Willow glanced around the empty streets of downtown Sunnydale. The marquee of the movie flickered on and off. She gripped her Slayer's hand tightly. "Can you sense them?"
"Yeah. Give me a second to find them." Buffy closed her eyes, reaching along her long-unused bond with Faith. "They're close. I think," she frowned, "we need to hurry."
"No, wait!" The redhead grabbed her girlfriend. "You don't have any weapons. Tell me where they are. I can use my magic to help out until you can join us." At the blonde's stubborn look, Willow pulled out her "Resolve Face." "Don't argue, Slayer, just do it. The longer you take, the more danger they may be in."
Hazel eyes snapping with anger, Buffy nodded curtly. "Mom, you're with me. Don't be a hero, Wills. Just help out. If you die, I'll kill you."
It was hard to let that comment pass, but the witch contented herself with rolling her eyes. "Right. Got it. No heroics. Where are they?"
"Couple of blocks behind the movie theatre. There's a dead-end alley. If I was gonna be fighting a horde of demons on my own, I'd head there."
"OK." Kissing the Slayer quickly, Willow sprinted off.
Watching her girlfriend run in search of Faith and Tara, Buffy ground her teeth. This was so not the way it was supposed to work.
"Buffy, honey, don't you think we should head for the house and pick up some weapons?" Joyce's voice interrupted her internal bitching.
"Too far. We'll hit the sporting goods store by the Pump." Dragging her attention back to the task at hand, she grabbed the older woman by the arm and took off. By the time they reached the storefront, Joyce was gasping for air. "Stay here, Mom. I'll get what we need." Stepping up to the door, Buffy tore the metal and glass frame off the hinges with one powerful kick. An eerie sense of déjà vu wound through her. It was so strong, the Slayer looked to her right, expecting to see a leather-clad Faith egging her on. No one was there. Trotting straight for the hunting supplies, Buffy grabbed two crossbows, several dozen wooden bolts, and as many knives as she could carry. Staggering back out, she thrust one of the crossbows at her mother. "Can you use one of these?"
Joyce shrugged. "I don't think I'm an expert, but I understand the concept."
"Good. I'm going on ahead. Stay back from the fighting."
"Buffy-" The older Summers stopped. Her daughter was already down the block, moving with full Slayer speed. Joyce shouldered her weapon and jogged after her.
Willow rounded the corner into the alley and slid to a panting halt. Demons and vampires clogged the narrow space, shouting encouragement to those at the front of the line. The young witch was too short to see the action, but she reached out, trying to locate Tara. The older girl's mind was hard to reach. A wall surrounded her magical reserves. Luckily, their joint spells had built a strong link between the two witches. She brushed Tara's mind, needing information. Although the response was faint and sluggish, Willow got what she needed. Faith was about to go down.
There was no thought of finesse. The redhead pulled every bit of energy she could find from the natural energies around her. Frowning, she realized it wouldn't be enough. She brushed Tara's mind again, asking for help. The barrier kept the older witch from using her magic, but Willow thought she might be able to go around the wall. The magic locking away the blonde's power had been created to withstand internal tampering. Willow simply reached over the wall and pulled from the large pool of energy. When her body felt as if it would come apart from the buildup, she released it at the gathered demons in bursts of blue flames. Dozens of them disappeared.
The redhead wasn't used to expending this amount of power. She staggered, barely managing to fling the next wave of destruction. Although she had eliminated almost half of the demon army, the witch could see Faith was down. Tara still couldn't reach her magic. Willow swallowed hard, watching the demons turn toward her. Buffy was going to kill her.
Luckily for the redhead, her girlfriend was too busy trying save her life to be concerned with her failure to avoid the forbidden heroics. Buffy slammed a bolt home as she ran. She had knives stuffed in her waistband, but figured long distance killing was a better bet. The Slayer aimed and fired at the first demon with the nerve to move on Willow. It dropped to the ground, screaming. Two more bolts dusted the vamps staring at their downed comrade. "Will, move out of the way!"
Responding to the command, the witch stumbled back toward the alley's entrance. Buffy sprinted by her, taking on the next wave of demons without slowing. She used the crossbow like a bat, swinging and connecting with a demon's head. It went down, only to be replaced by another. Knives in both hands, the Slayer ducked blows and dodged kicks, stabbing and beheading in a flurry of shining steel. On the outer edges of awareness, she saw vamps turning to dust as crossbow bolts landed in their chests. Joyce had joined the fray. Fatigue dragged at her, but she fought on until the alley was littered with bodies and piles of vamp remains.
There were only a handful of vamps left. Buffy forced herself to stand erect, denying aches from blows she hadn't been able to avoid. Smiling viciously, she taunted, "What, you thought there was only one Slayer? Shame on you for not doing your homework." Twirling a knife in her hand as if it were Mr. Pointy, the Slayer continued, "You going to stand there all night? Let's finish this."
The demons didn't take the bait. Instead, they seemed to waver and then vanished. The alley faded out as well. A desert landscape stretched around the five Scoobies. Faith was still unconscious, and the three newcomers gathered around her downed form. "Tara? Can you tell what's wrong?" Joyce asked.
Frowning, the blonde witch nodded. "Yeah. Concussion, probably. The magical barrier is gone. I'm going to try healing her as best I can."
"I'm afraid you will not be allowed to do that," a new voice commented. A bearded man slid down one of the dunes, watching them intently. "Her fate has not yet been decided. The final trial was never completed."
"Are you out of your fucking mind?" Buffy shouted.
"No, Slayer, I am not." The man regarded her sternly. "Because of your interference in the quest, Faith's choices were not made without influence. The First Slayer and the Powers That Be are not convinced she has changed."
Tara looked up, tears streaking her face. Her healing had been deflected. "How can you do this? Of course she's changed. She came back and helped us with Adam, and she passed the other tests. She's ready to be part of the team; she understands she has a place with us."
"Does she?" came the dispassionate voice. "Only your warding stopped her from fleeing the very team you claim she has rejoined."
"She's scared," the witch retorted. "She's never had anyone to love or to love her. You have to let her learn what it means before you judge." Not caring that her actions were probably fruitless, Tara opened herself fully, readying every last bit of power at her disposal. She would not let them take Faith without a fight.
Willow felt what her mentor had done, and nodded. The older girl was right. They'd all been guilty of rushing to judgment where Faith was concerned. The change in the Dark Slayer was amazing, and the redhead knew she deserved this second chance. Moving until she stood next to Tara, she placed a calming hand on the witch's shoulder. Pulling in the last dregs of power, she sent it all through their link. "Hope you are ready for a fight, then."
A bushy eyebrow climbed toward the man's hairline. "Your lives mean little in this battle."
"Wrong thing to say, pal." Buffy glared at the interloper. "Now, I'm betting you think Tara and Willow don't matter because they aren't Slayers. I am. How happy are the PTB's gonna be when you have to kill me too?" Joining the other three, she smiled at her girlfriend. "Take whatever energy you need, baby. No way do they get my sister Slayer without a whole lot of pain."
Brown eyes glared at the blonde girl. "You will not be allowed to interfere in this. Faith must make her own choices, complete the quest on her own. If she fails, she will die. A Slayer cannot be permitted to unbalance the scales of Good and Evil."
"Listen to yourself," Joyce said. She, too, took up a position near the downed Slayer. "She's already passed her test. A year ago, she lost her way, yes. She chose to join the other side of the fight. Where were you and your tests then? You let her lose everything, nearly her life. Why didn't you end it there?"
The question threw the man. "It was not the time," he finally offered.
"Why not? She was already vulnerable." Joyce wasn't backing down.
"We are not going to discuss this further." Eyes flashing, he advanced a few steps. "Move away from her, all of you. We do not wish to harm you. Your service to our cause has been above reproach."
"The hell it has," Buffy snapped. "I quit rather than fight the Master. I let Jenny and Kendra die because I couldn't kill Angelus. Faith turned away because I didn't accept my role in Finch's death." She glanced down at the other Slayer, lost in painful memories. "I tried to kill my own sister Slayer."
"Those were deemed acceptable mistakes."
Only Joyce's grip on her arm kept the blonde Slayer from charging the irritating man. "Don't bother, honey. He's already made his decision."
"That is true. We have. Step aside."
The standoff continued until Tara spoke up. "You won't hurt us, even to get to Faith."
"We can, and we will," came the cold reply.
"No, you won't." Tara smiled. "You can't. The four of us standing here are a huge part of the forces on the Good side of the scale. If you kill us, you will be guilty of unbalancing the fight."
Brown eyes glared at her impotently.
"Will, we are going to dissolve the dream spell," the blonde witch commented quietly.
"We are?" the redhead asked. Then, trying again, she said more firmly, "Yeah, we are. Um, how?"
"I'll unravel the original incantation. You'll need to feed me power in a steady stream." Blue eyes looked at the blonde Slayer. "Will you lend us a little strength as well?"
"Anything you need," Buffy promised.
Tara looked at the brown-haired man one last time. "Understand that we will protect her if you try this again. She is one of us. And we protect our own." She turned back to the Scoobies. "We all need to be touching for this to work." After a little rearranging, all of the women were in contact. "OK, Will, start the feed."
The redhead began draining her reserves, sending the energy through a conduit she'd erected between them. Flushed with the borrowed magic, Tara closed her eyes, seeing the layers of the dream spell with her inner site. It was a complex spell, woven with great power. But, like all magic, it had weaknesses. After a minute of searching, she found a loose thread and grasped it with invisible hands. Drawing the thread to her she watched the fabric of the magic unravel…
Tara opened her eyes with a pained gasp. Her head throbbed in reaction to overextending her magic. Faith lay next to her, face lined in pain, too. "Sweetie? Come on, wake up." She rocked the brunette as gently as possible.
"Will she be alright, do you think?" Giles inquired.
The blonde witch hadn't even noticed his presence. She blushed. Giles wasn't alone. All of the Scoobies ringed the bed. "I th-think so," she stuttered.
"You think what, T?" a rough voice interrupted. Faith blinked, trying to focus on her witch. "Damn, Blondie. You get all butch and I don't remember it?" She rubbed her forehead.
"Faith!" Tara hissed. "We have company."
"Tell B we ain't interested in holding a 'how to' clinic right now," Faith mumbled. The Scoobies' laughter alerted her to the crowd. "Ah, hell. What happened to the warding? Can anybody just walk in here?"
"Sorry, dear," Joyce said, smiling at the grumpy teen. "We'll leave you two alone in just a minute, I promise. We have a few questions, first, though."
Though unwilling to talk about it, Faith did remember the vision quest. She owed the gang answers to whatever questions they wanted to ask. Moving so she could look at each of the people in the room, she nodded. "Ask away."
Joyce smiled. Faith looked ready for a firing squad. "Me, first. I chose my scene deliberately. You turned me down the first time. Will you say no again?"
Raising hesitant brown eyes, Faith replied, "Things are different now, Mrs. S. I got the police hunting me. You want to harbor a fugitive?"
"No, my dear, she doesn't," Giles interrupted. "Willow and I will start looking at the evidence the police have. I believe they are working with circumstantial proof at best."
"Red?" The brunette Slayer wanted confirmation. She still felt uncomfortable with the redhead.
Green eyes gazed at the other girl for a long minute. "I've already got a program in mind for hacking into the police mainframe. If you're willing to stay with Mrs. Summers and let Giles act as your Watcher, you've got my help."
A tear traced its way down the pale cheek. "Looks like you got a new houseguest, Mrs. S."
"If that's the role you want, Faith, but Rupert and I seem to have adopted the rest of this motley crew. Would you mind very much if we considered you another daughter?"
Faith couldn't get words passed the lump in her throat, but she shook her head energetically.
"Well, then, it's settled." Buffy grinned evilly. "I always wanted a little sister, Faith. Now Mom can harass someone else. I can't wait to see the argument over enrolling you at the new Sunnydale High."