Summary: Faith returns to Sunnydale after Buffy's death, and considers her future. Follow-up to "In Loco Parentis" and "Reliable Backup."

Disclaimer: I don't own any of the characters portrayed here, they remain the property of their respective owners/creators.

Rating: PG-13, for themes.

Time Frame: Approximately one week after the final battle with Glory in "The Gift," in alternate time line established in my previous stories "In Loco Parentis" and "Reliable Backup." (spoilers for season five Buffy through "The Gift.")

Archiving: Be my guest, but e-mail me (eilandesq@aol.com) to let me know. . .I like to know where stuff I write ends up and I might want to see what else you've got.




FOR AN ABSENT FRIEND


Giles restlessly paced up and down the upper walkway of the Magic Box, looking for books on a topic so arcane that even Anya had raised an eyebrow when the Watcher had mentioned what he was looking for. The report from the Council of Watchers that the demon Banax had been spotted on the West Coast had been among the paperwork that had piled up during the crisis with Glory, and a demon that distracted its prey by use of sonic vibrations was not exactly something that Giles had a great deal of experience with. Still, the information was there somewhere, and it was essential that he find it. Without Buffy, what would have been a rather routine task with some unique qualities had become a genuine danger that required proper preparation. . .and it was an excuse to keep busy. Frowning, Giles shook his head and focused on his task.

The tingle coming from his left hand was subtle enough that he missed it at first, but it persisted, and Giles glanced at it, only to pale as he saw the green stone on the ring turn slowly red. He forced himself to remain calm, and waited as the oath ring performed the second part of its function by informing him of the event that had caused it to change color. After a moment, he sighed in relief, then frowned again in concern. It had been just after the funeral when he had finally remembered to check the pager that he had devoted to his occasional assistance to Faith, and he had found a five-day-old message to call a number. He had tried the number repeatedly, with no success, and he had been waiting for Faith to contact him again; apparently, she had lost patience.

Giles had given her the number at the Magic Box to call in an emergency, but she had not left any messages there. He considered simply waiting for her to come to him, but an inner instinct told him that her appearance was not just due to being out of communication. He stepped down from the walkway, informed Anya that he would be going out, and went to his car, driving to a place that would forever be of tremendous significance to him.

He parked near the graveyard, and went inside, following the path and glancing around occasionally out of habit. It was early afternoon, and there were few people present among the headstones and the well-maintained vegetation. Giles looked ahead and saw the simple tombstone sitting in the shade of the willow trees, and the slim figure placing a bouquet of flowers at its base. Giles watched as Faith seemed to be about to say something, then stopped and straightened up before turning and seeing the quiet figure of the Watcher. Giles, with only a modest amount of effort, was able to manage a reassuring smile as he called out, "Hello, Faith."

The Slayer looked uncomfortable, but managed a wan smile of her own as she replied, "Hey, Giles." Giles stepped forward and stood beside Faith as she looked at Buffy's epitaph. She closed her eyes briefly, then whispered, "Good choice for the inscription, Giles."

Giles nodded sadly, then glanced at the bouquet that Faith had brought: zinnias. He turned back to Faith and commented, "I didn't know you knew about traditional flower meanings, Faith."

Faith smiled again, and replied, "It's amazing, the little pieces of useless knowledge that stick in your head." She shook her head, then looked up at Giles and asked, "So, is this where we discuss a duel to the death?" She indicated the ring on her hand, whose crimson hue matched that of the one on Giles' hand, then smiled with a look of dark humor in her eyes as she waited for his response.

Giles laughed genuinely for the first time in weeks, then shook his head and responded, "Considering where I found you, I think we can skip that particular tradition, Faith." Faith nodded, and Giles continued, "I found your message after the funeral, and tried to reach you. . .I'm sorry I was unable to contact you."

Faith shrugged, then replied, "I figured you were busy with something. . .you haven't exactly been keeping me posted to day to day happenings here, but I knew you were busy from the way you sounded on the line when I'd check in. I was going to try again this morning. . .but I had a dream last night."

Giles' eyes widened in comprehension, and Faith nodded and elaborated, "Yeah. . .I still get the dreams now and again, and this one was an E ticket. I didn't understand most of it, but when I woke up I knew two things: that the world had almost ended, and I had the image of this place burned into my brain. . .I could have found it blindfolded. I got into my car this morning and didn't stop driving until I hit the parking lot out front. . .and here I am." She glanced back at the tombstone, then back at Giles as she whispered, "For all of the good it does."

Obeying an impulse, Giles stepped closer to Faith and put his hands on her shoulders. Faith recoiled slightly, but was silent, and Giles locked eyes with the Slayer as he replied gently, "Faith. . .there was nothing you could have done. We were dealing with an opponent of extraordinary power, and circumstances that were appallingly stacked against us. Your assistance would have been welcome, but I believe it would not have changed the outcome." He sighed, then added, "In any event, by the time we understood our foe sufficiently to take the fight to her effectively, events were moving at a breakneck pace. There would have been no time to contact you-or Angel, for that matter-before the moment came." Giles blinked, then released Faith and stepped back before concluding, "Faith, whatever unresolved matters there were between you and Buffy. . .she wouldn't have blamed you for this."

Faith looked down and sighed, then looked back up, and Giles felt a jolt at the intensity of the stare that the Slayer directed at him: it was crackling with frustration and simple curiosity. Faith took a deep breath, then asked pointedly, "What happened, Giles?"

Giles was silent for a moment, then inclined his head at a nearby stone bench. They walked over and sat down, and Giles quietly began recounting the events of the last nine months. At times, he contemplated omitting certain details, but an instinct told him that complete forthrightness would be the most productive approach, and he told the quietly listening Slayer about Dawn's true nature, the goddess who came to town seeking her destruction, and the last few days of Buffy's life. By the time he had finished, the shadows had grown long, and the few visitors to the graveyard had departed. Faith remained silent, and Giles blinked and asked, "Are you all right, Faith?"

Faith shrugged, and replied, "Yeah. . .or as much as I was when I got here, anyway." She stood and paced restlessly for a moment before turning back to Giles and adding, "It's a lot to take in, you know? I can't imagine my time in Sunnydale without Dawn being there. . .and none of it was real." She looked away for a moment, then turned back to Giles again and smiled wanly before asking, "I don't suppose there's any chance all of that stuff I did here two years ago was the product of some dead crazy monk's imagination, is there?"

Giles saw the profound sadness in the dark eyes, and was simultaneously concerned for Faith and glad about the depth of genuine regret she clearly felt for her past actions. He sighed, then responded, "There's no way to know for certain. . .but my belief is that only the memories involving Dawn's fictional past in Sunnydale were affected: the monks would have had no reason to tamper on a broader level, even if they had the ability to do so." Faith's expression darkened slightly, and Giles concluded, "I'm sorry, Faith."

Faith shrugged again, then replied, "That would have been too damned easy anyway." The Slayer shook her head in disgust, then asked quietly, "Giles. . .nasty stuff isn't going to stop coming here just because B's gone, is it?"

Giles sensed the question was rhetorical, but answered it anyway: "As long as the Hellmouth is here and active, Sunnydale will remain a grave threat to the world, Faith. Were you about to suggest a course of action?"

Faith looked at him, then nodded slowly and replied, "Yeah. . .I have to come back here." She sighed, then continued, "That's going to raise a whole mess of problems."

Giles nodded, then responded, "The Council is still unaware of your whereabouts, Faith, though I have become privy to some of their intelligence in recent months, and they are gradually becoming aware of your activities. I am certain that they have intelligence operatives in Sunnydale: if you are openly active here, they will become aware of it rather quickly."

Faith frowned, then replied, "That's not what I'm worried about, Giles." She looked away from him, glancing at the sun as it moved toward the western horizon, then whispered, "I have to face them before I come back to stay. If I learned anything from B, it's that surviving here for longer than a long coffee break is kinda tough without major backup, and I've got some serious issues to deal with before I can ask them for it." She sighed, then stood and concluded, "Come on. . .no use putting it off." The Slayer turned and walked back toward the parking lot at a brisk pace, and Giles-who was more than a little ambivalent about what would certainly follow-was hard-pressed to keep up with her.


* * * * *


Giles stood quietly, polishing his glasses and looking at nothing in particular. He had carefully considered the best approach to revealing the new development to the others, considering the possible implications of, say, Willow seeing Faith without proper preparation and being moved to toss one of the nastier spells she had learned from the book that he was still kicking himself for not concealing more carefully, no matter how crucial the knowledge the young witch had gained from them had turned out to be. He had decided on a relatively simple approach: he called Xander, informed him of Faith's return and intentions, then asked him to tell Anya and for both of them to come over to the Summers house. He then repeated the procedure with Tara, quietly thanking whatever benevolent forces might exist that Willow had chosen an even-tempered companion.

Faith had waited quietly. She did not pace, but Giles could see the tension in her expression and in the tightly knotted muscles on her arms. He had quietly prepared some tea for her and had her sit in the large armchair in the room as they waited. Fifteen minutes after Giles had completed his calls, the front door opened, and Xander and Anya walked in. Xander quickly spotted Faith and gave her a friendly nod, while Anya glared suspiciously at the Slayer, then walked over to the couch, folding her arms and scowling openly. Xander shot an apologetic look at Faith, then sat down.

A few minutes later, the front door opened again, and Willow and Tara walked in. If Anya's expression had been suspicious, Willow's was openly angry: her green eyes glowing with distrust and antipathy. She remained silent, however, and settled at the other end of the couch. Tara followed her, but her expression was one of curiosity: she alone of the occupants of the room had never seen Faith in person, though she had seen a few pictures. Tara blinked, then looked back to Willow, clearly concerned about her state of mind.

Giles sighed, put his glasses on, and looked at the group of people with whom he had shared so many experiences over the past four years before blinking and beginning, "You all know why I've called you here. . .Faith has become aware of Buffy's death, and has requested that I change my arrangement with her so that she may relocate here to deal with the continuing threat of the Hellmouth. I would like to hear your thoughts on this, then Faith would like to speak to you." Giles looked at them for a moment longer, then concluded, "The floor is open." He quietly settled into a chair and waited.

Xander stood up, and walked over to a spot between where Faith and Giles were sitting. He took a deep breath, and began, "Faith and I have had a few rocky moments over the years, and I spent a pretty long time being scared to death of her." He turned back to Anya, whose expression was openly concerned, and smiled at her before turning back and continuing, "I was glad to hear last February that she had gotten her act together and decided to keep fighting the good fight, even if she still had issues with us. I worked with her once last summer-" He winced: Anya had not been thrilled to hear about that little adventure, but she had eventually forgiven him, after exiling him for a week to the chair that Spike had once slept in. He continued, "-and it was a big success. . .we did some real good." He stopped, and visibly gathered himself before starting again: "I told her when I left that if things were ever going to get back to where we could be friends again, she was going to have to get past some stuff. Unfortunately. . .some things are going to have to remain unsaid, with Buffy gone." He shook his head angrily, then turned back to Faith and addressed her directly: "Faith, if you're here to help, I'm glad to see you, and I really hope you're past most of the things that have gone down in the past between us." He nodded at her, then at Giles, then sat down.

Willow stood, and her eyes blazed as she looked at Faith, then at Giles, before snapping, "I've done a pretty good job of not making waves about Faith's new career as a roving demon hunter. In case anyone's let it slip their mind, I'm the reason that every police station in Southern California doesn't have a Wanted poster with her face on it on their bulletin board. . . but the main reason I did it was that I wanted her the hell out of town. She's hurt most of the people in this room, and the others have had to deal with the aftermath." She paused, then locked eyes with the Slayer and continued in a low, dangerous voice: "People died because of what you did, Faith, and it would have been nice to have another pair of hands to deal with stuff over the past two years." Faith flinched, and Willow looked visibly conflicted for a moment before relenting slightly and continuing, "You didn't kill Buffy, Faith, and maybe you being there wouldn't have made a difference in the end. . .but Buffy's been through hell in the last year, and you being there would have relieved a lot of everyday stress for her, if there weren't the issues that we all had with you, and you had with us." Willow looked down, then back up at Faith as she concluded coldly, "Bottom line is, if you're here to help, fine, but we're not friends. It's about the job, and if you get yourself killed, I'm not losing a hell of a lot of sleep over it." Willow turned her back on Faith and returned to the sofa, refusing to look at the Slayer.

Giles absorbed Willow's angry monologue, and was about to invite Faith to speak when Tara stood and asked quietly, "Would it be all right if I said something, Giles?"

Giles blinked in surprise, then replied, "Of course, Tara: feel free." He watched the young woman as she took a deep breath, and noted that Faith was watching her also, with a mildly confused look on her face.

Tara turned back to the others for a moment: Xander was smiling supportively at her, while Anya looked perplexed, and Willow had an openly shocked expression. She sighed, then turned back and looked directly into Faith's eyes as she began, "My name is Tara, Faith: I'm Willow's girlfriend." Faith nodded, and Tara continued, "It's kind of hard being a newcomer here, trying to learn about what went on before I arrived. The first time I heard your name was when you woke up out of your coma, and Willow was explaining to me why she was a nervous wreck." Willow stirred at the comment, but said nothing, and Tara continued, "As you might guess, the description of you that Willow gave me was less than flattering." Faith smiled slightly, and the expression was echoed by a few others in the room as Tara continued, "But you left town soon afterwards, and it was about then that I met the other people in this room. . .along with Buffy. It took me a while to adjust to being part of the group, and I had a lot of other things on my mind-" Tara turned back to Willow and smiled at her, and the other witch visibly brightened before Tara turned back and continued, "-but it became pretty clear to me that, while they all had been hurt by what you did while you were here, they also wanted you to succeed in what you were doing. . .because it was better having you out there than not having you out there."

Willow scowled, but did not verbally dispute Tara's comment. Tara sighed, then added, "Faith, I've heard Giles and Xander talk about what you've done in the past year. . .you've made a difference in the places you've been, and I'm glad you're still alive." Faith blinked, and Tara smiled slightly as she continued, "Also, I'm familiar with the magic in the oath rings, and I know it doesn't work if both parties aren't completely sincere in their oaths. If you're willing to stay here under the same rules you had with your prior arrangement with Giles, that's good enough for me, and I'll be glad to help wherever I can." She paused, then concluded, "This is a scary place, Faith. . .and any help that we can get that makes it less likely that we'll have to have another funeral for someone in this room is fine by me." Tara nodded, then sat down next to Willow, who looked uncomfortable but not angry.

Giles glanced over at Anya, who shook her head, and then turned to Faith and nodded. The Slayer stood up and shivered for a moment before beginning, "Look. . .I know we've got issues between us, and I'm not expecting you to completely trust me for a while, no matter what Viking mojo Giles sends my way. . .but this place seems to keep trying to destroy the world, and from what Giles says, there are no more Slayers coming down the pike until I buy the farm. I don't want the world to end, and since you're staying put too instead of getting the hell out of town with Buffy gone, I'm guessing you don't either." Faith sighed, then concluded, "I want to do the right thing here. . .and I'm hoping you'll help me do it, or let me help you do it, whatever works." Faith looked down for a moment, then back up before adding, "Anyway, thanks for listening."

Xander stood up and walked over to Faith, Anya following closely in his wake. He extended his right hand, and Faith took it and shook it firmly as Xander commented quietly, "Welcome back."

Faith smiled slightly, and was about to reply when Anya moved next to Xander and blurted out, "We're engaged!"

Faith blinked in surprise, and Xander was about to turn to Anya and react to her abrupt announcement when Willow beat him to it: "You're WHAT?"

"Engaged, betrothed, promised. . .what, you want a thesaurus, Willow?" Anya had been looking nervously at Xander, but she calmed quickly as she replied tartly to Willow's incredulous query. She pulled the velvet box from her pocket and slipped the ring on her finger before turning back to Faith and snapping, "He's taken, so back off."

Faith smiled inwardly, then obeyed a rare impulse and leaned in to give Xander a hug. Xander was startled, but accepted the brief embrace, glancing back to note Anya's reaction. After a moment, Faith pulled away and commented quietly, "Congratulations, Xander." She turned to the visibly irritated Anya and added, "Same to you, Anya. . .Xander had a lot of good things to say about you when we worked together last year. I hope things work out for you."

Anya blinked, surprised, then replied quietly, "Uh, thanks." She tugged on Xander's arm, and they walked back to the couch, only to be peppered with questions from Willow and Tara. Faith grinned and turned to Giles, commenting, "I think I just dropped down on the list of priorities around here. . .big surprise, huh?"

"Yes. . .to say the least." Giles was staring at Xander and Anya with an unreadable expression on his face. After a moment, he shook his head and commented, "In any event, we have more immediate priorities to deal with. There is a vacant flat in my building, and with Willow's help, I can arrange for you to rent it under an assumed identity. It may be a futile effort, but I wish to delay the Council discovering your renewed presence here for as long as possible."

Faith shrugged, and replied, "Worth a shot. . .let me know what I need to do to help." She looked around, then asked, "I still need to talk to Dawn. . .is she around?"

Giles sighed, then responded, "She's in her room, Faith. . .she hasn't been out of it except for school since it happened." He shook his head and added, "I'll talk to her first. . .she's in a fragile state, and I'm not sure how she'll react to your return. Your name hasn't really come up since. . .she found out about her special nature."

Faith felt a pang of concern for Dawn, then sighed and commented, "I guess we'll deal with that later then. . .so, what's up with the local demon population? Red said it: I'm here to work, and there's no time like the present to start."

Giles smiled gently, then responded, "Well, there is the matter of the demon Banax having come to Sunnydale. He distracts his prey by use of sonic vibrations, after which he. . ." The Watcher spoke quietly and concisely, noting Faith's complete attention to his words, and also noting the casual glances that the others in the room were directing their way. The weight of Buffy's loss was still bearing heavily on all of them, but at this moment, with Faith's arrival and the news from Faith and Xander, things were looking up ever so slightly again.


As before, comments are welcome and desired.