See Chapter One for DisclaimerI could feel her, you know. During those months after I realized that the two of us were enemies, I could sometimes sense Faith's presence. Sunnydale's a small town; there's only so many streets, so many darkened alleys. When I was out on patrol at night, there were times when I'd stop at a corner of a building, or the edge of a rooftop, and suddenly know that she was there, just a few feet away. She could feel me too; she'd go perfectly still, waiting for me to make my move. Our final battle could have been any one of those times, but I couldn't do it.
So we'd both just stand there, not moving, not speaking. I'd know that by being there I'd stopped her from accomplishing whatever mission the Mayor had sent her out to take care of, and I guess she got some kind of kick from knowing that whatever lies I told Giles and the others about how I couldn't seem to track her down, I just wasn't able to make myself take those few steps that would mean facing Faith again. I couldn't even bring myself to speak to her; there was so much that needed saying, but whenever I got close, my throat just closed up. Even Angel never reached inside me quite like she did. So we would both just stand there, listening to the other's breathing, the rustle of her clothing, the sound of her heart beating. Finally, after a few minutes or a few hours, we would both back up and then move away; me to the safety of my room at home, and Faith back to the pretty apartment that bastard gave her.
And even then, when we were so far apart, I could still feel her out there in the darkness. As I lay in my bed, I imagined that I could feel her lips brushing lightly across my face as she whispered to me across that distance the words she'd spoken once before.
"You're not ready. Yet."
The rain had subsided to an occasional scattering of droplets, though the wind continued to swirl through the city in damp, chilly gusts. The two of them had walked for some distance in silence, and Alex was beginning to get uncomfortable. He glanced at Faith, noticing that while she looked casual enough, her eyes frequently scanned the rooftops along the street, and every so often she just happened to turn a full circle while walking, her gaze taking in everything around her. She saw him watching and flashed him a sultry smile, but didn't cease in her watchful examination of her surroundings. A minute later he caught her looking up again, and he followed her gaze.
"You're more nervous than I am. Expecting somebody up there?"
She smiled again, though it didn't reach her eyes as she finished her inspection of the rooftop edges directly above them. The grimy brick buildings along the street averaged four or five stories, many of them combining small businesses on the ground floors with apartments above.
"You never know." She stuffed her hands into the pockets of the long leather coat she wore and shrugged. "I guess once somebody tries to drop a shipping crate on you, you start paying more attention to what's over your head."
He looked at her in surprise.
"Somebody dropped a crate on you? When was this?"
She shook her head irritably.
"Never mind; it's ancient history, now." She took a deep breath, seemingly appreciative of the cool night air. "So…. Is your girl going to be all right by herself for awhile?"
He accepted the topic change; he didn't want to press her. Despite her tough exterior, he had a feeling that she was hiding something painful. He'd caught sight of her face a time or two when she didn't know he was looking, and the only way he could describe what he saw was… lost. For those instants when she was unguarded, she looked like an abandoned child. Even now she seemed much more subdued than she had earlier. Part of that was probably due to being tired, or maybe whatever dark secrets she kept inside were weighing more heavily now than before, for whatever reason. She had the look of someone who knew the face of hopeless desperation far too well.
He sighed, mentally chastising himself. He'd seen what this girl could do; doubtless she could do the same to him, and here he was thinking of her as vulnerable, or tragic. Maybe he was imagining things, seeing part of Kelly in this strange girl. He realized he hadn't answered her question yet.
"Ah… yeah, she'll be okay. Once she gets her fix she starts nodding, and it takes a lot to get her moving again. She'll wait for us to get back with some food for her."
Faith pursed her lips thoughtfully.
"You think those guys are going to cause you more trouble because of what I did, don't you?"
He glanced at her, but she was looking straight ahead now. He tried to think of something diplomatic to say, but after a moment he settled for the truth.
"Yes. They'll find me, and Kelly, and use us to make an example. They can't afford to let things like that pass, or nobody would take them seriously."
"So basically, I didn't help you at all. I just made things worse for you, when I took those guys off of you."
Her voice had grown quiet and bitter, and she was looking down at her feet as she walked, now, her still-damp hair spilling forward to hide her face.
He shook his head.
"It's not your fault. You couldn't have known that when you helped us. I'm grateful to you. Not many people would have risked themselves-"
"Stop." Her shoulders slumped, and she was very carefully not looking at him. "Just… be quiet for now, okay?"
Her shoes scuffed along the pavement, and she had abandoned her careful examination of their surroundings. It was like the life and vitality she'd radiated when they'd first met was slowly draining out of her, leaving her empty and listless. Seeing that progression made him a little afraid for her. It reminded him of something similar he'd seen in too many others, over the last few years. He looked away from her, saying nothing.
They walked on together, in silence.
* * * * *
Damn it all, anyway.
All she wanted was something to eat, maybe somebody to talk to while she was eating it… and this little nobody goes and pisses her off. Despite the dark ulterior motives that had occurred to her after the fact, she'd gone into that fight thinking that she was doing something halfway worthwhile. Sure, trashing those two goons had mostly been about doing something that felt good, but it had also saved a couple of kids from getting beaten up; that was about as heroic as Faith could manage to be. She'd even let them live, when it would have been easier to waste them both. Of course, it had all gone wrong anyway.
Just like anything she did always went wrong. She concentrated on her breathing, on the monotonous movement of her feet along the street. At times like this it was hard to keep going. When there was some action to focus on, or a fight to get her blood moving, then she was full of energy, so alive that nothing else seemed to matter. Afterwards though, it was almost like she was halfway back to the coma.
That's how it had been before her showdown with Buffy, too. Patrol all night, hoping, praying for some demons to kill, and then lying in bed all day long, dozing in front of the television. Then later, practically begging the boss for something, anything to do, to keep from going back to her wonderful, beautiful… sterile apartment. Fighting, killing, even just hurting someone, those were the only things that seemed real to her, sometimes. Or was it that those were the only times that she felt real?
She lifted her head, shaking her hair back. Cut it out, Faith. Stay awake, or somebody'll get close enough to put you out of your misery.
Deep, regular breaths, the moist night air seeming clean and fresh even with the stinks of the city tainting it. Compared to the stale air of that hospital room, this practically smelled like a mountain meadow. Or at least what she imagined a mountain meadow would smell like, if she ever had the chance to see one. She recognized the depression that was trying to steal over her; she'd fought it before, especially when things started piling up on her. This time there was no excuse for it. Things weren't that bad, not really. She was hungry, that was all. Along with everything else that had happened, it had worn her down, wearied her to a dangerous degree. She needed to stay focused, stay in control. At this rate, she'd get careless and do something stupid like kill the first person to look at her the wrong way, right out here in the open, and that sure wasn't the way to stay off of the local cop's radar screen.
Not that she was doing too good a job of that, with what she had already done here. What had Buffy said about her? 'Not exactly low-profile girl'. Right again, B. Like always. Damn it.
Faith wondered what she was going to do, come morning. There wasn't anything keeping her here. She could just take off, get gone and never think about this place again. Or could she? Being inside Buffy had really screwed with her head. If that bunch of idiots in Sunnydale had thought Faith was messed up before, they should get a load of her now. Before she had at least known what she wanted, who she was. There was a lot of freedom in being the psycho killer everyone expected you to be. Now, though, everything was mixed up in her head. She didn't have anything to hold on to, or anyone to tell her what she was supposed to do.
No, not supposed to do. She needed to know what she wanted to do. Nobody could make her do anything, not anymore. She made the rules. That's how it was, that's how it would be from now on. She was the one who mattered, Faith, not someone else. If she wanted to leave tomorrow, then she could. She'd helped these two enough already, hadn't she? Yeah right. I helped them plenty. I let 'em live, but now they have this gang or whatever looking to kill them, and I gave the poor little girl enough heroin to see her through till tomorrow. If I help them any more I won't have to wonder what'll happen to them, they'll be dead and gone."
She turned her head to look at the boy, noting that he was keeping quiet and keeping his distance. Smart guy, this Alex.
"Are we going to get to this place someday or what?"
He pointed to a building on the far side of the next intersection. The sign above the door said 'Puccini's'. The large windows showed a dim interior with nice tables and chairs, and nicely dressed people sitting and eating. As they walked closer, Faith gave him a doubtful look.
"'Poochini's'? What, do they do dog grooming on the side?"
He gave her a sidelong look.
"No. The guy who runs it isn't really Italian, so he picked a name at random. The food's good, though."
She eyed the well-dressed couple that was just entering the place.
"It might be a little classy in there for the likes of you and me, don't you think?"
He grinned at her, his wariness forgotten for a moment.
"Yes, but we're not going in the front way. Follow me."
Crossing the street, they proceeded around the back to an alley. Alex moved unerringly to an unmarked door and knocked loudly. Faith looked around the alley, wary despite the lethargy that gripped her. This would be a good spot for vampires, back in Sunnydale. Of course this wasn't Sunnydale, but that didn't mean she had to get careless. Vamps might tend to gather over the hellmouth, but you could find them in a lot of places, though usually only as singles, or at most in very small groups.
The door opened a crack, and someone peered out at them. Alex leaned close and smiled.
"Hey Ruthie, it's me."
The door opened wide, revealing a large, heavy-set woman wearing an apron. She smiled broadly at the boy.
"Alex! Come inside!" She looked past him to Faith, and her eyes suddenly narrowed, though her manner didn't change. "And bring your friend with you, of course!"
The two of them moved through the door and past the woman. Alex led the way down a short hallway that opened into a large kitchen filled with the warm smells of cooking food. Another woman and a dark-haired man were busy tending the stoves and ovens, but both looked up with a nod and a smile for Alex. The large woman, Ruthie, put a pudgy hand to the boy's face, turning it so that she could examine the marks left by his earlier beating.
"What's this? Fighting, Alex?" She made little tsking sounds of disapproval. "That's no way for someone like you to behave. I thought you knew better than that!"
He looked decidedly uncomfortable, and mumbled something unintelligible. As she fussed over him, Faith wandered over to the large central table. Steaming dishes of meat, pasta and vegetables waited there, and she stared at the wonderful sight, trying not to drool too obviously. She felt the lethargy gripping her ease a bit as her hunger made itself known with a vengeance, and the growl that erupted from her stomach was clearly audible despite the sounds filling the busy kitchen. The male chef turned around long enough to grin at her, and she smiled back weakly.
"Sorry, it just smells really good."
Ruthie gave her a look she couldn't read before urging Alex over to a small counter in the corner. Pushing him down into a chair, she spoke to him while gesturing Faith over.
"Here, you and your friend can wait here, I'll get you something to eat. You both look like you're starving."
Faith sat down, and then nodded up at the large woman.
"Yeah, I am, thanks."
That earned her a brief but intense look, then the woman moved off to begin gathering items onto plates. Faith leaned close to Alex and spoke quietly.
"I don't think she likes me. She didn't even ask my name."
He nodded thoughtfully as he looked over his shoulder at the woman.
"I think you're right. Strange, she's never had a problem with it when I brought Kelly with me."
She shifted uneasily in her chair. Sitting like this left her back to the room, and it was noisy enough that someone might manage to sneak up behind her. The flesh between her shoulder blades tingled in anticipation of someone putting a bullet or a blade there. From where he was sitting, Alex could at least see the room just by turning his head a little.
Faith stood up.
"Trade places with me."
He looked at her in surprise.
She stepped over next to him, waiting.
"Just do it." With difficulty she managed to force out a "Please."
He still seemed confused about the whole thing, but he stood up and moved over to her chair. She sat down in his, immediately feeling better as she scanned the room. Keeping her back to a wall and mapping escape routes had long since become second nature, and working for the Mayor had only intensified her paranoia. When you were a white hat, you had to keep an eye on the bad guys. When you were a bad guy, you had to keep an eye on everyone. Alex was watching her, but he didn't comment further, for which she was deeply grateful.
The large woman soon returned with two full plates. Setting them in front of the pair, she gave the boy a smile.
"Here you are, then. Eat up; I'll go tell Ed you're here, all right? You know where the sodas are, Alex." She moved off, not quite waddling, but not gracefully, either. Faith would have sneered at the woman for allowing herself to become so huge and ungainly, but she was too busy eating. The food tasted even better than it smelled, though her tongue barely had time to make its acquaintance before it was past and on its way down to her stomach. The boy stopped with his fork halfway to his mouth, watching as she tore through a large piece of lasagna in seconds.
"You know, I'm not sure if it can technically be called eating if you don't actually chew the food."
She didn't waste time answering him, moving straight to the next thing on her plate. Some kind of green veggie… stuff, and too highly-spiced for her hyper-sensitive sense of taste, but that didn't keep her from shoveling it away as fast as she could ply her fork. In less than two minutes her plate was empty, and she was looking around to see if there was any way she could sneak another plateful away from the serving table. Alex looked at her with a sort of wary fascination.
"Wow. Are you going to be okay? Or am I going to have to watch you bring all that back up soon?"
She gave him a sharp look.
"Screw you, asshole. That's the first real food I've had since… well, you wouldn't believe me if I told you. I'm not going to waste it by upchucking." She looked around again, and she couldn't help but sound a little wistful. "You think I could have some more? I can pay them…."
He smiled faintly.
"It's okay, Ed won't let you pay if you're with me. I help him out when I can, and he likes me. I'll go get you some more." He stood up, and took her plate with him. "Any preferences?"
She realized that she was eyeing the food that still filled his plate. Trying to keep from seeming guilty, she looked up at him.
"Anything is good. Just get a lot of it. And maybe a coke? Or even just some water would be good."
With an amused expression on his face he went off to fetch her food.
She didn't mean to steal his dinner or anything, not more than a nibble, anyway, but before he had been gone long she had gone from sneaking just a forkful of his pasta dish to pulling the plate over and going at it at full speed. Someone came up next to her, and she stopped abruptly, chewing the last mouthful and swallowing before looking up.
"Sorry, Alex. It just smelled so-"
The man standing beside her was a stranger, and it disturbed her that she'd been so distracted that she hadn't noticed him until he got within arm's reach of her. Sloppy, Faith. Really sloppy. What if he was one of these gang people, or even Angel, with that damn bat. Wonder whatever happened to Angel, anyway? Nobody mentioned him when I was walking around in B's body, except to say that he'd left….
The man was just slightly overweight, as she expected most people would be, if they worked around good food all day long. He was mostly bald, with dark hair forming a fringe around the sides and back of his head. He also had a dark moustache. If she didn't know better (and she didn't), she would have said that he was trying hard to fit the stereotype of an Italian restaurant owner.
"Hello there. You are, how do you say, Alex's friend?"
"Alex's friend." She supplied, enunciating clearly for his benefit. His accent was awful, with a hint of a Midwestern twang coming through despite his best effort at sounding Italian. He paused, apparently not understanding her little joke…, which was just as well, since it was at his expense. She was about to explain it to him anyway when Alex appeared at his shoulder. She quickly pushed his plate back to where he had left it, but he caught the motion and gave her another surprised look.
"You get hungry while I was gone?"
He didn't seem mad, so she used her best apologetic smile.
"Well, you were taking a long time, y'know? I just tasted it, really."
"Uh huh." He looked at the man nodding towards Faith. "I think she kind of likes the food here, Ed. If she liked it any more then you wouldn't have any left for the customers."
The man smiled broadly at that.
"Ah, the girl with the healthy appetite, I like that!"
Actually, the way he said it was more like 'the-a girl-la with-a the healthy appetite-ta'. She held back a snicker, looking down and pretending to cough when he turned to look at her. It wasn't a good idea to laugh at the guy who was feeding you, even if he was more than a little ridiculous.
Alex sat down, pushing his half-empty plate back towards her.
"Here, you finish this one and I'll eat this."
She didn't argue, instead going to work with knife and fork. With only the occasional pause to take a few gulps of the coke he'd brought her, she was finished before he'd taken more than a few bites of his own. The owner looked pleased.
"You do like the Italian food, yes?" He clapped the boy on the back with one hand. "Any friend of Alex is welcome here. Did he tell you how he saved me a thousand dollars last week?" Faith opened her mouth to answer but he'd already launched into the story of how his freezer had stopped working, endangering several days worth of frozen supplies. The repairman had told him that it would be the next day before he could come by, which would have been too late to save the rapidly thawing food. Alex had saved the day.
"He's a genius with the machinery, he is. Ten minutes and he had the old girl-a purring like-a the little kitten!"
The boy shrugged self-consciously.
"It was only a lose wire in the compressor. No big deal."
That earned him another clap on the back.
"No big deal! Ha!"
Faith fidgeted, trying not to look at Alex as he ate. Two helpings of rich food might be a bit much for her no doubt shrunken stomach, but she couldn't help but wish that there were a way to get just one more plateful. It wasn't like she had to worry about getting fat or anything. The way things were going, it might be another couple of days before she got anything much to eat again, certainly not something that tasted this good. Alex looked up as he was chewing something, and caught her staring at him. He swallowed, and then sighed.
"You want to finish this one?"
He pushed the plate toward her, and she quickly reached out and pulled it the rest of the way.
"Only if you don't want it."
Without waiting for an answer, she started in on it. Now that the edge was off her appetite, she could take the time to enjoy what she was eating. It was great. Alex stood up and headed off across the kitchen again.
"I think I'm going to have to eat over here if I want to get anything for myself."
Ed the owner followed him, not without an awed backwards look or two. In between bites, Faith watched them. She didn't like the way the man kept glancing back at her; it looked too much like he was talking about her and wanted to make sure she was too far away to hear. So she kept her eyes on her plate and Listened.
"-believe a skinny thing like that can put away three helpings. Y'think she's, whaddayacallit, bulemic? She'd hafta be, to eat like that and stay that thin, right?"
Hm. Ed didn't bother with the accent with Alex. And really, if that was all they were talking about, she didn't need to bother listening.
"No, I don't think that's it. She's on the move, running from somebody, maybe. I haven't asked. It isn't any of my business." You got that right. None of your business, any of it. And no, I am not running from somebody. I'm… looking for opportunities. Moving on, moving up in the world.
That was actually sort of true, in a way. When you were at the bottom, up was the only way you could go.
"Alex… you didn't leave Kelly for this girl, did you? When Ruthie told me you were here, she said you'd brought in a hooker, and I-"
Faith nearly spit the coke she was drinking all over the table. Hooker?! She supposed she should be pissed off, but instead she was just stunned. Damn. She'd thought she looked pretty good, even wearing a boy's clothes, and this was the reaction she got. Hooker?
"Ah, no Ed, I didn't leave Kelly. She's waiting for us back at our place. She's just not feeling too good tonight. Also, probably not a good idea to mention the hooker thing where Faith could hear you. She's some kind of black belt or something, and you wouldn't want her mad at you. Trust me."
Huh. She should be mad at him, but it was hard to get upset when she was finally full. Her belly gurgled happily as it worked at turning the food into energy to fuel her hyper-fast metabolism. She leaned back, patting her flat stomach with contentment. That should hold her for a little while. Despite the man's insistence that no payment was expected, she'd been planning to leave a twenty under her plate. After all, she'd eaten enough herself for three people, plus whatever Alex had managed to get for himself. That had to be more than the man had expected to give away. After hearing his comments, though, she decided to skip it.
Hooker her ass.
* * * * *
Whistler stood at the window and looked down. Three floors below, at street level, the two creatures stood looking around stupidly. The various props that had been provided looked real, and judging by the way they were gnawing on them, they tasted real too.
"I don't like this."
The human-seeming demon turned to look at the being that stood at the other window. It looked a lot like a humanoid spider, with the middle two sets of legs somewhat smaller than the others, and folded in against its chest. Within the shadows of the cloak it wore, they were nearly undetectable unless you knew to look. It's face, with the many small jet-black eyes, was somewhat more conspicuous.
Whistler gave his companion a grin.
"What's not to like? I found us this empty apartment, you conjured in the trolls down there, and pretty soon the girl'll come walking by…."
The spider mage gave him a look that was rendered inscrutable by its bizarre features.
"Yes, the girl encounters the trolls. And then what?" One many-jointed arm gestured to the alleyway below. "These are no trivial adversaries. Perhaps they will slay her, despite her powers. Even now they are but lightly held by my will. Should they slip my mystic tether, they will roam this city, killing at will."
Whistler gave him a stern look.
"Hey, you told me that you could keep those puppies where I wanted them. What's up with this 'slipping the tether' stuff?"
The alien being gave forth a brief chittering sound, then turned its head to glance around uneasily.
"That statement was made before I had come here. There are powerful magicks at work in this city; darker works by far than any I would dare essay myself. There may be harmful interactions of force, unless the girl arrives soon." It looked at him again, those bizarre multiple eyes unsettling in their steady regard. "I wish to discharge my obligation to you, but I have my own affairs. The battle-wizard Cassel is pressing my forces; I dare not be long absent from my dimension."
Whistler waved his hand in a soothing gesture, turning to look outside once more.
"Don't worry; she'll be here soon, and then you can go home. And don't worry about her losing to these guys, either. A Slayer is quite a handful, she should be able to take 'em down." His expression became more thoughtful, and when he continued, he was speaking mostly to himself. "She likes to fight humans; I think she's paying somebody back for something that happened to her." He shook his head grimly. "I need to break her outta that. Her job is fightin' monsters; maybe this little scuffle'll help her to remember that. Afterwards, I can do what I came here to do." He sent a sidelong glance at the cloaked figure, then cleared his throat. "Ah…. On the off chance that the girl gets her ass handed to her; can you stop those things from eating her heart out?"
It was amazing, he thought, how complicated an eight-shouldered shrug could look.
* * * * *