Summary: Faith is alone for Thanksgiving. When she meets a new friend, will her life ever be the same? Disclaimer: Joss owns all. I'm just having fun.
There was no snow. No cold. No crisp feeling to the air. The only sign that today was even Thanksgiving was a cardboard pilgrim stuck to the window of the Doublemeat Palace. Faith stared at the smiling, round-cheeked figure in his black and white clothes.
Her life sucked.
Turning that thought over in her mind, Faith continued walking. She didn't have a destination in mind. Not that a place to go mattered. Nothing was open. The sidewalks were empty, and only a few cars interrupted Faith's lonely journey.
Her life so sucked.
Faith scowled. "Shoulda stayed in Boston," she announced. Kakistos had been hunting her, sure. But at least there she'd had a few friends. In Sunnydale, she had no one. Then some tiny bit of internal honesty forced her to admit that wasn't entirely true. Faith's scowl deepened as she mentally corrected herself. She had Buffy and the Scoobies. The Golden Girl and her cheering section. They weren't friends, though, not since the big showdown at Angel's mansion a couple of weeks ago.
The sight of a very empty Radcliffe Park ahead didn't cure Faith's rampant case of loneliness. What was she doing here? Dropping onto a bench, Faith stuffed her hands in the pockets of her jean jacket and hunched her shoulders. A light breeze lifted strands of her hair and played with the leaves littering the pathway.
Maybe the rustle of those leaves drowned out the sound of approaching footsteps. Faith jumped when a voice behind her asked, "Are you OK?"
"Fine," Faith answered even as she spun on the bench, ready for action. Her muscles went slack when she glimpsed a smiling blonde girl standing a few feet away. Not a vampire. Sunlight and silent Slayer senses said that. And not a problem, otherwise. If the wind picked up any more, the girl might blow away.
"Oh…" Biting her lip, Faith's erstwhile "rescuer" hesitated. "Are you sure? You looked pretty upset a minute ago. Is there anything I can do to help?"
It had been so long since anyone had offered assistance. Faith automatically discounted Buffy's repeated gestures; those hadn't been sincere. That tiny bit of sympathy, of genuine concern, snuck past Faith's defenses. "Can ya' change the past?"
"Not really. I might be able to do something about your future, though." The girl's smile lit up her whole face. "Why don't you tell me more?"
"Like what?" Feelings, frozen and ignored for so long, exploded in those two words. Faith grappled to regain her control. Fought to maintain her usual uncaring attitude. Unfortunately, putting the lid back on her emotions wasn't possible. Swinging her legs around the end of the bench, she faced the girl dead on and lashed out, glad to have a target. "Like I'm fuckin' tired of being treated like some piece of Southie whitetrash? Of havin' nothin', livin' with the roaches, and waitin' for the phone to ring?"
Faith broke off. Just talking about things had her on the verge of an explosion – and that wasn't something she ever wanted to happen. She'd sworn to never lose control like that again. Hands clenched, she glared at the other girl, daring her to say something.
It didn't take long. Slender fingers playing with the gaudy necklace around her neck, the girl nodded solemnly. "You have been treated unfairly," she said.
Unfairly? Faith sucked in a deep breath as she prepared to explain how far past unfair her life was. "I ain't playin' cards!" Her voice rose, startling a nearby bird into frenzied flight. "I'm the fucking Slayer!" The final word seemed to echo through the park, and Faith froze.
Her "helper" didn't understand the significance of the admission. Brows creased in thought, she mumbled, "I'm sure there's something I can do." Her frown grew before she peered resolutely at Faith. "Make a wish. Tell me one thing, anything, that would make things better."
It was such an outrageous suggestion that Faith chuckled. This chick was crazy.
"I'm not crazy," the other girl said as if she'd heard Faith's thought. "I can help, but you have to make a wish first. What do you want? To go back in time? How about a little plague or pestilence? I haven't done a really good plague in centuries."
Slowly relaxing, Faith shook her head. Nothing could change her situation in Sunnydale. Still, it might be fun to indulge in fantasy for a minute. "Miss High and Mighty B's got it all, ya' know? Family. Friends. Bet she wouldn't feel so big if she lost all that."
A blonde eyebrow rose as the other girl stared impatiently at Faith.
"What? You wanted a wish," Faith protested, oddly uneasy all of a sudden.
"You didn't give me a wish. Wishes start with 'I wish…'" The girl tapped a finger on her necklace. "So wish, already. I've got other customers."
Enough was enough. Faith surged to her feet and took a threatening step toward the other girl. Then she stopped. Something – the conversation, the ever present bitterness – kept her from giving in to the siren song of violence. That same impulse tore a tight, "I wish Buffy knew what it was like to lose her crew. To be like me. Alone."
The ground shook and the girl said, "Done."
A heartbeat later, Faith realized she was alone again and no longer in the park. The Bronze sign flickered and hummed overhead. "What the fuck?" Faith stared at the sign in confusion. Before she could make sense of the changes, a familiar cramping struck.
Getting answers would have to wait.
Faith let her hands dangle. Looking helpless (not to mention hot) always sucked the vamps in. Mentally chuckling at her unintentional pun, Faith strolled down the alley.
"Didn't anyone tell you not to be out at night?" A swarthy vampire dressed in his seventies best emerged from the shadows, probably expecting to surprise Faith. "It can be dangerous for a little girl like you."
"Like me?" Faith mocked, holding her arms out. "You musta missed the memo. I am dangerous." Ignoring the four other forms attempting to sneak behind her, she locked gazes with the Disco Dude. "Why don't you come closer and I'll give ya' a taste?" There was no vampire anywhere who could let that pass.
Right on cue, the vampire smiled. For an instant, he looked humanly handsome. Then his canines lengthened and ridges popped out on his forehead. He charged Faith with a roar.
Faith stood her ground and waited. When the vampire's fingers were mere centimeters from her throat, she stepped slightly to her left and brought her right knee up. Her aim was perfect. A pained grunt coincided with her knee slamming into his stomach. If breathing had been a requirement for vampires, the fight might have ended there.
Instead, the vampire straightened almost instantly. A wild right sailed harmlessly past Faith as she leaned back. In her peripheral vision, she saw the other vampires close in.
Playtime had to end. "Too bad ya' had to bring friends. One on one's way better than group staking." Faith was always armed. She slid a sharpened stake from the inside pocket of her jacket and lunged at the Disco Dude. A heartbeat later, a pile of dust drifted to the alley floor.
The other vampires froze. So much for Faith's element of surprise. Oh, well. Faith spun slowly on her heel, twirling the stake with a flourish. "Who's next? Don't be shy. I've got wicked stamina."
The challenge was too much. Two of the vampires ran straight at Faith.
She leaped up and somersaulted over their heads. "You missed," Faith taunted. Enjoying the thrill of the fight, she didn't immediately stake either of the vampires. Instead, she kicked one in the butt, sending him headfirst into the grimy brick wall of the alley.
It was now every vampire for himself. Without planning or teamwork, each vampire tried to exact revenge for Faith's actions. One picked up a jagged piece of wood and swung at Faith's head. Another dove at her.
Being the Slayer rocked. Faith ducked and stepped nimbly to the left. Right on cue, the grimy pallet plank whistled by. It pulled the swinger off balance, and he stumbled into the legs of his brainless brother. They tumbled to the ground in an ungainly pile.
Faith took pity on them. She staked both with a minimum of effort before facing off with the final two. "If ya' know who Sired those two, ya' might wanna smack 'em. Waste of Turnin'."
The only vampire who hadn't already closed with Faith met her gaze with cold yellow eyes. "The Master does not consider additions to his army a waste, girl." With more caution than his friends, he stepped forward, and Faith caught a gleam of metal in the dim lighting. "He will applaud the replacement of those two with a fighter like you."
"Not happenin'," Faith warned him. She dropped into a defensive crouch; this vampire was not only armed, he didn't seem to be a dense as the others. It was time to get serious. "You ain't got what it takes to Turn me." Faith hoped, anyway. Her one shot at Angel hadn't lasted long enough for her to know if he was the better fighter. There was a tiny chance this guy was a real threat.
He lunged. Faith blocked the thrust but missed with her stake. It pierced his shoulder, drawing a grunt of pain – but no new pile of ashes. Yanking the wood free of flesh and muscle, she bounced back a few steps and waited to see what else her opponent had for her.
Before the vampire could do more than glare and grip his injured arm, though, something zipped through the air. It stopped with a dull thud in the vampire's chest. He appeared as surprised as Faith when the object turned out to be a stake (and not the one still clutched in Faith's hand). A second later, the vampire was gone.
So was his friend. Another stake flew through the air and landed with frightening accuracy.
"It isn't safe after dark," Buffy announced. Stepping out of the shadows, she flicked Faith with an impatient and impersonal glance. "Go home. Now. You might think you're good with that, but you need to leave the fighting to the experts."
Buffy may have saved Faith's life, but that didn't give her the right to say that. The experts? Faith's hand tightened around the stake until her fingers ached. "Listen, you bitch. I'm tired of playin' second string to the Great Buffy. I'm a Slayer, too. The next time…"
"You're what?" Buffy snapped, striding toward Faith so quickly that she backpedaled to avoid being run over.
"A Slayer, B. You and the Superfriends may not…" Once again, Faith broke off. As Buffy moved closer, Faith saw her clearly for the first time. "B! What the fuck happened?" A jagged scar marred the usual perfection of Buffy's face. Faith felt sick. Whatever her ego might think, Faith knew Buffy was the best Slayer. If a vamp got that close, they needed reinforcements. "You talk to Giles about that?"
Faith was concerned. About Buffy. About the possibility of another big battle. And she was one hundred percent focused on helping.
That's why she nearly screamed when Buffy surged forward and picked her up by her jacket, slamming her back against the bricks. "How do you know who I am? How do you know about Giles?" Buffy yanked Faith forward and repeated the slamming.
Gasping for air, Faith couldn't respond.
"I'm not asking you again. Answer the question or I'll make you wish you had," Buffy warned in a soft, intense voice.
"Jesus, B. Of course I know Giles. It ain't like there's a lot of English guys talking about vampires in Sunnydale." Faith wiggled against Buffy's grip, testing. Damn it. There was no way she was breaking free. In fact, it was a good bet she was going to lose consciousness if Buffy didn't let go soon. It was time to put pride aside. "Put me down, B." So she hadn't been as conciliatory as planned. Begging wasn't easy. "Please," Faith mumbled after a long pause.
Buffy's glare lessened only slightly, but the hand at Faith's collar loosened enough for her to breathe normally. "I'm sorry." The phrase sounded grudging.
"No problem," Faith lied. Now that death wasn't imminent, it was hard not to lash out. She didn't, though. Something was still very wrong with Buffy. "Who's this Master guy that vamp was talkin' about? I didn't see the Bat Signal sayin' we had a new player in town." Not that it was unusual for Buffy and her crew to leave Faith out of the loop. "You need a hand cleanin' house?"
Son of a bitch.
Faith fought back a whimper as Buffy slammed her against the wall again. "Guess not," she gasped. "Look, you let me down and I'll head back to the hotel." Even the roaches and the hands-y night clerk were better than being manhandled by Buffy.
"No." As usual, Buffy thought she was in charge. Faith scowled and her fists clenched when Buffy went on. "The Master runs that part of town. I don't know who you are or where you came from…"
"What?" What the hell? Faith's anger faltered. Had Buffy gotten whacked in the head? Concussions could cause memory loss. Giles had gone on and on about it after his last head injury.
"No way am I letting you go." Suiting actions to words, Buffy stepped back, dragging Faith with her. "You know too much, and you don't act like you belong in this town. That's two strikes. You don't get another swing until I get answers."
Buffy's pace – and the "helping" hand wrapped around the back of Faith's neck – didn't give Faith time to worry about how Buffy planned to get those answers. That didn't mean her mind wasn't racing. Something was wrong. Faith had wondered before; now she knew. The scar on Buffy's face. The weird (even for Buffy) behavior. The Master.
They cleared the alley with Faith at a trot. Buffy was in a hurry.
Maybe she had reason to be. Downtown Sunnydale was a wreck. An empty wreck. The only things moving besides Faith and Buffy were rats and blowing trash. There were no other people. The shop windows Faith managed to glimpse were busted.
It was a ghost town.
Suddenly, Faith didn't need Buffy's help in running. She picked up her pace until they were in stride. Buffy wasn't the only one wanting answers now. Her vow of silence faltered, however, when they didn't head toward Giles' townhouse or Buffy's house. "The Scoobs remodeling the clubhouse?" The words popped out when Buffy ducked into the Sun Theater. "Can't we go back to your place? I'm starved and Mrs. S makes kickin' meatloaf."
Buffy stopped so fast that Faith ran right past.
When Faith finally realized she was moving on her own, she slowed and turned. And then she wished she hadn't. Faith had seen the look in Buffy's eyes before, in her own eyes as she peered in the mirror. "B?"
"Shut up." All the fire from the alley was gone. Buffy's voice was a mere whisper. It sounded as if the words were torn from her throat.
Faith couldn't do that. Dread created a frozen fist around her heart. "What happened to your mom, B?" Please, let her say nothing. Please.
Remaining silent, Buffy stalked forward until she was nose to nose with Faith. "I said, shut up." Violence simmered beneath the reminder. "The next time I have to tell you will be the last." One hand rose. A knife Faith hadn't noticed Buffy unsheathe gleamed even in the near pitch blackness in the theater. "Understand?"
"Yeah," Faith mumbled, telling only part of the truth. She got Buffy's threat, but everything else was still a mystery. Hands held carefully out from her sides, she backed up. Step by slow step, Faith made her way past the empty ticket counter and concession stand. She wanted to ask where they were going.
"In there. In the office," Buffy clarified finally. The knife tip waved at a closed door to Faith's left. "It's unlocked."
Faith reached out and pushed the door open. Unlike the rest of the building, this room was clean. Almost fanatically clean, and a single, low-watt bulb provided enough light for Faith to see a couch resting against the far wall. Stakes and weapons lay in military precision on a table, and a very un-sophomoric tower of canned goods decorated a corner.
It got very hard to breathe. Faith had lived on the streets in Boston; had hidden in abandoned warehouses. This wasn't just some place Buffy came to hang out. She was living here. And that could mean only one thing: Joyce was gone. Probably dead, from Buffy's earlier reaction.
Self preservation was the only thing that kept Faith from throwing up.
This was the worst nightmare ever. Only Faith knew it wasn't. She wasn't living in a dream. She was living a fantasy. Hers. One she'd recently shared. Living on the Hellmouth had taught her many things. The first and most important had been: there were no coincidences. The woman in the park. Faith's wish. Somehow, they had done this. "I need to sit down."
Buffy wasn't very sympathetic. "Use the floor. Over there where I can see you." The knife was still the directional indicator of choice, and it pointed to the only bare corner in the room. It was also the farthest spot from the weapons table. "Take off your jacket, too. Throw it on the couch." Buffy apparently wasn't taking any chances with the stakes stashed in Faith's pockets.
Shaking from inner cold, Faith complied. There was no fight left inside. She was numb. By the time she reached her "seat", her knees gave out. With absolutely no grace, Faith dropped to the floor. "I'm sorry," she whispered. "I'm so fucking sorry, B." She might have continued, might have taken the blame, if she hadn't looked up.
Sorry didn't have a place here. The feral light in Buffy's eyes was still there. A reminder and a promise, a promise that Faith understood. Feelings were bad. So very bad. They hurt. They made you vulnerable. Vulnerability made you weak, and Buffy couldn't afford that. For whatever reason, she was still operating as the Slayer.
A Slayer like the Council had always intended. Completely alone, with no support structure.
If she stopped to think or feel, she'd be dead. And Faith had no doubt she'd take the person who pulled those emotions to the surface with her. It was what Faith would have done, had done, every time the Scoobies had gotten too close. Hit first. Push buttons. Stay aloof.
Faith pressed her lips together and stared at her hands where they rested on her knees. She had to get out of here. What else had changed in Sunnydale? The power structure here was obviously different. This Master had things locked down. Buffy might kill a few of those soldiers the vampire had mentioned, but the state of Main Street said it was barely a dent in the overall Army.
"Tell me how you know about Slayers," Buffy demanded tightly, interrupting Faith's frantic thoughts.
Not "tell me how you are a Slayer," Faith realized. Either Buffy hadn't heard her announcement, or she hadn't believed Faith's claim. Lie or be honest? "Didn't hear about 'em, B. Buffy." The normal nickname sounded wrong, and Faith was quick to correct herself. "I am one. Have been since…" She broke off. The only reason she was a Slayer was because Buffy died. Her Buffy. What about this one?
"Since what?" Faith was already tired of the new Buffy's need for violence. Before she finished asking her question, one of her hands was tangled in Faith's shirt and the other was closed and cocked and ready for action.
"Since you died, Buffy," Faith spit out, responding with automatic anger to Buffy's continued threats. Regret for maybe causing this entire situation didn't mean Faith was going to willing let Buffy beat answers out of her. "It's the only way to make a new Slayer, right? You died. Some chick named Kendra showed up and she didn't last long. Now you have me. Faith. Only you didn't fuckin' stay dead, and now there's two of us. The Chosen Two."
For the first time, Buffy appeared unsure. Her hand dropped away from Faith's collar and she stepped back. "Two Slayers," she repeated softly. "Two. That's not possible."
"Yeah, that's what the Tweeds keep sayin', but they're wrong. I'm here. You're here." Faith pointed to Buffy. "One." She pointed to herself. "Two. I told you that back at the Bronze after I dusted some of them vamps. Would have dusted the rest if you hadn't 'saved' me."
Instead of responding, Buffy walked away, turning her back on Faith for the first time.
Faith seized the opportunity. Standing, she grabbed her jacket and yanked a stake out. "Who else you know carries one of these? Or can do this?" Without looking, Faith threw the sharpened wood toward the tower of cans. It easily pierced the top-most can before punching into the wall behind.
All Faith saw was Buffy's back. She couldn't tell if Buffy was surprised or impressed by the throw. "Is that how you know Giles?" Faith had to strain to hear the question.
"Uh, yeah." What else was Faith supposed to say? If she admitted what she thought had happened with the chick in the park, Buffy would forget about killing her and just lock her up in the loony bin. "He ain't bad for a Tweed. Better than my last one."
Buffy hadn't turned around. She stood stiffly in the middle of the room, hands restlessly rubbing the seams of her jeans.
In other circumstances, Faith might have given Buffy a chance to absorb all the information. This was different. Faith wanted to go home. As bad as she'd believed Sunnydale to be that morning, this was worse. Giles was her best shot. If he couldn't do it then she'd break down and scout out Willow. Between the two of them, they represented the biggest brains in town. "I need to talk to him. He still livin' in them apartments on Oak Park?"
"Yes, but you can't go tonight. It isn't safe." Buffy finally moved, making her way to the weapons table and dropping into a chair. Her expression was blank, all the anger gone. "Not even for a Slayer. You can go first thing in the morning."
You can go. Not we can go. "Ain't you goin', too?" Faith figured even in her personal Nightmare in Sunnydale that Giles and Buffy were still a demon fighting pair.
She figured wrong. "No." That was it. Buffy didn't explain further. Tipping the chair back until her head rested against the wall, she ordered, "Get some sleep. If you're going to be here long, you'll learn we have to stay mobile. I only stop here every few weeks in case the Master's minions are following me. It'll be harder to hide now that there are two of us."
Faith didn't find that reassuring. Buffy was hiding, not out kicking the Master's ass. She had completely discounted the Chosen Two and their ability to defeat anything the Hellmouth sent their way. The Master must be bad news.
And this Buffy didn't look like she could handle any more bad news.
Despite the drama of the evening – and her blatant distrust of Faith, Buffy's breathing evened out within seconds. Her face lost some (but certainly not all) of its tension as she slept. Her own mind grappling with all of the changes, Faith couldn't follow suit. She sat, afraid to move or wake Buffy, and stared at the gleaming row of weapons.
What had she done when she made that wish?
Getting even with Buffy and her friends wasn't worth this. Faith had wanted Buffy to understand what her life had been like. Had hoped, in some way, Buffy might get a taste of what being alone and afraid could do to a person. She had never wanted to create a situation where her fantasies of revenge became a reality.
Or had she?
Faith switched her gaze to Buffy. Examining the other Slayer and her jagged facial scar closely, she acknowledged the facts. She'd created this world in some way out of nothing more than jealousy and spite. Jealousy. Buffy's name had become synonymous with everything Faith lacked. Buffy had Joyce and Giles, a mother and father regardless of their actual titles. She had the Scoobies, unshakably loyal and supportive, even with the world on the verge of destruction. Most of all, Buffy had a home, a place she belonged.
Tears threatened and Faith blinked them away. As she did, she fell back on old habits. Her spine straightened and her chin rose in pure defiance of the evidence. She hadn't been jealous. She hadn't been sitting in the park bemoaning her lot in life. There was nothing Buffy had that Faith wanted. Not in her Sunnydale, and not here. Faith was fine on her own. Always had been. Always would be.
None of this was her fault. It was probably one of Willow's stupid – and epic – failures at spellcasting or another Big Bad trying to take over the Hellmouth. Comforted by the inner assurances, Faith closed her eyes and stuffed her hands in her jacket pockets. She'd stay with Buffy tonight and then take off in the morning. Buffy had never wanted her help before; there was no reason to think the new version would be any different. Faith would hit the road and see if there were other – better – opportunities.
Sleep eluded her, though. The room was too quiet. The motel was filled with the sounds of hookers and their johns or shouting between the manager and his wife. Faith shifted again, vainly trying to make the floor softer and the wall more pliable. Nothing worked. Cursing, she opened her eyes and glared fiercely at Buffy.
How could Buffy sleep like that? Faith wanted to jump up and scream the question. Giving in to that primal urge, she planted her hands against the wall and started to stand. Then Buffy whimpered, the tiny, helpless sound cutting through Faith's building rage.
"No…No. Mom…" Curled in on herself, Buffy was no longer Faith's enemy. Or even a strong, confident superhero. She looked small and afraid. Her head shook back and forth as if in denial of whatever nightmares chased her.
Buffy's posture mocked Faith's attempts to ignore the facts. It was one Faith remembered from her many nights on the streets, huddled in dark doorways and nursing bruises. And the broken sounds emanating from Buffy's throat…
Faith let her bravado slip away. Lying to herself was pointless. She wasn't fine. Hadn't been fine in her entire life. In fact, she had been sitting in that park whining about how alone she was. And now, thanks to a wish and that strange woman, Buffy had become a shorter, blonder version of Faith. Faith listened to Buffy plead with her inner demons and let the unaccustomed and heavy weight of responsibility settle on her shoulders. She'd caused this, and she had to fix it.
Giles was the best place to start looking for a solution; although, it was unlikely even this new Sunnydale had a Giles who would do more than disapprove of a Slayer like Faith. Still, he was a better choice than a sanctimonious Willow. Settling back onto the floor, Faith thought about tomorrow's visit. How could she explain what had happened? She didn't fully understand it herself. And it wasn't like the woman in the park had introduced herself or given fair warning of the power of a wish. Faith frowned, trying to remember every detail of their meeting. Every word.
Why hadn't she paid more attention? The whole thing was a blur. Then Faith paused. That wasn't completely true. At first, she'd thought it had been Buffy behind her before all of the woman's differences had registered. Too tall. Not athletic enough. And she'd lacked Buffy's sense of style. Her dress had been pure Walmart, with not a hint of pastel in sight.
This was better. Faith relaxed and closed her eyes as she continued her mental note taking. The woman had brown hair and eyes. Skinny arms. A big, ugly necklace. Nothing like Buffy's expensive-looking cross.
Now, how did she explain it all to Giles and not sound crazy?
Faith woke with a start, eyes flying open. Heart pounding, she stared in confusion at the chipped olive green paint on the wall across from her. Whipping her head around, she realized nothing looked familiar. This wasn't…
"Son of a bitch!" The wall of cans and the weapons snapped Faith out of her near panic. She was at the Sun Theatre with Buffy. Only she wasn't. The room was empty. "B?" Faith scrambled to her feet and strode to the door. "Buffy?" Despite the need to locate the other Slayer, she kept her voice down. If Buffy was in the building, she would be able to hear. There was no need to let anyone else know they'd been hiding out.
No one answered, though. Not Buffy, and not anyone (or anything) more sinister.
Hesitating, Faith stared into the still-dark interior of the movie theater. Should she look for Buffy? Wait for her to come back? The tenderness around her neck and her wrists from Buffy's vicious grip the night before indicated a clear "no." She wasn't risking another round with Buffy. If Buffy had wanted to spend the day with Faith, she would have stayed or woken Faith up.
Faith was on her own. Like that was anything new. Uneasiness goose pimpled her skin, though. This wasn't her Sunnydale. It was far more dangerous here, especially if it was still nighttime.
Buffy's absence made that unlikely, given her forceful declaration that it wasn't safe to go out at night. Just in case, Faith took a pair of razor-sharp daggers from the table and retrieved the stake she'd hurled last night from the wall. If Buffy wasn't going to play tour guide, she'd have to make the trip to Giles' alone. Tucking the weapons out of sight in her jacket pockets, she crept through the theater and paused at the emergency exit near the concession counter.
Did she really have to do this? Go to Giles? Faith stared at the push-bar door handle and the glowing red light of the emergency sign. If she went outside, if she talked to Giles, then this whole thing was real. The woman and the wish and all of the changes to Sunnydale and Buffy. In slow motion, Faith reached out and put her hand on the cool metal. It was already real. The pain in Buffy's eyes and her nightmares told the truth of the situation. Faith may have wished all of this to happen, but she was sure wishing a second time wouldn't make it all go away.
Only Giles could do that.
Faith pushed the door open a crack. No alarm sounded, and there was no one in the sunlit alley next to the theater. Free of prying eyes, she slipped outside and forced herself to stroll casually out to the street. The act was a waste of time. Only a handful of people littered the sidewalks, and they scurried for their destinations. No one browsed or stood chatting. Following suit, Faith lengthened her stride and stayed alert for trouble.
The streets of Boston had taught Faith the art of always being aware of her surroundings. Nights in Sunnydale's cemeteries had honed her skill. In both of lose locales, though, the danger had been obvious: street gangs, pimps, or vampires. New Sunnydale was a mystery, and Faith felt a headache build from the strain. She pushed her awareness of the pain aside. Better the little men with mallets than a knife in the back.
Twice during the trip, Faith felt Buffy nearby. Not even shameless peering located the other Slayer. Buffy was deliberately hiding. "Don't trust me, Buffy?" Faith said out loud. "Big fucking deal. You never trusted me, Princess, even if you can't remember." There was no verbal answer; the tingle in Faith's Slayer senses simply faded slightly. Bravado aside, Buffy's retreat stung, and Faith contemplated – again – the unfairness of her life. By the time she stalked up the steps to Giles' front door, Faith was ready to add a few twists to her original wish.
She stayed ready until the door slid open a few inches.
"Yes, can I help you?" The voice held the same smooth British accent. It was the only thing Faith recognized in the man staring at her from inside the townhouse.
"Giles?" Faith had to ask. Between the bloodshot eyes and the unkempt hair and beard, she wasn't sure.
The man's eyes narrowed. Some of the alcohol glaze disappeared, replaced by cold calculation. "And you are?" he asked without responding to Faith's query. The door also closed a fraction, and Faith saw Giles' (it had to be him) foot move to block the bottom of the opening.
Very carefully and slowly, Faith lifted the flap of her jacket to reveal her small cache of weapons. "I'm Faith." Belatedly remembering the changes in Sunnydale, she hesitated. Giles' doorstep wasn't the best place to share her story. "Buffy said I should visit. Tell you about some new Big Bad in town." It wasn't too much of a lie. Faith didn't know if the woman in the park had an agenda, and Buffy hadn't said she shouldn't talk to Giles. "We need to talk. Now," she tacked on when Giles didn't move back to let her in.
Without a word, Giles stepped back, leaving the door open.
Faith seized the opportunity and pushed her way inside. "Thanks." The word felt awkward on her lips; she hadn't said it in a long time. That feeling grew once she closed the door and faced the man who was her one hope. A man who looked ragged and hung over, an image which matched the piles of dirty dishes and empty bottles of Scotch cluttering the tiny living space. What the hell had happened to Giles? Faith had wanted to hurt Buffy in her fantasies. The Scoobies had played only small roles in those wicked dreams.
Her distraction cost Faith. As she stared at the mess, Giles moved. In a heartbeat, he wrapped an arm around her neck and held a knife to Faith's throat. "Tell me again who you are, and this time, include more pertinent details!"
The threat was too much. Guilt (and Buffy's greater strength and skill) had kept Faith's usual anger in check the night before. Now, faced with Giles' humanity, not even the sharpness of the blade against her skin was a deterrent. Her right hand shot up, gripping Giles' knife hand at the wrist. At the same time, Slayer speed making the movement a blur, her left hand delivered a brutal blow to Giles' unprotected groin.
His pained, disbelieving gasp brushed Faith's ear. It didn't stop her continued retaliation for his threat. While he struggled for breath, she ducked and brought his knife arm over her head. One step, a twist, and Faith pressed her left hand just above Giles' right elbow. Just the slightest pressure and his arm would break. "Drop the knife, G-man."
The knife clattered to the floor before she finished speaking.
"I told you who I am," Faith said tightly. "Faith." Giles wanted details so she added one. "I'm a Slayer." To emphasize that point, she pressed lightly on Giles' arm until he bent farther forward to alleviate some of the strain. "The other Slayer."
"Yes." Giles' voice was choked. "Yes, I do remember your name now. How forgetful of me. Perhaps, if I were not in this uncomfortable pose, I might be able to think more clearly."
Trust was hard for Faith at the best of times. Today, with Giles' knife only inches away on the floor and the bruises from Buffy's attack last night visible on her wrists, it was close to impossible. But Giles was her only hope. With a stern mental reminder of her mission, returning to "her" Sunnydale, Faith throttled her rage and slowly released Giles' arm. "Think hard," she warned him. "'Cause if you get another Old Timer moment, things ain't gonna go well."
He straightened, eyes appearing a little more alert. "I am not that old, I assure you."
The wry comment was so normal that Faith relaxed without meaning to. With a smirk, she eyed Giles. "Don't look old, either. Always told B you'd be hot without the Tweed."
There was no blush for her blatant tease. This wasn't the stammering, prudish Giles from Faith's first day in Sunnydale. He met her eyes, expression aloof. "B? Another Slayer? How many others are there? The Council records…"
Cutting him off, Faith said bitterly, "The Council don't know anything." She wanted to say more. The words filled her mind and mouth, ready to spill out. Faith needed Giles' help, though. She needed him on her side, not on the defensive about his precious Council. "There's just the two of us. Me and B. Buffy. The Chosen Two." The nickname slipped out before Faith could censor it. She hadn't wanted to imply a connection she certainly didn't share with the edgy, violent Buffy she'd met last night.
Giles' reaction to Buffy's name scared Faith more than facing Kakistos. He went shockingly pale and mumbled, "Dear Lord. If you're a Slayer then Buffy must be…" One hand rose to partially cover his mouth. "No, you said you know her. That there are two of you. How is she?"
How is she? Why didn't Giles know? He was her Watcher. There were so many questions – and Faith didn't have time to ask them. Hell, if Giles could help her get home then hopefully none of this would be real, anyway. "Buffy's still kickin' undead ass," she finally said. "Look, I didn't come here to play Twenty Questions. I need…" Faith grimaced. Who knew two words would be so hard to say? "I need your help," she said stiffly and waited for him to laugh and walk away.
There was no laughter. There also wasn't any offer of assistance. Instead, Giles stroked his beard and peered over Faith's head. It was completely quiet in the room except for the tick of an unseen clock.
Faith waited with as much patience and grace as she could muster. This Giles seemed more like the normal Giles: too much thinking and not enough doing. She'd been at enough Scooby meetings to understand she couldn't force him to move faster than he wanted. Only Buffy had that skill. After a few minutes, though, the tick of the clock grew to a roar in her head. The dagger on the floor beckoned. Maybe if it was pressed to Giles' neck, he'd stop playing with his facial hair.
"What type of assistance do you require?" Faith jumped visibly when Giles finally spoke. "You seem to be aware of who and what I am; I, however…" His shrug clearly indicated that he did not believe Faith's claim of being a Slayer.
This was going to be even harder than Faith had imagined. "Sit down, Giles." She avoided using any nicknames. This man hadn't earned them. "I got a story for ya'."
Of course, Giles didn't sit down. He remained on his feet, staring intently at Faith. Hoping to avoid another fight – despite Giles' humanity, he was a trained fighter and she still hurt from Buffy's tender ministrations – Faith wandered farther into the townhouse and dropped onto the couch. God, it felt good. So much better than the floor of the theater. She'd grown soft since coming to Sunnydale. A few years ago, even cold concrete wouldn't have bothered Faith.
Still, the cushions and this place, Giles' place, called to Faith. It was safe here. She could rest…
"This is not a hostel!" Giles stalked nearer to the arm of the couch, disturbing Faith's near-sleep. "If your information is so bloody important, let's hear it. I am not in the habit of opening my door to strangers claiming to be Slayers."
"I ain't claiming nothing," Faith shot back, exhaustion fleeing under a new surge of irritation and adrenaline. Did he want another demonstration of her abilities? This time, she wouldn't be so gentle. They stared at each other with mutual antagonism until Faith slumped. This sucked. She needed the real Giles, not this rumpled drunk who didn't think twice about going toe to toe with her. Convinced this whole experience was a waste of time, she didn't bother searching for the right way to begin her explanations. "Something's wrong. This ain't the Sunnydale I come from. Where I'm from, me and B…Buffy are both Slayers."
Damn it. Faith stopped and scowled. Giles was never going to understand at this rate. "I mean, we're both Slayers in this Sunndydale, too, but I ain't supposed to be here." This attempt was worse than the last. Where were Willow and her brain when Faith needed her? The more she tried to explain, the more jumbled it all sounded. Locking her gaze on her boots, Faith one more time. The story came out in a rush. "Yesterday, Thanksgiving, I got tired of sittin' in the motel with the roaches. I ended up in the park. A woman showed up. While we were talking...she did something." Guilt warred with the need to give Giles details. Guilt won; Giles didn't have to know just why all this was happening, right? "The next thing I know, I'm outside the Bronze, the Bronze here, with some dumbass vamp wantin' a piece of me."
"Your Sunnydale. This Sunnydale. You speak in riddles and obvious untruths and you have yet to tell me anything of substance," Giles said. Faith could see him out of the corner of her eye as he loomed between her and the half-wall leading to the kitchen. "You barge into my home, accost me, and purport to have information vital to the survival of this town and my Slayer." He moved a step closer, and now Faith could detect the stale odor of Scotch that Giles emanated. "What is your game? Whom do you work for?"
Without thinking, Faith answered his questions with a pointed one of her own. "Are you stupid or just hung over? I already told you who I am. Faith. A Slayer. I 'work' for you and them other assholes on the Council."
Mention of the Council set Giles back on his heels. His stare cooled and Faith sensed his confusion.
Faith used his lack of comment to her advantage and didn't hesitate to finish recounting her story. "Look, Giles, I get this sounds crazy. Hell, I'm livin' it and I don't believe half the shit going on. One minute I'm bitching to the chick in the park about how Buffy needs to know how life looks from the other side of the tracks and the next, Buffy, your Buffy's beatin' the crap outta me and I'm sleeping on the floor in the theater!"
She'd forgotten how Giles reacted to mention of Buffy. His head went up and he surged forward. Not even Slayer reflexes kept him from gripping her by the shoulder and hauling her up from the couch. "Buffy would not lay a hand on you unless you were a vampire or demon." Giles' free hand joined in, latching onto Faith's right shoulder, and she dangled from his grasp as he shook her violently.
"Get the fuck off me!" Once Faith stopped expecting this Giles to act like the real one, it was easy to slam her right fist alternately into Giles' right and left wrists until he let her go. "Slayer Prime ain't no angel. When are you gonna figure that out?" The query wasn't entirely addressed to the haggard version of Rupert Giles standing in front of Faith. Pulling down the neck of her T-shirt, she let the bruises make her point. "I didn't choke myself. Or do this." Now she held out her arms so Giles could see the clear finger-marks. "Buffy did. Girl don't like it when you don't follow orders."
Giles turned away without a word. Faith stood, dumbfounded, as he stalked into the kitchen and rummaged in the cabinets. Despite the wall eclipsing her view, Faith easily recognized the sound of liquid splashing into a glass.
Driven by a need to confirm her senses, Faith followed Giles' path. She stopped in the archway to the small galley-style area and watched Giles finish off his drink in a single gulp. Fantastic. They were all living in a fake Sunnydale and one of the only two people who might be able to find a solution was boozing it up.
Luckily for them all, Faith was an expert at getting people to do things differently. "This why Buffy's on her own? You too busy gettin' drunk to act like a Watcher? You passed out somewhere and missed the prophecy on the Master?" So her methods were less than friendly. Faith didn't have time, or the inclination, to ease Giles into a recovery program.
Unfortunately, her gibe had no effect. Instead, Giles filled the glass with Scotch a second time and ignored Faith entirely.
"Forget I stopped by. Looks like Red'll have to save the day." Or not. Faith walked unsteadily toward the door. This was too much. Too hard. She didn't know how to deal with the events of the last day. Maybe there was no way to fix what she'd done. Maybe this was going to be her future, living in a brand-new and far scarier Sunnydale while fighting with the Master and his goons.
The bright sunshine made no impression on Faith's mood as she left the townhouse. Not even the tickle on her senses indicating Buffy nearby helped her recover her equilibrium. Faith walked aimlessly back toward downtown, stopping only when her Slayer senses spiked with a far different tingle.
It was just enough warning.
A car roared up the street, windows painted black. As it approached, Faith saw the rear driver-side window lower enough to allow a slim, metal barrel to emerge. She dove to the ground a heartbeat before a dart slammed into the broken concrete where she'd stood. Shouts dimly filtered from within the car and it fishtailed as the driver hit the brakes.
Faith didn't wait for it to reverse course and give the shooter another try. She fled in the opposite direction, nimbly scaling a wooden privacy fence and cutting through several deserted lots. Faith ran until she'd left downtown behind. The streets were eerily silent. Yards, yards she remembered full of flowers and sporting well-manicured lawns, were now overgrown with weeds.
Her skin crawled. She had to get out of here. Hoping the Rosenbergs hadn't pulled up stakes, Faith checked out the nearest street sign. For once, her luck was good. She'd ended her sprint less than two blocks from Willow's house. She took off again, using yards to remain out of sight as much as possible. In only a few minutes, Faith stood outside the Rosenberg home. The windows were boarded up, but she heard movement inside.
Taking a deep breath, Faith knocked. And knocked again when no one answered. "Come on!" she implored softly, restlessly scanning the street. She was exposed and vulnerable on the porch. If the vamps in the car had friends, she might not get lucky a second time. Her anxiety rose as the noise inside died and the door remained closed. She clung to one last shred of hope, though. Surely whoever was inside would eventually let her in. Holding onto that thought, Faith knocked one last time.
In response, the door opened a crack, and Faith glimpsed a tall, very thin woman with eyes the same shade as Willow's. "Mrs. Rosenberg?" she asked softly.
"Yes." The woman didn't open the door any further; she simply peered at Faith in distrust.
Faith forced a smile. It wouldn't do to scare Willow's mother. "I'm lookin' for Willow. She here?" Almost before Faith finished speaking, the door began to close. Moving quickly, Faith slammed a hand out to keep it open. "What the…" She filtered her comment at the last second. "Look, I know I shoulda called before comin' over." Her Watcher had mentioned that once. "But I got a problem only Red… I mean, Willow can fix."
If it hadn't been for Slayer strength, the door would have been closed and Faith left alone on the porch. The woman shoved and shoved. Finally, she gave up. "Why are you doing this?" Her voice was thin and tight.
"I wouldn't be if ya'd just let me in to see Willow." Faith's politeness could only last so long. She ground her teeth together and tried again. "I'm a friend of a friend of Willow's, Mrs. Rosenberg. Buffy Summers?"
With obvious reluctance, Mrs. Rosenberg stepped back and Faith seized the opportunity to get off the porch and out of the range of more dart guns. "Thanks." The interior of the house was dark and gloomy thanks to the plywood over the windows.
"I remember something about a Buffy Summers. She was in the same year as my Willow." Mrs. Rosenberg stood with her back pressed to the door, arms wrapped around her stomach.
"Yeah." It looked like this Mrs. Rosenberg was as clueless about her daughter as the one in the real Sunnydale. Willow and Buffy were tight, and Mrs. Rosenberg just remembered Buffy. Faith didn't bother to do anything about that. She was on a mission. "Willow upstairs?"
Mrs. Rosenberg immediately shook her head, and tears suddenly streaked her pale face. "No," she said softly. Her next question seemed odd and out of place. "H-Have you been aw-away from Sunnydale l-long?"
Faith was getting tired of everything feeling wrong. The question, the way Willow's mother acted… She braced against the dread chilling her skin. "You could say that." She wanted to scream. She wanted to dash up the stairs, get Willow and then get the Hell out of this house.
"Then you don't know my Willow is g-gone." Mrs. Rosenberg finally moved closer to Faith. "She was so bright, you know. Her father and I knew she'd be a doctor or scientist. She was always good at math and science."
Gone. Faith couldn't breathe. Couldn't move. Surely Mrs. Rosenberg only meant Willow was out of the house. At the library, maybe. Willow lived at the library in Faith's Sunnydale.
Mrs. Rosenberg patted Faith's arm, and she jumped. She hadn't even noticed how close Willow's mother had gotten. "Would you like to see pictures? Or her room? I saved everything, just like it was when she was with us."
"No," Faith mumbled. The word repeated on a never-ending loop in her mind. No. No. No. This couldn't be happening. She had to have misunderstood. "What…where's Willow?" Her hands rose until they clutched Mrs. Rosenberg desperately.
The arm under her fingers was thin, frail. Mrs. Rosenberg didn't appear to notice Faith's near panic or the very real danger she presented. "I still have her favorite stuffed animals. And all her books. There were so many; Ira was going to knock down a wall upstairs so she could have her own library."
The air in the house was stifling. It pressed at Faith, smothering her with its oppressive heat and stillness. Releasing Mrs. Rosenberg's arm, she took an unsteady step away. One became two. Then three. Without bothering to offer her apologies or goodbyes, Faith fled. She ran through a deserted Sunnydale as if pursued by an army of vampires and demons.
Willow was gone. Gone like Joyce was probably gone. Permanently. All because of one stupid wish.
Faith might have run all the way out of town. She had no real destination in mind, just a need to evade the inner demons gnawing at heart and mind. She was so focused on that internal agony, she missed the cramping of her Slayer senses again. Ignored the squeal of tires.
The shocking sting of a dart plunging into her shoulder and the fiery burn of the drug coating its tip finally stopped her in her tracks. Numbness spread as Faith turned toward the car idling at the curb next to her. Through the paint on the windows, she glimpsed the triumphant smile of the man (or was it a vampire) in the passenger seat. Then her legs gave out and she fell lifelessly to the ground.
Groaning against the massive hammers pounding in her skull, Faith opened her eyes – and then wanted to shut them in denial. This couldn't be happening.
Too bad she didn't get a second wish. The three vampires looming nearby, the chains on her wrists and ankles binding her to the wall, and the freakish nightmare figure sitting in a throne across the room didn't disappear. "If ya' wanted me to come to your lame ass party, all ya' had to do was ask," Faith announced, straightening as much as she could in her bonds. Damned if she was going to let the fear freezing her mind show. No way.
Her inner vow crumbled as the figure in the throne stood. "Such bravado." His words were hard to understand. His lips didn't seem to move. They were red-stained and puckered around a set of fearsome fangs.
Something pushed Faith's lingering headache out of her awareness. Power, so bright it was like a beacon. And evil. So much evil it coiled around Faith, squeezing her chest and trapping the breath in her lungs.
Faith yanked at her bonds in sudden, mindless terror.
"Ah, now you see." The thing walking toward Faith smiled. "You see, gentlemen," it announced to the normal vampires, "my powers continue to grow. Even this Slayer cannot hide her fear."
One of the vampire guards sneered. "A Slayer? That is not the Slayer, Master. She is…"
He never had a chance to finish. The Master spun and grabbed him around the throat. Faith saw his long, pointed nails dig into the other vampire's flesh, but the vamp didn't make a sound. "Did I hear a question from you?" The Master's lisp grew as he pressed his face close to the vampire's.
No one and nothing moved. Not the vampire, whose pale complexion lost what little color it had. And not Faith, who breathed in shallow pants. Her muscles were as weak as water.
"No?" The Master's voice was a sibilant whisper that grated along Faith's enhanced hearing. "I didn't think so." He moved past the vampire, who staggered back as if pushed. "Fools. I am continually surrounded by fools." Each stride brought him closer to Faith.
Fire erupted along her nerves as the Master's power poured into Faith. God, he was strong. Stronger than Kakistos. Than Angelus. Turning her hands, she gripped the links of chain and pulled herself upright against the wall. The stone cooled the already clammy sweat on her back. "Might want to be pickier about who ya' Turn next time." Faith smirked. "'Course, I never did see a vamp with a brain."
Mockery had always worked for Faith. It was the fastest way to push buttons, to elicit a reaction. Unfortunately, the Master proved a harder target. His yellow eyes gleamed as he stopped inches from Faith. One hand reached out. Long, curved, very sharp nails glinted at his fingertips as he stroked his chin. "It seems those hidebound Watchers are wrong. Or they've been lying." Faith's chains rattled when she instinctively flinched from the Master's rusty chuckle. "I'll have to ask Rupert the next time he stops in for tea."
The Master's power continued to wind around Faith. Reeling from the suffocating feel and the rising panic at her predicament made her slow to pick up on the information he'd given. She yanked at the chains holding her to the wall again; kicked her feet; twisted and writhed until her muscles quivered and sweat dripped from her skin to land with an audible plop on the concrete floor. As Faith dangled in exhaustion before the Master, her brain finally made sense of his comment. Rupert. Rupert Giles. Here. Tea. "Giles fucking works for you?"
No wonder Buffy wouldn't talk about him. No wonder he hadn't been willing to help. Hopelessness. Rage. Disbelief. They swirled with ever-increasing speed through Faith's head. Her body chilled and shook with tremors.
"I'll kill him. And you," Faith whispered. Somehow. And then she'd do whatever it took to put Sunnydale back on the right path.
Her vow earned another laugh. The Master threw back his head and shared his mirth with rusty, choking chuckles. "You are much more fun than the other." His words were indistinct. Apparently laughter and lips that never appeared to move made for poor enunciation. Still, the meaning was clear. Faith was more joke than threat.
Faith didn't bother to deny it. She was bound and trussed like a Thanksgiving turkey. Buffy, though… The Master knew Buffy; acknowledged her as an opponent. "Ah, I'm just the sideshow, Kool Aid Mouth. Wait until Slayer Prime gets here and kicks your ass." Faith might not know all the details about the Sunnydale she'd inadvertently created, but there was no way things had changed so much that Buffy wasn't this freak's equal. "All your bullyboys and you can't get rid of her. You ain't as special as you think, huh? Just one more ugly vamp for the Slayer to dust."
The mood in the room turned deadly. Stained teeth bared in a terrifying snarl, the Master lunged forward. His clawed hands grasped Faith's throat, choking her.
No! Faith silently screamed. Sucking in sips of air, she dropped her jaw and pressed her tongue to the roof of her mouth. It wasn't enough to break the Master's grip; although, it did take a little pressure off her larynx. Her next breath was deeper. Her lungs stopped burning. "Truth hurts, don't it?" she gasped.
With a roar, the Master lost what little control he seemed to have. The hand wrapped around her throat pulled away – and then descended in a powerful arc. Thanks to the chains, Faith didn't fly across the room. Instead, she rocked to the limit of the links. Her face now throbbed in time with her heart. Blood coated the inside of her mouth and trickled slowly down her chin.
Perfect. She was finally getting to him. Gathering her feet under her as best she could, Faith delicately licked at the cut on her lip. "Hope I get to watch the show when B's done playin' with ya'." The taunt sounded right. Mocking and confident. She didn't acknowledge the tiny mental voice that laughed and reminded her Buffy wasn't here. Didn't know there was a problem. And wouldn't do anything to help if she did.
"Get her down," the Master growled. He stalked away and resumed his seat on the throne. A king, waiting for his orders to be obeyed.
It didn't take long. "Yes, Master," responses popped out of every vampire within hearing distance. Two of them trotted up to Faith and unlocked the manacles while four more aimed loaded tranq guns at her.
At least she was free. Faith bought time, stumbling away from the wall and letting her arms dangle as if stiffened by the time in chains. Lids lowered, she scanned the massive room. There had to be a way out. Now that Faith wasn't focused solely on the Master, she realized she was being held in a warehouse. A large one. The throne sat at the back of a partially walled-off room. A half-wall and framed entryway in one corner led out into a massive production area. Conveyor belts and strange machinery whirred. Faith didn't take the time to examine the operation closely.
That would come later, once she was free and clear and had Buffy firmly at her side – preferably with both of them armed to the teeth.
A completed wall and door combination sat just to the left of the Master. The door was firmly closed and padlocked.
Neither doorway looked like good options. Too many vampires in this room and out on the production floor. Faith would have to go up to get out. High clerestory windows covered in heavy paper or burlap lined the very top of the walls. Maybe facing an army of vampires wasn't such a bad plan. "Hey, dude." Halting, she let the four vamps with guns crowd close. "You know why B's the best Slayer ever?" As her guards shifted their attention to the Master and his eventual reply, Faith rolled her shoulders and poised on the balls of her feet.
"Slayers…" The Master hissed the word, his hand clenching around the arm of his ornate chair.
His disdain didn't really hide the fact he feared Slayers right along with hated them. Faith laughed before answering her own question. "Because she's too smart to do shit like this." Less than a heartbeat later, she seized one of the guns poking into her side. With a broad sweep, she bashed two of the guards in the head. Their pained grunts coincided with the Master's roar of fury.
Time was already running out. As she dropped to the floor and rolled into the feet of yet another vampire, she saw more crowding the door to the main factory floor. Crowding and blocking her exit. Scrambling upright, Faith lashed out with the gun she still gripped. It made an effective club but her victims weren't out of the fight, only out for the count.
Faith waded through the vampires. Her goal was the door. She could see it, glowing like a beacon, behind the heads of the Master's army. Each step was a battle, though. Faith grunted as fists landed. Her feet slipped in her own blood as a few knife thrusts made it past her desperate blocks. The doorway dimmed.
She wasn't going to make it.
The thought spurred her to further violence, and she gained a few more precious feet toward freedom. They were her last. A new flood of vampires surged into the room. Faith lost her only weapon and then her balance. She hit the floor with breath-stealing force and lay stunned long enough for several vampires to grab her arms and legs. In seconds, she was pinned spread-eagled on the cold concrete.
"I believe you have proven your point, Slayer. The other of your ilk has never fallen prey to my patrols; nor have I had the pleasure of seeing her helpless before me." The Master's voice, oily with satisfaction, seeped into Faith and she stilled as hope fled. "It is unimportant if you are the lesser of the Council's tools. You will provide new, stronger blood for my Line."
Faith jerked in unconscious response. He was going to Turn her. Into a vampire. A demon with all her super abilities – and absolutely none of her admittedly small collection of virtues. "I'll die first," she snapped.
The Master's laughter was no more pleasant a second time. "Well, yes. That is part of the process. Your life. Your blood. My most powerful Childe in centuries."
The hands holding Faith were relentless. She wrestled uselessly against them. More blood soaked her shirt, its warmth the only possible escape remaining. If she lost enough before the Master reached her, surely he wouldn't be able to Turn her. At least, Faith prayed that was the case. She hadn't exactly paid attention when her Watcher or Giles had been lecturing.
One particularly hard yank actually freed her hand. Whoo hoo. Faith would do a little more damage before the end. She punched the vampire kneeling on her other arm and grinned at the sound of his nose breaking. She was about to grab his shirt and throw him at another vampire when the hands on her right ankle disappeared. Then the pressure on her left ankle was gone.
Risking a glance down her body, Faith noticed gaps in the Master's goon squad. Another went up in a cloud of dust after a crossbow bolt embedded in his heart. "I told you it wasn't safe to go out on your own." It was Buffy's voice. Buffy was here. Somewhere. Faith looked frantically for the other Slayer and couldn't spot her. Another bolt slammed several inches deep into the floor; the rope attached to the end snapped taut. "Hurry up. This won't hold them forever."
Glass shattered and glittering sunlight shafted into the room. Screams of pain and the smell of burning flesh filled the air. In the illumination, Faith saw Buffy standing on one of several small platforms ringing the room midway up the wall. The other end of the rope was wrapped firmly around a safety ladder bolted to the platform at Buffy's feet.
"Guess ya' ain't as dumb as you look." Faith couldn't resist the taunt. It was second nature when Buffy was around. She didn't waste any more time on quips, though. She jumped to her feet and scrambled onto the rope. It bowed and swung alarmingly under her weight after only a few steps. Faith fought for balance. Slapping at the hands trying to grip her arms or shove her off the rope, she finally managed to get high enough that the vamps couldn't reach her. To the counterpoint of crossbow bolts zipping through the air, Faith carefully dashed the last several (steep) feet to safety.
Buffy gave her a hand onto the platform. "Sorry about the mess," Buffy called down to the Master and his vampires. "I'll be back to clean up later."
It was like old times in the real Sunnydale. The Chosen Two beating the Big Bad and mocking them along the way. Faith grinned at Buffy and didn't notice the lack of a return smile until they had climbed out the broken window via an access ladder at the back of the platform. Thanks for the save, B. Wicked timing."
"Shut up," Buffy snapped. There was no friendliness in the sharp voiced order. Her lips pressed together in a tight line as she shoved Faith across the warehouse's roof. "We can't waste time. The Master's patrols will be out in full force looking for us, and we can't go back to the theater. They found you; maybe they followed you and know where it is."
The implication was clear. Faith had screwed up. Because she hadn't taken Buffy's warnings seriously, she'd probably led the Master to the one place Buffy had been safe. Now they were on the run. Faith swallowed the bitter taste of yet another failure and ignored the burn of the jagged knife wound in her side. "Lead the way, Buffy."
Buffy took off as if she didn't care whether Faith followed. The thought burned in Faith's chest like acid. It ate at her all the way through Sunnydale.
Right up to the Welcome to Sunnydale sign.
Not here. Anywhere but here. Faith stumbled to a halt and stared. New Sunnydale or not, it was the same nightmare image. Dirtier, maybe, but the impact was the same. Sucking air around a ball of nausea, Faith closed her eyes and fought off the memories.
"You puke and I'll kill you," Buffy snapped. "The Master will have crews out looking for us, and you're not leaving a trail of tossed cookies for them to find."
The horror of the sign faded instantly. "You're fuckin' kidding me, right, B? Vamps're gonna be out looking for piles of puke?" Faith started to laugh and then choked it off. It really wasn't funny. It was…terrible. Terrifying. One more indication of just how bad this alternate Sunnydale was. "I'm fine, Buffy. Just out of shape. You ain't gotta worry," she said soberly.
With a tight nod, Buffy appeared to accept Faith's promise. Turning away, she paced. Each step got a little faster. Faith noted Buffy's hands were fisted, and for the first time she looked unsure. Scared.
Faith's response was instinctive. "You know, I fuckin' hate this sign," she said then slowly and deliberately raised a one-finger salute in its direction.
It worked. Buffy stopped pacing. Of course, it was clear she thought Faith was a nutjob.
Hell, maybe she was. And Faith planned to share the insanity with a trip down memory lane. "First time I saw this sign, I'd just got to SunnyD. Fresh off the train from Boston." She'd been so scared, just like Buffy. Squirming inside, Faith forced out the shared information. "Thought I'd piss myself I was so scared. Been on my own for years. Ever since Ma tried to sell me to her supplier for more of the good stuff."
The last year faded away. Faith stepped back in time.
It was so hot here. Not like Boston. There was no hint of the Bay in the air. "I was on the run. I needed a place to hide." The words tumbled free, picking up speed and urgency. Faith's heart raced and her nerves thrummed with the urge to flee. "Had a vamp after me." Kakistos. She could hear his chilling laughter. "My Watcher," she was so lost in the memory, Faith didn't hear the tremor in her voice. The threat of tears. "All she could talk about was Buffy the Great. The best fuckin' Slayer ever. Buffy this. Buffy that. When she died…"
The sign blurred and Faith absently swiped at them with her sleeve. "When Kakistos cut her up, this was the only place I could think of."
She could feel the weight of Buffy's stare. Sensed more than saw Buffy shift, her hand raise and then lower as if to offer comfort.
"Even if I never said it, B, I knew you and your crew would help." Faith sniffed and wiped her face again before raising her eyes to Buffy's. "And you did. Saved my ass when Kakistos showed up at the Roach Motel. Just like you did today. Why? Why, B? The other you thought I was trash, but she kept keeping me alive. You don't even know me, and you dragged me outta the Master's hideout. Why?"
The plaintive question hovered between Buffy and Faith like a living, breathing thing. Time passed. Seconds or days. Then Buffy mumbled, "We need to keep moving. Come on." Her pace was slower than before as she stepped into the dense underbrush at the side of the road.
Faith didn't follow. She couldn't. Not this time. A hollow pit opened in her chest where her heart had been right before Buffy ripped it out.
"Faith?" Buffy reappeared briefly, eyes roving the area but never quite making it to Faith's face.
There was no choice. Running away from this nightmare wasn't an option. "Right behind you." If Faith's voice lacked its usual brashness, Buffy didn't appear to notice. She ducked back out of sight, leaving Faith to jog after the trail of shivering foliage.
Before, Faith had been fueled by adrenaline. The lingering thrill of the fight at the warehouse and the need to be safe. Now, she followed Buffy on autopilot. There was no grace to her movement. No Slayer speed. If there was a root in the dirt, Faith tripped over it. Branches, released by Buffy's passage, snapped against Faith's face and arms.
What the hell was she doing here? Faith sought an answer with every stride. She'd created this mess; she'd already acknowledged and accepted that. But how did she fix it? Buffy wouldn't help; she was a reluctant ally at best, and she didn't believe Faith's story. There was no Willow. No Joyce. And Giles was a drunk who might have actually sold out and helped the Master.
As they pushed their way through the underbrush, Faith was left with only two solutions. Find a way back to the real Sunnydale herself. Or take out the threat in this Sunnydale and settle in for the long haul.
In either case, Faith figured she was doomed.
With a willing Scooby gang and all the research books in the library, Faith might have found a way to reverse whatever spell had brought her here. Alone and with no clue where to find Giles' books, Faith would need a miracle.
Killing the Master was no easier. He had an army. Even Buffy was afraid of him and his roving bands of vampires.
Panic and despair struggled for control of Faith's emotions. Her breathing grew faster and shallower. The trees and bushes, the very air closed in. Faith staggered as the world whirred.
"Don't pass out now. We're almost there." Buffy yanked at Faith's arm, holding her upright. She maintained her hold and dragged Faith along for another few minutes.
Faith clung to Buffy. She was solid. Real. Strong. In fact, Buffy's muscles bunched against Faith's arm. Buffy anchored Faith in the here and now. Her strength leeched slowly into Faith until she was able to pull away and finish the run under her own power. "Where are we?" she asked. She didn't recognize the area. It had to be at the very edge of town, though, from the direction they'd travelled.
Steep, jagged cliffs ran in a line for about three hundred feet, ending at a lake. Scattered around the water, ragged tents made from tarps and old coats created shelter for a few dozen people. They stared at Faith with fear and distrust.
A tent city. In Sunnydale. "You stay here?"
"Sometimes." Buffy still wasn't talking much, but she wasn't threatening to beat Faith to death, either. It was an improvement, of sorts. She raised a hand in a reassuring wave, and the stares stopped. "I've got a spot at the base of the cliff. We can sleep there for a couple of days."
Until the Master's troops stopped looking for them. The realization didn't keep horror from gripping Faith in its cold fingers as she followed Buffy to a well camouflaged lean-to built from woven branches and twisted pieces of metal. Ducking under the overhanging branches that comprised the roof, Faith spotted a nest of blankets in one corner and a battered chest of weapons in the other.
Buffy's chest. Buffy's chest. The one from the real Sunnydale. The footlocker that had always been in Buffy's closet.
As if drawn by magnets, Faith walked to the footlocker and knelt. The cheap particle board was warped and the faux brass fastenings were loose and stained. With shaking hands, she began to lift the lid.
An implacable foot on top of the weapons chest halted her progress. "I said we could sleep here. Keep away from my things." Buffy's glower was firmly back in place.
"Sure, Buffy." Faith carefully stood and backed away. I'm not a threat, see? She tried to project that thought with each step. Not a threat. "Mind if I ask some questions, though?" She had to understand this Sunnydale and the Master before she could decide which of her options to choose. Although, Faith was leaning toward challenging the Master. Not even wishing herself into this nightmare made research sound like a good idea.
Taking Buffy's grunt as assent, Faith got down to business. "What's the Master's deal? The usual 'take over the world' crap?"
The irreverent question drew an actual (if fleeting) smile from Buffy. "Just Sunnydale. We're his personal fish in a barrel."
"Sounds more like you're a pain in his ass," Faith responded. "He did a lot of talkin' when I was hanging in his crib." Hanging, in the literal sense, but she left that out. "You got the bastard scared."
The brash statement didn't extend Buffy's levity. If anything, she shut down. Her expression grew morose. "No, I don't." Faith waited as Buffy turned away and restlessly straightened the blankets piled in her sleeping area. "I haven't even made a dent in his plans."
They were full circle. "So he's holed up in a warehouse with a bunch of his fangy buddies, eatin' the townies. How?" Faith dropped to the ground. This was probably going to take a while. Buffy was answering questions; she wasn't offering a lot of details, though. "I mean, how'd he get the drop on you? Build an army?" Buffy was a hell of a Slayer, and Faith figured this scarred and bitter warrior was even better than the original. "Did Giles sell you out?"
"What?" Buffy's head snapped around. "No!"
Then what the fuck had the Master meant? And why were Buffy and Giles on the outs?
Faith didn't have to voice her questions. Buffy stopped fiddling with the blankets and turned to face Faith. "Giles…Giles didn't help the Master." Her hands rubbed her thighs, slipped in and out of her pockets, and then fisted at her sides. "There was a prophecy that said the Master would kill me."
This was familiar. Where did the difference kick in? Faith braced for the worst as Buffy continued.
"We weren't…close anymore." Soft, steady. Buffy's voice cut through Faith with its sheer emptiness. This was a recital of facts. Whatever had caused her rift with Giles, Buffy couldn't or wouldn't face it head on. "Giles didn't think I could beat the prophecy or the Master so he went after him alone."
There was no way this finished with a happy ending. Faith closed her eyes and silently begged Buffy to shut up. She didn't want to hear the rest of the story.
"The Master tortured him. Used him as bait to get me to come to the warehouse." The lack of emotion fled, and Buffy's voice turned bitter. "Just like with you. The Master knows I can't walk away."
The darkness behind her eyelids was no protection from Buffy's emotion. Faith stopped trying to hide from the tale. Reopening her eyes, she met Buffy's stare. "'Course you can't, B. You're a Slayer." A simple answer to Faith's earlier question about Buffy rescuing her. No matter what else happened in the world, Buffy was a Slayer. The Slayer in this reality.
Buffy didn't respond. She merely stared at Faith, but it was clear she wanted to say something.
Waiting Buffy out might get more answers. Might make this Buffy seem more real. It was exactly what Faith should do – and it left her shivering in dread. Everything she'd learned since coming here had been bad. However, Faith's comment to Buffy could be applied to her as well. Faith was a Slayer, too, and no matter how much she wanted to walk away from the Master and this new Buffy…
And that meant there really weren't any choices to make. The Master had to die.
Then, if Faith wasn't dead, there would be plenty of time to find a way home.
Faith had faced death before. She'd had nothing to lose then. This time, dying meant leaving Buffy behind. So Faith couldn't die because no way was she leaving this shitty Sunnydale she'd created to Buffy. Simple.
"Guess you grabbed Giles and did some damage." Faith watched Buffy closely as she continued her careful interrogation.
Wincing as if in remembered pain, Buffy muttered, "Not before he did some damage of his own." She stroked a finger over the scar on her cheek, and Faith's eyes were drawn to the mark. A symbol of Faith's failures, as a Slayer and as Buffy's friend.
Faith started to ask for details, but her voice didn't work. Stalling for time, hiding her visceral reaction to Buffy's story, Faith forced herself to think.
Giles had gone to the Master in an attempt to save Buffy. Obviously, he'd still cared for Buffy. And she'd cared enough to go save him. That meant… There was something missing. Some other piece to the story that might just clarify everything surrounding the Master and the rift between Buffy and Giles. Gathering up her courage, Faith slid a little farther away from Buffy (just in case), and pressed for more. "Prophecy musta been a bust. You're still here and making the Master work for his dinner."
Buffy was so still, she might have been a statue.
"Things ain't worth the paper they're written on," Faith continued with forced sarcasm. She hated this. She'd lived through her own private Hell in Boston, and she never wanted to talk about it. Even think about it. Unfortunately, Faith couldn't allow Buffy to retreat from the memories. She waited a beat and then said, "Right? 'Cause you're not dead."
There still wasn't an answer.
Enough was enough. She didn't want to drag this out. Buffy had to talk. Like yanking off a Band-aid, Faith vowed to simply push Buffy over the edge all at once. She climbed to her feet and went to Buffy. "What happened?" Her resolve crumbled when she glimpsed the tears waiting to spill from Buffy's eyes. Giving in to instinct, Faith gently gripped Buffy's hands.
Cold fingers trembled against Faith's. Shudders racked the rest of Buffy's body. "He had me trapped." There was a far-away, lost timbre to Buffy's voice. "I kept fighting, but there were vamps everywhere. I had to… Giles…"
Images formed in Faith's mind. Buffy surrounded by vampires, fighting for her life, while a battered Giles hung in the same chains that had bound Faith earlier. Tensing automatically, Faith strained, wanting to help that beleaguered Buffy.
"One of the vamps got me. Knife." Faith's eyes locked onto the scar on Buffy's face. "I couldn't see." It took all of Faith's strength to hold Buffy as she tried to pull away. Unfortunately, there was no way for Faith to protect Buffy from the memory. Her speech grew staccato, the words edged in terror. "I went down. They were on top of me. Around me. Hands. Fangs. Knives. I couldn't get up. They dragged me to the Master."
Faith swallowed against the sour taste of her own fear.
"They held me. I smelled… Blood. God." Buffy's muscles were bunched. She clearly wanted to stop talking; she didn't. Something pulled the words out. "I felt his fangs. They burned." With a sudden shove, Buffy stepped away from Faith. "But one of his bully boys got careless and let my arm loose. Giles and I got away." Her voice was firm again. Firm and tight and angry. "Don't be dumb enough to get caught again. If you're a Slayer, like you claim, you don't need my help." It was clear Buffy meant that she wouldn't be offering her help again.
"In case you missed it, B, I didn't ask you to help," Faith snapped without thinking. Then she wanted to stomp her feet. Damn it. Losing her temper wasn't what either of them needed right now. Not to mention that Faith had invented button pushing as a way of hiding emotions. She should have expected this reaction from Buffy. She'd probed too deep. Gone too fast. Deliberately made Buffy face feelings that she wanted to hide. Sucking in a deep breath, Faith fought for calm. "Maybe it's me ya' should be asking for help." She met Buffy's stare and smirked. "Like you said, I'm a Slayer. Pretty handy to have around for the Big Fight."
Then, because Buffy could never know how much Faith wanted to apologize again and to promise she'd make the Master pay for everything… She struck back. She gave Buffy something to focus all of her pain and rage on. "I'm the better Slayer anyway. I'll clean up your mess before gettin' the Hell outta here."
Buffy didn't lash out or strike back. With a twisted smile, she murmured, "Go for it. Maybe you'll have better luck than you did this morning." And then she strode out of the lean-to, leaving Faith bewildered and alone.
She hated it here. Hated it.
Pacing across the small space, Faith fought a scream of frustration. Nothing was going right. She stopped abruptly. Nothing would go right until she was back where she belonged. With renewed resolve, Faith left the shelter. The sun was up but sliding lower in the sky. She'd have to wait for morning. The Master wasn't afraid of daylight; he'd be even more powerful and dangerous at night. Opening her senses, Faith scanned the area. Buffy was gone. There wasn't even a blip on the Slayer radar.
Faith was on her own, damn it.
It was hard to reign in the need to run, to do. She made two circuits of the camp before the adrenaline rush slowed enough for Faith to think clearly. As she passed Buffy's tiny home away from home again, Faith began noticing details. This camp was well established. Tents might be constructed of coats over clothes lines or dilapidated and torn tarps but they were placed strategically. The cliffs or the lake formed the backdrop for each tent. There was only one way in to the area.
Smart. Since she wasn't staggering behind Buffy, the rest of the camp's defenses were visible, too. Trip wires made of fishing line stretched between trees with camouflage-painted cans dangling to form the perfect early warning system.
This was more than a place for the residents of Sunnydale to hide. It looked like a military camp. Faith stared at the tents in shock and rising hope. Had Buffy found a new Scooby gang? One made of civilian soldiers? Could Faith convince them to help her take on the Master instead of hiding out and playing it safe?
As she returned to the heart of the camp, Faith considered that idea. It was risky. Humans, even backed by two Slayers, wouldn't stand much of a chance against an army of vampires. But it had merit. Maybe. She needed more information. Needed to know who Buffy had living in her private hideout.
Getting information wasn't her strong suite, though. She'd already alienated Buffy and Giles had wanted (hell, tried) to kill her.
Faith sighed and trudged up to a woman bent over a tiny cook fire. "Hey," she said, pasting on her most charming smile.
"What are you?" the woman demanded. She straightened and glowered at Faith. "Your energy… I can see…" Even as Faith recoiled in shock, the woman reached out and grabbed her by the arm. "It isn't possible. What are you?"
Glancing around, Faith realized others in the camp were watching the exchange. Several appeared on the verge of charging to the rescue. She froze but didn't pull away, not wanting to seem aggressive or threatening in any way. "Look, I'm sorry. I..ah...I was just tryin' to figure out…" Faith's explanation stumbled to a halt. The woman's stare creeped her out. It was as if the woman could see right through Faith, see into her heart and mind and soul. Faith's skin tingled where the woman gripped her arm.
Her movement tightened the hand on her arm. Fingers dug painfully into her skin, adding to the faint bruises Buffy had left the night Faith arrived in this Sunnydale. "Slayer," the woman breathed. Her eyes widened in disbelief. "How can you exist?"
Faith panicked. She yanked away from the woman, not caring that her move sent the woman to her knees. "Shut up!" she hissed. She'd never been afraid of who or what she was, but hearing it here, in this place… The word left Faith exposed and vulnerable.
From the ground, the woman stared at Faith with awe and hope. Faith shrank from what those emotions meant. She wasn't worthy, wasn't ready. Shame twisted through her as she took two faltering steps away.
"Please," the woman asked. Climbing gingerly to her feet, she held both hands out to Faith. "I'm sorry. Seeing you was a shock. Something out of a dream." A tiny smile tilted one corner of her mouth. "Apparently neither of us is good with surprises." The intensity in her eyes dimmed, allowing Faith to regain a modicum of control.
"Yeah, guess not." Shifting uneasily, Faith mumbled, "I didn't mean to…you know. Knock you down." Her cheeks felt hot, and it was incredibly difficult to maintain eye contact. "Been a kinda crazy day."
The woman didn't say anything in return. She simply returned to her fire and the kettle hanging over the flames.
Faith followed and took a seat on a pile of old blankets and pillows.
"Will you join me for dinner?" The woman gestured at the kettle. "I have enough for both of us, and I am sure you are hungry. Slayers are known for their appetites."
Despite lingering unease, Faith snorted. "Like I told B, Slayin' makes you hungry." She bit the rest of the comment off as she remembered that she hadn't told this Buffy anything about a Slayer's "appetites." Shifting mental gears, Faith watched her hostess and weighed her options. She didn't know this woman. Hell, she didn't know anyone except Buffy and Giles. How did the woman know about Slayers? There was only one way to find out. "I'm Faith. You?"
"Janna. Janna Kalderash." She lapsed into silence as she puttered around the fire, adding spices and other mysterious ingredients to whatever was cooking.
The quiet was soothing. All thoughts of the Master and fighting for Sunnydale's future disappeared from Faith's mind. Watching the fire lulled her with a sense of peace and safety. Unconsciously, she slumped into the pillows. The sounds of the camp faded away. Faith floated, halfway between sleep and wakefulness until Janna pulled the kettle from over the fire. Blinking sleepily, she straightened and accepted the bowl of bubbling soup Janna held out.
"Thanks." Faith blew onto the liquid, enjoying the warmth on her hands. "What's the deal with the camp? How come the Master ain't had his boys out here snacking?" It wasn't an ideal dinner conversation, but it was on Faith's mind. The continued peacefulness made her even more disinclined to tact.
Janna sipped her soup before responding. "When the Master came to power, it wasn't safe to be in town."
Really? Faith rolled her eyes. "Tin cans and fishing line? The bastard's got goons with tranq guns. No way's he not gettin' in here." Food forgotten, relaxation gone, Faith fired off questions. "Why's he letting you stay alive? How come you knew I was a Slayer? Why ain't Buffy turning the people here into her own army and fightin' back?"
This time, Faith didn't see hero worship in Janna's eyes. She scrambled back, biting off a girlish scream.
Janna' brown irises glowed appeared to glow. An electrical current stung Faith's feet and sizzled up her legs. Several cans ringing the camp's perimeter jangled, and a cold breeze ruffled Faith's hair.
Faith inched away. It was as far (and as fast) as she could manage. Her legs felt like old rubber bands stretched well past their limits. "Janna?" Her voice cracked and wavered. She'd seen magic before. Hell, she'd even felt it before, sort of, as she and Buffy duked it out in Angel's mansion. This was very different, though. Very up close and personal. "It was just a question. No need for show and tell."
From one heartbeat to the next, the building power disappeared. "Whatever I cannot do for protection..." Janna glanced away, appearing older and far less mystical. "The Slayer keeps us safe."
Of course she did. Faith nodded her head in agreement. "B's the best." Sitting quietly for a moment, she watched her hostess closely. "Looks like you rate pretty high, too." Other than the Glove, Faith had only known one other witch. Smoke from the fire caused her eyes to tear and her throat to tighten. She blinked and coughed. "Gotta ask. With the two of you on the same team, why sit here? Why not take out the Master and stop living in a tent?" She hadn't planned to be so blunt. She'd wanted to get to the question eventually. Faith slumped in defeat. She sucked at this.
Apparently Jana thought so, too. Turning abruptly, she marched to the other side of the campfire in a swirl of multi-colored skirting. "It will take more than parlor tricks to beat a master vampire."
"Like what?" Faith's mouth, not her brain, continued to control the conversation.
Jana merely stared at her.
Blowing into the steaming bowl, Faith let the silence stretch. It seemed perfectly clear to her: let Jana do her magic while Buffy took out the survivors. Then, as she slowly drank her soup, she took a closer look at that plan. Jana's magic maintained some kind of barrier around the camp. How much energy did that take? Faith vaguely remembered Willow babbling something about magic needing energy and how a witch had to use her personal energy store. If Jana didn't have enough personal fire power... "So you're gonna be stuck here forever." Even after coming to terms with reality, Faith hadn't mastered tact. "If I'm helping Buffy, would that be enough? I mean, you'd only have to take out a third of the vamps instead of half."
Slowly, as if Janna had forgotten how, she began to laugh. The low, rough sound grew until it filled the air. Scowling, Faith fought the urge to protest that she hadn't been telling a joke. Janna finally quieted; she was still smiling, however, when she told Faith, "I like you."
Faith snorted. Janna didn't know her. Didn't know who or what she was or what she'd done. "You do now," she said seriously. Finishing her soup, Faith let the conversation die. She let the food and the fire - and the non-combative company - soothe some of her tension. It would be so easy without Buffy or the Master or the sight of a dilapidated Sunnydale to forget. To push duty and correcting her mistake onto a back burner. Faith yawned. God, she was tired. Sleeping on the floor hadn't exactly been restful.
The floor. The wall of cans. Buffy's hideout.
With a twist of her wrist, Faith tossed the last of the soup onto the fire. It hissed and smoke rose in a thick cloud. "Tell me about magic. Why can't you take on the Master? Red..." The bowl bent in Faith's hands as the name (and grief) registered. Consciously unclenching her fingers, Faith said with unnecessary force, "She was a witch. She used to study spell books and shit. Don't you got some of those?" Most of Willow's spells had been a disaster, but she'd always acted as if she could take on legions of demons. Surely there were ways to find extra energy to boost the magic.
The fire cracked and popped as the last rays of sunlight disappeared. Turning the soup mug in her hands, Janna didn't laugh at Faith a second time.
"Can't you do it?" Now that she'd mentioned it, Faith was becoming more and more convinced this was the answer to the first of her problems.
The new Lead Slayerette didn't share her enthusiasm. "Magic isn't like that, Slayer. It's not a weapon." Janna stood, dumping her soup with less fanfare into the flames. "The Goddess imbues all nature with her energy; those of us who worship her can harness that power. I've already perverted the energy in this area to keep us safe."
That was bullshit - and Faith said so. "You didn't seem to mind 'pervertin'' anything a minute ago when you were showing off." It had been a long day. This was too much like previous conversations with Buffy, pushing for responses and reactions. This time, Faith didn't have the energy for that. She kept it plain and simple. "Truth is, you either ain't as good as you're pretending or you're too scared."
When Janna laughed this time, there was no real amusement. "You were right to warn me, Faith. My first impression of you might have been wrong." She returned to her seat, slowly, and when she resumed speaking Faith wasn't surprised to hear resentment and anger in her voice. "I have power. Enough to ward this site. Enough to handle a cadre of the Master's soldiers." The mug she still held flew across the tiny cooking space and disappeared into the dark with a soft thunk. "If I knew how to do something with it."
Despite her confusion, Faith stayed silent.
"I know how to heal, a little. I can ward - as you know. Beyond that, I'm helpless. I have no spell books, no Coven to ask. All of my contacts in the Craft..." Janna broke off, leaving Faith to fill in the blanks.
"Dead?" The Master must have targeted the witches when he took over the city.
Shaking her head, Janna blew Faith's mind. "Oh, I didn't know anyone in Sunnydale. Before Sunnydale, I...moved around a lot." She'd been staring fixedly at the ground. Her gaze flickered to Faith and then away as she continued. "The internet provided all the resources I needed. I sold charms and read palms, maybe dabbled in love potions for bored housewives. The money was good." Her smile flashed, sudden and quirky, for a moment. "None of its worth a damn now."
The fledgling plan Faith had been creating shriveled and died. She was back to square one: two Slayers against an army. Or was she? Faith's mind latched on to a piece of Janna's explanation. "You said you don't have any books, right?"
"Yes. Lugging them around didn't make sense so I used my computer." Janna waved a hand at the camp, now hidden in darkness. "Finding a dial-up connection around here is a challenge."
Janna would have made a good Scooby. Humor mixed with frustration; the hallmark of every research session Faith remembered. Maybe that was why the solution to their problem popped into her head. "Giles!" Exhaustion faded away. "Giles has books. Hundreds of them." When she spotted Janna's look of confusion, Faith paused and reeled in her excitement. "There's this guy in town," she protected Buffy and her connection to Giles, "who has books you can use to learn spells. And if that don't work, even Giles has got a phone line."
Unfortunately, her explanation wasn't enough. Janna remained firmly planted in place. "Is this Giles a witch? Why would he help us?"
"Because…" Faith broke off as reality intruded. Giles wouldn't help them. He hadn't believed Faith's story earlier. The entire situation shoved Faith right to the edge. Pacing in long, frustrated strides, she took stock. Of course, Giles might be too busy drinking or trying to kill them to let them use his library. Faith growled internally. To hell with Giles and his feud with Buffy. This was serious business. If Janna needed spell books, Giles was going to give them to her - willingly or not. "I'll take you there first thing in the morning."
Until then...Sleep would take a back seat to planning.
With a slight grunt of effort, Faith jabbed her jacket-covered elbow into the window pane. It shattered, the sound slightly muffled from the use of the heavy denim.
"I thought you said this Giles would help us!" Janna tucked herself closer to the side of the townhouse and glanced furtively around. "Just because I'm Rom doesn't make breaking the law a hobby."
Maybe she should have come alone. Janna was freaking like Giles over a little breaking and entering. Rather than respond, Faith tossed her jacket over the jagged fragments of glass and gingerly climbed into Giles' home. He was there. Slayer hearing picked up the hint of a snore from another part of the townhome. Janna was safe to start researching. Turning around, Faith used her jacket and brute force to remove the final pieces of window glass and then pulled Janna inside. "Alright. Hit the books. I'll go round up Giles."
She waited just long enough to watch Janna pick her way through the darkened room toward the large bookcases against the far wall of the living room. As soon as Janna pulled the first book off the shelf, Faith felt some of her tension melt away. Books, research, and friends… It was a recipe for saving the world. Faith's real world.
Now all she had to do was convince Friend Number Two to join the party. She could do it. After long, sleepless hours in Buffy's lean-to, Faith had a foolproof strategy. Leaving Janna to hunt spells, Faith hit the stairs and followed the sound of Giles' heavy breathing to the second floor.
The smell of booze and unwashed Giles hit Faith at the landing. She cursed her enhanced senses and concentrated on breathing through her mouth. She didn't have to sniff Giles out now. There were only two doors, one of which gaped open to reveal a bathroom. Not bothering with stealth, Faith twisted the knob on the second door and stepped into Giles' bedroom.
It was filthy, in keeping with the first floor. Piles of clothes littered the floors. More bottles of Scotch shared space with dusty bottles of cologne and demon texts on the dresser and nightstand. In the middle of the mess, Giles sprawled (thankfully) fully clothed across the bed. Before her confidence crumbled, Faith grabbed a half-full bottle. The top came off with no effort.
"What…" Whatever else Giles might have asked as he jackknifed erect was lost under a wave of Scotch. It coursed over his face and soaked his shirt. His bloodshot eyes peered at Faith with comic confusion and irritation.
Faith didn't give him a chance to rouse completely. She strode to the bed and yanked him to his feet – and then held him there when he swayed alarmingly. "Time to get the fuck up, G-man. We got a vamp to kill."
She got no answer; although, Giles did manage to stabilize himself. His muscles tensed against her hold.
"I ain't gonna listen to whatever you got to say. You don't believe me about the real Sunnydale? Fine." Her voice was intense and Giles flinched at each word. But he was listening. She saw a little of the haze clear from his eyes. "You think I'm full of shit? You might be right. I don't care. You know what I do care about?"
Giles' head moved left and right.
"Buffy." Faith said the name loud and clear. "You do, too. B told me that," Faith said with shameless exaggeration. "She said you took on the Master alone 'cause of some lame ass prophecy."
She had Giles' attention. He stopped struggling and met her eyes. "That is not quite how it happened."
"Don't really matter." Faith was tempted to let him go and step back. She might have if the memory of her first visit wasn't fresh in her mind. Giles was a smart, sneaky bastard. He could very easily be playing along. "The only thing that does is B. I found a witch I think can help."
It was the wrong thing to say. Giles' mouth tightened. "Magic cannot help us. How do you know this witch? The Covens in this area…"
"She's a friend of Buffy's." Buffy was Faith's ace in the hole.
He wavered. His eyes met Faith's then darted away. "Did Buffy send you here?" The hesitancy in Giles' voice was horrible. Un-Giles like.
And Faith couldn't bring herself to tell him the truth. "Yeah." For once, she didn't regret the lie. "Think she's ready for the final battle, if ya' know what I mean." Not completely untrue this time. Faith was absolutely convinced Buffy was ready to end things. The only question left in Faith's mind: was Buffy hoping to kill the Master – or let him kill her?
"Final battle? Is she mad?" Giles reared back, nearly escaping Faith's hold. "One Slayer against the Master's forces?"
Ah, he was almost back to normal. Faith relaxed slightly and nodded. "That's why me and Janna are here. We gotta have a plan." Then, giving in to pique, she mumbled, "And it's two Slayers against the Master."
Giles didn't quite cover his snort with a cough.
It wasn't worth arguing over. Faith let go of Giles and walked to a set of folding closet doors on the far wall. Pulling the doors open, she randomly yanked a shirt and pants off hangers and tossed them at Giles. "Take a shower." Not even an army of vampires would get Faith to sit in close quarters with Giles without soap and water. "You've got ten minutes before I come lookin' for ya'."
Halfway down the stairs, Faith heard the shower turn on.
It was working. Her plan was working. High on victory, she ignored the final few steps and hurtled the banister instead. "Got anything?" Faith asked Janna.
"Nothing. If I needed to identify a demon, I've got options." Janna tossed a book onto the floor and grabbed another from the bookcase. "Killing a bunch of vampires, though, doesn't seem to be part of this collection."
Just like that, Faith's confidence crumbled. She hid it as best she could. If Giles sensed her doubts, for even a moment, he'd go back to his booze. "Keep looking. Got to be some kick ass spells in here somewhere." Faith had overheard Willow and Buffy talking about some super secret magic books he'd kept locked in his office. Because she suddenly needed something to do, Faith grabbed a book of her own. She knew absolutely nothing about magic; she didn't figure it mattered. She just needed to do something until Giles joined them.
Her research skills had never been good. In fact, even Xander had been better at book work. Faith dug deep and concentrated. Janna was right. The books on Giles' shelves were all demon texts. Faith even recognized some of them. There were no spells. Luckily, footsteps from the stairs freed her attention from the book in her hands – right before she hurled it across the room in frustration.
Giles' eyes narrowed, almost daring Faith to actually throw his precious book. If she hadn't needed his help so much… With exaggerated care, she set the tome on the floor and pointed to Janna. "This is Janna; she's been helpin' B out."
This was the moment of truth. Well, it would be if Janna said the wrong thing and clued Giles in on Faith's web of lies and exaggerations. He wasn't stupid, and he looked far more Giles-like after his shower. The stubble was gone and his eyes were less hazy.
Thankfully, Janna didn't throw Faith to the wolves. "These," she gestured disdainfully at the discarded books, "are useless."
Giles stiffened noticeably. "Indeed. Perhaps, then, it would be best if you departed. It would seem such a waste of time to continue." There was enough ice in his tone to make Faith shiver.
"I'm not leaving yet. Not after dragging my laptop across town – which including scaling fences – and then breaking into your apartment." Janna stood up, shoving an entire pile of books out of the way with her foot.
It was touch and go for a second if Giles was going to yell or cry at the treatment of his beloved books.
"Do you have a working phone line? I can log onto the Internet. Some of my online coven should still be around." Dropping her shoulder bag onto the couch, Janna got out her laptop and set it on the small, cluttered desk against the wall.
Like fish out of water, Giles gaped open-mouthed at Janna. "Phone…Inter…Lap…What?"
"Oh for the love of Hecate! It's a computer. A small, portable computer." Janna pointed at the piles and piles of books on the floor. "I can search thousands of books using your phone line. Without choking on dust or bleeding to death from paper cuts." Her hands waved dramatically in the air, and Faith prudently stepped out of the way before Janna accidentally poked Faith's eye out.
Maybe it was Janna's tone or the attack on his books. Something fired Giles up. His momentary confusion disappeared in a flash. "I most certainly have a phone line, young woman," he announced stiffly. "However, if you believe that some mechanical invention will assist you in defeating a master vampire and his hordes of minions, you are deluded."
And just like that, Faith lost control of her Scooby Gang.
"Deluded?" Janna actually laughed. "At least I'm sober and not huddled in this smelly man cave devoted to antiques like those books!"
Moving into Janna's personal space, Giles spat, "This man cave holds the most complete demon research facility in the United States. Those books are priceless treatises on demonology dating back to the first vampire sightings. If you had not been wallowing in your bloody technology, perhaps Buffy would have already defeated the Master rather than shirking her duties and hiding from her destiny."
"Shut the fuck up!" Faith was furious. With Giles' last comment – and with the two idiots faced off in the middle of the room. "Just shut up!"
Both "adults" turned to stare at Faith.
Her control slipped. Faith was tired. Scared. Completely out of her element. And the only two people who could possibly help were wasting time. It was time for some hard truths, and Faith was more than ready provide them.
Giles was Faith's first target. He was Buffy's Watcher. In another place and time, he'd been Faith's, too. She had trusted him to be Research Guy. "You think B's hiding out doin' her nails or shoppin' for shoes? Did you forget she saved your ass? I know she saved mine. And she's keeping a whole bunch of townies safe. Not to mention she's living on the streets, Giles.
"What have you been doing?" Faith glared so fiercely at Giles that he should have burst into flames. "Drinking. This place is a dive." She wanted to say more, so much more. "Buffy ain't livin' up to her duties? Like you have? You're her Watcher." She registered the way Giles' eyes widened. "But you ain't out there helping her. Nah. You're in here, with your bottles and books, pointing fingers and lettin' her do all the work alone."
"I do not…"
"I said shut up!" Faith cut Giles off. She was breathing heavily, and her hands clenched so tightly she felt her nails dig into her palms. "And you." Faith turned her rage onto Janna. "You got magic. The Master don't. You told me all you needed was the right spell. If anybody has that, it's Giles. But you're too busy bitchin' about his books to ask him where the fuck to find a spell. And the whole time the two of you wastin' time, B's out there alone. And one night she ain't comin' back – and it's gonna be your fault!"
In the silence left behind by Faith's final accusation, she picked up a demon text and tossed it to Giles. It bounced off his chest before he clutched it protectively in his arms. "That ain't got what we need. None of these do," Faith said more calmly. "Janna thinks she could use magic to kill off part of the Master's army, but she needs help findin' a spell. She's lost all of her witchy friends and spell books or whatever. I know you got that shit somewhere. Where?"
"Not here." Lips still tight with outrage or insult, Giles nonetheless answered Faith's question. "In fact, I do not even know if they exist any longer."
It wasn't what Faith wanted to hear. All her hopes of saving Buffy and maybe going home… The floor seemed to drop away, and Faith grabbed the edge of an end table to keep from falling down.
Giles must have noticed her reaction. He sighed tiredly and placed the book in his arms onto the couch. "The works I have here are a small piece of a greater collection I brought with me from England. Because Buffy was a student, the Council," his eyes darted to Janna and then back to Faith, "set me up as the librarian at the local high school. It would be easier for me to make contact with Buffy in that setting. I housed all of the books on spell casting and Magick in a specially-designed and shielded cabinet in my office there. The Master razed the school during his Ascension."
Faith wanted to give up, sit on the floor and cry. Or grab a bottle of Scotch and join Giles on his next bender. Even if they armed all of Buffy's army of townies, they wouldn't make a dent in the Master's forces without Janna's magic. There were too many vampires and too few humans. The Chosen Two kicked serious ass. But only one of them understood the power of their unique teamwork. Buffy, the best Slayer ever, didn't trust her Chosen partner.
They were doomed unless Faith somehow pushed through this newest challenge.
She closed her eyes and remembered "her" Buffy. Remembered her unshakeable confidence. Remembered the stories she'd heard over and over from her original Watcher back in Boston.
Buffy could do anything. She was the perfect Slayer.
And now Faith had to take her place on that pedestal for a while. Giles and Janna were still frozen in place and staring at her when Faith opened her eyes. She threw her shoulders back and met their stares. They weren't giving up. She wouldn't let them. There were going to find a spell for Janna, convince Buffy to be part of the team, and kill the Master and his army. "Janna, use Giles' phone line and start huntin' a spell with your laptop."
It was more than weird to see Janna follow her orders. The older woman immediately returned to the desk to work on her computer.
"Giles, you and me are headin' to your office. You said you kept the books in a special cabinet. Maybe that kept 'em safe." Faith watched Giles nod his approval of the plan slowly and hesitantly. It was there, though. He was on board.
On board but not moving. Why? Faith narrowed her eyes and glared at him. What was she missing? They needed spells. The spell books were (maybe) safe and locked in the library. That meant going from here to there.
Ah. Black cars with painted windows. Tranquilizer guns.
"Gonna have to be careful on the way," Faith announced. "What kinda weapons you got, Giles?"
Was that a slight smile on his face? It was gone before Faith could really be sure. "Although the bulk of weaponry was at the school, I do have a small weapons vault built into the master bedroom floor."
Finally! Action felt awesome. Striding for the stairs, Faith commanded, "Show me." It was easier to give orders this time. Faith was almost getting used to it. And she hadn't screwed up yet. Giles and Janna were following her lead. It would be better if Buffy were here to do this, but she wasn't. And Faith would just have to live with that – and live up to the Super Slayer stories she'd heard before leaving Boston.
There was no other option.
It was time Faith came off the bench and played for the A Team. Time to do to a little pinch hitting for the Golden Girl.