Huge thanks to Slaymesoftly for beta'ing and to Bunnyluv_pet for the gorgeous banner!

For the lovely Selene. Happy Birthday, Sweetie! *big hugs and much love*

They had pretty much avoided each other as much as possible over the last several weeks. On the few occasions when circumstances had dictated that they must spend some time, however small, in each other’s company they were stiffly polite, conscious at all times of the other’s personal space and profoundly diligent in their efforts not to encroach upon it. Neither would meet the other’s eyes and both were infinitely relieved when the moment finally arrived that they could leave. Not that either had shirked their duties or responsibilities in any way; it was just—simpler—if they conducted them separately.

If truth be told, Faith wasn’t on comfortable terms with most of the current occupants of 1630 Revello Drive. At some point in fairly recent history she had betrayed, seduced or attempted to kill most of them; some of them having even hit the jackpot. Not that she remembered Xander complaining, much, when she’d jumped his bones. The way she looked at it, she’d done the boy a favour—well, at least up until the whole strangling thing.

An uneasy truce born of necessity existed between herself and her sister slayer and she didn’t fool herself that it could ever be anything more; not, she told herself, that she really cared. She didn’t need Buffy’s forgiveness, her friendship, or even her acceptance in order to do her job. The same held true for little-Miss-Perfect’s band of merry do-gooders. Yeah, they had reasons—most of them pretty good ones—to be pissed with her, but she certainly wasn’t going to lose any sleep over them. What was done was done; she didn’t owe any of them anything, least of all an apology. That wasn’t who she was any more.

She wasn’t entirely sure then—given the overall barely-veiled hostility bordering on grudging acceptance with which she was currently regarded—why her treatment of him was the thing that played most often on her mind.

Why his face haunted her nightmares. Why the mere sight of him could cause her palms to sweat, her heart to race furiously until, with guilt and remorse clutching sickeningly at her stomach, she’d flee. Or why, when he’d offered to lend his assistance with the Hellmouth’s latest emergency and had insisted on accompanying her and Willow back to Sunnydale, she’d alternated between wanting to scream ‘No’ and trying not to blush like some stupid giddy schoolgirl.

In the over-cluttered Summers’ household staying out of each other's way wasn’t quite as easy as it had been in LA, and with each encounter her memories assailed her anew, beating relentlessly at the carefully-constructed shields that kept her safe—kept her sane.

How did you get past something like that? It’s not like you could just go up and say, ‘Hey, dude. Sorry, about that whole torture gig.’ It was always there, like that fucking great elephant standing in the room that you tried to pretend you didn’t see; meanwhile it’s knocking everything over and trashing the house around you. Sure, he’d been civil, even pleasant when he wasn’t being all business-like and watchery or stammering and burying himself in his books.

And that really wasn’t helping, either. She didn’t know where things stood. If he wanted to be friends? If he wanted to go back to being her watcher? If he was still pissed with her—and who could blame him—for the things she’d done? Or if that cute little flush of colour that would sometimes rush upwards to stain the cheeks he now kept hidden beneath a very sexy permanent three-day’s growth, and the almost-shy stammering meant—well, something more?

And what did she want it to mean?

Now, as Slayer number one and her entourage filed out of the room on various tasks, leaving them alone, the usual awkward silence descended and she glanced around in desperation like a caged animal searching for an escape.

“I just… I better…” She trailed off, wiping her damp palms roughly against her jeans leg. She smiled lamely, indicating her urgent need to leave with a nod in the general direction of the door, before moving quickly towards the exit. Her body tingled, hyper-aware of his proximity as she brushed past him.

A hand reached out, resting hesitantly on her shoulder. “Faith.” His voice was quiet, calm yet firm, compelling her to stay even as her every instinct was screaming at her to flee.

She turned to face him, not wanting to look into his eyes but somehow unable to prevent herself. Their gentleness and compassion held her entranced. She tried willing herself to calm down, only her pounding heart, and limbs that trembled with the flood of adrenaline racing through her system, refused to listen. She’d faced down death with less trepidation than she now felt as she prepared to plead for Wesley’s absolution for what was surely an unforgivable act.

“Faith, I need to…” Wesley drew a shuddering breath, his eyes dropping, breaking contact and releasing her from their spell. Just as she gathered herself, ready to bolt, his voice came again, stronger and with the fierce determination she had come to recognise in this new and improved version of her once-geeky watcher, “I know I failed you. I hope that one day you can see it in your heart to forgive me.”

She stared. Her brain taking a moment to catch up with his words, and then it started—just a snort at first; a sharp unbelieving, undignified snort. Before she could stop it, it bubbled up, huge gasping bursts of laughter that left her weak and breathless with tears wending unheeded down her cheeks as she fought to remain upright only to fail, dropping to her knees and burying her face in her hands as the laughter turned to sobs.

Strong arms encircled her; drawing her close. He rocked her gently; crooning wordlessly as his fingers carded rhythmically through her hair until eventually the sobs subsided and she rested limply against him. He lifted her into his arms and made his way to the couch. Settling himself carefully so as not to disturb her, he continued to soothe, a faint smile tugged at the corners of his lips as she snuggled closer, seeking comfort in his embrace.

She allowed his presence to soothe; to wash away the pain, and even some of the guilt, she had harboured for years. She knew they had a lot to talk about, not least of which was trying to explain her uncharacteristic breakdown. But there would be time enough to talk later. For now she simply wanted to be in his arms; to feel safe and protected. To let the walls down and for once allow herself to indulge in being weak; let him be strong for her. There was time enough to be the slayer later—time enough to be Faith later.