Disclaimer Still not my sandbox, but it's getting bigger.
Faith preferred to come down to the gym as early as possible these days. She really didn’t mind living in the house with all the girls, and all the rest of the people who had somehow or other ended up attached to their band of waifs and strays, but there was something special about those moments of solitude that she could only find at 4am.
So it came as something of a surprise when she pushed open the double doors – using more than a modicum of dramatic irony by pushing both doors at once, hell, may as well make an entrance – and spotted one of the kids going hell for leather on the treadmill.
Part of Faith hated that it took a few seconds to recognise the kid – Casey, one of the newest members of their not-so-little group here in Cleveland. But then, there were sixty new recruits in the house and this was only one of the new bases around the world. Faith wondered if Buffy had realised just how big this whole thing would get when she had asked Willow to do the activation spell. And that dark little voice inside wondered that even if she had known, would it have stopped her? All anyone had to do was look at Dana and see that it really wasn't a choice. A few scared girls in a room in Sunnydale making the choice between definitely dying and maybe dying led to thousands – maybe even millions – of girls and women across the world being thrust into a life that absolutely none of them was ready for. Faith figured they were lucky that Dana had been the only outright failure. So far.
She shook her head, what had happened had happened. There was no point crying over spilt milk and all those other platitudes that did nothing but make the person spouting them feel better. Simple fact was that the girls were here and it was up to those who had even the smallest clue to make sure they didn't get killed.
"First rule of slaying. Don't die."
Faith grinned a little as the ghostly words from yesteryear echoed round her head – it was all very well saying it, but would any of them listen? It was for damn sure she hadn't, back in the day.
Casey still hadn't noticed her; despite the melodramatic way she'd entered the room. The girl was too intent on her running – and for the first time Faith noticed the pattern. She wasn't running for the sake of it – or even running towards some bright future that only she could see. The kid was running from something.
Faith knew the feeling.
Even a year ago, she probably would have called out, gotten the girl's attention and made some joke or another, but that wouldn't solve anything. Instead, she put her towel over the handrail of the treadmill two down from the one Casey was trying to run into the ground, and fired it up. She kept a steady pace, not competing with the girl, not even looking in her direction, just being there. Beside her; but not too close.
Still there was no reaction from the younger Slayer and Faith kept a close watch on her via the large mirror filling the wall they were both running towards without ever getting closer. Casey wasn't looking up, not even meeting her own eyes in the mirror. She was just running, watching her stride, trying to get away.
It was another twenty minutes before Casey lifted her head briefly and saw her running alongside her. Faith had to fight every survival instinct buried deep inside her not to turn and run in the other direction from the look of pure malice that the girl shot in her direction. Quick as a flash it was gone, and she was just Casey again. Still running, now focusing on her reflection, as if trying to catch up to it. As if her goal was to pass – or maybe even surpass – her self.
Faith caught the flicker of movement behind them as the door pushed open gently – no amateur dramatics this time, just a brief opening to check if the coast was clear. She met the eyes in the mirror and shook her head almost imperceptibly, trusting that her message was clear. The door closed again just as silently as it had opened and the moment was gone. Casey's race with herself was again her focus and Faith was determined not to lose this girl to herself.
Some of the other girls came through, did a basic routine to show willing, and left before Casey showed any sign of tiring. Eventually she ran herself to a standstill and eased off the treadmill, her breath only a little quickened after her efforts. Faith let her own pace slow and gradually stopped, without once looking at Casey. She took the towel and wiped the sweat from her face as she spoke quietly, "Good run. Next time, watch your six. You never know what's coming up from behind."
She saw Casey glance at her, but the girl didn't answer, the look she gave Faith was an odd mix of contempt and shame and sent chills racing up and down her spine. Faith flipped her towel over her shoulder and left the girl in the gym, hoping she hadn't seen the shakes that had claimed her.
Faith made it as far as the kitchen before she broke down. She wasn't completely sure why a simple glance had shaken her so much, but every part of her wanted to get as far away from the girl in the gym as possible. She dropped her head into her arms and rested against the kitchen counter. It was getting late and the rest of the house would be up and about soon. She'd have to get her act together before anyone saw her like this. She was supposed to be the strong one, the kick ass one, the rebel who came back. The Prodigal Slayer. She wasn't supposed to be the one found crying in the kitchen over nothing.
A hand on her shoulder warmed her, and she leaned into it, letting him wrap her in the kind of embrace she never thought she'd ever welcome. But there was something so pure about it. Something so… Xander about it.
"Are you okay?" His voice was a little muffled by her hair but she nodded anyway. "And Case? Will she be all right?"
She wanted to shake her head but settled for a shrug instead.
"Hey," he pulled back a little and got her to look up at him. "She'll be fine. She's got the best of the best looking out for her."
"But B isn't here," she answered with a wry grin.
He mock frowned back at her. "Don't try for sarcasm. You're up against the master and you know there's only one outcome here."
"Yeah, you're gonna get spanked."
"Maybe later, when there isn't the impending threat of a multitude of starving teenage Slayers poised to descend on us at precisely the most embarrassing possible moment."
She grinned, "What, you got something against PDAs?"
"Nope, not me. Trust me when I say I don't see any problem with every single person in this house walking in on whatever affection either of us should choose to display towards the other – and let me come back to the fact that your twisted little mind seems to consider punitive acts to somehow be affection – but… y'know…" Xander tailed off, not able to find the words to finish the sentence.
Faith nodded. "Yeah. I know."
It hadn't been planned, this thing between them, on the surface of things it could be nothing but a really, really bad idea. Hell the last time they'd spent any quality time together she'd tried to throttle him. But somehow there was a spark of something when they'd ended up working together and, well, one thing had led to another and...
But telling anyone, sharing this with the others, it had to happen at some point – and probably some point really soon – but right now it was too fragile. Just like they were. So for now, they were keeping it quiet and – a first for her – taking it slow.
"Hark, is that the dulcet footsteps of the hungry hordes I hear, or is it naught but the wind whispering twixt the leaves?"
"How can I aid and assist you, my lady?"
"Do me a favour, 'kay? Shut up, and stay away from the books for a while. You sound like an idiot." She picked up her towel again as the door swung open to admit the chattering throng. "I'm going for a shower, think you can handle this lot solo?"
"My lady, you pierce me with your words. Lo, 'tis a mortal wound indeed." He clutched at his chest in a ridiculously melodramatic way and said, "I shall endeavour to try to cope without your able assistance. Anyway, I think the smell might be putting them off their food." He laughed a little at her frown. "You. Shower."
He ducked before the towel managed to hit him and grinned as she stormed from the room.
"You know, the sooner you just ask her out, the better it'll be for everyone." Said one of the newly arrived girls.
"Ah Suzannah, if only you knew." He smiled a little as he put the six different kinds of milk onto the counter for them. Somehow he managed to ignore the knowing looks that passed amongst the girls.