The ride back to the hotel is pretty much uneventful. Faith doesn't touch my leg or put her arm around me and she's not exactly talkative, but she also doesn't avoid me so I count that as a good thing. In fact, she went as far as loading my bags into the van for me, and now that we've arrived she's unloading them and carrying them inside.
"You are aware that I'm a slayer too, right? Big and heavy bags - not so big and heavy, actually." I walk helplessly along beside her, trying to find something to do with my hands. I feel so useless right now.
"Yeah, but you're practically a midget," Faith replies, grinning despite the fact that she's not looking at me.
"And what, you're some kind of big, strongly-butch giant?"
She shrugs. "That pretty much sums it up."
We slip right back into our usual banter – minus all of the punches and kicks that usually accompany it – and I realize that this is one of my favorite parts of us. This little back and forth we have; it's always defined us and been the best part of us. Maybe now it's second best though; what we had in the other dimension – that was number one.
I'm happy to take this for now, though.
"You have two, two and a half inches on me, tops."
"Three and a half with boots," she says and winks. We reach a pair of elevators not too far down the hall from the side door we came in through and Faith stops just in front of the one not bearing a ‘temporarily out of order' sign. "Up, right?"
She presses the button to call the elevator and I have to fight not to roll my eyes.
"Unless you were planning to sleep in the hotel basement," I say, wearing my own grin now.
I hear her chuckle but there's no witty comeback this time. She shakes her head gently as she gazes up at the digital display above the elevator, watching as the numbers drop while the elevator descends. I can't stop looking at her, realizing again just how beautiful she is. My eyes scan over her and when I reach her face, I see her giving me a sideways glance. The corners of her lips are tugging up in a smile but she doesn't say anything; doesn't tease me like I'm expecting. A mechanical whirring in front of us grabs her attention and she looks forward again just as a bell dings and the doors open.
"After you," she says and takes a step back, letting me walk in before her.
I step in and to the side, giving her ample room to fit in with all of our bags. But then the girls that were shopping run up and hop in, toting their own plethora of bags. Faith and I both step back until I feel the cool metal wall push against me. The door starts to shut but then Anya grabs it and pushes it back open so that both she and Xander can enter.
"Can't you guys take the other one?" Ashley whines, stumbling on her own feet as Anya pushes her way in.
"The other one is broken," Anya explains. "Besides, I've played my part today. I've been on more car rides than I can count and have played chaperone to more adolescent girls than one should ever have to spend time with. I need a shower, a drink, and some orgasms, and I'm not too fussed about the order they're in."
The girls look mildly horrified -- having never had to deal with Anya before -- and even Faith grimaces, but I can't help but smile. Just knowing that Anya is alive and still as honest as ever; yeah, I wouldn't trade that in for anything.
Well, except for maybe a rewind button. I didn't need to hear that last part either.
Xander clears his throat loudly and presses the button for the 5th floor. The silver doors slowly slide shut and Faith and I are shoved back even further until we're practically on top of one another in the corner. One of the shopping bags she's holding is pressing into places on me that no bag should press and a soft gasp leaves my throat.
Faith, who has been trying to avoid my gaze for the last thirty seconds of close-togetherness, finally looks down at my face. Her gaze is soft and I try so hard not to get lost in her eyes, but it happens anyhow. I hear the soft thud of some shopping bags hitting the ground beside us and then Faith's hand finds its way to my side. She doesn't pull me closer, she doesn't grope me; she just keeps her hand there, holding me right against her while her thumb traces soft circles over my shirt. I put my hand on hers to keep it there and the tiniest of smiles forms on her lips.
It's a definite moment, and it's cut all too short by the sound of a bell dinging and the doors sliding open. I hear Anya and Xander practically spill out of the elevator, followed quickly by all three girls. Faith and I are left standing here, her hand still at my side and my hand still keeping her held here with me.
When the bell dings again, Faith drops the remaining bags and quickly jumps over to push the doors back open with her arm. It was a Superman kind of move and I instantly realize that she probably did it so that she doesn't have to be alone with me again. After all, it didn't turn out so well when we were shopping together earlier.
"Sorry," she says sheepishly. "Just figured ya probably don't wanna be riding in the elevator all day long."
"That's true," I say, clearing my throat quietly.
She starts to say something else but a loud laugh from the hall stops her dead. Her brow furrows and she moves slowly, taking a couple steps out of the elevator while keeping a hand on the door so it doesn't slide shut. I see her profile from the side and watch her eyes widen in realization.
"Jame?" she says slowly. "Rache?"
I step over to her and peer down the hall to see two girls I don't recognize talking and laughing with Jo and Krista. They must realize they're being watched because they look over at Faith and huge smiles spring up on the faces of whom I can only assume are Jamie and Rachel.
"Faith!" they yell simultaneously.
"They said you might not wake up!" one of them says as they start getting closer.
Wait, why wouldn't she have woken up? If everyone else was slowly waking up over time as they died in the other dimension, wouldn't Faith too?
Faith looks over at me, her eyes pleading. "B," she says.
I smile at her and put my hand on the door so that she can take hers away.
"Go," I say softly. She smiles back and before I know it, she's halfway down the hall and giving Jamie and Rachel a slayer-sized bear hug.
They're all laughing and smiling and I'm so completely happy for Faith right now. Those are her friends; people she became close with on her own and that she lost in the blink of an eye. Now they're back, and they remember her. And she remembers them, and she's happy.
So why the hell when she remembers something about me does she freeze up and walk away? Shaking my head slightly, I gather my bags from the floor of the elevator and stand up to find Willow standing just outside the doors in the hallway. Her smile is so big and the bags are back on the floor before I know it, my arms holding her in a tight hug.
"I missed you too, Buffy," she says. "But you're kinda squishing me."
We both laugh and I let her go, just taking her in without the hospital background. She's smiling and she has tears in her eyes but she's doing her best not to let them fall. In an effort to distract herself, she grabs a couple of my bags from the floor and nods at me over her shoulder as she starts off down the hall. I pick up the last few bags and follow along after her until we're walking side by side again.
"This is all thanks to Angel," she says, nodding to the hallway around us. "One of his former clients owns this hotel and they've been letting us stay here for pennies, really. He helped with some money to get us on track when girls started waking up, and now that he's running Wolfram and Hart, he's been letting us use the company jet to take the girls home when they're ready to leave us."
I stop dead in my tracks and literally have to shake my head to try to process all of that at once.
"Whoa, whoa, whoa. It sounded like you said Angel's running Wolfram and Hart and that we're sending girls home on Evil Airways."
Willow chuckles nervously and starts walking again, hoping I'll catch up. I do, and she continues, "It's a long story, Buff."
"Cliffs Notes version?"
She thinks it over for few moments and I can see that she's trying to come up with the most informative way to say it in the least amount of words.
"He's mounted the beast and is trying to make it his bitch?" she offers, and we both break out into giggles.
"Maybe we can try going over that one again later," I say, and she nods. "Why are we sending girls home?"
She takes a deep breath and sighs. "You've been in a magical coma for two months, Buffy, but a lot of the other girls weren't in that long. They woke up disoriented and scared and some of them wanted something familiar; home. We didn't know what was going on at first so we sent the first handful of girls home without digging to make them recount what happened. Others stayed because they didn't want to go back to their old lives. We've been working with them since." We get to a door marked 522 and she stops. "This is mine and Kenny's room. We'll get you squared away in a room shortly, but Giles wants to speak to you first. Come on in, he'll be here in a few minutes."
I nod and follow her inside the modest room. There's a queen-sized bed, a desk, a TV and a dresser, but not much else.
"You guys have been staying here for two months?" I ask as I look around. It's kind of like a prison but with a floral motif.
"Yeah, but for what it's worth, we really haven't spent much time here. We were at the hospital most days and our free time was spent in libraries and in Wolfram and Hart's archives, trying to figure out a way to help everyone." She picks up some clothes from the bed and throws them into a drawer.
"And I'm guessing that research wasn't very fruitful," I say as I take a seat.
She sits down next to me and shakes her head sadly as she stares down at her lap. "We tried everything we could think of, Buffy. Reversal spells, chants, rituals, but nothing could get through The First's magic. It knew magic before magic existed on Earth. After a week we knew something was really wrong when Amanda woke up. She told us that she remembered being killed by a sword in some kind of an arena. And . . . she remembered you."
She glances up at me and I instantly look away, tears forming in my eyes.
"Oh Buffy," she says, scooting closer and taking my hand in hers, "I wasn't accusing you of anything. The First created a horrible world inside of your head . . ."
"You're right, it was horrible," I interrupt, then look up at her. "But that doesn't excuse anything that happened."
"So you remember?" she asks gently.
It takes me a second but I eventually nod. There's no use in lying to my best friend. I can leave some stuff out, but I can't let her think I'm completely clueless. She'll never buy it.
"Yeah. And what I did – what I had to do, just to survive; it really was a nightmare, Wills."
"I know," she nods, her bottom lip coming out in sympathy. She runs one of her hands down my hair, trying to comfort me. "But if that hadn't happened; if you'd never had to . . ." she trails off, choosing her words carefully. "Buffy, if those girls hadn't died in your mind, then they never would have woken up here."
"So cutting them down like cornstalks was the right thing to do. Yay me," I reply sarcastically.
Willow smiles a little but it's gone after just a second and she looks serious again. "The First created the dimension in your head with its magic, but it couldn't control what happened inside of it. It probably thought you would all fight as a team and no one would die, but I guess it never planned on the demons taking over and using slayers to fight." When I raise an eyebrow at her, she explains, "We don't know everything that happened, but we've been able to put together bits and pieces based on the accounts of girls that woke up. They don't remember much, but the longer they're awake, the more flashes and memories they get. Still, it's limited and we have lots of gaps in the story."
"And I'll try to fill in the blanks for you, Wills, but I'm not sure what help it will be now that everyone's awake."
"Every little bit helps. If we can prevent this from happening again or from any possible magical relapse, it's a big deal."
Something pings inside of me when she says magical relapse. Whenever I try to sleep, I'm able to slip back into the other dimension. If it's still in my head and I was able to take a walk down Nightmare Lane, does that mean other girls will be able to? And even more so, will they get stuck in there again? Oh god, I already have enough voices in my head. I don't need other people stuck in there now that I'm awake.
There's a soft knock on the door and Willow stands up and crosses the small room to answer it. Giles is on the other side and he follows her into the room carrying a few folders under his arm. He sees me sitting on the bed and his face lights right up. He seems so relieved; like a weight has been suddenly lifted from his shoulders.
He does something which is very untypical of him and walks over to me, then pulls me up against him in a tight hug. His embrace is familiar and warm and I can't help but smile as I rub my cheek against his shoulder. This is what a father is.
"Hello, dear," he replies. "It's wonderful to see you up and about."
"It's just wonderful to see you, period," I say and pull back to look up at his face. He looks tired like he hasn't slept in months. Knowing Giles, he probably hasn't. "You weren't exactly present in the hellverse."
He nods in understanding, smiling sympathetically. "Do you recall much of your time there?"
"Most of it, except for the parts where I was unconscious for days at a time after some fairly heinous beatings."
"Ah. ‘Hellverse' seems like quite an appropriate name in that case," Giles replies.
He holds his hand out to indicate the bed behind me and I take a seat next to Willow again. He doesn't sit but instead chooses to pace slowly around the small space. It looks like something he's gotten used to doing over the last two months.
"So I died, obviously," I say, getting their attention. "There was a rebellion. Girls were dying left and right. There was nothing I could do. I fought right until the end."
"Which is exactly what The First wanted. It knew that you would continue to fight, as you've done in all aspects of your life. So long as you were alive in the other dimension, he could keep the other slayers trapped there until their death," Giles says. "They've been waking up sporadically over the last two months and we were eventually able to link their reemergence here to their deaths there. They could recall their own deaths, and after a short while, a few more bits and pieces."
"Even with the insider info, we still couldn't pull anyone out. Not even Faith, and she went in after the fact," Willow says, and suddenly she has my full attention.
"I thought you guys said she spent a week at my side in the hospital. If that's the case, how exactly did she ‘get in'?"
"The magic was designed to work for either you or Faith. Once you were injured and fell unconscious, it pulled the other slayers in but not her. She agonized at your bedside for a week, and when Amanda woke and relayed the memory that you were indeed trapped in that world, well . . ." he shares a look with Willow who sits up, her eyes wide.
"That's a part of the story Faith should explain," she says, then looks my way. "Us telling you about it would be largely speculative and I'm pretty sure Faith dislikes speculation about her, especially when . . ."
"I get it, Will," I say, smiling. "I'll ask Faith. But just for the record, what did she say she'd do if you told me?"
Willow cracks a small smile and laughs nervously. "Nothing that some time in a hospital won't fix, but I'm fairly sure that arms don't grow back and I'm pretty attached to mine."
"Ah," I say, shaking my head in amusement. Making a mental note to have a chat with Faith, I decide to change the subject. "So now that the last of the girls are awake and in good health, what's the plan? From what I hear we can't exactly go back to Sunnydale."
"That's very true," Willow says.
"We don't have what we could call a concrete plan at this point," Giles says. "Many of the slayers have decided to go home, at least for a while. Their parents want them home after such an ordeal and the girls themselves have lots of thinking to do. We'll be in regular contact with them and if they decide they'd like to come and receive proper training, they'll be welcomed back."
"But what about the rest of us?" I ask. Dawn and I don't exactly have a family to go back to anymore. My friends, they're my family now.
"I've been working on securing a more permanent place for us to stay, with room enough to support both us and any slayers that may like to join us. So far, Jamie, Rachel, Krista, Jo, Kennedy, Rona and Vi have expressed interest in staying with us to pursue their calling. And I can't speak for everyone, but I know I'd very much like it if you and Dawn would join us."
"I go where my family is," I say and he smiles at me, as does Willow.
"I'm happy to hear that, dear. I don't know what the future holds for us just yet, but we can begin to plan once we're settled and out of this bloody American hotel chain. One more over-starched towel and I just might lose my mind."
Both Willow and I laugh and even Giles smiles through his frustration. We sit and chat for a while longer, Giles talking about his hopes to revive the Watchers Council and build it from the ground up to be a more slayer-friendly establishment. Apparently he's found an apartment building that will sublet two entire floors of a three-story building for a reasonable price. He's working on closing the deal in a few days and plans to have us out of the hotel and moved in within a week.
That gives me seven days to convince Faith that she wants to live with us.
And that she loves me, or at least that she did.
I think I may have my work cut out for me.
Kennedy eventually came into the room, sweaty from her daily jog and in desperate need for a shower. Needless to say, I volunteered to leave then and Giles agreed to show me to my room. It's just across the way and over from Willow and Kennedy's room, lucky number 525; lucky, according to Giles, because I have no roommates for a change.
I don't know if I exactly consider that lucky or not; I got so used to sleeping in the camp with all of the other slayers, and later with having Faith as my roommate. The old me would have loved my own private space, but now I'm just feeling a little bit out of sorts and . . . well, lonely.
My first order of business was to organize my new clothes into the dresser drawers and closet, and my second order of business was to have a long and relaxing bubble bath. Now that I'm clean and organized, I have nothing left to do but sleep. I climb onto the queen-sized bed and slip under the covers in my bath robe. The blankets are clean and crisp and the mattress is just the right amount of soft yet supportive. I snuggle in, burying my face against the soft pillows, and I sigh.
There's no way I'm going to be able to sleep like this. Luxury is great, but when your body remembers sleeping on the hard ground or a lumpy cot for more than two years, it's hard to slip back into the norm.
I grab a pillow and a blanket and settle down onto the floor next to the bed. The air conditioning unit is continuously blowing and it eventually lulls me to sleep. Just like in the hospital, I find myself slipping into the magical dimension still tucked away in my head. It's less jarring this time, finding myself back in the arena with bodies all around me, especially since I know I won't be permanently stuck here.
I start to slowly walk around the rubble and carnage, clenching my jaw to keep back my emotions. There are faces I recognize and even faces that I saw just a few short hours ago when we got back to the hotel. There are no signs of life anywhere and the only movement is that of the smoke from the still smoldering and charred stadium around us. I don't want to be here, but still, it's familiar. Something moves off to my side and I turn, on guard, to see someone standing there with their back to me.
"What the fuck am I doing back here?" I hear her say, her back still to me. Her body is tense and I'm not exactly sure if she knows if I'm actually here or not.
I slowly approach until I'm just behind her. I want to reach out and touch her but . . . this doesn't feel right. She shouldn't be here.
"Faith?" I try again and she spins around, her hand grabbing my wrist as it was half way up to touching her shoulder.
"What the fuck am I doing back here?" she repeats through clenched teeth and I can see the fear in her eyes.
"We're dreaming," I explain, wincing at the force with which she's grasping my wrist. "This world, it's still in my head. The magic is broken though, so we're not trapped. We're not stuck here."
She takes a second to process that and finally releases my wrist, which I rub tenderly.
"Sorry," she mumbles, and glances around the ruins. "This is fucked up."
"How do ya know for sure that we ain't stuck?"
"Because it happened to me at the hospital," I answer and her gaze moves back to me.
"You think maybe that's something you shoulda brought up to someone?" she asks in disbelief.
"Well, I will now!" I look away from her, trying to avoid her eyes. "I didn't think anyone else could come back. I mean, this thing is in my head; I didn't exactly expect visitors."
"I didn't exactly expect to visit," she says, her voice sounding a bit more relaxed and much less accusatory now. "One minute I'm climbing down to the floor to catch some zzz's . . ."
"You're sleeping on the floor too?" I interrupt, looking back at her again.
"Well, yeah." She shrugs. "Kinda hard to be comfortable when ya spent so long being anything but. Or, I mean . . . I guess that was all fake, but . . . yunno."
"Yeah, I do," I say quietly, then look down at my feet. It was all fake. She's convinced herself of that. Maybe I should do the same. "I'll tell Willow about it."
"Might be a good idea. Not that I'm hating bein' here with ya, but . . . I don't wanna be back here. Too much . . ." she trails off and looks into my eyes, then shakes her head as she looks around. "It's just too much."
"Yeah, it is," I agree. "I'll see if Willow can seal it up or zap it out."
Silence falls around us and I'm not sure that either one of us knows exactly what to say or do next. Faith clears her throat and I press my lips together in a straight line as I stare down at my feet again.
"So, how do we get out? Gotta click our heels together three times and say there's no place like home?" she asks, and I can't help but smile.
"You do it, I'll watch."
Suddenly I feel her fingertips under my chin and she tilts my head up so that I have to look up into her eyes.
"You okay?" she asks.
I don't know exactly what I can say so instead I shrug. She looks worried for a split second but then she smiles. She takes a few steps until she's standing right behind me and I nearly melt when I feel her arms encircle my waist. My eyes flutter shut and my breathing is immediately shaky.
We're in hell, but I feel like I'm in heaven.
"Hold on, B. Gonna pull a Dorothy and get us the hell outta Oz."
I hear her heels click together a few times and I smirk. Her chin rests on my shoulder and I feel her breath against my ear when she whispers, "There's no place like home."
When I open my eyes, I'm back on the hotel floor and I can see the bright sun shining through the space between the thick curtain panels. I slept through the entire night.
And I can't believe that someone is knocking on my door this early!
I groan and stand up from the floor, making sure that my robe is properly tied on. I don't feel like giving a peep show this early in the morning. Stumbling across the room, I finally reach the door and pull it open, surprised to see Faith standing on the other side. She's fully dressed and showered and holding two paper cups filled with what I can only assume is coffee.
"You were still sleeping?" she asks as she checks me out from head to toe.
I self-consciously close the robe a little tighter and run a hand through my messy hair, making her smirk. "It's morning, Faith. People sleep in the morning, and I happen to be a people, in case you haven't noticed."
"Oh, I've noticed," she says and winks at me. "But it's not morning, it's already after noon, and you just slept for like two months." She hands me a cup and pushes past me into the room, checking it out. "Single; nice. I'm in a double with Jo."
"I heard," I say absently, shaking my head as I try to figure out what's going on. Was what happened in my sleep last night just a dream?
"Yeah, word travels fast around a bunch of teenage girls," she says as she plops down on my bed. "Anyways, get dressed. We've got places to see, things to do."
"We do," she confirms.
"Like what?" I open one of the dresser drawers and pull out some clothes, and when I stand up and turn to face her, she's standing right in front of me.
"Well, if Red's really gonna zap away the place in there," she taps her finger gently against the side of my head, "we gotta find a way to remember it."
"And how do we do that?" I ask warily.
The huge smile on her face isn't nearly enough to distract me when she answers, "Tattoos."
Five hours and lots of discomfort later, we walk out of the tattoo parlor with Jo and Krista, all of us sporting our new tattoos. We asked Shy to do them – yes, she really exists – but she didn't have the proper equipment needed and wasn't exactly willing to jab us with a homemade needle and pen ink when there was an alternative available.
Jo and Krista both got the tattoo on their lower backs but I decided to get mine on the back of my neck. Faith was going to get hers on her hip but she changed it up at the last minute and got hers on the back of her neck too.
She said it just seemed right that we got them in the same place, being the chosen two and all. I couldn't argue with her on that; it felt right to me too.
"When does the stinging stop?" I ask.
"Jeez, you can handle getting sliced and diced for seven years in Sunnydale but ya can't hack an hour of tiny little needle pricks?"
"It was my first tattoo!" I lamely defend.
"Yeah yeah, ya big baby," Faith says playfully. She steps behind me and pulls my hair to the side, then blows some cold air on the area that's already covered with some kind of gel.
A chill rolls down my spine and makes my toes curl.
"Better?" she asks, her lips dangerously close to my ear.
I suddenly forget about the stinging because all I can feel are the goosebumps on my skin and the butterflies in my stomach.
God, I've got it bad.
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