The silver four-door sedan travelled smoothly along the blacktop freeway, the hum of its engine virtually non-existent. All that could be heard was a soulful song emanating from the stereo. The voice, much like its owner, was distinctive and unmistakable.
Well since my baby left me
I found a new place to dwell
The traffic on the highway was light but steady. The car itself was unremarkable, one of hundreds of models marketed as safe and economical; the perfect family transport. Its inhabitants, however, perhaps not the ideal nuclear family the manufacturers were targeting.
Faith's two-handed grip on the steering wheel was tight, her gaze fixated firmly upon the road ahead. Her face displayed no emotion save determination.
It's down the end of a lonely street
At Heartbreak Hotel
Next to her in the passenger seat, Xander's mouth moved. He was saying something, talking to Faith, who gave no indication that she heard. He appeared tired and frustrated as he continued to speak, his hands making small yet impassioned gestures.
You make me so lonely baby
I get so lonely
Faith finally responded by reaching forward and turning up the stereo volume.
I get so lonely I could die
Xander spoke again, asking a question. He waited for a reply but none was forthcoming. Faith continued to concentrate on the road before her and failed to even acknowledge the man sitting by her side.
And although it's always crowded
You still can find some room
Clearly angry now, Xander's mouth tightened into a thin line before he turned away, choosing to look out of the window rather than stare at the stony profile to his left. Faith showed no reaction either by word or deed and the pair drove in silence.
Where broken hearted lovers
Do cry away their gloom
Shifting in his seat, Xander adjusted the collar of his shirt. Initially, it seemed as though the action was for the sake of comfort, but then his head gave a certain familiar twitch and with curled upper lip, he began to sing.
You make me so lonely baby
I get so lonely
Whether a good vocal impression or bad, it was impossible to tell, but Xander's enthusiasm could not be doubted. Only the lack of room prevented him from giving as passionate and energetic a performance as The King himself. Even Faith was finally forced to relent. She glanced in Xander's direction and tossed him a sad smile for his effort. It was tiny and brief, but at least it was something.
I get so lonely I could die
Gathering speed, the car continued on its journey.
"A New Place to Dwell"
Story by: Jet Wolf and Ultrace
Scripted by: Jet Wolf
Prose by: Novareinna and Jet Wolf
Edited by: Jet Wolf and Novareinna
Original Airdate: Tuesday, 2 June 2009, 8pm ET
Three hours earlier...
A well-worn duffel bag lay on Faith's bed at Slayer Central. What Faith was doing could loosely be termed "packing." She had little care for efficiency and even less for the treatment of the things flying over her shoulder – they were tossed in the general direction of the bag and whatever didn't make it in now could look forward to being stuffed into various spaces later. Although relentless in her efforts, Faith wasn't in any particular hurry. Rather, it was as though she were moving inexorably toward something. Something that she needed to do. Something that she needed to do now.
Propped against the base of a lamp on her nightstand was an open envelope. It had been addressed to Faith in the precise yet unsteady hand of a child. In one motion, Faith scooped up the loose items on her bed and dumped them into the duffel bag. With a little poking, the zipper was clear and the bag was sealed. Faith grabbed the handles, snatched the letter, and stuffed it into an outside pocket.
Sitting on the front steps of Slayer Central, Xander addressed a quartet of young Slayers. All were listening dubiously to his lecture with the exception of Chrissie who, much to her delight, had managed to snag the prime position next to her ex-Watcher. Her expression displayed an unwavering belief in every gem of wisdom that Xander had to offer. The faces of her three companions were somewhat lacking in the confidence department.
"And there you have it," said Xander. He clapped his hands together and awaited their gratitude.
There was a long pause during which Chrissie's fellow Slayers exchanged bewildered glances. The first to voice an opinion did so with a wrinkle of her button nose.
"But that doesn't make sense."
Chrissie responded with open exasperation. "God Angela, were you even listening?"
"Hello," replied Angela, "I was sitting right here!"
"Sorry," sighed another of the young Slayers, blinking her brown eyes apologetically, "but I don't get it either."
The third also shook her head, blonde curls bobbing back and forth.
"But since it made so much sense, Chrissie, why don't you explain it to us?" said Angela with a smug expression.
For a moment, Chrissie seemed panicked by the challenge, but then she adopted a haughty air. "Well if you couldn't be bothered to listen the first time, I'm not going to waste my breath." She sniffed audibly with something akin to disdain.
"Evasive and superior," Xander said, inclining his head at Chrissie. "Very nice."
Chrissie beamed at his approval while Angela rolled her eyes and Xander attempted to explain once again.
"Look girls, I know you don't wanna do the numbers thing, but math is important," he encouraged. "You gotta keep up with school, okay? You can't just do Slayerette training all day."
The blonde girl remained unconvinced. "But why, Xander? Everyone keeps saying we've got to, but it doesn't make sense."
"I mean, we're Slayers, right?" added the other girl.
"Right!" declared Angela. "Watchers do the thinking and we do the fighting. What does it matter if we can do algebra or not?"
All the young Slayers were in agreement with this – even Chrissie. As one, they looked to Xander with expectant faces. Beneath the weight of their stares, Xander rubbed the back of his neck.
"Speaking of, shouldn't you guys be going to your Watchers about this? I'm not really sure if I should be—"
"Oh please," said Angela.
"They don't really, you know, talk to us about why we do stuff," said the blonde Slayer. "They just want us to do it."
"I mean, my Watcher's nice and all," admitted Brown Eyes, "but it's not like I can ..." She trailed off, struggling to put her thoughts into a coherent conclusion.
"Talk to him," Angela finished.
This was accompanied by a chorus of enthusiastic agreement and Angela, bolstered by the unanimous show of support, decided to press the matter further.
"But Chrissie said when you were her Watcher she'd talk to you about stuff all the time."
"Yeah," agreed Brown Eyes with conviction. "She said if we asked you, you'd tell us."
"Oh did she now?" said Xander.
He looked to Chrissie with a slightly amused expression. Chrissie returned the gaze with one of supreme faith. Not only did Xander command the entire wisdom of the universe at his very fingertips but, given enough time, he would undoubtedly share it all.
"Alright look," he tried again, "you gotta do the school thing because ..." His mind sprang into action, thinking quickly and trying desperately to reason it out for himself. "Because it's not all about the Slaying."
Xander's raised hand successfully squelched any impending outburst. "I know you think it is, but it's not," he continued. "You might decide one day that you don't wanna do it any more. Or maybe, god forbid, something happens and you get hurt and you can't do it any more. Being a Slayer is important but it's just one part of your life, it's not everything. You're still you. And you needs a good education to get much betterness."
The quartet giggled and Xander smiled indulgently.
"Did you go to school Mr. Xander?" asked Brown Eyes.
Xander proudly puffed out his chest. "Every single day I didn't skip."
"Did you go to college?" asked the blonde girl.
"I went to the campus all the time."
"Do you remember algebra?" asked Angela.
"Every bit as much as I remember any other subject."
Chrissie's face lit up as though she had suddenly been struck with a magnificent idea. "Hey, I bet if we ask, Mr. Xander will help us with our algebra homework every night!"
This proposal was met with an outpouring of lively exuberance – an exuberance that Xander very clearly did not share. Luckily, before he was obliged to find a way to wriggle out of the proposition while still maintaining his spotless reputation, the front door opened and Faith emerged from the building.
"Faith, you beautiful distraction you," he said, scrambling to his feet, "please come and talk to me at length about many things."
Faith, however, failed to acknowledge Xander or anyone else. She strode purposefully down the steps without breaking a single stride.
"Faith?" said Xander, as he watched her march down the path.
Still no reaction.
He frowned and then noticed the duffel bag. His eye widened. Keeping his gaze locked on Faith, as though afraid that if his attention wavered, she would somehow vanish, Xander spoke over the voices of the chattering Junior Slayers.
"Hey, I gotta run," he told them. "You keep going to class okay? Promise?"
"Promise!" came the chiming response.
Xander threw them a quick but charming smile. "That's my girls."
Taking the steps two at a time, he reached the sidewalk and ran after Faith. The Juniors watched him go, all seeming much more content with their lot in life than they had been at the beginning of his lecture.
"Hey, let's go get some ice cream!" said Chrissie – her second magnificent idea in less than five minutes.
"We can't," said the blonde girl. "Andrew keeps it locked up in the freezer."
Unconcerned by this piddling little detail, Chrissie got up and marched back into Slayer Central. The other girls quickly followed.
"Mr. Xander told me that if you tell Andrew that you know where he 'keeps his mint Slave Leia' and that you'll 'open it and his Fett too' that he'll do whatever you want," Chrissie sagely informed the others.
Nobody said anything for a brief moment.
"What does that even mean?" said Angela.
"I dunno," admitted Chrissie with a shrug, "but it always works!"
They chatted happily amongst themselves as they walked through the halls.
Slowing his pace to a jog, Xander came up on Faith's shoulder.
"Hey, where's the fire?" he asked. "And is it an actual fire? Because I have this helmet and why I have it is a story I'm not willing to share."
He grinned but Faith didn't acknowledge the grin, the question or even his presence. Reaching out, Xander took hold of the duffel bag.
"Hey, Lady Rudeness, I—"
Simply relinquishing the bag and allowing it to slip, Faith left it dangling in Xander's hand without a moment's hesitation. Temporarily stunned at the lack of protest, Xander swiftly regained momentum and was soon at Faith's side once again.
"Normally I'd take this as an invitation to riffle through your silky lacy ladythings, but—"
"I ain't got no lacy things." Faith appeared to be mildly offended at the implication.
"You'd be surprised what a little imagination can do," Xander replied. "Hey ..."
Gently taking her by the elbow, he pulled Faith to a halt. She allowed him to stop her but turned to face him with irritation showing on her face. He didn't let it deter him.
Faith audibly huffed, as though she was as annoyed at herself for hearing the question as she was at Xander for asking it.
"I gotta go," she said restlessly.
"Yeah, I got that much," said Xander.
He continued to wait patiently for an answer but Faith was apparently having some difficulty in expressing herself. Huffing again, she reached for her duffel bag. Helpfully, Xander proffered it to her. Unzipping an outside pocket, she retrieved several envelopes, maybe a dozen in number. All had been opened and all were addressed to Faith in the same childlike hand. Faith thrust them at Xander's chest.
Xander frowned. "What is—?"
Faith thrust them at him again, raising her chin to indicate that he should look for himself.
Clutching the envelopes, Xander handed the duffel bag back to Faith. She slung it over one shoulder but made no attempt to leave.
Opening the top envelope, Xander extracted several folded pages of notepaper, the tattered edges showing they had been ripped from a spiral-bound book. A letter. He read it quickly to himself and then looked at the remaining envelopes to confirm they were all from the same person. They were. His gaze searched Faith's face.
"So yeah," she nodded. "Going."
Xander returned the nod. "Got it."
Putting the letter back in its envelope, he kept a grip on the stack and began to walk, passing Faith in the process. He made his way along the path in the direction she had been heading. "Let's go then," he threw behind him.
"Wait wait wait," shouted Faith, quickly catching up. "Who said you're coming?"
"I don't think so."
"And I don't care," Xander replied casually. "What, I'm supposed to just turn away? Say 'drive safe, bring me back a souvenir'?"
Faith opened her mouth as though to speak but Xander gave her no opportunity.
"And don't give me that 'I don't need nobody' bad grammar crap because yes you do."
Uncharacteristically lost for words, Faith closed her mouth.
"I'm coming," said Xander.
Faith found her voice. "Look, it's sweet and all in this pushy and really annoying way, but you're needed here."
"There are no words for how needed here I'm not."
"But Buffy—" began Faith.
"—will understand," finished Xander.
Faith started to argue, but Xander didn't budge. He was coming. Maybe not in the front seat, maybe not even in the same vehicle, but Xander was coming and that was that.
"You're going halves on gas," Faith informed him as she walked away.
"Giles'll be paying either way," he replied, following.
"And you're buying your own food," she added.
"Give me a bag of Cheetos and a six-pack of Dew and I can survive indefinitely."
With a heavy sigh of resignation, Faith handed off her duffel bag to Xander. He hefted it over his shoulder as the pair continued walking, stride-for-stride.
"Hey I just made a new playlist," he said enthusiastically. "Want to listen to it in the car?"
"You make me so lonely baby," crooned Xander along with the voice on the stereo. "I get so lonely. I get so lonely I could die."
The inflections were exaggerated, as was the drawl, the curl of the lip and every other aspect of the impersonation. Faith was visibly amused in spite of herself.
Xander dropped the imitation. "Elvis fan, huh?"
"Sorta," shrugged Faith. "I mean, everybody is a little, right? It's like a law or something."
They continued their journey in silence for a moment or two.
"It's not too late," she told him. "There's a stop just up here. I can drop you off and one of the witches or Summers Junior could have you back in like two seconds."
"I'm good, thanks," said Xander.
"You know B's gonna blame me for this too."
Xander gave a sharp laugh.
"Oh no, trust me, if there's blame, it'll land squarely on these broad and manly shoulders. But Buffy's fine, no worries."
"I am so not fine!"
In the living room, Buffy slumped, sullen and sulky-faced, against the couch cushions. Sitting beside her, Willow adopted the position of comforting best friend while Tara sat Indian-style in Xander's chair.
"Xander told me to drop dead!" said Buffy petulantly.
"Buffy!" accused Tara.
"Buff," added Willow, "we were right here."
"Okay maybe he didn't actually say it ..." she admitted with reluctance.
"It must've been important or I'm sure he wouldn't have gone," said Tara with a small smile.
"Yeah," Willow agreed. "I mean, it sounds like Faith really needs someone around right now."
Buffy's pout intensified. "What about me? Maybe I need someone around right now too?"
Willow huffed with an injured glare. "Well sure, don't let us get in the way of your parade of someones."
"That's not what I meant," Buffy hastily backpedaled. "You're totally someones, you know that."
Willow seemed to be somewhat placated at the reassurance.
"It's just ... it's my birthday," continued Buffy, "and Xander's supposed to be here. Xander's always here. It's not a party without him."
Willow and Tara exchanged a sharp and panic-stricken look.
"Party?" queried Tara nervously.
"We're having a party?" asked Willow anxiously.
Buffy chuckled at the pathetic attempts of an apparent cover-up. "Of course we're having a party! We always have a party!" Then her eyes narrowed and she glanced first at Tara and then at Willow. "We are having a party, right?"
"Sure! O-Of course! I mean, why wouldn't we have a party?" confirmed Willow with excessive buoyancy. "Any excuse to party down, you know me!" She smiled before adding, "Whoo! Party!"
Buffy folded her arms and continued to give Willow a flat stare. "Uh-huh."
"Well you did say you didn't want one this year," Tara said. "Something about attracting badness and flying under the radar?"
Buffy's gaze traveled back to Willow, who gave a reluctant nod. "You kinda did," she said.
"Well I didn't mean it!" Buffy exclaimed, throwing herself back into the cushions.
Willow smacked at her forehead with an open palm. Tara's display of frustration carried more subtlety. She merely massaged her temple with a delicate but probing fingertip.
"Okay, I did mean it," conceded Buffy. "But ... I still thought we'd do a Scooby thing. Movies, popcorn, the works." Her expression grew melancholy. "But it's not a Scooby thing without Xander."
The playful childish tantrum disappeared and Buffy's shoulders drooped. Instantly, Willow provided a one-armed hug of consolation.
"So we'll compromise," she assured firmly.
"Yeah," Tara agreed with a beaming smile in Buffy's direction. "We'll do a mostly-Scooby almost-party. Very non-radar," she finished with an all-knowing nod.
"We'll have a cake—" said Willow.
"A little one," cautioned Tara.
"A-And one streamer and two balloons!" said Willow, becoming more excited.
"But only half inflated," Tara assured.
"Awww" said Buffy, clasping her hands in her lap. "You'd go to a fraction of the trouble just for me?"
"And not a single bit more," Willow told her with a proud nod.
The sign outside the red-brick, two-story building proclaimed it to be "Cherry Hills Elementary," an institute of many learning adventures. The marquee below announced that a Valentine's Day bake sale was mere weeks away and encouraged all parents to be generous with time, support, supplies and donations.
At the ringing of a bell, double doors at the front of the school flew open wide and the young student body began to pour forth, running to the idling yellow buses, or their bicycles chained at the nearby racks, or one of the waiting cars containing parents eager to find out just what their prodigious offspring had learned that day. For a while, the entire area was chaotic and then the crowd began to thin, most of the children now on their way home, doubtless looking forward to a snack and hoping to get away with ignoring their homework for as long as possible.
Within the abandoned corridors of the school, classrooms were empty – all lights extinguished and all doors firmly closed. A few hall lockers, either left open by careless owners or lacking an owner altogether, swung gently against the metal of their neighbors with a muted tap, but otherwise there was no sound. Through the darkened windows of the library, the rows of books maintained their watchful silence. The building seemed entirely deserted. With the exception of one particular room.
Here, the overhead lights had not yet been dimmed and the door stood open. Inside, a young man wearing a royal blue corduroy jacket was gathering up his belongings before leaving for the day. Tucking a leather portfolio under his arm, he patted his pockets until he heard the reassuring jangle of a keyring. Giving the room a last glance, he moved toward to the door and flicked the light switch before exiting. He pulled the handle toward him as he left until he heard a satisfying "click" and then, striding along the hallway, he turned a corner and vanished from sight.
As the young man disappeared, the door he had just closed swung quietly open. The interior of this classroom was spacious, containing desks and easels, upon which were drawings in various stages of completion, all obviously the work of young children. On a low table beneath the window were pots of paint and glass jars filled with an assortment of brushes. Counter tops lined the remaining walls, which were themselves covered with colorful creations, but one in particular seemed worthy of specific focus.
At initial glance, this piece of work certainly didn't appear to be extraordinarily special; simply one of dozens that had found a cursory place for itself upon the teacher's "Wall of Fame." It depicted a girl with brown hair holding the hand of a smaller girl. They were both standing atop a green hill and in the corner of the painting the marigold-orange sun was large as a dinner plate. The taller girl, flashing a hugely happy smile, was clutching a brown triangular object looking something like an ice cream cone without the ice cream. Hesitantly, a hand reached toward the painting.
Suddenly, every corner of the room was bathed in bright light and standing in the doorway was the young man in the corduroy jacket. The nameplate on the door was now visible, reading "Mr. Kelsey, Art, Grades K-3." Both Mr. Kelsey's voice and his expression registered surprise.
A small girl, maybe seven years of age, wearing jeans and a purple-checked flannel shirt, had climbed onto one of the counters. At the sound of her name, she spun around, almost losing her footing, and stared at Mr. Kelsey with a deer-caught-in-the-headlights expression reflected in her large blue eyes.
"What are you doing here?" he asked in a friendly fashion. There was no hint of anger in his tone, just simple curiosity.
Lucy remained frozen as she stared at Mr. Kelsey with apprehension. Propping his portfolio against the wall, he thrust his hands into his pockets and slowly entered the room, trying his best to look as non-threatening as possible.
"I liked your picture," he told her kindly. The light reflected off his short russet hair as he treated Lucy to reassuring nods. "It has a really good energy. I thought maybe we'd leave it up for a while, show it off to the rest of the class. What do you think?"
As he drew closer, Lucy stumbled backward until she came into contact with the wall. Her gaze darted from side-to-side as though searching for a means of escape.
Mr. Kelsey pointed to the smaller of the two girls featured in the painting. "That's you, right?"
Lucy continued to stare, her eyes narrowing a little as she regarded him warily from beneath the long bangs of her dishwater-blonde hair.
"And your sister?" he inquired, reaching out with his forefinger toward the taller of the two girls. He was only a fraction of an inch away from touching the painting.
"No!" shouted Lucy with desperation.
Ripping the picture from the wall, she leapt from the counter and began running the moment her feet hit the floor. Her pink backpack in the shape of a cat bounced upon her shoulders.
Mr. Kelsey was obviously startled. "Lucy!" he cried. "Wait!"
But Lucy was already through the classroom door. He began to give chase, but it was as though her heels were blessed with wings. Within seconds, she had reached the double doors at the front of school and could no longer be seen.
With a sigh, Mr. Kelsey absent-mindedly stroked his neatly-trimmed beard as he turned to inspect the wall where Lucy's painting had formerly resided. All that remained were a few scraps of Scotch tape and one extremely tiny corner of marigold-orange.
The sound of fumbling came from outside a darkened hotel room. Several ineffectual clicks were heard as the electronic key was inserted into the lock, removed and then inserted again with no success. Finally, there was a satisfying beep indicating that the lock had indeed succumbed to persistence. Despite the frantic fumbling of the handle, however, the door remained resolutely closed. A string of muffled obscenities now accompanied the continued bungling until eventually, both beep and handle mechanism were synced. The door opened and Xander stumbled across the threshold.
"Well at least I can sleep easy knowing no force on Earth will ever get that thing open," he muttered, peevishly kicking the door shut behind him.
Xander flipped on the light switch and took stock of the room. It was standard fare, no frills. There was one single bed, a television set bolted to the wall and a tiny table shoved into a corner, complete with generic stationary atop its overly-veneered surface. The small niche at the back of the room contained an even smaller sink with the vague promise of a toilet somewhere in the shadows. Xander tossed his lone bag on the bed. Taking a deep breath, he absorbed the room's atmosphere and then immediately turned on his heel and left.
Three doors down the exterior walkway, Faith was in her room splashing water on her face. She had left the door open. Xander rapped loudly then entered.
"Nice place, huh?" he said. "Free breakfast too. I heard they buy a half dozen donuts and then laugh as we fight over them like jackals."
Faith glanced at him in the mirror. She shrugged. "I been in worse."
"A valid point, to which I can personally attest," agreed Xander. "Still, maybe we can have a bit more fun than the last time. I recommend Pay-Per-View and, as an added bonus, no strangling."
Drying her face on a small towel, Faith declined to respond and Xander decided to change the subject.
"When are you going?" he asked.
"I dunno," said Faith. "Later. Now." Her tone grew firm. "Now."
"Now?" queried Xander, a little stunned. "Like, right now now? Don't you want dinner or something?"
"Not hungry," Faith told him impatiently. "An' I'm gonna be useless until I ... pay my respects or whatever."
She surveyed her surroundings, seemingly somewhat lost.
"They should know I'm here." she muttered, as much to herself as to Xander.
Squaring her shoulders, Faith had apparently made up her mind and there was no point in wasting any more time. Lifting the keys from the bathroom counter, she made her way to the door.
"Works for me then." said Xander cheerily. "Dinner's overrated anyway."
He proceeded to follow Faith out the door into the gathering dusk but she pulled up short and he ran clumsily into the back of her. Faith remained rock solid in the wake of the collision, however Xander was forced to take stagger backward to regain his balance or risk falling.
"You're not going," Faith told him in a tone that indicated "case closed."
Xander sighed. "We did this scene already."
But Xander waved a nonchalant hand and effectively stifled whatever Faith was going to say next. "I'll wait in the car," he said with a nod. "Mr. Backup."
Faith opened her mouth, prepared to launch another argument, but again Xander quickly cut her off.
"The sooner you agree with me, the sooner you're done," he said decidedly. "Plus, if we time it just right, we can catch Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. It looks gloriously terrible."
While it was clear Faith wanted to put up a fight, she also appeared worn down by Xander's constant, affable stubbornness. With a resigned shrug, she continued out the door. Seizing the moment, Xander quickly followed.
"Yay, more time in the car!" he announced to Faith's retreating back. "My favorite!"
The car slid smoothly to a halt in front of a house that was different from its neighbors in only the most superficial of ways: the siding was light blue instead of cream and the front door situated to the right of the window instead of the left. It was a suburban residence generically lacking in character, but Faith appeared to remember it very well. She blinked at the lights burning inside, seemingly warm and inviting. Neither Faith nor Xander spoke for a very long moment.
"It'll be okay, Faith," Xander reassured.
Taking a deep breath, Faith exited the car. The walk from the street to the front door of the house seemed to take an eternity but she eventually arrived. Xander watched her every move, standing ready to offer assistance if the need arose, but doing nothing more than watching for the time being. Faith set her chin and then reached out to the doorbell. The chirpy "ding-dong" from inside seemed to echo in her brain, jangling every nerve as she quickly retracted her finger. Moving to one side, she stood half-hidden in shadow and waited, hands clasped before her.
The front door opened to reveal a woman of indeterminate age. Initially, she appeared to be relatively young, but her face aged her, being careworn and heavily lined in places. Her light brown hair was showing streaks of grey and there was a weary droop to her shoulders. The eyes revealed no recognition as she stared at Faith expectantly.
Faith's mouth opened and closed several times as she searched for the right words. None presented themselves however, and a frown creased the woman's forehead. Her fingernails tapped impatiently upon the doorframe.
"I, uhh ..." stumbled Faith.
As the woman took stock of the figure in front of her, there was a spark of realization. Slowly, her eyes began to narrow.
"You," she said accusingly.
"Who is it?" came a man's voice from inside the house.
"How dare you," said the woman, her lips barely moving. "How dare you come back here!"
The male voice spoke again. "What's going—"
The woman took a step toward Faith, who steadfastly stood her ground.
"Go! Get out of here before I—"
She was interrupted by the owner of the male voice appearing behind her. He too seemed haggard and drawn. The woman turned to face him.
"I can't deal with this," she told him with a tone that said she was handing him all responsibility whether he liked it or not.
The man looked at Faith.
"Who are you?" he demanded.
But the woman answered before Faith could provide an explanation.
"It's that bitch who ... Hazel ..."
The woman swallowed and could bring herself to say nothing more. She leaned against the door and closed her eyes. As for the man, his expression twisted into a violent sneer of hatred. The hand at his side clenched into a tight fist.
"You took my little girl away," he said to Faith, tone cold and deadly.
Again, Faith stood her ground.
"You got my little girl killed!"
Raising his fist, he seemed about to strike, but Faith made no move to protect herself. She simply stood there, eyes downcast. From the car, Xander fumbled at the door handle, even though it was obvious he could never make it to Faith in time.
Then, another voice, a young voice, floated from the interior of the house.
Looking up, Faith was taken by surprise as a small girl bounded through the front door and literally flung herself between Faith and the potential attacker. She seized Faith about the waist in a tight embrace. It was with no little effort that the man managed to curtail his impending swing.
"Lucy!" exclaimed the woman, horrified as she reached out to reclaim the girl, who was hanging on for dear life and refusing to be taken.
An expression of panic crossed the woman's face. Instinctively, the man grabbed at the little girl who, this time, was not so successful at evading capture. He ripped her away from Faith and thrust her behind him, trying to keep her at bay as best he could. Lucy, however, was far too energized to be restrained for long. She wriggled and squirmed, doing her best to get back to Faith.
"I knew you'd come!" she exclaimed, her voice laced with excitement.
The man inclined his head toward Faith, speaking at her rather than to her. "Now she can go," he said.
"No!" gasped Lucy. "She just got here!"
"I didn't mean to—" Faith began quietly.
"To what?" snarled the man. "To come here? To upset this family more than you already have? To murder my Haz—"
"Daddy!" cried Lucy.
Her voice cracked, a heartbreaking sound. Startled, her father looked down at her. Fat tears coursed down her cheeks and she stared up at him through wet lashes.
"Daddy, don't be mad at Faith!" she pleaded. "I wrote her a bunch of letters and asked her to come see me! I just wanted to talk to her Daddy, please!"
Clearly lost and in need of help, the man looked toward his wife but he would find no assistance there. Equally as lost, she shrugged and shook her head despairingly as she went back inside the house. Left alone to make the decision, he looked at Lucy, who continued to cry.
"I just miss Hazel so much ..." she managed to get out between hiccups.
It was obviously more than he was able to deal with.
"Talk fast," he told Faith with a warning glance before turning and ushering Lucy ahead of him down the hallway.
The front door remained wide open, but Faith still couldn't seem to move. Looking over her shoulder, she noticed that Xander was now loitering anxiously on the sidewalk, watching and waiting. She said nothing, but didn't have to. He quickly joined her on the step. Taking a deep breath, she crossed the threshold with Xander right behind her.
In the living room of the Scooby house, Giles helped Willow to hang a banner. Squares of printer paper had been rather hastily taped together and sported the message: "Happy Birthday Buffy" in varying shades of highlighter. The floor was littered with balloons, all inflated by mouth and none floating. A few had been taped to the walls but most simply drifted aimlessly along the floor or had found a space in which to settle, bobbing and bouncing in a randomly cheerful fashion.
Tara pulled the transparent lid from a pre-made party tray of veggies and carefully removed the foil cover from the small disposable cup of ranch dip that sat in the center. Several glass bowls contained an assortment of chips, the pouches from which they had been poured still in the plastic grocery bags resting against the leg of the coffee table.
The chime of the doorbell announced a visitor and from upstairs. Dawn called, "I'll get it!"
Galloping down two at a time, she threw open the door. Grip stood on the threshold. Upon seeing Dawn, his face broke into a broad smile.
"I hear there's a crazy party going on. I was hoping to score an invite."
"I might be able to get you in," she said uncertainly. "Depends on what you have to offer."
"Oh I think I've got a few things," said Grip. "A wonderful sense of humor ..."
"Uh-huh ..." replied Dawn, clearly unconvinced.
Grip gestured toward the blue mass on his head. "A truly exceptional hair style ..."
Dawn barely managed to choke back a laugh. "Anything else?"
"Quite possibly something for a very special lady," he added, slowly leaning forward.
Dawn immediately reciprocated, but then Grip noticed that Buffy had suddenly materialized at her sister's shoulder. She regarded him with a level and distinctly unappreciative glare while Dawn found herself mysteriously puckering up to a large bag of Reese's Pieces, complete with a shiny silver bow.
"Candy!" announced Grip.
Dawn tossed an irritated glance in Buffy's direction, but Buffy, although accepting the bag, continued to stare at Grip with narrowed and challenging eyes.
"And what else?" Buffy demanded.
"A solemn promise not to defile your little sister in any way?"
Buffy beamed. "Welcome to the party!"
Striking while the iron was hot, Grip stepped over the threshold as Buffy turned and made her way into the living room, clutching her silver-bowed bag. Dawn sidled toward Grip.
"I've been wondering how much more intimidating she'd be, now I know what she can do," he told Dawn through the side of his mouth, voice very low. "It turns out the answer is 'none'. She has put every single stat point into intimidation and maxed that sucker out."
Reaching the living room, Buffy held aloft her prize. "I have peanut butter candy in a crunchy shell," she announced.
"Better than a shell in crunchy peanut butter!" said Tara.
With a questioning arch to her eyebrows, Buffy blinked.
"Because, uhm," Tara attempted to explain, "it'd be sticky ... a-and not very good. For your teeth."
Buffy blinked again still peering at Tara.
"Just pour the damn candy," said Tara with a roll of her eyes, thrusting a bowl at Buffy, who appeared totally amused at the little outburst.
Giles and Willow moved to the middle of the room in order to better admire their expertise at banner hanging. From a corner, Grip and Dawn also viewed the achievement, but with a slightly more critical attitude.
"I like it," said Willow confidently. "It has that down-home 'I made you in seven minutes' feeling."
Giles was dubious. "An entire seven minutes?"
"Taping is hard," Willow informed him defensively.
Buffy joined them.
"I like it too," she said with sincerity. "This is really great you guys."
Willow smiled. "And it's just the beginning! We have music a-and movies and cake and—"
Over Buffy's shoulder, Willow spotted Tara vehemently shaking her head. Willow frowned, trying to figure out what she was being told without alerting Buffy to anything amiss.
She began slowly. "The movies are ..."
With a rapid nod, Tara gave the thumbs up.
"—are here!" announced a sunny-faced Willow. "And good! I don't exactly know what they are but I'm sure they're good!" Her eyes drifted back to Tara. "And the cake is—"
Tara gave another vehement shake of her head. Willow's eyes widened in panic.
"Jus' a sec," she said with an over-abundance of patently false cheer.
Hurrying to Tara, Willow seized her by the elbow and quickly guided her to a far corner. Buffy didn't seem to notice as she looked to Giles, whose expression was one of extreme fondness for the birthday girl.
"Happy birthday Buffy," he said.
"Aww shucks," drawled Buffy. "You didn't have to—" She interrupted herself. "Wait, this is the part where you're supposed to give me a present. You did get me a present, right?"
"And risk an evening in traction for failure to deliver?" Giles smiled. "Heaven forbid."
In the corner, the exchange taking place between Willow and Tara was carried out in hurried whispers.
"The cake," said Tara. "There's a situation."
"Situation? What? What situation?"
"In that there's not so much a cake."
Willow was horrified. "Tara!"
"I tried, but no place in town really took me seriously when I said it was an emergency."
"But it's supposed to be a birthday! It can't be a birthday without a birthday cake!"
Meanwhile, from a different corner, Grip was curiously inspecting the balloons littering the carpet. Noticing one in particular, he scooped it up to examine it more closely. It sported a face that had been carefully drawn upon its surface, complete with toothy smile, small smudge of a nose, one eye, one eyepatch and a couple of little squiggles near the top that apparently were intended to represent hair. Grip looked at Dawn questioningly.
"It's Xander," she told him.
Grip tilted his head to one side. "He has less mass than I remember."
Dawn bumped him with her hip. "Ha. But you know how I told you Xander's not here right? Well Buffy's sort of grouchy about it so we made these as, you know, Xander-stand-ins. But what's really cool is— Go give it to her," she encouraged with a tiny shove in Buffy's direction.
Grip seemed uncertain at first but then, with a shrug, decided to do as he had been instructed and walked over to Buffy and Giles, who were engaged in conversation.
"...expecting we'd have dinner tomorrow instead, so I had to cut a meeting short," Giles was telling Buffy. "I might receive an important phone call, but..."
Buffy nodded. "It's totally cool—"
Curiously, Grip extended the balloon toward Buffy. She took it without looking and while allowing her exchange with Giles to continue uninterrupted, pierced the balloon with her fingernails. It burst immediately, popping like a gunshot and causing Grip to jump. However, nobody else even appeared to notice what had just transpired.
"—it means a lot that you're here," Buffy finished with a calm, cool and collected air, as shreds of mangled balloon spiraled to her feet.
Still a little shell-shocked, Grip wandered back to Dawn, who was displaying a huge grin.
"Not what I expected," he said, as much to himself as to Dawn. "I'm not sure what I expected, but I don't think it was that."
Delighted by the entire spectacle, Dawn was ecstatic. "I know, right?" she enthused. "We have a whole supply of 'em."
She led Grip behind a drop-leaf table, where lurked a stash of fifteen or so "Xander balloons".
By now, Grip was recovering quite nicely. "Sweet," he nodded with a broad grin.
In the meantime, Willow and Tara were still conferring.
"What are we gonna do?" asked Willow, her fingers becoming entangled into a tight knot.
"I got a pie," Tara said, as though this settled the matter entirely.
"A birthday pie."
"There's no such thing as a birthday pie!"
"So we'll start a new tradition."
"Get over it, sweetie."
She turned as the phone behind her began to ring and went to answer it while Willow meandered nervously and rather reluctantly to where Buffy was standing.
"Hey Buff!" she greeted with cheerful nervousness. "Uhm, so remember when I mentioned the cake thing...?"
"Hello?" said Tara into the phone. She smiled upon recognizing the voice. "Oh, hi Kennedy!"
In Slayer Central Headquarters, London Branch, Kennedy sat cross-legged upon the bed in her room. From her expression, she wasn't exactly in the highest of spirits.
"Hey Tara," she returned. "I was— Wait, crap, what time is it there? I didn't wake you guys up did I?"
Tara moved the receiver to her other ear, giving Willow, who had quickly joined her when she found out who was making the call, more room to peer over her shoulder.
"Oh no, it's not late here," assured Tara. "We're just having Buffy's birthday party."
"Oh, oh yeah," said Kennedy. "Tell her 'happy birthday'."
"Kennedy says 'happy birthday' Buffy," called Tara.
"Tell her thanks," responded Buffy, "and that an ocean in no way absolves her from present duty."
"She said—" began Tara into the phone.
"I heard," interrupted Kennedy dryly. "Tell her to kiss my ass."
"She said it's already on the way," Tara told Buffy with a smile. She turned her attention back to the caller. "So how are you?"
"I'm ... I dunno. I just really need to talk to someone."
"Oh! Sure thing," said Tara, her tone becoming concerned. "Willow's right here, you want to talk to her?" She half-offered the receiver to Willow, who immediately extended an expectant hand.
"Yeah ... no," wavered Kennedy before adding firmly, "you. If you've got time."
Looking over her shoulder at Willow, Tara shook her head at Willow's waiting expression.
"Of course I do," she said into the telephone.
Smiling apologetically, Tara took hold of Willow's extended hand, squeezed it and gently kissed the tips of her fingers. Then, she moved away to one side as though seeking out privacy. A flicker of rejection crossed Willow's face, but she remained where she was and made no attempt to follow in Tara's wake. She seemed a little lost until Buffy arrived and laid her chin on Willow's shoulder.
"Hey," whispered Buffy. "I'm the only one who can look all pouty on my birthday."
With some effort, Willow tore her eyes away from Tara and the transatlantic conversation and immediately set to perking up her rapidly disintegrating celebratory mood.
"Who's pouty?" she demanded. "No pouty here. I am all party and no pouty."
"Good," Buffy told her with an emphatic nod. "So, you were gonna tell me something?"
"Huh? Oh, right. Yeah. Cake. About that. Funny story ..."
Faith and Xander sat together on the loveseat in the MacFadden home. Directly opposite, Mr. MacFadden perched on the edge of the sofa cushion, leaning forward with his face expressionless and elbows resting on his knees. Mrs. MacFadden loitered uneasily at the back of the room. Her gaze of overt loathing was fixated upon Faith and she stood, arms crossed defensively across her chest. Lucy sat next to her father, fidgety and restless. Her obvious desire was to go to Faith but something about Mr. MacFadden's posture prevented her from doing so.
Xander was on his best behavior, making every effort to appear respectful while still trying to fade into the background. The attempt was proving very successful since the center of everybody's attention was undoubtedly Faith, who sat very still with folded hands resting in her lap. Swallowing, she gave a small cough.
"I know seeing me has gotta be hard. I didn't want to cause you more grief. I'm just here to ..."
She glanced at Lucy. In response, the little girl beamed brightly.
Faith lowered her eyes. "It don't matter."
Mrs. MacFadden took a step further into the room. "You're damn right it doesn't matter, you—"
"Carol, please!" snapped Mr. MacFadden harshly, holding up a restraining palm.
Her fixed stare of disgust shifted momentarily from its original victim to her husband, somehow managing to appear even more vicious. As for Mr. MacFadden, he failed to even notice. His entire focus was solely on Faith.
"I know I can't ever make it right," said Faith. "Believe me, I would give anything for Hazel to still be here. It eats me up every day that she's gone. And I just ... wanted to say I'm sorry. You have no idea how sorry I am."
There was a pause, tense, heavy and uncomfortable. It was Mr. MacFadden who broke the strained silence.
"Fine. Now get out."
"Daddy!" protested Lucy.
But her father ignored the plea and rose to his feet.
"Don't you dare ever show your face here again. The next time I see you I'll—"
With an imperceptible nod of understanding, Faith accepted the ultimatum, but Xander was not quite so stoic.
"Time out," he said cautiously. "Let's just all take a deep breath here."
"And what?" challenged Mr. MacFadden. "She wanted to say something, she said it. Now it's my turn." He prodded an accusatory finger at Faith. "What did you want from us? Forgiveness? Absolution? Never. I hope you never know peace. You say it eats you up? Good. I pray to God that every second of every day for the rest of your life is a living hell."
"That's enough!" said Xander forcefully.
Faith shook her head. "It's okay."
"No, it's not okay!" said Xander. He looked at Mr. MacFadden. "I'm sorry Hazel's gone, I really am. She was a good person and we all miss her. Her death was a tragedy, but it's not Faith's fault."
"She took her!" shouted Mr. MacFadden, again thrusting a finger in Faith's direction.
"Did I miss the part where Faith broke in and carried Hazel out in sack?" asked Xander, his own temper on the rise. "Faith came and talked to her about her powers, the Council gave you all the information about her future, but you put her on a bus and sent her to us!"
In unison, both the MacFaddens recoiled as though they had been slapped.
"Now maybe you did it because you thought it was the best for Hazel," Xander continued. "Or maybe you did it because you were too absorbed with your own little problems and were grateful to have one less thing to worry about." He shrugged. "I don't know. But if you really think Faith is guilty of killing your daughter then take a long hard look in the mirror and think about who else you should blame."
Xander's words obviously struck a nerve; Mr. MacFadden's face became a deeper red, and the veins stood out starkly on his neck and forehead.
"Get. Out," he said in a deathly calm voice, his trembling forefinger pointing toward to the front door.
Getting to her feet, it appeared as though Faith might say something more, but then her mouth closed and she made her way out of the house. Xander followed closely behind.
"Faith, wait!" cried Lucy, as her father sank heavily into the cushions of the sofa.
But neither Faith nor Xander turned around. Once outside, Xander closed the door firmly behind them. Almost immediately, the sound of angry voices emanated from inside. The voices were loud, accusatory, and getting steadily angrier. As Faith and Xander made their way down the walkway, the yelling grew to a crescendo and even though the words were now unintelligible, there could be no mistaking their hurtful intent. With a heavy sigh, Xander scrubbed at his forehead.
"And that," he said, "is why I never pursued that career in grief counseling." He glanced sideways at Faith. "I'm sorry."
Faith shrugged. "Nothin' to be sorry about. You got us tossed out, what? Five, six seconds early?"
Xander remained repentant. "I shouldn't have lost my cool. It's just ... I know how much Hazel's death affected you, and for them to say it's your fault ..."
Faith held up her hand to stem the flow. "They ain't saying nothin' I ain't thought a hundred times already. They need a scapegoat. It's the least I can do."
Her stride came to a halt by a small voice from behind.
Turning, they saw Lucy standing there. The yelling from inside the house continued as heated as before, indicating that the little girl's absence had gone thus far unnoticed.
Lucy gave them a pleading look. "Faith, don't go."
Faith looked as though she'd be much more comfortable back inside facing the accusations of the MacFaddens than going one-on-one with Lucy. Xander gave Faith an encouraging pat on the back and moved away to give them some privacy.
Faith thrust her hands into her pockets, half pulled out her pack of cigarettes, and then thought better of it. "You shouldn't be out here kiddo," she said. "I think your dad's pissed enough for one night."
"But I'm ready!" Lucy told her with a bright smile. "Like I said, in my letters! I'm ready to be a Slayer!"
Faith's wince was barely perceptible. "Look half-pint, you're what? Four? Five?"
Lucy drew herself up to her full height. "I'm seven and a half!" she said indignantly.
"Yeah well," acknowledged Faith grudgingly, "that's not old enough to be a Slayer."
Lucy was dismayed. "But ... but you came! To take me away, to teach me to be a hero like Hazel!"
Going down on one knee, Faith looked Lucy in the eye. Her tone was gentle but firm.
"I came here to tell you to forget about that crap."
Lucy's expression went from dismay to shock.
"I dunno if you think it's cool or exciting or what, but it's not," Faith told her. "It's dark and dirty and dangerous and I want you to stay away from it. Okay?"
"But I found a monster!" said Lucy. She nodded at Faith with total confidence.
Closing her eyes, Faith sighed. Reaching out, Lucy shook Faith's shoulder.
"Mr. Kelsey, my art teacher! I know he's a monster! He's always acting weird and I watch him after school and—"
"Just stop, okay?" said Faith. It came out sharper than she had intended, and for a moment it looked like she might ruffle Lucy's hair by way of apology, but her hand stopped short and instead indicated the side of the house where a few toys and other objects were laying. "You should be playing with your bike and your ..." Faith desperately searched for some other little girl-type favorite "... Polly Pocket ..."
Lucy was befuddled. "My what?"
"Whatever the hell you seven year olds play with," said Faith, getting to her feet. She shrugged, "I dunno. But it sure as hell shouldn't be monsters and demons."
Lucy was insistent and determined. "But Faith, I know Mr. Kelsey is—"
"Dammit," snapped Faith, "this isn't a game!"
"I mean it, kid," Faith said, her tone indicating the discussion was over. "Leave that world alone. It's no place for children. Never was."
And with that, Faith turned and marched past Xander without a look back. Fat tears filled Lucy's blue eyes and spilled onto her cheeks as she quietly sobbed, but Faith paid the little girl no mind. Jerking open the car door, she got behind the wheel and waited impatiently for Xander to join her. Foot almost to the floor, she peeled out into the empty street.
Still crying, Lucy watched them go.
Standing near the foyer, with her back to the living room, Tara continued to press the phone to her ear. She was completely absorbed in the conversation, periodically nodding and at other times speaking in a very low tone.
Perched on a chair, Willow watched Tara from over her shoulder. She clearly would love nothing more than to join in Tara's exchange with Kennedy but she refused to intrude. More, she was doing her best to seem indifferent about the whole scenario, but nonchalance was hardly Willow's strong suit. Still, to maintain appearances, she was technically involved in a conversation with Buffy and dedicated to holding up her end.
"That was a cool thing we did," she remarked with no small amount of distraction. "That thing that was cool."
Buffy was no less preoccupied. "Yeah," she replied. "I think purple's really gonna be a hot color this year."
Seated in a chair next to Willow, Buffy's attitude was a mirror image of her friend, save that she was facing forward and wholly focused on Giles, who was sitting on the couch talking with Grip and Dawn.
"Holy water?" asked Grip.
Giles nodded. "Absolutely."
"Seems to be a myth, interestingly enough," admitted Giles. "But Grip, what I really must impress upon you—"
Seated between the two, Dawn rolled her eyes and threw herself against the couch cushion with smile. "Here it comes."
Grip smiled in return, but remained intent on what Giles was saying. For his part, Giles ignored Dawn completely.
"—is that vampires, and in fact all manner of- of demonic and supernatural creatures, are extremely dangerous. Should you encounter one, I want your first response to be flight, do you understand?" Through his glasses, Giles' eyes glinted seriously. "Don't let familiarity and a—" He paused to stare pointedly at Dawn. "—far too cavalier attitude—" His gaze returned to Grip. "—distract you from that. You're to fight only if there are no other options. First, you run."
Dawn huffed, clearly offended. "Giles, he's not stupid! We already went over that!"
"No, it's okay," Grip said, attempting to sooth the feathers ruffled on his behalf. "He just wants to make sure. It's like shop class. I've only heard the speech about safety and power tools like fifteen times, but every semester I get to hear it again."
Having somewhat mollified Dawn, Grip refocused on Giles. "I hear you loud and clear Mr. Giles," he assured. "Believe me, that one time was enough. My brain was Nightmare Central for days."
"Good," said Giles. "I'd be more concerned if it wasn't."
"So I am 100% fine with leaving the hands-on to the professionals," Grip promised. He was hesitant for a moment, then he added, "I won't lie though, I'm hella interested and I've got a million questions ..."
Giles beamed. It was the type of beam he saved for those rare moments when someone showed a genuine interest in the supernatural beyond how to kill it. "I've always believed that it's better to have too much information than not enough." He leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees. "I'd be happy to answer what I can."
Virtually bristling with excitement, Grip also leaned forward, prepared to give Giles his undivided attention.
Dawn grinned and squeezed Grip's arm affectionately. "You're gonna be sorry you said that Giles," she warned. "This guy is like a sponge."
"Okay, so, uhm ..." began Grip. "Oh man, where to start?" He worked quickly to gather his thoughts. "Okay, okay, where do vampires come from?"
Giles steepled his fingers like a lecturing professor. "Well for eons, demons walked the earth. They were ... terrible, beyond reckoning. We know them as the Old Ones, and ..."
"I'm not sure Dawn should've told him," confided a concerned Buffy. "What do you think, Will?"
"Yeah, that was cool too," replied Willow, obviously still a little lacking in the concentration department.
Buffy frowned. "What?"
Willow blinked. "What? Yes? Hi."
"Do you think Dawn should've told Grip about all ..." Buffy waved an encompassing hand "...this. The Big Stuff."
"I dunno," shrugged Willow. "I guess she thought he was ready. That's how we usually do it, isn't it? I don't remember us having a big meeting to vote on letting Tara know, or- or Anya, or Riley ..."
"But they already knew about The Big Stuff."
"Well yeah," acknowledged Willow, "but we didn't know they knew. I mean, I guess we kinda knew Anya knew but—" She shook her head and changed tracks. "Yeah, okay, your mom then."
Buffy sighed. "I guess. I just, I dunno. I remember the good ol' days, when Giles used to flip his little British wig whenever he thought we were letting someone else in."
"That was forever ago," said Willow. "'Sides, we have how many Slayers here now? Not exactly the best kept secret ever anymore."
Buffy gave another sigh. "It just seemed so much simpler then."
"Tell me about it," murmured Willow with a pensive glance over her shoulder.
"So unless I say 'Come in' they can't?" asked Grip, tilting his head to one side.
"Essentially, yes," confirmed Giles.
"They can be really sneaky about it though," warned Dawn. "Like, an implied invitation for everybody could work too."
"That's crazy," replied Grip. "I guess we should change our welcome mat from 'Hey everybody c'mon in!' to 'Get lost and that means you!'" He gave a chuckle. "I wonder if Mom would mind."
"Nah," said Dawn with a wave of her hand. "I'm sure she'll be fine with it."
"She might be if she knew why," said Grip. He tossed a troubled frown in Giles' direction. "Honestly though, have you guys considered ... I dunno, a press conference or something? I mean, this is pretty serious information. It seems like people should know."
Giles accepted the suggestion with all due solemnity. "It's ... something we've considered in the Council. I'm still not altogether convinced that the world is ready to accept what's truly out there."
Grip's frown intensified. "But the government should at least know. The Army and stuff ..."
"They are well aware, trust me on this," Buffy told him.
Grip blinked at her, pausing for a second to allow the information to be fully absorbed. "Crazy. But at least, I guess, it's easy to tell the bad guys from the good guys, huh? If it's got big teeth and doesn't answer to 'Fido" then kill it 'til it's dead. Again."
Buffy fidgeted uncomfortably in her seat. "It's not that—"
"Yes," agreed Giles in a very firm tone. "Although it may appear human, a vampire is nothing but a- a shell." A merry ring tone began to emanate from his jacket pocket and he fumbled to extract the phone. "A husk that walks and talks like the person it used to be, but housing a monster," he finished hurriedly.
Managing to pull the phone free, he tried to flip it open with one hand but failed miserably. As it flew from his fingers, he succeeded admirably in catching it with his other hand before it hit the floor. Looking quite pleased with himself Giles finally attained a secure hold. "Hello?" he said into the mouthpiece, getting up from the couch and moving away to one side.
Buffy had watched this display with a distant look in her eye, lost in her thoughts.
Grip wore a similar expression, then he smiled thoughtfully at Dawn. "Huh. So no good vampires?"
Dawn visibly hesitated. The question had roused Buffy, and she was intent on Dawn's answer.
"I used to think maybe. But ..." Dawn glanced at Buffy and the sisters shared a look. "No," she said confidently before turning back to Grip. "Even if you think they're good, they're really not."
Grip glanced at Buffy and then to Dawn. Sensing an air of potential turbulence, he cheerfully changed the subject.
"Well I just gotta say," he remarked as he surveyed the room. "I'm glad you guys decided to have a party. This is way better than a movie."
"What were you going to see?" asked Buffy.
"Elektra," replied Dawn.
"Well better than that movie anyway," said Buffy.
Stuffing the phone back into his pocket, Giles rejoined the gathering.
"Buffy, I'm so sorry, but I have to go," he told her, unable to contain his exhilaration. "There's been a- a- a breakthrough with the, uhm, the prophecy. It appears that there are- are several passages we didn't even realize before, seven or- or eight at least, and while we haven't entirely deciphered the translation yet this could, uhm, c-could—"
Buffy laid a calming hand on his arm. "It's okay Giles. Go. Go before you explode."
Willow got to her feet. "Hey Giles, I could maybe come help? I'm in a helpy sorta mood." She smiled hopefully.
But Giles was already halfway to the door. "Thank you Willow, but I don't think that's necessary. You should stay. Have fun."
In his haste, he almost tripped over the telephone cord and Tara rushed to help steady him and untangle his ankle. He smiled gratefully before grabbing his coat and dashing out. Deflated, Willow slowly sat down again. Buffy appeared no less crestfallen.
Grip, on the other hand, was totally caught up in everything going on around him.
"Way better than Elektra," he announced with an enthusiastic grin.
In his hotel room, Xander sprawled across the bed, lying with his arm behind his head. Pointing the remote control at the television screen, he flipped through the channels as he muttered to himself.
"Infomercial. Seinfeld rerun. Classic movie. Infomercial. Local news. Scrambled porn. Scrambled porn. Scrambled porn. Friends rerun." He heaved a sigh. "It's comforting to know that TV sucks no matter where you are in the country."
Depressing the 'power' button, he switched off the set just as his stomach emitted a loud and protesting rumble. Lifting his head, he peered at his midsection.
"Yeah, me too buddy," he commiserated. "Well maybe Faith doesn't have to eat, but the Xander Machine needs fuel to continue this madcap pace."
Swinging his legs to the floor, he got to his feet, grabbed his jacket and room key, and opened the door. Faith was standing on the other side. With a screech of alarm, he took a step backward. Faith seemed to be oblivious to his sudden outburst and simply stood in the doorway.
"Holy crap, Faith," said Xander breathlessly. "You wanna drive back alone, you could've just said rather than trying to scare me to death."
"Sorry," she told him without a shred of remorse.
Quickly recovering from his fright, Xander waited for a moment, but Faith didn't appear inclined to continue the conversation.
"So," he smiled, "did you change your mind? You hungry?"
And, for the second time in less than a minute, Xander was taken by surprise as Faith seized a fistful of shirt, pulled him toward her and began to kiss him.
Xander stumbled backward as Faith pushed him further into the hotel room, slamming the door behind her. She was embracing the situation with her customary abandon, and Xander was finding it difficult to make himself understood. With a supreme effort, he finally managed to hold Faith at arm's length.
"What are you doing?" he gasped.
Faith raised an eyebrow. "Has it really been that long for you?"
"Yes. I mean no," said Xander. "I mean, I know what you're doing, I just don't know why."
Faith grinned wickedly. "Does it matter?"
The question was clearly a rhetorical one as far as Faith was concerned. Seizing Xander by the shirtfront, she pulled him close and resumed her determined kissing. Once more, he was able to break loose.
"Yeah, it kinda does," he told her earnestly.
Faith's grin grew even more wicked. "Gimme another couple seconds and it won't."
She reached out again but this time, Xander evaded her and held up a protesting hand.
"Faith, it matters," he said gently but firmly.
Her grin vanished, instantly replaced by a sneer. Faith waved her hands angrily at Xander and took a step back. "Forget you then. There're hundreds'a guys in this town, any one would beg me for—"
She turned to leave and Xander reached out a hand to her retreating back. "Wait, I didn't—"
He made to follow her, but Faith had already stopped short. He heard her sigh even though her back was still toward him.
"Sorry," she said quietly. "That's not fair. I just ..." She turned and looked Xander in the eye. "I just need this right now. Okay?"
"But I ..." faltered Xander, his resolve obviously weakening.
"I need this," Faith reiterated.
An expression of uncertainty crossed Xander's face. He seemed to be lost, unsure as to his next course of action. This display of hesitation was sufficient encouragement for Faith. Moving forward, her arms encircled his neck and she ran her tongue along his earlobe. Xander could not help but respond, but the moment was brief. Once more, he pulled away.
"Wait. Wait," he told her breathlessly. "I'm applying brakes. We should think about this, long and hard, and that was so not the phrasing I should've used right now."
"All I've done for days is think," replied Faith. "I'm done thinking. I wanna do, I wanna feel."
She took a step closer, but Xander took a step back.
"Serafina," he said, rubbing his forehead. "I ... there may be something there. I can't ... with you ..."
Faith tilted her head and regarded him dubiously. "You guys have had what, four dates? Five?"
"Almost three," Xander refuted somewhat lamely.
"That ain't a relationship," Faith said, "it's a test drive."
She took another step forward. Xander took a half-step back.
"We're friends," he said quickly.
"And?" replied Faith, irritation beginning to creep into her voice. She tried to supplement it with a small albeit tight smile.
Faith sighed. "Yeah, and?"
"I don't wanna lose that."
Bemused, Faith shook her head. "Who said anything about losing it?"
"But if we ..."
"This is just a thing," Faith told him. "It's physical. We do it and it's done. Nothin' changes unless we let it."
She looked at Xander and quirked an eyebrow, seeking his agreement. Xander's expression remained unconvinced but he gave a small nod. Faith smiled and took a step forward. Xander stood his ground this time, although words continued to tumble out of his mouth.
"Look, Xander, I'm gonna make this simple," Faith interrupted. "If you don't wanna do this, if you want me to go, just say so and I'm gone. No hard feelings or nothin' I promise. You just say the word."
She waited and watched. Xander said nothing further. With a smile, Faith also decided that enough had been said. Grabbing his shirt, she dragged him to one side. They landed on the bed with a thud.
"You know when else to use that word, don't you?" asked Faith to the metallic sound of an opening zipper.
"Sweet lion of Zion!" was the only response.
On the floor of the living room, Buffy sat cross-legged surrounded by a modest pile of colorful wrapping paper and a few empty boxes. A bright red cellophane bow had been affixed atop her head. Sitting side-by-side on the couch were Willow and Tara while Grip stood in the foyer of the house, pulling on his jacket. With a grateful smile, Dawn approached Buffy and leaned over to talk to her.
"You sure you're okay with us cutting out?"
"Big sister promise," assured Buffy. "It was sweet of you guys to change your plans at the last second."
"And miss celebrating how you're one year closer to wrinkles?" Dawn said with a playful shove against Buffy's shoulder. "No chance."
"Respect your elders," said Buffy, "lest your elders decide to spend your college fund in a dramatically inappropriate midlife crisis."
With a warm kiss on her sister's proffered cheek, Dawn hurried to join Grip. The front door closed behind them, leaving Willow, Buffy and Tara alone in the living room.
"Good birthday?" asked Tara hopefully.
Buffy waved an all-encompassing hand. "Let's just say that the three of us, where we are right now? So much preferred to where we were this time last year."
"Yes." Willow agreed emphatically. "Very yes."
"And" announced Buffy with every ounce of gravity due the situation, "I think that calls for pie."
"Again with the yes," said Willow.
Tara got to her feet. "I think I can even get a candle in it."
Buffy's face broke into a broad grin as Tara made her way toward the kitchen.
"Aren't birthdays the best?" she said to Willow with a satisfied sigh.
"You only think that when they're your birthday," said Willow.
"Well they're only the best when they're mine."
Willow considered that and frowned. "Actually, your birthdays are pretty much—"
The shrill ring of the telephone interrupted Willow's argument, much to Buffy's relief.
"Saved from your party-pooping logic!" she said as she picked up the handset. "Hello?"
From his office at Wolfram and Hart, Angel leaned back in his chair and gave a little smile. "Hey."
"Angel," replied Buffy, grinning from ear-to-ear.
As the sound of the name, Willow's eyebrows shot upward as Tara stuck her head around the corner, before fully emerging bearing a slice of pie on a paper plate. In the center of the wedge, an unlit candle did its best to stand straight and true but only succeeded in listing at a limp angle. Catching Buffy's eye, Tara motioned toward the pie, but Buffy held up a restraining hand. With a nod of understanding, Tara put the plate on the coffee table and joined Willow on the couch.
Somewhat forlornly, Willow stared at wedge. "No pie?"
"I figured we'd wait on Buffy," Tara told her. "It technically being her pie and all."
"Darn your considerations."
"Yeah," said Tara with a smirk. "I'm flawed like that."
Having moved into the foyer, Buffy took a seat on the stairs and cradled the phone against her ear.
"And that's about it as far as disasters go," she finished.
"I'm not sure I'd call a blouse a 'disaster'" said Angel.
Buffy scoffed. "You didn't see the colors. How about you guys, how's the Fang Gang?"
"I wish you wouldn't call us that," said Angel with an implied frown.
Buffy grinned and gave a little shrug. "I know."
Angel suppressed a sigh of resignation. "We're doing good," he said. "We just wrapped up a few loose ends with this case. The guys are playing Pictionary to let off some steam."
Turning his head, he peered through the window of his office. Cordelia stood in front of a whiteboard executing artistic strokes with a felt-tip pen while the others tried their best to guess what the image might represent. Obviously they weren't doing very well, given that Cordelia insistently jabbed at the board and then treated everyone to accusatory glares.
"Pictionary?" Buffy gave a low whistle. "Man, you really are evil now."
"It's practically in our name," said Angel.
Willow and Tara remained on the couch, but without a Buffy buffer the atmosphere around them was beginning to feel awkward.
"So," began Willow hesitantly. "So you think Kennedy'll be okay?"
"Oh totally," replied Tara. "I mean, it's gonna take time, you know? She's got a lot of questions, a lot to think about. But she's a toughie." She turned to Willow with a tiny grin. " I guess you know that."
Another period of uneasy silence descended but before it could take up permanent residence, Tara spoke.
"Will, what's wrong?"
Eagerly, Willow opened her mouth to talk but when the right words didn't immediately emerge, she closed it again and shook her head. "Just stupid me-stuff," she said dismissively.
Reaching out, Tara took Willow's hand. "I like you-stuff," she said with a squeeze of the fingers. "Which is never stupid, by the way."
Willow returned both the smile and the squeeze, but shook her head once more. "I dunno. I guess I have a lot to think about too. But not right now." She looked at Tara and then glanced over to where Buffy was sitting. "Let's just wait for Buffy to finish up and then eat way too much. Okay?"
With a tiny frown of concern, Tara reluctantly agreed. Willow smiled again and relinquished Tara's hand, then extracted her laptop from the floor underneath the couch. Balancing it on her knees, she opened the lid and began to type. Tara watched for a moment or two and then retrieved a book from the coffee table. Finding her place, she settled back against the cushions and started to read.
Meanwhile, Angel shifted the phone to his other ear and continued his story. "It was pretty low-profile, but Gunn got interested since it was in his old neighborhood."
"Vampires" said Buffy.
"Suing their landlord," said Buffy.
"Yeah. They claimed the guy was a slum lord and the place was falling to pieces. One of their roommates burst into flames when a curtain rod fell off the wall."
Buffy shook her head. "Sorry, I'm still stuck on 'vampires suing'."
"Turned out he – very literally – was a slum lord," Angel continued. "A lord of the R'neslumak dimension. He opened a rift in the basement of one of his buildings and was using the apartment complexes as staging areas for his army."
Absent-mindedly, Angel watched Lorne and Fred confer as Cordelia, felt-tip pen in hand, tapped her foot impatiently.
"He was going to attack L.A. in about two weeks," said Angel. "He could've caused some serious damage, too, but we took them by surprise and had the whole thing gutted in a couple of hours."
"And the vampires?"
"I found enough cash lying around to give 'em their security deposit back," Angel assured.
"That's it?" Buffy said, slightly indignant.
Angel leaned forward, hunching over the phone. "You think I should've given them the past few months too?" His voice was low, as though sharing a secret. "See, I said that, but Cordy was all—"
"But you let them go," Buffy interrupted.
A frown creased Angel's forehead and he sat back again. "Well yeah. They hadn't done anything wrong."
"So they're good then," she concluded stubbornly. "Good vampires."
"No," Angel replied, looking a little confused at the turn of conversation. "Just your average vampire. But I saw their place, and it looked to me like they were working the blood bank circuit. They may not be good, but I think they're at least trying not to be bad."
Angel seemed content to let the matter rest there, but Buffy was dogged in her pursuit of something more definitive. "Then it's a choice. A vampire makes the choice to be evil."
"It's not that simple," said Angel, looking baffled. "Look, what's this about?"
Buffy was immediately defensive. "Just ... I need to know what you think. Can a vampire choose to be good or bad?"
With a sigh, Angel gave the question all due consideration before providing an answer.
"A vampire is evil, bottom line," he finally told her. "I know that better than anyone. You don't get to pick a side. But you don't have to be a mindless beast either. If you want something bad enough – like, say, to not have a stake through the chest – you can compromise. It all comes out of selfishness though," he assured her, "not altruism. That's the difference."
"You're going with 'evil' then," Buffy concluded. "That's your final answer? Don't need to use a lifeline?"
"I'm feeling pretty confident," replied Angel slowly.
Buffy sat in silence, allowing the conversation to sink in. Angel waited for what he deemed to be an appropriate amount of time.
"Now are you going to tell me what this is all about?"
"I've just been thinking lately," Buffy said. "A lot."
Angel chuckled "I figured out that much."
Buffy took a deep breath and let it out in a huff. "You know," she said tiredly, "I thought things were supposed to get easier as you got older."
A sardonic expression crossed Angel's face.
"250 years and I'm still waiting for the easy part."
In his darkened hotel room, Xander was in a deep sleep. He lay on his side, hugging the pillow. Faith, on the other hand, was wide awake. She lay on her back, staring at the ceiling, her expression blank. Next to her, Xander stirred, shifting his position slightly, but he didn't wake up. Still, the movement had attracted Faith's attention and she glanced thoughtfully in his direction for a moment before tossing back the bed covers – pulling them half off Xander in the process – and swinging her legs to the floor. Getting to her feet, she made her way to the bathroom.
The sound of running water from the shower did nothing to rouse Xander and he was snoring lightly when Faith reemerged, toweling off her hair. In less than five minutes she was fully-clothed and slipping on her jacket. Before exiting the room however, she returned to the bed and tossed the covers back over Xander. He muttered something unintelligible and snuggled up to the comforter.
Quietly closing the door behind her, Faith glanced first to the right and then to the left, scanning the area but not for anything in particular. She placed one hand on the railing outside the second floor room and vaulted over the barrier with no more effort than if she'd taken a step forward.
She landed easily on the ground below, much to the alarm of a couple who were about to enter their room. The young man chivalrously thrust his female companion behind him and they regarded her fearfully.
"Sorry," Faith tossed over her shoulder and strode away into the darkness. She didn't seem to have any particular direction in mind, and simply wandered wherever her feet took her.
It wasn't long before she'd left the bright neon of the commercial area behind and found herself in the darkened streets of suburbia. Crossing the boundary between one subdivision and the next the muffled echo of someone knocking upon a door could be heard somewhere not too far away. Her expression blank, Faith's stride never faltered and she never even glanced behind, not even when the echoing knock repeated itself.
A clenched fist knocked upon a plain wooden door. One knock ... two knocks ...
The door flew open to reveal Faith standing on the threshold; her features betrayed the unadulterated annoyance she felt at being disturbed.
"What??" she snapped, clearly not recognizing the brown-haired girl peering at her.
"Hi Faith!" said the teenager before her, obviously thrilled at the encounter.
Faith waited but the young girl offered nothing else, content to simply smile happily.
"What??" barked Faith for the second time, no less annoyed than she had been the first time around.
The girl appeared a little crestfallen at Faith's attitude but refused to allow it to dampen her spirits.
"Hi?" She continued to smile unwaveringly. "It's me, Hazel?"
Faith waited yet again but once more, only silence reigned.
"Great," said Faith, beginning to close her door. "Thanks for stoppin' by with that."
"Wait, wait, no!" said Hazel.
Grudgingly, Faith halted her action and threw Hazel an impatient look.
"You came to see me, remember?" prompted Hazel. "About a month ago?"
"And?" huffed Faith.
"And ... we talked. You know, about Slayers, and my powers and—"
Faith frowned. "Are you lost or something? I thought they were supposed to give you newbies a map of this place."
"I'm not lost," returned Hazel with some vexation. "I'm exactly where I wanted to be. I thought—" She took a deep breath and quickly regained her former upbeat mood. "We had a really good talk when you came to see me. I thought we could maybe talk some more."
"I don't know," admitted Hazel, clearly not expecting to be on the defensive. "About ... about being here, being a Slayer?
"I got a weapons class at 9 tomorrow," Faith told her sharply, shutting the door even further. "QA is after, ask then."
"Wait, what about before?" Hazel protested. "I thought maybe ... you know, we ..."
She fumbled for the correct words, but Faith's patience, essentially non-existent to begin with, had run out.
"Look I'm glad you enjoyed our little chat," she said crisply, "but I talked to hundreds of kids. You're here and that's great, means I did my job. But that's it."
"But you ..."
"That's it," Faith told her warningly.
But Hazel was not so easily dissuaded.
"And your classes? Teaching everybody?"
Faith shrugged. "All part'a the job."
Faith waited a moment, as though expecting Hazel to say something else, but Hazel simply remained silent as an expression of supreme disappointment invaded her features. With a frown, Faith fidgeted a little on the threshold, her hand still poised on the door knob.
"So I'll see you tomorrow, okay?" Faith did her best to sound encouraging through her aggravation. "9 AM."
Faith pushed the door shut slowly, anticipating that Hazel would open her mouth again at any second, but she didn't. With a heavy breath of relief, she heard the satisfying click of the lock. She actually got two or three steps into the room before there came another knock at the door. Puffing, she rolled her eyes but turned back anyway. Not surprisingly, it was still Hazel. She treated Faith to an appraising look.
"Ain't quite 9 yet," Faith informed her.
Blatantly, Hazel ignored the sarcasm and continued to study Faith with a critical expression. "You know," she began slowly, "I think you're full of crap."
A loud and involuntary laugh escaped Faith. "That right?"
"I think so, yeah," said Hazel with utter seriousness. "You're talking big, like none of it means anything to you, but I think it does."
Folding her arms across her chest, Faith leaned casually against the door jamb. Her face was a picture of condescending amusement. "Got me all figured out huh?"
"Oh no way," Hazel admitted fervently. "But that doesn't make me wrong. I mean, are you gonna tell me that you'd stay somewhere and do something if you really didn't want to? Like anyone could make you?"
Faith made a derisive sound by way of reply.
"Exactly," confirmed Hazel, almost talking to herself. "I think you're here because you want to be." She nodded confidently. "You want to do what's right. And this, all of this, is so totally right."
Still maintaining her silence, Faith frowned, although Hazel had gained her undivided attention.
"I've talked to a lot of the other girls, and everyone's here for a different reason," Hazel continued. "There's a lot of stuff about destinies and wanting to be all badass and whatever." She paused and stared directly at Faith. "You get it though. You really get it."
Then, for the first time since arriving at Faith's door, Hazel's eyes reflected a trace of doubt, a hint of uncertainty.
"At least ... I thought you did," she faltered.
Still, Faith said nothing.
Hazel's gaze dropped and she examined the floor. "Anyway, that was it," she said quietly. Looking up, she threw Faith a weak smile. "Thanks for listening to me and everything."
With a nod, she turned to leave.
"I hear you," said Faith to Hazel's retreating back. Hazel spun quickly on her heel, a wide grin beginning to invade her face.
"I'm not sayin' I agree or nothin'," Faith hastened to add, "but I hear you."
"Of course," Hazel was swift to reassure, although she didn't quite manage to keep the conspiratorial tone out of her voice. "I understand."
Stepping out of her room, Faith pulled the door shut. She made her way down the hall, passing Hazel in the process.
"C'mon," she said. "You can talk while I teach you how to punch stuff."
"Awesome!" declared Hazel, scurrying to catch up.
Faith chuckled. "Guess I gotta respect your enthusiasm."
"Oh heck yeah, you have no idea," Hazel told her as they walked along shoulder-to-shoulder. "You bringing me here was the best thing that could've ever happened to me, Faith. I can feel it."
"...the best thing that could've ever happened to me..." came the echo as Faith stared at the MacFadden home from across the street. Most of the windows were dark and apparently everyone had gone to bed for the night.
Prickles of sorrow crossed Faith's face and mingled with the hearty measure of guilt already there. She glanced upward to a second story window where Strawberry Shortcake curtains billowed pink, courtesy of a small amount of illumination emanating from the interior of the room. By the dim light, Faith could make out a selection of dolls and stuffed animals lined up on the sill.
"Dammit, kid," murmured Faith to herself with a shake of the head.
Looking from the window to the side of the house, Faith smiled ruefully as she took stock of Lucy's toys. Everything was as it has been earlier.
The bike was missing.
Tilting her head, Faith frowned for a moment and then her eyes began to widen. Her neck snapped upward. The billowing curtains were a sure sign that Lucy's window was open.
In less than an instant, Faith moved into motion. A trellis snaking up one wall of the house wound past the porch overhang which led directly to Lucy's bedroom. Faith didn't even break a sweat while scaling the trellis and she slipped easily through the open window. It looked as though scaling the trellis was no problem for Lucy either, given that the bed was empty and the little girl nowhere to be found.
Faith's eyes narrowed as she clenched her fists.
Stealthily, Lucy crept along the dim and deserted hallways of Cherry Hills Elementary. She stopped at every intersection, flattening herself against the wall and peering furtively around each corner. Her movements were almost comical and completely overdone – it was clear that Lucy had learned all she knew of espionage from TV and movies. But despite this, she was utterly serious and there was no denying the earnest air with which she was carrying out her self-appointed mission. Before too long she arrived at her intended target, Mr. Kelsey's Art Class. A faint glow trickled into the corridor from the open door.
Silently shrugging off her pink cat backpack, Lucy opened the front pocket. Digging inside, she removed the folded picture that she had taken from the room earlier that day. Carefully spreading it out, she held the painting under the sliver of light and looked at it for a long and somber moment. Then, with a determined nod, she set her jaw. Refolding the drawing, she quickly shoved it back into the front pocket, not bothering to zip it closed. Instead, she opened the bag's main compartment, reached in and pulled something out. She set the backpack firmly on her shoulders, took a deep breath, gave another determined nod and snuck into the classroom.
Inside, hunched over a table with his back to the door was Mr. Kelsey, his silhouette outlined by a shimmering glow. Mr. Kelsey's concentration was so intense that he failed to notice Lucy's entrance. She crept toward him on tiptoe, her small face pale and her expression fearful, but her step unfaltering as she pushed onward. Then, with a rapid movement, she thrust out the item she had been clutching.
"Don't move dirtbag!" she yelled with all the force she could muster.
With a startled exclamation, Mr. Kelsey visibly jumped, knocking over the glowing desk lamp and nearly sending a stack of the children's pictures flying into the air. His right hand clutched at his chest as he turned to see Lucy standing before him. With a fierce expression, she brandished a large wooden crucifix in his direction. It was so large, in fact, that she had to grip it with both fists in order to keep it steady.
"Lucy!" he gasped. "You scared me half to death!"
He took a step toward her, but she shuffled a retreat while thrusting the crucifix toward him in what she hoped was an even more threatening gesture. Blinking, it appeared that Mr. Kelsey had only just realized what she was holding. He frowned in confusion but was otherwise unaffected.
"What's going on?" he asked. "What are you doing here this late?"
"I know all about you!" accused Lucy.
Mr. Kelsey's pallor blanched and a glimmer of apprehension stole into his eyes.
"N-Now Lucy," he stammered. "Let's just—"
"She doesn't believe me" said Lucy, despair beginning to creep into her voice, "but I'll show her! Then she'll know I'm a Slayer too!"
Mr. Kelsey looked utterly lost. "A what?"
Grasping the crucifix with both hands, it was with no little difficulty that Lucy managed to shrug off her backpack. "I ... I'm gonna ..."
"You're gonna get your ass back home and in bed is what you're gonna do," finished Faith.
Both Lucy and Mr. Kelsey looked toward the door where Faith was standing with her arms crossed. From her expression, she was none too happy with the situation.
"What I tell you about playin' with this crap?" she directed at Lucy.
"But Faith, it's him!" said Lucy, now brimming with confidence, all trepidation having been vanquished with Faith's arrival. "He's the monster!"
Mr. Kelsey winced a little at Lucy's charge, but Faith simply blew out a heavy sigh and went to join Lucy.
"We're leavin'" she said firmly.
Lucy refused to be so easily dismissed. "He is!" she insisted. "He acts weird and hides stuff all the time! Why don't you believe me!"
Without saying a word, Faith snatched the crucifix away and, with eyes fixed on Lucy's face, touched the teacher with the wooden cross – on the arm, the chest, the shoulder, the forehead. Lucy frowned when the contact brought about no damaging consequences. With a roll of her eyes, Faith tossed the cross onto the floor.
"We're leavin'," she said in tone that brooked no discussion.
Lifting the backpack and firmly pushing Lucy ahead of her, Faith headed for the door. Lucy's mouth opened and closed a few times, but she was still in shock and the stifled noises were little more than tokens of dissent. Meanwhile, Mr. Kelsey watched them leave and appeared to be utterly lost.
"Uhm, Miss...?" he murmured.
"Hey, sorry," Faith said without stopping. "The kid's goin' through some stuff right now. I dunno what made her latch on you but—"
"I think I do," he replied.
Breaking her stride, Faith turned and raised an eyebrow. Lucy turned too and regarded him with defiance. Mr. Kelsey seemed nervous. His gaze drifted to the floor, where he spotted a folded piece of paper. Picking it up, he spread it out and immediately recognized it as Lucy's painting. He stared at it for a moment before holding it out to the little girl with a smile. She snatched it from his hand, but he didn't seem to mind.
"Lucy's an intelligent girl," he said. "Very sensitive. She's right, I ... I have been hiding something."
Lucy tightly clutched her drawing. "See?!"
Reaching down, Faith clapped her hand over Lucy's mouth, which earned her a glare for her trouble. She waited for Mr. Kelsey to continue.
This was clearly difficult for him, but he'd already come this far. He took a deep breath. "I'm gay," he said finally.
Lucy was obviously befuddled. She looked up at Faith for an explanation, which Faith blithely ignored. Instead, she regarded Mr. Kelsey with a 'yeah, and?' expression.
"This is a small town" he explained, "and not exactly the most ... accepting of new ideas. It's hard enough to keep arts in the school budget, and if the PTA found out about who's teaching their kindergarteners ..."
Faith nodded her understanding. "Bye-bye finger painting, hello lynch mob."
"I just love my job so much," said Mr. Kelsey passionately. "The pictures the children make, their wonderful creations ... They pour so much of themselves into every line, every color. If word gets out ..."
Faith waved a dismissive hand. "Don't worry. This ends here and now."
Mr. Kelsey breathed a sigh of relief. Lucy, however, was distinctly peeved.
"But—" she objected.
"Later," Faith told her.
"You were supposed to make it better but you don't listen either!" Lucy exclaimed. She looked at the picture she was holding and her face filled with fury. "Nobody listens to me!"
Mr. Kelsey's eyes widened with fear.
"No!" he cried desperately.
But it was too late. Caught in a fit of rage, Lucy was already ripping her painting in two. As she did so, there was a blinding flash and Mr. Kelsey's despairing plea transformed into a high-pitched wail of pain. Faith and Lucy rapidly blinked, clearing their eyes and, after a moment, were able to see clearly once more. Mr. Kelsey, however, was clawing at his face and still groaning in anguish.
Faith frowned. "What the—?"
She went to take a step toward him when his head snapped up. The skin had melted from one half of his face, revealing a slick, inhuman, reddish-brown mass. He howled savagely in his anger. It was a bone chilling sound that cut through the air like a knife.
Lucy stared for a second and then turned to Faith with an accusatory expression.
"I told you so!"
Faith was utterly taken aback. "Well F me."
The thing-that-had-recently-been-an-art teacher roared with fury. Thrusting Lucy behind her, Faith edged toward the door, her gaze never leaving the demon's face.
"When I say, you run out this door," she instructed Lucy in a low voice. "Get on your bike, and you don't stop until you're home. Don't stop for nothin'. Got that?"
Lucy's eyes were wide. "Uh-huh," she squeaked.
"Good girl," Faith told her as they inched closer to the door. "Get ready ... Now!"
But before the word was fully out of her mouth, the demon had lifted a large desk and hurled it in their direction. Luckily, Faith's reaction was instantaneous. Scooping Lucy from the floor with one arm, she sprinted to the opposite side of the room. The little girl was screaming with fear and surprise and Faith gave her a hurried inspection.
But Lucy was pointing frantically over Faith's shoulder.
"Faith!" she warned, hopping up and down.
Able to duck in time, Faith shielded Lucy from any impact as a chair sailed through the space where Faith's head had been mere seconds before. It struck the wall with such force that it became tightly wedged in the plaster.
Crouching near to the ground, Faith noticed that cabinets lined the walls beneath the counters. She opened the closest door and gave Lucy a shove.
"Get in there an' stay put, okay?"
Giving a nod, Lucy quickly crawled inside. With her small charge now safe, Faith focused her attention on the danger at hand. With an enraged cry of her own, she rushed the demon. Along the way, she snatched an easel and with one smooth motion, smashed it against the side of the demon's face that still bore human resemblance. The faux flesh peeled away to reveal the monstrous features lurking beneath. There was a resounding yowl of pain but other than that, it appeared no more the worse for wear. Capitalizing on the momentum from her first attack, Faith snatched a fistful of paintbrushes from a nearby table, spun on her heel and threw them at the demon with enough strength to embed the handles deep in its back.
The demon staggered and sank to its knees. No more than a few feet away lay the two halves of Lucy's painting. With a malicious glint in its yellow eyes, the monster snatched one of them and almost immediately, the paper began to glow. Tendrils of light started to flow from the picture and into the demon. At the same time, a cry came from the cabinet, demanding Faith's immediate attention. The same glow was now emanating from Lucy's chest. The little girl was biting her lip to stop the screaming but her face was pale and contorted with pain. Faith's eyes darted back to the demon. It was beginning to heal itself. Slowly but surely, each paintbrush was being driven from its back. As Faith watched, one became totally free and clattered to the floor. She gritted her teeth.
Faith landed a square roundhouse kick to the demon's temple. The force propelled the monster into the wall, cracking the plaster but also dislodging Lucy's painting from its hand. Instantly, the glow dissipated from both the picture and Lucy, leaving the small girl coughing and gasping for breath.
Faith's eyes narrowed. "Little kids! That is messed up!"
The demon struggled to regain its footing, using the wall for support. As it did so, its fingers brushed against another picture on display, this one intact. The glow returned with more intensity as it coursed up the monster's arm.
"Fight first, commentary later," Faith chastised herself.
She lunged again but this time, the demon was ready. The power it had recently absorbed only served to make it more potent and deadly. With surprising ease, it back-handed Faith into a row of student desks which topped like dominoes. She started to clamber to her feet, but the monster was already there. It seized her and suspended her above its head. Gripping her by the neck and ankles, it applied all its strength in an effort to rip her apart.
"Faith!" Lucy cried from the cabinets, torn between her desire to help and the directive to stay hidden.
"Pictures!" Faith strained to get out through a blur of agony.
Lucy's brow furrowed as she shook her head in bewilderment.
"... Hurt! ... Pictures! ... Gotta! ..." gritted Faith, before shrieking as the demon stepped up its efforts to tear her in two.
But then, Faith's screams were drowned out by those of the demon as yet another dazzling shaft of light illuminated the room. It lurched backward, releasing its hold on Faith, who fell to the floor with a heavy groan. Part of the monster's shirt hung in tatters, exposing patches of demon flesh and ragged strips of human skin. There was another flash, and one of the monster's arms became engulfed in a blaze of light. It raised its grotesque head, yellow eyes fastened upon Lucy, who was now standing atop one of the cabinets, two halves of a painting in her hands. Another torn picture lay at her feet. She looked terrified, but determined.
With a primeval howl, the demon charged, but Faith tackled its legs. It crashed to the floor and Faith began to wrestle it in order to keep it from reaching Lucy.
"More!" she yelled. "Keep going!"
And Lucy did just that. Jerking down every picture she could reach, she tore each one in half, creating a brilliant flare of light each time and causing visible damage to the demon with every rip. The demon's strength began to wane and its struggles were easily subdued by Faith. Finally, Lucy grabbed five paintings at one time and ripped them apart all together. The resulting reaction was so intense that it threw Faith backward. Raising its head, the demon wailed, each cry from its throat escalating before reaching a climax and then suddenly, all was silence. Leaning on her elbows, Faith looked to where the demon had been only moments before and where nothing now remained save a few wisps of grey smoke.
Faith had just enough time to breathe a sigh of relief before a sobbing and babbling Lucy threw herself into Faith's midsection, knocking her back flat against the floor. She clung to Faith as though she might never let go. Faith simply lay there and hugged the little girl.
"I gotcha," she said. "I gotcha."
She continued to whisper reassuring words and let Lucy cry.
Lucy was in her bedroom at the MacFadden home, busily gathering items. She appeared very agitated, going back and forth to look out of her window. Finally completing her assemblage, Lucy gazed hopefully into the darkness of the night.
"Faith?" she whispered, as loud as she dared. She waited for a moment and frowned when she heard nothing in response. "Fai–"
She stopped short and jumped as Faith dropped silently down from above and landed lightly on the porch overhang.
"Got it finished?"
Lucy looked slightly accusatory. "I thought you'd gone away."
"Nah," assured Faith with a grin. "Told you I'd be here didn't I?"
Lucy nodded as a broad smile invaded her face.
"Well okay then," said Faith. "So what'd you wanna give me?"
Lucy held out a book. It was dog-eared and obviously well-loved. The title pronounced it to be Watership Down. Faith simply looked puzzled and made no effort to take it.
Lucy waggled the book in Faith's direction. "Hazel told me you never read it and it's really good!" she said with a wise nod. "She told me one time that she called you Fiver and that's just stupid because you're not like Fiver. You're like Big Wig!" This time, the nod was even wiser.
Faith shot Lucy a very weird look and Lucy giggled in return.
"You'll see!" she confided. "Read it, okay?"
Taking the book, Faith opened it to the flyleaf. A bookplate sticker has been affixed there some time in the past. It displayed the notice "This book belongs to:" and in a child's hand written underneath was, "Hazel MacFadden". On every other available area of white space, little bunnies had been drawn with overly large ears and powderpuff tails far too huge for their tiny bodies. Faith stared for a moment and then gently closed the cover. Shaking her head, she thrust the book back at Lucy.
"This was Haze's," she said. "I can't take this."
Lucy's expression was one of utter confusion. "Why?"
"This was your sister's book," Faith told her, still holding it out. "You should keep it."
Lucy put both hands behind her back, as though hiding them from sight would be ward enough against the book's return. "But I've already got lots of Hazel's stuff here. What do you have?"
Faith didn't answer.
"See?" insisted Lucy. "Keep it, okay? Please?"
With a nod, Faith tucked the book safely inside her jacket.
"But'cha gotta read it too!" Lucy told her gravely.
"Okay, okay!" agreed Faith. "Geez, pushy little brat ain'tcha?"
But the words were delivered with a smile and Lucy grinned as though to say, "you betcha!" Then, from behind her back, she produced a folded piece paper. Pressing it into Faith's hands, she stared at the stars and fidgeted a little with embarrassment as Faith spread it out.
It was a picture – Lucy's picture that she had ripped apart earlier that evening. Scotch tape had hastily been applied to hold the pieces together, and there was now more to the drawing than before. On the other side of the small girl atop the green hill stood a new, third figure, taller than the other two. It wore a black jacket but also clutched a long brown triangle.
Faith looked truly touched at the offering and cleared her throat as though unsure of what to say. Blinking rapidly, she refolded the drawing with much reverence and then secreted it away next to the book already inside her jacket. Swallowing hard, she focused on Lucy, who had tears coursing down her cheeks. Reaching out, Faith rubbed them away with her thumb.
"Don't forget what I told you," she said gruffly. "You stay away from all that monster stuff for now. You seen how dangerous it is an' I don't want you gettin' hurt. Neither would Hazel. You think somethin' else is weird like that you tell me and I'll take care of it." She regarded Lucy seriously. "Promise?"
Lucy nodded. "I promise," she said earnestly.
"And keep up those letters," said Faith. She gave an overly nonchalant shrug. "I'm sorta used to 'em now."
"Okay," agreed Faith. "Now I got some friends I gotta call to get that mess at the school cleared up, an' I'm guessin' it's about half-past-way-the-hell-late for your bedtime. Go get some sleep."
Lucy nodded again, but seemed reluctant to leave her spot at the window. She stared at Faith imploringly and bit her lip.
"You won't forget about me right?" she asked. Her voice wavered but she fought to hold back the tears.
"Not gonna happen," Faith promised.
With a sniff, Lucy's tears spilled once more. Reaching out with one arm, Faith pulled Lucy to her and delivered a hug to the little girl's head. Then, she was gone.
Lucy leaned out into the night, searching in every direction, but Faith had vanished without a trace. Regardless, Lucy gave a tiny, contented smile as she closed the window.
All was still and quiet at the Scoobies' house, with everyone having gone to bed.
Doing her best to avoid any creaking, Buffy, in her best tie-dyed PJs, stole down the stairs. Hearing a chuckle coming from the kitchen, a look of surprise crossed her face to realize that someone else was also up and around.
Sitting at the island counter, Willow was busily typing. The kitchen was in total darkness, except for the glow emanating from Willow's laptop and the illuminated blue numbers of the microwave clock.
"Hey Will," said Buffy as she entered the kitchen.
Willow glanced over her shoulder. "Oh hey Buffy! Did I wake you up?"
"Nah," assured Buffy. "Just couldn't sleep."
Willow nodded. "Know the feeling."
As Buffy moved toward the refrigerator, Willow returned to the monitor. Then, with another chuckle, her fingers began to move rapidly over the keyboard.
"Want some pie?" asked Buffy from the depths of the fridge.
"I think I'm about pied out, thanks," Willow replied.
Emerging with pie dish in hand, Buffy grabbed a fork from a nearby drawer. Flopping onto a stool across from Willow and without further ceremony, she began to eat directly from the tin. Willow flashed her a quick smile before continuing with her typing.
"You're not in an elderly Dutch woman chat room, are you?" mumbled Buffy through a forkful of pie crust.
Willow gave her a look of utter confusion. "What?"
With a flourish, Willow finished what she was working on, as evidenced by the cheerful chime of a program closing. She slid her laptop to one side.
"Didn't mean to interrupt," Buffy told her apologetically.
Willow waved a dismissive hand. "I wasn't doing anything important, trust me. Just chattin' away, doin' the night owl thing." Her eyes glinted as they rested on the pie dish. "Actually, you know, that does look good."
Seemingly out of thin air, Buffy produced a second fork. "Thought you'd change your mind."
With a grin, Willow accepted the fork as Buffy pushed the dish to the middle of the counter. They ate in comfortable silence for several moments.
"Do you think were doing the right thing?"
Willow chewed thoughtfully. "Well no, but when I said earlier we should leave some for Xander, you said he could get his own damn pie so ..."
"Not the pie," Buffy clarified. "The ... The Slaying. The all of this."
"Is this a conversation we actually need to be havin'?" Willow asked dubiously. "I think it may be a little bit late to be all, you know, 'Whoops, sorry, bad idea'."
"No, I know," agreed Buffy, jabbing pensively at the pie filling.
"Plus, we're like, eight apocalypses later which I think kinda answers the question right there."
"No, no, that's important, obviously," Buffy hurriedly concurred. "But what about demons and vampires and stuff? About killing them? I mean, they're not exactly world-ending."
Willow gave this due consideration. "Well they're ending someone's world, so I'd say it's still pretty important."
"But we don't take out all demons. We pick and choose."
"Sure," Willow conceded. "Some demons don't hurt anyone."
"But all vampires do." It came across as something of a question.
"Did you ever meet a vampire that didn't?" returned Willow.
Buffy gave her a long stare.
"Without a soul?" added Willow, raising an eyebrow.
Buffy continued to stare.
"Or a chip?"
Casting her eyes upward, Buffy sighed heavily.
"I dunno. I guess not." Distractedly, she made patterns around the tin foil dish with tines dripping pie filling. "I just keep thinking, you know. What if. What if we talked to them, gave them a choice?"
Willow nudged Buffy's meandering fork out of the way to get to a choice bit of crust. "And then what if they said, 'Gosh, you're so right, I'll stop killing right now' and then hop a bus to the first small town and suck everyone?"
"Nngh," retorted Buffy, tossing the fork into the tin as though it had offended her personally. "Stop being all make-sensey."
Willow shrugged unapologetically. "What can I do, it's my curse."
Silence filled the room again as Buffy lapsed into deep thought.
"Problem solved?" Willow asked, tilting her head to catch Buffy's eyes.
"Not completely," Buffy admitted, "but at least I think I can sleep now."
"Best were gonna get tonight, huh?"
"Thinking so." Buffy got to her feet. "Thanks Will. I needed this."
"Yeah?" said Willow with a soft smile.
"Yeah. Buffys have a problem, they go find their Willows. Its genetic, hardwired in the DNA going all the way back to caveman times." Suddenly she winced. "And so apparently does selfishness, hello. I totally didn't get to help with what's bugging you."
"Yeah, you did," Willow told her sincerely.
"Because I can stay up however long you need."
Willow shook her head. "I'm good. Go to bed. I'll be right behind you."
Putting her arms around Willow's neck, Buffy delivered a huge hug which Willow was only too happy to return.
"Night, sleepy-head," Buffy said.
Willow smiled. "Happy birthday, Buffy."
The four-door sedan traveled smoothly along the darkened freeway. It moved swiftly through the dead of night with virtually no other traffic to impede its journey. Riding shotgun, Faith was leaning back in the seat with her eyes closed, utterly relaxed. Xander, on the other hand, was in an entirely different time zone from relaxed. His fists gripped the steering wheel, knuckles almost white from tension, and he fidgeted constantly. Although he uttered not a word, his gaze repeatedly and awkwardly studied Faith's face.
"Shouldn't you be watchin' the road?" asked Faith without opening her eyes.
"We've passed cars totaling to the number of exactly one in the past two hours," Xander returned. "But, point."
Shifting into a more attentive posture, Xander became riveted on the stretch of highway before him, but his concentration was fleeting at best. In less than a minute, he had returned to his contemplation of Faith. Although she gave no obvious indication that she was aware of his attention, Faith suddenly cracked open one eye and stared directly at Xander, causing him to recoil a little and focus strictly on the road ahead.
With a sigh of resignation, Faith opened both eyes and sat upright in her seat.
"What? What what?" Xander stammered.
"You been all weird since we left."
"Weird?" Xander repeated, his voice a tad on the squeaky side. "Me? I'm not the one that had to check out all of three hours after checking in."
"I told you," said Faith with uncustomary patience. "Did what needed doing and—"
"Don't say that word," interrupted Xander.
"'Did'. 'Doing'. Just leave 'do' and all its associated tenses out of the conversation okay?"
Faith frowned and regarded him in a perplexed manner. Then realization spread across her features. "Ohhh, this is about the sex—"
"Eyygtz gaa chiiinnn! Nnngh!" enunciated Xander firmly, trying to use his hand to physically cut off any more of Faith's words.
Faith couldn't help but chuckle. "Seriously?"
"Ynngh!" insisted Xander.
With an air of amusement, Faith leaned into the headrest again and closed her eyes. "Alright, whatever."
The pair sped through the night in silence, save for the low hum of the engine, when Xander spoke.
"I told you it'd be weird."
With an eye-roll, Faith pulled herself upright once more. "Pretty sure only one of us passes the 'weird' test here."
"Well I told you it'd be weird for me then."
"An' I told you, only cuz you're lettin' it."
Xander had no response but his expression said it all.
"Far as I'm concerned," said Faith slowly and deliberately, "ain't nothin' different between you and me. Nobody did nothin' wrong here."
Xander was still far from happy. "Well it feels wrong. I feel like ... I don't know, like I took advantage of you."
The look of stark disbelief that Faith gave Xander was unmistakable.
"You. Took advantage of me."
"Well sure, it sounds silly when you put the emphasis on words like that," said Xander sheepishly.
Faith sat up even straighter and half-turned toward Xander. "Breaks down like this: You helped me out and felt good doin' it. And I know that felt good."
For a brief second, Xander wallowed in the soppy grin of a happy flashback before quickly shaking himself out of the enjoyable reverie.
Faith pressed forward. "I wanted it and you wanted it. Happened the once, now it's over and done. Don't see a problem here."
"Yeah, well, I feel guilty," Xander said, a sliver of anger working its way into his voice. "And maybe you're right but when I stop feeling guilty I feel guilty that I don't feel guilty."
Faith worked at absorbing that statement.
"Then I think you got issues goin' way beyond you an' me here," she finally concluded.
"Thanks for that," Xander told her dryly.
Faith grinned. "No prob."
As they passed the highway sign indicating the boundary of Trillium's city limits, Xander flipped the right hand blinker and the sedan exited the highway. However, a scant distance beyond the bottom of the off ramp, Faith instructed him to pull over.
"Huh?" queried Xander, a frown creasing his forehead.
"Pull over," Faith repeated. "I feel like walking."
Xander did as he was instructed but looked far from pleased with the situation. "Faith, it's like 3am and we're still a couple miles from Slayer Central."
"And?" said Faith, opening the car door. "I patrol this far out all the time."
"Sure, I know that," Xander said, "but you've had a rough day—"
"All the more reason to walk. I been in the same position for hours, I'm startin' to stiffen up." She rolled her shoulders painfully as she exited the car. "'Sides, it's a nice night and I'm actually in a good mood for once. You're bein' a downer, Harris."
"I just don't think I should—"
But Faith slammed the door, effectively cutting short Xander's protest. She wiggled her fingers at him through the window by way of dismissal.
Xander ran a hand through his hair before easing the sedan away from the curb. "These women will be the death of me," he muttered with an exasperated sigh.
Faith watched Xander drive away. Taking a deep and cleansing breath, she drank in her surroundings. In the clear night air she continued to limber up her sore muscles, wincing sharply as she tried to stretch out her back. Despite her aches and pains, an air of tranquility seemed to persist, and she made her way down the street with a light step.
Although not exactly looking for trouble, Faith kept her eyes and ears open. Trillium, however, was still and quiet in the early hours of pre-dawn.
Faith hummed softly under her breath as she continued to walk, occasionally side-stepping to avoid a child's truck that had been left on the pavement or an overturned tricycle abandoned by its owner. Then without warning, she was struck with so much force that she was propelled violently forward. She skidded along the ground for a moment before managing to get her hands beneath her and rolling to her feet. Adopting a defensive stance, she whirled on her heels to face ... nothing.
"Will you know regret, I wonder?" mused a lilting voice.
Faith's head swiveled from side to side, searching all directions for the source of the words, seeking out her attacker. By all appearances, she was alone. Then suddenly, a brutal fist lashed out, catching her on the side of the mouth and whipping her around. She staggered for a moment, struggling to maintain her balance, and then spun in the direction of where the assault had originated. Again, there was nothing.
"Did you spare her pain?" queried the melodious voice before dropping in tone to something more sinister. "I will not be so generous."
The first hit could be chalked up to distraction and the second to shock or surprise, but Faith was now prepared for whatever might follow. She spat out a stream of blood without dwelling on the fact and stood ready with all senses on high alert.
Another strike was imminent but this time, Faith was able to detect its arrival and with one deft motion, seized the wrist of her assailant in both hands. It was a young Asian girl, ornately dressed and perhaps in her mid-teens.
"Don't know what you're babblin' about," snarled Faith. "Don't much care."
The girl tried to retract her arm, but Faith's two-handed grip was tight. Faith tried to press home her advantage by throwing a surprise punch while still trapping her attacker's wrist with one hand. The blow, however, failed to cause any true damage and instead, the girl mirrored Faith's action by entrapping the Slayer's wrist with her strong fingers. A brief struggle ensued as each tried to break free from the other but when neither was able to immediately do so, the girl changed tack, allowing her arms to go limp. Lacking the expected tension, Faith stumbled back a half-step and in doing so, left a gap between herself and her assailant. It was sufficient leeway for the girl to drive her slipper savagely into Faith's midsection.
As the air left Faith's body, her grip loosened and the girl was able to wrench herself free. Still maintaining a firm grip on Faith's arm, the girl drove her fist into the bridge of the Slayer's nose while simultaneously yanking her into the punch. The blow landed with a sickly crunching sound. Letting her victim loose, the girl watched as Faith lurched backward, blood streaming down her face from the broken nose. It was a perfect opening but one that the girl apparently decided not to capitalize upon. She simply stood motionless, waiting patiently for Faith to regroup.
It was something that Faith had every intention of doing with as much speed as possible.
"That's the game we're playin', huh?" she spat, dragging the back of her hand across her mouth.
The girl gave no answer, seeming content to bide her time while regarding Faith through almond-shaped eyes that were expressionless and revealed nothing of her thoughts.
"Not bad," acknowledged Faith, "but now it's my turn. I got the perfect pick. I call it 'Slayer and Dead Vamp'."
The blood from Faith's nose had mostly stemmed to a thin trickle as she approached her attacker. She proceeded with caution, still feeling out the potential of this figure before her whose strength seemed to belie the delicate stature. Similarly, the girl made no move to strike but she exuded an aura of supreme confidence and self-assurance. The corner of her mouth twitched into a subtle but unmistakable sneer of disgust.
"You make jokes."
"I'm a funny girl," Faith responded.
"You will not be laughing much longer I think."
"Brave words from someone out in their bath robe."
The girl gave a slight bow from the waist. It appeared to signify that any further conversation would be futile.
"This is for my sister," she said gravely.
"Yeah, well, this is for messin' up a pretty good night," returned Faith.
Faith made ready to throw another punch, but the girl had already moved into a fighting posture and her forearm deflected Faith's blow with surprising ease. Still, a follow-up was instantly on its way and this time, it landed squarely on the girl's left temple. She barely acknowledged the contact.
The pair exchanged a flurry of attacks that flew so fast, any spectator would have observed little more than a blur of limbs. Faith was like a machine, throwing her all into every hit, be it with fist or boot. She targeted the head, the chest and the stomach, her goal being nothing less than to deal out the most amount of damage possible. But yet, she missed her opponent equally as often as she made contact and when a connection was made, there was little if any indication that her blows had dealt any significant harm.
By contrast, the young girl devoted herself to deliberate strikes. Unlike Faith, she used more precision with her intended targets. She concentrated on the forehead, the joints, the abdomen or any area where Faith was already showing some sign of injury. Her movements were smooth and unhurried and unerringly accurate. She took her time to measure each assault, which resulted in a damaging hit almost every time she made contact.
Slowly but surely it began to dawn on Faith that the fight was not going her way. In order to turn things around, she escalated her efforts and led with a particularly powerful one-two punch that would have been devastating had it landed, but the girl was much too fast and with an almost casual air, batted Faith's fists aside. As a result, she was able to wrap her arms around both of Faith's, fully pinioning them. Faith attempted to throw her attacker off-balance and thereby dislodge the restraint, but instead the girl employed her leverage to apply pressure to Faith's previously injured spine. With a cry of pain, Faith lunged, driving a knee deep into her assailant's chest and followed up immediately with a headbutt to the nose.
The force was sufficient to weaken the girl's grip and Faith managed to make good her escape, but there was no respite. Although temporarily stunned, the young girl launched a virtually instantaneous assault. The pair grappled fiercely for a moment until the girl – the speedier of the two by far – was suddenly behind Faith. Grabbing one of Faith's jacketed arms, she bent it backward with savage power. As the Slayer leaned into the pain, her attacker's arm snaked around her neck in a vicious choke hold.
Try as she might, Faith was unable to break the grip. With a tremendous effort, she managed to straighten, actually lifting the girl nearly off the ground, but it was to no avail.
"Hitanko, kousenko," the girl whispered into Faith's ear. "For you."
The note of finality inherent in the words helped to spur Faith with a renewed surge of determination. Her free hand had been scrabbling at the arm around her throat and with a sudden burst of strength, she was able to finally pry it loose – not completely, but enough.
With an almost primal growl, she sank her teeth into the flesh of her enemy's forearm.
Faith's adversary uttered a shriek of pain and surprise. Her otherwise serene expression transformed, revealing a domed forehead, yellow eyes and wickedly sharp fangs. She recoiled and, in doing so, allowed Faith to slip from her jacket and out of harm's way.
Gasping for air and looking totally exhausted, Faith spat out another mouthful of blood – this time more her attacker's than her own. The vampire regarded her bleeding arm before clenching Faith's jacket in her fist and tossing it to one side with utter contempt. Narrowing her eyes, she spewed a stream of rapid phrases in an Oriental tongue, focusing on Faith all the while.
Despite her agony, Faith remained defiant. "Right back atcha."
"Animal! Filth!" snarled the vampire. "One such as you could not have bested Hitanko!"
"Well one such as you can kiss my ass," returned Faith.
With a curdling battle cry, the vampire rushed Faith, who took a quick step backward, arms raised in defense. But it was a vain gesture and Faith knew it. By contrast, the vampire showed not the slightest indication that she was anything but fresh and energized. Indeed, the unleashed fury had only made her even more deadly and dangerous.
Faith could do little more than counter-punch but each hit became more ineffectual and took more effort. The jolt of pain brought to Faith by the delivery of a chop to the base of her neck, just below the windpipe, almost paralyzed her. The only response she could muster was a haphazard backhanded blow that wildly missed its mark. Consequently, the vampire was able to easily catch Faith's fist. In one fluid motion, she circled around the Slayer and thrust the heel of her other hand up into Faith's elbow.
The ensuing howl of pain effectively smothered the loud crack as Faith's arm bent at an unnatural angle, the ruptured bone bulging and straining against her skin.
Still, despite the pain, the blood and the overwhelming fatigue, Faith somehow managed to remain on her feet – a situation that was soon remedied by a brutal chop across the bridge of her broken nose. Collapsing to the ground and curling to one side, Faith utilized her one good arm to try and crawl away. Her eyes searched the area desperately for something she could use, something that would be of help.
As the vampire closed in on Faith, making ready to deliver the final blow, the forehead grew smooth once more and the fangs receded, again revealing the young girl who lurked beneath the monstrous facade. But the fury remained and appeared all the more surreal on those refined and cultivated features. Just as she came within range, Faith cried out and kicked her would-be assassin in the face with everything she had left. It was just enough to stun and Faith scrambled to her feet. With one arm dangling ineffectually at her side, Faith half-ran/half-lumbered down the street.
Recovering quickly, the girl immediately gave chase. Even without the injuries Faith had sustained, it seemed likely that she would have been caught. In terms of speed, there was truly no contest. Faith would never make it to the end of the road, let alone all the way to Slayer Central.
But neither the end of the road nor Slayer Central were her ultimate goal.
Summoning every ounce of remaining strength, Faith raced toward a giant bay window fronting one of the houses that lined the street. Digging deep, she managed to muster sufficient velocity to hurl herself shoulder-first through the glass. Wickedly pointed shards and splinters of shattered wood followed her entry, showering the carpet with debris and awakening an elderly man asleep in his recliner before the television. He sat upright with a jolt and clutched a hand to his chest.
"Wha? What's—" he stammered, looking around wildly before eying the figure that lay sprawled before him, gasping for much-needed oxygen.
"Hey! This is my house!" he yelled. "What are you doing in my house?!"
He continued to holler, but Faith didn't even acknowledge his existence. She struggled to her feet, blood streaming from countless cuts to her face, arms and chest. Her arm hung limp and useless at her side, and her knees threatened to crumple at any moment. Slowly raising her head, she turned to look through the gaping hole in the brickwork where, only moments before, there had been a giant bay window.
The girl stood outside, her expression cold, but her almond eyes blazed with consummate rage and unbridled hatred. Their stares locked as the pair regarded each other for what seemed an eternity and, faint though it might have been, a flicker of fear crept unbidden into Faith's gaze.
You make me so lonely baby
I get so lonely
Eyes still focused unblinkingly on Faith, the young girl turned to blend with the stirring shadows of early morning. Faith could only stand and stare fixedly into the darkness outside.
I get so lonely I could die
Main Page | Episodes | Grr. Arg.