DISCLAIMER: Buffy the Vampire Slayer and all related properties belong to Joss and some corporate types. Please resist the urge to throw money at me for this one.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: This story contains harsh language, girls kissing, gratuitous violence to necks, and a brief instance of tastefully circumscribed heterosexual sex, so consider yourself warned if you lose your appetite. More importantly, this story is a sequel to my previous stories "The Willow Diaries" and "The Calendar Pages", so consider yourself warned if you have no idea what's going on.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
FEEDBACK: To eldritchsandwich[at]gmail.com
The Dawn Journals
Nobody knows who I am. Not the real me. It's like, nobody gives enough of a shit to find out. I mean, does anyone ever ask me what I want to do with my life? Or what my opinion is on stuff? Fuck no!
No one understands. No one has an older sister who's a motherfucking Slayer.
I should have hit her. When I opened the door and saw her standing there looking at me like she missed me I should have fucking punched her right in her smug fucking superhero face. Either that or I should have started crying and hugging her and begging her to take me away with her.
But the only thing I could think to say was, "Took you long enough."
As the plane taxied to the gate, Faith risked a glance over at the smaller brunette sitting in the window seat beside her. As far as she knew, it was Dawn's first time on a plane, but the round face lit by the warm SoCal sun streaming through the window betrayed no wonder. Instead, Dawn looked exactly like she had ever since Faith had timidly knocked on the door of the filthy Boston apartment their mother had apparently moved in to some time after Faith left: bitter, closed, and as if she were ready to snap at any moment.
When the pilot announced that they had arrived and welcomed them to California, the passengers began to stand, gathering their luggage. Faith turned another gaze to her sister, who was resolutely staring out the window. "Dawnie..."
"Don't you dare fucking apologize."
Faith blinked. "What?"
Dawn stood, hunched over in the small cabin with her arms crossed over her frayed black tank top. "I'm glad you finally got guilty enough to get me away from that bitch. I'm glad that your perfect fucking life just wasn't the same without your darling little sister. But don't you dare fucking try to apologize to me."
Before Faith could respond, Dawn shoved past her, grabbed the army surplus duffel bag from the overhead compartment, and began to shoulder her way through the crowd.
When Dawn walked out into the airport terminal and her eyes fell on the small crowd holding a banner and grinning excitedly in their direction, she had to fight the urge to throw up.
Welcome Home, Faith and Dawn
As Faith gestured toward the group, Dawn just rolled her eyes. Faith left her for a bunch of losers like these?
Faith cleared her throat nervously. "Everybody, this is my little sister, Dawn. Dawn, this is everybody. This is Jenny..."
The middle-aged woman smiled kindly but appraisingly. "It's nice to meet you, Dawn." Nice to meet you too, creepy loser hanging out with kids half her age, Dawn remarked silently to herself.
"And this is Willow..." Nerd.
"...and Tara..." Dyke.
"...and this is Xander." Actually kind of cute, in a network TV kind of way.
Dawn just raised her hand in a half-hearted wave and began casually surveying the terminal. When no further communication was forthcoming from the teenager, Jenny cleared her throat. "Why don't we go down to the parking lot?"
Xander glanced at Tara in the passenger seat next to him, then at Willow sitting behind them. "So?"
Willow leaned forward. "So what?"
"So what do we think of Little Miss?"
Willow's nose wrinkled. "That she'd probably stab you if you called her that."
"It must have been hard for her," Tara shouted over the noise of the highway in the open convertible. "I mean, Faith only told me a little about...about her mom, but I can't imagine it was easy for either of them."
"Well then, it's our duty to give her a good old fashioned Sunnydale welcome."
Xander shrugged. "Okay, but I don't know where we're going to find vampires to attack her this early in the day." Willow swatted his shoulder playfully. "All right, all right! I'm driving. I'm driving."
"...make it easier for her, you know?"
Xander pushed the door to Jenny's house open with his back. "Yeah, I guess it couldn't hurt..."
The three looked up as someone cleared their throat from the living room. Standing before them was a small, wiry man with small, wiry glasses, wearing a gray three-piece suit that looked much more interesting than he did and with a guardedly haughtily expression on his thin face. "Ah. Good afternoon," he muttered in clipped British tones, "I don't suppose any one of you could point me in the direction of Faith Lehane?"
Willow looked the man up and down, then turned back to her friends with a raised eyebrow. "New Watcher?"
Xander nodded. "New Watcher."
"What, I...I'm certain I have no idea what you're talking about," the man stammered. "I have to speak to Ms. Lehane on a matter of...eh..."
"Yeah, it's okay," Xander said. "The British, the bearing, the fashion sense. It's not that hard to figure out."
"Faith should be along any minute," Tara added helpfully.
Willow narrowed her eyes. "Hey, how exactly did you get in here?"
The Brit's mouth merely moved impotently as the sound of more voices approached.
"...not a problem, you can both stay as long as you want. I'm not exactly wanting for space..."
Faith and Jenny walked through the open door, a still cagey Dawn between them. At the sight of the Slayer, the flummoxed Brit perked up. "Ah, Ms. Lehane! Wesley Wyndam-Price, an honor to make your acquaintance."
Faith stopped, giving the stranger a quick once over. "New Watcher?"
Xander and Willow nodded. "New Watcher."
"Yeah. Screw that." Faith brushed past as the Brit tried helplessly to interject. "Come on, Dawnie, let's find you a room."
"Hey, how exactly did you get in my house?"
As the Slayer and her sister retreated up the stairs and the remaining brunette eyed him expectantly, Wesley sighed to himself.
This was not going as well as he'd expected.
Even with Faith otherwise occupied, it took a great deal of gentle coaxing from Tara and suspicious glaring from the others before Wesley could be convinced to talk to the rest of them. "Really, this is quite irregular. I don't suppose anyone explained to Ms. Lehane that a Slayer's work is supposed to be secret?"
"It is," Willow defended. "Just...not from us."
"Yeah, we all help Faith," Xander interjected. "Just like we helped Buffy."
The Watcher huffed. "Yes, well, seeing how that resolved itself I wonder if it isn't time for a change in strategy."
Jenny's eyes narrowed. "Well if you disapprove so much, where the hell were you? Where the hell was the Council when we were trying to take her down?"
Willow frowned. "Jenny..."
"She does have a p...point. Mr. Giles...died...months ago."
Wesley cleared his throat uncomfortably, taking refuge in the merely curious glances from the three younger parties rather than the accusing stare of the older woman. "In the time leading up to his...demise, Rupert Giles had become less than communicative with the Council. His reports became terse before he stopped writing them altogether. There was a great deal of argument over whether he'd simply become busy or gone rogue, and thus a great deal of argument over what to do about it. It wasn't until we contracted for supernatural assistance that the Council learned he'd...passed on."
"So you're just here to..." Xander shook his head. "Replace him?"
Wesley inhaled and straightened in his seat. "That is the arrangement. One Watcher, one Slayer."
"Yeah, well maybe the arrangement's gonna change."
Five heads snapped toward the stairs to find Faith leaning against the banister. Wesley jumped to his feet. "I'm afraid that's not up to either of us, Ms. Lehane. It has been this way since time immemorial. I realize that you were attached to Rupert Giles, but you must understand..."
"Yeah, look, no offense Wes, you seem like a decent guy...you know, insofar as such a thing exists...but I got my last two Watchers brutally murdered by unspeakably powerful vampires, so you might wanna consider a career change." The Slayer brushed past the sputtering Watcher and turned toward Jenny. "She won't say so, but I'm pretty sure Dawnie's gettin' hungry. We got any of that tuna left over?" Jenny stood to follow the Slayer toward the kitchen. "Oh, and Wes? Call me Faith."
While Wesley contacted the Council to find out what exactly he was supposed to do when the Slayer said 'no,' Faith leaned against the wall of the spare room, watching her sister perch on the edge of the mattress eating a tuna sandwich.
When the Slayer cleared her throat, Dawn looked up, a silent challenge burning in her eyes.
"Dawnie...if I could have taken you with me, I would."
Dawn snorted. "Bullshit."
"I'm serious. If there'd been a way..."
Dawn pushed herself off of the bed, what was left of the sandwich flung down on the carpet. "Don't you even fucking try that! If you wanted to take me, you would have found a way! Instead, some tight-ass British lady promises you some big fucking destiny and you forget about everything else and just leave!"
"I was trying to protect you!"
Dawn choked down a laugh. "From what? From getting hurt? If you gave a shit about me getting hurt you would have gotten me away from that bitch!"
Faith bit back her retort when she saw the tears beading at the edges of the younger brunette's eyes. "Dawnie..."
Dawn closed her eyes and took a deep breath. When her eyes reopened, she gazed around at the room, the antique bed frame counterpointed by the simple but tasteful desk and shelves that suggested to her this house had been meticulously furnished by someone unspeakably boring.
Dawn pursed her lips. "Is this really my room?"
The corner of Faith's mouth edged up. "Yeah. All yours."
Dawn just nodded. "Okay." She fixed her sister with an even stare. "Then get out."
Judging by the way they straightened when she came down the stairs, Wesley, Xander, and Willow had all be talking at once. About her. As Faith passed by her chair, Tara reached out a hand.
Faith squinted in embarrassment. "You guys heard that?"
Willow mirrored her expression. "Yeah."
Faith just took a deep breath. "She'll be okay."
Tara squeezed her hand before letting it go. "We'll make sure of it."
"I still know some people at the district," Jenny offered. "I can work on getting her transferred so she can start going to school."
Faith just nodded. "Yeah, thanks."
When no one else seemed to have anything to contribute, Wesley rose from his seat. "Ms. Lehane...I've spoken with the Council to update them on our...situation. They've asked me to remind you that..."
"Look, no offense Wes, but could you maybe chew me out about this tomorrow?" Faith's voice didn't sound angry, just tired. As she headed toward the front door, she looked back over her shoulder. "And I thought I told you to call me Faith."
I hate it here.
I mean, not in the same way that I hated living with that bitch, even before Faith left. In fact, this place is like the opposite or something. Everybody's hanging around giving me these sympathetic looks like they have a fucking clue what my life's been like and think that I should just be so fucking grateful to be here. When I came downstairs this morning, Saggy Gypsy Lady offered to make me pancakes. I was too freaked out to even come up with a comeback. How did Faith get hooked up with these suckers?
"Hey, Dawn?" The brunette looked up from her hunched position to glare distrustfully at the voice coming from beyond the bedroom door. Given the high-pitched squeak, she figured it was probably Willow, the redhead. "We were going to go down to the mall this afternoon. Did you want to come with us?"
Dawn rolled her eyes. "No!"
"A...are you sure?" It was the blonde girlfriend talking now. "Will and I were thinking we could..."
Dawn groaned. "Go away!"
It's like they're all trying to be my friend or something. Who the fuck do they think they are, right? Like I need these losers as friends!
At least the guys aren't as bad. Saggy Gypsy Lady and the lesbos and even fucking Faith can't seem to do anything except be mushy and sympathetic and shit, but at least Xander seems as awkward about it as I am. Plus he's kind of cute, and I bet I could probably get him to do some stuff for me if I had to. Then there's this Wesley guy, who I guess is just like all the other stuffy British people Faith has to take orders from, only he seems to fit in here about as well as I do. Plus, it's kind of funny watching him try to act like some kind of authority figure or something and then have Faith or Gypsy Lady smack him down.
Seriously, though, I don't even get how Faith can hang out with these people. They're just like all shiny happy California people, and she just let herself get suckered in and forget about her actual life. Now, what, I'm supposed to do the same thing?
What the fuck am I even doing here?
With an angry snort, Dawn tossed the ratty notebook across the floor and flopped back on the ugly blanket they'd pulled off the back of the couch for her. Her eyes drifted down to the empty duffel bag lying next to the desk, then to her clothes crammed onto one of the bottom shelves. She had two extra pairs of jeans, a skirt she'd stolen from that place where that airhead slut Tina worked, two black shirts, and one pair of socks; despite Blonde Girlfriend's reassurances, she doubted they'd be able to send for anything else. Not that she really had anything back in Boston she gave a shit about keeping, but...
Dawn sat back up with an angry snort. "Fuck. Fine."
When she reached the bottom of the stairs, it was to find Willow helping Tara into her coat. The blonde straightened and blushed as the teen rolled her eyes at the display of affection, but Willow just smiled.
The brunette sighed. "I need stuff. It's not like we're gonna go get manicures or some shit."
"Right." Tara immediately nodded.
"We all pooled some cash so you could get what you needed," Willow volunteered. Dawn just rolled her eyes as she passed them on her way to the front door.
Dawn sat hunched over in the mall food court, sucking casually on a blueberry smoothie while simultaneously trying to meet the eyes of any boys at neighboring tables who she thought might blush. Next to her feet were three bags containing shirts, jeans, skirts, and underwear, though most were just variations on the same tight, black outfits she refused to admit she'd picked up from Faith.
The sound of another straw being sucked pulled her attention back to the other side of the table, where Willow and Tara were very obviously trying not to look at her by looking at each other. It was so cute it almost made her want to throw up.
"So which one of you wears the strap-on?"
Both women immediately went red, and Willow began wheezing as she choked on her smoothie. Once she had assured a concerned Tara that she was okay, the two women turned to Dawn, Tara stammering softly.
"Dawn that's...I mean we...if..."
Dawn just rolled her eyes and tried to suppress her smile. "God, I'm just kidding. I think it's cool." She turned her eyes back down to the smoothie, jabbing the straw in and out of the cup violently. "I mean, I think I'm probably gonna be a lesbo too. Guys are assholes, you know?"
Tara and Willow, still beet red, just made weak mouth sounds of acknowledgment.
All right, fine. I guess if I were being tortured in some really, really horrific way involving, like, knives or spiders or fingernails or something, I might maybe, just maybe, admit that this afternoon wasn't terrible. I mean, I got a bunch of new clothes and a toothbrush and shit, even if I couldn't get some of the t-shirts or that one skirt I wanted because Blonde Girlfriend got all prudy about it.
Plus, whenever I'd try stuff on, they'd tell me how cute I was and stuff. I mean, I know they're dykes and so they were probably perving the whole time, but still, no one's never really said that kind of stuff to me before: not even the boys who want to get into my pants, and certainly not that bitch.
I guess it felt...kind of good.
But I'll kill you if you ever repeat that to anyone.
When Dawn finally came downstairs, it was to find Tara and Willow in the kitchen with Jenny.
"Where's Faith?" Dawn struggled to make it sound like she didn't really care what the answer was.
Jenny looked up. "I think she and Xander are out patrolling."
Dawn snorted. "Xander patrols? What is he, fucking Slayerboy?"
When Dawn moved toward the kitchen, Jenny just cast a beleaguered glance at Willow and Tara. "Did you want something?"
"I was just gonna get something to eat."
"It's okay, I'll make you something. You girls too."
"Actually, we should probably get going," Willow muttered apologetically as she threaded a finger through Tara's. "We've both got class tomorrow, and I need to finish some reading."
Jenny just nodded, and Willow opened her mouth to say goodbye to Dawn, then apparently thought better of it. When the two closed the front door behind them, Dawn rolled he eyes. "More like finish some muff-diving."
As they walked, Willow couldn't help but notice that Tara was lagging behind her. When she turned, it was to find the blonde with a pensive look in her eyes. "Baby? Are you okay?"
Tara's head snapped up. "Hm?"
"You've been really quiet lately."
Tara smiled. "More than usual?"
Willow grabbed Tara's other hand, drawing both together between their bodies. "Is this about that whole thing with Dawn at the mall? I've been thinking about it too...I mean, not thinking about it, thinking about it. Unless you wanted to try..."
Tara just chuckled. "It's not about that. Dawn...means well. I mean, she doesn't, obviously, but she's had a hard life and it's going to take her a while to adjust. It's not easy when your own family treats you like..." Tara trailed off, then forced a smile. "I'm just thinking a lot lately."
Willow stared at her for a moment longer, then nodded. "Okay. I'd just...I'd hate for you to feel like you can't tell me stuff. I want you to feel like you can trust me."
Tara leaned in to brush her lips against Willow's and just like every time she couldn't help but sink bonelessly into the redhead's warmth. "I trust you. I love you."
Willow brushed a strand of hair behind the blonde's ear. "I love you."
As they started to walk once again, Tara's thoughts clouded once again. She did love Willow. But it didn't matter.
In a month, it would all be over.
"So apparently there was some kinda big shit with Lowell House. Like, people are hearing these weird sounds, fuckin' troops goin' in and out. Then this year, we come back and the place is just gone. Like, filled in with concrete."
Xander just nodded. "Yeah, I was working this construction site over the summer, some of the guys were talking about it. Structural instability or something?"
Faith shrugged. "So anyway, suddenly all those frat boys are just gone, and so's that psych professor, I forget her name. Can't help feeling like we missed something big, you know?"
Xander chuckled. "Yeah well, we had our own bigness to deal with last year."
"I'm sorry, but if I might interject?"
Faith rolled her eyes. "Wes?"
Wesley stepped forward, still impeccably dressed and clipboard in hand. "I'm willing to overlook the highly dubious practice of bringing a civilian on patrols, but is this banter really necessary? It distracts from the Slayer's ability to focus on her targets."
"O contraire, Wes old boy, by making a lot of noise and looking like we let our guard down, we make a more appetizing target for vamps. Instead of having to hunt, they come to us."
"I hardly think that's a sound combat..." Wesley's objection was cut off as he was idly tossed head-first into a tree. The vampire bared its fangs, hopping over a tombstone to crouch in front of Faith. The Slayer just grinned.
"Watch my back."
"Tease," Xander shot back.
When the vampire charged, Faith stepped to the side, her boot slamming down on the inside of its knee. The vampire howled once before the stake Faith slammed into its back silenced it.
As the Slayer brushed the dust from her clothes, Xander helped a dazed Wesley to his feet. When he regained his bearings, the Watcher cleared his throat. "Yes, well. I trust we've all learned a lesson here."
Xander tried his best not to smirk. Faith didn't. "You know, Wes, as invaluable as your assistance has been, I think X-Man and I can take care of the legions of the damned. You know, if you wanna go see to that whole internal bleeding thing."
The Watcher smiled sourly. "Yes, well, that's very kind, but I assure you I'm still fighting fit."
The Slayer arched her eyebrow. "'Still?'"
"You two get back to it and I'll..." Wesley groaned and pressed a hand against his thigh. "Go lie down for a moment." He straightened up, and winced again. "At a hospital." He turned away, the two teenagers no longer bothering to hide their smiles. "Under heavy sedation..."
As the Watcher toddled off, Faith turned back to Xander with a grin. "So. How's the construction industry treating you?"
A dark figure watched the two teenagers move deeper into the cemetery, still chatting casually.
The boy was different than what he remembered; stronger, more confident...taller, if that were possible.
Slowly, his attention shifted to the girl. So, this was Faith: tall, dark, and unafraid, but brittle in a way that she tried desperately to keep hidden. He chuckled silently to himself; that sounded like a Slayer to him. As he slipped back into the darkness, he smirked. Nice to meet you, Faith.
Willow was trying to study, really she was. It was just that she and Tara were in the same room.
Ever since they'd met, Willow's first instinct had been to look at her. From the moment they'd slammed into each other on the first day of school last year, Willow had seen something in Tara; even if she didn't yet realize what it was, she knew it warranted further study. And now that they were together, well...Willow's instincts had gotten a little more ambitious...
"Stop that." Tara's voice was stern, at least as stern as the gentle blonde got, but it was increasingly obvious that she was trying not to smile.
"Stop what?" Willow murmured innocently.
"If you don't finish your notes, you'll be letting down all those poor underachievers who depend on copying them. Is that what you want?"
Willow rolled her eyes. "No. As a nerd, I provide a valuable service to the slacker community."
"Then stop looking at me like that."
Willow grinned slyly. "Like what?"
In answer, Tara just rolled her eyes and leaned in for a kiss. Willow's giggle turned into a pleasant hum as the blonde's curves nestled against hers, one hand sliding under Tara's shirt to rub her stomach while the other threaded into her silky hair. Just as the redhead felt liquid heat beginning to pool deep inside her, Tara pulled back with a smirk.
"Now do your homework, and there might just be more where that came from."
Willow tried to pout, but broke into a grin instead. "Vixen."
Tara watched as the redhead snuggled back down against the quilt covering their bed. They'd bought it over the summer, at a street fair, on Willow's insistence. When she'd asked her why, Willow had blushed and said, "Everything we have is either mine or yours. I want us to have something that's, you know...ours." The memory, and the sight of the petite redhead stretched out against the mattress, idly licking her lips as she flipped back between her notes and her textbook with four different colors of highlighter at the ready, made a lump rise in the blonde's throat.
"Baby?" Willow looked up from her books, and Tara swallowed. "I love you."
Willow smiled. "I love you too."
Tara shook her head, hands cinching around her girlfriend's. "No, Willow, I...I really, really love you."
Willow's eyes narrowed, and her fingers tightened around Tara's. "Baby, is everything okay?"
Tara forced a smile. "I'm fine. Really."
A red eyebrow rose. "Really, really?"
Tara shook her head with a chuckle. "I'm fine. Just...thinking about stuff."
Willow smiled tenderly. "Come here."
As the blonde nestled against her, Willow leaned back, arms tightening and Tara's soft breath on her neck eliciting a gentle sigh.
Homework could wait.
Xander took Faith's outstretched hand, letting her hoist him back to his feet. "For your information, I had him right where I wanted him."
Faith glanced at the pile of dust that had been preparing to take a bite out of Xander's throat a few seconds ago. "Really?"
"No. I was about to die. But I mean, as the wacky sidekick, it's my job to say stuff like that, right?"
Faith just nodded, lips pursed. "So, you wanna swing through the warehouse district before we go beddy-bye?"
Xander casually slung his crossbow over his shoulder. "Sunnydale has districts?"
"I'll take that as a no."
Xander shrugged. "Well, I was gonna help Ms. C set up shop first thing tomorrow, and there don't seem to be a lot of big bad creepy crawlies out lately. I mean, if you want to go, I'm game..."
"Nah. I kinda wanna..." Faith cleared her throat, and Xander smiled.
"Get home and check up on little sis?" Faith just shrugged, and Xander's smile widened. "She'll be fine. Always tough moving into a new neighborhood, right?"
The Slayer just chuckled. "Yeah."
"So...you two used to get along?"
Faith smiled wryly. "We never had slumber parties or anything. But back when I was growing up, it just...always seemed like it was us against her, you know?"
"You mean your mom?" Faith just nodded distractedly, and Xander cleared his throat. "Hey, I mean, it's none of my business. If you don't want to talk about it."
In response, the Slayer simply began to walk. As Xander jogged to catch up with her, the look in her eyes grew distant. "It's not like she hit us. I mean, unless we fucked up. She just...yelled, mostly. 'Specially when she was drinking, which was pretty much always. Nothing we did was ever good enough, so we eventually just...stopped trying. When I got older, I started pissing her off on purpose to keep her from paying attention to Dawnie. Guess it didn't hold after I left." When she turned to find him watching her carefully, she snorted. "Shit, what am I, on Maury?"
"No, I'm honored." When Faith's skeptical eyes met his, Xander cleared his throat. "Besides, at least you managed to get away from your abusive, alcoholic family instead of, say, living in their basement."
Faith nodded thoughtfully. "Good point. I feel better now, thanks."
"I'm here to serve." Faith smiled. "We heading home?"
"Figure we'll swing by Willy's first, but I think you're right. Doesn't look like anything exciting's gonna happen tonight."
She hated the warehouse. It was small and plain and dirty, just like the rest of this town. She snorted, and corrected herself; just like the rest of this dimension.
Whatever. She only had to bide her time until those simpering, incompetent toadies secured something more befitting her station...and brought her the last of those troublesome, self-righteous monks. Even without the ones she'd already julienned, she would have known the Key was here. She could feel the energy just as surely as she knew that it heralded her glorious return to her own personal hell, just as surely as she could feel the dust and grime of the warehouse floor on her bare feet.
Glorificus glanced down; first, however, she needed to find herself some pumps.
"Thank you for helping me with this," Jenny grunted as she set a box of books down on the Magic Box's counter. "I don't think I'd ever be able to open if I was trying to do this on my own."
Faith chuckled as she elbowed her way through the door, a similar box over each shoulder. "I still can't believe you bought this place. You're like...a small business, now."
Jenny cleared her throat. "Yeah, well...one man's brutal vamp murder is another's real estate opportunity. Besides, after Rupert...I might have said a few things to Snyder that precluded continued employment with the Sunnydale school district."
Xander smiled as he brushed the last coat of varnish over the new display case. "Kind of wish I'd seen that."
Jenny just chuckled sadly in response.
Faith dropped her boxes against the edge of a bookshelf, her Slayer reflexes the only thing that prevented any of the books already there from being jolted loose by the sudden thump. "Weren't Red and Blondie gonna help with this?"
"They said they'd be over after class. I'm sure we won't run out of things to do before they get here."
The rhythmic tapping of fingers drew Faith's attention to the table at the back of the room. "Dawnie, you okay?"
The teenager rolled her eyes. "Fine. Bored out of my fucking skull, but at least I get to hang out with Tweed Boy."
Wesley looked up from the book splayed out in front of him. "That kind of language isn't befitting a young lady."
Dawn snorted. "You're one to talk. Think I didn't notice you checking out the fourteen-year-old's boobs? Real classy."
Wesley's face colored. "You...I would never..." As the Watcher continued to sputter, Dawn just grinned smugly. As Jenny and Faith tried their best to look disapproving and Xander tried less well to cover his laughter, Wesley cleared his throat. "I don't mean to be a bother, but could we perhaps return to your report from last night?"
"Oh, right," Faith grunted as she set down another box of tchotchkes. "That's the reason you're not helping." The Watcher didn't dignify the quip with a response. "Well, after you went home to watch Masterpiece Theater, we killed a couple more vamps. Nothing major."
Jenny hummed thoughtfully. "You've been getting that a lot lately."
"Yeah, pickings have been pretty slim."
Xander just nodded as he pounded the lid back onto the can of varnish. "Which is always a good sign."
"Willy says the garden variety vamps and demons have been staying close to the ground lately. Rumor is they're feelin' something big comin' up."
Jenny chuckled. "Great. We haven't had a good supervillain in a while."
Wesley raised his hand, a fountain pen still suspended between the fingers. "Forgive me. Willy is..."
"Owns a demon bar downtown. I beat him up for information."
"I help," Xander added, and Faith grinned.
"X-Man makes a decent good cop."
Wesley opened his mouth, but was interrupted by the snap of Dawn's chair as its legs settled on the floor, only to have the teenager immediately start to lean back again. "So, this is all, like, magic shit?"
Jenny quirked her lips. "I think we've just found our new slogan."
"Yeah, but I mean...magic's real? I mean, vampires, okay, but what, you can like, fuckin' turn people into toads and shit?"
"Toads aren't my specialty. I'm more interested in the religious aspects, but yes, actually."
The chair snapped down again as Dawn leaned forward, eyes and lips wide. "Wait...seriously? You're, like...a witch?"
Jenny just hummed as she and Faith continued to stack books. "I'm nowhere near as naturally talented as Willow and Tara, but I have my moments."
Dawn leaned back farther, eyes rolling. "Wait, those two? God, how cliché is that? Is everybody in this fucking town like some kind of superhero or something?"
Xander's hand shot into the air as he stacked crystals of various sizes and shapes in the display case. "I'm not. I'm pretty sure Wesley's not. British isn't a superpower, right?"
The Watcher just scowled, and Dawn's lips shaped into a grin. "Oh, so it's just all the girls?" She turned her smile to Wesley. "Gee, how's that make you feel, Wes old boy?"
"Could we please focus on the malevolent force that may or may not be preparing to destroy this city and the very world any moment now, hm?" Faith swore she could hear the Watcher's teeth grinding, and she sighed.
"I'll keep on the lookout. Besides, whatever it is, it'll probably come lookin' for me. Burden of Slayerness."
Wesley merely huffed. "Yes, very well. However, you will inform me of any new developments immediately." Faith's eyebrow rose, and the Watcher groaned to himself. "Please?"
Faith just smiled.
Okay, honestly, I don't even know what to fucking think anymore. I'm just a fourteen-year-old Southie, for fuck's sake, and now I'm here for like a month and I'm living in a world with vampires and witches and demons and werewolves...fucking werewolves! I mean, I remember when fucking Becky Imler started dressing all in black in seventh grade and calling herself a "moon goddess" or some shit, but this is real. How did Faith get mixed up in this?
To be honest, I kind of have to wonder; if someone had shown me this kind of stuff instead of her...would I have left her behind too?
The knock on the doorframe made Dawn snap up, only for the blonde standing in the doorway to respond to the sudden movement with a jump. When Dawn fixed her with a wry look, Tara cleared her throat. "Hey."
The teenager just raised her eyebrows. "Hi."
"We were, um...Jenny thought we'd all go down to the Magic Box, get some pizza...you know, to...celebrate the grand opening tomorrow."
"And what, you don't want to leave me alone?"
A slight flush appeared on Tara's cheeks. "Dawn, you...you don't have to do anything you don't want to."
Dawn kept the comeback to herself. Instead, she turned to study the blonde nonchalantly. "So...are you really a witch?"
Tara's lip quirked. "Yes."
"So did you, what, just like, pick up a book or something?"
Tara's smile turned melancholy. "My m...mother taught me. I didn't...have a lot of friends growing up, so it made me feel...special." Dawn's eyes narrowed when she saw the far-off look in the blonde's, but then Tara shook her head briskly. "Sorry."
The brunette just shrugged. "Yeah, well, you're lucky. All that bitch ever taught me how to do was duck." Tara winced, her hand automatically reaching out to touch Dawn's desk, but stopping just short of actually resting on her own. Dawn watched the blonde with narrowed eyes until the older girl cleared her throat and turned. When she did, Dawn closed her journal resolutely.
"So. Pizza party, huh?"
"So I pull him aside after class and politely ask him to stop harassing the girls at the other table. And he says he's just being friendly. It keeps up and eventually I call his father in for a conference, and wouldn't you know it the guy starts eyeing me, throwing out opening lines, I'm surprised he's not climbing over the desk to cop a feel. When we finally get through it, I pull the kid aside, who's been just sitting there mortified the whole time, and tell him that I thought his dad was 'charming.' And I never had another problem with him."
The others gathered at the table chuckled, even Dawn, who caught Jenny's eyes. "I told that story for your benefit, young lady."
Willow giggled. "Yeah. Be good, or Faith will seduce your teachers."
The Slayer just shrugged as she took a gigantic bite from the slice of pizza folded over in her hand. "I'll do it, too. I got nothin' to lose."
The teenager smiled, but only barely. "You know, I don't even see why I have to go. You dropped out."
"Yeah, but then I came here and dropped back in. It's a Sunnydale tradition."
Tara swallowed a mouthful before laying her hand next to Dawn's. "It's important for you to get an education, sweetie. Then you can do whatever you want."
"Besides, high school's fun. Now, if you don't want to go to college like these losers, I won't blame you," Xander clucked, and Willow merely rolled her eyes.
"When do you start?"
Dawn just shrugged, so Jenny cleared her throat. "I think I've gotten all the paperwork ironed out...it's hard to do without...directly involving your mom..." Dawn's smile disappeared, and Jenny pursed her lips. "You should be able to start pretty soon. You'll be a little behind, but I'm sure Willow and I can help you catch up."
Dawn forced a smile. "Great. High school. Got any advice?"
Faith grinned. "Yeah. Don't waste any energy trying not to piss off Principal Snyder. He comes that way."
"Yeah, and stay away from the swim team." Dawn, Faith, and Tara's eyes turned toward him, and Xander winced. "Don't ask."
Faith rolled her eyes. "On that note, Xander and I gotta get out on patrol. I'm sure the fact that he let us have one night of civilian frivolity is just gonna make Wesley feel all entitled about it tomorrow."
Xander leaned back with a groan. "Righto. Off to save the world. Night all."
"Dawn, you gonna be okay here?"
The brunette rolled her eyes. "Yes! It's not like we're gonna have a drug-fueled orgy. Right?" She looked hopefully at Willow, who just blushed.
Faith turned from the table, only to stop herself short. "Oh, almost forgot." She turned to Dawn, hand stretched out expectantly. The younger brunette just stared at her. She raised an eyebrow.
Dawn sighed dramatically. "Oh, fine." She reached into the cleavage of her strategically-shredded top, pulling out a delicate cut-crystal figurine that looked suspiciously like those arrayed along the front wall. "There, what are you, a fucking mall cop?"
The teen's eyes turned toward Jenny cagily, but the older woman only stared back in disbelief. "I'm only selling those for three ninety-nine."
Xander cleared his throat. "Plus, granted I'm the only non-girl here, but...didn't that hurt?"
Dawn rolled her eyes. "I'm an artist. I suffer."
Faith chuckled, setting the trinket down on the counter as she and Xander headed out the shop's back door.
"All right, give me another one. Knowing Wes, there's probably gonna be a pop quiz."
Xander flipped through the grimoire, humming to himself. "Ah, okay. Pargo demon."
Faith blew out a breath. "Uh...red. Lots of little spikes. Eats precious metals. Can only hurt 'em with water."
"Partial credit. Not just water, but...drow..."
"Drowning. Shit. Yeah, fuck. Okay. Got it." The Slayer shot the carpenter a glance. "Thanks for helpin' me out with this. As tight an ass as he is, I guess he does kind of have a point. Couldn't hurt to know the easiest way to kill the shit I'm gonna run across."
"No problem. Oh, here's one. Melmac demon."
Faith pursed her lips in thought, then her eyes narrowed. "You made that up."
"No I didn't."
"Melmac's the planet ALF's from!"
Xander just nodded. "Really? Hm, what are the odds of that?"
The Slayer burst into laughter, shaking her head as they meandered through the alleys of Sunnydale's ill-kept docks. "So what are you gonna get Blondie for her birthday?"
Xander let out a breath. "I don't know. I mean...I don't really know her all that well."
Faith frowned. "Yeah."
"I mean, she's great..."
"Yeah, absolutely. Just..."
"I don't necessarily know where she's coming from."
Faith just nodded. "Yeah. It's like...I met you guys before Red got so heavy into the witchiness, and just because I don't get it, that doesn't mean I can't relate to her. But then Tara, that's all I know about her."
"Exactly. I mean, I know she likes magic and Willow. And it's not like those are the kind of things you can get gift certificates for."
Faith chuckled. "Well, maybe Jenny can think of something. She owns a magic shop now, she'd better get used to lame-ass customers who don't know the first thing about..."
The Slayer stopped in her tracks; Xander was barely able to open his mouth to ask what was wrong before she began to run.
Xander struggled to keep up with Faith's loping pace, but he couldn't help falling behind. When he finally followed the too-familiar wet crunches and screams of pain around the corner into the alley between two warehouses, Faith was surrounded by figures in brown robes. The one on the ground was human and too weak to move; the ones circling around her were decidedly neither.
Faith caught his eye as the demons circled her, and grinned. "Hey, X-Man, look up scabby hobbit demons, would ya?"
One of the creatures lunged with something that sounded like "For glory!" only for Faith to casually whip him into the demon trying to attack Faith from behind. Another pulled a curved dagger, but before he could raise it he crumbled under the crossbow bolt that erupted through his shoulder. The last two demons went down just as easily, one taking Faith's knee in his deformed face while the other tried to leap onto her back, only to be crushed against the nearest warehouse.
The first two demons to attack had recovered enough to run from the alley in a panic, but the other three stayed down. Faith gave one a kick to satisfy herself that it was dead, then cracked her neck. "Never mind. Think I found their weak spot."
A low groan from the nearly-forgotten man lying on the ground brought Faith and Xander to his sides. "Hey, it's okay, man. You're gonna be fine." The carpenter's wadded-up bowling shirt pressed down against the freely-bleeding gash in the man's leg, but from the way he was wheezing Faith figured most of his injuries were internal.
"Hey, stay with me! What were those things? It's okay, you're safe now."
As the man looked up at the brunette, his bloodshot eyes widened. "Slayer..."
Faith cast a startled look at Xander, who just shrugged. "Yeah. Yeah, that's me. You're safe."
The man shook his head, emaciated body quivering under his too-large robes. "No. The Beast..." A broken hand reached out to grab Faith's arm. "The Beast must not...must not find the Key...She will...please..."
"Whoa, hey. Slow down."
The man's head shook fervently. "No! You must...keep her safe. You cannot let the Beast find her..."
Xander pressed the quickly reddening shirt harder against the man's leg. "Her? Who her?"
"We...we had to know you would protect the Key. Love her. Like...family. Like...a sister."
Xander's eyes narrowed. "Wait. Sister? You mean Dawn?"
The man gasped as Faith's hands came down on his collar. "What the fuck did you do to my sister?"
"We...we had to. We had to hide the Key. We made it human, so She could not find it. We made it...beloved, so you would protect."
"Dawnie? You put something in my sister?"
"You didn't have a sister," the man wheezed. "Not until we made..."
"What? What the hell are you talking about, made..." Faith's eyes widened in horror, then just as quickly narrowed in rage. "No! She's fourteen years old, I remember her, I remember every minute!"
The man sighed sadly. "We made you remember."
"No! She's my sister!"
The man smiled, the light rapidly fading from his eyes. "Yes. She is."
"Why would you do this?"
"The Key...the Beast must not have the Key...must not open the portal..." As the man's eyes closed, a bony hand closed around Faith's. "She must not know...She must not find..."
Faith and Xander spun, only to be greeted by a slinky form in a red dress, blonde curls tipping sideways as the woman bent her head. "Oh, darn. That was my last monk." The woman looked around at the demonic bodies littering the ground. "And those scabs are expensive!" The blonde sighed. "But, you know what, that's fine. I'm not petty. I can see the big picture." As Faith stood, the blonde grinned, a single finger tapping against the Slayer's chest. "So I'm gonna give you a chance to make it up to me, sweetie."
Faith exchanged a baffled look with Xander. "The fuck are you..."
Then, the blonde's hand was wrapped around her throat.
"Faith!" Before Xander could even raise his arm, he was lofted on the end of the woman's other arm, crumbling to the ground at the other end of the alley.
"Xander!" The grip around Faith's throat tightened.
"Now. We've all got things to do. Well, I do. So let's keep this simple." The woman gave the Slayer a saccharine smile. "I heard you talking to my holy man. I'm betting he told you all kinds of interesting little tidbits. So I'm gonna ask you the same question I asked him." The blonde leaned in, her smile disappearing. "Where is my Key?"
When she didn't answer, the blonde slammed Faith's head back against the wall. "I'm not really feeling all that patient right now! Where is it?"
The blonde's eyes widened as the Slayer murmured something. "What?" The Slayer only made a choking sound. "Oh, right. Humans. Oxygen. I swear..." The blonde loosened her grip, leaning closer to the Slayer's face. "Now. Where is my Key?"
In response, Faith slammed her head forward.
The blonde reeled, stumbling back in shock as Faith righted herself. "Ow! What, do you just go around hitting people? What were you, raised in a kennel?"
Faith grinned, breath ragged. "South Boston." A quick jab to the nose caught the blonde by surprise, followed by a swift kick to the stomach. "Actually."
Faith prepared to bring her fist down on the back of the blonde's neck, only to have a slender hand clamp around her wrist. The blonde looked up. "Hey, know what I just realized?" She flicked her wrist, and Faith found herself face down on the cement. "You have superpowers!"
She gestured to Xander, who was finally beginning to stir. "So what, is he your sidekick? 'Cause your costumes need some work."
Faith coughed as she climbed to her feet. "You're one to talk."
The blonde's eyes went wide as they reflexively scanned down over the tiny red dress, and she backhanded Faith into the side of a dumpster. "Okay, that? Was rude."
She began to walk toward where Xander was climbing to his feet, only for the Slayer's arms to latch around her neck. "You ain't seen nothin' yet!"
Before the blonde's arms could pry Faith's loose, the Slayer steered her into the wall, head smashing against the brick twice before she was released. When the blonde turned around, Faith's eyes went wide; she wasn't even bleeding.
Faith barely brought her hands up in time to block the blonde's next punch, only to double over when a black high heel slammed against her stomach. With a desperate groan, Faith lunged at the blonde's legs, pushing her down to slam her head against the brick again.
She was about to bring a steel-toed boot down on the blonde's face when the ground went out from under her.
Faith looked up into the snarling face of a vampire. He was tall and muscular, with slick black hair and a long black coat. As she climbed to her feet, she couldn't help thinking that, if his face shifted back, he might be kind of pretty.
The vampire blocked her first two blows, but Faith's adrenaline-fueled rage finally overpowered him, a vicious kick sending him slamming against the side of the dumpster.
As Faith pulled the stake from her jacket, Xander shook his head, vision finally coming back into focus. When it did, the first thing he saw was the blonde lying on the ground at the far end of the alley, Faith running toward a pinned...Xander blinked.
"Angel?" As Faith raised the stake, Xander's eyes went wide. "Faith, no!"
Tara leaned back with a groan. "Oh, too much pizza."
Dawn snorted. "No such thing."
The blonde's nose wrinkled. "There really kinda is."
Willow leaned over her girlfriend's chair, cooing softly. "Oh, baby. Come on, let's get home. It's almost dawn." The redhead looked up at the brunette sitting across the table, eyebrow raised. "Daybreak." Dawn rolled her eyes, but Tara just smiled.
"I'm just glad my first class isn't until noon. Plenty of time to sleep off a pizza hangover."
As the couple thanked Jenny and headed for the door, Dawn couldn't help but quirk a smile.
Faith's hand ground into the wood of the stake as it dug into the leather jacket underneath it. With a groan, she latched her other hand onto the vampire's collar as she whipped around to face Xander. "What the fuck? You know this vamp?"
As Xander narrowed his eyes in thought, Angel's went wide. "Xander!"
"I'm thinking." When Faith cast a skeptical glance between them, Xander sighed. "Angel, this is Faith, our new Slayer. Faith, this is Angel. He's got a soul. Supposedly."
The brunette dropped her stake, but still held Angel's collar. "Yeah, well then why'd you attack me?"
Angel shrugged out of her grip. "Hey, you were attacking a woman half your size who's not exactly dressed in head-to-toe black leather."
Faith scoffed. "You're one to talk. And she's not a woman, she's some kind of demon."
"Demon?" All three pairs of eyes turned to the opposite end of the alley; the blonde crossed her arms over her chest. "Okay. Now that's rude."
Angel turned to find the Slayer looking at him. "Did you want to..."
Faith shrugged. "Nah, go for it. I think I've kinda got a plan."
Xander cleared his throat. "I'll just be staying here."
Angel approached as the blonde was brushing the grime from her dress. She glanced up indifferently. "Vampire, huh? Got some tasty humans for you right back there. Least the boy's human, not so sure about the cleavage and black leather cocktail, but hey, free treats."
Angel shrugged. "Yeah, I'm on a diet."
The blonde nodded. "Right. Getting rid of some of that blood weight." Angel's hand clamped around her wrist, but not before her fingers had managed to dig into his neck. "Let's see if I can help you with that."
The blonde pulled back her arm to prepare to toss him aside, but before she could Angel's forehead slammed against hers. Her free hand went to her head, and Angel rolled away from her grasp. "Ow! Seriously, why do people keep doing that?"
Before her hand came down, Angel's were up, the blonde barely able to parry his punches as he drove her toward the wall. The sound of creaking metal made him turn his head, only for the blonde to slam the her heel against it. As Angel tumbled, the blonde braced herself against the wall, shaking her head to clear it. "Okay. You know what? This is getting old."
"Agreed!" The blonde's gaze turned toward the source of the sound, and her eyes widened. Faith let out a feral scream as she slammed the dumpster against the wall. As the blonde disappeared under the hunk of metal, Faith pulled Angel up by the arm. "Come on, go!"
As the sounds of footsteps faded in the distance, Glorificus shoved the dumpster against the opposite wall with a shriek. She was about the give chase when she felt the unmistakable haze of him begin to creep over her mind. "Oh, give me a break! Not now!"
Her scream of frustration melted into one of pain and didn't subside until the change did. Ben glanced down at the red dress, the filthy alley, and the dead bodies, and groaned. "You have got to be kidding me."
The sound of the phone interrupted Willow's dozing; by the time she picked up the receiver, Tara was starting to stir as well. "Hello? Jenny, hi, what...wait. What? Oh my god...no. I mean yes, I...I'll be right over."
Tara blinked as Willow peeled away from her, the early morning sun reminding her how late they'd been up. "Will?"
"I, um...we have to go to Jenny's."
"What is it? What's wrong?"
Willow shook her head faintly. "She said...she said Angel's back."
Tara's eyes went wide. "Angel? The Angel, vampire with a soul Angel?"
"I have to..."
Tara just nodded as she cinched the quilt around her chest. "Go. I'll be along in a few minutes."
Willow nodded frantically and leaned in for a quick kiss before running for the door.
As she careened around the corner and down the hall, the redhead practically bowled over an older man in a plaid shirt. "Oh, jeez. I'm sorry. I wasn't...I have to..."
The man just nodded dazedly as she picked herself up and sprinted past. As he continued down the hallway, he sighed to himself: children.
When he reached the door at the end of the hall, he gave it three sharp knocks, and a voice from the other side told him she'd be just a minute. She opened the door, robe held tight around her chest, and he nodded in greeting. "Hello, Tara."
Tara's eyes went wide.
"This is absolutely unacceptable! Jennifer, you of all people should know the danger that Angelus continues to pose..."
Angel squinted. "Did he just call me Angelus?"
Xander followed Wesley's accusatory gaze to the house's owner. "Did he just call you Jennifer?"
Dawn dropped her head over the arm of the couch, still eyeing their new arrival. "So wait. Vampires don't have souls?"
Wesley sighed. "No. The soul of a vampire is driven out by a demonic..."
"But tall, dark and brooding over there does have a soul?"
The Watcher sighed, again, and Dawn was suddenly reminded of a few of the put-upon junior high teachers she'd had before she just stopped going. "Yes. He was cursed by..."
"So he's not a vampire."
Wesley's jaw hung open for a moment, then slammed shut. Angel hummed thoughtfully. "You know, I never really thought of it like that."
Faith shrugged. "Can't argue with the logic, though."
Dawn smiled smugly. "See? Totally getting the hang of this."
Jenny rolled her eyes as she turned back toward Wesley. "Look, as far as I'm concerned..."
Before she could finish, the door swung open. Willow practically slammed it as she entered, barely nodding as her eyes began scanning the faces. When they fell on the figure standing in the shadow of the stairwell, farthest from the windows, her lip began to quiver. "Angel?"
"Hey, Wi..." Angel huffed as his arms filled with redhead. When Willow finally pulled back and saw the bemused smile on Angel's face, she blushed.
"Don't be. Xander did the same thing."
Xander nodded solemnly. "It was beautiful. We cried."
"I can't believe you're back. What..."
"The bounty on my head's not exactly fresh. Things have been quiet for months. I was already thinking about coming back when I heard about...Buffy." Angel awkwardly squeezed the redhead's shoulder, and she smiled; she'd never imagined him trying to comfort her. "Are you okay?"
Dawn glanced up between Willow and the door. "Where's Blondie?"
Willow blushed. "Tara. My...my girlfriend."
Angel blinked as he watched her go beet red under his gaze. "Girlfriend."
Wesley cleared his throat. "Yes, well, as much as I would love to continue talking about Ms. Rosenberg's sex life..." Dawn snorted. "Ugh, what I mean is...we still need to discuss the fact that one of the most infamous mass murderers in occult history is standing in this room being greeted like an old friend."
"Because he is an old friend," Jenny snapped. "Angel, you're welcome to stay here as long as you want."
"Thanks, but I'll just find a crypt somewhere. I really didn't mean to burst in and upend your lives."
Xander snorted. "Oh, don't worry, we don't need any help in that department."
He couldn't help a playful glance in Dawn's direction as he said it, and the teenager responded by not-so-playfully flipping him off before rolling off the couch. "Not that this isn't so fucking fascinating, but I'm going to my room."
Wesley cleared his throat. "Yes, well, if you won't be dissuaded, I have Council business to attend to. Though I would caution you to..." His words trailed off as he met Jenny's flat glare. He sighed. "Yes, well. Take care."
The sound of the front door closing behind him was quickly followed by the slamming of Dawn's upstairs, and Willow rose with a groan. "Yeah. I should probably go see what's keeping Tara."
As she and Xander headed for the door, Faith held out her hand. "Wait." She cast a significant look at Xander, then sighed. "There's something we need to talk about."
They stood around the perimeter of the kitchen, Faith with her arms wrapped around her chest, Xander staring at the counter. Since Faith had fallen silent, no one else had said a word.
It was Angel who finally broke the silence. "And you believe him?"
Faith just shrugged. "Of course not. I mean...I don't know. I just...want to know if it's possible."
Jenny shook her head. "I don't know. I mean, I've never heard of...as much as I hate to say it, we might ask Wesley."
"No. I don't want the Watchers Council involved."
"Well, then...there might be a spell. Some way we could check?"
Willow nodded. "I could check with Tara." The redhead glanced over her shoulder toward the door. "Who should really be here by now. I mean, I hate to..."
Faith just shook her head. "No, go. Let me know if you find out anything."
Willow just nodded and headed for the door, and Jenny sighed. "So what about this 'Beast'?"
"Well, I'm assuming that was the skanky blonde. Monk guy said 'she', and otherwise her showing up'd be an awful coincidence."
Angel hummed. "Well, there are any number of demons who love calling themselves 'the Beast'. It's kind of like 'the Dark One' or 'the Destroyer'."
"Yeah, well, I guess we gotta start narrowing them down to the bottle blondes who are a thousand times stronger than me." Faith leaned forward. "Look...if this is true...I gotta do anything I can to protect her. I don't give a shit whether she's some magic key..."
"I know." Jenny reached out to grasp the Slayer's hand. "And we will do anything we can to protect her."
Xander just nodded, Faith leaning into his hand when it came down on her shoulder. When the young carpenter pushed himself away from the counter, he managed to force a smile on his face. "Well, Ms. C, you want me to come to the shop with you? I could get started on demon-finding."
Jenny cleared her throat. "Actually...Angel and I need to talk about some things."
The vampire's eyebrow rose, and Xander and Faith shared a tense look before silently nodding and vacating the kitchen. When Jenny looked up from the floor, it was to find Angel's dark eyes boring into her. She swallowed. "Angel...I need to tell you how I ended up in Sunnydale."
When Jenny exited the kitchen, Faith and Xander were still awkwardly stationed in the living room, trying to pretend they weren't paying attention. The older brunette stepped forward with a sigh, and Faith rose to meet her. "How'd it go?"
Jenny cracked a weary smile. "Well, he didn't break my neck. So, better than I expected." She scrubbed a hand across her eyes. "Anyway, we should get going. Xander?"
"If it's all the same, I think I'm gonna stay here today. I mean, you say Angel's good people, that's enough for me, I just..." Faith shrugged helplessly. "Not really comfy with the idea of leaving her alone right now."
Xander and Jenny just nodded.
"We'll let you know as soon as we find anything."
As Xander turned toward the door, Jenny reached out to squeeze the Slayer's arm. "Faith...everything's going to be all right."
Faith sighed, shooting a worried glance toward the top of the stairs. "Yeah."
It took every ounce of self-control Willow had to force herself not to panic. Just because Tara wasn't in their room, and she hadn't run into the blonde in the bathroom or on the path between the dorm and Jenny's house, that didn't mean anything nefarious had happened. Just because there were an alarming number of demonic supervillains with personal grudges against Faith and everyone she loved...
Willow took a deep breath and snapped her eyes shut.
She struggled to tamp down her worry and concentrate. It had been her idea to try and tap into the connection she and Tara shared over long distances, but for some reason the blonde had always been better at it. She had to fight down a smile as she thought of all the times she'd been in class or standing in line at a coffee shop only to feel the gentle poke at the back of her mind that reassured her of Tara's presence. The redhead sucked in a breath and reached out, desperate to feel that sensation again.
When she did, a pinprick of white in the sea of her mind, her eyes snapped open and she began moving toward the eastern edge of the quad; she had to fight to keep herself from running.
It wasn't until she was almost to the edge of campus that she caught sight of the blonde out of the corner of her eye.
The blonde blinked as Willow jogged up to her, breathing heavily. "I was worried about you. I have a lot to tell you, I think things have gotten..."
Willow trailed off as Tara continued to stare at the sidewalk. Willow circled around her, but the blonde still refused to meet her eyes.
"Tara? Is everything okay?"
The blonde witch cleared her throat. "I, um...I really have to g...get to class. We can t...talk later?"
As Tara pushed past her, Willow could only blink and stare at her retreating form.
The bell on the door caused Jenny to snap to attention, relief washing over her face as the two brunettes slipped into the shop. "Oh, thank God."
Dawn smiled smugly. "I should get that more often."
Faith just shrugged. "Really? Happens to me all the time."
Jenny cleared her throat. "I thought you were more customers. I had no idea this place attracted so much business. I mean sure, it's Sunnydale, but..."
The Slayer grinned. "Little different than dealing with students?"
"You kids didn't ask half as many questions and you always left at three o'clock."
"Price you pay for becoming a retail giant." Xander leaned away from the reading table, letting the book in front of him close with a thud. "Well, I got nothing on the who's-who front. Will?"
The redhead sitting next to him shook her head distractedly. "Uh, aura reading, a couple spells designed to defeat invisibility, but nothing...like what we need."
The redhead risked a sidelong glance at Dawn, but the teenager was simply glancing around the shop, hands drumming her thighs. "So where's Blondie?"
Willow cleared her throat. "Um...she's in class. I was going to meet her after, but...I'm sure she'll come by here."
Faith turned reflexively toward the door as the bell rang again, but relaxed as she saw that it just marked the entrance of another customer. "What's up? You two get in a fight?"
Willow shrugged meekly. "I don't know. I mean, if I said something..."
Jenny squeezed the redhead's shoulder. "I'm sure it's not your fault, Willow. People get...busy."
Xander leaned back. "Besides, this gives us the chance to plan the best birthday party in Sunnydale history. That can't hurt."
Faith snorted. "Long as it's better than my last one. That purple snot demon..."
Xander groaned. "...was not my idea and would you please stop bringing it up."
Dawn's eyebrows rose. "Purple snot demon?"
"Later," Faith muttered.
"Excuse me, sir?" The Slayer looked up to find Jenny's attention on the redheaded man who had just walked in and was now studying the books on the table. "Can I help you find something?"
The man just smiled tightly at the shopkeeper. "These all magic books?"
"Uh, personal. The ones on the back wall and in the loft are for sale. Were you looking for something in particular?"
"So, y'all are witches?"
Xander shot Jenny a curious glance. She just shrugged. "Yeah. They're all witches. I'm a manwitch. It's fun."
Willow smiled in spite of herself. "Warlock, sweetie."
"I stand by my version."
As the man turned his attention to the racks of candles across from the table, Faith met Jenny's eyes, and the shopkeeper just shook her head. Before anyone could comment further, the bell above the door rang again.
Willow's eyes went wide, and it was a testament to her self-control that she was able to walk across the shop instead of running. She stopped just short of embracing the blonde, still standing awkwardly just inside the door.
"Tara. Hi. Are you...hi."
The blonde licked her lips, one hand reaching out to squeeze Willow's. "Will, I...I'm sorry about this morning. There are...things I need to tell you..."
Willow nodded nervously. "Of course. I'm sorry, I shouldn't have..."
"No, Will, it's not your fault. I..."
"Well, well, look what the cat dragged in."
Tara's eyes went wide and her hand dropped Willow's. When the younger witch turned around, it was to find the redheaded man staring straight at them, a sloppy grin on his face.
"Well? Ain't you got a hug for your big brother?"
Five pairs of eyes watched as the siblings met at the base of the steps leading down to the shop floor and exchanged a quick, impersonal embrace. Tara pulled back first, hands fidgeting at her sides.
"Donny. Dad didn't t...tell me you c...came with him..."
"Oh yeah, Beth too. You didn't think we'd forget, did you? Birthday girl?"
Tara shook her head. "But, I didn't tell hi...I mean, w...what are you doing here?"
"Well, Dad asked around campus, and someone mentioned this place. We just wanted to see what you're...up to these days."
The bell over the door sounded again, and Donny looked up with a grin. "Well, well, there you go."
Tara froze, and Dawn's eyes narrowed. When she turned to Faith, the Slayer had the same look on her face.
The blonde turned, a brittle smile on her face that didn't reach her eyes. "Dad. Why did you...I mean it's g...good to see you. Cousin Beth, I...it's been a while."
The blonde girl standing next to him smiled thinly, and the older man just nodded tersely. "Tara. I thought we might find you here."
In the ensuing silence, Tara turned back to find the rest of the shop staring at them, and cleared her throat. "Dad, Donny, Cousin Beth, these are m...my friends.
"That's Faith Lehane and her sister Dawn." Faith nodded slowly. Dawn didn't move at all.
"That's Xander Harris." He gave a confused wave.
"And this is Jenny Calendar, she owns the shop."
Licking her lips, Tara turned back to the redhead still standing, mystified, beside her. "And this is Willow Rosenberg."
Willow smiled, trying to hide her confusion. "Mr. Maclay. It's nice to meet you. You came all the way down here for Tara's birthday?"
Tara's father shot her a significant look, and the blonde paled, then averted her eyes.
"Well, you'll have to excuse us. We're double parked. We'll leave you to...talk. Tara, we'll be seeing you later."
With nothing more, Tara's father nodded, then turned for the door. When the three Maclays had let the door swing shut behind him, Tara closed her eyes with a sigh, and her hand instinctively reached out to grab Willow's.
"Baby, are you okay?"
"I...I'm fine. It was just a surprise seeing them all here."
"I can't believe they came all this way just so they could be with you for your birthday. My parents didn't even do that when we lived in the same house."
Tara winced. "Yeah." The blonde sucked in a breath, forcing a smile on her face. "So. Research?"
Willow's eyes narrowed, but she simply placed her hand on the small of Tara's back. "Uh, yeah. There's this new demon lady Faith ran in to. I can tell you all about it later."
Dawn's gaze finally turned from Tara to the reading table. "What kind of demon?"
Faith cast a panicked look at Jenny. "Uh, blonde, skanky. Kinda petty. No big deal."
The younger brunette snorted. "So what, she wants to borrow your makeup?"
"Actually, we...we don't know what she wants yet."
Tara cleared her throat. "Would you like to help with the research, Dawnie?"
Dawn's eyebrows rose, but before she could respond, Faith shook her head. "I don't think that's a good idea." Tara's eyes narrowed in confusion, but Faith met them with a meaningful gaze. At the same time, Dawn's face just fell into an unreadable mask.
"You know what? Fuck it. I don't want to be part of your fucking Scooby Doo fan club anyway."
Faith winced. "Dawn, I didn't mean..."
The teenager rose from her chair with a snap. "Whatever. I'm going back."
"No, Dawn, I don't...I mean it's not safe for you to..."
Dawn spun on her heel. "Make up your fucking mind! You either want me around or you don't! Fucking pick one!"
As the teen stomped toward the door, Faith threw her head back, and Tara glanced around at the group. "I'm sorry, I...I didn't mean to..."
Xander waved his hand. "Not your fault. You missed a couple developments at the morning meeting."
Willow nodded. "Yeah, we'll fill you in."
Faith, however, was already pulling on her leather jacket. "I gotta go. No way she's going straight home."
Jenny just nodded. "We'll keep looking. Everything's going to be fine."
The Slayer tried to smile. "Yeah."
As Faith headed for the door, Willow placed a gentle hand on Tara's shoulder. "You said you had something you wanted to tell me, too?"
Tara watched the Slayer swing the door open, then looked down at the pile of books. "No. It...it was nothing."
"A thousand pardons, oh most splendidly glorious one, but I bring news of the..."
"Red or black?"
The demon merely blinked. Glorificus sighed, dainty feet kicking up from the side of the chaise longue. "The red ones or the black ones? I swear, there's not a comfortable pair of heels in this entire pathetic reality."
The misshapen creature pressed his hands together. "Oh, well, your own beauty is so dazzling, your shining wondrousness, that no mere accessory could be judged attractive when compared to the..."
The scab was interrupted by the mate of the black shoe on Glory's left foot slamming into his nose. "Forget it! That's what I get, asking a walking canker sore for fashion advice." As he cradled his nose, his mistress' piercing eyes turned to him. "Well? News of the whatever the hell you were talking about?"
"Ah, yes! I bring news of the human who your endless, smoldering magnificence so resoundingly defeated in battle last night, and would surely have slain if not for the untimely interference, through no fault of your own, of your unfortunate counterpart..."
The demon groaned as the other red shoe was winged his way, the toe leaving a triangular impression in his forehead. "On with it! The toadying's only cute when you don't have something important to say!"
"Yes, of course, forgive me, your most...my goddess. But the woman you faced was apparently...the most recent Vampire Slayer."
Glory let out a long sigh. "Oh, it figures. That's all I need. I should have known after I tore my way through the Knights of Byzantium and the Order of Dagon there'd be one more pathetic mortal just itching to keep my property away from me!"
The leggy blonde vaulted to her feet, provoking a panicked yelp from the scab who'd been organizing her steadily-growing collection of shoes.
"Well, that's just fine. Get the minions together and get some intelligence." She glanced at the demon still rubbing the sore spot on his forehead, then at the one frantically trying to right her shoeboxes, and sighed. "Relatively speaking. This girl has my Key, and I want to know where."
Glory grinned. "And then I want to know just which loved ones to squeeze in half to make her give it back."
I fucking hate this stupid town. Everybody talks about this Hellmouth, but nobody seems to notice that there's like a fucking Suburb-mouth. It turned my badass sister into a total pussy, and when I get pissed about it and storm off, where do I go? Not to steal some booze, not to find some older guy to take it out on...I go to the fucking MALL, like a motherfucking VALLEY GIRL. I mean yeah, I swiped a couple earrings and shit and gave this boy a panty shot to make myself feel better, but still.
If everyone here's just going to treat me like a little kid, what's the fucking point? I'd be better off just having said 'fuck you' to that bitch and gone for it on the streets of Boston.
Because the thing is, I don't give a shit about Faith and her little Fisher Price monster club. If they want to play Dungeons & Dragons and kill things with little sticks and shit, then I'm better off just staying the fuck away from all of it. If they want to keep secrets from me, then fine, I don't fucking care. I just don't see why she had to drag me across the fucking country to do it.
At least they seem to be keeping the same stuff hidden from Blondie that they are from me. Of course, it's not like she isn't hiding stuff too, but I mean, hers is just so obvious. Way I grew up, I recognized that look on her face the second her dad walked in, and I'd bet my ass Faith did too. But like I said, it's none of my business.
But the thing is, I can't help thinking about what I'd do if that bitch showed up here some day.
Dawn looked up when there was a knock on her locked door. "What?"
"Dawnie, are you okay?"
Dawn sighed angrily. She'd had an indignant speech all prepared, but of course it had to be Tara.
There was a moment of silence. "Okay."
Dawn heard her visitor's foot squeak on the loose board by the door. "Tara?"
There was another pause. "Yeah. I'm fine too."
As Tara's footsteps faded down the hallway, Dawn couldn't help sighing.
"After you left, we pretty much spent the rest of the day in research mode. Finding just about squat." Xander turned a careful eye to the Slayer as they walked. "Look, I gotta say it. Maybe we should bring Wesley in."
"No. I told you I don't want the Council anywhere near Dawnie."
"I just think...they probably know more about..."
"I said no! Jesus fucking Christ!"
Xander threw up his hands in surrender, and the Slayer sighed. "Shit, I'm sorry. Just...lots going on."
Xander chuckled. "To put it mildly."
"So...tell me about this Angel dude."
Angel was in the middle of a form as he heard the squeal of the metal gate; tai chi had always helped relax him, and the small crypt he'd staked out for his stay didn't have many other distractions. When the first thing through the door was a cross, however, he immediately straightened.
When a face peeked out from behind the shaking icon, Angel sighed. Really, he would have been surprised if it had been anyone else. "Wesley. What can I do for you?"
"Ah! Stay back! I'm quite comfortable with the both of us right where we are."
Angel took in the quivering Watcher, face half-hidden behind the cross his hand could barely hold steady. "Yeah. You look really comfortable."
Wesley's jaw tightened. "I know all about you, Angelus. I've read all about your exploits, particularly your fixation with Slayers, and I know about your...relationship with Buffy Summers. Well, I'm here to warn you that Faith is my charge, and that whatever untoward behavior Rupert Giles allowed, you will not..."
Wesley sucked back the remainder of his words as Angel lunged, face twisted and hand clamped down, sizzling against the wood of the cross.
"No, I'm warning you," Angel rumbled. "Rupert Giles was a damn good man, and Buffy Summers was...if I ever hear you imply anything less..." Wesley's terrified stare flitted to the cross as it cracked, the smaller arms clattering to the stone floor. And just like that, Angel was on the other side of the crypt.
Wesley's mouth moved impotently, lips shaking, until finally he began backing toward the door.
The Watcher's gaze shot up; Angel's eyes were fixed on the view through the small leaded glass window that had attracted him to the crypt in the first place. "This is your first field assignment, right?"
The young Watcher cleared his throat. "Yes."
"And you want to make your mark. Prove that you can handle it, make a name for yourself." Wesley straightened as the vampire's eyes turned to him. "But don't you dare hurt these people trying to do it."
Neither man moved for the space of a few uncomfortable breaths. Then, turning back toward the gate, Wesley simply nodded.
Tara pushed open the door to their room, and she couldn't help noticing that it seemed heavier than normal. It had been a hard day, and she was still no closer to deciding what, or even whether, to tell Willow. Maybe it would be easier to just...
Tara blinked. "Dad. How did...what are you doing here?"
He set down the doll's eye crystal he'd been critically examining before he spoke. "Your...roommate let me in. She said to tell you she went to the library." Tara could only nod.
"I didn't realize when you introduced her that you two were...living together." A pointed glance at the room's sole bed made his meaning obvious.
"Don't interrupt me, Tara."
The blonde flushed. "I...I'm s...sorry. Sir."
He wetted his lips. "We wouldn't normally have come down this early. I can't afford to take a week off from work, and neither can your brother. But he thought that you might need some...persuading to do the right thing." He cast a dismissive glance at the shelf of spellbooks and supplies. "I can see he was right."
He finally turned to face her, and her gaze instinctively dropped to the carpet. "You realize that you're making it worse? The spells, the books, the...those friends. It's a wonder you haven't done something already." His hand on her chin forced her to meet his eyes. "You haven't, have you?"
"N...no, sir." She sucked in a deep breath. "But they...they all kn...know about...things like this."
"Do they know about you?" Tara's eyes cut guiltily away, only for her father's hand to jerk her back toward him. "Answer my question, young lady."
"N...no, sir. But, they...I mean maybe they w...wouldn't..."
"Wouldn't what? Understand how dangerous you could be? Stop you from doing something horrible?"
Tara tried to blink back her tears. She didn't realize she'd failed until her father's thumb tenderly brushed one from her cheek. "All we want is for you to be safe. And for everyone else to be safe. You know you can't have that here. And all this magic is just going to make that harder for us. For your family."
"I just...I thought that if I c...could f...find a way to..."
"You can't change what you are, Tara. After your mother...after she turned twenty, I prayed to God every day for that. But that's not how the world works. All you can do is try to contain the evil where it can do the least harm. Do you think you can do that on your own?"
"N...no," Tara sobbed.
"Now I'm giving you time to say goodbye to these people. Maybe I shouldn't even do that, but I don't want you to hurt them any more than you already have. What you tell them is your own business, but I suggest you say it soon."
As he slipped past her and let the door click shut behind him, Tara simply began to weep.
When Willow came back to the room, she found it locked. "Tara? Are you awake?" She slid her key into the lock and pushed, only to have the door shoved back against her. "Tara? What's wrong?" Willow's eyes narrowed...she could swear she heard crying.
"Tara? Baby, open the door." When it didn't budge, Willow felt her panic rising as the power built behind her fingertips. She'd tear the door from its hinges if she had to.
Before she could summon up the spell, her hand jerked back from the knob and a shriek of surprise and pain escaped from her lips; it took her brain longer than it had taken her nerves to realize that she'd been burned.
At the same moment, the door flew open and she was tackled into the hallway by a sobbing blonde. "Oh, Goddess, Willow, I'm so sorry! I didn't mean to, I just...I'm sorry, I'm so sorry..."
Willow could only hold Tara as the blonde clung to her. "I'm fine. Sweetie, I'm okay, but...what happened?"
"I can't...I can't...oh, Goddess, it's all my fault..."
Willow knew she should get Tara to bed, but with the heavier blonde lying on top of her even that wasn't possible. All she could do was hold Tara as she cried.
Tara took a deep breath. Willow had held her all night, and she was still no closer to figuring out what to tell them. Even now that they were all gathered in Jenny's living room, with the exception of Dawn, who was mercifully sleeping in, she still couldn't bring herself to broach the topic. Looking at Willow, feeling the warmth of the redhead's hand pressed into hers, just made it worse.
Jenny cleared her throat. "All right. I know it's been an...eventful couple of days for all of us. But I think I might have something that could help...get to the bottom of things." She spun a book toward the center of the coffee table. "In the 16th century, there was a French sorcerer by the name of Cloutier. He developed this trance state he called...pulling the curtain back."
Angel leaned in. "That sounds familiar."
"Yes, the spell to detect the residue of other spells," Wesley intoned as he rotated the book toward his seat perched on one of the stools from the kitchen. "Which we need for what purpose, exactly?"
Faith and Jenny shared a momentary glance. "We need to find out about this woman who attacked Faith. Someone that strong was probably using magic. If we can find some traces of it where they were fighting..."
"Why wasn't I informed about this?"
"It just happened night before last," Faith muttered. "No big."
"I assure you it is quite 'big'! I am your Watcher. Not Ms. Calendar. It could very well be you've encountered some sort of new mystical enemy, and my job is to monitor such occurrences. In future, you'll discuss all such encounters with me immediately."
Faith sighed. "Fine. Whatever. How do I do this curtain thing?"
"You don't. Willow or I should do it. It takes a level of concentration that...well, no offense."
Faith just scowled. Willow forced a smile.
"I'm always up for a new spell. How does it work?"
"Well, once you enter the trance state, you'll be able to see the traces and effects of magic. Spells that have been cast, anything that's not what it appears to be..." She shot a sideways glance at Wesley. "Anything that looks human but really isn't."
Tara bolted from her seat, blushing when every pair of eyes in the room snapped to her clumsy rush for the door. "I...I have to go. Class. I have class."
"But that's not for another hour." Willow stood to follow her, only for Tara to wave her off.
"I have to...f...finish something. Some work."
Willow just watched helplessly as the blonde slammed the door behind her.
The ensuing silence was broken when Xander stood. "So hey, Wes. You got that Council training, right? I was hoping maybe I could pick your brain about my crossbow technique. I mean, I know you're probably not supposed to tell your secrets to us civilians, but..."
As contrived as the excuse was, Wesley seemed perfectly eager to embrace it. "Well, yes. I suppose it couldn't hurt. Might very well keep you alive when you go out flagrantly disregarding my orders."
Xander forced a laugh as they headed for the door. He met Faith's grateful nod with a wink.
When the quiet settled again, Faith's hand reached for Willow's. "Will, are you okay? I mean..."
Willow pulled the hand away. "Just tell me what I need to do."
"So they're having all sorts of touchy-feely human emotional crap. Not my problem. What about my Key?"
The scab winced. "Nothing yet, oh most effervescent and emollient one. We are still keeping watch on all those who were present at the meeting. But it's difficult to do without being spotted."
He tensed as Glory caressed his disfigured cheek. "Sweetie, if you find out where my Key is, I will be very, very grateful..." The demon squeaked as her fingers suddenly squeezed his face like a vise. "And if you don't...I will be very, very not."
The blonde released her grip and he fell gasping to the floor. Glory smiled. "Okay?"
Tara let the rest of the class buffet her as they streamed through the door. She had no idea how long Willow would be in that trance, and having the redhead, all of her friends, find out that way was the last thing in the world that Tara wanted. As her classmates thinned, revealing a petite blonde standing with her arms folded over her chest, Tara swallowed. Well, maybe not the last thing in the world...
"C...cousin Beth." Tara tried to stand a little taller. "Are you here to...to tell me why I should leave?"
The blonde shook her head in disgust. "You know why you have to leave. If you don't, you've fallen even further into perversion than your father thought."
Dawn was the first one out. She didn't look happy. "Okay, seriously, what the fuck is going on? Willow came into my room and she just started...crying!" She looked around the anxious faces still arrayed around the living room. "And where the hell's Tara?"
"She had class. She'll be..." Faith's eyes snapped to follow Dawn as she stampeded for the door. "Dawnie, wait, I don't want you to..."
As the door slammed behind her, Faith just blinked. Then she sprinted for the stairs.
The door to Dawn's room was half-open. Willow was sitting on the bed, hands on her knees, a few tears frozen on her face. She looked up when Faith entered, and the look in her eyes made the Slayer stop short. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. I...I could check again. To be sure. Maybe I did it wrong..."
Faith didn't even realize she was moving until Willow's arms tightened around her. "It's okay. It's not your fault."
When the floorboards creaked, she looked up to find Jenny and Angel standing in the doorway. She shook her head.
"I just don't see how someone related to your sainted mother could end up as such a self-centered, arrogant little...bitch!"
Tara flinched, more at the reference to her mother than the epithet. "Th...that's not f...fair..."
"We should have gone already. The moment your father came to you, you should have said your goodbyes and come with us. Every day you wait, you're making it harder for your family. People who've already had to put up with so much because of you."
"Th...that's...you d...don't understand, you're n...not...you've s...still got a few years l...left..."
"And when it happens to me, I'm going to let them help me instead of abandoning my family and running off to live God knows what kind of perverted life. Do you think this is what your mother would want? Donny and your father having to fend for themselves while you're living in the worst kind of sin with some whore?"
Beth's ranting ended in a squeak as Tara's hand closed around her wrist. "Don't talk about Willow like that."
The younger blonde's eyes widened. "What are you going to do? Put a hex on me?"
"Tara?" Just as her grip began to slacken, she jumped. She'd been so distraught, she hadn't even seen the small brunette jogging up to them.
"Dawn. I...w...what are you doing here?"
Beth took the opportunity to pull away, not trying to hide a scowl. "Think about what I said, then do the right thing. For once."
Tara turned to watch her leave, only to have Dawn step into her line of sight. "Who was that? What's going on?"
"I, it...it was nothing."
"No!" Tara practically jumped back at Dawn's shout, and the students passing by turned to watch, but Dawn didn't seem to notice. "Why the fuck do you people keep lying to me? I'm not a little kid! Why can't anyone just tell me what's going on?"
Dawn had started to shake, tears gathering in the corners of her eyes. "Oh, Dawnie, come here..."
Tara stumbled backward into the brick wall of the hallway as Dawn practically dove into her arms. "Dawn, I'm so sorry, I didn't want to hurt anyone, I...I didn't know what to say. It's just...this is hard." She took a deep breath, the pressure against her chest lightening as Dawn did the same.
"Dawn, I...I'm going to tell you something. And you can't tell anyone else. Not yet." She sucked in another breath. "Dawn, I have to leave."
The brunette looked up, eyes still wet. "What? What are you talking about?"
"I have to go back home. With my family, before I...before my birthday."
"What? For how long?"
Tara's eyes cut away. "Dawnie..."
"No. No, wait. You're just leaving?" Her grip on the blonde's side tightened. "You're just going to walk out on Willow without even telling her? You weren't going to tell any of us?"
"I didn't know what to say. If I...if I told Willow, I d...don't think I'd be able to go."
"Good! If you don't want to go, then don't!"
"I...I have to."
"I...I can't tell you that, sweetie."
Dawn's eyes hardened. "I'm telling Will."
The brunette jerked to her feet, only for Tara's hands around her arm to hold her back. "No, Dawn, please!"
"Why not? I thought you were supposed to be in love with her? What, was that a lie?"
"No," Tara sobbed. "I...I love Will. More than anything. And I know that...that she loves me. So she'd try to stop me."
Dawn threw her head back with a frustrated growl. "Why shouldn't she?"
"Because she'd get hurt. And I...I couldn't ever live with myself if I hurt her."
"And you think running out on her isn't going to hurt her?"
Tara winced, and Dawn sighed, finally dropping back to the floor. "Why do you have to go?"
The blonde closed her eyes. "It's not safe for me to be here anymore. I thought I could just...live a normal life. I thought if I believed hard enough, I could just be like everyone else. But I can't."
"I...I don't want you to go," Dawn murmured. Tara almost smiled; it was the first time she'd actually heard the brunette sound like a little girl. "How am I supposed to keep this a secret? What am I supposed to tell everyone?"
"Tell...tell them that I love them. Tell Willow that...Goddess, I don't even think there are words."
The fight having apparently gone out of her, Dawn simply nodded. "When do you have to leave?"
"I...I think I've stayed too long already. I'm going to go tell...my dad after my classes. We'll be gone by...by morning."
Dawn's only response was to wrap her arms around Tara's waist, her nose buried in the blonde's hair. The shaky, measured breathing beneath her had almost calmed her down when a thought entered her mind. She tensed.
"Wait. No one else knows about this? You were hiding this from Faith, and Gypsy Rose, and everybody?"
"Y...yes. Why? What is it?"
Dawn's eyes, hidden by Tara's hair, narrowed. "Nothing."
This is all bullshit. Tara having to leave is bullshit. Her not being able to tell anyone why is bullshit. And whatever Faith and the Monster Club are keeping from me, that's bullshit too. I am SO FUCKING SICK of this town and these people and
FUCK! WHY THE FUCK DO I CARE WHAT THESE PEOPLE THINK?
Faith flinched at the tone, and Dawn was shocked when it didn't make her feel any better. "Xander and I are about ready to patrol. I just wanted to...see if you wanted to talk about anything."
"Oh, so now you want me around? Get the fuck out of my room!"
Faith just sighed. "Shit, Dawnie, I'm sorry. All of this...just trust me, okay? More than anything else, I don't want you to get hurt." Dawn rolled her eyes, but Faith's gaze was steady. "Dawn, are you listening to me? I would rather die than let you ever get hurt again."
Dawn barely suppressed a snort. "So you're just going to keep me in a box until, what, I'm forty? You think I'm so fucking fragile that I can't even help you guys read books?"
"Look, I'm sorry..."
Dawn slammed her journal shut, rising from behind the increasingly cluttered desk. "Just make up your fucking mind! That's all I want! Either you want me to be part of your life, or you don't. I try to do my own thing, and you drag me back here. I try to help, and you kick me out!"
"I know, I just...shit, I've really got to get going. We can talk about this when I get back. I promise."
Faith sucked in a breath. "Look, Dawnie...I just want you to be safe. That's what I want."
"Sure." Faith still held her gaze, and Dawn sighed. "I know."
"We'll talk after I get back, okay?"
Dawn just nodded. When the door clicked shut behind her, her eyes narrowed. By the time Faith got back, she'd know what was really going on. One way or the other.
"Faith, wait up!" Xander stumbled over an inconveniently placed headstone, the burst of speed as he scrambled to keep from falling on his face the only thing that let him catch up. "Non-slayer legs back here."
He winced when Faith shot him a glare. Then she sighed. "Sorry."
"Had a fight with Dawn."
"You want to talk about it?"
Xander just nodded and matched Faith's now less demanding stride.
"It's just...how the fuck am I supposed to know how to do this? Back when we were kids we were...it was like we were on the same team, you know? Now everything's different, and I don't know how to fix it, or...fuck!"
Faith let out a frustrated growl, kicking the nearest headstone hard enough to leave a crack. Xander opened his mouth, then thought better of it.
"Well, that was...well-timed." Wesley looked down at the pile of dust at his feet, then at Angel, who was resheathing the stake in his sleeve. The Watcher cleared his throat. "I suppose I should thank you for accompanying me on this reconnoiter after all."
"Accompanying you? Funny, I thought I was planning to go out and patrol myself, but then you decided to tag along because you don't trust me."
Wesley huffed. "Yes, well. That seems to be a commodity in short supply here in Sunnydale."
Angel shook his head as he vaulted a tombstone. "Wesley, things are different out here in the real world. You can't expect them to go by the Council playbook when they're fighting for their lives."
"'Their lives' are exactly the problem. I admit that I can see the wisdom in involving a few skilled magical practitioners, but the number of civilians who Faith has involved in Council business..."
"It's not Council business, Wesley, it's her business. And I'd say they stopped being civilians a long time ago." Angel smirked. "If you ask me, I think you're just jealous because they're making you feel redundant."
Wesley straightened. "I beg your pardon?"
"I was there when Buffy Summers got called. A Watcher's supposed to initiate the Slayer, right? That makes him the one and only place she can go to for support. But as hard as it might be to hear, you're not Faith's Watcher. You're a replacement, and you got here to find that she already had her own support. And now you're not sure what good you can do."
A low growl echoed down from the roof of the nearest tomb, and before Wesley could react a shrieking vampire was leaping down at them. Before it even hit the ground, Angel's fist found its throat, sending it sprawling back against the wall of the crypt. Wesley lunged for it, stake at the ready, and was blown back by the explosion of dust. He looked up to see Angel smiling at him.
"I remember what that feels like." The dazed Watcher accepted Angel's hand up. "You want some advice? Go home. Look through your journals. Talk to Jenny and Faith. You can't take over the team. You just can't. So find a way to be part of it."
Wesley cleared his throat. "You'll be all right without me?" Angel remained tactfully silent. "Well then. I'll...I have some thinking to do."
As Angel disappeared into the shadows of the graveyard, Wesley straightened his coat. He'd been right about one thing; Wesley did need to find a purpose here. But that meant knowing the whole story.
"I think I read this one about twenty eyes of newt ago." Willow scrubbed a hand across her eyes. "I'm really sorry. I'm not at my best tonight."
Jenny nodded, the barest hint of a smile gracing her lips. "Willow, I appreciate the help, but it's late. You should go home."
"No, I can still..." The redhead looked up to find the older witch staring her down. Willow sighed. "What if Tara's there?"
"Then you can talk to her."
"And what if she's not?" Willow delicately shut the spellbook laid out on the coffee table in front of her. When her hand came to rest atop it, Jenny realized it was shaking. "Did...did I do something wrong?"
Jenny's hand shot forward to take the redhead's. "Oh, honey, no..."
"Has she told you anything? That I was...did I say something, or forget something, or..."
Before Willow could start crying, Jenny pulled her into an embrace. "No, Willow, it's not your fault. I don't know what...it's not your fault." Willow's arms tightened around her waist. "Everything's going to be okay, I promise."
After a few minutes of the older woman rubbing circles against her back, Willow's breathing had calmed. Jenny was just about to pull away when the redhead stirred. "My mom never did this for me."
Jenny blinked. "What?"
"When Buffy died...you know, the first time...I must have cried for three days. My mom stood in the doorway of my bedroom and gave me this speech about the grieving process." She shook her head. "I haven't even told her about me and..."
When the redhead fell silent, Jenny gently lifted herself from the couch. "Come on. Why don't I walk you back to the dorms?"
They'd appeared all at once, out of nowhere. Or more accurately, out of three clouds of viscous black smoke that solidified into three howling demons before Xander even had time to get his crossbow up.
Faith had driven her stake straight at the throat of the first one, only for it to disappear just as suddenly as it had come. The second had slammed into him, its suddenly and surprisingly solid body catapulting him over two rows of tombstones. Xander groaned and looked up just in time to watch Faith deliver a vicious back kick directly into the third's neck, the demon's howling shifting up and octave as it clutched at its throat. When it disappeared as well, Faith let out a triumphant roar, only to have it cut short as the other demon leapt on her back, driving her head directly into the wall of the crypt.
The Slayer screamed in rage and frustration, arms and legs thrashing as she vainly tried to shift the demon's hulking body, earning a few punches across its featureless face only to have its own fist smash into hers. As she cried out in pain, the demon's shrieking intensified, its talons doubling in size as it raised them above its head for the killing blow.
When the bolt struck the center of its back, the shriek went even higher. Then the demon evaporated into a cloud of inky vapor, leaving the crossbow bolt to drop limply to Faith's heaving chest.
The Slayer tried to raise her aching body, still vibrating with the adrenaline of the fight and the impotent fury of having been robbed of a kill. It was all too much. The predator in her couldn't take it anymore.
She felt a hand against her neck. "Jesus! Faith are you okay?"
In answer, she grabbed a handful of hair and slammed her mouth against his.
Wesley glanced furtively behind himself as he slipped into the alley that led behind the Magic Box. At this time of night the streets were more or less deserted, but it still paid to be cautious. If he recalled correctly, the store had a supply room with its own entrance, a space Jenny Calendar and Alexander Harris had talked about converting into a training room.
He found the unassuming metal door and gave the knob a quick rattle. Locked. Well, that was nothing for a man of his talents. He just had to...
Wesley jumped. The fact that he was angled toward the door as he did so was the only thing that kept him from ending up flat on his back. He turned to find a compact brunette in black denim smirking at him. "What are you doing here at this hour?" He hissed.
Dawn's smirk just intensified. "Uh, I was turning tricks in the alley for drug money, like I do every night. Real question is what are you doing here, Not-So-Great Britain?"
Wesley stiffened. "I...Ms. Calendar thought she left an important spellbook, and I offered to..."
"Break and enter, instead of using the key she would have given you?" Wesley scowled. Dawn returned the favor. "Look, they're lying to you too, right? You want to come along, fine." She brushed the Watcher aside, kneeling down and proffering something that looked more ambitious than just a bobby pin. "Just keep an eye out for witnesses and stay the fuck out of my way."
Xander was finding it increasingly hard to think. The main refrain going through his head was that it had been a long, long time since there had been a girl with her mouth on his and her body writhing against him. In fact, the last one to do so had cheated on him with the one who was doing it now. The irony was not lost on him.
"No talking." Faith's strength meant he couldn't have stopped her if he'd wanted to, which was up for debate. One hand on his chest slammed him back against the headstone, while the other practically tore the zipper off his jeans.
"I am sick of people talking to me!" the Slayer growled. "My sister, and Masterpiece Theater, and fucking skanky blonde demons, so right now, you're just going to shut up and fuck me."
Faith's hand slid into his underwear, and Xander groaned. "Faith...it's not that I don't..."
That was when Faith's hips came down against his and his hands ended up on her breasts and he promptly forgot what he was saying.
"You're certain she'd keep them here?" Wesley shouted from his position by the nearest bookshelf.
"Well she sure as fuck wouldn't keep them in the same house as the nosy teenager she's trying to hide them from." Dawn flipped idly through the sales ledger behind the counter. Just normal, boring numbers. "And I already checked her computer, not even password-protected, for fuck's sake, and she had some journals and shit on there, but they were all from before I got here."
"I confess as to being not entirely sure what I'm looking for..."
Dawn scoffed. "Yeah. Well, that's kind of the fucking problem when people lie to you. You don't know what the fuck they're lying about."
Wesley looked back over his shoulder. "Must you insist on speaking like that? I assure you replacing every second word with profanity doesn't make you sound more mature. It makes you sound like a petulant child."
Dawn scowled. "Yeah? Well talking like that doesn't make you sound like an all-knowing scholar. It makes you sound like a fucking tight-ass who's so desperate for people to think he's smart that..."
"Now wait a moment..."
"No! You know, you don't just get to fucking insult me like you know a god damn thing about my life..."
"'We have made no real progress in finding the identity of the so-called 'Beast'. Faith is taking it hard, but she still refuses to let Wesley and the Council help.'"
Dawn looked up to find Wesley with a slim, leather-bound book open in his hands.
"'Normally I'd want all the help we can get, but if there's even a chance that they might take Dawn...'" The Watcher met the teenager's wide eyes for a moment before returning to the page. "'We still don't know what being 'the Key' means, what role the monks played in its creation, or if Dawn is fully human. I just worry that we might not be able to find out who this woman is without the Council's help...and either way Faith will feel like she's losing her sister all over again...'"
Livid, Wesley forced himself to swallow. Dawn was still staring. "What...what does that mean? Wesley, what does that mean, 'fully human'?" Wesley's mouth was set in a firm line, his hand tightening around the book until the leather creaked. "Wesley, what the fuck does that mean!"
Wesley let the book drop to the table. "I'm very sorry. This is more serious than you know. I am deeply sorry that you've been put in danger by all this, but we do not have the luxury of time."
"Wh...what the fuck are you talking about?"
Wesley stepped toward the counter. Dawn stepped back. "Dawn, everyone here is in danger. For your own safety, and theirs, I must remand you to the custody of the Watcher's Council of Britain. If you come with me..."
The Watcher's words were cut short as his head crashed into the counter's display case. Dawn looked, half-disbelieving, at the wooden Buddha clutched in her shaking hands. She scowled and let it drop to the ground.
"Fuck. That. Fuck all of you!"
By the time she reached the door, she was running.
"Anyway, thanks. It's not really as big a deal as I made it out to be, but..."
Jenny shook her head. "No, anything I can do to help."
Willow paused with her hand on the door. Jenny's lighted on her shoulder. "Willow? It's going to be fine."
The redhead nodded once, then opened the door.
When she walked into an empty room, all the nervous energy that had been balled up inside her fizzled away. She was disappointed, but not surprised. Tara had been making a habit of staying out late and getting up before Willow woke, her telltale scent on the pillow the only proof that she'd been to the room at all.
Willow looked at that pillow. Then she froze.
Xander was so overwhelmed by the feel of Faith, by her thighs wrapped around him and her nipples under his fingers and the hungry, almost frightening insistence of her mouth on his, that he didn't even notice when it ended. All he was aware of was the Slayer pulling herself away, stumbling to her feet, and fumbling to button her pants even as she began to run.
Before Xander could open his mouth, she was long gone.
I spent so much time trying to figure out how to say this. I almost thought of not saying it at all, and just letting Dawn tell you I was gone. But if I'm going to make you hate me anyway, I have to let you know how I feel.
Tara stepped up to the camper, a duffel bag over her shoulder. In it were some clothes, her stuffed cat, and her toothbrush. Everything else, the magic supplies and the quilt they'd bought together, she'd left in the room.
All those times I told you that I loved you, I felt so stupid. I felt like I couldn't possibly explain what I meant, that there were no words that would tell you how much I needed you. When I thought I was nothing, you reached down at you picked me up and you looked at me like I was beautiful. Every good thing that I was here was because of you.
Donny rubbed his eyes; Beth was already asleep on the bed in the back of the camper, and he was hoping to claim one of the benches soon himself. "Couldn't we just wait and leave in the morning?"
His father sent him a sharp, reproving glance. "The sooner we leave, the better." The gaze turned on his daughter. "Isn't that right, Tara?"
Tara just nodded.
The thought that I could make you even half as happy as you've made me was the greatest joy I've ever felt. And now, the only thing that keeps the thought that I might hurt you by leaving from killing me is knowing how much more I would hurt you if I stayed.
You are my Goddess, Willow. And I will never stop being grateful for the beautiful life you gave me. But please let me go.
I love you more than I can possibly say. I'm sorry.
Willow sat, curled up on the bed, reading and re-reading the note, sure that if she did she'd eventually find the punchline or the loophole that proved it wasn't real. As the tears poured down her face, Jenny could do nothing but hold her.
It was almost half an hour later when the phone rang, and Willow was still crying. Jenny reached for it, one arm still around Willow.
"Yes, hello, Willow Rosenberg's...whoa, slow down...what?
"What do you mean, gone? She was in bed last time I checked. How did...Faith, it's all right.
"Get Angel and Xander and start looking. I'll call Wesley and go to the Magic Box. She might be there. Faith, it's going to be o...all right, I will, I know, we just..." She cast a glance at the sobbing redhead. "I'll talk about it when you get there."
Jenny replaced the receiver and peeled herself away from Willow, hands gently pulling up on the redhead's shoulders. "Willow...I know how hard this is, but I can't stay."
Willow looked up with bloodshot eyes, and Jenny swallowed. "Dawn's gone too."
A misshapen face watched the camper from the shrubbery. As it pulled away into the pre-dawn gloom, the rear door clicked shut. As the tail lights faded, the demonic minion's mouth twisted into an ugly grin.
In the end, Faith arrived at the Magic Box at the same time Jenny did. "Angel's on the move, and I figured as soon as I checked in, I'd head out too."
"What about Xander?"
"Xander's...he's got something else to deal with."
Jenny just nodded as she unlocked the door to the store. "Yeah. So does Willow."
"Is she okay? Are she and Tara still..."
"Yeah, something like that. When we find Dawn, I think there are going to be a lot of heartfelt talks to go a..." Jenny blinked. "Round."
Faith was behind Jenny in the doorway, meaning she was the second one to see Wesley sprawled on the counter, but thanks to Slayer reflexes she was the first to reach him. "Holy shit! Wesley?"
The Watcher groaned, and Faith let out a sigh of relief. "Wesley? What happened? Do you know where Dawn is?"
Wesley blinked, his surroundings slowly coming back into focus. Suddenly, Faith was helping him to his feet. He words filtered through, and he jerked away.
"How dare you?" Faith blinked. "Do you have any idea what you've done? What kind of hell could have been avoided if you'd just done your job and followed orders?"
The Slayer shook her head. "What are you talking about?"
"I am talking about the Beast! I am talking about the Key! I am talking about the fact that you have doomed not only this reality, but every reality, because of your selfish refusal to consider the consequences of your actions!"
The Watcher's face was red. Jenny stepped forward uneasily. "Wesley, slow down..."
"You know about this," Faith murmured. The tone was more accusatory than Jenny thought was wise.
"It is my job to know about this!"
Jenny raised a hand. "Wesley, just tell us what's going on."
The Watcher's glare turned from Faith to her. "This woman, this...Beast. If I am not wrong, then her name is Glorificus."
"What kind of demon is she?"
"She's not a demon. She's a god. A hellgod whose fellows betrayed her and cast her out into a mortal shell, and who has spent the intervening years working to return to her throne. To do that, she needs the Key. An energy field that allows the barriers between realities to be broken down. If she procures the Key, she will use it...use Dawn to open the floodgates to her hell dimension. And every other. Every horrible thing that can and could ever possibly exist in this world or any other will be visited upon the Earth, and I would have been able to tell all of this to you if you hadn't insisted on lying to me!"
The two women both looked chastened. Wesley just shook his head.
"As it is, it's obvious I can't be of any use here. Now that Dawn is..."
Faith's eyes, which had been intently studying the floor, snapped up. "Wait. You know where Dawn is? Was she here?"
The Slayer took a step forward, suddenly far less subdued. "This is the kind of shit you really want to lead with, Wesley!"
"Well I'm sorry, I was somewhat distracted by learning that my Slayer has been intentionally keeping me from doing my job before her young sister knocked me out cold!"
"Why would Dawn do that?"
"The younger Ms. Lehane isn't exactly a model of ethical behavior. If you were keeping this a secret from her, it's no surprise she'd lash..."
Before Wesley could finish, he found himself pinned against the counter, Faith's arm across his throat. "No, because see, if there's one thing I got from our sainted mother that Dawnie didn't it's the urge to beat the living shit out of things at the slightest provocation, so instead of trying to make me feel like shit, how about you answer the question? What the fuck did you do?"
Wesley swallowed. "You need to understand. If your sister is indeed the Key, she needs to be protected. The Watcher's Council is well-equipped to shoulder that kind of burden, and I was obligated to..."
Faith's grip tightened. "No, you need to understand! You can try to blame us all you want, but you stop getting to play the victim card when you try to kidnap my sister!"
Faith shoved the Watcher back, and Jenny winced as she heard the glass of the display case crack. "You care so much about your rules and your Council that you don't see anything wrong with kidnapping a teenage girl to what? Lock her up for the rest of her life 'for her own good'? Kill her to keep this Glorious bitch from getting her hands on her? You want to know why you don't get to play with the big kids, take a fucking look!"
By now, Faith was pacing the floor. Wesley was still pinned to the counter. "You know how Rupert Giles died, Wes? Fighting a fucking vampire. Because he knew that all those books and all those rules don't mean shit when you send a teenage girl out to fight your battles for you. So you go back to your precious fucking Council and tell them to either give me what I really need or get the fuck out of my way!"
She spun, eyes practically on fire, and pinned the Watcher with a glare. "And I'll kill the next one they send who thinks he has the right to fuck with the lives of little girls."
Wesley's mouth moved impotently. Jenny licked her lips. "Wesley, I think you should go."
"I...I never meant to..."
"Pardon me, oh most uniquely, splendidly shimmering and radiant one?"
Glory looked up from examining her pedicure. "Hm?"
"We have most exciting news. Two of the Slayer's acquaintances, the sister and the blonde witch, have left the city under cover of darkness!"
Glory grinned slowly. "Oh, that clever little fashion disaster. She must know we're operating on a timetable. They take the Key on the road, and we waste precious time looking for it here in Scummyville." The blonde rose, padding softly over to the waiting minion, who shuddered as she drew a delicate finger down his nose. "Now for the bonus round. Tell me we can track them down..."
The demon scab swallowed. Then he smiled. Glory returned the favor.
"Good boy." She released her grip, letting the minion drop to the ground.
"Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go put together a traveling ensemble."
"Look, we gotta check bus stations. Maybe the docks. When something really pisses her off, Dawnie...she runs. I mean, if she hitchhiked...fuck!"
Jenny jumped as Faith's fist shattered the glass of the display case. "Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!"
Before her knuckles could come down again, Jenny's hands were wrapped around hers. "Faith. Tell me what you need."
The Slayer took a breath. "I, uh...I need Xander and Angel. We can check the dives. I need...I don't know, is there a locator spell? Some way we can...we've got her stuff, right, so can't we like...I don't know, I need..."
Faith followed Jenny's gaze to the front of the store. Her eyes went wide.
The young witch was standing there, eyes puffy and red, hair in disarray, and something was wrong with her aura, though Jenny wasn't well-trained enough to say what. She took a step forward. "Willow, are you okay? You don't have to..."
"Dawn's gone." The redhead's voice was hollow, so hollow it almost echoed.
Jenny nodded. "She knows. She and Wesley...she found out everything. Willow, this demon woman...Wesley says she's a god. She's going to use Dawn to open some kind of portal."
"Dawn's gone. Tara's gone...she said Dawn knew she was going to leave."
Faith and Jenny shared a glance. "Dawn did like Tara. You don't think that she would have..."
"Wait, Tara left? Why the fuck did Tara leave, can't you find her?"
"But didn't you two have, like, that mind meld thing? Why can't you just..."
"Because she's not letting me!" Willow's tears were threatening to spill again. Jenny reached out, but the redhead jerked away. "I'm trying, I've tried everything! I need her! Goddess, I don't know what I can do without her!"
"Willow, it's okay..."
"No! I need to...I'll find Dawn and I'll find Tara and everything will be fine!"
Faith shrugged. "Deal. What do you need?"
"Books. All the books. Locator spells, divination, I already used everything at our...at my..."
Jenny's eyes widened as she realized what was wrong with Willow's aura. It was too big. "Willow, what did you do? How many spells have you cast since I left?"
"You don't understand! I need her! She didn't even say goodbye, and she's out there, and I never told her about Dawn and she doesn't know what's going on and I can't lose her!"
Jenny shook her head. "Willow, I can't let you do magic when you're like this. You're not stable, if you lose focus..."
"Stop it! I'm not some stupid little girl who can't even..."
"Enough!" When Faith shouted, the two witches both unconsciously took a step back. "It's the only way. Willow, do it."
As the redhead crossed toward the back of the store, Jenny grabbed Faith's arm. "Faith, I've never seen her like this. I don't think it's safe for her to..."
"Then give me your brilliant fucking idea!" the Slayer snapped. "Tell me you have the slightest idea where my sister is!"
Jenny's mouth slipped shut. Faith shook her head. "I'm sorry, I can't...look, just get Angel and Xander. I'm going to start looking the old-fashioned way."
"Do you need..."
"I'll be fine. I just...I gotta go."
Jenny watched the Slayer stomp toward the door, then turned toward the back table to find that Willow already had half a dozen spellbooks open in front of her, seemingly unaware that the argument had even occurred.
Jenny sighed. This was not going to end well.
In the six or so hours since they'd rolled out of Sunnydale, Tara had been sitting quietly, by herself, without even making eye contact with anyone else. As Donny headed up to relieve his father behind the wheel, Beth sighed and sat down.
"You know, Tara, you made the right choice." The older blonde said nothing. Beth cleared her throat. "I know it must have been hard to leave them..." That made Tara's eyes finally meet hers, a blank stare that told her no, she didn't in fact, know. Beth looked away. "Just remember that this is what's best for them. And for you," she finished weakly.
Donny's face appeared around the side of the cabin. "Hey, could one of you ladies get me some water?"
Beth patted Tara's hand. "I'll do it. You just rest."
The blonde crossed to the small kitchen area and reached into the mini-fridge for a bottle, but a sudden pothole sent it tumbling from her grasp to role under the bed at the back of the space. When she lifted the sheets to look for it, she screamed.
Tara and her father were immediately on their feet, his hand on Donny's shoulder the only thing that kept him from jumping out of the driver's seat.
As a small, dusty brunette petulantly dragged herself out from under the bed, both Tara's and her father's eyes went wide. "Who the hell are you?"
Before the brunette could snipe, Tara's arms were already around her. "Dawnie, what are you doing here? You can't..."
Dawn stiffened in the blonde's arms, and Tara let her go. Dawn was staring at her appraisingly. "Did you know?"
Tara blinked. "Know what?"
"About me! Is that why you left?"
Both young women seemed to have forgotten they had an audience. Beth looked to her uncle, who merely shook his head.
Until Tara brushed the tears from her cheek, Dawn didn't realize she was crying. "Dawnie, I didn't leave because of you, I...I promise. What...what are you talking about, did something happen..."
"They lied to me! There's something wrong with me, some kind of spell, or...it's like I'm not even human!"
Now it was Tara's turn to tense. "I...sweetie, I'm sure that's not true."
"Calendar said it herself! They don't even know what I am! They think I'm some kind of...demon or monster or something!"
Tara took a deep breath. "Dawn...there's something I have to tell you. I..."
"Tara." Her father's tone brought both girls back to reality. "You know this girl?"
Tara just nodded. "Yes, sir. She's Faith's..."
"Was this your idea?"
His hand fixed around her wrist, and the blonde cried out. Dawn shot to her feet. "Hey! Don't you fucking touch her!"
Before he could open his mouth, all four of them were knocked from their feet.
When Tara righted herself, it was to the sound of Donny opening the side door, all the while muttering "Oh crap, oh crap, oh crap..."
His father spared Dawn a piercing glare before turning. "Donny? What happened up there?"
"I didn't see her, I swear, she just came out of nowhere!"
Donny was the first one out, but the others weren't long in following. When they reached the front of the camper, Beth and Tara both gasped. The woman lying in the middle of the road was blonde, well-dressed, and in all likelihood dead.
Tara's father swallowed and took a step forward, leaning down to feel for a pulse. "Miss? Are you all right?"
A finely-manicured hand shot up, and his head jerked sharply to the left with a sickening crack.
"Never better," Glory murmured. "You?"
"Dad!" Donny surged forward, only to be clotheslined by a scabby-skinned demon.
"No!" Tara screamed.
As Glory stood up and brushed herself off, a ring of robed minions closed in around the humans. The blonde flashed a grin. "Now then. Let's have a little pop quiz, on the subject of where...in the hell...is my Key?"
Disregarding the 'Sorry, We're Closed' sign, Xander pushed open the door to the Magic Box. Jenny met him halfway across the floor, and he snuck a glance around the bookcases. "How is she?"
"She's still working, but I use the word loosely. I don't even know what she's looking for at this point."
Xander looked at the black sigils dotting the redhead's arms. "What, is she writing on herself?"
Jenny followed his gaze and frowned. "No, she's not." When the carpenter gave her a confused look, she shrugged. "Amanuensis. Trick some witches pick up. Think it's faster than reading. It's not good for the books," she muttered.
Xander cleared his throat awkwardly, and Jenny tore her gaze away from the spectacle. "If you're looking for Faith, she just went back out. After the cops gave her the twenty-four-hours-before-it's-a-missing-person speech she got a little...opinionated."
"Yeah. I, uh...I wasn't. We haven't talked since...um, since last night. Angel's hitting the sewers, seeing what he can drum up from the demon community. I just...wanted to see if there was anything else I could do."
Jenny's frown returned. "Yeah. I know the feeling."
"Maybe I'm not making myself clear. I know how you mortals need every little thing spelled out." Glory paced beside the wall of the camper, where Tara, Beth, Donny, and Dawn were hemmed in by a ring of scabby demons. "I know that the Slayer had the Key. I know that she sent it off with you to keep it from me. So trying to pretend otherwise at this point is pointless and, really, kind of insulting."
Beth sobbed, but said nothing. Tara's tears were silent, but her eyes were still fixed on the motionless body of her father, tossed haphazardly on the pavement. Glory snapped her fingers. "Hey, Sasquatch. Trying to intimidate here, do you mind? Cuz that's going to look like the best of all possible fates if you don't..."
A clattering from the camper made everyone look up as a stout demon tumbled gracelessly down the steps. "Ugh, a thousand pardons, oh highest and most well-accessorized one, but you said you wanted to know when we had completed our search of the vehicle."
Glory made a rolling motion with her hand. "And?"
"Uh, well, we do not...know for a fact that we have located the Key..."
"Just keep looking! Those meddling monks don't exactly have a modern flair! Look for something that doesn't belong!"
Dawn's eyes went wide as they sought out Tara's. The blonde shook her head subtly, then snapped forward when Glory's gaze turned back down. "Now, where was I? Oh, right. Torturing you disgusting slabs of meat and bacteria until you tell me where the Key is."
"Look, I don't know what you're talkin' about, lady, we were just..." Donny's words were cut short by a sharp kick that sent his head slamming into the metal of the camper.
"One, don't call me 'lady,' two, don't...lie...to me."
Tara turned to find Beth's glare on her. "This is your fault," she hissed. "This is one of those freaks you got mixed up with, isn't it?"
"Excuse me!" Glory's hand shot forward, pinning a shrieking Beth to the side of the camper. "Not the topic of conversation I'm looking for."
Tara sprang to her feet. "No, please! They're telling the truth, Faith didn't send us out here, she...she d...doesn't even know we're g...gone..." The blonde shook her head, tears streaming down her face. "This is all my fault! They don't have anything to do with this!"
"Oh, you mean they're expendable. Good to know."
"Please," Tara sobbed. "Please, just let them go..."
"Oh, don't worry, I'm going to do exactly that. After."
Glory turned her attention back to Beth. "Hey, cutie. Want to see a trick?"
When Glory's hand passed into the smaller blonde's head with a flash of light, both Beth and Tara screamed. From her position on the ground, Dawn watched the tears pouring down Tara's face. Then she stood.
"Stop!" Glory turned expectantly as the brunette steadied herself, only to have Tara practically bowl her over.
"No, Dawnie, sweetie, don't! Don't do this! This is all my fault, please..." Tara turned back to Glory. "Just let them go! Please, I'll do anything, just don't hurt them..."
"It's me!" Dawn's words brought everything to a halt. Glory pulled her hand back, Beth's screaming abating when the light did, and stared at Dawn expectantly. Dawn looked at Tara's agonized expression and swallowed.
"I have the Key."
Glory's eyes, and Tara's, widened as the brunette pulled a necklace with an elaborate, spiral-shaped crystal pendant from her back pocket.
Somewhere through the haze, Willow felt a hand on her shoulder and heard a voice that sounded almost familiar. "Will? Will, can you even hear me?"
Of course she could. What a stupid question. Too stupid to justify with an answer when she was so close. She could feel it. She wasn't even comprehending the spells or the theory anymore, just passing her eyes over them enough to absorb them. She had two hundred years' worth of divination rattling around in her head, and something in the back of her mind told her that she shouldn't have been able to do that, until something in the front of her mind told it that Tara was gone and Willow was as good as dead so it could go fuck itself.
As it was, Willow knew for a fact that neither Tara nor Dawn was within the Sunnydale city limits, because she could see and hear and smell, especially smell, everything within the Sunnydale city limits. But telling anyone that would be pointless. Cruel even. So she kept reading.
She felt the hand pulling on her shoulder. Eventually, it let go.
"The Key. I...that's my Key?"
Glory reached out and touched the medallion, almost as if she were afraid she'd damage it. One of the scabs sidled up behind her. "An infinity of pardons, oh mistress of eternal effervescent radiance, but...are you certain that's the Key?"
"Of course I'm not certain!" Glory snapped. "I can't be certain unless I break it open, and I don't exactly get two shots at that, now do I?"
She turned back to glare between Tara and Dawn. The former was still crying. The latter met her stare with defiance. "You said the big girl and the little girl are the ones you saw with the Slayer?"
"Yes, oh most..."
Glory yanked the amulet from Dawn's grip, shoving the brunette into Tara's arms. "Do your little spell. We're taking them with us. As for you two..."
She turned to Beth and Donny, and Tara began to sob again. "No, please..."
"You two...can run on back to your Slayer and tell her exactly what happened to Mr. Grabby-Hands over there. And that if she feels the need to keep screwing with my divine birthright, it's gonna happen to Little Miss Goofus and Gallant here too."
Donny wasn't sure what happened next. Maybe it was magic. Maybe that horrible woman was just so, impossibly fast. All he knew was that suddenly, he and Beth were alone.
"This is insane. I can't believe you're letting her do this!"
"At least she's doing something! She's our only hope to find Dawn!" Since her pacing the city had proved fruitless, Faith was currently settling for pacing the floor.
"She's in a trance. I don't know if she's even...here right now." Jenny, on the other hand, was just leaning against the counter. "After what happened with Tara, her energy's so...I've never seen a witch in this condition before."
"Yeah, and while we're on the subject, what the hell did happen with Tara?" Xander had decided to split the difference, flitting agitatedly between bookshelves. "Am I the only one who thinks it's a little weird that everyone's picked like the last twelve hours to suddenly go really, extra-special crazy?"
The carpenter shot Faith a look, and she quickly looked away.
"Look, I'm sorry!" Jenny scrubbed a hand over her face. "I'm not Rupert, all right? I don't know how to make everything better! I'm trying, but I can't!"
At that, Faith and Xander shared a shocked look. The Slayer reached out her hand. "Whoa, Jenny..."
"Tara!" Willow's voice was practically a scream. The three practically ran to her side.
"Willow, sweetheart, what is it?"
"Tara's here! Tara's here and Dawn's here and I can feel them and they're afraid and they're in pain and oh Goddess she's going to kill them and it's all my fault..."
"Willow, you need to calm down! Now if they're back, we need to..."
"I know what I need."
Willow brushed aside the stack of books cluttering the table with more strength than should have been possible, Xander, Jenny, and Faith ducking a torrent of loose pages. When they looked back up, it was to find another spellbook opened, Willow's arms simply sunken elbow-deep into the pages as words and symbols began to roll up them.
Jenny's eyes went wide. She knew that book. "Oh, Goddess, Willow, no..."
As Jenny made the lunge, there was a flash of red light. When her vision returned, Willow was gone.
As Donny finished dragging his father's body aboard the camper, Beth sat meekly to the side. When the redhead silently gunned the engine and continued north, she finally stood. "What are you doing? We have to go back. What happened to Tara..."
"Was her own damn fault!" Donny snapped. "She chose to live in sin, and look what happened!" He turned back toward the road with a scowl.
"She wants to choose those freaks over her own family, let her. I hope they all tear each other apart."
Beth just stared at him in horror. "She's your sister."
"My sister's dead."
Tara wouldn't have been able to move even if there weren't a ring of scabby demons surrounding them. All she could see was her father's face staring blankly back at her.
"Tara." Dawn shook her shoulder. "Tara, come on! We need to do something..."
"He was right." The blonde blinked, turning to nod in Dawn's general direction. "He was right. I'm a monster. This is all my fault..." Tara shook her head. "He told me that I was too dangerous to be on my own, and now he's dead because of me, just like Mom..."
"That's bullsh...that's bull. None of this is your fault!"
"Dawnie, I...you don't understand. You don't know what..."
"I know what a parent trying to beat you into submission sounds like! Trust me, I'm pretty much an expert." The brunette looked away. "And I know you're not the one who's just some key for demons to fight over. People actually love you..."
"Oh, Dawnie, come here..."
Dawn sank gratefully into the blonde's embrace, more gratefully than she would have thought possible. As Tara stroked her hair, she took the opportunity to look around. The room they'd...appeared in was cramped and dirty, and the dusty smells and scraps of wood and metal stacked around them made it feel like a construction site.
There was also a window, but Dawn figured it was painted over. It must have been, because otherwise, that meant that it was starting to get dark outside, and Dawn knew for a fact that it wasn't past noon.
The clicking of stilettos on the floor drew both girls' attention. Glory beamed down at them. "There's my two favorite gal pals! Tower's looking great, FYI. Figures the weakest point in the fabric of this massively inconvenient dimension would have to be like a hundred feet up, but whatevs, I can deal. But I digress..."
The blonde lifted the amulet from around her neck, giving it a skeptical glance. "Got to say, I'm not getting a lot of vibes from this thing. Which is weird, seeing as an energy source like the Key should be lighting up like a firecracker this close to the portal. So I'm just going to ask this once..." Glory leaned in, fingernails digging into Dawn's cheeks. "Are you absolutely certain that this is my Key?"
"Why...why do you even need it?" the brunette ground out. "It's just a stupid necklace some monk gave my sister!"
Glory grinned. "Oh, sweetie, it's so much more than that. The Key is quite possibly the most worthwhile thing in this entire pathetic universe, myself excepted, natch."
"Is..." Dawn swallowed. "Is it evil?"
Glory rolled her eyes. "Oh, I wish. That would make this whole process so much easier. No, it's just energy. Of the oldest and most powerful kind. And it's going to help me tear down the gate to my home sweet home and show those pathetic usurpers why you mortal types call me the Beast."
She leaned closer, and Dawn shrieked when the blonde's hand closed around her throat.
"Which is why you'll be right there with me when I open the portal. Because if you're screwing with me, I'll be the first to know...and you'll be the second."
Dawn groaned as Glory dragged her toward the door, and Tara screamed. "Dawn, no! Please, don't, please..." The blonde's eyes hardened. "Arana fiate arasa..."
Before the crackle of ozone could build into an actual spell, Tara took a demonic fist across the cheek and went sprawling. Glory sighed. "See, this is my problem with witches. More trouble than they're worth. By like, a wide margin." She glanced dismissively down at Tara. "Kill it."
Dawn's eyes went wide. "No! No, don't, you motherfucking..."
Glory tightened her grip, and Dawn gurgled. "Hey, language, miss! This is a very big day for me, all right? And I don't want any more surprises."
As Glory spoke, the scraps of drywall paper and wood shavings around them began to stir. Dawn and the blonde looked up just in time to stare directly into a flash of red light. When it cleared, Willow Rosenberg was staring them down.
Glory sighed. "Very funny."
"We have to go after her!"
"I appreciate the sentiment, Faith, but even with as much energy as she's putting off, I don't think I could get a locator spell to work. She didn't exactly leave us with a lot to work with..." Jenny help up one of the spellbooks scattered across the floor, flipping through the now-blank pages.
The door to the supply room opened, admitting Xander and Angel to the shadowy rear of the store. "Angel just got back. Big nothing." Xander shrugged. "He also didn't find anything."
Faith just scowled, and Angel strode forward. "Where is she?"
"We don't know."
"Of course we do," Faith snapped. "She went where Tara is, and given how scared she was, it's probably the same place Glorificus is. Which means if we find Willow, we find Tara and Dawn and the Goddess of Dyejobs and we end this."
"How? I don't stock a lot of hellgod-slaying weaponry here!"
"I believe I can help with that." The four turned to find Wesley standing at the front door. He cleared his throat. "I apologize for...any harm I might have done with my actions. I also apologize for not coming back sooner, but I had some arrangements to make with the Council. Once I knew we were dealing with Glorificus and the Key, I was able to inquire about some of her enemies.
"Two international fraternal orders dedicated to opposing the Beast and protecting the Key, respectively, were recently massacred: the Knights of Byzantium, and the Order of Dagon. Of the former, there were no survivors. Of the latter, several monks who were believed to be hunted down and killed here in America, and...this."
Wesley pulled a small, crystalline orb from the bag at his side; even in the daylight streaming through the window display, it glowed.
Jenny blinked. "What is that?"
"This...is a Dagon Sphere. Probably the last in existence. Created to protect the monks from those who would abuse the power of the Key. I doubt it could kill Glorificus, but if brought near her, it might...weaken her. I know it's not much of a solution, but..."
Faith's hand closed over the orb, the other cupping Wesley's free hand. "Thank you, Wesley."
"Yes, well...I am at your disposal."
"Good, we can use all the help we can get."
Angel grunted in frustration. "Yeah, especially since I doubt I'm going to be much help. I can't exactly ask people to stay in the shade while we fight."
"It doesn't really matter either way if we can't find out where they are," Jenny grumbled.
"Uh, guys..." Xander was staring out the front window. "I suddenly don't think that either of those is gonna be an issue..."
The other four turned to follow his gaze. Jenny swore under her breath. Faith swore over hers. Hanging on the horizon over Sunnydale's barely visible warehouse district in an otherwise cloudless sky was something that could only be described as a thunderstorm.
Faith took a deep breath and turned to the others. "Suit up."
Glory took one look at the seething creature in front of her, irises burning red and hair whipping about her face, then turned to the nearest scab. "So, weren't we supposed to have wards? Wasn't that, like, part of the package deal?"
Willow's scream cut off any response. "Where is she?"
"Hey! Simmer down, witchypoo, or I break this one in..."
An arc of shimmering air passed from Willow's outstretched hand, and Glory's grip on Dawn was lost as a side effect of the blonde being catapulted into the nearest wall. Immediately, the brunette was at Tara's side.
"Tara! Are you okay?"
Willow turned, eyes widening. "T...Tara? Is...is that you?"
Tara gasped. The veins across Willow's face were throbbing and red, to say nothing of her eyes. "Will? Oh, Goddess, what happened to you?"
"Tara? Are you...I can't...I can't see you. There's too much..."
Willow turned just in time to catch Glory's fist in her face. Tara screamed as the redhead shot across the room, only to drag herself to a stop as if she were on puppet strings. Willow reached out a hand, tears streaming down her cheeks. "I will not let you take her away from me!"
The web of lighting that shot from Willow's fingertips tossed Glory's minions aside before wrapping around the blonde herself. And Glory screamed.
Xander took the turn without slowing down, the weapons cluttering the back seat crashing around as he did. Apparently, it still wasn't enough for Faith.
Xander looked at the Slayer out of the corner of his eye. Then he slowed the car's breakneck pace just a little. Jenny and Wesley in her car increased their lead, and Faith's gaze whipped toward him.
"Xander, we have to go!"
"Yeah, but...okay, you know what, this is it. We're about to fight a god, Faith. Which means at least one of us is probably going to die, and in all probability it's going to be me, so I kind of need to clear the air first."
"We don't have anything to talk about..."
"The hell we don't! Look, Faith, you can put on this whole wild-animal-sleeps-with-anything-that-moves act if that helps you get through the day, but it's not exactly something I have a lot of experience dealing with."
"What do you expect me to say?" Faith snapped. "I got angry, and I made a huge fucking mistake, and I let that animal take over and I forced myself on someone!"
"Oh, yeah, I was really fighting you there..." Faith sighed angrily, and Xander risked a glance to the side. "So that's what getting to you? The way it happened? Not..." Xander cleared his throat. "Not that it did?"
Faith started to sigh again, then just shook her head. "It didn't suck."
"Well, you're welcome."
"No, I wish it had! I wish it had been the worst fuck of my life and we could both be embarrassed and forget it ever happened, but it didn't suck. And you're...you're always there for me, and you're nicer to me than any guy's ever been in my entire life, and...motherfucker!"
Faith's last word was punctuated by a jerk of her hand that tore the window crank straight out of the car door. Xander swallowed. "Okay, you know that conversation where one person says they don't want to risk screwing up their friendship? Well I always kind of figured it was just a brush-off. Never actually been on this side of it before."
Faith just shook her head, and Xander sighed. "Look, Faith...whatever happens...you got me. Always."
Faith let out the breath she didn't realize she'd been holding. When the car began to roll to a stop, she looked up.
The tower was sloppily constructed, barely more than a pile of girders stretching into the air, but the storm clouds swirling above it had blackened the sky, only the occasional tongue of lightning slashing against the surface lending it any light.
Xander swallowed. "I think we're here."
Glory screamed, arcs of electricity coursing over her as Willow advanced. "What did you do to her? You made her leave, I know you did!"
Glory forced herself to look up. She was still shrieking in pain, but there was a smile on her face. "I...I just realized. Redhead...witch...you're the one. And here I thought I was going to have to take time off from my bloody vengeance...to track you down."
The lightning ebbed slightly as Willow's steps faltered. "Wh...what are you talking about?"
Glory chuckled. "You're the payment for a little debt of mine, sweetie. Took a lot of mojo to get this all set up, but apparently you're worth it..."
Willow blinked, and the lightning weakened further, but Glory's screaming intensified. "Oh, you've got to be kidding me..."
Willow watched in awe as the blonde bulged and shriveled before her eyes, and suddenly there was a young man with brown hair and frantic eyes. He lurched forward. "You have to get out of here! She's..."
He reared back, and Glory returned. "That's quite enough out of you, precious!" Her head snapped toward Willow. "Hey, guess what you let down?"
Suddenly, Glory's hand was around the redhead's throat, then Willow's head was against the pavement. Tara screamed, and Dawn echoed the sound as Glory grabbed a handful of her hair. "No more sideshows! We're doing this now!"
As Glory rounded the base of the tower, a shrieking, kicking Dawn dragged behind her, Tara dove toward Willow. "Oh, Goddess, Will, baby, please, please wake up..."
Willow groaned and turned over. Her eyes were clouded and her nose was gushing blood, and Tara had no idea whether it was from the impact or the magic. "Ugh...Tara? Are you there...don't leave me..."
"I'm here, baby, I'm here..." The blonde cradled Willow's head in her arms, sobbing quietly.
"Don't...please don't leave..."
"I won't! Not ever, I promise!"
Footsteps slamming against the concrete made Tara flinch, then gasp in relief as Jenny dropped to her side.
"Tara? Willow, are you all right?"
"She's hurt...I don't know..."
Faith dropped to their side as well. "Where's Dawn?"
"She took her up. To the tower. What's going on? What's this key they keep talking about?"
Faith just sprinted for the tower. Jenny craned her neck. "Xander, Angel, cover her! Wesley, over here!"
Wesley dropped a first aid kit next to them. "She's going to have to bleed Dawn to open the portal."
Tara blinked. "What? No, she thinks...she's got some amulet. Dawn gave it to her."
Jenny's eyes went wide. "Xander, Angel, keep those demons off the tower!"
Xander just grunted his acknowledgement as a crossbow bolt slammed between the shoulders of one scab, Angel pile driving another into the cement.
"What are we to do?" Wesley turned toward Jenny, who took a deep breath.
"We need to hold this position to buy Faith more time. This is our job. We need to let her do hers."
Faith roared in rage as she backhanded two more off of the tower. She was almost to the top. She rounded the last corner of the shaky stairs to find Dawn being dragged behind the blonde as she stalked toward the platform at the edge of the tower.
Glory turned her face upward, hair streaming behind her. "Clean up, boys! Mommy's coming home!"
The roar of the thunder grew louder, and Glory began to laugh. Then her feet went out from under her. "Hey..." Faith's fist slammed down against her mouth, then again.
"You stay!" Another punch. "The fuck! Away! From my sister!"
As Glory reeled back, Faith crawled back, running her hands over Dawn's face. "Jesus, Dawn are you okay? Fuck! I'm so sorry, I'm so, so sorry..."
Dawn just shook her head. "I'm fine, you have to..."
Faith jerked back when a pointed toe slammed into her spine only to follow up against the side of her face. "Hey!" Glory was scowling, her red sheath torn and her hair flying. "One dance partner at a time, sweetie! Them's the rules!"
She lashed out again, only for Faith's hand to wrap around her ankle and throw her off balance. "You're slowing down in your old age."
Faith followed the quip with a kick that would have snapped the blonde's knee if she'd been human. As it was, Glory barely moved, twisting and jabbing her toe into Faith's side. Her hand wrapped around the Slayer's throat, and her heel sent Dawn tumbling back when she tried to intervene.
Glory lifted Faith from her feet, wrenching her around to hang off the edge of the platform as the Slayer's hand scrabbled helplessly at her throat. Dawn watched in horror, then her eyes widened as something rolled from Faith's hand toward her side of the platform. Faith winked, and Glory just tightened her grip. "For what insanely little it means, you're a credit to your species, Slayer. But at the end of the day, you're still a monkey. And I'm still a god."
Glory let go.
Jenny looked to the top of the tower, Faith hanging over the edge on the end of Glorificus' arm. "No."
Wesley followed her gaze. "What...if she falls...Ms. Rosenberg could..."
"Willow's out. Xander! Angel!"
They and Wesley followed her pointing to the roll of orange plastic mesh fencing leaning against the side of the tower. Angel just nodded.
They had barely managed to unroll enough when Faith fell. Angel tensed, holding his ground as Xander and Jenny moved the makeshift net into position. Faith only landed half-on the plastic webbing, but it was enough. The Slayer rolled to a stop, and Jenny held her breath. Then Faith groaned.
"Faith, are you all right?"
"Dawn. She's still up there..."
Glory didn't bother watching Faith fall. She merely kicked back to send Dawn sprawling again and stepped to the edge of the platform, the crystal in her hand. "It's time. Everything you ever got told about Hell, kid? Well it's much better than that."
She grinned. "Watch."
A simple squeeze of her hand was all it took to shatter the pendant into dust. It drifted down, swirling on the wind, glowing in the flash of the lightning as it gained speed, spinning faster and faster...
Then it disappeared.
Glory blinked. "What...no. No! That was the Key! Where's my Key?" She spun to face the infuriatingly smirking brunette, features straining into a snarl. "Where is my Key?"
Dawn relaxed her grip on the orb. "I'm the Key, stupid."
Before Glory could take a step, Dawn pitched the glowing orb overhand. When Glory caught it, her face twisted in pain. She stumbled back, twisting to the left when she hit the column at the edge of the plank. When her foot hit air, Dawn smiled.
When Glory slammed against the pavement, she felt the vague sense of the damned orb shattering as well. So all she had to do was...
Faith's foot pressed down on her chest. "Rock bottom, your worship."
Glory snarled, gathering all her strength for one final push. But then, she felt something else rising inside her. "No! No, no, no, don't you dare, this is mine! All mine, all..."
Glory folded inward, and a bleeding, broken young man with tears streaming down his face lay there instead.
Faith blinked. Jenny crawled forward. "What...what just happened?"
"Please," he croaked. "You have to...you have to end it." Faith just looked back at the others; even Jenny and Wesley looked as confused as she was.
"What the hell's going on?"
"She...she stole my body. She stole my life. I just...I just want it to be over..."
Faith knelt down, and Jenny placed a restraining hand on her shoulder. "Faith, you don't have to..."
"Please! I can feel her coming back, she..."
"Faith, you don't have to be the one to do this. I'll..."
Wesley watched, dumbstruck, as Faith shrugged Jenny's hand off. "What's your name?"
The man swallowed. "B...Ben."
Faith sniffed. "Ben. Do you...what did you want to do? With that life?"
"I...I'm a medical intern. I want to be a doctor..."
"And when...you have to draw blood or something, you make your patients think about something else, right?" He nodded. Faith took a deep breath. "Like what?"
"We talk about...sports. Or TV." A far-off look settled over his eyes. "Or about our fam..."
His words were cut off by a dry snap as his head jerked to the left.
The silence was only broken by the sound of clattering footsteps as Dawn stumbled down the tower, and directly into the arms of her sister. "Hey. Hey, it's okay. I'm okay, everybody's okay."
Faith began to cry.
So I guess that's it. Ms. C says that with Glorificus gone, I'm about as safe as I'll ever get. Until someone else comes looking for the Key and starts torturing my friends because of me. Well, she didn't say that part.
"Thanks for this. We don't really have a place to cook in the dorms, and I have trouble getting her to eat anything from the cafeteria even at the best of times."
Jenny smiled. "It's no problem. I'd offer yet again to let you two move into the other bedroom, if I didn't already know what you were going to say." Tara smiled just a little, and Jenny spooned another ladle of soup into the thermos. "How's she doing?"
"Better. She's just...all that magic, all at once. I don't see how she could have handled that. It's...terrifying." Jenny nodded, and Tara sighed in disgust. "I can't believe I did that to her."
"Stop it. It wasn't your fault."
Tara just shook her head as she stepped from the kitchen. "Thank you for the soup."
I still don't know what really happened with Willow. For the last two days, she's just been...off. Like she was hung over and sleepwalking at the same time. Tara's been with her almost 24/7 since.
When Tara came in, Willow was sitting up in bed, reading what looked like her textbook for Eastern European History. Willow looked up and smiled weakly. "Hey, you."
Tara grinned in spite of herself. "Hey, you. You're not straining your eyes?"
"They're a lot better. I'm mostly just still...kind of queasy."
Tara hummed as she slipped into bed with the redhead. "Well, I've got just the thing for an upset tummy."
Willow's eyebrows shot up. "Girlfriend soup?"
"How did I ever get so lucky?" Willow watched through half-lidded eyes as Tara unscrewed the thermos. "You know you don't have to fuss and all. I just need a little more rest, and I know you have class..."
"No, I don't," the blonde answered firmly.
Willow smiled. "This isn't exactly how I planned for you to spend your birthday," she chuckled.
Tara froze. "My what?"
"It's today, isn't it?"
"Oh, Goddess...I didn't even..."
"Hey, it's okay. We can...we can still do something. I'll get out of bed and everything."
"No, Willow, I...the reason I...had to leave. I'm not...I'm not what you think I am..."
The redhead squinted. "What are you talking about?"
"I didn't want to hurt you, but it's already too late...Willow, the magic in my family...the women, we're not...we're not just...human." She took a deep breath. "There's something in...inside us. Some kind of...d...demon...I can't control it, I thought I could, but it got Daddy killed and..."
Willow's hands cupping her cheeks brought Tara's babbling up short. "Tara. What are you talking about?"
"It's the reason I had to leave. I didn't...I couldn't let that part of me hurt you. My family...the women are dangerous."
Willow was just smiling. "Tara, when I came after you? When I was in scary mode, with every spell I've ever heard of running through my head all at once? One of those was the trance that I used on Dawn."
"The one to...you saw me? With that?" Tears were building in the corners of Tara's eyes. "Goddess, that's exactly what I didn't want! How can you..."
"Baby!" Willow drew Tara's face closer to hers, forcing the blonde to look into her eyes. "What I saw...all I saw...was the most beautiful woman I've ever met."
Tara's eyes went wide, and Willow's lips claimed hers in a tender kiss. When she pulled back, Willow wiped the last tears from her cheek. "Tara, you are probably the least demonic person I've ever known. And I don't know why anyone would tell you any different, but..."
This time, it was Tara's turn to move in for the kiss. Willow giggled.
"I...I don't know. I mean, you think a certain thing about yourself your whole life, and then...to find out..."
"That you like girls?" Willow raised an eyebrow, and Tara let out a breathy laugh. "Tara, it's your birthday. I'm feeling a hundred percent...eighty percent better. I want to take you somewhere. I am definitely ready to get out of this bed."
Willow tried to rise to her elbows, only to have the length of Tara's body roll on top of her.
"No, you're not," the blonde answered firmly.
Willow grinned. "Vixen."
I can't believe Tara almost left forever. I can't believe I almost left forever. I mean, I'm not saying that I actually like the whole Brady Bunch thing my sister somehow manages to put up with here, but I'm smart enough to know when I've got a good thing going. And Ms. C, and Faith and Xander, and Red and Blondie? That's a good thing. I mean, hell...it's about the best thing I've ever had. And I guess I'd rather be in Sunnydale than anywhere else.
Oh, don't look at me like that. Yeah, I said it, so the fuck what?
Oh, fuck you!
A rapping on her doorframe made Dawn look up. It was Jenny. "Dawn? Angel and Wesley are saying their goodbyes, I thought you might want to get in one last British joke?"
The teenager beamed. "So thoughtful."
She followed the older brunette down the stairs to find Angel and Xander in the middle of a hearty handshake. "Next time, man, don't wait so long. Or, you know, do."
"Hey, speak for yourself. I'm immortal. I can afford to wait."
"So you know what you're gonna do yet?"
"I was thinking I might head to LA. Bit of a demon community there, might do some good."
Xander nodded. "Hey, maybe you'll run into Cordy."
The matching looks he and Angel were subjected to said it all.
Wesley cleared his throat. "Yes, well, I must be taking my leave as well. My work for the Council is not so...morally fulfilling as I'd hoped it would be."
"You don't have to go," Faith intoned. "I mean, don't get me wrong, it's just...how do we know your replacement isn't going to be even worse?"
Wesley smiled. "Well, I suppose that will be up to you." Jenny's eyes went wide as he turned to her. "You were right. I'm not qualified to be Faith's Watcher. I doubt anyone currently in the employ of the Council is. So, given your experience, your knowledge of the supernatural, and your...recent leadership in the field..."
The Watcher cleared his throat. "I have recommended to the Council that you, provisionally I hasten to add, be assigned as Ms. Lehane's official Watcher."
"What?" Jenny shot Faith a raised eyebrow at her incredulous tone, and the Slayer shrugged. "Sorry, I mean...what?"
"It's become clear to me that you've been acting in that capacity for months. Soon enough, an envoy from the Council will arrive to rate your work and hopefully make the decision official. Though I must warn you my recommendation might not carry as much weight as it otherwise would given my own departure."
Faith shook her head. "So you're really not going back to the Council?"
"I don't think I was ever really right for that life."
"So what are you going to do?" Dawn smirked. "Regional Shakespeare productions?"
"Actually, given my knowledge of demonology, I thought I might prove an asset to someone hoping to become a sort of a...rogue demon hunter..."
Angel's eyes widened. "Uh...yeah. Of course. I mean...why not?"
"Excellent. Well, the sun is setting, I suppose we should prepare for departure. You'll find I'm even more exemplary as a traveling companion than I am in a research capacity."
As the door closed behind Wesley, Angel leaned in. "Stake me. Stake me now."
He and Faith shared a final hug, and Angel followed the ex-Watcher out the door.
Jenny let out a sigh. "I can't believe it."
Faith slapped her on the back as gently as her Slayer strength would allow. Jenny still winced. "Just so you know, Watcher, I'm gonna make your life a living hell."
Xander groaned. "Well, I'd say a week like this and news like that calls for fried chicken. Faith?"
The Slayer shrugged. "Yeah, I'm with you." You two get the fancy china out, we'll be back with a party bucket."
Jenny sent Dawn a glance as Faith and Xander headed for the door. Dawn rolled her eyes. But then she smiled.
"So is Red really okay?"
Xander nodded. "Yeah. I think they're both...working some things out." He shook his head. "This has been a hell of a year so far."
Faith snorted. "Understatement." As the two continued down the sidewalk, she risked a glance at the carpenter. "And we're...okay."
For a few steps, Xander said nothing. Then he nodded. "Yeah. Yeah, we're gonna be okay." He picked up his pace. "As long as you stop undressing me with your eyes."
Faith grinned as she began to chase after him. "Oh, you know you love it!"
Xander laughed as he broke into a full run. It had been a hell of a year so far. But the rest of it might not be too bad.
Sunnydale was full of abandoned churches, but this one was more abandoned than most. The door had been torn off its hinges, the pews were in disarray, and a neat pile of dust sat on the altar.
Then, as the mix of bluish moonlight and the acrid yellow glow of a streetlamp filtered through the shuttered windows, that pile of dust began to stir. The light turned from stale yellow to blazing white as it gained speed, and then, in an instant, there was something there.
A body. Female. Naked. Blonde. And moving.
The arms and legs tensed, then stretched. A face drenched in sweat and something entirely else snapped up.
And even though she no longer breathed, Buffy Summers took a breath.
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