"Tell me again why we're doing this?" Carrie asked, her eyes nervously searching the shadows of the trees. "A lot of bad made-for-TV movies start this way and the girls strolling along dimly lit paths in deserted parks never make it past the first commercial."
"Look on the bright side," Dawn suggested. "Make it past the opening credits and you get a chance to beat on Xander." She grinned in anticipation. "Until psycho-Slayer-chick shows up, you’ll be able to get a few good shots in."
Carrie shivered and tucked her hands into her jacket pockets. "You sound like you're going to enjoy this too much."
Dawn nodded agreeably. "It's not everyday I get to beat up a Watcher. Something tells me it will be therapeutic for me right now."
Carrie scanned the deepening shadows. "I just can't get over this whole Slayer-Watcher thing."
Dawn gave a happy little skip. "Yeah, Buffy and Giles making with the smoochies and being all happy and everything is a little weird."
Carrie sighed. "So giant slugs are normal and kissing and being happy is weird?"
Dawn flashed her a smile. "Welcome to my world."
Giles slipped the ski mask over his face and straightened it until he could see through the eye holes.
"Mugger chic," Xander snickered. "All the rage in this spring's fashion scene. You look good, all dark and menacing."
"This did seem the proper choice. I doubted the beanie with the sparkled tassel would instill the appropriate amount of dread."
"Good call." Xander adjusted his hood and slipped on his gloves. "So how's the budding romance treating you? Any budding yet?"
"You will get nothing from me, sir." Even with the mask, Xander could see the stern glare and playful grin shaping through the material
"Darn! Buffy ain't givin' it up either. You guys are so irritating with your 'right to privacy' gibberish," Xander teased, gesturing with his fingers to quote. "One of these days you'll have to give up the... goods... and..." He trailed off as the rustling of leaves behind them made Giles and Xander turn around to see themselves surrounded by a gang of thugs, armed with switchblades, pipes, and a variety of blunt force weapons.
"You the boy scout pricks been helping little old ladies cross the street around here for the past week and messin' with my boys?" A tall, scar faced, mid-twenties, gang banger strutted forward, swishing his switchblade with a skillful maneuver.
"Movin' in on our territory!" Another young thug slapped his lead pipe into his other hand. "I say it's time we clean house."
"I don't suppose you brought any gear with you?" Xander asked, backing slowly away.
"Stake, crucifix, holy water," Giles said flatly. "The usual."
"Ever think it's about time you take your head out of the Hellmouth?"
"The thought has crossed my mind."
"Giles called the Council, talked with Percy," Buffy started, limping lightly as she strolled along with Faith.
"Right, I figured he would." Faith lit up a smoke and inhaled deeply, her eyes staring up at the dark and cloudy night sky. "Knew you guys wouldn't trust me."
"It's not about trust, Faith. It's about getting the job done and doing it right."
"I'm getting it done, my way."
"What's going on? Why are you keeping this from them, from us?"
"I just have to handle this on my own."
"A little too late for that, we're neck high in it now. Tell me what's going on with you and this girl."
"I have to stop her, B. That's all." Puffs of smoke dissipated around her.
"The Council wants her brought in."
"She needs to be stopped."
"She'll stop when we capture her."
"And then what?" Faith shrugged, frustrated.
"Rehabilitation," Buffy said, surprised by Faith's hostility. "That's what they've done with the others. It works."
"Not everyone can be fixed," Faith mumbled, tossing her cigarette butt to the gravel path and crushing it under the heel of her boot.
Buffy stopped, blocking Faith's way. "What is this really about?"
Some darkly clad, hooded figures stepped out from the bushes and Dawn gave a friendly little wave.
"That must be them. Now try and look all damsel-ly," she coached Carrie.
"But not too helpless, right? I can get a few good shots in?" Carrie asked, needing reassurance.
"Oh yeah, take your best shot or two." Dawn let out a scream as the taller figure rushed forward and grabbed her bag. "Help! Help me!"
The other figure moved toward Carrie but was taken by surprise by a kick to the shin. He fell back hopping on one foot.
"Help! Help me, I'm being mugged!" Carrie yelled loudly as she watched the man grab at his leg. “Was that ok?” she asked Dawn in a dramatic stage whisper. Her assailant lunged forward again and she dodged out of the way. "I feel ridiculous."
Dawn gave her bag a vicious tug and managed to pull it free from her attacker’s grip. "You're doing great! Just keep making noise.” She swung her bag at the masked man and screamed again. “Help!"
Katako jerked to her feet at the sounds of distress calling out from the distance beyond the sewer overpass. She glanced down at her Watcher. He was pale and quivering with chills, his face glistening with sweat from his fever. With another glance toward the calls for help, she knelt beside him and pulled the frayed blanket further over his shivering body.
"I must go but I will return shortly."
There was no response.
"Be strong, Sensei," she whispered softly. "Stay alive." After one final regretful glance back, she took off running.
"Listen, fellas..." Xander continued to back away as Giles shifted sideways, putting himself between the gang and his young friend. "I'm sure we can come to some kind of understanding."
"Understand this. It's our park. You are trespassing. Trespassers have to pay the fine."
"What's the fine?" Xander gulped.
The leader lifted his blade and pointed it back and forth to Giles and Xander as he talked. "Your money, your clothes, your asses!"
"Would you settle for a stick of gum and a half eaten pack of Rolaids?" Xander bargained.
"Still battling that heartburn?" Giles asked, guardedly watching the gang encircling them. "Serves you right with all that bloody hot sauce you douse on everything."
"Can we discuss my eating habits another time?"
"My associate and I have a prior obligation to attend to, gentlemen. Perhaps if you come back at a later time..."
"Would someone shut these assholes up?" The leader shouted.
With that, the four gang members charged. Giles lunged forward, planting a solid tackle to the midsections of two of the men, sending all three men crashing to the ground. Xander dodged one aggressor's swinging pipe, managing to shove him off balance with a shoulder block. The other followed soon after, and Xander spun around in time to land a foot to his chest, sending the guy to his knees, lurching forward, gasping for breath.
"This isn't so bad." Xander glanced back to see Giles faring quite well on his own, taking turns sparring with the much less capable thugs. A hard blow to the center of Xander's back painfully reminded him of his first foe. He collapsed to the grass with a yelp of pain, struggling to take in a breath.
Giles pivoted around, and seeing the bat coming toward his friend’s head, ran to intervene. The wood came crashing onto Giles' boot as the Watcher kicked at it, splintering the wood. Xander rolled out of the way as wood chips exploded and rained down around him. Giles fell to the ground, clutching his foot in agony.
"Giles!" Xander jumped to his feet and rushed at his assailant, tackling him with the same rugby tackle Giles had displayed just moments before. The thug had the wind knocked from him, and Xander didn't give him the chance to recover, sending punch after angry punch to the young man's face. Each strike grew in intensity as the recipient gasped for breath, as Xander's raw knuckles cut into his nose, splitting his lips, chipping teeth.
"Let's get outta here!" One thug called to the other as he stumbled to get to his feet, still struggling to catch his breath.
"What about Zach?"
Two of the thugs took off running, the third hovered hesitantly. Giles swallowed down the pain and managed to get upright, still favoring his throbbing foot.
"I suggest you leave while you still can," Giles rumbled threateningly and the young man took off after his friends.
Xander continued to beat on the barely conscious gang member, mindlessly hammering away.
Giles approached cautiously, his face concerned. "Xander, that's enough." There was no response, only more vicious blows. Giles hobbled over and grabbed Xander's upraised wrist. "He's done, Xander. He's out. We need to go before they return with larger numbers."
Xander stood and staggered backwards, eyes wide with shock and regret. He cradled his bloody hand and stared at the body on the ground.
Calls for help interrupted the awkward silence of the moment and Giles turned and struggled towards them, limping on his wounded foot. Xander quickly offered his support and they hurried off through the woods.
Buffy couldn't believe Faith's stubbornness. "Faith, she was practically raised by a lunatic, someone who poisoned her mind. The Council might be able to help her, deprogram her."
"She had a mind of her own, B. No matter what her boss told her, she made her own decisions and she's gotta pay for them."
"Boss?" Buffy jumped on the word. "You mean her Watcher?"
"Boss, Watcher, whatever. Point is, she's a cold-blooded killer. She doesn't need reformation; she needs a dirt nap six feet under. That's the only thing that'll stop her."
"So you're her judge, jury and executioner now?"
"Why not? I know the breed. Lost cause, all the way!"
"You weren't. You came around, maybe she can too." Buffy saw Faith arguing the point with a shaking head before she'd even finished. "Why have you got it in for this girl? You don't know the whole story. You don't know her..."
"I do know her. That was me," Faith yelled hoarsely. "And there's no excuses, no one else to blame, even if I try to slap it on Wilkins. I hurt those people. I killed them!"
"Yeah, you did. But you also helped save the world." Buffy reached out to the Slayer only to have Faith pull away. "You aren't like her, Faith. You're one of the good guys."
"How can you be so sure? I mean, I was good once before, right? Didn't stop me from slipping into the black. What's gonna stop me from doing it again?"
"You," Buffy said with confidence enough for the both of them. "You're the only one who can. But you won't be able to until you make peace with what you did, make peace with yourself."
"I'm thinkin' my chances aren't so good, then," she responded desolately.
"I don't understand. What's got you spooked like this? What happened?"
Dawn’s attacker grew more persistent, forcing her to stumble forward as he tried again to tear the school bag free from her. He took a swing, his gloved fist coming mere centimeters from connecting to her face.
"Give me that bag, bitch!"
Dawn's eyes went wide as she realized it wasn't Giles and Xander attacking them. She ran towards Carrie, waving her hands in a panic.
"It's not them, Carrie. Run!"
Dawn reached Carrie, just as her mugger successfully ripped the purse from her hand. Dawn took her by the arm and prevented her from going after the bag. “Come on!” she cried and they began running towards the park’s boundary with the two men in pursuit.
Just as the muggers reached the women, two dark blurs erupted from the bushes and knocked down the assailants. The black clothed figures wrestled with the muggers as Dawn and Carrie continued to run. Dawn slowed to glance back at the skirmish.
"That must be them." Dawn sighed with relief as sets of gloved fists exchanged strikes to the sound of loud thuds and grunts.
"Should we help?" Carrie asked, fidgeting nervously with her tattered purse strap, the only remaining piece of the bag.
"Which ones?" Dawn shrugged. "I think we should stay back. At least until we have an idea of who is who. Giles and Xander can handle themselves. Why just a few weeks ago, they were busting faces in a bar room brawl. Very macho."
"I hate to admit it, but it's kind of sexy." Carrie smiled, embarrassed.
"I think I prefer the strong, pacifist type, myself." Dawn scanned the horizon. "I don't think crazy Slayer will show now. Somehow I think our cover is blown."
"You think?" Carrie responded sarcastically.
"What’s going on, Faith? Talk to me." Buffy stood firm, hands on her hips, determined to get a straight answer.
"I think he loves me," Faith said softly, as if the words hurt her.
"Robin? That’s a good thing, isn’t it?"
Her dark eyes lifted to Buffy’s, her face long and sad. "He’s one of the good guys, B."
"So are you."
"Am I? Let’s review my rap sheet: got my Watcher killed; killed two innocent men; tried to kill you, Angel, and Willow; practically raped Xander; tortured Wes and took over your body, tricking your boy Riley into…" She paused, her lips curling to a wounded smile. "Never mind. Anyway, I sound like a home team player to you?"
"Everyone makes mistakes. Some worse than others, but it’s how you face and work through them that counts." Buffy urged her. "Listen, I’ve forgiven you for your actions back then. We all have. Don’t you think it’s about time for you to as well?"
"I don’t deserve him, B. He’s golden."
"It’s not about deserving, it’s about fate. Some people are fated to end up together. So if you’re lucky enough to realize the right one’s come along, latch onto him for all you’re worth, because second chances are rare. Even more rare than gold."
"Believe me or don't. All I'm saying is that you have no one to blame but yourself for stopping your own happiness."
Faith shuffled her feet thoughtfully at the ground for a moment before speaking. "I get it. I don't really buy it, but I get it." Her sad smile seemed to transform into that of hope. "Look at you with the Yoda-like wisdom. When did you get so upbeat about fate?"
"I had a good teacher." Buffy grinned slyly.
Faith's eyes narrowed as a sly grin curled along her lips. "So, you and Giles at long last… Tell me, B, when did you finally wake up?’
"What do you mean 'finally'?"
"Please..." Faith snickered. "There’s always been this thing between you. Made me kind of jealous, because I knew there was never going to be room for me. Not really."
"No, we’re cool now. Like you said, that was the past. But you know, after Sunnydale sank into the sands and we were standing there at the pit’s edge, he couldn’t take his eyes off you. The entire drive to the hospital, he was looking at you like you had two heads or something. It was a different look, not the look of a proud Watcher, something more. And he wasn’t hiding it anymore. He loves you, doesn’t he?"
Without skipping a beat, Buffy answered, "God I hope so, cause I got it bad for him."
"We talkin’ a happy ending, here?"
"I think so. After all these years, who woulda thunk it?"
"You two deserve it." Faith shrugged. "It's fate, right?"
Buffy nodded and Faith suddenly glanced around, distracted. "Hey, aren’t we supposed to be coming to the rescue about now?"
Faith took off running as Buffy hurried after her.
No one noticed the young Slayer perched on a nearby hillside, watching from afar as the gang came together. She frowned at the sight of the strange group of civilians aiding the false Slayers in giving the last two muggers the lesson of a lifetime on park etiquette. She heaved a sigh and took off running back into the darkness to return to the side of her ailing Watcher.
"These Slayers have collaborators," the Slayer called out as she stepped into the dark shadows of her hideout under the highway bridge and sewer grate. "They enlist the help of civilians in their treachery." She moved deeper within the covered area, eyes searching the blackness for her Watcher.
"They tried to bait me, to trick me," she growled. "You are right. They have no honor, Sensei." She disarmed herself of her hidden weapons and focused on the location she'd left her Watcher. As his form shaped from the black, her eyes widened in fear. He lay motionless, pale lips parted, breathless.
"Sensei?" she called out. No answer. Her heart raced as she rushed to his side, pulling him in close, cradling him in her arms as she frantically checked his vital signs. No pulse, no breathing.
"No... don't leave me. Please!" She shook him. "I need you! I can't do this alone." He slipped through her arms, falling to rest on the mud and grime. Her cry echoed down the sewer, fading off in the chilled breeze. "Oh, Sensei," she whispered. And then even more softly, "I’m sorry, Otosan."
She began to weep softly, stroking the hair gently, straightening his clothes, wiping at the mud. "I’m sorry, so sorry. I should have been here with you. You shouldn’t have been alone."
Finally she wiped her eyes and picked up her weapons. She stood above his body and pledged, "They will pay for this. Their blood will soak the earth." And in a flash, she was gone.