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.

By Rebelrsr


Chapter Twenty-Eight

The alley disappeared. Music pounded through a dim room. The Bronze. Now what? The teen club was familiar and the Dark Slayer wasn't sure why she was here. Someone bumped into her from behind, and liquid drenched the back of her shirt. Grinding her teeth, Faith spun around, ready to blast the moron who'd doused her with their drink.

"Hey, um, Faith. Look, I'm sorry about the impromptu bath. I mean, I didn't really plan on it or anything." Willow's green eyes pleaded with the brunette.

"Fuck, Red. Still managing to screw everything up." She smirked. This wasn't so bad. The lingering fear dissipated. Wonder what's so important about tonight? "You and the Super Friends here to tell B how great she is?'

The redhead flinched and dropped her eyes. Faith almost laughed. She'd forgotten how pathetic the witch was back in the day. No great magic and still hanging all over the werewolf. "The gangs all here, yeah. We're trying to figure out how to help find the Glove." She smiled hesitantly at the intense brunette. "It'd be great if you joined us. Kinda make it complete. All the Scoobies reunited."

"I'm not a Scooby, remember?" The words poured out, harsh and bitter. "You guys don't want me here. Saint Buffy's got Sunnydale all locked down and under control. Just as soon as we find this Glove thing, me and Gwen are heading out. I got better things to do than hang around you and your pathetic little group." Faith frowned. That wasn't the truth. The thing with Adam had been sweet.

Her companion nodded. "Sure. You're choice I guess."

"Give the gang my regrets." Faith turned away. She needed to get moving, find the Professor or the next test. Nothing big was happening here. Trying to remember the timeline, the Slayer remembered this was shortly before the big showdown in the Mansion over Angel and her fake Watcher. She shoved her way through the throng of people and headed for the door. Maybe she needed to pay Mrs. Post a visit. Just as she stepped from the Bronze…

Buffy blinked, feeling her heart race and tears wet her face. Giles and her mother watched expectantly. "Wow. What a rush." She stood shakily. "Everything OK, here?"

"Yes." Her Watcher looked impatient. "Is Faith doing well? Were you able to help her?"

Nodding slowly, the blonde Slayer replayed the two scenes in the alley. Poor Faith. Her choice of a trial had to have been awful for her sister Slayer. "Yeah, Giles, I think so. We replayed the night Allen Finch died. The first time," she stopped, panic flowing again as images of the man's death playing in her mind. "The first time was pretty much just the way it really happened. Except, I think Faith freaked when she realized we were reliving it. She ran. I tried to follow her, but the dream reset, and the whole thing started over, just as she stabbed him."

"Oh, honey." Joyce gripped her arm. "Are you alright?"

"I'm fine, Mom. I think Faith is, too. After everything started over, it was really different. Allen still died, but she didn't run. Instead, she told me to leave and she'd deal with the police." She looked at Giles. "She's absolutely sure we see her as a second-rate Slayer, but she stepped up and was willing to take the fall so there would be a Slayer on the Hellmouth. No attempts to avoid responsibility or anything. I even got her to agree to call you instead of the police and let us help her."

"Good Lord, could it have been that simple?" Giles ran a hand across the bald spot developing on the top of his head.

"No, Rupert," Joyce commented. "Faith wasn't ready for that decision then. I think we all need to remember this isn't the same girl we knew. She's changed. Part of her passing this test is showing she is willing to change the actions of the past."

Buffy heard her mother's words, but most of her attention was focused on her girlfriend. "How long was I under?"

"About an hour. Tara got started with Willow just as soon as we knew you'd pulled out of the dream. It's been almost," Giles checked his watch, "thirty minutes, give or take."

"OK." She walked over and sat near the prone redhead. Willow was stretched out on the bed next to Faith, and both girls looking incredibly stressed in their sleep-like state. Tara stood over them, one hand on each head. Sweat poured down her face as she kept the two girls linked in the quest.

…Music pounded through a dim room. The Bronze. OK, then. I guessed wrong. Something big does go down here. Knowing the meeting with Willow was inevitable, Faith moved toward the bar until someone bumped into her from behind, and liquid drenched the back of her shirt. Steeling herself, Faith spun around, ready to face the shy redhead.

"Hey, um, Faith. Look, I'm sorry about the impromptu bath. I mean, I didn't really plan on it or anything." Willow green eyes pleaded with the brunette.

"Red. Hope you weren't in dire need of that drink." She smirked and pulled her soaked shirt away from her skin, flapping it a little. How much can I change? Fuck that. What do I need to change to get a pass outta here? "You and the Super Friends here to tell B how great she is?'

The redhead flinched and dropped her eyes. It had been funny the first time, but the Dark Slayer remembered how "current Willow" had been recently. There might be some lingering anger over past events, but the witch wasn't so bad. "The gang's all here, yeah. We're trying to figure out how to help find the Glove." She smiled hesitantly at the intense brunette. "It'd be great if you joined us. Kinda make it complete. All the Scoobies reunited."

Faith wanted to say yes, but she was hesitant. What would happen if she altered the past too much? Would things get worse? She stuck to the script for the next exchange. "I'm not a Scooby, remember?" But she had been, Faith realized. She hadn't yet severed the tenuous bond with the other teens. Still, she had to continue. "You guys don't want me here. Saint Buffy's got Sunnydale all locked down and under control. Just as soon as we find this Glove thing, me and Gwen are heading out. I got better things to do than hang around you and your pathetic little group."

Her companion nodded. "Sure. You're choice I guess." Somewhere in the conversation, though, the past had been altered. Willow didn't stop there. The girl's backbone peeked out. "This isn't really our fault, you know."

"Do tell," the Slayer mocked.

Willow flushed so brightly it was visible even in the dark bar. "Yeah, we weren't real happy about adding a new member. We've been good enough to handle the demons and stuff all by ourselves before. But, Buffy's been way happier since you got here." She bit her lip. "Me and Xander don't get the whole Slayer thing. You do. Buffy needs you, Faith. That means the Scoobies need you. Come on. We've got a table and I'll go back and get us some drinks. Just a little bit of your time. That's all. No strings or expectations."

Faith stared at the older girl, confused. She'd figured out she had to alter the scenes in her dreams, had to fix something she'd done in the past. Had she succeeded?

Sensing her hesitation, Willow pushed harder. "Please?" She stepped closer, pressing into the brunette. Looking up through her lashes, she pleaded, "I promise we won't bite."

The Dark Slayer barely managed not to jerk away. What the fuck? This wasn't Willow, was it? She grabbed the other girl's chin and peered into her green eyes. Looked like Red. Biting her lip, Faith mentally shrugged. What the hell. If this wasn't the change she was supposed to make, everything would probably rewind, just like last time. "Whatever, Red. Grab me a Jack and Coke. I'll be at the table."

"Hello? Underage, Faith." Willow glared impatiently at the smirking brunette before pushing her in the direction of the gang's table. "Just go, will you? I'll get you something legal and be there in a few."

"Yeah, OK." Suddenly more at ease, she grinned at the startled redhead. "Thanks, Red." Faith ambled through the crowd, spotting Buffy and Xander sitting at a small table in a dark corner and picked up her pace…

…"Faith? Honey, are you OK?" Mrs. Summers smiled at her, hand outstretched. "If you hand me the ornament, I'll put it on the tree."

Dizzy from the rapid changes in time and place, the brunette simply handed the red globe over to Buffy's mom and tried to figure out where she was this time. This one didn't take long. She'd only been at the Summers' for one Christmas. She frowned. Was this before or after Buffy's disappearing act to help Fang?

"Hey, um, Mrs. S, what time is it?" she asked.

The older woman looked at her in concern. "Maybe we should call Rupert." A warm hand cupped her chin and hazel eyes stared into Faith's brown ones. "I don't know what's wrong with you girls. First, my daughter goes tearing out of here on some unexplained mission, and now you look awfully pale."

Suddenly, the Slayer realized just what was about to happen – and what she more than likely needed to change. Swallowing, she tried to smile at the concerned Joyce. "Hey, it's no big, Mrs. S, really. Been a long time since I celebrated Christmas, ya know? Kinda got lost in some not so good memories." Huh. And that's not even a lie. "Let me grab some more ornaments and shit-"

"Faith, language!"

Oops. "Yeah, sorry about that. Anyway, I'll get some more things for the tree." She turned away, grabbing decorations blindly from the large box on the couch. This was worse than the night Finch died in so many ways. Joyce was about to offer her the world on a platter. This time, Faith vowed, she was going to make sure she didn't screw it up. She couldn't. The Dark Slayer had noticed the pattern to her dream. Things repeated until she broke down and accepted help and friendship from the Scoobies. "Here. Will these work?"

Joyce smiled at the young girl. "Perfect, Faith. I haven't seen some of these in years." She looked closely at the ornaments. "Buffy made these when she was in elementary school. We always knew she wouldn't be an artist."

Examining the misshapen ceramic shapes – Faith didn't know what they were supposed to be – the younger Slayer had to agree. "That's good, though. See, B's doing what she was meant to do. Save the world. She's the best." For once, that thought didn't make the brunette angry or bitter. It was simply the truth.

"I'm sure you'll be just as good, Faith. Rupert's an excellent teacher. Just give yourself a chance." Joyce hung the ornaments and stepped back, wrapping an arm around her helper's shoulders. "It's fabulous. Thank you so much for your help. I'm sure you had plenty of other things you could have been doing. Spending time with the elderly must be way down on your list of things to do."

Faith laughed. Mrs. S was amazing. "You ain't elderly." At the blonde's smirk, she grinned and allowed, "Well, ya might not be jailbait, but I got no complaints." An unaccustomed shyness struck, and the Slayer dropped her eyes, mumbling, "I'm having a great time, Mrs. S. Really. First time Christmas's been something to enjoy."

The Slayer found herself the recipient of a "Mom hug." "You know, you're always welcome here, Faith. In fact," Joyce looked down at the brunette head, "I would feel a lot better about things if you simply moved in with Buffy and me."

"What?" Faith's head snapped up.

"I want you to move in. It's not right, you staying alone in that motel. The Council must be out of their minds. You're too young to be on your own like that, even if you are a Slayer." The older woman stepped back. "I've got a spare bedroom upstairs. Buffy won't be back for a while. Let's go get your stuff."

Things were moving so very fast. If only she'd been ready for this in reality. Don't matter. I'm ready now. Meeting Joyce's eyes, Faith changed the past. "Ain't gotta ask me twice. Be glad to leave that piece of…" Seeing the raised eyebrow, she rethought her reply. "Be glad to move out of the Sunnydale Arms. Saw a cockroach the other day as big as a dog."

"You'll certainly liven things up." Joyce chuckled and seized Faith's hand, pulling her toward the door. "Maybe you'll even be able to loosen up my straight-laced daughter."

They left the house, and Faith…

"Are you ready, Willow?" Giles asked the nervous redhead.

Gripping her girlfriend's hand, the witch looked anything but ready. However, someone had to put Tara into the vision quest. "Yep. I'm ready." Taking a deep breath, she decided she needed some encouragement. Grabbing Buffy, she pressed her lips urgently to the Slayer's. After a brief moment of inaction, the blonde returned the kiss and things quickly got heated.

Loud throat-clearing finally broke them apart. "Oookay. I am ready now. Very, very ready." Willow didn't elaborate on what, exactly, she was ready for. She didn't want Giles to faint. She moved to the bed and waited for Joyce to wake.


Chapter Twenty-Nine

Buffy and Giles moved Joyce from the bed when she seemed free of her dream state. Now came the tricky part. In order to maintain their link with Faith, Willow had to merge with Tara, taking over control of the dream. The blonde witch then had to join the Dark Slayer on the bed while Willow connected her to Faith's subconscious. Willow moved next to Tara, placing her hand on the one resting on the brunette's forehead. Dropping into a trance state, she skillfully touched the older girl's aura, letting her know it was time to do the change over. For a split second, the redhead felt the extent of her ex-girlfriend's power. It drained away, and she focused on holding the link steady. Even at this early stage, she struggled to pull in enough power to complete the task.

A short time later, she sensed Tara was ready for the next step. Her right hand touched blonde hair, and she began to tie her two charges' essences together. Sweat beaded her hairline and she fought the power coupling. With a burst of energy, though, she managed to match the electrical pulses. Tara was in.

…opened her eyes and peered at the blonde head nestled on her shoulder. Damn. What a dream. She took stock of her surroundings, just in case she hadn't imagined the Professor and his freaky vision quest. The crowded guest room met her eyes, and Faith relaxed, running a gentle hand down Tara's back. She wasn't sure what the dream meant. It hadn't felt like a Slayer dream, but it was still so vivid in her mind. Shrugging off her unease, the brunette tried to go back to sleep. Every time her eyes closed, though, she jerked awake, breathing ragged.

Mumbling dire threats against evil monsters and drama professors, Faith carefully rolled out of bed. Her body ached, and she felt fuzzy-headed. The guest room didn't offer much in the way of chairs, so she contented herself with standing against the bed, admiring her sleeping witch. The flood of emotion caught her off guard. How had Tara gotten inside her defenses so quickly? The Slayer smiled crookedly, remembering the fire in the blue eyes back at Angel's apartment. Watching the rise and fall of the cotton-wrapped chest, Faith felt the first stirring of an old need. Time to run, get out.

Thoughts and feelings she'd never wanted raged inside. With an unaccustomed inner-truth, the Slayer realized she was terrified. In the past few days, she'd found a place in Sunnydale. A good place. And she'd made a tentative peace with the Scoobies. Faith was afraid she'd screw up again. She was afraid it would all go bad. The brunette had tried being part of the team once before. The results had been disastrous. When things imploded the first time, she'd really only lost her bond with Buffy. This time, she risked far more. Better to leave now. Staying meant maybe losing new friends…and Tara. The Slayer knew she couldn't stand to see Tara turn her away. It was easier to walk away before she crossed the point of no return.

Faith took a step back and froze. She didn't want to leave. Arguing with herself, the brunette marshaled all the evidence of a new and improved Faith. She had come back to Sunnydale, facing arrest and possible dismemberment from Willow to help. The Scoobies had listened to her, let her in, trusted her with their lives. Somehow, Faith knew the gang would help her with the police and the murder charges. For a brief moment, she closed her eyes, imagining a future with the blonde witch and a family.

That vision was too much. Even though she'd gained some kind of acceptance from Buffy and crew, Faith knew she didn't deserve any of it. She'd just betray them and her Calling again. She didn't have what it took to stay on the right side of the fight. Dropping her head tiredly, Faith realized it was time to go. Dawn was a few hours off, and the house was quiet. Slayer senses told her everyone was asleep. She'd be out of Sunnydale long before they woke. She stepped away from the bed, blinking away the dust that had gotten in her eyes, and climbed into her clothes. Brown eyes flickered back to the sleeping form. I'm sorry, T.

Slinking to the door, she reached out a shaking hand – and bit back a shout. Blue sparks flared where her fingers brushed the doorknob.

Spinning around, she looked into irritated blue eyes. "Morning, T," she tried.

"Faith." Tara's voice was flat. "Going somewhere?"

The Slayer didn't have an answer for that. At least, not one that was plausible. Hunching her shoulders, she leaned back against the door.

"I set the wards, hoping they weren't necessary." The witch sat up, back against the wall, keeping a close watch on the younger girl. "Why are you running, Sweetie?"

There was no way Faith was going to respond to that. "Just open the door, T."


"Fuck you, witch. Am I some kind of freakin' prisoner now?" The Slayer stalked to the bed, looming over the blonde. The action didn't get the response she expected. Tara threw off the covers and knelt on the bed, unafraid of the brunette.

"You want to run, Faith? Is that it? What are you afraid of? Loving me? Being a Scooby?" The witch reached out and rubbed at the frown on her Slayer's lips. "Please don't be scared. You don't have to be comfortable with everything going on. I know it's a lot and it happened all at once."

Faith hesitated. The finger stroking her lips was warm, soft. Unwillingly, she leaned into the caress. "T, I-" she broke off, staring at the wall behind the blonde. It rippled, seeming to expand and contract. Grabbing Tara, she yanked her off the bed, pushing the taller girl behind her.

"Oh, Goddess. I was afraid of this," the blonde whispered.

"What's going on, T?" the Slayer demanded. After a few minutes, the strange roiling had stopped and everything looked normal. Not trusting her senses, Faith moved to the bed and leaned across, gingerly touching the wall. Nothing out of the ordinary.

Tara pulled on her jeans and top before closing her eyes and grounding the energies holding up the warding. "We need to leave, Faith."

This time, the Slayer dug in her heels. She may have been on the verge of running, but now she thought it best to stay. "Not until you explain all this."

The witch smiled wryly. "Well, I don't think you're going to like it."

"Big surprise, there, T. Welcome to SunnyD and my life." Faith grinned. "Just give it to me in small words, 'k? What the hell is going on?"

"We're still in the vision quest." Tara grimaced at the Slayer's look of amazement. "I know. You thought we were back at Buffy's. I wanted it that way." Quickly and concisely, she detailed the Scoobies interference in the quest.

"So, you guys got into my head? All the scenes…they're because of you?" Faith's emotions swung from tentative happiness at their willingness to help and a burning rage at the interference.

Tara saw all of that when she scanned the brunette's aura. "Yes." She didn't want to push, but the Slayer's confusion tore at her. "We didn't know what the First Slayer was angry about. Vision quests can be dangerous." She hid behind her hair and whispered, "W-we just wan-wanted to help."

"You did good, T." The Slayer sighed, trying to pin her emotions down. "Give me a bit to deal with the whole 'Scooby in my head' thing. Beyond creepy."

Her Slayer senses screamed.

"Think you may have had the right idea, Blondie. Something's coming." There wasn't anything very useful among the discarded items in the former storage room. Cursing, she twisted the metal legs off the bed and handed two of them to her companion. The tingle running along her spine grew. "Fuck. Think it's downstairs."

She scanned the room, desperate for something, anything that would help. "Window. Let's go, Blondie." She jumped onto the bed and opened the window. Both of them scrambled for the roof, stumbling along the angled surface. Reaching the edge, Faith peered over. It was a long way down. Unlike Buffy's old room, there was no tree to help with the descent. "I'll go first, Tara. Once I'm on the ground, jump."

"You think you can catch me?" A blonde eyebrow shot up.

The Slayer shrugged. "Probably not. But if you sorta dangle off the edge, I can get you down safe." Taking her own advice, Faith slipped over the edge, holding onto the eaves until the last minute. The several-foot drop was jarring, but didn't cause any lasting damage. "Hurry up, Blondie. Whatever's inside is upstairs now." Seconds later, she grabbed the witch's legs, letting her slide down her body to the ground.

"You're the vision expert, T. Where do we go?" Faith asked.

"Anywhere that isn't here," came the sharp response. A frustrated roar sounded from the house. "I don't want to meet the source of that noise."

"Good point." The Slayer took the older girl's arm, and they ran down the street toward downtown. A block later, the brunette noticed holes appearing in the background. Instead of manicured lawns and middle class houses, portions of the scenery were simply missing. Total blackness filled the gaping spaces. "Damn. Things are going to hell fast. What happens when the scene you created disappears?"

Gasping from breath, Tara shook her head. "No idea. Best case…the First Slayer picks the scene."

"Worst case?" Faith ground out as they passed a larger section of nothingness.

"We get sucked into some sort of dimensional rift?"

"I ain't never bringing you on another quest, understand?" They'd reached the edges of downtown, and Faith dragged them to a stop. "We gotta stop, T."

Busy sucking in much-needed air, the witch didn't respond.

Faith reached out with her senses. The area was filled with demons and vamps. All of them seemed to be converging on their location. "You got any witchy tricks up your sleeve?"

"No." Tara felt for her power reserves and found them blocked. "Someone's interfering."

"Then we need to find a better location for the big showdown. We've got company coming." The Slayer reached into her memory of Sunnydale, trying to come up with a more defensible spot. "Got it. Let's go."

The place she chose wasn't ideal, not by a long shot. However, the narrow alley meant their attackers had only one way to enter. The surrounding buildings were old and dilapidated. Faith prayed to any higher being in existence that the rooftops wouldn't bear the weight of the demons on their heels. Shoving Tara behind her, she faced the entrance, bent metal legs in hand and waited.

Holding the ephemeral bonds with Tara and Faith settled into monotony. Willow relaxed into the magic, feeling the steady beat of both hearts and the comforting flare of their thoughts. Even though most of her concentration centered on keeping Tara in the vision quest, she heard the faint rumblings of conversation in the bedroom and smiled.

Suddenly, a secondary source of energy tore through the bindings of the spell. The redhead fought off panic and repaired the damage. However, Tara was more experienced and more powerful. The new bond wasn't so seamless as the original. Willow poured energy into the spell, but the excess didn't help. Instead, the overflow leaked out of the coupling, draining her even further. Bursts of green light exploded from the tenuous link Willow was holding. She felt the power growing, pushing her out of the bond. "Buffy, Joyce, help!"

She couldn't see either woman, but she felt them next to her, worried, needing answers. The witch was afraid to split her focus, however, and simply ordered, "Put your hands over mine." Willow was going to take them all back inside. The fracturing of the bond would leave Faith and Tara trapped and alone. No way was that going to happen. Pulling in energy from her Slayer, the redhead created a new link, keeping her magical hook small and unobtrusive. She'd have to be careful, making sure the First Slayer didn't realize what she'd done until it was too late. By the time she'd created the five-fold coupling, she was trembling with the effort and the amount of raw energy rushing through her channels. She pulled the links tight and drew each of their essences through the power cords, until…

Vampires swarmed the area, each trying to be the first into the narrow alley. Fortunately, Faith had chosen well. At most, three vamps stood side by side. They had no way to flank the Slayer and witch. "Come and get me, boys," Faith taunted, crouched and ready.

The trio looked at each other, confused, before charging en masse. The first went down instantly, speared in the throat by the metal bar. The other two took longer. Dodging a wild right, the Slayer slammed her other weapon into a stomach and caught the third in the chin with a wicked scissor kick. No matter her skill, these three were still in the game. She didn't have the right tools to dust or decapitate them. As the first vamp climbed slowly to his feet, Faith moved a step back, running into Tara. "Shoulda maybe stopped for a weapons upgrade, Blondie."

"Make sure to remember next time, Slayer," the blonde fired back.

Ducking a round of blows from her rebounding attackers, Faith didn't reply at once. This time, she didn't waste time or energy. A strong kick sent one vamp flying into the line of demons waiting at the alley entrance. "Fuck! T, I don't think there's going to be a next time." She grunted and went to a knee, rocked by a series of punches from Vamp Number Two. Shaking her head, the Slayer pushed off the ground, but was too slow. She never even saw the kick that caught her in the temple. The world flickered in and out. Dimly, Faith heard Tara scream. She wanted to apologize for not being good enough to protect the witch, but the words didn't form. A feeling of despair engulfed her, and she gave in to the darkness. Right before she closed her eyes, she thought she saw blue fire burning a path through the vampire army.


Chapter Thirty

Willow glanced around the empty streets of downtown Sunnydale. The marquee of the movie flickered on and off. She gripped her Slayer's hand tightly. "Can you sense them?"

"Yeah. Give me a second to find them." Buffy closed her eyes, reaching along her long-unused bond with Faith. "They're close. I think," she frowned, "we need to hurry."

"No, wait!" The redhead grabbed her girlfriend. "You don't have any weapons. Tell me where they are. I can use my magic to help out until you can join us." At the blonde's stubborn look, Willow pulled out her "Resolve Face." "Don't argue, Slayer, just do it. The longer you take, the more danger they may be in."

Hazel eyes snapping with anger, Buffy nodded curtly. "Mom, you're with me. Don't be a hero, Wills. Just help out. If you die, I'll kill you."

It was hard to let that comment pass, but the witch contented herself with rolling her eyes. "Right. Got it. No heroics. Where are they?"

"Couple of blocks behind the movie theatre. There's a dead-end alley. If I was gonna be fighting a horde of demons on my own, I'd head there."

"OK." Kissing the Slayer quickly, Willow sprinted off.

Watching her girlfriend run in search of Faith and Tara, Buffy ground her teeth. This was so not the way it was supposed to work.

"Buffy, honey, don't you think we should head for the house and pick up some weapons?" Joyce's voice interrupted her internal bitching.

"Too far. We'll hit the sporting goods store by the Pump." Dragging her attention back to the task at hand, she grabbed the older woman by the arm and took off. By the time they reached the storefront, Joyce was gasping for air. "Stay here, Mom. I'll get what we need." Stepping up to the door, Buffy tore the metal and glass frame off the hinges with one powerful kick. An eerie sense of déjà vu wound through her. It was so strong, the Slayer looked to her right, expecting to see a leather-clad Faith egging her on. No one was there. Trotting straight for the hunting supplies, Buffy grabbed two crossbows, several dozen wooden bolts, and as many knives as she could carry. Staggering back out, she thrust one of the crossbows at her mother. "Can you use one of these?"

Joyce shrugged. "I don't think I'm an expert, but I understand the concept."

"Good. I'm going on ahead. Stay back from the fighting."

"Buffy-" The older Summers stopped. Her daughter was already down the block, moving with full Slayer speed. Joyce shouldered her weapon and jogged after her.

Willow rounded the corner into the alley and slid to a panting halt. Demons and vampires clogged the narrow space, shouting encouragement to those at the front of the line. The young witch was too short to see the action, but she reached out, trying to locate Tara. The older girl's mind was hard to reach. A wall surrounded her magical reserves. Luckily, their joint spells had built a strong link between the two witches. She brushed Tara's mind, needing information. Although the response was faint and sluggish, Willow got what she needed. Faith was about to go down.

There was no thought of finesse. The redhead pulled every bit of energy she could find from the natural energies around her. Frowning, she realized it wouldn't be enough. She brushed Tara's mind again, asking for help. The barrier kept the older witch from using her magic, but Willow thought she might be able to go around the wall. The magic locking away the blonde's power had been created to withstand internal tampering. Willow simply reached over the wall and pulled from the large pool of energy. When her body felt as if it would come apart from the buildup, she released it at the gathered demons in bursts of blue flames. Dozens of them disappeared.

The redhead wasn't used to expending this amount of power. She staggered, barely managing to fling the next wave of destruction. Although she had eliminated almost half of the demon army, the witch could see Faith was down. Tara still couldn't reach her magic. Willow swallowed hard, watching the demons turn toward her. Buffy was going to kill her.

Luckily for the redhead, her girlfriend was too busy trying save her life to be concerned with her failure to avoid the forbidden heroics. Buffy slammed a bolt home as she ran. She had knives stuffed in her waistband, but figured long distance killing was a better bet. The Slayer aimed and fired at the first demon with the nerve to move on Willow. It dropped to the ground, screaming. Two more bolts dusted the vamps staring at their downed comrade. "Will, move out of the way!"

Responding to the command, the witch stumbled back toward the alley's entrance. Buffy sprinted by her, taking on the next wave of demons without slowing. She used the crossbow like a bat, swinging and connecting with a demon's head. It went down, only to be replaced by another. Knives in both hands, the Slayer ducked blows and dodged kicks, stabbing and beheading in a flurry of shining steel. On the outer edges of awareness, she saw vamps turning to dust as crossbow bolts landed in their chests. Joyce had joined the fray. Fatigue dragged at her, but she fought on until the alley was littered with bodies and piles of vamp remains.

There were only a handful of vamps left. Buffy forced herself to stand erect, denying aches from blows she hadn't been able to avoid. Smiling viciously, she taunted, "What, you thought there was only one Slayer? Shame on you for not doing your homework." Twirling a knife in her hand as if it were Mr. Pointy, the Slayer continued, "You going to stand there all night? Let's finish this."

The demons didn't take the bait. Instead, they seemed to waver and then vanished. The alley faded out as well. A desert landscape stretched around the five Scoobies. Faith was still unconscious, and the three newcomers gathered around her downed form. "Tara? Can you tell what's wrong?" Joyce asked.

Frowning, the blonde witch nodded. "Yeah. Concussion, probably. The magical barrier is gone. I'm going to try healing her as best I can."

"I'm afraid you will not be allowed to do that," a new voice commented. A bearded man slid down one of the dunes, watching them intently. "Her fate has not yet been decided. The final trial was never completed."

"Are you out of your fucking mind?" Buffy shouted.

"No, Slayer, I am not." The man regarded her sternly. "Because of your interference in the quest, Faith's choices were not made without influence. The First Slayer and the Powers That Be are not convinced she has changed."

Tara looked up, tears streaking her face. Her healing had been deflected. "How can you do this? Of course she's changed. She came back and helped us with Adam, and she passed the other tests. She's ready to be part of the team; she understands she has a place with us."

"Does she?" came the dispassionate voice. "Only your warding stopped her from fleeing the very team you claim she has rejoined."

"She's scared," the witch retorted. "She's never had anyone to love or to love her. You have to let her learn what it means before you judge." Not caring that her actions were probably fruitless, Tara opened herself fully, readying every last bit of power at her disposal. She would not let them take Faith without a fight.

Willow felt what her mentor had done, and nodded. The older girl was right. They'd all been guilty of rushing to judgment where Faith was concerned. The change in the Dark Slayer was amazing, and the redhead knew she deserved this second chance. Moving until she stood next to Tara, she placed a calming hand on the witch's shoulder. Pulling in the last dregs of power, she sent it all through their link. "Hope you are ready for a fight, then."

A bushy eyebrow climbed toward the man's hairline. "Your lives mean little in this battle."

"Wrong thing to say, pal." Buffy glared at the interloper. "Now, I'm betting you think Tara and Willow don't matter because they aren't Slayers. I am. How happy are the PTB's gonna be when you have to kill me too?" Joining the other three, she smiled at her girlfriend. "Take whatever energy you need, baby. No way do they get my sister Slayer without a whole lot of pain."

Brown eyes glared at the blonde girl. "You will not be allowed to interfere in this. Faith must make her own choices, complete the quest on her own. If she fails, she will die. A Slayer cannot be permitted to unbalance the scales of Good and Evil."

"Listen to yourself," Joyce said. She, too, took up a position near the downed Slayer. "She's already passed her test. A year ago, she lost her way, yes. She chose to join the other side of the fight. Where were you and your tests then? You let her lose everything, nearly her life. Why didn't you end it there?"

The question threw the man. "It was not the time," he finally offered.

"Why not? She was already vulnerable." Joyce wasn't backing down.

"We are not going to discuss this further." Eyes flashing, he advanced a few steps. "Move away from her, all of you. We do not wish to harm you. Your service to our cause has been above reproach."

"The hell it has," Buffy snapped. "I quit rather than fight the Master. I let Jenny and Kendra die because I couldn't kill Angelus. Faith turned away because I didn't accept my role in Finch's death." She glanced down at the other Slayer, lost in painful memories. "I tried to kill my own sister Slayer."

"Those were deemed acceptable mistakes."

Only Joyce's grip on her arm kept the blonde Slayer from charging the irritating man. "Don't bother, honey. He's already made his decision."

"That is true. We have. Step aside."

The standoff continued until Tara spoke up. "You won't hurt us, even to get to Faith."

"We can, and we will," came the cold reply.

"No, you won't." Tara smiled. "You can't. The four of us standing here are a huge part of the forces on the Good side of the scale. If you kill us, you will be guilty of unbalancing the fight."

Brown eyes glared at her impotently.

"Will, we are going to dissolve the dream spell," the blonde witch commented quietly.

"We are?" the redhead asked. Then, trying again, she said more firmly, "Yeah, we are. Um, how?"

"I'll unravel the original incantation. You'll need to feed me power in a steady stream." Blue eyes looked at the blonde Slayer. "Will you lend us a little strength as well?"

"Anything you need," Buffy promised.

Tara looked at the brown-haired man one last time. "Understand that we will protect her if you try this again. She is one of us. And we protect our own." She turned back to the Scoobies. "We all need to be touching for this to work." After a little rearranging, all of the women were in contact. "OK, Will, start the feed."

The redhead began draining her reserves, sending the energy through a conduit she'd erected between them. Flushed with the borrowed magic, Tara closed her eyes, seeing the layers of the dream spell with her inner site. It was a complex spell, woven with great power. But, like all magic, it had weaknesses. After a minute of searching, she found a loose thread and grasped it with invisible hands. Drawing the thread to her she watched the fabric of the magic unravel…

Tara opened her eyes with a pained gasp. Her head throbbed in reaction to overextending her magic. Faith lay next to her, face lined in pain, too. "Sweetie? Come on, wake up." She rocked the brunette as gently as possible.

"Will she be alright, do you think?" Giles inquired.

The blonde witch hadn't even noticed his presence. She blushed. Giles wasn't alone. All of the Scoobies ringed the bed. "I th-think so," she stuttered.

"You think what, T?" a rough voice interrupted. Faith blinked, trying to focus on her witch. "Damn, Blondie. You get all butch and I don't remember it?" She rubbed her forehead.

"Faith!" Tara hissed. "We have company."

"Tell B we ain't interested in holding a 'how to' clinic right now," Faith mumbled. The Scoobies' laughter alerted her to the crowd. "Ah, hell. What happened to the warding? Can anybody just walk in here?"

"Sorry, dear," Joyce said, smiling at the grumpy teen. "We'll leave you two alone in just a minute, I promise. We have a few questions, first, though."

Though unwilling to talk about it, Faith did remember the vision quest. She owed the gang answers to whatever questions they wanted to ask. Moving so she could look at each of the people in the room, she nodded. "Ask away."

Joyce smiled. Faith looked ready for a firing squad. "Me, first. I chose my scene deliberately. You turned me down the first time. Will you say no again?"

Raising hesitant brown eyes, Faith replied, "Things are different now, Mrs. S. I got the police hunting me. You want to harbor a fugitive?"

"No, my dear, she doesn't," Giles interrupted. "Willow and I will start looking at the evidence the police have. I believe they are working with circumstantial proof at best."

"Red?" The brunette Slayer wanted confirmation. She still felt uncomfortable with the redhead.

Green eyes gazed at the other girl for a long minute. "I've already got a program in mind for hacking into the police mainframe. If you're willing to stay with Mrs. Summers and let Giles act as your Watcher, you've got my help."

A tear traced its way down the pale cheek. "Looks like you got a new houseguest, Mrs. S."

"If that's the role you want, Faith, but Rupert and I seem to have adopted the rest of this motley crew. Would you mind very much if we considered you another daughter?"

Faith couldn't get words passed the lump in her throat, but she shook her head energetically.

"Well, then, it's settled." Buffy grinned evilly. "I always wanted a little sister, Faith. Now Mom can harass someone else. I can't wait to see the argument over enrolling you at the new Sunnydale High."

The End

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