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I used to believe the old adage that, "time heals all wounds." Well, time and the strategic application of Sesame Street Band-Aids. They always made boo-boos better. In many instances that’s still true, but the emotional stuff? The "you-ripped-out-my-heart-and-used-it-for-skeet-shooting" kind of experience? (For the record, that would be metaphorically, not literally)(Living on the Hellmouth, I've learned that it’s best to be specific). That sort of pain just doesn’t seem to respond to a passive hiatus and an adhesive Big Bird. Those kinds of wounds are a lot trickier to mend.

So what do you do? First, what any intelligent and well-adjusted person would... you ignore it! And hey, if you do it "studiously" then it even sounds intelligent. It’s just so easy to convince yourself that if you don’t look at it, don’t even think about it, then it no longer exists and can’t hurt you ever again. I mean really, what’s wrong with "living on the banks of 'de-nial?’" The view is lovely, the weather’s always so balmy and the accommodations are surprisingly affordable. All you’ve gotta do is kick back and embrace your inner-Cleopatra. But damn if that old wound isn’t skulking about just waiting for a fresh opportunity to bite you on the asp. And that’s why denial is not as great a deal as it seems in the brochure. You ignore a wound, it’ll fester... and the longer you avoid it, the more poison it will leak into your system, and your spirit. It corrupts you and you don’t even realize what’s happening until it’s too late... you’ve changed, and not for the better. A day will come when you have to make a decision: do you want to die from it or lance the damned thing and take your life back?

I opted for the latter...so I bit the proverbial bullet and went to see Faith.

She’d been in prison for about eight months. And at that time my life was falling apart...even more so than usual. Mom had been sick, Riley had left and Spike had convinced himself that he was in love with me, tried to become my knight-in-dusty-leather, my very own Sir Stalk-a-lot. And then there was Dawn, the little sister I never had... yet, everyone, including me, had a lifetime’s worth of memories of her, even after we realized that we shouldn’t. Who knew that monks had that kind of power? Okay, Dawn and I didn’t start out sharing DNA, and in reality she’s something known as "the Key"...not originally human at all. But all that aside, the fact of the matter is she’s still the sister my heart and mind adores, and she was in danger. Of course it couldn’t have been from anything as simple as a Master vamp wanting to get some leverage over the Slayer, or the demon-of-the-week looking for some ancient, whozeewhatzit artifact or other. Guess the universe decided that was just too passé... "been there, done that, blew it to smoldering bits." So what, you may ask, came after my baby sister? A genuine god. And not one of those fun, revelry-loving, drunken gods either. This one may have looked like "slut-bomb Barbie" but she kicked my sorry ass all over Sunnydale. Several times. Didn’t even chip a nail while she was doing it, either.

For so long, Faith had been my worst enemy...my "arch-nemesis", if you will. I’d stubbornly held onto this image of her in my head but that particular bio was way out of date. I couldn’t ignore the truth forever, though. Eventually I had to admit it: the girl had up and changed on me. And just when I thought I had her pegged, too. Of course, I’d started to have that sinking suspicion the night she’d turned herself in to the police, but like any good self-righteous bitch, I ignored it, quite handily; even managed to slip in the always mature threat to beat her to death while I was at it. It took me several months of brooding over it and the occasional reports that Giles had managed to get extolling her exemplary prison behavior, before I started to grudgingly admit that maybe this wasn’t another one of her scams. Because, let’s face it, Faith hasn’t got the patience to play a part for a month, let alone half a year or more.

After going up against Glory, the "goddess of the wonder bra and supreme kicker of Buffy’s ass", all the stuff that had happened between Faith and me seemed a lot less important. Not that betrayal and murder is unimportant, but when it’s put side by side with...oh...an apocalypse, the destruction of an entire dimension or two, not to mention the sacrificing of my little sister to make it all possible? It gets a bit easier to move beyond. Welcome to the wonderful world of ‘perspective.’ Besides, when it came right down to it, I needed Faith’s help. So I lanced that festering, emotional wound––the one that had made me swear that I would never trust or see her again––and made the trip to LA.

It was a meeting that I will remember for as long as I live. I’m still not sure exactly what I was expecting, but it sure wasn’t the calm and openly apologetic girl I found sitting across from me. It threw me so badly that I immediately tried baiting her, ripped into her with a list of every slight and betrayal I could think of; but she never rose to it. Just gazed back at me, acknowledged that she’d screwed me over royally and apologized.

Faith!

Apologizing without a single attempt to shift the blame. As if that wasn’t surprising enough, she then tilted her head a bit, locked eyes with me and said, "Alright B, enough with the displacement, avoidance crap. We both know you’ve got more than enough reason to be pissed at me, but something’s got you scared shitless. You gonna tell me what’s really goin’ on?"

‘Avoidance?’ ‘Displacement?!’ Since when did Faith use words like ‘avoidance’ and ‘displacement?’ And by the way, I hate it when I’m that transparent. For a second, I tried to muster some more indignance, but then my brain kicked into gear and reminded me that I really didn’t have time to waste on stupid games. So I took a deep breath and said:

"Faith, I need you to help me protect my sister from a deranged god."

Her response to this revelation of a deity walking the streets of Sunnydale?

"B...what the fuck are you talking about? You don’t have a sister."

I couldn’t help it...I burst out laughing. Of all people not to be affected by the transplanted memories, it had to be Faith. It had never occurred to me that she wouldn’t because Dawn "remembered" her. But the more I thought about it, the more sense it made; Faith is the most tenacious person I’ve ever met. No one could make her do or accept something against her will. And you know, in that instant, most of my anger melted away and I didn’t feel quite so hopeless about the odds of beating Glory. If Faith was strong enough to resist a spell that had affected everyone else I knew––including Angel and my extended family that was scattered all over the world––then maybe there was also the possibility of a loophole in Glory’s supposed ‘omnipotence.’

I told Faith the whole story, or as much as I knew at the time, and she took it all in without blinking an eye. The truth is, I’d gone to the prison simply to ask Faith to protect Dawn and my mom if Glory killed me. She just looked at me for a long moment, then nodded her head, of course she’d protect them if I died...

"But that’s not gonna happen, B, ‘cause the Chosen Two are gonna kick some holy ass."

And we did. After a minor jailbreak and with a little help from a few others. But I’ll leave that tale for my memoirs. Faith assures me it’ll make a ‘wicked cool’ summer blockbuster or even a TV series when I option the development rights.

That all happened over a year ago. Faith is now legally out of jail, living in LA, and we’ve managed to become the best of friends...what we’d had the potential to be when she'd first arrived in Sunnydale. It wasn’t all smooth sailing, but we did it. And I figured her literally putting her life on the line to protect all of us (in, I must say, one of the most selfless acts I have ever witnessed), was a pretty clear indication of just how much she’d changed. So, we’ve both gotten our second chance and we’re making the most of it.

At any rate, that's all in the past. In the here and now, it's Valentine’s Day, and all of our friends are totally wrapped up in their significant others. Even Mom and Giles are doing the ‘love thing.’ And I do not want to dwell on that. I know they got pelvic a few years ago, but I just can’t get beyond the wiggens-factor when it comes to their love life. Not that I’m against them having a love life per se... I just don’t want any ‘sweaty parental’ visuals popping into my head, thank you very much.

At any rate, Faith and I are both single, and since it’s depressing as hell being alone on a holiday that was designed specifically to promote the "ain’t love grand and you’re a total loser if you’re single" philosophy, she suggested we skip town and have some fun of our own. I just hope we don’t have a repeat of the last time she suggested we subvert tradition and do the "alternative couple" thing. Being hunted while wearing a formal gown isn’t exactly the zany, fun time that it sounds, trust me on this. Though, I must admit, you haven’t lived until you’ve seen Cordelia Chase wielding her "spatula of death." I have often wondered, though, how things would have turned out for all of us if Faith and I had been able to enjoy that Homecoming date without any Slayer-related interruptions.

I guess it’s confession time. I kinda want this getaway to be more than just a friendly, "see the sites of San Francisco" sort of deal. Somewhere along the line, I’ve fallen. Fallen hard. And yes, I do mean in the love context. I’ve always thought that Faith is one of the sexiest women walking the face of the earth. I mean, c'mon, you'd have to be dead not to notice that. (What am I saying? Some of the dead have noticed as well.) But I hadn’t recognized that I might be feeling a whole lot more than mere physical attraction. I don’t know for sure when it happened; who knows, maybe its been there since the moment I first laid eyes on her and I was just too wrapped up in my own dramas and baggage to see it. All I know for sure is, I don’t want to ignore it any longer...especially since time tends to be a limited commodity in the life of a Slayer and we’ve already wasted too much of it.

Of all people, it was Dawn who made me realize the true nature of what I was feeling. You see, she’s developed a major crush on Faith...bigger than the one she had on Xander a while back. But then, Faith did snatch her from the jaws of impending death. A lot of it is hero worship, but my little sister has an infinite capacity for love, and it doesn’t phase her in the least that she’s crushing on another female. Maybe it’s because, in her original form, she is a being without gender so she doesn’t get caught up in distinctions based on a measly little x or y chromosome. She doesn’t see ‘Faith: the woman,’ she sees ‘Faith: the person.’ So one day recently she was waxing rhapsodic about "all things Faith" while we were making breakfast together. I caught myself nodding right along with her, a goofy smile plastered to my face that perfectly matched the one on hers. Then I caught a glimpse of what I’d unthinkingly grabbed to put on...something that had become my favorite article of clothing: a t-shirt that Faith had given me a few days after we’d beaten Glory. It’s a baby-doll Tee for the band Godsmack, but she’d silk screened an "er" to the end of their name and in smaller letters she’d added "Sunnydale, 2001" beneath it.

Leave it to Faith to find the humor in the aftermath of an apocalyptic holy war.

That’s just one of the many things that I’ve come to love about her. She cuts through the bullshit, finds what’s worth celebrating and you can’t stay focused on the petty, depressing stuff anymore. We’ve saved the world more than once and never really gotten any recognition for it. I know we’re supposed to be all noble about it, but it’s not always easy because, without any recognition it all starts to lose it’s clarity...becomes like a vaguely remembered dream instead of a solid memory. But she thought of me and took the time to remind me that someone does understand...gave me something tangible that I can look at and know without a shadow of a doubt that we were there, it really happened and our actions mattered.

And as Faith put it, "Every momentous event is supposed to have a commemorative Tee... it’s the American way! Be downright unpatriotic if we bucked tradition."

Now, I’m on my way to meet her at a hotel in San Francisco...and I have no idea what I’m going to do. Like I said, it’s Valentine’s...the day you’re supposed to be able to pour your heart out and have your true love fall into your arms as orchestral music swells in the background. Followed by the both of you ending up dressed in white, holding hands and running on a beach in slow motion as the sun sets behind you. Not quite sure how that works out exactly, but it always seems to. Okay, I’ve watched too many sappy movies...or soap operas. Whatever, all I know is I’m terrified of revealing what I feel for Faith only to find out that she doesn’t feel that way toward me. After everything we’ve been through to reach this point, I couldn’t bear losing her again, and this could really freak her out. I mean, she’s all about the physical side of life, but the emotional? I don’t know if she can handle that. I just wish I had some indication one way or the other. She does still flirt with me...but she flirts with everyone so it’s not exactly the telling clue it would be from anyone else, and again, it doesn’t really give me an indication of whether or not she loves me too. One measly little sign...is that too much to ask?


.o.0.o.

Faith picked the hotel, and I’ve gotta admit her tastes have definitely improved. No...that’s not fair, she may well have had good taste back then, just no way to afford it. But, gone are the days of the roach motel, that’s for sure. I guess Angel is paying her better than I thought. This place is fantastic...it overlooks the bay, has a huge lobby with that sort of European feel to it, lots of fancy woodwork and brass accents. It even has one of those elevators that looks like a bird cage and a huge guest registry like in the old movies.

As I’m signing in, I notice that some things haven’t changed...namely Faith’s inability to resist an opportunity for a joke. Carpe iocum should be her personal motto. (See? Those Latin lessons Giles insisted on weren’t entirely wasted.) Faith had arrived several hours earlier––something about taking care of some business for Angel––which is why we didn’t ride up together. Anyway, she’s already gotten us a room. Now, here’s a weird thing; after all this time I still don’t know Faith’s last name. I think she gets a charge out of seeing me eaten up with curiosity. So now, every time we do anything that requires a reservation or a signature she gives a different name. An entirely different name, at that. I sneak a peak at the entry for our room and have to smile.

Ladies and gentleman, may I present, "Ophelia Legg," professional smart-ass and full-time Slayer extraordinaire.

No complaints from me though, this alias is surprisingly tame. Who can forget the rental car for ‘Fonda Buhtz?’ Or the dinner reservations for, ‘Ivana Leighhew.’ I thought the maitre d’ was going to spontaneously combust right there in the dining room. I’d never seen a blush reach quite that shade of red before. I’m convinced it was only seconds away from going supernova. And all the while Faith was smiling sweetly and relating the family history of the "Carolina Leighhew’s" (most of whom still lived on the family estate nestled at the foot of Mt. Yew). In fact her "brother", Calem "Lemmie" Leighhew still ran the family business: a stud farm specializing in championship thoroughbreds, of course. It was all I could do to keep from laughing, had to seriously bite my lip for that one. There was a time when I’d have been blushing just as furiously as the maitre d' was, but Faith was right about me, I really did need to "find the fun." Since she’s come back into my life I’m finally managing to do just that.

I arrive at the door to our room and become acutely aware of an entire colony of butterflies that have taken up residence in my stomach. Or would that be a flock?... a herd? Whatever... I’m nervous as hell and have no idea what I’m going to do. I’m guessing that actually entering the room would be a good start.

'Brilliant plan Buffy...and that’s why they pay ya the big bucks.'

Great...now I’m talking to myself. And before I can ponder my dubious mental state any further I’m through the door... And there she is, literally taking my breath away.

She’s dressed in black, form-fitting leather pants and a sleeveless, dark maroon, camisole top. Leather and lace, I note, and smile to myself. On her feet she’s wearing a pair of black leather motorcycle boots, the silver rings that link the cross-straps catching the light as she turns toward the door. As always, she is the very height of ‘bad girl’ chic.

'How can any one person be that...beautiful?' I think to myself. That is such an inadequate word but now she’s looking at me and smiling that devilish, sexy grin of hers and my brain ceases to function.

"Hey there, B...I was just gettin’ ready to send the search party out lookin’ for ya. Thought maybe you’d picked up some stud and bailed on me. Was just wonderin’ if I should head out and look for one of my own."

God...that voice. Makes me melt every time I hear it. The flock and/or herd of butterflies in my stomach seem to enjoy it as well ‘cause they’ve just kicked into flutter over-drive.

"Traffic...heavy. No stud-picking."

I hear what I’ve said and cringe. Could I possibly sound any more idiotic? Don’t answer that, I probably could considering that my brain has turned to mush. And now she’s looking at me with that one eyebrow arched the way it does when she’s highly amused.

"I see that college education of yours is finally startin’ to pay off, B. Your vocabulary has really expanded."

I roll my eyes, then fix her with a mock scowl. "Be nice, Ophelia, I could've stayed in Sunnydale and gotten abused, I didn’t have to drive five hours for that."

Again she arches her eyebrow and that naughty little grin of hers returns. "Really? I didn’t know you were into that. Hell, if I’d a'known...I would’a packed my handcuffs." That last part was delivered in a husky, near whisper. The epitome of aural sex.

For a split second the blood rushes to my face as I blush...then the visual of what she just suggested hits my brain and that blood immediately departs for other, more southerly portions of my anatomy. And it seems the butterflies have followed because I’m feeling a fluttering in a whole different area.

'No parking in the erogenous zone, Buffy', I internally berate myself, because I don’t want this...if there is a ‘this’ going on between us, to be about just getting laid, delightful as that would no doubt be. I am in love and yearning to make love with Faith. Anything less than that would crush me. I will not be just another "got some, got gone" interlude. I need to know that she honestly feels something...beyond lust. And by the same token I want her to know that she means more than that to me.

I break eye contact with her in an attempt to hide what I was thinking...and visualizing. I’m still hopelessly confused because, in the span of five minutes, she’s mentioned picking up "studs" and then the far preferable possibility of she and I having some bondage fun. To cover my confusion, and, okay, I admit it, my arousal, I walk further into the room, set down my overnight bag and finally take a good look around. And immediately notice that there’s only one bed. I stop short and stare, my thoughts yet again racing as I ponder what this means.

She sees me staring and hastens to explain, "This was the only room they had available that overlooks the Bay. I thought you’d kinda...prefer the view. B‘sides, it’s a king size bed, plenty of room, right?"

For a second there she’d almost looked nervous, even a little expectant; but that was probably my imagination.

'So much for that', I sigh to myself. But aloud I say, "Sure...plenty of room. No big."

To cover any confusion that might show on my face I walk over to the window to check out the aforementioned view. It really is gorgeous. I recognize a couple of landmarks immediately: Alcatraz, glittering in the midday sun out in the center of the Bay, and Fisherman’s wharf. I can even make out the large group of harbor seals that are sunning themselves on the boat slips.

"The view is fantastic...definitely worth giving up the other bed for," I say, then teasingly add, "But if you’re a blanket hog or a snorer I may have to retract that."

Faith comes and stands directly behind me, presumably to enjoy the view as well, although the window is a good eight feet long and she could’ve seen just as well without having to stand so close. I can feel the energy radiating off of her...like effervescent bubbles from warm champagne dancing over my skin. Perhaps it’s just that we’re both Slayers or maybe it’s something much deeper than that...but I am always keenly aware of her; I can literally feel her presence when she’s somewhere nearby. Even when we’re not actively engaged in slaying, I’ve been told that we both exude some kind of power that can be felt by anyone attuned to such things. And I am very attuned at this moment as I feel that essence toying deliciously with my heightened senses.

That sexy voice caresses my ear once more as she teases, "Well, I seem to recall a late night research party where a certain blonde Slayer, who shall remain nameless, nodded off and proceeded to not only do an uncanny imitation of a Black and Decker jigsaw, but drool as well. On second thought, maybe I should make you sleep in the bathtub instead."

I whip around in mock outrage to give her a playful smack, but she’s anticipated my move and laughingly danced back out of my reach. As I advance on her, she mischievously adds, "But seriously, B...on you, drooling’s kinda cute. That basset hound puppy look really works for ya."

She starts chuckling uncontrollably and I launch myself at her, catching her completely off guard and tumbling us both onto the bed. I straddle her, my hips pressing against hers and my feet linked beneath her knees, effectively pinning her legs together and keeping her from bucking me off. I then proceed to tickle her unmercifully. She lets loose a decidedly unFaith-like yelp followed by a fit of laughter that is so unrestrainedly pure that it makes my heart swell. I then realize that this is the first time that I’ve ever heard Faith really and truly laugh. And this is no mere belly laugh, this is the sort that originates from the very soles of your feet. It’s one of the most delightful sounds that I have ever heard and I find myself thinking that this is what she would have sounded like as a child if she’d had a less hellish upbringing. This is what she should sound like every day, but circumstances and her memories of the past have too often made that an impossibility. But not today.

She senses my distraction and seizes the opportunity to grasp my wrists and raise our arms above her head, unbalancing me with her longer reach. Now it’s my turn to yelp in surprise. In the blink of an eye she has rolled us both and is lying atop me... Hip to hip, breast to breast, our faces only inches apart. And my legs remain locked securely around hers effectively pinning her against me as surely as she has pinned me to the mattress. We’re both breathing heavily, but it has nothing to do with exertion...at least, it doesn’t for me. All I can do is stare up into those sparkling umber eyes, which are growing darker by the second as her pupils dilate, and savor the feel of her firm body pressed against mine. So different from Angel and Riley. She’s a heady combination of hard muscle and soft, yielding flesh. It’s a sensation I want to explore further, but I resist that urge. I can see her thoughts are racing but she neither moves nor says a word for a long moment. Then she slowly releases her grip on my wrists and gently traces her fingers down my forearms before bracing her palms against the mattress and lifting her weight off of me. Immediately, I unlock my ankles and allow her to rise.

We’re both flustered and I could have sworn I heard her sigh... Was that in disappointment or am I wishfully thinking again? She derails that particular train of thought when she clears her throat, almost nervously it seems to me, and says, "The day’s still young, B. Ya wanna go do some exploring? That’s why we’re here...right?"

Again, she looks at me expectantly and there is something in her eyes that I can’t quite define...an unspoken question, perhaps, that neither one of us is ready to vocalize yet. So, in response I say the first thing that pops into my head:

"Sure... that sounds great. Let me just take a minute to...ah...freshen up."

And with that I beat a hasty retreat to the bathroom. I lean back against the closed door for a moment, taking a few deep breaths in an attempt to calm myself down and get my traitorous body back under control. Intellectually and emotionally I know why I’m holding back, but physically? I just want to throw Faith back onto that bed and become thoroughly acquainted with every gloriously naked inch of her.

I take another deep breath then walk over to the sink, turning on the cold water when I get there. I let it run for a few moments...I’m thinking the colder the better. As a further distraction, I let my gaze drift, taking in my surroundings. The bathroom is spacious and decorated in a minimalist style that really appeals to me, lots of brass, thick carpeting and serene colors. There's a jacuzzi tub, a separate shower, and the entire length and width of the wall behind the sink is mirrored, as are the half walls that abut both ends of the counter. Several Buffys look back at me from the reflective surfaces, all with flushed cheeks and glittering green eyes. I almost look like I’m running a fever. I meet my own eyes and again internally reprimand myself:

'You’ve got a fever all right...the kind that would do Peggy Lee proud. Now get a grip, you’re supposed to be focusing on the emotional, not the groinal...even though she’s making that nearly impossible by being so goddamned sexy.'

I cup my hands under the running water then press my chilled palms to my burning cheeks and the back of my neck. It helps a little...very little...but at least my nerve endings have stopped thrumming like some sexual tuning fork.

Okay...I can do this. I’m a Slayer. I’ve literally thrown down with gods and monsters. I’ve got nerves of steel and an ever-ready quip. I can keep my cool around Faith. Really... I think... I hope. Shit... I am so gonna babble. I just know it. When in hell did I start channeling the ghost of Willow past?


.o.0.o.

I don’t know how, but I actually managed it. Yay me!

Or not "yay me"...it kinda depends on your perspective. There’s the "yay" that I kept my cool and didn’t molest Faith or implode into a babbling heap the entire time we were out. But on the other hand, there’s the "non-yay" that I didn’t molest Faith. That one’s of the distinctly double-edged variety.

I’m really beginning to reconsider this whole plan to wait for a "love signal" from her. What would that even be, anyway? A heart-shaped klieg light shining in the darkened sky over San Francisco, perhaps? Hey, if Batman can do it, why can’t a Slayer? Nah... Faith’s probably not that romantically inventive, even if she has memorized the entire cast and plot line of every Marvel and DC comic, as well as every Saturday morning cartoon ever written.

We did have a lot of fun while we were out. Actually managed to cover quite a lot of territory in only a few hours. Gotta love Slayer stamina. And the extensive cable car system didn’t hurt either. We roamed through a little bit of Chinatown, checked out the waterfront and Lombard Street. That’s where Faith tried to get some kid to let her borrow his skateboard, but he wisely refused...probably because of the near maniacal way in which she was eyeing all of those twists and turns and practically salivating. Then we headed up to Haight-Ashbury and I even managed to get her to do a little shopping with me. Well, it was actually a trade off, she said she’d shop if I’d let her pick out some new clothes for me. How did she put it? Oh yes:

"C’mon, B. You’re a goddamned superhero who can kick ass and take names ‘til the cows come home...and then kick their asses too. But most of the time you dress like Polly-fuckin’-Pureheart. Definitely time to tarnish that façade a bit...put some grrr in the Sunny-D ‘golden grrl'."

When she uttered that little growl and waggled her eyebrows at me I was seconds away from showing her that there is plenty of ‘grrr’ in this ‘golden grrl’ and it doesn’t particularly require clothing. Of any kind. But instead, I let her drag me into a place called, "Barbarians At the ‘Gate" where she picked out a rather frightening array of leather, vinyl, faux-fur and spandex for me to try on. And of course I made her return the favor. I wasn't about to let that opportunity slip by. The Morticia Addams clone behind the counter seemed to enjoy the impromptu floorshow quite a bit as well. Even more so when Faith proceeded to dance and sing along with Sleep Together by Garbage as it was blasting over the in-store stereo system. I must say, the fact that she was wearing a black leather bustier, skin-tight matching pants and thigh-high boots at the time certainly added an interesting, visual dimension to the performance. I was also very surprised to learn that the girl can sing. Makes me wonder if Angel has been hauling her to a certain demonic karaoke bar.

When we were ready to cash out (and yes Faith actually picked out a few things I wouldn’t be either mortified to put on or arrested for wearing in public), we were greeted by the rather incongruous image of 'Morticia Jr.' making a valentine. Of course, it wasn’t exactly what most would classify as "traditional." She was plucking the petals off of a dark red rose and gluing them beneath a drawing of a disturbingly life-like heart, giving the impression that it was bleeding. Actually...more like hemorrhaging. But it did smell lovely and written beneath it was the always-sentimental oath: "I would bleed for you. Be mine, valentine." And they say romance is dead. I beg to differ. Now, if only Faith or I could get up the nerve to reveal a little heartfelt emotion.

We returned to the hotel to relax a bit and work out what the game plan is going to be for the evening. Dancing is probably a given, as is dinner. We just need to decide where. Now that we’re alone again, the butterflies have returned to my stomach. I also keep catching myself staring at Faith...drinking in her dark beauty and feline grace. Once or twice I swear that I catch her watching me, too. This is getting ridiculous, there is obviously something both of us want to say or do but we can’t seem to take that step. Or make that blind leap is probably the more accurate metaphor. I need some time to think and regroup, decide if I should just take the chance, tell her how I feel, and just pray that she doesn’t panic and head for the proverbial hills when I'm done. Actually, she may well head for the literal hills as well. Faith’s always been uncomfortable with emotional displays. She’s changed so much in the last couple of years though; maybe it’s time I find out just how much? But first, I need to calm my nerves and relieve some of the tension that is making my muscles knot up.

"I’m gonna take a shower. You wanna call a few restaurants and see if we need reservations or anything?"

She looks over at me and her eyes widen for a moment in a distinctly "deer in the headlights" sort of way. Just as quickly that look is gone, replaced by her trademark crooked grin, so I don’t dwell too much upon her initial reaction.

"Sure, not a problem...you got any preferences? And don’t you dare say sushi. Can’t believe I let you talk me into that the last time...it was like chewin’ on a frikken inner tube and about as tasty."

I can’t help but smile at the look that had settled briefly upon her features. The sushi bar had been one of our less successful culinary experiences...and it would seem that it’s a memory that still haunts Faith’s taste buds. She had seemed to enjoy the saki, though. Why is that not surprising?

"Okay... Japanese is out. My only requirement is a restaurant that uses something other than a deep fryer or a pizza oven for food preparation. I realize this eliminates nearly your entire daily, dietary repertoire, but this trip is about being adventurous, so you’ll just have to be...well...brave."

She quirks up an eyebrow and gazes at me in a decidedly pensive way. "Brave... I think I just might be able to manage that." Then she smiles softly and her eyes seem to sparkle even more than they usually do.

"What are you thinking?" I say in a near-whisper. I hadn’t meant to speak out loud but she is so beautiful at this moment that I can’t help myself.

She glances down at her hands then back to meet my eyes once more. "I’m thinking you should go shower now. There's plenty of hot water, so...take your time."

I smile back at her, she knows me too well. I’m notorious for using up all of the hot water...but I don’t believe for a moment that this is all she was thinking about. I don’t push it though, just give her one more long look then grab my overnight bag and head for the bathroom.

.o.0.o.

Hot running water is one of the greatest inventions of all time. I’m firmly convinced of this. As is the adjustable pulse shower-head. I can feel the knots loosening, washed away by the steaming hot spray that is currently beating against the muscles of my neck and upper back. I’m in my own little aqua-heaven. This soothing atmosphere has allowed me to reach a decision: No more waiting for a sign from Faith. I’m going to go out there and tell her what I’m feeling. She may well be incapable of expressing her emotions, or maybe her difficult past has made it impossible for her to even recognize or admit love? Dancing around it is not helping either one of us. It’s time to take a chance and be completely honest.

I turn off the water and open the shower door. The fan wasn’t working so the bathroom now resembles the steam room of a Turkish sauna. I grab one of the large fluffy towels and dry off before stepping out. I’m so preoccupied with planning just what I’m going to say to Faith that it takes my mind a moment to register that something in this room has changed while I was showering. I can only stare in open-mouthed surprise when it finally sinks in. I’ve been given a sign after all.

The mirrors are fogged over and this has led to a revelation...on more than one level. The reflective surfaces are filled with ghostly images and writing. For an instant, my mind flashes back to a similar experience, the day a certain dark-haired beauty came to the window of a classroom and drew a heart for me in the residual fog of her own breath. I was too naïve or entrenched in denial to recognize the deeper meaning back then, but there is no mistaking the intent behind this.

I’m not sure exactly how she did it, perhaps with a fine coating of oil or something, but it was unnoticeable when the mirrors were clear. I also now realize that it is no coincidence that the bathroom fan is not functioning. Like that day in the past, she has created a heart for me, but this time its outer shape has been delineated by written words...a poem, to be precise. As I step closer to read I notice that it has all been positioned in such a way that my reflection appears at the very center of the heart, the words floating around me in a cloud of loving devotion. Tears fill my eyes as I read the immortal prose of Shelley...

I arise from dreams of thee
In the first sweet sleep of night,
When the winds are breathing low,
And the stars are shining bright.
I arise from dreams of thee,
And a spirit in my feet
Has led me - who knows how -
To thy chamber window sweet.

The wandering airs they faint
On the dark, the silent stream
The champak odors fail
Like sweet thoughts in a dream
The nightingale's complaint,
It dies upon her heart,
As I must die on thine
O, beloved as thou art.

O, lift me from the grass
I die, I faint, I fail
Let thy love in kisses rain
On my lips and eyelids pale.
My cheek is cold and white, alas
My heart beats loud and fast.
Oh...press it close to thine again,
Where it will break at last.

I look to the mirror on my left, again my reflection is enveloped in the heart shaped words of a poet. Byron this time.

She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that's best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes:
Thus mellowed to that tender light
Which heaven to gaudy day denies.

One shade the more, one ray the less,
Had half impaired the nameless grace
Which waves in every golden tress,
Or softly lightens o'er her face;
Where thoughts serenely sweet express
How pure, how dear their dwelling place.

And on that cheek, and o'er that brow,
So soft, so calm, yet eloquent,
The smiles that win, the tints that glow,
But tell of days in goodness spent,
A mind at peace with all below,
A heart whose love is innocent!

The mirror on my right contains a poem that I'm not familiar with.

Dream no more that grief and pain
Could such hearts as ours enchain
Safe from loss and safe from gain
Free, as love makes free

When false friends pass coldly by,
Sigh, in earnest pity, sigh,
Turning thine unclouded eye
Up from them to me.

Hear not danger's trampling feet,
Feel not sorrow's wintry sleet,
Trust that life is just and meet
With mine arm round thee.

Lip on lip, and eye to eye,
Love to love, we live, we die.
No more thou, and no more I,
We and only we.

I cannot believe that I actually thought her incapable of romantic or emotional displays. I remove my robe from my bag and as I’m shrugging into it I feel something in the right hand pocket. I reach in and discover yet another surprise from Faith; a handmade valentine, heart-shaped and outlined with lace. The words at its center are Shakespeare’s...

Doubt thou the stars are fire;
Doubt that the sun doth move;
Doubt the truth to be a liar;
But never doubt I love.

When I step out of the bathroom, it takes my eyes a moment to adjust. All of the lights have been turned off and dozens of candles are now lit and placed all around the room. In the flickering illumination, I see Faith, her back towards me as she gazes out at the now darkened vista of San Francisco Bay. I can tell by the set of her shoulders that she’s nervous, as uncertain of my reaction as I had been of hers. I smile and shake my head ruefully at just how foolish we’ve both been. Physically, we are probably two of the most powerful people on the planet, yet we’ve both been utterly intimidated by the thought of baring our hearts to one another.

I walk silently toward her, stopping when I’m only a little more than arm’s length away.

"Faith? Please...turn around."

She hesitates for a long moment, perhaps steeling herself for my potentially negative response. Again I smile; so much for our reputations as the always fearless "Chosen Two." Finally, she turns, but keeps her gaze fixed downward.

"Faith...I know I have utterly adorable toes, but please...look at me."

This elicits a tiny smile and she slowly but surely raises her eyes to meet mine.

I have never seen her look so vulnerable...so completely open and unguarded. As I look into the infinitely expressive depths of those beautiful eyes, I find myself wondering how I could ever have questioned her feelings for me.

"Did I ever tell you, that when I saw you dancing that night at the Bronze, the first thing I thought was, ‘that is the most breathtaking woman I have ever seen?’" Her eyes widen in surprise and she shakes her head.

"Really? Hmmm...I know I meant to."

I take a half-step closer.

"Then I guess I’ve probably also neglected to tell you that, just when I think I cannot possibly love you any more than I already do, you say or do something that totally proves me wrong."

I take another half-step closer as her eyes widen even further in stunned disbelief. I then reach up and cup her cheek with my right hand and say, "It would seem that my verbal communication skills are severely lacking. I think it would be best for me to demonstrate what I’m feeling instead, just so there won’t be any chance of a misunderstanding."

With that, I slowly lean in and press a gentle kiss to the lips that I’ve been fantasizing about for so long.

I can honestly say that I’ve never felt anything quite like it before; her lips are so exquisitely soft. My fantasies never came close to this intoxicating reality. Faith hesitates for only a moment, then her arms encircle my waist and she pulls me into a tender embrace. I continue to gently cup her cheek and my other hand is now buried in her silky, raven hair as our kiss deepens. I feel her tongue tentatively brush against my lips and revel in the soft moan that escapes her when I eagerly part them in reply. Our kisses continue, growing hungrier and ever more passionate with each passing moment. She then pulls back, looks deeply into my eyes and, in a husky whisper, says the words I have so longed to hear.

“I love you B. I think I always have. Before we even met, you were there in my heart, just waiting for me to find you." She hesitates, her eyes glittering with unshed tears. "I’m so sorry that I ever hurt you–"

I press a finger to her lips before she can continue.

"Shh... The past is in the past...let’s leave it there. Our reality is the here and now. It is to be savored and celebrated. No more regrets, no more recriminations. They are a waste of precious time. From this moment on we move forward...together. The only thing you need to remember is this: I love you, Faith. With all my heart, I love you. Do you think you can remember that?"

Her lips quirk up into the grin that makes me melt every time I see it.

"I dunno B, that’s an awfully tall order from such a tiny little woman. I think I may need a lot of reminders, probably require a steady supply of positive reinforcement and hands-on demonstrations too."

I arch an eyebrow at her, then lean in for another searing kiss. She again moans softly as I pull back once more. "I tell you what. I’m feeling very generous today, so I shall overlook that ‘tiny woman’ comment. And after thorough consideration, I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s no time like the present to begin the hands-on demonstrations. After all, one should never put off until tomorrow what could be done today."

I place several delicate kisses against the sensitive skin of her throat, eliciting a gasp and a frisson of pleasure in response. I then grasp her hands, guide them to the belt of my robe and whisper huskily into her ear:

"And now, I think it's time you opened your valentine."