The downtown of Boston was a palimpsest of the city’s checkered past: a new Starbucks had opened up next to an abandoned, shuttered building, and a freshly asphalted road was inches away from a pothole large enough to swallow a small dog. It wasn’t pretty, not the kind of zip code a kid could brag about at school, either; but it was home, it was Boston, and that was all that Faith needed for now.
“Mom?” she called out in the dark halls of the apartment they shared, using one hand to flick on the lights and the other to carefully discard her backpack.
Her mom claimed their last landlord evicted them on account of the fact that Faith ‘left her school stuff all over the place’, which was as black a lie as Faith had ever heard—still, she didn’t risk it on the off chance that she’d find her mother sober and angry, her only possible combination besides unconscious and oblivious. The apartment was freezing, and she wasn’t sure if it was because the heater was out (again) or if it was the lingering darkness playing tricks on her eyes.
“Mom?” she called out again, stopping when she saw the slumped figure of her mother on the couch.
Faith sighed, pulling out the stool from under the table to reach into the cabinet for the box of Cookie Crisp. Her stomach grumbled in outrage when she discovered that it was empty. She ran a finger along the edges of the cabinet to catch some leftover food dust, plopping it into her mouth before coughing in disgust. No matter how hungry you were, the combination of stale Cookie Crisp mixed with what tasted like a ramen season packet was far from appetizing.
She walked further to the back of the apartment, peaking into the master bedroom and discovering what she expected: the still form of her Dad sprawled face down on the mattress in the master bedroom. It had been a while now since she’d seen him, but it was never a good sign when he was in the house.
She was thinking of friends with whom she could stay over as she walked back into the front room, delighted when she spotted her Mother’s wallet lying open for the taking on the coffee table. She reached over and nicked a five cautiously; the only time her mother’s hearing seemed to work was when Faith was doing something she “shouldn’t”. As if her mom understood more about the shoulds and should nots of the world than she did.
She let herself out, not bothering to lock the door behind her. They didn’t have anything worth stealing, and if her parents were hurt or killed on account of their stupidity, that wasn’t her problem. She’d probably get fed more often somewhere else, anyway. She made it down three flights of stairs before she changed her mind, dashing up the damp staircase as fast as she could and locking the door with a satisfying click. She let out a sigh of relief, shaking a head at her weakness, and then ran back down the stairs in record time.
Her first stop was the East Boston Shell gas station about two blocks away from their apartment building. Her stomach lurched in earnest with every step she took, and her knees just about gave out when she saw the colorful candies and chips displayed in the windows. It was like Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, if Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory had 2 for 1 discount signs in the windows and smelled vaguely of cigarette smoke and gasoline.
“Hey Faith,” the cashier, Mr. Tom, greeted as she walked through the doors.
“Hey Mr. Tom!” she hollered back over the shelves, her eyes bulging as she took in the sight of all the food arrayed, all for the taking. She eyed the price tags cautiously, knowing that she would probably have to make it through at least the next 72 hours on whatever food she bought now.
“How’s school going, Faith?” Mr. Tom asked, taking out a broom and inconspicuously sweeping the area in front of the register.
She rolled her eyes and poked her head out so she could look directly at him. “You know I’m no good at that shit. Why you always pressing on me, Mr. Tom? You think I’m some kind of secret scholar? ‘Cause, believe me, I couldn’t be further from it.”
He chuckled, something akin to a sparkle in his eye. “You’re a smart girl, Faith. You give yourself far too little credit.”
She shrugged, pulling a plump bag of cheetos into her arms and giving it a gentle squeeze. “That’s not what my teachers say.”
He opened his mouth to say something when his Golden Retriever dashed out from behind him, its tail wagging furiously as it jumped up on Faith with oversized paws, knocking the bag clean out of her hands. He barked right in her face, panting and whining for her affection.
“Ollie!” she returned with enthusiasm, scratching under his chin and submitting to his extra wet kisses.
“Ollie!” Mr. Tom reprimanded, tapping the dog’s side with the underside of his broom. “What did we say about jumping up on people!”
If Ollie was the least bit abashed, he didn’t show it, choosing instead to lick Faith’s face a few more times for good measure. She giggled, cupping his face in her hands and planting a kiss of her own right on top of his head before continuing to run her hands down his long fur.
Mr. Tom picked up the discarded bag of cheetos and brushed it off. “Good thing he didn’t pop this bag. I’d say I’m worried about the mess, but he eats these things almost as fast as you do. We’d see a burst of orange, and then it would all be gone.”
“Isn’t there a law or something against having an animal in a place where they’re serving food?” Faith winked, wiggling her eyebrows in mock-disapproval.
“Not in South Boston there isn’t!” He set the cheetos next to the register. “Listen, I know you haven’t said anything about it, and I don’t mean to be butting in on your business, but I get that it’s been rough, and I know for a fact that you haven’t been eating enough. This shopping trip is on me. Assuming, of course, that you don’t tell a soul about Ollie here!”
Faith blushed, holding up her five dollar bill. “That’s ok, Mr. Tom. I’ve got this! I don't need a lot. Just something to get through the weekend.”
He shook it off. “That’s the Lord’s money. I couldn’t take that.”
Faith laughed. “Believe me, Mr. Tom, this money is anything but the Lord’s. Anything that comes from my Mom’s wallet doesn’t really fit under the definition of ‘saintly’.”
“Did you steal that money from your Mom?” he asked, his voice suddenly sharp.
The shame that filled Faith’s breast was stifling.
“I—I—yeah.” She hung her head. “But I needed it, Mr. Tom! I haven’t eaten since—since—” She paused, realizing she didn’t actually remember when her last meal had been.
He reached forward and took her hand in both of his own, his eyes filling with tears. Faith felt uncomfortable with the sudden show of emotion and wanted to pull away, but she didn’t want to hurt his feelings.
Sensing her discomfort, he released her hand and reached up to wipe his eyes. “I’ve known your Mom since she was about your age. She was smart, kind, and had a hell of a lot of potential. But she picked the wrong type of people to be her friends. No one who wants to see you fail is your friend. Remember that, Faith.”
Ollie whined in that moment, ducking his head under her arm for more pets.
Mr. Tom blinked as if he had come back to himself after waking from a particularly vivid dream. “Faith, your birthday is next week, right? How about you come and work for me after school once you’re old enough? I don’t come with a lot of benefits, but I’ll pay you enough so that you can pay for your own meals, three square ones every single day.”
Faith brightened. “Really? That would be awesome! I won’t let you down, Mr. Tom! You can take this shopping trip out of my first paycheck.”
“This shopping trip is on me, Faith,” he insisted, ringing up the cheetos and putting it into a bag to make his point. “And I expect you to keep up your grades or I’ll have to cut down on your hours. I’ll ask you for a report card before giving you your paycheck if I have to!”
“You wouldn’t,” Faith challenged, setting down an armful of snacks next to the register. “What do my grades have to do with anything, anyway? I can be a good employee and still fail all my classes.”
“True,” Mr. Tom agreed, scanning each of the items. “But being a good employee won’t get you out of here, Faith. And here isn’t where you belong. You know you’re meant for bigger and better things somewhere else in this world.”
“But I love Boston,” she maintained, and it was true; but something about what he’d said was true as well. This was her home. As admittedly horrible as it could be, she didn’t want to leave, and she certainly didn’t want to live anywhere else.
She jumped when she heard the sound of her father’s voice followed quickly by the chime of glass falling to the floor as the door broke when he slammed it open. Faith looked to Mr. Tom, feeling confused when she saw his eerily calm expression.
“You’re drunk, Pat. Why don’t you sit down before you fall and hurt yourself?” Mr. Tom suggested, gesturing to the black plastic chairs lined up neatly near the entrance.
His bloodshot, yellowed eyes narrowed as he studied Mr. Tom and Faith. He leaned over and spat on the floor. “Is she stealing from you?” he demanded, his voice hoarse. He pointed an accusing finger in Faith’s direction.
“No, Pat, I was actually just offering her a job,” Mr. Tom explained, forsaking his relative safety behind the counter to walk over to him. “Not until she’s 15, of course, but her birthday is next week, isn’t it? What are you doing to celebrate?”
Faith’s father shoved Mr. Tom off when he tried to ease him into a chair, almost knocking both of them over. “What is that five dollar bill doing in her pocket, then? I know she ain’t got money of her own.”
Faith’s stomach plummeted as she looked down to her pocket, where the five dollar bill stood proudly on display. She swallowed back her nausea, her mind whirring with a million different excuses, each one more far-fetched than the last.
“We didn’t have any food in the house,” Faith began, wishing she could stamp out the tremor in her voice. “I was hungry, and you and Mom were, um, you were asleep.”
“Didn’t you eat lunch at your school? Don’t they pay for that shit?” He had moved past Mr. Tom and was making his way menacingly towards her.
She cleared her throat, refusing to take a step backwards. “There was paperwork to qualify for free lunch. Either you or Mom could have signed it, but you missed the deadline. So no, I didn’t eat at lunch because you didn’t sign that shit.”
“You ungrateful bitch!” he launched himself at her, hands open at the ready to fasten around her throat.
Just before he could choke her, Ollie launched himself between them, snarling and baring his teeth. He snapped at Pat’s hands and growled from deep in his chest. Faith’s father barely flinched.
“Stupid mut,” he backhanded Ollie full-force, sending the dog sliding across the floor until he crashed into one of the shelves, all of its contents spilling on top of him.
“Ollie!” Faith cried out in horror.
Her father had grabbed her before she had a chance to check on the dog, who lay still and whimpering on the ground.
“I won’t have a thief for a daughter!” he ripped the cash from her pocket before punching her right in the teeth, the force of the blow causing her to stagger and eventually sink to the floor.
She spat out bright red blood, wiping furiously at the tears that gathered at the edges of her eyes. She wouldn’t let him have the satisfaction of making her cry. Her brain recognized that she was in pain, but her whole face felt numb as novocaine. She tried to get up and face her asshole of a father, but her body was too shocked and dizzy to coordinate the necessary movements.
Both of them looked up in surprise when they heard the sirens wailing in the distance.
For the first time since he had entered the station, Pat Lehane looked scared. It was a moment too brief, however, for Faith to savor. Fear quickly gave way in favor of blazing rage.
He fisted Mr. Tom’s shirt, pushing him against the closest wall. “Tell me you didn’t call the cops.”
Mr. Tom pried his hands off him. “I’m afraid what you did was rather stupid, Pat. Especially considering you’re on probation.”
“Shit!” He began pacing around in a tight circle, pulling at the ends of his hair. “I’m just trying to parent my kid, without you busting in, acting like you’re better than me! They’re going to take me away. What’s my Faith going to do without a man in her life to take care of her? What about my ex-wife?”
“With all due respect, Pat, you broke the door, hit my dog, and hit your daughter in the face. Have you considered that maybe you are the reason Faith and your wife’s well-being are at risk? They have lots of programs available to help people like you.”
“People like me, huh?” Pat sucked in a breath, chewing on his tongue. “That’s just the thing, innit. You really do think you’re better than me.”
He shook his head, pursing his lips. In a flash of movement, he reached into his pocket and plunged a knife into Mr. Tom’s abdomen.
“Nooooooo!” Faith screamed, the blood in her throat curdling around her lips. She tried again vainly to get up, but she could only manage to crawl towards Mr. Tom.
“Get the hell out of here!” her father yelled, hitting her across the side of her face.
She stumbled away, tasting a fresh onslaught of coppery blood in her mouth. This time, she listened. She crawled away until she reached the door, finally finding her way unsteadily to her feet. She started running, as dizzy and uncoordinated as she was, not stopping until her father’s yells were no longer discernible against the sound of the northeastern wind howling in her ears. She ran and she ran, not stopping until her legs flat out refused to move another inch.
She found herself in a park she didn’t recognize. That was odd; there wasn’t much left in the city of Boston she had left unexplored. Maybe the hits to her head were obscuring her memory? She looked at the hazy rays of sunset before closing her eyes, trying to orient herself to her surroundings. It was going to be dark soon, and she didn’t want to try and find her way to a friend’s house in the middle of the night.
She spit out blood on the grass, wincing as feeling began returning in her face and extremities. This wasn’t the first time Pat Lehane’s infamous temper bested him, but today he’d been sure not to spare her any pain for tomorrow. She had always been a relatively fast healer, but she knew she’d wear technicolor bruises to school at least for the next couple of days.
“Hey, are you new around here?” a voice asked from behind her.
She jumped, turning around to face a boy around her same age with a smooth, pale face and light eyes that contrasted intensely with his inky black hair. He offered her an apologetic, disarming smile.
She exhaled deeply, her heart pounding. “You scared me. I didn’t hear you coming up behind me. What do you want? And do you know where we are?”
“You’re hurt,” he said softly by way of response, gently wiping at the blood at the edge of her lip. “I’m sorry I scared you. I’m Philip, by the way. Pleased to make your acquaintance.”
“Faith.” She moved away from his fingers. Goosebumps erupted all over her arms, along with a new yet somehow also familiar tingle in her spine.
“You don’t know where we are right now?” His smile never left his face, almost like her being lost amused him, and although he was strikingly handsome, she felt apprehensive.
“No, but if you don’t want to tell me, I’ll figure it out. I’ll see you around, well, actually, hopefully I won’t, no offense ‘Philip’,” she said, turning on her heel when his hand on her shoulder stopped her.
“Won’t you stay a while?”
When she turned around to face him again fully prepared to give him a piece of her mind, his face had transformed into some gruesome, devilish-looking creature. His mouth opened to give way to what looked like fangs.
She wanted to scream, to yell for help, but the sound never came. She tried to fight him off as his fangs approached her neck, but she was weak and sore and death seemed all but imminent . . .
“Happy birthday, Faith!!!” an overly chipper voice broke through the fog of her dreams.
Faith’s eyes creaked open, letting in the too bright sunlight. She could feel the cool beads of sweat peppering her body along with the healthy dose of adrenaline pumping heartily through her veins. For being in fight or flight mode so early in the morning, she sure felt groggy.
Her nose perked up when she caught a whiff of freshly brewed coffee. Dawn set the steaming mug down on the nightstand with a smirk.
“Buffy told me I was to wake you under no circumstances if I didn’t come up here armed with some caffeinated back up,” she informed her seriously. “I take it you are as much of a coffee fiend as she is?”
Faith sat up and stretched, easing through the tightness of muscles freshly primed for a fight. “Buffy’s caffeine intake would put her in a hospital if she didn’t have the aid of slayer metabolism. I like to keep my blood caffeinated levels below 0.08, officer. Where is that Buffy girl, anyway?”
“She’s downstairs making some kind of organic pancake mix for your birthday breakfast. I don’t know why she’s into that granola child shit anyways, she can’t cook—or drive, but that’s besides the point—to save her life. But don’t panic,” she added placatingly. “I made her promise that Willow would be allowed to help. I think she’s in charge of making the bacon, actually. So your pancakes might be a little on the squishy side, but the bacon should still be good, and that’s what really matters, right?”
“That’s right, squirt,” Faith said, ruffling Dawn’s hair on her way to the shower.
“Hey!” she yelped, flattening her hair back into its usual shape with the aid of the mirror.
“I’ll see you downstairs, little sis. Unless you want to stick around for the show,” she teased, shimmying out of her shirt and twirling it above her head with a practiced ease.
Dawn rolled her eyes, frowning, but moved towards the downstairs all the same. “I come up here with coffee and birthday greetings, and this is what I get? Some things never change. I’m telling Buffy that you were doing a strip tease in front of me.”
Faith winked, easing out of her pajama pants. “You do that.”
“Gross!” Dawn shrieked, running down the stairs with her hand over her eyes.
Faith couldn’t help but laugh to herself as she turned on the water and stepped into the shower. Dawn was right, some things never changed—like their slightly antagonistic relationship (and lest Dawn say otherwise, it was equally antagonistic on both ends)—but that was the way she liked it. She would have never considered herself a likely candidate for the domestic, family life, but the balance of slaying vampires, fighting demons, averting apocalypses, etc., and then coming home to a bed that was her own and a family that was kind of hers, too, had its merits. Moving in after starting a relationship with Buffy seven months ago had been one of her better decisions by a longshot.
Of course, moving in with Buffy also meant moving in with Dawn, eye patch Xander, Willow, Kennedy, Giles, and occasionally Andrew, Angel, Angel and Co. (they had names but she intentionally didn’t remember them), Spike (who was supposed to be dead? Technically, all vampires are supposed to be dead, so it wasn’t a huge difference for him all things considered), and the potential slayers (who weren’t so big on the potential part anymore), that she called brats but secretly liked. Her affection for them definitely didn’t have anything to do with the fact that they all tended to prefer her over Buffy, which brought feelings of immense smugness and satisfaction. Definitely. Not.
She felt cramped sometimes, she could admit that, but everybody experienced the familial claustrophobia to a certain degree and still wanted to stay together, so she figured she could deal with it, too.
Of course, not everyone had accepted her immediately as part of the team, and she understood why, even though it sucked. Some had been surprisingly quick to accept her, like Willow, who had intuited Buffy’s feelings for her before Buffy had realized them herself and felt not-so-subtly vindicated when they had finally (in Willow’s words) ‘confessed their love and moved on with their lives’. It helped that Willow and Buffy had the best friend factor, i.e., the ability to talk with a designated third party member through the ins and outs of their respective romantic relationships; as Faith and Buffy grew closer, so did Buffy and Willow. They hadn’t been this close since their third year of high school, which was saying something.
Then there were Giles, eye patch Xander, and Dawn, who were in varying stages (sometimes varying by the hour) of Faith acceptance. Dawn seemed to be coming along the most recently, possibly because her tough little sister protection act had died down a little bit when she saw how happy Buffy had been in the last seven months. Giles and eye patch Xander still needed a little more convincing, but she could tell that they were surprised and impressed with how happy Buffy had been lately as well. They’d come around soon. Faith could feel it.
Speaking of feeling it, her fingers had become uncomfortably pruny. She didn’t want to leave the comfort of the shower. Her dream had left her feeling vulnerable and unnerved, two feelings especially dangerous to have as a slayer. She hadn’t thought about her first vampire encounter or her hometown in what felt like a blissful eternity. She didn’t know why her mind chose now of all times to bring it to the forefront of her memories, perhaps it was the proximity to her birthday? Everyone here in her makeshift family, including Buffy, would probably advise her to share it with the group, including every last, painstaking detail; then it would be up for poking, prodding, and research, and she just didn’t feel up to that, however well-intentioned, at least, not at the moment.
She wanted her birthday pancakes, no matter how soggy and flavorless they were bound to be (having the bacon to wash them down wouldn’t hurt). Her birthday pancakes, and maybe a private moment or two with her girlfriend. Hadn’t another year still alive in her crazy line of work earned her that much?
She wrapped herself in one of Buffy’s fluffiest pink towels, cursing herself for actually enjoying the sensation. It was she who insisted that Buffy cut back on her more luxurious purchases, and the debate over the towels had been a particularly sore spot between the two of them. Of course, being the exemplary girlfriend that she was, she eventually relented, paid for the towels with her own damn money, and the two of them made up quickly afterwards. She did make a point of refusing to use them on principle, but that was only when Buffy was there to see. That being said, Buffy would probably recognize the scent of Faith’s shampoo on the towel and confront her about it later, because Faith was crazy enough to date a freak who could differentiate between residual shampoo scents.
She ran the towel over her head and finger styled her damp ringlets to perfection. They would dry just like that, for which she was grateful and her girlfriend envious. Buffy’s hair was straighter and softer than what Faith could reasonably accomplish in several hours with a high-end (Buffy’s, obviously and ironically) straightener, but Buffy’s hair was fine, and the texture meant she had to spray it with detangling product within an inch of its life to make it somewhat manageable. It was funny how every detail between the two of them was somehow opposite, down to the very strands of hair on their heads. It had always been that way, since day one, and it was one of Faith’s very favorite parts of their relationship.
“Willow wants to know if you’ve turned into a mermaid!” Dawn yelled up the stairs. “I told her I’m not coming up there to check, even if you’ve got a fin and everything. I’ve seen enough of you in your bra and underwear to last me a lifetime!!!”
“Yeah, but you haven’t seen me in a shell-shaped bra!” Faith yelled back. “I’ll be there in a sec, squirt, just gotta put on some clothes. Won’t take me more than a minute or two.”
“I knew you were naked!!” Dawn squealed in response.
“For having an older sister and living with three different lesbian couples, she sure does have a weird thing about seeing naked women,” Faith muttered to herself, pulling a soft cotton t-shirt over her head.
She slipped into a pair of shorts that she wasn’t sure belonged to herself or to Buffy (another underrated element of being in a committed relationship: unlimited access to each other’s wardrobes), but based on the slight tightness around the rear area, she would have guessed they belonged to Buffy. She smoothed some unscented, non-fancy moisturizer on her face (a modified Buffyism that Faith no longer hid from her girlfriend) and ran a hand through her hair before heading down the stairs at last.
She was immediately assaulted with the scent and sound of sizzling bacon, which made her mouth water, and a fluffy, vanilla aroma that she cautiously attributed to what may be half-decent pancakes. The sound of Willow and Buffy’s light chatter and laughter coming from the kitchen put her at ease. The images and feelings her nightmare memory lingered, but for the moment, she was here, she was safe, among the best friends and family a slayer could ask for.
“Happy birthday, Faith,” Giles said to her right, a trademark cup of tea in his hand. It was then that she remembered she had left her own coffee cup upstairs, and that it had mostly certainly gone cold by this point.
The smile Giles offered to accompany his congratulations was small, but genuine, and she felt it easy to return.
“Thanks, Giles. Say, you haven’t tried Buffy’s pancakes by chance, have you?” She nodded in the direction of the kitchen. “They don’t smell too bad, but you can never be too cautious when it comes to Buffy’s cooking.”
“I confess I have not been so foolish as to partake in Buffy’s culinary expeditions in some time,” Giles admitted, taking a thoughtful sip of tea. “I do not feel today is a day to break away from what has now been tradition for many years.”
“That’s Giles for no, right, G-force?” she asked with a laugh.
“If you would discontinue using that impertinent nickname derived from a film starring anthropomorphized rodents, I would be most indebted.”
“You’re killing me, G-force,” she continued to tease. “Tell me you don’t love the hamsters with spy gear. That’s the height of cinematic entertainment right there. A solid 5.1/10 on Imdb. Even better: 22% on Rotten Tomatoes.”
“First of all, they’re guinea pigs, not hamsters,” Dawn corrected, coming over from Faith’s left. “And second of all, Xander says if he has to wait another ten seconds to eat his bacon, there will be consequences, so I suggest you make your way to the kitchen as Buffy is demanding everyone wait to eat until you’ve had your first bite.”
“First of all, you just willingly admitted to watching that movie and by extension enjoying it,” Faith pointed out, tickling Dawn’s sides until she brushed her away. “And secondly, since when was Xander put in charge? Didn’t anyone pause and think to themselves, ‘hey, maybe this isn’t such a good idea?’”
Dawn shrugged. “He said, and I quote, ‘never get between a man and his meats’. I’m pretty sure that’s a quote from Sokka on Avatar, but I didn’t feel now was the time to point it out to him. Besides, you can’t honestly tell me that you’re not hungry.”
“Well,” Faith began, an audible groan from her stomach punctuating her sentence.
“That’s what I thought. Come on, let’s go,” Dawn persisted, pushing her from behind in the direction of the kitchen. Giles followed the pair of them.
“Hey, a girl could get used to this,” Faith leaned back into her, folding her hands behind her head. “Keep it coming, mon petit chauffeur.”
“Wow,” Dawn muttered, slightly out of breath. “I didn’t realize birthdays came with an extra side of annoying and French.”
Faith nodded. “Oh yes, birthdays are the most ideal time for both of those things.”
Buffy and Willow paused their conversation and beamed at the newcomers as they entered the kitchen. The smell of breakfast was so pleasant, so intoxicating, that Faith was possessed with the fleeting urge to dismiss everyone so she could eat the entirety of the bacon and pancakes herself, eye patch Xander and his bacon tyranny be damned.
“Hey baby!” Buffy planted a sticky-sweet, lip-glossed kiss right on her mouth. “Happy birthday!”
“Thanks, B,” Faith moved back Buffy’s hair so she could admire her pancake-mix-dusted face. “Did you do all of this for me?”
“Well,” Buffy’s face reddened. “I definitely had a lot of help from Willow getting the ingredients right, but I made some of the mickey-mouse shaped pancakes all by myself! I wanted everything to be special for you!”
“You couldn’t be any cuter if you tried, could you?” Faith kissed the tip of her nose. “Shall we eat before Xander has a bacon withdrawal aneurysm?”
“Here, here!” Xander agreed, his eyes never straying from the small stack of bacon on his plate.
“Happy birthday, Faith,” Willow said, offering her long, thin arms for a quick embrace.
“Thanks, Red,” Faith said, returning the hug with unfeigned fondness. “And thanks for helping with cooking and adding the bacon as a back-up plan,” she added as a whisper.
A conspiratory gleam passed over Willow’s eyes, and she nodded. “Anytime.”
Faith grabbed a piece of bacon from on top of the plate and threw it in her mouth, barely beginning to chew when Xander proceeded to shovel the bacon from his plate into his mouth as if his life depended on it. And who she was to judge? Maybe it did. It was pretty good bacon, she would give him that; Willow had outdone herself.
Eventually the breakfast crew thinned down, people going in and out, wishing Faith a happy birthday in between mouthfuls of bacon and miraculously not horrible pancakes. The crowd dwindled until only Buffy, Faith, and Willow were left in the dining room, the latter of whom had begun work on the stack of dishes piling up in the sink. They were pretty strict about everyone putting their own dishes in the dishwasher, but there were still plenty of dishes left over from the making of the bacon and pancakes to work through.
Buffy ran her hand down Faith’s back, playing with the curls at the back of her neck. “Did you have a good birthday breakfast?”
“Mhmm,” Faith answered, patting her pleasingly full stomach. “That was delicious. I know it’s my birthday, but do you need a hand with the dishes there, Will?”
“No,” Willow said, setting a pot in the sink. “I hate to ruin your birthday with this news, but there’s a vampire nest in the neighborhood, and I think it would be best if you and Buffy dealt with them asap. They’ve got plans to move to a new location tonight, and there’s a bunch of relatively new vampires in the group, so there’s a potential for a lot of feeding if a slayer or two doesn’t get involved.”
“Ruin my birthday with the news? Hardly, Red.” Faith set her feet on the table. “So tell me, are we doing anything special tonight? Any supernatural abilities I should know about? Are they part of some cult? An ancient prophecy, maybe?”
“Nope, just your run-of-the-mill vampire,” Willow responded, drying off a plate. “If you can call dealing with a vampire that. Nothing special, I just get the magical vibes that we need to take them out before they move farther away, gain numbers, and are harder to locate. I’m sensing there’s about six of them.”
“How did slayers slay before you, Will?” Buffy asked fondly. “You can even tell us how many there are before we even get there. All the slaying I did before you seems low-techy.”
Willow flushed at the compliment. “I’m still working on a sun spell that will allow me to wipe out large numbers of them at once, but until then, I’m here to be the helpful, witchy sidekick.”
“Woah, woah, woah. Come on, let’s be real. If anyone here is the sidekick, it’s Buffy,” Faith joked, pinching the girl in question’s cheeks affectionately. “I mean, she’s only saved the world, what? A handful of times. Died twice doing it. Child’s play, really.”
Buffy’s eyes narrowed. “Keep laying it on thick, Lehane. See what happens.”
“Alright, you two lovebirds,” Willow turned around to face them with a shrewd eye, hands on her hips for emphasis. “Go do your fight-flirting somewhere else before it gets too steamy, and you forget that I’m still in the room.”
“Come on, Red,” Faith gyrated her hips suggestively. “You don’t want a piece of this?”
“Not on your best day, Lehane. Not on your best day.”
The balmy Sunnydale air at night was welcome to Faith, who was admittedly dreading the up-and-coming scorching summer weather native to this part of the state. She was jacket-less, despite her girlfriend’s protests that it was ‘cold’ and ‘she would freeze’. There was no way a Boston girl was going to freeze in what a California girl called ‘winter’.
She glanced over at said California girl, who was bundled up in layers and looked positively adorable. The two of them were meandering around, searching for any obvious signs of a vampire manifestation. Willow sent them in what she called the right direction, but so far, nothing had stood out as unusual to either of them. They hadn’t spotted a single vampire yet, let alone a nest of them.
“I don’t like this,” Faith commented, picking at the hole in the hem of her shirt. “When it gets too quiet like this, you know those vamps are up to something.”
“That’s probably why Willow wanted us to take care of this tonight,” Buffy said, her breath coming out in a mist. “She got the feeling they were plotting. They’re usually not too bright when it comes to that kind of thing, but put a lot of them together, and the collective IQ goes up a couple points.”
It was right in the moment that Buffy finished her sentence that Faith saw movement rustling behind her.
“Heads up, B, we got company,” she walked closer to Buffy, scanning the expanse of the graveyard behind them. “Come out, come out, wherever you are!”
“SLAYER!” a rough voice hissed from behind Faith, his fist aimed at her face just missing her by mere inches.
“It was so nice of you all to show up for the party,” Faith said, throwing him to the ground easily. “You’re late, but hey, I was starting to think that no one was coming, so no complaints.”
She brushed the vampire dust off from her shirt a short while later, wiping her stake off on the thigh of her jeans. She looked up to crack a joke or maybe say something inappropriately flirty (which one she had not yet decided) when she saw Buffy wrapped in the arms of another vampire, whose fangs were uncomfortably close to piercing the flesh of her throat.
“Buffy!” she gasped, running full-force at the vampire and knocking all three of them down.
Buffy was the first to recover, rummaging in her pockets for Mr. Pointy before stabbing it right into the heart of the vampire who was still trapped under Faith’s weight.
“The hell, B?!” Faith shouted, sitting up on her hands. She palpated the painful spot on her forehead gingerly, wincing when she pulled back and saw the blood coating the palm of her hand. “What were you thinking? How did that even happen?”
To Faith’s horror, tears were cascading down Buffy’s cheeks, rapidly approaching Alice in Wonderland levels of flooding.
“This wasn’t supposed to happen!” Buffy sobbed, covering her face with her hands.
“Woah, hey, slow down for a second,” Faith held her to her chest. She checked the back of her head and face for injuries. “Are you ok? Are you hurt?”
Buffy shook her head, her lip trembling. “But your head! Does it hurt? I’m so sorry, Faith.”
She took a tissue out of her purse, dabbing at Faith’s wound as gently as she had ever done anything. It was kind of annoying, Faith decided.
“Hey,” she grabbed Buffy’s hand and held it in her own. “I’m fine, I promise. We’ll have Red take a look at it when we get home. But what is going on here? Why are you acting like this? You’re kind of scaring me.”
Buffy deflated, using their connected hands to pull them both to their feet. “Let’s get home. You’ll know when we get there.”
Faith pulled back on their hands. “What aren’t you telling me?”
“You’ll find out when we get home,” Buffy repeated, releasing her hand and walking back in the direction of the house expectantly.
Faith gritted her teeth, feeling the anger swell up inside her. She hated when Buffy acted like this, and though she wasn’t one for pettiness, she was more upset that it was happening on her birthday of all days. She had been looking forward to a quiet evening at home, filled with long, easy talks, cuddles, maybe a bubble bath or two. Now she didn’t want to be anywhere near her girlfriend (unless it was to spar, perhaps). She wasn’t going to sit around aimlessly in a graveyard by herself at night, though, so she followed behind Buffy for the duration of the short trip home, making sure that she was far enough behind so that she was not easily accessed for conversation.
When they finally reached the door, it was Willow who answered. Her facial expression was unreadable; she looked worried, scared even, but also like she was excited? Faith wasn’t sure what to make of it. But she had the distinct impression that Willow knew whatever Buffy was withholding from her . . .
“How was slaying vampires?” she asked weakly, leading them to the front room.
“Can it, Red,” Faith fumed, crossing her arms over her chest and making her way to the couch to fume in the clear view of her oppressors.
“Go ahead and get him,” Buffy surrendered with a mollifying smile, nodding to Willow.
Willow clapped her hands together. “Be back in a sec!”
Faith looked between the two of them with suspicion, wanting to still be angry with them both but finding that hard with their identical expressions of glee. She didn’t like surprises—if she had told Buffy once, she had told her a million times—it didn’t matter what the occasion was. She didn’t want to be excited, but she couldn’t help it. She was dying to know what or who it was that Willow was getting from the other room.
Her heart stopped when she heard barking.
“Spot!” came Willow’s voice. “Spot, sit!”
It was no use—a small, black and white spotted dog was running towards Faith at top speed, a put-upon Willow trailing far behind. He lept into Faith’s lap, licking any part of her face that he could reach from his position.
She turned to Buffy in disbelief. “I thought you said we couldn't have a dog! You said the house was too small!”
“I know what I said.”
“Hi buddy,” Faith crooned, scratching behind the puppy’s ears. “Spot! Spot, is that your name?”
He wagged his tail in earnest, his small body shaking with the effort of containing his excitement and adoration for her.
Willow leaned against the doorframe, watching the two of them interact. “Your vampire nest was actually a cover for my trip to the animal shelter. We’ve been planning this out for a couple of weeks now, but I guess we didn’t account for the possibility that you’d actually run into some vampires while I was gone. Sorry about that.”
“I’ll say,” Faith said, still in disbelief that there was living, breathing, slobbering dog sitting in her lap. “Buffy almost got herself killed! And me alongside her in the process.”
“I know,” Buffy groaned. “I got Will’s text that she was back at the house with Spot right as that vampire was sneaking up on me. I guess I was so wrapped up in making sure your surprise panned out the way I wanted to that I wasn’t paying enough attention to my surroundings. I’m so sorry you got hurt. I kinda lost it after that because it was my fault for being an idiot.”
“You are an idiot,” Faith agreed. “But it’s hard for me to hold it against you when you just gave me my dream birthday present for the past 18 years. Give me a minute or two, I’ll remember why I’m mad at you.”
“We wanted to name him after the dog from your childhood,” Buffy explained. “But we couldn’t get to him to respond to anything but Spot. I guess that’s what they’d been calling him since he arrived at the shelter. It fits, though, so it could be worse, I suppose.”
Faith was hit with an overwhelming wave of nostalgia. She had never really slowed down since that night in the park when her Watcher snatched her from the jaws of her first vampire encounter and informed her that she’d been called as a slayer. She had never looked back, never taken a moment to realize how much she had missed Ollie and Mr. Tom. And Boston. Damn, she missed Boston.
“There’s something else,” Buffy said, her voice soft.
She reached over Faith and shooed Spot off her lap before grabbing a cream-colored envelope that blended in with the color of the table. She flipped it over so that Faith could see her name written across the front in handwriting that was clearly the work of someone with atrocious penmanship trying (and failing spectacularly) to make it look nice. She recognized her name, though, and that was all that really mattered.
“Who’s it from?” she shook it, lifting it up towards the light in an effort to see through the concealment of the envelope.
“A demon gave it to Spike, who gave it to me . . . “ Buffy trailed off.
“Uh, B?” Faith asked, setting the envelope back down on the table. “You really think I should be opening a birthday card sent to me by a demon? Might be cursed or something.”
“It’s curse free,” Willow piped up. “I checked it as soon as Spike gave it to Buffy. There is not a trace of magic, light or dark, on that thing. It’s perfectly safe. Everything checked out.”
“The demon who gave it to Spike said it was from someone who knew you before you were Faith the Vampire Slayer,” Buffy shrugged. “I don’t know who that would be, but I figured we’d get it to you just in case it was important. It’s a birthday card, though, so we waited until it was actually your birthday.”
“How courteous of you,” Faith remarked drily, using her finger to open it.
The card inside was a generic, Hallmark-esque classic, featuring an old lady in black and white remarking that age was only a number while riding a surfboard and wearing a bikini and sunglasses. It had just the right touch of vapid consumerism. Of course, she couldn’t think of anyone who would send her such a thing, unless it was Kennedy or maybe even Xander playing some kind of prank on her.
So she was prudent, then, as she opened the card itself, fearing something would jump out at her or sing an obnoxious tune at full volume until she finally stuffed it down the toilet in a desperate effort to silence it. A five dollar bill slipped out; the message inside was only a signature.
Faith’s throat felt tight. Buffy scooted closer to her, resting her head on her shoulder and pressing a small kiss under her ear.
“You saw, didn’t you? My nightmare this morning, I mean.”
“Yeah, the same one you’ve been having the past two weeks? You couldn’t see me or feel me, but I was there. I was with you the whole time.” She kissed her again.
She set the card down, putting her arm around Buffy. “Why didn’t you say something?”
“I knew that you really didn’t want to talk about it,” she said, reaching for Faith’s hand. “I figured that it was probably something you needed to work out on your own. Then Spike showed up with this letter, things worked out for us to adopt Spot at the shelter, and I knew why.”
Faith held Buffy’s knuckles to her lips and kissed them. “I love you.”
“I love you more.”
She wanted to argue the point, but she chose instead to enjoy it for what it was. No one had ever ‘loved Faith more’, not since the moment she’d taken her first breath. Faith would be the first to admit that she was as unlovable as they came--she didn’t follow the rules that didn’t make sense (she didn’t follow the rules that did make sense, either), she was rough around the edges and sometimes violent, she came from a family that was textbook for dysfunctional (and it showed), and she made more mistakes than she knew what to do with, including killing a man. She had gone to jail, joined up with the big bad, earned herself the nickname of the “dark slayer”.
And yet, here she was, surrounded by the people who perhaps had more license to hate her than most. They’d taken her into their home, shared food with her, treated her as one of their own (most of the time after the necessary adjustment period with notable exceptions). Faith’s life had been rough, and the calling of slayer was no saving grace for her future; no one could begrudge her of the claim to an unfortunate history.
But she was loved. She was loved more.
And that was all she had really ever wanted.