buffy looked at the rogue slayer. "Definitely." Suddenly, she remembered why she had come to the mansion in the first place. "Giles has a magic shop now. We're meeting there at 4 p.m. Unfortunately, Angel wants you there too, so don't be late and don't forget to bring the artefact."

Faith rolled her eyes at Buffy's tone but just nodded. She was too tired to enter into a verbal sparring match with the older slayer.

The lack of come back surprised Buffy. It wasn't like Faith at all to just take an order like that.

"Buffy I gotta go into town and get some stuff for my bike and some stuff for the fridge." Faith shuddered at the thought of going grocery shopping but she knew that Wes would never forgive her if she didn't have tea and milk in.

"And you're telling me because...?" Buffy trailed the question off, shrugging her shoulders as she posed it.

"Because I didn't want you going all freaky and hunting me down, thinking I was on the rampage or something," returned Faith quietly. "Wouldn't want to upset the chosen one now, would I?" She couldn't help the tinge of bitterness that crept into her intonation as she muttered the last sentence.

Buffy shook her head dismissively but inside she was reeling. Faith had never before considered anyone's point of view but her own. Determinedly, she clamped down on her thoughts. "Fine. Do what you want, but if I hear about any trouble whatsoever..."

"Yeah, yeah, I get it." Faith was furious with herself for instantly erecting her old barriers but she just couldn't help it. Buffy got under her skin and she just didn't know how else to handle the situation. She needed time. Time to adjust to being here with Buffy and all the others, and they needed time to get used to her being here. Unfortunately, now that there was a new threat to the Hellmouth, time was one luxury none of them had. "The magic shop got a phone number, B?" Faith asked suddenly.

"Yeah, why?" The blonde slayer looked at Faith suspiciously.

"In case I can't find it. You haven't exactly been forward with directions, you know."

"Sunnydale isn't a big place, Faith," retorted the older woman sharply, but she walked into the kitchen and found a pencil and a scrap of paper. She scribbled the number down hastily before returning to the doorway. "It's on the table. See you at 4." With that, she let herself out of the mansion, slamming the door shut behind her.

 

Faith spent most of the next day repairing her bike. She went into town after assessing the damage more thoroughly and collected the parts she needed as well as purchasing a small tool kit. Fortunately, Angel paid her enough so that she had enough funds to cover the expense. If she'd taken more notice of her account, she would have realised that the Mayor had ensured that she'd want for nothing, but the young Bostonian used her cash card only when necessary, conditioned after years of deprivation. She forced herself into the local grocery store and shopped for the bare essentials, but was constantly on the lookout for anyone she might recognise and who might not want to see her. The brunette slayer also had the foresight to invest in some new clothes, knowing that by the time she finished working on the bike, she would be covered in grease and oil.

Now, cleaned up and sporting a bright red tank top and tight black jeans, Faith found herself hesitating as she looked at the entrance to the Magic Box. Buffy had been right, it hadn't taken her too long to find the place, and consequently she was early. However the Southie slayer knew that the others were already inside and braced for her arrival. Faith sighed and ran a hand through her thick black mane as she psyched herself up for the confrontation. She knew that this was going to be extremely difficult. None of the scoobs trusted her. In fact, it would be more realistic to say that she was hated by all of them, except perhaps Tara. Faith smiled slightly at the thought of the quiet blonde witch. She knew that the "old" Faith would never have given Tara the time of day and would have mercilessly mocked her. She hoped that she might be given an opportunity to get to know her. There was a calm aura about Tara that Faith found appealing.

Squaring back her shoulders, she pushed the door back and stepped into the shop. The rogue slayer was met by six pairs of eyes and a sudden silence that descended heavily onto the room. Faith looked at the faces trained at her steadily before moving fully into the shop and closing the door behind her. The Bostonian then continued to move and stepped up to Giles. She noticed a slight tic pulsing at the ex-watcher's forehead, indication enough of his discomfort. Reaching slowly into the left side pocket of her jacket, Faith pulled out the jade artefact and handed it to the British man. "The artefact," she stated just to take the silence away. "I think you need to study it."

"Er, yes. Quite," agreed Giles nervously as he accepted the object from Faith's outstretched arm. He pushed his metal framed glasses up his nose and slowly turned the statuette in his hand, inspecting the whole surface carefully. Within moments, he was absorbed in his task, drifting back to the counter to consult a large open tome, the bearer of the artefact totally forgotten about for the time being at least.

Faith raised her eyebrows at his actions but said nothing, feeling the others' eyes still fixated on her. She looked round once more and noted their defensive positions. Anya was behind the counter, using it like a barrier, with Xander close by but on the opposite side of the hard wood surface. Willow and Tara were seated closely together on a sofa, their hands entwined in an almost painful grip. Buffy stood near the ex-watcher, her hands folded across her chest and one hip jutting slightly in an aggressively defensive posture. Faith noted that Riley was nowhere to be seen but decided not to make any comment on anyone's presence or absence. Spying a free chair, she threw herself deep into it and looked nervously at her audience. "I know you don't want to hear this but I just wanna say..."

"Say nothing." Buffy told her venomously. "You're right. We don't want to hear anything you have to say."

"Wait up B," Faith interrupted. "I know you hate me but.."

"There are no buts, Faith. You used up your chances. In fact, you used up more chances than anyone has a right to. What makes you think you have the right to come back in here so you can do something that makes you feel better while the rest of us just remember what you did to us?"

Faith stood up angrily. "What's the matter Buffy?" She asked, barely keeping her voice under control. "Scared that if you hear me say the word 'sorry' you might just realise that I mean it?"

"You don't know the meaning of that word Faith," Willow spat at the brunette slayer. "How can you even use the word?"

Faith stared at Willow, and she saw open hatred displayed on the witch's features. "You're wrong Red," she whispered.

"I don't think so," demurred Buffy harshly. "You're needed here. It doesn't mean that you're wanted here. Just remember that."

Faith forced herself to sit back down in the chair. She looked at her clenched fists, her skin totally bleached as it was pulled tightly over her knuckles. She waited until they became less tense before she spoke again without looking up. "That's how you all feel is it?"

"Yes," reacted Willow instantly.

"Definitely," agreed Xander. Anya nodded her sentiment before realising that Faith couldn't see her. "I don't know you but I know I don't want you near Xander," she stated candidly.

"I want you here," said Tara softly.

Faith snapped her head up in synchronisation with everyone else except Giles who was still buried in the depths of a book.

"What?" Exploded her girlfriend. "You can't mean that."

"I do mean that. I t-t-told you l-last night that you should respect m-my opinion," the blonde wicca reminded her lover.

"But she's evil," protested Willow, ignoring Tara's last statement.

"Is she?" Tara asked. "How do you know that's still true, Willow. You haven't given her a chance to make any redemption."

"She had her chances," Buffy interjected firmly. "She blew them. I don't want to be made to feel the victim anymore and I'm not going to give her the opportunity to do just that." She turned to look at the younger slayer. "We'll just do what needs to be done and then you leave." Her tone left no room for negotiation. The blonde slayer thought she saw Faith flinch slightly at the words but she was in no mood for her acting. Buffy looked away and approached Giles. "Any luck?" She asked.

"Yes. I, er, rather think there is." The ex-watcher looked up from his research and adjusted the position of his glasses. "But it might be better to wait until the others get here. It would save me going through the same information twice," he explained.

Buffy nodded in agreement but stayed where she was, looking at Faith silently.

The silence stretched on and the atmosphere in the Magic Box grew more tense by the second. The Southie slayer decided that there was no point saying anything to the group and started watching the door surreptitiously, eager for some less hostile company. She could see Tara watching her with a concerned face and pulled her mouth into the barest of smiles in acknowledgement. Willow caught the look and began whispering to her girlfriend in an effort to divert attention away from the rogue slayer. Faith knew that everyone else was watching her but kept her face a neutral mask of disinterest and tried not to fidget under the scrutiny. The oppression continued and Faith knew that she had to leave before it got any worse.

Suddenly the door burst open. "Well, this is nice," exclaimed Cordelia, soaking up the ambience instantaneously as she swept into the shop. "Don't any of you know how bad tension is for the complexion?"

Instantly Faith grinned, all thoughts of leaving vanishing instantly. "Hey Queen C! You've obviously been having lessons. That entrance was almost dramatic," she complimented laconically.

"Thank you Faith." Cordelia turned to face the smaller brunette. "Oh and by the way, you don't have to prove how 'good' you are now by giving your patronage to the charity clothes shops, you know," retorted the ex-cheerleader, making her point obvious by looking the Bostonian up and down with an imperious gaze.

Faith opened her mouth for retribution but was stopped by Wesley as he followed Cordelia into the Magic Box. "Now, now, children," he warned good-naturedly. Both brunettes grinned at him and each other. The actress crossed the room and sat on the arm of the chair Faith was currently occupying. "You Okay?" She asked quietly.

Faith shrugged noncommittally. "I went up to about two and a half by five the moment you entered. I think I was actually in the minus up until that point," she answered softly.

Before Cordelia had an opportunity to continue the conversation, Gunn rushed through the door, holding a blanket over a body that ran in with him. "Hey Faith," he called, jutting his chin towards the younger slayer.

"Hey Gunn. You finished pretending being a body guard?" She asked, gesturing at the body still enshrouded by the blanket that was smoking slightly.

On queue, Angel shucked his cover off and pulled his lips into a small smile at the Seer and second slayer sharing the chair. "Faith," he greeted.

"Hey big guy," she returned, fighting but failing to stop the broad smile that broke out on her face.

"Well, now that your fan club's here, perhaps we can get down to business." Buffy's voice dripped sarcasm. She and the others had been shocked at the way the LA group had spoken to Faith. There was an obvious bond between them all, with no hint of distrust, even from Wesley. Buffy found it disconcerting. She didn't know what stunt Faith had pulled to trick all of them so successfully, but it put her on her guard to watch the rogue slayer even more closely.

Angel frowned as he looked pensively round the room, accurately gauging the mood of the scoobs. Before he could comment on the situation, Wesley stepped forward, a large ancient looking text book in one hand and the gold artefact in the other. He placed the object next to the Jade statuette and then stared at the two for comparisons. Giles quickly joined him.

"Fascinating," Giles breathed. He could not see a single flaw in either item. Nor could he see a single difference except the material they were made from.

"Absolutely," agreed the other ex-Watcher. "Have you got any information on them?"

"Yes." Giles stood up and took his glasses off, rubbing the lenses carefully with his handkerchief before returning them to his face. He picked up the book he had been studying and turned to face the room. "According to this, the Varos Triad is comprised of three identical figurines. Each artefact is made of a different material that is representative of the power of the earth. Gold, a pure metal, Jade, a precious rock or stone and the third is made of Yew, a tree that has long had it's roots, so to speak in the realm of magick and religion."

"Isn't the Yew tree one that's often found in graveyards, well in Europe at least?" Queried Faith. Her question provoked looks of astonishment from the other occupants of the room.

"I had a lot of time to read in jail," she reminded them.

"Not enough," murmured Willow under her breath. It was loud enough for both Buffy and Faith to hear the comment. Faith stared at the witch neutrally, feeling Buffy's intense gaze as she did.

"Quite. And, yes they are, Faith," Giles responded. "The Yew is regarded as an ancient and powerful tree, providing protection for the dead and warding off negative magick." He flicked his eyes over the open book on the counter before continuing. "When combined, the artefacts can be used to summon the demon Varos, who was a powerful warlock in ancient times. His obsession with dark magick became his downfall and he was turned into a demon when he tried to control all the dark forces and crush the world."

"Sounds like a familiar story," drawled Buffy, unimpressed so far.

"Sounds like the Mayor," added Xander vindictively, watching Faith's face carefully for any sign that his barb might have hit home. He was not disappointed as the younger slayer closed her eyes momentarily at the inference.

"The Mayor already was a demon, Xander," she reminded him, the timbre of her voice low with emotion.

"It's a shame you didn't realise that at the time," he riposted acidly.

"Yeah, it is," she agreed sadly.

The construction worker said nothing in response but was surprised by Cordelia's actions though as he saw her reach down and squeeze Faith's hand in a reassuring manner. Their hands remained connected as Wesley coughed, drawing attention to himself as he picked up the tale, glancing at the large book he had brought with him.

"When Varos was vanquished to Hell, it was done by a powerful triumvirate of witches. Using the power of the Earth, the witches bound his power within the statuettes and were then able to overpower him. The three figurines were then separated and hidden around the world."

"Not hidden well enough then," remarked Anya blandly.

"Er, well, no." Wes became nervous after the interruption but pressed on. "The summoning requires all three artefacts to be bound together during the invocation, in a basic reversal of the ceremony the triumvirate used to bind him."

"Wait a minute, back up," interjected Buffy. "Why didn't they just destroy the artefacts once they performed the vanquishing act?"

"Circumstances beyond their control," replied Giles cryptically.

"Which were...?" The blonde slayer prompted, gesturing with an open hand.

"They were exhausted after the binding spell and physically unable to perform any further spells that day. According to the books I've researched, a civil war broke out when it was discovered that Varos was no longer present and it was impossible for the triumvirate to invoke the spell to destroy the artefacts they created. The best and safest option was to use couriers to separate the artefacts and hide them in secret locations in the knowledge that as soon as the war was over, they could bring them back together and complete their task."

"What happened?" Asked Tara, fascinated by the tale.

"They were killed in the war," stated Faith dully, guessing the answer before either of the ex-watchers could answer the question.

Wesley nodded glumly. "With their deaths went the knowledge of the artefacts locations."

"What about the couriers who hid them?" Angel asked, equally intrigued by the story.

"They were ordered to commit suicide as soon as the artefacts were hidden," Giles supplied as he polished the lenses of his glasses once more.

"So who's behind their reappearance then?" Enquired Cordelia.

"Varos must always have been aware that his powers are trapped on Earth somewhere. I can only assume that he has found followers that have been looking for the artefacts," supplied Wesley.

"And they've been successful. So what do we do?" Pondered Buffy getting to the heart of the problem.

"Well, we could go searching for the third statuette as we already have two," suggested Willow, looking at the artefacts with a new respect.

"It might be easier to let these demons do the leg work and find the other artefact. After all, they found the others," suggested Gunn.

"They might already have the third artefact," suggested Tara. Her comment brought all eyes to her and she blushed at the sudden attention.

"Which will make them more than eager to retrieve these artefacts," reminded Giles, looking at the twin statues carefully.

"They were certainly on the case last night. I had two demons to contend with at the mansion." Faith rubbed her side unconsciously.

"Were you hurt?" Wes asked, stepping forward as if to check the young slayer out.

"I'm cool, Wes. Slayer healing." She grinned at her watcher.

Wesley found himself smiling back in relief. It had taken a long time and some quite extraordinary events to change Wesley's opinion of Faith but now that she had won his trust, he was totally devoted to the raven-haired girl.

"We need information before we can act. We have to find out where these demons are and whether they have the third statue," Giles was quite forceful in his reasoning.

"The first thing we need to do is find a safe stash for the pieces we already have," commented Faith.

"Oh, and who made you leader?" Asked Buffy scornfully.

"Buffy!" Admonished Angel, shocked at the blonde woman's outburst.

"It was just a suggestion, B," replied Faith, surprised by another verbal attack.

"Well we don't want your suggestions. Just do what you're told and then go home." Buffy was surprised to sense the whole LA group stiffen at her words but before anyone else could comment, Faith spoke again.

"So you're not interested in anything I have to say regarding how we deal with Varos then?" Faith lowered her voice to hide the emotion she knew would resonate through. Unfortunately, the lower tone gave her an aggressive timbre and the tension in the Magic Box heightened rapidly.

"I'm not interested in anything you have to say period," retorted Buffy icily, crossing her arms and looking directly at Faith challengingly.

Faith leapt to her feet with a grace she didn't know she possessed. "As I'm obviously not required for this meeting now that I've delivered the artefact that I recovered, I'll just head back to the mansion and wait around for you to call when you want some extra slayer muscle. No need for me to be involved at all really. Why break any old habits?" With that, Faith stormed out of the Magic Box, her hand just managing to catch the door before it slammed and instead allowing the door to close with a click that resonated with a far more significant impact than any slamming would.

"Great people skills, Buffy." Cordelia wasted no time in laying into the blonde slayer.

"Oh, and Faith has? None of us want her here. It's probably a good thing if she stays away until we need her." Buffy justified her outburst.

"Hello? You've just treated her exactly the same way you always did. Never allowing her in on the scoobie meetings. Never wanting her opinion. Just letting her sit in some shitty motel until you needed her for her slaying abilities. And you wonder why she couldn't talk to you. To any of us. How could she turn to the Mayor when she had such good friends as we all were?" Buffy didn't fail to notice how Cordelia included herself in the berating. "And then you wonder why she went evil? Wake up Buffy. How about treating her with a bit of humanity?" Cordelia was furious. She couldn't remember the last time she had been this angry.

"She doesn't deserve it," spat back Buffy, annoyed that anyone would question her actions.

"Take a good look in the mirror Buffy. In fact, all of you do it. You're so self absorbed and concerned that Faith is out to get you. News flash, the world does not revolve around you. And your behaviour is no better than hers was when she was psycho."

"How can you say that?" Gasped Willow in outrage.

"Easy. When she was rampaging through here, she didn't give a second thought to anyone else's feelings but her own. What are you doing now?"

Willow's mouth opened and shut several times as she tried to form an answer. Tara squeezed her lover's hand gently in support but the act perversely made Willow feel worse. She had deliberately blocked out what the blonde witch had to say about the rogue slayer, uninterested in any excuses or explanations as to her reappearance or new demeanour. All she had considered was that Faith had held a knife to her throat and had threatened her. An event that had occurred over three years ago. Judging from the look on Buffy and Xander's face, she was not alone in contemplating her behaviour.

Buffy, uncomfortable with what Cordelia had said, concentrated only on her last statement. "What do you mean when she was psycho? How do you know that she isn't now?"

"Because I saw her when she got out of prison. I saw what she had to go through. Have you even asked her what happened..."

"Cordelia!" Both Angel and Wesley interrupted her at the same time and Cordelia looked at them both with widened eyes as she realised what she had almost said.

"What happened when?" Tara caught the exchange and wanted to know it's significance.

"It's nothing," mumbled Cordelia. She reddened slightly before controlling her emotions. "It's not for me to say."

"In which case, let's get on with what we're doing and deal with her later," suggested Xander. He had never seen Cordelia get so emotional before except when events affected herself. Unfortunately, her outburst was also painfully truthful. But Xander didn't want to deal with that right now, so he diverted attention back to the original topic of discussion.

Satisfied that her point had been made, Cordelia stood up and emphasised her next sentence carefully. "I'm not needed here either. Angel has all the details of my vision. I need a bath to get all the travel dirt and tension out of me. I'll see you back at the mansion." She acknowledged the remaining members of the LA gang and left the shop quickly.

Buffy stood and looked at the closed door for a long moment. Then she focused on one aspect of Cordelia's parting statement. "Vision? What is she talking about Angel?"

The tall vampire sighed. He knew from bitter experience how difficult the road to redemption was. He wasn't sure if Cordelia's outburst had helped Faith or not, but he was glad that she had interjected. The Sunnydale crowd needed to see how much support Faith had. It might just help them deal with her. The more pressing need was to explain how the one time cheerleader and prom queen was now stricken with painful visions, and how her own suffering had spurred her onto helping others less fortunate than her. Angel considered himself to be a lucky man to know both Cordelia and Faith. He would make sure that Buffy and the Scoobs knew how he felt about them before the meeting was over.

 

The black Lincoln pulled up alongside Faith as she strode purposefully towards the mansion.

"Get in, I'll give you a lift," offered Cordelia after she opened the window.

"I'm too angry Cordy. I need to walk this off," Faith replied, not breaking her stride.

"Just get in before someone spots me curb crawling and my rep is destroyed forever," Cordelia tried again, her head switching quickly between watching the road and looking at the renegade slayer.

The Southie slayer continued to walk for a few moments before she yanked the door opened and jumped in the car without waiting for it to stop. Faith put one booted foot onto the dash and stared out of the window, her hands clenched as they rested on her raised knee.

"Put your seat belt on," advised Cordelia as she picked up speed. Faith grunted but complied, tugging at the restraint several times before calming her actions down to feed the belt out enough to click into the buckle. She pushed a hand through her thick black mane and returned her gaze outside. For a moment, Cordelia thought that the entire journey back would be under a painful silence, but she sensed Faith becoming less tense and she relaxed slightly as she continued to drive.

"So what would ruin your rep then, Cordy? The curb crawling itself or who you're trying to pick up." Faith broke the silence suddenly.

Cordelia snorted with laughter. "Depends on who spots me," she replied honestly. "Though I'd rather have my rep dragged through the dirt than not be friends with you."

Faith looked at the ex cheerleader, astonished at the admission. Cordelia had gone a long way since her days as High School Prom Queen. The raven haired slayer smiled genuinely at her. "Thanks, Cordy," she acknowledged her own feelings softly.

Cordelia shot back a wide grin in response before returning her eyes to the road ahead. "Besides," she continued, "I couldn't bear another moment with Miss Self Righteous and her band of the self absorbed."

This comment provoked a short bark of laughter from Faith, and also succeeded in releasing some of the anger that had been bubbling inside her. "Well it hasn't exactly been a riot of fun and laughter since I got here," she agreed, her smile turning melancholy as she thought about the current situation.

"Yes, I noticed," Cordelia agreed. She tried to keep the conversation from teetering into the uncomfortably heavy side. "I thought I'd go for some less stressful entertainment and keep you out of trouble," the Seer told her passenger. "Besides, I needed a bath and a relax after the road trip from hell."

Faith sniggered. "Shouldn't that be the road trip to hell?" She asked, unable to take the smile off her face.

"Not when you have Angel and Wesley in the car with you. Take it from me, the destination was infinitely more preferable to the getting there," the Seer replied forcefully.

Faith found herself laughing again, and took a moment to enjoy the sensation, scarcely believing that Cordelia could have such a profound affect on her. "I take it Wes and Soul Boy were educating you on the way here," she guessed.

Cordelia rolled her eyes as she tightened her grip on the steering wheel. "Only from the moment I got in till the moment we pulled up outside the Magic Box," she verified, her voice clearly indicating how she felt about the trip.

"You should have told them to shut up," advised Faith.

"I did," the brunette driver responded. "They didn't."

Faith grinned again before her face became more pensive. "I wish I hadn't stormed out of there," she confided honestly, returning the conversation back to the events in the Magic Box in one sentence. "But it was just," Faith hesitated to try and find the right description.

"I know," comforted Cordelia softly. "If it's any consolation, I'm not exactly Miss Popular either now."

"Oh God. What did you say?" Faith was torn between dreading Cordelia's potential insensitivity and basking in the actress's loyalty.

"Only the truth. Although," Cordelia paused for a moment, wondering if she should mention her near indiscretion.

"Although what?" Faith was intrigued. Cordy was usually so forthright and confident. It was unlike her to be edgy.

The Seer decided that Faith didn't need to know. "I was perhaps a bit blunt with my truth," she suggested with a rueful look.

The Southie slayer kept her face impassive as she responded. "Unlike you to be blunt."

"Must be someone's personality rubbing off on me," the taller brunette shot back good naturedly.

"Well I did warn you that Angel was a bad influence," Faith rejoined, deliberately misunderstanding the ex-cheerleader's barb.

"Must be all the broody silences," Cordelia continued the joke for another sentence as they pulled up to the mansion. She popped the trunk release once they had stopped. "You can help me bring in the bags," she smiled at Faith as she exited the car.

Faith shrugged non committally as she unlatched her seat belt and joined the dark haired Seer at the back of the car. "Jeez C, you should have just screwed a handle on your wardrobe." Faith exclaimed as she saw the amount of luggage squeezed into the trunk.

"It's not all mine Faith," Cordelia sighed dramatically. "There's stuff for everyone in here. I even managed to gather enough courage to pick you out some clothes."

"You got me some stuff?" Faith exclaimed in surprise. "Hey did you pack my suede jacket?" She asked, suddenly excited.

"I'm not sure. I had my eyes shut for most of the time in disgust. How many cows can one girl wear?"

"I like leather," insisted Faith, knowing she was being baited, yet rising anyway.

Cordelia continued. "Still, at least I couldn't make a faux pas with clashing colours. It's difficult not to match black up with black," the taller woman teased.

Faith pulled a face and then hefted out the bags, slinging one over each shoulder and then holding another two. Cordelia picked up a small vanity case and left the two remaining bags where they were and made her way to the door.

The rogue slayer dropped a bag and dug round in a pocket before locating the keys to the mansion and unlocking the door. Shoving it open with her hip, Faith deposited the bags in the hallway and skipped back to the Lincoln, retrieving the last of the luggage and securing the car before returning to the mansion. She found Cordelia slumped in a chair, her head rolled back with her eyes closed. "You Okay?" She hurried over to the taller woman, fearful that she may have endured another painful vision.

Cordelia opened her eyes and smiled softly at the brunette slayer. "I would say five by five, but I don't know what that means."

Faith's eyes twinkled humorously. "Stay there. I'll run you a bath," she offered.

"Faith, you aren't some dogsbody," Cordelia protested, sitting up in the chair.

"Hey, it's no biggie. Which ones are your bags? I'll put them in your room."

"You sorted me out a room too?" Cordelia's eyebrows shot up in surprise at Faith's thoughtfulness.

"Yeah, well don't tell the others. I've only dusted yours." Faith suddenly found the strap on one of the bags to be extremely interesting.

Cordelia didn't think that her eyebrows could get any higher. The dark slayer just continued to surprise her. She also realised that her depth of feeling towards the younger girl was taking her into unknown territory. She wanted to be more than just a friend to Faith now but was unsure how to do it or even if she should do it. The some time actress had never thought of herself as anything other than straight, and the thought of going with another woman alarmed her not just because it was way out of her own boundaries, or so she had previously believed, but she knew that she was shallow enough to be really bothered by what other people might think of her. Or so she had told herself as she tried to sort her emotions out. However, the more time pressed on and the more time she spent in Faith's company, the more Cordelia began to realise that she was using that as an excuse. She knew she could put up with what anyone else said or thought. What she couldn't deal with was the thought that she might be rejected. Faith displayed an air of easy confidence and overt sexuality about her, but Cordelia knew that much of it was a front to hide her deep-seated insecurities. Since her release from jail, Faith had made innuendoes and mildly flirted with Cordelia but had done nothing else to indicate that she would be interested in a relationship with the actress. Cordelia herself spent much of her time hidden by a smoke screen of sarcastic barbs and put-downs and she enjoyed verbally sparring with the Southie slayer. She was frightened that if she took a risk and opened herself up to Faith, she would get hurt, or worse, lose the relationship they had and that she valued.

Frustrated by her indecision and self-perceived cowardice, the ex- cheerleader stood abruptly, gesturing to the largest bag and another one nearby. "They're mine," she told Faith. "And thank you. I appreciate it." She smiled at the shorter woman and made her way to the staircase and the bathroom upstairs.

Faith grabbed the bags and followed, pushing herself gently past the Seer when they reached the landing. She opened one of the doors and placed the bags just inside. "This is your room. The bathroom is opposite. Take your time. If I get summoned," she pulled a face as she indicated how she felt about her current situation again, "I'll come up and tell you." With that, the raven-haired woman retreated from the room and headed back down the stairs.

Cordelia pushed the door fully open and stepped inside, marvelling at how clean it was. She picked up one of the fresh towels that had been laid at the foot of the bed and wondered again what to do about her feelings towards Faith. She quickly got undressed and wrapped a towel round her before moving to the bathroom. As she stepped onto the landing, she called down stairs. "Faith, yours is the bag with the black tag on it." Hearing a call acknowledging her, she slipped into the bathroom and smiled again as she saw the steaming water collecting in the bath. Her smile became wistful as she recalled the events in the Magic Box and how Faith had been received by Buffy and the others. In some ways, Cordelia sympathised with the Sunnydale crowd. She hadn't exactly been rolling out the red carpet when Faith got out of jail and accepted Angel's invitation to stay at the Hyperion. But at least she had given the dark slayer an opportunity to prove herself. Faith hadn't wasted the chance and now Cordelia wanted her to be able to show Buffy and the Scoobies those changes.

Settling into the hot water, Cordelia felt her knotted muscles welcome the warmth and begin to loosen. She rolled her shoulders to encourage the process before leaning back to contemplate her next steps as she luxuriated in the steam filled room.

 

Faith was grateful that Cordelia had indicated which bag was hers. She had been reluctant to go through the contents of the remaining luggage for fear of encroaching into the personal property of the others. Before her stint in jail, such considerations would have been unthinkable or discarded, but Faith had learned to value privacy and secrecy in a location where it was almost impossible to achieve.

She found the bag quickly and pulled back the zip. Cordelia had not wasted any space inside the holdall and Faith frowned for a moment, wondering if the ex-cheerleader had stuffed the entire contents of her room into the bag. The renegade slayer allowed herself a smile as she noticed that her suede jacket was indeed amongst the items Cordy had selected and she pulled the soft tan coat free and sat on the sofa.

She searched the pockets carefully and carefully extracted a small parcel, wrapped in a brown paper bag with a piece of tape holding the bag closed. Holding the small item into her chest, Faith leant back onto the sofa and smiled in relief, closing her eyes as fatigue washed over her. The last two days had taken their toll.

Knowing that Cordelia would not rush her ablutions, Faith decided to catch up on some much needed rest. However, she couldn't stop her mind from racing over recent events. The Bostonian had been amazed by Cordelia's staunch defence of her in the Magic Box and her surprise had continued when the Seer had followed her out of the meeting.

Although starting on extremely rocky ground, Faith had managed to build a friendship up with Cordelia. It took time but a slow understanding and mutual trust developed. Faith's actions during one particular assignment had also persuaded both Cordelia and Wesley that she had truly changed. Their change in attitude had given Faith the opportunity to reveal more about herself and what had happened to her in prison. What she said was accepted and believed, rather than dismissed as fitting punishment. Wes had stepped back into his old role as Faith's watcher, and the Southie slayer treated him with a new respect and courtesy, astounded that he could ever want to return to that job. Cordelia turned into a loyal friend overnight, and spent most of her free time with her. Secrets and insecurities were shared between the two girls and they became confident enough to expose aspects of their personalities that they would never dream of showing to anyone else. They would bicker and be cutting to each other, but it was done in the security that they knew each other well enough to be able to banter without fear of upsetting each other. Faith treasured her connection with Cordelia. It was like no friendship she had ever had before. But now she was scared of her developing feelings for the chestnut haired Seer. She wanted desperately to take things further with Cordelia but Faith couldn't trust herself not to ruin it in the same way she had ruined every other good thing to come into her life. Besides, Cordelia had never indicated that she wanted anything more from their relationship. When Faith flirted with the older girl now, the Seer would simply respond with a sarcastic put down or one of her trademark stares. Faith wasn't prepared to risk their friendship over this. She had made that mistake before. She would have to keep things secret, and keep a firm rein on her emotions.

Faith sighed as she ran a hand through her thick mane but coming to the same decision as she always did when she mulled over her problem eased some of the tension keeping her muscles taut and the Southie slayer found her limbs getting heavier as she drifted off to sleep.

 

Cordelia stared at the sleeping woman for some time, studying Faith's face intently, as if she had never seen it before, which in a twisted way, was true. The young woman's visage displayed none of the tension or guardedness that was usually adorned on it. The tall Seer stood transfixed, wondering how she had failed to notice how beautiful the young slayer was and then she cursed inwardly for allowing her thoughts to continue along the dangerous path her feelings so desired.

She jumped as Faith's eyes opened without warning. "Jeez, do you always wake up like that?"

"Like what?" Faith's voice was thick with sleep and she struggled to sit upright and actually register what Cordy had asked of her.

"Never mind." The taller brunette brushed the comment away and then swung Faith's legs off the couch so that she could sit next to her.

"Take a seat," Faith offered belatedly, pulling her face into a wry grin.

"Thanks." Cordelia was quite happy to reply in the same sarcastic vein. "So no word from the blonde dwarf then?"

Faith's grin widened at Cordelia's description. "That's harsh Cordy," she reprimanded and then continued before the ex-cheerleader had an opportunity to respond. "Nope, no word from any of them. They're probably still discussing how bad I am."

"I'll have run out of clothes before they ever get to the end of that topic," Cordelia leant back in the sofa, shaking her head.

"Cordy, you'll never run out of clothes," Faith pointed out objectively, provoking a peal of laughter from the other girl and a genuine smile from Faith. Her look turned shy as she noticed the package still lying in her lap. She picked it up and rolled it in her hands for a moment before looking at Cordelia. "I meant to give this to you yesterday, but I kinda got caught up in something else." She held out the parcel for Cordelia to take.

Narrowing her gaze slightly, Cordelia took the package from the rogue slayer. "What is it?"

"Du-huh! Open it and find out," Faith told her.

Cordelia stuck her tongue out at the girl before pulling the tape at one end. "Brown paper wrapping," she commented, drawing out the tension. "I must have missed that from last month's Vogue."

"I never really got the idea of wrapping paper," defended Faith. "You just rip it off and put it in the bin."

Cordelia cocked her head to one side before nodding thoughtfully. "You do have a point," she concurred.

"Get on with it, already," Faith encouraged her, pushing at one of her hands in an effort to hurry the event along.

The older girl rolled her eyes at Faith's impatience but complied, pulling on the bag to reveal it's contents. Her eyes widened and then frowned slightly in confusion. In her hands was the most exquisite silver box. The lid was enamelled in cerulean blue with a delicate yet complicated border in black. On the middle of the lid in a clear, Gregorian style were the initials "C.C".

"This is beautiful. I've never seen anything like it before," Cordelia whispered, rolling the box around in her hands and looking at the craftsmanship carefully.

"Open it," instructed Faith quietly.

Cordelia looked at her for a moment before prising open the lid. Snuggled inside the box in a perfect fit, was a strip of Advil. It was then that Faith explained the gift. "I didn't know what to get you for your birthday, so I thought I'd get you something useful as I know our taste in clothes and stuff isn't exactly similar." She spoke quickly, still nervous of Cordelia's reaction. "I know it's only crappy, and you don't have to say you like it or anything, but I couldn't find anything in the shops. I had to make it myself.."

"You made this?" Interrupted the Seer. "Oh my god Faith, it's incredible. I never knew you could do anything like that."

Faith blushed and looked at her lap suddenly to try and hide her embarrassment. "Yeah, well. I picked up a lot of stuff in jail," she explained.

Cordelia was having none of the throwaway explanation. "It's amazing, Faith. And so are you. It's the most thoughtful gift I've ever had."

Faith snorted derisively. "I don't think so Cordy. You've had a car and bought out most of Prada. A crappy pill box for a birthday present hardly compares."

"Faith," the Seer explained carefully, "those gifts were just money. No thought or effort went into them. I just told Daddy what I wanted and he wrote the cheque. This is altogether different. It's the most personal gift I think I've ever had." Cordelia had to swallow to overcome the sudden tightness in her throat.

The dark slayer looked up at her friend curiously. "So it's Okay then? You like it?"

"I love it," Cordelia beamed. "Thank you." She threw her arms round Faith and hugged her tightly, revelling in her nearness before sitting back and looking at Faith intently. "You're the only one that remembered this year," she confided, her face darkening briefly as she recalled how depressed she'd felt the day before.

Faith rocked back in astonishment. "What? Not even a card from your parents? Angel? Xander?" Faith gave up listing people as she saw Cordelia shake her head at each name mentioned. "Boy, I'm glad you packed my jacket now," she remarked.

"So am I." Cordelia grinned. "I know it's a day late, but let's go out tonight and celebrate," she suggested, her eyes shining at the thought of spending more time with Faith.

The shorter woman smiled back. "I'd love to Cordy, but what about the artefacts?" Faith desperately wanted to go out with the Seer. She had been overwhelmed by the reaction to the birthday present and wanted to obliterate any sad memories Cordelia had already suffered on her birthday. Most importantly of all however was that she craved the woman's company and even if it was selfish on her part, Faith wanted to make the most of her time with her. Even if it meant going out in Sunnydale. But her sense of duty outweighed all these factors. She couldn't abandon that. They were all here for a purpose and Faith had resolved never to let anyone down again.

"You're right," Cordy acquiesced. "I just got caught up in the moment. They'll be another time to celebrate my birthday."

"Birthday?" Queried Angel as he opened the door. Both brunettes raised their eyebrows as they realised the sun had set and that it was dark outside. They had totally lost track of the time.

Wesley and Gunn followed Angel through the door and they made their way over to the sofa. "You never told me it was your birthday," the brooding vampire accused.

 

Angel had kept the briefing of the rest of the meeting as short as possible. He left out the majority of the conversation that centred around Cordelia's brush with the Powers That Be and Faith's rehabilitation both inside jail and since her release. The discussion had turned into an all out slanging match at one point, with all sorts of history getting thrown around the Magic Box until Gunn, of all people, stepped in and reminded everyone how ridiculously childish they all sounded. Angel had seized on the silence that followed and tried again. It had been difficult to explain to Buffy and the scoobs how he knew that Faith had changed without revealing too many of the events that had happened to her since Buffy last saw the brunette slayer. He knew however, that it was up to Faith whether she decided to disclose that chapter of her life and he respected her privacy on the matter. The dark vampire understood that he hadn't convinced any of the Sunnydale crowd about Faith's turn around, but he had at least managed to persuade them to give her a proper chance to demonstrate her new attitude.

Once they had talked the subject out, the meeting returned to its original agenda. Buffy had been forced to admit that Faith was right to want to hide the artefacts. After hearing that the demons had gone after the jade artefact, it was imperative to find a secure hold for them. In the end, however, Giles suggested that the best way of hiding them was to keep them amongst the many boxes and artefacts in the back of the Magic Box. Perhaps their presence would be masked by putting them in with so many other potential magic items. Tara and Willow placed a ward over the shop to deter unwanted visitors and provide additional cover for the statuettes.

The problem of the third piece was the most difficult to solve though. Buffy did not want to wait for Varos' demons to find it. She argued that if that happened and they discovered that the other two artefacts were hidden in the shop, the demons would stop at nothing to get all three. Unfortunately, as Wesley pointed out, they had no idea where to look for the final piece. The young ex-Watcher hypothesised that there must be a way of focusing on the energy that the artefacts held and that their signatures were probably how the demons detected the objects. If they could discern that energy, then they could locate the last statuette. His theory intrigued Giles and the two wiccans and between them, they decided to pursue that course of action. In the meantime, the remainder of the two groups, including Faith, Buffy acquiesced to grudgingly, would patrol tonight for any demon activity. If the search proved fruitless, they would start again tomorrow.

So it was with a mixture of frustration and relief that the members of the Scooby Gang and the LA group met back at the Magic Box after three hours of careful investigation with nothing to show for their efforts.

"There aren't even any vamps out there," complained Faith, annoyed that she hadn't been able to dust anything.

"Something's definitely up," Buffy replied. "Vamps always go to ground when something big is brewing." She tried to keep her voice from sounding curt. After the seemingly endless argument with Angel about Faith, Buffy had reluctantly agreed to give the rogue slayer an opportunity to prove herself. The blonde girl refused to call it another 'chance' as she was adamant that Faith had used all her chances, but the bottom line was that it had been a long time since Faith had terrorised her friends and mother. She had to admit that she had changed herself in those years. The older slayer had to concede that perhaps Faith had too. However, as they met inside the Magic Box after the reconnaissance, she noticed that the scoobs stood separately from the LA gang, reluctant to mingle with Faith and now, by association, the others.

"Don't tell me the vamps will team up with those things," Xander groaned.

"They generally do," confirmed Giles.

"I told you not to tell me," the dark construction worker complained, burying his head into Anya's shoulder at the thought.

"Well there isn't much more we can do tonight," Giles stated, rubbing his eyes wearily.

"What about the location spell?" Buffy suggested.

Willow and Tara both shook their heads. "We haven't done enough research yet. And there are still some materials that we need," explained the red haired wiccan.

"W-we should b-be ready by tomorrow afternoon though," added Tara, nervous about speaking in front of the LA crowd.

"Anything we can do to help?" Offered Wes, polite as ever. Both Faith and Cordelia smiled slightly at the gesture.

"No, no, we'll be fine," Tara replied. "But there's still the matter of destroying the artefacts once we have them all," she reminded everyone.

"I suggest we meet back here in the morning. Some of us can research while the others," Giles looked at Faith knowingly as he spoke, "can continue to search the area for any clues to the statue's whereabouts."

Giles' plan was received with nods of agreement all round.

"I take it the search is off for tonight then?" Cordelia asked.

Buffy shrugged and looked at Angel. "I can't see as there's much more we can do tonight," she agreed. Angel nodded at her statement.

Let's get out of here then," the Seer suggested and the LA gang stood to leave the premises.

"Faith," called Buffy as they were about to exit. "Back here tomorrow morning at 9 for training."

Faith looked at the older slayer steadily for a moment before answering. "Sorry B, but I train with Angel and Wes now." Gunn coughed deliberately. "Oh and Gunn when he's around," the rogue slayer added, acknowledging Gunn's invaluable assistance. Faith had spent many hours sparring with the tall black man, returning to the use of her old street style of fighting against him, as opposed to the carefully crafted movements that Angel and Wesley taught her. She considered both forms of fighting to be essential skills and enjoyed switching between styles.

"What's the matter, scared to go up against a slayer again?" goaded Buffy, surprised at Wesley's re-establishment as Faith's watcher and annoyed that Angel now trained with her. She leant back against the counter and folded her arms across her chest.

Faith refused to rise to the bait but it took a great deal of effort. "I've set up a routine with them that I like to follow," she explained, knowing that she hadn't actually answered the blonde slayer's question.

Buffy noted the evasion too and decided to push it a bit further. "Well, if you don't think you can handle it..." she tailed the suggestion off and waited for the retort.

"It's not that I can't handle it B," Faith refuted, her voice tight as she fought against rising to the challenge.

"That's not what it sounds like from here."

Faith bristled. "What do you want Buffy? Another opportunity to kick my ass and prove who the number one slayer is?" The brunette woman stepped towards Buffy as she continued. "You don't have to, B. Everyone in this room is fully aware of who the chosen one is."

The two slayers stared at each other for a long moment, while the Magic Box's other occupants looked on in silence. "Just as long as you do," Buffy stated eventually, before turning away from Faith.

Once again the shop was immersed with a hostile tension. Angel took an unnecessary breath to sigh with and Tara shook her head slightly, wondering how the issues between Faith and the others could ever get resolved.

"Are we finished now?" Cordelia interrupted the silence, irritated over Buffy's little power struggle with Faith.

"I guess so." Buffy looked at Giles for confirmation.

"Er, yes. Everyone back here tomorrow at 10?" He requested to the room in general. The ex watcher was acknowledged with nodding all round.

"Right," Gunn spoke up. "Let's blow this joint." With that, he yanked the door open and swung an arm out in an exaggerated gesture for Cordelia and Faith. "After you, ladies," he offered.

"Watch who you're callin' a lady," warned Faith, scowling at the dark man. He grinned back at her as she accepted the gesture and stepped though the open doorway, wanting to leave as swiftly as possible.

 

"Thank God we're out of there," commented Cordelia once they had left the Magic Box well behind them.

"They sure know how to create an atmosphere," agreed Gunn readily as he loped behind the two girls.

"Drop it guys," Faith asked, her shoulders dropping slightly as she once again considered the uphill struggle that faced her with the Sunnydale gang.

"It will be worth it in the end," Angel told her quietly.

"I don't know if I can make it that far, Soul Boy," Faith retorted.

"Try to see it from their point of view," the vampire suggested.

Faith snorted. "I don't think I can get my head that far up my ass."

The others smirked at the comment, before Wes caught Gunn's expression and sniggered out loud. His action prompted the others to laugh and the tension that they had carried with them from the Magic Box lifted, much to their relief. Faith looked at her companions and tried to shift her mood but it was hard.

"Would now be a bad time to suggest going out?" Asked Cordelia hesitantly, wanting to divert Faith from the possible hours of brooding the Southie slayer looked like she was about to embark upon.

Feeling the weight of her oppressive thoughts lighten at Cordelia's proposal, Faith smiled at the ex-cheerleader. "Sounds like the perfect time to suggest going out to me," she responded, eliciting a returning smile from the Seer.

"Is this just a girlie thing, or are we all invited?" Asked Wesley with unusual insight.

"You want to come too?" Cordelia was torn. She was delighted that the others wanted to celebrate her birthday with her, but selfishly wanted to devote her attentions on Faith.

"I'd love to come. To make up for forgetting your birthday," Angel told her with a small smile. Gunn and Wesley nodded in agreement.

Cordelia couldn't help but be touched by their gesture, despite realising that her personal plans had been thwarted, at least for the time being. "That's great. I just need to go home and change."

"What's wrong with what you're wearing?" Faith asked, stupefied.

"I've been trawling round dockyards and cemeteries in this," replied the some time actress, confused that there was a problem.

"And?" Queried Angel, equally at a loss.

"And I now want to wear something else," retorted Cordelia, her voice indicating a finality to the conversation. The others shrugged and followed the tall brunette back to the car.

Sometime later, four pairs of eyes became saucer wide as Cordelia descended the stairs. She was wearing a simple dark purple shift dress that stopped at mid-thigh and had put her hair up into a loose array on top of her head. She grinned at them, before twirling round in a 360 and asking, "so was it worth the wait?"

Faith had to swallow convulsively in order to try and lubricate her suddenly dry throat. "Hell, yeah," she eventually growled out, surprised herself at how husky her voice sounded. Wesley, Gunn and Angel nodded quickly in agreement, prompting the taller brunette girl to smile back at them, accepting the compliments with undisguised pleasure.

Wesley frowned in confusion as a thought occurred to him. "Cordelia, this was only ever going to be a short stop over in Sunnydale to locate the artefacts. What on earth possessed you to pack an evening dress?"

Cordelia was about to respond when she was prevented by a huge guffaw of laughter from Gunn. He slapped his arm on Wesley's shoulder. "Man, you have no idea how the female mind works, have you?" He chuckled.

Cordelia looked affronted. "It's a normal dress. I've just jazzed it up a bit," she justified.

"Yeah, by getting in it," responded Faith dryly.

Cordelia flashed a brilliant smile at the shorter brunette. She noticed that Faith had changed into fresh clothes and reapplied her make-up and felt a small thrill at the thought that she might have done that for her. "Are we actually going out or are we just going to stand around in the hall all night?" With that, she yanked the door open and stepped outside.

 

The Bronze was, well the Bronze. Faith, Cordelia and Angel looked round at the club with an air of disbelief. "I can't believe it hasn't changed in three years," the tall Seer commented, almost in disgust.

"What's the matter, Cordy, feelin' old?" Faith teased.

"No, more like I'm in a time warp," the ex-cheerleader replied. Despite her initial misgivings at the place though, Cordelia soon felt the beat of the music flow through her. She glanced at Faith and noticed the dark slayer succumbing to the rhythm. "Come on, let's dance," she suggested and made a beeline for the centre of the dance floor.

Faith followed readily, with Gunn and Wes close behind.

"I'll get a table and some drinks," Angel called out, receiving a wave in acknowledgement from Gunn. The vampire shook his head slightly before approaching the bar.

On the dance floor, the group got caught up in the music and allowed their bodies to respond to the beat. Cordelia found herself not minding that she was celebrating her birthday belatedly at the Bronze. It was fun dancing with Wes and Gunn, despite the ex watcher's slightly stiff movements, and spending any time with Faith was a definite bonus in the Seer's opinion. Despite wanting to dance more closely with Faith, Cordelia kept at a distance, acutely aware of Wesley and Gunn's presence and not yet ready to alert them to the fact that she was attracted to the renegade slayer.

Faith was happy to dance with the two men as well as Cordy, and moved her body round her three partners as she lazily danced to the music. She smiled at Wesley's slightly stilted movements and slid up behind him and placed her hands on his hips.

Feeling his personal space being invaded, Wes jumped at the touch and spun round.

"Relax, Wes. Loosen up a bit. Let the music grab ya," Faith advised, as she moved, not releasing her hold on the Englishman's hips.

Wes looked startled for a moment, before realising that Faith was not making a move on him. Around him, Cordelia and Gunn hemmed him in and continued to sway to the rhythm, looking at him encouragingly. The ex-watcher swallowed and then forced himself to relax, feeling his dancing becoming less stilted as he was guided gently by the young slayer, whilst he tried to emulate the natural style of Gunn.

"Now you're cooking," Faith told him, grinning. "You'll have the girls falling over you now," she wiggled her eyebrows impishly before moving away to dance opposite Cordelia.

Stunned by her comment, Wes burst out laughing but continued to dance anyway. The group stayed close together for a few minutes more, continually shifting positions and swapping dance partner before Cordelia edged away from the two men, drawing Faith with her as she moved, so that the girls no longer shielded their companions' availability to the rest of the Bronze.

As soon as Faith and Cordelia were not in the immediate vicinity of Gunn and Wes, two girls shimmied over and began dancing with the men.

At first, the young Englishman tried to back away from the attention, but Gunn held him in place. "I have the impression that these two come as a pair, so I hope you're not thinking of bailing on me Wes," the big man commented as he sidled closer to the lithe blonde dancing next to him.

The brunette stepped closer to Wes and smiled shyly, a look the watcher couldn't help but return.

"Way to go, Wes," Cordelia called over, giving him an exaggerated thumbs up.

"See, I told ya," shouted Faith as she gyrated near the tall Seer.

Wes blushed furiously, but not wanting to back out now that his friends had all commented on his situation, he turned his attention to the girl dancing with him and found that she really was very attractive.

Now that Gunn and Wes were occupied, Cordelia concentrated on dancing with Faith. At first, she just allowed the music to envelop her, but as the beat continued, she became hypnotised by the way Faith moved to the sound. She could feel the woman's energy radiating round her and was entranced at how absorbed Faith seemed to be by the rhythm. Unconsciously, she moved closer, moving her body to match Faith's gyrations.

Faith could feel Cordelia moving closer to her. Her body could feel the heat radiating from the ex-Prom queen as she danced in synchronised step with her. The Southie slayer could feel the chemistry between them grow exponentially as she focussed on the other woman's movements and shut out the distractions from the rest of the club. Faith sensed her heart rate accelerating and as she looked into the dark, heavily dilated, hazel eyes of Cordelia, she knew that something was going to happen between the two of them.

Cordelia gazed at Faith's dark eyes that were now almost black with desire. Her heart flipped and she felt dizzy with want as the rest of the club faded into insignificance. Unconsciously, the tall brunette hooked a finger into the belt loop of Faith's leather pants and tugged slightly, stepping forward into Faith at the same time. As their bodies came even closer, the Seer moved in time with Faith, her hips mirroring Faith's gyrations. Her stomach flipped as she felt the Bostonian lay a hand gently on her swaying hip, registering the burning heat that radiated from the contact. Instinctively, the older woman brought her face closer, till they were sharing the same air to breathe and their lips were millimetres apart.

Before the gap closed to nothing, Faith moved slightly and repositioned her mouth to just over Cordelia's right ear. "Tell me this is for real Cordy," she whispered. "You're not just playing me?" The rogue slayer sounded distraught at the thought.

Cordelia moved her head to return the whisper. "I've never been more serious about anything in my life," she told the shorter girl sincerely, pleased to see Faith flush as her breath caressed the slayer's cheek.

Faith backed her head away once more and studied Cordelia's visage intently, as if boring into her soul.

Cordelia returned the stare, trying to see into the complicated depths of Faith's personality but seeing only her own desire reflected in the slayer's obsidian eyes. Suddenly, her words gave her confidence again, and the ex cheerleader brought her lips down towards Faith's.

Just before she made contact, Cordelia felt a hand clasp her shoulder and she spun round angrily, the spell between herself and Faith broken instantly.

"What?" She asked aggressively as she saw Xander standing right next to her.

"Hey Cordy," the dark haired man returned nervously, "Angel just told me that you're out celebrating your birthday. Come over to the table, we've bought you drinks," he requested, deliberately not catching Faith's eye.

For a moment, Cordelia couldn't think of a single thing that she wanted to do less, but she forced herself to calm down when she followed his gesture and realised that Angel, Wesley and Gunn had joined the scoobs at their usual spot in the Bronze and she wondered who it was that had sent Xander on his errand. She returned her attention to the young construction worker and read his open face, deciding that he had meant well, after all. "Sure," she agreed, her voice sounding strained. The Seer stared at Faith who had instantly distanced herself and was now dancing alone. Looking once again at Xander she continued more firmly. "But let me make myself clear. My night out includes Faith, so if that's too much for you, you'd better say so now."

Xander squirmed uncomfortably for a moment, looking back at the other scoobs nervously. His face reflected his thoughts as he mulled the situation over. "We'll behave if she does," he stated, wondering if his words would apply to Buffy and Willow.

Cordelia turned back round and then grabbed Faith's hand. "Come with me?" She asked tentatively. The Seer knew that if she just invited Faith over, the rogue slayer would simply decline the offer, but by making it a request, Cordy hoped that Faith would accept.

Faith looked into the expectant eyes of the ex cheerleader and sighed inwardly. They had come so close to taking that next step and now she was extremely frustrated. She was determined to dance it out but Cordelia looked so anxious for her company, that the younger girl couldn't help but cave in to the plea. Squeezing Cordelia's hand, she nodded agreement and followed the tall woman and Xander to the table, noticing happily that Cordelia maintained the grip on her hand.

There was a chorus of hellos for Cordelia and acknowledging nods for Faith as the two women joined the others. Faith returned the nods with a tight-lipped smile but felt better when Cordelia's hand squeezed her own in support. There was a small gap at the end of one of the sofas, so Cordelia wedged herself in and Faith sat on the armrest, happy to be right on the edge of the group.

"What happened to your conquests?" Faith called across to Gunn and Wesley.

Gunn snorted disgustedly. "Mr 'English gentleman' here wouldn't put out so they moved onto some other dudes," he told her.

Faith laughed. "Well get back out there and try again," she advised.

"Next time I go hunting, I'm going solo," Gunn told her.

"Sorry to cramp your style," Wes shot at him. "I just don't do that sort of thing on a first encounter."

"Man, you don't know what you're missing," Gunn shook his head at the ex-watcher and laughed.

"Someone who thinks the same way you do, Faith," Buffy commented dryly. "What do you do, have competitions?"

Faith opened her mouth to shoot back a retort but was beaten to it by a suddenly serious Gunn.

"Is that an insult to me or to Faith? Cos let me tell you, I don't like either."

An uncomfortable silence descended on the group.

"So, what did you get for your birthday then?" Tara asked Cordelia brightly, hoping that a change of subject might ease the tension.

"Faith made me a pill box," she replied and flipped open her bag to retrieve the gift. It was passed round for everyone to inspect.

Cordelia felt Faith squirm uncomfortably and suddenly wished that she'd kept the gift a secret. Glancing up at the dark slayer, she caught Faith's eye and mouthed 'sorry' at her, relieved when Faith nodded her understanding.

"Wow. It's gorgeous," commented Tara. "You really made this?"

Faith nodded shyly.

"Why do you need it?" Xander looked confused. Surely pill boxes were for old people.

It was Cordelia's turn to look uncomfortable. "The visions I get aren't exactly pain free, unfortunately," she explained, fidgeting in her seat.

"They cause pain?" Willow looked at the ex Prom queen with a new respect. The 'old' Cordy would have gone to great lengths to ensure everyone knew about her suffering, yet this was the first time they had heard of it.

"How much is it worth?" Anya asked, cutting to what she thought was the most important part of the conversation.

"It's priceless," answered the Seer noting, with satisfaction, a slight flush creep up Faith's neck.

"Hardly," refuted the ex-vengeance demon, rolling it over in her hands several times to check if she'd missed anything.

"It is to me," insisted Cordelia as she grabbed the box and returned it to her bag.

"You didn't get anything else?" Buffy asked.

"No."

"Not yet," amended Angel with an apologetic smile at his receptionist.

Cordelia smiled back. "Ooo, goody. A pay rise for my birthday?" She suggested lightly.

"Nice try," commended Angel, his smile widening at the expression Cordelia pulled as he quashed her hopes. The rest of the LA gang laughed and the conversation drifted into small talk, the two groups feeling more at ease in each others' company for the time being.

When Faith had excused herself to get a round of drinks in, Cordelia found herself pounced on by her old school friends. "Are you mad?" Queried Xander. "Dancing with her," he added, explaining his question to a mystified Cordelia.

"No, I'm perfectly all right. When will you get it into your thick skull that she has changed?"

Xander looked at her incredulously. "Not heard of the leopard theory then," he commented sarcastically.

"Look, she's my friend. If you don't like that, well there's nothing I can do about it, but don't sit there and tell me where my loyalties should lie."

"You looked like more than just friends out on the dance floor," commented Willow.

"For one thing that's none of your business, and for another, hello? Pot and kettle springing to mind here," Cordelia shot back.

"But it's Faith," protested the red haired witch, as if that explained everything.

"Who is no longer the same person." Cordelia spoke slowly, as if explaining something to a small child.

"I'm with Xander on this one," Willow responded.

Cordelia rolled her eyes and sat back. "Let's try this another way. Tell me Willow, you've not changed in three years have you?"

"W-well some things have changed," the wiccan refuted.

"No they haven't. You're still the same nerdy computer geek I remember," Cordelia continued.

"I don't think so, Cordelia. I'm a witch now, a powerful one I might add."

"Oh really?" Cordelia sounded scornful.

"Yes, really. And I can quite easily prove it to you," Willow leant forward rising to the challenge.

"Only if I want to see you prove it. Otherwise, it won't matter what you do, I'll always be convinced that you're the same mousy Willow with the big chunky jumpers and no friends." Cordelia hated resorting back to her old bitchy ways but she felt as though she'd run out of alternatives. From the corner of her eye, she could see the expression on Tara's face and realised that Willow's lover had understood what she was trying to do. The Seer was relieved. She didn't want to have to deal with two irate witches.

At first, Willow missed the point. "I will show you," she bristled, wracking her brain for a suitable spell.

"Show me what you like, I'll never be convinced."

Willow was about to grudgingly admit defeat when something caught her attention. She turned to the dark haired Seer again. "So Faith's changed. And you and her want to make a go of it then?" She asked innocently.

Cordelia blushed. It was the first time anyone else had uttered her thoughts out loud.

"I know that Faith isn't playing me, if that's what you mean." The ex-cheerleader decided to play safe and avoid the question.

"Really? So why is she leaving then?" Willow nodded towards the exit of the Bronze. Cordelia followed her look and felt her heart lurch again, this time with a sickening feeling of betrayal or jealousy, she wasn't sure which.

With one arm draped heavily over her companion, Faith led a tall, blonde woman towards the exit.

 

Faith wanted desperately to look back at the others and try to give them some sort of signal, but didn't want to alert her 'escort' about any assistance she might have.

She had met the woman at the bar, having successfully extricated herself from the perpetual torture of pointed looks and stilted conversation with Buffy and the scoobs. The LA gang had shielded her to a point, and Cordelia had almost dared anyone to say anything about Faith's presence, but bullying them into accepting her wasn't enough. The dark slayer shook her head sadly, wondering when it was exactly that she cared what the others thought of her. Her thoughts took her back to the events around her release and to what she seriously described to Angel as 'finding her sanity again'. She finally managed to break the self-constructed barriers that she felt had protected her for so long and consider and deal with the consequences of her actions. Now she had to get past the barriers Buffy and the scoobs had erected to protect themselves against her. Remembering how difficult her own transition had been, Faith was not confident that she had the strength or the will to do it.

As she was mulling over her problems, her slayer senses started tingling crazily. Drawn from her reverie, the young brunette cautiously looked round, hoping to discover the source of the warnings.

Halfway up the bar, a tall blonde woman was questioning the people surrounding her. In her hand was the third artefact. Faith glanced back at the table where the others were seated but was unable to catch Angel or Cordelia's attention before the woman sidled up to her.

"Excuse me, I know this is going to sound a bit strange, but I don't suppose you've seen anything like this anywhere in Sunnydale?" The blonde woman had a low, sensual voice, but it was all Faith could do not to shudder in her presence. There was something very wrong about the woman but Faith didn't know what it was. She knew she wasn't a vampire, but that really didn't narrow down the options.

"What's it to you?" She asked gruffly, trying to sound disinterested.

"I have a collection of pieces that were stolen a few weeks ago. They're priceless and I need them back." There was a chilling sense of foreboding lacing the woman's words.

Faith looked at her carefully, noting that the woman's grey eyes seemed almost shark-like in their appearance, adding to her impression of underlying menace. "Sorry, can't help you," she told her, shrugging her indifference and at the same time calculating how quickly she could return to the table to gather reinforcements and take the bitch down. She knew that a while back, she would have had no hesitation in going after the woman single-handed but Faith had long since learned that she was not invincible and that her reactions should be tempered with consideration and, she hated to admit, planning. Her instincts were screaming at her, and that alone told her that she needed help.

"I think you can, Faith," the woman contradicted, a false smile on her face as she encroached on the brunette's personal space.

"Back off lady," Faith warned, hackles rising. "And how do you know my name?" She challenged, turning to face the blonde, unconsciously moving into a defensive stance.

Suddenly, the blonde woman brought her hand in close and punched Faith in the abdomen. The brunette gasped as searing pain went through her, feeling something tear into her body. Looking down, at first she thought she saw the woman holding some sort of multi-bladed knife and then Faith realised that the weapon was the woman's hand itself. Three blades were now where her fist had been, and they were buried deep into her abdomen. Instinctively, she began to struggle free of the implement.

The woman used her free hand to grab Faith round the waist. "Pull yourself off and you'll die of blood loss, slayer or no slayer," she warned. "Now, you're going to take me to my missing artefacts," the blonde woman told her brightly.

"I don't think so, bitch," retorted the slayer.

"Please don't tell me you think you have any choice in the matter," the blonde rejoined, twisting her arm slightly and moving the blades in Faith's body.

Faith thought that she would either pass out from the pain or throw up. Pure stubbornness kicked in. "I'm not tellin' you anything," she hissed.

The woman shifted her weapon so that she was supporting the young girl's weight on the blades. Faith moaned as more agony tore through her and she clutched the woman's forearm in an effort to stop it moving. "Would you like to have a rethink on your position?" Her attacker asked lightly.

"Fuck off."

"Such nasty words coming from one so young," the woman taunted. "However, despite the crude language, I can understand your noble stance on the matter. Perhaps I should tell you that I know exactly where the artefacts are but can't get to them due to a nasty magic protection spell. I also know that you've handled the two pieces I'm after, so I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that the protection spell isn't going to affect you." The woman once again adjusted her grip before draping one of Faith's arms over her shoulder.

Faith found herself leaning heavily on the woman in order to take some of her body weight off the knives in her abdomen, easing the pain by a fraction.

"So what we are going to do is take a nice stroll to where you've put the artefacts and then, you'll collect them for me." With a gentle nudge towards the exit, the woman led Faith outside using a cruel frog-march to keep the slayer in check.

 

"Well this brings back memories," Xander remarked. "As I recall, first time we met 'Slut-o-rama' she took her 'Disco Dave' outside."

Cordelia winced at the memory before deciding that there was nothing she could do to change the past. Then as realisation hit, she was once again assailed with conflicting emotions. Relieved and certain that Faith would not betray her, she was angry with herself for doubting the Bostonian for even a second. "You're a prick, Xander Harris," she told him in no uncertain terms, and before he had a chance to respond, the Seer turned towards Angel. "Time to work," she called, nodding her direction towards the exiting slayer.

Both Angel and Buffy caught her words and glanced at the exit. At first all Buffy saw was Faith leaving with someone, but as soon as she registered the presence of the blonde woman, her slayer senses went off with an intensity she had rarely experienced. She looked at Angel. "What the hell is that thing she's with?" She asked worriedly.

Angel shook his head and opened his mouth to answer when Tara interjected.

"It's a shape-shifter," she told them, her face etched with concern. "And it's extremely powerful."

"Let's go." Buffy stood up and snaked her way round the tables and other patrons of the Bronze to catch up with Faith, not even bothering to see if she was being accompanied.

Stunned at the sudden departure of Buffy and the remainder of the LA gang, Willow looked at Xander, Anya and Tara for a moment.

"Honey, I really think we should help," Tara told her softly, squeezing her hand.

Xander's expression remained closed, still uncertain over what to do.

"Staying here is good," Anya commented. "Much safer, so we get to live longer."

Strangely, her words of comfort did not have the desired effect and Willow found herself standing and moving towards the exit, her hand still clutching her lover as she left.

Hesitating for a fraction longer, Xander looked at the departing wiccans and his girlfriend before sighing and following.

 

Buffy looked round frantically in the road outside. "Where did they go?" She pondered out loud.

Cordelia joined her. "I've looked in the alleyway," she told her. "Nothing." The tall Seer felt herself getting more anxious by the second. "Where the hell is she?" She asked to no one in particular.

"Over here," called Angel from across the street. The others ran over to where he was crouched down in the road.

"What have you found?" Wesley demanded.

Angel rubbed his thumb and fingers together in an effort to remove what was on them and resist the urge to lick them. "Her blood," he replied tonelessly.

"Oh God!" Cordelia could feel the panic rise.

Before she could reach hysteria though, Buffy shot another question at Angel. "Has she left a trail?"

"Yes," affirmed the vampire. "This way."

By this time, the whole group had assembled and fell into step behind the dark vampire and blonde slayer as they hurried down the road.

"Am I paranoid or is this leading to the Magic Box?" Anya asked nervously.

"Yes to both of those questions, Anya," replied Xander, jogging next to his girlfriend.

"I'm getting a bad feeling about this," supplied Gunn from behind the couple.

"You're not the only one," Xander retorted.

As they rounded the corner, they spotted Faith and her captor some distance ahead and close to Giles' shop. Without waiting, Buffy and Angel broke into a sprint after them, prompting the others to give chase.

Turning as she heard the syncopated footfall behind her, the blonde woman smiled. "Oh, how sweet!" She exclaimed in a false tone. "Your friends have come to your rescue, saving me the task of rounding them up and killing them." Her grey eyes somehow became paler as she continued. "This is going to be easier than I thought," she told Faith.

The young slayer was sweating now. Every step was accompanied with a shooting pain through her body and she was finding it difficult to breathe. Despite her incapacitation however, she found the energy and the will to grin back at her attacker confidently. "I'll remind you of that thought just before you die, you bitch," she retorted and was grimly satisfied to see a flicker of hesitation in the cold eyes of the woman.

"You won't be able to remind anyone about anything, slayer." She glanced up to see Angel and Buffy closing the gap and without warning, theatrically extracted the blades from Faith's side and dropped the brunette on the floor. Without even glancing at the fallen slayer, she stepped away from the girl and turned to face her new enemies. "Ready to die?" She asked them playfully. As she spoke, her body shape shifted to become a hulking dark-green, scaled demon and now she was suddenly and unexpectedly in range. Without pausing, the demon lashed out and caught Buffy round the side of the head, launching her into a nearby chain link fence. The blonde slayer bounced off the fence and landed on the ground, winded and surprised. As she looked up, Buffy saw the demon throw out another fist to punch Angel, sending him flying into some nearby trash cans.

"What the...?" Breathed Gunn as his group skidded to a halt.

There was a palpable pause as the others faced the demon, wide-eyed at it's effortless sweeping aside of the slayer and vampire. The demon sneered at its prey, waiting for them to attack. It's grey eyes burned at them with arrogant confidence . "Which one of you volunteers to collect the artefacts?" The same sultry tones that Faith first heard in the Bronze fell incongruously from the demon's now blood-red mouth. Even as she spoke, there was the sound of heavy footfall and a group of demons, similar to the one Faith fought in the cemetery, ran to join the battle alongside the shape shifter.

Suddenly, the doors to the Magic Box burst open and Giles shot a bolt from his drawn crossbow directly at the shape shifter's chest. The bolt glanced off the scales and clattered harmlessly to the ground, but the demon spun round and screeched in anger at the Englishman.

It was the signal the others needed and they sprang into action.

Tara chanted quickly and threw a fireball at the demon, timing it perfectly to upset and disorientate the beast just before Angel and Buffy rejoined the fray with kicks and punches. Willow sent a fireball of equal force into the melee of lesser demons, sending them into confusion. Xander and Anya sprinted into the Magic shop heading for the weapons stockpile as Giles threw a mace towards Gunn. He swung towards the smaller demons, his face set in concentration and was quickly joined by Xander as they tried to fend off the attackers.

From Giles' side, Cordelia deftly loaded the crossbow she acquired from Anya and began picking off the demon hoard, not bothering to take aim at the shape shifter after seeing the earlier failure by Giles. The ex-Watcher reloaded his bow with a different style bolt and attempted to hurt the creature again.

Willow joined Tara and together they incanted another spell. Bolts of yellow energy left the out-strectched arm of the red-haired wiccan as she aimed her spell at the grey-eyed demon, hoping to weaken the thing. Wesley stood next to the two witches with a sword given to him by Xander and drew attacks away from the girls and towards himself or back towards Gunn and Xander.

As the energy struck its intended target, the shape shifter screeched again, turning towards the wiccans. "At least I now know who the witches are," she spat at them venomously before swatting Angel with a vicious uppercut, once again throwing him into the rubbish pile.

Buffy used the momentum of the shape-shifter's punch to her advantage and yanked on its limb, forcing the swing to continue and finally getting the demon off-balance. As soon as she sensed it's instability, she dropped low and swung her leg round in a brutal leg swipe, and managed to floor the shape shifter. As she stepped forward to continue her onslaught, the demon changed shape again, fluidly changing into a large black wolf still with grey eyes, and snapped at the slayer with wickedly sharp canines.

Startled, Buffy leapt back and out of the way of the snarling lupine, giving Giles a free shot with his crossbow.

The creature yelped as the bolt struck home cleanly this time and it looked around hurriedly, surveying the slaughter of its demon minions. With an enraged growl, the shape shifter leapt over Buffy and raced away from the fray, the bolt waving madly from it's imbedded position in the wolf's front shoulder, leaving the few remaining demons to fend for themselves.

Buffy was about to give chase when she heard Wes' cry for help. Looking over, she saw the two witches and the young ex-watcher being closed down by two demons, with Gunn and Xander fighting another demon that blocked their path to Willow and Tara's rescue.

Hurriedly, Buffy joined the Englishman and stopped one demon quickly with several swift kicks. By the time she turned to face the second demon, Angel was already exchanging blows. She was about to jump in and assist when the almost silent swish of a crossbow bolt thudded into its chest. Following the trajectory of the missile back to its origin, she raised her eyebrows in admiration as Cordelia barely paused in her work, reloading the weapon with a familiar ease.

Buffy surveyed the scene and breathed a sigh of relief as she realised that the danger was passed. "Are the artefacts safe?" She called over to Giles, recalling what the demon had said as she lay in a heap by the chain link fence.

"They're safe," Giles assured her, looking round wearily.

"Stuff the artefacts," Cordelia muttered angrily as she made the crossbow safe and threw it to the ground. Quickly she ran over to Faith's prone body, kneeling by the fallen slayer as Tara and Angel followed her. Gently she turned the young girl's body over, her throat constricting as her hands felt the slick blood covering Faith's body.

"Faith," she called gently. "Faith, open your eyes, you're safe now," she told her, unable to get her voice above a hoarse whisper, absently tucking the girl's chestnut hair behind her ears after settling the girl's head into her lap.

Faith groaned as her eyes fluttered open. "Hey," she croaked, her arms wrapped protectively round her abdomen.

Cordelia felt her throat constrict and blinked rapidly to keep the tears from falling. "How many times have I told you not to go off with strangers?" She demanded.

Faith felt the corners of her mouth move into a grin but she didn't have the energy to turn it into a full smile. "Didn't know you cared C," she replied, her voice barely audible.

"Yes you did," Cordelia contradicted her, equally as softly. From behind the two brunettes, Angel and Tara exchanged glances but said nothing.

"Faith, I know you hate them, but we have to get you to hospital," Cordelia continued, stroking the younger girl's face softly.

"You coming with me?"

"Of course. I'm surprised you had to ask," the seer responded quietly.

"Then I won't hate it," Faith told her, this time managing to widen her smile a fraction. For the first time, she noticed Angel and Tara hovering over Cordelia's shoulder. "Hey big guy, blondie," she acknowledged.

"Faith, what happened?" Angel asked. By this time, the others had crowded round the dark slayer.

"That bitch forced me out the Bronze, Angel. I would never have gone after her myself," Faith started to explain but the dark vampire interrupted her quickly.

"I know that Faith. But what did she want with you?"

"Angel, she needs to get to the hospital, can't this wait?" Cordelia interjected protectively.

"It's okay C," Faith told her. "She was after the other artefacts. She knew they were at the Magic Box and she wanted me to get them."

"Nice to know that she got away empty handed," Buffy commented, trying not to look at the wounds in Faith's side that reminded her of the near fatal injury she had inflicted on the younger slayer four years ago.

"More empty handed than you think, B," Faith told her and she shifted her hand to reveal a blood-soaked yet easily recognisable wooden artefact.

"Good work, Faith," exclaimed Giles genuinely.

"Yeah, it's amazing what skills you can pick up in the slammer," the Bostonian replied.

Angel leant down and took the girl into his arms carefully. "Come on, let's get you sorted out," and with that, he carried the girl to Giles' car.

 

Angel paced nervously in the waiting area, his long strides taking him across the room in just a few steps before he had to swing around and retrace his path. Buffy watched his movement, irritated by his constant fidgeting yet reluctant to ask him to stop. She had never seen the dark vampire display his frame of mind so openly. Waiting to hear from the surgeons was beginning to take its toll on him. The blonde slayer switched her attention to the woman sitting opposite her. Superficially, Cordelia appeared to be reacting in completely the opposite way to Angel. She sat unmoving in the hard plastic waiting room chair, gazing steadily at some far away spot, not even acknowledging the presence of the other occupants. As Buffy looked closer however, she could see the tension across the Seer's face and the rigidity of her shoulders and neck muscles gave indication of how the ex-cheerleader was really reacting. The blonde girl rubbed the back of her neck, trying to relieve some of the stress that had manifested itself there as the enforced wait continued and wondered how Faith had managed to inspire such devotion from Angel and Cordelia. Was she really wrong to be so dogmatic in her damnation of the girl? Could Faith be really so far removed from the psychotic girl who had rampaged through Sunnydale?

Her thoughts were interrupted and she looked up as she heard footsteps indicating someone's arrival.

"Coffee?" Offered Giles, handing the girl a nondescript paper cup of steaming dark brown fluid. "I can't vouch for the quality as I got it from a vending machine, but at least it's hot," the Englishman continued as Buffy took the receptacle gratefully. He approached the tall ex-cheerleader and held out another cup, gently breaking the girl from her reverie.

"Any news?" Cordelia's hands shook as she took the coffee and she rested the cup in her lap, forgetting it's presence almost immediately.

"Not yet. But they did say it would take time," Giles replied softly. Cordelia nodded at his manner before looking up at the clock on the wall and returning to her introspection.

"Have you spoken to the others?" Angel asked, stopping his pacing now that the watcher had returned and had given him a distraction.

Giles blew into his cup, in an attempt to cool the boiling liquid before hesitantly taking a sip. "Yes, surprisingly. Gunn was still awake. 'Keeping guard', he said. They're all at the Magic Box now. Considering that the shape shifter knew that the artefacts were there and now knows who is involved, Wesley and Gunn decided to keep everyone else together under a protection spell."

"Good idea," agreed Buffy. She winced as she tasted the scalding coffee but forced herself to take another sip in the hope that she would get used to the bitter flavour. "Have they had any trouble?"

"Gunn didn't mention anything. I would think that the protection spell would be enough, considering that the shape shifter was trying to use Faith to obtain the artefacts. Varos himself might be very powerful, but it appears his minions have limited magickal abilities, thankfully."

Buffy swallowed another mouthful of coffee. "Now that we have all three statues, we're all going to be targets. I wonder how long it will take Will and Tara to figure out..."

"Miss Chase?" A deep voice interrupted them from the doorway.

Cordelia looked up immediately. "Yes?"

"Faith is out of surgery now and in Recovery." The surgeon rubbed his eyes tiredly, the dark ring of sweat covering the top of his green scrubs giving testimony to how hard he had been working.

Buffy got to her feet immediately and took a step towards the door along with Angel and Giles.

However, the Seer remained where she was and continued to stare at the doctor, not yet willing to feel anything until she knew more about Faith's condition. "And?" She prompted.

"The wounds she received were serious and she lost a lot of blood. However, the attacker missed her liver, spleen and kidneys. The damage to her intestines has been repaired and she already appears to be recovering. I wouldn't have thought it possible but I remember when she was here last time. I wrote her off then. I'm not going to make the same mistake twice. If it wasn't for the fact that no one would believe me, I'd write a paper on her powers of survival. She is a remarkable young woman."

"I couldn't agree more," Cordelia responded, finally getting to her feet, though finding herself wobble slightly at the sudden movement after so many hours of inactivity. She twisted down to place her untouched coffee on the vacated chair before straightening and looking at the surgeon again. "Can I see her?"

"I'm sorry, she's restricted to relatives only." The reply was automatic.

"She hasn't got any relatives Doctor," Cordelia told him, feeling a mixture of sadness at how alone Faith must have felt for most of her life along with a nagging curiosity about the veracity of her words. "I'm..." she hesitated at how to describe herself. "I'm her best friend."

The doctor looked carefully at the tall brunette, holding her stare for a moment before looking at the other occupants of the waiting room and sighing heavily. "She's heavily sedated. I doubt you'll get any response from her, but I'll allow one visitor," he acquiesced.

Cordelia looked round at the others expectantly, and her eyes rested on Angel. "Did you want to see her?" She asked quietly, knowing that he must have been suffering the same way she had.

Angel looked at his secretary with wonder. Once again she had managed to amaze him with an act of generosity and selflessness and he noted the look of surprise on Buffy's face. The ex-cheerleader had matured and changed since leaving Sunnydale, particularly since the dubious 'gift' of Sight that the Powers That Be had bestowed upon her. Buffy had just seen the perfect example of that change. If only she could see the changes in Faith as well. "No, you go," he told her gently. "Tell her I'm here though," he requested as Cordelia smiled at him gratefully.

"When can she go home?" Surprisingly, it was Giles who asked the question.

The surgeon frowned at the question, his thick brows almost meeting above his broad nose. "She's suffered major traumatic injury to her abdomen and just spent two hours in surgery. She won't be going home for some time," he told the Englishman.

"Tomorrow or the day after then," translated Buffy, knowing how slayer healing worked.

The doctor laughed incredulously before recognising the blonde girl and recalling that she too had an amazing ability to recuperate. "Are you related to Faith?"

Buffy snorted derisively. "Definitely not."

"I don't understand. Last time Faith was stabbed it took her months to come out of the coma," Angel objected to the rapid recovery time Buffy was suggesting.

The blonde girl blanched at the memory. "She was in a coma due to the head injury she got when she fell from the balcony," she explained.

Cordelia interrupted before the conversation could continue. "Where do I go?" She asked.

"Oh, sorry, come with me." The surgeon instantly forgot his train of thought and led the tall brunette out of the door.

The doctor held a door open for Cordelia and she stepped into the small side room. She glanced back at him as he spoke. "I know you're upset and want to be with her, and, believe me, I do sympathise, but she really does need to rest. Please be considerate," he told her quietly before leaving the Seer in the room alone.

She turned around and looked up the bed. The bed covers were drawn up as far as Faith's shoulders, with her arms resting on top of the sheets by her sides. Cordelia noticed the drip taped to the slayer's right arm, the various monitoring devices attached to her finger and upper arm and the oxygen tubing laced over her ears and under her nose. As she gazed at Faith's face, Cordelia almost gasped at how pale the girl looked and, with her face scrubbed of make up, how young she really was. The white pillow her head rested on and the fawn hospital gown served only to wash out her complexion even more. She approached the bed hesitantly, unwilling to disturb Faith, yet desperate for the girl to open her eyes and reassure her that she really was all right. Spying a chair tucked away in a corner, Cordelia picked it up and placed it by the side of the bed. She sat down quietly and took Faith's left hand with both of hers and squeezed it gently, trying to silently indicate her presence and support. The ex-cheerleader was relieved to feel how warm Faith's hand felt, and she lifted the slayer's arm gently and pressed her lips to the girl's knuckles before returning their entwined hands back to the bed. "God, you gave me a scare," she whispered. "I thought I was going to lose you before I really found you." Her own voice sounded alien to her. It shook with barely contained emotion.

She started as she saw Faith's head move, turning to face the seated girl. Her eyelids fluttered open, revealing chocolate brown irises, impossibly dark against her almost alabaster skin. Cordelia noticed that her eyes were slightly unfocused, yet undeniably alluring and the Seer was mesmerised by them.

"Hey." Faith's voice was cracked and weak. She coughed and swallowed in an effort to make it stronger. "You're wearing that dress," she remarked with a small smile, registering Cordelia's apparel.

Cordelia pulled herself back from the depths of Faith's eyes and almost sobbed with relief as she smiled back at the rogue slayer. "You really have a thing for this dress, don't you," she replied, wondering if the younger girl had heard her earlier words.

"No, I don't," Faith contradicted her softly, prompting Cordelia to frown at her in confusion. "I have a thing for the wearer of the dress." She closed her eyes and turned away from Cordelia. In a voice that was hoarse and raw with emotion she continued. "It also means that I haven't just wasted another eight months in a coma. You'd never wear the same dress to visit me." As she spoke the words, Faith was suddenly overwhelmed by how scared she had been by that thought. She had heard Cordelia entering the room and had kept her eyes shut, drawing up enough courage to face her, wondering how long she had been unconscious this time. A solitary tear slipped down her face, much to her chagrin. Faith had never been one to hug and share and learn and grow, and even now thought that crying indicated weakness. She rolled her eyes and blinked rapidly in an effort to stop any more tears from falling and tensed, waiting for Cordelia to comment on her lapse.

Cordelia was rocked by Faith's words and how heartfelt they were. She also realised how sensitive Faith was at the moment and was certain that the renegade slayer did not want to have her feelings dissected. Instead, she continued the banter. "Well, I might wear the same dress in LA but not here in Sunny Hell. What would people think?" She let out a short stab of laughter. "Oh my God Faith, you really do know me," she commented.

"Not as well as I'd like to," responded the younger girl, still with her eyes closed. Her voice was gruff but it was under control now.

A voice in her head told her that it was perhaps unfair to pursue the topic while Faith was so exposed but the Seer couldn't help wanting to carry the subject on. Cordelia drew a shaky breath, wondering at how nervous she felt, yet determined to continue. "I meant what I said at the Bronze," she told Faith quietly.

Faith opened her eyes once more and turned to look at Cordelia carefully. "Cor,..." She began hesitantly but the tall Seer, emboldened by her own words hushed the slayer.

"Shhhh, Faith. Don't say anything," she told the prone woman, and she got up out of the chair slowly and leant forward to press her lips gently onto Faith's. The kiss was chaste but held the promise of so much more to come and Cordelia broke the contact reluctantly after a few seconds. Her breath hitched as she drew away and was relieved to hear a similar gasp from the recumbent slayer. She got her breathing under control so that she could speak again. "Let's just take things as they come, huh?" The Seer sat back down and removed one of her hands from around Faith's and touched her own lips, marvelling at the sensation she had just experienced, and suddenly aware of how rapidly her pulse was beating in her neck. The tall brunette glanced up to one of the monitors surrounding Faith and noticed that her pulse had quickened too.

"Wow?" Faith suggested as she looked at Cordelia tentatively.

"Oh, definitely wow," the Seer agreed emphatically, unwilling to take her hand away from her lips in case the sensation faded.

Faith grinned sleepily, having shaken off her earlier fears and now basked in a much more welcome emotion. "Never thought I'd have a kiss like that while lying down, and not be able to do anything more," she mumbled, trying to fight the effects of the anaesthetic.

"Hey, Miss Gutter Mind!" Cordelia protested good-naturedly.

"I'm allowed to now, C," Faith replied with a slow wink.

"Oh really?"

"Yes, really."

Faith's voice was becoming more distant by the second, but Cordelia didn't mind. She knew now that the girl was going to be all right, and that she had at last been able to express her feelings, even if the demonstration was all too brief. "I'm going to let you rest now. Angel's outside. I want to tell him you're all right."

"You comin' back?" Faith could barely get the words out now. She felt like she had a mouth full of cotton wool and her eyelids seemed determined to close, despite her best efforts to keep them open.

"Wild horses couldn't drag me away," Cordelia reassured the girl, before gently squeezing her hand once more and rising from her seat.

Faith frowned, remembering the circumstances that had brought her to the hospital in the first place. She struggled to get another sentence out. "Go back to the mansion and stay with the others. You'll be safe with them."

"They're at the Magic Box," Cordelia replied. "I want to stay with you," she continued.

Faith shook her head slightly, battling the somnolence that was flooding through her. "I need to know that you're safe. Please, Cordelia."

Despite being unable to raise her voice above a whisper, Faith's words conveyed a pleading urgency that Cordelia was unable to ignore. The Seer nodded unhappily and she knew that the younger girl was deadly serious simply because she had bothered to use her entire name. "I'll be back soon," she vowed.

The ex-cheerleader smiled at the slayer fondly when she got no response. Faith had finally succumbed to the sedative. She bent over and kissed the slayer's forehead, unknowingly copying the actions of Buffy when she found Faith in the hospital after stabbing her.

Closing the door quietly behind her, the tall Seer returned to the waiting area. "I spoke with her. She's okay," she told the room's occupants generally but focused her attention on Angel.

The dark vampire closed his eyes for a moment before nodding at Cordelia. "Do you want to stay?" He asked, already knowing the answer.

"Yes," replied the ex-cheerleader honestly. Before she was able to continue, the sometime actress was interrupted by an incredulous blonde slayer.

"It's not safe here, Cordelia," Buffy objected. "You should be back at the Magic Box."

"I know," the Seer agreed with the girl's logic, prompting a look of confusion from her. "Nor do I want to leave Faith alone in a place she despises," she continued. "However, Faith insisted that I go back to the Magic Box. I have a feeling she'll know if I go against her wishes, so I'm going."

"I'll stay till just before sunrise," Angel offered. "We'll have to keep some sort of guard up for her."

Buffy nodded. "I'll go back to the Magic Box with you Cordy. I need to get some rest. We'll come back in the morning and I'll take over."

Cordelia's eyebrows shot up at Buffy's gesture. She had been certain that the older slayer would leave Faith to her own devices.

"I'll talk to Tara and Willow. They may be able to put a protection spell on Faith's room while she's here," Giles added. "Although I rather suspect that Faith will be left alone for the time being."

"What makes you say that?" Cordelia's voice rose an octave, not able to follow Giles' reasoning. "Surely she's a prime target now that she's injured."

"With the wounds the shape shifter inflicted on her, I think that they will assume that she's dead," Giles explained. "And even if they have already found out that she's alive, they will be extremely hesitant to cross her again. Not only has she taken out four demons, she survived a shape shifter attack. She's proven to them that she's a formidable opponent. They will want to plan their next attack far more carefully. Particularly as we now have all three artefacts."

Angel nodded at the Englishman's logic. "Makes sense. But it also means that they are more likely to go for one of us now. They'll be looking for a weaker target."

"Which means that we all have to be extra careful until we figure out how to destroy the artefacts," Buffy supplied. "Right, let's go," she told Cordelia. "We'll be back in a few hours," she assured Angel.

Taking one last look at the door that led to Faith's bed, Cordelia reluctantly followed the blonde slayer out of the hospital, consoling herself with the thought that Faith would probably be unconscious or at the very least deeply asleep during the short period that she was not at her side.

 

Tara sat back in her chair and rubbed her eyes as she rolled her shoulders in an effort to get the stiffness out of them. It had been a difficult night to say the least. She and Willow had put yet another protection spell over the Magic Box in an effort to safeguard not just the artefacts but the occupants too. Despite Willow's amazing power as a witch and Tara's not inconsiderable talent, they both knew that there were ways of overcoming the incantation and with very little known about Varos' minions, no one felt particularly safe. Afterwards, while Gunn and Wesley tidied away the weapons, the group huddled round together trying to speculate over the dark slayer's condition without actually mentioning the words 'Faith' , 'attack' or 'injuries'. They had all seen the renegade's stomach, dark and slick with blood and her face ashen white with pain, yet none of her companions wanted to display any emotions that could indicate concern for Faith. The closest Xander got was to mention how useful she could be in a battle and Anya remarking that the sight of so much blood was reminiscent of one of her revenge spells. Her story was halted before she got the opportunity to share all the grisly details.

Tara was no so hesitant in showing her concern. "You can dance around the topic all you like, but I'm worried about Faith. I know you all think it's just a case of us needing her help as opposed to actually wanting her here, but surely you can't believe that she deserved to be injured like that. I wouldn't wish what she's gone through on anyone."

Willow snorted. "Seems like she got a taste of her own medicine. She held a knife to my throat, remember?" She prompted. The conversation she had with Cordelia at the Bronze had been firmly placed in the back of her mind.

"Four years ago, Willow," Tara pointed out, letting out an exasperated sigh. "And besides, she didn't actually stick the blade in, did she?"

Willow's eyes went wide with amazement. Once again, her lover was defending Faith. "I can't believe you just said that," the flame- haired girl told her. "Have you not listened to anything I told you about her?"

"Yes I have. However, what happened to forgiveness?" The blonde witch retorted.

"Sorry, I go by the Old Testament. 'An eye for an eye'," her lover quoted back at her.

"Well in that case, I can't understand what you've got against her," Tara responded, annoyed with herself for getting angry with Willow, yet unable to stop her spiralling emotions.

"And what's that supposed to mean?" Willow frowned, her brow furrowing deeply at Tara's comment.

"The way you told me, Faith came back seeking revenge for Buffy putting her in a coma for eight months. That rather fits the 'eye for an eye' tenet, doesn't it?"

"Wow, you should be a lawyer," interjected Xander as Willow gaped at the blonde witch's argument.

"She held the knife to my throat before her revenge kick," protested Willow, jumping back into the conversation.

"Does that really matter now?" Tara looked at her companions. "L- look, I know I w-wasn't that affected by Faith but you have to move on. At the moment we have identifiable threats out there to face. We d-don't need to make our lives more difficult by adding Faith to the l-list when she's already demonstrated that she's on our side." Inside, the blonde witch was furious with herself for stammering again.

"I agree," interrupted Anya from behind the counter. "All the time she's helping us, she's more likely to be killed by the demons than we are."

"That's not exactly what I meant," demurred the blonde witch.

"Good principle though," Xander agreed with his girlfriend.

Tara rolled her eyes in frustration. "What has she got to do to convince you? You saw her wounds. She's the only one of us who didn't walk away from that situation."

"More's the pity," the construction worker muttered under his breath.

Tara didn't quite catch exactly what the dark man said but she could feel the sentiment of his utterance. "Fine. Do what you like. J- just know that I feel s-safer knowing that Faith's on our side and helping us out with Varos."

"I'm glad you've made up your mind. What you seem to have forgotten is that Faith sided with the Mayor while she was still on 'our side'," Willow retorted, her voice strangely flat as she looked at Tara. "I'm not as trusting as you, and I've already been betrayed once. I'm not prepared to allow her to do that again." The red-head sat back defiantly, resolute with her original stance on the matter.

"Hypocrite." Wesley's accusation stung her from across the room.

Willow glared at him. "And what's that supposed to mean?" She challenged, her arms crossed defensively.

"Well, it seems to me that you allowed Angel to be part of your lives again when he spent an awful lot of his time hurting you all."

"That's different. He had no soul as Angelus."

"We all have demons to deal with," Wesley responded softly. "Faith's actions may have been inexcusable at the time, but she's been punished for that..."

"Three years in the slammer? Hardly a punishment," interrupted Xander, feeling the need to defend his oldest friend and siding with her once again on her views about the renegade slayer.

"Yes. On face value, it would seem an inappropriate sentence. But as none of you have bothered enquiring about her time spent in the penitentiary, none of you could possibly know whether the punishment was suitable or not," Wesley reasoned. He swallowed in an effort to keep his voice under control. "I have greater reason than any of you to mistrust Faith, even hate her. But I can see the changes in her." He left the weapons store and came over to sit opposite his audience. "She may still talk in the same way and dress in the same way. She is, indeed, the same person in many ways. I don't want her to change every aspect of her character. It's part of who she is and who she always will be. More to the point, none of you have any right to demand that she changes completely. I still dress and talk the same, yet you afford me far more courtesy now than you ever did when I here as Buffy's watcher." Wesley held up a hand to stop the protests from Xander and Willow. "However Faith has changed where it matters. Changes that are quite apparent if you can get past your prejudice and actually see the girl for what she is now, not what she was four years ago. Those changes have made a huge difference to me. Now I would trust her with my life. No buts, no exceptions. She's my friend."

"Then more fool you," Willow retorted quietly before getting up and moving away to distance herself from the young ex-watcher. His words had disturbed her in the same way Cordelia's words had at the Bronze. She knew that their arguments made sense but she didn't want to believe them. More to the point, how did Buffy feel about all this? Willow knew that if the blonde slayer still held the same rancour for Faith, then she could never change her opinion. But even if Buffy mellowed, the red-haired witch wasn't sure she could be swayed. Willow had a deep-seated resentment for the younger slayer that started long before the Bostonian sided with the Mayor. A tiny part of her was concerned that should the status quo be broken and Faith be allowed to interact on more equal terms with Buffy and the other scoobs, Willow might find herself playing second fiddle to her again. The wiccan already resented Tara's involvement with the entire affair and was subconsciously questioning her lover's motives for defending Faith. Before Faith's return, had anyone wondered about the strength of the relationship between her and Tara, Willow would have laughed at the thought. Now she was beginning to worry about that too. She resented the uncertainty that Faith had unearthed since her return to Sunnydale. And she didn't like the feelings she was being subjected to. Unwilling to face her dilemma, she walked away from the rest of the group and headed towards the back of the shop. Perhaps milling round the storeroom would help clarify her thoughts, or at least give her a better perspective on them. The red haired wiccan was also irrationally annoyed with Tara and she didn't want to flare up at her lover and cause yet more problems. She sighed as she heard the blonde witch step into the storeroom behind her. "Tara, I came out here to clear my head," she explained, not turning round.

"I know and I'm sorry," the taller girl replied softly.

"You're sorry? Why?" Willow span round and looked at Tara curiously.

"Well, I distinctly remember telling you that I was entitled to my own opinion, and here I am forcing my views onto you," Tara explained, tripping over the sentence slightly as she struggled with her emotions.

Willow took one look at Tara's face and her irritation melted away instantly. She closed the gap between them and pulled the blonde woman into a close hug. "I'm sorry too," she mumbled into the girl's shoulder. "Please don't let us argue over this," she pleaded softly.

"I don't want to fight either," Tara agreed. She moved slightly and rested her forehead against her lover's. "I love you," she murmured.

Willow felt her arms tighten as she pulled the blonde girl into a tighter embrace. She revelled in the nearness of the other girl for a moment, before leaning back just a fraction. "I'm tired," she explained, hoping that Tara would accept her hidden request and not push things any further. "Those protection spells and all that action have worn me out. I could do with some sleep."

Tara nodded her head against Willow's, signifying her concurrence. She knew that Willow was still avoiding the issue but she knew better than to push the red head into a corner. If Willow truly thought that she was being coerced, it would set her resolve to unbreakable levels. "Come on. Let's see if we can find somewhere to sleep for what's left of the night." The blonde witch took hold of Willow's hand and led her back out into the Magic Box. "We're tired," she announced to the room in general. Tara looked at Wesley carefully, silently pleading that he wouldn't continue the confrontation.

Seeing the look in Tara's eyes, Faith's watcher nodded almost imperceptibly and gestured to one of the couches. "Yes, you must both be exhausted," he agreed. I'll see if I can find you a blanket."

Willow opened her mouth to protest but was interrupted by Gunn. "It'd be a good idea if you all get some rest." He looked round at the others. "I'll keep watch by the door," he offered as he inspected a plain yet functional looking crossbow.

"There should be no need to keep watch," Willow objected. "The spell we placed will warn us if the ward is broken," she explained.

"I'm sure it will, but I'd still be happier with a physical guard at the door," Gunn replied, hefting a large club and resting it on his shoulder as he moved to the doorway. "Just think of it as extra protection," he told the wiccan.

"You can't stand guard all night Gunn," the Englishman told him. "I'll take second watch," he declared.

Gunn looked at his friend steadily. "Sure Wes. I'll wake you when it's your turn."

Anya emerged from the back of the Magic Box, her arms laden with blankets. "For some reason, Giles always seems to have a good supply of these." The blonde ex-vengeance demon hurried round and distributed the blankets out evenly. She even handed one to Gunn. "You might be cold sitting there," she explained at his questioning look.

Xander's eyes shot up in surprise. "Looks like you're getting the hang of caring about people Anya," he told her gently.

"Am I?" Anya smiled back at her lover. "I didn't realise. I didn't want him to get distracted by the cold while he was standing guard in case we got attacked. I didn't realise that I was caring about him."

Xander shook his head silently and decided that it was too late at night to go through a potentially torturous explanation with his girlfriend. "Great idea," he agreed. "Now, which couch do you want?"

Finally the occupants were settled and after a few minutes of quiet talking and soft bickering between them, everyone except Gunn managed to drift off to sleep. The tall black man hurried to answer the phone when Giles rang and was frustrated by the lack of information the older watcher shared. Gunn was concerned for Faith. She gave off a tough aura and had a bad girl image and he was also fully aware of her past with Buffy and Angel. But despite all that, he genuinely liked the girl. He loved training with her and his confidence battling against the evil in LA grew immeasurably when Faith stood with him. When he saw her lying there in Cordelia's arms, blood soaking through her clothes and onto the ground, Gunn suddenly became aware of her mortality and he didn't like that thought. Suddenly, their invincibility together was not certain.

The ringing of the phone prompted the shop's occupants to grill him for news. When they were satisfied that he had none to tell, they settled back down. Tara lay cradled around Willow, holding her tight as she pondered over the day's events. She only relaxed when she noticed her lover begin to breathe more regularly and slowly, indication that she had succumbed to her tiredness.

The next thing she heard was the door open. Squinting through the darkness, she made out the shapes of Giles, Buffy and Cordelia in the shadows as they whispered to Gunn by the doorway. The blonde witch managed to pick up a few snippets of information, including the fact that Cordelia had managed to talk with Faith and she drifted back into the realms of Morpheus feeling slightly less concerned over the fate of the Bostonian.

Tara's eyes shot open as she felt her arm spasm. Sharing the sofa with Willow had sounded like a wonderful idea at the time, and she always revelled in being near the red-haired witch. However the more physical aspects of spending several hours perched on the edge of a sofa that wasn't as long as she was with her arm trapped by her lover's body was beginning to take it's toll. Moving very slowly, Tara extracted her arm from underneath Willow and then rolled off the couch, looking closely at Willow for any signs that she had disturbed her slumber. Willow shifted slightly but stilled again without wakening.

Tara stood and stretched, feeling the muscles around her lower back and shoulders protesting at the sudden usage before she shook her numb arm in an attempt to encourage the circulation back to it. Once she felt the buzzing in her digits that signified the return of blood to her fingers, she tiptoed over to a nearby table and sat down. She scanned the room, her eyes now accustomed to the lack of light and noticed Anya and Xander huddled motionless on another couch, Giles and Wesley asleep on chairs and Buffy stretched out on the floor with a blanket wrapped round her.

Tara sat back in her chair as she rubbed her eyes wearily and rolled her shoulders in an effort to get the stiffness out of them. The blonde girl jumped as her peripheral vision caught movement to her left side and as she turned her head to find out what it was, she saw a slender hand place a mug full of steaming coffee in front of her.

"I couldn't sleep so I made a huge pot of coffee. I assumed that you could do with some," Cordelia whispered to her as she sat down at the table, her other hand holding an identical mug, its contents steaming.

Tara wrapped her hands round the mug and allowed them to absorb the heat it was radiating before raising the receptacle and taking a cautious sip. "Hmmm, it's good," she complemented before taking another taste.

"Thank you. One of my many talents as Angel's receptionist," Cordelia replied but the usual sarcasm that would accompany the comment was missing. "What are you doing up?"

"I woke up uncomfortable. Rather than toss and turn and disturb Willow, I thought it would be easier just to get up and restore the circulation to my arm."

Cordelia nodded. "I hope we didn't disturb you when we came in the shop."

Recognising the comment as an opening, Tara took the lead and leapt straight in. "How's Faith?" She asked, believing that Cordelia would prefer that to skirting round the issue.

"She'll be okay," replied the Seer, a small smile gracing her lips as she thought of the brunette. "They operated on her and she's recovering. Buffy seems to think that she'll be out of hospital today or tomorrow." Cordelia couldn't help grimacing at mentioning the blonde slayer's name but she hoped that Tara didn't notice.

"You're not a huge fan of Buffy are you?"

Cordelia rolled her eyes as she realised that her expressive face had revealed her thoughts. "Buffy isn't exactly Miss Squeaky Clean, but she won't even allow Faith an inch to demonstrate that she's not the same person anymore," she told the blonde girl, her voice straining slightly as she tried to keep the volume low.

"You should have heard Wesley earlier," Tara commented, recalling his speech. "I think that before this 'adventure' is over, we will all have had the opportunity of seeing what you, Angel and Wes see in her."

Cordelia looked at the witch carefully. "I suppose I just don't want her to get hurt again," she admitted. "Ever since she's been working in LA with us, I think that she's actually got a sense of belonging. Something that she never had before. She was able to let her barriers down a bit. Show the 'real' Faith and not the image she's projected ever since she can remember." The ex-cheerleader sighed before taking a sip of her own coffee. "Now she's back in Sunnyhell I can see all those barriers rising again. If that happens totally, I don't know how we'll ever get through to her."

"You have a connection with her Cordelia," Tara replied. "As long as you're here, I don't think that Faith will ever isolate herself completely."

"Is it that obvious?" Cordelia asked, realising that Tara knew exactly the extent of her relationship with the renegade slayer.

Tara smiled enigmatically. "To the people who look? Yes, probably," she answered honestly.

"Oh God." The tall Seer groaned at the thought. "What about the others?"

"I think Angel knows. Wesley too. I don't know about Gunn though, he guards his feelings well. As for everyone else? I doubt it. They haven't got past the 'psycho slayer is back' stage," Tara confided.

Cordelia grinned at the wicca's description before becoming pensive again. "Willow?" She suggested nervously, recalling the red haired girl's comments at the Bronze after Cordelia had danced with Faith.

Tara shook her head and shifted uncomfortably before answering. "I think she was trying to goad you. I'm sure that what she saw didn't really sink in."

"You're probably right," agreed the ex-cheerleader. "Never thought that their defensive nature would work to my advantage," she mused.

"Advantage?" Tara frowned at the brunette. "Don't you want people to know about you and Faith?"

"No, no. It's not that at all," Cordelia protested. "It's just..." she hesitated, not knowing whether she could trust Tara enough to confide in her. "It's just that I'm not sure that there's much to tell," she admitted.

Tara sat back and looked at her companion steadily. "Have you not been going out for long then?"

Cordelia smiled ruefully. "We haven't gone out at all. I only kissed her for the first time tonight when she was in the Recovery Room. I'm not even sure how she feels about me."

"Now that I don't believe," refuted Tara firmly. "It's obvious that she cares about you."

"You think?" Cordelia couldn't help the question and she hated herself for feeling so insecure about the situation. But she needed the reassurance that only an outsider to her predicament could give.

The blonde witch smiled again. "I know," she amended confidently. "But it doesn't matter what I think or know. What counts is how you feel about Faith and her feelings for you."

"Thanks," Cordelia acknowledged her listener. "Anyone tell you that you'd make a great therapist?" She only half joked.

"Not until now," replied Tara. "And I'm not so sure that I would."

The some time actress felt the need for a change of topic. Examining her feelings left her emotionally exhausted and exposed. She didn't want to carry on the dissection. "So what are you going to do now? Go back to sleep?"

"Not much point really," Tara replied, eyeing the couch where Willow now lay sprawled across it. "I thought I'd continue looking at the binding spell for the artefacts."

"I take it that it's not simple then?" Cordelia probed.

Tara shook her head. "There's one part of it that I just don't understand. I think we need to delve into the history books to get more information. Mind you, in a way I'm pleased that it's not easy."

"What? That doesn't make sense," the ex-cheerleader told the blonde.

"I just feel that I'll have contributed more if this is difficult. Faith's risked her life more than once. Me getting eyestrain is a small price to pay."

"Bizarrely, that makes a twisted sort of sense," Cordelia commented before rubbing the back of her neck. She clasped her coffee mug and drained its contents. "I ought to wake Buffy up. It'll be daylight soon."

Tara frowned in consternation at the Seer. "What difference does that make? We've protected the shop regardless of the time of day."

"Angel's keeping watch at the hospital," Cordelia explained, noting how Tara's face lit up with understanding. "Buffy said that she'd take over before daybreak."

"Good idea. Much as I want to put a protection spell over Faith at the hospital, it would pretty much be impossible to do, considering the amount of people who need to gain access to the place."

"Thanks for listening," Cordelia voiced her appreciation a second time.

"No problem." Tara took a large draught from her mug. "I think I'll get a refill."

The brunette rose and approached the sleeping slayer. "Come on, Buffy. Time to change the guard." Cordelia resisted the urge to shake the slayer awake. She had done that to Faith on a couple of occasions and had almost been decapitated with a thrown punch each time. The ex-cheerleader somehow suspected that Buffy would have a similar reaction.

The blonde slayer grumbled and turned over, grabbing the blanket that covered her and rolling into it more tightly.

Cordelia tried again, still keeping her distance from the older slayer. "Buffy. Wake up."

Suddenly, Buffy spun round, arm raised and fist clenched, ready to face her attacker. The tall Seer raised an eyebrow. "Been caught out before," she told the girl as Buffy looked at her in surprised admiration.

Buffy snorted before disentangling herself from the covers. "What time is it?" She asked groggily as she stood up.

"Shh," Cordelia tried to quieten her down and glanced around at the other occupants of the Magic Box. "It's nearly dawn," she told her.

Buffy nodded as she wiped the sleep from her eyes. She stood up gracefully and looked round, acknowledging both Tara and Gunn with a nod when she met their eyes. Satisfied that things appeared to be in order, she made her way to the exit. "Come on Cordy, let's go."

 

When Cordelia stepped back into the Recovery Room, she noticed that Faith was still asleep. The colour had returned somewhat to her face and she appeared to be resting comfortably. According to Angel, there had been no trouble at all during the night, the only people to enter Faith's room being the nursing staff who performed regular observations on the girl. The tall Seer peered at the chart at the foot of the hospital bed and tried to make sense of the figures and graphical representation but it meant nothing to her. It was enough to see the steady rise and fall of the dark slayer's chest and see the regular trace of her heartbeat on a monitor high up on a nearby wall.

Angel had left quickly to avoid a toasting in the new morning's sun and hurried back to the Magic Box to see if he could be of assistance with the research into destroying the artefacts. Buffy had stayed outside the room, not wanting to see the rogue slayer in her present state but telling Cordelia that it would be easier for her to remain on guard outside the door. The ex-cheerleader hadn't bought the excuse for an instant but did not want to enter into conflict with the blonde slayer when she could make better use of her time watching Faith.

She sighed as she sat down in the hard plastic chair that was positioned at the side of the Bostonian's bed. She had gone to the rest-room as soon as she had arrived at the hospital to reapply her make-up, wanting to look fresh when Faith finally woke up again but she knew that no amount of concealer or foundation would be able to mask the ravages the last few hours had inflicted on her face. Cordelia knew that she looked terrible and could practically feel the bags under her eyes grow by the second due to lack of sleep, but being in Faith's presence, even if she was unconscious, somehow invigorated her. The taller girl relaxed into the chair, trying to ignore the way it dug into the back of her legs and settled down to wait for Faith to open her eyes again.

The brunette ran her mind over the last night's events and, more specifically, the kiss she had planted on the renegade slayer's lips. Was Tara right? Could she be in a relationship with Faith? She certainly wanted it. Cordelia also knew all about Faith's reputation for being a 'get some, get gone' girl. But she had seen no evidence of that part of her character since her release from prison. Faith had certainly never flaunted any sexual conquests in front of her in L.A. Cordelia quickly dismissed the notion that Faith might just be trying to get into her pants. Though the way she felt at the moment, Cordelia was unsure whether she would be able to stop the girl if that actually was the case. She had never felt so charged by someone else before. She couldn't deny that there was a chemistry between them. It had been slow to emerge, developing from the initial mistrust and uneasy truce between them when Faith was first released, becoming more concrete as their friendship blossomed and they began to trust each other, till now. The thought of having a substantial, long-term relationship with Faith frightened Cordelia. Her last long term partner had been Xander and he had cheated on her with Willow, of all people. Xander wasn't anywhere near Faith's league and the ex-prom queen knew that her feelings for the dark-haired girl ran far deeper than she had ever experienced before. But somehow that made it worse. For if she were betrayed, Cordelia didn't think that she would have the strength to get over it.

The tall Seer sat up suddenly, annoyed for wallowing in such negative thoughts and she shook her head slightly, as if to remove them from her brain. She returned her focus to the sleeping woman before her and allowed herself to openly appreciate the girl's beautiful features, from the wide dark eyes, the long wild tresses of rich brown hair and slim, perfectly proportioned nose to the full lips, her bottom one being slightly dimpled in the centre.

Once again, Cordelia recalled the kiss she planted on Faith's lips. She brought her fingertips up to her own lips as she remembered the tingling sensation that seemed to last long after the kiss had ended. The girl smiled to herself ruefully as she mentally scolded herself once again. How could she have a reaction like that and doubt where she was headed with Faith. She knew it wouldn't be easy. They were both far too prone to masking their feelings and displaying only what others expected of them. They were also both compulsive and quick to anger. Cordelia sat back and wondered if they would have blazing rows. Perhaps, she acceded. But surely the making up would be worth it. As that thought crossed her mind, she couldn't help a lascivious grin show across her face. It was at that moment that Faith chose to wake up.

"Hey C, keep lookin' at me like that and I might not be able to hold myself back." She wiggled her eyebrows impishly and mirrored Cordelia's smile with an equally rakish one.

The ex-cheerleader rolled her eyes, even as she felt her heart pounding. "Oh, please! Last time I kissed you, you fell asleep on me," she retorted, amazed at how she still had the ability to speak when her mouth was pulled into the biggest grin she had ever displayed.

Faith looked at Cordelia as she remembered the fleeting caress from the night before. "And here was me, thinking that I'd dreamt it," she whispered. Before the older girl could react, Faith shot an arm out and grabbed Cordelia's wrist. She pulled the girl from the chair and towards her.

To her chagrin, Cordelia let out a squeal at the sudden movement and as she was yanked closer to the prone girl, had to put out her free hand to steady herself and prevent her body from careering into Faith's. Somehow, she ended up face to face with the renegade slayer, just a few centimetres apart, with her balancing hand on one side of Faith's head, the other hand still clasped in the slayer's and wedged between their bodies that were now touching. She could hear her own breathing coming in rapid gasps that had nothing to do with the unexpected exertion. Her heart rate soared as she could sense a similar reaction in the woman who lay underneath her. "How the hell?" She began, barely having the breath to form the question.

"Slayer healing," Faith interrupted, equally softly. She looked deeply into the hazel eyes of the woman, noticing tiny flecks of gold in her irises even as they gave way to the dilation of Cordelia's pupils. "Tell me I wasn't dreaming," she murmured.

Cordelia brought her lips down and brushed them softly against Faith's. The same tingling sensation flooded through them as she continued the pressure and Cordelia felt desire course through her body, making her body hypersensitive and feel more alive than she had ever felt before.

Faith closed her eyes as she felt Cordelia's lips on hers and relished the sensation. This was a kiss that demonstrated love and desire, not a prelude to a meaningless fuck with a faceless, nameless person using her as much as she used them. She was in deep. So deep, she thought she was drowning, and yet the more it frightened her, the more she wanted to cling onto it. This thing she had with Cordelia was more important to her than anything in her life and she was not going to ruin it or let it go. Not without a fight. She moved her lips slowly, kissing Cordelia's upper lip and then lower lip in turn, tugging on it slightly as the kiss grew.

Cordelia deepened the kiss, running her tongue over the full lips of the Bostonian, and then pushing it into the slayer's mouth as Faith parted her lips to accommodate her. She groaned as she tasted Faith's tongue on hers and relished the sensation. The Seer felt Faith's free hand cup her cheek tenderly before it drifted back to play with the thick tresses of her hair. They explored each other's mouths slowly and sensuously, neither rushing the other as they revelled in the sensations their tongues and lips shared.

It was only the burning sensation in her lungs indicating a desperate need for oxygen that pulled Cordelia away from her exploration. She gasped and opened her eyes as she rested her forehead on Faith's. For a moment they just gazed at each other, unwilling to say or do anything that would break the spell they were under. But as Cordelia heard the door handle moving she sat back and settled herself on the edge of the bed, allowing her hand to remained captured by Faith's. "That was no dream Faith," she assured the slayer, amazed that she was still capable of coherent speech, and used her thumb to wipe away a smudge of lipstick that had smeared across the younger girl's lips.

The door opened to reveal a middle-aged man in a white coat with a bright blue stethoscope slung around his shoulders, standard garb to indicate his status as a doctor. The man's eyes danced jovially behind the large glasses he wore as he took in the scene. He had spent his whole career hiding his sexuality. He was fortunate enough to be in a relationship where his partner understood and respected his decision, knowing that had they revealed their relationship, it would have been virtually impossible for him to have gone so far in his profession despite the public stance of the hospital. To see such an open display of affection delighted him no end and he was also smugly satisfied that his gaydar had been correct the night before. "I do hope Miss Chase, that you're doing nothing to overexcite my patient. She needs rest."

Cordelia could feel every part of her face scorch with embarrassment at the comment. Even her ears felt hot, yet she made no attempt to release her hand from Faith's. Then the ex-prom queen felt her embarrassment reach dangerous levels as she realised that the man was the same surgeon she had spoken to last night, looking very different now that he was no longer wearing scrubs. She had thought that he was much younger last night. Perhaps it was lack of sleep that aged him and she wondered briefly if she looked much older today. The Seer snapped her head round and turned her gaze furiously on Faith as she heard her very unsuccessfully try to hide a snigger.

"What?" The dark slayer asked innocently, earning a slap on the arm. She laughed again.

"And if I find out that you were the instigator, I may find cause to keep you in hospital for longer," the doctor continued, enjoying himself at their expense.

Faith's laughter stopped instantly and she looked in horror at the tall man. Cordelia laughed at the expression on her face and squeezed the girl's hand reassuringly. "I think we've been played," she confided, glancing up at the Doctor who now had a wide smile on his face. She was surprised by his attitude but supposed that not everyone would automatically object to them being together.

"I see I've been found out. I must apologise if I've offended," the Doctor smiled at both girls sincerely.

"I'm only gonna be offended if I have to stay here for long," replied Faith, her face still serious at the idea. "Er, no offence Doc," she added as an afterthought.

"None taken," the tall surgeon replied affably. "Now if you'll excuse us Miss Chase, I need to examine my patient and make a decision on the length of her sojourn here at Sunnydale Memorial."

"Huh?" Faith crumpled her brow in confusion.

"How long you have to stay here," Cordelia explained gently. She squeezed the dark slayer's hand reassuringly before she rose from the bed. "I'll be outside," she told her.

The doctor smiled as the tall brunette strode through the open doorway and he shut the door behind her. "I suspect that despite my previous knowledge of your powers of recuperation, I am going to be surprised at the progress of your healing," the surgeon told Faith conversationally as he drew back the covers and gestured for her to lift up her gown.

"I feel pretty good Doc. I think you did a good job." Faith began her battle for early release immediately. The surgeon merely looked at her with his eyebrows raised before looking carefully at the bandaging covering Faith's abdomen.

The dark slayer allowed the man to unwrap her wound and tried to look over his gentle hands as he carefully examined his work from the night before. To her surprise, his movements were careful and delicate and instead of the pain that she had braced herself for, she only felt a general discomfort as her abdomen was palpated.

The doctor supplemented his perusal with several "U-huhs" that seemed to be directed at no one in particular. Despite his gentle manner, Faith found herself getting irritated by the examination and started to fidget, hoping that he would get the hint and finish.

"Would you mind trying to stay still for just a while longer?" he mumbled absently, not in the least put off by her movement.

The dark slayer sighed loudly but complied, shaking her head slightly as the man continued.

The surgeon stood back up and looked down at the brunette. "I need to send you for another set of x-rays and get some more blood tests done," he began and couldn't help but grin as Faith rolled her eyes and groaned loudly. "Finished?" He asked, raising his eyebrows as the Southie slayer stared at him balefully.

"Just as I was starting to like you," she protested sarcastically.

"I'm touched. Especially as I can see how much you adore being in places like these."

Faith narrowed her eyes at the middle-aged man but couldn't help grinning at him. He just didn't act like a normal doctor, which was perhaps the only reason she was still lying in bed. "So, how long do I have to stay here?" She cut to the chase.

"Well, depending on how quickly the results come back and if I'm satisfied with them," he emphasised his words clearly, "I am prepared to release you this afternoon on the strict proviso that you rest."

"Hoo-fuckin'-ray!" Faith exclaimed, at the same time wondering if she could survive another hour in the hospital, let alone make it all the way till the afternoon.

As if reading her mind the surgeon looked at her carefully as he picked up the note board that had been clipped at the bottom of her bed. "I shall be telling Miss Chase of my recommendations. I suspect that she has a greater ability to persuade you to stay put than I do. I will also ask her to ensure that you do rest if I decide to release you." He grinned at the look of horror on the young girl's face. "I see that I'll be leaving you in safe hands," he smirked as he began to scribble across one of the sheets on the clipboard.

"What about patient confidentiality?" The Bostonian asked.

"She doesn't need to know anything confidential, just my recommendations for extra tests that require my inspection this afternoon," the surgeon retorted smoothly.

Faith suspected that the doctor might well have had experience in dealing with difficult patients before. She had no comeback to that last comment and realised that he had won convincingly. The young brunette flopped back on her bed and groaned again. She might have been able to get away with self-discharging herself this morning but there was no way that was going to happen once Cordelia knew the score. The Seer was the only girl she knew who was more stubborn than she was. Grudgingly, she had to admit that had the tables been turned and it was Cordelia lying in a hospital bed, Faith would ensure that she left the hospital only when the doctors said so, and she'd probably grill the doctors just to make certain that they were sure. There was no point in even attempting to persuade Cordelia that she could leave early. She would just have to wait it out and hope that the doctor saw nothing to extend her stay past this afternoon.

 

Willow stretched languidly and took in her surroundings as she woke up. The initial confusion of her location receded quickly as she recalled snuggling down onto the sofa with Tara a few hours ago. She sat up and rolled her shoulders, trying to work out the stiffness and smiled as Tara looked up from the book she had been immersed in. "Hey."

"Morning, sleepyhead," Tara smiled back.

The red-haired wiccan frowned slightly. "Why are you up so early?"

"It's not that early," Giles called across from the counter.

Willow turned to face him and realised that everyone else was already awake. "Wow, I must have been tired. Why didn't you wake me?" She returned her gaze to Tara.

"You just answered your own question," returned her lover softly. She got up and poured the girl a large cup of coffee and then made her way over towards the sofa.

"Buffy and Cordelia have gone back to the hospital. Angel is here and we've been doing research. You obviously needed to sleep so we left you to it."

Willow was grateful that there seemed to be no residual tension from the night before and yawned before sipping at her coffee. "How have you done so far?"

"Not so well I'm afraid," supplied Wesley. He had awoken in the morning annoyed that Gunn had not called upon him to take watch during the night. However, when the dark man explained that he could grab a few hours rest while everyone else was up to their necks in books, the young Englishman had to acknowledge that he had made a good decision. "As much as we've researched the wording of the spell, we just can't seem to say it fast enough."

Willow frowned in confusion. "Fast enough?" She echoed. "Why should speed make a difference.?"

"The incantation must be evoked whilst burning certain ingredients. They must be spoken before the embers cool," Tara explained.

Her curiosity piqued, the red-haired witch got up from the couch and went over to the table where many books were scattered. "That doesn't make sense," she murmured to herself, her mind ticking away rapidly at the problem.

"I know," Giles agreed readily. "As of yet though, I can find no way round the problem." He polished the lenses of his spectacles to emphasise his frustration.

"There's something simple that we're missing," Wes supplied. Both Willow and Giles looked up at him in surprise. "What?"

"Sorry Wesley," Giles apologised. "Not used to you admitting that you're not infallible, that's all." The older watcher smiled to take the sting from his words.

Wesley raised his eyebrows at the comment before replying. "A fair comment. I've had three years outside of the council influences now though. I tend to take a broader outlook on life."

"The simple thing everyone's missed is the way the incantation is spoken, not how long it takes," Willow spoke up, leaving her fingers part way down the page of an open tome in front of her so that she didn't lose her place.

"What do you mean?" All eyes were on the flame-haired girl now.

"Well, according to this, the invocation must be recited by the three witches holding the three artefacts," Willow began, glancing at the page for reassurance.

"We got that far honey," Tara pointed out.

"But they don't all repeat the whole incantation together," Willow returned. She was met with looks of confusion all round.

"What do they do then, gossip over a cup of coffee?" Xander's first attempt at humour for the day fell on deaf ears but he was quite used to that happening.

"They each recite part of the incantation concurrently." Willow looked round as if the answer was totally obvious and was surprised to find that the looks of confusion remained etched on her friends' faces.

She shook her head and tried again. "Each part of the spell is broken down into three parts and given to a witch to perform. Each witch recites their own part at the same time as the others so the time taken to complete the whole incantation isn't nearly so long. There should be plenty of time to complete the spell before the embers die."

At last she was met with understanding. Well, from the watchers and Tara at least.

"That's brilliant Willow," Giles enthused eagerly. "All we have to do now is work out where the division in the incantations are."

"And that is going to be far harder than you think," Willow told him assuredly. "There's no way these witches would have made it this easy for the incantation to be found if it could be sectioned without any problems."

"Pessimist," accused Tara good-naturedly but she sat down next to Willow heavily. "Best we get to it then," she prompted. Her words spurred the others into action and the other occupants of the Magic Box busied themselves once again with the research.

Unfortunately, Willow's words were well founded and the team struggled to find out how to separate the spell into its correct component parts. They tried splitting it down into equal numbers of words, approximately equal recitation lengths and used the obvious verse breaks but had no point of reference to determine if they were correct in their assumptions.

Anya surprised everyone by finding out that the spell had to be recited by witches of a similar age and the same sex. This ruled out Angel, Giles and Wesley to take the place of the third witch and neither Willow or Tara felt confident about approaching any of their associates at the Wicca circles they often attended. Bringing in someone new was too risky at this important stage. It also meant that it would be down to Anya or Cordelia to learn the third part of the incantation. Willow and Tara couldn't decide who would be the more suitable, the ex-vengeance demon who was predisposed to distraction and her own personal safety, or the ex-cheerleader with whom they'd had no contact with for the last three years but who was remembered as a fashion-absorbed, egocentric sarcastic bitch. In the end, Giles decided that both girls should learn the spell, if and when they finally broke it down correctly and the one who proved the most adept at its recital should take part in the destruction of the artefacts. Willow took great delight in telling the ex-watcher that as it was his plan for both girls to learn the spell, he could have the honour of telling Cordelia what was expected of her when she returned from the hospital. Giles then spent the next few hours uncomfortably anticipating the Seer's reaction to his idea.

The Scoobs and LA gang worked ceaselessly well into the afternoon, determined not to be defeated by the ancient invocation. Xander fulfilled his duty by doing the donut run for them and was glad to get out of the shop for a while and at least contribute something to the operation.

When the door opened again, none of the shop's occupants looked up, expecting it to be Xander returning. Buffy looked round quickly before speaking. "Wow. Totally overawed by the welcome here guys."

Her voice had the desired effect as everyone looked up from their work. "Buffy," Willow exclaimed, glad to see her friend. "How's the psycho?" She frowned as she asked the question, posing it more to gauge the reaction of the blonde slayer than any real genuine concern for the Bostonian.

"Still alive Red," Faith answered as she stepped through the door, followed closely by Cordelia. "You'll have to hate me for a while longer."

The two girls exchanged looks of mutual dislike as Willow stood up. "That won't be a problem," the flame-haired witch retorted. Tara rolled her eyes as she realised that Willow was back at square one regarding her opinion of the dark slayer.

"Willow, I think that Faith has at least done enough for us to give her a chance. If it wasn't for her, we wouldn't have any of the artefacts," Buffy reasoned, approaching the table where Willow had been at work and totally oblivious to the looks of astonishment both Faith and Cordelia were directing at her.

"I can't trust her, Buffy. You're asking too much," her best friend told her candidly.

"I'm not asking you to trust her. Just work with her," explained Buffy carefully. "Angel's explained that Cordelia's vision involved all of us. I think we have to go with that and see what happens."

Willow sat back down in her chair heavily. "Just keep her away from me," she muttered darkly and returned to the open reference book in an effort to switch her train of thought. She felt betrayed by Buffy. Her best friend had let the psycho slayer back in their group and now everything would fall apart again.

Buffy turned back to where the two brunettes still stood. "Are you going to be okay now or do you need to rest?" She asked.

"I'm five by five B," Faith replied easily. "It only hurts when I laugh."

"And there's not much danger of that happening round here is there?" Cordelia interjected sarcastically as she tugged the dark girl towards a vacant couch.

Unfortunately, her comment provoked a stab of laughter from the dark slayer that was promptly followed by a sharp intake of breath as she winced at the pain. "See?"

Cordelia looked round at the girl with concern. "Sorry," she apologised. "Sit down and rest," the Seer ordered, switching to a more authoritative tone.

"Cordy," Faith protested at the instruction.

"Sit!" The Seer accentuated the command with a pointing finger.

"Yes Ma'am," Faith retorted, flipping a salute at the taller girl before obeying her and sitting on the couch. Cordelia had been fussing round her ever since speaking with the doctor that morning and Faith was secretly enjoying both the attention and the proximity of the ex-cheerleader.

Cordelia noticed the insolent look Faith gave her and crossed her arms defensively. "Oh well, perhaps it would be better if you spent another night in the hospital as you obviously don't want me bothering you."

"No, no. It's fine. I'll just sit here and shut up." Faith shook her head at Cordelia as the older girl raised her eyebrows at her and grinned triumphantly. "Bitch."

"I know. And you love me really, so I win on all counts," Cordelia returned and she sat down next to Faith on the couch. The slayer surprised her by grabbing her hand and entwining her fingers through hers. Cordelia looked at the girl expectantly.

"Don't suppose you've got a nurse outfit have you?" Faith asked, lowering her voice suggestively.

Before Cordelia could respond, Giles cleared his throat loudly, attracting their attention. "Well, I for one, am grateful that you're recovering well. But there is still a lot of work to be done I'm afraid."

Faith groaned and laid her head back on the sofa. "Oh, no. Research."

"We've been doing it all day, think yourself lucky," Willow interjected acidly.

Faith levelled her stare at the witch. "Sorry Red. I was excused this morning's class on account of how I was nearly gutted last night." She smiled coldly at the girl and refused to look away as she saw her squirm uncomfortably.

"Er, yes well. It was more Cordelia I was thinking of," the ex- watcher explained.

"Me? What have I got to do?" The Seer was instantly suspicious.

"I need you to recite part of the incantation." Giles thought it would be better to come straight to the point.

Cordelia narrowed her eyes at the Englishman thoughtfully. "I haven't got to do any yucky things with frogs eyes or bat wings have I?" She pulled her face into a delicate moue of disgust at the thought.

"No, no, no. Not at all," the older man hastily reassured her. "All you would have to do is incant the spell. But you need to learn it exactly." He emphasised his last comment carefully.

Cordelia looked at Faith and then at Angel questioningly. He nodded his support before speaking up. "We need three witches of the same sex and similar age to perform the spell."

"I hate to point out the obvious but I'm not a witch," Cordelia replied.

"It doesn't matter in this case," Tara interrupted. "W-willow and I hold enough p-p-power to invoke the spell but it t-t-takes three spell casters to actually perform the ritual. As long as you say the incantation w-word perfect, we can destroy the artefacts."

Once again, Cordelia looked at Faith. The Southie slayer smiled at her reassuringly. "Go for it," she encouraged and released her grip on the Seer's hand.

"You'd better show me what I have to learn then," Cordelia told Giles as she stood up.

Giles winced slightly. "That's where we're having trouble. We're not exactly certain how to divide the incantation up."

The tall ex-cheerleader rolled her eyes. "Great. Does this mean I've got to learn the whole spell?"

"No, I don't think so," Wesley answered. "We were getting closer to a solution when you entered. I think I've finally deciphered where the breaks in the incantation are."

Cordelia crossed the room to join the others but stiffened suddenly. She clutched her head as she felt the vision crash upon her and her legs buckled as agonising pain enveloped her.

Faith was on her feet instantly and caught Cordelia before she fell to the floor. "Come on Cordy, I'm here." She lowered the girl gently to the floor and cradled her head in her lap, pushing a strand of hair behind the Seer's ear. She held onto Cordelia protectively as she continued to deal with the image and pain, stroking her cheek and continuously murmuring words of reassurance to the woman. Instinctively she felt Angel's presence and looked up. "Hey big guy, can you get a glass of water and C's bag?" He nodded and hurried to the task.

By the time he returned, Cordelia had opened her eyes and was breathing shakily. Faith dug around the ex-cheerleader's bag and located her pillbox. She popped a tablet out of the blister pack and handed it silently to Cordelia.

The Seer took the painkiller and swallowed it gratefully. It took a few more moments for her to gather her wits and overcome the pain. She looked round at the concerned faces that crowded her. "It's tonight," she whispered. "He returns tonight."

 

There was a moment of silence as the others absorbed her shaky words. Then Willow frowned and shook her head slightly. "How can that be? We're destroying the artefacts, not raising Varos."

Giles seemed equally baffled. "There must be more to the vision. Describe exactly what you saw," he told the brunette Seer.

Cordelia stared ahead, eyes unfocused as she relived the vision in her mind, not hearing the Watcher's instruction.

"Hey C," Faith gently shook the girl. "You Okay?"

Cordelia pulled her gaze back to the room and looked at the last voice she heard. She flinched when she saw Faith and pulled away slightly.

"What's up Cordy?" Faith was surprised by the ex-cheerleader's reaction to her. She had seemed almost scared of her.

"Nothing, nothing." Cordelia mumbled a denial even as she averted her eyes away from the renegade slayer. "I just need to rest a bit I think."

Faith nodded, trying not to make too much of the taller girl's reaction. She got up off the floor and extended a hand to help Cordelia up.

Cordelia looked at the outstretched hand and followed the limb up to the face of the Bostonian. She stared at the girl for a moment before hesitantly taking Faith's offer of help and rising unsteadily. As soon as she was upright, she extricated herself from Faith's grip and shifted slightly away from the brunette slayer.

Faith frowned and took a step back herself, realising that the girl was uncomfortable about her presence but not understanding why. "Cordelia, what did you see?" She asked slowly.

"I told you what I saw," the older girl snapped back. She sighed and then swallowed in an effort to steady her voice. "I saw all of us in one of the cemeteries. I didn't recognise which one it was." She hesitated and blinked as she tried to find the words to describe her vision. "There was a flash of light or an energy beam. Something like that." The girl shook her head in frustration at the inadequacy of her description. "I saw the demon. He's huge and he's ugly." The Seer swallowed and then looked at the others without managing to look at Faith. "That's all I saw," she insisted. Cordelia swayed slightly as the pain from the vision washed over her again. As the rogue slayer reached out to steady her, she pulled away slightly and instead rested a hand on Angel, who was the next closest to her.

Faith dropped her outstretched arm slowly, unable to stop a look of hurt pass across her features. She noticed the puzzled look from Angel and willed herself to say nothing until Cordelia was ready to say more. There was obviously something the woman was unprepared to share with them, and it quite clearly involved Faith in some way. Judging by Cordelia's reaction so far, the Southie was convinced that her part was not good.

The tall prom-queen leant on Angel as he led her towards the couch. Without instruction she sat down and then swung her legs up on the couch, cradling her head in her arms as she closed her eyes. Faith stood and watched her mutely before staring at Angel helplessly. He shrugged his shoulders, equally confused by the Seer's reaction and exchanged glances with Wes.

"Does this mean that she gets out of having to learn that spell now?" Anya chimed in, oblivious to the atmosphere in the Magic Box.

Wesley stared at the ex-demon incredulously. "You really have no idea what she goes through, do you?"

"Don't bother, Wesley. She had two hundred years of demon activity to mould her character. It's taking time to get Anya to see the more tactful side of life." Giles explained quickly, not wanting to set off a potentially futile exercise in explaining Anya's actions. The younger watcher frowned but accepted Giles' interjection with a nod.

"Cordelia will learn the incantation as well Anya," assured Angel softly. "She just needs some time to rest up."

"Has she ever reacted that way before?" Buffy asked, confused by Cordelia's treatment of Faith.

Angel shook his head. "No, usually she grabs a pad and paper and writes every detail down in the hope that there's a clue in the vision to help us."

"So why not this time? And why was she suddenly so frightened of Faith?" Wesley mused, the crease across his brow deepening. Faith looked at him uncertainly, uncomfortable that he had voiced what she too had picked up on.

"She probably saw her betray us all and join forces with Varos," Willow supplied nastily.

Faith clenched her fists convulsively but did not look at the witch. She returned her gaze towards the woman now lying on the couch with her eyes shut. She had noticed Cordelia react minutely to Willow's statement. "That's what I'm afraid of," she breathed, her lips barely moving.

Buffy was the only one close enough to pick up the comment and she studied the dark slayer carefully, unsure of how to handle her. Faith was hurting deeply. The blonde girl hadn't realised how deep Faith's feelings toward Cordelia were. Initially she had been surprised, believing that the rogue slayer was incapable of any emotion other than hate since coming round from her eight month coma. Her four year absence had quite clearly had a profound affect on her. The older slayer swallowed as she recalled her treatment of Faith since her arrival in Sunnydale. Any offer of help now would surely be rejected. Buffy had hardly been holding out the olive branch of peace since the younger slayer had arrived. If she suddenly started, Faith would become immediately suspicious and Buffy would get nowhere. But Buffy needed to offer her support somehow. Cordelia apparently no longer trusted Faith after seeing something within the vision. After a few moments of indecision, Buffy resorted to a tried and tested method of assistance. "Are you up for some training?"

Faith switched her glance to the older slayer instantly. Initially, she had thought that the offer was a ridiculous one. She had just been released from hospital. When she looked at Buffy's face and saw genuine concern, Faith realised that Buffy was finally giving her some leeway and letting her back in. She smiled wanly at the shorter girl. "I'm not sure that's such a good idea B," she replied carefully, noting the look of disappointment flash across Buffy's face. "I think I'd forget that I ought to be resting," she explained.

Buffy rolled her eyes at her own stupidity. "I'm sorry. I just thought..."

"No, it's okay," Faith interrupted, astonished that she had illicited an apology from the girl. "Maybe we could just do some set routines. Nothing strenuous." She listened intently, waiting for a murmur of objection from Cordelia and tried to stamp down the anguish she felt when she realised that there was none forthcoming. Buffy's voice broke through her reverie and she forced herself to focus on the words being spoken to her.

"No' you're right. You shouldn't be training. It might do some more damage." Buffy kicked herself for not thinking.

Faith looked disappointed for a moment and then turned to look back at the couch where Cordelia still lay. "I don't know what to do," she confessed.

"How about getting out of here for a while?" Buffy suggested. "Give yourself a bit of space to sort your head out."

The rogue slayer shrugged disconsolately. "Yeah. I suppose it's best if I get out of everyone's way."

The older girl shook her head, realising that Faith had misunderstood her. "Come on, let's go for a walk. It'll do you good to stretch those muscles after all that lying around."

Faith looked at the blonde slayer in surprise. She had thought that Buffy had wanted her out of the way until she was needed again. It came as a shock to discover that Buffy was offering to go with her. She nodded her agreement before looking at Cordelia once more. The Seer remained still with her eyes closed, a pale look of pain ghosting across her features and Faith felt her fists clench again in frustration. There was no way she could do anything to resolve the situation until she knew what the problem was. And for the moment, Cordelia was not talking.

Feeling a hand placed gently on her upper arm, she turned and saw Buffy gesturing towards the exit. With a resigned sigh, the Bostonian followed the shorter girl out of the Magic Box, hoping that the time away would help her come up with a solution to the deadlock she was in.

 

Cordelia stirred and groaned as she woke up. She opened her eyes and gazed round the shop carefully. Her head was still pounding despite the painkillers she had taken but it was more tolerable now. The Seer sat up slowly and rubbed her temples in an effort to disperse the remaining tension that sat across her head but it didn't really help. She looked up as her peripheral vision caught movement and she saw Angel approach with a steaming mug of coffee in his hand. He offered it to her silently and the ex-cheerleader took the vessel gratefully, allowing it to warm her hands before taking a tentative sip.

"How are you doing?" Angel asked softly, taking a seat next to his secretary.

"I'm not sure. The vision pretty much took everything out of me," Cordelia confessed. She stared at the contents of her cup, unable to look directly at Angel.

"Are you going to tell me what it's all about?" The dark vampire probed gently.

"I'm not sure that I can," the brunette supplied miserably, her hands tightening convulsively.

"It might help," Angel suggested, pushing a bit more.

Cordelia straightened and sighed before looking round the Magic Box. The witches, Xander and Anya were seated round the table engrossed in one of the many open magic books while Giles and Wesley were up at the counter deep in conversation. Buffy, Faith and Gunn were nowhere to be seen. Satisfied that she wouldn't be overheard, Cordelia stole a quick glance at the brooding vampire and saw the concern etched on his pale features. Coming to a decision, Cordelia took a deep breath and explained. "What I described was all true. I saw Varos rise and huge bolts of energy or something zap round him. You, Buffy and Faith were fighting him physically and Willow and Tara were with me. We were all chanting." The tall girl stopped and swallowed, reluctant to voice the next sentence.

"But you saw some more didn't you?" Angel was careful not to sound too demanding but he felt certain that Cordelia needed a nudge to continue.

Cordelia nodded mutely and stared at her coffee. In a broken whisper she continued. "The next thing I saw was Faith attacking me. She leapt at me and stabbed me." The Seer's voice broke and she felt a hot stream of tears run down her face as she relived the image. "Oh Angel, what am I going to do?" With that she leant into him and began to sob, the anguish taking over her emotions at last. She was dimly aware of a strong arm pulling her in tighter as she continued to cry and Cordelia gripped the vampire's shirt roughly as she clung onto the only bit of support she thought she had.

Angel held the girl in his arms and his mind raced, even as he murmured nonsense words of comfort to the stricken woman. He stroked her hair soothingly as he contemplated what she had revealed. Cordelia's visions were always accurate but they were always open to interpretation. If Faith stabbed Cordelia in her vision then that was going to happen, unless there was a way of preventing it. But it made no sense. Angel knew how much Cordelia meant to Faith and he was even more certain of how Cordelia felt about the slayer. There was no logical reason as to why this would happen and that meant that it would be harder for him to prepare and prevent the events from occurring. He simply refused to believe that Faith would return to her old ways voluntarily. And then suddenly, he leapt to an assumption. Perhaps it was Varos who influenced Faith in some way into behaving irrationally. The demon might be able to put a spell over her or hypnotise her. Faith might have no idea what she was doing. Encouraged by the thought, he sat Cordelia up and wiped the moisture away from underneath her eyes.

"What?" She asked. Her breath was coming in heaving gasps still but she was starting to control it more now that the peak of her emotions had subsided.

Angel quickly surmised his thoughts to the Seer. Cordelia looked at him sceptically but nodded that his explanation might certainly be plausible but then deflected him before he continued. "I have other things to be thinking about."

"What?"

"The spell. In the vision, it was me who was chanting the third part of the spell. I need to sit and learn it."

"Are you sure? Anya seems to be doing okay." Angel looked over to the table in time to see Willow bang her head on the table in frustration and the ex-vengeance demon to push back her chair and storm off towards the back of the shop.

"You were saying?" Cordelia teased. She felt better now that she had heard a number of reasons that could explain away Faith's actions but she was not convinced. However, she couldn't shake the fear the vision had stirred up inside her. Deciding that it would be better to try and concentrate on something else, Cordelia rose unsteadily and moved over to the table. "Have you worked out each part of the spell yet?"

Tara looked up and smiled warmly at the taller girl. "How are you feeling?" She asked.

"I'm not sure at the moment," replied the brunette honestly. "The headache's eased off a bit though."

"Glad to hear it. And in answer to your question, yes we have found the way to divide the incantation," Willow provided. "Unfortunately, Anya has the memory span of a retarded goldfish."

"Willow," Tara remonstrated. "She's just having trouble remembering the exact phrasing," the blonde witch expanded.

"Yes, but paraphrasing the sentence could potentially alter the incantation radically." Willow was unable to keep the scathing tone from her voice.

"Well I hope you can show a little more patience with me," Cordelia returned as she sat down in the seat recently vacated by Anya.

"I've been patient for an hour and a half. There are limits," Willow justified before grinning ruefully at the brunette Seer.

"Have I been asleep that long?" Cordelia was horrified. "What time is it?"

"Nearly 5 o'clock," Tara supplied. "Did your vision give you any clue to what time this is all going to happen?"

The Seer shook her head. "It was dark and it felt late. But it could be any time after night fall sets in."

"Damn, that doesn't leave us much time at all. You up for some learning then?" Willow prodded.

"I don't think I've got a choice," replied Cordelia in a monotone. "Be gentle with me."

Willow grinned. "Would I be anything else?"

Both Cordelia and Tara shook their heads at the red-haired wiccan before settling into learning the incantation.

 

For the first hour of their walk around Sunnydale, Faith remained silent, allowing her own thoughts to rage through her head, uncomfortable with the idea of sharing her insecurities with the older slayer. Buffy walked with her and did nothing to break the silence, not wanting to push the Bostonian into anything she did not want to do. The two women walked some areas slowly but went through the parks at a gentle jog, easing down to a fast walk as Faith began to feel her muscles pulling around the site of her injuries. The second time they slowed down, she glanced at the blonde girl. "So why are you with me B?"

"Thought you could do with some company," returned Buffy honestly, before adding, "and I didn't want you getting your ass kicked again."

Faith snorted mirthlessly. "Damn that thing was one tough bitch. I'd love to get my hands on her and return the favour."

"I'm sure you'll get the chance."

"Hope so." Faith hesitated and stopped walking. "What if Willow's right?" She asked suddenly.

Buffy looked steadily at the younger girl. This was crunch time. If she didn't supply the right answer, Faith could well run again. "I don't know," she answered candidly. "But until Cordelia tells you exactly what she saw, all your thoughts are just supposition."

"You saw how she reacted to me B," Faith returned. "She sure as hell didn't see me setting up a picnic did she?"

"Something's spooked her, that's for sure," agreed the shorter girl. "But until we find out what it is, we can't deal with it. Maybe she saw something and interpreted it wrong. We just don't know."

"Yeah, but it's all this not knowing that's driving me crazy." Faith looked and saw a sudden look of concern flit across the blonde slayer's complexion. "Figure of speech B," she explained, realising how her words could be misconstrued.

Buffy nodded. "Yeah, but see how I just took that? Supposing it's the same for Cordy?"

"We're going round in circles here girlfriend," Faith reminded Buffy but felt strangely comforted by Buffy's words.

"Just hang in there Faith. You care about Cordelia and she obviously cares about you. This could all just be a stupid misunderstanding and I'm sure we'll get it sorted."

Faith nodded. "I hope so B," she confided. "I just don't want to lose her without knowing the reason why."

"You won't," the blonde girl reassured. "Ready to go back yet?"

"Nah, I'd like to do a bit more if that's okay."

"Fine by me. The longer we're out here, the less time I have to stare aimlessly at a book." Buffy smiled.

"Now that makes sense. Come on," Faith urged and they began to jog through the next park.

 

Cordelia proved to be surprisingly adept at learning the words but was more faltering at saying them in the correct sequence or at the same tempo as Tara and Willow. However, they continued to practise, taking random chunks of the incantation at a time in order not to inadvertently recite the whole spell when they weren't ready to. Cordelia was able to recite her part parrot fashion within an hour.

The girls sat back and looked at each other in satisfaction. "Impressive Cordy," Willow complemented.

"Thanks, I wasn't sure I could do it myself," the brunette admitted.

"So it's just a question of finding out when this all happens now then," Tara supplied.

"I think it's rather down to us," Giles commented from the counter.

"What do you mean?" Willow asked.

"According to this tome, the destruction spell is a continuation of the summoning spell. I rather suspect that we have to raise Varos before we can destroy the artefacts."

"Were those witches totally insane?" Wondered Tara.

"Probably," concurred Wesley with a wry smile. "Although it's more likely that they used a similar spell as they simply didn't have time to come up with an alternative. Besides, the power from the summoning is immense. The final part of this incantation is a channelling of that power so that the artefacts can be destroyed."

"In other words, once we start the incantation, we can't stop otherwise we summon Varos ourselves." Tara frowned as she contemplated the gravity of the situation.

"Bummer of a second prize," supplied Xander gloomily. He had given up on trying to console Anya, who now seemed content on counting out the profits from the till for a second time that day.

"We just have to be prepared to ensure that you aren't interrupted once you begin," Angel told the girls confidently.

"So," Willow turned to Cordelia. "Are you going to tell us why you went all freaky on Faith?"

Cordelia blinked at the sudden change of topic. "It doesn't matter now," she replied carefully.

"Yes it does," refuted the redhead. "I don't want you losing your concentration and ruining the incantation," she justified her probing.

Cordelia rubbed her eyes tiredly. "I just saw something that I'm a little uncomfortable about that's all."

"I knew it. She does betray us," the wiccan crowed triumphantly.

"No she doesn't," Cordelia denied vehemently. "It has nothing to do with you."

"Well, come on Cordy. What was it?"

Cordelia squirmed uncomfortably but remained reticent.

"Does it have something to do with Faith?" Tara asked gently. The tall Seer nodded but stayed silent.

"Well don't you think that she at least ought to know what you saw? If she's in danger she should be told," Tara's compassion animated her words.

"It wasn't Faith who was in danger." Cordelia was beginning to feel a little cornered.

"Then who? You've got to tell her Cordelia. It wouldn't be fair of you not to," Tara pointed out.

Cordelia looked at the blonde witch sharply. "Fair? How can I be fair? How on earth can I tell her that I saw her attack and stab me?" She blurted.

"You just did."

At the sound of Buffy's voice, Cordelia span in her chair and looked towards the door in time to see Faith turn and walk back out.

 

Cordelia stared at the departing form of the dark slayer for a second in numbed shock. She had never meant for Faith to hear about her vision in that way. "Shit," she swore at herself in disgust and rose from the chair. The Seer hurried to the door but was blocked by an irate blonde slayer.

"Way to go, Cordelia. I don't think you could have told her in a more damaging way."

"I wasn't intending to tell her that way. She wasn't supposed to overhear that," Cordelia retorted.

"How were you going to tell her then? Send her a singing telegram?" Buffy's eyes shone angrily.

"Get out of my way Buffy. I need to explain things to her." Cordelia ignored the sarcasm from the shorter girl and tried to push past Buffy but the blonde stood solidly in her way.

"Give her some space. You've done enough damage for the day." Buffy was furious with the taller girl for revealing the reason behind her stand-offish behaviour in such a mindless way.

"Cut the crap Miss Holier-than-thou," Cordelia spat back. "Since when did you get off being my conscience? You need to sort out your own first."

"What the hell is that supposed to mean?" Buffy's voice rose incredulously.

"Well I'm hard pushed to name anyone who's been less supportive than you. What was it now," Cordelia drummed her long, tapered fingers on her chin in a parody of thinking. " 'If you tell me you're sorry I'll beat you to death'? And then not a single moment of contact since. Sounds like the perfect example of true friendship and trust to me."

"She threatened my mother, and my friends. You can't blame me for being upset with her." The blonde slayer lowered her voice to an aggressive growl.

"But I can blame you for being totally selfish and insensitive and for holding her crimes against her for four years. And I can blame you for not giving her a chance to prove that she's changed during the time she's been back." Cordelia had gone past caring how her words would affect the other girl.

The blonde slayer felt the barb sink home but chose to ignore it and switched tacks. "I'm not the one running after her at the moment. How do you think she'll react when you run up to her all angry? She'll just think you're venting at her," Buffy shot back, still barring the ex-cheerleader's exit.

"Listen very closely Buffy," Cordelia snarled, her self-anger finding a very convenient outlet suddenly. "If you don't let me pass, then slayer or no slayer, I'm going to kick your ass into Nebraska. I will not abandon Faith to her own insecurities the way you did."

Buffy was unimpressed and snorted derisively. "More like you want to explain your behaviour away. Got your excuses ready? Do you know how much damage you've done?"

"About four years less damage than you. At least I had the courage to move on and see Faith for who she is now. You and your cronies have just spent the last two days reminding Faith of how she used to be and how you'll always perceive her to be. I won't let Faith think that I don't trust her. And she will think that if you don't get out of my way." Cordelia raised her height as much as she could and stared intently at the slayer. Buffy leaned back slightly, shocked at the venom lacing Cordelia's words. The logic behind them registered with the blonde girl and she lowered her arm slowly and stood to one side.

Cordelia sighed deeply. "Thank you," she remarked sarcastically and moved to leave the Magic Box.

"Cordelia, you lied to us," Willow spoke up from where she now stood by the table. "You said that Faith didn't betray us."

The brunette girl span round to face her accuser. "She doesn't betray you."

"Sounds pretty much like a change of sides to me," Willow challenged, crossing her arms. Her eyes were getting ominously dark.

"In my vision, she attacked me. No one else. Just me." Cordelia's voice rose slightly as she justified her earlier defence of the rogue slayer.

"Still a betrayal," Willow pointed out acidly.

Cordelia rolled her eyes in frustration. "I didn't tell you because I knew that you'd all jump to conclusions pretty much like you just have done."

"Not really a big leap to take though is it?" Xander countered. "There isn't much to get confused over."

"Look," Cordelia could feel her anger rising again. "I haven't got time to discuss all this with you. I'm going to find Faith and sort out the mess I've just created and then we are going to come back in here and make plans for destroying the artefacts." She stared balefully at the shop's occupants, daring them to object to her proposal. When she was met with an astonished silence, she stepped past Buffy and left the shop quickly.

 

As soon as she was outside, Cordelia scanned the horizon to get a clue as to the direction Faith had set off in. When she could see no sign of her, she pulled her vision in to scour the local area and her eyebrows shot up in surprise to see the rogue slayer sat on a park bench just a few hundred yards from the shop. Taking a calming breath, Cordelia strode purposefully towards the girl.

Faith gave no indication that she heard the Seer's approach and continued to stare into some faraway spot in the distance.

Cordelia looked at the girl carefully, trying to decide whether to sit down or not. "Faith?" she prompted softly. Getting no response from the younger girl, Cordelia sat down next to Faith and looked out at the vista in front of her, wondering what it was that had caught Faith's attention. The sun had set some time ago and everything was a shadowy grey. Seeing nothing remarkable, Cordelia steadied herself and began again. "Faith?"

"What's up Cordy?" Faith remained stock-still and her voice was neutral.

"I'm sorry you heard about my vision that way. I wanted to tell you but I needed to sort my head out about it first. I spoke with Angel and he reminded me that my visions could be interpreted in a number of ways. Then, Willow and Tara were badgering me about what I'd seen and it all just slipped out." The tall brunette paused for breath and took a long glance at Faith as she wondered when it was that she had started channelling Willow. The Bostonian remained silent and motionless, without a flicker of emotion across her face. Cordelia swallowed convulsively, feeling her throat constrict with anxiety. "I'm so sorry Faith. Please believe me. I'd never think that you could stab me."

Faith looked at Cordelia so suddenly that it made the ex-cheerleader jump back involuntarily. "Really? That wasn't the impression I got."

"Faith..."

"Don't say anything more Cordy. I trusted you with my feelings. I allowed myself to believe that maybe someone actually felt something for me." Faith switched her gaze away from the older girl as she felt an unwelcome pinpricking behind her eyes that were a prelude to tears and she was determined not to cry in front of the other girl. "Every time I trust someone, I get screwed over. Shit, I ought to have learnt by now." Faith shook her head as she mulled over the situation again.

"You can trust me," Cordelia protested, hearing her voice crack and feeling hot tears burn down her cheeks.

Faith snorted derisively. "Really? From the sound of your vision, I can't even trust myself."

"There has to be an explanation," Cordelia reasoned.

Faith looked back at the Seer incredulously. "Of course there's an explanation. I go bad again and end up gutting you. Sounds pretty simple to me."

Cordelia closed her eyes at the reminder of the vision. "Do you want to go bad again?" she asked softly.

"Doesn't look like I have much choice does it?"

"Do you want to go bad again?" Cordelia raised her voice as she repeated the question.

"Of course I don't want to go bad. You, of all people, shouldn't have to ask that of me."

Cordelia smiled wanly. "I'm not asking it for my benefit. I'm asking it for yours. Listen to yourself Faith. You don't want to go bad. I know that you mean that. Perhaps what happens is something you have no control over."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

The tall ex-prom queen was relieved to have found a way to get her point across. "Think it through. Perhaps Varos is powerful enough to hypnotise you or subject you to his will. Your actions could be influenced by something you can do nothing about."

Faith looked at Cordelia carefully. "You don't get it do you?" The rogue slayer saw confusion wash over the taller girl's visage and smiled humourlessly. "It doesn't matter how or why it happens. What matters, no sorry, what mattered a while ago, was that you thought that it could happen at all. I would have put my life on the line for you Cordelia and there's no way in Hell that I would ever harm you. But you seem to think I can.."

"Faith, I only thought that because I saw it in my vision," Cordelia interrupted, desperate for Faith to believe her.

"Bullshit Cor. It was only when Angel suggested a reason behind it that you actually started doubting."

Faith flicked her hair over her shoulder and shot her trademark grin at the Seer. "And that's the bit that really hurts. Or it would if I cared anymore."

Cordelia gasped. Seeing the rogue slayer's reaction reminded her acutely of when the girl had sided with the Mayor. Cordelia could practically see the walls being raised. Willing herself not to believe that the dark slayer had reverted back so far, the Seer pursued the topic. "Faith, that vision zoned me out. I wasn't thinking straight for a long time."

"Yeah, whatever. Like I said, it doesn't matter anymore."

"What? Why the hell not?"

"Because as soon as we've wiped this bastard demon out, I'm cutting loose. I'm gonna get out of your hair. It was a mistake for me to hang around this long anyway." Faith couldn't bring herself to look at the woman she thought she loved.

"You're running?" Cordelia couldn't help the accusatory tone lacing her words.

"Wouldn't say that exactly. There isn't much to run from except a lot of hate and mistrust. I can pretty much manage all that by myself." Faith narrowed her eyes at the ex-cheerleader, waiting for the comeback.

The taller girl closed her eyes for a brief second. "I don't want you to leave Faith," she whispered, not knowing what else to say to get through to the younger woman.

Faith grinned at Cordelia as she stood up. "It's not your decision Twinkie." She turned and started walking back towards the Magic Box. "Come on," she called over her shoulder. "The quicker we get this over with, the sooner I can ditch this shit hole."

Cordelia clenched her fists and concentrated on the pain she generated in the palm of her hands in an effort to prevent the tears from falling. One stupid sentence had destroyed the bond between them. Faith had withdrawn into her own protective shell once more and the Seer knew that it was going to take a massive effort to break through in order to mend the damage she had caused. So she decided to go on the offensive. "Chicken," she muttered as she stood up.

Faith stopped mid-stride and turned round slowly. "What did you call me?"

"You heard. You're taking the easy option again. And I never thought you would."

"You don't know jack!" Faith spat back, stepping back towards the Seer.

"I know that you've spent the last two days running round wanting people to believe that you've changed. I know that it's hurt you deeply that Buffy, Willow and Xander have been treating you appallingly. And I know that you're treating me the same way by not allowing me a chance to make things right."

Faith gasped as the words sunk in.

Cordelia took a tentative closer to the slayer. "I also know that you do care. Because otherwise you wouldn't be standing here right now," she whispered.

The Bostonian's mind was reeling. When Cordelia revealed her vision in the Magic Box, it had underlined to Faith that she hadn't really changed. All her efforts whilst in prison and since had been for nothing. It horrified her that she could revert so totally as to harm Cordelia, the first person since her Watcher who had genuinely cared for her. She had stormed out of the shop in an effort to distance herself from everyone else but could go no further than a nearby bench where she had sat down and tried to imagine stabbing Cordelia. The bizarre thing was that no matter how hard she tried, the dark slayer just couldn't see it in her mind's eye. But if Cordelia had seen it happen, then it would. Faith was going to go back to her old ways of deceit and murder. Coming to that conclusion, the brunette had erected her old walls and assumed her old persona so that by the time the Seer had found her, Faith had already decided to take it out on her.

Now, somehow, Cordelia had managed to find a way through. Her words echoed in Faith's mind and allowed her the one thing she thought she had just lost forever. Cordelia had once again given her hope. Hope that the changes she had started in prison weren't superficial. Hope that she wasn't irrevocably evil. And hope that she could learn to let someone in enough to care about them deeply. She wasn't quite back at square one anymore. But it was still a long and rocky road. The Southie mentally smiled at the expression, recalling the first of Angel's many visits to see her at the prison.

She looked at Cordelia and studied her features for a moment, only realising that she had been staring when she noticed the taller girl begin to fidget under her scrutiny. "You've got your chance C. But we haven't got time to do this now. Let's get the fight out of the way first."

Cordelia let out the breath she hadn't realised she'd been holding and before either of them knew what she was doing, stepped forward and pulled Faith into a hug. "Thank you," she murmured into the younger girl's hair. She smiled as she felt Faith's arms snake tentatively round her and return the pressure briefly. The Seer stood back from the embrace, missing the feel of the renegade slayer immediately. "Come on then. Let's not keep him waiting."

Faith nodded and turned back towards the Magic Box feeling better, but she still had a deep-rooted sense of foreboding over what was about to happen. She had no idea how she was going to prevent herself from attacking Cordelia but she was going to have to come up with some sort of plan in the event that she did.

Cordelia hurried after the brunette slayer also feeling hopeful. Somehow, she had managed to break through Faith's defences. What she had to do next was get the slayer to trust her again.

As she stepped through into the shop, Cordelia felt a strange sense of dj vu. The scoobs had wasted no time and were already interrogating Faith.

"I don't know what Cordy saw. You probably know more than me," Faith told Willow tiredly.

"I doubt that. You've probably already signed a pact with the demon and have a plan to deliver the artefacts straight to him." Willow spat back, feeling perfectly justified in her behaviour toward the rogue slayer since her return to Sunnydale now that her true nature had been revealed once again.

"I haven't done anything. I'm here to fight the demon. I have no idea why Cordelia saw what she saw but I have no intention of betraying anyone."

"Yeah, but if you kill Cordelia during the spell recitation and break it Varos will rise," Xander leapt in, relishing the opportunity to put the boot in..

"Then you'll just have to make sure that I don't kill her." Faith's voice was barely audible but everyone fell silent as her words sunk in.

"I didn't see her 'kill' me," Cordelia protested.

Willow snorted derisively. "Didn't your vision go as far as the Emergency Room then?"

"Willow!" Tara chided. "We have to look at this all carefully. There has to be a reason why Faith does whatever it is she does."

Xander snorted. "Well that's fairly self-evident..."

"Xander," Buffy and Cordelia warned him with icy coldness. The construction worker took the hint and halted his sentence.

Faith stared at Xander for a moment and then looked at Cordelia as she continued. "None of you have any reason to believe what I'm about to say. You can only accept my word, and I know my word means nothing to you all."

"Glad to know that you've managed to pick up something while you've been here."

Tara looked at her lover with a shocked expression. Every time she thought that Willow might start to see reason with Faith, something happened to veer her right off course again.

The rogue slayer ignored all the reactions surrounding her as she continued, at last coming up with a contingency to combat Cordelia's vision. "I swear I will not betray you willingly and I'm asking you, Angel to kill me if I do." The slayer switched her focus to the reticent vampire that looked stunned at the request. Faith's dark eyes pleaded with him for understanding.

"Faith, I'm not sure I could," he hedged quietly.

"I could," Willow volunteered coldly, her arms crossed defiantly over her chest.

"You'll be too busy with the incantation otherwise I would have asked you," Faith told her, and was grimly satisfied to notice a look of surprise ghost across the redhead's features.

"Then I'll do it," Gunn offered, having stepped out from the back of the Magic Box. "If that's what you want Faith."

The two looked at each other and nodded in silent understanding.

"Wait a minute," Cordelia interjected, aghast at what had just transpired. "There must be another way."

"Not for me Cordelia. I couldn't live with myself if I hurt you so I'd rather be killed if I attempted it. Both your visions have had me there at the final battle so there's no point planning on me being put somewhere else. All we can do is ensure that I don't hurt you." Faith kept her voice toneless and showed not a flicker of emotion towards the taller girl that was totally at odds with the words she had spoken.

"There must be something else we can do," the Seer insisted.

"Sounds perfectly reasonable to me," Willow countered.

"And me," Xander agreed.

"Will you two listen to yourselves for one minute." Tara practically shouted at her lover and the construction worker. The shop fell into an amazed silence. Tara looked furiously at Willow and Xander. "Start listening to yourselves," she repeated, her voice slightly more controlled. "How dare you continue to think of Faith as 'evil' or 'psycho' when you have both just advocated her murder."

"Hey, I didn't say murder," Willow protested. Xander nodded rapidly in agreement.

Tara shook her head, refuting their response. "There's no need to go into the semantics of this. You offered to kill her Willow. And you both think that it's okay for someone else to kill her. And you're accusing her of being evil?"

"Wait up, Blondie," Faith interjected softly. "They were just popping off shots at me. It's nothing I don't deserve."

Tara turned quickly to look at the brunette slayer. "You most certainly don't deserve it, Faith. Your actions while you have been in Sunnydale have been exemplary, without exception..."

"Wait a minute, what about Cordelia's vision?" Xander jumped in hurriedly.

"She hasn't done what Cordelia saw," Tara pointed out logically.

"Yet," added Willow.

"She might not do it at all. Cordelia has said that her visions can be open to interpretation, but at the moment, you're missing the point," the blonde witch continued, a tone of exasperation creeping into her voice.

"The point being is that we have been judging Faith for what she did in the past and not for what she's done now," Buffy stated. Tara nodded in agreement. The older slayer took a step towards her oldest friends. "We can't keep doing that. If you want to be wary, that's not a problem. No one's asking you to be friends with her. But start treating as you find. Or how can we expect her to treat us any differently?"

There was an awkward silence in the Magic Box for a few seconds. "Finally, someone sees sense," Angel muttered as he stepped forward. He hugged Buffy briefly. "Thank you," he murmured into her hair. They stood back from each other and Buffy smiled.

"It took long enough," she commented, berating herself mildly.

Angel nodded and then turned to face Faith. "You understand about the killing thing, right?" He whispered softly.

Faith nodded. "Yeah, Soul boy. I understand. Don't hate me for asking though."

Angel shook his head and pulled the girl into a brief hug.

"Have we all finished arguing now?" Giles spoke up from the counter. Getting general agreement all round he continued. "I think the best course of action is to get this all over and done with as soon as possible. The weapons cupboard is open. Everyone make sure that you're well equipped. Willow, Tara and Cordelia," he looked at each girl in turn. "Come and collect an artefact. You'll be holding it for the duration of the incantation. They have to be cast into the dying embers on completion of the recitation in order to destroy them. Anya, pick up the cauldron and ingredients." The tall English watcher waited for the ex-vengeance demon to protest and was surprised to see her hurry over and begin doing as he asked.

Cordelia, Willow and Tara approached the counter slowly and stared at the artefacts. Without even looking at each other, they reached for a statuette each, and were surprised when they all selected a different piece.

Wesley grinned at their choices. "Remarkable," he uttered softly.

"What?" Demanded Cordelia, feeling suddenly exposed and wondering over the significance of her choice.

"Each artefact has it's own strengths and merits. It would appear that you have all gone for the one closest to your own persona."

"What do you mean?" Tara was fascinated.

Wesley's smile broadened warmly. "Tara, you selected the gold artefact. Gold is pure and treasured universally. It is a symbol of wealth, not in the fiscal sense, but in the meaning of trust, love and stability." The rest of the shop all secretly agreed that Tara couldn't have been a better choice for the gold artefact and the blonde girl blushed furiously at the description.

Wesley turned to Willow. "Jade is mysterious and has hidden depths. It is rare and multicoloured, even in it's purest form. It has many facets and is a powerful and strong emblem that holds great mystical strength." Willow realised that Wesley was referring to both her light and dark magic skills and was honest enough to admit to herself that he was quite accurate in his summation.

"Cordelia, the Yew is a tree that has deep and solid roots. More of it lives underneath the surface than anyone ever realises. It protects silently and thanklessly, and it stands tall and proud, a distinctive and beautiful tree."

The Seer stared at the ex-watcher as if he'd gone completely mad for a moment. Then the sentiment of his statement sunk in and she nodded at the dark-haired man. "You added that bit about beauty and distinctiveness yourself," she accused, smiling.

"And who could blame me?" Wesley smiled back. "But we have work to do so let's get focused."

"Where are we going to perform this rite then?" Buffy asked, hefting a double-sided axe over her shoulder.

"Well, as Cordelia mentioned a cemetery, I'm guessing in one of them," Giles answered vaguely.

"Which one?" Buffy pursued.

"It's probably a good idea to use one that's a bit more out of the way on the outskirts of town," Angel suggested.

"I agree. There are already too many people mixed up in this. There's no need for anyone else to get involved," Faith added.

"Everyone ready?" Buffy glanced round the shop and got a sea of nods in response. "Let's do it then."

 

The group inspected the graveyard carefully for vamps and any other unwanted nasties before they selected an open area towards the centre of the cemetery and set the cauldron down.

Cordelia looked nervously towards Faith who was limbering up with a large broad sword.

The rogue slayer turned round and met Cordelia's gaze. She finished her sword swing and lowered the blade before moving over to where the Seer stood near the cauldron. "You okay?" She asked softly.

"Not really," the ex-cheerleader answered honestly. "I will be once this is over with and I've sorted things out with you."

Faith shook her head slightly. "Don't get caught up in all that. Just concentrate on the incantation. Worry about that when the time comes." In the back of her mind, Faith had already decided that the time would never come. For some reason lost on her, she would attack Cordelia and Gunn would kill her. All Faith hoped was that he was fast enough to prevent her doing any damage and Cordelia would be safe. Having to deal with what had transpired between the Seer and herself was unlikely ever to happen.

Cordelia smiled wanly. "All right. But I won't forget that you agreed to talk everything through."

Faith stepped away and joined Angel and Buffy, standing on a grassy verge nearby.

The tall Seer watched the girl leave and then turned to the two witches.

"Ready?" Willow asked, taking the lead in the incantation as she was by far the most powerful witch. Both Tara and Cordelia nodded and Willow looked over to where Giles was standing. She raised her hand to acknowledge that they were about to start and then all three girls moved to surround the cauldron. Gunn, Wes and Xander were in position on the other side of the witches and Cordelia. Xander looked round nervously, amazed at how relaxed both Gunn and Wes appeared to be. "How can you just stand there like that?"

"Getting all twitchy just wastes energy," Gunn told him. "It took me ages to train Wes, but he's come round to my way of thinking too now."

Wes turned sharply towards the black man. "Actually, I've gone past the nervous fidgety stage," he confided. "I'm now at the petrified, motionless stage." His words did nothing to ease Xander's anxiety.

Anya stepped forward and caught Willow's attention. At the redhead's signal, she threw the ingredients into the already hot cauldron and withdrew quickly as they began to smoulder and burn.

Willow looked at Tara and Cordelia and then began the incantation. Immediately, Cordelia could feel a surge through her body and assumed that Willow and Tara were sharing their magical abilities with her. She was momentarily put off, but continued confidently when she saw a reassuring look from the blonde witch.

All three women continued the recitation, raising their voices instinctively as they continued. Around them, the wind was starting to build up and the temperature dropped.

"Why is it that whenever a spell is performed, there are loads of special effects?" Faith wondered.

Buffy shrugged. "Probably nature protesting," she suggested philosophically, causing Angel to look at her in surprise. "What? I'm not all shopping malls and stakes you know."

Suddenly, their faces were lit up by a massive streak of lightning, tearing the sky apart. All three of them looked at the girls surrounding the cauldron but could now barely hear their voices. The wind was howling round them, and with it, icy droplets of rain were stinging onto exposed areas of skin.

"Not exactly California weather," Xander yelled as he pulled his thin jacket round him more tightly.

"I just hope the flame doesn't go out," Anya shouted, having joined them after completing her part in the incantation.

"It won't," reassured Wesley confidently. "It's a magical flame."

Lightning continued to illuminate the group but the witches and Cordelia barely noticed it's existence. Cordelia had felt the pull of magic from Tara and Willow but as the recitation went on, she began to experience the power of the magic she was invoking course through her body. It was intoxicating in its power and the Seer began to channel that power into the words she recited. She noticed the look of surprise that ghosted across Willow's and Tara's faces and realised that she was performing magic in her own right now. Now more determined than ever to get the recitation performed correctly, the ex-cheerleader focused her thoughts as she reeled out the incantation.

The static electricity build up was rising exponentially now, and Giles realised that they were nearing the part of the spell that actually invoked Varos. He hoped that he had interpreted the text books correctly. Varos would rise but exist only for as long as it took for the incantation to be completed. A minute or two at most. However, the ex-watcher fretted over how much damage the powerful demon mage would inflict in that short time and knew that he would focus on the witches in order to prevent the rest of the recitation taking place. He looked round at the others and then yelled at them. "Ready yourselves. As soon as he's here, you must distract him and stop him from harming Willow and the others." Despite the howling wind, the others heard him and nodded grimly.

There was a massive bolt of blue lightning towards the north of the cemetery, followed by a loud keening wail. Everyone, bar the witches and Cordelia, turned to see the originator of the sound and looked up to see that Varos had indeed risen.

He stood at least nine feet tall, broad and well muscled, with a blue tinge colouring his smooth skin. Long dark hair was pulled into a rough ponytail and his eyes burnt an evil yellow. In his right hand he held a great scimitar and was already sweeping it round him. In his left hand, he held a long wooden staff.

Without waiting for him to move, Buffy charged towards him. Her movement jolted everyone else into action and she was quickly followed by Faith and Angel.

Varos noticed the three humans closing the distance between them and pointed his staff towards them. Suddenly a piercing wand of blue energy crackled through the staff and shot towards his attackers.

The ground exploded around Buffy, Faith and Angel and they found themselves tossed onto the floor. Instantly they were back on their feet and suddenly were within striking distance of the demon. Readying their weapons, the slayers and vampire set upon him, realising even as the first blows struck that their efforts were hardly affecting him.

Xander, Gunn and the two watchers stepped forward and were about to attack Varos, when they were surrounded by demons themselves. Suddenly, two minutes was going to seem like infinity as they hacked away at Varos' soldiers, determined to keep them from Cordelia, Willow and Tara.

Cordelia was dimly aware of the tumult going on around them. She tried not to think about how the others, and especially Faith, were doing. They were in the last stretch of the incantation now. Another minute and Varos would be forever vanquished, along with the artefacts.

Suddenly, she spotted movement headed directly towards her. Almost in slow motion, she turned, automatically continuing the recitation in spite of what she was seeing. Faith was sprinting towards her, a long silver sword primed in her hand. Cordelia almost laughed as she saw her own expression reflected on the mirror sunglasses the rogue slayer was wearing. She never realised that she could look so totally horrified and yet still manage to continue the incantation. And she knew with a cold certainty that the blade would enter her before she managed to complete the recitation.

 

Buffy found herself flying through the air and realised that she had lost count of how many times that had happened since she had engaged Varos in the fight. She could feel her muscles and bones protest at the rough landing, and they objected once again as she picked herself up and ran back towards the demon. Nothing she had done appeared to have harmed him at all. She felt like she had been put through a mincemeat grinder. There wasn't a single part of her that didn't feel crushed or bruised. Varos looked as fresh as when he had first risen.

As she launched herself at the blue skinned enemy once again, she saw Angel fly to one side and land in a crumpled heap. If she had the time, she would have winced for him but she was too busy trying to avoid the energy bolts Varos had decided to aim at her.

The last time Buffy had seen Faith; the brunette slayer had dived out of the way from one of Varos' energy bolts. She hadn't been quite fast enough and caught a glancing blow to the side of her head. As the younger slayer got to her feet, she had staggered drunkenly before looking back to where the witches and Cordelia were stationed.

Buffy saw her suddenly start to sprint towards the chanting girls and her stomach lurched. Perhaps Cordelia's vision was going to come true. However, before the blonde girl had an opportunity to try and stop Faith, she found herself fighting for her life against Varos' massive scimitar. Within seconds, she had forgotten about Faith's departure, parrying blows from Varos with her own sword and hoping that it and she could hold out under the barrage. Fortunately, Angel distracted Varos just enough to give the blonde slayer a few seconds breathing space and between them, the vampire and his ex-lover alternated attacks, prolonging the defence of the witches for as long as possible.

Xander was sweating. The demons he was fending off were some of the toughest fighters he'd ever faced. He chanced a quick look to where Buffy and Angel were fighting and realised that he would get no help from the slayer or vampire. Gunn and Wesley had stood side-by-side, defending each other's blind spot as well as attacking the demons methodically and clinically. Xander had been surprised at the change in Wesley. The nervous, stuttering ex-watcher had all but disappeared and in his place was a focused and skilled fighter.

However, with the two colleagues from Los Angeles looking out for each other, Xander was left with no one to guard him and he was beginning to struggle under the onslaught. The dark-haired construction worker could feel himself back up and lose ground to the demons, closing the gap between them and the cauldron where Willow and the others continued to chant. What was worse was that the demons could sense that he was the weak link in the defence and were beginning to concentrate their attack on him and began to ignore Wesley and Gunn, despite their aggressive attacks.

Something to one side caught his attention and he glanced round to see Anya making her way towards him, a short sword in hand and a look of grim determination on her face. "It won't take much longer. Just keep hitting them," she advised, swinging wildly at an unsuspecting demon and managing to sever a vital part of its blood supply in its head. The demon spun off to the side, hissing in pain as it began to melt, its fate already decided.

Xander swallowed and then grit his teeth. Fighting for his own cowardly hide was bad enough, but there was no way he would let Anya get hurt. Following up the ex-vengeance demon's initial attack, he incapacitated the demon behind the dying one and then turned to take on the next foe, glad that he had his girlfriend to back him up.

Gunn saw Faith sprint towards Cordelia and the two witches. His stomach lurched as he realised that he might have to come good on his promise to kill the Bostonian should she attack Cordelia. The young man wouldn't renege on the deal though. He respected Faith far too much for that to happen. Unfortunately, Varos' minions currently hemmed him in and he wasn't sure if he could get past them and up to Cordelia in time to save her. He looked round anxiously for a weak spot in the hoard and then yelled at his fighting partner. "Wes, we have to get to Cordelia. Looks like her vision was true. Let's drive a wedge through these bastards."

The young watcher looked towards the witches and saw Faith running towards them. And then he noticed something else that made him pause for a moment. "Oh my God," he whispered softly, before hacking at the demons with a determined ferocity.

Cordelia felt like she had been punched in the stomach. She frowned and looked down, and realised that it was the blade that had caused the pain. She was surprised. She had always thought that being stabbed would feel different. More like, well more like a stabbing pain. But this felt solid and bruising. Fascinated, she continued to stare at the blade as it moved further into her abdomen and surprised herself by continuing the incantation she had memorised so thoroughly, though she could hear her voice starting to waver as the pain started to overwhelm her.

Suddenly, the blade disappeared and with it, for a moment at least, the bruising pain. Realising what had occurred, the Seer looked up to see who had tackled her attacker, all the while continuing to chant the words she had learnt.

There was a tangled mass of limbs on the floor, each fighter struggling for supremacy. It was only when they separated and broke free of each other's grasp that they could be recognised. It was then that Cordelia faltered in her recitation. The person who had stopped Faith was Faith?

Faith rolled to her feet and put every ounce of strength she possessed into a vicious right hook knocking the sunglasses off her doppelganger. She stared for a moment at the cold grey eyes peering so incongruously from her mirror image and then grinned. "It's payback time, bitch."

The shape-shifter snarled angrily and then launched herself at Faith. Once again, the two combatants ended up rolling on the ground exchanging punches and blows from elbows, knees and feet as they grappled.

Cordelia stood dumbfounded, watching the fight anxiously. Suddenly she heard Giles yell at her and the tall brunette turned to face him, frowning in confusion.

"Complete the recitation NOW!" Giles shouted, ducking to avoid another blow from one of Varos' soldiers before pointing towards Buffy and Angel.

Cordelia looked where Varos stood and saw the blonde slayer and Angel desperately try to fend the huge blue demon off. It was obvious that they were not going to hold him back for long and that their only chance was for the incantation to be completed.

The Seer spun round and looked at the cauldron worriedly. The ingredients were beginning to die down and she caught the look from the two witches who had hesitated to continue when Cordelia had halted.

Nodding that she was ready to continue, the three girls began again, speaking rapidly in an effort to finish the incantation.

The wind continued to build up around the fighters, lashing the rain over them in painful waves. Faith ducked yet another blow from the shape-shifter and swept its legs away quickly. As her double landed on the floor, the Southie landed a crunching elbow into its face, grinning in satisfaction as she felt bone break under the strength of the blow.

Instantly, she was thrown off and her eyes widened as the demon morphed into a slightly smaller version of Varos himself. The shape- shifter sprang to its feet and then made use of its increased reach, landing a blow square onto Faith's right temple and sending her spinning towards the witches.

She looked up at the three women and noticed Cordelia hesitate a second time, obviously worried at Faith's dazed state.

The Bostonian shook her head in an effort to clear it and then looked directly at Cordelia. "Finish the fucking spell, C." She ordered, lashing out instinctively with a back kick that caught the demon high in the chest, sending it back gasping for breath. The younger slayer shrugged in confusion. "Damn, I always thought demons didn't need to breathe," she commented conversationally before hefting a steel-toe capped boot into its chest again.

The beast grunted but managed to catch Faith's foot as it rolled back, sending the brunette slayer back onto the floor where once again they rolled in a tangled mess, each fighter trying to land a significant blow to the other.

Willow could feel the power start to resonate through her body as the spell neared its completion. She looked at Cordelia and Tara as they continued to chant, all three of them unconsciously speeding up the recitation as they saw the fighting that continued around them. The red-haired witch saw Buffy and Angel attack Varos together, and then saw them both get swatted away. It wouldn't be long before he defeated the two of them and came after the witches. She could also see Faith and the shape-shifter exchanging blows.

Suddenly, Willow realised that she had a way of getting rid of Faith forever and at the same time make it appear to be a tragic side- effect of the spell.

Willow began to channel the excess energy created by the incantation through her body. It took all of her strength to hold onto the power and the wiccan began to sweat with the effort. The residual effects of the recitation were incredibly strong and Willow felt herself draw on dark powers in order to keep hold of it.

Cordelia was beginning to feel faint as she clutched her stomach with one hand and the wooden artefact with the other. The Seer shifted her grip slightly and fresh pain washed through her. Somehow, the incantation was keeping her conscious and alert. She could feel her hand become sticky with her own blood and wondered how quickly the protection from the recitation would wear off and how soon she could be taken to hospital. More importantly, she wanted to speak with Faith. How she had ever assumed that anyone wearing the sad fashion statement that were mirrored sunglasses could possibly be Faith was beyond her, but it wasn't until she'd seen them both together that the ex-cheerleader had realised her error.

The Seer looked up at the two witches and nodded as they completed the incantation. As one, they threw the artefacts into the cauldron, finding themselves blown back from the cauldron by a powerful blast of energy that originated from the centre of the cauldron and rippled out concentrically, washing through the cemetery in an orange-hued wave.

Buffy felt the energy wave pass through her and saw its visible form light everyone around in a weird orange tone as it rippled through the graveyard, turning Varos into a sickly green colour for the time it illuminated him.

She noticed him hesitate for an instant, a look of confusion on his face and took advantage of his state, directing another swing at Varos only for it to go straight through him. Having nothing solid to stop the blow, the blonde slayer found herself spinning through the swing and overbalancing, landing in a heap on the ground.

She looked up incredulously at the huge demon and stared as he writhed in agony, a rictus of pain etched on his features. His mouth was stretched open as he screamed silently, and then he was gone, disintegrating almost instantaneously yet anti-climatically with no lightning bolts or energy waves dissipating through him.

Buffy continued to stare at where Varos had once been standing until she caught movement with her peripheral vision. Glancing round, she saw Angel, his face battered and bleeding, with his arm outstretched to give her a helping hand to her feet. Gratefully accepting, the blonde struggled to get upright and brushed herself down. "I think I can say that was the longest two minutes of my life," she commented dryly.

"I agree, and I have over two hundred years to pick from," Angel grinned back.

"Could do with some help guys," Xander yelled from where he stood, swiping at demons wildly as he tried to protect both himself and Anya from the marauders.

Immediately, Buffy and Angel switched back into fighting mode and raced over to fight Varos' minions.

However, with the loss of their leader, the demons began to retreat quickly, realising that they had been defeated.

Tara sat up slowly, trying to get some sort of control over her head that felt like it was spinning wildly. The incantation had completely exhausted her, and she had never felt that sort of power they had channelled before. Immediately, she looked at Willow and noticed that she was in pretty much the same sort of shape as herself. The blonde witch's thoughts then turned to Cordelia. Not only had the Seer never experienced any sort of magic power before, Tara had seen the girl stabbed by a carbon-copy of Faith and she was extremely concerned about her.

Cordelia lay on her side, clutching at her abdomen in an effort to staunch the flow of blood escaping. The wound was now very painful, and the slightest movement felt like she was tearing her stomach open, but instinctively, Cordelia knew that the wound was not deeply penetrating and not nearly as serious as the impalement she had endured a few years ago. She would survive as long as she could get to hospital quickly.

Despite the pain she was in though, Cordelia had only one topic on her mind. And that was Faith's safety. She manoeuvred herself carefully so that she could see the brunette slayer and watched as the Southie continued to battle against the shape-shifter.

Faith chanced a quick look back to where Cordelia and the two wiccans had been chanting. At first, her heart lurched when she saw all three girls sprawled on the ground. Then, as she saw each one move slightly, the Bostonian relaxed slightly, surmising that they were only suffering the side-effects of the spell and switched her concentration back to the shape-shifter. The demon was just as tough to deal with as last time, but Faith was determined to exact her revenge on the thing for nearly gutting her and leaving her for dead.

Warily the rogue slayer circled the demon again, trying to find a weak enough opening for her to exploit and perhaps finish the thing off for good.

Suddenly, the shape-shifter morphed again, turning into a bipedal, yeti type monster with vicious sword appendages. Once again, the eyes remained exactly the same, as did the voice that began to taunt Faith. "What's up slayer? Lost your nerve?"

"Against you, Twinkie? I don't think so. I just haven't decided how I'm going to end your miserable existence yet."

The shape-shifter snorted. "You'll never get close enough to harm me," she goaded, the silky tone once again sounding incongruous coming from the monster's body. She waved her arms in front of Faith and the brunette's eyes shot open as they turned into long sharp swords. "Recognise these?" The shape-shifter asked maliciously before swiping at Faith with them.

The second slayer dodged the attack easily and ducked underneath the demon's arms before stepping forward. Quickly she grabbed the demon's shoulders and then used them as leverage as she head-butted the shape- shifter solidly, grinning as she felt the already damaged face crack even more.

The demon yelped in pain and leapt back, trying to get some distance between itself and the Bostonian. It shortened the weapons dramatically and tried to stab Faith, but once again Faith was too quick for her and she weaved out of the way of the attack. The duel continued at a blistering pace.

Willow managed to get to her feet, despite the fact that her head was swimming and her body felt heavy and lethargic, due both to the effect the recitation had on her and because of how much energy she was holding on to. Swaying slightly, she forced her eyes to focus on her intended target and then searched her mind for the appropriate spell to direct the energy. As she recalled the words slowly, her eyes turned black.

Varos' soldiers became quickly disorganised and panicked at the loss of their leader. Many simply ran away, unwilling to risk destruction at the hands of the blonde slayer and her helpers. Only the ones directly fighting anyone put up much of an effort, and that was principally in order to stay alive.

Buffy quickly dispatched the demon she faced and then assisted Angel in killing a second. As the two ex-lovers turned round to look for their next victim, they noticed the hurried and scattered departure of the marauders. However, Buffy didn't falter in her concentration. She knew that Faith was still fighting the shape-shifter and now that Xander and the others were safe, she needed to help the younger slayer.

Tara could sense the build up of excess energy but for a while, could not work out why it was present or where it was emanating from. She surveyed the area carefully, turning in a full circle as she concentrated on the power source. As soon as she focused on Willow, the blonde witch knew that she had located the originator of the stored power but she was at a loss as to why Willow would want to channel such a vast amount of chaotic power. It was only when the red- head lifted her arm slowly and point that Tara finally understood and she stood transfixed in horror.

Willow could feel herself trembling. She could barely hold on to the power contained within her and knew that she had to release it soon. Concentrating entirely on the incantation, she started to murmur words slowly and almost incoherently. Slowly, she raised her arm and directed the force of power down her arm and through her pointing finger.

As she finished the spell, things seemed to happen in slow-motion. A cerulean blue energy bolt shot from the tip of her finger towards the shape-shifter. It would be unfortunate that the younger slayer would get caught in the cross-fire but the shape-shifter had to be eliminated. At least, that was how Willow justified her action to herself.

Suddenly she was distracted as she heard Tara shout out "NO!"

Her heart lurched as she caught movement to one side. Tara was running straight towards Faith and would get in the way of the energy beam before it hit Faith and the demon.

Thinking with a speed that she didn't think possible, Willow chanted again in a desperate attempt to dissipate the beam before it hit her lover.

She faltered as blue light bathed Tara, Faith and the shape-shifter for an instant and seemingly from some distance away, Willow could hear Cordelia screaming Faith's name in heart-rending anguish.

The blue light turned to a painfully bright white flash before dying away completely. Willow blinked back the burning spots of energy that patterned her vision and then looked round frantically.

Tara and Faith had disappeared.

 

Willow continued to stare at the space where Faith and Tara had been standing just moments ago. Her mouth hung open slightly and she realised belatedly that her nose was bleeding, indication that once again, she had surpassed her limits as a witch and was now physically paying the penalty for it. She wiped away the trickle of red fluid running down her face but was too dazed to realise that it was quickly replaced as she failed to staunch the flow.

Emotionally, she was paying a far higher price. In her haste to deal with Faith, she had used her powers rashly and had now ended up hurting the person she cared for most. She could feel her heart hammer in her chest, almost as if it was trying to escape, and Willow knew that it had nothing to do with the effects of the spell she had cast. Seared into her memory was Tara's voice. The blonde witch had worked out exactly what Willow was going to do, and even as the blue energy blast swept over her and Faith, Tara had turned to face her lover, a look of utter disbelief and hurt etched on her features.

Willow rolled her eyes in an effort to stop unshed tears falling. Tara had sensed that the redhead had used dark magick again, despite Tara's pleading with her not to succumb to its allure. As Tara disappeared within the blinding-white light, Willow could distinctly see her blue eyes staring back at her, clearly showing how betrayed she felt by Willow's actions.

The auburn-haired girl could hear someone calling her name but hardly had the strength to stand, let alone determine who was talking to her. The witch felt her arm being tugged and she looked away from the scene wearily and stared at Buffy.

"What happened, Willow?" The blonde slayer asked the question slowly and without any hint of accusation or blame, yet Willow flinched as she remembered the last moments of the spell.

The Wicca shook her head slightly in confusion. "Tara got in the way," she began hesitantly. "She wasn't supposed to get hurt." Willow broke off and looked back to the empty area of the cemetery, her breathing still coming in heaving gasps, as if she'd just completed a long-distance run.

"I know that," Buffy replied, stroking her friend's arm sympathetically. "But what happened? How did they disappear?" Her forehead crumpled quizzically.

"I used the residual power left over from when we banished Varos." Willow paused and then continued, looking at Buffy once more. "I directed the energy towards the shape-shifter. It should have just destroyed it. But Tara got in the way..." Willow faltered again, and looked at the other Scoobs who had gathered round her, feeling as confused as they appeared to be.

Cordelia hadn't moved from the place where she had stood and watched Faith and Tara get enveloped by a blue-white energy beam. She clutched at her stomach and was frightened to take her hand away in case the bleeding got worse. She could feel hot, sticky blood ooze over her fingers, and she had to swallow down the sensation of nausea that began as she finally comprehended that what she could feel was her own blood escaping.

Recalling the last events, she began to look round the graveyard trying to locate the rogue slayer and blonde witch, blinking in an effort to rid her sight of the dark spots burnt onto her retinas by the intensity of the light.

As she turned her head, she locked eye contact with Angel and then Wesley as they hurried over to her. Out of desperation, she asked the question that was screaming inside her head. "Where's Faith?"

Angel and the young Watcher looked at each other before speaking.

Cordelia took this to be a bad sign. "Oh no." She brought her free hand up to cover her mouth in horror. "She's not dead is she?" The Seer began to look round frantically, hoping not to find the renegade slayer's body lying motionless on the ground somewhere.

"I don't know," replied Angel softly.

"What do you mean you don't know? What the hell is going on?" Cordelia could feel her anger mounting at the vague reply she received. She remembered the flash of energy that had emanated from where Willow had been standing, and how Tara had run over to where Faith and the shape-shifter had been fighting. The ex-cheerleader suddenly turned cold as she came to an awful conclusion. "What did she do to her?" she asked, her voice low and menacing.

Wesley looked back to where Willow stood with Buffy, a lost and exhausted look on her face. "I don't think she knows what she did herself," he commented with remarkable insight.

The Seer swayed slightly and shot out a hand to grab onto anything to steady herself. Angel reacted quickly and closed the distance between them and offered an arm for Cordelia to hold onto. The brunette made no further attempt to move until she regained her balance. "Help me over to them," she asked softly. Angel nodded and led the way slowly, wanting as many answers as his secretary.

Buffy turned round when she heard the others approach. "Cordelia, are you all right?" The blonde slayer appeared to be genuinely concerned for her ex-school friend.

"I have to get to the hospital," admitted the Seer candidly, looking down towards her wound instinctively. "But I can't go without finding out what happened."

Willow turned and looked at Cordelia for a moment. "I used a power bolt to kill the shape-shifter. But Tara ran into its path. I had to change the nature of the spell to save her."

"You changed a spell halfway through casting it?" Giles interjected incredulously. "Do you know how difficult that is to do?"

"I don't know how I did it Giles," Willow responded wearily. "I just knew that I couldn't let Tara die."

"That's incredible Willow. Well done," Anya complimented. When the red-haired witch just stared at her blankly, Anya felt compelled to make an enquiry. "What did you do to the spell then?"

"I manipulated it and turned it into a displacement spell. I've sent them to another plane."

"Well, that can't be too bad," the blonde ex-vengeance demon reasoned. "Just regain your strength and summon them back."

"It's not quite that simple," Willow began, looking nervously at Cordelia.

"Oh my God," interrupted Giles as he realised what the adept had done. "You've banished them to where Varos was sent haven't you?"

Willow blanched as he voiced his concerns. "I think so. I'm not even sure of that. All I do know is that wherever I've sent them, it won't be a safe place."

"I thought that the incantation they performed destroyed Varos." Buffy's brow creased once again.

"No, it destroyed the artefacts that could summon him back here. The recitation sent him back to where he was originally banished," Wesley explained.

"Oh great," Xander muttered.

"So you sent Tara and Faith back with him?" Giles wanted the theory confirmed.

"I don't know. I think so, but I can't be sure." Willow staggered slightly as exhaustion washed over her, but concentrated on staying upright. Buffy grabbed her arm and helped to support the girl's weight.

"Well it can't be that bad," Anya commented. "Just summon them back."

"Wait a minute," Buffy interjected. "What about the shape shifter? Did you send them 'wherever' with that thing?"

"Buffy, I don't know," Willow responded desolately. "I think I killed the shape-shifter, but because I tampered with the spell, it could well have been caught up in the energy beam."

"Get them back now," Cordelia insisted, her voice tight with emotion.

"I can't yet. I'm too tired." Willow decided not to mention that she had no idea how to summon her lover and the rogue slayer back from wherever she had sent them. That precious gem of information could wait until she had regained some of her strength and she could at least begin to think straight.

Cordelia looked at the Wiccan carefully. "What I want to know is why Tara decided to leap in front of your energy bolt. Surely if she knew what you were up to, she would have kept well out of the way."

"Unless she wasn't only aiming for the shape-shifter," supplied Gunn darkly.

Willow looked at the man quickly before looking away, shaking her head slightly in silent denial, even as Angel and Wes stared at her, contemplating what Gunn had suggested.

Cordelia's eyes widened. "Wait a minute," she began, her mind once again remembering the previous events. "Tara yelled out at you. She wanted you to stop." The Seer broke off for a second, trying to work out what had happened. "You were going to kill Faith weren't you?" she accused angrily.

"Cordy," Angel interjected, trying to placate the Seer before things got out of hand and tightened his grip on her gently.

"Well?" Cordelia ignored the vampire and stared at Willow.

"N-not intentionally. But I-I-I couldn't hold onto the energy any longer. I had to release it at the shape-shifter, and Faith was still fighting it." Willow was reluctant to admit her real reasons while she was still in a weakened state after casting.

"Bullshit," refuted Cordelia. She shrugged her arm out of the grasp of Angel's hand and took a step toward the shorter girl. "You were going to kill Faith all along weren't you?"

"No! Definitely not. No, in no way was I thinking of doing that." Willow could feel her cheeks redden as she continued her denial.

"Then why did Tara get in the way?" pursued Cordelia doggedly.

"Because she realised that Faith would get hurt too," explained Willow quickly. She tried changing tack. "Cordelia, I've lost my lover."

"You've lost mine too," the brunette informed her, no longer wanting to hide her growing emotions for the younger woman, and not caring what anyone else thought about their relationship. "And I'll make sure that you stop at nothing to get her back."

Willow nodded rapidly. "I'll get them back," she vowed.

"Oh, you'd better. Because I sure as hell won't rest till I've got Faith back," Cordelia swore sincerely. "And that means that you won't be resting either."

Willow looked down and then turned back to where Tara and Faith had disappeared. "I won't rest," she whispered, tucking a loose strand of hair back behind her ear absently as she tried to order her mind so that she could begin her search.

The Seer swayed slightly after her sudden outburst and closed her eyes in an effort to steady herself. Cordelia turned round and was about to take Angel's arm for assistance once again, when she changed her mind and turned back round. "Willow?" she asked softly.

Willow looked up at the summons, only to be the recipient of a vicious bitch-slap that sent her sprawling onto the ground. She looked up in shock and gingerly felt the corner of her mouth. Willow inspected the tips of her fingers and slowly rubbed away the blood that had transferred onto them from her split lip and returned her gaze upwards where Cordelia stood over her, a look of dazed confusion on her features.

"If you hurt her again, the only psycho bitch you'll have to worry about will be me," the dark eyed girl told her quietly. Cordelia stepped back and held onto Angel as he lead her back towards the Magic Box and his car.

Willow looked round at the remaining members of the group and was surprised to see confused, almost accusatory looks from them. She held out a hand towards Buffy so that she could assist her to her feet. The blonde slayer hesitated for a fraction before reaching down and helping her friend. As the redhead got to her feet, Buffy stepped back and looked at her steadily.

"Willow, tell me that you realise your actions were wrong," she pleaded.

Willow returned the look. "I thought I was doing the right thing. The shape-shifter had to be dealt with," she justified, her voice rising in pitch as she defended herself.

"But not at Faith's expense. And not by using black magick. You promised," Giles reminded her, a hurt look on his usually impassive features.

"Can we apportion blame later? I need to get some rest so that I can find Tara," Willow stubbornly refused to deal with the subject head on, and was content to come up with an excuse to avoid discussing what had transpired.

Buffy nodded tiredly. She was feeling the effects of fighting Varos and was also in need of recuperation. But she knew that she would have to make Willow face up to her actions at some point. She just hoped that Tara and Faith hadn't paid the ultimate price for the Wiccan's misguided initiative.

 

Tara could hear a voice calling to her. It sounded muffled, as though it was coming from a long way away, and yet she instinctively knew that whoever was trying to talk to her was close by. The blonde witch shifted slightly, in an effort to make her body move in some way, as her eye lids appeared to be refusing to open for her. She felt a grip around her tighten and realised that she was being held, probably by the same person who was talking to her. She felt frustrated that she couldn't communicate with her unknown companion and the feeling compounded as she felt herself slip back into the realm of unconsciousness.

The second time Tara heard the voice speaking, it was much clearer, and definitely feminine. She recognised the tones but couldn't quite place it yet. She was swaying and, at first, became alarmed and tried to sit up. Once again, she felt something strong increase pressure round her body, but this time, it felt secure and reassuring. Tara's brain finally began to analyse the sensations properly and the wiccan realised that she was being carried. And judging by the rapidity of the motion, whoever was carrying her was moving at quite a pace.

The voice that now sounded so close by, spoke up again. "Don't struggle. You'll set me off-balance, and we need to find somewhere safe to hide."

Perversely, the words did not comfort her, for Tara knew instinctively that the person carrying her did not often run or avoid conflict. Something felt horribly wrong and what made it worse was that Tara was feeling pain wrack in spasms through her body. The jogging motion did nothing to help and she couldn't help but cry out in pain as a particularly vicious jolt vibrated her body. Suddenly, the motion stopped and she felt herself being lowered to the ground. Desperately, she tried to open her eyes and see whoever it was that was carrying her, but the pain had made her woozy and blackness enveloped her once again.

Tara moved and snuggled into the warmth that lay next to her. Instinctively, she wrapped her arm around the body next to hers and pulled her own body in closer so that they touched as much as they could. Sleepily, she buried her head into the neck of her sleeping companion, nuzzling into long hair and breathing in the scent and heat of the woman. Somewhere in the recess of her mind, she was slightly puzzled at how Willow's hair could have grown, but the thought barely registered. Instead, Tara increased the pressure on her arm and enveloped the woman lying next to her. Unconsciously, Tara moved her arm so that she could stroke lazy circles on her partner's abdomen. She grinned when she heard a low grumble and took this as a sign of encouragement and moved her hand steadily upwards. It was only when her hand cupped a breast that was obviously larger than Willow's that it registered that the moan she heard was far deeper than any sound Willow would make. Her eyes flew open and she sat up, blinking rapidly as she stared at the woman she had been groping. "F-F-Faith, I'm s-s-s-so s-sorry. Oh my God, I- I-I didn't mean..."

Faith grinned as she stretched. "Nice hands, Tar."

"Oh God, Faith. I thought I was with..."

"Please don't finish that sentence," Faith begged as she sat up. "Do I look like I'm complaining? Just about the best wake-up call I've had in years."

If it were at all possible, Tara's eyes widened even more and she blushed furiously. "I'm s-sorry," the blonde witch repeated.

"Don't apologise for that." Faith couldn't help teasing the embarrassed girl. "I take it you're feeling better," she commented with a grin.

Tara nodded, willing the blood to leave her face so she could cool off and calm down. She switched topics in an effort to distance herself from what she'd done. "Where are we?"

"I was kinda hoping that you could answer that one. I don't have a frickin' clue." The rogue slayer was brief and to the point.

"Well, at the moment I'm guessing that we're in a cave?" Tara suggested with a hint of sarcasm.

"Well, I worked that bit out for myself, seeing as I carried you in here," Faith returned, rolling her eyes.

The raven-haired slayer's words made Tara remember her previous attempts at regaining consciousness and she wondered what had happened during that time. "Faith, what happened?"

"When?" Faith couldn't follow the wiccan's line of enquiry.

"When we got to wherever we are? How long have I been unconscious? And why did you have to carry me anywhere?"

"Okay, okay, I got the idea." Faith held up her hand to stop Tara from asking any more questions. "I was fighting the shape-shifter and then we got zapped by this bright light. The next thing I know, we're in this crazy place and the shape-shifter's all over me again. Luckily, it took pretty much all of the blast and I managed to kill the bitch. When I looked round I saw you lying on the ground. I couldn't wake you up." Faith looked at the other girl and grinned at her. "You looked like shit by the way."

"Thanks," Tara replied, returning the grin. "So why did we move and how far have we gone?"

"We had to move. We were surrounded by demons. And there was no way I was gonna be able to fight my way through and protect you at the same time, so I just picked you up and ran for it."

Tara looked gratefully at the brunette. "Thanks for not leaving me."

"Hey, you're the one who's gone around telling everyone I'm not psycho anymore. Would have been a bit shitty of me to leave you to fend for yourself, you being unconscious and all."

"You found this place straight away then?" Tara asked.

"No. Had to run and hide for a while. I had to put you down a few times to clear the way. But you remained out of it. Didn't matter what I did to you. It's difficult to tell how long we were moving for though. Pretty much been running all day, I think. It all feels wrong here. I feel outta sorts."

"You carried me all day?" interjected Tara incredulously.

"Well, I had to put you down to kick some demon ass. And, like I said, it feels all out of whack here. It's difficult to judge time," Faith explained. The Bostonian rubbed her shoulder absently.

Tara noticed it immediately. "Are you hurt?"

"I'll be all right."

Faith stiffened slightly as Tara looked her arm carefully and then widened her examination. "Goddess, Faith. Is there any part of you that isn't injured?" The blonde witch felt her heart sink as she surveyed a mountain of bruises and cuts.

"Not sure. The demons here are massive. Luckily they're also stupid. None of them teamed up against me or there's no way we'd be having this conversation."

Tara pondered over Faith's words. "They're not humanised here. This could be very bad," she muttered to herself. However Faith picked up the murmured words.

"Humanised?" she enquired.

"When demons cross the Hellmouth, they become humanised and end up smaller versions of their original selves. Wherever we are, it sounds like they can keep their true size. It also means they retain their true powers." Tara looked at Faith with wonder. "You've done very well if you defeated them here."

Faith shrugged the compliment off. "More like I've only come up against the minor ones," she amended.

The blonde smiled wanly at Faith's self-depreciation. "Possibly. But whatever the case, you've got to be at full strength if we're going to survive here. How long will it take you to heal?"

"Well, usually a good night's sleep sorts me out. After I found this place and made it safe, I had planned on doing just that. As you were shivering, it made sense to lie down beside you and share body heat. Never knew that you wanted to really share body heat." Faith wiggled her eyebrows suggestively provoking another blushing episode from Tara.

"Faith," she pleaded. "Honestly, I didn't know it was you. I would never..."

"Never?" Faith interrupted. "Now I am offended. You telling me I'm not worth a look at least?" She couldn't help but tease Tara. It was too easy to get her embarrassed.

"No, no. I didn't mean it like that. You're d-definitely worth l-l- looking at. You're very attractive..."

"So you were coming on to me?" Faith nudged her body in closer and her grin widened.

"Faith!"

"Relax Blondie." Faith couldn't help but laugh again. "I know you and Red are tight."

Tara's face clouded slightly. "I'm not so sure anymore."

Faith sat back as her eyes widened. "What's that supposed to mean?"

Tara rubbed the back of her neck. "Willow used dark magick to try and eliminate the shape-shifter."

"Yeah and? She got rid of it all right."

"She never intended to send it somewhere else. She intended to kill it."

"I'm still not getting why you're so upset by that," Faith admitted.

Tara looked steadily at her companion. "I have two problems about it," she began. "Willow made no effort to protect you from the beam and she used black magick when she promised me that she wouldn't."

"Tara, she did what she thought was right. She's never hidden her feelings about me. And you can't blame her really, after the way I treated them all."

The blonde witch stared incredulously at the younger girl. "She might hate you Faith, but that's no excuse for trying to kill you. And you've just tried to defend her. If that's not an example of how much you've changed, I don't know what is." Tara ran a hand through her hair worriedly before continuing. "The point is that it doesn't seem to matter what you do or say. Or what I say for that matter. She needs to understand how she's behaving. And it all stems down to her continued use of dark magick. It sucks you in and then begins to influence your behaviour. She used to know the difference between right and wrong. Goddess, she's been fighting evil for years. But each time she uses black magick, her moral judgement just gets more and more clouded. She could turn totally and not even realise it." Tara gasped for breath after her outburst, and felt her heart hammering in her chest, her emotions raging through her as she voiced her fears openly for the first time.

"Hey, calm down Tar." Faith swung an arm around the woman and hugged her tightly. The gesture prompted Tara to burst into tears and she held onto Faith as she sobbed into the brunette's shoulder.

Faith patted Tara's shoulder awkwardly. When she had reached out to hug the girl, she hadn't expected a flood of emotions to come bursting out. The dark slayer was the first to admit that she wasn't that great at dealing with emotion at the best of times, and she was at a loss as to how to continue. She let the blonde witch continue to cry for a few minutes before venturing to speak again. "Listen Tara, we both need to be at full strength if we want to get out of this place. And that means that you've got to concentrate on what we can do now and not on what's going to happen when we get back to the others. I'm gonna need your witchy powers as much as my slayer strength to fight off these mothers so you've got to deal with this now or put it to one side and deal with it later."

Faith could feel Tara nod into her shoulder and gently, the blonde woman sat back, sniffing and taking gulping breaths as she tried to control her breathing and stop the tears from falling. Gently, Faith wiped the wicca's face. "Let's concentrate on getting out of here alive. Then you can worry about what Willow's going through. Okay?"

Tara sniffed spasmodically and blew out a deep breath of air before nodding. "I'll be okay. But I don't know if I'll be able to perform any magick here," she answered.

Faith frowned. "Why not? You're not still injured are you?"

"No, I think I've slept enough for most of the energy bolt to dissipate out of me. I just don't know about the spectral dynamics of this place. Any incantations that I perform here might not create the desired effects."

"Can I have the English version Tar?"

Tara smiled weakly. "Sorry. My spells might not be spells here. I could try to create an energy bolt and produce a rabbit instead," she explained.

"Great. As if we haven't got enough to worry about. Oh well, we'll just have to see what happens," Faith decided.

Tara frowned. "How long will it take us to get back to where we materialised?"

"I don't know if you were listening earlier, but that place was crawling with demons. It's not in my top ten places to revisit," Faith replied laconically.

"We don't have a choice, Faith," Tara told the dark slayer. "If Willow and the others try to summon us back, the energy concentration for the retrieval will be centred where we were originally set down. If we're too far away from that point, we won't fall within the range of the summoning and they won't get us back."

"Is that how it works? Shit, how do you know all this stuff?" Faith was amazed. It made perfect sense but she was impressed by the blonde witch's knowledge of the magick arts.

Tara burst the bubble slightly. "I'm not sure to be honest. I've never been on the receiving side of it all before. But that's how I interpreted all the texts that are available on it," she admitted.

"Good enough for me," Faith told her. "I'm not up to full strength yet. Unless they've spotted the camouflage I set up outside, we should be safe to rest here until we're both able to take on the natives."

"But what if they're trying to summon us back now?" Tara persisted.

"Not much point summoning back dead bodies is there?" Faith told her brutally. Tara looked downcast at the thought. The rogue slayer sighed. "I want to get back as much as you do. Cordelia's injured. I need to know that she's safe," she admitted.

Tara looked at the brunette and recalled Cordelia's outburst concerning her vision. "You know she loves you don't you?"

Faith shook her head. "I'm not sure of anything anymore Blondie," she told her. "But I know that I'd never want any harm to come to her. I've got a lot to deal with when we get back. But we need to concentrate on the 'getting back' bit before anything else."

"I know," concurred the taller girl. "I just don't want to miss the summoning home," she continued.

"I'm right there with you Tar," Faith told her. "But if Willow used up all this magic, surely she'll need time to recuperate too," she suggested.

Tara nodded. "Of course she will. How stupid of me. And I thought you didn't know anything about magick," she accused good-naturedly.

Faith shook her head. "I don't. Give me a knife or a crossbow any day."

"I'll buy you one for your birthday if we get out of here," Tara vowed, the pacifist inside her shocked for offering to do something like that. The look of surprise and veiled delight on Faith's face was enough to convince her that she would do just that if they did return to Sunnydale though. The blonde wicca could justify her action, secure in the knowledge that Faith would use the implement in the fight against evil, for she was now totally convinced that the brunette slayer had regained her sense of duty.

"Come on Tar, lie down. I promise I won't do anything if you don't," Faith grinned lasciviously at Tara as she patted the ground beside her.

Tara shook her head. "You're incorrigible Faith," she told her. "And keep your hands to yourself," she warned, a look of mischief in her eyes as she lay down by the Bostonian.

Faith laughed. "It wasn't me who was getting down and dirty before," she reminded the older girl.

"You encouraged me. I distinctly heard you moaning," Tara shot back, despite blushing to her hairline again.

"Who wouldn't?" Faith retorted. "Besides, I was asleep. Not my fault that the girl of my dreams decided to get all erotic on me." She wiggled her eyebrows again.

"I thought it was the girl of my dreams too," Tara whispered, her mood falling again.

"You'll see her again," Faith told her assuredly.

"And you'll see Cordelia again," Tara replied.

"I know," agreed Faith. "Now shut up and let me sleep. We've got demon ass to kick later." Her eyes were closing as she spoke and Tara realised that the slayer must be exhausted. The blonde witch turned slightly and shut her eyes, savouring both the warmth and protection the brunette was emanating and thought absently how lucky Cordelia was.

 

Faith woke, relishing the body heat so close behind her and realised with a smile that Tara had somehow managed to spoon herself behind the brunette. Her smile widened as she pondered on how touchy-feely her relationship with Willow must be. Then she remembered the blonde witch's face falling when she described her take on the events that had put them here and her visage became more wistful.

She sighed and extricated herself softly from the taller girl's grip, wondering what it would feel like to wake up in Cordelia's arms. She blocked those thoughts off as quickly as they started. The dark slayer had shut the Seer out, as soon as they had hit a bump in their relationship. She could hardly expect Cordelia to stick around and trust her, when she couldn't even trust the ex-cheerleader enough to talk things through.

Her movement was enough to disturb Tara and the tall wiccan yawned loudly before looking at Faith, her cheeks reddening with embarrassment, realising that she must have curled up practically on top of her to get as warm as she currently felt.

"If you're gonna apologise again, don't," Faith advised her with a smile. "We've got too much to do without having to worry about saying sorry all the time."

"Sorry." Tara shook her head in frustration as the word slipped out but started to laugh as Faith slapped her forehead in mock annoyance. "I can't help it," she told the brunette. "I've spent most of my life apologising. You'll just have to be patient with me."

"Not one of my stronger attributes but I'll see what I can do." Faith smiled back at the girl and wondered about the past Tara hinted at. There was more to her throwaway comment than met the eye. Perhaps Faith's own experiences allowed her to see its hidden depth. Faith reflected on what she knew about Tara. The blonde witch seemed to have coped with whatever crappy hand life had dealt her. Perhaps it was an intrinsic part of her character. There was something about the quiet girl that Faith found compelling. "Why have you been defending me?" She asked suddenly.

Tara blinked at the directness of the question. "Because you've changed," she replied simply, hoping that it would be enough to satisfy the raven-haired slayer.

Faith shook her head. "You don't know that. You never knew me before."

Tara sighed. "You're right. But I can..." she struggled to find a suitable word. "I can 'sense' someone's aura." She shook her head, flustered by her own inadequacy at description. "I knew it was you inside Buffy's body," she continued, by way of an explanation.

Faith coloured and looked away. "I was pretty crazy back then," she muttered. "Sorry for being such a bitch to you." Her words were almost inaudible.

"I thought we had put a ban on apologies," Tara replied gently. Faith just shrugged and refused to look at the witch. "You admit to being crazy back then. Would you admit it if you were still crazy?"

"Dunno," answered the Bostonian gruffly. "Probably another aspect of my psycho nature."

"Faith, stop running yourself down. I defended you because I know you've changed. You think about what you do, you consider other people's feelings and opinions and you apologise for your mistakes. That's not 'psycho'." Tara held up her fingers to gesture quotation marks round the word. "That's being normal." She shook her head sadly. "It's just a shame that people are more comfortable sticking with their memories and perceptions than trying to move on and give credit where its due."

Faith snorted. "It shouldn't matter, but it does," she admitted. "But I don't know what else I can do to convince them." She shook her head ruefully. "There's not much point talking about this at the moment though. If we can't get back, it doesn't really matter what the hell they think." She stood up, suddenly uncomfortable with revealing her feelings. "We need to get moving. I don't want to miss our summons home."

Tara stood up and stretched carefully, stiff after sleeping on the cold floor of the cave. The blonde girl studied the slayer. "I always imagined you as not being a morning person," she told her.

"Years of prison routine are difficult to break," Faith returned candidly. "Besides, who says it's morning? I have no idea how long we've slept. Have you?"

Tara frowned as she thought about it. Her watch just flashed the figure 12:00 at her repeatedly. Somehow, it had decided to reset itself and was effectively useless in her determination of the time. "I don't know how long we've slept," she told the shorter girl. "But I do know that I'm hungry."

Faith groaned. Her stomach automatically growled in response. "You had to say it," she whined as she held her hand over her abdomen, trying to muffle another loud protest. "I'm starved."

"Don't suppose you can rustle up breakfast can you?" Tara asked hopefully.

"Do I look like a cook?" Retorted Faith quickly.

Tara giggled. "No, I can't see you with a chef's hat on somehow," she confided, grinning as the slayer poked her tongue out at her.

"Not really my style," the slayer concurred. "Come on, let's get moving. The sooner we get back to our," Faith faltered as she tried to find a word to describe where they had appeared. "Our landing site, the sooner we can get back and eat."

Satisfied with her description, the brunette woman took the lead and headed towards the exit of the cave. "Stay behind me while I check it's safe for us to break cover," she told the wiccan, trailing an arm behind her to prevent Tara from getting too close to the opening of the cave. She glanced back to make sure that Tara was doing what she had asked and then crept out of the cave stealthily, rolling her weight on her feet to minimalise any sound she was making as she stepped out of the cave's safety.

Blinking rapidly as her pupils contracted with the sudden change in luminescence, Faith looked round quickly before ducking back inside. Feeling her pupils dilate once again, she looked at her companion. "It looks like it's all clear to get going. Are you sure you're up to this? Do you want more time to recuperate?"

Tara smiled at the brunette. "Don't worry about me. I feel much better. No pain at all now, other than from sleeping on a hard floor anyway. I just hope that I can help you if we run into trouble."

"When we run into trouble," amended Faith pessimistically. "Don't sweat it Tar. One stage at a time," she told the older girl.

Tara nodded in agreement and then tucked in behind Faith as they stepped out of the cave. She stood up and then turned round in a slow 360, taking in the bizarre scenery and alien skyline. The sky was a dark purple, and darker coloured clouds were shredded throughout it, scudding across the vista by an unfelt wind. The landscape before them was covered in tall, forbidding trees that bathed any open areas in dark shadows, giving the whole area a darkly sinister undertone. "We're not in Kansas anymore," she breathed.

Faith rolled her eyes. "Yeah, well if the only enemies we have to face are munchkins and the Wicked Witch of the West, we'll do Okay."

Tara glanced at the dark slayer. "I never pegged you as watching The Wizard of Oz," she confessed with a grin.

"I had a shitty childhood, doesn't mean I didn't have a childhood at all," Faith replied, unconsciously getting defensive.

Tara rolled her eyes at her own insensitivity. "I-I-I'm sorry Faith, I didn't mean..."

Faith held up a hand, realising that she had overreacted. "Whoa, whoa. No apologies, remember? Besides, if you never thought I watched it, at least I got my image right, huh?" She wiggled her eyebrows, making Tara relax slightly. "So tell me, did it really go into colour? We only had a black and white."

Tara looked at the girl open-mouthed, wondering if she was teasing her. Somehow, she didn't think so. "When we get back, I'm going to make you sit down and watch it with me," she vowed.

"Not likely," the slayer demurred. "You'd end up comparing witchy spells."

At that, Tara burst out laughing. "Come on. I have no idea where we're headed otherwise I would have forged ahead to make a point by now. Knowing my luck, I'd head in the wrong direction."

Faith smirked. "Okay. But this doesn't mean I'm watching some crappy film," she repeated as she began to stride along a barely visible pathway.

Tara stretched out her legs to match the other girl's pace and fell into step next to her. "How long do you think it will take for us to get back to where we started?"

Faith shrugged. "Can't say for sure, Blondie," she replied. "I don't know how much you slowed me down on the trip out, and I don't know what we're gonna come up against before we get back. But we're looking at hours here, not minutes."

"I'll try not to slow you down too much on the way back," the taller girl commented dryly.

"I'm counting on you speeding us up," replied the brunette cryptically.

"Huh?"

Faith stole a quick glance at her companion before looking ahead once more, her eyes constantly scanning the vicinity for any unwanted company. "Well, rather than me fight our way through, maybe you can come up with some distractions or diversions for the munchkins," she explained.

"I told you Faith, I'm not sure how my magic will work here," Tara replied nervously.

"We'll find out soon enough. No point worrying till we have to," the Bostonian reassured the wiccan. Tara shook her head worriedly, not wanting to let the slayer down, but fearing that she would do just that. She remained silent though, and the two women continued to make progress under the shadow of the trees back to where they had first materialised.

 

Willow stretched out languidly and yawned as she woke up, realising belatedly that she was in the Magic Box and had spent another night curled up on one of the sofas there. The witch no longer felt so bone-numbingly exhausted after the magical effort of the night before, but she had a deep-rooted weariness blanketing her and she wondered how long it would take before she recovered fully. She scanned the room carefully before sitting up, wondering who else was in the shop with her. Finding that she was apparently alone, the red- haired wiccan got up and stretched again, feeling the satisfying pop of stiff tendons as she raised her hands above her head.

Satisfied that she had got rid of the kinks, Willow made her way over to the coffee pot and was gratified to see that, as ever, there was plenty in the pot. She quickly poured herself a large mug and then moved over to the table where she and Tara had been studying the incantation.

At the thought of her lover, Willow faltered and sat down quickly. She had no idea how to retrieve the blonde witch and Faith but she knew that she had to have seen the spell somewhere before for her to be able to draw on it. It looked like she was going to have to sit down and peruse a great number of tomes in the hope that as soon as she began reading the correct incantation, she would recognise it and research a way of summoning the two women back.

Despite an eagerness to find the spell as quickly as possible, Willow was practical enough to know that she was still in no fit state to perform whatever the ritual was, so in a perverse way, she hoped that she didn't stumble across what she needed straight away. It would be difficult, if not impossible to convince Cordelia that she was not capable of the task till at least tonight.

Willow sighed heavily. She wanted Tara back certainly as much as Cordelia wanted Faith back. If only her lover hadn't realised how Willow was manipulating the power she had stored, none of this would matter. Faith would be gone forever out of their lives and everyone could finally move on. It appeared that Cordelia seemed to have feelings for the rogue slayer, but they couldn't possibly be that strong. Faith was incapable of dealing with her own emotions, let alone forming a relationship with other people, unless it was a hate- hate relationship. It wouldn't be that difficult for the ex- cheerleader to move on and find someone else. Finding someone who wasn't a deranged murderer would be far healthier for her, not to mention less fatal.

Unfortunately, Willow had sent her lover to another realm in the company of said deranged murderer. Willow felt herself get angry again. If Faith did anything to harm Tara, she would stop at nothing to ensure it was the last thing the rogue slayer did. She just hoped that Tara had the strength and ability to deal with the manipulative bitch and stay alive long enough for Willow to get her home.

Focused now on rescuing Tara from the fate that she had placed her in, Willow started her search with the books already on the table. Maybe she would be lucky and find what she wanted in what she had read recently.

 

Angel looked out of the side room window nervously. The sun would be rising soon and he needed to leave. However, he really didn't want to leave Cordelia until he had spoken to her and reassured her that he had stayed with her all night. He glanced over to where the Seer slept, a bag of fluid dripping into her arm and a loop of tubing feeding her oxygen through her nose. The brooding vampire sighed. He was starting to spend far too much time in hospitals, worrying over his friends as they recovered from injuries. Faith had been in this very room the night before. Now, Cordelia lay there. Angel was beginning to wonder if he expected too much from his work colleagues. Even as the thought formed though, he realised it was futile. Faith was a slayer, called to protect the world from demons and despite going off the rails in a spectacular way, was now fulfilling her destiny with determination and vigour. Cordelia, ever since she had been 'gifted' with visions had begun to change her outlook on life and was determined to help those in need, regardless of the danger she put herself in.

When Faith had been released from prison, Cordelia had surprised Angel by tolerating her presence, stating that as long as she was on the payroll and doing her bit, she could hardly complain. After one case though, Cordelia had cut the slayer more slack and they had become friends. Faith had become more trusting and had been more open with her emotions. Cordelia had become more tolerant and perceptive to feelings. Of course, it didn't always apply, and both girls were still capable of cutting comments and sarcastic put-downs, but they were more often said for amusement value rather than out of spite. And they always managed to calm each other down, often with just a few words or a look. What pleased Angel the most was the fact that they could be themselves in each other's company. They felt no compunction to hide behind masks or the preconceived images others expected from them.

Now, it would appear that they were more than friends, and Angel couldn't be happier at the development. They were more similar than most people realised and had helped each other to sort out inner demons. The dark vampire just hoped that they would get the chance to actually build on their relationship. That meant getting Faith back from where ever she had been sent to. In a twisted way, it was fortunate that Tara had gone with her, for had she been the only one banished, Angel was convinced that Willow would not find a way to retrieve her.

The souled vampire shook his head sadly at how Willow had changed. She was starting to get consumed by the magic she used and yet could not see the changes in herself. Despite the need to get Faith back, he hoped that Willow didn't have to call on black-hat magick to get them back, for it would only continue to meld and change her. Something pretty drastic would have to be done to pull Willow back to the way she was. The irony that Faith and Willow seemed to have, for all intents and purposes, swapped their positions, was not lost on Angel. He just wasn't sure if he was capable of helping the red- haired witch in the same way he had helped Faith.

A slight moaning broke him from his reverie. He spun quickly and closed the gap between him and Cordelia's bed. "Hey. How are you?" He asked softly.

Cordelia opened her eyes slowly, already knowing that if it was Angel asking her questions then Faith had not been located. Her mind felt fuzzy and thick and there was a general aching around her abdomen. "Hey," she whispered, wincing as the word scraped past her parched throat. "What have they told you?" She murmured.

"You were in Theatres for about an hour. You lost a lot of blood but you're going to be fine. No major damage to any of your organs."

Cordelia winced as she changed her position slightly. "That's twice I've been lucky. I don't fancy my chances next time," she commented roughly. She pinned Angel with a steady glare. "Where's Faith?"

The vampire returned the stare. "We don't know Cordelia. Willow went back to the Magic Box to get studying. I haven't heard from them since. I thought I'd concentrate on making sure you were going to be all right first."

The Seer nodded and smiled gently at the concern Angel showed her. "Thank you. But you know that all I want to do is get Faith back. I'll be fine here. I need you to act as my muscle man to make sure Willow gets her back."

Angel sighed. "You realise that its not going to be easy," he started but Cordelia cut him off sharply.

"If they could get sent there, they can be called back. There has to be a way Angel," she told him firmly. "And if you can't fight my corner for me, then get me my clothes so that I can do it myself."

"Wait up Cordelia, that isn't what I meant. Of course I'm with you," Angel replied. "But you have to face reality..."

"Reality?" The Seer interrupted incredulously. "Our lives are far from realistic. Or have you not noticed? I work for an un-dead vampire and provide messages from the 'Powers That Be' so that he can continue to justify the existence of his soul. The woman I love is a vampire slayer that also works for a vampire, which is ironic in itself, and we're currently back in good old Sunnydale, home of the Hellmouth. I do not lead a 'normal' life, though God knows, sometimes I wish I did. So I will not react normally to this situation. The 'reality' is that Faith and Tara need to be located and found. And the 'reality' is that I will not stop until they are."

Cordelia drew a shaky breath, shocked at how weak she felt. "I won't give up on her Angel," she whispered. "Not when I've only just realised what I've got." She shook her head slightly. "You wouldn't understand."

"You're wrong," Angel refuted angrily. "I do understand. I care for Faith as much as I care for you. We have a lot in common. But you're making a point about love aren't you?" He clenched his fists and stalked across to the window. "I lived a short life to have it taken away from me by a cruel woman. I spent nearly 200 years believing that all humans wanted to do was hurt each other, and had a lot of time to do my share of hurting. Then I went to Sunnydale and found out that there were some people out there who were different. I learned to love again and learned to let go, when I knew that I couldn't give her what she deserved." Angel stopped for a moment and swallowed. "So don't tell me I don't understand."

Cordelia stared at the normally reticent vampire. "I'm sorry Angel. I'm just lashing out because I feel so useless stuck here," she whispered.

Angel turned round and nodded before returning to the hospital bed and sitting on the edge. "I'm sorry too, Cordy. We will get her back." He took her hand and squeezed it gently. The Seer returned the pressure, even as she felt comforted by the vampire's touch. Cordelia then stole a glance at the window and noticed the pink tinge in the darkness, indicative of the approaching dawn. "Angel, you need to get out of here. I'll be all right on my own," she insisted.

"I'll be back later," the dark-haired man vowed, squeezing her hand again. "Gunn will be around during the day. He said he'd rather be here than going through a load of books."

Cordelia nodded, feeling tired again already, but suspecting that it had something to do with the painkillers she had probably been given. "Keep me informed please," she pleaded. "Even if it's just a phone call to say you haven't come up with anything. I don't want to be left out of this," she insisted.

Angel nodded quickly before glancing at the window worriedly. "Cordy..."

"Go. I'll see you later," Cordelia smiled at her employer. "And thanks," she told him, grateful that she had not woken up alone, even if the person who had kept her company was not the person she desperately wanted nearby.

 

Willow's eyes were swimming. She wasn't sure if it was due to the amount of text she had glanced through or the amount of coffee she had sunk in the last two hours but as she rubbed her eyes tiredly, she realised that the spell she had performed last night was still taking its toll on her body. Just the thought of performing another incantation of that magnitude nauseated her, despite the fact that it was her lover she was trying to rescue.

Wearily, she shuffled over to the coffee pot, only to discover that she had emptied the contents and would have to make a fresh brew. Her research so far had not prompted any memories. As she prepared the coffee, she heard the door to the shop open and she glanced round to see who had entered.

"Hey Buffy. Where have you been?"

"I went home to sleep. Now that Varos is no longer a threat, there wasn't any need for us all to stick together." Buffy approached the red-haired wicca and smiled softly. "How are you doing?"

"Depends what you're asking me," Willow replied cryptically. Before Buffy could quantify the question, her best friend continued. "I still feel exhausted, but I slept on the couch for a while so I feel a bit better. If you're asking me how I'm coping without knowing where Tara is, then I'm not doing so well. In fact, just the thought of her alone with Faith..."

"Willow," Buffy warned, her brow furrowing at the taller girl's line of thought. "You need to get it in your head that if you sent Tara to where Varos is, she's going to need all the help she can get. And that includes Faith."

"Buffy, you can't be serious. That girl is unhinged. She's just as likely to kill Tara herself so that she doesn't have to look out for her."

"Willow, listen to yourself and then remember what Faith has done since she's been back. She got and then protected the artefacts, she went up against Varos with me and Angel and she shielded Cordelia against that shape-shifter."

Willow looked at the blonde slayer incredulously. "You're defending her aren't you?" She accused disbelievingly. "After all she did to you and all of us. How could you?"

"Do you remember when Angel saved you from Gwendoline Post?" Buffy argued, willing her voice to remain calm. As soon as Willow nodded the slayer continued. "You told me afterwards that his actions made him pretty much one of the good guys again. It's the same with Faith," she told her friend. "I'm taking her at face value. Looking at what she's done since her stint in jail." Buffy ran a hand through her hair and sighed. "I'm tired of hating her Willow," she confessed. "All the time I hold it against her, I have to hash over everything she did and everything I did too. I'm not the same person I was then. Why should Faith still be the same?"

"I don't believe this. Not only has Tara got to deal with psycho slayer by herself but my best friend is now her biggest fan." Willow moved away from Buffy and back towards the table where she had been studying.

"Will," Buffy tried, following her across the room. "Don't be like that. Surely what I've said makes sense?"

"To you maybe. Not to me," the auburn-haired witch insisted. "I don't want to talk about this anymore. I need to get Tara back. So if you've finished, I have books to study," Willow grabbed an as yet, unopened book and pulled it towards her, discarding the last book she had perused onto the floor.

Buffy shook her head sadly. She just couldn't understand her friend's behaviour. Willow had never been an admirer of Faith's but the witch had never been so dogmatic in her contempt before. The slayer wondered at the change in attitude. Willow had long ago left her shy, awkward demeanour behind, growing in confidence and self- assurance as her Wiccan powers grew. Buffy feared that Willow's continued practise of dark magick was beginning to affect her moral judgement. Despite repeated requests from Tara and the other Scoobs, the red-haired witch would use the power of black magick when she felt the situation warranted it. Buffy fervently hoped that she was wrong but needed to consult with Giles or Wesley over her concerns.

Resignedly, she sat down next to her best friend. "How can I help?" She asked softly.

Willow looked up, startled by the intrusion. She had assumed Buffy would leave her alone to continue her research and was surprised that the slayer had sat down. "You can start by taking all those books away and putting them somewhere where we won't get them mixed up with the others. There's nothing in them that will help." She gestured towards the books on the floor. Buffy nodded and bent down to scoop the volumes up. As she stood up, Willow continued. "Once they're stored, can you start with that shelf over there? I have a nasty feeling that I am going to have to read an awful lot of material before I find what I need."

"Can you give us some idea of what you're looking for?" Angel asked as he stepped through the door into the shop. He was followed by Wesley and Giles.

"Yes," Giles continued the query. "Any key phrases or specifics that we can try to isolate. Three pairs of eyes will be infinitely better than one."

Willow blinked and then thought for a few moments. "Of course," she muttered to herself. She got up quickly and climbed the ladder that lead to the upper bookcases.

"Willow?" Giles enquired.

"I wasn't thinking about the specifics," Willow called down, as if to explain everything. The four people on the ground floor of the Magic Box shared confused looks.

"Willow, that doesn't help," Giles supplied, approaching the ladder and beginning to ascend the steps.

The red-haired witch looked up from the bookshelf that she had knelt in front of. Books lay scattered around her as she continued to empty it. "I thought that I would need to see a trigger word or phrase to remember the spell, but I didn't narrow it down any further. I used dark magick to manipulate the spell Giles," she explained breathlessly. "It follows that I'm going to find what I need in a black magick book." With that, Willow yanked a large, black bound book from the middle shelf. "Can you dig out all your other black magick books Giles?" She asked as she picked the heavy volume up. "And I mean all of them. I think I've pretty much found all your hiding places for them." Willow stood to one side and gestured for the Englishman to finish his assent of the stairs before she moved to go back to the ground floor.

"Willow, once we've got them back, we need to have a talk," Giles warned softly.

The tone of his voice made Willow falter and she looked back up the ladder. She swallowed nervously before nodding meekly.

Once she was back at the desk, Willow sat down and began to search through the book. She looked up to see Wesley and Angel still staring at her mutely. "Once Giles has brought the other books down, I'll tell you the key words and phrases that I remember. Then we can all search for the spell," she told them.

"I'm not sure about reading through black magick texts," Wesley hedged.

The witch looked up sharply. "Well it's the only way that I'll be able to research the spell I cast," she told him assuredly.

"That's not what I meant," Wes continued softly. "These books hold great power and influence. I'm not sure I want to expose myself to them. And I'm not at all sure that you should continue to expose yourself to them."

"Wesley," Giles warned quietly. "Now is not the time." His face revealed that he understood the younger Watcher's sentiment though.

Fortunately, Wesley read his expression correctly and dropped the subject. He tugged at the collar of his shirt before taking a seat and selecting one of the books that Giles had descended with. "Tell us what we have to look for then," he asked Willow.

 

Faith lead Tara stealthily along the path back to where they had first materialised. She made the most of the shadows cast by the trees and stuck close to the woodland in order to stay as out-of- sight as possible. So far, they had managed to avoid conflict with the demons in the area by scouting out ways round them. Much as it galled the slayer to avoid a fight and dispatch some more demons, she knew that they had to remain undetected for as long as possible if they were to stand any chance of survival.

From the way the demons had been moving, Faith could tell that they were quartering the area and obviously searching for them. It also appeared that they were starting to work together and have a common purpose. None of that boded well for the two interlopers and the brunette fervently hoped that they reached their destination before they were forced to enter into conflict.

She snorted slightly even as the thought crossed her mind.

"What's up?" Tara enquired from just behind her. The blonde witch was just starting to get breathless, but Faith had been impressed at how well the Wiccan had kept up with her on the journey back.

"I think you're rubbing off on me," Faith replied cryptically. "I'm actually hoping that we don't have a fight."

"See? It's not so bad is it?" Tara replied, managing to keep her voice serious.

"Are you nuts?" The raven-haired slayer shot back incredulously. "Violence is what I exist for." For a long time, that included most of her childhood, Faith firmly believed that violence was the only reason she existed.

"Maybe," Tara replied carefully. "But it's not the only thing you live for, is it?"

Faith opened her mouth to reply but hesitated as she thought about the question. The first thought that it triggered centred around Cordelia and her mind pretty much stayed there. "Not anymore," she admitted softly. The younger girl shook her herself out of her private reflection before she turned all philosophical or mushy. That would do them no good at all while they were stranded. "Jeez Tar, you're turning me into a goody-goody peace-lover."

Tara stifled a laugh and then replied in mock horror. "Oh no. Faith the pacifist. How would the world cope?"

"This world can cope just fine. However, once I'm back in our world, the vamps aren't gonna know what hit 'em." She grinned back at Tara quickly before continuing along the trail.

Suddenly, she held out a hand behind her to stop Tara. The blonde witch took a few tentative steps closer and looked over the Bostonian's shoulder to see what had made them stop.

In the clearing ahead were two large demons. They appeared to be patrolling the area and as they paced along a well-worn path, each demon would occasionally halt and sniff the air, trying to detect a presence that they were trying to locate.

Faith turned and motioned Tara to back up down the path. Once they were at a safer distance, the slayer spoke. "This is not good. They're after us and they know that we need to use that path."

"Isn't there a way round?" Tara suggested. They had already taken a number of detours. One more would make no difference.

Faith shook her head. "I doubt it. They're waiting there for us. I get the impression that there'll be others waiting along any other path we might take."

"So what do we do? You can't take on two of them by yourself. You'll be killed," Tara protested, her voice rising slightly at the thought.

Faith waved her hand for Tara to lower the volume and then waited a beat, listening intently for any movement in the surrounding area. Satisfied that they had remained undetected, the Southie continued. "Touched as I am by your concern, Miss peace-loving hippy chick, I won't be taking them on myself. You'll be helping me," she told the witch confidently.

"Faith, I have no idea about my magic here," Tara reminded her quickly.

"I know. But it's about time we found out. Now, all I want you to do is create a little diversion. If we can get those two scooting off in another direction we can hightail it through there without me having to raise a fist," Faith pulled a face before completing the sentence, "unfortunately."

"I'll try," Tara told the brunette nervously. "But don't blame me if my diversion consists of ten rabbits hopping through the greenery."

"Listen Tar, if you don't do this, we have to fight our way through. There's no other way. But let's at least try and keep our options open for as long as possible, okay?"

Tara nodded faintly, encouraged by the younger girl's support and determination. She followed Faith back to where they had first spotted the demons. Once again, the two girls noticed the patrol- like way they were moving around the clearing. As they sniffed the air again, one of the demons licked his lips in anticipation, sending a shiver of disgust through the blonde woman. Carefully, she leant forward and whispered into Faith's ear. "Where do you want the distraction?"

Faith pointed to an area opposite to where they were headed. She looked questioningly at the blonde girl and Tara nodded her understanding before taking a deep breath to steady herself.

The witch decided that a small fireball would probably be the best thing to conjure. If she could explode it some way into the forest, it would attract the attention of any hidden patrols too. She just hoped any demons running towards the fireball wouldn't run into their escape route.

Picking out one large tree to be her focal point, Tara took a deep breath as she mentally rehearsed the spell she was about to perform, fervently hoping that it would do what she wanted it to do. The tall girl raised her right hand, pointed at the forest and then spoke the incantation out loud in a confident but quiet manner.

Faith followed Tara's hand and tried to determine where exactly the blonde girl was focusing on. As she heard the witch cast the spell, she switched her gaze continually between the wooded area and the copse where the demons patrolled in case they heard what was going on.

Tara finished the spell and looked expectantly at the forest.

Nothing happened.

She waited a fraction longer before breaking the stare to look at Faith, her stomach lurching as she felt a wave of disappointment rush through her. The blonde woman was relieved to see that Faith had kept her face neutral. She didn't think she'd be able to hold herself together if she saw her own disappointment reflected in the dark brown eyes of her friend.

Suddenly, a deafening crash roared through the trees. Tara and Faith snapped their eyes back to where the witch had concentrated her spell.

The tree Tara had centred on had simply been obliterated. All the trees that had immediately surrounded the tree had suffered the same fate. A large black circle marked the area where they once stood. The trees on the perimeter of the circle were scorched and twisted. Many had been forced over, and the branches and leaves were covered in match-sized splinters, tiny remnants of the trees that Tara's magick had destroyed.

"Those ten rabbits are a bit vicious," Faith commented blandly. She was stunned by the ferocity of the energy Tara had harnessed.

"Oh Goddess," the older girl whispered. "I never summoned power like that. I cast a simple, small fireball," she continued, faltering repeatedly over the sentence.

Faith looked over to where the demons had been standing. Initially, they stared at the debris, before looking at each other. Their confusion was clearly evident, despite the lack of human features the demons possessed. After a moment, the pair hurried towards the impact to investigate the site, lumbering through the woodland and making no attempt to keep their approach quiet.

The brunette slayer cocked her head and listened intently. From all around, she could hear the crashing movements of other demons in the trees. They were all descending on the area to investigate. "We haven't got time to worry about what you meant to do, Blondie," she told Tara. "We've got to get out of here now."

Tara picked up the urgency in Faith's voice and together they sprinted through the clearing and along the path they originally intended to use. There was no need to mask their own footfall as it was easily drowned out by the noise the other demons were making.

Faith picked the pace up, running as fast as she dared over the rough terrain but making sure that she did not leave Tara behind. After a while she slowed down and motioned for Tara to stop, pulling the taller girl into the shadows as they came to a halt. Once again, she listened carefully, turning her head round slowly as she tried to determine if they had company. Tara unconsciously held her breath and looked at the younger girl expectantly.

"I think we're clear," Faith announced after a few moments. "Come on, we're not far now." She strode off confidently. "Besides, with power like that, we've got no worries going up against demons one-on- one now."

Tara looked at the slayer in horror, before hurrying after her. "Faith, I don't know how that happened. All I cast was a simple fireball. There's no way I could have produced enough energy to cause that much destruction."

"You said it yourself Tar. All that stuff about magickal planes and how it might work differently here," Faith responded. "It's working differently all right. Instead of you having lesser powers, you've got massive powers."

"There's something wrong though," Tara demurred, shaking her head slightly. "I don't even feel tired by the spell."

"Well you wouldn't if what you cast was a simple fireball," Faith reasoned. She frowned as she tried to concentrate on a topic that had always remained mysterious to her.

"Yes, but the energy had to be harnessed from somewhere, or something." Tara gestured round them. "And if I didn't yoke it, who did?"

"Unless you did it without realising it. Perhaps the words you use here hold different meanings," Faith suggested, her mind beginning to swim with all the concepts that were being raised.

Tara grabbed her companion by the arm and stopped her mid- stride. "No," she stated firmly, a look of deep consternation etched on her features. "Because if that was the case, the power I drew on accidentally would have drained me," the Blonde wicca insisted.

Faith shook her head as it began to buzz with information overload. "Look Tar, I know this is worrying for you and all, but wouldn't it be better if we concentrate on getting back to where we first materialised so that the others can get us home?"

Tara nodded in agreement, but her face remained pensive. "If I can harness power like that, maybe we don't need the others to get back," she suggested tentatively.

Faith rolled her eyes. "One thing at a time. Once we're back where we started, we can figure out if you have to do some serious magick shit. Until then, save your breath and get your ass in gear." With that, Faith set off again, though her pace was far more cautious than their flight through the trap the demons had set. Her slayer instincts were on full alert as they negotiated the route once more. The Bostonian had long ago learnt the merits of caution and was not about to get complacent after evading one lot of monsters.

Tara followed the other girl miserably. She had always taken great pains to be careful in the use of magick and had never experimented without knowing the full implications of each spell she attempted. To her, it was a tool that was not to be used lightly or for personal enjoyment or gain. Suddenly, everything she had known about the arcane arts had been thrown into confusion. She wasn't even sure if she should attempt any other magick while they remained here. However, there were still the other demons to deal with.

Deep in her reverie, the blonde witch didn't realise that Faith had halted until she crashed into the back of her. She stumbled and lost her balance but was held up by a strong arm that pulled her behind the slayer's back.

"It helps if you look where you're going," Faith whispered.

"Sorry," Tara apologised meekly, her voice also in a whisper though she didn't know why. "Why have we stopped?"

"Take a look, Blondie," the shorter girl suggested and pointed to a gap in the trees ahead.

It took a moment for Tara to find out what she was looking for but as soon as her eyes locked onto what Faith had already seen, she swallowed and looked back at Faith nervously. "Varos?" She questioned hesitantly?

"In the flesh," agreed the slayer grimly. "Twice as big, probably four times as powerful and he's standing exactly where we materialised."

 

Uncharacteristically, it was Tara who voiced what they were both thinking. "We're screwed."

Her comment managed to raise Faith's eyebrows. "You got that right," she concurred. "You up for some more fireballs?"

"I'm not convinced that Varos will go off to investigate one of my fireballs," Tara pointed out.

"Not as a distraction Tar," Faith corrected. "You could toast the fucker without him even realising it."

"No," Tara demurred quickly. "I can't use power like that on the demons here."

Faith stared at the girl incredulously. "Why the hell not?"

Tara looked around for a few moments before settling her gaze on the rogue slayer. "I cast spells against demons and vampires in Sunnydale because they don't belong there. I can justify my actions because innocents will get hurt if I don't." She tucked a stray lock of hair behind her ear as she continued. "The demons in this place belong here. It's their world. We're the ones that don't belong. I have no right to destroy them just to get back."

"But they're out to get us Tar. You've already seen that," Faith pointed out.

"I know. And I'll willingly use magick to create a diversion. But I can't go on a rampage. It would be wrong."

"Who's asking you to go on a rampage?" Faith began to get indignant.

"You know what I mean," Tara returned.

"No I don't. They're where we want to be. I don't think tapping Varos on the shoulder and asking him to move on so we can get home is gonna work somehow." Faith made no effort to hide the sarcasm.

"I know that," Tara replied, getting frustrated. "I can't use a power I know nothing about to kill demons that belong here. I don't know what the implications would be."

Faith shook her head in confusion. "Oh, so it's all right for me to risk my ass so that we stay alive, just as long as you keep your principles intact. Is that it?"

"That's not what I meant at all," Tara refuted. "It's not just about principles and moral issues. I don't know how my magick works here. And I don't want to be inadvertently drawing on powers that I don't agree with for my own personal gain."

"You mean black hat shit," Faith surmised.

"I'm not even sure if there is a difference between white and black magick here. I just don't know. That's the point Faith. How can I use a power I know nothing about against Varos?"

"I don't think you've got much choice, Blondie," retorted Faith, her voice harsh with restrained anger.

"There's always a choice Faith," Tara replied.

"Well think on this choice then," the slayer's voice was beginning to shake. "What if Red tries to summon us back while Varos is standing there? Is she going to be able to differentiate between us and him?" She paused as she watched for a reaction from Tara. "So you're gonna have to choose between Varos being sent back to Sunnydale or destroying him here."

 

Willow held her head in her hands and sighed. Her eyes were dry and scratchy from so much reading and a thick band of tension tightened across her head as her frustration at not finding what she wanted began to mount. "I need a break," she announced to no one in particular and stood up to stretch.

"I think we all do," Giles concurred as he sat back and rubbed his neck absently. "Perhaps we should go out and get something to eat," he suggested, looking round at the table's other occupants.

Angel smiled wryly. "I'll eat later," he told the Watcher. Giles nodded but looked expectantly at the others.

Suddenly, Wesley looked up from the book that lay open in front of him. "Willow, I think I've found what you used," he told her, his voice quiet and cautious. The researchers had already suffered too many disappointments during the day. Now, each enquiry was forwarded with hesitancy and doubt.

The red-haired wiccan rubbed her temples roughly in an effort to dislodge the pain she felt there. "Give it here then," she asked and extended a slender arm out to take the tome from Wes's grasp. It took her a few moments to find the passage that Wesley was referring to, but as soon as her eyes scanned the words, she looked up excitedly, all previous evidence of exhaustion evaporating as she spoke. "This is it, Wes. Well done."

Suddenly, the Magic Box became invigorated with anticipation. Willow read the passage again and then worked her way back through the book steadily. It took time, and the tension started to build.

Buffy got up and began to pace while she waited for her friend to finish her study. If it wasn't for the fact that it was still the middle of the day, she would have gone out and hunted something to stake but there was no way she was going to leave until she knew the outcome of this latest breakthrough. Unfortunately, her heart sank when she saw Willow lean back in her chair, a look of defeat etched on her visage. "What's up?"

"I don't think I can open a gateway to get them back," was the flat reply.

"Why not? You've got something to work with now. What's the problem?" Angel lost his normal reticence to probe Willow quickly.

"I haven't got the power to do it," the witch answered simply.

"But you sent them there. If you had the power to do that, why haven't you got the power to bring them back?" It was Wesley this time that shot off the question.

"I was absorbing the power from the summoning spell. I stored up as much excess energy as I could. To invoke another gateway, I'd need the same sort of power," Willow replied.

"Then perform the summoning again."

All the occupants of the Magic Box turned round quickly as Cordelia entered the shop. She looked pale and drawn and as she walked towards them, the tall woman winced occasionally but she kept her eyes firmly on the auburn-haired girl sat at the table.

"Cordy," Angel got up and hugged her lightly, relieved to see his secretary out of hospital at last. "How did you manage to get out?"

Cordelia held onto the tall vampire tightly. "I think I wore them down in the end. Faith's not the only one who doesn't like hospitals."

>From one side, Gunn snorted and shook his head. At the enquiring glances from everyone else, he grinned. "By the time you finished with them, you would have either left by the front door or in a body bag," he told her.

Cordelia grinned back at the black man. "It was their own fault for trying to make me stay for more tests," she justified.

"Yeah, well. Just make sure that your little performance doesn't get back to Faith." As soon as he mentioned the rogue slayer's name, Gunn tensed and then rolled his eyes. "Sorry," he mumbled.

Cordelia shook her head slightly. "Don't worry," she replied, acknowledging his apology at the gaff. The tall brunette swung round and concentrated her gaze on the red-haired witch. "Right. What's all this about not being able to get Faith back?"

"I haven't got the power. I'd need to summon Varos again to generate that sort of power."

"Then do it."

"Are you serious? We can't summon back something like that."

"If that's what it takes, then that's what we do," Cordelia insisted. "I told you, Willow. I'm not giving up on them."

"Nor am I," Willow objected, her voice rising in protest. "But I can't perform the summoning again. We destroyed the artefacts, remember?"

Cordelia faltered as she recalled the events at the cemetery. "Is there no other way of generating that power?" She asked, her demeanour business-like as she tried to think the problem through.

"You don't need the artefacts," Anya stated as she got up to pour herself a cup of coffee.

Ignoring what the ex-vengeance demon said, Willow looked steadily at Cordelia. "I do have limits to my powers, even if I don't know it myself sometimes," she admitted. "I can't conjure up a portal to another realm by myself. I need additional resources."

"Isn't there anything in these books that can give you that power?" The Seer gestured at the books scattered on the table contemptuously.

"Well there was Varos' summoning. That would create the right type of energy as well as the right amount of power to do it. But the artefacts are gone. That ship has sailed." Willow sighed and seemed to sink into her chair, allowing defeat to wash over her again.

"The artefacts only held Varos' power, it was the incantation that generated the power in the first place," Anya remarked conversationally as she returned with a full mug.

"Don't worry, Anya. I didn't want a cup but thanks anyway," Cordelia told the blonde girl sarcastically before turning back to Willow. "Isn't there any other type of ritual you could perform? Varos can't have been the only demon to be banished by a bunch of witches," she pursued doggedly.

"Probably," Willow admitted. "I just don't know where to find it."

"But you know how to get them back if you did have the power now?" Cordelia was determined to at least know that some of the problem had been solved.

"Yes," Willow admitted. "If I had the power, I could use it to create a gateway to the correct place and get Tara back."

"And Faith," added the Seer quickly.

"Always assuming Faith hasn't already gone Loony-Toons on Tara and left her for dead out there," Willow continued, oblivious to Cordelia's rising anger.

"Look Miss Insecurity complex, I'm just about half past give a shit with your attitude. Let's examine the facts here shall we?" Cordelia was seething.

"Cordy," Wes warned softly, trying to stem the tide before Cordelia went into a full-scale tirade.

"Shove it Wesley." The Seer dealt with the young Watcher dismissively before returning her attention to Willow. "One," she began, indicating her first point with a raised forefinger. "Faith returns to Sunnydale whilst doing her job only to be run down by you and your super-friends who are still getting off on what she did years ago."

Willow opened her mouth to protest but no words formed as the look Cordelia gave her hardened dramatically. "Two, she manages to get the third artefact from a shape-shifter who almost guts her in the process. Three," by this time, there were three fingers held up to accentuate Cordelia's argument. "When we come to destroy the artefacts, not only does she take on Varos, she saves mine and then probably your life by taking out that bitch shape-shifter..."

"That you thought was Faith in your vision and believed she was going to kill you," Willow interjected quickly, trying to at least even up the score in some way.

Cordelia faltered for just a fraction of a second, reliving the pain of that moment before she went in for the kill. "And four, it was you who decided to kill Faith with magick and it backfired by harming Tara as well. The only person I've witnessed harming any of the Scoobs is you, Willow. And you did it to your own girlfriend."

The whole shop remained in stunned silence as they waited for Willow to react to Cordelia's outburst. Willow found herself without an answer, but the mention of harming Tara cut her deeply and she focused her resolve on finding a way to get her back. "We need to look for a way for me to get more power," she muttered, deciding not to answer any of Cordelia's points.

Surprised at the lack of conflict, the Seer felt surprisingly deflated and sat back. She winced slightly as a wave of pain burned through her stomach but she fought off her nausea and stamped down on her anger, satisfied at least partially, that she'd been able to set Willow straight on a couple of issues. "So do you know of any other summoning spells that we could use?" She asked again.

"Not off the top of my head," Willow returned quietly. "It's time for some more research."

The rest of the room groaned at the thought but the sounds were quickly muted by Cordelia's sharp stare that encompassed everyone. Reluctantly, those around the table reached out to grab books.

"Why are you still reading?" Anya enquired as she took another sip of her coffee.

"Did your brain desiccate when they took away your powers?" Cordelia asked incredulously.

The blonde ex-demon returned the Seer's stare easily. "Possibly. I'd have to ask D'Hoffryn. What I don't understand is if Willow knows how to get Tara and the psycho back, why aren't we just making preparations to do it?"

"Because I need to find a way of harnessing enough power to do it." Willow ground the words out deliberately slowly, as if speaking to a small child.

Anya used the same style to answer her. "But you already have a way of harnessing the power."

By this time the whole Magic Box was focused on the conversation. There was a long pause as they waited for Anya to tell them what they were missing. After the pause showed no sign of being broken Xander decided to prompt his girlfriend. "Honey, what are you talking about?"

"The incantation to summon Varos will generate the power Willow needs."

"But we don't have the artefacts," the red-haired wiccan pointed out persistently.

Giles interrupted, suddenly recalling Anya's previous comments. "No. The incantation doesn't rely on the artefacts at all. Of course. Anya, that's brilliant."

The blonde girl smiled in surprise. "Really? Does this mean you'll let me look after the money from the shop now?"

Wisely deciding to ignore her last comment, Giles began to pace as he pounced onto the task at hand. "We still need three people to perform the rite."

"And Tara's not here," Willow pointed out quickly. "I'm not sure that the recitation could be performed by only one witch."

"But I've already done it once," Cordelia pointed out. "And it worked all right. We just need Anya to do Tara's part."

Willow groaned. "She'll never remember it correctly. That's why you had to do it."

"I am still in the room you know," Anya pointed out.

"I know," agreed the auburn witch acidly.

"Look. We don't have a choice here. Unless you want Buffy doing the spell." Cordelia looked up for an instant and met Buffy's hazel eyes apologetically. "Sorry, no offence."

Buffy shook her head and gave the Seer an amused look. "None taken."

"So all it comes down to is when to do the incantation again."

"You're serious aren't you? You're prepared to summon Varos back in order to get Faith back?" Giles stared at Cordelia in amazement.

"Deadly serious Giles. If Varos comes back with them, at least we'll have two slayers and two witches to help us defeat him."

"Those are odds I'll take," Angel supplied softly.

Giles looked round at the other occupants of the Magic Box as he considered the alternatives. He took off his glasses and absently cleaned them before speaking again. "So when are you going to do this?"

"As soon as Anya's learnt the incantation," Cordy vowed.

 

Tara licked her lips nervously as she considered what Faith had told her. The brunette girl was quite right of course. There would be no way of determining who was at the portal should Willow have the power to reopen it. More to the point, even if she knew it was Varos standing there, Tara doubted that she would have the power to prevent him from coming through the gateway without collapsing it. She flicked her eyes at Faith who was studying her quietly and then sighed. "I can't do it Faith. I won't use power I don't understand."

"What?!" Faith exploded. "So you're prepared to let that thing be unleashed on Sunnydale again?"

"No. I'm not going to let that happen again either," she told the slayer.

"So what are you gonna do then. Invite him back to the cave for afternoon tea?"

"I'll collapse the portal from this side if he attempts to enter it."

There was a long pause as Faith stared at Tara. She immediately understood the implications of Tara's plan but allowed herself a few moments of denial before responding. "You're going to destroy our route home?" It was intended to be a question, but it was voiced more like a dull statement of fact.

"That's what I meant by there always being a choice," Tara told her softly.

"Well that ain't my choice Twinkie," Faith retorted. "I have no intention of staying in this hellhole for longer than absolutely necessary."

"Faith, I can't use this power on Varos."

"So you keep saying. But you're quite happy to sacrifice me in the process of keeping your principles."

"No. I'll collapse the portal once you're through. That way we can guarantee Varos not returning to Sunnydale."

Faith shook her head. "Jeez Tar, do you really think I'm gonna let you stand here and destroy your way home?"

"It's the best option we have."

"No it isn't." Faith turned on her heel and began to head to where Varos and a number of other demons were standing. "If you don't want to use magick to destroy him, we'll go back to the old-fashioned method," she muttered, swinging an arm down towards her boot and plucking out her knife as she strode along.

Tara stared at Faith's back for a moment, unsure if Faith was calling her bluff or not. Then she realised that it didn't matter. The slayer was determined for her to change her mind one way or another. Shaking her head, the blonde witch hurried after Faith and tugged her on the arm.

The younger girl shook her arm free but stopped walking. "Changed your mind?" She asked.

"No, but you can't go up against Varos just like that. It would be total suicide."

"And what you're proposing isn't?" Faith spat back contemptuously. "I know what you're saying Faith, but there has to be another way. Let's just back off and think for a few moments and see if we can come up with another plan between us." Tara knew that it would be foolish to dismiss Faith's plan totally out of hand. It would simply make the young brunette all the more determined to go through with it. And, she had to admit, Faith did have a point about her own decisions. Their best option was to work things out together. She just hoped Faith appreciated that.

The shorter girl studied Tara's face for a moment as she contemplated her words. Reluctantly, she nodded tersely. "Come on then. Let's find somewhere safe and get thinking."

The two girls turned together to put some distance between themselves and Varos but made no further attempt to go anywhere when they saw four demons standing in their path. As they turned round to look for an escape route, Tara and Faith quickly realised that they were surrounded.

"How the hell did that happen?" Faith muttered, her fists clenching as she inspected the lines for any weaknesses.

"They sneaked up on us while we were arguing," Tara replied, feeling responsible for the situation.

"Well, now you're in a predicament," Faith told her. "Cos there's no way I'm gonna be able to deal with all of these munchkins."

"Well, what do we have here?" A deep voice resonated from behind them. Faith and Tara turned round and saw Varos approaching them.

"It's the good little witch and the dashing Knight."

Tara frowned, confused at his words. "Dashing knight?" She whispered at Faith.

The Brunette slayer squirmed slightly before answering. "It's my surname."

"Dashing's your last name?"

Faith shot the blonde girl an icy look. "Please tell me you're not that dense."

"And I know you know who I am, so that completes the introductions." Varos took charge of the conversation once again.

"How polite of you," Faith returned. "So what do you want?"

"Always so impatient," Varos' deep voice mocked the slayer. "However, there is something I require from you."

Faith looked at Tara quickly before scanning their surroundings again. As far as she could tell, they had no escape routes at all. Deciding to play along with Varos, the rogue slayer spoke again. "So what is it that you require from us?"

"Nothing from you, slayer. But I need the witch."

Tara stiffened and her eyes widened slightly. "W-w-what f-for?"

"I need you to open the gateway back to Earth."

Tara shook her head assuredly. "There's n-no way I'll help you get b- b-back there."

The tall demon smiled maliciously. "You don't have a choice," he told her.

"Deja vu, much," Faith muttered.

Varos ignored the brunette and continued to stare at Tara. "You're a good little witch. Only using good power, assisting when necessary and never for personal gain. I know this about you."

Tara swallowed. "Then you know I'll never help you," she retorted.

"Ah, but what will it take for you to change your mind. The torture of your friend perhaps?"

Both girls looked at each other. "Tara, don't do it," Faith warned.

They looked around and saw the demons that had surrounded them closing in.

 

For Tara, it felt like time stood still as she watched the demons close in on her and Faith. Her mind raced with the options she had available to her. There was no way that Faith could fight them all off. From the size of some of them and with some of the weaponry they were holding, it would be unlikely that Faith could deal with more than one of the attackers before she and Tara were overpowered and presented to Varos. The only thing the blonde witch knew for certain was that she would not die. Not yet at least. All the time she was useful to Varos, she would remain alive. Whether she was harmed or not was a different story.

Tara had no idea how the massive demon would deal with Faith. Certainly, he would use her as a lever to manipulate her into helping him, but what would he do if she agreed? Faith would no longer be needed whether Tara chose to help Varos or not. She had to find another way to deal with the problem. Unfortunately, the only other way of dealing with the problem would be to unleash her powers on her attackers, something she had already told Faith she was reluctant to do.

Tara's indecision continued to rage through her mind as the demons crept infinitesimally closer. With alarming clarity, she noticed the brunette slayer tense and prepare herself for conflict, the muscles in her arms rippling as she moved into a defensive stance seemingly as slowly as the demons were moving. The older girl noticed gratefully that Faith had positioned herself in front of her slightly, prepared to defend her despite at this moment being the less powerful of the two of them.

Tara's vision of slow-motion came to an abrupt and very noisy end as soon as the first demon got within swinging distance of the Southie slayer.

Faith floored the hulking blue creature with a high kick to the throat and followed it up with almost supernatural speed by flashing her knife across the demon's windpipe, taking it out of the fight instantaneously.

The dark fighter's actions brought Tara back into real time and she watched the fight with a morbid detachment as she continued her internal debate over whether she should use her powers.

Faith wasn't so lucky with the next onslaught. Two demons attacked simultaneously and despite landing strikes on both of them, she was also on the receiving end of several vicious blows.

As the momentum of a punch to her face span her round, Faith locked eyes with Tara. "You made a decision yet?" she gasped, not waiting for an answer as she ducked a swinging arm from her attackers.

Faith's words bored into Tara's mind and she glanced nervously between her friend and the tall hulking form of Varos who was standing to one side, watching the fight with an amused grin on his face.

The blonde witch swallowed and then flinched as Faith took another blow to the head. The brunette girl was staggering now, yet her own attacks continued. Luck favoured her again and she managed to dispose of another demon with a stab to its chest after he left himself open.

Even as Faith withdrew her knife, she received another blow, this time between the shoulder blades and she was sent flying across the clearing. It took her a moment to get her breath and even longer to drag herself onto her hands and knees.

She wasn't like that for long though. A fresh demon took an opportunity to kick the slayer in the abdomen, flipping her over onto her back and winding her again. Faith rolled quickly, avoiding another crushing blow to her body and swept her leg round, introducing her attacker to the ground abruptly before she elbowed it in the throat.

Faith rolled and stood in one fluid movement, her chest heaving as she desperately tried to draw oxygen in. She could feel sweat rolling down her face and she wiped her eyes quickly in an effort to stop the salty liquid stinging her eyes. The rogue slayer knew that she couldn't keep this rate of attack up for long. She could feel herself tiring rapidly and there were still demons watching and waiting to join in the fight.

Instinctively the brunette ducked and avoided an axe swung by a demon standing behind her. As the axe reached the zenith of its arc, Faith judged that her attacker was at its most vulnerable and she whipped a leg up behind her to kick it squarely in the chest.

Off balance herself, she could do nothing but collapse as a second attacker kicked her other leg solidly. As she flipped over onto her back, she was stopped from getting up as the axe she had avoided seconds ago was held across her throat.

"You have an appointment with our master," the vile creature hissed, inching the blade slowly into the slayer's flesh.

Faith didn't even dare swallow, knowing that the movement would probably disturb the weapon enough to cut her. She held her hands out to the side, palm side up in supplication, hoping that the gesture was enough to indicate her submission.

The demon standing over her paused before flicking a tad more pressure on the axe. It was enough to draw blood and Faith's eyes blazed with both anger and fear, her fists clenching automatically as she prepared to fight once again.

She felt a great pressure on her shoulders and realised that she had been pinned down by other demons but was relieved to feel the blade withdrawn from her neck.

"Make any sudden moves and the axe goes straight through next time," the demon warned. It nodded at its companions and they hauled the renegade slayer to her feet roughly.

Faith obeyed and remained still. Her eyes sought out Tara and she was relieved to see that the girl remained unharmed. The blonde wicca was being held by another demon and together, they were marched to where Varos stood, his arms crossed over his chest in an aggressively dominant stance.

"I should kill you where you stand," he told the brunette coldly. Varos glanced towards Tara. "But then I would lose my bargaining power with the witch." He looked at Faith again before nodding at the demons holding her.

Faith felt an immense pressure on her shoulders as they tried to force her to the ground. The Bostonian resisted instinctively, but a blow to the back of her knees made her legs collapse and she found herself kneeling on the ground with her face jammed into the dirt. She struggled to move her face to one side in order to facilitate breathing but could do no more as she felt her arms yanked back, almost to the point of dislocating her shoulders.

"Now then," Varos continued conversationally. "I need you to open the portal for me, witch."

"I've already told you I can't do that," Tara returned, her eyes fixed firmly on Faith.

"Perhaps I can change your mind," suggested the huge demon mildly before gesturing to another demon. It came forward brandishing a large, serrated knife and approached Faith carefully.

"Are you sure you can't help?" Varos asked mockingly.

If you think slicing and dicing me up is gonna change Blondie's mind, you're sadly mistaken," Faith spat at the tall demon.

"Oh the knife isn't for you," Varos retorted. "Well, not directly anyway."

Both Faith and Tara frowned at the demon's comment as Varos' minion closed the gap between himself and Faith. Once standing over the slayer, it flicked the knife out and cut through her jacket and top.

Faith willed herself to remain still and in spite of herself, marvelled at the skill of the demon. She could feel the cool blade as it travelled down her spine but not once did it break her skin.

Once the cut had been made, the demon yanked the garments apart, exposing Faith's back. Tara noticed a large number of scars that patterned the brunette's back and could only wonder at how those previous wounds had been inflicted.

Varos' soldier leant down and then held its arm over Faith's back. It slowly drew the blade across its own skin, forcing the knife to cut deeply as it sliced into its musculature. The demon clenched and relaxed its fist repeatedly, encouraging the blood to pump freely from the large self-inflicted wound. Satisfied that it had drawn enough of the dark, viscous fluid, the demon turned its arm over and allowed a couple of droplets to fall and splash onto Faith's back.

At first, the Bostonian only felt a cold, wet sensation from whatever the demon had put on her back. As the substance reacted with her skin however, she could feel it begin to burn and she instinctively arched her back in an effort to get away from the feeling. She was unable to move much more than that by the demons that kept her shoulders firmly pinned on the ground. Faith grunted from both the pain of the liquid and the pressure Varos' minions subjected her shoulders and arms with.

The liquid hissed and bubbled as it melted the slayer's skin and then spread itself deeper into the tissues of Faith's back. She resisted making any noise as it melted away her epidermis, but as the foul black substance met the nerve endings located in the deeper tissues, Faith could no longer keep silent and an agonised scream was wrenched from her throat.

Varos turned to Tara and smiled coldly. "Have I changed your mind yet?" He enquired.

 

It was dark by the time Buffy and the others entered the cemetery. The blonde slayer had performed an early patrol to eliminate any unwanted guests before their arrival and now circled the area cautiously, watching for any other vampires or other undesirables. Every so often, Buffy returned her gaze to where Willow was preparing to repeat the incantation. Her best friend appeared nervous and on edge. There were dark circles under her eyes, indicating how tired she was and yet she approached each task with determination.

Buffy had been surprised at how patient both Willow and Cordelia had been with Anya that afternoon. The two girls had taken it in turns to go through the incantation with the ex-vengeance demon and between them had got Anya up to scratch. Unfortunately, there had been more than a few heated arguments between the red-haired wiccan and the Seer over what would happen and how soon they could perform the ritual. Cordelia had harangued and badgered Willow until the witch had finally agreed that they would carry out the recitation that evening, despite Willow being uncertain as to how ready Anya was.

However, once the decision was made, the others had jobs to do and sprang into action. They would be down one slayer and a witch initially, so Buffy, Angel and Gunn armed themselves with as many weapons they could carry. Xander went on a shopping spree and collected not only the ingredients necessary to burn during the ritual, but a number of additional weapons, including a grenade gun.

Giles decided not to ask him how he had managed to acquire his armaments and busied himself with the preparation of the ingredients.

Finally ready, the odd assortment of friends and associates made their way to the graveyard discretely, avoiding the residents of Sunnydale as much as possible.

Giles looked steadily at Willow. "I'm ready to ignite the ingredients," he told her. "Are you sure you're capable of doing this?"

Willow swallowed and then looked at Cordelia briefly before returning her gaze to the ex-Watcher. "I can do this. With their help," she acknowledged Cordelia and Anya with a nod.

Giles looked up and sent a signal to Buffy. When she returned an agreed gesture meaning that it was relatively safe for them to proceed, Giles nodded at Willow and then withdrew from the three girls after using a lit match to set light to the contents of the cauldron.

Willow looked at Cordelia and Anya, waiting for them to acknowledge that they were ready.

Cordelia closed her eyes for a second and unconsciously rubbed the wound dressing that still covered her abdomen. It was uncomfortable but not too painful. For reasons that escaped the Seer, it comforted her to touch the site, perhaps reminding her that it was Faith that had stopped the attack from being more serious. This was, as far as Cordelia could tell, the only route left to try and rescue Faith and Tara. They had one opportunity to get it right, and the ex- cheerleader was beginning to get nervous over their chances of success. However, she could not afford to reveal any of her reservations. She had bullied and cajoled Willow into performing the incantation sooner rather than later. Although it was the red-haired witch who held the magical power, it was Cordelia's responsibility for the timing.

Deciding that there would be no further point in waiting, Cordelia nodded firmly towards Willow and then looked at Anya, hoping that her confidence would rub onto Xander's girlfriend.

The money-obsessed girl felt the gaze of the others firmly on her but was unconcerned by the pressure. She had memorised her part in the ritual and was just waiting for the go-ahead. They would either be successful or they would fail. Anya knew that she would miss Tara but she never really knew Faith and had no feelings for the rogue slayer whatsoever, other than wanting to keep her as far away from Xander as possible. She indicated her readiness and the three women then positioned themselves diametrically opposite each other.

Willow took the lead and gestured to the others to begin the recitation, allowing the power to flow through her as the incantation continued and drawing on all her magickal strength. As she continued the spell, her eyes grew dark, a reflection of the black magick she was invoking alongside the incantation in order to manipulate the energy harnessed by the incantation.

She could feel the energy radiating from Anya and Cordelia. The auburn wiccan was slightly surprised at how powerful the energy was from Cordelia and wondered at the woman's hidden power. Willow began to shake slightly under the strain of holding onto all the energy and knew that it wouldn't be long before she created the gateway to bring Tara home.

 

Tara's eyes widened as Faith screamed again, a hoarse, pitiful wail as the slayer began to lose consciousness from the pain. Her back was a seething, bubbling mass and sweat was pouring from the brunette's face.

Tara looked back at Varos and opened her mouth in order to capitulate, but something caught her attention before she uttered a word. Behind the tall demon, a bright shimmering light wavered, deepening in colour as it grew in size. Tara immediately knew what it was and from the look on Varos' face, he knew what it was too.

"It seems I underestimated the powers of witchcraft on the Earth," Varos commented. "I don't need your assistance after all." With that, he signalled over to where a number of his minions were assembled. Instantly, the lesser demons formed up and prepared to pass through the rift.

"Kill them both," Varos instructed coldly to the remaining demons. He stalked over to where his troops waited.

What happened next appeared to happen simultaneously, though Tara performed the magick sequentially. First, she sent a simple protection and healing spell to encircle Faith. As soon as the final words to the spell left her lips, the dark slayer was enshrouded by a glowing aqua globe. The demons holding her and torturing her were repelled instantly, flung away from the Bostonian with great force and landing in a dazed heap some distance away from the now protected girl. They did not get up.

Satisfied that Faith would remain protected for the time being, Tara turned her attention to where the rift was growing rapidly. Recalling how her simple fireball was so effective, she cast the spell again, sending it straight towards the rift in the hope that its magickal content would disrupt the rift enough to collapse it.

There was a distinct crackle as the fireball made contact with the rift and then it suddenly disappeared.

For a moment, Tara thought that she had failed, seeing that the rift was continuing to expand. She began to rack her brains for a more suitable spell when suddenly the rift began to collapse on itself, the ugly tear in the skyline diminishing slowly as it appeared to run out of energy to sustain itself.

It was then that Tara realised that the only thing she had failed to do, was protect herself. As Varos turned to face her, his eyes blazing with anger, Tara knew she was in trouble.

 

Cordelia opened her eyes slowly. Her face and arms felt hot and tight, as if she'd been sunbathing for far too long without any protection. The hairs on the back of her arms felt brittle and dry. Hesitantly, she reached up to check if she still had any eyebrows or hair.

Relieved to find everything still in place, the tall Seer sat up gingerly. Across from her, she saw Anya, held in Xander's arms and she felt a small pang of envy, wanting to be in the arms of the woman she loved. Cordelia noticed Anya's face was bright red and there was a distinct lack of eyebrows. The ex-vegeance demon had obviously been less fortunate than her.

Cordelia frowned, noticing how tight her face felt as it moved. There was something wrong. Xander was not looking at his girlfriend at all. The dark-haired man was staring in horror at something else, his hands clutching Anya convulsively.

The Seer followed Xander's gaze and gasped at what she saw. Buffy, a look of grief-stricken horror etched on her features, was being physically restrained by both Angel and Giles from moving any closer to what Xander was looking at.

In the middle of the cemetery, lying on brown, scorched grass was Willow Rosenburg's blackened, twisted body.

For a moment, Cordelia didn't know why Buffy was being held back but as she looked more closely at the grisly scene, she noticed sporadic flames bursting to life around the witch's body as the heat continued to burn any material that was still combustible. It was obviously far too hot for anyone else to approach safely.

She stared at the nightmarish scene for a few moments longer before turning her gaze to where Willow had placed the portal opening. She had seen it grow steadily in size as their recitation continued, and her heart leapt at the thought of being reunited with Faith. The more cautious side of her had dampened her soaring spirits and she instead concentrated fully on completing the incantation and studying the rift. Suddenly, a fireball had burst through the opening, headed directly to where Cordelia was standing with Anya and Willow. It had blown her off her feet, the intensity of its heat burning her as it passed her.

Now the rift was shrinking and the Seer had no idea how to prevent it from closing altogether. As Cordelia forced herself to look once more upon Willow's body, smoke rising from the centre of her chest, she realised that they now had no way at all of rescuing Tara and Faith. Her anger, frustration, grief and despair at the situation emanated itself in just one word.

"Fuck."

 

Tara stared at Varos, her eyes wide with horror and she realised that her mind had gone completely blank. She could not think of a single spell that might give her some defence against the massive demon and stood frozen, as Varos closed the distance between them rapidly. She stared at the demon's eyes, his anger burning through them and she knew that he had taken on the role of her executioner.

At the last second, the blonde witch closed her eyes and waited for a blow to strike her body. It came from an unusual angle and Tara frowned as she felt herself get propelled laterally, held in someone's or something's arms. She grunted as she landed but realised that whoever it was that had grabbed her had twisted their bodies so that she landed on top of them and then they rolled along the ground together, minimising the shock of hitting the floor.

She opened her eyes as soon as they came to a halt and saw Faith quickly scrabbling to get off of her and rise to her feet. She locked eyes with the slayer and wordlessly indicated that she was unharmed for the moment. Faith's shirt hung round her shoulders but had somehow remained on her body, affording her some cover for her front at least. Tara noticed that the brunette's back was pink and shiny, as if it was made of new skin and showed no sign of the torturous wounds that had been inflicted on her only moments ago. The blonde witch frowned slightly as she realised that every scar on the younger girl's back had also disappeared and wondered at the power of the healing spell she had cast.

Faith looked back to see Varos charging towards them, his army swarming behind him. "We're gonna die," she muttered fatalistically before turning back to her friend and yanking her to her feet. "Come on Blondie, time to test out your sprinting skills." Her voice was hoarse and raw, an after-effect of the strain she had put her throat under as she had screamed in agony when the demon blood had reacted so violently with the skin of her back. Tara winced at the sound, knowing that it was her fault that Faith had suffered so appallingly.

Faith kept hold of Tara's hand, squeezing it reassuringly after reading the blonde girl's face accurately and then set off for the trees, hoping that in amongst all the forestry, they might stand a chance of hiding for a while at least. Faith's back was still burning with pain, but her skin felt like it was intact again and she no longer felt the searing agony she had endured whilst the demon had dripped its blood on her. She knew that Tara would be immersed in guilt but they didn't have the luxury of time to allow her to wallow in it. She needed Tara to be focused so that they could stay alive for as long as possible.

Faith didn't expect Tara to resist her pull and stumbled slightly as the wiccan yanked her back. She turned round quickly. "Get a move on Tar. If we stay here, we're dead."

"No." Tara shook her head emphatically.

"No? What the fuck are you talking about?"

Tara's eyes widened slightly and she used her hands animatedly to explain herself. "We've been looking at this all wrong. We have to get that portal open," she began.

"You're joking, right?" Faith looked at her incredulously.

"No I'm not. We have to get Varos through the rift and back into Sunnydale." Tara turned round and began to walk back towards the demon and hoard.

She was stopped by Faith grabbing her shoulder and pulling her round roughly. "Are you mad? He'll kill you. And if he doesn't, he'll rampage through Sunnydale."

"No he won't," Tara insisted. "Faith, trust me on this."

"I'm not good on trust," the brunette pointed out.

Tara switched glances between the slayer and Varos quickly, trying to judge how much time she had to explain. Realising that there wasn't much, she spoke rapidly, secretly relieved that for some reason, she did not waste precious seconds stuttering over her words. "Faith, I know how to defeat Varos. I need your help but the only way we can do this is to get him back to Sunnydale."

"I wish you'd thought of this before I started getting frazzled." Faith couldn't help but point out her experience. She instantly regretted the words as she saw the blonde woman's face react to the comment.

"So do I Faith, I really do. If I had just thought things through clearly..."

"Don't beat yourself up about it Tar," Faith interrupted. "It's just one of those things. I'm an idiot for bringing it up." She gave the girl a lop-sided grin of encouragement. "But it's not me we have to worry about." She looked at Varos as he stormed towards them. "You're gonna have to do a lot of fancy talking Blondie, cos he's totally pissed at us."

"I just hope he doesn't lose patience with my s-stuttering," the blue- eyed girl returned.

Faith raised her eyebrows in surprise that Tara could find the courage to be self-depreciating. She licked her lips nervously and then turned towards Varos, holding her hands up in surrender. "Stop, stop," she called out. "We're not going anywhere."

Varos halted his pursuit and stared at the two humans in confusion. Behind him, the lesser demons took their cue from their master and slowed their approach. They spread out cautiously and encircled their prey to ensure that any further attempt at escape was impossible.

"You disappoint me," Varos commented, crossing large arms over his chest. "The least you could have done after destroying my doorway was provide a decent chase before I kill you."

"I've changed my mind," Tara called out, moving to stand next to Faith. "I will open the p-portal but I need to act quickly b-before the rift collapses." She gestured to where the shimmering light that indicated an opening between the worlds continued to shrink steadily.

"You lie. It's a trick," Varos retorted dismissively.

Tara shook her head firmly. "No, it isn't. You'll have to trust me on that. If you spend too long pondering my honesty, the portal will disappear completely and then I really won't be able to help you. I have no way of knowing where any portal I created would open. You and I both know that the rift created over there leads to Earth. So, do you want my help or not?"

Faith looked at Tara in amazement. She had never imagined the blonde witch would be so forthright or confident. She was bluffing with style and barely concealed arrogance. She knew before Tara did that Varos would be unable to refuse.

"Fine. Open the portal. But please allow me a modicum of security. I shall hold the slayer here until I can confirm that you have opened the rift correctly and that it isn't a trap." Varos knew the nature of the witch. There was something wrong with what she was doing but he couldn't work out what it was. He needed some hold on her, and he had already seen how the blonde girl had reacted to the torture of her friend.

"No chance," Tara retorted quickly. "I need to draw on Faith's physical power to expand the portal and then keep it open. I have the arcane ability but my body doesn't have the physical strength to perform the casting. I need to do a binding spell to borrow Faith's strength so that I can remain conscious long enough to create a stable portal." Tara's mind was racing. Her idea certainly sounded plausible but she didn't know if Varos would believe her. She added some more information as she saw the tall demon hesitate. "Remember that the casting on Earth took the power of three witches. I have their magickal ability here, but not the physical attributes of three people." She looked out of the corner of her eye towards Faith. Inwardly she sighed with relief as she noticed that the Bostonian kept her face a mask of neutrality.

"Then use one of my minions to draw strength from," Varos suggested, not wanting to relinquish the dark-haired girl.

"I can't do that. I need a strength that's compatible to mine. I need human strength," Tara demurred. She glanced over to where the rift continued to shrink. "I suggest you make up your mind quickly or you'll lose your chance."

"Why help now?" Varos could not shake the feeling that there was something more to this than he was aware of.

For the first time, Tara hesitated. She hadn't anticipated that question. To her immense relief, Faith stepped into the breach.

"We'd rather die at home than here," she supplied. "And if we get you back to Sunnydale, the others might be waiting to kick your ass," she added, crossing her arms to copy his arrogant stance. Faith didn't know what Tara was planning or what was going to happen on their return, but she knew that if she added enough believable facts in their story, Varos would take the bait.

Her words seemed to convince the massive demon and he swept his arm back towards the portal, gesturing for the two women to make their way back to the clearing.

Tara walked confidently towards the portal, keenly aware of Faith's presence just behind her, shielding her from Varos and his army. The witch knew that the younger girl couldn't help but want to protect her, despite the fact that Tara was by far the stronger of the two here.

They stopped in front of the diminishing light that indicated the rift. Tara turned towards Varos and spoke again. "It's up to you of course, but I suggest you go through first. We'll be right behind you."

"You're not going through the portal until all my troops are through," Varos corrected her.

Tara looked steadily at him. "I can maintain the portal from either side. I want to go home and so does Faith. We will follow you through," she repeated firmly.

"No you won't. You'll do as I say or you'll die right now," Varos snarled, angry at her manipulation.

The blonde woman remained silent for a few moments as she considered her options. She had no intention of allowing the massive army of demons through the rift but she had no idea how to convince Varos to let them through before the others.

Once again, it was Faith who came up with a solution. "Then you're not going anywhere. Come on Blondie." She tugged Tara's arm to move away from the shrinking rift.

Varos looked at the two women and the portal quickly and made his decision. "Stop," he ordered. He waited until Tara and Faith turned back to face him. "You'll follow me through," he agreed through gritted teeth. "But you'll be accompanied." He tossed his head towards his army.

Tara did some quick calculating. Even should she be able to open the portal completely, she doubted it would be wide enough to accommodate more than four people walking through simultaneously. It was asking a lot of Faith to deal with Varos and the two demon escorts but she hoped fervently that Willow and the others would still be waiting and be able to help take them out. She knew without a shadow of a doubt that she could collapse the rift the moment they were through. It would then be a question of how many more of Varos' army managed to get through before it disintegrated completely.

"Agreed," she complied, nodding reassuringly at Faith, who looked at her in surprise.

Satisfied that he had at least some control over what was going on, Varos stood back and beckoned the two women forward once again. Tara looked at Faith and smiled, a wave of uncertainty flooding through her seemingly from nowhere.

The brunette slayer returned the smile and nodded encouragingly at the witch. "Go for it, Blondie," she told her supportively.

The older woman looked at the rift that by now was no more than a dazzling white spot that was beginning to lose its brightness. She had to act quickly and she took a deep steadying breath before she raised her arms.

Tara began the spell and decided to worry about how she knew the incantation after it was all over. She could feel power ripple through her and then shoot out from her fingers towards the tiny spot that remained of the portal. Immediately, the portal stopped shrinking. As Tara continued to feed power to the rift, it began to grow again, the light it emitted getting stronger as the portal got larger and larger. Although she had been bluffing when she told Varos that she needed Faith's strength, Tara began to feel herself weakening as more and more power flowed through her. She forced her voice to become louder in the hope that she could grow stronger with it, but was careful not to take any energy from the incantation. To do that would be to use magick for her own personal gain and the blonde witch was determined not to fall into that trap.

Faith noticed Tara pale slightly as she continued the spell. The brunette's eyes darted everywhere, assessing where Varos and his army were in relation to where she stood with Tara. She knew instinctively that she would have to act quickly when the time came but the rogue slayer was not sure exactly what she was waiting for. Faith saw Tara sway slightly and put a supporting arm round her waist. She knew that whatever else she had to do, Tara had to be protected until the portal could be closed permanently.

Tara felt a strong arm wrap round her body and leant into Faith. No longer having to worry about remaining upright, the wiccan concentrated on the completion of the incantation and her eyes widened as the portal expanded completely, radiating an almost blinding light.

Satisfied that the rift had been opened and was stable, she looked over to where Varos was standing impatiently. "Time to go through," she told him, her voice shaking slightly, reflecting the effort it had taken for the girl to perform the spell.

Varos nodded but looked at the portal suspiciously. After staring at the opening for a few moments he returned his gaze to where the two humans stood. "Change of plan," he snarled suddenly, stalking towards them quickly.

Faith tensed immediately and crouched into a defensive stance. Her slayer enhanced hearing picked up the whispered "Wait," instruction from an exhausted Tara and the Bostonian held back.

"Just in case you've manipulated anything, I think we'll go through together," Varos told the two girls and he reached out to grab their arms. Once again, Faith tensed automatically and was about to lash out when she saw the look in Tara's eyes. The brunette gritted her teeth and forced herself to remain passive as the tall demon lead them to the portal entrance.

"If you've set a trap, you're about to be the ones to set it off," Varos told them and strode through the rift, yanking the two girls with him.

 

Faith tensed as she stepped through into the portal. She wasn't sure what she was expecting or how it would feel to transcend dimensions. She couldn't remember how it felt when Willow sent her to Varos' realm but that had been because she had been too busy fighting the shape-shifter.

Whatever it was she was anticipating however, wasn't what she felt. The brunette was almost disappointed. She had the sensation that she had just stepped through a door and into another room. There were no bright lights, flashing images or feelings of disorientation. One minute, she and Tara were in a demon world with purple sky and a strange atmosphere, the next they were back in Sunnydale, in the same cemetery that they had left however long ago it was.

All these thoughts were processed almost instantaneously however, as Faith concentrated on the task at hand. She glanced quickly over to Tara to make sure that the blonde witch was all right and then yanked her arm free from Varos' grip. "Show time, Twinkie," she commented, her eyes sparkling at the thought of fighting the demon again. The Bostonian had already noticed that the demon was not as large as he had been in his own realm. His powers must have been altered too as it took no effort for her to extricate herself from his hold. The rogue slayer stepped back and crouched down defensively and was grimly satisfied to watch Varos take on her challenge and ignore Tara.

The wicca took advantage of Varos' distraction and tugged her arm from his grip. She moved away quickly but kept her eyes on Faith and the demon. "You deal with Varos," she directed Faith somewhat unnecessarily, "and I'll deal with the portal."

Faith acknowledged her comments with just the barest flick of her head before she smiled maliciously at Varos. "Let's do it," she goaded. Even as she finished speaking, the girl spun round to deliver a high roundhouse kick, her heavy boot landing on Varos' abdomen.

The tall demon didn't react to Faith's movements, expecting her foot to bounce off his body uselessly. As her boot connected however, he realised something was desperately wrong. He doubled up as pain shot through him, even as he lost his balance and was sent hurtling back to land on the ground with a grunt.

His reaction startled Faith. She had psyched herself up in the belief that she might as well be kicking a brick wall. For Varos to tumble back so easily shocked her.

The raven-haired woman only hesitated for an instant. Knowing that they were on a much more even footing, she quickly closed the distance between herself and Varos and attacked again, capitalising on the demon's condition and his own confusion.

Varos found himself on the receiving end of a flurry of vicious blows, each one causing him more pain than the last. He couldn't understand why he was so weak but knew that if he didn't stop the onslaught, he would be defeated before the battle had even started. He was also aware that the blonde witch would attempt to close the portal before his minions stepped through. He had to deal with the slayer first and then get to her before that happened. As his physical strength appeared to have deserted him, Varos called upon his magickal abilities to eliminate the troublesome brunette. He cast a straightforward energy beam to incapacitate her and directed the spell with an outstretched hand.

Faith instinctively knew that Varos was casting a spell and threw herself into a forward roll, diving to one side in the hope that she could avoid the impact of the magick missile. As she snapped her head round to look at the large demon once again, she noticed the look of disbelief on Varos' face. She also realised that she hadn't seen any magickal discharge. Varos quickly pointed at her again but this time Faith made no move, going on a hunch that was milling round in the back of her mind. Once again, no magick came forth.

"Looks like the original incantation worked, Varos," she taunted, understanding at last why Tara wanted him brought back to Earth. "You have no powers here at all. They've been taken from you."

Varos snarled at the young slayer and attempted a different spell. When that resulted in nothing, the demon reverted back to the one thing he had left, his sheer size and weight advantage over his attacker. Bracing himself to deal with the pain that he knew he would feel from her blows, Varos charged toward Faith, hoping to return some pain of his own making.

 

Tara deliberately isolated herself from Faith's struggle, as she knew that she couldn't afford to be distracted. She had to get the portal closed before Sunnydale was inundated with demons from the other plane. She turned her back on the rogue slayer, confident that Faith could deal with Varos now that he had no magickal powers to make him stronger. The blonde witch studied the portal for a moment and then raised her hands, preparing to close the rift for good.

Just as she was about to begin the incantation, movement in her peripheral vision caught her attention. She knew it wasn't Faith. The brunette was on the other side of her. The wiccan adjusted her vision to focus on what it was that had distracted her. She gasped audibly as she saw Buffy being restrained by Angel and Giles, a look of distraught horror on her face. She took in Xander and Anya huddling together and Cordelia opposite them, now staring at Faith. But Tara thought she'd stop breathing altogether when she realised what it was that Buffy was staring at. Willow was lying motionless on the ground. Her body was blackened, as was the ground surrounding her. Tara's stomach contracted as it dawned on her that Willow had been on the receiving end of the fireball she had created and it was sheer determination that allowed Tara to keep the contents of her stomach down.

Instantly, all thoughts of closing the portal vanished from Tara's mind and she sprinted to where the others were standing. She had to get to Willow and see if she could save her.

As the blonde woman ran towards the scene, she found her progress halted by a pair of strong arms wrapping round her waist in an effort to restrain her. Struggling uselessly in the powerful arms that held her, she twisted her head round to discover who it was that was preventing her from getting to her lover's side.

"Gunn let me go!" Tara didn't even bother to wait for the dark man to comply but released herself from his grip with magick. She watched Gunn land some distance from her and turned back to where Willow was lying as soon as she saw the man moving again. Her mind was reeling. How could this have happened?

As she got closer, she slowed her approach, her skin registering the intense heat that was still radiating from where Willow lay. Tara was determined to get to her lover's side and she strode purposefully toward the prone body.

She was stopped for a second time however. This time, the arms enveloping her belonged to Buffy. Tara looked at the grief-stricken face of the slayer and knew that it mirrored her own visage. "Let go of me Buffy," she pleaded, holding back on the magick this time.

"You can't go to her Tara," Buffy replied, her voice hoarse with emotion. "It's too hot. You'll hurt yourself."

Buffy had at last realised why Angel and Giles had restrained her. Seeing Tara approach Willow made her realise that she wasn't the only one feeling intense pain. That thought diverted her from her original reaction of surprise and wonder at the blonde witch's return. Her rage at whatever power had harmed Willow abated as she saw the raw anguish on Tara's face and she had quickly extricated herself from Angel and Giles' grip, reassuring them that she would not go any closer to where Willow lay.

"You don't understand, Buffy. I have to help her." The words were barely audible as the blonde wiccan continued to stare wide-eyed at the body of her lover.

"Tara, I'm not sure you can do anything to help."

"I must be able to. This was never meant to happen." Tara shook her head, berating herself silently yet again for sending the fireball at the portal.

Buffy studied the taller woman carefully. "Tara, you can't blame yourself for what happened here. You and Faith weren't even here when this happened."

As soon as the words were out, Buffy saw that she had said the wrong thing. Tara's face crumpled as the tears began to fall. Seconds later, huge sobs wracked her body and she clung onto Buffy desperately.

"But I am to blame," she forced out raggedly. "I am to blame."

 

Faith ducked a blow from Varos easily and grinned as she squared up to him again. "You're gonna have to be quicker than that," she taunted before quickly stepping inside his guard and landing another blow onto the demon's torso.

The brunette was doing some rapid thinking. Despite Varos' weakened state and lack of magick, he was simply too big for her to take out easily. Although she sensed him weakening from her continued onslaught, she was beginning to doubt if she had the ability to defeat him alone. The Bostonian was also concerned about the decided lack of assistance she had. Tara had disappeared off to close the portal, but Faith had expected Buffy and the others to be here, yet no one had come to fight by her side. She bit down on her disappointment that Cordelia wasn't present. The emotion turned quickly to concern as Faith remembered that Cordelia had been wounded by the shape-shifter. What if she had been hurt badly? Or even worse...

Faith shook her head in a physical attempt to stop her thoughts. The momentary distraction was enough for Varos to land a vicious jab right on the brunette's jaw and Faith found herself flying through the air and landing on her back, the force of the landing expelling the air from her lungs with a loud whoosh. She stood up again and tried to clear her head, at the same time sucking in gulps of air as her chest protested at its violent treatment.

The renegade slayer looked round and noticed that the portal was still open. The bright light that the rift emitted was broken by several shadows and Faith realised that demons were beginning to march through. For an instant, she wondered what had happened to Tara that prevented her from closing the rift and then Varos was charging towards her again.

Faith tensed as she watched his approach and then looked in wonder as the massive demon spun suddenly, clutching his eye as he staggered back. When he turned back to face her, Faith saw the quills belonging to a stubby crossbow bolt protruding from Varos' left eye. He flailed one arm wildly even as his other hand tried to support the bolt that was lodged firmly in his head.

The Southie slayer looked around quickly to see where the unexpected assistance had originated.

Standing alone and calmly reloading her weapon, Cordelia Chase looked up at Faith with grim determination etched on her features.

Faith's initial reaction was one of relief. To see the taller woman standing there alive was all Faith had wanted ever since they had been separated by the rift and she felt her chest contract with emotion. A wave of pride surged through the dark-haired girl and Faith couldn't help but smile widely back at the taller girl. Faith knew in that instant that she wanted Cordelia to be a permanent part of her life. If she had to apologise forever in order to get her to understand, she would.

Cordelia hadn't seen Faith and Tara return through the portal. But the movement from the fight that commenced soon afterward caught her attention. At first, she couldn't believe what she was seeing. That thought was quickly replaced with an almost ecstatic joy that she had been given a second chance to be with the brunette. That joy was tempered somewhat when Cordelia saw Tara run to where Willow lay. Her heart lurched for the blonde witch as she looked at the raw grief on Tara's face.

Cordelia's attention returned to where the Bostonian continued to battle with Varos. She mentally berated herself as her critical eye noticed that Faith was unable to gain an advantage over the massive demon. She had seen enough fights now to know when additional help was needed. The ex-cheerleader scouted around and she smiled maliciously as she saw a crossbow lying discarded nearby. She hurriedly retrieved her weapon of choice and grabbed a handful of bolts.

Deftly, the tall brunette loaded the weapon and then waited patiently for a clear shot. She was determined to inflict maximum damage on Varos to give Faith the upper hand which meant that she had to be totally accurate. Her other most pressing concern was Faith's safety. The last thing she wanted was to accidentally wound the slayer in the process.

Slowing her breathing down, Cordelia calmed herself as she took aim. As the two combatants changed position, the Seer sensed an opportunity about to arise. She held her breath so that her aim wouldn't be thrown inadvertently and loosed the bolt just as Varos faced her, satisfied to watch the missile bury itself in Varos' left eye.

The tall ex-cheerleader kept one eye on Faith as she turned round to locate the originator of the bolt, and another on the crossbow, as she automatically began to reload the weapon. When she saw the girl smile widely at her, Cordelia, on impulse, blew a kiss in her direction, wondering at the same time what had happened to her propriety. She felt her cheeks burn as the younger girl looked stunned for a moment before licking her lips in return and the pounding she could feel in her chest suddenly dropped to a lower part of her body. At that point, the tall Seer made a promise to herself that somehow she would get Faith's trust back. If she could do that, then maybe Faith might just reciprocate her feelings.

With shaky hands, Cordelia concentrated on reloading the crossbow and hoped that she could calm herself down a second time in order to assist Faith again.

Faith's mouth went dry as soon as she saw Cordelia blow a kiss at her. For a moment, she lost all sense of logic and wanted to close the distance between them in an instant. She licked her lips nervously and then mentally berated herself for what it might look like when she saw the older girl blush. The Bostonian quickly wrote off her actions. She certainly couldn't undo them and it wasn't out of character for her to do something like that. Her slayer senses kicked in and Faith returned her concentration to Varos, easily ducking his flailing arm before stepping towards him and landing a quick flurry of punches.

As she stepped back out of his reach, Faith heard Cordelia call out to her. The brunette slayer ducked to one side as directed and then turned back to face Varos. She was amazed to discover that Cordelia had once again found her mark and had now totally blinded the large demon. She moved away from Varos, satisfied that he was no longer any threat to her. As soon as she could find an axe or a sword, she would finish the demon off.

Noticing Faith distance herself from the massive demon, Cordelia reloaded her crossbow again and delivered another bolt, this time to the centre of its chest. She watched in morbid fascination as Varos sank slowly to the ground, knowing that he had begun his death throes. One more bolt, this time buried in the demon's thick neck, sent him to the ground more rapidly and the tall Seer refocused her attention on the rogue slayer.

Unfortunately, Varos' demise was not the end of the fighting. Faith's senses were going off like crazy and she turned toward the rift. Stepping through the portal were four of Varos' soldiers and Faith could see the shadow of more demons behind them. She glanced round hurriedly, looking for any additional back up. Cordelia was good but she wasn't fast enough with the crossbow to deal with the demon horde about to break through.

Catching sight of Angel, Gunn and the others, Faith yelled out to them. "Get your asses in gear, people. We have demons to stop."

Her words seemed to have the desired effect as Angel turned at the sound of her voice and sprinted towards her, swinging a battle-axe in anticipation of the fight ahead. Gunn, now recovered from his run-in with Tara, quickly followed him.

The vampire's movements stirred Buffy and Xander into action, both of them secretly relieved of a distraction from what had happened to Willow. Xander collected his grenade launcher while the blonde slayer grabbed a more traditional halberd to engage the enemy with after guiding Tara to where Giles was standing.

Entrusting the almost catatonic witch into the watcher's care, they sprinted to where the demons were stepping through the portal and began to pick them off.

Faith grunted as she disposed of one of the first demons through the rift. "What the fuck's happened to Tar? She should have closed this thing by now."

"She can close the portal?" Angel wanted clarification, ducking quickly as a demon swung a large sword at his head.

"She said she could. Maybe her powers have returned to normal now we're back," the brunette speculated.

Buffy turned her head quickly after disposing of her attacker with a swipe from her halberd. "I don't think she's in a fit state to do anything."

"Well get her fit then," Faith retorted, totally focused on the task at hand and still unaware of Willow's condition. "There are about a thousand demons on the other side of this rift. We'll never be able to fight `em all."

Buffy looked at Faith in shock, before turning to take on another demon. "How the hell did you get back?" she asked, amazed that Faith and Tara had survived.

"Long story B. Tell you if we get out of this one," Faith offered, swinging her leg low to floor her opponent before burying a knife deep into the demon's chest. She extracted the blade rapidly and scouted round for her next target. Picking one out, she began to close the distance between them. Her intended victim staggered back suddenly, clutching its chest. The younger slayer looked to where Cordelia stood reloading her crossbow yet again and mouthed a 'thanks' at her before selecting another demon to deal with. Cordelia merely nodded her head in acknowledgement before taking aim once more.

"Shit, we're getting smothered here," Gunn complained between punches.

"Tell me something I don't know," Buffy shot back.

"Get Tara to close the fuckin' portal," Faith repeated.

Buffy looked round swiftly, assessing the situation. "There's no way I can leave you here," she demurred. "Xander," she called over to where the young man stood launching grenades in quick succession at the entrance to the rift. "Get over to Giles. Tell him that Tara can close the portal."

The dark construction worker hesitated for a moment, unwilling to leave the others to fight the invading marauders. When Buffy yelled at him to move, he turned and ran over to where the Englishman stood with Tara.

It took him a few seconds to regain his breath after the sudden exertion but he swallowed rapidly in an effort to slow his respiration rate. "Giles, Tara can close the portal," he gasped, repeating Buffy's words verbatim.

Giles frowned as he looked at Xander. "What?"

"She can close the portal. We need Tara to close the portal or we'll be overrun with demons." Xander elaborated briefly.

"Is this true?" Giles directed the question to the blonde wicca.

Tara continued to stare at where Willow lay and did not answer the question.

Worriedly, Giles switched his gaze from the scene of the battle and Tara. He grabbed the witch by her upper arms and shook her slightly. "Tara, can you close the portal?" he asked forcefully.

The young girl stared back at the Englishman and blinked, slowly realising that she was no longer looking at the body of her lover. She shook her head slightly. "What?"

"Can you close the portal Tara?" Giles reiterated the question again slowly.

"Yes, I think so," she mumbled, turning her head to where her lover laid.

"Tara, you have to shut the portal. We won't survive if you leave it open. You have to concentrate on this task," Giles told her, a desperate edge creeping into his voice.

"I'll lose her if I shut the portal," Tara told him distractedly.

"What are you talking about?"

"If I close the rift, I'll lose my powers. I had more magickal ability over there. I had the power to heal Willow." Tara knew that the statement was true even as she spoke the words. "If I close the rift, I'll lose that power and I'll lose Willow."

"Tara," Giles began again. "If you don't shut that rift, we will all die."

"Can't you do both?" Xander interrupted after listening in on the conversation.

Tara stared at the dark-haired man for a moment. "I don't know," she admitted. "I don't know how long the residue of power would last once the rift is sealed. I don't think it would be enough time for the magick to work on Willow," she replied after a few moments contemplation.

"Tara, even if you have the power to revive Willow, do you have the right?" Giles felt pained asking the blonde woman such a pointed question. He had known Willow for years now and regarded her very much as another daughter. However, years as a watcher made him feel obliged to comment on the moral issues involved and he had no idea what sort of consequences would result if Tara interfered.

Tara turned and opened her eyes wide. "The right?" she asked incredulously. "The right? Who do you think it was that sent that fireball through the rift?" she retorted angrily.

Giles and Xander flinched as the meaning of Tara's words sunk in. She waited and watched their expressions before she continued. "That's right Giles. I sent the fireball through in a misguided attempt to close the rift. If I had thought things through more thoroughly, Faith wouldn't have had to endure abject torture at the hands of Varos and Willow wouldn't be..." Tara choked, unable to actually voice what had had happened.

Giles looked at the girl with sympathy. "Tara, you mustn't blame yourself for this. You had no way of knowing how the fireball would react."

"But I should have known. I knew that Willow was trying to re-open the rift. I should have realised that the fireball I conjured would destroy the source of the rift." Tara's fists clenched convulsively in frustration. "But I have a chance to save her. I can bring her back."

"To what though?" Wesley approached the group steadily. He paused for a moment, considering his words before continuing. "How long will the portal need to stay open to heal Willow? How many demons will have invaded by then? If Buffy and the others are overwhelmed, who's to say that we won't be too? Who would close the rift if we weren't here?"

Tara switched her gaze between the two watchers and Xander. "Once Willow's back, we can use magick on the demons. We've defeated them before." Even as she spoke the words, Tara knew how hollow they sounded. She didn't think she could endure any more pain but she had been wrong. "Please don't make me choose between Willow and them," she pleaded, her voice barely a whisper.

Xander pulled the wicca into a tight hug, trying to console her, even though he knew his gesture was futile. "Tara," he murmured softly. "I know it's not quite the same, but I love her too." He took a deep sighing breath. "But there isn't really a choice to make, is there?"

Tara pulled the dark man closer to her and hung onto him desperately. She knew what Xander had said made sense, but she didn't want to believe it. Sniffing raggedly, she looked at the battle raging near the entrance to the rift. More and more demons were pouring through, many of them staring at the body of their fallen leader before joining to fight with their comrades, fury fuelling their actions.

Xander was right. There was only one action left to take. Gulping rapidly in an effort to control her breathing, Tara raised her hands and began the incantation.

 

Tara had to control her breathing and the turmoil raging in her head. The tall blonde witch took a few moments to centre herself and focus on the task she needed to perform. Once she was confident that she could carry out what had to be done, Tara concentrated on the portal. Its glowing blue iridescence was broken periodically as more demons passed through the rift, passing elongated shadows throughout the graveyard.

The wiccan raised her hands and directed her thoughts on the incantation she needed to recite in order to collapse the portal. It would not be as simple as the first time she collapsed the gateway. A fireball directed at the portal entrance would not collapse the rift as it was now sustained using a spell of her own making. Tara had to drain the energy from the rift so that it could no longer support itself. The only practical way of doing that was to tap into the energy source and then force it to haemorrhage. Tara decided to use her own body as a conduit for the power drain and direct the energy away.

As she was about to perform the ritual, she recalled the events on the other side of the portal when she healed Faith's injuries before collapsing the rift. Could she do the same with Willow? If she could control the collapse of the rift, she might buy enough time to revive Willow. There was even the possibility that Tara could harness the energy she drained from the rift and focus it on Willow, speeding up the process and greatly improving her chances of survival.

Quickly, the tall witch spun round and threw a spell at the blackened body of her lover; her fingers outspread as she directed the energy. As soon as the incantation was complete, she returned her gaze to the opening. Lifting her hands a second time, she cast the spell and felt a strong surge energy flowing through her as she tapped into the power of the portal.

Almost immediately, the rift darkened in hue and it dimmed slightly. Knowing that the portal was collapsing on itself and that it was now just a matter of time before the rift closed completely, Tara switched her attention back to Willow and she ran to where her lover lay. The ground was still hot, but not unbearably so. Tara tentatively reached out a hand but faltered, not wanting to touch the girl while the healing spell she cast was still working.

Belatedly, she realised that she had to hold Willow in order to transfer the power from the rift into her without detection. If they did not share contact, then the energy she directed would manifest itself in a beam of coloured light that would be obvious to everyone around them. Beads of sweat formed on the blonde woman's forehead as she concentrated the energy she was taking from the rift towards the prone witch and then took one of Willow's blackened hands in hers and held onto it tightly as she began the energy transfer.

Tara looked on in amazement as she began to see the effects of the spell. Willow's skin was no longer black or charred, but instead was red raw and covered by large fluid-filled blisters. Despite the improvement of Willow's skin at least, there was still no chest rise or any other sign of movement.

"Come on," Tara begged, her words whispered out as she urged the spell to work faster. "Come on baby, we haven't got much time." She continued to direct the energy at the red-haired witch with one hand while she used the other to run through her hair nervously as she watched. Impatiently, Tara began to drum her fingers nervously on her leg.

She was aware of someone's presence behind her but made no effort to find out whom it was. She caught sight of a strong arm about to wrap round her shoulders supportively, and knew instinctively that if contact were made, energy would dissipate into the other person. "Don't touch me," she called out quickly and she shrugged away from the outstretched limb.

"Sorry," Xander apologised immediately as he retracted his arm. He began to move further away but Tara stopped him, wanting to draw on his strength even as she shared her own strength with her lover.

"No, please stay. Just don't touch me. I need to concentrate," she explained in a rushed voice, not wanting to let Xander know that she was feeding energy to Willow from the portal.

Xander hesitated for a few seconds before settling down beside the blonde woman. He murmured softly at her, not wanting to distract her but desperate to demonstrate his support.

The blonde witch had no idea what the man said, but his manner was comforting and she drew succour from him as she waited for the healing spell to do its work and at the same time allowed more energy to flow through her and then into Willow.

 

Faith, Buffy and the others were too busy fighting for their lives to notice what Tara had done. They had no idea that the rift was closing. Their attention was firmly concentrated on the numbers of demons forcing their way into Sunnydale.

Buffy looked round quickly, re-assessing how many demons they were up against and how her fighting partners were coping. Angel and Faith needed barely a glance. The two of them had identical grim looks etched on their faces as they waded into the melee, trading blows with any demon close enough to attack.

Gunn and Wesley looked decidedly uncomfortable with the number of demons they were facing so Buffy decided to even up the odds and closed the distance between herself and the two men. Even as she fought her way over to them, she noticed Cordelia standing someway back from the main fighting arena, calmly reloading her crossbow and taking pot-shots at whichever demon she got in her sights. The blonde slayer noticed with a wry smile how Cordelia resolutely picked off the demons that were near Faith, ensuring that none of them got remotely close to sneaking up on the rogue slayer to launch a surprise assault. Buffy realised that Faith was also aware of the tactic, for all her energies were concentrated on the demons immediately before her, disposing of each enemy quickly and efficiently before rounding on the next.

As soon as she was in range, Buffy launched an attack at the demons beleaguering Wes and Gunn. They were totally unprepared for a rear assault and it took just moments for the older slayer to even the odds for the two men. However it wasn't long before another group of demons emerged from the rift. Gritting her teeth, Buffy set to work again.

Faith kept a constant check on Cordelia while she was fighting. The renegade slayer was determined that no harm would come to the girl who was defending her back so courageously. The Bostonian ensured that every time she engaged an enemy, she would adjust position so that she drew the demon further away from where Cordelia was positioned. Inevitably, that often meant that she would be blocking a potential shot from Cordelia's crossbow, but Faith much preferred that situation than to have the tall Seer in any more danger than was necessary.

She ducked an attack before leg-sweeping the demon that had tried to take her head off. As she stood upright again the slayer glanced back once again to check on Cordelia before elbowing one demon in the face and simultaneously stabbing a second. She surveyed the attackers wearily, the continued fighting beginning to take its toll on her and realised for the first time that there appeared to be no increase in numbers. Perhaps Tara had finally pulled it together and sorted out the problem with the rift. Unfortunately, the brunette had no time to check her theory as she was set upon by more of the enemy.

Cordelia was mildly surprised to reach down for another bolt and find that she had run out of ammunition. The tall Seer had set up a steady rhythm during the fight, shooting the bolt and reloading in an easy fluid movement, all the time concentrating on the battle in front of her. She knew that it was selfish on her part, but the ex- cheerleader couldn't help but focus on what Faith was doing. Every time she got another opportunity to dispose of any of the demons that Faith was fighting, she made the most of it.

Cordelia wasn't totally oblivious to the fate of the others. Whenever Faith got between her crossbow and a demon, the tall brunette would cast her gaze round and try and help the others. She knew that Faith was deliberately drawing the attackers away from where she stood and was touched that the younger girl would plan her fighting to include Cordelia's protection.

Now, however, she could no longer be of assistance unless she decided to enter into a fistfight with the demons. Much as she would be prepared to do that should Faith become incapacitated and in danger, the Seer knew that at the moment, her actions would only create a further distraction for the other fighters and that her skills would not stand up to the onslaught of the demon hoard.

Cordelia surveyed the scene carefully, scanning the fighting groups whilst at the same time looking for another weapon she could make use of. It was then that she realised that the demon hoard had not increased in size. The tall Seer looked at the rift closely and was certain that it had diminished significantly. This meant that there were less demons coming through.

Noticing another pile of crossbow bolts on the other side of the fighting, Cordelia skirted round the battle in order to retrieve them. She was brought up short when a demon spun round and stepped away from the main battle to stand in front of her, grinning manically.

The ex-cheerleader held up her hand in a futile attempt to stop the demon coming any closer. "Now, just hold on a minute. You don't want to come any closer, I have powerful friends," she warned him, swinging the crossbow in front of her like a club. "They won't like it if you hurt me." Cordelia continued to speak, realising that she was babbling but at a loss as to what else to do.

The demon growled at her before moving forward. "What are you going to do, talk me to death?" he taunted before trying to take a swipe at her.

His attack stopped suddenly, his eyes widening in surprise before his legs buckled and he collapsed to the floor.

"No, she's gonna wait for her girlfriend to save her," Faith commented dryly, smiling widely at Cordelia as she withdrew her knife from the back of the dead demon's body.

The taller girl smiled back in relief. "Thanks," she replied simply before realising what Faith had said. "Girlfriend? Are we okay then?" she asked tentatively.

It was Faith's turn to look hesitant. "If it's okay with you, it's okay with me," she told the other brunette. "C," she started, ready to apologise.

Cordelia stopped her. "Faith, duck!"

Without a second thought, the rogue slayer complied and felt a rush of air as a limb swung over her head, missing her by just a fraction. She grinned evilly at Cordelia as she kicked back before spinning round and dispensing with the demon rapidly. The younger girl turned back quickly. "We'll talk later," she promised before turning back to the fray.

Feeling almost euphoric, Cordelia sprung over to where the crossbow bolts lay and took up a shooting stance once again.

The night grew dark around the fighters as the portal collapsed on itself. The light it radiated from it dimmed rapidly and the cemetery became enshrouded in shadow.

The collapse of the rift caused the remaining demons to panic and at the same time spurred on Buffy and the others. With renewed vigour, they picked off their attackers and it was almost an anti-climax when there was no one left to fight. For long moments, Faith, Buffy and the LA gang stood and stared at each other, all gasping for breath.

As one, they turned to look over to where Tara and Xander knelt beside Willow's body. Seeing no movement, Buffy's heart sank but she ran over to the blonde witch's side, kneeling down next to the woman. She studied the red-haired wiccan's body with wide-eyed amazement.

Willow's skin was blemish-free. There was no sign that the young woman had ever been burnt. She looked peaceful. But her skin held a waxy tone and was unnaturally white, far paler than Willow's normal complexion. Buffy knew that her best friend was dead. She couldn't understand how the witch's condition had changed but she suspected that Tara might well have tried to resurrect her lover using magick. It was clear that Tara had failed however.

The older slayer looked carefully at the taller woman kneeling beside Willow. "I'm so sorry, Tara," she whispered softly.

Tara's face was streaked with tears as the girl cried silently. "I know," she replied, her voice barely audible. "I know." The blonde witch felt an icy cold feeling grow from deep within her chest to envelop her whole body.

Her efforts had come to nothing. Delaying the closure of the portal had only succeeded in giving Faith and the others more demons to fight. Her lover was dead and Tara knew that she had never been powerful enough to bring her back; despite the extra strength the other dimension had given her.

The tall wiccan realised that the icy feeling she was experiencing was guilt and extreme grief that she should be alive when Willow was dead because of the fireball Tara had created. Everything was her fault, everyone had suffered, and there was nothing she could do to change things.

 

Faith stood back from the scene, a feeling of pure helplessness sweeping over her. She could see the raw emotion on Tara's features and knew that there was nothing she could do that would take the pain away. Along with that knowledge, the renegade slayer was feeling guilty for being powerless to prevent what had happened. The guilt was amplified by fact that Faith had the chance to make things right with Cordelia and perhaps have an opportunity at real happiness. It just didn't seem fair to the Bostonian that Tara should be robbed of her lover. The blonde witch was a good, kind girl who should never have to go through that sort of pain.

Faith could feel herself sinking into a dark depression. She had no right to feel happy when Tara was so distraught. As she was about to succumb to her emotions, she felt a pair of arms snake loosely round her waist and warm breath on her neck as the person behind her spoke.

"There was nothing you could have done Faith. Willow was dead before you came back through the rift."

"Doesn't stop me feeling guilty Cor," Faith murmured back, leaning back into the taller woman's arms. She closed her eyes and basked in the comfort Cordelia offered her.

"I know Faith. I feel guilty too." She tightened her grip round the younger girl and drew her in closer. "Poor Tara," she empathised.

Faith nodded. "She loved her so much," she mused quietly.

Cordelia hugged the shorter girl. "I missed you so much." The Seer's voice cracked with emotion as she admitted her feelings.

"Cor, I'm sorry. Sorry for not trusting you and walking out on you. For not giving you a chance." Faith sighed and she laid her hands over Cordelia's hands and squeezed them gently. "I have difficulties with trust," she revealed softly. "But I do trust you." She paused for a beat. "I trust you," she repeated, clenching Cordelia's hands more tightly.

Cordelia could feel her spirits soaring despite the sadness that surrounded everyone in the cemetery. Her heartbeat quickened rapidly and she allowed her senses to experience every bit of the shorter woman that she could.

Together, the two women watched as Xander lifted Willow's body up and took her to Giles' car. The older watcher, Anya and Buffy, who was holding onto Tara and supporting her, followed him.

"Tara," Faith called out suddenly, her voice raw with emotion.

The blonde wiccan turned and looked at the young slayer, her eyes red- rimmed from her continued crying.

"I'm..." Faith began, but stopped, having absolutely no idea what to say to her friend.

Tara nodded her head. She knew that Faith was there for her if she needed her. The brunette had been her protector all the time they were in the other dimension and she would not forget her courage or loyalty. It also gave her a strange satisfaction to see Faith finally in the arms of someone she cared so deeply for. "I know, Faith," she replied softly, knowing that the brunette would be able to hear her.

She turned away without waiting for a response from the young slayer and got into the back of the car, cradling Willow's head on her lap. They would take the auburn-haired witch to Sunnydale General Hospital and answer the awkward questions as best as they could until Willow's parents arrived. Tara had no idea how to deal with them but it would have to be done. Despite knowing that Buffy, Xander and the others would be there to support her, Tara felt despair and hopelessness wash over her. She just didn't know how she would be able to get over this.

 

Faith, Cordelia and the others got out of Angel's car and trooped into the mansion, a heavy air of despondency over them. Willow's death had affected them all deeply and they were all exhausted after the last few days of heavy fighting.

"I'm going to bed," Cordelia announced to the room in general, rubbing her wound absently as it ached after all her exertions.

Faith looked at her worriedly. "Are you okay?" she asked softly.

The tall Seer nodded but looked steadily at the younger girl, silently wishing for her to follow her up the stairs.

Faith looked round at the others and wondered if she looked as exhausted as they all did. She had a sneaking suspicion that she probably looked worse. Taking her cue from Cordelia, she looked at Angel. "I'm beat, dead boy. I'm gonna hit the sack too."

Angel nodded at her, barely hearing the words as he was caught up in his own grief. Willow had changed since he had seen her last but she had not deserved to die. He settled into a chair and used his usual method of coping. He brooded over what had happened and then over all the others he had known die, some at his own hands. It would be a long night but one thing Angel had plenty of, was time. He wasn't getting any older.

Gunn and Wes snapped out of their own private thoughts and concurred that the best thing to do would be to catch up on lost sleep. Though both doubted that sleep would be easy to come by. They passed the girls on the first floor landing and bid them a good night before ascending to the second floor and finding rooms to use.

Faith stepped past Cordelia in order to go to her own room but was stopped by a gentle hand on her bicep. "Faith, would you..." Cordelia hesitated and blushed before forcing herself to continue. "Would you sleep with me? I've just got you back. I want to keep you close," she explained hurriedly as Faith stared at her in surprise.

"Cordy," Faith returned, placing her own hand over the top of the Seer's. "I'm exhausted. I don't think I could do much more than kiss you, and much as I want us to be together I think that we should take a bit of time to maybe plan something first. I'd kinda like it all to be..." She stopped as Cordelia placed the forefinger of her free hand over her lips.

"Since when did you babble?" she asked rhetorically. "I didn't mean sleep together, sleep together. I just want to hold you and not let go," she told the shorter woman, blushing again as she vocalised her feelings. "I've missed you and so much horrible stuff has happened. I just want to be close to you." She felt Faith's lips pull into a smile and removed her finger, smiling back. "Besides, I never sleep with anyone without at least going out on a date with them," she told her primly.

Faith laughed. "So I've gotta take you out on a date?" she asked. "I'd love to. Maybe when we get back to LA?" she suggested tentatively.

Cordelia nodded approvingly and the slayer let out a breath she didn't realise that she'd been holding. "Now that we've cleared that up, of course I'll share your bed with you," she phrased her words carefully. "Let me just get something to wear." The Bostonian frowned suddenly. "Did you pack me anything to wear in bed?"

Cordelia's smile widened. "It took me some time, but eventually I found some shorts and an old t-shirt. It's probably the closest you'll ever get to nightwear," she replied.

"Probably," admitted Faith. "I just don't like wearing it," she groused. She stepped back from the taller girl. "I won't be long," she promised and then disappeared into her room.

Cordelia hurried into her own room and changed quickly into a pair of rich purple silk pyjamas. She folded her clothes away and then used the bathroom, scrubbing her teeth quickly but thoroughly. As she exited, she saw the brunette slayer pad down the hallway, toothbrush in hand. "Hey," she greeted.

Faith wrapped her arms round the older girl loosely and planted a quick kiss on her lips. "Mmmm, minty toothpaste. Let me clean mine and then I'll be in," she vowed.

The Seer nodded and swallowed, suddenly nervous. "Are you okay about this? I don't want to put any pressure on you."

Faith kissed her again briefly. "Cordelia, I know you're hot, but I can control myself." She got the smirk she was looking for and released the taller girl from her grip. Quickly, the brunette stepped into the bathroom and finished getting ready for bed.

Despite Cordelia's open invitation, Faith still found herself knocking on the bedroom door. She grinned as she heard the Seer give permission to enter and she opened the door slowly. When she walked through the door she saw that Cordelia was already in bed, but had sat up to wait for Faith to enter.

For a moment, Faith was unsure as to whether she could keep her promise to the older girl and keep her hands off her. Cordelia looked stunning and alluring and totally sexy as she waited for her to get into bed.

Hesitantly, Faith approached the bed and waited again, not used to sharing a bed with anyone other than for the purposes of getting laid.

Cordelia elegantly flipped the covers back and patted the free space in the bed. "Get your ass in here Faith," she told the younger girl. "Before all the heat escapes."

The rogue slayer ran a hand through her hair and then did as she was told, turning to wrap the tall ex-cheerleader in her arms as Cordy pulled the covers back over them. "You okay?" she whispered softly.

"I am now," Cordelia replied, equally as softly before lowering her lips onto the younger girl's. They kissed gently for a few moments, Faith running her hands up and down the silk-clad back of her lover slowly as Cordelia gently rested her hand on the slayer's shoulder. The kiss deepened though neither of the girls could tell who it was that triggered the change. Cordelia let out a gasp as she moved her hand round to pull Faith in closer and as she did, she rolled on top of her, exploring Faith's mouth deeply and revelling in Faith's attention.

Faith pulled Cordelia onto her body tightly, enjoying the press of her breasts against her own. She parted her legs slightly to accommodate the taller girl and groaned as she felt the Seer's thigh press into the apex of her legs. Wanting to reciprocate the pleasure, she raised her leg slightly and applied pressure to the woman lying on top of her. The rogue slayer's fingers played with the hem of Cordelia's pyjama top and then she moved them underneath the material, feeling the soft, hot skin of her lover's back for the first time and she took her time in exploring the smooth contours.

Faith heard Cordelia moan into her mouth, even as she felt the kiss deepen again. She knew, dimly that if she didn't stop, she would take this exploration far further than she intended or had promised and reluctantly she pulled her lips away from the embrace, her breath ragged as she tried to calm her raging emotions.

For a moment, Cordelia was unfazed and merely turned her attention to Faith's jaw line and earlobe before nuzzling down the girl's neck, licking and gently biting the fevered skin with relish and passion. She sucked at Faith's pulse point more vigorously and it was only when she felt herself being pushed away did she realise that things had changed.

She looked into the impossibly dark eyes of the girl lying under her and frowned in confusion. "Have I done something wrong?" she asked, her voice husky with emotion.

"No, you've done everything right, that's the problem," Faith groaned. She rolled the pair of them over so that they lay side by side. "If we go on like this, I won't be able to stop," she breathed, planting a chaste kiss on the Seer's pouting lips. "And I promised you a date, remember?"

Cordelia nodded and breathed out heavily, trying to push down her burgeoning arousal before returning a soft kiss. "Thank you," she murmured sincerely before burying her head into the shoulder of the younger woman, realising that she could quite happily have let Faith ravish her forever at that moment. By stopping, Faith had proven once again to the tall Seer that she really cared about her and certainly not just about herself. Once more, Cordelia felt privileged that it was she who was the focus of Faith's attention and perhaps even love, though she dared not mention that word in case she scared the younger girl away. All too often, she had heard Faith dismiss love as just another way to hurt someone. The ex-cheerleader knew that she would have to play that hand very carefully indeed before she could reveal her true feelings toward the Bostonian. Even as the thoughts manifested themselves in her mind, Cordelia buried herself further into Faith's embrace. Her heart lurched as she realised that she had fallen for the slayer in a big way and as she calmed her rapidly beating heart, she hoped fervently that one day, the pair of them would be comfortable enough to admit their feelings openly to one another without fear of misunderstanding.

Faith responded to Cordelia's embrace, hugging her tightly for a moment before settling down and watching the taller girl relax in her grip. Cordelia succumbed to sleep more quickly than Faith thought she would and she felt her own eyes grow heavy-lidded as she basked in the warmth the other girl emitted. Faith allowed her eyes to close and drifted off into a dreamless sleep.

 

Faith sensed bright sunshine through her closed eyelids as she slowly became aware of her surroundings. She could feel the warmth of the sun on her face and a pair of arms surrounding her. She smiled without opening her eyes. Somehow, during the night she must have turned over and Cordelia had spooned herself behind her. The brunette slayer gloried in the sensation of the taller woman behind her and sighed contentedly as she felt the Seer squeeze her before moving her hands in small circles over her abdomen.

Instantly, her body became aroused and she felt her body push back into the grasp of the taller girl. Her smile widened as she felt Cordelia's feather-light touch wander over her taut stomach and play with the hem of her shirt.

Without warning, Cordelia dipped her fingers underneath the material and stroke gentle patterns on Faith's now heated skin. Faith's breath hitched in her throat but she felt paralysed by Cordelia's ministrations and allowed the ex-cheerleader to continue the mapping of her body. Her breathing suffered again as she felt soft lips brush over the back of her neck and begin to nibble and lick at her skin but once again her body moved of its own will and pressed further into Cordelia's embrace.

Faith could feel her arousal soaking her thighs and she pressed her legs together in frustration as Cordelia continued to run her fingers all over her abdomen, rising to brush just the underside of Faith's breasts before drifting lower again.

Faith moaned at the all too-brief contact and then her brain finally kicked into gear. "Cor, you're gonna have to stop," she murmured, amazed that she was stopping the Seer for a second time.

"Mmmm, don't want to," Cordelia mumbled back, nipping her neck more eagerly.

Faith allowed herself to relish the sensations Cordelia was inflicting all over her body for a few more moments and then dropped her shoulder and spun round in the bed, coming nose-to-nose with the taller girl. "I mean it, Cor," she whispered huskily. "If you carry on, I won't be able to stop myself."

Cordelia stared into Faith's deep brown eyes for a long moment before raising a hand to brush her cheek. "I don't want you to stop," she replied hoarsely.

Faith's eyes widened at Cordelia's words. Still she hesitated. "What about your date?" she asked.

Cordelia smiled widely. "I changed my mind," she told her rakishly before closing the distance between their lips and kissing the younger girl forcefully.

For a moment, Faith hesitated but as Cordelia's words registered, Faith stopped holding back and the two women increased the urgency of their actions, hands and fingers touching and exploring each other as they revelled in their intimacy.

Once again, it was Cordelia who took the dominant position, rolling the two of them over to lie on top of Faith without breaking contact with Faith's lips.

Surprising herself, Faith allowed Cordelia to take the lead, and enjoyed the attention the taller girl lavished upon her. She extended her neck as the Seer began to pay attention to it, turning her head to one side to give the girl greater access and shivered as Cordelia grazed the sensitive part just behind her ear.

Sensing Faith's increased arousal spurred Cordelia on and she lowered her hands to find the hem of Faith's shirt so that she could remove the layer that prevented her from getting to Faith's skin.

The rogue slayer happily assisted by lifting her shoulders up as the item was peeled off her and then she pushed her head back into the pillows as she felt Cordelia's hot mouth begin a blistering assault on the top of her chest, moving slowly lower, even as one hand drifted up to cup a firm breast. Her nipples were already hard but they stiffened again as the tall girl paid particular attention to them, twisting and lightly pinching one with her thumb and forefinger as she nipped and suckled on the other, her ministrations reddening the area.

Faith gasped as bolts of pure pleasure rocketed from her breasts to the sensitive nerve bundle at the apex of her legs and she wondered how long she would be able to hold out before she begged Cordelia to touch her intimately.

Cordelia appeared to sense her need however and the hand that had been content to gently stroke the slayer's side wandered steadily southwards till they met the waistband of Faith's shorts. Without pausing, Cordelia pushed her fingers underneath the clothing and brushed her hand over the damp curls that lay beneath. Gently, she moved her fingers lower and groaned as she felt how aroused Faith was. Slowly, she coated her fingers, allowing them to explore the outer folds carefully as she moved her mouth back up to meet Faith's lips.

As she kissed the brunette, she thrust two fingers inside her, plundering her mouth deeply as she pushed her fingers further inside the warm pulsating flesh. The tall Seer drew a thigh up to add pressure to her hand and then set up a steady rhythm, thrusting deeper and deeper as she continued her assault on the slayer.

Faith was lost in the sensations. She could feel her walls clenching round the slender fingers of the woman lying on top of her and at the same time revelled at the deep kiss Cordelia was subjecting her to. She was on total sensory overload and loving every second of it. She could feel her breath getting more ragged by the second and her body twitched as her hips rose to meet Cordelia's rhythm. She knew she couldn't hold out much longer but didn't care. She had never been lost in the sensation like this before. It was blowing her mind and she just didn't want it to stop. As her body got higher, Faith tore her lips away from the Seer and squeezed her eyes shut, arching into her touch and breathing in short, sharp pants.

Cordelia could feel that Faith was close and gloried in the power she had over the girl. She was totally aroused by the sight of Faith so close to the edge, her hair damp with sweat and rocking to her touch. She had never seen anything so beautiful or felt as connected to another person.

She moved her thumb to apply pressure to Faith's nerve bundle and within a few short strokes, was rewarded with the sight of seeing Faith arch spasmodically as her orgasm washed through her. Even more amazing was hearing her own name wrenched from the renegade slayer's throat as she came, repeated again twice more in a whisper as Faith began to calm down.

"God, you're beautiful," Cordelia whispered as she stroked damp curls away from Faith's forehead.

The Bostonian's eyes fluttered open and she forced herself to focus on her lover. "Cor, that was..." she hesitated, totally at a loss for words. "It was amazing, C." She smiled and cupped the Seer's cheek before brushing her thumb over the older girl's lips. "You're amazing," she corrected herself, a shy smile on her face as she looked at Cordelia intimately.

"So are you," Cordelia replied easily before dropping a brief kiss on the other girl's lips.

Faith took the opportunity to deepen the kiss and flipped Cordelia over easily. "You're wearing far too many clothes," she complained good-naturedly before setting to work divesting the Seer of her clothing and, to Cordelia's repeated delight, getting to know her body thoroughly.

 

Faith grumbled as she felt cool air flow over her body. "What time is it?" she muttered, barely understandable.

"It's gone midday," Cordelia answered as she picked up a towel and wrapped herself up in it. "I'm taking a shower and then I have to go shopping," she explained as the slayer rolled over to watch her lover.

"Shopping? We're going back to LA today. Can't it wait?" Faith realised with horror that her voice had turned into a whine by the end of her question.

The tall Seer closed the distance between her and Faith quickly and planted a chaste kiss on swollen lips. "No, it can't. There's something that I must buy now. But you don't have to come with me. Just stay here and sleep. I won't be long."

"You won't be shopping long?" repeated Faith incredulously. "Can I have that in writing?"

Cordelia laughed. "Don't worry. I made a shopping list that I promise to stick to. No browsing, honest." She turned and opened the bedroom door, glancing over her shoulder as she left the room. "I'll save the browsing for when we go shopping in LA." The tall Seer chuckled as she heard Faith groan and flop back onto the bed.

Moments later, the tall ex-cheerleader stood under the shower and ran her hands through her hair to slick it back. She took a few moments to allow the water to soak her thoroughly before she began to wash herself.

She was vaguely aware of a cool rush of air as the bathroom door opened and smiled as she felt a strong pair of arms wrap round her. "You here to do my back?" she asked as she continued to soap her front.

"Hmmm," Faith nuzzled the taller girl's neck. "I'm certainly here to do you. Your back will probably get cleaned as a side-effect," she murmured, running her hands over the lower part of the Seer's abdomen before dipping one hand into the junction of Cordelia's legs, delighting in finding a rich creamy moisture present that had nothing to do with the shower.

It took the two girls a long time to complete their ablutions but eventually they managed to summon enough self-control to get dressed.

"I'm gonna go and visit Tara," Faith told her lover as they descended the stairs of the mansion together.

"Are you sure that's wise? I don't think she's going to be up for much company," Cordelia demurred. She was secretly more concerned over the potential reception Faith would receive from Buffy and the others. The Seer had no such doubts over Tara's reaction but she held no jealousy over the relationship the blonde witch had with Faith. It was good for the renegade slayer to have friends as well as a girlfriend.

"I know, but I have to see her. Just to tell her, well, you know..." Faith struggled to express her emotions over what had happened.

Cordelia helped her out by placing a quick peck on the lips. "I know," she replied, rubbing her hands up and down the smaller girl's strong biceps. "I'll see you later," she promised before turning and exiting the mansion.

 

The visit to Tara was less painful than Faith thought it would be. Buffy and the others allowed her to enter and gave her space and privacy to speak with the bereaved wiccan. Once again, Faith struggled inarticulately to express her feelings over what had happened but Tara seemed to understand and stopped the slayer mid- flow with a tight hug. The brunette hesitated just a fraction before returning the grip but as she held the taller woman, Faith realised that she had found a true friend in the shy, introverted witch. What made it more important was that, though outwardly the two appeared to have very little in common, they shared a common bond of loss and insecurity. And both of them had trusted each other instinctively, without waiting for proof of worthiness.

Willow's family had already set many arrangements and Faith vowed that she would return with the others to pay her last respects at Willow's funeral. She also extended an open invitation for Tara to visit her in LA, that the older girl accepted gratefully.

By the time Faith returned to the mansion, Gunn and Wesley were already loading the car with their luggage. The brunette jogged up to them quickly. "You all set to go? I haven't even packed yet."

"Don't sweat it," Gunn replied easily. "Cordelia's already got your stuff together. Most of it's already loaded."

"Cordelia's back already?" Faith rocked back on her heels in surprise. "Jeez, she must have stuck to the list," she muttered to herself.

"She's gone upstairs to get changed," Wesley added as he put another bag in the trunk of the car.

Faith squinted up at the darkening sky. "Won't be long before sundown," she commented. "Angel ready for the off?" The rogue slayer had not spoken to the brooding vampire since the fight and she knew that he would have a lot on his mind.

Wesley seemed to read her thoughts. "He'll be alright Faith. Like the rest of us, he just needs a bit of time to get over what happened." He looked at the brunette sharply. "And I need to know what happened to you over in the other dimension." His expression softened as Faith pulled her face into a grimace. "But that can wait till we get back."

The three friends walked into the mansion together and found Angel pacing in the hallway.

"All ready?" he asked quietly.

"Yep. Five more minutes and it will be dark enough for you to go," Gunn told him.

Angel glanced round. "Where's Cordelia?"

"Getting changed apparently. She said she'd be down any minute," Wesley supplied. The young Englishman glanced at his watch. "That was about twenty minutes ago," he added dryly.

"Cordelia, are you ready?" Uncharacteristically, Angel raised his voice and shouted up the stairs.

"Coming," Cordelia yelled back, though there was no indication that the Seer was going to leave her room any time soon. Faith bit back a snigger at her lover's choice of words and kept her eyes cast firmly on the floor so that she wouldn't catch any of the others eyes.

The click of a lock caused the brunette to look up and she gasped in astonishment, feeling her mouth dry suddenly and her pulse accelerate to an alarming rate.

Cordelia Chase carefully stepped down the stairs. She was encased in a skin-tight set of motorbike leathers. The suit matched Faith's own suit but for the fact that, if anything, it was an even tighter fit. In her left hand, she held a black motorcycle helmet. Her feet were shod in a pair of above-the-knee stiletto black boots. She smiled at all her admirers, knowing that she had got the reaction she wanted. "I'll be riding back with Faith. Once she's changed into her leathers, that is," she told them, smiling lasciviously at the younger girl.

"Er...okay then...we'll er...set off in a minute then," Angel stumbled over his words as he tugged his collar. It had suddenly constricted round his throat. Cordelia was just grateful that it was the vampire that had chosen to answer her and not Wesley. If he had started she would still have been standing round waiting for him to finish stammering well into the following week.

"What a fox," Gunn breathed, his eyes widening as he realised that he had vocalised his thoughts.

Faith gently slapped him on the cheek. "Yeah," she breathed. "But she's my fox, okay?" Without waiting for an answer, Faith started up the stairs, shivering as she brushed past her leather-clad lover. "I won't be long," she promised the taller girl.

"I doubt that," Cordelia replied, equally as softly. "Is this stuff easier to get on if you wear clothes underneath?" she asked conspiratorially.

Faith groaned as the meaning of the Seer's words sunk in. "Keep telling me things like that and we'll never leave for LA," she told her.

Cordelia arched her eyebrows coyly. "But imagine how hot I'll be by the time we get home," she suggested, her grin widening as Faith groaned again.

The brunette all but pushed her lover down the remaining few stairs. "Wait by the bike," she instructed, struggling to keep her voice under control. "I'll be right there."