This isn't the first love letter Faith's ever sent to a girl. That one would be Gina Iaconetti's. Second grade. Long sproingy blonde curls and millions of perfectly straight pleats ironed into those clean crisp skirts that would fan out like an umbrella when she twirled around. Faith wanted... something, from her. To be the one who traded peanut butter and celery sandwiches with her at lunch and got friendship braids woven into her hair at recess by little white fingers with pearl-pink nailpolish on the tips. To sit next to her in class every day and kick the back of her seat and giggle together whenever Mrs. Kerry said something silly. Other things, too, things she didn't have words or even pictures in her head for, just wanted.
That love letter was written on a valentine, even though it wasn't Valentine's Day. It was three weeks later and all the silver-wrapped boxes on the front of their desks, with the holes in the top for slipping cards in just like a real mailbox, were long gone. Faith still had her tiny stack of valentines in her cubby, though. From the nice girls who gave them out to everyone because they wanted to, and the boys whose moms made them do it, and the couple of kids who actually liked the girl with the dirty shirt and the tangles in her hair who could hang upside down from the monkey bars longer than anybody.
Faith hadn't given any out herself; she knew better than to ask her mom to buy them after last year, and the ones she'd made herself with construction paper snitched from the art room had been glue-smeared and ugly. She'd hidden them in her desk when the time came to play mailman and pretended she didn't have any. No way was she going to give one of them to Gina Iaconetti, then or three weeks later. Instead, Faith picked the prettiest one she'd received, with the two little sparkly-winged angels on it, and very carefully erased the 'From Judith' until you couldn't see it at all.
She couldn't say why she was doing it, writing 'I like you' in thick black second-grade pencil over the rubbed-out eraser spots on the stiff paper. Or what she thought would happen when Gina found it where Faith had hidden it, in the side pocket of Gina's pink and purple Barbie backpack. She wasn't dumb enough to think that Gina would jump up and down and smile, and invite Faith to come sit behind her during free play, and braid little ribbons into her hair. Or maybe she was, but she didn't let herself admit it. It was just something she had to do, something secret and brave, and what happened later -- that nothing would happen later, nothing would change, she'd still be Faith with the dirty shirt -- didn't really matter.
Secret and brave lasted all the way through reading and halfway into math, before the thrill wore off and the doubt set in. What if she didn't like it? What if she recognized it as one of the ones from Judith Healey, and knew that Faith had given her a second-hand card? What if she laughed? What if Gina didn't laugh, but even worse, gave Faith that same stupid look that Mrs. Kerry had given her when she sat alone at her desk on Valentine's Day with no store-bought cards to give out? The no hot lunch look, the holes in her Keds look, the social worker look.
Afternoon recess, Faith -- the one who climbed all the way to the top of the big tree at the back of the playground that they weren't allowed to climb on at all, Faith who hit a sixth grader right in the eye when he called her mother a drunk -- hid in the big dollhouse when everybody else left the room and stole her own valentine from Gina Iaconetti's backpack.
Brave was fine, she told herself later, when she had to tell herself something because she was lying in bed staring at the ceiling, and her eyes stung, and she didn't know why because she wasn't crying; she never cried -- but there was brave and then there was stupid.
It's not the second, either, but there was a damn long time between them, and the second time, Faith was smart. Wrote her 'I like you' in code, in the shape of a heart, in the mist of her own breath. It might have got the newest little blonde girl to look up from her chemistry test, even stole her out the fogged-up window and into the streets with Faith, but Buffy couldn't read it the way Faith wrote it, couldn't see beyond come stake vamps with me -- and Faith liked that just fine. Her own little secret message that she never had to steal back.
It could mean anything she wanted it to, all the things that, now, she had words for. Words, and thoughts, and pictures. It could mean her fingers sliding up those short silk skirts, touching warm, smooth thighs. Her tongue snaking out to lick at the tiny golden hairs at the nape of Buffy's neck, or chasing a bead of sweat as it slipped past that sweet little navel, licking down, down down to that hair she was damn-fire sure wasn't nearly as gold.
It could mean throwing Buffy down on that same cheap motel bed where she'd ridden Xander 'til he couldn't speak, couldn't breathe, could barely thrust, just lay there with his mouth open and his eyes so wide the white showed all around while she drained him dry as a bone. Only no way would Buffy ever stay that still. She'd squirm and fight and suck and rock, and they'd both have bruises for days, and that one little valentine heart on the glass could mean all that and did, and Buffy never read a word of it.
It could mean 'I like you, Buffy Summers, as much as I hate you. I like your Watcher and the way he touches your shoulder, and the way your mom nags you because you didn't stop to eat breakfast, and the way you pretend not to be jealous that your whiney kid sister thinks I'm the coolest thing to hit town since ever -- not that there's much competition there. I like it all not just because I never had it, but because it's yours, because it's you; same reason I hate it so much it burns. Because I want you to braid fucking ribbons in my hair and sit with me at lunch, just as much as I want to screw you stupid and sleep curled around you 'til morning.'
It could mean that, yeah. Didn't, no way, no fucking how, but it could. She'd never ever know.
It's not the third. Faith hates the third. That's the one that proves that just because Faith knows what stupid is, doesn't mean she's never been it. Stupid, stupid, and damn, by then, by the time they'd sold her out, turned her in, chained her up and lowered themselves to take her back, by the time she'd let the light glint off the Mayor's knife and pretended she'd finally found home, she should have damn well known better.
She did know better. She'd made her choice. Might be a half-assed choice; she wasn't blind enough not to know there was something hinky about her brand new daddy who didn't even want to feel her up in exchange for the clothes and the knife and the pockets full of cash. She didn't care; you take what you can get, and not to choose a sweet gig like that over a lifetime of social worker looks from the good guys and hearts on the window that the girl in love with a vampire would never even read... would be stupid.
So why Faith stood in the back of the gym and watched stupid girls in stupid dresses sweat all over their stupid pimply boyfriends like they even knew how to dance, she couldn't say. Wouldn't if she could. Oh, it was easy enough to understand why she looked at the lights glittering over that silver-blonde head where it bent to rest against the vampire's chest and wanted to kill them both, slow and messy. There were a hundred damn good reasons, none of them stupid, starting with Jesus, Buffy, pink? Pink? But why Faith was there in the first place, the lightweight they'd left to guard the door out cold in the janitor's closet... That was as impossible to say as why she'd ever slipped that valentine into Gina Iaconetti's backpack.
Why she followed when the music ended, and saw that Angel went home one way, and Buffy went another... stupid. Though she had a decent explanation ready if anybody ever asked -- Faith against Buffy, one on one, no little friends around to make things complicated. Take out the Slayer before the boss's big event, and how much easier would that make it for everybody, huh? The Mayor would buy it, and more importantly, so would Buffy. Hell, by the time Buffy spun around in that godawful pink dress and pulled the freaking stake out of her cleavage like Faith was just some clumsy-ass vamp who couldn't even tail her without getting spotted, Faith almost believed it herself.
She didn't even have to convince Buffy, though. The scowl on her face and the "Great, just what I needed," when Faith stepped out of the shadows were enough to rock them back into that place where nobody needed any explanations. Just spit and vinegar, Faith's hand on her hip, Buffy's cute little umbrella thing hanging from an alley fire-escape so she wouldn't get it all crumpled when they dusted it up. "What do you want, Faith?"
"Stupid question, B. It's prom night. I wanna dance."
It was kind of like dancing -- the same kind of dancing they'd done in the Bronze: heat and sweat and moving like they were made to move. No music, but that was fine; the song was thumping in Faith's neck, in her head, blood and breathing, and the rhythm of swing and duck and crack. When her boot ripped a hole down the side of Buffy's skirt, Faith's head wasn't the only place she could feel the music pumping; they might as well have been rolling on that creaky motel bed, as circling each other in an alley, trading punches. Maybe this was why, and maybe it was enough to be why, without Faith having to feel ashamed of it; one more fight, didn't matter if they were on the same side or not.
When the vampires showed up, Faith had to laugh. There they were, three big wide-receiver types, just standing at the opening of the alley, watching two Slayers fight. Jaws hanging open like they couldn't even process the signal -- which one do we attack first? Maybe we should just let 'em kill each other? Damn, ain't that one hot-ass sight to see?
A shot to the ribs turned into a tap on the arm, as she pointed them out to Buffy, and, well. Stupid, really. Faith should've just snapped her neck when she turned to look. Or let her fight them, three to one, in her ripped-up prom dress, while Faith didn't lift a finger to help. But hell, they were vampires, and Faith was a Slayer, and they'd fucking interrupted her dance without asking if they could cut in.
That's why they both turned to fight. Together. Nothing to do with that hot rush down her spine when they moved in the same direction, when Buffy threw her a stake -- Jesus, how many did she keep down there? -- and Faith threw it back with a grin, pulling one out of her boot. When Faith grabbed one of the vamps by the throat, and Buffy hit it hard through the heart, the wood just barely pressed Faith's shirt against her skin, but Buffy looked, touched her arm, just to be sure. Like she gave a damn. Then they were moving again, and then there was dust in the air, and then they were breathing hard and staring at each other. Alone.
Buffy looked down first. Maybe that means Faith won something, but she doesn't let herself count it, not now. Not after Buffy said, "It could've been like that all the time, Faith." With that tiny little baby girl bit of hope in her voice like she didn't mean 'could've been' at all. Like she meant there was a chance for Faith to change her mind, still. Like she meant there was a chance for Faith, at all.
"Could've been like this," Faith said, and drew a heart in her breath that only she could see, as she pressed Buffy against the wall. One hand on bare hot shoulder skin, one splayed on scratchy brick, and Faith's lips bruise-hard against peppermint-ice lipgloss, sparkly umbrella hanging over her head. Buffy opening up like a valentine envelope in Gina Iaconetti's hands that never was. Hot and sweet, and goddamn if her tongue didn't taste like peppermint too, or maybe Faith was just too lost, too stupid, too far gone to tell the difference, her own heart pounding in her mouth.
That was the third one, the one where Faith found out why she'd stolen the first one back, why she wrote the second one in code. The one where finally Buffy pushed her away, looked up at her, and... Fuck. That look. And said, "Faith..." Like she was so sorry. So. Very. Fucking. Sorry. So sorry. That look that made Faith seven years old again, and that voice that made it so much worse because it was like Buffy could finally read that goddamn heart after all, and she understood.
Which was the biggest fucking joke of all, because how could she when Faith didn't even understand herself?
Faith hates the third one. It's the one where she said things she couldn't take back, even if she didn't say them out loud. It's the one where she said, "Screw you," out loud, and flipped herself up the fire escape. Over the rooftop and away with the lamest comeback ever ringing in her ears.
Then again, without the third one, the stupid one, there wouldn't be this one, would there? She'd always have wondered what it would be like, to hand it over free and clear, with her name signed and everything. Always been too chickenshit to do it right.
Not anymore. She's got Buffy to thank for that.
Faith slots the quarrel into the bow and gives the fletching a tiny little kiss. Love, Faith, she signs it, without a pen. She doesn't need one.
"Missed the heart," the hired-hand vamp behind her says, after a second.
"Meant to," she answers. After all, it isn't Angel's she was aiming for.