and I am done with my graceless heart so tonight I'm gonna cut it out and then restart
I hit the ground running. Trees whip past me as I race among their heavy trunks. The sky above me is red and dark; clouds churn in the howling wind.
I duck under branches and vault over boulders. My hair whips around my face and my bare feet sink into the soft earth with each step. Muscle and sinew contract and release as I push ever forward. I am as silent as the dawn; my body is borne from death and chaos, meant for the hunt, the only thing that sustains me.
She is beside me, matching my pace but her breath, the pounding of her heart cuts through the stillness of the trees. I push forward until we reach an outcropping of rock.
The water runs swiftly down and down. I crouch low. My knuckles brush against leaf litter and I inhale the rich scents of wet earth and mist. Her breathing is measured now as she stands above me. Her adrenaline and sweat mingle with the scents of the earth, and her power, so much more than human, radiates in waves from her body.
Still, she gasps with weakness only a human can possess as the ground beneath us begins to tremble.
The rock outcropping bends and groans, jutting through the trees, displacing the falling water as it moves. We scramble backwards, avoiding trees as we tumble downhill. I growl low in my throat, as much in confusion as in warning to whatever foe is causing this sudden shift.
My eyes dart up to her face for guidance. She is only staring, and so I follow her gaze up and up this new mountain. There is movement at the top, a restless stirring, and the fiery glow of eyes as red as blood.
Light streamed through the open window. The lacy curtain was pulled back, wafting gently in the breeze. Buffy watched its shadows dance over Faith's face while she slept. Faith's hands and the corners of her mouth began to twitch and her brow furrowed, her mind deep in a dream. Buffy hoped she wasn't waking up, but Faith did with an audible gasp.
Her dark eyes darted around the room and up to the ceiling; panic and confusion were clear in their depths. After only a second, she slumped back in her chair with an exhalation of relief. Her eyes fluttered closed as her left hand clutched at her chest. Buffy's jaw clenched in impatience and she shifted in the sheets. Faith's eyes opened and pinned her to the bed.
"What are you doing here?" Buffy sighed. She had been watching Faith sleep for over an hour, but admitting to that made her seem too pathetic, even to herself.
Faith averted her gaze and shifted uncomfortably. "Door was unlocked."
"I don't need you checking up on me, Faith." She bit off the other woman's name like a curse.
"Hey, it wasn't my idea. Heard Giles and Xander talkin'. You haven't left this room since Monday."
Buffy rolled her eyes defensively. "Your point?"
Faith leaned forward, resting her elbows on her knees. Buffy couldn't help but notice the dark circles under Faith's eyes as they narrowed in accusation. "It's startin' to smell a little ripe in here, blondie."
"Whatever, F. Like I told Giles, I don't need everyone, you included, looking in on me every five minutes like I'm going to break, or jump out the window, okay? I'm fine."
"Oh, uh huh, you're fine," Faith chuckled. It was a low, mirthless sound that made Buffy's skin crawl. "That's great, B, but did you ever think that maybe they're not?" Buffy dropped her gaze to the bedspread. Faith saw her opening and pressed on. "Oh, no, I guess you were too busy up here with your pity-party to remember anybody but yourself. Did you even think about how freaked Giles is over this, or Dawn?"
It was Faith's turn to avert her eyes. "This isn't about me."
"Like hell it isn't." Buffy's voice was steel. Faith opened her mouth in retort but Buffy beat her to it. "What is this really, Faith? Did you honestly think I hadn't noticed you sleeping in that chair every morning?"
Faith crossed her arms defensively, looking at everything in the room but the blonde on the bed.
"Did you think I wouldn't notice that you go out all night, every night, and you come home bruised and bleeding? Do you think that's helping anything?"
"It's more than you're doing!" Faith roared, pushing herself out of her chair and stalking toward the bed. Buffy shrunk back against the headboard, pulling her knees up in front of her.
Faith stopped short at the edge of the bed and huffed out a shaky breath. Her hands scraped back through her thick hair and she turned on her heel, pacing like a caged tiger.
"At least I'm out there, B! Not once, not once has a vamp or a demon mentioned a blonde Slayer, you know that? It's always ‘I thought the Slayer was a redhead' or ‘I thought the Slayer was a black chick.' You're not out there, so don't fucking pretend like you're useful, alright?"
"E-excuse me?" Buffy sputtered, rising from the bed.
"Yeah, I'm out there every night. You asked me to stop comin' home drunk, so I did. Now you want me to stop comin' home bloody? Well, that might take a little doin', seeing as how I've made a rep for myself."
Faith crept slowly towards Buffy, her steps as slow and deliberate as her words. "Demons know I'm comin' after ‘em for info, and no, maybe I haven't gotten much, but I know this: I know they're scared. There's a lot of empty crypts out there, B. A lot of demons skippin' town. Sure, there's a few nasties that have come in to take up the slack, but mostly? They know something bigger and badder is on its way and they're gettin' the hell outta Dodge." Faith's features were flushed from her outburst. She stood only inches from Buffy, chest heaving and lips trembling. "Between that and the dreams? Me? Yeah, B, I'm freaked."
Buffy nodded slowly, holding Faith's eyes with her own. She bit her bottom lip and felt a slow coil of heat watching Faith's eyes follow every movement of her mouth. Her breath caught in her throat as Faith closed the distance between them, wrapping one arm roughly around Buffy's torso and pressing the length of her body against her. Buffy could feel herself melting at the sudden contact and couldn't stop a whimper from escaping her lips as Faith's breath burst against her cheek.
"Is this what you want? Huh?" Faith's voice was rough, haunted. She spoke with a tight jaw, her lips barely moving. "I'm here, B. Isn't that what you wanted?"
Buffy closed her eyes and shook her head. "I just - I need... some time...."
"Time?" Faith growled. "Time for what, exactly?"
"I just - Faith, please, I -" Buffy's voice became desperate. She couldn't stop hot tears from escaping and rolling thickly down her cheeks. "I don't know what I'm doing. I just - no, I haven't been slaying. I haven't wanted to since Sunnydale. It's gone, okay?" Her breath hitched in her throat and she choked back a sob.
"Isn't that what you wanted, though? A normal life?" Faith's voice was softer, calmer.
Buffy shook her head, her eyes squeezed shut. "I don't even know what that means anymore," she whispered. "How can I? I'm preg - I'm going to - I'm, there's this...thing growing in me and how am I supposed to... Should we kill it?" Her eyes widened at her words.
Faith grimaced and swallowed the bile rising in her throat, but kept her hold on Buffy's waist. Buffy's wide eyes, sea green in the late morning light, turned to Faith's, hoping, expecting the right answer to be waiting for her there, but Faith was suddenly miles away. When she spoke again, her voice was thick with unshed tears.
"We can't, B," Faith whispered, her words halting. "Not until we know for sure."
Buffy's heart sank and her head followed. She felt a strong finger under her chin, forcing her to look up again. She didn't resist.
"Hey," Faith whispered. "We'll figure this out." Buffy nodded heavily and pulled away to sit back down on the bed. She took Faith's hand in both of hers and studied the calloused fingers, the bruised and cracked knuckles, the bitten-down nails. Faith squeezed her hands and sat down next to her.
"What do you need, B?"
Buffy made a sound that was somewhere between a laugh and a sob. "I need Willow, Faith," she whispered without accusation. "I need my mom." Her voice broke and she pulled away, her tears flowing freely as she curled back into the cocoon of her bed.
Faith closed her eyes for a brief moment before resting a hand on Buffy's shaking back. Even though Buffy's words were muffled by her pillow, Faith heard them loud and clear.
Faith closed the door gently behind her, careful to keep it from banging against the jamb. She leaned back against it, letting out a breath she felt she'd been holding for hours, days, weeks.
Her breath was sour, her mouth sticky. Her clothes stuck to her in all the wrong places and her hair was greasy against her scalp.
She thought back over the last few hours: her conversation with Buffy, her dream, the intel she had gathered while patrolling until dawn. Though she was exhausted, mentally and physically, sleep beyond her catnaps in Buffy's chair in the mornings had all but become a foreign concept.
Her mind suddenly raced back to her dream, forcing her to remember something. Her back straightened as she pushed away from the door and made her way to the stairs.
She found Kennedy on the back porch, watching the meadow with Dylan at her feet.
"Yo, you wanna patrol?" Faith hoped she sounded casual and not as anxious as she felt.
Kennedy frowned at the meadow. "It's daylight," she replied, looking up at the other Slayer. Faith just blinked at her. Kennedy shrugged. "Yeah, alright."
The sun shone through gaps in the trees in long streams, late morning swiftly being enveloped by the warmth and urgency of afternoon. Leaves crunched softly, barely audible, beneath Dylan's feet as she stalked along the forest floor. She sniffed the air, tasting it on her tongue. A twig snapped. Her head jerked to the left, red eyes focused and steady. Her pupils constricted as she broke into a sprint.
"Man, look at her go." Faith ambled along the deer path beside Kennedy, hands in her pockets and a look of awe on her face. Kennedy followed her gaze, watching as Dylan pounced on something in a lavender bush.
"Yeah, she's probably chasin' a rabbit or something." Kennedy walked on, half-heartedly scanning the trees for anything supernatural besides the three of them.
"Why, she eat ‘em?" Faith asked innocently.
Kennedy grimaced. "Nah, she likes to play with them."
Faith's nostrils flared. "Oh. Ew."
The two Slayers continued walking in silence. Dylan kept after the presumed rabbit. Birds chirped overhead, harassing the squirrels leaping from branch to branch. Faith watched a particularly fat gray squirrel attempt to sneak up on another's cache of nuts. She quirked an eyebrow in approval as it made off with its cheeks full of food.
"I been thinkin'..." she began.
"Wow, that's a first," Kennedy scoffed, earning a shove from the older Slayer.
"Hey, I'm tryin' ta -"
Kennedy threw her hands in the air in mock-surrender. "Okay, okay, sorry. What have you been thinking?" she asked, excessively polite.
Eyes falling on the narrow, leaf-littered path ahead of them, Faith let out a pensive sigh. "Do you know why they moved here?"
Kennedy shrugged. "'Cause the Hellmouth is in Cleveland?"
Faith shook her head. "But there's thousands of us now." She gestured to the forest surrounding them. "This isn't exactly Buffy's fantasy life, y'know?"
Nodding in understanding, Kennedy slowed her steps. Faith stopped a few paces behind her. Kennedy turned to face her, her brow creased in a frown. "I asked Willow that once, right after they moved. She said Buffy wanted Dawn to have her last couple of years in school in the most all-American place they could afford that wasn't in the South."
Faith's look was incredulous and she opened her mouth to voice her opinion. Kennedy held up a hand, holding the tirade at bay.
"Yeah, I know, I didn't buy it either. So I called Xander. He told me after Sunnydale, the government started sniffing around, asking questions. Apparently the good old citizens of Sunnydale that made it out before the collapse were more than happy to blab to the FBI, CIA, you name it, that one Buffy Summers was behind it all."
"Are you kidding me? They thought B was a terrorist?" Faith didn't know whether to laugh or hightail it out of Ohio.
"Wish I were."
"Damn.... So why isn't she in Gitmo?"
Kennedy frowned. "Willow. I don't know what she did, don't really want to, but they pretty much forgot all about Buffy, and Sunnydale was classified as a natural disaster. Buffy was still pretty freaked, I guess. Wanted to lay low."
"Yeah? I guess that's as good a plan as any," Faith murmured, mostly to herself.
She let her eyes wander around the shrubs and trees, noticing the browns and greens and the gentle splashes of color where wildflowers poked through the underbrush. She could hear the rush of wind in the treetops, the gentle lapping of a stream against muddy banks, the birds and squirrels, Dylan and her rabbit, but even with the limited time she'd spent in these woods, Faith couldn't recall ever seeing another human. No hikers frequented these woods, no park rangers ever seemed to pass through.
"Wonder why the vamps use this place like a highway. Not much in the human snack department out here." Kennedy didn't have an answer for her.
Faith was suddenly distracted as Dylan's head popped up between two huckleberry bushes. She paused where she was crouched, her eyes scanning the woods until they fell on the two Slayers. Her eyes met Faith's for a brief moment before she disappeared just as suddenly as she came, lost to the forest.
Faith blinked rapidly, stumbling back. "Woah, shit."
"Yo, you alright?" Kennedy stepped forward, holding out a steadying hand.
Still blinking, Faith shook her head tightly. "Yeah, just... remembering something."
"Remembering doesn't usually look so... painful," Kennedy countered, concern etched in her features. "You sure you're okay?"
Faith stared after the spot where Dylan had appeared. She nodded slowly, turning to Kennedy with wide eyes. "It wasn't my memory, Kennedy. It was hers."
Two pairs of wide brown eyes followed the slender form of the Primal stalking her prey among the maple trees.
"Jesus!" Kennedy breathed. "Are you sure?"
Faith simply nodded.
"That ever happened to you before?" Kennedy asked, her voice raising half an octave.
"No. I mean, not since that first night when I got...everything," Faith supplied.
"Right. What happened? In the memory, I mean."
Faith began slowly, her brain working in overdrive to make sense of the sudden influx of information. "It's Vi, the first night they took Dylan patrolling. The night she changed." Faith paused, swallowing heavily.
"She's tellin' D that they don't actually know where the Hellmouth is. That as soon as she and Rona moved here, they scoped out every hotspot in Cleveland, found a couple witches to help ‘em out, but everything turned up cold." Faith found Kennedy's eyes with her own. "Except these woods. But there's no people out here and the witches wouldn't come past the edge of the trees."
Something clicked in Kennedy's mind as she stood staring at Faith. Her eyes darted to a copse of trees and she began to move toward it.
"Ken?" Faith called after her.
"I know where it is. I know exactly where it is," Kennedy called back excitedly. Veering off the deer path in a hard right turn, Kennedy strode purposefully deeper into the woods. She called back over her shoulder at Faith, who was hot on her heels, "There's a spot pretty deep in, away from all the nature trails and service roads. The vamps won't go anywhere near it."
She paused momentarily to get her bearings before plowing ahead again. "Dylan and I chased a demon in there the other night. It totally flipped out when it realized where it was." Kennedy looked back over her shoulder, smirking. "I almost felt bad killing it."
The woods became denser the further they walked, the underbrush scraping at their legs. Faith thought briefly of ticks and poison ivy, but the moment passed as Kennedy scrambled up the side of a rocky hill. Faith followed more carefully, keeping her steps quiet. The birds had stopped chirping. Faith realized she couldn't hear any animal life at all now.
They reached the top of the hill and Kennedy headed to an outcropping of rock. A waterfall tumbled down the hill beside them. If it weren't for the gnawing in the pit of her stomach and the hairs standing on end on her arms, Faith thought the area could've been quite peaceful.
Suddenly, Faith felt a buzzing against her thigh and the air was filled with a mechanical chirping. Both Slayers jumped at the unexpected intrusion, laughing at each other as they realized it was just Faith's phone. She whipped the blue device out of her pocket and flipped it open without looking at the caller ID.
"You get signal out here?" Kennedy mused, willing her heartbeat to slow down.
Rolling her eyes at the other Slayer, Faith answered the call with a terse "Yeah?"
Kennedy peered over the edge of the rocks to watch the stream of water tumble downhill. Nothing appeared to be out of the ordinary here, but she could feel her hackles rising all the same.
"What? Dawn - you're breaking up. What did you say about Giles?" Faith walked over to a clear spot at the top of the hill, squinting up in the waning sunlight as if she could see a better signal for her phone.
"They finally showed, huh? Alright, we'll be there in twenty."
Flipping the little phone shut and shoving it back in her pocket, Faith turned on her heel and started making her way back downhill. "Come on!" she called.
Kennedy hurried after her. "What's going on?"
"Giles' mystic buds from the coven in England are here."
Shaking her head, Kennedy picked her way down the hill after Faith. "Right. And what, they're gonna answer all of the questions that three Watchers, four Slayers, a witch, a geek and a teenage Watcher-in-training couldn't figure out, huh?"
Faith slowed to a brisk walk as they approached the deer path, whirling on Kennedy with a renewed fire in her eyes.
"Maybe. Maybe they can confirm that what we just saw is the Hellmouth. Maybe they can figure out what's up with B. I'm not waiting around for whatever's behind all this to show its face, alright?" Not waiting for an answer, she turned back around and continued her hurried pace, eager to be out of the woods.
Kennedy moved at a slower, more deliberate speed, waiting for Dylan to find her before following the path back to the meadow.
The stars were dim in the early evening sky, winking down on the world like so many practical jokers. There was a chill in the air, alerting any who dared to be outdoors in the earliest hours that autumn was fast approaching. The rain from the summer storms left the Cuyahoga Valley green and damp and the air crisp.
Faith drew a breath of ash and fire, holding the toxic smoke in her lungs until they burned. She exhaled slowly, the smoke and condensation of her breath mingling to hang heavily in the atmosphere.
She could remember the last time she saw so many stars; one frigid night in the Sonoran Desert with the cactus and coyotes. The 4Runner had broken down on her way into Mexico and she was lucky enough to charm the Border Patrol agents who found her the next morning into towing her to a mechanic thirty miles away.
Faith smiled softly at the memory, supposing as she had then that it was good enough for them that she spoke English with an American accent and her license plates checked out.
She chuckled as she pulled another drag off her cigarette, not noticing the footsteps on the porch behind her.
"Hey, what's so funny?"
Faith turned, an embarrassed flush threatening to creep up her pale features at being caught out. She appraised Xander as he approached, blowing smoke sideways out of her mouth in an attempt to appease him.
"Hey. Nothin'," she replied easily. "They ready for me?"
"Not yet. You gettin' antsy?" Xander replied with a gentle smirk.
He settled against the porch railing next to her, observing the Slayer. He once thought they had a connection, that there was some sort of a friendship, a kinship between them. Looking at the woman before him now, Xander wasn't sure he even knew her anymore.
"You know me: can't sit still, waitin' around." Faith emphasized her point with a long pull on her cigarette.
"Heh, right. How are you holding up?"
Faith glanced at him before looking back into the night. "Five by five."
She took another long drag from her cigarette, the cherry burning close to the filter now, and Xander realized an awkward tension between them was palpable.
"Those things'll kill ya, you know," he attempted with a forced chuckle. Faith's only reply was to grunt and roll her eyes. "You probably shouldn't anyway, considering." He paused. "Around Buffy, I mean."
Faith stiffened, turning her head away from him to stare down a moth that had landed on the support beam. "S'why I'm outside."
"Right," Xander sighed. "Still..."
"What are you, my mom now all of a sudden?" Faith spun on him angrily. Xander immediately stepped back, hands in the air in a placating gesture.
"Alright, alright, no need to get pissy." He waved a hand toward the house behind them. "Things, uh, things're getting crazy in there, huh?"
Faith shrugged in response. "Seems to me crazy's all you guys ever do."
Xander studied her carefully, noticing the rigid stance of her feet and shoulders, the tiny wrinkles just starting to show around her eyes, the faraway look in those brown orbs that he always thought made her look like a terrified little girl. He tilted his head in wonder.
"So, you think you're ready to be a mom? Or... dad, I guess?"
The sudden bark of laughter made Xander jump. "Hell no!" Faith exclaimed.
Her amusement at the question was gone as quickly as it came and the faraway look returned. "I can barely take care of shit as it is. What am I gonna do with a kid? And that's if it's a kid."
Xander nodded in understanding. Faith blew a smoke ring, her eyes following it as it drifted into the breeze. She watched it disappear into the ether, joining the oxygen and nitrogen and hydrogen particles in the atmosphere.
Xander sucked in a heavy breath, the faint remnants of the smoke sticking to his tongue, and stretched out his arm before bending it to rub his hand on the back of his neck. His good eye scanned the rapidly darkening meadow, trying to find what Faith found so fascinating in the grass and flowers.
He exhaled through his nose and when he spoke again his voice was more optimistic than he felt. "I guess we'll find out soon enough with Giles' mystics finally here. ‘It's urgent' must mean ‘mosey on over at your own pace whenever you feel like it' to them. Though from what I can tell, they aren't exactly human themselves so who knows how much you can trust -"
"Xander?" Faith interrupted gently.
"Yeah," he breathed.
She paused, seemingly lost in thought, and for a moment Xander wasn't sure she would continue.
"B's thinkin' about abortion, d'you know that?"
Xander's eye widened and he nodded slowly. "I had a feeling." The air rushed out of his lungs in a whoosh. "What do you think about it?" he asked, cautiously.
Faith sucked in a breath of fresh air, her eyes becoming harder and brighter as a long moment passed. She turned to face him fully for the first time since he had come outside. She leveled him with a long, hard look. Unshed tears glistened in her eyes and when she spoke again, her voice was thick with them. "It's not up to me. Not this time."
Her meaning hit him slowly, his brain picking apart each word before piecing the two sentences together. Xander's mouth fell open slightly and a thousand questions found their way to the tip of his tongue, but his chance to ask them was dashed as the kitchen door creaked open behind them.
Faith broke Xander's gaze, slowly stubbing out her cigarette and turning to see Giles tentatively stepping out onto the porch.
"Faith? We're ready for you."
The back door clicked shut and two set of footsteps echoed against the kitchen tiles. Buffy's ears pricked to the sound. She sat on the couch in the living room, her sister molded into her side, watching the kitchen door through the bustling activity in front of her.
With distractions at every turn, it was easy now for the blonde Slayer to avoid thinking about anything important. She could pretend that the hustle and bustle was just for the simple fact of another apocalypse, nothing more complicated than that. If she squinted her eyes, she could almost pretend that they were back in her living room in Sunnydale.
Her concentration on not concentrating was suddenly broken as the kitchen door swung open. Faith appeared first, pushing open the door with both hands and striding into the room exuding confidence. The scent of tobacco smoke lingered in the air around her and Buffy found herself inhaling deeply.
Dawn shifted against her, sitting up as Giles entered the room behind Faith. Buffy reached for Dawn's hand and held it firmly. Tension coiled in her lower back, making every movement stiff and jerky. The other figures in the room suddenly flooded her field of vision, her efforts at forcibly ignoring them failing as Watcher and Slayer appeared on scene.
The mystics from the coven in Devon had apparated onto the front porch that afternoon and had wasted no time in taking over. The four of them were now rearranging the living room furniture, burning incense and herbs, and grinding a mix of ash and stone into a fine powder in preparation for what Buffy understood as a semi-complicated truth spell.
Althenea, the unofficial leader of the small group and friend to both Giles and Willow, paced the floor near the front window, studying the incantation intently. Her graying blonde hair seemed to float around her shoulders as she paced. Her skin glowed pale pink as she muttered to herself, her lyrical voice just reaching the edges of Buffy's hearing.
Sani, the only male of the group, had employed Rona and Vi to assist him in moving the coffee table, loveseat and television stand in perfect Feng Shui alignment. His tan skin and bowlcut hair reminded Buffy of a monk, even though he was wearing cargo shorts and a North Face t-shirt.
Her gaze shifted to the far edge of the room where Bidelia was sitting at the dining room table, mortar and pestle in hand. Her dark caramel skin glowed as she ground the magical elements, much as Althenea's was. Buffy shifted uncomfortably on the couch as she watched the red-haired mystic. Something about her, whether it was the sheer amount of power she exuded or the way her eyes seemed to peer into Buffy as she stared back or something else entirely, put Buffy on edge.
Shifting in her seat again, Buffy turned to Sulwyn, the fourth and youngest - at least youngest-looking - of the mystics from Devon. She had long, black dreadlocks and gray-green eyes and a vibrant energy that would've been infectious in other circumstances. Buffy watched as Sulwyn lit yet another cone of incense with long, delicate fingers. Buffy's eyes were suddenly transfixed on the lidded blue flame. Sage and lemon balm wafted into the room, mingling with the tobacco scents still lingering around Faith.
Buffy relaxed some as she finally rested her gaze on the dark Slayer, now standing near the edge of the couch, taking in the room with a pensive look on her face and a rigid set to her shoulders. Buffy wanted to reach out, to apologize, to say something to bring Faith nearer to her, but she couldn't think of anything to say that wouldn't draw the attention of the entire room.
The murmuring voices were suddenly louder and Buffy heard her name through the din.
"Buffy? Faith?" Althenea stood at the boundary edge between the living room and dining room, commanding the loose group with quiet intensity. Buffy sat up a little straighter, the knots in her back protesting.
"Please, sit in the circle."
Buffy blinked, not understanding the command for a moment until her tired eyes followed the sweep of Althenea's arm. Bidelia had spread the ash and stone in a crude, red circle in the center of the living room.
Buffy stood stiffly, mechanically to move to the spot Althenea was pointing to.
"Face East please, Buffy." Buffy nodded, gingerly stepping over the powder and turning toward the preferred direction before sitting cross-legged on the floor.
Faith was slower to move, first surveying the room. She took in every face, lingering a little longer on the newcomers. Her dark eyes finally landed on the blonde Slayer. Buffy tried a tentative smile, hoping Faith would see it for the white flag it was, but the brunette's face was an impenetrable mask. Faith blinked and her gaze shifted to Giles.
"Where's Kennedy?" she asked.
Buffy was surprised by the question but tried not to show it. She allowed herself one last look around the room, noticing for the first time the absence of the Slayer in question. She caught the four mystics sharing an uneasy glance and wondered briefly if they were telepathic.
"Kennedy voiced her, ah, displeasure at the use of magic rituals and excused herself to the basement to keep an eye on Dylan."
"When the verita rudimentum is complete, we'd like to meet the Primal, the one you call Dylan," Sani said, his voice resounding in Buffy's head like a bell.
"The veri-what now?" Faith hadn't moved from her spot at the edge of the couch.
"Verita rudimentum," Dawn supplied. "It's a meditative ritual to determine the origin of a spell or mystical being. Althenea thinks it'll work to figure out if Buffy's baby is a baby, or...." The youngest Summers trailed off, unable to finish the thought in everyone's minds.
"Or." Faith nodded slowly, uncrossing her arms. She let out a heavy sigh and looked to Althenea. "Lemme guess: I face West?" On Althenea's nod, Faith stepped into the circle, sitting cross-legged, back-to-back with Buffy.
"Before we begin we must extinguish all unnatural energy," Althenea instructed, looking to Sani and Sulwyn. The two of them moved throughout the house, shutting off every electrical appliance and turning off all of the lights. Bidelia lit a myriad of candles around the room.
"Buffy, Faith, your instructions are simple: you are to determine whether this child's conception is yours alone, or if there is another, outside influence involved. Look with your heart open and you will see the answer you seek."
The four mystics came back together and at Althenea's command, the ritual began. Sulwyn anointed Buffy and Faith with the ashes of burning herbs while the other three began a slow, droning chant.
Buffy thought of all the other times she had been put in a trance over the years: there was the obligatory feeling of falling, the overall spookiness, the guide or muse or whomever speaking in cryptic codes, the confusion and nagging headache that came after.
She felt Faith's back against her own, felt the strong spine and the twitching muscles and let her mind wander back to their shared dreams of a troubled Slayer.
The chanting drone of the four mystics grew softer. Against her will, her mind wandered ever further, to a disheveled apartment bathed in sunlight, a cat, a girl on the bed, a hand on her cheek....
Buffy felt the world fall away, the solid heat of Faith's back disappearing with the room. Blackness enveloped her. Her heartbeat thundered in her ears. She looked down at where her hands should've been, but saw nothing but inky darkness.
Buffy jumped to her feet, turning in a slow circle to assess her lack of surroundings. She raised a tentative hand and waved it in front of her face. Nothing.
Panic seized her throat and she found herself blinking back tears. Was this what was supposed to happen? Where was she? Where was Faith?
"Faith?" Buffy called, her voice tight with fear. "Faith?!"
"I'm here, B," Faith replied from somewhere to Buffy's left. Her voice was oddly calm, given their circumstances, but comforting nonetheless.
Buffy found herself turning again, trying to see the other Slayer. "Where?"
Faith chuckled softly. "Dunno. I can't see shit."
Smiling in spite of herself, Buffy reached out a hand, groping in the darkness. "Say something again." She hoped she sounded determined, not desperate and pleading like she felt.
Faith's voice was close, right behind, and Buffy grabbed toward the sound. Her hand latched onto an arm almost instantly before snaking down to grasp a familiar, calloused palm.
Faith shifted their grip to lace their fingers together and gave Buffy's hand a squeeze. "I'm here."
Buffy sighed in relief at the deep timber of that calm, assured voice and the steady, solid weight of Faith's hand in hers. "Wish I could see you," she breathed.
"Me too," Faith whispered.
"This is not what I was expecting."
Faith laughed. "Yeah, right? What are we supposed to do here, anyway?"
"I'm not sure we're supposed to do anything," Buffy frowned. "What did Althenea say about looking for something?"
Faith chuckled again and shifted on her feet. She moved around from Buffy's side to her front. Buffy could feel warm breath on her face and her eyes strained to see the other Slayer now standing before her. Faith's unoccupied hand found its way to Buffy's hip, a finger winding its way into the beltloop of her jeans.
"You never listen, B," Faith chastised softly. "She said ‘Look with your heart open and you will see.' While you were over here freakin' out about the boogeyman in the dark, I think I figured out what she meant."
"I wasn't freaking -" Buffy huffed but stopped herself from continuing. She inhaled deeply, instantly calming as the sweet scent of tobacco-tinged breath filled her nostrils. When she spoke again, her voice was soft. "What did you figure out, Faith?"
Faith let go of Buffy's hand to hold the other Slayer at both hips, squeezing gently. "Close your eyes."
Buffy did as she was told without hesitation.
"Don't worry about where we are, don't worry about the spell. Who's here with you, B?"
Buffy concentrated, listening for anything above the sound of their breathing, reaching out with her mind for anything amiss.
The tension in her back, a constant companion for almost three months, slipped away. Her jagged nerves calmed and the hairs on the back of her neck were relaxed: she could only feel Faith's warm breath on her cheeks, and those strong hands that held her steady igniting a fire in her belly. She could hear her heart, still pounding beneath her ribcage, but she could also hear Faith's heartbeat, strong and steady.
Realization dawned on Buffy slowly, coupled with relief that bloomed in her chest and made her breath catch in her throat. She could hear the soft murmur of familiar voices around her, fuzzy and faraway like white noise. Buffy opened her eyes, blinking in the warm glow of her candlelit living room. Dark eyes smiled down at her and she felt a smile of her own beginning to tease the corners of her lips.
"You," she whispered, covering Faith's hands with her own. "Just you."
Beyond the lights and sounds of the two-story house, beyond the tall grass in the meadow swaying gently in the nighttime breeze, at a rock outcropping at the edge of a waterfall deep in the heart of the forest leading to Cuyahoga Valley National Park, the ground began to tremble.