See Chapter One for Disclaimer
Faith walked past the young people standing in front of the store, listening with half an ear as their buddy Jim staggered over to join them. From the sound of it, he didn't have any clear idea of what had just happened to him.
The other girl strode alongside her.
"That went well, I think." She looked back over her shoulder. "And don't worry; having his soul smacked around by that thing should mean that his memory will be all confused. He shouldn't remember you."
The Slayer nodded, working the fingers of her hand. A fierce tingle was running through those parts of her that the entity had latched onto, and the residual pain was fading.
Her older self shrugged.
"We've got some time to kill before the next one. Wanna get something to drink?"
That sounded good, and a short time later they were both leaning against the side of a building along Sunnydale's main street. Trick or treaters were still abundant, and moviegoers were lined up in front of the theater across the way. Faith sipped her cola, watching the crowd. After a few seconds, she started to get a strange feeling, and she turned her head to the side.
The other Faith was watching her intently, an odd look on her face. Faith lowered the drink, wondering at the faint chill that had just gone through her.
"Are you sure you can't manage any of this?" She offered the coke. Her other self shook her head.
"No, thanks. Even if I feel solid to you, I'm not really here."
The Slayer nodded. Then paused.
"Where are you?"
She turned to face the other girl.
"Your spirit, or soul, or whatever, is here with me. Where's your body?" She gestured around them. "Are you living in Sunnydale, or did I ever get to move to Seattle like I decided I wanted to, last week?"
The older girl seemed to consider her response.
"I think it's safe to say that I'm in Sunnydale...."
Faith nodded, unsurprised at that.
"But, is somebody watching you, while you're here? I'd hate to get drained by a vamp because I was running around in the past. I mean, I'd hate for it to happen to you, but it'll be me, eventually. So, you know."
Her other self grinned.
"I knew what you meant. Um. Yeah, my body is being... cared for."
She was still picking her words carefully, and Faith was still trying to figure out what was going on here. Suddenly, she whirled to face the other girl.
"I'm dead, aren't I?!" She felt all the blood leave her face, and she thought she might be sick right there on the sidewalk. "Fuck, that's it, isn't it? I'm dead, and you're a ghost."
Her double was playing with her hair again, looking down at the lock she'd pulled forward over her shoulder. She glanced up at Faith, even as her fingers deftly wove the dark strands into a tiny braid.
"I think I'll have to pass on that one."
The younger girl took a step forward, her shock quickly turning to anger.
"What! What do you mean, 'pass'?"
Some of the passersby were staring, giving a wide berth to the pretty girl who was ranting at a bare section of a wall. Faith the elder gave her an amused look.
"Okay, try and follow me, here. If I tell you that yeah, you'll be dead in a year, then you might decide to not even try, and go jump in front of a bus right now. On the other hand, if I say 'Nope, I'm alive', then you might think that you're invincible, and do something stupid that gets you killed." She flipped her hair back over her shoulder. "So I'm going to leave it up to you to figure it out."
Faith put one hand to her stomach, feeling the queasiness there. The other girl watched her for a moment, then gave a sigh. Leaning closer, she spoke softly, like someone might overhear.
"But just between you and me.... Knowing how well we can kick ass, if it were me, I'd be betting on you being alive, a year from now." She straightened, looking around unconcernedly. "But that's strictly a playing the odds sort of thing. I'm not actually saying, one way or the other."
Faith swallowed, trying to slow her breathing to something like normal. She reached out to squeeze her twin's shoulder gratefully.
The other girl shook her head.
"For what? I didn't say anything." She turned her head and stared down the street. "Uh oh, I can feel the next one lining up. We'd better go."
She walked quickly down the street, passing with blissful disregard through the pedestrians. Faith, following after, wove her way between them but still managed to keep pace.
* * * * *
Three streets over, they came to a seedy bar. A dozen or so motorcycles were parked out front, and the overamplified country music blasting out of the place grated across her nerves. She looked at the other girl, a feeling of dread coming over her.
The other Slayer was giving the place a long look.
"Yeah.... At least, he's in there." She glanced at Faith. "But that's not where you'll meet him." She turned and took off at a brisk jog. The younger girl followed, matching her speed.
"What's this? Don't I have to fight the guy? It is a guy, right?"
Her future self nodded.
"It's a guy. And you do have to fight him. But you shouldn't fight him in the middle of a bar filled with drunk-off-their-asses bikers, either. 'Sides," She nodded at the road they were running beside. "It doesn't get him until he's somewhere along here, on his way home."
A mile or so passed in silence, with both of them running easily. Of course, Faith wasn't sure the other girl's astral body was actually running in the same sense that hers was. Maybe future Faith was just 'thinking' about running down this road. Hm.
Speaking of thinking....
"Answer a question?"
That got her a look.
"Maybe. Try me."
Faith thought it over for a few hundred yards, trying to figure out what she wanted to ask. Finally:
"Why am I doing this?"
Silence from the other for a second or two before she responded.
"What do you mean?"
"Well, if you're there, with the Watcher. Or Watchers, if I heard you right, earlier.... Then why am I the one getting tested? Why aren't they testing you? You're the one they have to work with, right?"
Her twin spread her hands.
"Hey, I just work for these people, I can't read their minds." She looked thoughtful. "I suppose they want to find out what you're made of before they waste too much time on you. Who knows what these guys are up to, anyway?"
Her tone made Faith slow down for a few seconds before speeding up to run alongside the other girl. What they were up to? There was a lot of bitterness there, sounded like. She would have to think about that later. She tossed her hair back from her face, keeping her breathing even.
"All right, how about this? If you're me, then you've already done all this. You know how it's going to turn out, because you've already gone through it. So why do I have to do it at all? Can't you just go back and tell them how it went, and leave me alone?"
The older Faith made a rude sound.
"Do you know how stupid that sounds?" She put one hand to her head. "Man, you're really trying to give me a headache, aren't you? Let me see if I can explain...."
The occasional oncoming car went past, throwing Faith's shadow off into the grass beside the road. Not surprisingly, her twin had no shadow at all.
"Okay, try this." The other girl dropped into a lecturer's voice. "I went back in time, but I didn't go to my own past. At least, not exactly. Imagine that time is like a piece of string." She paused, making a face. "On second thought, don't; I hated that show. Imagine that time is like... a water hose."
Faith stared at her incredulously, nearly missing her footing on the dark roadside.
"'Time is a water hose'."
The other Faith nodded.
"Yeah, that works pretty well, actually. Picture it like this. Time is this hose, and at one end it runs off into the past; that's where the water is coming from. Water being like, the world and all of us. We're flowing along inside this hose. And the other end is the future, and it's just out there doing whatever, but that's not the important part of this. So here I am, going back in time, right? Except I can't go straight back, because that's not how the water's going. I can't fight that current, it's impossible. See what I'm saying?"
Faith stared straight ahead.
"I'm still trying to deal with the waterhose thing."
The other girl gave a snort.
"Deal with it. So if I can't fight the current, how can I go back to sometime in my past? I can't." She shot Faith a look. "But I can get close. Imagine taking the hose, and looping it around. So one end is still hooked up to the past, and one end is still running off into the future, but now it's coiled up with a loop of it laying right up against itself. The water is still running in the right direction, but the hose has gone back to where it was before. From a distance, or the right angle. it might seem like that looped part is the same piece as was there the first time. Get it?"
Faith jogged for a hundred steps before answering.
"No." She looked at her other self. "You're right here, you came back."
The future Faith sighed.
"Look, I'm not the expert. I did it, and that's what I saw while I was doing it. This isn't quite my past. What you've done and said to me aren't exactly the same things I said when I was where you are. The broad outlines are close, but the details are different. So you're not locked into anything here, not really. You can change your future; you already are, every second. But the general trend will be the same, probably. Maybe not, though." She shrugged. "So that's why I'm here. You're doing your own thing here, and they need to know how you do."
Something about all of this still struck Faith as being... off, somehow. She tried to find the flaw in the explanation that she's been given. She had the feeling that there was one.
Her older self jogged a few yards ahead of her, then turned right, off onto a smaller side road.
"Here we go, third house down."
It was a nice house, set in an immaculately groomed lawn. Faith walked across the springy grass, noting the neat rows of flowers in the beds along the drive. She turned to look at the road, swinging her arms idly, trying to stay loose. Her twin was also looking back towards town.
"He's on his way. It won't be long."
Faith dropped down to the ground, stretching her legs out straight in front of her. She took hold of her feet and pulled her head down until it lay against her knees. After that run she needed to stretch out. Especially if there was another fight coming up. The other girl stood looking down at her.
"Want to know what we learned from the first one?"
The young Slayer sat upright, pulling a blade of grass from her hair.
"Sure, tell me."
"That you're strong. Being the Slayer is all about being strong, both inside and out." She looked back at the house behind them for a moment. "You beat that thing with brute strength, but sometimes being strong isn't enough. Even the Slayer isn't stronger than everything. You have to be something else, too."
She looked up at her twin.
"What else do I have to be?"
All that got her was a rueful smile.
"That's what we're here to find out. Here he comes."
She looked out at the road, picking out a pair of headlights. They made the turn, and she saw a luxury sedan of some kind coming slowly down the street. It pulled into the drive, and she stood up, brushing off her hands. The car door opened and a man got out.
Faith walked across the grass to meet him.
* * * * *
This was a big man. He had broad shoulders and dark hair, but any details were hard to make out. He was wrapped in such a powerful aura of shimmering distortion that it made his features seem to blur and shift. Faith could feel the power blazing out of him from fifty feet away.
Her twin was standing behind her.
"Yeah. Doesn't look like you'll be able to out arm-wrestle this one, does it?"
He stared at her for a moment, then turned away, walking up the drive. The other Faith pushed her a step forward.
"Don't let him get inside the house."
She pulled away from her older self, straightening her shoulders. Breathing deeply, she trotted across the lawn, cutting him off on the sidewalk that led to the front door. The thing never even slowed; it stalked up to her and unleashed a backhand. Faith got an arm up to block, but let out a grunt as she was knocked aside, doing a full rotation in mid-air before crashing down in the grass. She managed enough of a roll to absorb some of the impact, but her arm was throbbing painfully.
He was stronger than the last one, all right.
She got to her feet. The entity had brought its host body to the front door, now, and was fumbling in its pockets for the keys. It was ignoring her. That wasn't going to last long. Bounding onto the porch, she fired a fist forward into the base of his spine. He staggered against the door, and she hit him over and over, as fast as she could work her arms. She was pounding his kidneys when he whirled. She slapped her palms against both his ears, as hard as she could, then scrambled back as he reached for her. He roared, staggering out onto the lawn after her, blood streaming from both ears. From off to the side, the older Faith was observing with interest.
"Hm, let me see, here...." She ran a finger over her lips, staring at the thing with her eyes narrowed in concentration. "This is Paul. He's a successful business-guy of some kind... and he's channeling the ghost of his father." She blinked, looking closer. "And his grandfather... and his father, and his father, blah blah blah." She waved a hand in dismissal. "I'm not sure how many generations, exactly, but there's a crowd in there. Looks like some kind of family curse thing going on with this one."
Faith was too busy to spare more than a sliver of her attention for what her twin was saying. This one was only a little faster than a man, but it was a shitload stronger. She was spending most of her time ducking and dodging his swings. She sure as hell wasn't going to try another block. He kept coming after her, and even though the aura of distortion around him made it hard to tell, she had the impression that his face was twisted into a snarl of rage. His attacks were wide sweeps of his arms, with almost no footwork at all. He was spending a lot of time off-balance, reaching for her or stumbling from the force of his swings. She launched the occasional jab or low kick, watching how he moved.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the older Slayer shook her head in silent disapproval. Faith wondered what she was doing wrong. The man gave a scream of rage and frustration, charging her with wide-open arms. She turned and unleashed a side kick into his gut, giving it everything she had. He came to a sudden stop, but otherwise seemed unfazed. She pulled her leg back before he could grab it, backing away.
Her future self gave a sigh.
"No, being strong was the first lesson. This is part two."
Faith wanted to snarl. She stayed ahead of him, and the next time he reached for her, she reversed direction, moving into him along his left side. Grasping his arm, she set herself and yanked him forward and down. Already off-balance, he executed an involuntary forward somersault, slamming down hard on his back. She spun into a sitting position with her legs across his chest, his wrist still held firmly in her hands. She levered the arm across her thigh; if he struggled now, she could snap his elbow in a heartbeat. He didn't seem to understand, reaching up with his free hand to grab her by the hair. She gritted her teeth and forced his captive arm past the breaking point.
Or at least, she tried. It wouldn't move. She used all the strength in both her arms, trying to budge one of his, but it would not move. Using the grip on her hair, he pulled her off him, twisting to come up onto his knees. He held her in place with one hand, and with the other he hit her. He used his open hand, striking her across the face, but the force of it rocked her head back. She brought her arms up, trying to protect herself, but forced them away, wrestling with her until he had her pinned beneath him. She writhed, trying to throw him off, fighting to remember her skills. She knew how to fight someone stronger than she was, how to use their own strength against them, but that knowledge was out of reach, somewhere beyond a rising tide of fear. He hit her again, harder, and she tasted blood in her mouth. He hit her again, and again, and again, in a steady rhythm, and she could feel herself falling into a feeling of helpless hysteria. This was just like--
Her father. The beatings, the rape. She'd been just eight when he started, and he was so much stronger that she couldn't fight him. But she'd never stopped trying; it wasn't in her to stop trying. Years of that, and she never stopped fighting him. Her brother hadn't fought back. He'd only gotten the beatings, mostly when the old man was drunk, but with him it was brutal. Broken bones, burns from the stove. In the end, he'd died of it, and their mother became a junkie, just to escape from what her husband had become. Only Faith had fought him, as best she could. In the end, running away was the only thing that had kept her alive.
He seemed to lose interest in her, letting her go and rising to his feet. Faith lay on the ground, feeling the world spin around her. She heard him moving towards the house, but she was still struggling with the past that had escaped from the barriers she'd put around it, surprising her with the power it still had, to turn her into a helpless child again. Her twin knelt beside her.
"I know it's hard, but you need to get up. All of these guys inside him, they're just like dad. That's what they're here for, to rape and kill the wife and kids." She caressed Faith's face with gentle fingers. "You can fight him; you can. But you have to remember that you're fighting spirits, more than a man, here. Physical stuff is just a side-effect; it's your mind that has power here, more than fists." She stood up, still looking down at where Faith lay on the grass. "You couldn't fight him then; you were just a little girl. But you can use what he gave you. Just let it out."
She closed her eyes. The other girl's words had eased her fear, and she reached out for what lay behind it. The fear was a wall, built brick by brick by every horrible thing her father had ever done to her. But there was something behind that wall, something else that had come from those years.
Faith opened her eyes, and the fear fell away.
The pain fell away.
Only the rage was left.
She came to her feet, turning slowly to look at the house. The man had been reaching for the door again, but he paused, as if aware of her gaze. He turned to face her, and she was walking forward, so full of boiling fury that it felt as if she were floating across the ground towards him. A golden haze seemed to lay over everything in her sight, but she ignored it, focusing her entire being on the man before her.
He reached for her, and she struck his arm aside. He was still stronger than she was, but a gold flash erupted from her hand at the point of contact, and his limb was thrown back. She rammed her fist into his stomach, and gold light illuminated the space between them. He fought back, clubbing at her with incredibly powerful arms.
It didn't matter.
She was consumed with a fury that had been a part of her for most of her life. It moved through her like a flame, setting every part of her on fire. She was a conduit for a rage that transcended anything that could be described, or defined, or restrained. She had never been able to punish her father, but this thing she could punish, this thing she could destroy. The Slayer-power took her fury, and turned it into a weapon that could do what her fists and feet could not. Every blow she delivered seared the entity with gold fire; with her bare hands she grabbed hold of the thing that was inhabiting this man, and she tore it from him.
He screamed, long and loud, and she screamed too. Finally, after so long, to know release. She stared at the mass of shimmering spirit-stuff she held in her glowing hands. It writhed like a mass of maggots, radiating evil like a fire gave off heat. With a vicious smile, she tore it asunder. A ripple of distortion, a last, lingering howl that was felt more than heard, and it was gone.
Faith took a step back, wiping her hands convulsively. The stink of the thing seemed to cover her, and the gold light was gone once again. She stood there, the rage still coiling through her. The man was laying before her, groaning incoherently. She turned away.
"What lesson was this?"
Her voice was harsh, and she was still trembling with the force of the emotion that had rushed through her in such a powerful torrent. Her twin was watching the man awkwardly rise to a sitting position, and she replied almost absently.
"That passion is more powerful than strength."
"All right. Let's motor." She'd taken several steps towards the road when she realized that her other self hadn't moved. She sent the girl a questioning look. The older Faith met her eyes calmly, then turned towards the house. The Slayer followed her gaze. The front door was open, the silhouette of a woman visible against the light from inside. The man staggered to his feet, and even from where she stood, Faith could see the woman flinch as she saw him. He was at least slightly drunk, and even though the entity possessing him had absorbed the brunt of the damage during the fight, he was battered and bruised. He glared at her, one hand going to touch a rapidly-swelling eye.
"Get off my property right now, Bitch." He clenched his hand into a fist, but didn't move to approach her. "Go on! Leave!"
She was still looking past him at the woman in the doorway, trying to make her out more clearly. A dangerous void was swelling inside her; those memories had been roused after being suppressed for so long. If this was....
"Paul?" The woman's voice was tentative, almost fearful. "Are you all right?"
His tension and fear of Faith exploded into rage, and he whirled.
She cringed back in the doorway, and he strode up the walk, leaving Faith standing on the lawn. Her older self came up beside her as she stared after him. They shared a bleak look. Faith started towards the house.
The man reached the doorway, grabbing the woman by the hair even as he flung the front door shut behind him.
Faith stopped the door before it could close.
He whirled, his face a mask of disbelief, but the Slayer was looking at the woman. She stood, slightly hunched over, not meeting Faith's eyes. Under her careful make-up one side of her face was puffy and discolored, and the collar of her dress revealed the brown and yellow mottling of old bruises along the base of her neck. The man was sputtering in furious disbelief, but the young Slayer ignored him, moving farther into the house. She glanced around the living room, then strode down a hallway. She glanced into empty rooms, noting that everything was absolutely clean, with not a single item out of place. Not a stray sock, not a speck of dust or misplaced cushion. It didn't look like a place where anyone actually lived. Coming to a closed door, she slowly swung it open.
Darkness, but she could make out the two figures huddled together on the bed. She found the light switch and flipped it on.
A young girl, maybe eleven or twelve years old was staring back at her. She was terrified, her face filled with a sick dread that Faith remembered all too well. She could see herself in that face. The girl held a younger boy protectively. Her arms didn't hide the marks that marred the exposed skin of his arms. The man's bellows were coming closer as he searched the house for her, and she stepped out of the room, pulling the door softly shut. These children did not need to see what would happen next.
* * * * *
An hour later, the two of them were walking along the dark road, about half-way back to town. Neither of them had spoken since Faith had walked out of the house still wiping blood from her hands. Now, with the lights of Sunnydale growing brighter ahead of them, she felt driven to say something, anything.
"Must be close to midnight, by now." She glanced over at her older self, who nodded.
"In a little while, yeah."
The silence grew between them again. Faith looked down at her hands, checking again to make sure the red stains were completely gone. She took a long, shuddering breath. While she had been doing... what she'd done, to the man, the fury she'd felt had burned itself out. With every crack of a bone breaking, with every scream he'd tried to get past her muffling hand, it had run out of her. By the time he had gone still and quiet, there had been nothing left inside her but ashes. She shook herself, trying unsuccessfully to banish the memory.
"I've never killed anyone, before. Not," Her voice cracked, and she cleared her throat before continuing in a whisper. "Not a real person."
The other Faith nodded.
"I know." Her voice was quiet, but steady.
The younger girl turned to regard her twin.
"Have you.... How many more have you done, by the time I'm you?"
A long pause, then finally:
She glanced over again, but there was no expression on that version of her face. None at all.
It came out more plaintively than she'd meant, but she couldn't help it. She'd felt something in herself tonight that frightened her. She'd killed a man, and maybe he'd deserved it. If she'd killed him quick, in the heat of rage, that would have been one thing. That hadn't happened. She'd been cold, completely in control of herself when she'd done it, and her only thought had been to make it last as long as possible. She'd done everything she could to make sure he felt every bit as much pain as he'd dealt his wife, and son, and daughter; and there had been a sickly-sweet pleasure in doing it.
Her other self was regarding her.
"Why? There's lots of reasons, and most of them you wouldn't understand, yet. One of them fits what you did back there, though." She looked up at the stars, her feet silent on the gravel of the roadside. "To some acts, for some crimes, there can be only one reply: Death."
Faith hung her head for a moment, then gave a bitter laugh.
"Did I lose any points, y'know, in the test, for doing that?"
"Not in my book you didn't."
* * * * *