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 Twenty-Two

Faith waited just long enough to be sure the girls closed the panels behind her before making her way down the narrow corridor. At the end, she noticed a metal ladder leading down to another lab. Hesitating, the Slayer extended her senses. Bad idea. The feel of the demons from the containment cells poured through her. Faith yanked her barriers back into place with a curse. Knowing she couldn't stand there all night, she set her feet on the top rung and began to descend.

The Slayer paused at the bottom. A figure sat in one of the heavy metal chairs, his back to her. A man and woman in blood-stained white lab coats stood motionless next to a table with various cutting instruments. Swallowing her fear, Faith edged forward. "Riley!" she gasped in shock. Buffy's former boyfriend sat in the chair without restraint, yet he made no effort to stand. "Riley, hey, it's Faith." No response, "Yeah, OK, I know I got some apologies to make and all, but we need to get you out of here."

She realized there was something wrong when the Marine only looked at her in silence. "Hey, what's going on? Why won't you talk to me?"

"He can't. He's not programmed to respond," a deep, booming voice stated from across the room. "He's part of the final phase now." An enormous figure emerged from the shadows behind the two scientists. Green, textured skin merged with human skin, thanks to large staples.

"I'm guessing you're Adam," Faith said. Looking at the monster, she hoped the magic worked soon. No way could she take this thing with just normal Slayer power.

"I do not know you," Adam intoned.

Smirking, the Slayer responded, "Name's Faith. I'm a Slayer."

The freakish hybrid cocked his head to one side. "Ah. Interesting. I believed there could only be one of you at a time."

He paused and Faith waited impatiently for the enjoining spell to kick in. Nothing happened. What the fuck's going on, Red? Longest five minutes of my life, here.

"The other Slayer was supposed to be part of the final phase. You will take her place." Adam moved forward, stopping behind the gruesome pair in white coats.

"Sorry," the brunette said insincerely. Shrugging, she continued, "I don't jump through hoops on command. I've never really been one to toe the line."

Adam was just a few feet from the Slayer now. He paused at her statement, considering it. "Oh," he finally said. Then, looking past Faith's shoulder, "Kill her."

Strong hands gripped the teen's shoulders, lifting her off the ground. She tried to twist away, but found herself airborne instead. Her flight ended at the far wall. The impact drove the breath from her lungs, and she slid limply down the wall onto a cold steel table. Gasping, the Slayer scrambled down from her landing pad onto the floor. Taking a defensive stance, she waited for Riley to continue his attack. While she waited, Adam gave another command and the scientists also began to move. The woman turned on some kind of saw. Faith flinched at the sound.

"Hey, soldier boy, maybe this would be a good time to apologize for the whole 'being Buffy' thing," she said. The Marine continued his advance. The Slayer didn't have much time left to convince the young man to stand down. "Look, Riley, you need to think about what you're doing. I mean, I may be an evil psycho bitch, but the Tin Man beat your girlfriend so bad she was in the hospital. You really want to take orders from him?

Her words reached Riley. Faith could see his jaw clench, and sweat broke out on his forehead. Still, he lunged for the brunette. Damn. I ain't killin' another human. Besides, B'd kick my ass if I bruised her boy toy before she got to break the news about Red.

Avoiding the lunge, the Slayer grabbed a tank in a rack against the wall. Swinging sharply, she caught Riley under the chin. His head snapped back and he staggered, but didn't go down. Irritated now, Faith commented, "Geeze, just stop already. I ain't wanting to kill, but I got more important things to do, ya' know?"

She whipped the tank through the air a second time. A dull thud sounded as it made contact with the Marine's stomach. Riley doubled over. The Slayer was waiting for that, and hit the young man forcefully as he bent in half. Finally, he dropped to the floor, unconscious. Faith left him there and headed after Adam.


Buffy watched impatiently as Xander and Giles moved tables and equipment from the center of the room. As soon as enough space had been cleared, Tara and Willow pulled magical supplies from the duffel. The redhaired witch placed candles on the floor in a triangular pattern, lighting them with a brief chant and a wave of her hand. Tara poured granules of salt or sand on the ground, surrounding the burning candles in a circle. The blonde witch left about two feet of the circle incomplete.

"OK. We're ready," Willow announced, looking at her teacher for confirmation.

The older witch nodded. "Mrs. Summers, come into the Circle and sit in front of one of the candles." When Joyce had taken her assigned place, Willow dropped into a cross-legged position at another candle. Tara turned to the three remaining Scoobies. "Whatever happens, don't break the Circle. During the casting, we'll be vulnerable to mystical forces. As long as the barrier holds, they'll be locked out."

"I understand, my dear," Giles said. "I'll protect the sanctity of the Circle. Xander and Buffy will keep the more mundane dangers at bay."

The blonde Slayer glanced uneasily at her mother and her girlfriend. The young witch caught her eye and winked. Relaxing slightly, Buffy smiled back and moved toward the door. Xander joined her, tazer rifle in his hands.

"OK, then. We'll get started." Tara poured the last of the granules from the pouch, finishing the Circle. Standing straight and holding her hands out in supplication, she chanted. Wind blew softly through the sealed room, and the emergency lights flickered. Blue light sparkled from the Circle before rising in a shimmering curtain toward the ceiling. The blonde witch waited a moment for the shield to stabilize and then she took the remaining seat in the triangle.

Dimly, Buffy could hear her begin the spell.

"Power of the Slayer and all who wield it,

Last to Ancient First, we invoke thee.

Grant us thy Domain and Primal strength.

Accept us in the Powers we possess."

The wind stilled. The senior Slayer felt a tickle in the back of her mind. Energy flowed through her. Fuck. "Giles!" she called urgently. "I can feel the spell. Shouldn't the power be going to Faith?"

The ex-Watcher looked concerned. "Yes. Bloody hell. If the power splits, Faith won't be able to defeat Adam."

"Then I'll go after her. Two of us should be enough, even with only half the magic."

"No!"

"Giles, I can't just…"

"Buffy, you must stay here." He was adamant.


Inside the Circle, Tara was also aware of the problem. Sensing two descendents, the First Slayer was confused. Her strength split, trying to infuse both girls. That couldn't happen. Thinking quickly, the blonde witch opened herself fully to the other women in the spell.

"Willow, Mrs. Summers, we have to focus the power on Faith. Concentrate on Faith," she thought through their link. Eyes closed, Tara couldn't see her companions, but she felt their agreement. Taking her own advice, the blonde called images of the Rogue Slayer to mind: the angry, mocking teen in Angel's apartment; the playful, sexy Slayer from the afternoon in the dorms; the focused fighter. The First Slayer responded to the images. Tara sensed the power moving from the room in search of its intended target.

Sighing soundlessly in relief, she continued with the incantation.

"Make us mind and heart and spirit joined.

Let the Hand encompass us.

Do thy Will."

The candle flames exploded toward the ceiling, and power rushed through the witch and the other two women. The force was so strong, it lingered in the air, visible. It was time to complete the bond. Turning over the top-most Tarot card at her side, the witch intoned,

"Spiritus, spirit."

She handed the next card to Mrs. Summers, who said,

"Animus, heart."

The third card was Willow's.

"Sophis, mind."

And, the final card. The blonde witch turned it upright.

"And Manus, the hand.

We enjoin that we may inhabit the Vessel,

The Hand, the Daughter of Cynea,

First of the Ones.

We implore Thee.

Admit us.

Bring us to the Vessel.

Take us, NOW!"

Tara felt the building essence of the First Slayer streak from the room. It was done. Now, they would have to wait for Faith's essence to join the link.


The brunette Slayer ran down the long corridor after her prey. Exiting abruptly into a control room, she spotted Adam watching the continued carnage in the base on a computer monitor.

"Fun, isn't it?" she commented.

The hybrid turned to face her, a frightening attempt at a smile creasing his face. "I do appreciate violence," he replied, moving toward her.

"Then you'll really like me," the Slayer quipped. She attacked quickly. Running straight at the creature, she leaped into the air a few feet from her target. At least, that's what she intended. Adam simply swatted her with his right arm, knocking her several feet back. The brunette hit the ground tucked into a ball and rolled safely to her feet.

Deciding to go all out, she flew at Adam and managed to land several kicks and punches before he seized her. With powerful movements, the demon-human hybrid slammed her against the computer console and then tossed her into the far wall.

Dazed, Faith lay there, watching the monster approach. A metal spike sprung out of his left arm. Jumping to her feet, she grabbed the spike and snapped it over her knee. Shuffling a few steps away, she taunted, "Hey, I just broke your arm."

A cold chill swept her body when Adam merely said, "That's OK, I've got another." He peered at a metal plate on his right arm. The plate popped up and Faith could see lights blinking on its surface. Suddenly, the human-looking hand morphed into a metal cylinder. After a moment of confusion, the Slayer realized it was a machine-gun style weapon.

Holy fuck! The brunette threw herself across the space, jumping over the control console as gun-fire chased behind. The Slayer huddled behind the equipment. It was over. Somehow, the spell hadn't worked. Sending a silent apology to her witch and the Scoobies in Room 314, Faith vowed to go down fighting. Crouching, she waited for Adam to approach.

Her head snapped back and a scream tore from her throat. Raw power seared her veins. Dimly, through the roar of her heartbeat, Faith felt the three women acting as the anchors to the spell. She stood just as the console in front of her exploded.

"You can't last much longer," Adam said.

"We can." Faith wasn't in control any more. The words, the power, came from the combined strengths of the group. "We are forever."

The Tara/Willow essences chuckled at Adam's look of confusion. Strange words in an unknown language fell from Faith's lips.

"Interesting," the monster commented. He raised his weapon and fired straight at the Slayer.

The tiny portion of Faith still self-aware screamed in fear. But the bullets never reached her. More words of magic spewed from her mouth and a barrier of air halted the rain of metal slugs.

Looking shocked, Adam muttered, "Very interesting."

That's an understatement, Faith thought to herself. The Slayer felt Tara's amusement at her internal comment.

Adam continued to fire into the magical barrier, looking more and more concerned. Finally, he sent a small missile at the Slayer.

Faith felt a new rush of power. The missile changed into white doves before hitting her chest. Wicked cool! she thought at the others. A trio of smiles and laughter greeted the thought.

"Let's end this," the Slayer 'heard' Willow say.

The brunette's hand lifted and moved in a circular motion. Adam's metal arm returned to its more human guise. The two enemies walked toward one another. The monster attacked first, and if Faith had been more self-aware, she would have been awed at her own speed in evading the blows. Adam overextended, and the enjoined Slayer saw her opening. Lashing out in a series of kicks fueled by the primal energy of the First Slayer, Faith hammered at Adam. He went to his knees, driven down by the blows.

"How?" he gasped out, Faith's hand around his throat.

The Vessel responded, "You can never hope to grasp the Source of our Power." She flung him effortlessly across the room and followed. Pinning the hybrid against the wall, Faith drove her hand into the monster's chest. Fishing around inside, the Slayer grasped the power source and ripped it from its moorings. She stared at the glowing cylinder in her hand for a moment. "But yours is right here." The anchors urged action. Magic flowed through the link; chanting again sounded in Faith's rough voice. The power pack rose in the air, hovered for a moment, and disappeared in a flare of white light.

The Slayer gazed blankly at the empty air. Suddenly, the primal energy left her body, and she crumpled to the ground.

 

Chapter Twenty-Three

Faith groaned. Her body ached and her head…The Slayer gazed around in confusion for a moment before memories of the battle with Adam returned. Climbing to her feet, she surveyed the cluttered control room. The hybrid slumped against a wall and computer parts and glass littered the floor. Taking an internal wellness check, Faith decided she was at least functional. Pushing muscles past the pain, she jogged back down the corridor.

As she ran, the Slayer tried reaching out to Tara. The link was gone. Damn. If I feel this wiped out, wonder how the girls are doing? The narrow tunnel opened into the lab. Scanning the area, Faith saw Riley standing rigidly at attention. Swallowing a curse, she readied for battle. However, the Marine never moved. His eyes followed the brunette as she slid into the lab, but the young man remained in place.

"Riley?" Faith questioned. "Man, what the fuck did Adam do to you?" Seeing tears welling in the man's eyes, the Slayer looked away. There was no doubt in her mind that Riley wouldn't want anyone to witness his weakness. "Tell you what, Soldier Boy, B and the girls are up in 314. Give us a few to mop up, and someone'll be down for you. I'm sure Red or T can figure out how to fix you." A quick glance showed the tears had spilled unchecked down the Marine's face, but the eyes had lost the hopeless look.

"Cool. Stay put and I'll be back." Flashing a smile, the Slayer headed for the ladder to the upper level.


Gasping from the sudden return to her body, Tara dragged tired eyes around the Circle. Her ex-girlfriend slumped over, breathing ragged. Mrs. Summers looked asleep, eyes closed and breathing deep and even. Not bothering to get up, she turned her head toward the other three Scoobies standing sentry near the door. "Buffy?"

The blonde Slayer turned quickly. "Is everything OK?"

"Yeah. Adam's dead. Can you go find Faith, though?" Tara worried about the now vulnerable brunette. "When the link broke, all the energy grounded. Faith's going to be extremely weak for a while."

"On it," Buffy responded. She sprinted for the hidden door at the back of the room, but never reached it. The door to 314 exploded inward and a hairy demon stumbled in.

Giles and Xander opened fire, but the creature continued forward. They hadn't released the Circle. If it reached the magical boundary, the energy disruption would rebound on the caster. "Buffy, wait!" Tara called out. "The demon can't break the Circle."

Spinning around, the Slayer rushed to intercept the tall creature before it could blunder into the magical protection encircling the three women. "Hey, this isn't really a good time," the blonde informed the wounded demon. "Could you come back later?" It stared at her, blood matting its fur. "No? Well, I did warn you." Buffy caught the demon in the chest with her foot. It flew across the room, landing with a clatter on one of the exam tables. "Xand! Finish it, will you?"

Receiving a nod from the boy, the Slayer turned back to Tara. "Can you banish the Circle? I'll go after Faith as soon as you're safer."

"OK." The blonde witch struggled to get her mind working. Closing her eyes and concentrating, she located her center. Carefully tapping into the power of the shield enclosing the Circle, Tara release the magic and directed the energy back into the ground. As she funneled the power, she used some to refill her reserves and sent a wave to Willow as well. They both might need to be ready for action if the remnants of the Initiative-demon war were still around. As the last of the energy dissipated, Tara opened her eyes and looked at the hovering Slayer. "Go."

Not bothering to respond, Buffy hurried after Faith. Shoving equipment to the side, the Slayer tore open the panels hiding the ladder to the lab below. Clambering down, she nearly ran into the other Slayer. "Faith! Hey, you're OK."

The brunette gave her a strange look. "Yeah, B. Were you hoping for something else?"

"Of course not. Tara was worried though. The Magic Corps up there came out of the spell a little drained." Buffy grinned. "She thought you might be in a weakened and vulnerable state."

Arching an eyebrow, Faith smirked. "Huh. Might be good for getting some TLC later." She sobered. "Buffy, Riley's here."

Buffy checked her move to climb back up the ladder. "Riley?" The Rogue Slayer looked uneasy. "What's wrong, Faith?" she demanded.

"I don't know, B. Adam had some kind of control over him, and now he can't move or nothing.'" She gestured toward the back of the lab. "He's waiting over there. I told him we'd bring the witches down. I kinda thought Red could fix him."

The blonde knew they were still in danger. The fight with Adam was over, but Initiative soldiers and demons still filled the halls outside Room 314. "Right. Come on. Let's get the cleanup finished and then we can come back for Riley." She scampered up the ladder and waited at the top for the other girl to join her.

"Moving pretty good there, B. Slayer healing rules," Faith commented.

"I don't think that's it, though," the blonde answered. "I got a touch of the enjoining spell before Tara redirected it. Think the First Slayer got me ready for the showdown," she explained.

"Guess you didn't really need me, then." Faith's voice was expressionless.

Waiting until the other Slayer was off the ladder, Buffy smacked her on the arm and glared. "Get over it, Faith. So I got better and could help out. I only got just a hint of the power you did. Who knows what would have happened if I'd been the focus."

Looking into irritated hazel eyes, the brunette nodded. "Yeah, sorry, B. Habit, ya' know?"

A smiled twitched the blonde's lips. "Might want to get rid of the bad habits quick. I don't think Tara's going to put up with them."

"True, B. She's kinda controlling." The two broke into laughter. "You tell her I said that, and I'm gonna do something really evil to you."

"Is that a promise, Faith?" Buffy purred. She laughed harder when the Rogue Slayer's eyes widened. "Damn. Never thought I'd get the better of you in a conversation."

"Bitch." Faith couldn't stop the smile, though. "So, things go OK for you guys? I mean, the girls are just tired, right?"

"Yeah. They're good. We have to find a way out around a lot of soldiers." The blonde Slayer frowned. "I don't think the Colonel is just going to let us leave if he's still alive."

They entered Room 314 side by side. After scanning the room and doing a mental head count, Faith walked to Tara. "Hey, T. Doing OK?"

"Tired. You?" the blonde said.

Tilting Tara's chin so she could examine the witch, Faith replied, "Doing good, Blondie. A little tired, but still jazzed from the fight and everything. Come on." She grabbed the other girl's hand and pulled her up. "Let's get the hell out of here."

The Slayer continued to hold the blonde witch's hand as they returned to the rest of the group. Buffy and Willow stood close together, the taller girl leaning on her Slayer's shoulder. "B, any plans on leaving?" Faith asked.

"Too many demons and Marines left to try the front door," the shorter blonde replied.

"Well," Willow put in, "we could use the door in Adam's lab, couldn't we? I mean, the military probably doesn't even know it exists since the lab was a secret."

Six pairs of eyes stared at the young witch. "Sometimes, I think she's the only one of us using her brain," Buffy announced. The redhead blushed, but grinned. "OK, guys. That's the plan. Faith, can you block the door to the lab? We had an unexpected visitor earlier and I don't want anyone following us out."

"Sure, B." The brunette jogged to the middle of the room and began hauling exam tables and monitors over to the door. With a fair amount of grunts and curses, she piled the furniture against the door. It would move, but only after a lot of effort. "Hope that'll do."

"We'll help a little," Tara said. "Willow, link with me, please." An obviously confused Willow walked over and rested a hand on the blonde's shoulder. Silence spread through the room, and then the older witch began to chant. The instruments Faith placed against the door glowed bright white for a minute. Tara stopped chanting and the glow faded "That's it. I placed a magical lock on the door and made the equipment and tables twice their normal mass." She smiled crookedly. "But I'm too tired to do it right. The spell won't last more than thirty minutes."

"Nice work, guys." Buffy's smiled at both witches. "I'll take point. Xan, Giles, you come next. Faith can make sure we don't have a surprise from the rear." The blonde led the group back through the hidden door.

Faith waited for everyone to clear the lab and then tugged at the wall panels. They'd been damaged when Buffy had come to help her, but she managed to get most of them closed; although, they hung crookedly and there were visible gaps between the large tiles. The brunette Slayer hurried down the ladder and rejoined the small group now clustered around Riley.

"Hey, B. I'm not sure we can take care of this right now." The younger Slayer felt bad for her counterpart and her former boyfriend, but they needed to get out of the facility before the Colonel and his men found them. "Is there anyway we can get him out of here and fix him later?"

Willow tried to help the situation. "I could do a spell like Tara did with the stuff upstairs. Only, make him lighter, not heavier."

"No, Will. I don't want you to use too much energy." Buffy was adamant. "As long as we don't run into anything big, I can carry him." Bending slightly, the diminutive blonde settled her shoulder into the young man's stomach and lifted. He was far too tall for the hold to be comfortable, but Buffy nodded. "Let's go."

Banding together with the two men now in the lead, they located the exit into the caves and hurried out of the Initiative. Full night had descended while they were inside the base. Faith extended her senses. Demons and vampires littered the area. "B? You feeling what I'm feeling?"

"Yeah," Buffy grunted. "This isn't much better than going out the front door."

"Everybody stop for a minute," the Rogue Slayer ordered. "You guys rest here. I'm going to get us some transportation." Keeping her senses on high, she sprinted through the trees, heading for the road. Five minutes later, she exited the wooded area in a quiet Sunnydale subdivision. Two driveways held small cars. Not enough room for eight people. Faith smiled when she came to the third house. A minivan sat in front of the house. Blessing her unusual education, the brunette slid behind the wheel and reached under the dash. Hotwiring the engine took less than a minute, and Faith tore out of the subdivision.

The vehicle wasn't equipped for offroading. The Slayer clung grimly to the wheel as she bounced along the rutted path back through the trees. Careening into the clearing where the Scoobies had settled, she put the car in park and hopped out. "Anybody need a ride?" she said cheerily.

Six tired voices answered in the affirmative. "I'm driving us back, though," Joyce declared. "I think Slayers pay for their superhuman skills by being completely unsafe in a car." She stared at Faith until the girl stepped away from the driver's side door. "Climb in, guys, and let's get home."

 

Chapter Twenty-Four

Joyce stopped in front of the house and put the 'borrowed' minivan in park. "OK, everyone. Let's get into the house."

"What about the car, Mrs. S?" Faith asked.

The older Summers looked at her in confusion.

"I didn't exactly knock on the door and ask for the keys," the brunette Slayer explained. "We need to ditch it and make sure the cops can't trace it back to us."

Smiling slightly, Giles commented, "You aren't the only one with experience on the streets, my dear. Help Buffy get Riley into the house. I'll make sure the car isn't found."

"Don't ask, Faith, please," the blonde Slayer pleaded. "I really don't want to ever think about that whole thing ever again. Just give me a hand." She glared at a chuckling Joyce. "It's not funny. Just the thought…" she broke off, shuddering.

"Oookay, B." Faith hopped out and ran to the back of the van. Pulling open the door, she carefully maneuvered the frozen Marine over her shoulder. "Get the door, B. I got your boy."

Grimacing at the brunette's comment, the shorter girl trotted up the front steps and opened the door. Faith squeezed by and headed straight for the living room. With a grunt of effort, she dropped Riley onto the couch and stepped back. "Fuck. He's a load." She rotated her shoulders. "Think the juice from the spell's finally gone. Man, I'm tired." She leaned against the arm of the couch.

Joyce and the witches stumbled into the house. The older blonde gazed at the young man lying motionless next to the Slayers. "I'm going to fix something to eat. Any special requests?"

Faith quietly responded, "Thanks, Mrs. S." She flashed a grin. "You're too cool to be B's mom." Giggles greeted her words. "I'll pretty much eat anything ya' got."

Giving her brunette companion a miffed look, Buffy agreed. "Food is of the good, Mom."

Smiling at the group, Joyce headed for the kitchen. Willow walked over to the blonde Slayer. "I'm going to take a look at Riley. Could you grab my laptop from the bedroom?"

"Sure, Will." Without thinking, the Slayer leaned in and brushed her lips across the redhead's. "Oops!" She spun toward Riley. Even though he hadn't moved a muscle, Buffy saw the confusion in his eyes. "Fuck! I'm sorry, Ry. We'll get you fixed up and I'll explain everything." She hurried from the room.

Gently touching the Marine on the shoulder, Willow said, "Tara and I are going to do a little spell to check you for additions. You know, things like homing beacons and stuff." She glanced up as the blonde witch joined her by the couch. "You might feel a bit warm, but it won't hurt, OK?"

Tara took her hand and started to chant.

"Whoa. Hang on there, Blondie." Faith interrupted the incantation. "You ain't up to any more magic tonight." She glared at the two girls. "Soldier Boy can wait til morning."

"Faith, it isn't fair-"

"Fuck fair, Tara. I ain't letting you drain yourself." The brunette Slayer was adamant.

Releasing Willow's hand and moving in front of the agitated Faith, the older girl smiled crookedly and ran a gentle finger across the brunette's pouting lips. "Sweetie, this is just a tiny spell. I promise, between the two of us, we have enough energy to spare."

Faith stubbornly shook her head. "No. If I have to knock you out and carry you upstairs, you're getting some rest first." She tilted her head, hearing Buffy starting down the stairs. "Hey, B, I ain't sure it's safe for the witches to do any more magic tonight," she called out.

Buffy pounded down the stairs, arriving with her precious cargo. "What do you mean?"

"Don't listen to her, Buffy." Willow spoke up. "She's just being Control Girl. Like you even have a clue what we're doing."

Flushing at the dismissal in the redhead's tone, Faith tensed. "Look, Red. You want to drain yourself helping the Beefstick, go ahead. You can explain to your girl here about the whole sitch. But Tara won't be helping. She's already done too much."

The two adversaries squared off. Despite a lingering fear that Willow might slam her with a lightening bolt, the Dark Slayer wasn't going to back down. The blonde witch looked wan, with dark circles standing out against her pale skin. "Faith, I promise. I'll be OK." She took the shorter girl's hand and drew her away from the couch. In a low voice, she tried to explain. "I can take energy from the natural sources around me."

"T, I want to make sure you don't hurt yourself." The brunette looked away. "Can you take some of the energy you need from me?" she mumbled.

Tara was stunned at the offer. For someone who didn't know about magic, her Slayer instinctively understood the way it worked. "We could, Sweetie. But you're just as tired."

"Nah, Blondie. I'm tired, but that spell pretty much recharged the batteries." She unleashed her dimples. "I just need to take care of the Double Hs and get some sleep."

The wide grin drew a groan from the blonde witch. "If you promise to have enough energy for later," she smirked, "then Will and I can draw from you and Buffy to do the spell. Will that make you happy?"

"You taking care of yourself makes me happy, T," came the shocking admission.

Unable to resist, Tara pulled the younger girl in tight and kissed her heatedly. Nipping at Faith's tongue and stroking the sides of her breasts with eager fingers, the blonde witch forgot they had an audience. "Wow! That's hot. You think we should give it a try?" Laughter edged Buffy's voice as she teased her sister Slayer and the older blonde.

Growling, Faith moved Tara away a few inches and glared at a grinning Buffy. "Gonna have to talk about this teasing crap later, B. I got things I need to take care of right now." She pulled Tara toward the couch. "OK, Blondie, do your thing so we can get back to the good stuff."

Tara cleared her mind and found her focus. "Will, we're going to scan Riley for foreign matter. Instead of using energy from nature, though, we're going to tap our Slayers' energy."

"Umm, alright." The redhead shot her girlfriend a startled look. "How do we do that?"

"Extend your senses." Following her own directions, Tara pushed outward with her internal sight. "You should be able to see the energy around Buffy and Faith. Tap into it and draw a little of the power into yourself." She gently touched the golden aura surrounding the blonde Slayer and siphoned off a little of the energy. It warmed her channels when she fed it into her power reserves. Finally, Tara reached for Faith. The Dark Slayer's energy glowed a warm brown flecked with shimmering golden highlights. The witch smiled at the familiar feel of the brunette's energy. Flushed with the strength of the magic she'd gathered, Tara merged her aura with Willow's and began the incantation a second time.

As she'd told Faith, this spell was simple. Their combined powers sent a blanket of energy over the frozen Marine. As it passed along Riley's legs, the mystical cover remained a solid white. Pushing the power toward the young man's chest, Tara frowned. There was a dissonance interfering with the magic. The white sheet of energy turned a violent red as it covered Riley's chest. "Will, can you go a little deeper?"

"On it," the redhead replied. Willow sent a new ribbon of power toward the young man, focusing on the cause of the interference. Sinking into his flesh, she peered with astral sight at the layers of flesh and muscle. An object lodged just below the subcutaneous fat. "Here, follow my line," the younger girl directed.

Tara followed the glow of her friend's power. The object Willow pointed out was a small computer chip. It attached firmly to nerve endings in Riley chest and sent out a signal in repeating patterns. "I see it." The blonde witch used a directed burst of energy to disrupt the chip's signal, frying the circuitry. Riley jerked. Tara waited to make sure he was under his own control before withdrawing her senses.

"Ry?" Buffy said hesitantly. She and Faith hadn't been able to see what their witches had done.

The Marine smiled slightly. "Thanks, Buffy." He ignored the three other girls in the room and sat up. "What happened with the Initiative?"

"Lots of death and bloodshed," Faith pointed out. "Your buddies took on a lot of demons. Don't know if any of them survived."

"You didn't go back to check?" He was incredulous.

Buffy held up a hand to cut off Faith's reply. "Ry, we weren't in any condition to take on all the remaining demons. And we weren't sure the Colonel would let us leave. He wanted to arrest Faith."

Riley glanced at the younger girl. Part of him agreed with McNamara's decision. But, she had helped him escape Adam's control. "Yeah. I get it." He stood up. "I'm going to head back to the base and check things out."

The blonde Slayer followed him to the door. "Riley-"

"Don't, Buffy. I told you at the beginning if you were going to break my heart to do it quickly." He met her eyes. "That wasn't a friend kiss you shared with Willow. I always wondered if you loved her. I guess I have my answer." Yanking open the door, he walked away.

Buffy closed the door with a quiet thud and wandered back into the living room. Seeing the lost look in the Slayer's eyes, Willow pulled her into a warm hug, pressing feather-light kisses on the blonde hair. The young witch glanced up at Tara and nodded slightly when the older girl gestured at Faith and then the kitchen.

"Hey, Buff. It's gonna be OK," she murmured. Tears ran hotly down her neck where the Slayers cheek rested. The redhead pulled her lover away and looked into her eyes. "I love you, Slayer. Nothing will ever change that."

"Love you, too, Will." She nuzzled her lips against the taller girl's neck. Extending her tongue, she traced a leisurely path from collarbone to ear, stopping to suckle Willow's lobe. The action left both girls panting. "How about we head upstairs and you can give Nurse Willow a call? I mean," she nipped her girlfriend's pulse point, "I may have gotten hurt fighting the bad demon."

Laughing, the redhead, stroked the Slayer's strong back. "What about dinner?"

"I can eat upstairs," Buffy whispered hotly.

"You think?" Willow moved a hand between their bodies and cupped the blonde intimately over her jeans. "There isn't any food in your room. And, I know how hungry you get after a good fight."

Pressing down onto the witch's hand, Buffy started unbuttoning the redhead's shirt. "Yeah. I'm really hungry right now. Gonna take a lot to satisfy me."

"Fuck, B. Get a room or something." Faith's voice shattered the couple's passion. "Your mom said dinner's almost ready." Grumbling, the brunette Slayer stalked back into the kitchen.

Part 25

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