Road to Redemption (Series #2) - a Faith Series (takes the place of season 5 of BtVS)

By: Monet

EPISODE ONE: A Thousand Miles

"Did I mention how much that class sucked?" Xander Harris asked the girl who walked beside him across one of the yards of UC Sunnydale.

"Only a few times," Willow Rosenberg answered with a smile. She nudged her long-time best friend upon their third week of school. His first, her second year. "But it's okay. Classes will suck. You never really thought any classes were non-sucky in high school."

"I liked biology," he corrected.

"You LIKED Ms. Grieger's fitting shirts. Come to think of it, I think I did, too."

"Um, yeah, I see your point. But I don't think Professor Stewart would look good in said sweater." He shivered. "Ouch." He stopped outside his dormitory, turning to the redhead. "So, I'll meet you and the Buffster in an hour at the quad for din-din?"

She nodded. "Tara's coming, too. And I think Riley."

"Oh." He downcast his eyes a moment, then realized he was doing it and tried to shake it off. "I mean, great! The more the merrier." He forced an overly large smile.

Willow drew her brows together in worry, her smile fading. "Oh, I'm sorry, Xander. I-I guess we weren't thinking. We were of the totally non-thinking. I'll tell Tara that."

"Will, you don't have to NOT see Tara just because I'm Mr. Single," he said, always appreciative of Willow's constant concern. No, he knew she wasn't too happy with who he had broken up with; in fact, it gave the redhead more fuel to her fire towards his ex. "We'll meet, eat, have fun. Beats the studying I have to do afterwards. Why was it again I came back to school?"

"Higher education." She placed a hand on his forearm. "I'll see you later, okay?"

He nodded. "See ya'." He watched her move away as he turned and went back towards his dorm room. He was really lucky that Willow and Giles got to pull some strings within the school system to get him in. It was something he hadn't really been thinking about until the beginning of the summer. But then something happened while he was in Los Angeles, and things got complicated.

Needless to say, he was back in Sunnydale and back in school. And what he left behind was not by choice. What he left behind was something he never, ever wanted to leave behind.

But what he left behind didn't want him there.

So he left, back to his home. His real home.

It would take time to get over her; it was true. He didn't know when, but the time would be soon.

It was just too bad it would be a painful time spent.

He sighed and went into his single dorm room, shutting the door behind him. He tossed his book bag over into the corner and flopped down onto his bed, flipping on the television set that had been given to him by Giles. He crossed his arms behind his head as he lay there, not really watching the show that was on.

It was still fresh in his mind when he took his car back to Sunnydale. He actually cried in the car, as hurt as he was. He wondered if she ever cried over him. That was almost a joke in itself.

He just couldn't get WHY. With his past girlfriends, yeah, he could see. Clearly.

With her. he shook his head, closing his eyes a moment, still trying to make sense of it all. And it had been a little under a month since he had left. He wondered if he'd ever hear from her. But nothing.

There was a knock at the door. His eyes snapped open and he lifted his head.

He forced himself off the bed, reaching the door within two strides, and pulled it open.

Just when he thought he'd never see her again, she was there..

* * * *

A LITTLE UNDER A MONTH AGO: Los Angeles

"Something's going on," one demon muttered to the other demon as they sat in at a table in one of the lowly bars that served all kinds. "In fact something's already happened."

"You think?" He drank down his beer laced with a bit of human bile.

"Word has it." He looked around, seeing the buzzing around of the different species of demons around them. "What happened downtown ain't nothing like what's going down. You can't feel it, man?"

The other demon shrugged, the spikes on his shoulders lifting up then down in uncertainty. "There's always something going down. I wanna be a part of the big stuff one day. I always get stuck stealing stupid things and hurting stupid people. Snapping necks and eating their insides just wasn't what it used to be, ya' know?"

"I hear ya'," the first demon said, raising his glass in a sick toast.

"Me, too," came a raspy voice from behind them.

The two demons turned around, staring at the smirking face of the young brunette Slayer who casually was taking the last gulps of her own drink. "Hi there, fellas," she greeted them.

Both demons glanced at each other, fear beginning to take over.

"Aren't you a little young to be hanging out at bars?" the first demon said, trying to growl. "Maybe I should report you to the management."

"You don't think I had a chat with the management?" she asked, thumbing in the direction of the bartender who was sporting a black eye. He stayed on the other end of the long bar counter, away from her. "He was nice enough to make me an exception. Plus, I think the legal age 'round here is 100 years old or somethin'. I ain't even sure I'll make 25 so I had to kinda speed up my way in." She put down her glass and slipped off the barstool, heading towards them.

The two demons stiffened, putting down their own glasses, ready for anything.

"What do you want, Slayer?" the second demon asked, puffing out his chest showing off the spikes jutting of his armor-like skin.

"Down boy," Faith said, the smirk never leaving her face. She pulled out the third chair, barely noticing the other clientele trying their best to not draw attention to themselves. She settled herself down and gave off the relaxed manner of someone who was just dropping in on a couple of friends. "So, you were the ones harassin' that nearby store, huh?"

"What the hell are you talking about?" the first demon growled.

"Something about eating the owner? Ring a bell?"

"We don't know what the hell you're talking about! How dare you accuse us of anything!"

"So you don't like eating people, then? Kinda a disgrace to your species ain't it?" She clucked her tongue as if truly ashamed for them.

"Of course we do," the first one put in. "But. we just - we had nothing to do with the owner of that office supply store!"

Faith nodded. "Huh."

"Leave us alone, Slayer," the second demon said, picking up his mug again. "We didn't think falsely accusing demons was part of your job, anyway."

"Now c'mon, fellas. Who do you think I am? The NICER Slayer? She might not enjoy harassin' demons like you guys, but word has it I'm nothin' like her."

Both demons looked at her, the nervousness returning.

"And plus, I can't get the fact that I didn't mention what kind of store was attacked, yet you hit it right on with the office supply thing. For demons who don't got a clue to what I'm yappin' about."

"Shit," the first demon muttered. Then he grabbed the bottom of the table and flung it at Faith, getting to his feet in the process. "Let's get outta here!"

The second demon got up and raced behind his partner in crime, shoving a few of his fellow demons out of the way. They laughed, just relieved it wasn't them having to go through all of the trouble.

Faith had fallen back, beer and whatever else they had been drinking getting all over her clothes. "SHIT!" she muttered, angrily, flinging the table almost across the room. "I just bought these damn pants and beer is a BITCH to clean off leather." She got to her feet and bolted after them.

* * * *

Rachel was playing on the steps of the shelter, moving Ralph the Dinosaur across the fifth step. She made small growling noises as she did so. Although nighttime was only an hour away, the illumination not only from the shelter but also the streets gave her plenty if light to play in.

A shadow fell upon Ralph, making Rachel freeze. She looked up into the bright green eyes of a dark-brown haired man who smiled at her. "Hi, there," he greeted her.

Rachel quickly hugged her stuffed animal closely. She looked up at him with fear in her eyes, not sure if he was the same kind of monster that had taken her before. "Hi," she whispered.

"Don't be scared, sweetie," the man assured her, his voice gentle. "I've come a long way to come see you, Rachel."

She just continued to stare at him curiously.

"You don't remember me, do you?" he said, sounding sad. "Oh, honey." He moved very slowly, as to not scare her further and sat down on the bottom step while she sat on the sixth. "It's Daddy. Remember me? Your father?"

"D-Daddy?" Rachel murmured. Her eyes narrowed as if trying to get a clearer look at the man.

He nodded encouragingly. "Yes, baby, it's me. It's Daddy. Look, I know you were very young when I left, but remember when I used to sing 'Imagine' to you?" He began to hum a few notes.

Rachel didn't really react to it, though she knew her mom sung that same song sometimes when she couldn't sleep. It always gave Rachel comfort in hearing it.

He saw the recognition in the little girl's eyes and he smiled. "Yeah, you remember a little, don't you?" He tried to reach his hand towards her but she jumped up one more step, making him stop. "Okay, you're not ready yet. That's okay. I'm back in town, okay? I'll come see you again. Do you like ice cream?"

She nodded, still clutching her stuff animal. "Vanilla with spots in it."

He didn't quite get what she was saying until it hit him. "Oh, chocolate chip. I got you, honey." He stood up. "What if I bring it to you tomorrow. Will you be here?"

Rachel glanced down at her feet in deep thought then looked up. "Okay."

The man grinned and began to back away slowly. "You won't regret this, honey. I promise. Daddy will make it all better. I can get you a puppy, if you want. Or some new toys. Anything you want. I'll see you tomorrow with that spotted ice cream, okay?"

She watched him go, hesitation in her eyes. But she nodded.

* * * *

"Shhhhh." the first demon told the second. They were cowered behind a large Dumpster in an alley five blocks from the bar they had just run from.

"I don't get it," the second demon whispered. "We're running from a stupid human girl!"

The first demon rolled his green eyes. "Well, hell, you go out there and stop running, if you want."

The second demon made a grunting sound. "Nevermind."

"We can't be a part of what's to come if we get killed by the Slayer, think about that."

"Maybe if you didn't keep running your trap."

"She would've killed us all the same," the first demon covered for himself. "It's worth it. She can't go hunting for us forever. Besides, the owner was good." He licked his crusted lips.

"Yeah, but didn't give me that full feeling. I'll be hungry in a few hours."

"How about that squished feeling?"

The demons glanced at each other, neither having said that.

Suddenly, the Dumpster slammed into them harshly, pushing then into the brick wall behind them. "Ahhh!"

On the other side, Faith had both hands against the front of the Dumpster and was shoving it at the demons, holding it there.

The blue metal of the Dumpster pushed into their faces and chests as they forced themselves to their hooves. The pressure grew even more as Faith pushed harder, pinning their scaly arms to their sides, making them unable to push back.

"Stop!" cried the first one, struggling to get his arms up.

But the pressure grew even more.

"Ain't gonna happen!" she called over the creaking of the metal and the growling of each demon. Her arms and legs actually hurt from pushing the large, metallic object and applying the force. That had never stopped her before, however. "Now that I got your attention again, we're gonna have a chat."

"About what?" the first one cried, barely able to get the words out.

Faith thought a moment, not really sure what she was going to chat with them about. She cursed herself for talking more than slaying; she seemed a little off her game lately. She released the pressure, and then side- kicked the entire Dumpster over to the left, rolling it out of the way.

The two demons remained plastered against the wall when the buffer between them disappeared.

Faith approached the two, fists clenched when a scream rang out into the air.

They all looked in the general direction of the sound.

The first demon glanced at his partner and nudged him to watch what he was about to do. "Hey, sounds like someone's in trouble. You better go off and play hero."

She looked at them, another scream sounding out. But unlike what the demons hoped, she didn't pay it any mind and closed in on them. "I don't play hero," she told them, darkly. "I play Slayer." And with that, she whipped out her stake and slammed it into the chest area of the first demon while kicking the other demon in the face.

He fell to the side, and quickly tried to get to his knees.

Faith was on him within a second, grabbing onto his head. "It's a good thing you ate that owner and liked it 'cause it's the last thing you'll ever taste, bastard." And with that, she moved her arms, twisting its thick neck nearly all the way around with an audible SNAP!

The other demon lay dead, the stake piercing just what needed to be pierced.

With both demons dead, she looked over in the direction of the scream again and went to help that person out.

* * * *

A few days later, Paul rolled up in his electric wheelchair next to Faith as she stood on the nearby docks, a few blocks from Paul's townhome. He held up a cup of coffee to her. "Good afternoon," he greeted the young Slayer.

Faith looked over at the man in the wheelchair, a smile spreading across her face. "Hey," she said, taking the mug from him. "Thanks."

"What brings you out here?"

She shrugged. "I heard you go out here to think, so I thought I'd skip out on the afternoon run and do this, see how I like it."

"And?"

"Not so fun," she commented.

He chuckled. "I didn't think you the pondering type," he said. He stared out into the water, watching boats slowly float by. "What are you thinking about, if I may ask?"

"Slayer stuff," she answered. "How can I make sure the bastard's arm's broken in the least amount of time. Kinda feel off my Slayer game."

"Ah," he said, taking a sip of his own beverage.

"Ah? Ah, what?" she asked.

He looked up at her in question. "Um, I just meant. 'ah.' Was there supposed to be something else after that?"

She glanced back into the water, feeling a little embarrassed that she had assumed. "No. Just usually there is something behind that."

Paul let it drop for a moment, mainly because there was more behind the "ah" that he didn't want to bring up. "I'm going to go check on Hannah soon. Would you like to come?"

"You've been checkin' on HER a lot lately," Faith teased with a wink.

Paul couldn't stop the red that flooded his face. "I don't know what you're talking about."

"You're sweet on her, Paul," she said, nudging him with an elbow. "Admit it."

"Hannah is a very good friend of mine that I've known awhile. But that's all she is. Also, I do have a surprise for her and everyone."

"You got that new warehouse?" she asked.

He nodded. "Yes. It was approved only a few hours ago, which was the reason I came out here to find you."

"Cool. Hannah and Rach will be so fucking happy about that."

"They hopefully will be. It'll take a lot of work to get it shaped up, though."

"Hell, that's what I'm here for." She pointed her thumb towards herself.

He stared out into the water before them, sipping slightly at his own cup. "Are you happy here?" he suddenly asked.

Faith knitted her brows together as she looked at him. "Whatta mean? Of course I am."

"Ah." he murmured then realized he had said it again. He tried not to make eye contact with her.

"Alright, Paul, what's up?" She turned to him fully now, arms crossing over her chest. "A fucking second 'ah' doesn't mean nothing now."

Paul rested his cup in his hands. "It's just." He paused, trying to find the words. "Well, Brandon and I have noticed how a bit off your game you've been. Um, not that you've been doing terribly in the slaying department by any means, it's just.. Well, to be short, you have been a bit 'off.'"

She stood there, her eyes drifting towards the ground. "Yeah, well, the whole Ethan thing. and, ya know, just adjustin' to. being here." She began to trail her words. "But I'm five by five, Paul," she stated, looking at him again. "Look, if I suck at killin' demons, I'm up for any training you got. I don't wanna fuck up my rep as a Slayer."

"I highly doubt that's possible," Paul answered with a grin. Which was true. By now, all the demons in the immediate area knew Faith was around, even if they didn't know her by looks or name; reputation was enough to put them on high alert. "No. Although if you do want to train, Brandon and I would be more than happy to help."

"Yeah, that'd be cool. I knew you'd be a good Watcher-type 'cept you don't got the Brit flag all over your accent."

"A. what?"

"Nevermind. So, okay, it ain't my slayin' skills that's too off. what is?"

"I'm just concerned," he admitted. "About your well-being. You may be able to fight off any demon that crosses your path, but I sometimes feel like you do that as a distraction of some sort."

"Distraction? What the hell from?"

"Um, well. you tell me."

"I don't know what you want me to tell you. I'm cool, Paul." She began to uncross her arms, the conversation done.

"I just thought that it had more to do with Xander - "

Her fingers loosened on the cup handle and the mug dropped onto the dock, smashing it into pieces. "Shit." She bent down and began to pick up the shards. "Sorry 'bout that. Hope that wasn't a favorite mug of yours." But her mind was already out of focus.

Paul, wishing he could also help, just watched her clean up. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to bring up - "

"It's fine," she cut in, sharply.

"So I am right."

She looked up at him. "I'm. I'm just getting used to him not being here. That's about as right as you can get." She tossed them into the ocean below them and brushed off her hands. "So, when do we start the training?"

* * * *

"Ouch!" cried Brandon as he landed hard on the mat. He grimaced in pain.

"I said 'gently,' Faith," Paul said.

"What? That WAS gently," she defended. "I was bein' gentle!"

"Throwing Brandon three feet away from you isn't exactly being 'gentle.'" He tried not to laugh, however, knowing Brandon hadn't broken anything. yet.

The large black man slowly got to his feet. "Man, when did we agree to train with her again?" he groaned, rubbing his large muscular right arm.

"Oh, don't be a damn baby," Faith said, slugging him in the arm playfully.

Brandon grimaced again from the hit. "How 'bout we don't touch me for a long time," he suggested, though he grinned at her. "I think we need to get you a punching bag or something. Human targets, not such a good idea."

"See, this is what I don't get," Faith spoke up, throwing her hands up in the air. "Slayers usually train with a bunch of older, British dudes. And they weigh nothing near to 250. Sure they might complain, but they don't whine like a baby wanting to be changed."

"You mean you trained with Giles?" Brandon asked. "That guy was this big and that wide." He over exaggerated the Watcher's smaller height and build.

"The British do tend to downplay things," Paul remarked. "And they are made of tougher things."

"Must be the tweed," Faith pondered.

"Alright, that will be it for today." They had been training for three hours. The sparring had been a late addition that obviously didn't last long. But he could see that Faith was enjoying it. He wasn't sure if that was helping her or hindering her more.

"Aw, c'mon," Faith protested. "That's it? I was just getting warmed up!"

"Yeah, that's what I'm afraid of," Brandon murmured.

"I have to meet a friend in an hour anyway," Paul informed them.

"Need me?" Brandon asked.

"No. I think I'll be okay. Just a meeting to catch up on things."

"Got something for me to patrol through tonight?" Faith questioned Paul with anticipation.

"Unfortunately, no." Paul looked at her. "Why don't you take the night off, Faith? Just relax."

"I already kicked back earlier," she said, clearly disappointed. "Got too much energy to burn to sit on my ass. You SURE you don't got any demon heads I could bust?"

Paul smiled. "None that I know of. Faith, why don't you rent a movie or something? You used to do that a lot."

Faith downcasted her eyes. "Yeah, I did." But that was an activity she used to do with Xander, and only because it was fun to tease him about getting scared at the horror flicks they had rented. "Not much into it now."

Paul and Brandon exchanged looks.

"You haven't heard from him, huh?" Brandon asked not noticing Paul's expression of 'don't do it!'

"No," Faith said absently. "But it's not like I expected to."

"Maybe you should - "

"No," Faith cut in before he could make the suggestion.

"But, Faith, I mean, it's obvious you - "

"I said 'NO!'" she snapped, whirling angrily on Brandon. But she quickly regretted it. Her face fell into a look of apology, though she didn't voice it.

"Brandon," Paul said, quietly, willing his long-time friend to back down.

Brandon held up his hands. "I'm sorry." He glanced at Faith. "Seriously, I am. I was just asking, was all. " He tried to give her an awkward smile. "Anyway, I'm going to go back to my place and shower - and possibly put some ice packs on my arms." He meant that to ease the tension he didn't mean to cause, but saw that Faith wasn't really hearing him. He raised his brows to Paul and went out of the room.

Faith shook her head and she closed her eyes. "I didn't mean to snap at him like that."

"I know," Paul said, rolling up to her. "He knows, too." It had been the first time Xander had been brought up since the day it had happened. He had a good feeling it would end up like this.

"What I did was the right thing, I know it was." She wasn't sure if she was telling him or herself. "I don't wanna be blamed for what I thought was right!"

"No one's blaming you, Faith. They just don't know the whole story. It has been sort of tough since what happened with Ethan. Now that things have calmed down, maybe his absence is a bit more. um, well, noticeable."

"I just can't. I can't stop thinking about him." She bowed her head in her admittance. It was true. Since the day Xander had left, he was all she could think about - how empty she felt, how much she missed him, how incomplete and lost she felt. Was this what doing the right thing in a relationship meant? When she wasn't alone with her thoughts and thinking about him, she was dreaming about him, remembering the nights they'd lay atop the hood of his car and stare up into the sky until the sun came up.

And she couldn't even look at a Volkswagen Beetle without thinking about him.

It was constant.

In Paul's eyes, she needed to talk about it. She was almost there, and he wanted to take the opportunity. "Faith, maybe Brandon was - "

"I think I'm gonna go to the gym," she cut in, searching the nearest drawer and finding a rubber band to pull up her hair. "That'll probably burn off the energy."

Paul sighed, knowing he wasn't going to get through to Faith in doing what really WAS right. It didn't work soon after Xander had left for Sunnydale, and a few weeks later, it still wasn't going to work. So he let it be. It really was none of his business, despite what was obvious in her eyes - and in Xander's.

Grabbing her small duffel bag, she headed for the door. "I'll see you later."

"Um, I probably won't be in until later on tonight," he announced as he gathered up some papers to take with him.

"Alright. Then even more later." She gave him what passed for a smile and went out the door.

* * * *

Hannah arrived at the city shelter after her shift at the restaurant she was waitressing at. She found Rachel sitting on the steps with a doll in her hands. "Hi, honey," she greeted her daughter. She saw Amber and another friend of theirs not too far off, talking and watching the little girl.

"Hi, Mommy," Rachel greeted back with a huge hug. "Look what I got!" She held up her new doll.

"Oh, did Aunt Amber give that you?"

Rachel shook her head.

"That's the fifth toy you've found recently," Hannah murmured. Maybe the shelter was receiving new toys from some charity.

Rachel's eyes lit up when she saw Paul pulling up to the curb. "Mr. Paul!"

Hannah smiled as she came up to the van and opened up the side to help bring down his wheelchair. After he placed himself into it, he wheeled back over to the sidewalk via the ramp and greeted everyone out there.

"I have a surprise for you," he told Hannah and glanced down at Rachel.

"What is it?" Hannah asked as Rachel climbed into his lap.

Paul held onto the girl and smiled up at Hannah. "I was able to buy the shelter."

Hannah stood there a moment then her eyes widened. "Really?"

Paul nodded. "Yes."

"New house?" Rachel asked as Hannah clapped her hands together in elation from the news.

"Well, yes," Paul said. He gestured to the shelter. "Bring as many as you'd like. I would like for it to be for you. I may be able to work it so that you, Hannah, may actually RUN it - as a new position."

"Oh, Paul," she cried, hugging him with Rachel in between the two. "Thank you," she whispered in his ear.

Paul smiled and hugged the woman back. "You're very welcome. I think you'll like it there. All of you."

Amber and her friend were hugging each other at the news.

When Hannah parted from Paul, he took her hand. "Hannah, um, I. I'd like to take you out to dinner tonight, as a sort of celebration for your new job, and your new home, of course. Would you do me the pleasure?"

Hannah's cheeks reddened at his invitation. "Oh, Paul. I." She glanced back at Amber who gritted her teeth and tried to hide a nod of 'yes!' She looked back at Paul. "Okay."

Paul smiled, giving her hand a quick squeeze. "Well, then, I will see you at 8 o'clock then?"

"Um, y-yes."

"Good then." He looked at Rachel. "Well, I must go. I'll see you later, too, Rachel." He helped her off his lap and she hugged him before he set her down.

"Bye, Mr. Paul," she said, waving her new doll at him.

As Paul pulled off from the curb, Hannah turned to Amber and the two best friends both hugged in excitement about the last five minutes.

"What are you going to wear?" Amber asked Hannah like they were teenagers again.

"I-I don't know. Oh, God, Amber, why me? I mean, what if what I have isn't good enough. he may take me to a very nice restaurant."

Amber laughed. "Come on. I'm sure we can find something."

* * * *

"Faith, how many times do I gotta keep TELLING you?" the gym owner cried. "You can't keep breaking my big punching bags like this!"

Faith sighed and rolled her eyes. "Oh, c'mon, Gordon. Why you blaming ME? I told you once: your chains are shitty."

Gordon grunted something, rubbing his beard. "I don't know what you're doing, but I KNOW it's not the chains doing this. I just had these things replaced two weeks ago - the LAST time they magically broke!"

"Maybe if you stop buyin' them from the same damn vendor, they won't be such a safety hazard." She slipped off her gloves at the glare she was getting from him and dropped them on the mat. "Okay, okay. I'll move on." She held her hands up in surrender. She turned to go work out somewhere else.

"Don't go to the small punching bag! No more for you today!"

Faith sighed and changed directions. She really needed to HIT things. It always cleared her mind when she hit things. She decided to move to the weight machine. She kind of hated the things because they were sometimes more complicated than they were worth. She glanced at the free weights and the large barbell on a bench next to the machine but thought that would draw more attention than if she used the machine.

"Hey there, baby," came a voice from behind as she was trying to gauge where to put the pin for the weights.

Faith turned around, coming face to face with Robert, one of the first people she had met at the dive that Xander used to work in. She barely went there anymore, and she never saw Robert soon after they had slept together. "Hey," she said, though not showing one bit of happiness to see him.

He came up behind her, trying to wrap his hands around her waist.

She pulled away. "What the hell do you think you're doing?" she asked.

Robert spread out his hands. "Hey, it's not like you hadn't let me do that to you before - and without your clothes on. Thought you liked that."

She narrowed her eyes at him. "Dude, it's been months since I let you lay a hand on me. I kicked YOU out. It's not like I'm taking that back."

Robert shook his head, ignoring what he didn't want to hear. "I heard from the guys back at Patrick's that you broke it off from that other guy a few weeks ago - then he bailed. I don't see him at Patrick's anymore." He raised his brows. "That means you're free."

"It don't mean a thing to you," she sneered, shoving the pin angrily into the weights. She was trying to ignore him, testing out the weight by pulling up on the bench press. Of course, the more he spoke, the lighter the weights seem to become - and she was already half-way down the stack of weights.

Robert laughed. "Well, yeah. It means you returned to you senses, Faith." He leaned back against the frame of the machine. "It means you don't need a chump like whoever he was. Xander, was his name?"

Faith's temper began to flare as she listened to Robert's words. "I think you better shut the hell up." She shoved the pin further down the stack, only a few before it equaled up to the entire stack.

"Now, no talking like that. It's not like I broke you two up. You did it, didn't you?" He waited but she didn't answer. "See? And there's gotta be reason. The only reason you'd ever break up with anyone is because you don't want to be with them anymore. Was the sex not good or anything?"

In reaction, Faith grabbed the nearest barbell off its supports and shoved it at Robert, slamming him harshly into the wall behind him. She pressed the bar against him, trapping him there as she glared at him. "Don't piss me off, Robert, I swear it. And don't talk like you know what went on! It wasn't fucking simple like that."

Robert tried to push her off but it was impossible - almost as impossible as it seemed for her to be able to lift the barbell in the first place. "What the hell are you doing!? Why are you so pissed!? It's true. You gotta have found something wrong with that other guy!"

Why was she so pissed? In his warped, blunt way, that was really the only reason any couple had broken up - because they weren't compatible, or one cheated on the other, or they just didn't love each other anymore.

But none of that applied to her and Xander, at least not until he left. She loved him and couldn't stop, no matter how much she had told herself. She couldn't do it. Every day without him made her wonder what it was all about.

Because she was selfish.

She didn't want Xander near her because she had almost fallen into her own darkness. but when she was with him, darkness wasn't an issue.

"Here, chew on this for a bit, bastard," Faith said dropping the bar into Robert's hands. She turned away as Robert yelped in pain, unable to even hold it a second. The barbell dropped heavily to the ground, one side cracking the floor a bit, and the other side landing on his foot.

Gordon turned around at Robert's cry of more pain. "Hey! What's going on there?" he cried. "Are you harassing my customers, Robert?!"

Faith grabbed her duffel bag and walked out of the gym as Robert pleaded for help.

* * * *

Hannah was sitting outside the new shelter that Paul had just bought. Her face was streaked with tears and she was sniffling quietly in the darkness of the street. She looked down at the dress that she had managed to buy, wondering if maybe it had been the wrong color or she just wasn't. enough.

"Hannah?" came a voice.

Hannah looked up, startled. She quickly wiped her left over tears with the tissue she had in her hand. "Oh, um. F-Faith."

Faith came up to her, seeing her friend's tears. "Shit, what's wrong?" she asked sitting down beside her. "Are you hurt?"

Hannah shook her head. "No," she whispered.

Not really good at comforting, the Slayer awkwardly put her arm around the woman. "Why with the tears then?"

"It's. nothing."

"Oh, no. None of that shit, Hannah. What's going on?" She noticed the dress. "All out here and lookin' hot in the dress? What's the occasion?"

Hannah hesitated, the situation uncomfortable at the most. She shrugged. "It's really nothing, Faith." She smiled wobbly at the girl.

"Alright, you know what? I'm the one who's damn good at making it look like I'm five by five. You, girlfriend, are bad." She moved in front of her, squatting down to eye level. "Hannah, c'mon, talk to me."

"I just. I was stood up tonight is all."

Faith knitted her brows together in slight confusion. "Stood up? As in a date?"

Hannah nodded. "I know it's weird."

"No, no. That ain't what. it's great, girl! I mean, that you got a date. Why didn't you fucking tell me?" But she shook her head. "Nevermind. The guy stood you up?"

Hannah nodded.

"What the fuck?" Her mood went from happy for her to pissed off at whoever her date was.

"Faith, it's okay. I mean, there has to be a good explanation for why he didn't show up. Or maybe." She bowed her head.

"Don't you dare think that it's 'cause of you!" Faith sat back down on her other side. "The bastard. who is he?"

Hannah smiled. "Faith, there's no need to hurt him. It wasn't as if I expected him to." She trailed, knowing that yes she was really expected him to show up.

"I wasn't gonna hurt him. okay, so maybe a light jab in the nose just to get my point across, but that's it."

"A 'jab'? Faith, the last time you said you 'jabbed' something- "

"Hey, the wall was flimsy! As long as the guy's nose ain't flimsy, then he's safe." She saw Hannah let out a laugh but it was quickly covered by a small sob. Faith reacted, gently hugging the woman towards her. "I swear it, Hannah, if you want me to tell the guy a piece of my mind, I can. He can't get away with this."

"I just don't get. I mean, I really thought that he liked me."

"Where'd you meet this dude? At work?"

She shook her head. "No. He's. a friend."

Faith sat back a little, blinking in surprise. "What? Are you sayin'. you and Paul?"

Hannah couldn't hide it, so she nodded. She put the tissue back up to her eyes. "Who was I kidding? He's. he's so wonderful and so handsome. And he's so successful. Why would he want someone like me? A frumpy, homeless woman." She shook her head while she blew her nose gently.

Faith was still in small shock at whose face she was ready to smash in. She actually didn't know if it was worse that it could've been some no name bastard or that it was someone she knew. and trusted. And a person whom she knew liked Hannah back.

"No, it can't be that he stood you up," she declared getting to her feet. "Maybe something happened to him. Paul ain't that type of guy to leave you hanging -especially not you."

"God, I-I hope he's okay. I didn't even think that. maybe."

"Don't worry about it. I'll go check on him now." She tried to smile back at the woman, assuring her that there was just some weird misunderstanding. "Although next time you two decide to go out, why don't you let me in on the secret?" She winked at her. "Get on home. I don't like you out here by yourself at night, got it?"

Hannah nodded. "Okay." Before Faith could move on, however, she reached out and took her wrist. "What-what are you going to say if. he is there, though?"

Faith shrugged. "Let's just say, I really don't know what to hope for - him there or him not there."

* * * *

After checking at the bookstore and only finding Brandon there, Faith came up to Paul's front stoop. She looked around, checking to see if there was anything amiss. She hadn't spoken to him since she had left for the gym, but Brandon had told her that he had spoken to Paul not too long ago.

She knocked on the door, her eyes and ears still on alert.

After a pause, she knocked again, trying to peer through the window. "Paul?" she called. "Yo, anyone home?"

She saw some movement from within, making her try and squint through the light curtain over the window. "Paul?" It had to have been him because whoever it was sat in a wheelchair. She knocked on the door again. "Yo, what's going on in there?"

The figure disappeared from the kitchen doorway.

Faith frowned, knowing that was him. She grabbed the doorknob and easily broke the lock. Just as she stepped through, however, the alarm to his townhome went off. She winced, forgetting he had one.

Paul came rolling out of the kitchen, annoyed. "What's going on out here?" He saw her then rolled directly over to the panel, punching in a code that automatically shut the alarm off. He glanced back at her. "Faith, what. why did you do that?"

"Uh, because you wouldn't let me in," she shot back. "You're lucky I didn't break the damn door down." She stepped nearer to him. "What going on here, Paul? You okay?"

He sighed. "Yes. I'm fine. I'm not hurt or anything." He began to roll away.

"Whoa, whoa," Faith said, grabbing onto one of the handles of his wheelchair. "Hey, I think you left someone hanging tonight."

"What?"

"What, did you forget? Seems like you had a hot date with a hot chick but left her out in the cold."

"Oh. I, um." He seemed at a loss of words. "You saw her, then."

"Saw her? Hell yeah. I saw her crying outside the warehouse YOU bought for her and her friends. I was hoping for a 'oh, shit, I forgot.' But it seems like you remembered just fine." She crossed her arms, her gaze turning into a glare. "What's goin' on Paul?"

He shook his head, glancing down towards the floor. "Nothing. I just. it did slip my mind. I remembered it only half-an-hour ago."

"Funny how I'd believe you if you were actually looking at me in the face." He was avoiding something, and Faith didn't like it. "What's with the tight lip? What's up? Did you find out something when you went downtown?"

Paul shook his head. "No."

"Bullshit."

"Faith, I'm only going to tell you this once - nothing is wrong. I'll apologize to Hannah tomorrow, and good night to you." He met with her eyes, seriousness in them that she had never seen before.

Faith clenched her jaw but knew she wasn't going to get anywhere with him. "Fine," she said and turned towards the door. "I don't know what the hell's goin' on with you, Paul, but it better not involve you hurtin' Hannah again."

With that she slammed the door behind her.

* * * *

"Hannah," came a voice behind Paul.

He didn't turn around. He just stared at the door that Faith had just exited through.

"Is she the one?"

Paul nodded. "But. it's not like that."

"Oh, it is, honey. That's why I've come all this way. It's the way I was afraid of. That you feared. And I won't go away until it's over." The shadow shifted along the title floor of the kitchen. "And you'll help me."

* * * *

The blond-haired man locked his office door behind him as he set out that evening. He checked his briefcase and moved towards the parking deck, checking his watch.

He was only two yards away from his car when he spotting the curvy figure leaning against his small Honda CRX. The Benz was in the shop. "Hello," he said.

"Hey there, stud," the raspy voice greeted him back. "You Howard Morgan?"

"Yes, I am, young lady. What can I do for you?"

"You know a dude name Paul, right? Dark-hair, in a wheelchair. Think he came to visit you the other day about something."

Howard slowed down, his suspicions going up right away. "Why would you want to know that?"

Faith peeled herself off the car and stood up straight very casually. "He's a friend of mine. Good one, in fact. And really, all I wanna know is what you two chatted 'bout when you saw him last."

"If you're such a good friend, I think it's more his place to tell you. Otherwise, I'm sure Paul had good reason not to tell you. Now if you'll excuse me, I need to be going home. It's late. And someone like you shouldn't be milling about alone." He took out his keys.

But Faith didn't move. She put her hand on the driver's door. "Hold up. I get that you're trying to protect Paul, and for that, I ain't gonna hassle you. as much as I usually do. But he really is a pal of mine, and he's acting kinda wacked out right now. I just wanna get to the bottom of it, is all."

"Ma'am, I really don't think I should volunteer anything to you. Now please move."

Faith sighed. "Look, I wouldn't be bothering you if I didn't wanna get to it A-sap. You don't gotta give me the details; just tell me the broad of it all."

Howard looked over his spectacles. "I really think you should move before you get hurt, young lady."

She blinked at that statement. "*I* get hurt? Whoa, are you threatening me?"

"It's not really something I usually do, but this is too important, and I'd rather not have you on my ass."

It was Faith's turn to bring up her defenses. "Let's get one thing straight here, the only way for you to move me is laying a hand on me. And I'm gonna tell you straight up, that's not gonna be one of your smarter ideas."

Howard had a very big height advantage and weight advantage over Faith, and he knew it. "Say what you want," he said, proceeding to stick the key into the lock and unlocking it. He pulled at the door, expecting to just slip into the driver's seat. But as he pulled the handle, the door didn't budge. He tried again and then realized the girl's hand was still leaning on the door. "You may want to move that before you injure it."

"I'll move it when you a.) tell me what the hell is up with Paul or b.) you move it. You just don't get how nice I'm bein' right now, Howie."

Howard narrowed his eyes at her, not really wanting to converge on physical attack. "Listen, you self-righteous little bitch, what went on between Paul and I is between Paul and I. He obviously doesn't care to tell you what it was, and I personally can see why. Now move." He grabbed her arm to pull her out of the way.

The reflex time of Faith surprised Howard to no end. His hand barely felt the skin of her bare arm before that same arm was up, knocking his hand out of the way, and reaching for his throat, shoving him up against the car and off his feet. His back was nearly lying atop the roof of his car. His suitcase fell onto the ground in his surprise.

"There was a bunch of things wrong with that last sentence of yours, Howie," Faith intoned, holding him in place while her other hand was still pressed against the door. "Told you, I was bein' nice. You just had to ruin that, didn't you?"

Howard could barely get any words out.

"Now, are we gonna talk or do I gotta take even greater measures of making you talk? I still got one more arm, here, Howie."

He closed his eyes a moment as if concentrating.

"Hey, wake up!" she said, giving him a shake

Then four strong arms came from behind and jerked Faith right off her own feet, sending her sliding on the concrete. She winced a little then looked up at two figures staring down at her.

They weren't that much bigger than Howard, and they both wore suits and sunglasses - in the dead of night.

"Bodyguards?" Faith asked, getting to her feet. But the closer she looked at the bodyguards, the more she noticed that their skin wasn't exactly . attached.

Howard was rubbing his throat, recovering. "You're strong for your size," he said.

"I worked out today," she answered absently. "What's up with these dudes' faces?"

"It's none of your concern, young lady. Now I suggest you leave now before I have them do that again to you."

Faith pursed her lips together then she narrowed her eyes. "You know what? Any other girl woulda just said 'fine,' but I like me a challenge." She motioned for the two nearly fleshless guys to come at her.

Howard hesitated, unsure of what he truly wanted them to do. "Do it. But don't kill. yet."

They went at her. Her body flew up and around, hitting them across the cheeks with her foot. They stumbled back, barely catching their balance. They didn't make a noise, however, and tried to grab at her again.

Faith ducked and swept them off their feet, twirling once and stood up right as they fell. "Not the smartest of bodyguards," she remarked. She pile drove her fist into one of their chests only to be stopped by his eroding hand. Granted, he did have to use his other one to push her one arm back but he was accomplishing the task.

The second one stood up and kicked Faith right in her gut, making her pop up in the air a few inches. He then kicked her in the face - HARD.

She flew back a few feet into a car, smashing against the grill.

Faith struggled to get to her feet and saw them coming at her. She hopped onto the hood of the car and round-housed kicked them in the temple. She gritted her teeth as she did so, putting more power than the last time.

One of the heads of the bodyguards popped right off, rolling towards the wall of the parking deck.

"Oh, shit," she breathed, slightly taken by the sight. It didn't gross her out in the least; it looked so HUMAN, though. And for a moment, Faith thought she had KILLED someone.

But it rolled and that's about all it did. The body portion stood for only a split second then fell over, literally falling apart. No blood. Nothing but crumbling.

"What the fuck was that?"

But she didn't have time to figure it out when five more figures emerged from the shadows.

Faith found herself surrounded, suddenly. She got into a fighting stance, trying to keep her eyes on her foes. One leapt at her and she met him with a right hook while lashing out with her right leg at the second one that was coming. Both stumbled while four more got within touching distance of her.

She fought back with more fists and kicks. Among the stench and the arms and legs of what she was convinced were zombies, she heard Howard's car start up and it speeding down the parking deck.

"Son of a - "

POW!

A fist barreled into her cheek, sending her slamming against the car. She dropped to the ground only to be met up with more kicks and fists. She grunted in pain as more seemed to join into the fray.

Faith kicked out, knocking two into the air and into the wall. She knew, now, that she didn't have to hold back. They weren't human; maybe once before they were, but that could be said for vampires as well. And she pretty much knew what to do with them.

However, not holding back didn't guarantee her getting out of there in one piece.

"Bastards," she muttered, slamming her fist into one of their knees. It crumbled under the force so she applied the same action to two more knees. Hands clawed at her more - her tank top, her hair. anything.

She knew she just had to get out of there. She finally made a path through and crawled out, getting to her feet. She faced the small army of zombies as they stared at her. Her body was ready to go at it again, despite the bruises and cuts, but her mind was telling her to just get out of there.

It was a struggle to follow her instincts or her head.

In the end, however, Faith turned and sprinted away, hopping the wall and disappearing into the night.

* * * *

Faith banged heavily on Paul's door as she got to his home, hissing in pain at the yet healed bruises and cuts from the fight. "Dammit, Paul, I know you're there!" she announced.

He opened the door, the cordless phone in his lap. He glared up at her. "You'll wake the neighbors," he intoned, letting her in.

"Right about now, I don't give a fuck."

Paul shut the door and moved over to his desk, placing the phone on his desk. "I got a call from my friend just now. It seems you paid him a visit." He moved into the kitchen as Faith sat on the couch. Coming back into the room, he handed her an ice pack.

"Yeah, kinda seems like I did." She winced as she placed the pack against the most painful of her bruises on her face.

"How dare you go behind my back and try to find out things I want kept blatantly secret," Paul snapped at Faith.

Faith dropped the ice pack away from her cheek. "Well, it's no wonder! You're messin' in shit that's fucked up! The guy had ZOMBIES as his bodyguards!"

Paul didn't seem surprised at it but he was surprised that she had found out. He looked away.

"Fuck, Paul, I almost got killed by those bastards. That kinda gives me more than a right to know about them!"

"It wasn't supposed to go that way," he muttered.

"Well, guess what - it fucking DID. Paul, you better damn well talk to me. I know you're tryin' to protect your friend and all but - "

"It wasn't him I was trying to protect."

"Well, who the fuck is it? Obviously, it ain't me. Or Hannah."

"Faith, this is really none of your business. How many times do I have to tell you? I'm sorry that Howard unleashed them on you - "

"Yeah, you go ahead and try to justify why it's okay that his goons tried to kill me!" She threw the ice pack harshly on the couch. "In the meantime, I'm gonna get to Howard, kill his stupid zombies, and maybe me and you don't cross paths again." She stalked towards the door and slammed it hard behind her.

She stood there, glancing back at the door, her face falling into a look of sadness. She wanted to help Paul, she really did. But. she wasn't sure how to deal. Walking out was the way she knew how.

But she had a feeling it was going to somehow get Paul hurt.

* * * *

Brandon was taking in a beer while reading the newspaper in Patrick's bar. "Whoa, go Sally," he murmured. A figure sat in front of him making him look up. "Faith. Man, you look like shit."

"I fucking feel like it," she muttered.

The large man lowered the paper. "Can I get you something to drink?"

"It's cool." She looked around the bar. "I haven't been in here in a long time." She waved to Patrick, who waved back from behind the bar. Meeting Brandon's eyes, she sighed. "What's up with Paul? If you know anything, I'm tellin' you now, it's not a good time to lie to me."

Brandon put up his hands. "Hey, not gonna try you, girl." He rested his arms on the table. "I haven't heard from him since he left that day, Faith. And I knew something was up because Paul always calls me, even when he doesn't need me."

"Well, he practically kicked me out of his house 'cause I was trying to get info from the pal he went to visit that day."

"And that guy kicked your ass?"

Faith gave Brandon a 'are you kidding?' look. "No, dude, I about kicked his so he calls his zombie bodyguards to return the favor. THEY kicked mine. Paul didn't really give a shit except for me trying to beat information out of his friend."

"Paul didn't care?" Brandon knitted his brows. "That's not like him."

"Add 'at all' to that." She sighed, leaning back in her chair. "And I hate bein' pissed off because something's up - big time. And not only is it affecting me, but Hannah, too. I was hopin' he told you something."

"No, girl." He sat there, worry lacing his face. "Maybe we should avoid the upfront part."

"Huh?"

"Well, instead of confronting him upfront, maybe we do a little recon."

"Doesn't that take patience or something?" she joked.

"Girl, you've got some things to learn. Hey, we'll get to the bottom of this."

"Do you know anything about this Howard dude?"

Brandon shrugged. "Nope. Just knew that the two of them used to run together way back when. Before I met Paul." He folded up the paper. "Never really talked about him, though." He pulled out his phone. "I got people in low places. Maybe we can find out more about him through other means."

"Good cop, bad cop?" Faith asked, playing with a saltshaker absently.

"Was thinking, good cop, good cop." He grinned at her as he put the phone up to his ear. "Yo, Grant. Cooper, here. Got anyone by the name of Howard Morgan in your d-base?" He tapped his finger on the table top. "Cool, cool. Not really looking for him - more like looking for any relatives in town. Huh. Really. A sister up on North Main? Thanks." He folded up his cell. "C'mon, girl, let's teach you how the big guys work."

"You used to be a cop or something?" Faith asked as she stood up.

"Something." He waved good-bye to Patrick.

"Hey, say 'hi' to Xander for me!" Patrick called back with a grin. "We miss him over here!"

Faith blinked then forced a smile. No shit. "Sure thing," she replied weakly.

* * * *

".Howard?" Emily Morgan asked as she set a tray of drinks and some crackers for the two strangers in her house. "Do you know him?"

"Kinda," Faith answered, grabbing a cracker. "Met him recently." She was wandering the woman's house, glancing at the knickknacks and pictures on the tables and mantle.

"I haven't actually spoken to him in a long time," Howard's sister admitted as she took a seat herself.

"Why haven't you, if you don't mind us asking?" Brandon asked, proper and congenial in his manner despite his large frame.

"Well. he's pretty much closed himself off from the rest of his family. But that's something very personal I really don't want to talk about."

"No problem," Brandon assured the woman. "I didn't mean to pry anyway. But I understand about the closing himself off deal. Which is kind of why we're both here. What exactly does Howard do?"

"You. don't know what he does?" Emily asked, confused.

"Only met the guy on a social setting," Faith piped in. "Didn't talk much about our jobs or nothing."

"Oh. Well, he works in the archeological department at the community college."

Faith stopped at a picture of Howard and a dark brown-headed woman. The two of them were against a beach setting, looking happy. She picked up the frame.

"Really?" Brandon asked. "What's his focus? Or at least, last you heard."

"Last I heard, he was focusing his research on tribes in some of the rainforests somewhere near Cuba, I think," she answered. "He's gone on many trips there, which is part of the reason it has been hard to keep up with him."

"Who's this chick?" Faith asked, holding up the picture.

"That's Bridget. His wife."

Faith and Brandon glanced at each other, thinking the same thing. His sister was nice enough, but they already knew they weren't going to get anything out of her from the get go of her saying they had lost touch with each other.

Brandon got up. "Thank you, Ms. Morgan for having us."

She looked a little confused by their visit but just smiled. "Thanks for coming."

When they were near the car, Brandon tapped the top of the hood. "What're you thinking, girl?"

"The wife," Faith answered. "Since sis didn't have nothing for us, I'm thinkin' the wife will."

"See, already learning about recon." He grinned. He nodded towards the car. "Let's get moving."

* * * *

Brandon pulled the van up to the building where Howard resided. He looked up at the third floor. "I should handle this," he said, beginning to undo his seatbelt.

"What?" Faith asked. "No way."

"If he's in there, he's gonna recognize you. Remember, recon." He winked at her. "This won't take long."

She sighed, slumping down in her seat as he got out of the car and entered the apartment building. Only after a few minutes, she was getting restless. During her time in jail, she had learned a LOT of patience - but this situation was uneasy. It had to do with Paul, and a guy she really came to dislike, what with his zombies attacking her and all.

After 45 minutes, her thoughts drifting into things she really didn't want to think about, she began to get impatient. She was about to leave the van when she heard the front door of the building open.

Brandon emerged and walked directly to the driver's side, hopping in and starting up the engine. "So, wanna know something?"

Faith shook her thoughts away and sat up straighter. "What happened?"

"The female living with your pal Howard isn't the same one we saw in the picture."

"You're shittin' me," Faith responded with a knit of her dark brows. "Who is she?"

"His girlfriend - current. Maggie."

"As in 'affair' girlfriend, better known as mistress?"

Brandon shook his head. "As in, his wife passed away a couple of years ago, and this is his current girlfriend. They've only been together a few months, and she just recently moved in." A disturbed looked crossed over his face a moment.

"Whoa. Huh. Could she tell you anything his sis couldn't?"

"Not much else." He reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a piece of paper. "But I did get the address to his office at the community college. She was pretty sure that Howard could answer all my questions in the morning."

Faith snatched the paper out of his hand before he could finish the last word. "Why wait till tomorrow, dude?"

"The place is closed," he said to her.

"And? Hey, this is all part of recon, too. Just, ya know, my way."

Brandon shifted in his seat, uneasy. "Why do I feel 'your' way ain't as safe as mine?"

* * * *

Faith was busy flipping through the files in the first drawer while Brandon was looking through the files on Howard's office computer.

"I'm surprised," he murmured.

"You found something?" she asked, looking up.

"No. Not about that. About the fact that you picked the lock of this place. Nice handy work." He glanced over at the slightly ajar door to Howard's small office space.

Faith snickered. "You know, I wasn't always as strong as a pro football team. Had to find my own way into places back then."

"You really are a ruffian, aren't you?" he commented.

"Hey, I ain't the one who just hacked into the dude's computer. Same deal, different enviro." She went back to flipping through files.

"Well, well, look here," Brandon said, coming up on a page on a booked- marked website.

"What's up?" Faith glanced his way.

"Lots of information on a tribe found in Cuba, in Moa." His eyes ran over the text. "Interesting. Type of Haitian tribe." He looked over at her in a knowing manner.

Faith blinked. "Yeah, and?"

"Haitian. You know, voodoo?"

"Huh. Yeah. I guess." She stood up to join him at the computer screen. "So, you sayin' Howie's been studying this voodoo tribe to raise the dead for his own personal vendetta? To what, look cool?"

Brandon shrugged. "Your guess is as good as mine, girl." He furrowed his brows. "Just don't get why, if that's what he's up to, Paul would be involved."

"Does Paul know more shit about this magic stuff than Howard, maybe?"

"Wouldn't put it past him. But. even so, don't think Paul would agree to raising a big army of zombies."

"Think it was an accident? Maybe he got duped into doing it. Threatened." A noise made Faith look up quickly. "Shit, I think someone's here."

Even though Brandon didn't hear anything, he trusted Faith and quickly shut everything down while she quietly put up the files she was rummaging through. A flashlight ray roamed through the hallway. She could see it through the crack in the door. She went up to the door and slowly closed it, hearing the lock click back into place as she turned the knob. Nodding towards the window, she moved over to it and pulled it up, gesturing for him to go first.

Once they were walking briskly across the campus, Brandon let out a breath. "Damn, that was pretty close."

"C'mon, dude. You've had closer." She grinned, nudging him. "You do undercover stuff all the time."

"Yeah, but it means I don't have to sneak around. I'm out in the open, just. disguised. That kinda stuff? I'm too big for. Now, let's call it a night and hit the thinking tomorrow. Maybe you can get some more info from Paul."

"Highly doubt it, but I can sure as hell try."

* * * *

The next morning, after not having run into Paul, Faith found Hannah sitting outside the shelter playing absently with one of Rachel's dolls. Her face was so sad.

"Yo, girlfriend," Faith said, sitting down beside her.

Hannah looked up and saw whom it was, smiling slightly. "Hey."

"You getting to work pretty soon?"

She nodded.

"Look, I know you're still hurtin' from the other night with Paul, but. something's up with him."

"Oh. is he okay?" Her face fell into worry.

Faith nodded. "Well, physically he is, yeah. But something's up with his friend. I think Paul's in some serious shit that he doesn't know he's gotten himself into."

Just as she said that, Paul's van pulled up in front of them. He rolled down his window. "Faith, I need to have a word with you," he said, barely keeping the anger out of his voice.

Faith frowned, wondering if he somehow found out about her and Brandon breaking into Howard's office. But so what? He'd just have to deal was the bottom line.

"Is-is something the matter?" Hannah asked, getting to her feet.

"Stay out of this, Hannah," Paul snapped.

Hannah flinched slightly at the sudden tone towards her.

Faith quickly got to her feet and glared at Paul. "Hey, back off. She's just worried about you so shut your trap. I'll get in and talk." She looked at Hannah, but the woman was already turning and running back into the shelter.

With that, Faith rounded the van and slipped into the passenger seat. "You fucking little prick," she retorted as Paul pulled away from the sidewalk. "What the hell is wrong with you?"

"Did you pay Howard's girlfriend a visit last night?" he demanded, his eyes trained on the road.

"Yeah, so? I didn't beat her up, and she didn't unleash any zombies on me, so I was five by five with her."

"Well, she was murdered last night."

"What?" She blinked.

The grip on the steering wheel tightened. "Faith, if you have anything to do with - "

"Oh, shit, no. Don't you go on accusing me of murder, you bastard. I had NOTHING to do with it."

"I wasn't implying that."

"Really? 'Cause with the way you're acting right now, wouldn't put it past ya'." She shook her head. "How'd it happen?"

"I'm not sure of the details," he admitted. "Howard called, clearly upset, and he told me he found her early this morning. That's about all he could get out."

Faith sighed and leaned against the window, staring out as they drove. "I'm sorry," she murmured. "We just went over there to ask about Howard. You're in some serious shit, Paul, and you know it."

"'We'?" Paul asked, glancing back at Faith. "Who's 'we'?"

"Me and Brandon," she answered, though she was trying her best not to bring him into it.

"Brandon? Oh, for cripes' sake." He shook his head in frustration and sighed. "Why the hell are you involving all these people? YOU shouldn't even be involved at all!"

"Neither should YOU! These people are involved 'cause they care about you! Yeah, me included! So deal and tell me what the FUCK is going on! People are obviously dyin' and if Howard ain't talkin' even after his girlfriend got slashed, this is some seriously deep shit. All I wanna know is what you did when you first visited Howard. It's got something to do with zombies and voodoo tribes in Cuba."

"How did you know that?"

Might as well go for broke. "I jimmied into Howard's office last night, found some stuff on his computer."

"Faith, what the hell do you think you're doing?! That's illegal!"

"You know what? Not really carin' about that right now. And this isn't what it's all about anyway! It's about you and Howard and a bunch of voodoo tribes raising zombies! Tell me exactly where that falls in the importance spectrum?"

Paul slammed on his brakes. "Faith, let me handle this," he said. "Now get out of the car."

"You're hurting the people you care about, Paul. By doin' this, not asking for help when you obviously NEED the hell out of it! Let me help, for fuck's sakes. Ever since my ass almost got killed, I got a pretty good stake in all this."

"I said get out."

"Did it ever get into your head that maybe Howard has something to do with his girlfriend's murder?"

"No. I won't believe that. She was MURDERED, Faith. In no way would he have anything to do with it, especially what he went through. Both of us." He paused. "Shut up and never speak about things you don't know about."

Faith stared at him as if he was a stranger, which he was beginning to become. "You can't keep pushing me away," she said, opening the door.

"Of all people, Faith, you should be the last to tell me about pushing others away."

"Fuck you," she snapped, slamming the door hard.

As soon as the door closed, Paul took off.

Faith stared after him then turned away, taking her fist with her and slamming it into the nearest trashcan. It actually flew off where it was bolted and skidded to a stop four stores down. Some people came out of their shops to see what was going on.

She kept walking, ignoring them, and trying to cool off before figuring out what her next move in all this was. She had a gut feeling that Howard was hiding something in the murder of his girlfriend.

But what did Paul mean by 'especially what he went through'?

* * * *

"Wife dying," Brandon answered as he sat next to the bench press in the gym. He had papers in his hands, information of what he could find on Howard Morgan. "He took it pretty hard." He shook his head as if shame. "Should've remembered the last name Morgan. Now it's coming back to me about how he and Paul got to being pals. Paul helped Howard out when she died."

"How hard did he take it?" Faith asked as she pushed the barbell up and down.

"About as hard as Paul took it." Brandon let his eyes fall to ground. "Did Paul ever tell you how me and him met?"

"I figured through his demon hunting days."

"Not exactly." He sat back, his eyes following the weight. "Damn, girl, how much you benching?"

"Don't know, but Gordon's sworn me off the punching bag so I gotta cool off some other way."

Brandon looked over at the corner where the punching bag SHOULD'VE been. "Uh, what punching bag?"

"Exactly." She put the weight back on the rack and sat up, stretching her arms a bit. "So, how'd you guys meet?"

"Paul. well, he really, really took his wife's death HARD." It was clear that Brandon was having difficulty telling Faith this. "I think everything he saw and did while he was in the demon hunting clan and the loss of his legs was piling up on him anyway, and . after she died. he snapped."

"Snapped?"

"Yeah. Bad. Not angry, although he was a lot more belligerent than any of his other friends had seen him, but more withdrawn. They had to send him to a low key military psychiatric ward."

Faith blinked. "No shit."

Brandon nodded. "That's where we met. I was an orderly type there. A lot of the docs thought he was kinda a lost cause but even though I didn't know him, I knew there was a fighter under that broken body and heart." He smiled. "So I didn't give up on him even when he did."

"Wow." She sat there, taking in the news in slight shock. She knew Paul had been through a lot, but she never would've known just how much he had actually gone through. She knew then, that Brandon was going to do everything he could to help his friend and Faith found a newfound determination. "So, Paul was in that place for a few years?"

"Two, to be exact. I think he could've gotten out of there earlier, but he wanted to be more confident about it all. Then he asked me to work for him, and I couldn't refuse." He grinned.

"Never would've guessed about all that, especially about Paul. The dude just seems so put together, ya' know?"

Brandon nodded again. "And he is. It took a lot of work, but he is." His voice trailed.

"You're really worried about him, aren't ya'? The way he's acting and stuff."

"Yeah. Reminds me. well, about back then."

"Hey, we're gonna figure this out, okay? We're obviously ain't gonna get help from Paul, but there are other ways of finding things out." She wiped her face, though she was barely sweating. "First, we gotta find out how Howard's girlfriend died. She didn't seem. jittery or anything when you saw her, was she?"

"Nope. Even let me into her place for a little while. And she didn't seem scared or hesitated in talking about him. Maybe even enthusiastic, if anything." He glanced over at her. "You think he had something to do with it?"

"Maybe. Maybe it would help to find out HOW she died. Was she shot, stabbed? That sortta thing."

Brandon stood up. "I'm on it, boss," he teased.

Faith gave him a look. "Don't be callin' me that," she warned but with playfulness.

Brandon glanced over her head. "That guy's checking you out, girl," he said, gathering up his papers. "Guess he was impressed by the fact you could probably bench him."

Faith glanced in the direction that Brandon had looked and saw a blond- haired guy about her age, staring back her. When they made eye contact, he grinned and waved at her. She rolled her eyes.

"C'mon," Brandon said, nudging her. "He's a good-looking healthy guy."

"I'm not LOOKING for another guy!" Faith snapped, angrily. Then she shut her eyes, voice calmer. "God, Brandon, I'm sorry. I didn't mean."

Brandon help up his hand. "No, girl. It's me. I just."

"What?"

"It's been weeks now, and I just see that you're. hurting. I just want you to be happy, and I figured since Xander's not - "

"Can we stop talkin' about this, please?" she asked.

"Yeah, of course." He tucked the folder under his arm and smiled. "I'll go check it out and get back to you."

"Thanks," she murmured, still feeling guilty about her outburst.

* * * *

Faith found Rachel sitting outside on the steps, playing with a few of her new toys. "Hey, Rach," she greeted the girl, setting her gym bag down. "What's shakin'?"

"Shaking?" Rachel asked, confused. "Um, a milkshake?"

Faith laughed, picking the girl up and putting her on her lap. "Yeah, that's right."

"Mommy shakes," she said. "She's shaking right now. I think she's sad."

Faith glanced towards the shelter and frowned. "Did your mom go to work?"

"Yes. But she came back."

Sighing, Faith stood up, still holding Rachel. "Careful out here, kiddo." She set her down and moved inside, scanning the main room for Hannah.

Amber came up to Faith. "Are you looking for Hannah?"

Faith gave the woman a smile and nodded. "Seen her?"

"Well, she came back very upset, but. well, Paul just came by and picked her up." Amber gave Faith a sly look.

"Huh? Really?" She paused a moment with the news. "Good. Paul needs to talk with Hannah. Alright, well, tell her I was looking for her." She gave Amber another smile and left.

* * * *

Faith was settling onto her bed, chilling out a moment and watching some TV. She was flipping through channels when the phone rang. Knowing Paul wasn't back yet, she picked up the receiver. "Hello?"

"It's Brandon," the voice answered.

"Hey. You find.?"

"It's bad, Faith." His voice was almost breathless.

"What's wrong?"

"Okay, I pulled some police records on the murder. Gruesome. Pretty mutilated and her. heart was ripped out."

"Shit."

"Saw some notes that the investigator wrote up and he was kinda puzzled as to why so much of her was missing yet they couldn't FIND the pieces."

"So whoever did it TOOK them?"

"Yeah." He paused and rustling of papers could be heard. "Witnesses say they saw Howard come in right before she was killed with another person."

"I KNEW Howard was up to something," she muttered.

"Doesn't mean he killed her, though. In fact, some say that he didn't even go IN to his apartment, that they saw him hanging out in the pool area."

"So whoever was with him coulda been the one."

"Right. Maybe he let whoever it was in and. well, they did it to her." He stopped, his voice lowering more. "I decided to go find him, check out what he's doing now that he's released from questioning. And I saw him with another woman."

"What? The bastard."

"But wait, that isn't the weird part. The weird part was the woman I saw him with was his wife."

Faith couldn't quite soak in that information. "No fucking way. Are you sure?"

"Looked her up again. That was HER. Faith, we're dealing in something beyond zombies. Now I think we're talking about specific zombies." He shuffled something. "Meet me back at the college."

"You gotta a feeling the answer is in his research, right?"

"Yeah."

"Meet ya' there."

* * * *

"Excuse me, ma'am," the secretary of the archeology department called to Faith as she stalked through. "You can't just go in there!"

"Really? Watch me," she intoned, marching right up to Howard's door. She kicked it open and stared at the man behind the desk as he stood up.

"What is this?" he demanded.

"What the fuck are you doing?" Faith asked. "You're messing in shit that's beyond what I could punch your lights out for!"

"Look, I don't know what games you think you're playing with me, but I am in a very sensitive situation right now, so I'd appreciate it if you LEAVE ME ALONE."

"Right. I know all about her. So how'd you do it?"

"You little bitch," Howard spat. He reached for the phone but Faith's hand was slamming it right back down a nanosecond after, knocking some papers to the floor.

"I just wanna talk to you, Howie," she said, her voice low - dangerously low.

The secretary was at the door. "Sir, do you want me to call security?"

Faith didn't turn around, just continued to look directly at Howard her hand on the phone. She squeezed a little harder and the plastic on the receiver cracked.

Howard glanced back over at the secretary. "N-No, Miss Mason. I'm fine."

She hesitated then pulled the door shut behind her as she left.

Faith grinned a little. "Good move." She let go of the phone and bent down to collect the papers, taking a moment by straighten them out.

Howard snatched them out of her hands. "Thank you," he snapped.

"Welcome," she answered and flopped down on the chair in front of him. "Now, let's have a talk." She squinted against the light streaming through the window behind his desk. "Nice and sunny out. Looks like I won't be expecting any bodyguards to help you out. Not unless you want your whole staff to know your dirty little secret." Her eyes returned to him. "Kinda sucks for you, don't it?"

Howard tried to remain calm and sat back down. "What do you want? Do you want to pry into my business even more?"

"Your business became my business when you started getting my friend into big time shit. I know what you've been up to - this voodoo tribe shit. Trying to raise the dead, are you Howie? Not just THE dead, but YOUR dead. Rumor has it that you've been seen around town with an old love of yours. But in the meantime, you're out there murdering your current one."

Howard clenched his fists. "I don't know where you receive your information, Miss, but you know nothing. I'm in the middle of grieving over Maggie, and you're accusing me of murder? How dare you."

Faith remained cool and shrugged. "I dare, dude. But you know, surprisingly enough, that ain't what's really eating at my brain." She leaned forward a bit, amused by her sentence what with the zombie talk and everything. "What's really eating me is how Paul is all involved in this. Did he help you raise your wife? Or did you FORCE him to help?"

"Get out," he demanded. He stood up and pointed to the door. "You've done enough, jumped into enough conclusions. I can have you arrested for invading private property."

"So all I said about the voodoo tribe's all true, then. You admit that."

"I work in archeology; it's legal in every respect to my occupation you dumb girl!"

Faith stood up, grinning. "Alright." She went to the door, glancing back at him. "I'm gettin' nearer to your game, Howie. Just wanna warn you." She opened up the door and Brandon stood there. "Hey."

"Uh, I was looking for you," he stated, then looked over her head and saw the expression on Howard's face.

"You found me. Now let's go."

* * * *

"Girl, what did you DO?" Brandon asked when they got inside the SUV. "When I said to meet here, I meant in a less obvious way."

"Fuck 'less obvious,'" Faith said. "He's hiding something." She produced a few sheets of paper from inside her jacket. "See what you can get from these."

Brandon took them and raised his brows. "How'd you get this?"

"Slip of the hand. Saw that it was part of some ritual. Just hope it's the right one."

He read over it. "It's in some weird text. But I think I know someone who can read it."

"Good to know people in high - "

BAM!

Something slammed so hard into the side of the car, it rocked it.

BAM!

Another something hit the other side, rocking it back.

Faith and Brandon looked around and saw the similar army of zombies slamming their arms into the metal of the car.

"Holy," Brandon said, fumbling for the keys.

"Get us outta here!"

"I'm trying!"

Faith looked back up front and saw a woman standing there with perfect everything, not one shred of indication of decay as with the other zombies. "Is that her?" she asked.

Brandon looked straight ahead. "Yeah."

Howard's wife put her hands on the car and pushed - and the car actually started moving.

"Okay, taking a guess here, but bringin' her back ain't exactly BRINGING her back the way she was unless the bitch was one strong chick," Faith commented. She saw another female-shaped figure, hunkering in the shadows, away from the attackers.

The front of the car began rising up now, snapping Faith out of it.

"She's gonna tip us over!" Brandon cried, finally putting the keys in the ignition. He turned the engine and gunned it backwards - but it wasn't moving. "Dammit!"

Faith rolled down her window. "Gun it when I tell you to," she said, crawling out. She punched the nearest zombie and climbed out onto the hood to face the super-strong wife of Howard. "Hey, bitch," she said and kicked her in the face.

Her head snapped back, but kept the car aloft.

Faith kicked her again, harder and harder, then jumped up and clamped her hands together to form a powerful large fist right onto the top of the zombie's head. That, combined with Faith's weight hitting the hood, forced her to let go. "Go!" she called, barely keeping her balance when the car hit the pavement.

Brandon slammed on the reverse and the car jerked back. He watched Faith nearly fall off, but she amazingly held onto the sides with all her might and hung on. He did a 180 and gunned it out of the parking lot, the zombies trying to grab on but failing.

Brandon kept driving about three blocks then slowed to a stop. "C'mon!" he called through his window.

She slipped back in and they were off again.

"Shit!" she said. "What the fuck was that? In fucking broad daylight!" She shook her head. "The guy's got balls."

"You think it's him who called the army of the dead?"

"Who else would it. his wife? His wife," she murmured. "Or what was his wife. Whatever thing he thinks he rose, that ain't her. It couldn't be."

"Besides the fact she just bench pressed an SUV?"

"Yeah. Besides that. You gonna tell me the chick was evil before she died? No, something's wrong with all this and maybe Howie doesn't see what it's doing to his wife." She looked at the papers. "Just get me what this says."

"Right. Where do you want me to drop you off?"

"I can't go with you?"

He shook his head. "As much as I want to."

"At the shelter. I wanna check up on Hannah, see what went down with her and Paul."

* * * *

"She's not here yet," Amber said, Rachel in her arms. "I guess they're making up. for time." She raised her brows and grinned.

Faith tried to mirror the smile only she was more worried than anything else. Why she was worried, she wasn't sure. Paul wasn't going to hurt Hannah; even in his state, he wasn't violent. then again, she was beginning to wonder what she thought she knew about him.

No, she trusted him. He kept on her when she had gone practically insane and violent during that dark time. She was NOT going to falter in her belief in him. She looked over at Amber, holding out her arms. "I'll watch Rachel or a little bit, if you wanna go do stuff," she offered.

"I really don't have anything," Amber said. "But I know Rachel wants to play with you, right?"

The little girl grinned and nodded, clambering over to Faith. She held up the dinosaur. "Say 'hi' to Ralph," she said.

Faith brought the girl over to a smaller common room and they both sat on the floor. "Heya, Ralph." She, a little absently, played around with Rachel for an hour, waiting for Brandon's call. She just hoped something could be done before those zombies were unleashed on the city in general. She was getting uneasier by the second.

The dinosaur was suddenly in Faith's line of sight as Rachel looked up at her. "Will Xander be back?"

Faith's eyes stared at the dinosaur that she and Xander had given Rachel awhile back. That was a question she wasn't prepared to hear from Rachel, especially so long after he had left. Her face fell a little. "Uh, I don't think so, Rach."

"Why not?"

"'Cause."

Rachel looked up at Faith, lowering the doll. Her face suddenly became slightly sad. "Does he not like us anymore?"

"No, hon, not like that at all." She placed the girl into her lap. This was going to be tough - for Faith. "Xander likes you, you know that."

"But. people leave when they don't want to see you anymore, right?"

"Not all the time."

"But. then why did he go away?"

"Because. I guess I told him to."

"Do you not like him anymore?"

Faith looked over at Rachel. "Yes. I do still like him. A lot."

"Do you miss him?"

She nodded.

"Then.does he still like you?"

The question sunk into Faith, causing a cold dread in her. "Uh, I dunno, Rach. Probably not much anymore."

"But. I think he does. Because you kiss all the time!"

Faith suddenly felt funny talking about it; usually the talk of Xander annoyed her, as was seen in her recent outbursts, but this was Rachel, someone who was too young to know better.

Or maybe knew TOO much.

"Where'd you see that, huh?" she teased the little girl, tickling her sides as a way of ending the conversation.

Rachel began giggling up a storm, trying to push Faith's hands away but at the same time liking the feeling.

One of the workers of the shelter came into the room then, holding up a cordless phone. "Faith? There's someone on the phone for you."

Faith looked up. "Oh, good." She got up, taking the phone from her and put it up to her here. "Talk to me Brandon," she stated, half her attention on Rachel

"Got most of the trans," Brandon answered. "Most of it not much help but one thing did catch my eye. It reads 'the One Who Replaced the Heart.' It's trouble."

"What's it mean?"

"It means that Howard rose his wife from the grave. This kinda stuff is different than just raising the dead, raising zombies. This has to do with. well, being in love with the chosen dead." There was a pause and Brandon's voice suddenly grew quieter. "I got a bad feeling about how Paul's been involved.

"Whatta mean?"

"Don't know how he got Paul to do it, but I bet he thought he was doing Paul a favor by doing the same thing."

"Fuck." She looked over at Rachel, realizing she had better keep her mouth down. "You think Howard also rose Paul's wife, too?" She remembered seeing the figure in the shadows. She shut her eyes. "Oh, man.." For Howard's sake, he better not have done that to Paul.

"Faith, that's not the worst of it. 'The One Who Replaced the Heart' allows a zombie, someone rising from death, to live again. But in order for them to do that, they need a host soul. It's believed in some tribes and cultures that a person is in love with another because they own their soul."

"You're tellin' me that Howard's wife is back - almost better than ever - because she STOLE his girlfriend's soul?"

"Yeah! It wasn't Howard who killed his girlfriend; it was his ex-wife. She was after Maggie all along because Maggie loved Howard and he probably loved her back, which means ."

"Gotta get rid of the competition." Faith was already putting on her jacket, signaling for the worker to come back, and pointed at Rachel

"Right. And there's a spell that goes along with it that clouds the mind of the living, the one who rose them."

"Shit, Brandon, that means if Paul's wife is alive. I gotta go. I'll call ya' in a few."

"Wait, what is it?"

"Paul. He's with Hannah right now. But it may not just be him."

* * * *

Faith found Howard going to his small car once again. She had checked the perimeter and no zombies in sight to catch her unaware. She was done being nice - past done. She came up behind Howard and turned him around, slugging him right in the face.

He fell like a sack of potatoes but not unconscious, she made sure of that. She grabbed him by his collar and hauled him to his feet. "Where's Paul?"

He was moaning from the pain.

She shook him hard. "Fuck, tell me where he is!"

"I-I don't know."

"The fuck you don't! Where'd he take her? Where'd he take Hannah?"

"I have no idea what - "

"No, Howie. The only thing you have no idea about is who you're fucking dealing with."

"The-the Slayer," he said, woozily.

"Oh, so ya' DO have some clue. Good."

"You'll destroy her. I. I can't lose her again," he whispered.

Faith stared at him, the words getting to her. "Your wife?"

He nodded. "I just got her back; I cannot lose her."

"Hate to tell you this straight up, but that ain't your wife. Do you want to remember your wife as some evil, super-strong zombie? I know she was better than that, and for some reason, I know you are, too."

Tears actually started to fall down his face. "I never told her how much I love her," he whimpered. "She never knew and she died."

She glanced away a moment, loosening her grip. "Well, bringing her around like this. it's not doing what you want it to." She faced him again. "And you know it."

"It's-it's too late for her."

"But not for Paul. And not for Hannah. So, I'll ask again: where IS he?"

* * * *

Paul sat in the corner of his basement, staring absently at Hannah who lay unconscious a few feet in front of him. He was numb - slightly - maybe.

"It's okay, honey," came the voice from the other end of the room. "It's okay. I'm here."

"Rebecca, we. we can't do this.."

"Shhh." She came out of the shadow, her decaying skin more prominent than only an hour ago. "It'll be okay."

"But Hannah."

"Means nothing to you."

"But - why? Oh, God, Rebecca, this is wrong. I didn't want this."

"Yes, you did. I felt it in your heart, Paul. I did."

"I do miss you; I always have and always will. But."

"Shhhhh.." She said again. "You've done your part; you brought her here. Now it's mine." She went over to a shelf and pulled out a large knife. "I don't have much time. I'll go away again if we wait any longer." She approached the body and knelt down beside her.

The blade of the knife drew close to Hannah's neck.

"Wait!" Paul said, rolling up beside her. "Wait. no, I can't watch you do this to her."

Rebecca's eyes looked over at her once husband and they fell down to a glare. "Do you love her more than me, Paul?"

"What? Rebecca, no - it's not like that." There were so many things wrong with the scene before him and Paul couldn't seem to bring himself to stop it totally.

"Then let me do this." She brought the blade to Hannah's skin.

"No!" Paul said, actually flinging himself out of his wheelchair. His body slammed into Rebecca's decaying one and they both landed a couple of feet from Hannah's body. He felt his wife's arm, how rotted and thin it was as he struggled with her. And he knew this wasn't her.

But Rebecca, like Howard's wife, was one of the first to be revived - was actually one of the subjects of the ritual - and not only was she not a mindless zombie like the army that came later, but also not a weak creature. Though not as strong as the fully revived Bridget, she still was stronger than the average man.

She easily broke out of Paul's grip and pushed him away onto his backside. "I don't know how you're doing this, Paul, honey, but you need to stop." She moved towards him, knife in hand.

"Rebecca wouldn't do this," he said. "YOU wouldn't do this!"

"I'm something more than she ever was!"

"NO! You could never be anything equal to what she was!" And he saw that now. He saw the power of just her presence and what she represented held over him. "Not even half."

The zombie stood up, rather wobbly, and wielded the knife in her hand. "Then I guess I'll just have to cut you in half, HONEY." She stabbed down and Paul barely rolled away as the blade hit the concrete floor.

He struggled to pull himself along the floor. But he felt her hand grab onto his ankle and pull him back towards her. He clawed at the floor, finding any purchase he could.

Rebecca managed to get him in arms reach and stabbed down again, aiming for his back - only, her arm didn't move. She looked up and saw the hand holding her wrist. "What?"

Faith pulled her away from Paul and shoved Rebecca right off her feet into the wall across the room. "Back off, bitch!"

Brandon came through the door that had been quietly jimmied for the element of surprise and got to Paul's side. "You okay, sir?"

He nodded as he was placed into his wheelchair, but that was all he could get out as he watched Faith face up against Rebecca.

"You-you can't do this!" Rebecca screamed.

Faith raised her brows. "Really? 'Cause it looks like I'm doing a pretty damn good job of doing it."

The zombie screamed and went after Faith with the knife.

The Slayer dodged the swing and kicked up, her foot hitting the wrist, making her let the knife loose. It skidded across the concrete floor. She slammed her fist into Rebecca's face, hearing something crack.

"We need to get to my desk," Paul announced. "I have - I have the notes to reverse this." Even though he knew that wasn't Rebecca, he couldn't stand to see what Faith had to do - what she has always had to do.

Brandon understood and pushed the wheelchair towards the ramp that led to the elevator. It was one of the "luxuries" the townhome entailed.

But halfway there, and just as Faith kicked Rebecca across the room again, the windows and the door burst open and the army of zombies began to slowly flood the basement.

Faith's head snapped up at the sounds all around. "Shit!" she hissed.

"Trouble. Big time," Brandon announced, unnecessarily. He snuck over and picked up Hannah in his arms.

The figure standing at the door was Bridget, Howard in her arms. She looked around a moment in her perfectly restored face then one-handedly tossed Howard into the middle of the floor.

The man's eyes were open, blankly staring into death.

"Howard." Paul whispered.

"Fuck," Faith muttered. She turned and saw Paul and Brandon. "Dammit, guys, GO!" She launched herself at the nearest zombies, drawing attention to herself. And they obliged - closing in on the Slayer.

"Here," Brandon said, placing Hannah onto Paul's lap. "I'm going to get you to the elevator, and you go on ahead. I need to help Faith."

Paul nodded, gently cradling the woman as best he could and he managed to make it to the elevator just as a zombie came to intervene. Brandon slammed a huge fist into what was once a much smaller human and the zombie flew back and fell to pieces.

Zombies and zombie parts were flying everywhere.

But Rebecca and Bridget were harder to make fall to pieces.

Bridget pushed her way through her army and found Faith jerking a head off one mindless zombie. She was closing in on the Slayer when Faith, without turning around, aimed a fist at Bridget.

It was caught, however.

Faith winced slightly at the pressure that was applied to her bones. "Heya," she said with a grin, however. And in her other hand, she smashed the zombie head right into Bridget's face.

The dust and dead skin that emanated from it distracted Bridget, making her let go of Faith's hand before it was broken. Faith let loose a hard roundhouse kick, driving the super-zombie back. "Is there no way to kill her?" she cried to Brandon.

"Don't think so! They're directly linked to the ritual!"

"Damn!" Faith hit Bridget again until she was backed against the wall. "Doesn't mean I can't try and cause pain, though." She kicked her in the stomach then grabbed her and tossed her to one side into a metal shelf.

Rebecca came out from behind and jumped on Faith's back, pulling at her long brown locks in a near frenzy.

Faith was still standing but her balance was being thrown off. She reached behind her, trying to find something of Rebecca to grab onto when Bridget had recovered and tackled Faith in the midsection. All three fell onto the floor.

Both zombies began hitting at Faith, anything they could get a clear shot of, they took it. Faith gritted her teeth and grabbed Rebecca, throwing her off. Bridget, however, grabbed Faith by the throat and stood up, hoisting the Slayer off her feet.

Brandon saw this but the mindless army, though losing, managed to keep him back.

"What, you got nothing to say?" Faith choked out, trying to pry Bridget's fingers off her throat. Breathing was getting more and more difficult by the second.

Bridget looked up at her, tilting her head to the side. She opened her mouth - then let out an inhuman scream.

It made Faith cringe at the sound she was making, thinking it was some sort power that Bridget had. then realizing it was a cry of PAIN. All of the zombies began to scream in pain, holding their heads.

Bridget finally dropped Faith and screamed more until she began to fade into nothing.

Then all at once, it was quiet.

Faith had landed on her hands and knees and was coughing when the coast was clear. "Damn, that was a little too close."

"You okay?" Brandon asked coming up to her. He was bloodied and bruised, but otherwise, okay.

"Five by five." She got to her feet, scanning the basement. "You?"

"I'll take another round with those guys over sparring with you, girl," he teased, nudging her.

She gave him a grin as her eyes landed on the dead body of Howard, and the smile faded fast. "Man. the guy didn't deserve that. He really wasn't a bad guy; Bridget was just fucking with his head."

Brandon nodded. "I'm gonna go check up on Paul," he said, thumbing towards the elevator.

"Go on," she said, sitting down against the wall in almost fatigue. "I'll be up in a sec."

"Good work," he said.

* * * *

Later on that night, Faith was busy. flipping channels in her room. She had been keeping to herself and wasn't sure why. She checked her watch and decided that, despite the soreness she still had, she wanted to check up on Hannah and Rachel. The woman had left soon after she had finally come out of consciousness; by then, Paul had left, also wanting to be alone.

Hannah, however, didn't take it too well.

Faith clicked the TV off and was reaching for the door when there was a knock on it. She opened it up. "Hey," she greeted Paul.

Paul smiled, still looking like he was put through hell and again. "Faith. I. owe you a very huge apology," he admitted.

"Tell me something I don't know, dude," she said, leaning against the doorframe.

"Um, yes." He was beginning to look uneasy.

"Hey, Paul. You don't gotta say anything," she said with a smile now. "I was just teasin' ya'. I ain't good at apologizing at all, so expecting someone to is kinda stupid."

"No. This isn't something. God, I don't know what happened to me. The things I said to you."

"What, like I haven't heard worse? Hey, don't worry about it. We're five by five, okay? You were messed; not your fault."

"I just don't understand why Howard would trick me into doing that for him."

"You two were. are in love with your wives," she said quietly. "Nothing's gonna change that. I just think maybe he wasn't handling it so well, even though he loved Maggie."

"Guess I thought I was well, too."

"Hey, Paul, you handled it a lot better than I could ever see anyone handle it. Yeah, so you were an ass; who the hell wouldn't be when put in that sitch? Don't beat yourself up over it bein' your fault 'cause it wasn't . That wasn't Rebecca; that . thing never was gonna be. Howard found that out too late." She dipped her gaze. "I'm just glad you didn't."

"Me, too. Thank you." He paused. "But. what I did to Hannah."

"She needs time right now."

He nodded. "I'll give it to her. Anything she needs." He rolled back. "I'm going to turn in for tonight."

"Gonna go patrol."

"Wake me if there's anything I can help you with, okay?"

"Got it." She smiled.

* * * *

Faith found Hannah closing up at the small diner she worked part-time in, earning what she could to get her and Rachel on their feet again. Faith admired her so much, and wished she could do more for the woman.

She knocked lightly on the locked door.

Hannah smiled and unlocked it for the Slayer. "Hi, Faith."

"Girl, I can't believe you went to work after your day."

Hannah laughed lightly. "I'm fine. A little headache, but good." She locked the door behind Faith, even though she knew she was a lot safer now. "How are you?"

"A little tender, but that's just a side effect of getting my ass kicked." She hopped on a stool. "Anything I can help you with?"

Hannah shook her head. "No. I only have to shut off the lights, and I should be on my way back." She reached for something behind the counter and produced a flower with a card on it.

"Hey, hey - who's that from?" Faith asked.

"One of my co-workers," Hannah answered, looking at the flower.

"Oh. Well, that's good! An admirer. but you don't look too hunky dorey 'bout it."

"It's. it's not who I want it to be from," Hannah quietly admitted.

"Ah. Well, why don't you go see him? He's still at home."

"Oh, no. Not now. Not ever. I can see now. I can't compete. I'm. I work here at a diner, trying to-to earn minimum wage. I live in a shelter. I don't ever have new clothes. what could he ever like, much less love?"

Faith tilted her head to the side. "So that's it? Avoid him, and maybe he'll go away?"

She shrugged as she sat in the stool next to Faith.

"Because from what I see, the guy wants nothing more but TO like you. Not for what you think you do or don't have, but from bein' YOU."

"N-No. I don't think so."

"You don't get it, do you?" Faith told Hannah. "Paul loves the hell out of you! Just because YOU think that he don't just 'cause you're homeless or whatever? What the hell reason is that?"

"I-I'm just afraid."

"What? Of Paul?" Faith shook her head. "You don't gotta be. I know him. He feels like shit for the way he treated you, but he loves you, girlfriend. You can't be afraid of what you think's gonna happen. Sometimes, you just gotta do it. And after all this, saving his ass from his zombie wife, you two better make the fucking most of it."

Hannah stared down at the flower in her hands. "So, what you're saying is, I can't be afraid of letting me love him just because I'm just afraid."

"Exactly."

Hannah looked up at Faith, meeting the Slayer's dark brown eyes. "And after everything that's happened, feelings don't change, no matter how much you want them to?"

Faith nodded. "You got that right." She grinned, glad the advice was sinking in.

"And I shouldn't push him away."

The Slayer was about to nod again when she saw Hannah's expression.

"I shouldn't push him away because I'm happiest with him." Hannah smiled and reached out and took Faith's hand gently. "I know what you're saying, Faith. I do. I just wished you knew what you were saying."

Realization dawned onto Faith. Hannah had totally turned that conversation around right back to Faith. "Shit," she muttered, looking away. "You're a sneaky little bitch, you know that, Hannah?"

Hannah only laughed. She got off the stool and glanced at the flower one last time before putting in the trash bag, ready to be picked up. "I only do what I can." She tied the bag shut. "I'm going to go see a man. I really think you should do the same. You won't be completely happy if you don't, and. you deserve it, Faith. You deserve him."

* * * *

~It's been a long, long time since I looked into the mirror / I guess that I was blind / Now my reflection's getting clearer / Now that you're gone things will never be the same again~

Faith saw herself in the mirror, seeing her dark eyes and hair. Her skin wasn't as pale as it had been when she first came out of prison, but it didn't have that certain healthy glow either. Things were returning back to normal, some things going for the better - like the warehouse, for example. Even more, Hannah and Paul

Los Angeles had been a city of pain and sorrow, of breakdowns and break ups, of found things and things that had escaped her grasp.

Of things she wanted so badly to hang on to. and of things she let go - without logic.

~There's not a minute that goes by every hour of every day / You're such a part of me

But I just pulled away/Well, I'm not the same girl / you used to know / I wish I said the words I never showed~

She turned around and stuffed the last of her clothes into her duffel bag. She couldn't keep it up, and what Hannah told her stuck in her mind.

Things weren't ever going to feel right, no matter how safe and sound Hannah, Paul, Rachel and the others were. Because there was that one large empty place that could never be filled.

She knew that now. Weeks too late, possibly, but at least she realized it.

~You know that silence is loud when all you hear is your heart / And I wanted so badly just to be a part of something strong and true / But I was scared and left it all behind~

Maybe she wasn't quite out of the fear that had almost caused them never to be together in the first place. Maybe that fear had always been there, but she just chose to push it away. Or maybe it formed into an entirely different, stronger fear.

The fear of loss.

Because no matter how much she had changed, how much people had told her she had changed, she knew deep down that she was still terrified of loss since there was so much of it in her life.

Loss of a wonderful Watcher.

Loss of innocence.

Loss of dignity.

Loss of self-respect.

She was able to regain almost all of those while she was in Los Angeles - but she told herself she wasn't going to stop there. She wanted what she regained - and more. She couldn't, however, if she expected to ever see Xander again.

~And I'm asking / And I'm wanting you to come back to me / Please?~

Zipping up her bag, she took a good look around the guest room and let out a sigh.

~I never will forget that look upon your face / How you turned away and left without a trace / But I understand that you did what you had to do / And I thank you~

She was stupid to think that she could convince herself Xander was better off in Sunnydale. He wasn't the one who had made the decision; the past few weeks before he had left, she had been making the decision for him.

Maybe it took him leaving to figure out what she wanted for herself. Maybe it took a few weeks by herself in her "new" life to realize she couldn't fully live without him - or at least live with the fact that she had pushed him away and not letting him know how she truly felt.

It was a strange road, love.

It made her something she had never seen herself be - in love.

~I know you had to go away / I died just a little, and I feel it now / You're the one I need / I believe that I would cry just a little / Just to have you back now / Here with me~

Faith knew she had to leave behind Los Angeles for a time to find out if he was still in the same boat as she was. And if he wasn't, she had no right to blame him or be angry with him.

No. If she came to find he had forgotten about her, she only had herself to be pissed off at.

And THAT was the scariest part of her trip back to Sunnydale.

In the end, she just hoped it was worth it.

* * * *

"Are you sure you guys will be okay?" Faith asked, staring at Paul, Brandon, Hannah, Amber, and Rachel as they gathered outside Paul's place. "I don't know if."

"It's worth it," Hannah insisted, her hand noticeably on Paul's shoulder. "My God, Faith, this is what you want."

"Heck, this is what we ALL want," Brandon said with a grin. "Go on. We'll be okay."

"No," Rachel mumbled, hugging herself close to her mother. "I don't want you to go."

Faith sighed, dropping her bag by her side and knelt down in front of the young girl. "Hey, kid, I'll be back, I swear. This is the place I belong. I ain't gonna leave it. I'll just. I just need to find out what else I got."

"Are you going to bring back Xander?"

Faith smiled. "I'm gonna try, kid. You know I don't do anythin' without a fight." She held up a fist then lowered it when she saw the look in Rachel's eyes. "You miss him, huh?"

"Uh-huh," the young girl said with big, innocent eyes. "And I know you do, too."

"Hell, yeah, I do. That's why I gotta do this."

Rachel stood there a moment then flung herself into Faith, hugging her tightly. "Good luck."

"Thanks, kid," she mumbled under her light brown hair. This young girl had gone through so much and yet made it so far. In many ways, Rachel was a very source of inspiration for Faith.

She looked at the others. "Hey, I'm not one for long good-byes, but it ain't like it's gonna be forever. You guys better keep your asses safe or I swear, I'll kick 'em all."

"We'll have to keep that in mind," Paul said with a smile.

She got into the taxi, glancing back one more time. "I'll be back. I promise."

They all waved the Slayer good-bye as the taxi drove off into the direction of Sunnydale, California.

* * * *

~Making my way downtown / Walking fast / Faces passed / And I'm home bound~

And this was where Faith ended up, walking through the campus of UC Sunnydale. She knew Xander had found a dorm room. And she knew he was glad to get out of his house.

~Staring blankly ahead / Just making my way / Making my way / Through the crowd~

She was grateful that the housing office was very accommodating. Now being in Sunnydale, Faith realized what she had left behind here. For the most part, bad memories.

~And I need you / And I miss you / And now I wonder....~

But she couldn't complain, not when she was so close to finding the one good thing that had come out of here. She didn't know how he'd react, how he would feel when she saw him. Faith was definitely sure, however, that the people here were probably not going to be happy to see old faces. Not yet at least.

But she was willing to risk all that.

~It's always times like these / When I think of you / And I wonder / If you ever / Think of me~

She paused in the middle of the quad area, scanning the bright green campus for his dormitory. Kids around her age were throwing Frisbees, enjoying the nice weather.

~'Cause everything's so wrong / And I don't belong / Living in your / Precious memories~

Glancing to her right, she saw a sign that indicated the name of the dorm rooms that were male only. It was really the only one on campus.

Quickening her pace, she moved towards it.

~And I don't want to let you know / I drown in your memory / I don't want to let this go

/ I don't....~

She went up the steps, pausing before she reached the entrance to the lobby. What if he didn't want to see her ever again?

What if her stupid-ass antics towards him truly ruined everything they had back in Los Angeles?

"Excuse me," came a voice as he ran his card through and opened up the door.

It began to close slowly.

Faith watched it, totally not realizing she might've needed a key card to even get to the right floor.

This was her chance, her moment to make things right that she had wronged.

The door was an inch from locking close before her hand grabbed the handle. She pulled it opened, knowing she would keep thinking about this until she could get a direct answer from him.

And if he wasn't in, she was going to sit there until she saw him.

~If I could fall / Into the sky / Do you think time would pass me by? / 'Cause you know I'd walk q thousand miles /If I could / Just see you / If I could / Just hold you .Tonight~

She got to his floor and picked up her pace, knowing his dorm room was just around the corner. She turned it and stopped, her heart frozen.

Xander stared at the girl that stood right before him when he had opened the door.

"Hi, Xander," the girl greeted him.

He couldn't believe it.

She was back?

"Anya?"

- END -

* "Here with Me" by Michelle Branch ** "A Thousand Miles" by Vanessa Carlton