by !Super Cat
I was shrugging on my jacket as I walked out the door, and I would have been working against the clock, if the town centre hadn't been two blocks from the cemetery. Everything is two blocks from a cemetery in Sunnydale. Including the town hall and Sunnydale High. Including my hotel, a real low place with bad plumbing and a TV that's hard to watch because it's black and white, and the picture rolls. But I was going to get to kill something before I had to head back there.
"They want the Stones of Eternity, do they?" the Mayor had said, sitting back in his chair.
"Before Thursday midnight."
"Did they mention why?"
"They're not big on the idea of Gorthollo the Horned Beast of--"
"--whatever--using them in his ritual. Like I said, I think the Watchers know what the ritual is, and Buffy too, but no one talks much in front of me anymore." I had said that with a set jaw. I wanted a clean break. I wanted a fight. Hanging around Sunnydale High and pretending to be everyone's friend was making my skin crawl.
"Oh, his ritual is harmless. Mr. Gorthollo devours the Stones of Eternity and the livers of eight human females and it all goes off without a hitch. And gosh darn it, I hate having to disappoint a culinary entrepreneur, but I need those stones for my own ritual. Looks like we'll have to slot Mr. Gorthollo's death into your schedule."
"Makes it a busy week."
"Well now, you're right. Faith, if you run into any trouble, you come to me immediately for a personal organizer."
I hit the street, stuffing the xeroxed copy of Gorthollo's itinerary into my jacket pocket. Restfield, 1am: Collect stones from Haglor demon, and under that, 1:05: Eat stones, end the world. I knew exactly where to go and what to do. Willow, Xander and the rest of Buffy's tag-alongs would be wandering around patrolling aimlessly until morning. That's because they were taking their orders from a librarian, whereas I was taking mine from the Mayor, who has a clue when it comes to dealing with forces of the supernatural kind.
Restfield is high on lights and security but it does have one big spread of trees way back in the east corner, and inside of that, a nice wide clearing.
I slowed near the edge of it. Something big was lurking on the tree-line. Silently, I moved closer. He was about three times the size of me, and dark red from head to toe. He was covered in spikes and armour. My brows rose. In the plus column, I was downwind, and he must have already made his pick up, because he had a pouch with a sideways eight on it slung from his shoulder, exactly what the Mayor had told me to keep my eye out for.
Buffy would have said something, like, "Stop!" or "Hey, you!" letting Big Red know she was there. Way off track. Give a demon the edge, he'll slit your throat with it. Slaying ain't about fair play. Slaying's about you do it to them before they get a chance to do it to you.
I kicked him. Hard, and in the weakest place I could see. His pinkish belly. He let out a dull roar as he staggered back.
"I'd say, 'Hand over the stones, or die'," I said. "but guess what? You're gonna do both."
He laughed, a deep, booming laugh that seemed to come from the depths of the cemetery.
"Little girl, you couldn't stop me if you were the Slayer."
"Let's put that to the test, shall we? Since I am the Slayer."
More laughter. Loud laughter.
"Do not take me for a fool. I have seen the current incarnation of the Slayer, and you are nothing like--"
My fist slammed into his face, and hard after, my heel drove into his chest. I can crack a board. No problem with ribs. I had my knife out before he had time to recover. "Right about that," I said. "I'm a whole lot meaner."
I went for the goods first. Professional-like. I was on a job. I went for the goods and I remembered Wesley telling me I'd never learn to keep my head. Red came lumbering towards me, and I slit the leather strap holding the pouch and the stones, caught it, stashed it. Red let out a second roar.
He was too slow to be the big bad mojo he thought he was, and I was on my way to winning when it hit me, the feeling, that feeling, crawling all over my skin and the urge to fight ratcheted up tenfold.
Slayers are keyed to vampires. We can feel them in a way that we can't feel other demons. An itching in our fingers and something in our heads like there's darkness behind a door that's opening. I didn't have to turn around to know it.
There was a vampire on the edge of the clearing.
Gorthollo knew it, too. He smiled, slow and nasty.
"It's two to one, Slayer."
"But not in the way you think," I said.
"Is this unnecessary help?" said Angel, stepping out from the cover.
"So how are we, Faith?" Wesley asked me, smiling briefly and uncomfortably. He was sitting straight-backed, his eyebrows raised behind his glasses and his hands spread earnestly out on the table. "On the mend, I hope? No residual--er--unpleasantness? No hard feelings, hm?"
I hopped up onto the table and dangled my legs.
"Is this like your office now?" I said, looking around.
He got side tracked, looking around with me. "Well, it's the office--yes."
"Giles's office," I agreed.
"Faith," he said. Overly patient tone of voice. "I think we're forgetting that I am your Watcher now. Not Mr. Giles."
"Yeah? So where is Giles?"
"He's--erm. Well, he's--"
"Out on patrol with Buffy? It really gets to you, doesn't it? The number two Watcher hanging out with the number two Slayer while our better halves get on with saving the world."
"I wouldn't put it that way, exactly--"
"How would you put it. Exactly."
"Hey, no big. I'm a new girl," I said, legs dangling. "Playing by the rules and all."
"That's very reassuring to hear, Faith."
He was not reassured. We smiled at each other.
"You staked my kill." I turned on Angel, angrily.
"You were taking your time."
"I had it under control."
Gorthollo was out for the count. Angel had staked him in the heart. Instinctively, my hand went to my shoulder, where Gorthollo had scored a lucky hit. His sharp nails had cut deep, and that's when Angel had stepped in. I was shaking. My hands were shaking.
Gorthollo wasn't a vamp, but it's amazing how many things a stake in the heart can kill.
"It's nothing," I said, shoving his hand away. "Pain's already fading."
"I'll walk you home."
"Hell you will."
He didn't follow me. He wanted to stay and look out for the Stones, that or head back to the library. Either way was fine with me. I like walking alone in the dark. Wesley's always on my back about safety in numbers, but I'm way past that. Want to know what makes me feel safe? A knife. If I've got a knife in my hand, I know that the only person in Sunnydale who can take me in a fight is Buffy.
"Faith, my office. Now."
"It's my office, actually," said Giles, mildly.
"It's the library storage room, actually," said Xander to Wesley. "See, we're in this place called a school. And it has this book area known as the library--"
I feel like I should feel sorry for Wesley. There wasn't supposed to be a second Watcher in Sunnydale, just like there wasn't supposed to be a second Slayer. And these guys make sure you know it when you're out. The Scooby ranks close and so do the doors and the windows, and the shutters go down.
I don't feel sorry for him.
The guy needs to wake up.
You really want to know what's going on with me? I'll tell you. One day I sat back and I looked at them: the English guy with the stiff shirt and his teen crowd, the red-haired witch and the school clown and the werewolf and daddy's little rich girl. I looked and I realized it all of a sudden. I'm not like them. I'm nothing like them.
That's right. Better.
Dropping off the stones was easy, then I hitched a ride with one of the Mayor's staff back to my hotel. If they needed me at the library, they could come get me. Mick, the hotel owner's son, caught me fumbling with my keys at the door, and looked dumb and surprised at how much cash I pulled out of my pockets to pay the rent. I shut the door in his face before he could ask questions.
I felt gritty even after I scrubbed my face and hands in the washbasin. It was three a.m.
I turned on the tv and sat on the bed. Silence and black and white pictures rolling and flickering, but I didn't get up to deal with the volume control. My shoulder didn't hurt much anymore. I sat there. I felt like I was waiting for something. I thought about sleeping. I thought about turning off the television.
Catching the pouch with the stones in it, the Mayor had said, "Well aren't you just the most remarkable little girl."
I thought about what it had felt like to stake a human, the warmth of blood soaking my fingers, and the way he had jerked and gasped and taken longer than a vampire to die.
Xander got as far as, "So, what's new? Or, I mean, hey. It doesn't have to be new. It can be old. Old is good. There's no reason why you should focus only on new things that have only recently happened, like--like, well, like any of the things that have happened recently. In fact, let's not focus. Let's--"
"We still don't have the stones," said Giles. "And any clues as to their whereabouts have perished with Gorthollo."
"Oops," I said.
"Nice work," said Xander with a brief, dirty glance at me.
"Did I miss anything?" asked Cordelia, her arms hugging two school books as she walked into the library. She was speaking to Wesley with a cheerleader smile on her face. Xander answered before Wesley could open his mouth.
"Basically, these incredibly powerful stones that could be used in a ritual to stop time or end the world are out there on the loose because Faith is a psycho who keeps killing everybody."
"Shut up, Xander," said Cordelia. And then, with an apologetic smile at Wesley, "I meant did I miss anything new."
"Hey, Angel's the one who topped Mr. Gorthollo." I leaned back in my chair, and there you had it. Everyone turned to stare at Angel. Seven pairs of eyes and seven set expressions ranging from Oz-blank to Buffy-betrayed to Xander-pissed off-and-accusatory.
"Oops?" said Angel.
Training had meant waiting till the library briefing was over, then lifting my chin in the direction of the library doors, and saying to Bee, "Up for it?"
But this time when I did that Willow said, "Buffy!" and stared at her with betrayed eyes like there was something major going on. Buffy looked from one to the other of us, then she turned to me and begged off, said she had a class.
It was too early to head out with a stake and train the old fashioned way, but there was a wooden support post in my room at the hotel and I'd taped foam round the outside. It did fine for a punching bag, as long as I didn't hit it too hard. I could still work up a sweat, take the edge off. I told Bee it was no problem. It was no problem. Whatever.
"Faith," said Angel, just as I was about to get myself out of the library.
I turned back. Giles was out of sight. Willow and Bee were long gone.
"Still want a sparring partner?"
"You?" I slid my backpack down onto the table. "Are you serious?"
He gave me this look like--yeah, serious, it's me, Angel.
"I got the home team advantage," I said, "what with it being day and all."
"I know a place," said Angel.
We faced off in the school gym. He took his long coat off and left it in a pool on the floor. A metre separated us. Indirect light, shadows and space.
"So--what?" I said. "Do we just--fight?"
"If you like," Angel said.
"I feel like I should apologize first."
The kick rocked him back a step, but he came back fighting with a half-rueful look on his face. Back and forth across the gym. No stakes, no distractions. Hitting Angel sure made me feel good. Watch the bruises rise and fade. I thought I could win in a second, if I tried. I found, when I tried, that I couldn't. My kick didn't land how I thought it would, and Angel punched me in the stomach hard enough to wind me. I barely recovered in time to avoid a hammer-fist to the head.
I started figuring that out slowly, with unpleasant surprise and respect. Vamps ain't meant to be a challenge. They're stake fodder. But I was fighting with almost everything I had, and he still wasn't going down. Angel was big but fast, and he fought smart--real smart, smarter than me. Fast, deadly and smart, and each time he scored a hit it felt like I'd been clubbed with an iron bar.
He's good. You can see how he's maybe good enough to take down a Slayer.
One of the big bad. Vampires hardly ever made a name for themselves, but Angel had his name in all the books. The vamps in Sunnydale were teens who'd lived longer as humans than they had as vampires. Easy to forget that. Easy to forget a lot of things, like the Cloven One, and the taste of that fear. I landed a hit, and then another, fist to Angel's jaw. Angelus had killed hundreds of people. Hundreds more people than I had.
I hit him again and again. He dropped to one knee. My knuckles were red with his blood. I hit him hard and then harder and this time he came back with his game face on.
"Wondered when you'd be joining us," I said.
He shook his head. "It's still me, Faith."
His forehead was ridged and his eyes were feral. Behind lips parted with exertion were his long, razor teeth.
"You kiss Buffy with that mouth?"
My next punch didn't connect. Staggering, I felt the pain from a kick I hadn't even seen coming.
Angel said, "You and I, we've got more in common than you think."
"You mean, me and Angelus."
I was breathing hard. We circled each other.
"Whatever you do," said Angel, "I've done worse. However far you go, I've gone further. That's why I know it's not too late," he said. He was watching me with calm, dark eyes, the face fading. "And that's why, if you're ever trying to find your way back, you've got someone to spar with."
We had stopped circling.
"And end up like you?" I said. "You're two hundred times more powerful than any of them and you sit around letting Xander diss you when you could reach across the table and rip his throat out. Thanks, but you know what? I'm not interested in taking notes from a Slayer-whipped vampire."
A fluorescent light down one end of the gymnasium was blinking on and off. Angel didn't seem to get distracted by anything.
"I saw you take the stones," he said. "I wonder if you even think you know what you're doing."
I felt all the breath go out of my body.
"You don't have proof."
"I don't need proof. Faith--I'm not trying to get you in trouble with anyone."
"What are you trying to do, then?"
"Stop you from making a mistake."
My mouth twisted. "Because staking the wrong guy, that doesn't count as a mistake."
"You're right," said Angel. "Mistake isn't the word. When you start to like it, that's when it counts as a choice."
Shaken, I took a step back.
"As one killer to another, let me give you some advice."
"What?" I was ready to run if I had to. Ready to fight him for real.
"You don't want to go up against Buffy."
"Why not--because she's my friend? Because it's not to late for me? Because I still have a chance and all the rest of that crap?"
"No," he said. "Because you'll lose. And then it really will be too late."
"I wasn't expecting you this evening," said the Mayor looking up. On his face was a cheery expression. On his desk, some papers and a few select ornaments sat at exact right angles to each other. His office was warm, welcoming and highly organized.
"I just . . ." I slid onto the edge of his desk.
"Uh uh uh," he said, shaking his finger. "What have I told you."
"Sorry," I said, slipping from the desk into a chair.
"That's better. To what do I owe the pleasure?"
"I just," I said. "I wanna work. Now. Tonight."
"Well," he said, the word a proud breath as he sat back in his deep leather chair. "It's truly inspiring for a girl of your age to be showing this kind of initiative. You fill me with hope for the young people of this world, Faith, you really do."
"Have you got something for me?"
"I do have a little problem on the docks that could benefit from your attention." He steepled his fingers.
"Great. Just, you know. Tell me what to kill."
He gave me a beaming look of approval, but in the next moment, his eyes, meeting mine, became suddenly concerned.
"Faith," he asked me. "Is there something troubling you? If there was something on your mind, it's my sincere hope that you'd tell me about it. Death and destruction might make you feel better--well, a lot better--but they won't help you solve the real problem."
"No," I said. I couldn't help my lips curving. "I'm fine."
"That's good to hear."
As he briefed me about the docks, I let my hand slip into my pocket. My fingers curled around the handle of my knife. I thought about what I was going to be doing real soon. The Slayer's the one girl in all the world, but that was never really me, you know?
The Mayor smiled, one hand on my shoulder, and walked with me to the door.
"You take care now, little missy."
"I don't need care," I said with a smile. "Got my knife."
Bee can talk all she wants about slaying. About how we do it because we have to, to save the world and all. She knows just like I do that we do it because it feels right. It feels good. You've got to get a piece of wood past flesh and bone, you've got to puncture a heart before it all turns to the kind of dust that you can wipe off your stake and your clothes.
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