As she felt the strength begin to leave her body, Buffy couldn't help but wonder if it would be the end. Could one mistake be all it took? She knew the risks, but she had always tried to avoid dwelling on them. She wasn't ready to die, but the Keeper didn't share her aspirations.
Unexpectedly her throat opened, and she desperately gasped in short bursts of air. The demon's grip had loosened, and she used the opportunity to force the clawed hand from her neck. She strafed away, giving herself time to catch her breath. She wiped away the tears that clouded her vision, and then watched as the demon reached around and pulled something from its back. Faith's knife. She glanced across the room, seeing that Faith had already returned to her one remaining foe, relying only on her fists to do any damage.
Buffy found herself stuck somewhere between shocked and confused as she tried to shake herself back to life. With no time to properly consider Faith's aid, she focused on the demon as it forcefully threw the blade to the floor and advanced. She ran at it with intense speed, fuelled by a surge of adrenaline, rolling under its swing at the last moment and coming up on the other side with Faith's knife clutched in her hand. It turned, and she lashed out angrily, striking the Keeper straight across the throat. Black ooze gargled from the deep wound as it charged once more. That time she was prepared. She stepped to her side, aiming a kick into the back off the demon's knee as it passed by. It dropped to one leg first, and then its momentum took over to topple it to the floor.
She pounced before it had time to recover, driving the blade deep into the demon's back. The injury to its throat blocked any outcry, but it made no difference. Moments later it lay still, and Buffy had to take a few seconds to steady her pounding heart before she retrieved the dagger. She had to get one of these, she thought to herself as she gave the weapon a quick once over.
Satisfied that her enemy wasn't about to make a sudden resurgence, and with her breathing mostly back under control, she turned to find Faith atop of the final demon. Her fists took turns hammering blows into its head. Its arms flailed wildly as it tried to suppress the assault, but for every blow it avoided another struck hard, and Faith didn't look like she was about to get bored.
"Faith," Buffy called out. When Faith looked over, Buffy tossed the dagger across the room. Faith's hand shot up and caught it with ease, a wicked smile coming across her face as her head turned away. She brought the knife down hard, straight between the Keeper's eyes. It was dead long before it could utter any complaints.
Faith pulled out the dagger, and after looking over the gunk covered weapon she wiped both sides clean on the demon's stomach. She jumped back quickly, giving the demon space as it started to sizzle. Smoke rose from its body as the skin crisped. Hardened flakes separated from one another until the shrinking pieces left nothing visible to the eye. Buffy looked around to find the other two demons disappearing in a similar fashion.
Faith took a few steps toward her before coming to a stop. A good twenty feet still separated the two of them, and Buffy was fine with it staying that way. Buffy waited, feeling a sense of relief when Faith sheathed the dagger behind her back. She watched Faith's eyes as they slowly ran down her body before flicking back up to meet her own.
"Hey B. Digging the colour scheme," she said coolly.
Faith was clad in just as much black as Buffy, though with leather trousers, long boots, and a low cut top visible behind an open denim jacket, Buffy thought the girl looked less worried about stealth and more so about an upcoming rave. She also noticed that Faith had been caught at least one more time by the Keeper's claws; three strips of denim hung limp from the right arm of her jacket. A sly grin ran over Faith's mouth as she stood waiting.
"Faith," Buffy finally offered back in acknowledgement. Despite having spent the previous 48 hours with Faith placed at the core of her thoughts, Buffy had spent so little of that time deciding what exactly she should say when the two of them next met. Out of time, and with no idea how to follow up, she regretted that oversight.
Faith didn't seem to share her dilemma. "Gotta say, didn't expect to see you here. Thought you'd be out fighting the good fight. Saving damsels, or beating up the bad guys." She paused for a second. "Or maybe that is why you're here." Her grin grew wider, the already bright whites of her teeth standing out in sharp contrast against the darkened room.
"I didn't come here to fight you." Buffy kept her voice neutral. The tone behind the accusation sounded playful, but she wanted to dismiss the idea from Faith's heads altogether.
"Really? So how should we do this then?" She gestured a thumb out toward the remains of the shard's display case. "Wanna flip for it? I'll let you call."
The cocky demeanour grated on Buffy, but she refused to take the bait. "You know I can't let you take that," she said simply.
"Think you can stop me?"
Buffy thought she heard a hint of contempt, and she was unsure just how serious Faith's question was meant to be. "This isn't a game. If you take that to Wilkins then a lot of innocent people are going to die," she reasoned, worried that things could get out of hand quicker than even her mental scenarios had anticipated.
"Oh boo-hoo B." Faith's eyebrows shot closer together, the look of disgust on her face leaving Buffy feeling uneasy. "People die all the time, and we know better than most that nobody is all that innocent."
"Is that what you tell yourself Faith? Is that how you sleep at night?"
A short, incredulous laugh rose from Faith's throat. "Hey, I sleep fine at night. The place I'm staying at now? Never slept better."
Another wide grin from Faith put Buffy's composure to the test. She couldn't tell if Faith really didn't care about anyone but herself, or if the uncaring bravado was the first line of defence. She hoped it was the latter. It was that or admit there was nothing she could do. She shook her head. "I don't believe that."
"Believe what you want B, but I'm five by five here. New place, new clothes, and you should see my ride. She's a beast."
Faith seemed elated with her new position, and Buffy couldn't help but begin second-guessing herself. She had somehow gotten the idea in her head that she was going to talk to Faith and they were just going to work things out - crisis averted. It was naïve to think it would be that straight forward, and she knew it, but it was the belief that she could do something that kept her going. Faith's nonchalant approach to the situation was quickly eating away at that belief.
"So is that it all it takes? Someone throws you a bag of gold and you ask how high?"
The look of mild amusement on Faith's face was her only response, and it was enough to falter Buffy's resolve. "You're pathetic Faith. I thought there was more to you than whore for hire, but I guess I gave you too much credit."
Buffy regretted the harshness of the words as soon as she heard them out loud. She had been after a reaction of some sort. Something other than quips and throwaway remarks; a sign to show that Faith still cared.
Well, she'd certainly gotten something. Faith's fists clenched as she took a step forward. Her eyes glared. Buffy tensed, but stood her ground. She realized she had gone too far, and hoped she hadn't pushed Faith further away. "Fai-"
"You don't know the first thing about me!" Faith yelled, interrupting Buffy's intended withdrawal. All signs of wisecracking had been firmly cast aside. Faith lowered her voice, though the hard edge remained. "And you've made it perfectly clear you don't want me around, so how about you stay the hell out of my life."
Buffy's brow furrowed at the accusation. "That's not true. I've never thought that." As far as she was concerned, that was the truth. There had certainly been times when she'd fought with Faith, and when space from one another had felt like the only thing keeping them from coming to blows, but she had never truly wanted her to go away for good.
Faith snorted out a short burst of laughter. "Really? You've hated me since day one. Let's face it, the only reason we're even talking is because once again Faith is screwing up your perfect little life." Anger punctuated her final words, but her doleful eyes relayed a more complex mix of emotions.
Buffy shook her head. "My life is far from perfect, believe me."
"It's better than mine." Faith's words were barely above a whisper, fatigue showing through the anger. She opened her mouth looking to continue, but then closed it again as she swallowed hard.
Buffy was taken aback by the unexpected admission. Unsure of how to respond, she stood in silence as Faith visibly struggled to steady herself. She half expected the girl to break down in tears, and she felt so completely useless as she stared. The silence was unbearable, and she desperately wished she could find the right words. She had given comfort to Willow, Xander, even Giles in the past; everything just seemed so difficult when it came to Faith. Even on a good day Faith was defensive, her walls standing tall enough to keep everyone out. Or maybe, Buffy admitted to herself, she had never tried hard enough to get over them.
"He's the only person who's ever cared," Faith said finally, her hands fidgeting by her sides as her gaze focused on the floor. The thinnest of smiles made its way to her face, and even that was a contrast to the pain displayed in her eyes. "Who's ever believed in me," Faith finished, and Buffy felt her heart sink.
"He's using you Faith. As soon as the mayor gets what he wants he'll toss you aside." The words weren't meant to hurt Faith, but Buffy couldn't let her believe the mayor's lies. She wouldn't let him pull Faith away.
Faith's eyes looked up, catching her own. "Just like everyone else."
Buffy didn't sense self pity in the words, but she understood the implied accusation and wasn't willing to let it lie. "That's bull and you know it. I don't know what exactly I've done to piss you off, but this isn't the way to go about fixing it. If I've wronged you so much then take it out on me. I'm right here."
She took a tentative step forward, and despite her firm words she watched Faith cautiously, praying that the girl wouldn't accept the invitation. Concerned that she might, Buffy didn't wait long before she continued in a softer tone, her eyes remaining glued to Faith's. "It's your life so they're your choices, and no one can make them for you. But no matter what you think, I'm here for you Faith. I can help you, but only if you let me."
"No B, you can't," Faith said. "No-one can." There was no challenge or aggression in her words. Only a resigned acceptance.
Buffy slowly took another step forward, not wanting to give Faith the wrong idea and risk a more physical altercation. "You're wrong. It's not too late. Whatever you're going through, whatever you've been through, it can get better. But it takes time."
Faith watched her, motionless but for her hands fidgeting with one another, and Buffy continued forward. Faith's lips moved as if trying to form words, but there was no audible sound.
"You two, stop right there!" came a loud, commanding voice from behind Buffy.
She had only halved the distance between them before the words brought her to a halt. Faith did just the opposite – she shot to life, moving instinctively across the ground to the Shard of Ursula and plucking it from its stand.
"Freeze, now!" The tone was hard; the warning unmistakable. Faith stood by the broken display, making no sign of any further movement as she clutched the shard in her hand. Buffy slowly turned her head to look behind her. Two police officers stood off to her left. One looked to be in his late twenties, and his hand was by his belt, his fingers resting lightly on his gun. The officer that had spoken was older, and looked to be the one in charge. He had already unholstered his weapon, and the barrel was pointed squarely at Faith.
"Put it down," he said firmly. "Then slowly kneel down on the ground."
Buffy felt uneasy when she returned to face Faith, not at all liking what she found. Faith's eye were bold, a look of defiance aimed at the officer. After a moment her eyes focused on Buffy, softening as she offered a sad smile. Buffy knew what was coming, and she shook her head as her eyes pleaded with Faith. "Don't."
"I'm sorry, B," came Faith's whispered reply, the gentle words seeming sincere to Buffy's ears.
Then she ran.
Buffy looked over her shoulder. She watched as the officer's gun trailed Faith's movements across the room. Her eyes widened as his finger tightened on the trigger.
"No!" she shouted, swiftly turning and stepping toward the officer without thought. His arms came around, abandoning the target of Faith and aiming the gun at her instead. She stopped on the spot, very slowly raising her hands in surrender. Her pulse raced, and she felt every beat of her pounding heart.
The officer kept his eyes – and gun – locked on her as he instructed his partner. "Go after the other one. I've got this." Without a word the other man took off, heading out of Buffy's sight. "Keep your arms up and do not move." He stressed each syllable clearly as he moved forward. One hand kept his weapon focused on her while the other reached down and pulled a pair of handcuffs from his belt.
As soon as he was in reach, Buffy acted. Her left hand shot out quickly, pushing the gun away. At the same time her other hand swung at the officer's head, and the clean strike sent him to the ground. He lay there, perfectly still, and panic filled her lungs. Bending down, she placed two fingers over the artery on his neck. A long, relieved breath escaped her body as she felt his slow pulse.
Certain that Faith had gotten enough of a head start to escape both her and the cop, she decided she shouldn't stick around either. She ran in the direction the officers had entered, hoping it would lead her to the main entrance. She couldn't help but worry as she ran down the corridor. She had just assaulted a police officer, having first been caught breaking, entering and attempting to steal from the museum. On top of that she had also lost Faith, and the shard to boot.
"Well that could have gone better," she conceded to herself. Though when she considered how it had almost ended, she realized that it could also have been a lot worse.