Author's Notes: Final chapter, and a final thank you to everyone who has left comments. They are all appreciated. :)
Faith was standing outside, alone, nestled around the back of a large building that hid her safely away from the traffic of people coming and going. Small flakes of snow were falling around her, much like they had done all morning, though the temperature had only recently dipped enough to allow them to settle. Her leather jacket was already wrapped tight around her body. At first the bitter cold had fought its way through, but as she'd sat and watched the world light up around her she'd become numb to its efforts.
Going back inside wasn't an option. She'd managed to spend most of the night in there with the others, and in all that time she couldn't shake the feeling that accusing stares were being thrown her way whenever she closed her eyes or looked away. Maybe it was all in her head, or maybe she was getting what she deserved, but either way she didn't need anybody's help to lay on the guilt – she was doing fine with that on her own. Eventually she couldn't take anymore of it, and she'd stood up, turned for the nearest exit, and stormed out fast enough that nobody had gotten the chance to question where she'd been going.
She preferred it when her mind was blank. It was better that way. Easier to deal with. There were times when that happened, where she managed to zone out completely and, for a few precious moments, cease to exist. They never lasted long, and reality was always waiting to welcome her back with one hell of a sucker punch, but the fleeting moments of peace were the only thing keeping her straddling the line of sanity.
It wasn't currently one of those times. Her see-sawing emotions were rapidly stirring up again, a volatile concoction of anger, grief, self-pity, hate – all of it, each one wanting its own turn on top. Stalking the length of the building didn't calm her in the slightest. Nor did clenching and unclenching her fingers help to squeeze out any of the agitation trapped deep beneath her skin. She wished the demons were still alive; killing something might have helped.
In the end she let out a wild, frustrated cry as she turned and drove her first hard into the brick wall. It barely grazed her knuckles and did even less to soothe her anger. So she tried again. And again. She threw her entire weight behind it, pounding the wall harder and faster with each iteration until her skin peeled away and blood ran from her hand like the tears from her eyes.
Exhausted, and not from the punches, her attacks petered out to little more than feeble pats as she slowly sunk to her knees. Her head was aching more than her fist, and she pressed it against the wall to try and alleviate some of the pain. Time passed by as she knelt in place, perfectly still in her own little world. She didn't know how much of it, and she didn't care.
The piercing wail of an ambulance startled her from her stupor, and for the briefest of moments she thought it was coming to save Buffy. That was a stupid notion though, and her memories quickly returned. How she'd kicked open the hospital doors, screaming for help as if she'd been the one dying. How doctors, nurses and even security had quickly crowded around her as she'd pleaded for any of them to do something. How they'd had to peel away her protective, uncooperative hands before they could wheel Buffy out of sight.
Remaining in one pose had left her stiff. She curled around to a sitting position and gripped her knees tight to her chest. She stretched out her neck in a full circle, trying to loosen it up. During the third rotation she caught sight of Giles as he was walking by. Instantly averting her eyes didn't save her from being spotted, and she waited, watching his black shoes leave their mark in the thin, dusty layer of snow as he approached.
"You're going to catch a cold if you stay out here," he said.
Faith didn't respond. She didn't even look his way, instead staring across at the meshed, metal fence that separated them from the rest of the world. A world oblivious to what had happened, Faith thought. Her brow furrowed. Joyce. Had anyone even told her, she wondered. Joyce had been away the previous night, but she'd have been home by now – but Faith knew she couldn't be the one to do it. What could she possibly say? How could she ever step foot inside that house again?
Giles's voice softened. "Perhaps you should go home and change. O-or take a shower. It might not hurt to try and get some rest either."
Faith looked down. Her jacket was stained with patches of dried blood, all the way from the hem right up to the ends of her sleeves, and her jeans hadn't faired much better. She'd washed her hands, and done the best she could to remove the blood from her hair with nothing more than luke-warm tap water and some hand wash from the hospital restroom. It had worked to a degree, though on close inspection her dark hair didn't do enough to hide the remaining blood. The worst thing was that she could still feel it, even when her hands were nowhere near. She doubted that feeling would ever wash away. "I'm fine," she said plainly, knowing full well that nobody on the planet could take one look at her and believe that.
"How about some company then? To be honest I could use the fresh air. I suppose you weren't around to notice it, but it was starting to feel a tad dry in there."
Faith wanted to be alone. Only she didn't, not really. She wanted to be with Buffy. She wanted Buffy to be with her. One more chance; that's all she needed. She'd do better. She'd keep Buffy safe. Forever.
"Faith?" There was worry creeping into his voice now. Like she was one the one that needed it, Faith thought bitterly. "Are you feeling alright?"
Agitated, Faith's head shot up – what part of her could possibly feel alright about any of it? She was ready to let loose with her anger, but it froze in place when she saw the state he was in. His eyes were bloodshot, his hair a windswept mess. He had huge, hanging bags under his eyes, just like everyone else had by the time morning had rolled around. He obviously hadn't thought to grab his jacket on the way there, and while his hands had found shelter deep in his trouser pockets, his arms, bare but for the thin material of his creased shirt, were visibly shivering as a result. "I killed her," Faith said flatly. She hadn't even been thinking those words at the time, but they were the ones that crept out anyway.
"Nonsense," Giles scolded, his harshness taking Faith by surprise and causing her to flinch away, pressing her back further into the wall and curling her shoulders inward. "I don't doubt for one moment that you did everything in your power to help her, Faith. None of us do."
"Yeah? Fat lot of good that did her," Faith spat, glaring straight ahead. She lifted her arm and reared to the side as if to throw something, but her hand was empty. It fell uselessly back into her lap, and her neck slackened, dropping her head. "I should never have come to this stupid, fucking place."
"Shouldn't you?" Giles challenged. He carefully lowered himself down next to her before removing his glasses and letting them dangle from his hand. Faith watched them from the corner of her eye, glad to have something to focus on."It isn't over yet, Faith, but if you hadn't been there then it certainly would be. You may very well have saved her life."
Faith's disbelief formed an audible smirk. "You weren't there. You didn't see what..." She bit down on her knuckles, trying to keep herself together, and her teeth left behind a pair of small, red marks. "It's too late, Giles. I was too late."
"That's not what the doctors said. There's still-"
"No!" Faith cut in angrily, her head snapping his way. What was so hard to understand, she wondered. "They didn't say anything! No 'don't worry'. No 'she'll be fine'. Nothing! What the hell do you think that means?"
Giles leant his head back against the wall and frowned. He chewed on the frame of his glasses for several moments before speaking slowly and with conviction. "It means we have to believe that Buffy is strong enough to pull through this. I've seen her do so many amazing things since arriving in Sunnydale, and I don't know about you, but I truly think that if anyone can pull through this then she's the one."
Faith looked him straight in the eye. "If you're so sure then why've you been crying?"
Giles let out a small, quiet laugh and looked to his other side. "I dare say the same reason as you, Faith. Even just the very idea of losing someone we care about is – well it's heart wrenching. Naturally, the first thing we do is blame ourselves. And it never matters how much we got right; we'll always wonder what we could have done differently. Done better."
It was Faith's turn to look away, and her gaze landed in her lap. Her hands were both sat there, shaking now as they anxiously fiddled with each other. "And what if we already know?" she asked quietly.
There was no immediate answer to that, and they sat in silence for a short while before she felt an arm wrap around her shoulder. It took her by surprise. She flinched, and her body clamped up at first, but after a few moments she managed to relax.
"Then I suppose we have to hope for another chance to make things right," Giles said.
Faith let that sink in and then dropped her head against his shoulder. She closed her eyes as more tears slipped down her face. The problem was she couldn't let herself have hope. That would be just one more thing that could be cruelly torn away from her. All that was left to do was wait.
Quentin Travers' short walk from his office to the main meeting room of the Watcher's Council headquarters had been different than usual. His peers had shot him odd looks he couldn't quite decipher, and hushed conversations had stopped mid-word as he had passed by.
Usually he'd have been the one to call such a meeting, but he'd only been informed of this one moments earlier. It was clear to him that he'd been purposefully left out of the loop on something, and as soon as he entered the room his suspicions were confirmed. The remaining seven directors were already lined up in front of him, only one seat at the far end of the posh, oak table remaining free.
"You appear to be in my seat, Rodgers," Quentin calmly pointed out.
"That's why I have called this meeting," said Rodgers, who sat at the centre of the group alongside a woman of a similar age to Quentin. He had short, light-brown hair that was combed straight back over his head. It looked more wet than slick, suggesting a gross over-application of hair product. There wasn't a grey strand in sight, making it apparent that he was a good deal younger than Quentin. There was an arrogance not only to the way he spoke but even in the way he sat – leant back in his chair, his head resting against the high back and his arms loosely resting on those of his chair. "Several members of the council have become... troubled over your recent actions."
"I see," Quentin said with a feigned interest. "For a minute there I suspected this was nothing more than a foolish power play."
Rodgers ignored him. "It has become apparent that your interactions with Faith Lehane have seriously clouded your judgement. Your dealings with Ethan Rayne – whom, may I point out, you yourself previously classified as a known threat – lead almost not only to the death of both active Slayers, but indeed risked the lives of each and every one of us sat here today."
"And yet here we both are, healthy as a horse. Unfortunate as that may be in some cases," Quentin remarked dryly. Once again his comments went unmentioned.
"It is therefore my recommendation – and my colleagues are in full agreement – that you step down from your post, effective immediately."
A small smile crept onto Quentin's face. "You would do well to remember who handed you a seat at this table in the first place," he warned as he took a single step forward and slowly ran his eyes along the row. "Each and every one of you are here today only because I took the crumbling remains of the previous council and dragged them, kicking and screaming, into a new era. My era. This is my council." His eyes made his way back to Rodgers. "Now I strongly suggest you remove yourself from my seat. That is, if you would prefer to keep your job."
The woman sat besides Rodgers spoke up next. "We all appreciate the work you have done here, Quentin, but the simple truth is that it has become time for you to move on. Go. Enjoy your retirement. We will take good care of the place in your absence, and I'm confident the world will continue to turn without your continued efforts."
"Correct me if I'm wrong, Margaret, but I recall that that you are every bit as weathered as I am. A year older perhaps, if I'm not mistaken."
"This is irrelevant," Rodgers butted in. He got to his feet and leant over the table, supporting himself on one arm. "The votes have been cast, the outcome decided, and all staff notified. You can leave here now of your own volition, with your belongings and our thanks for your years of dedicated service, or I can have security drag you from the building. Ask yourself how you wish to be remembered."
Quentin's lips curled into a sneer, but he said nothing. He turned and marched from the room, slamming one half of the the large double doors shut behind him.
Furious and humiliated, Quentin ground his teeth all the way back to his office. A fairly recent picture of him and his wife hung on one wall, an old black and white photo of his now deceased parents on another. A corner table housed many of his personal possessions, including a Her Majesty's Reserve cigar mounted on a small, wooden stand – he didn't smoke himself, but it had been a gift from his silver wedding anniversary. A double bookcase stood tall at one side of the room, collecting together numerous books on demonology and the black arts along with a number of diaries from watchers past and present.
The only other pieces of furniture in the room were a desk table and a single chair. The table contained a small pot with a number of pens and pencils inside, and a simple, black telephone, along with an ageing computer that had served his basic needs well over the past few years. Underneath sat a number of drawers, and Quentin slowly pulled the top one out and set it down on top of the desk. His hands remained clasped on each side, and he stood for several moments, staring down at the thick stack of papers held inside.
In one sudden motion he picked up the drawer, turned to his side, and threw it at the wall with all the rage that was swimming around inside him. While it survived the impact, but for a few scratches to the woodwork, the papers burst free into the air. Those bundled together by paperclips dropped fast, making an audible smack against the wooden floor, whilst the individual sheets slithered back and forth, each one slow to ease its way down. Soon the floor was coated by the spread of bank statements, legal documents, and other miscellaneous paperwork. Some parts of it dated back over a decade; others were as recent as the previous week.
There was one sheet in particular that grabbed his attention. It had been presented to him a little under a year ago, and he had stored it away without giving it much more than a single glance. He hadn't felt that the threat it discussed fell entirely under the remit of the council, and as follow-up information had been provided his stance on the matter hadn't shifted.
But now he wasn't thinking about the potential problems the group could cause if left to their own devices. He was thinking about the potential solutions they could provide with the right amount of incentive. He gingerly bent his knees until he could reach the single sheet. Staying crouched, he meticulously folded it, first in half and then in quarters, before slipping it into the front pocket of his shirt.
Next he moved to the computer and sat down in his chair for what he was beginning to believe might not be the last time after all. He keyed in his password and his mouse icon froze before morphing into an hour glass. White, pixelated sand ran from top to bottom before the cursor spun around and started the process again. He quickly lost count of the number of times that repeated, and he found himself tapping a single finger against the desk in anticipation. He'd fully expected his access to have already been revoked, but he smiled to himself when his desktop finally popped up. "Oh, Rodgers, you backstabbing fool."
Within a matter of minutes he had transferred funds from the council to his personal bank account. He didn't take it all – after all, he planned to be back far sooner than any one of them expected. He was, however, two million pounds richer than he had been moments ago. It would be more than enough for his needs, he decided; after all, he had something else that would sweeten the pot.
He picked up the handset from the old-fashioned phone – complete with rotary dial – and held it to his face as he dialled the memorized number. It rang fourteen times before there was an answer, and he was instantly greeted by the hurried attempts of Ethan Rayne trying to excuse himself of any responsibility for anything whatsoever.
"I am well aware of the situation," Quentin said loudly, cutting Ethan off. "That's why I called. Pack your things – you and I have a small business trip to attend."
Ethan wanted to know where and why, the worry in his voice obvious even over the phone.
"Relax, Ethan. Our arrangement still stands," Quentin assured him. "It is simply time we looked at bringing in a third party to help with the proceedings, and as it happens, I have just the people in mind. I'll meet you first thing tomorrow and we can discuss it further."
"In Sunnydale?" Ethan asked.
"No." Quentin sunk back into his chair, and a series of mouse clicks brought up a plane ticket booking website. "We're going to the City of Angels."
Sometimes seeing is believing, but other times even that is not enough. Faith couldn't be sure that she hadn't taken Giles's advice and gone home to bed, and that what she was looking at wasn't some twisted nightmare, teasing her with images of something she'd never really get to see again. Or that she wasn't still sat outside the hospital, having finally lost her mind entirely.
"You know it's not polite to gawk at sick people, right?" Buffy teased, her voice hoarse to the point where it was almost unrecognisable.
It took Faith a while to convince her mouth to close. "Sorry," she murmured, still standing at the doorway of the hospital care room.
The entire day had crawled past at a distressingly slow pace, and it was now well into the evening. The sun had gone and the hospital lighting was dim, giving the room a slightly unsettling edge. Buffy was laid flat in bed, her head raised by a single, thin pillow. Her arms were lax by her side, and the bed covers were folded back at her waist. A number of tubes stuck out of her far arm, leading to a device that did something Faith had no clue about. A large plaster wrapped around the side of her neck, and Faith suspected there would be plenty more of the same under Buffy's hospital gown. Her hair had been collected into a ponytail, putting the entirety of her pale face on display, and even from a distance Faith could see that Buffy's eyes were still bloodshot.
"I'm not contagious either," Buffy said, offering up a reassuring smile. "Or if I am then nobody thought to mention it."
Remembering that the doctor had urged the group to keep their visits short, Faith forced her reluctant legs forward. He'd also insisted that they didn't all crowd in at once, taking extra care to note that it was important Buffy got plenty of rest. Joyce had been the first to enter, and after an excruciatingly long five minutes she'd also been the one to specifically send Faith in next, despite the rest of the group also being ready on their feet.
Faith's fingers lightly wrapped around Buffy's wrist, making sure she was really there. Buffy was fixing her with a curious look, but Faith didn't care.
She had spent the last twenty four hours wanting nothing more than this moment. Now that it was happening, she had no idea what to do with it, and she ended up blurting out the most inane thing she could imagine. "How are you?"
"I've been better," Buffy admitted. "They want to keep me in for more surgery. Something about there being a risk of my ribs lacerating a lung, which I guess would kind of suck. But give me a couple of weeks and I should be kicking bad guy ass like it's nobody's business." She frowned briefly. "Or something like that anyway. How about you?"
Faith's brow furrowed. She ignored the question and was far too concerned about this new notion of surgery for Buffy's optimism to lift her spirits. "But it's not dangerous, right? I mean nothing can go wrong?"
"Hey, don't worry." Buffy gently pulled her wrist free before taking Faith's fingers in her hand. "If I can survive a sword through the chest then I'm pretty sure a couple of fingers poking around isn't going to kill me. OK?"
Faith nodded, unconvinced. She couldn't wait for them to get home; it felt as if Buffy being there in hospital was somehow a danger in itself.
"What happened to your hand?" Buffy asked.
Faith was still in a bit of a daze, and it took her a moment to realize that Buffy was no longer looking back at her. She followed Buffy's line of sight down to where their hands met. The result of her earlier breakdown had been long forgotten by the time Giles had persuaded her to return to the hospital, and the back of her hand was still coated in blood from where she'd done a number on the wall outside. She pulled it free and shoved it in her pocket before Buffy could get a better look at it. "Souvenir from the fight with the demon," she lied.
Buffy hesitated and pursed her lips. "Faith, is something wrong? You seem... I don't know. But if it's because there's an army of demons out there conquering the world right now and we only have three minutes left to live, you can tell me."
"It's not that. I'm pretty sure we won't be worrying about any of them again. It's just... I'm glad you're OK is all. And I'm sorry I didn't get there sooner." Faith shook her head. "I know if I'd been a few-"
"Whoa! No, don't even go there," Buffy cut in. "If anyone owes an apology here, it's me. If I'd bothered to stick to the plan then I could be sat at home gorging on tater tots right about now instead of wondering just how bad a government issue Christmas dinner could taste. And in case you're forgetting, you also saved my life. Again." She paused for a beat before coyly adding, "Keep it up and I might start to get the impression you like me."
Buffy quietened, and a sad smile briefly played over her face before she sucked in her bottom lip and let out a short breath. "I thought that was it, you know. End of the line for the S.S. Buffy. And all I could think was that I was never going to get the chance to say a proper goodbye."
Finally, Faith managed a smile of her own. That one simple action proved to be all it took to cut loose the the ball and chain of emotions that had been weighing her down. It wasn't because Buffy had rescinded her of any blame, but because Buffy was right – she had saved Buffy's life. For the first time it had fully sunk in: Buffy was alive.
Her five minutes were probably long up, but Faith wasn't ready to tear herself away quite yet, and she figured a little longer couldn't hurt. "So you're stuck in here over Christmas?"
"Looks that way. Normally I'd say they'd have to Slayer-proof the entire building to keep me here, but I haven't even made it as far as sitting up yet so I'm not sure making a run for it would be beneficial to my health."
"Well we'll have to have Christmas dinner here then. You, me, your mom. The gang."
"I'm not saying you can't all come over and keep me company, but this is a hotel room, Faith, not a five star suite complete with built-in kitchen and Bakeshop Barbie."
"Then we'll grab a couple of those disposable barbecues and sneak them in."
"You can't barbecue the ham," Buffy immediately objected.
"Says... everyone. It's like a rule or something. I've read about it." Buffy pouted her lips, looking like she'd just been told for the first time that Santa Claus wasn't real.
Suddenly Faith was grinning like a maniac, and Buffy's raised eyebrows suggested she had no idea why. That didn't stop Faith from starting to giggle, and then she had to perch down on the edge of the bed after she broke down into a fit of full-on, uncontrollable laughter. She wasn't too sure why herself, but she couldn't even consider stopping until she was doubled over, clutching her stomach, short on breath and with watering eyes.
Once she'd finally regained control, she found that Buffy's motionless face was still staring at her like she'd sprouted fangs, horns, and a second head to boot. For a moment Faith thought she was going to go off on a second round, but with a deep breath and clenched jaw she managed to stay in control.
"Has anyone ever told you you're kind of a spaz?" Buffy asked in amusement.
Faith wiped her eyes before leaning down over the bed and closing them. She pressed her lips to Buffy's forehead, letting them linger in place for several moments, taking in the warmth from Buffy's skin. "I love you, B," she whispered sincerely.
She sat back up and noticed the soft flush of Buffy's cheeks, standing out more than it usually would against the rest of her pale face. Buffy's smile was big enough to show off her teeth, and her eyes were cast toward the end of her bed before they flicked Faith's way.
"Umm, that reminds me," Buffy began shyly, the left side of her lips curling upward a little more. "I've been meaning to ask... and I realize it's kind of low key after everything that's happened recently... but once I get out of here, how would you feel about coffee?"
If the grin from Faith's face had actually left then it would have come flying back fast enough to give her jaw ache. She'd never even considered trying the stuff before, but, oddly enough, now she couldn't wait to. "It's a date."