Chapter 16

When Faith and Angel exited the basement through the kitchen door they encountered the rather touching picture of Buffy in her faithful vampire's arms. Faith smiled. Angel coughed loudly.

The younger vampire looked upon his grandsire challengingly but did not let the Slayer go. Buffy opened her eyes and stared blankly at the 'other' vampire/slayer couple.

It was Faith that broke the silence.

"B… what's up?" she asked innocently.

The blond Slayer stepped away from Spike and zeroed on her prey. Her eyes narrowed slightly and her voice had an edge to it.

"Doing very well considering where I've been. But it must have been harder for you. I was relieved that you so kindly took the mantle… among other things."

Faith's smile froze on her face and she looked away. Buffy was always good a making her feel so second-rate. But she wouldn't let her have it so easily. She raised her head and looked at Buffy evenly.

"The Hellmouth needs a guardian even when she decides that it can do without her. I was only doing my duty"

The blond slayer smiled coldly but her eyes were smoldering.

"You have always been so good at doing the right thing. Haven't you?"

Faith was taken aback momentarily but recovered just as quickly "At least I've never tried to hide behind a warped sense of justice to escape my calling"

"Of course not. You have no problem bending justice to your will. I 'm not as comfortable with doing that as you have always been"

Faith smirked triumphantly. "Yet, you are definitely comfortable with letting others do your job. Or take care of your family or pay your bills"

Buffy cringed and glanced at Spike. He had an alert look in his face. It seemed like he was expecting a reaction from her. Angel just looked uncomfortable.

"I never asked anyone for help" she said with as much dignity as she could pretend to have.

"But you certainly expected it. You left Dawn unprotected and in a house that was mortgaged beyond saving. If it hadn't been for Spike, Dawn wouldn't have made it even after she went to live with her father. He has always seen to her wellbeing even when it compromised his own. You owe everything to him"

Buffy turned to look at Spike and he lowered his eyes to the floor. A feeling of tenderness swept over her. Faith was correct at least in this.

"I know that and I know that I will be grateful to him as long as I live"

Spike broke in at that moment. "Pet, I don't want your gratitude. I love the Bit and did everything for her sake not because I wanted you to owe me anything". He smiled lovingly at her and she felt the increasingly familiar warmth settle in her belly.

"All the same, thank you"

"You're welcome, love. But Pet, don't get all defensive on Faith. She and the Poof are good for each other. They deserve each other in their own dodgy way" he said matter-of-factly.

Angel glared at his childe but did not volunteer a comeback. Spike was trying to diffuse the situation in his own unique manner.

But Buffy wasn't as easily appeased. "Why are you two here then?"

It was Angel who answered this time. "Every so often we return to the Hellmouth to check for any changes. Its just routine work"

Buffy nodded unconvincingly but turned away and out of the kitchen. The three remaining stared at her retreating form. None knew what to say.

Faith released an audible sigh.

"Well that went well"

By the time she got to her room her legs were shaking. He had been right. Long ago, Caleb had told her that she didn't matter. That she was easily replaced.

And she had been replaced. How that hurt.

"You're not special. Why did you think you ever were?" the other her said mockingly sweet.

Her taunts tore at the Slayer's shredded soul. She didn't have to look up to know that she was there.

"I was once" she whispered.

"You were nothing. A tool. Now you are my tool"

Her eyes watered but she nodded her accent.

"Don't cry pretty. You have a higher purpose now than you ever did. When you die, it will be for something better than yourself"

"I don't …want…I don't deserve that" she whispered brokenly.

"But you do. You killed someone…an innocent someone. All the pain and suffering…"

"…'s not enough" she whispered brokenly.

"Exactly"

Was Her reply.

As he cleared out the kitchen from the remnants of his thwarted breakfast, Spike wondered at the scene he'd just witnessed.

Rivalries between Faith and Buffy were par for the course. They were too much alike to do anything else but fight. He was smart enough to detect a hint of jealously in his slayer. She still felt for Angel although he really couldn't say what she felt. Even for him for that matter.

It seemed like he no longer knew her.

But he loved her. Just the same as when they were mirroring souls, or rather she his soul.

The rather grating doorbell interrupted his thoughts. With a heavy sight he put down his dishrag and moved towards the front door. Apparently Faith and Poofster had returned to the basement either probably to shag or badmouth him and Buffy. He really couldn't care less. Their presence was bound to be problematic anyhow.

As the presence of the trio standing in front of him would be.

Aside from a shorter hairstyle, Willow looked just the same as she had always done. Her denim skirt, plaid polo shirt with sneakers combination bordered on dorky and the perpetual little frown line of speculation was etched between her eyes. Tara seemed her usual friendly mother-earth self although she had gained a few noticeable pounds. It was Giles that like Buffy looked aged beyond his years. Spike's glance deviated towards the fellow Englishman in question.

"How is she?" was the only greeting.

The vampire shrugged half-heartedly and accepted Willow's warm hug. He led his guests to the living room and motioned for them to sit.

"I had a feeling that no matter what I said you would make your way here soon enough. I wish all of you would have let me have this time with her"

The Watcher was unmoved. "Something has happened that Buffy needs to be made aware of. There is a new threat looming…"

Spike interrupted him impatiently. "Never mind, I heard it all last night. The Poofster and the Bint are downstairs"

"Angel is here?"

"Unfortunately. It seems that my house is now serving as Slayer central. Whatever creepy-crawly is on the menu for now, it seems like we are all assembled for it. Only, Buffy will not get involved. She doesn't need this now"

Giles nodded. "I agree. We are only here to see that she is safe."

The red-headed witch steeled herself visibly and addressed her host.

"Where is she?"

"Master bedroom"

Willow nodded to Tara and headed towards the direction of the room. A few seconds later she was back looking even more worried. "She's gone"

TBC.

Once again I apologize for the snail's pace. This Masters is harder than I thought it would be. For whoever is still reading, the next chapter (which is almost finished) is going back to the rather icky (yes, this is the Eng. Major speaking) "relationship" between Caleb and the Slayer. If the whole sub/dom thing is not for you, please skip it, I really don't like complaints about it. . Thank you and R/R please. - Jill