Giles and Buffy dove for the weapons bag, fumbling through the contents as the roars grew in intensity.
"Are these those roarky demon thingies?" Buffy tossed aside the surplus of stakes filling the bag.
"Rarkatar demons, can only be killed by... by... oh damn..." Giles eyes went wide as his head lifted from the emptied bag.
"What?" Buffy motioned eagerly, seeing the beasts closing in on them.
"The red flame-blessed katana isn't here."
"You mean the samurai sword?"
"Yes! What happened to it?"
"Dawn had a report on Japanese culture. She took it in for show-and-tell type report this morning. She must have forgotten to put it back." She grabbed at a stake with a shrug. "Whoops?"
Giles grabbed an axe. They had both just turned back toward the beasts, when out of the darkness came a yell followed by a blur movement. The demons retreated a few paces, surprised as the attacker came into view. It was a young Japanese girl, no more than sixteen, dressed in a modest black sweatshirt and black sweat pants. She glanced back into the shadows for the briefest moment, as if waiting for something. A second later, a shimmering sword cut through the darkness, flying just over her head. She caught it with a graceful summersault and charged all three beasts.
"Who's that?" Buffy asked.
"Hojo Katako desu," a soft voice came from behind them. “Her name is Katako Hojo.” Giles and Buffy pivoted to face the stranger. A short, stout man in his mid-forties, dressed in disheveled and soiled clothes and long dark raincoat stepped out from a large crypt and motioned toward the battling girl. "Magnificent, isn't she?" His dark eyes were proud and filled with confidence.
"I should help her," Buffy stated, shifting forward.
"Leave her be. She'll make short work of those three." The stranger smiled calmly. "In any event, without a blessed blade, you would only be in the way."
Giles turned to look. The young girl had already dispatched one of the beasts and was taking turns cutting down the limbs of the remaining two. Their deafening roars echoed across the landscape. The girl’s every attack was precise and deadly as she hacked apart the demons one piece at a time. One started to shuffle away as she battled with the other, and Buffy glanced restlessly at Giles.
"Should I get it?" she asked.
However the girl had spotted the retreating beast and slipped her hand within her boot to unsheathe a knife. She sent it sailing toward the figure, pegging it square in the leg. It let out a loud roar and tumbled into the park lake. The remaining creature swiped at her with its claws and she ducked and tumbled out from its path. Once she was clear, she jolted back to her feet and gave the charging hulk a kick to the midsection, sending it stumbling backwards. With a final devastating thrust, she buried the sword within the brute's chest and watched warily as it collapsed dead to the grass. She stood motionless besides the spot her prey had fallen, staring attentively over at her pleased companion.
"Do we have the pleasure of addressing Slayer Buffy Summers and Watcher Rupert Giles?" the man asked politely.
Giles looked to the young girl and back to the stranger with a guarded glance. "You do."
"Katako-san, if you will." The man nodded to the girl and she immediately charged straight for Buffy.
The first defensive blocks were completely instinctual but after the third attempted strike, Buffy decided to hit back. As the young lady overextended her right hook, Buffy landed a back hand that sent her attacker spinning toward a crypt. But the girl quickly recovered and charged again. Buffy began fighting seriously for her life against the seasoned warrior.
Giles rushed forward only to find the shorter stranger impeding his path.
"This doesn't concern you, Mr. Giles."
"It most certainly does." Giles eyes darted from the man to Buffy and back again as he gripped the small double edged axe he held in his hand. "I suggest you step aside."
"Our interest is with the Slayer." The man spoke calmly and evenly. "You need not get involved."
Giles moved left and right, growing frustrated as the man shifted to block his advance. With a quick check on Buffy, he could see she was well matched. Every movement this mystery girl made illustrated years of discipline and practice.
"Can we talk about this?" Buffy asked as she ducked and spun around with a leg swipe. The girl avoided it with a well-timed jump which ended with a blow to Buffy’s knee. Letting out a whimper as she blocked another incoming kick to her head, Buffy forced herself to her feet and held a defensive stance, guarding her injured leg. "I don't want to fight you."
The strange man laughed softly. "I'm afraid your wishes are irrelevant as Katako very much wants to fight you. I respect that you will do battle to the finish."
"There will be no finishing..." Giles sent the axe slicing toward the man who dodged the attack with all the grace of his young escort. Giles tried again, hammering the blade down toward the man's head only to be blocked with a well placed forearm and swift strike to his stomach. The Watcher doubled up with a gasp, slashing towards the man's midsection with the weapon only to be thwarted again with a sly side step and push.
"Who are you?" Buffy yelled as she exchanged a series of jabs with her persistent foe.
"Who we are is not important. What we want is." The man caught Giles' hand and gave it a little twist. Giles released his grip on the axe under the precisely applied pressure point hold. "It would be so much faster if you didn't resist. Justice will be served regardless."
Giles lunged forward, trying to throw the man off balance with his weight but the stranger shifted, sending him tumbling clumsily to the damp ground.
"The Slayer will be dealt with. She must pay for her crimes against the Council." The man revealed a small retractable crossbow and aimed it toward Giles' head. "It is up to you, Mr. Giles, whether you walk way with your life. I don't wish to claim an innocent life."
"Then why target Buffy?" Giles growled.
"It was her doing; she's responsible for sending the world awry."
"I did what now?" Buffy squeaked as she dodged another blow. "If this is about that parking ticket, I meant to pay last week..."
"Hers will be a sacrifice to right what she'd wronged. Balance must be restored, and Justice served."
"Justice is way overrated..."
A fist connected to the stranger’s face and he fell to the ground, stunned. Giles looked up to an outstretched hand. He took it and with a strong tug, he was lifted to his feet.
"Looks like you guys could use a little help. Mind if I cut in, B?" Faith flashed a confident smile and rushed to help Buffy.
"How’s this for a killer dovetail, Will?"
Willow’s head shot up to see Xander pointing to a furniture blueprint. "Um, it looks very nice, but I’d really prefer you didn’t describe anything as ‘killer,’ around here, unless well, it really is of course."
"Sorry!" Xander grinned and turned the paper back to study it again. "Do you think Carrie will like this?"
"I know she will, Xander. She kept saying wonderful things about everything you built last night at dinner. I thought we’d have to check her at the door to make sure she wasn’t stealing tables."
Xander laughed and then looked up seriously. "Do you like her, Will? I mean, do you really like her?" he asked nervously.
Willow smiled gently at him. "I do. She’s nice and she handled the slug thing really well after she got over the shock of it all. I think she’ll be okay with everything eventually and, well, yes, I do."
"This just feels so good, you know? I worry sometimes that it feels so good. And I’m worried about what I’ll do." He frowned. "It’s different from Anya, and that’s good and bad and scares me and makes me feel guilty and…" He shrugged helplessly. "What can I say? I’m a mess!"
She laughed. "You’re a good mess, Xander, and anyway, women enjoy cleaning up messy men. Not their messes, mind you, but them." She reached across the dining room table to grab his hand. "You two’ll be fine."
"Of course I forgot to ask Carrie the most important question when she was here."
"Does she have a sister?!"
Faith acted quickly, making it just in time to prevent another swift attack and Buffy sighed with relief as the dark Slayer took over.
The young girl flipped backwards quickly to where her sword was stuck upright in the demon’s chest. Grabbing it, she rapidly spun the blade in a fan-like motion to either side of her as she moved in towards Faith. Faith ignored the showy maneuver and stepped forward to plant a powerful, straightforward uppercut to the petite girl's chin. The young fighter fell back hard to the grass as her sword dropped to the dirt beside Faith.
"I should have known it would be you." The man seethed with fury and struggled to stand. "You are a coconspirator in this, guilty as all the others and will be dealt with accordingly."
"Don't do the crime if you can't do the time." Faith shrugged, as the man raised his crossbow toward her.
A deafening roar came from behind him and he jerked forward, his eyes wide, jaw dropping open. Blood trickled from his lips. With a gurgle and a gasp, he slowly sank to the ground as the water soaked Rarkatar demon removed his bloodied spike from the man's back.
Faith immediately charged the beast as Giles rushed to retrieve the discarded katana. Buffy limped forward to help Faith.
Giles reached the sword, passing the young fighter frozen in place. She was tearful, eyes wide with shock.
The demon lumbered slowly along, swinging its multiple arms wildly as Buffy and Faith kicked, jabbed and ducked.
"Faith!" Giles called out and carefully tossed the sword to her. With a pivot, catch and thrust, Faith skillfully sent the blade through the beast's chest. It let out a howl and collapsed dead on the grass.
Giles turned to look for the young attacker who'd assaulted them just moments before. Neither she nor her wounded companion was anywhere to be seen.
Faith strolled up alongside Buffy with a satisfied smile as she searched her pockets for something. After a moment, she pulled out a pack of cigarettes, claimed one as her reward for a job well done and lit it up. Puffs of smoke crept out from her curling lips as she gave a subtle wave to Giles.
"Just like old times, eh B? So... what's new with you guys?"
Willow looked up to see Xander staring at her thoughtfully. "What is it?"
"Sorry, just something you said earlier, about Carrie having a sister."
Willow laughed. "Don’t worry, I was just joking. Dating sisters would be a little too weird… even for us."
"Nah, it wasn’t that, well, okay, let’s make sure to never do that, but no, it was just that…." Xander trailed off hesitantly.
"I just want you to be happy. We don’t really talk about it, but I know you’ve got to miss Tara as much as I miss Anya. And then Kennedy left and …"
"Xander don’t worry. I’m okay about Kennedy. It was a mutual decision and we promised that we’d always be friends. She needed to be where she is and I need to be where I am." She laughed softly. "For going away and leaving me broken-hearted pain, Oz was about a billion times worse." She put down her pen and stared at her papers for a moment before looking up at Xander sadly. "But nothing compares to Tara. I miss her every day and I know I always will. When it starts to hurt a little bit too much, I just remind myself how lucky I was to have her in my life."
Xander stood up and walked around the table to hug Willow. "She was lucky to have you too, Will."
"Honey’s, we're home," Buffy called out as she came through the front door with help from Giles to keep her weight off her injured leg. "And we have some unexpected company."
Faith strolled in behind them, eyes wide as she scanned the spacious home. "Wow, roomy place. Ain't seen nothin' this big since Percy's Pad."
Dawn rushed down the stairs, coming to a screeching halt when she recognized the guest.
"Hey, Buffy junior, how's it hanging?" Faith gave a small wave.
"Hey," Dawn said flatly and continued on toward the kitchen. "I'm not sharing my room!"
"There's no need, Dawn. We have a guest room, if you recall." Giles responded as the kitchen door swung closed behind her.
"Where is everyone?" Buffy yelled, limping forward with Giles trying to support her with his free arm. Faith took the weapons bag from him and stood awkwardly in the center of the living room.
"Xander went out to the shed. He’s plotting some great present for Carrie. Willow's doing some research. I think she’s in the library," Dawn yelled through the closed door to the kitchen.
"You have a library? This place rocks." Faith stretched her neck out, trying to get a better look down the halls.
"It's more of a study, actually. We've converted the basement space to house all the remaining texts and supplies," Giles explained as he and Buffy carefully made their way to the living room couch. "Buffy, you need to get off that leg. I'll fetch some ice." He helped her elevate her leg up on the cushions, before slipping off his glasses and rubbing his face. He then gestured with them down the hall. "Faith, the guest room is just at the end of that hall there. Feel free to make yourself at home as I attend to Buffy's injury." He disappeared into the kitchen, leaving the two Slayers alone.
After a brief exchange of polite smiles, Faith motioned toward Buffy's leg. "You alright?"
"Oh, yeah. Just twisted. Sore. Nothin' to write home about which is good because it would be a waste of a postage stamp 'cause I'm already here." Buffy cringed at her babbling. "You?"
"Five by five." Faith started to stroll around the immediate space of the living room, examining the welcoming atmosphere. She noticed the famous scythe displayed above the hearth and snickered. "Giles must love that." She pointed toward the weapon.
"I told him it was either that or one of those singing fish plaque things. I think he chose the lesser of two evils."
Faith continued to look around the comfortable home. "Nice place you got here." She looked at the various pictures on the wall and spoke somewhat wistfully. "It’s really homey."
"Yep, it’s home," Buffy agreed. "And not a Hellmouth in sight."
"Don't you get bored?"
"Strangely, no. Local color keeps us busy enough."
They remained in awkward silence until Dawn burst through the kitchen door with an ice pack tight in her grip. "You didn't tell me you were injured."
"She'll be fine, Dawn. It's most likely a sprain." Giles hurried after her, pillows and a first aid kit cradled in his arms.
"Who's injured?" Willow asked, just coming up from the basement. "Tell me Xander didn't get into another barroom brawl." She saw Buffy on the couch with Giles carefully adjusting the height of the pillows under her leg and Dawn playing nursemaid. She started to rush forward when she caught sight of Faith and stopped. "Oh no. What's going on? Not another apocalypse?"
"So soon?" Xander came in from the back sliding glass door. "Where do we go to file a formal complaint? Is there some sort of cataclysm customer service department?" He too stopped and frowned at the group gathered in the living room.
"What's with the tag team ER here, guys? I'm fine." Buffy shooed them away. "We have company, remember?"
"Ah, the gang's all here." Faith gave a quick wave toward the others and settled herself on the edge of a chair. She grinned. "Wicked flashback."
"You did well, child," the wounded man said with a labored breath as the Slayer hurried to retrieve their bag of supplies from the shadows of the bridge overhang.
"I never should have left the beast alive. I was foolish." She knelt at his side and examined the puncture. It was deep, bleeding a thick crimson which soaked his clothes. His face was pale, sickly, lips quivering with fever and she worried about infection. He needed medical attention in a sterile and clean environment and not the damp and grimy locale sheltered in a park sewer culvert. "Forgive me."
He shook his smudged face, dismissing her concerns with a soft smile. "There is nothing to forgive. It was those artificial prophets who distracted you. You mustn't let them get to you, Kata-chan."
"They will pay for their crimes." Her anxious eyes searched the bag of supplies. "We haven't the medical supplies we need. I should take you to a hospital."
"It's too dangerous. They would discover us and prevent us from fulfilling your destiny." He coughed with a deep gurgle in his chest.
"But your wound is deep..."
His hand moved like lightning, as if to strike out at her but instead gripped her arm urgently. "You are the true Chosen One. No matter what befalls me, you have a sacred mission to fulfill your destiny. No matter the cost. Tell me you will."
"I will do as you ask, Sensei," she said uncertainly.
"Tell me!" He barked only to set off a spell of ragged coughs with his command.
She waited until his coughing quieted, wanting him to hear her. "The false Slayers will pay for their crimes and I will take my rightful place as the next of the Chosen warriors."
"And the powers will shift, returning to the worthy hands of the Watchers and the Council will stand proud once more," his voice trailed off weakly.
"I will make you proud, Sensei." Her delicate hand slipped into his and he closed his rough, bloodied fingers gently around hers.
"I already am, child." His empathetic stare shimmered in the dim light as a tear trickled from his eye. "I already am."
Faith wandered casually around the living room as everyone jostled for position. Willow sat in her Xander-crafted chair, notebook in hand. Dawn started to claim more than her fair share of the couch only to be directed to the other end by a patient wave from Giles. Buffy gave him a grateful smile as she stretched out. He helped prop her wounded leg up again with pillows and then remained standing protectively beside her. Faith smiled at the familiar sight of an overly concerned Watcher. She stopped at a shelf to look at the variety of knickknacks and pictures.
"So, what brings a city girl like you out to the boonies of our rural hideaway?" Xander asked, taking his usual seat near the fireplace.
"Council's had me doing fetching missions ever since Sunnydale. It was pretty much routine shop and drop until I found one stiff in Jersey. Looked like a suicide and the Council chalked it up to ‘Quad S'. I disagreed."
"Quad S?" Xander asked. "Isn't that a professional wrestler?"
"Slayer Selection Shock Syndrome. Sort of a post traumatic stress disorder but for newly activated Slayers," Willow explained. "We've lost a few by suicide, a few are in therapy. It can be a rough transition."
"Willow, I didn't realize you were keeping up with the Council reports." Giles smiled as he finally relaxed against the arm of the couch. Buffy gave his thigh a friendly nudge with her shoulder.
"Medically, it's a fascinating condition. And since I'm blame girl for bringing this on them, I figured I better try and help if I can."
"Faith, why did you doubt the Council's postulation of death in these cases? Historically, some newly activated Slayers did have mental issues and since Willow’s spell, we have found a number clearly fitting the syndrome."
"I know, and I’ve seen two myself that were clear cases. But this one just didn't feel right. Then I found two other newbie Slayers dead after Jersey. One looked like suicide, but in the other, I found both Watcher and Slayer flame broiled extra crispy style in a landfill outside of Dayton, Ohio. What little was left of them seemed to match with Council files on Katako Hojo and Takashi Ito."
"Seemed to match? So you doubted the official identification then?"
"Something didn't gel and no one could explain why the Japanese pair were even in this country. It wasn’t on official Council business and it’s a long way to come to turn yourself into crispy critter." Faith shrugged. "I guess I was getting caught up in this a bit too much. The Council tried to reassign me so I put in for an extended vacation. Mr. P gave it to me and I've been using it to investigate two more murders up north."
"Murders, I thought you said these were suicides?" Dawn said confused.
"Changed the ‘tude on account of me coming face to face with the officially deceased duo in Vancouver. Watcher and Slayer looked pretty damn healthy for a couple of well-done corpses. I asked what's the what and they went psycho, tried taking me out. Robin showed up in time to save my ass from becoming the next member of the suicide club."
"Why isn't he with you now?" Buffy asked.
"He’s got the entire Slayer Central to worry about in Cleveland. But don’t worry, he’s reporting to the Council, talking to them about reopening all the closed cases from day one, and to send on some help to cage these animals. We figured I should keep hunting and I played connect the dots with the closest known Slayers and your ticket came up. I figured you'd be the next target, B."
Giles removed his glasses to give them a good cleaning. "Perhaps I should phone Percy, let him know you’re here and what we saw…"
"No!" Faith forcefully interrupted him. She quickly relaxed and gave an indifferent shrug. "I mean, Robin’s on it. He’ll get it done."
Giles looked closely at her and then nodded slowly. "Very well."
"You think this messed up Slayer and her Watcher are killing Slayers and making them look like suicides?" Xander recapped.
"Not all. But I think they are using this known crisis as a mask for their activities." Faith pivoted on her feet, growing restless.
"So, what's with the Crime and Punishment routine? What'd we do?" Buffy asked.
"Red touched on it earlier. Crazy Watcherman thinks you're like the antichrist of Slayers since we did the wicked mojo back in Sunnydale. Thinks we're responsible for sending the world to hell or something. They want to set things back the way they were and they're willing to kill every Slayer to do it."
"I'm familiar with Takashi Ito by reputation, although I hadn’t met him before tonight. Much of his family had ties with the Council. Three generations of Watchers, if I recall."
"Kinda like you," Willow offered brightly. Giles winced slightly at the remark. Xander and Willow noticed and exchanged sad looks with each other.
"Whatever the sit-rep, they seem to have serious wood for the Slayers but not so much the Watchers. There was only one Watcher corpse. Well, there was one used to fake Ito’s death and we still don't know the true identity of the body." Faith motioned toward the front door and flashed an awkward smile. "Hey, I'm more about the action than talking. Mind if I go catch a quick smoke outside?"
Giles nodded. "Be our guest."
"There's a chipped planter out on the step, you can toss your butts in there," Buffy suggested.
"Tossin' butts, that'll be when we get these two. Right B?" Faith smirked and strutted out the door.
Once the door closed behind her, Buffy turned to Giles. "Something's fishy here," she said softly. "She's keeping this from the Council."
"You think she's lying about Wood?" Giles asked.
"Naw, these lunatics definitely had it in for me..."
Giles snickered. "I meant about Robin reporting to the Council."
"Oh... right." Buffy blushed slightly. "I think she really wants to go it alone but knew she needed help."
"I must admit this rogue Slayer is surprisingly skilled. Perhaps it’s a good thing for the both of you to work together on this. I'll see what the Council has to say about what's truly going on."
"Giles, do me a favor and be cryptic guy with this. Faith might be hiding something, but I don't want her in the hot seat with the Council."
"I'll see what I can do." His gaze shifted to her injured leg. "Are you sure you're alright?"
Buffy reached out, gripped his sweatshirt and pulled him down to her, placing a slow, sensual kiss on his lips. Xander and Willow didn’t hide their grins of satisfaction.
"I am now," she whispered, stealing one more nibble of his bottom lip before releasing him to his assignment.
"I told you guys, no PDA’s!" Dawn moaned and headed for the kitchen.
"Hello?" The soft, low masculine tone sounded from the receiver.
"Hey baby." Faith smiled.
"Faith," Robin's voice purred. "I was just thinking about you."
"Really, what were you thinking?"
"Sorry, there are children present. No sweet cellular sugar allowed. Raincheck?"
Faith could hear the sounds of raucous kids and it made her smile. "Doin' the late night hoop thing, huh?"
"Gotta keep the boys out of trouble. City cut some budgets and the local YMCA lost it's main funding. The Council offered up some cash to establish a teen center. I told them it might be a good place to recruit some talent. Plus, it will be a good cover."
"Always with the future planning." She shifted her cell pone to her other ear as she paced along the front door step, smoking. "How's it going?"
"The Hellmouth is fairly quiet at the moment. How's the baby Slayer wrangling going?"
"You sound more like Percy everyday. Are you going to make it home anytime soon?"
"You know I gotta do this, baby."
"I know, but I miss you, Faith. I need some quality one on Chosen Oneness, if you know what I mean."
"Fuck, do I," she growled. "God I miss you too. Won't be long now. Almost got this crazy chick cornered." Faith glanced down at her golden luck bracelet, a gift Robin had given her on her birthday, and smiled. "Can I call you later and get a return on that rain check?"
"Payment with interest. Talk at you then?"
"Later." With a push of a button, she cut the conversation off. She stared down at the deactivated phone and whispered, "Love you."