FINALES: SLIPPING AWAY
Xander watched his knuckles clench until the white showed through, gritting his teeth as he gained purchase. Pausing to take a breath, he heard the quiet squeak of rubber soles against the tiled surface behind him.
"Need a hand there?"
"It's okay, I've got it." He didn't look round, just turned his wrist, felt the nut tighten, then stop. Dropping the wrench back into the box with a sharp clunk, he lifted the shower frame into the socket and shook it lightly.
Faith crouched down beside him, skin glistening with sweat, dark patches staining her tee-shirt. She unwrapped the tape from around her knuckles as she took in his handiwork.
"Thanks for fixin' that."
"Thanks for letting me know."
Her eyes settled on his profile for a couple of seconds, then, with a quiet sigh, she stood up straight again, pushing sweat-damp hair away from her face. He closed the box and rose to his feet in front of her, stood there, waiting for her to say something. But, she was looking past him – blank, unreadable – almost like she'd forgotten he was there.
Finally, her eyes found him again and she released a breath he was certain only a nearby dog might have heard. "Is this gonna turn into some kinda personal deal? 'Cause, I gotta tell ya —"
"It feels kind of personal." Hard not to get sucked in when he was sure he deserved something more, something better. Even when the part of his brain that didn't need to hear it for himself was screaming at him to leave it alone.
Faith studied him and he was suddenly fearful that she could see every thought. But, the furrowed brow, the tilted head told him she was simply turning her options over: how to let him leave with at least someone's dignity intact.
She smiled and for a moment there was hope. But, the words doused the flicker like a match dropped in a pool of dirty rainwater:
"It's got nothin' to do with you, Xander. I like her, that's all. It's no big." Then, carefully, as if she might bruise him, Faith slugged him on the shoulder, cracking a grin that didn't quite make it. "Now, c'mon, need a little privacy here. Gotta get cleaned up."
He blinked, almost heard the wet click as his eyelid snapped shut like some bastardized rendition of an old-time camera shutter, and he remembered. Sure, she cared that he was part of the gang when she came back to help fight the First. She cared when he lost his eye. He'd even caught her watching him with something that looked a lot like sympathy after Sunnydale. But, when it came to their Big Moment, to the stuff that didn't simply come with familiarity or a shred of common humanity or even psychopathic contempt: indifference. The word that had eluded him all this time. No wonder they hadn't talked. Not much to say when the only acknowledgements in four-odd years had been a bitchy joke he hadn't even realized she was telling at the time, and whenever she'd wanted to shut up his girlfrie—
Don't forget the little modifier at the start. Modifiers; plural.
Xander turned away, leaving the shower room as quietly as Faith had come in. When he got outside, he walked toward the small garden he'd built for his best friend, who hadn't told him about Tara either, just let it come out during a four-way mindfuck. Always 'one of the girls' until it came to the stuff they thought he couldn't handle. Now she just had to remind him how different things were, in case he ever forgot: "I'm over you now, sweetie."
Stopping in front of the fence, his eye traced the letters on the inscription while he thought about the only woman who'd ever really seen him, who'd wanted everything he had to give, then he walked back to the house and went upstairs to his room. Shutting the door behind him, Xander climbed onto his bed and lay back. The patch came off, cool air from the A/C unit stirring inside the hollow crazy-quilt of tissue.
Pillow fights and hooker-wear: his best friend and her new girl friend; horny little groupies just getting warmed up, waiting for him to show them how it's really done, waiting for him to satisfy them both, the way only a man like him could (not enough stamina? never a problem, not in his world). Didn't matter what they said, what they did, how powerful they were, what choices they'd made. Because, deep down, that's what they all wanted, wasn't it? They needed guys like him to make it count, to make it worthwhile.
That was normal, right? Something to dream about, to wake up to, while that almighty surge of blood and power brought him to life down below. Because the other stuff – the stuff that wasn't worth dreaming about – he didn't (want to) understand.
(Scared, insecure little boy.)
Xander closed his eye and waited, grateful for the gulping breaths he was suddenly forced to take as a shallow laugh escaped from high up in his throat – a little sour, but a laugh nonetheless – and finally, at last, hot tears squeezed through onto his lashes and scored a damp trail across his skin onto the pillow beneath his head.
Faith didn't need Willow. And Willow definitely didn't need Faith.
But, maybe now he could move on.
On her way to Greece, during a stopover in London, Kennedy bought a new leather jacket; retail therapy, the effect lasting only as long as it took to pay for it. Later that night, she went to a club and, after a few rounds of expensive scotch that she didn't really like, took a girl back to her hotel room. Rebound sex, even if it wasn't exactly your own rebound you were indulging, was supposed to be good for, if not the soul, then for keeping your sense of self balanced or something; for making you not feel like a loser. Part of her even felt like she was punishing Willow, even while she was aware it wasn't much of a punishment, since Willow would never find out how easily Kennedy was getting over it by having awkward sex with a complete stranger who kept asking her if she was okay.
Afterwards, she just felt lousy. Well, not just lousy; there was a small spark of optimism telling her that if nice girls from London liked her enough to come back to her hotel room and be concerned about her welfare, then it probably meant she wasn't a hopeless case and she would most likely get over it, sooner or later, with her ego largely intact.
It was just, she wanted to feel better about it than she did. Willow hadn't meant to hurt her, sure, but that didn't mean the thing with Faith didn't still hurt. And having sex with a stranger in an effort to prove how not hurt she was ... well, that kind of spoke for itself, didn't it? Which was probably why they called it 'rebound sex' and not 'hey-I'm-totally-over-what's-happened-and-I-don't- mean-that-in-an-ironic-way sex'. The overall effect was that she felt a little better, but still a bit bruised. And, although she was sure the bruising would fade in time, it was still fresh enough to make her feel a little out of sorts and not in the best of moods.
She collected her bag, walked to the arrivals lounge, and stopped.
"What are you doing here?"
Willow smiled, nervous and a little shy. "Thought I'd come pick you up. Here, I mean. From the airport. Pick you up from the airport."
Kennedy kept the tiny grin she felt coming on under wraps. Babbling about accidental pick-up innuendos was not cute. "You didn't have to."
"I wanted to, 'cause, you know, I want us to be friends and friends pick each other up from the airport."
"I thought we were already friends."
"Well … I haven't been a very good friend. I guess I've been kind of avoidy lately."
The Droopy Eyes of Guilt were too much for even the most determined stoic to handle. Kennedy let the grin do its thing after all. "Don't you just hate ex-girlfriend awkwardness?"
"We'll get over it." Willow returned the smile as they headed to the parking lot.
As they drove home and Willow asked about her trip (How was the new girl? How cool was the Parthenon? How annoying was Andrew? How was Cleveland? How was Giles?) Kennedy began rifling through her hand luggage. She saw Willow eye her nervously.
"Don't worry, I didn't buy you anything. But, here ..." She produced a carton of cigarettes. "I wasn't sure if it was still okay. I mean, now that you and —"
"No, it's ... it's fine." Willow cocked an eyebrow. "How horrible are they?"
"Pretty bad, I think."
"Good." Her ex-girlfriend smiled. "And ... thanks."
They passed the golden arches, the lights from the strip cutting through the dark inside the car. Kennedy blinked at the flash that appeared on the lapel of Willow's jacket.
She still hadn't told her about Auschwitz.
She would one day, but not now.
Kennedy dropped the carton back into her bag. "It's nothing."
Dawn finished checking her French history report one last time for typos then, satisfied that the Romans hadn't invaded Britney, hit the 'print' icon. Shutting down the laptop, she picked up her backpack and left the library. She could hear the hum of the printer as she unlocked Willow's office door, saw the pages churning out onto the tray as she stepped inside and set her bag on top of the desk, reaching out to steady the picture it bumped against, the one Willow had made a copy of that Dawn had stuck on the new pictureboard in her bedroom.
Faith was in the rec room, playing some video game. Lots of explosions and burning rubber.
"Have you seen Willow?"
The Slayer tilted her head back over the top of the chair. "She'll be by in a couple minutes." She raised the joystick above her shoulder. "Don't suppose you wanna try this out?"
More screeching and some sharp banging noises. Then it stopped and the chair swiveled to the side a little. Faith leaned round to look at her. "We're goin' to the movies tomorrow night. You wanna come?"
Faith grinned. "There could be candy of some descrip—"
"I'm not a kid," said Dawn, then cringed at how very much like a kid that had made her sound.
"I know that. I meant for me, doofus."
In spite of herself, Dawn smiled. "Okay, yeah. I guess so."
Willow came in then. Dawn handed her the keys to her office, while Faith shut off the PlayStation; better things to do now, Dawn supposed. Probably involving hot and heavy smoochies, lots of groping and/or grinding, then Faith trying to persuade Willow to take up post-sexytimes smoking.
When they left the room, Dawn picked up a magazine and opened it. Paused as she heard Faith in the hallway:
"I was thinkin', if you're feelin' up to it, we could go to the movies tomorrow night. Thought Dawn might wanna come too …"
Dawn frowned, confused, closing the magazine over again, her mind churning, then almost her stomach too when she figured it out. Funny how she'd had the date circled in her head for a couple of weeks now, but she hadn't put it together when Faith asked.
A small prickly sensation wormed its way up inside and settled behind her eyes – hot, sharp, stinging. But, she held it back. Faith was done playing mind games and trying to steal other people's identities, wasn't she? Robin had been proof enough that she was at least capable of behaving like a normal person. So, maybe it was just a nice thought.
Weirder things had happened.
Willow found herself telling Faith things she'd never told anyone before. Nothing earth-shattering, but, sometimes late at night, when the room was soft with lamplight and shadows, while Faith held her in that stiff, awkward way that seemed a little less stiff and awkward each time, Willow talked to her about Tara, spilling memories and stories out into a realm of the semi-public domain that she knew could be trusted to treat them with care and just the right degree of reverence.
Sometimes Faith listened so quietly, the only way Willow knew she was awake was the feel of fingers sliding through her hair and across her back; other times, depending on which parts of her life Willow felt moved to divulge, Faith laughed or asked questions or offered blunt-but-sincere comments that would have made Tara smile.
Faith didn't tell her much in return; Willow still wasn't sure when exactly her mother died or what prison was really like. Instead, any carefully approached enquiry was headed off at the pass with a quick smile or a not-so-quick kiss or a conveniently sudden thirst that required a sneaky trip to the refrigerator. Willow didn't push it – theirs wasn't that kind of a relationship anyway – and the one-sidedness that had the potential to make her feel all kinds of selfish was something she was mostly happy to overlook for the time being.
Now, Willow returned the easy smile directed at her as Faith, bearer of the scent of fresh and familiar shower gel, pulled her chair out and sat down. With a tilt of her head, the Slayer motioned to the plate in the center of the table.
"What are these, pancakes? D'you make 'em, B?"
"Yes, Faith, I did. And if you don't want any, you don't have to —"
"What the hell you gettin' so uptight about? All I said —"
"It was the way you said it ..."
"Will you two quit it?" Dawn chimed in. "Jeez ..."
Kennedy sniggered and Willow started to smile again, her eyes finding Xander. He was already gazing back at her, the wounded expression burning a hole where once it might have melted her heart instead.
It had been on the tip of her tongue ever since he found out: please, just let me have this. The best she could come up with, torn between friendship that should mean she could talk to him about anything, and the desire to leave the molehill molehill-sized. But, she was too content right now to give into guilt she didn't feel, or listen to judgments and petty accusations she couldn't be bothered arguing about; or to tolerate wise counsel with more than just a hint of double-standard, or smile at any tacky little half-jokes he felt compelled to share.
Too content to let him twist it into something it wasn't, to take it away from her somehow.
He just needed time. Besides, avoidance was a long-standing Scooby tradition.
Willow looked away again and stared down at her syrup-drenched breakfast.
Faith was looking at her, smirking slightly, gesturing to Willow's plate with her knife. "I mean, they're probably not that bad ..."
"Oh. Yeah. It's fine."
The Slayer glanced to the side, past Kennedy, the smirk slowly fading.
As Willow headed toward her room after breakfast, he followed her, catching her up in the hallway. The hand he placed on her shoulder bore the weight of concern more than accusation; still enough to provoke a tiny flare of irritation, but she held her tongue. This was classic-mixed-with-grown-up Xander, cautious but determined to be heard nonetheless:
"Will, I just —" He faltered, mouth open slightly as he took his hand away again; maybe something in the way she'd looked at him. "I just want you to be happy."
Not just that; there were other sentiments too, good and bad, behind what used to be a pair of soft brown eyes. Still, it was enough for now. It always was.
Willow smiled, obligatory and cheerless. "Yeah, me too." Some traditions, even the dumb ones, were worth preserving, especially on days like today.
When she reached her room, she brushed her teeth, checked her make-up and straightened her dress.
Faith was sitting on the porch steps. Glancing up, her eyes paused where Willow's fist was loosely curled around a collection of small stones. The Slayer let go of a stream of smoke as she dropped her cigarette on the ground and rose to her feet.
"Paperwork's not gonna write itself ..."
Willow released the invitation with a tentative breath: "You could come too. I mean, if you want."
A few seconds passed as the other woman squinted across the yard. "I don't think so," she said, finally.
Willow tried a small smile. "I think she'd like to see you. I mean, the you who looks like you."
"Kinda like a proper introduction this time?"
"Yeah, something like that."
Another pause, then a surprisingly soft gaze met her own. "Not today. You should have some time alone."
Willow thought about saying something else, trying another approach, but, other than whiny pleading, nothing came to her.
"Then could you ... d'you think you could wait here?"
A tiny frown indented the Slayer's brow.
"I mean, it'd be nice. You know, if you could do that."
With a small shrug, Faith sat down again, elbows resting on her knees.
"Yeah, cool. Now, go see your girl."
As she headed across the yard, Willow glanced back at the dark figure on the porch, the Slayer's gaze steady, peaceful, even as her fingers twitched reflexively around a pack of cigarettes. She remembered the night just passed, those same fingers buried knuckle-deep to a soundtrack of grunted obscenities and other less intelligible utterances; and a couple of hours later, strong arms holding her and different words, soothing and strange to hear, when she woke up, shaking, from a dream of happiness blown away by a stray bullet.
Willow turned away from the eyes of a cold-blooded killer who didn't deserve forgiveness, a big slut who threw people away like used tissues, a sociopath who thought only of how much pain and misery she could inflict on the people around her.
Remembered a picture on the desk, where she could see it.
She entered the small square, a haven of quiet and calm. Except right now, it didn't feel so different from the world she'd left behind.
With a smile, she approached the headstone. "Hey, it's me ..."
" ... and from the results we're getting, and the reports from the new girls, things seem to be going very well indeed." Giles leaned back in his chair and looked at her. "What do you think, Faith?"
"Yeah, cool. Got no complaints."
"Ooh, watch that enthusiasm, it might be infectious." The smile Buffy directed at her was pretty much the same one she'd been pushing at every opportunity since she found out her best bud was getting her kicks with a slutty former psycho. The kind of smile that said: I really don't like this, but I was brought up with good manners and shit and anyway I like screwing vamps, so I can't really talk.
Which, credit where it's due.
Still the kind of smile that might get on a person's tits, but Faith found herself smiling a little in return.
The library door opened then and Willow came in. "Are you guys finished?"
Giles glanced at the two Slayers for confirmation. "Yes, I believe so."
Willow grinned back at the Watcher. "Can we do it now?"
Faith looked at Buffy, who shrugged in reply as Willow pulled up a chair, while Giles reached into the inside pocket of his jacket and took out an envelope.
"I would have passed this on to you a couple of days ago, but we thought it best to give you the news in person."
Faith took the envelope, her name on the front, with a private Cleveland address under it. "What's this?"
"I had to pull in favors from a couple of … less than reputable sources, but I think you'll be pleased."
She pulled the letter free from the opened envelope and unfolded it. Started to read. After a couple of lines, she looked at the former librarian. "Not sure I'm gettin' the gist here exactly. Kinda long-winded. D'you write this?"
"No." Giles frowned a little as he pointed at the official-looking seal on the envelope. "It's from Washington. You're to be granted commutation, Faith."
"It's a little like a pardon. Basically, you're no longer a wanted fugitive."
She looked at him. "For real?"
The Watcher nodded, one of those excited little grins on his face, like whenever someone mentioned tea or the Queen. "Until we can get your conviction overturned – and we're waiting to hear back from an even less reputable source about that – in light of your actions during the recent 'emergencies' in Los Angeles and Sunnydale, it's been decided you've served an appropriate sentence."
A twist in her gut then. It wasn't fucking 'appropriate'. 'Appropriate' would be if she turned a corner one day and some chick stuck a piece of wood in her chest, then dumped the body and tried to pin it on someone else; or some girl came to her apartment who reckoned sticking a knife in someone's gut was a decent price for a little affection from a guy old enough to call 'daddy' a few times over.
She looked at Buffy. Huh.
Then again, beggars couldn't be choosers and she'd always known she shouldn't go back to jail. No point. Couldn't help save the world stuck in an eight-by-ten concrete box, counting the hours until recess in the yard or shitty movie nights.
"That's awesome, Faith," said Buffy, phony smile still welded on; but, Christ, she actually sounded like she meant it.
Faith looked at Willow then. The girl was beaming back at her, excitement gleaming like shiny pennies behind her eyes. She'd be wired that night; not a bad thing. Wired meant fucking until the dark shade on the bedroom window blocked out next day's sunshine.
So, all in all, she really didn't have much to complain about.
"Damn," said Willow, a tiny frown crossing her forehead. "I left the camera in my office. I was gonna take a picture."
Buffy reached across the table, nudged Faith's arm with the back of her hand. "And, hey, now you don't have to be so brooding and moody all the time."
Faith scowled. Okay, now that was fucking annoying. She turned back to Willow and, man, she really didn't want to, but old habits and all: "That's okay, Will. You don't have to use those kinda pictures for your personal use. Not now you've got your hands on the real thing."
Buffy's smile vanished, Willow's face colored slightly, and Giles blinked and looked around the table, cheerful but clueless.
"Sorry … am I missing something?"
Buffy knocked. Then waited. Then knocked again. Louder this time. When no reply was forthcoming, she went downstairs to the back hallway and stood outside Willow's room, where a shaft of warm lamplight peeked through the gap at the bottom of the door. She listened for a moment, then, satisfied that she wouldn't be interrupting anything that might well land her on a therapist's couch, she raised her hand to give the door a couple of polite knocks.
Then stopped, just before her fist made contact.
She'd seen Willow leave the house earlier that evening to return some books to the library in town, but she could be back by now, and just because Buffy couldn't hear anything, it didn't mean nothing was going on. For all she knew, Faith might have invented some quietly brooding form of ... activity. It wouldn't surprise her; Faith would probably consider it a huge triumph if she managed to avoid having to say anything between How about it? and Wasn't I great?
With a sigh, she turned around again and headed back upstairs, this time to the library to find a pen and something to write on. A book of fairy tale stories lay open on the table, courtesy of an untidy newbie, she suspected. Either that, or someone was researching the possibility of mysterious puncture marks on Sleeping Beauty's neck. She returned the book to its rightful place and went back to her search for some stationery.
This really wasn't the happy ending she'd wanted for Willow. The one she wanted was where the princess fell in love with another princess and there were brightly colored cartoon birds on their window ledge and maybe a few friendly dwarfs dancing around waving sleigh bells or something. Instead, Buffy was stuck with some grimmer-than-Grimm version where Faith was the wicked someone-or-other who the princess wanted to … do stuff with. Probably while all the woodland creatures freaked out about it.
The door to the library opened and Willow came in, jacket on, apparently just back from town.
"Oh, hey, Buffy." She gestured to the large rolls of paper in her arms. "New maps. Thought they might be useful."
"Yeah, maps are … great."
Willow began filing the diagrams away in a large case. "So, what'cha doin' in here?"
"Uh, I was gonna leave a note for Faith. That new girl got kinda weepy tonight and I wanted to let her know before she sees her tomorrow."
"You were gonna write her a note? Why didn't you just tell her?"
"I wasn't sure if … I mean … she wasn't in her room. And I didn't know if you were back yet."
"Oh." Willow smiled, quick and a tiny bit awkward.
"So, could you …?"
Willow nodded rapidly. "Yeah, sure, I'll … yeah." She finished putting the maps away then closed the case over and looked at Buffy, lips pressed together in a determined semi-smile. She inhaled a deep breath through her nose, apparently prepping herself for something important. "Listen, I was thinkin' we could maybe go out tomorrow? It's two-for-one night plus, you know, dancing and general fun-ness."
"You and me?"
Willow hesitated. "Well … and Faith? The three of us?"
A whole catalogue of potential excuses started whirring through Buffy's brain like an over-excited rolodex, while she desperately tried to ignore the hopeful, imploring look she could see in Willow's eyes. But, apparently sucking it up was going to involve even more suckage than she'd first anticipated, and she wasn't going to let her best friend slip away again, especially not over this.
Buffy shut the Excuse-Finder down and put her best under-duress smile forward.
"Yeah, sounds like fun," she said.
And even if the smile Willow returned wasn't exactly one hundred percent convincing either, it was reward enough for both of them.
They parted ways at the top of the stairs. Buffy waited until Willow was on the first floor and she could hear her footsteps disappear down the back hallway, then made her way across the landing. At the end of the corridor, she found herself once again standing outside the bedroom door across from her own. Hesitating for a second, she pushed it open and stuck her head inside the darkened room. Peach walls, catalog furniture, a small double bed, and a window that looked out onto the parking area at the front of the house. Apart from the neatly made-up sheets and pillows on the bed, it was exactly the same as when she'd first seen it.
Not even a pair of boots on the floor.
LET IT BLEED
AN: Many thanks to everyone who read, reviewed, favorited, followed and/or PM'd me with further thoughtful comments - and extra special thanks to anyone who stuck with it to the end. This was a labor of love/obsessive fangirling/slight pretentiousness/avoidance of other things I could have been doing at the time, and I sincerely appreciate the effort taken to read it and hope it (mostly) worked for you.
As noted in the summary, Let It Bleed is merely the start of the Wickedgeekyverse, a trilogy of sorts that I started to write a long time ago. The next installment, Beggars Banquet, is currently undergoing some final editing; once that's done, chapters will be posted at a similar rate to Let It Bleed. Until then, I'll be posting a few random BtVS and Wickedgeeky-adjacent one-shots that have also been languishing on my laptop.