4: Late Dark
See Chapter One for Disclaimer
They had made it back to town, and Faith surprised herself by asking for a break. It wasn't her favorite thing, admitting to being tired, but she was feeling seriously slagged. Her older self looked at her in concern.
"You sure you're okay?"
She nodded, looking for someplace to sit.
"Uh huh. I just feel like... I don't know what I feel like." She found a bus bench to sit on, and her phantom self settled down beside her. Faith lifted a hand, holding it out in front of her. A slight tremor shook it, and she clenched it into a fist before dropping it to rest on her thigh. "What's wrong with me?" She looked over at her double. "I should be able to fight all night long easy."
The older Faith was watching her closely.
"Don't sweat it. You're doing stuff tonight you've never done before, fighting these spirit things on their own ground." She raised her own hand and flicked a finger at the other girl. A tiny ripple of golden light hung briefly in the air between them before fading slowly from view. "I'm helping you channel the Slayer power in a way you can't do yourself, to do the special-effects spirit-slaying stuff. That's where all your energy is going." She gave the younger Faith an encouraging smile. "Relax, you're doing great. One more and you're done."
Faith nodded wearily, leaning back on the bench and closing her eyes. Within moments she was drifting, the sounds of traffic and the occasional costumed passerby fading to a faint hum. It occurred to her that she was out in the open, and that this was no place to be this vulnerable, but she knew it would be all right just this once. Her older self would watch out for her.
She dozed fitfully, only semi-aware of her surroundings.
"There you are, murderess!"
She sat up with a start, panic surging through her. They'd found her! The cops, the wife must have called the cops, and they were going to catch her sleeping and that would be it.
Faith was on her feet, trying to figure out which way to run, when her surroundings registered. There were no police in sight, and she couldn't see who--
"You thought no one would know where you had gone? I saw! I followed you here, and now I see what you're up to!"
It was an old man, standing across the street. He was heavy-set, with thinning hair, glasses, and a bowtie. She stared back at him, caught between fear and confusion. Who was this guy? Was he one of the neighbors? He could have seen the fight on the lawn, and then gone to investigate once she'd left. The wife and children had been out of it when she'd barricaded them in the basement; they shouldn't have been able to tell anyone anything, at least not until she called somebody in the morning and told them to go let the poor things out. So how had he found her?
He was walking towards her now, ignoring the traffic on the street. As she watched, a minivan drove right through him, the driver seemingly unaware that he was there at all. When the vehicle had passed, he was still walking forward, unfazed.
Faith took a step back, and a voice came from behind her.
Her older self had stood, and was looking at the man with an incredulous expression on her face.
"Lester, it is you!" She folded her arms, sparing a glance for Faith. "Don't worry, he can't do squat. He's just a lame-ass ghost."
The man had come to a halt just a few steps away from them. He glared at the future Faith, and then at the Slayer herself.
"No, I can't do anything to you, spawn of evil. But neither can I stand by and let you carry through whatever mischief has brought you back to this time." He looked at Faith, and she was startled by the revulsion in his eyes. "You are the one from here and now. Already she's tainted you; stolen whatever innocence you might have still had. I can see the blood on your soul." He shook his head. "You've killed, tonight; and took pleasure in it." She shifted uncomfortably, and he looked at her twin. "Why have you done this? Gone to all this effort, come all this way back?" His eyes narrowed, and his voice grew thoughtful. "Expenditure of energy, and tainting of soul? That would be necessary to--"
The older Faith cut him off.
"That's enough, Lester."
She stalked forward, a smooth, gliding walk that reminded Faith of a panther. So far tonight, she'd hadn't seen her older self doing anything but casually walking or jogging. This was different; this was a predator moving in for the kill. She wondered if she looked like that now, when she was in hunting mode. She kinda hoped so. Still....
That sounded weird, saying it like that.
"Could you tell me who this guy is?"
Her twin didn't turn, but she came to a halt on the curb, watching the man with an amused detachment that still held a lethal intensity.
"Nobody who matters; nobody you have to worry about." She reached out to the side with her right hand, and a knife made of gold and crimson light blazed into being. She raised it, running her eyes lovingly over the wickedly beautiful double blade. Lester took a hesitant step backwards, his eyes wide with horror. He tore his eyes from that knife, sending Faith a look full of pleading.
"Child, whatever she's told you, whatever she claims, it's a lie! She's a murderer, and worse! Don't let yourself become what--"
Faith's older self had heard enough.
"Save it, Lester."
She moved forward, ignoring the adventurous band of costumed party-goers who walked through her on their way past the streetcorner. The ghost man backed away, plainly terrified, but unwilling to turn his back on her to run. Faith took a hesitant step forward, uncertain of what to do. He didn't seem dangerous or anything, and even if he didn't like her future self that didn't seem like reason enough to waste him. She opened her mouth to say something, even though she had no idea what, exactly, she would say.
It was too late.
The older Faith blurred forward, impossibly fast. Unencumbered by the flesh and bone of an actual physical body, she moved, literally, with the speed of thought. Poor Lester barely had time to scream before that knife was ripping through his ghostly form for the fifth time. Shreds and tatters of his body drifted away, unraveling into nothing even as his anguished cry faded away. Faith took a step back, swallowing with difficulty. The pure terror in that scream....
Her twin was watching with satisfaction as the last of the ghost faded away. With visible reluctance, she opened her hand, letting the blazing knife dissolve into a wash of gold and scarlet that was quickly gone. Turning, she tossed her hair back.
"That's a first; I got to kill him twice."
She walked back to Faith's side, her manner changing once again. In moments the darky dangerous killer had vanished, and she was back to being herself, again. The younger girl watched her warily.
"What, was all that about? Why did you have to rip him up like that?"
Her twin sprawled on the bench, stretching her legs out and crossing them at the ankles.
"Him?" She made a dismissive gesture with one hand. "I told you, he's nothing. Ancient history." She smiled up at the younger girl. "What you need to worry about is Slayer test question number three, which is just about lined up. You ready to go?"
Faith stared down at the other girl. The feeling; No, the knowledge that there was more going on here than had been explained was still there. She had done everything she'd been asked to do, tonight, and a man was dead because of it. Maybe she couldn't exactly blame her older self for that one, but the fact remained; she'd killed someone, and if not for this 'test' thing, then that person would still be alive.
"Yeah, alive and beating the shit out of his wife and son." The older Faith's voice was full of scorn. "Alive, and fucking his daughter. Would that have been better? Is it wrong to have stopped that?"
Faith stared at the other girl in amazement.
"You can read my mind, now?"
"Sort of. I can read auras, when I'm on this side of the spirit world. I've gotten pretty good at it, too." She scowled. "I should be, I've only had five months of free time to practice."
Faith wasn't really listening. She was thinking about the night's events. The other girl was right, that guy had deserved to die, and stopping those spirit-things was a good thing, obviously. Her twin was staring at her intently, and she felt her doubts fade. This was herself, after all. What reason would she have to lie to her? Besides, she was so tired, her brain felt like it was stuffed full of cotton.
"All right. Forget it."
The other Faith gave her a smile.
"Beauty. Now lets get going, the main event is just about here." She hopped to her feet and led the way down the street, headed for the eastern side of town. "Don't worry about a thing, everything is working out just the way I hoped it would. Everything is going to be fine. Trust me."
Faith nodded, plodding along behind the other girl. The big clock on city hall read ten minutes till two. As they passed, she noticed her twin giving the building a long look, but she didn't ask why. It was enough to know that all of this would be over soon.
* * * * *
They were crossing the heart of Sunnydale for the third time that night. Faith followed after her future self, rubbing at her eyes in an attempt to stay awake. Her brief nap on the bench hadn't helped much; she still felt like she was running on empty. They passed an all-night deli, and her stomach growled.
Her twin glanced back at her.
"Could we stop for a second? I'd do better if I could get something to help me recharge."
The other girl shook her head.
"Sorry, we're on a tight schedule here. Things are going to happen in just a couple of minutes, and we have to be there."
Faith grumbled, but followed her.
Moments later, they came out of an alley that faced onto a darkened street. Faith had only been in Sunnydale a few weeks, but already this spot was familiar.
"The Bronze." She cocked her head at the older Faith. "I thought we weren't coming to the party?"
Her other self had found a spot to lean up against the wall, crossing her arms and gazing speculatively at the building across the way.
"We're not. But here's where we meet the last person you're going to help, tonight."
The Slayer sank down to sit on a small wooden crate next to the wall. She watched the Bronze for a minute, but that got boring fast. She turned her head and looked up at her twin. Illuminated softly by the lights in front of the club, the other girl remained focused on whatever she saw with her spirit senses. She was beautiful, Faith realized. She knew how she herself looked, and this was the first time she'd had the chance to observe her double at leisure. There were more differences than she'd initially realized. The hair, obviously, and she had to admit that it looked pretty good like that. The other girl's face was more defined; she'd lost the traces of baby fat that the younger Slayer still had. Her body was leaner, in some places, and just a bit riper in others. The differences were subtle, but they were there, and the overall effect was considerable. Faith still looked like a teenage girl, her twin was a young woman.
The older Faith turned to look at her, and blinked.
Her future self shook her head.
"I just caught this... envy or something from you. You envy me?!"
Faith shifted on her seat uncomfortably, but didn't look away.
"Well, yeah, a little. You just seem so, I don't know, strong. Sure of yourself. You know what's going on, and you could probably kick my ass in a fight, too. Besides, you've got the whole...." She waved a hand at the other girl, from her feet to her hair. Leaning there casually, radiating self-assurance, the other girl looked like a sleek, beautiful weapon.
The elder Faith gave a harsh laugh.
"You've got it all wrong." She looked at the ground for a second, then up at the younger girl, her dark eyes shining through the silken curtain of her hair. "If only I could get away with telling you just how fucked up I really am.... My life is such a pile of, well, it hasn't all been fun. Especially lately. I...." She looked away for just a second. "I wish I was as strong as you think I am. I really do. And this?" She looked down at her body, then back at the other girl. "This is just me being a little stuck up, actually." She gave a sad little smile. "My real body doesn't look quite this good, right now. It was a tough summer."
Faith sat and considered that for a moment, but her other self spoke up suddenly.
"There it is; it's happening."
There was a barely restrained excitement in her voice that hadn't been there during the other parts of the night's test, and the younger Slayer looked up at her face. Her eyes were bright, the bitterness and melancholy of a minute before banished without a trace. She headed across the street, waving for Faith to follow her.
The girl took a deep breath before rising to her feet. She was weary, but this was the last one. She could do one more, no problem.
They walked past the front of the Bronze, and of course the bouncer only saw one Faith, not two. Her twin led them around to the side of the building, where the club's side exit let out into the small parking lot. There were a dozen or so cars parked there, but no one was in sight. The older Slayer cut a straight course across the shadowy pavement, her expensive shoes utterly silent. Faith stayed right behind her, still wondering about what the other girl had said. For all her hints that times were tough in her future, she certainly dressed like she had money.
The pair rounded the back corner of the large building. There was another alley here, and it stretched for at least a hundred yards in either direction before there was a break in the structures that walled it in. Small, metal-clad doors and large overhead ones, intended for the delivery of cargo shipments were the only other access to the man-made canyon. Faith shook her head in disgust. Anyone who came back here after dark was just begging for a gruesome death; it was prime vampire hunting ground.
Her nightvision showed her something sitting next to the right-hand wall, and she altered direction slightly to get a closer look.
A small backpack, looking like someone had just set it down for a moment. She raised her head to see her twin walking quickly down the alley. Faith jogged after her, trying to keep her footsteps quiet; sound traveled forever in a place like this.
Speaking of which....
She heard a crunching sound, then a scuffle, from just ahead. The other Faith was gesturing for her to hurry, and she sped up a bit, watching her footing as best she could. She came upon a setback in the back wall of a warehouse, apparently a space provided for trucks to park and unload. Two figures faced each other in the harsh illumination of an overhead light. They were both women, both in what looked like Halloween costumes. She'd barely registered them when one raised both hands and unleashed a wash of glittering red sparks that swirled forward, engulfing her opponent. The hapless victim had tried to dodge to one side, but she'd moved like she was drunk, or half-stunned, and the move was far too slow. The spell had her in its grip, and she froze in place.
The older Faith leaned close to the Slayer and whispered in her ear.
"Don't be to hard on our girl over there. I see lots of backwash still fading around here; the sorceress had to throw a lot of magic before she ended up winning this one."
Faith spared her a glance, and a shrug. What did she care how much of a fight the now-frozen woman had put up? She was just here to destroy whoever this spellcaster was. At least, she guessed that was the case. As they watched, the victorious figure stalked slowly towards her paralyzed foe. Faith saw that she had short blonde hair, and was carrying a fair-sized object of some kind in one hand, the light glinting off of its golden surface. She was unaware of the watching Slayers, focused completely on her goal.
"At long last...."
Her voice was a triumphant hiss.
"Taking my miserable brat of a daughter would have been sweet enough, but this is even better. This is the body I deserve."
She raised the object in her hand, pressing it against the side of the captive woman's face, which was still in shadow. There was a silent concussion that rocked Faith back on her heels, and actually blew the spirit form of her older self back several feet. When it was over, the sorceress was stumbling away from the other girl, straight towards the Slayer. Faith stood her ground, dropping into a fighting stance. If she started throwing magic, Faith wasn't sure what she was going to do.
She didn't. The woman staggered right up to the young Slayer, and Faith was startled to realize that she recognized this girl. She'd seen her at the high school, hanging out with Willow. They were always talking about witchy stuff. The pretty blonde girl stared at her with wide, unseeing eyes, then fell forward, landing heavily. Faith prodded her gently with a toe, but she seemed to be out cold. Strangely, the thing in her hand was some kind of trophy, with a little gold person on top of it. Behind her, the future Faith spoke quietly.
"All right, here we go." There was a brief touch of a hand on her shoulder.
"I hope you're ready for this one."
Faith raised her eyes to the girl standing across the open space from her. The red swarm of the spell had faded, and she was moving again. She was looking straight at the Slayer, and the force of the possessing entity was blasting out of her like the heat from a furnace. She stepped forward, and the light from above finally fell on her face. Faith had already begun to suspect, but seeing it still took her breath away.
It was Buffy.
* * * * *
Buffy stood there, tremors racking her body as the thing from the trophy struggled to pour itself into her. Faith started forward, but a strident whisper from her other self shocked her to a halt.
"Wait!" She turned and looked at her older twin.
"Why?! I can get it before it's all the way set inside her."
The future Faith shook her head firmly, her eyes on the blonde Slayer.
"Too late for that. It's already got its claws in her; if you slap them around now, you could scramble Buffy's brains for good." She shot her younger self a quick look. "Give things a minute to settle, then you can start working on pulling them apart."
The young Slayer stared at Buffy, watching helplessly as the girl shuddered, raising her hands to her head and pressing them to her temples, her eyes rolled back so that only the whites were showing. The air around the girl seemed to ripple as the thing gradually levered itself the rest of the way into that tiny body.
Faith clenched her hands into fists, waiting. Her eyes flicked over the older girl's straining form, and she frowned, diverted for just a second by Buffy's Halloween costume. She was wearing a stylish black mini-dress that showed a lot of leg, which was not unusual for Buffy. But she was also wearing black stockings, high heels, and pale make-up. A large plastic gun was suspended in a shoulder holster, and a pair of very real knives were strapped to her forearms in leather sheaths. The curly black wig that she'd been wearing had been torn off in her scuffle with the witch-girl, and was lying against the wall.
"Who was she dressed as?"
She hadn't really meant to say it out loud, but her twin answered.
"This chick from some books she read, 'Carlita Drake: Vampire Hunter', or something like that. She tried to get me to read them, but...."
With a final surge of power that seemed to warp the substance of the world, the thing inside Buffy settled fully into place. Everything got very quiet for a moment, and then the blonde girl raised her head and looked Faith in the eyes.
She stared at Buffy's face, searching there for some trace of her friend. The other Slayer stood awkwardly, as if uncomfortable with her body, and her green eyes were cold.
"Who are you, girl?"
It was Buffy's voice, but the way she said the words made it sound like someone else. Faith licked her lips and answered.
"I'm her friend. I'm the one who's gonna kick your ass out of her."
It came out in a whisper, and she was moving forward very slowly. Whatever it was that was inside Buffy, it didn't seem to be radiating as much power as the last entity she'd faced. Of course, the last one hadn't been inside the body of a Slayer, either. The blonde head tilted to one side, and a slow smile curved her lips. Faith came to a halt, just out of arm's reach.
"Buffy? Are you still in there?"
The other girl's face was suddenly twisted into a snarl, and she lunged forward.
Faith spun to one side, easily slipping around the clumsy attack. Buffy stumbled, nearly falling before recovering her balance and turning to face her. The younger Slayer had already started the windup for a spin kick, but her mind caught up with her reflexes and she aborted the move, backpedaling away and to the left.
Off to the side, her older self was watching.
"You're going to have to fight her, Faith. It's the only way to save her."
Buffy's head snapped to the side, fixing the spirit with a manic stare.
"What manner of phantasm....?"
Faith slid forward, taking advantage of the momentary distraction. Her fist flashed across, striking the other girl across the jaw, but even as it landed the younger girl muttered a curse. At the last instant she'd pulled the blow, falling back into the habits formed from hours of sparring with the older Slayer. Buffy hardly noticed the impact, turning into the younger girl's body and launching a straight punch. Faith reacted instantly; blocking with a forearm, turning with the punch and guiding it past. She grabbed the extended arm in both hands, in perfect position to snap Buffy's elbow back in the wrong direction... and she let it go. Ducking under another swing, she bounded away, gaining some room. Her twin was shouting.
"What are doing? Hit her!"
The frustration in the older Faith's voice found an echo in her own.
"I'm going to hit her! I'm not going to cripple her!"
Buffy had paused to kick out of the high-heels, and was moving towards her again. Her movements were still stiff and uncertain; like her body was put together wrong. The entity brushed the blonde hair out of her eyes, and her voice was a smug croon.
"You can't save your friend, little girl. She's already beaten, and soon she'll be only fading memories." She smiled. "It's justice you know. She took my body, so I take hers. A fair payment."
Faith snarled, coming in and firing a front kick into the other girl's belly. Buffy folded forward with a wheeze, and this time the strike Faith landed on her jaw was not so gentle. The blonde girl went down, scraping her arms and cheek on the asphalt of the alleyway. The younger Slayer knelt on the other girl's back, grabbing both her arms and holding them out to the sides. It looked like whatever was inside Buffy didn't have access to her physical skills. She had the strength and speed, but she had to stop and think about each move before she made it. There was no way that she could beat Faith like that. She leaned forward, speaking into Buffy's ear.
"Get out of her now, or I'll hurt you."
Faith's older self took a step forward, and the younger Slayer glanced up at her. The spirit girl was looking down at them with an anxious look on her face.
"C'mon. C'mon, it can't be that easy."
Faith looked at her in confusion, and she didn't hear the words Buffy was muttering until it was too late. An invisible force slammed into her, hurling her up and away from the girl's prone form. Faith cartwheeled through the air, kicking and twisting as she flew. She managed to come down on her feet, but the momentum sent her stumbling backwards into the brick wall on the far side of the alley, and the impact made the air leave her lungs in a whoosh. She shook her head, trying to clear the blurred haze that had suddenly fallen across her vision. A lurid green flash drove back the shadows for a moment, and she heard the older Faith gasp in pain. Buffy was rising to her feet, practically spitting with rage.
"I can destroy a spirit as easily as I can the living! You'll both die this night!"
Faith's vision came clear, and she saw her twin stumbling back, a flickering green glow crawling all over her. The younger slayer raised her hands, yelling to her other self as she moved towards Buffy.
"I need that gold stuff, now!"
There was a growly sort of sound from her double.
"You've GOT the gold stuff, moron! I'm enabling you, all you have to do is fucking call it!"
--Damn-- She thought. --I can be a real bitch, sometimes--
Faith focused, reaching for the power that she'd been channeling all night. It was part of her, but using it like this was something that would take her a year to learn. She wasn't sure how, but her future self was helping her with it, supporting her as she reached out and forged the energy that powered her Slayer abilities. A faint golden radiance came into being around her body, and she moved towards Buffy. Off to the side, the older Faith had shaken off whatever spell she'd been hit with, but she looked a little frayed around the edges.
Buffy was standing in the center of the alley, her arms raised and a strange keening coming from the air around her. Another spell was building, and Faith didn't want to see what new shit was about to be thrown in her direction. She struck at the other girl, her fist taking the blonde in the gut. She landed the blow before the entity even started to move her arms in a block, and two hues of gold light blazed from the point of impact. Faith bounced back, shaking her stinging hand.
Buffy seemed surprised too, but that didn't prevent her from making a broad gesture with one arm. A wash of dim purple energy filled the air around Faith, and she felt herself being driven to her knees, weakness and fatigue turning her limbs to lead. That almost off-handed spell having bought her a few moments, the thing inside Buffy continued building power for a more powerful one. Faith was struggling, her dim gold aura slowly burning away the effects of the magical attack. The lethargy slowly faded, and she struggled to her feet. Just standing was a colossal effort, and taking a step forward seemed impossible.
She did it anyway, raising one trembling fist and driving it into Buffy's beautiful face. That double flash of gold came again, hurting her hand as much as it hurt the other girl. Still, the blonde Slayer staggered back a pace, and Faith followed, rapidly recovering from the debilitating spell. She launched a spin kick, taking Buffy across the side of the head, then reversed direction and kicked her again. Light flashed from both impacts, but the other girl had barely registered the blows. The thing inside her seemed completely out of her element so far as the fighting went, but she still had a Slayer's durability. Besides which, Faith's power didn't seem to be getting through to the thing inside the body, like it had with the other things she'd fought.
The future Faith had been watching, too.
"That's not working." She looked at the younger girl. "She's got the same power that you're using, inside of her. It's blocking you. Remember; Strength isn't always enough."
--Great, the middle of the fight and it's zen-philosophy time--
She stared at her opponent for a moment, breathing deeply.
Okay, if she didn't have enough strength, she'd try for passion. The most important thing in the world to her, at that moment, was driving this thing out of her sister Slayer. Focus on that, live for that, and put everything else aside.
Faith drove forward even as Buffy lowered both arms to point at her. A screeching, ear-piercing detonation of magical force erupted from the blonde girl, and Faith screamed as something that felt like a hundred buzzsaws passed through her. She didn't catch the full force of the spell, though. She'd already gotten too close to the other girl, almost inside the reach of her arms. The golden shell of energy created by the Slayer power within her also helped blunt the attacking magic, at least a little. She was hurting, and weakened, but she was still on her feet and ready to rumble.
Buffy opened her mouth to snarl something threatening, but Faith didn't wait for it. She grabbed a handful of that blonde hair and yanked the other girl's head downwards, while driving her right knee upwards as hard as she could. Her knee smashed into Buffy's face, and the older Slayer straightened up with bone-jarring force. She blinked, more surprised than anything, and Faith waded into her. She launched a flurry of jabs and strikes, staying in the other girl's face, not letting her have a moment to think. Buffy started to gesture the beginning of a spell, and Faith grabbed that hand with both of hers, capturing the arm and twisting so that her back was to the smaller Slayer. She shoved upwards and back, carrying them both off of their feet, falling backwards so that Buffy landed beneath her. The other girl grunted, and Faith rammed an elbow backwards with all her might. Another grunt, and then both her arms were wrapped around the younger, larger Slayer. Buffy had her around the ribcage, just beneath her breasts; and she began to squeeze. Faith fought, trying to pry those arms away from her body, but her breath was slowly forced from her.
The future Faith was pacing anxiously along side them, watching them struggling on the ground.
"Not good, not good." She paused, leaning over to stare down at Faith. "C'mon, you're smarter than this! You'd better be, anyway. Don't let her make it be about strength; she's in Buffy's body, and Buffy is stronger than you."
The world was trying to go dim. A Slayer could go for a while without air, but not for very long when she was at maximum exertion like this. She jerked her head back, trying to hit the other girl's face, but Buffy was shorter than her, and not lying directly under her, and she missed. The entity increased her efforts, and Faith felt her ribs creaking as they began to bend inwards. She snaked her right leg around, getting it underneath Buffy's shin, lifting the other girl's leg several inches off the ground. Lifting and bending her other leg, the dark-haired Slayer brought her left foot down on Buffy's unsupported knee, bending it several inches back in a direction it was not intended to flex.
The thing inside Buffy screamed in pain, and her grip loosened.
Faith erupted, breaking free and bounding to her feet, spinning to face her opponent. The other girl was getting up, murder shining from her eyes. Faith kicked her, the sole of her heavy shoe slamming into the side of Buffy's jaw. She sprawled backwards on the ground again, and the younger girl leapt forward, straddling the prone body and reaching down to grab the front of her dress. She drew back her fist, measuring the distance carefully; she was still trying to avoid any permanent damage.
Buffy opened her eyes and hissed a single word.
Faith's world went strange, and she was drifting aimlessly across the alley, a strange singing filling her ears. She crashed into a stack of large trash barrels and sagged against them, uncertain for several moments about what was happening. She came back to herself slowly, but it felt like her brain had been brutally clubbed. A few yards away, the other girl was again getting to her feet. She was showing some damage; her face was puffy and blood trickled from her nose and mouth. Faith herself was in better shape physically, but she knew she was loosing this fight. Buffy was too tough to for anything short of death to stop her, and none of this was hurting the spirit thing inside that body. Besides which, the spells were wearing Faith down; this one had nearly stunned her unconscious, the next one might finish her.
There was a sudden movement, and her twin was crouching beside her.
"How are you feeling, champ?"
Faith shot her a disgusted look, trying to keep the remaining disorientation from turning to nausea. Having to vomit would screw her chances in this fight. Her older self looked sympathetic.
"Okay, you see that sometimes being strong isn't enough, and sometimes even passion and intensity won't get it done either, right?"
The younger girl nodded slowly, watching Buffy begin mumbling and gesturing. The elder Faith smiled.
"Well, then. Time for piece of wisdom number three: Trust."
Faith managed to stand, but she didn't think another charge was a good idea. On the other hand, standing here would get her killed, too. Running away was an option, but that would mean Buffy would die, leaving this thing inside her body. Her older self grabbed her by the shoulder, spinning Faith to face her.
"You listening? I'm telling you how to win this."
"Trust? What's that supposed to mean?!" She pointed to where Buffy was shouting at the sky, little arcs of black and green energy crackling around her. "I can't stop her, and I can't beat her! She's too strong!"
The other Faith glanced at Buffy, then back at her younger self.
"She's not stronger than both of us." She spoke the words quietly, but with a surety that penetrated the young Slayer's hopelessness.
"What are you talking about?"
The other cast a quick glance at the blonde Slayer; things were reaching climax, over there.
"Not enough time to run it all down for you, but believe this: Sometimes nothing you can do alone is enough. Everybody needs help sometimes. You have problems with that; I know because I've lived your life. But if you let me in now, if you let me help you win this, then you'll be able to let others in later. You'll be able to be a real person, again." She gave Buffy one last look, then turned those dark eyes on her younger self.
"Please, Faith; trust me."
She had only a split-second to decide. If the sorceress spirit inside Buffy had taken this long to wind up a spell, it was because it would be big enough to annihilate her twice over. But everything in the last decade of her existence had shown her that trusting in others was only going to get you hurt. Could she trust this girl? On the other hand, it was herself that was asking this of her. If she couldn't believe herself, then who? Besides, living like she had been; that sucked. She wanted to change, and if this was the first step, then she was willing to take it. She needed to take it.
Those thoughts raced through her mind in less than a second, and she nodded acceptance.
Her twin gave her a dazzling grin and leaned forward, as if to hug her. There was a rippling, and a disorientation that made her head hurt and her gut seem to twist; then the other girl was gone, and she was standing there facing Buffy, alone.
Buffy extended one hand, clenching it into a fist and gripping that wrist with her other hand. A dark nimbus of energy sprang up around her, and she shouted out three words that made Faith's ears hurt just from hearing them. Black lightning exploded from the girl's fist, snarling towards the young Slayer in a stream wider than she was tall. It smashed into her, tearing and clawing like a living thing, and for long seconds she could see and hear nothing but that hideous power. Finally, it faded away, leaving her standing there, unharmed. She took a deep breath, then sighed. Looking at the dumbfounded Buffy, she smiled.
Faith was shining like a golden star, the combined power of her and her older self blazing through every cell in her body. Deflecting the energies of that attack had been a strain, but they'd done it. Together. She could sense her twin inside her mind, could feel her power added to her own. She took a step towards Buffy, but the older Faith's voice drew her to a sudden halt.
--Don't. She can't hurt us with spells, but all we can do is hurt Buffy, not what's inside her. We need to force her into loosening her hold.--
Faith frowned, watching Buffy watching her.
"How do we manage that, exactly?"
A smile inside her head, felt instead of seen.
--Very simple. Let me just....--
She felt a tugging at her body, and she let go her own control enough for the other girl to guide their movements. Faith found herself leaping at the blonde Slayer, landing practically on top of her. Buffy threw an awkward punch with one hand, and began a series of arcane gestures with the other. Faith swayed aside to let the blow slide past, and ignored the beginning spell. She whipped her open hand across Buffy's face, slapping her hard, forehand and backhand. Blinding flashes of gold light erupted from both strikes, leaving the older Slayer dazed and staring. Faith felt her mouth form a smile, and she was shocked when her head dipped forward to plant a quick kiss on Buffy's lips before turning and sprinting away.
She seized control of the body back from her older self, stumbling and nearly falling in the moment it took to make the transition.
"What the hell was that?!" The younger Faith asked.
She was running down the alley, away from the Bronze, and she had no idea what the next part of the plan entailed. A mental giggle sounded inside her head.
--I told you; we need to screw with her head. That's just my way of doing it-- A sigh escaped her. --Besides, haven't you wondered what it would be like? I know I was, back when--
Faith shook her head as she ran.
"Weird time to find out, is all." But she licked her lips, treasuring the lingering taste.
Behind them, they could hear the sound of Buffy running after them, her voice raised in a stream of profanity that neither of them had ever heard the older girl use.
--Wow, and I thought I was a bad influence on her-- Faith's twin muttered from inside her head.
Faith spared a glance back over her shoulder, and saw a bolt of writhing grey and yellow light streaking at her. There was a shifting inside her as the older Faith flooded more of her essence into the body, strengthening their defenses against magic. There was an uncomfortable squeezing sensation as Faith's own space inside her body was unavoidably reduced, but it was a small price to pay for not getting turned into spiders, or whatever. The bolt hit her in the back, splashing harmlessly off of her blazing aura. She ran out of the alley, coming out onto a main street. The scattered people still out at this hour were staring at her glowing form as she sprinted past, but she ignored them.
A pair of crackling bolts whipped past, one striking a light post, the other smashing a late-night jogger into a pile of lifeless gravel.
--This way!-- There was a sense of frustration. --C'mon, we gotta move faster! Let me--
The tugging came again, and Faith reluctantly released control of her body's actions. Instantly her twin leapt into the street, right in among traffic. The young Slayer thought that she was going to have a heart attack, if such a thing was possible, for a chosen one. The older Faith ignored her mental screams, bounding forward in a dive that carried her over the low roof of a passing sportscar. She danced across four lanes of traffic, and if the cars were relatively few at this time of night, that did little to ease the anger Faith felt towards her older self. She snarled, annoyed to find that with her twin in charge of the body, she was now the one relegated to a mental voice.
--What the fuck was that all about?! Are you trying to get us killed?--
Her future self was grinning, all but dancing as she ran easily up the sidewalk.
"What, that? That was nothing!" She broke into joyous laughter, flinging her arms wide and throwing back her head. "You've got to take some chances if you're gonna know you're alive, you know that!" She slowed just a bit and executed a forward somersault, just for fun. "You're just freaked because somebody else is driving. Relax." She looked over her shoulder, scanning the street behind them. "This won't take too much longer."
Buffy was paralleling them, running along the sidewalk across the street. She hurled another spell, and a ball of dark red flame engulfed Faith for a moment before she ran clear. The ends of her hair smoldered for a moment, filling the air its stink. The young Slayer had been on the verge of demanding that full control be returned to her, but the fire made her remain silent. Without the other girl reinforcing her resistance to magic, that would have fried her. She could put up with being a passenger for a few minutes more.
Her older self was looking up at the buildings they passed, searching for something.
Man, having no voice was annoying.
Long moments passed before her twin answered.
"There it is, this is the one."
She crouched, then sprang upwards at the bare brick wall. She struck it over twelve feet off the ground, her shoes finding purchase in the split-second she was pressed against the rough surface. She pushed off, reaching out as she gained another eight feet in height. The huge sign running along the front of the building was anchored with thick iron struts. Faith's hands grabbed hold of the lowest ones, and then she was pulling herself up behind the massive metal and neon sign. There was nearly two feet of open space between the metal and the brick, and the struts and cables were as good as a ladder. She pulled herself upwards rapidly, going hand over hand.
--Cool. Been this way before?--
Faith was still grinning happily, seemingly finding the whole thing amazingly amusing.
"Oh yeah, all the time."
Seconds later they were running across a series of rooftops, leaping gaps that dropped several stories to the street. Faith remained quiet, watching how the older girl moved her body. Even though it wasn't actually hers, it was still one that very close to the one she used in the future, and apparently in the course of that year she'd gotten in a lot of practice at moving that body around. It was odd having to let someone else take charge of everything so completely, but at the same time, it was nice to know that a mere year could make such a positive change in her skills. Not that she sucked now, or anything, but still....
They came to an iron ladder bolted to a wall, and the older Faith guided their body up it in a single surge of graceful movement. They landed on a fair-sized flat area surrounded by a low wall on three sides. A floor above them a large window looked out over the city, but the glass was dark. Nobody home tonight, apparently. Her twin looked up at that window for several long seconds, then turned to survey the rooftop. She nodded in apparent satisfaction.
"Here we are, again."
Faith wasn't sure what that was supposed to mean; she'd never been here before in her life. Her body cocked her head, listening. Her ears became a hundred times more sensitive, catching the slightest sounds. There were too many; cars passing in the street, people talking and shouting, a passing jet high overhead, the activity in the building below her feet. She couldn't make out anything over the roar. Her older self made a rude sound.
"Can you squeeze over a little more? We've gotta know where she's coming from."
Faith felt her twin reaching for another part of her body, and she gave way with a growl of annoyance. Her older self brought another of her skills to bear, sorting through the thousands of different sounds reaching their ears. Anything not useful was blocked out, leaving only the potentially useful information to be considered. It took only a few seconds to edit the input down to a bare dozen or so different sounds, and her lips curved up into a smile.
"There she is, right on time."
Buffy hurled herself up and over the edge of the roof behind Faith, but the dark-haired Slayer was already diving off to the side, rolling and coming to her feet in a series of moves so fluid that they seemed magical. The thing looking out of Buffy's eyes was not impressed.
"Enough." Her mouth was twisted in a scowl of disgust. "You can't destroy me, but this is growing tiresome. Leave me alone, and we can go our separate ways."
Faith shook her head, both her present and future selves in total agreement.
"Not gonna happen, bitch."
Buffy raised her hands, black lightning crackling around them.
"Then I'll keep trying until I find a way to destroy you both. You're not strong enough to beat me, even together."
The older Faith seemed to think differently.
"Wrong. Watch this."
Faith watched as her body moved in on the blonde girl, gliding forward in a combat stance; balanced and ready. Buffy was glaring; she knew now that in hand to hand she was sorely outclassed. Still, she'd thought of something new to try. The costume that had come with the blonde girl's body included a pair of long knives, and she got one into her hand with only a bit of fumbling. She made a series of little stabbing feints, and Faith's future self gave her a sad little smile.
"No, not this time."
She executed a series of three moves, blindingly fast, that resulted in the knife flying off into the night. From deep inside her head, where she was watching all of this happening, Faith hoped that nobody got in the way of that thing when it came down. Buffy looked almost ready to cry in frustration, but the Faith that was in command of the body was having none of it.
"Not so much fun now, being in that body, is it?" She made of show of cracking her knuckles. "Let me show you how much worse it can get."
She hit Buffy, not hard, but right on the point of her chin. She didn't even use the gold force that was still surrounding her body; it was a purely physical blow. Buffy staggered, but wasn't really hurt. She started to speak, and the other Faith jabbed her precisely in the solar plexus, stealing her breath and making her bend forward. Faith's twin casually swept her legs, sending her crashing down to lie there, gasping.
"Your spells aren't going to work, and you can't fight worth shit. What are you going to do?" She was walking around the fallen Slayer, her voice taunting. "There's only one person in this town; or in the world, who could outfight me, you know. And she's not here, anymore, is she?" She swung a foot into the smaller girl's ribs, and not gently, either. "So you're all mine, looks like."
Inside, Faith was confused.
--What are you doing? We're not trying to kill Buffy, remember?--
Her body nodded.
"Just wait for it." She answered, in a barely audible murmur.
Buffy's body lay there for a few moments, and then a shudder went through her. Faith's older self tensed slightly, and she drew back a couple of steps. The blonde Slayer came to her feet suddenly, and there was a smoothness to the movement that hadn't been there earlier. Her eyes bright, she wiped her bleeding mouth with the back of her hand.
"I have a weapon that can kill you, all I need do is unleash it!"
Faith's body, under the control of it's own outside force, smiled.
She glided forward again, and this time Buffy moved forward to meet her. When she fired a punch at the other girl's face, Buffy had a hand up to block it. The movement was rough, even the younger Faith could see that, but it showed more than a hint of real skill. The older Faith pretended dismay, backing away, but Faith could feel her twin's satisfaction through the connections they now shared. This was what she'd been aiming for the whole time, and it began to make sense.
Buffy launched into a series of simple attacks, combining hand attacks with kicks in a predictable pattern. Faith's future self matched her, falling into the pattern and rhythm with her, subtly guiding her into an even more familiar sequence. After a few seconds, they weren't fighting anymore, though an observer might not know the difference. They were sparring. An intricate dance of movements, meant to teach and to challenge; not to cause damage. Strike and block, lunge and retreat, kick and evade, it was a back and forth flow of speed, grace and power. Faith and Buffy had danced this pattern a hundred times in their weeks together, and they danced it again now. It was quickly clear to both of the Faith's that only a fraction of Buffy's ability was free of the entity's control, and that had to be changed.
Faith increased the tempo, pushing the speed and skill past the limit imposed by the spirit-thing's possession. Within moments, she had an opening, and she landed a punishing blow to the other girl's right side. Seeing only that her body was falling behind in the battle, the entity loosened its hold still further, and Buffy caught up with Faith, matching her move for move. The older Faith increased the speed and complexity yet again, and her younger self had to give up yet more of her hold on the body to accommodate it. She was curled up into a tiny ball inside her own mind, now; the older Faith filling her body almost completely. It couldn't be helped; this was the only way to save Buffy.
The two Slayers danced back and forth over the flat roof, a double blur of movement that managed to combine grace and ferocity. Faith felt her future self reach for the ultimate extent of her ability, edging her performance up just a fraction higher than the incredible level she and Buffy had already achieved; and a few seconds later a real blow smashed the blonde girl to lie half-senseless on the roof. The axe kick would literally have taken a normal human's head off, and the blaze of gold light that had accompanied it must have been visible for blocks. Buffy looked up at her, confusion plain on her battered face.
Faith's twin leaned over and dug both hands into the air next to the girl's shoulders. With a wrench, she pulled a shimmering, writhing mass of distortion from Buffy's body, raising it high over her head. The thing was trying desperately to escape, but the older Faith didn't waste any time on last words. She ripped it in half, scattering the dissolving remains out into the night sky.
The golden aura around Faith faded, for the last time.
It was over.
At their feet, Buffy was resting on her hands and knees, her head lowered. She was likely very confused about the whole thing, which was just as well. Faith unfolded slightly from where she was huddled inside her head.
--Well. We won, huh?--
Her twin nodded slowly, turning her head to survey the rooftop.
"Absolutely. This is what it's like to win."
--Okay then, could you move over some? It's getting kinda cramped in here--
"No problem. Just let me do three things real quick, first." She folded her arms across her chest and closed her eyes.
"First of all; this."
Inside herself, Faith suddenly had the feeling that the entire world had been rotated a hundred and eighty degrees. She would have been tempted to throw up, except she no longer had any connection to her stomach, that she could detect.
"And secondly; this."
She gave a mental grunt as her essence was brutally compressed, squeezed into a tiny corner of her brain and body as the other Faith's lifeforce fully occupied her. She struggled, but it was feeble, and she had no purchase on her own body. During the drawn-out battle she'd given more and more of it to her older self, not realizing the danger in doing so. Now, she wondered just how big a mistake that had been.
"And third; this."
Her foot drew back, and a confused Buffy, the real one this time, looked up just in time to receive a kick to the face that flipped her into the air and slammed her back down over ten feet away.
--What the fuck are you doing?!--
Even her mental voice sounded small and far away, but her older self heard her.
"I'm doing exactly what I came here for, kiddo."
She turned, raising her arms overhead in a long, slow stretch. When she lowered them, she hugged herself, rubbing her hands over her arms.
"This is what I was after; a body. You have no idea what I've had to live with for the last few months. Not seeing, or hearing, or moving. I think I came pretty close to going insane there for awhile." She stared off over the skyline of the town, not seeming to see it. "Then I learned how to 'go out', and tonight I made it back here." She sighed, and this time it was sad. "I'm sorry, I really am. But I'm not going back to that. I'm staying right here, and that means that you're going to be gone, in a little while."
Faith was still fighting to get free, but it was like fighting a mountain; when it was sitting on top of you.
--You can't be serious. You're going to kill me? Take my body?--
"I already took your body. And no; I'm not going to kill you, not on purpose, anyway. It's just that you can't have two spirits in the same body for very long. The stronger one, the better anchored one, stays, and the other one fades away." She closed her eyes and rubbed her temple, slowly. "I'm sorry. But it won't take too long, and it shouldn't hurt, either. But if it's going to be either you or me wandering off into the cosmic void, it's not going to be me."
* * * * *