Note: Should you be kind enough to comment on/review Beggars Banquet, please try to avoid mentioning anything spoilery twist-wise, for the sake of those folks who like to check out reviews before they read. Thank you.
'Hang Fire' contains paraphrased song lyrics from: How I Got Over (words & music by Clara Ward).
Thanks to: mphoenix, frogfarm, somercet, and Ian M.
following the breathtaking excitement (!)
of Let It Bleed, we slow things down
in order to make our way through
a figurative feast of short musings
fashioned not only to shed further illumination on our OTP,
but also to propose
that size doesn't matter (except when it does).
Trust me. I know what I'm doing. Sort of.
ONE: HANG FIRE
"Shouldn't you just know?"
"Cemeteries ... where they are."
"Uh ... I don't think so." Faith glanced up from the map, saw the grin forming at the corner of Willow's mouth and smiled back. "Funny." Looking out through the windshield again, she nodded toward a single-story clapboard house about fifty yards along the dirt track. "Pull over, we'll ask that old dude."
The man, about seventy years old maybe, was standing in the front yard, a walking stick in his hand that shook slightly as he leaned on it. He was looking straight at them.
Willow slowed the car down, bringing it to a stop once they reached the edge of the yard, while Faith put the map on top of the dashboard. When the Slayer pulled on the door handle, Willow seemed about to do the same on her side, but stopped as a couple of large black labradors bounded into the yard from an area around the side of the house populated with trees, overgrown grass and weeds. They growled a little, baring teeth, but stayed put as Faith stepped out onto the dirt. Her boots sank a little into the earth, softened by a midday downpour that the afternoon sun was only just beginning to dry away the traces of. She leaned down and looked back into the car. "You stayin' there?"
Willow glanced past her for a second, then shook her head before opening her own door and climbing out.
"Afternoon," said the old guy.
Faith replied with a nod and a friendly smile, which was enough, it seemed, to set the dogs off. One of them barked and, in just a couple of leaps, four muddy paws landed on her thighs and she felt a dry, rough tongue on the back of her right hand.
"Get down ya lil' bastards," the man growled. "I'll whup ya."
The dogs ignored him.
"We're lookin' for the cemetery." Faith patted one of the dogs on the top of its head. The other one had dropped to the ground again and was beginning to nuzzle her crotch. She twisted a little to the side and tried to push the animal away with her other hand.
"I'm warnin' ya." The old guy was still talking to the dogs; Faith wasn't sure if he'd even heard what she'd said.
Then, all of a sudden, the animals whimpered and backed away, cowering. They crawled toward their owner, bellies almost touching the ground, and lay on the dirt at his feet. The man frowned, puzzled, and Faith looked over her shoulder again. Willow gazed back at her with a shrug and Faith rolled her eyes.
The old guy was muttering to himself. "Well, that's the damnedest thing ..."
"The cemetery." Faith turned back to the man. "We're kinda lost."
He looked up at her and squinted, even though the sun was behind him. "Gotta drive to the end of the road here, then around the bend you get to the store. There's another road down a ways, drive about a half a mile along and that's the church."
"Y'all have a good day now."
"Sure. You too."
He stared after them in the wing mirror as they pulled away, then about thirty yards or so down the road, the labs rose to their feet and started running around and barking again.
"What d'you do to those dogs back there?"
Willow glanced at her. "They looked at you and saw a bigger, badder dog."
"Yeah?" Faith grinned as she took the map from the dashboard and started checking their location again. "Cool as fuck."
The store was closed. A sign on the door told them that the owner wouldn't be back for another two weeks. Willow grinned back at Faith. She hadn't known small-town convenience store owners really did that outside of the movies.
"I'm hungry." Faith kicked the toe of her boot against one of the porch steps at the front of the store.
"You should have eaten something earlier."
"Yeah, but — wait ... all is not lost."
Willow backed away from the door and stepped down from the porch so she could follow Faith's line of sight. A vending machine stood at the side of the small, wooden building. It looked new, if a little dusty, standing in stark contrast to the store's peeling paint, grimy-looking windows, and the rusty old Coca-Cola sign that would have been swinging stiffly from the roof of the porch if there'd been a breeze to set it in motion.
Faith went around to the side of the store and fished a couple of bills from the pocket of her jeans. She started to smooth them out, but Willow thought they looked just a little too crumpled and she didn't particularly want to see Faith's reaction if she tried to feed them into the machine and it rejected them. She took a couple of newer bills from her wallet and handed them to the Slayer.
"Thanks," Faith said and paused for a second, seemingly not sure what to do, before pushing her own crushed bills into Willow's hand. "What'cha want?" She slid one of the newer notes into the slot.
"Nothing for me, thanks."
"Yeah, well, don't start whinin' later and expect me to split them with ya." Faith glanced at her, the half-sneer she wore undercut by the good-humored gleam in her eye.
Willow smiled back as Faith punched a couple of buttons, but she was only able to relax when she heard the machine buzz quietly and then a muted clatter, as whichever item had been selected hit the tray near the bottom of the machine. More money, more buttons, more noise, then Faith pushed the cover of the tray inward and pulled out the contents.
When they went back to the car, the Slayer opened the passenger door and dropped her haul into the side pocket. Willow reached for the driver's side handle then paused at the sound of another vehicle. An orange Pinto, at least twenty years old, spluttered along the road from the same direction they'd come, slowing down as it approached before coming to a shuddering halt beside them. The elderly woman behind the wheel stuck her head out the open window.
Faith nodded. "Yeah, thanks."
"You need gas? There's a station about five miles east along the highway."
"Nah, we're okay. Thanks."
"Okay, then. Y'all have –"
"Oh, wait," Willow said. "Would you mind ... could you take a picture, please?" She turned to Faith, who reached into the car and took out the camera, passing it to her over the roof.
The woman looked a little uncertain for a second, then she nodded. Willow waited as she turned off the engine then got out of the Pinto. She smiled nervously as Willow switched the camera on and handed it to her.
"Just look at the screen at the back there and push the button," Faith said, then took hold of Willow's arm and they stood in front of the store. Faith put her arm around Willow's shoulder, giving it a gentle squeeze as the woman pointed the camera then took the picture.
"One more," said Faith and Willow slipped her arm around the Slayer's waist. The woman, more confident now, took a tiny step back, raised the camera a little higher, and clicked the button again.
When the woman left, Faith took the camera from Willow and looked at the pictures on the viewer. She shook her head slowly from side to side. "Sometimes I think you're the hottest-lookin' chick I ever saw." Faith tilted the screen toward Willow. "But then I see a picture of me ..."
On the way to the church, Faith split a bag of M&Ms with her.
"This doesn't look right." She looked at Willow, then back at the large, empty area of marshy grass and mud, surrounded by trees, that ran around the back and side of the small white building.
"You're sure it said the cemetery was beside the church?"
Faith nodded. "Said it was kinda overgrown, but yeah."
"This isn't overgrown."
"Well, it doesn't look like a fuckin' cemetery either, does it? You wanted the right information, you shoulda fuckin' checked it yourself." She shot a fierce glare at the other woman then, after a pause, sighed and gave what she hoped was a suitably remorseful smile.
Willow looked back at her for a couple of seconds then turned her attention once again to the graveyard-that-wasn't-there.
"You mad at me now?"
"It's hot and it's sticky and, you're right, I shoulda eaten something proper when I had the chance earlier, so I wouldn't be so pissed off and I'm sorry for takin' it out on you." Faith tried another apologetic smile.
Willow looked at her again and, this time, she smiled back.
The cemetery was on the other side of the wide dirt road that ran alongside the church. It looked like an open field, with no fence or gate or sign to tell anyone what it was. And if it had once been overgrown, it wasn't any longer. Willow wondered if perhaps they were just too used to seeing graveyards at night and that's why they hadn't seen it when they'd driven up to the church.
They made their way through the rows of mostly short headstones and flat slabs of stone with sometimes just a name and a single year engraved. Only a few, as far as she could tell, had been visited anytime recently. She thought only briefly of the last time she'd visited a cemetery during the daytime.
"This the one?" Faith asked, and stopped in front of one of the newer headstones.
As Willow approached, she glanced at the Slayer's back. Her tank-top was damp, the dark patch of sweat on the white cotton shaped almost like a cross ... if you squinted really hard and used your imagination.
"Yeah, that's it," she said, reading the name engraved on the marble.
Shielding her eyes with her hand, Faith squinted around the flat land surrounding them. "I'm thinkin' we should wait until night."
Willow nodded. The highway wasn't that far away and, without the cover of a small building surrounded by trees, there was perhaps too much chance a passing driver might spot them and call the cops.
"So, how about we go get some proper food?" she suggested and Faith grinned.
A little beer spilled over the rim of the bottle. Faith put the bottle-opener on the night table and licked the foam from the backs of her fingers.
"Everything's so fuckin' slow here. You notice that?"
"I think it's the humidity," Willow nodded, adjusting one of the straps on a blue cotton sundress that had been putting all kinds of not-so-nice thoughts in Faith's head all day.
"You sendin' her one of those pictures?" She looked over Willow's shoulder at the laptop screen. "Tell her we screwed around the side of the store there."
"Before or after the photograph?"
"Uh ... after." She smiled. "We don't look like we just screwed in that picture."
Willow shook her head. "I'm not telling her ... that."
"Bet she'd believe it too." The Slayer started to laugh, but Willow had that look on her face that she got sometimes when Faith took a shot at the Chosen One. With a shrug, she took another drink and watched while Willow sent the email, shut the laptop down and unplugged the cable.
Willow turned round in her chair. "Are you taking a shower?"
"Thought you liked the grave digger look."
"While you were digging, yeah. Now it's just dirt and sweat in a not-very-sexy way. Plus, technically, grave digger-upper."
"So, you're sayin' I gotta get clean before we can get dirty? Man, that's fucked up …"
By the time she took a shower and pulled on some clean jeans and a fresh tee-shirt, Willow was sitting up against the headboard, shoes off, skimming through the last known copy of a hundred and fifty year old book of deep, dark magic, buried with its owner, too dangerous to leave with only six feet of dirt on top.
Faith eyed the door, debated for a second about the cigarettes in her jacket pocket, then dropped onto the bed beside the other woman, tilting her head to glance briefly at the text. "Still think we shoulda left something else for the guy to read."
Willow smiled. "I think he'll cope."
"Okay, but we wake up tonight and some zombie's at the door lookin' for his book, I'm blamin' you."
"I promise to take full responsibility for any zombie-related intrusions."
Faith nodded and shifted along the bed, hands clasped behind her head as she lay back. After a moment, she nudged Willow's leg with her knee. "So, you gonna be done reading soon?"
Willow turned to look at her, eyebrows drawn together. "We did the right thing, I know we did, but words like 'desecration!' and 'grave robbers!' …"
"If you're tryin' to get me hot, need to work on your approach some."
Willow smiled a little, but didn't say anything.
"Okay, I got it." Faith sat up again, took the book from her and closed it over. "Put this someplace safe and put your shoes back on."
The light from the vending machine flickered suddenly beside them, a temporary break in the flow of energy. Willow's mind flashed to the previous night, sitting on a bathroom counter top in a motel room 400 miles ago on the West Northwest Highway just outside of Dallas, giggling and half-drunk on tequila sours, while the strip light on top of the mirrored panel at her back buzzed noisily above her head. Underwear on the floor, fumbling with the zipper on Faith's jeans, Willow had suddenly decided it would be really awesome to point out that, up until just a few months earlier, they could have been arrested for what they were about to do under so-called sodomy laws that had recently been struck down by the Supreme Court, don'tcha know, and wouldn't it be bizarre and kind of amazing if, after all the stuff she'd done, having another woman go down on her was the thing that landed her in the Big House?
Faith had looked at her with a sort of Are you f—ing kidding me with this shit? expression and, even through a residual haze of tequila and lemon juice, Willow could tell that she was probably ruining the mood. So she stopped talking and, even though she struggled a bit to regain her unfasten-the-Slayer's-pants momentum from before she'd interrupted herself, and Faith got kind of quiet, she … well, she couldn't remember too much after that.
In the morning, she'd woken up alone in bed to the sounds of Katie Couric and Al Roker on the Today Show, no sign of Faith, and she'd panicked and started pulling on clothes and looking for her cell phone and car keys and how was she going to explain to Buffy that she'd managed to lose Faith after only one day – and in Texas of all places – because, at some point after they left New Mexico, the prospect of spending that much time alone together had struck her as maybe too new and too different, and maybe it was expecting too much, and so her stupid brain had made things get creepy and awkward really quickly and Faith probably hated her now?
Just as she was putting her jacket on, the door had opened and Faith came into the room with two coffee containers stacked one on top of the other, and a bag of donuts in her teeth that she dropped onto the other unused bed along with the room key. She looked at Willow and her jacket and her car keys, then walked over to the night table, picked up a small square of notepaper Willow hadn't noticed before, and handed it to her: Thanks for the attempted sodomizing. Back in ten with breakfast.
Willow looked up. "Attempted?"
"Caught me a few years back, I wouldn't have thought twice about takin' advantage. And the fact you can't even fuckin' remember …" Faith raised an eyebrow.
"I thought you were gone," said Willow.
Faith shrugged. "Thought about it. But, believe it or not, up until the extreme weirdness last night, I was having a pretty good time."
Willow frowned doubtfully. "Really?"
"Sure. I mean, the awkwardness in the car was kinda … well, awkward, I coulda done without all the staring out the window you were doin' in the Mexican joint, and I'm pretty sure you were on your way to gettin' arrested in that bar with or without the sodomy." Another shrug. "But, I can think of worse things than gettin' away for a couple days and having a drunk redhead tryin' to get in my pants. 'Course, I can think of better things too, but I figure we just play it by ear, see what other wacky stuff you come up with."
Willow cringed. "Has it been that bad?"
Faith squinted at her. "You been to the bathroom yet?"
Willow frowned at the non sequitur, only then seeing the bandage wrapped around the Slayer's hand, still cradling the takeout coffee. Crossing the floor, Willow entered the other room, gaping at the fist-sized cavity in the mirrored panel, broken right through to the wall behind it; the long cracks weaving out from its center; shards of splintered glass mixed with plaster and dust on the counter. When she turned around, Faith was standing in the doorway, teeth sinking into a grimly twisted lower lip.
"Yeah," said the Slayer. "That'd be a part of the 'thought about it' process."
And now, maybe panic over desecrating graves was merely an excuse for the feel of peeling wooden slats against her back and deep, hard kisses that she was pretty sure were directly responsible for her rapidly accelerating heartbeat as well as rapidly accelerating … other stuff. A hand pushed her dress up, slid along her thigh on its way to doing all kinds of nastydirtywrong things to her – and, God, everything was so slow here – while Aretha Franklin sang on the radio about Jesus and the New Jerusalem and how her soul looked back in wonder, not quite drowning out the noise of unseen crickets and of two black Labradors barking in the distance. Bigger and badder and deep and wet and so, so hot …
Willow sucked in a sudden sharp breath and Faith's hand stopped.
Lowering her head, the Slayer's fingers lightly grazed the patch of grey and purple near the top of Willow's thigh. When she looked up again, there was a flicker of fear in her eyes.
"Did I do that?"
Willow's mind turned again to Dallas. A bandaged fist tangled up in her hair and those kinds of words whispered in her ear while another hand gripped hard and pushed into her flesh.
"It's okay, don't worry about it."
"Christ, I didn't know … I'm sorry."
"It was an accident, it's okay,"Willow insisted. "I told you, I'm not gonna break." She gave the other woman her sternest I Am the Boss of Me face; relieved when, at last, Faith relented with the tiniest nod of her head and an even tinier smile.
"But, you gotta let me know, okay?"
"Promise," Willow said, then kissed her, grinning wide as she leaned back again. "You taste like minty Gatorade."
"Yeah, that'll be the toothpaste and … the Gatorade."
"And earth," Willow said. "I mean, you smell like earth, like when it rains … except, you know … without the rainy part. It's nice."
"This the digging-up-graves thing again?"
"Maybe. The good kind."
A short eternity later, the kisses turned softer, while careful fingers combed away flecks of however many years-old paint from her hair. Stepping away from the wall, Willow straightened her dress out, while Faith refastened her jeans.
"There, you can cross that off your wish list."
Willow raised an eyebrow. "Not that I'm complainin', but that kinda wasn't on my wish list."
"Well, maybe one of these days, I'll let you get me alone in a room with a bunch of grenades." Faith looked at her, a shadowy smile lurking around the edges as she sat against the hood of the car and lit a cigarette. A cliché, perhaps, but a disturbingly effective one.
"That's an old wish."
The Slayer looked away, long enough for an ad break and the next song to begin. Finally, she tossed the cigarette aside and directed her gaze toward Willow once again. The smile that appeared was warm and tentative.
"Still like me?"
And Willow remembered that shadows were really just the places between the dark and the light.
The knock on the door came just before sunrise. Not exactly a zombie, but a monster all the same, with cold green-brown eyes, so beautiful, and it wanted the thing that Faith had stolen from them all. She saw the glint of shiny metal in its hand and she opened her mouth to explain that she didn't steal anything, but it wouldn't listen. Instead it grabbed hold of her, drew her close and she felt the cold steel push against her gut, sharp and burning and ohjesusnonotthisagain …
And while the blood seeped through her fingers and spilled onto the dirt at her feet, she remembered that they had two more days if they stuck to the plan. Another three or four if they wanted.
There was no hurry to get back home. Not really.