Part 12:

"Well, it is confirmed now," Giles sighed, putting down the receiver. "The Council had Ms. Post's flat searched and found quite a few forbidden texts on black magic. Apparently she had planned this for quite some time. The fact that the Council needed someone to go to Sunnydale to evaluate Faith and myself just played into her hands."

"So what are they gonna do now?" Faith asked. "Another Watcher gonna take over where she left off or what?"

A slight smile appeared on Giles' face.

"No, nothing of the sort. Apparently the ... incident with Ms. Post convinced them that we have matters well in hand here in Sunnydale and ... well ..."

He showed Faith a signed piece of paper. The younger Slayer studied it for a moment, then broke into a grin of her own.

"Okay, but like we discussed, G-man! No curfew!"

"Would not dream of it."

Faith showed the document to the others, wearing a broad grin on her face. Willow squealed and was the first to hug Giles.

"Congratulations, Giles. You're a father now."

"Well, something like that!"

"Better watch out that it doesn't go to his head, Faith," Buffy advised her sister Slayer, though there was a smile on her face as well. The two Slayers hugged. "Don't let him go all strict on you!"

"Nah, he don't do stuff like that, B. He tries sometimes, but he isn't really good at it."

Buffy laughed, the first laugh anyone had heard from her since the battle against Post had ended. At first she had been so worried about Angel that everything else just failed to register. Once it became clear, though, that he was well on the route to recovery and would be back on his feet in a few days, she had time to take in the state of their apartment.

The apartment they had finally managed to get just the way they both wanted it.

"We can't even send the Council a repair bill," she complained.

Giles had sent the Council a report that described a slightly altered version of the actual events that had led to Ms. Post's death and the destruction of the Glove of Mhynegon. The other Watchers remained blissfully ignorant of the fact that one Buffy Summers was back among the living and earthbound. As far as they were concerned it had been just Faith, along with a few of her friends and her now officially appointed legal guardian Giles, who had taken down Post. In this particular case Buffy had no trouble letting someone else take the credit. None at all.

Except maybe when she looked at their ruined apartment.

"Most of the furniture is totaled," Buffy explained to Willow. "We need to throw it all out, clean everything up, paint all the scorched walls, and buy new furniture. It'll take weeks."

"But ... but maybe it can be fun," Willow tried to cheer up her friend. "We can all come and help with the renovating. Our boyfriends can go shirtless and we can sprinkle them with paint."

Okay, Buffy admitted. Maybe there were brighter sides to having one's apartment destroyed. A moment later she had to chuckle, seeing Willow blush at her own words.

"That was some wicked cool slaying, Red," Faith told the red-haired hacker. "Thanks, by the way. I guess you saved my hide."

Faith was amazed how easily she was able to thank Willow for staking Amy before the vampire could tear her throat out. She had never been comfortable with owing others and would certainly never have admitted it. This town and its people really were changing her.

She liked it.

"I still wish we could have done something for her," Willow admitted sadly. "Amy didn't deserve to end up like that."

"No one does, Will." Buffy moved closer, wrapping her arm around her friend's shoulder. "That's why we do what we do. We might not always succeed, but we have to keep trying."

She looked at Faith as she said that and the younger Slayer gave her a consenting nod. She still had to think about the things Post had said now and then, despite the fact that the Watcher had turned out to be a murderous bitch. Maybe being alone, having no one who could hurt you through their own actions or by dying on you was an easier way of being a Slayer. Or maybe it was not. Maybe it was just an easier way of getting yourself killed real early because you ceased caring whether you lived or died. And besides, when had Faith ever done things the easy way?

With everyone else chatting away in the aftermath of battle Xander managed to get Cordelia into a secluded corner of the library. He was quite surprised that she put up very little resistance when he pulled her along.

"So?" she asked, her arms crossed in front of her chest as she glared at him.

"I ... I never quite got around to thanking you. For saving my life from Amy, I mean."

"You did thank me," Cordelia reminded him. "You promised me all the money in your wallet to pay for the dent in my car, remember?"

"Yeah," he admitted, rubbing a hand over his tussled hair. So much for an easy conversation starter.

"I ..."

"I still care for you, Xander," Cordy suddenly said, taking him completely by surprise. "God alone knows why. You're a loser, a petty child who perceives every other male as a threat to his own manliness, and can't form a coherent thought for the life of you."

Xander needed a moment to recover.

"Ooookay, could you repeat that bit before the usual barrage of insults?"

She looked at him and there was something almost ... tender ... in her gaze.

"I still care for you," she repeated. "I ... I just can't trust you, Xander."

"Cordy, I know I screwed up a lot and ..."

"Let's not go into another repeat of your sins, okay? I know quite well what you have done and can probably recite it in my sleep by now."

"Okay, then ... what do you want me to say, Cordy? I already told you, I care for you as well. A lot. I know I didn't always show it, but ..."

"How about never? You were always either sniffing around Buffy or being peeved at Willow having a boyfriend. That was when you didn't spend your time thinking up new insults to throw at Angel."

"Well, I ... okay, maybe, but I seem to recall you spending most of your time either insulting me or hiding our make-out sessions from your friends."

She gave him a glare. "Don't change the subject, Xander. I told you once before, I won't play second fiddle to anyone."

"You don't!"

"I wish I could believe you."

She turned away from him, making a step to leave the library, then stopped to look at him over her shoulder.

"You know, it would have been easier if you had just stayed that bastard you turned into when Buffy and Angel came back. But no, now you just have to go ahead and try to make up for all those hair-brained stunts you pulled. You can never make it easy for me, can you?"

With those parting words she walked out of the library, leaving Xander wondering whether they were on the way towards making up or heading in just the opposite direction.

#

The vampire known as Sebastian Khan sat in his newly decorated office and studied a printout of the files Mr. Trick had sent him.

"Very interesting," he mumbled under his breath. "Two Slayers, plus one vampire who had a soul and might have it again. Angelus, eh? I heard a lot about you, my friend. Whose side are you on, I wonder."

He flipped the page, seeing the material Trick had gathered about the honorable Mayor Richard Wilkins III.

"Phobia about germs? Really, Dick, you don't change, do you? I told you years ago that germs would not be the thing that killed you down the line, but would you ever listen to me? No, of course not."

He frowned for a moment.

"Thwarted by a teenage witch? Oh, that is a good one. Looks like the master plan isn't quite as masterful as you thought, Dick." A moment later he added, "which I guess might be a scolding for myself as well."

Khan looked at the photograph standing on his desk, an old black-and-white image of two men in late 19th century clothing standing before a steam train. The sun was shining down on them and they both smiled.

"The world has changed since we drew up our plans, Dick," he continued. "Quite a few things we never considered, right? Teenage witches, Slayers with friends, vampires with souls, many complications none of us ever foresaw."

A broad grin spread on his face. "Which will only make it easier to bring things down around your ears, don't you think?"

"My lord?" Elron, Khan's chief minion, stuck his head into the office. "Are you talking to yourself again, my lord?"

Khan thought about that for a moment, then nodded.

"Yes, I think I am, Elron. I think I am."

"It is not considered healthy, my lord."

"Thank you for your concern, Elron, but I feel just fine."

Elron took his leave upon hearing this obvious dismissal. A moment later he stopped again, though, hearing his lord and master laugh quite loudly and in a way that reminded him of the movie villains he had seen in the cinemas as a human.

"That can't be healthy," he mumbled, shaking his head. "It really can't."

THE END