Last thing standing

Disclaimer: I do not own these characters. That is a figment of my fantasies, a nice little delusion of mine.

Author notes: Takes place sometime in third season before Faith is bad. This just came to my mind like the SECOND I woke up one morning, no joke. I just heard a voice asking the first line and I somehow knew it was Faith. All the references to Buffy's having died are referring to when she was resuscitated by Xander, not the second time she died.

"Did you ever wish that you could die?"

Buffy Summers looked up, startled at the sudden speaking of her fellow Slayer as much as the other girl's words. Faith looked back at her with a strangely impenetrable expression, her features carefully neutral, and yet there was nothing casual about her vibe.

"Well," the blonde remarked with a little smile, "I did die once."

Faith shifted her weight more fully into one hip, crossing her arms; something about the way she held her arms made her seem as if she were hugging herself. Her dark brown eyes seemed darker, almost black as she met them too seriously, too intensely for her usual self, with Buffy's.

"Did you ever wish you could go back?"

Buffy frowned, glancing quickly around the seemingly still and silent graveyard before returning her attention to the younger girl. The two had been patrolling for nearly two hours, but it had been a slow night- only one dusted vampire each. It didn't seem that there would be any more coming; still, Buffy continued to be watchful even as she focused on her companion.

Faith's words, despite her attempts to sound casual, had been tentatively spoken, with a drop in volume and confidence that was quite uncharacteristic of her. Buffy knew that she must have thought considerably about what she had just said before she made herself actually speak it, and that let her know how important it was to Faith. Usually the dark-haired Slayer blurted out whatever came to her mind- as long as it held no real or significant meaning to her personally.

Buffy looked at Faith carefully and saw that her fingers were pressing hard into her arms, her lips fixed together in an unconsciously thin line. Likewise, her eyes had an air of poignancy about them that was extremely rare, something the girl was probably unaware of- or else unable to conceal for any longer.

Something was bothering Faith and Buffy knew right then that everything she said to her needed to be what Faith needed to hear… whatever that might be.

"Faith," she said quietly, "why are you asking me this? What's all this about?"

Something flickered across the other girl's eyes, but she shook her head, smiling a quick, clearly forced smile.

"Nothin', B. Just, you know, cemeteries and the big undead and all. Kinda brings that stuff to mind. No big deal or nothin'."

"No," Buffy insisted gently, "no, it is, Faith, I think it is to you."

She stepped closer to the other girl, and on a sudden impulse, touched Faith's bare shoulder. Her skin was cool, almost chilly. This too worried Buffy, for it was a warm night, and Faith was usually nearly hot to the touch.

"What is it, Faith?" she repeated, keeping her hand on her, despite the younger girl's quick, obviously uncomfortable look and the sudden tensing of her muscles. "What's going on?"

"Nothin'," Faith insisted, her tone showing a defensiveness more than the casualness she tried to convey. "Nothin' serious. I was just thinkin'. And don't make cracks about that either," she said quickly, and a bit of a more typical scowl crossed her expression.

"No," responded Buffy quietly. "I won't do that, Faith."

She felt Faith shifting under her hand and expected the brunette to move away, to shrug Buffy's hand off of her. She knew that the other girl must want her to take it away. But Faith didn't… she held herself still, and so Buffy held herself still as well, thinking a while before speaking up again.

"Yes," she said finally. "Yes, I… I've wanted to go back before, Faith. To die. I think everyone has, at some point or another. When nothing makes sense, and it seems like there's no point to anything. When it feels like I'm trapped, and there's nothing for me but my fate, like I have no future and it's all just hopeless and futile. When it all hurts so much, and the pain is all I can focus on, all I can remember, and I can hardly breathe… yeah, sometimes I want to go back."

She pauses, searching Faith's eyes. The other Slayer was motionless, gaze focused intently on Buffy… and again, Buffy could tell how very much her questions meant to her.

"But then, I remember why I'm still here," Buffy continued quietly. "Why I stay. Not because of fate, or destiny, or doing my duty by saving the world every week. As far as that goes, the council and whoever else chose me can screw it. If that was all there was in it, I wouldn't bother. I'd go right back, no question."

"But no- I'm here because of everything else. Everyone else. All the little things I would miss- and everyone I would miss. I'm still here because of everyone I love and care about, because I know how much the love me and count on me to be here for them. And I know that because of that- because of them- I'll do all I can to keep from going back, to keep from dying."

Buffy knew when she saw the darkening of Faith's expression that she had not said whatever the other girl had needed to hear. Some of the older looks returned to Faith's eyes- anger, resentment, a smirking contempt- and she laughed, short and bitter.

"Well I don't' have those blessings to keep me grounded and grateful, B. No one would care if I was the one to bite the dust, literally or not. With me, it doesn't matter. With me, the fate and destiny and saving the world thing is all there is. And if you say screw that… well, you kinda took my last thing standing away, so what's left?"

She laughed again, but the sound was sharp, jagged, and Buffy saw the tightness of her features, the pain that flashed across her eyes, even as she finally shrugged Buffy's hand off of her. Seeing the danger of letting Faith go, letting her retreat into her usual blasé mask, Buffy grabbed her hand, only tightening her fingers around it when Faith tried to pull away.

"Faith. Faith, listen to me… look at me. It does matter with you. Are you listening? It matters. YoumatterDo you hear me, Faith?" Buffy asked her intently. "You matter. You matter to me."

She held the other Slayer's hand tightly, her blue-green eyes boring so hard into Faith's dark ones that even as Faith shifted, trying to drop her gaze, she couldn't seem to bring herself to look away.

"I want you here, Faith. I need you here. And not just as back up, not just to help me save my ass and everyone else's all the time."

Buffy paused, still gripping the other girl's hand hard in hers. As she looked into Faith's conflicted eyes, she tried to express with her voice and face her sincerity.

"Faith… I know I never say this. Neither of us say this, and I don't know, we just don't… but we should. I guess, I guess I don't because I thought you didn't' want to hear it, or didn't need to hear it. But I think you do."

She paused, exhaling slowly.

"I… I need you, Faith. Because I care about you. I… I love you."

Her voice was fading toward the last words, and Buffy was surprised to realize that there was a lump in her throat, that she almost felt like she wanted to cry. She inhaled somewhat unevenly, blinking, before trying to focus on Faith once more.

The other girl was very still, and her hand in Buffy's felt cold, clammy. Her face had slackened, loosening so that she looked younger, slightly shocked… and she was blinking, shoulders suddenly slumped. Was she about to cry? Faith… was Faith about to cry?

Buffy was almost holding her breath as she watched her in concern, and she tightened her fingers on Faith's even more. But then Faith looked up, and the threatening tears were gone. Her eyes were sparkling instead with their usual impishness, and she smiled playfully.

"Hey, don't' get all mushy on me, B," she said teasingly, lightly tapping her shoulder with her knuckle. "We Slayers don't do that kind of thing, remember? Too busy kicking ass and all that. Now, can I have my hand back or what?"

Buffy let go of Faith's hand somewhat absently, staring at her in confusion. She simply did not get this girl. One minute she seems tormented, upset… the next, the second Buffy spills her guts to her, she's Miss Flippant? What was with that- had she been just yanking Buffy's chain?

But when Faith glanced over at her again, Buffy saw the softness come briefly over her face, the relief. The relief, and the gratitude… and Buffy understood. Faith's unknowingly expressive eyes told her more about the girl than Faith ever would herself.

"Come on," she said to the other girl, smiling. "We got some vamps to stake."

Turning, the two walked side by side, their footsteps unconsciously in synchrony.

end