CHAPTER 21: CLOSEDOWN

But older than me now, more constant more real
and the fur, and the mouth, and the innocence;
turned to hair and contentment that hangs in abasement.
A woman now standing
where once
there was only a girl

            ~Last Dance, The Cure

Close to the edge, down by the river.
Down at the end, round by the corner.
Seasons will pass you by,
Now that it's all over and done,
Called to the seed, right to the sun.
Now that you find, now that you're whole.
Seasons will pass you by,
I get up, I get down.
I get up, I get down.
I get up, I get down.

            ~ Closer To The Edge IV (Seasons of Man), Yes

______________________________________________


After that, there were only a few more stops. One last night in the arms of Sunnydale, and tomorrow she'd be gone. Called to mind more than a couple of songs.

Tomorrow. A few last stops. And somehow, Faith dreaded leaving here even more than she'd dreaded coming. Because there was only one of those 'last stops' that made her heart curl up in fear and terror. Only one that made her soul blanch; made her stomach churn. And in true Slayer spirit, she was going to do that one first.

Last time pays for all.

*           *           *           *           *           *           *           *           *           *           *           *

It was a cheerful day. The kind in early spring where the light was like magic in early afternoon. The kind that made even the surliest heart want to seek out the ripening green hills and lay their burdens down by a river; to shake off their cynicism and hardened shell, if only for a moment to dare to imagine and dream. The kind made for lovers and young children and old folk who sat on their porches and remembered younger days. It was the kind of afternoon that seemed to come straight from the Powers themselves, blessedly turning everyone free for just a moment to enjoy their lives. Outside, fluffy white clouds were adrift in clearest blue. Green fields were draped in the mantle of burgeoning flowers. And all beneath that magical light that somehow made all right with the world. Gorgeous. Perfect.

There were probably even birds singing, somewhere.

And all Faith could think was how completely wrong it was.

"So…"

Buffy's eyes were steel, her face carved of marble in the golden light that glinted through her living room windows, and she was a statue carved to honor the heavens; the very visage of an angry goddess scorned.

"…you're going to LA."

It wasn't a question, and Faith could almost hear the rustling of leaves, feel herself taking that final step just before the ground fell away into a pitfall.

"Yeah." Faith put her hands on her hips and side swiped that angry stare before her gaze skittered past it. "I figure," her voice twisted in the wind as she tried to hit a casual note and came off sounding more nervous than ever, "Sunnydale's got its resident Slayer back. And you and me both know this town isn't big enough for the two of us." She shrugged and tried for a charming smile.

Buffy stared at her in silence for a moment, then folded her arms over her chest, eyes like flecks of cold metal. "Guess you finally won," she said, voice bitter and hard.

Faith froze, heart seeming to pause in her chest, and all her wishes, all her hopes died in that instant, slamming together in one painful lump that lodged in her throat and slowly slid down to the pit of her stomach. And still, she wasn't surprised. She'd known it was going to be like this. But she'd hoped, oh, she'd hoped.

"B," she began, then stopped, changing her tone. "Buffy." She hitched up her shoulders, willed herself to look the other Slayer in the eye. "It's not about winning. Not anymore."

"No, you just get to take my place for a while, grab some of the glory and then strut off into the night with Angel. Sounds like everything you always wanted, to me."

Faith stiffened, feeling threads of anger snaking through her veins, hot and invigorating as it pushed aside the strange numbness that had invaded her. And this was better, this was… familiar. "Look B. I came back here to help, to do the right thing for once in my life—"

"Yeah, because you're so noble and pure," the blonde Slayer sneered.

Faith took a step forward, eyes flashing, heart beating faster with a familiar heat. "And you were so noble and pure when you were running around screwing Spike and trying to end the world."

Buffy reeled back as if Faith had slapped her, eyes wide with shock, lips thinning to a pale, compressed line. Her voice shook with outrage and tears. "That wasn't me."

"Part of it was. If you—" Faith stopped, bit off the words with quick snap as she closed her mouth and shook her head, dark hair tumbling about her shoulders. She put a hand to her forehead, squeezed her eyes shut for a second, gathered her composure. "Look. I don't want to fight." She took a deep breath, wondering if she could ever find the words to make things right between them. "What is it with us, anyway?" she wondered aloud. "We can't be in the same room for five minutes without wanting to tear each other apart."

"Competition," Buffy answered, expression still stiff and unforgiving.

"Buffy…" she faltered for words, and they left her mouth haltingly, their truth discovered for the first time. "What happened with me and Angel… I never meant for it to work out this way. I mean yeah, I wanted him—I mean duh, who wouldn't—but I didn't set out to 'steal' him. We just, we spent a lot of time together, and you guys have been apart a long time, and things just sort of…" she shrugged, feeling lame even as she did it. "Happened."

Buffy laughed bitterly, every line of her face etched with mockery. "Oh yeah. You just happened to be a Slayer, so you just happened to hook up with my friends, and you just happened to fall in love with the guy who loves me, and he just happens to love you back. That sounds like a lot of coincidences to me. How about you?" she challenged, mouth curling upward in a snarl.

"Are we really going to argue about this? Like a couple of high school girls over a guy you haven't even been with for two years? Buffy, I know you've been through a lot—"

"You don't know anything!" Buffy thundered, her whole body trembling with rage.

Faith pulled herself up, folded her arms and shook her head. "You'd like to think that, wouldn't you? Poor little Buffy, all alone on her little island of pain where no one can reach her." The words that Angel had so recently spoken to her echoed in her head, made her realize suddenly the synchronicity in all of this. "You'd like to think that, but you know it's not true. Maybe we haven't been through the same things, B, but I know pain. I know you've had a lot of it. I also know you've had more love than anyone I've ever known, and you ought to be damned grateful for what you've got, because some of us never even get that."

"What? Because you went evil you think you know what it's like to hurt? Please!" Buffy scoffed.

"No, I know because I went through an entire life with no one who ever gave a shit about me except an evil guy who turned into a snake. And you, a little. And Angel, a little more. But the Mayor was all I had then, that was real, that was mine."

"And that's what matters, isn't it?" Buffy asked. "What belongs to you. That's what this is all about."

"I already told you that it isn't. It used to be, but not anymore. But I don't expect you to understand. You, who have people who love you so much they'd go into battle for you, die for you, bring you back from the dead. You have all that and it's like it doesn't even matter to you. You just want to bitch and gripe and mope over the one thing you don't have."

"You. Bitch. You have no idea." Buffy's eyes were cold, lifeless mirrors that reflected nothing except Faith's own image back at her. And Faith knew those eyes, knew that defense. Knew it all too well. "You don't know what I went through. My mother dying, Dawn, diving into the portal—"

"But I do know." Somehow, she found the strength to meet Buffy's eyes, to make her understand. "I know a little, anyway. I know what came to me in my dreams, when I was you. And I know how much it sucked." Faith paused, took a deep breath, ran a hand through her hair, shook her head. "I know that when your mom died, your heart broke in two and ever since you've felt alone in the world. I know that when the portal opened you were scared; terrified of what you were about to do, but did it anyway, because you weren't going to let your sister die, too, real or not. I know that when you died, you found peace, and then you got yanked back into this world un-whole, and crazy—and I know a whole hell of a lot about 'crazy'. And now you feel terrible about everything you did, but at least you've got an excuse, which is something I never had.  So, yeah, I know about all that—but Buffy, this isn't about that. This is about you and me and Angel. And I think you're being a little—"

Buffy held up a hand as if to ward off Faith's words, then brought it down to touch her forehead as she wrestled with her conflicting emotions, the battle visible in the lines of her face. For a moment, Faith wasn't sure if the other girl was going to cry or punch her in the face, and either way, she figured it equaled about the same thing. At length, Buffy's hand moved from her forehead to cover her mouth and she shook her head, tension leaving her body in a deep, slow exhalation.

"No. I'm being a lot," Buffy said with a heavy sigh, turning away. She fidgeted, paused as she tried to focus her thoughts.

Faith opened her mouth, thought the better of her retort, and closed it again.

"I know," Buffy said, after a moment. "I was dead, and Angel mourned me, and things are different now… I guess I just always thought…" she shook her head slowly, eyes raised toward the ceiling and heavens, gazing on a memory of hope for the future, a cherished memory that she was beginning to realize had only been a dream. "It's just… it's Angel, which always equals melodrama and big heartache."

"Tell me about it," Faith muttered.

Buffy gave a single, soft laugh that had nothing to do with humor. "Funny thing is; I always knew he liked you, even back then. Part of the reason I hated you." Faith lifted her eyes to Buffy in disbelief, but the Buffy kept her back toward the other Slayer, and Faith could only see the shake of her head as she spoke. "You two have so much in common. I guess I'm not even really surprised." Her voice was still bitter, but resigned now, shaded with the ghost of memory.

Afternoon sunlight cut through the curtains in golden shafts, lighting Buffy's living room with an almost otherworldly glow. And Faith remembered the times when they were younger, when she'd sat on that couch and they'd talked almost like friends. Remembered how jealous she'd been of everything Buffy had, how she'd longed for it until she'd tried to steal it all for her own. Remembered how every grain of caring and friendship she got felt like some kind of personal victory, even as she'd grown to hate and love this woman that was bonded to her by something deeper than blood. And now she had what she'd wanted, in a way. Her life was finally becoming something that she'd seen only the idea of in Buffy's—and here was Buffy, resurrected and hurting, her life in shambles. And she knew that once, it would have brought her some kind of furious glee. Now, she only felt sad, hollowed out and smooth inside, like a stone rolled in water until its edges were gone.

She took a halting step forward. "Buffy, I'm…"

Buffy turned on her. "Don't tell me you're sorry."

She backed up mentally, reassessed what she'd been about to say. "I'm sorry that you're hurting," she said simply.

Buffy shrugged, face twisting in knowing smile that reeked of cynicism. "It's not all that different than it was before. Little sister to take care of, world in peril, big evil and big hurt." Her fingers twined in the wool of her sweater, as if seeking comfort there.

And standing there in that place of memory, Faith felt her heart break a little as she looked at Buffy, tiny blonde girl in an oversized beige sweater, looking as lost and forlorn as Faith had ever seen her. "I know there's nothing I can do, but it if I could…"

Buffy gave her a distant smile. "You already did. You gave me my life back." Her hand fell back to her side, and she shrugged faintly. "Now I just have to figure out what I'm gonna do with it."

"You will," Faith said, with confidence. "If anyone can figure this out, it's you."

"Yeah." Buffy echoed Faith with less confidence.

An awkward moment of silence passed between them, and then Buffy's brows drew together as she rummaged to find a smile. "And I figure, hey, if this Slaying thing doesn't work out, there's always reality television."

And if Faith was startled by Buffy's sudden change in temperament, it didn't show in her face. Quick jokes to hide her heart were her stock in trade, and they rarely surprised her from others. "You could kick ass on 'Survivor'," she agreed with a grin.

Buffy's smile curved, cutting deeper, almost real despite the tinge of bitterness. "Or talk shows. 'Slayers and the evil vampires that love them'—"

"Next Jerry Springer," Faith finished with a laugh.

And there it was, that bond between them that Faith felt so sharp and clear when their eyes met and they laughed together. Sisterly, motherly; something like family, and yet something else entirely. It was a brief moment, always a fleeting moment, and yet there were few moments she remembered better, or that were closer to her heart. For an instant she wished it could always be like this; that they could go through life side by side, slaying, fighting, loving. Like family.

"Faith. Did I thank you for saving me?"

"No."

Buffy gave a slow smile and nodded once.

"When I can… I will," she promised.

*           *           *           *           *           *           *           *           *           *           *           *

She was packed. The battered black leather bag she'd borrowed from Giles represented the few outfits that weren't ripped to shreds or stained with blood, a few crosses, some stakes, holy water and one or two worn photographs she'd never admit to owning.

A good Slayer travels light, she thought and smiled, tucking the last stubborn corner of a pair of jeans inside.

Giles hung up the phone as she zipped the bag and turned briskly toward her. "That was the Council."

"Yeah? They call to apologize?" she asked with a smirk, hitching the bag up onto her back.

"Not, not exactly."

"Well damn, there goes the trust fund, huh?"

He smiled faintly, shook his head. "They were, surprisingly, polite and supportive."

Faith blinked, did a double-take. "Guess Tenth did a little more than put them back on the plane to England."

"I think they were rather impressed with what you did," he said, blinking as if he didn't quite believe it, himself. "They're still willing to support you, if you want it. It seems that Donner's been relieved of his position."

"Huh." She paused, swaying back and forth against the counterweight of her bag. "Well. It's something to think about, anyway."

A pause, and then a shifting of posture and expression that let her know something difficult was coming. "You're going to LA, then?" he asked, trying to sound casual.

"Yeah." She glanced away and then down self-consciously, drew up her shoulders.

He nodded, then slipped his hands into his pockets, turning slightly away from her. "You know, you're welcome to stay here."

Her eyes surged up to him, and she felt a smile stretch over her face, one of the first genuine smiles she'd felt in months. Then she smirked, shook her head slightly, letting her eyes tumble away. "Come on Giles, you know I'd never fit here. Never really have. But especially not now." She left the word 'Buffy' unspoken, but it hovered there between them with certain knowledge.

She cleared her throat. "Not that I don't appreciate everything you guys have done for me. I mean, being here with you guys these couple of months, it's…" she hesitated, shrugged. "It's been really cool."

He raised his brows at her in polite disbelief, as if he might not have heard her correctly, and his voice was deadpan with sarcasm. "Really?"

She caught his eye, held it with mirth, and they both chuckled together. She ran a hand through her hair and tossed it back with a smile. "Oh yeah."

"All the fighting, the constant running, suspicion, the death, killing, betrayals and losses?"

She shifted uncomfortably, and her face dimmed, thinking about it all. Beatrice, Daeonira, Angel, Buffy, Xander, Willow, Spike, all the obstacles she'd faced, all the times she'd nearly died or given up. Her head fell to the side as she considered. "Well, it definitely wasn't boring…" she said, a small smile playing about her lips as she looked at him. "But I was more talking about the second chance."

He sobered at that, and nodded, understanding in his eyes. He smiled just slightly, but this time it was warm with emotion. "We'll miss you."

"Maybe you will", she said, still holding on to her smile, but it was tinged with a touch of sadness now, regret, wishing. But she didn't want to dwell on it. Didn't want to draw this out and make a big deal. Didn't want to think too much about how she was actually going to miss the smell of books, the muddy yellows and comforting browns of Giles' home. The way his very presence made her feel safe, comforted. Nope, didn't want to think about that at all.

"Hey," she said, demeanor changing in an instant, smile becoming playful as she considered him. "You're not gonna get all sappy and try to hug me or anything, are you?"

His brow crinkled with a wry chuckle. "I'll try to restrain myself."

They stood there for a moment in silence, him wearing those no nonsense clothes that only he could look natural and comfortable in, lit by the dimming sunlight, every line in his face accentuated and somehow all the more beautiful for it, and she drank it in, committed it all to memory to be remembered in times when she was less comforted. Damn. She was going to miss him. He'd done so much, meant so much. She couldn't even begin to find the words.

The silence stretched, and just as she was thinking it was time to go, that everything had been said despite how much more she wanted to say, he reached out, took her hand, and met her eyes with the sweetest, most intense look she'd ever seen on his face for her.

"Thank you, Faith."

She squeezed his fingers, smiled back. Maybe she could find some words, after all.

"Couldn't have done it without you, G."

It was enough. More than enough. Odd, but like Buffy, she'd never needed many words with this man. He just… understood, somehow.

He squeezed her hand one last time, then let his fingers slip through hers. The silence hung a moment more, and then he drew himself up, composing his face into something resembling stuffy-Watcher-mode.

"Faith… Before you go, I'd like to ask one more thing of you."

"I know," she grinned, swallowing against the sudden lump in her throat. "Don't call you G. I'll try to restrain myself," she said in a bad imitation of an English accent.

"Hmn?" He was adorable, and he didn't even know it. "Oh yes, that, too," he said as if finding his place after being distracted. "But actually, I wanted to ask you if you'd come to the Magic Box with me one more time."

The moment of understanding faded fast and she stiffened, guard going up. "Why?" she asked, voice thick with suspicion. And she hated how easy it was to fall into old habits, but she hated this more. This was hard enough. "You know I hate this whole goodbye thing, Giles. I've got no need to make a big exit. I'm sure everyone'll be just fine with me sneaking out."

"Oh…er… no… not that," he said, flustered. "I, ah, had a few questions about some of the monsters you fought—Daeonira in particular—that I wanted to confirm against the books there."

She stared at him.

"It's very important," he said, offended and condescending in the polite manner that only the British possessed.

She folded her arms and looked at him speculatively.

He blinked and gave her a pleading look. "Humor me?"

*           *           *           *           *           *           *           *           *           *           *           *

"I'm going to kill you," Faith murmured out of the corner of her pasted on smile.

Giles raised his shoulders and adjusted his glasses. "Well what the bloody hell was I supposed to say? 'You've got to come, it's your surprise going away party'?" he whispered fervently. "Besides, if you hadn't, Anya would never have shut up about it."

"Anya?" Faith echoed in a surprised whisper, turning to look at him as much as she could. "This was her idea?"

"Yes," Giles answered, agitated. "Since she and Xander are going to get… married… she seems to think she has to learn the proper human customs for every rite of passage."

"Okay!" Anya said loudly, bustling into the room. "I've got the cake. Is everyone ready?'

Faith eyes went wide. "We're having cake?"

She could almost feel Giles' embarrassed shrug.

"Um, An, ready for what?" Xander asked.

"To sing," Anya said, as if it should have been obvious. "Isn't that what people do at gatherings like this? Gather around a confectionary nightmare of a cake that will never allow me to fit into a proper wedding dress and sing some sort of inane song?"

"That's… just at birthday parties, honey."

"Oh, and Bat Mitzvah's," Willow supplied with an awkward smile.

"So there's no song?" Anya appeared distressed. "I thought all ceremonies had a song."

"No song," Spike confirmed.

"Thank heaven," Giles murmured.

"But hey," Faith said, stepping forward. "We can still have…" She looked at said confectionary nightmare dubiously. "…cake."

"Without a song?" Anya asked, worried and agitated.

"Absolutely," Angel said, stepping up next to Faith.

"Really?" Anya asked, eyes lighting up. Then they narrowed with suspicion. "You're not just being nice to me to get out of paying your rent, are you?"

"Hey," Spike said, malicious grin lighting up his face. "Angel could sing us a rousing chorus of Copa Cabana. Remember how much he loved that."

Angel shot Spike a glare filled with daggers.

"Yes!" Anya exclaimed, latching onto the idea with luminous dark eyes. "That would be perfect." She made shooing motions with her hands at Angel. "Now get on with it. This cake was expensive and it's going to be below optimum cutting temperature in three minutes."

Angel blinked, stared flatly at the room. "I'm not singing."

"Aw, Angel, come on," Faith said, stepping up to him and fluttering her eyelashes. "I'd just love to hear you hit that low note where he says—okay, I have no idea what he says, but I'd love to hear you sing it."

"I can't sing," he protested, feebly.

Cordelia cut her eyes at him and smirked. "Never stopped you at Caritas. 'Everybody Wang Chung' tonight?" she reminded him with mocking brows.

"Hey." Angel's eyes narrowed. "You weren't there for that."

"Some tales of horrible singing surpass bad and become legend," Cordelia deadpanned.

"You sang 'Everybody Wang Chung'?" Faith asked in horrified disbelief.

"Lorne told you about that?" he demanded, wounded.

"Sing!" Anya commanded.

"Yeah, come on Rico, sing." Spike lounged and smirked.

Angel shoved his hands in his pockets and hoped his surly look was enough to make them leave him alone.

It wasn't.

*           *           *           *           *           *           *           *           *           *           *           *

"Oh, come on, you weren't that bad," Faith said, practically falling into him as she laughed.

"Yes I was," Angel murmured, having retreated into brood mode mere seconds after he'd finished the last repetition of the chorus.

"Okay, you really were, but still—"

"Um… Faith?" Tara asked, voice timid and posture tentative as she sidled up to them. Willow and Dawn trailed just behind Tara, and despite herself, Faith tensed, trying not to frown as she turned to them.

"Yeah?" she greeted, her tone more stand offish than she would have liked.

Tara wilted beneath her suspicious gaze, and Faith mentally kicked herself. How did Red deal with that wounded puppy dog look all the time? Then she blinked, suddenly aware of her own thought, and bit back a chuckle as she cut a quick glance toward her own wounded puppy dog, who stood, vigilant and expressionless as ever, at her side.

"We um…" Tara faltered a moment, took a breath, found her place. "We didn't have enough time to g-get you a, um, going away present or anything—"

Faith waved her arms through the air and blew it off with an inward sigh of relief. "Nah, it's totally cool." God, she'd been worried about a confrontation. That, she could have handled. But gifts? No way.

"B-but we did, um, get you a card." Tara smiled hesitantly and held out an embossed yellow and white envelope.

Faith stared at the little water-colored piece of Hallmark in disbelief for so long that Tara tucked a lock of hair behind one ear and glanced away, embarrassed. Finally, Faith reached out, hand hesitating, hovering over the card for a moment before she took it.

It felt awkward in her hands as she pulled the card free, and she paused, stared at the outside of the card as if she'd never seen one before. The outside was non-descript, some irrelevant bit of abstract art, but it held her fascination nonetheless, remembering the last time she'd gotten one of these. A lacy bit of paper wreathed in pink and signed by the Mayor, telling her how proud he was to have her for a daughter. It was the one thing she was sorry she didn't still have; the one tangible memory of him that she'd ever possessed.

Suddenly aware of the eyes upon her, she shifted the light weight of paper in her hands and opened it, reading the inside.

Good luck, it read. And it was signed Thank you, with half a dozen signatures following the postscript.

Faith cleared her throat, found her voice. "Wow. You even got everyone to sign it." And it wasn't quite the note of congeniality she'd hoped for, but what the hell was she supposed to say?
Tara's eyes stuttered along with her lovely mouth. "W-we w-wanted to say…"

"Thank you," Willow finished, stepping forward. "We all wanted to say thank you." The witch said again, holding Faith's eyes for a long moment. Then she glanced away, awkward shyness slipping over her again. "I know it's not much, but…"

"It's not like we were ever best friends or anything," Faith finished. When Willow flinched, she shook her head with just the ghost of a smile. "No, it's cool. I know." She hesitated a moment, dredged up the words and pushed aside her reluctance. "Thanks. It's really nice."

Willow nodded and Faith didn't know what else to say, so she looked down at the card again.

"You even got B to sign it."

"Yeah," Dawn piped up, her voice a little too bright. "Buffy said to tell you she was sorry she couldn't be here. But she's still, you know, recovering."

"It's cool, Pip," Faith said with a shrug, touched by the younger girl's attempt to smooth things over. "We already talked."

Dawn smiled, and there were a dozen emotions tied up in that smile—troubled memories of the past, gratitude for having her sister back, hope for the future. It wasn't the blithe, adoring smile of the little girl who'd once looked up to her with such admiration, but it was sincere enough, and Faith gave a slow smile in return.

"Well, um, good luck," Tara said, after a moment.

"Yeah. You too." She paused, cleared her throat, and forced herself to look at them. God she was so bad with moments like this. She knew her heart wasn't going to break for leaving here, and she hadn't thought she was going to miss them in any big way. But somewhere along this whole crazy Hellmouth ride, they'd become part of her life, had started to mean something to her, and she supposed she was going to miss them all a little bit, after all. And then… for them to do this… she couldn't begin to explain the way it all made her feel. But it felt good, she knew that.

"You guys take care of yourselves," she said with sincerity, and one corner of her mouth pulled up in a sad smile.

"We will," Willow said and smiled back. They all gave a final nod, then made their way across the room.

Faith watched them go, then turned to Angel, greeting card held between her middle and index finger. "That was… bizarre," she said with a shake of her head.

Angel blinked. "I thought it was kind of sweet."

"Well…" She struggled with the idea, and it occurred to her that that was wrong about it in the first place. "Yeah," she said, as if that one word should explain everything.

"They appreciate what you did," Angel said with a shrug. "I mean, maybe you'll never be good friends, but they've spent a lot of time with you. You helped them, healed Buffy. It's not so strange."

"I guess not," she said, still sounding doubtful. If anyone had told her a week ago that she'd be standing here like this, saying goodbye and being thanked and feeling like maybe, at long last, she'd finally proven herself, she'd have probably laughed in their face. Okay, so it wasn't some sappy Disney movie ending where everything turned out perfect and she was completely forgiven and everyone hoisted her up on their shoulders and sang her praises and rained showers of love and flowers on her, but as endings went, it wasn't bad. She would have hated that, anyway. This felt… right, strange as it was.

"I guess I'm…" She trailed off, shrugged, and then her voice grew stronger as she regained her composure. "I'm just not good with Hallmark moments, you know? Or… being appreciated," she said with a snort.

"Join the club," Angel muttered.

"No, wait," she said, looking down at the card again. "I take it back. This is still weird. On the Sunnydale weirdness scale? This goes off the charts."

"Hey. Faith." Xander stepped up next to them, grabbed some chips out of a bowl and leaned back, stuffing each one into his mouth in a slow rhythm of chomping and swallowing.

"Or maybe I spoke too soon," Faith muttered before turning away from Angel.

"Hey Xander," she replied, frowning. "What's up?"

He put the last chip in his mouth, chewed, swallowed, washed it down with the beer in his hand. He shifted, opened his mouth, shrugged, closed it again. "I just wanted to say… you know… thanks for helping us out."

"Wow." Faith paused, considered that. She shook her head, unable to help herself, and leaned in for a closer look. "Did that hurt?" she asked with a grin.

"Hey, I'm a big man, I can own up to my—" he started to protest, then broke off with a look of realization. He nodded his head to the side, shrugged with one shoulder. "Okay, it hurt a little bit," he admitted.

"Well… you're…" she cleared her throat, so unused to the words as she was. And oh, she was going to kill Giles so many different ways. "You're welcome. And thanks for… you know. Backing me up." She paused, smiled. "And for telling me where the hell to get off when I needed it."

"That hurt?" he asked.

"Little bit." She smirked.

He paused, licked his lips, gave a nervous smile. "This is awkward, huh?"

"Oh hell yeah," she answered with a laugh.

He nodded, then drew his shoulders up. "Well. Then I should probably make up some lame excuse about how I should go… have more cake."

She gave him a final smile and nodded her head once. "See you, Xander."

"Yeah." He hesitated, looked at Angel. "Angel," he said by way of goodbye.

"Xander," Angel replied in the same stiff tone.

"What? No hug goodbye for Angel?" Spike asked as he wandered over.

Xander stopped long enough to glare at him.

"Ah well, maybe later then," Spike said with a wink, and Xander opened his mouth, as if about to say something, then rolled his eyes and walked off. Triumphant, Spike turned, leaned against the table in the spot Xander had so recently vacated, and leered at Faith.

"So, Slayer. Can I tempt you for one last indulgence of sin?"

"She's not interested, Spike," Angel said, glowering.

"In a smoke?" Spike asked with obviously feigned innocence, pulling a cigarette from his duster and holding it up before the mocking twinkle in his blue eyes.

"I can speak for myself, thanks." Faith slapped Angel on the shoulder and he overbalanced slightly, resuming his stance against the wall with as much dignity as he could muster. "Be right back," she said with overdone sweetness, then sauntered to the back door.

Spike grinned at Angel over his shoulder before the door slammed shut behind them.

*           *           *           *           *           *           *           *           *           *           *           *

"Look at you," Spike sneered, lighting his cigarette. His face flashed orange, highlighting his mocking grin for a moment before disappearing behind a cloud of smoke. "Got your little card," He nodded at the scrap of white paper still tucked in her hand. "Got your cake, your party. Regular little Miss High Society. Surprised you're not too good to have a smoke in the back with the unrepentant vampire."

"Fuck off, Spike," she said with a grin, in too good a mood to give in to his teasing. "Besides, you're not so unrepentant. You did help save the world."

"You just shut your mouth," he warned, tucking his lighter into the pocket of his duster and raising a threatening finger.

She laughed and pushed her hands into the pockets of her jean jacket, taking a few steps out into the night. "Don't worry. I promise not to tell."

Spike followed behind with shuffling steps, and they walked in silence for a minute or two, Spike puffing on his cigarette, Faith staring up at the stars.

"You're too good for him, you know?"

"But not for you?" she asked, brows quirking.

"Nah. I'm too good for you," he said and sniffed.

She snorted, shook her head and sat down on an old box near a dumpster. "And to think, I'm actually gonna miss you."

"It would never have worked, luv. You, out saving the world all the time, me, snarking and telling you what a piss poor job you're doing." He walked over to her, plopped down on the box next to her, and exhaled into the cool night air. "Was a time, though, it could've been magic."

She turned to him with a half-smile, brows raised in disbelief. "You think?"

He considered for a moment, staring up at the night sky. "No," he said, looking back to her with smirk. "We'd have probably killed each other way before then. And you know, if I ever got this chip out, it'd be curtains for you, for certain."

"Yeah. I'd like to see you try," she snorted.

"Oh, it would," he promised, still smirking. "But." He brought up his shoulders, took a drag of his cigarette, shrugged. "I'd probably make you, anyway. Just for kicks," he added quickly.

She plucked the cigarette from his mouth, took a deep drag and wedged it back between his lips. Dark eyes stared deep into blue as she slowly exhaled into his face, smoke curling over his angular features.

"Just for kicks," she echoed.

"Yeah," he said, puffing up after a split second of hesitation. He drew deep from his cigarette and blew the smoke back at her with petulance. "Just for kicks."

"Sap."

He drew an indignant breath around the filter. "Bitch."

"Jerk."

"Trollop."

"That's as close to a hug as we're gonna get, right?"

"Damned right," he shot back.

Faith leaned back and smiled up at the stars.

*           *           *           *           *           *           *           *           *           *           *           *

The drive to Los Angeles was longer than she remembered, and after the brief small talk about how nice it was of Cordelia to take Connor back to LA, it left entirely too much time for Angel to peer nervously over the steering wheel at her between switching radio stations.

"So…" he finally said, clearing his throat. "You're sure about this?"

She gave him a sidelong glance in the dim dashboard light, whimsical smile painted with faint green luminescence. "Helluva time to ask me that."

"Well," he hedged, shrugged one shoulder and ducking his head back toward the road in that annoyingly adorable way he had about him. "I just… want to make sure. You know… that this is what you really want."

She sank back into the plush leather seat of the car, bringing her shoulders up. "What? Butt-kicking for goodness? I think I've got a little bit of experience in that area."

He ducked his head downward a little, tucked his shoulder in, and she knew instantly that wasn't what he'd meant.

"No… I meant… with us."

She shifted in her seat, turned to him with a glib smile. "Well, I mean it's not like we're talking marriage or kids, here, right?"

He cleared his throat again—never a good sign—then went on haltingly. "Well… I mean, kids are out. I mean… uh… there's Connor, but… I'm still a… vampire and all. But I guess… if everything worked out… if you wanted… maybe one day… you know… depending on… well… maybe—"

She watched him wriggle like a worm on a hook and flashed him a grin. "Please don't make me have to jump out of the car."

He sagged back in his seat. "Thank God."

She laughed, sank back in her seat. "So, you got anything in here besides Manilow CD's?"

"There's nothing wrong with Barry Manilow," he replied defensively.

"Angel, Angel, Angel," she shook her head and heaved a regretful sigh. "The first step is admitting you have a problem."

"I suppose you want to listen to Led Zepplin or something?" he asked dryly.

"Do you even know that there was music made after 1986?" She blinked and shuffled CD's. "We're gonna have to work on this." She stopped. Stared at the disc in her hand. "Angel. The Captain and Tenille?"

"It came with the car," he answered, not looking at her.

"Uh-huh." She grinned and selected a CD that wouldn't cause her actual physical pain to listen to, and pushed it into the player.

"That's better," she said, sinking back in her seat. Minutes passed, and the road flew by, and the music swelled, and at last she leaned up, turning the sound down a notch.

"So… what's it gonna be like in LA?"

"Pretty much the same as here," he said with a shrug. "Except I'll be in charge."

"Wanna bet?"

"Leave me my illusions, okay?" he asked.

She chuckled and leaned back again with a wry grin. "Vampire and Slayer; together again. What's your team gonna say?"

"Oh…" he started out, light and breezy, and then just stopped. She watched the complexity of emotion that worked over his face, trying not to look like she was watching. "Everything they can possibly think of," he answered with a sigh.

She blinked, considered that. "Sounds like fun," she quipped, deadpan.

"You get used to it."

She paused, frowning at the thought that hovered on the edge of her mind. "So… think they'll like me?" she asked, trying to keep her voice breezy.

He reached across the seat, took her hand in his. "They're gonna love you," he said, glancing away from the road long enough to fix her with serious dark eyes. He focused back on the road ahead. "But it might take a while."

So sweet. He was too damned sweet. He probably honestly believed what he was saying. And who knew? Maybe he was right.

"I got time," she shrugged and let the feeling slide away. "Besides," she couldn't resist. "Since I'm gonna be in charge and all, it doesn't really matter if they like me, right?"

He gave her a knowing glance, shook his head a little, and smiled despite himself.

"Well." She grinned and sidled up to him. "I can still call you 'boss', if you want."

He cut her a look and she laughed, twined an arm around his shoulders and insinuated herself closer to him. She slipped her hand free of his and walked her fingers over the top of his thigh, gave him a sidelong grin and shrugged. "Sue me. I'm still riding high on beating the bad guys." She could feel his muscles flex beneath her fingers, could almost taste him, she was so close to him. And goddamn he smelled good; enough to make her want throw one leg over him and straddle him while they drove.

Her eyes grew heavy, half-lidded, and her grin became decidedly more mischievous. "Which reminds me; I've still got a promise to make good on."

Angel's brows rose and he struggled valiantly to look nonchalant, distracted from driving as he was. But she could feel the rising tension in him, could feel his muscles tighten with anticipation. If she could feel him, smell him, almost taste him, what must it be like for him? She knew his senses were better than hers. It must have been torture to have her so near, to have her teasing him like this

"Yeah?" he asked, his voice just a touch too light. "What's that?"

"Thing is," she teased, leaning just a bit closer, letting her warm breath flow over his ear. "I still can't decide if I wanna kick your ass or jump your bones."

He turned his eyes away from the road, looked at her for a long beat. "We could pull over and find out."

She blinked, then laughed aloud, unable to help herself. "You sound like me. Better watch out. I'm a bad influence." She grinned and traced the curve of his ear lightly with one finger. "Besides, don't we have battles to fight, evil to beat up on?"

"They'll be there," he said, and his eyes were solemn, even backlit by desire as they were. "They're always there."

"Yeah. I guess they are," she said, sobered for a moment by the thought. Then she smiled, eyes twinkling in the pale green dashboard light. "Besides, you've got a lot of years of celibacy to make up for, huh?"

"That's what I'm thinking."

They made it as far as the motel, but they didn't make it out of the car.

And there, on the front seat of the car, skin lit by pale fluorescent street lights and framed by darkness, muscles stretching and straining in the darkness, they lived. Just the two of them, alone for that one brief moment, they lived for all those who had come before, for all those who had fought and fallen. For all the battles they would yet fight and the early death that was more a certainty than a worry, they grabbed the moment and squeezed it for all it was worth. Might as well make the best of what they had. Who knew how long they'd have it, after all?

Afterward, Faith stayed in his arms, flirting with sleep as thoughts tumbled through her mind with restless abandon. Back street girl, poor town child, hell and back, a couple of times, and she lived to tell the tale. It wasn't going to be easy in LA, she knew. Probably just as bad as it had been in Sunnydale—maybe worse. But after what she'd been through? It seemed almost petty.

Angel shifted; smooth, cool skin against her, and she smiled. He was right. She didn't need him. But damn, she wanted him, and he was damned nice to have, and okay; love was a word she wasn't quite prepared to admit, and yeah, he was right about that, too…damn him.

Life wasn't going to get any easier; he was right about that, as well. And he was right about another thing. She wasn't going to quit until she'd given everything she had, until she'd faced down the last enemy and tasted the last bit of sweetness she could steal. For the first time ever, she knew who she was, knew where she was going, knew who she wanted to be, who she would become.

And it was funny. The one thing she'd wanted, the one thing she'd struggled for, had been within her power all along. Her life, shaped by the Powers as it might be, was hers to do with what she willed. She was her own. And nothing—no one—could ever take that from her.

She could deal.

Whatever waited for her on the road ahead, Faith had a feeling it was going to be one hell of a ride.

And there was nothing she loved more.



FINIS





_______________________________________________


Ending Notes – thanks, credits and thoughts

200,000 plus words, people. 200,000 words and more than a year of my life. I think that's worthy enough to warrant some egocentric end notes :)

First of all, as always, feedback is loved and adored and cheerfully answered. LJ comments, reviews, or email to onyx@themirrorsedge.com are all happily accepted :) And if you have any questions, if something wasn't resolved well enough for you, don't be afraid to ask. I probably have the answer but just couldn't manage to fit it into the story. Also, please check out my site (if you're reading this elsewhere) for my other fic at www.prozacgirl.com

Now; thanks. Right as Rain, you beta'd for me through 30 some chapters, and I can't thank you enough for that. You really helped me and supported me throughout, and you were always pretty much in agreement about what I was uncomfortable with and what was good. That helped me to grow a lot more confidence in what I was doing. Debxena, you came in in the eleventh hour and helped me through the last several chapters, and I couldn't have done it without you to catch my errors and ask the tough questions about what was going on. Thank you. I feel like I've become a better writer because of both of you.

And, just as importantly, thank you to all the readers who've supported me throughout. Imation23, David Goodman, Kate, Ludditerobot, Faith and Wesley Rocks, Carolyne Rosseau; thank you guys all so much. Your constant comments and enjoyment and even questions about the story have made it so worth while for me to write it. I appreciate it more than you know. There were a lot of times I felt like I was letting you all down by taking so damned long to finish writing a chapter, but you all hung in there and kept supporting me, and I can't thank you all enough for it.

Lastly, thank you to The Cure, Mesh, DiVision, Garbage, Morrisey, Lifehouse, Rob Zombie and all the other bands who made the music that helped set the mood for me to write this story throughout.

There are also a couple of people I have to credit. The moment towards the end, when Spike brings up the idea of Angel singing Copa Cabana, was totally inspired by a bit of dialogue from wisteria's wonderful "Blueprints" fic. I don't want to ruin the joke, so I won't go into detail, but suffice to say I laughed so hard at what she wrote and loved it so much that I felt a need to incorporate it. I give her full credit for the idea.

Also, the inspiration for the Winnowin—and this probably comes as no surprise to Stephen King readers—stems from his novel (co-written with Peter Straub) called "The Talisman". I needed an object powerful enough to pose a real threat, and the idea of the Talisman that they created really worked for what I wanted to do. I put my own spin on it, but it was their idea that inspired me.

Now. About the story itself. Skip this part if you like; it's mostly about my thought processes and decisions, but I figure some of you might be curious.

When I started out writing this story, I was determined to do something that no one else was doing. I wanted to do something different. I love all the good Spuffy fic and such out there, but I wanted to be different. I wanted to do an epic. An action/adventure/comedy/drama that followed the hero's journey with one of the candidates that deserved it most, and Faith, whom I've always loved for her troubled, tormented I-want-to-be-a-hero-but-I-always-manage-to-fuck-it-up pain, was perfect.

I had the basic plot planned out from the very beginning, from the very first chapter I wrote. I knew that Faith would end up in Sunnydale with Angel and this strange Watcher woman who would slowly become important to her life in ways she didn't understand. I knew that Beatrice would end up being a villain, and I wrote her with that in mind from the very beginning. Angel's comment in Chapter 3 about her not being human that turned out to be a joke? A little tongue in cheek that I really enjoyed playing up to. I also knew that I was going to bring Buffy back, and do it completely wrong and that it would be the Scoobies' fault from the very beginning. The dream scenes were all very deliberately written to foreshadow that. By the fifth chapter, I had written down a basic outline of how things would play out to the point of Buffy's return being discovered, and the Council putting an ultimatum to Faith to kill Buffy. Some of my ideas changed a little throughout, depending on what made sense in relation to the story progression, but mostly stayed true to what I envisioned.

There were, however, some things I didn't count on. Faith and Angel spelled into sleeping together so that Angel would leave? Yeah, I planned on that. But what I didn't foresee were the logical character conclusions I'd have to come to in order to reach that point and make it believable.

I had every intention of NOT writing a romance. I was determined not to do that. Not because I don't enjoy romance—I SO do, I'm such a sap—but because that seemed to be the focus of almost every story I'd read centered in the Buffy universe, and I, once again, wanted to be different. So imagine my dismay and surprise as Angel and Faith began to fall for each other. My even greater dismay as I resigned myself to the romance, only to find that she and Spike were determined to get it on with the amazing chemistry and bizarre kindred spirit understanding between them. I couldn't make them stop, and for a long while, I was torn about which way to go with that, because the two of them together, their scenes… I have to tell you. They were so natural, easily the quickest scenes I wrote, and I rarely had to reread or re-write or re-think any dialogue or actions between them. And not because they were simple scenes—but because I just knew, intrinsically understood the love/hate, the bond between them. And I was incredibly annoyed that having resigned myself to one romance path, I was now having to consider another. The characters totally took that all into their own hands and ran with it, while I watched with amazement and dismay the words typed by my own hands. But romance turned out to be an important part of the plot, as much between Faith and Spike as Faith and Angel, or even Buffy and Spike or Anya and Xander. And in the end, I ended up loving every single bit of it.

After a while, I figured out that Faith and Spike may be kindred spirits and perfect to write together, but I still believed she and Angel had a lot they could learn from each other, because they are similar in the ways that truly matter. I gave final acknowledgement to the attraction and kindred spirit shared between Spike and Faith, because that will always be there, but by about halfway through the second book, I knew she was going to end up with Angel. It seemed right.

Willow. Willow let me know early on that she was going to have a big part in the plot, from the moment she magic-ed Tara. At that point I began to figure out how she was going to fit, because I knew, that just like the real 6th season, she was going to end up being the major villain in the end. I didn't plan that at the outset, but once it happened, it seemed right. I felt she and Faith's storylines complemented each other nicely. I thought a bit about having a final piece with her and Tara, or possibly Giles, to go over what she had learned from it all, but in the end I felt her lesson was obvious in her decision not to take the path of power and her admittance of and sorrow over what she had done afterward. So I left it at that.

Buffy and Spike. I did not want to have them together. When Spike walked into that cavern and saw Buffy with the Master and Daeonira, I fully intended for him to turn and walk away and go back to the Scoobies to get help. And then my fingers typed him saying "Sod that", and I realized it would be completely out of character to have Spike walk away from her then. And then I had to scramble to figure out how to work that angle. The prophecy of good and evil necessary to come together to retrieve the Winnowin was made up on the spur of the moment as a reason to have him stay and not get killed out right by the Big Bads, because Buffy was not going to walk away from her path. I'd planned on the Winnowin, but not on how exactly, or when, or where it would be gotten. And once I had them together, I realized that it was right in keeping with the Season 6 themes. Buffy using and then betraying Spike played perfectly to that. Not to mention that I wanted the chance to make his life exceedingly hard and funny. His scenes afterward were some of the most fun for me to write, especially with the homeless woman and Cordelia.

Tenth and Fox… Truth? I wanted to introduce some original characters and ended up short on words at the end of the chapter they were introduced in, so I added them. Not without figuring out who they were and vague reasons they were there, mind you, but it was sort of a frivolous thing. Original characters always come with some nervousness. You have to think about the Mary-Sue factor, and the fact that most readers of fanfic aren't going to care about original characters as much as the characters from the show. But they ended up being very pivotal to the plot in minor ways that would have been difficult to do without them. I was very pleased. They were a lot of fun to write, and I may use them again someday.

I'm still amazed at the way I kept throwing in random things I didn't plan on and still managed to tie them all together.

The ending… that was the hardest. How to get it just right? My original scene between Faith and Angel had her belligerent and lost and somewhat desperate, sort of passively letting Angel choose her despite how terrible she felt about herself. And then I realized, after the desert scenes between her and Buffy, after what she went through fighting Daeonira, it just wasn't going to work. She'd come into her own at that point, and it needed to be a decision that she consciously made, to be with Angel, not just passively giving in because she cared. I re-wrote and added to that scene more than a dozen times. It started out incredibly gooey and sappy. Pretty, sweet, but too overdone. I wrote it originally to be placed before they went out to rescue Buffy, then realized it was too soon for that, because it was the big revelation moment, and I wasn't done squeezing the angst out of the story. So I decided to use it for the end. And then it didn't work. Once I got Faith's voice in that scene more certain, more distinct, everything else fell into place and I realized the rest of the ending I'd already written was almost perfect. I thought the party at the end might be a little cheesy, but I felt it (and the slight comedy of it all) was necessary to tie up all loose ends. The goodbyes and thanks had to be said, or else, what was the point? I also originally had Faith being rather reluctant and reserved during her final scenes with the Scoobies, and then realized that at this point, it wouldn't be that way. She'd come too far. So I had to re-write those, as well. Her and Buffy's scene was also a nightmare of writing and re-writing to get out what had to be said and leave things "okay". Spike and Faith's ending scene? The easiest one I wrote, again.

Angel keeping his soul was a hard choice. I wanted it, because I wanted him to be able to make a real choice about what he wanted, and I wanted Faith to have a real chance with him without all the melodramatic bullshit. Their relationship has complications without adding the star-crossed B/A twist, and I wanted it to be different for them. Still, it seemed a bit… dues ex machina. Almost like cheating. I wrote really hard to make it not seem that way, and in the end it really worked, I think. Like he said to
Willow, it doesn't change anything for him. He'll still do what he's doing, still be a hero.

I decided a long time ago that this story was going to have a fairly happy ending. Not fairy tale happy, but as happy a one as you can hope for in the Buffy-verse. No way was I going to let it end angsty or unhappily after all I'd written and everything everyone had been through. This may surprise people who've read my other stuff, but I'd invested so much personally that I needed a happy ending.

Have I thought about a sequel? Only about 20 chapters ago. I'd love to do a story someday with Faith and Buffy trying to work together, given their relationship at the end of this story. Would love to explore Faith's adventures with the Angel team. I don't know if it will ever happen. Sad as I am to say goodbye to this story, it feels finished. Probably because I need a break
J But still, it feels final enough to satisfy me. For now.

I have a lot favorite scenes. The scene between Faith and Spike in the sewers when she falls apart in Chapter 7 of Book 2 stands out as one. Another was the beginning of Chapter 11 of Book 2, when Faith and the Scoobies are patrolling. And of course, Chapter 5, where Faith and Spike get drunk and snark and try desperately to ignore the undercurrent of undeniable sexual tension. But really, I love all the moments. It may not be the best fic ever written, but it accomplished what I set out to do, and I'm very happy with it. I hope you've all enjoyed it as much as I have. It's been one hell of a ride, and I thank you all for coming along with me. I'm going to miss it.