True to slayer form, all of the girls were up and walking around before the day was over. They were given the cliff notes version of what happened, along with a slightly revamped version of the "One girl in all the world" speech that I was given when I was called years before. Understandably, the girls were anxious to test the limits of their slayerness which pretty much meant that they drove the nurses and orderlies a little bit crazy with wheelchair wars and push-up contests.
The doctors were baffled but excited. Honestly, I'm sure they were only excited because they got to clear more than forty suddenly annoying girls from their ward. In fact, they moved us all up to a different floor altogether and made sure that there were no other patients around to pester.
They referred us all to a short-term care facility where we could go for occupational or physical therapy as needed because, according to their tests and observations, we're forty healthy girls that no longer need the care of a hospital. There's nothing more they can do for us now that we're awake, they said, and they've been given the go-ahead by the hospital supervisors to discharge everyone so long as we all pass one more set of individual tests.
That's probably why I woke up bright and early. By the time I'm showered and ready to go, - and back in the draughty hospital gown until I'm told I can get dressed in something else - I realize that the hospital is still nowhere near to releasing all of us. They started their individual tests an hour ago, Giles said, and only thirteen girls have been cleared to leave so far. Xander and Anya are playing chauffeurs to the discharged girls and getting them back to the hotel. Dawn and Andrew are there getting everyone organized, and Giles, Kennedy and Willow are downstairs helping the hospital staff clear up any paperwork needed for discharge.
The girls have been pigging out since they woke up this morning. Kennedy has made three trips to a local pizzeria for lunch and I'm pretty sure she'll make at least two more before all of the girls are released.
Krista stayed with me in a double room overnight and made sure to make my business with Faith her business too. She went on about it for hours last night before I had to pretend to fall asleep just to get some peace and quiet. While she may be my friend, I was only five minutes from tying her up with her bedsheets and locking her in a janitor's closet.
Trust me, it can be done. I had lots of practice with Dawn in her pre-teenage years.
After the morning passes without a single visit from a doctor in our room, Krista finally goes and joins a couple of the girls having some fun out in the hall and I'm just taking a bit of time to enjoy the silence now. I keep wondering where Faith is and what she's up to but I can't bring myself to go and find out. Every time I see her my heart beats like crazy and I'm so afraid that she's going to hear it. She seems fine right now, not weird or twitchy at all. I don't want to give her a reason to be less than fine. I'll give it some time first.
A soft knock on the door pulls me from my thoughts and I look up to see an orderly standing there, his triple-extra-large uniform looking a bit snug on him.
"Hi," he says almost bashfully. He's got a tray in his hands and it looks like he's waiting to be invited in. "I've got some lunch for you. The nice girl with the red hair sent it up; says she knows you'll appreciate it."
I glance at the tray and I suddenly remember why I love Willow so much.
"Is that a skinny mocha and a chicken ranch sandwich on whole grain bread?" I ask, the aroma overtaking my senses. God, I hope I'm not drooling. I've already lost enough cool points with the hospital gown.
"I'm not exactly sure," he replies. "I told her I wouldn't open it and so I haven't. Would you mind?" He indicates the space between us, still standing just outside the door.
"Oh, of course. Come in." I smile at him and he smiles back even bigger. He steps into the room . . . and then promptly turns around with his back to me when I swing my bare legs over the side of the bed. I chuckle softly. "It's okay, they're freshly shaved and much less scary now."
"I'm not worried about that, ma'am. I just wanted to make sure you're properly covered. My mama raised a proper gentleman."
I make sure I'm properly covered and I tell him that he can turn around. He takes a quick glance back out of the corner of his eye and then visibly relaxes as he turns and closes the distance between us. He puts the tray down beside me and then completely surprises me by plopping down in the wooden chair next to my bed.
"You girls sure are running the staff ragged," he says, dabbing at his brow with the back of his hand. "Never seen a group of sleeping girls wake up after two months with such an appetite."
I self-consciously pull the sandwich from my lips and chew slowly, making sure to swallow before I reply. Hey, I can't help it. I'm a slayer too, you know.
"Hey, no need to be embarrassed," he says, sitting forward. "Growing girls gotta eat. Which is why . . ." he smiles as he reaches into his right pocket and pulls out a package of Reese's Pieces, " . . . I brought you a snack." He hands them over to me and I take them slowly, a smile forming on my lips.
"You brought these for me?"
"Sure did," he says, smiling bashfully again. "I was here the first day they brought you in, and now here I am on the day you'll be leaving. And, uh . . . don't tell the others, but you were kinda my favorite."
"I was?" I ask, my smile growing.
"Well, yeah," he shrugs, trying to hide his embarrassment. "Sometimes I'd just come in here at the end of my shift and talk to you. Your sister told me it was okay; she thought you'd appreciate the company."
"That's my Dawnie. And, well . . . I'm sorry the conversation was always so one-sided."
"Oh, it's okay," he replies. "I don't have much in the way of friends. Sometimes it's nice just to talk, even if the other person can't hear or understand you. Heck, I even painted your nails a couple of times. I'm almost sad to see you go. I mean, I'm happy of course that you're not in a coma anymore, but . . . well, it doesn't matter, I guess."
He looks down at his lap and smiles sadly. I do the only thing I can think of. I reach over and put my hand on his, then smile when he looks up at me.
"For what it's worth, I really appreciate you taking care of me and just taking the time to be a decent human. I'll always be grateful for that." And then it hits me that I don't even know his name. "What can I call you?"
He gets all bashful again and replies, "Bob. My name is Bob. But don't get me confused with night-shift Bob. That's Bob K. I'm Bob O."
I knit my eyebrows together and purse my lips as I play that over again and again in my mind.
"Your name is Bob O.?" I ask him.
"Yes ma'am," he nods.
After a moment I smile and shake my head. I tear into the small snack packet that my big, stocky orderly Bob O. smuggled in for me and chuckle quietly.
I've definitely deja'd this vu before.
Krista and I are the very last room that the doctors visit. They take their time administering different physical and mental tests that we both pass with flying colors. With a few last warnings given about avoiding undue stress and physical exertion, they sign our release papers and set us free into the world. Krista holds my hand as we make our way out into the sunshine together, both of us staring up at the beautiful blue sky without the usual barbed wire or stockade fencing blocking our way.
I know it was all fake, but tears rush to my eyes nonetheless and it takes everything inside of me to stop them from falling. Krista gives my hand a squeeze and when I look over at her, she's smiling.
"Come on, they're waiting for us," she says.
She tugs me along with her towards the parking lot and I laugh when I look up to see Xander standing alongside a silver minivan, holding up a sign that says "Summers" in hastily scribbled red crayon. I stop just before him and give the sign a good once-over before smiling up at him.
"Willow gets yellow crayon but I get red?"
"Well, Willow and I have yellow crayon history. You and I, our crayon history is a little bit sketchy, so I improvised."
I look at the sign again, then back up at him. "Red like blood? From all the monsters I've slayed?"
He laughs nervously and even looks a little bit embarrassed. "Actually, red like ketchup, from the time I spilled it on your living room carpet and your mom banned us from eating in there ever again."
"Ahh," I say, laughing quietly. "So a slightly less fun memory than the yellow crayon, huh."
Xander just shrugs and smiles. "I dunno. I think they're both pretty great." We look at each other for just a moment more before he pulls me into a big hug and squeezes me tightly to his chest. "It's so good to have you back, Buffster."
"It's good to be back," I reply honestly. He smells like fabric softener and cologne and it's instantly the second best hug I've ever had in my life.
The first was from the girl sitting in the back of the van, watching us with a smile.
"Are you guys gonna cry?" Faith asks, grinning. "Because if you cry, I'm gonna cry."
"And if Faith cries, I'm gonna cry," Jo says, popping her head out from beside Faith.
"And if they cry, I'm gonna cry,' Andrew says, kneeling up from the cargo space at the very back of the van. "In fact, I'm already crying a little."
He sniffles and I hear a loud groan from the passenger seat. I look over to see Anya sitting there, rolling her eyes and looking impatient.
"It's no wonder the demon world continuously tries to overtake the humans. You're all about as tough as a bag of marshmallows," she says, making all of us but Andrew laugh. "If we're through with the waterworks can we be on our way? I'd like to be back at the hotel before the last shopping excursion leaves. Kennedy paid me fifty dollars to stop harassing her and I'd like to buy something that I can show her my appreciation with. I was thinking something along the lines of a wood flute."
"You can borrow my panpipes," Andrew says from the back of the van. At Anya's obvious glare, he ducks his head back below the seat and disappears from our sight.
"Well, if we're ready to head off," Xander begins and then holds his arm out to indicate the opened side door.
Jo and Faith are sitting in the two seats in the middle row, leaving the bench seat in the rear vacant. I move to hop in but Krista holds her arm out and stops me.
"Oh, you know what? I get a little bit carsick when I sit in the back. Faith do you think I can take your seat?" she says.
"See? Marshmallows," Anya grumbles to no one in particular.
"Sure thing, Baby-K," Faith replies. She gets up and moves to the back and Jo sits up, ready to join her. Krista quickly grabs Jo's hand and stops her. At Jo's confused look , Krista continues.
"Actually, Buffy gets carsick if she's in the middle."
Jo raises an eyebrow but sits back down in her seat and Krista turns to me with a huge smile on her face that only Xander and I can see. That scheming little . . .
"After you, Buffy," she says.
Making a mental note to yell at her later, I climb in through the side door and squeeze between the middle seats to sit down in the back next to Faith. Faith smiles at me and gives my thigh a hardy pat.
"Just do me a favor, B. If you're gonna yak? Yak that way." She hikes her thumb over the back of the seat to where Andrew is sitting and I can't help but laugh.
"I'll do what I can."
The front door closes and the van slowly backs out of the parking space. As we head off toward the highway, excited to get to a place we can temporarily call home, I realize that Faith hasn't moved her hand from my leg.
The smile doesn't leave my face the whole ride.
When we get to the hotel, there are a bunch of slayers climbing into a similar van just beside one of the side entrances. Xander pulls up alongside it and rolls down his window when Willow makes a little motion for him to do so.
"What's up?" he asks. He's been completely cheerful the whole ride over. I think he's just happy to have our little family back together. In fact, I think we all are, hence the abundance of cheer from us all.
"We're making our last mall run for the day and we're out of room in our van. Would you mind taking a couple girls in yours? I can repay you with appreciation. Appreciation and gas money."
"I don't mind one bit. Anya wanted to buy something special anyhow," he says, trying to hide his smirk. Honestly, I can tell that he won't exactly mind if Anya drives Kennedy batty for a while. It's just payback for the battyness that Kennedy caused all of us back in Sunnydale.
"Great," Willow says excitedly. She looks back into the van and smiles at all of us. "I know we haven't exactly gotten any of you settled into rooms yet but this will probably be the last shopping trip for clothes and supplies until late tomorrow."
"I'll go," I say with a shrug. "You can take a girl out of the mall but you can't take the mall out of the girl. Besides, I love spending money that isn't my own."
"And as much as I appreciate the loan," Faith says, hooking her thumb through her salmon-colored t-shirt, "pastels aren't really my thing. Count me in."
"But Faith, I thought we were gonna get our room set up?" Jo asks, already half way out the door.
"I trust ya to pick out a good one," Faith says with a wink.
Luckily for me, Jo doesn't pursue it any further. She nods and jumps out the side door, Krista following quickly after her. Kris pops her head back in and smiles.
"I'm feeling a bit spent so I'm gonna get situated and just relax for a bit. Pick me up something that doesn't make me look like a leprechaun?"
I look down at her green jumper with the gold coin suspenders and have to stop myself from laughing. Oh yeah, that definitely came from Willow's wardrobe.
"You can trust me," I nod.
Jo and Krista follow Andrew and Dawn inside the hotel and within a few minutes, we have three more girls in our van. I recognize them from the camp; Niki, Shelly, and Luisa. They look back at Faith and I with what I can only describe as a bit of hero worship on their faces before settling in, trying to keep their cool. Two sit in the middle row and one has to squeeze on the back bench seat with Faith and I. Instead of keeping her window seat, Faith slides into the middle and lifts her arm up over the back of the seat to give us a bit more room.
When everyone is loaded in and pre-paid Visa cards have been passed out, both vans head out of the parking lot and toward the mall. Shortly after we leave the lot, Xander hits a huge pothole and spends ten minutes blaming his lack of depth perception for the mishap. That doesn't matter to me though. What matters is that the van dipped so hard that we were all jostled around and Faith's arm fell over my shoulders.
She doesn't move it away until we're at the mall and ready to head inside.
We've shopped for what feels like hours and even grabbed dinner at the food court with Willow, Xander and Anya. It was nice to hang out with them and catch up on what's been going on, but it was even nicer that Faith was with us and that she didn't seem interested in leaving my side.
In fact, she willingly went with me into all of the stores I wanted and pretty much kept the grumbling to a minimum. She bought a couple pairs of jeans and some tops that only she could get away with wearing, all in the first store we were in. One sturdy pair of boots later and she was done shopping. She could have gone off on her own but . . . she stayed with me. Even let me use the remaining balance on her Visa card which kind of makes me love her even more.
Not that I can tell her that, but I think she was happy with how excited I was about it. I was even able to overlook the shopaholic jokes she made about me in the next seven stores I bought things in.
When we passed by the food court we saw all of the slayers, along with Willow, Xander and Anya having dinner. Faith's eyes lit up and there was no way I could drag her into another store without feeding her first. I'd feel horrible. The gang invited us over to their table and we chatted a bit, though Faith and I were mostly interested in polishing off our food than talking about coma stuff.
Willow made me promise that we'd have a sit down so that she could pick my brain about what happened and what it was like, and I agreed mainly because not even I can withstand her resolve face. I told her it would be soon but didn't tell her exactly when; I don't want Faith popping into the chat because then I won't be able to tell Willow everything.
And I really need to tell someone soon because keeping it all inside, especially with how friendly Faith is being toward me now, is starting to get really difficult.
When the gang has to take off to chaperone the freshly fed slayers around again, Faith and I are left alone once more. Seeing as that we're done shopping, we decide to grab a cold treat from the ice cream place and just wander around. We've been laying down for two months so even just walking sounds pretty nice right now.
We're comfortably quiet as we stroll along the upper level. Faith is working on her four-scoop ice cream cone while I'm nursing my strawberry-peach smoothie. Yeah, I got picked on for that one too. I hear Faith chuckling again and I pull the straw from my mouth so I can glare over at her.
"What?" I ask, feigning annoyance.
"Nothin'," she says innocently. "It's just . . . first it was non-fat yogurt and now it's health conscious smoothies with protein powder in them?"
"That's bullshit!" she says, laughing. She takes a long lick at her ice cream and I have to fight not to stare at her. "Now this? This is a masterpiece. Scoop of chocolate-peanut butter, scoop of cookies and cream, scoop of rocky road, and a scoop of chocolate chip cookie dough. It's basically snack perfection."
"It sounds revolting," I say, ignoring her glare. "Why can't you stick to just one? Chocolate chip cookie dough is fine on its own."
"Because I don't like to limit myself," she explains. "Variety is the spice rack in the kitchen, or some shit like that."
"Well maybe you can get away with eating that, but if I try? Bam! Right to my thighs. Not only is that bad for me, but it's bad for you because then I'll have to drag you shopping with me again to return all of these clothes I bought for bigger sizes."
Faith rolls her eyes. "B, one ice cream cone ain't gonna expand that hot little ass of yours."
Her words take me by surprise and I look over at her curiously. Was that a slip-up or intentional? Judging by the smirk on her face, I'd say it was intentional.
"Here, have some. I promise, your ass is safe." She stops walking and holds out her ice cream cone nearer to me. I stop and look down at it, then up at her face with my eyebrow raised. "What? What's wrong now?"
"Nothing," I say quietly. "It's just . . . you've been licking that thing for like five minutes now."
"And?" She asks. I must make a face because she suddenly looks both amused and offended. Only she can pull that look off. "You sayin' there's something wrong with my tongue?"
"What? No! Your tongue is fine. It's a perfect specimen as far as tongues go." Wait, what? My eyes instantly widen as I continue to babble on about her tongue. Ahh, Buffy! No! What is wrong with you? Stop right now! Stop it! Quick, cover. "I mean, it's in your mouth and it's nice and pink and . . . and tongue-like. And . . ." Oh god. Kill me. Someone kill me right now.
Faith goes from grinning to full out laughing now and I'm less than a second away from hopping over the rail and plummeting to my death.
"Never knew you felt so strongly about my tongue, B," she says and winks. Now I know that I can't try her ice cream because the red hot heat in my cheeks will probably melt it all. She takes pity on me and stops laughing but the now soft smile never leaves her face as she gets even closer. "C'mon, just take a lick. Promise, I'm cootie-free."
And rather than fighting her on it and babbling more inane things, I lean forward and take a quick lick. The ice cream is cool and refreshing and totally better than my smoothie. Faith keeps holding it there so I take another lick, then start walking slowly again with a smile on my face.
"So?" she says after a few minutes of silence.
I shrug. "You were right. It's the perfect snack."
She doesn't do a victory dance; she doesn't tease me or even smirk. She simply smiles knowingly and hands me over the entire cone.
It's so much better than the long forgotten smoothie.
We're heading back to the area where the vans are parked when we pass by a store that I hadn't seen on the way in. Giles said that we should only shop for necessities, and well . . . these are necessities if I've ever heard of them.
"Wait, let's make a pit stop in here," I say. I start to walk into the store with the decorative marble front when I hear an enthusiastic noise from behind me.
"Now this is what I'm talkin' about!" Faith says, rushing back to my side with a huge smile on her face.
"Calm down, Faith. It's Victoria's Secret, not Fredericks of Hollywood."
"Potato, potahto. Just pick something out and start the runway show, blondie."
"There will be no runway shows," I say sternly as I start flicking through a rack of bras. I can't help the way my lips are curling up in the corners as I try not to laugh.
"Why the hell not? I sat through an hour of watching you try on jeans earlier, B. And they all looked the exact same!"
"That's because jeans fit differently. And besides, would you want to buy underwear that someone else tried on?"
"Wait, there's nothing different about ‘em. What if some chick tried on those jeans you bought while she was commando?" I grimace and Faith continues, "See? Same diff."
"Well that just convinced me to become a nudist," I say, still grimacing as I put the hanger back on the rack.
I can practically hear Faith's grin when she replies, "Score."
I smile and shake my head without meeting her gaze. "I guess we can go and meet the others then. It's back to pre-packaged panties for me and I'm pretty sure they don't have any here." When I start to walk toward the exit, Faith puts her hand on my shoulder and stops me.
"So panties are out, but ya probably need a bathing suit, right?" At my confused look, she continues. "I mean, California girl, middle of summer, pasty skin; you're gonna be outside on a lounger as soon as Giles lets ya buy one. Gotta be prepared, right?"
And as much as I know she's just trying to get me to try something on for her, I know that she's right. I am pasty! Buffy of the past would never let me get away with being this pale.
"Okay, fine. But you're still not getting a runway show."
She relents but she still follows me around from rack to rack, picking up items and putting them back at random. We make small talk as I pick out a few bikinis and when I'm ready to try them on, I wait for one of the clerks to unlock the door for me.
I hear Faith scoff a little and when I look over at her, she's holding up a shiny silver bikini with a halter top.
"What's so funny?" I ask. I can't quite read the look on her face as she stares at the bikini. It's somewhere between amused and angry.
"Add a few pieces of metal and chain mesh to this thing and it's like our armor," she says. She looks at it a few moments longer before putting it back on the rack a little bit more roughly than I think she'd meant to.
This is the first time she's really said anything about the other dimension and I wonder what exactly is going through her mind right now and exactly how much of it she's willing to share. It's not exactly a big share either; any single one of the girls might recall something like that. I still don't know what she remembers about us.
"Add a fashionable rip or two and some rust and, yeah; it's pretty spot on," I say quietly, admitting I know only as much as she does.
After another minute or two of silence, she finally takes a deep breath and runs her hand through her hair. "It's not like it was real, but it all felt real, yunno? And I'm still pissed about it. Pissed that we had to go through that; pissed at how bad the First played everyone with the gnarly magic it used on all of us. Ain't nothing we can do about it now though; can't even go after the bastard and kick its noncorporeal ass."
"I know," I say quietly, looking from her down to the garments over my arm. "For what it's worth, I feel the same way."
"Yeah," she says just as quietly. She takes a few deep breaths and then shakes her somber mood off, literally. We get a couple looks from some young girls nearby but Faith doesn't seem to notice. "What the hell is taking the attendant so long?"
"I don't know," I admit, looking around for someone to help us. "At this point though, I'm ready to go home. Here," I hold up the three bikinis that I've been carrying around for her to see them, "Pick one of these. If it doesn't fit, I'll just donate it to Dawnie."
"Why do I get to pick if you ain't even gonna let me see ya in it?" she asks, grinning. I don't answer her; I just hold them out farther and wiggle them a little catch her attention. She looks down at them and shrugs. "I dunno; the black one?"
"Really?" I ask, looking down at it. It's the most conservative of the three and I'm completely surprised that she picked it.
"Yes? No? I dunno," she says. "Shit, you'll look good in all three of them. Then again you can probably wear a rabbit-fur bikini and still look great, so . . ." she trails off and shrugs again.
But something she said catches my attention and I instantly look up at her face, remembering one of our last conversations we had in the other dimension:
"Gross. I am not wearing a fur bikini."
"Gross. I am not wearing a fur bikini," I say, repeating what I told her in the other dimension. I pause and watch her face closely.
Her brow furrows for a moment and then her eyes suddenly widen. Recognition. She remembers. I don't know what exactly she knows, but she definitely remembers at least that much.
"Uh, I . . ." she says, stumbling over her words while trying to find her cool. "Yeah, uh . . . I don't think PETA would appreciate that."
I take a step closer to her and she takes three back.
"Pick whatever one ya like, B. I'm gonna go and make sure the vans don't leave without us. See ya outside."
She flashes me an overly bright smile before squirming between the racks and out the front entrance of the store. I watch her leave and when she's out of sight, I sigh and put two of the bikinis back on a random rack nearby. Making my way to the register with the black bikini in hand, I can't help but feel like we just took one step forward and two steps back.
If she can't even admit that she remembers something simple without freaking when I'm practically begging her to continue, then I have to abandon all hope that she's going to willingly remember anything more than that.
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