DISCLAMAIR: All things Buffy belong to Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, and lots of people in expensive suits. Iím 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 Yearís Girl" and the Angelís episode "Sanctuary."† Many thanks to Val for the beta and encouragement.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.

LearningCurve
By Rebelrsr

 

Chapter Thirteen

Tara looked up at the Slayer. "No, Faith, I'm not with Willow anymore." Reaching up a hand, she traced the outline of the brunette's lips. "But this really isn't a good time for either of us."

The younger girl captured the finger between her teeth. She ran a warm, wet tongue over the tip before releasing it. "Seems like the best time to me, T. What's holding you back?" The Slayer lowered her head. "Come on, Blondie, you were right there with me." She didn't touch the witch, but stared soulfully into blue eyes, willing the blonde to let her continue.

It seemed the Dark Slayer might get her wish. Tara raised her head and caught the pouting lips in a fierce kiss. They were both panting when the kiss ended. "Don't ever think I don't want you, Faith. But we can't do this right now. We need to focus on taking care of Adam."

The brunette above her groaned. "Hell, T, I've never been one for postponing things. Willow musta forgot to tell you my motto is 'want, take, have.'"

Laughing, Tara cupped Faith breasts. "Well, this time is different. You can want right now. But the taking and having will happen after we defeat the Big Bad." She sobered slightly. Still caressing the Slayer through the shirt, the witch went on. "We also need to take care of you, Sweetie."

Faith was too focused on the pleasure burning through her body to understand Tara's statement at first. When the words finally filtered through the haze of desire, she ground out, "What are you talking about, Blondie? And, before you answer, you might want to move those hands. Can't think when you do that and I'm pretty sure you aren't going to 'take care of me' right now. Save it for later?"

"Sorry, Faith." Tara slid her hands down to rest on the Slayer's hips. When the brunette arched an eyebrow, the witch grinned. "OK. I'm not really sorry, but I will stop. How's that?"

"It'll have to do, T." Faith dropped down to lie beside Tara. "So, what's on the agenda for today? Cause whatever is it, has to include a shower and some food."

"Ah, that's going to be difficult."

"Why, this dump don't have hot water?"

Tara shook her head at the Slayer. "Plenty of hot water, just no way to get you down the hall without being seen."

Faith stiffened at the witch's words. Damn, how the hell did I forget that? Pulling back from Tara, the younger girl got off the bed. "No problem. Guess that means we ain't going out for dinner, huh?"

The blonde watched the transformation in the other girl. All of Faith's emotions had been closed off. The witch could still see them in the Slayer's aura, but her physical expression contained nothing but bravado. "Faith…"

"Look, Blondie, just forget it, OK?"

Tara didn't want to forget it, but, as she had reminded Faith, it wasn't the right time. "For now, Faith. After this is over, I promise we're going to sit down and talk." Seeing the Slayer scowl, she said forcefully, "I mean it, Faith. You can't run forever."

The brunette relaxed slightly. "Sounding a lot like Angel, there, T. I'm here to take care of things for B. Got no plans for leaving before she's back on her feet. But I'm not really built for heart-to-hearts." She dropped into the desk chair. "So, you got any food in that fridge?"

"Not really. It's too small to hold much." Tara was glad for the change in intensity. "Let me put on some clothes and I'll go grab us something."

"Thanks. Been awhile since that sandwich in L.A." Faith's leg bounced frantically up and down. "Any idea when I'll see some action? Not looking forward to being stuck here for too long."

Looking down, Tara replied, "Not really. But I t-talked to Mrs. Sum-Summers this morning. She wants us to be at the hospital at 7:00 tonight. I'll use a spell to cloak you like I did this morning. I'm sure W-Willow has the information from the disks by now."

The Slayer jumped up from the chair and began pacing. "So, I'm stuck here for the next four hours or so, huh?"

"I'm sorry, Faith."

"Not your problem, Blondie. Did some really stupid shit last year." The brunette stalked from one end of the tiny room to another. "Just, I'm not real good with doing nothing. Now that I'm bouncing back from my eight month nap, got a lot of energy to burn."

"As long as you're going to be OK, Faith," Tara said uncertainly. Looking closely at the younger girl, the witch noticed that her emotions were a steady yellow-orange. The Slayer was a tightly wound mass of frustrated energy. "If-if you can just wait until I get back, maybe I c-can do another glamour so you can go out."

Faith paused mid step and stared hard at the blonde. "Thought you said that took a lot of energy." Seeing the witch blush, she laughed harshly. "Oh, hell, no, T. Not letting you burn yourself out just so I can run around Sunnydale."

The fierce light in the other girl's eyes told Tara there would be no negotiation. "Fine, have it your way. But, when I get back, there better not be any broken furniture or wear marks on the floor."

Despite her continuing frustration, Faith couldn't hold back a laugh at the mock sternness in the words. "Sure, T, let me guess…you'll tie my ass to the bed if I do anything dumb while you're gone."

"Exactly, Slayer." Tara quickly exchanged her sleepwear for regular clothing, glowering at the attentive brunette. "You could look the other way, you know."

"Yeah, but the view is much better in this direction," Faith leered. Fuck, I can't believe I let her put a stop to earlier. She watched the blonde intently, noticing the flush creeping up her neck and the darkening of her blue eyes. Sucking in a sharp breath, the Slayer spun away from temptation. "Better get going, Blondie. I'm hungry," she rasped.

"I'll be back," the witch said, hurrying around the other girl. "Anything in particular you want?" The statement hung in the air.

"Go, Tara. Just go."

Eyes wide, Tara nodded and fled the room.


Buffy woke with a start, images of Adam dissipating as the dreams faded. Heart pounding in remembered fear, she scanned the room for threats. The only sign of life was the sleeping witch in her arms. The clock on the wall read a little after twelve, but she wasn't sure if that meant morning or afternoon.

Taking a deep breath to help slow her racing pulse, the Slayer shifted slightly to relieve her stiffened muscles. Willow mumbled slightly, but didn't wake. In fact, she seemed to move in closer, head resting just below the blonde's chin. Relaxing back into the pillow, Buffy rested her chin on the red hair tickling her throat. Despite the warm drowsiness sapping her strength, the blonde couldn't get back to sleep. Bits of her earlier conversation with Willow played back.

" …when I got there, Faith was waiting for me… she said that you hadn't really been fighting hard at the church and she thought maybe you might be sui-suicidal."

The words, uttered in Willowbabble, haunted the Slayer. Was Faith right? Had she been giving less than her all? Wouldn't I know if I was suicidal? I mean, I'd have to actually decide to kill myself, right? Frustrated with her thoughts, she shifted a little too roughly.

A soft groan sounded from the sleeping redhead and vibrated through Buffy's chest. Damn. "Shh, Will. Everything's OK, just go back to sleep," the blonde murmured soothingly.

Unfortunately, Willow seemed to be struggling with her own inner demons. "No, no, Xan…watch out for the tadpoles."

Buffy tried to stifle her laughter, but failed miserably. Tadpoles? Do I even want to know, Will?

A bouncing pillow was not conducive to sleep, and Willow pried her eyes open to complain about the ruckus. When her half-opened eyes met those of the Slayer, though, the irritation fled. A smile lit the freckled features. "Hey, Buffy, we need to stop waking up like this. People might talk."

"Ooh, and that would be bad, how? I mean, you're looking pretty good these days, Will," the blonde teased. Her compliment ended in a grunt when a small hand smacked her shoulder. "Hey, ow." She stuck her lip out in a pout. "Come on, Will, I was being nice. Guess I could have mentioned the bed hair and the fact you've been wearing those clothes for at least two days straight."

Scowling at her friend, the witch moved away and propped herself next to the Slayer on her elbow. Head resting in her hand, Willow took a closer look at the girl next to her. "You could, and they'd all be true, I'm sure. Of course, you ain't looking so hot yourself, sweetie." The witch mentally closed her eyes in anguish when the laughter faded from Buffy's hazel eyes.

"Yeah, getting your ass handed to you by some metal freak isn't recommended for improving your hotness rating." The words held a hint of humor, but the look in the Slayer's eyes was bleak. A frown settled in and she lapsed into brooding silence.

Damn, damn, damn. I should just stop talking. Every word out of my mouth in the last two days has hurt the people I love. Ignoring the inner voice counseling silence, Willow said quietly, "You want to talk about what happened?"

Buffy shrugged, looking uncertain. Finally, she replied, "I did a lot of thinking this morning. About slaying, Riley, Adam…"

"You know you can tell me anything, right?" Willow asked.

"Yeah, Will. I know. It's just…I don't know. I can't – life has sucked lately. At first, I thought it was just college and not being able to enjoy college life. Slaying always got in the way. Either I couldn't go to a party or on a date, or I tried to do it all and I was so tired." A wan smile crept out. "I just wanted to scream that it wasn't fair. But it hasn't been fair since the day I got called."

"Why didn't you tell me any of this? We've been best friends since high school, Buffy. You always told me everything: the Master, Angel, all the stuff with Faith. Why not now?"

The blonde dropped her chin to her chest. "You were having so much fun. It was like college opened up so many doors. You weren't the shy little hacker in the fuzzy sweaters. You were the new, improved, confident Willow and I didn't want to interfere. You deserve a normal life, Will. As long as I'm around, you can't have that."

The redhead started to reassure the obviously upset Slayer when the meaning of Buffy's words sank in. Eyes widening in shock, Willow inched closer to the discomfited blonde. "Sweetie, you can't think that you're holding me back somehow."

"I just figured I needed to find a way to fit in. It was like sophomore year all over again. You know, fitting the slaying and life into the same twenty-four hour period. But in high school, there were boundaries. I knew where I needed to be and when I needed to be there. These last few months have been so different."

Rolling so that she lay on her stomach next to the Slayer, Willow said, "Buffy, different I understand. Remember me? Shy nerd girl in the ugly clothes? I cried nearly every day of school for ten years I was so miserable."

"You're not like that now."

"No – well, sometimes. But that is so not the point, Buffy. We were talking about you, and about why the slaying is suddenly so much harder to deal with. I mean, come on. You were sixteen, saving the world every night, lying to your mother and almost everyone you knew, and pretending to be a typical underachieving high school student by day. Now, you have friends who help with the world saving; your mom is aware of your calling; and you have a boyfriend who knows and helps out. How can that be worse?" She rested her chin on the blonde's leg. "I know there's something else you aren't telling me."

"It's nothing, Will."

"Buffy!" The redhead knew she had to get her friend to talk. Pushing herself up, she moved to kneel against the Slayer's side. Grasping the lowered chin and pulling, Willow forced a reluctant Buffy to meet her eyes. "Not joking here, Buffy. Tell me what's really going on."

"I just – I really needed you to be there with me, for me."

"Buffy, I am here, no matter what."

"No, you don't understand," the blonde cried in frustration.

"Then help me understand!"

Looking terrified, Buffy nodded jerkily. A hand feathered through the wild red hair before closing gently on the tangled strands. Tugging Willow forward, the Slayer choked out, "I needed you with me, Will. Not with Oz, and not with Tara."

 

Chapter Fourteen

I can't believe I'm doing this, Buffy thought fuzzily as she brushed her lips over Willow's. She kept the contact light, but constant, giving the redhead plenty of opportunity to pull away. Willow had stiffened when Buffy had pulled her forward, but she wasn't resisting the teasing kisses. The blonde smiled into the next round of kisses and slowly applied more pressure. The sick, anxious feeling was gone. Buffy was sure she could defeat Adam right this very moment as adrenaline surged through her. Gripping Willow's shoulders, she pulled until the taller girl lay on top of her.

The change in position gave the Slayer better access. Her hands roamed up and down the other girl's back, intermittently sliding through the red hair. Eventually, the kisses slowed, and Willow pulled back to gaze down at Buffy.

"Buffy, not that I'm complaining, but what the hell is going on?"

The Slayer didn't want to talk. Talking meant that the redhead snuggled against her might not share her feelings. She avoided a reply by stretching up and recapturing Willow's lips in a heated kiss. It wasn't enough. Buffy needed more. She slid her hands down until they rested against the redhead's butt. Kneading roughly, she brought their lower bodies together and began a slow, circular grind. Oh, yeah, Will. So good. Even as her mind exulted at the contact, Buffy sensed something was wrong. Willow's hands pushed against her shoulders, trying to separate them. Panicking, the Slayer yanked her hands away from her friend.

"Oh, God, Will. I'm sorry. I didn't mean –"

"Hey, Buffy, no, stop. It's OK. It's just, we need to talk."

Huh? The Slayer was confused. Her body screamed in frustration while her mind tried to process Willow's comment. "Alright," she managed, not really sure what she had agreed to. She'd do anything, anything at all to get the witch to kiss her again.

"Earth to Buffy, you in there?" Willow sounded amused. "Hmmm. Note to self, kissing the Slayer causes confusion and loss of voice. Think I should send a memo to the Council? They might need to research the situation, find a cure."

Pouting a little, Buffy mumbled. "Not nice, Will. You get me all hot and bothered and then you want to talk."

Willow sighed, looking sad. "I know, sweetie. I'm not exactly unaffected. But, I think you have some 'splaining to do." The witch ended her statement with a stern look. "Buffy, how long have you felt like this?"

"A while," Buffy responded vaguely. She groaned in despair as Willow gave her the dreaded "Resolve Face."

"Spill, Slayer."

"Damn, Will. When did you get so 'take charge?'" There was no answer, just a fiercer look from the redhead. "OK, OK. I get it. You want answers." She paused, trying to get her scattered thoughts together. "I guess I started to notice I felt more than friendly the night we turned into our costumes. You looked so hot in that outfit, and it was all for Xander. Kinda made me jealous."

"Really?" Willow's voice squeaked.

"Really, Will." Buffy dared to sneak a quick kiss.

"Buffy." The Slayer winced at the rebuke.

"You looked so cute, how could I resist?" the blonde pleaded her case.

Sighing, Willow held Buffy's gaze. "I am glad you think I am cute. I am even more glad that you want to kiss me. But enough with the avoiding the question."

Bowing to the inevitable, the blonde reluctantly continued. "I didn't understand then what I was feeling. There was Angel and things were already so messed up." Buffy shrugged slightly. "It was easier to ignore or chalk it up to post battle hornies."

"Were you ever planning on telling me?" the redhead asked quietly.

"I started to, once, after Oz left. But you were all with the setting me up with Riley deal."

Willow looked shocked. "Ooh, bad decision on my part, huh?"

Laughing, Buffy nodded. "Yeah, Rosenberg. What happened to that razor sharp intellect?"

"Must have taken a siesta. I mean, I was pretty out of it after the whole Veruca deal." Willow sobered. "God, Buffy, I feel so terrible."

"Why?" The Slayer asked, concerned.

"I just – because of me, you went through all of the stuff with Riley. You both got hurt because of the relationship, and Tara…I think I really did some damage yesterday."

"With what you said?"

Nodding, the witch answered, "She's never been really confident, and I told her I didn't trust her. If I'd just left well enough alone..."

"No, Will. You can't think like that." Buffy gently caressed the witch's face, wiping away the tears that had started to fall. "If I had told you how I felt back then, would you have been happy? Or would you have freaked that your best girl friend was fantasizing about you?"

Willow seemed unhappy at the question. "Um, probably the second option. I mean, still in boys' town then."

"See? We may have lost our friendship over my feelings. The whole Riley thing sucks, I'll admit…" Buffy trailed off, watching Willow closely.

The redhead still looked upset. "I guess. I just – I don't want anyone to get hurt, Buffy."

"Baby, no matter what, someone is going to get hurt. If you talk with Tara and apologize, though, maybe you'll be able to stay friends. I know you really like her, and I want you to be able to practice your spells with her."

"I hope she'll be OK, Buffy. I still can't believe the things I said to her," the witch lamented.

It was clear Willow wasn't going to move past the argument without help. Glancing at the redhead through her lashes, Buffy asked in a mock innocent tone, "So, Will, did I answer all your questions?"

Grinning at the obviously false innocence, Willow pretended to think. "Well, I suppose so. Why, did you want to talk about something else?"

"No," Buffy growled playfully. "Not interested in talking at all."

"That's good, then. Neither am I," the witch said in a rough voice. She rolled off the Slayer, ignoring the whine of protest, and settled on the bed next to Buffy. "Don't worry, baby, I'm not going away. I just needed a little more room to move." She ran a lazy hand across the blonde's cheek before moving with more purpose down to the top of the thin hospital blanket. Her hand snaked beneath the covering, stopping at Buffy's breast. "Hmm, what's this?" Willow asked coyly.

Buffy couldn't answer. She simply arched into the fingers pulling at her nipple. Through a haze of arousal, the Slayer heard Willow say something, but couldn't make out the words. Using all her will power, she ground out, "What did you say, Will?"

"I said," came a voice by the door, "this is not generally part of the proscribed treatment for seriously injured patients."


Faith picked up a book from Tara's bookshelf and flipped through the pages. At least this one's in English, she mused. Still, the Slayer wasn't interested in the magical text. Returning the book to its original spot, she rubbed her hands up and down her thighs, trying to contain the energy surging through her. Brown eyes impatiently scanned the room, looking for something, anything to do. This time was no different than the other dozen or so searches. OK. Boring magic books, boring text books, some funky skirts and stuff in the closet. Geeze, Blondie, you need to get out more. Fuck. You don't even have a TV. Who doesn't have a TV? Scowling, the brunette stalked around the room again. When she returned to her starting point, the clock showed she'd killed another couple of minutes. So far, a whopping 40 minutes had passed since the witch ran from the room.

The Slayer made a frustrated sound. It was too much. Returning to full health meant the regular energy of her calling ripped through her veins. The earlier heavy petting session simply added to the problem. Bouncing in place, Faith took yet another look around the dorm room. This time, Tara's shower caddy and robe caught her eye. Damn. It's just down the hall. Nobody'll notice me. Ignoring the little Tara-voiced warning in her head, she quickly stripped off the borrowed clothes and donned the robe and wrapped a towel around her head. Wrinkling her nose, she flipped through the selection in Tara's closet. She wasn't about to wear one of the long, multi-colored skirts. Finally, the Slayer located an old, threadbare pair of jeans. Much better, even with the big sunflower embroidered on the thigh. A search of the dresser drawers yielded a T-shirt. Grabbing the shower supplies, Faith crept out of the room, making sure the door didn't lock behind her.

The hallway was empty. Cool. T musta been worried for nothing. Hoping the layout of this dorm matched Buffy's, Faith walked slowly down the hall, looking for the showers. Her luck ran out. There were no bathrooms in this part of the building. Turning around, the Slayer picked up her pace. She couldn't stand around in the corridor. As she hurried back toward Tara's room a tall blonde popped out of a nearby door.

She smiled at Faith. "Hey. Kinda late for a shower, isn't it?"

"Uh, yeah. Late night. Just got up," Faith answered quietly.

"Yeah, me, too. Got class, though, so no more sleep." The girl shrugged. "You staying with someone?"

Faith hesitated. Fuck. Shut up already so I can get back to the room. "With a friend." The blonde didn't leave, just stood there, smiling. With a sigh, the brunette continued, "Tara."

At the name, the girl smiled even more. "Hey, cool. She doesn't usually have visitors." She glanced at her watch and then frowned. "Damn. I really need to get to class."

"Um, before you go, could you point me in the direction of the showers? Can't seem to find them," Faith dared to ask.

"Oh, sure, just head back down past Tara's room. They're at that end of the hall on the left."

"Thanks." Faith watched the blonde trot toward the stairs before walking down the hall. This time, her efforts met with success. Sighing in relief, the Slayer stepped into one of the cubicles and turned on the hot water. She spent a few minutes just enjoying the water pounding down, relieving the last of the lingering stiffness before starting to wash off. Tara shouldn't be gone much longer and she wanted to be back before then.

After rinsing the last of the shampoo from her hair, Faith shut off the water and roughly toweled her hair and body. She stepped into the borrowed jeans, realizing too late that the pants were going to be a problem. The length was almost right, but they were going to land by her ankles if she let go of the waistband. Grumbling, she kept one hand tight to the material and struggled into the shirt one-handed. She couldn't get the towel wrapped back around her head, so she settled for simply laying it over her head like a veil. Picking up the rest of the supplies, the Slayer peered out of the shower room. No one appeared in the hall, so she moved hurriedly back to Tara's door. Turning the knob required all of her Slayer dexterity since one hand kept her clothed and the other held the shower caddy and robe. Finally, she managed to twist enough to unlatch the door and pushed into the room.

The first thing she noticed was a row of bags with food on the floor by the desk. But, despite the gnawing hunger that sprang to life, Faith was suddenly more interested in the witch huddled in the center of the bed, tears streaming down her face. "T, what's wrong?"

 

Chapter Fifteen

Tara looked up at the question. Faith stood just inside the door, head covered by a towel and her arms filled with shower supplies. At first, she couldn't think of an answer. However, that difficulty soon ended as the witch remember her first heart stopping reaction to Faith's disappearance. Leaping off the bed she marched toward the Slayer. "What's wrong? I'll tell you what's wrong, Faith. I got back and you weren't here."

The brunette actually backed away from the irate blonde, until her back was pressed against the closed door. "What part of 'it isn't safe for you to go out' did you not understand?" Tara demanded.

"Whoa, hold on a minute, Blondie. I just went down the hall. No one was around." And then, in a brief flash of unaccustomed honesty, the Slayer admitted, "Well, there was this one blonde chick, but she was in a hurry to get to class."

Tara glared at the unrepentant Slayer. "Faith," she said between tightly clenched teeth, "why are you back in Sunnydale?"

Looking confused, the younger girl answered, "'Cause B's outta commission for a while and you said you needed help with Adam."

"So, you are here to take over until Buffy's out of the hospital." Tara repeated.

"Yeah, T. I don't get the attitude. I'm still right here, waiting to be called off the bench." The Slayer moved from her position by the door and walked around the blonde. "Now we've got that all cleared up, can we eat? I'm starving."

Tara kept her back to the Slayer, getting her emotions back under control. Getting mad isn't going to help, the witch thought. She doesn't see that getting caught means more than just jail time. Finally, after a few deep breaths, she pivoted. Faith had put the robe back in the closet and hung the wet towel over the register to dry. She was pawing through the various bags, examining the meal options. The last of the witch's anger drained away as she laughed. "So, why didn't you just grab a belt to help keep those up?" she questioned, gesturing at the pants the Slayer was still holding on to her slight frame.

Smirking, Faith replied, "Didn't think about it until I was down in the shower room." The Slayer sat on the floor and spread several containers around her. "Better hurry, T. I wasn't kidding when I said I was hungry. If you don't get started, there may not be any left."

The witch joined the brunette on the floor and took a few of her favorites. She could tell the Slayer had a question from the way the younger girl would glance up and then quickly look away again. "If I have food on my clothes, just let me know. Otherwise, ask your question."

Surprisingly, Faith blushed. "OK. Um, I'm glad you're not mad anymore, but mind clueing me in on what got you so heated up a few minutes ago?"

Goddess, I'm not sure either one of us is ready for where this conversation might lead. Tara knew her feelings for the brash Slayer were moving quickly. After Willow, she didn't want to get too involved too fast, especially since Faith had mentioned her motto. The brown eyes gazing at her weren't going away without answers, though. "I'll try," she replied. "First, though, let me ask you a question. When you first got to Sunnydale and started working with Buffy, did you do the whole Scooby routine? You know, research, food runs, moral support?"

"Hell, no. I stayed in my crappy motel room until they called me up," Faith bitterly responded. She paused and looked away. "Alright, Blondie, that ain't entirely true. Me and B clicked right away; although, she never was comfortable with my attitude toward Slaying. Things were going great until my new Watcher showed up."

"Wesley?" Tara interrupted.

"Even Wes would have been an improvement over the first one. Gwendolyn Post. She showed up and kinda separated me from everyone. Told me I was special and I didn't need the gang's help." A wry smile twisted Faith's lips. "She was saying just what I wanted to hear. Me and B got sideways of each other pretty quick, and then I found out she was hiding Angel up at the manor. Long story short, my Watcher had been fired and had really come to Sunnydale to get some magical glove. After that, it was like I said. I warmed the bench until Giles thought B needed a breather or backup."

"Thanks for being honest with me, Faith," the witch said.

"Ah, hell, Blondie. Don't make a big deal out of it," the Slayer grumbled.

Putting away the leftover food, Tara looked over at the other girl. "It is a big deal, and it's part of the reason I was so mad."

"You were mad 'cause I lied to you?" If anything, Faith sounded even more confused.

"No, sweetie, it had nothing to do with you telling the truth. I was mad because you weren't thinking of anything beyond just taking a shower. You didn't consider what would've happened if someone had recognized you."

"Sunnydale PD isn't exactly brimming with talent, T. I would have been able to outrun them."

Frustration snaked through the witch, but she forced herself to say calmly, "Maybe. That isn't really the point, though. You came here to help Buffy and the rest of us defeat Adam. If you had to run from the police, or if you were sitting in a jail cell somewhere, who would be left to fight Adam?"

Finally, a glimmer of understanding lit Faith's brown eyes. "Oh. So if something happened to me, then Plan B wouldn't work and you don't have a Plan C."

"Oh, for Goddess' sake, Faith, I don't think of you as just 'Plan B,' Tara exclaimed. "Do you really think we only see you as a tool and not as a person?"

"Sure, Blondie," the Slayer shrugged. "Just ask Giles. That's exactly how the Council views Slayers. We serve a purpose, for a while, and then we die and they get a new one."

Tara wasn't sure if she wanted to cry, scream, or be sick. The younger girl believed the words she'd just uttered. No doubt, no hesitation, no anger. To Faith, the truth of those words was absolute. "I don't even know what to say to that," the witch stammered.

"Nothing to say," Faith replied casually. Cocking an eyebrow at the cartons next to the blonde, she asked, "You want to save that?" She flashed a dimpled smile. "I'm pretty sure you mentioned your fridge is too small for food."

In a distracted tone, the witch said, "Go ahead," and scooted the food toward the Slayer. Still mulling over the last few minutes of conversation, she idly watched Faith devour the last of the food. "Faith?"

"Yeah?"

"When all this is over, we really need to talk."


Both girls froze. Willow's hand still rested on Buffy's breast beneath the blanket, and she devoutly hoped the thin cotton masked exactly what had been going on. She cast wide green eyes at the Slayer, begging silently for help.

The blonde came to her aid, just like always. "Hey, Mom. Ah, Doctor…?" Although she was flushed, Buffy's voice was calm, like she got caught in compromising positions every day.

"Girls, this is Doctor Gardner. He's here to give us some more information about Buffy's condition." Joyce valiantly tried to swallow her grin. Willow hadn't moved since they'd interrupted the intimate exchange and she looked terrified. Her daughter, on the other hand, was watching her intently, gauging her reaction to the scene she'd witnessed. Deciding to tease the new couple a bit, the older Summers commented, "Willow, dear, I think you forgot to mention a few things when we talked last night. When were you going to tell me about your new girlfriend?"

Willow gave a choked whimper and tried to bury her flaming face in Buffy's neck. "Mom! That's so not nice," the Slayer said.

"Hmmm, maybe not. But I'm your mother. It's my duty to make sure Willow has the proper intentions in mind before I can give you my blessing." Joyce smiled fully at the couple. "Now, Willow, why don't you stop trying to meld with my daughter and get off the bed, OK? I'd like to at least pretend Buffy is pure when you go to your marriage bed."

The redhead catapulted off the bed. Still avoiding eye contact, she sat down in the chair she had vacated earlier.

"Ms. Summers, you were very lucky. The puncture wound in your side missed any vital organs. The torn muscles will be painful, but will heal in time. I am more concerned with the swelling along your spine," the doctor said. He was a tall man with a patchy goatee. Buffy wasn't sure if it was his dry, monotone delivery or the serious nature of the message, but she disliked him instantly. "So far, we haven't found any damage to the spine itself, but until the swelling goes down, there is a danger of further injury."

"But, I'm healing. This isn't a permanent thing," Buffy said.

"Not permanent, no. But you are looking at a lengthy recovery process. Possibly as long as six weeks. During that time, if you are making proper progress, you'll need to see a physical therapist to strengthen the damaged muscles."

"Six weeks?" Willow finally recovered her voice. "But-" she clamped her mouth shut. Six weeks? We can't wait that long. We have to go after Adam soon.

"It's OK, Willow. I'm sure things won't take that long. You know me, I heal pretty quickly," Buffy tried to reassure the redhead that she would be ready for duty sooner than the doctor thought.

"I admire your optimism, Ms. Summers. It will go a long in helping the recovery process," he nodded to Joyce. "If you have further questions, I'll check in some time tomorrow. We'll see about scheduling the therapy then."

"Thank you," the older woman murmured. She waited until the doctor had gone, closing the door behind him.

An uncomfortable silence filled the room. "Mom –" Buffy began. She stopped when her mother raised a hand.

"Don't, Buffy. Teasing aside, what happens between you and Willow is your business. I think I've learned a few things over the years." Joyce walked over and put a comforting hand on the redhead's shoulder. "I'm sorry if I embarrassed you. But, come on, girls, it was priceless."

The young witch giggled suddenly. "Yeah, Mrs. Summers. I'm just glad you came in when you did. We kind of got carried away." She glanced up at Joyce with an apologetic smile. "This wasn't really how I thought we would tell you. Besides, we," she looked shyly at Buffy, "haven't really had a chance to work out all the details ourselves."

"It looks like I'll have plenty of downtime to get used to the new 'us,' though," the Slayer commented, grasping Willow's hand. She tried to smile. "I guess we really need to talk to Tara about other options."

The novice witch grimaced. "Oh, boy. I'm so not looking forward to that conversation. I've got some serious apologizing to do."

"You'll get your chance soon, Willow. Mr. Giles and Xander are on their way. Faith and Tara will be here around seven." Ignoring the girls' shocked expressions, Joyce continued calmly. "It's time this family made its peace."

Part 16

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