See Chapter Nine for Disclaimer We now have an explanation for Ms. Northam's failure to arrive for the annual conference; she is dead.
Mr. Giles has sent word that Faith fled to Sunnydale following her Watcher's death at the hands of a master vampire. Ever since the news reached me, I've been beside myself with rage towards the girl. Faith is a Slayer, it is her duty to stand against the demons, to fight them, and if necessary, to die before allowing a human to be harmed.
But she's failed in that duty, hasn't she? Faith survived, she fled, and one of our best and brightest was tortured to death by a fiend. The master vampire is dead now, but only because Buffy Summers was there to lend her aid.
Better if Faith had died; better by far. The Council has no use for a Slayer that allows her Watcher to be killed, or one who displays such cowardice in the process. There is, after all, an endless supply of Slayers, but the Watchers are now all too few.
For the time being, Faith will remain in Sunnydale, under the guidance of Mr. Giles. Perhaps she can at least serve as an assistant to the Summers girl.
Lord William Robert Hayden
Earl of Stapleford
First Seat of the Council
October 17, 1998
Alex pushed through the swinging screen door, only to draw to a sudden stop. Faith was there, leaning against the old white refrigerator, her crossed arms resting atop the appliance and her forehead pressed against the smooth metal. Despite himself he found his eyes tracing the long lines of her body. Whether it was on purpose or not, that the pose, aided by the snug jeans she wore, managed to show off her firm behind very nicely. With a guilty start (and yet another mental castigation) he raised his eyes. She raised her head a bit, looking up at him through a mass of loosely curled hair, and then slowly pushed away from the fridge she'd been using for support. Her eyes were a little watery-looking, and there was a haunted air to them as well. He was about to ask her what was the matter when Sylvia pushed the door open and stepped in behind him.
"Well, now. Here's a space that was never meant for three, and that's the truth."
With a playful nudge in Alex's ribs, she urged him to make room. He squeezed over to one side as much as he could, which left her just enough of a space to slip past him. Faith stepped back, stumbling slightly over the raised threshold that led into the shop itself. Alex stared, somewhat shocked. He had never once seen her make a single movement that wasn't graceful and controlled. She seemed shaken, refusing to meet his eyes for more than an instant. Sylvia didn't appear to notice; busy as she was with the bag of apples and other things she'd gotten from the corner stand. Alex and she had had a long conversation along the way, and she'd agreed to letting the three of them stay for a day or two. They would have to go back to the apartments for their sleeping bag, since she didn't have sleeping quarters for so many in the tiny apartment above the kitchen. That was fine with him, and he knew Faith could sleep anywhere; she prided herself on her toughness.
Even if she seemed to have momentarily misplaced it. He tried to ask her what was wrong, but she turned away and all but fled into the shop. Puzzled, he wandered after her.
Inside, things were quiet. Faith walked quickly to the far corner, where she knelt and started rearranging the contents of her torn and tattered backpack. Kelly was sitting at the table, hunched over and crying quietly. When he paused in the doorway, they both looked up at him, and he was struck by how similar they looked in that instant. Wary, hopeful, and maybe a little damaged. The moment passed, Faith digging into her pack with a peculiar intensity, while Kelly tried ineffectively to wipe away her tears with the sleeve of her sweater. He walked over to stand behind her, placing his hands on her shoulders. She instantly went rigid, ducking down so that his hands fell away.
"What's wrong?" He sat slowly in the chair next to hers, trying to catch her eyes with his. She wouldn't look at him, instead staring down at her hands.
"Nothing's wrong. I'm sorry."
Alex felt his throat grow dry, and he wondered if perhaps she'd noticed how much trouble he was having, keeping his eyes off of Faith. That was certainly possible, and he wouldn't blame her a bit for being angry with him; god knew he was angry with himself already about the thoughts that had been making their way into his mind concerning the tall girl. He reached out and touched her shoulder again, more gently this time, and she didn't pull away. Frowning in puzzlement, he leaned close and whispered softly into her ear.
"You and Faith didn't have a fight while I was gone, did you?"
She pulled away slightly, never looking up as she shook her head.
"No. Not… exactly." Tears were still streaming from her downcast eyes. 'Lacrimation', it was called, the shedding of excess tears, and it was one of the symptoms of heroin withdrawal. Either that, or she was really upset; probably both. "I'm afraid of her, Alex. She's trying to take you away from me." Her whisper was even fainter than his had been, and the shudders wracking her made him slip his arm around her without a second thought.
"Shh. That won't happen. We talked today, a lot. I understand her a little better now. She knows I love you, that I'd never leave you. You know that too. There's nothing for you to worry about."
Kelly sat there, letting him hold her, but she didn't lean into him like she usually did. Instead, she held herself slightly apart from him, and her face, what he could see of it, was troubled.
Over in the corner, Faith stood up, hoisting her pack into place on one shoulder. With a brief, dark look at where the two of them sat, she turned without a word and headed towards the front door. Uncertain about what was going on, Alex gave Kelly a kiss on the cheek, then stood and hurried after her.
He caught her just as she was about to kick the door open.
She stepped back, tilting her head to give the ceiling a long-suffering stare before looking over at him.
He paused, searching her face for some hint of what was going on. He didn't have much success; her features were frozen, mask like. Clearing his throat to try and dispel the tightness that sudden dread had put there, he tried for casual.
"You going for a walk or something?"
She shrugged, her eyes sliding away.
"You could say that. Thought I might go find a bus station, see if I can get a ride to LA or somewhere."
He felt his casual tone begin to slip away.
"Bus station? But… why?"
"I know. But hey, they are a little more comfortable than a boxcar, even if you do have to pay for a seat. As long as I've got a little money, I'm thinkin' 'why not', you know?"
He was having trouble keeping himself from gritting his teeth in frustration. Between them, these two girls were well on their way to giving him a nervous breakdown.
"No, I meant 'why are you leaving?'. I'd hoped…. I mean, I'd sort of thought you might stay until things got settled here."
Folding her arms across her chest, she gave him a level stare.
"I don't know what gave you that idea. You gave me a place to stay last night, I tried to pay you back, and it didn't work out like I hoped it would." She gave a shrug. "Sorry, but now I'm outta here."
He waited, but that was all he got. He felt his eyebrows go up.
"'Sorry'? After throwing all that blood in the water, you're really just going to leave us here for the sharks?"
She nodded firmly, but her eyes dropped again, and she shifted in place like she would much rather be somewhere else.
"Yeah, pretty much." A flush of anger passed over her face, and her arms fell to hang loosely at her sides. "It's not like I promised you anything you know. I mean, I'm not obligated to take care of you or anything, am I?"
He shook his head.
"No, not obligated. Not unless you want to be."
She blew out a breath, like she'd been holding it until he said that; until he had released her from something. She looked at the door; edged a small step toward it.
"Well there you go." Her eyes flicked over, looking past him. A moment later Rebecca walked around the corner then froze in place, not wanting to get involved in whatever was playing out between the two of them. Faith glanced back at him, then at the floor. "Okay then. I've got places to go. Besides, you'll do fine without me."
He had his doubts, but right then he was more worried about her. She looked… brittle, somehow. The strength that carried her through everything so far seemed now to be stretched to the breaking point.
"I guess we'll do our best. But how about you?" He moved a step closer to the door, trying to stay out of her personal space at the same time. "Will you be all right without me and Kelly?"
"What?!" She let out a startled laugh, a disbelieving smile showing her white teeth. "Why the hell wouldn't I do just dandy without you two?"
There was a sharp edge in her voice when she said that, and he paused for a moment. He knew that when she got upset, she lashed out. So far she had never struck him, but she seemed to be skating closer to the edge than she had been even just twenty-four hours ago. He chose his words carefully.
"I don't know. Maybe no reason." He looked into her eyes, trying to show her that he was being straight with her. "But without us, will there be anyone at all who knows who you are? Anyone who cares about you?"
She snorted softly in amusement, but that bitter taint was still there, and her mask slipped just a little.
"Oh, like you two care about anybody but each other."
He shrugged awkwardly.
"We do. Or at least, I do. Kelly doesn't care about much of anything besides the needle right now; I know that." Even that mild complaint felt like another betrayal, but it was true. "I was sort of hoping you might be able to help her with that. If you would stop trying to hate her, to make her afraid of you, I think you two could be friends."
Faith looked at him, confusion and uncertainty fighting for space on her pale face. After only a moment an expression of scorn was drawn across her features like a curtain. Her full lips pressed into a thin line, and her eyes narrowed.
"Screw you; screw all of this. I'm gone." She resettled the pack's strap across her shoulder, checked that the long coat covered her weapons, and reached for the door. He had no choice but to make room for her to move past. "Have fun with your girl, and your little friends around here."
She pushed by him and strode out into the thickening twilight, just as a battered Chevy pulled to a halt in front of the shop. Alex had followed her out onto the sidewalk, though he didn't know what else he was going to say. He couldn't shake the feeling that if she left now, she would be dead within days. She was on the brink of losing control, her emotions swinging all over the place. There had to be something he could do to show her that she could have a place with them…. Those thoughts were pushed aside as a familiar figure pulled itself painfully from the car, holding himself upright only with the support of the driver's side door.
"Scott?" The young man was tall, with sandy blonde hair-what was left of it. He was dirty, bloody, and scorched over most of his body. "What the hell happened to you? You get caught in a brushfire or something?"
Silvia's grandson looked at him with pain-filled eyes.
"Alex. They're dead, man."
He stumbled around the car, and Alex went to meet him, aware that Faith had stopped, that she was standing there watching, not leaving, not slipping away while he wouldn't notice. Scott was unsteady on his feet, but he didn't seem to have any serious wounds. Lots and lots of minor ones, yes, and the entire left side of his body was red, as if he had suffered severe sunburn.
"What happened? Who's dead?"
The man took a long, shuddering breath, his eyes closed as he leaned on Alex for support.
"All of them. Everybody who came to talk about how we could fight them." He shook his head, as if to deny what had happened. "They almost killed me; damn near blew me up, but that's better than what happened to the rest. The ones who didn't get killed in the fight got tortured. I didn't see it, I was hiding, but I could hear them screaming…."
Alex felt like he was going to be sick.
Scott pushed away from him, managing to stand on his own, though he swayed a bit.
"Yeah, the Storm. They found us, somehow, and they had somebody, a girl. She wasn't human, man. She was some kind of god-damned walking special-effect, and we didn't have a chance in hell of stopping-"
The words cut off, and Alex followed his gaze to where Faith stood watching them, her dark eyes intent as she listened. Scott looked at her for a few seconds, and then spit a combination of blood and saliva onto the sidewalk.
"You. Your name is Faith, isn't it?" She looked away from him, saying nothing. "It's Faith, right?" He staggered forward, even though Alex tried to hold him back. "Well, where were you?!" His voice was hoarse and cracking as he shouted the words at her, fighting the arms that held him, even though he probably couldn't stand on his own. "You were supposed to be there; this awesome fighter who was going to help us!"
Faith's stare was cold, her voice flat.
"I never said I was going to help you. I don't even know you."
Scott looked like he didn't know if he should laugh or cry. Alex was fairly sure that the man was slipping into shock, but adrenaline kept him on his feet, it let the injured man drive a step closer to Faith despite all he could do to hold him back.
"Then why are you even here?" The grief seemed to be winning out; he was all but begging her for an answer, now. "You've fought them already, twice! Why did you do that, if you weren't going to go all the way, if you weren't going to be there for us?"
The girl looked at him like he was a bug, and Alex couldn't tell how much of that was real, and how much was an act."
"You think I did that for you people? That I'm some kind of savior, here to get killed so you can have a happy little slum again?" She gave him a wide, sneering smile, though her clenched fists belied her casual dismissal of him. "I did that stuff because I was bored. I was passing through, and I needed the exercise. That's all."
The door to the shop opened, and Kelly stepped out, partially supported by Silvia. They didn't speak, they just watched, and listened. Scott stared at Faith as if she had smacked him. His voice was a shuddering whisper.
"Those bastards just killed all my friends, Lady. They blew them up, and burned them alive, and then spent a little time afterwards having some fun with the ones who didn't die quick enough. If someone doesn't stop them, they'll keep doing it."
The Slayer shrugged, looking bored as she gazed over his shoulder and down the street.
"So? Leave, then. Move somewhere else."
He shook his head, weaving drunkenly as his strength faltered. Catching sight of Sylvia and Kelly watching from beside the shop door, he found the will to keep going.
"I can't do that. I live here. My grandmother lives here. Those scum won't make me leave."
Faith tossed her hair back out of her face and gave him a pitying look.
"Gee, that's too bad, but I don't live here, and this is the part where I do leave. Good luck with getting dead and all that." Taking a step back, she glanced at Alex. "Well, it's been great and everything, but I'm outta here. See you around."
She managed three strides down the sidewalk before a faint voice stopped her in her tracks.
"So you're really just going to leave us here to die?"
It was Kelly, wrapped in a blanket and looking nearly as bad as Scott did. Her skin was pale and waxy, but her eyes were steady; even if they did leak steady trails of tears down her face. Faith turned to look at her, and oddly, she unconsciously adopted a wary, defensive stance.
"Hey, you were on your way down long before I ever showed up, so don't blame this on me." She waved a hand at the storefront, and the street around them. "I didn't set all this up, you know. Not everything that goes wrong is my fault."
Alex helped Scott walk across to stand beside his grandmother, but he was looking at Faith.
"We're not blaming you for anything. But I thought you were some kind of magical fighter that helped people. I thought that meant that you were at least going to stay long enough to see us safe; until the Storm backed off."
She looked at him with amazement.
"What are you, stupid? Nobody's safe; ever. And people like them don't back off. They push. They pushed you, I pushed them, and they pushed back. I push harder, they push back harder. That's how it works, Alex." Her eyes lost focus for a few seconds and her hand came up to gingerly touch her stomach. "Both sides keep pushing until somebody gets knocked down, and run over, and dies." She blinked, then looked up at him again. "I can't stay until you're free and clear because no one ever is." She looked uncomfortable, her determination mixed with desperation. "Why won't you leave me alone? None of this really involves me; if I hadn't jumped in last night…."
Alex wished he wasn't needed to support Scott. He wanted to go and hold her, tell her how grateful he was that she had intervened before Kelly had gotten hurt.
"But you did help us. There must have been more of a reason than you're admitting." Her throat worked, but she didn't speak. Alex tried to put his conviction into his voice. "You're a better person than you think you are, Faith. You say you don't know us, but I think you know us well enough." She opened her mouth to say something cutting, but he kept going. "And we've seen some of what's inside you, even though you try and hide it." The four of them were facing her across a small space of sidewalk, but the separation was much greater than just that distance. There was something inside her that held her apart, and he could only hope that some portion of the girl recognized that, and wanted things to be different. He tried his best to let her know that they would help her. "You don't have to be alone if you don't want to be. We know you. We care."
She smiled mockingly, still not buying it.
"Sure you care; so long as I stay and fight for you, right? Gee, thanks." She shook her head incredulously. "You're the same as the rest of them. You just want me for what I can do for you, but I don't get to have the rest of it, do I?" Her eyes went to Kelly, who was leaning against Sylvia for support, then back to him. "I'm not gonna get killed because of you; or for some faceless cowards and nobodies I've never even seen."
Scott had been looking nearly out on his feet, but he gave a little start and glared at her.
"How about Jason? You saw him, right? You talked to him?" Shrugging off Alex's arm, he staggered forward, right up to Faith. "Well, he died an hour ago." Looking down into her face, he spoke with deliberate slowness. "He got splattered all over the ground, until what was left looked like hamburger, then what was left got burned to ashes. He thought you were the one who was going to save us, but you weren't there."
Faith blinked a couple of times, but instead of backing away from the battered man looming over her, she stepped right up against him, a snarl curling her lips.
"You unbelievable bastard. You saying that's my fault?" She lifted one hand and planted it on the center of his chest. "You'd better get outta my face, right now, or I'll make what they did to you seem like playtime." With no effort at all she launched him backwards, and only a quick move on Alex's part kept him from smashing headfirst into the brick storefront. As it was, the two of them were left bruised and shaken. She clenched that hand into a trembling fist, brandishing it at them like a weapon. "What do you people want from me? How much more of me do you have to take before you're satisfied?!"
Sylvia cleared her throat, ready to try taking a hand in calming the girl down, but at that moment Faith suddenly whirled, her body poised as she stared across the street.
A bright blue minivan had come to a halt directly across from where they stood, and the driver, a dark-haired Asian man, was watching them intently. Alex stepped in front of Kelly, ready to push her to the ground if someone jumped out of the vehicle and started shooting.
No one did. Instead, the sound of a sliding door slamming shut merged into that of the engine as the van accelerated away from the curb and down the street. Faith took a few steps along the sidewalk in that direction, staring after it and looking as if she longed to head off in pursuit.
"My god." Sylvia was pointing at a bloody form that lay on the sidewalk across from them. The bulk of the vehicle had shielded him from view until it had pulled away. "Who is that?"
Faith was already crossing the street in long strides. Alex started after her, but found himself supporting a limping Scott and a nervous Kelly, which meant that it took him several seconds longer to reach the body than it did for the Slayer. At least traffic was light at this time of day. When they reached the far side, they found Faith kneeling beside the man. A faint moan made Kelly jump.
"He's alive?" She was trying not to look, her eyes sliding away from the body, then jerking back against her will.
Alex understood both the revulsion, and the fascination the man held. Even as he stared, his eyes couldn't seem to make sense of what he was seeing.
"What are those--?" He broke off as Faith lifted the man's left arm for a closer inspection.
A length of wood was bound tightly underneath each forearm, from fingertips to elbow, and another to his legs, from knee to ankle. Blood smeared both his clothing and the wood, and there were a number of dull gray knobs protruding from his shirtsleeve opposite the wood. The bloodstains were thickest there, and it almost looked as if-
Faith turned his arm slightly, and Alex nearly vomited as the scene suddenly resolved itself. They weren't knobs… they were nails. The Slayer wore an interested expression as she examined the groaning, semi-conscious man.
"Wicked." She lightly touched one of the protruding nail heads, prompting a louder groan. There were around a dozen, in a staggered line down his arm. Lowering it, she leaned over and looked at the similar arrangement on his lower legs. The nails passed either through or between the bones there, and then into the wood, securing it to him in what had to be an excruciatingly painful fashion. Faith nodded with professional approval. "It's kinda like crucifying him, but portable." She stood up, after absently wiping her hands on a clean portion of his clothing.
Alex had to look away then, anywhere else but at the man, or the girl who stood over him with such unnatural detachment. Scott's face was twisted with horror.
"It's Richard." He panted for breath for a moment, finally looking away. "He was at the meeting with me. We were arguing… he said he had to take care of his family."
Kelly was looking green. As for himself, he thought that he would be all right, so long as he didn't have to touch the man. Touching him would make it real. That didn't mean that he could ignore him. He cupped his hands next to his mouth and shouted across the street.
"Sylvia! He's alive, call an ambulance!"
The old woman hurried inside her shop, and he turned back to see what he could do to make the poor man more comfortable, but there really wasn't much he could do. Richard had lapsed into unconsciousness, but there didn't seem to be much fresh bleeding from his impaled limbs. Not surprisingly, pedestrians seemed to have abandoned the area; no one wanted to be involved in whatever was happening with the bloody victim on the sidewalk.
Faith was standing with her arms crossed, looking down at where he lay.
"Why bring him here? Did they know Scotty here got away, and wanted to scare him some more?" She sounded puzzled, and Alex stepped closer to her.
"He said there was more than one captured, and tortured." He shuddered as he imagined what it must have been like to have a nail-gun used on you like that. "Maybe…. I guess they could just be dropping them off wherever more 'troublemakers' live. Sylvia's given them some problems, she could be why they left him here."
The tall girl shook her head.
"I don't think so. That guy driving the van was looking straight at me the whole time he was there, and he was scared, like he knew what I was…."
Suddenly she frowned, took a deep breath, and turned a slow circle. Without offering any explanation, she took several steps out into the street. After checking for approaching cars, Alex stepped out next to her. Faith was staring off down the street, her eyes narrowed against the glare of the setting sun. Following her gaze, he saw a thick pillar of smoke in the distance, its base obscured by the intervening buildings. It looked to be coming from ten or twelve blocks distant, the last light of the day painting it in a wash of orange and scarlet. Glancing at her with concern, he touched her on the arm.
"What is it?"
She didn't answer immediately, her eyes locked on the smoke, and her nostrils flaring as if she could smell it from where she stood. Studying her face in that unguarded moment, he watched a series of emotions flicker over her features; comprehension, despair, and finally, avid lust.
"Are they daring me?" She said that so softly that he wasn't sure he'd heard her right. A moment later she spoke again, more loudly. "What that is, and your buddy here too," She said, turning to give him a humorless smile. "-is somebody making a mistake, and trying to push me again; harder."
Without another word, she was in motion, running down the street in the direction of the pillar. He called out, but she was moving with supernatural swiftness; already out of shouting distance before he could utter more than her name.
Kelly and Scott were staring at the smoke now.
"What is it, Alex?" The battered man asked, joining them as they avoided looking at the unconscious victim on the ground.
He sounded worried, watching as Faith vanished down the darkening street. Alex felt a leaden sensation spread from his chest and into every limb as he made the connection. Looking at them, he gestured down the street.
"It's the apartments where Kelly and I live. They've set them on fire."
Kelly huddled deeper within her blanket.
"But, why did Faith run off like that? She said she wouldn't help us, that she was leaving."
He took a moment to think about it, but the look on her face before she had run away didn't leave much room for doubt.
"She was. But I think that maybe… maybe when someone pushes her, she can't help but push back."
The problem was, she was only one woman, no matter how extraordinary, and the Storm had some more-than-human help on their side too, plus a ridiculous advantage in numbers. He couldn't see how she could hope to win against them alone. Of course, that was what they'd been badgering her to do; help them against an enemy that was willing to do whatever it took to win, an enemy who would not hesitate to kill whoever dared stand against them, and was willing to do what had been done to poor Richard, merely as a warning. A fresh stab of guilt went through him, and he found himself leaping at Scott.
"Keys, give me your car keys."
The man looked at him blankly."
"What? Why do you need my-"
"Just shut up and give them to me!" He took the man by the shoulders, his voice tense. I have to go after her; she might need help, somebody needs to be there in case something happens."
Scott nodded in understanding even as he fumbled the keys from his pocket. Alex grabbed them, and then hurried across the street once again. Reaching the other side, he flung himself at the battered car. Even as he threw the door open two figures rushed around the rear of the vehicle, and the passenger door opened. Kelly held the seat forward so that Scott could fall into the rear, then she got in and pulled the door shut.
"No! Kelly, get out of the car."
She gave him a frightened look, but stayed put.
"I'm not letting you go after her by yourself. She's as bad as those people are."
There wasn't time to argue. He started the engine, then looked back at Scott.
"Then you get out; there'll be an ambulance here in a minute, and you need to go to a hospital along with Richard."
The man shook his head wearily, but he seemed alert enough, at the moment.
"I can't do anything for him now, and there's no way I'm missing this. I want to see just how bad this girl is." He slumped back in the rear seat. "'Sides, this is my car. Can't let you drive unsupervised, you might total it or something."
Growling imprecations at both of his passengers, Alex gunned the engine, squealing the tires and leaving trails of rubber behind as he took off in pursuit of the Slayer.
* * * * *