Buffy Summers didn't do regret. She learned from mistakes she made in the past and hoped to never repeat them. 'Remember what you did, learn from it, and never do it again.' That was the motto she'd developed over the years, and it had saved her from heartache and pain on more than one occasion.
But something had changed. Something had happened that had her pacing around her bedroom with her phone in her hand, leaving a worn mark in the plush carpeting. Something had shot her school of thought on regret to shit, leaving her aching and frustrated and feeling utterly helpless.
She flopped back onto her bed and covered her eyes with her forearm, sighing loudly.
It all started with a warlock. A warlock who had molded and corrupted a young slayer into believing that she was stronger, better, faster, more deserving than every other slayer out there.
It came to fruition with a Watcher who was desperate for a sympathetic and available slayer and was willing to offer her anything in exchange for her help. Buffy, of course had been too busy. Too busy robbing banks and running covert operations to fund their little slaying outfit.
And it ended with a swan dive through the window of a castle and Faith's hands around her neck, holding her under water to stop her venom-spewing tirade.
Faith wasn't bad. She wasn't evil and working for Lady Genevieve. She was there to take her down, but had had a change of heart halfway through the mission and thought that maybe, instead, Gigi could be rehabilitated. Could be given a deserved second chance.
But Buffy hadn't been let in on the plan - not that she would have paid attention anyhow, not when she was so busy herself - and had immediately assumed the worse. She went back to what she knew: Faith being evil. It didn't matter that they had worked their issues out in Sunnydale. It didn't matter that Faith had been working for the good guys in the States. What mattered was that Faith was there, with the bad guys, and Buffy had made what she thought was a logical assumption.
The things she had said, the way she had looked at Faith . . . yes, Buffy had regrets. How could she learn from it now when she obviously hadn't learned from them the first time around? Buffy's motto was shot to shit yet again.
Nothing ever followed her rules when it came to Faith. Faith laughed in the face of rules, and then she generally kicked their ass.
Buffy had become accustomed to finding warmth behind Faith's eyes since they'd patched things up. But the look on Faith's face that day as they battled in the pool, the icy cold eyes staring deep into her . . . Buffy couldn't forget it. She was haunted by it, unable to deal with the fact that she'd screwed up so royally when it came to Faith yet again.
It was their track record though, wasn't it? They were friends, something bad happened, and then they were non-friends once again.
Wash, rinse, repeat.
Buffy couldn't let it sit this time, though. It ate away at her as Faith ignored her calls, deleted her text messages without responding, hung up on her without so much as a 'Sup, B?' Kicked her motto in again and again as Giles played middle man, telling Buffy to give Faith time, to let her be her own person, to choose her own path.
No, she couldn't let it sit. She needed Faith to hear her words, to understand the situation, to give her forgiveness even if she didn't deserve it.
Looking down at the phone in her hand, Buffy took a deep breath before dialing an all too familiar number now. The phone rang and rang but no answering machine picked up. Faith had disconnected it weeks back. She was sick and tired of hearing Buffy's messages day after day.
Just as Buffy was about to hang up when the phone rang for the twenty-sixth time, she heard a click and then some shuffling, followed by a frustrated, "Yeah?"
"It's Buffy," she blurted out as she quickly sat up on the bed. "Don't hang up; just give me a minute, please."
A brief silence ensued and Buffy could almost hear the wheels turning in Faith's head.
"No. No minute, not even a second. Not gonna listen to your sob story so you can feel better 'bout yourself. You hate me, I hate you, we're not friends and we're never gonna be. There, better now? That save you the hassle of having to apologize to such a heinous, evil bitch?"
Before Buffy could respond, the line went dead. Faith had hung up on her yet again.
Unwilling to accept the way the conversation had gone, Buffy quickly hit the redial button and listened as the line rang once, twice . . .
"Listen to me: quit callin," Faith yelled into the line.
"Faith, you need to hear me out. This isn't fair," Buffy quickly said.
"Not fair??" Faith asked, exasperated. "I'll give you not fucking fair, Buffy. Not fair is gettin' slammed on for tryin to do the right thing. Not fair is never being given a chance to explain but being expected to offer up that chance to you on a silver fucking platter."
"I know, and I'm sor..." Buffy began but was instantly interrupted.
"'If you tell me you're sorry I will beat you to death.' Sound familiar?" Faith spat back at her.
The line went awkwardly silent except for the sound of Faith's harsh breaths. Buffy remained silent, cursing her broken motto, until she could no longer take it.
"I'm going to New York on a mission. I don't know when I'm gonna be back and I can't leave things the way they are. I needed to tell you . . ."
"Save it," Faith interrupted one last time. "Things are fine the way they are. You do your thing, I do mine, and we don't gotta see or deal with each other ever again. It's the happy ending you always wanted, Buffy."
"This isn't what I wanted," Buffy said quietly, hating the way that Faith sounded when she used her full name.
It didn't feel right. None of it felt right.
"It's what you get anyway," Faith answered back quietly, honestly. "Have a good life, B. This is me, out."
The line went dead once again, leaving Buffy sat on her bed with tears in her eyes, ashamed and hurt.
She shook her head, letting a single tear run down her cheek. Yes, she'd learn from this, and even grow from it, but she would always, always regret it.
A quiet knock at her door pulled Buffy from her thoughts. She quickly wiped the tears from her eyes and sniffled before saying, "Come in."
The door opened just enough for Xander to poke his head through.
"The mystics will have the portal up in ten minutes. You ready?" he asked with his usual friendly smile.
"Yeah, I'll be down in a sec," Buffy said, doing her best to keep her voice even.
Xander left without so much as another word, giving Buffy a few minutes to herself to gather up what she needed for the trip. She grabbed her suitcase and carry-on bag, along with a duffel bag full of pre-chosen weapons, and took one last look around her room before sighing and making her way downstairs.
It was going to be a long mission.
"Target one is on the move," Buffy said into the headset microphone as she ducked around the side of a building in the busy Manhattan afternoon. "She has the package in hand and is making her way uptown in a cab, license plate 63649JX."
"Excellent. All we need to do now is wait for her to reach the second target. The mystical tracker will paint both of them when they open the box and we'll be able to track them no matter where they go in the world," Willow said from the other end of the line. "If they're up to no good, we'll know."
"How long until she reaches target two?" Buffy asked.
"Traffic uptown is bad, ma'am, but I have target two in sight and I'll let you know when they rendezvous," one of the slayers chimed in over the line.
"Great, thanks Angie," Buffy said as she finally was able to relax and have a seat on a small bench. "Stand by, girls. Once Angie verifies the mark, we can be on our way."
It had been a tedious week of tracing and tracking their targets, two members of Wolfram and Hart who had taken a very keen interest in the new slayers. So long as Willow was tracking them, Buffy could be sure that they weren't getting up to any trouble.
Buffy sat quietly for several minutes, just watching the normal hustle and bustle of the streets. Hundreds of people passed by on both sides of the busy street, dressed in business suits and looking as dapper as ever. Buffy admired them; the way they went on with their day to day lives without knowing about the evil that lurked all around them. She wished she had that luxury, but no, apparently she was cut out for stealth operations and not secretarial duties.
Just as she was about to get up, someone caught her eye. She was thinner, her hair was longer and not quite the right color, but Buffy had no doubt about it; it was Faith.
"Willow, get me a secure line," Buffy said as she stood up, struggling to keep her vision locked on Faith among the sea of pedestrians. She began to walk down the busy sidewalk, keeping a safe distance as she followed Faith along the street.
Buffy heard the sound of a keyboard tapping before Willow spoke again.
"What's up, Buff?" Willow asked, concerned.
"Is it just you and me, Wills?"
"Just like in the good old days before there were a hundred other slayers talking away in our ears. Is there . . ."
"Why is Faith in New York?" Buffy asked, skipping over any formalities.
"Faith. I'm following her right now. What does Giles have her doing in New York?"
"I have no idea, Buffy. Giles has been incommunicado ever since the big fallout. If she's there, it's obviously for some type of mission," Willow surmised.
"Do you think they got the heads up on the Wolfram and Hart agents?" Buffy asked as she ducked behind a portly middle-aged woman when Faith stopped to look in a store window. The woman spun around and glared at Buffy, who smiled sheepishly and said, "Sorry."
"I'm pretty sure that Giles isn't connected to that source. It's probably something else."
"Well she's definitely undercover. I didn't know that Faith wore anything but leather pants, let alone knew how to walk in heels. I'm actually pretty impressed. Giles got her to wear a dress. There should be an award of some kind."
"He's not the only one to get Faith to wear a dress, yunno," Willow said slyly. "Homecoming, senior year."
Buffy smiled almost sadly as the memory came to light. That was back when they still could have been friends. Still were friends. Or maybe Buffy was just deluding herself again. Faith was right; they never were and never would be friends.
So lost in her thoughts, Buffy forgot that she was trying to be covert until she felt someone accidentally bump into her, sending her small purse flying to the ground. She shook her head and bent down to pick it up but someone had beaten her to the punch. When she stood up straight she came face to face with an apologetic and dress-wearing Faith.
"I am so sorry, I didn't see you standing there," Faith said apologetically.
Her voice was different though. Softer. Maybe she'd kicked that filthy smoking habit. Then again, she was pretty raspy on the phone. And when did Faith learn to hide her Boston accent?
Also, the fact that Faith was speaking with her and not yelling or tossing her out into traffic was a bit suspicious, especially after their last conversation.
"It's okay, my fault for being little and easily knock-overable," Buffy said as she eyed Faith cautiously. "What are you doing here?"
"Oh, umm . . ." Faith looked around and smiled, a way too cheery expression on her face and in her voice, ". . . window shopping, I guess. I was just on the way back to the office and . . . really, I'm so sorry for bumping into you. Are you okay?"
"Yeah, I'm sure. Listen, I know you said I shouldn't apologize, so I won't, but do you think that we could . . . talk? Go for coffee, something? Faith, I'm . . ."
"I . . . I'm sorry to interrupt, but I think you have me mistaken with someone else," the girl interrupted, and suddenly Buffy started feeling even more uncomfortable as they stood there in the middle of the crowded sidewalk.
"Faith, you're obviously still mad, and I get that, I do," Buffy tried to reason as the girl just looked at her, perplexed. "Maybe your . . ." she continued but instantly stopped when she noticed something. ". . . tattoo. What happened to your tattoo?"
Buffy looked up into familiar brown eyes - well, maybe not all that familiar now that she really took notice; the brown was lighter and all wrong - and waited for the sarcastic comment she knew Faith would give her.
Instead, the girl just looked at her, partially confused and partially intimidated.
"I've never had a tattoo. And really, I'm sorry about the bump, but if you're okay I really need to get going. Take care, okay?"
And with a gentle hand quickly placed on her shoulder - a touch which sent no slayer tingles, for the record - the girl smiled and quickly stepped away and made her way quickly down the sidewalk.
Buffy stood there, her feet seemingly glued to the concrete, and watched the girl move along down the sidewalk, putting as much distance between them as she could. After a moment or two, Buffy realized that Willow was calling her name again and again on the headset.
"Yeah, I'm still here, Wills. And something fishy is definitely up. Stand by, I'll brief you as soon as I figure out what the hell is going on."
Without another word, Buffy started jogging down the sidewalk, dodging in and out of people as they walked along. She kept her eyes trained on the brunette a half a block ahead of her, hoping to god or whomever else was listening that she didn't look back or decide to get in a cab or something.
Buffy picked up her pace as she saw the girl escorted into a building by two men with sunglasses and small security earpieces in place. She needed to get into that building and find out what the hell was going on and who these people were that Faith was working with. And if they were going for covert, why had they changed her only in subtle ways and not gone all blonde wigs and short dresses a la Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman?
However, as she approached the front door to the building, she was stopped by two more men in plainclothes security detail. They were built like pro-wrestlers and had no intention of letting Buffy in without an appointment.
She tried to bullshit her way in, claiming that her appointment card was in her other pants, and that - after taking a sneaky peek at their clipboard - her name was indeed Phuong Ha Nguyen. But after five minutes and the threat of excessive force, she finally left of her own accord, determined to get in there one way or another.
Her way was the Wicca way.
"Willow," Buffy said as she made her way down the street and in the vague direction of her hotel. New York City was way too confusing for her tastes.
"Still here, Buff. What's up?"
"I don't know what's going on, but Faith or whoever what was pretending to be Faith was just escorted into a building with more security than I can take down in daylight. Can you get the 411 on what the place is?"
"I can try. Address?"
"1100 East 53rd Street. They're big on the discreet, but I saw a notice out front that said something along the lines of . . ."
"Heinz, Delauder & Associates, CMAs. It's an accountant firm, Buffy," Willow explained.
"Accountants? Why is Faith working for an accountant? Once when we were patrolling I told her to bring four stakes and she only brought three. She can barely count!"
"Buffy," Willow warned, trying to get her friend to calm down.
"Fine, fine. I'm being petty. I'm sorry." She took a deep, soothing breath and continued. "Do you think it's just a cover?"
"Maybe," Willow said as she feverishly typed away. "Maybe not. There's a paper trail; bank accounts, clientele, appropriate licensing and insurance. They even have a website."
"Help me out here, Wills. Tell me that Faith didn't retire from slaying for the existing life of accounting," Buffy said, her voice sounding tired now.
"Wait, this could be something. Heinz, Delauder & Associates only lease the space. The building is owned by a private company. Maybe there's something there. I'm gonna need more time though, Buff."
"That's fine, you're doing great, Willow. I'm gonna go back to the hotel and change out of my spy-Buffy gear. Call me as soon as you have some more info."
After a quick goodbye, Buffy disconnected the line and continued to make her way down the busy street. Her day couldn't possibly get any weirder.
"Get prepared for a high-octane dose of weird," Willow warned Buffy, who was busy trying to put on a clean shirt with one hand while she held her small cell phone to her ear with the other.
"I'm prepared," Buffy replied, her voice muffled as she pulled the shirt over her head.
"Okay. The private company that owns the building is called AFH. I've dug around for some kind of significance behind the letters, and what I've come up with is . . . Actives For Hire. There's no evidence to support that anywhere; they only have ever gone by AFH in name, but their actions support the name."
"Come again?" Buffy said. "I was temporarily under the effects of stupid as is prone to happen with me, but I'm pretty sure you said something about actives for hire?"
"That I did. Details are very vague. They exist on paper solely as the owners of the building. There are only a handful of employees listed, but there's no payroll logs, no insurance, no anything. It's fishy, and it gets even weirder."
"I highly doubt that's possible, Wills," Buffy said dryly.
"It's entirely possible and completely true. I couldn't find any relevant files pertaining to them on the web, and their own personal computer system is locked up tighter than Fort Knox, but I did find an encrypted file in the federal database. An Agent Paul Ballard believes that something fishy is goin on there too. He's written a report about actives being hired and programmed to do different jobs and tasks. It's only speculation on his part and his report is completely unsubstantiated, but he may be onto something."
"Okay, you win. It did get weirder."
"Yeah-huh. I dug around a little bit and while there are no bank accounts or clientele lists, some of the clientele of Heinz, Delauder & Associates have written checks to AFH, which were then re-routed into the accounting firm's business accounts."
"So you think that Heinz Ketchup & Mustard is just a cover operation?"
"It's just a guess, but I'd say yes. And I've . . . Buffy, I've spoken with Giles. While he was vague on the details, he says that Faith is on assignment in Taiwan. I wasn't sure if we should believe him or not, so I had the mystics confirm it."
"Great. So I chased a phantom Faith across two city blocks. This day just keeps getting better and better," Buffy sighed as she flopped back on the big hotel bed. "Do you think I'm going crazy, Wills?"
"While I'd normally hedge away from that question, I have to go with no, not this time. Agent Ballard had a photo attached to the file. I don't know who it is, but she looks exactly like Faith, Buffy."
"I know, but the eyes are all wrong," Buffy added. "What do we do, Willow? I can't just barge in there and demand questions. I don't even have a bank account that they could check over under false pretenses."
"Which is why I set up an appointment for you to go in for a consultation," Willow said happily.
"A consultation? With the accountants?" Buffy asked, confused.
"No, silly. A consultation with one of the few employees listed at AFH. It took a lot of digging and I had to pose as a high-profile diplomat to do it, but I got an appointment for tomorrow afternoon at 2:00. You'll be seeing Dr. Adelle DeWitt, and - this is very important, Buffy - when she asks who referred you, you have to tell her that it was Dr. Desmond Carrigan, your uncle. That will get you in the door. Staying there and finding out what's going on will be completely up to you."
"Right. Dr. Adelle Dewitt, 2:00 tomorrow. Referred by Dr. Desmond Carrigan. How am I doing so far?"
"Great. Just . . . use common sense, Buffy. Don't come out on the offensive. Be inquisitive but be congenial. Don't jump to any conclusions that will end up with your cover getting blown. We're prepared to fund the whole excursion, so get as involved as you can. If you can come into contact with one of these 'actives' be sure to take the opportunity. We need to find out what's going on and why they have a Faith-a-like," Willow said, engaged in full-on business mode.
"Got it, Wills. If you get any more intel before tomorrow, get in touch ASAP. In the meanwhile, if the slayers have validated that the targets have rendezvoused, send them back. There's no reason for them to stick around when they can be of better use there."
"Are you sure, Buff?" Willow asked, concerned. "What if things get hairy tomorrow? You might need some backup . . ."
"I've got it from here, Willow. Thank you for everything."
"Always happy to get down to the bottom of a good old-fashioned mystery. You know me."
"That I do. Later."
So the plans were set. All Buffy had to do was stay put, remember what Willow told her, come up with some sort of plan for once she was in AFH, and pray and hope that her day couldn't get any weirder.
At least she wasn't sitting on a Hellmouth.
Buffy strolled up to 1100 East 53rd Street, trying every bit to act as calm and casual as possible. Her large sunglasses did nothing to cover her face that she knew the guards would remember, but at least it meant that she didn't have to look them in the eyes and lie.
"Phuong Ha Ngo?" one of the guards asked as she approached, a knowing smirk on her face.
"Actually, no. It's Buffy Carrigan, and I have a 2:00 appointment."
The guard chuckled, not buying her second attempt to enter the building. However, as she looked down at his clipboard, his eyes widened a bit when he saw her name there.
"Umm, yes. Please follow me right inside," he said, his personality doing a complete shift.
He led Buffy inside and down a long corridor with doors on either side. Buffy looked through the small windows as they passed along, hearing random bits of conversation about numbers and accounts. Okay, maybe there really was an accounting firm in the building.
They approached a standard elevator unit and Buffy stopped in front of it, waiting for the guard to push the button. The guard continued walking along though and beckoned her after him. They went down another long corridor, this one completely devoid of any doors whatsoever. In fact, they were headed toward a complete dead end.
"Are you sure this is the way?" Buffy asked, tipping her sunglasses down so she could see better.
The guard didn't answer her. Instead he approached the dead end and stopped just in front of the wall. He waved his hand over a small sensor and a panel opened, letting some kind of electronic gadget slide out on a small shelf. He leaned forward and a small laser scanned his eyes while he pressed his thumb print to a small plate on the side.
A series of clicks and beeps were heard before a large panel in the wall slid up, revealing a hidden elevator.
The guard stood back and held his hand out, indicating that Buffy enter the elevator. She stepped in warily, noticing that there were only three buttons on the silver panel.
"Black button takes you where you need to go. All you need to do is push the black button."
"Right," Buffy said warily. "So I'm just gonna . . . push the black button then."
When the guard stepped away, Buffy had the urge to push the yellow button and the red button too, but for all she knew one would fill the elevator up with toxic gas or killer bees or something, and Buffy really hated bees.
Giving the black button a tentative tap, Buffy stood back as the doors closed and the elevator began to quickly climb.
Beyond the hum and whirling of the elevator, Buffy could hear another electronic hum. Short pulses reverberating throughout the elevator. Body scan, she quickly figured. For once she was relieved that she hadn't brought any weapons with her.
The elevator suddenly began to slow and Buffy took a deep breath, unsure that she was ready to deal with everything. It was too late though. The steel doors slid open to reveal a middle aged woman with a cold smile on her face.
"Good afternoon, Miss Carrigan. I'm Adelle DeWitt. Welcome to the Dollhouse."
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