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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)IronbearFR1833190,3063016967,14429 Sep 0718 Oct 13Yes

"Hell is a place with meetings... "

Chapter 30: Aftermaths - "Hell is a place with meetings... "

(Day 18; Monday, December 22, 2003)

Meetings, meetings, meetings. Meetings between the IWC and Blade and his people. Meetings between the IWC and O'Brien and Hogan and their people. Meetings in the evenings with the IWC and Vince and his people. Full group meetings. Now she remembered why she'd once growled "Screw this!", walked out of the New Watcher's HQ in London and onto a plane and the next time she'd stopped muttering imprecations under her breath had been when she'd stalked into Angel's office in LA, thrown back her head and screamed at the top of her lungs...

For a full five minutes until her throat was raw and Angel was shoved back in his chair as far away from her as he could get while looking at her all wide and wild eyed like a deer staring down the maw of a semi.

And the look he'd given her when she'd stopped, cocked her head at him, and calmly said, "Hi! And how're you doin?" had been just fucking priceless. Coulda made one of those credit card commercials out of it. Starring Cordy.

Fucking meetings. She could sympathize with the buzzard on that old t-shirt: the one looking sidelong at his bud on the next branch and going, "Patience my ass... "

Yup. 'Patience my ass. I wanna kill something,' she thought. Instead, she shoved her chair back abruptly, stood up from the table, smiled brightly at everyone and stuck a cigar in the corner of her mouth while grabbing her coat and Aussie hat and told the assembled folks, "I'm gonna go out and have a smoke. Ya'll have fun." She thought Giambione was going to choke from holding in a snicker when she paused to grab a mug of coffee and tossed back over her shoulder on the way out: "Write if you find useful work... "

Fucking meetings. Oh well - at least no one'd killed anyone. Yet. Not even her...

Nights weren't so bad. Short on sleep after a couple of days of meetings (fucking meetings) in the days and prowling at night, but - hey: slayer. When she's in top trim, she can run on two to four hours of sleep a day for weeks. Has done it before. Nights are spent meeting up with Vi, Kori, Giles and the girls around ten-ish and then taking them around and introducing them to the local demon bar scene. Usually with either Blade, Abby, and King; or with Chris, O'Brien and Giambione and their people. Getting them used to the idea of working with each other on a more 'er less civil basis. Demon bar hopping and then street hunting time spent tracking down the increasingly scarce remnants of Philly's vampire populations.

Doesn't take long after something like that run that she and the others had made for the word to get out that Philadelphia was no longer a healthy place for licks. Add the word that a squad of slayers, especially what was still known in demon and vamp circles as 'Faith's Wild Bunch', was in town and on the hunt, and even the most idiot of 'normal' vamps got the message. Time to shag ass or dust. Or ash, or crumble, whatever your breed's specialty is.

There's things out there in the dark that hunt. Some of them even have badges and a lisence to ash.

Things were even starting to normalize a bit between her and Kori's people... falling back into the old hunting camaraderie and easy joke-and-slay relationships they'd had before back when she'd been pride leader. Normalize... as long as she was careful to ignore the odd looks that came when no one thought she was watching and the occasional muttering that they forgot to keep below slayer earshot. Or at least she hoped it was 'forgot'. Probably not. Oh well.

Faith. Renegade. It had taken less than a full night's hunting and overhearing the quiet whispers to realize she'd picked up a new nickname to go with the wary looks and the occasional disconcerted murmur over the casual terror that fell over the odd demon bar or Draaken haunt when she walked in with O'Brien's squad and a half dozen slayers at her back.

Ronin.

She'd snicker if she wasn't afraid it'd turn to a sour, harsh noise in her throat. Ronin. As if she was a master less samurai and the IWC was some feudal lord she'd broken away from... Not fucking hardly.

There were times when she missed Xander's one-eyed eyebrow raise, lopsided and pained grin, and casual 'Saddle up, Clint,' at the sight of her lighting up a stogie when they'd go out on the rare solo patrols in Cleveland before it all broke apart and she'd come back to find him gone to Africa and everyone walking light around her and Robin. Missed it with an intensity that shocked her down in the places she tried not to look at too hard... or too often.

'Least the confrontation of the other day hadn't damaged hers and Vi's friendship any. Had taken less than a couple of hours for her and the red head to fall back into the easy familiarity and trust they'd started to build up before. The Texas gal had developed an amazing amount of steel in her since the Sunnydale collapse, but she'd never been much of one for either meaningless pissing contests or for grudge holding. Coolness. They might just pull this thing off because of Vi. Faith wondered if that'd win Vi kudos or condemnation back in Slayerville when the story worked its way back...

Since their private conversation, Giles had been... remote. 'Remote': good word for it. Remote and introspective. Faith was finding it difficult to care. Maybe someday...

Meetings between Gunn and Hogan and O'Brien's people had been amazingly less stressful for all concerned. Taking care of legal details and getting references to non-Wolfram and Hart attorneys that could deal with the ramifications of... supernatural legal difficulties had gone surprisingly well. Didn't hurt that both Gunn and Angel sympathized heavily with the idea of Hogan's people not getting any more heavily enmeshed with W&H than absolutely necessary...

Hours spent on the phone with Dawn kept her sanity semi-intact. She found she didn't mind in the least how much the phone time cut into her scant spare time for sleeping or working out. Even if they hadn't gone into the details of Faith's dreamways battle with Elora beyond that first conversation... the human contact with someone unconnected to the current mess was a lifeline for her. She'd never realized before how much she could enjoy just doing human things: listening to Dawn talk about school, Britian, her frustrations with the Watcher's Council HQ, and general gossip about the on-going circus that was Buffy's current non-slaying life.

Brr. Her breath smoked when she stepped out through the side doors into the little courtyard. 'Least Philly wasn't quite as anal about the smoking thing for hotels/motels as the rest of the world seemed to be getting: they had big stonework ashtrays disguised as planters by the little cluster of patio benches. She paused and stretched arching from tiptoes to fingertips before dropping bonelessly onto a bench and lighting her cigar. Stretched her legs out in front and crossed her feet at the ankles, heels digging twin furrows in the light covering of snow. At least the cold meant that no one else was going to be out here doing whatever people did in Marriott courtyards and shooting her disapproving glares over the cheroot and the haze of fragrant blue gray smoke it sent wafting up.

'Kindly don't smoke where I'm breathing.' Faith snorted. 'Sure thing, Mac. Mind if I fart?' At least that was one thing she couldn't blame on Elora's influence: she hadn't had much respect for the 'legislate everything into a nice illusion of safety mindset' before she picked up an irreverent vampire in her mind.

The sound of the exit door opening and closing behind someone drew her attention even as her inner senses registered the presence of another from that direction. She glanced over to see Pemberton wander out wearing an overcoat and holding a meerschaum pipe, breath frosting as it hit the outside air. He gave her a slight nod and ended his way over when she didn't immediately shoot him a 'go the fuck away' glare, taking a seat at the shorter bench cattycorner from her.

"Nice to see that at least some parts of America haven't mandated all civilized pleasures out of public life," he took out a tobacco pouch and began the ritual of preparing the pipe.

"Says the resident of the country that's busily banning everything they can get their hands on from tobacco to self-defense," Faith remarked in an amiable tone.

Pemberton chuckled, "Yes. The grinning jacknape has rather gone overboard a bit on that, he and his NuLabour cronies, hasn't he?"

"Ya think?" Faith snickered and blew a smoke ring.

"Just a tad bit," Pemberton nodded.

Faith shot him a wicked sidelong glance and tipped her hat brim down slightly. "Yup. Me... I WANT high cholesterol. I wanna eat bacon and butter and BUCKETS o' cheese, k? I want to smoke Cuban cigars the size of Cincinnati in the non-smoking section. Wanna run through the streets naked with green Jell-o all over my body reading Playboy magazine. Why? Because I suddenly might feel the need to, okay, pal? I've SEEN the future. Do you know what it is? It's a 47-year-old virgin sitting around in beige pajamas, drinking a banana-broccoli shake, singing 'I wish I was an Oscar Meyer Wiener'."

Pemberton gave her a slightly croggled look.

"Edgar Friendly. Demolition Man," Faith supplied. "All this crap: micro management, over legislation, zero tolerance, mandatory ID's, regulations, cotton ball safety nets... ain't America, bud. It's 'The United States' - there's a difference." She blew a smoke ring at him, "From what I've read o' the past... it ain't Britain, either. You're something else now. Something less."

"Ah. I find it difficult to argue with that," he remarked, "Even if I'm not inclined to cover myself with green jell-o."

"But I'll bet you read Playboy for the articles... "

Pemberton smiled slightly and didn't respond directly. He blew an experimental breath and watched it fog instantly. "Crisp day."

"Naw," Faith said. "Just below freezing. Comfy." She shook her head, "Cold is a Southie brownstone at ten above in a 'Norther when your mom drank up the heating money."

He chuckled, "No. Cold is huddling under an improvised tarp on a ledge a third of the way up K9 in a blizzard. Ten above would be toasty in comparison."

"Damn," Faith raised an eyebrow. "You did the full Everest/K9 thing?"

"Partly." He shrugged. "When I was much younger and much more insane." He got the pipe going and puffed it to life. "We didn't make the full climb - almost lost two members to hypothermia and aborted the attempt before we lost them completely."

Faith nodded. "Gotta take care of your buds." She sipped her still hot coffee. Bless the technology gods for insulated travel mugs...

"Quite." Pemberton took on a distant look for a moment, then shook his head, "Afraid I never went back for another attempt."

"Too bad. Never been much for rock scaling, but - too bad." Faith remarked, "Urban mountaineering's more my speed."

"The Geoffrey Winthrop Young Cambridge Stegophily Society," Pemberton said, nodding. At Faith's raised eyebrow, he added, "He pioneered buildering - urban climbing - at Cambridge in the 1890's. It's still a popular student sport."

"Damn. You Brits have a formal society for everything." Faith laughed.

Pemberton smiled slightly and looked away, fiddling with his pipe for a time. Faith's mind drifted as well, heading back down the roads it'd been traveling before he'd come out. After a time, she jerked herself back to the present with a start, suddenly realizing she was the focus of an intense study on the Englishman's part.

"What?" She raised the cigar and blew the cherry to a bright glow, affecting casual indifference to the scrutiny. She took a drag and met his gaze curiously.

"I'd like to broach a subject with you that's been the topic of some discussion in Watcher's circles lately," Pemberton said, carefully.

"Oh?" Faith blew a stream of smoke, enjoying the way it mingled with the fog of breath.

"Yes." He nodded, still giving her that steady regard. "There are a number of us who would like for you to accept an assigned Watcher to take with you on your travels."

Faith couldn't help it: she gave him an incredulous look and then burst into a fit of laughter. When it subsided, she shook her head and finished her coffee, eyes dancing.

"Man. Gotta say - I wasn't expecting that." She laughed again, "Expression 'day late and a dollar short' grab you much?"

Pemberton raised his eyebrows and shook his head. "Beg pardon?" He blinked.

"You had mentioned this a month or two ago," Faith took a contemplative drag from her cigar, "Might of been interested." She smiled softly. "Tell your 'number'... No."

"Faith... " He began, then paused before picking up the thought again, "While you've had some noteable success so far," Pemberton made a gesture in the direction of the city beyond the hotel, "you are the current Senior Active Slayer. As such, you not only have a need for the type of support that a Watcher can provide, you have at least some obligation to the Council for a chronicle of the things that you encounter."

"So you want to stick Mr. or Ms. Tweedy on a bike with a case of books and a laptop and have them trail me across the countryside through rain, snow, sleet and hail - to do me research and send back reports?" The mental image set her laughing again. "Naw. 'Sides: I have Watchers already. Don't need an 'official' one."

Pemberton blinked. "Watchers? I wasn't aware.... " He recovered from the mild startlement and inquired, "Who, might I ask?"

"Dawn Summers and Wesley Wyndam Price." Faith said in a flat, bored tone. End of discussion as far as she was concerned.

Pemberton frowned. "Dawn Summers isn't a watcher. And Wesley Price doesn't work for the Watcher's Council."

"Neither did Rupert Giles for a long time while he was Buffy's Watcher. Didn't slow him down," Faith remarked. She uncrossed and recrossed her ankles, "Dawn knows the languages, she's good at the research and mythology, and she's competent. Wes... " Faith gave Pemberton an impish look, one that was only slightly malevolent. "Wes graduated from the very top of his classes at the Watcher's Academy, I'll have you know."

"Yes, I am aware of that." Pemberton said, dryly. "However, neither of them are official Watchers. And they don't submit journals to the Council."

"Gee. I'm liking this arrangement betterer all the time." Faith flowed onto her feet and ground out her cigar stub under a toe. She gave Pemberton a flat look, her eyes remote and opaque. "Answer is 'No'. Enjoy your smoke, Reggie." She shook her head and turned, heading for the building entrance with long strides. She yanked open the door and paused, looking back at him. "When you get back in, tell them I have things to do this afternoon and I took off. Have good meeting - enjoy much."

The door closed softly behind her heels as she disappeared from view.

Stalking angrily down the hallway through the Marriott lobby and out towards where she'd left her rented Jeep, Faith barely glanced at the front desk. It took her four more long steps before it registered on her that there was something familiar about the two men leaning on the counter and talking to the desk man, two more before it registered that the voices were familiar. She stopped, turning, and recognized Sam Winchester from his profile and then Dean from his voice as he argued with the person behind the desk.

Faith almost - almost - shook her head in irritation and continued on, counting on the brothers' distraction to keep them from noticing her. 'Nah. Ain't going to get into that habit,' she thought. 'Not something I care for.'

Growling under her breath, mostly over her irritation at Pemberton, she casually wandered over to the front desk and the Winchesters. Sam's eyes caught her before she was halfway across the lobby and he grinned, nudging Dean with his elbow and jerking his head in her direction.

Dean straightened, and strode over to her slowly. Faith stuck her hands in her back pockets for lack of anything better to do with them, and waited.

"Hey," Dean began.

"Hey yourself," Faith gave him a slow once over, and then grinned at Sam. "Sam. Lookin' good there." Sam nodded and folded his arms over his chest, coming to a rest a few feet behind Dean.

"Look... " Dean started again.

"You came back," Faith observed. Dean frowned as she cut him off again.

"Yeah, we did. Look, I wanted to... " Dean trailed off, shaking his head. "Tried to call a couple of times."

Faith looked at him blankly for a moment, then shook her head. "Yeah. Been keeping my phone off except when I was calling out. Cuts down on interruptions."

"Ah." Dean shrugged, "The little detective, Stevie? Suggested we might find O'Brien here. Was going to ask him if he knew where to get in touch with you." He trailed off again, then said, "Look... I shouldn't have taken off like I did. Especially not without finding out what happened to you."

Faith held up a hand, palm out. "Whoa. No need. No need to apologize, or explain, or whatever. Done, right?"

"Hey! I wasn't going to apologize... " Dean stopped looking slightly sheepish. "Ok, yeah, I was." Sam smirked behind him and Faith fought to keep an answering smirk off her face. "And I do need to... "

Faith cut him off again, shaking his head. "No, you don't. Look - we already knew that if things had gone differently you and Sam would have gone on your way the next day, or in another day or so. I think we figured out already that we approach what we do from completely different viewpoints an' attitudes, right? It's pretty obvious you decided our approaches weren't gonna mesh and you needed to move on."

Dean stared at her for a moment. "You're an absolutely infuriating woman, you know that?"

"Yeah," Faith cocked her head slightly, a half grin quirking up the corner of her mouth. "I work at it." Sam snickered slightly and Dean half turned to glower at him before turning back to Faith.

"You're good at it too." Dean shook his head, "Ok. Fine. I don't care if you want to hear it or not: it was an asshole thing to do for me to take off like that, I should have at least stuck around to see if you were ok and to help with the rest of this - and I apologize."

"Accepted." Faith regarded him steadily. "Anything else?"

"Arrggh!" Dean threw his hands up, "Fine. Have it your way." He glared, "Since no apology is needed, we don't seem to have anything left to discuss." Dean turned away, stalking toward the front doors of the hotel. "Coming, Sammy?"

"In a minute," Sammy threw after Dean's retreating back, watching Dean storm away with a mixture of exasperation and bemusement. Sam shook his head and looked back to Faith as the front doors closed behind his brother. "That was a bit cold. Called for, probably, but a bit cold."

"Yeah... " Faith made a vague motion, then pushed her hair back from her face and sighed heavily. "Chalk it up to 'it's been a rough couple of days', Sam." She paused, eyes searching his face and added, "Had it brought home to me recently that being around me is death on people I like. Twice. I can take a hint... " She shook her heaad, "You guys are best off going your own way. A bit cold beats a bit dead."

"Yeah," Sam nodded. "Maybe," he added, looking unconvinced. He gave her an appreciative look, taking in the dressy jacket and pants. "You look good."

"Thanks," Faith smiled a bit more fully than before. She gave him a critical once over, "So do you."

"Backless gowns and IV tubing will do that for you," Sam grinned. He glanced at the doors again, "I think I'll refrain from reminding Dean that we parked in the back when I get to the car," he mused.

"Might be a good idea," Faith allowed, laughing. She decided she didn't really need to ask who's idea coming back had been. "O'Brien gave me your letter. Thanks."

Sam shrugged and looked uncomfortable, "Only right thing to do," he said. "So... rough couple of days?" he raised his eyebrows.

"Yeah. Meetings and aftermath," Faith nodded. "Not my favorite part of an operation, yanno?"

"Yah. I like the 'Kill the bad guys and get out of dodge' approach, myself. Less paperwork," Sam made a face and Faith laughed again, agreeing.

"Am glad you came back," Faith said, smiling. "You can tell the chucklehead that if you want. Or not." Sam laughed and she added, "Glad to know you came out of this ok."

Nod. "Dean's heart's in the right place," Sam made a vague gesture. "It's just... "

"His head gets buried checking his depth perception?" Faith suggested, and Sam broke up laughing.

"Something like that," he agreed. "Another comment I am not going to pass on to him."

"Yeah... " Faith grinned. "No worries. I did mean that, really. Ships that passed in the night an' all."

"Exchanging broadsides all the while?" Sam suggested and Faith broke up at that one.

"And boarding parties," she nodded.

"I so did not need that mental image, thanks," Sam made a face. He reflected a moment, then added, "I didn't need half of that mental image, anyway." He gave her an exaggerated leer and she laughed.

"So, all healed up and all?"

"Pretty much," Sam allowed. "About 95% maybe... I still get sore if I move too fast."

"Give it time." Faith gave him a thoughtful look, "I'm not sure what all the effects of slayer blood has on regular people, if any? Other than possibly helping you heal faster. Not like there was much choice at the time... " She paused and Sam nodded. "If anything comes up, give me a call and I'll put you in touch with someone that might can answer any questions for you."

"Will do," Sam said. he gave her a searching look, "Are you going to be ok?"

Faith considered for a minute, then smiled. "Yeah. Think so. All things considered."

"Good." Sam nodded, "I better go catch up to Dean before he has a meltdown."

Faith nodded and pointed towards the back of the hotel, "Parked thataway, remember?" Sam grinned. She stepped in impulsively and gave him a quick and awkward hug, "Take care of yourself, tough guy. And take care of your brother, too."

"Will do," Sam repeated and started toward the hotel's back exit. Faith watched him go for a moment, then had a thought...

"Sam?" She called. He paused, turning back toward her with a quizzical expression. She dug a card out of her inside pocket, frowning, then took on a decisive look and stepped toward him. She scrawled her cell number on the back and held it out, "Here. If you find your dad and are looking for something to do later, or if you just get ready for a change... call this number and ask for Vi, or for a Rupert Giles. Use my name to get their attention." He took the card, raising his eyebrows, and she added. "New International Watcher's Council. Can't say I always agree with them, but if they're going to put things together right - they're going to need good people. And you guys might need someplace where your unusual profession is a living and all."

"All right," Sam tucked the card into his wallet. "I'll keep it in mind." He grinned, "Faith? You take care of yourself, too. Later."

"Yeah," she watched him head down the hallway and out. 'Definitely grabbed the wrong Winchester to roll... '

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

A quick detour by Angela's shop to pay her bills became a longer diversion than she'd planned, once she and the healer had started talking. She finally broke out of there reluctantly, after a couple of hours, so that she could take care of the other things on her mind...

Ugh. No matter how much she thought about it, she was never going to understand how women like Cordelia and Buffy managed to get an almost orgasmic rush out of shopping of all things. Now that she could afford to indulge herself on occasion, Faith's views on shopping tended to run along the lines of 'Barge in, see, want, buy, have, get the fuck out!' And preferably get the fuck out with the minimum of fuss and bother. Minimal casualties, too - although that was negotiable.

Not something you're likely to manage trying to do near last minute gift shopping a few days before Christmas, she reflected.

'Assault shopping,' Faith snickered to herself. 'Wonder if there's potential for a school teaching that as a fine art? Get in, get out - and Take No Prisoners!'

Ok... she was willing to make an exception for weapon and weapon accessories shopping. That she could cheerfully spend hours at. Christmas shopping, on the other hand...

O'Brien and Giambione had been easiest, interestingly. A pair of elegant, silver and jet celtic crosses had caught her eye and suggested themselves. One of each, and one for Gunn. Finding a priest to bless the non-standard crosses for her had taken longer than the purchase. A not-quite-matching but complimentary (uncomplimentary?) pair of hideous, hand painted, and brightly colored novelty ties had made for an irresistible joke gift to spring on them before handing them the real gift in the tiny jewelry boxes. She couldn't wait to see their faces when they opened the tie packages. Revenge for the unexpected birthday surprise? Naw... not much.

Just amusing in a warped sort of way.

A wicked and elegant looking Bill Luckett combat knife from a custom cutlery shop had practically jumped out and screamed 'Abby' at her. The same priest hadn't batted an eye at blessing that one for her along with the crosses... apparently people other than Major Cases weren't oblivious to the city's 'night life' issues, either.

Blade and King had been a bit harder to shop for. A chance attraction to a window display had led her into an African shop where a short discussion with the bored looking salesman over the relative merits of touristy crap vs authentic quality had ended abruptly when she rolled her eyes partway through and ended it by carefully laying one of the blackwood Makombe knives on his counter and remarking that yes, she did know the difference. Or near enough as to be able to tell crap when she saw it....

His response had been to examine the blade carefully - without touching it - and then retreat to the back momentarily, returning almost reverently with a tray of exquisitely hideous ebony, silver, and gold pendants.

When, during the course of identifying the various deities represented in the carved pendants, he'd gotten to a horned representation of Achimi, the goddess responsible for hunting and meat-eating, and explaining how her demesne was rather daft for an edible deity... her warped sense of humour kicked in and she realized it ws perfect for King. A pendant of the Burger Goddess... It even came with an elegantly printed tag explaining the background. She was pretty certain the joke wouldn't get past him.

A dual aspected pendant of two toned wood and silver representing Adroa; God of Two Halves: a Creator God, half good and half evil made a perfect analogy for the duality of Blade. Wrap them up, she'd take them with, thank you verra much. Deities to go - whatta concept. Take two - they're small. And very, very old...

Angel... Hrrm. So, what do you get for the vampire that has everything except redemption?

A small art shop answered that for her with an impact that left her breathless. It was almost two and a half feet high and beautifully carved of some light colored wood: a nude study of a winged man caught half kneeling, palms and face turned upwards as if in rapt wonder at some unseen beauty...

With the other half of the statuette's face a vein of dark, almost black wood and carved in an expression of purest malice and wretched anguish.

She barely noticed the gallery woman's less than flattering appraisal of her dress and calculation of her apparent finances, nor her suddenly changed demeanor after she'd run the check on the credit card Faith thrust at her with a murmured "I'll take it to go - do you wrap?"

Packages stowed carefully in the rear floorboards of the rented vehicle and hidden beneath scattered newspapers, she noticed that it had gotten more'n a bit late on her and hit a nearby restaurant for some food, coffee, and a break for her feet. Not necessarily in that order. Not a bad afternoon and evening's work, all in all, she reflected... but if she ever got her hands on the idiot that came up with the 'women love shopping' stereotype...

'Tis the season, and all that. Whatever that means.

Even exhausted, annoyed, and immersed in a meal, she registered first the interest and a familiar sense to her watcher long before he decided to approach. When he came up to her table with a softspoken "Mind if I join you?", she glanced up from her dessert with a smile and a raised eyebrow and gestured him to pull out a chair.

"Hey there, Cornfed," Faith gave the blonde man taking a seat across from her a genuine smile.

Riley Finn shook his head in mock disgust, and smiled back. "Should know better than to try to sneak up on slayers, shouldn't I?"

"Or get lots better at it, yup," Faith agreed. "I spotted you trailing me over an hour ago."

"Figures," Riley laughed. "Oh well. It's an impossible job... "

"So why the hell did they stick me with it?!?" Faith chimed in laughing, finishing the last part for him.

"Not quite where I was going with that, but it works," Riley replied, smiling. "You're looking good."

"So're you," Faith stated, giving him an appreciative once over as the waiter came over to take his order. After he'd ordered coffee for himself, and the waiter had gone, she added, "Married life must agree with you. Your better half around?"

He shook his head, "Home leave. Probably coming up with new, creative descriptions for the idiots that insist on taking expecting women out of the field."

"Coolness. And congrats," Faith grinned. "Boy? Girl?"

"No idea," he said, ducking his head with a smile. "We're going to let it be a surprise." For a moment, Riley's face looked as boyish as it had when she'd first seen him in Sunnydale - a look she suspected he hadn't worn for a long time now. She wondered how much she'd had to do with him losing it...

"Figured you might be around once I noticed that with all this 'terrorism and Homeland Security', there didn't seem to be a lot of actual DHS presence or activity. Gots you stuck with 'plausible explanations' duty?" Faith kept her voice low to prevent anyone overhearing above the restaurant noise levels.

"No small thanks to you," Riley gave her an exasperated glower.

"Sorry. Am I arrested now?" She crossed her wrists and held them out with a plaintive expression, "Cuff me, ossifer... "

"Naw. You'd enjoy it too much. The cuffs, anyway," Riley grinned back at her wicked expression. "Did cause us a hell of a lot of behind-the-scenes, though. Maybe give us a call first next time you're planning to turn a city on its ear?"

"Ummm... sorry. It kinda snuck up on me?" Riley raised his eyebrows at that and she gave him a contrite look. "Did, honest. This wasn't planned, exactly... "

"In that case, God help us if you plan something," Riley waved it off. "It's ok, Faith. Comes with the package. Let's get together before I leave and you can give me a full rundown, and we'll call it done."

"Works," Faith agreed. She gave him a considering look, "Look, Riley... I was a bit too overwhelmed before. I know I apologized for everything, but... I don't think I thanked you properly, and I owe it to you."

"For... ?" He gave her an inquiring and slightly uncomprehending look.

"For... " Faith made an inclusive gesture. "Everything. Records, interceding.... everything."

"Ah." Riley gave her an embarrassed look and glanced away. "You don't really owe me any. Thank our agency if you need to thank someone."

"No." The unexpected firmness in her voice brought his eyes back to her. "Agencies and bureaus don't do things. People do. You thank people, not agencies." Faith took a deep breath, "I wasn't involved with that Initiative mess - Buffy and her Scoobies were. Graham, no one else had any reason to include me or even think about me when you guys drew up that agreement and other stuff. Had a lot of time to think it through: you were the only one that might have suggested including me. And you were the one that interceded at my rehearings." She nodded, "So... thanks. And I owe you one. You, not some 'Agency'. You."

Riley stared at her for a long moment, then nodded and a lopsided smile went over his lips. "All right. You're welcome."

"Cool." Faith grinned back, then cocked her head, sobering slightly. "Not sure I understand why, all things considered... ?"

"All things considered?" Riley colored slightly and glanced away briefly before looking back at her, "Complicated. I'm... not sure I can explain it myself."

"Know how that goes," Faith murmured. Her eyes were understanding, "Ever figure it out, consider letting me know? I'm all about complicated these days." Her grin was somewhat lopsided.

Riley considered that, and blew out his breath softly. He nodded, "If I ever figure it out. Deal."

"Cool." Faith nodded with a solemn expression, then asked, "So... just how big a mess did I hand you guys?"

"Not too bad, all things considered," Riley gave a short laugh, his eyes twinkling. "I think most of it came from your... cop friends? And their err... impromptu recall elections campaign."

"Good word for it," Faith laughed. "And don't worry about it: the 'I have cop friends? How the fuck did that happen?!?' thing still causes me to wig on occasion, too." She gave him an exaggeratedly startled expression and he laughed. "Glad it wasn't too big a mess... you are up on some of the reasoning behind the... recalls?"

"Yeah," Riley nodded. "There's an even mix of reactions between appreciating the head's up, and wanting to strangle you for alerting us to a new danger in a quarter we really hadn't anticipated." Faith shook her head with a rueful expression. "How about you? Any of the fallout being a problem for you?" Riley asked.

"Hrmmm... " Faith considered, "Not really, so far. I think Hogan and O'Brien've been shielding me from the majority of it. Of course... I still supposedly have a pair of FBI agents I need to talk to, I understand."

"Ah. Doggett and his partner?" Riley nodded. "They're... attuned to the weirdnesses, if that helps. Need us to chill them out for you?"

"Hrrmmm... " Faith repeated, then shook her head, "Naw. I need to learn how to do this if I'm gonna. Not like I'm going to stop 'hunting weirdness', and if you chill them, I'll just have to be looking over my shoulder for the next time they pop up, right?" At his nod, she added, "'Sides... I'll have Hogan, O'Brien, and my Evil Lawyer at my shoulder. As long as they don't decide to whisk me to Guantanamo without a trial, should be workable. And if they do... I'll make sure Gunn knows to sic you on 'em."

"They... shouldn't," Riley said after giving it a judicious amount of consideration. "Just rein in your smartassery and keep the 'X-Files' and "Mulder and Scully' wisecracks to a minimum. I understand they've heard them all and Doggett doesn't consider them funny."

"Right. No Sculder and Mulley cracks for the Feebies. Got it." Faith nodded. She gave him an innocent look, "How about Special Unit 2?"

"You know," Riley gave her a long suffering look, "I understand Guantanamo really isn't THAT bad once you get used to it... "

"Right. Special Unit 2's out also," Faith nodded, her eyes dancing merrily. "Got it." She cocked her head and asked seriously, "Sense of humour surgically removed at Quantico, you think?"

Riley spluttered, "Probably?" He gave her a look, "You're incorrigible, huh?"

"It's bound to be the death of me one day," Faith agreed sadly.

"Most likely," Riley shook his head. He flushed slightly after a few minutes when he noticed Faith studying him intently. "What?"

"You're for real, aren't you. It's not just a good act," Faith's eyes bored into his for a few moments longer, and then she leaned back, looking puzzled.

"Huh?"

"You don't hate me," Faith stated. "I was too wrapped up to really register that before, between the trial and the re-hearing and everything. If I noticed, it didn't really register." She turned a puzzled frown on him, "That kind of boggles me. You were one of the bystanders I really screwed over," she made a vague wave of her hand, "in all that."

"Oh." Riley looked uncomfortable, then shrugged. "Probably a good thing you didn't come back to Sunnydale immediately afterwards. I did hate you for that - for a long time."

"That I could understand," she said with a sour expression. "Wouldn't blame you a bit."

RIley shrugged, "I got pretty dark myself for awhile there, later on, for reasons that had nothing to do with you." He paused and cupped his hand as if searching for the right words, "Made me understand... how easy it can be to go there." He paused... "How hard it is to come back." He gave her an odd look, "Understanding makes it hard to hang onto hate."

Faith nodded, "Dark, huh? You'll have to explain that to me, sometime."

"No, I really don't. And it's not something I want to explain." Riley stood up from the table, shaking his finger at her sternly, "Remember: we need to talk privately, soon." He grinned, "Take care, Faith. And Merry Christmas."

"You too, Cornbread," Faith said, softly. She laughed when she noticed that he'd palmed both checks as he'd gotten up, and shook her head looking after him. Interesting. 'Men really are an alien species... '

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

Nothing but a dim Philadelphia alleyway, off of a near deserted downtown side street she'd passed on her way back the parking garage she'd left her rented car in. No sign of the vampire she'd chased in here, anywhere - and the alley dead ended at a wall at the end of its length between buildings.

No place in the alley deep enough to hide a passed out wino, much less a vampire dragging a struggling victim.

'Trap,' she thought. 'No idea who or what, no sign of it springing, so time to ease out'. Always interesting to see what a trap looked like turned inside out from within, but she wasn't working at the moment, had made too many enemies recently to care for being stupid about things... and there was no percentage in it. She began to back slowly out of the alley, senses alert to everything around her.

He stepped out of a shadowed doorway off to her right, one that wasn't deep enough to hide a rat. Locked and chained too, so he didn't come through the door. Unless he came through the door, which was always possible. Small, very badly dressed fellow with a ratty pork pie hat, looking like a broken down racetrack tout. Or a seedy mobster.

"Whistler," She stopped, looking him over. "Fancy meeting you here," she cocked her head looking him over. She'd never actually met the balance demon - but she'd heard enough about him from B and from Angel to put the description with what she was seeing.

"Slayer," he said, walking towards her. He either didn't notice she'd never submerged the slayer essence while studying him like fresh roadkill, or didn't care. Pity, that.

"Close enough," she said. "And not a word, 'Balance Demon'."

"Hey -"

"Fair warning. I'm not interested." She let her eyes go lidded, "Shut the fuck up and vanish or I remove your spine and have it for a belt."

"What is it with you two broads and body parts?" He complained, starting to take another step and shaking his head.

Two long steps, lambent green fire crackling around her hands, and the point of the Valdris blade stopped a bare fraction of an inch from the tip of his nose. He looked cross-eyed at it, comically, coming to a dead stop. She wondered if he realized just how close that was to being literal.

"That would be a word," she remarked, casually. "Several of them, matter of fact." She smiled, "You're a bit hard of listening, hey?"

He retreated a step, mesmerized by the blade point. She moved with him and the glittering tip never left his nose. He started to say something and she touched his nose tip with it, just enough for him to feel. A drop of sweat began a slow trickle from under the hat and down along his face.

"Careful. This cat can take your tongue," His mouth shut with a click and he glared at her, worriedly. "I'm not interested in whatever you have to say. Bye. Vaporise."

After a time, he raised his hand in a gesture that was so like a kid in class that she almost laughed and spoiled the effect. She looked him over, appraisingly. Nodded, "One question. Make it good."

"Why?"

Lazy grin. "Because you fucked over Angel's life, you fucked over Buffy's life, and you are not going to fuck over mine." His mouth twitched and she said, "Ah ah... I said 'One'. That was it."

He glared, but had a momentary lapse into sentience and didn't say anything. She gave him an approving look. "I may have to occasionally play step-n-fetch-it to the Powers That Be who've managed to delude themselves into thinking they're my bosses. Generally when something heavy's on the line. But I don't have to put up with you."

She moved the blade tip, watching his crossed eyes follow it. "And I won't. Ever." Soft laugh. "Spine. Fashion accessory. Won't be pretty." There was a crackle and a flare of green flame, and one of the curved blades went away.

Moved the blade away from his nose suddenly, a near invisible blur, and stepped in low and fast. When she stopped, he was dangling from the end of her fist by his bunched collar and that edge was resting lightly across his throat. She let her eyes bore into his from inches away, noses almost touching.

"Tell them to find someone else. If I like them, I may deal with them. Not you. Not ever." She let her aspect come fully to the surface, and what looked closely into his eyes wasn't even as remotely human as he was. "I don't see you, Whistler. Not from this moment on. You work for no one I'm interested in, from this moment. You have nothing to say I care to hear. They send someone else if they want to talk to me, not you. Ever."

"Because if I do see you, ever again... " Her voice was as soft as a lover's caress, "Or feel your presence, or hear you... You won't be a Power's lackey to me. You'll be prey. And I hunt demons, remember?" She suddenly had a handful of nothing and she felt no presence in the alleyway with her.

The blades faded from her hands and she tossed her head and laughed, and sauntered back out to the street. 'Tis the Season indeed.



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