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Faith, Hope, Trick & Archer

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Willow took a deep breath. "I'm giddy."

Oz, beside her, shrugged. "Like you giddy. Always have."

"It's the freedom," the redheaded girl continued, "As Seniors we can go off campus now for lunch. It's no longer cutting, it's legal. Heck, it's expected! But also a big step forward, a Senior Moment..."

Over his shoulder, Oz caught sight of Xander and Ichigo, who both nodded in understanding.

"...one that has to be savored fully before – ooo!" Willow felt herself lifted by the arms and carried across the curb and then let down gently on the street opposite. Oz and Xander kept their holds on Willow, while Ichigo escorted the ever-lovely Cordelia across the street.

Willow was still freaking out. "I can't!"

"You can," reassured Ichigo who had caught up.

"See? You are," added Oz.

"But... what if they changed the rule without telling?" Willow blustered. "What if they're laying in wait just so they can arrest me and put me in detention and mar my unblemished record?"

Xander tightened his grip slightly. "Breathe."

Willow breathed. Then she exhaled. "Okay. You can put me down." She linked arms with Oz and brightened up. 'Better now. Wow. We're seniors. Hey, we're walkin' here!"

Ichigo returned Cordelia to Xander and indicated to the figure under the shade of a tree. "Maybe you four shouldn't be too couply around Buffy."

"Oh, you mean 'cause of how the only guy that ever liked her turned into a vicious killer and had to be put down like a dog?" asked Cordelia, all polite concern.
"Can she cram complex issues into a nutshell or what?" Xander was absurdly proud and beamed at her adoringly.

Oz patted Willow's hand and said, "Prepare to uncouple... uncouple."

They released their significant others, while Ichigo sauntered ahead to greet Buffy who was there with a picnic basket.

"Buffy," greeted Xander, planting himself next to the Slayer. "Banned from campus but not from our hearts, how are you and what's for lunch?"

Ichigo flicked off the paper towels covering the dishes and whistled in appreciation. "When did you become Martha Stewart?"

Buffy passed around the plastic cutlery and they dug into the cold cuts and pasta salad that the blonde had prepared. "First of all, Martha knows nothing about hand-cut prosciutto."

"I don't think she knows how to slay either," Ichigo pointed out.

"I hear she does, but she doesn't like it," Oz corrected absently.

With a smile Buffy continued, "Secondly, I've had way too much time on my hands since I got kicked out of school."

"You'll be let back in, I know it," Willow said loyally, the effect slightly ruined by a dab of Thousand Island on her chin. Oz swiped it off and licked it.

"I guess. It's just a little worrying that's all..."

"Scott Hope at eleven o'clock," Willow interrupted her friend. As Buffy peered over, Willow added, "He likes you; he wanted to ask you out last year, you weren't ready then, but I think you're ready now - or at least in a state of pre-readiness that would allow you to make conversation or do that thing with your mouth that boys like-"

Ichigo coughed and stared at Willow, aghast.

The girl seemed to catch on that it might not be the best way to phrase her idea and tried to explain, "I don't mean a bad thing with your mouth, I mean that sort of half smile that you do and-" She paused, then glared at her boyfriend. "You're supposed to stop me when I do that."

"I like when you do that," said the musician blandly.

As the two gazed in an adoring manner at each other, Scott Hope walked past and then nodded rather shyly at the small cluster. "Hey."

"Hey," said the Slayer. Scott Hope went on his way.

Ichigo grinned. "That went well."

"It did! It went very well. Don't you think that went well? I think that went very well," Willow gushed.

Cordy sipped her Coke. "He didn't try to maim or kill us. It's a positive step."

"Did you do the half smile?" Willow asked.

Buffy glanced askance at Cordelia's unbridled approval. "I'm not trying to snare Scott Hope. I just want my normal life back. Do normal stuff."

"Like date..." Ichigo interjected.

Buffy frowned.

"Oh, you wanna date." Xander chuckled. "I saw you do the half-smile, you little tramp."

The blonde glared and punched Xander on his arms. The boy laughed and then winced as the impact of a Slayer punch got through to his brain. "Ow."

"Yes!" Buffy paid him no mind though. "Yes! I wanna date, and shop, and slay, and go to school, and hang out, and save the world from unspeakable demons. You know, everyday teenage girl stuff."

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"The limo driver has just picked up our passenger from the docks," Nanao commented to the two older vampires. Aizen and Gin exchanged a look. Nanao checked her slim Rolex. "They'll be here in twenty minutes at the latest."

"Good," Gin said. He ambled over to the wide windows and tweaked it aside slightly, careful to stay out of the beam of fading evening light that invaded the study. "It's time we clear the stage of the secondary characters, wouldn't you say, taishou?"

Aizen folded his reading glasses back in their case and strolled over to Gin, flicking the curtains back in place. "He will be an asset."

"But father," Nanao began, "what if he's just dissembling? He could be spying for the other side."

Aizen looked at his childe and smiled genially. "My dear Nanao-chan, trust that your sires have thought of everything."

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The burger joint was practically deserted at this time of night. Still, Emmett Kirby was aware that service with a smile was needed. It usually ended with a large tip if people thought you were friendly. The drive-through intercom buzzed and Emmett hurried over. There was only one other employee at that time of night working the counter and she was always complaining about the manager. As if the manager was interested in a fifty-year-old woman with a mustache that could rival the always excellent Burt Reynolds.

Emmett clicked on the microphone. "Hello! Welcome to Happy Burger! May I take your order?"

"Hey there. I just want a large coke." The voice was a smooth one, and sounded pretty sane.

Emmett had encountered his share of nutjobs on the night shift, but this sounded like a proper gentleman and a big tipper. "Certainly, sir! Please drive up to the window to take your order."

In two minutes a beautiful white limo rolled up and the tinted window descended. It was a pleasant-looking African-American. Emmett smiled widely and the man smiled right back, his teeth very white against his dark skin. The payment was made and Emmett was told to keep the change.

A large tipper indeed – he gave a twenty for the drink.

"Have a nice night, sir," said Emmett.

"Right back atcha," said the customer.

Someone on the far side of the car said something, and then the nice-sounding man reared out, grabbed Emmett, and dragged him half into the car.

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Angel's voice was soft, regretful. "I loved you."

"I miss you," said Buffy. She tried to touch Angel's face, but he ducked away. She bit her lower lip and said, "I'm sorry."

"GO TO HELL!" Angel roared at her.

Buffy stumbled back in shock.

Angel's face was rotting and decayed. He bared his teeth in a cruel sneer. "I did."

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Buffy jerked awake, then collapsed against her bed. A deep breath; another; and finally she could close her eyes again and wish herself into dreamless sleep.

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The Bronze was jumping and Buffy wound her way through the crowd, seeming quite smug.

"I'm back in school," she announced, setting down three cups and picking out her own coffee. "And though I know I'll be whining about it in three months' time, let it be said that I'm really happy about it. Oh, and I passed my English make-up exam."

Oz shrugged with one shoulder. "Never doubted."

"It's great that you're back in school," the redheaded girl remarked. "And we can hang out in the library again!"

"So you can tell Giles about his angry clucking sound?" teased Buffy. They had been caught commenting on Giles' odd habit, and Willow had been mortified. Giles hadn't remarked on the girls' conversation, but he had looked at them both askance. It was however the librarian's query about Angel's demise that had shaken Buffy. Still she had answered him. Not the entire truth – not the part when Angel had looked at Buffy, Angel, not Angelus, and they had kissed, and she sent him into hell – okay, so not even a partial truth.

Another familiar face wound its way out of the crowd and planted himself on the seat next to Buffy. "I heard about the English. Good on ya." Ichigo peered over the selection of beverages. "Nothing for me?"

"Couldn't find you in that mass of teen hormones," chirruped Buffy brightly. "What do you want? I can go get it-"

"Nah, it's fine, I'll just steal a sip from yours." Just as Ichigo directed Buffy's coffee to his lips the blonde girl tensed.

Willow said cheerfully, "Hi Scott!"

"Uh, hi," Buffy echoed, before her gaze darted shyly down.

Ichigo caught the look in Scott Hope's eyes, and released Buffy's hand and coffee. "Hi Scott. Waiting for someone?"

Willow waved her hands distractedly. "No! No of course this is an entirely coincidental meeting."

"Actually, she told me that you guys would be here around eight and that I should show." Scott's smile was quite endearing, Ichigo thought. If only... Never mind that now. Scott shrugged sheepishly. "I'm not a good liar. I get all blotchy and then I have to bail. It's not pretty."

Oh but you so are, Ichigo's mind supplied and he sternly told his mind to cut it out. It was evident that Scott liked Buffy, and Buffy maybe-sorta-could-perhaps like Scott. It would help her get over Angel too. To extricate himself from a potential crush situation, Ichigo stood up again and declared that he was grabbing a Coke from the counter. Scott seemed relieved that Ichigo was leaving, but was that jealousy or curiosity that flashed in those pretty brown eyes?

As he navigated through the crowd the music changed to a thumping, rousing beat. Cordelia and Xander were leaving the dance floor and paused by Ichigo.

"You two want any drinks?" asked Ichigo.

Xander smirked. "Nah, I'm good." He nuzzled Cordelia who rolled her eyes but put up with it. "Cordy?"

"A soda will do," she said acidly. She turned to Xander and complained about the slut that was monopolizing the floor tonight and the couple headed to the seats. Ichigo shook his head. They did seem to be getting on well despite their apparent differences.

At the counter he placed his orders and waited. Scanning the crowd, he sensed that there was a vampire in the building – as always – and he would need to inform Buffy.

"Hiya."

Ichigo glanced at the sultry girl on his left. She wore a cleavage baring tank top with an interesting choker, and her doe eyes were dark with promises. She let her lips curl seductively. "Come often?"

"You're not looking for me, miss," said Ichigo with a kind if patronizing smile.

She leaned in closer, giving him an eyeful. "I can change that."

"Seriously, I doubt you can," replied the redhead. Ichigo raised an eyebrow. "Trust me on this." The drinks arrived and he waltzed off.

When he got back to the sofa he saw that Scott had retreated to the other side of the room. He frowned faintly. "Turned him down?"

"Not really. Just giving a comfortable space for them both," said Xander.

Cordelia accepted her soda with a thanks and then scowled at the dance floor again. "That's the Slut-O-Rama I was talking about, with Disco Dave."

The gang peered over and both Buffy and Ichigo frowned. Cordelia continued, "When's the last time that guy danced to anything but KC and the Sunshine Band?"

"I don't think that guy has seen sunshine for some time," Buffy said quietly. She exchanged a glance with Ichigo. The redheaded boy narrowed his eyes at the brunette on the dance floor – she seemed oblivious to the danger she faced.

Vampire.

The vampire, seeming to sense that he was now revealed, whispered something to the girl and they sashayed out the back door.

"Come on." Buffy grabbed a stake and slipped it up her coat sleeve. The rest of the gang followed, Ichigo right behind the Slayer. When they were almost to the back door, they saw Scott Hope and his face brightened. Then the expression fell when he saw that it was the whole gang. Buffy suddenly realized what it must have looked like to the boy and blustered, "Oh, no, I'm – this isn't a good time, but I swear I would've, um-"

"Buffy, now?" Ichigo cocked his head at the back door and tugged on her sleeve. Oh goodness, that kicked-puppy look is just too darn cute. If he wasn't already gunning for the Buffster I'd try my luck..

The Scooby Gang burst out the back door and paused. Then the sounds of a scuffle – too familiar to the six of them – emerged from their right and they rushed over, expecting to have to rescue a damsel in distress.

What they got was the girl kicking the crap out of the vampire. She straightened and grinned at the group. "Hey." Then she noticed the Slayer holding her stake. "You must be Buffy. I'm Faith. Mind if I borrow that?"

Before Buffy could reply the brunette had plucked the stake out of her hands and dusted the vampire behind. Then she flipped the weapon back to Buffy and flashed a megawatt smile again. "Thanks, B. Couldn't do it without ya."

She sauntered back into the Bronze. The gang exchanged baffled looks.

Oz was the first to put a word to the situation. "I'm gonna go out on a limb here and say that we've a new Slayer in town."

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"...so the pastor is hugging me and I'm without a stitch on, stark nude, and then the police show up," the new Slayer, Faith, finished her story with a flourish which narrowly missed Willow's head.

"They should film that story and show it every Christmas." Xander was all ears, completely disregarding the venomous glares burrowing into the back of his brain courtesy of Cordelia Chase. "Do you have any more stories?"

"God I could eat a horse! Ain't it strange how slaying always makes you hungry and horny?" asked the dark-haired girl innocently.

Everyone stared at Buffy. The Slayer shifted uncomfortably. "I-I sometimes crave a nonfat yogurt afterward..."

"I get it." Cordelia's remark earned her the undivided attention of the gang. She scowled. "Not the horny thing – yuck – but the two Slayers thing. Buffy died for like, two minutes, so Kendra was called, and now that Kendra died Faith is called."

Faith nodded. "Mm-hmm."

"But why were you called here?" asked Ichigo.

"I wasn't. My watcher got called up to some retreat back in England so I figured, why not skip over and meet the infamous Buff, exchange notes an' all." She peered at the blonde. "Didja really use a rocket launcher one time?"

"Yes, actually, um I was-"

"Now you said you had an alligator story," interrupted Xander eagerly.

"Well, that belonged to a big daddy vamp back in Missouri. I'm telling ya, I never had more trouble than that one. He kept them as pets. So he caught me and tossed me into his alligator pit, and I was wrestling with this huge mother-"

"-and was this also naked?" asked Xander.

"Well," replied Faith coyly, "the alligator was."

"Xander, find a new theme," snapped Cordy, clearly exasperated.

"Really." Ichigo leaned back in his seat and took a long sip of his drink. Scott Hope had disappeared; shame. All that sad-eyed longing was kind of amusing.

Apparently Buffy noticed as well and was glancing about the room.

Faith cocked her head. "So. Which was your hardest kill?"

"Hmm?" Buffy's gaze was suddenly haunted. "Th-they're all hard in their way I guess. Oh, but do you guys remember the Three? But you've never met the Three. Anyway they were-"

"-I'm wondering about your position on werewolves," Oz cut in uncharacteristically.

Willow announced brightly, "Oz is a werewolf!" with the tone one usually reserved for announcing that one's offspring was a valedictorian.

"Long story," Ichigo supplied.

"Got bit," Oz said.

"Apparently not that long." Ichigo snagged a fry.

The brunette shrugged nonchalantly. "You don't bite me or hump my leg, we're five by five."

Oz nodded in silent agreement.

"Say, B. We can really do some damage on the vampires these couple days, you and I two, Watcher-less and fancy-free." Faith munched on a fry.

"Watcher-less?" Buffy repeated dumbly.

Faith frowned and asked, "Didn't your Watcher go on a retreat too?"

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Aizen knocked on the door of the guest room. A soft voice inside called out for him to come in.

"How are the facilities?" asked Aizen pleasantly.

The young man adjusted his glasses and regarded the vampire lord for a moment just too long of politeness. "It suits my purposes. Sir."

Aizen took a seat at the dresser. It was his home after all. "Should we talk terms of engagement now?"

"Certainly." The young man turned and faced the vampire. "You know I do not accept contracts on assassination or attacks on the helpless."

"Would you consider Tsukiyomi's avatar helpless?"

"Depends on how old he or she is."

"He's almost eighteen, almost an adult." Aizen smiled. "Would that be acceptable?"

The young male's lips twitched. "Perhaps. I will observe."

"And the payment?"

"Should I find him acceptable, then his demise would be the payment. Of course my room and board would be subsidized by you, and any further requirements of my services would be negotiated accordingly." For all his youth the man seemed a world-weary mercenary. In appearance he was a slender, almost skinny young man, his angular glasses framing sharp and fierce eyes.

Aizen did not know if he liked the contract, or the person himself, but the terms were acceptable and he knew Kurosaki Ichigo would be a more than ideal target. He stretched out his hand and said, "It's a pleasure doing business with you, Mr Archer. Or can I call you by your first name?"

"No one calls me by my first name except my parents, and they are dead. You may drop the 'Mr', however." Archer shook the vampire's hand perfunctorily. "I will acquaint myself with the town tomorrow."

"My children can accompany you."

"They will draw needless attention to me," countered Archer. "I can take care of myself quite well, thank you."

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Gin lounged against the wall, looking delightfully disheveled. "Has he settled in?"

"He's icier than Ulquiorra," remarked Aizen, knowing that his guest could hear them. "But he'll do the job."

"This should be fun." Gin slipped his hands into his pockets. "I can't believe we called in Quincy Archer for Kurosaki Ichigo. This had better be worth our time."

Aizen smiled crookedly. "That would be Mister Archer to you, Kitsune. Come, let us go."

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"A new Slayer? That's interesting." Urahara was testing his fine motor skills on buttons and buttonholes, and had thus far torn up five shirts, all warehouse discards. "I suppose that was because of Kendra's death."

"Yeah, I guess," said Ichigo. "She said something about being Watcher-less because he had gone to England for a retreat. Wouldn't they have asked Giles?"

Urahara shrugged and winced in intense concentration as he 'thought' into his actions, the fingers on his right 'hand' carefully nudging the plastic disc into the buttonhole. "I suppose they think that Buffy needs her Watcher with her... Crud."

"What?"

"I broke the button." Urahara looked peeved and he glared reprovingly at Ichigo when the teen laughed. "Thank you for the support, Ichigo."

"Well, I'll get you more buttons and buttonholes tomorrow." Ichigo grinned and then stretched. "I'm gonna turn in. You want me to save your current shirt or are you sleeping in it?"

Urahara looked down at his crisp blue shirt and sighed. "I can't sleep in this, it'll get wrinkled."

And that would mean Ichigo yet again helping Urahara remove his clothes and tomorrow morning, helping him put his clothes on. Ichigo felt hot just thinking about it and chose to put aside his feelings.

As he unbuttoned the shirt – Urahara only had shirts, not even polo tees, the Lord knows why – Ichigo fantasized briefly about running his hands over the exposed chest, pale but lean-muscled, about looping his arm about the trim waist and cording his fingers into messy blond hair...

"Ichigo, are you alright?" asked Urahara with some concern. Ichigo had been holding the shirt for a minute without any further motion.

Ichigo blinked. "Uh, sure. Sure I am." He quickly busied himself with removing the garment and then retreating to his own room. At least Urahara could brush his own teeth now and handle the more delicate aspects of his own hygiene.

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Giles piled the books according to call number and strode out of the office. Buffy and Faith were at the counter, while Willow, Xander, Ichigo and Urahara were ranged around the table. The Physics teacher nursed a coffee, holding the mug with his right hand. The good thing about the prosthesis was that it did not feel the heat.

"Yes, every year there is a Watchers' retreat in the Cotswalds. A lovely spot, very serene. They have horseback riding, fishing, lectures, seminars..." said Giles. A hint of irritation crept into his voice as he continued, "Or so I am told."

"Ah, it's boring," remarked Faith. "Way too stuffy for a guy like you."

Buffy glanced from Slayer to Watcher. "Uh, maybe I wasn't clear enough with the intros. Faith, this is Giles."

"I seen him. If I'd known they came this young and cute I'd have requested for a transfer." Faith glanced at Urahara. "Or maybe I'll settle for him."

Urahara almost choked on his morning coffee, and yelped when his concentration faltered and his right hand let go of the cup. Ichigo leaped up and rushed to help, and the commotion caused by the two Japanese momentarily distracted the group from Faith's almost-flirting with Giles.

"Leaving aside the issue of my youth and beauty and Urahara's suitability as my substitute," said Giles hastily, a little pink around his ears, "the fortuitous fact that Faith is here certainly adds a panache to our operations."

"Aha!" Willow's outburst startled the others; Ichigo was mopping up the coffee stains on the floor and knocked his head on the table. "Ooh, sorry Ichigo. I meant, Aha! You'll never feel bored here, Faith, cos this is the home of the big brewin' evil."

Giles cleared his throat. "Well, I don't know how big or... brewing... this evil is, but three persons have disappeared in Sunset Ridge last night. One of them was pulled from a fast food drive-through window."

"I'm good to patrol," Buffy commented. "Late-ish though. I promised dinner with mom."

The gang looked at the Slayer expectantly and Buffy forced a smile at Faith. "To which you're invited, of course."

"Dyin' to meet the fam. I'm in." Faith stuck her hands in her pockets.

Buffy looked anything but thrilled. "Great. Then we'll patrol. Also together."

"We'll hunt them down and stake 'em where they stand!" Faith mimed a punch to an imaginary foe's gut and grunted.

Ichigo frowned "That's vaguely disturbing."

"Sorry for your sensibilities, sugar," teased Faith. "Want me to make it better?"

Ichigo rolled his eyes. "Don't even."

"Your loss."

The first bell rang and the teens got up. Urahara hurriedly gulped down the remains of his coffee and dashed off.

Willow chirped, "Don't you have that make-up test you gotta take, Buffy?"

"Yeah, I could use some tutoring-"

"-so we'll keep Faith company, show her around while Buffy's testing," Willow blithely went on, ignoring her best friend's forlorn expression.

Xander agreed happily. "Yeah, and you can bring your stories!"

"Sure!" To Giles, Faith called out, "You. Later on. We'll talk weapons."

"Fine. Fine, I'll just – sit." Buffy sat.

Ichigo tapped the blonde Slayer's shoulder. "I'd tutor you but I have math. See you at lunch? Good luck."

Giles came over when the three exited, chattering excitedly, and Ichigo left a lot less noisily than the rest. "She's certainly full of zest."

"She sure is."

Paying heed to Buffy's sulky face, Giles diverted the topic and said, "I've discovered problem with the ritual binding for Acathla. I seem to be lacking the requisite details to perform it correctly. The physical location – Acathla was facing south..."

"Yeah. Acathla was here," she grabbed Urahara's mug, "Angel was here, and I was here, and" a pencil subbed for the role, "stab."

"Yes, but-"

"Giles, I have a test to prepare for, a zesty new slayer to feed, and missing people at Sunset Ridge to worry about. The next time I kill Angel I'll video it, alright?"

The library doors could not be slammed but her stormy exit more than expressed the effect. He sighed and put away the books. Another day, another attempt, and why did Faith's appearance in Sunnydale ring a large bell of suspicion?

XxXxXxXxXxXxXxXx

Willow pointed to the left. "And here we have the cafeteria, where we were mauled by snakes..."

"This is the spot where Angel tried to kill Willow," Xander added, not to be outdone.

"Over there in the lounge is where Spike and his gang nearly massacred us all on parent-teacher night." Willow indicated the area and then flapped her hands excitedly. "Oh, and up those stairs, I was sucked into a muddy grave."

Xander tucked his hands into his pockets. "They say young people don't learn anything in high school nowadays, but I've learned to be afraid."

The dark-haired Slayer chuckled. "You guys are a hoot 'n a half. If I'd had friends like you in high school," she hesitated for a beat, shrugged and said, "I'd've still dropped out but I mighta been sad about it."

They looked around the nondescript high school. Some other students were milling around, waiting for their next lesson, some checking out Faith while some girls scowled at her from a safe distance.

Faith seemed unaffected by the staring. "What's up with B? She seems wound kinda tight – needs to find the fun a little, like you two. Oh, water." She headed for the water fountain.

Xander called out, "Then the alligator story!" As he continued watching her, he said, "She's got something, doesn't she?"

"What is it with you and slayers?" snapped Cordelia, her sudden appearance startling Xander. She snarled, one eyebrow raised. "Maybe I should dress up like one and hold a stake to your throat."

Xander regarded his girlfriend hungrily and said, "Please, God, don't let that be sarcasm."

XxXxXxXxXxXxXxXx

"Excuse me," said the boy who almost collided with Faith.

The girl smiled. "Sorry. Hey, I seen you before."

"At the Bronze? You're friends with Buffy, right?" The boy appeared marginally more cheerful.

"Yeah, I'm Faith."

"Scott, nice to meet you."

At that moment Buffy jogged down the stairs and came up to her friends. She looked proud. "I'm two for two with the make-up tests. Proud, yes, but also humble in this time of – What are we looking at?"

Cordelia barely bothered to hide her scorn. "Does anyone believe that's her actual hair color?"

At the water fountain, Scott and Faith were laughing. Buffy stamped down on her spurt of indignant anger.
"Boy I haven't seen him laugh like that... maybe Faith and Scott could hit it off. I mean, if you're done with him," said Willow, trailing off when she saw Buffy's glare, "- not that you used him or anything."

"I hadn't definitely, one hundred per cent said no to him for all time... It's just, you don't enter into these things lightly, there's repercussions to consider and..." the Slayer shifted from foot to foot when she noticed Willow and Xander exchange a knowing glance. "Why am I seeing a look?"

"You really do need to find the fun a little, B-uffy." Willow coughed to hide her faux pas.
Irritated, Buffy walked over to the water fountain.

Scott, seeing that Buffy had come over to join them, said, "Buffy, Faith is telling me tall tales."

"She's funny," growled Buffy. "And leaving. We have to go."

"Oh." Scott had a crestfallen look on his face again. "Nice talking to you."

"Likewise," Faith agreed, and as she and Buffy moved off she asked, "Cute guy. He seeing anybody?"

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"Mister Trick... Talk to me." The vampire seated in the shadows inhaled the incense curling around him. He was Kakistos.

The vampire known as Mr Trick, a snappily-dressed vampire with very bright eyes tilted his head as he acknowledged the order. "Check it out. This town – this very street - wired for fiber optics. We
jack in a T-3, 2500 megs per, we got the whole world at our fingertips." He waved away the vampire lackey that tried to perfume him with incense. "Rick, allergies. What I'm sayin' is, we stay local – where the humans are jumpin' and the cotton is high - but we live global: you got a hankering for the blood of a fifteen year old Filipina? I'm on the net, she's here the next day, express air."

He had heard that another vampire crew in this town lived the same way, but in better digs; he hoped that the news would filter through to his boss soon, because he was sick of living in sub-par shelter. Even evil has standards. Who's to say that the Devil ain't got fancy furniture? All them architects and fashion designers gotta be burning down there.

"I want the blood of the Slayer," snapped Kakistos.

Here goes. Mr Trick braced himself and said, "On that front, good news and bad – rumor is this town already has a slayer, which makes two, I'm not sure how that happens-"

"I don't care if there's a hundred slayers!" roared the vampire in the shadows.

Kakistos moved into the dim light. His useless eye, milky and dead-white, seemed to be burning with fury. A hand – if a cloven hoof-like appendage could be called a hand – traced the wide, jagged scar along his face. Mr Trick took a step back, wary and nervous.

"I'll kill them all! SHE'S GOING TO PAY FOR WHAT SHE DID TO ME!" he bellowed, the force of the outburst seeming to send the building rumbling.

The other, younger vampire shivered. Best that the rage never turn towards him. He pointed at the lit-up screen before him. "Yes she is. I'm running a computer check on every hotel, rooming house
and youth hostel in town. She's gotta leave tracks, and we'll get her."

A knock on the door interrupted him. Mr Trick pulled on the long protective glove and sauntered to the door with a casualness he did not feel.

"Meanwhile, soon as the sun's down," he said, "we're out in force."

Then he opened the door.

A boy in a stupid hat and a tacky uniform peered into the gloom. "You guys order lunch?"

Behind the door Trick smiled. "Yes we did."

XxXxXxXxXxXxXxXx

"There's someone looking for a girl," Nanao announced with no preamble.

Hisagi looked up from the video game he was currently playing and beating Kira at. "Something special about this girl?"

"Dark-haired, average height, trouble-maker. Goes by the names of Faith or F. Lehane, or just FL." Nanao shrugged eloquently and took a seat on the arm of the sofa.

Kira scoffed. "She must not have been on the run for long. Not even bothering to change her name is the true sign of the amateur."

"She also happens to be a Slayer." The unfamiliar, clipped tones made the three vamps look at the stairway. The thin young man – of mixed heritage, perhaps; there was a hint of the Far East in the set of his eyes and the glossiness of his black hair – was not awed by the predatory intent of the vampires.

Kira set down his controller, letting his character die. Hisagi followed suit and slipped off the sofa into a half-crouch, his shoulder near Kira. The blond smiled unpleasantly, showing his canines. "And who might you be?"

"I am a guest of the house," said the boy. "And I wish to have lunch. Where may I find food?"

Kira licked his lower lip slowly. "In this house, you are lunch."

Before any of them could launch an attack, Aizen walked down the steps. He raised an eyebrow at his younger three and they settled back. Turning to the young man, he said, "I'm sorry. I have yet to apprise them of your presence."

"I could tell," the human said icily. "If there is no food suitable for me, I shall go out. It's time to explore Sunnydale."

Aizen nodded amiably. "Certainly. Would you need a car?"

"The cars you have are all too ostentatious. I will walk." The youth strolled past the three vampires on the couch and out the door, carefully shutting it with barely a click.

Kira narrowed his blue eyes and drawled, "Would anyone take it amiss should I accidentally snap that lovely white neck?"

"I would," replied Aizen. He regarded the trio. "He's Quincy Archer, sent by Jason Stark, and he is here to help us with our shinigami problem."

"And why would that stuck-up human do that?" Kira asked.

"The shinigami killed his family," said Aizen, coming up to Kira now and brushing his knuckles over the blond's cheek. "He cannot assault them in Japan which is their stronghold, but here... Here, they are fair game." He then turned his gaze on Nanao. "Nanao, darling. You mentioned something about a girl?"

"Yes," said Nanao quickly. "Faith Lehane. That – Archer – said that she was a Slayer. I suppose she is here to replace the fallen Slayer?"

Hisagi stood up and stretched. "Do we have to hunt?"

"Not yet," Aizen remarked. "If she comes to town, she is here for something. Find out what that is. If she's here to help Kurosaki Ichigo and Buffy Summers, then by all means kill her. If she's here for other reasons, let me know. And then we'll decide whether to kill her or not."

Kira smiled and nibbled his lower lip. "What about Archer?"

"When he's outlived his usefulness, you mean?" Aizen chuckled warmly and ruffled Kira's hair with affection. "If he's dumb enough to come back to us afterward, feel free."

XxXxXxXxXxXxXxXx

"So, you're a Slayer too?" asked Joyce, handing a bowl of chips over to Faith, who took it and scooped out prodigious handfuls. "Isn't that interesting. Do you like being a Slayer?"

"Mm-hmm," the brunette answered. The girl ate a lot – and still appeared hungry – and she was holding all of Joyce Summers' attention.

Buffy tried to get the bowl. "Uh, Mom?"

"In a moment, honey. What's it like, fighting vampires?" Joyce propped her chin in her hands.

Faith grinned toothily and fished out some sugar peas from another plate. "It's the best feeling in the world. Cause when I fight, it's like, I know I'm gonna win and they're gonna lose. And that is an awesome rush."

Buffy gave up and stood to get to the chips on the other side of the table. Her mother hardly noticed.

Joyce nodded. "Right, right. Buffy never talks like that."

"Yeah, well, it's because I'm focusing on not getting the feeling that I'm dead and the world's gonna end," snapped the blonde girl. Her fork stabbed unhappily at some innocent carrots.

Faith gestured with her hands. "I don't let that kind of negative thinking in."

"Right, that could get you hurt." Now Joyce turned to look at her daughter. "See, honey? You gotta fight that." To Faith, she added, "Buffy can be awfully negative sometimes."

Buffy mimed a cheer. "Workin' on it." She sighed softly and got up. "I'm getting a soda."

"Oh, I want," said Faith immediately.

Buffy forced a smile. "Of course you do." She headed to the kitchen and dug out two cans of Dr Pepper.

Joyce came in after, refilling the avocado dip. "I like her, Buffy," she said quietly.

"Join the club," said Buffy with almost no hint of irritation in her voice. "She's zesty. She's great stories. She's personable. She gets along with my watcher, my friends, my mom, and – oh look – she's now getting along with my fries."

"Buffy-"

"Plus, she was making eyes at my not-boyfriend today at school," hissed Buffy.

"It's just as well you're an only child," said Joyce fondly.

The younger Summers resisted the urge to roll her eyes. "I just got my life back, Mom. I'm not looking to go halfsies on it."

Joyce smiled. "Well, there are some things I'll like you to share. Like the fighting and the slaying. Two of you is safer than one, right?" She paused. "And next year you'll be going to college. Couldn't she... take over for you or something?"

"No one can take over for me, Mom. The only way anyone can take over is if the old slayer dies." Seeing Joyce's suddenly pale face, Buffy realized that she had never told her mother about the encounter with the Master.

Joyce was gripping the counter very tightly. "That means... you died? When? How?"

"It's over, I mean, I'm not dead, right? It was only... I only died a little. Two minutes, maybe?" Buffy hugged her mother. "I'm okay."

"It's not okay. It's not okay that you died, Buffy," said Joyce. Her eyes were red-rimmed. "I hate this. I hate your life."

Stung, Buffy grabbed the drinks. "Sorry about that."

"I know you didn't choose this, it chose you, and I hate that it did. I've tried to be in the Slayer pep rally but... You're my daughter. I don't want you to die," explained Joyce quietly.

The blonde Slayer smiled weakly. "I know. Anyway, now it's two of us. It's gotta be safer, right?"

Joyce looked a little more reassured. Then she hugged Buffy once more before the two Summers women returned to the dining table to feed the hungry second slayer.

XxXxXxXxXxXxXxXx

Gin left the mansion alone. He was adept enough to avoid the hot spots, knowing that the Slayer – Slayers, plural, Taishou had caught him up with the latest developments – would be patrolling them. Instead, Gin chose the brightly lit places. The Coffee Spot was almost packed with adults, the soft murmur of conversation a welcome difference from the noisy Bronze that Kira had dragged him to a couple of times. The store was playing a new album from some new band; Gin sighed and tried to muffle his hearing. Every generation came up with more and more horrendous music, he thought uncharitably. Then again, he was thankful he would never have to sit through the sixties again. Every other human bloodbag had been tainted with some hallucinogen, and he had to spend hours waiting for the drugs to wear out of his system.

As he sat in a corner seat, he cast his gaze over the crowd. Most were here with friends. A sweet-looking girl, her lips colored a beautiful coral, caught his eye and smiled prettily, but her companion had bristled and led her away after glaring at Gin.

The vampire didn't mind. He was bored, feeling cooped up in the mansion. He had always been the one who started the hunt – not a hunt, a chase – the feeling of tracking something down, getting to know the mind of his prey and then, then slowly coaxing it to come closer and offer itself up as a sacrifice. Kira had been one such offering, very delicious, though Gin had had to brutally murder the village to break Kira's mind. Another was Nanao, though the wooing had been done by Aizen and Gin had observed the process, an apprentice learning at the feet of the master.

A burst of delighted laughter caught Gin's attention. At the counter were two men, one taller than the other, but both striking in their appearance. The shorter one was gesturing and he had a wonderfully open expression of happiness. His lips were temptingly red, and his floppy brown hair kept falling into his eyes – such blue eyes, Gin marveled appreciatively – which he swept aside with casual excitement. The other man was tanned, his hair almost reddish, and the faint smile on his lips made him appear almost detached from the scene. If not for the way he leaned forward and the persistent eye contact with the shorter male, Gin would have thought that the taller man was uninterested.

The vampire sipped his espresso with anticipation curling at the base of his spine. Two of them... which one?

As if noticing his scrutiny, the shorter one turned and stared directly at the vampire. The taller one followed the intense blue gaze and his eyes, though not as vividly colored, held an intensity that was as ferocious as it was fathomless.

Gin tipped his cup and drained it.

Before he could approach the two, he suddenly heard – no, felt a voice in his head.

Come near us and I will make you think you're a duckling. Or a kitten.

Gin halted. He peered curiously at the two. The floppy-haired man tapped his temple with a faint, cold smile.

We're just passing through. I don't want a fight, and the use of the pronoun was deliberate, seeing how the taller man's lips curled contemptuously, and I do not wish to engage in any conflict with the vampires yet.

Yet? Gin let the thought sit at the front of his mind. This was the second true telepath he had ever met personally, the first being in the sixties, and he had enjoyed a brief liaison with that one before killing him. Who would have thought a dying scream sounded much better in the head?

That unbidden memory made the telepath scowl and he exchanged a glance with the taller man. Gin shrugged and walked out of the store. He would need to get to a more crowded place where it was difficult to locate him, because if he had not misread the look, the telepath would now hunt him down.

No we're not. At least, not yet. There's business to take care of. We might come back in the future... Ichimaru Gin.

Gin chuckled. You should give me a name. It's only polite.

And warn you ahead of time? I think not. But I can give you a sample of what's in store.

A sudden blast of pain echoed through Gin's skull and he winced, forcing himself to stay in human face. He had to get to the mall and lose himself in the gaggle of humanity.

Thankfully there were no more mental attacks after he left Main Street, though how much of it was due to the telepath's range or his statement that they really were passing through.

He would need to notify Stark. Wolfram and Hart might just want to keep their own telepaths on the watch out for this pair. And maybe he and Aizen might want to employ a telepath of their own should they really come back.

XxXxXxXxXxXxXxXx

"Didn't we already do this street?" complained Faith, her boots thudding with more force than necessary.

Buffy ignored the whine. "Funny thing about vamps. They sometimes go where you've already gone. So inconsiderate of them."

"Whatever," said Faith. "You're the one who's been doing this the longest."

Buffy did not respond.

Faith muttered, "Maybe too long."

Now that could not go unchallenged. Buffy stopped in her tracks and glared at her. "What's that supposed to mean?"

"Nothing." Faith gave a one-shoulder shrug.

"You got a problem?" demanded the blonde Slayer. She knew this was stupid, she knew she was escalating, and she knew she didn't care.

Faith rose to the occasion with a matching, scathing glare. "I'm five by five, B. Living entirely
large and wondering 'bout your problem."

"I'm perfectly fine. Maybe I don't wrestle with alligators or sleep in the nude-"

"-and maybe you oughta start." Faith folded her arms. "Something in your bottle needs uncorking. Is it this Angel thing?"

Buffy felt anger blossom with rapid speed. "What do you know about him?"

"Only what your friends told me. Big love, big loss, you oughta deal and move on but you're not."

Pushed to the limit of her temper, Buffy stepped up and got in Faith's face. "How about you never mentioning Angel ever again? Or anything else in my life, which, by the way, is my life."

Faith's mocking sneer added fuel to the flames. "What are you getting so strung out for, B.?"

"Why are your lips still moving, F.?" Buffy countered.

"Is that a threat?" asked the brunette Slayer. "You think you can take me?"

"Yeah." Buffy suddenly caught movement in her peripheral vision. "I just hope they can't."

The four vampires advanced on the two girls and suddenly the Slayers swung into action. Pushing Faith out of the way, Buffy staked the first one to rush them.

Though Buffy knew that Faith was likely more than able to hold her own, she spared an occasional glance at her fellow Slayer. Vampire number two and three were fighting her together, and it was obvious they had done this plenty of times before. She punched one of them, sidestepped the other's onslaught, and then spun into a high kick. However her foot was caught and she was sent hurtling towards a pile of crates set against the wall. The collision caused Buffy's vision to flicker briefly; the momentary lull meant that one of the vampires now had her in a death grip, his clawed hands closed about her neck. Only her desperate clutch at his fingers stopped him from breaking her spine, and when her foot lashed out he shouted and dropped her. Her reprieve was too short though as the other vampire clotheslined her and sent her sprawling again. When she flipped to her feet she jammed a stake into his heart. However, before she could turn and attack the other, she was knocked down.

"Faith, some help!" she shouted, not certain where the other girl had landed in her own fight. She could hear Faith shouting though.

"...you can't touch me!" screamed Faith. "You can't touch me!"

"Faith!" yelled Buffy. She could feel the vampire's weight bearing down.

His breath was rank. "For Kakistos we live. For Kakistos you die."

Twisting her torso Buffy managed to dislodge the bloodsucker, but he was too quick and punched her in the side of her face, causing her to stagger backwards. Her hands closed around another splintered segment of the crates earlier and she thrust the weapon forward blindly, hoping it would connect. It did: instinct had kicked in and she picked up the makeshift stake, hating that she had to pull splinters out of her palm later that night.

Faith was still pummeling the vampire to a bloody pulp. Buffy yanked the Slayer off and put the bloodsucker out of its misery. Then she rounded on Faith.

"What is your problem?" she shouted.

Faith tugged her jacket on properly. "What are you talking about?"

"I'm talking about you living large on the great undead here." Buffy forced herself to remain calm. Shouting would not help.

"Gee, if doing violence to vampires upsets you, I'm pretty sure you're in the wrong line of work," said Faith with heavy sarcasm coloring her tone.

Buffy snorted. "Or maybe you like it just a little too much."

"I was getting the job done," retorted the dark-haired girl.

"The job is to slay demons. Not mash them into sloppy joes while their friends are cornering me," Buffy stated fiercely.

Faith looked affronted and sneered, "I thought you could handle yourself."

XxXxXxXxXxXxXxXx

"She's off her rocker," said Buffy as she walked with Giles to the library after school. "She completely lost control."

"Well, Buffy, you must realize that you and Faith have very different temperaments. She's more... unorthodox-"

"And I'm the more sane? Giles, she's not playing with a full deck. She has no deck. She has a three." Buffy sighed and rolled her eyes. "Are you even listening to me?"

Giles set down his letters and studied Buffy for a few seconds. "You said yourself she killed one of
them. She's a plucky fighter who got a little carried away. Which is natural: she's focused on Slaying, she doesn't have a whole other life here like you-"

"-she doesn't need one, she's got mine-"

"-and I think you're being a little-"

"-no, I'm being a lot. I get that. But I'm telling you, she nearly got us both killed," said Buffy. Her stance softened slightly. "She needs help."

Giles cleared his throat. "I'll see if I can get word to her watcher at the retreat. Eight hours later, they're probably enjoying a nightcap... I wonder if they still kayak. I was an excellent kayaker in my day, do they even consider that...?"

Buffy glared.

Chastened, Giles rubbed the side of his nose. "Sorry. Now these vampires that attacked you, did you notice any details that might help me trace their lineage: modern or ancient dress, amulets, cultish tattoos...?"

The Slayer frowned. "No tats, crappy dressers, oh, the one who nearly bit me said something about... kissing toast, he lived for kissing toast."

The Watcher tensed. "You mean Kakistos?"

Buffy muttered, "Or, it could have been taquitos, maybe he lived for taquitos... what'd you say?"

"Kakistos."

Off the librarian's look, Buffy asked, "Is that bad?"

"Yes." Giles headed into the metal cage and pulled out a few volumes before he located the one he wanted. He flipped the pages as he explained, "The name means the worst of the worst. It's also the name of a vampire, so old his hands and feet are cloven. He must be here for some reason."

"This guy shows up when, two days ago?" Buffy tilted her head. "Right around the time my bestest new little sister makes the scene."

"You think Faith is connected to Kakistos somehow?" asked Giles, his finger hovering over an entry in the book.

"There's two things I do not believe in," said Buffy. "Coincidence and leprechauns."

Giles risked a small smile. "Buffy, it's entirely possible they happened by chance to arrive simultaneously."

The Slayer shrugged. "Okay, but I'm right about leprechauns, right?"

"As far as I know."

"Good." The blonde settled her bag on her shoulders. "Get England on the phone. I'm gonna talk to Faith. See if Kakistos rings a bell. Or an alarm."

Ichigo chose that moment to enter the library. "What rings an alarm?"

Buffy smiled at the redhead. "Wanna take a walk with me?"

Ichigo raised an eyebrow. "Where to?"

"The other side of town from the good side of town." Buffy hoped that the boy would come along. It would ease the tension between her and Faith.

Unfortunately Ichigo shook his head. "I'm supposed to meet Willow here. She booked my assistance for getting a present for Oz."

"Oz's birthday is coming up?"

"No, some anniversary thing. You know how she is." Ichigo grinned.

Buffy smiled and waved goodbye.

XxXxXxXxXxXxXxXx

Outside the library she hurried to the back door. Just as she turned the corner she bumped into the person she wished she could see a lot more often. "Scott, hey."

"Buffy," said Scott shyly. "I uh, how are you?"

"I'm good, I'm... I'm good." Buffy wished desperately she could loiter a little longer. Her hesitation must have come across to Scott.

He smiled nervously and pulled out a small box. "Uh, I know, you have to be going somewhere. Think of this as my last-ditch attempt. I realize one more will qualify as stalking." He took a deep breath. "I've given a lot of thought, some might say too much thought, to how I might be a part of your life. It begins with conversation, we all know this. Maybe over a cup of coffee, maybe at the Buster Keaton festival - playing on State Street all this weekend..."

There was no hiding the hopeful glimmer in his limpid eyes. Buffy hesitated again and then smiled shyly.

"Looking back now I see I haven't really been fair to... Buster Keaton." Scott's face lit up when Buffy went on, "I like what I've seen of him so far; I think it's time to see a little more."

Scott exhaled. "Keaton is key." Then he dug his hand into his pocket and pulled out a small white box. "I got you a little present, guy in a retro shop said it represents friendship - that's something I'd
very much like to have with you."

Surprised and touched, Buffy took the box and opened it.

A Claddagh ring gleamed in the late afternoon sun.

The blonde felt time freeze about her. Then she dropped the item and backed away. "I-I can't. I can't it's... I can't. I'm sorry."

A visibly disappointed Scott bent and retrieved the ring. "It's okay. No big deal, I get it."

As the slender boy strode off Ichigo hurried up. "Hey, are you okay?"

"Hi. I'm – I'm fine. What is it?"

"Giles called England. The retreat." Ichigo bit his lips. "Faith's watcher is dead."

XxXxXxXxXxXxXxXx

Once Giles figured out that Faith had lied about her Watcher, it was not difficult to put two and two together: Faith had run to Sunnydale in hopes of shaking off Kakistos.

"I'm gonna go get her here, Giles," said Buffy. "Sun's almost down. What if they find her before I do?"

"Go, Buffy," Ichigo urged. Willow had come by earlier and taken a raincheck – Oz wanted her company at a gig out of town, and the girl had happily agreed to tag along as an Oz-only groupie.

"Yes, I imagine that it won't be difficult for a vampire of Kakistos' resources to locate her. Do stay safe while coming over. I fear they will swarm the streets to find her." Giles nodded as Buffy rushed off.

Ichigo stood up, ready to leave, when Giles said, "Uh, Ichigo, I would like you to stay. There are some people I want you to meet."

"Who?"

As if on cue, the library doors swung open and two men entered. They looked like they were in their mid-twenties, or maybe early thirties: one was intimidatingly intense, the way his eyes scanned the surrounds seeking out routes and weapons; the other seemed warm and friendly, his brilliant blue eyes twinkling and his thick brown hair barely brushed in some semblance of order. Giles turned around and they stopped beside the counter.

"Rupert Giles, this is an abysmal collection you have here," the blue-eyed man announced with a generous sweep of his arms. "You should be ashamed of yourself."

Giles twitched a smile. "This is a school library, my friend, and I do not intend to place all my worldly wealth here where grubby handed students can get at them."

The two of them shook hands and then the shorter man tugged Giles into a hug. He grinned and looked at the Watcher from head to toe. "Well, I must say the California sun is doing wonders for you, Rupert. You seem much healthier than the last time we met. Do you believe I have had no tea? All over this town they only have horrible coffee, which does nothing for my system and makes me jittery and tense."

"Y-yes, of course. Ichigo, could you-?" Giles motioned for the Japanese boy to join them. "Ichigo, this is my old friend from Oxford-"

"Call me Charles." The man shook Ichigo's hand with fervor, and somehow the teenager did not feel affronted by the familiarity of the smile nor the curious warmth in those eyes. "And that is my colleague, Max. Max, this is Rupert, I've spoken of him along the way."

"Pleasure, Rupert, Ichigo," said Max, though he made no move to shake Ichigo's hands. The teenager felt that the unfriendliness was not limited to Ichigo alone.

Charles appeared not to have noticed anything. "So. Shall we sit?"

They took seats around the wooden table, Max close to Charles, opposite Giles and Ichigo, and Ichigo felt nervous under the piercing gray-green regard the taller man leveled at him.

"I came as soon as I got your call, Rupert," Charles said. "I gather this young man is the one?"

"Yes," said Giles softly. He turned to the teenager. "I asked Charles to come over because he is one of the most powerful telepaths in the world."

"You want him to read my mind," Ichigo stated.

"I need him to verify what you told me was true. It could have been an elaborate lie constructed by-"

"Why are there two of you in that beautiful head of yours?" interrupted Charles. The floppy-haired man frowned. "And the other one is not very pleasant at all."

Ichigo froze. "You're already reading me?"

"No," said Max, his voice a low rumble. "He doesn't read unless you agree to it."

"I'm just hearing the other you screaming at me right now. I can't avoid hearing it," Charles apologized.

Ichigo leaned down further in his chair. "Umm... this is quite uncomfortable for me."

Charles tilted his head quizzically. "You intend to have another mind sharing your body?"

"No."

The man broke into another of those sunny smiles. "Then let me help you."

Ichigo furrowed his brow. "I-I'm not sure. How would you go about... that?"

"First I sieve out what is yours and what is his," said Charles casually, "before I construct a block between the two, and slowly force out the alien mind and casting it into the void."

"LIKE HELL I'll LET YOU!"

Max was the only one who kept his composure, his arm instinctively flung across Charles as the other man scrambled up and away. Giles had leaped up and ducked towards the book cage.

Ichigo was shaking, his fingertips turning white. What was more terrifying was the mad toothy grimace and the eyes – black and gold eyes – and just as it had exploded suddenly Ichigo seemed to wrest control and switched back into himself.

"Okay, what just happened?" the boy asked, shaken and pale.

Charles' good humor seemed to have disappeared. "You have to exorcise him now. He's been biding his time and if he was able to break free like just now with no warning..."

The doors slammed open and a blond man stormed into the library. "I felt him. What the hell do you think you're doing?"

"Urahara," said Giles. "Ichigo needs help."

"I will decide that," snarled Urahara. He held out a hand. "Ichigo, we should go home."

There was a scraping sound as Max rose from his chair. "Sir, if you take him home, who is going to help him?"

"I will."

"You've been suppressing the demon," said Max with a quiet, intense stare. "But suppression only leads to a fiercer rebound. The demon wants to break free and your... student will not be able to withstand him for long."

Urahara gaped at the two men. Charles nodded, his demeanor sincere. "I can help," said Charles. "I can help Ichigo find his balance."

Then Ichigo tugged his hand away from Urahara. "Let him try, please."

Urahara looked at his orange-haired ward. "You certain?"

"Yes." Ichigo licked his lips. "I have to deal with Shirosaki eventually. If he says he can help, then I want to try."

XxXxXxXxXxXxXxXx

She had to wait for almost five minutes outside the door before the door opened. Faith was in a foul mood apparently, and there was a faint stench of cigarettes. Odd, that; Faith didn't smoke. Then Buffy caught sight of the trash bin and blushed.

"What is it?" Faith asked in a bored tone.

Buffy's attention snapped back to the present. "Does the name Kakistos ring a bell?"

The look on the dark-haired girl's face indicated that it rang more than a bell; it rang a whole freaking town-wide siren. "What do you know of Kakistos?" she asked coldly.

"That he's here."

Now that made Faith worried. She started grabbing clothes and and bag, stuffing everything inside.

"So we're not happy to see old friends," Buffy went on, pushing deliberately. "What did he do to you?"

"It's what I did to him," said Faith, and if she had snapped it would have been better. Her confidence had suddenly disappeared and Buffy saw, with sudden shock, how terrified Faith was.

"What would that be?" Buffy pressed. When the other girl didn't answer, she said, "You came here for a reason, Faith, I can help-"

Faith did snap now. "You can mind your own business. I'm the one can handle this."

"Yeah, you're a real badass when it comes to packing. What'd you say about my problem, gotta deal and move on?"

Faith picked up her bag and turned to face Buffy. Her gaze was steel hard.

Buffy was unmoved. "Here we have the moving on part, I get that – and dealing, that's something you just gonna dump on my doorstep?"

"You don't know me, you don't know what I've been through." The brunette shoved past Buffy and headed for the door. "I'll take care of it."

"Like you took care of your watcher?"

That was a low blow and Buffy knew it. The sudden stillness of the other Slayer showed that it had hit hard too.

She did not turn around but said, "They don't have a word for what they did to her."

The knocking on the door startled them both. Faith grumbled under her breath and peered out the peephole. "What now?"

Buffy suddenly sensed something amiss and made to stop her, but Faith had already opened the door.

"Hello Faith," said the vampire right outside.

Faith screamed. Buffy slammed the door shut and dragged the other Slayer with her. "Scream later, escape now," she suggested, and pulled Faith behind her as they clambered out the back window.

XxXxXxXxXxXxXxXx

They had no idea where they were running to. Buffy and Faith kept meeting with vampires, left and right, and with encounter they would take down one or two and move on again, and the group of bloodsuckers behind them got bigger and bigger. Eventually it was either the ocean or the abandoned warehouse on the left, and Buffy kicked in a boarded entryway before climbing into it.

The space was empty and quiet, though some lights were switched on. The Slayers paused and heard the running feet thunder away and fade out.

"It's okay, I think we shook them," said Buffy. "Faith, what happened?"

"I..." Faith was having difficulty breathing, speaking. It was more than the run that winded her. "I... I was in, I was in Missouri. I saw, I saw what he did to my Watcher, and what he was going to do to me, and I ran, I ran and left her..."

"Hey." Buffy shook Faith by her arm. "First rule of slaying: don't die. You did the right thing, you didn't die." Then, having grabbed Faith's attention, she said, "Now do the math. One of him, two of us..."

"No," gasped Faith. "No, no, no no no... this is his place. This is his place, this is a trap!"

Buffy looked about her wildly. Then she saw it: a pile of bodies, maybe six or ten, she couldn't tell. "We were driven here," Buffy said, her mouth dry and sick.

The door burst open, admitting five vampires including the fearsome Kakistos and from behind, where the slayers had entered earlier, three vampires climbed in. Buffy glanced at Faith, whose horrified gaze was locked on Kakistos.

They were surrounded.

XxXxXxXxXxXxXxXx

Charles leaned back into the chair and Max laid a hand on his left shoulder. Charles patted it absently. "It's alright, darling. I'm fine." Then, having caught his own use of the endearment, Charles flushed and stammered, "I've isolated the memories. And I'm truly sorry for what you have had to endure, Ichigo. You are a remarkable young man."

"Thank you." Ichigo squirmed. It had felt incredibly intrusive, having had someone root around in his brain and offering an occasional apology or comment. Charles really had no concept of personal space, Ichigo realized, because when the older man came to the memory of the night Ichigo lost his virginity, Charles had shared happily how he had felt when he first had sex. But the fact that Charles knew he was homosexual seemed to make the job slightly easier and Charles managed to complete his task in less than an hour.

Urahara had not sat down. His gray-green eyes looked from one to the other. "What about the exorcism?"

"We'll need to keep him bound," said Charles cheerfully. "Preferably with metal."

"Shirosaki is too strong, and chains won't hold him," said Urahara.

Max smiled faintly. "That's because chains have weak links."

"So what do you recommend? Metal cuffs that have no weak points whatsoever? There is always a join somewhere that is a weak point!" countered the physics teacher hotly.

The tall man regarded Ichigo for a moment and then he smiled. "Not for me."

XxXxXxXxXxXxXxXx

Faith backed away slowly as Kakistos advanced on her. Buffy grabbed a steel bar and shoved it in Faith's hands.

"Don't die," she commanded. Whipping out a stake, Buffy tried to get to Kakistos, but he swatted her aside and she fell to the floor. Then she was rushed by the lesser minions.

Faith looked at the bar in her hands, then up at Kakistos. She tried to swing it, but Kakistos stopped it and punched her right through a support beam.

Buffy, on her back on the floor, thrust her stake forward as a vampire dove for her. That vampire died with little fuss, and after flipping to her feet Buffy makes short work of a couple more who appeared to have been newly turned, so uncoordinated and rough their attacks.

Faith, on the other hand, was not doing well. Her crawl back to a standing position was slow and ungainly, and Kakistos kicked her in the ribs, landing her down again.

"Faith!" yelled Buffy. She was about to go for Kakistos when a snazzily-dressed vampire grabbed her from behind.

"I believe this dance is mine," he smirked.

She slammed him back against the wall, bent forward and flipped him over onto his back, whipped out her stake. Buffy bared her teeth in mockery of the vampface. "The music stopped."

He rolled away just as the stake came down. As he got into another fighting stance, he said, "But the beat goes on. Gimmie whatchya got."

She approaches and they trade punches, enough for Buffy to know they were a good match. Her attention wavered between her own fight and Faith's battle though, and when she looked over for a second she saw Kakistos towering over Faith.

The old vampire had dragged Faith to her feet by her hair. She was wide-eyed with terror now.

The momentary distraction proved costly for Buffy as another vampire grabbed Buffy from behind. As the black vampire came towards her, Buff head-butted the one holding her arms behind her and then kicked out, smashing a heel in the black vampire's face. Then she staked the one which had imprisoned her briefly and out of the corner of her eye she saw that Faith was down.

Buffy dashed over, intent on stopping Kakistos, and started raining all her kicks and blows on him. Her attacks were easily parried – Kakistos was much bulkier and stronger, and did not hesitate to use his size against her – but Buffy kept going, using her speed and agility as her weapons.

Mr Trick in the shadows rolled his shoulders and heard them creak. "Spirited girl. We don't do something, she just might kill him."

The vampire beside him moved to assist, but Trick stopped her. "I don't think I have a problem with that. Incense, candles, missing the Bulls games 'cause he's too cheap to pop for cable - who's had enough here?"

The vampire looked at him, and the one in front of them did the same. They both raised their hands tentatively and then followed Trick out the gaping hole in the back.

XxXxXxXxXxXxXxXx

Giles and Urahara watched in awe and trepidation as Max manipulated the steel of the book cage into long thick snakes of metal and they wrapped about Ichigo. To facilitate the process, Urahara had put Ichigo into a trance, but that also meant that Shirosaki would be able to surface at any moment.

Charles had taken a seat beside Max, his blue eyes fixed on the teen's face. When the steel cocooned Ichigo, leaving only his head exposed, Max set the teenager down.

"What are you?" murmured Urahara, shocked at the ease at which Max had twisted and shaped the metal.

Max pretended he hadn't heard the comment. "All yours, liebling."

"Charles, you are sure what to do, right?" asked Giles once again.

Charles nodded, his resolute manner assuring even Urahara, who had his spell to force Shirosaki under ready, just in case. Advancing cautiously, Charles touched Ichigo's temple and closed his eyes.

XxXxXxXxXxXxXxXx

Avoiding the punch, Buffy came up with a stake, ducked a second giant swing from Kakistos and buried the stake deep and true into his chest.

Nothing happened.

Shocked, Buffy pounded on the stake, trying to sink it deeper. Still nothing happened, and Kakistos started laughing.

"Guess you need a bigger stake, slayer," he hissed.

Suddenly a broken support beam pushed out through his chest. There was a second of shock, before Kakistos crumpled into nothing. Behind, Faith was still gripping the broken support beam as a lance.

The two stood there, breathing hard, and looked around. There was no one else other than the dead bodies. Then they looked at each other.
"You hungry?" asked Buffy.

Faith licked her torn lower lip. "Starved."

XxXxXxXxXxXxXxXx

"It's done," said Charles, throwing his head back. His waves of brown hair were rumpled up, and perspiration had wet his shirt. "Gone. That demon is cast out into the ether – it'll be hard to get it back without the specific rituals, and I don't think anyone knows its full, real name besides you, Mr Urahara."

Giles smiled and he was glad that Urahara's relief mirrored his own. The Watcher knew he had been presumptuous in calling Charles and Max over from New York, but they were the best in this business. Once a demon spirit was cast out, it would be buried among the tens of thousands of souls in the ether, in the nothingness of limbo, and as long as Urahara didn't call it forth with its real name the demon Shirosaki would remain lost.

Max removed the steel cocoon from Ichigo and reworked it into the book cage, firming up areas which had been quite weak before. Slowly the redheaded teenager woke up and blinked.

"My head..." he murmured. "Light."

"It's all yours now," said Charles. "Oh, but I did put in a control over that shiny power of yours. You have to really want it before you get to use it. I don't want you incinerating half the demon population of the world just because you had a nightmare."

"Why not? Demons are evil," said Urahara.

Max's intense gaze locked onto Urahara's, and then he smiled like a shark. "You don't know enough of them to make that statement. Do not presume." He then extended a hand to Charles who was sitting down. "We need to leave. Darkholme would fret if we return late."

"She would, wouldn't she?" Charles accepted the help and embraced Giles once more. "It has been a mite too long since we met up for a drink, Rupert, and I hope we'll see each other again soon. Do keep in touch, please. I would love to hear more from you about your Slayer."

Giles chuckled. "You know I can't reveal that to civilians, but I will have a drink with you soon, I hope. Or if you are coming by this way again, do drop in for a chat."

XxXxXxXxXxXxXxXx

Ulquiorra was the one who caught the glimmer of a familiar, if faint presence and he grabbed at it. As if it recognized Ulquiorra's touch, the ephemeral presence clung to the Klaardis half-demon. There were no words exchanged, not even concepts, but somehow the presence managed to convey its joy at being free and its distress of being incorporeal. Having found Ulquiorra, it seemed to have located an anchor on the plane.

"I'll find you a body," Ulquiorra swore. His wings spread and he took off from the roof of the apartment where he had been waiting for the past few months. "Stay with me, Shirosaki. I will get you back."

XxXxXxXxXxXxXxXx

Buffy and Willow were looking at Giles in concern. The Watcher smiled and cleaned his glasses.

"The Council approved our request. Faith can stay here indefinitely; I'm to look after you both until they assign a new watcher." He put his glasses back on.

The Slayer nodded. "Good. She came through, you know. She had a lot to deal with, but she did it. Got it behind her."

"That's good to hear," Giles remarked, and began sorting out herbs and amulets.

There was a moment when Buffy tried to gather courage. Her voice was small but she was glad it didn't shake. "Angel was cured.'

"I'm sorry?"

"When I killed him," Buffy began again, not looking up at either her best friend or her watcher, "Angel was...cured. Your spell worked, Willow. Last minute. I was about to take him out and something went through him and then he was... Angel again. He didn't remember anything he'd done, he just held me, and..." Her voice faltered, just for a beat, and then she marshalled her strength, "... but it was, it was too late and I had to... I kissed him, and I told him that I loved him. And I killed him."

Silence descended. Now the blonde girl looked up and there was a calm acceptance in her expression. "I don't know if that helps with your spell or not, Giles."

The librarian's tone was exceedingly gentle. "I believe it will."

"I'm sorry," said Willow, her hands on Buffy's warm.

"It's okay. I guess I been holding onto that. It's actually kinda good to get it out." Buffy picked her books up and nodded. "I'll see you guys later."

After she had gone, Giles started putting away the spell paraphernalia. Willow raised her hand timidly.
"Giles? I know you don't like me playing with the mystical forces, but I really could help with the binding spell," she volunteered.

"There is no spell." Giles regarded Willow for a beat, and then entered his office.

XxXxXxXxXxXxXxXx

Buffy perked up when she saw Scott Hope round the corner. "Hi."

"Uh, hi," said Scott. He darted a glance about himself.

"Okay. This is a little harder than it looks, so here goes." Buffy nibbled her lips and blurted, "I'm really sorry about going mental on you... there was someone a while ago and the ring sort of confused me but... I liked what you said about friendship, I liked it a lot. Also, Buster Keaton, big fun. And I'm capable of the big fun even though there's no earthly way you could possibly know that about me lately. Wow, if I'd known I was going to go on this long I'd have brought water. So, if you were still up for the film festival - and I'd understand if you weren't - I'd pretty much love to go with you."

There was a long, pregnant pause. Scott seemed to have taken it all in, and then the next words out of his mouth made Buffy shrink a little.

"I don't know, Buffy. I'm really gonna have to think this over." He smiles sort of apologetically and walked down the corridor, but before Buffy could deflate completely and sink into the ground, Scott turned on his heel and came back. "I've thought. I'd love to go with you to the Buster Keaton. When do you want to go?"

Buffy beamed. "I've got one thing I need to do, and then I'm free."

"Good," said Scott happily.

XxXxXxXxXxXxXxXx

Ichigo looked at his reflection in the mirror and frowned. He didn't look any different. But he felt different, inside, as if there was a terrible load lifted from his shoulders and a different terrible load was dropped on him.

He recognized it as 'guilt'.

He would now have to deal with all the deaths he had inadvertently caused, and it was not going to be easy. Still, it was something to do: if he ever wanted to seal the Hellmouth, he would need to find a way to reactivate his powers.

He had a feeling Buffy wouldn't want him to do it. After all, if he sealed the Hellmouth, then the town would collapse. People would assuredly die along with him, both humans and non-humans. And yet...

"I was born for this," he whispered to himself. His reflection showed only his brown eyes staring back at him. "I was born for this."

XxXxXxXxXxXxXxXx

The ring that Buffy had left on the floor of the mansion started vibrating, as if it were a seed on a drum. A beam of light fell on it and the ring began to smoke, before a body dropped down and landed harshly right atop the little accessory. The person, naked and shivering and cold and shaking, tried to push himself off the ground.

His hands flattened against the cold tile, and his dark eyes scanned the surrounds. Too many smells, too familiar, and he had no idea where – or what, or who – he was.

Outside, a slim figure slunk away. He had sensed the gathering energy and trailed the Slayer here. And now this.

Quincy Archer could not help the satisfied smirk that crept on his face. It would be worth his while to stay in Sunnydale.

XxXxXxXxXxXxXxXx

A/N: I'm sorry, I just had to include that telepath bit. You win Internet Points for knowing who they were before getting to the A/N.

I rewatched XMFC recently and therefore was touched by the Cherik brotherhood/romance (yes, it's there) and bam! I may or may not dive into that fandom and write an AU where they hunt demons and locate mutants, but it's always cool to include cameos.