Faith opened her apartment door, and there stood Buffy under the flickering hall lights, a duffel over one shoulder.
“You’re in Rome,” Faith said.
Buffy rolled her gaze around the doorframe and back at Faith.
“Nobody said you were coming.” And damn Robin, damn him to fucking hell for leaving her out of the loop. Again. Call him a Watcher and suddenly he was one, all regulations and need-to-know.
Buffy shifted her duffel and peered past Faith into the room beyond. “Kind of didn’t want to have this conversation in the hall.”
Silent, Faith stepped aside. So she wasn’t the best student; a few things still stuck. Even after all those years without a threshold to call her own, she remembered about invitations after dark.
Not that she wouldn’t have loved the brawl if Buffy were a vamp. It was almost a disappointment to watch Buffy take that one small step. And then Buffy was standing in Faith’s living room, which was another kind of letdown. Buffy cast an eye over all the ceiling cracks and cockroach legs Faith’s personal shithole had to offer, which was plenty.
“Yeah, I know,” Faith said. “Spartan.”
For a moment Buffy just stared at her, pretty little brow wrinkled, and then she responded with some sad pale ghost of a smile.
Faith had seen that smile on her before, when she first got back to Sunnydale. It said: It’s hopeless, but don’t tell anyone. It said: I have to do this, but I can’t.
But hell if Faith knew what ‘this’ was that had Buffy looking like her own personal sunshine had gone dark, and hell if Faith was going to ask.
“So,” she said, after the moment stretched out thin enough to go ‘twang.’ “A conversation, you said.”
“Yeah.” Buffy took a moment to examine the ceiling again. Faith could have told her there were no answers written there. Finally, eyes still not quite meeting Faith’s, Buffy said, “I hear you guys have a Shevlok problem.”
“Uh huh,” Faith said. “Look, guess you missed the memo, B, but there’s no ‘us guys.’ There’s Robin and his Slayer crew, and there’s me. I don’t have a Shevlok problem – whatever the fuck that is – and if they do, they’re not saying.”
“Oh.” Buffy made a face. “Well, this is awkward.”
“I’m sure they’d love it if the real Slayer came in and showed ‘em how it was done, though.” Faith gestured towards the door.
But Buffy didn’t make a move to go. If anything, she looked more lost than she had a moment ago, which was a trick considering the size of Faith’s living room. “Do you have any other demon problems?”
Faith shrugged. “Things get too big, I sic the Robin squad on them.” Which she’d done exactly twice since the explosion and the move-out. Like she was going to tell Robin about her screw-ups. “You come all the way from France to kill a couple of demons?” she asked.
“Shevloks are bad business,” Buffy said. “Bad.”
“Bullshit,” Faith said. Buffy puffed up to argue and opened her mouth. Faith cut her off. “So maybe the demons are bad. Doesn’t explain you standing here in my dump.”
In the pause, while Buffy’s mouth worked, Faith eased onto the balls of her feet, hands loose. Ready, supposing Buffy answered with her fists.
But she didn’t. She rolled her eyes and said, “Listen, is it okay if I crash here a couple of days? I need to talk to Robin, I guess. Check in.”
“What, stay here and miss the fun of bunking in Slayer Central?”
“I’ve been bunking in Slayer Central,” Buffy said, with more fire than she’d said anything so far. “Would rather something a little less, um...”
“I was gonna go with giggly, but yeah.”
Just what she’d always wanted: Buffy haunting her on her own turf and breathing down her neck.
Then again, here was Buffy, begging sanctuary. Yeah, okay, that was pretty much what she’d always wanted.
Say no? Make her work for it? But Buffy was watching her like it meant more than just a straight six-hours’ sleep without pillow fights or cat squalls. Like it mattered. And that didn’t feel right at all. “Sure. Whatever.”
She crossed into the kitchen, and Buffy followed. “So there’s coffee in the can there,” Faith said. Instant, but Queen B could damn well drink it and like it, or else fund her own caffeine. “Some food in the fridge. Little sparse. Haven’t had time to push a grocery cart lately, you know what I’m saying?”
“I wish I could cook,” Buffy said.
Okay, not the direction Faith expected this to go. “What for?”
“I never figured it out. I was supposed to feed Dawn, and instead I brought burgers that weren’t even made of meat.”
“I’ve survived. Anyway, life ain’t over yet.”
“Yeah.” And there was that lost look again – in the kitchen, this time, which was even smaller than the living room.
It was giving Faith the chills. “Uh, so there’s the bed or the couch. I guess the bed’s for the guest, right?” And this kept getting weirder.
“But the couch is for moochers,” Buffy said, wandering back into the living room and dropping her duffel on Faith’s next-to-the-dumpster find. “I’m good. I mean, you didn’t even know I was coming.”
“Yeah, well, I ain’t exactly been in the loop lately. I guess Robin’s waiting for you.”
“No.” Buffy was rifling through her duffel for no reason apparent to Faith. “I didn’t tell anyone I was coming. Except, you know, Dawn.”
“Right.” Okay, fuck this awkward shit. “Listen, I’m gonna go find something to kill. You coming?”
Buffy tossed the duffel back on the couch. “Wouldn’t miss it.”
So some things were still the same, anyway.
“So, Cleveland,” Buffy said, hands tight and fisted at her sides, neck stiff enough it made Faith ache just to look at it.
Not your problem, Faith. “It’s a place,” she said.
“Do you like it?”
Faith snorted. “We making small talk, B?”
Buffy crossed her arms. “Never mind.”
Faith let that hang there a few minutes, a corpse of a conversation swinging between them as they strode past big old tenements. Most of them are probably walk-ups like Faith’s, some roachier than others – they couldn’t all have the shit maintenance hers did – but mostly all full. Lights glowed warm in the twilight.
It felt more like home than any place Faith had been since she left Boston, this packed-in, intimate life shared with strangers.
She glanced at Buffy, who’d apparently gotten too lost in her own thoughts to remember to feel awkward.
“Weather sucks,” Faith said. Buffy glanced at her, and she shrugged. “Locals complain about snow, and you know, whatever, not like they ever see a real deep freeze here. But the freezing rain? That’s a bitch.”
“Yuck,” Buffy said. Politely, Faith supposed. They were being polite.
“The bald boytoy you handed off to me is a prick,” Faith said. “The principal.”
“Yeah?” Of all things, Buffy smiled a little. “I kind of figured.”
“That why you ditched him?”
“Well, finding out his mom was a Slayer put kind of a hinky spin on things,” Buffy said. “And then there was the whole Spike-be-dead plot, so...” She shrugged.
“Wait, what?” It took Faith a moment to put together her words. “Spike and Robin?”
Buffy’s expression was blank, her eyes hard and glittering. “The vampire that killed Robin’s mom?” Buffy said. “That was Spike.”
“Shit,” Faith said blankly.
“Robin didn’t tell you.”
“Didn’t tell me jack squat. We never got really personal, you know? Other than, you know.” Faith grinned, and Buffy rolled her eyes. “He went on and on about my ‘potential,’ my ‘fresh opportunities.’” Faith swung a hand at one of the greasier-looking apartments. “Some opportunities.”
“It’s not all like this, is it?” Buffy said.
“There’s ritzy parts. Not like us in the stake trade can afford them, but nice enough to look at. Parks. Not a bad music scene, if you don’t mind bands you’ve never heard of. Clubs are for shit, but they serve booze, so what the hell.”
“And slaying? How’s that?”
“Same old. Stake goes in the vamp. No apocalypse plots yet, though. Gotta say I’m disappointed.”
“Yeah?” Buffy said. If Faith’d been hoping for shock, she didn’t get it; she wasn’t sure Buffy was listening at all. She wasn’t really there. Faith had her alongside, stalking along all blond badass bitch, and she wasn’t even there.
“What’d you come for, B?”
What little expression there’d been on Buffy’s face fell off. “You promised me I could kill things,” she said.
There were cemeteries, the morgue, the blood banks: good hunting grounds for a Slayer with an itch. Faith was starting to think, though, that a couple of fledgling vamps wasn’t going to do it for Buffy. “I got a place, guaranteed action, if you don’t mind spines and goo.”
Buffy wrinkled her nose, but she said, “Lead the way.”
Two blocks off a boulevard stood a row of warehouses huddled one after the other as tightly as very grimy pearls on a string. First in line held raves a couple of nights a week, strictly human except for the predators stalking the crowd. Next were a couple more dedicated to what Faith had gathered the city police call ‘vice’ and left alone. Still mostly human. After that, though, things got colorful: cavernous open spaces full of unlikely demons and unlikelier demon wares; the xenophiliac’s red light district, a couple of Orpheus dens.
And the fights.
Buffy strode along beside Faith, her blankness forgotten for the moment as she gawked at the demon crowd. A few glanced in their direction and then hastily away. Faith ignored them.
“Shouldn’t we be killing something?” Buffy half-whispered.
“I see evil shit, I kill it,” Faith said. “Otherwise, innocent until proven guilty, yeah? The freaking American way, and all that.”
“Right,” Buffy said, eyes very round.
“Yo, Otto,” Faith called. Across the crowd, a huge lump of orange, bulgy flesh turned around. The demon’s three main eyes blinked at her. Faith walked up to him and said, “Got room for a couple of Slayers on the roster?”
Otto blinked again. “Two of you?”
“She’s the one with the itchy fists. Take her first.”
A ring of flesh all the way around him rose and fell. Faith had figured out a while back that this was Otto’s approximation of a shrug. “Slow night. I’ve got room. Could take you as a team,” Otto said.
Faith grinned at Buffy. “Whattya say, old buddy, old pal? Doubles?”
Buffy was still wide-eyed and now verging on freaked.
“Come on. Trust me,” Faith said. The words soured as soon as they were out, and probably her expression with them.
But it was Buffy’s turn to shrug. “Sure. Doubles.”
Otto’s lipless mouth widened, displaying a total lack of teeth. “Third bout to start. She know the rules?”
First things first. Faith took Buffy to the holding pen – some might call it a locker room – and found them both tape for their knuckles.
“Why bother?” Buffy asked.
Faith pulled another loop between her fingers. “You bucking for a busted joint, it’s your call.” When there was no answer, Faith looked up to find Buffy eyeing her. “It’s a fight, right? Not a mission. We ain’t going in to kill.”
“Is that one of the rules?”
Faith shrugged. “Accidents happen. Otto only gets pissed if they happen too often.”
“So they don’t happen to me,” Faith said. “I kill something, I do it on purpose. On a mission, not in the fights. This crap—” She lifted up her other hand, already wrapped. “—I only wear to the fights.”
Maybe Buffy got it, or maybe she didn’t. Not Faith’s issue. Faith finished wrapping the second hand and then moved over to give Buffy’s the once-over. Buffy let her, holding her hands out for Faith to inspect. There were no pointers Faith needed to give; not like Buffy hadn’t been doing this even longer than Faith. “Looks good,” Faith said.
Buffy stepped back pulls her right arm hard into a stretch. “So what are the rules?” she asked.
“Don’t get killed. Don’t kill the other guy unless he keeps gunning after the horn goes off, then he’s fair game. First one on the mat for ten seconds loses - or last one standing wins, since we’re fighting pairs.”
“Nothing but what comes attached. That’s some serious hardware with some of these guys, though, so keep an eye out.”
Buffy was awake now, alive, stance limber, eyes bright. Faith was feeling pretty damned pleased with herself. “You got any money, you could put it on us.”
Buffy’s eyes widened. “People gamble on these fights?”
Faith laughed and gave her a friendly shoulder check as she heads for the door. This was going to be fun.
Otto started Faith and Buffy against a mixed team: one Snerka demon, one horned dude with patchy orange skin. “Watch out for the points,” Faith told Buffy as they walk up the ring. She gestured towards the Snerka, all green reptilian skin and glistening purple spines.
“Are they poisonous?”
“They’ll knock you out, give you a headache afterwards. I don’t know about the other one, though.”
“It’s a Fyarl. Projectile mucus.”
“Giles turned into one once.”
Faith turned, certain Buffy was putting her on. Buffy shrugged.
“I really did miss all the fun,” Faith said. “That before me or after?”
Buffy’s forehead scrunched in thought. “During, I think. You were in a coma.”
“Right.” Faith didn’t say a damn thing about why she might’ve been in a coma, and Buffy made no comment on what Faith might've done to get put in one, and it was all very civil.
The thing about Snerkas was they were all spines, basically. Getting a blow in somewhere that counted without getting skewered half a dozen times or bowled over by the huge swinging tail was a trick.
Faith left that to Buffy.
“So what about that mucus?” Faith asked the Fyarl. “When’s that come in?” It barreled in for what looks like a full body grab, and Faith landed an elbow to the ribs and swung the demon right on by. It roared.
“What about non-fatal injuries?” Buffy called. “Can I break these spines?”
Behind them, surrounding them, an alien, many-limbed, multi-colored demon crowd was yelling.
“More money if you don’t,” Faith called back.
“There’s money?” Buffy yelped.
Faith rolled her eyes and deflected another direct attack from the Fyarl. “Seriously, man, this is boring,” Faith told it. “C’mon. Show me the mucus!”
She braced for another full frontal attack, but this time it started to circle her, tossing its head like a pony – a demon pony Faith sure as hell didn’t want to ride.
Suddenly the thing sneezed with a force to give a lesser being a concussion, and there was a blue-gray glob aimed straight for Faith. She jumped aside just in time and it sailed right through the space where her head was to land with an audible squelch on the mat.
The Fyarl made a sound Faith was suddenly damn certain she was supposed to hear as ‘mucus.’ The demon smirked at her.
“That’s it,” Faith said. “We gonna finish this fight sometime this year, guy?”
She ran in and aimed a kick straight for its head. There was another explosive sound, and then the demon and Faith both went down in a godawful slimy tangle that turned rigid even before she tried to struggle to her feet.
She was down. There was no way she wasn’t; her knee was cemented to the floor. Partly under her, the Fyarl half-quaked, half-roared with something that Faith suspected was what passed for laughter among Fyarls.
“You know this ain’t over,” she said. “You and me, we’re having this out.”
The horn sounded. Faith looked over at the other fight in the ring. The Snerka was down, one of its own spines poking it in its (relatively) soft underbelly. Buffy was standing over it, triumphant but unsteady. Faith could see a scrape across her bicep, gleaming brightly in shades of red and purple. When Faith caught her eye, Buffy grinned vaguely and said, “The demon broke the spine. I just used it.” Then she wove back and forth, twice, and fell into a heap.
Pretty soon one of Otto’s minions came out with a spray bottle and spritzed Faith with it. It was mucus solvent, it turned out. The Fyarl pulled free about the same time and thrust its hand at her, and she shook.
“I will end you,” she said. “Next time.”
The Fyarl snorted – only a small, totally mucus-free snort, but enough to make Faith step backward. The Fyarl made like a volcano again, and Faith was positive this time that it was laughing.
There was no solvent or antidote for Snerka juice, though. Buffy must not have gotten much in her system, because she woke up just a minute or so after she went down, but she wouldn’t walk a straight line anytime soon, so Faith shouldered under her and walked her back to the locker room.
“We suck,” Buffy said.
Faith finished arranging her in a more or less upright position against Faith’s side. “We won.”
“We’re Slayers. Shoulda pummeled ‘em.”
“Yeah?” Buffy grinned woozily.
Faith wondered how much fun a girl might have getting Buffy tanked. “You like, we’ll definitely come down and mow the whole crowd down.”
“Okay.” Buffy went limp against Faith’s side.
Faith resigned herself to wait. She wished she’d brought her smokes.
Sometime not too long before dawn, Buffy roused. Faith figured she was steady enough to walk home now, so Faith steered them out, pausing on the way to pick up their take from Otto. By the time they got back to Faith’s place, Buffy was looking almost fully awake, though lacking some of the hollow-eyed weariness she’d shown up with the day before. Faith left her on the couch and went to put water on the stove for coffee.
She brought back two (chipped, discolored) steaming mugs of Folgers’ finest and handed one to Buffy.
She looked cautiously at her mug, which was fair, because what was in it was really pretty gross. “I’m planning to go back to sleep at some point,” she said.
Faith sank down next to her on the couch. Way down. Sometime, several generations ago, this couch might have had springs. “Can’t hold your caffeine?” Faith said. “This is just a nightcap.”
They sipped for a little while. Finally, Faith said, “You have fun?”
“We suck,” Buffy said again.
“It’s harder when you’re not aiming to kill,” Faith said. “Takes some getting used to.”
“I am so not telling Giles,” Buffy said.
“Doesn’t have to be a one-time deal. We train a little bit together, make it a foursome instead of a couple of one-on-ones, nobody could hold us.” And what was Faith doing, suggesting they were some kind of team?
“I’m not staying.” Buffy stared down into her mug.
Faith never dreamed any different. The spoken fact still stung. “Sure, I know,” she said. “I just meant, you know, while you’re here.”
“Okay,” Buffy said.
That was it, just ‘Okay.’ No cajoling needed. Huh.
“Oh, I got your money.” Faith dug the bills out of her jeans. A hundred for Buffy, the same for Faith.
“They pay us to fight?”
“Didn’t you ever want to be a star?” Faith asked, grinning at her. “We’re the main attraction.”
“Huh,” Buffy said. She pocketed the money. Faith wondered what the Council gave her for spending money. Probably the rent on Faith’s apartment five times over.
After another few minutes of quiet, Faith said, “So, I don’t know what you’re here for, but I know it ain’t demons. Not the fighting kind, anyway.” She paused, waiting for confirmation or denial or something.
Buffy stared silently into her tea.
“I don’t figure you wanna talk about it, or else you’da gone to someone who isn’t shit at this whole interpersonal relations gig.” Also possibly someone who hadn’t tried to kill her or vice versa, although Faith supposed that wouldn’t leave Buffy all that many options.
“Spike,” Buffy said. “I miss Spike.”
Oh, Faith thought. She should have guessed this, probably.
Buffy glanced at Faith and huffed a kind of laugh. “I can’t even say his name around... anyone. They all hate him or miss him or feel guilty about him or...” She trailed off. “Or they feel awful for me whenever I mention him.”
“I didn’t really know him,” Faith said.
“I know,” Buffy said. “That’s why it’s okay, with you.”
Faith knew it wasn’t true, the implication she was hearing. “Lucky break,” she said, trying painfully for nonchalance. “Running into me on the way to your Shevlok problem.”
“I just needed to get away. I can’t stand how they look at me. All of them.”
“It work? Getting away.”
Buffy gripped her mug with both hands. “I think so. Maybe.” The smile she gave Faith was cautious. Real. It was more than Faith knew what to do with. “I’m not done yet.”
“You could come back with me,” Buffy said one night a couple of weeks later. She peeled the last of the tape from her hands. “When I go back to Rome.”
She and Faith were both sweaty, both bleeding but victorious. The Fyarl was going to have a hell of a headache.
“What am I gonna do in Rome?” Faith scoffed.
Buffy grinned. “I bet we could find something.”
Faith bet they could.