Chapter 31: Fluctuating Conflict

"So, when she said she came to make sure Angel was okay. . ." Cordelia looked at the speaker phone.

"She meant the cops were coming down hard, and she needed to skip town." Buffy waited a moment. "No one coming to her defense?"

Wesley kept his eyes on the ground. "We should have watched her more vigilantly."

"Try, at all. You haven't seen her in two days."

He shrugged. "She does keep an unusual schedule."

"The L.A. PD connected her with some of Sunnydale's open cases, but they're not going after her unless she provokes them."

"How'd you work that?" Cordelia asked.

"If you want to believe in people's ability to change, you need to have a backup plan for when they disappoint." She sighed, "The arson and assault charges alone add up to 30 years, and I'm betting she's going to provoke. Talk to her, get her settled some place, call Angel's fancy tea connections if you think that'll help."

"This is well-traversed territory." She could almost hear Wesley cleaning his glasses. "We tried everything we could the first few times. We're out of ideas."

"So get some new ones."

Cordelia offered, "We could call Giles."

The name startled all, but Buffy managed to reply, "It doesn't take special watcher training or a high school diploma to figure kids out. Just don't give up."

Wesley ventured, "Maybe you should talk to her."

She hoped he meant Cordelia, but when she didn't hear an answer, Buffy picked up his meaning. "I'm on the hook for this, but I don't know the girl. She came to you. You're her friends; I'm just the messenger."

"You're more like her than we are," Cordelia observed.

Wesley prodded, "Talking with someone who understands what she's going through could help. Can you think of anyone else?"

"She cares about Angel."

Cordy shook her head. "Chosen one remember? He's the thing you guys were chosen to kill."

"While they may share certain traits in common, I agree his usefulness is limited."

"Guys, I'm you're secretary - not your slayer. I'm sorry. I know I work with angry teenagers every day but Faith isn't my responsibility. She's yours."

Cordy rolled her eyes. "Very mature Buffy."

Wesley explained, "This situation calls for someone who knows what they're doing."

"And you're afraid of messing it up, making things worse, but I'm trusting you to try and help anyway. Talk to Angel when he gets back, figure something out. I believe in you." With that, she hung up.

"Hope she has a backup plan." At his squint, she explained, "For you know, when we disappoint."

"While Buffy is a mother, she is not our mother." He shook his head. "As usual, though, your independence takes the biscuit."

Buffy looked into the white-barred holding cell. "So, this was the plan: sweat blood for a GED in order to work the streets. You don't really need credentials for that." Buffy waited for Gemma to look up, but she never did. "Jude put you up to this?" She replied to the sneer. "I just want to know if you're supporting his drug habit or yours." She leaned against the wall wearily. "What are you doing Gemma?"

"I'm doing what I have to keep my man."

Buffy considered her carefully. "You pregnant?"

"JD don't want no baby."

"You pregnant?" Finally, they made eye contact.

"I didn't call no one, so why you here? Go fix your life and quit messin mine."

"You're hoping once baby comes, Jude will step up and be the man you think you need." Gemma glared, but Buffy remained unaffected. "You see me and my situation, and it terrifies you." Buffy took in the scene of a sorely missed girl. "Lindsey was so proud of you when you got your GED."

"Yeah, and now he's gone."

"Yeah," she replied simply. "And now I have Lilly and Sunny and all you kids keeping me going. I'm still here." She watched her head go down again. "I came down to help a girl who's in a lot of trouble. One of the officers mentioned you were here." When she didn't look up, Buffy pressed, "Why didn't you call me?"

"JD is coming to get me."

Buffy took a deep breath before speaking the hard truth. "You sold yourself because Jude doesn't have any money. He'd have to pay your fine before you can leave." She watched Gemma's shoulders' hunch further. "They want to keep you for two weeks this time."

She started grounding the floor with her foot. "Fine."

"I'm calling Lilly to pick you up."

Gemma looked up. "You're not going to do it?"

"The girl I came to help, I talked with the cops; now, I have to talk to her. Of course, I have to find her first."

She pursed her lips. "I know where some junkies hang."

"I know too." Buffy looked on sadly. "After Lilly comes, if you want to go back, I won't think less of you. It's your life. When you're ready, you'll find your happiness."

She thought the conversation was over when Gemma answered, "I already did. Now, I'm working to keep it."

Buffy understood the unspoken accusation. "Everything we do and everything we don't do has consequences. Linds didn't want to leave us. He didn't have a choice. The truth is we can't always keep the ones we love."

Gemma's expression soured with scorn. "You sure he loved you?"

Buffy straightened. "I'm sure if it was up to him, he'd be here for every day of his son's life."

Having known Lindsey, Gemma recognized the truth. She deflated. "So, why isn't he?"

Buffy sighed. "Because meeting a prince is just the beginning. The dramas don't end there." She smiled faintly. "You know that. It's more like they lived in fluctuating conflict ever after."

"Not as catchy."

Buffy shrugged and walked towards the exit.

"You'll call Lilly?"

Nodding, she looked back sadly. "Take care Gemma."

Buffy stepped out into the cool night air. "Okay Cyn, where's our girl?"

Getting an answer she could work with, she hung up the phone and carried on never noticing the officer watching her. "Peterson, she's coming your way, keep alert."

Buffy noticed police cars where they never were before. Wary of drawing attention, she slipped into an alley and took the sewers the rest of the way. Over the years she'd become accustomed to the smell, but since becoming pregnant, her nose lost its tolerance.

Grimacing, she mumbled, "If you start over again, be sure to leave the sewer box unchecked." She rubbed her stomach. "It's okay little bear. We'll be out soon enough."

She walked on navigating the sewers like a pro. Recognizing the bends and cracks, she pictured the roads above as well as the landmarks.

In silence, she strolled beneath the city finally coming up where she wanted to be - exactly where she wanted to be.

To her surprise, she popped up from the sewers into the fray. Underneath an overpass, near bins on fire, she found an all out battle between a nomadic demon gang and Faith. The demon's didn't just outnumber her, they outweighed her by at least two hundred pounds. Buffy sighed, Just once, couldn't she provoke scrawny demons?

Surreptitiously, she came upon the huddle, and started working her way inside taking them out one by one. She used the demons nearby to kick off a bit so she could snap necks easier. They seemed more confused than angry about it. They knew their kin were dying but couldn't understand how this small girl was doing it. With her sticking so close to them, they couldn't even get a good look at her. She dove under them, scaled them, swung around them and off them, and she'd already killed several before they could make up their minds whether to back up or intervene and risk a quick death.

There were so many that Faith didn't notice the difference right away. Eventually, though, she realized she could play without interruption. The demon before her didn't tap another in; he stayed her main opponent. By then, she'd lost her weapons and was down to her arms and legs. She wanted to wear it down with just a blunt beating. It wanted the same. She hit it; it hit back. She kicked it; it threw her down. The flight was a slayer's dream. The world fell away and she wasn't Faith anymore; she was violence personified.

Having wrestled it to the ground, she beat it with all her might - no holding back, no slowing down. The body stopped moving, but she didn't. Finally she shook it trying to stir it back to consciousness, but one can't shake the dead back to life.

A high like that always has a crash, and hers nearly knocked her over. She felt acute disappointment; it was too soon for it to die. Her gaze flicked across her environment - desperate for a new target. All around her were dead bodies, none alive . . . save one.

Perched on her own corpse, Buffy sat a few yards away. She looked like she'd been sitting there for a while.

Unnerved by Buffy's calm, Faith opened her mouth to speak. Her mind couldn't find the words.

Buffy waited patiently, but nothing came. She held Faith's eyes and spoke, "We'll talk about it later. Let's just get cleaned up, okay?"

Faith nodded and slowly they stood together. Buffy climbed back into the sewers, and Faith followed. The traversed the darkness in silence. Each of them perceived the others' mind to be shut down - as if running on auto-pilot.

Eventually they reached her neighborhood. When they climbed out near Sanctuary, Buffy started to speak again. "After we get you patched up, I'll have Sunny take you home to Angel's."

Faith still felt dazed. Of all the things she wanted to ask, only one came out. "Who's Sunny?"

Smiling, she answered, "The best driver I know and the only one who can parallel park."

They turned the corner to Sanctuary side by side.

From behind a stoop, someone appeared. He'd been waiting for them.

"Get down on your knees and place your hands on your head."

Buffy looked into the eyes of officer Reynolds and knew he wasn't alone. Sure enough, she heard the slam of car doors and approaching steps. He meant to take them that night - no matter the cost.

Kneeling to the ground, Buffy slowly raised her arms.

After the adrenaline rush earlier, Faith's mind processed the scene sluggishly. She looked at the slayer kneeling before a gun-holding officer and frowned. Shaking her head, she backed away.

Buffy saw the click of the gun before she heard it. As instantaneous as a reflex, she sprang up and tackled Faith to the ground. A shot rang out. She felt blood on her hand.

This time she'd protected Faith's head. Between it and the concrete, her bloody hand lay broken.

Shielding her from the world, Buffy held her eyes and murmured, "Please."

Whether she plead for herself or for Faith, neither of them knew, but whatever she chose, she knew Buffy would back her.

Time moved quickly as officers put them in handcuffs. The metal felt cool and firm. Holding their arms and heads, Officers placed Faith in the squad car followed by Buffy.

Officer Reynolds looked at her through the rear view mirror. "I'm sorry Anne. It's too big of case to let go."

As the car pulled away, she slumped in her seat. "Wife to feed, bills to pay- I get it."

Exhausted, both Faith and her leaned their heads back.

"Radio to dispatch 10-15."

Buffy imagined Sunny answering, Code for prisoner in custody, right?

She closed her eyes. Prisoner is miraculously in custody, and I'm right by her side. She mentally groaned, Angel, you so owe me.