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This story is No. 4 in the series "Oh, the people she knows...". You may wish to read the series introduction and the preceeding stories first.

Summary: Looking into her birth records takes Faith not to Boston, but to Philly, of all places. A chance encounter leads to more mystery and deadly dangers... (Update to add cover art)

Categories Author Rating Chapters Words Recs Reviews Hits Published Updated Complete
Supernatural > Faith-Centered
Marvel Universe > Blade > Faith-Centered
Television > Night Heat
(Current Donor)IronbearFR1833190,3063016967,28029 Sep 0718 Oct 13Yes

Nothing beats a good piece of hickory...

Chapter 23: "Nothing beats a good piece of hickory... "

Demon bar number two was a rerun of number one, only with more violence. The inhabitants didn't take well to Faith and Major Cases entry, nor to Faith dusting the four vampires sitting at a side table when they stood. It was Faith''s laying out the situation that sent everything sideways, however... Less than five minutes after they walked in, there was gunfire and bodies all over and Christine Meadows had gotten her first real taste of what being a slayer encompassed when a fyarl demon tore her shotgun out of her hands and backhanded her away. Faith's reaction was to break off her own brawl with two creatures just long enough to toss Christine a sword before lunging back in.

When the red haze cleared from her vision, the fyarl was decapitated and there were body parts from at least two more scattered around her and she was grinning wildly and looking around for more. She felt exhilarated, bruised, sick at her stomach... and more alive than she ever had before.

Faith's only reaction was to re-appropriate her blade and sheath it, before looking over the rim of her shades at her saying, "Nice. Technique needs work, but I think you have the ferocity thing down pat there."

The owner of the place had caught an incendiary slug and a load of silver buckshot through the chest from O'Brien and Hogan's shotguns almost simultaneously, so Faith repeated the score to the bartender and they moved on. The only injuries were several cracked ribs on Detective Burns.

At number three, after taking a look around once they'd walked in and Winchester and O'Brien's people had fanned out around her, Faith relaxed slightly, grinning. With the exception of two tables of vampires glaring at each other and muttering, Kaineron on one side of the bar and a half dozen Draaken staring them down from the other - the bar was filled with predominately peaceful demon types. The vampires - both sets - glared. The demons looked more terrified of them than anything else. Dean looked more satisfied after the carnage in this place. Faith was beginning to worry about him: his expression reminded her far too much of some of her worse moments.

Burns, Stevie, and Carson came in the back as Faith looked around and said, "Kay-oh. I'm Faith, Slayer." She paused a moment to let the muttering die out, "We're here for the vamps. Rest of you can scram - bartender will give you the four-one-one when we're done with him." She pinned the human looking bartender with her eyes as he sidled along the bar attempting to join the 'rest of you' in scramming. "That means you stay, chuckles."

Dust and ashes drifted down to the floor shortly after the exodus, except for one Draaken that Faith let go after repeating her 'Vamp free town' speech to him and telling him to spread the word.

"Slayer," the Irish looking bar demon looked up from polishing the bar top nervously as she ambled up to lean against it with Christine and the others spread out around her.

"Demon," she nodded. "Have any decent beer?"

"Guinness?" Faith nodded, shrugging. O'Brien gave the bartender a careful look as he went to get the drink and then turned a curious look on Faith.

"You sure he's a demon? Looks human enough to me," he said.

"Brachen demon. They can take on a natural human guise fairly easily." She picked up the mug and took a sip, saying, "Show him."

"Oh, come on... you know that's uncomfortable as all hell." Faith gave him a steady look and he sighed theatrically and spikes popped out all over his face and went away immediately. "Happy now? Sheesh."

"Yup." She grinned. "These you don't have to worry about, Five-oh. They're mostly harmless."

The demon gave her an outraged look. "Mostly harmless? Harmless?!?" He leaned on the bar, turning to O'Brien. "Name's Kyle. And, why, I'll have you know that back in the old country, I was known as the Scourge of Killarney. Harmless me mother's left buttock. Why - there's no end to the atroc... stop that, Slayer."

"Stop what?" Faith gave him an innocent look.

"Stop nodding your head seriously with your eyes wide and going 'uh huh, uh huh'. It ruins the bloody effect."

"Uh huh." She shook her head, grinning.

"So, you're really harmless?" Christine stepped up to lean against the bar next to Faith.

"I would say 'non-hostile', myself, but... " He rolled his eyes when Faith gave him her 'hanging on every word' face again. "Oh for... yes. I even catch crickets and put them outside rather than step on them. Satisfied? Roaches I let my cat eat, however."

"You have a cat?" Faith lifted an eyebrow. "Poker stakes?"

"Poker... oh, that's bloody gross, Slayer." He shook his head, ignoring Giambione's snickering at Faith's winding him up, and turned to Christine. "Heard there were two of you now. Isn't Buffy Summers supposed to be a lot younger?"

"Younger.. ?" Christine gave him an accused look, then glowered.

"Ummm... that's not Buffy." Faith said.

"You mean there's three of you now? What the fuck?" He shot her an incredulous look.

"More than that. Haven't you heard? Sunnydale go down da hole, huge magical effect, slayers all over the place... " Faith gave him an incredulous look back at his blank expression. "You're kidding me?"

"Sunnydale fell in a hole? The main Hellmouth?" His eyes went wide. "When did this happen?"

"Don't you ever watch the news on that thing?" Faith pointed at the wall mounted television.

"No. Sports. Who the hell wants to watch a bunch of blow dried idiots spout bullshit?"

"Demon underground? First Evil? Watcher's council blown up? Rain of fire in LA? Slayers popping up all over? Newly active Hellmouths in Cleveland and Chicago? Any of this ringing a bell?"

The bartender was shaking his head with each, increasingly looking at her as if she was insane. He nodded furiously and said, "Nope."

"What, have you been living under a fucking... " Faith gave him a suspicious look. "Hey!" She glared.

"Gotcha going there, didn't I?" He cocked his thumb and forefinger and fired it at her. "Ruin my bloodthirsty reputation, will you?"

"You asshole," Faith glowered at him, taking a swig of her beer. "I think I'll nail you into a box and ship you to the props department at Wormhole X-treme. Wiseass."

"You just shot holes all over my bar and I'm an asshole? Sheesh." He shook his head and looked around at the cops and Dean, "Can I get you folks anything? Beer?" Seeing the hesitant looks, he added, "Beer beer. No tricks, no Mickey Finns, no nothing. Just beers."

"Might as well," Faith said with a sour look at him. "Should be all right: he knows very little would affect me or Chris and we'd still be here after."

"Slayer, you wound me." He started setting up bottles for the others. The smirk he got from Faith had 'don't tempt me' in it as clear as a telegraph. She dug several bills out of her pocket and tossed them on the bar. Kyle looked at them and shook his head, pushing them back. "On the house, Slayer."

"No." She slid them over again. "No freebies."

"Why not?" Christine gave her a curious look as she took a drink.

"No freebies. Information's one thing: that's the cost of them being left alone." Faith met hers, O'Brien's, and Hogan's eyes in turn. "But no freebies, and no 'slayer discounts'. Leads eventually to lookin' the other way from things we shouldn't."

"You're hard, Slayer." Kyle shook his head, sorrowfully.

"Been down that road," Faith gave him a flat look. "Ain't traveling it again." She finished her beer, "Why we're here... "

Kyle held up a hand, looking from her to the others. "Word's already gone around. Consider it said." When Faith lifted an eyebrow, he shrugged. "New invention. Called a 'telephone'." Giambione laughed and Faith grinned with a rueful expression.

"So there is," she nodded. "Who's the big player for the Draaken in this city? And where can we find both him and Prince Santos?"

"Not together, I would suspect." His tone and expression were wry. "Santos owns the old Penn Ryan Manor by the Delaware." Faith glance to O'Brien and received a nod indicating he knew of the place. "Draaken have several factions, but the biggest is run by an elder who goes by Kreigan. He holds court at the old Bolton estate."

Faith nodded, "Thanks." She gave the demon bartender a not entirely unfriendly look. "Time to saddle up, then. Hope you're not planning to use that new invention to pass the word ahead of us?"

He shook his head, "Naw. I don't care much for vamps. Frag 'em all." His eyes went slightly wide as her full import registered. "Wait... you're going to hit both of them tonight? That's crazy!"

"Good. Maybe they'll think so, too."

.................................................................................

Faith checked her watch. Three and three, vampire and demon haunts, and except for the last one here it had taken longer to drive between them than the time spent inside showing the flag. If Blade and Vince were on the same track, that was a total of ten others hit in the same time frame. By now, survivors were scattering and frenzied messages and rumors were going out in all directions. Safe to say the big bads knew something was going down.

And it was barely 10pm yet...

"Night's still young," Faith glanced up at the half moon and lit a cigar, then looked over at O'Brien.

"And we are old," he gave her a sour grin.

*snort* "Speak for yourself, Five-oh." Corners of her eyes crinkled at him. "Know what you mean. S'not the years, it's the mileage." He snorted back.

"And you got a lot of miles, girl," a familiar voice said as its owner came around the building corner. Everyone tensed, weapons moving unconsciously in that direction.

"Gunn," Faith nodded, letting the others know to stand down. "You still say the sweetest things, babe." Her eyes swept over the taller black man, giving him a probing examination. "See you didn't get dead on me."

"Naw. Just exercising my jaws so far tonight. You guys been doing the heavy lifting." He gestured back to the sword grip extending over his shoulder, "'Bout ready to exercise something else now."

Dean pushed past her, jostling her shoulder as he went by her and Gunn. Faith stared at his back with her eyes going narrow. Frank and O'Brien looked after him with frowns. Faith shook her head.

"Hey. What's your problem, Dean?" She caught up with him in two long steps and put a hand on his arm. He shook it off, turning on her.

"That." He pointed back at the bar they'd just left, jaw working for a moment. "You standing there joking around with that thing, and letting all of those demons skate out."

"Shoulda killed 'em all, huh?" Faith nodded. "They're not evil, Dean. And they're not a threat. We're here for a purpose."

"They're demons," Dean gave her an exasperated look, then moved his hands and ran them through his hair, frustrated. "Of course they're a threat - they're not human."

"Neither am I, Dean." The look that met his eyes wasn't hostile, or challenging. Merely... understanding. "Neither is Christine, any more."

"Bullshit." He shook his head, "You're as human as I am. Or O'Brien."

"No. I'm a twenty year old woman who had the essence of a primal spirit bound into her at the age of fifteen," Faith stated, flat. "I'm a predator wearing the shape of a young woman, no more human than our blonde vampiress is. Less human than that Brachen bartender in some ways."

"No, you're a twenty year old woman who happens to be a hunter like me." Dean made to brush past her again. This time she didn't give with the push, moving instead into his path. When he reached her, he bounced back a step.

"This ain't the time, and it ain't the place, Dean, but you've been on edge over this all night and getting more tightly wound with every place we hit. It's going to get someone killed. Finish it, put it behind, and then let's move on."

"All right," he said, clenching his jaw. "Demons. Supernatural creatures. You can't leave them behind to co-exist with humans. They're evil."

"I'm a supernatural creature, and I'm evil." Faith said, softly. "Five-oh and his people are human, and they're evil."

"What?!?" Dean gave her an incredulous look, clenching his fists. Frank Giambione started to take a step forward and Gunn put a hand on his arm, shaking his head. "They're cops. Sure... a lot of cops are crooked, but evil? You're nuts."

"Just figured that out, huh?" A small grin twisted the corner of Faith's mouth, then disappeared. "Yeah. They're hired guns for the politicians. Their job entails imposing someone's political will on other people at gunpoint and at threat of law, without the consent of the people being imposed on. Stealing property and controlling lives. You and I pay their salaries and their bosses salaries with taxes, but you don't want to be imposed on? Hey - too bad. Try to say 'no' sometime, or resist the way you would if a regular thug wanted your money or to dictate how you live. See how fast comes it a club upside the head, or a gun, or a pair of cuffs. Refuse to do what a politician wants to do with your property sometime, and when O'Brien comes out to enforce the decision, point a gun at him and tell him to get off your ground like you would any trespasser. See how fast you become a 'right wing terrorist' and some Lon Horiuchi type puts cross hairs on you and executes you with legal blessing." She pointed over at Hogan, "Hogan and his people are an exception, not the rule. They're more interested in what's right than in what's legal. More interested in enforcing real law: rape, murder, robbery, assault, than in petty regulations. That's why you're not sitting in County waiting for the BATFE to pick up you and Sam, and why I'm standing here with enough hardware to arm a renaissance faire and I don't have cuffs on." She shrugged, "But the job they do is still evil because it entails forcing someone else's will on other people against their wills. At gun point, and with the threat of a cage or death backing it up. It's innately evil and it taints them and it taints everything they touch."

"Bullshit." Dean glared. "And you're not evil, either."

"Why? Because I'm an attractive girl you slept with? And I did a few nice things?" Faith's eyes were amused. "I killed a man by accident when I was fifteen and tried to cover it up. I murdered two more later and watched the life go out in their eyes and smiled at them while it did. Three... but one was a demon, and by the rules we play by, he don't count. I turned on the good guys and joined up with an evil sorcerer who wanted to become a demon. If he'd made it, it would have meant the deaths of thousands of people. I kidnapped a girl and enjoyed threatening to torture and kill her and watching the fear behind her eyes. It was power, a rush. " She could see every word hitting him like bullets, and she couldn't stop the calm rush of words. "I tried to kill my sister slayer's lover, and that's the only one I won't cop to: he was a vampire, and we're supposed to kill vampires, souled or not makes no difference. She stuck my own knife in my gut because she needed my blood to cure him of the poison I stuck in him. Nothing heroic about it: pure selfish want - I saw it in her eyes. And she was one of the 'good guys'. Which of us was evil there?" Faith's voice went even softer, "When I woke up from my coma, I held her little sister and her mom hostage. I switched bodies with her and slept with her new lover to hurt her. The only one there who wanted to be friends with me... I practically raped, and later when he wanted to help me, I tried to strangle him. I kidnapped Wesley Price and tortured him: not because he tried to help have me kidnapped and sent back to England for trial - but because it was a way to hurt someone else. Evil, by any standards you want to name."

"You were sick back then. You don't do those things any more," Dean's glare was a bit less certain than it had been.

"I am not going to let you do that. That was a reason, not an excuse. It wasn't even the real reason. The predator inside took over and I let it." Faith's eyes smoked into him. "I enjoyed doing those things. Every single minute of every single day, I walk a knife's edge around decisions that most people take for granted. Do I save this guy or turn away and let the vamps have him? Do I gut the guy who just elbowed me in line at the supermarket... or do I ignore it? Do I flip the bird at the ditz who just cut me off in traffic and move on? Or do I chase her down and rip out her spine for it? I walk that edge successfully because I deliberately make choices that other people take for granted. I don't ever lose that deliberation, because I can't afford to: if I my awareness slips, then I kill. No cage can hold me unless I let it. I'd enjoy feeding that darkness again. It makes me sick inside constantly to know how much I'd enjoy letting it slip... "

"Yeah, but you do keep that control. You don't do those things any more." Dean stated. Faith shook her head.

"Makes me a passive danger. Just like them," she jerked her head at the bar. "Means O'Brien doesn't have to worry about me and put me down... unless my control slips. Same for those. The vampires we've been hunting down are an active danger: they consider humans as prey, just like I did. We're killing them not because they're 'evil', but because they're predators that can't be allowed to hunt here. What makes you think the demons we let go are the same?"

"They're demons," Dean shook his head, frustrated. "No such thing as 'harmless'. They don't have souls or conscience."

O'Brien and Hogan made a gesture for the rest of the squad to keep their eyes open. Dean and Faith might as well have been enclosed in a bubble at the moment, concentration locked on each other to the exclusion of everyone else.

"Naw. That's the same mistake a lot of slayers make, and the old watcher's council used to. They don't have human souls, Dean. They have demon souls," Faith shook her head. "And having a soul or the lack of one doesn't make you 'good' or 'evil'. I had a fucking soul when I murdered and tortured. Serial killers have souls... and they're bigger threats than that bartender. My friend Angel having a soul doesn't make him 'good', what makes him good are the choices he makes. I could name another who was turning that way when he still had a demon soul. Our vampire bitch isn't a demonic vamp like we find at the Hellmouths: she still has her human soul after being turned. Soul doesn't make her what she is. She's no more 'evil' or 'good' than a lioness is. She's just a predator, doing what a predator does." Faith's gaze was level on his eyes, "When I killed that demon in the first bar, I killed a person, just like when I accidentally staked Alan Finch. When I threw a UV-grenade into that vamp bar, I killed people; people who just happened to be monsters. No different than when you kill a human. If I gutted that bartender when he wasn't being a threat, it would have been murder."

"Oh? Then how the hell do you justify doing this at all?" Dean's voice was nearly strangled.

"Simple. You draw a line on what you will and won't do, and why you do it. And you keep it clearly in mind." Faith took a deep breath. "We stand in the way of the monsters and the innocent. Like O'Brien and them stand between innocents and human monsters. We fight, we protect, and we die if needs be. Because when it comes down to it... the job is protecting humans from being feed for things. If it's humans or them - it's them. But we don't murder or kill just because we can. We don't become monsters. If they're not a threat, we leave 'em be."

"You're twisting everything I say around. Turning things upside down." Dean glared at her.

"Naw. I'm telling you how the world works, and it doesn't match what you wanna believe. It ain't black and white," she said. Faith's expression was bleak. "Get your head straight, Dean, and get your game face on. We have work to do." She locked his eyes and held them, "Or decide you can't, and go back to your brother and sit things out."

There was a swirl of leather and she was moving away from him suddenly.

Dean shook his head and started after her. A hand on his shoulder jerked him back, and he turned, glaring.

"I don't know what's going on inside you, and I don't care." Gunn said in a soft voice. "Just want you to know: you get our girl there dead because you've got her all twisted up inside, and I'll kill you. Assuming O'Brien or Giambione there don't do you first." He smiled, "And having a soul won't stop any of us." He clapped Dean on the shoulder and went past him. "Think it through."

Faith's mind churned as she headed out to where they'd left the vehicles. She really hadn't needed to have that conversation, period. It had had to be done: Dean was getting wound up tighter and tighter with every place they hit. She'd needed to unwind him, fast, before something snapped and he came unwound all at once and got himself killed. Or got someone else killed... The only problem was, she had no idea if she'd managed that or if she'd just made things worse. This had taken far too long, as well...

She was deeply enough wrapped in her thoughts that she barely registered the black van pulling up in the deserted street. Only the sound of the van's side door sliding open as several demons piled out onto the street, and feeling Gunn and O'Brien's people coming to a stop and spreading out, brought her attention back to the business at hand. 'Idiot. Way to go Faith. This is why you're a killer, not a leader: don't have enough sense not to stand around jawin' when there's work to do,' she thought as she flowed into a wary stance. The half dozen demons spreading out into the street were Repos - gnarled hired thugs with no special abilities or immunities. Nothing special. Some demon lord's muscle.

The thing that slowly heaved and clambered its way out of the van after them was something else...

Seven foot tall or better and covered in bone like plating and gleaming armor-like metal from toe to scalp. It had orange eyes and horn and blade like protrusions all over, notably around the head. The burnished stainless looking metal wasn't armor, she saw, it was skin. Probably weighed close to a thousand pounds, maybe - none of it soft. It rolled its shoulders with a crinkling metallic sound as it stood erect and fixed a malevolent gaze upon her.

Weapons came on line, but hesitated and didn't fire. "Skippy!" Gunn smirked, coming up on her right shoulder. The metallic thing fixed a lambent gaze on him and growled deep in its chest. "Not Skippy? Skippy's little brother? Big bother?"

"Skippy?" O'Brien asked, coming up on her other side.

"Big metal asshole who supposedly worked for the Powers That Be and didn't," Gunn replied. "Firearms won't dent him. Neither will blades. You remember, Faith. Think Angel told you about that mess when you guys were staying at the hotel?"

"Yeah. Guy responsible for fucking Cordelia over?" Faith nodded. "I remember."

"Guns won't do anything?" Giambione asked from one side.

"Naw. Not unless you have an anti-tank rifle you've been hiding." Gunn stated. "Other guy's are just thugs. Guns, blades, sharp rocks will do. Silver or incindiaries."

"Yeah... have to shoot, concentrate on them," Faith nodded, sighed. "Try to not hit me, hey?" She shook her head and took a step forward.

"Don't sweat it, babe. Skippy was a pussy. Angel kicked his ass," Gunn remarked.

"He's such a pussy, you take him and I'll watch." Faith snickered and moved up to where the metallic demon stood waiting.

"Hey now. I'm the brains of the outfit. You're the brawn, girl." Gunn smirked.

"Gotta love a man who's got that unchivalrous thing down pat," Faith stopped, looking the huge bastard up and down. "Take it your name's not 'Skippy', huh?" She circled slowly, just out of reach.

"No." The thing snarled, circling with her.

Faith jerked her head towards the bar, "Sigh. Guess Kyle didn't believe me about that phone thing."

"Kyle didn't call. One of his customers did after they fled." To an onlooker, it might have looked like the two were merely turning in place around each other. They wouldn't have seen the subtle feints and tests that were attacks and responses begun and aborted before they ever progressed beyond a twitch or a shifting of weight. "Word went out after the first place you hit, Slayer."

"And the big guys sent you to beat me up and teach me a lesson, huh?" Faith smirked. "Gonna bend me over your knee and spank me for being a bad slayer? Or just bend me over? That thing vibrate?" She sent an amused glance at his crotch.

"No. Just going to kill you," he stepped in, vampire fast and swung at the place where she suddenly wasn't. She side slipped around a second blow, hands still loose at her sides. "Those others won't be a problem after."

Faith slipped under another blow, then another. "No go, too slow. Ain't gonna happen." She dodged another blow, but stepped in too close doing it and a massive elbow caught her across the chest and sent her rolling. Too close to have any real force, but the impact was bruising. She continued the roll, coming up onto her feet as he moved forward.

"You'll wear down," the demon smirked. "Just like with Jasmine's Beast. There's no Angelus here to kill me for you." The bladed spikes on a huge forearm slashed backhanded at her neck.

"Problem with that," she remarked. He turned to face her again as she went under the forearm and past him, giving a puzzled look to the gleaming split bladed knife that had suddenly appeared in her left hand. "You're not the Beast. And I've gotten bigger since then." She brought the blade up to her tongue, eyes glowing golden, and licked a metallic liquid off of it, and spat. He glanced down, frowning. There was more of the stuff oozing out of a deep cut in his abdomen. "You taste like motor oil."

"That little toy won't help you." The thing growled again and stepped in, a blur of motion. When the blows stopped, she was six feet away, balanced easily on her toes, and there were two more deep cuts in the steel skin.

"It won't?" She glanced at it, and flicked the metallic blood off of the blade. "Damn." She brought one foot up as he stepped forward, and her hand came away from her calf with a long piece of blackwood in it. "Guess I'll have to go with old school then. Nothing beats a good piece of hickory, they say."

"A stake? On me?!?" A massive foot left an impact crater where she'd just been. She slid under a back handed strike that would have sent her flying broken and stepped aside again as he came around. Faith ducked under a second swing and her hand blurred as she went under and past.

"Not exactly," Faith said. His eyes went down to the blackwood grip jutting out of his body over the heart. The thing's mouth worked soundlessly, and his eyes were puzzled. The eyes came back up to lock on hers, and he collapsed to one knee, the other bent in front of him...

Faith used the bent knee as a step and the wicked double blade of the Jackal pattern knife went into his temple to the cross-guard. She reached down and pulled the African knife from his chest and her right arm came across. She stepped back holding the bladed and metallic head on the end of her left hand knife. "'Blackwood plus all of the weapons that have ever been and and all the ones that never shall be', he said," she mused as the massive body toppled over at her feet.

"Here." Faith's left arm moved and the head landed in front of the small group of thug demons. "Give that back to your bosses, and tell them to stay the fuck out of my way. Take your scrap metal with you." She turned on her heel and strode back to Gunn and O'Brien and the others.

"You heard the lady," O'Brien moved the muzzle of his 12 gauge down. "Littering's a crime."

"Told you he was a pussy," Gunn said as the other demons silently picked up the body and loaded it into the van, shooting malevolent looks their way. Faith smirked at him, then her eyes clouded as she noticed Dean look away from her.

She heard Hogan's cell phone vibrate, and glanced over as he took it out and flipped it open, moving away from them a bit as he spoke into it and then listened. She raised an eyebrow slightly as she saw his go bleak.

"O'Brien. Frank." Hogan's voice was harsh. "Rimbault's is in flames."

"Nikki?" O'Brien's face went pale. He was already moving toward the vehicles as the answer came.

"No one's seen her."

"Crap." Faith and Giambione didn't catch up with him until he was almost to the car, that cop look having already taken over his visage...

.................................................................................

'In flames' was a contender for the understatement awards. Inferno would have been a better word. When she put the kickstand down across the road from Rimbault's Bar, it didn't take even a glance for Faith to realize that no one in there was getting out alive. Several ambulances sat idle, their crews having evidently come to the same conclusion.

The firefighters weren't even trying any more, just concentrating on making sure the blaze didn't spread.

She saw O'Brien and his squad standing near the building across the way, as close as you could get to the flames without getting dead from the heat. A number of other cops stood around aimlessly, both uniforms and plainclothes. Hogan was leaning against a fire chief's car, talking to one of the fire investigators when he noticed her and nodded. She saw Kirkwood standing off to one side with a helpless expression. Hogan broke off the conversation and started across the street toward her bike.

"Damn," Gunn and Dean had wandered over while she was staring at the blaze.

"Yeah." Faith nodded. "'Bout sums it up, doesn't it?" She went back to staring into the flames, her thoughts as dark as her coat.

"LeHane. Gunn." Hogan nodded to them as he came up, turning to follow Faith's gaze to the blaze.

"O'Brien's lady friend?" Faith swallowed, having to force the question out.

"No way to tell. May be a day or more before that cools enough to get in and look for bodies." Hogan glanced at her. "No answer at her apartment."

"Christ," Faith's voice was soft. "Thought you guys were going to get all the Dependants to safe houses, or out of here?"

"Tried. Nikki wouldn't go. Said she was through having cop business disrupt her life." Hogan's voice was harsh. "Her and Obie had a huge fight over it. Real knockdown drag out. Everyone else is clear... " He sighed heavily, looking away, "At least her boy's out of the city at school. That's one thing."

Faith nodded, her throat working soundlessly. "Death is my gift. It follows me around like a puppy," she whispered. "And I give it away to everyone I meet."

Gunn gave her a sharp look, and shook his head. Hogan's eyes narrowed, seeing the blank and absolutely bloodless look on her face. "Not your fault, kid."

"Who's fault is it then?" The eyes that met his were devoid of emotion, or anything except horror and self-loathing.

"The bad guys." Hogan's gaze on her eyes managed to be hard and understanding at the same time, and she couldn't comprehend how he managed that.

Faith shook her head, looking back at the flames. "Yeah. Which ones are they, again?" Hogan and Gunn exchanged bleak looks.

O'Brien and Giambione broke away from the fire, crossing the street to stand nearby. The rest of the major cases squad trailed after, with Tom Kirkwood ambling after. O'Brien's face was a mask, as devoid of emotion as Faith's eyes. He opened his mouth to say something, then noticed her expression and broke off, nodding silently. He turned back with his hands in his pockets, shoulders slumping, to watch the flames with the rest of them.

A sound from the nearby alleyway almost went unnoticed over the roar of the flames and the crackle of radios and other noises. It registered on Faith's hearing the second time, finally, and she shook herself. She slid off the bike's saddle, turning toward the slight sound with all of her senses straining. O'Brien noticed her movement and stepped over by her, his eyes following her gaze.

"Nikki?" Faith never wanted to hear an incredulous and disbelieving note in anyone's voice like that, ever again. O'Brien took a step towards the alley as Giambione's head whipped around in their direction.

"Kevin?" The blonde woman that came to the mouth of the alley was tall, in her forties, and with handsome features. She had a dazed expression, and blood crusted on her neck and blouse. "I was so scared from the fire, Kevin. Where have you been?"

"Nikki?" O'Brien took another step towards her, only to find a hand on his arm and an unyielding grip holding him back. He jerked his arm away, only to find it wouldn't move. "Let go of me," he said in a flat monotone.

"O'Brien... Kevin." Faith's voice was low. "That's not Nikki any more."

"Let. Go. Of. Me." O'Brien tried to pull his arm away again. Frank came up on his other side and put a hand on his partner's shoulder, watching Nikki with a puzzled expression.

"No." Faith's voice was gentle. "Listen to me, Kevin. Why all the blood? Why isn't she coming out of the alley? Why does she want you to go in there?" O'Brien gave her an uncomprehending look, "Think about it. Why wasn't she out here talking to the firemen or the other cops? Or in an ambulance?"

"What are you saying?" O'Brien shook his head. The rest of Major Cases had come over to them, looking between the three of them and the blonde woman warily, with odd expressions.

"Don't listen to her, Kevin. She wants to keep us apart." She smiled at him, a horrible expression. "She's evil." The eyes glittered malevolently when she looked at Faith, and her teeth were too long...

"What the... ? Kevin, it's just Nikki. She's hurt - why is everyone standing around?" Kirkwood gave Faith and his two friends incredulous looks, moving around them toward the woman. She smiled at him as he got closer to the ally mouth.

"Christ!" The grip on O'Brien's arm vanished as though it had never been, and Faith was suddenly between the reporter and O'Brien's former girlfriend, shoving Kirkwood back so hard that he stumbled and sat suddenly with a shocked expression. "That's not Nikki." She put herself between the former human and the others. "Not any more."

"Slayer... " The word came out in a hiss and the former bar owner snarled at Faith, eyes lambent and long incisors apparent to everyone. "Why'd you stop him? So hungry.... " She lunged forward and Faith ducked the reaching hand, eyes bleak. She shoved the vampiress back into the alleyway, stepping back.

"Nikki." O'Brien's voice was gentle.

The vampiress turned towards him with a radiant expression. The was a sharp, flat clap of sound and Kevin O'Brien shot his former lover in the chest with a 10mm UV bullet. He watched as she burned from the inside out, his eyes bleak and his face a frozen mask.

"That wasn't Nikki any more, Tom." He turned the frozen expression on Kirkwood, then met Faith's gaze. "Thanks."

"For what? Causing you to kill your woman?" Faith shook her head. There were shouts and running footsteps as several of the other cops were drawn to the shot. Faith gave O'Brien a miserable look, then whipped her head around, searching. Something... on the very edges of her vampire sense. There... She heard faint laughter from across the street and some distance away.

Two uniforms came to a halt with their guns out, breathing heavy. A deep growl came out from low in Faith's chest and she went past them like they were statues. She crossed the street diagonally in a low blur, weaving through cars; never noticing Hogan step between her and the two uniforms and blocking their shots. She reached the row of stores across the side street from what used to be Rimbault's and went half way up the wall in a single running jump, eyes never leaving the tall figure on one of the farther rooftops until the building face blocked her line of sight.

She never slowed until she came to rest on the eight story empty roof two blocks over where Elora had been standing. Standing, watching, and laughing as Rimbault's burned and O'Brien killed his lady. And now gone, as if she'd never been...

They were still there when she came back to the building she'd scaled. Hogan and O'Brien seemed to be arguing in the middle of the street with the two uniforms and a pair of plainclothes, the rest of the group scattered about them. She stepped off the edge of the roof and landed lightly in a crouch, straightening and heading across the street.

"Christ - that had to be a four story drop," one of the plainclothesmen said. She didn't even look over as she came up.

One of the uniforms brought his sidearm up as she stalked up and O'Brien grabbed his wrist, forcing it down. "Put the gun away." Frank grabbed the man's partner's wrist and plucked the automatic from her hand, eyes cold.

O'Brien glimpsed something from the corner of his eye, and twisted the man's arm up, pushing the sleeve back. He jerked his head for Hogan to come over and brought the man's arm down to show him the small tattoo on the forearm, ignoring the bigger mans protests and attempts to yank his arm away. O'Brien's hand tightened on the man's wrist until his fingers opened and the gun clattered to the pavement.

"One of those, huh?" Hogan said, shaking his head. Giambione's voice drifted over, affirming that the female partner had the same mark.

O'Brien nodded and grabbed the uniformed officer by the throat with his other hand, his eyes remote. Colby and Christine stepped between them and the two plainclothesmen. "Not like this, Kev." Hogan stated. "Not out here in front of everyone. We'll catch them up when we clean out the others."

There was a long frozen moment where he didn't think O'Brien was going to register that, and the uniformed Familiar's face slowly turned purple, then Kevin's head jerked once in an expressionless nod and he let go, shoving the man away. Faith moved up beside him and put a hand on O'Brien's shoulder, watching dispassionately as the non-cop backed away from them gasping and holding his throat. Giambione shoved the female Familiar away, putting her automatic in his waistband.

"Be a good idea if you two found a different city and went there. Tonight." Hogan's voice was soft. His eyes went over their name tags and he nodded. "Next time, I won't stop him." He turned and swept an icy look over the two plainclothes.

"What's going on here, Lieutenant?" One of them asked. Both backed away from that look, slightly.

"You don't want to know, right?" Hogan looked them over. "This never happened, none of us were ever here, and you really don't want to know."

"Right." The one plainclothes cop looked at his partner. "Let's go interview witnesses to the fire." Neither of them looked in the direction of the two uniforms heading away from there, fast. They shrugged and headed back in the direction of the burning bar.

Hogan nodded after them and gave O'Brien a concerned look. He turned his eyes on Faith. "Next?"

The question broke through the bleak, remote look she'd had, briefly. She looked over at him startled, and then frowned when she realized Gunn and the rest of Major Cases were also watching her with various expressions.

"Me?" Faith shook her head, "Why are you asking me?" It came out as a dead, bitter sound.

"Nothing's changed, LeHane." Hogan sent a look at the alley mouth, then his eyes came back to hers. "It just got personal, is all."

"Personal... " She looked at the fire again and shivered. "Right." She gripped O'Brien's shoulder once, hard, and straightened, but the haunted look didn't leave the back of her eyes. She nodded, "Go meet the others. Move on to the next one, Kreigan's, as we planned." She gave O'Brien's shoulder another clasp, and then turned on her heel towards her bike.

"Where are you going?" O'Brien's question didn't stop her, but she turned and looked back.

"Going to go talk to Santos about not keeping a leash on his bitch." She turned back to the bike. "Think there's a fine for that, ain't it?"

Reaching the bike, Faith took it off from the stands, thumbed the starter and kicked it to life, listening to it rumble for a moment. She started it off down the street slowly, then wheeled it around and came to a rest next to the group, looking up at O'Brien. "You coming?"

O'Brien gave her a long look, then nodded. He got on behind her and took a grip on her waist. "Right," she said. She put the bike into gear and kicked it down the street, bumping up onto the sidewalk, and weaving around and past a news van just pulling in.

Gunn glanced over at Giambione. "Going to let them go there alone?"

"Not hardly." Frank joined the others in heading for the vehicles.

"Right." Gunn nodded. "We'll take my car: it's faster, and it's armored."



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