Author's Note: We're finally getting into the meat of the story, and more familiar characters will be introduced in this part. I've used both references on the show itself as well as some rumors to continue the story as I have. And Kennedy's history, including her last name, are invented by me based on her comments during season seven. She seems to come from a wealthy family, so I am reflecting that here. I've also made up location names in Cleveland, so don't go looking for any of these places, because they don't exist.
Along the Chatworth River lies a vacant industrial zone that was once a major hub along the lumber trail stretching down from Canada and across the United States. Up until the mid-twentieth century it was a bustling area filled with blue-collar workers and fine business prospects. After several more identity changes, including a brief stint as a chemical treatment plant, the area finally lay vacant in the mid-1980's. Since that time no further development projects were ever completed.
People never much questioned the fact that the area had become a veritable wasteland of empty warehouses and the remnants of manufacturing plants. They simply cast a blind eye to it, allowing it to remain untouched for nearly two decades. The city of Cleveland burgeoned and spilled around it, an ever-changing landscape of growth and vitality. But that particular area was abandoned, forgotten—like an unmarked grave.
Most residents had no idea that the reason they so easily forgot about that place was because of what lay beneath it. A second Hellmouth buried by the ages—smaller than the one in Sunnydale, but still enough of a threat that it needed careful observation. This was where Giles finally decided to bring his motley crew of demon fighters and those Slayers who decided to remain under his tutelage.
There were not many, and some of the girls had come along well after Sunnydale, but the Slayers who stayed behind did so without hesitation. After their battle with the First and the deaths of their original Watchers, these girls understood that there was too much work to be done. Rather than abandon the cause and leave it in the hands of just a few people, they would continue their training and hopefully assist the others in whatever way they could.
Robin Wood parked the van behind an old warehouse that once stored the chemical compounds used to create fertilizer. The cracked paint across the front of the building proclaimed it to be the property of "Gurty & Bro," the remainder of the words having long been washed away by rain and snow. It was the largest and most contemporary building in the area, with several floors including two comprised solely of offices and other smaller storage areas. It was the perfect place for a small group of people to live while still maintaining their personal privacy.
Willow awakened with a jolt as the van lurched to a stop. Nearly toppling out of the bench seat she'd been sleeping on, she was forced to brace herself against the back of the driver's seat to keep herself in place.
"Sorry," Wood muttered. "Little too much brake that time. My knee…" he trailed off. Wood wasn't one to complain about his injuries, so even that little admission meant the pain was still pretty bad.
"I told you I was more than happy to take over in Chicago," Willow said. "Granted, I've never driven in a big city and probably would have gotten us into southern Illinois before either of you woke up and noticed, but—"
She stopped her babbling when Giles turned from the passenger seat to look at her. "It's fine, Willow," he said. "We're home now."
Willow stared through the windshield at the battered brick façade of the warehouse in front of them. "Home," she sighed.
No matter how sad that statement was, her emotions were instantly bolstered by the thought of the dark haired woman waiting for her inside. Taking a deep breath, she quickly turned toward the sliding door along the side of the van.
"We can bring everything inside later, can't we?" she asked. "After we've all rested a bit?"
Wood and Giles exchanged glances. While their paternalistic smugness would normally have infuriated her, Willow was too excited about seeing Kennedy to care.
"I certainly don't feel like hauling boxes of books right now," Wood commented.
"No, I suppose not," Giles admitted. "Although I do want to go over some of the tomes we were able to gather. I had no idea there was even another edition of Demons in the New World. It has some very useful passages concerning the migratory paths of several major species—you know, it's very interesting, but the colonization of this continent by European settlers bears some remarkable parallels to the introduction of certain…"
He trailed off when Wood glared at him. "But of course we should rest before we worry about any of that," he added. "Or I can simply have the girls help me unpack."
Nodding to no one in particular, Willow pulled open the side-door and jumped out of the van. As they approached the building, they heard the echoing cries of several girls inside.
"Oh, lovely," Giles said, fatigue straining his voice. "We're just in time for the afternoon calisthenics."
Willow smiled and glanced up at him. "Cuts into your nap time, huh?" she teased.
Giles sighed. "I'm exhausted," he said. "And your quarters don't adjoin the training area."
She shook her head at his look of admonishment. "You were the one who wanted the biggest room," she said. "And the main office had all the features you thought were necessary for the archives."
Giles frowned. "Yes, I realize that," he admonished her. "But I certainly didn't consider that the large windows would make it so…accessible."
Willow laughed. His office area was much like the one in the old Sunnydale high library, although twice the size. Tucked away in one corner of the largest storage area of the warehouse, it was built so that the facility manager was able to observe his workers with little difficulty. This meant that two full walls were comprised of large-paned windows. They made it easy to see out…but also easy to peek inside as well. His private quarters weren't so private. At least Xander had helped outfit him with some vertical blinds. But apparently even they didn't keep the noise down to a manageable level.
"Look, if you ever need to use our room to catch up on some sleep, you're welcome to it," Willow said. "Our bed is huge, and…"
She shut up when Giles sent an uncomfortable glance her way. "My own bed will suffice," he said in clipped tones.
"I meant when we weren't using it," Willow qualified, but even that somehow didn't sound right.
"The curfew seems to be helping," Wood pointed out.
The girls were only allowed in the training area from six a.m. to ten p.m. For the purposes of patrolling they had to use the front exit to get in and out of the building. This cut down on the amount of traffic passing by Giles's quarters at two o'clock in the morning. Somehow even sharing a huge warehouse wasn't even enough to give everyone the space they thought they needed. Willow was continuously amazed that they managed to live in Buffy's house for so long without actually strangling one another. Of course, there was nothing like an impending apocalypse to put things in perspective. Maybe now they just needed some imminent danger to keep people from stepping on each other's toes.
"I was thinking," Willow said as they pushed through the double doors that lead into the training area. "I know this Hellmouth is much smaller than the first, and so there's less of a mystical draw than we're used to. That certainly has played out so far, because except for your basic vampires, the girls haven't run into anything out of the ordinary. But do either of you feel like we're…" she paused, searching for the words.
"Like we're waiting for the other shoe to drop?" Wood finished for her.
"Exactly," Willow said.
The doors closed behind them, cutting off the sunlight and for the moment plunging the room into twilight as their eyes adjusted to the change. They paused at the edge of the room. Ahead of them a group of a dozen or so girls were completing a set of jumping jacks. A slender brunette stood at the head of the crowd, pacing before her charges with her hands on her hips. She wore a pair of loose sweats and a gray hooded sweatshirt to ward of the chill that permeated the large room.
"Okay," Kennedy called as the girls finished. "Now back to that routine I showed you."
The girls groaned. Ignoring their muttered complaints, Kennedy glanced over her shoulder to spot the trio standing near the doors. Smiling, she waggled her fingers at Willow, who beamed in response. Standing at attention once more, she whipped her head back toward the girls, who'd remained stationary to observe the interaction.
"I mean it," she snapped. "Get those legs in the air—start kicking."
Willow didn't take her eyes off her lover as she continued, "We haven't seen a hint of the First. It probably could make itself known through this Hellmouth, but…not a peep. What do you think it's planning?"
Giles shook his head. "It may have put on a good show, but make no bones about it—the First expended a lot of energy to create that army. And now that its forces were defeated, it may take some time for it to rise to that level of power again. But that is only if it intends to continue on its previous course. I don't think it will."
Glancing up at him in confusion, Willow asked, "You don't? It's just going to give up after all of that?"
"Not give up, Willow," Giles said. "The First began this crusade because it believed that Buffy had broken a cardinal rule with her resurrection and continued work as a Slayer. The rule stated that there could be but one chosen Slayer—that upon a Slayer's death the power was to pass on to another. Buffy broke that rule when she regained her life and her powers."
"I broke that rule when I brought her back to life," Willow corrected him quietly.
Giles sighed. "We've gone over that," he said kindly. "For you to blame this on yourself—it doesn't take into account the other factors of the situation. Faith and Buffy had co-existed before Buffy's death. The First might have very well achieved these same ends before we faced Glory."
"But it didn't—" Willow began, stuttering to a halt when Giles looked at her in chastisement. "Okay, no more blame parade," she muttered.
"As I was saying," Giles continued. "Buffy used the power of the scythe to alter that cardinal rule for all time. There is not but one chosen one. There are hundreds of Slayers in this world, and more are being born every day. The First has no recourse but to focus its attentions on bringing about a balance of evil to face the increased powers of good."
"So more uber-vamps?" Willow asked. "Another army?"
Giles shook his head. "I don't think it will devote so much energy to another such project," he said. "Not when the first was such a disastrous failure. It cannot risk the chance of losing another huge portion of its powers. No, my belief—and there seems to be some scholarly corroboration with this—is that it will focus itself upon the evils that currently reside in this world. The time of settling scores is finished. It will not risk being vanquished completely. It must bolster the forces that currently exist in the world."
"So we're back to the old tight-rope act, then?" Willow asked. "Good versus evil, darkness and light, none having more strength or abilities than the other. The First won't try to destroy the world again?"
"Not for the foreseeable future, anyway," Giles answered. "It cannot—it doesn't have the resources after the recent trouncing. And with our increased powers another failure might mean the First's own permanent banishment from this world. Would you take that risk?"
Willow shook her head. "I see your point," she said.
Giles patted her shoulder. "Not to worry," he teased. "There will be other apocalypses."
Smiling, Willow added, "And I probably won't even be the cause of them all."
When he instantly sobered, she asked, "Took the joke too far that time?"
"Just a bit," he responded.
"Hey," Kennedy said, out of breath as she jogged over to them. "I missed you."
Willow caught her breath as the other woman threw her arms around her and squeezed her tightly. Returning the embrace, she breathed, "I missed you, too."
"Did you find the girl?" Kennedy asked. When Willow nodded, she smiled in satisfaction. "You haven't been wrong yet," she said, beaming with pride.
"Well, the coven helps me a lot," Willow began modestly before being hugged so fiercely that her breath was expelled from her lungs with an audible gasp.
"They are only able to assist in sensing the fluctuations of energy throughout the world," Giles told her. "You're the one with the power to pinpoint the specific girls we're looking for."
"Well, I guess…yay, me," Willow finished lamely. "I do want to visit them again once we're able to get access to Kennedy's passport."
"You would wait for me?" Kennedy asked.
"I wouldn't go to England without you," Willow promised, pressing her cheek against the warmth of her girlfriend's neck.
"Your uncle still hasn't responded to our inquiries?" Giles asked.
Finally pulling away from Willow, Kennedy shook her head. "I told you, I wouldn't exactly be welcomed back into the fold. My family kind of frowns upon scandal, and…Slayers, vampires, demons…not good press for an upstanding family like the Hayworths."
"Well, if it ever gets to the point that we can't contact them, I can always see what I can get through the computer," Willow offered.
"Let's do what we can before resorting to felonious entry into the Social Security Administration, shall we?" Giles intoned.
"Listen, what are your plans for this afternoon?" Kennedy asked, changing the subject.
"I'm going to retire for the moment," Giles said.
Wood grimaced as he moved forward, but did a good job of hiding the extent of his discomfort. "I think I'm ready for some downtime myself," he said.
"Then I can borrow Willow for awhile?"
Shaking his head, Giles reached up to wipe his lips, hiding a narrow smile. "I think that is permissible," he agreed.
The words were barely out of his mouth before Kennedy grabbed her girlfriend by the hand and dragged her toward the metal staircase leading to the second floor. Shaking his head, Giles watched the girls giggling as they rushed away.
"To be young," he sighed.
Robin nodded. "I'd like to believe I am, but after yesterday, I'm beginning to think I have more in common with you than I do with them."
Giles frowned. "Thank you so much."
With a flash of white teeth, Robin grinned at him. Clapping a hand on the older man's shoulder, he said, "Cheer up, Rupert. At the rate I'm going, I'll be crippled long before you are."
"Well, that's something, anyway," Giles chuckled. He turned toward his quarters, waving away the two girls standing by to question him about some otherworldly matter.
"Do you need help getting up the stairs?" a small voice asked at Robin's elbow.
Glancing down, Wood saw Rona peering up at him in concern. "I noticed you were limping," she pointed out. "Did you four get into trouble?" She glanced toward the doors as if expecting to see someone there. "Where is Faith, anyway?"
Wood sighed. "Faith had to go underground for the time being," he said. "We expect to see her again real soon."
Rona frowned. "You left her on her own?" she asked.
"She left us," Wood snapped, pushing past her. "And I can get upstairs just fine on my own."
When Kennedy lead Willow into the large communal bathroom left behind from the time the building supported a large staff of warehouse workers, Willow was amazed to see a dramatic change in decoration. The stark white walls—scrubbed clean by the efforts of Slayer strength when the group first moved in—were lit by the shadowy flickers of several large candles. Incense burned on the countertop lining the right hand wall, and a small radio played soft music.
"What is this?" Willow asked.
Kennedy smiled. "I sent Margaret ahead when you drove up," she said. "I planned on having a lot more candles, lots of white flowing fabric, colored lights, the works…but Jinn said she'd kick my ass if I burned the place down so I figured less was more in this instance. There's no bathtub in this damned building, though. We'll have to settle for a shower."
When Willow turned to look at her, she closed the bathroom door and slowly pulled off her hooded sweatshirt. She was wearing her black bra—the lacy one she knew was Willow's favorite.
"How did you know I was coming back today?" Willow asked suspiciously.
Kennedy shrugged. "I didn't," she answered. "I've been wearing these every day and washing them at night."
"Seriously," Willow said. "We didn't even get the chance to call ahead and let you know when to expect us. And what do you mean by 'these?'"
With a sly grin, Kennedy slid her sweats down from her hips. Willow spotted the black lace before the pants hit the floor.
"The others know we're in here," Willow reminded her. Her mouth was dry, but somehow her analytical side just couldn't help but intrude upon her lust with cold facts. "Someone might walk in on us."
"Margaret is guarding the door," Kennedy responded. "She's not to allow anyone in until we come back out."
"They'll know what we're doing," Willow gasped.
Kennedy shook her head in exasperation. Kicking the sweats out of her way, she stepped closer to her lover. "Loosen up, Will," she said. "They know we share a room, and a bed. I think they've figured out our little secret. Now are you going to let me seduce you, or not?"
Willow took a deep breath when Kennedy pressed her body against her. "Sorry," she said. "My brain always flies in a million different directions at the same time, and—"
"And when you get nervous, you babble," Kennedy finished for her. "But I have a cure for that."
Willow opened her mouth to ask another question, but Kennedy darted forward to capture her lips with her own. The kiss was gentle and sweet, more exploration than passion. But it quickly deepened with intensity. Kennedy softly traced Willow's lips with her tongue, finally teasing them open to taste her mouth.
Finally forced to break away momentarily to catch her breath, Willow whispered, "Thank you for this."
"I can do a lot more with my tongue than French kiss," Kennedy confided, reaching up to cup her lover's breast through her shirt.
Willow shook her head. "No, I mean—it was sweet of you to plan this homecoming for me. I love you."
Kennedy smiled, her lips gently curving as the tender expression lit her eyes with sudden emotion. "I love you, too," she said. "Now take off your clothes."
Laughing, Willow squealed in surprise when Kennedy grabbed the edge of her shirt and hauled it up over her head. "I mean it, I'll throw you in there fully dressed if you don't hurry up," she growled.
Outside, Margaret and Jinn glanced at each other when a loud shout of laughter erupted from inside the bathroom. "Why are we standing out here again?" Jinn wondered.
"Because we live with twelve other girls and this is the only bathroom on this floor," Margaret responded. "And because we owe Kennedy after last night."
"Hey, I said I was sorry about that," Jinn snapped. "That Harbrath demon came out of nowhere. How the hell was I supposed to know it had two more arms on its back?"
"Yeah, well, it was a good thing Giles wasn't around to hear about that one. We would be reading those dusty books right now, expanding our minds."
The girls laughed. Inside, the sudden spray of water masked the sounds emerging from the bathroom. They both relaxed a bit, happy that the shower was on the opposite side of the room and Kennedy now had some privacy.
"Besides, I think it's cute," Margaret continued. "If they can find some happiness after everything that happened, then we know the world really is worth fighting for."
Jinn shook her head. "Only you would turn getting laid into a philosophical argument for defending the earth from evil," she muttered, but grinned afterward.
In the bathroom, Willow leaned back against Kennedy under the spray of water as her lover massaged the kinks out of her shoulders. "God, you're tight," Kennedy said. Willow burst out laughing. "Shit, you know what I meant."
The shower stall was extremely narrow and nearly completely dark since the only light source were the few measly candles on the other side of the room. But Willow felt her girlfriend's blush when she turned around and cupped her face in her hands.
"For being so cocky, you are embarrassed far too easily," Willow whispered against her lips.
"Hey, I'm getting better at this sensitive crap," Kennedy muttered, returning the kiss. "Exhibit A, right outside of this shower stall."
"Okay, you're getting better at the sensitive crap," Willow agreed. "Now shut up and do me."
More than forty-five minutes later, Willow was just finished getting dressed in their room when a sharp knock sounded at the door. "It's open, Kennedy," she called, thinking her girlfriend had returned from cleaning up the bathroom.
"Um, Willow?" Andrew's muffled voice sounded through the door.
Frowning, Willow flipped her wet hair back from her shoulders and hurried toward her bedroom door. At one time the room had been used as storage. There were no windows and just one small light fixture in the ceiling. After Xander helped complete some electrical work, she and Kennedy grudgingly agreed to take the room. It was one of the larger ones on this floor, so there wasn't much to complain about. At least they were able to have power now that Giles had finalized the sale of the building a month or so earlier.
While the Genesis Realty company seemed a bit surprised at the opportunity to unload the property, they actually hadn't asked very many questions about how it was to be used. Giles's cover story painted him as an antiquities dealer who was in need of some storage for his rather large collection, and it seemed to pass rather easily. Willow guessed that no one really wanted to have to deal with this area of the city, anyway.
Opening the door, Willow was surprised to see the expression on Andrew's face. "What's wrong?" she asked, alarmed.
"Hi, and welcome back," he said with a little wave. But his features were tight and his smile guarded. "I'm sure you have some interesting finds to share with us all after your travels, but I was wondering if I might have a moment of your time first."
"Yeah, what's up?" Willow said, shaking her head.
"Well, you know how before everything happened back in Sunnydale I created a series of video documentaries of the events as they unfolded, and then I had to send them away because I thought Buffy might try to destroy them. But they were extremely important artifacts. Future generations may need to see them if the First returns and we're not around to help out."
Willow interrupted, "Andrew, is this going anywhere? Because I have a lot of work to do."
"I had my cousin in San Diego send them to me two weeks ago and hid them in my room in this really great hiding place but somehow Xander found them, I don't even know how, and now he won't stop watching them," Andrew said with one breath. His voice nearly faded out by the end, and he gasped quickly before finishing, "He's been holed up in the rec room for three days."
"Oh my God," Willow gasped. Brushing past Andrew, she snapped, "Why didn't you take them away from him? He shouldn't be watching those."
Hurrying behind her as she stalked down the hallway toward the recreation room, Andrew said, "Okay, there's me wanting the videos back, and then there's Xander who wants to keep them because his true love is in them…how do you see this ending favorably for me?"
"You should have asked for some help," Willow chastised him. She turned to face him when they reached the closed door at the end of the hall. "He's alone in there?"
Andrew nodded. "He locked the door, and we didn't want to…bother him."
"Well, he needs to be bothered," Willow said. "He's in mourning, and he shouldn't go through it alone. Why don't you let me handle this now?"
Andrew seemed hesitant to abandon his cause, but Willow placed a hand on his arm and gently turned him away. "Okay," he finally said. "I was waiting for the van anyway, because it's my turn to do the shopping. That little Geo that Giles bought for us just doesn't cut it."
Watching him walk away, his blond head held high, Willow smiled to herself. Somehow the boy had become their unofficial mascot. The girls pretended to be annoyed by his antics, but she knew they all worshipped him for some strange reason. It was probably because he was just so non-threatening, no matter how many times he reminded them of his demon raising abilities. The geek part they could do without, but they'd all learned to tune that out when he really got going on a rant.
She twisted the doorknob of the recreation room door, but it was locked just as Andrew had said. Holding her hand before the lock, she whispered three words under her breath. With a click, the locking mechanism was tripped and the door popped open. She felt a small but distinct sensation of pride, just as she always did when her spells were successful. Willow was her own skeleton key.
Inside, the room was dark. At one time it had been a break room, and the tables were still haphazardly arranged across the floor with multi-colored plastic chairs circling them. There were now several couches in one corner along with an aging television set and VCR that Andrew had somehow scrounged from the trash somewhere. In fact, much of the décor in the building was due to Andrew's dumpster diving adventures. He found an amazing amount of decent stuff.
On the television screen, Anya spoke to the camera in her sharp, abrupt tones. Willow wasn't sure what she was saying, because the sound was too low. When the blonde woman reached the end of her speech, the film suddenly jumped and started rewinding, stopping again at the beginning of her appearance. The woman on the screen started repeating the same speech over again, prompting Willow to hurry across the room.
"Xander?" she asked.
The man on the couch in front of her didn't acknowledge her presence. He was slumped forward on the cushion, peering at the television intently. When several moments passed and he still hadn't responded, Willow waved her hand in front of her. The television screen went black an instant later and the videotape popped out of the machine.
At last, Xander turned in his seat to face her. She was shocked by his appearance. He never really was one for five o'clock shadow, but his grizzled cheeks bore the growth of several weeks worth of beard. She could tell he'd lost a lot of weight just in the time she'd been gone. He hadn't been this down when she and Giles had left, and according to Andrew he'd only had the tapes for three days. She wondered if anything else had happened in the weeks they'd been traveling.
"Oh, Xander," Willow sighed. Circling the couch, she sat at one end, giving him plenty of space. She wanted to reach out and touch that tortured face, but wasn't sure how he would react. "What are you doing in here all alone?"
"You're back," he croaked, then cleared his throat. "How did things go?"
Willow frowned. "Xander," she said, "what are you doing? You shouldn't be watching these tapes."
He sat back with a sigh. "It's all that's left for me," he said.
She shook her head. "No," she said. "You're grieving. Things are going to hurt for awhile. We all miss her. She was an amazing person. And she would be so upset to see you like this." Her voice caught at the end as tears stung her eyes.
As she spoke, Xander glanced in the opposite direction, at the armchair near the opposite end of the couch. He stared at it for several seconds before returning his attention toward Willow.
"I know," he said. "That's why I'm watching her. To remember how she really was, and not…" his voice trailed off. "I'm going to be okay," he promised. "I'm just a little down right now. I know you mean well, Will. But I'm not ready to talk about it, okay? Can we just not talk about it?"
Willow frowned, but nodded. "How is your eye?" she asked. "You'd just taken off the patch when we left. Have you had any problems?"
He shook his head. "Nope," he said. "Sight's returned fully. Check it out. I think you have a future in medicine."
Xander leaned toward her, swiveling his head so she could see the left side of his face. There was still some scar tissue on the upper lid and near the temple where Caleb had clawed his face, but his once destroyed eye had finally re-grown. It was a tricky conjuring on her part, and Willow had taken it very slowly. Over the course of two months she'd worked her magic to replace his left eye. She hadn't been sure he would ever have his sight returned, but knew just having the eye itself would help so much with his self-esteem.
"I'm a little worried about the discoloration," she murmured. The iris was cloudy, making it appear bluish-white. "But you say you can see clearly?"
Xander nodded. "Back to one hundred percent," he said. "I'm telling you, you're not too far off from being Doctor Rosenberg."
"A witch doctor, that will be the day," she muttered. "Oh, hey, but witch doctor is right, 'cause they do exist." Willow paused, staring at him. "Will you please come out of here, though? We don't have to talk. There are plenty of boxes to be carried inside from the van before Andrew takes it out grocery shopping. Just be outside with me."
Taking a deep breath, he finally nodded once more. "Yeah," he agreed. "Give me a few minutes to clean myself up."
Willow stood. Taking a step toward the television to retrieve the tape, she was stopped by his next words.
"Please, just let me keep it," he pleaded.
It wasn't healthy, but for some reason she just couldn't refuse him. Feeling herself tear up again, Willow's lip trembled slightly as she nodded. "Okay," she whispered. "I'm just going back to my room. Come by when you're ready."
After she left, Xander leaned forward to push the tape back into the VCR. A few more minutes, he promised himself. Then he'd shower and shave. He'd be as good as new.
"Why do you do this to yourself?" a familiar voice asked.
His heart clenched in his chest at the sound of that voice. "I told you to leave me alone," he said, closing his eyes.
"That tape is only hurting you," the voice crooned. "Willow was right, I don't like to see you like this."
Opening his eyes, Xander glanced toward the armchair where Anya was sitting. She'd been there the entire time he and Willow had been talking. She was everywhere these past few weeks—he couldn't take three steps without seeing her.
"You're not her," he said to the thing staring at him. "I know what you are, and this isn't going to work."
Anya shook her head. She still wore the clothes she'd died in, but thankfully the fatal wounds weren't there. He didn't think he could bear it if she appeared to him like that.
"You think I'm trying to manipulate you into doing something for me," she said. "But I'm not. I told you, it's really me. I'm really here with you."
Gritting his teeth, Xander hurled the remote control at her. It sailed through her head and clattered against the wall behind her. "I know what you are," he repeated. "Get out of here!" he shouted. Jumping to his feet, he punched the play button on the VCR and watched as Anya's face filled the screen once more. "That's her," he muttered to himself. "You're not the real one. Just leave me alone."
The diner was just about the filthiest she'd ever seen, but Faith figured she wasn't likely to be recognized in a dive like this. There weren't any demon bars in town that she'd been able to find. Those were the best for avoiding the authorities altogether. Humans had the greatest ability to ignore the otherworldly in their midst. Surrounded by monsters, she was invisible.
This place served breakfast all day, which was just fine by her. Slapping her two dollars on the counter, Faith ordered the special. She gazed around the place as she waited for her food, sipping her soda. It was bad for her bones, but she had never been much of a milk girl.
There were only two other patrons this early in the morning. Glancing up at the clock on the wall, she noted that it was just after three a.m. In a couple of hours she'd have to find a place to hang out for awhile. Even a diner like this was off limits during daylight. She had no way of knowing how many beat cops made stops here during the day. So far she'd been lucky enough to avoid being seen on the street tonight.
"Hey," she said when the waitress served her plate. "How far are we from the Utah border?"
The large woman stared at her a moment before responding, "Why, you need to leave the state or something?"
It was a joke, but Faith only shook her head and stared down at her breakfast. "Thanks for the food," she mumbled.
She dug in, feeling famished. There were no demon bars in this little speck of a town, but there'd been vampires—more than she would have guessed. She'd dusted three before heading over here to get something to eat. Even though she was technically on the run, she figured it wouldn't hurt to continue doing the work she was destined for. Besides, killing vamps was just about her only source of entertainment these days.
Faith barely noticed when someone sat beside her at the counter. She was hungry, and it wasn't likely that she'd be taken by surprise here, so her instincts didn't pick up on any sort of danger. It was kind of rude to ignore the little social rule that clearly stated a person should leave at least one seat between them and the other occupant.
"Now, I recognize that appetite, if nothing else," a man's voice rumbled beside her.
Her stomach clenched in surprise, but Faith managed to control her response. Jumping out of her seat would probably be a little suspicious. Clutching the edge of the counter to allay her nerves, she turned to look at the man sitting next to her. He grinned at her broadly, his teeth white against his pale face. The corners of his blue eyes quirked upward in amusement. He clearly found humor in the situation. On Faith's part, there wasn't anything funny about seeing the blond sitting beside her.
"Spike," she gasped. "You're—"
She found she couldn't finish the thought. Realizing that the waitress had walked out from the kitchen to wait on her new customer, Faith bit her tongue before saying it. Spike turned toward the woman. She easily returned his beautiful smile, not realizing what he was.
"I'll just take a cup of coffee," he said.
The waitress seemed disappointed. She turned around to fetch the pot brewing behind the counter, her shoulder slumping. Trying to appear normal, Faith picked up her fork and took another bite of eggs. They tasted rubbery, and had trouble sliding down her throat.
"Jerome," the waitress suddenly shouted through the window to the kitchen. "How many times do I have to tell you to close the cupboards when you're done?"
She angrily slid the metal door closed, blocking off the array of tea and sugar held inside the narrow storage compartment hanging from the wall. When she stepped away to continue berating the cook, Faith spotted movement on the cupboard's metallic surface. She tensed, but relaxed an instant later when she realized it was her own muted reflection. Beside the distorted image of her face twisting across the bent metal was a sleek blond head. Spike's reflection shifted as he reached outstretched his arm to reach for the sugar dispenser.
Faith's fork clattered against her plate, her heart leaping into her throat. Whipping around to face Spike, she stared at him, dumbfounded. He smiled at her again as he poured sugar into the mug of coffee the waitress had left him. Her attention was then drawn to his neck, where a vein pulsed gently against the curve of his jaw.
He jumped in surprise when she forcibly grabbed his wrist and pressed her fingers tightly against it. Faith stopped breathing when she felt the artery throb against her fingertips, pulsing in time with the heart that now beat in his chest.
"You're alive," she finished, finally able to breathe again.
To be continued...