DISCLAMAIR: All things Buffy belong to Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, and lots of people in expensive suits. I'm not making any money here, just trying to create a happier Buffyverse for my favorite characters.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Adheres to Buffy canon up to "Who Are You?" Spoilers for S4 after (and including) "This Year's Girl" and the Angel's episode "Sanctuary."  Many thanks to Val for the beta and encouragement.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.

Learning Curve
By Rebelrsr


Chapter One

Willow opened the door with her shoulder, balancing her backpack and a stack of books in her arms.  Staggering under the weight, she managed to drop everything into a more or less neat pile on the desk just inside her dorm room. She turned back to the door, flicked on the overhead light, and closed the door with a sigh.  Today, she thought, was so not a good day.  Ignoring her body's need for sleep, Willow was already making a mental list of the information she needed to track down for Giles. She turned back toward the desk rubbing tired eyes - and gave a short shriek at the husky "Hey, Red" that greeted her.

Sitting motionless against the far wall was Faith. Her hands were raised in what Willow supposed should have been a show of her good intentions. Without really thinking, Willow turned and lunged for the door. Buffy, she thought, but she never got the door open. A body pinned her to the door. Two hands grabbed for her wrists and pulled them tight to her waist.

"C'mon, Red. That's not very welcomin'." Faith's voice rasping in her ear sent Willow into a panic. Heart pounding, she started pulling at her trapped wrists, throwing her body against the Rogue Slayer behind her. Faith just laughed. Duh, Willow's mind commented, she is a Slayer. I need a spell. What was that spell Tara mentioned? The fireball thingy... I know. It was in Latin - no, Sumerian - no, Latin. If I can just - her internal babbling was interrupted.

"Red, I'm gonna step back. Could ya' not shatter all the windows until I gotta chance to tell ya' why I'm here?"

When Willow nodded, she felt Faith's grip loosen and the warm body behind her move back a slow step. Willow had no intention of screaming. As soon as Faith let go completely, Willow turned, pointed her right hand at the Slayer, and began to chant in Latin. At the end of the invocation, she and Faith stared at each other, waiting. Nothing happened. Damn, damn, damn. Maybe it was Sumerian.

Faith smirked. "Glad to see ya' ain't got any better at those spells."

As Willow watched, Faith moved slowly to Buffy's bed and sat down. Willow noted with some satisfaction that Faith's face still showed the signs of her showdown with Buffy at the church. Well, her showdown with herself with Buffy in residence.

"Could ya' just sit down a minute and I'll give ya' the news and split," Faith watched Willow closely to see what she would do next. When Willow just stood, staring, Faith let some of her impatience out.

"Look, Red, if I'd a wanted ya' dead, do you really think you still be standin' there looking stupid?" Come on, Red. Just let me say this and go, before B comes back. Just the thought of meeting Buffy again, so soon after the latest fight, left Faith feeling sick.

Unfortunately for Faith, Willow wasn't just standing there looking stupid. As Faith taunted her, Willow used the time to think of the spell she wanted and find her focus. With Tara's calming voice replaying in her mind: It's h-hard to explain, Willow. You just have to know that you can do it. And, watching Faith's smirk and absorbing her thoughts on Willow's life expectancy, Willow knew that this spell would work. Raising both arms, palms up and pointed at Faith, Willow chanted. Warmth surrounded her and she felt a rush of power, centering on her outstretch hands. As Faith started to look uneasy and move off the bed, Willow finished her casting and invisible bonds grabbed the slayer, throwing her back onto the bed, binding her body with enough strength that even Faith's Slayer-enhanced struggles couldn't break free. "Hey, it worked!" Watching Faith struggle to get free, Willow nearly began her own version of the Snoopy dance in her glee. A knock at the door, though, interrupted the frantic activities of both girls.

Two pairs of eyes stared at the door.

Damn, please don't let that be B, Faith thought.

Geez, how am I going to hide the body? Willow thought, glancing away from the door to the now motionless Slayer bound to Buffy's bed.

Now, Willow and Faith stared at each other.

Another knock sounded, followed by a quiet voice, "Willow? It's me. Are you there?" Tara, Willow thought. Oh, good. I don't have to worry about hiding Faith. Maybe she can help me figure out what to do with Faith until Buffy gets back. Ooh, and I can't wait to tell her about the spell working. Well, the second spell. I mean...

"Red, you gonna let your girl in or what? I mean, if you don't think she'll be jealous of us being alone together."

Faith's mocking tone startled Willow into motion, and she leaped over to the door. Wrenching it open, Willow blocked the view into the room by standing in the opening. Tara stood in the hallway, hand over her heart, shocked by the unexpectedly enthusiastic opening. "Tara, hey, how are you?" Willow was grinning widely and bouncing a little on her toes.

The grin was so endearing that Tara found herself responding with a smile of her own. "Fine. I w-was w-wondering if you wanted to go to the Espresso Pump?" Willow already looked as if she had had too many mochas, though. She was flushed and still bouncing in the doorway. A closer look showed the smile to be almost manic. "Um, W-Wil, is everything OK?" Tara reached out and lightly brushed her hand along the arm resting against the door jamb. "Can I come in?"

"Sure! Um, well, there is just one little thing..." Willow's voice trailed off as she moved scant inches back into the room to let Tara squeeze inside. "Someone was waiting for me when I came home and-" her voice trailed off as Tara stopped abruptly, staring in horror at the Slayer sprawled in apparent comfort on Buffy's bed.

The horror was quickly replaced with embarrassment when Faith made one of her trademark comments. "Come on in, Blondie. Didn't know Red had plans to give me a floor show, but I think watchin' the two of you would be wicked cool." Faith laughed with real humor at the red that stained the two witches. "Like I said, Blondie, it's a real shock that Red ain't drivin' stick no more. You been showin' her how to find the ignition switch on your automatic?"

"Wha-What's sh-she d-doing here?" Tara blushed even more, remembering Faith's previous reaction to her stutter. The only thing that kept her from rushing back out of the room was Willow's form pressed tightly against her back.

Willow, too, heard the increased stutter in Tara's speech. Her giddiness dissipated and in its place was an almost overwhelming exhaustion. "I don't know. She was here when I got back." Willow stepped around Tara to stand at Faith's side. Looking down at her captive, she continued. "Strangely, she hasn't done much. Well, other than her usual 'gotta talk about sex all the time' statements. Of course," a brief surge of the earlier euphoria returned, "she can't go anywhere right now. I have her bound."

"Yeah, about that, Red. Could ya' maybe let me loose? I mean, although bein' in B's bed's gotta be at the top of my fantasy list, I got places to be." Faith hoped the witches missed the slight shake in her voice. Damn, I need to get outta here. Trouble always happens when I try to do the right thing.

Willow missed the shaking in Faith's voice but not the innuendo. Rage moved her even closer to the bed and provided strength to the blow that sent the Slayer's head rebounding in the opposite direction. The sharp sound of the impact was followed by total silence. Willow could feel Tara staring at her. The anger that had motivated the blow drained away leaving her shaking and sick at her own actions. Willow turned away from the bound Slayer and her shocked friend, but Faith's voice followed her.

"Well, you did say you wanted to be alone with me so you could kick my ass. Of course, you needed to be bigger and stronger first. Feelin' stronger now, Red?" Faith's voice was flat, the mocking edge gone. "Tell ya' what. Let me give you the info I got, and then ya' can let me go or finish what ya' started. Don't make much difference anymore."

Willow slowly turned back around and walked over to Tara. Taking her hand, she pulled the unresisting girl to the other bed in the room and sat them down. She kept a firm grip on Tara's hand even after sitting, trying to borrow a little of Tara's usual calm. "What exactly did you need to tell us, Faith? I don't think I'm up for any more stories of your sexcapades."

"You're in luck then. Only been one romp since wakin' up. I think I'll leave the tellin' up to B." Faith took a deep breath before continuing. "Think you need to spend a little best friend time with B, Red. She ain't herself right now."

"No, really? And whose fault is that, Faith?" Willow could feel the anger again, simmering just below the surface of her control.

Tara wrapped her free arm around Willow, murmuring softly "Shh, baby. You need to listen to her. Whatever she's saying right now, she really believes it's important." She ducked her head, looking into Willow's eyes. "Please. Just listen." Feeling Willow relax slightly, Tara turned her gaze back to Faith. Faith's aura, just like that night in the Bronze, was full of sharp edges. This time, though, the black and red of despair and anger flickered and pulsed. Faith was on the edge of collapse; eight months in a coma and the events of the last few days sapping even her Slayer stamina. "Go ahead, Faith. We're l-listening."

Tara and Willow watched as Faith nodded slightly - the only movement allowed within the bonds of Willow's spell. "'Kay. When B I and were throwin' down in the church, I just started wailin' on her. She was pretty much down for the count." Faith paused when Willow gasped. Hearing nothing more from the witch, she went on. "Ya' gotta understand. I was in B's body. I shoulda' been winning. B's always been the better fighter." Faith's lips twisted and her voice sounded bitter. "But she wasn't really fightin' back. She was just lettin' me hit her."

Willow squirmed out of Tara's embrace and stood up. She didn't trust herself to get any closer to Faith but needed to have a better look at the Slayer when she asked, "What do you mean, she wasn't fighting back?"

Faith turned her head so she was looking right at Willow. "I mean, Red, I think she wanted me to win."

"Why? Is this just another of your twisted mind games, Faith? Make me doubt my best friend? Drive another wedge between us?" Willow's voice picked up volume as she ranted at the bound Slayer. "She fought hard enough to get away from the Council. She used the Katra sphere that Tara and I made to switch back into her own body. How do you explain that?"

"I can't, Red. All I know is that when I was yellin' at her and punchin' her, she barely struggled. Even after all the crap that's happened with us, B and me share a bond." Faith paused for a moment and Tara could see the hurt and regret in the shifting colors of her aura. Faith's voice, though, gave none of that away. "It used to be really strong. I could sometimes feel what B was feelin.' After that bitch Post showed up, things kinda' got in the way and the bond faded. But in the church, I could feel B again. It was weird. I could tell she was pissed and that part of her wanted to finish what we started on the roof before graduation. But there was somethin' else. It felt like, I dunno, like she was just too tired to care."

Willow shook her head in instinctive denial. "You're wrong. Buffy wouldn't just give up." Faith's words, though, were scaring her. Since the start of college and the appearance of Riley and Tara, she and Buffy had drifted apart. Would she even have noticed if there was something wrong?

Faith watched the emotions play across Willow's face with her thoughts. She tried shifting on the bed, but the bonds were still too strong. She couldn't stand not being able to move, and her body was letting her know that she really needed to move - soon. "Hey Red, while you're beatin' yourself up for bein' a bad Slayerette, could ya' let me up long enough to go to the bathroom? Gettin' real urgent, here."

"Tara, I don't..." Willow trailed off. She couldn't get over what Faith had said about Buffy, and didn't want to deal with the Slayer any more.

"It's OK, sweetie. Just release the bonds and I'll escort her there and back." Tara stood up and approached the prone Faith. "Just so you know, Faith, I'll have a spell ready in case you try to run. And," she looked into Faith's eyes, "I can tell what you are feeling. I'll know even before you try to run." Faith's eyes widened, and Tara saw the silvery-blue of fear join the mix of emotions surrounding Faith.  Keeping an eye on the other girl, Tara chanted quietly, completing all but the final phrase of her own binding spell. She stepped back from the bed and nodded to Willow to release Faith.

At Willow's whispered command, Faith felt the invisible bonds disappear. Slowly, making sure to look as unthreatening as possible, she stood up. The time on the bed had allowed her damaged ribs to seize up and the other aches and pains to worsen. She was able to keep from gasping with the pain, but couldn't quite stand up straight. Tara's eyes met hers, and Faith could see the awareness of her pain in the witch's blue eyes. "Let's go, Blondie. Which way we headin'?"

Tara gestured for Faith to lead the way. "Left into the hallway. The bathroom's the last door on the right." As Faith slowly walked toward the door, Tara glanced back at Willow. The redhead's internal monologue was still going strong from the vacant look in her eyes. Shaking her head, Tara followed Faith out of the room. As they made their slow and careful way down the hall, Tara said, "When we get back into the room, I'll take a look at those ribs. From the way you're moving, you probably have more than a few broken."

Faith looked surprised by her comment and was starting to reply when Tara was nearly knocked over by the wave of fear, pain, and regret that exploded from the Slayer. "Fuck, B's comin'." Faith turned to look at Tara. "Blondie, I know you got no reason to trust me or help me out. But if B finds me here, I'm dead. You gotta let me get outta here."

Tara watched as Faith's attention turned toward the stairs at the end of the hallway. "Faith, you've given up just like you say Buffy has. From looking at your aura, you're just waiting for a chance to die."

"Yeah, I am, Blondie. But if B finds me here, she's gonna take me on. Even if I tried, I can't beat her. If she finishes the job she started on that roof, she'll be just like me - a killer. She's still gotta chance. With you and Red and the rest of the Scoobies, B'll be OK. It's too late for me." Faith could sense that Buffy was only seconds away from coming out of the stairwell. "Tara - "

"Go, Faith. I'll tell Willow you overpowered me." As the Slayer turned to run down the hall, Tara touched her arm. "Be careful, Faith. Remember it's never too late for those who truly want to find redemption." She wasn't sure Faith heard her. She was already moving, using all of her Slayer speed. She disappeared around the corner just as the stairwell door opened.

Chapter Two

Tara was still gazing at the empty hallway after Faith when Buffy came out of the stairwell. This isn't going to be easy, she thought. Willow and I need to talk about this before Will confronts Buffy.

"Tara? What are you doing standing out in the hall? Will didn't throw you out, did she?" Buffy tapped Tara's shoulder as she approached. When Tara didn't immediately reply, she continued. "Tara? You OK?"

Summoning a smile, Tara turned to face the slightly shorter Slayer. "Hey, B-Buffy. N-No, Will d-didn't throw m-me out." Damn. If I don't calm down and lose the super stutter, it won't be Will who tips off Buffy. "I was heading b-back from the bathroom. Were you over at Riley's?"

Tara was unprepared for Buffy's reaction to her question. For the second time in as many minutes, Tara was bombarded by wildly flaring emotions. Anger, confusion, despair, exhaustion - she staggered and grabbed her head. Buffy's swirling emotions surrounded her in a kaleidoscope of colors, stabbing her with sharp edges. Dimly, she could feel Buffy grab her as she started to sink to the floor and could hear Buffy asking if she was OK. With an amazing amount of effort, she managed to strengthen her mental shields enough to block out most of Buffy's turmoil. As the violent colors of Buffy's emotions receded, Tara was able to regain her feet, but she struggled to catch her breath and even her hair seemed to be shaking. "Tara, come on. Let me help you back to the room."  Tara leaned into Buffy as the shorter girl practically carried her down the hall to the dorm room.

Willow had finally woken from her internal debate and was sprawled on her bed when Buffy and Tara came into the room. "Whoa! Bab-I mean-Buffy, what happened?" OK, focus, Willow. This in NOT how you want to come out to your best friend.

"It's not me, Will. I found Tara in the hallway, and she almost collapsed. Help me get her to my bed."  Willow obediently joined the Slayer and Tara, but wasn't sure she did much to help. Buffy, using her enhanced strength, was doing most of the work. Willow contented herself with plumping pillows and fluttering as Buffy bent over, situating the other witch on the bed. Once she had Tara as comfortable as possible, Buffy stood up, groaning slightly and trying to stretch the lingering soreness out of her muscles. "Will, can you take care of Tara for a few? I really need to shower. Whatever Faith was up to in my body wasn't all of the good."  Willow looked at her with a strange, "deer in the headlights" look. "Uh, Earth to Will, you in there?" OK, wonder what's up? First Tara goes from spacey to staggering and now Will looks like she's just seen a ghost. "Will, come on! Can you stay focused for just a few minutes?"

Buffy's irritated tone snapped Willow out of her fugue state. "Sorry, Buffy. Sure, I can take care of Tara while you shower. Are you sure you're OK? I mean..." Willow blushed and took a deep breath to stop her babbling before it reached epic proportions. "Go ahead, Buff. We'll be fine." Buffy looked at her for a minute before grabbing a shower caddy, towel, clothes, and a robe and heading back out of the room.

"If we keep acting like this, she's going to think we're crazy." Tara's voice was a mere whisper. When her blue eyes met Willow's green ones, they both started giggling madly.

After a few minutes, the laughter died. "Tara, what happened? Did Faith hurt you? I thought you had a binding spell ready in case she gave in to her need to beat up on people."

"No, Will. She didn't hurt me. In fact, she was hurting pretty badly herself. She must have felt Buffy coming into the dorm because she panicked. Will, she begged me to let her go - said Buffy would kill her and she didn't want Buffy to be like her, a murderer." She lightly clasped the redhead's hand, stroking it slowly. "Sweetie, we need to talk about what Faith said as soon as possible." She took a deep breath before continuing. "I know you d-don't trust Faith, but I really don't think she was lying or p-playing games. She was genuinely concerned about Buffy." When Willow didn't say anything and glanced away, Tara let go of Willow's hand to reach up and grasp her chin. It took quite a bit of effort to force Willow's head up, and she had to wait several minutes for the green eyes to meet hers. "We can't brush this off or rush in too quickly. What do you think Buffy would do if you ju-just confronted her with what Faith said?"

Willow looked at Tara for a while before answering. "She'd be all Denial Gal and get really defensive. Oh, and she'd probably storm out of here and go to Riley's and we wouldn't see her for -" Willow nearly whimpered at the second outbreak of Willowbabble in the same day. "Sorry, Tara. I really thought the babble problem was over. OK, I see your point. Confronting Buffy is a bad idea. Do you have a better plan in that beautiful head of yours?"

Tara let go of Willow's chin to caress her cheek. "You're the beautiful one, baby." She stopped, chewing her lip as she thought. "Do you think you could get Buffy to spend some Best Friend Time with you tonight? Movies and chocolate and girl talk?" At Willow's hesitant nod, Tara went on. "Don't push for anything. Just be here if she wants to talk. I think I'm going to go talk with Mr. Giles."

"Tara, I don't think that's a good idea. I mean, Faith is- well evil! I know you think she was telling the truth, but..."

"Willow!" The redhead looked up in shock at the sharp tone. "You can't read auras. You don't understand what I saw. She - was - not - lying." Tara sat up on the bed and swung her feet over the side. Standing, she noted only a little remaining dizziness and a throbbing headache. "I'm going to Mr. Giles.' I'll talk with him about Faith and Buffy. Maybe he'll be able to help us decide how to approach Buffy and find out what's going on with her." She moved away from the stunned redhead and stood for a moment in the middle of the room. The next time she spoke, she sounded more like the shy, hesitant girl Willow was used to. "I'm sor-sorry, Willow. But I d-don't think you ca-can be objective about Faith. I get that. But we have to help Buffy before she finds a way to get killed - and with Adam on the loose, that won't be too hard." She walked to the door and opened it. Before leaving the room entirely, she faced Willow again. "If Buffy asks, tell her I went back to my room because I wasn't feeling well.  It's not entirely a lie."  Dropping her head and letting her hair hide her face, Tara quietly closed the door.

Tara's thoughts were troubled as she walked across the UC-Sunnydale campus. She regretted getting upset with Willow. After all, I might be less than forgiving if I had been held at knifepoint. But Tara couldn't get past the fact that her friend -girlfriend?- hadn't trusted her when she said Faith was telling the truth. She was worried about all of the Scoobies. Just in the short time she had known them, she could sense their internal struggles and their emotional uncertainties. If only Willow didn't want to squirrel her away like a prize acorn, then she might have seen Buffy's downward spiral before it reached a critical state. Wrapping her arms tightly around herself, Tara fought back a sob. I really thought Willow loved me. I'm pretty sure she thinks she loves me. But I'm more like a trophy - put away in a display case to take out and look at, maybe show off occasionally. Why can't she see that I want to be a part of everything? Shaking her head at her depressing thoughts, Tara tried to bring her mind back to the immediate problems, namely Faith and Adam.

By the time she had climbed the steps to Giles' door and knocked, she was no closer to a plan of action. After a short wait, Giles opened the door and stared in bemusement at the nervous girl. "Um, hello, ah, Tara?" Giles relaxed slightly when she nodded. "Can I help you with something? Where's Willow?"

Tara fought to stave off the stutter she knew was coming. Consciously slowing her speech and controlling her breathing, she said, "Mr. Giles, could I come in? There are some things w-we need to ta-talk about." Seeing the older man hesitate, she continued, "It's about Faith." Giles' eyes widened at that and he stepped back into the doorway, giving Tara room to step in to the small vestibule.

Once she was inside, Giles closed the door and walked toward the small kitchen area on the right. Tara moved hesitantly forward to the table and living room the Scoobies used for their meetings. All the blinds were closed and the apartment had a dark, oppressive feel. "Would you like something to drink, my dear?" Tara shook her head at the offer, but looked closely at her host as he poured himself a healthy drink of what Tara suspected was scotch. Glass in hand, Giles came out of the kitchen and moved into the living area, sitting in his recliner. "Please, make yourself at home. Now, have you and Willow found something out about Faith?"

Tara bought a few more minutes to get her thoughts in order by wandering over to sit on the sofa across from Giles. "Faith was waiting for Willow when she got in this afternoon."

"Good Lord. Is she hurt?"

"No-No, Mr. Giles. She's fine." Tara was quick to reassure him. "Willow was able to bind her with a spell." Despite her ambivalence about her relationship with the novice witch, Tara's voice held a note of pride for that accomplishment. "Mr. Giles, I don't really know the whole story about Faith. Willow explained some of it after Faith woke from her coma, but... Could you tell me a little bit about what happened when Faith came to Sunnydale?" Seeing that Giles wanted to object, Tara said, "Faith was there to pass on some information she got while in Buffy's body. I just need a little background to help me make sense of it."

Giles leaned forward in the chair. "Tara, Faith is very good at playing mind games. Are you sure she isn't just trying to trick us all?"

"Willow was afraid of that, too." Tara rubbed her right temple with a hand that shook slightly. The throbbing headache was getting worse. I really need to get this done before I can't get it done. "Mr. Giles, I know that Willow hasn't told you or any of the Scoobies much about me." The admission hurt more than the headache. "I am a hereditary witch. Unlike Willow, I didn't have to learn the Craft from books and experimentation. My mother taught me about magic from the time I was little. One of the skills I developed was reading a person's aura."

"Ah. So you would know, then, if Faith was lying." He sat back in his chair, chewing thoughtfully on the earpiece of his glasses. "I'm sorry for questioning you. But Faith can be frightfully adept at subterfuge."

Tara almost grinned at what Willow called "Watcher-speak." "I-It's OK, Mr. Giles. Why does everyone automatically think evil when Faith is mentioned?"

"I don't know what information you got from Willow." He sighed. "And, I'm not sure that Willow can be counted on to present an unbiased account of what happened last year. Faith came to Sunnydale at the end of the summer preceding the children's last year of high school." Tara listened intently as Giles highlighted Faith's appearance outside the Bronze, the debacle with Gwendolyn Post and Angel's return from Hell, and the accidental staking of Deputy Mayor Allan Finch.

Tara stopped Giles there to ask, "What was the gang's response to his death?"

"Well, I um..." Giles removed his glasses and began to clean the lenses with a handkerchief. "Looking back on it, I think everyone was confident that Faith hadn't intended to kill Mr. Finch."

"Yes, but if Buffy had accidentally killed someone, you'd all be gathered around trying to keep her spirits up and coming up with ways to help her deal with it. Did anyone do that for Faith?"

Giles stood up and walked back into the kitchen. Tara turned to watch him. "Yes, as a matter of fact, we did. But, in retrospect, I fear our efforts were an example of too little, too late. Buffy and Faith hid their involvement at first. And, by the time either of them thought to tell me what happened, Faith was in full denial." Giles shook his head at the memory. "None of us really knew how to approach Faith. I, for one, found her - ah - predilection for provoking comments difficult to handle. Willow and Xander mistrusted her." He gave a small, embarrassed laugh.

"That's OK, Mr. Giles. I know what happened between Faith and Xander, and I know Willow kind of went on an anti-Faith kick after that." Tara spoke to relieve the uncomfortable ex-Watcher.

"All that aside, I don't think we ever really made an effort to get to know the girl behind the attitude. Out of all of us, Buffy was really the only one to see the emotions Faith was hiding. Unfortunately, after Mr. Finch died, Buffy was too entangled in the events to get close to Faith. Angel, I think, had started to get her to face her actions when that ponce Wesley and the Council team showed up. To be honest, my dear, we all made a right bollocks of the situation."

"Well, that's not quite how Willow remembers things, but it gives me something to work with. Mr. Giles, when I saw Faith today, I saw someone who was on the brink of collapse. Her emotions were fractured and sharp." Seeing Giles' confusion, she backtracked. "When I look at someone, even casually, I get a sense of what they are feeling. It's just surface; I can see a faint glow around their body and the color represents an emotion. For most people, I see one solid color with maybe a tinge of another at the very edges of the aura. The glow looks like a stable force-field. There are no edges; no beginning or end to the color." Tara paused. "Is this making any sense?"

"Yes, my dear. I've done a bit of work with some of the covens in the area around the Council's Headquarters." He grinned slightly. "Your explanation is vastly superior to the -ah- more mystical babble I got from the High Priestess in Devonshire."

Tara smiled shyly back. "When I talked with Faith in the Bronze, her aura didn't fit in Buffy's body. That's what made me think it wasn't Buffy. This afternoon, the aura fit, but it was spiky and almost rainbow colored. There were so many emotions roiling around that it hurt to look at it. But," Tara forced herself to look up and directly at Giles, "at no time did I sense that she was lying. That's why I thought it was important to talk with you." She shrugged. "Willow didn't believe me - or Faith. Mr. Giles, Faith said that she didn't think Buffy was really trying to win their fight at the church. Faith said she could feel Buffy through their Slayer bond and that Buffy's given up. She wants to die, Mr. Giles."

Despite the serious nature of their talk, Tara had to fight a laugh at Giles' "Bloody hell."

Chapter Three

Buffy clattered back into the room feeling physically, if not emotionally, better after the shower. It was strange; this was her body, but it hadn't felt right since she had reclaimed it from Faith. Not counting the unexplainable bruises and muscle aches, Buffy felt wrong in her own skin. Glancing up as she went to put her things in the closet, she noticed Tara was missing and Willow was in her usual place on her bed, tapping away at her laptop,  socked feet waving in the air. "Tara go home?" she asked.

"Yeah. She -um- said she wasn't feeling well," Willow replied, glancing up from whatever she was researching. She pressed a few keys before closing her laptop. "Feel any better after the shower?" She asked, rolling on to her side, watching Buffy intently.

When Buffy just shrugged, Willow took Tara's advice. "Hey, I'm plan free this evening. It's been a really long time since we spent any quality best friend time together. Whataya say we rent a couple of mindless movies and imbibe lots of pizza and chocolate?" Willow cocked her head to the side and watched Buffy's expression closely. Shamelessly resorting to her best puppy-dog look, she glanced at her friend through long lashes and began begging in a sing-song voice, "Please?"

"Ooh, no fair with the puppy-dog eyes, Will." Buffy whined. Willow upped the ante and stuck out her lip in her best pout. "Aagh! Stop! No more! OK. Best friend movie night, pizza and chocolate and gossip. Just please, stop with the look."

Willow laughed. "Poor Slayer. Did the wicked witch torture you?" She rolled off the bed and launched herself at her blonde roommate. Thanks to Slayer reflexes, Buffy caught the red-haired bundle and wrapped her arms tight around Buffy. Willow whispered, "I've really missed 'us time.'" Blushing slightly, she stepped back. "Mocha, muffin, and movie run? Then we can order the main course when we get back?"

"Only if you promise not to make me watch any foreign films with subtitles. Only movies with words in English!" At Willow's grumpy nod of agreement, Buffy grinned. "OK, then. Let's get moving. We can do a quick patrol on our way out." She pulled a jacket out of the closet and dug around in the weapons trunk for a couple of stakes and a long knife. "You got your safety kit?"

"Yep." Willow indicated the satchel slung over her shoulder. "All the latest in personal protection: holy water, crosses, a couple of lighters, and a super-sized bottle of hairspray."

"You're going to give them cosmetology lessons before you stake them?"

Willow smacked the Slayer on the arm. "Yeah, like that would be helpful. Spray a little hairspray and use a lighter. Boom! Instant flame-thrower. Of course," she grinned, "thanks to Tara, I can do fireballs without the props. Well, OK, the one time I tried it didn't work, but I think that was because I used the wrong language. Next time, I'll try the invocation in Sumerian instead of Latin."

"You and Tara been patrolling without me?" Buffy asked in shock.

Willow looked at Buffy in confusion as they exited Stephenson Hall. "Oh, no. Where did you get that idea? I mean, my spells are better, but... and Tara, well, not really big with the violence."

"Will, you just said you tried a fireball spell. I kinda figured you were aiming at a vamp." She grabbed Willow's hand, swinging their arms as they walked. "If you weren't trying to dust a vamp, what were you aiming at?"

Normally, Willow thought, this is where I would blush. But I'm pretty sure there is zero color in my face right now - could even be considered a non-color. Uh, oh. Buffy's looking at me. How long ago did she ask me that? Frilly heck. Mustering a smile, she said, "Oh, you know, nothing really...just imagined I was fighting something really bad - like, um, Faith. Right, Faith! You know, what if she, like showed up in the dorm room and I was all alone and needed to, um, defend myself. Then a fireball would be really useful. Just, you know, Faith really scares me and I got the language for the spell wrong, so I had to, you know, try something else, and I..."

"Will, breath! My God, what happened to suave Willow2000? You haven't done the Willowbabble thing so bad since my first year at ol' Hellmouth High." Seeing her friend's frown, she was quick to reassure. "Not that it's bad. I just noticed you've been kinda on verbal overdrive today. Everything OK in Willowland? New guy I don't know about?"

Willow barely refrained from whimpering. First, she nearly gave away the whole "Faith visitation" and now Buffy wanted to talk about her love life. Really gotta change the subject. Tara said to get Buffy talking, so..."Hey, no fair making this all about me! Have you talked to your mom since the kidnapping?"

Buffy laughed. "'Kay, Will. Sensing you don't want to tell me about your new squeeze with the big subject change and all. Just to let you know, we will be revisiting the topic again tonight. But, yeah, Mom and I spent a few minutes together after the showdown with Faith. She's doing OK. It was a little freaky. I had to actually convince her it was me and not Psycho Slayer inside." Buffy's mood darkened. "We're not really communicating very well at the moment. Reminds me of when I was still hiding the Slayer gig."

By now, they had reached the largest of Sunnydale's cemeteries. Both girls were momentarily silent.  "How is your mom handling the whole kidnapped by a killer deal?"

Buffy shrugged. "Not really sure. She said she was fine, and other than the large bruise on her chin, Faith didn't hurt her. I just feel bad that I didn't find Faith before she got to Mom."

"But you did get there!"

"Almost too late, Will. Mom was all tied up in her bed and that bitch was getting ready to kill her. Before I went through the window, I heard her tell Mom not to count on me. She had the gall to say I didn't care about her anymore, especially since I was a 'college girl' now." Buffy stopped and looked at her companion. "You don't really think Mom believed her, do you, Will?"

Willow looked back at her in amazement. Surely, Buffy didn't think her mom would take the word of a serial killer in the making? She stepped closer to Buffy and put on her best "resolve face".

"Buffy Anne Summers, don't you dare think like that. Your mom knows that college and saving the world on a nightly basis take time."

Buffy dropped her head, studying the coral-painted toenails peeking out of her open-toed shoes. "I just feel - look out!" Buffy shoved Willow to the left with one hand while pulling out a stake with the other. She faced the two vampires, waiting for one of them to attack. "You OK, Will?" she called out.

"Oh, sure, Buffy. Just shaking off the cemetery dirt. Kinda forgot your own strength there, Slayer." Willow jumped up to sit on top of a headstone and watched the show.

The two hapless vamps listened to this exchange in confusion. Hearing Willow call Buffy the Slayer, though, prodded them into action. Both shifted into game face and charged. Buffy leaped into the air, somersaulting over her opponents. When she landed, she quickly kicked one in the back. Willow winced at the sound of breaking bones. With a growl, the vampire dropped to the ground, and Buffy faced his "friend."

"Hey, boys. Out for a little romantic walk in the moonlight?" She smiled. "It's a nice night for it."

The unwounded vampire ran a tongue along his fangs before replying. "I've heard that once you've tasted a Slayer, you never want to go back to normal humans."

"Hello. Don't you guys have any new lines?" Buffy asked, disgust in her voice. She sidestepped the vampire's rush and staked him in the back. A second later, his ashes dropped to the ground. "One down, well OK, two down..." She dragged the vampire she had kicked back to his feet. "Anything you want to say before I stake you?" When the vampire just snarled and twisted in her grasp, Buffy shrugged. "OK, then." A quick thrust with the stake, and the two girls were once again alone in the cemetery. "Well, that was certainly dull." She waited for Willow to rejoin her. "If I had a nickel for every time a vamp said that thing about tasting a Slayer, I wouldn't need to worry about getting a job after college."

Willow giggled. "Maybe I could do some research on pick-up lines and we could make a flyer and post it around the cemeteries. You know, title it 'The Top 100 Ways to Impress the Slayer.'" She linked arms with Buffy and they continued their walk.

Willow lay with her head pillowed on Buffy's thigh. On the TV, Terry Hatcher and Pierce Brosnan verbally fenced in their evening wear. Huh, I wonder if it's an English thing to wear formals when you save the world? She shifted and looked up at Buffy. After their lighthearted banter on the way to pick up Movie Night necessities, they hadn't really talked about anything Willow considered to be important. Maybe it was time to push - just a little. "Hey, Buffy?"

Buffy yawned and stretched before answering, "Yeah, Will."

"You, um, we, ah haven't really talked about what happened when you were in Faith's body. Kinda' wondered, did you still feel like you, or did you have homicidal tendencies, too?" Willow felt Buffy tense beneath her.

"No, Will. No thoughts of gutting those around me. It was me, my thoughts, with Faith's body. Although," Buffy looked thoughtful, "I have to say it didn't really bother me to beat up on the Council guys. Man, one of them even spit on me."

"He what?!" Willow's voice squeaked. "Why- Why would he do that?"

Buffy shrugged. "He thought I was Faith, remember? Made some comment about me/her being worthless or trash. To prove his point, he spit." She stroked a hand through Willow's hair. "The whole thing was disturbing - and not just the trapped in a crazy girl's body kinda way. People looked at me differently. I mean, when I first got to Giles' place, he looked petrified. The Council goons saw me as some sort of whore. The only person who didn't automatically disapprove was Riley when I hugged him at the church. He just kept trying to fend me off and he called me 'Miss.' Must be a military thing."

Willow started giggling. "Did you hear Giles when the cop told us we couldn't be there?"

"Not really. I was too focused on finding a way into the church." Buffy smiled as Willow went off into gales of laughter again.

"If you ever need blackmail material, just start waving your arms and shout 'Good God, man!' a few times. I bet that English reserve will crack right away." Willow grabbed Buffy's hand, which had been resting on the floor near her side. "So, Tara and I are looking for spells to help with Adam. She's really strong, Buffy. Way stronger than me and she knows a ton of stuff about magic. Has Riley been able to get you any more information on the Initiative's plans or files on Adam?"

Buffy shifted out from underneath Willow. "No, we haven't really talked about Adam. I've been pretty focused on finding Faith and everything." Buffy wandered around the room, picking up the pizza remains and the clutter from their chocolate bingeing earlier.

Ah, must have finally hit a nerve. Avoidance Buffy is in the room. "So if you haven't been discussing our resident Dr. Frankenstein's monster, have you been doing a lot of relationship-type things? Come on! This is me. Remember, it's part of the Best Friend's Rules, you have to spill all the good details about your latest amour." Willow watched as Buffy stopped moving around the room. "So, spill, my friend, spill. I need a life even if it is a vicarious one."

Willow got a tad bit nervous when Buffy walked over and just stood next to her, looming, with a truly evil grin. "Oh, no, Will. First, we're going to talk about the new man in your life. The one you avoided talking about earlier tonight."

Nervousness paled next to the panicked feeling she had now. Willow sat up quickly, buying some time and taking away Buffy's unobstructed view of her expression. "Nope. No man here." And that's part of the problem. "I am man-free. No manly love interest since Oz pulled his disappearing act." Shut UP, Willow. Even Xander could pick up these clues. Now. Let's get back to what had you so freaked out, my friend. "So, now that we know I am not mooning over a new man, how about the details of you and Riley? Sit down right here," Willow patted the floor next to her, "put your head on my shoulder, snuggle in, and tell all."

Buffy hesitated and Willow reluctantly used her "resolve face" for the second time that day. Reluctantly because she feared overuse would ruin its effectiveness. Buffy shuffled around a little but finally caved and sat down. Willow had to strain to hear when Buffy started talking. "I'm not sure there is a Riley and me saga anymore, Will. He told me today that he slept with her, with Faith."

Willow was stunned. "He slept with Faith? When did he meet her? At the church today, you said he kept pushing you, um, her away and calling you 'Miss.' Did the drugs the Initiative kept feeding him mess up his memory or something?"

"No, Will." Buffy's laugh was sad. "He slept with Faith, while she was in my body."

Part 4

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