The world has changed. She'd deny it if she could, because some things are too much to deal with, some things are too much to let yourself give a shit about, even when they're right there in your face and screaming--and wasn't she the queen of denial in her day, even better than the golden girls around her, all peaches and cream and ego and gall, while she was pomegranate and gravel and self-loathing? Wasn't she the queen?--but she can't. Some things are too much to deal with, yes, but they're also too much to deny, and the world has changed. The world keeps changing, no matter what she does, no matter how hard she slams down the brakes and screams for it to stop, lay off, let her get off the ride 'cause she doesn't like the company. It just. Keeps. Changing.
It's been a year since she walked in circles around this motel, with its blind-eyed windows staring out across a crumbling town (this is my town, where you get what you pay for) and its hard, narrow beds with the sheets that leave scratches down your back and thighs like cat-claws in the middle of the night. Twelve long months of fighting and dying and winning and losing and living but who gives a fuck, anyway, because the battle never ends; the war is never really over, no matter how much evil you think you've driven out of the world. The empty swimming pool is like Sunnydale in microcosm, a hole ripped out of the world and laid naked before the sky, and a part of her thinks it would be so easy--so easy--to just run and leap and fly for a moment, just fly, fly forever, fly until the world stopped her and she was back in Sunnydale, back in the Hellmouth, back in her soft white bed with the soft white sheets and her daddy dearest somewhere, waiting for her to wake up...
Being a Slayer means being a suicide every hour of every day, because you can't be anything else when you walk the streets with a knife naked in your hand and your throat naked to the wind, waiting to kill, waiting to die, waiting to fuck or be fucked--call it sociopathy or call it suicide, but it comes down to the same thing, and every Slayer, ever, has known exactly how to find the edge, to find the point where the ground drops off and the sky spreads its arms, and close her eyes, and fall.
They say suicide is painless, she thinks, and smiles a small, bitter smile, and begins to walk the outer edge of the motel like a ritual gone sour.
A year ago, this walk was a beginning. They beat the First Evil, they paid for every inch of ground with blood and sweat and bile and choices that no one would have made if they'd had any other choice in the world, they grabbed their wounded--the ones who weren't too far gone, the ones who weren't already lost--and they ran, ran, ran like rabbits until they reached this crumbling motel at the edge of their world, and licked their wounds, and planned. They wove themselves a future out of air conditioning that ran too loud and smashed beer bottles at the edge of an empty pool, out of bitter victory and the taste of cherry lip gloss. Slayer, Watcher, carpenter, witch, Key...and her, who was faith but never had it.
"Irony bites," she says aloud, and the empty pool snatches her words and flings them back at her like an echo, twisting them around and changing their meaning into something just as accurate, just as cruel, but different as night is from day. And Faith smiles, and shakes her head, and keeps on walking.
"Come on, B, we gotta move," she says, and it's nine months ago, it's September, and the outside air is hot and brisk and dry, and it smells of salt and oranges, like the whole world is some fancy mixed drink meant to be sipped and savored. She likes that image. Add a cherry and and shot of absinthe and you could call it the Buffy Summers: all California sweetness and salty regret, hiding a bite that you'd never see until it slapped you across the face. She likes that image a lot, and she resolves to dust Buffy with salt that night, drizzle her with orange oil, and drink her down.
By the window, sunlight golden on her hair, Buffy doesn't move. She looks almost sculpted standing there, like something from a fairy tale; Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair to me.
Faith walks over to her, feet cat-gentle on the floor, and slides her arms around the smaller Slayer's shoulders. "Come on, B," she repeats, softly. "They're waiting for us." Buffy shrugs her arms away, eyes still on the street outside, and Faith steps back like she's been shoved, suddenly sure that something is wrong, not at all sure of what it is. But the flavor of the room has changed, and the wind off the street no longer tastes like freedom; it tastes like cold air, blowing through a cage.
"This isn't working," Buffy says, and the world falls down.
Oh, Faith's heard all the reasons before, every explanation, every justification; it's not you, it's me, and she wants to scream 'of course it's you, you stupid slut, it's always been you, it's always and forever been about nothing but you, ever since the Calling told you that you really were the perfect fucking princess of the entire fucking world! She wants to, but she doesn't, because she can't--and because it would be true. It's always been about Buffy. It's always been about her hair, her eyes, her fingers that could rake down the length of your back like fire, her smile, her tears, her everything. It's always been about what she wants, what she needs, what she can take. She's given before, but even that was done in selfishness; before she jumped (before she fell, just like every Slayer falls) she told her sister that the hardest thing about the world was living in it. She said "this is hard," and then she ran.
Loving Faith hasn't been easy. Faith knows that. Loving her has never been easy, not for her mother, not for her father, not for anyone--not even for herself. So why should it be easy for Buffy, perfect Buffy, with her fawning boys who change their natures--give away their humanity, chase down a soul--for her? It can't have been easy.
And when something isn't easy, Buffy throws it away.
So that's how it ends: in a sunlit room that smells like oranges and salt, with the wind rolling off of the sea, with the rebuilt Council waiting half a mile away for the two Slayers to arrive and follow them into a tomorrow that might be bright and might be dark, but will never be anything like the past. That's how it ends. Buffy's face screwed up into a portrait of perfect suffering, with perfect tears running down her perfect cheeks until Faith wants to slap them away and tell her that she doesn't get to cry; she doesn't have the right. Every good thing she gets, she breaks it if she can, and Faith may have few illusions, but she knows she was a good thing; good for Buffy, good for the world, because she gave Buffy something to come back to every night. She was a good thing, and now...
Now she's being thrown out like every other good thing that wasn't easy, that wasn't simple, that wasn't plain and unconflicted. Buffy toys with them for as long as they amuse her, and then it's over.
"I'm sorry," Buffy says, and Faith barely hears her; she just turns and walks out the door, down the stairs, out to the street, where she hails a taxi and rides through the hot San Diego afternoon to an adobe-fronted building full of Watchers and half-trained Slayers who don't know how far she once fell; they've heard the stories, but they don't understand yet that being a Slayer means flirting with gravity every day until it takes you down, and they think she stumbled, but never hit the ground. And they're wrong, but she doesn't correct them. Buffy never shows up. The others laugh it off, but Faith sees that they're uneasy, sees the way they look at her, and makes her choice before the meeting ends.
That night, she returns to an empty apartment--Buffy didn't come to the meeting, but she didn't stay home, either, and Faith realizes with a dim fascination that for the first time since she saw the other side of the coin that was their Calling, she doesn't care--and she packs her things, shoving them hard and helter-skelter into a black duffel bag, leaving behind anything soft, anything that smells of cherries, or oranges, or the sea. She pulls on denim pants with the inner thighs worn so thin that the cloth is like a promise of better things to come, and she paints her lips fuck-me red, just like they were at the motel (just like her mama), and before she goes, she scrawls a message on the mirror in lipstick, taking childish glee in the words. And then she goes, and she doesn't look back.
She never looks back.
Written in lipstick, on a mirror in an empty apartment:
MAYBE I FUCKED YOU FIRST, BUT YOU FUCKED ME OVER. YOU WIN.
"Faith? Faith, wait!" The voice is familiar, and it's six months ago, it's been a long December, and there's no reason to believe that maybe this year will be better than the last; the pavement is slick beneath her boot heels, all damp concrete and standing water, and her head is down, and for a moment she thinks that maybe he won't follow her, that he'll assume she's just another stranger in the cold Los Angeles rain. But her luck has never been that good; "Faith!" he calls again, and she sighs, and turns, and lifts her head as she lets herself look into the past.
"Hello, Wesley," she says.
Wesley stops, looking almost startled, like he didn't mean to summon up a ghost when he chased her down, when he shouted her name into the rain; his hair is plastered hard against his head, and spots of water stand out on his glasses like tiny circular scars, changing the way his eyes are shaped behind them. He stares at her, and for a moment, she just stares at him, the two of them frozen in a sea of falling water and rushing people, all the children of the city racing on and on and on to reach high ground before the floods roll in. She looks at him and wonders when he got so old; wonders who left those scars behind his rain-painted glasses, the ones she can see dappling his eyes, where someone who'd been hurt less deeply might well miss them. Wonders whether she really cares.
It's hard to say, these days. But he's a familiar face, and the rain is cold, so when he smiles, as hesitant as the sun breaking through the rain, she gives in to a desire she's not even sure she understands, and she smiles back.
"I wasn't sure..."
"I know," she says, and shakes her head, and her hair lashes cold and wet against her cheeks. "It's cool. Did you want to get a cup of coffee or somethin'? Because it's colder than a fuckin' witch's tit out here."
"I wasn't aware that Miss Rosenberg required a thermal brassiere," he says, raising his eyebrows, and she laughs, and he laughs, and suddenly everything is all right with the world; it's still raining, and the people who shove by them aren't careful where they step or who they smack up against in their passage, and that doesn't matter, because he's smiling, and she's smiling, and the air inside the Starbucks is warm and smells like cinnamon and honey, and there are no oranges, no cherries...nothing golden.
Nothing golden at all.
He says he loves a girl; she asks him who, and he laughs and smiles and turns his face away, ten years younger for half a second's time, and when he admits that it's Fred, Winifred Burkle with her off-kilter smile and her shitty fashion sense, Faith can't help but laugh and shake her head, and tell him, "That's perfect," because it is, it is perfect, it's so insane that it just might work out, so under the radar of the world that there's a chance they'll get away with it. Love your little geek, she wants to tell him, and don't let her grow up to be a witch or learn that she has super powers, and maybe you can keep her with you for just a little while; maybe the world will let her stay, if she's nothing but a pretty face. Fred's a survivor, she's a coyote-girl, all lean fluff and sharp teeth that she digs in when she wants to hold fast, and Wesley knows how to keep what's his, and maybe they can make it. Maybe they're just small enough to survive.
And part of her knows that none of that is true; that two months will slide away like water over a broken bridge, until it's February, until the air is blue with cold even in Los Angeles (even though she left Los Angeles far behind, and the streets of Seattle are never dry, and the air here tastes like moss and broken promises), until the frost settles deep inside Fred's bones and burns her clean and cold, burning her away, leaving another woman living in her place. Faith learns all this second-hand; Faith isn't there. Faith won't meet Illyria until the debris has settled, until Wesley is buried deep beneath the clay, all broken pieces of a man she tried and failed to break. The war is already lost on the day that she meets him for the last time, on a cold December afternoon, to drink hot mocha and lick sweet cream off the edge of her cup until he has to look away; the end has already begun. But neither of them know that, and it's six months ago, and the future that seems so close in hindsight is still a million miles away.
When she stands to leave he says, "Be safe," and she says, "I'll see you," and neither of them knows she's lying. And she walks out that door, and the future races in behind her, just like the tide running back in from the sea. And Wesley will drown, and so will his pretty little coyote-girl who never meant anyone any harm, and Faith?
Faith just keeps walking.
"Meet me in Buttonwillow," she says, and her voice is flat and cold; she still doesn't know how they got this number, still doesn't know how they found her or tracked her past the ends of the world and back to Chicago, where the elevated trains sing songs she remembers from her childhood, rails humming through the early summer night. It's May, a month ago, and already the heat is rolling across the world like a shroud, and she sleeps tangled in her sheets, body aching from exhaustion, sweat seeping out of every pore until she smells like salt, until every breath is like breathing the wind off the sea. "You want to talk, I'll talk to you there."
She'd have gone to Los Angeles, if anyone had called her, if anyone had known where to call; she's answered every Calling that she's ever had, even the ones she hated and tried to deny. She would have gone, and fought with them, and maybe she would've fallen, but that would've been okay, if it was time to fall. She's fallen before. It's been a while, but she hasn't forgotten how. She would have gone, but no one called her, not until tonight, not until the phone she kept for ordering pizza and writing checks turned traitor and let the past come slinking in. And now Wesley is dead, and Fred is dead, and Spike and Angel and Illyria are...whatever it is that you call it when something is broken on the inside but still up and walking. And she's looking at the phone, and she's thinking of oranges, and she's wishing that she had a choice, but she doesn't. The Slayer is Called, and you come when she calls you. That's just the way it seems to work.
The traitor phone squawks in her hand, and she pulls it away from her ear, drops it back into the cradle, turns her face away. Begins to pack. This is a small and barren room, holding all the pieces of a small and barren life; the things she's collected, like driftwood on the shore, as she ran across the world to get away from the Call she could never stop herself from hearing. They've called her fallen before, and right now, she doesn't doubt them, because right now, she feels like she's never quite stopped falling, that if she can't catch herself before she walks out the door and back into the life she left behind, she's never stopped falling at all.
And the bag is packed, black fabric bulging with everything she is now, and she pauses with her hand on the doorknob, walks back to the bathroom, digs a tube of lipstick out of her pocket and paints her lips in fuck-me red, eyes old and young and wounded in the top half of her face, like windows on the future, like doorways to the past. And she wonders, if she'd known she'd be standing here, would she ever have bothered to wake up?
Faith turns, puts her hand back on the doorknob, and walks out of her life, into the future.
Buttonwillow. Now. The air is hot and dry and smells like memory, like failure, like falling...like cherry lip gloss and regrets. Faith walks the perimeter, thighs brushing together with a soft, whispering 'shush' sound that echoes through the bitter-hot night, underscored by the clip-clop, clip-clop of her heels against the brick walkway. Circle the courtyard; climb the stair; circle the first floor; climb the stair; circle the second floor; climb the stair, and circle the roof, where once her body traced gravel and broken glass angels, where her heels beat native rhythms on the tar paper, and every breath they took was hallelujah. She makes the circuit three times and there are no sounds, no disturbances to the routine, and somehow, she still isn't surprised when she climbs the final stair a fourth time and sees Buffy sitting on the edge of the roof, weight supported on her hands, wind combing its fingers through her golden hair, sunset-backlit, like a gilded piece of a forgotten past.
"You always knew how to make an entrance, B," she says, and wonders whether Buffy hears the caution in her voice, the wary suspicion that took root there after that day in San Diego.
"I've had a lot of teachers," Buffy replies.
"What do you want?"
"We want you back." Those are the wrong words, said in the wrong tone; they're a banishment, not a summons, and Faith doesn't see how she can ever understand her, when she can look at her with those huge blue eyes in that tan-gold face--who has time to maintain a tan when they're chasing vampires all the goddamn time, anyway?--and say "we want you back" like that would be enough. And she's just opening her mouth to say "no," to let her feet slide back into the habit of walking, when Buffy adds, more softly, "I need you."
And the future rushes out again, and everything is changed.
She moves before she thinks of moving, before she imagines motion, all instinct and sudden speed; Buffy moves at the same time, and they meet at the center of the roof like worlds colliding, hands reaching for familiar places rendered foreign by a year apart, like tourists who have almost forgotten their way in some undiscovered country. Oh, and a button breaks free of its thread and rattles away down the roof, lost forever, and ah, and a zipper jams, leaving Faith to bend and swear and jerk it open with her teeth, and mmm, and California still has its sweetnesses, still tastes like salt and oranges and wounds that never heal and sins that we never forgive but can maybe learn to live with anyway. And then Buffy's mouth is on her throat, and they're falling, and they're nothing but a tangle of limbs without bodies and bodies without edges and her skin is on fire and she's freezing and she's burning and she's been so lonely and the road has been so goddamn long...
And they don't have sex and they don't make love; they just fuck like strangers who used to be lovers, until the strange edges begin to blur away, until the hand stroking down an unfamiliar hip is suddenly familiar again, until the flicker of a tongue against an earlobe is meant to tease, to entice, not as an attempt to seem to care, and then it's all right between them, then she understands, and the pattern reasserts itself, and she guides Buffy's fingers down and in even as her own hand reaches for her other half, the first one Called, the one she's always Calling, and they come back together, and when she comes, she screams Buffy's name, and it's only later that she understands Buffy was screaming hers, as well.
Afterwards, they lie tangled and battered in the gravel, and she knows her back and ass are bleeding, and she really doesn't care; her arms are tight around the one thing she's ever wanted and lost and found again, and she's not letting go; if Buffy wants to fall, they're falling together. They owe each other that, if nothing else.
And Buffy's lips still taste like cherries, and she's home.