Never Too Late



I'm speechless when he tells me. For the first time in my life, I think. Normally I'd have a snappy rejoinder (yeah, I've been reading a lot) for every occasion. Weddings, christenings, bar mitzvahs. Just not funerals. Maybe that's the trouble with storing up one-liners; one day you gotta run out. So maybe that day has arrived. Or maybe it's the shattered look on his face that stops the crass words in my throat.

Angel's normally a broody guy but today he's in ultra-brood mode. Even his hair looks a little less perky. Guess there's less inclination to devote time to the hair regimen when your ex-girlfriend calls to tell you her mother's died. 'Cause even though Buffy had neglected her mother - I remember the piles of mail on Joyce's bureau - and despite the distractions of boyfriends, Joyce was pretty much Buffy's whole life. And I could never say how envious I was of them.

My mother died when I was a kid. When I say died, I mean she topped herself. She wasn't abusive; she wasn't a junkie or a hooker, or any of those clichés. She loved me; she affectionately called me 'firecracker' because I was always running around wild. Not much has changed there. But she just couldn't handle 'it' - life, whatever, bringing up a kid on her own when she was only a couple of years older than I am now. We had nothing except each other and, obviously, that wasn't enough when the bills were piling up.

I know how that feels sometimes, in my darker moments, to feel that there's nothing for you out there, that you're a hopeless case. But I try not to think about that, like Angel said to me - you just have to take each minute as it comes. And unlike my mom I *do* have people who want to help me, for whatever reasons. I can never get my head around that, people who stick around after you've done everything you can to hurt them and drive them away. There was Buffy two years ago, when I'd convinced myself I was
invincible and didn't need help, and now Angel and by extension Wesley, Cordelia and Gunn because Angel pays them to care.

So after Angel leaves to drive to Sunnydale with Cordelia for the funeral, I 'm taken back to my cell. There's times where the frustration of being locked up, being stuck in this place, really gets to me. As in, banging heads together frustration and this is one of those times. It's like a white-hot heat behind my eyes and I know that I have to make a split-second decision: trash the cell or count to ten. On this occasion I choose the latter.

I console myself with the fact that I'll be outta here in three months, if I keep out of trouble. Somehow, it doesn't make me feel better.

I want to see Buffy, to give her my condolences, to apologise, although I know she'd throw my words right back in my face along with her fist. The funny thing is that I'd welcome it, because even her hatred is better than nothing. I'd spent so long trying to get a reaction from her, baiting and pushing her, that I'd destroyed anything else she might feel for me. There has always been animosity between us but, at one time, there were other things. She'd let me flirt with her, laughed at my (mostly made-up) tall tales, skipped class to be with me, danced with me at the Bronze. It was more than friendship, fuck, we were *never* friends no matter what she
thinks.

I think she saw me as a way to cut loose. Though she denies it, she wanted to be like me because people dig the bad girl thing, even strait-laced, holier-than-thou, heterosexual Buffy Summers. When I told her this I got a blade pushed into my gut for my insights into her psyche. So I won't say this stuff again to her face 'cause I value my internal organs this time around.

Instead, I do what I should've done a long time ago. I get a pen and a sheet of paper and begin to write.

*****


Hey B,

Last time I saw you, you said that if I apologised you would beat me to death. Seeing as I can't be there in person, I guess that's just gonna have to wait. Sorry about my handwriting, I know it's really bad but I've never been much of a writer. Never kept a diary or anything.

Anyway, I just wanna say that Angel told me about your mom and I'm sorry. I always liked your mom, she was cool and I never got to thank her for inviting me over for dinner that time or for Thanksgiving.

I know I made a mess of things, several times, and I'm sorry for that too. I don't expect you to forgive me or write back or anything. I just wanted to tell you.

Faith.

*****

Three weeks pass and she doesn't write back and I'm pissed at myself for being disappointed. I stop trying to make excuses for her: maybe I sent it to the wrong address, maybe she hasn't had time to write, she has college, responsibilities, blah blah blah. I should know better than to get my hopes up. She doesn't want to know, she's trying to forget that I even exist, and she's entitled to that. Fuck, her mother died - I must be the last thing she needs right now.

So when I sit down at visiting time I expect to see Angel, even Cordelia fresh from a commercial audition or Gunn (because he's been in trouble with the cops himself and we hit it off straight away) just not her. Her hair is longer, I notice, and less bleached. There's a certain fragility in her eyes although her posture gives nothing away. I wish the protective glass wasn't there because I want to touch her to convince myself she's really here. I also know she'd break my wrist sooner than let me.

Now that she's sitting here in front of me, I don't know what to say or where to begin. "You got my letter?" I ask stupidly. Why else would she be here? She probably came to tell me to fuck off once and for all.

Buffy nods once, the set of her jaw grim. "Why Faith? Why now? It's been - what - six months?" Her voice is crackly through the telephone but disturbingly close.

I stare at my fingertips lying flat on the counter. I'm shaking. "I dunno." Not true - I was afraid, I want to tell her.

She just exhales into the receiver and it sends a shiver down my spine. "And what do you want from me? Absolution?"

We haven't been this close without punching each other for longer than I can remember. I just want to look at her. How can I say that out loud? "Will you come back?"

She stares at me, nonplussed. "Faith - I don't know when I can."

I shrug. "I'm not going anywhere, girlfriend."

Then the buzzer sounds to signal that visiting time is over.

******

I'm a little surprised to see her the next time. Not because I thought she wasn't coming but because she came to visit so soon. Like, two weeks later. She's a little more relaxed and she's wearing a shirt that's the same shade of green as her eyes. Not only Cordelia notices stuff like that, I just don't verbalise it. I think about complimenting B on it but I don't want to make her more uncomfortable. There used to be a time when I relished that but I'm not that girl any more, am I?

When she looks at me, she doesn't see it: I'm not the same. The hurt and betrayals are still too fresh; she's trying to see my angle, what my deal is. She can't figure me out any more and it bugs her. There's no agenda; there never was a grand plan. She chose Angel so I chose the Mayor. I had to make her hurt like she hurt me. That everyone else might suffer as a result really didn't come into it. Wilkens was the means to an end . . . at first. I actually started to care about the guy. Yeah, he was crazy (and who am I
to pass judgement in the sanity stakes?) but he treated me like a princess. No one had done that since my mom. Whereas Buffy was a fair-weather friend - Allen's death proved that - so who can blame me for choosing the Mayor over her?

So I had wicked fucked up morals, I can appreciate that. I made the wrong choices. But should I really have let the Watcher's Council drag me back to dear old England for 'rehabilitation'?

Buffy is playing with the ring on her finger during the silence that stretches on and on. It looks cheap but it's pretty. A bit like me, I think and almost smirk. "Nice ring," I comment, 'cause I can't think how else to start the conversation.

She stares down at her hand and smiles a little. "Dawn bought it for my birthday."

"Dawn?" I ask and hope it doesn't sound as jealous as I feel.

She blinks. "Oh, my… cousin." She raises an eyebrow. "You never met her?"

I shake my head, more relieved than I care to admit. "We never really got to the meeting extended family stage, did we?" I say sarcastically before I can stop the words tripping out of my mouth.

Buffy gives me this startled, angry look. Mental note: avoid flippancy around blonde slayers. "Sorry," I mumble, "that wasn't the smartest."

I watch her carefully and the way she seems to deflate as if she's too tired to remain annoyed. Reaching out hesitantly, I touch the glass between us. "You okay?"

"I need to get some air," she says, hanging up the receiver with a click, and she's gone even before the buzzer sounds.

******



Another day, another visit. And, damn, if we aren't getting into a routine now.

A white sweater this time and her blonde hair falling into soft curls on her shoulders. Me in my usual prison-issue denim threads. Number 43100.

"I thought you weren't coming back, B." It's only partly accusation and partly me voicing my fears.

She leans forward with both elbows resting on the counter, instead of sitting well back like she did the previous visits. I can see the whites of her eyes clearly and the tiny smudge of lipstick at the corner of her mouth. "I wasn't going to," she admits.

I absorb this information slowly and what it means that she's here nonetheless.

"You're getting out next month. Angel told me," she explains, stalling my question. "Why didn't you say?"

I focus my gaze on that smudge of lipstick, a strand of hair clinging to her sweater, the imperfections of the glass, anywhere except her eyes. "Because I didn't want it to sound like a threat. Everything I say seems to come out wrong." I sigh heavily. "I don't want you to think that I'm not over you."

She's quiet for a long time and it's the kind of silence that you can't ignore. So I look at her properly and she seems rattled. "You're over me?" she asks and I hear the catch in her voice, distant and yet directly in my ear.

And, man, do I get the feeling that I should've kept those words to myself. "What do you mean you're *over me*?" she demands, not letting it drop.

"I just mean that . . . " I'm struggling here. What can I say, what should I say? Oh, by the way, Buffy, I've been crushing on you for the past two years. A sure-fire way of driving her away forever. "Look, I think you know that I had . . . *feelings* for you way back then and . . . "

"You hated me," Buffy interrupted, eyes hard like flint.

"No, well, yeah, but not just that - "

Damn that buzzer. I give her a desperate look. "There is - was - more, Buffy."

The handpiece gets taken out my hand by a guard before I can say anything else and B watches me with wide eyes as I walk away. Maybe it's for the best. No matter how much I try to convince myself otherwise, I'm not ready for B to laugh in my face.

*****

I'm standing on the sidewalk, outside the Hyperion, waiting for nothing in particular. That's what freedom is all about. You decide where you go, what to do, and ultimately, you can decide to do nothing at all. Every moment I keep expecting to wake up and find myself back in that cell. It passed in a haze: being released, collecting my few belongings, signing paperwork, meeting Gunn and Cordy who were waiting for me in the parking lot, driving to Angel's new pad. And here I am standing outside, because I can.

I have so much freedom I don't know what to do with it. Except for one thing. I want to see Buffy, I could just go, and no one would stop me. Jump on a bus, hitch all the way, whatever. But I won't, I'll wait for her to come to me. She will, eventually. Call it slayer instinct.

Angel says I can stay with him and I'm gonna take him up on that offer. I've been out of the loop for so long that I have my doubts about whether I can get back into it. There's only one way to find out and if I fall, I fall, but I can pick myself back up again. Like I've always done my entire life. At least this time, I have some people around me to dust off my clothes.

So I guess this is the new, improved Faith. I'm not afraid.

*****

We're hanging in the lobby when she arrives; Cordy reading out my horoscope (I'm a typical Leo, according to her superior wisdom and Cosmo), Wesley drinking tea, and Gunn and Angel discussing the new big bad in town. We all stare. I swing my legs off the couch and sit up.

"Well, that was a conversation stopper," Buffy remarks, deadpan.

Angel approaches her, hands in pockets. "Buffy, good to see you." His voice is completely neutral. They still aren't on the best of terms, apparently. Cordy told me about how Angel went to SunnyD after I handed myself to the cops and threw down with B's latest squeeze. According to Queen C's sources, commando boy and Buffy are all broken up now too. Can't say I didn't get a kick out of that - privately, of course.

B doesn't make with the pleasantries. "Can I speak to Faith? Alone."

Angel looks towards me and I nod. "Don't start anything," he says in warning to Buffy and she just gives him a pointed look.

I lead her out to the yard, standing just past the windows so that the others can't see us. If she wants to beat the crap out of me, I don't want them to intervene. But, somehow, I don't think that's why she's here.

Pretty soon I become aware that I'm staring and that she's staring right back. I'm the first to look away, squinting at the sun, feeling the heat of it warm my bones. For the first time in months, I don't feel numb.

"What do you wanna talk about?" I ask as I tilt my head back, leaning against a pillar.

She takes a few steps towards me; I hear her footsteps on the concrete. "Okay, no distractions, no being saved by the bell, no more games. Just tell me what it was about."

I was going be obstinate and pretend ignorance but what was the point? When I turn my head, she's closer than I thought. She's almost brushing my shoulder. Close enough to touch. I clench my fists at my sides. "Does it matter any more?" My voice is barely above a whisper.

She touches me on the shoulder and it feels like a holy man laying hands on me. But she isn't a saint - she's just a girl. Can she save me? "It matters to me." There's a wetness in her eyes that I know is mirrored in my own.

"I . . ." I swallow and force the words to the surface. "I loved you."

"You loved me?" Her brow furrows as she stares at me, her eyes brimming with tearful anger. "So, what, you thought a good way of showing it was to terrorise my friends and family? To screw my boyfriend?"

I watch her stalk away, rubbing her temple with one hand. I don't know what to say because, fuck, she's right. The whole thing was royally screwed up. "Don't ask, don't tell, B," I reply in resignation. Like this confrontation could've gone any other way.

She whips around, her glare harsh. "What do you expect me to say? Am I supposed to be flattered?"

I shrug to conceal my flinch. "I thought you kinda knew."

"Oh, yeah, because nothing says it like attempted murder." Ouch, I deserve that one. So glad to see B hasn't lost her mean streak.

"C'mon, are you saying you never noticed the way I looked at you?" Pushing away from the pillar, I circle her. "I used to think the sun shone out of your ass."

Buffy folds her arms. "Gee, nice imagery."

"Don't you remember all the crude talk and the dancing? I drew a fucking heart in a window pane for you. How much more obvious could I get, short of asking to jump your bones?" I continue circling and stop right in front of her.

There's a chink in her self-satisfied armour now. She looks at her feet, or maybe she's looking at my breasts. I can't really tell. "I didn't know. I was . . . preoccupied with Angel."

"And before that Scott Hope. Most recent, your boy Riley." She flushes at the mention of beefstick's name so I guess that must still be a sore point. "So who is it now?"

She looks up sharply at me. "There's no one. Not that it's any of your business."

"That's right, 'cause I'm over you," I agree, my eyes never leaving hers.

"Good. That's good," she says firmly but her eyes are lingering on my lips. She's so close I can feel her body heat and if I lean in just slightly.

She traces my jaw with her fingertips and I can hear the blood roaring in my ears. "B," I say, and my voice sounds foreign to me. Too loud, too thick with need. Buffy Summers was my Holy Grail and now she's moving her thumb over my bottom lip. "I still . . . "

Her hand falls to her side and she steps back, away from me. There's a draft where she stood and my lips are tingling. I could reach out, bring her back, and maybe she won't deck me. She turns abruptly, ducking eye contact. "I have to go, Dawn's waiting in the car."

She's gone. Just like that and for a moment I feel as though the wind has been knocked out of me. I just stare at the door. If I was the melodramatic kind I'd run after her and beg her to stay and talk. Instead I reach into my back pocket and pull out a packet of smokes. One left. Ain't the world grand? So I light up because I don't want to face Cordelia's inevitable Spanish Inquisition right now. No matter how much she's changed from shallow teen queen, that girl still loves gossip and I know she's in there itching to know what's going on.

Except that *I* don't know what's going on either. So I'll stay out here, enjoy my last cigarette, and wait. Because I'm through with chasing Buffy Summers and it's up to her to decide if she's through being in denial about me.

The End