Dead on Time
by Alan Hitchen
Rating: PG-13

Disclaimer: BtVS belongs to Joss Whedon and others.
Information: Sequel to Risks and Rewards.
Dedication: To Gaelle, Vicki and Sway. Thanks for your support.

+1=2=3=4=5+

PART 1

The dapper gentleman sat down at his desk, opened a drawer, and removed a photograph of an unsmiling brunette. The LAPD mugshot didn't do her justice he thought. He spoke to it as if she was there in person.

"Ah, my dear Faith. I hear you have found happiness at last. What a shame it must end so soon. But all the books agree, the Slayer is the Chosen One. Two Slayers is one too many. You are a mistake that must be corrected. Nothing personal you understand, but I must do this. No hard feelings."

The man smiled slightly and replaced the photograph in the drawer. He reached across the desktop to pick up a snowglobe depicting the town of Sunnydale. He shook it and the plastic snowflakes within whirled and fluttered around the plastic landscape. Asleep in her bed, Buffy by her side, Faith shivered as if she were cold.

"Room for one more?" enquired a playful blonde as she entered the shower cabinet to kiss her girlfriend good morning.

"Always room for you, B," Faith replied, a large grin lighting up her face. "How else would I get my back scrubbed?"

"Oh," Buffy pouted, "I'd much prefer your front."

"Yeah, and we both know what happens when you start there don't we?" Faith laughed. "Just this once could you start on my back?"

"All right," Buffy pretended to grumble, "just this once." She kissed Faith again and moved around to scrub her back. "Hey! You got a tattoo!"

"What?"

"You got a tattoo and you didn't tell me. Naughty Faith," said Buffy, giving Faith a gentle smack on the ass.

Faith turned off the water and turned to face Buffy. "What are you on about?" she asked.

"You have a tattoo on your right shoulder," Buffy replied, wondering why Faith was so touchy about it.

"No, I don't," Faith said with certainty.

"Yes, you do," Buffy insisted.

Faith stepped out of the shower and examined herself in the bathroom mirror. As Buffy had said, she had a distinctive tattoo on her right shoulder blade. It was mostly red with black writing. She had never seen it before. She looked at Buffy with an alarmed expression.

"B, I know we discussed getting tattoos, but I swear to you, I never had one done."

"Okay, hun, I believe you," said Buffy with a note of concern now appearing in her voice. "We'd best let Giles have a look at it."

"Hmm," said Giles. "It's not a tattoo, and the writing is some runic script I can't quite decipher. Hmm, leave it with me."

"I would, G-man, but it's kinda attached to me," Faith said in a jocular fashion intended to sooth a clearly worried Buffy.

"Yes, quite," Giles agreed absently. "I meant I'll see what my books say and we'll talk later."

At the regular Scooby meeting that night Giles prepared to announce his findings.

"So, what is it Giles?" asked Xander as his girlfriend rudely pushed Willow and Tara aside to look for herself.

"It's a curse marker," Giles and Anya said together.

"Well, you only had to ask. It is, was, my speciality after all," Anya explained to the others.

"Okay, Anya, what does it mean?" asked Buffy.

"Faith is going to die in about two weeks," Anya said matter-of-factly, then sat down next to Xander with the air of someone discussing the weather.

Everyone looked from Anya to Giles. His expression said it all, but he spoke anyway to confirm Buffy's worst fears.

"I'm afraid Anya is correct. Faith has been cursed, and unless we act very soon, in two weeks time she will be dead."

PART 2

"Anya?!" Buffy snapped at the ex-demon.

"Don't look at me," she whined in return. "I only gave out curses, I never took one off."

Xander groaned. "Way to go, honeybunch. Do you have any idea how we can remove the curse?"

Anya shrugged disinterestedly. "No."

Buffy turned to Giles. He gave her a thin smile.

"There's good news and bad news."

"And the good news is?" Buffy enquired.

"Well, the curse is easy lift. Just a simple spell is needed."

"Then let's get on with it!"

"That's the bad news. Once the curse is activated it can't be dispelled, only re-targeted, as it were."

"Great!" Faith interjected. "Let's target Howard Stern, let him laugh this one off."

"No, Faith, the curse can only be returned to sender, and you can only do that when you know who the sender is. So, I have to ask, do you have any enemies?"

"Does a dog have fleas?" Faith replied sarcastically, looking at Willow who blushed in response.

"I mean someone who wants you dead and has the skill to conjure such a curse."

"Dunno, G-man. All I can say is most of my enemies are dead."

"Hmm, well, you see the problem, Buffy. Unless we can identify the person reponsible and return the curse to them, then I'm afraid..."

The doorbell rang, causing everyone to jump. Tara was the nearest so she went to answer the door.

"Package for Faith Jones," announced the FedEx man. "Sign here please."

Tara signed where indicated and he handed her a large cardboard box. She shut the door and took the box to Faith who regarded it suspiciously.

"Aren't you going to open it?" asked Anya, breaking the tense silence. "I love presents."

"It could be a bomb," Willow pointed out.

Faith hefted the package. "Nope, it's too light." She looked at Buffy, who nodded at her to open the box.

Faith gingerly opened the lid. Inside was a funeral wreath and a card edged in black inscribed 'In Loving Memory'. On the back of the card was a handwritten message. 'In ten days at midnight.' Faith shivered.

"You okay, honey?" Buffy asked with a look of concern.

"Yeah, but I think someone just walked over my grave," Faith replied.

PART 3

"Well, it's not much but it's a start," Willow announced unexpectedly.

"What is, Will?" asked Xander.

"The package. FedEx have a computerised track-back system. I can hack in and find out who sent it."

"That's my girl," Tara said proudly, then realising she had spoken out loud, went pink with embarassment. Despite the situation everyone couldn't help but smile at Tara.

Willow pecked her on the cheek. "Thanks, sweetheart, but that's not all," she said, turning to address the others. "I can scan the handwriting and compare it with FBI and Interpol files. If the person is on file I can find them. Oh, and if I can find a fingerprint I can search for that as well."

"That's great, Will," said Buffy, smiling with relief.

"Well, you don't call me the Net Girl for nothing. C'mon, Tara, let's get to work."

They took the package and left. Buffy turned again to Giles.

"If Will gets a name, what then?"

"We need a photograph, an image to focus the spell on. I'm sure Willow will be able to find something suitable when she gets the name."

"Yeah, I say, yay for Will!" Xander interjected.

"Xander," Anya remonstrated. "I helped too."

"Not a whole awful lot, pumpkin."

"Oh, I see. No orgasms for you tonight!" she hit back, quickly rising to leave. He scrambled to follow her.

"Honeybunch, I didn't mean..."

She slammed the door in his face as she stormed out. He turned to look sheepishly at the others.

"Women, eh?"

Giles, Buffy and Faith just raised their eyebrows at him.

"Yeah, well, catch you later," he said and dashed out to find Anya, in the hope that a bit of shameless grovelling would change her mind.

"Well, B. I think our friends have got things well in hand. Let's leave Giles to his books, eh?"

"Are you sure?"

"Hey, B. I'm only going to die in ten days time, it's not the end of the world."

"It is to me."

"Well, it's not happened yet. Let's go Slaying. I need to work off a bit of steam."

Later that night

"Come on you gutless cowards! Call yourself vampires! Come on!" Faith screamed in anger.

She threw herself at the pack of vampires with a reckless energy that caused most of them to turn and run. The luckless few who were unable to escape were beaten mercilessly. The smell of blood and crack of bones only seemed to further enrage Faith, as she dusted vamp after vamp with undimmed ferocity.

"You done now?" Buffy asked as the last vamp exploded into nothing.

"Hell, no!" Faith turned to face Buffy and her anger fell away. "Sorry, B. It's just that I feel so damn helpless."

"I know. Me too. Come here," she said, pulling Faith in for a kiss and a cuddle. "Look, we've both cheated death before. We can do it again."

"You promise?" asked a tearful Faith.

"I promise," Buffy replied, hoping that what she had just said was true.

PART 4

"Room for one more?" enquired an artificially upbeat blonde as she entered the shower cabinet to kiss her girlfriend good morning.

"Always room for you, B," Faith replied automatically with a smile that didn't quite reach her eyes. Buffy went to check Faith's shoulder in the faint hope that the tattoo had gone.

"Still there?" Faith asked.

"Still there," Buffy confirmed. She hugged Faith close. "No matter, Will will have good news soon, I'm sure," she said brightly.

"Yeah, B, I'm sure too," Faith replied in a dull monotone that said the complete opposite to her words.

Willow and Tara called at the house soon afterwards. They looked tired and their expressions did not betoken success. Everyone sat down around the breakfast table in gloomy silence. Tara surreptitiously reached under the table to take Faith's hand as she flashed a tiny smile of comfort at her. Faith smiled back.

"Well?" Buffy asked Willow.

"There were no fingerprints on the box, wreath, or card. The handwriting match is negative, though there is a lot left to check. The package originated from London, England. But the name and address given were false, and as it was a cash transaction the trail ends there."

"London," Faith interjected angrily. "The Watcher's Council. Those bastards! They couldn't get me back so now they want me dead!"

She jerked up from the table and stormed down to the basement to beat the living daylights out of the punch bag. Buffy shrugged. Tara looked very worried. Willow grimaced.

"I think she might be right," she said. "The Council have the knowledge and Faith has never been their favourite Slayer. And who knows, it could be you next, Buffy."

Later that day, at Giles' apartment

"I suppose it could be," Giles conceded as he polished his spectacles.

"No 'suppose' about it," said Faith. "I kicked their ass and they're out for revenge. Simple."

"Travers! Quentin Travers. It'll be him."

"Really, Buffy, I don't think..."

"But I do! He nearly killed me and Mom in that damn test of his."

Giles cringed at the part he played in that debacle then spoke. "All right. We do the spell. If it is Travers the curse will be returned to him and the marker will disappear from Faith's shoulder, thus proving the spell worked."

"And if it doesn't?" asked Faith.

"Then it isn't him. We can do that for the whole Council, and if it still doesn't work at least we'll know who it is not."

"Okay, G-man, let's do it. Time's a wastin'," said Faith eagerly.

It took all day. It wasn't Travers or any other member of the Council. The marker remained stubbornly attached to Faith.

As day followed night various other suspects were tried and eliminated. The trail got colder and colder. As if in response Faith began to shiver more and more. Not that she was cold, the tremors were caused by sudden irrational fear.

"It's the curse," Giles explained. "It will get progressively worse."

"And then I'm dead," Faith finished for him.

Late one afternoon the doorbell rang. Faith answered it. It was Tara.

"Hi, where's Red?" she asked as she ushered Tara inside the house.

"She's busy. Is Buffy in?" Tara asked, knowing full well she was not, having just watched her leave.

"No."

"Good."

"Why's that?" asked Faith as she joined Tara on the sofa.

"This is just between you and me."

"What is?"

"My saving your life."

"Huh?! I thought there was nothing you could do?"

"There is, but it's risky, that's why it must be kept secret. Willow and Buffy would never agree."

"Agree to what?"

"I've found a spell. It'll protect you. When the curse strikes it will rebound back to the sender automatically."

"This is great!" Faith whooped, suddenly grabbing Tara to give her a big kiss. "So what's the problem?" she asked the blushing blonde.

"It's not certain to work. The curse may still kill you, or it might rebound and kill me instead of the sender."

"What are the odds on success?"

"One in four."

Faith frowned. "And you're still willing to do it?"

"Yes," Tara replied without hesitation.

"Tara, I... I don't know what to say. Except, why?"

"Because you are my friend," Tara said with a shy smile.

"Yes, but..."

"You'd do this for me, wouldn't you?"

"Yes, but it's my job to risk my life for others, not yours. And what if..."

Tara gave Faith the most beautiful smile she had ever seen. "Tell Willow I'll love her always," she said simply.

Faith burst into tears. "No, Tara, I can't let you do it," she sobbed. "The risk is too great. I can't let you die in my place. Face facts, Tara, I'm finished."

PART 5

The tenth day dawned bright and clear. But not for Buffy and Faith. By now, terrified of her own shadow, Faith had to exert every ounce of self-control she possessed to retain her sanity. She could feel a thing of nameless dread drawing closer and closer as the day progressed, but there was nothing she could do to stop it.

The Scoobies called round and did their best to comfort them both, but there was nothing they could do, so Buffy sent them home. She would face the end with Faith alone.

Faith looked at Buffy, whose relentless cheeriness belied her underlying distress, and forced a smile and a quip.

"What did I always say, B? Live fast. Love hard. Die young. Just the last one to do and I've got the set."

Buffy's tortured response nearly broke her heart. "Never say die, Faith."

Seven am, London time. The dapper man listened to the clock on the mantel chime out the hour. He reached for the snowglobe of Sunnydale and examined the tawdry souvenir he had bought there. In his mind's eye he could see Faith struggling against the inevitable.

"Such a pity," he said to himself. "Still your friends did their best. They used the return spell, as I knew they would. Which is why I used a counter-spell to prevent it working." He looked back at the clock. "Only fifty-five minutes to go. Goodbye, Faith," he said, then shook the snowglobe vigorously.

Faith screamed in sheer panic. "Aaaggghhh!!! It's coming!!!"

Buffy rushed back into the room she had just left.

"Faith, what's going on?"

Faith couldn't answer. Gripped by a terror she could no longer control, she punched Buffy with tremendous force, propelling her through a partition wall and knocking her out cold. She then ran, screaming incoherently, into the streets of Sunnydale.

Half an hour later Buffy came to. She phoned Giles. Ten minutes more and he pulled up outside her home.

"Are you all right?" he asked anxiously.

"I'm okay, just a sore head. We've got to find Faith. She's only got," she looked at her watch, "fifteen minutes left!"

"Any idea where she might be?"

"Not a one. Just drive," Buffy commanded.

The church clock had just begun to chime when they caught sight of Faith running full pelt down the middle of the road. The hour bell rang out and Faith fell to the ground like a puppet whose strings had just been cut. Giles brought the car to a screeching halt as Buffy leapt from the vehicle and ran to her beloved.

"Oh, Faith, no," she moaned and dropped to her knees next to the body.

Faith's torn tee-shirt exposed her shoulder and to Buffy's amazement she saw the curse marker fade away. It was only then that she realised that Faith was still breathing.

"Giles, she's alive!" Buffy cried out to her Watcher.

He made a quick examination. Apart from extensive grazes, cuts and bruises, Faith seemed okay. They took her back to the car, drove home, and put her to bed.

"Thanks, Giles," said Buffy.

"For what? I've done nothing," he replied.

"Well, thanks for nothing then," she insisted. "Will she be all right?"

"I think so. I think she's just exhausted. We all are," he said with a slight smile.

"Yeah. I think I could sleep for a week. Tell the others will you."

"Yes, of course. Good night, Buffy."

"Good morning, Faith."

Faith yawned and stretched as she opened her eyes and blinked uncomprehendingly at Buffy.

"Hey, B. Shouldn't I be dead?"

Buffy simply grinned and Faith responded likewise until a thought hit her.

"Tara!" she called out in alarm.

A familiar dark-blonde head poked around the bedroom door. Tara beamed at Faith and said, "You called?"

"You okay?" Faith asked.

"I'm fine," Tara replied. "How are you?"

"Five by five." Faith winked at Tara then said, "Thanks."

Buffy watched this exchange with puzzlement. "Something you want to tell me?" she asked.

Tara shook her head.

"No, B," said Faith. "I'm alive, let's leave it at that."

"All right - for now," Buffy agreed reluctantly. "Okay, you lot, you can come in now," she said to the waiting Scoobies outside.

Some days later Giles noticed a small news item in his Daily Telegraph about a sudden death. A Mr Quentin Travers had been discovered to have died of a heart attack in his own home. There were no suspicious circumstances. But the attending paramedic had noted his unusual expression of surprise, almost as if he couldn't believe he was dying.

"No, I don't suppose he would," said Giles dryly and put the paper down.

...continued in True to Us...

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