Faith grinned. Buffy opened her eyes and peered around.
"Is it safe now?"
"Course. Unlike you, I don't crash into things on a regular basis." Faith prised Buffy's stiff hands off her. "This is our stop. Hop off."
"Never… Again…" Buffy fell off the motorcycle, a little wild eyed. She tugged the green helmet off and rolled it away. "I can't believe you made me do that. I'm freezing."
Faith smoothed out her hair in an overly dramatic fashion after hooking her own helmet to the back of the vehicle. "Admit it. It was wicked cool." She had fared better in her own leather jacket than Buffy in her wool one.
"I was terrified. Every second." Buffy recovered enough to stand, the dawn air alive around her. It felt comforting. What didn't feel comforting was the ruins of the town before them. Graffiti smeared the buildings. Broken windows aligned every house on ever street as far as she could see. Parts of the pavement were cracked and , and vehicles lay abandoned or damaged. Not a soul was to be seen.
"Our dude is somewhere around here?"
"Somewhere," Buffy echoed, shifting into a cautious gait. Her attention flickered to each piece of destruction. Her breath curled outwards in a translucent mist. "If he hasn't already been ratted out."
"Ritz, Ritz, Ritz…" Faith paced down one street, checking every sign for the name.
Buffy crossed the main road and stared down a narrow walkway to what looked like a residency block. She padded silently onwards like a cat. Faith watched for a moment, then continued her search, making sure she could sense Buffy through the connection. She didn't like how quiet and empty and broken the whole place was. It made her wonder if she was catching a glimpse into their future, witnessing the total aftermath of the apocalypse if they failed to halt it. Nothing but empty streets, abandoned towns and cities, with dust gathering in the windows and humanity forced to the wilderness. It was already happening near all the Hellmouths, but it wouldn't be global as of yet. The media had a lot to play on, though.
Twenty minutes later, Faith struck gold. A small sign, to be more precise. It swung and creaked on rusted chains, the writing almost faded away. She made out a black R and possibly a T, or L. An helpful arrow pointed the way. As good a sign as any, Faith decided. She sought out Buffy. Together they followed the arrow, finding a respectable sized club hemmed in between unused market stores.
"Well. Do we knock?" Buffy approached the door, balling up her fist. Faith tested the door. Locked. She readied and rammed hard with her shoulder, slicing it open.
"Guess that answers that." Buffy rolled her eyes and entered the rustic establishment.
Sofas scattered around the seedy club, dust-ridden and uninviting. The floorboards were in severe need of polishing. Most of the light bulbs and strobes were burnt out, with only three in the room emitting anything at all. Above the bar, a bear's head snapped at them, screwed onto a bronze plaque. An empty gun holster hung underneath it. Buffy went right up to the bar and examined the pumps.
"This looks promising. Maybe we should start running up a tab." She leant over and pushed one of them, only getting a thin, bottom of the barrel trickle.
Faith in the meanwhile examined the stairs and the two doors on either side of the bar, shouting out the key words.
"Maybe if you breathe deeper, you can get a little more volume from your diaphragm," the blonde deadpanned. "Why don't we split up, check the place out before you yell at every bad guy in the area where you are?"
"Cos splitting up is equally stupid?"
"True. Bad things happen to main characters who think wandering off alone in an haunted house is a good idea…" Buffy joined Faith by the stairs, pointing upwards. "You first?"
Buffy froze, giving Faith a sharp glance. "You hear that?"
"What did it sound like?"
"Like someone clearing their throat?" Faith took a couple of wary steps up. "From around here…"
"Hem, hem. Hello!" Footsteps pattered down, grinding to a halt when an old, wizened woman clunked in front of them. Only a few wisps of hair remained on her head, and her eyes hid behind glasses the size of mug-rims. She bent over in a permanent hunch, gnarled knobbly hands grasping onto a brown walking stick. Her jumper looked like homespun wool, knitted in a repeating pattern of pink, white, and grey. The jumper reached down to her knees.
Oh, fuck me, the Inner Slayer said.
"Ent you two boo-tiful," she cackled.
"You have got to be kidding me." Buffy's hand went to her stake. The old woman cackled again, waggling her finger.
"Ah weel, steady on, dearies. I don't bite." Her features twisted into the familiar vampiric visage, distorted worse by the oversized glasses and prominent wrinkles on her face. She tapped the stairs with her stick. "You two, follow. Darius waitin' fer yer." She moved up the stairs surprisingly fast.
Both Slayers gaped at each other.
"The fuck?" Faith said, utterly taken back.
"What just happened?" Buffy demanded. "And why aren't we stabbing her already?"
"And what's with that accent? 'Ah weel'. Who the hell talks like that?"
A new voice bounced from upstairs, apparently addressing the vampire. "What's the racket about, Margo? Do you have our guests?"
"Yes! Both ready t'stake an auld woman, bless their hearts."
"I guess they are the Slayers, then. Well, come on. Get them up here!"
Completely mind-screwed, Buffy and Faith trailed after the vampire. Margo scampered ahead of them through a hallway, a large dance floor, and into a small room.
The room resembled a witch's lab. Cauldrons bubbled with viscous fluids. Skulls hung from the ceiling and draped from various ornaments. Some of them looked disturbingly human. Purple smoke wafted through the air from incense sticks. Their contractor waved at them. Red spikes pocked over his green skinned face.
"They said the code words, Margo?"
"I'm auld, not deaf. Heard them loud and clear," the vampire said.
'Oh, wonderful. Wonderful to have you both here. I've got everything sorted in some bags, right this way, yes." Darius ushered them over towards a couple of very large and bulky rucksacks. Faith the whole time had to resist the urge to do something about the vampire grinning at them in her creepy vampire way. Buffy seemed to be struggling with the same ordeal, giving the ancient vampire a look that would make Faith quail. Buffy's features melted into a wry smile when directed Faith's way, however. The brunette smiled back, feeling suddenly and absurdly cheerful.
"Tricky spell, is what you're doing," Darius burbled, unaware of the murderous intent in both Slayers over his pet vampire; "You need a good, talented sorcerer or two. Awfully unpredictable in the result as well, since your desire might not be what you need."
"Okay. So we grab the shit and go?"
Darius blinked. "Well, yes. Of course. Time is of the essence, speed is of the essence…" He appeared slightly offended.
"Cool." Faith pounced on the green rucksack, leaving Buffy with the noticeably bigger brown one. "Lets motor." And get away from that vampire before I stab it.
"I have to ride with you again? My life is over." Buffy picked up the backpack, accidentally knocking a figurine to the floor.
"You can ride me instead, if you want." Faith winked. When Buffy muttered something under her breath and flushed pink, Faith chuckled to herself.
Margo, currently squinting out of the window, turned back to them. The pane of glass protected her from direct sunlight. "You lasses best be away from here. We got trouble."
Faith immediately tested with her Slayer senses, her good mood gone.
"Bikers?" Darius still displayed the offended look.
"Yes. And a whaddyeh call it - minotaur? Huge creature."
"Minotaur? Let me see." Buffy made her way to the window, flanked quickly by Faith. The vampire moved out of their way, a wise move on her part, since both Slayers were itching to stake something.
Beneath buzzed with activity. Faith could have sworn the town was abandoned less than half an hour ago. Now no less than two dozen demons (some ugly neon blue type she didn't recognise) clustered around what she guessed was their leader, straddling a motorcycle. Like a lot of typical hardcore bikers, he wore black leather all the way over. He even had spurs on his boots, if the glint of silver in the sun was any indication. His face was twisted into a Joker style grin. Faith identified the minotaur next to him with a surge of adrenaline and anger.
The demons hollered out taunts and curses. They pointed to the building and shook their fists. One particularly drunk individual threw an empty liquor bottle which smashed against the wall.
"Where the hell did they come from?" Buffy snarled, whirling on Darius in heavy suspicion. "I didn't sense them at all."
Faith bristled, drawing out her stake. "You do some kind of mojo, is that it? Stop us sensing them? Maybe get them to surround this place?"
"No, no, I assure you, no!" Darius frantically flapped his hands, a bead of sweat forming on his forehead. "We're only here to help! I have no idea how they're outside!"
Margo barked out a laugh. "What makes ye think they're after you? Lots of useful things here."
"Right, that's right!" Darius nodded, swallowing. "And maybe they won't be able to detect us past all the enchantments I've got…"
"SLAYERS! THEY'RE IN THERE! Do not let them escape! I want them." Rekhyt's distinct bellow reached them.
"You were saying?" Faith, convinced they'd been betrayed, raised her stake.
"Oh, come on already," Margo said in disgust, waving at them to follow her. "To the basement."
"Basement?" Buffy whirled on the vampire, restraining her instincts.
"Yes! Basement." Darius hurriedly gathered items scattered around the room, stuffing them into a knapsack. "There's an convenient entrance to the very large sewers underneath this town."
Faith rubbed her face. "Really." Her tone dripped sarcasm.
"Cliché or not," Darius informed them as he pulled a gun out of one of the cabinets, "We had the entrance designed years ago. This inn used to serve the demon populace, and they needed a way to get in and out without being seen. Plus, my clan owns the territory. Some of them were architects."
"Right." Buffy shook her head, eyeing Darius sharply as he belted the gun and strap around his waist. "I won't shoot a gift horse in the mouth, I guess."
"It's 'look' a gift horse," Faith said.
Margo was already hovering by the door. The sound of smashed glass filtered up to them from below. "Could you be any slower?" She complained.
It didn't take long for the two Slayers to become filthy. The sewer tunnels were badly maintained. The particular section they travelled in was narrow and claustrophobic, but the only part that apparently avoided risk of clashing with a demon clan. Ahead of them was their only source of sight, a pale faced Darius holding a small flashlight. Margo pranced through a confusing swerve of tunnels, obviously knowing the area like the back of her hand. Buffy paced by Faith, taking comfort in her presence, but both girls expected something to go wrong at any moment. The tenuous trust Buffy placed in their guides would dissolve at the first sign of treachery. All the while she contemplated her current position. Preventing apocalypses was a thing she did. A regular sort of thing. Sort of like going to school, really. She didn't quite expect her world saving capabilities to be put to the test in another dimension, though.
She still had no idea about what was going on from her own planet. Weeks in this place could mean hours back home, or the same, or more. Did her friends, the real ones, all give up on her? Or did they strive even now to return her? Buffy felt pretty sure the people here weren't really trying to get rid of her. Not that she could blame them. This apocalypse was nasty stuff. It seemed unfair to differentiate between the doppelgangers. These people were every inch the ones she knew back home, but with some slight altercations. Like Tara being just a little more confident. Xander more distant. And all of them pulling off amazing synergy with Faith.
Faith. Although she had finally come to terms with the concept that this Faith was not her own, it took Buffy a long time to do so. She actually kind of liked this Faith. Okay, so Buffy tried to kill her as well, but they seemed to be past it now. Getting on like good old chums. Making with the merry, and the innuendo. Buffy gritted her teeth. She thought about the Faith, her Faith, currently mooching around in Prague. What the hell was she even doing there, anyway, instead of being in jail in another dimension? She'd tried so hard to accept this Faith. Now the one from her world decided to crash into the party. What next? A conglomeration of Faiths all popping from various dimensions to here? God, would this planet suddenly become populated with Faiths?
Buffy was so wrapped up in her torrent of thoughts and trying not to make her head explode, she almost crashed into the Faith in front of her. The brunette had halted, her breathing fast.
"Wha-" Buffy stopped when a scream rent the air. Darius' flashlight spun in a crazy arc, shattering into blackness on the ground. Margo shrieked in fury, and the sounds of a scuffle broke out.
"Run!" Darius snapped in the darkness, grabbing Buffy's shoulder and attempting to drag her along."
The lack of light made it impossible to navigate safely through the tunnel. The girls stumbled, tripped, all the while listening to whatever fight the vampire engaged in.
A bloodcurdling shriek broke out, sounding inches from Buffy's current position. She stiffened up, sensing out the danger. Something connected with her skull, sending her crashing onto the ground. Unconsciousness came fast.
"Buffy. Wake up." The voice whispered through the fog, gently sinking into her brain and pulling her out. When Buffy first opened her eyes, she thought she was blind. Her other senses heard the drip of water, the smell of moss and damp rock, a bitter taste in her mouth and a contrast of skin-numbing cold and vibrant warmth. All the lower half of her body had the heat siphoning out of it into the floor and walls. The rest of her was curled into Faith's body, who weaved fingers into her hair. The tremor in Faith's voice suggested she was too cold to talk properly. Their connection hummed, tethering Buffy to this reality.
Stubbornly, Buffy kept her eyes open to try and take in some small detail, some hint that she wasn't blind or trapped in some bottomless pit. When she stirred, Faith completely froze up. The hand in Buffy's hair retracted.
"That's me." Buffy slowly extricated herself, then thought better and huddled up as close as she could to her fellow Slayer, her teeth chattering. As if they weren't close enough, already. "And wow. Cold."
"Yes," Faith agreed, after a moment's apparent thought deciding to maintain the embrace. "Don't take this the wrong way or anything, but we're kinda in hot water."
"You don't say."
They slipped into silence for a little while. Buffy waited and waited for her vision to adjust. Nothing became clearer. No silhouette was revealed. Buffy could only imagine what Faith's expressions were as they held each other in this rather compromising position, warm as it felt. Without her sight, it was difficult to focus on anything other than the physical contact, their sounds and breathing bodies, the heavy atmosphere which hid secrets of the outside world in a black veil.
"What even happened? I got knocked out pretty quick, so…"
Faith moved to flex one stiffening leg. "Nothing good. No idea if that Darius and vampire are still alive. Do know we're missing the ingredients."
"Yeah." Hot air blasted from Faith's lips. The connection fizzled with anger. "Fucking fantastic."
"It's not the end of the world," Buffy said. "Well, it is, but you know what I mean."
"End of the world sounds about right. You tell me. How the hell we gonna get out this one?"
Buffy of course, had no idea how to answer that. So she stuck to the tried and tested formula, reaching for words deep inside. "With a lot of difficulty, I imagine. But the last thing your world needs right now is for you to give up." Faith's breathing accelerated. Was she panicking? Buffy continued speaking; "The last thing anyone needs is you giving up. You're the Slayer. You were chosen for stuff like this."
"Being locked in sewers, facing apocalypses, and wondering which day will be the end? Yeah. Great stuff. Fucking cosmic joke, more like."
Instead of worrying Buffy, the words brought up a smile. She understood the feeling. "I hear ya." She risked leaning her head on the brunette's shoulder, finding it in the darkness by trial and error. "Which is why the first lesson of any good Slayer is: don't die."
Faith hesitated, before burying her face in Buffy's hair. "Good rule." The contact sent shivers through Buffy, and not all of them entirely innocent. Her own heartbeat increased, and she struggled to sort out what the oncoming and conflicting emotions meant. The connection hummed pleasantly.
"So yeah. Don't die, save the world, don't whine about it because if it's not you, it's some other girl…" Buffy knew she was babbling now, but being nervous always tended to make words jumble out. The conflicting feelings grew stronger. Something stirred within her, the kind of low down tickle that she associated with attraction, desire, arousal.
Oh God no. Attraction. To Faith? A Faith? Faith with the innuendos and smoking hot body which should not be thought about in an indecent way by someone who had a boyfriend waiting on the home world? Of course not. It was just the proximity, the heat of the moment, the fear of dying. That was it. Humans who believed death stood over them with a club tended to feel and do foolish things. Buffy gritted her teeth. There was no way in heaven or hell she should be attracted to the brunette. For a start, she was straight. Not gay. Willow wore the rainbow stripes, not her. Besides, she hated Faith.
She amended the thought. No. She didn't hate Faith. Not this one, anyway. This one was actually kind of nice, innuendos or not. Her mind went further back. Maybe she didn't really hate the other one, either. But it all got so messed up. How did it go so wrong? Why did it?
Buffy froze when lips pressed into her hair. Every single processing thought juddered to a frenzied halt. "F-Faith?"
The brunette moved her head. "You alright? You went quiet there."
Uh, no, I'm not. Also, you totally kissed me. "Yeah. I'm okay. You?"
"I'll survive. For now." She didn't sound too convinced. "Were you thinking about something?"
"What else is there to do?" Buffy blustered, glad now for the enveloping darkness, as it hid her blushing.
Doubt crept into the connection. Doubt from Faith's end. With dawning horror, Buffy remembered the connection worked both ways. What if the brunette felt everything? What if - what if she knew?
If she did, she didn't show it. "Could think of a few things. Best not say any of them out loud, though."
The blush intensified. "Best not," Buffy agreed. She swore she could feel Faith grinning.
Each second stretched out into infinity. Angel sat next to Faith on the rooftop, observing the empty streets below. The sun blazed above them. Sunlight. Angel had the barrier to thank for his venture outside, the second-hand rays touching down on his pale night skin without harm. Faith occasionally glanced at him, as though expecting smoke to start steaming out of his face at any moment. A few birds, tiny specks above them, settled on the translucent barrier. Plague beasts still roamed the streets below, but less avidly as they did without sun. Once they glimpsed a Darkwalker, a wisp of a monster gliding across the main plaza. It looked to Faith like a giant slab with horns.
"I wish they'd hurry up," Faith complained as she consumed a hard slice of cheese.
Angel squinted at the sun. "We all do. Giles and Voirrey seem to be quite concerned they haven't come back. I think they're considering preparing an expedition to Weytown."
"Not heard from that Darius guy, either?" Faith bit savagely into the last of the cheese.
"Nope. So the concern stretches both sides of the continents." Angel leaned forward, fingers splayed over his forehead.
Faith gazed sharply upwards when a violent ripple coursed along the barrier. "They're Slayers. They'll be fine." She pointed at the ripple, still attempting to remain flippant. "Maybe you should shelter indoors again, Fang. Ripples getting more frequent."
"That would be the sensible option. However, I want to stay outside and enjoy my brief tanning session." He grinned, stretching. Faith smiled as well, a small one, different from her usual brazen smirks.
"You smile more, you know. Than the other Fang," Faith said all of a sudden, before flushing. "Just something I noticed."
"He's a bit of a grim one, this other me?" Angel asked, interested. He had learned early on to pounce whenever the Slayer offered something personal like this, or otherwise she would back off from it in an embarrassed, angry fumble, or act like she didn't say anything at all.
"Something like that," she grudged out. "Still pretty much the same person. Annoying habit of trying to help people. He used to visit me in jail, see how I was doing."
"Us hero types do that." He stopped talking. Over and over, ripples appeared in the barrier, eight of them in one moment.
That can't be good. "You know, I think I'll take your advice and head under."
"Yeah," Faith answered, abruptly standing up as another surge of ripples shimmered overhead. "School's out."
"Shame, really," Angel sighed. He dropped down the side of the roof, hitting the ground hard. "I was quite enjoying all that sunlight after a couple of centuries without it."
"I'll send you a postcard with some if you like it so much. C'mon." Faith dropped behind Angel, hurrying him along.
There was one tense moment on their way back when a Plague monster crossed in front of them. They waited until it had passed, before dashing forward. They stuck mostly to the shadows, in case something went permanently wrong with the barrier and Angel ended up crisping to death.
At Vllk's bookshop, they couldn't find anyone. Candles sputtered on the tables, where paper piled up to around half a meter high. Chairs were still drawn out. Of Vllk, Wesley, the Lyceum scholars and the golems, there was no trace.
Nothing at all. No one had even the slightest decency in them to leave a note. Angel checked each table and wall to make sure, and the back of the entrance door.
"I don't like this," he muttered.
"Don't look like there's been any disturbance." Faith hooked a thumb in her jeans as she bent over Vllk's main work-table. "Nothing's broken. But they cleared out in a hurry, maybe. That's English's reading glasses there." She picked up Wesley's glasses, holding them pinched between her left hand fingers.
"Yeah, except without the clearing." Angel frowned. He really didn't like this. The lateness of the Slayers in California, the ripples in the barrier, and now this…
"They should be here. If the Slayers report back, we can surge forward in the plan." He touched the cellphone in his jacket.
"Yeah, sure. Take a look at this, Fang." Faith beckoned him over. If she was worried, she didn't show it on her face. He walked over, leaning to squint at the Prague Ascension Prophecy translations. Faith used the tip of the glasses to bring to attention the heavy black circles on the paper, and the scrawls in the margins. "Didn't the Czech guy freak out if anyone threatened to mark his papers?"
"Yeah. These weren't here earlier." Angel scanned the words in the circles. Wesley's writing. Both Lightslayer and Darkslayer were highlighted. Others as well, but Angel's attention went to the margin, where a stack of squiggly handwriting filled it up.
In context? Possible error? Translations not accurate? Possible theory, but what? Will take too long. Angel could only pick out some of the words from Wesley's messy scrawl. The way the Watcher wrote sounded like he'd been talking with the others here, maybe jotting down parts of their conversation. Lightslayer was also in the margin, but reinforced with heavy underlining near the bottom. Needs activating.
"I have no idea what this means."
"I can't even read it." Faith shook her head at the writing. "But does it explain why no one is here?"
"Then fuck it." She swept the papers off the table. "Why didn't they leave us anything?"
"I don't know. We should wait…"
"Wait, yeah. But what if … ?"
Angel pushed Faith, sending her a kilter across the floor. She spluttered in surprise and annoyance. "What the f - oh." She moved deep into the corner.
Oh, indeed. Where Faith had been standing a second before, a plague monster now stood. Angel saw it shuffle from around the bookcases, fast and silent. He ducked and backed off, feeling sick to the stomach. Did this… ?
Faith reached the same conclusion. "Oh my God. That's here. That can't be here." The creature in question jerked at the sound of her voice. It seemed confused when she wasn't where it had lunged to, but her voice caused it to shamble in her general direction, knocking over chairs.
"Just because it's here doesn't mean they're dead," Angel blurted. He hoped desperately for the words to be true. His voice distracted the monster, long enough for Faith to make a break for it, dashing out the shop. The thing hissed and followed her footsteps, ignoring any other noises Angel made. He tried throwing a chair at it. The table. Candles scattered onto the floor. The table sent it sprawling to the floor, as well as destroying a bookcase.
Do they even feel pain? The thing awkwardly crawled out of the shop, staggering upright.
Angel jumped after it, running into the alley. He saw two others coming his way, and in a burst of fear clawed up the drainpipe three stores down, almost breaking it in his effort. The barrier pulsed continuously above. He reached the edge of an awning and called to Faith. The Slayer held a plank of wood in her hands, torn from an empty market stall.
Good. Some range. "Climb up!" He yelled, looking around for a viable spot. She couldn't curve back to the drainpipe, not with the plague monsters blocking the way.
She ignored him. Or perhaps didn't hear him. She looked furious; terrified. More plague monsters were coming, A shadow appeared, and Angel knew the shadow belonged to a Darkwalker, one of eighteen in the city.
Helplessly, Angel watched. Faith whacked one darting monster aside with the plank, trying to plough a way through. She can't let them touch her bare skin. That wouldn't be good at all. One touch of the monster's veined, twisted hand and her blood cells would turn to ash, to dust, to nothing…
Four plague monsters pounced at once. She hit one, elbowed the other, ducked a third…
The last one grabbed her by the neck. She screamed.
So did Angel. No, no, no, no, no -