18.
The Vanity of Foresight


Muffled by layers of plaster and timber, Willow cried out, "Oh God!" The dead little witch followed up with something that might've been 'please.' She was panting so hard, it was impossible to tell.

Well, alright, B. At least someone in this hell's getting lucky. It sure ain't me. Luck and me…we're not exactly fast friends.

Another cry broke the silence. "No!" This one was so loud it caused Amy to jerk in her sleep.

Faith shut her eyes, remembering. An attractive, older woman with long dark-hair got into a cab. She was dressed for a night on the town. This was one of those memories. So vivid, Faith could almost reach out and touch her. So seemingly harmless, if it was possible to show the image to anyone else, they'd just look at it and shrug. They might think she was pretty. People always thought that. The woman glanced over her shoulder, out the back window of the car. It felt like she knew. Like she had to have one last look.

"Yeah, that's pretty much what I remember," Faith grumbled under her breath. Red even sounds a little like my mother. Déjà vu's a bitch.

She hadn't meant to say anything. It seriously threw her when Amy rolled over and asked, "What?"

Shit.

Faith mumbled, "Nothing," in the slim hope that Amy might let it go. Last thing I need is another lecture. A sigh slipped out as she turned her head. The room was dark, but she could just make out Amy's face. Her friend looked genuinely curious. I'm screwed.

Can we just let it go? I mean, she already knows this shit. Or if she doesn't, it wouldn't take much for her to figure it out. She should get that my mom was just the same. She was 'oh so in love' too. The rub: Mom had a knack for attracting the wrong type of guys. Really wrong. The sort of guys who'd jack you up on smack and sell you to their friends. Doesn't get much wronger than that. There's nothing left to tell. The call came a few days later. End of story.

Amy's curiosity turned to downright crankiness as the moments crept by. Yeah, this is gonna be another one of those.

Let me tell you how I feel about my mother.

Faith rolled her eyes. "Love," she grumbled. The word came out like a curse. I need to get a grip. Maybe I should get blind drunk on Johnnie Walker Black again. Keep with tradition. She cleared her throat to take the edge off. "I like my way better."

"What way's that?" Amy asked.

Oh, for fuck's sake, just gimme a blindfold and a smoke.

Faith directed her attention to the ceiling to avoid the visual dissection. I could always lie my ass off. Maybe start dotting my 'I's with little hearts too. Screw it. "Love's a bitch." She imagined the expression on Amy's face and snickered. "Anything over the thirty seconds it takes to show the dick-du-jour the door is more commitment than I need."

Amy's laugh sounded genuine enough, but when she spoke, her tone was thick with disappointment, "That's just like you."

The mood swing threw Faith. She blurted out, "Of course it's like me. It is me." She was already kicking herself before she finished. Amy was baiting her and she was playing the dupe to a tee…a role that didn't sit well with Faith. Stalling by taking in a long, deep breath wasn't a bad ploy. Other than that it made it her look like she was struggling to keep her cool. It was useless. Complete fucking waste. Just like me. "Look, Amy, you may need something else, but I don't know how to be anything else." She pulled her hands from under the blanket and rubbed her eyes. "If I'm such a disappointment, maybe you should find someone who isn't." I don't know what she expects. She goes on about love. But that was one scream shy of rape. Maybe I'm just missing—

"No," Amy replied. "I'm not letting you off that easy." The bed shuddered as she sat up and turned.

Of course you aren't.

Faith shut her eyes. The shit was about to hit the fan. Maybe I should take the hint and get gone. It'd be easier on both of us.

When she started to rise, Faith got a hand in the center of her chest and a lecture for her trouble. "You make it sound like you think that anyone who makes a commitment to someone else is stupid. Yet you're obviously committed to me, Jonathan, Giles…not to mention every warm blooded—"

Faith managed to force a word in edge-wise, "That's not the same," but not without raising her voice.

Another laugh—this one mocking—made her seriously entertain violence. And the impulse only got worse with the examination that followed.

"Unbelievable," Amy exclaimed. "You're scared. Something about this really struck a nerve."

Faith clenched her fists, choking back the urge to shout. About what? I've got nothing. She nailed it. See what I get for letting someone in?

Before she managed to get her shit together enough to sit up, let alone storm out of the room, Amy went on, "You're condemning something you don't even understand."

"Christ! We've been at this all night!" Faith snapped. "Every time I feel like I might get some peace…" Frustration laid waste to the rest of her statement. She sat up and turned to glare at Amy.

Of course, it had no effect. "Willow and I talked," Amy said. "She asked me for help. Here's some irony for you…" Her tone was so neutral it was infuriating. And the dramatic pause, though brief, sure didn't help. "They've started to dig out—made some real progress—and the instrument of change is also the one thing that could tear it all down. Whistler told Willow that loving Buffy could cost her her soul."

You've gotta be kidding me? More drama from Camp Vamp? That's exactly what we need.

"She's terrified," Amy said. "She didn't say that, but she didn't have to. It was easy enough to see."

Faith wanted to blow off the whole steaming pile.

And she would've if Amy hadn't continued to run her mouth, "She asked me to help." Her expression grew thoughtful. "Not just for her. She needs to understand how it works because she wants to ensoul them all."

That took the wind right out of Faith's sails. She wasn't sure what to think. "All?" she stammered, feeling screwed by circumstance and every other goddamn thing. She let out a hiss that amounted to more of a tsk or a tut—a verbal tick that—while meaningless—pretty much summed things up. Christ. I'm actually considering this crap.

"All," Amy confirmed. "If anyone can, it's her. She made them."

The tension between them trickled away. Is it really messed up that I think that's good news?

Oh, yeah. Shit just doesn't get more twisted than this. But that doesn't mean I don't buy it. I'm not even sure why I buy it.

Alright, whatever, fuck it. They get a chance. Just one. They screw up, it's over.

Now there's the understatement of the century.

Amy combed her hair back with her fingers and made a fist. It didn't look quite painful. Almost, not quite. "She's got Dalton looking at reversing the spell, but that seems pretty unlikely. Magic just doesn't work that way. You don't get a do-over when you screw up." She let her hair fall. "You get consequences." There was something kind of manic about the smile on her face. It didn't fit that last thing. But as she explained, her expression made sense, "Consider the consequences for just a sec. You said twenty-five, maybe thirty. Imagine what that might mean for us if we could reacquaint them with their humanity."

Huh. Well, getting them to toe the line might be a blast—but 'Adventures in Babysitting the Terminator' aside—it could mean we'd have a fighting chance for the first time in like—ever.

Faith took the slack as a cue to lay back down. The bed felt good, but what Amy said next sure as hell didn't. "Now let's get back to you." It was cringe-worthy. And the fact that she remained sitting…

Faith shook her head and offered the best defense she had. "I managed to find something here I was pretty sure I'd never have. Doesn't matter what happens. I won't risk that."

"Y'know, it's funny, you've got this serious beef with Buffy," Amy said, pausing to let out a snicker. "Trust me, I get it. But it's pretty sad when a vampire shows more courage…" she stood up "…and more heart than the goddamn slayer."

Faith shut her eyes. That depends on how you define courage. In my book, going up against something when you know you just can't win isn't courage. Choosing that, if you have options…

She can say what she wants. Whatever. Momma might've done a lot of things, but she didn't raise no dummy.

Amy moved away from the bed. The closet door opened. When she emerged, the sermon continued, "I get that you've been burned, but you seriously need to get over it." She took a seat on the couch and shook out what could only be a blanket. "It's a shame really. You close yourself off like that, who knows what you might miss."


First impression: something's missing.

I think it might be my mind.

Buffy hadn't moved an inch since she went to sleep. Now there was this gaping hole. The weight on her shoulder was gone. Her arms felt empty.

We're on the fourth night of this demented little social experiment. I wake up alone and—no slack—immediately start pining.

When did this bed get so big?

She cracked her eyes and looked around the room. Bright sunlight filtered in through the breaks in the drapes.

Clueless. Probably about the same time I started quoting eighties pop songs like they might be profound.

It's not like it's been a year, a month or even a week. And lest we forget how much fun this wasn't…those first few nights I would've given almost anything to be somewhere else.

She inhaled a long, deep breath. A faint hint of Willow permeated the air. The breath came out as a sigh. She hasn't been gone that long.

Huge admissions, revelations—or whatever that was—aside…I still don't understand what she sees in me. I don't get why this is happening.

And that question hasn't gotten any less pointless. Why can't I just be glad that it is?

Really, I should drag me and my broken brain out of bed and face the world. Doing something useful's a solid plan. Besides, she's gone and it's not like I'm gonna catch a catnap without her.

Catnap? That'd be nice. We could spend a lazy afternoon just lounging in the sunshine. Someday. Maybe one day soon. Buffy allowed herself another moment or two to indulge the fantasy before she rolled out of bed. What she saw when she looked down was pretty much the usual nightmare. At least it was a less colorful nightmare.

Shrugging, she hauled her sorry ass into the bathroom to get clean. It was just the stickiness that bugged her. There wasn't much sense in wasting a lot of time on it. She ran through the shower, toweled dry and got dressed.

Today's gonna be fun. I just know it.

With any luck, some of the drama's worn off. Might be nice 'cause I'm not sure how much more of that I can take.

A simple guess and a quick elevator ride landed her in the library. Buffy silently surveyed the scene unnoticed for some time before she said anything, "How goes the plight?"

Willow was buried behind mountains of books at one of the central tables. She half-stood to look around them and grumbled, "Lousy."

It hasn't been long enough for 'lousy,' has it?

Nah. I bet she's only up to 'bleh' and milking sympathy.

"That good?" Buffy teased. A sunny smile brightened her face. "I've got faith. You'll have it by sundown." Grumpy or not, didn't matter. Just being in the same room with Willow made her all fluttery and filled her head with air. An unneeded breath lodged in her throat.

Yeah…so much for that theory. Stamp me 'smitten.' We'll process the shock and move on.

Maybe.

Could take a while.

Willow replied, "Yeah, I'm sure," sounding lots less than sure. The talking stacks of books were funny. Buffy leaned against a shelf, listening to them ramble with a big, silly grin on her face. "There's only one teensy hitch, everything I've read tells me it's impossible. No big. We get past that and it'll be warm salty goodness."

My timing could've been better with the smit. Here, I seriously need to have my head in the game. And what am I doing? Fawning like some lovesick girl.

I just can't shake the feeling. It was amazing. Strange, I kinda get the addiction now. Even with the bad.

But the 'bad' wasn't all that bad. She loves me. What's bad about that?

Well, other than that it's totally distracting.

Guess it's time to help…

Or try.

Buffy offered a reassuring, "We know for a fact that's not the case," as she crossed the room. After lingering for a sec to give a sympathetic smile, she came to rest against the table, on the Willow-side of the leaning tower of research.

The smile was ineffectual. It didn't even put a dent in Willow's snit. "It'd be helpful if there was something, but there's just nothing. Researching nothing isn't exactly helpful." Truly vexed, Willow asked, "Do you get how rare ensouled vampires are?"

Buffy braced herself before she asked the expected question, "How rare are they, Will?" Uh-boy. I've seen that look. If I laugh, I'm done. She bit her lip. Knock, knock…

Willow replied, "Well, umm…rare." Her attention drifted back to the book that was open on the table in front of her. "Y'know, really damned rare. Like only a couple of vague accounts in hundreds of years…rare. It'd be tough enough if I was just working on my problem. But I'm not. I'm trying to understand the principles. It's like mixing oil and water or maybe bleach and ammonia. Anyway, it's not very mixable or shouldn't be mixable. It's a real pain in my ass! And there's nothing in this stupid book!" Willow slammed the book closed. "At least nothing useful. Useless book!"

Poor book.

Oh well, at least it wasn't me.

A question lingered, waiting to be asked. But Buffy was no dummy. She bided her time, waiting for the musty-paper-induced tantrum to pass. This one was way ahead of schedule. She normally doesn't go ballistic until at least day two.

It's okay. I get it. Even Webster's is totally shaky on what a soul is. You have to wade through some pretty mucky waters to get anywhere close. I don't envy her trying to make sense of that crap.

She moved behind Willow. After a tentative touch to make sure it was okay, Buffy rubbed her partner's shoulders. Silence was fine. There was time. At least a little. She worked to relieve some of the pent-up stress. Finally, she leaned in to give Willow a tender kiss on the neck.

The opportunist in her couldn't resist stealing a sip of Willow's coffee. That was a mistake. The grumpy, groggy over-the-shoulder glance Willow gave her made Buffy set the cup down. 'Kay…bad idea. "So, what else are you working on?" she asked, moving to lean against the table again so she could see Willow's face.

All the good she'd done just kinda went 'poof.' The creases came back, the pout, the fidgets…

"I didn't tell you?" Willow exclaimed. "I thought I told you." Her face sagged. Moments later her forehead crinkled pensively. "Maybe I just told Amy." Ignoring Buffy entirely, Willow focused on a stack of books. "Yeah, 'cause we had that thing. And that thing got in the way of everything. But that's okay it was an important thing. Not something we could put off." She rested her elbow against the table and propped her head in her hand. "I could've sworn I told you." That was it. Willow was gone, puzzling and sipping her coffee.

Buffy prodded, "Will?" This is cute and all, but—

She bit back a snicker when Willow didn't quite choke, spray or sputter at the sound of her voice.

Willow abandoned her coffee. "Oh, yeah…I'm working on—well, it's the thing that makes the most sense. It isn't the best thing, but it's workable. It'll be complicated."

Y'know what…?

Buffy picked up the coffee cup. It just looked too good. That and another, slightly terser, "Will?" got the witch's attention.

She sipped the coffee as Willow got around to explaining, "I wanna try to use the scythe as a conduit again. I may be able to ensoul them all. Of course, we have to get it back. And I need to…"

Willow fell flat again, but it was okay. She'd pretty much managed to leave Buffy speechless. The rest was just frill. Buffy sputtered, "Uh…" Wow. I totally get why I love her.

Huh.

Buffy smiled.

And she loves me.

The giddy schoolgirl action caught up.

We may actually make it. This might just turn out okay.

Reality took a bite. I'm getting ahead of myself. Her smile faded along with all that fluffy, gushy, girly stuff. There's still too much we haven't got figured.

Not that it isn't good news. It's totally good. It's just too early to tell. But who knows? We may have a shot. If Will can pull this off, it'd simple things up so much. It's hard to say how it'd go, but face it, anything's better than twentyish conscienceless killing machines running amok. That kinda puts them on our side. Not totally, but close enough. Good enough to start negotiations.

Wow, bargain of the lifetime.

I'll take it.

Buffy returned the cup and went back to massaging Willow's shoulders. A few moments drifted idly by. Some of the tension eased. She leaned in to whisper, "I'll call Mr. Kalderash and get him here. Until then—" She kissed Willow's cheek. I don't know what else to offer. He's as close to an expert as we have. "There any more of this?" she asked, gesturing vaguely at the coffee cup.

"Yeah," Willow replied. "Our guests have been making themselves at home. Jonathan was here earlier to drop off groceries and stuff." Her tone was worrisomely listless.

It occurred to Buffy that she hadn't asked Willow about any of this. She'd just opened their door. Oh boy. This is her home too. That's bad. She cleared her throat to cut the nervous edge and asked, "That bother you?" God, I hope not.

"Of course not. I think it's funny as hell," Willow replied through a giggle.

"Yeah, it's quite the change," Buffy replied. The weight coming off her shoulders was an even better change. She craned around Willow to make eye contact and took in the amused grin. It was the best thing she'd seen all day.

There's other stuff. Important stuff we should—

Willow scooted her chair back and everything got tumbley for an instant. Clinging, Buffy landed in Willow's lap and things got even better.

Not now.

Soft, warm kisses made all of her doubts go away.

Later.


Two nights spent on couches had left Amy with a few charming mementos. 'Sore' and 'sleepy' mostly covered it, but only if she generalized, lumping 'lethargic,' 'cranky' and 'obtuse' with their cause. Her neck felt broken without the pleasant, tingly finality of 'my body's completely numb.' That's fine. It's good. I'm totally hunky dory. I don't need to be able to turn my head to watch the bacon burn.

It's funny, I might even say 'I feel like shit'…except I don't. I feel horrible, but not terrible. Like that makes any sense at all.

It makes perfect sense. I finally got through that thick skull of hers. All this is totally worth it for that.

Every last little ache.

Though Faith was uncharacteristically quiet, the difference in her mood was like night and day. Even groggy, it was easy for Amy to tell. Even blind, she could've sensed it, but she wasn't going to tempt fate by thinking that too loudly. There wasn't any banging or clatter or swearing. Faith stood at the counter, perfectly calm, slicing up a kiwi. Just handing her a knife yesterday might've ended in a tragedy worthy of the evening news.

After flipping the strips of bacon with a pair of tongs, Amy traded the tongs for a spatula and broke up the pieces of egg with its edge. The tasks were mindless, which was good because they matched her state of mind.

It's a little strange how well furnished this kitchen is. You'd think that with a house full of vamps there wouldn't be much. There's even a nice mixer. But I guess Willow and Tara did eat here. I just didn't peg Willow for the type to cook. Maybe it was Tara?

I dunno…

Really, I should be totally stressed about today. I'm not sure how we're gonna get any of this done. The list is more than a little overwhelming.

Actually, it's insane. We have to not only figure out where, but when and how…and what the heck we're gonna do about it.

It's not a small list. I don't know where to even begin. So instead, I'm more curious about the soy cheese we tossed. Only vegans eat that crap. It's hard to imagine Willow as a vegan. But there wasn't anything real. It was all soy-this and veggie-that, so I guess they both were.

Who'd have imagined? Love animals. Hate people. I can sorta see it, but I think they got a bit carried away.

Just a tad.

And talk about your major lifestyle changes. If she ends up living the way Giles wants her to—

An ensoulled, penitent, ex-vegan, Jewish vampire living on nothing but pig's blood. Talk about the stuff of absurd black comedy. I want to feel bad for her, but that's the last thing I should feel.

She got handed this amazing gift that totally blows me away. And what does she—?

"Well, B…look at you. Getting over the dominatrix complex?" Faith teased.

Amused by the comment, Amy smiled as she glanced over her shoulder to see what it was about. Past the wince and the regret, she saw that Buffy was wearing a white babydoll tee-shirt and jeans. She actually looked like she belonged. Amy turned to take the pressure off her neck, leaning into the counter with her hip. None of that matters. What's important's the here and now. And here, now…everyone's changing…and not for the worse. In spite of the pain, her smile stuck. Buffy even returned it.

Amy went back to cooking, but her attention wasn't there. Listless or not, she was lots more interested in the doings of the not-so-feudy Hatfields and McCoys.

When Buffy placed a block of something on the counter next to the coffeemaker, Faith stopped what she was doing and stared.

The 'block' was a bundle of new one-hundred dollar bills, bound with a paper band like Buffy'd just gotten it from a bank. Amy couldn't believe she hadn't noticed.

Buffy went to the fridge and opened it, like there was nothing unusual about laying ten-thousand dollars on the kitchen counter. Way too late and sounding totally preoccupied, she said, "Huh?" as she rummaged through the fridge.

"Nothing," Faith replied.

Amy portioned out the eggs onto two plates. When she next looked, Buffy had one of the pints of the pig's blood Jonathan had brought. Her expression reflected the epitome of distaste. She held the container away from herself as she carried it to the counter.

The bacon was almost done. Amy flipped it one more time to keep it from burning. A cabinet door opened to her right. There was a clunking sound and Buffy moved away.

Curiosity finally got the better of Faith. "Uh…B.," she said, gesturing to the stack of cash.

Yeah, that's pretty much where I was.

Amy tore off some paper towels and folded them to drain the bacon. As she rushed to finish up, Buffy asked, "Would you guys mind taking fifty-three-hundred of that to Giles for me? Use one of the cars. The keys are in a metal thing on the wall to the left of the door downstairs."

Amy leaned against the counter. It was good to be away from the heat of the stove and able to see what was going on around her. Buffy was at the sink filling a wineglass with blood. Faith divided the fruit up onto their plates and put bread in the toaster as Buffy explained, "This old gypsy named Kalderash is gonna show up at the Magic Box sometime today. I asked him to explain how the whole 'ensoulling vamps' thing works."

Buffy turned, briefly making eye contact with Amy and said, "You might wanna be there to get in on this." Faith made room when she went to the microwave. "I can't guarantee where we're gonna be." She opened the door and put the glass in, tapping the touch pad as she went on. "We sort of need to figure out what's up. We have a party to crash. Not knowing the address isn't exactly good for us." She went to put the container of blood back in the fridge. "Anyway, I promised him five grand for his trouble, plus expenses."

The toaster popped just as Buffy finished. Faith grabbed a piece, picked up her plate and went to the island. Taking a seat, she asked, "Okay, so…what do you want us to do with the rest?"

That looked like a great idea to Amy. She grabbed her plate and the other piece of toast and followed.

Buffy was in the middle of pouring a cup of coffee. "I don't care," she said with a shrug, glancing over her shoulder. There was a warm, friendly smile on her face. "Buy some clothes. No offense, but you two look like shit."

Faith grinned. "You're no ray of sunshine yourself, B.," she replied through a snicker. "Thanks."

Buffy took a sip of her coffee and turned to face them. "No problem."

The microwave beeped. Buffy went to get the glass. As she turned back, Faith asked, "Get into a fight?"

The passing comment made no sense at all. Faith went back to eating as Amy tried to figure out what the heck she meant. Buffy looked normal. A little too normal.

As Buffy retrieved her coffee, she met Amy's gaze. It wasn't until then that Amy got how rude she was being. She grinned awkwardly in apology. When she looked down, she saw exactly what Faith meant. Peeking out from under the right sleeve of Buffy's shirt was a mass of thick scars. Again, Amy couldn't believe she'd missed it.

Huh. Well, she didn't get cut up in the fight. Not that I saw. Besides, that'd be healed by now. So that means that those have to be from before, right?

Yeah, has to be. She was human when those happened.

Well, I guess that explains a few things. It'd be nice if Faith had kept her mouth shut.

It'd be nice if she knew how. Amy bit her lip to stifle a snicker. She wanted to be embarrassed for Faith, but that seemed kind of pointless.

Buffy pretty much blew the whole thing off. She left the room, offering, "You could say that," as a parting shot.

Faith kept eating, oblivious to any offense she might've caused. Business as usual.

Amy picked at her food. Funny, this sounded so good. Now I'm just—

Faith made quick work of her plate. She didn't bother to say anything until she was done. After taking a gulp of her coffee, she asked, "So what's the plan?"

"They're up to something," Amy replied. "They have to be. The clock's ticking. And I don't think we should let them go it alone." It wasn't exactly a 'plan.' More like the first thing that came to mind. And she had a bad feeling about it. "I could follow them if you don't mind delivering the money alone. I'll let you know once I figure out where they're headed."

Faith wasn't impressed. As she got up to take her plate to the sink, she asked, "Are you sure that's smart?"

Smart?

Well, it isn't exactly stupid.

Amy tossed the piece of bacon she was nibbling at back onto her plate, pushing the entire thing away. "Yeah, it's no big," she replied. "They'll have to use the caves. I can track them above ground. Chances are they won't even know I'm there."

Faith turned away from the sink and leaned against counter. "Alright," she agreed. "That doesn't sound so bad."