Episode 1.04: The Hardest Thing

Previously on Walk The Line:

The gentleman's eyes glowed red as he watched them, his fingers flexing and curling as he adjusted to his new form.

After a moment he ran his fingertips over the amulet and some of the black smoke spilled out. It twisted and turned and made its way down to the three guys in the alley, creeping into their bodies without them even knowing. Within the blink of an eye all three men stood up straight and sneered at one another, almost feral in nature.

As if in perfect synchronicity, they ran out of the alley and back onto the sidewalk, stumbling upon a middle-aged man walking alone. They surrounded him and laughed maniacally before diving upon him, kicking and punching and generally pummeling him into submission. When the man was nothing but a quivering mess lying prostrate on the ground, they stood up and took off, ready to find their next victim.

The dapper gentleman on the roof smiled and laughed before turning back into smoke and vanishing into the night once again.


"So he takes two of the gigantic horse pills every six hours and two of the little yellow pills every eight?" Faith asked as she read the fine print on the prescription labels once again.

The attending doctor smiled in amusement at her concern, despite the fact that he'd answered the same question two minutes before. And two minutes before that.

"Correct," he confirmed. "Make sure he takes the yellow tablets with lots of water, and also make sure that he changes the dressing on his chest wound every day after bathing."

"Got it," Faith said, though the slight furrow to her brow led the doctor to believe otherwise.

"He's going to be just fine with a bit of time and rest. I'll release him for travel after his check-up appointment in five days, and until then, just keep him off of his feet," the doctor concluded.

Faith merely scoffed.

"Yeah right. Rob's the second most stubborn person I've ever met, only after me of course. He wants up, he's gettin up, end of story."

"I am right here, you know," came a somewhat tired voice from just in front of her.

Faith leaned down and rested her elbows on the wheelchair's handles as she pushed Robin through the hospital and out the front door where her new truck was waiting for them.

"Tell me I ain't right though," Faith challenged, smiling. "If you can tell the good Doc here that you're not stubborn with a straight face on, I'll join a convent and call myself Sister Mary Bullshit."

Both the doctor and Robin laughed at that, but Robin tried to keep his breathing in check. Yes, he was injured, and yes he was getting better, but he lacked the slayer healing that came in so handy to his mother so it was taking him a while to get back to functioning normally.

He was determined to tough it out and get right back on track, but both Faith and the doctor insisted he take a ride in the wheelchair nonetheless.

"Is the wheelchair really necessary, Doc? I'm feeling better by the minute," Robin said as he looked up to the smiling doctor.

"Hospital policy, Mr. Wood. Ahh, but here's your ride, so you won't have to suffer the 'humiliation' any longer," the doctor teased.

"See? So no more complaining," Faith said as she wheeled the chair up to the passenger side of her truck and tapped the foot brakes with her boot. She opened up the front door and tossed the prescription bag across and onto her seat, then carefully helped Robin up and onto the passenger seat.

Robin sat back and settled in with a small groan, trying his best not to show his discomfort. He didn't want Faith to see him as weak, especially when he was trying to prove how strong and worthy of her he was.

Sure, she was resistant to his recent efforts, but he was confidant that he could show her that not all guys were jerks out for a good time.

"You okay there, New York?" Faith asked, concerned.

"Right as rain, Boston," he answered, his voice strained. "You ready to take me out for a spin in the new ride, show me the sights and sounds of Vegas?"

"Oh yeah, you defo look like you're ready for a night on the town," Faith laughed. "I'm takin' you home to rest, and maybe we'll talk about the guided tour once you're back on your feet."

Before he had the chance to argue, Faith gave him a winning smile and closed the door. She turned around and faced the doctor who was waiting patiently for the wheelchair.

"Hey, I know I told ya already, but I really appreciate all you did for him. He's a good guy," Faith said, feeling suddenly shy.

"And he's a very lucky man, both to be alive and to have a friend that cares as much as you do," the doctor commented.

Faith smiled again, but it fell away as she shrugged nonchalantly.

"It's the least I can do. Figured I owe him as much."

Without any further explanation, she walked around the side of the truck and opened the door, letting herself up in the driver's seat. She was about to put the car into drive, but a small cough from Robin stopped her. Looking over at him, she sighed loudly and reached for her seat belt.

"Thank you," Robin said.

"Yeah yeah," Faith grunted as she finally put the car in drive and made their way toward the exit. "Don't get used to it. I don't like anything pressing against my chest unless I invited it there."

Robin laughed, but he quickly corrected himself.

"I meant, thank you. For what you said to the doctor."

"Oh," Faith replied, unsure of what to say next. "Well . . . ya are a good guy. Can't fault me on that one."

"Guess I can't," Robin said, and they fell into a comfortable silence. After a few moments passed, he smiled and said, "Are we supposed to hug now or something? Braid each other's hair?"

Faith laughed and shook her head. She grabbed the bag of prescriptions from the center console and tossed it at Robin who was busy laughing at her reaction.

"Keep it up, buddy," Faith jokingly warned. "I've got a nerd and I'm not afraid to use him."

"You wouldn't."

"Totally would. Betcha any money Andy would love to play nurse. He has a thing for costumes."

Robin just laughed, his hand held tight against the wound on his chest.

"Remind me never to get on your bad side.

********************

The atmosphere was bustling with activity when Faith and Robin returned to her new place. Xander had a set of plans spread out over a saw table and was busy going over the intricacies of the new floor plan with two of his workers.

The two workers, of course, were Buffy and Dawn, who looked blankly at the drawings. Dawn eventually lost interest in trying to decipher the construction talk and knocked on Buffy's hard hat, instantly getting her attention.

"This vacation officially sucks," she complained loudly over the sound of a power drill in the next room.

"I'll make it up to you," Buffy replied. "When we get back to California, I'll take you to Disney World."

"Disney World is in Florida," Dawn said blandly. "You mean Disneyland, and I'm not nine years old anymore, Buffy. Besides, we'd get there and you'd probably make me pick up garbage or sweep the streets."

Buffy laughed at her sister.

"Dawnie, I know this wasn't what you had in mind when I said we were coming to Las Vegas, but Faith needs our help. Besides, once we leave, they're going to have to hire help, and you know how much Faith hates to spend money on things that don't involve fun or food."

"Consider the fact that we haven't spent any money on food or fun either," Dawn said before walking away from the table and into a room where Anya was taunting Andrew with a power drill.

"Is she okay?" Xander asked, looking from Dawn's retreating form to Buffy.

"She'll live," Buffy said evenly. "We'll be leaving soon, and then she can go back to being bored in LA."

"Buff, I can handle things here. You and Dawn should go do something fun. I hear Vegas has lots to offer in the fun department."

Buffy smiled, but it didn't reach her eyes. She focused on the prints, tracing her fingers lightly over the blue ink.

"If it's all the same to you, I'd really like to stay and help. It's been a while now since I've been a part of a team, and . . . I don't know. I think that Faith will really appreciate if we can get some of this place done as quickly as possible. Living in that motel can't be too fun."

Xander watched Buffy curiously, his interest piqued.

"Someone having a case of the guilties?" he asked, though his voice held no malice, nor even a hint of teasing.

Buffy shrugged as she recalled the last time Faith was condemned to live in a low-quality motel. Low quality was even too good of a way to describe it really.

"Maybe," Buffy admitted quietly. "There's lots of bad blood in our past Faith's and mine. Mistakes were made on both sides. Maybe if we'd been friends first, none of the bad stuff would have happened."

Xander listened carefully, passing no judgment. He just wanted to understand so that he could help.

"So this is you trying to make with the friendship?"

"It's as good a place to start as any," Buffy said quietly, then looked up at Xander. "So . . . take advantage of your free labor while it's here. What needs to be done next?" she asked, smiling.

Xander looked around the room, his eyes landing on a heap of new drywall resting against a newly built wall.

"Well, those need to be taken upstairs," he pointed to the heavy sheets. "I think we've finished studding in the walls for two of the rooms upstairs, so drywall comes next. Just let me get Andrew to help . . ." Xander's voice trailed off as he watched Buffy grab one of the heavy sheets of drywall on her own and easily lifted it, then disappeared up the newly widened stairwell.

"Right. I could have done that," he said to himself. He laughed when he heard bickering in the next room.

"Your threats are nil, ghostly messenger. You can't throw the drill at me if you can't pick it up."

"Well how do you know that I can't use my new powers to pick it up with my mind and throw it at you?" A challenging voice replied.

A moment later, Andrew walked out of the office area, covered in drywall dust and pouting.

"Xander? Anya's threatening me with power tools again," he whined.

"Grow some spine, man. She's a ghost!" Xander replied. He was about to continue when he noticed the front door open.

Slowly but surely, Faith and Robin made their way through the door, her standing behind him to make sure that he didn't lose his balance.

"You don't need to walk behind me like that, Faith, I'm not gonna fall over," Robin complained.

"How do you know I'm not just tryin to appreciate the view?" Faith joked as she closed the door behind them.

Robin turned and raised an eyebrow, glaring at her.

"Well now I know for sure that those pain meds make me hallucinate."

When he turned back around, Xander was there holding out his hand, giving him a firm handshake.

"Good to have you back in the land of the living," Xander welcomed, a friendly smile gracing his face. "It'll be nice to have some more testosterone around these parts."

"Hey," Andrew muttered, offended.

"I stand by my statement," Xander quipped.

Buffy chose that moment to walk down the stairs and instantly smiled when she saw Robin, despite his tired and weak appearance. She walked over and leaned up to give him a warm smile and a kiss on the cheek.

"Hey, it's good to see you," she said evenly, stepping back to look up at his face.

"Likewise," he said and smiled. "And it'll be great to get back into a routine until the doctor gives me a clean bill."

He walked over to the saw table and looked down at the plans, instantly pointing and discussing with Xander.

"I don't think so, buddy," Faith interjected. "I told the doctor you were gonna rest, and you're gonna rest if it kills you and me both."

Giving Faith a dazzling smile, he walked over to a pile of two-by-fours and lifted two up, hiding his discomfort behind his smile.

"I don't need to be mothered, Faith. I feel fine and I want to help." He disappeared through the room, carrying the lumber up the staircase, passing Dawn on the way.

"I guess he's feeling better," Dawn mumbled, watching as he carried the heavy lumber up the stairs. Looking to Faith, she asked, "he's gonna end up back in the hospital, right?"

"No doubt about it," Faith answered, shaking her head. "Can't say I didn't try though. Like he said, he doesn't need mothering, and I'm defo not qualified to play that role. Shit, that's even too kinky for me."

"Ugh, gross," Dawn visibly shuddered. She quickly changed the subject. "So what can I do that's not terribly difficult or labor intensive?"

She and Faith looked around, their eyes landing on the pile of lumber.

"I guess we can take some of that upstairs. The less there is for Robin to carry, the less chance of him bleeding all over my new floors."

With a sigh, both girls shuffled over to the pile and loaded up, Dawn with one long piece and Faith with about eight.

They passed by a cheery-looking Buffy on the way up, who was bounding down the stairs to get another sheet of drywall.

The afternoon passed by fairly quickly, with the whole team working anxiously to make progress. Two of the four upstairs bedrooms were studded in and drywalled. They knew that they should hang more drywall in other rooms throughout the house first, but Faith was intent on spackling the walls and sanding those two rooms first. The quicker they could get the rooms painted, the quicker she and Andrew could leave the hotel they were still sleeping at.

Going back downstairs for a break, Dawn noticed Faith sitting on the saw horse table, her legs dangling as she chugged from a bottle of water.

"You're not surrounded by your usual cloud of smoke," Dawn observed as she jumped up on the table beside Faith.

"Quit," Faith said between chugs. "Back in prison, before I came back to SunnyD."

"Didn't I see you smoking in the basement on more than one occasion?" Dawn asked, one eyebrow raised.

Faith couldn't help but laugh.

"Observant, I'll give ya that much. Nah, that was just stress. I didn't inhale."

"I'm pretty sure I've heard that one before," Dawn rolled her eyes. "It didn't work for Bill Clinton, it won't work for you."

"Truth was, I didn't have my trusty rubber band," Faith said, pulling attention down to the rubber band on her wrist. At Dawn's confused look, she continued. "It was like my second year in prison and the warden got us all together, told us that some wealthy benefactor, a doctor or something at some local hospital, was sponsoring an anti-smoking program at the prison."

"Why would a rich doctor want to help prisoners when he could help . . . babies, or the elderly or something?" Dawn asked.

"That's what I thought at first, but hey, didn't wanna look a gift horse in the mouth, yunno? So I went down to the clinic and filled out my forms, I took my new nicotine patches back to my cell, popped one on my arm and let it do its magic. But that's when the nightmares started. I'd dream that there was something growin' outta my arm and stuff, real crazy shit. Turns out, I wasn't the only one. All the chicks using the patches were havin the same reaction."

"Weird."

"Gets even weirder. Angel came for a visit and I told him about it, so he had Wes do some research. Turns out the good doctor was actually some kinda black magic guru. The patches had some kinda parasite in them to suck the evil outta the inmates and transfer it to him."

"Oh gross!" Dawn exclaimed, instantly grabbing her own arm.

"Yeah. So I pretty much said fuck the patches and quit cold turkey after that. Nurse at the clinic told me that she quit by wearing a rubber band on her wrist and snapping it when she got a craving. You start to associate pain with the craving, so it's easier to fight it."

Dawn looked down at Faith's wrist and frowned.

"So why are you still wearing it if you already quit?"

Faith grinned.

"Keeps me on the straight and narrow, kid."

They were interrupted by Buffy, who came bounding down the stairs again.

"So this is where the slackers are hanging out. Grab another load and come up, we're taking votes for dinner."

Buffy casually turned around and leaned over, picking up another load. She was bent at such an angle that Faith got a clear view of her perfect little behind.

With her eyes glued to Buffy's backside, Faith reached down and started snapping her rubber band, hard enough that it broke against her skin.

Thankfully Buffy hadn't noticed before she made her way back up the stairs, but Faith looked over to meet Dawn's questioning gaze.

"You probably don't wanna know," Faith explained, a small grin on her face.

"You're right, I don't," Dawn admitted, hopping down from the table. She grabbed another load and made her way up the stairs, leaving Faith alone in the front room.

"Damn," Faith said, looking down at her now defunct rubber band. "That's the third today."

********************

After a quick vote in which Faith decided to grant herself two votes and remove Andrew's completely when he suggested sushi, the gang decided to get Mexican. A large order of tacos, burritos, nachos and fajitas was placed, and Andrew found out the hard way that a negated vote meant that he had to go pick up the food.

He wasn't sure of Faith's logic, but at least it got him away from Anya and her hopefully empty threats.

Not even realizing exactly how much Faith must have trusted him to consider letting him drive it in the first place, Andrew drove Faith's truck along carefully, parking beside the restaurant in the safest spot he could find. He walked into the restaurant and purchased the food without much ado, then headed back out to the truck with a large box full of food in his arms.

The box was quite tall and hindered his view, so he hadn't even realized that he'd passed by Faith's truck until he heard a ruckus somewhere in front of him. Having learned the hard way to hide first and ask questions later, he quickly veered toward the nearest building and hid in the shadows against the wall, peeking over the top of the box.

The scene before him was puzzling, but Andrew knew that something bad was definitely happening.

A dark figure in a red suit was perched on top of a building, looking down at a few men loading electronics into the back of a truck. The men were yelling at one another to hurry up and get the truck loaded before the cops arrived, oblivious to the fact that they were being watched by two different individuals.

Suddenly the figure on top of the building smiled and touched a large amulet that was on his chest. Andrew noticed that it wasn't an amulet he was wearing around his neck; the amulet was embedded right into his broad chest.

A slow trickle of dark smoke escaped the amulet and crept down into the alley, surrounding the unsuspecting men. It only took a moment for smoke to drift into their airways, instantly affecting them. One man exploded in a burst of rage, throwing a flat panel computer monitor at the building. Another man looked on passively as he tried to lay down on the small lift on the truck. He wasn't safe from his friend's rage though, and Andrew had to hide his face behind the box as the rage-filled man picked up a large television and dropped it on the laying man, a sickening crunch of bone filling the air.

The third man who had been standing at the front of the truck, furthest away from the smoke, walked around the side of the truck when he heard the commotion. Eyes wide, he called to his friend, hoping to calm him down.

"Jesus, Tony! What the fuck did you do?"

Tony turned in an instant and reached out, grabbing his horrified friend by the front of his shirt. Though the man tried to resist, he was no match for Tony's brawn. He screamed and yelped as Tony took time bashing his head against the side of the truck until he'd finally passed out or died; Andrew couldn't be sure.

When everything went quiet, Andrew nervously peeked out over the top of the box again, hoping that he was safe. That he hadn't been spotted. What he saw shocked him.

The figure on the top of the roof stood at the edge of the building, caressing his amulet that was now glowing red. In an instant Tony began to shriek and choke as the smoke escaped his mouth and nose, lingering only for a moment before it rose back up and re-entered the amulet.

Tony fell to the ground, trying to catch his breath. That's when he noticed the pool of blood running from the truck lift.

"Fuck!" he spluttered. "Dan, I'm sorry! Shit! I couldn't stop myself. Oh fuck!" Confused and grief-stricken, he began to run from the alley way, leaving the carnage and gore behind.

The figure on top of the roof began to laugh menacingly, his eyes closed as the amulet glowed and surged with power.

Andrew took a step back, hoping to leave unnoticed, but his foot kicked an empty bottle, making the figure instantly look his way. Continuing to walk backwards, Andrew trembled with fear. The figure merely laughed again and yelled,

"Boo!"

Dropping the box of food, Andrew turned and ran to the truck, fumbling nervously with the keys as he tried to get inside as quickly as possible. Once inside, he drove away as quickly as he could, not stopping when the truck nicked the corner of a parked car.

The dark figure watched the truck speed away and focused his eyes, breathing in deeply. A familiar scent washed over him. It was faint; just traces lingering on the skin of the boy. But it was definitely there.

"Slayer," he grumbled, his eyes burning red.

********************

Dawn busied herself getting the paper plates and napkins set up as everyone else washed up for dinner. They'd worked long and hard and were looking forward to their meal.

Robin was doing his best to keep up with the rest of them. He met them load for load, step for step, but there was no doubt that he was running out of steam now. Lounging back in a folding chair, he closed his eyes and rested, planning to do so until Faith and Buffy came back into the room.

His rest was cut short as Buffy, Faith and Xander came down the stairs together making light conversation.

"Can't believe I've got running water. Xander Harris: Contractor, Plumber, and Devourer of Much Pizza," Faith joked.

"You can add 'and Tacos' to that title soon. I like to be well-rounded," he replied.

They shared a laugh, but it was cut short when a panicked Andrew ran into the house, out of breath.

"Faith!" he gasped, bending down and resting his hands on his knees.

"You're missing something critical in the dinner department," Faith said with her brows furrowed as she made her way over to them. "My truck better be in top shape or I'm gonna . . ."

"Demon," Andrew interrupted, looking up at her. "Made some guy kill two of his criminal friends right in front of me. It was horrible."

"Whoa, where? How the hell did you get out alive?" Faith asked, her hand on his shoulder.

"Alley by Cinco de Mayo. I was hiding but he saw me. I drove away fast. Your truck might not be in the same condition it was in when I left."

Faith fought the glower she wanted to give him and instead grabbed Buffy's light jacket, tossing it to her across the room. They didn't say anything. Buffy followed Faith quickly out the door and no one knew where they were going until they heard the truck start and screech away.

"I'll order the pizza," Dawn said.

Andrew suddenly perked up, his ordeal seemingly forgotten.

"Call Pizza Plus. They have sushi too."

********************

Buffy and Faith could see the large truck in the alley from the parking spot they pulled in to. They cautiously entered the alley, looking for any signs of apparent danger, but neither of their slayer senses was going off.

"What the fuck," Faith mumbled, looking down at the body on the truck lift with her face scrunched up in distaste. "Who the hell kills someone by dropping a TV on their head?"

Buffy was bent down near the body, inspecting it closely without actually touching it.

"It was a crime of passion. There's no pre-meditation here, Faith. Whomever did this didn't plan it. The robbery, sure . . . that was planned. But he didn't plan to kill his friends. Whatever kind of demon was here influenced him in some way."

"So what, we're looking for some kind of empath?" Faith asked, looking around the side of the truck at the second body.

"No, an empath can feel someone's thoughts and pain. They can't project thoughts or influence others."

"So what then? We run around town lookin for some sick fuck that gets his jollies making humans kill their friends?" Faith asked, frustrated.

"I don't know," Buffy admitted, shrugging gently. She stood up and wiped her hands off on the back of her jeans, then turned to Faith. "We're gonna need some help on this one. I can call Willow and Giles . . ."

"No, don't bother them," Faith interrupted her. "I'll call Andrew, have him get Anya on it. He's gonna have to call 911 too, someone's gotta come and clean this place up."

Just as she reached inside her pocket to pull out her cell phone, it started chirping quietly. Looking down at the caller ID, she saw that it was Andrew.

"Speak of the devil," she said before she answered. "Hey, listen up. Get Anya to go check with the Powers, see if they can give us some insight into what did this and why. Me and B are gonna come back and get some weapons, and then we're off to find the fucker and kill him. You're gonna have to call 911 too, make sure they know there's a crime scene here."

"That I can do, but we have a slight problem," Andrew said from the other end of the line.

"What kind of problem?" Faith asked tentatively.

"Anya already went and came back. The Powers can't tell what kind of demon it is, but they said it's old magic. Really old, dark and powerful magic. She's already gone back to get more info about the demon or whatever it is, but that's not the worst of it."

"Andy, I've got like zero tolerance for guessing games tonight," Faith sighed.

Andrew paused for a moment, choosing his words carefully. He didn't want to send Faith off the deep end, but he knew it was bound to happen anyhow.

"The Powers gave Anya a location, a place where they tracked the source of the magic. It's desolate and brimming with mystical power, and very likely a bad place for a confrontation. Imagine Luke Skywalker fighting Darth Vader in a janitor's closet."

"An address? That's fantastic. I don't see where the problem is."

Andrew sighed and chewed nervously on his bottom lip, bracing himself for the storm.

"Robin didn't think it was wise for us to wait until you got back to tell you about it. I told him I was going to phone you, but he was gone before I could dial your number."

Faith paused, realization dawning on her.

"Tell me he didn't hear the address Anya gave you," she said, her face a mask of anger and impatience.

"Heard it, wrote it down, and ran out before we could stop him. He has about a ten minute head start on you, thanks to his grand theft auto of Xander's car."

"Shit!" Faith yelled, earning a concerned look from Buffy who had been staring at her the whole time. "Give me the address, Andrew. B and I will get over there, see if we can head him off. In the meanwhile, get on the computer and see what you can find out. Call Angel, call Giles, whoever. Just find out who this bastard is and how I can kill him."

Jotting down an address on a food menu she'd found in her truck, Faith quickly shut her phone and hopped into the driver's seat, Buffy following just a split second behind her.

"Think we can beat him there?" Buffy asked, obviously having overheard the conversation.

"That's what I'm hoping," Faith said as she quickly pulled out of the parking lot. "He's still injured so he's moving slower than normal, despite the hero act. Besides, we've got a satellite navigation doodad in here and he doesn't."

She handed the address to Buffy, who took a moment typing it into the Sat Nav unit. It only took a few seconds for the address and a map to appear on the screen, telling Faith the quickest way to get to their destination.

"It's about a fifteen minute ride out the highway. Way I drive, we'll be there in ten."

Though Buffy wasn't one to usually condone reckless driving, she knew that they were in a delicate situation. If they were dealing with a demon that infected people with some sort of essence, anyone who neared it was in danger.

"Better make it five. Robin already has a ten-minute head start."

Faith stole a glance over at Buffy before stepping harder on the gas, heeding her advice.

********************

When they approached their destination, Buffy and Faith realized that not only was the street in the middle of nowhere but completely hidden unless you were looking for it as well. The address that Anya had provided was that of a decrepit old building; some kind of old-fashioned office or storage facility. It didn't look like it was abandoned, but it certainly wasn't regularly occupied.

And luckily for them, the building was the only one on the hidden street.

Faith pulled her truck off to the side of the road, far back enough from the building that no one inside would see or hear them approaching. She'd turned the headlights off a while back, relying on her slayer vision and the dim light from the stars to get them there safely.

She'd half expected Buffy to fly into some rant about safe driving practices, so she was shocked when instead Buffy sat silently in the passenger seat, keeping a watchful eye on the road as well.

They'd passed Xander's abandoned car roughly a quarter of a mile back, Wood obviously having the same idea about the element of surprise.

Faith exhaled sharply and shook her head as she thought about Robin again. What the hell did he think he could accomplish all alone, in his current condition, with no weapons or planning?

Sure, he was the son of a slayer, but that didn't make him invincible. It didn't even make him abnormally strong. The only thing it made him, Faith thought to herself, was a headstrong little boy who was still trying to walk around in mama's shoes.

She realized that her thoughts mustn't have been as secret as she'd hoped for when Buffy turned her head to look at her.

"We'll get Robin out of there and kill the baddie, Faith. We're slayers, it's what we do," Buffy encouraged softly.

Buffy and Faith had never really had a supportive relationship before, and despite their new and interesting sense of friendship, Faith was wondering what had triggered the change.

"Don't worry 'bout me B, I'm five by five," Faith replied nonchalantly. "I've got this sitch under control. What we need to do is worry about Rob. He's playin like he's He-Man, but a midget with a fly swatter could take him down right now."

The dismissive tone in Faith's voice immediately piqued Buffy's attention. She stared at her intently, watching the emotions pass behind her darkened eyes.

"I can worry about Robin and have enough room left to worry about you too, you know." At Faith's dry chuckle, she continued. "I'm worrying because I know you, Faith. You let emotions rule you. Your feelings for Robin might make you act rashly, and I don't want you to . . ."

"Whoa whoa whoa," Faith interrupted as she finally stopped the car and put it into park. "The only feelings I have for Robin right now are anger and a bit of rage. I mean, what the hell was he thinking?"

"I know, it was stupid of him. It doesn't matter now though. Get past it and focus on the task at hand. We don't know what kind of demon is in there, we're unarmed except for a couple of stakes, and we need to get Robin and ourselves out safe. Forget how angry you are for two minutes. And no matter what we see in there . . . remember the task. Get in, get out safely."

Faith waited patiently for Buffy to finish, her fingers clenched tightly around the steering wheel as she listened.

"You done?" Faith asked. At Buffy's hesitant nod, she continued. "Fantastic. Now here's the deal. I'm all about having you along for backup, B. Two slayers against one little demon? What's the worst thing that could happen? But if you think for one second that we're gonna get in there and I'm gonna let you tell me who to save and who to fight and how and when, ya got another thing coming. Now if it's cool with you, I'm gonna go and save Robin so I can kill him myself."

Faith opened the door and got out of the truck without so much as another word, leaving Buffy alone with her thoughts.

"Well of course that backfired," Buffy said to herself as she opened the door and hopped out.

She walked quickly to catch up with Faith, internally yelling at herself for once again managing to alienate Faith when all she was trying to offer was her support. Faith held out her arm to the side as she quickly stopped, effectively stopping Buffy's progress forward as well.

"Did you hear that?" Faith asked, her attention focused on the old brick building not more than twenty feet ahead of them now.

"Hear what?" Buffy asked, trying her best to concentrate and block out the sound of her rapidly beating heart. It was almost pitch black out, and even with her enhanced slayer vision, she still felt like she was walking into the unknown.

Just then, a whimper sounded from within the building.

"That," Faith indicated. "That's not Robin. Way too feminine."

"You saying I'm not in touch with my feminine side?" A deep voice boomed from behind them.

Both Buffy and Faith jumped, spinning quickly into a fighting stance. They came face to face with Robin who watched them, amused.

"You'd think you wouldn't be able to sneak up on a slayer, what with the enhanced vision and hearing," he mused.

"Jesus Christ, New York! You scared the shit outta me!" Faith exclaimed, trying to keep her voice down. "You're not supposed to be sneaking up on us, you're supposed to be hog-tied in there waitin for us to save you or even better, back at the office resting your tired ass."

"What, and let you two have all the fun? Doubtful. Like it or not, I'm an asset here, Faith. I can keep up with the best of them," Robin said smugly.

"Unless it's Spike. Pretty sure he wiped the floor with you," Buffy chimed in, just as smug. "He kicked your asset all over the place."

Robin gave her a hard look but quickly turned back to Faith.

"So maybe I'm not in peak condition right now, but I can help, Faith. I don't know what kind of demon that thing is, but he's alone in there, no backup. But there's a catch."

"What, he's impervious to slayers and ex-principals?"

"No," Robin answered, his tone serious now, "he's got hostages."

Faith's face hardened, her eyes squinting as anger flashed through her.

"How many?"

"Two. They're tied up in the boiler room on the east side. Big boy's just standing around in the west side doing nothing. It's like he's waiting to be caught," Robin explained, his brow furrowed.

"You think we need to come at him from three sides?" Faith asked Buffy who had been silent for the most part.

"No, I think Robin and I should come at him direct while you go for the hostages. Get them out, get them to Xander's car, and then come back for us. I can handle the demon."

"Not a chance, B," Faith shook her head. "No way Rob's in any kind of fighting condition."

"I can hold my own," Robin said, but Faith completely ignored him.

"We both go for the demon, you and me. Ain't no way he's gonna get past two slayers. We distract him and Robin gets the girls out."

Buffy thought about Faith's plan for a few moments, staring into Faith's eyes the entire time. Finally she shook her head, breathing deep.

"I don't like it, Faith. He's waiting there for something, someone. I don't think it's wise for us to be together. It leaves Robin wide open and completely vulnerable."

Robin didn't bother to protest, he knew they weren't even paying attention to him by this point.

"He's only gonna be fifty feet away, B. He gets in trouble, one of us can jet over and help out."

Buffy thought it over again and again, and each time she liked the idea less and less. Faith and Robin didn't seem to be willing to budge though, so Buffy held up her hands in mock surrender and conceded.

"Good. Robin, you wait for us to engage, then you get in and get out. No stopping to fight, no nothing. Get in, get the girls, get out." Faith's voice was firm, fully in charge of the situation now.

"I'm on it," Robin answered and jogged off to wait at the east entrance.

Slowly but surely, Buffy and Faith made their way to the west entrance, looking around the whole time to make sure that there were no surprises lurking in the dark for them. Confident that it was just them and the demon, Faith put her hand on the large steel handle and pulled, walking into the vacant room confidently.

"Welcome, welcome," the demon greeted, his smooth southern accent a surprise to Faith's ears. "I've been expecting you."

"Yeah, well, I hate to disappoint," Faith said through a cold smile.

Buffy chose that moment to walk in behind her, instantly drawing the attention of the demon.

He stood there in the middle of the vacant and dim room, eyes glowing a fierce red as he studied his foes. The color of his eyes perfectly matched the color of his suit, his double-breasted jacket making him look the perfect gentleman. If not for his charcoal black skin and the intricate silver designs carved into both sides of his face, he might almost pass for human. He caressed the amulet in his chest gently as black smoke swirled and twisted around within it.

"Ahh, two. Yes, I forgot that there are thousands of you now. Cockroaches, a scourge on the earth," he said, venom in his voice despite his confident smile.

"That's right, thousands of us," Buffy said smugly, crossing her arms over her chest. "Taking down more of your kind every single day. Guess we'll add to that number tonight."

The demon laughed, making Buffy furrow her brow in confusion.

"My kind? Honey, there's no such thing. I'm one of a kind, a true diamond in the rough."

"Yeah, and I bet mommy told you every day that you were a real special boy," Faith said, the corners of her lips tugging up in an arrogant grin.

Robin chose that moment to sneak into the east door, running along unseen until he reached the two women who were bound and gagged against a large iron pipe.

"Shhhhh," he whispered as they began to struggle. "I'm gonna get you out of here, but you need to stay quiet." Both girls nodded, tears streaming down their cheeks as he began to untie their bindings.

Meanwhile, Buffy and Faith continued their slow approach on the demon, closing the distance inch my agonizing inch.

"Special is right," the demon continued, taking a long pull on the cigarette that suddenly appeared in his black hand. When he exhaled, the smoke came out black instead of white. "You've never seen anything like me before, babies. And when the end is here . . . they'll be screaming out my name in a reign of bloody glory."

Faith stopped her approach, taking a moment to chuckle loudly.

"You hear that B? Sounds to me like we've got another apocalypse freak on our hands."

"He's not the first, won't be the last," Buffy said evenly, her eyes never leaving the demon's face.

"The First? The First?" The demon asked incredulously, letting his cool slip for the first time. "Don't even get me started on that sissy. Come barging in here when things were already chaos, claiming to be responsible for the evil in the world. But oh . . . how close you are in your assumptions, slayer."

By this point, Robin had freed one of the girls and was busy untying the second, urging the first girl to remain calm. However, when she caught sight of the demon across the building, she panicked and ran for the door causing a ruckus as she flailed wildly.

Buffy and Faith began their approach again hoping to distract the demon, but it was too late. He'd already heard and seen the girl running for the exit.

"The First?" The demon asked again, distracted. "You ain't seen nothing yet. He's the one that got the motor started, but I'm the one that's gonna drive it home."

**(Suggested Music: "I Can't See New York" by Tori Amos)**

Close enough to the demon now, Faith lunged at him, hoping to catch him off guard. Her hands closed around air though as the demon suddenly disappeared, leaving a trail of black smoke in his wake.

"Where the fuck did he go?" Faith asked, fanning the smoke away from her face with her hands.

Both she and Buffy spun around looking for signs of him, but he was nowhere to be found.

"Hurry up, Rob!" Faith shouted as Robin struggled with the last of the second girls bindings.

"I don't like this, Faith," Buffy said quietly, her arms up and ready to strike out in a moments notice. Her eyes widened as she looked around the building. "Oh, I don't like this at all."

Faith turned and followed Buffy's gaze, instantly noticing the reason for the scared expression on her face. The building was full of barrels of fuel. It was a fuel storage facility.

They simultaneously looked across the room to where Robin was standing, watching as the second girl was finally freed. Just as he stood up to follow the girl out the door, the demon appeared in front of him, knocking him to the ground with monstrous force.

As Buffy and Faith ran over, ready to fight, the demon grinned and held his cigarette to his thin lips, taking one last puff.

Buffy's eyes widened and she grabbed the back of Faith's jacket, stopping her from going forward any more. She began to pull her backwards and out the door, but Faith struggled every inch of the way, her eyes locked on Robin's as he lay in pain on the ground.

"Let me go!" Faith yelled as she twisted and wriggled, trying to free herself from Buffy's death grip. She stared down at Robin, her arms reaching out to him, trying her best to get to him.

Robin shrieked in agony as the demon kicked over the enormous steel pipe the girls had been tied to, knocking it over like it was made of air right onto Robin's legs. Robin tried his best to wriggle free, but he was pinned.

A look of peaceful resignation crossed his face as he looked up into Faith's wild eyes.

"Get out of here!" he yelled, his voice hoarse.

"Faith, come on!" Buffy practically screamed, doing her best to pull the unmoving slayer from harms way.

Faith's eyes flicked from Robin to the demon who watched on in amusement.

"I'll see you real soon, sweet pea," the demon drawled before, as if in slow motion, flicking the cigarette towards an opened barrel of fuel.

It had been planned from the beginning. An elaborate trap to see and size up the slayer. He knew she wouldn't be coming alone.

Faith tried one last time to free herself from Buffy's iron grip but it was useless. Buffy managed to pull her the last few steps and out the door just as the lit cigarette teetered on the edge of the steel barrel, finally plummeting in just as Faith's eyes left Robin's.

And then there was only brightness, fierce heat licking at her skin as they flew backwards into the cool night air, Buffy's arms never leaving her as they tumbled into the unknown. The loud screeching in her ears was loud, almost unbearable from the moment of absolute silence she'd felt right before the explosion.

It was only later that she learned that the screeching sound piercing her ears was coming from her own throat as she screamed in agony, knowing that she'd failed . . . again.

********************

The atmosphere in Faith's office was unbearably somber.

The fire commissioner hadn't been able to find a body. "Instantly incinerated," he had said, and told her she'd have to file some paperwork at city hall to get a certificate of death.

She wouldn't believe, couldn't believe that he was gone. That she'd let him go so easily. Couldn't ignore the fact that Buffy had tried to warn her, but that she'd gone ahead with her plan anyway.

That it was only because of Buffy that she wasn't mixed up in the charred remains of that building now.

Faith sat in the unfinished office behind a large desk Xander had custom built for her, her head resting in her hands. The burns on her hands and face were healing fast much faster than she wanted or deserved. She wanted to feel the pain, wanted to feel her skin cracking and peeling, a punishment for her poor decisions.

She wanted to feel something more than the sting of guilt in the pit of her stomach, telling her that she shouldn't be here, shouldn't have people depending on her. She wanted them gone, didn't want the responsibility anymore. But more than she wanted them gone, she wanted them to stay. Part of her knew that if she was alone, the pain would be more than she could handle.

It was a catch-22. She couldn't explain it. Then again, she reckoned that she'd always been a bit fucked up in that regards.

She didn't look up as she heard a tentative knock on her door frame, no door yet in place.

"Can I come in?" Buffy asked quietly, not waiting for a reply before she walked into the room slowly, cautiously.

She sat down on a small folding chair, her eyes focused on Faith. Buffy could feel Faith's grief rolling off of her in waves, but she knew that there was nothing she could do, nothing she could say.

Their relationship had always been tumultuous. It seemed like every time Buffy opened her mouth, Faith was taking offense and things would go from bad to worse. She had to say something now though. She couldn't be silent any longer.

"It's not your fault, you know," Buffy tried.

Faith laughed darkly, her head never leaving its resting place on her hands.

"Faith, Robin was a grown man. He made the decision to go out there without even knowing what he was up against. Those girls are alive because of him. Because of us."

It took a moment, but Faith finally looked up, a disparaging look upon her face.

"At what price? Was it worth it, Buffy?"

Buffy was silent. There was no right answer here. Everything she could come up with was wrong, because sometimes there was no right answer when someone was grieving.

"It shoulda been different, B," Faith said, her eyes moving to some random point over Buffy's shoulder. "You never shoulda been there, Robin never shoulda been there. It shoulda been me."

Buffy couldn't help but scoff.

"What, so then you could have taken his place? People die, Faith. It's horrible and unfortunate, but it's a fact. We put ourselves in danger day after day, night after night . . ."

"Save it," Faith said blankly.

"What?" Buffy asked, confused.

Faith knew what she was about to do was wrong, but she couldn't risk having Buffy there with her any longer. If Buffy had died . . . God, Faith couldn't even bear to think it. She would never be able to live with herself if she'd let anything happen to Buffy.

She had to make her leave, even if it meant hurting her.

"Save it," Faith repeated, her voice cold and empty. "You think you can just waltz in here after you retire, telling me how to feel, how things happen?"

"Faith, I'm not trying to . . ."

"Shut up," Faith interrupted. "I don't need the great Buffy Summers in here with the rah-rah-sis-boom-bah's every time poor unfortunate little Faith fucks up. You really wanna help? You'll get the fuck outta my hair."

Buffy's face was unmoving, her jaw tight as Faith tried to drive a wedge in between them yet again.

"So this is how it's gonna be then, huh," Buffy said, her voice quiet. "Something horrible happens and instead of leaning on your friends, you push them away. Is that really how you want this to be, Faith?"

Faith took a ragged breath, holding in angry tears as she finally looked at Buffy's face, her jaw clenched tight.

"That's exactly how I want this to be," she said, teeth clenched.

Buffy looked at her for a long moment, waiting to see some flicker of doubt or remorse, but there was nothing. Only emptiness. A void.

"Fine," Buffy concluded, standing up. "Good luck, Faith. By yourself, you're gonna need it."

She walked silently through the doorway, leaving Faith alone to wallow in her own self pity and grief. Faith rested her head back in her hands, squeezing her eyes shut tightly, pushing her rawest emotions back down.

"Bye, Buffy," she whispered, too quiet even for Buffy to hear it. In the next room over, she heard Buffy tell Dawn to get her bags, they were leaving. Faith silently thanked whoever was listening, happy that Buffy had taken her advice.

She listened to the sounds throughout the building until there was only one person left, his tentative footsteps lingering just outside her office.

"You can come in," she said blankly, her flushed face resting on the cool wood of the desk now.

Andrew stepped into the room and sat down where Buffy had been a short while before, choosing over his words carefully.

"Xander took Buffy and Dawn to the bus depot. He's going to go out tonight, give you some room to breathe."

Faith sighed and lifted her head from the desk, then leaned back against the chair. She wrapped her arms around herself, suddenly looking smaller than Andrew had ever seen her.

They sat silently for a while, Andrew not sure that any words would be good, but positive that just another person around might help.

Faith finally spoke up, her gaze off in the distance somewhere.

"Whoever said 'the hardest thing is saying goodbye' got it totally wrong."

"They did?" he asked tentatively.

"Yeah. Try never gettin to say goodbye at all."

~Roll Credits~



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