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  Part 6

Sickened by the season, I am smitten with you.
Saddled with this treason, I am smitten with you.
All I want, all I want is to hold you
Instead I hold my breath.

They were both quiet as they left Buffy's house, carrying enough weapons between them to make up an arsenal. Tonight, there would be no breaking and entering, no stealing, no hot, sweaty--well, nothing that happened last night. Tonight, they'd get in to Balthazar's warehouse, slay, go home, and act as if everything was fine.

Buffy wasn't sure when she was going to stop playing make-believe with herself. She didn't know what was worse--that it was so easy to imagine that her life could go on as normal without Angel, or that she was starting to wonder whether she was pretending at all. Maybe Faith was real and Angel was the lie; maybe she wasn't the person she thought she was. Maybe she was only the Slayer, and she'd been holding herself back. Was still holding herself back.

But she didn't want to let go of whatever normalness she had left. Boyfriend. That was normal. Okay, souled undead two hundred year old boyfriend, less normal--but somehow giving up on the idea of boy-meets-girl-happily-ever-after love and exchanging it for the girl strutting ahead of her like she owned the shadows...it made her heart freeze, then start up again double time. Remembering the heat of her kiss, the rough-gentle touch of hardened fingers on her breast, the--

She still hadn't had any release. Two days, the slaying, the dancing, Faith's body on top of hers, that kiss...the look on Faith's face as she came, fierce and shuddering and sucking on her neck like she was the last drink of water in the desert...

Buffy shook herself. This would not be about the slay-lust. Not tonight. Control. Concentrate--

Faith's confident stride faltered for a moment, then she took off in another direction, picking a side street that went out of their way. Buffy opened her mouth to ask why, then realized Faith was detouring them around the alley--that alley. Tears sprang to her eyes and she bit down on a breath that might have been a sob. She'd hurt Faith so badly there. Not just the fading bruises like green-yellow fingerprints, over Faith's tattoo, that she'd seen when Faith took off her jacket. Those were nothing to a Slayer. But Buffy knew she could never go back to that alley without remembering how she'd attacked Faith, offering her body to be used if only she could use Faith too--and for Faith, that was worse.

Not like this. Never again like this.

What did that mean?

And who was she grieving for?

Not Angel.

How could you cry for dust when you had hurt someone living so much worse? Buffy ran an angry hand over her cheeks, pushing away the tears, and hurried her steps for a moment until she was walking beside Faith, close enough that their sides brushed together. Buffy reached for Faith's hand, taking it in hers, feeling the shivers that she called the Slayer connection. Another lie. She'd never felt this with Kendra. It was just so much easier to have a mystical explanation when she didn't want to admit that what she was feeling was attraction. Faith had once claimed that she'd felt it too, the tingle-hum of their touch, and since she'd never met another slayer, how could she know? The lie was easier, had been easier. Buffy kept her eyes on her feet, wondering if Faith would pull away. She was half-aware that she was drawing idle patterns on the back of Faith's hand with her thumb, feeling the softness that was such a contrast to her callused palm.

Faith didn't look at her, but she allowed their hands to stay clasped, their fingers linked. They still said nothing, but the silence felt easier. They reached Devereau without meeting any vampires, and Buffy calculated that with the six or so they'd staked in the sewers, as well as those they'd fought last night, Balthazar didn't have enough minions left to stand a competent guard. She was just beginning to think they could reach the warehouse without a fight, when a figure stepped from the shadows.

There was no warning, not a single twitch of her vamp alarm, but Buffy had a stake in her hand before he took another step. She noticed, though, that she'd used her free hand, not willing to let Faith slip away even for this.

"Slayers?" The voice was hesitant, nervous.

"And what if we are?" Faith asked. She stopped in her tracks, her hand moving inside her jacket to touch the handle of the knife Buffy had stolen yesterday. Buffy refused to carry it, but Faith had convinced her it was no good returning to the scene of the crime. Reparations would have to wait.

The shadows shifted, and a man stepped out into the streetlight. His adam's apple bobbed convulsively, and he licked his lips, flinching and looking over his shoulder at every sound. Sweat beaded his upper lip. "If you are, I've come to find you," he said. "I--I have information. Valuable."

"Sorry, pal, we were just on our way to another party," Faith said. "If you know us, you can damn well wait to talk until tomorrow. Right now, the Slayers gotta slay."

"No--I can't--I'm, I--he'll kill me--and, I can help you. Now. Tonight." He twitched again, ready to bolt, as they heard a trashcan falling over, and some drunk's faraway yell.

Buffy shifted impatiently, but Faith squeezed her hand, and she sighed. "You have a name?"

"I'm, uh, Alan Finch. The--the Deputy Mayor."

Faith snorted. "And you figure that means something to us?"

Alan straightened. "You don't know about--" He stopped. "Promise you'll protect me. Promise he won't get to me, I--he's, uh--"

Buffy glanced at Faith's stony expression, then pressed her hand in return before going forward to meet Alan. "Who do you need protection from?"

"The Mayor," Alan whispered, his eyes darting back again, as if he thought they'd be overheard in the deserted alley. "He's, I can't tell you, not unless you promise me--"

"Okay, we promise, we'll keep you safe," Buffy said, ignoring Faith's skeptical look.

"He's evil."

"So are a lot of people," Faith said with a dismissive shrug.

"I can--I know his plans. He's going to become a pure demon, destroy the city. Y-you need me."

"And we should trust you why?" Buffy asked.

"I can prove it," Alan said. "If you need to trust me...I can tell you, tonight, you're fighting Balthazar. And he has your Watcher."

"Giles?" Buffy asked. Fear grabbed her with cold fingers.

Alan nodded. "Him, too. The Eliminati kidnapped them from your school library."

Buffy turned to Faith. "We need to get there. Now."

Faith nodded. "And this guy?"

"We have to keep him safe." Buffy shrugged. "It's been too long since the last apocalypse, I knew it." She looked back at Alan. "You'll have to come with us."

Alan nodded, and gave a sickly grin. "I don't think it will work...you probably can't stop him...but--" He shrugged. "At least when he eats us I'll know I did the right thing. That's comforting, don't you think?"

"One big old ray of sunshine," Faith said. "Let's get going." She prodded Alan into walking ahead of them.

Buffy slipped back into her spot at Faith's side. She wanted to hold her hand again, but with Alan there, she didn't know if she'd be rejected. Tentatively, she held out her fingers, stroking Faith's arm. Faith looked down at their hands, quickly, then looked around the alley as if she were scouting for danger, but she took Buffy's hand and held it. It felt so good--secure, comforting; and it was more than just the warmth of Faith's skin. It was the fact that she'd allowed the touch.

Buffy was keeping most of her senses alert for anything that might be sneaking up on them, and for Alan Finch--because snitches were not to be trusted, no matter what information they claimed to have--but at the same time, she was intensely aware of Faith's nearness. Yesterday's wild abandon was gone, replaced by something equally passionate, but more controlled. This desire was hers, and it was about time she realized it. Acknowledged it.

Alan stopped abruptly, interrupting her thoughts. "This is it," he said.

"Let's take a look," Buffy said, staring up at the dirty windows, looking for the best way up.

Faith gave her an unnecessary boost up on to the boxes, and if her hands lingered on Buffy's ankle too long, then now was not the time to be thinking about it. Faith leaped up beside her. Buffy wiped a clean spot in one glass pane, and she and Faith peered in.

Giles and Wesley were tied together and guarded by a few vamps, being interrogated by a grossly obese thing in a bath of god knew what. Buffy made a face. "We got five vamps and one demon in serious need of a Stair Master," she said. "If we can free Giles, he can take two. The annoying guy will probably get in the way. Three for us is no problem, but I'm worried about melted-wax guy."

"He has telekinetic powers," Alan said, from where he was huddling in the spaces between the crates. "And if he gets his hands on the amulet, he'll have worse than that."

"You still got it?" Faith asked.

Buffy nodded. "He doesn't need to know that, though." She gave a shaky sigh and glanced back inside. Balthazar was screaming something about kneecaps. "Okay. We have to--"

"Wait," Faith said. Buffy felt the press of her hand and felt her knees nearly give out. Faith had reached for her. "Buffy..."

She called me Buffy... She looked into Faith's eyes, saw worry there, tenderness. When had that happened? God, she wanted to kiss her. She could feel the Slayer stirring inside her, the slow calm spreading from Faith's hand struggling against the hard pulse of want.

"You have the fucker's amulet, you shouldn't be in this fight," Faith said. "We can't let him get it, right? That's kinda the whole point."

"You're not doing this alone," Buffy shot back. What if Faith were hurt--or worse-- "And I can't let--I mean, I need to do this, too." She looked down, saw their hands, and turned her head away. This couldn't be about the Slayer. Not if she wanted it to work out, for them to stay together.

Oh, God. Is that what she wanted?

What about Angel? Was that love?

If it was, then what was this?

Fuck, she wanted to slay.

Faith frowned. "And what about double-agent guy?" she asked. "How long's he going to stay safe if we're both off getting killed? You need to get him to Giles, see what he says."

Balthazar screamed, and Buffy jerked her hand away from Faith to check her weapons. She felt Faith tense and knew she had wrecked the moment. Again.

Why couldn't she do the right thing, for once? What would it take?


Buffy forced herself to meet Faith's eyes. "I don't want you to get hurt."

Faith shrugged, the bad-girl image back in place. "It's a little late for that."

"I meant, I don't want you to get dead," Buffy said. She took Faith's wrist in her hand. She didn't grab, she didn't hold tight, and her fingers were light and cool against the hot pounding of Faith's pulse. Faith lowered her arm. Buffy didn't let go.

"What the fuck do you care?" Faith whispered. "You don't care."

Buffy shook her head helplessly. "I do," she said. Her fingers traced fever paths on Faith's skin.

Faith yanked her arm back, jerking Buffy towards her, off-balance. She fell into Faith, and Faith kissed her, hard. Buffy returned the kiss, not caring whose teeth got in the way. Only caring about how easily Faith's tongue made her forget herself, how warm the night felt now, when before it had been so cold. She swallowed Faith's grunt when she bit down on her bottom lip, and whimpered when Faith returned the favour. They didn't hold each other, didn't trap each other with a bodies too strong for themselves, and Buffy wanted the kiss to go on forever because it felt like all she had left.

When Faith wrenched away from Buffy's lips, a thin line of blood, darker red than her lipstick, stained her mouth. "That's what you fucking care about," she spat, and jumped down off the crates. She threw a disgusted look at Alan, and walked around the front of the warehouse.

"I can take 'em, hard and fast and now," Faith said, almost to herself, but Buffy could hear every word.

She wanted to call out, "Wait! Stop! Think!" but she was frozen. She saw Angel's face crumpling into dust, she saw Faith, drugged with passion, coming as she leaned into her shoulder.

The Slayer said, Want. Take. Have.

Buffy clenched her fists, crouched on the crates, said nothing. Control.

It's like I let go and became this force. I just didn't care anymore.

Faith looked up at her, once, for the last time. Buffy closed her eyes.

I want to care.

I'm afraid.

"Who has my amulet?" Balthazar shrieked. "Give me the name!"

Faith's boot connected with the door. It splintered and crashed off its hinges, silhouetting her in the light spilling from the building.

"The name is Faith," she said, and walked inside.


Part 7

Solitary girl I have been
Living in a cell made of skin

Sealed inside myself, nothing gets out or gets in
I can't feel what you feel

Show me the way to my heart.

Buffy could only watch as Faith sauntered into the warehouse. She couldn't think, couldn't move, couldn't even run away. Her entire world narrowed to that single point. Only the slamming thud of her heartbeat proved that she wasn't a ghost, she was real, but the icy wind had turned her to stone. Every action seemed to slow to a standstill and race forward at the same time, faster than light. Her body was straining, muscles trembling, as her Slayer-self raged beneath the surface, ramming the walls of her control, fighting to move and hurt and kill.

She couldn't. God, not now. She couldn't give in to that want, that aching desire. The hot, slippery fury building inside would erase her, make her forget whatever shreds of her normal life were left. It would mean forgetting Angel. As soon as she followed Faith, there would be no going back. No more pretending. And it was all happening so far away, and she couldn't do anything to stop it, and Faith was facing half a dozen armed Eliminati with only a stake and a smirk.

"The Slayer," Balthazar wheezed.

Faith nodded. To all the world, she looked calm, casual, almost bored, smiling faintly at the vampires that surrounded her and the enormous demon in the tub in front of her. It was an act. Buffy could sense it; she nearly gagged under the nauseous weight of Faith's fear. It crawled through her, like ants inside her skin, tightening in her stomach and cutting off her breath.

Giles was craning his neck, looking around the warehouse. Searching for her. He expected her to rush into the fray from some unpredictable direction. Charging to the rescue. The good slayer. Have a cookie.

Buffy closed her eyes. Balthazar screamed again, this time in triumph. The vampires growled and chuckled, their swords ringing as they drew them out of their scabbards. The easy, measured tread of Faith's boot heels continued across the cement floor. What Buffy sensed wasn't fear of death, or pain. In a perverse way, Faith welcomed pain, and some night when she came off worse in a fight she would welcome death too. Buffy knew that like she knew herself.

Wesley was begging and pleading, his whimpers and cries grating on Buffy's ears until she wanted to cringe and run, not stopping, never stopping, no matter how she hurt. No matter if she killed herself running. Deeper than the slay-lust lurked the part of her that thrived on the tiny hurts and wounds that slaying brought. That was what she feared; that was worse than death. Knowing that some day her own body would turn traitor on her.

Faith's fear, though. That was different. Buffy could nearly taste it in the air, her Slayer senses coming alive whether she willed it or not. Garbage and meat scraps from the rendering plant. Sea-salt and motor oil from the docks. The tinge of rot and damp earth, the thick soupy odor of Balthazar himself, and the tang of Faith's worry.

Buffy could read Faith's concern in the set of her shoulders, the tilt of her head, the tense muscles of her back. Faith twined her fingers together and cracked her knuckles, shrugged a kink out. She was frightened, not for herself, but for Buffy. She glanced at the vamps holding Giles and Wesley. She walked between them and grabbed them by the scruffs of their necks, yanking them away. She slammed one into the wall and the other into a clatter of metal shelves. A third vampire moved forward to guard the watchers, but Giles crunched his face with a head-butt and he fell.

Buffy turned to the wall, huddled against it, and slammed a fist into the brick. Mortar crumbled beneath her fist. She gave an angry cry, halfway between a glad shout and a denial. Faith couldn't be worried for her. She didn't want that. Didn't want this. She didn't. She'd never been truly afraid, not since being Called, but now her mind was frozen, memories and dreams ripping through her--

Faith with a knife in her gut, blood juicing slick and warm over her hand--laying pale and horribly still in the tomb of her hospital room--

Faith freed Giles and Wesley with a sword dropped by one of the Eliminati. She raised it and headed straight for the nearest vamp. She was, by no means, the swordsman that Buffy was, but she understood sharp steel better than even Giles; and, oh, God, she was beautiful to watch as she fought, smooth and free and ferocious. She whirled around, ducking the vampire's blade, getting close enough to hammer him with punches. For a moment, she had the upper hand, wild and powerful, and then the vampire struck her face with the pommel of his sword. He gashed open her cheek, and blood flowed down over her face, droplets spinning off as Faith's head whipped back. He paused to gloat, and she sliced his head from his shoulders, so fast that it hit the ground before it dusted.

--the fading bruises on Faith's cheekbone, the cold alley last night--

The Eliminati came at her from all sides now, but Giles beheaded the one he'd knocked down, and Wesley tripped another as he stumbled out of the way. Faith battered her sword against a third vampire's, trying to break through by strength instead of finesse. There was a clash of metal, shrieking, and suddenly Faith's sword went flying. Not pausing even for a breath, she smashed through the vamp's guard and burst his ribcage with a stake. He shattered into dust, the remnants swirling around Faith as she turned to the others. They were wary, now, only four of them left, but Balthazar's shrieks drove them forward, and Faith was panting, her eyes wide and desperate, and still Buffy couldn't move. This was wrong, all wrong. Shewas the Slayer. Her blood was pounding, her eyes hot, and she stuttered on the edge of action. She wouldn't let her body's desires to overwhelm her mind. She was too close to the edge, too close.

--Faith's frantic kiss, teeth and lips and pain and pleasure--Faith's fingers buried inside her, her body melting on the verge of orgasm--

Three Eliminati attacked Faith together, the fourth dueling with Giles, and she nearly went down under the strength of their charge. She yelled, the pained cry forced out of her. Buffy bit down on a scream until her lip bled. Please God she wouldn't lose Faith, or herself. Please God, not the way she'd lost Angel, please God...

--ashes and lust and dark eyes dying, faded roses and gravedust, Angel bursting into nothingness at the end of her stake--her lover, dying--


Faith was dying.

The madness came.

Buffy flung herself through the window, smashing the glass, shards raining down on the fighters below. She landed full on an Eliminati's back, and her stake found the perfect spot between the ribs, sliding through muscle and meat. She knew the instant the wood splintered his heart; the knowledge came to her through senses that weren't her own, that she had never known. Satisfaction flooded through her, more primal than anything she'd ever felt.

She was up before he even dusted, and suddenly she and Faith were back to back, both facing vampires, both breathing hard with fear and adrenaline and exertion. Buffy could feel every twitch of Faith's muscles pressed against her, telegraphing her plans. They attacked as one, fighting heedless of any pain. Buffy felt the vampire's blows, but they only goaded her forward. Bruised and bleeding, Faith struggled behind her. The Eliminati were growing bolder, sensing weakness; the salty tang of blood was in the air, and they slavered as they approached. Only two left, Giles's sword bringing down his opponent, but Faith was fading and Buffy was trembling, high on the slaying, careless, leaving herself open if only it meant one more kick connecting--one more fist smashing open the vampire's face--anything for the pain, the thrill, the kill. Then her vamp was dusted and Faith's disappeared a moment later and Buffy was clawing her control back.

Balthazar lifed one hideously puffed arm and pointed at Faith. The air between them shimmered, and suddenly Faith was flying towards the pool.


The scream didn't even sound like her own voice, but Buffy's throat was raw with it as she sprinted across the warehouse. Balthazar was laughing, his hand connecting with Faith's throat and squeezing. Faith struggled, bringing up her hands to knock Balthazar's arm aside, but she was too weak. Buffy bent over as she ran and grabbed up another loose sword, hurling it like a javelin straight towards Balthazar's chest. He lifted his other arm and telekinetically knocked it aside. Buffy used his distraction to reach the tub and break his hold on Faith. She jabbed her stake deep into his hand, feeling the loose give of his flesh. Faith fell to the floor. Buffy broke the line holding up the lighting rig. It fell into the water, and suddenly the room was full of the stink of frying meat. Balthazar shrieked, the sound of it going on for an entire minute before his body stopped sizzling and he lay still and smouldering in the remains of his pool.

Buffy backed away, shaking, then knelt beside Faith. Balthazar lifted his head and hissed, "Slayers...you think you've won...when he arises, you'll wish I'd killed you all." Again, he slumped, and stopped moving.

"Faith..." Buffy could feel herself shivering, as if she was feverish. Fear and lust. She crouched over Faith, forcing her shoulders not to tremble--she could feel Wesley and Giles approaching, their heartbeats resounding in the echoing space. The human-smell of them was strong in her nostrils. Wesley still stinking of fear. Faith was alive--her heartbeat was slow and regular--but Buffy needed her to wake up, to reassure her that everything would be all right. To kiss her and hold her, skin on skin, heat and sweat mixing to prove that she was alive, she was real, she was Buffy. Not lost.

Slowly Faith opened her eyes and Buffy helped her to her feet, but she had no idea which of them was supporting the other. Faith was cut in a dozen places, her jeans ripped and bloodstained, her shirt hanging open across her ribs. Buffy could feel the deep tiredness in her muscles that spoke of strains and sprains.

Giles reached out to her, resting a hand on her shoulder, and Buffy flinched away from his touch. She saw the look of surprise and sadness cross his face, but she couldn't help it. She couldn't stand his touch--she still wanted to slay--only Faith's arm around her was holding her together. The feel of her body warmed Buffy in the freezing air of the warehouse, making her feel human once more.

"Buffy." Giles' voice was calm and soothing. She looked up at him, and now there was understanding in his eyes. He knew. He'd known all along that this could happen to her--that her control could break. "Do you have the amulet?"

She nodded, and reached in her pocket to draw it out. She handed it to Giles quickly, trying not to cringe when their hands brushed together. Wesley looked like he was about to say something, but Giles' glare, for once, shut him up before he got started.

"We've discovered how to destroy it," Giles said, still speaking slowly and gently, as if she would startle if he made the slightest wrong move. "Like Mynhegon's glove, it can be destroyed with the Living Flame. Wesley and I can do that tonight. The Eliminati will not rise again."

Buffy nodded again, once, sharply. She couldn't meet his eyes, or look at Wesley at all. Faith's breath was hot against her shoulder, and their sweat made their skin slide together where their arms were bare. Buffy had to move, to escape, something. The coldness was fading from the warehouse, and Faith's body growing hotter. Buffy knew what she wanted now. It seemed like forever since she'd known, and since she'd denied herself. This had to end, the molten flow of want easing like lava inside her veins. Let Giles and Wesley leave; she wanted, she needed Faith. Now, please now.

Faith stood straighter for a moment. "Take the weasel with you," she muttered.

"Who?" Giles asked.

"The guy. Some snitch found us. Alan Finch."

Buffy waved an arm towards the door. "I left him outside."

They found Alan Finch hunching behind a pile of trash, trying to blend in with the alley. Giles put a vise grip on his shoulder. "You'll come with us."

Alan nodded his acceptance.

"And, Faith," Giles said. He glanced at Buffy, then continued. "I trust you two to get yourselves home and see to whatever ails you."

He wasn't talking about their injuries. Buffy looked at her hands. Her fingers were still trembling, and she made fists to hide it. She didn't want Giles to know. She didn't want anyone to know. She wanted, but only on her terms.

Faith waited for Giles to drag Wesley and Finch along the alley back to the main streets, heading for the library, and then she collapsed once more against Buffy's side. Showing weakness. Something she would never have done a week ago, two days ago. Vulnerable. Open, ready, waiting.

Buffy gave a shuddering sigh and pulled Faith close, holding her up as she led the way to the motel.

Part 8

You put your face in front of mine
And breathed a wordless conversation

Good intentions, true regret
Cannot eclipse love's desperation

The night outside the warehouse was cold. After frying Balthazar, the electricity was out for the entire block. Thunder rumbled in the distance, the days of unsettled weather coming to a head in the approaching storm. Buffy held Faith and was held by her; they waited in the darkness for a full minute after the last of Wesley's fussy questions and Giles' sharp retorts faded in the distance. Lightning cracked sharp and immediate, leaving behind green afterimages and a sharp ozone smell.

It was time to get under cover. It was the deepest part of the night, and they both smelled of blood and fear. There were no guarantees that some random vamp wouldn't stumble over them and have his one lucky day. They were closer to the motel than to Buffy's house, and they turned to walk that way without so much as a word spoken between them. Buffy felt she would never speak again. She had lost her words somewhere back in the warehouse, in the madness of slaying. The world screamed at her, more real, more immediate than it had ever been, her Slayer sensitivity keyed to a fever pitch. Even in the blackness, she could sense their route. Above them, the clouds shone silver, oppressive with unshed rain.

They were covered in vamp dust, the grit of it mingled in the slickness of their blood. Buffy was sure the smell of it was going to drive her crazy, like some unsettling aphrodisiac. Faith's body next to hers felt as hot as an oven, dangerous, delicious. Buffy wanted to lower her head to touch her lips to Faith's skin; taste the salt of her sweat, take in that heat as if she could warm herself with kisses.

Faith's arm tightened around her waist and Buffy was sure she felt the same--that they had edged towards this ending for too long. No interruptions. No holding back. Buffy had given herself over to the Slayer side of herself and she was still alive, still breathing, still wanting. Angel was gone and that hurt. It would always hurt. But it was time she let herself move forward. She had given up his ring and now she would give up, if not his memory, then at least the hold that his love had on her. Her mind was whirling in circles, but foremost among her thoughts she knew she couldn't cheat Faith. Not after last night. She had to show her that this was real, between them, no matter what tomorrow brought. This was more than any Slayer thing. This was desire.

The seduction came in months of looks, appraisal, jokes, innuendo; it came from learning each other's bodies on the training floor, the way they moved and fought and breathed, the taste of their mingled sweat after a bout of wrestling. The foreplay was two days of battles, of dancing, of wandering fingers and rough kisses stolen in dark alleys. It had taken Buffy by surprise, but she was ready for it now. Ready for Faith.

The motel was dark and Faith fumbled with her key for what seemed like forever. Lightning slammed behind them but neither turned around. The world was forgotten. Buffy held Faith from behind and waited patiently for Faith to unlock the door. It didn't matter. They would be together soon, so soon.

If Buffy had ever imagined this--which she hadn't, because, no, she wasn't like that--she would have imagined it hard and fast, like so many of Faith's stories, like the hasty touch of fingers in a bathroom stall in the Bronze, like the hardness of a crypt wall against her back. She would have imagined something as meaningless and empty as Faith's motel room, slamming into walls, the dresser, the doorknob digging into her lower back, as if only bruises could make this real, as if pain was the only thing sharp enough to outline all the crashing ferocity of their passion.

They both stripped when the door was closed behind them. Buffy watched Faith's silhouette and felt her body throb with desire. Oh, yes, please. Now. But she still had no words. Faith led the way to the bathroom, leaving the door open and the lights off. With the storm rumbling closer, there was no way to tell if the power would have worked, anyway. It didn't matter. Their breathing quickened as they stared at each other. Slayers didn't need lights.

They washed first, sharing the shower, not because it was sexual but because Buffy was sure they couldn't stand on their own. They clung to each other, arms around waists. The touch of skin on skin was electric even now, far away from the fighting, the slaying. Buffy closed her eyes to see Faith better; to see her unmarked by dark bruises and sword cuts. Faith's breasts pressed into hers with each breath, and Buffy could feel her nipples hardening as the water eased the friction between them. The touch of her was so good, so needed. Buffy let her lips rest on the junction of Faith's neck and shoulder, remembering last night in the alley, the slow slick taste of skin that she'd taken without permission. Now, Balthazar's fingerprints raised angry welts across Faith's neck, and Buffy kissed them softly, willing them away. Her lip stung where she'd bitten it, but that at least reassured her that this was no dream.

The water ran hot for only a few minutes, but it was enough to staunch the blood and shed the scent of fighting; enough to let Buffy believe that they had arrived at this point in some other way; enough that the steam could veil their nakedness as they dried off and Faith slowly drew her into the dimness of the bedroom.

If Buffy had ever imagined this, she would have thought of Angel--the only experience she had to judge by. She would have imagined that Faith secretly shared Angel's gentleness; that Faith would give her a small reassuring smile and whispers of I love you. Buffy's night with Angel was the only time she had felt that inexplicable sensation grow until it filled her mind with pleasure and seemed to go on forever but ended too soon.

Oh, but Faith was nothing like Angel.

She wrapped her arms around Buffy from behind. They were both warm from the shower, but somehow Faith was always warmer. She moved Buffy forward, pressing her face down on the mattress. Buffy could smell old sweat and older sex on the sheets, and she didn't care. All that mattered was Faith's hand bearing down on her shoulder, the weight of her nearness, hovering behind her. Faith climbed on to the bed and straddled her. Buffy shuddered as she felt the dampness between Faith's legs as she nudged her pussy against Buffy's lower back.

Buffy turned her head to the side, not fighting, only wanting to watch Faith's face above her. Faith's fingers trailed down her back, then returned more slowly, tracing the outline of knotted muscles. She pushed her thumbs into Buffy's back, finding the tightness along her spine and under her shoulder blades and easing it away. Faith's fingers were long and slender, pressing slow and deep into her muscles, working heat and excitement into her back. Buffy hummed into the blankets and waited, waited, knowing, trusting. She listened to Faith's breathing, the flutter of her heartbeat. Buffy let her eyes drift closed, lost in the sweetness of Faith's touch.

Faith leaned forward and moved her hair to one side, exposing the skin. Buffy moaned when Faith kissed her there, her mouth open and moving over her neck. She stretched, giving Faith easier access, silently begging for more. Faith sucked on her pulse until it raced beneath her lips, and Buffy's breath hitched with each movement. Faith's hands were still on her shoulders, massaging, and her kisses wandered over Buffy's throat. Buffy gasped and pressed upwards, feeling Faith's nipples peaked against her back, the wetness between her legs increasing as she swayed against Buffy's ass.

"Oh, Faith..." The words came as naturally as breathing. Her voice wasn't lost, after all.

Faith's teeth found her earlobe, her tongue swirling into the sensitive flesh behind her ear. "Buffy..." she whispered, almost too softly for Buffy to hear, even so close, even with Slayer hearing. As if Faith didn't want to be caught saying her full name. Her hands were moving lower now, down Buffy's sides, feeling the curve of her breasts. Lower, and her arms slid beneath Buffy, both reaching for the junction of her thighs. Her fingers reached and then pressed upwards.

"Ah!" Buffy writhed on the bed, pinned between Faith's hands below and her thrusting hips above. Their bare legs moved together on the smooth sheets. Buffy gasped as Faith slid a single finger between her pussy lips, too gently, slowly outlining her opening. Faith drove her pelvis down again, harder, and suddenly Buffy was floating on sensation, but it was too soon. "Wait...not yet..." She twisted around until she was facing Faith, her finger slipping out. Buffy lifted her arms and pulled Faith close for a kiss, pouring all her emotions into it. Faith's weight on top of her was incredibly erotic, and her mouth was warm and wet.

The kiss started as if they had all the time in the world, licking and sucking on lips and tongues; but it grew hotter, harder, Buffy now burying her hands in Faith's thick hair and whimpering into her mouth. Faith returned her fervor, and Buffy wanted to cry with the longing that rushed through her. She cupped Faith's face, being careful of the sword-slash on her cheek. She tasted her tongue, deepening the kiss, drawing Faith's breath into sighs. Buffy's body sang with arousal, the memory of Faith's fingers entering her urging her on.

Buffy reached for Faith's breasts, stroking them, then rolling over so that Faith was beneath her. She didn't pause, but started kissing her way down Faith's neck, still rubbing her breasts, reaching for her nipples and pinching and rolling them between two fingers.

"Yeah..." Faith breathed, again, softly, as if speaking was forbidden.

Buffy followed her fingers with her tongue, licking over Faith's taut nipples, then sucking them into her mouth. Faith hissed, running her hands over Buffy's hair, stopping short of holding her head in place. Buffy pulled harder, creating a vacuum with her mouth, until Faith was whimpering with every breath. She moved from one peak to the other, fingers and mouth dancing over Faith's flesh, amazed at the pleasure surging through her as she worked to make Faith squirm.

Buffy reached between them, her fingers exploring, and Faith's breath exploded near her ear. "Here?" Buffy asked. Faith only nodded, her eyes wide and dark. Buffy slid her fingers slowly into Faith's wet heat, feeling her swollen folds and slick fluid. Faith nodded again, closing her hand over Buffy's, guiding her.

"Inside," she muttered, watching Buffy intently. "Please, Buffy."

"Yes." Buffy extended one finger, then two, slowly, slowly. Faith swallowed hard, her hips moving in time with Buffy's rhythm, then speeding up.

Faith rolled suddenly, until she was on top, kneeling over Buffy and moving up and down on her hand. "More..."

Buffy did as she asked, pushing a third finger past the second knuckle deep inside Faith, working her thumb over her hard clit. Faith nodded again, helplessly, her head hanging, her hair a tangled shadow falling over her shoulders.

Buffy watched Faith's face, waiting for the open, hungry look she'd worn when Buffy had cupped her through her jeans. She wanted, needed to see that look again--all of Faith's barriers disappearing, leaving her more beautiful than ever. Buffy wanted to see Faith's eyes darken and finally close when she couldn't control herself any longer, as Buffy's fingers dissolved all her rational thought. She wanted to feel Faith's walls tremble around her hand as she twisted her wrist with every thrust, and her mouth open as she cried out Buffy's name.

If Buffy had imagined this, she would have known their joining would be entirely different from the coldness of Angel's erection as he slid inside her. She would have imagined a fire that burned like the touch of Faith's body against hers on the dance floor, as hot as her anger when they fought side by side, as bright as her laughter. She would have imagined pleasure and pain in equal measure, because she and Faith could only clash every time they came together.

She would not have imagined tears. Faith's eyes brimmed with them even as she squeezed her eyes shut and she cried out, and they rolled down her cheeks as she rode Buffy's hand. Faith gasped, her muscles rippling with effort, drops of sweat trickling down between her breasts. She was soaking wet, and Buffy thrust her fingers faster, using all the strength in her arm, anything to keep Faith shaking and calling out her name. Faith gave one last shuddering thrust and froze, her inner muscles working hard around Buffy's hand. "Ah--Buff--Buffy..." She leaned forward, panting.

Buffy reached up to brush away Faith's tears, but Faith shook her head and pushed away her hand. "Your turn," she said, with all the cockiness and bad-girl attitude she could muster. It rang false. Buffy wanted to ask what was wrong, but then Faith was kissing every inch of her, her mouth searing Buffy's body. Buffy's hips lifted off the bed instinctively, her flesh quivering under Faith's assault.

Faith licked her way over Buffy's stomach, dipping into her bellybutton. Buffy moaned, clutching the sheets in her hands. Faith breathed over the wet trails, raising gooseflesh, and crawled lower.

"Faith...oh, God..."

"Shh, B, it's okay..." Faith placed a kiss just above her pussy, and then moved down. She spread Buffy's folds with her fingers and took one long lick. Buffy shuddered, heat flashing through her entire body. Faith sucked on her lips, both sides in turn, drinking down the liquid that coated Buffy's thighs. Her hands were busy, too, flicking over Buffy's clit until her head was thrashing back and forth, small moans catching in her throat. She was so close. Every action that had led to this moment flashed in front of her--the Slaying, the Bronze, Angel, and Faith, always Faith, at her side, kissing her, teeth and lips and tongue, sucking hard on her clit now, oh, yes, Faith, Faith--

If Buffy had imagined this--

Oh, if she had known--

She could never have imagined this--

At last, she thought, oh, love, at last, and then the rapture overtook her and she disappeared into pure sensation, pure pleasure.

"Faith!" she screamed, or thought she screamed, because she was nowhere near her voice. She was lost, falling, forever, exploding into nothingness and then returning. "Oh god, oh god, Faith, yes--yes--"

It lasted for an eternity and slid away like a forgotten dream. "Faith..." Buffy sighed, and wanted to say so much more, but she could only say Faith's name, over and over, like a prayer.

Faith's hands slowed, her tongue lapping up the last of Buffy's come, and rested her forehead on Buffy's stomach for a moment. She lifted Faith until they lay side by side once more.

If Buffy had imagined this, she would have pictured them as inexhaustible, rising to greater and greater heights with each orgasm, stroking joy from each other's bodies until the night dimmed with the coming dawn. She would have thought of stamina greater than lust, of want and desire stronger than fatigue.

But they were both injured, exhausted from three days of almost, almost. Faith's cuts had faded to angry red lines across her ribs, her bruises to blue-green blotches on her skin. Buffy felt her strains return to her, the overextended muscles and pulled tendons. The sheets were warm with their loving, the rain pattering a soothing rhythm on the roof. Their enemies were dead, their desire sated, and their bodies nestled together so easily. So right.

Faith was still kissing her, her hands drawing idle caresses on her skin. Buffy pulled the blankets over them and returned the kisses, slow and warm. Faith sucked on her tongue, her hand resting on Buffy's stomach, rubbing small circles. Buffy sighed, tasting herself on Faith's lips. She stroked her fingers down Faith's back, feeling her shiver when she reached the ticklish spots near her waist. They took their time, the kisses lingering, the long looks drawing out.

If Buffy had imagined this, she would have imagined an act as tender as a knife blade, as uncaring as a memory.

Instead there was only this. Small touches. Soft lips. Fading into sleep.

Not an ending, but a beginning.

Part 9

My fingers search for you while I sleep,
Looking for something to keep.

Waking up, Buffy could feel the night ending, dew settling and the wind dying down. It was about half an hour to sunrise, the most dangerous time for vampires, when their hunting luck could run out with the first stabbing rays of the sun over the horizon. This was the true Slayer's hour, the time to catch stragglers sneaking home to their crypts and sewer tunnels.

She stirred, trying to figure out what had broken into her sleep, then she heard the soft hiss of a zipper. She rolled over, blinking at the room. All the clothes that had been strewn around, on the floor and the furniture, were gone. Faith was standing at the foot of the bed, completely dressed, a full duffle at her feet. She'd just zipped up her leather coat.

"Faith--" Buffy stopped. Panic tangled up her thoughts until she couldn't speak. For the first time in forever, she had no idea what was going on behind the darkness of Faith's eyes. She was different. No makeup. Hair twisted into a knot on her head. Torn black jeans and runners. She looked so young, and Buffy was amazed to remember she was that young. Sixteen, if that. So easy to forget that when all Faith showed was the attitude, the swagger, the cleavage and the confidence.

She wasn't showing that now. Faith couldn't even meet her stare. She hesitated, then picked up the duffle.

"Wait!" Buffy sat up, pulling the sheets tight around her shoulders. She'd never felt so naked in her life. "Where are you going?" She didn't expect Faith to answer. Hopelessness settled around her heart like a lead weight. This was what it came to, after all. Get some and get gone.

Like Angelus, her mind suggested, but that lie was too easy to tell herself. Faith wasn't acting like that, mocking and cruel. If anything she looked scared, or hurt. As if there were some things that even Slayer healing couldn't touch.

"I can't do this, B." Faith's voice was rough and Buffy thought at first she'd been smoking too much, but the room didn't smell of cigarettes.

"Do what?" Buffy whispered, holding back tears. Of course holding back. Faith hated clingyness. So hold back. Don't let her know, don't let her see. She'd only be contemptuous if she saw.

Faith shrugged. She looked at the duffle like she wasn't sure why she was holding it. Buffy had never seen her stand so still. "I gotta go," she said, telling herself as much as Buffy.

"No." Buffy felt the denial burst out, angry, almost a shout. Couldn't Faith see that she needed her?

Faith's eyes flickered to her face. Buffy clenched her jaw against the wails that wanted to break free. Faith's face was swimming in front of her, masked by her tears, and that wasn't fair, because if this was the last time Buffy saw her she had to see her clearly. She blinked, and then the tears were flowing, hot and salty. Oh, please no. Please say she isn't going, it's not fair. It's not fucking fair.

"I just can't," Faith said, and started to turn away, as if all she wanted was to escape. As if she wished she'd been quieter, or faster, and Buffy had slept through her departure and woke up in an empty room without even a note.

"Promise me you'll come back," Buffy said. If it was the only guarantee she could get, she had to have it--she knew that Faith wouldn't break her word. And if Faith promised to come back, then Faith was promising not to get dead in the meantime. "I'm not saying soon," she said, trying not to sound as desperate as she felt. "I'm just saying...some day...just don't leave me forever."

Faith stopped at the door, resting her forehead against the jamb. She carried her duffle in one hand, but she set it down and looked back. "I'm not some saint you should be waiting for."

Buffy felt the tears burning her eyes, but she forced herself to speak past the lump in her throat. "That's not what I asked."

Faith picked up her duffle and grabbed the doorknob. Buffy thought she would leave without another word, but Faith paused again. She didn't turn around, and spoke mostly to the door. "I promise, Buffy. I'll come back, some day."

And she was gone.

The door swung open in the cool, wet breeze of morning, the fresh scent of it pushing away the heavy warmth of their night together.

Buffy thought about running after Faith, about chasing her down--she thought about screaming and raging and forcing Faith to stay--because she had to stay, she couldn't just leave--but she was shaking too hard to move. She slammed the door closed and buried her face in the pillows. She cried into the sheets that still smelled of them, together. Why did this happen? God, what was wrong with her?

Buffy poured her sorrow into the bed she'd shared with Faith. Finally, when she was wrung empty and dry, she washed her face with cold water. She went to the front desk and paid the overdue charges, and checked out in Faith's name. She walked home without watching where she was going and climbed into her room through her window. She cried herself to sleep again, remembering Faith's words in the alley.

Not like this. Never again like this.

Buffy slipped into the library after her last class on Monday, seeking sanctuary in its cool dimness. She'd managed to avoid Willow and Xander for most of the day, but Giles had cornered her in the hallway during lunch and asked her to join them after school. When she saw Willow and Xander sitting at the table, both of them looking solemn, all she wanted to do was turn around and walk straight back out. She was not ready to talk about this, about any of it.

"Hey, Buffy," Xander said as soon as she approached, his usual enthusiasm toned way down. "I, uh, I wanted to say something. You know, for Angel. I don't know what, 'cause, um, I never really liked--ow!" Xander turned a hurt look on Willow. "I mean, I'm sorry. Willow told me."

"Yeah, sorry, Buffy." Willow gave her a worried look. "I know you probably didn't want me to go blabbing about it, but well, I--I told Xander and Giles. Not--everything, you know, but I hope that's okay."

Buffy shrugged. What did it matter if everyone blamed Faith for Angel's death? She was gone now. "Where's Giles?"

"In his office," Xander said. "You sure you're okay, there, Buff?"

She met his gaze for a moment. Dark eyes. She looked down again. "Fine."

Giles emerged from his office, flipping the pages of a book he held. He glanced at Buffy over his glasses and set the book on the counter. "Buffy." She looked up at him, wondering if she was imagining the gentleness in his voice, or the questions in his eyes. "I wanted to tell you that I have destroyed Balthazar's amulet. However, I also have some disturbing news."

"What's the what?" Xander asked. "Wesley found some other dead demon cult leader we need to kill just a little bit more?"

Giles glared at him. "No. Thankfully." He reached beneath the desk and pulled out the paper. "Our deputy mayor has had an...unfortunate accident."

Buffy picked up the paper and read the headline.

"Okay..." Xander said. "Some of us are still a bit out of the loop."

"The deputy mayor, Alan Finch, came to us Saturday night with information regarding the Mayor," Giles said. "Wesley and I interviewed him for most of Sunday, and I believe it's fortunate indeed that we reached him before whoever caused this 'accident'."

Buffy tossed the paper on the table and stood up. "Okay."

"Okay?" Willow echoed. "But what about the Mayor's plan?"

"Balthazar's dead, the amulet's gone, we learned everything we're going to from snitch-boy. There's nothing else to say."

"Buffy..." Giles hesitated. He peered closely at her, searching for signs of the slay-madness that had overcome her. Buffy stared back at him, silently begging him not to say anything in front of Xander and Willow. Giles was the only one who suspected the truth. That this wasn't about Angel at all. He'd seen her with Faith, the way Buffy had leaned into her as if she was the only solid thing left in the world. Like a life-saver tossed to a person sliding under dark waters for the next-to-last time. And in the end, he was her Watcher, not the arbiter of her social life, so he said nothing.

"If that's all, I'm--I'm going to patrol." She pushed through the library doors.

"Buffy! Wait up!" Willow followed her out into the hall. Buffy stopped and waited for her, knowing that she couldn't duck Willow's questions forever. "I know you're hurting, Buffy, but you can't just shut us out. We want to help you. And you didn't--I mean, you didn't even mention Faith."

Buffy crossed her arms and looked down. "No."

"Well, I think...I mean, what are you gonna say to her? How can you even go after the Mayor with her if all this stuff is sitting between you?" Willow reached out and touched Buffy's arm, her face open and earnest.

Buffy hated the pity she saw in her eyes, and even worse, knowing that Willow's jealousy of Faith would prevent her from ever accepting the truth. "It doesn't matter anymore, Will."

"Of course it does!" Willow threw her hands up and paced back and forth in front of Buffy. "I know you couldn't, like, be with Angel, but you still loved each other. And Faith killed him!"

"She's gone," Buffy said dully. Love Angel? Yes, she had. But that was so long ago. Now there was only Faith...and she wasn't even here. Buffy couldn't even tell her how she felt. "That's why it doesn't matter. She left."

Willow gave her a confused frown. "Faith just left?"

"She's gone," Buffy repeated. "Will...the Mayor is just one more big bad. I'll take him down when the time comes."

Willow shook her head. "But, Buffy...this can't be like last summer. You can't go all absent-Buffy on us. You can't forget your duty because of what Faith's done."

"It's not like that!" Buffy burst out. Not the way Willow thought, but she was right anyway. Buffy still had to be the Slayer, no matter what the risk, no matter that Faith wasn't here anymore to understand her, to share the risks...and the rewards. Why did she have to go?

Willow sighed. "Angel came back from hell for a reason, right?" she asked. "You always believed that. So don't let his death be meaningless this time. You have to deal with this." Willow took her hands and waited until Buffy looked her in the eyes. "Promise me, Buffy. I know you have to go through the bad stuff. But promise me you won't let this hurt you forever."

Faith will come back. She said she would.

Buffy nodded. "All right, Willow. I promise."

They all passed the summer like that.

Waiting for a promise to be kept.


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