I'm back, bitches! I promised a new chapter in January and I made my deadline with a week to spare! Woo! (This is me having a moment of personal triumph, lol, sorry.)

Sigh, everyone's off shipping Clexa in honor of The 100's season 3 premier, and I'm still sitting here like the Fuffy trash that I am. I just can't quit these two! No matter how many newfangled lesbian pairings emerge out of TV land, nobody can quite capture the love/hate dynamic of the Chosen Two. Is it the tragedy? The frustration? The unexplored subtext? I don't know. Maybe there's just something uniquely compelling about the struggle of Whedon's characters in the face of unrepentant evil.

The darkness brings us together, and it shoves us apart.



14. Inner Visions

September 18 - New Orleans, Louisiana

Xander tugged at the collar of his shirt. He was already sweating bullets, but the humidity outside had nothing to do with it. The basement was actually rather cold, equipped with not one, not two, but three air-conditioning units to keep Willow's computers cool. Pale light glared against his skin as he peered over her shoulder at a line of code she was typing into a command window. Her wooden, semicircular desk was custom built to house all of her equipment, supporting an arc of high-resolution monitors and two backlit, wireless keyboards, one of which was resting on her lap as she deliberately tapped the keys, squinting, brow furrowed in intense thought as she tabbed down and entered another halting string of code.

"So, you made a copy?"

"Yeah," Willow reached for an errant can of Cranberry Red Bull, and threw back the last of it, "obviously I wasn't going to take her machine offsite."

Xander glanced around at the overflowing waste bin and the snack food detritus strewn across the desk. His eyes lingered on what appeared to be a recently used cot in the corner, and a pile of clothes in a plastic hamper, set aside carelessly next to the washing machine and dryer.

"Have you been living down here?"

"I had a few days off," Willow replied, by way of explanation.

"Have you been outside?"

"I can see how shitty the weather is just fine from here." She tapped a weather widget in the corner of one of her screens. "94 degrees. 95% humidity."

Xander sighed and went to fetch an extra rolling chair from a table covered in discarded gaming headsets, cough drops, and loose change. "So, this is how you live."

"Not all the time." Willow flipped a hand dismissively, eyes never leaving the screen. "That would be unhealthy."

"Totally." Xander rolled his eyes and pulled up next to her. "So, what did you find, and why am I here?"

Her fingers paused. She pursed her lips, deep in thought for a moment, and added a final parenthesis to her statement. "Done."

She hit the enter key and watched as strings of code flew across the screen.

"What's done?"

"I wrote an algorithm." Willow plucked a bag of dried cranberries out of a desk drawer full of wires and crammed a handful into her mouth, speaking again to Xander while chewing. "It's going to sort through Buffy's daily activities, group them into categories, and pick out the ones that are significant to me."

Xander scratched his head. "I guess I'm not sure what you're looking for."

Willow swallowed and gave him a grim look. "Right. So, I found a thing."

"A thing? What kind of thing? An oogly thing?"

"Oogly and boogly," Willow replied, still deathly serious. "Check it out."

She rolled over to another monitor and pulled up a Tor browser.

"You've been on the dark web again," Xander observed, as she typed in a website URL and waited for the sluggish window to load. "Great. We are gonna get in so much trouble."

"No way," Willow scoffed. "Think positive."

"Fine. I'm positive that we are going to get in so much trouble."

Willow glared at him sidelong, but didn't get a chance to comment because just then a window filled with grainy pictures loaded up onto the screen. Xander frowned and leaned in closer. What he saw, made the hair stand up on the back of his neck, a dark photo of a man with yellow eyes and oddly distorted facial features captured in the middle of a crowd, fangs flashing as he snarled at the camera. It was one of the more convincing costumes Xander had ever seen. He peered at the other details on the page. It wasn't much of a website, really just a message board filled with photographs and comments from anonymous users, dated, timestamped, and traced to various countries of origin.

At the top of the board, the subject, in bold font, read:

"Mnstr Citings

Mnstrs Vsto"

Xander squinted at the responses visible below, written mostly in broken, or shorthand English, though another language appeared frequently, sprinkled in below tiny icons of the Brazilian flag.

"Is this in Portuguese?" he asked, glancing back at the misspelled thread prompt. "Why is it written like that?"

"To avoid bots and screen scrapers." Willow scrolled down through the user posts, apparently searching for something. "The NSA and the FBI have been censoring this content from the regular web, so these guys have moved underground and are now hosting their content on Brazilian servers. It's a smart security move. As you know, the Brazilians disconnected from the American controlled internet after the NSA spying scandal."

"I...did not know that."

"Well, goodie." Willow gave him a sharp jerk of a smile. "The more you know." She stopped scrolling abruptly. "Found it."

Xander studied the photograph on the screen. "Alright, what am I looking at?"

"Us." Willow enlarged the photo.

"Is that security footage from the office?"


Xander blinked. "Wow. Illegal."

Willow shrugged. "I just bribed the security guard."

"Um, really illegal. What did you bribe him with?"

"Okay, blackmailed."

"Blackmailed?" Xander felt a little queasy. "Really, really illegal."


"We're gonna be so screwed when the FBI catches up."

"Nah," Willow smirked. "He definitely won't be talking to the FBI."

Xander mopped his brow on his sleeve. "Remind me never to piss you off."

Willow's answering smile was positively evil as she read through the posts, and Xander was reminded of the time that she took revenge on a pervy, unrepentant office skirt-chaser by breaking into HR's records, stealing his information, taking out credit cards in his name, and signing him up for every gay porn site she could find. The look on his face when the first package arrived on his desk had promptly been captured by a hidden webcamera, installed by none other than Willow herself, who at times still entertained herself by attaching the photo to a decoy email address and spamming his work account.

It gave Xander chills just thinking about it.

"Perfect. Look." Willow pointed at the security photo. "A few days ago, I found some footage with a clear shot of Faith's face and posted it up here to see if anyone had any information about her." She brushed a thick strand of red hair out of her face. "A couple people responded and it looks like her name really is Faith."

"Oh, nice, a kernel of truth in the popcorn bowl of lies."

"I know right? But that's not what I was gonna show you, actually. That's just gravy." Willow swiveled in her chair and began pulling up other tabs on her unoccupied monitors. "All aboard the gravy train." She giggled, and suddenly Xander was struggling to keep up with the sheer volume of pictures appearing on her screens.

There were more weird forums, not all of them in English, some filled with lengthy paragraphs of text, others filled with yet more photos. There were more shots of humanoid figures, people in strange costumes of all sizes, shapes, and colors. His eyebrows disappeared up into his hairline as he saw talons, claws, horns, and fangs scroll past. In addition to the monster freak show, there was also, for some reason, news articles from the mass shootings at UC Sunnydale, a copy of Buffy's last driver's license, and a scanned PDF of what appeared to be medical records from a hospital.

Moving on to the next monitor, Xander's eyes widened as he spied more pictures of the mysterious woman called Faith, arranged into a sloppy collage against a black background, with lime green text spelling out the word "SLAYER" in capital letters. She had been captured in a variety of poses, most of them fighting stances or candid shots, and all of them at night, never in the same location twice. In a couple shots she seemed to fighting with men and women whose faces, Xander was confused to note, had the same, strange disfigurations as the yellow-eyed man in the first photo.

"Will," he frowned, mouth hanging ajar at a picture of Faith stabbing a grey, scaly creature with a long, curved knife, "what the actual fuck is all of this shit, and what in God's name have you been doing down here."

Willow helped herself to another handful of dried cranberries, eyes fixed impassively on her keyboard. "I'm not totally sure."

Xander gestured emphatically at the Faith collage. "I mean, what's up with this? Is Buffy part of a weird monster cosplay fight club or something?" He paused and stroked his chin. "On second thought, that would make a rad movie. I'd watch it."

"You'd watch anything with a hot blonde in it," Willow wrapped a rubber band around her bag of cranberries and shoved it away again in the drawer. "Your taste is kind of singular."

"Yeah, well… Don't tell Anya."

"Don't tell your hot blonde wife that you like hot blondes?" Willow smirked and clicked on the browser window with the Faith collage, dragging it over to the center screen. "I wouldn't sweat it, Xan."

He tugged at his damp collar again. "Right."

"I've found a lot of information," Willow said seriously, "a lot of conspiracy theories about supernatural activity that the government is trying to cover up, but I'm not sure if I should believe any of it." She bit her lip uncertainly. "I mean, the internet is full of trolls and lunatics and weirdos, but there's just such a large volume of photos, and this Faith person keeps popping up everywhere. It's almost...too consistent to be fake."

Xander followed her eyes to a shot of the brunette decked out head to toe in leather, stalking between anonymous headstones, and then panned to the one next to it where she was knelt over a muscular black man in the sand on some kind of tropical beach.

"These shots are all taken in different cities," he observed.

"They're taken on different continents."

"What?" He peered closer. "How do you know?"

"The street signs," Willow pointed at a highway sign in one photo that was written in Chinese characters. "I looked this one up. It's in Shanghai."

"Jeez. What was she doing in Shanghai?"

Willow just shook her head.

"Do you think she's really a government agent?"

"The users on some of the more coherent sites kept calling her a 'slayer'."

"That's what she said to Buffy in the stairwell, right?"

"Yeah." Willow shrugged. "So, I looked it up." She turned to face Xander fully for the first time since he had sat down, the pale light from the monitor highlighting the dark circles under her eyes. "Apparently, a slayer is a woman with ancient, magical powers that fights demons and vampires in order to protect mankind."

Xander waited a moment for Willow to go on, but she appeared to be finished.

"Vampires," he deadpanned.

She nodded. "Yes."

"And… okay." He made a face. "What do I do with this information?"

Willow sighed and and chewed her lip. "Well…"

"Look," Xander rubbed his hands together and patted his knees, "if Buffy is mixed up in some freaky underground cult, you have to let the FBI handle it."

Willow glanced longingly at the monitors. "Xan…"

"No." He shook his head emphatically. "Whatever you're about to say. No. No way."

Willow hesitated. "What if… I think it could be real."

"You can't be serious."

She fixed him with a piercing stare. "There's quite a lot of evidence here."

"Evidence," Xander parroted dryly, with air quotes. "I mean c'mon, Will, you've seen what they can do with makeup in movies."

The redhead huffed, turned back to her computer, and instantly dragged up a whole slough of gruesome photographs, mostly pale corpses with bloodied necks and torn clothing, all with fairly obvious puncture marks. Xander made a funny, strangled noise in his throat and turned away.

"These dead people look pretty real to me."

"They could be wax dummies, I don't know." Xander grimaced and waved his hands about. "Make the dead people go away, please."

Willow heaved a derisive snort. "Whimp."

"Yeah, yeah, weak stomach, very funny." He swiveled back around, and wiped his face with the front of his t-shirt. "Let's say these sites are actually real-"

"-I mean, why else would the government be censoring this stuff on the regular web unless it was top secret?"

"Okay, okay, right." Xander slumped back in his chair, tired, exasperated, and sweaty. "So, assuming vampires are real, and Faith is a vampire slayer with magic vampire hunting powers or whatever, what are you, Willow Rosenberg, going to do about it?"

Willow frowned and pursed her lips. "I don't know."

Xander spread his arms. "I mean, obviously we're way in over our heads already."

"What would you do?"

"Me? I would let the feds handle it and try to forget about all the creepy stuff you just showed me."

Willow groaned in annoyance and leaned over her desk, limp, red hair falling across her eyes. "That's totally lame," she grumbled.

"If the Feds are censoring this stuff, they must already know about it. Can't you just assume that they've got this handled and let them do their jobs?"

"No. I don't trust them."

"Since when do you not trust the government?"

"Since… God, Xan, I don't know! Buffy's our friend!"

Xander rolled his eyes. "We'd just met her that day, Will. I think that makes us acquaintances at best."

"Still, we can't just forget about her!"

"No, you can't forget about her. You're fixated."

"I'm not-"

"You are, dude! You are, okay?" Xander ran his fingers through his hair. "You're obsessed."

Willow glared at him. "If there's something I can do to help, I want to do it."

Xander held her steely gaze for a full 30 seconds before finally backing down. He flopped back in his chair and sighed.

"Fine. What do you want to do, Will?"

She propped her chin up on her hands, staring at the mishmash of images on the monitors. Xander watched carefully, searching for any signs of uncertainty in her expression, but he found nothing except nervous determination. It seemed that she had been decided on her course of action before he had even ventured down into the basement.

"What do I want to do?" she murmured, repeating the phrase to herself. "I want to find Faith." She reached out and tapped the brunette's scowling face on the nearest monitor. "I think if we find her, we find Buffy."

"Okay, so how do we find her?"

Willow smiled dreamily. "I have absolutely no idea."

/ / /

September 20 - Dallas, Texas

Buffy woke suddenly and violently sometime before dawn, shooting bolt upright in a cold sweat, nearly smashing her forehead against the top bunk. For several, disorienting seconds, she was still trapped in her nightmare, twisting the knife in Faith's chest, gripping harder as the slayer's hot, gushing blood made the leather handle slick in her hand. Buffy clutched the wooden beams overhead with both hands and sucked down huge lungfuls of air. Her heart was pounding like a battering ram against a fortress door, and for a few, terrifying seconds, she was afraid that it might smash straight through her chest. It wasn't such a crazy fear. It seemed all too plausible. This new world had new physics, vampire physics and magic physics, even slayer physics. Anything was possible now, any sort of horrifying outcome she could think of.

She let one, shaky hand slide down to her mouth to stifle a dry sob, and then she was back in the present, sitting on her bed in the dark, listening to the crickets chirp outside over the rattle of the air conditioning unit in the hall. Buffy heaved one last herculean breath and flopped down on the mattress, exhausted.

"That was a horrible dream," said a soft voice, a gossamer of a whisper in the quiet room.

Buffy rolled her head to the right and saw his eyes, shining out like blue lanterns through the gloom. He was seated cross-legged beside her on the floor with his singed wings folded behind his back, rustling slightly as if moved by an ethereal breeze. He watched her intently without blinking. It was, for reasons she couldn't articulate, immensely comforting.

"That wasn't even the worst one," she croaked, combing a hand through her damp and tangled hair. "I've had nightmares that were a lot worse."

Phylax hummed. "I know. I remember."

Buffy knew, without needing to see, that his skin was still burned. A faint scent of charcoal and smoke hung about him, mingling sometimes with something much lighter and sweeter.

"You've probably seen worse," she guessed astutely.

"I have, but pain is subjective. I feel yours as acutely as I would feel my own, or any other's."

Buffy pulled the sleeves of Faith's sweatshirt down over her hands and folded her arms across her chest, ignoring the persistent throb of heat on her skin.

"Have you seen all my dreams?"

"I have."

Buffy blushed and sniffed. "Then you know about Jacob."

She could sense Phylax smiling at her even the dark. "Yes."

"He never liked me back. All the other boys liked me, but not him."

"Isn't that why you wanted him?"

Buffy paused. "Maybe." She blinked, fidgeting a bit with renewed distress as another thought occurred to her. "Wait, you know about Faith, too, then."

"Yes." Phylax reached out to touch her forehead, and a wave of cool energy pulsed outward from his fingertips like soothing peppermint, calming her feverish body. "You think about her a lot."

"I can't help it," Buffy murmured, eyelids slipping. "I'm so confused about her."

"Not about her."

His fingertips slid down her neck, coming to rest over her clavicle. Buffy groaned with relief as her sore, battered muscles uncoiled. Each pulse of cool, fuzzy, electricity relaxed her more, melting her bruises away, lowering her shields until she couldn't find it in herself to lie.

"Maybe not," she confessed, "but I'm scared. I feel like I've been scared for ages. I don't know what this means for me."

Phylax paused briefly in his ministrations, fingers lifting lightly from her skin. "I cannot see the future." A note of regret hung in his voice. "I see possibilities, but there are so many that I can never be sure of the outcome." She felt the soft pressure of his hand against hers as he pulled down the cuff of her sleeve, lacing their fingers together. "I can't tell you what will happen."

Buffy stroked the edge of his palm with her thumb, surprised to find it smooth. "It's okay. I only wish I knew who I was. It's like ever since I got here... no, earlier than that... Ever since graduation I've felt completely lost." She turned to gaze into his blue orbs again, seeking comfort, and assurance, and answers she knew she wouldn't find. "I don't know who I am anymore."

"You are Buffy."

She huffed in frustration. "That's just what teachers tell you in school so that you think you're special. It doesn't actually mean anything. "

"It means everything," Phylax insisted, with gentle conviction. "You were chosen for me. Look."

He held their hands aloft, still intertwined. Immediately, Buffy's skin began to glow. She blinked with surprise and peered closer only to find that it wasn't just her skin, but rather a series of complex, interwoven shapes glowing bright blue beneath her flesh, a spiky, curving pattern of geometric symbols whose energy emanated seemingly from within. She gasped, amazed. It was even more amazing than Valkyrie's magic. An electric buzz traveled up her arm as the markings climbed higher, luminous even under the fabric of her top. Soon, the whole room was lit and she could see his face, smiling at her, gazing upon her with such open adoration that she felt naked, stripped to her purest essence. Her chest ached with the instinctual, irrefutable understanding that she was known, through and through, her entire quantity held and cherished.

"What are those?" she asked, breathless with wonder.

"It is our story," he said, sounding for his part, no less awed. "It is written here to show that I am bound to you, and have taken an oath to be your guide."

"Oh," she murmured.

It was becoming more and more difficult to speak as her body filled with a pleasurable electricity, a molten hot buzz erupting outward from her chest, from her beating heart, to saturate her buzzing limbs. It was pleasurable to the point of distraction. She felt a surge of confidence she had never felt before. It felt like she was floating six feet off the ground.

"Does everyone have a guide like you?" she managed to ask, haltingly.

"No, but not everyone needs a guide like me." Phylax withdrew his hand, and Buffy gasped, shuddering as the lighting heat cooled, fading with the beautiful, swirling script back into the dark. "You were chosen for a special task, Buffy, but the Powers That Be aren't cruel enough to send you to it alone. I am here to help you, and I will be here until the bitter end."

"Will it be bitter?" Buffy whispered, suddenly exhausted.

"I do not know," he said, blue eyes glimmering, "but I hope, for your sake, that it is not."

Buffy felt, rather than saw, him slip away from her. She wasn't sure when her eyes had closed, but her eyelids were so heavy now that she couldn't open them. The gravity of sleep was inescapable, its hold unbreakable. She murmured an incoherent parting word before letting go, and sinking down into the dark.

/ / /

September 21 - Dallas, Texas

"Sauza Silver!" Faith held up two fingers in the dark to make her order clear over the noise. "Two shots!"

The bartender nodded and grabbed the glasses off the shelf behind him. She gave him a quick, bored once-over. He was a little portly around the middle of his black button-up and his beard was unkempt. He wasn't as handsome as the boy back in Boise, and even though Faith had settled for less before, she really couldn't find it in herself to be interested. He reached for the bottle and flipped it up over the shot glasses. Liquor dribbled out onto the bar as he passed them over.

Faith passed him a tenner. "Keep the change!"

"Thanks, babe!" He winked.

She rolled her eyes, because, oh, really? She snatched up a shot in each hand and killed them both, one after the other. The liquor burned like the most refreshing fire in the world. She slammed both glasses down and fixed him with a cold, unflinching glare.

"Two more!" she shouted, grinning maliciously as he took an involuntary step back.

Who did this fucker think he was? Seriously? Not even an hour ago she had punched straight through a vampire's rib cage and yanked out his cold, dead heart. There was still blood under her fingernails.

Presumptuous dickhead.

Faith turned back to the heaving dance floor and muttered something rude under her breath. She heard the clack of two more shot glasses land on the bar behind her and her eyes slipped shut for a moment.

Sure, it took a little more to get a slayer drunk, and it definitely took a lot more to keep one drunk, but the tequila was starting to help. It wasn't there so strongly anymore, the buzz of apprehension in the background, the static distorting a clean signal. Her mood was awful. Her nerves felt raw. Every little thing seemed to set her off, and she couldn't get a grip. It was a juvenile mistake to let herself get distracted. By now, she had literally been to hell and back. There was nothing left to be afraid of. This was her finest hour, her requiem, her final act. There were years of preparation behind this, thousands of hours of meditation, mental and emotional acceptance. She wasn't scared. Faith Lehane didn't do scared, but maybe…

...Maybe she was a little reluctant.

Faith slugged back her shots and called for more. If she wasn't going to fuck, she was going to get fucked up, and she was going to do it as fast as possible.

She didn't hit the dance floor until her body was weightless.

/ / /

Buffy laid flat on her back and stared up at the golden blade of sunlight slicing through the blackout curtains. She listened intently to the birds chirping in the backyard. The room was a little stuffy, but she sensed that the air outside was getting cooler, gradually, as the finicky air-conditioning unit had gotten better at keeping up with the sticky, Texas heat. She brushed an errant lock of hair out of her eyes, ignoring the dirt under her fingernails and the stubborn bits of pale pink polish that had all but chipped away. Two weeks ago, Buffy would have rushed to the nail salon immediately, as though the most embarrassing thing in the world was having dirty, imperfect nails. Since that time she had been shot at, kidnapped, and secretly whisked away to a strange city with strange people who fought demons and used magic. She spent most of her time in sweats and leggings and oversized t-shirts. She hadn't worn a single lick of makeup since her terrifying departure from New Orleans, and really, she hadn't had the energy to care. The circumstances had changed so unbelievably fast, and yet, she could hardly remember what it had been like before. This was her life now.

Buffy sighed and ran her fingers through her hair.

Things had been simple once. She had been popular. Popular and beautiful, just like her mother, whose glamor shots had adorned the mantel in their spacious Beverly Hills home. She and Dawn had grown up comfortably in an ostentatious Californian bungalow with a $75,000 designer kitchen and the largest pool her father's stockbroking bank account could afford. He liked the glamor of luxurious things, and she understood him all too well. Buffy shared her mother's stunning looks, but she took after her father, ambitious and socially clever, comfortable in the middle of the room at the center of attention. She had fallen in effortlessly with the beautiful girls at school, elbowing her way to the top of the pyramid until she was co-captain of the cheerleading squad as just a sophomore. By then, she hadn't needed to try hard at schoolwork to stay on top. There had been plenty of boyfriends and doormat clingers to help with that sort of thing. For a girl like her, with good looks, good fashion, and good social skills, wielding power was second nature.

That had all started to change her senior year, during a messy divorce, when her father had unilaterally declared that he would rather waste away on a beach with his secretary than spend another moment at home with them. The spotlight was suddenly just a little too bright, a little too harsh for Queen Buffy. College had given her a chance to hang up her crown, riding the coattails of her then boyfriend, Jake, all the way to UC Sunnydale.

Now, she was trapped in a real life game of Dungeons and Dragons, the product of some ludacris prophecy, held captive in secret by the same people that were trying to protect her, to groom her for a mantel that she wasn't ready to accept. None of this was going to end well. She was almost guaranteed a gruesome death if Faith's low-key drinking problem was anything to by. All she really wanted to do was call her mom and hear her voice over the phone. She wasn't even allowed to do that.

Buffy groaned in frustration and shut her eyes, rubbing at her lids roughly with her hands.

No use dwelling.

A wave of homesickness washed over her, but she let the pain ebb and flow into every crevice until her equilibrium was restored, drawing on Satsu's mediation techniques to help with the anxiety. She breathed in and breathed out, and let her thoughts follow the flow of air.

She focused on the singing birds, and the rattling A/C unit, and the hum of cars driving past on the street out front. More sounds began to filter it. She heard the neighbors talking in their kitchen next door, animals rustling in the bushes, squirrels chattering at each other from the oak trees, the distant drone of a lawn mower. She listened until her ears were alive with the sounds of the world around her, until she was immersed in it, until she was sinking into the background and there was nothing left of her.

You are Buffy.

She blinked. There was a voice somewhere, flowing deep beneath the layers of her consciousness. She had heard it, hadn't she? In the deafening silence? Her fingers twitched against the sheets, and she listened to the dry brush of skin across linen, frowning as a new awareness hit her, suddenly, like a bolt of lightning between the eyes. She couldn't be sure that she wasn't imagining it, but...

Was her hearing a little sharper than before?

Buffy squinted up at the bunk overhead, studying the tiny, swirling details in the grain of the wooden beams. Was her vision a little sharper, too? Her chest clenched painfully.

Images floated through her mind, familiar and yet, too fuzzy to grasp. There had been a conversation with someone, she knew that much, and the color blue seemed suddenly so important. Why couldn't she articulate the reason? There were words on the tip of her tongue that wouldn't tumble free, that seemed inadequate even before they were formed. Something drastic had shifted inside her. Her energy, her body, her mind all felt different.

She felt different.

The sound of a body stirring overhead startled her out of her thoughts. Buffy's eyes widened. Satsu had actually used her bunk. She had heard her breathing, she realized. She had heard the quiet rhythm without knowing what it was or how to place it against the din from outside. It made sense now.

"Satsu!" she hissed, waiting and listening for a moment before trying again. "Satsu! Are you awake?"

"Mmph," the sleepy voice replied. "Wha's it?"

Buffy sat up and hugged her knees to her chest. "What time did you come in last night?"

"Mmm…" Satsu was quiet for a moment. Buffy was beginning to suspect she had fallen back asleep when she finally answered quietly, "one, maybe."

Buffy did some quick mental calculations. "Did you hear me talking to anyone?"

The sound of rustling sheets carried down from overhead. "No. Mm...you tossed n'turned a lot, though." She yawned. "Why?"

What a tricky question to try and answer without sounding like a crazy person. Why? Why was Buffy's head filled with a vision of glowing blue surging up her arms? She rubbed her forehead roughly, confused and on edge. She felt along her shoulders for the bruises that should have been there, planted by Satsu's fists a day earlier during jujutsu training, but they were gone. Her whole body felt rested. Nothing seemed to ache. Nothing was sore. She was refreshed even. It was uncanny. She couldn't shake the feeling that the blue light...no, blue eyes? had something to do with that.

"I think I talk in my sleep," she said, in a quiet monotone.

"Oh," came the weary reply.

Seconds later, the sound of steady breathing alerted her that Satsu had fallen back asleep, but Buffy couldn't sit still.

She was itchy.

Restless, and filled with directionless impatience, she rose and began to rummage around for her training clothes. She was looking forward to her morning run with Faith for once. As soon as she stepped out of the dark room, however, a curious shape caught her eye. She stared down, gaze apprehensive, feeling suddenly a lot closer to the brink of insanity than before.

Tattooed in royal blue ink on the palm of her hand was a simple, hollow triangle. In the center of the triangle was a symbol, a letter written in a flourishing script she didn't recognize.

Buffy swallowed and balled her hand into a fist, flexing hard, counting slowly to ten in her head.

When she opened it again, the mark was still there.

/ / /

Buffy sat at the dining room table, quietly eating a container of yogurt while, across from her, Giles poured frantically over a thick, moldy book.

"Most irregular…" he kept muttering to himself, stopping every so often to scribble in his notebook before turning the page. "Most irregular, indeed."

He was a mess, roused hastily from a dead slumber by Buffy herself, hyperventilating as she tried not to cry. She had, of course, cried anyway. There was some consolation, at least, in that the watcher seemed to be just as concerned by the appearance of her mysterious new tattoo as she was, which was a terrifying revelation in and of itself. It was one thing for the clueless blonde bimbo from Southern California to freak out about magic tattoos, and another entirely for a seasoned demon hunter and scholar of the supernatural to do the same.

That he hadn't seen this sort of thing before was alarming.

His hair and glasses were askew, navy blue bathrobe tugged on as an afterthought over his undershirt and boxers. He was wearing one sock, and seemed not to notice, entirely unconcerned with anything that wasn't on the page in front of him.

"Are you sure we shouldn't wake Faith or Satsu?" Buffy asked, warily. "Maybe one of them could help."

The watcher didn't even pause in his reading. "Faith only got in an hour ago."

"What? An hour ago?" Buffy paused to digest this. "Wait, she went out?"

"Yes. I suggest we let her sleep."

Buffy glanced down into her half empty strawberry yogurt, and back up again at Giles. "What about Satsu?"

He waved her off, preoccupied with something in his book. "This is so irregular. I've never seen that symbol before, but I swear I-"

"Um, Giles-"

"-Hold up your hand again, Buffy."

She obliged him without question and he scrutinized it intently, eyes darting back and forth, glasses threatening to slide straight off his greasy nose. After a few moments he reached into his pocket, withdrew his cell phone, and snapped a picture. Buffy stared at him, but he returned to the book without comment.

"What's going on?" she asked, finally, but he didn't answer her. "Giles. Giles, what's going on? What does this symbol mean?"

The watcher groaned irritably. He ripped off his glasses and put his hands over his face, fingertips rubbing slow circles into his eye sockets.

"I don't know."

Buffy waited for him to elaborate, but he didn't say anything further. "You don't know?" she prodded. "Is that bad?"



"Maybe you're right. Maybe we should wake Satsu."

The sudden ding of a quiet alarm drew both their attention to the surveillance monitors mounted on the wall. A tall, dark figure was approaching the front porch from the street, and it wasn't alone. Giles' posture stiffened. He looked down at himself, seemingly aware of his state for the first time all morning.

"Bloody hell," he said, quickly.

They turned their heads in unison as a loud knock sounded from the front door. The security system performed a quick and the word "HUMAN" flashed on the bottom screen.

"Not now," he murmured, rising to answer.

Discarding her yogurt, Buffy slid out of her chair and hurried to follow him into the foyer. Giles undid the heavy duty locks that Faith had installed for extra security and disabled the silent alarm. When he had finally grasped the handle and pulled it open, it was Valkyrie standing on the other side in a figure-hugging black dress and red heels. Next to her, standing nearly an entire head shorter, was a woman with similarly dark skin and a close-shaved head, wearing a red and black motocross jacket and matching Air Jordans. She smacked her gum as she gave Buffy a slow once-over.

"Good morning," Giles said amicably, British manners kicking in despite his all too obvious state of frantic distress.

Valkyrie shouldered past them both, heels drilling into the floorboards as she crossed the threshold. The other woman followed her in, dark eyes sweeping the room. He quickly shut the door behind them.

"The energy readings on this site are off the charts," Valkyrie accused, without preamble. "What the fuck did you do here last night? Open a portal?"

"I'm flattered," Giles hastily synched up the front of his robe, "but you know I'm not powerful enough to do magic like that."

"Did you get another witch?"

"No, of course not."

"Then we've got a problem."

"Yes, I know. Who's this?"

"My sister, Taija." Valkyrie's eyes slid to the woman in question, who was currently examining Faith's security monitors over the dining room table.

"This shit's cool," Taija murmured. She glanced at them out of the corner of her eye. "Hey, y'all."

"Buffy and Rupert," Valkyrie said quickly. "You can guess who's who."

Taija nodded sharply and went back to studying Faith's electronics.

"Something's happened," Giles said, moving hastily toward the kitchen, "and I'll tell you everything we know so far. Can I get you any coffee? Tea?"

"Oh, tea!" Taija exclaimed. Buffy and Giles both turned to look at her with surprise, and her earnest expression melted away into one of defiance. "What? Earl Grey is the fucking shit. Fucking sue me."

"No, no," the watcher murmured. "You are quite right." He turned to Buffy with flickering eyes, though his face had been carefully ironed into flat neutrality. "Would you wake the others for me, please?"

"No need, Giles." Satsu emerged from the hallway in pink leggings and an oversized black t-shirt, yawning and rubbing her eyes. "I'm up."

The watcher nodded. "Just Faith, then, Buffy. If you please." He turned to Satsu quickly. "Would you fix us some tea, please? Earl Grey?"

Satsu nodded and went to fulfill his request while Buffy padded down the hall to Faith's bedroom. Voices carried in from the kitchen, and despite the echo, and the thick walls, she could hear every word. She paused on a creaky floorboard (had it always creaked so loudly?) and listened as the watcher began to recount everything she had told him to an irate, and rightfully concerned Valkyrie. Buffy's fingers floated along the wall, nails scraping the sharp little goosebumps in the paint. The sound of cracking filtered into her ears and Buffy turned her head swiftly, noting that she had accidentally left grooves, like jagged little trails, behind her. She frowned, hand dropping to her side, and made her way down to Faith's bedroom door. She rapped sharply three times and listened for movement within.

She didn't even have to press her ear against the wood.

"-will have broken through the barriers!" Valkyrie's angry voice filtered in from the other room. "You are in danger of-"

Buffy blocked her out again.

Putting her hand on the old door knob, Buffy pressed her shoulder against the sticky door and pushed until it gave way, swinging into the dark room with a loud creak. The sudden shift didn't throw her off balance as it might've normally done. She didn't so much as stumble. Instead, Buffy gawked dumbly at the sight that greeted her.

The room was completely trashed.

This was a feat in and of itself, because Faith didn't seem to own very much, and yet somehow she had managed to do quite a lot with very little. Her dark clothes were strewn everywhere, hanging off the bed and the nightstand and even the lamp. There were cigarette boxes and empty bottles and wooden stakes all over the floor, some gathered haphazardly in a pile, as though Faith's backpack had been shaken out. In the center of the whole mess, with a bent photograph clutched loosely in one hand, was the slayer herself, belt and pants undone, passed out face first on the hardwood in a pile of detritus.

Buffy's heart thumped.

She stepped swiftly into the room and closed the door behind her. Faith's face was turned away. All she could see were the dark, wild curls spilling out around her head like a broken halo. Her jacket was spread open on one side, and her boots were still on. Buffy bent down, peering with surprising sharpness through the gloom and rested her hand on the slayer's calf. The acrid, sour stench of alcohol washed over her, tequila, probably. She wrinkled her nose.


She shook the slayer's leg gently, but received no response. Huffing, she crawled up so that she was level with the brunette's hips and reached out to lay a hand on her back. She paused. Another mixture of familiar scents overwhelmed her, spicy cedar and sharp citrus, earthy leather and stale sweat, bitter smoke and tangy, copper blood. Without thinking, without really meaning to, Buffy leaned in closer and inhaled deeply. Her eyelids fluttered, warmth blossoming under her ribs like a hot spring and flowing outward. The tips of her fingers began to throb. She brushed Faith's wild hair away from her sleeping face, letting her hands settle gently on the back of her newly exposed neck. Her thumb traced soft skin, and she thought of all the ways that this was creepy and invasive. Buffy didn't care.

"Mmmm…" Faith twitched, and low, silky moan, like honey and gravel and the softest satin sheets, rumbled up from her chest.

The sound made Buffy ache.

"That feels good," the slayer murmured, motionless except for her chapped lips. "Don't stop."

Oh. Fuck. Oh fuck. Buffy's throat bobbed, and her mouth was suddenly very, very dry. She could still hear Valkyrie and Giles arguing in the kitchen, but she really didn't care. She was doing everything in her power to tune them out, to focus on the slayer's pulse, throbbing beneath the pads of her careful fingers. Buffy licked her lips and leaned closer, and it was that sound, that imperceptible shifting of weight, that drew Faith's attention.

Her eyes flicked open, and she stared straight ahead for a moment before lifting her head and turning to face Buffy, blinking away her confusion.

"Oh, um…" Buffy hastily removed her hand. "Giles needs you."

Faith stared up at her with a slack jaw and blurry, haunted eyes, brows knit together in confusion. "I thought you were someone else," she rasped.

"Just me." Buffy's gaze wavered to her lips and back, mouth opening slightly to breathe more air, to take in more oxygen, to take in more of the slayer's scent. "...Sorry."

Faith groaned and rolled onto her back, cardboard and wrappers crinkling underneath her as she moved. Her hands came up to her face, scrubbing anemically at her already horrifically smeared mascara. She looked like a racoon with two black eyes, but it only made her toffee brown irises more striking. It was charming in the way that accidents sometimes are, endearing in a moment of clumsiness and imperfection. Buffy followed the curve of her narrow hips, pausing studiously over Faith's pale abdomen, exposed by the flimsy tank top that had ripped in two places and ridden up during her nap on the floor. The slayer stretched her arms over her head, leather jacket creaking, and curled the photo tighter into her hand before stuffing it into one of the pockets.

"What time is it?" Faith croaked, tugging lazily on the roots of her hair.

"A little after eight."

"Mother of fuck." She grit her teeth, eyes closed tight against even the paltry amount of light sifting past the blackout curtains. "Giles needs me now?"

"Well…" Buffy opened her palm and glanced down at her new tattoo, inked like a curse into her creased skin. "Yeah." She winced. "It's sort of an emergency. Sorry.."

"S'okay." Brown eyes fluttered open and blinked up at her. "Did anyone else see me like this?"


"Sweet. Let's keep it between us." Faith closed her eyes again and groaned. "I need three aspirin and a water, B. Help a homie out?"

Buffy snorted. She was pretty sure that no one had called her a 'homie' since middle school, but she shook herself mentally and climbed to her feet, immediately picking out the vial of pills on Faith's nightstand. She found an unopened bottle of Gatorade as well, and returned with both.

"You're a saint."

Buffy knelt down and watched as Faith poured out a ridiculous number of pills into her palm.

"Get trashed often?" she asked, trying to sound wry and disinterested, and instead sounding a bit too anxious.

Faith responded by choking out an empty, humorless laugh, heaving erratically from her chest. "Yeah. And sometimes I drink, too."


"I gotta change outta these clothes."

Taking that as her cue to leave, Buffy rocked back on her heels and started to move for the door.

"Wait-" a hand shot out and grasped her ankle. "Wait. I need help."

Buffy swallowed hard as her palms began to sweat. "I'll get Satsu."

"No, jesus, just-" Faith dragged herself into a sitting position, creaking and cracking as though every one of her bones were snapping back into place. "Just toss me a sweatshirt or something."

Buffy glanced around helplessly at the mess on the floor. "Where-"

"On the nightstand."

She retrieved the grey sweatshirt and handed it to Faith, who winced as she tugged her leather jacket off her shoulders. The emergence of a blotchy, softball sized bruise on her deltoid made it abundantly clear to Buffy why this task was difficult. The blonde paled and averted her eyes. It was hard to look at Faith sometimes, and there were so many convoluted reasons for it, all twisted up together like thorny vines that pricked Buffy's fingers when she tried to pull them apart. She gazed at Faith's mottled skin and marveled at how much it felt like gazing into a crystal ball, like gazing into the future, her future, a future of pain and suffering and solipsistic despair, fighting the tides of evil in secret while the world rushed on around her, a rock parting the river. How long until she was here again? How long until it was her passed out on the floor, hungover and covered in bruises? A lump hardened in her throat.

This was what Satsu had meant by acceptance.

"You won't always have weapons with you," she had said, training Buffy in the backyard just three days earlier. "You'll have to mold your own body into a weapon."

Satsu's fingers had been balled into sturdy fists, pounding hard, repeatedly on each of her toes in turn as Buffy struggled to keep pace. Her own soft, untrained digits had been red and inflamed. She had clenched her teeth with each strike to her own feet and tried not to whimper aloud.

"Before each session we'll meditate like we did today by picturing the flame in the empty room and clearing our minds. Then we'll do these joint strengthening exercises until your bones are hard enough to damage your enemies in hand to hand combat." Stoic, focused like a laser on her movements, Satsu had switched her other foot, bouncing her knuckles hard off her bare toes. "Eventually, you'll have to learn other combat styles. Faith actually likes to mix and match hers because she can never remember the proper routines, but anyway, karate is a good place to start."

"Shouldn't I be learning how to fight with stakes?" Buffy had asked, sweaty and exhausted, more than a little grumpy after her morning workout.

Satsu had simply shaken her head and continued, unflinching, with the pounding motions. "Not until you can wield the stake as an extension of yourself. The stake is not the weapon, Buffy," Satsu had glanced up, then, fixing her with a dark stare, "you are."

Faith flinched and gasped as Buffy's fingers traced the edges of her bruise. She wasn't sure when she had reached out, but it felt good to gather the stickiness of Faith's skin on the pads of her fingers, sweat and smoke and the reek of metabolized booze. She tripped over the ridges of old scars and wondered why the slayer healing hadn't smoothed them over, why they remained, like notches in an old sword. She withdrew her touch from the darkest, blackest center of the bruise when the muscles beneath her palm twitched with pain. She was starting to understand what it meant. She was starting to understand her future.

Slayers were weapons, and weapons were tools.

Buffy looked up and found Faith peering back at her, curious and surprised. The air in the room thickened. The distance between them seemed to shrink until it wasn't enough, until it was too much.

"Valkyrie in the kitchen," Faith muttered, struggling to break the tension, "and they're talking about you."

Buffy's eyes flicked to her lips for just a second, but she caught herself quickly, clearing her throat conspicuously as she straightened up. She tilted her head to side and focused her hearing again. The sounds in the house washed over her, and for a moment she allowed her mind to the flow out with the tide. Goosebumps pebbled on her skin.

"They are…" she murmured, thoughtfully.

Faith gave her a weird look. "Can you hear what they're saying?"

"Most of it."

"Has your hearing always been this good?"

Buffy hesitated, frowning lightly. "Not exactly."

Faith paled further and brushed the hair out of her face. "I think I need clean clothes for this." She looked down at her pants. "These have blood on them."

When Buffy squinted and found only faint evidence of the stains Faith was referring to, she suddenly understood why the slayer owned so much black. She rocked to her feet and helped Faith off the floor, maneuvering her over to the bed where she could rest for a moment. Buffy yanked some fresh sweats and a shirt out of the haphazardly organized cubbies in the closet. She helped Faith unlace her boots and pulled them off, shutting her eyes quickly as the slayer began to shuck off her jeans.

'Warn me next time, please," Buffy said, a bit shrilly.

"So you can pretend you don't like it?"

She blushed three shades of crimson and whirled around, stubbornly facing the wall. "That's not what I meant."

"Aw, B, don't be like that." Faith snickered. "I need your help with my shirt."

"If I turn around and you're completely naked-"

"-I mean, I need your help with my bra, too, so-"

"-I'm getting Satsu."

"Wait, B!" A hand caught her wrist. "Wait, wait, wait."

Buffy rolled her eyes as turned around, relieved to see that Faith had managed to get her sweats on by herself. "Do you want me to see you naked that bad?"

"Don't you?"

Buffy huffed angrily and opened her mouth to argue, but Faith frowned and cut her off quickly. "Only joking, babe. Calm your tits."

"Oh, my god. Stop."

"I just don't get why it's such a big deal."

"It's not."

"Oh, really? Because you seem pretty touchy about it."

"No, it's fucking not!"

"Whoa, B!" Faith leaned back on her elbows and laughed, raspy and low in that way that made Buffy's stomach lurch. "Chill."

Buffy cocked her head to the side, eying the slayer shrewdly as a thought occurred to her. "Wait. I think I know what this is about. You don't want Satsu to know you were out drinking."

"That's not what I-"

"-Isn't it?"


"So, why-"

"Jesus fucking Christ, Buffy! Will you just help me put on a motherfucking shirt so we can go talk to everyone? Why are you being such a prude about this?"

They glared each other down for a moment, chests heaving. Finally, Buffy sniffed and moved forward, reaching for Faith's sleeve.

"Fine. I'll help, but you don't have to be a bitch about it."

Faith started to roll her eyes, and stopped abruptly. "Hey, what's on your hand?"

"You'll find out in a minute. Lift your arms."

"Ouch! Fuck, B! Watch the bruise!"

"Um, I think you mean bruises." Buffy gaped in horror at the sickly pallet of greens, yellows, reds, and purples splashed across Faith's back. "Oh, my god."

"They'll be gone by tomorrow." Faith hissed through her teeth as Buffy gently undid the clasp of her bra. "Hopefully."

"Where the hell did you go last night?" Buffy pushed the straps off her shoulders brusquely. "It looks like you picked a fight with the whole bar and lost."

Her fingers brushed Faith's skin and the slayer shuddered.

"I was scoping out the neighborhood." She shrugged and immediately winced. "Found some vamps lurking by the hospital trolling for easy prey and one of them got the drop on me."

"Got the drop?"

"Literally. From the roof."

Buffy made a silent 'Oh' with her mouth and helped Faith into a fresh, white shirt. Together, they pulled the grey sweatshirt over her head, taking time to fit the slayer's sore arm carefully through the sleeve. Faith swept her wild hair off her neck and tied it up into a messy bun while Buffy cleaned the mascara disaster off her face with some wet wipes, the same ones which, Faith assured her, were normally reserved for dried blood and other bodily fluids. By the time they emerged in the kitchen, Faith looked somewhat presentable, as though she were freshly woken from a normal night of poor rest.

Like a college student, Buffy mused furtively, and then turned away with warm cheeks. An image of Faith, clean of makeup and grit, passed out on a pile of books, rose unbidden into her mind.


Buffy wanted to roll her eyes at herself.

The others were seated around the dining room table, drinking mugs of tea and generally looking very tense. Even Taija, who seemed only marginally interested in the subject at hand, was picking nervously at her neon yellow nail polish.

"We have a problem," Giles said, gravely, as soon as he saw them.

He briefly explained the sudden, mysterious appearance of the triangular symbol on Buffy's palm, and asked her show it around one more time. She let Faith grab her hand and study it closely, then walked to the table to let Satsu, Taija, and Valkyrie get a good look. He let Faith ask all the questions that had already been answered. No, they didn't know where it had come from. No, they didn't know what it meant. No, Buffy couldn't remember anything of value, except for a odd dream of glowing blue lights climbing up her arms. No they didn't have any leads.

"I can only assume that this is somehow related to the prophecy, though I would feel a lot more comfortable asserting that claim with real evidence to back it up." He leaned back stiffly in his chair, shoulders sagging. "In the meantime, Valkyrie tells me that there was a surge of elemental magic in this house last night, and it momentarily obliterated the shields she erected last week."

Faith sat down hard on the coffee table in the living room. "Shit."


"That means-"


"Fuck, G. We're not ready." Faith glanced over at Buffy, who was still standing aimlessly in the middle of the room. "She's not ready."

"I'm aware of that, but we don't have much choice. We've already been compromised."

"She's. Not. Ready."

"I know that. I'm telling you that we don't have a choice."

"You haven't talked to them, have you?"

"Not yet."

"G, you can't be serious."

"I don't like it any more than you do, but we're running out of options."

"We can't trust them!"

Buffy clenched her hands into fists. "Would someone please explain to the new girl what we're talking about in class today?" She flipped her hair and flashed the room with a sharp, ditzy smile, the same one she had once used to mock the freshman cheerleaders before sending them to run laps. "I missed the last couple spookology courses, and I'm just a little behind."

Five pairs of eyes blinked back at her, and Buffy's confidence faltered. Had she laid it on a little too thick?

"Beg you pardon, Buffy." Giles cleared his throat and adjusted his glasses. "What I was implying moments earlier is that our location, more specifically your location, may have been compromised."

She nodded slowly, eyes narrowed. "So, what you're saying is, something dark and evil found our secret hideout."

"In so many words, yes, it's a very strong possibility."

Buffy continued to nod absently for a moment, lips pursed, before shrugging and going to plop down on the sofa. "If I'm going to die soon I want to call my mom first."

Giles pinched the bridge of his nose. "Nobody's going to die."

"Hell," Valkyrie's answering laugh was humorless, "somebody jus' might."

"We've defeated hell gods." Faith crossed her arms. "This can't be that much worse."

"Oh, it definitely can, because this time it's not about you flying under the radar or fighting with a coalition of trained allies, it's about making sure you don't outlive your defenseless, civilian replacement."

The slayer's eye twitched, but she sulked and said nothing.

"I'm not totally defenseless," Buffy grumbled.

"What're you gonna do?" Faith snapped. "Meditate the vampires to death?"

"Fuck you."

"She knows a few blocks," Satsu offered, half-heartedly.

"Great, Buffy can throw blocks and find her center. Let's go take on Angel."

Satsu sighed. Buffy scowled and curled further into the couch.

"This," Valkyrie said, gesturing at Faith with a long, manicured finger, "whatever this is, is not helping. So, quit it with your attitude and don't speak again unless you've got something useful to say."

Faith sneered, but said nothing, and the room fell silent for a long, awkward minute. Satsu sipped cautiously from her mug of tea. Taija continued to fiddle with her nail polish. Giles frowned into one of many, crumbly books opened on the dining room table.

"G…" Faith's voice sounded even rougher than usual as she spoke into the silence. "If we tell the Council about her, Travers will try to kill me."

Her comment sucked all the air out of the room. Faith had taken down the pink elephant in the corner with a single shot, and now Giles looked even more uncomfortable. He smoothed his fingers along the page of his book, Adam's apple bobbing. He had hunched so far into himself that he now looked small and old in the stiff-backed wooden chair. Buffy understood intuitively how he felt. Some choices were too hard to make.

"We can't keep her safe on our own," he said, so quietly it was almost a whisper. "We don't have the resources or the manpower to fend off an attack." He looked up at his slayer, bloodshot eyes glistening subtly behind his spectacles. "And what if they kill you both? What if they capture you and hold you prisoner? Then the world will have no slayer."

"But, G-"

"You've already been exposed," Valkyrie added, firmly. "Elemental magic is rare and powerful. If I noticed it, so have other eyes. The Council watches these sorts of things. They'll know that something is going down, and it's only a matter of time before they find you."

"But we can't trust Travers!" Faith turned to Giles with pleading eyes. "Please! You know what he's capable of. He won't think twice about slitting my throat if it gets him a shiny new super slayer."

"That might be a risk we have to take," the watcher said in a brittle monotone, and Buffy could see that he was absolutely shredded over it.

She swallowed hard and stared down at her knees. Weapons were replaceable, but she didn't want to be Faith's replacement. Her nails dug into her thighs until her her fingers were shaking. She couldn't live with herself if she was just Faith's replacement.

"Why don't we just run again?" Her voice rang out into the quiet room, and she was almost surprised at its strength. She wasn't sure when she had gotten it back. "Why don't we just find somewhere else to hide?" she continued, looking around to meet their eyes. "We could go somewhere remote. Like Wyoming, where we're less likely to be followed."

Faith gazed back at her with gratitude flickering in her tired eyes. "Yeah, B's got the right idea." She sniffed and glanced across to her watcher. "We could buy you a little more time to research, G. And we could train her some more."

"I'm not convinced that running would be a good strategic move."

"But just think, if we left now we could get outta town before they close in on us-"

"Hey, fam, we got company!" Taija jumped up out of her chair, boots thumping against the hardwood floor, and peered at the security monitors. "There's a black suv out front."

Startled, Buffy swiftly stood from the couch and looked over to see that Faith was already running for her bedroom. Buffy swallowed hard. Apparently they took everything seriously in this world. Her chest clenched painfully as she moved to get a look at the monitors. Sure enough, there was a black Ford Explorer parked along the street, blocking their driveway. The plates were also obscured from view at their current angle. Faith returned with an armful of weapons and passed a sheathed katana across the table to Satsu. Giles grabbed a machete and Buffy followed suit, gripping the hilt of a short broadsword unsteadily in her hand. The adrenaline was already messing with her coordination. She could hear the slam of car doors acutely, and the click of footsteps on pavement as two men emerged from the suv dressed in black suits sunglasses. They approached the front walk with practiced nonchalance.

"We got creeps," Taija hissed.

She reached inside her jacket with both hands and whipped out a pair of small, semi-automatic weapons. They clicked sharply as she undid the safeties, each movement graceful and fluid. Buffy's eyes widened as she took them in. She had some general knowledge of guns, having dated a guy in the ROTC program back in college, and these were clearly uzis, though they had obviously been modified. They were shiny and appeared to be silver plated in all but a few parts. The magazines had also been extended, almost comically, and Taija had added attachments to the barrels that looked suspiciously like silencers, though Buffy couldn't be sure. She wasn't sure what good it would do to silence an uzi.

Taija caught her staring and winked. "These guns big enough for ya, boo?"

Buffy smirked. No wonder she wore the chunky motocross jacket around.

"They shoot silver bullets, too. I call 'em my vampire shredders."

"Whoa!" Faith wolf-whistled as she leaned over to examine them. "Those are fucking hot! How effective are they?"

"If your aim is good?" Taija pursed her lips, considering it. "You could neutralize a mature, adult vamp in less than 30 seconds."

Satsu rolled her eyes. "You guys sound like you're talking about hunting gorillas."

"Quiet please!" Giles held out a hand and the room fell silent, thick tension immediately pressing in around them again.

They watched with baited breath as the two men approached the house on the monitor. Their feet thumped against the steps outside as they climbed the porch, and Buffy could see now that one of them had bright red hair.

A stiff knock sounded at the door, and they all flinched. Faith licked her lips. Satsu angled her katana. The security system scanned the visitors' vitals quickly.

"HUMAN" blinked on the screen.

Giles hesitated. Tucking his machete behind his back in the waistband of his bathrobe, he motioned to the others to hide. They all scrambled for cover. Buffy crouched behind the far end of the couch. Faith ducked behind a corner with Satsu, twin swords drawn. Taija and Valkyrie slipped into the kitchen. Satisfied, Buffy watched with a knot in her stomach and her heart pounding in her ears as he moved the answer the door.

The handle clicked, and a blast of humid air spilled into the room.

"Good morning, sir!" said a cheerful, confident voice. "I'm Agent Finn and this is Agent Drake. We're here with the Federal Bureau of Investigation. So, sorry to bother you this early, but we just have a couple questions about a missing persons case. We're hoping you can help us out."

"Let me see your badge," Giles said tersely.

The agent chuckled. "Of course, sir."

Buffy peaked around the couch, briefly catching Faith's heated gaze across the room, before dragging her eyes away to watch the scene at the door. She could only see the agent's arm from her perch, holding out a small, leather case. The watcher snatched the offered badge away and scrutinized it closely, adjusting his spectacles as he peered down at it. He tapped his fingernail against the metal, listened to it click with a scowl, and handed it back reluctantly.

"Very well."

"May we come in?" the agent asked politely.

Giles regarded them skeptically for a moment, face harder than Buffy had ever seen it. "What's the code, then?"

"Oxford," the agent replied confidently, and Buffy watched with keen interest as Giles dropped his defensive stance, moving aside to beckon the agents inside.

"Hurry, please," he said. "We're under a dire threat at the moment. Everyone," he turned to address the room, "please come out."

One by one, they emerged into the living room. Giles closed and latched the door behind him, turning to examine the two agents fully. Satsu sheathed her sword and pulled Faith out of the shadows behind her. Valkyrie and Taija emerged from the kitchen, shiny silver uzis noticeably absent. The agents greeted all of them quietly as Giles set his machete aside on the kitchen table and mumbled something about going to put on another pot of tea.

Buffy was the last to emerge.

"Ah!" The taller agent spotted her immediately, whipping off his aviators to reveal a handsome face with a warm, boyish charm. "You must be Buffy!" He strode forward and extended his hand. "Or Ms. Summers?"

"Buffy's fine." She leaned the broadsword up against the arm of the couch and took his hand, noting with surprise how easily it engulfed her own. "Thanks."

"It's a pleasure to finally meet you," he said, keenly, a sharp smile tugging at his lips. "I've heard so much about you."

Buffy met his unflinching gaze and swallowed hard.


/ / /

A/N: Please remember to leave a review! A review a day keeps the writer's block at bay!

Shout out to SixPerfections for all the kind words. This one's for you, baby!