When Sunnydale crumbles into a huge hole in the ground, Buffy pauses to revel in the finality of it, letting time stop around her for a moment. This is her favorite part of apocalypses: the first minutes after, like the first minutes after the last Christmas present has been opened, when all the long hustle and drive is suddenly suspended, motor engaging no gears, and you have no idea what needs doing next, because there is nothing that needs doing next.
But when all their eyes turn to her and Xander says, "So what now, Buff?", she does not get to say, "I don't know." She glances over at the bus where Robin is bleeding and says, "We get our asses to the nearest hospital, pronto." But this is the last, the very last thing, she tells herself. Even though it has never been true before.
Of course once Robin is settled at Rodriguez Memorial, two towns over, somehow it is she who is flipping through the yellow pages and finding the cheapest motel and writing down directions and reading them off to Xander as he pilots their massive vehicle through strangely populated streets. Robin has left them his credit cards and they splurge: five rooms: one for Camp Slayer, one for Willow and Kennedy to have post-I-became-a-goddess sex in, one for Giles and Xander (Giles is remarkably sanguine about this) and one for Buffy and Dawn — and theoretically Faith, if she doesn't end up spending the night at the hospital, which Buffy doesn't figure she will, Florence Nightengaling not being Faith's strong suit.
Buffy is still wandering around the room trying to do that unpacking/nesting thing you do to a rented room to make it a little bit yours, but finding the process to be hampered by a lack of things to unpack, when there is a knock at the door and Giles pokes his head in and smiles at her hopefully. Buffy waves him in. Dawn slips out the door behind him before he gets a chance to close it, saying something about checking in on the kids. Buffy finds this suspicious but tries to test out her theoretical new not-in-chargeness by not quizzing Giles about it. Instead she sits cross-legged on the bed and asks "What's up?" and tries to make it sound perky while all she really wants to do is figure out how to get hold of some clean clothes in the next twenty minutes so she can shower (which she's really really looking forward to doing) and not have to put these dirty ones back on again.
Giles hems a little bit, takes off his glasses and polishes them. Buffy is patient. Eventually he looks up at her and says: "I suppose you realize, Buffy, that it's urgent I return to England to try to salvage what's left of the Watchers."
Buffy hadn't, on acount of not having had time during the last weeks to give it much thought.
"You couldn't just look the other way and then oops, it'll be too late?" she asks hopefully, but mostly because she knows he expects it of her: she'd known he'd leave soon after the apocalypse was over, and anyways she's not particularly eager to have Giles around while she grieves for Spike. That's going to be a complicated enough process as it is.
"You know I can't, Buffy," he says. "But — there's something else. Dawn and I were talking, a few days ago, and she's agreed to come back with me."
Buffy feels silence settling into her bones as she parses this. She watches Giles, waiting for more. Her gaze is making him squirm a bit and that's okay by her.
"I'd been hoping for a while to have the chance to train her as a Watcher," he says, miserably. "And now — and with your present situation —"
"You mean my complete lack of any kind of housing structure to keep her in?" Buffy asks.
"Something like that, yes," Giles says.
The feeling which is slowly creeping through Buffy is familiar. She felt it when she realized that her house was in little pieces a mile below the surface of the earth. It was a good part regret — the house was her mother's house, was filled with memories — but it was also, overwhelmingly, relief. To not have to play mother, to not have to worry about whether Dawn was ditching school or kissing vampires, to hand her over to the man who was in a very real sense Buffy's father — god. Even just for a little while.
She looks up to see Giles still desperately uncomfortable, and she smiles. "Thank you, Giles," she says. "I think that would be a great idea."
The next to go, two days later, are Kennedy and the kids, of course. They are bursting with the awe of being slayers and they have no desire to stick around some sleepy California town when there's another Hellmouth just a few thousand miles away in Cleveland. They are very hopeful that it will produce lots of things with asses they can kick. They seem to expect Buffy to come with them as camp counselor, but when she shrugs they are just as happy to follow Kennedy. What Buffy hadn't thought through was that, of course, Willow is going to follow Kennedy — and Xander is going to follow Willow. (On the up side, Andrew is going to follow Xander.) It is harder than losing Dawn. There are tears.
"I'll be there soon," Buffy promises. "A few months maybe. But I can't right now, guys. I can't be in charge. I need a vacation."
"But what are you going to do?" asks Xander, maybe remembering his abortive road trip a few years ago.
Buffy shrugs and tries to smile. "Maybe I'll go to Disneyland," she says.
She sees them off the next morning in the yellow monstrosity and when she comes back to her room, Faith is there.
"Oh," says Buffy. "Hi. Um, how's Robin?"
"Things are growing back where they should be," Faith says. "Just said goodbye to the gang, huh?"
"But you're staying here," Faith says. Buffy looks at her: they'd discussed this at the hospital the night before. "I mean, I wanted to ask," Faith says, edging around her point as she usually does when she's about to ask for something, "you're going to hang out with me, then? And Robin."
"He gets out tomorrow, right?" says Buffy.
"Yeah," Faith says. "And after that?"
Buffy shrugs. She feels empty. She feels unable to make a decision.
"Hey," Faith says. "I got an idea. How about we go shopping? Buy, you know, girly things."
Buffy starts, "I don't have any —" but Faith holds up Robin's MasterCard, grinning. "We got plastic, baby," she says.
Buffy is pretty sure the only kind of shopping Faith enjoys is for weapons, but somehow they end up in an actual mall at a store which does indeed have girly things. To Faith's credit she pretty much leaves Buffy alone to take in the wonder that is capitalism. It's been awhile since Buffy's indulged like this and she takes a few minutes to just wander. It's a little overwhelming at first but then the old instincts kick in and she begins loading up.
In the dressing room she finds she's dropped a size or two and most of the clothes she's brought in don't fit all that well. But there's a little black dress which is about perfect, low scoop neck, cute spaghetti straps, nice cling around the hips; it almost makes her look curvy. She twists in front of the mirror a few times, then goes out into the main dressing area to check herself out in the bigger mirror out there.
She's only been admiring herself for a few seconds when another dressing room door opens and Faith emerges. Wearing the exact same dress.
Faith's face visibly falls. "Hey," she says. "That looks great on you. I don't think this one really fits me anyway."
She's lying. It might look great on Buffy but it looks fantastic on Faith. She's put on the curves Buffy's lost. Maybe the scoop neck shows off Buffy's collarbone but it shows some really delicious cleavage on Faith and it clings along the curve of Faith's hip in a truly sweet line. Buffy suddenly remembers Faith saying: "It feels like it's mine... Guess that means it's yours."
"No, that's all right," Buffy says, and the smile, when it comes, doesn't feel forced. "You should get it."
Faith meets her eyes and smiles hesitantly, and Buffy finds herself imagining what it would be like to slip that strap off Faith's shoulder with one finger.
In the end, Buffy gets a pair of silk slacks and a tiny halter top that ties behind her neck and under her shoulder blades and shows almost her entire back and all of her tummy. It's a little terrifying but she reminds herself that in high school she would have pulled it off without a second thought. Faith's reaction: "I guess you'll go braless then. Me, I've had to wear the damn things every day since I grew these huge boobs in prison."
Now, Buffy says wistfully, holding her shopping bag, "Too bad we don't have anywhere to wear them."
"Hey," Faith says, "who's in charge here?"
Buffy thinks: you are. It's not as bad a thing as she'd have once thought.
The last time Buffy was at a club with Faith, Faith killed a man after. Buffy's not thinking about that. She's thinking how long it's been since she's been at any club but the Bronze, and how this place with its punks and goths and drinks that burn your throat on the way down and women in skimpy dresses dancing on platforms feels less safe than the Bronze, and she's wondering why anyone would ever want to go to a club that felt safe.
And she's thinking about how long it's been since she danced with someone who really knows how to dance, and she's enjoying how many sets of eyes are on her and Faith.
Instead of remembering all the bad parts about those days she played at being like Faith, senior year, she's remembering how good it felt. She's realizing you can do this, have no responsibilities, have fun, you can do this for a little while, sometimes, and you don't have to let it eat you up.
They aren't playing the sort of hip indy bands Buffy learned to love at the Bronze but the beat is good and she can feel her entire body responding. It's the same kind of completely physical activity as finally getting to grips with a vampire after the long stalk through a graveyard, and she and Faith work as well in this context as they do in their best moments of slaying together, their movements relaxed and synchronized. For the first time in a long time, Buffy feels beautiful.
So it's a little jarring when Faith says, "I'm going to the little girl's room — I'll be back," and moves off through the crowd with that loose-limbed walk which Buffy finds so compelling and so annoying. The beat's still there but Buffy doesn't feel any longer as though the music is moving her through a force of its own. This aggravates her. So she can't just relax and have fun all on her own, she needs to feed off Faith to do it? Automatically she turns to watch Faith making even going to pee into something cool and slightly dangerous, and sees her ducking out of the bathroom — that was quick — and sliding along a wall and out the club's back exit through a cloud of cigarette smoke.
Buffy finds that following though the writhing crowd isn't a quick process. The temptation to just toss a few bodies out of the way is overwhelming. When she finally reaches the exit and looks out it takes a minute to see what's going on. She worries she was too slow getting here. The door opens on a little alleyway lined with people who have ostensibly stepped out to smoke, but since smoking is if anything encouraged inside the club, have mostly come out for some more nefarious purpose. Buffy smells pot right off and imagines that there are plenty of real drugs out here too. But what concerns her is the sight of Faith holding a man up against a wall by his throat. They're in a corner and being sort of quiet about the whole thing and anyways the druggies don't much care so there is not the general sense of alarm that you might expect a scene like this to engender. Then Buffy sees the young woman cowering against a wall and begging Faith not to hurt him and things begin to resolve. Faith yanks out a stake and uses it efficiently, and the man in her grip becomes dust and the young woman gapes. Faith says brusquely, "next time, pick one that just wants to fuck you and leave you," and turns to stalk back inside. Buffy has to scramble to keep ahead of her, and as it is she doesn't manage to get back to the same spot in the shifting crowd before Faith catches up to her.
Faith looks at her curiously, but says nothing, and they drop easily back into the rhythm. Buffy feels oddly — protected: assured that she isn't going to have to be constantly alert, that maybe they can actually trade that job off. It's an odd feeling and she figures she's going to have to live with it for awhile before she decides if it's a gift she's comfortable accepting.
As they get back to the motel room Buffy is really looking forward to sliding into the lumpy bed and sleeping. She has a premonition that tonight she's going to sleep through the night and of all of the many premonitions she's had she thinks she likes this one the best. Usually her nights go something like this: she wakes up at four worrying that Giles is in the basement staking Spike. She gives herself a firm talking-to about the limits of Giles' stupidity and starts to relax again and then ten minutes later is wide awake: what if she should let Giles stake Spike? What if that commotion in the next room is Spike biting the neck of the Japanese girl whose name Buffy can never pronounce right? Or what if he's seducing her? Is she a horrible person for worrying more about that possibility? She rolls over and looks at her clock and realizes that it's 6:45 and the commotion was the normal early-morning scramble for first shower rights, before the hot water's all gone, which normally happens by 7:50 (showers, however, continuing cold until 9 or 10).
Tonight, though, she doesn't have to worry about slayerettes — not even to wonder whether they're out late experimenting with their new powers and getting into Situations with vampires which Buffy really should have taught them about so when they get their necks snapped it'll be all her fault — tonight she is alone. Except for Faith. She doesn't have to take care of Faith; Faith can take care of herself. And the only decision Buffy has to make is whether to let Faith try to take care of her. Which is a decision she doesn't need to make tonight. Tonight, she can just sleep.
First, though, she really wants to shower, and Faith wins the coin toss for first rights. All the other times she'd saved the world, Buffy didn't really think she should have gotten paid for it. At least, not as more than a wistfully passing thought. But after this time, after giving up her house, it just seems hard that she has to share a grimy hotel bathroom with Faith.
Buffy becomes engrossed in channel surfing while she waits, and by the time Faith comes out of the bathroom door towelling her hair, accompanied by clouds of steam, Buffy is watching Pretty in Pink.
"Holy shit," Faith says.
"What?" Buffy says. "Oh. We can watch something else."
"That's okay," Faith says, sitting down next to Buffy on her bed. "You actually like this shit?"
"It's the only thing on," Buffy says, but truthfully she has a soft spot for any story about the way her life should have been. Not with the bad fashion sense, but with the not having to worry about whether your boyfriend was going to wake up evil. Just worrying about whether he was ever going to want to be your boyfriend. And inevitably finding out that he did. "You know what we need?" says Buffy. "We need popcorn."
Faith rolls her eyes over at Buffy and says, "Fat chance. We don't even have a microwave."
"No, but you know what we need," says Buffy, knowing that there is a candy machine down the hall, "we need some Snickers."
"Done," says Faith, swinging her legs off the bed and ambling into the hall wearing I swear to god just a towel. It's like sending your boyfriend out in the middle of the night for cookies, Buffy thinks. She is asleep by the time Faith gets back.
Buffy wakes up in grey pre-dawn light. She thinks: oh god I never showered, I never brushed my teeth. She should feel disgusting. Instead she feels warm, snuggled in her bed. There is a blanket tucked over her. Faith must have done that. Looking across the room at Faith's sleeping form, Buffy has a realization. Faith will never say it. Faith believes Buffy doesn't want it and that it is now her role to be the friend. That asking for more would return them to their relationship of four years ago.
Buffy makes a decision.
If she thinks about it, she won't do it. She is almost unable to breathe, and she can feel every heartbeat unnaturally loud. She's afraid the sound is going to wake Faith even before she starts to slide out of bed. She's afraid her two steps across the small space between the beds is going to wake Faith. She's afraid her awkward scramble into Faith's bed is going to wake Faith. But as she eases herself into the bed (with her back to Faith, not quite daring to face her yet), feeling all elbows and knees, Buffy notices Faith's shallow breathing and realizes she's been awake this whole time. If it is possible, this makes Buffy panic even more, as if realizing that they are going to actually have to interact now comes as a surprise. She's dithering about what exactly she should do next when Faith slowly slides one leg between hers and an arm over her hip. They lie still like that for a long minute, and then Buffy turns over.
The kiss starts slow. Buffy's not really sure what to do at first, and Faith seems unwilling to call the shots. But then it comes as a sudden revelation: kissing a girl requires exactly the same skill set as kissing a boy. And Buffy's actually not bad at that. And when she stops worrying so much about whether she's doing it right, she's able to start to notice just how right Faith's doing it. She can feel it down to her toes. And then suddenly Faith is rolling her over to lie on top of her and and she's winding her hands into Buffy's hair and kissing her like she wants to eat her up, like their faces could melt together, like Buffy's the best thing she's tasted in her life. And Buffy realizes she's actually making little moaning noises. The kiss seems to last for hours and then Buffy finally pulls back a little and opens her eyes, and Faith's eyes are open too, and they look at each other. Buffy's thinking: Oh god, now she's going to be Faith, she's going to say something offhand and cool and I'm going to feel like an idiot.
But what Faith says is: "Are you sure?"
And Buffy says, "Oh, yeah."
They sleep late. They wake up slowly. They cuddle. It occurs to Buffy that she never thought of Faith as the cuddling type, but she does a pretty good job of it. They lie quietly for a while, and then as she is running her hand up and down Faith's side, slowly, enjoying how soft her skin is, Buffy says: "It was also my first time, you know, cheating." She hadn't thought about Robin until now, and she doesn't feel too much guilt about it: this thing between her and Faith, it's much older than Faith's relationship with Robin, which might anyways be too young to really be called a relationship.
Faith says, "I guess we'll straighten that out when we check him out of the hospital in a few hours."
Buffy, who had forgotten, says: "oh god."
Buffy had envisioned holding hands with Faith on the way to the hospital and then having to deal with awkwardly letting go outside Robin's room. She had forgotten that Faith does not go in for sappy things like hand-holding. So she does not get to make her great lesbian statement in the lobby. This is, she admits to herself, a relief.
When they open the door to Robin's room he is just finishing tying his laces and looks up eagerly: he is glad to see them, and he is gladder to be escaping from this prison. But then his expression changes and Buffy realizes that the hand holding was irrelevant. They are standing too close together or they have a happy post-coital glow or something. It doesn't matter. He knows. She says brightly: "Well, um, good morning, Robin! So are you ready to go?"
There is a pause in which Robin and Faith both simultaneously turn to stare at her. Then Faith says "God, Buffy." Her tone says both "you are such a boob" and "I can't believe I'm in love with a boob." Except that Faith would never say "boob," but without access to her cool Boston vocabulary that's the best Buffy can come up with.
"You lied to me," Robin says to Faith. They are both ignoring Buffy now.
"I didn't lie," Faith says reasonably. "I told you nothing was going on. Nothing was going on. Then."
"Fine," Robin says. "I'll take a cab. If you'll just give me my credit card back, I'll be going."
Buffy is bemused: in her experience breakups involve a lot more tears and a lot less icy disdain.
Faith digs Robin's credit card out of her pocket and hands it to him. As Buffy starts to do the same with his other card, Faith puts her hand on Buffy's wrist, pulls Buffy's hand out of her pocket, and wraps their fingers together: suddenly they are holding hands. How sweet. Buffy is momentarily distracted from the immorality of basically stealing Robin's credit card by the fact that she is holding hands with a girl, in public.
"Look, Robin," Faith says, "let's not part on bad terms, okay? I had fun. I bet you did too. And I learned something. So no hard feelings, okay?"
Robin considers this for a second. Then something inside him visibly relaxes and he says, "Okay. No hard feelings. But that doesn't mean I'm going to be a third wheel with you and your girlfriend while you go kill vampires in wherever it is you're going. Where are you going?"
Faith turns to look at Buffy, grins, and says, "So what's next, B?"
And Buffy says, "I don't know."