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Faith hated Ohio.

Okay, she didn’t hate it. It was just all… so flat. And gray. And boring. And almost like Boston, but somehow not close enough. It reminded her too much of the harder parts of home.

But there was a Hellmouth in Cleveland, and so that’s where she was, along with Buffy and Giles and all the rest. She had her own apartment, tucked away in the building the Council (read: Giles) had bought for the new Slayer training operation, and she dealt with the harder cases: the girls who came from tough homes or who’d had some trouble upon being Called or maybe who just needed a little extra help adjusting to their new life.

It had only been about six months since Sunnydale had been destroyed. It felt like six years . They had already achieved so much-- they’d brought in new Slayers, set themselves up as a boarding-school-slash-foster-care-slash-summer-camp-slash-rehabilitation-facility, started a whole new training program… and Faith was a part of it. For the first time ever, she was cooperating with others, and she actually didn’t hate it. She went to meetings with all the Scoobies once a week, ran a few different training sessions every morning, and met with her Slayer charges every afternoon. She was busy, and she was useful, and she was part of the team, and she was finally stable enough to be okay with that.

Now it was November. The world had gotten colder and grayer, and Faith was slowly remembering what it was like to live someplace with a winter.

And she was slowly realizing that Buffy had no clue .

She and Buffy were almost-friends these days, associates who shared a very specific type of pain. Buffy lived down the hall from Faith, closer to the stairs, and sometimes Faith, unable to face the crowded cafeteria, would be making her world-famous microwave dinner in the communal kitchen and Buffy would be there, too, actually bothering to cook. Buffy would say something about the day’s training (she took over from Faith in the afternoons), and Faith might tell her about the girls she’d talked to, and then they’d just keep talking, about their work, and their lives, and, more often than not, the past, rehashing the old days again and again.

Faith would never admit it to Buffy, but she loved those conversations. She’d never been able to talk to anyone about some of the experiences she’d had, even her prison therapist. She might have been relatively stable and level-headed these days, but that didn’t mean she was all healed or whatever.

But all this meant that Faith spent a good amount of time talking to Buffy, and they didn’t only talk about the heavy stuff. In September, Buffy started talking about how she needed her heaviest jacket to go outside; by October, Buffy had gotten a heavier jacket. At the beginning of November, Faith asked her if she had a hat or gloves or winter boots, and Buffy said no, and if she saw a cute set she’d buy it, but she wasn’t planning on playing in the snow when it came, so she wasn’t too worried.

Faith didn’t care. Really, she didn’t. She and Buffy were almost-friends. Faith didn’t care if her almost-friend froze.

Except… she did care. She cared enough that, the day after Buffy said she wasn’t planning on getting winter gear, Faith commandeered a car and found Buffy in the locker room the minute the work day was over.

“Hey, B,” she said, leaning against a locker and ignoring the fact that Buffy was in her underwear.

Buffy jumped ten feet in the air and crossed her arms over her chest.

Faith dangled the car keys from one of her fingers.

“Let’s go shopping.”

“Since when do you want to go shopping?” Buffy asked, turning away to pick up a shirt.

“Since you said you weren’t planning on looking for any extra winter clothes,” Faith said. “Trust me, B. I’m doing you a favor.”

Buffy pulled her tank top over her head and turned back to Faith.

“Fine,” she said. “But only because I seriously need some retail therapy.”

Faith grinned and tossed the car keys in the air, catching them in her palm.

“See you in twenty,” she said. “I’ll be at the front door.”

She turned and walked out, not waiting for a response.

Buffy met her twenty minutes later, wearing her heavier winter coat. It was pink and a little puffy, and Faith, wearing just her leather jacket over long sleeves, couldn’t help but think Buffy looked cute, her hands stuffed into the pockets. It wasn’t even all that cold out yet, and Buffy was almost shivering.  

“Yeah, you’re going to need more winter stuff,” Faith said.

“You might be right,” Buffy admitted. “Can we get in the warm car now?”

Faith laughed and led Buffy to the parking lot. Another thing that had happened in the last six months was that she had gotten her driver’s license, after years of illegally jumping behind the wheel of whatever happened to be around. It was helpful in situations like this-- otherwise Buffy would have tried to convince Faith to let her drive, which Faith had allowed to happen once and only once.

The mall was playing Christmas music, and Faith immediately felt like she’d made a mistake. It was going to be worth it when Buffy didn’t get frostbite later, but the music and the red and green everywhere was making Faith’s skin crawl just a little. It reminded her too much of winters when she was a kid, sitting in her apartment listening to Christmas music on the radio and trying her best to get her mom to wake up and go to work after a long night of drinking. She had never been particularly religious, anyway.

She thought Buffy might have picked up on her discomfort, but Buffy didn’t say anything, so neither did Faith. She focused her attention instead on the map of the mall, trying to figure out which store would be most likely to sell things Buffy would want to wear outside.

“What are you doing?” Buffy asked.

“Looking for the right store,” Faith said.

Buffy laughed.

“Faith, I’ve been here, like, ten times already. I may not know about winter clothing, but I can find my way around a mall.”

Faith shrugged and turned away from the map.

“Guess I’m just not used to it,” she said.

She tried to start walking, but a hand on her elbow stopped her. She turned to face Buffy, who was giving her a funny look.

“You don’t have to do this, you know,” she said.

“Sure,” Faith said. “And let you freeze to death.”

“I’m not going to freeze to death,” Buffy said. “If you don’t want to be here, we can leave. I promise I’ll come back for winter stuff some other time.”

“Nah,” Faith said. “I can deal for a few hours.”

They found their way to what Buffy promised was the best store in the mall. Faith took her word for it. As Buffy was trying to choose between purple or blue for her scarf, she said, almost offhandedly, “Are you doing anything for Christmas?”

“Nah,” Faith said. She was leaning against the wall next to the scarf display, eyes wandering around the room while she waited for Buffy to make her choice. “Figured I’d make it a quiet one this year.”

“You know,” Buffy said, “I think Willow was trying to do a sort of group Hanukkah thing this year. Instead of the whole big Christmas gathering, or maybe in addition. You could come, if you want. If you don’t want to do Christmas.”

Faith stared at Buffy.

“You sure?” she asked. “I always get the impression that Red’s not my biggest fan. She doesn’t really talk to me.”

“I hate to break it to you, Faith,” Buffy said, “but you’re not exactly the most approachable person.”

“Fair enough,” Faith said. She thought back, trying to think about the last time she’d actually talked to Willow. It might have been all the way back in LA, before she’d come to Sunnydale.

“Anyway,” Buffy said, “you don’t seem all that big on Christmas, and I want to celebrate with you, so I’m inviting you to come with me to Willow’s Hanukkah party.”

“What, like as your date?” Faith asked. Her mouth was suddenly dry.

“You could call it that, I guess,” Buffy said.

Faith was trying very hard not to notice that Buffy’s face had gone red. Buffy dropped the purple scarf on the shelf.

“You know, I think blue is more my color.”

“Sounds good to me,” Faith said, trying to figure out what had just happened.

 

As the world outside got colder, Faith saw Buffy in her blue scarf and knit hat more and more often. She and Buffy hadn’t talked about the whole “date” thing yet, although Willow’s party (set for the last night of Hanukkah) was coming closer. Instead, Faith just teased Buffy about how cute she looked bundled up while Buffy insisted that it wasn’t that cold, really (but Faith definitely saw her shivering).

Faith knew that Buffy probably hadn’t meant a date date. Faith had said it offhand, knowing that Buffy would take it as a friendship thing, but now it meant that she had given herself a sort of weird false hope, because if Faith was being honest, all she’d ever really wanted was a date with Buffy Summers.

And she wasn’t going to get any closer than this.

 

Willow and Tara lived a few blocks away from the whole Slayer complex; they had had the option to live in the dorm with all the others, but they hadn’t been lonely enough to take it. They had a cute little house with a garden out front, in which they grew all sorts of herbs for both cooking- and witchcraft-related purposes. These days, of course, the garden was obscured by snow, and as Buffy and Faith walked to the door, ice cracked underneath their feet.

Buffy rang the doorbell, and Willow opened it, a grin on her face and a horrible, horrible , fuzzy blue-and-white sweater on her body.

“Buffy!” she said. “And Faith! I’m glad you guys could make it.”

“Wouldn’t miss it,” Buffy said, stepping inside. Faith watched as Buffy kicked off her shoes. Was that a thing people did in other people’s houses? There was a pile of shoes by the door, so Faith assumed yes and pulled off her boots.

Willow led them both into the kitchen, where there was an impressive array of snacks accompanied by a group of young Slayers standing around and talking. Faith had assumed that this was going to just be a Scooby party; she felt better knowing that others had been invited too. She wasn’t invading or anything, then.

“There’s snacks here,” Willow said, “and drinks, and games in the living room. Tara found, like, six different latke recipes and tried to make them all, so you should feel especially free to eat those, because I don’t think it’ll be good for me if I try to eat them all, and I will if you don’t. And also when the sun’s set a bit we’re going to light our last candle on the menorah and do some prayers. You guys don’t have to do the praying part if you don’t want to.”

Faith, hovering just a little bit behind Buffy, tried to look like she knew what a menorah was.

Ten minutes later, Faith was sandwiched between Buffy and Xander on one of Willow’s couches, playing Pictionary. She and Buffy had made a team to mirror Willow and Tara by default, without even talking about it, and once more, Faith looked around at the other teams (Xander and Giles, Dawn and Andrew) tried to convince herself that Buffy teaming with her didn’t mean anything more than friendship. Just as much as she was trying not to feel the warmth of Buffy’s shoulder pressed against hers, or of Buffy’s breath against her cheek when trying to guess what Faith was drawing. She was especially trying not to feel how nice it was when they won and Buffy hugged her.

“I knew we could do it,” Buffy said. “Chosen to defeat all our friends in a game of Pictionary.”

“Whatever,” Willow said. “The sun’s down.”

Faith tried to remember what that meant. She followed all the other guests into the kitchen, which really wasn’t big enough to fit them all. On the table there was a sort of candelabra that Faith hadn’t really noticed earlier; all but one of the candles had been lit. That must have been what Willow was talking about earlier.

Faith didn’t really pay attention to what was going on. It was mostly in a different language, and she was sort of overwhelmed by how many people were in the room. But she could understand that she’d stepped into a sort of sacred space, that this was somehow important , even if, as Willow had explained earlier, Hanukkah wasn’t one of the major holidays. Around her, everyone was singing in that other language, and Faith felt part of her lifted up with the music. She tried to hum along, and one of the younger Slayers looked at her with a smile. Faith instinctively smiled back.

 

Afterwards, she and Buffy walked home together.

“Thanks for taking me tonight, B,” Faith said, her fingers twisting around a loose thread in her jacket pocket.

“No problem,” Buffy said. “You know, you’re a lot more welcome in Scooby spaces than you think.”

“I don’t know,” Faith said. “I still feel bad.”

Buffy stopped; Faith took a few steps before noticing, and then she had to stumble backwards to stand facing Buffy.

“You don’t have to let that stop you from living your life,” Buffy said, her voice quiet. “It’s okay.”

Faith shook her head.

“You don’t understand,” she said. “You never murdered anyone.”

“I came close,” Buffy said. “Willow actually did it. We’re all still friends. You just… you just came in at a bad time.”

“But now’s not a bad time?”

“Exactly,” Buffy said. She pulled Faith’s hand out of her pocket, intertwining their fingers. “It’s a very good time.”

Faith smiled.

They started walking again. Faith was getting used to the feeling of Buffy’s hand in hers. She’d had more physical contact tonight than she had had maybe in the last nineteen years, not counting one-night stands, and she really wasn’t used to it, but there was a part of her that wanted to be.

Maybe that was what gave her the courage to say the next thing.

“Hey, B?”

“Yeah?”

“When you asked me to come here tonight,” Faith said, “and I asked if I was your date, how serious were you when you said yes?”

Buffy didn’t say anything for a long moment, and Faith risked a glance at her face. She was looking off into the distance.

“I didn’t know yet,” she said, finally. “I guess I was trying to figure it out.”

“I don’t suppose you know now,” Faith said. She was trying to make it sort of a joke, so it would be less awkward when the whole thing collapsed.

She felt Buffy’s eyes on her. She kept looking straight ahead.

“I think so,” Buffy said. She stopped again, but this time she tugged on Faith’s hand, so Faith stopped, too. She turned to Buffy, afraid of what she’d see.

“What did you decide?” she asked. Her mouth had gone dry again.

“Solidly in favor,” Buffy said. “I’m going to be having a major crisis over that later, by the way.”

Faith laughed.

“I’ve been there,” she said.

Buffy was looking up at her with those beautiful, open eyes. Faith didn’t know if she’d ever seen this much honesty in Buffy’s expression. She took Buffy’s other hand, and she said, “So, you going to do anything about it?”

Buffy broke into a grin, and she sort of laughed, and then she slid one hand up Faith’s arm to rest on the back of her neck, and she said, “That’s sort of where I was going with this, yeah.”

The kiss was soft and sweet-- exactly what Faith had never thought she’d be allowed to have.

Maybe Ohio was going to be all right.

(Even if it was all flat and gray.)