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by Queen Zulu

Time Line:
Summary: Faith saves someone helpless on the mean streets of Sunnydale.

It felt good to be back in Sunnydale. Fuckin' strange, that. I mean, you'd think coming back to the Hellmouth wouldn't be a thing worth celebrating, what with the vamps trying to kill me every night, but, I dunno. It's stupid to actually look forward to that shitty motel room, but at least it's my shitty motel room, which is more than I can say for any place I crashed at between here and Boston. Before that was my Watcher's place, and before that, Dad's. So maybe I shouldn't be surprised. Sunnydale is home now.

That doesn't mean I don't need to take a break every now and then, though. And I sure as hell don't need Buffy Holier-Than-Thou Summers telling me she's the good slayer and I'm chopped liver. She'd never say it to my face, but I heard her laughing about it with Red when I went to visit her at school. I sneak over there every chance I get, whenever I can think up an excuse that's not too crappy, which is pretty pathetic, but it's not like anyone's expecting me to be the well-adjusted one. Anyway, I heard Buffy telling Red how she was the one doing special training with Giles about these crystal things, and how I hadn't shown up except for patrols for a week.

Like that's fucking my fault. Giles didn't call, and didn't say anything either when I showed up in the library to tell him about this nest I cleared out. So let him give Buffy extra training. She's the one that needs it. Last time I told her how many vamps I dusted in a week, her eyes went all wide and shocked, so I asked her what her record for a week was.

She stuttered and blushed and finally said, "This isn't a competition, Faith," which is what everyone says when they're losing.

I didn't call her on it, though. Mostly 'cause she's cute when she blushes, and I was too busy noticing.

And I knew, even while I was checkin' her out, that there was nothing doing on that account, which really pisses me off. That and how she doesn't even notice when she's flirting right back at me. She's too busy being the good slayer, getting all that hero-worship from Red and Xander. You couldn't tell her with a ten-foot neon sign that she thinks I'm hot stuff. When we're dancing, though, and she's staring at me (about a foot lower than my eyes), it's so obvious it's ridiculous. Still, Buffy wouldn't know romance if it didn't come in her favourite flavour--tall, dark, and brooding. I thought two out of three wasn't bad, but I guess the girl thing really freaks her out.

So I figured, let her take care of this shit-town for a week. It'd show her that I'm just as good a Slayer as her, and she'd miss me when I was gone and the vampire population started creeping up. And maybe when I came back, she'd say, "Faith, where were you? Bronzing isn't the same without you. I wanted to dance with you and you weren't here."

And then she'd show me just what kind of dancing she meant.

I was thinking about her saying that, and how I'd answer, and just where we would take things after that, when I heard the scream.

"Help me! Somebody, please!"

I had a stake out in a flash, and turned right around and started running in the direction it came from.

Night time in dear old Sunnyhell is not an unusual time to be hearing screams, not by a long shot. Before I was the Slayer, hearing screams meant walking the other way, fast, but not too fast, so the cops wouldn't suspect you if they saw you. Now, I'm supposed to be this big protector. You scream, I come running. Like a fireman helping a kitten out of a tree, that's me. Except no little old lady hands out fresh-baked cookies to the girl in the leather pants and the dark make-up.

"Help me, please! Somebody!"

That's another annoying thing about Buffy. I've hung out with her so long I'm starting to think it's not the reward that matters, or even the Slaying, it's just helping people out. I told her that once. Buffy gave me this half-teasing grin, like she was trying to keep a straight face and not laugh at me, and said, "You're becoming a real hero, there, Faith."

Well, so what if I am? That's what the job requirements say. I'm not the one bitching every night just because I have to go out Slaying.

I didn't answer her then, either, 'cause I didn't want to tell her which of us I thought was the real hero. There's more to it than doing the right thing; it's doing it with style, like. Graceful. A real hero looks beautiful just doing ordinary things.

You can bet I didn't tell her that.

"Somebody, please help me!"

I stopped dead. There was a chainlink fence blocking the alley, but that wasn't the reason. What stopped me short was that I finally saw who was doing the screaming.


She was running like she was exhausted, and the vampire rushing up behind her was grinning like all his Christmases had come at once. Was this some sort of joke? What the hell was Buffy doing? Maybe she was trying to lure him on, except usually you needed to beat vamps off with a stick--literally--before they'd ever give up the chase. I moved into the shadows of the alley, in case this was some plan of Buffy's, and I'd ruin it by playing the rescuer.

Buffy came to the fence and tried to climb it. I wanted to step out of my hiding spot and ask her what in hell she was trying to pull. We both coulda stepped over that fence like it was knee-high. But that's when I saw her face. She was crying and gasping for air, and when she fell down off the fence she didn't even try to land right. I saw her twist her knee. The vamp was coming fast and Buffy didn't even pull a stake. She was too busy looking to escape.

"Please, I need help..." She wasn't screaming anymore. She sounded so helpless.

Shit, this was no game. She was really in trouble.

I came out of hiding, and with one bound, I was over the fence and giving the vamp the beating of his undead life. There was no contest. This was my element--kick ass first, ask questions after. He was a newbie, fresh-risen tonight, and I staked him after only a second. I turned around just as fast, and the first words I thought were, "What the fuck happened to you?"

I didn't say them.

Buffy was huddled beside the fence, sobbing but trying to hide it. I could see her shoulders shaking, though, and, hey, Slayer hearing. Jesus Christ, I leave for a week and look what happens. Her hair was a mess, all coming down out of its clips, and her shirt looked a little torn. If that undead bastard laid a hand on her, I shoulda cracked his skull open before I dusted his ass.

And, hell. Even laying in filth and crying, Buffy was beautiful. I think I may need help. I couldn't even say anything. I just went over to her and crouched beside her and kinda started stroking her hair. Jeez, I didn't know what to do. She's supposed to be the Slayer, the good one, the real one. I'm just second-hand goods, a mistake really. Before I knew it, I was talking to her, softly, just stuff like, "Shh, Buffy, it's okay, I got your back, right? Come on, he's gone now, you're okay."

Finally, Buffy sniffled, ran a hand under her nose, and nodded. "There was another one," she said. "Bigger."

"Okay." I still had no clue what was going on, but that's Buffy for you. The hero. Thinking first about the vamp that got away before she even worried about whether she was hurt. "I'll kill him for you, okay?"

She kinda laughed through her tears at that. "That's so romantic, Faith."

This was supposed to be romantic? "Yeah, well, I expect roses for saving your ass," I said. "Buffy, what's going on?"

Buffy tried to stand, but her knee wouldn't hold her, and I got under her arm to help her up. Something was seriously wrong if a little twisted knee like that hurt her so bad. As if I didn't already know that things were well and truly fucked up.

"I don't know," she said. I could hear that she was trying hard not to start crying again. "It started two days ago--I just, I got dizzy and then I couldn't fight, and I was throwing knives like a girl, and I'm losing all my strength, and I can't even run, and at school Cordelia had to rescue me--"

She was really upset, but I couldn't let that pass. "Queen C came to save the day?" I asked, swallowing my chuckle as best I could.

Buffy slapped my arm for that. It felt like nothing at all. Creeped me right out. What's Buffy gonna do if she can't Slay? Hell, what am I gonna do when the Watcher's Council comes along and tells me I've been promoted?

"Giles said it was probably the flu, but it's just been getting worse, and my dad canceled on me for the ice show..." Buffy shook her head. "Not that that's important, it's just, he promised, and it's a tradition."

That was pretty low of him, but I didn't expect much of fathers in general, so I mostly let that pass. "Come on, Buffy, let's try to get you home, okay? Just lean on me."

It surprised me that she didn't argue, or try to show me a brave face or anything. She leaned pretty heavy on me, but I coulda carried her no problem. In fact, it was starting to look like a good idea. It was night in Sunnydale, after all, and we were walking slowly. She was giving out these little whimpers every time she limped on her bad leg, and I just wanted to make her feel better. Before I could think it over too hard, I slid my arm under her knee and lifted her up.


I don't know what she was gonna say, protest or what, but she didn't go on. I wondered if she still had her Slayer hearing, 'cause if so, she could probably hear my heart going a mile a minute. Not from the effort of holding her, I'll tell you that. I just muttered, "It's faster like this," and tried not to enjoy myself too much taking her home.

By the time we got within a block of Buffy's house, I was dying. Buffy obviously didn't want to talk, and that was fine by me, 'cause there was no way I was gonna be able to keep up intelligent conversation when her head was resting...where it was resting. I mean, okay, it's probably tough to stay stiff in somebody's arms when they're carrying you, but did she have to do the snuggling thing? And her breathing was hitting my neck just right, which was wonderful and horrible all at once. A couple of times I started jogging, so she wouldn't think I was getting all hot and bothered because of her. Buffy's got a big enough head already without me panting all over her.

When I managed to get my mind off Buffy, I was thinking about what did this to her. In Sunnydale, when weird shit starts happening, it's hardly an accident. One thing Buffy told me didn't ring true, and that was Giles telling her she had the flu. What bullshit. Giles is always the first one to suspect mystical influences, or curses, or even some once-in-a-lifetime conjunction of the planets. He gets excited when there's a chance of something Hellmouthy going down. Besides, even when Buffy really did have the flu, there was a death demon after her. So him basically giving her a bowl of chicken soup and a pat on the head--that felt wrong. He should be cleaning his glasses til the lenses wore through and living in the library until he figured out exactly what was going on and how to fix it.

What I saw when we got to Buffy's house didn't make me feel any better. The front door was standing wide open. I hopped up the porch steps and set Buffy on her feet--well, foot--and took out my stake. Joyce was too smart to invite a vamp in, but that didn't mean they might not be lurking.

Buffy bent over and picked up a red coat that had been kicked into a corner. A book fell out of it, and I scooped it up.

"This is mine," Buffy said. "The big vampire caught me and ripped it off me--that's how I got away from him."

"Huh." Looked pretty clear what had happened--the vamp had used Buffy's coat to lure her mom out of the house, probably by playing dead.

"Look." Buffy hobbled over to the open door.

I joined her. There was a Polaroid of Joyce, looking terrified, taped to the doorframe. Buffy ripped it off and turned it over. On the back was an address and the word, "Come."

Well, no question who got to be the hero this time. Finding out what was wrong with Buffy would have to wait. "Listen, you just stay inside," I said. "I'll go, I'll get her back, I promise."

"I'm coming too," she said. God, she's stubborn.

I gave her my most impatient sigh. "Buffy, you can barely walk. Listen, I won't kill him right away, I'll find your mom first. But I gotta go now, before--" I stopped myself from saying what we both knew might happen. The vamp coulda killed Joyce already. Or worse, made her one of them. If Joyce was turned, there was no way I was letting Buffy see her. I'd stake her myself, quickly, and no matter if Buffy hated me for it later.

"I don't care, she's my mom. Faith, please?"

Oh, great, now she's asking me? Big green eyes and her hand on my arm. I am such a sucker. "I suppose you figure I'm going to cart you over there," I said.

"We'll take the Jeep." Buffy reached inside the door and grabbed the keys.

I snatched them right out of her hands. "Fine, but there's no way you're driving."

"I'm a good driver!"

"Not with your leg gimped. Now come on, or do you need me to carry you?"

It came out sounding like a challenge, but I meant it, and I think Buffy knew it. She glared at me and hop-walked to the passenger side of the Jeep. I opened the doors and started the ignition. "I hope you're armed," I said. "I'm not going to babysit you in there."

"I never asked you to."

Nothing gets Buffy's back up like me implying I'm the better Slayer. Even if it was true right now. She knew what I was doing, trying to get her angry instead of afraid. I grinned at her and she smiled back. Well, at least we understand each other.

I gunned the engine and slammed us into reverse, got out of the driveway, and headed for the address. I pitched the book on the seat between us and the front cover fell open. I glanced at it. Love poems. On the title page was written, "Always."

I rolled my eyes. That was easy for Angel to say, seeing as he was the immortal one in this dysfunctional excuse for a relationship. Still, Buffy would probably worship it, even if she never got around to reading any of the poems. I knew it was her birthday. I barely scraped together enough cash for her Christmas present, and she never wore it, so I figured it wasn't worth my effort this time. Angel had probably been saving this original edition of Elizabeth Browning since the lady herself handed him the book. Yet another reason to be out of town. I can't compete with that.

Buffy still wasn't saying anything, just watching the road with a tense look on her face. I'm not the type to brood, and I know Buffy's not either, usually. This power-drain thing was really getting to her. Plus, with her dad ditching her, she'd had one crappy week. And all the silence was making me feel guilty for not being here. Not that she would have cared if I was, or wanted to talk, or anything, but that didn't stop me from feeling bad. Shit, no one ever said love made sense.

Not that I love Buffy.


"So, uh, happy birthday," I said, taking a turn on two wheels. It sounded really stupid, like I expected her to be having the time of her life right now. But at least I said it.

"Thanks," she said, again with that ironic smile that was almost laughing at me. Not quite, though. Never quite.

I screeched through a yellow light--nobody out and around at this time of night, and the place was on the outskirts of town, on the side opposite the docks, so there weren't a lot of people at the best of times.

"You and Angel get together for a little celebration?" I asked. I didn't really mean to bring it up, but like I say, anything but silence. I didn't put too much innuendo in it, either. I kept my eyes on the road.

Death-glare from the Buffster. No loss of power in the Slayer stare, anyway. Not that she'd be reassured if I told her that. And that was it for our conversation. Obviously Angel was a taboo subject these days, not that he wasn't always. Buffy's so fucking sensitive about him, just 'cause I flirt with her whenever I get the chance. The way I see it, if she were really immune to my charms, then she wouldn't get so agitated when I bring up Soulboy.

At least the silence didn't last long. I pulled up in front of this place that coulda starred in any number of haunted house movies and killed the engine. We climbed out of the Jeep, and I led the way up the front walk, my hand hovering near my stake.

Buffy limped along behind, trying to look every direction at once. She was acting so jumpy I decided she must be feeling what I could: this place reeked of vampires. It's a Slayer thing, I guess, to have your skin crawl whenever you're around a really strong vamp, or else a lot of them. And maybe that was cause for hope--if Buffy's vamp alarm still worked, then chances were her powers weren't gone--it was more like someone was interfering with them. And it was probably no coincidence this vamp we were hunting grabbed Joyce today. He was probably the one with the power-sucking mojo. He knew Buffy wouldn't stay clear, no matter how weak she was, if her mom was in danger.

He wasn't counting on me, though. Just goes to show, even the brightest vamps still have egos the size of Angel's mansion.

I stopped on the porch and thought about kicking the door in. But if the vamp was expecting a weak Slayer then it was better to oblige him. I took out my stake--Buffy was already clutching hers in a death grip--and reached for the handle. The doorknob turned easily. I followed Buffy into the house, thinking it wouldn't be half as easy to leave this trap. We waited for a moment for whatever was gonna jump out and yell "Boo!"

The place looked empty, and even straining my Slayer hearing there wasn't any noise to give us a clue which way to go. The house might have seemed deserted if it weren't for the prickle on my skin and the ache in my gut. The vamp was here, and he was watching.

"Okay, let's look for your mom," I said, and Buffy nodded.

She started up the stairs. I'd taken maybe three steps behind her when a hand grabbed my ankle. It yanked my foot out from under me. I slammed forward, but I managed to get my hands under me and save my ribs from bashing into the stair-edges. I'd lost my stake in falling. I kicked out with my free foot and heard a satisfying crunch. The hand let go. I'd broken some fingers at least, if not the wrist. I leaped to my feet. Buffy was standing on the stairs above me, staring wide-eyed.

"Go!" I yelled. "Find your mom. I'll take this guy."

Buffy snapped out of it and nodded. "Here," she said, and tossed me her stake. It flew wide, but I jumped up on the bannister and snatched it out of the air. I used my forward momentum to flip over the vamp's head and land behind him.

He was a big bastard, that was sure, and fast too--he was facing me before I could get a quick kill. This fight wouldn't be the piece of cake that newbie in the alley had been.

I grinned. That was fine by me.

"Let's go," I said, and charged.

Part 2

I clobbered the vamp with a roundhouse punch as soon as I got near enough. It was like putting my fist through a brick wall, and the bastard wasn't even shaken. He just grinned down at me, looking half-way handsome even with fangs, and said, "I don't think we've been properly introduced."

"Faith, the Vampire Slayer," I said, and as long as he was standing wide open, I went for the kill.

He caught my hand when my stake was an inch from his chest, and squeezed. Shit, that hurt. I tried pulling away, but he had a grip, and wouldn't let go. He grabbed my jacket front with his other hand and lifted me off the floor. I could smell the sour blood of whoever his last meal had been. He reeked this close up. "And I am Kralik," he said. Then he threw me across the room.

I heard something crack, and I hoped it was the wall I hit and not me. I scrambled to my feet. My stake had rolled beneath a chair across the room. Just fucking great. Kralik was still standing beside the stairs, watching me and looking thoughtful.

"You," he said, in a slow, deep drawl, "are not supposed to be here."

"Yeah, that's what they all say. But turns out, I'm on the side of good, and that means I'm supposed to win." I dropped into my fighting stance again.

"No," he said, tilting his head and staring at me. "It is not your time. I don't kill you for another two years."

What the hell was he going on about? I circled him a bit, looking for an opening. "Considering I plan to kill you in the next five minutes, I think you're going to have to reschedule," I said.

"Your Watcher's Council has made a mistake," he said, then licked his lips. "But one Cruciamentum or two--I will eat you both."

I stood straighter. "Cruciawhatnow?" It sucked to let him know that he knew more than I did, but if this had something to do with Buffy's strength disappearing, then I'd have to ask first, fight later.

"Ah, you don't know. Of course." He shook his head, distracted for a minute, but I didn't go after him. I needed him to tell me more. Besides, I do learn from my mistakes, much as Buffy would scoff at the idea. He was quick and big and mean, and unless he came after me, I couldn't use that against him. I had to bait him until he charged, and then I could throw him into a couple walls. See how much he liked having the tables turned. That would slow him down some.

"All I know is you did something to Buffy," I said. She was out of sight, but I could hear her upstairs, opening doors and calling for her mom. I hoped like hell she wouldn't find Joyce hurt, or dead. Too much shit happened in her life as it was.

Kralik started laughing. This vamp was seriously messed up in the head. I got around him and picked up my stake. He sounded crazy, and I figured that wasn't too far off the mark.

"What's so funny?" I asked, fed up with not being in on the joke. I'd beat Buffy's cure out of him soon enough. She who stakes vamps always has the last laugh.

"Better to ask your Watcher's Council," he said. "Or Angelus. I understand he used to enjoy the Cruciamentum more than any. They finally had to stop using him--he was too effective!" He grinned again--not a pretty sight--and started towards me. "Now, girly, I'm hungry..."

Good, he was ready to tango. As soon as a vampire let his stomach do the thinking, he was pretty much dead meat. Deader meat. Whatever. He rushed me, just like I'd hoped. I pulled his arm and turned his lunge into a throw, headfirst into the bookcase. It came crashing down on top of him. I grabbed a poker from the fireplace and started whaling on whatever body part was sticking out from under the piles of books. "What the hell are you talking about?" I yelled. "What the fuck is the Cruciathingy?"

He just kept laughing. He heaved the bookcase aside and roared as he stood up. I gave his knee another whack with the poker, then threw it straight at his eyes. He batted it aside with one hand, but I heard another crack. I had four broken fingers on my scoresheet and he hadn't closed with me once.

That changed faster than I could think. He darted forward and caught me in a bearhug, his fangs cold and slippery right next to my neck. I struggled, but he lifted me off the ground where I couldn't get any leverage to throw him again. I pounded my fists against his back, tried to knee him. "Don't worry," he crooned, between chuckles. "I won't take it all. I won't take it all." His tongue licked my neck, cold and wet, and I fucking lost it.

I got my foot up between us and shoved with all the strength in me. I heard his ribs creak, but he held on. He couldn't get near my neck, now, but that wasn't the only place I had blood flowing and he knew it. He dipped his head towards my wrist.

A crossbow bolt flew past his ear and nearly took me straight in the throat. Kralik whipped around, losing his hold on me, and I kicked his feet out from under him before even stopping to see who was playing hero now. I looked up long enough to see Buffy on the landing above, crossbow in hand. There was no time to wonder how long she'd been there.

I threw myself on Kralik from behind, landing with my full weight on his back. If vampires breathed, he would have probably been knocked out. As it was he jumped to his feet and I was riding a bucking bronco. I had to laugh at the absurdity of it. He was straining to get a hold on me, but I had his arm twisted up behind him so he couldn't reach. "Yeah!" I whooped. "Ride 'im, cowgirl!"

Upstairs, Buffy was fumbling with the crossbow, setting another bolt in it. "B, don't worry, I got him!" I said. "Where's your mom?"

"She's not upstairs," she said back, and aimed for Kralik once more.

"Don't you fucking dare shoot that!" I yelled, digging my knees into Kralik's ribs and twisting his arm higher. She'd missed his heart when he was standing still--there was no way she was going to score a lucky shot with him leaping and screaming his way around the fucking living room. "You'll take someone's eye out! Probably mine!"

"I'll go check the basement," she said. She inched past us, stumbling over the spill of books, and I got Kralik's arm pushed so high that he was leaning over, growling. I jumped off his back and fumbled for my stake again. I hurt, my ribs aching and the hand he'd squeezed telling me it was time to switch to southpaw. I found Buffy's crossbow and aimed it dead center. He was tired enough now that I could risk a shot, as long as I had my stake for backup.

"Now," I said, and it was my turn to smile, "tell me what you know about the Cruciawhositz, or you're going to find yourself with a nasty splinter."

Kralik shook his head. His whole body started twitching. It looked like he was trying to jiggle his brains back in place. "Pills," he said.

"What?" I didn't relax my finger on the trigger one hair.

"Pills--need my pills!" Kralik searched through his pockets and came out with a plastic bottle of pills. He popped the lid open, not paying any mind to me, so I kicked the bottle right out of his hands. Pills scattered everywhere. Kralik screamed.

"Tell me what you know!" I said.

Kralik dropped to his knees and gathered up pills with shaking hands. He was moaning. I gave him a swift kick to the head that sent him sprawling. "What is it? What did you do to Buffy?"

He whirled on me, and whatever shred of sanity had been there before was gone now. He burst off the floor and came at me. There was nothing that was going to stop him this time, so I pulled the trigger. Dust swirled around me for a moment. If I had just lost whatever chance we had of figuring out what was wrong with Buffy, then I'd probably be no better off soon enough.

But that couldn't be. He'd said the Watcher's Council knew, and something about how Angel used to be involved.

Probably it was nothing but a pack of lies. If Giles or Angel knew, they woulda cured Buffy before she had so much as a stubbed toe. Shit, none of it made sense. As soon as we had Joyce safely home, I was going straight to the library to get the truth out of Giles, no matter what it took.

Even if he ended up like Kralik.

I headed for the basement. Buffy was in the furnace room, tugging at the ropes that held Joyce to a chair. One look and I knew everything was gonna be okay. Joyce was shaken up, but not hurt. No bite marks.

"Here," I said. "Let me get this." I yanked on the ropes and they tore easily in my hands. I tried to pass it off like it was no big deal, but Buffy looked hurt anyway. Jeez, it wasn't like I was trying to pity her, but it sort of leaked out anyway. I couldn't imagine giving up my powers, not for a minute. Maybe I'm not the Slayer, the one they all love, but being a Slayer is all that stands between being me being a hero and being nobody. That's why I never understood Buffy's bitching about duty and all that. That is, til I saw that she didn't need to be the Slayer to be a hero. Looking at her now, though, I realized she didn't know that. She watched me get her mom free and thought that meant I was the only hero left here.

But, just like before, I couldn't say any of that. I'm not the type for speeches. I wouldn't know how. Just like all the times I looked at Buffy and didn't tell her stuff. There were lots of things it was easy to say, like, "You looking fuckin' hot tonight, B." But this--all this stuff about being a hero--I'd end up looking like an idiot. I know Buffy wouldn't laugh, not straight at me, but I also knew she'd be joking about it with Red as soon as they got their heads together.

And, besides all that, I was starting to get really pissed off. The more I thought about it, the more this whole Cruciadealy didn't make sense. Any of it. Buffy's power loss, and Kralik going on about the Watcher's Council and Angel. Somebody knew something, and it was time we figured out who was in on it.

Buffy helped Joyce to her feet and we got the hell out of Dodge. One look from Joyce and I surrendered the Jeep's keys. We got back to Buffy's house in good time, and I waited until Joyce had some tea in her hands and a couple of aspirin in her system before I made a duck for the door.

"Faith, where are you going?" Buffy asked.

I shrugged. "Still gotta have someone patrol, I guess."

Of course, I shoulda known Buffy wouldn't leave it at that.

"You are the world's worst liar. You know this, don't you?" She gave me this lopsided grin that is fucking adorable. Melts me every time.

Sure, she can see through my lies. But she doesn't see that, not for a second.

"I'm going to check in with Giles," I said, then. I didn't really want her to know everything--so far, she seemed to be eating the flu story like it's candy--and it would only hurt her worse to know what I suspect. But, hey, they say the truth will set you free. Better she should hear it from the horse's mouth rather than have me edging around what really went down tonight.

Buffy's face darkened. "You're going to ask him about what Kralik said. About the Cruciamentum."

I stared at her.

"My hearing still works fine, Faith."

I sighed. There was no way out of this now. "If you're sure," I said, my last-ditch effort.

But I knew her better than that. We walked to the school as fast as Buffy's strength would allow.

The hallways were dark, but the doors were open, and there were lights on in the library. We could hear voices murmuring. I glanced at Buffy. All that fear from before was gone. You could only see the Slayer in her now. The kind of look even the biggest vamp will think twice about, when he meets her in the cemetary in the dead of night.

I pushed the swinging doors open. The first thing I saw was Giles sitting at the table, looking like his best friend had died.

Or he'd just sent someone off to be killed, I thought. I was just about to lay into him with all my questions when an older guy stepped out of Giles' office. He was the kind of guy that makes the worst mall Santa Claus--trying to be all grandfatherly and scaring the kids instead. The tweed suit and the cup of tea in his hand told the rest of the story. This guy was high-up Watcher's Council, or I was no Slayer.

"Congratulations, Miss Summers," he said calmly. "You failed the Cruciamentum and lived to tell about it. You are the first to do so."

"What the hell is the Cruciamentum?" I demanded, stepping in front of Buffy. She and Giles were having some sort of staring contest. Buffy looked like she could hardly stand, like the power drain hadn't stopped at her Slayer strength, but kept right on going until her bones couldn't support her. Giles was grey, his eyes full of tears. He'd only just found out that Buffy had survived that monster, Kralik. Must be a shock. I snorted. Looked like he deserved worse than that.

"I am Quentin Travers," the other guy said. "I don't believe I've made your acquaintance yet, Miss--"

"Stop right there," I said. "My Watcher told me about you. And I don't think I need to know any more. I think you'd better start telling me what I want to know, or I'll show you more about Slayers than the whole Council knows."

Travers gave me a little unfriendly smile. "The Cruciamentum is a test administered to all Slayers when--" He paused and raised an eyebrow at me. "--or, perhaps I should say, if they reach their eighteenth birthday. They are stripped of their powers and locked into a controlled space with a vampire. It is a test of ingenuity and original thinking. And Miss Summers has failed it abysmally."

"What, because I helped her dust that vamp?" I asked. "How controlled is your fucking test when the vampire escapes?"

Buffy gasped behind me, like she couldn't breathe. I wanted to go to her, hold her up, and help her. But look where helping got us the last time. Besides, there was no way I was backing down in front of that slimeball Travers. But he walked right past me like I was nothing and went to Buffy.

"I understand you're upset..."

That was an understatement and a half. Tears of rage were running down Buffy's face, and I saw her make a fist when Travers got close. She woulda knocked him a good one if she had her strength, I could tell.

"You understand nothing," she said. Her voice was wavering, but angry as hell. "You set that monster loose, and he came after my mother."

"You think the test was unfair?" Travers said, like he was asking about the weather.

"I think you better leave town before I get my strength back," Buffy shot back at him.

Travers just raised an eyebrow. "We're not in the business of fair, Miss Summers, we're fighting a war."

God, what a bastard. "And you're trying to kill the people who fight on your side," I snarled. "Now get the hell out of our town!"

"There is one last thing." Travers turned to the table. "Mr. Giles, if you don't mind..."

Giles looked up from where he had his hand over his eyes. "The test is done. We're finished."

"Not quite," Travers said. "Miss Summers failed. You didn't."

Giles frowned at him. "What the hell is that supposed to mean?"

"The Slayer is not the only one who must perform in this situation. You did your part. I've recommended to the Council, and they've agreed, that your responsibilities are now to the second Slayer. Miss Summers is no longer in our employ. You must concentrate your efforts on..." Again he glanced at me. "...the other one. I'd say it is sorely needed."

Giles stood up. He towered over Travers, but still the bastard managed to look smug. Giles pushed his chair back from the table. "I will not stop training Buffy."

Travers smiled. "I don't suppose we could enforce the decision. But what you must ask yourself, Mr. Giles, is if she'll allow it." He smiled. "Congratulations again."

I glared at him as he passed by me, and he gave this little sniff, like I was worse than beneath his notice. That was all it took. I lunged at his retreating back, about to smack that smug smile off his face.

Buffy's hand on my arm stopped me. There was no way she coulda restrained me, not then, but as soon as I felt her touch I pulled myself back.

"Fucking bastard," I muttered.

Travers chuckled again, not even turning around. "Yes, well, colorful girl," he said, and then he was gone.

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