Anything but Heroes
"I know why you're here." He stood in a sea of farmland, his body toned and glistening with a hard day's work. He didn't turn to face her but kept on the job at hand, mending the fence. He liked fences, clear and clean-cut borders. No guesswork. Was this demon a threat? Was that person worth saving? Who really was the monster? Fences were easy. Farming was simple. Hard work produced results. Sunnydale…with Buffy had taken his world of black and white, of one the one side of the fence or the other, and destroyed it. She made him look at the grays he preferred to ignore. Fences were easier.
"How did you know it was me?" Faith slung her black duffel bag off of her shoulder and into the dirt.
He stayed silent, what he was he supposed to say? That she was exactly like he knew should would be? That from one night she spent in Buffy's body, police photograph, and a five-second encounter outside his church he would know her anywhere? That her boots collided loudly even on packed dirt, nothing softening the sound of her approaching, far off thundered warning of the impending storm? He had known this moment would come eventually, his dad always said the past had a way of catching up and he wasn't exactly running. He knew she would be loud even when she was trying to be quiet, boots too heavy, change jingling in her pockets. He knew her even if he had never really met her.
She stood waiting for an answer that didn't come and he rose, his task done, wiping the dirty off on his jeans. They were grimy and worn, the blue fading out in places and Faith thought they looked honest. That if you could judge a person by what they wore he must have been honest. Unfortunately she had learned that covers didn't always match the books. The silence was thick and uncomfortable, forcing her to say things she wish could be left alone. "Who told you?"
And she bobbed her head. She should have known that, she didn't know what made her pack a bag and travel hundreds of miles to deliver the news. It wasn't her place. She had just thought... that maybe they were on the same team, white hats but not Scoobies. They weren't the heroes. They were the reinforcements. "When?"
Riley watched as subtle changes came over her face, nothing drastic, just the smallest traces that something was off, maybe things were always off. Maybe he didn't know anything anymore. "About a week ago. About ten days too late for the funeral but it beats last time I guess. Didn't get that news till after the hocus-pocus and then I got it from Buffy. Kinda hard to get a handle on, I guess, someone coming back from the dead. Not the stuff they prepare you for in basic ops."
"You came back?"
"To Sunnydale?" He nodded, and even his All-American boy look couldn't mask the darkness in his eyes. "Things were different. Like a whole new world, actually." He jaw tensed as broken images flashed in his mind, memories which shattered the Buffy he knew. They made her hard and hurt, not golden. They reminded him of brown hair, heavy boots, and pockets that jangled with change. They knocked Buffy off her pedestal and on to an even playing field.
He had hated Faith for what felt like forever, until he had come back to Sunnydale. She started the downward spiral, she had hurt Buffy so deeply she couldn't trust, couldn't be honest. It was her and Angel that did the real damage. He liked it like that, someone to blame. Not her, never Buffy's fault. Going back broke something that couldn't be fixed, because he could see her, really see her. All the real damage, the kind that left scars so deep they would never heal over, that damage Buffy was doing to herself. And he almost resented her for being so human, for breaking his vision.
Faith looped her thumb in the belt loop of her jeans, twisting her arm awkwardly. "A new world? For me, it was more like a wicked case of falling through Alice's rabbit hole into Wonderland. Same people, same house but different. I mean- Xander has a job, Dawn is in high school and Giles is trying to bump off Spike-"
"Trying to?" Riley interrupted as he started towards the house, shortening his strides so Faith could step into pace beside him.
"For Buffy's own good apparently." She shrugged. "I kind of got there at the end of the act. But since he did go down in a tower of flames I have to say I side with him."
"Giles did what?"
"Not Giles, Spike. Stop an apocalypse in the process. Plus he has a soul."
Riley mounted the back steps to his home, the screen door needed to be repainted. It swung on loose hinges with bits of flaking paint fluttering down to the white washed stairs. "I never quite got the soul argument. Buffy sorta stuck by that having a soul makes you a good person, but how I see it there are plenty of people that with a soul that do some pretty terrible things."
"I guess." There was nothing to do but agree; to pretend some other girl made those mistakes. That she wasn't her when she had stabbed and killed, when she had destroyed Buffy's world. It had been some other girl; masks were hard to see. She liked to imagine her soul as new, something recently received, like a present she unwrapped while in jail, Riley didn't know to play along.
She stood on the steps for a moment before looking up and seeing him holding the door open. She took the three steps quickly and muttered a quick 'thanks' as the door closed with a smack. The kitchen was clean, if not pretty, and a cry fluttered down the stairs, that made Riley smile. A small blonde girl, eighteen at best, came down the steps a squirming boy in her arms. Faith stood back as the girl smiled and told the little boy that 'Daddy was home.'
Riley swept the eleven-month-old up into his big strong arms, talking about the fences, speaking of the animals by name and Faith ducked her head, the scene almost too intimate. She was treading on his life, a shadow he didn't need. But then the girl was in front of her, making her part of it with a warm if not confused smile. "Hi. I'm Jessica and you are?" She held out her hand, which Faith shook unwillingly.
"Sorry," Riley apologized ,stepping between the two women. "I tend to loose all logic when I get around this bundle of trouble." Riley sat the little boy down on the wooden floor.
"Is he yours?" It was a stupid question.
"Yep," Riley beamed proudly. "Name's Jack."
Faith had known a Jack before, at least he said his name was Jack. He used to burn his carpet with cigarettes just to smell the smoke. He would let Faith crash when she needed a place as long as she helped him shoot up. She could never picture Jack as a child. "I like that name," she lied.
Jessica smacked Riley lightly on the shoulder. "Oh and this is my sister, Jessica. Jessica, Faith. Faith, Jessica."
If the name registered with Jessica, she didn't show it. She just pushed her dirty blonde hair back and secured it quickly with a black rubber band from her wrist. "I hate to be rude but..." she trailed off looking to her older brother as she collected her pink purse from the kitchen table and Faith wondered why she hadn't noticed it before.
"Yeah, yeah. Go on and go." Riley rubbed a hand over her hair, mussing it. "Tell him I said hi."
She beamed and Faith stood smiling back but secretly resenting that the girl was so obviously in love. Faith wanted that, a boy to run off and see and a family that would care and approve. She wanted something more. Buffy was the closest thing to family she had ever known. And she was gone.
Jessica stepped forward and hugged Faith, pulling the rogue slayer's rigid body into a warm embrace. It felt odd and foreign to Faith who stood motionless. Then Jessica pulled back. "Sorry," she apologized sheepishly. "It's just... Thank you so much for what you do."
Words spoken to another girl echoed back, but it had been Buffy then, Buffy's body at least. "For what?" Faith asked.
Jessica shifted her weight from foot to foot looking towards her brother for confirmation. It was he who spoke. "Sam sorta filled her in on Sunnydale."
His sister had a slight pinkish glow to her cheeks as though embarrassed and she spoke in a rushed soft tone. "You're one of them, right? One of those 'slayers'? You save the world."
Now it was Faith's turn to turn pink, just the tip of her ears, hardly enough to notice if you weren't watching. Of course Riley was always watching. That training couldn't be whittled out of him by the security of Iowa. It was firmly imprinted in his character, a trait to die with. Faith shrugged, looping her thumb in the belt loop of her jeans. "Sometimes I help."
Jessica looked at her brother and then back at Faith, a knowing smile on her lips; Faith wanted to erase that smile. To yell at the girl that she wasn't being modest or heroic, that those really heroic people lost everything. That heroes left the battle field and left friends, lovers, family dead in the trenches. That they were scarred, eyeless, hopeless, and parted with their lives for the greater good. Faith wanted to explain at the top of her lungs that she wasn't a hero. But she didn't. Buffy would have never shattered the girl's fragile belief. Buffy was Faith's bible nowadays.
"Don't let me keep you." Jessica smiled once more, said goodbye and left; taking any ease she had introduced into the tension situation with her. Faith spoke again, needing to fill the space, always needing. "She's sweet."
Riley opened the fridge and pulled out a Tupperware container with a navy lid, something too normal for what he knew. "That she is." He pulled down two plastic plates and then setting them down reached for a third, then hesitated. "Hungry?"
It was a stupid question. Faith was always hungry, nothing ever filled her up, but she answered anyway. "Yeah." Jack cruised over to Faith, letting go of a leg of one of the chairs to hold on with tight chubby fists to her denim clad leg. She wanted to warn the kid that she wasn't a dependable object, that people got hurt by trusting her, but she just smiled. He was a pretty baby.
"I think he likes you," Riley spoke over Faith's shoulder making her jump ever so slightly. Three plates sat with chicken and grapes, a nice snack. "Wanna help him in his chair?"
She picked him up, his weight strangely comforting in her arms. Jack leaned in a placed a big wet kiss on her nose then giggled. Faith had forgotten about giggles. She smiled back but didn't engage him otherwise as she sat him in his high chair and took a seat. Riley went back to the fridge and pulled out a gallon of milk and Faith couldn't help but think it was too perfect. Or it would have been if she weren't the third person. As Riley sat down the glasses she knew she shouldn't ask, curiosity killed the cat. "Is Jack's mom at work?"
Riley stood for a moment; his shoulders hunching ever so slightly under her question as his fingers traced the grooves in the wooden tabletop. "She passed away six months after Jack was born."
Faith hated that phrase, passed away. It sounded like they faded into nothing. Words like death, murder, killed; those words she got. They were painful but concrete; they kept the person close, the pain not allowing for them to dissolve. "How?"
Riley sat down, creating a moment to gather his thoughts and pin down his words carefully as he poured Jack a sippy cup of milk. "There was a tribe of Glasha'na demons. They're animals. Can't be reasoned with. Can't be captured. They tear apart children," he paused, as if this was important. That these demons were worse because they tore apart children, but Faith didn't draw the connection. Everyone was someone's child. "Sam heard and she wanted to help, said what if that was Jack. So we went. Left Jack with my parents. Promised him we'd be back soon. She didn't-" And then the words were too heavy, the pain too thick.
Faith reached a hand across the table and placed it over his sun brown one. Her rings pressing into his knuckles. It wasn't a gesture she would have done, but Buffy would have and that's what mattered. Then like that her hand was back one her side and they were eating. They let silence be broken only to make comments about Jack and how he ate. No one spoke of what mattered, of Buffy or Sam, or how odd it should have been sitting at a table, how strange that it felt almost normal.
Jack protested first when the snack dragged on long past a normal meal and they rushed to obey. Riley scooping him up and whipping off his chubby face with a wash cloth as Faith cleared the plates, placing them loudly in the sink. She let the water fill one side and her mind drifted, Buffy must have done dishes, she had taken care of Dawn. Buffy probably stood just like this. Faith was suddenly struck with a feeling that she was waking the dead, torturing them with her presence. This could have been Buffy's home, it had been Jack's mother's, she shouldn't be there. Riley should be left to them; his pain cared for by his family. She shouldn't be there
"Thanks for the grub." Faith gathered her duffel bag, words coming out too quickly. "I'm gonna head back into town, grab a bus or find a motel to crash at for the night. I just wanted to let you know, next time I'll phone." Change jingled in her pockets as she went for the door. "Cute kid you got there." She wouldn't say the next words; she wouldn't say bye, or see ya, she couldn't.
Faith turned her hand still on the door. Riley stood in the middle of a living room surrounded with photos, half of them of people who were gone. It was too sad for Faith to put into words. He didn't deserve this, didn't deserve to live in a shrine. It wasn't his fault that Buffy and Sam had thought that he was a hero, that they didn't see that he was only a man. She let go of the handle and took a tentative step. It wasn't fair. "Yeah?"
"Stay." There was a quiver in his voice and Faith wanted to ask for how long, or as what but she didn't, not all questions have answers. And as she walked into his arms she thought perhaps she was wrong, that real hero's are the one's that carry on after the brave had fallen. Or maybe she was just kidding herself. She didn't know. She just knew he asked her to stay, and that was enough.