When the cops stopped the survivors two hours outside of what used to be Sunnydale, Faith knew there was going to be trouble. You didn’t drive a load of underaged girls and overaged men, and not expect at least a little bit of crap from the authorities. Especially when there wasn’t a single body that wasn’t bleeding in some way. So while Buffy and Giles tried to deflect them with stories of barely escaping a sinking Sunnydale, Faith made a break for it from the rear of the bus.
They didn’t need to test their cover story with a fugitive and known murderer onboard. Even if their cover story was almost completely true.
It didn’t help that it was hot. Or that she was sore. Or that she’d left most of her stash on the bus. But when she stopped running three miles away, Faith knew it was what she had to do. So what if she didn’t get to say goodbye to Robin? He got to live. That was the important part. He didn’t need a high school dropout any more than she needed a sugar daddy with a Slayer fetish.
That first night, she hid in a beat-up Chevy Impala she found deserted off a two-lane road that went to nowhere. Its owners had clearly given up on ever finding where they were going. Faith really couldn’t blame them.
The second, she made it to a cave in the mountains. She stayed there a couple days to rest up. With a stream nearby, it meant she could at least be clean when she started running again. Not that she expected it to last. Nothing good ever did.
It wasn’t until the end of the first week that she realized she was heading south.
LA was south. Fuck.
She stopped where she was, all her momentum frozen in the face of her predictability. On the run, she headed straight to Angel. He’d welcome her, help as much as she let him, more if he was feeling particularly righteous, without asking for anything in return. It was safe, and maybe not the worst idea she’d ever had, but relying on Angel was also a crutch. She needed to get by on her own for a change, no prison bars, no vampire sponsors looking to shore up their soul quotas, nothing but her and what few skills she could offer a fucked-up world like this one.
So yeah, LA was a definite no go zone.
A rambling town slept at the bottom of the next mountain she trekked over. She camped out at the top that night, staring down at the broken lines of streetlights that bled into the darkness. No screams pierced the air, no spilled blood put her back in that dingy Sunnydale motel room from years back. The people down there went on with their lives like hell hadn’t tried crawling out of the bowels of the earth just miles away. They didn’t know she perched above them, with enough dead bodies on her rap sheet to send their boogie monsters running for the hills.
A wise girl would waltz right around it and keep on heading for the horizon.
Faith wasn’t wise. She was hungry and tired and smelled like she’d spent a week rolling around on a pig farm. When the sun came up, she dusted the top layer of dirt off her clothes, pulled her greasy hair back into a ponytail, and descended into civilization.
The road from the highway cut across her path before she made the town’s border. She walked along the dusty shoulder, unflinching when the occasional car passed by. One slowed, but when she kept her eyes firmly in front of her, it sped up and left her behind. Though her feet ached, she wasn’t ready for a ride.
The sign announcing her destination lacked the welcome of Sunnydale’s. Dust obscured its left half, where the winds had blown it across in feathery tendrils to hide the name away. She flicked a glance at it and paused.
Her Spanish sucked, but she’d picked up enough in prison to know how it translated.
What was that about being wise?
She only kept on walking because there was no way Fate had that much of a plan. Twisted sense of humor, sure, but the way she saw it, Fate was too busy fucking around in the moment to worry about the long-term. Besides, the bitch would know Faith had long ago hit the ceiling on how much she’d take. Any interference, and Faith would swing first, ask questions later, if she even bothered with the whole interrogation angle. It wasn’t like she was running away this time, either. She’d left for the good of the others, as laughable as the idea sounded now.
Still, her eyes never stopped moving as she detoured toward the nearby gas station. There was no such thing as too careful these days.
The top layer of dirt came off easy in the stained pedestal sink of the tiny public bathroom set off to the back. Fingers had to do for a comb, but tying her jacket around her waist guaranteed nobody would be looking at her hair. With a sway in her step that was more fake than fun, she sauntered around to the open bay door, leaning against the edge with a thumb hooked through a belt loop to watch the ball-shaped man trying not to get stuck beneath the ‘74 El Camino.
“You need help getting that jacked?” she asked.
“You better not be thinking of boosting this piece of shit,” came the muffled reply. The wheels ground against the oil-stained cement as he rolled out, turning his head to squint in her direction. For such a big guy, he had tiny eyes that practically disappeared between the rolls of his face. “Who’re you? Did Austin send you down here to give me crap about taking so long?”
“Name’s Faith. I’m looking for a job, actually.”
He harrumphed and shook his head. “I’ve got all the help I need inside.”
“Cashiering’s not my gig.” She strolled in, appraising the car’s rusted out bottom. Flakes of metal stuck to the mechanic’s coveralls. She ignored the way they resembled dried blood. “I know a thing or two about engines. You’re the owner, right?” This town was too small for him not to be. “Busy man like you has to have more important stuff to do than draining an oil pan.”
“What do you know about oil pans?”
She crouched down next to him. To his credit, he wasn’t even checking out her tits. Or maybe she looked worse than she thought. “Gimme the rest of the day to show you. You like what I do, you pay me what you think it’s worth.”
“And if I don’t?”
The corner of her mouth twisted into a smirk. “Now do I look like someone who’d ever leave a guy unsatisfied?”
* * *
It had been empty when she left. Now, a lone motorcycle occupied one of the spaces nearest to the office.
Ignoring her wannabe neighbor, she flipped her cardkey out as she approached her door, barely breaking stride with the in and out, or the pushing it open. She tossed the bag onto the bed, the crinkle of the plastic oddly reassuring in the grim silence. Soon as she had enough cash, she needed to get some tunes. It was one thing to want solitude. It was something else entirely to live in a vacuum.
The knock came as she was chowing down a bag of salt and vinegar chips with Conan on the grainy TV. Faith stopped in mid-chew, going completely still as her eyes zeroed in on the door. She’d already paid for the night. Only one other person knew she was here. Motel rooms were fair game for vamps, and she knew from experience how they’d pretend to be polite society to get what they wanted.
What she wouldn’t do for a little wood right now.
She straightened slowly, tilting her head to peer through the slit in the curtains. Nobody was visible. “You got the wrong room, buster,” she called out.
No answer came, and the sliver of sidewalk she could see remained empty. Then…
“I don’t think so, Faith.”
Wesley’s low, even voice sent a frisson of electricity over her skin. That was the way it had been ever since the night she’d turned herself in. He haunted her dreams, the tangible proof of her mistakes, refusing to beg even when his screams never stopped. Later, when he’d come for her help with Angel, it had taken all of her willpower—more than she could’ve ever thought she could muster—not to run in the opposite direction every time he opened his mouth. She held her own as they did what they had to for Angel, but getting away from LA when it was all done had meant she could finally exhale.
Now here he was, and from the sound of it, he wasn’t going away until she opened up to him, and fuck, she really needed to start listening to something other than her gut if she didn’t want to get blindsided like this.
Opening the door was like never walking away from him in the first place. He looked the same, world-weary and slightly sad, like he knew disappointment lurked around the corner just waiting to bump into him. The rage he’d displayed in LA was locked away in its vault, safe behind the facade he’d erected over the years—the one she’d helped him build, though not one of her proudest achievements in hindsight—but she knew, could just get a glimpse of it, that it was there to come out at just a hint from him.
As their eyes met, the corners of his mouth lifted in the smallest of smiles. Genuine, surprisingly enough. She was an expert at recognizing the fake.
“You don’t have a stake in your hand,” he said. “Should I take that as a good sign?”
“You take it as, what do you want, Wes?”
The smile faded. He nodded once, perfunctory as always. “May I come in?”
She cocked a brow. “If you need an invitation, maybe I do need that stake.”
“This is your room.” He wasn’t rising to her bait. For some reason, that made it easier to see him again. “I would hardly just barge in.”
What he left unsaid—all the history that would force him to do exactly that if he thought circumstances demanded it—as well as the fact that he didn’t state the obvious was all she needed to step to the side and jerk her head wordlessly toward the room. He stepped past her in a haze of dust and oil, familiar smells that meant only one thing.
“That’s your ride out there?”
Wes gave the lone chair under the window the onceover before folding his long frame into it. “I find it convenient sometimes.”
“Sometimes.” Being the last woman standing was enough to make a girl itch. She flopped down on the edge of the bed and leaned back on her hands, staring Wes down. “Like when you’re hunting down a rogue Slayer?”
He took a breath to speak. His lips even parted. But then whatever he wanted to say got stuck somewhere on the way out of his mouth, and he closed it again with a small shake of his head. Reaching into his windbreaker, he removed a sheaf of rolled papers and held it out to her. Waiting.
Faith didn’t take it. “What’s that?”
A flicker of kindness passed behind his eyes. Fuck, but they were blue, and where the hell were his glasses? “I’m not your enemy, Faith.”
“You’re not my friend, either.” She regretted the words as soon as they came flying free, especially since they found their unwitting mark. His jaw tightened, and the sympathy in his gaze hardened to a stern resolve. “Shit, Wes, you know what I meant.”
If he did, he wasn’t giving an inch. In some ways, he was the same old Wes. “Buffy came to LA. She’s worried about you.”
Faith snorted. “Yeah, I just bet. She tell you what went down back in good ol’ Sunny D?”
“I know you did your part to do the right thing.” He paused, and it might have been her imagination but she would’ve sworn he was softening toward her again. “Are you all right?”
It wasn’t her imagination. His voice gave it away. She shrugged. “You know me. Always land on my feet.”
His gaze danced around the room, pointedly lingering on the frayed blanket, the slot machine on the nightstand that turned the mattress into a girl’s best friend. “And in such charming surroundings, too.”
“Yeah, well, it’s all I can afford right now. Least until I move on.”
The million dollar question. But she couldn’t answer him if she couldn’t answer it for herself.
When she didn’t respond right away, he dropped the hand that still held the papers into his lap. “There’s always LA.”
Except she’d already decided Angel was a crutch. Time for the training wheels to come off and push the Slayer into the real world. Could Wes get that? Did he even care?
His steady eyes never faltered.
He was here, wasn’t he?
“This about putting me back inside?” He’d claimed he wasn’t her enemy, but he hadn’t actually denied he was looking for her. “Gotta be lots of boy scout points for turning in fugitives. Bet you could earn a badge and everything.”
“You’re not a fugitive.”
“Because Angel’s going to protect me?” She shook her head. “Not going to happen.”
“No.” With a flick of his wrist, he tossed the papers toward her. She meant to ignore them, but reflexes won, and she caught it before it could hit her in the face. “I did.”
The papers were filled with tiny print, page after page of legalese. They made her feel stupid, which always put her on the defensive, but she scanned through it all anyway, trying to figure out what the hell Wes was talking about. At the end, only two things stood out. Neither made sense.
Faith Lehane. Parole.
She listened in dumbstruck silence as he told her about Angel’s arrangements with Wolfram & Hart, how Jasmine had decimated the city, how resources were being funneled into rebuilding and Angel’s intent to help from the inside. Wesley’s voice never rose, but that was a trick, one he’d mastered in the time she’d been away, that tightly reined control to protect the parts of him that could be hurt. Her gift to him. The gift that kept on giving.
“So you pulled some strings with the new boss to get me off?” she asked when he was done.
“Yes.” As if he needed no other explanation than that. As if he hadn’t just blown apart her entire perception of their relationship, dysfunctional as it was, with this little revelation. “And then I quit.”
Now that she understood, or at least, could get based on all the shit the lawyers had done to him over the years. “What about Angel?” Because he couldn’t walk away from the vamp any more than she could. “Why would you let me help you save him if you’re ready to let him face this alone?”
“Because I think he’s making a mistake,” came the calm response. “And I can’t find out why if I’m stuck in the belly of the beast with him.” He startled her by suddenly leaning forward, arms resting on his knees, eyes blazing with a fire that almost stole her breath away. “We saved him before, Faith. We could do it again.”
We? He was including her, hadn’t asked, just plunged right in and said the one thing he knew—the motherfucker knew—she couldn’t say no to. And the thing of it was, she wasn’t telling him to go to hell, because that should’ve been the first thing out of her mouth as soon as he suggested it. Fresh starts. That’s what she needed. Away from Hellmouths and history.
And when it came to history, only Buffy had Wesley beat.
“Let me get this straight.” Discarding the papers, she mirrored his pose, ready to show him he wasn’t going to cow her into complying. Taking the offensive had always been her best defense, but this time, he didn’t flinch. “You cleared me with the cops so I’d help you.”
“No, I cleared you because you’ve learned your lesson. You proved that. To me. To Buffy. To everyone who matters.”
“You don’t know what goes on in my head, Wes. You don’t see what I see when I close my eyes.”
“You’re right, I don’t,” he said, oddly gentle. “I just see what you do. That tells me everything I need to know I made the right decision.”
The fake that she was so good at picking out? Not present. He meant every word.
The kicker of it was, she wanted to help. In some ways, Angel teaming up with Wolfram & Hart was worse than losing his soul. This was a choice made in good conscience. Fully aware of all the possible repercussions and he went and did it anyway.
“You sure Angel doesn’t have some plan he’s not filling the rest of us in on?” She was grasping at straws, but it would hardly be the first time Angel followed his own drummer.
“He might,” Wesley conceded. “But if he hasn’t learned yet that he needs to trust us, then he needs us to do this more than ever.”
There was that inclusion again, the us and the we, like it had never been about him and her and all the others. Robin had used that word, and it had pissed her off, thrown up walls so fast they’d knocked both of them down. Giving in had been tempting, but she’d still managed to walk away without a regret. With that Slayer fetish of his, she’d never really know if he cared because it was her or her calling.
Wesley would never have that problem. He’d seen the worst of her, and he was still willing to partner up.
“You got a plan?” she asked, fighting to keep her voice casual.
The corner of his mouth twitched. Bastard. He knew he’d won. “I thought I’d start with Sunnydale.”
Her brows shot up. “Newsflash, Wes. When we cut and run, all we left behind was a wicked big hole in the ground.”
“That wasn’t all.”
“What else is there?”
“The amulet Angel gave to Buffy. He got it from Wolfram & Hart.”
And there was the connection. She couldn’t blame Wesley for wondering about it. Hell, the link between what had gone down with the First and what Angel was ploughing forward with now was too oddball not to intrigue her, too. Did Buffy know? Didn’t matter. She wouldn’t want to go back to that place after the sacrifice Spike had made to get them out of there. Buffy needed that closure.
Faith had no such compunctions.
Picking up her release papers, she folded them into a triangle small enough to shove into her front pocket. The weight of Wesley’s gaze was as bad as the expectation in the air, but she held off on saying anything until her freedom was secure in her control.
“So…” She kicked back, resting on her elbows, legs stretching to find purchase atop Wesley’s knees. He sat up to give her room, allowing the contact with a curious twist of his mouth and one last question in his eyes. “You got another helmet for me, or do we throw caution to the wind?”
The twist turned into a smile. She could get used to that.
“I’m sure we can find something suitable.”
Funny thing. Now, so could she.