Chapter 29

"The time has changed nothing at all

You're still the only one that feels like home

I tried cutting the ropes, tried letting go

But you're still the only one that feels like home"

"Ten Days," Missy Higgins

In the early morning sunlight they gathered, six forms in a semi-circle around the place marking where Buffy Summers had been laid to rest. In the center sat Willow, cross-legged, her features tight with concentrated determination even as her lips quivered slightly, her eyes glistening with emotion. Kennedy stood close behind, almost hovering in a protective fashion, and Xander, Giles, Dawn, and Faith watched, their expressions showing varying degrees of control over their emotion at the meaning of this moment.

Willow's hands trembled, and her voice cracked noticeably as she spoke her final Latin phrase, the last of the words needed to be spoken for this new spell…the spell to set Buffy's soul free, to release it to heaven or wherever its final destination was intended. This was to be her final spell completed before her powers were to be bound indefinitely, an attempt to right what she had tried to wrong. On one side of him, Dawn gripped Xander's hand, squeezing hard as her eyes focused on Willow and the vessel just before her, her eyes glittering with unshed tears. On his other side Faith stood very still, her face carefully controlled, and did not touch him; when he had glanced over at her earlier, the stiffness of her body and facial features, however, had told Xander all he needed to know about how very difficult it was for her to be here, to continue to hold back her feelings from being made public knowledge.

As Willow slowly uncapped the vessel containing Buffy's soul, Xander sucked in his breath, hearing Dawn beside him take in a sharp breath as well, her grip on his hand tightening further still. Everyone was still, transfixed, as the vapor that was Buffy's soul had rose out of its container and into the air before them, spreading out thinly like a cloud of smoke or incense. To Xander's eyes it looked like it was sparkling faintly before it began to fade, eventually disappearing into nothingness. He continued to search for its remnants for a few moments… now the he could not see it, did that mean that Buffy's soul was at rest?

A bittersweetness closed in around Xander's heart, a longing and resentment for what he had lost, what they all had lost…but even in his sadness, he felt peace too. Buffy would be happy now, and for this, he too would try to be happy. In his head, if not his heart, he whispered his final goodbyes to her.

He saw out the corner of his eye that Dawn was crying quietly, that Willow was weeping as well as Kennedy knelt beside her, closing her arms around her. Beside Dawn Giles rested his hand on the younger Summers girl's shoulder, his face lined with a weary sadness that made him appear older to Xander than his actual age. As Xander slipped an arm around Dawn without words, he sensed rather than saw Faith begin to walk away. This time he did not follow her, knowing that at least for a few minutes, she would want and need to be alone.

As the emotion began to subdue itself slightly and Willow and Kennedy stood, arms around each other, beginning to head back towards their car, Xander hugged Dawn tightly, kissing her cheek, before surrendering her over to Giles. Walking slowly, he left to find Faith among the large, spread out area of the cemetery grounds.

As he had thought, she had not gone far. She was sitting on the ground behind a mausoleum, legs hugged to her chest, eyes closed as tears slowly trickled down her cheeks, no sound accompanying their descent. As Xander sank down on the grass beside her, encircling her shoulders with his arm, neither spoke. There was no need for overt acknowledgement; their shared presence was enough.

Eventually, they stood; eventually, they pulled apart from each other, and Xander let her retreat once more into separateness from him, from anyone. When he asked Faith if she wanted to go home with him, or even to have him keep her company anywhere she might want to go, she just shook her head again, choosing to walk off alone. Xander wasn't happy about this. He didn't know what would happen now- with her, with him, with the two of them in any context. She had been opening up to him in so many ways, even if not so much in words. In all the ways that counted, Faith had been laying herself out there emotionally for him, letting herself be vulnerable to him, and for her to be alone now after everything felt like a step backward, like an attempt at retreating again.

But Faith wanted it, maybe even needed it…it was her way of coping, of beginning to be able to process everything that had happened, that she and everyone else felt, and maybe her instincts were correct…maybe his presence as she struggled through would hinder more than help the process along. So whatever reservations he carried, Xander let her go, hoping that by the day's end she would return to him on her own.

And she did. Around eleven pm Xander heard the front door open, Faith's slow, heavy footsteps announcing her arrival, and it was understood without verbal exchange that she would again be staying the night.

She seemed subdued to Xander's eyes, distracted, as if lost in heavy thought, taking part in a continuous and draining internal battle. Or maybe Faith simply was weary to the point of no longer being able to care about anything at all. She said little in response to Xander's gentle attempts to question her, and when she looked at him, her brow furrowed, as if she were no longer sure who he was- or maybe, what he was to her. Seeing her behavior and knowing that she at least appeared to be sober, Xander let her be. He had his share of things on his mind after everything, his share of heaviness weighing on his heart, and time would tell what would occur for the both of them. He was too tired to rush it or to push Faith any more.

Faith ate, though with a distracted manner, as if she didn't really notice or care what she was putting in her mouth. She showered, borrowed some more of Xander's sweats and shirts, and she kept a physical as well as emotional distance from him, seldom meeting his eyes. Even so Xander sensed her struggle, sensed the pained confliction and sadness stirring inside her. One time he tried to talk to her about it, asking her if she was okay; when she circumvented his question and answered by asking him if he still had the toothbrush she had borrowed from him, Xander knew there was no point in trying any further.

Faith insisted that she sleep on his couch; when Xander attempted to argue, to tell her that she could have his bed, she would not be budged. He knew better than to tell her they could share the bed at this point, when she had already regressed to shying away from his words or touch. He knew as he lay alone in his bed, unable to fall asleep, that Faith too would not be able to sleep, not like this, not tonight. He suspected none of them would, not even Kennedy…as draining as the day had been, their weariness was not one that lent itself to slumber.

Seventy-three sleepless minutes after he had first lay to rest for the night, Xander was surprised and very relieved to hear his bedroom door open, and to make out the sight of Faith's face appearing in the doorway, her features tensed with uncertainty. He felt his muscles relax, a soft smile curve the corner of his lips, and he lay still without speaking, his eyes locked on hers, waiting.

Slowly Faith circled to the opposite side of the bed and pushed back the blanket, climbing in bed beside him, but lying there so that there was still distance between their bodies. She lay flat on her back for a few moments, staring up at the ceiling, and Xander could hear her shaky breaths exhaling erratically before she slowed them, rolling onto her side to face him, her eyes searching his in the room's dimness.

For a moment neither moved, and then Xander reached for her, pulling her close against his chest. She was small, a little cold, but he could feel the power and strength that her body harbored in his arms, and he tightened his hold, not wanting to let go.

She kissed him. Tilting her head, Faith pressed her lips against his with a softness that was tentative, searching, and infinitely tender for him to experience, made all the more so because he knew that this was not her usual way, that this kiss was a question, that this kiss meant more. Somehow her question must have been answered, for Faith kissed him again, harder, deeper, until Xander's heart threatened to beat straight out of his chest.

When her hand slid up his thigh, drifting over to cover his crotch, Xander caught her hand and held it, squeezing her fingers gently as he looked into her eyes. This didn't by any means mean that he didn't' want what she was offering, and his racing heart and the blood rushing heavily to certain parts of him indicated rather strongly the truth of this. But now was not the time…today was not the day, and he hoped that Faith could see this, could understand.

For a moment she frowned, pausing, her body tensing over his. But when Xander kissed her deeply again, then pulled her close against his chest, stroking one hand slowly up and down her back, Faith let him, her body gradually loosening, her breathing evening out. At some point in the night Xander could tell from the shifting of her body and the heaviness of her head against him that she had fallen asleep, and there was little time that passed after this before he joined her himself.

When they awakened hours later, neither had moved in the night, and they did not rush to do so then. It crossed Xander's mind as he lay with one hand lazily twined in Faith's wavy hair that this was the first night since she had come to him that Faith had not suffered one of the nightmares.

Nothing about this would be easy….helping and dealing with Willow, supporting and caring for Dawn, living and loving without Buffy….living and loving with Faith. But last night, this morning, was a start, for the both of them…and as far as starts go, Xander had to say that this one was pretty damn good so far.


December 2, 2009- March 28, 2010