DISCLAIMER: All things Buffy belong to Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, and lots of people in expensive suits. I’m not making any money here, just trying to create a happier Buffyverse for my favorite characters.
SPOILERS: Starts during the events of “Earshot,” and contains spoilers for the remainder of S3.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
The Scoobies crowded around the screen, staring at the black and white image of a teenager in a camouflage jacket. He peered in the window of the dress shop. "Is that a remote?" Xander asked. "Faith, did you see any little toy cars while you were stealing clothes?"
Glaring at the back of his head, Faith gritted out, "You know, X-Man "
"Faith." Joyce put a restraining hand on her shoulder.
Pulling away, Faith stalked to the couch and sat down, glowering at the room. "You think he could have been there with that hound thing?"
Everyone slowly returned to their seats. "I suppose that's possible," Giles allowed. "But I can't see what reason he would have. A dress shop? It lacks something in the evil category."
"I don't know about the evil, but the thing certainly had good taste." Cordelia raised her eyebrows at the looks coming her way. "What? I mean, look. He went right by that girl in the ugly floral print and headed straight for the formal wear."
"Oh, that's right," Xander mocked. "He left behind his copy of Monsterswear Daily."
Brown eyes snapping, Cordelia stood up, arms crossed. "Laugh all you want, but look at the tape. That dress is strictly off the rack. The kid in front of the mirror? He's wearing a tailored wool tuxedo with very smooth lines 'til he was shredded."
"Perhaps we could return to the young man on the video?" Giles sounded exasperated at the constant bickering. "Do any of you recognize him?"
Five heads indicated a negative. "I have Buffy's yearbook. Would that help?" Joyce asked quietly.
"Yearbook? What does that ?" Giles started to ask.
Willow finished the sentence that had started to trail off. "Pictures!" She grinned at the group. "Yearbooks have pictures of all the students. Well, except Buffy 'cause she missed that day."
"Gee, thanks for the reminder, Wills," Buffy said drolly. Then she smiled, struggling to throw off her earlier mood. "Mom, nice save." Glancing at Faith, still seated next to her, she asked, "Wanna help me dig it out of the closet?" Not waiting for an answer, she grabbed the other Slayer's hand, dragging her bodily off the couch and pulling her up the stairs.
"Damn, B, I think you broke my fingers," Faith griped, wiggling her fingers. "What's with the togetherness?"
Buffy faced Faith, biting her lip. "I asked you earlier to stay and help with the Mayor." Waving a hand to halt the bitter protest, she continued, "I get that; I don't like it, but I understand, I think." She swallowed against the twisting in her stomach. "This thing with Angel, it's I'm not " Tears flooded her eyes.
"B?" Faith took a quick step forward, but stopped just out of reach, wanting to help, but not sure of her reception. "You're gonna be OK, you know. It'll just take some time. I mean, you loved him and all. That don't go away overnight." Hell, maybe I should take my own advice.
Slapping a hand over her mouth in an attempt to hold in the sobs, Buffy turned and walked to the window.
Faith watched, unsure what to do. Tears flooded her own eyes, and a sick feeling twisted her stomach. It was hard to breathe. "Come on, B." She cleared her throat as her voice rasped out. "Where's this book or whatever we're supposed to get?" Her hands balled into fists to keep from touching the obviously hurting Buffy.
"It's on the bookcase." Buffy's voice was flat again, and she gazed dispiritedly through the glass.
The book was easy to find, and Faith pulled it out, idly flicking through the pages. Her attention, however, was still on Buffy. "You planning on telling the gang about Fang?"
A shrug answered her question.
"Look, maybe I should go get Red. You can do that best friend thing." Tossing the book on the bed, Faith shoved her hands in her pockets, bouncing on her feet. The need to do something, to help in some way, pulled at her, but she had no idea what to do.
"Yeah. Whatever." The blonde head leaned tiredly against the glass.
Giving in, Faith slowly moved across the room. Half expecting Buffy to pummel her, she hesitantly laid her hands on the slumped shoulders. "Hey, damn it, B. You gotta get your head back in the game." Still tensed against attach, Faith dug her thumbs into the tight muscles, biting her lip. "What can I do to help, B? I've never seen you like this. Kinda scaring me, here."
Buffy turned around, tears streaking her face. Placing her hands over the ones on her shoulders, she looked into worried brown eyes. "Hold me?" Buffy's whisper echoed in the suddenly still room.
"Fuck." Faith shuddered, taking an involuntary step closer. This had to be a dream. As soon as she did as asked, Buffy would laugh or shove her away. Need warred with terror. Voice trembling noticeably, she choked out, "I you sure you don't want me to get Red?"
Buffy's pony tail whipped from side to side as she shook her head.
Tentatively, Faith slid her hands down Buffy's back, pulling the shorter girl into a loose hug. Her eyes shot wide open when Buffy wrapped her arms around her back, squeezing tightly. "It really will be OK, B." Hell, I'm way more than OK right now. Faith inhaled slowly, dragging in the scent of Buffy's perfume. "The Scoobies have your back, and you'll find a guy with a pulse in no time." The thought of Buffy with a new boyfriend dimmed the thrill of having the blonde in her arms. She pushed it away and rested her head on Buffy's hair, stroking her back.
A watery chuckle drifted up. "Nice speech, Faith."
Embarrassed but determined not to show it, Faith fired back, "If you wanted sweetness and crap, you shoulda let me get Red." Tightening her hold on Buffy, she closed her eyes, lassitude flowing through her. They stayed that way for a few minutes before Faith reluctantly pulled away, shivering at the loss of contact. "Better, B?"
"Getting there, F." Buffy giggled slightly when Faith rolled her eyes at the nickname. "What? You call me B."
Dimples flashed. "Yeah, but I don't sound like a Valley Girl. You don't have that Southie attitude." Faith stepped back, reluctantly breaking their lingering contact. "Stick to cheers and pep talks, B. Leave the nicknames to me."
Buffy wiped her eyes and sniffed. "Damn. I hate crying."
"You look cute." Faith froze. What the hell? Scrambling, she smirked, "Red nose, blotchy skin. Kinda like Polka Dot Smurf."
"Oooh. Low blow." Buffy started to smile a little.
"Well, yeah. Smurfs are really short, just like you." Faith leaped out of the way of the smacking hand. "You all done with the big emotional scene now? Cause the gang's probably freaking out down there, thinking I'm up here showing you all my wicked skills."
Buffy grabbed the yearbook from the bed, giggling. "You'd run a mile if I ever took you up on that offer." She linked their hands for a minute. "Let's go get the info on this Hellhound owner." Buffy pulled slowly away,
They rejoined the gang sprawled in the living room. No one came out and asked what had taken so long, but Faith carefully avoided Willow's laser-like green eyes. Buffy dropped the book onto the coffee table and opened it to the student photos.
"There," Oz said, pointing to a thin, badly dressed teen. "Tucker Wells. He was in my chem lab."
Joyce peered over Buffy's shoulder. "Doesn't look like a murderer."
"Well, if you watch the news," Willow chirped, "they never do. I mean, all the profiles make them sound like quiet people who keep to themselves. When they interview neighbors and stuff, they always say they seem like nice people."
Oz smiled a little, holding Willow's hand. "He was, mostly. Something must have happened to him."
"What do we do now?" Faith ducked her head. "Hey, just a question." The stares made her uncomfortable so she wandered over to the mantle and started looking at the photos.
"Well, I can get into the school's computer in a heartbeat." Willow grinned and set up her laptop. Typing rapidly, she grew quiet.
Joyce stood up, brushing at her slacks. "I'm going to get a drink, anybody want anything?" Hands filled the air. "I'll take that as a yes. Soda OK?" Hands dropped while heads nodded. "Rupert, would you prefer tea?"
"Yes, thank you." Giles smiled slightly until he caught the glare Buffy threw his way. Clearing his throat, he returned to the book in his lap.
"Faith, can you give me a hand?" Joyce's voice was more order than question. Faith sighed and slunk after Buffy's mom. While she filled glasses and heated the kettle, Joyce watched Faith carefully. "I was surprised to find you here. Didn't you say something about leaving?"
Flinching slightly, Faith nervously rubbed her hands up and down the legs of her pants. "Yeah. Unfortunately, B and Fang were having a big farewell scene. Looked for a second like he was going to go all vampy again."
Joyce spun, eyes concerned. "What?" Her voice rang in the otherwise quiet room.
"He got himself under control, Mrs. S," Faith rushed to reassure. She hopped up to sit on the counter and immediately climbed down at the arched eyebrow she received.
Stacking glasses on a couple of trays, Joyce handed one to Faith and picked up the other. "Are you staying then?" Joyce kept her attention balancing her cargo, but quietly offered. "We've got an extra room here if you need a place to sleep."
Ice cubes rattled, and soda sloshed from glasses. Eyes wide and shocked, Faith followed the older woman out to the living room. She felt lightheaded, and everything looked out of focus. Faith's voice was a mere whisper. "Mrs. S?" Joyce paused, head turned. "You really mean that?" Faith regarded Joyce fearfully. Buffy's mom must not know the whole story. If she did, surely Her stomach churned as she pointed out the Mrs. Summers why sharing her home was a bad idea. "I don't If the Mayor found out, he might send his boys after you."
"Honey, my daughter is a Slayer. I'm a target every time I go to work, or the store, or out to pick up the morning paper." She smiled warmly. "The offer's open. Just let me know when you make up your mind." Joyce continued into the living room, giving Faith space and a chance to maybe come to terms with the hand stretched out to her.
During their absence, Willow had managed to break into the school's computer. Voice high and excited, she said, "Listen to the message Tucker sent to this kid David Metz at school last week. 'The Sunnydale High lemmings have no idea what awaits them. Their big night will be their last night.'"
"Are we assuming the big night in question is the Prom and not Graduation?" Buffy asked. "I mean, why not two evil threats on the same day? It would certainly be different."
Listening to the planning session jerked Faith out of her fugue state. Striding into the room, she commented, "Lighten up, B." Faith plunked her tray down on the table and took a glass. "Let the Scoobs do their thing. I'm sure Red's already got it all figured out." She smirked and winked at the hacker.
Willow turned bright red. "Well, um, yeah, I think so," she stuttered.
"See? Don't know why you were freaking." Faith dropped cross-legged on the floor near Buffy's feet. "So, fill us in."
"If you think about it, it has to be the Prom." Willow waved her hands as she talked. "I mean, Hellhound plus the love of formal wear must equal the Prom. He's going to set the 'hound on us tonight at the dance."
"Wow. So we're all catching up now," Cordelia sniped.
"And once again," Oz mumbled laconically, "the Hellmouth puts the 'special' in 'special occasion.'"
Willow leaned against her boyfriend, twining her fingers with his. "I wonder if I can take my dress back?"
"Man, what the hell's wrong with you guys?" Faith stood and started pacing. "You just going to sit around until it gets dark and then go after this thing? You know who's training it. Why not go there, kill it now, and party all through the night, safe from the big bad dog?"
Giles smiled at her, eyes twinkling behind his glasses. "It's the Prom, Faith. For some reason, just the word turns them all into fashion kings and queens. I'm becoming an expert on taffeta and accessories after listening to the very important and detailed discussions going on while we were supposedly researching."
"B, you ready to rock and roll?" Faith ran her hands through her hair, energized.
Smiling at Faith's sudden enthusiasm, Buffy nodded. "Before I head off to track this thing down, we might want to divide and conquer. I think we need a plan." She smirked at Faith's groan. "That's what we do here, Faith. We gather facts, assess the situation, and come up with a air-tight plan." Her words garnered disbelieving looks and snorts of laughter. Ignoring them, Buffy went on, "Giles, can you and Cordy go to Tucker's house? He's probably not there, but it's worth a shot."
Faith watched in awe as Buffy rebounded from her breakup. This wasn't the broken teenager crying over her boyfriend. This was the Slayer, focused and poised for the hunt. A familiar feeling of inferiority snaked its way through Faith, and she bit her lip, eyes dropping to her shoes.
"Oz, take Will and talk to David Metz about the email. See if he knows anything or is involved. Xan?" When he looked up, Buffy continued. "Try the magic shop. See if anyone's been stocking up on supplies to raise a Hellhound."
"Alright. Everybody understand the assignments?" Buffy jumped up, clapping her hands. Receiving nods from her troops, she grinned fiercely. "Then let's do it. Today's mission: make sure that we have a chance for a nice, normal, non-demony dance."
"B?" Faith couldn't help the question. "What are you gonna be doing?"
"Not me, Faith. Us. You and me. We're going to visit the butcher shops. This thing eats brains. Gotta get those somewhere." Buffy cocked her head. "Ready to go?"
Faith just looked at Buffy, weighing her answer. She needed to be out of Sunnydale, like yesterday. Fighting with the part of herself screaming, Hell, yeah, let's go, Faith dropped her eyes. She wanted to take what they'd offered. The risk was too much. Mind awash with images of Kakistos and her first Watcher, Faith shuddered. No way was she going to be responsible for any more deaths. "B," she ground out, hating what she had to say.
"You know, for someone who was all with the pep a minute ago," Buffy crossed her arms, head tilted, "you're very non-peppy about the chance to kick some demon butt."
"B-" Faith broke off. "Damn, I'm sounding like a broken record." Her lips formed into a reluctant smile. "The ass kicking sounds like fun, but I need to clear out, remember?"
Buffy shook her head. "No. I don't remember anything like that. The only thing I remember is a rousing speech about killing the Hellhound and the promise of an all-night party to celebrate." Moving across the room, she grabbed Faith's hand. "So, let's get the work out of the way, 'cause I've got a really great dress for tonight."
"No." Faith pulled away. "I ain't staying, B. Every second I stay gives the Mayor a chance to find me." Stuffing her hands in her pockets, she glared at Buffy. Why didn't they understand? Her staying put them all in greater danger.
Her response put a stubborn look on Buffy's face. Lips pressed tightly together, the blonde Slayer faced her, hands on hips. "And your point would be?"
"That is my point!" Faith shouted. "What the fuck is wrong with you? You got a death wish or something?" She took a step forward, hands coming out to reach for Buffy.
The older girl didn't wait to be grabbed. She stepped closer, evading the hands by pressing into Faith. "No. No death wish," Buffy said softly, looking up at Faith. "I'm a Slayer, though. Danger is part of the job." She smiled slightly. "Be honest. The Mayor's been after my head from the beginning. How is this any different?" Buffy stepped away, taking Faith's hand again.
It was time to give up. Mentally waving a white flag, Faith let herself be tugged to the door. "OK, B, but if the Mayor tries to run us down on Main Street, I'm gonna say I told you so."
"Got it." Buffy dropped Faith's hand and slid into her coat. "Hmmm, I'll have to think of something for when the Mayor ignores us in favor of prepping for his Ascension." She skipped out the door, calling back. "I wonder if we could find a dress this late?"
Faith followed her out into the sunlight. "Nah. Don't bother, B. I did the whole dress up thing that time at Homecoming, and you stood me up." Faith briefly considered running out into traffic. "You know, for our stud hunting," she tacked on, teeth bared in a patently fake smile.
"Oh. Stud hunting." Buffy rolled her eyes. Did Faith think she was stupid? "Well, what about a tux, then?" she teased, watching surreptitiously for a reaction. "You'd look pretty studly in black tie." Unfortunately, the image that statement created in her mind completely distracted her, and she missed the quickly hidden wistfulness in Faith's eyes.
Instead, her first hint of a response was a warm chuckle and a smirk. "B, just a little 411. This body," Faith ran lazy hands over her form, "ain't never gonna look boyish, no matter what I'm wearing. Besides, I'm not big on formal wear."
"Guess you'll have to go back to the leather, then." Buffy scanned the streets, senses on alert. "I don't feel any vamps or demons. You?"
Faith shook her head. "Nothing." She continued walking, hands in her pockets. "Where're we headed anyway?"
"For those of us not paying attention when assignments were handed out," Buffy grumbled with a smile, "the butcher shop." The smile widened when Faith made a yuck face. "Hey, it's a great place to pick up cute guys as long as a pulse isn't high on your list of requirements." The smile faltered. She and Angel "accidentally" met there several times in the past.
Faith saw the frown and moved in closer. "Thought you and Red did your shopping at the Bronze?" She flattened a hand over her stomach, where sudden nausea and anxiety swirled. Ignoring the discomfort, she remained focused on Buffy and the slight droop to her shoulders. "Don't they have a VIP table with your name on it or something?"
Buffy poked Faith in the side as they stepped through the open loading dock doors into the back of the butcher shop. "Here we go. Back to work." She peered at the handful of men in hardhats and badly stained white coats and aprons. Finally recognizing one of the employees, she strode across the room with Faith trailing behind. "Hey, Mr. Tamco."
"Buffy." He smiled under his mustache. "You here for some more blood? We've got a good supply this time."
Buffy shook her head, smiling uncomfortably. "Not today. Actually, I'm looking for information on one of your customers. Tucker Wells?"
Her supplier pushed his hat back with the clipboard clutched in his hands. "That kid. Yeah, orders cow brains a couple of times a week." Pulling a pen from an inside pocket, he scribbled on a piece of paper before ripping it off the clipboard and thrusting at Buffy. "The shipment goes to this address here. Good luck," he grunted out. "This is a weird kid." With a friendly nod, he wandered off.
"Looks like we've got a clue," Buffy told Faith. "This isn't the address Will got from the school, though."
Rocking on her heels, Faith shrugged then stiffened. There was a vamp nearby.
Buffy, however, appeared unaware. She walked back toward the dock entrance, examining the information the butcher had given her.
Faith kept an eye on her, trying to pinpoint the danger. Breath hissed from her teeth. Angel, in all his broody glory, was buying a fresh blood supply from another employee. Heart rate increasing, Faith knew she had to keep the former couple apart. Trotting up to Buffy, she wrapped an arm around the narrow shoulders and swung them around.
"Faith!" Buffy protested, stumbling a little. "What are you doing? We need to meet up with the gang and go after Tucker."
"Duh, B," Faith snapped, on edge and not quite sure why it was so important that Buffy not see Angel. "But do we gotta walk down freakin Main Street? You want my help, then we use the back streets. I'd like to still be alive this time tomorrow."
A slow blush crawled up Buffy's face. "Damn. I'm sorry, Faith." Hazel eyes peered up through long lashes. "I forgot." She placed an arm around her companion's waist, and hugged her awkwardly.
The contact felt good. Too good. Faith fought off the compulsion to return the one-armed squeeze and stepped away. "Whatever. Let's get this show on the road. I'd like time for a shower and some food before making tracks tonight." The words burned her throat and left a bitter taste.
Buffy reacted badly to her comment. Her lips pressed together in a thin line for a second. When she finally spoke, her voice was tight, almost angry. "I don't want to hear it, Faith. No more."
"Why not?" Faith said, responding in kind. "Did you really think that I was going to apply for a new Scooby Membership Card?" She shoved her hands into her pockets. "Oh, wait, that's right. I never had one." Bitterness flowed from the words. "I'm not cut out for life in Sunnydale, B. I'm glad we're OK again." I just want so much more.. Her hands reappeared to rub over her face. "It's just staying isn't an option."
They walked in charged silence for a while, eating up ground through the labyrinth of alleys in the downtown area, until Buffy sighed. "We're doing it again," she announced out of the blue.
Reeling from the emotional ups and downs of the last two days, Faith snapped. "We're not doing anything, B. Just like always." Frustration edged the words.
"Um," Buffy peered wide-eyed at Faith. "Why do I get the feeling we're not on the same page?"
"Fuck, B, get a clue. We don't even speak the same language." Faith dropped her head, hair cascading forward to hide her expression. Exhaustion dragged at her limbs. How many times did she have to go through this? Buffy would never see her as more than a fellow Slayer. A friend, maybe. Never more. Her eyes burned and her throat closed. Defiantly, Faith cleared away the blockage and flicked her hair over her shoulder.
Buffy bit back a scream. Damn it. They took one step forward and then a dozen back. Without the empathy, she was lost, confused by Faith's ability to hide behind the attitude. She knew Faith loved her. Well, OK, wanted her. It had flooded through her that night in the Mansion. "Faith-"
"Leave it, B." The refusal was curt.
She'd hurt Faith. Buffy knew it. The knowledge tightened her muscles, and made her heart pound. "I'm sorry," she tried, hazel eyes watching for some sign she hadn't destroyed the budding friendship.
Faith's hands went back in her pockets. "No worries, B. We're good." A wry smile flitted across her lips. She wanted so much more than good. "I think I should drop you at the library and go ahead."
Buffy shook her head rapidly, panic setting in. "No." With cold certainty, she knew that if Faith left, she was never coming back.
"Buffy, stop." The words were forceful, yet soft. Brown eyes pleaded with her. "Whatever's going on in your head, it's gotta stop. I can't " Faith's voice faltered then picked back up. "I can't stay."
The look in Faith's eyes was like a punch to the stomach. Buffy sucked in a deep breath against the pain. "Maybe you could just, I don't know, leave for a couple of days? Come back after the Ascension?" She hated the way her voice shifted into a near whine at the end.
Faith took her hand. "B, I said I'd come back. I meant that, but give me some time, OK?"
Tears spilled from Buffy's eyes. This couldn't be happening. First Angel, and now Faith. Maybe the Council was right about Slayer's not having lives or friends. "Sure, Faith. I " She pulled away, wiping angrily at the tears.
"Fuck!" The angry shout startled her, and Buffy turned back. "Listen, B." Warm hands cupped her cheeks, forcing her to meet intense brown eyes swimming in tears. "I'm sorry. I wanna stay." The rough voice broke. "But I can't, for so many reasons."
Sliding her hands up to rest on Faith's, Buffy closed her eyes. "Go." It was the merest of whispers. She remained frozen as the palms slowly released her face and running footsteps faded in the distance. "Goodbye, Faith." Buffy forced her eyes open, determinedly not looking after the other Slayer.
By the time she reached the Sunnydale High School library, Buffy had her emotions locked away. Granted, that meant she felt a little disconnected, but it was better than the constant crying and cursing. She burst into the dim library, not even slowing at the row of glum faces watching her progress.
"Those aren't happy faces." Willow. Oz, and Xander huddled together on the stairs leading to the stacks.
Xander lifted his head. "Zeros all around, Buff."
"Sorry," Willow squeaked out, too.
Pushing aside the emptiness, hiding her own pain, Buffy flashed a smile. "Make not with the long faces." She held up the note from the butcher. "I've got an address for Tucker and his dog."
Smiles broke out all around until Willow noticed someone missing. "Hey, Buff, where's Faith?"
Buffy looked away, blinking to keep the tears at bay. "Gone. She really wanted to go before the Mayor figured out she was still in town." She wandered over to one of the tables normally used for research and hopped up to sit on its uncluttered surface. "Look. The Prom starts in a little while. I want you guys to go on. I'll go take care of this little problem, and I'll meet you there."
"What?" Xander looked at Oz and Willow. "We can't just leave you, Buffster." Two nods agreed with his statement.
Giles finally joined in from his position against the checkout desk. "Buffy, I have to agree. You need-"
"To see happy Prom-goers on their way." She waved her hands at her friends. "Look, guys. I've got this one under control."
Oz shifted against Willow. "Buffy, it makes sense to-"
" have a nice time." She was almost sorry to step on one of his rare attempts at multi-word response.
A small smile tugged her lips when all three of the Scoobies surged to their feet at the same time.
"Oookay, then." Xander was alarmingly enthusiastic about his date with Anya.
Willow and Oz held hands as they hurried out the door.
Swallowing the surge of bitterness that tried to break free, Buffy turned to Giles. "I want you at the gym." She met her Watcher's worried eyes. "Keep an eye on them until I get there." Jumping from the table, Buffy entered the book cage and opened the weapons locker.
Giles, however, wasn't finished. His quiet voice followed her. "I don't have to tell you you're being rather rash."
"No, but it sounds like you're going to do it anyway." Buffy yanked a couple of daggers, a crossbow, and a quiver of bolts out before stuffing them into a duffel bag.
"Finding an address hardly leads to case closed." When she turned, Giles stood just outside the cage, an earpiece of his glasses caught between his teeth.
He met her eyes, and Buffy almost crumbled. Two steps, that's all it would take. She knew, despite whatever embarrassment he might feel, he'd let her cry out her misery on his wool vest. One step. She pulled up short. No. It was time to move on. Do her job and get back on track. "Let it go, Giles. You want to go after them? Tell them they can't go?" She smiled tiredly. "They've given up everything for the last three years to help me save the world or whatever. Let them have this one night."
Buffy stepped out of the cage, closing it softly.
"Angel's not taking you tonight, is he?" Giles laid a hand on her shoulder.
Hooking the duffel's strap over her shoulder, Buffy raised her eyes. "I told Angel to leave town after the Mayor, of course." Giles' eyes widened. "Don't, please," Buffy begged, voice strained. "It had to be done." A single tear leaked out. "Besides, I'm not really sure that's the worst thing that happened today."
"Buffy," the cultured voice faltered. "I'm so sorry. I don't even know what to say."
"Then don't, Giles." Buffy lips trembled. "Just let me get through tonight. I'm sure things will look less doomy and gloomy in the morning."
He pulled her into a tentative hug. "Don't these sorts of things require ice cream or something?" He tried to lighten the mood. It worked, for a second.
Returning the awkward embrace and smiling slightly, Buffy tilted her head to look at Giles. "Ice cream and its good friend chocolate will come. I just want to take care of Psycho Boy and his pet, first."
"Are you sure?" Giles pressed as Buffy pulled away.
"Yeah." She nodded firmly. "The great thing about being a Slayer kicking ass is comfort food."
The sun had already set by the time Buffy jogged up to the unassuming house. Dropping her weapons bag in the yard, she dug out a crossbow. She rammed a bolt home and stuffed a few replacements into the waistband of her pants. That covered distance fighting. Buffy frowned and grabbed a dagger, just in case hand to hand was the only option.
A quick twist of her wrist broke the flimsy lock on the screen door. Buffy crept inside the dim house, senses extended. The Hellhound was here; she could feel it. Buffy searched for Tucker and his pet, wending her way through the furniture and debris that littered the cramped rooms. The house was empty.
"Where are you, Tucker?" she muttered, heading towards yet another cluttered room.
Following the pull of her Slayer senses, Buffy ended up in the kitchen. Unlike the rest of the house, the room was clean and devoid of furniture. Buffy stood in the doorway, looking for anything to explain the feelings assaulting her nerve endings. Buffy started to smile, as her eyes swept over every surface,. The rug. That had to be it. Three quick strides brought her to the multicolored covering. She bent over, examining it closely. At this angle, it was easy to see the tiny latch and the slight break in the floorboards underneath the rug. Juggling the crossbow and dagger in her left hand, Buffy quietly lifted the trap door with her right.
Dim light from the kitchen lit a steep staircase leading under the house. Ready for some action, Buffy didn't bother disguising her presence. Boots thunking hollowly on the stairs, she trotted down, weapons at the ready. About halfway down, the basement came into view and Buffy paused. Seemingly agitated, Tucker Wells wandered across the room. He held the remains of some electrical equipment, and he poked and prodded the circuitry. Nearby, a caged Hellhound growled a warning.
"Hey, Tucker," Buffy called, resuming her trip. "Nice dog."
The lanky teen spun around. His eyes widened when he recognized Buffy and he rushed for the cage. "It's too late," Tucker mumbled, trying to unlock the kennel.
Adrenaline surging, Buffy leapt over the handrail, hurriedly grabbing Tucker from behind. Of course, since her foe was human, his struggles were something of a let down. "Really? 'Cause I gotta tell you, my timing is usually perfect. You're not going anywhere and the ugly mutt is still in his cage."
Tucker writhed and twisted against her until he hung limp and panting in her grasp.
Deciding he wasn't a threat, Buffy shoved him away and began looking around the room. A small TV blared static, its tiny screen covered in black and white snow. What caught Buffy's attention, though, were the videos stacked on top of the unit. Picking them up and reading them out loud, she looked at Tucker in disbelief. "Pretty in Pink? Pump up the Volume? That's is? That's how you brainwashed the 'hound to go psycho at the Prom?"
Obviously, Tucker missed the derision in her tone. Grinning proudly, he nodded. "Neat, huh?"
"No!" Buffy disagreed, forcefully. "It's lame. Why would you want to ruin the happiest night of a Senior's life?" She took a step toward him. It was time to stop playing Twenty Questions.
Flinching back, the 'hound master stumbled into a storage shelf. The rickety unit crumbled, sending tools and electronic equipment sprawling across the floor.
"Oh, for God's sake," Buffy grumbled, kicking her way through the junk. "You're pathetic." Reaching down to the floor, she grabbed a lamp and ripped the cord from its base.
Tucker used her brief distraction to pull a remote from his pocket. Pressing a series of buttons, he unlocked the cage in the center of the room. An unearthly howl split the air and the Hellhound sprang out.
Slayer reflexes kept Buffy alive. Dropping to the floor, she let the 'hound sail over her. It hit the ground close to the far wall, and Buffy wasted no time climbing to her feet. Her weapons lay on the workbench near the TV. Eyes locked on the slavering 'hound, she inched back, hoping to reach them. She didn't make it. The beast dove at her, knocking her to the ground. Claws ripped at her leather coat. Buffy braced one arm below the snapping jaws, holding the teeth away from her face. Her other hand worked to toss the cord around the 'hound's neck.
Her position on the floor didn't allow for much leverage. Buffy was tiring by the time she had the cord draped around the furred shoulders. Praying she didn't end up as dinner, Buffy slid the hand holding off the 'hound to the side, gripping the free end of the cord. She wiggled underneath the creature's weight, pressing her heels to the floor. Her hold on the cord tightened as she rolled until the 'hound rested beneath her.
Perhaps sensing the end was near, the 'hound redoubled its efforts. Clawed hands flailed. One of them made contact with Buffy's neck, ripping four parallel gashes above the collar of her coat. Despite the flaring pain, Buffy hung on, slowly strangling the Hellhound. Finally, the body grew still, and the Slayer slumped forward, gasping. "You know, Tucker, the next time you get a dog, try a smaller breed," she griped, clambering to her feet.
"Tucker, I am so not up to a game of Hide and Seek." Buffy scanned the room. A small door she hadn't noticed before stood open. Stalking over, vowing a little rough handling for the other teen, Buffy peered through the doorway. She froze, palms suddenly damp and fear twisting her stomach. Four empty cages lined the walls of the small room, and a window led outside.
She hit the stairs at a dead run. The crossbow and dagger were clutched in her hands. Despite the fact she might need help handling four more 'hounds, Buffy knew she didn't have time to call for reinforcements. The Scoobies even the adults were at the dance. She was on her own.
For the second time that day, Faith found herself fleeing her emotions. Tears she was too stubborn to shed blinded her as she stumbled along the path surrounding the high school. Sliding to a halt, she swiped at her eyes, chest heaving. The look in Buffy's eyes when she insisted on leaving It was too much. Sobs tore from her throat, and Faith dropped to her knees in the gravel, huddling in on herself.
The tears eventually tapered off. Faith felt rocks digging into her knees and hands. Too tired to care about the nagging pain, she stayed hunched over, breath hitching occasionally. Instead of making things better, her head throbbed and her throat ached from the crying. Limbs heavy, she climbed slowly to her feet. She'd made the right decision. She had to leave Sunnydale. This time, however, Faith wasn't going off half cocked. No more running without plans or supplies.
Shoving her hands in her pockets, Faith started down the path. Mrs. Summers was probably at the Gallery. She'd offered a place to stay; maybe a shower and some food would be an OK replacement.
The trip didn't take long. Faith kept to the lesser used paths and alleys, approaching the Gallery cautiously. Night was well on the way. She kept her senses on high. A few vamps or demons pinged on her radar, but they were faint and too far away to be spying on Joyce. A bell over the door jangled when she pushed inside.
Faith had never been here before. Peering around the well lit displays, she noted some very strange sculptures and a few paintings that looked like the artist had been on a great acid trip.
"Faith?" Joyce watched the teen's expression with amusement.
Spinning abruptly, Faith hunched her shoulders. "Mrs. S." She rocked on her heels. "I um the Scoobies are taking care of the Hellhound thing and getting ready for their dance. You think," she cleared her throat, incredibly uncomfortable under Joyce's stare, "you think I could hit your place for a shower and a change of clothes before I split?"
Amusement fading, Joyce sighed. "You're going?" She tucked her hair behind an ear and watched Faith squirm a little at the question.
"Yeah." Faith didn't elaborate. She couldn't. It didn't matter how right she knew the decision was, it still hurt. Not wanting to break down again, she pressed her lips together and stood stiffly.
"Of course you can stop by the house." Sadness filled Joyce's voice, but she didn't try to convince Faith to stay. They'd had that conversation before. "The clothes I got for you are in a bag on the kitchen counter. Come on in back for a minute. I need to get you a key."
Her legs felt like a stranger's. Faith followed Joyce disjointedly, numb and emotionally disconnected. Mrs. Summers led her to a small office in the storeroom. Leaning against the doorjamb, Faith watched Joyce dig through her desk drawer, looking for something. She must have found it. She straightened up and grabbed the purse perched on the filing cabinet in the corner.
"Here," Joyce said, holding out her hand. A key glinted. "It's a key to the front door."
"Thanks, Mrs. S." Faith accepted the offering and turned to go.
Joyce had other ideas. She gripped Faith's hand, holding her there. "Wait." When the teen tensed up, she hurried on, "I have something else to give you. Just give me another minute, OK?"
Faith nodded, and Joyce let go of her hand. The key seemed to burn her palm, a pain-filled symbol of everything Faith had always wanted, but never had. Closing her fingers around the key, Faith swallowed hard against a need to tell Joyce everything, all the crap she'd done in the past and all the things she so desperately wanted for the future.
"Honey?" Joyce's soft question jerked her back to the present. Hazel eyes bored into her brown ones, concerned, caring. "Are you alright?"
"Five by five, Mrs. S." The words lacked their customary brash confidence. Neither woman commented on it.
Opening her wallet, Joyce removed all of her cash. "Take this, too." At Faith's headshake, she frowned. "I'm not taking no for an answer, Faith. Take it. You're going to need money for food, at least."
Faith shoved the wad of bills in her pocket. "Mrs. S-" she broke off. What the hell could she say? Thank you seemed inadequate.
"Be careful, wherever you go, Faith." Joyce seemed to know just how much Faith was struggling. She dropped the purse back on the desk and moved in front of the Slayer. Warm hands cupped the hunched shoulders. "Don't forget you have a home here. We'll be waiting with open arms when you're ready to come back." Not wanting to push too hard, Joyce dropped her hands and walked back out to the showroom.
One more run. Faith jogged through Restfield, almost hoping for a vampire to fight. She left the Gallery with the word "home" repeating over and over in her mind. Mrs. S didn't mean it like that. No way. B musta told her to get me to stay for the fight with the Mayor. Faith felt a little better at that. It was typical Scooby behavior to want her to help out with their mess. Determination worked its way through the confusion and pain. She wasn't giving in. No way. She was leaving, tonight.
The Summers' house was dark. A single porch light illuminated the door as Faith fumbled the key out of her pocket. Once inside, she tossed the key onto the table in the entry hall, not bothering to lock the door behind her. She hurried to the kitchen, easily locating the bag of clothes on the counter before trotting upstairs to the bathroom.
She didn't waste time standing under the warm water. Taking just long enough to get the last of the dried blood and dirt off her body, Faith toweled herself off and stepped into the jeans, tank top, and chambray overshirt. She dragged a brush through her hair and pulled the still-damp mass back into a pony tail.
Clean and dressed in new clothes, Faith hesitated on the second floor landing. Weapons. She was going to need at least a few stakes. Buffy had a weapons chest in her closet. Buffy wouldn't mind if she borrowed a few things. Faith turned around and opened the other Slayer's bedroom door. The chest was right where Faith remembered. She pulled out four well-honed stakes, tucking them into the back pockets of her jeans. Several duffel bags littered the closet floor, and Faith stuffed a modest collection of daggers and long knives inside. Closing the chest with a thump, Faith shoved it back into the closet and stood up.
That's when she saw it. Wrapped in plastic with matching shoes sitting underneath, the dress stood out against the more mundane clothing on the rod. At first, Faith didn't understand what she was seeing. She had almost reached the door when the dress' significance set in. Stopping, Faith closed her eyes, trying to resist. Body humming with conflicting impulses, she pulled up an image of the Mayor when he told his goons to kill her. She needed to leave.
The Mayor faded. Buffy's sad eyes filled her thoughts, and Faith caved. Retracing her steps to the closet, she carefully took out the dress and the shoes, placing them gently in the duffel on top of the weapons.
To Be Continued
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