"So, then, you're all cool with it? Your sister living in Sunnydale, going to the same high school."

Buffy decided to ignore the dubious dimension to Xander tone.

"Well, you know." She shrugged. "We leave each other alone."

But as she said it, part of her couldn't help but feel that Faith was the more alone of them both.

Not that she should feel guilty. Well, not about that, at least.

Faith was her own person, and heaven only knew how she could take care of herself.

She was no longer Buffy's to take care of.

But she's still my sister.

And she couldn't deny there was something wrong, plain wrong, about not being with Faith in the open, at school, all the time, when they lived such incredible, indescribable things together, when night fell on the quiet town of Sunnydale.

Could words even express the intensity that filled Buffy down to her fingertips, when she and Faith roamed graveyards under the shine of moonlight, when they saved each other or tackled a vampire to the ground, thrusting their stakes all the way down to their un-beating hearts? When the thrill of violence and adrenaline was too much for Buffy's brain, when she felt she would burst from the sheer extreme of her new life, she could only look at Faith across a cloud of dust and know it was all real.

Then, how could her eyes not follow after Faith secretly, in the corridors, how could she not crave to cling to her sister, whose very self had merged with this life of horrors and delights which Faith had uncovered to Buffy's eyes?

"Come on," Faith told her one night, as they walked out of the graveyard after a fruitful night's labors. "Don't tell me you see me blending with your everyday life." She laughed so hard, she had to be picturing it herself. "The four of us together, me, sandwiched between your Willy and Xandra?"

"It's Willow and Xander."

Faith laughed all the harder.

Buffy rolled her eyes and told herself she didn't mind. After all the blows her body had taken tonight, it wasn't as if bruised feelings were too much to handle.

"It's just –" She said. "It's so schizophrenic. Like having two completely separate lives."

"Slayer by night, cheerleader by day. Teenage boys' wet dreams, vampires' nightmares."

"Could you be serious?"

"Oh, Buffy. I'm always serious."

Buffy sighed. Maybe, if she hadn't been so taken by her own feelings, she would have noticed the strange earnestness in her sister's voice.

"So," Faith said, remarkably free from sarcasm. "This whole little routine unsettles you?"

"Yes. I'm afraid – I'm not myself when I'm here, with you. And it's harder to return to real life, in high school. To forget about all this – those bodies that fall to dust, the monsters that lurk in the night."

Faith fell silent for a moment.

In vain, Buffy waited for her to laugh or smirk deviously at her. It would have made what Faith had to say less difficult to hear.

"Isn't it rather that you are yourself, right now – with me?"

Buffy pricked her thumb with her stake and feigned to be too concerned with the blood trickling down her finger to have heard her.

When she looked up, her sister was smiling.

"You know what, Buffy? I think we're a lot more alike than you're willing to admit."

"Oh, grow up."

That was always the closing line Buffy used when Faith had her in a tight corner. It had never seemed to grow old or inadequate until tonight, when Faith smiled her mischief fully at her.

"No, Buffy. You grow up. You try, for a change."

The words ran in loops into Buffy's brain as she walked home, late that night, after she and Faith had gone their separate ways.

"Grow up." She mumbled. "Like she's got experience in that department."

Faith was sixteen years old. She lived in a motel. And all she ever did, it seemed, was watch movies, eat candy and kill vampires.

But at least she's free, part of Buffy thought. After all, Faith wasn't the one who had to sneak out of her bedroom window at night so she could go patrolling. Faith wasn't the one who rushed through dinner with mom and feigned a headache to avoid staying downstairs to watch some TV program with her on the couch.

That was the other side of that coin of solitude which Faith held out like a talisman, and which Buffy felt increasingly fascinated by.

She might only be sixteen, Faith did not answer to anyone or anything. If she was bored with class, she got up and left. If the four walls of her motel room suffocated her, she went for a walk.

And if she was sleepless, late at night, even if she and Buffy had already done their patrol, she got up, strolled to the graveyard, and killed more.

This more than anything sent stabs of jealousy to Buffy's chest.

Aside from that first vampire, when she had been alone, Buffy had never killed without Faith.

She shook her head, scolding herself. "Stop it. You're being ridiculous."

"Oh? I myself would have gone for plain but pretty."

Buffy swiveled in one brisk jump, her stake raised level with her face, ready to strike.

"Relax. Not here to hurt you. Couldn't hurt you if I tried."

The man held up both hands in a sign of surrender, but the smile on his lips and the playful look in his eyes did not agree with it.

He was tall, slim but muscular, and the pitch-black of his clothes clashed with the white-blond of his hair.

Buffy gauged him for a moment.

Everything about him looked devious, and the blood rushing to her brain, the inmost instinct in her bones, told her that he was a vampire.

"I didn't hear you," she said, without lowering her stake or allowing him out of her sight even to blink.

"No," he said. "You wouldn't. I'm fast. I'm quiet. I sneak up on slayers, you know. That's just what I do."

He laughed when Buffy's hand tightened around her stake.

"I'm playing with fire, am I? She said I shouldn't tease you. Said you were – how should I put it? Tragically without humor, I think, were her exact words."

"If you're not making sense in the next ten seconds, I'll shove this through your heart."

He arched one brow. "On the first night? All right, all right," when she prepared to move forward. "My name is Spike. I'm a friend, Buffy. Faith's friend, and yours, if you can believe it."

"I don't see one good reason why I should. You're a vampire."

He bowed his head in concession. "Yes. And a fierce one at that, back in the old days. But see, you still have much to learn about all the nuances of that new world. It's not all night and day, black and white, vampires and slayers – ouch."

Spike had taken a step closer, and Buffy had punched him in the face without thinking.

Her own strength still astonished her and she had to stop herself from staring in amazement as her fist propelled the blond vampire against a streetlamp a few yards behind. It bent with a loud crack, but quickly enough, the vampire was back on his feet, rubbing his jaw.

"Careful there."

A genuine glow of anger flared in his eyes. They were cold pale eyes, and Buffy knew immediately that whatever reason this vampire had not to attack her, mercy had nothing to do with it.

"Or what?"

An actual growl slipped out of his mouth.

Buffy instinctively clutched the stake and stepped forward.

"Oh, would you for one second –"

This time, he had the reflex to dodge as she moved to strike, and before she could make for his heart again, he jumped out of sight.

He really was fast.

Buffy barely had time to spot him, perched on the hood of a car, before he spoke, "I'm here to train you. The both of you. And watch over you."

"What?"

She shook her head.

"No. Faith would have –"

"Faith knows all about me, sweetheart."

He was confident enough to stand face to face with her again.

"The council sent me. I'm the most powerful asset they've got, and they happen to be short of a watcher, unfortunately."

"I don't know what you're talking about –"

"You think slayers just act in complete autonomy? No one to regulate them, make sure they don't go rogue or something?"

In fact, Buffy hadn't. The thought of having to answer to any authority, now that she had learned to fight against vampires, felt ludicrous – outrageous.

"You're here to regulate me?"

"Oh," he sighed, "I'm just a prisoner, sweetheart."

He put two fingers to his temple.

"Right here, there's a tiny chip that enables them to put me in a state of extreme," he clenched his jaw, "very extreme pain. I can't hurt humans. I can't disobey their orders. Trust me, if that's good enough for them, it should be good enough for you. If I could hurt you, you would have felt me by now. Yes. In my glory days, slayer, you and I would have been in the throes of ecstasy and death before the night was through."

"Spare me your nostalgic reminiscing."

"My point is, I don't like this any more than you do. But I've been turned into a lab rat, and as a slayer you answer to the council."

"I don't answer to anyone."

She held his gaze, as if to dare him to call her a liar.

Inwardly, she added, Except to mom.

Spike smiled, but this time, there was something like sympathy in his eyes – mocking, and devilish, but sympathy, for all that.

"Of course, you do, slayer. Or didn't you know that? If freedom is what you want – I'm sorry to say, you're on the wrong side."