Faith stood there a second too long. "Faith? Shouldn't we be moving into position?" Giles asked.
"Yeah." Still off-balance, Faith slowly turned away from her view of Buffy's back. She wanted to run after Buffy. Tell her to go back to the car and wait until this was all over. "Stay close and try not to make too much noise," Faith snapped instead. They didn't have the option of putting Buffy in a safe location to wait it out. Using that anger (and the accompanying fear) to regain her focus, Faith pushed past Willow and Giles.
She could feel their stares as they ducked behind a row of scraggly bushes in a neighboring yard. "Should I have a spell handy? I found this really great one." Willow whispered. "It's supposed to create a flash of light. If I…"
Cutting her off, Faith disagreed. "No." The last thing they needed was for the spell to backfire. She saw Willow's crestfallen expression, though, as she clambered over a rusty chain link fence. "Uh…" Damn. Faith tried to backpedal. "Remember, Red. We only got the one vamp, and light ain't gonna work with the Council guys. Let's check things out, and if we need the mojo, I'll turn you loose."
The expression faded. A little. "OK." Willow chewed her lip and dropped over the fence. She and Faith waited for Giles to make his own climb. "I don't know if I have anything that would work on humans, though. Unless…"
Faith expected to see blood soon from the way Willow gnawed on her lip.
"I've be researching the spell Amy used to turn herself into a rat." Willow paused and grabbed Giles' arm, steadying him as he lurched to the ground. "I think I found it. I could use that on the Council."
Unsure if Giles' alarmed look was from the unaccustomed exercise or Willow's musings, Faith considered that plan. "Keep it handy," she said. "If it looks like the Tweeds are winnin', give it a try."
Willow's lips immediately began moving silently.
Praying that enough practice time would decrease Willow's chance of a mistake, Faith pointed to the nearby safe house. "There's the target, kiddies. I go first to make sure B's at the front door and that we ain't got more in the basement than I saw the first time." She met Giles' and Willow's eyes. "You hear breaking glass, that's the signal."
Not waiting for a response – or an argument – Faith took off using full Slayer speed. She was at the rear of the safe house in seconds. She pressed against the grimy siding and listened intently.
Buffy was out front. Soft, unsteady footsteps scuffed against the concrete walkway Faith remembered led up to the house. "Hope you guys are back there," Buffy mumbled. "It feels like I'm walking into a haunted house. Don't they believe in porch lights over here?"
Faith bit back a chuckle. At least Buffy hadn't lost her sense of humor. She'd need it once the fighting started. When the footsteps moved closer, and the first porch step creaked, Faith dropped into the window well and peered through the window into the basement.
She couldn't see anything except the brick wall now covering the interior of the window.
The men inside must have had enough time to finish at least a few of the walls. There was no chance to panic, however. As Faith glared in impotent fury at the bricks, she heard a tentative knocking sound from the front of the house. Buffy was in position.
With no time to reconsider their options, Faith dropped onto her back. Drawing her knees to her chest, she lashed out at the window with her booted feet. The glass shattered easily. The bricks, though… Faith ignored the flaring pain in her calves and knees and tried again. Mortar and chips of brick littered the window well.
"Faith! Why are you…Shouldn't you be in the basement by now?" Willow's voice coincided with Faith's next attempt to kick down the wall.
She was making progress. One of Faith's feet slipped inside a small hole in the wall. "That was the plan, Red. But things ain't goin' like we thought." Faith gasped and pulled her aching legs back for one more try. "You and Tweed head to the front. B's probably inside and she's expecting help. I'm almost through the wall," she lied. "I'll meet ya' upstairs with Mrs. S."
"Be careful, Faith," Giles said softly. Then he and Willow disappeared.
It was too late for careful. They'd lost the element of surprise by now. No one, not even the Council stooges, could miss her kicking her way through the brick wall. The new surge of fury gave her next kick extra momentum. More brick debris exploded through the shattered window, and Faith nearly shouted in victory as a larger hole appeared in the wall.
In a heartbeat, she was up and through the gap.
The basement didn't look anything like she remembered from that afternoon. The single bulb over the staircase was absent. In its place, lights had been placed along the walls, dimly illuminating small pockets of the large area. Faith yanked a stake out of her back pocket and crept forward with her senses strained.
Nothing moved nearby; although, Faith heard footsteps overhead. Buffy and the gang, she hoped. A sudden spike in her senses brought all her attention back to the basement. There was a vampire up ahead. Gripping the stake tighter, Faith dropped into a crouch and dove forward.
She hit the ground in a tuck and rolled to her feet. "Hey, bet you were expecting something different." Faith smirked at the wide-eyed vampire in front of her. "Hobson, right? You're one of the dumb fuckers who brought that crazy vamp."
"How do you know that?" Hobson demanded. He scowled, baring his fangs, and moved closer. "Who are you?"
It was a question Faith had every intention of answering. "I'm Faith." Lunging forward at full speed, she slammed her stake into his chest. "The other Slayer," she told Hobson as his body disappeared in a shower of dust. One down; another three to go, if Faith's suspicions were correct." If Hobson had been Turned, she no longer expected to see human Councilmen hiding in a corner or a closet taking notes. Apparently it wasn't only her plans that had been busted.
Faith froze in sudden realization. Damn it! Buffy wasn't expecting more than Kralik. Faith frantically scanned the basement for the stairs. She had to warn Buffy. She had to keep her safe. She'd promised.
A scream echoed through the house, spurring Faith forward. Buffy was in trouble.
There was a doorway up ahead. Skidding to a halt, Faith wrenched the door open – and stared at the brick wall it revealed. "Fuck!" She slammed the door in frustration and took off again. The small basement seemed to grow with every step. Every twist and turn. Faith knew she was doubling back on herself, going in circles thanks to the maze of walls and fake doorways.
Finally, though, she thought she glimpsed a widening in the hallway ahead. Putting on a new burst of speed, Faith raced for it. This had to be the right way. It had to be.
Faith was so intent on finding a path to the first floor that she almost missed the tableau laid out in the dim recesses of the stairwell. Her foot hit the lowest step and she leaned forward, intending to leap the next few on her way to help Buffy.
A hand thrust between the steps, however, and wrapped around her ankle. Before Faith had time to register it, she toppled backward, slamming into the concrete floor. Through the ringing in her head, she heard a voice say mockingly, "Hmmm, it looks like I'm not the only one playing the game by different rules. You aren't the dinner I was promised."
Biting back a groan, Faith scrambled to her feet and peered blearily through the gloom. "The delivery guy musta got the order wrong. Bet you thought you were gettin' the California special instead of the Boston chowder." Finally locating her attacker, Faith turned to face him squarely. Kralik. It had to be. The very large vampire in front of her looked nothing like Travers or the third Councilman.
Travers. Her eyes flickered away from the vampire for a second, and Faith had to swallow hard against a surge of nausea. The head of the Council sprawled across the floor to Kralik's left, and blood pooled beneath him. It also coated the walls and the stairs. If she hadn't been in such a hurry before, Faith might have seen the carnage.
Her horrified examination was cut short. Kralik threw back his head and laughed. "Excellent. It's been too long since I feasted. You and…" He stopped laughing and drew in a deep breath. "…and the group upstairs might ease the hunger I feel. Mother can wait for dessert."
Was Kralik hallucinating some long lost relative? Then Faith heard a series of terrified moans and the scrape of chair legs against the concrete floor. Mrs. Summers?
"Don't worry, Mother," Kralik called out in a sing-song voice. "I haven't forgotten about you. I was merely greeting our new guest. You'll like her, I promise." He moved forward, and Faith backed up automatically. "Come. The table's set."
That's what Faith was afraid of. "Sorry. I ain't hungry." She swung the stake in her left hand at Kralik and grunted when he blocked her arm with a powerful sweep of his right. The impact tingled from her wrist to her shoulder. Refusing to back down, Faith swung again, adding a powerful thrust kick to take Kralik off-balance.
If the kick had landed, it might have worked. Kralik didn't wait for Faith's attack, though. He was already moving, and Faith's foot sailed harmlessly by. He took advantage of her outstretched position, slamming a heavy fist into her side.
The unmistakable crunch of breaking bones coincided with the white-hot agony ballooning in Faith's ribs. For the second time in minutes, Faith hit the floor. She lay there gasping as Kralik loomed over her.
"Dinner is served," Kralik announced. He reached for Faith, fangs gleaming in the dim light.
Not yet it wasn't. Faith bit her lip to hold back a cry of pain and rotated her hips. Her right foot caught Kralik just above the heel of his left foot. With a howl, he fell backward. Scrambling to her knees, Faith followed as best as she could. Each breath hurt. Standing was pure pain. She wavered on her feet for a second before taking a shaky step in Kralik's direction.
She'd taken too long. Kralik regained his feet and charged.
Or…he started to charge. Faith watched in confusion as he stopped abruptly and grabbed his head with both hands. Kralik's sudden, agonized cry filled the basement.
The wood of Faith's stake dug into her palm as she took a careful step toward him.
"Pills!" Hands still pressed to his head, Kralik looked frantically around the maze-like walls in the room. "I must have them!"
This was her chance. Faith waited until Kralik's gaze locked onto a pill bottle on a table near Travers' desecrated body. At his first staggering step, Faith seized the moment. Diving forward, she slammed her stake into Kralik's side.
It wasn't a killing hit.
Blood poured over Faith's hand, and she lost hold of the stake. She nearly lost more than that when Kralik lashed out at her. One flailing hand caught Faith in the temple. The already poorly lit basement darkened further, as she struggled to stay on her feet and conscious. Damn it, she was a Slayer. She could handle one migraine-weakened vampire.
Yanking another stake from her pocket, Faith ducked another wild swing and moved a couple of steps to the right.
Kralik's crazed eyes met hers and he roared.
"Shut the fuck up," Faith told him – and sprang forward. This time, her aim was true. The stake pierced Kralik's chest over his heart. "All the yellin' is giving me a headache, too."
She was talking to a pile of dust.
Smirking at the last remains of Buffy's big test, Faith slowly straightened and wiped her bloody hands on her jeans. Time to get to the next part of the evening. "Mrs. S?" she called out.
More scraping and a few grunts answered.
"Hang on. I'm comin'." It was harder than it sounded, though. Faith skirted the grisly scene in the stairwell and limped through more labyrinthine corridors. "Fucking Tweeds. Ain't never goin' to a house of mirrors again now," she complained.
Finally, though, Faith found Joyce. The older woman was still bound to a chair and her mouth was covered with a piece of duct tape. She mumbled energetically the second she saw Faith peering around the incomplete brick wall hiding her from the main hallway.
Faith wasted no time removing the tape, wincing in shared discomfort as it clung to Joyce's face and lips. "Sorry," she said.
"That's…that's OK, honey." Joyce tried to smile as Faith tossed the tape aside and started working on the rope on her wrists and ankles. "Where's Buffy? Is she hurt?"
Fingers faltering on the rope, Faith hesitated before answering. "B ain't hurt," she said at last. Faith prayed it was the truth. "She's upstairs with Red and Giles." Resuming her work on the knots, she managed to release Joyce's right arm. "I'll take ya' up as soon as I get done."
She could physically feel Joyce staring at her as she wrestled with the bindings. "What about you?"
"Huh?" Faith looked up but didn't stop untying Joyce.
"Are you hurt, Faith?" Joyce asked.
Only the ropes on Joyce's ankles remained. "I'm five by five, Mrs. S," Faith lied with a cocky smirk. "You didn't think that Kralik guy was gettin' the drop on me? Please." She could only hope Joyce had missed the way she'd limped into the room or the fact that Faith nearly whimpered at every breath.
A gentle hand brushed her hair seconds before Joyce shakily stood. "I didn't mean to imply anything, honey. You just…" The hand disappeared as Joyce steadied herself using the back of the chair. "You weren't moving too well when you got here."
So much for hiding her injuries. Faith scowled at her feet. "Come on," she said, changing the subject. "Let's make sure B and the Superfriend's got everything under control." Making sure not to outdistance Joyce, Faith led her back through the hallway to the stairs.
"Oh my God!" Faith had forgotten to warn Joyce about the bloody tableau. "Mr. Travers…"
Faith reached out and gripped Joyce's hand, pulling her up the stairs. "Yeah, I think Kralik was pissed about being locked up so long." They were almost to the top when the door to the first floor popped open.
"Mom!" Buffy's smile lit up the gloom. There was a new cut on her forehead, and Faith saw bruises darkening her cheek. Still…she nothing seemed seriously wrong with her.
Joyce moved away from Faith and hurried up the final few steps. Wrapping Buffy in a hug, she whispered, "I was so afraid for you. I overheard Mr. Travers talking to some other man about a test for you. He sounded very sure you wouldn't pass it…"
"Speaking of the test, B." Faith hovered behind the two women. "You find the other Council guy? Only two down here with Kralik."
"We found him. He was…a little paler than you mentioned." Buffy's head lifted from Joyce's shoulder, and she peered at Faith with a tired smile. "Travers might have been right about me failing, Mom – if we hadn't had a better secret weapon than he did. The Council forgot all about Faith, and she's been keeping me safe." Buffy moved away from her mother. "Why don't we talk about all the details at home, though? I'm beat, and I just want to get some sleep. I can't miss school and Dad will be here this afternoon, too."
If Faith hadn't been watching so closely, she would have missed the way Joyce stiffened. "Buffy, about your father…"
Maybe that last thing of cotton candy hadn't been a good idea. Faith rubbed her stomach and nibbled on a handful of popcorn to help with the nausea.
"Are you going to share this time, or do I have to get my own?" Buffy asked. Her hand snaked into the jumbo bucket on Faith's lap. "I don't think I have any money left. Mom forgets about the whole Slayer Hunger sometimes."
Pushing the popcorn closer to Buffy, Faith laughed. "Couldna been the twelve hot dog and all the other shit we've eaten, right?" She ignored the death glare she got from the mother next to her and concentrated on the skaters on the rink below. "This is wicked, B." Faith's voice dropped into a mumble as she continued. "Thanks for invitin' me."
Buffy's butter-covered fingers touched Faith's. "Who else would I ask?"
"Uh…" Was that a trick question? Faith stopped watching one of the performers spin in circles and glanced at Buffy. "Red comes to mind. Tweed. Your mom." Even Xander.
"Nope. None of them would have worked." With a wink, Buffy snuck a few more kernels of corn from the bucket. "Think about it, Faith. Willow would have spent the entire day telling me about the history of ice skating and the aerodynamics of the new blade on the skates."
Faith's lips twitched. She could almost hear Willow's voice in her head. "And Tweed?"
"Would have brought a demon text to read," Buffy said immediately. "And before you ask, Mom was the absolute worst option. She hates skating. You should have seen the panic in her eyes when I even mentioned that I needed a new date since Dad pulled a no-show."
The action on the ice lost some of its appeal. Faith had been Buffy's only option. It shouldn't have been a surprise – or hurt so much.
"Besides…" Buffy was still talking; although, her voice faded slightly under the sudden pounding in Faith's head. "None of the gang would have understood today. To them, skating's girly. You know, skimpy tights and skirts and all the waving hands."
Giving up on the rest of the food, Faith shoved the popcorn into Buffy's lap and wrapped her arms over her chest.
"I knew you'd get it, though." Buffy bumped Faith's shoulder. "These guys are athletes." She smiled slightly when Faith looked at her with a scowl. "It's like Slaying. You have to be part of the Chosen Two to understand."
Faith relaxed a little. "Don't think even bein' a superhero would let me do some of them moves, B."
Buffy's smile grew. "Not the point, Faith. So not the point." The popcorn resettled on Faith's legs. "I wanted you to come today. You." She tossed a piece of the popcorn at Faith. "This whole test thing…it made me realize something."
"Yeah? What's that?" Pretending to be irritated, Faith brushed at the tiny particles of popcorn clinging to her jacket. "You finally figure out I'm the hottest thing to hit town? That's old news. Just ask any of the guys at the Bronze."
Another kernel bounced off Faith's shoulder. "Faith! I'm being serious here." Buffy narrowed her eyes. "Until yesterday, you just… I don't know. You never seemed to really want to be part of the group. You were all 'I can do this alone. Get out of my way.' Then Giles turned into a Council stuffed shirt, and all of a sudden, you were more than just one of the Scoobies. You were General Faith, leading the troops into battle."
An unexpected and completely unwanted blush heated Faith's cheeks. "It wasn't like that, B."
"Yes, it was, Faith," Buffy disagreed. "I liked her – General Faith. She didn't take no for an answer and she really wasn't letting me get lost in Drama Queen Buffy." Shifting uneasily in her seat, Buffy peered up at Faith through her lashes. "I want to see if there are other Faiths I haven't met yet."
The flimsy cardboard bucket crumpled along one edge as Faith gripped it tightly. "You askin' me to join the Slayerettes, B?"
"For starters." Buffy tilted her head and smirked. "Basic membership includes doughnut runs, movie nights, and…" Faith held her breath as Buffy leaned in closer. "…hair braiding and toenail painting parties."
"Sounds alright, I guess," Faith lied easily. If it meant more time with Buffy, she'd put up with braids. "But you know me, B. I ain't gonna want to stay at basic. There an upgrade?" She cursed the question the second the words left her lips. Buffy's eyes widened and she pulled away. Scrambling to cover her mistake, Faith choked out, "Moonlight walks in the cemetery, sparring, teasing the boys at the Bronze…"
Faith didn't think she'd been convincing. Buffy was stiff and still in the seat next to her. Finally, though, Buffy took a deep breath. "I don't know, Faith." The answer was soft and hesitant. "No one's ever applied for Premier Membership before. Maybe…maybe we can talk about the benefits some time."