The Chosen - S8 Logo

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Navigating with only minimal difficulty, Xander and Dawn managed to dodge around a small cluster of teenage girls who felt it was their duty to occupy as much of the pathway leading toward the front of the school as possible without actually being accused of hogging it all. Walking side-by-side, each carrying a moderately cumbersome box in their arms, the two were smiling broadly as they chatted, obviously in good spirits.

"This is so cool," gushed Dawn, beaming from ear-to-ear. "I'm so glad you agreed to do this."

"What, miss out on an opportunity to make thinly veiled and highly inappropriate wood jokes?" Xander smirked, nodding his head at the box he was carrying. "'Sides, I had all this stuff just lyin' around, why not earn a few extra bucks?"

Nodding emphatically, Dawn added with a grin, "Plus it makes me look really good."

"Which is of course the true goal behind absolutely everything I ever do." Xander turned to the teenager with a good-natured smile, which quickly vanished as his head recoiled from the impact of a football, colliding with his face on his blind side. Startled from the unexpected blow, Xander dropped the box he was carrying, sending wooden toys, decorative boxes and other carved items spilling across the sidewalk. Almost stepping on a delicate wooden duck, Xander hopped awkwardly out of the way, tripping in the process and landing hard on the ground.

Almost immediately Dawn was there to help him up when she saw a pair of heavily beefed-up guys wearing letter jackets in the school's colors jogging over. Dawn scowled and took a few steps forward to meet them. "You big jerk!" she yelled at the tallest. "Watch where you're throwing!"

The jerk in question ignored Dawn instead looking at Xander, who was still sprawled on the ground and tenderly rubbing his ankle. "Aw, sorry man," he apologized, not sounding remotely sorry, "I thought you were keepin' an eye out." Both of the jocks broke into snickers, clearly finding their joke hilarious, nudging each other with their elbows.

Dawn did not share in the amusement and she stepped in front of Xander, her box still clutched tightly. "That's really funny, Blake. Did you learn that in your second or third trip through kindergarten?"

Their snickering died instantly and Blake drew himself up to his full height, towering a good six inches over Dawn's head. He peered down at her, his eyes narrowing. "You got a big mouth, Summers."

"And you've got a fat head," shrugged Dawn, "so I guess we all have our faults."

Blake took another step forward, now all but dwarfing Dawn, not a difficult feat considering he looked to be three times her weight. Still Dawn refused to budge and didn't flinch a muscle. "I think what you need's a real man to keep you in line," Blake growled, low and menacing.

"Oh? Know where I can find one?" inquired Dawn innocently.

A sharp intake of breath accompanied the flash of anger that crossed Blake's face, and things appeared to be getting very ugly very quickly. Xander's eye widened and he struggled to get to his feet, holding out his hand and ready to intercede, but then there was someone standing between the two combatants.

His hair still a pleasant shade of blue, Grip peered at Blake, not challenging but knowing. The contrast between the two was striking – where Blake was all muscle and very little neck, Grip was lean and almost gangly. Regardless, Grip showed as little discomfort or fear as Dawn as he smiled charmingly. "Blake. You maybe wanna take the testosterone down to three or so?"

Clearly thinking he had found an ally in brotherhood solidarity, Blake tried to explain. "Dude, she—"

"I know," interrupted Grip understandingly, "and I'm sure it was real threatening to your manhood and all, but really, do you want to be voted 'most likely to appear on "Cops"'?" Bending over, Grip retrieved the football and tossed it. Blake easily caught it. "So maybe you wanna pick up your ball and go play over there, hm?"

Blake looked at Grip for a moment, glared at Dawn and Xander, and then stomped off with his friend without another word. The group watched them leave, and when they were a safe distance away, Dawn turned to Grip.

"Thanks," she smiled gratefully. "God, those guys are such social retards."

Shrugging, Grip absently twirled the small diamond stud in his left ear. "Eh, Blake's ..." He considered it for a moment. "Yeah, I guess 'social retard' pretty much covers it."

Together, they both started helping Xander retrieve the spilled items, carefully returning them to the box. Dawn glanced worriedly at Xander, who remained uncharacteristically silent. "You okay?" she asked gently.

Xander smiled a little too broadly at the teenager. "Who me? Oh sure. It's just like high school!" He laughed, then stopped short. "I hated high school."

With the last of the items safely stowed away, Grip got to his feet along with the others. "You guys okay from here?"

"I think we can manage," Dawn nodded.

"Sure!" agreed Xander, his tone still far too pleasant. "If memory serves, I have at least a five-minute window before the next group arrive to mock me and all I stand for. Hey, if I'm really lucky, maybe this time it'll be the chess club!" He balled up his hand and made a 'golly gee whiz that's swell!' gesture, which only served to further confuse Grip, who seemed unsure of how to deal with the contradicting signals.

Dawn smiled at the younger man's frown. "We'll be fine," she assured him.

Accepting this, Grip nodded and began to move off toward the school. "'Kay then. Hey, I'll see you around?"

"Yeah. Thanks again."

"Don't mention it," he dismissed, turning to Xander. "I really like your stuff, I'm sure it's gonna sell big." With that, Grip jogged off, soon blending into the crowd.

Now at a much more sedate pace, Xander and Dawn headed in the same direction. "I'm really sorry," Dawn began with a pained expression.

"Not your fault. Heck, it's not even their fault." Noting Dawn's incredulous expression, Xander amended, "Well the throwing and the hitting and the insulting, yeah, but you know," he frowned, "once upon a time I could've ducked. Or at least tried to duck, which would have counted for something." Dawn's look had quickly shifted from confused to concern, and Xander tried visibly to brighten. "Ah, but no worries," he dismissed. "At least I didn't have to hear another One-Eyed Jack comment. Stops being funny after the first twenty times or so, huh? I mean, is it too much to ask for some originality?"

Shuffling his box under one arm, Xander tossed the other reassuringly over Dawn's shoulders and the two continued toward the crowd of students by the auditorium.

Moving at a hurried pace, Giles and his assistant Mina strode through the halls of Slayer Central. The dark-haired woman was referring to a clipboard in her hands as she spoke in a soft but authoritative voice that seemed to indicate her gift for organization. "Wood will be returning early next week with a preliminary report on the construction of our European branch." Casting a sidelong gaze, she questioned, "I assume you'd like to meet with him as soon as possible?"

"Absolutely," Giles agreed. "Also, I want to discuss the possibility of shifting him from administration to security, so the earliest opportunity where Hannah will also be available would be—"

"Mr. Giles, sir!"

Both Giles and Mina looked over to see a young man in a tailored suit jogging up alongside them, as they showed no signs of halting their forward movement. He looked both eager and anxious when he suddenly realized he'd gained their complete attention, and adjusted his tie nervously.

Giles regarded the young man for a moment, then declared, "Those are far too many names for one person, Preston. Pick one and stick with it."

The young Watcher frowned in confusion. "Sir?"

"That one will do," agreed Giles. "How may I help you?"

Still every bit as confused, but choosing not to linger on it, the Watcher pressed on valiantly. "I'd like to broach the status of some of my Slayers, sir. Several of them seem to be exceptionally gifted, and I wanted to talk about possibly accelerating their training in a more leadership capacity."

Giles nodded thoughtfully. "Of course. We have a staff meeting scheduled for next Monday—"

"Tuesday," Mina corrected.

"—Tuesday. We can brainstorm ideas for new training curriculums then."

Preston inclined his head gratefully. "Thank you, sir," he smiled, before bounding away in the opposite direction.

As though there had been no interruption, Mina continued. "You have a free lunch on Wednesday, and I believe both Robin and Hannah will be available to join you."

"Excellent, we'll go with that then," decided Giles. His eyes lit up as a thought occurred. "Would you make us reservations at Rosario's? I think Hannah will love their shrimp scampi."

Mina jotted down a note on her clipboard and moved to the next item as they rounded a corner. "As for the rest of this week, I'm afraid there's precious little wiggle room," she stated with a hint of apology. "A representative from the Strabane Coven will be teleporting over tomorrow, so—"

Again their conversation was interrupted, this time by a woman emerging from the room they had just passed. "Mr. Giles, I was just on my way to see you," she called out before ducking back into the room for a moment. Giles came to a stop, Mina a pace behind him, and both turned to the doorway as the woman emerged, two file folders in hand. "I've completed a revised version of the training schedule," she explained, handing him the first folder, "and possible scholastic distribution. Unfortunately Trillium's schools have limited placement for so many Slayers, however I've included some contact information for local area tutors in the event that we choose to establish in-house schooling." Looking very pleased with herself, she proudly handed over the second folder, then clasped her now empty hands behind her back.

"Thank you, Elisabeth." Giles tucked the folders under one arm. "I'll review these and we'll discuss them in greater detail on Friday?"

Nodding happily, Elisabeth beamed and returned to the room. Mina and Giles resumed their walk, neither displaying any evidence that the continual interruptions were phasing them.

"You have a meeting with the Coven representative tomorrow, as well as—"

Arriving at his office door, Giles turned to see Hannah approaching from the opposite direction. With an apologetic expression, Giles held up a finger and cut Mina short, calling out, "Hannah, may I see you a moment?"

The blonde nodded, lengthening her stride until she was standing alongside the others. Giles turned to his assistant and smiled with a touch of self-depreciation. "It sounds like this week is going to do its utmost to finish me off once and for all. Would you please leave a finalized copy of the appointments on my desk and I'll review them in greater detail at the earliest opportunity."

"Of course," nodded Mina, not seeming to mind the brush off as she went to leave. "However don't forget you're sitting in on Worthington's training session at one."

Smiling his thanks, Giles turned back to Hannah, who had crossed her arms and was wearing an expression that indicated she was finding everything entirely too amusing. "You're such a busy little bee," she teased.

Giles' only answer was a groan as he pushed open his office door and led her inside. "Things haven't been this insane since we started," he complained. "Of course, if I could delegate more easily ..."

"You always did have to do everything the hard way," Hannah pointed out with a jovial tone.

Slinking into his chair, Giles uttered a louder groan as he seemed literally buried under the mountain of paperwork on his desk. He tossed the two files he'd been carrying onto a nearby stack, where they were absorbed by the mass already present.

Hannah gestured to the piles. "A metal trashcan, one little match ... this could all disappear and nobody would ever have to know." At Giles' flat look, she jokingly grumbled, "You're no fun."

"Of course not," the Watcher replied dryly. "I don't think I have 'fun' scheduled for another two weeks yet."

With a chuckle, Hannah leaned her hip against the side of the desk. "I doubt talking to me is scheduled right now either. What's on your mind?"

"The message you left me," replied Giles, clearing off a section of his desk by creating towers of files in various locations, "about Faith?"

"Ahh, yes. I'm quite anxious to speak with her." Hannah pulled one of the chairs opposite the Watcher into a position where she could see him easily and slid into it. Leaning forward, she rested her elbows on the armrests and regarded Giles with an expression that was all business. "I assume you're aware of Faith's ... rather interesting history since acquiring her Slayer powers."

"Yes, I have a ... passing familiarity with it," he understated.

"Her childhood?"

Giles shook his head, considering the state of his desk and resigning himself to the fact that it was as tidy as possible, given the circumstances. "Not especially, no. Only what little the Council provided me after her arrival in Sunnydale." Leaning back in his chair, Giles began to rattle of several facts. "Born and raised in Boston, her father left when she was quite young ..."

More interested with getting to the heart of the matter, the blonde cut in. "She concerns me."

The statement seemed to amuse Giles greatly. "I don't know of anyone Faith hasn't concerned at some point or another," he smirked.

"She's an unpredictable element, a wild animal," Hannah insisted. "You realize you'll never be able to control her."

"Then it's just as well I'm not looking for control," snapped Giles. He sighed heavily and ran a hand through his hair before beginning again. "You're doing the job I brought you here to do, so I'll say no more. I simply wanted to let you know that Faith has taken some personal time and won't be back until next week." Hannah raised a questioning eyebrow at this, but Giles had little more information. "She didn't say, she simply asked for personal time."

"Interesting," Hannah commented in an unreadable tone.

"Knowing Faith, most likely," agreed an amused Giles. Taking note of the obvious mounds of work facing the Watcher, Hannah rose to leave. "Out of curiosity," enquired Giles, "has anyone managed to convince you yet that they're completely trustworthy?"

Turning back, Hannah smirked, "I'm pretty sure you're alright."

A wry expression crossed his face. "Oh good, I was afraid I'd have to start keeping myself under close observation."

As far as cemeteries went, it was fairly average. Much like today's small towns, it had its section for the rich and elite, the broader stretch of land taken up by those whose loved ones were of middle income, and finally, tucked toward the back and far out of the way, the final resting place for the poor. Were Faith paying attention, she might have found some degree of irony in the idea that despite death being the great equalizer, society still managed to draw a definitive line. But she was not.

If anything, Faith appeared more out of place. Though clearly at home in a graveyard, such was rarely the case when the sun was still high in the sky. Despite the near guarantee that nothing nasty and salivating was lurking behind the next tombstone, Faith stalked toward her prey as though she was on the hunt. But unlike her usual games of cat and mouse, her expression offered no elation.

Finally, toward the end of the graveyard, far from the entrance and most visitors' eyes, rested several rows of identical markers. Each was a gray, washed-out memorial to whoever was buried underneath. Mundane, generic, unremarkable. As though drawn by some invisible force, Faith made a straight line for one grave in particular, eventually standing before her target. She stared down at it, unblinking in the too-bright sun.

It read, "Marlene Kendrick: March 18, 1962 – August 24, 2003". A name and two dates. No words of affection or mourning. Like the others surrounding it, there were no indications that anyone had visited, aside from the groundskeeper and his lawnmower.

Faith simply stared.

The front door swung open on a squalid, tiny apartment, and a 16-year old Faith strode inside. She stepped on a discarded hamburger wrapper, paying it as little attention as she did the other trash strewn about the living room floor. The only illumination in the room was provided by a naked bulb stuck in a floor lamp completely lacking a shade, and the 13" television showing an unfunny black-and-white comedy. Still, it was enough light for Faith to admire the beautiful brown suede jacket she was wearing, and she ran a hand appreciatively down its length.

Kicking the door closed behind her, Faith fully entered, looking up for the first time. Next to the lumpy and stained couch, which looked twice Faith's age and less comfortable than the floor, was an equally dirty recliner. Seated in the chair, her legs thrown out in front and her head lolling to one side, slumped a dark-haired woman, very clearly unconscious.

She bore a similar resemblance to Faith, largely due to the shade of her hair and her bone structure, but whereas Faith was only just beginning to shed the lingering touches of childhood, this woman was drawn and almost skeletal, her skin pale and unhealthy. She was wearing a rumpled and thoroughly unflattering waitress uniform, including a nametag that identified her as "Marlene". The only indication that there was breath in her body was the occasional snore, and the way she clutched a bottle of Wild Turkey to her chest like a security blanket. From the limp fingers of her left hand dangled a lit cigarette, and it was only through some miracle that gravity hadn't completely laid claim to it and turned everything inside to a pile of ashes.

Faith stood before the woman, noting her appearance and gazing with blatant disgust. Rolling her eyes, she took a step past, originally heading toward the closed doors at the rear of the apartment when she stopped and turned around. Again, Faith considered the woman, then sighed and went to her side, snatching the cigarette and taking a long, deep drag. Shaking her head, Faith angrily jabbed it out in the overflowing ashtray on the nearby end table, and exhaled the smoke between clenched teeth.

"Marlene," she stated in a commanding tone, watching for some sign of movement and receiving none. "Marlene," she repeated, louder. Still the woman didn't move, didn't even twitch. "Mom!"

Nothing. Sighing again, Faith grabbed her mother's limp arm and tried to haul the woman to her feet, but it was dead weight and Faith simply didn't have the necessary leverage. Marlene groaned and clutched the bottle tighter as Faith tugged without concern for being gentle.

"Little help here, huh?" growled Faith, noting the woman's slow rise from unconsciousness.

"Go 'way," Marlene slurred, trying unsuccessfully to jerk her hand away.

Faith simply snorted and continued to pull. "Whatever, I stopped listenin' t' you years ago."

"I said—!" With an inarticulate grunt, Marlene lashed out sloppily but with surprising force, shoving Faith in the shoulder and sending the young girl staggering backward.

Pure rage flashed across Faith's features for just a moment, and she glared with hatred at the woman before her. "Don't want my help, fine, then do it yourself!" she yelled. "You know sleepin' here makes your back go, an' you can't afford t' miss any more work!"

Marlene simply raised the bottle clumsily to her lips and took another deep swallow. "Lea' me 'lone," she muttered.

Disgusted, Faith rolled her eyes again. "Look, can't you lay off that for five whole seconds?" She stepped forward, compelled to try again. Latching onto her mother's free arm, she yanked.

With a sudden burst of unexpected strength, Marlene swung out with her other hand, still grasping the bottle tightly. "Go to hell!" she shrieked as the bottle connected with the side of Faith's head. It shattered instantly, dousing Faith with its contents as the girl fell to the ground.

Her mother didn't even blink, didn't pay Faith any attention, choosing instead to stare at the now jagged remains of the bottle in her hand. "Dammit!" swore Marlene. "Look what you made me do!"

Throwing the bottleneck to one side, she somehow managed to struggle to her feet. Without sparing Faith a glance, she staggered to the rear of the apartment, muttering all the while. "Frickin' ungrateful brat," she spat quietly, yanking open one of the doors and slamming it shut behind her.

The only sound remaining in the room was the laughter coming from the television set. Slowly and painfully, Faith sat up, blood coating the side of her face from the gash across her right temple. The girl look around for a moment, seeming almost bewildered, then without warning her expression crumpled. She sobbed once, then twice – harsh, agonizing sounds – then took a deep, shuddering breath and regained her control. Struggling, nearly pulling the now vacated armchair over in the process, Faith managed to stand up, swaying slightly at first then finding her balance. She sniffed loudly and wiped a hand across her face, as though to physically remove the remnants of whatever she had been feeling, and once her hand had passed, her eyes were dry and filled only with anger and loathing.

She looked down at the jacket she was still wearing, totally ruined and coated in blood and cheap whiskey. Glaring at the door her mother had exited through, Faith snarled, "An' I just lifted this. Bitch."

Still standing and staring, though the sun now hung lower in the sky, Faith's expression was no more readable than it had been hours before. The Slayer was deeply lost in thought as she absently puffed on the cigarette dangling between two fingers. Considering, she tilted her head to one side and then flicked it toward the stone. It bounced off, sending out a few sparks, before landing, still burning, on the weeds that covered the grave.

"Giles! Giles!"

Five heads glanced up at the incessant call as Willow rushed down the corridor toward Giles and the group of Watchers he was accompanying into one of Slayer Central's conference rooms. Each was loaded down with briefcases and file folders, and were clearly intent on discussing the contents of many of them in the very near future. The others proceeded inside, Giles smiling at them gratefully as he remained in the hallway to await the arrival of a very anxious witch.

"Willow, hello," he greeted. Inclining his head into the conference room, which was filled with other Watchers all seated expectantly around the table, Giles began, "I was just about to—"

He didn't get very far. "I need your help," Willow declared simply, wringing her hands nervously in front of her.

"Wh— Now?"

"Now," confirmed the witch with an agitated bob of her head. "Nowy now. Quicker than now. Th-The magic it's ... There's bad," she summed up. "A-and I feel the bad. It's bad. I think it—" Suddenly Willow's eyes widened and she burst into panic mode. "Oh god, I don't have Joan Jett hair, do I?" Spinning to the nearby window, she tried to see her reflection, moving her head around in jerky motions to get the best angle.

The Watcher placed a calming hand on her shoulder. "Your hair's fine, Willow," he assured her. "Let's go discuss this, shall we?" Sticking his head into the conference room, Giles suggested, "Stephen, perhaps you can get started, and I'll catch up shortly."

An intelligent-looking older man seated near the head of the table nodded his head and began extracting papers from his briefcase. Giles placed his own stack on a nearby table inside the room and pulled the door closed behind him. Placing an arm around Willow's shoulder, the two walked down the hall.

"Now then, deep breath, and tell me what's going on," he prompted gently.

Sucking in a lungful of air, Willow let it out slowly, calming considerably. "Okay. Okay, so I've been meditating right? Trying to fix my hand?" She raised her injured wrist, which was no longer encased in a clunky white cast. Instead, it bore a stiff black brace that extended halfway up her forearm and held her thumb and fingers rigidly in place. Giles nodded his understanding, but Willow missed the gesture, instead glaring accusingly at her wrist. "Only it's taking so damned long!" she complained bitterly.

Giles allowed himself a tiny smile at her impatience. "Yes, but look at the remarkable progress you've already made," he pointed out, opening the door to Willow's sanctum and following her inside. "In just a few short weeks, you were able to have the cast removed. Given the extent of your injuries, that's nothing short of extraordinary."

"Yeah, maybe, but look!" Again she thrust her wrist into the air, holding it steady while she tried to wiggle her fingers. Despite the obvious effort, she succeeded in moving them only marginally, and was thoroughly disappointed with the result. "Hands should work, Giles," she insisted, then took another deep breath as she tried to explain further. "It's just that ... So I'm sitting there, meditating, pulling energy from the earth, all that crunchy goodness, and i-it's like I'm sitting there for hours and hours a-and zippo! Then I just start gettin' all cranky, and the next thing ya know, I can feel this big ol' geyser of power that promises to make my hand good as new within seconds if I'd just touch it, and I know it can. And I don't want to, but- but I do. A-And I know it's the Dark Side of the Force, so I'm all 'Uh-uh, no way! Just back the heck off, mister,' but I still really, really want to, and it's like some big nuclear meltdown in my brain and whoosh! No more meditating for me!"

Staring at the redhead, Giles looked exhausted just listening to her, then shook his head as though to clear his mind. "First of all, you're doing delicate reconstruction of a complex instrument. It's bound to take time." Willow opened her mouth to interject, but Giles quickly raised a hand to stave off her comments. "I realize you want it fixed now, but that's part of the problem. You must remain patient. You just need to find your center."

"I thought I had found my center," she pouted. "It was all ... focused and center-y."

"I would venture to say you've not, if you're feeling the temptation toward dark magicks," replied Giles not unkindly. "My advice to you: rest for today, don't try any more meditations. Tomorrow, you'll start again, a clean slate. Let it happen, channel the magicks, but don't try to force them."

Willow sighed and shifted her weight from one foot to the next, deriving little satisfaction from Giles' advice. "Yeah, I guess," she conceded. "I'm just so sick of one-handed typing. My left hand's gonna be all ... freakishly over-muscled or something by the time I'm done."

Smiling, the Watcher replied, "I doubt that very much. But I assure you, you'll be fine. If things don't seem to be improving within a few days, we'll sit down together and work on some meditations, all right?"

That seemed to do the trick, and Willow's mood brightened considerably. "Okay," she agreed sunnily. "Thanks Giles. Sorry for interrupting your big important Watcher meeting."

"I'd consider it less a disturbance and more a rescue," he corrected, earning him a grin as Willow bounded out of the room. Giles watched her go for a moment with a smirk on his face, before heading toward the meeting in progress.

While the street may have looked more open and inviting in the sunlight, its true effectiveness would ultimately have been debatable. The shadows that shrouded most of the dark alleys hinted at danger but also hid the overflowing dumpsters and homeless people hunched over trying to find shelter from the crisp fall air. The area was, by and large, uninviting, but it seemed to perfectly suit Faith's mood. She moved easily along the pavement, directionless but still seeming somehow to belong. The groups of men hiding from the streetlights like a vampire from the sun who might have normally caused a lone young woman considerable trouble, took one glimpse at the Slayer and averted their eyes.

Reaching into the pocket of her leather jacket, Faith pulled out a pack of cigarettes and flicked her wrist in a practiced move to expel one. When nothing happened she examined it more closely, finding the pack to be empty. Swearing, she crushed the package in her fist and threw it carelessly to the side, where it mingled with the other trash lining the gutters. A quick glance at the garishly bright neon signs across the street revealed a 24-hour liquor store, and Faith headed toward it with only a cursory glance for traffic.

Shoving the door open, Faith nearly winced at the discordant jingle of cheap Christmas bells tied to the handle that announced her presence. The shop was empty, save an unshaven and bored attendant behind the front counter and a jacketed figure loitering in the corner pretending to read a magazine. Faith glanced at the figure for a moment but otherwise paid it little mind as she approached the counter. "Marlboros," she ordered, reaching into her pocket and pulling out a wad of assorted items, picking through for some loose bits of cash.

The attendant's back was turned as he pulled the pack down for Faith, and the figure took the opportunity to dash out into the street. If the attendant noticed the hasty exit – and it was unreasonable to assume he didn't with those obnoxious bells – he chose not to show any concern. Faith on the other hand had become quite interested. She shoved a five-dollar bill across the counter, snatched the pack and quickly exited the store.

Back on the street, Faith surveyed all directions, catching sight of the figure darting around the corner about a block to the left. A quick sprint brought the Slayer to the alley in a few seconds. The figure had stopped not far inside, and was hunched over with its back to the entrance.

Faith approached silently, careful not to scare away whoever it was. She reached out a hand. "Hey," she announced simply, spinning the figure to face her.

Each party was surprised to see the other there. In Faith's case, she instantly absorbed the girl's youth, tempered by a harshness that seemed all too familiar, particularly on someone who was likely no older than fourteen. But for a fleeting moment there appeared to be more, a recognition that went beyond simple kindred understanding. It faded as quickly as it had surfaced, however.

As for the girl, she seemed at first to be utterly shaken by Faith's presence, but that shock, too, was transient. Tightly gripped in the girl's hands was a small stack of chocolate bars, which seemed somehow to lend the entire situation a surreal quality.

Nodding to the candy, Faith smirked and crossed her arms. "Hershey's really worth six months in juvey?" she queried.

Immediately, the girl's demeanor changed from startled little girl to defensive young woman. "What's it to—" she began, jutting her jaw at the Slayer, but then her expression softened to mystified conclusion. "Faith?" she whispered, almost in awe.

It was clearly the last thing Faith had expected to hear, and she took a step back away from the girl in complete confusion. "Huh?"

This only served to cement the idea her mind, and the girl closed the gap between them, taking the older woman's hand reverently. "Faith! It is you!" she exclaimed with a tone approaching rapture. "You've come home!"

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