Road to Redemption - a Faith Series (takes place between 4th and 5th season of BtVS) By: Monet

Episode Nine: Visions of a Sunset

"Xander," Faith said, holding his hands in hers. Tears seemed to rim her eyelids, as they stood face-to-face with each other. "I'm sorry about what I did and said to you."

Xander smiled, cupping her chin in his hand, gently rubbing her cheek with his thumb. "It's okay," he whispered. "You know me, always ready to take any hot chick back. Although, you're different, Faith. WAY different. 'Cause I know for sure I love you. And I really didn't like the whole being apart thing. If I wanted to know how that felt like, I'd probably would've opted for the whole cutting off my head scenario."

Faith looked up at him, a smile on her face. "You really know how to paint a mental image there, X-Man. Look, I'm sorry. I don't wanna do that again, okay? Can I make it up to ya'?"

"Who am I to turn that invite down?"

She leaned in and reached up to kiss him.

* * * *

"Hey, Xander," came a male voice.

Xander felt himself shake as a hand gently moved him back and forth. "Xander, man. Wake up."

"Nugh?" he mumbled, rubbing his face. He found himself face down on the counter of the bar which he worked at. The morning sun blared down into the small dive. He sat up, wiping at his eyes. "Where am I?"

"You were asleep again," Patrick, the owner of the bar, told him. He wasn't mad or even slightly annoyed. "Rough night?"

He shook his head. "Just haven't been able to sleep for awhile is all. I guess it's catching up to me. a lot." He shook his head to get the rest of the sleep out of him.

"Take it easy," Patrick suggested. "Your shift's been over for an hour. I just didn't want you to get that impression on your forehead again."

Xander automatically rubbed at his forehead. "Oh, yeah. That wasn't cool the first three times."

"Man, I'm sorry you've been going through this with Faith. You two. I don't know, you two were just made for each other, even though I really don't know what the chick sees in you." He nudged him, playfully.

Xander smiled, wanly. "Yeah. I asked that question every day she was with me." Guess she found out why. He folded the towel that was still in his hand and put it in its proper place. He'd been thinking about it, still so confused with what had gone down. It didn't matter what he did; somehow, he couldn't catch her. She just "conveniently" left only moments before he got there.

And each time he "just missed her," seeing even a glimpse of her caused a pain in him that he couldn't ignore. It was a worse feeling than he could ever feel, even when Cordelia broke up with him. At least then, he could see WHY. It hurt then. But with Faith, he didn't understand. He didn't do anything wrong except be stupid and get caught by a bunch of baddies. He knew she had been scared.

So his attempts to talk to her, to see her, got less and less. And it was for his own benefit because it was too painful to see her look at him then turn away. It got a little too much after the first hundred times.

"Do you mind if I use your back phone to make a call?" he asked, warily.

"Sure." He gestured to the small room in the back of the bar, giving his employee a worried look.

* * * *

The club was hopping. Bodies were grinding against each other. How weird it was, it being barely dawn. But the occupants within weren't exactly time- conscious.

Including the one dancing steadily with a lucky guy named Joe Colbert.

"So where you from?" he asked over the music as the girl grinded extremely close to his body.

"Where do you think, hon?" the girl said with a raise of her brows.

His hand wandered towards her waist. He wasn't the best of dancers, but his attention wasn't exactly focused on HIS dancing. "I dunno. I'm terrible at accents."

"You think I got one, huh?"

"Sort of New Yorkish. Did I tell you I dig East coast chicks?" He pulled her closer so that their lips were almost touching.

The girl leaned in, teasing him with a grin. "Do you? You gonna tell me a few things, then, Joe?"

"Depends," he said. Then he paused, frowning slightly. "Hey, how'd you know my name?"

"I got my sources. But don't worry about that, hon. It's okay." She leaned in and kissed him gently on the lips. "Ethan Rayne," she whispered as she moved towards his ear. "Do you know him?"

Joe's frown deepened more at the name. He slightly squirmed, despite the arousal he got from the contact. "Sorry, babe, I don't."

The girl pulled back slightly, meeting his gaze with a surprisingly firm one despite the smile on her lips. "Aw, I know you're lying."

"And how do you know?" Joe asked, teasingly. He returned her smile.

"'Cause I know you know who I'm talking about."

He saw the game she was playing. A little seduction, then he could spill what little he did know of Ethan Rayne. "And what are you going to give me if I do have some info?" He leaned in and kissed her on the lips, a little harder than she had done to him.

She accepted it, then slightly pushed him away, but kept him close. "What do you want?"

"Do you have a boyfriend?"

"What if I do?"

"You should skip out with me today. Screw any plans you got with him."

"If I do, you gonna tell me all about Ethan Rayne?"

"You play your cards right." He leaned in for another kiss, only he couldn't move any further forward with her hand against his chest. He tried harder, but to no avail.

"So that's what you want, huh?" She giggled, pulling him by his shirt. "Wanna know what you probably don't want? C'mon." She jerked her head towards the back of the club and led them through the crowd of dancers and got them into a back room about the size of a janitor's closet.

She shoved him in, closing the door behind them and looked back at him with a sly look. "Got us all nice and alone now."

Joe grinned wider, leaning against the wall, ready to get what he wanted. "Before we get on with it," he said, already unbuckling his pants. "Tell me what I don't want."

The girl licked her lips. "Us all nice and alone."

The statement slightly caught him off guard. "Huh?"

"See, Joe, do you really think I'm gonna let you get away with this not telling me shit?" Her manner was growing less seductive.

"What do you mean?"

"I mean, you're gonna answer me about Ethan Rayne or I break every single bone in your body. Your choice." She put out her arm and leaned casually against the wall to her left, running her other hand down her thigh over her leather pants.

Joe snickered, shaking his head. "Girl, you don't know who you're dealing with. Look, I got needs, okay? What I know about Ethan Rayne isn't much, so you're little tough act isn't going to help you much. Now, let's do this." He walked towards her, removing his jacket in the process. She had him all hot and bothered. There's no way he wasn't getting out there without some fun.

He got close enough to see into her pupils, a little annoyed her manner hadn't changed much. Thinking she saw what he was talking about, he leaned in to kiss her when he met her forehead right in his nose, bones breaking from the force. He stumbled back, automatically covering his injured face. "FUCK! Oww!!"

"Joe, I told you, you had a choice," the girl said, still ever so casual. "That would be your first broken bone. I dunno, I coulda broken a few."

Joe glared at the girl - until she came up to him and shoved him back into the wall. "What is your problem?"

"My problem?" She laughed raspily. "You, Joe. You not telling me what I wanna know. All you had to do was tell me what you know. And somehow, you just ain't working with me." She stepped closer to him.

He let out an angry growl and reached out to grab her arm when in a speed he couldn't even catch up to, she had him by the wrist, stopping him short. He winced at her grip, realizing it was getting tighter.

"Ethan Rayne. Do you know him?"

He tried to pry her hand off of his wrist. Nothing doing. "Yes!"

"Hey, look, we're getting somewhere. How do you know him?"

"M-My brother used to work for him!"

"Brother? What happened to him? Doesn't he work for him anymore?"

"G-Got put in jail. He was in that. that fight on the eastside."

The girl seemed to become unfocused a moment, but quickly returned. "Yeah. So he knows things. Does that mean YOU do?"

"Kinda."

She tightened her grip on his wrist then pushed him against the wall with her other hand that seemed as strong, if not stronger against his throat. "Kinda?"

He felt like a metal clamp was pinning him down by his neck. "Uh, I mean, I kn-know a little bit! Not much!" Joe suddenly knew whom he was dealing with. His brother had warned him about her. He knew what she was capable of; his brother was in fact proof of it. "I just know he-he's somewhere in t-town. I don't know where, I swear. I don't! I didn't hang with my bro at all. I-I just boot car radios."

The girl continued to stare at him with those piercing eyes, making him squirm even though he really didn't have any more information to give her.

She suddenly grinned. "Cool," she said, letting go of him. She stepped back and went as far as straightening his shirt. "Think there might be a place I can find more info in?" she asked, casual again.

He rubbed his throat painfully, blood still dripping from his nose. "A bar down 5th street," Joe answered quickly. "A-A guy named Nick. He-He used to run with that group."

The girl nodded, satisfied. "Wicked. Alright then. Thanks for your time." She began to walk out of the room, noting his jacket on the floor. She bent over and picked it up, seeing the name written on the inside. "Kent Grady." She looked at him. "Nice leather you got here. Ain't yours, is it?"

He glared at her. "What's it to you?"

"Nothing. But I bet Kent's looking for this." She reached for the door.

"Hey! What about the damn jacket?" he asked.

She turned back to him, pointing to the object. "You wanna come get it?"

Joe paused, knowing it was a challenge and not an invite and really double thought what he wanted to say. "Nah, it's-it's cool. It's yours." He just wanted her out of there.

"Later, hon." She winked at him and went out the door.

He grimaced then decided to go after her. When he stepped out into the club, however, she was nowhere in sight.

* * * *

After dropping off the jacket at the front of the club, Faith sighed as she dusted herself off, getting the information she needed. She wiped her mouth, really not liking the taste he left behind. "Fucking things I gotta do," she muttered. Things had definitely changed. Before, kissing someone as grimy as him wouldn't have bothered her much. But now. Yeah, things had changed. She began walking in the general direction of Paul's bookstore, her usually confident stride a little slumpy as of late.

No matter what she did, whether it was threatening people for info or taking a morning jog or playing pool for cash, she couldn't get Xander out of her mind. Yes, she had been avoiding him for the past few days, even after the revelation of who they were TRULY dealing with. But at the same time, she had to see him everyday - even though he didn't know she was looking most of the time.

She continued to tell herself it was because she wanted to make sure he was safe. But there was something much deeper than that. And that was the thing that Faith was desperately trying to ignore. and was failing miserably.

She checked the nearest clock, seeing it was near 8:00am. Hannah had told her that was the beginning of her shift at the new diner and Faith wanted to be there to drop in. She quickened her pace and took a small detour down another street.

It was a street she always "detoured" through at this time of day if she could. She stopped at the corner when she heard voices.

"You'll be okay?" came Patrick's voice as he locked up the dive.

"Yeah," Xander mumbled, stifling a yawn and stretching. "Probably just need to eat. Gonna head to the mall in a few."

"I suggest a shower and some sleep. You doin' okay in your new place, Xander?"

"Yeah. Doing a-okay. But thanks for letting me crash at yours for a few."

"No problem. Well, I'll see you later on tonight, then. Take care."

"Yeah." Xander muttered, sounding defeated once Patrick was out of earshot - though Faith unknowingly was not. She stayed close to the wall as she heard Xander get into his car and drive off.

She peered around the corner and watched as his car disappeared at the next light.

* * * *

The new waitress of the USA Diner, a neon stars 'n' stripes decorating the window of the fairly new establishment, stood rather nervously at the counter, already an hour into her shift.

"Hannah," came a male voice from behind her.

Hannah turned around and smiled. "Hi, Jake."

Jake Madison, the owner/boss of the restaurant smiled encouragingly at his three-day new hire. "Are you ready to start your third day?" His bright blue eyes stared at her with such concern, it about made Hannah blush.

"I hope so. I know I've been shaky for the past few days, but I promise you, I'll be better."

Jake shook his head. "Hannah, I know how it is to be in a new place. Don't fret it. This is your chance to show everyone what you've got. So make it good, no matter how many jitters you've got. I know you'll fall into it."

Relaxing a bit, Hannah gave him a thankful smile. "I just want to thank you for giving me this opportunity."

"You thank me all the time!" he laughed. "Just show me how you're welcome by not giving up, okay?"

"Okay."

Giving her one last smile, he moved back into the kitchen.

A whistle sounded out from the corner of the diner. Three beefy guys were trying to get Hannah's attention. "Yo, waitress babe! Wanna give us some service over here?"

Hannah's face scrunched up into a worried expression as she pulled out the pad to take down their order. "Oh, I hate these kind of people," she murmured to herself. She tried gathering her bearings then made her way over to them.

"Hi," Hannah said unable to hide her nervousness.

"Oooh, look fellas! New waitress," the loud guy announced. He looked her up and down. "What's up, sweets?

"Um, what can I get for you?"

He leaned to the side far enough to stare at her back. "How about your ass with a side of ketchup?" He laughed loudly, his pals joining him.

Hannah tried to stay composed. "Um, what if I start you off with some drinks?"

"What's the matter, sweets? We bein' too rough on ya'? Awww." He reached up and placed his large hand on her arm, stroking it. "We're just playing with you. We want you to feel comfortable with us. You know 'cause the customer's always right. Plus, we just want to feel." His hand began to move downwards.

Hannah jumped back, startled at his implications. "Please. Just. I just need to take your drink order while you look at the menu."

He grinned. "Three waters. Think you can handle that?"

Hannah nodded, quickly turning away from them and heading back towards the counter, her head slightly down as she heard them laughing. She saw Jake and one of the cooks watching her, peering at the three men. Hannah tried to smile while Jake pointed to them, indicating to her he could deal with it. She shook her head, knowing she had to do this and went behind the counter to pour the four waters.

Hannah brought out the waters, giving Jake a small smile and wandered back to the table.

"Hey, did you notice your slip of your dress is showing?" the lead guy said.

"What?" She looked down, causing her to lose concentration on her tray. She stumbled and dropped the tray and its contents all over the floor.

"Oh, Jesus! This girl needs some work!" Then he burst out laughing. "I was joking about the slip, sweets." He playfully nudged his pals as they joined in again. He watched as she bent down, frantically trying to wipe up her mess.

"I-I'm so sorry," Hannah replied.

He leaned over, getting a peek of her backside as she bent over, saying, "Besides, we wanted coffee, not water. Get the order right next time."

"But." She let the sentence trail, feeling her chest grow heavy. She had to do this, couldn't let them get to her. "Right. I'm sorry. I'll go get your." Her foot stepped on a still very wet spot and she felt her feet begin to slip forward as her body began to fall backwards. "Oh!"

Two seconds before a painful impact, two hands caught her. They easily set her upright again.

"Nice catch!" the guy bellowed.

Hannah turned, trying to calm her heart down and saw it had been Faith who had caught her. Only Faith wasn't looking back at her, but glaring HARD at the three guys. "You motherfuckers," the dark-haired girl sneered, fists clenched when she let go of Hannah.

Hannah glanced from the Slayer back to the three guys, then realized even though no matter how much she agreed to what Faith wanted to do, she couldn't let the girl do it. "Faith, no, don't." She took Faith's arm with both her hands, trying to pull the Slayer back.

"Who's this? Your hooker daughter?" the guy asked, looking Faith up and down.

"Please, don't-don't provoke her," Hannah pleaded to the men. "Faith, don't."

"Let them fucking provoke me," Faith answered. "They wanna fuck around with you, and I'm not gonna let them get away with it!"

The guy wasn't impressed. "Look, girl, better not get into things you can't handle. It's her job to do what we say. It's not our fault she can't follow orders."

Faith stepped forward, easily pulling Hannah with her. Despite that, Hannah pulled back even harder.

"Please, don't. I'll get them their coffee. You should go. I'll see you later."

"Not until I get done teachin' these assholes a fucking lesson," she warned.

"Oooo," they cooed.

Hannah moved in between Faith and the table of jerks, placing both her hands on each of Faith's shoulders as she faced her. "Please, just go. I'll be okay." She tried to catch Faith's eyes, moving her head to get in her line of vision. "Please."

Faith finally met her eyes and softened a little. "Alright. Fine. But I fucking swear to God, if they."

"Thank you," Hannah said, smiling and totally appreciating Faith's protectiveness. "But I must learn to do this on my own, no matter how painful. You have a lot of things to do. Thank you for coming by, really. But you should go. I'll be here until the afternoon."

Faith let Hannah's words finally sink in. "Fine. I'll come by then."

"Thank you." She lowered her voice a bit. "Do you mind . I mean, could you please check on Amber and Rachel at the shelter?"

"Yeah. Sure. Of course I will." Faith gave the three guys one last glare and walked out of the diner.

Hannah let out a sigh, knowing the three men behind her did not know how much she saved THEM from a lot of pain. She was just glad that she truly did have Faith on her side.

* * * *

"Ah, mall food," Xander said, staring at what passed for breakfast. "Nothing like it in the world - thank God." He sat down, exhausted and didn't even know if he had the energy to eat. He took his fork and began moving some of the eggs around that had fallen out of his biscuit.

This entire situation was taking an immense toll on him. He couldn't sleep at night and when he finally did, he had dreams like the ones he had a few hours ago. Wishful dreams only to wake up to a disappointing reality.

"Oh, crap," came a voice behind him. "Stupid, stupid cell phone. I knew I should've been the one to pick what service to use."

Xander turned around, the voice ever so familiar. "Cordelia?"

The brunette in the dress that was a little less fashionable that what he was used to, yet still managed to pull it off as fashionable, turned at her name. "Oh my God. Xander?"

"Boy, this mall has some weird vibe in it," he murmured, remembering the last time he was here, Buffy Summers was the visitor of the day. But he tried to brighten up. "What're you doing here?"

She automatically sat down at his table. "Duh, shopping, you moron. What else?"

"Oh, so. your father."

"Oh, heck no. We're still dirt poor, plus Daddy's got some time to spend in the . well, in jail."

"I hear you're working for Deadboy now."

"Yes. Which is why I got the company card and am now trying to make us look good. Boy, it's tough being a publicist for a detective agency." She made a face at the phone and put it away in her purse. "So, what brings you here and away from Sunnydale? Oh, wait, I'm sure there's plenty of reasons."

He shrugged. "I thought I could go on a road trip and ended up here."

"Wow, a whole two hours away. I guess pegging you as adventurous guy wasn't an option."

Xander couldn't help but shake his head with a grin. "Boy, the things you DON'T miss. Venom included."

Cordelia stared at him a moment before glancing down at the table. "Yeah. And the stuff you kinda wished you said before you left."

"Stuff?" Xander had already put a piece of scrambled egg in his mouth. "Stuff was to be said? Where was I?"

"Come on, Xander. I left so. quickly. I never got to thank you for the prom dress and stuff. Plus, keeping Daddy's lack of a financial situation on the down low. At least my reputation at Sunnydale High School precedes me."

"Oh, well, if the bathroom walls didn't blow up with the school, it could've been a tarnished rep." He smiled at her, glad he was able to genuinely smile. "Hope Angel's treating you right out here. Or are you some big time Hollywood whore now, moonlighting as Angel's Sunday Gal?"

"Hardly. I have an audition later on today. And . Angel's been good. He's been quiet lately, though. More broody than usual."

"You mean, you can TELL he's brooding more?"

Cordelia rolled her eyes. "I know. It's not a knack I totally like. But yeah." She shrugged. "Heck, who am I to tell?" She grew solemn a moment. "It's been an interesting time since I've been out here." She shook her head. "Boy, and here I thought moving out of Sunnydale would bring me better things, less demons and gore. SO wrong."

"I'm surprised you didn't pack those high heels and go."

Cordelia met his gaze, noticing right away the lines on his face. "I ran once, Xander. I think I learned that Buffy had the right thing going. I mean, not the hair or the outfits, but her cause and stuff. It's not totally a bad thing."

He grinned again. "The world must be ending for I have heard Cordelia Chase take up a cause." Then he looked down at his food. "I'm glad, though."

"What about you, Xander? How've you been? Gonna pretend I actually care."

"Thanks. I'm doing okay."

"Boy, are you so bad at looking okay when you're not. Let me guess - oh, wait. It can't be girl troubles. Look who I'm talking to."

"Ha, Ha. Actually, you're right. No girl troubles. 'Cause you'd actually need a girl to HAVE girl troubles, right?" He smiled wanly.

Cordelia blinked. "Oh, God. You. have a girl?"

"Please, Cordy, need to be stroking the ego, not crushing it more."

She smiled softly. "Sorry. Couldn't help myself. I'm sorry. You. didn't . like, you know, kiss your best friend on her, did you?"

"Again, with the 'ha.' Believe me, Cordy, I've learned my lesson. Lost someone special the first time." The words tumbled out of his mouth then garnering a reaction he didn't mean to garner from his ex-girlfriend. "Uh, point is, I wouldn't do it again."

She reached over and placed her hand gently on his forearm. "I totally don't believe you, but. I understand."

Xander returned the smile.

That's when Faith peered around the corner from one of the wings of the Beverly Center Mall. She saw both Cordelia's gesture and Xander's reaction, and she felt like someone had slammed a fist the size of a boulder into her stomach. It came so suddenly, she didn't know what to do. She fell back out of sight. "Shit," she muttered, wanting to smash her fist into the nearest display window.

She kept telling herself she didn't have a right to be angry. No right to be jealous. Xander wasn't hers anymore and it was SHE who made sure of that. It was SHE who wanted nothing to do with him.

But it was SHE who loved him so much it hurt.

Especially seeing him with his ex-girlfriend.

Faith had to go. She couldn't stand it any more. But before she could break out into a sprint, she heard some people begin to gasp and even scream.

She was forced to go look and peeked around the corner again, knowing it had come from the food court. There was a crowd that had gathered around where she knew Xander and Cordelia were sitting. That prompted her to react.

She shoved her way through the crowd, nearly knocking over anyone in her way. She finally got to the center where Xander was bent over a woozy Cordelia.

"Cordy? Are you okay?" he said, brushing back her hair as she put a hand up to her forehead.

"What happened?" Faith asked, bending down on Cordelia's other side.

Xander looked up, surprised. "Uh, Faith? What are you.?"

She met up with his eyes. "I asked a question."

"Right. She just. it was like she had this sudden pain in her head. I don't know. Someone needs to call 911."

"No. It's okay," Cordelia murmured. "No calling." She shut her eyes tightly again. "Just need. air."

Outside, they let Cordelia sit at the first bench they saw. She sat there, staring at her feet for a few minutes. Xander sat next to her, perched on the edge as if ready to catch her, while Faith remained standing.

"You okay?" Xander asked, concerned.

Cordelia nodded. "Yeah. Just. this thing that happens sometimes." She let the sun warm her before looking up at Faith. "Oh, God. You ARE out. and here." She scooted over towards Xander a bit.

Faith frowned as Xander put an assuring hand on Cordelia's arm.

"It's okay, Cordy. She's. fine. You don't have a thing to worry about." His eyes were sad as he held Faith's gaze for a moment then looked back at Cordelia. "What happened? That looked like a bad-ass migraine."

"You wouldn't believe my luck," she murmured, putting her hand up to her forehead. "I can see things."

"Well it's about time!" Xander mocked.

Cordelia gave him a look. "No, you moron, not like that. I mean, future stuff."

"You can. see the future?" Xander blinked at her, astonished.

"It's not the grandiose thing you might think. And it's only, like, one thing at a time. Thank God."

"So what'd you see?"

"I usually can't think without taking five aspirins but. it's kinda blurry, though it's been getting clearer from when I first got them. Yay me. I get to see death and mayhem in high density picture."

Xander rubbed his chin. "So. how'd this happen? This whole 'blurry vision into the future' thingy?"

"This friend of mine.he gave it to me," she stated. "He kissed me and." Her voice trailed.

"Oh." He didn't know what else to say.

Cordelia met Xander's eyes, her expression a little more somber at whatever memory the question brought her. She glanced away, the pain now radiating from somewhere else than the vision.

"Boy, some friend," Faith finally spoke up. "Doesn't look like a gift of fun."

"He's dead," Cordelia corrected, looking back at the Slayer. "Guess you didn't really notice much what with all the murdering and stuff going around you - BECAUSE of you."

Faith clenched her jaw, remembering the last time she had seen Cordelia, she was ramming her elbow into her face. She realized she still had quite a few amends to make, Cordelia being one.

Xander looked up at Faith then back at Cordelia. "What did you see?" he prompted, trying to steer the conversation away from the past.

"A woman, in. some basement," Cordelia offered. "It was sortta a stinky basement. Smelled like. weird herbs." She closed her eyes. "She's. kinda young. Light hair."

"What was the woman doing?"

"Screaming? I couldn't hear.. Too much chanting."

"Is it something we can stop?"

"I-I think so. Ugh, why can't I leave this behind when I go out?"

"So it's near here?"

Cordelia nodded. "Yeah, I guess. I remember seeing. uh. something. a - uh - flag. American one, bright. But not really a flag.."

"What's that suppose to mean?" Faith asked, confused.

Cordelia looked up at her, irritated. "Duh, I don't know. Hello, disclaimer that the vision was blurry."

Xander put another easing hand on Cordelia's arm. "She was just wanting to get more clues, Cordy."

"So she can run over there and join in the killing? Why should I give her enough clues to do that?"

Faith stepped back a step, already over the trying to be nice thing. She just wasn't in the mood for it. "Whatever. You two can have your happy reunion, okay? It looks like that's what you guys are cravin' for. I'm outta here." She turned and began to walk away.

Xander jumped up from his seat and grabbed her shoulder. "Faith, wait. Stay."

She looked at him, her face softer than she intended it to be. "I gotta go, Xander. Got someone to go save." Then she pulled away and took off into a sprint.

Xander slumped his shoulders, knowing he'd never be able to catch up to her.

"What's her deal?" Cordelia asked, getting to her feet and looking in the same direction as he was.

"I wish I knew," he murmured, wondering first of all, what Faith was doing at the mall in the first place.

* * * *

"How was the day?" Jake asked Hannah. He came up to the waitress as she began to untie the apron of her outfit.

"It was a bit shaky, truthfully," she admitted with a small shrug.

"Those three guys this morning? Yeah, you're going to get people like that, Hannah. But I think you can do it. In fact, I saw you do it." He smiled. "And I watched you stop a potential fight. Your friend? The girl."

"Oh, yes, her. I'm sorry about her. She's. she's just very protective of me."

"I believe it. You probably saved her a lot of grief, too."

Hannah laughed softly. "Actually, I think I saved the men a lot of grief."

He laughed, thinking she was exaggerating. "Well, you've done a phenomenal job, Hannah. You'll get it. Heck, you've already gotten most of it." He put his hand on her shoulder, gently, giving it a squeeze before nodding towards the door. "Now get outta here. I'll see you tomorrow."

She smiled after him, actually enjoying his touch. He was a very handsome man, always encouraging. The door opened and she turned around. "Hi, Faith."

Faith stepped into the diner, a smile wavering on her lips. "Hey, girl." She scanned the diner. "Those bastards give you any more trouble?"

She smiled. "No. I mean, nothing I couldn't handle."

"You kicked their asses, didn't you? Alright!" She put up her hand for a high five.

Hannah laughed at the thought. "Oh, no. I just did the best I could to not get ridiculed. It's just as effective."

Faith grinned. "Hey, whatever works, ya' know?" She pushed the door open to let Hannah out first. "I went to check on Amber and Rachel. Amber said everything was cool. The kid's missing you."

"I miss Rachel so much. She's being so brave, though."

Faith nodded.

"You still haven't seen her directly, have you?"

The Slayer shook her head with a shrug. "Don't think she wants to see me."

"You'd be surprised, Faith. You should give her the benefit of a doubt. Come with me. You'll see."

"I dunno, Hannah." She hesitated. "I gotta go talk to Paul about shit."

Hannah sighed, raising her brows. "Please. You've seemed so. down lately. I didn't want to say anything before, but with all that's happened, you must see that not all's bad at the moment." She took her arm.

Faith gave Hannah a doubtful look, not realizing that people have been noticing her down mood lately. Then she let herself be led back to the shelter.

* * * *

When they arrived, Paul was just inside the front area talking with Amber and a few others. Rachel was in the corner nearby, playing with her dinosaur and another ratty stuffed animal the shelter had handy.

As soon as Hannah and Faith entered through the door, Rachel looked up and spotted her mother. Only keeping the dinosaur with her, she jumped up and ran at Hannah with a huge smile on her face.

Hannah squatted down and let Rachel run into her arms. "Hi, honey." She gave her a tight embrace. "You missed me?" She felt Rachel nod. Pulling back, she gave her daughter a grateful smile, brushing back her light brown hair which matched her own. "Look who came with me." She gestured to Faith.

Faith looked down on the young, mute girl and smiled, hopefully.

Rachel stood there, gazing up at Faith, hugging the dinosaur tightly. Her eyes then looked back at her mom's, unsure.

The smile on Faith's face fell a notch.

"You miss Faith, don't you?" Hannah asked, giving Rachel an assuring squeeze of her small arm.

Rachel nodded.

"Go let her know you do."

Rachel's eyes looked up at Faith again and she took two small steps towards the Slayer. She paused right in front of the much taller girl.

Hannah gave Faith a nod, and Faith slowly squatted down to Rachel's level. "Hey, girl," she said softly. "I'm. sorry I scared ya' before. I promise you, kid, I'm not gonna hurt you or let anyone hurt you, okay?"

Rachel slowly smiled and moved the last inches it took to wrap her small arms around Faith's neck.

With a relieved sigh, Faith enclosed the small girl into her own arms and just let it sink in how much she could've lost had she not made amends with her. "I'm so sorry, Rach. I won't ever scare you again."

Paul had been observing the reunion from afar, a smile on his face. He wheeled up next to Hannah. "I see you made it through another day at work," he commented.

Hannah nodded. "Yes. It was a bit rough today. But I made it."

"And you'll continue to make it, Hannah. You're doing well."

"Thank you, Paul." She looked over at the dark-haired man in the wheelchair. "You've been so supportive of me. and Faith." The reunion between Slayer and little girl continued. "She's going to be okay. Thanks to you."

Paul shook his head. "No, I think it's thanks to all of us. Faith just needed to know we're still there for her. I have a feeling she's been abandoned, or at least felt abandoned throughout her life."

Hannah nodded sadly. "I got the same feeling. She's so wonderful, though. It's still strange to think she was placed in jail for murder." She lowered her voice even more. "How's Xander? I haven't seen him in awhile."

"He seems to be doing well. He's come over a few times to help gather information on our latest bad guy."

"Any luck?"

"We can't seem to get a hold of someone that Xander knows, but apparently from what I've been told, Mr. Rayne likes to cause trouble."

"What has he done?" Hannah asked, worried.

"They're actually silly things. Putting a spell on the Halloween costumes that Xander and his friends wore, causing them to take on the personality of whatever they were dressed as, for example." He shook his head. "But Xander said Ethan was put away. I guess he escaped. Well, hopefully we can stop him before he does this ritual. From what I've gathered, the end results aren't so 'silly.'" He gave Hannah a quick smile. "You look nice today," he commented then wheeled over to Faith, not seeing Hannah blush as his comment.

"I see you've made a friend," he said as he approached.

Faith gave Rachel a quick tickle of her tummy and grinned. "Hey, Paul," she greeted him, her spirits up. "We ready to go do something?"

He nodded. "Yes. I found the bar you mentioned. It's the best place as any."

"Right." She set Rachel down and gave her a rub on top of the head. "I'll be back later, okay?"

Rachel nodded then held up her dinosaur with a questioning raise of her brows.

"What?" Faith asked, not understanding.

The young girl pointed to the stuffed animal then hugged it.

"You want me to hug or kiss it or something?"

She shook her head, hugging it again.

"I'm not getting what you sayin', Rach," Faith admitted, concentrating on the girl's actions. She glanced at Paul, who was also trying to help understand what Rachel was trying to say.

Rachel motioned for Faith to squat down, and the Slayer did so, holding out her empty hands. Then the little girl pointed to Faith's chest.

Faith looked down. "Uh, yeah, so I got boobs. Maybe one day you'll." But she saw Rachel shake her head. "Not my boobs?" She watched her point to her chest again then back at the dinosaur. "The dinosaur? What, in my chest? In my. my heart?"

Rachel nodded, hugging the animal again.

Hannah came up behind her daughter. "I think she's asking if Xander is going to be with you when you come back," she answered.

Rachel nodded with a grin.

"You got THAT outta what she just did with the dino?"

Hannah laughed. "Well, I know that dinosaur represents you and Xander, since you both gave it to her." She placed her hand over her own chest. "Heart. Love. Rachel knows. Or... I guess knew."

"Oh." Faith looked at Rachel then stood up, trying to smile. "Uh, well, maybe he will. He's been. busy. But I'll see okay?"

Rachel nodded again, satisfied with that answer.

Faith met with Hannah's gaze then looked over at Paul. "Let's go." * * * *

"He's not here," the bartender told Paul and Faith as they waited by the bar.

"He's not here?" Paul repeated. "Is he gone for the night or is he coming back?"

The guy shrugged. "I thought he was gonna be here, him being owner and all." He glanced back towards a back door. "He was here about 15 minutes ago. I didn't know he had to run off or something."

Paul and Faith gave each other glances.

"He bailed," she stated, irritated.

"How did he know we were coming?" Paul wondered as the bartender went to help another customer.

A motion caught Faith's attention and she saw Joe from the club trying to break for the front door.

"I got a pretty fucking good idea," Faith intoned, rushing over towards him before he could make it out the door.

Joe made it out the door - but that was about as far as he got before a hand grabbed the back of his newly stolen jacket and jerked him backwards. "Ack!"

He was tossed to the nearest wall, making him gasp as his back hit the bricks. He automatically put up his hands as he faced Faith. "What? What do you want now?"

Faith stood there, glowering at him with arms crossed. "You know exactly what I want."

Paul rolled up beside her. "You're a friend of the owner of this establishment, right?"

"Uh, don't know what you're."

BAM! Faith sucker punched him in the nose.

"OW! Not again!" Joe cried, covering it with both his hands. "I just got this thing healed."

"Then try tellin' the truth, Joe," Faith warned. "You told him? You told the Nick guy we were coming."

"N-No, I, uh, was just passing by for a-a drink."

Faith's hand shot out and grabbed him by his jacket lapels, bunching them in her fist. "Anyone ever tell you you fucking SUCK at lying?"

Joe nodded. "Only under pressure," he sputtered with a sheepish smile.

"Well, get ready from some heavy duty press."

A scream tore through the street, making all three turn their heads a block over.

A girl came running out, glancing behind her. Three men ran after her into the next alley across the street.

Faith noticed that the girl had long, light brown hair. She just bet this was the vision in Cordelia's head. The guys must've been some weird cult. That meant this wasn't going to end in a good way.

"Shit," she muttered, letting Joe go and sprinting after the chase that disappeared between two buildings.

Joe looked over at Paul. "Heh, guess it wasn't so important then, huh?" He looked Paul over, knowing the guy couldn't do anything without Faith around. "Guess I'll be on my way."

Paul pulled out a crossbow from inside his jacket and pointed it at him with a pleasant smile on his face. "You may need to guess again. Now, where did she leave off?"

Faith entered into the alley and found it empty. She scanned the area and heard a door nearby slam shut. She spotted what door made the noise and saw it led down . to a basement. She closed the distance and kicked the door once, breaking it off its hinges.

The three guys turned around, surprised at the new visitor.

The girl was huddled into a corner, crying softly and hugging herself with her eyes closed.

Faith felt something weird about the situation then realized it was her "spidey senses" going off. Quirking her brow, she pulled out a stake from her jacket. "Guess this is gonna be more satisfying than I thought."

The first of the three vampires vamped out, revealing his teeth as if to scare the Slayer off.

"Just wanting to stop you before you start the chanting," she said, stepping forward. "And the killing, of course."

The three vampires glanced at each other, confused. "Chanting?" one of them mumbled. Then they shook their heads and moved in to attack, the first one getting a boot into his face. His pal got the pleasure of receiving one of Faith's powerful uppercuts, lifting him off his feet and landing harshly onto his backside. The third one was lucky the first two took up most of her time. He got in a shot into her face with a fist of his own, snapping her head back.

Faith stumbled as the same vampire kicked her in the stomach, pushing her against the wall. He tried again but she ducked and swept him off his feet - literally. She grabbed him by the front of his shirt and pulled him towards her fist that held the stake. "See how you like it!" she stated, pulling him again into her fist.

She ducked her head again when one of the other vampires recovered and tried to get her while she was distracted. Adjusting the grip on the stake, she slammed it into the vampire on the ground, dusting him while leaping forward and tackling the one who tried to get his shot in.

They both fell back, but Faith had the upper hand as she straddled the vampire, poising her stake. "What ritual were you gonna use this chick for, huh?" she asked.

"Ritual? I don't know what ritual you're talking about!"

The last vampire came up behind her and smashed a bottle onto the back of her head. The pain came like lightning, her vision going red for a moment from it but she shook it off, backhanding the vampire in the stomach.

"Fine, you ain't gonna tell me, no loss here 'cause it's not gonna happen." She staked the vampire she was straddling and got to her feet to face off with the last vampire.

He stared at her wide-eyed, looking at the broken bottle still in his hand. He dropped it and took off towards the door.

"You okay?" Faith asked the girl.

The girl nodded. "Y-Yes. Thank you." She slowly got to her feet. "I probably would've been dead if you didn't show up."

"Guess Cordelia was right," she muttered to herself. With that she took off, not intending to let the last vampire go. But as she exited the place, she realized she didn't know where he had gone. "Fuck," she muttered, stomping her foot in frustration.

With a disappointed sigh, she went back to where she had left Paul. To her surprise, Joe was still there cowering where he stood. Then she noticed the crossbow pointed at him. "Slick," she commented as she came up to them.

"Did you get them?" Paul asked.

"Yeah. I think I got the punks in that vision I was telling you about."

"Were they chanting?"

"Well, no. But. I mean, they coulda been if I hadn't interrupted them." She scratched her head. "Well, shit, maybe it wasn't the right one." It was beginning to bug her whether or not that was the vision. The light brown hair. The girl screaming. The basement. The . no chanting. No weird smelling herbs. "Huh. Well, the girl's safe, though."

"That's all that counts, Faith." He nodded towards Joe. "Seems like he wanted to talk while you were gone."

"Is that thing licensed?" Joe asked, indicating the crossbow. "'Cause a weapon like could be dangerous."

"What did he say?" Faith asked, ignoring the other guy's remarks.

"He warned Nick about us, told his friend he had better leave."

Faith's eyes slowly looked back at Joe. "Really. Did he say where he told Nick to go?"

"He said he didn't know. That's about where we stopped. He's very good at keeping things when threatened." Paul pulled away the crossbow and tucked it back into his jacket. "I've a feeling Nick might go to Mr. Rayne, truthfully, especially if he's still in cohorts with him. Which Joe here actually admitted."

"See? I did my job," Joe stated with a grin. "Can I go now?"

"Only if you aren't lyin' more and know exactly where we can get more information."

"What do I look like? A booth? I led you here, didn't I? Jesus, you think I'd give info for free." He held out his hand and rubbed his fingers to indicate cash wanted.

That's when he found himself being grabbed again by the lapels of his jacket. "I just took down three vampires, punk," Faith announced. "Actually, one got away which pisses me off. And I don't think pissing me off more is a smart idea, you get me?" She lifted him up to his tippy-toes. "If I don't find this Nick dude in a day, I'm hunting YOU down and breaking every bone in your body, like I promised I would before. You made the choice." She let go and shoved him against the wall. "C'mon, Paul. This has been a bust."

"Wait! You can't make that deal!" Joe begged, following after them as they walked away. "I told him to get out of there, but I didn't tell him where! I don't know where he went! I promise! And I don't know who else to turn to! Everyone else is pretty much in jail or in hiding! I haven't seen them in a month!"

Faith continued to walk on, not looking back. "You shoulda thought of that before you told on us, Joe. Just better hope I find the bastard soon. And if you come across him, tell him I'm lookin' for him. Then we'll be five by five."

"But.!"

"24 hours, Joe."

* * * *

She was there again.

In the middle of the city. Her home.

She felt it to be her home, but the ones she came to care for were not there.

"Hello?" she called.

"Rain. it will rain soon. Rain! Rayne!" Voices began to fill the air, thick with anger and evil. "The Rayne will come soon!" Lightning streaked the sky and droplets of liquid began to fall from above. "Bleu steorra! Bleu steorra!"

Faith scanned around the darkened abandoned streets, getting dampened by the storm, but not caring. "Get out here!" she screamed. "You too scared to come out and face me!?" She held out her hands when she noticed the rain was not regular rain - it was blood. "Shit."

The ground began to shake, almost making her lose her balance. A looming structure began to emerge from the ground, crumbling the asphalt as it rose from below. All she could do was stare up at it as it mounted to its full height.

The echoes of the voices grew louder into the sky. "Bleu steorra! Bleu steorra!"

"Blood shall fall upon that day. The world will cry. I will live forever." It was a voice that sent a chill up Faith's spine without knowing why.

The structure looked familiar - very familiar. She squinted against the blood that continued to fall, trying to place the building in her memory. But it was blurred.

"Fall, Slayer! You shall fall!" Something lit up at the top of the edifice, building in energy.

Faith took a few steps back just as she saw it was aimed towards her. But her legs weren't moving. It was as if she were stuck where she stood.

.the energy built up and fired at her.

She bolted up from her bed, automatically reaching over to her side to grab the person next to her for comfort; only, the one she wanted wasn't there. She took a deep breath, her heart pounding in her chest. "Shit," she muttered. She pushed her hair back with both her hands, closing her eyes. She glanced over at the clock and saw it was nearly late afternoon.

She had been having bits and pieces of the same dream lately in between the ones about Xander. But this time was too real, felt too much. She reached over into the nightstand and pulled out a notebook. Grabbing a pen, she began writing down what was in her dream since it was fresh in her mind.

She knew Slayer dreams were not usually without meaning.

* * * *

Faith got to the diner a little after 8:30 to meet up with Hannah. It was already closed, which was strange in the first place since it was only a Thursday night. She thought Hannah had said it was one of the more hopping days. It was also strange since Hannah didn't say to meet her at any other time or any other place. She peered inside the darken restaurant, not sure what she was trying to find.

She saw some movement in the kitchen area and promptly knocked on the glass.

The figure looked up. It was Jake, Hannah's boss.

He came out from the back and went to the door, a smile on his face. "Hi there," he said. "Faith, right?"

"Yeah. Hi. Where's Hannah?"

He frowned. "Was she supposed to meet you here? She left about an hour ago. She said she had to go see her daughter?"

"Oh. Uh, yeah, maybe so. Everything cool?"

Jake wiped his hands on the towel he had hanging off his pocket. "Yeah. Why?"

"Just. you guys don't usually close this early."

"I have some inventory and other financial matters to take care of. It's a pain in the butt, but something that has to be done. I told my regulars this week it'd be closed."

"Right. Well, sorry to bother you."

"It's no problem. Tell Hannah I'll see her tomorrow." With that, he gave Faith one last smile and went back into the diner, closing the door behind him. He left the neon American flag sign on, however.

* * * *

Faith reached the shelter and found Amber right away. "Hey," she greeted her just as Rachel came running out, hearing Faith's voice. The Slayer turned and captured the girl, lifting her up in her arms as she smiled in delight. "Hey, Rach. Where's Mom?"

Rachel looked at Faith, confusion in her eyes. She held her dinosaur and shrugged.

"She hasn't come in yet," Amber informed her. "I thought she was going to be with you."

"No. I mean, I was gonna meet her at the diner and stuff, but her boss said she might've come back here." She looked around, hoping to see the light haired woman milling around. She looked back at Amber. "Uh, did she say the diner was gonna be closed today?"

Amber shook her head. "No. In fact, I thought she said she was going to work a little bit of overtime today. Thursdays are usually a busy time; she said the waitresses got better tips today."

Rachel suddenly reached out to someone walking into the shelter, her smile growing.

Faith turned, hoping it was Hannah. Instead, it was Xander.

He stopped, holding a bag of doughnuts. "Oh," he said upon seeing Faith. "Hey."

"Hey," she said, uneasily. "What. what are you doin'?"

He tipped the opened bag over towards them. "Brought doughnuts. For Rachel. And well, whoever wants it."

Rachel grinned and put her small, free hand into the bag pulling out a chocolate covered glazed one out. Her eyes widened and she quickly took a bite out of it, making chocolate go all over her mouth.

"Oh, probably not a good idea in the chosen selection," Xander said, smiling at her.

Amber laughed. "I'll go get a paper towel."

When she left, Faith and Xander stood there in silence, unsure of each other.

"Have you seen Hannah?" Faith asked, breaking the silence though her eyes were looking everywhere but him.

Xander shook his head, sticking his hand in his pocket as he continued to hold the bag. "No. Wasn't she working today?"

"Supposed to be. I checked out the diner she works in and her boss said she left to come here. But she ain't here."

"That USA Diner? I passed by the other day. Not exactly Mel's from 'Happy Days.' But it tries." He peered in the bag. "Just hate that really tacky flag out in the window."

"The neon one? Yeah, it is pretty shitty."

"If you're gonna show the American Spirit, at least have a. real. one." Xander suddenly looked up in realization. "Oh, no."

Faith looked over at him. "What?"

"The-the flag! In Cordelia's vision thingy! She said something about an American flag but not really one. It could mean a tacky, neon one, can't it? Does that place have a basement?"

"I don't know," Faith said, absently as a million thoughts streamed through her head. She looked at Xander. "Oh, shit. Do you think that the chick in Cordelia's dream is." She paused, realizing she still had Rachel in her arms.

"Light hair? You mean like Rachel's?"

Amber came back out with the paper towel she promised.

Faith went over to her in two strides and pushed Rachel into her arms. "We gotta go."

"What?" Amber took her and looked at Faith, confused. "What's wrong?"

"Nothing - yet. We'll be back!"

Xander blinked. "'We'?"

Faith stopped on her way out. "You not comin'?"

He stared at her a moment then gave the bag to Amber. "We'll be back, then."

* * * *

They came up to the diner, looking at the neon flag as they came up to the window.

"I thought Hannah's boss had a thing for her," Xander commented. "She talked about him like he was God's gift to the restaurant management industry. Which, maybe he was."

"So why'd he close the diner on the busiest day of the week?" She came up to the window and peered in. The kitchen light that was on before was out.

"To get to the otherside?" Xander commented. "Oh, geez, that might actually make sense."

"I dunno, but I know I don't like this."

"Well, if Cordy's vision was right, there's some chanting and possible screaming that's going on."

They looked at each other in worry.

Faith stepped back away from the door and braced herself to kick it open, but Xander held up his arms, stepping between her and the destruction of the glass door. "Whoa, wait!" he cried.

"What?"

"We shouldn't attract any attention of the authority kind until we at least know for sure this place has a basement." He gestured over to his right, towards the corner that led to the back of the diner. Just hoping she was going to follow, Xander led her around the corner and into a hardly paved back lot of the diner. He peeked his head around to make sure there wasn't anyone milling around. "There's a few cars back here," he whispered.

Faith lowered herself slightly and also followed by peering around the corner. "Think people other than Jake are still here?"

"Probably. For what, I don't know." He spotted a door that was slightly lower than the pavement itself and stairs leading down to it. "Bingo. Look, stairs equals basement."

Emerging from her spot, Faith began to hug close to the wall, heading in the direction. "Stay here," she whispered to him.

But Xander was already at her heels with no intentions on listening. "Right."

She glared at him a moment but knew she had to see the sitch. Alarms were ringing in her head, knowing something in the air wasn't right.

The two brunettes slowly descended the stairs and met up with the thick metal door. Xander got on his tippy-toes to see in the small square window. Right away, he smelled something not very pleasant, but definitely very herby. "Stinky herbs," he whispered.

Faith nodded, also picking up on the odor. "Do you see anything?"

"It's pretty dark in there. I. I think I see candles over to the left of us." He put his ear against the window, slowing his breathing down to hear better.

Faith did the same, though she didn't really need to press her ear to the door to get the same listening range.

And they both heard the chanting at the same time.

"Shit, that's it," Faith said. "The thing Cordelia saw. They got Hannah in there." She moved Xander out of the way and jerked at the handle of the door. It was locked. She jerked even harder. Still it didn't move. Grabbing it with both hands, she clenched her jaw and tensed all her muscles.

Xander looked up worriedly at the structure of the door. It was pretty thick and just by the way it held against even Slayer Super-Strength without even moving an inch, he guessed it was dead bolted a few times on the inside. He heard something metallic creak from within the door after Faith gave it a mighty tug, but it wasn't anything. Maybe if she kept it up for another hour, she could break in.

But he had a feeling they didn't have an hour. maybe not even five minutes.

"Motherfucker," she grunted, doing it again.

Xander put his hand on her forearm before she could do it again for a third time. "We're not going to get through this way," he stated. "Remember the other door not made of indestructible metal? That'll be easier. There's got to be a way down from the diner."

Faith held onto the handle a moment then nodded, knowing he was right. She just hated the fact she had met up with a door she couldn't bust. She followed him back from where they had come from. She grabbed the handle on that door and gave it a jerk. The glass door shook but still held on. "No way this is gonna hold," she intoned and pulled it with all her might in her one arm and shoulder.

But it was more than enough. Things creaked and broke within the frame of the door, even glass cracked, and it was nearly jerked right off its hinges.

Xander had to grin, love watching her in action. "Guess we're not going for the 'quiet and no evidence left behind' route."

She looked over her shoulder, a smirk playing on her lips. "Hey, we got in, right?" She stepped through and immediately went towards the kitchen. "Found it!" she called, seeing the regular door nearly in the back of the diner. She twisted the knob, breaking it and opened it up.

Xander followed close behind as they descended the stairs. The smell of the herbs was a lot stronger now and the chanting was louder.

Faith didn't hesitate and rushed down the rest of the way, ending up in a dank the basement. Right away, she saw the group of ten people in the furthest end of the room all in robes, covering up most of their faces.

They all kept chanting, seemingly oblivious to anything.

"Party's over, folks!" Xander called, holding up his hands as if he was back in the bar telling everyone to go home. He didn't see the two bigger guys coming from behind him and grabbing his arms, pinning them behind his back. "Ooops. Uh, where'd you guys come from?" he asked, sheepishly. He saw the markings all over their face, all of it not making sense to him.

Faith turned around, seeing Xander in trouble. "Xander!" she called, adrenaline instantly pumping through her.

Xander's eyes widened when he noticed that one of the hooded figures still chanting, held up a knife. It was then as they shifted their position he saw someone lying in the middle of the circle. "Hannah," he murmured. "Faith! The-The circle! Hannah!" He struggled against the two big men, pointing with his foot. "And knife!"

Faith turned to her right, seeing what he was seeing. "Oh, shit."

"Worry about me later!" He saw her face him again, filled with conflict as to who to go to first. "Faith! Just get Hannah! It's what we came for!"

Faith reluctantly went towards the circle of robed people, not seeing the two big guys beginning to pound on Xander. She rushed the group, ready for a fight but the one with the knife stood up and faced her.

"STOP!" he ordered.

"Not gonna happen!" Faith retorted.

He reached down and easily pulled up a gagged and tied Hannah, taking her into a hostage hold, the knife up to her throat. "I think it's going to happen."

Faith stopped.

In his movements, the leader's hood fell about his neck revealing it to be Jake. His smile widened. "You're a lot of trouble, you know that? Here I was, about to have a romantic sacrifice with Hannah here. She said she'd do anything I said, especially after I got rid of those three guys that you wanted to fight the first time I laid eyes on you. I saved you and her the trouble. Little girl like you shouldn't be messing with things you don't know about."

"You REALLY think this bitch cares?" she snapped. "You better mind your own damn safety, 'Jake.'"

"No, Faith. You're really messing with things you don't know about." And suddenly his face began to change. His skin became a green color, eyes turning yellow into cat-eye slits, subtle scales growing. He was mostly reptilian except for the horns that began to protrude from his head. "You should be very afraid, Faith. Dealing with me and my followers isn't smart."

"Oh, yeah. 'Cause I haven't seen demons before." She tilted her head a bit, trying to tune out the sounds behind her of Xander getting beaten up. "Dude, I think you've got your scales crossed. You think I don't know what I'm dealing with?" She chuckled. "I'm beginning to think it's YOU who don't know who you're dealin' with."

"Your high school chick fights won't help you, Faith," he hissed. "You may have the tough-chick look, but looks can be deceiving. Get her."

Right away, two of his cronies, who revealed themselves as having the same sort of "skin problem" as Jake rushed her.

Faith immediately went into a fighting stance, pivoting around, lashing out with a roundhouse kick when they were two feet from her. The first one was caught totally unaware and got caught straight in the cheek, flying off his feet.

But the other one was very quick. He managed to duck, not catching the boot. He lashed out with his own foot, hitting her in the knee.

She buckled, but fell into the tumble, rolling right back onto her feet. She came back up, running toward him with a fist as he came back up, hitting him straight into his cheek. She heard him hiss in pain and she hit him again with a left hook, letting him stumble back before kicking him flat-footed into the chest.

Jake held Hannah there, staring at the spectacle. "What's going on?"

Faith turned around, slamming her foot into the back of the barely conscious one, slamming him back into the concrete floor with a sickening crunch. She looked back over at Jake. "That all you got?"

"Whoa!" came Xander's voice as he flew over Faith's head and landed in a heap near the circle. "Ouch," he mumbled, unable to even raise his head.

Jake looked over at him as did Hannah with wide eyes. "Is that all YOU'VE got as far as back up?"

"It's okay. I took care of . them." Xander muttered, nearly deliriously.

Faith could already feel the anger rising to its boiling point. She stepped forward only to be grabbed by the same guys who had thrown Xander around like a rag doll. She saw they had also transformed into the snake-like creatures, only they were 2 times as big.

Jake motioned for three of his other followers. "Get the rope and tie her up. We'll kill her later."

Three of them went for her at his command, only to be met with the soles of her boots. She lifted herself up in her captors' grasps, hitting the one on the left with her right foot, twisting at the waist so that her left boot hit the one on the right, then bent her knees and slammed the middle one in the chest.

She let herself back onto the ground, still glaring at Jake. "Didn't think I was gonna let that shit happen, did ya'?"

Jake seemed a little bit perturbed by the course taken. "What ARE you?"

"What am I?" she asked. "You gotta mirror on you, pal?"

Xander lifted his head up and began slowly crawling along the floor, fighting off the blackness that was threatening to overtake him.

"We're the Order of Orm. Our power draws from this one sacrifice per month - this lovely specimen happens to be this time." He looked up to the sky. "The night draws the stars. It must be done."

Hannah squirmed, her eyes wide in fear. But she stopped when Jake pressed the knife harder.

Faith tensed but the big guys held tighter, pulling her back.

"Hold her there," Jake ordered the two bodyguards. "We're almost complete. The air is already shifting as we speak." He looked at few followers that were alive and conscious. "Quickly! Get up! We must finish the ritual before the stars are stale!"

He pulled Hannah away.

"NO!" Faith cried, pulling her right arm with all her might.

The big guy on that side had to pull even harder, extremely surprised at how strong she was. "Sir!"

Without warning, Jake turned around and flung the knife in that direction.

Xander, from his vantage point, watched in horror as it streaked smoothly across the air and embedded itself into Faith's arm.

She screamed in pain as it nearly went through her upper arm.

"Stay still!" Jake snapped, glaring at Faith as Hannah also screamed at the sight.

"You almost got me!" the big guy on her right arm announced. He saw his boss' look and winced.

Her jaw clenched, Faith felt the blood streaming down her arm. "SHIT!" she finally cried, trying to force the pain back. And it fucking HURT.

Xander lay there on his stomach, trying so hard not to jump up and smack Jake right then. Getting himself killed wasn't going to help anyone. He lay still as the remaining members gathered around the circle, beginning the ritual again, not even thinking about the ones that had been lost.

Hang in there, Faith, Xander urged, silently. He watched as they said a few more lines and the air began to change. A spark of light began to form on the wall nearest to them - a symbol of a serpent was drawn on it on some type of black ink.

"Take this sacrifice!" Jake called, shoving Hannah to the ground, back into the middle of the circle. He lifted up his scaly, clawed hands into the air. "Orm, grant us the power you give us every day!"

Faith painfully clenched her fists, watching as more blood seeped out of the wound. Using the pain and turning it into anger and fury, she pulled her left arm forward when she felt the SLIGHT bit of slack the big guy on her left arm gave as he watched the ritual. She didn't get totally out of his grasp, but the movement allowed her to ram her elbow into his midsection as hard as she could.

He doubled over, letting go then.

In the same movement, not stopping, not thinking about the pain, she grabbed the hilt of the knife and pulled it out of her arm, crying out from the motion then slammed the blade into the other guy's face, right between the eyes.

He hissed, blue blood oozing out of HIS wound, hands clawing at it. But it was too late - it hit where it was supposed to and he fell to the ground, dead.

Faith grabbed her upper arm, breathing heavily from the pain. She leapt up, gritting her teeth, and lashed out with her foot, slamming it into the second one's cheek, breaking his thick neck in the process.

A portal began to open larger as Jake ignored her escape and concentrated on the ritual. He bent down and picked up Hannah over his head. "Take this sacrifice!"

Xander got to his feet and began running towards Jake, fighting off the dizzy spell that came from getting up so fast. He got near enough to them without notice, shoving a few out of his way and standing between Hannah and Jake and the portal that was big enough to hold a car. He stood in front of Jake and grabbed his wrists to keep him from throwing Hannah. "Not so fast there, buddy!" he said.

Jake hissed at him, his long tongue of a serpent licking in and out in anger. "Interference!"

"What is this? Sunday Night football?" Xander asked, then cocked back his fist and hit Jake in the face.

Jake stumbled back, dropping Hannah in the process.

Xander reached out and softened the fall as he caught her. He got back to his feet just as Jake was about to attack him and they locked onto each other, struggling.

But Xander could feel that Jake was a lot stronger than the average snake guy. He felt himself being shoved back towards the portal.

"You won't be what Orm is looking for - but you'll die nonetheless!"

"I saw this once in a movie," Xander responded as he dropped down and used the momentum to shove Jake over his head by pushing him with his feet on Jake's abdomen. "Hey, it worked!" he said, then realized Jake wasn't letting go as he fell into the portal. "Uh-oh!" He began sliding towards the portal. He felt Jake's claws raking at his skin for purchase.

Xander got to his stomach, attempting to get some sort of footing before he got sucked in, too. But Jake was not going to let go.

Faith couldn't see what was happening when all the followers began to gather around in anger and surprise. She moved forward, something in her telling her something wasn't right. She shoved and punched and kicked anyone in her way until she stopped short at the portal on the wall.

The only thing of Xander that was still in their "world" was his foot, barely hanging onto the floor.

Faith reached forward and grabbed his ankle with her good arm. "Xander," she called to him in fear.

Xander looked up. "Just hanging out!" he called, though he was desperately trying to make Jake let him go.

Faith, only using her left arm, began to pull back, bringing Xander and Jake back up. She planted her feet on the ground and pulled harder.

Xander shook his arm as hard as he could when he felt himself being pulled back. He pulled out of one of Jake's holds and used his hand to try and pry him off finger by scaly finger.

Jake's yellow eyes widened when he realized his day was pretty much done. "No."

"Oh, yeah," Xander said, pulling off the last possible way Jake could hold on. "Say 'hey' to Elvis for me!" He waved as Jake fell into the endless swirl of the portal.

With Jake off, Faith had less weight to pull, and she was caught off guard by the sudden weight loss. She fell back while Xander flew up, back on safe ground just as the portal closed shut.

He landed on her in a heap. "Ouch," he mumbled.

The Orm followers hissed in pain and began holding their heads. They swayed back and forth then seemingly melted into the ground with blue ooze to indicate where they stood.

Xander pulled himself off of Faith, noticing the blood on his shirt. "Oh, God," he said, placing his hand over her wound. "Faith, hang on."

"I'm. fine," she murmured, the wound taking more out of her now that the adrenaline had slowed down.

"This oodles of blood doesn't say so." He looked around and saw Hannah still gagged and tied by her wrists. He went over to her, removing the gag. "You okay?"

Hannah nodded. "Faith. is she.?"

Xander put the gag around Faith's arm, tightening it. "She better be."

Faith let out a cry of pain. "Shit, Xander, that hurt!"

"Sorry." He watched her with worried eyes. "Uh ." He looked over at Hannah and began working on her binds. When she was okay, he went back to Faith, the cloth already soaked in blood. "God." He reached down and pushed his hands under her.

"What the hell are you doing?" she asked, trying to move.

Hannah came up behind Xander. "Faith, you need help."

"Let me be the man this time around," Xander half-joked as he lifted her into his arms. He ignored the pain in his own body from the earlier beating. "We need to get you back home."

Faith looked up at him, feeling his warm body against hers, and it really hit her how much she missed his touch, him just being near to her. "Fine," she said, weakly. She closed her eyes in pain - pain that had nothing to do with her wound. "Take me home. Then. just go."

He ascended the stairs in silence at that remark. Then, "Okay, Faith. Whatever you want. I just want you to be okay."

* * * *

He had left. Dropped her off at Paul's. and did what she had said: he left.

She had laid in her bed, staring out into the morning sky, the wound already closed up and to be as good as new within a few hours.

"Faith?" came Paul's unsure voice from behind her closed door. "Um, would you like something to - "

"Leave me alone," she had muttered. "Please."

"Okay, I'll be out to run some errands. I'll be back. We can deal with Joe and what to do whenever you're ready."

And it didn't take her long to be ready, take her mind off of everything again. They tried to find Nick yet again, but with no luck. They just didn't have enough information and they just KNEW Joe was still holding back.

Maybe now he was ready to talk.

Faith went up the stairs of the dusty apartment building, taking in the mixture of awful smells that were coming from various apartments. She got to the fourth floor and came up to room 44, knocking on it harshly with her left arm. Though her right shoulder was pretty much healed, she wanted to wait a little longer or wait until it really needed to be used.

"Hey, Joe!" she called. "No such luck in the finding of your friend! I came to collect pay from your fucked up dues!" She waited a moment, not hearing any movement inside. "I know you're in there!" she called, slamming her fist into it once for emphasis. "Landlord said he saw you comin' up here!"

But there was still no movement or sound.

Losing her patience, she rammed her left shoulder into the door and broke it open. She stepped in and that was all it took to stop her dead in her tracks. There wasn't much furniture in Joe's apartment, thus exposing the one big wall in the living room.

You're too late.

It was written in red ink all on the wall. No, wait. Faith sniffed more and realized the stench was coming from here. It wasn't red ink.

"Holy shit," she muttered when she saw Joe's body on the ground underneath the message. He'd been. mutilated; at least everything from the neck down was nearly unrecognizable. Blood was everywhere, but mainly used for the message looming above him.

Faith had to step back. It was obvious he was taken out of the equation. They had been too near to finding the answers. Too near to finding Ethan Rayne and the plans he had for everyone.

She turned to walk back out through the door when it slammed in her face. "What the.?" Then she saw the note written in Joe's blood behind the door.

You're next.

Faith's senses flared then, making her body rigid with unease. That's when 10 men - and some demons - appeared in the room, seemingly out of nowhere. They quickly got to her, grabbing her arms and shoving her against the door.

Faith fought back, kicking one across the room, slamming her other foot into the face of another one. But they weren't as easily put off as people in the past were - first of all, they were using magic.

A sharp pain entered Faith's head, making her scream in pain.

"I do bet that hurt," came a voice as the group parted. "That actually would've killed a normal human. Melted their brain into mush. You have a much stronger constitution than a normal human. Interesting."

Faith glared at the man standing before her, the pain dissipating quickly. "Who are you?"

The thin, older man with a knowing grin looked at the Slayer lazily. "The one who shall kill you, actually. It's rather sad since you are a pretty girl." He stepped up to her, staring at her. "Yes, I do remember you. Or at least the reputation of you. In Sunnydale. Oh, you'll be fun."

Faith fought back against those who held her back but the sharp pain came back into her head. She held back another cry. "Ethan Rayne."

The man chuckled. "And my reputation proceeds me."

"You fucking kidding me? I've just got a better rep than you do, asshole. I only found out who you are now. And just to let you know, I'm gonna kill you."

"No, no, Slayer. I've heard that line before." He indicated Joe's mutilated form. "He was going to turn me in. We dealt with it." He looked back at her, a twinkle in his eyes. "Now it's your turn."

- END -