Cutting Room Floor
by Nicole Clevenger


There's blood all over her hands.

Warm and wet and slippery between her fingers. The stake is slick with it; she loosens her grip, distantly registering the wooden clatter as it hits the pavement. The dead man lies slumped against the dumpster, his unseeing eyes still open in the night. A dark smear blood trickle running down his pale face, a poor imitation of the fountain from his chest. A gaping wound that she made. A life that she took.

Not like dusting vamps, no in and out and poof and gone. Almost a suction kind of feeling, when you pull your stake out of a vampire chest, like everything's rushing into that hole you made. Like you're pulling out a plug that kept in whatever it was that let that body keep moving long after it should've been in the ground. And then dust. Nothing.

This isn't like that at all. Recent events crawl around under her skin, sliding into her brain as image flashes rather than linear time. *Flash.* The fight, the adrenaline burning the back of her throat, the grace and power as she connected again and again with her prey. B beside her, moving in concert - the fucking dream team slayer force. Nothing they couldn't do, couldn't have. Not if they were fighting together.

*Flash.* And then the one that didn't evaporate like it was supposed to, the one that cried out and fell and just lay there, bleeding onto the alley concrete. It didn't do what it was fucking supposed to do, and then along came Buffy's face accusing and afraid like it was somehow all her fault. Like she'd meant to stab this guy in this stupid alley, part of her master plan for her life.

*Flash.* All that blood *flash* panic welling up hard and fast like bile *flash* Buffy's white faced blame. Every instinct screaming for flight, fear taking over like a hand gripping tight in her chest. So they ran, split up. Ran through the darkness with nothing but her heartbeat thudding in her ears.

But as her heartbeat slowed a little, she became aware of her harsh breathing, her pounding footsteps. And the cold realization that if there was no body, there would be no evidence of a crime.

And now she's here, back again. Alone this time. B's taken off to relative safety, she's sure. Home to her mommy or her pathetic so- called friends or that Watcher who pretends to care for her like he's trying out for the role of second father. Some place she can hide under lacy comforters and fluffy white pillows and revel in her overwhelming sticky-sweet Goodness.

The sneer would be far more convincing without the accompanying shiver of something that felt way too much like longing.

Fuck that. Who needs all those bullshit ties anyway? Connections only weaken your defenses, chip away at your strength. You start going all soft and gooey and eventually you can't even make a move without worrying about what everyone else will say. Will think. Other people just weigh you down, and it's not like any of them can truly understand anyway. There's only one other person who can understand what this life of hers is really like.

But B made her choice pretty damn clear, it seems.

So she's here again, alone again. Fine. No problem. She's relied on herself for all her life, and long since learned that that's the only way to go. No big hardship, then, that she's the only one here to deal with this situation. And a situation is all that it is. Just a somewhat messy situation, needing to be handled so that she can go back to the motel and take a shower.

She takes a step forward, and there's a thin splash as she puts her foot down. She looks down, and for an instant she's standing in a shallow lake of blood. A blink, a convulsive swallow. The liquid resolves itself into a small puddle, dark with the alley's shadows. She sees the stake, its end dark as well. Her brain skits around the stain creeping up the wood, instead latching on to the absurdity of her dropping it here. She must have carried it with her in the initial escape, fleeing with it clenched tightly in her hand without knowing...

"You know, you probably don't have much time."

Her head jerks up, necking snapping around so fast that for a moment everything blurs. Angel stands behind her, a few feet back, hands buried deep in the pockets of his leather pants.

Not Angel, then, she thinks. Only Angelus would wear leather pants.

And then the understanding hits her and she's flooded with a whole set of new images, things past this moment. Things that haven't happened at this point in the timeline and things she isn't yet supposed to know. In a wash what this is all becomes clear, and she's hit by a wave of crashing exhaustion.

"You can't be serious," she groans, her back to the body now. "Didn't we play this scene already?"

The vampire grins, a dangerous smile spreading slow and silky across his familiar features. "Uh-uh, Faithy baby. We seemed to have sidetracked around your personal hell the last time. Think of this," his hand flicks past, a careless gesture encompassing the area around them, "as the scene they cut. You're gonna be a star."

"Lucky me."

"Actually, I think that's lucky me."

She shrugs, a deliberate nonchalance. "Whatever."

That wicked smile still distorts his face, an almost visual warning of the sharp teeth hidden from view. He moves closer to her, and her body reflexively braces for action. He slides his eyes over her form, fingers of sight running over her curves and angles. A predatory leer that she's not at all unfamiliar with, one she's used a time or two herself. She stands straight under his look, gauging the minute ripples of muscles under clothing for any sign of sudden attack.

But he turns from her, toward the stake lying on the pavement. In one fluid motion he steps on the end, flipping the pointed piece of wood up into the air and into his waiting hand. His eyes on hers, he runs his tongue slowly over its length.

Finding herself caught between loathing and the heat of some dark visceral physical reaction, she fights to appear unimpressed. As usual, she seeks her safety in sarcasm. "Oh yeah, the ultimate evil of tongue splinters. Aren't you just the Big Bad for all time."

In the space of a blink, he's gone. She hates herself for the surprised jump when his voice sounds low next to her ear a moment later. "What's the matter, Faithy?" His hands cup her hips, yanking her back against him. "You bucking for the job?"

She spins, fist flying, to connect with nothing but empty air. He's nowhere, incorporeal. And then back, hissing syllables into her other ear like he'd just taken one step to the left behind her back. "Look at him. So cold, with all that blood drained out into the street. You really should get a good look. Admire what you did."

She leads with a kick this time, a sweeping arc designed to knock his legs out from under him. But once again there's nothing there, and her consequent over-balancing sends her staggering a few steps forward. A few steps closer to the body.

Open eyes looking out with a glassy blank stare. Mouth parted just enough to make it look like he's about to speak. Or breathe. His clothes are a dark mess, the black stain radiating out from his crumpled chest. And then she's kneeling in front of him, a hand reaching out of its own volition to touch the center of that darkness.

Dampness. Heavy drenched fabric brushing and clinging to her skin like a part of the dead man reaching out to grab hold of her. She pulls her hand back in horror, stumbling backward to put some distance between them. Wiping fingers frantically against her pants leg and breathing hard, her eyes never leaving the still form. Part of her expecting him to move even now.

It's Angelus' laughter which allows her to break the spell and gather the shredded remnants of her practiced detachment back around her shoulders. She turns to him, her chin up. "You got something to say, Humane Society Boy?"

He brushes off the reference, his voice mocking. "Poor Faith. So tortured. So lonely. No wonder you get along so well with the King of Soul. Maybe next time you're in town, you two can make cocoa and rent Steel Magnolias or some crap. Sit around sobbing and holding each other 'til the sun comes up."

She pushes the smirk onto her lips. "Might be worth it, just to know you were somewhere in there suffering."

He shrugs. "Yeah, well who doesn't hate that fucking movie." The vampire spreads his arms wide. "But this... This is much more to my tastes. Pun and all." A faint wail of police sirens drifts under his words. "Speaking of which, you should probably get back to it."

"Back to what?"

The siren's scream gets louder. "Disposing of the body, sweets. Unless you want those cops to find you standing over the evidence like some pathetic amateur." His expression changes to a picture of weepy melodrama, his voice shifting to match. "Oh, officers, I didn't mean it. Really, it was an accident. You have to believe me - this bad man just threw himself onto my sharp, pointy weapon... the one I like to carry when wandering around at night down dark alleys." His face brightens, obviously enjoying himself. "Hey, for bonus points, you could even mention the real reason for the stake. Maybe vampire slaying will be just the ticket to sway the vote from electric chair to permanent insane asylum."

The siren begins to fade again as the cars turn down a side street in another direction. "Oops. False alarm. But they'll be here soon enough." He makes shooing motions at her with his hands, towards the body against the dumpster behind her. "Tick tock, PsuedoSlayer. Time's a-wastin'."

She refuses to turn around. "So what. If we're back in that fucked up drug trip, all I have to do is kick back and watch my past self come do the clean up, right? Suffer suffer, angst angst, and then we can both get back to where we belong. Which, for you, means endless captivity I guess, but hey - we can't all be winners."

"This coming from the person who just broke out of jail."

The move to push her hair behind her ear is abruptly halted at the sight of the drying blood on her hands. She drops her hand quickly, her come-back somewhat less than casual when delivered through clenched teeth. "Yeah, well... Places to go, worlds to save." She glances around, exasperated. "So where am I already? I mean, shouldn't we be getting on with the whole 'This Is Your Life' bit by now? 'Cause I gotta tell you, cliff hangers are way too overdone."

Angelus takes a step closer. She refuses to back away, even if it's taking all her control not to wipe that stupid grin off his lips. He takes another step, and he's close enough to touch. Still, she doesn't move. He leans in close, his head dipping toward her neck, and now it's like she's frozen in place. She hears him inhale, deep and slow, smelling her. She tries to move her arms, legs, anything. And then his voice, low and rumbling, his breath tickling her skin.

"Rules change, Faith."

He grabs her arm, spinning her around. It takes her brain a moment to register that they are now some place else - their scene spliced into a new setting - but when it does there's a body crumpled at her feet and an uneven pile of jagged concrete chunks stolen from a nearby demolition site. She can hear the water lapping at the docks, another expanse of wet darkness. A chill of recognition sweeps through her with the night air, and she folds her arms tightly across her chest.

She tries so hard to keep her voice level, but doesn't quite manage it. "Am I supposed to be awed by the special effects, Spielberg?" He doesn't say anything, but she can sense him standing close behind. "This isn't real. And if you're expecting me to play out this script myself, we're gonna be here a while."

"Not real? Oh Faithy, Faithy, Faithy..." His lips brush her ear. She whips around to find him standing four feet away, that damned grin still firmly in place. Out of the distant darkness, the sirens pick up again. He tips his head back and closes his eyes, savoring the faint breeze coming off the water as if they were out for a moonlit walk. He takes a deep, unnecessary breath, letting it out through his smile. "But how can you be sure?"

The sirens grow stronger; he opens his eyes and approaches her again. She can feel the tingling beginnings of something rising in her, something tasting faintly of fear or even panic. Not of him, of what he might do, but of the dead weight settling in her stomach that resonates with every one of his words.

"Because it feels real, doesn't it? Feels just like you remember?" She shakes her head once. Denial. No. "The same smells, the same sensations. Same body, same blood." The rock in her stomach solidifies. "It's all over you, cupcake. That blood you spilled is all over your hands and your clothes and your soul. All that human blood..."

A rush of animal terror and she takes a step backward, tripping over the body and sprawling onto the pavement. She tries to scrabble away, only to be stopped by Angelus looming over her and laughing.

"See, to me all that sounds like the start of one great fantasy, but to each his own, right?"

"You're wrong," she tries, despite all the evidence her instincts are shouting to the contrary.

"Okay, to each her own then. Never figured you to be much for semantics." The sirens are closer, this time seeming to certainly be coming this way. "Isn't getting to know people fun?" he asks brightly.

"You're wrong," she tells him again, trying to sound as if she believes it. "This is just another part of that drug slide show. No way this is real."

His smile is a glowing, unwavering thing in all the shadows. "Believe whatever you want. Personally, I think it'll make a better ending if the cops do show up and find you with your special friend. Do me a favor, will you? Make sure to struggle when they're hauling you away. I always love that part."

"Fuck you," she says in a shaky snarl.

He spreads his arms to her, a gleeful invitation. "Anytime, beautiful. Oh, here's a thought: Maybe I could sneak into your cell every now and again. Keep you from switching permanently to the other side during all that lonely prison time. How's that grab you?"

The sirens are screeching now, splitting the night with their sound; Angelus starts humming the theme to Cops. Her eyes fall on the hand lying on the ground, attached to a limp arm that will never move again.

The body jerks when Angelus kicks it hard in the side, pulling her attention swiftly back. "Come on, Faith. Time to make a move. Prison'll just strip you down and leave you to rot. Bad food, bad clothes, and a tiny cage to spend the rest of your life in. Kinda like me having to exist inside of that pansy Angel, when you think about it. Oh, the irony."

Her jaw is clenched, but her resolve is faltering. "I'm not like you," she grounds out through her teeth.

"No? Well we could argue that little gem, but looking at the odds I'm still willing to bet cold cash that all that time trapped inside your own head without distractions is gonna make you more like me than you ever imagined." He lifts his voice, yelling into the darkness. "Come on, fifty bucks! Any takers?"

The sirens are blocks away now, so close she expects the flashing lights to drench the scene at any moment. The body fills her vision, her lungs thick with the urgency of her hysteria. She can't go to prison, can't be thrown into a little room to waste away. She didn't mean for this, didn't intend to kill this man. No way is she going down for something that wasn't her fault.

Heavy fragments of shattered sidewalk shoved into pants pockets, cuffs, socks. Ignoring the stiffness and stickiness of bloodied clothing, the cold wetness of congealed clumps not yet dried. Pieces forced under the belted waistband, the unresisting body flopping awkwardly as she bullies it in the directions she needs it to go. The wail of the sirens filling her head, cutting through her skull to stab behind her eyes. Get it done. Get it done. Angelus singing now, made up lyrics to a theme everyone knows. Jacket pockets, inside and out...

Her fingertips brush against something nestled in the inner jacket pocket. She pulls it out, intending to make space for more chunks of concrete, and the light from a streetlight glints across its pristine surface. A wallet. Without thinking, she opens it, searching for any cash, and a loose photo slips out. Time slows down as she reaches for it, the barely-visible young woman smiling obliviously up at the sky.

Her fingers brush it just as a hand closes around her wrist. Her eyes snap up to meet a dead man's stare, a bulging gaze now locked on her.

"Mine," he says.


Faith came awake with a choked gasp, the car window connecting solidly with the side of her head. She barely recognized the fact that they were stopped before her hands went into flurried motion, struggling to get the seat belt off and the car door open as she launched herself from the vehicle. A couple of staggering steps and her right leg tried to fold beneath her; she let herself sink slowly to the ground, favoring the lingering injury.

They were by the side of some ubiquitous Southern California two or three lane highway, judging by the sounds of traffic behind her and the long stretch of fenced-in grove trees in front. The sun shone warm on her exposed skin, fighting with the chill left from the realistic dream. She wondered just how much of that drug was left in her system.

She worked to get her breathing under control, to remind herself of where she was. She didn't turn around, even when she heard Willow's footsteps approaching.

The redhead stopped beside Faith. "Um, trying not to sound like too much of a cliche here, but... Are you okay?"

Faith didn't look at her, focusing instead on the oranges dotting the closest trees. "Sure. Five by -"

"-five. Sorta guessed that."

Her ego wanted to bristle at that, but she found she was just too tired to bother. "Why'd we stop?"

A pause. Then, "You were not with the looking well. Some kind of serious nightmarey unpleasantness going on... Which - they neglected to mention in class - makes it kinda hard to drive. Thought it might be better for everybody if we pulled over for a bit."

"Oh." Faith climbed to her feet, wincing a little as she put weight on her leg. She stretched, freeing up muscles stiff from monster fights and car rides, a deadly combination if there ever was one. She looked over at Willow - flashing as much of a smile as she could manage - and tried to pretend like nothing had happened. Move along, folks. Nothing to see here.

"Come on. Gotta be savin' the world again and all that - no time to waste, blah blah blah. You want me to take a turn behind the wheel?"

Willow hesitated. "Ah, no, I... We're almost there. So close, we might as well be there already, really. Except we're here, so it's not exactly the same. It's less, you know, citrusy there. But -" She broke off her rush of words, seeing Faith watching her. Finally she simply said, "I guess you don't want to sleep anymore, huh?"

A dark look passed over Faith's features. "No. Seems like all I've been doing is sleeping."


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