Chapter Twenty-Six

A loud thud sounded throughout the library for what had to be the twentieth time that morning, making everyone grouped around the messy wooden table look up in alarm. As with the other twenty times, Buffy smirked and went back to what she was doing while Xander, Willow, and Giles all grimaced in sympathy.

Dawn was flat on her back on a mat about fifteen feet away from them, covered in sweat and bruises and looking generally beat. Faith was walking in a slow circle around the mat, trying hard to hide her satisfied smile but it was apparent to everyone there that she was enjoying this almost as much as Dawn wasn't.

"I wasn't ready that time," Dawn groaned. She managed to get herself up into a sitting position but didn't make any effort to stand.

"And what about the sixteen times before that?" Faith asked.

"I wasn't ready then either," Dawn began. "It's summer vacation. I'm supposed to be home in bed right now, not getting pummeled by a slayer with a grudge."

"I'm not the slayer with a grudge, she is," Faith replied and pointed over at Buffy who held her hand up in the air and wiggled her fingers but didn't look over; she was too busy being smug. "I'm the slayer who likes hitting things in my spare time."

"So why does that automatically make me the slayer who gets to play practice dummy?"

"Because you're the slayer who doesn't know her ass from a hole in the ground when it comes to fighting," Faith said. "We've got three days to get you ready for a battle royale and unless you wanna be known as the slayer who lasted less than a week, you're gonna get up until I can't knock ya down anymore."

She stopped at Dawn's side and extended her hand down. Dawn looked at it warily before taking it and letting herself be pulled up. Faith immediately fell back into fighting stance while Dawn took a moment to stretch out her sore muscles.

Everyone at the table collectively sighed with relief and focused once again on what they'd been discussing before they'd been interrupted. There were a few opened books on the table but they were pushed to the middle so that they could finish enjoying the doughnuts and coffee that Xander had brought. Giles took one last bite of his jelly doughnut and finished chewing it before wiping his mouth with a napkin and addressing Buffy.

"Could you go over the events of the night that Faith, erm . . ."

"Died?" Buffy finished. "Sure. Well we'd been in the cabin having dinner and it was a pretty beautiful night out so we decided to go for a swim."

"Wait, you and Faith made with the swimming?" Xander asked. "But you didn't pack bathing suits because you knew you were headed to Montana."

The wheels in his mind were clearly turning and Buffy quickly continued to distract him and everyone else from his thoughts.

"Minor detail. The point is, we went down to the lake and jumped in, just like we had several times before then. We didn't stay in long though because the water was cold, so we got out and toweled off. I was really cold though so I started running back and Faith said she'd be right behind me. But then . . ."

She was interrupted by another loud thud from across the room. Everyone looked over once again to find Dawn flat on her back again.

"But then my bracelet came off," Faith continued where Buffy left off. She walked over and tapped Buffy on the shoulder. "Tag, you're in."

Grinning, Buffy stood up and walked over to the mats where Dawn was still laying. She didn't offer her a hand like Faith had but waited expectantly with her hands on her hips until Dawn got the message and struggled to her feet. When they began to circle each other, Faith continued.

"I tried finding it but it was crazy dark out there and it slipped down between the rocks. Meanwhile B was getting farther and farther away and we musta got more than a hundred yards apart cos I started feeling all dizzy and had a pain in my chest. It got so bad I couldn't walk or breathe. Tried to call B but she was too far at that point. Next thing I knew, blondie over there was lockin' lips with me and tryin' to bring me back."

She opened the box of donuts and rummaged through it before finding one she liked.

"And she succeeded," Giles surmised.

Faith stopped an inch away from putting the doughnut in her mouth and looked over at Giles with both eyebrows raised. "Do I look like a ghost to you?"

"You sure don't hit like one," Dawn offered, then grunted when Buffy hit her with a hard right.

Faith chuckled and took a whopping bite of the doughnut, chewing happily while Giles made a few notes in a plain notepad.

"Buffy?" Giles called out. She stooped low and spun with one leg extended, knocking Dawn's feet out from under her in the blink of an eye and sending her down to the mat with a loud thud. Pleased with herself, Buffy stood up straight and joined the others at the table, looking at Giles expectantly. "Erm," he began, looking from Dawn to his notepad and shaking his head gently, "was Faith breathing when you found her?"

"Nope. I did CPR for a few minutes and that zapped her back. The damage was already done though." She pointed over at a still prostrate Dawn fifteen feet away from them.

Giles took off his glasses and placed them on the table. He pinched the bridge of his nose and closed his eyes, drawing in a deep breath.

"This is completely perplexing," he said, sounding quite frustrated. "I'm not sure why you don't remember Dawn. I have very detailed memories; I'm certain she's always been here."

"I have them too," Willow said apologetically. "You've tried to put her up for adoption and sell her off, but that doesn't change the fact that she's . . ."

". . . my sister," Buffy finished, rubbing her forehead in annoyance. "I know. But I have the runes on my ribs to hide us from magic and the bracelet that you gave me, Wills. Even if the council had a spell cast on me, it wouldn't have worked. And besides that, why is it that when we left here, we had a spare bedroom at the house that Mom was going to turn into a room for Faith but when we got back, it's suddenly being inhabited by a sister neither Faith or I have any memory of who just happens to be the new slayer?"

"I assure you that the council has no choice in which slayer is called," Giles said. "It can locate potential slayers and often does to start preparing them, but they have no say in who or when."

"But that's not completely true. They came after Faith to get a new slayer. Maybe they can't choose who but they can certainly choose when."

"Even then, it just doesn't make sense. I assume we all agree that something untoward has happened, I just can't seem to determine what it is. I've been searching for anything out of the ordinary since your mother rang before your arrival yesterday but it's difficult to find something when I'm not sure what it is I'm looking for."

Fifteen feet away, Dawn made her way back to her feet and was watching them, her arms crossed over her chest. Buffy walked back over to her and dropped into fight stance, urging Dawn to come at her. Dawn grinned and charged at her . . . and was promptly flipped over Buffy's shoulder. Buffy was already walking back toward the table when Dawn landed with a thud on the mats, making even Faith wince this time.

"Wills, is there something you can do to see if there's been any large-scale mojo worked in the area?" Buffy asked casually.

Willow looked nervously between a groaning Dawn and a completely nonchalant Buffy, worrying her bottom lip as she did so.

"I've already done a read of the aura around the town and it has definitely changed though I can't specify how or why," Willow replied. "I've been reading about a spell that can trace specific magic that's been done, so long as it's used within a reasonable amount of time after the fact. Giles?"

"I know the spell you're speaking of," he replied with a gentle nod. "It will require some supplies that we won't be able to find in a small town like Sunnydale. Angel made a trip to Los Angeles late last night to move some of his belongings and to speak to a source who may have some information on the mayor's plan. I can ring and ask him to fetch what we can't find here. Willow and I can prepare the spell when he arrives back tonight."

"So we've got some time to burn then," Buffy noted. "Faith and I will keep working with the fresh meat . . ."

"I resent that!" Dawn called out, her voice muffled by the mat pressed against her cheek.

"Sorry," Buffy apologized, then tried again. "Faith and I will keep working the tenderized, slightly rancid meat to test what she can do."

"More like what she can withstand," Faith mumbled, trying to hide her smile.

"We'll be back after sunset," Buffy continued. "Tell Angel to hurry back; time's running out."

She and Faith made their way toward the double doors and left the library without another word. That is, until a few minutes passed by and they realized that Dawn hadn't followed them. Sticking her bad back in through the door, Buffy yelled,

"Dawn! Now!"

Groaning, Dawn stood up and grabbed her duffel bag from the floor. She looked over to the group at the table for some kind of help but all they could offer her were sympathetic looks that did nothing to ease her pain. Sighing, she limped across the library and out the door, not wanting to incur any more of Buffy's wrath.

It was many hours later when they'd finally arrived at Giles' apartment. It was too late for a meeting at the school without garnering suspicion so the location had been changed at the last minute. Only Willow and Giles were there; Angel had opted to go out and patrol, seeing as that he knew Buffy and Faith needed to lay low. Sending them out to patrol when the mayor's vamps could find them just didn't seem smart to anyone.

Everyone was still mad at Buffy and Faith for having taken the risk the night before.

Luckily, Angel had been lucky while in Los Angeles. Not only was he able to find the ingredients needed for the spell but he was also able to obtain a book from his source with some information on what the mayor was up to.

Buffy held the book up and turned her head to look at the page that folded out several panes long. Faith walked up beside her and turned her head to the side too, her eyes widening when she saw what they were looking at: a huge snake of some sort that had to be bigger than the apartment building they were currently standing in.

"That's what we're gonna be facing off against?" she asked, worried.

"Unless we can kill the mayor before then," Buffy replied, then looked up to Giles. "Can we kill him before then?"

"I'm afraid not," he answered. "He's obtained a box that has made him invincible after ingesting its contents. If we have any chance at all of defeating him, it will be at the graduation ceremony when he ascends into his full demon form. Only then will he be vulnerable to harm."

"So we gotta fight the giant, terrifying snake," Faith said rather than asked. When Giles nodded, she scoffed and flopped down onto the couch. "Listen G, we're good but we ain't that good. That thing is twenty times our size, easy. Sticking it with some knives ain't gonna do anything but piss it off."

"Perhaps we can use his emotional attachment to you as a means of drawing him out," Giles suggested and Faith raised her eyebrows at him.

"Giles, the guy sent his boys to kill me. The only emotion I'm gonna get from him is rage, and I personally don't wanna piss off the giant snake more than I have to."

"We may be able to use that rage to draw him away from the others. Don't forget that there will be several hundred students present, as well as their families who've come to observe the commencement ceremony. Our first duty is to keep them safe; our second duty is to destroy the mayor. His ascension is inevitable but we can still save the town and the world at large."

"Well when you figure out how we do that, you let me know," Faith said. She laid back on the couch and picked up a magazine from the coffee table, then tossed it aside distastefully when she realized that it was about something that only Giles would find entertaining.

Buffy sat down on the arm of the couch and looked from Faith to Giles, shrugging helplessly. There was nothing she could do to offer more insight; she was just as clueless on what to do as they were.

"For what it's worth," she began, "there's graduation rehearsal on the 21st, the day after tomorrow. If we can't figure out anything by then, maybe we can try to persuade the school to change the date."

"Yeah, or we can make an army outta your classmates and give them all machine guns and grenades," Faith suggested unhelpfully, making Buffy smile.

Giles simply looked thoughtful as if he was actually considering the idea. When Buffy opened her mouth to question him, Willow walked into the room with a bowl of herbs and a small glass container full of some kind of shimmery pink liquid. She set them down on the coffee table and wiped her sweaty palms on her thighs, looking up at Giles nervously.

"I think I'm ready to begin."

"Don't be nervous, Willow. You've been over the incantation a dozen times today. I have faith in your abilities," Giles said.

His reassurance made her smile and she looked over to Buffy and Faith, smiling nervously.

"Okay," she began. "This is how this will work. The herbs are already prepared in the bowl, thanks to Giles' help. He and I will chant while I pour the pixie blood over them . . ."

Buffy's eyes widened as she looked over to the shimmery pink liquid. "That's pixie blood?" When Willow nodded, Buffy went from looking grossed out to curious. "It's . . . kind of pretty, actually."

"I know, right?" Willow asked excitedly. She became more serious when Giles glared at them. "Right, so I pour the blood on the herbs and it will create a fog. The fog will surround anything that's been touched by magic recently."

Buffy sighed. "That's gonna be a problem. Faith was touched by magic. That's how the council stopped her heart."

Willow shook her head excitedly, "Don't worry about it, Buffy, we took that into account. Giles used taro root to specify the magic used. Once the fog has settled around anyone affected, it will glow a certain color. That should help us determine what kind of spell it was. Faith's color will be different than ours if we haven't been affected by the same magics."

"And you think you can determine the spell used based on the color?" Buffy asked doubtfully.

"Sure thing," Willow replied with a smile. "There are only a handful of types of spells out there. The variations of those individual spells is where it gets tricky, but at least we'll have a starting point."

"Perhaps we should get started while the blood is still fresh," Giles suggested.

Willow nodded in agreement and Buffy stood up from the arm of the couch, Faith joining her just a few seconds later. Giles put his hand on Willow's back to encourage her and she took a deep breath, then began pouring the blood slowly on the herbs.

Nothing happened at first but when she and Giles began to chant, a thin thread of smoke began to rise from the bowl. Suddenly there was a spark and the smoke began to grow into a thick fog, immediately filling and swirling around the room. Willow looked nervous as the fog began to creep out the windows and door. More and more fog kept pouring out of the small bowl.

Only when it stopped smoking did they start to look around, trying to focus their eyes in the thick fog. There was no mistaking the fact that the fog had filled up the entire apartment . . . and everything outside of it too! Giles stepped over to the window and looked utterly confused to see the fog up and down the streets and surrounding his neighbor who'd been taking out her trash and a jogger who happened to be running by at the time.

Every square inch of the town seemed to be affected . . . with the exception of the three or so feet of space around Buffy. She was completely unaffected and had her arms crossed over her chest, a knowing smirk on her face.

"I told you that we're not crazy," Buffy said.

"Giles?" Willow asked nervously.

"It appears Buffy was right," he said, trying to wave the fog away. "She hasn't been affected by magic but it seems that . . . everyone else has. The entire town, I'm willing to bet."

"What about Faith?" Buffy asked.

"Yeah, what about Faith?" Faith asked, swatting at the fog in annoyance.

It was then that the fog began to glow around them. Faith was illuminated with a deep red color while Giles and Willow and the people who were outside marveling at the sudden fog glowed a pale yellow. It was a clear indicator that whatever had affected Faith was different than what had affected everyone else.

"Red is lethal magic," Willow pointed out. "It's used to do harm."

"What about yellow?" Buffy asked, wondering why she was jealous that she wasn't a pretty color too. Then she remembered that colors were bad in this case and she felt a sense of relief at her colorlessness.

"Memory," Giles said quietly. "Yellow indicates a spell to alter memory."

"Can someone do a spell like that over a whole town?" Faith asked.

"It appears so," he replied, then turned to Buffy, a worried look upon his face. "Buffy dear, your mother . . ."

"Is at home with Dawn," Buffy finished for him, "who may be a slayer but is not my sister."

"Apparently not." He seemed genuinely puzzled but more than that, he seemed upset; disbelieving.

Buffy could imagine why; his memories had been altered and he'd had no idea about it. Not even an inkling. Here he'd been doubting her all along and now he knew that he was in the wrong. The council really was as bad as Buffy was making it out to be.

"Which is why I'm sure you'll understand when I say that I need to get home. Now. I can't leave my mom alone with her. We can meet at the library tomorrow. I'll bring Dawn or whoever she is so that we can keep an eye on her."

Giles nodded, still at a loss for words, and Buffy looked over to Willow, smiling softly.

"Thanks for the help, Wills. Can we walk you home?"

Willow happily accepted the offer and grabbed her jacket after making sure with Giles that it was okay to leave. It was only a short walk from there but with the fog as thick as it was, it wasn't safe for anyone to just be wandering around outside.

Not with the state that Sunnydale was currently in.

It was almost an hour later when Buffy and Faith walked through the front door of the house, a tiny bit of the lingering fog making its way inside with them. Buffy closed the door behind them and took her jacket off, hanging it up on the coat rack. While the house was mostly dark, she heard the TV on and looked into the front room to find Joyce and Dawn sitting on the couch watching TV together. There was still an almost imperceptible glow lingering around them and Buffy furrowed her brow when she saw that, while her mom was yellow, Dawn was green as well as yellow.

She slowly wandered into the room, her entrance going unnoticed until Joyce looked up, startled.

"Oh honey, I didn't hear you come in," she said as she stood up from the couch and made her way over. "I was getting worried. The news stations are all covering this weird fog. Did you know that it's making its way across America as we speak?"

Buffy's stomach dropped. It was worse than she'd imagined. She looked back at Faith who was lingering by the stairs, wanting to avoid the discussion.

"I didn't know that," she said when she looked to Joyce again. She noticed Dawn glaring at her but she ignored it. "It's been kind of a long day, Mom. We're just gonna . . ." she indicated the stairs and Joyce nodded.

"Of course. It's pretty late. Your sister and I are just about to head up too."

"Good idea. We'll see you in the morning." Then she looked over at Dawn and her expression hardened. "Set your alarm. We have to be at the library early."

She didn't say anything else, she simply turned and followed Faith up the stairs. They took turns in the bathroom showering and getting ready for bed and forty-five minutes later, they were finally getting settled in for the night. Faith took pity on Buffy and actually wore a t-shirt to bed and Buffy did the same, though hers was longer and covered a bit more.

They climbed onto the bed, Buffy on the right side and Faith on the left. There was a fair bit of space between them as they both laid flat and stared at the ceiling. Buffy had way too much on her mind to sleep, despite how exhausted she felt. She had a feeling that Faith was having the same problem.

"Can't sleep?" she asked after nearly twenty minutes passed by.

"Nope," Faith replied easily.

"Thinking too much?"

"Horny too much."

"Oh," Buffy replied, surprised. "Were you going to . . .?" . . . pounce, she thought, but opted instead to let Faith fill in the blank.

Faith shrugged a little, turning on her side to face Buffy.

"Kinda thought you wouldn't wanna. Long day, like you said."

"I don't not want to," Buffy replied almost shyly. "I'm just . . ."

". . . not an initiator," Faith finished for her with a small grin. She scooted closer to Buffy and put her hand on her side, running it slowly up and down, making the material of her shirt bunch up as she did so. "Lucky for you, I am."

Buffy shuddered a little as Faith's hand slid under her shirt and came into contact with her skin.

"I'll be honest, it wasn't the first thing on my mind, but now that the idea is out there . . ." she trailed off, her hand finding Faith's through the material of her shirt and pushing it up so that it covered her breast.

Faith grinned even more and leaned down to kiss her but stopped just short of reaching her lips. She looked down into Buffy's eyes and her grin turned more into a soft smile.

"You can initiate any time you want, yunno. Not like I'm gonna fight you off."

"I'll take that into consideration," Buffy murmured before wrapping her hands behind Faith's neck and pulling her down for a long, deep kiss.

Faith began massaging her breast after a few moments, making Buffy groan softly into her mouth. Buffy had always laughed at the girls in movies who moaned and groaned their way through sex she'd never understood why they did that. But now with Faith touching her so perfectly and kissing her in a way that curled her toes, she was suddenly beginning to understand why.

It was only when Faith's hand started to explore lower that Buffy had to get a check on the noises she was making. She couldn't seem to help but make them but she knew she couldn't; not with other people in the house.

Namely, other people who were likely sent by the council to spy on her.

A soft thud on the other side of the wall made Buffy's eyes shoot open. In a flash she was underneath the blankets, pulling them up over her head as she fixed her shirt and rearranged her panties which Faith had been trying to tug down.

The blanket lifted up a bit at the top and Faith looked down at her, confused.

"Is this you initiating?" Faith asked.

"No!" Buffy said in a harsh whisper. "This is me hiding! What if she's spying on us right now? She could have cameras hidden in here and everything!"

Faith opened her mouth to speak but instead sighed and rubbed at her eyebrow. "I'm going to bed horny tonight, ain't I."

Buffy's only reply was to pull the blanket back down from Faith's hand so that she was hidden once again. Her face burned hot with embarrassment as Faith went back to her side of the bed and rolled over, leaving her under the blankets alone in her paranoia.

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