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Break The Ice

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Faith knows a thing or two about winter. She was born and bred in the northeast and cold weather is second nature to her. Six months of winter? Bring it on. She can ride out any blizzard like a pro.

But Alaska in February?

Yeah. Fuck Alaska in February.

Giles said that where they're headed, somewhere in the Revelation Mountains (wherever the hell that is; she must've missed Geography class that day), the worst of the winter conditions take a break after January. But here she is at the end of February with snow up to her thighs and a wind chill factor so cold she's not sure her nipples will ever be the same again.

And dammit, she really likes her nipples!

She's having regrets about volunteering for this special slayer mission, but she's got a lot to atone for and she figures that having Buffy's back - even when Buffy isn't so sure she needs or wants her to - has gotta give her a shit-ton of atonement points. And besides, Buffy has been hella weird lately. You'd think that closing the hellmouth last summer would have her on a permanent high, but no. Buffy has been moody for the last few weeks and no one, not even her best friends, have been able to cheer her up.

It's not like Faith thinks she can fill Buffy with good cheer and belly laughs, but she can stop her from getting her ass kicked by the Guardian of the Big River Valley if she's too deep in her funk to fight back. And not for nothing, but once they take him out and steal back his Amulet of Everlasting Night, they can put this next apocalypse to bed and get back to a slightly less frigid Ohio.

Faith is all about getting the fuck out of Alaska.

Buffy's been mostly silent through their long flight into Anchorage. Faith tried to make conversation once or twice, but she knows that saying about poking a sleeping bear and decides to let her half-hearted attempts go in favor of surviving the flight unscathed. Besides, they'll be spending the better part of a week together, just the two of them. She doesn't want to burn through all of their conversation topics in the first four hours.

She lets Buffy handle the travel arrangements when they arrive in Anchorage. They thought they'd be able to rent a car to handle the last one hundred and forty miles of the journey, but a man with a beaver-skin cap tells them the bad news: the Revelation Mountains can only be reached by plane, and there aren't a lot of pilots willing to make the trip in the middle of a cold snap like they're currently having.

Their mission is dead in the water for the foreseeable future, or at least until global warming takes care of those pesky glaciers.

Faith wants to call Giles. She's sure he can find a way to have Willow magic them in or out of where they need to be, but Buffy won't hear that plan. Instead, she powers on through town, looking for a crazy pilot or someone with a better idea.

They find a 'better idea' the next morning after a day and night of searching, though it is definitely not better, and it's not so much an idea as a death wish.

Snowmobiles. They're going to take two snowmobiles towing supply sleds over one hundred and forty miles of mostly desolate, uninhabitable, snow-filled mountain territory.

Because fuck logic, right? Frostbite and hypothermia sound like a fucking great way to die. Faith has heard the motto 'live fast, die young, and leave a beautiful corpse behind' but she's pretty sure the word 'frozen' doesn't factor in their anywhere.

She's obviously very vehemently against the plan, but apparently her vote counts for shit because this is Buffy's mission and she's just 'tagging along'.

"You can stay here in the nice cozy lodge, Faith. I'll go kill the baddie and save the day. I'm used to doing it alone anyway."

Faith narrows her eyes at Buffy. True, they've made progress in their relationship, friendship; whatever. There's still the occasional defensiveness or weird mixed signal, but that's mostly because Buffy still doesn't know how to react when Faith flirts with her after all these years. Still, every now and then Buffy tosses a throwaway comment like that out there and Faith has to use every ounce of self-restraint she has to stop herself from reacting the way she's sure Buffy expects: with violence.

Jaw clenched tightly, Faith rolls her shoulders and takes a deep breath, letting it go slowly and evenly. She meets Buffy's eyes and puts on a bright, fake smile.

"Nah. Who's gonna save your ass when you get into trouble? It's me and you against the bears, wolverines, and the abominable snowmen, B. You lead, I follow."

They load up their sleds with food, weapons, extra gear and gasoline, and head out into the freezing cold. Buffy has a topographical map of the region tucked on the inside of her parka. Their only guide is a wavy line made with red pen by the gentlemen who rented them the snowmobiles. He promised them there's a way through to Mount Hesperus if you're patient and a seasoned rider, of which Buffy and Faith are neither. Still, they lied through their teeth and nodded their heads as he gave them tips and pointers, and now Faith has forgotten them all because she's pretty sure the freezing winds have started to damage her brain.

Buffy rides at a steady pace in front of her, stopping every few miles to check her map and compass and make sure they're on the right track. It's a hard ride, made even more difficult by the two feet of fresh powder that's fallen in the last two days. The snowmobiles are solid and in good condition, but even they can be only so helpful in the worst of conditions, and yes, Faith believes these are the worst of conditions.

That is, until Buffy speeds up during a steady snowfall that worsens their already limited visibility in the failing daylight.

"B!" Faith calls out, her voice muffled by the scarf wrapped around her hooded parka and over her mouth. The loud motors of the snowmobiles don't help the noise situation either. "B!" she tries again. "Slow the fuck down!"

But Buffy continues on full throttle, whipping between trees and around rocks.

They've been lucky so far, too lucky if you ask Faith, and she knows they're pushing too hard and fast. Buffy seems to give zero fucks about their safety, and that sucks for Faith because she sure as hell doesn't have any plan to die in Alaska. She flat out refuses to become bear food, end of story.

Their string of luck is going to run out if Buffy doesn't . . .

Faith ducks her head under a low branch and when she sits up straight, Buffy is gone. She can see the path her sled took but there's no sign of Buffy left, right, or center. Panicked, Faith stops her snowmobile and hops off, trudging her way through the snow. She calls out to Buffy once, twice, three times, then rips the scarf from her face so she can shout louder. The air is so cold it's painful against her skin and instantly she is so angry that she let them carry out this stupid, stupid plan.

The complete silence freaks her out; there's no roar from the motor of Buffy's snowmobile, which is an even worse sign. Faith half-jumps-half-jogs along the sled path Buffy left behind and halts just in time to stop herself tumbling off a thirty-foot embankment. It's not a straight drop off but it's steep enough, and at the bottom of it she can see Buffy's snowmobile and the attached sled now laying about twenty feet away in the middle of a big clearing.

And between them is Buffy, who is on her back and not moving.

Faith's first instinct is to stumble down the embankment to help, but she knows once she does that they're stuck down there. Instead she hobbles back to her snowmobile, snow filling her boots and making her skin burn. She hops on and starts it up, then rides it down the path until she's ten feet from the dropoff. There's rope buried at the bottom of her sled and she grabs it, tying it to a nearby tree and hoping that those two weeks of boning a former Eagle Scout somehow improved her knot-tying skills. She rips off her gloves and stuffs them into her pockets, then grips tightly onto the rope and starts to scoot and slide down the embankment.

It takes her roughly ten seconds to reach Buffy but it feels more like ten minutes to Faith. It's like she's running in slow motion through quicksand, but the quicksand is snow that's hip-deep and she can barely feel her legs anymore.

Buffy's eyes are closed but she's breathing, and that's all that matters to Faith. There's no blood and she doesn't see any big rocks nearby, so she figures Buffy is just stunned. She reaches down and scoops Buffy up in her arms, brushing snow off of her cheeks and nose where her scarf has slid down.

"B? C'mon, Buffy. Wake up so you can yell at me. That'll make ya feel better, right?"

"Why would I yell at you?" Buffy asks groggily, her eyelids fluttering open. "I'm the idiot who rode off a cliff."

"For what it's worth, it was a really wimpy cliff," Faith replies.

She helps Buffy get to her feet and frets over her until Buffy slaps her hands away.

"I'm fine," Buffy says by way of explanation.

"Good. Ya wanna give me a heads up next time you try to pull a stunt like that? It's called Thelma and Louise, not Thelma All By Her Stubborn Ass Self."

Buffy doesn't reply. Instead she looks around them, gauging the situation. Faith does the same, feeling discouraged. But hey, she'll take discouragement because it's the only thing she can feel right now. Her feet are numb, her legs are numb, her face is numb, and she's not even sure she has hands anymore.

Fucking forget about her nipples.

"I have rope in my sled too," Buffy offers. "We can climb up with your rope and then use mine to pull the snowmobile up. Two slayers can make easy work of that."

"Maybe two slayers with functioning hands," Faith says. "But I can't feel mine worth a damn, and no way am I gonna be able to pull an entire snowmobile up a hill, let alone climb back up."

Buffy notices Faith's bare and grey-looking hands and instantly takes them in her gloved hands, trying to rub some warmth into them.

"You shouldn't have taken your gloves off," Buffy mumbles at her, giving her a stern look.

Faith returns the look and adds just a hint of hostility for measure. "You shouldn't have been riding through the woods so fucking fast."

"Fine. We're both dummies," Buffy relents after a moment. "But I think it's clear right now that we shouldn't argue over who the bigger dummy is. We need to set up our tent and get a fire going, and we both need to change into dry clothes."

"Yeah, it's almost dark," Faith says, nodding. "Not enough daylight to fix our situation anyway."

She looks up at the darkening sky and notices the biggest, most ominous snow clouds she's ever seen off in the distance. If they think today was rough, tomorrow is gonna smack their asses and show them who's boss.

"God, I'd kill for a nice warm bed," Buffy says as she stomps her feet, trying to get some feeling back in her legs.

Faith does the same, and as she lowers her gaze from the sky, something off in the trees about a hundred and fifty yards away from them catches her gaze. A smile creeps over her nearly frozen face.

"Save your violence for the Guardian of the Big River Valley. We're sleeping in rugged mountain style tonight," Faith says, pointing off in the distance.

Buffy follows her gaze and sees a shoddy log cabin against the treeline at the edge of the clearing, looking worse for wear but mostly solid. After the day they've had, it looks like the Howard Johnson Inn and they both head toward it to investigate, slipping haphazardly on the odd patch of buried ice here and there.

It's not big by any means, maybe twelve-by-sixteen with a tiny log shed beside it. The two windows and door are shuttered over with split logs, making it pretty apparent that it's closed up for the winter.

"Probably belongs to a fur trapper or hunter," Faith says. She points down to a wood plank in front of the door, riddled with rusty nails. "To keep bears out."

"But not humans," Buffy replies, easily moving the plank aside with the toe of her boot. She knocks on the shuttered door just to be safe, but no answer comes from within. It doesn't surprise either of them.

"I'm gonna open this place up, check it out," Faith says. "You okay to run back to your sled, get some food and supplies to make a fire?"

Buffy nods and heads back to the tipped-over sled, leaving Faith to fumble around with her barely functioning hands. Faith uses the palms of her hands to knock the boards out of place and stacks them neatly beside the door. After that the door opens easily enough, revealing the dark and wood-scented interior of the cabin. It's not altogether unpleasant, if not a bit dusty. It's clear that that trapper who built the cabin hasn't been back in some time. The only furniture is a single bed in the corner, a dust-covered stove in the center of the room that vents out the ceiling, and a small square table with a single chair. There's also an oil lantern hanging from a nail on the wall and a small container of oil to refill it rests atop the old table. There are a few random containers and boxes stashed about, but the place seems pretty much abandoned.

Talk about Spartan living.

Faith grabs the lamp from the wall and sets it on the table, lighting it with a box of long wooden matches she finds wedged between logs in the wall. It provides just enough light to make the cabin, dare she say, comfy.

It's not exactly a glamorous five-star resort, but it's home for the night and Faith is more than happy that the tent is staying packed up in the sled. She heads back outside and checks out the small shed, finding it full of stacked firewood. Grabbing an armful, she heads back to the cabin and stacks the split logs beside the stove. Buffy enters behind her, dropping two loaded canvas rucksacks and an axe on the floor beside her as she inspects the small cabin.

"It's homey," she says, trying to stay positive. Then she notices the single bed in the corner. "So, do we rock-paper-scissor for the bed?"

And as cold and miserable as she is, Faith can't help herself. A grin spreads across her face.

"If I knew that all I had to do to get you scissoring was bring you out to a dusty old cabin, I woulda brought you to Alaska ages ago, B."

Buffy smiles and shakes her head, turning to close the door behind her.

"Another vague lesbian joke. I'm glad to see that a nasty case of frostbite and possible hypothermia hasn't impeded your sense of humor or weird sexual mojo."

Faith has to laugh at that. "You know what? My sexual mojo has been called lots of things before, but weird has never been one of them."

She uses her still-frozen hands to fumble with the snaps and zipper on her coat, swearing under her breath at her inability to do such a simple task. After a minute passes by with no progress, Buffy finally takes pity on her and walks over, helping to remove her snow-covered parka.

"One comment about me undressing you and you're sleeping outside."

Faith smirks but doesn't say another word. She doesn't want to press her luck. She's actually gotten a smile out of Buffy, her first in over two weeks. It's the small victories that count, and Faith is happy to have even one.

"I'll start the fire," she says instead.

"And I'll make dinner."

They set off to their tasks in amiable silence. Faith only hopes it can last for a while before Buffy's moodiness returns.

**********

The small fire in the stove is just enough to keep Faith from shivering. She's changed into drier clothes, courtesy of Buffy's second trip back to the overturned snowmobile. They're a bit tight on Faith, but they smell like Buffy and that is oddly comforting. She just hopes Buffy doesn't catch her smelling the sleeve now and again.

They hadn't actually rock-paper-scissored for the bed because Faith offered to take the floor. It wasn't a chivalry type of thing; it was more Faith wanting to be closer to the stove. She's laying on the ground on top of her mostly dry snow gear now staring up at the wooden ceiling when she hears a rustling off to her side. She looks over to see Buffy climbing down from the bed and closer to the stove, an old wool blanket wrapped around her thin form.

"Can we add another log?" Buffy asks, her lower jaw trembling with cold.

Faith grabs a log from beside the stove and opens the grate, placing it gingerly among burning embers. It doesn't take long to catch fire and soon the room brightens up a few notches.

In the brighter light Faith can see that the vacant and sad expression is back in Buffy's eyes once again. It makes her sad to see, not only because Buffy deserves to be happy but because she knows there's not a chance of Buffy opening up to her about it. Faith doesn't actually expect to be able to fix whatever is wrong with Buffy, but she wishes like hell that Buffy would at least give her the opportunity.

Going for broke, she decides to gingerly approach the subject.

"Wanna talk about it?" she asks.

Okay. Maybe not as subtle as she'd hoped for, but then again, Faith has never been a real subtle kind of girl.

"About what?" Buffy asks, her gaze fixed on the orange flames as her head rests upon her rucksack.

"About what's bothering you."

A wry smile appears on Buffy's face and she glances over at Faith. "What's bothering me? Where do I start? We're more than likely lost in the middle of Alaska, holed up in some cabin that, for all we know, is owned by Leatherface. Our clothes might never dry, it's impossibly cold, and you're wearing my favorite pair of underwear while yours are smoldering dry on top of the stove. What's not to be bothered about?"

"Told ya I didn't mind going commando," Faith says.

"Yes, I clearly remember," Buffy replies, looking as though she's trying to shake the thought from her head as she glances back toward the fire.

Silence settles over them once again, the only sound the crackling from the fire and the wind whipping against the side of the cabin, making the whole room shudder. Faith can tell Buffy doesn't want to talk, but that doesn't mean she's ready to give up yet.

"I mean it, B," she continues after a few minutes, watching the flames dance in the reflection of Buffy's eyes. "I ain't talkin' about our current series of unfortunate events. I'm talking about whatever it is that had you volunteering to do a mission solo in the middle of nowhere when you ain't really been on active duty since we imploded the hellmouth."

Buffy takes a minute to answer and shrugs, her gaze still fixed upon the flames. "Just figured it was time to hop back into the game."

"Bullshit," Faith replies, and that alone manages to pull Buffy's gaze in her direction. Faith can see the annoyance in her eyes but she continues on anyway. "You wanted to get back in the game, you would've done it when we were up against that demon horde in Des Moines or during that last hellmouth scare in Cleveland. You took this mission because you wanted to get away. Guess my question is, what are ya tryin' to get away from?"

"This conversation," Buffy mumbles. She rolls on her side so her back is toward the fire and Faith.

"You can turn your back on me, B. It ain't gonna hurt my feelings, but you're shutting out your friends and your kid sis, and they don't know what the hell to do about it."

"So they sent you in to find out what's wrong with Buffy?" Buffy asks bitterly.

Faith scoffs at that, getting annoyed now. "I'm here because - surprise, surprise - I give a shit about you."

"As you've so clearly demonstrated many times in the past."

Faith ignores the jab, doing her best not to be thwarted by Buffy's evasiveness and once again foul mood. "You think you're the first person in the world to try to outrun her problems? You think I haven't ever tried to run away from my problems?"

"Oh, I'm sure you have."

The tone of Buffy's voice can't be mistaken; she's taking yet another dig at Faith, and this time Faith can't hold back. She's done nothing but follow directions and try to be good since she left prison last year and it's still not enough. That precious restraint she clings to so dearly these days is ripped from her grip.

"Right. Well fuck you, too," she replies.

She copies Buffy and turns her back toward the fire, instantly missing the heat on her face. Instead she buries her nose and cheeks into her arms for warmth, but now all she can smell is Buffy and that is no longer comforting. She'd rip her damn borrowed clothes off if she wasn't so fucking cold.

An awkward and uncomfortable silence ensues. Faith is so tense she can't unclench her jaw, and she doubts she's gonna get a wink of sleep. She takes a deep breath and exhales sharply, doing her best to calm herself down.

"Just . . . go to sleep, Faith," Buffy says finally, sounding defeated. "We have a long day ahead of us tomorrow."

That's true, Faith thinks, but for very different reasons. At first light, she's getting dressed and getting the fuck out of there and heading back to Anchorage. She's done being the bad guy, especially when she's just trying do something good.

If Buffy wants to be alone, Faith's more than fucking happy to comply.

**********

Faith wakes shortly after dawn, the early morning light shining around the solid wooden door. Buffy's still sleeping and Faith is grateful for that. She doesn't want to fight; she just wants to get the fuck out of dodge and back to civilization before Buffy can start back in with her subtle digs and moodiness.

As quietly as she can, Faith stands up and gauges the dim room. The fire is almost out, just a pile of glowing embers now, so she grabs the last of the small logs and slips them through the grate, hoping to kill the chill in the air. As irritated as she is with Buffy, she doesn't want her waking up alone in a cold cabin.

No, she can wake up alone in a slightly lukewarm cabin.

Faith waits a few minutes for the logs to start burning and throwing off some heat before she strips down, leaving the clothes Buffy had loaned her in a neat pile on the table. She steps back into her now-dry clothing and takes a two minute break to scarf down a protein bar and some beef jerky; she's going to need all the energy she can muster. The ride back to Anchorage will be tedious and tiring, that's for sure, but before she can even get back on her own snowmobile, she has to get Buffy's up the embankment and back on the trail.

Because no matter how pissed off and annoyed she is, she just can't bring herself to leave Buffy in a total lurch. Contrary to what Buffy believes, Faith actually does give a damn about her. Many damns, in fact. She'd thought that coming to Alaska to help out was in Buffy's best interest, but now Faith realizes that what Buffy really needs is to be alone to deal with her shit.

She tried to help and it didn't work. Now it's time to get back to life as normal, where she hopes Buffy will resurface in a relatively short amount of time, back to her usual self.

By the time she's finished getting her snow gear back on, Faith looks down to see Buffy stirring. She holds her breath, hoping that Buffy will just go back to sleep, but she's not that lucky.

Buffy reaches her arms out and stretches her back, her bones popping loudly in the quiet cabin. After a moment she twists to her side and looks up, her gaze meeting Faith's. Her brow furrows as she takes in Faith's state of dress.

"You should have woken me," she says, throwing off the wool blanket and fully sitting up. "Just give me ten minutes and I'll be ready to go."

"You can take your time," Faith says, using her gloved hand to wipe at her exposed forehead. "I'm gonna take care of your sled and them I'm gonna be on my way."

Buffy gives her a confused smile. "You're surprisingly gung-ho for someone who spent the better part of the last two days grumbling under her breath about a snowmobile ride through the arctic wonderland."

"That's cos I'm headed back to civilization," Faith replies evenly, watching as Buffy's smile falls. "It's not like I expected this to be some kinda fun excursion, but I think I get it now that you don't want or need me here."

Buffy takes a deep breath and looks down, grabbing the wool blanket from beside her and nervously picking at it. When she looks back up at Faith, she looks so damned sad that Faith almost cracks. Almost. But she knows how this routine goes. It won't be long before Buffy takes another dig at her in a fit of moodiness, and Faith's pretty sure that the next blowout between them won't be so quiet or easy.

"It's not that," Buffy says after a few seconds, her voice quiet. "It's just . . ."

Faith cuts her off, holding out her hands and shaking her head.

"No need, B. You and me? We never really did learn to play together well, did we? And you're going through whatever it is you're going through, and I'm probably the last person you want hangin' around. I get it. So I'm just gonna head back. You do . . . whatever it is ya gotta do. Kill the baddie. Save the world. Kick a bear's ass. Rage against the machine; just don't drive it off another cliff, yeah? Just come back home as yourself."

Buffy's silent, her gaze not leaving Faith's. After a minute she finally says, "You can't go back. You don't know the way."

Faith chuckles. "I'll figure it out. Take a left at the giant mountain, a right past the brown tree, another left at the snow pile that looks like Elvis. Piece of cake."

Buffy sighs, pressing her fingertips to her temples. "Can you please just make this simple and continue on with me? I can do without the stubbornness right now."

Faith's smile fades at that and she narrows her eyes. See? Almost. She knew Buffy would find a way to fuck it up.

This is not a case of the pot calling the kettle black; it's a case of the pot calling the kettle asshole, and Faith really hates being the kettle right now! Buffy is the pot and the kettle and the asshole!

"Good luck with the Guardian. I'll see ya back in Cleveland."

She doesn't take the packs Buffy had brought in the night before, seeing as that they're from Buffy's sled and hence, full of Buffy's things. She does, however, grab the axe, figuring she can use it to free up Buffy's sled and snowmobile from the snow and ice.

Without so much as another look back, she opens the door and steps out into the day. She braces herself for a blast of cold but it's not as bad as she expects. There's some fresh powder on the ground but the air feels much warmer than yesterday, which can only be a good thing. She's not exactly a meteorologist, but a bit of warmth has to make both of their journeys a bit more bearable.

The snow crunches beneath her feet as she crosses the clearing and Faith hopes like hell that Buffy isn't standing at the door watching her, because she keeps on skidding on ice patches and losing her balance. She probably looks like she has some kind of motor control problem with her nervous system, which is the opposite of the poise and level of cool she wants to look like she's walking away with.

She's just about across the clearing when she hears muffled yelling from behind her. Turning around, she sees Buffy jogging after her, holding her parka closed with one hand while holding both canvas sacks tightly under her other arm.

"Faith, wait!" Buffy calls out, slipping and sliding across the snow.

Faith thinks it's weird, that loose snow can make klutzes out of two super agile slayers, but then something else catches her attention. There's a very distinct noise, reminiscent of Buffy cracking her back just a short while ago. Faith holds still, listening closely. The sound isn't coming from her body; it's coming from below her feet. Brow furrowed as Buffy shouts her apologies from off in the distance, Faith uses the head of the axe to clear away some of the snow from around her feet. Her eyes immediately widen in horror.

The snow isn't making them slip; the ice is. The ice, which is currently splintering underneath Faith's feet, the warm air around them expediting the process as a large crack shoots off in all directions around her.

They're not standing in a clearing; they're on top of a motherfucking river!

"B, stop!" she shouts as loudly as she can, taking a huge step back and onto the more solid ground of what she can only assume is the riverbank.

Buffy doesn't stop but slows down, looking at Faith with confusion.

Her look of confusion quickly turns to terror as Faith hears a loud series of cracks from Buffy's direction. Buffy meets her gaze for just a moment before she's swallowed up whole by the river, the ice giving way beneath her feet. There's a loud splash and then complete silence, and in that silence Faith is almost sure she can hear her heart shatter into a million pieces.

She doesn't think. She doesn't plan. She sets off at a run across the dangerously thin ice to where Buffy fell in. Stopping about ten feet away from the break in the ice, she fights the urge to dive in after her, knowing then they'll both be goners. Instead she stands still and watches the water, studying the flow and speed. It flows to the west at a steady pace, meaning that Buffy isn't anywhere near the spot she fell in any longer.

Taking a chance, Faith runs with the current, dragging her feet and kicking the snow away as she goes. She's trying to catch a glimpse of Buffy's pastel yellow parka, anything to indicate where she may be beneath the ice. Faith is counting her lucky stars that the ice beneath her is holding out for the moment; maybe it's thicker here, which is both a blessing and a curse.

About thirty yards from where Buffy fell in, Faith catches a flash of yellow beneath the surface. Her heart lurches in her chest but she tries to keep her cool. She has exactly one chance to help Buffy, and this is it. She runs forward another fifteen yards and buries the axe in the ice repeatedly, hoping like hell that she can break through in time without plunging into the water herself.

She's shaking like a leaf when she finally stops and tosses the axe and her gloves to the side, using her bare hands to move a few chunks away from the break in the ice. Buffy has to be there. She has to.

The water moves steadily along, showing no sign of life. Faith's hands are numb and her heart is aching in her chest.

Bad terms. She'd walked away on bad terms, and now this has happened. If she could trade places with Buffy, she would. She wants to take it all back.

They need a do-over.

After all they've been through together, they deserve a goddamn do-over!

Faith has just about given up hope when a flash of yellow shows in the gap in the ice. She plunges her arm down into the frigid water, barely feeling the sting on her skin. She can't even tell if her fingers are touching anything; she just does her best to close them and pulls with all her might. Buffy surfaces a moment later, spluttering and gasping for air. Faith pulls with all her might, not stopping until Buffy is lying on the ice beside her. She lets go of Buffy's hood and wraps an arm around her waist, pushing back with the heels of her boots until they're several feet away from the edge of the break.

The rush of adrenaline helps Faith do what she needs to do, but now she's feeling depleted and cold. Buffy is a coughing and shivering mess beside her and she knows that even though the temperature has gone up considerably, it will not hold off hypothermia.

Legs shaking with weariness, Faith stands up and grabs the axe, then ducks under Buffy's arm and lifts her up, supporting her weight against her side.

"Hold on, Buffy. Just hold on."

She taps her way across the ice with the axe, avoiding any thin spots as best as she can. It's an excruciatingly slow process, especially when she knows Buffy's freezing to death at her side, but she needs to take her time and get them back to the cabin safely.

Several long minutes pass before they make it to the cabin. Buffy had never bothered to put out the fire in the stove so it's still pleasantly warm inside, but not as warm as it needs to be. Faith sets Buffy down on the chair beside the table, then leans down to get face to face with her.

"Hang in there, B. I've gotta get more wood and get this fire cranking."

She touches the side of Buffy's face with her trembling hand, then darts outside and to the shed. Her arms are freezing but she loads them up as much wood as she can carry, then heads back to the cabin. She makes sure the door is closed tightly behind her and gets to work feeding wood into the stove. The logs slowly start to blaze, the room brightening up from their glow.

It's then that she sees that Buffy's lips are blue and her skin is as white as a sheet. She's shivering so hard that she almost falls off the chair. Faith grabs her before she can slide off and braces her up with one arm as she starts to undress her with the other.

"We gotta get you outta these wet clothes."

"Always . . . t-t-trying . . . t-to g-get . . . m-me out-t . . . of m-my c-clothes . . ." Buffy manages through the violent clattering of her teeth.

Faith pulls back for just a moment and shakes her head in amazement. "Seriously? Out of all the times you could choose to flirt back, you choose now?"

She gets back to work, stripping Buffy all the way down to her bra and underwear. It's awkward work, not because she's seeing Buffy in her underoos but because Buffy can't do anything to help her. Her arms are pulled tightly against her chest, her entire form hunched over as if she's trying to protect the last flame of warmth that exists in her shaking body.

Faith gingerly places Buffy on the small bed, then makes quick work of stripping out of her own clothing. She uses her heels to kick off her boots and pants as she rips her parka and shirt off her upper torso. The best way to help Buffy now is to share body warmth, and that means skin to skin contact. She grabs the wool blanket from the floor where Buffy left it and wraps it around her back like a cape before climbing up onto the bed and straddling Buffy's upper thighs. She takes a moment to fan the blanket out behind them before settling down atop Buffy, wrapping herself around her freezing cold body and the blanket around them both.

Buffy's skin is so cold it physically hurts to touch her. Faith sighs and presses her face into the crook of Buffy's neck, bracing herself against Buffy's violent shivering. She wonders how long it will take for Buffy to warm up, or if she'll warm up at all. The thought of Buffy not recuperating makes Faith lose her breath and she clings to her all the more tightly.

They lay like that for what feels like forever, Faith's eyelids and limbs growing heavy as the last of the adrenaline leaves her body. The last thing she feels before she nods off is Buffy's arms wrapping around her back and holding her just as tightly.

**********

When Faith wakes up it's to the feel of hands pressed against her bare back, gently rubbing her skin. It's such a pleasant feeling that she almost for a moment forgets what they've been through, but the burning sensation in her arms - the sting of her blood flowing and warming her nearly frozen skin - brings her crashing back to reality. She opens her eyes and notices that the fire is still burning brightly which means that she can't have been out for more than an hour. Buffy's hands continue moving along her back and Faith lifts her head to look down at her, unafraid that she'll wake her up.

She finds Buffy's green eyes staring up at her, weary but gentle.

"How are you feelin'?" she asks, her voice softer than she thought possible.

Buffy shrugs as much as she can with Faith's body weight atop her. "A bit like a frozen dinner. And not even like the good kind that comes with an overcooked and rubbery but delicious apple cobbler for dessert. I'm like a diet frozen dinner."

Faith ignores her asinine description. "You warming up?"

"Honestly, we could start the entire cabin on fire and I think I'd still feel cold at this point."

"I'll add some more wood to the stove," Faith says and tries to stand up, but Buffy clings tightly to her, keeping her right were she is.

"Please, don't move," Buffy pleads, smiling shakily. "The uncontrollable shivering has finally toned down and I think that if you get up, I may very well turn into a slayer popsicle."

"We can't have that," Faith replies and settles her weight back down, careful not to squish Buffy beneath her weight.

A few minutes pass and she's suddenly all too aware of the position they're in. She tries to look down between them, not to perv at Buffy's state of undress but to gauge how badly she's squishing her. She expects Buffy to try to protect her modesty but Buffy stays as she is, hands still rubbing soft patterns up and down Faith's back.

"Am I too heavy?"

"No, you're perfect."

"You sure? We can switch positions if you want."

Buffy laughs, her teeth chattering quietly as she does so. "Faith Lehane, letting someone else be on top for a change? I never thought I'd see the day."

Faith knows there are a million and one innuendos she can come up with, and the cold water definitely must have affected Buffy's brain because she's flirting now more than she ever has in the past. Still, Faith is failing to see the funny.

"Yeah, you almost didn't see the day," she says. "I saw you go through that ice and I thought I was never gonna see your stupid face again. You coulda died, B."

Buffy's smile becomes much more wry and she turns her head to the side, looking away from Faith. It takes her almost a minute to reply and when she finally does, she looks so broken that it nearly takes Faith's breath away.

"Irony of ironies, isn't it?" Buffy asks, not waiting for a reply to continue. "Today could have been the day that two Summers women have died - and stayed dead. Poetic, in a macabre and depressing sort of way."

Faith furrows her brow in confusion, but after several long moments of picking her brain, she finally gets it.

"Your mom," she says, her voice soft.

Buffy nods and Faith can see that her eyes have filled with tears.

"February 27th. She died three years ago today."

"Oh, B," she says, feeling like such an asshole for not having realized what was bothering Buffy all along.

Sure, she wasn't there when Joyce had passed away. Still, she'd done her own mourning when Angel had brought the news to prison. Her tremendous sense of guilt was replaced by a genuine sense of loss; Joyce had cared about her, once. Joyce had cared about everyone; she was just that kind of person, and the world was a sadder place without her in it.

"Willow's been after me for weeks now, asking me if that's why I've been so distant and moody."

"Is it?" Faith asks gently.

Buffy sniffles and Faith can see just how hard she's trying not to break down.

"My mom has been gone a while now. The first year was hard. The second was a little . . . less hard. I should be a pro at dealing by now, right? But this year; this year has been the worst of all."

"How so?" Faith asks, trying not to break Buffy's calm.

She thinks she knows. She thinks she gets it now. But Buffy needs to talk about it; she needs to say it aloud so that maybe, just maybe she can get past it. Faith wants to help her in any way she can, and if just listening to her is the key to that, Faith is all ears for as long as she needs to be.

"Because," Buffy pauses to sniffle again and finally looks up, meeting Faith's gaze, "because I collapsed the hellmouth and buried her in a town that no longer exists."

"You saved the world," Faith says softly. She braces herself on her left elbow and shakes her right hand out from under the blanket, brushing Buffy's hair from her forehead with her warm fingertips.

"I did. We did. But her house is gone. Her belongings are gone. The gallery where she worked is gone. I have exactly one picture of her that I managed to shove into my bag before we loaded the bus. Everything that defined my mom is lying at the bottom of a crater, and I did that. I erased her, Faith."

Buffy finally loses it then, tears pouring from her eyes as she sobs quietly.

Faith can't stand to see Buffy so upset, especially over something that isn't her fault. They all left something behind when Sunnydale fell. For everyone else, it was a loss. Their homes, their loved ones; precious items that they can never retrieve. For Faith, it was a gain. She left her painful history buried in the ruins and she has no desire whatsoever to excavate it. Instead she got to leave there with a new lease on life.

And Buffy gave her that.

She rolls over to her side as gingerly as possible and pulls Buffy along with her, holding her tightly. Buffy buries her face against Faith's neck and cries, her nose cold against Faith's skin. Faith presses her lips against Buffy's head and closes her eyes, trying to ease away her pain.

"Shh, it's okay," she whispers again and again, her hands rubbing soothing patterns along Buffy's skin. "It's okay."

Faith holds Buffy and lets her cry until the sobbing stops and the tears slow to a trickle. When Buffy finally looks up at her, her green eyes sparkling, Faith reaches between them and uses the pad of her thumb to swipe the tears from Buffy's cheek. She brushes her fingertips into Buffy's now dry hair, smoothing it and pushing it behind her ear. Buffy watches her with a kind of wonder that makes Faith's insides tremble.

"You volunteered to come out here with me knowing what a mess I was," Buffy says after a few minutes pass.

Faith chuckles softly and shrugs. "Yeah. Didn't know why you were a mess though. Just knew I couldn't let you come up here alone to get your stupid face kicked in by the Guardian of the Big River Valley."

"I'm going to get a complex if you keep calling my face stupid, you know."

Faith laughs. "The rest of you is plenty stupid too."

That earns a small smile from Buffy and Faith feels like it's okay to broach the subject of her sadness again without bringing on another breakdown.

"She'd be so proud you saved the world again, B. And I know you miss her every day, but you've got a million memories of her that no hellmouth or demon can ever take away from you."

"I know," Buffy says, her gaze falling to some random spot in the small space between them. "But it's so hard. I can sill see her face so clearly, still smell her perfume; but how long will it be before that all starts to fade? I know I can't undo what we did, but . . ."

Buffy pauses and shrugs, leaving the sentence hanging there.

"But you wish you could go back and be a bit more thorough about what you were shoving into your bag."

Buffy merely nods in response. She looks up at Faith, her eyes still glistening, and smiles softly.

"Exactly."

Silence descends upon them and Buffy rests her head on Faith's shoulder, the crackling of the fire and the wind from outside the only sounds to fill the small space. Faith's right hand strokes over Buffy's side, her skin warming under her touch. A weird urge builds inside Faith and she knows she should fight it but it's completely futile. Without over-thinking it too much, she presses her lips to Buffy's forehead. She tries not to linger, but it really doesn't matter anyway; by the time she pulls back and looks down at Buffy, she sees that she's fallen asleep.

Faith smiles to herself and takes a deep breath, exhaling slowly. She basks in the moment, because no matter what it's taken to get to this point, she has Buffy in her arms - nearly naked- and never in her wildest dreams has she ever thought she'd be in this position. Sure, it's mostly for strategic heat-sharing purposes, but she's pretty sure the way Buffy had been stroking her back and is now sleeping against her shoulder has nothing to do with getting warm.

Though Faith is feeling plenty warm at the moment, that's for sure!

She waits a full hour to make sure Buffy is warmed up enough and sleeping deeply before gently prying herself from Buffy's arms and wrapping the blanket around her sleeping form. Tiptoeing around the cabin, she adds a few more logs to the stove before slipping back into her clothing. She finds another wool blanket in a box beside the bed and lays it over Buffy, making sure she's fully protected from any drafts.

Faith is loathed to leave her, but there's something she has to do and she doesn't want it to wait any longer than needed.

Bracing herself, she opens the cabin door and steps out into the frigid cold, quickly closing it behind her to keep the warmth inside. The axe is beside the door where she'd carelessly dropped it earlier and she grabs it, knowing that it'll come in handy. The temperature seems to have dropped from earlier which can only be a good thing; they need the ice to harden up so they can safely make it across to their sleds.

As it stands, she walks up and down the edge of the tree line, looking for a safer place to cross. There's a narrow pass about two hundred yards upstream and she braces herself before starting to walk across it, using the axe to test for weak spots. She's lucky enough to make it across without as much as a single crack beneath her feet. Where the hell was that luck a few short hours ago?

She finds Buffy's overturned snowmobile much the way they'd left it, though buried in a fresh mound of snow. It doesn't take much effort to brush it off and set it upright, but that's when she notices that there's really no need to try to lug it up the embankment. One of the skis is cracked and hanging at a weird angle, and there's a slushy puddle of gasoline below the spot where the gas tank had cracked upon impact.

It's a setback, that's for sure, but they're not out for the count yet. They still have her snowmobile and sled, and she's pretty sure it's still more than safe up at the top of the cliff.

Grasping the rope tightly, she climbs up the embankment, struggling only due to the bulk of her parka and gloves. She's going to need to let the parka dry out a bit more thoroughly, but since she isn't planning on trying to head out until the next day, she figures she has more than enough time for that. But now, the damp clothing will have to do. Besides, she isn't intent on staying out in the cold for long.

She finds her sled much as she left it, the large hemlock tree nearby having protected it from most of the snowfall. To be on the safe side, she starts the engine up to make sure it still works, a sense of relief washing over her as it purrs loudly without any fuss. She lets it run as she steps back to the attached sled and lifts the canvas tarp, rummaging beneath it for one of her bags. When she finally finds the beat up and worn old black bag, she slings it over her shoulder without opening it up.

She knows exactly what's in there right down to the last sock and snack; it was packed with care many days ago. The thing is, Faith always packs with care. She never knows when she might need to move on, and for her moving on usually means never going back. That's why she always makes a point to take anything she doesn't want to lose, including little mementos and keepsakes that she'd die of embarrassment if anyone found out about.

That's why, almost a year ago, she'd packed a small plastic photo album she'd found in Buffy's living room as they were heading out the door and to the bus. Maybe it was creepy, stealing someone else's memories, but she couldn't help but feel that they were kind of her memories too; Sunnydale had been a bit of a nightmare for her at some points, but it had also been one of the best places she'd ever been, filled with some of the best people she'd ever met.

She'd had no idea the town would be destroyed, but she'd figured she might have to make a grand exit when all was said and done anyhow.

Now more than ever she's glad for her constant paranoia about moving on and her slightly thievish tendencies.

Eager to get back and check on Buffy, she secures the sled and turns the engine off, then heads back to the cabin. She carefully follows her footsteps, trying to commit them to memory so that she can lead them out safely tomorrow even if more snow falls to cover her tracks.

Faith is surprised to find Buffy awake and sitting on the chair beside the stove when she opens the door, and she stands there unmoving in the doorway. Buffy looks up at her, blankets clenched tightly around her body.

"You're letting out the precious, precious warmth."

"Oh," Faith says, shaking herself from her stupor. "Sorry, my bad. Didn't think you'd be awake." She steps into the cabin and closes the door behind her, stomping to get the snow off her boots.

"I had a dream that my electric blanket stopped working and I couldn't get warmed up, then I woke up to find my own personal electric blanket had disappeared on me."

Faith chuckles as she takes off her parka and hangs it near the stove to dry out, then kicks off her boots. "Sorry, had an errand to run. I waited until you felt warm enough to lay alone for a little while. Also, I brought more food from your sled."

Buffy looks momentarily appreciative, but that quickly changes. "You crossed the icy river of deadly iciness again? Are you insane?!"

"Had to," Faith replies, trying not to meet Buffy's scolding gaze. "We need food and more blankets if we're gonna last the night. And before you fight me on that, realize that I will straight up tie you to the bed and force you to rest if you try to push forward with this crazy mission today."

Buffy opens her mouth to argue but then stops, obviously thinking better of it. It's one small victory Faith will take.

"Fine," Buffy replies, rubbing the blanket against the tip of her cold nose. "But only because I'm not used to being threatened with S&M fun and I'm not sure I'm ready for it after such a trying day."

Faith raises her eyebrow in reply and Buffy just laughs, shaking her head and looking away and at the glowing fire.

Yep. Definitely brain damaged, Faith thinks.

Faith shakes her head in kind and tries to dismiss the encroaching S&M thoughts from her mind. It's not entirely easy, but then she remembers she has something to do and focuses on that instead. She sets her bag on the cabin floor and kneels down beside it as she begins to rummage through its contents. She finds what she's looking for at the bottom of the sack wrapped in a cashmere scarf she'd also stolen from Buffy's house almost a year ago.

Yeah, just shut up about that. She's a criminal, remember? What's a little theft added on to the already long wrap sheet?

She pulls the cashmere-wrapped album out of the bag and looks at it for just a few seconds before holding it out toward Buffy, tapping her arm with it until Buffy looks down and notices it.

"What's that?" Buffy asks as she sneaks one hand out from under the blankets to grab the small package. When her fingers close around it, her brow furrows in confusion. "This looks just like my mom's favorite cashmere scarf . . ."

"That's because it probably is," Faith comments quietly, feeling a bit sheepish. "Day we went to close the hellmouth, everyone was packin' stuff up in their bags to take with them. I didn't really have anything; few shirts, couple pairs of pants, some weapons. But I didn't know if I'd ever see your place again, so I took a couple mementos."

Buffy is completely silent, both of her hands shaking now as she slowly unwraps the scarf and sees the photo album underneath it. Her eyes once again sparkle in the firelight and Faith is so, so afraid she's about to be told off. She quickly continues, hoping to preempt any yelling.

"I'm sorry I took it. I know it's not mine; they're not my memories and I had no right to them. Even still, they were some of the best memories I had, just because of the people in them. I would have given it to you sooner, had I known you didn't have . . . that you never took . . ."

She stops speaking, unsure of what to say next. She watches silently as Buffy thumbs through the photo album, holding it so gently like the pages are made of glass. Her heart is hammering so loudly in her chest she's sure Buffy can hear it, but she keeps quiet anyway, trying to brace herself for whatever comes next.

There's not much space between them and Faith briefly considers moving back a little; Buffy has a surprisingly long reach for someone so short in stature. Faith flinches when Buffy's hand shoots out toward her and she closes her eyes, bracing for impact. The impact that comes is not at all what she expects; cool fingers wrap around the back of her neck and pull her closer until she feels a pair of soft lips against hers.

Buffy isn't hitting her; Buffy is kissing her. Buffy is kissing her, and it's soft and it's simple and it's definitely the best thing Faith has ever felt in her entire life.

"So you're not mad then?" she manages to mumble out when the kiss ends, her forehead pressed against Buffy's.

"Are you kidding?" Buffy asks, laughing softly through her happy tears. "You gave me back something I thought was gone forever."

Going for modesty, Faith simply shrugs in response. She stands up, brushing her hands off on the back of her pants and feeling incredibly awkward for some reason. That awkwardness, however, starts to melt away when Buffy slowly stands and drops the blankets, letting them pool at her feet. She places the photo album and scarf carefully on the table and turns back to Faith, standing before her in just her bra and panties.

She takes a step toward Faith, but Faith stoops down and grabs the blankets, trying to cover her back up.

"You're gonna freeze, B."

"Not if you take off your clothes too," Buffy replies.

Faith doesn't miss the seductive note in Buffy's voice and she raises her eyebrows, smirking just a little.

"Sounds to me like you're just tryin' to get me all naked in your bed again."

"I'd say you have that about right," Buffy replies, still stepping forward. "Only this time," she pauses and reaches behind her back, unclasping her bra and sliding it off down to the floor, "I thought we could cut out the middle-man."

Faith decides that now is not the time to look a gift horse in the mouth. She quickly strips down until her clothes are in a pile on the floor next to Buffy's bra and underwear.

The cabin suddenly feels hotter than ever.

**********

The rope is crusted over with snow and ice as Buffy and Faith climb up the embankment, carrying everything they'll need from Buffy's sled on their backs. They take their time loading it into Faith's sled, trying to pack it as efficiently as possible so they won't have to leave anything behind.

Faith climbs onto the snowmobile and starts the engine, letting it warm up. A minute later Buffy climbs onto the seat behind her, wrapping her arms around Faith's stomach.

Faith smiles and turns her head back, her gaze meeting Buffy's for just a few moments. Before long she guns the engine and the snowmobile and sled take off through the snow, making Buffy grip on tighter.

Buffy's mood is a hundred times better and Faith can't help but be happy about that. The future isn't set in stone, but she hopes that maybe February 27th will be a different kind of anniversary from now on; a much, much happier one, for the both of them.

A thin white plume of smoke rises in the air behind them from the cabin, everything back in place and the fire dying out as if they'd never been there. For the first time ever Faith wasn't tempted to pack up any keepsakes; she's got all the memento she needs wrapped around her from behind.

The End.