"Faith," Buffy repeated, unaware that she had spoken aloud. Her eyes roamed over the newcomer, noting the familiarity and subtle differences between the person she once knew, and the brunette standing before her. The mixed emotions circulating around the yard, finally settled on surprise and shock as Faith began to shift nervously under Buffy's scrutiny.
"Hey guys," Faith smiled, weakly, as she scanned the yard. Her eyes rested on the blonde cook, "Buffy." When no one made an attempt to speak, she lightly cleared her throat and began fidgeting with the zipper to her coat. "Okay uh," she chuckled to disguise her discomfort, "look, I'm not a ghost... you can stop staring now." As soon as the words were out of her mouth, Faith felt a sharp blow to the back of her head.
"Yep, she's real," Anya announced and cringed as she pulled her hand back, shaking off the sting. Faith scowled, rubbing the sore spot, "Thank you." The sarcasm was lost on Anya, who simply shrugged, grinning at her accomplishment as she pushed her way past Faith and into the yard.
"When did you get back?" Xander curiously gave Faith the once over.
"A few days ago," Faith answered, biting her lip when she saw the frown on Buffy's face. Buffy stared at the newcomer, blinking several times as the last piece of the puzzle fitted into her mind.
"It was really you?" She suddenly asked, suspicion clouding her face as she peered at the brunette. Faith shared her frown, before her eyes lit up with recognition. Nodding, she continued to hold Buffy's gaze. The others stared back and forth between the two, obviously confused and hoping to be clued in. Noticing their blank expressions, Buffy filled them in on what she remembered.
She smiled, continuing to watch her friends, until something... someone, in the far corner caught her eye. She briefly turned back to the dance floor, before making her way across the room. A sense of familiarity washed over her as she searched. Her eyes raked over the darkened area of the club, the hazel orbs narrowing as she marched toward the stairs, following her target. She reached out, grazing the person's shoulder and quickly pulled back when the woman spun around to face her. Sighing in relief and disappointment, Buffy mouthed a 'sorry' and rejoined her friends, not noticing the dark-haired woman in the balcony who barely escaped being seen.
"Why did you run off?" Willow asked. The brunette shrugged, not knowing how to answer.
"Okay, how about this," Buffy stepped in, "where have you been? I mean after-," she paused, shaking her head, "...you just disappeared."
"Jane Addams," Faith answered, deciding to elaborate when she noticed their frowns. "It's an all-girls school back east. My Grams didn't think I'd make anything of myself, so she shipped me off Senior year to live with relatives. She thought it'd straighten me out after my 'incident'," she smiled, making quotes with her fingers.
Her smile vanished when she saw their somber faces. "Don't...," she playfully rolled her eyes, putting her hand up to stop Buffy before the blonde could speak. "It was my choice, remember?" She looked from Buffy to Willow as both girls nodded, the intensity of their expressions lessening a little. "So anyway, without turning this into a boring monologue, after I graduated, I met up with a few people... did the whole travel the world bit... and now here I am."
"Why didn't you call? Or write?" Buffy asked. When Faith shrugged again, looking away, Buffy chose to let it go... for now. "Well, it's uh... it's good to have you back," she timidly stepped forward, trying to defuse the awkwardness, and hugged the brunette.
Tara saw a spark of relief in Faith's eyes as the two embraced. She smiled at her girlfriend and turned back to the pair as Buffy backed away. She caught the questioning look that Faith was giving her and blushed when Willow's hand reached across the table, finding hers. The brunette arched a single eyebrow at the gesture and smiled inwardly, thinking about the girl she knew in high school.
Faith was broken from her reverie by Buffy. "We were just about to eat," she waved toward the open grill, "are you hungry?" She indirectly asked Faith to join them, smiling when she agreed. They both knew that there were still some things that needed to be discussed, but now wasn't the time.
As the atmosphere began to lighten, Tara was introduced to Faith and the group reverted to small talk as they sat down to eat. Halfway through the meal Anya noticed that the dish she'd brought had been pushed to the far side of the table.
"Oh! Try the potato salad," Anya grinned excitedly, pushing the large bowl across to Tara. The shy blonde politely took a scoop, trying not to grimace as she stared down at the chunky substance.
"Xander loves it... he almost ate an entire bowl last night," Anya continued proudly. Tara glanced up at the young man, who was trying to make his face remain calm instead of twisting in disgust. Realizing that the blonde was watching him, his lips curled into a forced smile and he nodded along with Anya.
They all looked on, fearfully, as Tara took a spoonful to her mouth. "I-It's spicy and um...c-crunchy." The blonde swallowed hard and reached for her drink.
"Oh, those are probably the croutons," Anya said as she took a large wooden spoon and plopped another serving onto Tara's plate. "What?" She looked around the table as they all stared at her.
"Nothing," Faith bit back her laughter when Tara set down her empty glass and hastily reached for the pitcher of lemonade. Her smirk soon disappeared when Anya dumped a large spoonful onto her plate.
When Anya reached her, Willow used her hands to shield her plate, "I'm allergic to potatoes," she glared at Xander before he could protest. Anya frowned and retreated, leaving the redhead smiling in victory and relief, glad that no one noticed how she always seemed to become allergic every time Anya brought food.
"Oh, well that's okay," Anya said as she rose from her seat without another word. A minute later, she returned from the kitchen with another bowl. "I also made some macaroni," she paused, "well, it's from the box, but I added a few things." She set the bowl down and Willow blanched as she watched the soupy contents easily shift from side to side.
"Eat up!" Anya's cheeky grin stretched to her ears as she literally poured the macaroni onto Willow's plate.