New Friends, New Foes, New Problems - Part 1 (Excedo Inferi #3)
By Philip S.

Summary: Buffy and Angel try to fit back into the world after thirty years in Hell when some newcomers arrive in Sunnydale.
Spoilers: General spoilers for 'Faith, Hope & Trick', though this is an AU version of that episode. You should have read the first two stories of Excedo Inferi before reading this.
Rating: R
Disclaimer: Joss Whedon own all canon characters. The story is mine.
Title Picture: www.shadow-dancing.com/Pics/NewFriends.jpg


#

Previously on Buffy the Vampire Slayer:
Buffy and Angel, having fought their way through all nine circles of the Inferno to return to Earth, find that it is not the happily ever after they have dreamed of for thirty years. Only three months have passed in Sunnydale and the wounds are still fresh for Buffy's friends and family. While Giles and Willow do their best to accept them back, not everyone finds it that easy. Joyce is shocked by what her daughter has become and, though they are back on speaking terms, things are nowhere near back to normal between them. And then there is Xander, whose hatred of Angel has only grown for his turning Buffy into what Xander sees as a monster.

#

"How does that look?" Buffy asked.

Angel looked up from where he was putting together the new closet they had had delivered today, the one that would hold all of Buffy's clothing from now on. He remembered the first time she had gone through her old walk-in closet back in her mother's house, seeing all the things she used to wear.

She took only the smallest part of it along. The girl who had worn all those pink and cheery clothes wasn't here anymore.

"A little more to the left," he told her, causing her to move the picture on the wall. "Perfect, beloved."

"You like it?"

It was a picture from her mother's gallery, something like a peace-offering from Joyce. Buffy's mother was still getting used to the fact that her daughter had changed the way she had, not to mention that she would no longer live at home but together with her demon boyfriend. But she was coming around, Angel was sure. Slowly but steadily.

The picture showed a beautiful forest by moonlight, a wolf standing on a nearby hill, his head thrown back to howl. The sky was sprinkled with stars.

"It's very beautiful," Angel said, smiling.

Buffy fixed the picture in place, then looked around the chaos that was Angel's ... no, their living room. Two weeks had passed since their return to Earth, thirteen days since they had decided to move into Angel's old apartment. There was still a lot of work left to do, but the place was finally looking fit to be lived in.

"I'm done," she told Angel. "Want to go for patrol now?"

"It's still a bit early, don't you think? The sun's barely gone down."

Buffy shrugged, but was eager to go on the hunt again. She was still getting used to it, truth to tell. All their years in hell they had been the hunted, the prey. Only a few of the demons had been small enough for them to hunt and eat, crossing the rest would have earned them an instant death. Or a very slow one, come to think of it.

Buffy was enjoying being the hunter again. Even though the average vampire was barely a challenge after everything they had gone through.

Angel saw Buffy's itch to do something and rose.

"Okay, let's go patrolling. We should look in on Giles afterwards."

His light tone didn't keep Buffy from thinking of the reasons they regularly visited her Watcher. Giles was researching possible long-term effects of a vampire's blood on a human being. Not just the cosmetic ones, of which Buffy had already gone through quite a few. No, she and Angel both were more worried about the less visible effects his blood might have on her. Effects like her demonic temper or her eagerness for the hunt.

"I'll get the weapons." Buffy jumped into actions, getting their swords from the weapons chest. She had tried using stakes again, as they were easier to conceal than a sword, but she was too much out of the habit. Plus a sword had the upside that one could use it against just about every form of demon, not just vampires. Things that would laugh at a mere stake.

They were about to leave when there was a knock on the door. Angel and Buffy looked at each other. Not too many people knew they lived here and they expected no one. Certainly not the person Angel saw when he opened the door.

"Mrs. Summers," he greeted Buffy's mother. "Do come in!"

Joyce nodded, obviously reluctant, but followed his invitation.

"Mom!" Buffy gave her a stern look. "What are you doing out after dark?"

The relationship between mother and daughter was still cool, Angel knew. They had begun to mend fences, but it would take a long time yet before Buffy was ready to believe that her mother really accepted her the way she was. A long time until Joyce actually did, too.

"I ... I thought I should visit you," she said, looking around. "See the place you're going to live from now on."

There was a very sad note in her voice.

"It's not far from your house," Buffy replied. She didn't call it home anymore. It hadn't been her home in a long, long time. "You walked, what? Five minutes?"

"Buffy." Angel put a hand on her shoulder. Joyce was trying to reach out. There really was no need for Buffy to act like this.

"Sorry," she whispered. "I'm glad you came by, mom."

Joyce inspected the place her daughter would now call home. Dark, but she hadn't expected anything else. Daylight wasn't really something that was welcome in a vampire's retreat. Apart from that, though, she had to admit that the place was looking quite homely, if one ignored the wild assortment of boxes, furniture parts, and assorted stuff spread out across the living room floor.

The artwork decorating the walls was beautiful, Joyce had to admit.

"It looks nice." Joyce looked at Buffy and Angel.

"It took some livening up, but we're getting there."

The large bed standing in a separated part of the apartment was not something Buffy's mother had wanted to see, but it was no surprise, of course. Angel and Buffy had been alone with each other for thirty years. Even a mother had to accept that her daughter would not remain celibate in so long a time.

Joyce sighed, gathering her courage. There was another reason why she had come by here tonight. And it was not to talk about her daughter's sleeping arrangements.

"Buffy ... have you given any thought to what we talked about two days ago?"

Buffy had gone to Joyce's house for their first official mother-daughter get-together since her return from hell. Buffy had told Angel everything afterwards. About all the awkward silences, the topics carefully broached, the slow and gradual return of closeness between them. It hadn't exactly been a happy event, but neither had it been a sad one.

Time. They just needed a lot of time.

"You mean school." It wasn't a question on Buffy's part. "Mom, I told you ..."

"Yes, I know. You are fifty years old, give or take a few years." That was one part of Buffy's story that Joyce really had trouble wrapping her mind around. Oh, she believed it, more or less, that wasn't the problem. Her heart just wasn't able to accept that her baby girl was now a woman older than she herself was. It didn't help that Buffy didn't look her age, either.

"Then why are we still ...?"

"Because as far as the state of California is concerned you are still seventeen. And you never did receive a formal education."

"Angel and I spent a lot of time talking during our journey," Buffy retorted. "Everything I need to know I learned from him."

Angel wasn't about to dispute her in front of her mother. It was true that he had used the quiet times they'd had during their sting in Hell to teach her everything he knew. About art, about history, everything he had picked up in a long, long life. He wasn't sure, though, that what he had taught her was in any way comparable to a High School education.

Despite his low opinion of the American public school system, Angel quietly agreed with Joyce. He would broach the topic with Buffy at a later date, he decided. They needed more time to settle back into this world before they could even start to think about things like school.

"I don't expect you to go back to school right this instance, Buffy," Joyce tried to soothe her. "Please just think about it."

Buffy sighed, finally nodding. Angel didn't think she would actually spend much time thinking about it. Not without a little encouragement from him, at the least.

"Okay, fine! I'll think about it."

"That's all I wanted, Buffy." Joyce smiled at her.

Buffy managed an answering smile when the phone rang.

"Didn't we just get the phone reconnected," Buffy asked. "Who did you give our number to?"

Only three people, Angel counted while picking up the receiver. Willow. Joyce. And the person whose voice rang through the phone right now.

"Hello, Angel," Giles greeted the vampire. "Sorry for disturbing you, but I fear something has come up that concerns Buffy."

"Did you find out anything," Angel asked.

"No, nothing further on that matter," Giles said, causing Angel to grumble in disappointment. It was his greatest fear that the blood he had been forced to addict Buffy to might work yet more changes in her, take more of her humanity away with every sip she took from his veins.

"Something else has come up," Giles continued. "I just received a phone call from the Council."

The Council! Angel nodded, his outer calm not able to fool Buffy for a second.

"What is it?" She moved closer to him.

"The Council," he told her.

The people who still thought that Buffy was dead after facing a vampire she had foolishly allowed herself to fall in love with.

This couldn't be good.

#

In another part of Sunnydale a black limousine pulled into a drive-in, the black man sitting in the back ordering a milkshake while talking to someone else sitting beside him. Someone with cloven hands.

Moments later he pulled the young student working at the drive-in out of his booth, draining his blood in seconds.

"I think I'm going to like this town," Mr. Trick said, wiping his mouth with a napkin.

Kakistos just growled in response. He didn't care about the town. He only cared about the Slayer. Her upcoming death, to be precise.


#


"Faith!" Buffy rolled the name around in her head, trying to get a feel for it. "Another Slayer."

She kept thinking about Kendra. They had only met twice, the first time being a near-disaster, the second time resulting in Kendra's death at Drusilla's hands. That had been an eternity ago. Before Hell. Buffy could barely remember the other Slayer's face, though in her nightmares she sometimes saw brief images of entering the library and finding Kendra's dead body there.

Now there was another Slayer. A Slayer who, according to the Council, was in quite a lot of trouble.

Buffy and Angel were on patrol, but Buffy had a hard time concentrating on the thrill of the hunt right now. There were too many other things going around her mind. Things concerning a girl just like she had once been, immersed in a world of evil.

A girl who had lost her Watcher only weeks after she had found her. Buffy remembered Merrick, even after all these years. No matter how much she loved Giles, Merrick had been her first Watcher. The man who had shown her what the world was really like and what her role in it was. The man who had given his life to protect her.

Yes, Buffy could very well imagine how Faith felt right now.

"Have you ever heard about this vampire that's supposedly after her," she asked Angel, who was walking by her side. "Kakistos, I think you said."

"Kakistos, yes. I heard of him. One of the oldest vampires in the entire world, rivalling Master Nest. If even half of what I heard about him is true we could be in a lot of trouble."

Buffy recalled what Giles had told them during their brief meeting earlier tonight.

Faith, the new Slayer, called after Kendra died. A young girl from Boston, sixteen years old. Unlike Kendra, just like Buffy, she had not been raised to be the Slayer, only learning of her destiny a few months ago. Her Watcher, Joanna Cleary, had reported that she had grown up in a very torn family environment and already had a criminal record.

She had also reported that, for Faith, becoming the Slayer was quite a good thing. Unlike Buffy it hadn't taken her away from a very happy life (or what she had believed to be a happy life back then). For Faith it had been the first time ever that someone needed her. She had embraced her destiny without hesitation. If anything, so Cleary had said, she was a little too enthusiastic about it.

Then Kakistos had come and Joanna Cleary died at his hands. Or so they believed.

"The police only found Joanna's body," Giles had said, "mutilated and drained of blood. From the last report she sent to the Council we know that Faith was on the hunt for an unknown vampire. When Joanna found out who Kakistos was she wanted Faith to withdraw, believing that she was not ready to face a foe of this calibre. That was the last they heard of her."

The Council believed that Faith, if she had survived her encounter with Kakistos, would be trying to contact the only other member of the Watchers Council currently on American soil. One Rupert Giles, living in Sunnydale, California. Apparently Cleary gave Faith all the background info on the Hellmouth, just in case Faith would be needed here.

"You think Faith will be coming to see Giles?" There was a hint of worry in Buffy's voice. Angel understood quite well. If Faith was anything like Kendra had been she wouldn't be too thrilled with Buffy's relationship with a vampire, not to mention her changes. Come to think of it, as far as the Council and Faith were concerned Buffy was dead. They didn't know of her return yet, something Giles had verified during their phone conversation.

Neither Giles nor Buffy and Angel saw much need to tell them about it, either. The Council had been less than enthusiastic about a Slayer falling in love with a vampire, even if said vampire should happen to have a soul. If they learned that said vampire had dared corrupt their Slayer by feeding her his blood there was no telling what they might do. Best to keep them in the dark as long as possible.

"Maybe," Angel said, coming back to Buffy's question. "I fear we don't know enough about this girl to really predict her actions. If they are right about her dedication to duty I think she will. If not, well, she might have gone into hiding, hoping to leave everything connected with vampires and watchers far behind. We'll just have to wait and see."

Buffy nodded, not really happy with that answer. It was not just because the last time she had run into a second Slayer it had almost cost Angel his life. That was an issue, certainly, but there were other things on Buffy's mind.

There was only supposed to be one Slayer at a time. One died, another was chosen. Buffy had been told that little bit of lore so often she could recite it in her sleep. The permanent retirement aspects of her calling had caused her many a sleepless night. Often she wondered about the Slayer who had died in order for Buffy to be called. She had never asked Giles about her, though, and she doubted he would tell her if she did.

Kendra had met the girl who had died for her to be called. Buffy had seen her successor live and die. Now there was yet another Slayer on the way and she was really not sure how to handle this. How would Faith react if she met her? Well, there was the matter of her inhuman appearance to be considered, but even without that, what would Faith think when meeting the Slayer who should have been dead twice over?

Only a bit more than two years had passed here on Earth since she had been called, Buffy realized, and in that short time two Slayers had died. Only one of them permanently, but that was beside the point. It was something she had never thought about before meeting Kendra, truth be told. Oh, she had known that Slayers usually didn't live very long, but it wasn't the same as seeing it firsthand.

Buffy had died. Kendra had died. Maybe Faith was dead also, killed by Kakistos, her body simply not found yet. She shook her head, trying to chase the chill from her bones. What kind of power did this to them? Why did it choose young girls who hadn't even had a chance to live in order to spend them like so much cannon fodder?

Angel was aware of her darkening mood, could even guess some of the reasons for it, but didn't know what to do to lighten it.

Why was there never a vampire around when you really needed one?

As if in response to his silent plead something moved in the shadows just ahead, a figure ducking behind the corner of a crypt. A figure that moved faster than humanly possible, barely making a sound. Buffy and Angel tensed. Both their perceptions had sharpened considerably during their journey through Hell. Their survival had depended on seeing the other guys first.

"Just one?" Buffy whispered, scanning the surroundings.

"Yes. A very fast one, though. Probably quite strong."

They communicated with their eyes only, splitting up to circle around the crypt from both sides. Buffy moved like shadows, not making any sound audible to a human or vampire. Her senses reached around the corner ahead of her.

Catching a heartbeat?

Buffy's opponent pounced on her in that single moment of distraction, catching Buffy off-guard. They tumbled to the ground in a mess of arms and legs, Buffy spotting a stake from the corner of her eye, instinctively catching the arm that was about to plunge it into her chest.

The girl sitting on top of her strained against her hold.

"Be a good vampire and die already," she growled, now pushing the stake down with both arms.

"Good vampires are already dead," Buffy growled back. Some part of her mind realized who this girl had to be, but she didn't have time to think about that now. She was too busy fighting for her life.

Angel appeared behind the girl, quickly tearing her off Buffy and throwing her full-force into the crypt wall, cracking the stone. The stake went tumbling away into the night even as Buffy flipped back to her feet.

Angel was in full vamp-face, rage glinting in his eyes.

"I thought I'd sensed two of you," the girl spat at him, getting back to her feet as well. "I'm afraid I'll have to hurt you bad."

"Over my dead body!" Buffy felt the demon temper rising inside her. No one threatened Angel as long as she had anything to say about it.

"Didn't we have this conversation already?"

A heartbeat later the girl attacked them again.

#

Giles was busy researching Kakistos, not liking in the least all he read about him, when there was a knock at the door. Rising to answer it, Giles didn't miss going through his usual routine, checking whether the crossbow close to the door was loaded and ready.

Three people were standing in front of his door, the one in the middle looking decidedly unconscious.

"It's just a guess," Buffy said, holding the limp form between her and Angel up with one arm. "But I'd say this is our errant Slayer."



#


Buffy sat on the sofa and watched as Faith slowly started to come awake. They had hit the poor girl rather hard, she feared, but holding back could have resulted in one of them dying. For someone who had been called just a few months ago, Buffy had to admit that Faith was quite the fighter.

"She's coming to, Giles," Buffy called her Watcher.

Faith opened her eyes, blinking against the light of Giles' living room.

"What the fuck ...," she muttered, looking around. Then her eyes widened as she saw the blonde girl sitting across from her.

"You!" She was on her feet in an instant, looking ready to attack, only to fall back on the couch, clutching her head. "Fuck!"

"You took quite a bump there," Buffy told, "so do yourself a favor and stay down for a while."

"I don't stay down," Faith muttered, but made no move to rise again.

Giles walked into the living room, putting a cup of tea in front of Faith before offering her his hand.

"I am Rupert Giles. I believe you were looking for me."

Faith eyed him suspiciously. "You're the Watcher guy?"

"I am a Watcher, yes."

"Then what are you doing with a ..." Her voice trailed off as she took another, longer look at Buffy. The object of her scrutiny was sitting on the couch with an innocent expression on her face, very human-looking eyes regarding her with interest.

"I could've sworn ...," Faith muttered to herself.

Buffy said a silent thank you to Willow for coming through with those contact lenses she had promised her a while ago.

"Faith, may I introduce you to Buffy Summers. The Vampire Slayer."

Faith stared at her with open eyes for a minute before shaking her head. "I heard you were dead, Buff."

"You heard wrong," Buffy said. "I was just ... away for a while. I'm back."

"Away, uh?" Faith gave her a quizzical look. "They told me you got yourself sucked into a portal to hell along with your undead loverboy."

Giles could see that Faith's way of phrasing up the most painful moment of Buffy's life was making his Slayer uncomfortable, so he decided to intervene.

"We have more important things to worry about right now, Faith." He sat down beside Buffy, looking at the other girl. "We need to know what happened in Boston, Faith. We only know that your Watcher Joanna Cleary was found dead from a vampire attack."

Buffy saw a flash of pain and misery in Faith's eyes, but it disappeared as quickly as it had come. An expression sprang up on the other Slayer's face like a curtain drawn shut, an expression that seemed to say 'See, I'm all right! Nothing can touch me'. Buffy knew that kind of expression only too well.

"I was hunting a vampire that night," Faith said, shrugging. "When I came back Ms. C was dead. There was this guy, Kakistos, and I fought him. Gave him quite a shiner, too."

"Did you kill him?" Giles asked.

Faith's neutral expression wavered for a moment, but only for a moment. "No, he got away. After that I was pretty much clueless what to do now. Ms. C once told me about you, G-man, so I decided to come here to SunnyD."

She was lying, Buffy knew. Her enhanced senses had clearly picked up her accelerated heartbeat when Giles had mentioned Cleary's death, had seen the sparkle of sweat breaking out on her forehead. Faith was lying about what had happened. Buffy just wasn't sure why.

"And the first thing that happens," Faith continued, "I run into a happy couple in the graveyard and get knocked out. What's up with that? I might have been wrong about you, Buff, but the other guy definitely was a vamp."

"You thought I was a vamp?" Buffy asked, managing to make herself sound amused.

"Yeah, I thought ... I could've sworn you had those vampy eyes, B." She looked over at Giles. "You sure she isn't a vamp?"

"Quite sure, yes," Giles told her.

"You can check my pulse if you want." Buffy offered her wrist to the other girl.

"Nah, it's cool!"

"Faith," Giles utilized the short breach in conversation, "we need to talk about Kakistos. You said you hurt him."

Buffy sighed in relief, hoping that Faith would forget about asking her about 'the other guy' again. She was definitely not ready to share information about Angel with her quite yet.

"I took a knife to his face," Faith proclaimed proudly. "Scarred him but good. I don't think even vamp healing's gonna help him get rid of that one."

Giles nodded with a troubled look on his face. "I did some research on Kakistos when the Council informed me you might be coming here. From all I've learned he's quite vindictive. If you really scarred him permanently odds are he will follow you here."

It happened in the blink of an eye, but Buffy caught the expression of pure terror that flashed over Faith's face. Then it was gone again.

"No prob!" Faith leaned back on the couch, folding her hands behind her head. "If he comes by we'll kick his ass back to the stone age. Right, B?"

Buffy nodded, her face guarded. "Right."

#

They had been inside the Fourth Circle of Hell for what Angel estimated was well over a year by now. Telling the time was getting more and more difficult as the endless grayness of this particular region of hell was eroding his inner clock. It was something that had irked him almost from the beginning of their journey, however long ago that might have been now. A vampire was finely attuned to the cycle of night and day. Here in Hell, though, there was no such thing.

The incident with Pluto right at the start of their journey through the Fourth Circle was haunting them still.

"More of the rotting guys." Buffy whispered to him as they hid in a side alley. They had found the city they were currently in about a month ago, or so Angel estimated. Calling it a city was giving it a lot of credit, seeing as it wasn't much more than a collection of dirty tents and improvised housing built from hardened mud.

The people that existed in this part of Hell had all been guilty of greed in their lives. Their entire existence had been about nothing but the gathering of riches and goods, no matter how much others might suffer for it. Now these men and women were forced to exist in a world compared to which a third world country back on Earth would be considered Paradise.

There was food here, much to Buffy's enjoyment, but the wraiths were unable to eat it. Still they fought over it, they couldn't help it. Hunger and thirst tore away at them at all times, but there was no release to be found in death. They were already dead, after all. So they existed from moment to moment, their suffering continuing without end.

"I think they're gone!" Buffy's words brought Angel back to the present. Pluto was still hunting them for what Buffy had done to him. His creatures were everywhere, rising out of the ground at odd moments, appearing and disappearing without any discernible pattern.

The only constant was that, whenever they spotted Buffy and Angel, they tried to catch and kill them. Angel had lost count of the number of close calls they had had this last year or so. They were constantly on the lookout, forced to hide for long periods of time. Angel didn't allow himself to think about how this was slowing down their progress through Hell. There was nothing to be done about it either way.

It was doing something to Buffy, though. Angel had started to realize that these past few weeks.

"Come on, quickly!" They sprinted across the street, which deserved the name only for the fact that it was an empty space between two irregular rows of crumbling mud-dwellings. They ducked back into the shadows a few seconds later, listening for the familiar sound of pounding feet.

"Nothing," Angel said after a moment. "I think we lost them for the moment."

Buffy breathed a sigh of relief. She was hating this, and not only because it had been her lack of temper that had brought them into this situation. Pluto hadn't seemed particularly concerned about their presence in his Circle one way or the other. At least until Buffy had slashed his throat in retaliation for the cruel games he played with those imprisoned here.

No, Buffy hated to be the hunted. It had been different in the first three Circles. While they had been forced to stay out of sight there, too, the demons hadn't been actively hunting them, either. As soon as they were out of sight they would lose interest and Buffy and Angel would be safe again.

Not here. Here they were hunted at all times and there was nothing either of them could do to change that. They couldn't strike back. Oh, they had tried, but it had been in vain. For every creature they destroyed a new one rose from the ground, bones clicking together like a jigsaw puzzle, rotting flesh wrapping around the newly formed skeleton in a matter of seconds. There was an endless supply of these things and they never tired.

Buffy and Angel could do nothing but run. Buffy hated it. She wasn't used to running away.

She wasn't used to being this scared.

"Let's go!" They crossed the next street, hoping that nothing would rise from the ground to eat them.

And there was no telling how much further they had to go. No telling at all.




#


Willow was experiencing a very strange sort of feeling.

No, she corrected, it wasn't the feeling that was strange. It was strange that this particular feeling should pop into her head right now, at this particular point in time. At this particular place, too. She had never experienced this emotion in this place before.

Willow was standing before the big entrance door of Sunnydale High School and really did not feel like going in. It was the first day of school after the long summer, the day when she had always been flush with excitement. Willow had always been a nerd and proud of it, convinced that it was the nerds, not the cool people, who made the big money later in life.

Yes, Willow had always loved the first day of the new school year. She would get up much earlier than she had to, pack her bag, make sure all her pencils were sharpened, and bounce around until the clock finally got around to telling her it was time to go.

Come to think of it, this particular first day of school should make her feel especially joyous. She was a senior now, just one year to go until graduation. Finally she was in the position to look down on all the junior students and make faces at them as she was allowed the leave the school grounds during lunch while they could not. Yes, this should have been a great day for her. Only it wasn't.

Willow had gotten up early, had packed her bag, had sharpened her pencils, but there had been no bouncing. Not even a little bit. It was a bounce-free day for Willow.

A lot of things had changed, she realized. She would walk into this building and her best friend wouldn't be there. Buffy had been thrown out of school and, considering the fact that she was now about thirty years too old for school, she probably wouldn't be back, either. They would never study together again, nor work together in chemistry class. Buffy would never again look at her with that completely clueless look on her face when Willow tried to explain trigonometry to her.

Her other best friend, her best male friend, would be there, but she really didn't want to see him. During their last talk Willow had made it clear that the next move was up to Xander, said next move being his apologizing to Buffy and Angel for what he had done.

So far Xander hadn't made a move.

She was thanking god that Oz would be there at the least. One could always depend upon his expressionless face and slight smile. God, how she loved that smile.

Giles would be in the library, of course, but she doubted the Watcher would be in a very good mood, either. During the last two weeks he had lost the dark look of loss and despair that had surrounded him all summer, only to have it replaced by an air of worry. Worry over Buffy, worry over what she had become or might yet become.

He would never say anything, but Willow knew that he was angry with Buffy for her rash decision. He understood why she had done it, but that didn't change the fact that, in his eyes, she had done something incredibly stupid and irresponsible three months ago.

Or thirty years ago, as Buffy reckoned time.

She shook her head. Now was not the time to think about these things, was there? Now was the time to think about tests and homework and grades and ...

"Willow!" A voice called out her name.

Cordelia was coming toward her down the corridor, a happy look on her face as she approached the redhead. For a moment Willow was extremely irritated. How dare she be happy at a time when things were so terribly confused. Then she remembered that Cordelia had been gone all summer, skiing in Aspen.

She probably didn't even know what was happening right now.

"So good to see you again, Willow," Cordelia chirped, stopping in front of her. "How was your summer?"

"Summer? Oh, summer was good. Or as good as can be."

Cordelia's face fell. "Right. The whole thing with Buffy going to hell. Sorry. Almost managed to make myself forget that."

Her brusqueness was something Willow was more or less used to by now, so she didn't think much of it. Cordelia's next question, though, left Willow at a loss.

"How is Xander?"

How was Xander? Well, how was she supposed to answer that? Cordelia knew, of course, what Xander had done at the mansion three months ago. At first she had been as angry as all of them, or nearly so, but as he had shown genuine remorse for his deeds she had soon forgiven him. Then she had gone to Aspen, leaving her in the dark about recent developments.

Not in the mood for any kind of long story telling Willow decided to adopt Cordelia's brusqueness for today.

"How is he? Well, until about two weeks ago he was doing his best to get himself killed night after night, hunting vampires on his own. But that was before Buffy and Angel got back from Hell. Now they're here again and Buffy is extremely pissed at what he did to her. Xander, on the other hand, is angry at Angel because he had to change Buffy halfway into a vampire in order for her to survive in Hell and called him a lot of dirty names before Buffy nearly tore his head off. That was two weeks ago."

For a minute or two Cordelia merely stared at the redhead with wide eyes before she finally found her voice again. Somehow it made Willow proud that she could leave Cordelia Chase speechless.

"Oh," Cordy just said. "And what else happened?"

Willow shook her head. It appeared she had to tell the whole story after all.

#

Xander wasn't really sure why he was in school at all today. He had never cared much about school and after everything that happened here in the last half year or so it was not a place of fond memories.

How often had he nearly died in this building? Had to be at least five or six times, probably more. This was a serious temptation of fate on his part, going back here.

The only positive thing he could think of was the fact that school might succeed in distracting him from the thoughts that had been going through his head. About half the time he felt incredibly stupid and small for everything he had done and said about two weeks ago.

Unfortunately those times were overshadowed by the other times. The times he had to think about that monster running around in human form, the bastard that should have died a long time ago, yet was still allowed to live even though he had earned death a thousand times over.

Angel was allowed to live after what he had done to Buffy. After turning her into a monster just like him.

Willow had told him the entire story, of course. Angel had had no choice, she said. Buffy would be dead if he hadn't done it. Yeah, right. They only had Angel's word for that. Well, his and Buffy's, but considering what Buffy had become he wasn't particularly inclined to trust her word. She was addicted to the bastard's blood. Who knew what she would do in order to get her fix?

His disgust at the way his own thoughts went wasn't enough to silence them, though. He couldn't help it. Yes, he felt guilty for what he had done three months ago. Guilty because it had caused Buffy to be sent to Hell along with Angel. He should have gone there alone and stayed there for all time, not drag her along with him.

Okay, he hadn't dragged her along. Not physically at least. She had gone with him of her own free will. How was it that a girl like Buffy could love something like him that much? It wasn't right. It wasn't fair.

Great! So far school had not managed to distract him from his thoughts even for five minutes.

"Xander!"

He turned around and saw Cordelia walking toward him. Okay, maybe something good would come of this day after all. He wouldn't admit it to any living person, but he had missed Cordy, had missed her like crazy. In the days following the events in the mansion she had been the only one that supported him even halfway. The first to show some sympathy to him again.

He could sure use some sympathy right now.

Cordelia walked right up to him and slapped him hard. Xander took a step back, holding his burning cheek.

"Hey," he yelled. "What was that for?"

"If you don't know that you are an even bigger idiot than I ever thought, Xander Harris!"

She closed the distance again, getting right in his face.

"You know, when you told us what you had done I thought: My God, what an immature brat you still are. But then I thought you had actually learned something from that. Maybe you would finally grow up."

"Cordy ...," he tried to get a word in.

"Don't Cordy me ever again!" She looked furious, her hands on her hips. "Willow told me everything that happened when Buffy and Angel came back. And you know what? It told me two things about you, Xander. One: You are still an immature brat who can't form a coherent thought for the life of him. And two: You are still lusting after Buffy."

Taking a step back she looked at him with an air of disgust.

"And those are two things I won't tolerate in a boyfriend of mine. So consider yourself dumped, Xander! As of two weeks ago."

Turning around to stalk off she paused, taking something out of her purse.

"And you can have this back!" She threw the necklace he had given her last year into his face.

A moment later she was gone, leaving Xander standing alone and confused amidst a crowd of onlookers that didn't really have a clue what had just happened. Except for the fact that the scandalous relationship between Cordelia Chase, queen of Sunnydale High, and Xander Harris, king of cretins, seemed to be officially over.

Which was definitely good for gossiping.




#


On Faith's second night in Sunnydale she and Buffy went out on patrol together. Buffy didn't much like going into a fight with anyone but Angel at her side, but she agreed with Giles that it might be a chance to get Faith to open up about what had really happened in Boston.

Buffy suspected that Giles also saw it as a good opportunity to see whether she was still able to fight (or maybe even live) without her vampire lover. Her Watcher tried to hide it, but she knew that the extreme closeness between her and Angel worried him.

"I've only been doing this for a few months now," Faith told her as they walked across the cemetery, "but I can't imagine life without it anymore. It's so incredibly cool."

"Yeah, cool!" Some part of Buffy kept telling her that she would actually have to talk to Faith in order to gain information from her. She kept ignoring that part, though, mostly because she was missing the presence of Angel too much to think of anything else. For thirty years they had been together nearly without break.

"You don't sound too enthusiastic about the whole gig, girlfriend."

"Faith, I got back from hell two weeks ago, so please forgive me for not being too enthusiastic about the 'gig' that got me there."

For a moment she thought that there might actually be some signs of sympathy on Faith's face, but they vanished as quickly as they had come.

"Suit yourself!" Faith kept scanning the night for vampires. "Do you think we'll get any action here tonight?"

One thing Buffy was infinitely grateful for was the fact that Faith seemed to have forgotten all about 'that other guy' she had seen in the cemetery last night. Or maybe she was just too preoccupied thinking about Kakistos and whether he might follow her here. Buffy wasn't a hundred percent sure exactly how her senses had changed due to Angel's blood, but the demon she carried with her was looking at Faith from behind her eyes and saw but one thing.

Scared prey.

"From what Giles told me things have been pretty quiet all summer," Buffy said, carefully choosing her next words as she studied Faith's face. "Of course all of that could change in an instant if Kakistos comes here."

Faith's reaction was barely there, but Buffy caught it.

"Cool," Faith said, managing to sound enthusiastic. "More vamps to dust."

As if on cue several members of the aforementioned breed suddenly sprang up around them, demon faces grinning at them.

"Food," one of them hissed.

"Dust!" Faith drew a stake from inside her jacket. Buffy didn't quip, she only drew the sword out of her spine sheet and held it before her, just remembering to suppress the not-quite human growl that was building up inside her throat.

"That's so cool," Faith said upon seeing Buffy's sword. "Why didn't I get one of those?"

Buffy didn't waste any time to answer and lunged for the first vampire, swinging her sword in a vicious arc that almost decapitated her opponent right where he stood. The creature moved at the last moment, managing to get away with a deep cut across his chest instead.

"Hardcore," Faith yelled, jumping into the fray herself.

For a moment Buffy considered how different things had gotten since the last time she had been on patrol in Sunnydale's cemeteries by herself. The old Buffy had quipped and punned without end. A vampire that got himself stacked too easily was a loser and she told him so, right after complaining that most of them never got over using the B-movie lines like 'Now you die!' or 'Prepare for your death, Slayer!'.

She wasn't that Buffy anymore.

Two of the vampires quickly found their end by way of her blade, heads flying off shoulders and turning to ash a moment later, the bodies following suite. Only when she found no more opponents in her direct vicinity did she take a moment to remember that there was someone else here except herself and the enemies.

"Faith?" She looked around, not seeing the girl immediately.

"Tell him I'm not afraid of him," she heard someone scream behind a nearby tombstone. "Tell him he can't scare me! Not me!" Every second or third word was accompanied by the sound of a fist hitting flesh.

Buffy slowly walked around the tombstone until she saw Faith. The other Slayer was straddling a vampire and raining punches down onto his face, which was already a bloody mess.

"Kakistos won't get me!" There were tears flowing down Faith's face, which was contorted with rage. "I'm not scared of him!"

Seeing this spectacle in front of her, Buffy couldn't help but remember another scene very much like this one from a long, long time ago.

#

Buffy didn't know how long they had spent in the Fourth Circle of Hell. Sleeping had become a luxury and the endless days between their few rest periods blurred into one another until she lost all sense of time. Might have been a year, might have been five years. She couldn't tell.

It seemed, though, that they had finally reached the end of their journey. Or at least this particular part of it.

"I can see the gray plain from here," Angel whispered to her, spying out of their hiding place with his superior eyesight. They were sitting among hundreds and hundreds of wraiths, all of them dressed in dirty rags and oblivious to everything except the bowls of rice sitting in front of them. The bowls that had been in front of the people on the other hill just moments earlier.

"This looks like the place we came in," Buffy whispered back to Angel. "You sure we didn't get turned around somewhere?"

She just managed to keep the desperation from her voice. Anything but that! To have come so far only to realize that they had walked in a circle, forced to go through all of this all over again. She wasn't sure she would be able to go on.

"No!" The certainty in Angel's voice helped, even if just a little. "The hills rose but gradually where we came in. They are dropping steeply just a few hundred meters ahead of us. This is the exit, I'm sure of it. The Fifth Circle is beyond the plain."

Buffy didn't care about the Fifth Circle of Hell, not even a bit. She just wanted to get out of the Fourth. Get away from all this misery and the utter helplessness that had draped itself around her like a shroud she couldn't get out of. There was nothing she could do to help any of these people, nothing at all. Trying to punish their tormentor had only worsened things for them.

"Let's get out of here then!"

"Road looks clear." There was nothing between them and the exit. Nothing but the dead, and they wouldn't stop them. They were too busy envying each other for the food that neither of them could eat.

Buffy just hoped she would be able to forget this place.

Squeezing each other's hands they darted out of their hiding place and made a run for the edge of the Circle. They had barely covered a hundred meters when the ground around them began to crack open.

"No," Buffy screamed, shaking her head. "Not now!"

"Keep running!"

Skeletons broke free of the ground all over the hillside, rotten corpses that reassembled before their eyes. Putrid flesh wrapped around bleached bones, grinning skulls patched with decaying skin grinned at them as they started to give pursuit.

"We'll make it!" Angel dragged her along as Buffy's steps faltered.

The ground in front of them burst open, spewing forth more of the rotting warriors. Some of them carried weapons, battle axes and swords, others came at them with their bare hands. Angel still didn't slow down. These corpses looked scary, but individually they weren't much of a threat. A solid blow would take them apart without problem.

Only they wouldn't stay apart. They would put themselves back together in a matter of seconds and give pursuit once more. And there were always hundreds of them.

"Go right through them!" Angel let go of Buffy's hand as they both needed all their limbs for the fight ahead. "They won't follow us beyond the Circle."

Buffy wanted to ask him how he could be certain of that, but it was too late for questions. They ran into the first line of warriors, barreling them over, smashing them to pieces without slowing down much. But there more of them. So many of them.

"Don't slow down," Angel yelled at her, smashing more of the ghouls to pieces even as he kept one eye on her.

There were so many of them, pressing in on her from all sides. For how long had these monsters hunted her, never leaving them even a moment to breathe? Buffy had even seen them in her nightmares during the few short hours of sleep Angel had forced her to take every once in a while. They wouldn't leave her alone, no matter what she did.

They just wouldn't go away.

"You won't keep me here!" Something inside Buffy snapped, lashing out with pure animal rage. "I'm not scared of you!"

She tore into the skeletal soldiers with a ferocity that would have scared her had she been thinking clearly, every grinning skull just one more target for her rage. Hands and feet smashed them to pieces faster than they could reform, a captured sword quickly added to her arsenal. The rusted steel blade slashing bones in two, tearing flesh apart.

"You won't get me!" Tears were obscuring her view, but she didn't need to see in order to hit them. They were all around her. "I won't let you win!"

"Buffy!" Angel's voice was a distant sensation, not penetrating past the crimson haze that had descended around her. She only knew that there were more enemies to destroy, smash them to pieces so they wouldn't hunt her anymore, wouldn't keep hunting her in her dreams.

"I won't let you win!"

There was a moment of space, no more enemies pressing in around her, and Buffy nearly fell down when her sword unexpectedly ran out of targets. A pair of strong arms caught her, though, a familiar presence stopping her from lashing out at what might have been yet another enemy.

Without saying a word Angel threw her over his shoulder and started running again. Buffy struggled for a moment, the animal wanting to tear yet more enemies apart, but then stopped when her vision cleared and she saw what they were running from.

The entire hillside behind them was covered in bones and rotting flesh, most of which was moving to reform yet another time. An army would rise from this devastation they had left behind in a matter of seconds and their only chance was to get away while they could.

The haze lifted and Buffy began to weep.

A few moments later Angel stopped, gently lowering her back to the ground. They were standing on the gray plain that separated the Circles of hell and looked back. Hundreds of skeletal warriors were standing less than fifty meters away, staring at them, yet not making a move to come closer.

Buffy wiped away her tears, swallowing a few times until she found her voice.

"How ... how did you know they wouldn't follow us past the Circle?"

Angel looked at her and gave her a smile.

"I didn't."

For a long moment Buffy just stared at him, not quite believing what she had just heard. Then she exploded into laughter.

"You .. you didn't ... didn't know," she forced the words out between fits of laughter. "You didn't know."

"I didn't." Angel repeated, putting his hands on her shoulders.

Buffy's laughter broke down into sobs and Angel took her into his arms as she cried. He didn't have a clue how long they had been in there, how long they had been forced to be on guard every single second, spending most of their time fleeing for their lives.

It didn't matter. They had made it past that part of Hell. Five more Circles were ahead of them, but they could wait.

He slipped to the ground with Buffy in his arms, his own tears added to hers. Maybe what lay ahead would be even worse. In all probability it would. But for the moment they were safe. Safe to let out everything they had been forced to push down these last few months, years, however long it had been.

For Angel and Buffy, it was almost like a small piece of Heaven.

#

Buffy sighed and quickly decapitated the vampire Faith was still pummeling, watching him turn to dust beneath her. The other Slayer stared up at her, blurry eyes regarding her with anger.

"Why did you do that? I had him under control."

Buffy just looked at her. Faith needed help, that much was evident now. The question was just how Buffy was supposed to give her that help. Back in Hell she and Angel had had each other to rely on, knowing that the other would always be there to catch them should they stumble.

Faith needed someone like that as well. Buffy just wasn't sure whether she, who had lived without any kind of human contact for thirty years, could be that person for her.

Probably not.




#


The vampire known as Mr. Trick was approaching his employer with a certain amount of apprehension. Kakistos was paying him a very nice sum for his services, yet that didn't change the fact that the ancient vampire was moody, violent, and liable to just decapitate people who brought him bad news.

Which, considering the news Trick had for him, could become a problem.

"Any news on our Slayer, Mr. Trick?" Kakistos looked up from where he sat in the dark, one cloven hand endlessly brushing up and down the large scar that went across the right side of his face, right across his blinded eye. His other hand was curled into a fist, shaking slightly.

"Quite a bit actually," Trick sighed, sitting down in a chair a bit out of reach, just in case. "Do you remember that rumor going around a while ago that there were actually two Slayers at the same time?"

"I am not interested in fancy stories, Mr. Trick." Kakistos gave him a dangerous look. "There is only one Slayer and that is the one I am interested in."

Trick nodded. "Faith is here in Sunnydale. One of our informants saw her last night."

"Very good."

"That is not all, though. Our informant also reported that she was fighting side by side with another girl. One who matches the description of the Slayer that has supposedly perished about four months ago while battling Angelus."

Trick had actually been quite relieved to hear that Angelus was gone. The self-proclaimed Scourge of Europe had a reputation that made even vampires wary of him. There were also rumors that he had tried to bring about the end of the world. That was something Mr. Trick had no intention of witnessing. He was rather fond of this world and the many opportunities it presented to a smart business man.

"Are you trying to tell me that a Slayer has risen from the dead?" Kakistos sounded rather amused at the concept.

"Maybe. Our informant said that there was something strange about her. I am afraid he was but a fledgling, so I do not put to much trust into his ability to sense things beyond human perception, yet he was convinced that she was not human."

Kakistos seemed to consider this for a moment, then he brushed it aside.

"I don't care about this other Slayer, dead or not. If she gets in my way she will die, otherwise she is of no concern."

Trick cringed at the notion of a Slayer being of no concern to a vampire, but wisely kept his mouth shut. Kakistos was the most powerful vampire he had ever met. The only one rumored to be more powerful was the late and definitely not lamented Master Nest, who had perished in this very town about a year before.

Perished at the hands of that very same Slayer Kakistos was not concerned about.

"We have people trying to track Faith at the moment," Trick said, his uneasiness not evident in his voice. "We should know where she is residing within the day."

"Good work, Mr. Trick." Kakistos folded his misshapen hands across his belly, smiling with a mouthful of fangs. "We can pay her a visit then. I am sure sweet Faith will love to get ... reacquainted with me."

Trick rose and walked away as quickly as he could without looking to be in a hurry. More and more he was thinking that it had been a mistake to take this job. Not just because his employer seemed to be missing quite a few screws ever since that Slayer had taken one of his eyes.

Well, it wouldn't be that much longer. Kakistos had hired him for the sole purpose of tracking down Faith. Once she was dead this job would be over and Trick could go home with a handy sum of cash in his pocket.

Home being any place far away from a Slayer that regularly killed master vampires. Trick hadn't lived and prospered this long by being stupid.

#

"You want me to do what?" Joyce looked at her daughter with wide eyes.

Buffy squirmed in her seat, the whole situation making her uncomfortable. It didn't help that her body was screaming for Angel's blood, stronger and stronger every second. Soon she would have to drink from him again or go into another seizure.

Why couldn't her mother just say yes and be done with it?

"Faith needs someone to talk to," Buffy repeated, keeping a sharp grip on her temper. "Something bad happened to her, but she keeps up the appearance of happy girl. Except when she blows a fuse and pounds vampires into paste."

Joyce nodded, sitting down. "So let me see if I understood this. Faith is a second Slayer, called when this girl Kendra died, who was also a Slayer. She comes here from Boston because something ... something killed her Watcher. So she looks up Mr. Giles and runs into you. And now you want me to talk to her."

"That's it, yes."

With a deep sigh Joyce ran her hand through her hair.

"Buffy, I've never met this girl before. Why do you think she would open up to me?"

"From what little we know of Faith it seems like she had a really bad childhood. When she was called as the Slayer it was the very first time that she had the chance to be ... useful. Appreciated. From what her Watcher wrote they were very tight. Then Faith lost her."

"Buffy, I don't know ..."

"Mom, Faith is in the exact same situation I was after I was called. I had just gotten used to my life turning into a freak show when Merrick died." Buffy reached out clasp her mother's hand, an awkward gesture at best. "It's been so long ... for me, anyway, but I still remember how lost I felt. Then you and dad split up at the same time and I kept thinking it was because of me. Because of all the trouble I got in."

Joyce shook her head. "Buffy, no! It wasn't about ..."

"I know that," Buffy interrupted her, giving her mother a smile. "I know that because you were there, mom. Because you were there to love me, even though you didn't understand what I was going through. It didn't matter because I knew that you loved me. That is what kept me going during that time."

A part of Joyce couldn't help but cringe at the fact that Buffy kept referring to Joyce loving her in the past tense.

"Faith has no one like that," Buffy concluded. "But she desperately needs someone."

"I still love you, Buffy," Joyce said, squeezing her daughter's hand. "You know that, right?"

Buffy looked down for a moment, her hand going slack in her mother's palm.

"I think so, mom. I'm just not sure whether it's me you love or the girl you still think I should be."

Joyce opened her mouth to protest, but couldn't think of anything to say. Past events had pretty much proven Buffy right, after all. Until about two weeks ago Joyce had been so much in love with her image of Buffy that seeing that image shattered had almost caused her to reject the girl ... woman her daughter really was.

Things were changing, though, if slowly.

"I love you, Buffy," she finally said. "Please believe that."

Buffy said nothing, just looked at her for a long moment. Joyce looked back, looking into eyes that were disguised to appear human. When Buffy had first come in wearing those contact lenses Joyce had almost started to believe that everything that had happened had been nothing but a bad dream.

She wouldn't go down that road again, though. This was real, no matter if she liked it or not. This was her daughter, whom she loved no matter what her eyes looked like. Green, yellow, purple, it didn't make a difference. Or it wouldn't. Soon. Once she managed to get used to all this.

"Will you talk to Faith," Buffy finally repeated her original question.

Joyce closed her eyes, trying to picture the girl Buffy had described to her. The girl she said was going through the same things Buffy herself had gone through about two years ago. Joyce remembered that time, remembered how often Buffy had cried during her separation from Hank, how withdrawn she had become when Joyce told her they would move away from LA.

Back then Joyce hadn't known how deep her daughter's fear and confusion ran. She couldn't have known because she had refused to see what was really going on in her daughter's life. Hearing what Buffy had told her a minute ago, that her love had been enough even without these insights, was doing a lot to lay the guilt to rest. Not all of it, though.

Maybe this was fate's way of giving her a second chance.

"Very well," Joyce resolved, looking at Buffy again. "If you can somehow convince this Faith girl to come here, I will do my best to talk to her. I can't promise you anything, though."

"Just give it a shot, mom." Buffy smiled at her, squeezing her hand. "That's all I ask."



#


"I still think this is a stupid idea, G-man." Faith had shoved her hands into her pockets, projecting the image of the sullen girl for everyone who cared to look at her. Giles sighed. He wanted to help this girl, he truly wanted to, but she wasn't exactly making it easy for him.

"Faith, even leaving the issue of my feelings on that dingy motel room aside, please remember that a motel does not constitute a private home. A vampire can enter it anytime he pleases, with or without invitation. With Kakistos possibly looking for you ..."

"I get it, okay?" Giles didn't miss the look on the girl's face every time he mentioned the ancient vampire's name. If he believed Faith's words she should have no reason to be terrified of Kakistos. According to her she nearly defeated him. Her behavior belied her words, though.

Sighing, Giles knocked on the door, which was opened by Joyce Summers a moment later.

"Mr. Giles." She looked at the dark-haired girl beside him. "You must be Faith."

"Yeah, must be," Faith greeted her, not taking her hands from her pockets.

Joyce stepped aside, Giles noticing that she didn't invite them in verbally. It seemed her daughter had already managed to coach her on some of the basic survival rules of Sunnydale during these last two weeks.

Faith walked into the living room, looking around.

"Nice digs."

"I have prepared the guest bedroom for you, Faith," Joyce said, giving her a smile. Looking at the bag Faith had flung over her shoulder she added, "you can put your clothes in the closet there."

"I don't think I'll be staying that long. Just a few days."

Joyce shared a look with Giles behind Faith's back, but the Watcher just raised his eyebrows. Clearly this would be rather difficult and he couldn't help but be thankful that it wasn't up to him.

"I'll be going now, Faith," Giles said. "We will meet in the school library tomorrow at 9:00, okay?"

"Five by five!"

Giles tried to figure out the meaning of that statement, finally decided that it meant something like 'okay', and left. Leaving Joyce and Faith standing in the living room amidst a rather awkward silence.

"So you're B's mom, right?" Faith looked at her.

"Yes, I ..."

"She here right now?" Looking around she added, "B didn't strike me as the living-with-mom type."

"She doesn't, actually," Joyce sighed. "She ... how much did she tell you about what happened to her?"

She already knew that Buffy wanted to keep the topic of Angel away from Faith at the moment, which included the fact that Buffy herself had been changed due to the vampire's blood. Thinking about all this still gave Joyce the urge to laugh out loud, it sounded so ridiculous. Only it wasn't.

"I know that she got sucked into hell." The nonchalance on Faith's faded as she saw the haunted look Joyce gave her. "Sorry, I ... I always shoot my mouth off like that. Don't take it the wrong way."

"Don't worry," Joyce calmed her. "I ... I still have some trouble getting used to all this. It isn't easy."

Joyce wasn't sure, but she believed she heard Faith mutter "Tell me about it" under her breath.

"Would you like something to eat?"

#

It was a strange experience for Faith, to say the least.

When Giles had told her that he wanted her to stay with a friend of his instead of that motel she had crashed in that had been fine by her. She didn't like staying in that ugly place, hated it to be exact, yet seeing as she was pretty much broke there hadn't been any alternatives.

Then she found out that said friend was the mother of Buffy (what kind of stupid name was that anyway?), the other Slayer. Faith wasn't really sure how she felt about Buffy being here. She had heard only a few tidbits about the blonde girl, but what little she had heard had impressed her like hell. Not that she would ever say it out loud.

Here was a Slayer who had killed hundreds of beasties, including one of the most oldest vampires of all time, and prevented the world from ending. Twice. The last time by killing the man she had been in love with.

"You want some more?" Joyce's voice pulled her out of her thoughts. Buffy's mom was making her a dinner the likes of which Faith hadn't eaten for weeks. Come to think of it she hadn't eaten much of anything ever since ... ever since that night.

"Yeah, please!" She was actually starting to mind her manners. What was happening to her?

Joyce was like nothing she had expected Buffy's mother to be. Certainly nothing like her own mother, whom she hadn't seen in about half a year now. Even before that, actually, seeing as her mom had seldom been home at all and then only to stock up on booze or to change into a new slut dress.

Joyce was nothing like that. To Faith she appeared like a mother from a 50s TV serial, the ones about the beautiful happy world in the American suburbs. Loving, caring, always smiling.

Except for the fact that the smile seemed very fake at times, especially when they were talking about Buffy. Joyce's daughter, who wasn't living in this house anymore. Faith knew but part of the story, just enough to know that it was a painful topic for Joyce. So, in a very uncharacteristic bout of sensitivity, she stayed away from it.

She didn't know why, really. Maybe just because she found herself liking Joyce. Which was not a thing Faith experienced all that often, truth to tell.

"Mr. Giles told me you are from Boston," Joyce started up conversation.

"Yeah, born and bred. Never got out much actually. Until the whole Slayer thing happened, after that ... well, everything changed."

Joyce nodded. "When Buffy became the Slayer, even though I didn't notice a thing back then, everything changed for her as well. Looking back I don't know how I could have been so blind not to see it. She was always so sad."

"Why sad?" Faith was genuinely puzzled. "Becoming the Slayer was the best thing that ever happened to me. Before that I ..."

Joyce looked at her when Faith's voice trailed off.

"What was before that, Faith?"

Faith didn't want to talk about it, really didn't. Everything that happened in Boston, before and after becoming the Slayer, was something best left alone. If she could have erased her memory she would have, wiped it away in an instant.

Maybe then it would stop hurting so much.

For some reason her mouth didn't listen to her brain, though. It just began spilling out the words and she saw Joyce listening, really listening, to everything she said.

Which was another thing Faith didn't experience very often.

#

"I ... well, I ... I didn't exactly have a happy home life, Mrs. S. My father hightailed it out of here when I was twelve, leaving me with mom who ..."

Again her voice faded, but seeing the pain in her eyes Joyce was more than able to fill in the rest of the sentence. God, this girl really was a spitting image of Buffy. Or what might have become of Buffy in a different world.

"Did she blame you for it?"

Faith looked up at her, surprised, then stared at the floor again. "Yeah, she ... well, after that living at home wasn't high on my list of priorities. I stayed out a lot. Got into trouble. All kinds of trouble."

A smile appeared on Faith's face.

"Then one night there were these ugly guys roughing up a bus full of religious pilgrims or something like that, right in front of our house and somehow ... I don't know how, but I knew that I had to fight them. That I could fight them. I didn't know they were vampires, but somehow I knew how to kill them. Those people they ... they thanked me. Called me their angel."

A full-blown smile was on Faith's face now, leaving Joyce with a smile of her own. Faith was truly beautiful when she smiled, really smiled, not just that fake smirk she had on most of the time.

"Then Joanna found me. Ms. Clearly, I mean. I never called her that, though, and at first it irked her. She told me that I had been chosen. That I was the Slayer, meant to deliver the world from evil."

It was so easy to see now, Joyce mused. The one big difference between Buffy and Faith. For Buffy becoming the Slayer had been a burden. Something that tore her out of her happy world of cheerleading and the latest fashion magazines. Not so for Faith. No, this girl certainly hadn't minded being torn away from her former life. Which wasn't surprising after all Joyce had learned about it.

Faith looked down, balling her fists. "Those were some really great months," she muttered, "until ..."

"Mr. Giles told me that Ms. Cleary died," Joyce continued when Faith went quiet.

"There ... there was this new vamp in town," Faith said after a while, her voice small. "So far I had never met a vamp I couldn't stake in two minutes flat. So I thought he wouldn't be any problem. Just one more bloodsucker to kiss the tip of my stake."

A tear shimmered as it ran down her cheek.

"Only he wasn't. I thought I could fight him and I ..."

Faith wanted to tell someone, Joyce realized. Wanted to tell what kind of terrible thing had happened to her. She just needed someone to let her know she could. Someone who would listen and not judge.

Joyce left her seat and walked over to Faith, draping an arm around the shaking girl's shoulders, softly brushing a strand of hair from her face

"What happened in Boston, Faith?"

The dark-haired girl looked up at her with an expression so lost and hopeless that it nearly drove tears to Joyce's eyes. What had happened to hurt her so?

"He killed her," Faith whispered. "I tried to stop him but I ... I couldn't. He was so strong, he just ... just brushed me aside and ..."

Giles had related to Joyce what Faith had told him of the events in Boston. This vampire Kakistos had killed Ms. Cleary while Faith had been away. Then Faith had arrived and fought him, disfigured him, chased him away.

It seemed that hadn't exactly been the truth.

"He killed her right before my eyes. What he did to her, he ... oh God, he ..." Faith was crying now and Joyce took her into her arms like she would a small child. And that was what Faith was, really. A small child, all alone in a world filled with monsters.

Even more alone than Buffy had ever been, Joyce realized.

"I couldn't save her," Faith sobbed. "I tried, but I wasn't strong enough. I wasn't good enough. Just like everyone always said, nothing but a failure."

"You are not a failure, Faith," Joyce told her as she rocked the girl. "I don't think Joanna believed that and neither should you."

"But I ... I couldn't save her. She depended on me to protect her and I failed. I'm the Slayer, I'm supposed to protect people from the monsters."

"You can't protect everyone," Joyce said, realizing that this was a lesson she herself had learned but very recently.

She had always tried to protect Buffy, tried to keep the evils of the world away from her to the point where her daughter had become a spoiled brat. Then everything had changed. Changed for the worse, certainly, but not entirely so. Because Mr. Giles had been right about another thing he had told her.

*Try to see the person she truly is, the wonderful girl you have raised! *

Becoming the Slayer had turned Buffy into a better person, a caring and responsible person, even though Joyce hadn't seen that at first. Had allowed her to flower into the wonderful human being she was, still was even after all she had gone through.

A person Joyce loved with all her heart, no matter how much she had changed.

"You can't protect everyone," Joyce repeated, still holding a crying Faith. "Sometimes you can't even protect the people you love the most and that hurts more than anything else. You can only do your best and not give up even when you realize that your best wasn't good enough this time."

She wanted to say so much more, wanted to tell Faith that it would get easier, that the pain would go away. There were no more words, though. Just holding her, letting her know that she wasn't alone in this dark world, that there were people who cared. People who believed.

Looking up from Faith Joyce saw Buffy, standing just outside the kitchen door, looking at them both.

Joyce looked on in wonder as she saw, for the first time since she had returned, a genuine smile bloom on her daughter's face.




#


It felt like there was a hole in his side, a painful, cold emptiness where something warm and loving should be. God, he hadn't expected this to be so hard.

Then again, how could it have been different? After so many years in each other's company staying separated for any length of time would be difficult, even painful. He couldn't help but wonder whether it was as painful for Buffy as it was for him. Maybe even more painful? After all, the physical needs that bound them were one-sided. Angel could get his blood elsewhere, but for Buffy only his would do.

It didn't matter, he realized. The blood was the least of what bound them together, though it was a part of their closeness and he had to admit that pig's blood tasted incredibly bland after existing exclusively on Slayer's blood for thirty years.

It wasn't what he missed most, though. He missed the warmth trailing off her skin, missed that soft tingling inside his dead heart every time she was close. The one he thought of as his heartbeat now, a heartbeat she had returned to him.

Angel shook his head. Now was not the time to muse over his own neediness. There was a job to be done.

Willy's hadn't changed. Small wonder, he reminded himself, considering that only very little time had passed here on Earth since he had last visited this particular establishment. He wasn't sure exactly when he had been here last. The day Kendra had attacked him? No, he had been here once as Angelus, too, recruiting minions for protecting Akathler's awakening.

Which probably meant that, as far as Willy knew, he was still Angelus. This had possibilities.

The bar was almost empty as he strode in; most of its patrons were on the streets this time of night, doing what demons did when the sun went down. Only a few stragglers sat at the tables, nursing their drinks, minding their own business.

One or two recognized him and gasped.

"Hello, Willy," he greeted the bartender.

Willy froze, his back turned to Angel, a glass he had just been cleaning falling from his fingers and crashing to the floor. He stared into the mirror behind the bar, which showed him only an empty barstool.

Slowly he turned around, smiling a very scared smile.

"A-Angel, old buddy. Fancy seeing you here."

The stink of fear coming off him cleared any doubts Angel had had. As far as the demon community in Sunnydale was concerned he was still Angelus. While Willy had been wary of him in the past, he hadn't been scared. No, that had come only after he had lost his soul.

"Surprised to see me?" Angel wore Angelus' patented smirk, secretly disgusted at how easy it was.

"Yeah, I ... I mean everyone kept saying you were dead. That you and the Slayer ..."

"It seems the reports of my final death were greatly exaggerated, Willy. As you can see I'm still very much ... well, not alive, but you catch my meaning, don't you?"

"S-sure."

"Good! Now, Willy, I bet you can guess why I came here tonight, right?"

The sleazy bartender looked at him, clearly clueless and very much frightened.

"Information," Angel clarified when it became evident that Willy wouldn't say a thing. "What? You thought I came here for the drinks?"

"Information? Oh, information, sure, I got plenty of that. What do you want to know, Angel?"

The vampire leaned forward, giving his best impression of a friend chatting with an old buddy. He knew that would scare Willy even more. Angelus had always been his most dangerous when he wore a friendly smile.

"Ugly rumors out there, Willy. Rumors that someone else might be interested in laying claim to this beautiful town of ours. Someone from outside. Someone powerful."

No sound came from Willy's open mouth, which seemed almost as dry as the desert, yet Angel easily saw the slight widening of his eyes. Grabbing the bartender by his collar Angel pulled him in close.

"Where is Kakistos?"

#

The door of the motel room exploded inwards and half a dozen vampires flooded across the threshold, no invitation necessary. Trick entered after them, the blood of the motel manager still fresh on his lips. Where had he put that napkin anyway?

"No one is here, boss," one of the minions snarled.

"Of course no one is here," Trick said, sounding rather bored. "It's night. The Slayer is probably out hunting somewhere."

The plan was to wait here, wait until she returned, tired from the hunt. Then they give her a welcoming she would never forget. It was a simple plan and Trick liked simple plans. Not much chance of things going wrong.

"I don't think she'll be coming back." Another of the minions gestured at the open closet, which was just as empty as the drawers. Taking a quick look into the small bathroom produced nothing but emptiness, either.

"She moved out?"

"I am not amused, Trick." Kakistos came into the motel room, his huge frame filling the door completely. "You told me she was here."

"Our informant told us so," Trick said, making sure his voice still sounded confident. "Either she tricked him or ..."

Kakistos inhaled deeply, a small smile spreading over his lips. "She was here, not long ago. I would recognize that sweet scent anywhere."

Trick pulled out his cell.

"Yes, it's Trick," he told the minion answering at the other hand. "Position some of our people at the bus station, the airport, any place where someone without a car could get out of town. The Slayer might be trying to run."

"She won't escape me this time," Kakistos growled. "Find her for me, Trick! And do it fast. My patience wears thin."

Without another word he left, leaving Trick with a sour taste in his mouth. It wasn't the rather bland motel manager, either.

#

Angel watched from the shadows as the vampires departed. Willy's info had proven right, the ancient vampire had indeed come here, the place where Faith had lived until a few hours ago. It looked like Buffy's idea to have Faith move in with her mom had been a good one in more than one way.

He saw the dead body of the motel manager; sadly he had come to late to safe the poor man's life. So he remained hidden, concealing himself with a skill learned in a place a hundred times more lethal than a town filled with vampires, watching Kakistos as he and his minions left and returned to their home.

Shadowing them the entire time, Angel watched as they disappeared into a warehouse. The building positively reeked of the undead. He concentrated, making out at least a dozen vampires inside, though none of them were anywhere near as strong as Kakistos. In fact the only other among them who was not a mere fledgling was the black vampire in the suit. A child compared to Kakistos, but as vampires went he was still quite powerful.

Angel wouldn't be able to do this alone, and not just because there were so many of them.

After all he had seen, all that Buffy had told him, Faith would need to be a part of any move they made against Kakistos. The dark-haired Slayer needed to be there to see him die, otherwise she would be running for him for the rest of her life, no matter if the vampire itself was dust or not.

He watched the building a bit longer, making sure that the vampires stayed put. Then he quietly withdrew, quickly making his way toward the school library. For the moment it was best if Faith didn't learn about him. Let Giles carry the news.




#


Giles looked up from his latest book when the library doors opened. As no one ever came to this place except a very small group of people he was not particularly surprised to see Faith walk toward him, followed by Buffy. The dark-haired Slayer had a strange expression on her face, wringing her hands as she came closer.

"G-man?" She looked at him.

He already hated that nickname, but after looking into the girl's eyes he decided that this was definitely not the right time to reprimand her about it.

"Yes, Faith?"

"I ... there is ... there is something I have to tell you."

Buffy had called him late last night, telling him what had happened at the Summer's house between Joyce and Faith. They had both thought it important, though, that Faith tell him herself, therefore he just looked at her with a curious expression on his face.

"When I ... when I told you what happened in Boston ... I ... it wasn't the whole truth."

His eyes narrowed, giving his best expression of being mildly suspicious.

"What do you mean?"

Still wringing her hands she walked over to the table, throwing herself into one of the chairs. Giles followed her, sitting down across the table.

"Joanna ... I mean Ms. Clearly ... she was ... she was still alive that night. When I got home, I mean."

With a nod of his head he invited her to continue.

"Kakistos was waiting for me. Ms. Clearly ... she screamed at me to run, run away from him, but I didn't listen. I was convinced that ... that I could beat him easily. He had two minions with him, guarding Joanna, but they made no move to interfere."

She balled her fists, trying to banish the memories that came to the surface unbidden.

"He didn't need their help," Faith whispered. "I tried to fight him but ... he was so strong."

Giles waited patiently until she regained some measure of composure, just looking at her, no anger or disappointment in his eyes.

"He had me beaten to a pulp in two minutes flat." Faith stood up again, pacing the length of the table. "Then he told his helpers to hold me down and he ... he ..."

Her body was shaking and she came to a stop, leaning on the table for support as all strength drained from her.

"He killed her," she whispered, a tear running down her face. "He took his time and ..."

"I understand, Faith," Giles said softly, sparing her from telling the details.

"I'm not really sure what happened then." Faith set down again, hugging her knees to her chest. "Somehow I broke free from the minions. I found a knife and when Kakistos turned toward me again I lashed out, cutting him across the face. Then I ran. Fuck, I must have run for hours before I even slowed down."

Giles finally rose, moving over to Faith's side and putting a comforting hand on the girl's shoulder.

"I am glad that you told me, Faith."

"I'm sorry I lied, G-man, but ..."

"I understand."

He did understand. How often had he lamented the fact that the Slayer had to be a young girl. No child should be forced to see and do the things that were everyday life for a Chosen One. No girl of sixteen years should have to watch as the closest thing she had to a mother was tortured and killed right before her eyes.

Buffy watched from the entrance of the library. She was glad that Faith had found the courage to tell first her mom and now Giles the truth, to share her pain with others. A part of her, though, could not help but burn with jealousy. Jealousy at the closeness Faith had shared with her mother last night, something that Buffy was not sure she would ever regain. Jealousy at how her Watcher supported the scared girl when she knew him to be rather reserved towards everything that had happened between Angel and her.

It was irrational and she pushed it away, just like she had pushed it away last night. None of this was Faith's fault. Faith needed someone to support her, needed it desperately. Buffy already had someone like that. Someone who would support her, no matter what happened, no matter what she did wrong. He was not here right now, the daylight keeping him away, but he was there.

That was enough.

"You chose a good time to tell me, too," Giles continued. "I have just received new information about Kakistos."

Faith looked up, eyes widened with fear.

"Is he ...?"

"He is here in Sunnydale, yes. We know where his daylight retreat is."

Faith was on her feet in a heartbeat, looking around the room as if she feared the ancient vampire would jump out of the shadows and attack her any moment now, no matter the daylight.

"Then I have to get out," she began, her voice shaking. "I have to leave Sunnydale. He's just after me, no one else. If I'm gone he'll be out of your hair."

Buffy walked up to her, stopping her pacing with a hand placed on each of the taller girl's shoulders.

"You can't run from him forever, Faith," Buffy said softly.

Faith looked at her as if she had not understood a word she said, the tension Buffy could feel under her hands ready to explode.

"I have to ..."

"We will attack his hideout, Faith," Buffy continued. "With surprise and daylight on our side we will defeat him and destroy this monster forever."

Again Faith looked at her wide-eyed, then broke away from her.

"Didn't you fucking listen to me," she screeched. "He's too strong. I can't beat him."

"Maybe one Slayer can't beat him," Buffy told her, "but this time he will face two of us."

Also, she added in her thoughts, Angel will be there. Hell would freeze over before her mate would let her go into deadly danger without him. Under ideal circumstances Faith would never see him, but he would be there.

Faith looked at her, eyes brimming with uncertainty, but finally she swallowed and nodded sharply, some resolve flowing back into her posture.

Buffy smiled. Faith was strong, the only problem was that no one had ever told her that. The only person who had ever made her believe in herself had died horribly and Faith blamed herself for that, seeing it as the validation of her own uselessness.

"We will beat him," Buffy affirmed, squeezing her shoulder.

Sometimes even the strongest of warriors needed some outside assurance.

#

The gray plain finally gave way and slowly turned into a dark marshland, the ground squishy and wet under their feet. Buffy was rather thankful that they had managed to work out how to make shoes from the hides of some of the smaller demons running around Hell. After years of trekking through hostile terrain even Angel's sturdy boots had given out and she herself had gone through at least a dozen demon-skin boots already.

"If memory serves we should be reaching the shores of he river Styx shortly," Angel told her.

"Another ferry ride, great."

By now Buffy knew Dante's Inferno by heart, or at least all the parts that Angel remembered. The river Styx ran along the edges of the fifth circle, where the Irascible dwelt, those who had allowed rage and anger to control their lives and actions. Somewhere along the shore there would be a black tower with a fire burning on top of it, which they could use to signal Phlegias, who did the ferrying on this river much like Charon did on the Acheron.

Dante had also written something else about the Styx, something they beheld for themselves as the river finally came into view.

The water was black, dark as night. Like a stream of oil it flowed lazily before them, obsidian waves softly shimmering in the eternal red-tinged twilight of Hell. The ground they walked on now was soaked with the black liquid, spewing forth puddles with every step they took.

It was not the black water or the muddy ground, though, which caused Buffy to shiver even in the humid heat that surrounded them by now. Neither was it the great gusts of flame she could see hailing from somewhere along the far side of the Styx, though those did not assure her much either.

It was the people. All along the side of the river, where the muddy ground was giving way to the dark water, she could see them. Thousands of them, nude and smeared with black mud, barely recognizable as human beings.

They were fighting against one another, fighting without discernable cause, for no discernable gain. There were no allies, no one working together except by sheer chance. There were no tactics, nothing except mindless violence as creatures that had once been human beings lashed out at each other with their bear hands and feet, their nails and teeth. Faces hidden underneath layers and layers of black mud were warped with rage, eyes blazing with madness. They continued fighting with broken legs, cracked skulls, got back up even when their brains were oozing out on the ground. They were dead already and their wounds always healed, if slowly.

Occasionally the river would swell, lazy waves brushing over the shores, taking dozens, sometimes hundreds of the fighters with it. As the water receded once more they would clamber back to the shore even as they viciously attacked those that had been washed away along with them. There was no pause, no break.

They would keep fighting for all eternity.

Buffy and Angel just stared at the spectacle, remaining safely out of range. The fighting never spilled past an invisible border that seemed to run about thirty meters away from the edge of the river, no one going past that barrier even by chance. They were imprisoned at the side of the black river. Forever.

Neither Slayer nor vampire said anything, just clasped hands and gave each other reassurance. Reassurance that they were still here, still sane in this madness, always there for the other. Buffy saw that Angel was every bit as afraid as she was, every bit as uncertain of their ability to make it past this circle and on to whatever might await them beyond it. He was just better at hiding it. The time where one of them had been able to fool the other was long past, though.

"There is the tower," Angel finally said, pointing at a black spot in the distance to their right.

"Let's go then," Buffy said, squeezing his hand. No other words were needed between them. As long as they had each other they would both be strong enough to go on.




#


"Is it just me or has this been a little too easy so far?"

Faith was half a step behind Buffy, forcibly keeping her body from shaking. She was the Slayer, damn it! She was the one the monsters were supposed to be running from in fear, not the other way around. She was the Slayer and this was just another vampire she had come to slay. Easy as pie.

Only it was not that way. The Slayer, the real Slayer, was the girl walking in front of her and Faith was just the spare. An accident. Not meant to be. It was evident right now, right in front of her. Buffy was not shaking in fear, was she?

"Keep your eyes open," Buffy whispered to her. "I don't believe Kakistos has just two minions guarding his retreat."

He had not needed more than two minions against her, Faith remembered. Fuck, he would not have needed any minions at all, really. He had bested her all by his lonesome. Sure, she had left him with quite a shiner, taken out one of his eyes, but he had almost killed her.

Had killed Joanna.

What was she doing here? She should be leaving this town behind as fast as she could, make into another state before dusk. There was no way she could defeat Kakistos, no way a failure like her could ever take on a monster this strong. Buffy could do it. Buffy was the Slayer, the real Slayer, who had survived Hell and everything evil could throw at her, who had risen from the dead.

Buffy had told her she could not go running again. Had told her that together they would be able to beat Kakistos.

The blonde suddenly stopped, carefully peeking around a corner, motioning for Faith to be still. There was that soft tingle in her belly, almost familiar by now, announcing the presence of vampires close by. The tingle that also sent shivers down her spine and seemed to freeze up her joints.

"I can see four more minions." Buffy turned to face her. "Just small change. No sign of the big guy yet."

Maybe he would not be here, Faith thought. Maybe Kakistos was out somewhere, far away from here, doing whatever the fuck he wanted to do as long as he was not doing it to her.

Doing things to others like he had done to Joanna.

"Let's dust them!" Faith was almost surprised to hear herself utter these words. Almost. They had to do this. If they did not then these monsters would kill more innocent people. People like Joanna who did not deserve to fall victim to the monsters.

She was the Slayer. Maybe just the second Slayer, but the Slayer nonetheless. She could do it. She had to do it.

The blonde Slayer nodded, an encouraging smile on her face, and a moment later they sprang into action, Faith with a stake in each hand, Buffy with her trusty sword. The minions barely knew what hit them before two of them crumbled into dust, a severed head rolling across the floor before it, too, exploded into particles.

Buffy moved like a cat, Faith saw, moved with a grace and efficiency that could make a girl green with envy. Was that all just experience? Would Faith herself be able to move like that one day? God knew she had never expected to be capable of the moves she did without breaking a sweat these days. The only thing that unnerved her was the complete silence Buffy moved in, her mouth set in a grim line, her eyes sparkling only with the gleam of a predator.

Faith used to whip out cool words at rapid speed during a fight. Only now it did not seem fitting somehow, so they both fought in silence.

The third minion opened his mouth to scream, maybe to summon reinforcements, but he never got that far. Faith threw a thunderous kick to his midsection, cutting of his air, making him fold as he cradled his broken ribs. Moments later she slammed the stake into his back, the shudder of impact running up her arm as it penetrated flesh and bone to pierce his dead heart, reducing him to a pile of ashes.

Faith turned just in time to see Buffy get hit by a blow from the last minion. The punch threw her head to the side, but the blonde Slayer rolled with the force of the impact and snapped the sword around, cleanly beheading the vampire who was still grinning for having gotten a blow in against the Slayer.

Faith's grin was wider.

"Spiffy moves, B," the dark-haired Slayer went over to the blonde, her fear almost drowned out by the adrenaline rushing through her body. God, that had felt great. Maybe they would be able to do this. Four minions and they had taken them down in less than a minute, none of them managing to sound the alarm or anything.

"Think G-man could get me one of those funky swords as ..."

Her voice trailed off as she saw Buffy's face, all her confidence going up in smoke in the span of a heartbeat.

"Well, well, well," a new voice filled the room. Faith was breathing heavily, fresh fear causing her body to freeze up. This had to a nightmare. A fucking nightmare. "People really have no manners in these modern times."

Kakistos stood at the other end of the room, flanked by at least half a dozen more vampires. His eyes, one a demonic amber, the other a blinded milky white, were fixed on her, raking across her body.

"Faith," her name trailed off his lips and seemed to fly across the room, spilling across her flesh like the touch of his misshapen hands.

"We can take him, Faith," Buffy whispered to her, causing Faith's head to snap around towards her again. She inched back from Buffy and Kakistos both, glancing back and forth between them like a frightened animal.

"What is it?" Buffy looked at her. Looked at her with mismatched eyes, the left one glowing a demonic amber.

Like the eye she had taken from Kakistos.

"Get away from me," Faith yelled and bolted, running from the room as fast as she could.

#

Buffy had about a second to realize that the minion's blow earlier must have dislodged one of her contact lenses when Kakistos' creatures were upon her. Seven of them, circling around her and attacking together. The black vampire Angel had told her about held back, watching the scene with an air of slight boredom.

Where was Kakistos?

She did not have much time to think. Faith was gone, sent running by the sight of Buffy's true face. Maybe Kakistos had gone after her; if so there was no way to help her for the moment. The vampires struck at her from all sides and Buffy drowned herself in the fight, lashing out wherever instinct told her to. Her sword was like a living thing, parting dead flesh all around, taking at least two heads before it was wrenched from her hand.

A third minion fell into dust at her feet, victim of the stake Faith had abandoned, when something grabbed Buffy from behind and wrenched her up in the air.

"You must be the girl Trick told me about." Kakistos cloven hand wrapped around her throat like a steel noose, lifting her off her feet like she weighed nothing. Buffy choked for air, tried to pry his hand away from her neck, but it would not move even an inch. She kicked him in the chest with all her might, but he did not budge.

"Strong, too," he mused, smiling. "You are not human, little girl. One of my kind made you his creature, did he not? Who is your master, girl?"

"Fuck off!" She spit into his face. It seemed to make him a bit angry, as he drew her closer, bringing them nose to nose.

"Who is your master?"

Buffy was starting to black out from lack of air, but she still heard the very distinctive sound of a vampire exploding into dust, shortly followed by the voice of her mate.

"That would be me," Angel said grimly, appearing from the dust cloud that had been a minion but moments earlier.




#


She had to get out. Out of here, out of Sunnydale, away from this place where everyone was trying to kill her.

What was going on here? Buffy was a monster? A vampire? She had assumed so at first after fighting her in the graveyard, but then she had seen her in clear light inside Giles' apartment and there she had seemed human, had even offered Faith to check her pulse.

Faith did not understand what was happening here, happening to her. Everything since that night in Boston had been one big nightmare and she just could not wake up. Everyone she met, everyone she started to trust even in the slightest either died or turned into another fucking monster. Why couldn't she just wake up?

The door to the outside was in sight. Just one step through it and she would be safe. Kakistos could not enter the sunlight, could he? No matter how powerful he might be, the light of day would still turn him into free-floating dust in a matter of moments. The monsters could not follow her out into the light.

The light. Buffy had walked with her outside. In the light.

Without quite knowing why Faith skidded to a halt just in front of the door, just one step away from safety. Buffy had been in the light with her. They had walked across the street in the bright sunshine and she hadn't burned. How was that possible? If she was one of the monsters ...

The memories of the night spent at Mrs. Summer's house came back to her without conscious effort. She remembered the kindness of that lonely woman, who was so obviously missing her only daughter, yet still had comfort and love to give to a total stranger. Faith remembered how Joyce had spoken of her daughter, her deep love evident in every single word, remembered wishing that her own mother had had even a fraction of this love for her.

The person that Mrs. Summers loved so very much could not be a monster, could she?

A growl made Faith spin around, visions of Kakistos lunging for her almost made her cringe. There was no one there, though, no one who had followed her when she had run away from the fight.

"Get your hands off her!" Faith did not know whose scream that was, but it was not Kakistos. Had someone else joined the fight?

Everything inside her was screaming for her to run, to tear open the doors and escape into the sunlight where the monsters would not be able to hurt her, but for some reason she could not do it. Instead she found her feet slowly carrying her back towards the sounds of battle. The battle was still going on. If Buffy was in league with Kakistos why would the battle still go on?

A hard impact, accompanied by a muffled groan. The sound of laughter, so very familiar to Faith by now.

"Angelus, is it?" Kakistos' laughter sent shivers down her spine. "Is this your little pet I have here?"

"Let her go or I will kill you!" Again the unknown voice, yet somehow familiar. Where had she heard that before?

Faith was shivering from head to toe, every movement an effort, but she managed to peek around the corner and look at the room she had abandoned less than a minute before.

Kakistos stood in the center, one of his cloven hands around Buffy's throat as he easily held her above the ground, his arm not even shaking. The blonde Slayer's mismatched eyes were rolled back, her movements sluggish and weak from lack of oxygen.

But a few feet away from him three of his minions were trying to contain a black-clad figure that fought them like a madman, again and again shaking them off and throwing them around like puppets. The man carried a demon face, but there was something strange about him, something that did not belong in a vampire's face. After a moment Faith realized what it was.

He was scared. Scared not for himself but for the person he barely ever took his eyes off, tried to reach with all his strength.

Buffy.

"She is a strong one, Angelus," Kakistos chuckled, shaking an almost unconscious Buffy like a doll. "Quite handsome, too. Maybe I should have some fun with her before I snap her neck."

Now Faith remembered. This was the vampire she had seen in the graveyard, the one who had torn her away from Buffy when Faith had tried to kill her, thinking her a vampire. She had seen him for but a second then, later forgotten because her fear of Kakistos following her had drowned out all other concerns.

"Touch her and you will wish yourself dead!"

For a moment it seemed like the vampire Kakistos had called Angelus could get past the other vampires holding him back, but suddenly the black guy with the suit was there, clocking him from behind. Angelus stumbled, the other vampires immediately dog-piling on him to keep him down.

"I hope you will enjoy the show, Angelus," Kakistos growled, all humor gone from his voice. "Your interference has cost me my sweet little Faith. The little girl is probably running for her life right now. Will take some time to find her again."

He brought Buffy closer to his inhuman face, inspecting her slack face with his one amber eye.

"I need something to compensate for all that frustration."

Faith could not move. She knew what he would do, she had seen him do it to Joanna. His minions had held Faith down, just like they now did with that vampire. Helplessly watching as Kakistos ... as he ... the look of horror and rage in Angelus' eyes was like a mirror for Faith. For a moment the scene before her seemed to swim and she saw Joanna in Kakistos' clutches, his monstrous hand around her throat.

She would have given everything to save her Watcher, including her life. Only it had not been enough. She had not been strong enough, not good enough, and because of that Joanna had died.

*You can't protect everyone,* Mrs. Summers' voice suddenly rang out in her head, the feel of being in the older woman's loving embrace returning to her. *Sometimes you can't even protect the people you love the most and that hurts more than anything else. You can only do your best and not give up even when you realize that your best wasn't good enough this time.*

With a start Faith realized that Kakistos would kill Buffy. Then he would do away with that vampire, maybe taking his time with him, too. And then he would come after her again. He would come after her until he had her. Time meant nothing to him. He would follow her and hunt her down until she died at his hands.

The only thing her running away now would accomplish was Buffy's death. Joyce would lose her daughter after just having regained her. Another human being would die because Faith was not good enough, not strong enough, a fucking coward.

*You can only do your best!*

Even though every fiber of her being was screaming out in protest Faith moved forward, spotting the sword Buffy must have dropped at some time during the fighting. With shaking hands she picked it up.

#

Angel watched in horror as Kakistos drew Buffy closer, his cloven hand still around her throat, his other moving across her body in a mockery of a caress. He fought against the vampires holding him down with all his strength, but there too many of them, crushing him with all their weight.

"Tell me," Kakistos growled at him. "Is this slip of a girl the Slayer I heard so much about? The one who supposedly died fighting you? I see you came close to making her one of us. Maybe I should finish the job instead of killing her."

"Don't count on it, pigface!"

Kakistos twisted around as Faith suddenly appeared behind him, Buffy's lost sword in hand. The giant vampire might even have been fast enough to stop her, powerful enough to catch the blade before it could hurt him, but he was much too astounded that his scared prey had not used the chance to run.

So he was half a second too slow when Faith slashed the sword across his face in a vicious arc, right across his one remaining eye.

A deafening roar made the entire warehouse tremble as Kakistos reared back, blood sprouting from the deep cut across his face. Buffy tumbled from his grasp, collapsing to the ground in a heap, as the ancient demon lashed out blindly, trying to find the source of his pain without use of his eyes.

One of his angry swipes connected with the minions holding down Angel, sending them flying.

"Where are you," Kakistos screamed, one cloven hand pressed to the gaping wound that was his face. Angel flipped back to his feet and saw that Faith still stood in the exact same spot where she had struck him from, looking at the pained vampire with a mixture of amazement and satisfaction.

Which left Angel to look for a stake. A big one.

#

Mr. Trick watched as the tide turned against Kakistos and made a discreet exit towards the garage, where his limo was parked. Tinted windows were a wonderful thing when one had an urgent trip to undertake during the daylight.

He saw two of his minions who were on their way to help their employer and quickly held them back, smiling.

"Let Kakistos fight his own battles," he told them. "We brought him to the Slayer. Our job here is finished."

Trick was not quite sure what he would do next, but he was quite certain that he would do it a good distance away from a town that held two Slayers and a master vampire who seemed to have switched sides.

He had not gotten to be so old by being stupid, after all.

#

Faith could not believe it. Kakistos was roaring in pain, stumbling around blindly as his hands searched for something to crush. She had done that. She, Faith, who could never do anything right. She had reduced this monster that had haunted her nightmares for so long to a stumbling wreck.

She saw Buffy lying on the ground, barely conscious, but sucking in the air in great gulps as she nursed her bruised throat. She saw the vampire, Angelus, back on his feet, quickly taking care of one of the minions that had stuck around too long.

"Where are you," Kakistos roared, smashing the room to pieces.

"Care to do the honors?" Faith looked up as Angelus suddenly stood by her side, offering her a large piece of wood. Was this a dream? A vampire that not only seemed to care a great deal for a Slayer, but would offer another Slayer a weapon to kill another vampire? Maybe all this was nothing but a nightmare after all.

"Thanks!" She took the improvised stake, giving the other a suspicious look. There was a story going on here she knew nothing about, that much was for sure. Right now, though, she found she did not much care. There were more important things to take care of first. Things that she would do right this time around.

Blind as he was Kakistos never saw the stake coming. With a heartfelt scream Faith drove the sharp wood into his chest, piercing his ancient heart right through the middle. Kakistos roared one final time, a roar loud enough to bring down parts of the ceiling, then he finally crumbled into dust.

"That's for Joanna," Faith muttered, breathing heavily as she watched the settling dust.

"Are you all right?" She turned around to see the vampire kneeling at Buffy's side, tenderly cradling her against him as she was still busily pumping air. His face had transformed back into its human mask and the way he looked at her ...

No one had ever looked at Faith that way. No one.

"I'm okay," Buffy said, her voice hoarse, but with a small smile on her lips. She turned to look at Faith." Thanks to you."

Faith was frozen in place, completely at a loss what to do now, what to say. Kakistos was gone, dust in the wind. Here she was, no more reason to run, standing across from two people who, by all rights, should be monsters, should meet the business end of her stake.

Only they weren't monsters. She was not sure what they were, but they weren't monsters.

"Care to tell me the whole story now, B?"

The blonde Slayer and the vampire exchanged a look as he helped her back to her feet, seemingly communicating without words.

"Well," Angelus finally said, brushing through his spiky hair. "It's a long story."

"It's okay," Faith muttered, once again looking at the place where her very own personal nightmare had crumbled into dust. "Looks like I got time."




#


Joyce took a look through the gap in the door and saw that Faith was fast asleep in the guest bed, curled into the sheets and breathing evenly. Yesterday night she had tossed and turned all through her sleep, terrible dreams assaulting her almost nonstop, crying out Joanna's name at several instances.

There was still a troubled look on her face, but the nightmares seemed absent for tonight.

Joyce softly closed the door and looked at Giles, who was standing a few feet away. She motioned for them to go down the stairs in order not to disturb the sleeping girl.

"I think she is resting easy tonight," Joyce told him as they reached the kitchen, taking a sip from her tea. "I only heard the highlights when she returned here with Buffy and Angel, but it looks like she had a tiring day."

"I would say so, yes." Giles nodded. "We can but hope that killing Kakistos is going to quiet some of her demons. God knows this girl has suffered enough these last few weeks."

Joyce looked at him, thinking over his words. It had been but a few weeks for Faith. How long had Buffy been alone without anyone to speak to? Several months at the least. Then Angel had stepped into her life and Joyce could not help but have mixed feelings about that. She was no longer denying that they loved each other, no matter how different they were, but a small part of her mind could not help but wonder what might have happened if the vampire had not appeared in Sunnydale.

Maybe Buffy would have decided to confide in her mother after all?

"I did not have the chance to thank you for your help yet," Giles interrupted her train of thoughts. "I do not know what might have become of Faith if not for you."

Joyce looked at him as he smiled at her. Just a few weeks ago this man had screamed at her, forcibly shattered her illusions about her daughter and her life. How quickly things had changed since then.

It had also given her the opportunity to think about a few things.

"Mr. Giles, I think we should put some things straight between us." Giles looked up at her tone of voice.

"Yes?"

"I am grateful to you for trying to tell me the truth about my daughter, please believe that. I am also grateful that you watched out for her for the last two years when I did not see what was going on around her."

She sighed deeply, but forced herself to continue.

"That doesn't change the fact, though, that I hate you and everything you stand for."

Giles flinched back, looking at her wide-eyed.

"M-Mrs. Summers, I ..."

"I know all about Buffy being the Slayer and having a sacred duty," she warded off his comments. "I also know that it has probably turned my daughter into a more mature and responsible person. I know she saved the world. I know all that, Mr. Giles."

She shook her head, holding back the tears threatening to spill from her eyes.

"But for the last two years you sent my girl out to die every single night. You sent her out to fight in that crusade against evil you have going, fully expecting her to die before she turns twenty. And not just her. Faith, too. And that Kendra girl Buffy told me about. Girls like them should not be burdened with that kind of responsibility, Mr. Giles. I know it is not your fault that they are, but still ..."

Her voice broke and she wiped her eyes with her sleeve, refusing to look at the man sitting across from her.

"I might not be able to change that. Damn, I am proud of Buffy even, proud of all she has accomplished. But I am her mother, Mr. Giles. And I can never ever be friends with someone to whom she is just a disposable weapon."

The clatter of the chair made her look up, seeing that Giles had jumped to his feet, a look of anger on his face.

"Do you honestly think so little of me? I love Buffy as if she were ..."

"Don't say that!" Joyce was on her feet as well. "She is not your daughter and she never will be. You might think you love her, but tell me! If the safety of the world depended on your sending Buffy to her certain death ... what would you do?"

He looked down, the anger fading from his face, replaced by sorrow. He remembered a day little over a year ago, a day when he had told his young charge that she would face the Master and die, a day he had watched her cry and flee from her duty. On that day he had wanted to face the danger himself, spare her that fate, but things had turned out differently.

"Buffy would ..." he began.

"I am not asking you what Buffy would do," she interrupted him again. "I know what Buffy would do and I am prouder of her that I ever thought I could be. But I want to know what you would do, Mr. Giles. Tell me!"

Giles closed his eyes, his hands shaking. He did not meet her gaze. No matter his actions on that day, he knew the answer to her question.

"If there was no other way ...," he began, leaving the sentence unfinished. He was not able to say it out loud.

"That's what I thought," Joyce said softly. "And that is why we will never be friends, Mr. Giles."

She sat down again, cradling the cup of tea in her suddenly chilled hands.

"I would appreciate it if you would leave now," Joyce said without looking up.

Moments later she heard the kitchen door fall shut and only then did she finally allow the tears to fall.

#

Asleep in the strange bed there were tears on Faith's cheeks, slipping from closed eyes as she once again beheld the face of Joanna Cleary, the first person who had ever told her that she was worth anything, that there was a place for her in the world.

All the nights before she had always seen Joanna die, killed by the monster Kakistos, who would then turn toward Faith and chase her through moonlit graveyards until her legs would not carry her any further and he caught her. She always woke up at that point, screaming, covered in cold sweat, tears on her cheeks. The tears she would not allow anyone to see, hidden behind her impenetrable exterior.

Not tonight, though. Tonight Faith saw Joanna and the Watcher smiled at her, telling her that she was proud of her. She was Faith, the Vampire Slayer, and the world needed her. That was all there was to it, really.

Then the tears finally stopped.

#

Xander sat on his bed, staring at the ugly wallpaper facing him. He had lost count of the number of times he had almost ripped it off the walls, hoping that maybe his parents would take notice and give him the money to redecorate. He would even do it himself, no problem. Just call over a few friends and ...

What friends?

He sighed. Not even the wallpaper managed to distract him from his thoughts for any length of time. They always returned to that first day of school, to Cordelia looking at him with so much disdain in her beautiful eyes.

If there was one person in the world he had expected to be on his side in this matter it was Cordelia. She hated vampires, she had a strong dislike for Buffy, and normally could not care less about other people's problems. And yet Cordelia had dumped him because of what he had begun to think of as the 'deadboy issue'.

He would not be able to pun himself out of this, that much he knew by now. Willow refused to see him until he made the first step, said step being an apology. An apology to Angel for all the things he had done.

Why could none of them understand? He was not proud of what he had done that night, nowhere close, but he had done what he thought best in a bad situation. If Buffy had known that Angel would get his soul back ... he shook his head. No sense in going through that argument again and again.

Some part of him knew that he had screwed up big time. A part he had become really good at ignoring.

Something had to be done about this situation. He could not stand going on like this, all his friends abandoning him. Buffy turned into a monster, Willow and Cordelia siding with her and Angel over him, even Giles, who had lost his love to Angel. What was wrong with all of them? Did they not see how very wrong all of this was?

He had to do something. One possibility was the one Willow had offered him, of course. Apologize to Angel. It would not make things better on the spot, but ...

No! He refused to even consider it. There was nothing he owed Angel an apology for. Angel did not even deserve to exist. Buffy, yes, he owed Buffy an apology. The old Buffy, the human Buffy, not that ... that thing that had returned from whatever hell dimension they had been to.

There had to be something else. Something he could do to make things right again.

A moment later a light bulb went on over his head. Jumping for his backpack he emptied its contents to the floor until he found his little black book. Unfortunately said book did not contain many telephone numbers connected with beautiful girls, but right now there was only one girl he had an interest in calling. And he did have her number.

"Hello," he called when someone picked up at the other end. "It's Xander. Yes, I know we have not talked for quite some time. Yeah, since that time. Listen, I wanted to talk to you. It's really urgent. Would you mind if I looked you up tomorrow? No, it's nothing like that. Well, not exactly like that. Give me a chance to explain, okay? No, no blackmail this time, I swear. Okay, great! See you tomorrow, Amy!"


THE END