The First Night
'Cause it's always got to be blood.
The dark-haired girl in the cheap cot stirs, grasping at thin sheets in her sleep, pale fear on her still cheeks. The distant tick of ancient prison clocks keeps unsteady time with the triphammer of her heart.
Blood is life, lackbrain. Why do you think we eat it? It's what keeps you going. Makes you warm. Makes you hard. Makes you other than dead.
This is how many apocalypses for us now?
Feels like a hundred.
She is dreaming. Part of her knows she is. Part of her knows it is more than a dream, that she is walking in the skin and breath of other lives, distant lives. Part of her never wants to wake up. Part of her wants to run and run and run without stopping until she can reach them.
All of her soaks the sheets with the cold sweat of her terror.
We're not all gonna make it. You know that?
I'm counting on you to protect her.
I know you'll never love me. I know that I'm a monster. But you treat me like a man.
Death is your gift.
It is the worst kind of nightmare. The kind with a door she can’t quite reach, the kind she could stop if she could only wake up. The kind with a fall at the end, a fall that will kill her if she doesn’t wake up in time. The kind that might never, ever stop.
Dawn, listen to me, listen. I love you. I will always love you. But this is the work that I have to do. Tell Giles… tell Giles I figured it out. And, and I'm okay. And give my love to my friends. You have to take care of them now. You have to take care of each other. Dawn, the hardest thing in this world is to live in it. Be brave. Live… for me.
She falls into light and pain, and Faith Lehane comes awake screaming in her cell with blood slick on her palms.
She listens to the thunder of her breath in the tiny cell, the pound of her heart in her breast, and her hands shake like a junkie on three days of cold turkey until she flattens them against her thighs to make them stop.
For three years, Faith has lived with the smell of Buffy Summers on her skin. From the moment she woke in the night from dreams of blood and fire to find her hands quick and strong, her body sure and hard, she has known Buffy Summers was in the world - long before she knew a name or a face, she knew the smell of her and the flash of gold hair over green eyes. Knew hands that were smooth and unyielding, that would never let her fall … and wasn’t that a stupid dream? But dreams are like that. They don’t care about reality or disappointment. They don’t care about blood and broken promises. They don’t care.
On the twenty-third day of May, Faith wakes up to a hole in the world shaped like Buffy Summers.
Sweat-slick in the dark, listening to echoes of her own scream ringing back to her, she knows the guards will come. She knows that if she screams again, screams enough times, they will open the bars because even Valley State Prison frowns on letting inmates die in their beds. Because they don’t want to rile the other inmates.
She knows it will take her less than a minute to beat every one of them into unconsciousness, to take a uniform, and less than twenty to be out of the building. Less than an hour to be headed north in a stolen car. She can be in Sunnydale before lunch. She can....
She can do anything, everything, except bring Buffy Summers back into the world. The one thing she needs to do. The only thing.
No. Not the only thing. But Buffy wouldn’t want her to bust out of jail and beat up some poor stupid guards just to kiss cold lips goodbye one more time, so Faith Lehane lays back on her icy, sweat-soaked sheets and stares into the dark, thinking of green eyes and smooth hands.
'Cause it's always got to be blood.
Hot tears trace her cheeks, and she doesn’t even try to wipe them away.
The brutal, rhythmic pulse of over-used muscles has always been its own anesthetic for Faith - the clank and scrape of weights, the hammer of her pulse, the ache of her breath in her chest and throat. No-one bothers her in the weight room - for the last week, she hasn’t bothered to hide just how much she can lift or how long, and she’s pretty sure she’s freaking the other prisoners out. She probably ought to care about that. Personal survival, all that shit.
She doesn’t. She doesn’t even watch the room. She just lifts, and lets the adrenaline and endorphins wash the ache from her chest - the one that goes deeper than the burn in her muscles.
Buffy’s voice laughs in her ear, incredulous. “Do you ever lay off the weights?”
The memory digs into her, burning under her skin, but trying to push it away will only bring more pain. She’s getting used to these waves of old hurt, learning to ride them out the way she’d ride out a punch or the pain of a stab wound. The trick, she’s learning, is about the same: keep breathing, and work through the pain. Live through it.
She dumped the barbell in the cheap school weight rack, still wearing her usual tight sleeveless and jeans, and grinned at Buffy in her ridiculous barrettes and pink sundress. “You oughta try it, B. Work up a good sweat, work out some tension. Afraid you’re gonna break a nail?”
“Superpowers mean never having to break a sweat. I kind of like that about them.” Buffy did her best smug smile, leaning over the leg press machine with an impish wink “I’ll leave the muscled-up biker-chick look to you, Faith.”
“Muscled-up biker, huh?” She was sure her eyes sparked on that one, and she stepped in until they were close enough that there was nothing even half-decent about the way her hand shoved against Buffy’s hip. Close enough to make those big green eyes go all wide and startled. “Girl like you should know better than to hang around with that kind of crowd, B.”
“I can take care of myself,” Buffy whispered, digging her nails into the sweat-slick muscle of Faith’s shoulders.
Faith laughed, and bent down until their breath mingled. “I bet you can.”
The knock on the door shook them loose, both flushed, but at least Faith knew she had a better excuse. B would have to try to play it off. She was kinda looking forward to that.
The memory drains away, leaving a residue of dampness at the corners of her eyes that mingles unseen with her sweat, and she gives herself to the simple repetitive effort of the exercise like the arms of a lover.
Her hands are starting to chafe from the weights when one of the guards interrupts the pleasant blankness of her workout with a call from doorway. “Visitor, Lehane!”
“You don’t gotta yell, Hutcheson. My ears work just fine.” She bounces up onto her feet, still limber in spite of the lingering burn from the workout, and flashes a smile that she doesn’t feel anymore. Maybe she’d never felt it; hard to tell. Harder to care than it had been a week ago.
She smiles around the hole in her chest, spreads her arms for the pat-down, and takes the cuffed walk to the visitor’s room like a good girl - not testing the restraints, taking her time. No rush here, just us dangerous felons.
If they knew who she was sitting across from, of course, they’d have a whole other kind of fit. Not even about the vampire thing; just his murder rap sheet alone would have set the whole place into an uproar. Of course, other than a couple of exceptions due to temporary soul loss, they were all at least a century old, so maybe the vampire thing would be the bigger deal.
She picks up the black handset, waves through the glass, and gives Angel a faint smile she only slightly feels. “Hey.”
He doesn’t smile back. “Faith. I’ve got news.”
“Buffy.” She lays her hand on the glass, her eyes on his. “I know.”
His eyes widen, then narrow, and then his lips quirk in half a smile that doesn’t reach them. He looks like a man with a bleeding stab wound he’s trying not to notice. “It’s a Slayer thing.”
“I felt it. When she...” she looks away, hiding the pain in her eyes, but her palm turns pale with pressure against the barrier. “Guess they called you, huh? Ex-boyfriend call?”
“Willow. I went up for the funeral. Saw Dawn and the old gang.” He lowers his voice to a soft, taut murmur. “It’s a good place. Quiet. She’ll rest well there.”
“Do you ever thinking about dying?” Curled in the cheap hotel room bed Faith hadn’t paid eighteen dollars a night for since the manager wound up dead on her doorstep, Buffy murmured the words into Faith’s skin in the floating half-silence between sex and sleep. They were tangled so tightly that every breath slid their skins together, Buffy’s face tucked into the hollow of Faith’s throat, and only the tiny spike in her breathing and pulse gave away the seriousness of the question.
“Not really, tell the truth. Figure it happens when it happens, you know?” Faith kissed the soft, damp strands of Buffy’s hair and squeezed her - reassuring as she knew how to be, poor at it as she was. “Who wants to live forever, right?”
“Me,” Buffy laughed weakly, curling into the weight of that embrace like it was the only thing between her and the world outside. “Definitely me.”
“You will, B. If anyone will, you will.”
She relaxed a little, seduced by the warmth and reassurance of Faith’s touch until her muscles loosened and her eyes started to close. “Guess it might be nice to get some rest, though.”
“Better ways to do that, B. Lots better.”
She has to fight the urge to drive her hand through the glass, to shake him. It won’t help, she knows that, but there's a bloody-minded fury in her that screams how wrong it is for Buffy Summers to be dead. On the other side of the glass, Angel presses his fingers over hers.
Eventually, the fury passes.
“What are you going to do?” she asks him, not knowing if she hates him for having the freedom to choose or pities him for being trapped out there in a world without her.
He gives her a haunted, aching smile and squares his shoulders. “I was thinking about Tibet. Maybe Sri Lanka. Get out of LA and clear my head.”
“Figures. You gotta go all the way to a foreign country to get celibacy and a bunch of people stuck there for life, and I’ve got it right here.”
He laughs, just a little, and she manages a smile. They play brave for each other.
The hole still gapes in the air between them.
A prison is a lot like a living organism, and not a particularly bright one - it keeps its memory in its skin, and it forgets easily. Faith has been letting things slide for over a month now, and there’s fresh meat in the halls now. People who don’t know her. People who do, but are forgetting why they were afraid of her. Eventually, something’s going to pop. Someone’s going to take a shot, and either they’re going to get hurt or Faith is going to get dead.
She probably ought to care more about that than she does, which is to say she ought to care at all.
There’s less pain now than there was. More cold, like a numbness under her skin. When she isn’t working out or laying in the dark with her eyes open, pretending to sleep, she moves through the halls like a woman in a dream. Maybe a particularly slow motion nightmare. She’s pretty sure even the guards have started to notice.
It happens in the rec yard.
There are five of them - young and quick and angry, burning up to earn a rep or maybe just get some. One of them’s damn near six feet tall, built like a brick house, and the other four aren’t the fainting willow kind. They have the smell of blood on them - Faith can tell. She can always tell.
They form up around her, half a circle that pins her back against the cinderblock wall. They think it’s going to give them an advantage. She manages not to laugh. Just as well. Her laugh’s coming out strange lately - sharp enough to shave with and a little too loud, busting out of her at the wrong times. When the therapist at her mandatory sessions asks if she’s okay, for instance; that probably set her parole hearings back to the week after never.
Brick House girl has a shiv and is waving it around like she has a point to make. She really ought to pay attention.
The little one with the banger tats and her head shaved punches Faith across the jaw, hard enough to rock her on her feet. Hard enough to really fuck her up, if she wasn’t a Slayer. The five of them laugh, the hard ugly kind that comes before things get really nasty. People start backing up, sensing the fight. Somewhere, a guard is trying to push through the crowd toward them.
Faith tastes the blood in her mouth, and she smiles.
Brick House’s eyes widen in alarm. Years too late. She doesn’t even get the shiv up before Faith takes it away from her and flings it straight up. The blade spins, flashing in the air. Faith moves.
They’re all on the ground, groaning and bleeding, before she snaps it out of the air on the way down.
Her blood is singing, her heart is pounding, and she hasn’t felt this good in years. Brick House shifts - maybe trying to get up, maybe just trying to clutch the pain in her broken wrist - and Faith gives her a boot in the ribs. Hears one crack and feels the hot rush of satisfaction in her skin. She’s got all the time in the world before the guards get here. All the time in the world to....
Her breath freezes, and she looks down at the knife in her hand like it’s going to bite her. Remembers Buffy’s face, half in the dark, wide-eyed with shock and horror. Remembers the blood on those perfect hands.
Remembers the blood on her own.
She throws the shiv into the asphalt hard enough to embed it there, and when the guard finally gets through she steps over the sobbing bodies of her victims to offer the woman her open hands. “Fighting,” she says through the ache in her chest. “No excuse. Solitary, right?”
It takes everything she has to keep the relief off her face when the guard nods.
Five days in the dark and two to go, living in a silence broken only by her own breathing, Faith finds herself laughing at the insanity of the world. Solitary’s a punishment, a corrective, but she’s never understood why - she’s just as alone out there as she is in here, has been her whole life except for a few fitful months here and there. At least solitary’s honest about it. Except....
Except she isn’t really alone this time, because she’s still keeping company with ghosts.
You little firecracker.
Now, Faith, you know I don’t like talk like that. I’m a family man.
When I was a kid, a couple of miles outside of Boston there was this quarry. And all the kids used to swim there and jump off the rocks. And there was this one rock like forty feet up. I was the only one that would jump off it. All the older kids were too scared.
Not you though.
Naah. I could do it easy.
She pushes her breath out, opening her eyes to the dark to shut out the smile in her mind. She knows, somewhere in her head, that Mayor Richard Wilkins the Third was an evil man. A murderer, a consummate deal-maker with dark powers, the major enabler in her path off the deep end. The trouble is, even two years later she can’t feel anything but love for him. Monster or not, he was her father. Nobody else ever wanted the job, and sometimes she still wants to scream at the world for letting him die. That her favorite of the people who have been her parents, the one who let her down the least, is the one who tried to turn himself into a giant demon and convinced her to murder people is one of those little ironies that she tries not to dwell on.
It’s one of the things she wishes she could explain to Buffy now, and never will.
She closes her eyes and sees stern, sad, longing green looking back into her. Remembers the night on the docks, on the edge of running for the horizon.
You don’t give up, do you?
Not on my friends.
Yeah. ‘Cause you and me are such solid buds.
Could be. It’s not too late.
Her hand remembers how Buffy’s fingers felt wrapped through hers, walking back to Sunnydale through the dark, not talking. Her knees remember how it felt to be a little girl in a confessional booth, whispering in the dark while her mother paced impatiently outside. Her lips remember the words.
“Forgive me,” she starts, then pauses. Feels the laugh start in her throat, thinking of the man ‘Father’ calls to mind, and lets it roll out of her. After a while, she goes on in a clearer voice. “Forgive me, because I’ve sure as fucking hell sinned. It’s been way more than a year since my last confession, B, so you better not let go of my hand.” The memory wrapped in her hand doesn’t fade, and Faith smiles into the dark. Then she gets to work.
She only has two days left in solitary, and she has a lot to confess.
Visitors aren’t a normal part of Faith’s life. Angel, relatively regularly when he could make it. Buffy, a few times before she died. She’d done a pretty good job of burning her bridges - industrial lighter and gasoline, if she’s honest with herself - so that’s about it. She’s okay with that, she tells herself, because she didn’t come to prison for the company. When the guard drops by to say she’s got a visitor, she figures it’s Angel back early from Sri Lanka or wherever. Trust the guy not to make it last. She’s even working up to a joke when she sits down behind the stupid little table with the glass pane and reaches for the phone. She’s ready for this - she’s been practicing her Tai Chi, working her inner mojo, finding her zen.
She isn’t ready for Dawn Summers.
Grief and pain leave marks on a person’s face. Exhaustion, sleepless nights and listless days, time that stretches out like a rack being cranked... they drain the color out of you, leave half-visible bruises under your skin, crush the air out of the world. Faith knows every one of those signs and scars like she knows her own hands, like she knows - knew - the hollow of Buffy’s throat. It ought to be easy. Old hat. Normal.
Seeing them on Dawn’s face is different, the kind of different that makes her want to smash the glass open and wrap her arms around the girl. The kind that makes her hand shake a little when she picks up the phone. She knows it shows in her face, in her eyes, but she tries not to give it voice. She remembers being Dawn’s age, when she would have crawled over hot coals before she’d have accepted pity. No, gentle snark is the order of the day. “Hey, brat. Look at you - all grown up. Graduated college yet?”
“Ha.” Dawn enunciates the mock-laugh with exaggerated care, though there’s the tiniest tug of a smile at the corner of her mouth. Score one. “Look at you, all locked up. When are they gonna parole you - never?”
“I hear I can get out in, like, thirty years with good behavior.” This time, Faith throws a shrug in with her wry smile. “Three squares a day and a dry bed - could be worse. Lots of quiet. Can’t complain.”
“You always complain,” Dawn objects with the force of a woman surprised. “You’re complaint girl. You never met something you couldn’t complain about.”
Or stab, her eyes say.
“Hey, we all gotta grow.” Faith shrugs, tries to play it casual. Nobody’s going to believe you’ve changed because you tell them, the chaplain’s always saying when she sees him. You have to show them. Not that she’s ever going to be big on authority figures, much less preachers, but she figures he’s got a point. Sounds like something Angel would say, anyway.
Dawn’s face is all skeptical hurt. “So, what, you’re the poster girl for anger management now?”
“Nah, I still got issues.” Faith softens the words with a smile, keeps the hand that isn’t busy with the phone flat on the table. “Figure I might be okay for real people in ten, twenty years. You come all this way to check on me?”
“Buffy...” Dawn’s voice cracks, and she covers her eyes for a minute before she gets it together enough to go on. Aching to do more than wait, Faith gives her the time anyway. Time’s what she has. Eventually, Dawn gets a jagged whisper going in her throat. “Buffy had this in her calender. To come and see you. My counselor thought it would be good to come see you, get closureized. Stupid shrink stuff.”
“Never found much use for them, either.” Faith crooks a smile, brushes her fingers along the wood of the table. “You taken care of okay?”
“Willow and Tara are living at the house now. Xander stops by a lot. Giles, too.” Dawn looks away, visibly struggling between her sense of loyalty to her adopted family and the aching void in her world where her sister and mother used to be.
“I miss them, too,” Faith whispers, the words coming loose before she gets a chance to think them through. To do anything but feel them.
“Bullshit.” Dawn’s eyes narrow and harden, and her back stiffens until she’s looking Faith nearly straight in the eye. “You tried to kill my sister, you held Mom hostage...”
“I know.” Faith cuts her off, because as far as she’s come it’s still agony to hear the recap wrapped in Dawn’s anger and pain and betrayal - the sister she could have had, never had, the sister who hated her for all the ways she’d hurt Buffy before the end. “I know, Dawnie. I still miss them.”
Dawn stares into her eyes until they’re both on the edge of tears, and then finally nods. It’s a little gesture, one that doesn’t give any of the anger away, but it’s something. “She was gonna come. I don’t know why.”
“Just to help,” Faith glosses firmly, keeping the thought of Buffy’s flushed cheeks and breathless whispers on the other side of that glass locked up nice and tight. “She always just wanted to help, Dawn. Took me too long to get that, but I did. I guess she liked seeing me getting my shit together.”
“Yeah. Yeah, I guess.” Dawn sucks in a breath, shakes her head, pushes away from the table a little. “I’m going. She’d probably say something about hoping you keep doing better, but... I can’t. So just bye.”
She already has the phone in the cradle before Faith can say anything else; Faith offers the words to Dawn’s retreating back anyway. “Goodbye, brat. Take care of yourself.” Then she rolls the phone in her hand, thinking about hanging up. Thinking about working out. Thinking about finding someone who wants a fight and giving it to them.
Red hair flashes at the corner of her vision, and she’s about to slump with relief at the thought that Dawn’s changed her mind when she sees who’s actually sitting on the other side of the glass. Red hair, green eyes, pale skin and freckles... Willow Rosenberg hasn’t change much on the outside, but the way she holds herself is different. The power and the confidence that crackles under her skin is different.
It's way too late. You know, it didn't have to be this way. But you made your choice. I know you had a tough life. I know that some people think you had a lot of bad breaks. Well, boo hoo! Poor you. You know, you had a lot more in your life than some people. I mean, you had friends in your life like Buffy. Now you have no one. You were a Slayer and now you're nothing. You're just a big selfish, worthless waste.
She remembers the bite of the words, remembers the light bruise on her knuckles from Willow’s jaw. Remembers what she threatened to do with a knife, and how Willow stood her ground. She doesn’t need a mind-reading spell to know that Willow remembers the same thing.
When the witch picks up the handset on her end, Faith cracks a hint of a smile and tries not to think about how many ways magic offers to kill somebody without looking responsible. “Will. Guess you brought Dawn down?”
“Yeah. Her therapist thought it would be good, but she didn’t want to come, so I came with.” Those pale green eyes examine her like a particularly dangerous lab specimen, the hint of nervous tension smothered under pain-soaked exhaustion and a watchful edge of steel, and Faith feels part of her mind upgrading Willow Rosenberg from ‘tag-along techie’ to serious threat. “I’d say it’s good to see you, but....”
“You’d be lying.” Faith shrugs slightly, holding herself very still and keeping her voice steady. “Guess you probably don’t want me asking how you’re holdin’ up with it, then.”
The hot, sharp flash of pain in Willow’s face is so intense that Faith almost reaches for her before she remembers the glass and all the reasons that is not a good idea. They sit in silence for a long minute, staring at each other, before Willow manages to get her voice together and drub up some acid for her tone. “I’m fine. Totally fine. I am made of fineness.”
“Yeah,” Faith says, feeling a shiver crawl up her spine, “fine all over. Noted. Duly.”
“You didn’t tell Dawn why Buffy was actually coming down,” Willow ripostes, driving the conversation back toward Faith’s end of the court. “I never thought you’d be the closeted type.”
Faith looks away, taking her time so she can be sure the tears aren’t going to break loose on her. “If Buffy didn’t tell her, don’t figure it’s my place to. It can stay buried with us.”
“Nothing has to stay buried,” Willow says in a voice that makes Faith’s head snap up. They stare at each other for a minute, brown eyes searching unreadable green.
Finally, Faith puts iron of her own in her voice. “Some things ought to.”
“Some things,” Willow agrees without blinking, and then hangs up the handset hard enough to rattle it.
Faith watches her go, and tries to convince herself she’s seeing things. It doesn’t work nearly as well as she might like.
“Visitors again, Lehane!”
Alone in her little bubble of silence in the rec yard, Faith looks up at the guard and fights the urge to ask who the hell it is now. For one thing, it’s not exactly that she minds - two visitors or sets thereof in two weeks is weird, but not unpleasant. It’s just that she’s not expecting anyone, and the jangle on her nerves Willow left behind last week hasn’t quite gone away yet. She offers herself for pat-down anyway, then accepts the handcuffs and lets Hutcheson muscle her out of the yard. Nice and easy - no point in provoking the guards. Some of them have gotten to know her a little, gotten to know how hard she works at not starting shit, but that doesn’t mean some of them don’t still acquaint ‘felon in on a murder rap’ with ‘punk looking to stick me.’ Hutcheson’s one of those, but Faith lets it roll off. It’s not, she admits to herself, like she doesn’t deserve it.
Her instincts only really start to get twitchy when they pass up glass-phone-hut row and head for the private meeting rooms up the hall ten yards or so. She doesn’t rate that kind of privacy, and nobody she likes has that kind of pull. Options being what they are, she plays dumb and lets Hutcheson walk her in. It’s not like she’s going to have great odds running for it in handcuffs, after all, and she’s not ready to show just how little the bracelets will actually slow her down if it comes to it. Not yet.
She surveys the room as she comes in: wide meeting table, older men, suits. Could be lawyers, but the eyes are wrong. Too fit. Too sharp. Too stuffy. Hutcheson leaves the cuffs on and shows herself out. Definite pull.
“Faith.” The one sitting in the middle, graying and quintessentially British, offers her the skeleton of a smile. It convinces neither of them there’s any love lost in the room. “I see your accommodations are as... unpleasant as we had been led to believe.”
“Hey, three hot square meals and no dungeon, no chains, no demons in boxes... think I’m doing pretty good, all things considered.” She narrows her eyes, dredging her memory for Buffy’s description, then smiles. It’s all teeth, and there’s no mistaking it for friendly. “You’re Travers.”
His eyes widen slightly, just perceptibly, and she can hear his pulse jump. Fear, maybe, or just surprise. Either way, he covers it with a tone of magnanimous admiration. “Clever girl. Quentin Travers, of the Watcher’s Council. Senior Watcher, and ... well, suffice to say that I have enough influence that my word may be taken as final.”
“Dunno if you’ve heard, Quentin, but the zoo’s downtown. If you’re looking for wild animals to pet, I’d suggest booking it over there. Less likely to lose a hand that way.”
Travers sighs, very much in the vein of a teacher dealing with a difficult pupil, and folds his hands on the table. She finds herself wondering how many of his fingers she can break before he gets them off said table, and takes a breath to cool down. He seems to take that as an invitation to open his mouth again. “Have you always been this hostile, or is it a symptom of your recent breakdown?”
Faith doesn’t try to hide the edge in her voice. “Guess I was just born bad, Quent. Now, we can sit around and bullshit for a while, or we can get to the fucking point: what brings your exalted asses all the way over from England?”
She’s never seen a grown man purse his lips before, and it nearly sets her off laughing in spite of everything. Still, he manages to wipe the humor off her face in a single sentence - gotta give the man some credit. “You are the only surviving Slayer, Faith, and we want you to work for us. It’s time for you to take your place in the world.”
“My place in the world, ‘cording to the state of California, is right here for the next forty years or so. You planning to ship vamps in for me to stake, or what?” Go with the joke. Play for time. Good strategy, but Faith knows the humor doesn’t reach her eyes. Come on, Travers, she thinks at him intently, show me the hook.
He doesn’t disappoint. “We have, as our presence here no doubt demonstrates, a certain influence in these matters. We could arrange for your release.”
So there it was. Sign on with the Council, be back on the streets within the week, putting demons out of the world’s misery just like old times. All forgiven, come back home - one ticket to freedom, punched with Buffy’s death and the sinking realization that the line really had jumped to Faith. That there wasn’t going to be some new girl out there for them to get their hooks into.
Now it was time for the goad. Get them to show the other hand. “Gotta say, I’m pretty comfortable here. Nice weight room, great library, warm social atmosphere. Maybe I feel like staying.”
“That would be unwise.” Travers has eyes like polished silver, and there’s no hint of emotion in his voice when he goes on. Faith knows a killer’s eyes when she sees one. “The Council needs a Slayer. One way or the other.”
So there it is. Join up or check out, the oldest play in the book. Truth be told, Faith has to admit she’s a little let down. She figured they had something a little cleverer up their sleeves. She lets her shoulders slump, eyes moving from one of them to the next, and gives them a minute to think they’ve got her beat. One tame Slayer, back on the leash.
She gives them her best psycho smile. It isn’t hard, and it sets them all back a few inches in their chairs. All except Travers. He’s the hard case, so she keeps her eyes on him. Keeps smiling. “Here’s the thing, boys. Two years ago, you took a girl and drugged her. Set a vampire loose in her life, got her mom kidnapped, sent her in to fight it with no plan and no powers. She lived through it, but she didn’t forget. I haven’t forgotten, either, because here’s the thing. That girl? She’s dead now, but I loved her. I still love her. So lemme get one thing straight with you - I will rot in hell before I work for you, and if you let me out of this box the very first thing I will do is get myself a plane ticket for England and kick your fucking asses. All of you. I will find you and I will end you; you blew off the best hope of the fucking world ‘cause she wouldn’t play by your rules, which makes you too fucking dumb to live. If you’ve got anything to rub together upstairs, though, you run home now and you pray I never, ever walk out these doors.”
Faith hasn’t raised her voice, but she knows she has them. That makes the next part easy, and she waits for Travers to field the play. He tries the best hard look he’s got. “Your attitude is very unfortunate, child. It would be a pity if it forced us to take drastic action.”
“You mean kill me.” She bares her teeth, smiling, and she’s on her feet before any of them see her move. The handcuffs clatter on the table, empty and snapped open, and she flexes her hands enough to get a good dramatic crackle from the knuckles. It’s easy to let the rage out, to let it burn all over her face, to show them a straight short drop to hell. This time, even Travers freezes cold. “Lots of people tried, boys. Even Buffy Summers took her shot, and I’m still here. You think you can take me, you send your bully boys and your poisoners. I’ll send ‘em home in body bags, and then I will come for you, because these walls hold me exactly as long as I let them. Now do the smart fucking thing and get the fuck out of here, before I decide it’s worth pulling solitary for a few months to spatter what little brains you’ve got all over this room.”
They manage to keep something resembling dignity as they bolt the room. She has to give them that - maybe it comes from being British. When they’re gone, she drops into the chair and picks up the handcuffs, toying with them while she waits for Hutcheson to turn back up and take her back to her little island of quiet. While she lets the rage run out of her, and leave cool peace behind.
Buffy’s shocked, helpless laughter rings in her ears, and she revels in it. Just for you, B, she breathes into the air. One night only, just for you. Let ‘em suck on that.
Two months of good behavior. Two months of minding her own business, smiling for the guards, ducking fights and letting her rep do the talking. Two months of sitting through sessions, making the right noises for her therapist, making nice with the chaplain. Two months of playing it cool.
That’s what it costs Faith Lehane to have an hour alone in the rec yard before the sun comes up, and she pays it with the kind of determination that only need can give you. The need to feel the dark just starting to fade around her, to taste night air in her lungs, to feel the moisture of morning dew on the bare skin of her arms and shoulders.
It used to be Buffy’s favorite time of night, because they saw it so rarely. Usually it was straight home and to bed after patrol, or crisis this and homework that. Only the nights when it was just them, the nights when they’d hunted all night or tumbled in bed with only each other for company and then made the trek back to Buffy’s house so she could pretend she’d been in bed the night before. The time when the whole world seemed to belong to them. She remembers the way the morning mist clung to the gold of Buffy’s hair, moist and sweet, and feels tears in her eyes. She doesn’t try to hold them back.
Instead, she begins to move.
T'ai chi ch'uan was never part of the Slayer syllabus, back before she came to prison. She’d learned her fighting style the hard way, striking for power and speed, all on the attack - a natural extension of the go-for-broke fights she used to get in as a kid - and hadn’t made much of a formal study of even that. It was all power and Slayer instinct for her, and it had worked well enough up to a point. Well enough to get her through. If she’d planned to learn a ‘real’ martial art to back up her Slayer skills, she’d probably have picked something with more punch - judo, karate, something with a rep for smashing the hell out of the other guy. When she’d learned about the Tai Chi work-out class in the prison, she’d just about laughed... but it was exercise, and she’d been desperate for something to do with her time back then. Desperate for something to fill the hours and the days and the weeks, and too restless to read or bum around in the rec yard without starting something with somebody.
She didn’t expect to learn something that mattered. She sure as hell didn’t expect to find inner peace.
The first thing she had to unlearn, back when she really started into it, was speed. In a fight, speed killed - get your shot in first, get your shot in best, win the prize. Trouble was, speed made you rush. Speed made you sloppy. Speed made for mistakes and getting slammed around by vamps who should have been an easy kill. She fought the teacher’s patient, insistent instruction to slow down until she was blue in the face, but eventually she did - and then she’d discovered just how little she’d understood about what it meant to do something perfectly. They practiced simple, slow movements a thousand times over - slow and precise, burning the motion into the muscles of her body until they were something more than second nature. Until she knew them by heart. Until, somewhere down deep, they defined the space that was her.
Now she doesn’t have to be slow, because the motions are a part of her - something she can burn through with all a Slayer’s speed, or something she can do at the pace of a glacier. Something she can control and always will, no matter where she is or what happens, and because she’s in control in the pre-morning dark she takes it slow enough that her movements barely ripple the air. Slow enough that her pulse and breathing don’t even speed up. Every motion perfect, flowing from one to the next like a river, letting everything pour out of her into the fading darkness until the only thing that concerns her is the silent slide of the pavement and soil and living stone under her feet.
Somewhere in the transition from her slow solo form to the first practice strikes, she feels something in the air. Not a person, not exactly - a presence, as much inside her as outside, so familiar it takes her a long minute of motion to place it.
Impossible as it is, she feels Buffy.
For a heartbeat, the breath goes out of her and she almost grasps for it, almost crushes the quicksilver wisp of the moment in too-greedy hands shaking with need. Only the distant ache inside her stops her, because the weight flooding back into her skin is telling her that Buffy Summers is dead. Gone. An absence that will never and can never be filled. Despair tries to swallow her, fresh as the first night she felt the world ripped open, and her feet almost falter. Almost.
Reflex carries her through one motion and into the next, and the gossamer echo in the air is still there. She closes her eyes, and then it isn’t intangible at all anymore - it’s as real as though Buffy is standing right there in front of her, moving with her. Echoing her. Waiting. She knows that if she opens her eyes, the moment will break and she’ll be back in the dying gasps of night in a prison yard and Buffy will still be dead. That the world will be the way it has been for the last four months, broken and ruined and bleeding.
She doesn’t open her eyes.
Buffy smiles and beckons with a graceful sway of her wrist. The motion is as unmistakable as it is unfamiliar - something Faith knows, but has never had the chance to practice. She can almost hear the words in Buffy’s voice - soft, but still a command. Push hands with me, Faith.
“We’ll fight,” she whispers to the air, like a woman in a dream.
Maybe, Buffy laughs into the dark, but we won’t hurt each other. Trust me.
This time, she does.
The guards checking the yard, preparing for the first wave of the day’s inmates, stop to watch her - a pale girl with dark hair that flows in the breeze, moving with her eyes closed in circles and spirals and waves that seem to come from something etched into the fabric of the earth, dancing with a ghost. Her hands flash and swirl, always graceful, always deflecting and pressing and redirecting with the impossible gentleness of a force meeting its exact and perfect counterpoint: yin and yang, light and dark, life and death.
Under her feet, the world turns toward morning.
Hutcheson’s still more than a little paranoid about the handcuffs, Faith sighs to herself as they make the trek from her cell to the visiting windows. It’s understandable, really; Faith might have put her off the scent a bit by claiming it was the suits that let her out of them two months ago, but the guard is good at her job and hasn’t forgotten. She keeps the cuffs on all the way into the seat this time, only unlocking them and moving away once Faith is firmly seated in front of the window. Faith might have made a joke about it if she had time, but she's too busy right now trying to get her breath back.
Being surprised by visitors is starting to get a little old, but the latest one beats out even Dawn for shock value. She’d probably have bet on Xander, Willow and a full brass band over this one, and no matter how much better she’s been feeling in the last few weeks it still throws her off balance pretty hard.
Rupert Giles, wearing a casual jacket and blue button-up instead of the slightly rumpled suits she’d always think of him in, is cleaning his glasses with a care that suggests he might be stalling. Or, for that matter, giving her time to adjust - that’s exactly the kind of thing he’d probably do.
She finally finds the nerve to pick up the handset on her end, and after a moment he perches his glasses back on his nose and does the same. His voice is exactly the way she remembers it - quiet, composed, kind but with a hint of steel. For some reason she can’t explain, it makes her think of Mayor Wilkins. “Hello, Faith.”
“Giles,” she says, then stops because she can’t think of anything better.
They sit in silence for a long minute, watching each other and feeling the weight of all the unsaid things left between them. She has not seen him with her own eyes since before Sunnydale High School went up in smoke, and the last time she spoke with him she was wearing Buffy’s skin and Buffy’s voice. Saw the way he looked at her, and felt the bite of envy and hurt so deep that it nearly tore her apart with the need to have it for herself.
If she wasn’t a complete basket case before that moment, she knows, she certain was afterward. She wonders if he knows that.
Sometimes, she wonders if he’s ever really seen her at all.
The tension breaks, just a little, and he chuckles as he catches himself about to start cleaning his glasses again. Puts his fingers against the bottom of the glass instead, his eyes returning to hers, and there is a hesitation there that surprises her - as if he knows what he needs to say, but not how to say it. The idea of Giles at a loss for words is too strange an idea to get her head around.
“You didn’t come all this way just to look at me, right? ‘Cause that would be creepy.”
She throws him the lifeline as much for her own sake as his, and has to fight down an urge to crack up at the moment of embarrassed surprise on his face at the idea. Then he settles down, shakes his head, and offers her one of his trademark rueful smiles. “No, as a matter of fact that is not why I came, though you do seem healthier than the last time I saw you and a great deal calmer. Good changes, I think.”
“Yeah, it’s a new thing I’m trying. Seems to be working out.” In spite of her nerves, he coaxes an answering smile out of her with that one. “Guess Willow and Dawn told you about coming down, and you wanted to check it for yourself?”
“Not exactly.” She tenses a little, and his fingers press lightly to the glass as if in reassurance. His eyes are very steady and very serious. “I’m afraid it’s just a little bit complicated, but the fact is that since Buffy’s death I find myself very much at loose ends. I have decided to return to England, at least for a little while, and before I leave I wanted to have a few words with you.”
“Can’t blame you for bailing, G-man. Not much call for a Watcher with nothing to watch, I guess.” It’s a flippant observation, a verbal deflection, and they both know it - it’s their eyes that do the real talking. His are weary and weighted down with grief, and she feels her own well with a hint of tears in sympathetic understanding. If anyone feels the hole in the world at Buffy’s absence as much as she does, it has to be Giles, and knowing that moves her to try to reach out to him. “You were good to her, Giles. Next thing to a dad, and she loved you.” Almost as an afterthought, she reaches up and rests her fingers against his through the glass. “You got nothin’ to be ashamed of.”
Now the weariness is in his smile, though there’s a flare of gratitude in his eyes to go with it. “If only that were true. It isn’t right for parents... for the old to bury the young, you see.”
“World ain’t ever been overrun with rightness, Giles. We do the best we can.”
That startles him again, and he shakes his head as if trying to fit a new idea into it. “You really have changed, haven’t you?”
“Nah. I’ve just been raiding the fortune cookie stash.” She plays it off, because she can’t quite handle the way the look in his eyes makes her feel like a twelve year old girl with a good report card. He lets her get away with it, too.
“Faith,” he starts again, then stalls and has to resort to another round of glasses cleaning before he can work himself up to whatever’s chewing on him. It takes him a couple minutes, but she gives them to him because... well, because he’s Giles. Finally, he looks up from his glasses and pulls in a visible breath. “I’m sorry. When you first came to Sunnydale, without a Watcher to look after you, you became my responsibility. I’m afraid that I failed you - failed to pay enough attention to your needs, or to the pain you were in, or even to the contact with others you so badly needed. I deferred to Gwendolyn and then to Wesley, letting them take the lead in your training, because I was too busy. Perhaps because I was too concerned with how Buffy was handling the aftermath of Angel’s death, and then because I was too caught up in the implications of his return for all of us, but I have come to the conclusion that the reasons don’t matter. No matter how busy I was, or how right I thought I was to prioritize other things over your supervision and training, it does not excuse the fact that you were in my care and I failed to help you. Even if I had not had a duty in the matter, the moral duty of being a sensible adult should have guided me to that much. So before I leave, you see, I had to come and tell you. To apologize, and to ask for your forgiveness if you can bring yourself to give it.”
He pauses, seeming to review the words in his head the way he would a book report or a file card, and then manages a faint smile. “I fear I may have rambled a bit, so perhaps I should apologize for that as well.”
She’s crying again and knows it, but she doesn’t try to turn her face away or hide her tears from him. She doesn’t even try to wipe them away when she feels the heat of them against her face, because there are more important things than pride and she is tired of hiding. Instead, she fills her lungs with a breath and lets it go, then musters up the strongest voice she can manage and offers him a smile. “Gotta tell ya, Rupert, in the choir of fuck-ups who piled on to the trainwreck of my life, you don’t even make the first two rows. Still... thanks.”
He stares at her for a moment, utterly flustered again, and then a smile starts at the edges of his lips that he can’t seem to get under control before it blossoms into something that lights up his whole face. “I see that prison has not dulled your... creative approach to the English language.”
“‘If I cannot swear in Heaven, I will not stay there,’” she fires off by way of retort, and gets the satisfaction of seeing him stunned for the fourth time in ten minutes, which has got to be some kind of record. At least his recovery time is picking up - this time it only takes him a few seconds to get back on his verbal feet.
“Mark Twain. How remarkable. Wherever did you hear that?”
She grins at him, tears forgotten and voice as saucy as it’s ever been. “They have this thing in prison called a li-bra-ry. You go there and ask for books, and they let you read them. Apparently it’s a whole thing.”
In spite of himself, in spite of everything, Rupert Giles throws back his head and laughs - laughs until there are tears in his eyes, laughs until he can barely breathe, laughs until he hears the low rippling alto of Faith’s laughter dancing in his ears.
They laugh for the ending of the world and the saving of souls, and pay the stares of the guards and the rest of the room no mind at all. Just this once, for a moment or two on opposite sides of the glass, they are the only people in a universe of joy.
The Last Night
She is falling again - falling, burning, screaming into a close hot darkness that presses down on her until she is awash in fear and panic, until she batters her hands bloody on soft fabric and hard, cold wood. Until she tears them apart over her and breathes wet soil, choking and shoving her way to the surface until her hand breaks through into clear air and she hauls herself free into a world of screaming terror and dancing flame.
She is alone, confused, terrified.
The girl in the bed is asleep enough that her scream is muffled to the softest murmur, but her nails dig and cut at the sheet beneath them until they draw blood from the skin of her palms - until the sheets are bloody and torn, sweat-streaked and clinging to her skin. Even in sleep, she knows she is dreaming - that she is seeing with someone else’s eyes, feeling with someone else’s skin.
Her only thought - dream-muddled as it is - is to help. To soothe some of that pain.
Fear. Shouting. Light, everywhere. More shouting. She sees Buffy bound and battered, wires trailing from her skin, shot in the head and then torn apart. She screams, and a horde of rage and horror turns on her. She runs, desperately, and somehow there is strength in her limbs that she does not know and breath in her lungs that she did not draw. Somehow, in the midst of terror, she is not alone.
She shudders, muscles straining and lungs pumping wildly, dragging in air and pouring it out again spent.
Voices. Not shouting. Shapes. She crouches, afraid, searching for an exit. One of them - slender, red hair speaks. Words. Noise. The need to run is more frantic.
Something wraps around her, holding her where she is. Warm, but not fire. It touches her, but doesn’t. She shakes in terror, but does not run.
“Buffy,” she whispers. “B, I’m here. I’m here. You’re safe.” Her blood is hot and slick under her hands.
More voices. Still not shouting. A tall boy with dark hair. He says words. She recognizes one. Two.
Then again, “You’re home.”
She stiffens and her teeth set. Rage and fear and horror are gathering behind the boy. Behind the girl with the red hair. She feels rage of her own that she does not understand. The not-shouting shapes and the horrors snarl at each other. There is a flash of fire, and then gone. More snarling. The great horror slaps the girl, throwing her through the air.
She is moving now. Stalking. She does not know why, but something moves in her.
“That’s it, B.” The girl in the sheets trembles, still half-bound in sleep, her pulse thumping and hot rage in her veins. “Kick his ass.”
The horror strikes her. She tastes blood.
She knows what to do. It does not matter that they are many, or that she is one.
She strikes and kills. She slays.
Her other self, trembling with the echo of blood and slaughter, cries out in a voice that shakes. “No. No! Jesus, B, think!”
She is standing on a tower again, looking down. She remembers falling. She remembers needing to fall. She steps to the edge.
A voice calls out to her, and she looks back. Another girl, small, with red hair. There are words she does not understand. She turns away.
“Dawn,” the girl in the bed gasps, her eyes flickering behind her lids. “Dawn, B. It’s Dawn. Little sis, Miss Muppet, listen to her B.”
There are words in her mouth she does not understand, words in her ears she does not understand. Everything hurts.
She thinks of falling.
The sheets are cold now, icy chains twined around her, but her skin burns with the weight of her whisper. “Don’t you dare, B. Don’t you dare.”
Metal falls. The girl screams.
Buffy Summers does not know her own name, but she knows Dawn’s now, and she throws herself across groaning metal to catch her sister. She will not let Dawn fall.
She will not let Dawn fall.
The girl comes awake fully: bolt upright in bed, blood on her hands and on her skin, head ringing with exertion and body soaked in sweat, her lungs heaving like a bellows and her eyes wild and staring. She shudders, still swaying with the aftershocks of the dream, and reaches out to the place she has always reached out to. To the place that has been gaping and empty for one hundred and forty seven days, and cut her on the edges of its void every time she reached for it.
Buffy Summers is there, where she ought to be, bloodied and hurting and damaged but there.
In the dark of her cell, still bloodied and tangled in her ruined sheets, Faith Lehane bows her head and weeps for joy.