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Chapter Twenty-Seven: Quality Time

San Francisco

"Where have you been?"

A brief glance at the sports watch on her wrist showed Faith that she was only three minutes late. She shot an annoyed look at Aaron and continued towards the bench at the back of the basement. She dropped her duffle bag on the wooden bench and turned to sit down. Purposefully, Faith ignored the watcher's expectant expression as she retrieved her wraps from the bag.

Instead, she took her time checking the room over as she wrapped her hands with the long strips of black cloth. The basement had been converted into a gym, hardwood covering what had most likely once been a cement floor. Blue floor mats lined the wall to her left, and a set of doors were off to the right. She could only assume that it led to the locker room and the showers.

Various pieces of exercising equipment were spread around the basement, chief among them weightlifting and cardio equipment. A chin-up bar was set into the crème painted brick walls in one corner of the room and several heavy bags were suspended from the rafters off to one side. A thickly padded ring was set up in the center of the room, its' purpose obvious to the Slayer.

"Ahem," He cleared his throat. "I believe I asked you a question."

"Dude, I was only three minutes late," Faith scoffed, standing back up. "Get over it all ready."

He looked as if he were going to continue his protests. Faith just gave him a pointed glare. Then he lifted the clipboard he held and scanned it briefly. He glanced up at her, taking in her outfit.

"Couldn't you have worn something a little more appropriate?"

Faith glanced down her body at the white T-shirt and the slightly loose black mesh gym shorts she wore. She'd become accustomed to wearing less revealing clothing for training. It made for a better impression whenever a Slayer's family was around. It was more Giles' influence than hers.

"What exactly is the problem with what I have on?"

Her voice had dropped dangerously low. If he gave her some flimsy excuse that just betrayed how much of a pervert he was, she was going to lose it. She didn't like him enough as it was. He didn't need to add sexual predator to the list of reasons she'd begun to build up in her head.

It had started out as a list of reasons to maintain her cover. Then it had quickly deteriorated into a list of reasons to kick his ass. He'd pushed too many of her buttons at once in less than forty-eight hours. It brought out the violent psycho that wasn't buried nearly deep enough inside her.

"Most of the testing I do requires demonstrations of your abilities," He answered stiffly. It was apparent that he'd been offended by her not so veiled conclusion. Good.

"And your point would be?" She crossed her arms over her chest.

"One of them is stealth," Aaron continued. "Your shorts will make noise as you move."

Oh, that. She smirked. Then she lifted an eyebrow, challenging him.

"Bet you they don't."



They'd just reached the turnoff for their parking garage when Dawn suddenly twisted in her seat to flash Buffy a reckless grin. Despite the emotional turmoil she was in, Buffy was extremely worried. That wide smile and the upward lift of her eyebrows spelled trouble. It was all Faith.

It was times like these that she was reminded the most that Faith was Dawn's best friend. Dawn would give Buffy a look or make a comment that could have only come from one source. The same could be said for Faith, who sometimes slipped into Sunnydale speak with frightening ease. Those memories eased the tightness in Buffy's chest enough to make her breathe easier again.

Smiling softly, she asked cautiously, "What?"

"I've just had the most brilliant idea ever."

Now Buffy was truly disturbed. Then Dawn was reaching for the cell phone mounted on the dashboard of the SUV and Buffy began to get an idea of what Dawn was hinting at. She knew she should be responsible and tell Dawn no. She'd only just come back from her `vacation'.

But... Buffy sighed, watching as Dawn punched in the speed dial for the office. I just want to curl up somewhere and sleep until either Faith comes home or I forget everything else. I don't think I can handle going back to the office and wading through paperwork until my three o'clock.

The sound of the phone dialing filled the car, once, twice, and then the phone clicked as it was answered. The click was the tap they kept on their phones, another of their security measures. A throat cleared and then the familiar, pleasant British voice of Giles' secretary spoke up.

"Rupert Giles' office, this is Evelyn. How may I direct your call?"

"Evie, it's Dawn," She announced. "How are you?"

"Oh, Ms. Summers, I'm doing well, and yourself?"

"I'm fine," She said gently. "But I need to log myself and Buffy out."

"Oh dear," Evelyn murmured. "Is the poor dear all right?"

"She'll be fine," Dawn replied, glancing at Buffy out of the corner of her eye. "She's just received some upsetting news while we were at lunch and isn't really fit for work now."

Buffy cringed, but didn't bother to object. It was all ready all over the office about the divorce and the reason behind it, even if the gossip had been kept out of her hearing range. It wouldn't make any difference if she went off on Dawn for that comment. Any rumors at the office would continue to spread through the gossip mill even without fuel added to the fire.

"You tell that sister of yours to take all the time she needs," Evelyn said sincerely. "I'll inform Rupert of your off-site status as soon as he's free. You just help her get better. Rupert should be ashamed for sending Faith away just now, even if something does need to be done about Aaron."

Buffy's brow furrowed. There's a problem with someone named Aaron? I thought she was supposed to help—Wait, that's the name of the Watcher in charge of the San Fran house. Before Buffy could question Evelyn, Dawn was cheerfully ending the call.

"What was that about, Dawn?"

"What was what about?" She responded distractedly as she shifted to look over her shoulder at the approaching traffic so that she could pull back into the other lane.

"I wasn't aware there were problems with the Watcher in San Fran. I thought the issues were with Shawna's behavioral problems and that was why they asked Faith to go in."

"I'm not really sure," Dawn muttered, turning the wheel and stepping on the gas to shoot back into the flow of traffic while she still had the right of way. "That's not my area of expertise."

"Mmm," Buffy murmured, leaning her head back against the headrest and closing her eyes.

She would call Faith later. This was as good an excuse as any. That thought made her smile. Despite the lingering ache in her chest, the day was looking as if it would end on a better note.



Dawn was used to her sister's insanity. She'd had twenty-seven years of it; or thirteen, depending on how you looked at it. But this was a bit much. Buffy had gone from being on the verge of breaking down to relatively serene for a Slayer suffering from heartbreak.

She knew better than to mention that to Buffy, however. She would just count her blessings. Dawn could still recall the expression on Buffy's face the morning they'd gone to retrieve Buffy's stuff from her motel room. She never wanted to see that much desolation ever again.

"Are we going to talk about this?" She'd asked as she turned the key in the ignition.

Buffy had tilted her head and eyed her warily, "About what?"

"The reason you have five large suitcases packed full," Dawn had replied gently.

That was when she'd happened to glance over at Buffy. That look hadn't been something Buffy could hide. It was despair and pain and so much rage. Not even at the pinnacle of her depression after her resurrection could've been compared to what Dawn had seen and it had frightened her.

So now, she just watched from the doorway as Buffy hesitated at the base of the stairs. She finally understood why Faith hadn't let her ride Buffy's case two months before. If given enough time, Buffy could deal with her emotions. It was obvious from the sudden shift in her mood.

But when Buffy turned and headed instead for the den, Dawn had to bite back a laugh. So maybe it wasn't that Buffy could deal with her emotions on her own. Apparently, even over the distance between them, Faith was still working her magic. So maybe she wouldn't try to kick Faith's ass.

Dawn was about to head for the kitchen to check Cookie's water and food dishes when Buffy suddenly leaned halfway out of the doorway of the den and asked semi-cheerfully, "Coming?"

Her eyes widened in trepidation. She tried to think of anything she might've done or said wrong in the past few days and couldn't come up with anything that would warrant quality time. With a martyred sigh, she trudged ahead. She might kick Faith's ass just on principle upon her return.


San Francisco

Faith was feeling inordinately pleased with herself. As was evidenced by the wide, dimpled smile she was currently sporting. She'd gotten the chance to work off some of her frustration. And there was a very distinct possibility that Aaron would never, ever, have children now.



Chapter Twenty-Eight: A Propensity for Violence


"You know I've never seen Faith as relaxed with anyone as she was with you that night?"

The couch was pulled out into the full-length bed and the two sisters were settled comfortably at opposite ends. Both were lying sideways across it, Dawn sprawled on her stomach across the foot of the bed, and Buffy curled into a semi-fetal ball at the head of the bed between the couch arms. Cookie was sprawled on her back near Buffy's head, purring as she absently stroked the kitten's belly. Across the room, the TV was tuned into some action flick, volume on mute.

Buffy couldn't help but smile at Dawn's pronouncement. They were discussing the Ben & Jerry's night they'd had. She wasn't certain just how they'd gotten onto that subject, but she wouldn't complain. It was nice to just spend time with Dawn for once.

"Mmm, yeah," She murmured, her eyes glinting softly. "I kind of guessed. I mean, she hates being vulnerable, and she's admitted that that was one of Robin's biggest complaints. Despite the fact that she truly loved him, she still refused to just be `his girl', in her words."

Dawn rolled her eyes and muttered, "Fucking stupid man. He probably blames that on her being a Slayer. He doesn't want to think that it's because she has childhood trauma issues."

Buffy just nodded silently. She'd always been afraid to consider it any further than that. The thought of what could've caused those issues made her feel a little ill and a whole lot violent. No matter how much she wanted to know everything about Faith, she would never ask about that.

That would be something Faith would have to bring up. She didn't want to inadvertently hurt Faith by bringing those memories to light. And even if that was a copout, it was still the truth. She wanted to hurt Faith far less than she could ever care about her own discomfort.

"You love her."

It wasn't a question. Buffy smiled, wide and bright. It was all the answer Dawn needed. There was a genuine happiness there that outshined anything else her sister had ever displayed.

"I'm not sure how or when it happened," She admitted sheepishly. "I just know that in the last couple months it's grown obvious that Faith is my everything. She's become my rock. And if her being there for me like she has hadn't cemented it, the ache her absence is causing would have."

"But you still love Satsu don't you?"

Buffy shot a look at her sister. Seeing only genuine curiosity, she sighed. Then she just nodded and chuckled humorlessly. It was definitely one for the books in all her romantic entanglements.

"I think I always will a little," She replied ever so quietly. "I still love Angel. And even if I never fell in love with Spike or Riley, I still felt something for them both and to some degree, still do. They were a part of my life, for better or worse, and that forges a bond that can't be broken."

"But it's Faith that you're in love with, right?" Dawn asked hopefully.

Buffy rolled her eyes. Obviously that was a fact her sister was going to dwell on. She should have known. Dawn had tormented and teased her about their relationship for years.

"Yes," She said in amusement. "I, Buffy Summers, am in love with Faith Lehane, okay?"

"It's five by five with me," Dawn said, holding up a hand in defense. "You won't get any protests out of this woman. I'm a diehard Fuffy-shipper all the way."

Buffy's eyebrows shot up in a comical expression and her hand froze on Cookie's chest. She tilted her head slightly and eyed Dawn warily. She was almost afraid to ask. But she would.

"You're a what?"

"I'm even considering having T-shirts made," Dawn continued, ignoring her question.

"Dawn, don't make me hurt you."

The kitten finally meowed in protest. Buffy glanced down at Cookie and smiled. Her fingers continued to caress the thick fur. Then her eyes lit up devilishly and she glanced up.

"Hey, Dawn?"

Cheekily, Dawn asked, "Yes, Half of Fuffy?"

"You realize that I haven't missed that you've never shared any of your dating disasters, right?"

"Oh, shit. You noticed that, huh?" Dawn asked weakly, scrambling to get off the bed.



San Francisco

Faith was seated on the lid of the toilet in the bathroom on the second floor. Her hair was wrapped up in a towel on the top of her head, keeping the wet strands from obscuring her vision and another towel was draped over her shoulders. She was bent toward the floor, vigorously applying lotion to her right calf. Her leg was stretched out in front of her, toes pointed downward, muscles flexing as she smoothed the unscented lotion into her silky skin.

A lotion aided rubdown was a habit she'd fallen into once she'd realized how good it felt to get a massage when her body was achy from her workout. It was a remnant from her relationship with Robin that she refused to lose. It was one of the few memories she had of them that didn't feel tainted. Her heart still clenched at the memory of his touch the first time he'd done it for her.

It was one thing that she'd never let slip to anyone else, not even Robin. She was a complete pleasure hound. For her, there was nothing more pleasurable than the faint ache that made her muscles throb just slightly and the hot shower that always followed a workout. That combination always filled her with a fuzzy lassitude that made her want to sleep for the rest of the day.

Even now, her eyelids were half-lidded from the effort of staying awake. It would wear off gradually as the heat from her shower wore off and her body relaxed. But it was always nice while it lasted. With a last stroke of her leg, Faith straightened and stood up, finished.

She pulled the white towel from around her shoulders and wrapped it around her, tucking the end in near her left breast. She was reaching for the pile of dirty clothes she'd left on the edge of the sink when she heard footsteps approaching the bathroom door. It didn't even take a moment for her body to register that the assured tread belonged to a Slayer. She relaxed almost instantly.

When the expected knock came, she called out, "What's up?"

"It's Di," Came the reply. "I wanted to check in with you about something."

"Just hold up a sec and I'll be right out."

Faith gathered the small black case that served as her bathroom kit and retrieved her workout clothes. With one last glance around, she made sure that she'd left nothing behind and then let herself out of the bathroom. Her appearance apparently startled Diana, as she stepped back reflexively the moment the door opened. Faith just arched an eyebrow.

"If ya wanna talk, you can hang around while I get dressed. Or it can wait."

Diana just shrugged and followed Faith to her and Shawna's room, explaining, "It doesn't really matter. I just wanted to see if you have any idea why Aaron's in such a foul mood."

Faith burst into laughter as she closed the door to her room behind them. Shaking her head, she crossed the room to the open closet door and tossed her clothes in the hamper just inside. Then she pulled a pair of jeans down from her side of the closet and tossed them over her shoulder at her bed. A shirt quickly followed the path of the jeans and then she closed the closet door.

"Yeah," Faith said through her chuckles. "Maybe if you're good, I'll give you girls a story later."

Giving her an odd look, Diana commented, "You know, you're a very strange person."

"Well, yeah," Faith answered like it was the most obvious thing in the world. "But so is B."

"You are talking about Buffy, right?"

"Duh," She replied as she crossed back over to the long dresser near the door. "Sexy blonde, tiny, has a propensity for violence, sharp objects, fluffy pajamas, and pigs?"

She was digging through her underwear drawer for a pair of panties so she missed the look of realization that dawned on Diana's face. Faith pulled out a pair of black boi-shorts and then shut the drawer before bending slightly to pull the underwear on beneath the towel. It wasn't until she was finished that she realized that her visitor had fallen silent. She glanced back at her.

"You got a problem?"

The slight edge of menace that bled into the older Slayer's words didn't bother her in the least. Diana just smiled softly and shook her head. She wasn't going to be the one to point it out if Faith herself hadn't realized it yet. She wasn't one to throw anybody out of the closet.

"No," She answered easily, and then changed the subject. "So—Aaron, what's his problem?"

"Told you I'd tell you later," Faith replied in amusement as she walked to the bed. Retrieving her pants, she pulled them on, wiggling slightly to get them up over her hips.

"Okay," Diana said reluctantly. "But what do you think we should do about dinner? He's never left us in charge of mealtimes before, so I have absolutely no clue what I'm supposed to do."

"Wait, he's what?" Faith asked, and then smirked as she reconsidered, "Never mind. Considerin' the state he was in when he stumbled up from the basement earlier, I ain't surprised. But what's with the whole freaky mealtime Gestapo routine anyway? I noticed that last night at dinner."

"He says it's so that he can monitor our protein and vitamin intake," Diana said, and Faith heard her doubt. "But I think he's just paranoid that one of us would slip something into his food."

"Aight," Faith said with a low chuckle. "So what are our choices?"

"Well, I know Corrine can cook from past conversations, but she doesn't really like to, which I think you can guess why," Diana stated grimly, gaining a slight nod from Faith. "I can cook, too, but only the bare basics, since I learned from my dad and he was a Devil Dog through and through. But Janice is a vegan and Shawna hasn't ever had the chance to learn how to cook."

"I can cook pretty well," Faith said, settling down on the edge of the bed as she readjusted the towel still covering her torso and chest. "But I have an idea, and I can fuck off if you don't like."

"What's that?" Diana asked, smirking at Faith's phrasing.

"When was the last time you girls had an honest to God burger or fries?"

Diana's expression was something approaching lustful as she asked hopefully, "Or pizza?"

"Pizza," Faith confirmed, "That way we can hit all the requirements; cheesy, meat, and vegan."



Chapter Twenty-Nine: Lesson #3 - Freedom

It was just past four when Faith heard the screech of the school bus's breaks as it approached. She was slumped against the island in the kitchen under the amused gaze of Diana. She was still pouting over the delivery time that the phone operator at the pizza joint had given them. She considered it cruel and unusual punishment to make a Slayer wait forty minutes for her food.

Faith eyed the refrigerator, briefly considering the premade meals Aaron kept stored for their mealtimes and snacks. Then she just shook her head. As hungry as she was, that stuff could get old real quick if she was forced to eat it more than was necessary. Besides, she wasn't going to give him that sort of satisfaction by eating anything he'd fixed when she didn't have to.

At breakfast and earlier that afternoon, she'd just followed along for the time being. She'd figured that there wasn't a point in arguing over food. It wasn't as if it was horrible. Faith just thought it was disturbing how Aaron seemed to be trying to control every aspect of their lives.

She shot a mildly annoyed look at Diana and then braced her hands on the edge of the island to give herself a boost up. She ignored Diana's soft chuckle in reply as she let her legs dangle, her booted feet bouncing gently off the cabinets below. Her annoyance didn't last long. She could barely contain her amusement as she heard the key in the front door's lock.

She was stirring up trouble again. What could be better than that? Well... She reconsidered. There were a couple of things she could think of, but still, it was better than having nothing at all to do.

"I'll go get them," Diana volunteered, all ready shoving off from the counter across from Faith.

Faith shook her head and reached out to catch Diana by her upper arm to stop her from leaving as she called out, "Yo, girls! We're in the kitchen. Get your asses in here."

Faith heard Shawna's amused snort as the front door was closed. She let go of Diana and gently shoved her back towards the counter. Then she shot her a look that said, `just follow my lead'. She could only smirk as Diana rolled her eyes briefly before finally hopping up to sit by the sink.

She really did like that woman's attitude. Diana seemed to just roll with the punches. That was something Faith admired in a Slayer. It made both theirs and her lives that much easier.

Shawna was the first one through the doorway that separated the kitchen from the dining room. Her steps slowed as she caught sight of Faith and their team leader until she was standing still. Corrine and Janice stopped just behind her, their bewilderment obvious. Faith merely smirked.



To say she was confused would be an understatement. This wasn't normal. They usually took their book bags up to their rooms to do their homework as soon as they got home. But before they'd even shut the door behind them, Faith had bellowed for them to come to the kitchen.

Then there was the sight of their leader and the newest Slayer as she and the other two entered the room in question. Shawna wasn't stupid. She realized something was up the moment Faith had called out for them. That wasn't the way things were done here because it was loud.

According to Aaron, standing out or calling attention to yourself anywhere in any form was expressly forbidden for a Slayer. It was why he rode Shawna so much about her appearance. She just had a form of selective memory disorder. She happened to like the way she looked.

She was fairly certain Corrine was about to faint, though. She didn't think someone with that skin tone was supposed to be that pale. She'd certainly never seen it before at any rate. It was either from shock or from fear; or it could have been from both, considering.

There was the devil dancing in Faith's eyes, though. And Shawna just knew that whatever was about to come out of the older woman's mouth was going to be bad. She steeled herself not to laugh. Shawna still didn't know what it was, but Faith brought out something strange in her.

"Since our fearless leader is indisposed," Faith said, smiling sardonically, "And some insane person or deity has placed us in charge... you three are ours until further notice."

"Huh?" Janice managed to get out.

And Shawna lost it. Janice's expression was just priceless. She couldn't help it. There had been so much tension in her life for so long and laughter was one of the best kinds of relief.



The smell of garlic was heavenly to Diana as she bit into her third slice of pizza. It had been far too long since she'd had pizza. Hell, even spaghetti or ravioli, and it had been even longer since she'd had caffeine. She eyed the can of Coke on the table possessively as she chewed.

A swallow of food and then another of her drink was followed by a squelched burp. Then she let her gaze drift to where Shawna was sprawled between the two living room couches. She was obviously thoroughly enjoying this as was evidenced by the smirk she'd kept since her laughter had died down. Corrine and Janice sat stiffly opposite Diana and Faith as they ate in silence.

Diana could tell that they were worried. Aaron was MIA as far as they were aware and Faith was an unknown. Sudden changes in the routine weren't necessarily bad, but for them, it could be. She was just waiting for one of them to get the nerve to speak up and she knew who it would be.

"Where's Mr. Graves?"

She wasn't disappointed. Corrine had issues with men; you could even say she was frightened of them in a way that angered Diana to see. But she had no trouble dealing with women. And when it came to handling Slayers, Corrine was more than capable of holding her own against most.

"He's resting," She interjected before Faith could open her mouth. "He seemed kind of sick when he asked me to take over the schedule until he gave further notice. I asked Faith for help."

Expression a little less hostile, Corrine demanded, "So why the sudden changes? We're just going to get into trouble once he realizes what we've done. You know he hates takeout."

"No one's askin' him to eat it, now are they?" Faith cut in. "He don't even gotta know if you're all that worried about his reaction. It ain't like I paid for it with his money or anything."

Diana shot Faith a look. She really wasn't helping matters much. Faith just rolled her eyes in reply and took a bite of pizza. Diana shook her head and returned her attention to Corrine.

"I just wanted us to have a meal that we'd all enjoy," She said soothingly. "I'll handle him if there's any fallout from tonight, okay? None of you will get into trouble for it."



Faith sighed inwardly. This tension was going to ruin her appetite and that would be a damn shame. That left her with only a few options and Faith really hated small talk. Chasing her last bite of pizza down with Pepsi, she eyed the book bags she'd told the girls to drop by the couch.

"What kind of classes do you guys take at school?"

It was silent for a second, and then Shawna answered in a bored tone, "I got Algebra, Social Studies, Science, English Lit, Gym, and Art."

"American Lit, Latin, Trig, European History, Chem, and AP Art History," Janice chimed in, her expression warily curious.

When Faith looked at Corrine, she just looked at her sullenly until Janice gave her a sharp jab in the side with her elbow. Corrine shot a dirty look at her and huffed, "What?"

"Just answer her. What's it going to hurt?" Janice hissed, much to Faith's amusement.

"Fine," Corrine reluctantly mumbled and then brought her gaze back to Faith's. "English Lit, Algebra II, French, US History, Biology, and Home Ec."

"Y'know, those all seem kinda generic," Faith mused, eyebrows furrowed. She hadn't stayed in school long when she was a kid, but she'd remedied that in the last half of her life. She'd gotten her GED in prison, and then later on she'd taken a few courses in an online college.

"That's because Aaron wants us to keep it simple," Shawna muttered. "He doesn't see any point in the other classes they provide at school and he hates that some of the electives are mandatory."

Faith's jaw clenched so hard she was sure they could hear her teeth grinding. The concerned look Diana threw at her confirmed her suspicions and she knew she had to relax. She held back a few choice curses and mentally counted from fifteen to one as she exhaled slowly. Though she was beginning to wonder why she ever even bothered with that technique because it rarely worked.

In the end, it was a memory that kept her from snapping. Tai-Chi was part of her daily routine and it was something Angel had taught her. Angel had taught Buffy as well and it had become common practice the last couple of months for Faith and Buffy to do their forms together. It was the visuals of Buffy's body flowing through the forms that helped Faith calm down this time.

Shortly into Buffy's recovery, she'd started joining Faith every morning for the exercises on Dawn's back porch around sunrise. The play of shifting, gliding muscle beneath golden tan skin in the pearly gray light of morning had mesmerized Faith from the beginning. If it weren't for the ability to multitask, slaying, patrolling, even just training would have been impossible for her.

Hell, Faith snorted internally as she shook herself out of those the memories. Even just coexisting with her would be impossible if it weren't that particularly handy skill.

"Sounds like you got a class in mind that you wanted to take," She finally offered, lifting a questioning eyebrow at the girl as she tossed her used napkin on the paper plate in her lap.

"There's a couple," Shawna agreed vaguely, nodding once.

Faith refrained from rolling her eyes, just barely. Then she saw the faintest traces of amusement in Shawna's eyes and sighed internally. What was it with teenagers and being difficult? Was there a gene that caused it and if so, was it possible to use gene therapy to remove it?



"So for the last test he sends me out to the trainin' course in the backyard, right?" Faith briefly gestured over her shoulder before leaning forward, her elbows on her knees. "Which, by the way, that place is way freaky. I mean, it reminded me of the oubliette in The Labyrinth."

She ignored the looks she got at the reference. Corrine was confused, which was understandable since there wasn't a TV in the house and Faith doubted her childhood had included movie nights. And Shawna, Janice, and Diana were amused. Faith would just blame Dawn if teased about it.

But she was serious about her comment, mostly. The paths winding through the thick woods out back could get a person lost if they were anything less than supernatural. It even had traps, which by the way, had made her ever so thankful for the tall fence enclosing the back half of the land. Though it might have been funny to hear the excuses Aaron would've been forced to come up with when some lamebrain decided to trespass on their property and wound up gravely injured.

"I was still pissed off at the snide comments that he was makin' all afternoon, so I decided I was gonna lull him into a false sense of security before I got the drop on him. I wanted to make him feel like the ass he really is by showin' him just how little he knows. I hid behind one of those huge trees just a few yards down the path from the entrance and waited `til he came outside.

"I kept pretty close on his trail the entire time," Faith said, unable to stop the wide smile as it broke out yet again. "I let him go on for close to two hours before I finally gave in. But instead of just steppin' out and announcin' myself, I decided I was really gonna get the drop on him."

She had to pause for a couple of minutes to get her laughter under control and then she shook her head, "He didn't even see me before I stepped off that branch. Then the sound he made when he hit the ground...it was just priceless. I've never heard a grown man screech like that before."

She chuckled again at the memory. She'd landed on top of him with her knee in a very, very sensitive place. Of course, the downside was that she'd had to carry him back to the basement because he'd lost consciousness from the pain. She shot Diana a wicked grin, unapologetic.

"Satisfied?" Faith asked over the sound of Shawna's giggles.

"Not lately," Diana dryly returned, shaking her head in amusement.



Chapter Thirty: Cut Deep

"I wanted in the band program."

"Say huh?" Faith asked articulately.

They were on patrol. Diana was on point, with Corrine and Shawna playing wingmen. Faith was guarding the rear, and there were so many comments she could make about that but she didn't. She was supposed to have stayed at home but had conned Diana into letting her come with.

"The classes I wanted to take," Shawna quietly explained, glancing back at her briefly over her shoulder. "You asked about that earlier at dinner, remember?"

Faith murmured her acknowledgement. Just one more piece to the puzzle that's starting to come together way too easily. She's about as antisocial as pipsqueak on a bad day.

"Okay then," Shawna continued. "So that's your answer; band class. And I kind of wanted to take their drama course, too. But Aaron thinks they're useless `cause they aren't applicable."

Faith's eyebrow twitched as she bit her inner cheek. The drama thing made sense, kind of. But she was trying to fit the image of the girl in front of her with that of a band geek. It wasn't meshing.

"Stones in glass houses, yeah?" She muttered under her breath.

"What was that?"

"Oh, nothin'," Faith replied, "Just thinkin' out loud, the kind of thing that's gotten me into trouble on more than one occasion with a friend of mine back home."

It was second nature now. Cleveland really was her home now, no matter where she was or how long she'd been staying there. Though she knew it wasn't the place, but the people, that made it that way. Before they'd had to demolish the castle, Scotland had become home, too.

"Back home? That's Boston, right?"

"Mmm," She grunted.

She'd purposefully kept that reply ambiguous. She didn't want to lie if she didn't have to, even if it was only half a lie. She had been born there, after all. She just hadn't lived there in years.

"I guess this is a culture shock for you, huh?" Shawna asked.

"It's somethin', aight," Faith replied, chuckling wryly. "It's mostly Aaron that's weird to me."

"Is he really all that different from your old Watcher?"

"Oh yeah," Faith muttered in amusement.

Was Aaron anything like Diana Dormer? Not in a million years. What about Giles? Never. Aaron even fell short of Wesley's league by a couple thousand miles.

"Think maybe you guys can shut up sometime soon?" Corrine snapped without even sparing a glance at either of them. "We're supposed to be patrolling, not socializing."

Faith winced. They were forever going to be unraveling the mess this situation had become. She was going to find out who had assigned a Slayer with Corrine's potential issues to Aaron's command. She was going to tear someone a new asshole for that decision.




Buffy was still curled up at the head of the foldout. She'd left earlier for dinner and then quickly returned. Now she could hear the shower running upstairs where Dawn had disappeared once they'd finished cleaning up after themselves. She smiled faintly at the memory of the brief water war they'd fallen into as they'd washed the dishes, an abandoned ritual from their childhood.

It had been nice to spend some time with Dawn today, despite Buffy's mercurial mood swings. It wasn't something they often did alone anymore. Though Buffy knew it was her own fault. She'd been so utterly wrapped up in her relationship with Satsu and with work for too long.

She frowned at her thoughts and unconsciously pulled Cookie tighter to her. Cookie meowed in response, causing Buffy to look down at the kitten cradled in the crook of her elbow. Faith had been gone for about three days and Cookie hadn't left Buffy's side by choice since then. She'd become a source of comfort for Buffy.

Speaking of Faith, She sighed longingly, taking a glance at the clock on the entertainment center. I wonder if I've waited long enough to call her. I don't want to interrupt anything important.



San Francisco

I keep thinkin' `bout that little sparkle in your eye
Is it a light from the angels, or your devil deep inside?

Faith was smirking obnoxiously with the first strains of her ringtone, "Heartbreaker", by Pink. She didn't even have to look up to know that Corrine was glaring at her. She'd developed a sort of radar for that over the years. Also, being around Buffy, you just came to expect it.

What about the way you say you love me all the time
Are you liftin' me up to heaven, just to drop me down the line?

Or at least Faith did, at any rate. She dug the tiny phone out of her front pocket, wincing as her jeans scraped over her knuckles. Most of her pants were a little too tight now. Two months at home had lead to her gaining a couple of pounds despite regular workouts and Slaying.

She had never purposefully skipped meals. She liked eating entirely too much for that. She just wasn't always so great at taking care of herself when she was alone. At home, though, Dawn never let her forget to eat, and Buffy had proven herself to be just as adept at it as her sister.

Faith flipped the phone open, stepping away from a fresh grave. "Yo, B. Missin' me all ready?"




Buffy inhaled sharply at the sound of Faith's voice. It was like being immersed in living warmth. She let the breath out unsteadily as she fought off the onslaught of emotion. It took her a while to regain her control and even then, her reply came out hoarse and shaky.

"You know it."

"Sure do," Faith chuckled huskily. "What's not to miss?"

"You really want me to go there?" She asked teasingly.

"Nah, don't want ya to have to make up lies to make yourself feel better."

I already feel much better. This was better. Buffy smiled. Trust Faith to keep her grounded.



San Francisco

Faith just lifted an unimpressed eyebrow when the mounds of dirt in front of Shawna and Diana began to press upward. Her gaze flicked to the grave in front of Corrine and she smirked. The dirt was shifting, but the occupant was either caught on something or deeply stupid. She figured that it could go either way, though it was most likely a combination of the two.

"What are you up to?"

"Graveyard greetin'," Faith drawled. "The fourth visitor of the night gets Slayed by yours truly."

"Should I let you go?" Buffy asked through her laughter.

Faith gave it a brief thought, and then said, "Nah. I'll let the kids get it. I'll bag the next one."

"Okay," Buffy murmured, and Faith smiled genuinely.

The tone of Buffy's voice was that of profound relief. Her smile quickly faded into a concerned frown. Then she stepped further away from the other Slayers as Diana and Shawna confronted their opponents. She found herself near a bench between two older graves and absently sat down.

"Is everything all right?" Faith's voice lowered, her emotions bleeding into her words.




"Y—yeah," She stammered, and internally cursed herself for a fool as she continued more firmly, "I just wanted to check with you about something I heard earlier today."

"What's that?"

"You're there to help Shawna, right?"

As she awaited Faith's answer, Buffy picked absently at the comforter. Faith's scent and her own mingled, surrounding her. It was almost enough to distract her. But she was determined.



San Francisco

"That's what Giles said in the briefin'," Faith said absently, despite her own rising suspicions.

It wasn't the time or place to discuss what she suspected even if she wanted to. She didn't want to alarm the younger Slayers. She did need to have a private discussion with Diana, though. It had been made obvious that whatever was really going on, Diana was very much aware of it.

"Why?" She prompted when Buffy remained silent.

"Evie made a comment about Aaron. She said that something needed to be done about him. It sounded really odd to me `cause I hadn't been aware of any problems with him. Were you?"

Faith watched as Diana finished off her opponent just in time for the fourth and final vampire to struggle out of his grave as Buffy spoke. Corrine was already finished with hers, as she'd been impatient enough to stake him before he was even half way out of the ground. Shawna was still playing with her vampire and Faith smiled faintly. Then her gaze strayed back to Diana's fight.

The redhead's gaze locked with Faith's just as the meaning of Buffy's words slammed home. Faith's eyes hardened, causing Diana's to widen in surprise and confusion. Faith looked away as Diana's opponent took advantage of her distraction with a punch to her ribs. Her jaw clenched.

"No," She answered with a faint tinge of bitterness. "I wasn't."

Her suspicions had been confirmed. But it felt like some things never change. It occurred to her that Giles might've had good reasons for withholding that information. It just cut a little deep.



Chapter Thirty-One: Cut to the Chase

Okay, Faith sighed internally, gazing up at the ceiling of the darkened bedroom. So I have three mildly maladjusted Slayers, one of which is underage, and a team leader with more smarts than is really called for in a low activity zone. An Old Council indoctrinated Watcher.

Her brow furrowed. And reports that make absolutely no sense whatsoever. Not for the first time, she silently wished she'd brought the file on Shawna with her. Unfortunately, it would've been incriminating evidence if she had, which was why she'd left it with her stuff at Dawn's house.

It wasn't that she couldn't remember what she'd read, because she could. It just would've been nice to have a visual of the information Giles had provided her with to compare to the reality of the situation. Faith grimaced. She was going to have to gain access to a computer soon.

That was going to be fun. Not. She could use a computer as well, or better, than most people. She'd spent enough time with Willow to learn a few tricks. She just didn't like computers.

Faith rolled her eyes. Whether or not she liked them was immaterial. She needed to access the Council's database to review the files. And maybe find something related to Buffy's question.

Faith was trying not to let that get to her. She didn't want to jump to conclusions. There were plenty of explanations for not giving a complete report to a field operative. But she couldn't help but think that Giles wasn't supposed to consider her just another field operative.

They were friends first and foremost. They'd spent a lot of time together since he'd been estranged from Buffy all those years ago. Faith wouldn't tell him, but she saw him as a father figure. He'd given her support and trust when nobody else had been able or willing to.



Faith paced back and forth outside Diana's bedroom door. She'd gotten maybe two hours of sleep before she'd finally given up and now here she was. Most of the night had been spent organizing her thoughts and she still wasn't sure where to start. Or even which questions to ask.

The door swung open and Faith's steps faltered. She snapped her head up to meet Diana's gaze. It didn't come as a surprise to find that Diana didn't appear confused. Faith guessed Diana had been expecting the coming interrogation before now.

"I need to talk to ya."

Diana just nodded and stepped back, waving her in. Faith slipped inside the room and turned to face her. Absently, she noticed that the layout of the room was identical to her own. Shaking off her distraction, she hooked her thumb in a belt loop and gripped her bicep with her free hand.

"Tell me why you're here."

It was as good a starting place as any. Diana let out an explosive breath, shoulders slumping. Then Diana crossed the room to sink down onto the edge of her bed. Faith was about to push her for an answer when Diana finally began to speak.

"I was second in command of the Miami house until last year. Shortly after I finished my training at the police academy, I was approached by Rupert Giles for this position."

Faith wasn't shocked. It wasn't so farfetched an idea that Diana was a cop. Military and law enforcement were common secondary careers for Slayers. However, that didn't explain why Diana out of hundreds of other qualified Slayers, some of which were much more experienced.


Smiling faintly, Diana asked, "Why what? He wanted a cop because of our investigative skills."

"Don't play stupid," Faith growled. "Why you? No offense, but there's a Ranger in Texas that would've been more qualified if he absolutely had to have someone in law enforcement."

"He wanted someone who wasn't jaded," Diana explained softly. "Those were his exact words. The more qualified candidates would have been way too confrontational for this situation. I didn't really get what he meant until you got here and I saw the way you interact with Aaron."

"What exactly is `this situation'?" Faith asked, pouncing on that opening.

"First, tell me what you've noticed so far," Diana countered, leaning forward.

Faith eyed her, judging her seriousness, and then she sighed, "Neglected and underage Slayers. And all I've seen of Aaron screams absolute incompetence. He's been lax in his duties and he abuses his position as Watcher. I also suspect he's stealin' funds from us to cover up his activities—or lack there of—as well."

"Mmm. All that in under seventy hours," Diana murmured. "I'm impressed."

"What were you officially sent here to investigate?" Faith asked, ignoring her comment.

"Giles suspected Aaron's reports were being padded. When I reported my observations on the under stocked supplies and the lax training, he wanted me to find out why. I haven't been able to determine Aaron's motivations. Giles gave me orders to remain here as team leader. He didn't want Aaron left in charge unsupervised, not that my presence has been a deterrent."

"Did you get anything at all?" Faith asked, making a mental note to revisit that last statement.

"Nothing that differs too greatly from what you've uncovered," Diana admitted. "Observation has been my main source of information from day one. He's an ass, but an anal-retentive one."

"Mmm, damn," Faith grumbled. "What do you suggest, then? I need to know what Giles has gotten me into and I'd like to find out sooner rather than later."

"Want to get home to your girl, huh?" Diana teased. "Yeah, I caught part of that call last night."

"Gotta make her mine, first," Faith smirked. "But yeah, somethin' like."

"I'd suggest going through his computer files. I've attempted it, but I wasn't familiar enough with Ms. Rosenberg's systems to breach her encryptions and firewalls."

Faith winced. Yeah, so she wasn't getting out of that anytime soon. And here she had been hoping to avoid that particular source. The Powers were apparently getting their revenge.





"You said they were just under my asking price, right?"

"Yeah," Juanita Juarez replied. "They're just shy of a grand under."

"Mmm," Buffy murmured thoughtfully, leaning back in her desk chair.

Her mood having been buoyed by the previous day, Buffy had decided to call Juanita as soon as the workday had started. The real-estate agent had been congenial about the delay and had extended her condolences on Buffy's coming divorce. Then she'd proceeded to give Buffy the details on her prospective buyers. Buffy wasn't disappointed by what she had heard.

"Well," Buffy said slowly, "We did make allowances for that, remember? The final asking price is set even lower than their range, so I don't see a problem."

"I just wanted to keep you informed," Juanita replied amiably. "When are you available to sign?"

Buffy lifted her eyes to gaze blankly at a random point on the wall as she considered the question. She didn't have any classes scheduled for the rest of the day. And her office hours could be shifted as required. She couldn't recall any pending appointments either.

Just as she was about to reply, a light for another line began to flicker on the phone base. With an irritated roll of her eyes, she said, "Excuse me for a sec, JJ. I have another call."

"Sure thing, Buffy," She heard Juanita reply as she leaned forward to switch lines.


"Hey, Buff. You got a moment or two?"

"Uh," Buffy took a second to recognize Willow's voice. "I think so, why?"

"I need you to snag Dawn and come down to lab four."

"Let me finish up with Juanita and then I'll track her down, okay?"


Buffy switched back to line one and said, "Sorry about that, Juanita. About the signing, do you think I can get back to you on that? I'd like to say this afternoon, but I have to meet Will in the lab and all kinds of catastrophes could come of that, doubly so since I have to bring Dawn."

Juanita laughed, "That's all right, chica. I'll just let them know you've accepted their proposal and tell them to chill `til you get back to me with an appointment time."

"Muchos gracias," Buffy replied. "I'll catch you later."


Buffy ended the call and placed the phone back on the base as she pushed her chair away from the desk. Then she mentally steeled herself to deal with the overwhelming scents of old books, dust, metal, and polish. Buffy was happy Dawn enjoyed her work. But Buffy hated the archives.



The New Council's headquarters had three stories. A couple of emergency living quarters were on the third floor, their offices and classrooms were on the second, and more offices were on the first. Also on the first floor were the cafeteria, a storage room, and the waiting room. The basement contained their gym and unbeknownst to anyone outside of the Council, elevators to three sub-basements had been added in the time they'd been there.

Sub-Basement Three contained four laboratories and an infirmary. That was where the handful of scientists, tech-support, Wiccan-support, and doctors they employed were stationed. Sub-Basement Two held containment and interrogation cells. Sub-Basement One held the archives.

After retrieving Dawn from the stacks in the archives, Buffy had her answer as to why Willow hadn't contacted Dawn herself. Dawn's cell had been off and she'd been at the far end of the archives opposite from where her office and phone were. Buffy'd made a mental note that they needed to do something about that. Then she'd dragged a protesting Dawn to the elevator.

"How'd your call to Faith go last night?"

Shooting a look at Dawn, she rolled her eyes, "Fine for the most part. Whatever's going on, she didn't know about it and I think it kind of hit her the wrong way when I told her what Evie said."

"Did you try to reassure her, at least?" Dawn asked as the elevator came to a stop at Sub-B 3.

"She didn't seem to need it," Buffy answered as she followed Dawn out. "She passed it off as Giles having his reasons. She obviously believes it enough that she's trying not to let it bug her. She sounded more cheerful by the time we hung up, even though she was still a little down."

"Who's still a little down?" Willow's voice intruded.

"Faith," Buffy answered as she glanced ahead to find Willow waiting for them outside a lab.

"Oh," Willow said.

That, was odd, Buffy mused as Willow abruptly turned to lead them into lab four. Suspicious, Buffy sped up so that she could get in front of Willow. Stopping next a workstation, she crossed her arms and eyed Willow. When her friend flushed, Buffy simply smirked.

"She's so going to kick your ass for not telling her whatever you know."

"Well, um, maybe not," Willow said hopefully and waved a hand at the cluttered workstation, a familiar knife in amongst the odds and ends. "We have results, finally."

"Oh?" Buffy asked, eyebrows lifting in interest.

"Yeah," Willow said, moving forward to retrieve the knife. Holding it up, she gestured with it at the computer. "We did a compound test and ran the results through the database. We got a hit from the information we have on Polgaras. It was a ninety-nine point nine percent match."

"Oh," Buffy repeated with a wholly different inflection. "Who is this guy?"

"I guess it's a good thing we ran a background check on the store owner and his son, huh?" Willow replied absently. "Sergeant Brian O'Malley. He's one of the survivors of the Initiative. He was given an honorable discharge just after the Sunnydale fiasco and he came home."

"Well, that explains it," Buffy said, still disgusted. "He's obviously insane."

"Buffy," Willow admonished. "He's mostly harmless. We had one of the squads do a little surveillance. Besides, it's not as if you and Faith didn't like the knives anyway."

"Well, they are kinda cool, if a little grotesque."

"Uh-huh," Willow nodded in agreement. "But I think someone should bring him to Riley's attention, preferably before he gets himself or someone else injured during his solo patrols."

"Not me," Buffy immediately protested.

She hadn't spoken to her ex since they'd broken Twilight's thrall over the military a few months after they'd left Scotland. And she had absolutely no desire to change that any time soon. Her luck had run true to form and he'd overheard some of the Slayers gossiping during his visit. Riley's reaction to the rumors that Buffy had slept with Satsu left a lot to be desired.

"Leave it to Giles to handle the clean marine," Dawn suggested, using one of Faith and Spike's favorite nicknames for Riley, much to Buffy and Willow's amusement.

"That's a plan I can totally get behind," Buffy muttered.




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