Kaleidoscope

 
 

“Alright Corporal, thanks for the heads up. I’ll change around the duty roster to give you the break ASAP.”

“I appreciate that, sir.”

The Lieutenant smiled. “Well, we have to look out for one another around here.”

The soldier nodded. “I certainly understand that, sir.”

His commanding officer sat down on the edge of his desk and regarded the young man carefully. “Off the record, Mr. Harris, are you sure the team can’t help you with this Sub-T situation?”

“Well,” Xander replied, “I can’t say that for sure, sir. I’d rather not get you and the others involved if I don’t have to. It’s sort of a personal matter this time out.”

“We’ve been on enough missions to trust one another, haven’t we Corporal?”

“Oh, absolutely, sir. I’d trust you — and everyone on the team — with my life. But I’m just thinking of our cover. If this one gets hairy—”

“If it gets hairy, Corporal, you give us a call. Let me worry about our cover.” The officer looked at the pile of paperwork stacked on his desk. “I’ve gotten quite skilled at making things up for the benefit of Uncle Sam.”

Xander smiled slightly. “Yes sir. If we need the assist, I’ve got you on speed-dial.”

The Lieutenant looked at the clock, going on midnight. “Now get back home to that pretty red-head of yours.”

“Absolutely, sir,” the soldier said, grinning and, with a final salute, departed the office.

Lieutenant Riley Finn sighed and sat down behind his desk again, looking at the stack of reports sadly. “Sometime I feel like Carl Kolchek, I swear.”

*   *   *   *   *

“Thank you,” Willow said, letting the straw drop from her lips.

“Hmm?” Faith mumbled, raising her head from the book in her lap. “Oh, sure,” she then answered, seeing the Wiccan was finished with the soda, and stood from the bed, setting the empty glass on the desk before sitting back in the desk chair. “So you guys had your worst nightmares come to life, huh?”

“Oh, yeah,” Willow shuddered, remembering. “Well, the worst up to that time, anyway. I’ve dreamt of worse things than public performance anxiety since then.”

“Still, pretty freaky.”

“Tell me about it. But that tends to be the daily routine around Sunnydale.”

“Because this place is a…” the brunette searched around the desk for another book, then picked it up and flipped to the beginning, “a Boca Del Infierno?”

Willow nodded.

“I could tell the creep factor was pretty high, but…” she shook her head. Faith closed the book, setting it on the desk again. She rest her hand on its cover. “This Rupert guy…”

“Yes?”

“He seems pretty sincere. Like he really cared about your friend Kendra.”

She swallowed. “More than you can imagine.”

Faith looked at her lap. “But he still sent her out every night, into all that danger.”

Willow flushed until her cheeks matched her hair. “You think it was easy for him?”

The girl met her eyes. “Was it?”

“It was awful for him. I know you can’t know this, because you don’t know him, but he’d have done anything to protect her from it.”

I know the type, Faith thought.

“When she…” Willow struggled to find her voice. “When she was gone, you can’t understand how that destroyed him.”

Faith moved over to the bed again. She put her hand on Willow’s knee gently. “I’m sorry, I just had to know. I had to hear you say it.” She looked off, her eyes distant. “Annie… It’s just that Annie says you can’t trust the Council.”

“Well, I wouldn’t exactly stick up for the Council, but Rupert, that’s different.”

“I’m getting that.” She looked back at the witch. “What about this other guy?”

“Which guy?”

“The guy who was here earlier. The English guy?” Faith shrugged at Willow’s look. “Sorry, eavesdropping, another bad habit.”

“Wesley. What about him?”

“Annie says he’s also from this Council thingy.”

“The Watcher’s Council.”

“Whatever. Annie said she saw him in Boston.”

Willow frowned. “Annie is the other girl you’re traveling with?”

“Yeah.”

“How does she know about the Council?”

Faith shrugged. “Well, she’s been one longer than I have. She hasn’t told me a whole lot, though.”

“Wait,” Willow said, “you’re telling me that your friend Annie is also a Slayer?”

The brunette furrowed her brow. “Yeah. Weird, I know. Very freaky coincidence. But true.”

“Also,” the Wiccan cocked her head, “impossible.”

“Not the best time to start calling me a liar.”

Willow shook her head. “I didn’t say that. I just don’t know how it could be true.”

“I don’t understand.”

“‘Into every generation a Slayer is born,’” Willow quoted. “‘One girl in all the world, a Chosen One, one born with the strength and skill to hunt the vampires, the demons, and the forces of darkness.’ Note the ‘one girl’ part.”

“Huh,” Faith said.

“When one dies, the next one is Called. So there’s only ever one.”

The Slayer puzzled for just a moment. “But Annie did die,” she said. She turned and grabbed the first volume of Rupert’s diaries, and held out the opening page to the Wicca. “Right then.”

Willow looked quite disturbed. “So you brought your friend back… as a zombie?”

Faith grew wide-eyed. “No, with CPR. And may I say, ‘ewww’.”

The redhead shrugged. “Sorry, lived on the Hellmouth too long.”

“I’m thinking so.” Then her brow furrowed, and she turned back to look at the piles of books.

Willow was ahead of her. “It’s the one over to the left,” she said quietly, “by the picture frame.”

Faith picked up the book with great reluctance.

Willow’s voice was barely audible. “Turn to June third.”

*   *   *   *   *

Annie’d had a headache all day. Well, not so much a headache, actually, but more an uneasy, check-all-the-corners and sharpen your stake feeling, which after a while led right into a supernatural migraine.

Faith, on the other hand, was all perk and sunshine, which led to Annie’s taunting her that she was sleeping on the wrong side of the room and, but for the dark hair, could be mistaken for Blonde C. Faith ignored her. Annie thought it was probably just an ‘end of school year’ thing.

In any case, the younger girl was so itching to go out that Annie had finally relented, and they ended up in an unfamiliar part of town at a blues joint that wasn’t all that good anyway in her opinion, but which Faith seemed to enjoy. The Slayer indulged her until the rowdiest group of college frat boys there got drunk enough so that hitting on young high school girls no longer seemed inappropriate to them, and then pulled her reluctant friend out the door.

“Annie, don’t you think you’re being a little downer?” Faith complained.

“Faith, don’t you think you’re being a little jailbait?” Annie returned, and her friend laughed.

The avenue leading towards the T-station was busy with more college-age partiers, stocked by a fair number of college parties in the apartment buildings that lined it. Faith kept dancing to the blared music as they walked. A small group of guys behind them whistled appreciatively.

“Looks like someone is ready to party,” one of them, a neatly dressed but buff, curly-haired blond who probably went by the name of Brad, called.

“You know it,” Faith responded, shaking her hips and walking backwards, facing the boys.

“We’re heading in, just around the corner there,” another said, this one with the look of a rugby player, Annie thought.

“S’okay,” the Slayer responded, “we’re actually on our way home.”

“But the night is young!” ‘Brad’ complained.

“And so are we,” Annie sniped back.

Faith tugged at the older girl’s sleeve. “C’mon, B, just a few minutes wouldn’t hurt.”

“Faith, I’ve got a headache already,” Annie shook her head. “I don’t need more loud music.”

The brunette took the blonde’s hand in both of hers and rubbed her thumbs along the back of it. “I can give you a good backrub later, take that tension right away.”

“Hey I’d pay to see that,” the rugby player, who might actually have been more a lacrosse type if Annie cared about such things, snickered to his buddies.

Annie glowered at the guys.

“Just a couple of songs,” Faith begged.

The Slayer was unable to resist that tone in her companion’s voice. Faith restrained from squealing at her consent, but barely. Annie had to smile.

The house the guys led them to was set back slightly from the side street they’d turned onto, a fancy brick with great columns along the front. Inside the music was blaring and the dancing was very close. As the two wandered through an atrium decorated with small but ornate marble statues of nudes and into a living area packed with bodies wearing little more, they found drinks shoved in their hands from impossible to identify sources.

“Fancy place,” Faith shouted in Annie’s ear.

The blonde took the tiniest sip of her drink, while ogling two chiseled hardbodies in a grind sandwich with an auburn bikini model about three feet away. “You’re looking at the place?”

She saw the rugby guy and the blond heading out the back of the living room, each in turn giving a strange salute and handshake to a man standing by a door before heading through it. Fraternities, she thought to herself.

There was a motion to the crowd here, jammed as it was, and Annie found herself and Faith being forced towards room’s center.

“Are we dancing?” her companion asked.

She grabbed Faith’s elbow to keep them together against the push. “We have any choice?” she yelled over the din.

The music and heat engulfed them. They mostly danced with one another, but the proximity and movement of the throng paired them up randomly song to song with others. After maybe thirty minutes her friend slid back close to her again.

“Hey, I think that redhead just felt me up,” Faith laughed.

“Did you get her number?” Annie laughed back. “She was kinda cute!”

“Man I’m burning up!” She lifted a plastic cup, not the one from before, to her mouth.

Annie frowned. “Hey, go easy on that stuff. Whatever they’re serving it’s pretty strong. And I only sipped it.”

“Lightweight!” Faith winked. “I do think I need some water, though. Did we see a kitchen?”

The older girl shrugged.

“I’ll find one!” the brunette said, and slipped back away into the party again.

“Faith, wait!” Annie called, but it was too late. The lights seemed very bright to her, and that mystic migraine hit her again. She made her way to the edge of the dancing and saw a glass someone had set down. Her own had been abandoned long ago. She picked up the cup and held it near her nose, but could smell nothing unusual. Annie dipped a pinkie in it and dabbed it on her tongue. She looked back around the dance floor, at the semi-glassy look of most of the partiers. There was something stronger than alcohol in the punch.

She pushed through the dancers with difficulty, having to be rude and resort to Slayer strength a couple of times. The farther back she went, the darker the room became, and spotting Faith’s dark hair became an increasingly difficult task. Annie made a right near the door in the room’s rear and kept searching. She saw someone else exchange handshakes with the sentry guy, and could have sworn she heard them talking about taquitos.

She spotted the curly-haired blond guy as she passed into another, smaller living space, not quite as crowded. She pushed up to him. He looked flushed, and not from the room’s warmth. Suddenly, it all made sense.

How do I get into these things? Annie wondered, but knew even as she asked. She was the Slayer. It wasn’t just that she was trained to see the darkness, that she recognized it. Something in the fabric of reality, the balance of light and night, drew her to this. She was fated. She was Chosen.

No, screw that, the Watchers put that in her head. Right now she just needed to save Faith and get the hell out of here.

“Hey, have you seen my friend?” Annie asked ‘Brad’. “The one I came in with?”

The guy puzzled before he recognized her. “Oh, hey, yeah… dark-headed girl, kinda gothy? I think she’s in the back.”

“The back?” she swallowed hard.

He placed a hand on her shoulder and turned her around. He leaned in close to her ear. “Through that door,” he said, his breath slightly acrid and with a familiar hint of copper. His hand slid down her back in a way she didn’t really feel like putting up with, but she steeled her resolve. “I can take you.”

She nodded briefly, thinking exactly the same thing to herself, and let him lead her. She hoped he couldn’t feel the stake in the back of her belt.

The sentry’s vaguely yellowish eyes roamed Annie appraisingly as the frat boy brought her closer. Her senses were on full alert as they neared the entranceway. She should not have let Faith talk her into this. Annie definitely had to learn how to resist that girl.

‘Brad’ attempted to pass the sentry with a nod, but apparently even return visitors didn’t get off lightly and they found a stiff arm blocking their way. Annie’s guide sighed. “I live for Kakistos,” he stated, and the arm fell.

The door led to a tiny room, almost a closet really, and another door straight ahead. Like an airlock, Annie thought. Or more likely a soundlock.

Past the second door the lights were much dimmer, and the crush of bodies gone. There were lots of couches and big pillows in dark corners. They passed from one room to another and another in a labyrinthine fashion. Annie spotted couples here and there in the gloom, but they weren’t dancing. At least not vertically.

Her Slayers’ eyes hadn’t seen Faith yet. Her heart was pounding in her chest. She knew without looking that her guide had gone into game face, but she dared not acknowledge it until she had a sense of the floorplan in her head. Tough enough to find Faith in this maze full of vampires, but to find their way out was gonna be a nightmare worse than this was already becoming.

Then they came to a stairway, leading down. Terrific.

A couple of dingy storerooms, stocked with casks. Annie had the sickening feeling she might know the vintage in them. Then, at last they emerged into a long chamber, walls of stone, concave sconces in them holding burning torches that shed flickering light dimly upon the room. And between the torches were set iron rings, through which looped long chains that ended in shackles about the wrists of glassy-eyed partiers, a dozen or more around the walls. A few looked bruised, a few cried softly.

One, a familiar brunette, looked distinctly pissed off and kept testing the chains and loop, despite the burly vampire standing right in front of her.

‘Brad’ put his mouth to Annie’s ear. “I think that’s your friend there, isn’t it?” he chuckled.

“That would be the one.” She turned and looked at him, not even acknowledging the wrinklies in his forehead. “I’m thinking you don’t want us to leave the party just yet, huh?”

The vampire narrowed his eyes. “Not just yet, no.” He looked to a cluster of his fellow undead chatting near the right end of the room. “Hey Deimos,” he called to the rugby guy, “Got another for the master’s feast.” The other vampire drifted over. “Might as well put her with her little friend there.”

Annie put on a plastic grin. “Oh, that’s very kind of you.” She walked over to Faith, turned back to face the beast guarding her friend, and held out her wrists together. The vampire looked at her curiously, then shot a glance back at Deimos, who shrugged, then picked up a set of shackles and chain from the corner and joined them. The burly vamp pulled out a set of keys.

Without hesitation, Faith grabbed the chains just above her shackles and lifted herself into the air, then wrapped her legs around Deimos’ throat and jerked him back. Annie whipped out her stake and skewered the burly vamp, then caught the keys as they dropped from his crumbling fingers. Faith slammed Deimos’ head into the stone wall and pulled him back around right onto the point of Annie’s stake. Annie flicked the keys to her and reached down to pick up the chain Deimos had dropped. She swung it threateningly as Faith unlocked herself behind the Slayer.

“Don’t you guys know it’s summer?” Annie said to the stunned vampires. “You’re supposed to have your parties outside in the sun, not in dingy stone dungeons.”

One beast darted forward from the cluster as Faith jumped to unlock more prisoners behind her. The Slayer slung the chain out like a whip and wrapped it about his knees, then dragged him to her on his back. She knelt, staked him, and rose in one smooth motion.

“And c’mon, torches?” Annie said. “Isn’t that a little gothic even for you guys?”

A gravelly voice came from a shadowed doorway just beyond the group of demons. “Makes me feel at home,” it said, and as they separated to let the new one through, Annie cringed as her Slayer sense went right off the scale. The beast was much uglier than any vampire she’d ever seen. It was balding, but sported a goatee, which Annie thought was appropriate given that its hands and feet were both cloven like a goat. It was powerfully built and its eyes went right through her. The other vampires bowed their heads.

“Kakistos,” they intoned.

The Slayer screwed up courage she didn’t feel into her voice. “At home, huh? Well you can stay then, but we were just leaving.”

“Not before the feast, you’re not,” the beast countered.

“We’re really not hungry, but thanks.” She whipped the chain out again and the shackle caught Kakistos right in the face. He flinched as a sharp edge sliced open the skin of his forehead and he cried out in pain, but then his cloven hand snatched the chain before Annie could pull it back and yanked it out of her grip.

Kakistos growled at her, his face bloody, then he stretched the chain between his hands and snapped it like a limp noodle.

The Slayer looked over her shoulder where Faith had unlatched only half the partiers.

“We’re leaving, Faith. Right now.”

“But Annie! The others!” Faith almost begged.

“We go or we die,” Annie barked to her.

Kakistos smiled. “I think you stay and you die.”

He grabbed two of his minions and tossed them forward at her, thinking to catch her off guard. Instead Annie slipped between the vampires and the door and laid into both with her fists, their flailing preventing any of the other creatures from reaching the doorway or Faith and the others escaping through it.

With a frustrated look at the still chained victims, Faith called to her companion from the doorway. “Let’s go!”

Annie gave one vampire a knockdown blow and a spin kick to the other that sent him back into the other cluster, pushing them backwards, then headed for the door.

In the second storeroom she kicked the nearest cask a couple of times and it sprang a dark crimson leak. She pushed Faith towards the stairway as the vampires followed, the first one slipping on the spilt blood and the second tumbling over him.

Unfortunately the rooms at the top of the stairs were as confusing as she’d feared, especially with the pile of frightened partiers Faith had freed. More vampires upstairs had come to check on the ruckus, and as Annie turned in the stairwell to kick a vampire on her tail back down the way he’d come, she heard Faith cry out as another up top grabbed her.

The Slayer emerged from the basement and quickly staked the vampire who greeted her. She looked left and right, but couldn’t see far because of the multitude of twisting hallways and side rooms. The vampires coming up from below made the decision for her, forcing Annie towards what she thought was the back of the house.

She took to guerilla warfare, hiding around corners and striking out stake first as the vampires chased her, thinning their numbers. But she got more and more panicked as she poked into the rooms she came to and still had seen no sign of Faith.

And she was running out of hallway. The passage ended in a door straight ahead and one to the right. Annie took the one on the side, opening to a dark room, and closed it behind her, waiting by the door. She could hear footsteps approach. Hand on the knob and hearing pitched to the limit, she waited until the footsteps stopped right outside, then pulled open the door as her stalker would be reaching for the knob.

Her stake went into Kakistos’ chest about an inch and stopped dead. She pulled the stake back out. The creature smiled a toothy, wet smile at her. Then slammed one hoof into her chest and knocked her flying. Annie was certain he’d broken a rib or two.

She didn’t have time to think. The Slayer rolled to a stop and sprang at him again, knocking him back out the doorway and up the hall a foot or so. She ducked right and through the last door.

She’d stumbled upon an elegant dining room, stocked with opulent furniture: a dark, ten-foot table with chairs; matching cabinets; serving carts; and more. There was a door to the right and one straight ahead. Windows in the wall across from her told her she’d reached the house’s rear. Annie headed right, hoping she might find her way back to Faith.

Halfway there a chair flew over her head and splintered on the door. She ducked and turned, and another followed it. Kakistos had another chair in each hand.

“You’ll ruin things for those elegant formals you so like to have,” Annie said.

“More into keggers these days,” he returned, flinging more furniture. “The food is much livelier.”

“Especially when it fights back and kills all the guests,” she returned.

Kakistos picked the long, heavy table up and threw it at her effortlessly. The entire room shook with its impact against the wall, as Annie ducked beneath it. She turned towards the doorway at the room’s rear and made for it. A large shadow came her way and Annie just made it through the exit as a cedar chest hit the doorframe, fortunately angled so that its two ends hit the walls on either side rather than following her out.

She was in an enclosed back porch, strewn with folding chairs and a metal picnic table, the ceiling braced by high exposed crossbeams. There was no other entrance back to the main house, back to Faith, other than the one she’d come out. And Kakistos stood in that one.

“You know I have a quaint little alligator farm in Missouri,” he said. “Maybe I should keep you alive long enough to see it.”

“I’ve always wanted to try fried alligator. Write down the address and I’ll visit after I kill you.”

“Those jokes are a little more effective if you’re actually winning,” he said. He sprang at her and she twisted out of his path. He rolled into the wall hard, and the ceiling beams shook. Annie scampered back through the door and into the dining room.

She made left towards the door there again, instead of back into the maze. As her pursuer made it back into the room, she flipped the table out of the way and opened the door.

“Hey, I have a Slayer on my hands,” the ancient vampire said, “No wonder this is so much fun.”

Beyond the door was a two-level stairwell going up. Annie climbed quickly, her breath becoming labored. As she turned the corner and continued up, Kakistos leapt the entire first flight to the landing just behind her and reached out a hoof, just missing her. She burst through the doorway at the top into a windowed hallway, traversing the back of the house above the dining room.

Annie was halfway down it when the demon caught up with her. She grabbed the hoof on her shoulder and flipped him, judo-style, over onto his back. But he was back on his feet in a flash, grabbing her again before she could escape. She grappled with him back and forth, too close to get her stake in, when he threw her sideways into the wall. Her bones rattled.

He grabbed her again and started to swing her for another slam but she planted her foot and used all her Slayer strength to change their momentum. Kakistos hit a window full on and crashed through it. But his grip on her was firm, and she went along for the ride.

They fell, demon first, through the roof of the back porch, buckling half the beams and scattering shingles, and hit the floor hard enough to separate them. Body aching in every joint, Annie swung out her stake and, again, it only went in an inch, to no effect.

Kakistos grabbed her wrist and twisted, and Annie lost her grip on the wooden spike. Both were on their feet in a moment, facing off again, but the Slayer was rattled head to toe and shaking.

The beast looked down at his chest and grinned. He calmly reached down and plucked the stake out of his chest. “I’ve faced Slayers before,” he said. “I wasn’t impressed.” He held it out. “I’m still not.” The cloven-hooved demon crushed her weapon to splinters. “Little girl, you think you can take me?” His breath in Annie’s face was rancid. “You’re gonna need a bigger stake.”

Annie backed to the outside wall. The vampire’s face was bleeding all along where she’d ripped open his forehead and down his cheek. He stepped closer, and she found herself frozen, stock still, with terror.

And then he stood straight, his eyes holding a far away look. And from his chest was protruding the ragged end of a large, heavy beam, from the fallen ceiling. Kakistos crumbled into dust, and the front end of the great wooden pole sank to the ground. The other end was in Faith’s hands.

“Was that one big enough for you, Khaki Toast?” the brunette asked the pile of ashes.

It took a moment for what had happened to sink in for Annie. Then, blinking, she sprang to Faith and grabbed her arm. “Now we run. Let’s go!”

But Faith didn’t move, and she pulled out of Annie’s grip quite easily. “No. Actually I’m feeling pretty good.” She turned to look back at the still open door, and Kakistos’ remaining minions beyond, come to see the fuss. “I’m feeling like I could use a good fight.” She dropped the beam, and bent to scoop up another, fist-sized, sharp fragment of wood. She looked at Annie with a half-smile on her face, and something else that made the blonde’s stomach drop six inches. “Care to join?”

Faith didn’t wait for an answer, just sprinted for the other room. Once again, Annie found herself too terrified to move. She could hear the sounds of scuffle, and the hiss of exploding demon. Finally her feet kicked in where her brain wouldn’t, and she went to help, every protective instinct firing to watch Faith’s back as the younger girl exacted some serious carnage.

But in her head, all Annie could see was that look on Faith’s face. Her heart ached. Somehow fate had found them again, because Annie knew that look from every time she’d glanced in a mirror.

Faith was a Slayer too.

*   *   *   *   *

Less than a week later, Annie remembered, the Brit had shown up in Southy looking for Faith. And she’d just packed up their things, taken Faith’s hand, and run. The younger Slayer had been more than happy to; she’d accepted Annie’s declaration of danger, and they’d just hopped a train and gone.

Now, of course, Annie knew that Faith hadn’t believed her after all. That Faith had just played along with what she thought was Annie’s paranoia.

For the fourth time the Slayer pulled out her pack of cigarettes to double check its emptiness. She wondered if her spare was still behind Faith’s ear. Trying to banish the thought, she took a deep breath and looked around herself. Residential neighborhood, stoplight at the intersection just ahead. Gas stations perched on opposite corners. Annie’s hands roamed her pockets, finally coming up with a wad of bills large enough to buy some more smokes. She stuffed the money away again and pointed herself in the right direction.

Why didn’t she tell Faith more about the Watchers before? Maybe she could have satisfied some of her curiosity. Maybe Faith wouldn’t be so amped about seeking them out. Maybe… maybe Annie could turn her against every instinct the Chosen One has about saving the world?

She shook her head to shed those thoughts. She didn’t have the instincts anymore, she told herself forcefully. Not since… not for a long while.

And what about this Watcher? Or, these Watchers, plural, she reminded herself. The one she’d seen in Boston was about the right speed, but Ripper? He was nothing like the Watchers she remembered, Merrick, or that Travers guy. (Her body betrayed her, thinking about Ripper… about his touch… shut up, B, she said to herself.) What was his deal? That he was buddies with a vampire, and whatever the other guy, the shorter one, was, just stumped her.

What the hell was Faith getting herself into?

Annie went to cross the street, angling for the nearer gas station and Quickie Mart, and paused at the sound of an approaching engine. Then she ducked back in the shadows, and marveled at the twisted humor of fate as a familiar motorcycle approached and passed, slowing for the same station.

Well, this time she’d use fate for her own devices.

The Slayer snuck along the street, hidden in darkness, until she could see him stop and shut off the engine. Ripper dismounted and headed towards the doors, and she sprinted across the road, plastering herself against the station’s wall, out of sight.

Ducking her head around the corner, she watched the doors until they opened again. Watched him until he straddled and kicked over the engine. Then dashed for the back of the cycle and leapfrogged to the seat behind him. Annie poked the end of her stake up under the back of his jacket and into his ribs, hard.

“It may not be a gun, but Mr. Pointy here will work wonders on your insides.” He jerked his head around, eyes wide behind the visor. “Drive,” she said.

*   *   *   *   *

“And then you were just, The Slayer,” Willow said, “just like that.”

“Just like that,” Faith nodded.

“What did it feel like?”

The brunette shrugged. “I don’t know. Not much different right then. Except that, instead of my hand really hurting when I hit him, his face started hurting. A lot.”

“Wow.”

“Yep, one punch made him smile, the next knocked his ass across the room.”

“But you didn’t feel different?”

Faith smiled. “Well I felt a whole lot better about hurting him than the other way around. But mostly I’d just felt good the whole day. Energetic, you know?”

“I can imagine.” Kendra had described the experience similarly. But humbly. Everything her friend had ever said about being the Slayer had been with reverence.

Willow remembered sitting with the soft-spoken girl in the library, at the table below the stacks, Kendra telling her how proud Mr. Zabuto had been when she’d been Called, and how nervous she’d been to go work with Rupert (although she always called him Mr. Giles). Willow swallowed the memory before it overwhelmed her.

She cleared her throat. “So then you went in and staked Kakistos.”

“I had to get by a few more vamps. It was a scene. But I had to get to Annie.”

“Rupert mentioned Kakistos once, when we were doing research. He said the name meant ‘worst of the worst’.”

Faith nodded. “Not a nice guy.”

“Did you ever get to that alligator farm?”

The Slayer laughed. “Yeah, about a year and a half later. That’s a much funnier story that I, uh, won’t share right now. Kinda involves the cops. And nudity.” She looked off, remembering. “And a really big dump truck.”

“So, are you guys, like, on the run? From the police?” the redhead said with a touch of excitement in her voice.

Faith smiled, “So you have a thing for bad girls or boys?”

“Oh! Not really. Xander — my fiancé — he’s a pretty straight arrow, but, but in a good way, not a boring way.” She smiled slyly, “I guess Ripper is pretty bad boy, but he’s more like a dad to me than boyfriend material. I did have a crush on him back when he was just the school librarian, though.”

There was a pause. And then Faith said in a small voice, mostly to herself, “Rupert is Ripper?” Her face had gone pale, her eyes liquid. “Why didn’t I know that?”

Willow shrugged, not understanding.

The brunette stood from the chair, backing away from the bed like it was a dangerous animal. “Then this is where they…” she started, but trailed off.

Willow looked at the bed, trying to figure out its anomaly. “They?” she asked. “Rip and…” And then she understood. She understood a lot.

Faith lifted her head and looked at the door, then the wall as if seeing through it towards the front of the store. “I have to go,” she said suddenly, her attention still very much elsewhere.

The witch cocked her head and then heard it, faintly. Keys in the front door.

“Faith, wait,” she said. “Untie me, and we can just talk. That’s my fiancé, not Ripper.”

“How do you know?”

“Ripper would come in the back.”

“Doesn’t matter… I still have to go.”

“Faith, no one is going to hurt you.”

“Willow?” came a call from the front.

“Faith? Faith!” The witch repeated the name more firmly, making the Slayer meet her eyes. “We can help you. And you can help us. You can trust us.”

“I… I don’t know. I don’t know you.” Willow could see the confusion and hurt in the girl’s eyes. “I have to find Annie.”

“Willow?” came the call again. “Ripper?”

“It’s okay, Faith.”

The brunette shook her head. “Is it? How do I know that? Annie was right, the Council tracked us down.”

“That’s not what this was,” Willow nodded at the bed. “I know him.”

“Well I don’t. I don’t know anything.”

The witch’s voice was patient. “Then we’ll explain it to you.”

She moved to the doorway. “I have to find her, know that she’s safe.”

“Faith, she’s a Slayer.”

“Who doesn’t know she’s on a Boca del Infierno.” She turned away. “I’m sorry,” she said, and then was gone.

Willow hung her head. She felt so sorry for the girl.

“Will?”

“In here, Xander.”

“Hey, what’s going on? Did you know the back door is open?” He appeared in the doorway. “Oh my God!” and he raced to her side, kneeling down. “Are you okay? What happened?”

“I’m okay,” she smiled at his concern.

“Was it…?” he touched the purpling bruise on her jaw and she flinched.

“No, not Drusilla. Or a vampire or anything.” She watched his face. “It was a Slayer.”

“A…” he couldn’t quite register what she’d said. He looked down and picked up the ice pack from the floor, looking at it with a frown.

“She was really sweet, actually.”

Xander raised his eyebrows. “Sweet?” he indicated her condition.

“Could you untie me?” Willow asked hopefully.

“Oh, sorry,” he moved around behind her.

“Thank the Goddess, because my arms were about to fall off. Not literally though.”

He stood up after he finished untying her and started to massage her arms. “That much I figured, baby.”

“Mmm… ow,” she murmured at his ministrations.

“Why would a Slayer tie you up?”

She sighed. “Long story. I’ll tell you later.”

“A Slayer is back in town…” his voice was tight.

“Two, actually,” she said. “Both the girls Rip saw at the Bronze last night.”

“Two? How is that…”

“That’s part of the longness.” Willow craned her neck around to look at Xander. “Which means, by the way, that Wesley was right.”

He looked at her blankly. “Okay, now I’m really worried about Drusilla.”

She furrowed her brow at him.

He shrugged. “Because that’s a clear sign of the Apocalypse.”

Willow smiled softly, sadly, at her life’s love.

*   *   *   *   *

She’d barely moved the stake during the ride out of town, and given how uneven some of the roads were, he was afraid it would draw blood at any moment. Not that he didn’t deserve it.

Ripper thought, hands white-knuckled on the grips, of just how many signs he’d missed last night. Her strength, her attitude, her sense of Sunnydale’s innate peculiarity… Of course she knew Angel was a vampire, why wouldn’t she? And yet he’d missed it all. Or actually, ignored it. Because he’d been blinded by her. Overwhelmed.

He’d committed a grievous violation of the Council’s rules. He’d compromised everything he’d been trained for. It didn’t matter that he was an ex-Watcher, the rules were there for a reason. As he could tell from the look in her eyes when she’d grabbed him, or the tension in her arms as she clung to him, threatened to impale him, the implications, the emotional consequences, could be devastating.

The bike was traveling through California wilderness now, suburbs and city far behind, even other vehicles scarce. She withdrew the spike in his side and he turned his head. She nodded to a clear patch by the roadside, a dozen feet of grass before the tree line, and he slowed and stopped.

She was ten feet away by the time he shut off the cycle, removed his helmet, and dismounted. He left the headlight on against the dark night. Her back was to him. Ripper slid off his gloves and pocketed them, then ran a hand through his hair, waiting for her.

He could see her set her shoulders before she turned to face him. She seemed to almost glow in the darkness, her blonde hair caught just so in the cycle’s light. Her voice was even, but hard. “Okay, just who the hell are you people?”

The Watcher could only answer honestly, take the risk, hope for the best. Hope she’d make it quick. “I think you know who I am. And I’m fairly certain who you are, Buffy Summers. The long lost, dead Slayer.”

And then, with the crack in her angry calm, the awful pain and terror and history he saw in her face, Ripper knew it was over. He was done for. The Council was dead right about the consequences.

God forgive him, he was in love.

 

X: The Here and Now