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Release

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If I could only have you near

To breathe a sigh or two

I would be happy just to hold the hands I love

Upon this winter's night with you

And to be once again with you

- "Song for a Winter's Night (The Hands I Love)"

Jewel and Sarah McLachlan



Day in day out, it was the same. Wake up, stare at the four walls (well, three and the bars), eat out, yard exercise, shower, eat out again, and back in the cell. No fuss, no change, totally boring. But for the first time in her life, Faith welcomed it. It allowed her to think. It had never been her strong point. As she had told Buffy all those months ago, she was a "want-take-have" sort of girl. Now, she clung to it as she had clung to little else in her life. It reminded her of the thing she had become, a thing that she no longer wished to be. The other inmates had no idea, of course. They only knew she was in here for murder, not the rest of it. Not the parts that made the murder seem petty.

The rattling of her cell door sliding open jolted her out of her thoughts. She had not even heard the guard approach. "Hey, you. Faith-" The guard paused and looked back down at the clipboard in his hand.

"It's just Faith," the Slayer said tiredly. "What do you want?"

"Okay, Just Faith. You are out. Come on, move it."

"What?"

"You. Are. Out," the guard repeated slowly, rolling his eyes. "Released, let loose, free."

She stared at him uncomprehendingly for a moment. Then, his words penetrated. "No! There must be some mistake! I killed Allen Finch. This is supposed to be payback."

Her words caught him by surprise. He had been a guard for decades and had seen more than one wrongfully accused man vindicated. But this was the first time he had seen this reaction. "Not according to this, you are not. New evidence states that you were not even in the area when it happened. Come on. I don't have time for this." He stepped into the cell but stopped when Faith cowered back into the corner.

"No. This is my place. This is where I belong. Where I deserve to be," she said softly, almost to herself.

"Look, lady. I don't know who put that notion in your head, but you don't belong here anymore than the Queen of England." The guard regarded her with something akin to pity and sympathy. "Come on. Maybe they'll explain things to you better." He made the mistake of taking hold of her hand. In a flash, he was up against the wall with her right forearm at his throat. *Shit! She's a lot stronger than she looks*. "Lady, you don't want to do this," he gasped out. "This is not going to help you. Faith!"

The mention of her name seemed to bring her to herself. Faith blinked and dropped him like hot coals. She collapsed back down on her bed, her hands held before her eyes. "No, no, no, no, no," she moaned softly. "I- I just-"

"It's okay. I guess I shouldn't have grabbed you. We have to go. Someone is waiting for you." Docilely, she let herself be led out of the cell. "Got anything you wanna keep?" he asked.

Numbly, she looked back at the Spartan cell. "No." If she was getting out, it would be a new life. She'd leave all the old things behind. Except the memories. That she would always carry, particularly of one person and all the things that might have been before she destroyed it.

The guard took her to what he referred to as the check-in counter. She did not even smile when he said that. With a sigh and a slight shake of the head, he handed the clipboard to the man behind the grilled window.

"Faith."

The Slayer turned around at the familiar voice. "Lilah." The two eyed each other appraisingly. "Whatever it is, I'm not interested," Faith told the lawyer. "I don't do that anymore."

Lilah sniffed. "I'm not here to hire you. I'm here to fulfil a contract. Nothing more."

"You got me out."

"Let us just say our client had evidence that was compelling for your case. I was told to give you this when you got out." Lilah handed over a knapsack. "I'd wish you luck, but I doubt you'd appreciate it." With those parting words, the lawyer left.

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It was still a very dazed Faith that walked out of the prison complex. This time, though, she sensed the person approaching her. "Hello, Faith." She turned to face the young man. He was dressed casually in a plain white T-shirt and jeans.

"Do I know you?" she asked warily.

"In a way. You hungry?"

"No."

"Ah. You are, how do you say it, five by five, eh?"

She blinked. "Who-"

"We know all about you, Faith. We have watched your every move. You were to be their champion." He gestured upwards and shook his head. "But you were such a disappointment to them."

Faith's temper snapped. She had been content in that prison, willing to accept her punishment and atone for her past sins. They had dragged her out, tossed her on the street without so much as a "by your leave". Worse, it had been that bitch from Wolfram and Hart that did it. And now, she was getting lectured by this, this- Her thoughts stilled as did her body.

"Oh, good," the man said. "Finally, the Slayer shows herself." His voice grew stern and his tone less irreverent. "You wanted to atone for your past misdeeds, Faith. Throwing yourself in prison was a laudable attempt, but the world, no, the worlds, do not need a girl full of self-pity. They need a Slayer. And so, we are giving you a chance to wipe the slate clean."

"You are from the Powers That Be, aren't you? Angel told me a bit about you guys." A sudden realisation struck her. "It was you! You are that bitch's client. I thought you are the good guys!"

"The irony of using Evil's own instruments against itself had not escaped us," the young man said with a faint smile.

But Faith was not listening. Her mind was replaying that last few bits of conversation. There was something nagging her about it. Finally, she figured it out. "Wait a sec. You said 'need a Slayer'. What about B? She's the Slayer, right?"

"I'm sorry. You do not know," the man said softly. "She died last night, sacrificing her life for her sister's and saving the world once again in the process."

*No!* Faith's knees buckled and the young man caught her as she fell. She barely heard the man describe the fight with Glory and the sacrifice and final meeting between Buffy and Dawn just before she jumped off the tower. *Too late. Always too late. I'm sorry, B. So. Very. Sorry.* Faith did something that she rarely ever did. She cried. She cried from grief and loss, for the might-have-beens and the should-have-beens. She cried for reasons that she had barely even acknowledged, but she cried all the same. And the man held her through the storm of her emotions. Finally, she subsided. "Angel," she said, struggling to get on her feet. "We-I must-"

"He already knows. He took it well, all things considered."

"Considered what? Considered-"

"Don't go there, Faith. It doesn't help."

"What doesn't help?" she snapped.

"The anger. The need to place the blame. Buffy chose the path she walked. She could have left at any time, but she stayed to fight."

"And she died."

"Yes, she did. But she gladly died so that others might live. She died for her sister, her friends, her mentor. She died for the billions that do not even know her. She died to prevent a Hell on Earth that would have destroyed everything. Everyone dies, Faith. It is how we lived and how we die that makes us who we are."

Faith stood there for a long time, staring off into the shadows, remembering the past, seeing the present, and envisioning the future. His words fanned the flames within her. Redemption. It beckoned to her with a lure she cannot ignore. Not this time. "What do you want me to do?"

The young man smiled. He took her hand and then, they were somewhere… else.

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White swirling mists surrounded her, and pure white light was everywhere, and yet, nowhere. It was one of the most beautiful places she had ever seen. Watching the mist as it played and danced to a wind she cannot feel, she felt peace. The grief was still there, the guilt and the fears that she once tried so desperately to hide behind that brash exterior. But now, there was calmness and an acceptance that she had never felt before. Idly, she wondered if it was this place that did it and she wondered if this was how Buffy felt about being a Slayer.

"No, Faith," said the voice behind her. A voice that caused her to stiffen and tingles to run down her spine. "I fought it. I tried to run away." Buffy opened her arms as Faith leaped into them. "But, in the end, it didn't matter."

Tears were trailing down her cheeks again. "B. Oh God, B. I'm sorry, I'm so sorry. I-"

"I know. They really let you see everything up here. And I saw you."

"You know you are not supposed to be here, right, Buffy?" They had forgotten about the young man and they both turned to see him looking at them with amusement dancing in his eyes.

"I know, but I can't-"

He held up a hand. "I understand. My job, remember? We have time. One minute wouldn't make a difference in the grand scheme of things. I'll be back in a minute, and you, young ladies, had better be ready."

"One?" Faith screamed in outrage as he dissolved into swirling white lights and disappeared.

"It's okay, Faith. One minute can be a long time here."

Faith turned to look at her fellow Slayer. She had never seen Buffy so relaxed, so at ease, even with Angel. "You like it here, don't you?"

"It's peaceful. And my mom is here and my friends. Some of them anyway. But listen, Faith. I didn't come here to talk about me. I'm here because of you. We never got a chance to patch things up. And I don't think I would have, could have, accepted your apologies. But dying and being up here has a way of changing that. I'm happy here. Let it go, Faith. Let me go. Live. No more guilt, no more apologies. Just live. For me and everyone else. And be happy. Promise?" She said the last in a little girl voice and Faith could only laugh in response.

"I promise, B." She saw the swirling lights at the edge of her vision. "And when I get back, I will look after them. Your sister and the rest of them. I swear I will."

Buffy smiled. "And you'll keep them safe. I know you will. I trust you."

Faith nearly cried again at those words. It took her awhile to regain control enough to speak. "This is good-bye, isn't it?" she asked, her voice husky.

"Yes." Buffy kissed her. "Good-bye, Faith." Then, she stepped back and faded away.

"I'll be seeing you, B." Faith stood there staring at the place where Buffy was for sometime. She shook herself once and turned to the young man. "Right. Let's get this over with. I have people to see and places to go. Who do I have to kill?"

"Only one of the most powerful demons in existence."

"Oh, nothing too dangerous, then, huh?"

The young man waved a hand and a patch of the mist cleared, allowing her to look into a land of lush jungles, grassy plains, tall mountains and harsh deserts. "This is Sanctuary. This is where you'll be going. The first thing you should know about it is that it is a land of magic. Wave a hand and a fireball blast your enemies, that kind of thing. You have a thing there in your pack to help you with that. Don't worry, it comes with instructions. The second thing is that it is a medieval world, so don't expect to catch a bus to the next town. The third thing is that it stands between Earth and Hell."

"What?"

"Our dimension is but one of many. But you cannot just jump from dimension to dimension. If the dimensions are next to each other, however, a relatively simple portal spell can, if done correctly, send a person from one to the other. The Hellmouth is like a wormhole, if you will. It connects two dimensions regardless of distance between the two. So, now, the demons of Hell are confined to the Hellmouth. If they take Sanctuary, it would be, as you say, a whole new ballgame."

"So you want me to stop them doing that."

"Essentially. The history between Sanctuary and the place you call Hell is a long and involved one. Centuries ago, there was a revolution in Hell. The Lesser Evils overthrew the three Prime Evils and cast them out to Sanctuary. There, they wrecked untold evil until they were trapped within three soulstones by a clan of mages known as the Horadrim. One soulstone was kept in Kurast and another in the deserts near Lut Gholein. The third, and the one you are most concerned with, was thrown into the deep catacombs below the village of Tristram. There, a descendant of the Horadrim has kept a close eye on it ever since."

Faith rolled her eyes. "Let me guess. He blinked."

"Not exactly. Recently, there was a great disturbance in Tristram. The Archbishop Lazarus discovered the soulstone and, whether he was turned by the demon within or just saw it as a road to power, we are not sure. He kidnapped the king's son and bound the soulstone within the boy. That gave the demon a way to become flesh. A warrior went into the catacombs and finally defeated the demon. He bound the soulstone within himself, thinking that he would be able to withstand the demonic urges and keep the demon confined."

"I'll take another guess and say, 'Oops!'?"

"Good to see you back, too, Slayer," the young man replied. Faith grinned at him. "Yes. He underestimated the demon. It must have taken him over as well. Tristram is destroyed and the Dark Wanderer, as he is now called, was last seen heading east towards Lut Gholein. We suspect that he may be trying to locate and free his brothers. If this is the case, Sanctuary is lost as there is no one left alive that can contain them anymore. The ancient mage orders, sadly, have dwindled in numbers and power."

"So you want me to go kill this beastie and that's it, right?"

The man nodded. "Be careful, Faith. Diablo, together with his brothers, may well be the most powerful demons ever. They would make any demon or vampire you have met so far seem like child's play. Even Kakitos." Faith paled visibly at the mention of that name, but it brought home the seriousness of what she was dealing with. "Find Diablo and destroy him before he accomplishes whatever it is that he has in mind. Good luck and God go with you."

"Yeah. And you, too." Faith took a step forward and found herself somewhere else again.