Buffy held Faith tightly as she shook with sobs.
She felt Faith's sense of abandonment and the cold, crawling fear of being alone.
"You aren't alone, Faith. I promise. We're all here for you. I'm here for you." Buffy responded instinctively to those fears.
Unfortunately, the link worked in two directions. As Buffy watched the Mayor glow and writhe in agony, Faith recoiled from her. The grief she felt deepened and dragged at Buffy.
Hands gently combing through sweat-soaked, tangled curls, Buffy hummed softly in her mind. Praying the sound would block some of her own shock and horror, she divided her attention between soothing Faith and watching the macabre scene playing out over Faith's shoulder.
As if compelled, Buffy stared at the rapidly burning Mayor. It was like something out of a grisly cartoon. His torso resembled smoldering Swiss cheese. Large, gaping holes edged in blue embers grew and expanded exponentially. Bones, skin, clothing…nothing stopped the path of destruction.
Buffy gasped as Wilkins head slowly toppled to the ground as the mystical fire ate away his neck. A soft thump marked its impact with the floor. Wide brown eyes gazed unseeing out of the Mayor's slack features.
The keening cut off without warning, the absence of the noise an almost physical relief.
Seconds later, even that gruesome sight was gone as flames engulfed the detached head.
Fighting a need to be sick, Buffy clutched Faith tighter. "It's over, Faith. He's gone," she whispered in the other girl's ear. Rocking them gently, Buffy kept repeating that. "It's over. He's gone."
The words were a mistake. Buffy realized that almost immediately. Faith's emotions pounded at her through the link. She ached as a tiny, scared voice repeated one phrase, I'm alone.
Buffy reached for Faith through the link. You are- The thought cut off abruptly. The vampires around them were shifting. Buffy cursed. She'd forgotten Wilkins wasn't their only concern. The fight wasn't over. Not entirely.
As soon as the last trace of the Mayor vanished, a series of low growls filled the library. The vampires were still in residence, and the spell that had destroyed the Mayor had no effect on them.
Buffy tightened her grip on her dagger and shifted Faith so the other girl leaned on her left shoulder.
When Buffy stiffened beneath her, Faith wiped her face on Buffy's shoulder and took a deep breath. She could see the vampire ring encroaching on their position. Her sword was still in her hand. Faith pushed away, resuming her place in the defensive square. She had a job to do. The Mayor…
Her hand tightened around the hilt.
The Mayor didn't matter. He'd been evil. A demon.
Her concentration wavered at the thought. She scanned the room, unconsciously looking for remains or signs of… Faith clenched her teeth on a wave of stabbing pain. There was nothing. Not even a pile of ash marked the Mayor's destruction.
Why? she screamed silently. Why did he have to die? She could have stopped this sooner, before the changes started. If she'd just paid attention to the way he'd acted…
Blinking back a new wave of tears, Faith let the memories of the Mayor roll. His quirky smile and the gleam in his eyes as he'd handed her the key to the apartment.
One of the vampires in the line edged forward.
Faith turned slightly in his direction, her sword rising in challenge.
Her movements were automatic, however. She was with the Mayor, laughing at one of his lame jokes. She felt the arm he wrapped around her shoulders and the tight hug he'd given her as they walked through the hallway to his office.
More vampires started toward their position.
Lunging at them, Faith swung her sword with both hands. "He's dead," she screamed as the first one fell under her blade. She continued forward, each swipe of her sword cutting down multiple opponents.
For once, there was no joy in the fight. She was too busy fighting inner demons to feel the battle lust raging.
All she saw was a pair of laughing brown eyes.
As a result, Faith never registered the very real danger around her. In minutes, she was covered with a myriad of new cuts and bruises. None of them broke her inward focus. Twice, she narrowly missed getting hit by one of Wesley's arrows as she stepped right into the path of the missile.
Buffy certainly noticed those two near misses. Giving up her spot in the defenses to Angel and Giles, she worked her way toward Faith. "Faith!" Her voice penetrated the din; in fact, she caught the attention of several vampires.
Not Faith, though. Faith never heard her. Or…she never acknowledged the shout.
Worried at Faith's robotic animation, Buffy used her dagger and a 'borrowed' length of heavy chain to hack through the vampires and take up a position next to Faith.
They fought side by side, out of rhythm, for several minutes.
Buffy struggled to keep herself – and Faith – alive. Each time she beat back a new attack, she found herself walking into the vampires rather than away. Faith waded in, blind to the sheer numbers of demons around them. Buffy followed where Faith led.
Finally, a new barrage of arrows poured in from the roof.
Buffy risked a glance up. Xander, Anya, and Wesley stood like a tiny band of Merry Men. In minutes, their actions changed the course of the battle. The horde of vampires seemed to melt away.
Survivors bolted. Some made it out the long-broken windows. Others turned to dust courtesy of the archers' continued sharp shooting.
Panting breaths and soft groans were the only sounds in the suddenly empty library.
Buffy let the chain wrapped around her left hand slither to the floor with a dull clank. She jammed the dagger into her belt and grabbed Faith.
"Oh, baby." Faith's tears had been easier, if new. Right now…Buffy swallowed hard at the dull look in her girlfriend's eyes. She didn't bother calling out or trying to soothe. Instead, she closed her eyes, centering the way she had in Restfield when she'd tried to locate Faith in the sewers. Like that night, Faith was lost. Physically present, perhaps. Lost somewhere in her past, definitely.
There was a wall between them. Buffy spared a brief moment to consider just how often in their history this wall – or one like it – has separated them. Then the thought drifted away. She had to find Faith before it was too late. Placing ephemeral hands on the surface of the barrier, Buffy pushed. The wall didn't move or even shift.
Come on, Faith. Let me in, she pleaded silently. I'm here for you; just let me in. I love you, Faith. Please let me help.
It worked…a little. The wall didn't shift or disappear. However, a trickle of warmth caressed her, and a small crack appeared in the once seamless barricade.
Straining with effort, Buffy sent more energy through the link, hammering at the wall with everything she had. It wasn't much. Not after the fight.
The power rebounded from the wall with no result. Buffy stared at the tiny crack in confusion. The blasts of energy were useless. The small fissure mocked her efforts.
Dropping her hands, Buffy glared at the wall. Faith? she asked softly. Are you there?
The breeze picked up, cooling the sweat left from the fight.
Maybe brute force wasn't the answer for once. Putting her hands against the wall again, Buffy opened the link as wide as she could. This time, she didn't try to raze the wall. She flooded it with all the love and support inside.
Dust and debris drifted onto her feet as the crack widened.
When the vampires disappeared, Faith stopped moving. The sword dropped from her hand, unseen and unimportant.
The Mayor was gone.
Cold tendrils worked their way through Faith's muscles. She ached. And she was afraid. It was like Boston all over again. Her mother…gone. Who knew where? She'd been alone. Her Watcher…dead. Faith relived that moment she'd seen the bright blood dripping from the gaping wound in her neck. Now the Mayor. He wasn't just missing or dead. He had been destroyed, burned away so completely that no trace was left. There was nothing to bury. Nothing to mourn.
The world spun. Disjointed images of carpet, tables, and books whirled in front of her until she looked at Buffy. Faith looked into Buffy's face. Lines bracketed the other girl's mouth, and she seemed to be saying something. Faith couldn't hear the words, though. They didn't matter. Nothing mattered.
Faith went back to the memories.
"Are you serious about this place?" She spun, taking in the huge open space lit by the sunlight pouring in the large window.
"Of course I am." Faith's numbness wavered as she replayed the warmth in the Mayor's response. She took a shuddering breath, letting the scene continue. "No Slayer of mineis gonna live in a fleabag motel."
He'd smiled then…and thrown an arm around her shoulders.
Something pressed at her mind. Faith frowned, shaking her head. Go away, she told the light touch. She just wanted to remember…
A voice called her name, urging her to…to what? Faith strained to hear the soft whisper. Just at the edge of hearing, Buffy's voice said, I love you.
Something pounded in her chest. Sluggishly at first, then with increasing ease, Faith's heartbeat quickened. Buffy loved her. She'd said it. Faith had heard her.
The image of the Mayor and the apartment wavered. Faith hesitated. If she left now, she'd lose him. She'd lose her father.
Faith? Are you there? Buffy wasn't going away.
Ignoring the question, Faith tried to go back to the apartment. The image was gone. This time, the Mayor in front of her wasn't smiling. Well, he was. It just wasn't a fatherly smile. His hand came up, touching her cheek. His eyes…
Faith recoiled. His eyes weren't human.
Panicking, Faith reached for Buffy. B, help me. I can't…He's not… Even in her mind, she couldn't say the words. It would make them too real.
She didn't need to. Buffy was there. Faith could feel her. Warmth surrounded her, chasing away the suffocating fear.
Opening her mind to the link, Faith looked for Buffy. It was dark, and she was alone. Panic tried to regain control, blowing some of the ice back into her mind. She spun around wildly. Buffy had to be here. She hadn't imagined that voice. B? Where are you?
There was no answer; although, a sliver of golden light hovered a short distance away. Faith raced toward that light…
The library reappeared. Buffy stood in front of her, hazel eyes open and shining – just like that internal light. "I love you, Buffy." She spoke the words out loud, but they rang inside as well. Riding the emotion, Faith gripped Buffy's arms and pulled her in close. Their lips met almost bruisingly.
Grief, anger, fear, exhaustion…They all slipped away. It was just the two of them and the heat and joy filling the link.
That's when Xander's voice drifted down through the skylight. "Why don't I ever have a camera when I need one?"
Faith tumbled out of Giles' tiny car, gripping Buffy's hand. She grinned at the way Buffy tried to drag her toward the house – and the bed and shower it offered. "Hold your horses, B. We ain't got all the details worked out yet."
Giles coughed, unconvincingly covering a laugh.
"No more waiting. I've got enough. We go in. We get clean and…sleep." Faith watched Giles smirk at Buffy's comment. "Giles comes back. We kidnap Snyder. We graduate." Buffy yanked at her hand again. "See? That's the plan."
It did sound pretty thorough. Faith gave up resisting. She turned toward the house, running to keep up with Buffy.
"Noon, girls. I'll be back at noon!" Giles called out.
Faith waved a hand in acknowledgement just before Buffy slammed the front door behind them.
It was like a signal.
Pulling Buffy against her, Faith kissed her roughly, feeling the sharp edge of Buffy's teeth slice against her lips. She ignored the faint taste of blood and the stab of pain. Her fingers dug into the tight muscles of Buffy's shoulders and arms as she steered them away from the door.
The beds were upstairs.
They didn't make it. Stumbling on the first step, they crashed onto the third and fourth. Buffy grunted underneath her then small hands tugged Faith's shirt from her pants.
Faith shivered. Buffy's touch tickled and tormented. Heat followed the trail of her fingers and palms. B…on the stairs?
You want to wait? Buffy sounded impatient and disbelieving. She bunched Faith's shirt in her hands, ripping the thin material open. The buttons made soft sounds as they scattered on the carpeted stairs.
No. Waiting was bad. Faith slid her hand under Buffy's back and rolled them over. That was better. At least Buffy wouldn't have rug burns for Graduation.
Smooth move. The sound of Buffy's voice while Buffy's mouth was sucking at her neck was a little disconcerting. Only for a minute, though. Remind me to thank you for saving my delicate skin later.
Faith didn't answer – not even mentally. Instead, she worked hard to catch up. Buffy had destroyed her shirt and was feverishly unbuttoning and unzipping her pants. Faith grabbed the hem of Buffy's T-shirt and pulled it up. Oops. Buffy's arms were in the way. Little help here, B, or we'll still be here when Tweed shows up.
She snickered at the growl Buffy sent through the link. Thought you were the experienced one – and a Slayer. Should just tear the damned thing, Buffy griped as she sat back and assisted in her disrobing. The shirt came off, quickly followed by her bra.
More scrambling ensued until they were both naked and prone on the stairs.
Where were we? Faith asked, hands already cupping Buffy's breasts.
She needn't have asked.
Teeth raked over her throat, goose bumps racing in their wake. I think we're close enough, don't you? Buffy responded. She settled between Faith's thighs and slipped a hand through Faith's pubic hair.
Faith arched. "Hurry." It was the first word either of them had spoken aloud since arriving at the house. The fight…Buffy's touch and scent…Heart pounding, Faith tried to will Buffy's fingers inside. It worked. One finger became two then three stretched her hot, slick core.
The little Buffy voice in her head splintered. All Faith could hear now was her own voice, pleading for more… right there...just a little harder. Buffy gave her exactly what she asked for, each and every time. Faith hung on the edge. She teetered there, body tensed and motionless…until a callused thumb pressed against her clit.
Faith leaned an elbow on the bench behind her and searched for Buffy amid the rows of maroon-draped students. It should be easy. All she had to do was find the shortest person there.
"That's her." A finger extended in front of her. "Fifth row from the back," Joyce said. "Doesn't she look beautiful?"
"Yeah," Faith agreed. It didn't matter all she could see was the thing on Buffy's head and the back of her neck. Buffy was always beautiful. "Red ain't looking so bad, either." Nodding her head, Faith gestured toward a cluster of students. Willow sat in the middle, propped up in an electric wheelchair.
"There was no way she was missing today." Joyce shifted a little. "I just wish her parents were here," she mumbled.
She fell silent, and they sat quietly for a few minutes.
"I assume you'll be staying now?" Joyce asked softly. She put her hand on Faith's thigh. "That guest room is still available."
Closing her eyes, Faith breathed past the lump in her throat. "Mrs. S…"
"It's a special deal," Joyce interrupted. "If you sign the lease today, you get free meals, two very witty and beautiful housemates, and a large extended family."
Family…That was it. The one thing holding her back. "Nothing good ever happens to my family," Faith said roughly. "They leave or they die."
Joyce's hand left her leg, and she wrapped an arm around Faith's shoulders. "I hate to break it to you, but that happens in most families, honey. It's just a sad fact of life."
"It sucks." The words popped out before Faith could censor them.
Laughter vibrated through her side. "It does. It doesn't mean you need to give up, though. We want you to stay, you know." Joyce rocked them for a second. "Buffy would steal the Jeep and hit every parked car on the road until she tracked you down."
"I'd be right there in the passenger seat, gripping the door handle and looking for you, too." The bright summer afternoon blurred in front of Faith's eyes at that. "I bet Xander, Willow, and Rupert would be trailing along in his old rust bucket. We'd all be out there looking for you, Faith."
"Really?" Faith silently cursed the way that sounded. Too young. Too afraid. Too real.
The arm around her tightened. "Really, honey. You're family. You belong with us."
Buffy's row stood up, and Faith leaned forward. The conversation could wait. "Damn. She does look good. All that whining about the robes and the color."
"That's my girl." Joyce sniffled and moved away to pull a tissue out of her purse. "Even as a little girl she had definite ideas on what she liked."
Faith laughed. "Pastels and sandals?"
"From the very beginning. She was the cutest Kindergartner in the whole school," Joyce answered.
Turning her head, Faith watched Joyce dab at a few tears slowly leaking from her eyes.
She heard Principal Snyder's voice in the background. "Buffy Anne Summers."
"I'll stay," Faith said, as she watched Buffy wave her diploma at them from below. "As long as I still qualify for the package deal, I'll stay."
A/N: The muse and I owe all the readers and reviewers a huge thank you. Without the constant flow of feedback, suggestions, and encouragement, we would never have made it this far.