PART FOUR: 14th February 2004
Chapter One: Return to Sender
The icy air plumed white as Buffy expelled a hot breath into the early morning quiet. The only sounds other than her heavy breathing were her sneakers connecting with the cold asphalt and the loud, almost crack-like noise of the basket ball being dribbled from one end of the yard to the other.
It was only an hour into daylight and no one else was up yet. A fact that in itself wasn't surprising, Buffy was quite often the first up. What made this morning different was that she hadn't actually made it to bed in the first place.
She had planned to. After patrol she'd had her shower, got into her teddy bear jammies and drunk her cocoa, just like most nights. For some reason that was where her routine ended. As, one by one, her friends and family disappeared up the stairs to bed, Buffy stayed glued to the television. Once alone she sighed deeply and flopped lengthwise onto the couch to stare at the ceiling.
She'd already known it was going to be a long night.
What on earth had possessed her to do it?
It hadn't taken long for the boredom induced by staring unabatedly at a featureless ceiling to set in and Buffy had resorted to aimlessly reading passages from Kennedy's college books that were constantly left around. Even that hadn't caused any drowsiness!
Emptying the dishwasher had just spurred her into more activity and within an hour or two she had the whole kitchen looking sparkly new. She'd had to stop and remind herself of the time, two-forty-five, as she was about to plug the vacuum cleaner in. That wouldn't have made her very popular.
Finally with two hours until dawn Buffy couldn't take her brains recriminations anymore, at least not without screaming, so she'd gotten dressed again and set off for a jog in the woods where she could scream to her heart's content.
She'd arrived back nearly an hour before to find the house still not stirring. She was going out of her mind here. She needed Willow or Xander or Dawn to wake up so she could shake them until they found her a way out of the hole she had dug for herself.
Why hadn't she thought it through?
Running up to the other end of the yard Buffy jumped and sent the basket ball straight through the free standing hoop. "And she scores." Buffy muttered under her breath. "Better not get used to it. It probably won't happen again today."
The ball had half bounced, half rolled away from her so Buffy ran the couple of steps to retrieve it and turned to dribble it the other way.
Buffy, startled by the sudden voice, snapped her head around to the left. Faith was standing in the kitchen doorway. "Something like that." She didn't have to be going red, so why was she? She bent her head and continued to dribble the ball up the center of the yard.
"Well, y'know, I heard going to bed can help with that," Faith teased.
"Mmmhmm." Buffy tried a standing jump-shot from the halfway mark. It hit the rim and bounced away towards the house.
"So you wanna tell me about it?"
Buffy heard Faith's Zippo alight and then the seemingly loud intake of her first drag of the day. No, she really did not want to tell Faith about it. That would just be starting the badness even quicker.
She turned to the other Slayer and changed the subject. "You're up early."
"Ball bouncing woke me," Faith explained.
"Sorry, I didn't think of that," Buffy apologized. "I'll stop if you wanna go back to bed."
"Nah. I'm up now. Might as well make the most of it." Faith took a few final puffs of her cigarette, dropped it to the ground and stood on it. Walking to where the ball had rolled, she picked it and bounced it a few times herself. "Wanna play for a while?"
"Sure," Buffy smiled. "First one to ten?"
"Sure," Faith smirked and threw the ball to her. "You better go first so you stand a chance."
"Okay." Grinning, Buffy caught the ball and launched it straight back into the air again, it sailed high over Faith's head before dropping neatly through the hoop attached to the garage wall. "If you insist."
Faith's mouth dropped to a gape before quickly becoming a matching grin and then the game was on as both Slayers dashed for the ball.
"So Saturday," Faith began as she dodged easily around Buffy's block and got a point for herself. "No work today. Any plans?"
Not of the kind Faith meant, that was for sure. No, Buffy's only plan today had been to stay out of the other Slayer's way until Easter. Now that was ruined she was pretty much just playing it by ear.
As the play became fast and boisterous the conversation became even more mono-syllabic with the two communicating in grunts of annoyance as they took turns in losing possession of the ball.
In skill and stamina they were evenly matched, but Faith's slightly superior height made it easier for her to take the ball from Buffy than vice-versa. A fact that was beginning to piss the blonde off.
Faith reached ten just two points ahead of Buffy and stopped, breathing heavy as she bounced the ball by her feet. "I win," she announced cheerfully.
"First to twenty?" Buffy said simply as she stripped off her sweater and used it to wipe her wet brow.
Faith nodded. "Okay, if you want to lose by even more."
"Bring it on, sistah!" Buffy grinned, and Faith did.
When Buffy equalized at twelve points each she did a little cheer with the ball held high over her head. Faith took the time to peel off her hoody and chuck it onto the bench.
The sports bra that Faith was wearing underneath caused a pause mid "Give me a U" as Buffy's brain stopped to appreciate Faith's hotness.
"Forget how to spell your name?" Faith asked with a smirk.
For a second there, Buffy truly had forgotten the next letter, but there was no need for Faith to know that. "Are we talking or playing?" She asked, her own lips curving into a smirk. Faith may have been warm from the running around, but parts of her body were still reacting to the freezing February morning.
"You don't seem to be doing either," Faith pointed out.
"Are you gonna throw the ball or just stand there huggin' it while you stare into space?"
Cool, not busted.
"Just giving you a chance to catch your breath," Buffy lied with an easy smile as she breathed a sigh of relief that her perving had once again gone undetected. Of course the relief was a complete waste of time today and was going to be very short-lived, but everyone knew that procrastination was good for you, right?
"No need, Blondie, just show us what you've got."
Oh wouldn't she just like to show her! Wouldn't she just love to show the other woman just what she had to give!
Distracted all over again by thoughts of pinning Faith to the side of the house while she did just that, Buffy lost the ball without even realizing it straight away. Faith put herself back in the lead before Buffy focused enough to get back in the game.
Twenty minutes later the two Slayers stood three feet apart, hot and bedraggled. The score was nineteen-nineteen and Faith had the ball. Slowly it bounced out a steady rhythm by her right sneaker.
Faith feinted left, but Buffy was ready for her. She feinted right, but Buffy was ready for that too. So she made conversation instead. "So you like Italian, right?"
Buffy considered the out-of-the-blue question while staying poised to counter any move Faith made with the ball. "Food, you mean?"
Faith didn't answer straight away, but eventually she said: "Yeah."
"You know I do. Pizza, Spaghetti, your dumpling dish thingy. You really should make that for the rest of the house sometime. I definitely want to try it again."
Faith looked confused. "Dumpling dish thingy?"
"You know," Buffy urged, wishing she hadn't mentioned it now. "With the potato and the cheese in the little purses. You made it the night." She trailed off.
"The night you said you fell in love with me," Buffy finished mentally. Not that Faith had actually said that in so many words, but the inference had been pretty clear.
Faith switched to bouncing the ball with her other hand. "You mean the Pierogi?" Buffy nodded, not that she knew or not if it was the same thing, but it sounded about right and it wasn't like Faith had cooked her many meals. "That's not Italian; it was my Gran's recipe. It's one of the better things my Mom passed on to me before she died."
Buffy's brow scrunched in confusion. "But I thought your Mom was Italian?"
"What made you think that?"
Buffy shook her head. "No idea. See I told you there was lots of stuff I don't know about you. So where was your Mom from?"
Faith took a step back. "She grew up in Boston. South End to be precise." Utilizing the room she'd created, Faith took a shot at the hoop Buffy was guarding. It missed the mark and ricocheted off the back board. "Damn."
"Ha." Buffy darted after the ball quicker than Faith and scooped it up in her hands. "So Perrygoey is a traditional South Boston dish?"
Faith chuckled at the mispronunciation. "Nah, I said it was my Grandmother's. Her and my Grandpop were Polish. Came over in the Second World War to escape the Nazi's and start a better life for themselves and their children." Her tone turned darker. "A chance my mother threw away at the first opportunity she got."
Buffy noticed the subtle change in her friend's demeanor, not surprising considering she spent the majority of her free time these days noticing everything about Faith, and then using her not so free time to analyze it all over again. She knew she could give Willow, in her Xander-crush days, a good run for her money but she couldn't help it.
Stopping, she faced Faith and looked her square in the eye. "You okay?"
Faith blinked and smiled. "Five by five, B, you know me."
"If you ever want..."
"I know where you are," Faith finished for her. "Right now I'm gonna..." She was already moving towards Buffy as she spoke, reaching for the ball.
Buffy back stepped, keeping the ball from her. "You mean you're going to try." She goaded.
Faith knocked the ball from her hands but couldn't quite get a hold of it herself. It bounced away and the two Slayers got into each others way as they pursued it.
"It's mine B, give it up." Faith yelled as her fingers grazed the orange ball.
"No chance F." The toe of Buffy's sneaker punted it even further in front of them.
"Hey, that's cheating. We're not playing soccer you know."
"Oh like you never play dirty." With a sharp shove Buffy sent Faith sideways and swooped down to grab the ball, nearly ending up face-first on the asphalt in her haste.
Spinning on the spot, Buffy was about to unleash the most perfect three-pointer in the history of the sport before Faith could recover from her stumble, only to find herself face to face with the mailman.
"Gah." Was her first response and the ball sailed in a completely different direction than planned to bang, harmlessly thank God, against the kitchen window. Her second response was a more strangled version of the first.
The mailman grinned at her, holding out a big pile of envelopes. "Happy Valentine's Day, m'dear."
Buffy looked at the cards he was holding out, there was a big pink one among them. She gulped. "Yeah, I, I just have to... to..." And she bolted.
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