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So we go lonely, side by side

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Buffy and Faith have an unspoken pact. When they find themselves in gym class, they keep a low profile.

It doesn't happen often. Giles takes a fairly dim view of physical education, so it's not hard to get a pass. But now and again they find themselves lacing their trainers in the close air of the girls locker room, raising their eyebrows at each other in silent agreement. Low profile.

The locker room is always slightly dank, smells like cheap aerosol deoderant masking a darker vein of adolescence. Faith slams her locker closed, chipped paint peeling back to reveal that at least once in the history of Sunnydale High, someone called Maria was very much in lust with Max. She's scowling, and Buffy likes to think it's because she's tired. It was Buffy who complained from 3:30 to 4:15 am, and Faith who maintained sleep was for the weak and the undead.

Squinting into the late afternoon sun, Miss Hayden has already started in on track techniques by the time Faith and Buffy join the back of the group. They want to seem uninterested, stragglers. They're finely tuned athletes with no time to argue their way out of the requirements of school spirit. They don't want athletic scholarships.

The track is rough beneath Buffy's hands as she crouches forward, sun on the back of her neck and her feet against the blocks. Faith's in the lane beside her, ten feet back for a staggered start. When Buffy looks over her shoulder, Faith smirks and says in a low voice, "I'm coming for you, B". And then there's the crack of the starter's pistol, the imperceptible pause as they give their classmates a head start. Then, just the two of them stride for stride, breath for breath.

~

"Four - three," Faith punctuates the score by jabbing her stake through a frat vamp with a popped collar and a stupid grin. "Gotta catch up, Buff."

Buffy slows to a halt, catching her breath. "I'm not..."

"Not what? Fast enough?" Faith's leaning against a tombstone, twirling her stake around like a baton, and it's all Buffy can do not to punch her in her smug face. Faith's smile fades as Buffy shifts her weight and hurls her stake.

"What the f...!" Faith yells, dropping to the left as the wood flies over her shoulder and lodges in the chest of a vamp in Def Leppard t-shirt behind her.

"Sorry." Buffy shrugs and extends a hand to help Faith up off the ground. "Bad taste in music."

Faith bats her hand away and gets up on her own, brushing dust from her jeans. She steps in close to Buffy, eyes flashing, intimidation Faith's stock tactic for masking fear. But Buffy's on to her, leans closer still, and lazily dusts dirt off Faith's shoulder as she whispers, "Four, all."

Faith turns abruptly and strides away, calling over her shoulder, "Whatever. The night is young..."

~

Buffy remembers talking to Giles the week Faith arrived.

"She's focused on the slaying," Giles said. "She doesn't have a whole other life here as you do."

Buffy would be the first to admit she sounded a little petulant when she whined, "She doesn't need a life. She has mine."

She likes to tell herself that things were cleaner, less complicated, before Faith, but maybe this whole Homecoming Queen fiasco proves her wrong. She's been competing with Cordy in a way that's ridiculous, selling her soul for a plastic tiara and the limelight. Maybe it has nothing to do with Faith.

Buffy's sitting on wide stone steps outside the school, cold seeping through into her skin, muted strains of the dance filtering out into the night air. Faith walks up and sinks to sit beside her.

"Bummed about not winning?"

Buffy shrugs and turns to lean her back against the rail, taking in Faith's elegant dress, her careful makeup. Buffy's not used to seeing her like this. Faith fidgets under the scrutiny, tucks her hair behind her ears. "Not really my thing," she continues, toying with the hem of her skirt. "I'm not one for all this Cinderella crap. Have to say, B, I didn't really take you for the prom queen type either."

"I think I just wanted to feel normal again," Buffy says, laughing humorlessly. "Normal now seems to be hunted by demons AND Germans with guns."

Faith rubs at her eyes and she seems more fragile than she usually does. "I should've been there," she murmurs in a voice that seems tainted with regret. Buffy can't tell if she wishes she could have been part of the hunt, or wishes she'd had Buffy's back. Faith's motives are always mixed.

Buffy lifts a hand to reach out to her, to say something reassuring, but Faith's already launched herself to her feet.

"What say we bust a move, B? I figure we can change out of these dumbass outfits and get in a few kills before curfew."

Buff weighs her options-- a slow dance clutched at by a boy with clammy palms, or a solid hour of vamp-staking at Faith's side. It's a no-brainer. She kicks off her high heels and jogs after Faith, the asphalt reassuring beneath her bare feet.

~

Faith leaps at the vampire, crashing down hard on him, driving her knee into his back. She raises her stake and plunges it in, dusting him instantly. She gets up slowly and wanders over to Buffy, continuing the conversation as if nothing has happened.

"So? What are friends for? I mean, I'm sorry, it's just all this sweating, nightly, side-by-side action and you never put in for a little after-hours..." She thrusts her pelvis forward in a way that makes Buffy distinctly uncomfortable, but Buffy can't explain that sex is the last thing she wants to discuss with her recently-returned-from-Hell (ex)boyfriend muddying her thoughts. At least, she's pretty sure it's Angel that's confusing her.

"Thanks for the poetry. And, no. I love Xander. I just don't...love Xander. Besides," she says, "I think it ruins friendship to do that stuff."

Buffy realises she might mean this comment any number of ways, and when Faith says, "You think too much," she's grateful for the sudden distraction of an extra vampire.

The fight is fast, vicious. She's suprised by the swords, and starting to struggle as he grabs at her and starts to move in for the kill. In a heartbeat, an instant, the deathgrip vanishes. There's suddenly nothing but Faith smiling at her through the dust, and Buffy collapses back against the gravestone, gasping for breath. Infuriated, exhilirated, grateful.

~

Faith, she realises, sees the world in a different way.

"We're Slayers, girlfriend, the Chosen Two."

When Faith says it, it sounds magical. It sounds awe-inspiring. Frankly, it sounds hot. Buffy squirms. This isn't a conversation she wants to be having at school. Anywhere, really. Faith draws attention to herself. People stare. Then again maybe it's just Buffy who stares. Faith's wearing dark denim and even darker make-up. She looks like someone chosen to save the world. Buffy suddenly feels ridiculously self-conscious in her dress and sandals and she wishes she could yank out the stupid flower she's wearing in her hair.

"You're a liar," Faith says, her voice low and urgent. "I've seen you. Tell me staking a vamp doesn't get you a little bit juiced. Come on, say it." She folds her arms across her chest, waiting for Buffy's answer.

Buffy looks down to hide it, scuffing the toe of her shoe against the pavement. She tries to hide a smile, to avoid that look in Faith's eye. That look spells trouble. That look is all glint, promise and danger. It makes Buffy sweat.

Faith laughs and Buffy's stomach sinks, convinced irrationally for a second Faith can tell what she's thinking. "You can't fool me. The look in your eyes right after a kill? You just get hungry for more."

Something in the way she drawls 'hungry' makes Buffy ache somewhere inside.

"You're way off base."

"Tell me that if you don't get in a good slaying, after a while, you just start itching for some vamp to show up so you can give him a good..."

Faith throws some mock punches. Buffy thinks about Angel, and the nights after patrolling when they would crash into each other at the crypt, her legs wrapped around his waist, his hands in her hair. Before...before. She's shakes her head quickly to clear her thoughts.

"Again with the grunting. You realize I'm not comfortable with this."

"Hey, slaying's what we were built for," Faith shrugs. "If you're not enjoying it, you're doing something wrong."

The ache spreads as Buffy watches her walk away.

~

There was never much hope Buffy was going to concentrate on a chemistry test. But any chance that she might try vanishes as Faith leans in the window, wearing a top that is way too low-cut for school, and calls, "Hey, girlfriend."

Faith fogs the window with her breath and draws a heart with a stake through it. She looks only at Buffy, oblivious to everyone else in the room, and smiles, raising her eyebrows. Buffy can't breathe, her chest is tight. She can feel Willow and Xander's astounded stares on the back of her neck as she slides down from her lab stool and heads for the window.

Faith traps her. Faith sets her free.

That night at the Bronze as they dance Faith takes her hands, drags her close. The places where she touches Buffy catch flame.

~

Standing on the street staring at the crashed police cruiser, Buffy feels as though her world is tilting and rapidly spinning out of control.

"We should call an ambulance."

"Five people already have, the racket we made, and they're fine."

Faith grasps Buffy's wrist as she unlocks her cuffs, drags her fingers across Buffy's overheated skin. She wonders if Faith can feel her pulse racing, see the blush spreading across her face and neck.

"Come on. Let's get outta here."

Buffy pauses as Faith begins to jog away. She feels paralysed, glued to the sidewalk by her own indecision.

"Come on!"

The police officers are coming to. Once she sees they're okay, Buffy takes off after Faith.

They run for a couple of blocks, rounding a corner and into an alley behind a video store before slowing to halt. Faith doubles over, bracing her arms over her knees and catching her breath. Buffy can hear sirens faintly in the distance. She leans against the wall of the building, the coarse brickwork rough against the back of her head. Nausea overwhelms her, but it's is quickly swallowed by anger.

"Faith...they were police! We could have killed them... we could have broken their necks!"

Faith exhales sharply and straightens up, walking toward her. The moon is high, and her features are cast in sharp relief, a lazy smile stretching across her face, her eyebrows raised. "C'mon, Buffy. When are you going to get this? We're different than other people. We don't have to play by their rules. It's just the two of us." She places a hand on the wall over Buffy's shoulder, leans toward her and whispers, "Just us."

Buffy glares at her and reaches up to shove her away, but Faith is faster, grabbing her wrists and pinning them to the wall. She shoves Buffy's hands together, holding her wrists with one hand, grazing them painfully against the brick. Faith comes at her like a vampire, dark eyes flashing, her lips the color of blood. Buffy tips her head back involuntarily and Faith descends on her neck, all teeth and tongue and impossible molten heat. Her other hand is under Buffy's jacket searching at her waist for bare skin, one thigh pressed hard between Buffy's own. She gasps for breath, sobs Faith's name, her nails raking across Buffy's lower back. And then suddenly Faith is kissing her and Buffy's universe contracts. Pinpoints of light, the metallic taste of blood. Every atom of Buffy's being straining toward Faith and away from her at exactly the same time.

When Faith draws back, Buffy half expects to see fangs. Faith releases her wrists, trails her hand slowly down Buffy's side and out from under her top. Faith's expression is dark, clouded with lust. She runs one hand through her hair.

"We should..." Buffy manages, finally. She has no idea what they should do, but she needs to break a silence that's threatening to suffocate her.

"Yeah, we should," Faith nods. She turns back toward the street, and walks away.

~

Buffy doesn't sleep.

The next day, the morning sun seems impossibly bright in the kitchen, and her temples are pounding with a headache she can't shake. She pretends to concentrate on the newspaper, but her hand is trembling slightly and when her eyes blink closed she can see Faith's dark hair, feel her hands hard against her skin.

"Admit it."

Buffy looks up in horror as her mother appears from nowhere, interrupting her runaway train of thought. She flushes with embarrassment.

"Some days don't you want to just wake up and say to hell with the diet? Want to make waffles? Big Saturday brunch?"

"No, thanks," Buffy manages with palpable relief. "I'm not really that hungry."

"So what did you and Faith do last night?"

Everything. A kiss that lasted seconds, that inverted her world.

"Nothing... nothing really important."

~

"So what's the plan?" Willow asks, and Buffy's confusion must register on her face, because she elaborates, "For tonight's slayage? We're going, aren't we?"

Buffy toys with the strings on Willow's pouch. "Yeah," she manages unconvincingly.

"Great!"

"But... there's a 'but'," she says, hating herself for it even as the words come out of her mouth, "And that's 'but you shouldn't come... tonight.' Is that cool?"

Willow's clearly hurt, but she tries not to let on. "Well, sure. Makes sense, you know. You'll be facing big, hairy danger."

For an instant Buffy thinks about confessing everything, but the moment passes in a wave of desire and self-loathing.

"Biggest and very hairy."

This is ridiculous. She should be taking Willow with her tonight. Willow doesn't drag her into harms way or wear leather pants. Willow would never pin her against a wall breathing hot against her neck, her hand snaking under her shirt.

There's a knock at the door.

Faith's wearing a wife-beater and jeans, and Buffy can't possibly be expected to meet her eye so she stares instead at her tattoo, wrapped around one bicep.

"Ready? Time to motor," Faith says, pacing impatiently by the door.

Buffy stands, and looks at Willow apologetically.

"I really should... but we'll hang out later, right?"

Later, when I'm not being a backstabbingly bad friend. When I'm not out breaking the law and discovering the gay.

Faith puts a hand on Buffy's arm and the touch is enough to unravel her. She turns her back on Willow and follows Faith out of the room.

~

"We're never going to make it to the warehouse."

Faith seems more convinced. "If they keep coming one at a time, we got a shot."

Another vampire lands in front of them and slashes at Faith with his sword. She catches his arm and shoves him into a crate, pulling him off and swinging him backward onto a pile of wood. Buffy steps in on cue and stakes him.

They stride along the alley side-by-side. As they reach the end of the building, an arm reaches out and grabs Buffy by the shoulder. She reacts immediately, grabbing her assailant and hurling him against the dumpster. He slumps to the ground, dazed by the impact. Buffy reaches for her stake, but there's something off, something...

"Faith," she cries, "No!"

Faith's at her side, and she's moving impossibly fast. She slams her stake through the man's heart, and yanks it back out. He grabs his chest in pain and surprise as blood leaks through his fingers, staining his shirt a vibrant red.

Buffy drops to her knees in shock, pressing her hands against the wound.
"Don't move!" she says helplessly.

"I didn't... I didn't know. I didn't know." Faith's voice is quiet, horrified. All pretence of confidence or self-assurance has vanished. Buffy feels sick.

"We need to call 911. Now!" The man is shaking, seizing. He looks at her desperately. "Don't move, it's okay..." Buffy's lying, nothing will ever be okay again. Blood trickles from his mouth. He slumps, finally still, his eyes an unblinking stare of condemnation.

Faith drags Buffy to her feet. "We gotta go! Come on, we gotta go!"

All Buffy knows how to do now is run. Just the two of them, breath for breath, stride for stride.

~

Buffy dresses carefully, deliberately. Light pastels. A dress, heels. Applies her make-up with a steady hand. Nothing dark, nothing practical. Nothing a Slayer would wear.

She finds Faith scrubbing her shirt in the sink. The motel room is even more depressing than the last time she came, and Buffy doesn't know what to say. The bedding is rumpled and there are clothes all over the floor. She doesn't want to be here. Doesn't want to be anywhere near Faith.

"So I... how are you doing?"

This went differently in her head. When she decided to come over here she imagined being decisive, being all take-charge girl. Now, not so much.

"I'm all right," Faith shrugs, "You know me."

Buffy pleads with her to talk, but she's no longer sure what it is she wants to talk about. In her nightmares, Finch's soulless eyes never blink, but his bloodied mouth accuses her. She spends night after night running away from him down alleys, over dumpsters, through fences, and every time she finds herself pinned to a wall, kissing Faith.

"We can help each other," she begs, but Faith's expression is closed, her walls firmly in place.

Faith says, "I don't need it," but what Buffy hears is 'I don't need you'.

"Getting rid of the evidence doesn't make the problem go away," Buffy spits out. We can pretend all we like, she thinks. Pretend that this never happened, that we were never there. But I can feel your palm against my skin. I know what you taste like.

We did this. Just the two of us.

"Faith, you don't get it. You killed a man."

Faith looks her in the eye, her smirk firmly fixed in place. Any hope of reaching her is lost.

"No, you don't get it," she taunts, with words Buffy will always know to be a lie. "I don't care."

So she leaves Faith scrubbing away at her damnation, and pulls her coat around her as she steps out into the motel forecourt. So much for the Chosen Two, she thinks, walking out to the road to hail a cab.

It's time to take care of things on her own.