Krista helps me all the way to the clinic area like she said she would and hasn't left my side for a minute. Diane saw us approaching from across the yard and had an uncomfortable looking wooden cot all ready for me, along with a disapproving motherly look on her face that I haven't seen in ages. I feel like I'm back in Sunnydale and my Mom is mad because she has to wash demon goo out of my clothes again.
The pain in my shoulder is bad but it's my stomach that's bothering me the most. Most of the skin disintegrated from the Thraxis' acidic blood and it's red, raw, and completely nasty looking. Needless to say, I nearly fall over in pain when Krista helps me up onto the cot.
When I'm finally laying back on it and relaxing as best as possible, Diane comes over and takes a look, her eyes instantly widening. She goes off on some kind of a tirade about not being given the right kind of supplies to treat girls with injuries as bad as mine but I'm sure that the demons that run the place probably don't care. Way they seemed to have it set up with the demons they chose, anyone injured tonight probably should have died.
Guess I put a little kink in that plan. Let's just hope they don't put a kink in me for actually making it through.
Diane saturates some gauze pads in water and I nearly hit the top of the canvas tent when she starts wiping the black blood from the Thraxis away, along with most of my remaining skin. I clench my eyes shut and lay rigid, completely forgetting about the pain in my shoulder for the time being.
"Oh damn," Krista says, her voice low. I open my eyes to see Diane winding a melty strip of my skin around the gauze. "That's some fucked up shit right there."
"Krista," Diane warns.
"No seriously. I think I just puked in my mouth a little."
"Then distract yourself by being useful. Grab some gauze and apply pressure to that shoulder wound until I can get to it."
Krista just gives my stomach or what's left of it one last wary glance and then heads around to the other side of the cot so she can get to my shoulder. She doesn't look any less grossed out than she did a minute before, but at least she's not talking about puke any longer. She grabs two handfuls of gauze and then shoots me an apologetic look before holding them on either side of the hole. Tightly.
"I'm beginning to think this is all payback for the last couple of weeks," I say between clenched teeth.
"Sorry Buffy," Diane apologizes. "We ran out of pain meds a while back so we have to do this one on adrenaline alone."
"And when the adrenaline runs out?"
"Whiskey. Lots of it. Or at least what's left after we disinfect your stomach."
I can only groan and rest my head back in response. My eyes stay shut for the remaining time while they work on me and I concentrate on trying to heal. I know it's not about mind over matter but I figure that a bit of effort on my part can't hurt. It's not long before I feel the burning splash of whiskey on my stomach that makes me sit up with my eyes wide. Diane doesn't say anything; she merely hands me the bottle and gives me a little nod.
I'm not a drinker by any means but I'm willing to try anything if it'll take the edge off now. The glass bottle feels foreign against my lips and I cringe when the whiskey pours over my tongue. Drinking hard liquor was never a great taste bud experience for me before and is still isn't now, but the warm blur that starts to kick in after a few gulps instantly makes it worthwhile.
The raspy breath that leaves my mouth when I pull the bottle from my lips is due in part to the burning warmness in my throat and stomach and also to the prodding that Diane is doing to my shoulder. She's holding out her hand and I know what she's waiting for. I take one last chug from the bottle then hand it to her, waiting for the pain to start again.
She pours the whiskey over my shoulder but the burn is less intense this time. Don't get me wrong, it still hurts like a hurty thing but the warm blur from the whiskey is helping.
"What you did out there tonight," Krista begins, trying to distract me, "it was good, Buffy."
"Yeah, real good. Explain that to my shoulder. And my stomach."
And my ego.
"Yeah, but you're alive, and so is the newbie that you saved. And hey, have you noticed how melty my skin isn't? I charged right in there and you pulled me back, took the proverbial bullet."
"I couldn't let you get hurt," I say, the words feeling foreign as they slip from my lips.
Even if they felt foreign, they were obviously right. Krista smiles at me and then looks over at Diane who has a knowing smile on her face too. They both look kind of proud but neither of them seems to want to spoil the moment because Diane gets back to work and Krista gets back to making faces at whatever Diane is doing.
"Your slayer healing is doing its job," Diane says as she inspects my shoulder. "The bleeding has stopped and now you just need some time."
"And maybe a shower," I throw out there.
I know I need to rest but my muscles hurt from being so tense and I'm still covered in blood and gore. Not exactly the kind of stuff you want to lie around and marinate in.
"That can probably be arranged. We need to make sure there's no more Thraxis blood on you anywhere, and cleaning up some of your own would be a good place to start. Krista? We'll need to ask Bobb-o about a quick run to the showers and we'll need to help Buffy get there."
Walking and moving. Not good for the pain factor. Diane must realize this so she holds out the bottle of whiskey to me with an apologetic grimace on her face. I reach out to grab it but someone intercepts it before I can get my hands on it. We all look over to see Faith standing there, taking us all by surprise with her sudden presence. She looks me over and frowns when her gaze reaches my stomach.
"Pretty sure there's supposed to be some skin there, yunno . . . keeping your insides from going outside." She takes a quick chug from the bottle and hands it over to me.
"Explain that to the Thraxis."
"Would, but pretty sure ya turned him into a shish-kabob."
I take a deep pull on the bottle and hiss as the liquid burns down my throat and into my stomach. When I'm done I hand it to Diane and she puts the cap back on, watching our interaction carefully. I think we're all still a bit unsure how Faith is going to react, even Faith herself. She's just staring at me, looking like she's trying to figure something out.
"Is the young girl okay?" I finally ask, unable to take her silence any longer.
"Mel? She's five by five, which is more than I can say for you."
"She's done bleeding all over the place so we're gonna see if Bobb-o can sneak her into the showers," Krista says, trying to move past Faith.
Faith grabs her arm and stops her though. Krista looks worried for a moment before she realizes that Faith is giving her a little smile. It silently says she's out of the doghouse for speaking to me earlier.
"Hold up, K. Go be with the girls. I'll take Buffy-duty now."
"Are you sure?" Krista asks, looking slightly worried. I think she's still not sure what Faith is up to. "I don't mind, Faith. I'll stay with her. It's no hassle."
I offer her a grateful smile but Faith waves her off toward the rest of the girls in the camp who are anxiously trying to see what's going on. Krista takes one more glance at me and then heads off toward the yard, obviously not wanting to step on Faith's toes. Faith watches her leave and then thanks Diane for giving me the good juju.' She takes another look at me before moving to my other side and ducking under my non-injured shoulder. I still hiss out in pain when she lifts me from the cot but the pain is much less intense than it was a short while ago.
We don't say much of anything as she helps me walk back toward my room where Bobb-o is waiting just outside. He moves to open the door for us Gentledemon that he is but when Faith nods her head toward a different corridor, he quickly catches on and starts leading us down it.
There are no demon guards down here now, just the three of us walking slowly toward the shower room. Faith is supporting most of my weight and I'm completely grateful for it. The post-battle rush is fading and all I can feel is the slow throb of pain and weariness. I want to collapse; to lie down and rest and just let my body mend, but the prospect of a warm shower keeps me going.
When we make it to the shower room, Bobb-o stands outside the door while Faith and I go inside. I'm relieved that he's not coming in with us because I'm pretty sure I have no modesty left in me right now. I want this armor gone, I want hot water, and I don't want to worry about him checking out my humanly goods in the process.
Faith leaves me at the doorway that leads from the entrance room to the showers and turns on two of the shower heads so that the water has a chance to warm up. I guess that means she'll be joining me.
The look on my face must give away my thoughts because she smiles as she starts stripping off her shoes and shin guards.
"Ya didn't really think I was gonna lug your ass all the way down here and not get cleaned up too, did ya?"
"Actually, I was thinking more along the lines of, Oh god, the pain, the horror; there goes bikini season'."
She chuckles and shakes her head, then comes over to help me before stripping down any further. I lean against a tiled wall as she removes my shoes and shin guards. Her hands are rough but warm and we simultaneously shiver when she touches my skin.
Now, this isn't something that I've ever readily admitted to Faith, but she was right years back when she spoke about post-slayage side effects. They've been easy to suppress for the past year and a half because I've been on my own, but they've suddenly come rushing back to me. Faith's eyes won't meet mine but she works slowly and methodically as she removes my armor, her warm hands blazing trails over my skin. She looks almost mesmerized but neither of us speaks.
I turn my head to the side when I feel her fingertips dip under the sides of my panties, but then she's gone and across the room, removing her own armor quietly and effortlessly; like she's done it a thousand times before. She probably has.
Finishing what she started, I remove my panties and toss them onto the pile of my clothes and armor and step under the warm spray like it will shield me from her eyes. I don't think I've felt anything as heavenly in ages and I close my eyes, losing myself in the warmth.
There's no Herbal Essences or loofas or body gels but I still feel like I'm washing away a year's worth of grime. Small trickles of blood wash down my body but eventually the water runs clear. I can't bring myself to look over at Faith hello nakedness but when I eventually take a sideways glance over at her, I can see that she's doing the same. I know there's no room for modesty in a situation like this but I turn my back to her anyhow and continue showering.
That's when I hear a soft gasp from her and know that I've messed up. I forgot myself for a moment and now it's too late to pretend that she didn't see. That she doesn't know. I move to turn back around but her hands soft on my sides stop me from turning.
"Jesus Christ," she says under her breath as she looks at the marred skin of my back, dropping to her knees in the pooling water.
I don't even know exactly what it looks like but I know it has to be bad. The guards at the last camp weren't exactly gentle when they beat me. Chains, whips, blades . . . anything they could use to weaken me, they did, and when you curl up in a ball to protect yourself, your back takes the brunt of the damage.
There was one time when I couldn't lay on my back for almost a week. My skin was completely shredded and there was no one to bandage or clean it. Dervin had brought me extra water but all I could do was pour it over my shoulder and down my back, hoping to wash away some of the gore. It can't have healed prettily and judging by Faith's reaction, I know I probably look like some kind of hideous monster.
She touches random spots on my back, making me squirm with discomfort and something else I'm not willing to entertain. She keeps whispering her surprise in the form of curse words and I hang my head and close my eyes, reliving each and every one of those scars as she touches them.
"What did they do to you, B?" she whispers, not expecting an answer.
The words fall quietly from my lips, "Whatever they wanted."
I know she's wondering how she didn't see the scars before but my long hair hides them pretty conveniently. It's easy not to notice them when there's so much other pain around every day.
Her hands still on my hips and I can feel her breath on my skin. Her fingertips graze up my sides then trickle down my back like a waterfall. My breath catches in my throat and it feels like I can inhale or exhale forever. Nothing prepares me for the soft press of lips I feel next right on my lower back, but then Faith is gone and I'm left standing here breathing shakily. I don't turn around to see where she went; I just turn off the water and head off to the side of the room where I spot two gray towels. Grabbing one of them, I quickly return to where I undressed earlier and start to dry off.
The terrycloth is rough and scratchy against my skin and I have to clench my teeth together to keep from whimpering in pain. I don't know how I'm going to bend to get re-dressed, but then Faith is at my side and helping me to dry off with the second towel. Our eyes meet and we both pause.
Sometimes more can be said with silence than with words, and when Faith nods once at me, I know that we've finally found a middle ground. We understand one another now; I know what she's protecting here, and she knows what I was trying to protect myself from.
"C'mon, let's get you dressed," she says finally.
She puts on my basic clothing but leaves the armor piled on the floor. It feels pretty gross to have to re-dress in dirty clothing but at least I can rest easy knowing that I washed them in the sink just the day before. It's not like we have a big wardrobe to change into, so it's pretty much the same outfit day after day.
When I'm fully dressed and covered head to toe in a nice pink blush, Faith walks over to her own pile of clothes and finishes drying off before quickly dressing. My gaze is fixed on her the entire time, ignoring the nakedness and realizing for the first time just how many new tattoos she has. I'd seen a few peeking out from her clothes and a few when I saw her in the shower before, but now I had the full view, noticing more than ten or twelve new pieces of art.
"Are those all new?" I ask, my voice suddenly raspy.
She looks over to me, then down at the tattoos she sees me staring at. Her fingers unconsciously creep over her abdomen where there's some kind of a script, along with a tribal marking.
"For the most part," she says blankly, her eyes fixed on some far off place now.
"Did you do them yourself?"
I start walking slowly toward her, watching her face as she continues to stare off at some point on the floor across the room.
"Just one. Then we got some new girls in here. One of them, Shy, she's Native American. Saw the tat I did myself and commented on it. Said that her grandfather taught her some kind of ancient tattooing technique and that she could do it better than I could. Been my go-to girl since."
"They're beautiful," I say, letting my fingertips trace over a big tribal dragon that she has on her upper thigh.
"They're reminders," she corrects me, finally snapping out of her stupor and looking at my face. "People I've lost, friends that are gone."
I look at the tattoo on her stomach and read the names Rachel and Jamie underneath it. There's a band around her arm and there are several names hidden between the tribal design. In fact, all of the tattoos I can see have names in or around them.
They're Faith's way of dealing with those that she lost; that she couldn't save.
The dragon is different though. There are no names or writing of any kind. It looks like he's flying, and there's a tiny figure standing down just below him.
"What's this one?" I ask, letting my fingertips run the length of the dragon's back.
Her gaze drifts down to the tattoo that I can't seem to stop touching. The ink is black and smooth and looks professionally done, and I'm only just wondering exactly how Shy does work this good without an actual tattoo studio.
"It was during the first weeks here," she says, her voice quiet as she stares at the dragon. "Everyone was recuperating and trying to get their bearings. We were being fed and they let Diane take care of anyone who was in bad shape from the transport, but they didn't tell us anything. We didn't know why we were here or what the hell they were doing with us.
"It was gettin' late one night and we heard the shrieks and shouts of demons coming from far and wide. We were pretty sure they were gonna come in the camp and trample us but they never did. Some guards came in and took a buncha us out to the field." She takes a second to chuckle to herself. "Still kinda looked like a football field back then. We didn't have any armor or protection; they just tossed us in there as we were.
"Needless to say, I think we were all pissin' ourselves when we saw this big hulking dragon in there. Ten seconds in and he was breathin' fire at us, makin' us all spread out in different directions. Girls tried to hide but he got them first. A few girls were followin' me around, thought I had a plan. Guess I did; it was to stay alive.
"So me and these three girls Jo, Rachel, and Jamie - we got behind the dragon while he was after some other girls. We tore up a bench and grabbed whatever we could from the scraps that could pass for weapons. Climbed right up the fucker's back and started beatin' the shit outta him.
"Only the four of us walked outta there that night. Never saw the bodies of the girls that were left on the field and I think that kinda fucked us up a little. We didn't wanna leave our sisters out there, yunno?
"So more girls were brought in as time went by and things got better and better. The demons that run the place realized they'd run outta girls of they kept killin' them, so they treat us pretty good. We fight demons, good and bad, and every now and again we fight each other because they need to keep the crowds entertained.
"Girls saw some kinda leader in me. Bobb-o was assigned to watch over me. Even got my own room. Felt like solitary though; hated bein' alone. Came outside with a tat one day. No Escape' was written on my thigh and the girls got real down then. They were countin' on me or something. Decided then and there that I'd be their rock.
"Then I met Shy and she offered to fix up my tat. Put the dragon over the tat I drew as a memorial to the girls we lost that first time. Jo, Rachel, and Jamie got the same tat done too. And that's the story of my ink."
"What about Rachel and Jamie?" I ask, pointing to the tattoo on her stomach.
She gives me a sad smile and then looks down at it. "That's a story for another time."
I want to know more, about what happened to them and when, but she's not ready to talk about that right now. Offering her a nod, I look back down at the inked dragon. So much story behind one little tattoo. I reach out to touch it again but she grabs my hand and gives it a tight squeeze before letting it drop back to my side.
"You keep tryin' to feel me up and I'm gonna have to start chargin' ya, B."
Shaking my head a little, I come out of my stupor and look up at her with a slight blush burning my cheeks.
"I'm . . . I'm not . . ."
"I know," she says dismissively. "C'mon, let's get back to the camp. If I know the girls, they're waitin' to start any celebration cos they're probably worried I'm in here beatin' ya or something."
She quickly finishes dressing and steps back under my arm, helping me walk across the shower room and out the door where Bobb-o is waiting for us. My stomach is on fire and my shoulder is throbbing worse than before, but when Faith stops to let me off at my room, I hesitate and look at her for a moment.
"Do you think . . ." I pause to take a breath and she watches me with a curious gaze. "Do you think they'd mind if I join in? I don't . . . I don't want to be alone."
The corners of her lips pull up in the smallest of smiles and she shakes her head. She doesn't say anything, but instead bypasses my room and leads us out toward the courtyard. There's a small fire burning in the center and I can't wait to feel its warmth. The cool night air is kissing my still damp skin and I shiver, but Faith is warm and strong against me; not letting me go for a moment. There are girls gathered around the fire, talking animatedly among themselves.
". . . and then Buffy was charging at the Polgara without even raising her sword. She got Melanie out of the way and took a barb to the shoulder like it was nothing. There was blood spurting everywhere; it was wicked gross."
A couple of the new girls grimace as Krista relives the battle. I see Melanie sitting on the ground with her knees tucked pulled up against her chest, her eyes wide when she realizes again just how close she came to dying.
"But then Faith and Jo were there in a second and finished the Polgara off nice and quick. Poetry in motion."
A bunch of girls start hooting and hollering and patting Jo on the back. Jo looks pretty proud but then she notices Faith and I approaching. The girls follow her gaze and then there are around sixty sets of eyes locked on us.
"Hey Buffy, how're ya feeling?" Krista asks easily, giving up her chair for me when Faith helps me over to her.
The rest of the girls seem like they're not sure exactly what to do or how to react; they were told to stay away and now here I am, being helped by Faith and publicly addressed by Krista.
"Never been better," I say as I try to get comfortable in the chair.
One of the girls brings another chair over for Faith and she flips it around so that she's straddling it backwards and facing the fire. Her arms rest on the back of the chair and she smiles playfully.
"Oh yeah, you're five by five for sure, blondie. One of you girls wanna come over and give her a raspberry on her stomach? Show em, B."
I look at her for a second and when she nods, I shrug and lift up my shirt to reveal my red and raw abdomen. The girls gasp and groan and there's a chorus of "I'll pass" as a few girls get closer to inspect it. That's when a few of them start showing me their own scars and wounds with enthusiasm, talking over one another as they start to recount their battle tales.
There's nothing like comparing battle scars to bring a group of people together. And for the first time with the exception of Ha and Faith none of their scars are my fault. I haven't hurt any of them, and now they seem to trust enough that I won't try to in the future.
I notice Jo talking to Faith out of the corner of my eye and it looks like they're arguing, but I can't hear their words over the voices of the young slayers before me. I catch Krista's gaze from across the fire and she just smiles at me.
And I'm officially welcomed into my new slayer family.
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