The Varos Triad
Angel had kept the briefing of the rest of the meeting as short as possible. He left out the majority of the conversation that centred around Cordelia's brush with the Powers That Be and Faith's rehabilitation both inside jail and since her release. The discussion had turned into an all out slanging match at one point, with all sorts of history getting thrown around the Magic Box until Gunn, of all people, stepped in and reminded everyone how ridiculously childish they all sounded. Angel had seized on the silence that followed and tried again. It had been difficult to explain to Buffy and the scoobs how he knew that Faith had changed without revealing too many of the events that had happened to her since Buffy last saw the brunette slayer. He knew however, that it was up to Faith whether she decided to disclose that chapter of her life and he respected her privacy on the matter. The dark vampire understood that he hadn't convinced any of the Sunnydale crowd about Faith's turn around, but he had at least managed to persuade them to give her a proper chance to demonstrate her new attitude.
Once they had talked the subject out, the meeting returned to its original agenda. Buffy had been forced to admit that Faith was right to want to hide the artefacts. After hearing that the demons had gone after the jade artefact, it was imperative to find a secure hold for them. In the end, however, Giles suggested that the best way of hiding them was to keep them amongst the many boxes and artefacts in the back of the Magic Box. Perhaps their presence would be masked by putting them in with so many other potential magic items. Tara and Willow placed a ward over the shop to deter unwanted visitors and provide additional cover for the statuettes.
The problem of the third piece was the most difficult to solve though. Buffy did not want to wait for Varos' demons to find it. She argued that if that happened and they discovered that the other two artefacts were hidden in the shop, the demons would stop at nothing to get all three. Unfortunately, as Wesley pointed out, they had no idea where to look for the final piece. The young ex-Watcher hypothesised that there must be a way of focusing on the energy that the artefacts held and that their signatures were probably how the demons detected the objects. If they could discern that energy, then they could locate the last statuette. His theory intrigued Giles and the two wiccans and between them, they decided to pursue that course of action. In the meantime, the remainder of the two groups, including Faith, Buffy acquiesced to grudgingly, would patrol tonight for any demon activity. If the search proved fruitless, they would start again tomorrow.
So it was with a mixture of frustration and relief that the members of the Scooby Gang and the LA group met back at the Magic Box after three hours of careful investigation with nothing to show for their efforts.
"There aren't even any vamps out there," complained Faith, annoyed that she hadn't been able to dust anything.
"Something's definitely up," Buffy replied. "Vamps always go to ground when something big is brewing." She tried to keep her voice from sounding curt. After the seemingly endless argument with Angel about Faith, Buffy had reluctantly agreed to give the rogue slayer an opportunity to prove herself. The blonde girl refused to call it another 'chance' as she was adamant that Faith had used all her chances, but the bottom line was that it had been a long time since Faith had terrorised her friends and mother. She had to admit that she had changed herself in those years. The older slayer had to concede that perhaps Faith had too. However, as they met inside the Magic Box after the reconnaissance, she noticed that the scoobs stood separately from the LA gang, reluctant to mingle with Faith and now, by association, the others.
"Don't tell me the vamps will team up with those things," Xander groaned.
"They generally do," confirmed Giles.
"I told you not to tell me," the dark construction worker complained, burying his head into Anya's shoulder at the thought.
"Well there isn't much more we can do tonight," Giles stated, rubbing his eyes wearily.
"What about the location spell?" Buffy suggested.
Willow and Tara both shook their heads. "We haven't done enough research yet. And there are still some materials that we need," explained the red haired wiccan.
"W-we should b-be ready by tomorrow afternoon though," added Tara, nervous about speaking in front of the LA crowd.
"Anything we can do to help?" Offered Wes, polite as ever. Both Faith and Cordelia smiled slightly at the gesture.
"No, no, we'll be fine," Tara replied. "But there's still the matter of destroying the artefacts once we have them all," she reminded everyone.
"I suggest we meet back here in the morning. Some of us can research while the others," Giles looked at Faith knowingly as he spoke, "can continue to search the area for any clues to the statue's whereabouts."
Giles' plan was received with nods of agreement all round.
"I take it the search is off for tonight then?" Cordelia asked.
Buffy shrugged and looked at Angel. "I can't see as there's much more we can do tonight," she agreed. Angel nodded at her statement.
Let's get out of here then," the Seer suggested and the LA gang stood to leave the premises.
"Faith," called Buffy as they were about to exit. "Back here tomorrow morning at 9 for training."
Faith looked at the older slayer steadily for a moment before answering. "Sorry B, but I train with Angel and Wes now." Gunn coughed deliberately. "Oh and
Gunn when he's around," the rogue slayer added, acknowledging Gunn's invaluable assistance. Faith had spent many hours sparring with the tall black man, returning to the use of her old street style of fighting against him, as opposed to the carefully crafted movements that Angel and Wesley taught her. She considered both forms of fighting to be essential skills and enjoyed switching between styles.
"What's the matter, scared to go up against a slayer again?" goaded Buffy, surprised at Wesley's re-establishment as Faith's watcher and annoyed that Angel now trained with her. She leant back against the counter and folded her arms across her chest.
Faith refused to rise to the bait but it took a great deal of effort. "I've set up a routine with them that I like to follow," she explained, knowing that she hadn't actually answered the blonde slayer's question.
Buffy noted the evasion too and decided to push it a bit further. "Well, if you don't think you can handle it..." she tailed the suggestion off and waited for the retort.
"It's not that I can't handle it B," Faith refuted, her voice tight as she fought against rising to the challenge.
"That's not what it sounds like from here."
Faith bristled. "What do you want Buffy? Another opportunity to kick my ass and prove who the number one slayer is?" The brunette woman stepped towards Buffy as she continued. "You don't have to, B. Everyone in this room is fully aware of who the *chosen one* is."
The two slayers stared at each other for a long moment, while the Magic Box's other occupants looked on in silence. "Just as long as you do," Buffy stated eventually, before turning away from Faith.
Once again the shop was immersed with a hostile tension. Angel took an unnecessary breath to sigh with and Tara shook her head slightly, wondering how the issues between Faith and the others could ever get resolved.
"Are we finished now?" Cordelia interrupted the silence, irritated over Buffy's little power struggle with Faith.
"I guess so." Buffy looked at Giles for confirmation.
"Er, yes. Everyone back here tomorrow at 10?" He requested to the room in general. The ex watcher was acknowledged with nodding all round.
"Right," Gunn spoke up. "Let's blow this joint." With that, he yanked the door open and swung an arm out in an exaggerated gesture for Cordelia and Faith. "After you, ladies," he offered.
"Watch who you're callin' a lady," warned Faith, scowling at the dark man. He grinned back at her as she accepted the gesture and stepped though the open doorway, wanting to leave as swiftly as possible.
"Thank God we're out of there," commented Cordelia once they had left the Magic Box well behind them.
"They sure know how to create an atmosphere," agreed Gunn readily as he loped behind the two girls.
"Drop it guys," Faith asked, her shoulders dropping slightly as she once again considered the uphill struggle that faced her with the Sunnydale gang.
"It will be worth it in the end," Angel told her quietly.
"I don't know if I can make it that far, Soul Boy," Faith retorted.
"Try to see it from their point of view," the vampire suggested.
Faith snorted. "I don't think I can get my head that far up my ass."
The others smirked at the comment, before Wes caught Gunn's expression and sniggered out loud. His action prompted the others to laugh and the tension that they had carried with them from the Magic Box lifted, much to their relief. Faith looked at her companions and tried to shift her mood but it was hard.
"Would now be a bad time to suggest going out?" Asked Cordelia hesitantly, wanting to divert Faith from the possible hours of brooding the Southie slayer looked like she was about to embark upon.
Feeling the weight of her oppressive thoughts lightening at Cordelia's proposal, Faith smiled at the ex-cheerleader. "Sounds like the perfect time to suggest going out to me," she responded, eliciting a returning smile from the Seer.
"Is this just a girlie thing, or are we all invited?" Asked Wesley with unusual insight.
"You want to come too?" Cordelia was torn. She was delighted that the others wanted to celebrate her birthday with her, but selfishly wanted to devote her attentions on Faith.
"I'd love to come. To make up for forgetting your birthday," Angel told her with a small smile. Gunn and Wesley nodded in agreement.
Cordelia couldn't help but be touched by their gesture, despite realising that her personal plans had been thwarted, at least for the time being. "That's great. I just need to go home and change."
"What's wrong with what you're wearing?" Faith asked, stupefied.
"I've been trawling round dockyards and cemeteries in this," replied the some time actress, confused that there was a problem.
"And?" Queried Angel, equally at a loss.
"And I now want to wear something else," retorted Cordelia, her voice indicating a finality to the conversation. The others shrugged and followed the tall brunette back to the car.
Sometime later, four pairs of eyes became saucer wide as Cordelia descended the stairs. She was wearing a simple dark purple shift dress that stopped at mid-thigh and had put her hair up into a loose array on top of her head. She grinned at them, before twirling round in a 360 and asking, "so was it worth the wait?"
Faith had to swallow convulsively in order to try and lubricate her suddenly dry throat. "Hell, yeah," she eventually growled out, surprised herself at how husky her voice sounded. Wesley, Gunn and Angel nodded quickly in agreement, prompting the taller brunette girl to smile back at them, accepting the compliments with undisguised pleasure.
Wesley frowned in confusion as a thought occurred to him. "Cordelia, this was only ever going to be a short stop over in Sunnydale to locate the artefacts. What on earth possessed you to pack an evening dress?"
Cordelia was about to respond when she was prevented by a huge guffaw of laughter from Gunn. He slapped his arm on Wesley's shoulder. "Man, you have no idea how the female mind works, have you?" He chuckled.
Cordelia looked affronted. "It's a normal dress. I've just jazzed it up a bit," she justified.
"Yeah, by getting in it," responded Faith dryly.
Cordelia flashed a brilliant smile at the shorter brunette. She noticed that Faith had changed into fresh clothes and reapplied her make-up and felt a small thrill at the thought that she might have done that for her. "Are we actually going out or are we just going to stand around in the hall all night?" With that, she yanked the door open and stepped outside.
The Bronze was, well the Bronze. Faith, Cordelia and Angel looked round at the club with an air of disbelief. "I can't believe it hasn't changed in three years," the tall Seer commented, almost in disgust.
"What's the matter, Cordy, feelin' old?" Faith teased.
"No, more like I'm in a time warp," the ex-cheerleader replied. Despite her initial misgivings at the place though, Cordelia soon felt the beat of the music flow through her. She glanced at Faith and noticed the dark slayer succumbing to the rhythm. "Come on, let's dance," she suggested and made a beeline for the centre of the dance floor.
Faith followed readily, with Gunn and Wes close behind.
"I'll get a table and some drinks," Angel called out, receiving a wave in acknowledgement from Gunn. The vampire shook his head slightly before approaching the bar.
On the dance floor, the group got caught up in the music and allowed their bodies to respond to the beat. Cordelia found herself not minding that she was celebrating her birthday belatedly at the Bronze. It was fun dancing with Wes and Gunn, despite the ex watcher's slightly stiff movements, and spending any time with Faith was a definite bonus in the Seer's opinion. Despite wanting to dance more closely with Faith, Cordelia kept at a distance, acutely aware of Wesley and Gunn's presence and not yet ready to alert them to the fact that she was attracted to the renegade slayer.
Faith was happy to dance with the two men as well as Cordy, and moved her body round her three partners as she lazily danced to the music. She smiled at Wesley's slightly stilted movements and slid up behind him and placed her hands on his hips.
Feeling his personal space being invaded, Wes jumped at the touch and spun round.
"Relax, Wes. Loosen up a bit. Let the music grab ya," Faith advised, as she moved, not releasing her hold on the Englishman's hips.
Wes looked startled for a moment, before realising that Faith was not making a move on him. Around him, Cordelia and Gunn hemmed him in and continued to sway to the rhythm, looking at him encouragingly. The ex-watcher swallowed and then forced himself to relax, feeling his dancing becoming less stilted as he was guided gently by the young slayer, whilst he tried to emulate the natural style of Gunn.
"Now you're cooking," Faith told him, grinning. "You'll have the girls falling over you now," she wiggled her eyebrows impishly before moving away to dance opposite Cordelia.
Stunned by her comment, Wes burst out laughing but continued to dance anyway. The group stayed close together for a few minutes more, continually shifting positions and swapping dance partner before Cordelia edged away from the two men, drawing Faith with her as she moved, so that the girls no longer shielded their companions' availability to the rest of the Bronze.
As soon as Faith and Cordelia were not in the immediate vicinity of Gunn and Wes, two girls shimmied over and began dancing with the men.
At first, the young Englishman tried to back away from the attention, but Gunn held him in place. "I have the impression that these two come as a pair, so I hope you're not thinking of bailing on me Wes," the big man commented as he sidled closer to the lithe blonde dancing next to him.
The brunette stepped closer to Wes and smiled shyly, a look the watcher couldn't help but return.
"Way to go, Wes," Cordelia called over, giving him an exaggerated thumbs up.
"See, I told ya," shouted Faith as she gyrated near the tall Seer.
Wes blushed furiously, but not wanting to back out now that his friends had all commented on his situation, he turned his attention to the girl dancing with him and found that she really was very attractive.
Now that Gunn and Wes were occupied, Cordelia concentrated on dancing with Faith. At first, she had just allowed the music to envelop her, but as the beat continued, she became hypnotised by the way Faith moved to the sound. She could feel the woman's energy radiating round her and was entranced at how absorbed Faith seemed to be by the rhythm. Unconsciously, she moved closer, moving her body to match Faith's gyrations.
Faith could feel Cordelia moving closer to her. Her body could feel the heat radiating from the ex-Prom queen as she danced in synchronised step with her. The Southie slayer could feel the chemistry between them grow exponentially as she focussed on the other woman's movements and shut out the distractions from the rest of the club. Faith sensed her heart rate accelerating and as she looked into the dark, heavily dilated, hazel eyes of Cordelia, she knew that something was going to happen between the two of them.
Cordelia gazed at Faith's dark eyes that were now almost black with desire. Her heart flipped and she felt dizzy with want as the rest of the club faded into insignificance. Unconsciously, the tall brunette hooked a finger into the belt loop of Faith's leather pants and tugged slightly, stepping forward into Faith at the same time. As their bodies came even closer, the Seer moved in time with Faith, her hips mirroring Faith's gyrations. Her stomach flipped as she felt the Bostonian lay a hand gently on her swaying hip, registering the burning heat that radiated from the contact. Instinctively, the older woman brought her face closer, till they were sharing the same air to breathe and their lips were millimetres apart.
Before the gap closed to nothing, Faith moved slightly and repositioned her mouth to just over Cordelia's right ear. "Tell me this is for real Cordy," she whispered. "You're not just playing me?" The rogue slayer sounded distraught at the thought.
Cordelia moved her head to return the whisper. "I've never been more serious about anything in my life," she told the shorter girl sincerely, pleased to see Faith flush as her breath caressed the slayer's cheek.
Faith backed her head away once more and studied Cordelia's visage intently, as if boring into her soul.
Cordelia returned the stare, trying to see into the complicated depths of Faith's personality but seeing only her own desire reflected in the slayer's obsidian eyes. Suddenly, her words gave her confidence again, and the ex cheerleader brought her lips down towards Faith's.
Just before she made contact, Cordelia felt a hand clasp her shoulder and she spun round angrily, the spell between herself and Faith broken instantly.
"What?" She asked aggressively as she saw Xander standing right next to her.
"Hey Cordy," the dark haired man returned nervously, "Angel just told me that you're out celebrating your birthday. Come over to the table, we've bought you drinks," he requested, deliberately not catching Faith's eye.
For a moment, Cordelia couldn't think of a single thing that she wanted to do less, but she forced herself to calm down when she followed his gesture and realised that Angel, Wesley and Gunn had joined the scoobs at their usual spot in the Bronze and she wondered who it was that had sent Xander on his errand. She returned her attention to the young construction worker and read his open face, deciding that he had meant well, after all. "Sure," she agreed, her voice sounding strained. The Seer stared at Faith who had instantly distanced herself and was now dancing alone. Looking once again at Xander she continued more firmly. "But let me make myself clear. My night out includes Faith, so if that's too much for you, you'd better say so now."
Xander squirmed uncomfortably for a moment, looking back at the other scoobs nervously. His face reflected his thoughts as he mulled the situation over. "We'll behave if she does," he stated, wondering if his words would apply to Buffy and Willow.
Cordelia turned back round and then grabbed Faith's hand. "Come with me?" She asked tentatively. The Seer knew that if she just invited Faith over, the rogue slayer would simply decline the offer, but by making it a request, Cordy hoped that Faith would accept.
Faith looked into the expectant eyes of the ex cheerleader and sighed inwardly. They had come so close to taking that next step and now she was extremely frustrated. She was determined to dance it out but Cordelia looked so anxious for her company, that the younger girl couldn't help but cave in to the plea. Squeezing Cordelia's hand, she nodded agreement and followed the tall woman and Xander to the table, noticing happily that Cordelia maintained the grip on her hand.
There was a chorus of hellos for Cordelia and acknowledging nods for Faith as the two women joined the others. Faith returned the nods with a tight-lipped smile but felt better when Cordelia's hand squeezed her own in support. There was a small gap at the end of one of the sofas, so Cordelia wedged herself in and Faith sat on the armrest, happy to be right on the edge of the group.
"What happened to your conquests?" Faith called across to Gunn and Wesley.
Gunn snorted disgustedly. "Mr 'English gentleman' here wouldn't put out so they moved onto some other dudes," he told her.
Faith laughed. "Well get back out there and try again," she advised.
"Next time I go hunting, I'm going solo," Gunn told her.
"Sorry to cramp your style," Wes shot at him. "I just don't do that sort of thing on a first encounter."
"Man, you don't know what you're missing," Gunn shook his head at the ex-watcher and laughed.
"Someone who thinks the same way you do, Faith," Buffy commented dryly. "What do you do, have competitions?"
Faith opened her mouth to shoot back a retort but was beaten to it by a suddenly serious Gunn.
"Is that an insult to me or to Faith? Cos let me tell you, I don't like either."
An uncomfortable silence descended on the group.
"So, what did you get for your birthday then?" Tara asked Cordelia brightly, hoping that a change of subject might ease the tension.
"Faith made me a pill box," she replied and flipped open her bag to retrieve the gift. It was passed round for everyone to inspect. Cordelia felt Faith squirm uncomfortably and suddenly wished that she'd kept the gift a secret. Glancing up at the dark slayer, she caught Faith's eye and mouthed 'sorry' at her, relieved when Faith nodded her understanding.
"Wow. It's gorgeous," commented Tara. "You really made this?"
Faith nodded shyly.
"Why do you need it?" Xander looked confused. Surely pill boxes were for old people.
It was Cordelia's turn to look uncomfortable. "The visions I get aren't exactly pain free, unfortunately," she explained, fidgeting in her seat.
"They cause pain?" Willow looked at the ex Prom queen with a new respect. The 'old' Cordy would have gone to great lengths to ensure everyone knew about her suffering, yet this was the first time they had heard of it.
"How much is it worth?" Anya asked, cutting to what she thought was the most important part of the conversation.
"It's priceless," answered the Seer noting, with satisfaction, a slight flush creep up Faith's neck.
"Hardly," refuted the ex-vengeance demon, rolling it over in her hands several times to check if she'd missed anything.
"It is to me," insisted Cordelia as she grabbed the box and returned it to her bag.
"You didn't get anything else?" Buffy asked.
"Not yet," amended Angel with an apologetic smile at his receptionist.
Cordelia smiled back. "Ooo, goody. A pay rise for my birthday?" She suggested lightly.
"Nice try," commended Angel, his smile widening at the expression Cordelia pulled as he quashed her hopes. The rest of the LA gang laughed and the conversation drifted into small talk, the two groups feeling more at ease in each others' company for the time being.
When Faith had excused herself to get a round of drinks in, Cordelia found herself pounced on by her old school friends. "Are you mad?" Queried Xander. "Dancing with her," he added, explaining his question to a mystified Cordelia.
"No, I'm perfectly all right. When will you get it into your thick skull that she has changed?"
Xander looked at her incredulously. "Not heard of the leopard theory then," he commented sarcastically.
"Look, she's my friend. If you don't like that, well there's nothing I can do about it, but don't sit there and tell me where my loyalties should lie."
"You looked like more than just friends out on the dance floor," commented Willow.
"For one thing that's none of your business, and for another, hello? Pot and kettle springing to mind here," Cordelia shot back.
"But it's Faith," protested the red haired witch, as if that explained everything.
"Who is no longer the same person." Cordelia spoke slowly, as if explaining something to a small child.
"I'm with Xander on this one," Willow responded.
Cordelia rolled her eyes and sat back. "Let's try this another way. Tell me Willow, you've not changed in three years have you?"
"W-well some things have changed," the wiccan refuted.
"No they haven't. You're still the same nerdy computer geek I remember," Cordelia continued.
"I don't think so, Cordelia. I'm a witch now, a powerful one I might add."
"Oh really?" Cordelia sounded scornful.
"Yes, really. And I can quite easily prove it to you," Willow leant forward rising to the challenge.
"Only if I want to see you prove it. Otherwise, it won't matter what you do, I'll always be convinced that you're the same mousy Willow with the big chunky jumpers and no friends." Cordelia hated resorting back to her old bitchy ways but she felt as though she'd run out of alternatives. From the corner of her eye, she could see the expression on Tara's face and realised that Willow's lover had understood what she was trying to do. The Seer was relieved. She didn't want to have to deal with two irate witches.
At first, Willow missed the point. "I will show you," she bristled, wracking her brain for a suitable spell.
"Show me what you like, I'll never be convinced."
Willow was about to grudgingly admit defeat when something caught her attention. She turned to the dark haired Seer again. "So Faith's changed. And you and her want to make a go of it then?" She asked innocently.
Cordelia blushed. It was the first time anyone else had uttered her thoughts out loud.
"I know that Faith isn't playing me, if that's what you mean." The ex-cheerleader decided to play safe and avoid the question.
"Really? So why is she leaving then?" Willow nodded towards the exit of the Bronze. Cordelia followed her look and felt her heart lurch again, this time with a sickening feeling of betrayal or jealousy, she wasn't sure which.
With one arm draped heavily over her companion, Faith led a tall, blonde woman towards the exit.
Faith wanted desperately to look back at the others and try to give them some sort of signal, but didn't want to alert her 'escort' about any assistance she might have.
She had met the woman at the bar, having successfully extricated herself from the perpetual torture of pointed looks and stilted conversation with Buffy and the scoobs. The LA gang had shielded her to a point, and Cordelia had almost dared anyone to say anything about Faith's presence, but bullying them into accepting her wasn't enough. The dark slayer shook her head sadly, wondering when it was exactly that she cared what the others thought of her. Her thoughts took her back to the events around her release and to what she seriously described to Angel as 'finding her sanity again'. She finally managed to break the self-constructed barriers that she felt had protected her for so long and consider and deal with the consequences of her actions. Now she had to get past the barriers Buffy and the scoobs had erected to protect themselves against her. Remembering how difficult her own transition had been, Faith was not confident that she had the strength or the will to do it.
As she was mulling over her problems, her slayer senses started tingling crazily. Drawn from her reverie, the young brunette cautiously looked round, hoping to discover the source of the warnings.
Halfway up the bar, a tall blonde woman was questioning the people surrounding her. In her hand was the third artefact. Faith glanced back at the table where the others were seated but was unable to catch Angel or Cordelia's attention before the woman sidled up to her.
"Excuse me, I know this is going to sound a bit strange, but I don't suppose you've seen anything like this anywhere in Sunnydale?" The blonde woman had a low, sensual voice, but it was all Faith could do not to shudder in her presence. There was something very wrong about the woman but Faith didn't know what it was. She knew she wasn't a vampire, but that really didn't narrow down the options.
"What's it to you?" She asked gruffly, trying to sound disinterested.
"I have a collection of pieces that were stolen a few weeks ago. They're priceless and I need them back." There was a chilling sense of foreboding lacing the woman's words.
Faith looked at her carefully, noting that the woman's grey eyes seemed almost shark-like in their appearance, adding to her impression of underlying menace. "Sorry, can't help you," she told her, shrugging her indifference and at the same time calculating how quickly she could return to the table to gather reinforcements and take the bitch down. She knew that a while back, she would have had no hesitation in going after the woman single-handed but Faith had long since learned that she was *not* invincible and that her reactions should be tempered with consideration and, she hated to admit, planning. Her instincts were screaming at her, and that alone told her that she needed help.
"I think you can, Faith," the woman contradicted, a false smile on her face as she encroached on the brunette's personal space.
"Back off lady," Faith warned, hackles rising. "And how do you know my name?" She challenged, turning to face the blonde, unconsciously moving into a defensive stance.
Suddenly, the blonde woman brought her hand in close and punched Faith in the abdomen. The brunette gasped as searing pain went through her, feeling something tear into her body. Looking down, at first she thought she saw the woman holding some sort of multi-bladed knife and then Faith realised that the weapon was the woman's hand itself. Three blades were now where her fist had been, and they were buried deep into her abdomen. Instinctively, she began to struggle free of the implement.
The woman used her free hand to grab Faith round the waist. "Pull yourself off and you'll die of blood loss, slayer or no slayer," she warned. "Now, you're going to take me to my missing artefacts," the blonde woman told her brightly.
"I don't think so, bitch," retorted the slayer.
"Please don't tell me you think you have any choice in the matter," the blonde rejoined, twisting her arm slightly and moving the blades in Faith's body.
Faith thought that she would either pass out from the pain or throw up. Pure stubbornness kicked in. "I'm not tellin' you anything," she hissed.
The woman shifted her weapon so that she was supporting the young girl's weight on the blades. Faith moaned as more agony tore through her and she clutched the woman's forearm in an effort to stop it moving. "Would you like to have a rethink on your position?" Her attacker asked lightly.
"Such nasty words coming from one so young," the woman taunted. "However, despite the crude language, I can understand your noble stance on the matter. Perhaps I should tell you that I know exactly where the artefacts are but can't get to them due to a nasty magic protection spell. I also know that you've handled the two pieces I'm after, so I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that the protection spell isn't going to affect you." The woman once again adjusted her grip before draping one of Faith's arms over her shoulder.
Faith found herself leaning heavily on the woman in order to take some of her body weight off the knives in her abdomen, easing the pain by a fraction.
"So what we are going to do is take a nice stroll to where you've put the artefacts and then, you'll collect them for me." With a gentle nudge towards the exit, the woman led Faith outside using a cruel frog-march to keep the slayer in check.
"Well this brings back memories," Xander remarked. "As I recall, first time we met 'Slut-o-rama' she took her 'Disco Dave' outside."
Cordelia winced at the memory before deciding that there was nothing she could do to change the past. Then as realisation hit, she was once again assailed with conflicting emotions. Relieved and certain that Faith would not betray her, she was angry with herself for doubting the Bostonian for even a second. "You're a prick, Xander Harris," she told him in no uncertain terms, and before he had a chance to respond, the Seer turned towards Angel. "Time to work," she called, nodding her direction towards the exiting slayer.
Both Angel and Buffy caught her words and glanced at the exit. At first all Buffy saw was Faith leaving with someone, but as soon as she registered the presence of the blonde woman, her slayer senses went off with an intensity she had rarely experienced. She looked at Angel. "What the hell is that thing she's with?" She asked worriedly.
Angel shook his head and opened his mouth to answer when Tara interjected.
"It's a shape-shifter," she told them, her face etched with concern. "And it's extremely powerful."
"Let's go." Buffy stood up and snaked her way round the tables and other patrons of the Bronze to catch up with Faith, not even bothering to see if she was being accompanied.
Stunned at the sudden departure of Buffy and the remainder of the LA gang, Willow looked at Xander, Anya and Tara for a moment.
"Honey, I really think we should help," Tara told her softly, squeezing her hand.
Xander's expression remained closed, still uncertain over what to do.
"Staying here is good," Anya commented. "Much safer, so we get to live longer."
Strangely, her words of comfort did not have the desired effect and Willow found herself standing and moving towards the exit, her hand still clutching her lover as she left.
Hesitating for a fraction longer, Xander looked at the departing wiccans and his girlfriend before sighing and following.
Buffy looked round frantically in the road outside. "Where did they go?" She pondered out loud.
Cordelia joined her. "I've looked in the alleyway," she told her. "Nothing." The tall Seer felt herself getting more anxious by the second. "Where the hell is she?" She asked to no one in particular.
"Over here," called Angel from across the street. The others ran over to where he was crouched down in the road.
"What have you found?" Wesley demanded.
Angel rubbed his thumb and fingers together in an effort to remove what was on them and resist the urge to lick them. "Her blood," he replied tonelessly.
"Oh God!" Cordelia could feel the panic rise.
Before she could reach hysteria though, Buffy shot another question at Angel. "Has she left a trail?"
"Yes," affirmed the vampire. "This way."
By this time, the whole group had assembled and fell into step behind the dark vampire and blonde slayer as they hurried down the road.
"Am I paranoid or is this leading to the Magic Box?" Anya asked nervously.
"Yes to both of those questions, Anya," replied Xander, jogging next to his girlfriend.
"I'm getting a bad feeling about this," supplied Gunn from behind the couple.
"You're not the only one," Xander retorted.
As they rounded the corner, they spotted Faith and her captor some distance ahead and close to Giles' shop. Without waiting, Buffy and Angel broke into a sprint after them, prompting the others to give chase.
Turning as she heard the syncopated footfall behind her, the blonde woman smiled. "Oh, how sweet!" She exclaimed in a false tone. "Your friends have come to your rescue, saving me the task of rounding them up and killing them." Her grey eyes somehow became paler as she continued. "This is going to be easier than I thought," she told Faith.
The young slayer was sweating now. Every step was accompanied with a shooting pain through her body and she was finding it difficult to breathe. Despite her incapacitation however, she found the energy and the will to grin back at her attacker confidently. "I'll remind you of that thought just before you die, you bitch," she retorted and was grimly satisfied to see a flicker of hesitation in the cold eyes of the woman.
"You won't be able to remind anyone about anything, slayer." She glanced up to see Angel and Buffy closing the gap and without warning, theatrically extracted the blades from Faith's side and dropped the brunette on the floor. Without even glancing at the fallen slayer, she stepped away from the girl and turned to face her new enemies. "Ready to die?" She asked them playfully. As she spoke, her body shape shifted to become a hulking dark-green, scaled demon and now she was suddenly and unexpectedly in range. Without pausing, the demon lashed out and caught Buffy round the side of the head, launching her into a nearby chain link fence. The blonde slayer bounced off the fence and landed on the ground, winded and surprised. As she looked up, Buffy saw the demon throw out another fist to punch Angel, sending him flying into some nearby trash cans.
"What the...?" Breathed Gunn as his group skidded to a halt.
There was a palpable pause as the others faced the demon, wide-eyed at it's effortless sweeping aside of the slayer and vampire. The demon sneered at its prey, waiting for them to attack. It's grey eyes burned at them with arrogant confidence . "Which one of you volunteers to collect the artefacts?" The same sultry tones that Faith first heard in the Bronze fell incongruously from the demon's now blood-red mouth. Even as she spoke, there was the sound of heavy footfall and a group of demons, similar to the one Faith fought in the cemetery, ran to join the battle alongside the shape shifter.
Suddenly, the doors to the Magic Box burst open and Giles shot a bolt from his drawn crossbow directly at the shape shifter's chest. The bolt glanced off the scales and clattered harmlessly to the ground, but the demon spun round and screeched in anger at the Englishman.
It was the signal the others needed and they sprang into action.
Tara chanted quickly and threw a fireball at the demon, timing it perfectly to upset and disorientate the beast just before Angel and Buffy rejoined the fray with kicks and punches. Willow sent a fireball of equal force into the melee of lesser demons, sending them into confusion. Xander and Anya sprinted into the Magic shop heading for the weapons stockpile as Giles threw a mace towards Gunn. He swung towards the smaller demons, his face set in concentration and was quickly joined by Xander as they tried to fend off the attackers.
From Giles' side, Cordelia deftly loaded the crossbow she acquired from Anya and began picking off the demon hoard, not bothering to take aim at the shape shifter after seeing the earlier failure by Giles. The ex-Watcher reloaded his bow with a different style bolt and attempted to hurt the creature again.
Willow joined Tara and together they incanted another spell. Bolts of yellow energy left the out-strectched arm of the red-haired wiccan as she aimed her spell at the grey-eyed demon, hoping to weaken the thing. Wesley stood next to the two witches with a sword given to him by Xander and drew attacks away from the girls and towards himself or back towards Gunn and Xander.
As the energy struck its intended target, the shape shifter screeched again, turning towards the wiccans. "At least I now know who the witches are," she spat at them venomously before swatting Angel with a vicious uppercut, once again throwing him into the rubbish pile.
Buffy used the momentum of the shape-shifter's punch to her advantage and yanked on its limb, forcing the swing to continue and finally getting the demon off-balance. As soon as she sensed it's instability, she dropped low and swung her leg round in a brutal leg swipe, and managed to floor the shape shifter. As she stepped forward to continue her onslaught, the demon changed shape again, fluidly changing into a large black wolf still with grey eyes, and snapped at the slayer with wickedly sharp canines.
Startled, Buffy leapt back and out of the way of the snarling lupine, giving Giles a free shot with his crossbow.
The creature yelped as the bolt struck home cleanly this time and it looked around hurriedly, surveying the slaughter of its demon minions. With an enraged growl, the shape shifter leapt over Buffy and raced away from the fray, the bolt waving madly from it's imbedded position in the wolf's front shoulder, leaving the few remaining demons to fend for themselves.
Buffy was about to give chase when she heard Wes' cry for help. Looking over, she saw the two witches and the young ex-watcher being closed down by two demons, with Gunn and Xander fighting another demon that blocked their path to Willow and Tara's rescue.
Hurriedly, Buffy joined the Englishman and stopped one demon quickly with several swift kicks. By the time she turned to face the second demon, Angel was already exchanging blows. She was about to jump in and assist when the almost silent swish of a crossbow bolt thudded into its chest. Following the trajectory of the missile back to its origin, she raised her eyebrows in admiration as Cordelia barely paused in her work, reloading the weapon with a familiar ease.
Buffy surveyed the scene and breathed a sigh of relief as she realised that the danger was passed. "Are the artefacts safe?" She called over to Giles, recalling what the demon had said as she lay in a heap by the chain link fence.
"They're safe," Giles assured her, looking round wearily.
"Stuff the artefacts," Cordelia muttered angrily as she made the crossbow safe and threw it to the ground. Quickly she ran over to Faith's prone body, kneeling by the fallen slayer as Tara and Angel followed her. Gently she turned the young girl's body over, her throat constricting as her hands felt the slick blood covering Faith's body.
"Faith," she called gently. "Faith, open your eyes, you're safe now," she told her, unable to get her voice above a hoarse whisper, absently tucking the girl's chestnut hair behind her ears after settling the girl's head into her lap.
Faith groaned as her eyes fluttered open. "Hey," she croaked, her arms wrapped protectively round her abdomen.
Cordelia felt her throat constrict and blinked rapidly to keep the tears from falling. "How many times have I told you not to go off with strangers?" She demanded.
Faith felt the corners of her mouth move into a grin but she didn't have the energy to turn it into a full smile. "Didn't know you cared C," she replied, her voice barely audible.
"Yes you did," Cordelia contradicted her, equally as softly. From behind the two brunettes, Angel and Tara exchanged glances but said nothing.
"Faith, I know you hate them, but we have to get you to hospital," Cordelia continued, stroking the younger girl's face softly.
"You coming with me?"
"Of course. I'm surprised you had to ask," the seer responded quietly.
"Then I won't hate it," Faith told her, this time managing to widen her smile a fraction. For the first time, she noticed Angel and Tara hovering over Cordelia's shoulder. "Hey big guy, blondie," she acknowledged.
"Faith, what happened?" Angel asked. By this time, the others had crowded round the dark slayer.
"That bitch forced me out the Bronze, Angel. I would never have gone after her myself," Faith started to explain but the dark vampire interrupted her quickly.
"I know that Faith. But what did she want with you?"
"Angel, she needs to get to the hospital, can't this wait?" Cordelia interjected protectively.
"It's okay C," Faith told her. "She was after the other artefacts. She knew they were at the Magic Box and she wanted me to get them."
"Nice to know that she got away empty handed," Buffy commented, trying not to look at the wounds in Faith's side that reminded her of the near fatal injury she had inflicted on the younger slayer four years ago.
"More empty handed than you think, B," Faith told her and she shifted her hand to reveal a blood-soaked yet easily recognisable wooden artefact.
"Good work, Faith," exclaimed Giles genuinely.
"Yeah, it's amazing what skills you can pick up in the slammer," the Bostonian replied.
Angel leant down and took the girl into his arms carefully. "Come on, let's get you sorted out," and with that, he carried the girl to Giles' car.
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