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Apocalyptic Splendor

by YourFairyGodfather


Summary: It takes Buffy seven years to save the world. It takes Faith seven days to hit rock bottom.
Author's Notes: It's been awhile. Feel free to blame me; I blame NaNoWriMo. I've been watching a lot of Joss Whedon over the last month, so I thought I'd branch out a little and try a new fandom. Don't worry, loyal Gleek readers, I promise to get it back on over the hiatus. Any requests?

I own a few DVDs, but that's about it. And none of those are Angel DVDs, so I apologize for any discrepancies. This piece deals with the general theme of destruction, and gets slightly unnerving in places—the most graphic of which is Day Five, 7:18pm. If you feel so inclined, go ahead and skip it: it lessens the story's impact somewhat, but the plot will still be discernable. Speaking of inclinations, this piece can be read (or not) as femslash; it's pretty grey area to me, so pick your poison and roll with it :)
Oral's Notes: Added author's contact info. Be sure to click on their name and give a glowing review! :)

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Day Six, 11:46pm

She always double locks the bathroom door.

It takes you a few days to catch on, and when you do, you're surprised that you didn't notice it sooner—she, who literally tore off her shirt in an alley the week you met her to show off a scar (she was right, it does look eerily like South America), makes sure the deadbolt is secure and checks for an escape route before brushing her teeth.

You wonder if any of the others would have noticed.

It's your fourth evening in Angel's hotel, six days after the entire town of Sunnydale collapsed under your feet (You're counting the day itself. Which is only fair, given that it was the longest day ever). It wasn't everything you'd ever known, the way it was for Willow and Xander and, in some strange way, Dawn. But it was where you had grown up, where you'd fallen in love, where your mother and so many others were buried, and the loss still has you reeling a bit.

But while you're finally whole in some ways, she's falling to pieces. So here you are, waiting to save the world once again. If you can.

All you've ever been is a witness to her self destruction.



Day One, Nightfall

You've been rooming with Faith since the final battle, sort of.

The first night is more like camping. The bus is low on gas, you barely have enough cash between everyone to pay for dinner, and the energetic glee of freshly super-powered girls who have come out on top means that sleeping on the bus is definitely out. You spread out in a clearing near the bus, trading bags of potato chips and boxes of cereal until nightfall. You, of course, suck at all things woodsy, so after teasing you for a few minutes about "delicate female types not wanting to mess up their nails; ain't that right, Princess?", Faith makes you a bed out of dirt, leaves, and leather.

It's surprisingly comfortable, almost as surprising as a Boston-raised high school dropout knowing how to mix with nature better than 90% of the Potentials. Slayers. Whatever you're calling them now.

Your dreams are forgettable, nothing to write home about, and you're grateful for that. You sleep steadily until around four in the morning, when suddenly you're awake and you don't know why. Still half asleep, you peer around the makeshift camp—the fire that Giles had made down to the smoldering embers. Its dying light casts long shadows over the clearing, where everyone is still sleeping, nothing amiss.

Except Faith's bed, ten feet from yours and closest to the edge of the woods, is empty.

Before you can wake up enough to truly worry, you hear the familiar click of a lighter. Several yards to your left, Faith is slumped against a tree, lighting a cigarette and gazing with hooded eyes back toward Sunnydale. Or maybe toward the hospital you'd brought Robin and the more severely wounded girls to. Either way, though you'd never thought of Faith as the type to mourn anything, there's no mistaking the tension in her normally languid stance, nor the numbness of her expression. She blows out a cloud of smoke and it strikes you as sad—both the pain she went to such lengths to hide, and the fact that nobody would ever believe you if you told them.

She looks back at you, hearing you sit up, and gives you one of her slow, fluid smiles. You smile back before lying down and closing your eyes. A few minutes later you hear her return, and as you fell asleep, smelling her smoke and musk, your last conscious thought is 'Who brings cigarettes to an apocalyptic battle?'



Day Two, 4:33pm

The next night is spent in a motel, courtesy of the funds Angel had wired you when you called to explain the situation. He'd wanted you to come straight to L.A., but by the time the dispatched teams had returned with gas and more food (and you and Wil had finally found a payphone) it was already late afternoon. You'd settled on driving in the next morning, and he'd asked about everyone with concern while someone on his team looked up directions to the closest bank. By the time you'd walked the four blocks, Angel had called in a few favors and gotten you access to enough of his money to cover all your expenses and then some.

The motel is small, but everyone is too excited about showers and cable to worry about being packed in 2 or 3 to a room. Naturally you had thought you'd be rooming with Dawn—you are sisters, after all—but she had pulled you aside as soon as you and Willow had gotten back to the group. With that calm maturity that reminded you how much she'd grown and made your heart ache for your mother, she explained that Xander wasn't doing so well, now that the shock of the previous day was wearing off, and that she wanted to stay with him tonight. When you pointed out that you or Wil were the more obvious choices, she gave you a slightly pitying smile before reminding you that Kennedy had her claws so deep into Willow that everyone was surprised at the lack of drawn blood. And that, y'know, you're not so great with the whole 'feelings' thing.

You thought about being offended for about two seconds. That, coincidently, was about how long it took you to remember that her observation wasn't exactly off base.

Leaving Dawn to take care of Xander, you announced Angel's assistance to everyone, advising them to be packed up, paired up, and back on the bus in ten minutes. Once everybody was chattering and safely ignoring you, you wove your way through teenage girls and food wrappers over to Faith. To say that she was surprised at your offer to room together was a bit of an understatement, but she collected herself quickly, making a joke about commandeering the corner suite and not having to worry about half-naked jailbait running around.

You refrained from commenting on the number of times she was the half-naked jailbait in your relationship. Partly out of politeness, partly because if she called you on it, you'd be forced to admit that you're not 100% sure how old she is.

If anyone else is surprised at your choice of roommate, they don't show it. (Although you do see a few expressions of relief on some of the youngest girls—they might like her better, be in awe of her, but she's still a slightly terrifying ex-convict with history against her.)

In the time it takes you to get the girls settled and talk to Giles and Willow about plans for the next day, Faith has managed to swipe a set of keycards (not shockingly, the corner room), slide one into your back pocket (with perhaps a tad more touch than was necessary), and saunter away (showing no sign of having slept on the ground, the bitch).

By the time you make it to the room, her clothes are strewn on one of the beds and the shower is running. You try the door to the bathroom, intending to wash up a bit—locked.

You consider being annoyed or breaking down the door for a few seconds, until you decide that the need to lie down slightly outweighs the desire to brush your teeth ten times. You flop down on Faith's bed—there's no way you're messing up your own until after you're clean—and listen to Faith sing as the water swirls down the drain. She's not bad—worse than Giles, but better than Willow—and as you hum along, gently tapping along on your hipbones, it barely pricks the back of your mind that every song she sings is at least four years old.



Day Three, 11:02am

While everyone is packing and grooming the next day, you and Giles take the bus back to the hospital to pick up the three girls you'd left there nearly two days before. They're all happily impressed with their new Slayer healing—gaping stab wounds and nasty burns have been reduced to scratches and light scarring. Robin isn't as lucky, and the medically induced coma the doctors have put him in while his body heals means that he's not going anywhere for a while. When you say your goodbyes to the unresponsive hero and ask where you can leave your contact information for when he wakes up, the doctor smiles kindly and tells you that Mr. Wood's stepsister was there an hour or so ago and had filled out a Next of Kin form.

The handwriting is exactly how you remember: messy but legible, with a few stylistic flourishes. She's listed her last name as 'Wood' (probably to keep up the cover story, although who the hell knows—maybe it really is) and you recognize Angel's address and phone number scrawled across the black lines. Since it's the same contact info you would have put down, you replace the stolen chart without changing anything Faith's written.

Neither you nor Giles mention the three slight smudges on the form—teardrops which have long since dried, leaving slight wrinkles on the page.



Day Three, 2:21pm

On the ride to L.A., you accidently-on-purpose fall asleep on Faith's shoulder. Not because you're tired, or because she makes a particularly good pillow. More because you don't know how to hug her. Because while Faith knows sex and she definitely knows violence, you don't think anyone ever really showed her how to touch and be touched with affection. And as much as she probably really, really needs that hug right now, you know she'll be a lot less likely to shove you off and retreat into herself if she thinks you're unconscious.

It's not the same, but it's the best you can offer. She doesn't shove you off.



Day Three, 4:12pm

Speaking of hugs, the one Angel gives you in the lobby of the hotel is both bone crushing and gentle, and it's in that moment that you realize how close you came to never seeing him again. He doesn't hug Faith, you notice, but the light in her eyes as she greets him and the way he looks at her, like she's wonderful and he's proud of her, says it all. You can't even bring yourself to be jealous, which is either a sign of maturity or an impending apocalypse.

And you really hope it's the former, because c'mon, you just had the other one.

She hipchecks Angel's friend Gunn and takes him up on his offer of food—apparently they're splitting a stick of spicy pepperoni, and ew, you do not want to see that—and lets big, green Lorne run his hands all over her hair while he half talks, half sings to her how glad she's back. Even delicate little Fred, who reminds you a little of tenth grade Willow, watches her every move with big eyes, seemingly pleased when Faith asks her 'how it's hanging.' The new slayers watch her easy interactions with awe, slightly intimidated both by Angel's team and of Faith's honorary place in it. You know they're wrong to be so anxiously impressed—Angel's group is made up of good people (and demons). And the way Angel and Faith seem to go out on potentially fatal limbs for each other, they'd naturally accept Faith as one of their own. What should be more impressive is that Faith had grown enough to leave the place where she was obviously valued in order to put her life on the line for a bunch of teenagers who didn't know her and the Scooby Gang that didn't like her.

The Newbies wouldn't get it, and you don't correct them. Maybe you really are growing up.

When Angel brings up the subject of housing, he's almost sheepish in explaining that some of the girls will have to double up for the time being—apparently less than 24 hours wasn't quite enough time to set up for an army. Xander makes a joke about confiscating stakes and replacing them with feather dusters, prompting a few of the more polite girls to step up and offer to help clean. Amused, you watch the others fall prey to shame and embarrassment like dominoes until, twenty minutes later, the hotel is filled with the sounds of teenage girls dusting, vacuuming, and scrubbing. Xander and Dawn have begged out—Dawn literally, Xander by pointing at his eyepatch—and have somehow managed to finagle a room with an Xbox. Faith is still off with the others when Angel asks what you want to do, so you're faced with only one surprised look when you ask for a double room for the two of you, preferably a corner one.

Angel's too courteous to ask questions or remind you of your truly screwed up history together. Instead, he calls you his two best girls and asks you to please take care of each other before sweeping you into another hug.

You don't answer, but you both know what you would have said.



Day Four, Early Morning

When Faith stumbles into the room sometime after 3am, you try not to flinch at the combination of smells clinging to her—vampire ash, whiskey, semen. She glances tensely at your bed, and looks satisfied by your faux sleeping. Turning away, she strips off her jacket and shirt, wincing a bit as she examines the fresh scratches on her rib cage. It's too dark for you to tell what made them, but luckily they don't look deep enough to need stitches. You watch through nearly closed eyes as she patches herself up, slips into a fresh tank top, and slides out of her pants before creeping silently to the bathroom.

You hear the lock and the deadbolt click into place, and you barely have time to wonder why she doesn't turn on a light before you hear her retching into the toilet.

You sit up, unsure of whether she needs your help, whether whatever minimal help you could provide would be worth your mutual embarrassment. So silently, you wait until you hear her flush the toilet and pick herself up off the floor. You listen as she scrubs the porcelain clean, then brushes her teeth. After another minute or two of splashing, the water turns off, and you lie back down just as she's unlocking the door.

You feel her eyes on your face, and the last thing she does before crawling into her own bed and passing out is tuck a lock of hair behind your ear.



Day Four, 12:16pm

She doesn't get up until noon the next day, and the moody look in her eyes as she stabs at her pancakes (Andrew literally made enough for an army) is enough that the other girls give her a wide berth. A sharp contrast, they're more energetic and happier than you've ever seen them. Angel took anyone who wanted to go on patrol with him the night before, and Lorne took them dancing afterwards. By the lack of hangovers and abundance of 'Under 21' stamps, you know you've found a capable chaperone in Lorne, and you make a mental note to pull him aside and thank him later.

Much to your surprise, your plea to Giles for at least a full week off before focusing on any Slayer-type business is successful. Of course you should have realized that he had no intention of giving himself the same luxury—his first full day in L.A. is spent pouring over the books in Fred's library, occasionally consulting Wesley, Wil, or the girl herself about possible means of identifying and contacting the new horde of Slayers.

You do feel a bit bad about not helping them—it was your idea that created this situation, with yet unknown consequences—but it's not like you don't have anything to take care of either. While Giles is working, you're running errands all over the city—getting your credit cards replaced, filing insurance claims for the house, working to get new birth certificates/social security cards/passports for you and Dawn, etc. Xander has similar errands to run, so he comes with you on a number of trips. Dawn's right; his grief is more palpable now than on the day of the battle, and he spends a half an hour with his face in his hands when the bank employee taking care of you gently informs him that his joint account with Anya is flagged with an internal memo saying that "if Xander Harris attempts to withdraw more than $50 at one time, inform him that his girlfriend doesn't approve of his flagrant spending, and that he needs to call her immediately."

He does open up a little, over diner sandwiches and a couple of beers, and as brokenhearted as he is, you've never been prouder of him.



Day Five, Early Morning

You hardly see Faith at all for two days after that first night in L.A. You can't imagine she leaves the hotel much during the day, given her fugitive status, but she never seems to be around when you are. You try not to worry about her. After all, she's a grown woman, and has proven on multiple occasions that she can look after herself. Still, when you wake up at five in the morning to the sound of her puking again, clothes smelling even worse than the night before, you feel something in your own stomach twist.

She's gone when you wake up for good a few hours later. Lorne finds her asleep on the floor of the weight room and carries her upstairs with the same gentleness that you'd show a newborn baby. As he strokes her filthy hair, you express your concern, still fairly mild. Lorne smiles at you kindly and takes your hands in his free one. "Princess has had a rough time," he concedes, twisting his handsome mouth with regret. "I know life certainly hasn't been peaches and cream for anyone here fighting the good fight, but this little dove never had a chance." He looks down at her sadly, running a finger lightly over the silver-light scars on her neck.

You know they're from Angelus. You don't know much beyond that, actually; it's a story Angel's been reluctant to share. But you know from experience how cruel Angelus is capable of being. Maybe he couldn't break her down the same way he broke you—he wasn't her first and deepest love, after all. Except…in some weird way, he sort of is. Your knowledge of Faith's history is patchy at best, but you do know that she treats Angel with respect bordering on reverence, and that he would do anything to protect the good he sees in her. Faith, for all her wariness and insanity and rage, wasn't born tough-as-nails with a knife in her hand. You'd be willing to bet that nobody has ever loved Faith as openly and unconditionally as Angel, even if it isn't the same way he loves you.

And Angelus would know exactly how to exploit that.

Lorne kisses you both on the forehead before leaving, promising to return soon with "some body wash and a loofah for a certain someone, and a nice lemonade with mint for you, Snow Pea." So far, he's definitely your favorite out of all of Angel's crew.



Day Five, 7:18pm

Your mind isn't always on Faith. The fifth day after the big Hellmouth-palooza (you're still working on a name) you've got quite enough to deal with even without bringing Faith into the mix. Nobody besides Giles and Wil seems to have gotten the memo that you're on vacation, and everyone seems to need something from you.

Some things you're happy to give—time with Xander, clothes shopping with Dawn (which is totally legit—you have entire wardrobes to replace!). Short conversations with Angel every few hours, seemingly in order for him to reassure himself that you're still here, still alive. You take it in stride; you have given him an awful lot of near misses over the years.

Other things you do out of obligation—supervise the Newbies' sparring session, a frighteningly expensive grocery run with Andrew, Kennedy, and Giles (someone had to drive the bus, and for some reason nobody trusted you).

In fact, it isn't until dinner is ending and half the new slayers are arming up to patrol with Angel and Gunn that you realize you haven't seen Faith for several hours. You couldn't explain how if anyone asked you, but some part of you just knows that she's still in the hotel somewhere. You beg out of the group field trip, saying that you're going to call the hospital and check on Robin (which you actually do later—his condition is still serious, but stable). Nobody bats an eye at your excuse except for Angel, who gives you a knowing look and an approving nod. When the group leaves and the hotel is mostly empty, you search for Faith.

You find her in the basement, lying on the ground in a giant steel cage, staring listlessly at the ceiling even when you know she must have heard you come in. Her left hand is tucked under her head, her right holds a burning cigarette—and you don't have to know how many cigarettes are in a pack to know that the thick cloud of smoke she's built up must have taken quite a while. She's packing a crossbow and a tranquilizer gun, though thankfully neither is aimed at you. She doesn't move as you come down the stairs.

Your first instinct is to check the cage door. It's locked.

"Looking for this?" Faith's voice is husky, and she's finally looking at you as she dangles the key a few inches about her head, eyes appraising. You know you should be worried, this whole situation screams of 'twisted', but you're honestly more confused than anything. "Faith, what are you doing in there?" you ask her, and she stretches prettily.

"Thinking," she responds, sitting up and shaking out her hair. "What brings you to the dungeon? Don't tell me the cable's out," she guesses, looking so genuinely put out over the possibility that you're nearly taken in. Until you remember—twisted, worried.

"I was looking for you," you tell her, and she smiles as she stands. "You found me," she grins, "what's the what?" Without waiting for an answer, she tosses you the tranq gun. You have to twist it sideways in order to get it through the bars of the cage, which you do while she unlocks the door.

As she slips the key into her back pocket, you see her arms. And stare in horror.

Little round burns dot her arms, contrasting sharply with her otherwise pale skin. They're all recent, and in that moment you realize the slight odor mingling with the smell of smoke is of Faith's burning flesh. She follows your gaze, and something behind her eyes locks. "Hey, it's cool," she breezes. "Slayer healing, I'll be five by five by tomorrow."

The would-be causal tone of her voice, even as you're staring at her self-mutilated arms, jolts you out of your shock. "Faith, what—this isn't okay, we need to get you some help, this—" You cut yourself off, unsure whether you want to scream at her or cry.

This isn't as bad as when Dawn sliced herself open—she isn't your little sister. But in some ways, it's worse. Dawnie…it was a one time thing, a horrible reaction to a horrible bombshell.

You don't even know what this is.

Faith watches you evenly as you struggle to find some control. "No worries, B," she reassures. "Look, they're already healing, see?" She holds out her arms, and you shudder, trying not to vomit. Seeing your distress, she tries for levity: "They look kinda like chicken pox, if you don't look too closely. Ever have the chicken pox when you were a kid, B?"

Something in you snaps. "Stop it! This isn't a joke, it's not funny!" you yell at her, and her sensual smile vanishes.

"No, it really isn't," she agrees neutrally, hollowly. "I got sent home from school with the 'chicken pox' about seven times."

She leaves you standing in the basement, gripping the tranq gun so tightly that the handle shatters. The broken pieces dig into your hands, and your blood drips scarlet on the floor.



Day Five, 11:26pm

This is a situation you are absolutely not equipped to deal with, you know that much. Years ago, you might have argued otherwise. Now, you're smart enough to know that there are some situations you can't plead, punch, or yell your way out of.

When Angel gets back from patrolling, you're waiting for him in his apartment. You know he loves Faith more than anyone else does, and watching the light in his eyes die as you explain what you saw makes you want to smack her for putting you in this position. He sits down on his bed, not bothering to take his coat off, and you let him brood silently, knowing as you do that he's deep in thought.

When he finally looks up, the distress on his face has lessened a bit. He promises to talk to her, to try and get her help. He doesn't look hopeful, though, and when you press him, he admits that he's not sure if he'll be able to convince her to let him. He explains that in the three years before Faith broke out of prison, she was a model inmate, barring two exceptions.

The first was her reaction to your death. He doesn't know specifically what happened, but hours after Willow had come to LA and broken the news, he'd received a call from the prison asking for his help—for some reason they couldn't figure out, Faith had had some sort of psychotic break. She'd broken three sets of restraints in thirty-six hours, and they'd had to use four times the standard dose of sedatives just to stop the screaming.

The second was that when she finally snapped back, she refused all forms of psychiatric treatment, preferring to silently gaze at the ceiling during her court-ordered therapy.

He faces you, and the anguish written there is a look you've only seen twice before. "When you died. Knowing that I'd never see you again…I couldn't handle it," he says, sighing heavily. "It was all I could do to keep going, and that was only because I knew what you'd say if I didn't."

You hate it when he talks like this. And it must show; instead of continuing, he stands and pulls you into his arms.



Day Six, 12:38am

It's after midnight by now, and before heading to your room, you peek in on Giles and Wesley, still drinking tea and discussing Sumerian translations. Looking at them, you can't help but think how much they've both changed since you met them. Which just makes you think how much everyone you knew in Sunnydale has changed over the years. Including yourself—you feel like a completely different person than the girl who moved to the Hellmouth at sixteen years old.

You wonder what the others would say if you asked them what the biggest differences were between the You of the past and You now. But then, that would probably depend entirely on who you asked.



Day Six, 5:47am

Faith comes home close to dawn. You'd tried to stay up until she got home, but the exhaustion of the past week (month, year) had caught up with you, and you'd passed out fully clothed on your bed. When you wake up, it's clear that you're tuning in mid-conversation, because Faith and Angel are already yelling at each other. You're not sure if Angel went out looking for her or if he merely waited outside for her to come home, but either way, they haven't made it past the front steps. You slide open a window as quietly as you can and watch intently.

"What are you saying, then. You saying you're gonna send me back to prison? 'Gee, Faithy, good job and all, but we're done with you know. Have a fucking cookie and your jumpsuit back.'"

Faith is shooting death glares at Angel, who looks only slightly less pissed. "That's not what I'm saying, Faith, and you know it," he growls. "Stop trying to make this about me when it's about you. I want to help you."

She scoffs impressively. "I'm just fucking fine, Soulboy. I'm kicking demon ass, I'm being nice to the Superfriends, and, uh, oh yeah: haven't killed anyone in a while. That what this is about? Because if it is, screw you. You know me better than that."

Angel glares back. "No, it's not about that. It's about you. I'm worried about you, Faith. You're self destructing. Maybe you think that nobody's noticing, but they are. We are. I can smell everything you've done tonight, Faith, and I'm afraid of the direction you're going in."

When Faith looks back up, her anger and defensiveness is gone, and in its place is the mask of raw sensuality that she exudes like perfume. "Everything. Is that right," she purrs, sauntering forward. "What's wrong, Angel, think I'm gonna corrupt all your innocent little underage girls with my evil ways? Could be it. Can't be the drug thing, unless hypocrite is the new black this year. Or maybe, and I think I'm striking gold on this one, you're just mad that someone else got their filthy hands all over me before you did."

She laughs throatily, and Angel takes a step back, clearly unnerved. She shrugs, casually hooking her thumbs through her belt loops. "Pretend it's not true, I won't blow your cover," she hisses. "But I've been in your head. And as much fun as that was for both of us, I think I'll pass on a repeat experience. Stay out of mine."

You both look at Angel, waiting for his response. You're not totally sure of the significance of Faith's words, but there must be something to them that you're not getting, because all the fight has drained out of him. Instead, he just looks at her sadly. When she asks if he's planning on kicking her out, his expression doesn't change as he tells her that she knows he's never do that.

A minute goes by, then two.

Finally, Faith turns away, calling back to Angel that she needs a shower, and that he should come inside unless he's looking for a sunburn of the permanent variety.

By the time Faith makes it to your room, you've torn off your shoes and pulled the covers up to your chin. It doesn't matter—she blows through the door and into the bathroom without so much as glancing at your bed. Seconds after she shuts the door, you hear both locks snap into place, followed by the frantic click of her lighter. And then, so faintly that you almost miss it, you hear her muffled sobbing coming from the farthest corner of the room.



Day Six, 11:47pm

She always double locks the bathroom door. She makes sure the deadbolt is secure and checks for an escape route. Maybe it started when she got out of prison. Maybe it started back in Boston. You're not sure. You just know that you've been watching it happen, as the girl in question has been spiraling out of control.

Just like you did four years ago.

You're not going to let her fall again. This time, she can't lock you out. Because you're not a scared little girl anymore, and she's tried too hard to atone for her sins for the world to give up on her again.

That's what Angel would have said, in any case. He's big on the metaphysical. You're more to the point: she can't lock you out this time, because you're sitting in the bathtub.



Day Seven, 1:58am

You hear her footsteps coming down the hall, a few hours earlier than you expected. Your whole body tenses, waiting, as she drops her coat and a couple of weapons on the floor. She creeps into the bathroom, eyeing the window as she shuts the door behind her.

She twists the lock on the doorknob, then the deadbolt.

Leaning against the door, she half-slides, half-crumples to the floor; face in her hands, breathing shaky.

You clear your throat.

Her reaction would have been comical if the situation wasn't so serious—she jerks in alarm, swearing up a storm as her head cracks the door behind her. She glowers at you. "What the hell are you doing, B?" she growls, rumpling her hair with one hand. You don't answer right away. Instead, you just look at her. Really look at her.

She's filthier than you've ever seen her, and that's saying something. Her hair is a mess, her clothes are ripped in a couple of spots. The burns on her arms have faded and been replaced with scratches—how they got there is anyone's guess. Mud is caked onto her boots, and it's crumbling off in clumps on the tiled floor. She looks exhausted and pissed off, and her lips are chapped and tinged with the vestiges of dark red lipstick.

She's a mess. And in spite of everything, or maybe because of it, she's more beautiful than ever.

You see her starting to shut down, close off under your intense gaze, which is the last thing you want. So without thinking about what you're going to say, you open your mouth. And what comes out surprises you both.

"I'm sorry."

She stares at you in shock. You don't blame her, you'd be staring too, if you could stare at yourself. Which, technically, you could, but standing up in order to be tall enough to see yourself in the mirror might kill the moment. So instead, you look at Faith as she arches an eyebrow at you. "'Sorry' doesn't explain what the hell you're doing sitting in the bathtub at two in the morning," she quips sarcastically, leaning back against the door.

Her demeanor is so casual, you almost believe it. But you've been fooled before.

"I was waiting for you," you admit. "We need to talk." She shakes her head roughly. "No, we don't," she responds, coldness seeping into her tone. "You need to get the hell out of here, and I need to pee."

When you don't move, she glares even harder. "In case you missed the memo, B, I'm not in prison anymore," she bristles. "That means my days of doing my business in front of other women are over. Get the hell out."

You don't move. "We need to talk," you repeat. "We saved the world. We changed the world. Everything's different now."

She cuts you off. "You're still annoying, the world didn't change that much. Get out before I throw you out. Final warning."

You stand your ground. "It did change," you insist. "We're not the only ones anymore. There are hundreds of girls that are Slayers, just like us. And they're never going to have to go through what we did—the solitude, the loneliness. We made sure of it."

"You made sure of it," she spits out. "You're the brains, I'm the super-powered cannon fodder, Sunnydale's a smoking hole in the ground." She stands up, eyes flashing. "Get out."

You stand up to face her. "You're a hero," you correct her. "You held the line. You saved lives." You step toward her, reaching out to touch her.

As your fingertips brush her arms, she lashes out, shoving you against the opposite wall. Your head hits the window, cracking the glass. "I told you to get out," she repeats, her voice low and dangerous. "Shut up and get out."

"No," you say defiantly, stepping forward again. "I'm staying right here, with you. You changed the world, you're a hero."

"Shut up!" She backhands you across the face, sending you crashing back into the window. Her own face is a twisted mask of anger, and pain, and something else that you can't identify. "Stop saying that!" she yells at you. "I'm not a fucking hero, I'm not anything! You want to know what I am? I'm tired. I'm tired, and I'm pissed off, and I'm sick of everyone looking at me like I'm a champion or a killer or whatever they want me to be! Half those girls out there think I'm some freaking superhero, and the other half are terrified that I'm going to cut their throats while they're sleeping. Angel keeps talking about redemption and penance, but he isn't constantly watched by people who are just waiting, constantly hoping he'll stumble so they can brag about how they were right, once a killer, always a killer. I'm not a killer, I'm not a hero, I'm just—"

She's struggling to speak, trying desperately to keep up her crumbling façade. Blinking back tears that are fighting to come out.

You don't bother.

"I don't know what you are," you admit, letting the salt water run down you cheeks. "I know you're the Slayer. We're the last ones who will ever really know what that means. And I can't lose you again."

You look straight at her, and voice the question that's been haunting you since you spoke to Angel:

"You felt me die. Didn't you?"

She's shaking now, trying and failing not to cry as she meets your eyes. "Worst pain I've ever felt," she confesses.

You close the distance between you and grip her arms. She twists under your grasp, but it's halfhearted, defeated. "You're the only one who understands," you plead, holding onto Faith so tightly that you're probably hurting her. "You're the only one. And I know you don't want to die, but you don't want to live either. The world's different, and you don't know how to live in it. And it's hell."

She shakes her head softly. "No. It's always been hell."

She's still shaking under your hands, and you let go with one hand in order to brush her hair from her face. "I know," you tell her quietly, your fingers gently stroking her face even as they grow wet with her tears. "I didn't before, but I understand now. And you don't have to go through it alone anymore. Please, please just let me help."

This time, you know how to hug her. She doesn't shove you off.

And as your arms snake around her and she sobs into your hair, a piece of you that was long shattered finally begins to stitch itself back together.




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