TWICE CHOSEN
Part 18 (18A, 18B)

By DragonWriter17

 

Rating: R (mainly for language)

Disclaimer: All of the materials borrowed from Buffy the Vampire Slayer belong to Joss Whedon and to the entities and companies associated with their creation.  I have borrowed them for creative and entertainment purposes only.  No compensation has been or ever shall be received for the writing below.  No copyright infringement is intended.

My Website: http://www.dragonwriter17.net/

Feedback: Yes, but only if it’s of the non-flamey variety: DragonWriter17@aol.com

Distribution: The Watchers Forum, The Mystic Muse, and my personal site (If you are interested in posting my story on your site, please contact me first for permission.)

Spoilers: BtVS Season 3’s “Faith, Hope, and Trick” (and beyond)

Pairings: Buffy/Faith

Author’s Notes: (1) See the first three chapters for detailed notes on the origin of this story. (2) This part picks up where 17C left off. It continues in mostly original territory. (3) Thanks, as always, to Lilly for the beta read and edit!

Number of Chapters: 18

Complete: 18A

Chapter Summary: The Scoobies discover the source of the animal--and now human--mutilations.
 


PART 01     PART 02     PART 03     PART 04     PART 05     PART 06    

PART 07     PART 08     PART 09     PART 10     PART 11   PART 12

PART 13     PART 14     PART 15     PART 16    

PART 17     PART 18     Part 18A     Part18B

Return to the Home Page       Return to BtVS Stories
 

PART 18A

***

Buffy, Faith, and Joyce were riveted to the spot before the large television in the lobby of the Hyatt. As the news anchor reported the breaking story about the human body found at Kingman's Park, the three women watched and listened intently.

After a moment, Joyce patted her daughter's shoulder and said, "I'll pull the car around."

"Okay," Buffy replied, not moving her eyes from the television.

When the anchor eventually moved on to another story, the two slayers turned away, shaking their heads at the news.

"Damn it!" Faith complained. "I knew I shoulda gone after that demon last night!" She put her hands on her hips and paced.

"No," Buffy countered. "You were hurt, and you didn't have any idea what kind of demon you were dealing with or how many there were or anything. Faith...this was not your fault."

"Okay, well it's your fault then! You're the one who talked me outta going after that thing. Maybe if you hadn't done that, that guy wouldn't be dead."

Buffy frowned in pain and retreated a step. "That's not fair."

When she saw Buffy's hurt expression, Faith immediately regretted her words. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry," she said, closing the space between them. "I-I-I shouldn'ta said that. I just...I feel bad...like we shoulda stopped this already."

Buffy nodded her acceptance of the apology then took Faith's hands in hers. "We'll stop it now. Okay?" When Faith nodded back, Buffy turned toward the exit. "Come on, let's go. It's almost 1:00."

At that, the two slayers headed out of the hotel to meet Joyce at the car.

***

When Buffy, Faith, and Joyce arrived at the school library, they found Willow and Oz setting out books to be used for research and Giles laying out photocopies of the sketch he had made based on Faith's description of the demon she encountered.

Buffy glanced around the library but didn't see anyone else there. "Xander's not here?" she asked tentatively, a bit of sadness in her eyes.

"No," Willow answered. "I called and left a message, but..." She trailed off and shrugged.

"Must be at home still poutin', huh?" Faith said.

"Probably so," Willow replied ruefully.

"Figures," Faith commented before following Joyce over to the tables to see what Oz and Giles had laid out.

Buffy dropped her gaze to her hands, knotting her fingers for a moment before looking back up at Willow. "It feels weird not having him here. I'm not happy about what he did, but...it feels weird."

"Don't worry," Willow told her. "He'll come around. You'll see."

Meanwhile, Giles was greeting Buffy's mom. "Joyce, I'm surprised to see you here."

"I thought I'd lend a hand since things just got a whole lot more serious." When Giles's expression became puzzled, Joyce called out to her daughter, "Tell him what we saw, Buffy."

Once everyone had gathered around a table and sat down, Buffy described what they had seen on the television at the Hyatt. "The reporter said that the victim was male, in his twenties probably. He said that an unnamed source at the police department had described the attack as a 'Jack the Ripper slice up,' complete with organ removal."

"Did it appear to be an animal attack?" Giles asked. "Or do they suspect murder?"

"The news didn't say," Buffy replied, "but it was pretty gruesome, apparently."

"Think it's connected to the animal mutilations?" Oz asked the watcher.

"I have no idea," Giles said. "Not without more information, at any rate."

Willow got up, moved to the computer station, and started logging on. "I can hack into the coroner's office and the police department, get the autopsy report and crime scene photos."

"That would be most helpful," Giles said.

"Well, while she's doing that," Faith said as she got to her feet, "I can go take a look around Kingman's Park, maybe backtrack to where I saw that demon over in Glenwood."

When Faith headed straight for the book cage where the weapons were stored, Buffy got up and followed right behind her.

Oz held up the photocopies of the pencil sketch and said to Giles and Joyce, "I guess that leaves the book work to us." The three divvied up the demon books and started sifting through the pages.

At the book cage, Buffy didn't say a word. She merely mirrored Faith's actions of selecting weapons.

"Where do you think you’re going?" Faith asked, turning to confront her girlfriend.

Buffy turned toward Faith and put her hands on her hips in a determined stance. "Where you’re going," she replied resolutely.

"I don’t think so," Faith emphasized, making an obvious stare at Buffy's stomach, which was still healing from the accidental staking Faith had given her three days earlier.

"I'm almost healed. You're not," Buffy shot back, giving Faith a light poke in the thigh she had wounded the night before.

Faith winced in pain then made a reluctant growl of agreement. After they had both selected their weapons, she handed a walkie-talkie to Buffy. "We'll have to use the old radios. I didn't bring my new one back."

"Me either," Buffy said. "The rest of the set's at the house."

Faith snapped another on her belt and then grabbed a third radio. Now armed and dangerous, they headed back to the group. Faith handed the third radio to Giles.

"We're heading over to the crime scene," Faith informed him.

" 'We'? " Joyce questioned, raising an eyebrow in her daughter's direction.

"Yes, 'we'," Buffy told her. "But it's strictly surveillance."

"We'll look for tracks, see if they lead anywhere," Faith said. "Then we'll check back in here."

After a nod of approval from Giles and a "be careful" from Joyce, Buffy and Faith left the library.

***

As Buffy and Faith moved toward the wooded area described on the news report, they passed a gravel road that led up a steep hill. The sign at the turn read, "Kingman's Bluff." The two slayers stopped and solemnly looked up the hill where Buffy had almost taken her own life while under the guilt curse.

"A lot's happened since we were up on that bluff," Faith commented.

"Yeah, seems like ages ago," Buffy added.

After a long moment of silence, Faith turned to Buffy and said, "I don't think I've ever been as scared as I was when I ran up that hill looking for you. I was so afraid I'd be too late."

"You weren't," Buffy gushed with a love-struck smile. "You were right on time." Then she gave Faith a warm and passionate kiss, which Faith eagerly returned. When they pulled apart, Buffy snickered and said, "And the looks on their faces when they found us kissing...God, that was priceless!"

Faith joined Buffy in chuckling. "It sure was. Giles and Red all huffy and puffy 'cause they were outta the loop...Xander totally gettin' woody on us..."

The two laughed for a while until Buffy sobered, her thoughts drawn once again to the rift between herself and Xander. "Willow says he'll come around eventually. Do you think he will?"

"He will," Faith affirmed. "Once he gets over himself and admits he screwed up. But it might take a while. You just gotta give him his space till then."

Buffy nodded, and then the two of them continued on their way.

***

A short time later, Buffy and Faith came to the crest of a hill about fifty yards from the edge of the large wooded area where the body had been found. In the graveled flat at the base of the woods were several police cars, a television news van, plus a small crowd of curious onlookers and their vehicles. The Sunnydale PD had run yellow crime scene tape across the entire front of the wooded area and had placed police officers on both sides of the start of the trail that led across a small meadow and then into the woods.

"Shoot!" Buffy said. "We really need to get in there."

"We could hit the canyon, climb up the side, and come in the back side of the woods," Faith suggested.

Buffy shook her head. "It would take too long--climbing the canyon wall then wandering around till we found the site."

Faith surveyed the scene again then pointed to the other side of the flat. "Look, see that line of boulders? It goes almost all the way to the woods. I bet we can sneak in there."

Buffy smiled and said, "Let's go!"

The two slayers made a wide sweep around the flat and around all of the vehicles. Then they carefully crept behind the line of boulders until they came to its end. It was at least another twenty yards across the meadow and to the woods--all on open ground where anyone could see them. They peeked over the boulders.

A female reporter from the news van was set up right in front of a cluster of police vehicles. With the woods in the frame behind her, the reporter was dramatically reciting her story for her cameraman. Nearby, the police kept the gawkers at bay. Buffy and Faith ducked behind the boulders again.

"How's your leg?" Buffy asked.

"Good enough," Faith replied, "but we need a distraction."

Buffy thought a moment then picked up a baseball-sized rock. "How's your pitching arm?" she asked as she held it up.

A huge grin spread over Faith's face. "Like the Rocket's," she replied.

They each gathered three rocks and then got into position. "You take the camera and the news van, I'll take the police cars. And don't hit anybody."

"How come you get the police cars?" Faith complained good-naturedly.

"Fine," Buffy said, rolling her eyes indulgently. "You take the police cars."

"Sweet!" Faith said as they swapped places.

They did a silent count to three then shot up and let the first rocks fly. Buffy's knocked the video recorder right out of the camera man's hands while Faith's demolished the flashing lights of a police cruiser. As people screamed and ducked for cover, the two slayers rained down two more rocks each, shattering the side windows of several more vehicles and setting off at least one car alarm. Then they took off for the trees at slayer speed.

Once they had crossed the meadow and were safely in the woods, they looked back at the chaos they had caused. No one was pointing in their direction; no one had any idea they'd even been there. After giving each other a smile and a thumbs-up, the two slayers crept deeper into the forest.

***

A short time later, Buffy and Faith finally made it to the actual crime scene. It was a small circular clearing in the woods where the ground was sandy and rocky. The perimeter was cordoned off with more yellow tape, but the slayers paid it no mind as they ducked underneath it and entered the area.

Once inside the clearing, they could see arcane symbols painted in blood on the boulders that dotted the perimeter. In the center was a large flat rock that appeared to have been used as a sacrificial altar; its surface was stained with blood.

Faith frowned at the sight. "Guess this is where the guy bought it."

"Yeah," Buffy sadly added. She let out a breath and turned her attention to the ground that encircled the altar. "Looks like the police and the crime scene folks did a good job of trampling any tracks that might've been left behind."

"Let's fan out," Faith suggested.

Little by little the slayers widened their circle of examination, working on opposite sides, until they reached the outer edges of the clearing. It was then that they started noticing the signs of tracks in the dirt--dog-like tracks, only bigger.

"I got something," Faith called out.

"Me too," Buffy answered.

"Make that two somethings, no, three," Faith corrected. "Multiple trails leading off in different directions."

"I got at least that many on this side, too."

They turned and glanced at each other, puzzled looks on their faces.

"Let's check in," Buffy suggested. "Maybe they got something for us." As Faith crossed the clearing and met her in the center, Buffy keyed her radio. "Giles? Are you there?"

"Yes, I'm here," Giles answered.

"We made it to the scene," Buffy reported. "It looks like some kind of ritual sacrifice took place here. There's a stone altar covered in blood, and there's these strange symbols painted on the rocks around the altar."

"Painted in blood," Faith added into Buffy's radio.

"What do they look like?" Giles asked.

Buffy scrunched her face up as she tried to decipher the designs. "They're kinda hard to describe--very slashy and swirly and...well, drippy."

"I'm sure they'll be in the crime scene photos," Giles said. "Willow's downloading them now, she said. We'll see what we can make of them."

"We also got multiple trails leading away from the scene," Faith told him. "Maybe made by one or more of those hound things I saw. We're gonna check those out."

"Do not engage these creatures," Giles ordered. "Not until we know more. Just track and locate if possible. I don't want you girls getting in over your heads."

"Roger that, Giles," Buffy said. "We'll let you know what we find."

After clipping her radio back on her belt, Buffy followed Faith to the nearest trail, where they started tracking.

Unfortunately, the various trails in the woods went around in circles, crisscrossing one another, ultimately leading nowhere. After once again being led back to the crime scene, they both stopped and huffed in frustration.

"This is really startin' to piss me off," Faith complained.

"How many do you think there are?" Buffy asked.

Faith glanced around. "This many tracks...ten or so? Hell, I don't know."

Buffy shook her head worriedly. "Just the one gave you a hard fight. I'm not looking forward to running into a whole football team of them."

"First we gotta find 'em," Faith reminded her.

"Hmmm..." Buffy mused. "They went to a lot of trouble to hide their real trail. Why?"

Faith smiled, catching Buffy's drift. " 'Cause they're close," she said.

"Okay, so forget the trails," Buffy said. "If we were demons up to no good, where would we go? What's close?"

Faith thought a moment then snapped her fingers. "There's a cave near the bluff. Or at least I think there is. I found this opening one night when I was patrolling, but I never got around to exploring it. It might just be a hole in the rock, but if not, then it could lead under the bluff itself."

Buffy's face lit into a smile. "That's it. It's gotta be."

At that the two took off for Kingman's Bluff.

***

Once they returned to Kingman's Bluff, Faith led them down a steep path to a ledge that jutted out from the canyon wall. The ledge was lined with tufts of desert scrub growing out of various cracks and crevices in the rock. When they got to a particularly tall and dense concentration of the brush, Faith pushed it aside and revealed a large opening in the face of the cliff.

"Here it is," she announced.

Buffy examined the opening, then reached over and pulled something from the branches Faith was holding back. It was a clump of what looked like dog hair.

"By George, I think she's got it!" Buffy teased. "When did you find this place?" she asked nonchalantly while shaking the clump of hair off her fingers. "You never mentioned it to me."

Faith's entire expression changed--a split second of panic followed by intense guilt. Then she looked away without answering.

"Faith?" Buffy prompted, now concerned.

"I-I-It was that week after we kissed...that first time," Faith finally said, reluctantly meeting Buffy's eyes. "After I freaked and ran."

"Oh." Buffy dropped her gaze for a moment, remembering how Faith's abrupt departure had left her in emotional agony. She looked back up when Faith went on.

"I musta patrolled non-stop for three days straight after that," Faith admitted. "I couldn't stop thinkin' about what I'd done, how I'd fucked everything up. I thought if I just focused on slayin' and nothing else, maybe I could make my brain shut up. But it didn't work."

"I know what you mean," Buffy said sympathetically. "After the Angel thing...when I woke up in the hospital, all I could think about was how much I'd hurt you. I kept replaying it all in my mind, over and over, wishing I'd done things differently."

After a long moment of silence, Faith smiled and tugged Buffy to her. "But hey...all that bad stuff's over now. Nothin' but the good from here on out, right?"

Buffy smiled back. "Nothing but the good," she affirmed as the two slayers indulged in another lengthy kiss.

When they separated, Faith nodded her head toward the opening in the rock. "Wanna check it out?"

Buffy considered it and then said, "Yeah, but only to make sure it really is a cave. After that, let's head back."

After nodding in agreement, they drew their daggers, and then Faith led the way through the opening in the rock.

***

The interior was musty and dark, illuminated only by the light filtering through the brush-covered opening. The slayers paused and allowed their eyes to adjust to the darkness.

After a moment they could see that they were in a tunnel of some kind. Ahead they could make out another entrance--or at least a turn in the tunnel. They didn't know what it led to, but they could see a dim light emanating from what was beyond.

"Is your spidey sense goin' off?" Faith asked nervously.

"Big time," Buffy answered.

"Think we should go in?"

Buffy shook her head. "The sun'll be setting soon, and I'd really rather know exactly what we're going up against before we head in there."

"Good idea."

"Come on, let's head back to the library and see what Team Research has come up with."

"Let's run by your house and get the new radios," Faith suggested. Buffy nodded in reply.

As the two slayers eased out of the cave and onto the canyon ledge, Buffy said, "Feels good to be back to the joint-slaying, doesn't it?"

"Oh yeah!" Faith heartily agreed. "The Chosen Two are totally gonna kick some demon ass tonight."

After a quick high-five, the slayers made their way back up the canyon wall.

***

When Buffy and Faith arrived at the library, they found the others still researching. As Faith went straight to the weapons cabinet to return the old radios, Buffy headed straight for the study tables and set down the large box that contained the new radio system Giles had purchased.

"Whatcha got for us, guys?" she asked.

"A possible name for our perpetrator," Giles answered.

He held out a book written in Latin that contained a crude woodcut of what looked like an emaciated, nearly skeletal figure. Though its shape was basically humanoid, its head and hands were clearly demonic. Buffy made a disgusted face as she looked at the print.

"The Vorator Animae," he told her.

Buffy glanced up from the picture, tilted her head, and gave Giles a look. "English, please."

" 'Soul-Eater'," he replied.

"Oh, boy, he sounds like a fun one," Faith quipped as she arrived at Buffy's side.

"Depends on your notion of 'fun'," Willow said. "This one likes to drain your blood till you're dead, then carve your organs out of your body. Presumably for consumption, possibly for ritual purposes, or both."

"But what's the connection between this soul-eater guy and that hell hound thing I fought last night?" Faith asked.

"This type of demon usually has a pack with him," Oz answered.

"Yes, the Lupi Inferni," Willow added.

Buffy scrunched her nose in confusion. "The loopy what?"

"Lupi Inferni," Willow explained. "It's Latin for 'wolves from hell.' We figure they're the ones responsible for the animal attacks."

"So they're like hell hounds?" Faith pressed for more information.

"Yes, only bigger, badder, and harder to kill," Oz supplied.

"Yippee," Buffy said unenthusiastically. Then she took in a determined breath and let it out. "Okay...so we've got a pack of mutant-sized hell hounds and a beast master who likes to eat humans. Gimme the details: What can they do, and how can we kill them?"

"Well, the good news is that the hell-wolves can be killed just like any other animal," Willow explained. "But stabbing is best--long-distance stabbing if possible. You really don't want these things getting too close to you. Their teeth and claws are extremely sharp."

"Tell me about it," Faith grumbled.

"What's the bad news?" Buffy asked.

"The Soul-Eater can be killed in only one way--with his own scia fulminis," Giles answered. When he saw Buffy starting to roll her eyes at yet another Latin phrase, he quickly translated, "His 'dagger of lightning'."

Buffy grimaced. "Please tell me that's figurative and not literal."

"Sorry, no can do," Willow said before showing the slayers another woodcut, one in which the Soul-Eater was brandishing what appeared to be a lightning-struck short sword.

"This just keeps gettin' better 'n better," Faith commented darkly as Buffy sighed and let her shoulders slump.

After a few moments of somber silence, Giles asked, "Were you able to locate the demons in question?"

Buffy brightened at that. "Yeah, we think so. We tracked the hell-hound-y things to a cave in the bluff. We think it leads directly under the woods where the Soul-Eater did his sacrifice."

"I say we hit the place tonight," Faith urged. "Before that soul-sucker can kill somebody else. I mean...he's just gonna keep on killing until we stop him, right? This wasn't just a one-time thing?"

"He'd definitely be a repeat offender," Oz said.

"Then let's saddle up," said a voice from the other side of the room.

When everyone turned, they saw Xander standing beside the checkout desk. He had a duffel bag slung over his shoulder. Cordelia was with him.

"Xander..." Buffy said, a bit flustered. "I-I-I didn't think you were coming."

"I'm still a Scooby," he said defensively, "and if there are demons to fight, then I'm there. So what's the skinny?"

As Giles began to summarize the situation for Xander, Buffy and Willow locked eyes and traded smiles. "Told you," the redhead mouthed silently.

"See?" Faith said, giving Buffy a light elbow nudge in the ribs. "Nothin' but the good from here on out." Buffy's smile grew wider.

Joyce joined the slayers and pulled them both into a hug. "You two be careful. I mean it."

"We will," Buffy promised.

"We got it covered, Mrs. S," Faith added.

Smiling, Joyce released the slayers and told them, "I'm going to see if Rupert needs me to do anything else."

When all the planning was done, the group packed radios, weapons, flashlights, and other gear, and divided up for transport. Faith, Buffy, and Giles went with Joyce in her SUV. Willow, Xander, and Cordelia rode with Oz in his van. Within a few minutes, the two vehicles pulled onto the gravel top of Kingman's Bluff and came to a stop.

***

Once they had unloaded their gear, the Scoobies began making their final preparations. As Cordelia set up the base radio in the SUV, Joyce handed out the individual units with headsets to those who would be entering the cave--Buffy, Faith, Giles, Xander, Willow, and Oz. Joyce and Cordelia would remain at the SUV and monitor the team over the base unit.

After getting radioed up, the team of six grabbed flashlights and other gear, then started choosing weapons. Willow snapped around her waist a hip pack of magic supplies. Giles attached a similar pouch around his waist; then he selected a short sword in a scabbard that he could clip onto his belt. Oz donned a small backpack containing a first aid kit and some bottles of water, then took up two spears--one for himself and one for Willow. Xander claimed a shiny but deadly broadsword.

Buffy and Faith stuck their daggers into their belts, tucked a few throwing knives into their back pockets, and then swung crossbows over their shoulders. When they both went for the same battle axe, Faith snatched it up before Buffy could even touch it.

"Hey!" Buffy objected.

"First touch, first have," Faith teased.

Buffy made a loud sniffle and said as sadly as possible, "I guess I'll just have to settle for this little bitty stake..." When Faith turned to look at her, the blonde held up the wooden weapon and put on a melodramatic pout.

Faith sighed, rolled her eyes, and tried not to grin. "Gimme that," she growled, handing over the battle axe for the stake.

As Faith put the stake in her jacket and grabbed a spear instead, Buffy laughed and said, "I'm getting you back for the cop cars."

"Yeah, yeah..." Faith said.

"What the hell?!!" they suddenly heard someone exclaim. When they turned around, they saw that it was Xander confronting Angel.

The eyes of both slayers widened in surprise. Within seconds, though, Faith's expression tightened into a scowl while Buffy's furrowed into disbelief. When Buffy saw Xander step menacingly toward Angel, she hurried over with Faith right on her heels.

"Angel, what are you doing here?" Buffy asked, stepping between him and Xander.

"I heard about the murder," Angel replied. "Thought I'd check things out. Maybe help out."

"Well, thanks for the thought, but we got this," Faith told him dismissively. "We don't need your help."

"If this is what I think it is," Angel went on, "then you're going to need all the help you can get."

"You know about the Soul-Eater?" Willow asked as she arrived on the scene with the others.

"I know they're tough to bring down," Angel answered. "Especially when they've got their pack with them." He looked back at Buffy. "You need another set of hands here."

Xander made a loud huff of disgust. "See? I told you he would never leave! He's always gonna have some kind of excuse to be near Buffy."

"Please be quiet, Xander. Now is not the time," Giles chastised before addressing Angel. "What do you know about the Vorator Animae?"

"Just what I've heard here and there," Angel answered.

Xander huffed again. "He doesn't even know anything!"

"I don't have to know anything to be able to fight," the vampire snapped back.

"Look, man," Faith told Angel pointedly, "you're nowhere near a hundred percent. You're fifty at best. You won't be any good to us in a fight."

"More like seventy," Angel insisted. "I'm good enough."

"And he's a vampire," Willow interjected, taking the side of safety and practicality. "His seventy percent is way more than my hundred. Physically, I mean."

"That's true," Oz had to admit.

For a full minute, no one else spoke. Most of the group looked back and forth between Giles and Buffy, waiting to see who would settle the issue. Giles, though, put the ball into Buffy's court, giving her a nod to let her know that it was her decision. Buffy nodded back and then turned to Faith.

She reached out and gently touched her girlfriend's arm. "Faith, I know this is awkward, but...he's already here, and honestly, we're not a hundred percent either, so I'd feel safer having an extra man on the team. This could be big. It wouldn't be smart to refuse his help."

As Faith glanced away to think, Xander just grumbled to himself, "Typical..."

Buffy cut annoyed eyes in Xander's direction but then quickly brought her gaze back to Faith. She waited anxiously while the dark slayer considered her request. After a seemingly eternal ten seconds, Faith finally looked back.

"Fine," she replied, gritting her teeth. She pulled the stake from her jacket and slapped it flat on its side against Angel's chest. "Try not to impale yourself." Then she stalked off toward the bluff.

Xander did the same, followed by Willow, Oz, and Giles. When Joyce and Cordelia retreated to the SUV, Buffy and Angel were left alone.

When Angel started to head for the bluff as well, Buffy stepped in front of him. "This has to be the last time, Angel," she told him. "If you're good enough to fight, you're good enough to leave."

"Fine," Angel growled before moving around her to head toward the bluff.

"Fine," Buffy shot back in similar tone. Suddenly she remembered what Faith had told her the night before--that Angel had promised to hunt Faith down if she ever caused Buffy any harm. Buffy's eyes narrowed grimly before she dashed off to catch up to her ex.

When Angel was almost to the path that led down the cliff, Buffy stepped in front of him again. This time she put her hand on his chest and pushed him back until he stopped and looked her in the eyes. "And by the way," she told him in a fierce promise, "if you ever threaten Faith again, I will hurt you."

Angel started to look away in an 'okay, I'm backing off, but I don't believe you' gesture of mock capitulation, but then he discovered that he couldn't escape Buffy's stare. With that one look, she told him all he needed to know--that she had meant every single word of what she'd just said. And the reality of that truth shook him to his very core.

When she saw that her message had gotten through, Buffy turned and headed down the path, leaving a stunned Angel behind.

After blinking out of his surprise, he shook his head, pushed down the pain, and hurried after Buffy.

***

While Buffy was talking with Angel, Faith led the others to the cave entrance. Along the path, Xander continued his grumbling rant about Angel.

"This is exactly what I was talking about in the meeting," he said. "I knew he would pull this shit, I knew it! And Buffy just can't see it. No...correction...she won't see it. It's right in front of her face, and she just refuses to--"

"Will you just shut the fuck up?!" Faith yelled, whipping around to face Xander. "We get it, okay? You hate Angel. You don't have to keep beatin' us over the head with it."

"Maybe if I felt my words weren't falling on deaf ears..."

"We're deaf 'cause you won't fuckin' let it go!"

Willow reached out for Xander's arm. "Xan, she's right..." He didn't even look in Willow's direction. He just pulled his arm out of Willow's grip and kept his eyes on Faith.

The slayer took a few seconds to draw in a deep breath and let it out. Then she met Xander's gaze. "You know, I used to think you were just wanting to protect everybody...that you were just harping on it because Angel was a very real danger, but now I think it's more about you being right. Now you're just being an arrogant bastard."

"Is it really arrogance if I'm right?" Xander retorted. "I mean, come on! This is exactly what I predicted would happen, and here we are. Angel still loitering around, hoping against all hope. Buffy torn between two lovers. And you--and everyone else here, it seems--in complete and total denial! My God! Am I the only who sees th--"

"That's enough!"

Xander stopped mid-sentence at Buffy's command. When he looked back down the path, he saw a furious blonde slayer headed his way. He swallowed hard but stood his ground.

"You have made your feelings about Angel known loud and clear," Buffy told him. "And let me emphasize the 'loud' part of that because, thanks to you, our element of surprise has been completely shot! And since our stealthy sneak-up is no longer a possibility, I won't mind raising my voice when I tell you...once again...that ANGEL IS LEAVING!" She sent a scathing glare around the entire group. "Is everybody...completely and totally clear on that?!!"

No one dared do anything other than nod nervously or mumble some kind of affirmative response.

"Great. Now if you don't mind, I'd like to go in there and take care of the demonic threat that we came here for."

Buffy walked past both Xander and Faith and entered the hidden cave. Without another word, the rest of the group, including Angel, followed after her.

***

Once everyone was inside, the team eased their way through a series of torch-lit tunnels. After many twists and turns, they came to a large cavern. Buffy signaled for silence as they crept inside to look around.

It was a circular cavern with a somewhat low ceiling held up by a ring of narrow columns formed as tall stalagmites met their stalactite counterparts. Three other tunnels connected to the cavern--one on the left and one on the right of the tunnel they were in and another on the opposite side of the circle.

The Scoobies could see the Soul-Eater in the middle of the cavern with close to ten of his hell-wolves around him. He was much more horrific in person than the woodcut had portrayed. His thin body was clothed in a loose tunic that left his arms and legs free. His emaciated limbs looked to be nothing more than skin over bone. The fingers of his hands were long and ended in dangerously sharp nails. His mouth was full of dangerously sharp teeth as well.

And in a scabbard belted at his waist was his infamous 'dagger of lightning.' At the moment, the weapon appeared ordinary, although clearly larger than a mere dagger. Who knew what it would be like once it was unsheathed?

The Soul-Eater appeared to be doing some kind of ritual--one that involved the human blood and organs he had earlier harvested. Both he and the stone altar before him were covered in blood. His hell-wolves were whining and whimpering in anticipation of whatever magic he was working. They all seemed unaware of the presence of the Scoobies.

Buffy and Faith shot each other a look of relief that their element of surprise was still intact. They traded a few whispered comments; then they motioned for the group to withdraw from the cavern.

Once they were back inside the tunnel, Buffy knelt on one knee and gestured for the others to gather around her so that she could speak in low voice. Then she drew a crude clock face in the sand of the tunnel floor.

"Okay, we're at 6 o'clock here," she said, scratching in the drawing. "We've got other tunnels at 8 and 4 and 12. Faith and I are gonna sneak around behind the circle of columns and come at them from 10 and 2. We need you guys to just keep them contained."

"Just keep 'em on our side of the clock," Faith added. "We'll do the rest."

After nods from all, Buffy said, "I'll give Mom a report, and then we'll go in."

Buffy walked a few feet away and stood by the tunnel wall, then keyed her radio. "Hey, Mom, are you there?"

"Honey! There you are!" came her mother's voice through the headset. "I was beginning to worry."

"No, no...nothing to worry about...we haven't even gone in yet. We, uh, had to work some stuff out first," Buffy said, glancing briefly at Xander and Angel. Both had been glancing her way, too, and each looked away when her eyes met his. "We're headed in now." She forced herself to sound chipper on the next line. "I'll give you a holler when we're done."

"Be careful, honey," she heard her mother say.

"I will," she replied before turning back to the group.

Faith watched as Buffy's agonized gaze fell on Xander and Angel on the other side of the tunnel. She moved to the blonde and stepped in front of her, blocking her line of sight; then she reached up and caressed Buffy's cheek.

"Everything's gonna be okay," Faith assured her. "It's just gonna take time."

"I know, but right now..." Buffy said, her voice cracking a little. "...it just hurts..."

Faith didn't say anything else. She merely pulled Buffy into her arms and held her. "I love you," she said.

"I love you, too," Buffy replied.

When she finally felt Buffy relax a little, Faith gave her a final squeeze and let her go. "Come on...time for the Chosen Two to go kick some demon ass." She was rewarded with a warm smile from Buffy. "Plus," Faith added, nodding her head toward the cavern entrance, "I think Giles wants to confer."

Buffy looked in Giles' direction and then turned back to Faith. "Let me go see what he wants." Before she left, she gave her slayer an earnest kiss, which Faith happily returned.

Faith watched Buffy join Giles and listen to him intently. Then she felt an unwelcome presence behind her. "What?" she growled without turning around.

"I just wanted to say..."

When the speaker didn't continue, she turned around and repeated her question, though with more weariness than annoyance this time. "What?"

"Keep her safe," Angel said in a resigned but sincere voice.

"Don't worry. I will. From myself and everything else," she said, her annoyed growl back in action. When she saw a flash of pain in Angel's eyes, though, she tempered her tone before continuing. "I won't let anything happen to her," she promised him. "No matter what it takes."

Any further discussion was cut off by Buffy's voice over the radio. "Okay, everybody," Faith heard Buffy say through the radio, "go to voice-activated, but keep the chatter to a minimum. Once Faith and I are set, we'll go for it, so be ready."

At that, Faith took her place beside Buffy, and the two slayers led the group back into the cavern.

 

PART 18B

***

As Faith moved into position, she glanced across the cavern but didn't see Buffy. "B, you there?" she whispered into the mic of her headset. Then she saw Buffy come around one of the columns with her crossbow cocked and loaded. Their eyes met. "Is it just me, or is there a bunch more of them hell-wolves down there now?"

"It's not just you," Buffy whispered back. "Either he's got them coming in from other tunnels, or we just figured out what he needed the sacrificial ritual for."

"To zap in more of his pack," Faith supplied. "Shit! I just saw one pop in. Did you see that?"

"Yep. Time to put an end to the invasion. You ready?"

"And able," Faith promised.

"Let's do this," Buffy said. "On three. One...two...three!"

At three, the two slayers fired their crossbows at the Soul-Eater. After two simultaneous twangs, the bolts flew across the cavern and headed directly for the skeletal demon's back. Before they could hit their mark, though, the Soul-Eater miraculously spun around and caught both bolts midair.

"No fuckin' way!" Faith complained aloud from her side of the cavern. She threw her crossbow angrily to the stone floor and took up her spear.

"We're going in, guys," Buffy called over her headset as she too cast aside her crossbow. "Hold the clock!"

At that, Buffy and Faith rushed into the center of the cavern.

As the Soul-Eater watched the slayers approach, his face twisted into a gruesome grin. He threw down the bolts he had caught and then called out to his hell-wolves in his own demonic language. Two of his wolves remained beside him. The rest descended upon Buffy and Faith.

The first to reach them leaped toward Faith. She thrust her spear forward and sank it into the wolf's belly, literally catching the animal on the point of the spear. She slung the squealing beast off to the side, and when a second wolf attacked her from the opposite direction, she slammed the wooden butt of the spear onto the creature's head, temporarily stunning it.

When the horde reached Buffy, she gripped her battle axe in both hands, and in two blindingly fast arcs, she sliced the throat of one hell-wolf and disemboweled another. When a third one lunged for her left leg, she one-handed the blade down the animal's side, sending it limping away.

When Xander and Angel saw Buffy and Faith being mobbed by the Soul-Eater's pack, they came at the hell-wolves from behind. Xander split the skull of one wolf and stabbed another; unfortunately, his sword thrust only grazed the surface of the second animal's hide. The beast made a small yelp and moved away, but then it turned and glared at Xander. Its eyes glowed red, and it bared its teeth in a rumbling, slavering snarl. As it rushed toward him, Xander readied his sword.

Angel grabbed a hell-wolf and hurled it against the large boulder that was to the left of the stone altar. The animal was dazed but not killed. Before Angel could ready himself, another wolf jumped him and took him to the ground. As the hell-wolf clawed along his body in an attempt to get at his throat, Angel used both hands to hold the beast at bay.

While nervously gripping her spear, Willow relayed the action to Joyce and Cordelia, who were atop the bluff in Joyce's car. She couldn't help but cry out in worry when she saw Oz enter the action along with Giles.

Oz took on the wolf that Angel had thrown against the boulder. While it was still recovering, Oz stabbed it with his spear until the creature was dead. Giles ran to save Angel from the hell-wolf attacking him. The watcher pulled his sword from its scabbard and used it to run the beast through. When the wolf stopped moving, Giles pulled his sword out and kicked the animal's body away. Then he helped Angel to his feet. As Giles and Oz continued picking off the wounded, Angel re-entered the fight.

With Xander and Angel distracting at least some of the hell-wolves, Buffy and Faith were finally able to reach the Soul-Eater himself. He once again called out something in his own language, and the two wolves at his sides retreated into the tunnel at the 12:00 position to guard his exit. As the slayers neared him, his mouth spread into another garish smile.

Buffy reached the Soul-Eater first. She swept her axe at his chest. When he dodged her first attack, she reversed directions and made a second sweep, which he again easily avoided. The skin-and-bones demon was turning out to be much faster than she expected. After the second miss, she went one-handed and let the axe swing full circle before re-adding her second hand and bringing the axe down toward his head with all her strength. At the last second, the Soul-Eater side-stepped and caught the axe handle in his right hand, stopping it cold.

Before Buffy could even register her own surprise, the Soul-Eater kicked her in the chest with such force that she flew across the cavern and into one of the smaller limestone columns. She smashed completely through it and now lay upon the rubble of the stalagmite. The remains of the stalactite portion of the column creaked as it teetered dangerously above the dazed slayer.

As they witnessed Buffy's plight, Faith, Angel, and Xander all called out Buffy's name in alarm. The Soul-Eater let out a laugh before flinging Buffy's battle axe directly at the stalactite above her. It struck the jagged limestone, sending a huge chunk of it plummeting toward the blonde.

Under attack by another of the Soul-Eater's wolves, Faith was helpless to intervene. She screamed Buffy's name again as she watched the stone and the axe fall. Luckily, both missed their mark. The stalactite shattered less than a yard from Buffy's body, and the axe clattered harmlessly to the stone floor.

Faith quickly dispatched the wolf attacking her and then turned on its pack leader. "You son of a bitch!" she yelled at the Soul-Eater as she rushed him with her spear.

Roaring with fury, Faith jabbed at the skeletal figure, then again, then a third time, not once making contact, the demon proving too fast to nail. When she thrust her weapon forward a fourth time, the Soul-Eater grabbed the shaft of the spear, yanked her forward, and elbowed her in the face. Her head snapped back from the impact, and she lost her grip on her spear. As she stumbled back, he began raining down blows on her.

Meanwhile, Angel and Xander ran from their separate areas to where a battered Buffy was now stirring upon the crumbled column. When they arrived on the scene at exactly the same time, they glared at each other for a second before bending down to help Buffy.

"I'm fine," Buffy told them as she pushed their hands away. "Help Faith!"

When they turned to look, they saw Faith getting pummeled by the Soul-Eater on the other side of the cavern. They ran to assist her but immediately got bogged down by the seemingly never-ending wave of hell-wolves.

At the 2:00 side of the cave, the Soul-Eater was backing Faith, one blow at a time, towards a cluster of closely-spaced limestone columns. Right when he was about to deliver a major hit, though, she ducked and punched him hard in the gut. Then she grabbed him by the arms and head-butted him. While he was shaking the stars from his head, she flipped positions with him and body-slammed him against one of the columns. Pieces of the soft stone crumbled off from the impact.

The Soul-Eater recovered quickly, however, and returned the favor, grabbing her and hurling her against the next column. A huge diagonal fracture split across the middle of the column where Faith's body hit it. She turned the tables again, slamming the demon against the next column, cracking it as well. When the Soul-Eater pushed off this time, he swung Faith back the way they'd come and smashed her against the column that had already split. The column completely gave way, and the two crashed through, with Faith landing on the rubble and the Soul-Eater landing on top of her.

Across the cavern, Buffy was back on her feet with battle axe in hand. She wove through the perimeter columns, avoiding both the hell-wolves that were guarding the Soul-Eater's exit and those that were still attacking Angel and Xander.

As Buffy made her way toward Faith, Willow saw another one of the columns in that area suddenly crumble. Then she noticed the cave ceiling begin to crack. She saw a large jagged fissure start at the 2:00 position and spread through a myriad of stalactites to the center of the ceiling. Then the crack headed for the 9:00 position on the other side of the cavern. Even over the sounds of the ongoing fight, Willow could hear the telltale creak that meant tons of stone were  waiting to fall.

"Buffy, look out!" Willow screamed into her headset. "The cave is collapsing!"

Buffy didn't hear the redhead; she was focused only on getting to Faith, who was still grappling with the Soul-Eater.

When Willow's radio cries went unheard, she rushed into the battle, yelling out to the others in warning. Giles and Oz looked up and saw the crack in the ceiling widening. They turned to the others but realized it would be useless to call out to them because they were all actively engaged in fighting. Angel was on the ground again, fighting off a hell-wolf. Xander was on top of the large boulder to the left of the stone altar, swiping at two hell-wolves that were snapping at his feet. Buffy was descending upon the Soul-Eater, who was gnashing his teeth inches away from Faith's neck. The three onlookers immediately split up--Willow to Xander, Oz to Angel, Giles to Buffy and Faith.

As Buffy came to Faith's rescue, Giles ran towards her, calling out a warning about the impending collapse. She didn't hear him, though, and swung her battle axe directly for the Soul-Eater's head.

The demon ducked just in time, and Buffy's blade sank into the nearby column, further weakening it. As she and the Soul-Eater stared at each other eye to eye, she struggled to pull the blade from the stone. Then the demon took off.

In the center of the cave, Oz repeatedly stabbed the hell-wolves that were attacking Angel until the beasts limped away. Then Oz dragged the injured Angel back to the perimeter, close to the tunnel through which the team had originally entered.

When Willow tried to get to Xander, however, the cracking ceiling started dropping stalactites. Willow avoided several smaller pieces but was nearly impaled when a light-pole-sized piece of pointed stone crashed within a few feet of her. Oz ran for her, desperately calling out her name. When he reached her, he forced her to return to where he had left Angel.

When the debris from the ceiling distracted the hell-wolves that were attacking him, Xander took the opportunity to flee from the boulder. When he ran for the perimeter, the two beasts took off after him. As he circled the outer rim, he saw ahead of him the two hell-wolves that the Soul-Eater had stationed to guard his exit. Xander skidded to a halt and started to backtrack. When he saw the other two wolves heading for him, he stopped in place and glanced around for some kind of escape. When he saw a cubbyhole at the top of the tunnel wall, he dropped his sword and started climbing toward it. When they reached him, the two hell-wolves that were chasing him reared up on him and began clawing at his back and sides, ripping off the radio that had been clipped to his belt. Within a few seconds, he scrambled out of their reach and safely into the cubbyhole.

Back across the cavern, Giles was helping Faith to her feet after dragging her away from the Soul-Eater. "Are you all right?" he asked.

Faith grimaced in pain as she straightened up. She was already bruised and bleeding and having difficulty putting her weight on her right leg. "I'm okay," she replied, scanning the cave for Buffy. She saw her abandon her embedded axe and take off after the escaping Soul-Eater.

When Faith started after Buffy, Giles held her back. "The ceiling's collapsing," he told her. "We have to leave now!"

Faith shook off his hand. "Well, get everybody back to the tunnel, then," she ordered. "I'll get Buffy."

Before Giles could object, Faith started limping toward the center of the cavern where Buffy and the Soul-Eater were now fighting.

As Giles rejoined Oz and Willow, he helped Oz get the wounded Angel to his feet. Then Giles noticed that Xander wasn't there. "Where's Xander?" he asked.

"I couldn't get to him!" Willow said with tears streaming down her face. "And I don't see him anymore! And he's not answering his radio!"

When she pointed, they all turned around to look, but they didn't see Xander anywhere. What they did see was Buffy battling the Soul-Eater amidst the still-falling ceiling debris.

"Buffy!" Angel cried out before running off in a stumble towards her. The others couldn't stop him in time. All they could do was watch the battle.

Earlier, when the Soul-Eater had tried to flee through the 12:00 tunnel, Buffy had cut him off, and the two had gone into a flurry of punches, hits, kicks, and dodges. She had fought him back to the stone altar, but it hadn't taken long for the Soul-Eater to turn the tide.

He was now landing punch after punch, to both her head and her body, driving Buffy back towards his escape route. She was still standing, but she wasn't fighting back anymore because she was too dizzy and disoriented. As she struggled to stay upright, the Soul-Eater finally pulled his infamous 'dagger of lightning' from its sheath.

When Faith saw the Soul-Eater's jagged blade begin to glow and crackle, she pushed herself into a run and cried out her girlfriend's name. "BUFFY!!!"

The Soul-Eater let a gleeful grin spread over his face and then pointed his dagger directly at Buffy. Unfortunately, she was completely unaware that she was being targeted and made no attempt to move.

Suddenly, a bolt of lightning shot from the dagger and streaked toward the unsuspecting blonde. Before it could reach her, however, Faith shoved Buffy out of the way and took the hit instead. The bolt of lightning totally encased Faith, electrocuting her and immobilizing her at the same time. As the currents of energy poured into her, Faith's body shook with convulsions so violent she couldn't even scream.

By then, Angel had reached Buffy and had begun leading her back to where Giles and the others were waiting. When Buffy regained her senses, though, she stopped and began looking for Faith. She turned just in time to see the lightning-struck Faith lifted off the ground and into the air.

When the Soul-Eater thrust his dagger forward, the bolt of lightning made a blinding flash that sent Faith flying into the column behind her. The stone cracked and buckled but didn't collapse. Faith fell from the column, landed on the ground face down, and didn't move.

Buffy screamed Faith's name and tried to rush forward, but Angel grabbed her by her wrists and held her back. The Soul-Eater turned and met Buffy's eyes.

Rather than using his weapon on her, he simply called out to his hell-wolves and began backing toward the 12:00 tunnel. The two wolves who had been trying to get to Xander in his cubbyhole immediately ran into the escape tunnel, past the two that had been guarding the Soul-Eater's exit. Three more wolves, wounded but still moving, headed into the tunnel behind their master.

Once his surviving hell-wolves were safely in the tunnel behind him, the Soul-Eater glanced down at Faith on the ground and then smiled at Buffy before directing his dagger toward the roof of the cave. He made several sweeps of lightning along the already weakened areas of the ceiling, insuring its collapse. Then he rushed out of the cavern, following his hell-wolves.

"FAITH!!!" Buffy cried out as huge chunks of the ceiling began falling.

***

While Angel was holding Buffy back, Xander was trying to avoid being buried under the collapse. He climbed out of his cubbyhole and headed for the Soul-Eater's exit, keeping his back to the tunnel wall. When he saw Faith lying nearby, he rushed towards her but was stopped by falling debris. He dodged and stopped  several times before eventually reaching her. He called out to her, but she didn't respond. He grabbed her wrists and started dragging her toward the tunnel entrance. When a football-sized rock hit him in the back, he nearly went down, but he growled through the pain and kept going. When he heard a dangerous creaking above his head, though, he couldn't help but look up.

"Oh shit..." was all he could say as the ceiling came tumbling down.

***

On the other side of the ongoing collapse, Buffy slipped out of Angel's grip and tried to rush forward again, but he snatched her back and wrapped his arms completely around her in a backwards bear hug, pinning her arms to her sides.

"Let me go!" she screamed as she fought with all her might. "Let me go, goddammit, let me go! FAITH!!!"

Just as Angel dragged Buffy several yards back, the damaged ceiling fell in, burying the entire top half of the clock under tons of rock.

***

By the time Buffy overpowered Angel and freed herself, the collapse was over except for the occasional shower of sand mixed with crumbles of limestone. As she approached the devastation, her eyes took in the heaps of stone that now covered the upper half of the cavern. She slipped to her knees in shock. Willow came to stand beside her, whispering Xander's name in grief as they all stared at the wall of rock before them.

After a long moment of silent staring, Giles realized that Joyce was yelling over the radio, frantically trying to find out what was going on. He walked a few feet away from the group and answered her.

"Joyce, we're here...I'm afraid there's been a collapse...yes, Buffy's fine, but Faith and Xander, well, we don't know...they're missing, either on the other side of the collapse or-or, um, beneath it..."

Giles could hear both Joyce and Cordelia reacting to the news. He wasn't surprised when they promptly told him they were coming down to the cave. He asked them to call 911 first, which they said they'd do.

As Giles left to meet Joyce and Cordelia at the cave entrance, Buffy finally clicked out of her shock. She stood up and immediately tried to call Faith over her radio.

"Faith! Faith!" she cried out. "Are you there? Faith...please answer me, baby..."

When Buffy began to weep, Willow took a step towards her to hug her. She stopped when she saw Buffy's grief suddenly turn to fury.

Buffy ripped off her radio and its headset and smashed them both against the rocks, screaming out in frustration as she did so. Then desperation set in, and she started digging barehanded through the mountain of debris.

"I've got to find her," she said maniacally as she tossed away chunks of stone. "I've got to find Faith..."

The others looked on in pity. They knew it was useless to dig. It would take hundreds of people working nonstop for days to even make a dent in the heap of stone before them. It was Angel who finally walked over to the distraught slayer.

"Buffy, stop..." he said gently.

She ignored him and kept digging. He reached over and grasped her wrists, forcing her to look at him.

"Buffy, you need to stop. You can't possibly--"

"Get your hands off me!" she screamed as she shoved him away. Then she went right back to her digging.

Oz joined them and picked up a shattered piece of limestone. When Angel shot him a puzzled look, Oz asked him, "What would you be doing if it was Buffy under all that rock?"

Angel closed his eyes and nodded. Then he too started helping Buffy dig.

Willow, though, didn't immediately assist in the excavation. Instead, she began  rummaging through her hip pack of magic supplies.

"Guys, I think I may have a better idea," she told them.

***

In the Soul-Eater's escape tunnel, an unconscious Xander lay on his stomach, covered in sand and small shards of rock. He woke up coughing the dust from his lungs and groaning in pain. Gingerly, he curled onto his side and then sat up. He shook his head to clear it and then realized that Faith was behind him, covered in more debris. He knelt beside her and called her name, but she didn't stir. He leaned closer to watch and listen. He let out a sigh of relief when he discovered that she was still breathing. He cleared the heavier rocks that were covering her legs and pulled her free. He dragged her several yards away to a spot near the tunnel wall, then carefully turned her over. He frowned when he saw how battered she looked.

"Faith? Faith?" he said, giving her bruised face a series of gentle pats. "Come on, wakey, wakey...time to wake up..."

Moments later, she did just that, waking much as Xander had--coughing up dust and spitting sand from her mouth. She blinked her eyes dazedly as Xander helped her sit up against the tunnel wall.

When some of her grogginess had subsided, Faith became alarmed. "Buffy..." she cried out, attempting to get to her feet.

Xander pushed her back down. "Don't bother," he said, nodding his head toward the collapsed entrance to the cavern. "No way back in there at the moment."

When Faith still tried to rise from her seated position, Xander held her down more firmly.

"Look, you just got struck by lightning, cannon-balled into a stone column, and buried under falling rock," he told her, "so stay put."

At this point, Faith was too weak to resist, but she did manage to shoot him a deadly glare first. "I just need to catch my breath," she insisted.

"Seriously?" Xander replied with heavy sarcasm. Then he asked, "How many fingers am I holding up?" He held up three fingers to test her.

She flipped him the bird and retorted, "How many fingers am I  holding up?"

Xander grinned, pleased to see that Faith's usual attitude was back in force. He was glad, though, that she hadn't tried to stand up again.

"Why don't you try your radio?" Xander suggested. "I lost mine out there."

She lifted her hands to her headset, which had fallen from her head to around her neck. Once she had returned it to its proper position, she spoke into the mic and listened. Nothing. She reached behind her back and pulled the radio from her belt. The device was just as banged up as she was. She tossed it aside and soon added the headset to it.

Faith closed her eyes and breathed deeply for a full minute, drawing on what strength she could. Then she started getting up.

"What are you doing?" Xander chided, trying to make her sit back down.

This time she didn't let him stop her. She pushed his hands away and struggled to her feet, using the tunnel wall to prop herself up.

"The only thing we can do," she replied, nodding toward the tunnel.

"Follow the bad guy?" Xander asked incredulously.

"You got any better ideas?"

Xander thought a moment then sheepishly shrugged, "Not unless waiting here until we die of dehydration counts as a better idea."

"Nope, it doesn't," Faith said before pulling her dagger from her belt. She handed it to Xander and then reached into her back pockets for her throwing knives. Gripping one tightly in each hand, she pushed off from the tunnel wall and made herself move forward. Xander swallowed hard then followed after her.

***

Back on the other side of the collapse, Giles had returned with a very upset Cordelia. Joyce had gone back to the bluff to wait for the ambulance. Now Giles, Cordelia, Angel, and Oz watched with Buffy as Willow pointed to various magical items she had laid out.

"It's a new kind of locator spell I found," she explained. "Think of it as a magical version of MapQuest. Let me show you..."

***

Meanwhile, Faith and Xander cautiously crept through the tunnel the Soul-Eater had used for his escape. So far there had been no sign of him or his hell-wolves. If they were lucky, he and his pack would be long gone, and they could follow the tunnels back to Buffy and the others. But the way things were going, lucky didn't seem likely.

Shortly after the tunnel made a sharp right turn, Xander and Faith came to a widened area that was almost large enough to be considered a small chamber. It wasn't well lit, though, and they couldn't see into the many dips in the tunnel walls. Faith stopped and listened, trying to make out any unusual sound. She couldn't hear anything. She didn't sense anything either, but she wasn't sure she could trust her slayer "spidey sense" after being zapped by the Soul-Eater's lightning. With little choice left to her, she continued forward.

As soon as they were halfway through the chamber, five growling hell-wolves stepped out of the shadows--two in front of them and three behind them.

"Fuck..." Faith grumbled wearily as the beasts stalked toward them.

***

At their original tunnel entrance, Willow was just beginning her spell. She had already drawn a large square in the sand on the floor of the cave. She intoned a series of Latin commands and sprinkled a variety of ingredients over the drawing. When she spoke the final line, the square began to glow. The group watched in amazement as the spell caused a complete diagram of the cave's tunnels to be etched into the square of sand.

"Oh my god..." Cordelia said in awe.

"Wow, it worked," Willow added.

Buffy immediately knelt down beside Willow and studied the map. After glancing to her right to see if the tunnel there was unblocked, she turned back to the map and started pointing out a path.

"Okay, we can take this tunnel down and meet up with the other side of the tunnel we came in on. If we take it up, we should be able to sweep around and come back down through that top tunnel."

She looked to Giles, who had also knelt beside Willow. He nodded his agreement, and Buffy allowed herself a small smile of hope. She turned to Willow and grabbed her shoulders.

"Thank you," she told her before giving her a heartfelt hug. Then she got to her feet. "Come on, let's go."

At that, the group hurried toward the tunnel Buffy had indicated.

***

Xander and Faith stood back to back as the hell-wolves suddenly rushed them from both sides. The two Scoobies fought with a fury fueled by pure self-preservation, but it didn't take long for the hell-wolves to separate them from each other. Two of the wolves jumped on Xander and knocked him down. As they snapped and clawed at him, he blindly slashed at them with the dagger Faith had given him.

The other three attacked Faith. She managed to punch and kick two of hers away. She stabbed the third with her knives, but the wounds weren't enough to kill it; it merely limped off into the shadows. When Faith saw Xander in trouble, she threw a knife at one of the wolves that were attacking him. The blade sank into the back of the wolf's skull, killing it instantly. When she tried to move in Xander's direction, her three hell-wolves returned with a vengeance. They leaped upon her, took her to the ground, and began attacking her mercilessly, ripping at her arms and legs.

Eventually, she managed to kick one of the wolves off her. She jabbed another one in the eye with her remaining knife, sending it squealing off. She grappled with the third wolf before finally maneuvering it into a position where she could slice its throat.

When she tried to get up from her hands and knees, though, the wolf that she had just kicked away clamped down on her right bicep. She cried out in pain and dropped her knife. Her cries became screams as the wolf viciously shook his head, tearing open the flesh of her arm. She came back with her left fist and began pummeling the beast's head, but he wouldn't let go.

Having finally killed the wolf attacking him, Xander got to his knees. He called out Faith's name and threw the dagger to her. She stopped hitting the wolf, caught the dagger mid-air, and then drove it into the wolf's neck, killing it. Once it was dead, she pried her arm from its mouth and struggled to her feet, attempting to ready herself for another attack. When the last wolf standing--the one Faith had stabbed in the eye--tried to jump the slayer from behind, Xander snatched up a large rock and bashed the beast in the head. When it went down, he bashed it several more times until he heard its skull crack. The wolf shuddered once then went still.

When Faith heard the attack behind her, she whipped around and almost fell down. Barely able to remain standing, she scanned the chamber to see if all the wolves were dead. Then she turned back to Xander.

"Did we...get 'em all?" she asked, panting for breath. Blood was streaming down her mangled right arm. Her eyes did a series of slow-motion blinks, and she swayed on her feet. She dropped the dagger and then hit the ground on her back.

"Oh, god...Faith!" Xander cried out as he rushed over.

For a moment he was at a total loss on what do to. She was wounded everywhere it seemed, and he didn't know where to start.

Faith lifted her bloody arm and tried to sit up. “Shit...” she said weakly before plopping right back down.

That was enough to click Xander into action. He checked her out all over but soon realized that it was her arm that had suffered the worst damage. Through a large gash on her upper arm, he could see blood coming out in small spurts.

"Damn," he cursed ruefully.

He yanked his belt off and created a tourniquet on her arm near her shoulder, setting it tightly. The blood flow from the gash slowed substantially but didn't stop. He lifted her arm onto his leg to elevate it. Then he pulled a folded bandana from his pocket and applied pressure to the wound. He tried to look into Faith's eyes, but they were half-closed and unfocused.

"Hang in there," he told her.

***

After winding through the alternate tunnel, Buffy and the others came to an opening near one of the turns. It would have been a junction of sorts if there had been any other tunnels connected to it, but there weren't--there was just the one they were entering by plus another across from it. As they moved into the chamber, they instantly saw the Soul-Eater enter from the other side. He had two of his hell-wolves with him.

"You have got to be kidding me!" Buffy growled in annoyance. Her eyes narrowed, and her voice turned stone cold. "I do not have time for this." Before moving forward, she spoke to the others over her shoulder, "Keep the hell-wolves off my back if you have to, but otherwise, stay out of my way."

"Buffy..." Angel started to say.

"I mean it," she warned. Then she turned back to the Soul-Eater. "He's mine." At that, Buffy drew her dagger and headed for the demon pack leader.

The Soul-Eater seemed less confident than he had in the larger cavern. He glanced back the way he'd come, then scanned the chamber for alternate exits, finding none. He turned back toward Buffy and hissed.

"That's right, Skeletor...you want out of this place, you're gonna have to go through me." When he reached for his dagger of lightning, she made a chiding gesture and pointed at the ceiling. "Unh, unh, unh...not unless you plan on collapsing your only exit."

The Soul-Eater hissed again but kept his dagger sheathed. He called out to his hell-wolves, and the snarling beasts instantly rushed Buffy. Instead of racing to meet them, though, she darted away from them and headed straight for the side wall. Just as their snapping jaws neared the backs of her legs, she ran vertically up the wall and back-flipped over the wolves. Before they could react, she stabbed one with her dagger, killing it. When she went to stab the other, the Soul-Eater quickly moved in.

"Buffy! Look out!" Willow yelled.

The Soul-Eater kicked the dagger out of Buffy's hand and reached for her, but the slayer slipped away just in time to avoid his grasp.

When the remaining hell-wolf turned and headed Buffy's way, Angel grabbed Oz's spear and hurled it at the beast. It sank deep into the animal's side. The hell-wolf screeched, whined, and then went still.

The Soul-Eater roared in Angel's direction. Then he pulled the spear from his dead hell-wolf and brandished the weapon toward Buffy. In a fury, he rushed her, stabbing and jabbing with remarkable swiftness, backing her toward the tunnel wall. Buffy, however, dodged and evaded with ease, never losing her balance or focus. It was as if her need to get to Faith had suddenly endowed her with Matrix-like abilities--as if she were perceiving his movements in slow motion yet reacting to them with inhuman speed.

When she reached the wall, she pulled the same move on him that he had used earlier with Faith--she grabbed the shaft of the spear and yanked the Soul-Eater forward, slamming her elbow into his face. His head snapped back from the impact, and he stumbled back, releasing the spear. Buffy used the butt of the spear to smack him in the head several times--bam, bam, bam! Then she flipped the spear around and thrust it into the Soul-Eater's chest.

He gasped and clutched at the handle of the spear as Buffy bore her eyes into his. But then he pushed away from her and retreated several steps before pulling the spear from his body. Angrily casting the spear aside, he bellowed what must have been demonic curses and then reached for his dagger of lightning. Unfortunately for him, it wasn't in its sheath.

"Looking for this?" Buffy asked, holding up the demon's dagger, which was now crackling with power.

For the first time, the Soul-Eater actually looked afraid. Before he could even discern the slayer's forward movements, she was on him, stabbing the dagger into his heart. He screamed and shook as the dagger began electri-frying him from the inside out.

Concerned that the effect might extend to her, Buffy released the dagger and stepped back. Just as she did so, the Soul-Eater went through several rapid convulsions and then exploded, shaking the tunnels and incinerating both him and his dagger. As sparks and ashes drifted down upon her, Buffy turned and glanced back at the rest of the Scoobies.

"Come on!" she called out to them before taking off into the tunnel the Soul-Eater had come from.

***

As Buffy finished off the Soul-Eater, Xander could feel the cave shaking. He looked up at the tunnel ceiling and prayed that it would hold. When he turned his eyes back to Faith, he saw that she was coming to a little. She looked at the tourniquet that Xander had set and then glanced at her ravaged arm in his lap; she saw blood trickling from the bandana beneath his fingers.

"It's bad…isn't it?" Faith asked.

"Nothing your slayer healing can't lick," Xander assured her.

"You don' hafta…sugarcoat it…Xan..." she said in a weak mumble. "I know the score…Person blows an artery…that's it…game over…"

"An ordinary person maybe," he pointed out as he continued to apply pressure to her arm. "Which you are not." Then he gave her a determined look. "You are not going to die. I won't let you." A teasing smile spread over his face as he added, "I can't…because Buffy will kill me if I do."

Faith managed a chuckle at Xander's comment, but then she sobered and asked, "Do you think she's still okay?"

"If she wasn't, do you think we'd be feeling earthquakes in here?"

Faith smiled at that, but then she felt the darkness slipping over her sight once again--for the last time, she feared. With all the strength she had left, she forced eyes back open, reached across her body, and grabbed Xander's arm with her left hand. "Make peace with Buffy," she said, "and tell her..." Her eyes started fluttering closed, and she had to release his arm and sink back against the ground. "...tell her I love her...more than anything..." At that, Faith's eyes closed, and she stopped moving.

"Faith? Faith?!" Xander called out worriedly. "FAITH!"

***

Buffy and the others arrived just as Xander was frantically trying to rouse Faith back to consciousness. While both Willow and Cordelia called out Xander's name in relief, Buffy rushed to Faith's side.

"Faith! Oh god, Faith..." Buffy cried as she stroked her girlfriend's face. "You're gonna be okay, you're gonna be okay..."

"She's bleeding out, Buffy," Xander said urgently. "We need to get her to the hospital, like now."

Buffy pushed down her tears and got back into action mode. "The ambulance is on its way. We just need to get her to the bluff."

When Buffy started to pick Faith up, Xander stopped her. "Wait!" Then he turned to Cordelia. "Your scarf. Gimme."

Cordelia instantly pulled the scarf from her neck and handed it over. Xander wrapped it around Faith's arm several times, covering both the blood-soaked bandana and the gash beneath it. He pulled it tight and tied it off.

"Go!" he said when he was done.

Buffy wasted no time. She lifted Faith into her arms and took off for the cave entrance, with the others right on her heels.

***

When Buffy reached the top of the bluff, she saw the EMTs heading her way with their packs.

"Back! Back!" Buffy ordered. "Get the gurney out!"

Something in Buffy's tone made the EMTs do exactly as they were told. By the time they had returned to the ambulance and gotten the gurney out, Buffy was there setting Faith upon it.

"She's bleeding out...her arm...I don't know what else..." Buffy told them.

"We've got her now," one of the EMTs told her. "Meet us at the hospital."

Within seconds, the EMTs had loaded Faith in the back, and the ambulance had peeled off in the gravel with sirens screaming.

It was only after she saw the ambulance disappear down the hill that Buffy allowed her tears to return. She hugged herself tightly and sobbed, "Oh god..."

Instantly, Joyce was at her daughter's side and pulled her into her arms. "She'll be okay, honey. She's strong, you know that."

"I can't lose her, Mom...I can't..."

"You won't...you'll see..." Joyce told her.

As Buffy wept against her mother's shoulder, everyone watched with sympathy, although tinges of guilt flashed in both Xander's and Angel's eyes.

After a few moments, Joyce separated herself from Buffy and cupped her cheek. "Now come on, let's get to the hospital so we can check on Faith, okay?"

At that, the Scoobies, including Angel, piled into Joyce's SUV and Oz's van and sped away for Sunnydale Hospital's Emergency Room.

***

As soon as they arrived at the E.R., the Scoobies rushed en masse to the admitting desk to inquire about Faith's condition. The nurse informed them that Faith was being treated and that she'd let them know something when she knew something. When she asked for someone to fill out the requisite paperwork, Giles volunteered.

When the admitting nurse took in the sight of the rest of the group--particularly Buffy, Angel, and Xander--she asked them if they needed treatment as well. They thanked her but politely refused.

Hours passed, and the only word they had received about Faith was that she had been rushed to surgery. While they waited, they rehashed the night's events over and over with one another, unable to stop reliving each moment of the battle. Finally, they grew weary of words and fell silent.

Buffy couldn't sit still, though, and took to pacing the waiting area. The others moved around from time to time, but most stayed seated. Giles and Joyce were on a small bench beside the window. Cordelia and Xander sat next to Willow and Oz in a line of linked chairs that had been arranged perpendicular to the window bench. Angel stood several yards away, alone, leaning against a square column.

Xander sat with his elbows on his knees and wrung his hands. Every few seconds, he would glance up and watch Buffy pacing. The anguish in her eyes made him glance away each time. He couldn't help thinking about how distraught she had looked in the cave and on the bluff and how utterly lost she looked now. Then he imagined how she must have looked the night she'd been forced to kill Angel to save the world. He let his head drop into his hands. Cordelia put her hand on Xander's back and started a slow, gentle circling with the tips of her fingers.

"I didn't know...I didn't think..." he mumbled. "I didn't even consider..."

"Consider what?" Willow asked, reaching over to touch Xander's knee.

"What it would be like for Buffy to kill Angel," he answered, lifting his head. "To lose him that way, to lose someone she loved. I didn't care about that, I just wanted him gone!" He let out a sad sigh. "And now she may lose someone else she loves...all because of me."

"It's not your fault Faith was hurt," Cordelia corrected him. "It was a demon battle, that's all."

Xander shook his head. "Those hell-wolves brought her down because she was trying to save me. She was already so hurt she could barely walk. I should have been protecting her--not the other way around!"

Willow took her best friend's hand in hers. "Xander, you saved Faith's life. Not only did you drag her out of that cave before it fell in, but you also kept Faith alive after those hell-wolves tore her apart. You know that, right? If you hadn't been there with her in that chamber, she would've died, just bled out before any of us could have reached her. Any chance she's got in there, it's because of you."

Xander nodded, trying to believe what he was being told but not succeeding very much.

Just then, a petite auburn-haired woman rushed into the E.R. and came straight towards the group.

"Dr. Fielding," Buffy said in surprise when she saw the woman.

Giles immediately rose from his seat and came to Helen's side.

"I'm sorry I didn't get here sooner," Helen told him. "I worked downstairs in the hotel lounge for most of the evening, and I only just now got my messages. How is she?" she asked worriedly.

"We don't know," Giles answered. "She's in surgery. That's all we've been told. But, um...it's serious."

Helen frowned and then turned back to Buffy. "How are you holding up?"

New tears filled Buffy's eyes. "Not too good," she admitted in a choked voice. She let out a breath then added, "Mom said she's strong, but..."

Helen touched Buffy's arm and forced her to meet her gaze. "She is strong. More than you know. If anyone can survive this, she can."

"Because she's a slayer?" Buffy asked.

Helen shook her head. "No. Because she has a reason to live." She smiled and gave the girl's arm a squeeze. Buffy smiled back, reassured by Helen's words.

"Everyone, this is Dr. Helen Fielding," Giles introduced. "She's a former employee of the Council and a dear friend of mine who happened to be in town this weekend." He began gesturing at the group. "Buffy you know, of course. And this is Joyce Summers, Buffy's mother. This is Oz and Willow, and Xander and Cordelia." Greetings were exchanged at each introduction.

When Helen glanced over at the lone figure by the column, Buffy ducked her head and said, "Angel. That's Angel."

"Oh. I see."

Before the conversation could get complicated, Xander noticed a man in blue scrubs approaching the group. "Hey, I think the doc's coming over."

They all turned and waited nervously for the doctor to arrive and give them some news.

"Are you Miss Lehane's family?" the doctor asked.

"Yes, we are," Giles answered.

"I'm Dr. Mattice. I'm the surgeon who worked on Miss Lehane. It was touch and go for a bit, but she's going to be fine."

Everyone let out the breath they had been holding. There were several "thank god's" plus numerous tears of gratitude and a massive group hug. Dr. Mattice smiled indulgently until the moment of elation had calmed a bit. Then he went on.

"We were able to stop the bleeding and repair the severed artery in her arm. We had to give her several transfusions since she had lost so much blood. Frankly, I'm surprised she was still alive when you brought her in. I've never seen someone lose that much blood and live. It's a miracle. Of course, we had to do some  reconstructive work in there as well as address her other injuries, but barring any complications, she should be just fine."

"When can we see her?" Buffy asked.

"In a couple of hours," Dr. Mattice replied. "Once she's out of recovery."

After receiving many thank-you's, the doctor returned to the treatment area. More rounds of relieved hugs and joyful tears were shared among the group. After Buffy had collectively thanked everyone for their help that evening, the Scoobies slipped back into their smaller groups--Buffy with her mother, Giles with Dr. Fielding, and Xander with Willow, Oz, and Cordelia. Angel remained where he was and didn't intrude.

When Giles called Joyce over to speak with him and Helen, Buffy was momentarily alone. Even though she knew it would be hours before she'd hear anything else about Faith, she kept her eyes on the entrance to the treatment area just in case. It was only when she heard a throat-clearing that she turned her gaze away from the nurses' station.

"Hey," Xander said, more than a little anxiety in his voice.

"Hey," Buffy replied, also a bit nervous.

"I'm really glad Faith's gonna be okay."

"Thanks to you," Buffy said as she reached out to touch his arm. "I don't know how I can ever repay you..."

"You don't have to," he told her earnestly. Then he waggled his eyebrows and said, "Unless...you want to conveniently forget how much of a butt-wipe I've been." That comment got him a smile from Buffy, and he smiled back. He quickly saddened, though. "Seriously, Buffy, I am so sorry...for lying about what Willow said to tell you when you were going up against Angel...for talking Faith into hitting the mansion...I was so caught up in my own hate that I didn't even think about how I was hurting you..." His voice cracked, and Buffy could see tears in his eyes.

"Oh, Xander..." she said, hugging her friend and crying with him. "I'm sorry, too. I should have told you about Angel being back. I should never have kept him secret. And I am so thankful for what you did for Faith." She separated them so that she could look him in the eyes. "You saved her life. Twice. Nothing can top that."

At first Xander could only glance away at Buffy's words, but when Buffy wrapped him in another hug, he happily returned it. When they pulled apart, Xander kept his hands at Buffy's shoulders. "You know, when we were on the other side of that collapse, all Faith wanted to do was find a way back to you. I practically had to hold her down to keep her from trying to dig through the rock bare-handed."

Buffy gave a rueful smile. "I can relate."

"Later, when she thought she was gonna die, the last thing she said was, 'Tell Buffy I love her...more than anything.' She wanted you to know that."

Moved beyond words, Buffy hugged Xander again. When the two friends finally ended their hug fest, Xander rejoined Willow and Cordelia, leaving Buffy alone once again. Angel waited for a time before making his way over to her.

"I'm sorry," he said as he arrived.

"For what?" Buffy asked, confused.

"For holding you back. If I hadn't done that..."

"...I'd be dead." Buffy waited for Angel to meet her gaze. "I know I was pretty pissed off in there, but you were right to hold me back. If I had run after her, I wouldn't have made it, and we'd probably both be dead." When Angel still looked shocked at Buffy's reaction, she gestured at the waiting room, "All the hours in here..." then pointed at her head, "...all the replays in here...kinda put a new perspective on things."

"Yeah, me too," Angel replied. After a long pause, he admitted, "I was wrong about Faith. She said she'd do anything to protect you, and she did."

"And I would've done the same for her. We're a good team, Angel. We take care of each other."

"I know." After another long moment, he said, "I talked to Oz. He's going to give me a ride to L.A."

Buffy turned to see Oz waiting by the exit. "Now?" she asked, suddenly reluctant to see him go.

"If I'm good enough to fight, I'm good enough to leave..." he reminded her--not meanly, just matter-of-factly. Then his voice softened. "It's time."

Buffy began to cry and then reached out to hug him. As he wrapped his arms around her, he closed his eyes for a moment and drank in what would be their last embrace. When he opened his eyes, he said, "You know...I followed you here from L.A. because I thought you needed a champion, a protector...and you did. It just wasn't me." He separated them and backed a few steps away. They shared a heart-felt gaze; then Angel turned and walked away to meet Oz at the door. In seconds Angel was gone.

When Joyce saw Angel leave and then Buffy crying, she hurried to her daughter's side. She pulled her into her arms and held her as she cried. The other Scoobies looked on with sympathy. Even though Buffy was with Faith now, they knew that Angel would always have a special place in her heart and that it must've hurt to let him go.

***

A few hours later in her hospital room, Faith finally woke up from the anesthesia she had received during surgery. She groggily blinked her eyes as she opened and closed her mouth several times. Buffy and Joyce were instantly at her side when they saw her rousing from her sleep.

"Hey there, you..." Buffy said as she caressed Faith's forehead. "Are you okay? Do you need anything? The nurse said you might need some pain medi--"

"Water," Faith croaked.

Joyce filled a cup from the pitcher on the rolling table and handed it over. Buffy guided the straw to Faith's mouth to let her drink. She drained one cup then a second.

"Blech," Faith said. "My mouth feels like I ate sand for breakfast."

Buffy and Joyce chuckled. Then Joyce asked, "How are you feeling, dear?"

"Like somebody dropped a building on me and then put me through a wood chipper, but other than that, I feel fine."

Joyce smiled, glad to see that Faith was her usual joking self.

"Is everybody else okay?" Faith asked.

"Yes," Buffy answered.

"And the Soul-Eater?"

"History."

"Sweet. Wish I coulda seen it," Faith commented. Then she looked down at her immobilized and bandaged right arm. "So...what's the deal with my arm?"

"It was badly damaged," Joyce answered honestly. "The surgeon had to do a lot of reconstructive work, particularly on the artery that had been torn."

"Man, I thought for sure I was a goner," Faith said. "Xan was doing everything he could to stop the bleeding, but I could still see it leaking out. It was like watching my life drain away." After an intense moment of collective contemplation, Faith shifted gears back to her original question. "So, my arm's gonna be okay?"

Buffy cleared her throat and put on a smile. "Yes, it'll be just fine. Even without knowing about slayer healing, the doctor was very optimistic about his work. He called you a miracle." When Faith rolled her eyes, Buffy added soberly, "There is some bad news, though."

Faith grew serious, frowning in concern. "What?"

"Your tattoo didn't make it."

Faith snorted in relief. "Is that all?" Then she shrugged and let out a long breath, thinking of how she had gotten the tattoo, how it reminded her of Kakistos and the death of her watcher. "Didn't like it anyway," she mumbled sadly.

Joyce took the somber mood as her cue to skip out. "Why don't I go see about getting this pitcher refilled and leave you two alone?"

"Thanks, Mom," Buffy said.

When her mother had left, Buffy looked down at Faith and smiled, but tears soon rolled past her lids. She forced herself to laugh as she said, "You scared the crap out of me, you know."

"Sorry," Faith said teasingly, her voice still a bit scratchy. "Won't do it again. I swear."

Buffy leaned over and gazed lovingly into Faith's eyes. "You better not," she said as she laid a gentle kiss on Faith's lips. When she pulled back, she added with a smirk, " 'Cause if you do, I'll have to spank your ass."

Faith grinned back and said, "Just can't wait to get your hands on my ass, can ya?"

As Buffy blushed furiously, Faith tried to laugh without hurting too much.

 

TO BE CONTINUED IN PART 18C...
 


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