Heart of Darkness
by Anne
Rating: NC-17

Disclaimer: Joss, Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, Mutant Enemy, Inc., Greenwolf Corp, Kazui Enterprises, and Sandollar Television own the characters. i.e. everyone except me, so don't bother suing!
Spoilers: General BtVS and AtS. (Though Season Six hadn't started out when I began this, some things that have happened may be considered spoilery.)
Author's Notes: This is the second part of the series which began with 'Darker Than Night'. This won't make much sense if you haven't read it. Thanks to Phil for being my beta once again.
Feedback: Please! Thank you for all the people who gave me feedback for Part One, let me know how you think it is continuing!

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PART ONE - TWO WEEKS

Cordy gritted her teeth, unable to concentrate on what she was reading. Finally, she exploded. "Faith! For God's sake, stop pacing will you? It's driving me nuts."

"Sorry," mumbled Faith, before turning on her heel and walking back in the same line.

"Ok. Sit down. We're going to talk about this. Before I have to kill you."

"Talk about what?"

"What's bothering you. Or, to be more precise, who. Buffy."

"Why would I want to talk about Buffy, huh?" Faith shrugged.

"Why? Because you are giving Angel, King Of Broodiness in his hey-day, a run for his money that's why. I'll never get it. What's so special about Buffy that she leaves bleeding hearts wherever she goes?"

"Cordy. My heart's not bleeding anywhere. I guess...I guess I just miss having her around, that's all."

"I don't know why. She was being a real bitch to you the last day she was here." Cordelia watched the hurt flit across Faith's face at the memory, and instantly regretted it. She sighed and closed the magazine she had been trying to read. "I'm sorry. I know you don't want to talk about it. But since she's been gone, which lets be honest, is all of two weeks, you seem to be returning to Old Faith."

"Old Faith? What the hell's that supposed to mean?" Faith demanded with a glare.

"That kind of 'tude for a start. Not talking to people. Locking yourself in your room," she paused while Faith reached into her jacket and pulled out a box of Marlboros. "And those. Jesus Faith, you must be on about 60 a day."

"So," muttered Faith sulkily, deciding to light one up just to piss Cordelia off, if nothing else.

"Look," Cordelia stood up and placed her hand gently on Faith's shoulder, the other one wafting away a stray wisp of smoke floating towards her face. "You can talk to me. We've talked about this before."

"It's nothing C. Really. It's just, well, I thought she was changing her mind about me yunno? I thought she was going to start seeing me properly again, the real me I mean, not the me from all those years ago. And then bang! She closes up again. What did I do wrong Cordy, coz I sure as hell don't know. But I must have done something to make her stop speaking to me." Faith knew there was a thin sheen of tears covering her eyes, and she silently willed them not to fall.

"Hey," Cordelia gently but firmly pulled the other woman into a hug, holding her there until Faith finally rested her head on her shoulder. "You didn't do anything wrong Faith. Really, I'm not just saying that. I saw the change too, but I don't think it was because of anything you said or did."

"Oh, yeah?" sniffed Faith, pulling away. "Then what happened?"

"You want my honest opinion?"

"No, but I guess you're going to give it to me anyway."

"Damn straight!" Cordelia was pleased to see Faith almost smile. "From what I know of Buffy Summers - I've known her from way back when remember - is she cut you off because she got scared."

"Scared? Of me?"

"Yes. No. Kinda. She saw that you had changed Faith. She had to see it over and over again, up close and personal. She realised that she could forgive you. Or rather, that she should forgive you. But she's a stubborn as hell, and she doesn't like to back down or ever admit she's wrong. You know that as well as I do. So she couldn't deal. She cut you out and ran back to Sunnydale."

"Lorne told me that I was going to see her again. That her destiny was tied up with mine or something." She hadn't told anyone about this, hadn't wanted them to get her hopes up or say that it was just a Slayer thing. She desperately wanted it to mean something more. She wanted Buffy to be her friend. The friend that she could have had all these years if she hadn't fucked up so badly as a kid.

"Then trust what he says. I've never known him be wrong about this yet. Have a little faith, erm Faith." Cordelia smiled what she hoped was a reassuring smile. There was an awkward pause. Cordelia knew that she had said her piece, and very much doubted that Faith wanted to continue the conversation any further. She was right. Faith promptly changed the subject.

"So, how are things between you and Anne?"

"Oh, um...nice."

"Nice! Not great or fantastic? Just nice?"

"Of course it's more than just nice. It's still all so new, you know?" Cordelia sighed and went back over to her desk. "It's been a long time since I've been in a relationship. I think I'm still adjusting to having someone sharing my life with me."

"Sharing your life? So it's serious then?"

"I think so. I really enjoy being with her. Whenever we're together I find myself just wanting to touch her." She glanced up to see Faith's raised eyebrows and dirty grin staring back at her. "Not in that way, miss one track mind. I mean, I want to be holding hands with her, or cuddling up to her. Not that the other, um, sort of touching isn't on my mind as well though," she acknowledged.

"Well, I'll tell you this for free. Anne is happier than I've seen her in a long time. I don't think she's stopped smiling all week. You two are good for each other."

"You really think so?"

"I know so."

*****

Cordelia was actually contemplating tidying the office. A rarity bought on only by the intense boredom of a quiet period in the unnatural world. Faith had headed off to the shelter after their conversation, more to be on her own than to actually work, Cordelia suspected. The sight of Angel bounding his way down the steps made her breathe a sigh of relief.

"Cordelia, what day is it?"

"Thursday."

"No. No! I mean the date?"

"Why, what's up now?" For once she was actually pleased by the idea. Near death was definitely the winner compared to spring-cleaning.

"I think we're in for a bad week. If memory serves me, it's mating season for the Gryuishaik demon."

"The Gryiu -who?"

"Gryuishaik. Its mating comes around only one week in every seventy-three years."

"Erm, Angel, I know your sex life isn't that great at the moment, but are you thinking about, you know, with one of those?"

"No!"

"Didn't think so," amended Cordelia hastily. "Just checking. So why the big hoo-har?"

"The Gryuishaik take a vessel, usually a human, and after mating, the female lays its egg in the intestines of the vessel. The egg latches on and feeds off the dying corpse. It's not a pretty sight."

"Preaching to the converted here. Walking womb for the demon populace, remember?"

"Oh yeah. Anyway, I'm pretty certain that I've seen some over at Karitos over the past few years. They're pretty harmless the rest of the time, but it makes me think that there are several here in LA that will be getting horny right now. And not just in the facial features."

"What do you suggest?"

"Get Wes and Gunn in. We need to find out as much as possible about them, ways to kill them, if it is even mating season, where they're most likely to go to do it. I'll go out on patrol with Faith later, see if there is anything out there that knows something."

"You got it."

*****

Faith walked into the office and perched on the desk. Anne looked up from the mountain of bills and smiled. "You're in early."

"Couldn't keep away from you," Faith shrugged easily. "Actually, I was talking to Cordy earlier..." she let her voice trail off with a sly smile.

"Oh?" Anne willed herself not to rise to the bait. She looked up to see Faith smirking. "Ok, I give. Tell me."

"No, I mean, if you don't want to know what she was saying about you, then I understand."

"Quit teasing and tell me already."

"Relax a little. She was just saying that she was happy with you, that's all. About being in a relationship again. I think she's still getting used to the idea," Faith laughed.

"So am I. It's not like, well, not like the way you and I were."

"That's a good thing isn't it, what with the whole 'us not being together' thing? Or are you just talking beneath the sheets?" Faith grinned.

"It always comes down to sex with you, doesn't it? Besides, we were just about lust weren't we? Friends who had sex with each other, nothing more than purely physical. You never wanted a relationship with me."

"I guess."

"You guess?"

"There was no chance of us having a 'real' relationship anyway. You knew that at the time. Not with what I do. Not when I could have died any day."

"I could have died as well you know. It's not like my life is exactly demon free either."

"You know it wasn't as simple as that Anne."

"Your heart was always somewhere else," Anne sighed. "Now I get to have the holding hands part of the relationship. Even though Cordy does the same things that you do. It feels like I'm getting the whole package, rather than skipping straight to the sex on the desk bit."

"It was what we both needed at the time. And you gotta admit, the sex was fantastic," Faith glanced down at the desk she was perched on, and look back to see Anne staring at her. "Wasn't it?"

"It was more intense."

"Is that a problem?"

"No. I mean, it's there with her as well, just not in the same way. It's different. It's not the only factor now."

"It was never the only factor with us. You know that I love you. Just as a friend, that's all. But there was emotion there Anne, I promise. Don't make it sound like you were just a cheap fuck to me."

"I'm not! That's not what I mean at all. I enjoyed it. Every minute of it, and you know that. But I think we needed more. Both of us deserve more than what we had, all the bits that fit around the bedroom."

"Do you have a problem with the fact that we needed each other?"

"No!"

"Because I wanted you for who you were! I wanted you, wanted to touch you, feel you..." Faith's voice trailed off, wondering just when this had become about the two of them, rather than the Anne and Cordy.

"Don't go there Faith," she said pleadingly, her voice quiet and hollow.

*****

When the telephone rang, Cordelia absent-mindedly reached over to pick up the receiver, focussing her attention more of the rather gruesome picture in one of Angel's ancient tomes that was open in front of her. "Angel Investigations."

"Hey Cordelia. It's Buffy."

"Oh!" Suddenly the picture lost all appeal. "Is everything ok?"

"Yeah, really there's no problem," Buffy's voice quickly reassured her. "I was just checking to make sure you were all ok."

"Don't worry Buffy, we always somehow manage to survive without you," Cordy couldn't keep the acid out of her voice.

"What's got up your ass Queen C?" Suddenly, out of the blue, they both seemed to be sixteen again.

"Not what, who. And, in case you're too dim to figure it out, the who is you."

"What did I do to you?"

"Not to me Buffy. To Faith. You remember her don't you? Because when you left you seemed to be doing whatever you could to forget."

"Whatever!"

"Don't whatever me! I practically invented whatever. You come here, you ignore her, then you're all 'oh lets go on patrol Faith' and 'We're a team Faith' and then you can't even look her in the eyes when you leave. Jeez, you only said goodbye to her because everyone was watching you."

"That's not-"

"Get. Over. It. Sure, so you've both tried to kill each other a couple of times, but hey, who hasn't in this fucked up little world that we live in? Either give her a chance or stay out of her life. Just don't start screwing with her head on some fucked up little Buffy power trip." Cordelia had slammed the phone down without even thinking about it. She was shaking a little, but damn did she feel good. Well, she reasoned, everyone always told Buffy what she wanted to hear so she wouldn't go into one of her pre-pubescent sulks. Not any more. And certainly not when it came down to Faith.

*****

Faith broke into a sprint and launched herself through the air, using a tombstone to give her a little extra height. She felt herself connecting with the back of the fleeing vamp and the resounding thud as they both hit the ground, falling into a roll until they finally separated, both springing up into a fighting stance facing the other.

"And I thought it was going to be a quiet night. Like the pants though," Faith quipped, nodding at the black leather.

"I thought you might."

"Oh yeah? And how the hell do you know what I do and don't like huh?"

"You're Faith, the Vampire Slayer."

"Score one for the vamp. Now can we get to the killing?"

"No, not yet." The vampire's voice was quiet and yet commanding as she pulled herself out of the stance, and let her arms hang loose by her side. She looked totally defenceless and unprepared, but Faith suspected that she was still as ready to pounce as she had been before.

"Since when do you get to call the shots?" Faith snapped, but made no move to attack.

"Let's walk for a while."

"What, so you can lead me to your nest and get me to fight with your groupies? I don't think so."

"Trust me, I live alone. I work alone."

"Work? Is that what ripping pretty girls' throats out is called now!"

"How do you know I don't rip pretty boys' throats out?" the vampire smiled.

"The pants." Faith shrugged, and then smirked when the vampire threw her head back and laughed.

"I knew I'd like you. Come, let's walk. There's a crypt over there with a nice view of the city." The vampire turned her back to Faith and began to walk away. Faith knew that this was the perfect time to plunge her stake in.

Instead, she followed, falling in step with her opponent.

After a few minutes, the vampire finally spoke. "Faith. I have heard many stories about you. Everyone always likes to talk when they've met a Slayer and lived. There is the other one, Buffy, but the stories I hear about you seem more interesting."

"Look, if this is about you trying to convert me back to the bad girl routine, it ain't gonna work. That one became tired a long time ago."

"You misunderstand me Faith. I have no intention of making you do anything that you don't want to do."

"Like you could!" Faith snorted.

"You haven't killed me yet, have you?" The vampire smiled. "So it must be at least partly obvious that I have some power over you."

"I'm just enjoying the foreplay." Faith shrugged, determined not to let the vampire know that she was right.

"If you wish to believe that, then do so. But you're not going to kill me now, just as I am not going to kill you. When the time comes, let's just say 'let the best woman win'. Is that a deal?" She extended her hand for Faith to shake, which Faith found herself reluctantly doing. There was some seriously weird mojo going on, and Faith didn't like it one bit.

"Who are you?"

"You can call me Kira. It is the name that I have been using for many years now. I am older even than your Angel."

"How come nobody's staked you yet?"

"Let's just say it wasn't meant to happen. Some of us have a purpose, just like you, Slayer."

"A purpose?"

"I have been waiting many years for you. I have watched many Slayers, quietly, from a distance. I've had to kill one before, but it was not my intention to do so. Some things happen beyond even me," she laughed.

"You won't kill me," Faith replied, with a quiet conviction that she didn't really feel.

"We'll see. I must go now." The vampire suddenly stopped and turned to face Faith. "It was nice to have met you at last."

"So that's it?"

"For now." She leant forward, bending down to run half-extended fangs over the throbbing vein in Faith's neck, sucking at the skin gently as she pulled away, while Faith stood helplessly. She smiled and turned away, walking slowly out of the cemetery. When she disappeared from view, Faith realised she was shaking, and sat down suddenly on the grass as her legs began to buckle.

*****

"Where is she?" demanded Angel, as if Cordelia ought to know Faith's movements at all times. "She said she was going out for a quick patrol."

"Angel," Wesley called to him in a soothing voice. "You know Faith, she'll stay there until the job is done. We still have plenty of time before-" he broke off suddenly as Faith burst through the door.

"Sorry guys, got a little distracted. We ready to make a move?"

"Faith!" Cordelia could spot a hickey at a thousand paces, a left-over skill from High School, and there was definitely one on Faith's neck. "Who have you been making out with?"

"Making out?"

"Your neck." Cordelia raised an eyebrow exaggeratedly.

"Oh, that. Well, um, you know, save a cute chick, she offers to thank you, yunno," Faith breezed with a bravado that she didn't feel. Inside, she felt branded, marked, and wondered if that was how Buffy felt about the scar on her neck from Angel. True, this one wasn't permanent, but it would be a reminder for a few days. She knew that she should tell them about her encounter with Kira, about how she had been rendered helpless by the vampire, but for some reason she couldn't. Part of it was shame, guilt, but she couldn't understand why she felt that way. "Now, are we going to kill this thing or what?"

"Let's go," nodded Angel grimly. He could smell fear, and that was something he hadn't smelled on Faith for a long time.

*****

"Yuck!" Cordelia attempted to extract the remains of Gryuishaik from her hair. "Have I ever mentioned that this jobs sucks?"

"Once or twice," Wesley commented dryly, dabbing at the blood which was trickling down his cheek. How his face didn't look like a pincushion by now, he didn't know. Angel had forgotten to mention how messy this demon was to kill. And the purple puss that spurted when you chopped of its head.

"Vampire Slayer is such a misleading job description," muttered Faith, wiping her hands down the front of her jeans. "I should sue somebody. If I'd known it was going to be like this, I never woulda signed up for the gig." The adrenalin was pumping through her once more. "Do you think Wolfram and Hart would handle the case for me?" she smiled at Angel.

"Sounds like it's their sort of thing. Let's go back to the hotel."

"I hope Fred has put some coffee on."

*****

"Hey guys," Fred bounded down the stairs when she heard them return. "How did it - urgh, what's that smell?"

"That," grimaced Cordelia, "would be the remains of Gryuishaik that means I can never wear these pants ever, ever again. I'm going to shower."

"Me too," agreed Faith, looking down at the patches of dark stain on her clothes. Thank God they hadn't been pulled over on the way back. This would have been a hard one for five adults who looked like they had spent the evening playing with kid's toy goo to explain. Especially as it seemed to be amusingly smeared over her crotch.

She followed Cordelia up the stairs and headed for her room. Cordelia walked down the corridor to the bathroom they kept prepared for things like this. In a bad month, she showered at the hotel more than she did at home. She even had a bar of her favourite soap in there, and her moisturiser. A nice hot shower was just what she needed.

Faith walked into her room and immediately stripped. Her clothes were starting to stick to her where they were damp with demon blood. She peeled them off and headed for the bathroom. As she was about to step into the shower, she caught her reflection in the mirror and stopped in her tracks. The mark on her neck was clearly visible, and the euphoria of the fight drained away suddenly, leaving her with the memory of her altercation with Kira at the front of her mind.

She stepped into the shower and turned the heat on high, letting it sear her skin. Part of her wanted to wash the vampire away, wanted to be able to walk out of the shower clean with it all gone.

But when she stepped out, smelling of coconut rather than demon ooze, the mark was even more visible as the heat brought the bruise further to the surface. She towelled her hair roughly, and threw on her robe. After a second thought, she draped the towel around her neck, pulling it close to her skin.

She was debating whether or not to go back downstairs to join the others, when the phone by her bed rang. She walked over to answer it, irritated by the thought that a problem at the shelter would mean she would have to go over there when she really didn't want to. Not tonight. "Hello?"

"Faith?"

"Yeah?" The voice on the other end of the line, was quiet, and sounded hesitant, but Faith could hear it loud and clear. The voice that she would know anywhere. The disembodied voice coming out of the receiver seemed to realise it to.

"Erm, Tara and I were talking, and, um, what are you doing for Thanksgiving?"

PART TWO - VISION OF YOU

(THIS TAKES PLACE IN THE SAME TIMELINE AS CHAPTER ONE, BUT WE CHANGE LOCATIONS TO SUNNYDALE.)

Buffy debated whether or not to ignore the shrill ring of the telephone next to her bed. It had been a heavy-duty patrol last night, and when she returned home, she couldn't sleep. It had nothing to do with the adrenaline rush, she was certain she had got that out of her system with a bottle of white wine and a family size tub of ice cream when she came in. But as she lay in bed afterwards, there had been something that had kept her tossing and turning. It was like a deep ache, some severe internal injury. At about five thirty am she had finally pinpointed the feeling. It was loneliness again. Certain that she had finally realised the cause of the problem, she drifted off into a restless sleep.

Now the phone was ringing, and the last thing she wanted to do was wake up. When it didn't ring off, she reached over towards the nightstand and fumbled around for the receiver. "Yullo?" she mumbled.

"Bad night?" Tara's voice laughed down the line.

"A little. Hey, what are you doing calling me at this time of day?"

"Surprise! I'm in Sunnydale!"

"What!?"

"Well, I couldn't let you spend Thanksgiving alone, could I?"

"Seriously?"

"Very much so. And I happen to know that a certain Dawn Summers will be arriving tomorrow with her boyfriend Danny to spend it with us."

"Oh God!" Buffy almost choked on her tears.

"So, are you coming to pick me up or what? I've been travelling for hours."

"I'm on my way." Buffy leapt out of bed. "Oh, and Tara? Thank you."

"No problem."

Buffy had planned to have a quiet Thanksgiving on her own again this year. After all, they had never really gone well for her, and she had no reason to believe that this one would be any different. Over the past few years, she had settled for a routine patrol and a TV dinner. Now Tara was going to be there, and Dawn, and she had no choice but to actively celebrate against her will. Nevertheless, she was excited by the thought of seeing them both again, and things might be like old times. Almost.

It didn't take long for her to spot Tara, suitcase in hand, and she leapt out of the car to greet her. It felt like years since she had seen her last, and immediately pulled her into a hug. "It's so good to see you again," Buffy murmured into the other woman's shoulder.

"And good to see you're still just as strong," gasped Tara. "No, make that stronger."

"Oh, sorry!" Buffy loosened her grip, and grinned. "You know I'll never get used to that. How was the flight?"

"Long and boring."

"Let's get you home." Buffy picked up the case easily and threw it into the trunk as Tara climbed into the passenger seat.

"So, how long have you and Dawn been planning this?" Buffy asked as they pulled out of the car lot.

"About a month. When you first headed off to LA, I spoke to Dawn and we both agreed that it would be good to spend some time with you soon. If you were back by Thanksgiving, we agreed to meet up with you here. Otherwise, we were thinking about joining you and Faith in LA."

She paused to see if Buffy made any comment to the Faith remark. When she didn't Tara continued. "But now I'm here, and we have so much catching up to do," she smiled.

*****

The cemetery was quiet, and Buffy finally decided that she would allow them to come to her. Perched on top of a headstone, she waited, checked her nails and decided they needed repainting, and was generally bored. She could have asked Tara, but she knew that it had been a long time since the other woman had been actively involved in the physical fight against evil. It seemed like too big a risk to take for the sake of a little company. Nevertheless, she hated it when it got this way, when there was no one to talk to on slow nights. She'd even put up with having Faith here, with her ridiculous sexually charged remarks.

Buffy groaned as she realised she wasn't even fooling herself any more. Being with Faith again had been good, and sometimes it had even felt right, no matter how much she knew that it shouldn't. And she knew she had been a complete ass when she left LA. Didn't want anyone to see that she had been wrong all this time, or that she cared. Caring about Faith got you nowhere but dead. But she knew, no matter how much she didn't want it to be the case, that no one close to Faith had died for a long, long time.

But she didn't want Faith to be in love with her. She wasn't stupid, she could always read those dark eyes, know when they were lying and when they were filled with desire. She didn't like Faith in that way, and she knew that Faith would always want more from her than she would be able to give. A noise from behind her broke her contemplation, and at that moment, she was relieved when the vampire sprang forward to provide relief from her thoughts.

*****

The house was still quiet when Buffy woke up the following morning, sore but smiling to herself at the thought that there was another human being in the house with her. She guessed that Tara was making the most of her incredibly minimal jet lag, and using it as a good excuse to claim a few extra hours in bed. So, while she waited, she decided waffles and morning cartoons would be the best idea.

As she shovelled the food mindlessly into her mouth, Buffy found her mind wondering off again, just as it had done the previous night in the cemetery. With her last mouthful of waffle, she kicked herself mentally for allowing these thoughts to keep coming back to her. So she had been a little unfair, so what? Life was unfair. And if she got lonely sometimes, well, that was just the life of a Slayer.

So she didn't know just why she picked up the phone and called the Hyperion. As it rang out, she told herself that she was just checking up to make sure that there were no demon problems left over that had surfaced after she left. Certainly not because she was missing them and their company. And not a specific person's company at all.

"Angel Investigations." Cordelia's voice seemed distant, and Buffy knew that she was probably in the middle of something much more important. Like a fashion crisis.

"Hey Cordelia. It's Buffy." She tried to put as much pep in her tone as possible, suddenly realising this might have been a bad thing to do after all. She remembered how Cordy had glowered at her when she had given Faith the brush off.

"Oh! Is everything ok?"

"Yeah, really there's no problem," Buffy quickly reassured her. It was obvious that Cordelia was referring to something hell-like, rather than her general state of well-being. "I was just checking to make sure you were all ok."

"Don't worry Buffy, we always somehow manage to survive without you." The voice was sharp and she found herself wince. And then just get pissed.

"What's got up your ass Queen C?" God, sometimes it seemed like Cordelia was still in High School, she thought.

"Not what, who. And, in case you're too dim to figure it out, the who is you."

"What did I do to you?" Buffy knew this was nothing to do with the two of them, but there was no way she was going to get drawn into a discussion about Faith. Not with Cordy of all people.

"Not to me Buffy. To Faith. You remember her don't you? Because when you left you seemed to be doing whatever you could to forget."

Cordelia, apparently, had no such qualms about mentioning the off-topic.

"Whatever!" Oh God, thought Buffy, did I actually just say that?

"Don't whatever me! I practically invented whatever. You come here, you ignore her, then you're all 'oh lets go on patrol Faith' and 'we're a team Faith' and then you can't even look her in the eyes when you leave. Jeez, you only said goodbye to her because everyone was watching you."

"That's not-"

"Get. Over. It. Sure, so you've both tried to kill each other a couple of times, but hey, who hasn't in this fucked up little world that we live in? Either give her a chance or stay out of her life. Just don't start screwing with her head on some fucked up little Buffy power trip." Buffy listened to the sound of nothing as the line went dead. Cordelia had actually had the nerve to have a go at her and then hang up. What right did she have to do that? It was only as the truth of what Cordelia said began to sink in, Buffy realised. She had every right. She sat down on the couch and hung her head in her hands. This was the last thing in the world that was going to get Faith out of her mind.

*****

"Dawn!" Buffy opened the door to find her younger sister on the other side, two hours early, and they stared at each other awkwardly for a few moments. Buffy had let so much pass between them over the past few years, despite Dawn's pubescent crying out for attention and her subsequent growth into a strong, independent young woman. Now, they stood opposite each other, with the blood-feeling between them still so strong, but looking at each other almost as if they were strangers. As Dawn walked into the house, they hugged each other awkwardly, and then stepped apart. "Hi Danny." Buffy looked over at the man standing next to her sister and smiled. They had only met a few times since he began dating Dawn, but he seemed nice enough. He didn't give off any wiggy vibes, so that was good enough for her.

Dawn looked over Buffy's shoulder and saw Tara standing in the doorway of the lounge, smiling broadly. "Tara!"

"Hey baby," Tara grinned as she pulled Dawn into a tight embrace. The ease with which they treated each other was not lost on Buffy, and out of the corner of her eye, Tara saw a pained expression flit across her face. She withdrew from Dawn's arms.

It had never been any secret how close the two of them were. Tara had been the first to treat Dawn like a fifteen rather than a ten year old, and the friendship had deepened, through the good times and the bad, to a solid caring relationship. In many ways, Dawn felt closer to Tara than she did to her own sister, and that hadn't changed when Tara had moved to the other side of the country. She still talked to her more regularly to her than she did to Buffy.

So when Tara had called her a month ago and suggested that they both spent thanksgiving with Buffy, she had said yes straight away, and then had no qualms about asking just why. Tara had been suitably vague about the events in Buffy's personal life, but suggested that they should have some time together to get to know each other better again. Dawn had agreed that it seemed like a good idea, but was dubious about whether or not Buffy would remain as emotionally impenetrable as she had become over the past years. She had tried so many times to get through to her sister, and eventually had just given up. As much as she wished things could be different, she suspected that a few days together would do little to change the relationship they had with each other. But she trusted in Tara's judgement, and was prepared to give it a shot. Besides, she knew that if Tara was going to be there, then she would be a guaranteed a good time regardless.

*****

"I'll get it!" yelled Buffy as she bounded down the stairs, ready with her standard lines designed to get rid of people trying to sell her things. Instead, she opened the door to a grinning Xander, arms loaded with snacks. Anya, more practically, was holding a couple of bottles of wine. "Hey Buff, wanna let me in before I drop snacky goodness all over your porch?"

"Xander! What are you doing here? With food packages?"

"What? You expect me to stay away when my two favourite people are in town?"

"How did you -?" Suddenly it dawned on Buffy. "So you were in on this as well?"

"Tara called and told me that she was going to be here for the holidays, that the Dawnster was going to be here as well, and we just couldn't let you have them all to yourself, could we?"

"Xander!" Dawn's voice drifter over Buffy's shoulder. "Come in. And you want to know something weird? I didn't even mind you calling me the Dawnster then."

"That's coz you're all grown up now." Xander walked past Buffy and into the kitchen, dropping the armfuls of chips onto the counter. "And you want to be young again." He swept her into a big hug, seemingly having no problems regressing to his High School days.

"Hell yeah. Being an angst-ridden teenager was so much better than working and paying bills. Though," she dropped her voice to a whisper, "the near-death experiences are less now, which is good."

"Danny still not know about the whole supernatural thing?"

"Nope." Dawn glanced back over her shoulder. "I meant to tell him before we got here, but the time never seemed right. Not if I didn't want him to use his powers as an MD to section me. But, Thanksgiving in the Summers' house - what are the chances of something evil *not* turning up."

"Um, slim to none?"

"Exactly."

"Danny!" Xander said suddenly, letting go of Dawn. "Good to see you again." He extended his hand and the other man shook it firmly. "I would give you a hug as well, but I try to save those for the pretty ladies. I'm sure you understand."

"I'll try not to take it personally. Good to see you again Xander. Anya, how you doing?"

"And somebody notices me at last. I was certain that with the copious amounts of alcohol I was carrying that it would happen sooner." She looked pointedly at Dawn who just her rolled her eyes.

"Sorry. Hey Anya."

"That's better. Now, where's the corkscrew?" She looked pointedly at Buffy, who pulled one out of the kitchen drawer and began to open the bottles, while the others walked into the lounge.

By the time she walked in with the glasses, the others were already fighting about what exactly constituted a Thanksgiving dinner, and almost turned around and walked straight out again. Just preparing the meal was stressful, without even thinking about whatever the Hellmouth was going to throw at her as a holiday surprise. She was relieved when Tara interrupted the conversation in the middle of a Xander potato rant.

"I'll be cooking the dinner. And if you don't like the way I do it, I can always do a spel-oomph," she yelped in surprise as Dawn kicked her and then stared pointedly at Danny. "Spaghetti dish?" she finished lamely. "So, Anya, how's the getting pregnant working out for you?" she asked a little too brightly.

"Subtle," whispered Dawn.

*****

"I mean, with you and Willow, how did you know?" Buffy asked Tara as she refilled their glasses. Xander and Anya had left, promising to provide the drinks to go with the Thanksgiving dinner, and Dawn seemed to need no excuse in taking Danny off to bed. So the two of them lay sprawled on the couch finishing off the last of the wine. Which at some point had included opening another bottle.

"Know what?"

"That you wanted to get together. That you both felt the same way about each other?"

"I think it was a little different for Willow. I mean, she had been dating Oz, she liked the boys. Me? Did you see the clothes I was wearing back then? Can you say lesbian hippy Wicca?" Tara laughed. "I liked her straight away, in *that* way. For her, she told me that she felt a connection that was different to anything she'd felt before. I remember that it made me feel special when she said that. It was something that was just meant to be. In that space and time, we were meant to be together. I thought we'd always be together." Tara sighed, and gripped her glass tighter. "But this isn't about me and her, so...talk."

"Talk?"

"Ok, I'll make it easy for you. Are you telling me that you think you've made that connection with someone? And my whole 'bringing Willow out of the closet' story has some special significance?"

"Kinda."

"That would be a yes. And considering your most recent working vacation, I would go out on a limb and say that it isn't Cordelia. Which narrows it down to..." she trailed off, hoping that Buffy would continue the sentence. Buffy looked at her and rolled her eyes.

"Faith."

"Surprise, surprise!" Tara took the edge of her sarcasm with a broad smile.

"Stop it! Besides, it's not like you and Will at all. It's the connection, it's still there, but it's...not like I want to...you know...with her."

"Why do you have a problem with saying the word sex all of a sudden?" laughed Tara.

"You're really going to make this hell for me aren't you?" Buffy's voice rose an octave or two.

"Ok, no more teasing. We'll talk about it properly. But that means you actually have to tell me things. I'm not psychic."

"Um...actually Tar, you are."

"Yeah, well, I'm not using it ok."

"Ok," laughed Buffy. "Well, you know the background, I hate Faith, tried to kill her blah, blah, blah. When I called you in LA I told you things were hard. There's something about her, that connection. We had it so strong when we first met. It wasn't a crush really, just this amazing attraction to her. Spiritually, I mean. She was nothing like me at all, and wasn't ashamed about the fact, like I normally would have been. I guess if we'd both met when we were a little older, then it we could have both worked through everything better. Back then, she would give me all these lines like she was trying to come onto me or something, part joking, but part something else. Something real. Like if I had really agreed, she would have jumped me then and there. Ok, back then it was mainly lust. But Tara, when I was in LA, I caught her looking at me like that a couple of times, not so much the lust part though. It was more, I don't know, with longing or something. Like she still wanted me like that. And it freaked me out."

"Because you felt the same way?"

"No! Well, sort of yes, but I didn't want to. I still don't want to."

"You can't help it if you feel it. Remember what I said, sometimes, we are just meant to be. If that's what's supposed to happen, then I guess it will happen, even if you try and fight it."

"But look at Angel. We were meant to be. In that time and that place and supposedly forever. Then forever turned out to really mean one dance between the sheets. What if this is the same kind of meant to be, where something happens and then she tries to kill me and the people I love again?"

"She isn't cursed, Buffy."

"No, just prone to sudden bursts of murderous behaviour."

"Was prone. No longer." Tara amended.

"Angel wasn't 'prone' for several decades before I showed up, and then I managed to rid him of his tormented soul."

"Maybe it won't get that far. For someone who has no interest in the 'relationship' part of the connection that's there, you seem to be skipping forward to it pretty easily." Tara put her hands up in a peace gesture when Buffy opened her mouth to retaliate. "What I'm saying is, maybe you should just try to work on the friendship aspect of things. Then decide, once you've finally accepted her for who she is now, and not who she was then, or even who she is in your worst fears."

"Very good in theory, oh wise one, but how do I do that? She's in LA and I'm in Sunnydale, and I shouldn't even be still thinking about this."

"Invite her to Thanksgiving with the rest of us." Tara tried to hide the sly comment behind taking another sip out of her glass.

"What!" Buffy looked at her as if she had gone crazy.

"How hard can it be. Get her here, we'll have a good time, see how it goes. You have nothing to lose by doing that at least."

"Until her and Xander start going for each other's throats."

"You don't know it will get to that."

"There's a good chance and...and what if she says no?"

"She might not."

"But if she blows me off I'll feel like a real idiot."

"You're not asking her out on your first High School date! If she says no, then there could be so many reasons why she can't make it. Including the fact that you might want her here so you can spend the time putting her in her place for a few days."

"I wouldn't do that." Buffy seemed genuinely indignant.

"Listen to yourself Buffy! You've been spending the past ten years doing just that. You've had plenty of chances, and maybe this time she won't give you another. I'm just saying that as your friend Buffy, but it is the truth."

"I know," sighed Buffy.

"Well, find out." Tara gestured to the telephone.

"What? Now?" Buffy panicked. "It's the middle of the night!"

"Yes now, or you'll never do it. Call her. She's probably getting in from patrol right about now anyway. Do it!" she ordered, pointing in the vague direction of the phone.

"Ok." Buffy marched over to the other side of the room, and then promptly turned around and walked straight back. "Maybe I should just ask the others first, you know, make sure that it's ok with them."

"Do. It. Now." Tara said through gritted teeth.

Buffy realised that her palms were sweaty for no apparent reason, and she wiped them on the front of her jeans. Taking a deep breath, she picked up the receiver and called the number of the Hyperion, making sure she tagged Faith's personal extension on the end. There was no way she was going through Cordelia to do this, not after their previous conversation. She wondered absent-mindedly just when she had memorised Faith's extension, but couldn't recall any specific time when she had seen it. Her thoughts were promptly cut off by the phone being answered at the other end.

"Hello?" Faith sounded pissed off when she answered, and Buffy wondered for the thousandth time whether or not this was such a good idea.

"Faith?" Her voice hitched a little, and seemed to be unable to go higher than a whisper. Her stomach was churning now, the fear of not knowing, and of having to do something that she had told herself she would never do.

"Yeah?" Faith spoke with a quiet calm, not acknowledging who was calling her, but Buffy guessed that she would know it was her. Just like the fact that in a crowd of a million people, she would have been able to pick out Faith's sound instantly.

"Erm, Tara and I were talking, and, um," she stuttered slightly mid-sentence, and looked over to Tara for some reassurance. Tara smiled and nodded in encouragement. Buffy nodded back and took a deep breath. "What are you doing for Thanksgiving?"

"Huh?" The surprise was evident in Faith's tone.

"Would you like to? I mean you don't have to, if you've got other plans or things to kill, demons I mean, or maybe you already have a date, not that I was asking you to be my date or anything -" Buffy babbled, screwing up her face as she wished the floor would open up and swallow her, and trying to ignore the fact that Tara gave a little snort while she was trying so hard not to laugh.

"Ok B, I understand. It's just, why?"

"I just," Buffy sighed and let all the nervousness slip away. There was something about the calm in Faith's voice that was soothing. "I was really a bitch to you when I left LA, and it finally took someone with the balls to tell me."

"And that would be?"

"Cordelia. She didn't tell you about our conversation?"

"No."

"Well, let's just spare any further humiliation on my part, and just say that she put me most firmly in my place. And she was right. I was a bitch, and I just wondered if, maybe, you'd give me a chance to make it up to you?" She heard the sharp intake of breath on the other end of the line, and then nothing. It sounded as if Faith had forgotten how to exhale somewhere along the conversation. Buffy felt the fear taking over again, worried that Faith would take what she had said as some kind of promise that she still wasn't able to make.

"You really mean that?" Faith's voice belied no emotion, but this time, the control she was imposing on herself was more obvious.

"Yes Faith, I mean it. I really would like you to come."

"You're not just getting me there to kill me while you've got me alone," the tone of Faith's voice implied a joke, but Buffy knew there was a real question lurking just below the surface.

"I'll try not to. I promise. So, will you come?" Buffy found she was tense to the point of breaking with anticipation.

"Count me in B." Buffy could almost see Faith shrugging her shoulders, trying to sound like it didn't matter much to her either way. But Buffy knew that it meant a great deal. To both of them.

"Thank you Faith."

"You invited me. Shouldn't I be the one giving out the thank you's?"

"Not for that. For giving me another chance."

PART THREE - NEEDLES AND PINS

Note: C/A, specifically for the pleasure of Gareth and Sham, and also Louise for her persistence…Ricky for being as much as a perv as me. And for Phil, without whose ideas and overall editing this fic wouldn't have been half of what it is now...Enjoy!!!
Note 2: Any errors are entirely Gareth's fault and not mine! Gotcha!

Faith tried to relax as the greyhound headed towards Sunnydale. It had been so long since she was here last, and if she was honest, it wasn't all good memories. But, if Buffy hadn't been lying to her, this time could be the end of all the nightmares that she had about the place. It had been a long time, ten years in fact, since she had been truly scared by something. She faced demons every day of her life (despite her resolution to keep Sunday free- the demon world had no idea about having a day off), but this wasn't about her life as a slayer, it was about her as a person. That made a huge difference as far as Faith was concerned.

Buffy had totally blown her off the last time they were together. She had a right to be suspicious. Hell, if there was one thing her life had taught her, it was to have doubts about anything good that suddenly appeared. So she was determined not to get hurt by whatever Buffy decided to throw at her this time, but part of her hoped, wanted to believe, that this was all genuine, and that she could take B's gesture in good faith. And no pun intended. But her knuckles were white at the straps of her bag. It was the place, it was the time, it was the moment that she had been wishing for, and there was something that felt so wrong about it all.

She was clear on the plan. After the past few years working for Angel, if there wasn't a plan, then there was something very wrong. She fiddled with the ring on her thumb and knew that she was betraying her nervousness. But, honestly, if the guy in the seat next to her didn't stop snoring, then she would have no problem invoking the old Faith and throttling him.

In her head, for the half hour before pulling into Sunnydale, she went over the lines that she would say to Buffy. All of them sounded lame, and she wished that she had the charm of Cordy, where anything you said sounded good. She knew that there was a time when she could do that, make anything that came out of her mouth sound so sexy that nobody actually noticed just how lame it was. But then again, they all picked up on the hurt and aggression that was there, even though she didn't realise it at the time. It had come as a shock when Angel told her how they had all seen it, the hurt and anger that she had thought she had kept so well hidden. Faith personally blamed it on the supernatural powers that they had, and still maintained that a regular human would never pick up on it. It was an argument that she had stuck to, and pointed out that none of her girlfriends over the past few years had picked up on it.

When Fred, in her eternal innocence, had pointed out that two of them had been evil and the others had been just desperate for sex, her arguments had collapsed somewhat. The mention of Anne had just about been the only salve to her emotional wound.

Even the road to Sunnydale looked so familiar that it reminded her of her first ever journey there. It was like a clock ticking down to her arrival. In the back of her mind, she could hear Cordy's voice telling her to call if there was any kind of problems, and she would be on the first plane there to help her out. Faith had no doubt about it, but she knew that this was something that she had to face on her own. It was a moment of do or die. She just hoped that it was the former and not the latter.

*****

Okay so she was nervous. In fact, Buffy could not remember being this nervous since her early twenties, and she had thought that she had grown past it, once and for all. But it was still there, and she found herself cursing that innate human weakness. Surely if being a slayer made you exempt from physical human vulnerability, then it should be the same for your emotions as well? Apparently, the gods that were playing dice with the universe did not think so. At this moment, she could kill Tara for talking her into this. It was not her idea, and now she was stuck with Faith for the whole Thanksgiving holiday. What was she supposed to give thanks for? That a murderer was going to be given free rein in her house? Not a lot to celebrate as far as she was concerned. Another moment of drunken weakness in her life, even though she was sure that Faith had far more of those chalked up. And that was some kind of victory, right?

She was telling herself these things as she waited in the car, feeling the moral victory creep up on her once more. But as she watched the bus pull into the lot, it was as if her blood started to thicken, and the sixth chance she had been given seemed to catch in her throat.

*****

"So B," Faith asked nervously, more to break the silence than anything else, as they pulled into Buffy's street, "Just who's waiting inside to gut me?"

"I told you Faith. I haven't got you here to gut you. Or to get anyone else's to do the gutting. Tara's the only one in there. Dawn left for the mall earlier, and then her and Danny were going to take in a movie. So she won't be back for another couple of hours."

"So just Tara. I can do that." She got out of the car and followed Buffy up to the house, wondering if Buffy could hear just how fast her heart was beating, and waited for the door to open.

"Tara?" called out Buffy as she shrugged out of her coat. "I'm back. With Faith."

"Hey," smiled Tara as she walked out of the kitchen. "I was just preparing something for dinner. Faith, good to see you again."

"Um, you too." Faith was surprised at how confident Tara seemed. She knew that the girl had been through a lot since they had met for the first, and last, time, but somehow she had got it stuck in her head that Tara would still be shy and stammering, just older.

"Dinner won't be ready for another hour or so. Do you want a coffee or something Faith?"

"Coffee would be good." Faith almost visibly relaxed as she realised that Tara didn't seem to care at all about who she had been once. There was something about the woman that made her feel completely at ease.

"Buffy?" Tara asked the incredibly nervous looking blond slayer.

"Sure, why not," smiled Buffy, looking for some kind of reassurance that this really would all work out, as they followed Tara into the kitchen.

"So Faith," began Tara as she reached into a cupboard for the coffee, "how have you been doing for the past few years?"

"You know, this and that. Prison, fighting demons, regular stuff."

"Buffy told me about the work that you do at the shelter. That sounds good."

"It is," Faith enthused. "There were a couple of times, when I was growing up, that I really could have used a place to stay. Instead I had to sleep out on the streets. No kid deserves to go through that. And of course, Anne, who really runs it, knows all about the stuff I do with Angel, so if I have to go and fight an apocalypse, she lets me off having to fill out a vacation form three weeks in advance, yunno. What about you?"

"Well, I don't fight demons quite so much any more, and I've managed to avoid prison so far, but other than that, pretty much doing ok. More or less lost the stammer," she smiled.

"That's good. I remember being a real bitch to you about that when I bumped into you at the Bronze. That was something I wasn't expecting. Nearly foiled my evil plan," she laughed, and then glanced over to Buffy in case it hadn't been taken with the humour that was intended. She relaxed a little when she saw Buffy was smiling too.

"Yeah, well, you nearly foiled my evil plan as well, so we're quits on that one."

"Huh?" Faith and Buffy replied in unison, as Tara laughed at their obvious confusion.

"I was there with Willow remember? We had gone there because we were certain that no-one else that Willow knew would be there. And then Faith turned up, in your body, and Willow was forced to introduce me. I don't think anyone even knew I existed up until that point. But we had talked about it before, and Willow wanted to introduce me to the gang in her own time, let them get to know me as a friend, and then tell them about us. Trust gutter-mind over here to pick up on the sexual tension."

"Faith guessed that you and Willow were sleeping together? How?"

"Now who's being the gutter-mind?" laughed Tara. "We hadn't actually slept together then. In fact, we hadn't even kissed properly. We were at the holding hands stage more than anything, which was so sweet. On the surface at least. But Faith got right to the heart of the matter. What was it you said to me?" Tara paused, casting her mind back over ten years to that time which seemed like more than one lifetime ago. "Something about Willow not driving stick any more. I remember thinking 'oh shit, oh shit' over and over, and then your vibes kicked in and I knew that there was something very wrong about you."

"But," interrupted Buffy, turning to Faith, "how did you know? I mean, I met Tara for the first time just after that and it took ages for me to guess. Well, not so much as guess, more be told and was shocked and stunned. But you?"

"What can I say Buffy...takes one to know one," grinned Faith.

"Well that would explain how I missed it then," Buffy glared back at that smile.

"Bet you wouldn't now though," muttered Tara, just loud enough for them to hear, and suppressed a smile as Faith snorted and Buffy glared at her. There was an icy silence for a few seconds.

"Sooooo," began Faith, "I really am sorry about being such a bitch to you then. My head was kind of screwed."

"That's ok. I was kind of warned anyway. Willow filled me in, and let's just say, you were not her favourite person."

"Tell me about it."

"So I kind of got the worst view of it, and you lived up to it entirely. But that was then and this is now and you're changed for the good. So let's not even dwell on it."

"Bet if Willow was here, she'd still be ready to kick my ass though."

"Yeah, well she's not." Tara said quietly.

"Oh, shit, I'm sorry, I didn't mean-"

"It's okay," interrupted Tara, holding up her hands in a peace gesture. "Really. I don't mind talking about Willow. It's just, if she was still here, then none of us know what she would be doing or thinking right now."

"I wish I'd had a chance to say sorry though. For threatening to kill her, and wanting to take Buffy off her and everything," Faith reached over and took Tara's hand, speaking exactly how she felt, and temporarily forgetting that Buffy was even there, Tara's pain was so palpable. And then...she realised what she had just said.

The chance for any awkwardness between them was rudely interrupted by the sound of the front door opening as Dawn arrived back early.

"Buffy, we're back!" called a familiar voice from the hall. "None of the movies sounded good, this season is so lame. Is Faith here yet?"

"Come in and see for yourself Dawnie," Tara called, sending a reassuring smile Faith's way.

Faith took a deep breathe and stood up, not knowing what to expect from Dawn. How old was she went all that shit went down? Twelve? Thirteen? Too young to be told any of it, and so any judgement she had would have been built upon Buffy's version of events. Would Dawn remember the time when Faith had teased her about cartoons and countless other things on the few occasions she had been at the Summers' house? Or the fact that she had thought Faith's tattoo had been cool and daring?

"Hey Faith, long time no see."

"Straight back at ya."

"This is my boyfriend Danny. Danny, this is Faith, an old friend of my sister's from way back when."

"Nice to meet you Faith," the man extended his hand and shook Faith's firmly.

"Ok, I'm going to try on the dress I bought at the mall. Call us when dinner is ready?" She grabbed Danny's hand and led him out of the kitchen.

"Well," smirked Faith, "At least she doesn't seem to have her sister's appalling taste in men..."

She only just ducked in time as a box of cereal came flying at her head.

*****

"So Buffy, I guess I should change before Patrol," Faith said, as she got up to help the others clear the dishes after dinner. She had wanted to mention it before, but with Danny at the table, she had been told clear what subjects to steer clear of. Which all came under the umbrella heading of her life in general. "Um, where am I sleeping?" She looked across to see Buffy's jaw drop, and laughed. "Let me guess, you hadn't thought that far ahead?"

"Of course I had! You can stop in my room and I'll sleep on the couch."

"That's hardly fair B, I mean this is your house. I don't mind sleeping on the couch. Slept on plenty worse than that. I'll just use your room to change."

"No, you're the guest, you can have my bed."

"No, really, it's no problem. I insist."

"Well," began Tara, "you could just share the bed." She stopped when they both turned to glare at her. "What? I'm just saying..."

"B, let's just talk about it after patrol. The vamps ain't going to wait all night for us yunno. I'll just go and change into something a bit more comfortable."

As she left the room, Buffy turned to Tara. "How could you say that?" she whispered angrily.

"Say what?" smiled Tara innocently.

"About us sharing a bed. Do you know how wrong that would be? On so many levels."

"Scared you won't be able to keep your hands off her?"

"That wasn't what I meant and you know it!"

"Has anyone ever told you that you're cute when you blush?"

"Tara, stop it!"

"I'm sorry."

"No you're not!"

"Ok, I'm not sorry at all. But the two of you are so, well, good together."

"I will say this for the last time, nothing is going to happen between me and Faith." She nodded defiantly at Tara's raised eyebrow. "Well, not yet anyway...." She trailed off at the sound of Faith bounding down the stairs.

"Ready to go B?"

"I'm ready, let's go dust some vamps." She made her way out of the kitchen with Faith following closely behind.

"Be good you two," Tara called out after them, imagining the glares that Buffy was throwing her way through the walls.

*****

"You hit one," Faith unleashed a ferocious backhand into the face of an oncoming vampire, "you stake one," she continued, leaning forward with her other hand and ramming the wood into another one's chest. "Easy as ABC." She ducked the punch of an Eighties wannabe vamp, following with a barrage of punches to his ribs. She turned to see another ten or so arrive from behind the trees. "Geez B, is this your idea of a welcome home party?"

"Me!?" Buffy exclaimed as she threw her stake with unerring accuracy at one of them. "There haven't been this many vamps in Sunnydale for years. You must have brought them with you."

"Sure, they follow me everywhere" said Faith sarcastically, "just like cute little puppies. How come I hadn't noticed that before?"

"Har-de-ha. Well you can take your puppies from Hell back to LA with you when you leave."

"And I thought it would make a cool Thanksgiving present." Faith broke into a sprint and Buffy followed suit.

"You didn't think of making it a Hallmark moment?" she asked as she lunged at one of them, careful to make sure they didn't get surrounded.

"Who wants a card when you can get a little bit of action?" laughed Faith as she heard the unmistakable sound of bone cracking under her fists.

"Note to self: Don't accept any Birthday presents of Faith. Especially ones with fangs. Oomph." Buffy took a blow to the stomach that knocked the breath out of her.

"And I thought you had a thing for deadboys." Faith grabbed the vampire off Buffy and threw him to the ground, rolling after him, plunging the stake in and pulling out again in one fluid motion.

"If there wasn't a vamp I was having to pummel right now, you would so be paying for that comment."

"Looks like you're being pummelled yourself actually." Faith looked up to see Buffy in a choke hold, desperately trying to elbow the vampire in the ribs.

"Then why don't you quit with the talking and help me out already?"

"Faith saves the day again." With a mock war-cry she punched the vampire in the face, knocking him off balance and allowing Buffy to break free.

"Well, if you hadn't been distracting me with all the talking, I might not need the help." She breathed heavily as the final vamp was dusted, and glared at Faith.

"A little thank you here might be nice, B." Faith smirked, watching the anger dance in Buffy's eyes. It was so easy to do, she thought she might never get tired of it.

"Why, you," she growled, lunging at Faith and catching her off guard, rolling them both onto the floor before grabbing Faith's wrist and twisting it up behind her back. "Who needs help now, huh Faith?"

"What do you want me to do, say Uncle? Never!"

"Don't make me hurt you Faith, say Uncle and I'll let you free," Buffy began to laugh at the absurdness of it all. She suspected that if there were any more vamps left, they would just head off and find more worthy superheroes to challenge.

"Do I have to remind you that you're going to be thirty this year? Don't you think you're a little old for this?"

"Don't try to get out of it! If you're not bothered, then you can just say it and then I'll stop."

"No damn way!"

"I can stay like this all night Faith."

"Yeah? Well I don't think he's going to let you." Faith jerked her head. Looking up, Buffy saw a vamp walking over, the effect of menace on his face somewhat dampened by the fact he was trying not to laugh at them. "Damn!" muttered Buffy as she jumped up and reached into her jacket. She heard the sound of something whistling past her ear, and saw the stake protrude from his chest briefly before he exploded into dust. She turned to see Faith smirking at her.

"Well, what do you know? I won."

*****

Tara was waiting up for them when they returned. She was surprised to see that Buffy appeared to be pouting and Faith was on the verge of laughter.

"Looks like you two had a good time. Did you go to the Bronze afterwards?"

"I wish," smiled Faith. "Buffy just learned a few new lessons about Faith the Vampire Slayer, that's all."

"Like what?"

"Like," Faith threw her arm around Buffy's shoulder in an unconscious gesture of playfulness, "I *never* say Uncle."

"What?" Tara shook her head. "Weren't there any vampires out tonight?"

"Oooh," said Buffy exaggeratedly, "there were more than enough vampires. All dead now though. More dead I mean. Poofed."

"Okay then." Tara could sense the difference in Buffy. She had obviously let a part of her guard down at some point tonight, and Tara was pleased to see it was happening so quickly. Faith seemed to be a good influence on her, though the part about trying to get her to say Uncle was mildly disturbing. "Did you decide who was sleeping where? Only, I'm off to bed now."

"Faith staked more of them than I did. She deserves the bed. I'll just go and change, and then you can have my room."

"You sure B?"

"Yeah." She followed Tara out of the room and up the stairs.

*****

Faith knew that it was a nice gesture on Buffy's part, letting her have the bed, but did she honestly think that she was going to be able to get to sleep in there. When all she could smell was Buffy. The holiday was going so much better than she had ever dreamed it could. Buffy had been so playful earlier, and it seemed so out of character somehow. Like she had managed to get a glimpse of the Buffy that had been locked up right about the time the two of them stopped being friends. Locked up and the key thrown away.

But she knew that she was walking on thin ice. That moments like the ones that they had shared tonight would just intensify the feelings she had for her fellow Slayer, ones that she knew were also better locked away. She was not going to fall in love with Buffy again and follow her around like a puppy waiting to be noticed again. She had left all that behind and there was no way she was going back to it.

But as she drifted off to sleep, everything that was Buffy soaking her senses, Faith could almost imagine that she was lying there in the bed next to her.

*****

"Where is she?" Xander whispered as Buffy opened the door.

"I'm right in here Xander!" Faith's sensitive hearing allowed her to call out, knowing he would jump when he heard her, which he promptly did. At the sound of 'yunnagh!' coming from the hallway, Faith smirked at Tara and took another handful of popcorn.

In truth, part of her was dreading this moment. She had slept with Xander and then tried to kill him. In her chequered history, that was not so unusual. But she knew that more than that, she had hurt him deeply by using him for sex, and he had come to hate her for it. She wasn't used to the men she had slept with feeling that way. Until Xander, most of them had thrown twenty bucks on the nightstand before they left.

Anya walked into the room and appraised Faith coolly, her arms folded across her chest. "I'm going to be nice to you because Buffy says I have to be. But don't think I like you. Not because of the killing like everyone else, after all, we've all done a little bit of that. But for sleeping with him. Okay?"

"Message coming in loud and clear."

"And normally I wouldn't even do this, but Buffy also said you were gay now as well, so there's no chance of it happening again."

"Oh, she did huh?" Faith glared across at Buffy who suddenly found the wallpaper very interesting. Faith took a deep breath. "Okay, let's just get this out of the way, coz I'm not looking forward to it any more than you guys. Anya, there is no chance of me *ever* wanting to sleep with Xander again. And Xander, I'm sorry, okay. For everything. But I've changed and I just want to get on with my life, so I'm not on the lookout for any trouble."

"You mean that?" Xander leant towards Buffy. "She does mean it right?"

"Yes, she means it."

"Hey! Here in the room! My word not good enough?"

"Faith?" Xander rubbed his hands together nervously. "It's just that I have a few left-over trust issues. With the 'near death at your hands' thing. A little reassurance from Buffy goes a long way, ok? But if she says that it's cool, then it's cool. Just don't sit too close to me at dinner." He paused, panic filling his voice again. "She's not carving the turkey is she Buffy because knives and Faith and Faith and knives I still have an issue with-"

"Xander!" interrupted Tara. "I'll carve the damn turkey. Now sit down. What do you want to drink?" As Tara got up from the couch, she squeezed Faith's knee reassuringly. Faith was not as laid back about the whole thing as she appeared to be. But Tara was proud of her for trying. She just hoped that Buffy realised it too.

"Beer please," chirped Anya.

"Yeah, beer would be good. Lots of beer."

"Beer it is. Faith, do you want to give me a hand in the kitchen?"

"Sure thing." Faith got up and followed Tara out of the room.

"Ohh," a sudden look of realisation crossed over Anya's face. "So Faith's gay now, and Tara's well, always been gay as far as we know, so does that mean that they're going to-"

"NO!" yelped Buffy. "No, I mean...no. Almost definitely not. No, never, uh-hu."

"Oh."

"They just seem to have hit it off. In a totally platonic, non sexual way."

"Buffy." Xander's voice was full of concern. "If you're so determined that Tara shouldn't get involved with Faith, not that I'm saying that she would, does that mean you don't entirely trust her? That you're afraid that she'd hurt Tara in some way? Because if you are, then I think that you should tell us now."

"It's not that Xander."

"Really? Because this is a sudden turn around. You've sworn that she's your enemy since you were eighteen, and now you spend a few weeks with her and suddenly you're inviting her for Thanksgiving. But you seem worried. Has she cast some kind of spell on you?"

"No," sighed Buffy, rolling her eyes. "What I meant was that I *really* couldn't see the two of them together. That would just be too weird." Buffy hoped that her true feelings were not showing in her eyes.

"Well, yeah. Do you really trust her Buffy?"

"Yes, I think I do."

"Well, despite Anya's overactive imagination, I really can't see them together either."

"You know," Anya looked at Xander and then at Buffy, "it's going to happen one day. As far as I know, Tara hasn't had a girlfriend since Willow, and that was a long time ago. Surely she won't spend the rest of her life alone. It would be strange, but one day there'll be someone else. Someone who isn't Willow. For a while, I thought it might be Dawn, but-"

"Dawn? As in my sister Dawn? My sister with the boyfriend Dawn?"

"Yes Dawn." Anya said patiently.

"Why in the name of God would you think that Dawn and Tara would, you know, with..."

"Not good enough for your sister am I?" Tara smirked as she and Faith returned to the room with the drinks.

"I didn't say that!" Buffy squeaked uncomfortably. She pointed at Anya. "She was the one who said you two could be!" Buffy gestured between Tara and Faith as she desperately tried to deflect the scrutiny onto Anya.

"Ha. She was the one who said nothing like that could ever happen. Like there was something wrong with the two of you!"

"I never made it sound like that at all! I didn't want to think about either of them sleeping with anyone else, but you brought it up..." she trailed off as Faith and Tara both burst out laughing. "What?"

"I can't believe that this is a topic of conversation, that's all," giggled Tara. "But I can assure you, Faith and I aren't interested in each other in that way. At least, I don't think so?" She turned to Faith, who mockingly looked her up and down, and then shook her head exaggeratedly. Tara put the drinks down on the table and swatted Faith's arm good naturedly, then turned to Buffy. "And just so you know, I have never slept with Dawnie. And Anya? Enough with the sex-obsessed lesbian cliché already ok?"

"Ok," mumbled Anya, looking at her fingernails. Tara glanced over at Faith, and the two of them promptly started laughing again.

*****

"Faith, you ready to go on patrol?"

"Sure, why not. Had a good feed, now I'm ready for a little action."

"Ok, let's go."

By the time they reached the graveyard, neither of them had actually spoken to each other. Faith decided it would be a good time to break the ice, before some vamps decided to show up. She took a deep breath. "Thanks for inviting me Buffy. I've had a really great time."

"Well, as patrols go, I wouldn't rate it that high personally."

"Not the patrol-" she looked over to see Buffy smiling at her. "Ha ha, very funny. But seriously. Thank you."

"No problem. I'm just glad that you decided to come. Tara said that you might not."

"Why?"

"Just because I had been such a bitch to you, she said you had every right not to give me a second chance."

"Second? I thought we were up to at least five by now." Faith couldn't resist making Buffy sweat a little.

"Point taken."

"It would have taken more than five for me not to come B." Faith's voice grew quieter. "Just let me know if this is for real or not. I don't want to think that we could become friends again, just to have you blow me off when you get bored of the idea."

"Ouch. I deserved that. I promise Faith. I guess that is one of the reasons that I wanted you to come here. Does that make any sense?"

"Erm...no."

"I always said that I could never forgive you. Even when I died and forgiving people made more sense and became easier, I still couldn't forgive you and I let everyone know that. I feel like I am betraying myself in some ways, even though I know I was wrong all these years. I knew that it would be easier for me to do it if you were here, then it would almost be as if something was on my terms at least. Selfish, I know."

"Doesn't matter B. Whatever it took to get us here." Faith waited for a response, but none came, and she knew better than to push it. After they had walked for a while longer, Faith decided it was her turn to give a little in the trust department as well. As casually as she could, she said, "I needed to get out of LA for a while anyways."

"Why?" Buffy looked up at her, no longer attempting to veil the concern in her voice. "Trouble?"

"I guess. Not the others, just me. I don't know how to explain it."

"Try me."

"Well, you know how some vamps have more power than others? Like, you can stake a handful of fledglings without even breaking into a sweat. And then there are others, which are tougher to kill. Not just because they seem to get stronger, but because they seem to have more power over you generally."

"Oh, yeah."

"Well, how come you never killed Spike?"

"What? When did this become about me and Spike?"

"Look, I don't want to go there either, but it's kind of bringing me to my point. Even before you and he, um," they both looked at each other and then looked straight ahead, "how come you never killed him? Even before you got to know him, how come you never killed him when you first met him?"

"I don't know, at first I just thought he was the one that got away. And then I kept letting him get away. Almost like I couldn't bring myself to kill him, even when I knew that I should."

"Exactly what I mean. Like you know that you really should but something else stops you. Something that you can't control. Almost like it's just not meant to be."

"Is there a vamp in LA that you're having problems with? Does Angel know?"

"No! Don't tell Angel, not yet. I wanted to talk to you about it first."

"You know that you're going to have to tell me everything." Buffy reached across and squeezed Faith's hand.

"Yeah." Faith sat on the top of a tombstone and Buffy sat next to her, silently praying that no vamps would turn up just yet and stop Faith telling her what was going on. "Here goes nothin'. There's this vamp. I've never seen her before, but I couldn't kill her. Something just stopped me. I mean, I couldn't even fight her. I was talking tough, you know, the way that I do, but inside I knew I was powerless to stop her, and she seemed to know it too. I mean, you could at least fight Spike."

"Sounds a bit like thrall."

"Huh?"

"I had the same problem with Dracula."

"Dracula! You mean-"

"Yep, the one and only. Long time ago. Anyway, carry on."

"Well, she kept saying something about me being part of some great destiny, and how she had been waiting for me for such a long time. She mentioned you, but only to say that it wasn't you that she wanted."

"Charming. Though I have to say, it makes a nice change."

"I don't like this whole destiny thing. You and Angel, and even Cordy, you're the people who get to have the destinies. I just want to kill things. Evil things, obviously."

"Obviously. Looks like it's your turn. Honestly, I don't know how you got away with it for so long."

"Very funny. But if I am part of some great scheme, then my place in it has to be right at the dying part. If I can't even fight her, then what else can I do?"

"Maybe you can fight her. Maybe it's just that she didn't hurt you, and so you didn't need to try. My guess is that if she actually tried to do you any harm, there's a good chance that you would be able to snap out of it."

"Is that what happened with you and the big D?"

"Well, erm, no. He actually," Buffy looked at the floor, embarrassed. "He bit me."

"Snap." Faith pulled off her choker, revealing a fading bruise with two small puncture wounds in the middle.

"Faith!" gasped Buffy, as she tentatively raised her fingers to touch the wound.

"Don't worry, it doesn't hurt or nothin'. It just scares the shit out of me. What if she'd actually killed me? I could be standing here dead now and there wouldn't have been able to do a damn thing about it." Faith's breath hitched as she began to sob, the tension of not being able to tell anyone finally taking it's toll. It was a relief to finally let it all, even if there was nothing that Buffy could do about it. Except understand. And that was what Faith knew she needed right now, someone who had been there and come through the other end alive, if not unscathed. There was only one person alive on this planet who knew what this could be like. And that person hadn't pushed her away this time, but gently wrapped her arms around Faith's shoulders, letting her cry out all the fear and frustration that she had been holding in.

What Faith couldn't see was the look of grim determination that had settled on Buffy's face.

*****

"Faith?" Buffy stood in the doorway of her own room, watching Faith throw her belongings into her bag. It had been a good few days, and Buffy wasn't ashamed to admit any longer that she enjoyed having Faith around. Her own feelings were growing more and more confusing, but she had tried to concentrate on enjoying herself instead.

But now that she knew Faith was having to face a more personal set of demons, actual rather than metaphorical, she was growing concerned. Faith has promised to tell Angel about this strange vampire woman as soon as she returned to LA, but that didn't stop Buffy worrying. She had never been a big fan of prophecies, and now that she and Faith had finally got to a point where they could be in the same room and comfortable with the fact, she was determined not to lose it.

So last night, after Faith had headed up to bed, Buffy had turned to the one person she could rely on for advice. Knocking quietly on Tara's bedroom door, she had slipped into the room, hoping not to wake Faith across the hallway. Tara had been worried as well, which meant that there was definite reason to be. And if anyone knew anything about the use of magic to control your mind, it was Tara.

They had talked for hours, until the first rays of sun had appeared on the horizon. Then come to the only viable conclusion. When Faith left for LA that day, they would both go with her. Tara to try and understand just what power this vampire had, and Buffy to stand next to Faith and do the fighting if Faith found she couldn't. It was the perfect plan. Now all she had to do was actually tell Faith about it. So she was standing watching Faith get ready to leave, trying to find the best way to broach the subject.

"You ok B? Watching me pack isn't particularly interesting, unless you know something that I don't." She pulled the zipper closed and sat down on the bed, motioning for Buffy to come and sit next to her.

"Faith, we need to talk."

"Sounds heavy." Faith's voice remained nonchalant, though she swallowed hard, thoughts of just what this talk could be about flashing across her brain.

"I - I don't know how to say this. It's just that, I've kind of got used to you being around." God, that sounded so lame. She tried again. "I don't want anything to happen to you ok, and if what this woman says is true, then there is something big coming up and you'll be right there in the middle of it. I know what that's like. And I don't want you to be stuck in there alone. So I was talking to Tara, and she's just as worried about this as I am. So we agreed that, well, we're going to come to LA with you, and help you fight this thing." She looked up at Faith who was wearing a shocked expression to say the least.

Faith had not been expecting that. Sure, she didn't know what to expect, but that one had come completely out of left field and blindsided her. She knew that the two of them had been getting on so well it was almost a dream, but she never thought that Buffy cared enough to stick by her. And the fact that Tara was prepared to put her life on hold as well moved Faith almost to tears. "Are you sure?" was all she could manage to choke out. To her surprise, Buffy raised her hand and tucked a strand of lose hair behind Faith's ear.

"I'm sure. You're not going to have to face this alone. We're the Chosen Two remember? We're supposed to do this together. Like we should have been doing all along. I know that's my fault, and I can never turn the clock back, but that doesn't mean we can't start over. A clean slate for both of us. Is that a deal?" Buffy searched Faith's eyes for an answer, her previous fears of what she would find there gone.

"Deal," smiled Faith, fighting back the urge to pull Buffy close into her arms.

"In that case," said Buffy with a grin, "LA here we come!"

PART FOUR - REMEMBER HER?

Notes: This is the second part of the series which began with 'Darker Than Night'. This won't make much sense if you haven't read it. Thanks to Phil for being my beta once again (and because I blatantly stole one of his lines), Gareth for giving it the once-over (oh-er missus), and everyone who is a closet Cordy/Anne shipper!

Buffy hated travelling by Greyhound; it brought back so many bad memories. Running away from things, feeling vulnerable and alone; times when she was younger and too poor to be able to pay out for a flight. The Greyhound was always the cheap escape. But with Tara sitting across the aisle, and Faith sitting next to her, it didn't seem so bad this time. Sure, it was still cramped and she could think of a hundred better ways to travel, this figure doubling every time the driver seemed to mysteriously veer to the edge of the highway, but at least she didn't have to feel alone. As the driver pulled back towards the centre of the road quickly, it crossed her mind that she should probably amend that to not *dying* alone.

Across the aisle, Tara was surprised just how quickly she was able to slip back into the whole research thing. Discretely reading 'Encyclopaedia Demonicus', she saw some old familiar faces, as well as some new ones, though in retrospect, perhaps faces was too strong a word. Tara seriously doubted that this vampire Faith had told them about had acquired her powers alone, even if the creature itself believed that to be the case. No, there had to be something much deeper behind all of this. Especially with all that talk of destiny. Tara knew that was a dangerous word; destiny could come to pass, or it could be thwarted, but it was always something important.

And sometimes, you couldn't tell whether you had to let this one pass or not. Or whether you had got something wrong somewhere in the translation through ancient languages that were lost to all but a handful of people. She was looking forward to working with the others though. She had heard so many things about Wesley and his research abilities, and Fred with her super-logic. And Cordy, well she was just going to make up her own mind about her. Buffy, she knew, had been far from objective in her descriptions of the woman. She looked over at her two companions and smiled to herself.

Faith had her eyes closed, trying not to think. To relax and get ready to face whatever was ahead. With Buffy and Tara behind her, she felt stronger and more confident now about the whole thing, but it was still hard. Her feelings for Buffy seemed to be getting stronger all the time. Well, maybe not stronger, but harder to push to the back of her mind and pretend that they weren't there. At times she felt like she was a schoolgirl with a crush again. The fact that it was the same crush made it even worse, like her life had come full circle again. But she was happy to settle for Buffy being her friend - this time she was not going to push for something she could never have, and go crazy, literally, about it. Contented with that thought, she found herself drifting off to sleep, the jerking movements of the bus not disturbing her in the least.

*****

"Hi honey, I'm home!" yelled Faith as a huge grin spread across her face when she walked into the offices of Angel Investigations. She held her arms open as Fred and Cordy both ran around the desk to give her a hug. Then the door swung open again, and over Faith's shoulder, Cordelia saw Buffy and Tara walk in. At the sight of the other Slayer, Cordy felt her body become rigid, and knowing that Faith would have felt it too, tried to will herself to relax.

Cordelia had been hoping that everything would go well for Faith while she was in Sunnydale, but she hadn't wanted the slayer to bring any of it back with her. Cordy knew that there were no decent gifts to be found in Sunnydale, much less the actual people. Baring in mind the fact that humans probably actually only made up fifty per cent of the population anyway. Of course, it was obvious that Buffy was not the only one who Faith had brought back with her. The light finally went on in Cordelia's brain. Something bad again, but something that needed two slayers and a witch? Why hadn't the powers sent her a heads up on this? She pulled away from Faith with a sigh.

"Go on then. What's happening this time?"

"It's kinda complicated," Faith muttered, looking down at her feet.

"Oh great, now we have shy slayer to deal with. I hope the doom isn't too impending."

"Don't be like that C. I know you're pissed because of, everything," Faith's eyes darted in the direction of Buffy, "but how about we all sit down with a cup of coffee and discuss this?"

*****

"So," said Fred, "let me get this straight. Because I think I might be getting confused here. You have been going out and letting this vampire bite you?"

"Well, not so much with the letting, and more with the not being able to stop her. It's not like I get turned on by the thought of having my blood sucked out of me."

"Yeah," said Cordy to Fred with a smirk, "even Faith has her limits."

"I am the only one bothered by this?" Faith squeaked.

"Well, couldn't we all just go out on patrol with you and stake her even if you couldn't? I can't see why Tara and Buffy have to be here." Cordelia unsuccessfully tried to keep the irritation out of her voice.

"Well, it's not that simple." Tara looked up from the desk, where she was busy working her way through Wes's archives. "There must be a reason why Faith hasn't been killed by this vampire yet. If she really has no power to fight her, then any normal blood-sucking creature of the night would leap on the chance to kill a slayer. But not this one. Faith is being kept alive deliberately, so I think the vampire isn't actually the problem here."

"Ahh," nodded Wesley. "So you are saying you believe there are much darker forces at work, and the vampire is being used as the best way to get to Faith."

"Exactly."

"But does this vampire have any idea that she is being used this way?"

"I don't know. Unless there is anything that she said to you Faith, that would give us some clue." Tara looked over to where Faith was rubbing her hands together uncomfortably. Tara smiled reassuringly, and was relieved when Faith smiled back.

"Well," Faith rubbed her eyes, willing some memory to the surface, "after she bit me it all went kind of hazy, but I think the memory-wiping mojo comes in as part of the whole package anyway. I know she told me her name, Kira, and I remember where I was and the whole biting thing, so it's not like a complete blackout or anything."

"Ah," muttered Wesley thoughtfully. "She mentioned that you were part of some destiny though, which would indicate that she was aware that there was some plan already laid out for you, but she seems to believe that she is a major part of it." He began to read over Tara's shoulder. "I think the first thing we have to do is try to narrow down a list of potential demons, powers etc, that have the capabilities of giving this kind of power to a vampire."

"Um Wes?" Faith scratched her head. "If I was there, being all 'yes master', then why didn't they get me? I mean, even if they want me to be alive for some ritual or something, wouldn't it be better to have me all tied up in the basement rather than roaming free?"

"That's another thing that we have to find out. Perhaps there is something that you will have to do to start the prophecy in motion."

"So what are you saying? That I have to sit around and do nothing just in case?"

"Well, even though would seem like the safest course of action, that may be the exact thing that does it. After all, you have been clearly alerted to the danger of what might happen. We haven't been given a warning from the powers or anything else to give us a lead. I would say your involvement has been made quite explicit by whatever is behind all of this."

"Talking of which," Cordelia stood up and helped herself to more coffee. "Just why haven't I been sent a vision? A little extra help would have been good."

There was a silence then, until Buffy looked up from where she was sitting. "Because this doesn't involve us. This is something Faith was meant to face alone." Her voice was quiet and intense as she turned to look into Faith's eyes. "Only this time, she's not going to have to. Not any more."

*****

Anne poured two glasses of wine and brought them into the living room. She had decided to stay at Cordelia's for the night, knowing that things were playing heavily on her lover's mind. She handed over a glass and Cordelia took it absent-mindedly.

"Thanks," Cordy took a sip.

"Ok, tell me what's going on this time. Something is obviously getting to you." She sat down and swung up her legs to rest them on Cordelia's lap. "Is it just because Buffy is back?"

"Partly. I am still so mad at her for the way she treated Faith." Cordelia gritted her teeth just at the thought of it.

"But Faith seems to have forgiven her."

"Our big bad Slayer is besotted with her, she'd forgive her if she had tried to kill her. Again."

"At least you're not bitter." Anne laughed, trying to keep the sarcasm playful.

"I'm not," sighed Cordy. "I just don't want to see her getting hurt again. You know how emotionally scarred Faith is, it's taken her years to get where she is now. And then Buffy Summers walks right back in and starts messing with her feelings. With this whole prophecy thing, my guess is that Faith is pretty vulnerable right now. Which makes it easier to hurt her."

"But it's not as if Buffy has come back with her alone. Tell me more about Tara. She sounds like a pretty powerful witch."

"Yeah, she used to date Willow."

"Yet another Sunnydale dyke," laughed Anne, poking Cordy's side playfully.

"Ha ha, very funny. It's one of the more benign affects of the Hellmouth, really. Well, Willow went all bad with the magic and Tara stopped her. Permanently. It wasn't a good time, though obviously I only really heard the details through Angel. Then she moved away, tried to start a new life. Escape the magic and the demons. I got the impression that she never wanted to have anything to do with it ever again, unless Buffy said that she was needed and there was no other way. Which is why I am really worried. I mean, if she is prepared to come here and start with the research again, then she must have a bad feeling about this."

"It'll all work out. It always does," Anne said with genuine conviction. She had been part of the group, even if it was as a casual observer, for a long time now, and she was sure that they had faced bigger threats than this. Defeated them without the added power of a second slayer and a witch.

"I wish I could have a vision or something though. Feel useful. Know what we are dealing with." It was not in her nature to let Faith deal with things alone any more, even if she did appear to have been usurped in that role by the return of Buffy. She wanted Faith to be happy, she genuinely did, but she couldn't recall any of Buffy Summers' lovers being happy. Soul-robbed and head-fucked maybe, but not happy.

"Well, your cell phone is switched on, so they can get in touch with you if they want to, I say you ought to relax and think about something else." Anne looked through her eyelashes at Cordelia, the sudden spark of desire darkening her eyes.

"Just what did you have in mind?" grinned Cordelia, reaching forward to place her wine glass on the table.

"I was thinking of starting with this," Anne leaned forward and gently began to kiss her. "And then..." She trailed off as she began to untie Cordelia's robe.

"Go on..."

"Oh, I have no intention of stopping," she grinned, sliding her palms upwards over the soft flesh of Cordelia's stomach.

*****

Faith didn't know if it was too much coffee or being at the centre of some mystical plot, but she just couldn't sleep. She was glad to be back in her own bed, but she also missed being surrounded by the scent of Buffy. After tossing and turning for a few hours, the frustration of insomnia was making her edgy. She had tried everything she knew of, but nothing was working for her. Growling in annoyance, she got out of bed and threw on her clothes. Checking her jacket pocket and finding that she was out of cigarettes was the last straw. She pushed the window up the rest of the way and let the cool night air blow across her face. She had to get out of here.

There was always a chance that someone would still be downstairs, researching the latest information about her probable demise. And all of them would insist on coming with her after recent events, and right now, she needed some alone time. Just to walk of the energy, get some smokes, and feel relaxed enough to sleep when she returned. Faith knew what it was like to feel physically confined, and the dramas that were unfolding were dredging up memories that she kept hidden. She needed space to move, to be able to breath, rather than the feelings of claustrophobia that she was determined to avoid. She needed to escape, and she needed to do it now, before lying in her room staring at the ceiling drove her mad.

And, maybe if she just got in a few extra stakings, it would relieve the tension that she was feeling, she thought with a mental shrug. The only other outlet she could think of was sex, and that sure as hell wasn't on offer right now.

She hit the ground with a soft thud, and began to make her way into the heart of downtown.

*****

Buffy had been sleeping dreamlessly when she woke, adrenalin hitting her stomach and filling her with fear and nausea. Her Slayer senses were switched onto overload, and from years of experience, she knew something was very wrong. For a second, she didn't remember where she was, the unfamiliar room threatening in the darkness. Her mind quickly shifted into focus, and she leapt out of bed, hastily pulling on her pants and boots. Cursing herself for being lazy before she went to bed, she slipped a jacket over her camisole, not wanting to waste another second on unpacking her case for a clean top.

She darted out into the dimly lit corridors of the Hyperion, and let her instincts guide her. There was no sound to indicate that there was anything wrong in the building itself, but as she padded down the corridor, she could feel herself being pulled in the direction of Faith's room. She broke into a sprint, and without knocking pushed the door open, instantly feeling the breeze from the open window. The bed was unmade and empty, and Buffy felt fear begin to clutch at her stomach. There was something wrong here. There was no sign of a struggle, and Faith's clothes were gone, so she had probably left of her own free will. But there was something not quite right, something that she could not put her finger on, but it was an instinct that she had learned to trust. Buffy crossed the room and made her way onto the ledge. Jumping down to the street below, she began to make her way after Faith.

If something happened to her, she didn't know if she would be able to forgive herself.

*****

"I knew you would come."

Faith turned around slowly, the sudden realisation of how stupid this had all been finally hitting her like a dull blow to the chest. In her desire to escape, in her need to be anywhere else but lying around thinking, she had blindly walked right into the arms of the person, the thing, that she most needed to avoid. It was so blindingly obvious, and as usual, she had missed it. She shrugged her shoulders, letting the tension out and keeping her muscles easy. "Well, I got nothing better to do." She kept her tone nonchalant, letting her old ego come into play, realising it might be the best defence she had right now.

"Even though the other slayer is here in the city with you?" chuckled Kira.

"Leave B out of this!" Faith snapped, flexing her hands into fists at her sides.

"That is my intention." The vampire jumped off from where she had been sitting on a tombstone, the creak of the leather against her thighs audible to Faith's heightened senses. "Relax, I am not here to fight you."

"Well, I don't trust creatures of the night when they say that, yunno? It usually means they want to go straight to the killing." Faith was struggling to keep her tone light, even though she was becoming increasingly aware the she was losing her power to walk away again. She should have just run the moment she had heard the voice behind her, but it was too late now.

"Were you not listening to me when we last met? Come," the vampire curled her finger and Faith's legs took a step forwards, seemingly of their own volition. "It is not my desire to kill you, nor has it ever been. I have been waiting for centuries for the right slayer to come along, surely you do not think I would waste so many lifetimes for a fleeting taste of blood?"

"Then what - what do you want with me?" Faith stammered with frustration. She hated this not knowing, she hated being used as a pawn in some big battle between good and evil.

"Yes, I was foretold of your impatience." Kira walked behind Faith and rested her hands on the Slayer's hips as she continued. "There were conflicting prophecies, that said you would die so young, well before your twenty-fifth year, but I did not believe them. I laughed at the others who did. The combination of your slayer lineage and your hostile upbringing assured me that you would survive. That you would be the one who would make it all happen, that the power would be in your control. Our control."

Faith could feel the hands resting loosely at her waist, and knew that she should at least make some effort to break free. Yet, in some recess of her mind, the voice of her enemy was soothing and reassuring, overpowering the logic of resistance. "You've been watching me for that long?" Faith was astounded, but she had always suspected that the Watcher's Council had a good idea who was going to be called next. It was never admitted, but now it seemed that the other side knew as well. Maybe not everyone, but there were certainly some people who were in on the secret, and Kira appeared to be one of them.

"Oh yes, I have watched you since you were a little girl. Even as a child I could see you were going to be strong. Many Slayers have relied on fear to keep them alive, but you had none back then. I have seen how you have changed. When fear came and gripped you, I watched as you cried and thought that it would never let you go. When you thought that it was real and leaning over your shoulder, trying to keep up with you, that was me, not fear." The vampire paused and reached up to move Faith's hair aside, caressing the nape of the Slayer's neck with the back of her fingers as she did so. Faith was unaware of the motion, totally lost in the steady rhythm of the voice the drifted over her shoulder. "I was still watching when you came back to life Slayer, when you left that man-made prison and broke free of the one that you had made for yourself in your mind. I knew then that the Slayer I had watched fight in alleys as a child would do so once more. I sensed the good in you returning. Even from a distance, even when I was surrounded by shadows, I could sense the good in you." She moved her head lower, her lips grazing across the throbbing vein in Faith's neck as she talked.

"But there is good in every Slayer, or they could never become the chosen one. You were the darkest any of us had ever seen, even though we have lived through so many lifetimes. It was always in you Faith, sometimes it was hidden, and sometimes you let it become free. You let it consume you, you let it nearly kill you, but it made you alive. The darkness gave you a reason to live when you believed you had none. Like your vampire with a soul, you have been in both worlds. You have seen into mine just as I have watched you walk in yours."

Kira gently turned Faith around to face her, the extra inch or so in height difference forcing the Slayer to tilt her head upwards to make eye contact, exposing her neck as she did so. Faith was sinking deeper into the hypnotic voice, totally unaware of the vulnerable position she was now in. "You must never forget that the darkness is in you Faith." Kira bent forwards and brushed her lips against Faith's "You must promise me that you won't forget."

"I promise," Faith said automatically, not conscious of forming the words as they left her lips.

"Good," whispered Kira as she lowered her head again. Over Faith's shoulder, she could see the blond in the bushes, paralysed also, but unlike Faith, this was out of her own making. She suppressed a smile and slid her tongue between Faith's lips, feeling the easy acquiescence of the Slayer's mouth, but never taking her eyes off Buffy.

*****

Buffy felt her knees begin to weaken as she watched the vampire kiss Faith for the second time. Despite her promises that she would rescue Faith, she had found herself rooted to the spot, her own feelings overwhelming her. It flittered across her mind that this must have been how Xander felt when he watched her and Angel kiss all those years ago, the fact that there must be something inherently wrong about a vampire and a Slayer. But this was different of course, this vampire didn't have a soul. She had mind games and heightened powers, but she was still evil. There was something bad inside her, something that was a killer. But Buffy was there to help Faith.

When Kira made eye contact with her, Buffy knew that she had been spotted, and suddenly realised the vampire had probably known she was there all along. Had known that she would not be able to run out and make the dramatic rescue, that her own fear and nausea would keep her rooted to the spot. It was an old age battle for supremacy and possession, and as Buffy watched the dark vampire kiss the other Slayer, she knew that she had lost this battle.

Then, as soon as the vampire was there, she was gone. While the tears only blurred Buffy's eyes for the smallest of moments, her vision cleared to see Faith collapsing to the floor. Suddenly, she found herself moving again, terror that Faith might have been killed propelling her forward. By the time she covered the distance, she had realised that Faith was alive, as the hollow sobbing filled her ears.

She dropped to her knees and pulled the other woman into her arms, holding her tightly and stroking her hair. At some point Buffy realised that she had begun to cry again, and hastily wiped the tears away. Faith looked drained, her skin pallid, and Buffy quickly checked her over to make sure that no blood had been taken. The vampire had been restrained this time, and kept herself to stealing kisses, thought Buffy bitterly.

"God!" sobbed Faith. "What is she doing to me?"

"Shhh, it's going to be okay," Buffy began to gently rock Faith in her arms. "It doesn't matter now, I'm here. It's going to be ok. I promise it will."

"I shouldn't have come out here alone. W-what if you hadn't have found me?" Faith began to break down further.

"Faith. You have to listen to me." Buffy tucked her fingers under Faith's chin and forced her to make eye contact. "You came because you had to. Because you felt that you had no choice. You did what you had to do and I watched your back, like I promised. We're a team, remember?" As Faith nodded, her tears beginning to stop, Buffy realised just how hollow her voice had sounded in her ears. She had not been there to help Faith; she had not been able to stop it. She should have walked out there and staked the leather-clad vampire bitch herself.

But she hadn't been able to. Watching Faith sink into oblivion in front of her, all she had been able to see were the vampire's hands stroking exposed skin, talking in a lover's voice. The jealousy, the anger, the pain, the desire, all these feelings were returning to her. She knew she was changing - that Faith was changing her. She planted a kiss on top of the brunette's head, and pulled her closer, amazed at how much the thought of losing her seemed to twist her stomach. Whatever was going on, they had to find a way of defeating it. She was not going to allow Faith to be sacrificed as part of some prophecy concocted by some higher dispassionate power.

Not even if it was for the greater good.

PART FIVE - TAKE YOU DOWN

Dedicated: This one goes out to the Irish Lasses: Sham, whom I wish safe travels and will miss terribly, and Louise, who just beats me to the grand old age of 25 - Happy Birthday.

As Buffy and Faith sat waiting for the others to gather in the lobby of the Hyperion, both were feeling increasingly nervous. The rest of Angel Investigations were not going to take kindly to the fact that they had gone out on their own, potentially putting themselves in a fatal position. Not to mention the fact that they so easily could have put the prophecy one step further in motion. Only time would tell on that one, but they were both silently praying that it wasn't the case. Normally, a bout of impromptu patrolling would be greeted with enthusiasm, but since the appearance of Kira, and Faith's vulnerability being made all too apparent, such events were unlikely to rouse applause from the others.

When they had got back to the hotel the previous night, Faith had been physically and emotionally exhausted. She had sat on the bed in her room, and fell back, slipping almost instantaneously into sleep. Buffy had watched her, emotions running out of control and finally blending into each other. Faith looked so innocent when she was sleeping. Much younger than her years, almost like a teenager again. Buffy had reached down and taken off the other Slayer's boots and tucked her under the covers, pausing for a second to place a kiss on her forehead. There was something about Faith's vulnerability that she had always felt tug at her heart, even though it was a feeling that she had pushed to the back of her mind during the ten years distance that had been between them.

She made sure that the window was firmly closed and locked, and then made her way back to her own room. She was so tired that she longed to drift into sleep like Faith, but instead had lay awake for hours. This morning, her eyes felt gritty and sore, and she knew that she looked like hell. She waited for Faith to start the conversation.

"I know you guys are going to kick my ass for this, but last night I went out Slaying again." She swallowed and rubbed her hands together nervously as she waited for their reactions to come.

"What?" came the simultaneous response from everyone except Buffy.

"Hear me out will ya? I don't know why I did it, I know that it was stupid, but it just felt like something that I had to do. I don't know if she was working the mojo again, or whether it was just me needing to get out. But I went, and I saw her again. She talked to me some more, and well, it was pretty much the same as the last time." She trailed off as Cordy marched towards her.

"Faith, you could have been killed. I could be in the morgue now looking at your fucking dead body, Jesus Faith, how could you be so stupid?" There was anger in her voice, a clear sense of betrayal and the fact that she appeared to be genuinely afraid at the thought of losing Faith.

"Hey!" interrupted Buffy, her voice hard. "Back off Cordy. I was with her ok? And she probably didn't have a choice any way. I know you're upset but that's not going to help anyone right now." She watched as Cordelia opened her mouth to speak, then changed her mind and marched off to sit behind the desk. "I saw pretty much everything," she broke off and cast a look in Faith's direction, "but there was nothing much that we didn't already know. She has been waiting for Faith to come for a long time. She definitely doesn't want her to be killed. If she did, then she could have last night -"

"I thought you were looking after her," shot Cordelia.

"I mean," Buffy gritted her teeth, "she could have tried to. But she didn't. There was a few vague references that implied there were other people in on this one, but nothing specific." She trailed off, trying to remember exactly what had been said, but her brain just kept playing flashbacks of Kira leaning in and placing her lips against Faith's.

Tara walked over from where she had been sitting, and placed a hand on Faith's shoulder. She could sense that the girl was feeling guilty and to blame about the whole affair, just as she could sense Buffy's feelings of protection. She wondered if everyone else could feel the other thing. That there was something that they were not being told. There was something about the atmosphere in the room, and she could tell that both Buffy and Faith were missing a crucial part of the story. Tara resisted the urge to use any of her powers to find out what it was, trusting that the Slayers would tell everyone else when the time was right. She just hoped that their judgment wasn't off on this one. Either way, it was of no use to any of them to be angry and unproductive. "I have some idea of a few spells that might help here. It's been a long time since I have used magic like this, and I am going to need some supplies, but I am sure that I'll be able to do something to help."

"Thanks," whispered Faith. "Fred can show you where to get supplies, can't you Fred?"

"Sure, there's a place a couple of blocks away. I can take you there now if you want?"

"The sooner the better. Then we can try to put a stop to all of this. And Buffy?"

"Yeah?"

"Look after her." Tara's voice was stern, and Buffy knew what her best friend meant. Tara could tell just how much her feelings were starting to change, and how they could get in the way. How sometimes it was hard to protect people that you care about, no matter how much you want to. Tara clearly didn't want them ever to have to walk that path again, and she was more prepared this time. They both were.

"Well," said Wesley, "I'm going to meet a few contacts in an hour. Gunn, why don't you hit the streets and see if you can find out anything. Angel, I presume you are going to go and see Kate?"

"I'm going there after sunset."

"Okay then, we're all set. And Faith, don't worry. We're all here for you."

"Thanks Wes," she smiled, biting back the tears once again.

*****

Angel knocked on the door, and adjusted the collar of his leather coat in a slightly nervous gesture. There was something about Kate that he just couldn't figure out. She was like Cordelia in some ways, that hard edge. Though Cordy seemed to have got softer in the ten years she had been working for him and the powers, Kate just seemed to get harder. And she had been like a rock to begin with. She accepted him for who he was, that was true enough now, and was probably closer to him than just about anyone else, but there were times when he felt like she just wouldn't let him in.

Even though she worked alone, and had done so probably for longer than she had been cop, she still had that tough policewoman image and attitude. Her clothing was still practical, and designed for running and taking a man down if she had to, rather than just sitting at a desk and looking pretty. The hard glint that had always been in her eyes rarely softened, though Angel had seen it happen once or twice, over dinner and a good bottle of wine. Those times, when they were relaxed and talking, even if it was about a case, sometimes she would throw back her head and laugh, and when he looked at her, it seemed like she was being completely open. But as soon as he thought it, she seemed to realise it, and instantly closed up again. Not become too cold or distant, but clearly steering the conversation back to safer ground. The ground that was devoid of emotions.

He was still fiddling with the material when the door opened. "Angel. Come in."

"Thanks."

"So what did you want to see me about? You made it sound quite urgent. And with no offence intended, when you mention that it involves Faith, I still get a little concerned."

"Kate," Angel chided.

"Yeah, well you never you didn't see what she did to some of those people. Ok, that guy was probably trying to pick her up thinking she'd be vulnerable so he could pimp her out, but he lost the sight in his one eye." She sighed. "You're right, he probably deserved it. So go on. Spill."

"It's nothing that urgent really, I just thought that I should give you the head's up, just in case."

"And you couldn't do that over the phone?"

"Well," he rubbed his hands together nervously, "it seems like the only time I come over here is when I want some information from you, and you only call me when you think you might have something that could help me."

"I think you'll find that's how a business relationship works."

"But we've always had more than a business relationship, Kate. And it seems like we keep forgetting that. So how about we discuss it over a few drinks for a change? What do you say?"

"Since you claim to know me so well Angel, when have you ever known me refuse a drink?" She grabbed her jacket from where she had thrown it on the back of a chair, and felt in one of the pockets for the keys to her office door. She pulled them out with a grin. "I'd just about finished here for the day anyway. I was thinking about suggesting going for a drink anyway, just so I could get away from these walls. I get restless when I'm chained to the desk, you know how it is. So let's go get a beer and discuss the latest uprising in the underworld." She smiled good-naturedly at Angel and ushered him out of the room, flicking the lights off, and making sure she had turned the key in all four locks and enabled the alarm system. "Siste viator," she muttered, making a circular motion over the first lock with the palm of her hand. Now *all* the security systems were in place. "So, did you have anywhere in mind?"

*****

Anne walked into the offices of Angel Investigations after a long and uneventful day, only to find them all quietly researching. There was no light-hearted banter, just an atmosphere of uncertainty. "Hey," she smiled, walking over to Cordy and kissing her lightly. She pointed to the picture of a Klintach demon that took up most of the page Cordy was reading, "though that is a little off-putting."

"Tell me about it. This one is positively attractive compared to some of them."

"I've just remembered why I enjoy my job so much."

"Got any vacancies honey?" Cordelia smiled, as Anne wrapped her arms around the brunette, reading over her shoulder. "Because I sure as hell don't want to spend the rest of my life looking at these sorts of pictures."

"I take it you haven't found anything yet?"

"Not a thing. And some one is getting a little edgy," she glanced over to where Faith had begun to pace the floor.

"Okay, this is getting us nowhere," Faith kicked the edge of the desk in frustration. She was beginning to feel restless again; the energy was building up inside her with no potential for release.

"I know what we need," grinned Cordy, squeezing Anne's hand playfully.

"To get the fuck out of here?" muttered Faith.

"Yeah."

"Huh?"

"Well, going out on patrol could be kind of dangerous, but if we stay in here then you'll probably kill us all anyway. So how about we go visit a certain avocado-complexioned friend in his bar, where his mojo will stop the other mojo from getting you. Plus, he has cocktails."

"Cordy, sometimes I could kiss you." Faith beamed, and then saw Anne raise her eyebrow. "Not that I would or anything," Faith held her hands up in a mock peace gesture. "But it certainly sounds better than sitting around here staring at book-loads of ugly as shit demons. Come on, let's go," she laughed the first genuine hearty laugh for the first time in days. Her enthusiasm was infectious, and by the time they had all grabbed their coats, the tension was visibly lifted.

The bar was buzzing that night, and even the Ghanshnuk demon singing a painful rendition of 'Baby, One More Time' - you had to love the oldies - couldn't dampen the atmosphere. Lorne was making his way between the tables with a wink and a smile for everyone, his Sea Breeze continually being topped up by one of the waiters. He flounced over to them with a grin up to his horns when he saw them all walk through the door.

"Well, aren't you all the prettiest things in here tonight. I mean, really," he glanced over at a two-headed demon and shuddered. "Competition isn't that tight in here tonight, but anyway, top table for my ladies." He clicked his fingers and rolled his eyes as an incompetent barman cleared the main table, and began to look around for some extra seats.

After they had all ordered their drinks, Fred explained to Tara the nature of the karaoke, and Lorne's ability to read people. How they had all needed his guidance at some point over the past few years. Yes, even Faith. Tara laughed at the description of Faith up there on the stage, stammering her way through a few verses just to get her soul read. She wondered if, despite all the humour, now might be the time for her to do it again. Though it seemed that Faith had other plans as she virtually shoved Tara onto the stage, mischief dancing in her eyes. It was clear that Faith was seeing this as part fun to watch her new friend sweat it out like the rest of them had all been forced to do at some point, and part revenge for mocking, albeit light-heartedly, her own embarrassing performance.

Tara had a vague recollection of something Buffy had once said. Don't make fun of Faith, she never takes it lying down. A little too late to remember it now, she thought wryly as the microphone was thrust into her hand. Sometimes, she really wished she had just stayed in New York. Away from Sunnydale, which invariably let to death and demons and total humiliation at the hands of anyone else who was in on the act.

As the first chords of 'Crucify' by Tori Amos came over the PA, she realised that she hadn't even chosen the song. She looked over to where Lorne was leaning on the bar, and on his nod, realised she had no choice but to go through with this. She closed her eyes and swallowed, trying to block out the fact that there were thirty or so other beings in the room. All looking at her. Humans up on the stage in this bar were clearly of interest to the regulars. As she found her voice for the first line, she realised that half of them were probably thinking about what it would be like to kill her and maybe devour her flesh. Not exactly the audience you would wish for on your debut performance...

*****

Kate could certainly hold her beer with the best of them, but two hours into their stint at the bar, Angel could see she was slipping slightly. She was nowhere near as alert as she normally was, and the look in her eye was getting softer by the minute. "Do you realise where we are?" she asked, staring into the middle distance and taking another sip from her drink.

"I'm right in thinking that has some deeper meaning right?" Angel had learnt well from Cordelia that certain questions like that one were never as straightforward as they appeared.

"This is where we met for the first time. When I was an undercover cop, you were still in the vampire closet, and life was so much easier."

"It's been a long time."

"In some ways, nothing's changed. Just like this place. You change the name, get in a new crowd, but it's still really the same place. Where lonely people come to drown their sorrows, and try to find someone they make that connection to. And here we are Angel, you and me, still drinking here. Still alone, still drowning our sorrows."

"You're not alone Kate."

"Aren't I?"

"You always have me. I'm your friend."

"Then why do I feel so alone, even though you're sitting next to me?" She might be letting her emotions show, but she looked him hard in the eyes when she asked the question. As if she already knew that he didn't have the answers. When she was a cop, she had to be shut off from all the pain and hurt that she had seen in the world. Plus the hours were hardly conducive to forming relationships. Now she could dictate her own hours, but she still saw so much pain, and now it was the sort that she could not share with any regular Joe who came along. Angel was the only man in her life she could talk about them to, and he wasn't even really a man. He was a vampire who was going to live forever, or at least until he tried to get a tan. She was painfully aware of the length of time she had left and the fact that she would be going home to an empty apartment yet again tonight. For once, she wanted to feel someone there beside her when she went to sleep, the sensation of another body pressed against her.

"I wish there was something I could do to take the loneliness away from you Kate."

"There is."

"Tell me."

"Don't *let* me feel lonely tonight," she leaned over and kissed him lightly. "Don't leave me alone." It was a corny line that was more than half uttered out of desperation, but it had been a long time, and Kate wasn't sure if she had ever had the ability to be smooth with the lines. But this many beers in, she no longer seemed to care.

*****

Tara was shaking slightly as she stepped off the stage. It was a little too public for her, to be up there, knowing that she was being read at the same time, though she respected Lorne for his powers. His was a phenomenal gift, even though it did mean that with each lyric he was piercing his way right into her soul. Knowing how she was feeling, obviously, he handed her a drink and stayed silent as she gulped it down.

"You shouldn't be so shy sweetie, you have a great voice. In fact, if this was actually a competition, then you would be the one taking home the bottle of Tanqueray tonight. Now sit down." He pointed to a table set apart from the rest, the place where he combined the business with the pleasure. "You know what I am going to say anyway don't you?"

"Maybe."

"Of course you do. You don't even have to sing for me to sense it. Besides, Angel has already filled me in on the background. You had to do it. You had no choice. It's always hard to kill your lover, even here in LA people find it tricky, but you did what you were meant to do. It was what the universe had planned for you, and there was no way that you could change that. Willow was already on that path before you met her. There was no chance that you could redeem her. Only she could redeem herself, and you were sent her way as a little temptation, sure, but ultimately it was out of your hands. Now, you've got to let those wounds heal, and go out and get hurt again. Honey, even I've seen more action between the sheets in the past 10 years, and I'm not a sleep around kind of guy."

"I don't think I can."

"Of course you can. You just have to stop blaming yourself, and let that bit of you that is blaming Buffy go as well. That's something you have to admit to yourself and just walk away from. Don't even think about denying it. I can see it, hear it, feel it, I know what is there. You have to start living again, rather than wrapping yourself up in this protective little world. I don't think it takes my gift to see how much you're hurting inside, just like it's blindingly obvious that our two slayers are on that unrequited love trip to hell."

"It is kind of obvious," she nodded. "I'll think about it ok? I know you're right, I just feel like I need more time."

"You've had your time. I don't want to sound harsh, but...deal with it. Get over it. You don't have to leave your memories if you do. She will always be a part of you, she's probably watching over you right now. But she wouldn't want to see you alone like this, and I think you know that as much as I do. Don't waste any more chances. None of us are getting any younger. Now, you go back and join the others, I have to go and talk to Rodriguez about the thickness of these lemon slices." He rolled his eyes and headed off in the general direction of the bar, stopping to meet and greet on the way.

Tara got up and walked over to the others, her cheeks burning slightly from knowing that her most personal fears and doubts had been thoroughly probed. Faith grinned at her and passed her a glass. "Lorne tell you anything funky?"

"Nothing I didn't already know," sighed Tara ruefully. "But I guess he had to make me face it all. I'm still not sure if I can yet. I might have to save that for a bit longer. I'm not going to do it now. We're here to have a good time, not a night of Sapphic-Wicca introspection. So what were you all talking about?"

*****

Faith could feel it. The tingle up her spine, part instinct for the mystical, but also something else, something much deeper and personal. She looked towards the door, the colour draining from her face as she saw the familiar face of the woman walking down the stairs. Kira spotted her unerringly, and smiled at the Slayer, apparently revelling in the look of anguish that was crossing her face.

Buffy was feeling more relaxed than she had done for days. But when she looked over at Faith, and saw the expression on her face, Buffy allowed herself to follow Faith's path of sight, and felt her stomach clench at what she saw standing there. Kira was the epitome of poised, her self-control evident, her hair loose, her apparently customary leather pants a deep shade of red, her top designed to tease the eyes down to her cleavage. In the bright lights above the bar, she only looked around twenty-five, rather than the centuries she really was. Her lips curled in the faintest of smiles as she made eye contact with Buffy, before turning away and heading over to the bar.

Faith found herself watching the woman, as if the supernatural that made her the slayer was somehow deeply and inherently connected to the darker side of it that existed inside the vampire. She knew somehow that could feel her eyes boring into her back as the barman slid her drink across the bar and took a crisp twenty dollar bill from between her fingers. A sudden hand on Faith's shoulder made her jump and spill her drink. Her body primed to attack, instead she found Tara wearing a deep look of concern.

"That's her isn't it?" she asked softly.

"Yeah."

"Are you ok?"

"I think so."

"What about you Buffy?" Tara put more of a warning in her voice this time. She could feel the anger and, she had to admit it, jealousy emanating from Buffy. This much negative emotion was a bad thing, and Tara knew that they had to do something to calm it down.

Buffy reluctantly dragged her gaze away from Kira, taking heed of Tara's silent warning. She looked round the table, where the other women were trying hard to get the best view they could, given that she had her back to their table. They all hastily looked away when she drained her glass and turned to face them, coolly looking over each one of them briefly before settling on Faith, the smile on her face much more obvious now. Much more sensual, as if she could see more than the surface. Faith found herself shuddering, though she couldn't tell if it was more with fear or desire, and the sensation disturbed her. But not as much as it seemed to anger Buffy.

"I say we go over there and slay her right now. Who's with me on this?" she looked around expectantly.

"Erm," Cordelia tried to keep her voice neutral, "remember where we are? No violence of any sort. She can't touch Faith here."

"It's not the violent touching I'm worried about..." muttered Buffy under her breath.

"What?"

"Nothing. So what do we do, sit here like prisoners until she decides to leave?" Buffy, knocked back the remainder of her drink, more for something to do with her hands than anything else. The desire to take out her stake and twirl it around in some primitive gesture of threat and supremacy was very tempting. Though deep down, she knew that the vampire would probably find it amusing more than anything. She glared as Kira turned back to the bar, and tried to convince herself that she had made the vampire look away.

"*We* don't do anything," said Faith quietly. "I'm going to talk to her. She can't hurt me here, right? So I might as well make the most of the fact that we could meet on my terms for a change. Buffy?" she looked at the blond slayer, who seemed to be unconvinced by her argument. Faith knew that there was no choice though, that now was the opportunity that they had been waiting for. "I have to give it a try B. Please don't make this any harder for me than it already is."

Without waiting for a reply, she got up and headed towards the bar.

The ten paces it took seemed like a mile stretching out ahead of Faith, and it felt like she was walking in slow motion. She could feel the power over that the vampire held over her was strong, even though she had chosen not to tell the others that. She thought it was her choice, though she also knew that there was nothing certain about the position that she was in. She just hoped that the others would be able to cover her back if something happened. Though with the threat of violence removed here, what the others might have to save her from suddenly seemed far more disturbing than when she had been sitting at the relative safety of their table.

The vampire did not even turn to face her as she pulled up a stool and sat alongside, just stared straight ahead. "Can I buy you a drink?" she smirked, seemingly knowing that Faith would refuse the offer.

"I'm good."

"Why have you chosen to speak with me, when you are here with your friends, and I am enjoying a drink alone?"

"You knew I was going to be here didn't you?"

"Of course."

"How -"

"I just know. Sometimes your innocence is astounding for one so wearied by the world that so few people ever see. You live in the heart of the darkness, and yet you behave as though you have only ever seen the light. I have told you before, you must never forget the darkness Faith."

"What if I chose to forget?"

"Well," laughed the vampire, "I find it rather amusing that you believe you have an option."

"Hey, I can make choices. Especially here. You know that there is nothing that you can do to me as long as we are inside these walls, right?"

"Wrong. I cannot perform an act of violence or hurt you in any way. But all my other powers remain intact within this space. Don't pretend that you didn't know that. You just chose not to tell the others, but you know the extent of my abilities, and how I could make them work inside these walls. But do not worry. The drinks are far too good here for me to want to will you all outside to kill you. I know how many times Lorne has had to rebuild this place because of you all. I don't want to ruin his reputation as well." She spoke with a familiarity in her voice that disturbed Faith.

"Do you know him?" she questioned, suddenly finding hard to swallow.

"Not in that sense. I know of him, his reputation as a Reader is the best in LA. But he has also played a part in your life at many points, so my interest in him has been purely business. I was not sure to what extent he would be able to guide you on the path once I had found you. Or whether The Powers would block him."

"Why would they do that? The Powers are on our side."

"Sometimes, there are no sides, just the inevitability. The Powers respect that, and when the path is clear, sometimes they will not distract you from it. Sometimes the line between good and evil is not as clear as we on this plane think it is. You must remember that Faith. All the knowledge that you have learned from your years under Angel's tutelage will help you far more than your speed and strength. This is not something you can fight your way out of."

"But that's what Wes is there for. The research and the brain stuff. If you've been watching me that much you'd know that I've never exactly been one for study."

"You have learned much on your journey. You must not underestimate yourself Faith. I sense your doubts rising again. They will make you weaker, you must realise that?"

"Doesn't that make you happy then? Coz if I'm weak you're the sure-fire winner aren't you?"

"Always a battle for you, isn't it Faith?" laughed Kira. "Winner is such a concrete term for such a subtle state of affairs. Believe me Faith, even if I chose to use your terms, I only win if you win." She paused and took another sip of her drink, looking Faith deep in the eyes as she did so. Without realising it, Faith took a step closer to her, the distance between their bodies reducing to mere inches. "You see Faith, our futures are intertwined, though you are not making it easy for me. Despite everything I have told you, you seem to insist on involving the other slayer in your life. Trying to pull her in with you, into this future, when we both know that can never be. You should stop trying to resist me Faith. You know that really you have no choice."

"I...I have a choice. You can't make me-" Faith broke off as she watched the vampire's face draw dangerously close to her own, knowing instinctively what was coming next, and feeling the thrill of anticipation up her spine. Unconsciously, she wet her lips with her tongue, parting them slightly, ready for the touch of Kira's mouth against her own. The sounds in the room seemed to fade away and the lights dim in the seconds before the kiss took place. Faith knew that this was what the vampire talked about, the fact that whatever their fate may be, the rest of the world would indeed fade away rather than be part of it. Trapped in that moment, Faith knew that there was something about this that seemed to be so right, despite a voice whispering at the back of her mind to fight it, fight the kiss and everything that it stood for. A voice that seemed to grow quieter as she felt Kira's tongue slide over her own, coaxing her mouth opening and drawing her inwards.

She couldn't work out whether Kira had somehow anticipated the moment, or whether it was the sound of the smashing glass itself that ended the kiss, but in a split second, sight and sound seemed to return to Faith and as she whipped her head round to where the others were sitting, she saw the remains of Buffy's drink lying in fractured shards across the table around her clenched fist. Faith thought she heard Kira laugh quietly to herself, and turned to the vampire with equal parts fear and disgust. She tried to think of something to say, but there was no need. Kira was clearly ready to leave. "Bye lover," she whispered, dropping the briefest of kisses against Faith's slightly swollen lips, before turning round and walking casually up the steps and out onto the street. Faith knew that she had no choice but to face the others with the entire truth now. Taking a deep breath and wishing she had time for more than a few stiff drinks, she headed back to the table, hoping that they would not notice that her legs were shaking.

"Ok," said Cordelia with exaggerated patience as Faith walked within questioning distance. "There was kissing? Was this the first of the kissing, or has there been something you've forgotten to tell us about?" When Faith didn't answer, Cordelia turned to Buffy, her tone more harsh this time, "Did you know about this?"

"I..." Buffy began, glancing up at Faith and then back down at the table before nodding her head slightly.

"And neither of you thought that this might have the slightest little thing to do with the prophecy, that you necking with a vampire could only ever lead to badness?" She pointed emphatically at Buffy. "And you of all people should have known that."

"I-"

"No, you'll listen to me now. We're the ones who are putting our lives at risk here. I can understand why Faith wouldn't want to admit to this, but couldn't you have said something Buffy?"

"Cordelia." Faith didn't raise her voice, but it commanded Cordelia to stop and listen. "Buffy knew about it, because, yes, it has happened before. But the reason that she didn't say anything was because I asked her not to. She kept quiet for me. I wasn't sure if it had something to do with the prophecy, or if it was just some way she had of trying to freak me out and make me feel weak. It's not like I want her to do it. It just feels right when she does, and I really can't do anything to stop it." She looked at Cordelia pleadingly, and frowned briefly at the mass of shattered glass that was sprayed across the tabletop.

The silence around the table was palpable, as everyone took in the seriousness of the situation, and the new twist that had been put on it. The happy mood that had surfaced briefly was now gone again, and they were forced to face the fact that whatever was going on was not going to go away with a few drinks and a sing-a-long. Eventually, it was Tara who decided to take matters into her own hands. "Well, why don't we go back to the hotel, and work out whether or not the others really have to know about this. It is affecting Faith after all, and we keep trying to make all the decisions for her. So far, that's not working out too well for anybody." She smiled over at Faith, and flicked a glance at Buffy to gauge her response to what was being said. Buffy was just staring at the opposite wall, biting down on her lip, though whether that was to stop herself from speaking or crying, Tara couldn't tell. "I'll get Lorne to call us a cab. Do you want me to ask him if he picked anything up from her while she was here?" the question was clearly directed at Faith, letting her know that Tara was being deadly serious when she said that she should have more control about the path that they took. Faith nodded, knowing deep down that even something she didn't want to hear would be better than walking blind into these meetings time and time again.

*****

"Um Faith?" Buffy began awkwardly as they began to ascend the stairs, trying to make sure that they were out of earshot of the rest of the gang. The details had been met with a stony silence from the men, and the difficulty in gauging their mood had been too much for Faith to handle. The moment that Wes had headed off in the direction of the office and his books, Faith had decided to call it quits and go to her room, not realising that Buffy had intended to follow her until she heard the soft half-whisper from behind her. "I know we've talked this to death tonight, but, how do you know that the same thing won't happen again tonight?"

"What same thing B?"

"That you won't suddenly find yourself walking out of your room again and going to her. What if I didn't sense that there was something wrong this time? What if something happened and I wasn't around to look out for you? I know I didn't do much last time, I don't know why, and I feel really bad about it, but what if something happened to you while you were all alone? What if -"

"Buffy, whoa, slow down! Take a deep breath here ok?"

"Ok, I'm sorry, it's just...I don't know. How about, if I, slept on the chair in your room tonight? That way, if you get up, you're bound to wake me up. Slayer hearing and all that. Which you know, obviously..." Buffy started to kick herself mentally. Very hard. She was making far too big a deal about this, and she could see the amusement flicker in Faith's eyes, though to her credit, she did manage to somehow keep a straight face.

"That's sweet really Buffy, but, there's no need for you to sleep in the chair."

"But I- oh?" Buffy's voice hitched a little as she realised just what Faith was implying.

"Don't worry B. I got the biggest bed in the place, and I'm pretty sure I can keep my hands off you. In fact, I'll even make sure I wear something." She let out a hearty chuckle at her own teasing. It felt better to mock the whole situation than think about what it would be like to have Buffy lying in the same bed of her, sharing the same intimate space. She let out a deep breath. "Buffy, I don't be wanting to head off on any more midnight adventures real soon either. I don't think it's going to happen tonight, after, well, earlier, but I don't want to take any chances either. It's clear that whatever it is she does, she does it damn well, and I can't do a thing about it. So if you want to watch my back, I'm not gonna stop you, ok?"

"You sure?"

"What, you want to back out now? After the speech and everything? You have to relax a little Buffy. Why don't you go change and then come to my room."

"Ok then." Buffy smiled a little awkwardly, and then turned to go in the direction of her room for the duration of their stay at the Hyperion.

"Oh, and Buffy? Bring a stake with ya. When I sleep with someone for the first time, I like to make sure I have protection." Faith smiled suggestively, and began to laugh as she headed off to her room.

Buffy stared after her, the heat making her cheeks burn.

PART SIX - HEART OF DARKNESS

Notes: This is the second part of the series which began with 'Darker Than Night'. This won't make much sense if you haven't read it. Thanks to Sham and Gareth for starting this whole thing and making it work along the way at all levels, and Phil for being my beta once again. Also a heads up to Piper, who has sent me useful FB throughout.
Notes (2): For Sham - Happy Birthday!

Cordelia loved waking up to the sound of breathing behind her, the possessive arm around her waist, and the warmth of Anne's body spooning against her back.

In the few short weeks since their first kiss, Cordelia realised she found it increasingly hard to imagine her life without Anne as a major part. It made her feel warm and vulnerable at the same time, and she had to admit, she enjoyed it. When you put your life on the line every day, it sometimes seemed to matter less - especially when it appeared your sole purpose was for the greater earthly good, rather than having a life of your own. It was a fear Cordelia did not easily let go of.

Yet, lying here like this, wrapped up in the warmth of the other woman's body, she felt safe, cocooned against the world almost. It was enough to make her never want to leave bed, though she knew that the real world was indeed waiting, and it needed them both to get their asses out of there and perform their respective duties in the service of good. Cordelia sighed, wondering what it would be like to have a normal life. Just the two of them, free of visions, demon goo and the occasional excursion to the sewer.

The feel of Anne nuzzling into the back of her neck snapped her out of her reverie, and sent shivers down her spine, making her shudder slightly. She heard Anne gently laugh and whisper, "So you're awake then?"

"Hmmmm" Cordelia rolled over within the circle of Anne's arms to face the woman who, she suspected, she was starting to fall for. Just a little bit. She looked up to see Anne's hair all mussed up from sleep, and couldn't help but think how cute she looked. She lifted her head and placed a gentle good morning kiss on the other woman's lips. Slowly the kiss deepened, not into one of frantic desire, but instead into an expression of the depth of feeling that was starting to exist between them. It ended as gently as it had begun, and Cordelia reached up and tucked a stray strand of hair behind the other woman's ear. She smiled as Anne planted a tiny kiss on the tip of her nose and then rolled onto her back, allowing Cordelia to rest on her.

"I really wish I didn't have to go into work today," Cordy mumbled into Anne's shoulder. "Staying curled up here in bed with you sounds so much better than having to cope with everything that's going on out there. On top of the damn prophecy thing, there's all the other stuff. Everyone knows what's going on, but nobody is talking about it."

"What do you mean?" Anne planted a kiss on the top of Cordelia's head.

"Did you see Buffy with the whole glass smashing thing while we were out last night? I've seen the way she's started looking at Faith, and believe me, it's not burning hatred in those eyes any more. I think Tara must have noticed it as well. I've caught her watching them when she thinks they're not looking."

"So what's the problem? Faith has always liked Buffy. I know things have been difficult over the past, but you don't seem so happy about the thought of Buffy liking her back. Jealous?" she poked Cordy in the side playfully.

"No!" Cordy protested, squirming a little to get away from Anne's hand. "I'm just worried that Faith is in a vulnerable enough place right now, and to be honest, I saw Buffy's relationships in high school. If what I have been told is anything to go on, things haven't changed that much since. In fact, sometimes it seems like screwing a two hundred year old vampire out of his soul was her romantic high-point."

"She can't be that bad!"

"I know it might seem like I'm always giving Buffy a hard time, but she really is used to having everything either her own way or not at all. She's used to being the Chosen One and winning, but she still doesn't seem to realise that being in a relationship isn't about winning or having the more control. It's about equality, and I don't think she knows how to give that to someone. Especially not someone who she has been trying to beat since the day that they met."

"I can see why you're worried," Anne said looking over at the clock on the dresser, and letting out an exaggerated sigh. "But we have to think about getting up."

"Urgh," Cordy reached down and pulled the covers up over her head.

"We really have to," laughed Anne, disentangling their limbs and sliding out of bed. "Even if you don't want to face the horrors of potential Slayer on Slayer action - something which I am sure a lot of people would pay to see by the way - I have a lot of kids who need me to sort their lives out. And if you see Faith, you can tell her that I need her help doing that, even if she is about to single-handedly destroy the world without realising it."

"We shouldn't joke about stuff like that."

"Slayer on Slayer action or the end of the world?"

"The end of the world. Do you know how many times I have nearly seen it happen since I was sixteen?"

"Too many times baby. But us joking about it isn't going to change anything. You know that. You can go out and fight and try and change it, or you can pretend it's not going to happen. But joking about it..."

"Have you never heard of dramatic irony? Because when it comes to demons, the moment the jokes start, things always seem to go to hell. Often literally." Cordelia let out a sigh and got out of bed, following Anne into the bathroom. She checked that there were two towels within easy reach and followed her into the shower. "Besides, you've heard that no Slayer is supposed to live beyond their 25th year. Buffy is thirty dammit. And so is Faith for that matter. Which means that we have two Slayers both living on borrowed time. If that doesn't spell disaster, then what does?"

"But they've got this far," Anne pointed out, handing Cordelia the shower gel, "so, what's to say they can't keep going? I mean, they don't slay any less than they did when they were teenagers, do they?" She moved slightly to allow more of the spray to hit Cordelia's shoulders. "I've seen them in action, the bad guys never seem to stand a chance."

"But how long can they go on?" asked Cordelia, lathering the shampoo into her hair. "I mean, there is no retirement plan to being a Slayer. Just like being a visionary for the PTB. It's a job for life, sure, but not exactly with the security you usually expect from one of those."

"I know Faith is your best friend, so why haven't you talked to her about this?"

"She's your colleague and ex-lover, why haven't you?"

"Touche."

"Besides, she hasn't been in the most receptive mood lately."

"I'd noticed. I know she has been busy with everything else, but she's been spending less and less time at the shelter. Normally, it doesn't matter what the big bad is, she always drops by and makes sure that everything is running smoothly."

"You see what I mean about being worried? She is really starting to let this take over her life. All she seems to see is Buffy and the end of the world. Not necessarily in that order."

"I still think you sound a little jealous," Anne teased, flicking a bubble of soap that seemed to be growing on Cordelia's chin. When it popped, she replaced it with a small kiss to take the sting out of her accusation.

"And you sound jealous of me being jealous," laughed Cordelia. "You're the one who has been on the receiving end of the Slayer lovin' not me," she stuck her tongue out childishly.

"You all done?" Anne laughed, checking over Cordy's body for any remaining suds, before switching off the shower and stepping out. "She really needs to come into the shelter though. I can't run it all single-handedly, and she's never been that good at the research part of demon hunting anyway." She handed Cordelia a towel and kissed her lightly on the nose. "And I think it's cute that you worry about her."

"Cordelia Chase? Cute? Never!"

"Oh, definitely cute."

*****

It was still dark when Buffy woke for the first time, acutely aware of the fact that there was an arm across her waist and a leg splayed across her hips, effectively pinning her down. Her mind abstractly tried to recall the last time she had been in this position. It seemed like such a long time ago, and even longer since she hadn't had the urge to make her excuses and leave, feeling dirty and more than a little guilty.

Strange that she didn't feel that way now, given the fact that she had known instantly that it was Faith's body which was pushed up against her own, Faith's smell that was all around her. There was something so *right* about the feeling, and as long as Faith was asleep, Buffy knew that she would be okay. At that moment, she just wanted to enjoy the sensation, the peace that came before the inevitable intrusion of the darkness of her world.

She resisted the urge to slide her arms around Faith's body, knowing that the natural gesture would push too many thoughts to the front of her mind. Thoughts that she knew she shouldn't be having. Thoughts that she didn't want to be having, not while there was so much else going on.

She tried to pinpoint exactly when her feelings had changed, but she found that she couldn't be certain. It seemed such a long time ago since she had felt the hatred for Faith pound through her veins, but she knew that it had been no more than weeks really. Things had turned around so fast, yet it seemed in many ways that they had crept upon her gradually. Faith's vulnerability at times was something that she never thought she would see, and certainly didn't expected to have it laid down before her.

There were times when she could have broken Faith, beaten her down like she had always threatened to do, and she knew that Faith would not have fought back. Other times, there had been that old fire in those dark eyes, that look that had sometimes chilled Buffy to the core. It was a look that meant different things depending purely on whether Faith thought of you as friend or foe. Either way, it produced the same effect, it was the inner strength of Faith, part Slayer and part personality, and you knew that she could take you down. That she would not stop until she had.

That she would enjoy reaching into you.

Just then, Faith stirred, and Buffy willed her body not to tense, not to give away the thoughts that had been going round her head. How was Faith going to react when she opened her eyes to find that she had wrapped herself around her body during the night? Buffy knew that the most natural thing would be to mumble some kind of apology and disentangle herself. She suddenly realised the last thing she wanted to happen was to feel the cold where Faith's limbs had been. She silently willed the other woman not to move too much, and had to stop herself from pulling her in further. Oh yes, these feelings were going to start to cause problems soon. But for now, she was content just to enjoy them for how they were making her feel.

To her surprise, Faith mumbled 'morning' but did not move, her body seemingly too tired to even stretch. Buffy was certain that they had both slept fairly well, all things considered, but her body was reluctant regardless. Mental and emotional exhaustion seemed to compound their physical fatigue. As she looked down at the top of Faith's head, the overwhelming desire to protect welled up inside her, taking her by surprise and making her stomach churn.

"Thank you Buffy," Faith mumbled through sleep-swollen lips. "You know, for last night. For staying. I don't know if I'd even have been able to sleep at all if I'd been lying here in my own. Probably woulda been waiting for her to come and get me." There was a pause, and Buffy desperately tried to find the right words to say. No wonder they were both so weakened. This was all they could think of. All they should be thinking of, Buffy conceded to herself with a little pang of guilt. Before she could think of anything, Faith continued, though it seemed she was talking more to herself as she fought her way out of the vulnerability of sleep and into consciousness. "I hate feeling like this. So damn helpless. I'm the Slayer. I shouldn't feel helpless. You know what it's like to be who we are. You are the only one who actually understands. But look at me. I might as well be a fucking new born baby for all the use I am - "

"Hey!" Buffy interrupted, knowing that Faith was unravelling before her, and the gap between their bodies was beginning to widen. Bizarrely, Buffy had a notion that if the physical distance grew between them again at that moment, then the emotional one would do so in kind. "Listen to me." She tried to use her most commanding tones, willing Faith to take heed. "You *are* strong. You're probably stronger than me. I've fallen apart so many times just because I am the Slayer. You've had to deal with loads of other crap on top of it, and you've made it through. You *are* strong and brave. If there is anyone who can make it through all of this then it's you. I believe in you Faith." She felt Faith's body begin to soften again beside her, and reached out to tuck an escaping strand of bed hair behind Faith's ear. "And we're all behind you one hundred percent of the way. I know you're feeling weak and alone at the moment, but you're not. We're all here for you. And I'm going to stand by you every step of the way, regardless of whatever that prophecy thing says. Do you know how many times I've beaten those things? You have too. Come on, what chance has it got against the both of us?"

Buffy rolled onto her side, pulling Faith into a hug, burying her head in the brunette's shoulder. There was something right about the action then. The need to comfort and be comforted. Yet as Buffy pulled Faith tighter into her embrace, she once again became aware of the fact that they were pressed together, their legs closed to becoming intertwined, and Buffy could feel the outline of Faith's body where it curved into her own. It was a position she never thought she would find herself in with the other Slayer.

She pulled back slightly, her head level with Faith's, and studied the intensity in the chocolate-brown eyes before her. She could tell by the subtle change in Faith's breathing that she was feeling the electrical charge passing between them as well. Where their skin was making contact it actually seemed to tingle, and Buffy could have sworn that even through the material of her clothes, she could feel the temperature of Faith's body rising.

The look of fear in Faith's eyes had gone, and had been replaced by something much darker, a rich intensity that was clearly desire. For the first time it was naked in her gaze, unhidden lust and need as her eyes flicked briefly towards Buffy's mouth. In that moment, Buffy thought Faith was going to kiss her, and felt her breath hitch tightly in her chest. Instinctively, she wet her lips, and as Faith's face seemed to move towards hers, excruciatingly slowly, her eyes fluttered closed. Somewhere at the back of her mind she was torn between stopping it happening, and revelling in the anticipation of what such a kiss could bring.

The proximity of their bodies made Buffy notice once again how Faith's sexual energy had not diminished in the years that had passed between them. There was still something that was predatory, sensual, and Buffy felt as if she was the willing prey. She felt Faith's hand flat on the base of her spine, possessive and controlling, pulling her in closer and connecting them at the hips, making Buffy want to arch her body into that of the other Slayer with the abandon she knew Faith would crave.

Then Faith's lips were on her own, pressing against her gently, almost tenderly she realised, with none of the dominance that Buffy became aware she had been expecting. Instead, there was the faintest hesitation, and Buffy realised that Faith was waiting for her to push her away, still unable to gauge if the risk had been worth it. Not knowing yet if she slid her tongue between Buffy's lips whether or not the kiss would be reciprocated. And then her tongue was in Buffy's mouth, gently teasing her lips apart, softly exploring in an undemanding kiss, and Buffy stopped thinking. She found her arms wrapping around Faith and her tongue, hesitant at first, flicking against that of the other woman, feeling the heat where they touched seem to spread completely throughout her body.

Even this relatively chaste gesture of passion was making Buffy's breathing deep and uneven, yet somehow unconsciously matching the rhythm of Faith's own. She felt Faith's hand slide from where it was placed so firmly on her back to her hip, igniting the flesh as she did so, and then the pressure increased with Faith's kisses, pushing her firmly back into the mattress, her mouth starting to swell with movement of Faith's lips against her own, as she felt a leg slide possessively between her thighs.

She felt the panic begin to rise in her, welling up as she realised that Faith was not intent on keeping things at kissing, that she was used to having a woman's body beneath her, and the scent of desire and arousal seemed everywhere, filling her nostrils and making it hard to breath. She felt Faith's hand slide over her stomach, snaking its way under the fabric of her clothes, and she felt her breasts tighten in anticipation while her mind contracted in fear.

"I. I can't do this. I'm sorry." Buffy wrenched her mouth away from Faith's as she felt the tip of Faith's thumb make first contact with the underside of her breast. She felt the tears prick her eyes at the look of stunned hurt and confusion on the other woman's face, even as she was pushing at the body on top of her, trying to break them apart. Faith seemed to lifelessly allow herself to be pushed away, shocked as Buffy propelled herself off the bed and towards the door, nearly stumbling over her own feet as she did so. She went to say something else, but the words seemed to catch in her throat, as the panic engulfed her body.

Faith let out a groan as she watched Buffy flee her room. She flopped back down on the bed fighting back the tears. She should have known better than to get up any hope that this could end in happiness. That was a ridiculous thought. This was her. It was Buffy. She was lucky to have them just speaking to each other, being friends was a bonus, but no, they had to go and ruin everything. She should have known better. She grabbed a pillow and held it over her face, muffling the sob that escaped from her lips, trying to pretend that the taste of Buffy wasn't filling her mouth. The pain seemed to slice through her stomach, in a way that only Buffy could cause.

*****

Buffy stumbled blindly towards Tara's room, her head spinning and her knees feeling as if they were about to buckle underneath her. She didn't even knock on the door, instead just pushed her way through and threw herself on Tara's bed.

Tara calmly put the book she had been reading down onto the bedside cabinet, hitched the sheets a little higher up her body, and raised an eyebrow at Buffy, waiting for the other woman to stop sniffling hysterically into her covers. She had a pretty good idea of what was going on, having heard Buffy stumble out of the other Slayer's room. This wasn't a demon-related pain, it was just a simple human affair. Which she knew Buffy had been shying away from for far too long. She shook her head slightly, more to herself than Buffy, and reached out a comforting hand. "Buffy?"

"What have I done?"

"Why don't you tell me?"

"Faith. I. We..." she trailed off, sitting up and dragging the back of her hand over a tear-stained cheek. "We..."

"Kissed?"

"Ungh..."

"More than kissed?" Tara's eyes widened a little, despite her best efforts to remain calm and composed.

"No, well sort of. We kissed, and it felt like, it felt good. Like I wanted it and she wanted it, and, I kinda stopped thinking because it all felt so right."

"So if it all felt so right then what are you doing in here?" They both jumped at the sound of Faith's door slamming, and the scuffle of feet running down the hallway of the Hyperion. Tara watched as the pain and regret flickered across Buffy's face, and then it was gone, the fear and uncertainty returning.

"It just happened too fast. Tara, it's been so long. And well, she's... you know?"

"A woman?"

"I was going to say supposed to be my arch-rival and everything I'm supposed to despise, but yeah, that too," said Buffy dryly, watching as Tara attempted to suppress an inappropriate snigger.

"So, why didn't you just ask her to slow down? To stop even? Unless you are telling me that you've realised that it was all a mistake and you never want it to happen again, in which case, I think we may have to warn the others they have more to worry about than just the end of the world."

"I didn't say that!" Buffy sounded hurt.

"I know," said Tara, more gently this time, taking the Slayer's hand. "But Buffy, you're not being fair to yourself, and you're not being fair to her either. The two of you obviously feel something for each other. I feel guilty for not sitting you down and making you listen to this earlier. You two belong together. Maybe you didn't in the past, maybe you did. But in this moment you do, and I think you know from that kiss that it's true. You have to let the past go and move on. It's happened now, and you can't take it back. But you can go and find her and try to make it right again. Think how much she must be hurting right now Buffy. If you care about her as much as I think you do, then you don't want that. But you can make it better."

"Since when did you get so wise?" sniffed Buffy through a smile.

"You know the answer to that as much as I do," said Tara, the hardness in her voice not entirely masking the pain. "Now go. Find Faith and work things out between the two of you. Give yourself a chance to be happy."

*****

Cordelia pulled up in front of the shelter, sliding the car past an overturned dumpster and wondering why she even let her girlfriend work in this part of town. Guiltily she pushed the CC bit of her back down where it belonged, and glanced over at Anne in the passenger seat. Even though she knew that she was really late getting to the office, she didn't want to say goodbye to her lover. Things seemed so perfect between them, and in her experience, that never lasted long. Now she had experienced it, she just couldn't bring herself to let it go.

So instead of kissing Anne goodbye and watching her get out of the car, Cordy killed the engine and followed her into the shelter. Well, she reasoned, it's not like demon hunting had fixed working hours. Besides, she could have a much better kiss goodbye when she was in Anne's office than she could in the middle of the street inside a cramped car. Back when she was in High School, she never seemed to have problems, but she guessed she was slightly less limber these days. And hopefully a lot more mature. Maybe.

Anne seemed to know what she was thinking, and didn't question when she followed her into the building. She didn't want to say goodbye to Cordelia either, even though she knew they should pry themselves apart to do the things that they had to do. Like try to sort things out for Faith if they could, rather than let her go on pining after Buffy and walking blind into the path of an oncoming demon. She was about to say as much to Cordy when she noticed a shadow behind the glass panel of her office door.

"Speak of the devil," said Anne dryly, throwing her purse onto the chair and walking over to the coffee pot.

"Hey, I'm one of the good guys remember?" joked Faith with false brightness, her eyes just a little too bright as she took a final drag on her cigarette before flicking it out of the window.

"Okay Faith," sighed Cordelia. "What's happened?"

"Why should anything have happened?" Faith shrugged.

"I have been your best friend for how many years now? I think I can tell when there's something wrong. So we can either do this the easy way or the hard way. Spill."

"It's nothin'"

"Faith..." Cordelia began in warning tones.

"Okay, okay. It's to do with Buffy."

"Told you," Cordelia snapped in Anne's direction to the unspoken statement, then waved her hand dismissively as Faith raised her eyebrow in response. "Go on."

"Well, we, um," Faith began to hesitate and reached into her pocket for her packet of cigarettes, trying to hide the fact that her hand was shaking. She flicked one out of the packet and lit up, trying to decide how to word things so they didn't sound worse than they really were. It was just a little kiss after all, maybe just a little touching, nothing much. Or at least, that was what Faith was determined to convince herself of. She lit up and inhaled deeply. "Well, last night, she stopped with me, just to make sure, nothing happened, yunno?"

"By stopped with you....?" Cordelia trailed off, leaving the real question hanging in the air.

"With me. In my bed. It was nothing like what you're thinking. At least, not at first. But this morning, we were talking, and I got all upset, and then I started crying and before I knew what I was doing I kissed her and then she kissed me back for a while and then she got up and left and I shouldn't have done anything. I tried to push it too far, C, it was all my fault. It was just, she was there, and I wanted her so badly..." The words came out in a semi-coherent babble, as Faith let out the emotion she had been keeping under tight control as she had been pacing the floor of the office, waiting for Anne to come in. Something had told her that Cordy would come in with her, the two had become increasingly inseparable over the past few weeks, even more so after the nights they had stayed together. Faith knew she was hitting a real emotional low spot, and this had been the only place she could think of to go. The shelter, the last refuge for those who have given up hope. The place to go when you had no place left to go. When even Angel Investigations can't do anything for you.

She looked up to see faint spots of colour appearing on Cordy's cheeks. Over the years, Faith had come to realise that these were the beginnings of rage, and realised that it had come out wrong after all. She knew that Cordelia found it all too easy to get angry with Buffy still, and that was going to take a long time to change. "Cordy, please, it's not her fault."

"Hey, it takes two, you know! You can't blame yourself."

"I've blown it. She's going to head back to Sunnydale, I'm going to be killed slowly and painfully by some demon fucking prophecy, and that's the way it's meant to be. Should have known better than to ever think that it wouldn't happen to me, yunno?" Suddenly it was there, all the anger and the rage, the blackness she had always known, it was there and it was threatening to choke her. Her muscles seemed to go tense, her fingers itching for something to hold, to crush, to break. Everything that she had been holding in for years, all those times when she had thought she was redeemed, they broke through the barriers she had so carefully constructed to keep it in place.

The darkness couldn't be kept in any longer. She pushed past Cordelia, unseeing, some base part of herself saying that she had to get out there. This was not the place to let herself loose, to let it all pour from her in one angry violent torrent of emotion. She thought Cordelia might have said something to her, but she couldn't be sure. The only clear noise was the ringing in her ears as the blood seemed to pound from her chest and into her brain. Then she was running, her feet unfeelingly pounding the sidewalk, the uncompromising purpose inside her finding its own direction.

*****

Cordelia was trying to call Angel as Buffy walked into the office. She slammed down the phone, and rounded on the Slayer. "This is all your fault. And now we're probably all going to pay."

*****

Faith wasn't sure when the day had turned to night, or how far she had gone to get here, but she was certain this was the right place. She could feel it, the hunger in her had found the place where she was supposed to be. Without even trying, muscles fuelled by something beyond rage and pain, she raised her leg and the door was inside the room, broken clear of its hinges. The vampire on the bed of the small motel room looked unsurprised by the appearance of the Slayer in her doorway, eyes blazing.

She didn't even try to get away as Faith pounced towards her, pushing her hard back onto the bed, not flinching even as her head made contact with the wall behind her. There was a silence, broken only by the creak of leather against leather as Faith straddled the vampire, pinning her with the strength of her thighs as her fingers cut into the cold skin of her shoulders.

"You want me?" hissed Faith. "Well now you've got me."

*****

She had waited a long time to be in this position. In fact, Lilah Morgan had either stabbed or screwed her way to the top at every point in her career. The thing that was most satisfying about it was the fact that she knew that she could do it so well. There was no one who could get the upper hand with her any more. This was a position of power that had been such a long time in coming, there was no way whatsoever that she was going to give it up now. No, there was a price for everything, and there was nothing that Lilah did not know the value of.

She looked at the panoramic views of the city that her office afforded. The dossier on her desk told her just about everything that she needed to know. There were bits in there on the rogue Slayer, but after the few intimate moments that they had spent that one time all those years ago - when Lilah had been trying to lure Faith outside and into the Wolfram and Hart trap - there was nothing pen and paper could enlighten her with.

Lilah took another sip of the fine scotch blend. No, this was getting far too complicated, and the vampire wasn't doing her job properly. The buck stopped here now, and Lilah wanted to know what the fuck was going on. Something was off, she could feel it, and she wondered if there was something that the higher powers had miscalculated.

After all, there was no way she was going to let them ruin her big moment.

...to be continued...

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