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Faith always was a back-of-the-bus kind of girl. Back when she bothered going to school at all. She's lounging in the back seat right now, but this time there's no bullshitting with friends -- what friends has she got, really? -- or macking on a boy.

The one guy she might do some canoodling with is strictly a front-of-the-bus man. What she gets for doing the deed with a school principal. Plus, he's wounded. Plus, well, she's not so sure that wasn't a mistake. Well, not a mistake, exactly. A little bit of screwing is never a mistake. It's the keeping them around after that can get complicated.

So she's in the back, fidgeting, watching what's going on in the rest of the bus. Weird vibe, for certain, as it all clicks in once the giddiness of their survival -- expressed in stupid jokes at the edge of the hole that used to be Sunnydale -- fades. It's like watching a blackout roll through different parts of a city, hitting them in succession, not all at once.

Xander was the first to go. He's got the right. She'll never question his toughness again. Not just injured but mutilated, half-blinded, and there was never any question that he'd take up a sword and stand with them at the Hellmouth. On top of that, Anya. Faith's not sure what their deal was, but she knows it's complicated. A wedding that didn't come off, some seriously bad blood, but something had recently shifted between them. It was quiet, his grief, but he gave himself up to it, and Giles sat with him a while and absorbed some of it.

Then Giles's circuits tripped and the shock and wonder at being alive failed, leaving him with that bottomless sense of loss. After him it's Willow, then Dawn. The potentials aren't hit quite as bad as the Scoobies -- they've lost their comrades, sure, but the memories wiped out in Sunnydale's destruction are only a matter of weeks, not a lifetime.

Same with Faith. She doesn't have years of history here. But what she had was intense. Most of it bad. There was a point in her life when she'd have considered Sunnydale falling into a sinkhole a huge improvement. But there'd been some high spots too. Joyce had been decent to her, compassionate, even after Faith had terrorized her. And everything that had happened with Wilkins -- she'd been riding the crest of her craziness, scared shitless of herself that whole spring, and he'd been part of that -- but. He had loved her, too, cared what happened to her, for real. She could smell bullshit from miles away. That had been real.

Her gaze keeps sliding over to Buffy, waiting for the loss to hit her. Faith may be the only person who could possibly understand. Nobody in that house wanted to think about Buffy and Spike connected in any way. Faith's not sure exactly what they were to each other, but she's completely prepared to believe it was real. Losing something like that -- no matter how wrong other people might believe it was -- it would hit hard. Faith had gotten a delayed dose of that grief -- Wilkins had been months dead when she came out of her coma -- but it had been fierce, black, sweeping away any trace of restraint or sanity.

She'd seen the first thing that struck Buffy as they all stood on the edge of that huge hole. Not shock or horror or grief, but possibility. Freedom. B. isn't the chosen One (give or take a slayer) anymore. And here's where Faith's understanding of B.'s state of mind stops in its tracks. All this wide-open future? It terrifies Faith.

It was so easy to get sane in prison. Everything's mapped out for you, what you'll eat, when, where you'll go, who you'll see. She could stay on that straight-and-narrow path, because it wore such a deep groove. What's she going to do when there's no path that she's forced to follow? She doubts Rupert will make her stay on -- he'll probably be damn glad to get rid of her, actually. What's to stop her from running off the rails again?

She finds herself half hoping the cops will find her again, take her back. She'd be really jammed up then, probably in solitary for the rest of her days, but her life would be simplified even more. It's a seductive thought. Wouldn't be hard to accomplish -- a small screwup, or a series of them, if she has to resort to that.

Faith, I'm surprised at you. I won't have that kind of defeatist talk. The voice is so clear that her head whips to the side, expecting to see the First seated next to her in its Mayor drag. But no. It's just memory screwing with her head. You're a strong, capable girl.

Hard, maybe. But that's not the same as strong.

The atmosphere on the bus has grown thick, oppressive. Time to stir up the air in here, introduce some new currents. She slips out of her seat, heads toward the front to check on Robin. Despite being crammed uncomfortably into the bench seat, he's asleep. She places her palm on his forehead; fever's down. Lifts his shirt tail to check the wound. Blood has seeped through the gauze, but it's dried.

Faith grabs one of the chrome poles and leans forward to talk to Giles, who's taking his turn at the wheel. "Robin could use a real bed, I think. Well, all of us. But he and Buffy and Rona need some rest."

Giles nods. "We won't find much of anything until we've passed through the desert, but yes, then we'll stop."

"If you need someone to take over, just let me know. I'm not sleepin' anytime soon."

He thanks her and says he will, and she turns away from the front. Most everyone's asleep, except for Buffy and Xander, seated on separate sides of the bus. Buffy stares off into the darkness, closed off. Xander looks beat up.

Faith can't see herself giving him the funeral director "sorry for your loss" speech. Can't see him accepting it -- not from her. She makes her way toward the back, clutching seatbacks to keep her feet. She almost keeps going to that last seat, but hesitates, then slides into the seat with him. "Did that offer have an expiration date?"

It takes him a moment to register the question. "What offer is that?" His voice is raspy from calling Anya's name back in the school, and from the hours of silence after they left Craterdale.

"I seem to remember you coming to my door and handing me this coupon that said 'Good for one friend.' I was really pretty disorganized back in those days, and it got kinda wadded up and torn around the edges and there's a big muddy footprint on it. While I was in the joint, I hauled it out again, taped up the rips and tried to get the wrinkles out so I could think about it. Looks like a pretty sweet deal, if it's still good. Sorry it got so battered."

He's silent for a long moment. Under other circumstances, she might take this for his answer, a big resounding get lost. But she can feel the bone-deep exhaustion quivering through him, the kind that doesn't allow sleep. In that state, she knows, words don't travel quickly, in or out. She waits, looking at the others. Willow and Kennedy, sprawled on one another, asleep. Rona, lost in some realm of pain. "Yeah, okay," he finally says. "I think I can still honor that."

She lets out a breath she hadn't realized she was holding. "Good," she says. "I'm glad to know Ive got someone solid on my side. Someone who's got my back.

"We've all got each other's backs."

Sure. Hard to say why she finds this response disappointing, but she does.

"This is getting to us all in different ways," he says after a moment. "How are you holding up?"

She doesn't know she's going to tell the truth until it comes out her mouth. "I'm scared," she says simply.

That penetrates right away. "You? Scared?"

"Shitless. Funny, right? You want something nasty killed, I'm your girl. Hand me a weapon and point me in the right direction. But the idea that I don't have to do this anymore, that I can walk away and be free, that scares me worse than anything ever has. I don't think I know how to be free."

Xander considers this for a while. "If you're free to go, you're also free to stay."

Faith casts him a sharp glance. "What do you mean?"

"You can keep doing what you've been doing. Until you figure things out. And after, if you decide that's what you want. Just because Buffy needs to get out from under doesn't mean that's what's right for you. We're all going to have to decide what's next. And what's next doesn't have to mean what's forever."

She shakes her head. "How'd you get so damn smart in the last three years? I mean, I wised up some, but I thought it was prison that did that."

He smiles ruefully. "Not sure. Happened while I wasn't looking, I guess. I wish it had happened a little sooner."

"Yeah, well. Some people never get there at all."

They lapse back into silence, two companionable riders on a bus of restless sleepers.