Chapter Twenty-Four

It wasn't Faith's style to pace which was why Buffy had taken up pacing duty when Faith had taken a seat next to her on the bed. Something weird was going on, they were both painfully aware of that much, but neither girl knew exactly how to proceed. Who could they turn to when everyone they could count on had been affected by whatever magic the council had used?

The situation seemed more dire now than when they'd first heard of it from atop a mountain hundreds of miles away.

"Shit," Buffy muttered to herself.

"What about your Dad?" Faith asked. "He's in Florida, right? Maybe the magic didn't reach that far."

"Sure, I could call him. You know; if he was actually in Florida and I knew his number."

"You mean he isn't?"

"Nope. Haven't heard from him since my birthday and I won't hear from him again until Christmas."

"And we probably can't wait around that long, huh."

"Probably not," Buffy replied. She took a deep breath and stopped pacing long enough to massage her temples with her fingertips. "I have no idea what to do."

"Yeah, I'm getting that," Faith said. She stood up from the bed and walked over until she was just in front of Buffy. "Listen, it's obviously you ‘n me against the world here, right? So as far as I see it, we've got three options. One – we get together with Giles and your buds, tell them what's up and ask them to help us look into it. They've seen enough crazy stuff in their lives to know that we might not be the crazy ones in this sitch. We've still got four days ‘til graduation so we're not exactly screwed yet. Two – we say fuck the research and storm the council. Bet they'll start talkin' pretty fast once we start hittin'em. Not a delicate approach but we ain't exactly got time to be gentle."

"And what's the third option?" Buffy asked softly, not exactly sure that options one or two were the right one.

Faith took a deep breath and exhaled through her nose. It looked like she was choosing her words carefully and Buffy braced herself for what was to come.

"We take off the bracelets. They've gotta be what's protecting us from the magic that got everyone else, right?" At Buffy's wary nod, Faith continued. "It's kinda like that story about the king and the poisoned well."

Buffy furrowed her brow in confusion. "I'm not really up to snuff on my parables."

"No big, I've got this one. So basically there was this king that ruled over a big city. All the townspeople drank from this well in the middle of the town but the king didn't because, well . . . kings are too good to drink from wells or somethin' like that. Whatever. One night some dumbass poisoned the well and the entire town went like, batshit crazy. Only one that didn't was the king, but then everyone thought he was crazy cos he was the only one not acting like everyone else. They wanted to dethrone him, kick his ass right the hell outta Crazyville, so the king did the only thing he could think of: he went on down and chugged himself a big ol' cup of crazy-water. After that, everyone was crazy and happy and no one knew the difference."

Buffy listened to the story and instantly noticed the conviction with which Faith had told it. Faith had always had so much gusto and zest and Buffy instantly began to feel a knot grow in her stomach when she remembered how she'd never appreciated that before; how she'd dismissed Faith and her passion for everything around her and had written it off as annoying.

And now, when she needed just a glimmer of hope in yet another dire situation in her life, Faith was there offering her just that with just as much zest as she'd come to Sunnydale with. Even after all that had happened to her, Faith still hadn't lost that. Faith was still Faith.

Clinging to what she knew, Buffy leaned forward and took Faith by surprise, capturing her lips in a soft kiss. It didn't last long but Faith seemed to understand the sentiment. They stayed pressed together, Buffy's hands on Faith's neck and Faith's hands resting on her hips. When Faith tried to kiss her again Buffy moved so that their foreheads were pressed together, her lips just out of reach.

"Thank you," Buffy breathed, closing her eyes and basking in the stress-free feeling for just a few seconds.

"Shit, if I knew stories like that got ya going I woulda been makin' them up ages ago. Did ya ever hear the one about the goat and the bottle of gin?"

Buffy chuckled and pulled back enough to see Faith smirking at her. Unable to resist, she leaned in and kissed Faith's smirk, pulling back once again before Faith had the opportunity to kiss her back. It was safer that way, especially seeing as that they had a houseful of scared and concerned people at the moment.

"So what do ya think, B? Gotta be honest, option three is sounding pretty sweet right about now. No muss, no fuss, and we could take off these stupid bracelets. My wrist is chafing like a motherfucker."

Despite the lightness in Faith's tone, Buffy could feel the stress start to creep back into her tired body. It wasn't a decision she wanted to make but she had to do something; hiding out in her bedroom until her fake sister went off to college hadn't been on Faith's list of options.

"I can't do that," Buffy finally replied, shaking her head gently. "I know she's not my sister. I know something isn't right here. I can't just drink from the well and play happy family knowing what we do."

Faith observed her carefully for a few moments before nodding. "Yeah, kinda figured ya wouldn't go along with that option. You're more of a bottled-water kind of girl."

Chuckling half-heartedly, Buffy stepped away and went back to her bed, sitting down on it once again. She watched as Faith made her way over to the window and rested back against her desk, staring out into the already darkening sky. They'd been traveling most of the day and it didn't feel as late as it actually was.

"We're gonna have to do a combo of one and two."

"You make it sound like you're ordering Chinese," Faith said but Buffy continued on, undeterred.

"The council won't be able to find you when we're together so we don't have to worry about that too much. So long as you stay out of sight you should be fine. We'll get together with Giles and the gang, pull an all-night research session. Hopefully he'll agree to do that here because no way am I leaving my mom alone with that girl again. Not sure where the council reps are staying or how I can confront them yet but . . . I'll figure it out. Am I the only one missing our secluded little cabin in the middle of nowhere?"

She looked up when Faith didn't respond and found her staring intently outside, her jaw clenching tightly.

"What is it?" Buffy asked. She stood up from the bed and joined Faith at the window, her eyes narrowing when she realized what Faith had been looking at.

"Guess you're not gonna have to figure out how to find ‘em cos they're already here," Faith said, her voice low as she watched two men and one woman step out of a black sedan. "Hope ya got some kind of a plan, B, cos opportunity is about to knock on your door wearin' a fuckin ugly tweed suit."

Stepping slowly away from the window and heading toward the door, Buffy turned back toward Faith and muttered, "Stay in here." She made sure to catch Faith's gaze and hold it for just long enough before stepping out of the room and closing the door behind her. Instead of running down the steps, she walked down the hall to the spare bedroom where everyone was still fawning over her fake-sister.

"Looks like your friends are here," she said, focused on Dawn. "Shall I go and tell them they're not welcome or did you want to?"

"Buffy, your behavior isn't . . ." Joyce began but Dawn stood up from the bed and crossed her arms over her chest, looking defiantly over at Buffy.

"They're not my friends. You think I want to be a slayer?" she asked Buffy. "As if. Your life stinks almost as bad as you do when you get home from slaying. I'd like mine to be full of shopping and friends, not monsters and knives, thank you very much."

Buffy mimicked her posture, crossing her arms over her chest, and plastered on a fake smile.

"Excellent. Then I'll just go and tell them to get the hell out of my house and out of my town. You're welcome to join them if you like." Ignoring the glare Dawn gave her, Buffy looked at everyone else in the room. "Not a word about Faith. You haven't seen her and you have no idea where she is."

Getting no arguments from her friends or mother, Buffy turned around and made her way downstairs just in time for the doorbell to ring. Taking a deep breath, she braced herself and opened up the door, smiling at the surprised look on the faces of the people standing there.

"You're . . ." one of the men began and stuttered, his eyes wide.

"I'm Buffy -- the vampire slayer. And you've gone too far this time. You're not welcome here, for me or for the snoop you planted into my life with your magic. I'd highly suggest that you leave my house – and possibly the town – before I show you the true definition of what a slayer really is."

The woman and two men looked at one another and then back at Buffy, trying to smile through their fear. It was the woman who eventually spoke up, trying an obviously gentle approach.

"Miss Summers, the council appreciates all of the good you've done while the active slayer and beyond. You've outlasted your calling and have been granted the retirement that you've quietly longed for. We assumed you'd be happy about the newest developments."

"Newest developments?" Buffy asked incredulously. "You mean how you guys magically killed Faith so you could get a new slayer? Or maybe you mean how you used magic to trick everyone I know into believing that the new slayer is my sister."

"So you've been in touch with Miss Lehane?" one of the men asked but quickly shut up when the woman elbowed him in the ribs as discreetly as she could.

"We've been trying to track Miss Lehane – Faith – so that we can rehabilitate her," the woman tried to cover but Buffy already knew the truth. Clenching her fists, she took a step closer, which made all three of them take two steps back.

"Ah, so you rehabilitate after your assassins fail. A bit unorthodox if you ask me, but what do I know? I'm last year's girl." Immediately all three council members spluttered and blanched but Buffy wouldn't let them interrupt her. "Save it. I know about your assassins, I know about the magic you used to kill Faith – nice try, by the way, but she's still alive and holding a major grudge – and whatever magic you used to squeeze the new slayer into my life hasn't worked on me."

"Buffy . . ."

"That's Miss Summers to you!" Buffy snapped, her anger taking over. "My mother is upstairs trying to protect who she thinks is my sister. I don't know why you planted her into my life or what the grand purpose was, but whatever it is, I will find out and I will do what I have to do to make things right. Now tell me why you're here so that you can leave."

"Training, Miss Summers," one of the men explained. "We've come to collect your sister," when Buffy's eyes narrowed at him he quickly corrected, "Dawn, for her first evening of training."

Buffy chuckled with disbelief. "You seriously think I'm going to just let you come in here, take her away and train her to be a better killer so she can come back and carry out your evil scheme? I don't think so."

"I'm afraid you don't have much say in the matter," the woman said stiffly.

The glare that Buffy gave sent both the woman and her companions back two steps more until the two men reached the wooden stairs and had to back down them to avoid falling.

"I'd love to see how you plan on getting past me," Buffy said, crossing her arms over her chest. "But you know what? I'm feeling pretty gracious right now so I'm going to do you a favor; not that the council has ever done any for me, but I digress. I'll be the one taking her out to train. You don't like it? Make whatever magic you cast go away and get a different playtoy."

"Miss Summers, this is highly unorthodox," the woman began and Buffy cut her off with a bright smile.

"I know, right? Maybe the good old council will think twice the next time they consider messing with me or anyone I know."

"A report will have to be made to Mr. Travers . . ."

Buffy surged forward, making the lady back down the steps as well.

"You take that report and shove it right up his . . ."

"Buffy!" came a voice from behind her and she spun around to see Joyce standing there looking just as surprised – and scared – as the watchers were. "What's going on out here?"

"Oh, nothing," Buffy said, plastering on her fake smile yet again, her tone sickeningly sweet. "I was just explaining that I'll be the one training . . . Dawn." It took everything she had not to cringe when she said her name. "Their services aren't required at this time."

"Oh," Joyce said, seeming a bit surprised and confused. "I wasn't aware that was an option."

One of the men opened his mouth to intervene but Buffy sent him a glare that her mother couldn't see before turning to face Joyce. "It is now."

"Well that's . . . good," Joyce said after looking warily at Buffy for a few seconds. "It's about time that you two start getting along. I was afraid that I was going to have to kennel the both of you."

"I won't be requiring a kennel," Buffy said pleasantly but said nothing of Dawn.

"I'll go and tell Dawn to get ready. She'll be so excited!" Joyce gave Buffy's shoulder a squeeze and then excused herself, hurrying up the stairs to Dawn's room.

Waiting until she was out of sight, Buffy finally turned around and faced the council members again. They looked none too pleased and made no effort to hide it. It made her smile even bigger and much more real.

"You're not being reasonable," one of the men said and Buffy pretended to look thoughtful.

"Hmm, let's see here." She held out her hand and started ticking away on her fingers as she went. "You sent assassins after Faith. You told them to kill me and anyone else who got in the way if needed. You used magic to kill her and call a new slayer, then used magic to implant that slayer into my life." She held up her three fingers. "That's three strikes out. I'd say the time for reason is over. The biggest mistake you could have made was stick Dawn in my life because now that she's here? I'm not letting you anywhere near her, or near anyone else I know for that matter. If she's a spy, I'll figure it out. We'll trace the magic and reverse it. Until then? Run along, little doggies. And tell Mr. Travers that Buffy said hey."

Lowering two more fingers down so that only one was left up, Buffy held it out to them and waved it around, smiling at their quiet outrage. Without any more ado, she walked back into the house and slammed the door behind herself, then leaned up against it. She heard them murmuring quietly before they eventually retreated down the concrete path and drove away in their black sedan. She wasn't sure where they were going or if they'd be back – strike that, they'd definitely be back – but she couldn't worry about that now. Her main problem at that very second was the stranger upstairs with her mom and friends and the girl hiding out in her bedroom.

Oh yeah, and the mayor.

Closing her eyes, Buffy took another deep breath and steeled herself.

Four days. They had four days to figure that out on top of everything else that was going on.

She was sure starting to wish that slayers had some Superman-type flying powers so that she could fly around the earth and take things back to a time when she could set things right and avoid all of this. Fate, it seemed, had other plans for her though.

The chamber was dark like always, the only light that of a few white wax candles flickering in the cool draft. Two sisters lay prone on the stone ground, twitching as they looked up into the cloud-like ether that drifted above them. The third sister, Euphemia, sat on a stone slab, smoking a wooden pipe and exhaling the smoke so that it joined the mystical cloud above her sisters. She didn't join them in their conversation but paid keen attention to what they were discussing.

"They have met," Syntyche said.

"They will fight," Hypatia replied, staring deeply into the ether.

"Time will tell if they will be strong enough."

"Their first test shall define their fate."

"And ours."

"And the world's, as we know it."

"Oh, shut up!" Syntyche spat uncharacteristically, jerkily sitting up from her prone position. "We've been in this hole in the ground for seven hundred years! We don't know the world at all anymore!"

"You shut up," Hypatia replied embarrassedly, rolling over onto her side.

"No, you shut up!"

"You shut up!"

"How about the both of you shut up!" Euphemia said using her mind-speak.

All three sisters turned away from one another and grumbled.

There were some days when the chamber felt smaller than it really was.

Buffy made her way up the stairs and sneaked into her bedroom before her mother or Dawn could stop her. She found Faith lying back on her bed, resting with her feet kicked up and her hands underneath her head. Her shirt was riding up a little bit, just enough to reveal a thin slice of tanned skin. It looked perfect and inviting, but she couldn't give in to temptation now; not when she had so many other things she needed to focus on.

Staying in that cabin and having no responsibilities really gave her a taste for the easy life. Unfortunately for her, it was all just a bit too far out of reach at the moment.

"They gone?" Faith asked.

"For now," Buffy said without explaining any further. "They came to take little sister out training. I told them that since they stuck her in here, she's my territory now."

"Meaning?" Faith asked, her eyebrows raised.

Buffy smirked. "Get changed. We're taking the newbie out on her very first patrol. I'm thinking it's time for little sis to learn a few slaying lessons the hard way."

Shaking her head and chuckling quietly, Faith got up from the bed and headed for the door so that she could go downstairs and fetch their bags.

"Anyone ever tell you you're kinda hot when you're vicious?" Faith asked, then opened the door and looked at Buffy over her shoulder. "Scary, but hot nonetheless."

Winking, she disappeared down the stairs leaving Buffy looking at her own reflection in the mirror on the back of the door. Smiling proudly, she fixed her tussled hair and then began to rummage through her dresser for something to wear. She needed to find something dark-colored and sexy because, really, scary girls couldn't get away with wearing pink.

Not when she needed to give Dawn a good scare.

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