Everything hurt. Each atom inside Faith cooked up more pain, increasing and increasing beyond anything she had ever experienced before. Just when she believed it couldn't possibly get worse, it proved her wrong again. All she could do was scream. Her mind boiled. The trauma sent her neurons haywire.
Something cool and soft blanketed her body. It prised her broken soul away from the agony. She drifted in numb shock for quite some time, swimming in and out of consciousness.
Presently, her mind stopped running the memory of the pain. She became more aware of the new situation. The lack of hurt and bodily sensations left her sluggish and disorientated. She wasn't drawing air through her lungs. There was no eye blinking or throat clearing. Just a light, floating feeling in her stomach, giving the impression of levitating somewhere. Where? Above the world.
Am I dead?
I hope not.
It took her a while to identify the voice. Oh. You?
What else would I be?
She reflected on the statement, unable to think of a counter. What happened?
You were clumsy. You got caught. Idiot. The peevish tone registered with Faith. Her thoughts became faster.
No need to be so damn insulting about it. Crap happens.
Tell me about it.
So. I got caught. What's going on now?
Not too sure. Whatever just happened to you appears to have dragged me out of the subconscious part of your brain. I 'm somewhat running the show now.
What? Indignation took over Faith. She continued floating in the strange, ethereal reality she found herself in, trying to make sense of what she felt and saw. Colours flickered in cloud-like formations around her. You mean we've done a switch?
Yes. Normally you'd have to be dead for this to happen.
This confused Faith. Huh?
Part of the binding contract in this world, I believe - before the Council stopped the process. I'm supposed to get your body once you die. Work some extra mileage, I guess.
Oh. Am I dead or not, then? The thought disturbed Faith. She didn't want to die.
How many dead people talk, duh? Wait, don't answer that.
Yeah. Dumb question.
You're such a smart ass at times.
I try. So. If I'm not dead, and you're in my body, what the fuck's next?
Not sure. Can you take it back?
A reasonable request. Faith had no idea where to start, but she tried, anyway. she poked around the void, seeking some kind of niche, anything to hold onto. It took a minute or so, but she eventually detected a familiar presence on the outer rim of her awareness. Her physical body. She reached out for it ...
And recoiled, hissing in pain. Ow! What was that?
Don't look so.
How does it hurt?
Feels like it'd kill me. The thought struck Faith, raising up her fear. Will it?
The Inner Slayer took a long time to respond. Maybe. You were touched by those things.
Shit. Faith could believe that, if the searing reaction when she tried re-entering her body was any indication. What do I do?
Not much? Better wait to see if you're capable of regenerating from it. Til then, guess I better ride. You can be backseat driver though, promise.
Can that work?
In theory. I'm not in total control of your body yet. It's running on mindless demonic instinct. Demon energy's like that. Can just about stop it from killing Angel, but might take a while to assume full control, if I even can. Just give me some time.
But ain't the energy coming from you?
Ye-e-e-e-e-s. But it's a corrupting essence for humans. Your mind and body is reacting to it out of my jurisdiction. You fleshlings just ain't made for this stuff.
... Such bullshit. Faith didn't have much choice in the matter. The least she could do was accept the situation as gracefully as possible. Even if most of her mind raged against the unwanted situation.
Fortunately, in this drifting state, she could reflect on her rage with some hindsight, understanding the lack of need for it. The conflicting perspective took some getting used to. Maybe she was dead after all, and neither of them knew it. She had to trust that the Inner Slayer harboured no intention of overriding everything as long as she still existed. Trusting didn't come easy to her. People always betrayed you, sooner or later.
If she dwelt in the same position as the entity ... it would be too good an opportunity to miss.
Blue and gold colourings swirled around Faith. With shock, she thought she recognised the colours, but had no idea how. Hesitantly, she sent out a mental probe.
The colours seemed to flinch in on themselves. Then, slowly, gradually, they coalesced into the shape of the blonde Slayer. Her expression was one of utter shock. Faith mirrored it.
Well. This is unexpected.
Birdsong penetrated the otherwise quiet woodland. Buffy, knocked unconscious for the fifth time that day, lay on one side of the clearing. Everyone else took up the other side. Every single time the blonde stirred from her forced slumber, she gnashed her teeth and growled, black eyes focusing on Faith. Anger because Faith was responsible for knocking her out? Aggression because of the pull of Faith's supernatural energy? Either way, the blonde had an abnormal interest in Faith, even going as far as to twitch fingers through the oppressive binding towards her. Willow recast the binding at every opportunity she could get, though the rate of her magical regeneration got longer and longer between attempts.
"She's not changing at all," Faith said. Tara, now bandaged up and out of immediate danger from her injuries, nodded in sad agreement.
"We can't very well keep up this act with her for any further length of time, either." Giles.
"We can't kill her," Faith said. The words were as empty as she felt. The more she repeated them, the less she could convince herself to follow them. Unless Buffy snapped out of this state soon, it was likely killing might become the only option.
Xander glanced around anxiously. "I'm not exactly a fan of making her dead either, or leaving her behind. So what do we do?"
"I still don't understand why the spell acted as it did." Willow wrung her hands in distress. "It was supposed to help us! This is a nightmare."
"How the hell do we reverse this thing?" Faith scowled at Willow for an answer.
"If it indeed is reversible." Giles addressed their biggest concern with the manner of one carefully stepping over a minefield. Willow shook her head helplessly.
Faith gritted her teeth, feeling a combo of dismay, anger and fraustration at her inability to do anything. A cold wash of realisation hit when she bent over the fallen Slayer.
This could easily have been her, tied up and frothing mad. So why not? Why the hell wasn't she crippled?
"Y'all saw me with that black shit B has, right?" Faith waited for confirmation. When she got it from Giles and Tara, she pointed at Buffy. "So why ain't I like that? What happened?"
"Faith, I really don't know anything about this. Sorry." Willow, still tearful, sniffled a bit.
Tara, to everyone's surprise, raised a hand. "I-I might."
"Do tell." Giles regarded his new potential source of information in interest. Tara, never a fan of extreme attention, leaned forward so strands of hair fell to conceal parts of her scarred face.
"I saw their auras. It looked like Buffy somehow absorbed the energy from Faith. O-or that the energy didn't fully root, so found another nearby source. Either way, it went from Faith into Buffy."
So. In other words, Faith got lucky. Sitting down by Buffy to keep an eye in case she awoke, Faith wrapped hands around her knees. As the others continued their talk, Faith tuned them out, not wanting to hear anymore.
She should have been daydreaming about the super-hot kiss between them, thinking about the various scenarios she and Buffy might have together. Not be on guard duty for a possessed Slayer. Not feel a tight pain in her chest which she couldn't explain.
The fact Buffy did what she did in the river was amazing and a mindfuck all in itself. How could the blonde kiss her and not think about the Faith from the other world? How would Buffy even dare such a thing at all?
How could Faith let it happen?
It was insane to even consider. If Faith suffered the same thing - having two carbon copies of someone she had serious hate-love issues with, yet somehow found them attractive enough to tongue hockey with ... hell no. She'd get out of dodge screaming.
I'm freaking, Faith thought. Like a girl.
Provided they survived this stupid situation and miraculously got things back to a state of near normalcy, she and Buffy needed to talk. Or not talk. Or pretend it never happened. Talking made it sound like one of those damn relationships. Was this a relationship? Grunting in annoyance at her conflicted mind, Faith rested a fist against her temple, closing her eyes.
Danger, the Inner Slayer hissed. We've got incoming.
"Shit." Faith sensed hostile, demonic presences closing in on them, wondering why she hadn't noticed earlier. She scented the air, checked everyone's status, saw Giles on the verge of sleep, and Voirrey heading that way. Dusk by now covered their camp, making the time ripe for vampires and other creatures of the night. "Guys! Guys, we gotta move. Wake up, G-man!"
Giles blinked tired eyes open. "Hmm?"
"Demons. Coming. Now!" Faith resisted the impulse to swear at them.
"You're kidding me, right?" Xander straightened up from his comfort position with Anya.
"Not kidding. Oh boy." He went pale.
"Shit." Voirrey echoed Faith's sentiment. Swear words didn't sound right, coming from the female Watcher - but Faith couldn't blame her for the choice of language.
"I can help if you want." Xander looped arms around the Watcher. Voirrey's weight caused Xander to stumble. Their first few steps went painfully slow.
"We're not going to get particularly far like this." Voirrey tried wriggling out of Xander's support. "The cars are too far off. It may be best to leave me here."
"What is it with you people ..." Faith rolled her eyes. "Xander, ignore her. Anya, help him as well."
Anya had the good grace to obey.
"W-what will we do about Buffy?" Tara raised up the next tricky question. The blonde Slayer, still comatose, lay in an uncomfortable position in the grass. The magical bindings did their job too well. Giles scooped up two bag-packs full of food and water, but left the other items. Willow grabbed blankets.
Tara hesitantly went towards Buffy. "We should take her?"
Faith shook her head. The invasive presence of the incoming monsters riled up her Slayer instincts. "Can you lot unbind her? Be easier to carry."
Willow bit her lip, distressed. "I don't know how. I can only cast it."
Voirrey shrugged. "I'm not familiar with the spell."
"Me, either." Giles appeared apologetic. "Sorry." Tara delivered the last no, leaving Faith even more annoyed. Things just got better and better.
"Got no choice then. I gotta hold them." She splayed her fingers, jerking her wrist as if slapping everyone away from her. "Go, already! They're nearly here!" At their protests, Faith blanked them out. "Don't worry 'bout me. Five by five here. Will see you later."
When the last of her friends left, Faith attached her knuckle dusters on, a pounding mix of fear and adrenalin writhing in her blood. Barely seconds after the last departure, the first of the demons arrived. Their pace was fast, much faster than her friends could ever travel by foot. She roared in challenge, designed to get them all to focus her. Two plaguewalkers, emerging from the foliage, made an beeline for her. Several demons, keeping a relatively safe distance from them, leered at the sight of Faith and Buffy, isolated in the clearing. Faith's nostril's flared when a misshapen creature, bigger than the rest of them, came into view. Cloven hooves thumped the soil. Muscular, bloodstained arms spread wide as if saluting her. It bared lips in an open grin, revealing a vicious set of shark-teeth.
An elder vamp. Fuck me.
A sound caused Faith to look down. Buffy growled, her blackened eyes fixated on the plaguewalkers. Judging by the awkward angle of her limbs, she still couldn't move. The pervasive influx of demon scent had obviously triggered her revival.
Good. Faith took some steps to the side. Maybe I won't be ripped to shreds first if she breaks free. Faith rubbed her neck self-consciously.
"This is a pleasant surprise." The elder vampire clicked his tongue. The plaguewalkers tottered to an unsteady halt. Several vampires fanned out around them, cutting off the opportunity of escape. "You've been hiding out here all this time? Not the most ingenious of places to choose."
The vampire waited for a response. Faith was too busy calculating. She needed to somehow hold them off. At all cost. If these things reached the others ...
She tested her senses for any demons not in line of sight. More lingered at the fringe of her awareness, but as far as she could tell, this was an expedition led by that damned elder.
The vampire, evidently disappointed at the lack of response, now showed interest in Buffy. "What's this?"
Buffy managed to prise her mouth open enough to bellow out a distorted growl, the kind which pierced Faith's ears and made her flinch. Faith expected the vamp to scorn them. Instead, an expression akin to fear swamped his face in the encroaching dusk.
"Everyone. Kill the Slayer on the ground."
"Awh. One little growl got you scared?" Outside, Faith painted a mask of mocking disdain. Inside, she knew it'd be near impossible to defend the blonde if they all attacked at once, let alone put Buffy in a corner to stop their access. And then there were those monsters which killed with a touch.
"Nothing personal. The boss wants you dead. He's not too happy you got out of his cell. Speaking of dead, how's the little blonde witch? Tasted nice."
"You." Hate flooded Faith.
"Kakistos. You is impolite."
Faith reached for a stake, feeling additional surges of loathing. She disliked vampires in general, but this one needed to die. Right now. Armed with weighted gloves, a stake, and a one-shot pendant which she still wasn't entirely sure how to use, her fighting advantages were almost non-existent; unfortunately, also a pretty normal situation for a Slayer.
She hesitated. Two vampires attempted to swerve past her for Buffy. Faith cracked into action, taking a heavy right stomp into the biggest of the two - some one-eighty centimetre dude with an absurd wispy moustache on his distorted features. The other one, a more lithe black-haired female, dodged the collision. Faith rolled off the large one, and yanked the female by her long hair, bringing her to a swift, lucky death as she stumbled back onto the stake. Big Boy swiped at Faith. Three more vampires took advantage of the distraction to get Buffy.
Desperately, Faith executed a double elbow slam into the big one's face, forcing his arms away from protecting his chest - and therefore allowing her to end him. Quick, simple close combat, just like Voirrey taught her. No flair needed. She mechanically transitioned from move to move, offsetting the other vampires.
She almost got caught. With a yelp of surprise, she careened out of reach of a plaguewalker that had actually blindsided her. The other's warped frame joined the vampires, who all hastily moved aside.
Risking it, Faith threw the stake at the creature nearest to Buffy. Not only did it seem unaffected by the assault - the stake melted right into the creature's torso.
"Fuck!" Sweat prickled Faith. She couldn't stop them. In fact, she wondered why the vamp bothered sending his other minions when these kill-with-a-touch monsters were more than enough for the job. She got her answer in the form of his blood-lust infused face. He didn't care who died. At all. Just as long as someone did.
As if sensing peril, Buffy renewed her efforts of breaking free of the bindings. If only Willow hadn't fixed them one last time ...
Faith's needle-sharp gaze rested on Kakistos. Too little, too late, but he commanded the monsters. He needed to die.
"I'm sorry," she whispered to Buffy. It made no difference, but it was the least she could offer.
Breaking free of the encirclement by sheer speed, Faith picked up a spare stake from the pile of items on the ground, holding it in her right fist like a spear. Kakistos flexed his huge muscles, getting ready to either dodge or brace for the impact. Shock raced through her system when Kakistos made no effort to stop the lunge. The stake sank in deep in the direction of his heart. She vaulted backwards, alert.
Kakistos didn't look as if he intended on converting to dust. He cackled at her, before plucking the weapon out, dwarfed in his huge, clawed hands. "These don't work, girly. Better luck next time. Not that there will be one." Winking, he tossed the stake out of sight. In the same second, he swumg a fierce punch and uppercut her way.
Noise erupted behind Faith. Unwilling to look, but noticing Kakisto's momentary distraction at the commotion, Faith punched him, putting all her force behind the dusters. One, two, three, four, left hook - her best efforts caused Kakistos to grunt and smack her, as if she were a fly, sending her hurtling backwards. Undeterred, she regained balance - and got spun by a passing vampire with a missing arm.
Eyes wide, Faith whirled on the blonde she'd left to die. Said blonde was on her feet, clearly not bound, making mincemeat out of the plaguewalkers.
"Huh," Faith said.
Understatement of the century.
One walker's leg came sailing across the air. Faith avoided by ducking. It hit Kakistos with a wet slap. The vampire bellowed, the sound a mix between bull and lion. Faith sensed his movement. She barely avoided the stomp. She didn't avoid the grab, though. He lifted her up and snapped at her neck with a mouth large enough to bite clean through. She thrust a palm into his nose, as if holding a dog at bay. She felt his clawed fingers gouging her. The vampire shook his head violently. Faith's palm-hold slackened, and Kakistos took the opportunity to chomp down on her forearm.
Motivated by pain, Faith scrabbled with her free arm for the pendant - the one she had forgotten about in all this chaos. With her knees she went for his stomach. His teeth sank deeper. With a last burst of strength, Faith ripped the pendant off its chain, and shanked it in the brute's eye. He roared in shock and pain, releasing her at last.
"You little bitch!" he spat in her face, flecking bits of blood all over. He swiped at her, scoring a blow beneath her jaw. She took the hit, tasted the copper on her lips, and started laughing when sunlight exploded out his ruined eye. It was giddy, I-was-an-inch-from-death laughter, which stopped as quickly as it began. The light shimmered, cracking out over his body. It took him a while to die.
Whatever satisfaction Faith experienced vanished when a snarl alerted her to Buffy's presence. The blood kept oozing out her arm. She needed to bandage it, to make sure nothing was permanently damaged, that infection wouldn't set in - but vampires were coming in the darkness, tacking down the bloodscent. And Buffy was free.
"Please," Faith said.
Buffy walked past to watch Kakistos finish burning. She didn't budge until only an substantial ash pile remained. Then, fast as lightning, she launched at Faith. Faith, groggy and finding it hard to stay focused, ended up on her back, not for the first time that day. The empowered, psychotic blonde on top of her pushed a hand onto Faith's chest to restrain.
Wha - Faith sucked in breath. Buffy sniffed at her, black eyes unmoving. When she hesitantly placed fingers on Faith's neck, squeezing with soft pressure, Faith yelled out: "No!" And with her last vestige of strength, bucked the Slayer off.
The blonde licked at her finger, which was smudged with some of Faith's blood, unperturbed by the reaction. Giving one last glance, she then got up and walked off, into the shadows, leaving a weakened Faith confused and in pain on the ground.
Faith exhaled. For a moment, a briefest sliver of a moment, she thought Buffy might had been in there. With a grunt of exertion, she rolled onto her knees, starting to use her top as a makeshift bandage for her wound. She was in no state to follow the mad Slayer. She needed to return to the others. Angry at her dilemna and solution, she scooped into the vampire's ashes until she fished up the pendant, now a dull, glittery black. She clutched it tight.