Zen & the Art of Stake Maintenance
by M Phoenix
Buffy likes to watch Faith whittle. It's become kind of an unspoken routine since Faith joined the troops at the Summers' house; a welcome break from the insanity of cohabiting with thirty, highly strung, bickering, teenage girls; and Andrew. No big deal of course, it doesn't mean a thing. Buffy could stop coming out here if she wanted to, it's not like she needs this. And since when did Faith become an aid to good mental health anyway? The end must be seriously nigh.
Still she finds herself noticing Faith's absence, and seeking her out.
Today she pauses, a cool breeze tickling her skin, as she feels Faith's brief, assessing glance on her back. She could keep walking, pretend she's heading into town; it would be easy, easier than whatever it is she's doing here.
The sound of muted arguing wafts through one of the upstairs windows -- Vi and Rona, just getting warmed up.
"Hey, that was my somethingsomething."
"...how was I supposed to something headgear!"
"...something total bitch something deficient."
That decides it, Buffy has a responsibility to be on hand just in case they try to defenestrate each other, again. One more burden of leadership. She walks the final few steps over the neglected grass, and collapses onto the bench; folds her arms and waits for her nerves to stop jangling. Faith sits on the backstep, working a length of wood that may once have been a chair leg, with a long, nasty looking knife; her entire body a study in quiet concentration.
At first Buffy had refused to believe jail had changed Faith one bit. Truthfully she didn't want to believe it. After all, the cockiness, the swagger, the effortless way Faith annoyed the hell out of her were all present and correct. But underneath the 'tude she began to sense the weary sadness, a kind of tamped down brokenness she recognized all too well; and she didn't know whether to be relieved or sorry. More than anything she noticed that when tensions ran too high Faith could be found in the yard, mass producing stakes with a sort of desperate control, a nearly preternatural calm far more shocking than the violence she'd come to expect. All her usual kinetic energy reigned in, focused in the small, sure, movements of her hands. The minute shift of her muscles under her shirt as she balanced and breathed into the next cut.
There's a strange, near naked intimacy in Faith allowing Buffy to see her like this. In these too short moments Buffy thinks she can almost forgive, forget; imagine they're still friends in some could-have-been universe. Possibly the one without shrimp. Could have been -- and the old, familiar pain is there, battering against her ribs, clogging her throat. Even now she can be such an idiot.
Soft scrap-rasp of the knife methodically stripping away paper-thin layers. Exposing, transforming. She wonders if it helps; wishes she'd broken the code of silence and asked...before. But Faith would probably have just shrugged, or turned it into a dirty joke, and continued whittling.
Scrape-rasp. The tilt of Faith's head as she drops the finished stake onto the pile and selects another piece of wood. Dark, tangled hair curtaining her eyes, hiding her thoughts. Her chest and shoulders lift as she takes a deep breath and starts over. It's like meditation, like a cat washing, like one of those Japanese poems that sound like a sneeze.
Creamy-white curls of wood falling like...
They are little girls in a sunlit park, pulling the petals off daisies. Pungent, sticky juices from the dying flowers coating their fingers.
The Chosen Two.
She loves me...
Sick and fascinated, pulling the wings off struggling insects; an experiment in power and desire gone horribly wrong.
Give us a kiss.
She loves me not...
Aching and desperate. War-painted with blood and ashes. Pulling, tearing the clothes off each other's bodies.
Just tell me how to make it better.
She loves me
Faith draws the blade back for another stroke, and Buffy finds she's holding her breath, willing her not to. She can feel the edge, razor-keen on her own skin, and it's like slow death, waiting, hoping, dreading what she knows is coming next.
Look away. Lookawaylookaway.
Faith is staring at her, her eyes shining almost black. "Always," she says; voice low and husky from years of too many cigarettes; that word wrapping around Buffy, making her weak, making her want...
Buffy hears the sudden, sharp crack as the stake Faith is holding snaps in half, the broken ends splintering and jagged, mocking her. She winces, clenches her fists; still can't look away, not until it's over. Not until 'The End' rolls onto the big screen. Now Faith's head is lolling at an impossible angle, her neck twisted, bones pushing at the surface of her skin. "You said you'd got my back, B. Where were you? Where the fuck were you?" She sounds weirdly tender, betrayed, and it's so much worse than anger.
Buffy can't answer, only remember.
"Maybe you wanted me dead. Maybe you let him kill me. Ever consider that, huh? 'Cause you were too chicken shit to finish the job yourself." Same, soft tone, the words rattling painfully in Faith's ruined throat and chest.
It's unbearable, inexorable, and Buffy's body is screaming silently.
Off in a different galaxy she can still hear Vi and Rona's quarrel, and Andrew wedged into the middle of it, attempting to sound important. There is a crash and he squeals something about his ears, but it all seems very, very far away, and Buffy is frozen to the bench.
It's not real. You know it's the First. Just look away for God's sake look away!
Blood is pitter-pattering, mingling with the fine sawdust on Faith's clothes.
Buffy lurches upright, this is too much, this time she has to get away.
"What's the matter B?" the broken thing, the evil thing asks; her lips curving into an obscene parody of Faith's smirk. "You seem wicked stressed. Don't'cha wanna see what Caleb --"
But she did see, and feel, and she will never forget.
"Stop it. You aren't her. Stop it." Buffy knows she's talking to herself now, not the horror in front of her. "Please just stop."
And as she thinks it, the image of Faith blurs and melts and she finds she's glaring at her own smiling face. "Stop it. You aren't her. Stop it. Please just stop," it whines dramatically; then leans forward, still smiling, as if it wants to share a confidence, and hisses, "Make me."
"I --" Buffy begins saying to the suddenly empty air. She stares unsteadily at the backstep, at the complete absence of anything except backstep.
She is still staring when the kitchen door swings open, and Dawn pokes her head out, looking pissed and longsuffering in equal measure. "Buffy, I think your presence is needed upstairs. Now." She darts back inside without waiting for a reply, and Buffy is grateful for that. She squares her shoulders, carefully sets her face to stern Slayer, and begins putting one foot in front of the other -- she's learned that's always a good start.
Remember this is a war. People die in wars. Stupid, pointless deaths.
Before braving the chaos inside, she gulps a deep much needed breath; and that's when the heavy, lingering scent hits her -- Faith's musksmokeblood, mixing with her own floral perfume. So vivid, so real; it's a physical shock, even though it happens every time. And as she stands swaying on the porch, she curses herself for holding that breath seconds longer than she needs to; as if she's trying to get some kind of mystical hit off that last, false memory of Faith. She exhales slowly, deliberately, ordering her hands to stop shaking, her eyes to stop stinging. She leans against the doorframe, cloaking herself in her unwanted command, holding herself together just a little bit longer. And when she walks inside she promises herself that tomorrow she will not go looking for Faith; but before she's half way up the stairs she knows it's a lie.