Summary: Xander and Faith retrieve a suspicious new Slayer, and the confrontation brings about a long-delayed discussion between the two old acquaintances. Sixth story in the "Slayer Central" series.

Disclaimer: All of these characters remain the property of their owners/creators. . .I'm just borrowing them for a spell. . .

Rating: PG-13, for themes

Time Frame: About a week after the events in "Learning Curve," and following the post- "Chosen" events described in "Slayer Central" and the following stories in the series. (spoilers)

Archiving: Be my guest, but e-mail me (eilandesq@hotmail.com) to let me know. . .I like to know where stuff I write ends up and I might want to see what else you've got.

WHAT HE DOES

"Welcome back, Principal Wood!"

Robin paused in the doorway: Buffy paused with him and grinned wickedly as her friend reacted to the greeting. All of the Slayers that Robin had known in Sunnydale, along with the twenty-odd new ones who had been found since Slayer Central had been opened and the rest of the Sunnydale and Angel Investigations groups--with two notable exceptions--were standing next to the grand staircase of the Hyperion to welcome their wounded compatriot home. Robin frowned, turned to Buffy, and said bluntly: "You're fired."

"Been there, done that, Robin; besides, my desk is under a pile of rubble, and I have a cool new desk with a stylish demon-free computer at Wolfram & Hart. You can't intimidate me with your boss man tactics any more." Buffy somehow managed to convey that she was sticking her tongue out at Robin without actually doing it, and Robin sighed as Buffy added, "If I can put up with a bunch of teenagers calling me 'Senior Slayer,' you can put up with a welcome home cheer and a party in the Hyperion Lounge in your honor tonight. I'll give you time enough to change and shower, then I'm sending Vi and Kennedy to drag you to the party."

"OK, I give, I give." Robin sounded resigned as he looked at the crowd, searching for a particular face. He frowned and asked, "Buffy, where's Faith?"

Buffy smiled inwardly. If Faith and Robin hadn't noticed each other on their own, she would have been nudging them together herself. Faith had been driving out to Glendale every other day or so for visiting hours, and Willow had commented after one trip with her that it was a good thing for Robin's recovery that he wasn't in a private room. * They're both messed up in their own ways, but they'll be good for each other * "She's somewhere in town, searching for the last Slayer that Willow's sensed in this area. From what we've been able to find out, she's run away from her foster parents, and has been having a few close encounters with the nastier side of things since she's been out on her own."

"And you sent Faith out after her? I think the world of Faith, but she isn't exactly who I'd send to handle a delicate situation like that." Wood looked at Buffy, raised an eyebrow, and added, "For that matter, neither are you."

"Oh, that's nice--what happened to the sensitive, New Age principal who went around hiring college dropouts as school counselors?" Buffy retorted, drawing a sardonic chuckle from Robin. She chuckled in response, and added, "Faith's the muscle on this mission--Xander's the negotiator."

Robin winced involuntarily, remembering seeing Xander for the first time after Caleb had maimed him, and paused for a moment before asking hesitantly, "Xander's a responsible young man, but is he really the person you want to handle a delicate situation with a possibly unstable young woman with superpowers?"

"If Xander wasn't good at that, we'd all be dust for more than a year now, Robin." Willow had stepped forward and replied to Robin's comment. Robin looked apologetic, and Willow reached out and squeezed his hand to show she wasn't angry. Willow smiled and added, "He'll do fine, Robin--it's what he does." She turned to look out the front door of the Hyperion and whispered, "And if he can't--Faith will make sure he comes back to us."

* * * * *

Dara slipped through the alley, avoiding the group of teenage boys with what had become second nature. * There are a couple of cute ones there, but it wouldn't end well--it never does * She waited for the group to move off into the distance, then stepped out onto the sidewalk, looking for a store to buy something she could eat on the run.

The glint of streetlights caught a mirror at the corner of her vision, and she turned involuntarily to look. The reflection was much the same as the one she had seen six weeks ago--light brown hair cut to medium length, a face featuring hazel eyes and a spinkling of freckles, topping a slender frame of medium height. Perhaps a bit thinner these days, as meals had been scarce and she had been unwilling to do what several now-limping men had suggested she do for money. * Jerks. * On the other hand, the money would have been nice. She sighed in irritation and had turned to look for the food store again when she saw the man studying her. * Great. Another one. * She stopped, glared at him, and snapped, "I'm not selling anything, and the last guy who asked is learning the joys of walking with a shattered kneecap."

Dara was surprised when the man smiled and stepped forward. "I believe it. From past observations, I'd say he got off easy. You don't need to worry about me--I've found that I prefer older women." The man saw that Dara was puzzled, and chuckled before adding, "I'm not a cop or a pimp, so don't freak out when I ask you this--are you Dara Andrews?"

Dara snorted. "OK, I * know * those jerky foster parents wouldn't bother to put my picture on a milk carton. What's your deal--are you bored and have nothing better to do than check the list of missing foster children in hopes of being a big hero and dragging me home? If that's it, keep walking. I've got no interest in going back to those jerks, or any other jerks that Social Services might dig up. California's almost forty billion in the hole this year, and I'm pretty sure they've run out of money for finding people who are sober more than half the time and won't smack you around when they've had a bad day." The man's expression changed, and Dara was startled to see the raw anger in his eyes--no, wait. . .he only had one eye, with the other one covered by a patch--and the set of his jaw--it made a chill go down her spine and made her feel oddly safe in the presence of the stranger. She quirked a smile and added, "Don't get all White Knight on me--the last ones hardly laid a glove on me before I took off--some of the other ones were a lot worse. I just didn't want to deal with it any more--"

"Things changed a few weeks back, didn't they?" The man's expression changed again--he looked calm, but his one eye sparkled with the intensity of trying to make a point. "You were minding your own business when things felt--different. People tried to push you around, and you started pushing back."

Dara opened her mouth to reply, and snapped it shut when she realized that this guy--however nice and whatever protective vibes he was giving off--was still a stranger. She stared hard at him and asked bluntly, "How about a name? I can't keep thinking of you as 'the cute older guy with the eyepatch'--it takes too long to get through it."

"Alexander Harris--my friends call me Xander." Xander raised his right hand, palm up--his wallet was in it. He tossed it underhanded to Dara, who raised an eyebrow as she caught it and asked, "What makes you think that I won't take off with this?"

"Hey, if six bucks and a lifetime membership card for the Babylon 5 Fan Club will help you get along in life, more power to you." Xander grinned, and after a moment Dara was smiling with him.

Dara opened the wallet and quickly found Xander's driver's license. * Two eyes--he lost it recently * She looked at the information and her eyes widened. "Sunnydale? Didn't that town--"

"Fell into a big old hole in the ground, on the same day that things started looking differently to you." Xander's voice was matter-of-fact. Dara tossed back his wallet, and he could see fear surfacing in her eyes and her expression for the first time. "Don't be afraid of me, Dara. I can help you understand what's happened to you--and I couldn't hurt you if I wanted to."

"Yeah, right. You're twice my size, and I can see the way you're moving--you know something about fighting." Dara snapped, then blinked. * How did I know that? *

"You're right, I do. I've been training with some of the toughest people around for over six years. I've beaten guys twice or more as strong as me, and I've survived running up against some a lot tougher than that. That being said, you could beat me to a pulp inside of fifteen seconds if the mood struck you, and I'm really hoping that it doesn't--I've spent enough time in the hospital lately." Xander gestured to the eyepatch, and smiled in sympathy with Dara as she winced. She still looked skeptical, though, and Xander looked around to see if anyone was watching before suggesting, "Dara, pick up that little rock by your foot." Dara complied, looking puzzled, and Xander nodded and added, "See that soda bottle sitting on that fence post across the street in the park?" Dara turned, looked, and nodded--it was about one hundred and fifty feet away. "Now, without thinking about it, throw that rock and break that bottle."

Dara stared at him. "You've got to be kidding."

Xander grinned and replied, "Tell you what. Just give it a fair try--throw it without taking time to aim, but trying to hit it. If you miss, the six bucks in my wallet is yours, and I won't bug you any more. If you do it, you sit down with me at that Swanson's over across the street, and we spend the money on sodas while you listen to me explain what's going on with you. Deal?"

Dara shrugged. "It's your money." She looked at him and shook her head to indicate that she knew full well he was out of his mind. * I'll give it a fair shot, for all the good it'll do you. * Without looking back at the bottle, she leaned back and hurled the rock with all her strength.

A split second later, the bottle vanished, blown into tiny pieces by the rock. The noise of the bottle shattering was mingled with a "thunk" noise. Dara stood and stared as Xander jogged over past where the bottle had been and to a tree behind it. He dug at it for a second, then jogged back to Dara and dropped the rock in her hand--it was still warm from its bumpy ride. Xander chuckled again at the expression on Dara's face and called out, "OK, who's up for root beer floats?"

* * * * *

"Wow."

"Yeah, wow is pretty much the reaction I had to the whole thing when I heard about it. It was intense enough when it was just one or two girls--but hundreds of them is something truly amazing. You're one of them, Dara, and at a time when things are changing for the better. We want you to see what we have to offer, and let you make up your own mind as to what you want to do."

Dara and Xander were quietly walking down the street, which was apparently deserted. Dara hadn't swallowed the story whole at first telling--she had asked pointed questions as they sipped their root beer floats in a corner table at Swanson's, and Xander had been quick to respond with different questions: Have you had unusual dreams lately? Have you known things about weapons, and fighting, and other things that you couldn't possibly know? Have you seen any guys who weren't quite. . .*human*? Slowly and reluctantly, Dara had nodded in the affirmative to each of the questions. Xander had handed Dara a quarter and told her to rip it in half--she had laughed at the absurdity of the request, then done it with little apparent effort. The sound had brought the counter person running over--only to see Xander and Dara looking over at him with innocent expressions.

After that, Dara had relaxed and listened intently to what Xander was saying, and found herself nodding. * Somehow, it feels right. If it's a scam, he's making his life more difficult by showing me what I can do * They had finished and left the shop, and Xander was filling in some of the more recent details, including why there were now lots of Slayers instead of only one or two. Dara frowned and stopped in her tracks, asking, "Xander--is there any guarantee that all of the girls who were Chosen are going to be good guys?"

Xander hesitated for a moment before replying, "No, Dara, there isn't. From what I've seen, there's a strong pull to fight evil creatures for girls who become Slayers, but fighting evil things doesn't mean you can't become evil. It's a free will thing, and it's why it's so important that we find all of you, before someone who would use you to do evil things gets their claws into you."

Dara nodded, then paled and took a step back. "They sent you by yourself to find someone who might be a superstrong homicidal maniac? What if I had attacked you?"

"We had a pretty good idea you wouldn't do that, Dara." Xander smiled reassuringly at her. "We have your records, and while it's pretty clear you've got a bit of a mouth on you--" Dara smirked at him and lowered her eyelashes flirtatiously--"--you're clearly a good kid. Particularly given a lot of the crap you've gone through. I wasn't worried about you hurting me."

Dara frowned and asked, "But what if you'd been wrong, Xander?"

"Then I would have had to try to stop you--not fun. Slayers hit hard."

Dara jumped back, startled, as a dark-haired woman slipped out of the shadows like a phantom. Xander turned and winked at the newcomer, and turned back to Dara: "Dara, meet Faith--she was Called five years ago, and she's still among the living."

"It's been touch and go a few times, but any landing you can walk away from is a good one." Faith replied, and Dara wondered at the look she gave Xander before turning to the younger Slayer and extending her hand. "Nice to meet you." Dara shook her hand, and Faith added, "Sorry for the stealth routine--I'm not exactly the touchy feely type, and I thought Xander would have better luck working on his own convincing you we're on the up and up. It's what he does."

Xander shifted uncomfortably at Faith's words, and Dara noted the reaction before nodding and saying, "Yeah, I kind of noticed that. Shame he's into older women."

Faith blinked, and Dara wondered again at Faith's visible discomfort. * There's history between these two--maybe after some time with these people I'll get to hear about it * Dara grinned, and after a few seconds she added, "Oh well, if I'm going to be hanging out with you heroic types, I might have time to break down his sales resistance. When are we leaving?"

* * * * *

"Dara, we've set aside a room for you, and if you're tired you can crash anytime you like--but we'd love to have you stay for the rest of the party. You can meet some of the other Slayers, and compare notes." Buffy handed Dara a key and shook her hand. "Welcome to Slayer Central--I hope you decide to stay with us for the long run."

"Thanks, Buffy. Guess I'll mingle for a while." Dara had showered, eaten, and received a change of clothes, and she was visibly not tired. She was glowing with enthusiasm as she moved out into the room and went to a group of people, who greeted her warmly.

"That went well," Buffy commented, turning back to Xander and Faith. "You guys did a great job--Dara seems to be really excited about this whole thing."

"It was all Xander, B--I was just along for the ride." Faith hesitated, and Buffy's eyes narrowed in concern as the younger Slayer looked away and mumbled, "Look, could you tell Robin I'll be back in a few minutes? I've got to check on some stuff in my room." Before Buffy could reply, Faith slipped out of the room and departed down the hallway without pausing.

Buffy felt a pang of worry and turned to Xander, only to see her friend had departed after Faith. Willow walked up and asked, "What's going on?"

Buffy smiled sadly and replied, "If I'm not mistaken, something long overdue." She turned to Willow. "C'mon, we've got partying to do."

* * * * *

Xander followed Faith closely, without speaking but not trying to conceal his presence. Faith reached her room, opened the door, and left it ajar as she entered. Xander followed behind her without invitation and closed the door after himself. Faith had stopped ten feet from the door: arms down at her sides, head bowed and turned away from Xander. Xander stepped next to Faith and touched her arm, calling out softly, "Faith--"

Faith turned, and Xander was shocked into confusion for a moment before he clearly perceived the completely unfamiliar situation he was in:

Faith leaning on him and crying as if her heart was breaking.

Xander took a deep breath and reacted as he would if it were Buffy, or Willow, or even Dawn. He put his arms around her gently and rocked her ever so slightly, leading her over to the couch in the center of the room and sitting her down. He sat next to her, and waited. After about a minute, Faith flinched, and began to draw away. Xander pulled her back gently and whispered, "Faith--I've been waiting four and a half years for this moment. Don't end it now."

Faith looked up at him, and Xander saw a burst of pain in her eyes as she replied, "Since I tried to kill you? I guess you deserve to see me like this, after what I did to you."

Faith was startled to see the pain in Xander's own gaze as he shook his head and elaborated, "No, Faith--since five minutes before that."

Faith stared, and the meaning of his words hit her hard. He had come to her room, knowing what she had done to Finch and how she had tried to cover it up by implicating Buffy, and yet he had wanted to help her, to keep her from denying what had happened and sinking into a trap of callousness and contempt for her fellow human beings. He had come to her with that intent--and she had rewarded him with taunts and attempted murder. She shook her head. "Xander, I wasn't planning this--I just listened to everything you said to her, and what she said to you, and all I could think about is that night in the damned motel room, and what you had tried to do for me. I had just betrayed your best friend in the world and you knew it--and you were still ready to stand in my corner. I just didn't *get* that, Xander--you might as well have been speaking Martian. I did what I did, and most people would have given up on the human race in your shoes, Xander--much less on the bitch who tried to kill you. I can't tell you how--" She broke off, seeing his expression twist and knowing that she had struck a nerve somehow. She looked into his single eye again, hoping to understand what he was thinking, and the emotion she saw there--combined with the intuition that was her birthright as a Slayer--caused her to back away from him and cry out, "Don't you dare, damn it!"

Xander stared at Faith in confusion. "Huh? What's wrong?"

"You blame yourself for what happened? How in the hell can you possibly think you did anything wrong? After everything I did. . .everything you tried to do--" Faith was shouting, and her emotions were raw--she was unprepared for Xander to stand up and walk over to her, a profoundly sad expression on his face.

"Faith, you were responsible for what you did--all of it. Nothing I feel or do can change that. You've been in that prison cell for three years, working it all out, and in your little scheme of how you've screwed up, I've somehow ended up as a saint. Appropriate, since saints are all dead and you've been avoiding talking to me." Faith looked down in shame at the pointed comment, and Xander shook his head angrily and snapped, "Faith, the fact that you did bad stuff doesn't excuse the things I did wrong. Faith, Buffy warned me about how you thought about guys you slept with--she told me that 'connection' idea I had about us was crap, though she was a lot more tactful than that. Faith, Buffy knew you better than any of us--I had no business ignoring what she had to say because of stupid pride. Going to see you under those circumstances was stupid and selfish of me."

Faith felt a pang of sadness and guilt, and she whispered, "You were just trying to help me, Xander--there's nothing selfish about that."

Xander shook his head, and elaborated, "Faith, if Angel hadn't come bursting in like the Incredible Hulk and knocked you out, you would have killed me, right?" Faith was silent, but her expression spoke volumes. Xander accepted her silence as agreement and pressed on, "Faith, things went badly enough with me living through that little experience--how much worse would it have been if you had killed me that night?"

Faith paled, and bowed her head. "B would have killed me--or the other way around. Assuming Willow didn't get to me first."

Xander nodded grimly. "I created a situation where that almost happened, and what actually did happen didn't help things much. Angel was giving it the old college try, but having you off alone with him rather than with us because you'd just tried to whack me let Wesley and his gang of idiots grab you, and things kind of were royally screwed from there on in." He reached out to Faith, put his hands on her shoulders, and said quietly, "Faith, you have to live with what you've done, but you can't keep looking at me like I'm an open wound, or thinking I'm better than you are because I don't make stupid mistakes--because I'm OK, and because I make lots of stupid mistakes. All of us have. If you'd let me that night, that's what I was going to tell you--that all of us had screwed up in the past, and that it didn't mean we were going to throw you out in the cold. I have to live with the fact that--as good as my intentions were--I helped push you over the edge. I've accepted that, and I'm going to do the best I can to make up for it the rest of my life, along with the other screw-ups I've accumulated. I'm in this for the long haul--I've got some pretty hefty sunk costs in this whole fighting evil thing--" he pointed at his eyepatch "--and I'll be damned if I'm going to back down now. That means I have to acknowledge what I did, and move on. You could have gone back to prison if all you wanted to do is wallow in self-loathing, Faith: you chose to stay free and fight. I respect that a lot, but you have to commit all the way--that means you have to stop treating me like someone you've hurt and have to keep on some kind of twisted pedestal. I'm your friend, and I'm proud to have you at my side and watching my back. I hope you feel the same about me, and about the rest of us. We've got a lot more soldiers than we're used to having, but the fight's the same one we've had all along, and you're on the right side, Faith-- that makes me feel better than I can find words for."

Faith closed her eyes, and when she opened them the tears had stopped flowing, though her eyes still shone. "I don't know what to say, Xander."

Xander raised an eyebrow and replied in the most fake-sounding lecherous voice he could muster: "Well, traditionally, at this point the fair lady would be offering her charms to the brave knight." Faith snickered, and Xander added, "However, it seems to me the lady in question has a paramour who could pound me into mulch--not to mention the fact that she is on record as finding my performance. . .lacking."

Xander waited for Faith to flinch again, and was pleasantly surprised when she grinned wickedly at him and retorted, "Yeah, like you'd have any performance issues after having Anya singing your praises to the entire civilized world for three years. Sell that routine elsewhere, Knight Boy." Faith smiled gently as she saw Xander was pleased at her response, and added, "Besides, I'm not the Slayer you're after these days--after three years in the joint thinking things over, I'm pretty damned sure I never really was."

Xander flinched, but recovered quickly: "Don't know what you're talking about, Faith."

"Sure, Xander, sure. Let's get back to the party." Faith started to walk past Xander, but paused in mid-step and leaned upward to kiss Xander softly on the cheek. She withdrew and exited the room without comment, and Xander stared after her for a moment before sighing in relief and leaving Faith's room, closing the door after him.

* * * * *

Buffy was talking quietly with Kennedy when she saw Faith sweep into the room and head straight for Robin. The former principal didn't see Faith until she was right on top of him, and he turned directly into a hard kiss on the lips. Everyone else in the room cheered, and Faith held the kiss for thirty seconds before releasing Robin. Robin staggered slightly, stared at the grinning young woman in front of him, and muttered, "Damn--I should have taken some of that oxygen with me from the hospital."

Faith snickered. "Hold that thought, and get me a drink. I need to talk to B for a bit." Robin nodded--still a bit dazed--and Faith walked over to Buffy, who gave Faith a hug. Faith returned the embrace and commented, "I'd better dial it down a bit--don't want to send him back to ICU with a heart attack."

"I think he'll be just fine, Faith--all that good Slayer DNA and sheer stubbornness: he's like Xander with a college education and somewhat less in the way of suicidal tendencies as far as survival goes." Buffy smiled sadly at Faith and added, "Speaking of which, you look a lot better than you did a little while ago: did you finally have it out with Xander?"

Faith nodded, and Buffy noted moisture in the younger Slayer's eyes where she had never seen it before. "I owe him a lot, Buffy--but he convinced me that the best thing I could do is stop apologizing and keep fighting for the good guys. Hard to argue with that." She shook her head and whispered, "How in the hell does he always know what to say, B?"

Buffy blinked, and the tears in her eyes mirrored those in Faith's as she looked over at Xander talking to Dawn and laughing:

"It's what he does."

As always, comments are welcomed and desired