A/N: *Please do not distribute or post this story anywhere without my permission.* Thanks to cookiesarefood for her betaing skills. A profuse thank you to my lovely, patient girlfriend, Katy, for her willingness to help me brainstorm, attempts at teaching me how to appropriately use commas, and her support. And last but not least, thank you to those of you who reviewed, especially Rioshix, Kaylee, Avarenda, Micktrex, riterevrenzee, Squeeockle, Liz, Mione, and my dear friend Topak. You reviewed every, or nearly every chapter, and I appreciated that immensely.
I hiccup and swallow back the bile in my throat. Buffy smoothes her hand over my tangled hair. "I know," she says, her hands gentle on my shaking body. "I know."
Chapter 16: Chicago
I'm running as fast as I can, but I know it's not going to be fast enough. I have a pack of the dead behind me, closing the gap between us. I can feel their swollen fingers brushing the back of my shirt. Every breath I suck in to my aching lungs is rancid, polluted by the decaying bodies all around me. I don't know where my friends are; I'm alone in this field. Screaming for help is fruitless; there's no one here to hear my cries.
My toe catches on something buried in the ground, and I go sprawling forward. Frantically clutching at the grass, I will myself back to my feet. I have to get away. This is not how it ends for me. There's so much more I want. So many things I never got the chance to do.
A guttural moan behind me makes my blood run cold. It's too late. I turn onto my back, ready to face my attackers… and then the world stops moving. The zombie that was about to tear my throat out is frozen in mid-air. Its jaws are wide open, its broken, brown teeth on display. Looking past him, I see the others are all unmoving. Even the trees are frozen, still bent by the breeze.
A flicker of movement catches my eye. At the tree line, there's a figure. Dark hair and a face right out of my nightmares. She turns and runs into the forest, and I leap to my feet in pursuit.
Branches whip my face and arms as I chase her. Somehow, she stays just out of reach. She shouldn't be able to move this fast. My already exhausted muscles are screaming in protest as we run further and further. "Wait!" I yell at her retreating form. "Please, wait!"
She stops so suddenly I almost plow into her back.
Bending at the waist, I desperately try to catch my breath. When I straighten up, she's facing me.
The world around her blurs until only she is clear. Her dark eyes bore into mine, and she says one word, "Chicago."
"What?" I ask, but she's already blurring into the background. "Kim!" I shout, trying to grab her hand.
Her fingers touch mine for the briefest moment, and she whispers again, "Chicago."
"Please don't go," I cry, but she's gone, and I'm alone in the forest.
Gasping for air, I sit up in bed. Buffy's kneeling beside me, her hands holding my arms.
"Jesus, Faith, are you okay?" She asks.
I nod, trying to catch my breath. Buffy's hands drop, and she sits back on her heels, waiting for me to speak.
"Chicago," I say finally.
Puzzled, Buffy waits for me to elaborate.
"That's what she told me."
Buffy's brows crease in concern. "Oh, Faith, you had a nightmare." Her palm squeezes my knee gently.
"I don't think so," I argue, placing my hand over hers. Not that I don't appreciate B's concern, but I'm feeling a little out of sorts. Don't need to be touched right now.
"You think it was a slayer dream?" Buffy asks, understanding what I mean.
"With Cordelia dead, the Powers gotta contact us somehow."
"But 'Chicago?'" Buffy asks skeptically. "That's all they gave you to go on?"
I nod, feeling nauseous. I get that the Powers need a line to us now, but did they have to use her?
"Okay," Buffy replies firmly, "Chicago it is."
Ever since my meltdown last week, B's been real supportive. Backing me up without question, giving me the space to be by myself and away from the rest of the gang. "Thanks," I tell her, gripping her hand for a moment.
"Yeah," she shrugs. "We'll tell the others in the morning."
Buffy looks at me in the darkness of the room. Even in the shadows, I can tell she's concerned. I've been practically hiding in this room since we got back here. I want to go downstairs and be involved with things again, but I just can't. It hurt me to put down Starla. My heart ached for B when she lost Xander and Giles. But none of it broke me like Kim. I promised to protect her, and she looked at me like she knew I'd keep that promise. She believed in me. And I let her down. I got a lot of blood on my hands, but this one… it's got kick. She's up there with my watcher.
"You want me to stay here for a while?" B asks quietly.
I nod, and she lies down next to me. We stare at the ceiling together. Silent tears trickle from my eyes, sliding backward into my hair. Buffy's fingers touch my arm, warm and reassuring. Alive.
Angel's office has been converted into a lab for Jacob, and he's been spending almost every waking moment in there, studying the blood samples we got from the Mohra. When we walk in, Spike is studying a tube of blood over a Bunsen burner and he holds up a hand for us to wait a moment. After a beat he says, "Okay." Jacob switches off the burner and pours a blue chemical into the vial with expert precision.
"Thanks," he says absently to Spike.
"No problem, doc."
"Nice goggles," Buffy compliments the vamp. "They really bring out your eyes."
Spike frowns while he removes his eyewear.
"Those are safety goggles," Jacob informs us in a long suffering tone, "and I need Spike's eyes safe."
Spike actually makes quite the little lab assistant. Without all the equipment he needs, Jacob relies on the vampires' enhanced senses to pinpoint exact temperatures and detect minute changes to the blood as he conducts his experiments. I guess B and I could help with this too, but neither of us has the patience to sit here and smell tubes of blood for hours.
"Where's Angel?" Buffy asks, properly chagrined by Jacob's words.
"He's with Gunn, doing a perimeter check," Spike tells us. "Something going on?"
"The Powers have re-established contact," she replies. "Faith had a slayer dream."
"I'll find them." Spike disappears through the door.
In the lobby, Tara, Wesley, and Michael are playing cards with the kids. The watcher looks up when I plop on the sofa near them. "Did I hear that right?" He asks. "A slayer dream?"
"Yep," I reply, giving Michael a once over. He's very quiet and has given me no real reason to distrust him, but Wesley's earlier words of warning are never far from my mind. Plus the dude just makes my slayer sense tingle.
The vampires enter the room, followed closely by Gunn.
Angel wastes no time. "You had a slayer dream?"
As much as I still resent him and blame him for Kim's death, this isn't the time to act on that, so I nod. "Yeah. Apparently there's something we need to do in Chicago."
"They didn't say what we're looking for?"
"No, that was it."
"Okay, Chicago…" Angel trails off and looks around the room. "What's in Chicago?"
"My wife," Jacob's voice draws everyone's attention. He's pale, his eyes focused on his son. "My wife was there when all this happened."
"I don't mean to be insensitive," Angel says carefully, "but I'm not sure the Powers would send us half way across the country to rescue your wife."
Jacob's eyes flash angrily. "She's a world renowned immunologist."
"Oh," Angel says, getting it now.
"Okay," Buffy interjects, "so Faith and I are going to Chicago."
I could argue that she didn't even ask me, but actually, it feels good that she thinks it's a given that we'll go together.
Before anyone can agree or object, a loud crash comes from the window near Gunn. A long, rotting arm snakes through, and the rest of its owner isn't far behind. Gunn has his sword at the ready, but another body smashes through the broken boards over the window. Two more are right behind them, and it shows no sign of slowing, even though we've all leapt in to fight. We aren't prepared; my ax is upstairs, and Buffy doesn't have her short sword.
Jacob is yelling, standing in the doorway to the office, separated from his son by three of the dead.
"Get him safe!" I shout to Spike, who nods and starts corralling the scientist into the office.
"No!" Jacob protests, trying to break free. "Benjamin!"
"I got him!" I assure him across the fray. Leaving the dead for the others, I pluck the crying Ben off the floor and cradle him in my arms. "Tara, you're with me!"
Tara nods, scooping Jennie up, and running alongside me to the stairs. I've never in my life run from a fight, but this isn't the time to be tough. That man downstairs is our best shot at coming out on top of this thing, and he's not gonna be any good to us if his kid gets eaten.
We run down the hall to my bedroom, and I slam the door behind us, flipping the lock. None of the dead have made it up here, as far as I know, but I'm not taking any chances. Ushering Tara into the closet, I deposit the now sobbing child beside her.
"You got them?" I ask.
Tara nods firmly. "Go. I'll keep them safe." She draws Ben into arms alongside Jennie.
"Daddy!" He's screaming. "Where's my daddy?"
"Ben," I say commandingly, and the kid actually pauses from wailing long enough to look at me. "I'm going to get your daddy, okay?"
He nods uncertainly.
"You just stay here with Tara for a couple minutes, okay? And then I'll be right back to take you to your dad."
Tara's voice is soothing and calm as she says, "Just a couple minutes, Ben. We'll wait here and keep you company, okay?"
"Okay," Ben nods, clearly still terrified.
"I'll be back," I promise, before I close the closet door. Shoving my dresser in front of it, I run back down the hallway.
A scream makes me pick up the pace. At the top of the staircase, I can see that the situation is almost under control. Spike and Wesley have shoved a table in front of the broken window and are piling more furniture behind it. The others are finishing off the last of the dead. The only person I don't see is Michael, but I guess being soulless doesn't motivate you to stick your neck out fighting for the group.
I let myself relax as I trot down the stairs to meet them. We're all okay.
Gunn's sword slices the last zombie in half at the waist, and it crumples to the ground.
"That was close," Buffy pants, winded from the fight.
Gunn's turning, his sword at the ready to put the half zombie out of its misery.
"Too close," Angel agrees.
The mangled creature on the floor reaches out with both hands. I can see it happening, but I can't get there in time.
"Gunn!" I shout, just as the zombie manages to sink its teeth into his ankle.
Crying out, he falls to the side. Buffy's there in a moment, plucking his sword from his hand and ending the zombie.
But it's too late.
"No!" Gunn cries, looking at his ankle in horror.
Angel springs into action. "Jacob!"
The door to the office flies open, and Jacob dashes out, taking in the scene. He looks to Angel.
"We need blood," Angel barks, and Jacob runs immediately to the office.
On the ground, Gunn begins to convulse. The color is draining from his skin, being replaced by blue and grey bruising. Angel drops to his knees beside him, and I run to join him.
"Hold on, Gunn," I tell him, gripping his shoulder.
He tries to focus, his bloodshot eyes rolling around in his head. "Help… me…"
"We will," Angel promises, his tone desperate. "We will, Gunn."
"I've got it!" Jacob runs toward us, as the dying man starts to shake.
Angel kneels at Gunn's feet, yanking his torn pant leg open.
"Just dump it in?" Jacob asks, looking to Angel.
"A little should do it," the vamp confirms.
Hesitating just a moment, the scientist tips the vial over the bite in Gunn's leg. The first few green drops hit the mangled flesh, and he pulls the vial back. The wound knits closed immediately as we look on.
"Holy shit," I whisper.
The skin below the bite illuminates brightly before the light races through Gunn's body. He sits up with a gasp.
"That's incredible," Buffy says, taking in Gunn's healthy coloring and clear eyes. She looks at Angel. "That's what happened to you?"
"Yes," the vampire says tightly.
Gunn pats himself all over with shock. "I'm okay. I'm alive!"
"He's alive!" Jacob laughs, clearly delighted by this turn of events. "We could do this for everyone who's bitten?"
"As long as we get them before they succumb totally," Angel reminds him.
"Maybe not having a soul isn't as big a deal as you think," I say. "Michael hasn't tried to hurt anybody."
Wesley and Angel exchange glances. "Not yet," Wes mutters.
Taking a more hopeful approach, Angel says, "If we could figure out how the Mohra blood works, we could stop the infection from taking over once a person is bitten. Or even make a vaccine from it."
The scientist appears a little crestfallen, but he says, "That's something. At least we could keep ourselves alive. And whatever survivors are out there, too."
We all take this in for a moment. I don't know if it's even possible with the limited resources we have now. But what choice do we have except to try?
Over dinner, Wesley brings up what we all know. "I don't think it's wise to stay at the hotel any longer."
Angel nods in agreement. "Wesley's right. It isn't safe here." His eyes meet mine. "We should have left after the first breach."
Not wanting to get into it, I quickly look away.
"Alright," Buffy agrees. "Where would we go? Do we have any ideas?"
"Wes and I have been talking about it," Tara pipes in. "We've got to get out of the city. Maybe head north. There's a lot of farm country up there, less zombies to worry about."
"What about Chicago?" Jacob asks tensely.
Buffy reassures him, "Faith and I are going."
Just when I'm finally alone in my room, there's a knock at the door. "Yeah?" I call out.
The door cracks open, and Tara looks in. "Mind if I come in?"
I wave her in, and she stands awkwardly by the dresser. "How are you doing, Faith?"
"Five by five, T." I get what she wants to talk about, and I am not in the mood.
"I just wanted to tell you how sorry I am," she says, forging ahead in spite of me trying to nip this conversation in the bud, "about Kim."
I incline my head to acknowledge her, hoping that's all.
"I was with her," she murmurs, causing me to look up sharply. "We had just finished eating dinner, and we were cleaning up in the kitchen." She looks at the floor, blinking back tears. "We heard a crash and Cordelia screaming from the lobby. I ran to the door… we wanted to lock it, hide in there until it was over..." she trails off.
"Go on," I encourage, needing to hear the rest now.
"One of them got in and… Kim, she pulled me back, and i-it grabbed her. I tried to help her, but it happened so fast." She sniffles. "It bit her." Raising her teary eyes to mine, she says, "I want you to know I tried every healing spell I could think of. It just happened so fast," she repeats again.
I nod, swallowing over the lump in my throat. "Did you, uh, were you the one who put her down?"
Tara shakes her head. "Gunn ran down the back stairs into the kitchen. He got rid of the zombie, and he… t-took care of her." Tara brushes a few tears from her face. "I know how much she looked up to you, and I just thought you should know. She saved me."
I cross the distance between us, and wrap Tara in a hug. Her story actually did help me. I can stop imaging Kim being ripped apart now. I know it was quick, and that she had Tara with her. "Thank you," I rasp, feeling choked up.
"You're welcome," Tara says warmly, giving me a final squeeze before she lets go. "And Faith, if you ever want to talk…"
"I'll find you," I finish her thought. "Thank you, Tara. Really."
Tara nods, before leaving me alone with my thoughts once more. I'm packing on autopilot, thinking of the strange journey we've all been on since the outbreak, when I hear a muffled scream from down the hall. What the hell can be wrong now?
I drop the pants in my hand, darting out my door and into the hall. Several yards ahead of me, I see Spike running toward a room. It's the one Michael's been staying in.
I run down the hall, the old floors of the Hyperion creaking under my furious steps. I hit the doorway seconds after Spike does. I see him grab Michael's shoulders, flinging him forcibly through the air. The man hits the mantle of the fireplace and crumples to the ground. On the bed, Spike kneels over a crying Tara.
"What the fuck happened?" I demand.
"He was choking her," Spike growls back, his hands carefully cupping Tara's neck. He inspects for bruises.
Wesley joins me in the doorway, touching my back as he brushes by, moving toward Michael.
Spike's helping Tara sit up, gently placing his arm around her shoulder. She's holding her hand over her throat. When she speaks, her voice is rasping. "I-I came to see if he was alright, because he missed dinner. I couldn't move, he grabbed me so fast."
"I'm guessing that was because you saw this," Wes says, gesturing toward a small stockpile of food on display in his top dresser drawer.
"That bastard," I say, annoyed. Food is scarce for all of us, and he's been stealing it. Then he attacks Tara so she doesn't let his secret out. "He can't have thought he'd get away with killing her."
"Poor impulse control," Wes reminds me. "It's the lack of soul. He won't have thought it out."
"Is he…?" I gesture toward Michael.
"Broken neck," Wes says. "He's dead."
I don't think any of us will be losing any sleep over that. Tara turns her tear-streaked face to Spike. "Are you okay, Spike?"
"I'm fine, love," he assures her.
"But your head," she says, puzzled.
Spike looks surprised. "The chip didn't fire."
Wesley thinks about this for a moment. "A person without a soul must register as on par with demons, as far as your chip is concerned."
"So you're saying I can eat him?" Spike asks eagerly.
"Eww," I mutter, imaging him sucking this dead dude's blood. "Come on, Tara, I'll walk you to your room."
"It's a perfectly valid question!" Spike argues.
"Have at it," I say, not caring either way as long as I don't have to see it. Tara stands up on shaky legs and I slip my arm around her. I guide her down the hall and into her room. I offer to get her some tea, but she says she's fine. I close her bedroom door, letting my hand linger on her door for a moment. I'm sure she's not fine. None of us are. That's just the way of the world now.
I'm reviewing my clothes, trying to decide what I need to take with me now that we're all going to leave. Buffy appears in my doorway. "Hey," she says softly.
"Hey," I stop folding clothes, and wave her in.
"What's up?" She asks, inviting herself to sit on my bed. "Packing?"
"Yeah." I abandon the packing, settling myself on the bed instead. Folding my arms behind my head, I lie back. "You didn't ask if I was up for Chicago," I point out. It's been on my mind since the topic of Chicago first came up.
She looks over at me, her big hazel eyes clearly surprised. "It was your dream; I figured you wanted to go."
"And that I wanted you with me?" It comes out harsher than I expected, but B doesn't flinch.
"Don't you?" She challenges me.
I shrug, not willing to admit that I do.
"Look," Buffy says, clearly annoyed, "I've lost almost everyone and everything that matters to me. I'm not losing you too. It's not an option."
I goggle at her.
"So, you're stuck with me. Better luck next apocalypse."
I fall back on sarcasm like I always do when caught off guard. I perk a brow. "Getting mushy on me, B?"
"That's me," she says brightly. "Mushy Buffy."
I smile. She looks so beautiful when she's being silly. It makes me want to lean over and kiss her.
As if reading my mind, she closes the distance between us and presses her lips to mine. Taking advantage of my surprise, Buffy melts into my arms, her warm, strong body pressed against me.
"What are we doing?" I manage to ask, when she let me take a breath.
"Does it matter?"
It does, if she's just going to do what she did last time. I can't let her keep pulling me in and then pushing me away. "No," I lie, and kiss her again. We're about to go on what's probably a suicide mission, so I might as well spend my last day where I want to be.
I lick my way across her throat. I nibble her earlobe a little and her hips rock forward. She tugs at my hair, pressing my mouth to her neck.
I'm trying to ignore the questions I have, but my brain wins out over libido. I pull free from her, sitting up.
Buffy looks up at me from the bed, blonde hair pooled around her head. I feel like an idiot for putting on the brakes.
"What's wrong?" She asks.
I've never been one to talk about my feelings, but it's the end of the end of the world. Who knows how long we've got? Might as well be honest. "I can't do hot and cold with you like this, B. We're gonna be out on the road together. Got no idea what we're heading into. I gotta have my head on straight."
Buffy nods, looking like she understands. "I'm not trying to be hot and cold."
"Yeah, I know." I rake my fingers through my hair, trying to feel more in control. "All the same, we should probably stop doing this."
Buffy considers for a moment. "What if it's hot and hot?"
"Meaning I'm not going to freak out after."
I can't help but feel suspicious. Life doesn't just hand you whatever you want on a silver platter. There's usually a catch. I want so badly to believe her, but I don't know how to do that. "What's changed since last time?"
"Nothing, I guess."
Well, that's a ringing endorsement.
Buffy's quiet for a while, thinking. Then she says, "All this destruction, all these people gone, and we're still here." She looks at me. "The Chosen Two, together again, watching it burn down. Maybe that means something."
"What, like fate?"
"Something like that," she answers.
I have no idea how this relates to our earlier conversation at all.
Buffy sits up, looking at me. "There's something between us. Maybe there always has been, and I didn't want to see it." Her hands twist in her lap but she keeps her eyes on mine. "I don't want to waste any more time denying what I want."
"You mean me," I say, hoping my voice sounds less shaky to her than it does me.
"You," she agrees.
We look at each other in silence for a minute. My heart is racing and I'm sure she can hear it. I don't even know what to say.
She clears her throat. "Is that what you want?"
"Yes," I manage to croak. I look like an idiot.
"Good," she says with a soft smile.
When I reach for her, she comes happily. I don't kiss her, just crush her against my chest. Her arms wind around my waist and she squeezes back. I've never felt anything so good in my life. I don't know what day it is, but I'm pretty sure it ain't Christmas. Sure feels like it though.
It takes some time to pack up everything useful from the Hyperion. The school bus has ample space, so we load almost all the food and water into the back, as well as extra fuel, Angel's weapons stockpile, and clothing for everyone going. Angel and Wesley lingered over his book collection before finally packing as many of them as could fit in the back row of the bus. We're not naïve enough to think this is the last apocalypse to come our way. With man's numbers dwindling, and the demon population lying low, there will be plenty of opportunities later for evil to rear its ugly head. The books have to go.
Buffy and I won't be going with them. No sense in waiting to leave for Chicago. We're all living on borrowed time now, and that includes Jacob's wife. We've got to go get her while she's still among the living. Our stuff is packed in a duffel bag and carefully strapped to the back of the sport bike one of Gunn's boys left behind. We're not taking much, hoping to salvage stuff on the road. The group needs most of the food anyway.
As I finish checking the bike, I see Angel approaching me from across the garage. He presses a vial of Mohra blood into my hand.
"Immune, remember?" I try to hand it back.
"You're immune from infection but you can still get seriously hurt." He glances at Buffy, who's hugging Tara tightly. "So can she."
Point taken. I stuff the vial into our bag.
"Be careful," Angel advises, lingering beside me like he wants to say more.
"Yeah," I nod. "You, too."
Wesley joins us, and he holds out a small backpack. Kim's pack.
"What's this?" I ask, even though I know.
He looks at the bag in his hand sadly. "Some of her things. I thought… well, she would want you to have them."
Gingerly, I accept the bag. "Thanks."
"Sure," he shrugs. "You take care."
"You too," I tell him, meaning it sincerely. We hug awkwardly before pulling apart. I can see Wesley wiping his eyes discreetly.
Tara comes to me next, holding out a small fabric bag. "What's this?" I ask, taking it from her.
"Something I cooked up in case of emergency," she says vaguely. "If you get in real trouble, open it."
Some sort of hocus pocus then. "Okay," I agree, adding it to our supplies. "Thanks, Tara."
She steps forward to hug me, her soft form leaning against mine. "You be careful," she orders sternly.
"If you're that worried," I joke, "where's my protection spell?"
Tara gives me a sly grin. "You've had one since the day you showed up at our camp."
"Then how come she keeps almost dying?" Buffy asks skeptically, appearing next to us.
"Hey," the witch answers, "I can only do so much. Faith likes to get herself in trouble."
I scowl at the two of them, and Buffy smiles at me winningly. "She sure does." This is accompanied by a patronizing pat on the butt that Tara doesn't see. B turns to Tara, giving her a farewell hug.
The rest of the group is crowding around us now, and Buffy steps back to my side, looking at the bike. "We all set?"
"I think so." I zip the bag again, confident that our friends are done giving us stuff to take.
"Remember," Angel says, as I climb on the front of the bike. "Four weeks, we'll meet here."
"We'll be here," Buffy promises. She flicks her eyes to Jacob. "And we'll have your wife."
He nods gratefully.
Buffy takes a moment to look at Spike specifically. "If I find out you ate my dog, I'll stake you."
The vamp rolls his eyes. "Fine, I'll eat one of them." He waves his hand toward the group.
"Good," Buffy says agreeably, before climbing on the seat behind me. Her arms wind around my waist.
I fire up the engine. Everyone steps back, and I slowly ease us toward the garage exit. Pulling out to the curb, I see lurching zombies on both sides.
Behind me, Buffy tightens her arms and asks, "You do have a license to drive one of these, right?"
"Nope," I say, deciding to turn right. That way looks a little clearer. I glance in the mirror a final time to see our friends waving, and I lift my hand in farewell.
"Faith!" Buffy cries in indignation, "you didn't tell me that!"
Giving the bike a lot of gas, I make a very sharp turn into the street. Buffy squeals. In a moment, the Hyperion and all its ghosts will be behind us. "Hold on tight, B," I tell her. "It's gonna be a bumpy ride."
And that's it. There is a tentative sequel to write, but I'm working on something else first. If you check back next Friday, I'll have a little Omega-verse one shot for you. Sort of an untold story. :) Thank you all for taking this ride with me. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did. Please leave a comment and let me know what you thought. :)