Time can but make her beauty over again:
Because of that great nobleness of hers
The fire that stirs about her, when she stirs,
Burns but more clearly. O she had not these ways
When all the wild summer was in her gaze.
Faith dreams, sometimes, at abrupt intervals, of Buffy as she used to be. The dream can be anything - diving into bright water and drowning, diving into black water and flying, her step dad building blocks with his big scarred-knuckle hands, all frowning concentration, cheese - but suddenly that Buffy will be there, her hair pulled back in a ponytail, body in fighting stance, mouth set, watching. She never touches anything, she never speaks. She just stands there with the knife, rigid, all rounded gold muscle, with those eyes like green water. A pink flower in her hair.
Some mornings, Faith will jerk awake from those dreams, and, after she gets her breath and some clothes on, walk down cream-white corridors in sunlight to find Buffy in the kitchen, contemplating cereal.
“Pancakes?” she’ll say, or “mm, toasty goodness” or “hey,” and half-smile up at Faith, the morning light bringing out the faint, fine lines fanning out at the corners of her eyes, the lurking smile in one corner of her mouth. She’ll be surrounding by girls, all glowing and awkward with power and one degree or other of barely-leashed-in fury, and Faith will be the only one in the room who can meet her eyes and match her smile, her nod, without anything like fear.
Other mornings, she wakes up in one motel room or another in one part of the country or the other; and after she gets her breath and the light on, she laughs at herself, calls herself a fucking idiot in the mirror, and smiles at the room-service guy. It’s almost as easy as when she was younger, sometimes easier. Guys are easy.
Other things are harder, though, or just different. Her body’s still the Slayer’s body, all weapon, but it’s not twenty any more and insists on reminding her. Bruises take longer to fade. Her right knee hurts sometimes, inexplicably. The tingling jolt in her knuckles after a punch lasts, for hours sometimes. It’s a trade-off, this. She’s better at what she does than she’s ever been. No one’s ever really known what happens when a Slayer gets older - now that two have done just that, it turns out that they just get stronger, faster, better. She can’t even believe her own reflexes, these days. Or maybe it’s just all those years of practise finally paying off. Whatever. End result is that the day-to-day slaying is so easy, it’s like breathing - and about as low on the adrenaline factor, even though it leaves its little reminders. So, more and more often, wherever she starts out, she finds herself drifting inevitably back to Cleveland, Ohio, official Slayer Central.
Faith’s never been that big on official. She’ll show for the big event, sure, do her part fighting the good fight as part of Buffy’s army. The rest - the speech-making, the troop-rallying, the training - she’s happy to leave all that to Buffy. But she likes to come in and give a class or two sometimes, remind the little slayers that yeah, there is another Slayer. And she can’t help the kick she gets out of the silence that blooms out around them when she and Buffy spar - the rush of it, the adrenaline, the meaty familiar sounds, working up a real sweat, meeting blows that land, that hurt, the huge force of Buffy’s fists and kicks and moves, matching her every move. Buffy’s still frowny and concentrate-y when she fights, but Faith can still sometimes knock a choked sound out of her, a snort of laughter, a gasp of pain. Then the session ends and Buffy helps her up from the floor, her hand strong and sweat-slippery and still so soft against Faith’s calluses; and turns briskly to address the class, shaking her short hair back. They talk later, briefly, exchange updates. And after a few days, every time, Faith leaves for wherever, bruised and throbbing, her heart pounding, and feeling more alive than she has all year. It’s almost enough, every year.
Buffy turns thirty-five. Turns thirty-six, turns thirty-seven, nearly dies again, saves the world again, turns thirty-eight. After that, Faith finds herself in Cleveland more and more often. Buffy watches her a lot, that thoughtful stillness she's learnt now, but she doesn’t say anything, doesn’t ask her why she’s here or when she’s leaving. She doesn’t try to stop her when she leaves.
Then a slayer from Mexico nearly goes rogue round about the same time Faith’s visiting - by the time the danger zone’s past, six months have gone by and Katia seems to think Faith is basically her Watcher. Buffy gives her paperwork to do, classes to teach (it's amazing the crap she's apparently learnt), and moves her out of the guest rooms into a room of her own. When the jitter under her skin gets too bad, and Buffy finds her punching the stuffing out of a punch bag, she gives her an appraising look, and drags her away to an empty gym where they beat the crap out of each other.
“Damn,” Faith says afterwards, flat-out on the wooden boards, catching her breath. It’s been - hours, feels like, the day gone from late afternoon to early evening, twilight. Her hair feels sweaty. There isn’t a muscle in her body that isn’t aching. It feels wonderful.
“Mm,” Buffy says and then rolls closer to Faith, up on one pointy elbow so she can look down at her. She’s breathing hard, a bruise blooming up over her sharp jaw-line. Her body, now, is all sharp lines and muscular angles under the white tanktop and it’s late enough, dark enough, that Faith can’t make out the colour of her eyes, just the shadowy gleam of them in her face. She feels her breathing speed up again, her knuckles throb. Her mouth tastes sore; Buffy’s looking at her mouth.
“B.,” she says, meaning to raise her eyebrows and break out her dirtiest smile, get Buffy to roll her eyes and get up, but Buffy puts her hand on her arm, strokes a single contemplative line from her upper arm to her elbow without looking away, her eyes following the automatic shudder through Faith’s body at the touch, the jump of muscle. She’s looking, after all this time, her eyes lingering over Faith’s hips, her belly, her breasts, before coming back to her eyes and Faith knows this is her cue to make some crack, break the tension, but she can’t even fucking move. Her face is hot by the time Buffy leans in and kisses her, so slow and knowing and strangely sweet, her hand cupping Faith’s brow and then stroking down from her cheek to her shoulder, holding them both still.
“Will you stay this time?” she asks, very low, her hand at Faith’s jaw and gripping so that Faith has to meet her eyes and when Faith nods her yes, Buffy smiles against her mouth, finally, wide and ripe and brilliant as spring.