The sharp blade shimmered under the bedroom light as Willow felt the weight and power of the scythe in her hands. It shone like a beacon, like hope, like their saviour, but it wasn't that yet. It couldn't be that yet. A past event had dipped its hand into the paint pot and had altered the picturesque painting that Willow envisioned - a picture that showed victory and triumph. A picture with distorted faces instead of happy ones. She needed to wipe away those distortions, and there was only one way to do it.
After extensive research and magical channelling under the careful watch of Giles, Willow had found the solution to their problem. The spell they needed to do in order to call every single slayer in the world would be far too dangerous to do without the fix. It would have disastrous effects and create monsters out of slayers. The slayer line was corrupted, and the reason? The body-swap incident between Faith and Buffy.
The fix? Sending Faith back in time in order to stop that event taking place.
It was a lot of pressure on Willow and her powers but it was necessary. As she let the cold steel of the scythe cool her palms Willow felt a surge of confidence. They could do this. They could win.
"I still think it'd be better if I went," Buffy grumbled from the corner of the room as Giles helped prepare Faith for her trip.
"You can't," Willow said decisively. "Meeting yourself from the future would leave too much of an impression on you and the timeline. We can't risk that. It could change too much."
"I'm really trying to understand but it's. . .crazy even for us," Buffy continued.
"Crazy, but possible, and it has to be Faith that goes. Besides, we need you here in case. . .well, in case we need you," Willow explained. "As much as I believe Faith can be all 'leader-girl' again, I think the potentials will feel safer knowing you're not whizzing through time and space and leaving them here."
Buffy nodded solemnly but still didn't understand. The whole thing confused her but she trusted Willow and Giles, and they truly believe they knew what they were doing.
"I'll get in, do the job, and get out," Faith assured as Giles sprinkled something around her feet. "No muss no fuss."
"You hope," Buffy added.
Faith looked at Buffy for longer than Buffy felt entirely comfortable with, but she didn't stand down. She kept her eyes locked on Faith's brown depths, daring Faith to get angry or destroy the small bit of trust she'd developed for her over the past few days. Buffy wanted to trust her, and she hoped Faith was strong enough to live up to it. Maybe she was, as she turned away without rising to Buffy's silent challenge.
"Just stay away from anybody that might recognise you," Willow warned Faith, lighting candles around the room as Kennedy cleared a space at the foot of the bed. "Especially Buffy."
Faith nodded at her but the crease in her brow clearly indicated she wasn't entirely sure of something.
She knew what her task was and she was fairly sure she could do it without screwing things up, but she was stepping back into dodgy territory. Buffy from a few years ago was just as suspicious, untrusting and controlling as Buffy was now. Avoiding her was going to prove difficult.
"So what happens if we do cross paths?" Faith asked.
Time travel wasn't something she was certain was even possible, and Willow had given her guidelines that made about as much sense to her as something that made no sense at all. She was trying to understand, though, eager to prove her worth.
"The whole idea is not to create too much impact on that timeline," Willow replied. "We only change one thing so that everything else plays out the same. If too many things change it'll effect the timeline too much and. . .it won't be good. Anything could happen in that event."
"Are we really willing to take that risk?" Kennedy cut in.
"We have to," Willow responded. "Just don't make too many ripples and once you're gone the timeline will settle back where it should be, and carry on as if nothing really happened."
"Ripples?" Buffy asked.
"It's like throwing a pebble into a pond," Giles said, stepping forward as he cleaned his glasses. "Once you've thrown the pebble – or in this case, sent Faith back in time – it creates ripples. At first the ripples appear large, but over time they dissipate. Once they're gone the pond is still once again."
"The surface remains the same, even though there's a new pebble underneath," Willow added. "The timeline will repair itself as if you were never there, but just that one change will mean we can do what we need to do."
"But if the ripples are too many or too violent it will distort the pond, changing its shape from that point onwards. The plan is to avoid that," Giles stated.
He placed his glasses back onto his nose and watched as the words sunk in to Faith's brain. He had faith in her, but he needed her to have faith in herself.
"I'm sure you can do this, Faith," he told her. "All you need to do is prevent the body-swap from happening by intercepting the package Faith received from the Mayor."
"Yeah, sounds simple enough but. . .I dunno, it's Sunnydale, and if I do screw up. . ."
"You won't," Giles encouraged, laying a gentle hand on Faith's shoulder. "You won't because we're counting on you, Faith. We need the slayer line uncorrupted in order to beat The First."
"Well I guess it's my fault it got that way so…let's do this."
"That's not why we're sending you, Faith," Giles assured.
Faith shrugged but held her tongue. Whatever their reasoning, it was all on her shoulders right now. She had to believe in herself and in their trust. This was her task and there was no margin for error. She needed to stop herself from making a stupid mistake three years in the past. Though it was necessary for her self of that time to run and end up in LA, and then jail, it was imperative that the slayer line remained unsullied by the little trick the Mayor's gadget had caused.
Just what other implications that would bring about she was still unsure of, but Willow had so far remained adamant that none of them would have any memory of a future-Faith turning up in Sunnydale at that time. Once Faith got back to the future their only memories of the event would be new ones about saving the slayer line, and not old ones that had travelled with them from three years prior. She would be able to do her job with no ill effects. . .as long as everything went to plan. As long as she didn't get caught by the Scoobs or Buffy and create too much of a 'ripple'.
"Ok, I'm ready," Faith said, feeling nervous and cracking her knuckles.
"Good luck," Willow said with a small smile before her eyes took on a smoky white color that did little to settle Faith's nerves.
Buffy only nodded from her corner of the room and Faith tried to see the trust in her eyes, hairs standing on end as a glowing portal appeared in the centre of the room. It spat and sparkled and Faith stood tall before stepping into its depths, the image of Buffy's worried face flashing before her eyes as the world around her exploded into blinding, white light.
"Buffy, this way!"
"I'm right behind you," Buffy replied, pulling out the knife in her pocket.
She realised it wouldn't be much use against Adam but going after him with nothing made her feel far less confident.
"He's killed again," Riley called to her, stopping dead in his tracks as Buffy caught up. "A M'Fashnik demon this time. Totally gutted."
Buffy pulled a face as she peered into the patch of bushes Riley was stood in front of. The demon had been disembowelled and was missing most if his head. It wasn't a pretty sight and she glanced down at her boots only to realise it had also been a very messy kill; the blood stains would be a pain to get out.
"So he's killing anything that gets in his way?" Buffy mused.
"No, I think there's a pattern. A reason," Riley countered. "And if we don't stop him we might be looking at one hell of a body count, and not just demons."
He was right, and Buffy felt her muscles twitching in eagerness to stop that possibility. But Adam was no ordinary foe. They didn't know exactly what they were going up against and the Initiative were being far from helpful; since Maggie Walsh's death and Riley's escape it was impossible to imagine exactly what the Initiative planned to do next. They had a demon on the loose that was unlike any demon she'd had to fight before – part human, demon and machine – and she was still reeling from discovering that Riley wasn't all he seemed to be.
Everything was on a knife edge and Buffy wasn't certain which way to turn. All she knew for sure was that they had to stop Adam, before it was too late. Before he was too strong and knew too much.
"So we keep looking, and we take him down," Buffy stated confidently, though her confidence wavered inside.
"That's the plan," Riley agreed. "We've just gotta figure out why."
He placed his arms around Buffy and pulled her close, causing her head to rest against his chest. He smelled like sweat and gun grease and Buffy felt strangely repulsed.
"We should clean this mess up and see if we can pick up the trail again," she said quickly, subtly pushing herself away from him.
He nodded, seemingly oblivious to her need to stay out of his arms. There was no reason for him to believe anything had changed between them, but it had. She didn't know quite when it had happened or why for sure, her mind coming up with excuses for her, but she felt differently. He wasn't the person she'd thought he was, and now she didn't even know what she wanted.
As he placed a soothing hand on her back when she sighed in frustration, Buffy fought back the urge to tell him not to touch her. It wouldn't be fair on him. He didn't know. He thought they were perfect.
"Let's do this fast," she said, moving away from Riley and grabbing the dead demon's feet in order to drag him further into the bushes.
Things needed to change.
By the time they'd finished it was getting late so Buffy said goodnight to Riley, heading for her dorm before he could ask them to stay together for the night. She didn't much feel like being groped by his big hands. Some space would feel nice for a change. She needed to check in with Giles and the gang anyway, so they knew where Adam had been. Tracking him was proving difficult and the more information they had the better.
Riley had walked her part of the way home, but when she'd insisted he leave her to walk the rest of the way alone he'd thankfully relented without too much fuss. He'd learned not to push her stubborn button too often. She liked him when he was a little more docile, but given the fact he was still dealing with the uber-soldier drugs in his system she doubted he'd stay playing good doggie for long.
As she passed the main campus building Buffy felt a sudden breeze. She looked over her shoulder, pausing in the middle of the path as her eyes scanned every dark corner she could see. Nobody was there and the breeze seemed to have gone just as fast as it had appeared. A shiver ran down Buffy's spine and she held her arms around herself, feeling suddenly aware that she was not as alone as she'd hoped to be, but whatever it was out in the darkness wasn't making any moves so she kept herself on alert and continued on her way. Her building wasn't too much further.
The path diverged ahead of her; one way going towards her building and the other towards the college gym and various other small buildings. For a reason she wasn't yet sure of she paused and turned away from the path leading to her dorm. Something made her want to take the other path. Maybe there was a demon in the shadows she couldn't sense. Maybe it was Adam. Buffy didn't know but she felt compelled to investigate; slayers didn't run from fear, they ran toward it. If there was any chance of catching Adam she had to take it, even if it meant risking her own safety. She'd be careful of course, but she couldn't just ignore the innate pull from deep within her.
A little way down the shadowy path Buffy saw a dark figure practically leap into the foliage. It had been too small for Adam but normal people didn't leap into bushes when approached. Buffy knew that she had to follow and find out exactly who or what it was lurking around out there.
Feeling the weight of the knife bumping against her chest, Buffy pushed open her jacket a little way so she would be able to reach in and grab it quickly if needed. Her senses focused on her surroundings, she slowed her pace, peering into flowerbeds and between trees. A snapping branch to her right made her stop and look that way. More movement made her crouch into a defensive stance and she readied herself for a confrontation.
There was a grunt, then a moan, and then before she could properly react a Fyarl demon came flying at her - sideways. He clearly wasn't in control of his trajectory and Buffy crumbled under his weight as he landed on her.
"Was that really necessary?" she asked under her breath as she shoved him off.
He didn't answer; he was unconscious and that instantly worried Buffy. Adam was picking off different kinds of demons left and right and so far they hadn't found a disembowelled Fyarl demon laying around. She had to get up quickly and be ready for him.
Bouncing to her feet, she watched as the bushes rustled and swayed, then parted to reveal. . .Faith.
"What the?" Buffy mumbled.
They stared at each other for what seemed like an eternity, but when Buffy finally blinked Faith dashed back into the cover of leaves and darkness, running away without saying a word.
Buffy blew out the breath she had been holding, her fists clenching and unclenching. So Faith was out of her coma? It certainly looked that way but something was off. Something about the way Faith had looked. She certainly didn't look like a girl who had spent eight months lying on her back in a hospital bed.
Shaking her head to regain some kind of control Buffy took off after Faith through the trees and over the grass. Her feet met the ground solidly as she raced after the dark figure of Faith just ahead. She hadn't gotten too far and Buffy was gaining ground on her, able to see the flow of her long hair as she ran as fast as she could. Buffy tried to figure out if her mind was playing tricks on her, going through a checklist in her head to make sure it was really Faith she was chasing.
Faith's clothes seemed as tight as ever – though even less girly than Buffy remembered – and her hair was definitely longer, and wavy. She seemed bigger but more toned, and maybe even slightly taller. Could a coma change you? Had Faith been lying in the hospital bed all this time at all? Buffy had to question that, and briefly her reason for never having gone to see her.
The reasons were beside the point right now, she just needed to catch up with Faith and then. . .she didn't know what then.
"Faith?" Buffy called out, still too far away to tackle her to the ground or reach out and touch her.
Faith didn't answer, ducking around the corner of a building instead, out of view of Buffy. She followed, her lungs burning and chest pounding, and as she reached the corner and rounded it a pair of hands grabbed her and pulled her into the dark alcove of a doorway.
"Quiet, we're being followed," Faith warned Buffy, holding her against the door in the shadows.
Buffy wanted to shout, to scream, to kick out at Faith to get her off her, but she did none of those as Faith's eyes plunged into her own with a clear warning not to move. That's when she heard footsteps approaching, fast and ragged. Buffy peered over Faith's shoulder, her body trembling with the exertion of holding her breath steady and her muscles still. Faith seemed to be trembling in the same way; she could feel it against her as they pressed close in the small space.
A wave of revulsion hit Buffy but other feelings also clambered for attention. She wasn't able to deal with them all at present, too busy wondering what the hell was going on and who was following them. As they remained deathly still in the doorway Buffy saw a man jog across the grass just beyond the path they were close to. He was out of breath, head whipping from side to side as if he were looking for somebody.
It was Riley.
"Why is he. . ." Buffy began before Faith shushed her once again.
"Can't let him see me, B," Faith whispered close to Buffy's ear.
Faith's breath tickled and Buffy did her best to ignore it - and the body now tight against her own - as Riley scratched at his head and peered around not too far from where they were hiding. Why exactly they were hiding she didn't know. She also didn't know how Riley had been so close behind given the fact they'd parted ways outside of college grounds.
"Why are we hiding?" Buffy finally asked as Riley slowly and cautiously began to move away.
"Wasn't supposed to bump into any of you," Faith replied, her voice low, husky and distracted.
Their eyes met again, and despite the fact that Riley was now further away they didn't move apart. For some reason Buffy was trusting Faith. For some reason it didn't feel completely weird. Her mind dug up images of a rooftop, a knife, the look of fear and hurt on Faith's face as she had struck the last blow. It made her sick to her stomach, and reminded her that Faith was dangerous. Dangerous enough to have to kill.
Though right now, Buffy didn't know what to think about that.
"Faith, what's going on?" Buffy asked, unable to think of a better question or come up with any clues herself.
Faith leaned back a little way to check on the whereabouts of Riley, the zip of her small leather jacket scraping against Buffy. This was such a mess. She hadn't meant to cross Buffy's path but she'd been teleported close to the campus, and before she'd been able to make a run for it a demon had attacked. Defending herself and hoping to slay the demon, it had lead her right under Buffy's nose. Total disaster; and now there was a chance Riley had seen her too.
She could feel every breath Buffy took against her and momentarily wondered why she wasn't being flung backwards as Buffy called out to her boyfriend for backup. Surely Buffy shouldn't be so amiable given the facts of their last meeting, in which Buffy had stabbed Faith for the sake of Angel.
It confused Faith, but there was no time to question it now; there were bigger things at stake. She hadn't come from the future in order to deal with the ups and downs of their relationship. She was there to help save the world.
Licking her lips, Faith stood back from Buffy just a little, feeling somewhat better now that Riley was out of earshot. Her palms were sweaty and her mouth dry; she was ill prepared for this encounter. She'd truly believed she could come and do the job without ever even seeing Buffy, but now she had seen her it bought back a wealth of memories one after the other; some good, some not so good. All memories she'd thought she'd dealt with whilst in prison. Obviously some were more powerful than others, however, and she felt her skin tingling and her body buzzing after the brief contact between them.
She hadn't wanted to be challenged in this way. It had been hard enough seeing Buffy again back in her own time but this? This was almost too much. It seemed much more raw than it ought to be. With Buffy's eyes sparkling up at her without those years of hardship and heartache that Buffy from her own time had endured - making her look sad and jaded and far from sparkly – it almost made it too hard to control her thoughts and feelings. This was the Buffy she'd been in love with. This was the Buffy who had broken her heart and trampled her into the ground with dismissiveness.
This was the Buffy that had always triggered anger as well as passion within her.
"Faith?" Buffy prompted, watching as Faith's jaw clenched and her eyes clouded.
Faith seemed on the verge of tears and Buffy didn't know what to do or say. She looked so different, yet she felt completely familiar; almost as if eight months hadn't passed at all. Almost as if they were back in Faith's apartment, standing on a precipice, ready to fall.
Faith opened her mouth to speak but she wasn't sure what to say. She could lie and tell Buffy that she'd just come out of the coma and was planning to leave – meaning she could escape to carry out her plan. But that left things open to dangerous meddling if Buffy decided she wasn't just going to let Faith go about her business. She could try the truth, but would she be believed? Would Buffy understand the implications if she tried to get involved?
Nothing could get in the way of the Faith from this time and her need for revenge. She had to wake and go after Buffy. She had to try the body-swap – with a fake gadget that Faith herself would plant in replacement of the real one. She had to run. All of it had to play out without Buffy doing anything to pervert the timeline. If she told Buffy there was a chance it would all go wrong, but if she didn't tell her. . .she'd have a hard time being able to do what she needed if Buffy was on her tail.
According to Willow, as long as Faith didn't leave too much of an impression then Buffy would forget she was ever there anyway. She had to be careful, but she also had to keep Buffy from screwing everything up.
"This is gonna sound really, really fucked," Faith began, running a hand through her wavy hair as Buffy waited for an explanation, "but I'm from the future."
Buffy blinked and took a step back until she felt the door against her spine again. Her eyes scanned the woman before her, seeing that she was older, seeing that she was different. Her mind tasted the information, the possibility, and did its best to reject it. It was insane, and probably a great way for Faith to get out of paying for what she'd done, but Faith wasn't a thinker. Faith was a fighter and Buffy had always imagined that once she'd fought her way out of her coma she'd come looking for her; she'd come and take revenge on Buffy and her friends. Buffy hadn't expected this at all and she wasn't certain how to react.
"Yeah, I know. It sounds like all kindsa bullshit," Faith said with a nod as she watched various expressions cross Buffy's face. "But I need you to believe me, 'cause I need you not to fuck this up for me."
Opening her mouth to interrupt and refute any such accusation, Buffy soon closed it as Faith suddenly pressed back against her, a finger to her lips. She was about to push Faith away but her sensitive ears picked up the sounds of feet coming their way again.
"I need to be here, B," Faith continued, removing her finger, her voice barely a whisper against Buffy's now tingling ear. "Around three years from now we're saving the world and if I don't get the job done here. . .we're all fucked."
The crude word uttered against her skin made Buffy involuntarily tremble and she mentally kicked herself for her obvious reaction.
"Three years?" Buffy all but squeaked.
Faith's close proximity was beginning to cloud Buffy's judgment, and she really couldn't deal with that naturally seductive voice being spoken so softly against her for much longer. She didn't want to remember how it felt to want Faith. She didn't want to remember anything but the pain. But if she was to believe what Faith was saying, then surely that changed things. If this wasn't the Faith that was currently lying in a hospital somewhere. . .then how could she hate her still? How could they be saving the world three years down the line if all there was to remember was the pain?
The footsteps finally faded and Faith removed her bodyweight from Buffy, but she didn't go too far.
"I'm going to need proof," Buffy stated.
Once again Faith ran a hand through her hair and Buffy only just realised it was a nervous trait. Why hadn't she noticed that before?
"Guess we'll have to go pay me a visit," Faith responded uneasily.
This was a risk Faith hadn't wanted to take, but Buffy seemed on the verge of either believing her or kicking her ass, and even though she was sure she could take the Buffy of this time easily now. . .she didn't want to fight her.
She hadn't come here to fight.
"If you're lying. . ."
"You'll kill me?" Faith interrupted, knowing Buffy well enough to know where her thoughts would leap.
She looked deep in to Buffy's eyes, holding her still with her gaze, silently questioning whether Buffy could really do that a second time; whether she could plunge a knife into her gut more than once. Buffy didn't seem to have an answer. She just stared back at Faith with a thousand different things flashing through her eyes that Faith tried hard to understand. She caught a few of them; fear, regret, anger. . .desire. The same things as always. The same confusion.
"Let's go," Faith eventually instructed, breaking the heavy silence. "I need you to see for yourself."
"So you can be a hero and save the world?" Buffy asked sarcastically, obviously disbelieving Faith.
Faith narrowed her eyes but deflected Buffy's cheap shot at her. It would be easy to fall into bad habits, but they didn't have time. Everything rested on whether they could put the hurt behind them. They'd done it in the future, and now it was time to test Buffy of the past. It was a huge risk but Faith had no choice but to take it.
"No, so we can save the world."