There will never be a day when this gets any better, any easier. Her heart is weary, but it has hardened, thickened its skin. The hallway is long and dark. A light gray jacket hangs limply over her left arm. Goosebumps rise on the skin of her chest and her breath is cold as it escapes through her nostrils. She barely notices. Her hand curls around the wooden stake still clutched there from a night that has gone on far too long. She doesn’t feel the tiny slivers piercing her skin: the calluses built up over years of exactly this prevent any further damage. She doesn’t bother with sandpaper anymore.
Her head hangs low, her chin nearly resting on her chest. Her dark hair hangs in front of her face and she watches her feet. The waning glow from the streetlamps outside light her boots in a jaundiced hue.
A half-dozen pairs of yellow eyes stared up at her, a half-dozen lives taken before they had even had a chance to start, each born and snuffed out and reborn, their lives dictated from beginning to end and back again by their own mother.
Until Faith came along.
She took them out methodically, one-by-one. She didn’t engage, didn’t banter or play, did not lash out with anything but a killing blow. The silence that followed pounded in her ears and turned her heart to stone.
Her apartment is empty when she returns home. She knows it before she even opens the door because it’s the same every morning. Every day that passes, every heart reduced to ash at the point of her stake shows her the truth of her calling.
Late afternoon sunlight streams through the window in the dank apartment. It’s too warm and she stirs with a groan. Her senses come back to her one by one, at first dull and sluggish and then harsh and intense. The sheets scratch against her exposed skin and she shivers. Her teeth feel fuzzy and the aroma of mildew fills her nose, making her head throb and her stomach churn. She waits to open her eyes until they want to do it on their own.
Something is nagging at the back of her mind and as nanoseconds tick by, panic flares in her chest. A cold sweat breaks out over her shoulder blades and she’s on her feet in an instant, whipping the covers from her body and scouring the room with eyes that blaze with intensity in the orange glow of sunlight. She cocks her head and relaxes her stance only to reposition on the balls of her feet. The muscles of her shoulders bunch into knots and her brow furrows.
There is something out of place here and her eyes fall upon it, boring into it, making it squirm.
Blood drips from her chin and she spits it onto the dusty hardwood floor. She breathes in deeply through her nose and keeps her composure.
“I’m not here to fight you, Faith!”
“Then you shouldn’t have come.”
Faith can’t remember the last time she spoke actual words. She communicates with grunts and body language and well-timed eye contact. She has become a creature of habit, barely more than a creature of the night herself. Her voice is rough. It squeaks when it should be menacing. Her hand curls into a fist and she hits Buffy again.
The waning light of the sun catches in the blood spreading over Buffy’s lower lip. A droplet of it pools and spills over, rolling down her chin and collecting speed as it joins its friends on the floor. Faith watches it fall, notices the way that pinprick of white light travels up the drop of crimson liquid until it disappears into the mass of other pinpricks in the amalgamation of so many other droplets of pure, red blood.
“I’m not here to fight you, Faith.”
There is less indignation in Buffy’s tone now. Faith feels her heart begin to soften and she clenches her fist in response.
“I’m not your enemy, Faith.” Hazel eyes turn gold in the sunset. “He is.”
He laughs at her every night. She can hear it in her dreams, can feel it rattling her teeth every time another one of his spawn turns to ash at her hands. It’s a sound full of joy and humor and excitement, but it isn’t a sound any human, no matter how sick and depraved, could ever make. It’s the sound darkness feeds on, the kind of sound that anything, alive or dead, should know to run from.
She moves toward it now, leading the charge.
The alley is slick with blood. The sweet, metallic aroma of it fills her lungs and makes her head swim.
She thought she needed him once, to feel sane, to feel whole and alive and everything she had forgotten she could feel. He showed her how to accept help, even from the most unexpected places. He taught her to help herself and he taught her how to trust in this duty to which she is bound. The first time she ever saw him smile, he was smiling at her.
His laughter tinkles up the walls of the alley. It soothes her, now that she understands. They are bound together, he and the Slayer. It’s always been this way; it’s just that none of them have understood it completely. With Buffy at her flank, Faith understands perfectly. They were built for this, the three of them. They have lived for this night to come. Now that it’s finally here, they will be set free.
The sun rises cautiously on the alley. Blood and gore cover the walls. Corpses line the pavement, what’s left of their faces still twisted in horror and agony. He is nothing more than dust on the wind and she finally understands the reference.
Buffy hasn’t stopped crying.
Faith hasn’t yet begun but knows she will, sometime soon when she’s alone in her bed, curled up in the rough and scratchy sheets, soaking her flattened and stained pillow with her tears. Now isn’t the time.
She rests her hand on Buffy’s shoulder as gently as she can. She tries to run her hand in soothing circles but the calluses on her palm catch on the fabric of Buffy’s shirt so she stops.
“We did what we had to, B. What we’re built for.” She doesn’t know where the words come from, but she doesn’t stop them. “He knew it. Somewhere in there, he knew we’d come after him, you an’ me, and we’d stop him. He wanted it to be us.”
Buffy blinks up at her, tears clouding her vision as they stream one after another down her cheeks. “Does this mean we’re done?”
There is hope in her tone and Faith hates to have to be the one to quash it. She shakes her head.
“We’re never done. You know that. It never stops.”
She tilts her head into the sunlight streaming down into the artificial canyon of the alley. It warms her skin in a way it hasn’t done for a long, long time. She smiles. The horrors of all they’ve had to face in his wake subside long enough for Faith to stand and tug Buffy up with her. She sidesteps the blood on the ground – there’s nothing she can do about these poor souls now – and ignores the blood on her hands and clothing and leads the way to the main road.
“Doesn’t mean we can’t find the fun while we’re doin’ it.” She turns to Buffy with a wink and just as suddenly takes off down the street at a sprint.
Buffy follows slowly behind, trying in vain not to be amused by Faith’s sudden change in mood. She knows it won’t last. It never does. She stops walking and watches Faith round a corner, dodging a busboy setting out tables and chairs in a makeshift patio in front of a restaurant.
The days don’t change and they both know it. But sometimes tomorrow seems a little brighter and that’s enough for a smile and the exhilaration of a chase that will never really begin or end. When it gets desperate and the call of duty is too much to handle alone, they’ll see each other again. Today, however, is one of those lucky tomorrows where the enemy is defeated and although they’re going their separate ways, they’re each left with the feeling that for once, they are not alone. For once, someone else understands.
For the Slayer, that’s enough.