Fuck, was she in for it now. Distract him, but don’t touch him, give the witches time to do their work, that’s all B had asked her to do, and Faith had managed to follow through on those instructions for a good five minutes before completely blowing it. She’d led the demon around an abandoned warehouse, throwing shit at him, knocking obstacles into his path, and generally making a total ass of herself while the witches prepared their spell. Then, without thinking, she’d seen an opening, swung her scythe through the air, and, well, here she was.
Wherever here was.
A demon with the power to teleport anything he touched, and Faith had touched him. If nothing else, she hoped this would serve as a teachable moment back in slayer school: a picture of Faith’s dumb smiling face could be taped to the blackboard, while B rapidly tapped it with that pointer stick of hers. ‘Repeat after me, class: I promise I won’t do what this slayer did.’
Sound advice for all situations, really.
Getting to her feet, Faith found herself in a patch of grass overlooking a beach: a long, sandy arc that stretched from horizon to horizon. Funny, she’d just been talking to B about doing Christmas with the junior slayers in Tahiti this year as a change of pace. Too bad this wasn’t the South Pacific. Maybe it was gently lapping ocean of purple water, or the star-studded sky of the same color that gave her the notion.
Beneath her feet, the sand was black and rock hard and sparkled like precious stones in the light as she stepped slowly down the hill.
Really, the chances of this being Earth were growing slimmer by the second.
On the flip side, the chances of her somehow becoming trapped in one of those old 70s blacklight posters was increasing exponentially. If she ever got home, she’d have to tell people about this place. Visit whatever this world is called and feel like your tripping without any of the unpleasant side-effects.
Faith sighed and gamely attempted to brush the sand off her boots. Oddly enough, the grains stuck to the leather like glue. Not even a fingernail would dislodge them.
It was also weird how she didn’t feel sick. That was the generally the most urgent sensation one got right after teleporting, whether it was a mile back to Slayer HQ, or halfway across the world. The twisting your body went through as it warped through space was never kind on the stomach; to say nothing of what it did to your mind and your sense of balance.
She shook her head. Faith vaguely remembered a tightness in her chest, some severe disorientation, and a feeling like drowning, but that was fairly standard, and had quickly faded.
The horrible odor she remember was different, but she chalked that up to the demon. Those ratty robes of his probably hadn't been washed since the days of Shakespeare.
Now Faiith felt just normal; better than normal, actually. She’d had a rough landing on her shoulder during a patrol the other night, but when she rolled it now, it didn’t even hurt.
It struck her that though the tall trees continued to sway, there wasn’t a breath of wind. Adding to the weirdness, bright red fireballs were streaking across a sky filled with far too many stars considering the time of day. Damn, she hoped Willow and the rest of the brain-trust could figure out where the hell she was. This world had rings, and three crescent moons lit by a distant blue sun just now sinking over the horizon.
All in all, it couldn’t look less like Earth if it tried.
She patted the pocket of her coat and groaned to remember she was out of smokes. Dammit. “Things could be worse,” she reminded herself, hands falling to her sides. She could be dead.
Completely on instinct, Faith spun on her heels, her fist connecting hard with the tall shadow looming up behind her.
“Fucker!” Faith hissed at the same moment, wide-eyed, knuckles stinging like she’d just punched a reinforced concrete wall coated with a thick layer of ice.
She staggered backwards, cradling her fist while the figure continued to loom over her, even if it did sway for the briefest moment. It raised a hand, a frayed sleeve falling down over its’ wrist to reveal skeletal fingers as it rubbed a cheek, or what Faith hoped was a cheek. The dimming sunlight made it impossible to see anything beneath that cowl except for a disturbingly inky darkness.
For an instant, she thought she saw a flash of blue in there, but it might’ve been a reflection. There were some really freaky colors going on in this place.
The figure straightened, and that’s when Faith finally took proper notice of the scythe it was using to balance itself - a real one - not the weird, designed by supernatural committee slayer scythe that was presumably back in Cleveland somewhere.
She was staring at the Grim Reaper himself: tall, black cowl, general sense of foreboding – you know, the whole nine yards. Holy fuck, this had to be the most metal moment of her life. She considered asking for an autograph.
Unfortunately, the Reaper looked about as approachable as one would imagine.
Cautiously, Faith raised her fists again, but for some reason the urge to throw down was decidedly lacking. Weird. The Reaper appeared in no mood to fight her at least, remaining as still as, well, a corpse, so she tried a different tack, “Uh, hey.” Faith scratched the back of her head, “What’s up?”
It said nothing as he pulled back its’ cowl, slowly revealing an ancient yellowing skull with two glowing orbs where the eyes should be, as well as two rows of perfect teeth frozen in an eternal grin. It stared back at her impassively, which was to be expected. WAS THAT REALLY NECESSARY? he asked, voice deep and, Faith thought, rather offended.
She winced, feeling rather like someone who has just hit a large metal tube with a wrench, only to discover a moment later that a nuclear trefoil was printed along the side, complete with the words: estimated yield fifty megatons, aim away from face. “Erm, sorry. You just look kind of like the demon I was fighting.” She didn’t even remember what the demon’s name had been. During their brief encounter, he’d given her a long monologue about his plans, his thirst for revenge, how humanity was a cancer on the face of the blah blah blah. Honestly, she’d stopped listening after the first few seconds.
All ranting monologues sounded the same after a while. You got used to them in her line of work.
The figure appeared to regard his robes. His lips, if a skull could be said to have lips, never moved - yet every word he spoke hit Faith’s mind with the finality of a crypt door slamming shut while disconsolate mourners wailed and pulled at their hair. There also would’ve been rain. And crows. He drew himself up. HE STOLE THIS LOOK FROM ME.
“I don’t doubt it.” The black cowl and scythe look was a classic, but it had to come from somewhere. A feeling in her gut told Faith that this was exactly the somewhere in question.
“So, uh, who, or what, are you exactly? Or is it Halloween on this planet and I wasn’t invited?” She wasn’t getting any tingles running up her spine, so he was no vampire or demon.
At the same time, she wasn’t sure if she could trust her senses. Slayer senses might not work on talking skeletons. She’d never had an opportunity to check.
With deliberate slowness, he retrieved something from the recesses of his dark robe with a free hand; it was an hourglass, and the very last grains of sand were just falling to the bottom. On the base of it, barely visible in the soft purple light, was a tiny golden plaque which read simply: Faith. I WILL GIVE YOU ONE GUESS.
She might’ve still been feeling out of sorts, but Faith caught on quickly. “Oh… shit.”
His booming voice should’ve come with orchestral accompaniment, a choir, and a church organ – or, since Faith wasn’t really into classical, that music that played when the Undertaker entered the ring during WrestleMania.
Her life had just ended, the Grim Reaper had come to claim her, yet the urge to fight still hadn’t returned. Faith clenched and unclenched her fists. Nope, nothing. Not even the faintest flicker of rage. She wondered idly if this was how old men felt when they couldn’t get it up any longer.
PLEASE NOTE THE OCEAN, the figure continued. IT IS LIQUID ETHANE.
Faith glanced briefly to the right, reluctant to take her eyes of the scythe and not sure where this conversation was going. “Huh. Neat?” she hazarded.
The Grim Reaper stared at her for a long moment before sighing, which Faith thought strange considering how a skeleton probably shouldn’t need to breathe. ALSO, he added, THE PLANTS ON THIS WORLD DO NOT PRODUCE OXYGEN. With his scythe, he gestured to Faith’s left where a forest of twisted and obscenely colored trees met the beach. When she followed his gaze she found a leather-clad lump on the ground partially hidden by tall alien grasses.
She recognized that lump. She’d spent almost an hour picking out that exact pair of pants.
Nervously, Faith pressed a hand to her own heart and felt nothing. Oh, she thought. Oh. “Damn. I’m really dead?”
WHAT DO YOU THINK?
“Which means you’re-“
Faith swallowed. Right. Of course.
TO BE HONEST, I’M NOT SURE WHAT KILLED YOU FIRST: SUFFOCATION OR AMMONIA POISONING.
Way to go slayer powers, Faith thought. You didn’t anticipate a slayer being teleported to a poisonous alien world? Pathetic.
She took a cautious step back, cognizant of how the sand beneath her feet still remained firm against her absence of weight. “So, you come for everybody then?”
He matched her steps, scythe now in both hands. IN A MANNER OF SPEAKING.
Death stopped his approach, picking up the meaning behind her silence. IT’S COMPLICATED.
She grunted in response.
THIS REALITY IS NOT IN MY DOMAIN. I HAVE MY OWN WORLD TO WATCH OVER. BUT SOMETIMES, he added with a dramatic pause, I LIKE TO STEP OUT FOR A BIT.
“And you come to Earth?” Faith frowned as she looked over her shoulder, “Or wherever this place is.”
Death looked out on the horizon. THIS WORLD HAS NO NAME. THE TREES HAVEN’T THOUGHT OF ONE YET.
“Uh… huh,” was all she could think to say. Death grinned back at her, but then, he hardly seemed to have much say in the matter.
It was true that Faith thought a lot about her death over the years. Never thought that death was real and she’d actually meet him face to face though. She'd always assumed that there would be nothing for her after she took her last breath, just a black void which she wouldn’t be able to appreciate, what with being dead and all. Under normal circumstances, she should’ve had a ton of questions, yet strangely enough those questions didn’t seem so important anymore.
It was all moot.
I COME TO EARTH EVERY SO OFTEN TO MEET YOUR DEPARTING SLAYERS. ALSO, he added as an aside, YOUR WORLD HAS CATS. AN EXCELLENCE DECISION ON THE CREATOR’S PART.
The slayers, Faith thought. “So every time one of us dies -”
She blinked. “Then that means you’ve met, B, right?”
B? Death repeated, and if he’d been capable of it, his skeletal brow might’ve knit with the effort of thought. AH, YES, he said finally. BUFFY.
Faith snorted. The weird thing about B’s ridiculous name was how you got used to it so quickly. Like no joke, the last time she’d laughed at it was before they’d even met, way back in Boston when her watcher held Buffy’s penchant for self-sacrifice as a model for all slayers – especially Faith, cough cough - to follow.
How could anyone take that stuff seriously when the girl you were supposed to idolize was named Buffy?
Hearing that name said now, in such a deep voice and with such grave finality – pun intended – amused her to no end.
I RATHER LIKE THE NAME, PERSONALLY.
It didn’t surprise her that Death could read her thoughts. He was a walking skeleton. His jaw hadn’t so much as twitched this entire time, yet every word he spoke reverberated inside her head. He probably had all sorts of other powers Faith didn’t want to know about. “So, I’m really dead?”
Huh. Weird how she didn’t feel upset about that. If someone had told her she would die today, she would’ve have been upset. She should feel upset, she knew. No more slaying, no more long-distance conversations with Angel, no more late nights watching wrestling and scarfing down popcorn with Xander.
And she’d never see B again…
Just when they were finally starting to get along too. Figures.
Dammit, she’d really screwed up this time. Faith frowned, shaking her head. Would it make any difference if she struggled?
I WOULDN’T BOTHER IF I WERE YOU. EVEN IF YOU WERE BROUGHT BACK TO LIFE, YOU WOULD ONLY DIE AGAIN WITHIN MOMENTS.
No oxygen… she still couldn’t feel anything, neither heat nor cold. Even breathing was superfluous. Weird to think how she was standing and talking on an alien world that was apparently as deadly to humans as the inside of a state execution chamber. “What happens now?”
GENERALLY, ONE DISSIPATES INTO THE ETHER. AFTER THAT, I COULDN’T SAY. YOUR WORLD HAS FAR TOO MANY AFTERLIFES TO KEEP TRACK OF.
“Oh.” Faith regarded herself, absently trying to dust the sand off her pants and continuing to fail at it. She still felt one-hundred-percent corporeal. “Um, why isn’t that happening then?”
Death’s skull canted slightly. I’M NOT SURE.
Seconds passed, all without Faith turning into a ghost, or whatever was supposed to happen to her. Buffy had gone to Heaven when she died. Faith wasn’t going to set her hopes that high. At least the beach hadn’t opened up and swallowed her into the fires of hell or something.
IF YOU COULD PICK UP THE PACE, I WOULD APPRECIATE IT. I DO HAVE A SCHEDULE TO KEEP, YOU KNOW?
Faith shrugged in lieu of response.
There had been a lot of awkward silences in her life, but nothing that quite measured up to the reality of standing face to face with Death himself, waiting to disintegrate. Were they just going to be here forever?
Was this hell?
YES? He sounded rather annoyed, like Alan Rickman in any given situation.
“Do I get a chance to say goodbye or anything before I go?”
YOU ALREADY HAD TWENTY YEARS IN WHICH TO DO SO.
Fair enough. “You think that you might give someone a message for me then?”
His head canted again, listening.
“Just tell B, I’m sorry.” There were other things she should say, lots of things, but sorry was all she could think of at the moment. It would have to be enough.
Death seemed to consider this, or maybe he just enjoyed inserting awkward pauses into conversations.
“But, uh,” she quickly added, suddenly aware of what she was asking, “Take your time. Don’t hurry on my account.”
She never got an answer. Death looked up sharply at the sky, gripping his scythe tightly as Faith staggered back, clutching her stomach. Oh, there was the nausea she’d been missing. “Fuck, what is that?”
Death sighed, which gave one the feeling of a cold wind howling across an ancient battlefield. Or maybe that was just the sudden hissing in Faith’s supposedly dead ears. DAMN, he said. THIS IS BECOMING A REAL NUISANCE.
The whole world became a pinprick of light in the distance. Entire galaxies zipped by a dizzying pace, long strings of them like the web of a spider crisscrossing the entire universe. Faith saw stars, nebulae, and enormous black holes.
Holy shit, she really had been on another world, another galaxy even. Beat that, Neil Armstrong.
Seconds later, she'd returned to the dingy warehouse in dingy old Cleveland to find Buffy macking on her lifeless body, or to be slightly more accurate, giving her lifeless body mouth to mouth while a number of novice slayers, and a few witches looked on, concerned.
A scuffed outline of a summoning circle and a few knocked over candles explained how she’d gotten back here. She’d owe the witches a lifetime of free drinks for sure.
Suddenly, Faith was flung back into her own body, hacking and gasping for breath before getting squeezed in a nearly bone-crushing hug. “You stupid, goddamn, idiot!”
“Buffy?” Faith croaked. Then she laughed despite herself. B's body was really warm, she could feel that, like actually feel that, and she could smell the shampoo Buffy used, overpowering the awful scent of ammonia wafting off her own clothes.
A memory came back, unbidden: Buffy’s name in Death’s deep, booming voice. She giggled.
Then she began to shake, and Buffy pulled back sharply. “Are you laughing?” she asked, incredulous, cheeks still wet with tears.
SHE WAS DEAD, BRIEFLY. SHE WILL FEEL MORE LIKE HERSELF IN A FEW MINUTES.
“Oh,” Buffy said, looking up, her tone entirely too chipper for the occasion, “Hi, Death.”
HELLO, dramatic pause, BUFFY.
Faith sniggered again, then abruptly stopped an instant before Buffy would’ve slapped her. She took a deep breath and cleared her throat, trying to collect herself. Teleportation always made her feel wonky, even while dead apparently. The gathered slayers had all deliberately turned their backs on them, though one or two glanced over their shoulders, confused.
However, Willow and her witchy pals stared directly at Death, horrified.
Buffy caught Faith’s confusion out of the corner of her eye. “Most people can't see him,” she explained. “Or, to be more accurate, they don’t want to see him, but witches can.” She called out, still holding on to Faith, "It's alright Will." Willow did not look at all convinced, but she didn't advance.
Questions like ‘why’ immediately sprang to her mind, but Faith was too nauseous to want to get into it right now. The world was spinning, she smelled totally gross, and she was lucky to be able to hold on to her lunch. “Oh. You two’ve met before. Right,” she said with only a minor amount of sarcasm.
ON THREE SEPARATE OCCASIONS, Death intoned severely, sounding rather put out about it, to be honest.
“Four, now,” Buffy added.
YOU’VE BEEN MAKING QUITE A HABIT OF THIS, YOU KNOW?
“Hey, I haven’t died in,” Buffy thought about it for a moment, “almost three years.”
AND NOW THERE ARE TWO-THOUSAND SLAYERS, he added accusingly.
AT THIS RATE, I MAY NEED TO DELEGATE MY RESPONSIBILITIES IN THE FUTURE.
Faith listened to all this incredulously, but kept silent, allowing her arms to wrap around Buffy’s back. She cared about being alive again; she thought about the things that made her angry, and they made her angry. She thought about the things she loved -
And yeah, those feelings were definitely back too.
Despite the easy banter she was having with the personification of death, Buffy continued to hold Faith close, protectively. “She’s not about to die, is she?”
EVERYONE DIES. Pause. BUFFY.
Buffy slapped her back. “Yeah, yeah. Not soon though, right?”
Death reached into his robes and again pulled out the hourglass. Craning her neck, Faith found that this time the top half was more than half full. She sank into Buffy’s arms, more relieved than she expected to be. ARE WE SPEAKING IN HUMAN TERMS, OR GEOLOGICALLY?
Holding it up to the yellow light pouring through the high windows, he regarded the falling sand with a jeweler’s eye. THERE IS TIME THEN. WHETHER IT’S ENOUGH IS ENTIRELY UP TO YOU.
She squeezed Faith a little tighter. “Thank you.”
Death ducked his head ever so slightly. NOW IF YOU WILL EXCUSE ME. I HAVE AN UNEXPECTED APPOINTMENT TO KEEP.
Buffy gave a little wave as Death replaced his cowl over his head. “See you around.”
COUNT ON IT.
And then they were alone. Buffy made no move to get up, telling the assembled slayers and witches to check the rest of the warehouse. No one disobeyed.
Faith, of course, didn’t move. Why would she? “Sorry about dying, B.” Buffy patted her on the back, lightly this time, and stifling a laugh. “What happened to that demon guy?”
“Death’s not a demon, he’s just… death. And he’s not so bad once you get to know him.”
She gave an awkward cough. “No, not him, the other guy.”
“Oh, he got sent to wherever you went when you got teleported away. We made a trade, you could say.”
“Ah.” Hopefully he liked purple trees, frozen temperatures, and a lack of oxygen. If he didn’t, he wouldn’t have long to complain about it.
“You smell awful by the way.”
“Might be the ammonia,” Faith offered. “The atmosphere was full of it, apparently. The planet also had oceans of ethane, or so I was told. A purple sky too. It was all pretty trippy.”
She grunted an affirmative. It was hard to nod your head when Buffy was halfway to crushing you with her arms. Bodyswap notwithstanding, she’d never been so close to her for so long without fists flying, or taking a knife to the gut. If she wasn’t careful, she could get used to it.
Buffy patted her back. “Faith?”
There was a distinct wetness on the side of her face from where Buffy was hugging her. “I think we should celebrate the fact that you’re still alive,” she whispered.
Faith smiled, content to rest her head on Buffy’s shoulder forever, if that was an option. “I try to celebrate that every night, B, but I’m down, for sure. You want to go to a club later or something?”
“Actually, I was thinking of just the two of us. We could order Chinese, maybe watch a movie? You could regale me with your extra-terrestrial exploits?”
Faith swallowed. “Uh, yeah, B. That sounds cool.”
The patting of Faith’s back gradually morphed into what might've been a caress. “It's a date then.”