See Chapter One for Disclaimer In those days I really hated being on stage, but that didn't mean I couldn't give a good performance.
Things had gone a little wrong that night, and I was a prisoner at City Hall, alone in a room with Faith. Sure, I acted tough, but inside I was terrified. I'd been around Buffy long enough to know some of what a Slayer could do, you know. When I provoked her and she hit me, that could have been the end. If she hadn't known the Mayor wanted me alive, if she'd used even half of her full strength when she punched me, I would have been dead before I hit the far wall. As it was, the little swat she gave me loosened two of my teeth and I had to swallow some blood before I could taunt her again.
Why taunt her again, you ask? I know; I'm Willow, the smart one. Taunting Faith then was most definitely not a smart thing to do, but I had no choice.
You see... I didn't want Buffy to be ashamed of me. I was sure Faith was going to kill me that night no matter what I said or did, and I knew that if I cried, or begged, or showed any fear at all, then she would throw it in Buffy's face the first chance she got.
So I put on a show. Only Faith knows how convincing I was; which is a real shame, 'cause it was Oscar-worthy.
Alex reached out to smooth a strand of hair back from Kelly's face. She was resting now, though uneasily. After he had gotten her back to Sylvia's place, he and the old woman had carried the girl upstairs and put her to bed. Now, watching the girl sobbing softly to herself even as she dozed, he wondered if she would ever manage to put the nightmarish event behind her. Kelly had already suffered so much pain in her life, and she was barely sixteen years old….
"She needs to be in a hospital." The voice came from behind where he knelt beside the bed.
Turning slightly, he shook his head.
"No. No hospitals." He looked at the girl lying there, and crossed his arms on the edge of the bed, resting his chin on them. "I'll stay here and take care of her."
Sylvia made a tsking sound, the sort she made when someone was being uncommonly foolish.
"Alex, you can't do anything for her, here. She's hurt, and even before… what happened to her, she was in a bad way. At least take her in so they can check her out."
He didn't look away from that pale, tear-streaked face.
"No." He said, quietly.
"She never told you why she came here, did she? She told me; made me promise never to tell anyone." He paused, considering. Sylvia was the closest thing either of them had to family, here, but even so…. "I don't think she would want you to know, she's ashamed of what she did, even if it wasn't her fault."
The old woman moved into his line of sight, and sat on the foot of the bed. Meeting those patient, accepting eyes, he felt foolish for trying to hide anything from her. Sylvia would never use what he told her to hurt Kelly; he knew that.
"All right." Even though he was resigned to telling her, it still took him a minute before he could begin putting it into words. "When Kelly was ten years old, she killed her brother." It came out in a rush, and he paused to gauge her reaction. When all he got was a slow nod, he licked his suddenly dry lips and continued. "She didn't mean to; she was only trying to scare him. See, he was sick. Sick in the kind of way that made him think it was fun to beat up on his little sister. I'm not talking about the sort of playing around that any brother and sister might do; he hurt her."
The woman frowned slightly, her eyes flicking to Kelly's bruised face.
"Hurt her like…?"
Alex shook his head. "No, not like that; not sexual stuff. See, he was four years older than she was, and already looking to be a serious athlete; baseball, football, that's all he did, all the time. Well, that, and hurting her. He was sick, like I said. It just made him laugh to beat the hell out of her, he didn't even need an excuse." He found himself staring at the girl's small hand, which was twitching slightly where it lay atop the blanket. Reaching out, he gently took it, and held it against the tremors. "She tried to tell her mom and dad about it, but they thought she was just jealous of all the attention her older brother got from them. He was the center of their lives; they went to every game, had all his trophies on the mantel, all that. Even when Kelly started getting broken bones, they just assumed she was really clumsy. Finally, she couldn't take it anymore, so she tried to make him stop. The next time he was chasing her through the house -and that was his favorite game, stalking her when nobody else was home-she got her father's gun, and aimed it at him, and told him that if he didn't stop, then she would shoot."
Her hand was so cold, even though beads of sweat were running down her face. The withdrawal was still tearing at her, weakening her just when she needed all her strength to endure the trauma of what had happened to her. Alex turned to look again at Sylvia.
"He didn't believe her, didn't think she would do it. After all, she'd never been able to stop him before, and he really was a little crazy. So she shot him. One bullet, right through the head." He didn't try to hide his satisfaction at that. It ate at Alex that the bastard was dead and beyond reach, but at least he'd gotten what was coming to him. "He died, and even though the police ruled it accidental, her parents never forgave her. For the next three years they spent their time either ignoring her, or blaming her. They treated her like a murderer, and they never let a day go by without letting her know how they felt. She wasn't getting beaten up anymore, but there is such a thing as emotional abuse. When she was thirteen, she heard them talking about having her committed, sent off to some place for 'emotionally damaged children'. That's when she ran away." He didn't blame her. It had taken a lot less to convince him that he wasn't wanted at home. "That's why the heroin. After all that time with her parents blaming her, and blaming herself, she just wanted to forget." He went back to looking at Kelly's face, the face of the most important person in his world. "I'm afraid that if I take her to the hospital, they'll hold her until they find out who she is, and then send her back to her parents. I think she'd do anything to keep from going back."
Silence fell, then, lasting for what seemed like a long time. Finally, the woman spoke again, softly.
"So you're just going to wait here, while she could be dying?"
Alex shook his head minutely.
"She won't die." He forced himself to believe that. He had to believe that. "Not so long as she knows I'm here waiting for her."
* * * * *
The sounds of mid-morning traffic droned in Faith's ears, and the occasional bumps in the street caused her to sway gently.
"You owe me big for this one, Scott. If anybody saw me pick you two up, or recognizes my car, I am going to be in deep shit."
She turned her head and looked at the girl who had spoken, the one who'd come in response to Scott's phone call from the hotel. The intense, red-haired girl behind the wheel hadn't given her name, and Faith hadn't bothered to ask. It was enough that she had shown up before any Yakuza reinforcements had arrived at the scene of the latest bloody chapter in the Slayer's life.
"I know, believe me I know. But Alex took my car, and it's not a good idea for either Faith or me to be out on the street right now." Scott turned in his seat to look at where the Slayer sat huddled in the back. She looked back at him without speaking; she just wasn't in the mood right now. There was so much to think about that it was nearly impossible to think about any of it at all. He looked away, and she leaned back in the seat. With a sigh she closed her eyes, and the sounds washing around her faded to a sort of hum.
The shadow beings that had been released when Alex broke the circle, the way their merest touch had sucked the warmth right out of those nearby… she knew that sensation. She had faced creatures like that before, a little less than a year earlier…. "Y'see, Faith, these particular demons are pretty darn powerful sorcerers, and they have some strange customs when it comes to dealing with outsiders. I'm not really happy about sending you out there to negotiate with them."
The mayor's concern had gratified her; she'd been working for him for almost two months by that time, and the last of her doubt and distrust had long since been wiped away. He was on the level; he cared about her, and he needed her help to do the things that he couldn't do by himself.
Things like this.
"These are the same kind of guy as the one that told us he was gonna take Angel's soul?"
She couldn't help the bitterness in her voice when she brought that up. The memory of how completely she'd been tricked by the souled vampire and that blonde bitch still made her want to scream, to smash and hurt and kill. The smug, superior look on their faces….
Wilkins put a gentle hand on her shoulder. He knew. He understood how much it pained and shamed her to be beaten like that. To be beaten, and to have it look so easy….
"Yes, these are the same type as that one; and you saw how untrustworthy he turned out to be." The mayor shook his head ruefully. "There are rules of conduct, a code of behavior that sorcerers and demons are supposed to abide by. If one being of the lower planes decides not to follow the established order of things, what's to keep the whole system from falling apart? I tell you, once things are sorted out here in Sunnydale, I'm going to find that tricky little devil and--" Seeing that Faith had folded her arms and leaned back against the wall of his office to wait out whatever speech he was beginning, he stopped and gave her a smile. "Sorry; I doubt you want to hear the details."
"I'll help you do whatever you want to do to that guy, no problem. But you already told me that you can't go to their dimension to get this 'whitestone' or whatever, so that just leaves me." She would be taking along a small chest of magical crystals the mayor had obtained from somewhere, to pay for what the demons had, but that didn't necessarily mean that she would be safe. They were demons, after all. "What did you want to tell me before I go through this astro tunnel or whatever it is?"
The mayor moved back around his desk, and used a key from his pocket to unlock one of the drawers there.
"That's 'astral tunnel', and what has me a little worried is what these demons are going to do to you, once you enter their realm."
She watched as he removed a small wooden box from within the drawers.
"They're not gonna try an' fight me, are they?" She felt cheered just by the very possibility. "Because if they want a rumble, I'll be glad to rip off whatever they have under those face veils and shove it right up-"
"No, Faith." He gave her a stern look, and she subsided into silence. "It's very, very important that you don't do anything to antagonize them. They won't do anything overtly hostile, but they will test you, the way they test anyone who asks them for something." He opened the box, revealing a small, gleaming object. Curious, she pushed away from the wall and moved up to his desk.
"Okay, what kind of test? Arm wrestling? Wet tee shirt? Quake tournament?"
He shook his head slightly.
"No. They have a nifty little conjuration, which brings forth these wonderful critters called 'void wraiths'. They turn them loose on the subject, and then wait to see what happens. The test is to see if you are strong enough, in body and mind, to keep the entities from draining your life force away. If you are, then you will have earned the demons' respect, and they will deal with you."
Faith looked up at his face, noting the serious expression there.
"What if I'm not strong enough?"
A sudden grin made him look like a gleeful prankster who knew that a joke was being played, but was having too much fun to spoil the surprise.
"If you fail the test, then you won't earn their respect, but it won't much matter to you, because you'll be dead." She stared at him, feeling a little uneasy at the slightly maniacal look in his eyes. She trusted him… but he could be really spooky. Abruptly his expression changed again, becoming all seriousness and concern. "Don't worry, Faith. I wouldn't let you do this if I didn't think you could do it." He put a reassuring hand on her shoulder, and she nodded.
"I know. And I won't let you down, boss."
He smiled at that.
"Of course, just because something is a sure thing, that's no reason to take chances. So to give you a little edge, I made you this." He lifted the object from the box, holding it out to her.
It was a small glass sphere, not quite two inches across. It was perfectly clear, and when she took it from him she found that it was lighter than she'd expected, as if it were a bubble of glass and not a solid object at all. Inside was a tiny figure, a girl with dark hair wearing jeans and a dark jacket….
And it was; a perfect little Faith, standing in a confident pose, looking ready to take on all comers. Mayor Wilkins smiled.
"The key to surviving a void wraith attack is to be absolutely certain that you will survive it. Strength of body you've got, there's no doubt about that is there? But they'll be looking for any chinks in your defenses, mind as well as body. You can't be afraid they'll beat you, or else they will. You have to be confident. Focus on who you are, on what makes you Faith, what makes you better than anyone else, and then they can't get their teeth into you." She'd hesitated then, because if there was one thing she wasn't sure of, it was who she was. She knew who she hated, sure; she definitely knew who she blamed for all the things that had gone wrong in her life… but deep down, in her heart of hearts, she didn't really know if there was anything else to her, besides the rage and the hate.
"Sure, then. Okay, it won't be any big deal." The tough-girl act was a thin shell over an anxious, gnawing fear, and again he seemed to know more about what she was feeling than she did herself.
"Take the talisman with you. Hold it in your thoughts. It's not really magic, so they won't think you cheated or anything, but it'll help you to focus." His voice was intent, and the look in his eyes left no room for uncertainty. "That girl inside there is Faith, it's you, and nothing in the universe can hurt her so long as you believe that they can't."
Clutching the sphere in her hand, she swallowed heavily, then nodded.
"Okay. When do we do this?"
He took his jacket off of the chair where it had lain, and pulled it on.
"Right now, if you're ready."
With a cocky grin that she still didn't feel, she gave an elaborate shrug.
"Absolutely. Let's motor."
He led the way from the office, and she followed, her head lowered as she studied the girl in the glass sphere. She was flawless, strong and confident. Shielded inside her tiny glass world, nothing could touch her, no one could hurt her. The image of herself hung there, immaculate, beautiful, unstained despite all the filth and corruption that filled the outside world. Faith herself knew differently of course, but just for now she tried very hard to believe it.
Whether it was true or not didn't matter in the end.
She went to the demon's realm, she met them there and she faced their test. When the time came, she withstood the onslaught of the void wraiths, and she made it through alive. Mayor Wilkins was very pleased when she returned with the object he'd wanted; he took her to the movies to celebrate, and afterwards they had ice cream down in the street side mall, and in the end it hadn't mattered, because she hadn't been there when he needed her, and Buffy had blown him into a million pieces, and even now she thought she could hear him screaming her name-
She jolted upright in the back seat, staring around apprehensively. Scott was looking at her, as was the girl behind the wheel of the car. She rubbed at her eyes and yawned.
"Well, nothing like a five minute, vision-filled nap to get you going. What's up?"
The red-haired girl put her eyes back on the road, and Scott shook his head.
"You were talking in your sleep, saying something about the shadows trying to eat you. Are you okay?"
She looked away from him, out the side window. The streets out there were bright with midday sunshine, but a chill went through her nevertheless.
"Oh yeah; I'm great. But I'm getting the feeling that I'm never going to get any real sleep, ever again."
* * * * *
Taryuu brushed past the guards standing in front of the doorway without waiting for them to announce him; this was too important to wait for formalities. Stepping through, he emerged into the hazy warmth of midday. The flat roof area of the second floor had been partially converted into a sand and rock garden, where Lord Akamori often spent time in meditation, away from the pressures of his position, but near at hand should an emergency arise.
In Taryuu's opinion, the news that had just arrived most certainly qualified as such.
"Forgive the intrusion, Master." The young man in question turned from his contemplation of the patterns formed by the carefully arranged stones before him, his eyebrows raised in surprise.
"What is it?" He sounded gently reproving; he disliked being disturbed without ample cause, and even then it tended to put him in a foul mood. "Is there word on Nagasu's preparations for the magical attack on the girl, tonight?" Taryuu found it difficult to keep the wry smile from his lips.
"No, lord. It seems that the sorcerer will have the chance to attempt his spells from closer range than he had first thought." He thought again of what the survivor from the hotel had told him, just minutes ago, and the chill that went through him banished any trace of humor. "Much closer, actually."
Akamori went very still, his dark eyes intent upon the older man.
"Speak. What news?"
With a slight bow of apology, the Clan's underboss of street operations related what he had learned; the girl Faith had left a message, to be delivered to the head of the Storm. The message was only a few words long, but it changed everything.
"She is coming; here, tonight at sunset."
The younger man considered this, pacing slowly across to where the roof ascended to its highest point. A relatively small area was raised even higher than where he stood; the section atop the third floor of the building. An iron ladder bolted to the wall gave access to the higher level, but as of yet there was nothing up there but bare roof. Akamori raised his eyes to Taryuu once more.
"She is coming here, but will it be alone? Or at the head of an army of the rabble that has been plaguing us?"
Reading the mind of a woman was beyond the older man's abilities, but he knew more of the situation on the streets than any one else in the city.
"I do not believe that she could find more than a handful willing to fight us openly, lord. Not after the example we provided for them yesterday." He paused, balancing the various factors in his head. The possibility that the general populace might be roused to violence rather than cowed by the brutal torture done to their fellows certainly existed, but he thought it unlikely. The general mood seemed to be one of fear, and wary acceptance. Even the presence of the girl did not seem to be creating the far-reaching effects he'd initially feared. Any gratitude or respect she'd earned in the course of her various exploits against the Clan had been rather thoroughly erased by the inexplicable series of random murders she had committed last night. At the moment, the average person on the streets would sooner run away screaming rather than follow Faith into battle. Also, word had spread concerning the Storm's heretofore unknown weapon; Dai. The gun-sorceress had demonstrated quite clearly that the Clan had more-than-mundane resources at its command too. Even someone who could never comprehend the existence of true magic, such as Nagasu and his sort wielded, could still grasp the concept of someone who was unbeatable with a gun. Taryuu blinked, rousing himself from his thoughts to find his superior waiting with thinly veiled impatience for him to finish answering the question.
"No, if she comes, it will either be alone, or with little more than a handful of our most fanatical enemies."
Akamori nodded, but a slight frown marred his youthful features.
"What can she be thinking? It has to be a ploy, but I can't see what she could hope to gain, meeting us here, in the center of our power." He spoke as if to himself, but an answer was forthcoming.
"It may be that she has no plan at all, other than to find us here, and enter into battle." The clan lord looked at Taryuu in surprise, so he continued on, in an attempt to explain. "I have seen her fight; and I have seen the carnage she leaves in her wake." Those memories made him pause for a moment; he had to swallow bile before going on. "She fights fiercely, more like a… a force of raw destruction than a normal combatant. From what I observed, she is not one to plan. Her way is that of a man with an axe, who simply seeks to hack and hew until all before him is obliterated."
Akamori folded his arms, contemplating the grim cityscape visible beyond the roof's edge.
"Nagasu spoke of this to me, earlier. He says the girl is fragmented; that her spirit has no center, no anchor. He says this is why he will be able to bind her to my service, despite her being more than human."
Taryuu shrugged uneasily at the mention of those magicks.
"Of that I know little. All I know is that she is certainly capable of attacking us here, alone. It may be that she believes herself powerful enough to prevail, even when we are forewarned and gathered together to face her." His voice lowered, he was forced to add a bit more. "Truthfully, we have not yet given her cause to fear us, thus far."
His lord shot him a piercing stare.
"Those were little better than brawls; ambushes where she could strike without warning against small groups of scarcely-trained soldiers." The older man thought of Itai, who was certainly not scarcely trained, and who had still met defeat at the hands of the girl, but said nothing. "This, old friend, is something quite different." Young Akamori gestured at the building upon which they stood. "Here our strength is at its greatest; here we can gather a force sufficient to overwhelm any foe, no matter how powerful." He paused a moment, and when he spoke again, his voice was that of a feudal lord ordering his general to prepare for war. "You will summon here all of our most trusted soldiers. Tell them to come prepared for battle; if she thinks to match herself against us, then we shall simply bury her with men."
Taryuu nodded; they would be mere humans against a mystical force given human form, but there was an old saying, about quantity having a quality all its own. There were also other weapons, which could be brought to bear.
"Am I to assume that you will not, then, allow Nagasu another chance to use magic against her?"
He tried not to sound too hopeful; his dislike of the sorcerer was personal, and personal matters should not interfere with the purposes of the Clan. His lord gave him a knowing look, very much aware of his feelings, but shook his head slightly in answer.
"No, I am very hopeful that he will succeed in binding her to us. However," Here he paused, and his hand dropped to his side, where a sword would have rested, had he been wearing one. "In the event that he fails in the attempt, I will make preparations to deal with her myself."
Again, Akamori was hinting that he desired to match himself against the spirit warrior, and again Taryuu felt a lance of fear go through him.
"Master… In light of what we are facing, that would be most unwise."
That was putting it mildly, but the young man only smiled.
"Fear not. As I said before; this is the center of our power. Here, in this place, there are resources available to me that are not practical, elsewhere. With the proper preparations, I have little to fear from this Faith."
His unease did not vanish, but it was tempered by his knowledge that the clan lord was not a foolish man. Despite the rashness of youth that sometimes spurred him, he was also intelligent, and capable of meticulous planning. Taryuu bowed his head in acknowledgement.
"As you say, master."
"Indeed. Go now, issue the orders." Turning, Akamori regarded the cityscape once again. "And tell Nagasu to attend me, in my study. Tell him I wish to use the Musashi effect tonight."
That was a dismissal, and Taryuu turned and headed inside. As he went, he couldn't help wondering briefly what Faith herself might be doing at that moment; and what steps she herself might be undertaking to prepare herself for the confrontation to come.
* * * * *