Damned If I Don't, Damned If I Do
Part Three of The Damned Series


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PART NINE: 5th July to 23rd September 2004
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Chapter Twenty One: No Turning Back, No Second Time Around

Buffy stood on the balcony of Toni's apartment in the sunshine, talking on the phone and watching nervously for Faith's car.

"You're smarter than this, Buffy!" Willow said exasperatedly from Cleveland. "What were you thinking?"

"I was thinking..." Buffy began before lowering her voice to a whisper. "I was thinking I had her on the ropes. She wanted to say yes! I know she did, but... but there's still something stopping her."

"Like the fact that her wanting to say yes is mostly a combination of your sneaky, sexy wiles and your imagination." Willow said without sympathy.

"What happened to the 'benefit of the doubt' best friend clause, or even just plain old innocent until proven guilty, huh?" Buffy hissed.

"You are guilty, Buffy, you just told me that, and your own version of events didn't leave a whole lot of room for doubt. What do you want me to say?"

"Something to make me feel better instead of worse?"

"Good for you, you... you followed your dream; you didn't let anything so pesky as common sense stand in your way. You knew what you wanted to achieve and you... you went for it, one hundred percent, atta Buffy!"

"Ya know, just because you're not saying it sarcastically, doesn't mean I can't hear the sarcasm in your brain."

Willow chuckled through the earpiece. "I wasn't being completely sarcastic. I do think you're brave; stupid too, but brave for trying to overcome the un-overcomable to follow your heart, but I just don't think it's going to happen."

"You don't?"

"No, Buff, I think she made her choice already, like she keeps telling you, and you just have to accept it -- really accept it I mean, and not just pretend to."

"But she hasn't said no yet!" She had been clinging to that fragile hope all week.

"What has she said?"

"Nothing." Buffy shrugged to herself. "In fact we haven't spoken much at all. We've both been busy, I guess."

Or Faith had been avoiding her, which was what it felt like, but she didn't want to say that out loud in case it made it true.

"But we're spending all day together, so I figure some syllables will be exchanged before nightfall."

"Dress fitting?"

"Yep."

"Do you know what yours looks like yet?" There was an obvious grin in Willow's voice.

"No," Buffy said sulkily. "Faith faxed the designs and materials to Toni herself without letting me see them and Toni won't tell me anything except she thinks I'll look fantastic."

"Well, fantastic's okay, right?"

"Yeah, but Toni thinks I look fantastic in ratty work out clothes or my Wee Willie Winkie nightshirt," Buffy said with a fond smile. "She's too biased to be a reliable judge."

Willow must have picked up on the change in Buffy's mood; she sighed, "You're a very confused little slayer, aren't you?"

"Yeah, but I think I'm learning to live with it. Speaking of Toni and confusing things, any luck on finding any dirt on her ex: Helena?"

She wasn't sure there would be anything to find, but she had given Willow a list of things to do a search on in the spirit of leaving no stone unturned. Maybe Helena was nothing more than a distant figure from Toni's past. Maybe Buffy was just jealous and seeing foes where there were just windmills. But for once she could hide that under the guise of being thorough and if it turned up something useful too, bonus.

"Well, you gave me a first name to go on and... that was about it," Willow admonished teasingly. "But going by other stuff we know too, like roughly when Toni met her and which school they both attended, it shouldn't have been that hard to find her."

"Shouldn't have been?"

"I found the school, but it's not there any more."

"I think Toni said it had shut down since she left," Buffy tried to remember, but it had been something that hadn't seemed important at the time. "Surely the New York school board keeps their records for more than a few years."

"Yep, they do, for a few years... but not fifty apparently."

"What?"

"The Montpeliers Academy for Girl's closed during the Second World War. There was a fire in the main kitchen and all the full time firemen had been, I don't know, drafted maybe, because the guys that tried to put it out didn't do such a good job and over half the school burned to the ground."

"So you couldn't find out anything on Helena from her school records then?" Buffy said slowly.

"No. And it kinda means..." Willow began.

"That my girlfriend lied about which school she went to," Buffy cut her off, not prepared to consider any other explanation. "I've lied to her about bigger stuff."

"That's very... liberal minded of you?"

"That's me," she said perkily. "And that's Faith," she added as she saw the red Mini pull into the cobbled street. "Quick, tell me how Xa..." What if Troy had the phones tapped? "...Everyone's getting on, you know, at home, where you all are?"

"Everyone's okay. Kennedy got back yesterday. Did you get my message?"

"Uh huh."

Rona wasn't pregnant; her twin sister was. Which sounded hokey, but Kennedy had made sure she saw them both at the same time. So, either the prophecy, or Troy, had been tripped up by genetics or Rona was no longer in the running for Mommy.

Lucky her.

"Giles is still busy-beavering away, as always," Willow continued as if this was all just everyday conversation. "And Xander's doing well. He thinks he's completed that job he's been on, but he's staying on site for a few more days to make sure there aren't any problems with, you know, cunning cinder blocks or anything."

"Right, good, as long as you're all doing okay." A look over the balcony rail showed Faith parked at the curb. Buffy wondered if she would come up or wait in the car and whether her choice would be an indicator of other choices she might have made recently. "I have to go."

"You don't want to hear about our other ongoing investigations?"

"I don't want to keep her waiting, we've got a couple of hours drive ahead of us, but I'll pass you to one of my deputies."

Walking back into the living room, she spotted Andrew on the couch and handed him the phone.

"It's Will, grab a pen and make notes of what she says. Legible notes," she warned. "Not your Spockian shorthand."

"It's Klingon," he corrected her.

"Whatever. Bye, Will," she shouted so it would be heard down the phone and then went through to Dawn's room.

She was laying on the bed listening to music. "You just going?"

"Yep, I'll be back tonight though, so don't plan any wild parties."

"That's cool, we were gonna have it this afternoon anyway." Dawn smiled in way that made Buffy slightly suspicious, but she didn't have time for a lecture.

"Okay, well make sure you clean up after you. There's food money in the kitchen; don't spend it on booze."

Dawn rolled her eyes. "Just go and have fun already."

Fun? Well, she was going to try, but that would really depend on Faith's mood.

"Andrew's on the phone with Willow if you want to talk to her. Be good."

Grabbing her handbag and sunglasses, Buffy left the apartment with a nervous feeling in the pit of her stomach.

*****

They had been on the road for twenty minutes already, and apart from a friendly but distant greeting from Faith, they'd mostly traveled in silence.

Buffy was alternating sidelong glances at her with twisting her head this way and that to watch the scenery, which was probably giving her jerky chicken head but was better than being caught staring. They weren't even out of the city yet though, so the scenery was less than scenic. Traffic had been heavy in the centre and now they were following a stream of cars, lorries and buses heading through a maze of off-high street stores, offices and terraced housing. Not interesting, and her eyes kept being drawn back to Faith's fingers tapping an endless tattoo on the steering wheel.

"There's not even any music!" she griped when the noise finally grated her last nerve.

"What?" Faith half-glanced away from road. "Oh sorry."

Faith turned on the stereo and pressed some buttons to make music happen.

"That's not what I meant." Buffy sighed. At least it was better than the silence.

After five minutes of listening to lyrics she couldn't understand, Buffy had to say something... anything.

"So how far is it?"

"Thirty miles?" Faith shrugged one shoulder to show she wasn't sure. "Shouldn't be more than a forty minute drive once we get out of the city."

"Are you sure you know the way?" she asked dubiously.

The moment they'd left the ancient centre she'd been as lost as she had been her first day in Rome.

"Yeah. I haven't driven it before, but I've been with Troy plenty."

"Oh. Good. You must be missing him." She cut her eyes Faith's way to catch her reaction.

Troy was still in Africa somewhere doing whatever it was he was up to.

"I am," Faith said firmly, her eyes never leading the road. "But I've had a lot on my mind," she added in a softer tone.

"Oh, really?" Buffy turned to her fully this time, unable to keep the hopeful smile away.

Faith didn't appear to notice. "Yeah, ya know, wedding shit and stuff. It's getting closer and there's still lots to do."

"Of course." Buffy settled back in her seat disappointed. "Lots of reading."

Faith chuckled, giving her a smile. "Yeah, mostly."

Buffy hesitated. She had a surprise for Faith, not quite the bombshell she'd dropped the week before, but hopefully one she would like. It was supposed to wait until later while they were having lunch in Bracciano, but maybe it was what it would take to keep that smile on Faith's face for more than a few seconds at a time.

She picked her bag up and placed it on her lap to root through it.

"I got you a present." Her hand closed around the DVD case. "Well, it's really more of a study aid."

Faith frowned slightly at her, and as they pulled up at a red light, Buffy handed the gift over.

Now Faith frowned at the case. "What is it?"

"It's a film version of The Odyssey," Buffy explained shyly. "I tried to get an animated version 'cause I thought it would be more fun, but apparently there isn't one. Obviously it won't be quite as accurate as the play, but I thought it might, you know, give the general gist of it, then maybe you could look up the key points on the internet or something, for, like, more detail." The way Faith was smiling at her made the babble peter out. "Okay, it was a stupid idea..."

"No." Faith shook her head, still smiling. "It wasn't. Thank you."

The lights changed and Faith had to hand back the film to drive again, but she still smiled at her until the last possible moment she had to return her eyes to the road.

"Well, I didn't do a lot..." Buffy began, a little embarrassed. "I found it on Amazon and they brought it right to my door, well, Toni's door."

"B, I mean it, thank you. It means a lot."

"Okay."

They drove in silence again, but it was more comfortable now.

"Talking of cartoons," she said after a little while. "Xander said to check out Hercules on Saturday mornings. He said what it lacks in historical accuracy it makes up for in good, clean mythical fun. And Willow gave me the ISBN number of this really good Ancient Greece encyclopaedia for children. She said it's what she learned all the legends and stuff from and you know Willow, she knows everything."

"Sounds like you've been busy too, all of you." Faith flashed her another smile. "I appreciate it; you didn't have to, especially you."

"I wanted to. We wanted to." Buffy shrugged.

She looked down as Faith put a hand on her arm, lightly squeezing it for a moment before returning to the wheel.

They finally left the city behind and open countryside unfolded around them as Faith put her foot down. Buffy settled back in her seat again, but this time with a small smile on her face.

First contact had been made since her disastrous attempt at strategic play; maybe things would be okay between them.

*****

"So that's your castle?" Buffy asked, looking up at the huge grey thing that dominated the hill town.

They weren't even that close to it apparently, but they'd been able to see it from everywhere they went in the town that morning.

"Yeah." Faith laughed, looking up too. "Not yet, though. Gotta marry the dude first and then it's still only half my castle."

"Did he make you sign a pre-nup?" Buffy chuckled.

"Nope."

"More fool him, huh?" Buffy hoped it came out sounding like a joke and not a wish.

"Catholic here, B. Couldn't divorce the guy even if I wanted to."

"That's a bit outdated, isn't it?"

Faith shrugged, "My Mom and Pop were married until the day she died. Hadn't been together in ten years, but they were still married."

And that was what Faith took away from her upbringing? Typical. Buffy shook her head, trying to forget about it.

"So what's it like inside?"

"I'd give you the tour, but..." Faith looked about as if checking out their surroundings. "...we're about a twenty minute walk from Tone's Gram's place. We should get going."

"We could always check it out after the fitting."

"I don't know," Faith hesitated. "We'll see how late it is."

They started walking side by side along the cobbled street. Obviously Faith's invitation to stay over no longer counted if she wasn't even prepared to take a half hour to show her around.

When they'd first arrived, they spent an hour walking around window shopping and then they'd had lunch outside a quiet little restaurant smaller than Il Convivo in Cleveland. It had been very pleasant, but also very restrained. The comfortableness usually between them hadn't been very comfortable and there had been absolutely no flirting. When Buffy had attempted to casually catch a dribble of marinara sauce from Faith's lip, Faith had swiped at it so fast with her napkin she'd almost knocked herself out.

Buffy was starting to think she'd gotten her answer and now she'd just have to live with the consequences of her ultimatum.

Fifteen minutes later, Faith pointed to a square orangy-yellow house standing alone at the end of the street.

"That's where we're going."

Buffy checked the slip of paper in her hand with the address on. Faith had never consulted it.

"How do you know where Toni's Grandmother lives?"

"Been here before." Faith shrugged. "Troy sorta knows her."

"And he just took you by for a visit?" Buffy asked skeptically.

Faith shrugged again.

As they neared the little wooden and wire gate three young kids came running out of the house and down the path, nearly bowling them over in their haste. An old, old lady leaned out of the door after them, brandishing a saucepan and shouted angrily in Italian.

"Oh God, is that her?" Buffy gulped.

Faith grinned and opened the gate, letting her go through first. Buffy hesitated before doing so.

The old lady glared at them, but then her face relaxed into a smile, really relaxed -- her laughter lines had wrinkles.

"Ah, Faith!" she said and then kept going in a stream of Italian gibberish as she rushed up the path to give Faith a gigantic hug.

"Yeah, I'm, uh, good," Faith said when she was finally released. "How are you, Signora Mancini?"

"Ah, you should answer me in Italian, you naughty child! How will you ever get fluent in the greatest language on Earth if you don't?" The old lady chided in heavily accented English and swiped playfully at Faith with the saucepan, catching her a ding on the shoulder and causing the slayer to grimace slightly. "I am one hundred and ten if I am a day, but I am still, as you say, cooking on, no?"

"Cool, that's good." Faith smiled, not bothering to hide her amusement. "Uh, Signora Mancini, this is..."

Buffy nervously readied herself to be introduced, but the old lady cut Faith off before she could finish.

"Call me Nonni, child, Signora Mancininin... Ah, see! It is too much of a mouthful even for me! Call me Nonni," she repeated, before turning to Buffy fondly. "And I know who this is."

"You do?" Buffy squeaked. "Oh, good, thank you."

"No! No, thank me, why have you not made an honest woman of my grand-daughter yet?" she raised the saucepan threateningly.

"I, oh, uh, but, um..." Buffy backed up, sending Faith a stricken look, but she was laughing. "I'm not sure, that is, we haven't even..."

And now the old woman was laughing too. "I am just having a fun with you, child. Come; give your Nonni a hug."

"Um, okay," she tentatively allowed herself to be pulled into and then almost crushed by the woman's arms.

Just as she thought she was allowed to escape, gnarly old hands gently gripped the sides of her face and a saucepan handle flattened her ear.

"Buffy," her new Nonni said reverentially. "My Grand-daughter was right; you are very very beautiful; and special, si?" She winked.

Released again, Buffy almost staggered as the old lady turned smartly on her heel and walked back up the path. "Come, my good friend is waiting to make you both beautiful dresses."

Buffy turned to Faith, both eyebrows reaching for the sky, smiling in disbelief. "Has she been eating the special brownies or something?" she whispered.

Faith grinned, whispering back. "Looks like you're a hit, girlfriend. You ready?"

Buffy shook her head in bewilderment. "Seriously, after that, I'm not sure."

Faith's grin grew bigger and, tucking her hand around Buffy's arm, she started towing her towards the door.

The house wasn't an optical illusion or anything; it was just as small on the inside as it was on the outside. She stayed close to Faith as they were lead from one tiny room to another, mostly because by following her path Buffy could avoid accidentally knocking over any of the furniture or statuettes that crowded the gangways.

Their final destination was the kitchen and that proved to be the exception to the rule, because it was large. Bigger than their kitchen back in Cleveland, meaning it had to be at least double the size of the rest of this house.

"I like to cook," Nonni explained when she saw Buffy looking around in surprise.

"Oh really? Me too." Buffy smiled. "I'm not very good at it, but it's fun and... relaxing, you know? All the sifting and stirring, I think it's therapeutic." When Nonni just smiled at her, Buffy whispered to Faith. "Am I talking too fast?"

Faith laughed and Nonni chuckled.

"No, my child, I just think it is so wonderful that Toni has finally found someone who is not only beautiful but understands the finest traditions too."

"Oh." Buffy blushed. "Cool."

"And by the time you leave here, you will cook like an angel."

"Yeah, that sounds like a great bonding thing you two can do sometime," Faith drawled, "But it's not really why we're here."

"You!" Nonni gestured as she walked closer. "You Faithy, you could benefit much from my cooking wisdom."

Buffy smiled as Faith winced; she hated being called Faithy. She was surprised she settled for the passive reply of,

"Yeah, I'm not really the cooking type."

Instead of laying the old girl out with one punch.

"My dear, sweet child-" Oh this was good, Faith hated being called sweet too "-you are to be a wife so soon, cooking is, like you say, the bread and brains of it. How can you hope to be a good wife if you don't even like the cooking?"

Seeing Faith go pale, Buffy whispered. "Do you need a paper bag to breathe into?"

"You got one?" Faith whispered back.

"No," she said apologetically. Louder, she continued, "Well, Troy has chefs and stuff, so the cooking's all taken care of, and anyway, Faith can cook. She makes this delicious Perigooey thing that is to die for so she's definitely got that side of the wife thing covered."

Nonni gave Faith an appraising look, and then nodded. "That is okay then. I will fetch my friend, make yourselves comfortable."

Faith slumped down into one of the kitchen chairs and Buffy did the same on the opposite side of the table, looking around.

"Thanks for the save."

"No problem; figured it was better than letting you grope me to calm you down..."

Buffy winced as soon as she'd spoken, wishing she hadn't said that, but Faith just chuckled softly and avoided eye contact.

The kitchen looked very lived in, and cooked in. There were pots of something simmering on a giant stove and one long counter was dusted with flour and blobs of some kind of green jelly. Two little boys appeared in the open doorway and stared at them intently for a few seconds before disappearing again, catcalling to each other in high pitched Italian. A big round clock noisily ticked away the seconds on the wall. A cat sprang up on to the window sill from outside, making Buffy jump; apparently the feeling was mutual because the cat gave a surprised meow and jumped straight back down again.

"So are you nervous about trying on your dress?" Buffy teased.

"I've tried on dresses before, B."

"Yeah, but not a wedding dress."

"Providing your chick has been a good little girl and passed on the info without adding any little touches of her own, there's nothing to be nervous about."

"Well, she did say something about thinking it would look better in marshmallow pink. And she asked what you thought about bows. I said you loved them, the bigger the better. That was okay, right?"

Faith smirked at her. "Yeah, sure, keep going. You haven't seen yours yet."

Buffy made her eyes go big in mock horror. "Bows?"

"And I remembered you saying you wanted it to be bright orange, so I went for the tangerine chiffon." Faith continued, far too seriously.

"You'd better be joking."

"You'll love it, B. The skirt's like a ballet tutu!" Faith enthused, laughing.

Buffy ran a hand through her hair, looking nonchalantly away from Faith. "Yeah, well I won't hold your dirty tactics against you. I understand it must have been hard to come up with a way to stop me from outshining the bride."

Faith chuckled and didn't rise to the bait. "Ya got that right."

Footsteps and Italian chatter could be heard approaching and they both looked up expectantly. Toni's Grandmother, who looked at least ninety but was obviously as spry as they came, entered the kitchen covered in yards and yards of material, tracing paper cut-outs galore and a big sewing box hooked over her arm.

Buffy and Faith both jumped up to offer their assistance, but she carried it through and dropped it all onto the table with no trouble before they were actually able to assist.

A younger looking lady, and by no means did that mean she was young, followed her in with a stack of fax paper under her arm and two large jugs in her hands.

"Vino!" she said, gesturing at the slayers with the jugs, causing some liquid to slosh over the sides. "Vino da mia vigna!"

"This is my good friend, Benedetta," Nonni said, waving the woman to put the jugs on the side. "She will make you beautiful dresses."

"Thanks," Faith said dutifully and Buffy nodded her agreement, eying the jugs of wine.

"Benedetta." Nonni waved her back again. "This is Faith, the bride."

Benedetta looked Faith up and down a few times, making her fidget, before speaking to her friend. "Questo è l'americano Egli è sposare? Ha uno spirito ardente. Sarà una buona partita per lui, no?"

They both laughed heartily and then Benedetta stepped closer and took Faith's hands in hers.

"You are very lucky, Signorina. Troy is, ah, good... catch, eh?"

The woman was far too old to make the hand and hips gesture she did next and Buffy averted her eyes in horror.

Faith just laughed. "Si."

"You will have long and happy life blessed together," Benedetta finished, kissing Faith's knuckles before releasing her.

Nonni put her hand on Buffy's shoulder and propelled her closer to her friend.

"'Detta," she said with almost breathless excitement. "This is Buffy."

"No, but it cannot be," Benedetta stared at her in a kind of freakish wonder. "This is little Antonella's fidanzata? Ho pensato che steste componendola. È così fragile. Il onnipotente la conosce è reale?"

"Hupt!" Nonni said sharply, making Benedetta shut her mouth guiltily.

"It's nice to meet you," Buffy said politely, bemused by the strange attention.

She looked at Faith, who just shrugged, and then before she knew what was happening, Benedetta was hugging her and kissing her cheeks.

"It is pleasure, bambina," she gushed. "Such pleasure. You are like the golden light in our life. Never did we think this day will come."

"Um, okay," Buffy said as Nonni forcibly removed her friend.

Smiling, with tears streaming down her face, Benedetta wandered back to her jugs of wine.

"Uh, could we get to the dresses now?" Faith asked, clearly as uncomfortable as Buffy was.

Buffy nodded eagerly, although God knew what this crazy woman had actually made for them. Maybe an orange tutu was too much to hope for.

"Si, si!" Benedetta cheerfully wiped tears from her cheeks with one hand and poured four mugs of wine with the other. "Strip now."

"I beg your pardon?" Buffy's eyes darted to Faith and away again nervously.

"She tell you take your clothes off, Child," Nonni explained.

"Oh, so that wasn't Italian for 'Please go into the invisible changing booth in the corner before taking off your clothes'?" Buffy asked weakly.

Nonni stared at her bemused before turning to Faith. "You Americans! You never make any sense! How you try Benedetta's dresses on if you still wearing other clothes? Are you going to walk down the aisle with your fancy jeans under your beautiful gown? No? Then strip!"

Faith ran her hand over the back of her head grinning uneasily as she looked around the open kitchen, but mostly at Buffy. "Maybe there's like a bathroom we could take turns using or something?"

"And what? You expect Benedetta, eighty years old, to trail up and down the rickety stairs with her arms full of fabric and her mouth full of pins? No! She is working hard enough for you. You stay here and take your clothes of like good girls to save her legs. Now! Now! Why do you delay so?" She added in a shrill cry of impatience, waving her arms at them when they both continued to hesitate.

"Okay, okay, we're stripping," Faith held her hands up in defense as she backed towards a corner of the kitchen. "Jeez."

Nonni glared at Buffy next.

"Uh." She pointed over her shoulder towards where Faith was already pulling off her top. "I'll just be stripping, I mean stepping, that way, shall I?" and she darted over there.

"Good, good." Nonni smiled at them both. "Now I will fetch you both some wine."

"Can't you get your own corner?" Faith muttered, not looking at her.

"It's not a boxing match; we can share corners." Buffy didn't look at her either as she unbuttoned her shirt.

She'd dressed nice for this first meeting with the in-laws, but she hadn't expected to be seen on every level so to speak. At least all her underwear was new.

Faith half glanced at her. "Just don't see why you gotta do that on top of me."

"I'm not on top of you!" Buffy blurted, embarrassed. "There's at least... two feet between us."

"Fine, whatever, keep it down."

"I am down. Just don't look and we'll be fine." Buffy said as she moved her hands to the top of her jeans.

"I don't wanna look."

Faith gave a slight tug and the button fly of her jeans came undone in one go. It made Buffy go a little weak in the knees.

"Good. I don't wanna look either."

Swallowing, she resolutely turned her head away and opened her own zip fly - slowly, in case Faith was watching - and started to ease them off her butt.

"Y'know, if it's true that every woman turns into her Mother at some point," Faith muttered conversationally. "Then eventually she's gotta turn into her Grandmother, right?"

"What's your point?"

"Nothing, just..." Faith looked at Nonni and Buffy followed her gaze. "Good luck."

"Yeah," Buffy murmured with a heartfelt sigh.

Subtly stealing glances at each other, they finished undressing in silence. When they were both standing in just panties and bra - Faith's stance as confident as it had been fully clothed, Buffy's not even close - Nonni beckoned them back into the middle of the sunlit room.

"Now that was not so painful, si?" She rewarded them with two mugs of sweet white wine.

"Un momento, per favore, un momento," Benedetta said as she sorted through the bundles of fabric on the table.

There were a number of colors in the pile, which the dress maker was now separating, but Buffy thankfully couldn't see any orange. She turned from checking that out to surreptitiously check Faith out instead and startled when she saw Faith looking back at her.

Embarrassed at being caught out, she barely noticed the way Faith jerked her head around to stare at some nondescript point on the far wall. Both blushing, they crossed their arms over their chests and turned so they couldn't even see the other out of the corners of their eyes.

"Stop with the mixed signals!" Buffy hissed.

"Fuck you," Faith whispered back.

Although it had been said amiably enough, Buffy still turned back slightly to frown at Faith. Before she could comment though, Benedetta was fast approaching them.

"Buffy, you will be first down the aisle, so you will be first to try your dress, si?"

"Faith's the bride, shouldn't she go first," Buffy asked awkwardly.

"No, you go, B," Faith gestured indifferently. "I want a cigarette anyway."

She picked her jeans from the floor, grabbed her pack and lighter from the pocket and carried both towards the back door.

"Have fun. I'll be back in a minute."

"You're going out like that?" Buffy asked.

Faith didn't answer as she stepped through the door to the yard at the back of the house. Buffy watched as she stood in the bright sunlight in just her bra and panties to light her smoke. She began taking gentle puffs on it as she gazed absently at nothing in particular.

'So she has no problem with the rest of the world seeing her in her underwear; just me. Awesome.'

Buffy was distracted then by her dress. Benedetta had brought it over and was holding it up for her to see.

"It is a beautiful color, no?"

She nodded. It was a beautiful color. Blue, as Faith had promised. It was a deep shade, like a twilight summer sky. It reminded Buffy of the time on Wendigo Common, holding hands during a quiet, touching conversation with Faith.

She had the sudden sensation of tears creeping up on her and was glad to bend her head as Benedetta deftly placed the dress over it and pulled it down over her body.

"Careful," the old lady warned when Buffy tried to help her. "There are many pins."

Buffy felt one or two prick her as she said it, so she stopped helping and stood as still as possible. Benedetta pulled her arms out of the loose bodice, arranged it how she wanted and then disappeared behind her for a second to delicately zip her up.

"Is too tight?"

"No, no it's perfect," Buffy promised as she looked down at the dress.

"'Less you plan to walk down the aisle like a hunch back, stand up straight, bambina."

Buffy smiled and did as she was told. Head and shoulders back, bosom - what she had of one - out.

"Does it look okay?"

"It will," Benedetta mumbled around a mouthful of pins as she adjusted the back some.

Buffy wished she could see it properly. It felt really comfortable, even with the pins, and she liked the fact it was strapless, but it would be good to see how it really looked on her before the big day.

Really it was a wonder Benedetta had managed to get this far just from the bunch of roughly sketched designs that Faith did and their measurements. Anya had forced them into going for four fittings before the dresses had gotten this far (and with every fitting they'd just got uglier, but she was pretty sure that had been deliberate on Anya's part).

Benedetta came back in front of her and fussed with the breast panel of the dress. Taking pins out she gathered it in tighter and pinned it again. Buffy stood patiently motionless as the old woman stepped back to assess her adjustments.

She came back and adjusted them a little more. "Ancora comodo?"

"I'm sorry?" Buffy smiled at her, not understanding the instruction.

"Is still comfortable?"

"Oh. Yep, very comfy."

Benedetta nodded, she was far less crazy when she was working.

"So it was you who made all of Toni's nice dresses?"

The old lady nodded, smiling. "I make Antonella many many beautiful dresses. She is my very best, uh, how you say... clothes hog?"

Buffy grinned. "Something like that."

"I must do hem now," Benedetta announced. "Stay up straight."

Buffy nodded as the woman got to her knees at her feet. She stared straight ahead, which inadvertently meant she could see Faith again. A Faith that was striding purposefully towards the bushes that surrounded the yard. Wondering what she was doing, her eyes suddenly went wider than ever when the other slayer reached into the foliage and pulled a man out by his hair.

"What...?"

Outside, Faith swung the man out into the sunshine - still by his hair - and gave him a right jab to the face.

"Why...?!"

The man staggered backwards, but didn't go down; she couldn't have hit him that hard. Her next punch struck him in the stomach and lifted his feet and inch or two from the ground.

"Oh!"

"Stay still, Child!" Benedetta snapped at her.

"But!"

Faith grabbed the man's head and pulled it down onto her knee. Only Buffy heard the grunt of pain as the man staggered upright again with blood gushing from his nose.

"What the hell is she...?"

Faith grabbed what looked like a camera hanging around his neck and pulled it hard enough to snap the strap. As the motion made him fall forwards, she gave him a left hook, catching his cheek and sending him staggering sideways.

"Oh God!"

Faith swung the strap hard and smashed the camera into the ground again and again. The man gave an anguished cry and stupidly came back to try and save it. Faith swung it once around her head and then lowered it so that on the second swing it caught him on the side of the head, sending him staggering the other way. He went down this time, falling to his knees and clutching where the camera had hit him.

"I have to..."

Buffy tried to move, but Benedetta was behind her now and caught one of her legs.

"Do not move now!"

The tone brooked no argument and for an eighty year old she had a lot of strength. Buffy could still have gotten away easily, but the man getting back to his feet again stalled her. He could take a lot of heat for a human.

Faith was smashing the camera on the ground again and pieces started flying off. As the man stumbled forward, his arms out to stop her, she grabbed one and twisted it - and was Buffy really the only person in the room who heard the crunch of broken bone?

The man squealed and Faith swung the camera down to the ground one last time to completely obliterate it and then threw it high over the bushes. He started to lurch after it, or maybe he was just trying to get out of there. Either way, Faith's solid kick to his ass helped him along by at least ten feet.

Buffy felt shocked as she continued to stare out of the door, breathing heavy and dizzy from what she had witnessed. Outside, Faith looked a little shaky too as she lit another cigarette and took several big drags.

Benedetta finished circling the hem and stood up again to face her.

"Now, I am done. You can move again."

Buffy stared at her with raised eyebrows. "Now I can move again? It's a little late for moving!"

Nonplussed, Benedetta looked at her for a moment and then went to pick up her mug of wine from the table. Buffy stared at her in disbelief.

"Shit!"

Buffy's head shot around to see Faith standing in the doorway. "What?" She looked down at herself, before looking up again indignantly. "Thanks a lot! And what the hell were you just...?"

"B, you look... shit!" Faith shook her head and looked away.

"Yeah... well so do you!" Buffy snapped; feeling the tears coming again, she started to pull at the material to get it off.

"No, no, no," Faith came deeper into the room urgently and grabbed her hands. "I mean... damn, B, I know you look good in anything, but... but you're shit hot right now. Damn!" Faith kept hold of her hands, but stepped back to take a better look at the dress. "Even when I dreamed it up I never thought it'd look this good on you."

"Really?" Buffy asked, smiling shyly as she relaxed a little. "You're not just saying that?"

Faith raised an eyebrow at her. Still almost at arms length she ran a bruised hand over Buffy's shoulder and then down over the front and then the side of the dress.

"Damn," she repeated, sounding awestruck.

"Thanks." Buffy grinned, but then remembered what she had just seen. "What the hell were you doing out there?"

"You saw?" Faith shot a glance at Benedetta who was happily sipping her wine and stirring the pots on the stove. "I'll tell you later."

"No, later isn't good enough. You beat the crap outta that guy," Buffy whispered furiously.

"He'll live, besides, he had it coming," Faith whispered ominously. "I told you some dude has been spying on us for weeks, well, now he'll think twice about it."

"That was...?" Buffy looked over her shoulder to the garden where the man was long gone. "There was really a guy?"

Faith nodded, her hand was still moving over the dress. Down to Buffy's hip and then up to the space just below her breasts and then back down to the other hip. Buffy's breathing increased without her permission and she would swear Faith's was doing the same. Their eyes met.

"You look really beautiful," Faith whispered.

"I have found it!" Nonni's voice broke the moment between them.

She was holding a full length mirror and as she brought it closer, Buffy grinned.

"Wow, I really do!" She nudged Faith away from her so that she could turn from side to side to get a good look. "Ya know, this almost makes it all worth it."

Faith moved in close enough behind her to whisper in her ear. "So now you're happy I'm getting married?"

"Just happy you didn't call it off before I got to see my dress," Buffy muttered. "You can go ahead and do it as soon as you like now though."

"And now it the Bride's turn," Benedetta announced, cutting through any reply Faith might have made.

"Yeah, okay." Faith stepped back ready and Buffy followed Nonni to where she was propping the mirror against one of the counters. "Let's see what you got."

Buffy pretended to continue checking her own reflection, but really she was using the mirror to watch Faith be inserted into her dress.

It was... well, it wasn't quite what Buffy was expecting, not so much the traditional wedding gown, but if that was because Toni had messed with the measurements, she hadn't factored in the fact that Faith also looked pretty damn good in anything - especially in short anything's.

She dropped her pretense with the mirror and turned around to get a proper look. The snow white silk dress began at shoulders and ended about three inches above her knees. The back was cut so that the material was loose and flowing, framing a deep vee of tanned bare skin, before it swept in to hug her waist, ass and thighs.

Buffy liked.

Almost not daring to, she slowly walked around the kitchen table to see Faith from the front.

"Oh, wow," she muttered as she stopped a good distance away to stare.

"Is it okay?" Faith asked, probably sounding more nervous than she wanted to.

"It's okay," Buffy understated, nodding compulsively.

From the front the silky material hugged her all the way down. The neckline wasn't that low, but a vee of not quite see-through fine lace came to a point just below her tightly ensconced breasts.

Buffy stayed back as Benedetta did her thing around the hem, running her eyes over the dress again and again to take in every detail. Eventually she met Faith's eyes and it seemed like the other slayer had been waiting for it.

"Does it really look okay?"

Buffy smiled. "Nah, Toni messed you up good."

"B."

"I've seen you looking worse."

"B!"

"If we were alone right now you saying no wouldn't stop me," Buffy said too rapidly for the Italians to understand.

Faith smiled and looked away. "Okay then."

Benedetta stepped back, gave Faith a good long look, and then nodding happily to herself went back to her wine.

It was Nonni's turn to give her a look over. "It is too short, but you look very pretty," she assessed, and waved Faith over to the mirror before going to the stove.

Buffy followed Faith to the mirror and hovered just behind her.

"Is it too short?" Faith asked as she checked out her reflection from every angle.

Buffy tilted her head. "Not from where I'm standing."

"You sure?"

She put her hands on Faith's shoulders and made her stand still and just look at herself. "You look... freaking amazing, baby. I...I... Troy's not going to know what hit him."

"Thanks." Faith's expression was unusually bashful. "I lied earlier; I've been crapping myself about this."

"Well, you needn't have worried. You look great...sexy as hell in fact," Buffy whispered the last part.

When Faith's eyes met hers in the mirror, Buffy swallowed hard and looked over her shoulder. Nonni and Benedetta seemed to be engrossed in their own conversation, taking no notice of them. Looking back at Faith's reflection again, she dropped her voice even lower.

"Wow, this dress really just makes your... eyes... pop out at you."

Faith chuckled softly. "You stopped looking at my eyes ten seconds ago."

Buffy smiled and ran her hand down the bare skin of Faith's back, feeling her shiver slightly beneath her touch. "Yeah, so? Think we can come up with a believable excuse to go to the bathroom together?"

Faith didn't answer right away, although Buffy was sure she saw her eyes dilating. "Think you can fuck me without issuing ultimatums?"

That sentence killed the moment dead whether Faith actually meant it to or not. Buffy stepped back, sighing, disappointed.

"We should probably get changed before we accidentally ruin all of Benedetta's hard work."

Faith didn't look apologetic as she nodded, but then why would she? She had everything she wanted, apparently. Her life was going exactly to plan. It was Buffy's that was falling down around her ears.

Benedetta helped them both out of their dresses, cooing proudly at their praise and promising all the adjustments would be done in plenty of time before the last fitting a few days before the wedding.

They retreated to their corner and dressed again in silence with their backs to each other. Buffy couldn't help wondering why she always set herself up for falls where Faith was concerned. Hadn't she learned by now that wasn't a good thing?

"So thanks," Faith said to Benedetta once they were in their own clothes once more. "I really appreciate all your hard work. B, pay the lady."

"What?" Buffy looked up, not understanding straight away, but then she reached for her handbag. "Oh, right."

Before she'd found her purse, Benedetta was waving them away.

"No, I no need your money. Troy has more than covered your dress, and Buffy's I do as favor to Antonella."

"Alright." Faith shrugged, smiling. "Well, we should probably get going. B has to get back to the city tonight; her kid sister..."

"Nonsense!" Nonni cried. "You have plenty of time and I have made enough food for you all. You stay and eat."

"Oh, well, that's nice of you to offer," Buffy began to back Faith up. "But we really should..."

Nonni was having none of it. She shook her head and handed them both fresh, brimming mugs of the sweet, white wine. "You can stay a while. There are people who wish to meet you."

"There are?" Buffy glanced at Faith, but she seemed none the wiser. "Um, who exactly?"

"Family, of course." Nonni took them both by the elbow. Steering Faith to a chair at the table, she said, "Now sit, you have been very busy with the wedding, it will do you good to relax for a while."

When Faith complied with a slightly irritated sigh, Nonni drew Buffy over to the counter with her. "You, my child, I will teach to make the finest spaghetti sauce in all the world."

"You will?" At least that meant she wouldn't have to sit in awkward silence at the table with Faith for the duration of their enforced captivity.

"Yes, but you will tell no one!" Nonni waggled a bony finger under her nose. "This recipe will go to your grave with you!"

"I, ah, okay." Buffy shrugged.

Nonni chuckled delightedly and Buffy didn't know if the old girl was being serious or not. She smiled uncertainly and actually dodged back out of the way when the woman thrust a gigantic knife in her direction.

"Dice the tomatoes, child, dice tomatoes!" She gestured wildly with the knife before thrusting it towards Buffy again.

"Oh, right." Buffy took it gingerly - it was almost the length of her forearm - and reached into a bowl full of large ripe tomatoes. "Like this?"

She sliced the squidgy red fruit first one way and then the other and ended up with a slushy mess.

Nonni sighed and took the knife back to demonstrate. "Like this." Her's was far less slushy. She handed the knife back. "Try again."

Buffy tried to concentrate under the hawk-eyed gaze, holding the knife exactly as the old woman had and trying to use the same flicky wrist action. Once she was done they both inspected her efforts. It was slightly less slushy.

"By the time you have done all of these, you will be an expert," Nonni decided and pushed the bowl closer to Buffy.

"All of them?" There were about thirty tomatoes in the bowl.

"Si. And while you do that, I will do the next bit." Nonni went to a string bag hanging near the back of the kitchen and brought back eight fat onions.

"Just how many people are you expecting for lunch?" Faith asked from the table.

Her legs were stretched out in front of her as she leaned back in her chair and sipped from her wine mug, but she didn't look particularly relaxed yet.

"Who knows, who knows, but it is always good to be prepared, si?"

For the next forty-five minutes, Buffy slaved between the counter and stove with Nonni. The latter issuing instructions continuously and sometimes very loudly when Buffy didn't get it right away. It should have been annoying, but it wasn't, and she had the impression she'd probably learned more about food in that stressful three-quarters of an hour than she had in her entire time at the diner.

Faith spent that time sipping slowly from her mug and fidgeting through stilted conversations with Benedetta. She didn't try to start a conversation with Buffy, and Buffy didn't have time to start one with her, but she felt Faith's eyes following her on and off.

By the time the sauce was simmering gently on the stove, Buffy's feet were more than eager to take a break at the table for a minute, but before she made it there three people came through the back door.

They all stopped, staring at her as she stared back warily.

"Is...?" A young girl asked Nonni, pointing at Buffy.

"Si, this is she." Nonni smiled encouragingly.

The young girl squealed in delight, but then seemed embarrassed by the noise she had made and hid behind a boy who looked only a few years older than her. He frowned at the girl behind him and then turned it to Buffy.

"Always blonde," was all he muttered before going to greet Nonni.

She admonished him in Italian as she accepted kisses on both cheeks.

"Well, they have both been blonde," he defended himself.

Buffy shared a raised eyebrow moment with Faith, before Nonni began introducing the newcomers.

"Buffy, Faith, this is Torre, Toni's brother. Please, pay him no mind. He has been in this terrible adolescent phase for too many years."

Huffing at his grandmother's words, the boy came over and offered his hand to Buffy. When she hesitantly accepted, instead of shaking it, he drew her hand to his mouth and kissed the back of it, he even gave her a gracious little bow.

"It is a pleasure to finally meet you, Buffy," he said cordially as he released her hand.

"You too, Torre." She felt like she should add something else, but Toni had only ever mentioned her brother once or twice, and to be honest, she had been at least half way convinced that he was made up. To actually meet him was a little daunting. "Toni's told me a lot about you."

Now why did she go and say that?

"Oh really, like what?"

"Like... how handsome and polite you are." Buffy said, playing it safe. "And she obviously wasn't lying."

"She really said that?"

Okay, she'd made him one happy brother.

"Yep. Your English is good; did you go to school in America too?"

"Um, yes, partly." He turned from her abruptly. "Faith, it is a pleasure to finally meet you."

He walked around the table to her. She didn't change her position more than she had to, to offer her hand.

"Don't kiss it, I don't know where you've been," she warned teasingly.

He looked baffled for a moment, but then broke into a big grin and shook her hand enthusiastically. Yep, he was smitten at first sight.

"Buffy, this is Angelina." Nonni's voice pulled her eyes away from Faith to the young girl now waiting patiently to be introduced. "She is Toni's little sister."

"Hello, Angelina; that's a nice name," Buffy said, stooping slightly to shake her hand. This sibling had never been mentioned, but she was getting a handle on this now. "You're even prettier than Toni said. How old are you again?"

"Ten." The girl giggled. "You're even prettier than Toni said too."

Buffy chuckled. "Thank you."

So Toni had a sister who was ten, a brother who couldn't be more than sixteen, and yet she apparently went to a school that closed down during the Second World War? It wasn't completely impossible if they were step-siblings, she supposed, but it still had to be unlikely.

As Angelina went to shyly say hello to Faith, Buffy noticed the third new arrival again. He was leaning in the doorway, watching everything going on in the kitchen without actually participating. He looked like an actor out of one of her Mom's favorite movies, an old black and white sixties film that she's talked Buffy into watching again and again. He had slicked back black hair with salt and pepper bits flicked back over his ears. His face was kind of thin and pointed, but not unattractive. He had a moustache so delicately styled it looked like it was painted on and he was impeccably dressed in a black three piece suit with long coat tails. Under his arm he carried a gold cane.

This was one guy Buffy didn't need introducing to. She'd not only heard about him plenty of times, she'd also seen pictures. Suddenly, daunted didn't quite cover the way she was feeling.

"Mr Mancini." She nodded, not sure if she should approach him or not.

"Miss Summers." He nodded back politely, but still didn't smile.

She wasn't sure how she could have made a bad impression in just a couple of minutes, so deciding to put the feeling down to nerves, she took the initiative and walked towards him.

"It's great to finally meet you. Toni talks about you all the time."

"Does she, indeed?"

"Oh yeah... yep, I mean yes... uh, sir," she finished awkwardly.

Was this how her boyfriend's back in LA had felt meeting her Dad? If so, she had a new respect for them, because this was terrifying.

"Did you have a safe trip? Did you have a trip? Or were you here already..." She stopped her babbling and took a steadying breath. "I'm sorry; I can't remember where Toni said you lived now."

"I have homes in many places. Please, do not feel such an urgency to impress me; after all, it is my daughter you wish to date, and not I."

"Well, we're actually already dating..." One of his finely defined eyebrows rose. "...Uh, if that's okay?"

His look said it wasn't, but before she could quail too obviously he gave a small one-shouldered shrug. "She is a grown woman; and she speaks very highly of you, Miss Summers."

"Buffy speaks pretty highly of her too," Faith said pointedly from the table.

Buffy glanced at her, not sure if the comment was a jab at her, but the dark slayer was locking eyes with Mr Mancini. Oh God, she wasn't going to try and help her again was she?

"I see," he said simply.

"Would you like to sit down, Mr Mancini?" Buffy gestured at the table where Torre and Angelina were already sat with Faith. "I could get you some wine?"

"Please, call me Mercutio," he offered as he took a seat.

"Okay." Buffy nodded and then turned to look for the wine.

Nonni was hovering and gave her a warm smile. "He is a little prickled, as you say, but he will soon love you," she whispered as she pushed an already full mug into her hands.

"Oh, goody," she muttered, carrying the mug to the table. "Here you go. I just have to... to go outside and make a quick phone call."

"Wait a sec, I'll come with you." Faith started to get up. "Need a smoke anyway."

"A private phone call," Buffy's edginess made her snap, and she almost ran out of the back door.

Once in the yard, she pulled out her cell phone as she walked away from the kitchen and around the side of the house. She came face to face with a skinny brown goat, but after staring at each other suspiciously for a few moments, she decided it was probably more interested in eating her pants than eavesdropping and moved out of range of its rope before hitting a speed dial button on her phone.

"Toni! Where are you now?" she whispered harshly when she was put straight through to voicemail. "Why didn't you tell me your dad was going to be here? A little warning could have been useful. And, in case you're wondering, he hates me!" She closed her eyes and ran a hand through her hair, trying to calm herself down. "Call me back. I miss you. I need to hear your voice saying something other than 'Please leave a message after the tone'."

Sighing, she hung up and put her cell back in her pocket. She didn't want to go back in, but she wasn't quite cowardly enough to stay out here all afternoon on her own either.

Walking back around the side of the house she found Faith with a cigarette. One look at her eyes as she glanced up made it clear she'd heard every word. Buffy averted her gaze and tried to walk right on by, but a hand lightly catching her shoulder stopped her.

"Are you okay?"

"I'm fine."

"You didn't sound it."

"I'm just experiencing a little more family than I was bargaining for today, that's all. It's a little overwhelming."

"Then stay out here with me for a bit. We can... talk." Faith backed up a step or two to lean against the wall of the house and gently tugged Buffy after her.

Buffy slapped her hand away. "I can't deal with you freaking out right now, Faith. I've got my own freak on in case you haven't noticed!"

"Of course I noticed, why do you think I'm out here?" Faith snapped back.

"To take advantage of the situation? To rub the salt in? Who knows! But I am not playing games with you with half of Toni's family in there."

Faith pushed off the house again. "I wasn't doing any of that. I thought you might actually want a friend around, but I guess it's just too hard for you to ever really see me that way. So I'll save you some guilt and stop trying, shall I?"

Faith flicked her cigarette away half-smoked and stomped through the back door.

Buffy clenched her jaw against the scream in her throat and put her hand over her eyes as she counted to ten... and then twenty. How did she manage to take a bad situation and make it worse? Faith had obviously taken some of what she'd said the week before on board and was trying to show she cared... and she went and shoved it back in her face.

She could put it down to too little too late, but that was garbage. She was just over-stressed with the whole situation and taking it out on the one she loved - the fact that that was now plural loved ones was just making it all the more stressful.

Staying outside for another minute in the hot sunshine she tried to get her head together, but realizing that was impossible, she went back in.

Faith was back in her seat, but she wasn't talking to anyone, just staring into her mug of wine as the conversation flowed around her. Buffy made a beeline for the chair opposite, which was also where her own mug of wine was waiting, planning on offering a quiet apology, but her arm was grabbed by Nonni before she even got close.

"Come, help me serve the spaghetti."

Buffy sighed inwardly but did as she was told. A few minutes later they were all seated with huge plates of spaghetti, meatballs and the rich tomatoey sauce.

She ended up at the other end of the table to Faith, next to Angelina and opposite Mercutio. Hoping if she just kept her mouth full she could avoid awkward conversation, she started to eat with gusto.

"So, Buffy, what is it that you do?" Toni's father suddenly addressed her halfway through the meal.

"Work-wise you mean?" Realizing she was flashing an awful lot of chewed up spaghetti at him, she covered her mouth until she had swallowed. "I, uh," she hesitated. Staking vampires and beheading demons wasn't really appropriate dinner conversation. "Food stuff mostly. I was a waitress before I came to Italy, but I wouldn't mind getting into Chef-ing one day."

"Really?" he didn't sound particularly impressed.

"Yeah," she muttered, going back to eating.

"Buffy made the sauce you are enjoying," Nonni said, pointing her fork at his plate. "It is very good, no?"

"I thought it tasted different," he replied neutrally.

"Pretty damn tasty if you ask me," Faith said, although it looked as though she'd barely touched her food.

"Si, delicious!" Angelina said.

Torre agreed, already enthusiastically sniffing around for seconds.

"Perhaps I just prefer my mother's cooking, I trust you will not hold that against me?" Mercutio actually gave her a not exactly friendly but sincere smile; the first he'd cracked since she met him.

"Of course not." She smiled tentatively back, hoping he was finally thawing towards her.

"Buffy looks very beautiful in her dress," Benedetta announced to the table.

"Not as beautiful as Faith does!" Buffy said quickly. "... you know, in hers."

Faith's eyes flicked towards her, but her mug was on her way to her mouth so Buffy couldn't tell if she smiled or not.

"I look okay," she muttered after she'd set her mug back down. "B's gonna steal the show though."

"No I'm not. You're the bride, you kinda are the show."

"We'll see." Faith stuck a whole meatball in her mouth, but chewed like she didn't really want it there.

Buffy had never ever seen her so unenthusiastic about food - especially food that tasted as nice as this. Realizing she was watching her a little too keenly, she looked back down at her plate as twirled spaghetti around her fork.

"So will your father be coming to the wedding?" Mercutio asked her.

"My father?" Buffy asked in surprise. "Uh, no, he hasn't been invited."

"That is unfortunate. I would very much like to meet with him."

"Oh. Why?"

"His daughter is dating my daughter; I believe us making acquaintance is customary," Mercutio spoke matter-of-factly. "I am sure he wishes to meet me also."

"I doubt it." Worried her words would be taken the wrong way, she added. "I haven't told him about Toni yet, so he doesn't know there is a 'you' to meet."

"I see."

Buffy didn't like his tone much.

"I'm not ashamed of her or anything. I just don't speak to my dad that often."

Also, shame or no shame, there was a conversation she wouldn't even know how to start with her dad. She had to admit it was an even more off-putting prospect than telling Angel she batted for the home team now. The only significant other she had introduced her dad to since her parents separation had been Riley. Her father had been mightily impressed, mostly because he'd come across as Joe-normal as it was possible to be. She wasn't sure how he'd react to Jane-normal though. Not that she considered Toni normal, but it might be slightly easier if her dad did.

"You can ask him if you want?" Faith offered, friendly for the first time since they'd come in from the yard. "We still have spare invites, right?"

Buffy shook her head fast. "No, that's not necessary. He doesn't even know you and it's supposed to be your day. You're gonna have enough new people to meet without throwing my dad into the mix."

"You ever stop to think your dad might actually be the one new person I don't mind meeting?"

Buffy blinked at her a few times and then looked down at her plate again.

She didn't look up as she said, "No offense, but I'll be surprised if he bothers to come to my wedding, let alone my best friend's." She popped a meatball in her mouth before anyone could ask her to clarify.

Seeing her downcast expression, Torre offered, "I have friends in the familia who could pop his kneecaps for you if you wish."

Mercutio, on one side of him, cuffed him hard on the back of the head. "Those friends will more likely pop your kneecaps, you idiota!"

Nonni, on his other side, backhanded him across his ear, the heavy fork in her hand almost smacking his eye. "You talk like that again, child, and I will pop your kneecaps!"

Chastened, Torre slumped in his seat. "She's Toni's... I thought I was supposed to look out for family?"

Buffy smiled and she heard Faith chuckle.

"Well, thanks for the offer, but I don't hate my dad, I'm just not that close to him."

"How can you not be close to your father?" Angelina asked.

Buffy shrugged, and further up the table Faith pushed her fork aimlessly through her spaghetti with one hand while lifting her mug up with her other.

"Are you at least close to your mother?" Angelina asked innocently.

Buffy almost dropped her fork and for the longest time she couldn't make herself answer. "I was. She died. A few years ago."

"Mine too," Faith said casually into the following silence. "Although it was longer back."

"Antonella's mother also died," Mercutio said gravely, looking Buffy dead in the eye. "When she was young. She loved her very much; it was... very hard on her."

"Yeah, she told me," Buffy nodded solemnly.

"She did?" he sounded surprised. "She does not often like to talk about it."

"Best thing that ever happened to me," Faith said cheerfully. Everyone looked at her, but it was Buffy's eyes she met for a fleeting moment. "Well, maybe not the best thing," she conceded uncomfortably. "But she wasn't doing me a whole lot of favors when she was alive neither."

When Buffy didn't look away from her, Faith pushed her plate away irritably and reached for her mug again. Finding it empty, she refilled it from one of the jugs that had been brought to the table and drank deeply.

The conversation stayed on dead mothers for a while and although it hurt, Buffy didn't mind so much. It was nice in a way to be able to tell these people all about her Mom.

Faith stayed quiet throughout, even when the talk turned less morbid. She sipped from her wine and mostly kept her head down. While everyone else had seconds of the yummy meal, Faith's first plate remained barely touched. Buffy was starting to get worried, but Mercutio seemed to be warming up to her and Torre and Angelina were both eager to find out all about her once they'd gotten started. Nonni continued to fuss over her and Benedetta ate and drank steadily, occasionally throwing in a comment that would steer the conversation into a completely random tangent.

Buffy found she was actually enjoying herself now, but a few times she tried to draw Faith into the discussion by mentioning the wedding, but when the other Slayer remained monosyllabic, the topic always soon changed again.

It was only when Nonni rose from the table to light various lamps around the kitchen that Buffy realized the sun was well on its way down. Bright rays speared through the tops of the bushes and straight through the back door, making the table an oasis of orange light in the increasingly shadowy kitchen.

"What time is it?" she asked automatically before checking her own watch.

"Past time we should be gone." Faith's chair scraped back as she jumped up immediately.

That was a little abrupt after the hospitality they had been shown, but Buffy had to agree. It was nearly six and they still had the walk back to the car and an hour's drive back to Rome. Dawn probably wouldn't be worried for a while yet, plus she had Buffy's number if there were any problems, but she felt uneasy leaving Dawn in the strange city alone, especially after dark.

So she stood up too, with more care than Faith, and carried her plate to the big sink.

"Thank you for lunch. I've been eating mostly takeaways and chips since I arrived; and my tummy feels much happier after a proper home cooked meal."

"You're welcome, child." Nonni said as she placed three fat white candles on the table between the dirty plates. "Must you go so soon? Everyone is enjoying getting to know you."

"Yeah, we have to go," Faith answered before Buffy could. "We've already stayed three hours longer than we shoulda." Buffy gave her a look that the she read easily. "Not that it hasn't been great," she added, the brightness of her tone unintentionally heightening her insincerity.

"Faithy!" Nonni shook her head sternly. "With manners like this it is no wonder Troy has fallen in love with you."

Faith smirked at her. "Peas in a pod."

"Can we help you with the clearing up?" Buffy asked, thinking it was better to take the attention away from Faith now.

"No, Buffy, that is why I have Grandchildren."

Torre and Angelina groaned in unison, but stood to clear the table. Buffy smiled at them as she helped anyway. Faith stayed impatiently by the table with her cigarette pack already in her hand.

"Are you coming or not?" she asked after a minute of watching Buffy carry stuff to the counters around the sink.

"In a minute," she said as she rinsed her hands under the faucet and then moved aside so that Torre could run hot water for washing up. "We still have to say goodbye."

Faith sighed openly and picked up her mug to finish her wine. She carried that to the sink, but left her nearly full plate on the table.

Sighing herself, Buffy fetched it, scraped the remains into the garbage and put the plate on the pile.

She wiped her hands again as she said, "Okay, well I guess we better be go..."

Her words were cut off as Angelina threw herself at her for a hug. "I am so glad you are Toni's amica."

Surprised, Buffy smiled down at the top of her head as she hugged her back. "Thanks."

Torre turned from the washing up and offered her a bubble covered hand. When she accepted it, he kissed hers as before.

"Thank you for making my sister happy," he said with bubbles clinging to his nose.

For some reason his words brought a lump to her throat. Instead of answering she smiled and wiped the bubbles away for him.

"Yo, B! Let's hit the road already."

"If you're that desperate for a cigarette, why don't you wait for me outside?"

"Why don't I," Faith agreed and started for the door. "Thanks for lunch," she said to Nonni as she passed, sidestepping neatly what was probably going to be a bear hug. She nodded to Benedetta. "Thanks for the dress. I'll see you before the wedding."

Then she was walking into the orange glow of the doorway and disappeared from sight. The journey home was going to be so much fun. Buffy continued her goodbyes without rushing. Giving Faith a cooling off period from whatever was bugging her was probably a good thing.

She accepted a big hug from Nonni, another from Benedetta - who again whispered reverentially in Italian with tears in her eyes - and was nearly floored when Mercutio stood to shake her hand and give her a kiss on the cheek!

"I believe Toni is correct in what she tells me about you," he said softly so that only she could hear. "I thank you for being in her life."

The lump was back, and it was bigger. She managed to squeak out 'thank you' and 'goodbye' and then with one last general goodbye she waved and bolted after Faith.


Chapter Twenty Two

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Part Nine Quick-Jump:

Chapter One || Chapter Two || Chapter Three || Chapter Four || Chapter Five || Chapter Six || Chapter Seven Chapter Eight || Chapter Nine || Chapter Ten || Chapter Eleven || Chapter Twelve || Chapter Thirteen || Chapter Fourteen || Chapter Fifteen || Chapter Sixteen || Chapter Seventeen || Chapter Eighteen || Chapter Nineteen || Chapter Twenty || Chapter Twenty One || Chapter Twenty Two || Chapter Twenty Three || Chapter Twenty Four || Chapter Twenty Five || Chapter Twenty Six || Chapter Twenty Seven || Chapter Twenty Eight || Chapter Twenty Nine || Chapter Thirty || Chapter Thirty One


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