Chapter Seven

Slayer healing is a great thing. It really is. Bruises fade in just a couple days, bones mend quickly; it makes a slayer's life, in general, that much easier. With a steady supply of food at hand, Willow's spell juiced up the healing ability so that it took even less time.

Still, it took me a good day to stop seeing stars when Faith punched me, and almost four days after that for the swelling and bruising to go away.

I almost forgot how hard she could hit. Felt like high school all over again except this time she had the team to back her up and I was the one that was alone.

Guess I know what it felt like to be Faith back then.

Bobb-o checked in on me a couple of times every day but I never once heard from Faith or the other girls. He'd bring me food here and there and he even did that truffle shuffle dance once Faith had told me about. I think he felt bad for me; he knew I wasn't like the other girls there. Maybe he'd heard about me from the other guards. He offered to take me to the showers or the common area several times but I just wasn't ready. I couldn't face Faith and I certainly couldn't face the girls after I'd hurt one of them.

It was a mistake, pure and simple, but I knew they'd never understand that. They've been here all this time while I was back in hell. They can't understand how I'm afraid every time I blink that I'm gonna end up back at the old camp and that Nikolos and his guards will finally get the best of me.

There's a very distinct possibility that my friends are dead, but Dawn is still out there and that's reason enough for me to fight. If anything happens to her; God, I don't even want to think about it.

Nearly sixteen days pass before I'm finally ready to swallow my fear – and my pride – and decide that I need to venture out of my new room courtesy of Faith. I still think it's a bad idea to be around them – around her – but maybe Faith was right. I've been on my own so long that I forget how much having supportive people around me helps.

It feels like a home here, or as close as you can get under these circumstances. Maybe that's what I'm really scared of; I don't want to get too used to this place, these people, when I know it can all go to shit at any minute. I've seen the worst and I'm afraid it's going to slip back to that.

It's not like I was locked up tight in the room these last twelve days; Bobb-o unlocked the door every day and hoped I'd leave, but I never did. I'd lay on Faith's cot and listen to the sounds of the girls messing around, talking, feeling like I didn't deserve a place among them.

When it came time to fight, the demons that run the camp either didn't realize or didn't care that I wasn't brought out both of the times the arena had been open. Bobb-o brought me out one night but none of the girls dared make eye contact or talk to me.

I was the plague, and Faith had told them to avoid me appropriately.

I couldn't blame her or them; nothing good had come from my presence since before we'd all ended up in these damn camps.

When Bobb-o realized I was the only one without a partner, he didn't make me sit around and watch. When the other guards were preoccupied, he led me back to my room and let me stay there. He didn't even bother to take me out for the second fight a few days later.

Tonight is another arena night though and I know I can't stay hidden away any longer. As scared as I am to be around the girls – to be a part of them – and as much as I don't want to fight, I know I have to be there.

Besides, every demon killed is one less that will be in the way when it's time to fight back and find Dawn. Can't let the newbies take all the credit.

It's shortly after I wake when I hear the metallic clink of the lock opening. Bobb-o doesn't come in but it's his way of letting me know that I can leave if I want to. He'll bring me something to eat in around twenty minutes, so I make it a point to get up right away to get ready. I wash up as best I can in the small sink and get dressed quickly, running my fingers through my damp hair a few times before looking at myself in the mirror. I don't linger there long; it's still hard to look at myself some days.

Taking a deep breath, I walk over to the door and push it open just in time to see Bobb-o standing there with a small single-serving box of dry cereal and a juice box of some kind. He looks surprised to see me up and about but then flashes me what I can only guess is a big smile.

"Bee outside!"

"Uh-huh," I answer. "Thought maybe I'd wander over, see if I can get some coffee."

He looks down at his big meaty hands and quickly hides them behind his back. Guess he doesn't want me to see the food he brought and reconsider.

"I'm just gonna . . ." I point off to the side and when he nods and takes a step back, I move around him and head out into the courtyard.

The sun is bright and warm and completely mocking us all; like anyone can actually enjoy it any longer. I guess some people have found a way to do just that though as I look off to the left and see a few girls resting back on the ground, stretching their weary muscles and catching some rays. It all seems too bright for me though and I immediately head for the big canvas tent that has a few rows of tables with chairs under it. I guess it's where they serve food because there are a bunch of girls sitting around and eating random bits of food while the camp doctor Diane talks – actually talks – to some kind of a demon up at the front.

"We'll need more supplies soon. There are more girls so we're going through everything quicker. Food, medical supplies, any kind of bedding that can be spared."

"I'll ask the boss," the demon replies gruffly. "Make do with what you have until then."

He turns and leaves quickly, disappearing through a locked door across the courtyard. Diane watched until he was out of sight before quietly murmuring, "We'll do our best."

She grabs a box from the ground and lifts it easily, placing it on the table next to her so she can rummage through it without having to bend over. Without warning she starts grabbing what looks like cereal bars from the box and tossing them over her shoulder at a few girls waiting behind her. The girls catch and eagerly open them before tearing into the small bars like they were the best thing in the world.

"New girls, just arrived last night," comes a voice from off to the side.

I turn my head to see a young slayer sitting on the table next to me with her feet resting on a chair. Her hair is long and dark and I'm not sure I met her before but I'm pretty sure I saw Laura and Hazel talking to her a couple weeks back.

"Krista, right?"

She nods but says nothing else, her eyes focused out in the yard now.

"Arrived from where?" I ask, my voice still a bit hoarse from lack of use.

She shrugs before finally answering, "Who knows. Could be from another camp, could be stragglers that were newly called. They're too scared to talk to anyone but D and Faith right now."

I look over at the new arrivals and . . . god they're young. None of them look older than fifteen or sixteen. Diane is trying to be friendly and earn their trust, but they don't need a big sister; they need parents, someone to protect them from all of this. This never would have happened if I hadn't let Willow do that spell; if I hadn't failed…

"You busted Jo up pretty good," Krista says, still not looking at me. "Doc says she ain't gonna be able to breathe right for a while."

"It was an accident," I mumble out quietly, looking down at the ground.

"Yeah, well accident or not, you should be the one that has to bunk with her now. I dream about trains every night cos her nose whistles all night long."

"Look, I'm sorry. Something in me clicked and I couldn't . . ." I begin but she cuts me off quickly.

"Don't apologize to me, girl. You've got bigger fish to fry. Jo and Faith have been here together since the beginning and they're pretty inseparable. Faith is taking the whole thing personally."

I take a step closer to her, wanting to ask her about Faith and anything else she's willing to share, but she looks quickly over at me and then away again when she sees me move.

"Do me a favor," she begins, her eyes focused on the yard again. "Try not to make it obvious we're talking. Don't wanna get shit for it."

I can't say I'm shocked to hear that but it still stings a little. First all of the girls wanted to know me, and then one gets hurt – by mistake, might I add! – and I'm the black sheep. Knew it would happen sooner or later I guess, but for the first time in a long time, I know I have to make it better.

Just as I move to take a step back, I see Krista's eyes widen and her body stiffen up a little. I follow her gaze and see Faith looking over at us from across the yard. She stares at Krista long and hard before shooting me a glare and starting to head over. Krista jumps up from the table and heads out to a different part of the yard where a couple of the other girls are lounging. She whispers a hasty ‘later' and is gone before I can respond.

When I look back toward Faith I see she's already stopped coming toward me and is headed down the corridor toward her – my – room.

Instead of dwelling on it, I decide to do what I came out here to do: get something to eat. No sooner than I get back on task do I feel something small thwap me in the side of the head. I look down at the ground to find a still-wrapped cereal bar laying there and look up just in time to catch another that was aimed for my head. No one seems to be paying attention except for Diane who's grinning and watching me out of the corner of her eye as she busies herself with the supply boxes. I don't want her to feel she has to hide from me too so I just give her a quick smile and a nod and grab a chair at the nearest table.

I'm barely sitting for five seconds before I hear all of the girls who were at the other end of the table get up and quickly walk away.

Great. That's just great.

How do I even start making it better when it looks like I've run out of all my chances? I have a strange feeling that if I try to talk to Faith I'll have my own nose-whistle to deal with. Sighing, I unwrap and take a big bite of my cereal bar, unaware of anything going on around me until I hear a chair moving on the other side of the table. I look up to find Diane sitting there and offering me a small smile.

"How've you been holding up, Buffy?" she asks, studying my face. Guess she wants to make sure it's not disfigured from what Faith did to me once she had me out of sight of the others in the camp.

"As good as I can be, I guess," I say with a shrug, avoiding her gaze. "You probably don't want to be caught sitting here with me."

"I'll take my chances. Faith knows I'm impartial." There's a short pause before she asks, "So can I guess from your reappearance that you're going to give this another try?"

"That's the plan, I guess. Pretty sure everyone would rather see me gone before they give me another chance though."

"You're probably right, which is why when you make your move? It's gotta be big. Showing up and having breakfast with the girls isn't gonna cut it, Buffy. They don't trust you right now. They know how bad you had it before and they're afraid you're going to drag all of it here with that chip on your shoulder."

I put the cereal bar down and look up, finally meeting her gaze.

"Listen, I'm sorry. They're right; I did have it bad before, worse than bad, and jumping from that situation into this one and trying to function normally isn't an easy transition. I slipped up. Buffy bad, I get it. But I'm trying my damnedest to keep myself together, and I'll try just as hard to be a part of the team."

Diane begins to reply but is cut off by a gruff voice from behind me.

"Sounds like pretty words to me."

I turn around to see Faith standing just on the outside of the tent with her arms crossed over her chest. She's scowling at Diane but Diane stays seated and just smiles politely at her. I try to speak but Faith cuts me off like she did Diane.

"Ya wanna be a part of the team? Prove it. Show the girls that you ain't gonna fuck'em over." She turns and heads out across the courtyard but shouts back over her shoulder, "Your gear's in your room. Better see your ass in the arena tonight or I'm comin' to get ya myself and the words won't be pretty."

I look over at Diane and she just raises her eyebrows a little before putting her palms on the table and sitting up.

"Perfect time to make that move, I'd say."

She walks back across the tent again and I'm left sitting alone with my breakfast and my thoughts. It's time to put up or shut up and I know what I have to do.

I spend hours sitting in the courtyard, studying each and every one of the girls as they stretch, train, spar, and just mess around. Jo is glaring at me from across the way and I almost have to fight the smile that creeps up on my face when I hear the random whistle sound coming from her nose. I know it's not funny but I'm just so glad she's alive after the way I struck out at her that the whistle is a welcomed reminder that she's not buried in the dirt somewhere because of me.

Most of the girls I haven't met but I see a few that I did, taking time to help out the new girls that just arrived. Faith spent some time with the new arrivals after breakfast and introduced them to a bunch of the girls. I made sure to pay attention this time, learning their names from afar. Faith kept watching me over her shoulder, almost like she was daring me to go and hide away, but I stayed firmly in my seat despite all of the glares I got.

When the sun begins to set and the girls start to break away from the group to go get ready for the arena, I take that as my chance to do the same. Bobb-o meets me halfway back to my room, having spent most of the day keeping an eye on me from across the yard – Faith's orders. He seems excited that I'm out and about and babbles on in a language that definitely isn't meant to be understood by humans. I just smile and nod and slip into my room the first chance that I get.

Guess he's decided that we're friends now though because he follows me in and has a seat on the chair as I prepare to get dressed in my armor. The poor chair creaks and groans under his weight but it never fazes him; he just continues to babble away. I can understand a random word here and there but I'm still not sure what he's talking about.

And even though he's a demon, I have to give it to the big guy: he's a perfect gentleman. Gentledemon? When he notices me trying to get undressed and keep my modesty, he turns the chair around and faces the wall. The babbling doesn't stop though and I'm really wondering what the hell he's going on about now.

When I'm finally finished getting ready, he stands and opens the door for me, then leads me down a long corridor to the prep area just outside the arena. Girls are walking in left and right, not a single one of them acknowledging me in any way. I stand back against the wall and just bide my time, waiting to be told what we're doing or who we're fighting.

I continue to watch the girls for about half an hour before Faith finally shows up with Jo and one or two guards. The guards have iron shackles in their hands and I quickly realize that it's going to be another tether match. They start pulling girls from the bunch and matching them up in pairs. Both Faith and Jo make sure they're paired with one of the new girls. I guess they figure it's the best way to protect the younger slayers; an experienced fighter paired with an inexperienced fighter.

Seeing that the guards are looking for a match for another new girl, I step forward and walk up to him, holding out my wrist. Just as he's about to slap the cool iron over me, Faith's hand shoots out and stops him. Her gaze is locked on me as she yells out for Ha. Ha runs up and holds out her wrist, letting the guard tether her to the younger girl.

"Think again," Faith mumbles to me, then calls out to Krista.

Krista comes jogging over and stands between Faith and I. She's waiting for Faith to tell her what she wants but all Faith does is look to the guard and nod. Before I realize it, there's an iron chain connecting Krista and I at the wrist.

"What!" Krista yells in disbelief. "Faith, that's not fair!"

"How's that, K? You guys looked pretty buddy-buddy at breakfast this morning."

"I was just being friendly!"

"Yeah? Then hope your new friend returns the favor out in the arena," Faith says. She puts herself in front of me and leans in, speaking low enough so that only I can hear. "Anything happens to her and I'm holdin' you personally responsible. You wanna be friends with these girls? Start by watching the back of the only one who had balls enough to talk to ya."

She takes a step back and looks into my eyes, trying to figure out if I understand how serious she is. I give her a small nod and glance over at Krista who looks like she's about ready to gnaw off her own arm to get free.

"Everything will be fine, Kris," I tell her and she looks at me like I'm crazy.

"That's easy for you to say," she grumbles as she gives the chain a good yank, making me stumble toward her. "You're not chained to the girl that got Ha mauled and turned Jo into a living breathing train whistle!"

Ha, busy jumping around behind us to get her adrenaline pumping, stops and moves closer to us so that she can talk to Krista.

"She good fighter but make bad decisions. You make decisions, you be okay. She make decisions, you both dead!" She sticks her leg out and shows us both the gnarly scar across her leg from where the tiger had slashed her.

Krista's eyes widen and she turns to me, a new look of determination on her face.

"Listen up, Buffy. I don't care that you're like, ancient in slayer years; we're doing this my way. Just follow me and shut up about it or I'll chop your arm off and fight alone. Slayer healing is wicked but I'm pretty sure it won't make your arm grow back."

Needless to say I'm not used to threats like that, and I'm definitely not used to letting someone else be in charge, but I know this is a test. Faith is testing me to see if I'm really ready to be a part of the team, even if it means giving up my control, and I have to test myself to see if I can trust anyone but myself.

I'm up for the challenge.

"You point, I fight," I simply reply.

Krista looks at me for a few moments like she doesn't believe me but eventually nods and faces the door in front of us like all of the other slayers. The new girls look so scared; I stopped trying to notice stuff like that a long time ago but I'm keenly aware of it now. Faith and her partner are right in front of us and the young girl is shaking so badly that I'm pretty sure Faith is gonna have to carry her weight around the arena.

Taking a deep breath, I reach out and touch the girl's shoulder, clasping it gently as she turns her head to meet my gaze.

"You'll be okay," I tell her with a nod. "Watch the corners. Faith won't let anything happen to you."

The girl nods quickly then looks over to Faith who offers her a reassuring smile.

"Don't worry kiddo, stick with me and don't make any hero moves, we'll be back here in no time at all laughin' about your first time out and how nervous ya were for nothin'."

When the girl looks ahead again, Faith looks back at me, her face completely serious.

"Don't screw this up."

The sound of the heavy door opening gets everyone's attention and we all face forward, ready to be let out. There are a bunch of girls lingering behind us who aren't shackled; it seems like they're the lucky ones who get to sit this round out. They all file into the arena after us though and sit back at the benches along the side, watching us all carefully.

I still have no idea who we're fighting so I'm pretty much taken by surprise when we get further out into the arena and see a small horde of hostile demons waiting for us with weapons aplenty. I'd grabbed my trusty longsword on our way out as we passed by the weapons table and Krista grabbed a katana so we were well armed but not very well protected.

"We attack as one and if we get swarmed, we go back to back," Krista says under her breath, never moving her gaze from our foes. "Stay tight with the group and for fucks sake, if you see someone gettin' wailed on, don't stand there and watch."

I nod and take a look around us, trying to figure out what our chances are. Six pairs of slayers and just over two dozen enemies consisting of some of the nastiest demons I've ever had to go up against. Polgaras, Kailiffs, Kungais, a couple M'Fashniks, and a Thraxis or two.

They growl and posture and try to look as menacing as possible. It's working; even I'm a little bit worried for us, but I don't let that show. I find that Faith is standing just off to my side, noticing the very same things I was just moments ago.

"This isn't some motley crew thrown together; they've been put together for maximum damage," she says under her breath though I know it's directed at me.

No wonder the demons wanted the new girls in the ring tonight; they want bloodshed and figure it'll be easier with them.

"I know," I answer quietly. "The Kailiffs and M'Fashniks are brute force only; the younger girls can handle them. The Kungai shouldn't be a problem; have your girls go for the horn."

"Thanks for the refresher in demonology," Faith says mockingly. "I know what I gotta do, I just hope you do."

There's no pomp and circumstance tonight, no big screens with Dawn or my friends suffering in the background. They brought us in quick and they want a bloody fight.

Well, they're gonna get one.

The Thraxis demons take their blades and run the edges down their arms and over their chests, letting small rivulets of black blood run over their skin. A few of the slayers notice and start to smile.

"Hey, look; they're making our job easier for us," Jo says.

"How considerate," Krista replies with a grin.

"Don't let them near you," I say, watching as the demons start to charge us. "Don't touch their blood!"

Krista tries to charge in but I stand firm and the chain goes taut, pulling her back. Her eyes widen she looks up at me with horror written across her face.

"Faith, she's freakin' out already!"

"No, listen to her!" Faith yells, positioning herself in front of the young slayer she's attached to so she can take the brunt of the damage. "Don't touch the blood!"

A Thraxis demon is just about to close in on Krista so I grab the chain and swing her back, then strike out with my sword. The Thraxis gets impaled on it but he's still struggling, swinging his arms around and trying to touch me. I'm far enough to avoid his arm but some black blood spurts out from his wound and covers my stomach. The burning starts immediately and I can almost hear my skin sizzle. I work frantically to wipe the blood from my skin while Krista watches in horror.

"What the fuck!" she yells as she watches my skin burn.

"Bet ya weren't expecting that," I say with a grimace.

We don't have time to dwell though. A Kailiff and a Polgara are circling us, trying to take advantage of my temporarily distracted state.

"Buffy, duck!" Krista yells and lashes out with a high kick just as the Polgara extends the spike from his wrist. Her foot makes contact with his arm and the spike breaks off, making him fall to the ground in pain. She takes advantage and brings her katana down, beheading him in one swift motion.

I'm back on guard just in time to stop the Kailiff getting Krista from behind. I give him a good shove, right into Faith's waiting blade. She looks at me and nods and we quickly go back to the fight.

The demons are going down fairly easily and I don't see any major injuries on any of the girls yet. My stomach is still burning and I'm pretty sure I won't have any skin there by the time the battle is over but I keep fighting.

Always keep fighting.

Krista and I go back to back as we're charged from two sides by a pair of Kungai demons. At the last minute we step out of the way and the demons collide head first, crushing their horns together so loudly that it hurts my ears. They begin to fall and we're on to the next demon before their bodies even hit the ground.

Krista starts heading toward a M'Fashnik but I freeze when I look over toward Faith and her partner to see a Polgara headed right for the young slayer while Faith is busy trying to keep a Thraxis off of them. I know Krista told me she was in charge, but she also told me to help if someone was in trouble, and someone is in big trouble.

I close the distance between us and them fast and pull the young slayer back just in time for the Polgara's spike to miss her back. He must've seen me coming though because he suddenly turns and plants the spike right into my shoulder. The pain is white hot as it pierces me and comes out my back and I cry out, unable to stop myself.

I drop to my knees and wait for him to finish me off; I don't expect anyone to save me.

But Faith is on him in a second and pushes him back, making the spike slip from my shoulder. The Polgara stumbles backward and right into Jo's blade and that leaves just the one last Thraxis demon and a M'Fashnik that Ha is busy beating into oblivion just a few yards away.

All of the girls turn as one and surround the Thraxis. He tries to lash out but is turned into a living – or should I say dying? – pincushion as they all thrust their blades into him at once. They don't cheer, they don't smile; they ignore the boisterous crowd in the stands and immediately check that everyone is still with us and intact. All eyes fall to me as Krista bends down next to me and ducks under my arm, helping me to my feet.

Faith moves to help but Krista stops her, intent on doing this alone.

"I'll get her to the Doc. Just make sure everyone else is okay," Krista tells her.

Faith looks at her for a moment and then steps back, letting her support me alone. She moves her gaze and looks at me long and hard before giving me a nod.

Guess that means I finally did something right.

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