The Varos Triad
By Rebelgirl

Part Seven:-

Angel paced nervously in the waiting area, his long strides taking him across the room in just a few steps before he had to swing around and retrace his path. Buffy watched his movement, irritated by his constant fidgeting yet reluctant to ask him to stop. She had never seen the dark vampire display his frame of mind so openly. Waiting to hear from the surgeons was beginning to take its toll on him. The blonde slayer switched her attention to the woman sitting opposite her. Superficially, Cordelia appeared to be reacting in completely the opposite way to Angel. She sat unmoving in the hard plastic waiting room chair, gazing steadily at some far away spot, not even acknowledging the presence of the other occupants. As Buffy looked closer however, she could see the tension across the Seer's face and the rigidity of her shoulders and neck muscles gave indication of how the ex-cheerleader was really reacting. The blonde girl rubbed the back of her neck, trying to relieve some of the stress that had manifested itself there as the enforced wait continued and wondered how Faith had managed to inspire such devotion from Angel and Cordelia. Was she really wrong to be so dogmatic in her damnation of the girl? Could Faith be really so far removed from the psychotic girl who had rampaged through Sunnydale?

Her thoughts were interrupted and she looked up as she heard footsteps indicating someone's arrival.

"Coffee?" Offered Giles, handing the girl a nondescript paper cup of steaming dark brown fluid. "I can't vouch for the quality as I got it from a vending machine, but at least it's hot," the Englishman continued as Buffy took the receptacle gratefully. He approached the tall ex-cheerleader and held out another cup, gently breaking the girl from her reverie.

"Any news?" Cordelia's hands shook as she took the coffee and she rested the cup in her lap, forgetting it's presence almost immediately.

"Not yet. But they did say it would take time," Giles replied softly. Cordelia nodded at his manner before looking up at the clock on the wall and returning to her introspection.

"Have you spoken to the others?" Angel asked, stopping his pacing now that the watcher had returned and had given him a distraction.

Giles blew into his cup, in an attempt to cool the boiling liquid before hesitantly taking a sip. "Yes, surprisingly. Gunn was still awake. 'Keeping guard', he said. They're all at the Magic Box now. Considering that the shape shifter knew that the artefacts were there and now knows who is involved, Wesley and Gunn decided to keep everyone else together under a protection spell."

"Good idea," agreed Buffy. She winced as she tasted the scalding coffee but forced herself to take another sip in the hope that she would get used to the bitter flavour. "Have they had any trouble?"

"Gunn didn't mention anything. I would think that the protection spell would be enough, considering that the shape shifter was trying to use Faith to obtain the artefacts. Varos himself might be very powerful, but it appears his minions have limited magickal abilities, thankfully."

Buffy swallowed another mouthful of coffee. "Now that we have all three statues, we're all going to be targets. I wonder how long it will take Will and Tara to figure out..."

"Miss Chase?" A deep voice interrupted them from the doorway.

Cordelia looked up immediately. "Yes?"

"Faith is out of surgery now and in Recovery." The surgeon rubbed his eyes tiredly, the dark ring of sweat covering the top of his green scrubs giving testimony to how hard he had been working.

Buffy got to her feet immediately and took a step towards the door along with Angel and Giles.

However, the Seer remained where she was and continued to stare at the doctor, not yet willing to feel anything until she knew more about Faith's condition. "And?" She prompted.

"The wounds she received were serious and she lost a lot of blood. However, the attacker missed her liver, spleen and kidneys. The damage to her intestines has been repaired and she already appears to be recovering. I wouldn't have thought it possible but I remember when she was here last time. I wrote her off then. I'm not going to make the same mistake twice. If it wasn't for the fact that no one would believe me, I'd write a paper on her powers of survival. She is a remarkable young woman."

"I couldn't agree more," Cordelia responded, finally getting to her feet, though finding herself wobble slightly at the sudden movement after so many hours of inactivity. She twisted down to place her untouched coffee on the vacated chair before straightening and looking at the surgeon again. "Can I see her?"

"I'm sorry, she's restricted to relatives only." The reply was automatic.

"She hasn't got any relatives Doctor," Cordelia told him, feeling a mixture of sadness at how alone Faith must have felt for most of her life along with a nagging curiosity about the veracity of her words. "I'm..." she hesitated at how to describe herself. "I'm her best friend."

The doctor looked carefully at the tall brunette, holding her stare for a moment before looking at the other occupants of the waiting room and sighing heavily. "She's heavily sedated. I doubt you'll get any response from her, but I'll allow one visitor," he acquiesced.

Cordelia looked round at the others expectantly, and her eyes rested on Angel. "Did you want to see her?" She asked quietly, knowing that he must have been suffering the same way she had.

Angel looked at his secretary with wonder. Once again she had managed to amaze him with an act of generosity and selflessness and he noted the look of surprise on Buffy's face. The ex-cheerleader had matured and changed since leaving Sunnydale, particularly since the dubious 'gift' of Sight that the Powers That Be had bestowed upon her. Buffy had just seen the perfect example of that change. If only she could see the changes in Faith as well. "No, you go," he told her gently. "Tell her I'm here though," he requested as Cordelia smiled at him gratefully.

"When can she go home?" Surprisingly, it was Giles who asked the question.

The surgeon frowned at the question, his thick brows almost meeting above his broad nose. "She's suffered major traumatic injury to her abdomen and just spent two hours in surgery. She won't be going home for some time," he told the Englishman.

"Tomorrow or the day after then," translated Buffy, knowing how slayer healing worked.

The doctor laughed incredulously before recognising the blonde girl and recalling that she too had an amazing ability to recuperate. "Are you related to Faith?"

Buffy snorted derisively. "Definitely not."

"I don't understand. Last time Faith was stabbed it took her months to come out of the coma," Angel objected to the rapid recovery time Buffy was suggesting.

The blonde girl blanched at the memory. "She was in a coma due to the head injury she got when she fell from the balcony," she explained.

Cordelia interrupted before the conversation could continue. "Where do I go?" She asked.

"Oh, sorry, come with me." The surgeon instantly forgot his train of thought and led the tall brunette out of the door.

The doctor held a door open for Cordelia and she stepped into the small side room. She glanced back at him as he spoke. "I know you're upset and want to be with her, and, believe me, I do sympathise, but she really does need to rest. Please be considerate," he told her quietly before leaving the Seer in the room alone.

She turned around and looked up the bed. The bed covers were drawn up as far as Faith's shoulders, with her arms resting on top of the sheets by her sides. Cordelia noticed the drip taped to the slayer's right arm, the various monitoring devices attached to her finger and upper arm and the oxygen tubing laced over her ears and under her nose. As she gazed at Faith's face, Cordelia almost gasped at how pale the girl looked and, with her face scrubbed of make up, how young she really was. The white pillow her head rested on and the fawn hospital gown served only to wash out her complexion even more. She approached the bed hesitantly, unwilling to disturb Faith, yet desperate for the girl to open her eyes and reassure her that she really was all right. Spying a chair tucked away in a corner, Cordelia picked it up and placed it by the side of the bed. She sat down quietly and took Faith's left hand with both of hers and squeezed it gently, trying to silently indicate her presence and support. The ex-cheerleader was relieved to feel how warm Faith's hand felt, and she lifted the slayer's arm gently and pressed her lips to the girl's knuckles before returning their entwined hands back to the bed. "God, you gave me a scare," she whispered. "I thought I was going to lose you before I really found you." Her own voice sounded alien to her. It shook with barely contained emotion.

She started as she saw Faith's head move, turning to face the seated girl. Her eyelids fluttered open, revealing chocolate brown irises, impossibly dark against her almost alabaster skin. Cordelia noticed that her eyes were slightly unfocused, yet undeniably alluring and the Seer was mesmerised by them.

"Hey." Faith's voice was cracked and weak. She coughed and swallowed in an effort to make it stronger. "You're wearing that dress," she remarked with a small smile, registering Cordelia's apparel.

Cordelia pulled herself back from the depths of Faith's eyes and almost sobbed with relief as she smiled back at the rogue slayer. "You really have a thing for this dress, don't you," she replied, wondering if the younger girl had heard her earlier words.

"No, I don't," Faith contradicted her softly, prompting Cordelia to frown at her in confusion. "I have a thing for the wearer of the dress." She closed her eyes and turned away from Cordelia. In a voice that was hoarse and raw with emotion she continued. "It also means that I haven't just wasted another eight months in a coma. You'd never wear the same dress to visit me." As she spoke the words, Faith was suddenly overwhelmed by how scared she had been by that thought. She had heard Cordelia entering the room and had kept her eyes shut, drawing up enough courage to face her, wondering how long she had been unconscious this time. A solitary tear slipped down her face, much to her chagrin. Faith had never been one to hug and share and learn and grow, and even now thought that crying indicated weakness. She rolled her eyes and blinked rapidly in an effort to stop any more tears from falling and tensed, waiting for Cordelia to comment on her lapse.

Cordelia was rocked by Faith's words and how heartfelt they were. She also realised how sensitive Faith was at the moment and was certain that the renegade slayer did not want to have her feelings dissected. Instead, she continued the banter. "Well, I might wear the same dress in LA but not here in Sunny Hell. What would people think?" She let out a short stab of laughter. "Oh my God Faith, you really *do* know me," she commented.

"Not as well as I'd like to," responded the younger girl, still with her eyes closed. Her voice was gruff but it was under control now.

A voice in her head told her that it was perhaps unfair to pursue the topic while Faith was so exposed but the Seer couldn't help wanting to carry the subject on. Cordelia drew a shaky breath, wondering at how nervous she felt, yet determined to continue. "I meant what I said at the Bronze," she told Faith quietly.

Faith opened her eyes once more and turned to look at Cordelia carefully. "Cor,..." She began hesitantly but the tall Seer, emboldened by her own words hushed the slayer.

"Shhhh, Faith. Don't say anything," she told the prone woman, and she got up out of the chair slowly and leant forward to press her lips gently onto Faith's. The kiss was chaste but held the promise of so much more to come and Cordelia broke the contact reluctantly after a few seconds. Her breath hitched as she drew away and was relieved to hear a similar gasp from the recumbent slayer. She got her breathing under control so that she could speak again. "Let's just take things as they come, huh?" The Seer sat back down and removed one of her hands from around Faith's and touched her own lips, marvelling at the sensation she had just experienced, and suddenly aware of how rapidly her pulse was beating in her neck. The tall brunette glanced up to one of the monitors surrounding Faith and noticed that her pulse had quickened too.

"Wow?" Faith suggested as she looked at Cordelia tentatively.

"Oh, definitely wow," the Seer agreed emphatically, unwilling to take her hand away from her lips in case the sensation faded.

Faith grinned sleepily, having shaken off her earlier fears and now basked in a much more welcome emotion. "Never thought I'd have a kiss like that while lying down, and not be able to do anything more," she mumbled, trying to fight the effects of the anaesthetic.

"Hey, Miss Gutter Mind!" Cordelia protested good-naturedly.

"I'm allowed to now, C," Faith replied with a slow wink.

"Oh really?"

"Yes, really."

Faith's voice was becoming more distant by the second, but Cordelia didn't mind. She knew now that the girl was going to be all right, and that she had at last been able to express her feelings, even if the demonstration was all too brief. "I'm going to let you rest now. Angel's outside. I want to tell him you're all right."

"You comin' back?" Faith could barely get the words out now. She felt like she had a mouth full of cotton wool and her eyelids seemed determined to close, despite her best efforts to keep them open.

"Wild horses couldn't drag me away," Cordelia reassured the girl, before gently squeezing her hand once more and rising from her seat.

Faith frowned, remembering the circumstances that had brought her to the hospital in the first place. She struggled to get another sentence out. "Go back to the mansion and stay with the others. You'll be safe with them."

"They're at the Magic Box," Cordelia replied. "I want to stay with you," she continued.

Faith shook her head slightly, battling the somnolence that was flooding through her. "I need to know that you're safe. Please, Cordelia."

Despite being unable to raise her voice above a whisper, Faith's words conveyed a pleading urgency that Cordelia was unable to ignore. The Seer nodded unhappily and she knew that the younger girl was deadly serious simply because she had bothered to use her entire name. "I'll be back soon," she vowed.

The ex-cheerleader smiled at the slayer fondly when she got no response. Faith had finally succumbed to the sedative. She bent over and kissed the slayer's forehead, unknowingly copying the actions of Buffy when she found Faith in the hospital after stabbing her.

Closing the door quietly behind her, the tall Seer returned to the waiting area. "I spoke with her. She's okay," she told the room's occupants generally but focused her attention on Angel.

The dark vampire closed his eyes for a moment before nodding at Cordelia. "Do you want to stay?" He asked, already knowing the answer.

"Yes," replied the ex-cheerleader honestly. Before she was able to continue, the sometime actress was interrupted by an incredulous blonde slayer.

"It's not safe here, Cordelia," Buffy objected. "You should be back at the Magic Box."

"I know," the Seer agreed with the girl's logic, prompting a look of confusion from her. "Nor do I want to leave Faith alone in a place she despises," she continued. "However, Faith insisted that I go back to the Magic Box. I have a feeling she'll know if I go against her wishes, so I'm going."

"I'll stay till just before sunrise," Angel offered. "We'll have to keep some sort of guard up for her."

Buffy nodded. "I'll go back to the Magic Box with you Cordy. I need to get some rest. We'll come back in the morning and I'll take over."

Cordelia's eyebrows shot up at Buffy's gesture. She had been certain that the older slayer would leave Faith to her own devices.

"I'll talk to Tara and Willow. They may be able to put a protection spell on Faith's room while she's here," Giles added. "Although I rather suspect that Faith will be left alone for the time being."

"What makes you say that?" Cordelia's voice rose an octave, not able to follow Giles' reasoning. "Surely she's a prime target now that she's injured."

"With the wounds the shape shifter inflicted on her, I think that they will assume that she's dead," Giles explained. "And even if they have already found out that she's alive, they will be extremely hesitant to cross her again. Not only has she taken out four demons, she survived a shape shifter attack. She's proven to them that she's a formidable opponent. They will want to plan their next attack far more carefully. Particularly as we now have all three artefacts."

Angel nodded at the Englishman's logic. "Makes sense. But it also means that they are more likely to go for one of us now. They'll be looking for a weaker target."

"Which means that we all have to be extra careful until we figure out how to destroy the artefacts," Buffy supplied. "Right, let's go," she told Cordelia. "We'll be back in a few hours," she assured Angel.

Taking one last look at the door that led to Faith's bed, Cordelia reluctantly followed the blonde slayer out of the hospital, consoling herself with the thought that Faith would probably be unconscious or at the very least deeply asleep during the short period that she was not at her side.

Part 8:-

Tara sat back in her chair and rubbed her eyes as she rolled her shoulders in an effort to get the stiffness out of them. It had been a difficult night to say the least. She and Willow had put yet another protection spell over the Magic Box in an effort to safeguard not just the artefacts but the occupants too. Despite Willow's amazing power as a witch and Tara's not inconsiderable talent, they both knew that there were ways of overcoming the incantation and with very little known about Varos' minions, no one felt particularly safe. Afterwards, while Gunn and Wesley tidied away the weapons, the group huddled round together trying to speculate over the dark slayer's condition without actually mentioning the words 'Faith' , 'attack' or 'injuries'. They had all seen the renegade's stomach, dark and slick with blood and her face ashen white with pain, yet none of her companions wanted to display any emotions that could indicate concern for Faith. The closest Xander got was to mention how useful she could be in a battle and Anya remarking that the sight of so much blood was reminiscent of one of her revenge spells. Her story was halted before she got the opportunity to share all the grisly details.

Tara was not so hesitant in showing her concern. "You can dance around the topic all you like, but I'm worried about Faith. I know you all think it's just a case of us needing her help as opposed to actually wanting her here, but surely you can't believe that she deserved to be injured like that. I wouldn't wish what she's gone through on anyone."

Willow snorted. "Seems like she got a taste of her own medicine. She held a knife to my throat, remember?" She prompted. The conversation she had with Cordelia at the Bronze had been firmly placed in the back of her mind.

"Four years ago, Willow," Tara pointed out, letting out an exasperated sigh. "And besides, she didn't actually stick the blade in, did she?"

Willow's eyes went wide with amazement. Once again, her lover was defending Faith. "I can't believe you just said that," the flame-haired girl told her. "Have you not listened to anything I told you about her?"

"Yes I have. However, what happened to forgiveness?" The blonde witch retorted.

"Sorry, I go by the Old Testament. 'An eye for an eye'," her lover quoted back at her.

"Well in that case, I can't understand what you've got against her," Tara responded, annoyed with herself for getting angry with Willow, yet unable to stop her spiralling emotions.

"And what's that supposed to mean?" Willow frowned, her brow furrowing deeply at Tara's comment.

"The way you told me, Faith came back seeking revenge for Buffy putting her in a coma for eight months. That rather fits the 'eye for an eye' tenet, doesn't it?"

"Wow, you should be a lawyer," interjected Xander as Willow gaped at the blonde witch's argument.

"She held the knife to my throat before her revenge kick," protested Willow, jumping back into the conversation.

"Does that *really* matter now?" Tara looked at her companions. "L-look, I know I w-wasn't that affected by Faith but you have to move on. At the moment we have identifiable threats out there to face. We d-don't need to make our lives more difficult by adding Faith to the l-list when she's already demonstrated that she's on our side." Inside, the blonde witch was furious with herself for stammering again.

"I agree," interrupted Anya from behind the counter. "All the time she's helping us, she's more likely to be killed by the demons than we are."

"That's not exactly what I meant," demurred the blonde witch.

"Good principle though," Xander agreed with his girlfriend.

Tara rolled her eyes in frustration. "What has she got to do to convince you? You saw her wounds. She's the only one of us who didn't walk away from that situation."

"More's the pity," the construction worker muttered under his breath.

Tara didn't quite catch exactly what the dark man said but she could feel the sentiment of his utterance. "Fine. Do what you like. J-just know that I feel s-safer knowing that Faith's on our side and helping us out with Varos."

"I'm glad you've made up your mind. What you seem to have forgotten is that Faith sided with the Mayor while she was still on 'our side'," Willow retorted, her voice strangely flat as she looked at Tara. "I'm not as trusting as you, and I've already been betrayed once. I'm not prepared to allow her to do that again." The red-head sat back defiantly, resolute with her original stance on the matter.

"Hypocrite." Wesley's accusation stung her from across the room.

Willow glared at him. "And what's that supposed to mean?" She challenged, her arms crossed defensively.

"Well, it seems to me that you allowed Angel to be part of your lives again when he spent an awful lot of his time hurting you all."

"That's different. He had no soul as Angelus."

"We all have demons to deal with," Wesley responded softly. "Faith's actions may have been inexcusable at the time, but she's been punished for that..."

"Three years in the slammer? Hardly a punishment," interrupted Xander, feeling the need to defend his oldest friend and siding with her once again on her views about the renegade slayer.

"Yes. On face value, it would seem an inappropriate sentence. But as none of you have bothered enquiring about her time spent in the penitentiary, none of you could possibly know whether the punishment was suitable or not," Wesley reasoned. He swallowed in an effort to keep his voice under control. "I have greater reason than any of you to mistrust Faith, even hate her. But I can see the changes in her." He left the weapons store and came over to sit opposite his audience. "She may still talk in the same way and dress in the same way. She is, indeed, the same person in many ways. I don't want her to change *every* aspect of her character. It's part of who she is and who she always will be. More to the point, none of you have any right to demand that she changes completely. I still dress and talk the same, yet you afford me far more courtesy now than you ever did when I here as Buffy's watcher." Wesley held up a hand to stop the protests from Xander and Willow. "However Faith *has* changed where it matters. Changes that are quite apparent if you can get past your prejudice and actually see the girl for what she is now, not what she was four years ago. Those changes have made a huge difference to me. Now I would trust her with my life. No buts, no exceptions. She's my friend."

"Then more fool you," Willow retorted quietly before getting up and moving away to distance herself from the young ex-watcher. His words had disturbed her in the same way Cordelia's words had at the Bronze. She knew that their arguments made sense but she didn't want to believe them. More to the point, how did Buffy feel about all this? Willow knew that if the blonde slayer still held the same rancour for Faith, then she could never change her opinion. But even if Buffy mellowed, the red-haired witch wasn't sure she could be swayed. Willow had a deep-seated resentment for the younger slayer that started long before the Bostonian sided with the Mayor. A tiny part of her was concerned that should the status quo be broken and Faith be allowed to interact on more equal terms with Buffy and the other scoobs, Willow might find herself playing second fiddle to her again. The wiccan already resented Tara's involvement with the entire affair and was subconsciously questioning her lover's motives for defending Faith. Before Faith's return, had anyone wondered about the strength of the relationship between her and Tara, Willow would have laughed at the thought. Now she was beginning to worry about that too. She resented the uncertainty that Faith had unearthed since her return to Sunnydale. And she didn't like the feelings she was being subjected to. Unwilling to face her dilemma, she walked away from the rest of the group and headed towards the back of the shop. Perhaps milling round the storeroom would help clarify her thoughts, or at least give her a better perspective on them. The red haired wiccan was also irrationally annoyed with Tara and she didn't want to flare up at her lover and cause yet more problems. She sighed as she heard the blonde witch step into the storeroom behind her. "Tara, I came out here to clear my head," she explained, not turning round.

"I know and I'm sorry," the taller girl replied softly.

"You're sorry? Why?" Willow span round and looked at Tara curiously.

"Well, I distinctly remember telling you that I was entitled to my own opinion, and here I am forcing my views onto you," Tara explained, tripping over the sentence slightly as she struggled with her emotions.

Willow took one look at Tara's face and her irritation melted away instantly. She closed the gap between them and pulled the blonde woman into a close hug. "I'm sorry too," she mumbled into the girl's shoulder. "Please don't let us argue over this," she pleaded softly.

"I don't want to fight either," Tara agreed. She moved slightly and rested her forehead against her lover's. "I love you," she murmured.

Willow felt her arms tighten as she pulled the blonde girl into a tighter embrace. She revelled in the nearness of the other girl for a moment, before leaning back just a fraction. "I'm tired," she explained, hoping that Tara would accept her hidden request and not push things any further. "Those protection spells and all that action have worn me out. I could do with some sleep."

Tara nodded her head against Willow's, signifying her concurrence. She knew that Willow was still avoiding the issue but she knew better than to push the red head into a corner. If Willow truly thought that she was being coerced, it would set her resolve to unbreakable levels. "Come on. Let's see if we can find somewhere to sleep for what's left of the night." The blonde witch took hold of Willow's hand and led her back out into the Magic Box. "We're tired," she announced to the room in general. Tara looked at Wesley carefully, silently pleading that he wouldn't continue the confrontation.

Seeing the look in Tara's eyes, Faith's watcher nodded almost imperceptibly and gestured to one of the couches. "Yes, you must both be exhausted," he agreed. I'll see if I can find you a blanket."

Willow opened her mouth to protest but was interrupted by Gunn. "It'd be a good idea if you all get some rest." He looked round at the others. "I'll keep watch by the door," he offered as he inspected a plain yet functional looking crossbow.

"There should be no need to keep watch," Willow objected. "The spell we placed will warn us if the ward is broken," she explained.

"I'm sure it will, but I'd still be happier with a physical guard at the door," Gunn replied, hefting a large club and resting it on his shoulder as he moved to the doorway. "Just think of it as extra protection," he told the wiccan.

"You can't stand guard all night Gunn," the Englishman told him. "I'll take second watch," he declared.

Gunn looked at his friend steadily. "Sure Wes. I'll wake you when it's your turn."

Anya emerged from the back of the Magic Box, her arms laden with blankets. "For some reason, Giles always seems to have a good supply of these." The blonde ex-vengeance demon hurried round and distributed the blankets out evenly. She even handed one to Gunn. "You might be cold sitting there," she explained at his questioning look.

Xander's eyes shot up in surprise. "Looks like you're getting the hang of caring about people Anya," he told her gently.

"Am I?" Anya smiled back at her lover. "I didn't realise. I didn't want him to get distracted by the cold while he was standing guard in case we got attacked. I didn't realise that I was caring about him."

Xander shook his head silently and decided that it was too late at night to go through a potentially torturous explanation with his girlfriend. "Great idea," he agreed. "Now, which couch do you want?"

Finally the occupants were settled and after a few minutes of quiet talking and soft bickering between them, everyone except Gunn managed to drift off to sleep. The tall black man hurried to answer the phone when Giles rang and was frustrated by the lack of information the older watcher shared. Gunn was concerned for Faith. She gave off a tough aura and had a bad girl image and he was also fully aware of her past with Buffy and Angel. But despite all that, he genuinely liked the girl. He loved training with her and his confidence battling against the evil in LA grew immeasurably when Faith stood with him. When he saw her lying there in Cordelia's arms, blood soaking through her clothes and onto the ground, Gunn suddenly became aware of her mortality and he didn't like that thought. Suddenly, their invincibility together was not certain.

The ringing of the phone prompted the shop's occupants to grill him for news. When they were satisfied that he had none to tell, they settled back down. Tara lay cradled around Willow, holding her tight as she pondered over the day's events. She only relaxed when she noticed her lover begin to breathe more regularly and slowly, indication that she had succumbed to her tiredness.

The next thing she heard was the door open. Squinting through the darkness, she made out the shapes of Giles, Buffy and Cordelia in the shadows as they whispered to Gunn by the doorway. The blonde witch managed to pick up a few snippets of information, including the fact that Cordelia had managed to talk with Faith and she drifted back into the realms of Morpheus feeling slightly less concerned over the fate of the Bostonian.

Tara's eyes shot open as she felt her arm spasm. Sharing the sofa with Willow had sounded like a wonderful idea at the time, and she always revelled in being near the red-haired witch. However the more physical aspects of spending several hours perched on the edge of a sofa that wasn't as long as she was with her arm trapped by her lover's body was beginning to take it's toll. Moving very slowly, Tara extracted her arm from underneath Willow and then rolled off the couch, looking closely at Willow for any signs that she had disturbed her slumber. Willow shifted slightly but stilled again without wakening.

Tara stood and stretched, feeling the muscles around her lower back and shoulders protesting at the sudden usage before she shook her numb arm in an attempt to encourage the circulation back to it. Once she felt the buzzing in her digits that signified the return of blood to her fingers, she tiptoed over to a nearby table and sat down. She scanned the room, her eyes now accustomed to the lack of light and noticed Anya and Xander huddled motionless on another couch, Giles and Wesley asleep on chairs and Buffy stretched out on the floor with a blanket wrapped round her.

Tara sat back in her chair as she rubbed her eyes wearily and rolled her shoulders in an effort to get the stiffness out of them. The blonde girl jumped as her peripheral vision caught movement to her left side and as she turned her head to find out what it was, she saw a slender hand place a mug full of steaming coffee in front of her.

"I couldn't sleep so I made a huge pot of coffee. I assumed that you could do with some," Cordelia whispered to her as she sat down at the table, her other hand holding an identical mug, its contents steaming.

Tara wrapped her hands round the mug and allowed them to absorb the heat it was radiating before raising the receptacle and taking a cautious sip. "Hmmm, it's good," she complemented before taking another taste.

"Thank you. One of my many talents as Angel's receptionist," Cordelia replied but the usual sarcasm that would accompany the comment was missing. "What are you doing up?"

"I woke up uncomfortable. Rather than toss and turn and disturb Willow, I thought it would be easier just to get up and restore the circulation to my arm."

Cordelia nodded. "I hope we didn't disturb you when we came in the shop."

Recognising the comment as an opening, Tara took the lead and leapt straight in. "How's Faith?" She asked, believing that Cordelia would prefer that to skirting round the issue.

"She'll be okay," replied the Seer, a small smile gracing her lips as she thought of the brunette. "They operated on her and she's recovering. Buffy seems to think that she'll be out of hospital today or tomorrow." Cordelia couldn't help grimacing at mentioning the blonde slayer's name but she hoped that Tara didn't notice.

"You're not a huge fan of Buffy are you?"

Cordelia rolled her eyes as she realised that her expressive face had revealed her thoughts. "Buffy isn't exactly Miss Squeaky Clean, but she won't even allow Faith an inch to demonstrate that she's not the same person anymore," she told the blonde girl, her voice straining slightly as she tried to keep the volume low.

"You should have heard Wesley earlier," Tara commented, recalling his speech. "I think that before this 'adventure' is over, we will all have had the opportunity of seeing what you, Angel and Wes see in her."

Cordelia looked at the witch carefully. "I suppose I just don't want her to get hurt again," she admitted. "Ever since she's been working in LA with us, I think that she's actually got a sense of belonging. Something that she never had before. She was able to let her barriers down a bit. Show the 'real' Faith and not the image she's projected ever since she can remember." The ex-cheerleader sighed before taking a sip of her own coffee. "Now she's back in Sunnyhell I can see all those barriers rising again. If that happens totally, I don't know how we'll ever get through to her."

"You have a connection with her Cordelia," Tara replied. "As long as you're here, I don't think that Faith will ever isolate herself completely."

"Is it that obvious?" Cordelia asked, realising that Tara knew exactly the extent of her relationship with the renegade slayer.

Tara smiled enigmatically. "To the people who look? Yes, probably," she answered honestly.

"Oh God." The tall Seer groaned at the thought. "What about the others?"

"I think Angel knows. Wesley too. I don't know about Gunn though, he guards his feelings well. As for everyone else? I doubt it. They haven't got past the 'psycho slayer is back' stage," Tara confided.

Cordelia grinned at the wicca's description before becoming pensive again. "Willow?" She suggested nervously, recalling the red haired girl's comments at the Bronze after Cordelia had danced with Faith.

Tara shook her head and shifted uncomfortably before answering. "I think she was trying to goad you. I'm sure that what she saw didn't really sink in."

"You're probably right," agreed the ex-cheerleader. "Never thought that their defensive nature would work to my advantage," she mused.

"Advantage?" Tara frowned at the brunette. "Don't you want people to know about you and Faith?"

"No, no. It's not that at all," Cordelia protested. "It's just..." she hesitated, not knowing whether she could trust Tara enough to confide in her. "It's just that I'm not sure that there's much to tell," she admitted.

Tara sat back and looked at her companion steadily. "Have you not been going out for long then?"

Cordelia smiled ruefully. "We haven't gone out at all. I only kissed her for the first time tonight when she was in the Recovery Room. I'm not even sure how she feels about me."

"Now that I don't believe," refuted Tara firmly. "It's obvious that she cares about you."

"You think?" Cordelia couldn't help the question and she hated herself for feeling so insecure about the situation. But she needed the reassurance that only an outsider to her predicament could give.

The blonde witch smiled again. "I know," she amended confidently. "But it doesn't matter what I *think* or *know*. What counts is how you feel about Faith and her feelings for you."

"Thanks," Cordelia acknowledged her listener. "Anyone tell you that you'd make a great therapist?" She only half joked.

"Not until now," replied Tara. "And I'm not so sure that I would."

The some time actress felt the need for a change of topic. Examining her feelings left her emotionally exhausted and exposed. She didn't want to carry on the dissection. "So what are you going to do now? Go back to sleep?"

"Not much point really," Tara replied, eyeing the couch where Willow now lay sprawled across it. "I thought I'd continue looking at the binding spell for the artefacts."

"I take it that it's not simple then?" Cordelia probed.

Tara shook her head. "There's one part of it that I just don't understand. I think we need to delve into the history books to get more information. Mind you, in a way I'm pleased that it's not easy."

"What? That doesn't make sense," the ex-cheerleader told the blonde.

"I just feel that I'll have contributed more if this is difficult. Faith's risked her life more than once. Me getting eyestrain is a small price to pay."

"Bizarrely, that makes a twisted sort of sense," Cordelia commented before rubbing the back of her neck. She clasped her coffee mug and drained its contents. "I ought to wake Buffy up. It'll be daylight soon."

Tara frowned in consternation at the Seer. "What difference does that make? We've protected the shop regardless of the time of day."

"Angel's keeping watch at the hospital," Cordelia explained, noting how Tara's face lit up with understanding. "Buffy said that she'd take over before daybreak."

"Good idea. Much as I want to put a protection spell over Faith at the hospital, it would pretty much be impossible to do, considering the amount of people who need to gain access to the place."

"Thanks for listening," Cordelia voiced her appreciation a second time.

"No problem." Tara took a large draught from her mug. "I think I'll get a refill."

The brunette rose and approached the sleeping slayer. "Come on, Buffy. Time to change the guard." Cordelia resisted the urge to shake the slayer awake. She had done that to Faith on a couple of occasions and had almost been decapitated with a thrown punch each time. The ex-cheerleader somehow suspected that Buffy would have a similar reaction.

The blonde slayer grumbled and turned over, grabbing the blanket that covered her and rolling into it more tightly.

Cordelia tried again, still keeping her distance from the older slayer. "Buffy. Wake up."

Suddenly, Buffy spun round, arm raised and fist clenched, ready to face her attacker. The tall Seer raised an eyebrow. "Been caught out before," she told the girl as Buffy looked at her in surprised admiration.

Buffy snorted before disentangling herself from the covers. "What time is it?" She asked groggily as she stood up.

"Shh," Cordelia tried to quieten her down and glanced around at the other occupants of the Magic Box. "It's nearly dawn," she told her.

Buffy nodded as she wiped the sleep from her eyes. She stood up gracefully and looked round, acknowledging both Tara and Gunn with a nod when she met their eyes. Satisfied that things appeared to be in order, she made her way to the exit. "Come on Cordy, let's go."

Part Nine

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