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Chapter Twenty

Buffy allowed herself a few seconds of panic, looking between Faith and Asher, making sure the other slayer was still alive, before rage overtook every other thing she was feeling and she rounded on the vampire. Her guilt was momentarily forgotten by her immediate anger and shock. Faith had been right all along, and she hadn't listened to her – and now look what had happened.

She didn't say anything, instead just running full force at him. He stood and waited, amused, until she knocked him down hard and started punching wildly at him in fury. A few shots landed, but he deflected most of them, laughing.

"You fucking – asshole – "

He kicked her off of him and stood up, licking blood from his mouth. "No need for name-calling, sweetheart. Since my other attempts failed, I figured, you want a job done right, you gotta do it yourself."

She looked at him incredulously, enraged with herself for having been so stupid and misled by her own insecurities. "You sent those demons after Faith. You've been after her this whole time."

He laughed again. "It really took you until now to figure it out? You disappoint me, Buffy. I honestly thought you were smarter than that, being a slayer and all."

"Yeah, well, you know, experiences like this, they merely serve as a reminder of why I do what I do – and why I'm so damn good at it." She whipped around with superhuman speed, bringing her foot into hard contact with his face and sending him flying toward the wall.

She heard chanting from behind her. Willow was conscious again. An orb of energy flew past her heading for Asher, but he dove out of the way and it singed the wall instead. She wanted to check on Faith but knew she had no chance to do so; she had to end this, now. Especially now. She pushed her concern down and used it to gather strength and determination against the threat in front of her.

Another energy ball flew toward him, but he spun out of the way and fixed his gaze on Willow. "Stupid witch." He ran towards her, but Buffy quickly cut in front of him and threw him into the wall with such force that he was airborne for a moment before colliding with the cement. She marched over to him and pulled him up, socking him in the face before he grabbed her and managed to flip her over his shoulder, where she hit the ground ungracefully. He rounded on her as she started to get up, but before he could do anything else he was stopped by a stake being jammed forcefully into his chest. He looked over in shock.

Faith got very close to his face, a look of grim satisfaction on her snarling lips. Her voice came out low and menacing, almost a growl. "I really, really enjoyed that." She ripped the stake out as he crumbled into dust. She turned to Buffy, holding the fresh wound on her stomach. She tossed the stake onto the floor. "Seriously. Cut the shit with the vampires."

Faith hadn't had bandages on her wound for more than a few hours. She sat at the window of Buffy's bedroom, staring out at the countryside as the sun set beyond the trees and feeling more lost and confused than ever. She was supposed to be dead. That was the whole reason she had come here. She wasn't supposed to have survived that battle. She touched her stomach, pressing down purposefully on it until she felt sharp pain. It wasn't as if she had been offering herself up like a lamb for slaughter – there was a reason behind it, a purpose for all of it, and she figured if she was going to go out any way, that would be the best way. The only way. It would've redeemed her forever. It would've made up for all the shit she did, all the harm she caused – what better way? It was probably best it had happened suddenly, because had she been aware before going into the fight, maybe she would've backed down. Maybe she would've lost her nerve, or let fear ruin it all. But she didn't have time to. And it seemed to have worked out even better than she hoped for… Right?

Yet here she was, not redeemed, not on any kind of higher plane, still stuck with pain inside and outside that she was afraid she would never get rid of. She pushed on her wound again, this time harder, feeling a spot of blood soak through. She felt chained to the earth and bound to all of her mistakes.

Her ears registered the sound of the door opening but her mind didn't register what it meant for a few moments longer, still caught up in its own bewildering mess. Her head turned sharply, knowing only one person would enter the bedroom without knocking.

Buffy closed the door behind her and walked over to the other woman. "Hey."

Faith returned her gaze to the window. "Hey." A new discomfort quickly flowered inside her stomach, not at all attached to the wound. Her throat grew tight.

Buffy was standing very close to her. She looked down at her midsection. "I'm sorry."

Faith looked at her, straight in the eye. "For what?"

"You were right about Asher. I should've listened to you."

She turned away again, feigning her usual indifference, trying desperately to block herself off because she knew what Buffy really came in here to talk about. And she wasn't ready to deal with it. "Yeah, well, I've gotten used to people taking what I say less than seriously." She shrugged, her face unreadable.

Buffy sighed, a tired, sad sigh. She sat down next to Faith, watching to see if it was okay. Faith didn't move or even look at her. Buffy opened her mouth to say something, but found she couldn't think of what to say. Everything that wanted to form on her tongue she knew would be useless, worn-out and pathetic like every other time she felt guilty over Faith and tried to cover up her own mistakes. She knew what she had come here to talk about, and even she was over her own inability to just broach an uncomfortable topic. A very long silence passed during which she mentally prepared herself as best she could. Then – "Why did you kiss me?"

Inside, Faith's stomach had exploded, her bandage had popped off and her guts spilled out all over the place, without any hope of ever putting them back in. She felt like she was on fire. Her palms were slick with sweat and she was now severely focusing on a patch of trees very far away, feeling the sides of her eyes burning where she knew Buffy sat staring at her waiting for an answer. But outside, she merely shrugged and kept her voice excruciatingly even. "Seemed like the thing to do."

Buffy looked at her incredulously. It had taken her so much strength, so much inner talking-to, to come up here and talk to Faith about this and that was all she could say? After everything that had happened between them – before Sunnydale and after, her almost dying because of this demon and Faith taking a knife to the gut, and that's all she could come up with? What does that even mean? "Bullshit."

This got Faith's attention. She looked straight at her and arched her eyebrow just slightly, just enough that Buffy noticed. "Tell me how you really feel, B." There was the slightest undercurrent of sarcasm.

Buffy was tired of this game. She was tired of dancing around the real issues, never getting what she actually wanted out of Faith and letting herself get sucked in to her games of deflection. Because what Faith had done had breached the very delicate bubble that they sealed themselves in; it had pretty much popped it. And there was no going back now. "You're not going to sit there and play your little routine of not giving a shit about anything, because you obviously do. You're not a coward on the outside, try not acting like one on the inside. I've been honest with you, so I'd appreciate the same respect. Don't waste my time or yours."

Faith's mask of indifference fell away to reveal anger, another familiar emotion. But she stopped herself from blurting out the first thing that came to her mind, trying to temper herself. You're a big girl now. Won't do any good to keep acting like the child you were. Her jaw twitched as she clenched her teeth. Her wound stung. "Why didn't you listen to me? I told you he was bad news, but you didn't even wanna hear it. After all this time and you still act like my opinion means nothing."

Buffy looked away and sighed. There was a moment before she spoke. "…I've been lonely, Faith. He was around. He didn't try to kill me. It was kind of like the Spike thing, only…just the sex part. Something inside me – needed it." She paused. "And then you showed up and everything became a mess like it always does, and I guess…I just wanted proof before I gave that up."

Faith stared at her for a second, processing. "Here's your proof." She lifted up her shirt to show her bloody bandage. Buffy looked down guiltily. "And I'm not just anyone, B. I'd hoped by now you could at least somewhat believe what I say to you."

"How can I? Everything you say to me that I'm supposed to take seriously is a bunch of crap most of the time, and you know it. All you ever do is cover up how you really feel with some smart remark or comeback, and I'm supposed to either lay down and take it or keep fighting you, I can never figure out which one you want. But either way I never win, and you never open up, and how can I trust you when you won't let me?"

It hurt and angered Faith at the same time to realize that Buffy had a point. If she wanted her trust, she had to stop putting up a front over even the smallest things. What had happened earlier, however, was not a small thing, and she was terrified of handling it, mostly because she hadn't thought she would live long enough to have to. She stood, needing distance, walking a few steps away and turning to face the other woman. "I worked for your trust for so long, B, and then I fucked it. Big time. And when I came back, I wanted to work for it again, so I tried, but I always had that weight hangin' over me and I felt like I would never be able to get rid of it, no matter what I did. It's my own issues. I got enough of 'em to go around." She paused. "I want your trust, but I don't wanna get mine broken."

"You don't trust me."

"I don't trust anyone." But I want to trust you.

"Trust is a two-way street, Faith. You can't expect other people to open up to you and not give the same in return. I can't believe everything you say if you give me no reason to."

For some reason, even though Buffy's tone was gentle, this sparked something inside Faith. "No reason to? I haven't given you any reason to believe me?" She scoffed. "I went to JAIL. I sat behind those bars for three years feeling sorry and awful for what I had done, thinking about you, and trying to figure out how I would make up for all the things I did. Do you know what it's like to spend three years of your life being reminded daily when you wake up just how much of a fuck-up you are by the bars on your window? I handed myself in because I hoped that one day, I'd be a better person and learn how to apologize, be able to prove that I was changed. And then I came back and I helped you save the goddamn world, and didn't fall off the wagon once, and all you can use against me is that you're mad I left. And you can't find it anywhere in you to put an ounce of stock in the idea that I might care about – " She stopped herself abruptly before she said the last word, but then realized that that was the exact thing Buffy was calling her on, and continued angrily, throwing her hands in the air. "About you!"

Buffy let the words sink in. Then she stood, pointing at her own chest. "And you don't think I care? You don't think I spent the last two and a half years wondering where you were, what you were doing, if you were even alive?"

"We both know I wasn't dead, B," Faith interjected.

Buffy cut through the air with her hand. "Not the point. Every time you're around, when you left and when you came back and the whole time you've been here it's like I'm riding a roller coaster, and I can't get off whenever I want to, and I wanna hurl." Faith looked insulted. "Not like that." She made motions with her hands as if she was trying to pull something out of herself, unable to find words. "Even when you were gone, I was still connected to you. I had strange dreams, a-and I just…"

"Listen, clearly you're not as skilled as you think you are at this whole saying-how-you-feel thing. If you want me to leave, I'm gone."

Buffy looked exasperated. "That's not what I said, Faith!" She looked away. "God, you're infuriating!"

Faith's expression instantly hardened. "Yeah, I'm aware I piss you off daily. Remind me why I came back here again?"

"Why don't you remind me, because I'm pretty sure you still haven't told any of us why you decided to stroll back in here like you just got back from vacation in the Bahamas."

Faith's patience was paper thin – like tissue paper thin – but still she managed to quell the part of her that wanted to admit to Buffy the truth behind her reappearance. Here, in the midst of this, with all the conflicting emotions she was feeling, she couldn't. It didn't feel right. And she was too on edge to run the risk of getting even more wounded by any of the other slayer's possible reactions. But if she gave her usual smartass remark, Buffy would win the fight and she'd once again be the angry jackass who couldn't open up to anyone. There had to be a halfway point. "Look, I know you're mad. And you have a right to be. I left. I walked out. We – things were getting better between us, and I fucked it all up like I always do." She mentally cursed herself when she heard her voice crack, just barely. "And I don't really know how I'm gonna take that anger away from you, B, because I don't think anything could except time." Where did that come from? "Time is what helped me deal with a lot of my anger."

If she had hopes to move the other woman, they were dashed quite quickly. "Don't even compare the two. You had rage. Rage that was connected to a lot of things I'll never understand. And we both know it's not entirely gone. I was angry because you left me alone, without any explanation, feeling like I did something wrong."

You did.

"How exactly did I leave you alone?"

Buffy opened her mouth as if to speak, but nothing came out for a few seconds. She seemed caught off-guard. It was such a loaded question. "You… We were mending, Faith, and I thought…" She shook her head, trying to shake away the emotion before it could take up too permanent a residence.

Faith took a step closer to her. "…What?"

Buffy locked eyes with her, disclosing everything she couldn't say.

"Tell me, Buffy," she urged, her entire body tensing. Her eyes bore into the other woman's. She unconsciously moved closer. The air between them was heavy with the weight of all the things left undone and unsaid. Years of pain and missed possibilities.

Buffy's face pleaded, on the brink of tears. Her voice came out like a sob. "I can't."

Before Faith could protest, the other woman ran past her and out of the room.

The rain beat down on the ground as if the oceans themselves were pouring out over every inch of the earth. A flash of lighting illuminated the night sky and the face of the brunette as she marched purposefully down the sloping hill, her hair and clothes clinging to her. When she reached the flat clearing at the bottom she stopped, planting both feet firmly into the soaked grass and raising her face to the sky.

"Hey! I know you can hear me!" A sudden crack of thunder sounded so violently it was as if the heavens were going to rip in two. "Where the fuck are you, you bitch?"

She was answered by another crack, this time in the air before her.

The demon's dark eyes glistened, boring into her with a fiendish, sick glee. Knowing.

"Decided to accept my offer?"

Faith glared at her through narrowed eyes, intense and determined. Rain streamed down her face and poured off her chin as she spoke. "Damn right."

There was a deep, dark, chilling laugh that could be heard through the storm as though it were coming from all around them. Without warning, the demon put a hand on Faith's chest, and a powerful light emanated from the spot. Faith convulsed, twitching, overcome with the energy flowing into her. She felt like she was being electrified. It was painful and yet, there was something much greater beneath it that spoke of potential, of extraordinary, sweeping power. It filled her every sense. After what felt like forever it stopped, and the demon stepped back.

Faith slowly lifted her head, a satisfied smile on her face. "Thanks."



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