DISCLAIMER: Another day, another…they don’t pay me anything at all. I just do this to amuse myself and you. That’s what allows me and mine to slip under the radar while playing with characters created by those more fortunate than us.
ARCHIVING: A master list of my fiction can be found here. Please do not archive or distribute without my permission.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Special thanks to Howard Russell for all of the lovely commas.
What Lies Beneath
I slam the bathroom door. The first thing I see after it’s locked and the lights are on is me. It figures, I take the easy out and end up staring at my own pasty face. There’s an old wooden framed mirror hanging on the wall opposite the door. I’m shaking like a leaf. My cheeks are streaked with tears. I’m breathing like I’m dying. My heart’s trying to pound its way out of my chest. In other words, the usual.
I’m so sick of this bullshit! What’s wrong with me?
What do I think I’m doing? What’s the plan? Am I just gonna hide in here?
A tap at the door answers my question. Jesus H. Fucking Goddamned Christ! Why do I do this shit to myself?
I tear my attention from the ghoul in the mirror and turn to unlock the door. As it swings open, I head for the sink. Just what I need, another damn mirror. I avoid looking at the stupid thing until B. pokes her head in the door. She’s so timid. I don’t get that. “I can go meet Giles if you need—” she says.
I reply, “No,” cutting her off. The last thing I want is for her to protect me. Right before that—the next to the last thing—is seeing him. In this battle of evils, John Harker wins.
I reach for tissues on the back of the toilet. What is it with women and tissues on the toilet tank? It’s universal. The first one I take sticks to my hand. As I ball the tissue up, clutching it in my fist, my damned hand aches. I take another tissue to wipe my eyes and blow my nose. Her scent’s so strong. It’s just…
Why’s this so…?
My cheeks warm. It makes no sense. Even as screwed up as I am, she makes me weak. I toss the wad of tissue in the trash can.
I’m so sick of hearing myself say these words, but damn me, I have to. “I’m sorry.” I’ve never used them more or meant them half as much. That doesn’t keep them sounding hollow. I just wish there were better. Something else I could say. Anything. It’s—
I’m gonna lose what’s left of my mind if this doesn’t stop.
The most disgusting part of this entire pitiful mess is that I know exactly how she’ll reply. This is so predictable it’s sad. She’s gonna tell me it’s alright.
We’re so far from alright…
I turn the faucets on and cup my hands under the stream. The water’s icy cold. That doesn’t stop me. As the frigid shit hits my face, she doesn’t disappoint. “It’s okay.” It’s almost ridiculous how nervous she sounds. She doesn’t buy it either.
That’s right. Sure it is. Say it again. That won’t make it any truer. At least the shock hides my cringe. The reaction seems almost normal. Or I hope it does.
She could stop right now. “Look, I get that this isn’t going to be easy.” But she just has to make things that much better by slathering on the platitudes. “Nothing good ever is.”
I rest my forearms on the edge of the sink and hang my head. She still doesn’t see.
“I think you’re worth it,” she whispers.
Water drips from the tip of my nose, splashing into the shallow basin. I just hope she’s done. I shut my eyes. Ambient sounds are all that’s left. Mostly just running water. I can live with that. The door could open any moment now and that’d be fine by me.
Just as I get my hopes up, she works up the nerve to add, “I’m not going anywhere.”
Why’d she say that?
Maybe she does. Poor, broken, fucked up Faith. Yeah, she does see. She can keep her goddamned platitudes.
I look up, resisting the urge to punch the worthless sack of shit in the mirror. I want to so bad, but I can’t do that to B. It wouldn’t be right.
She turns away. “I’ll be upstairs,” she says, leaving the room and pulling the door closed behind her.
I splash my face again. The water’s warmer. Some of the tension bleeds away as I rest my hands behind my neck.
I can’t fix this if don’t know what I’m fixing. I don’t even know where to start.
Right when things get good, my brain falls out. And not in the happy, healthy, horny, kind of way.
That’s the pattern.
So, this has nothing to do with her? It’s all me, right? That’s it? I’m the problem?
Well, that much fuckin’ figures.
Smelling like her is driving me nuts. I bust through washing and drying my hands and face, shut the sink off and attack my hair. I don’t think that anyone in right mind would call this brushing. The pain…
I fuckin’ deserve it!
The truly funny thing is that when I finish, I look better. Red-faced, but better.
You’d think that the stress would shake something loose. I mean, if this has something to do with the crap Little Lily Munster pulled, you’d think…
But I don’t remember a goddamn thing. This is like one of those campy movies where the guy hears or sees the right wrong thing and snaps. At least there aren’t bodies piling up—
I’m not even gonna go there. Besides, if I’m reading this right, my trigger more than makes up for anything else that might be missing. Talk about evil. This is just plain sick and fucking wrong.
Nothing about this feels right. Everything fits, but I don’t remember because—
Well, shit. Y’know, feeling like an idiot really helps. If I never do another damn puzzle again in my life, it’ll be too soon.
I turn away from the mirror. I’m hopeless. I need to get this over with. Go through the motions. Deal with Giles. And from there…
I have no idea. Leaving the bathroom might be a good start. I’m not gonna fix this mess without makeup. And for that I have to go upstairs.
Maybe if I can get my shit together, I’ll catch a break and Little Miss Hide and Seek will come out to play. I want a word.
Yeah, imagine me catching a break. I shouldn’t even think shit like that.
I open the door. The trip upstairs is mechanical. I really am just going through the motions. There’s nothing left. My leg’s a real treat. I have to move slow. The bandage drags my stitches, reminding me it’s there as I climb, making the whole thing itch and the entire experience just that much more enjoyable.
I’d really like to grab my makeup and get going. Not that I’m in any hurry to see Giles. I just need more time to myself.
B.’s sitting slouched against her weapons chest when I open the door. Her legs are bent. Her laptop’s propped between her thighs and stomach. She clicks the touchpad, shuts the lid and looks up. Those two clicks pretty much tell me how this is gonna go.
Things never work out the way I want. I’ve given up on even trying.
But I don’t know anything for sure. There’s just something about the way she moves, like she’s crabby maybe. And with so little reason…
Is that really it? I don’t think it is. Her expression’s neutral enough. Hell, I don’t know. Maybe she wasn’t done with whatever she’s doing. Killing time turned into something more…and I blew it.
Yeah. I need to stop. This is above average dumb, even for me. Wondering what she was up to makes it that much worse.
She does seem a little put out maybe, but that’s probably all in my head. I could read anything in right now. I feel like—
“Do you still want to see my back?” she asks.
I don’t need the mind fuck, but my answer’s still, “Yes.” And that’s probably the best clue yet.
I meet her halfway. She sits near the head of the bed. I push the pillows over and sit down turned sort of behind her. It’s good. My shoes stay on the floor where they belong. I wouldn’t care if it was my bed, but it’s not.
Walking on pins and needles is such a joy. Everything I do is wrong in my head, even if it’s right.
She doesn’t touch her clothes at all. Oh goodie. I get to undress her. As I slip her sweater from her shoulders, she says, “I’m sorry that…” She trails off to pull her arms from her sleeves. Or maybe she’s collecting her thoughts. Either way, I don’t see why she’s sorry. I’m the one who—
“Downstairs, I meant what I said, but it sucked,” she explains. “I’m so lame sometimes. I just couldn’t…” She falls flat again when I lift her shirt.
I hear ya, B. Guess I’m not the only one who feels a little foolish. It just seems like I have so much more reason.
I raise her shirt the rest of the way up and focus on what I should. Well, her back’s healed as much as it’s going to. There’s no redness left. But it’s still, uh…
She was seriously worried about me? I’ll have one little scar, maybe two. This is…
“It’s just hard,” she mumbles. “I don’t know what to say.”
That’d make two of us. I pull her shirt back down. I’ve seen enough…to make me feel like a real turd.
That was the goal, right? I needed to make myself feel more like shit. I needed another reminder that I’m helpless. What’s done is done. There’s nothing I can do to make anything better.
I pick up her sweater and hang it over her shoulders. A tear trickles down my cheek. I wipe it away as she goes on, “I don’t want to screw up and say the wrong thing. I’m not sure what you remember.” She puts her arms through the sleeves.
I can’t take this. I’m not even—
She turns toward me. “This started off—” When she gets a look at me, she falls silent. I can’t face her. She rests her hand in mine. And she’s so damned coy about it, I can’t even pull away. “They’ll fade. You know that. In a year or so, you won’t even be able to tell.”
Her tone’s so matter-of-fact it’s infuriating. The worst part is she’s right. I know she’s right. Nothing ever sticks to us. The scars on her back are already white. They look at least two weeks old now. Her body’s doing what it does better than I expected.
Everything else is meaningless. What matters to her is that I’m okay. How does that work? I wish she’d just yell at me.
“I know you blame yourself for everything that’s happened, but none of this is your fault.” She sighs and I want to scream. I bite my tongue. Instead of going off, she’s holding my hand and telling me that everything’s fine. I’ve been granted a pardon. This is…
She touches my chin, trying to coax me into look up. “I keep saying that. I feel stupid repeating myself, but it’s true and you just won’t see it.” She sounds frustrated too. That gets worse. She draws my attention by granting my wish. “Here’s the thing, Faith. The regret you’re feeling…” she brushes her hair back “…that tells me everything I need to know.” She glares at me, holding her hair in her fist. She’s pissed, but for something completely…
Finally, she lets her hair fall and stands. Offering a hand down to me, she says, “Now let’s get this over with. Giles is waiting on us.”
Following her lead, I get up. I make it halfway to my closet before she asks, “Are you attracted to me?” When I turn and look at her like she’s nuts, she says, “Then what does it matter?”
It takes me second to get what she means. She’s still talking about her back. I thought we were done.
She averts her eyes and mumbles, “I really don’t want to think about this, okay?”
I guess we’re done now. “I get that,” I reply.
She goes on like she didn’t even hear me, “I just don’t know what to think about you.” She takes shaky breath. “If you can stand…” It’s surprising that she continues. I was pretty sure this was over. I just wish she’d look at me.
The rest isn’t any surprise at all. I could try finding something relevant to say. Something besides a rote response. Or I maybe I should just learn to keep my mouth shut.
What I should do is knock her senseless. That way she’d have an excuse. The idea that I might not be able stand to look at her is just…
At least, I think that’s what she meant when she mumbled. It’s hard to tell.
Sadder still, I really am just that stupid. I take the bait. “It matters because I can’t look at your back without feeling like I did something awful.”
“Well, you need to stop. It wasn’t you,” she snaps.
“Yeah, but I didn’t do anything to prevent it,” I reply. “I should’ve at least warned you.”
It takes her a bit to answer, “You’re right.” And when she does, most of her anger’s gone. “You probably should’ve, but it’s not like I didn’t know. I went into this with my eyes wide open.” There’s something on her dresser that holds her interest. It makes me crazy that she’s avoiding me. She has to see that I’m right.
I ball my fists and yell, “And that doesn’t matter! Damn it, Buffy, I should’ve protected you!” Why can’t she see that it’s me? I’m the problem. I’m always the problem.
She says, “You couldn’t. And you can’t blame yourself for that.” It gripes my ass that she’s so calm. Her mind’s made up.
I’ve had enough. I mutter under my breath, “Watch me,” before I pull my head out of my ass and actually make it to my closet.
The moment she says, “Faith, I can’t take this,” I get that I’m not alone. I’ve heard that tone before. I blew it. She’s done. “On top of everything else…I don’t want you to look at me and feel guilt or grief. How do you think that makes me feel?”
I clam up and let her have at it. The simple fact remains: she deserves to yell and I deserve to be yelled at. “Things are so screwed up, that’s the last thing I need. I don’t expect everything to get better overnight, but this one thing—can I just…?” Several somethings clatter during her rant, then it gets quiet. The quiet’s weird. I almost turn around to look, but she asks, “Can I just tell you that I don’t blame you? I need for you to…” She sounds exhausted.
I mumble, “I don’t know.” I wish I could just take it all back, that I hadn’t let her sucker me in.
And naturally, I screwed up again. I can tell from just her sigh that I went too far. “This is bad enough without you too,” she grumbles, building up a head of steam. “I can’t stand for you to look at me like that. That’s worse. If no one else sees this but you…” She’s so upset she has to stop.
And what am I doing now? I’m staring into my closet, itching to leave. I may be right. I’m not cut out for this. I just can’t take it.
I go to my bag and open it as she finds her voice again, “I don’t want them to. I want you. And if you can look at me like…” Her voice cracks. “Then things might just be okay. I may be able to deal with this. Get over it. Maybe I can even…”
The desire to run eats at me. I unzip one pocket after another, looking for my makeup. When I find it, I don’t even look up. I’m out the door so fast that the guilt doesn’t even catch up until I hit the stairs.
At least she doesn’t follow.
Yeah. And this is still all about me? God, I’m such an asshole!
Oh well, at least I may have time to get my shit wired tight before the next round.
About halfway down the stairs it hits me just how bad that was. She’s as stressed out as I am. She’s just hiding it better.
But really, all she was saying was that she wants to feel desirable. That’s such a basic thing. What any woman wants. And I stormed out over that?
I should turn around and haul my ass back up there. I don’t. I trudge down a few more stairs instead. This way I get to torture myself over every step I take. What could be more fun?
Turning around and pointing out what an idiot she is—that’d be lots more fun. She desperately deserves it, but I think I’ll take a pass. My head might explode. If she can’t see that this isn’t about how she looks, I’m not sure I can help. I mean, it doesn’t hurt that she’s a major hottie, but—
There are lots of pretty people in this world. I could pick and choose if that’s all this was about. It wouldn’t even be that hard. Actually, it’d be a damn sight easier than any of this. I’m not in this for ‘easy’ or the eye candy or…
I don’t know. The attraction needs to be there, but past that…this is about who she is, not what she is.
Maybe I’d feel different if her ego was more fragile. But it’s not. I’ll make this up to her later.
I hit the landing, round the corner and take the last few steps to the bathroom. Again, the first thing I see is me. I look like hell. That mirror just sucks.
I drop my makeup bag on the toilet seat and unzip it, digging straight to the bottom for my foundation first. The only time I ever touch this shit’s when I get rolled up by something bigger, meaner and nastier than I am. That’s such a rare combo, I have no clue how old this is.
I check the bottle for a date. I’m not sure what happens when makeup goes bad, but I don’t really want to put this crap around my eyes if it is. The date’s stamped on the bottom. I’ve still got six months before I’ll need a new one. I should just buy another. With any luck, it’ll be six months before I need this crap again.
Yeah, I’ve noticed something about my luck here lately. Pushing it wouldn’t be smart. I take the lid off the bottle, put my index finger over the opening and shake as I assess the damage. I usually use this stuff to cover up major bruises. My eyes aren’t as puffy as they were. The dark circles still suck, but this’ll be cake.
I look down long enough to find a place to set the bottle. When I look up, the wall behind me’s dark blue. There was an alcove that the door opened into. I guess there might be a closet in Maeve’s bedroom that cuts into the bathroom. That’s gone. The wall’s flat. The blue wallpaper’s printed with cheap paisley. It’s the kind of shit they use in places that want to be upscale, but that’ll never make the cut. The white, gold, maroon and green print just looks gaudy. I blink and it goes away.
That was strange. The alcove’s back. The walls are white. Everything’s how it should be. I blow it off and spread my new skin tone. When I look down again to get a little more foundation, a childish, feminine voice whispers from behind me, “You’re missing the point, Faith.”
My life would have to be a lot more normal for this to come as a shock. I’ve just got one thing. “Am I still awake?” That one thing seems like one hell of a thing to ask, but considering our history, the question’s totally valid.
“Yes,” Alicia replies as I look in the mirror, trying to find her. I have to twist my upper body. She’s sitting in the alcove against the wall facing me. I see her in the mirror, but when I turn all the way around to look, she’s not there. “We don’t really have much time. You should just get ready,” she says.
This is completely—
“You’re right, it is fucked up,” she cuts in, scolding me. “I wouldn’t be here right now if you’d just look at the details.”
Jeez, not you too. Can’t I do anything right?
Obviously not. And I’m the one who should be mad, but I just can’t find it in me.
It doesn’t matter. I get back to it, locating my powder to appease my prepubescent conscience. That’s probably the sickest irony so far. My conscience is a—
Completely blowing me off, she explains, “Buffy watched the whole thing.” Half a chance might be nice. “She said as much herself, remember?”
Now I just feel like a shit again.
And of course, Alicia just has to rub it in, “Don’t you think that might be bothering her a little?” My mind paints a picture, but she immediately tears it down. “Kako was trying to break you. Do you really think she just raped you? That’d be way too simple.”
Honestly, I hadn’t given this much thought. I haven’t had the time. I was just getting used to the idea that that slutty little freak might’ve touched me.
I look up from the brush and the compact in my hands to find Alicia in the mirror. The expression on her face is…it doesn’t belong on such a sweet girl. I have to look away.
She’s right. I’d’ve gotten over it. Thanks to her, I have all of these freshly recovered memories to work with. The stuff seems like it happened yesterday. That’s more than a little disturbing. Which makes it go well with everything else.
We got off to a pretty rocky start. Both of us were looking for something that neither of us could give. We both cared too much. It took a while to get that figured. But those experiences would’ve made this a whole lot easier.
I don’t know what to expect now. I just go back to doing what she told me to do. Keeping my hands busy is good. Maybe I won’t break anything.
“Kako didn’t rape you in the usual sense,” Alicia says, pausing out of frustration. She’s cutting hairs and she knows it. “I’m just saying. It wasn’t that simple. You didn’t want it, so it was rape, but it’s not like you think. She played with you. She did all of those things that you secretly desire. The stuff you won’t let anyone do because it doesn’t fit your ‘leave them sloppy and confused’ modus operandi.”
It’s not hard to imagine what she means. Heat rises in my face. Not that it shows much. The torment continues as I blend the camouflage down onto my neck. “You’d have to give up way too much control. But whatever, that doesn’t matter. The point is that it worked. You got off while her minion beat your lover. You can kind of see how that might—”
I want to snap the brush, but I’m good. I put it up and get out some blush. There are a couple of shades. I go for the more subtle of the two. I’m going to end up looking like a painted doll if I don’t tone this down somehow.
“Do you remember the two slayers that Giles sent here?” Alicia points them out and I see what’s coming. The caveat’s clear enough. “You need to ask Buffy what happened to the other girl,” she says without elaborating. I’ll call that a small favor.
“Wait. Only one?” I ask and angle my body to look at her in the mirror.
Alicia nods. Her expression hasn’t changed a lot. It pretty much suits how I feel. She’s upset. She sounds it too. “There wasn’t anything you could’ve done. Remember the smell? She was dead before you got there. I just hope the other girl lived.”
I’ve heard enough. I want to get the fuck out of here. I slap some color on my face. It’s an immediate improvement. I look almost healthy. Funny, I feel like utter shit.
“I’m not sure if that’s the kind thing or not,” she mumbles. “There was so much blood.”
I spin around. I want to hit her. That feels even stupider when I end up staring at an empty patch of floor. “I’m sorry. I just want you to understand.” It’s weird, hearing her in my head. The broken ends of the brush handle gouge my hand. I drop it in the trash as she says, “I don’t see any point in you remembering this crap. I’d like to hold onto it, if you don’t mind.”
If you can do that, knock yourself out. You’ll get no arguments from me. I turn around and put my blush up. I wish you could do the same for B.
“Her life hasn’t been like yours. She doesn’t have the same defense mechanisms,” Alicia replies.
I know. I just wish you could.
I get the stuff together to do my eyes while Alicia speaks her mind, “Kako was just softening her up.” I still can’t exactly stop her, so… “She didn’t do anything else to Buffy. I think she was saving that.”
Well, that much is good. That probably would make me snap.
“She played you and the other slayer against each other. Made you feel culpable for what happened. You know the game. You had an orgasm and she…”
At least hearing this delivered this way dulls the sting. There’s nothing to connect me, so it sounds like a report. I guess once it finally sinks in, I’ll feel different, but for now…
“I think her plan was to turn the tables once the other slayer was dead. Maybe she wanted to make Buffy feel responsible for your death? Or she may’ve just wanted to drive both of you insane. I can’t tell. But either way, she didn’t get that far.”
I just highlighted the area under my eyebrows first. That’s the last thing I normally do, but—
“So what happened to my leg?” I mumble.
“You got really upset and broke whatever was holding it down,” Alicia replies. “I have no idea what it was. I know that it hurt and that Kako taught you a lesson, but by then you were too traumatized for anything to really matter.”
Well, that explains the weird angle and why it’s so deep. I consider asking what upset me, but think better of it. I know enough. I can’t imagine what Buffy’s going through. No wonder she’s been so distant. I shouldn’t have touched her, but it’s too damned late now. I stare at my reflection. There’s no way I’m going to paint this away. My expression’s pretty grim. I need to finish up and try to put on a face on for her.
“You need to tell her the truth,” Alicia replies.
Yeah. You’re right. She deserves that much. But it’s not going to be easy.
Alicia mimics B., “Nothing good ever is.” She snickers. “Sorry, I couldn’t resist.”
Yeah, that’s what they say. I play at putting on my eye shadow the right way. I want this to look softer, maybe a little more natural. It doesn’t. I’ve got on too much makeup for anything to look that way. I just run with it.
So, what was the deal with that crappy wallpaper?
“Oh, that? That was nothing. Just afterward. The closest place that was open was the McDonald’s that’s just across the Western Hills viaduct. Buffy took you there and called for help. You were both so bad off. She carried you into the bathroom and held you.”
Alicia lets go. This doesn’t feel like nothing to me. I mean, it feels like a regular memory. There’s nothing flashy about it. Really, other than the mirror and that awful wallpaper, it’s mostly a sensation. Being held and feeling safe, but I’m still really scared. It’s confusing. And the pain is…
“These memories are a real pain to deconstruct. It’s hard to find things that won’t upset you. There’s just so much. That was something simple and safe.”
I don’t even try. There’s still a chunk missing, but that feels a whole lot more comfortable now.
“Unless you have something else, I’ll leave you alone to finish up,” she says. Hearing her stand is just too weird. My brain’s playing games. She’s getting ready to go, so it fills in the obvious. I see her in the mirror without twisting or turning. “You look pretty, Faith,” she says through a smile. “Will you do something for me?”
I don’t know why. It’s a little dumb, but I expect the door to open. I stammer through a reply when it doesn’t, “Sure. I mean, I guess. What?”
I look down and she says, “Try to smile. I know it’s hard, but it’ll help.” She’s gone. The tension eases. It’s weird to think that’s hard on me, but it must be.
Her request seems pretty whacked considering, but she’s right. It’ll help B. if she thinks I’m handling things okay. I plaster on the best I’ve got. It looks phony. I’ll have to work on that.
All that’s left is the usual stuff. Just eyeliner, mascara and lipstick. That goes really quick once my head’s in the game. But I could probably do this in my sleep. I probably have done this in my sleep. I know I’ve done it drunk.
I grab a tissue and wrap it around my finger. As I use it to soften the edges, B. comes downstairs. I look okay when I’m done. Funny, I feel like I’ve been sucked dry, but it’s been that kind of night. She passes the bathroom up, heading for the front room. When I meet her in the hall, she hands me my coat and a belt, mouthing, “I thought that’d look good.”
I don’t even bother. It’s not worth the trouble. The hallway’s pretty dark and it’s not like I there’s a mirror. I just humor her by handing my coat back long enough to put the thing on. It’s wide with a heavy buckle. It probably does look good. I’m in no position to start questioning her taste now. Not when everything I have on, she picked out. I follow her to the door, putting my coat on as I go. First thing, my hands go in the pockets. My smokes are there. I want, but I’ll wait. She opens the door and holds it for me.
When she turns to face me after locking the deadbolt with her key, I pin her. I don’t intend for it to come off to be quite as rough as it does. Oh well, I got her attention. “Don’t ever think that you’re anything but gorgeous,” I whisper and kiss her. She doesn’t resist at all. I don’t know why I expect her to, but I do. I guess it feels like we should still be fighting. She must be over that because she’s really into this. She puts her arms around me. Her tongue brushes my lips. I open up, giving her what she wants, mirroring her movements. It’s, umm…nice.
She smiles and takes my hand when I release her. We’re magically somehow still a couple in spite of all of this shit. There might be hope.
I follow her out to the car, patiently waiting until we’re both inside to ask, “What do you remember from when you were a kid?” This is the easiest way I can think of to start. It feels like I’m opening another can of worms before I have a handle on the last. But Alicia’s right, B. deserves to know that I don’t have a plan. Or a clue. I’m just going wherever this takes me. Not that any of that’s a mystery. I just owe her the truth. Maybe it’ll help her make sense of some of the stupid shit I do. There may even be an off chance she can help.
I can hope.
She starts the car and faces me. Like clockwork she replies, “Lots of stuff.” At least her curiosity seems genuine.
I fill in the obvious, “I do too, but—” In the world of cookie cutter conversations, this is going great. I need to cut the crap. “I had an imaginary friend.”
That was truly beautiful. I hang my head. I couldn’t have come off lamer if I tried. It surprises me when she doesn’t laugh. I might not be so nice. But that’s just B. She is nice. I mumble, “I know that sounds pretty dumb,” to break up the awkward silence. And let her off the hook.
I want to add, ‘Things didn’t start off that way,’ but she doesn’t let me. I barely get the ‘th’ out before she talks over me, “No it doesn’t.” That’s cool. I was mumbling. She places her hand over mine, murmuring a sympathetic, “That just means you were lonely. There’s nothing dumb about that.” She’s turned in her seat with her right leg folded, facing me. She has sweetest smile on her face.
I have to look away. What she’s doing feels forced. Kind of like a guidance councilor or a shrink. But I probably asked for that. I speak my piece, “She didn’t start off that way,” the tiny bit I have, hoping to turn things around. That’s likely. Using the pronoun feels better. More correct or something. But whatever, I probably am just lame. I don’t know what made me think I could do this.
In an effort to make me comfortable, she asks, “What happened?” She caresses my knuckles. That’s more of the same. I’ll get right on that.
This feels like beating my head against a wall, but I have to try again. “My mom was a drunk.” The words come out strained. I remember saying similar shit just to watch her expression change. Now that I’m not…
I turn away from her. Maybe she’ll take the hint. The porch light’s on at the neighbor’s. The girls are probably out trying to score with Roger again. I wonder if they plan to double up or play the boyfriend swapping game. Chicks are so messed up.
And on that cheery note, I get to talk about the most twisted bitch of all. “She was a way more interested in booze and pills than she was me.” What an admission. “I spent about half of my childhood being bounced from one relative’s house to another. I used to call that ‘relative hopping’ because that sounded flip, like I didn’t care. It made me seem like something I wasn’t.”
I wish we were still on the porch. I could use another cup of coffee.
Yeah, boo-hoo. I need to quit crying and just do my time. It’s probably sad this feels that way, but does.
“Where I spent my time was a matter of whoever had room for me, whoever would put up with me. Mom would take me back when there was no one else.” Tossing in a, “That always went so well,” sort of helps. It’s amazing how a little sarcasm’ll do that.
What I want is a cigarette. I should just get out of the car and burn one. It’d make me feel better.
“She had a different guy every time. You can imagine. Most of them treated me like I was an inconvenience. Just like Mom.” I get closer to my point and things get worse. My hands tremble. I clench my fists to keep them still. “But there was one who actually seemed to like me. He was nice.”
What I say is almost sentimental. My voice isn’t. I clear my throat, hoping to sound a little less like a psychotic Janis Joplin and more like myself, then I pick up where I left off, slathering on the saccharin, “He brought me candy and played games with me. I thought he was really sweet.”
I have to stop. Just thinking about this bullshit makes me want to rabbit. It takes me a few to work up the nerve to add, “Until he wasn’t.” And that’s enough of that. B. should be able to fill in what’s missing.
Her silence is a good sign. Or it starts off feeling that way, but then it just drags. She’s not facing me anymore. Her hands are both resting at the bottom of the steering wheel. She’s looking at them, waiting on me. And I don’t have the slightest clue what to say next.
I turn away to stare at the car in front of us. It’s strange. I want to be straight with her now, but I’m not sure how. I almost wish she’d say something stupid. If she’d ask another of those useless little questions designed to persuade me to talk, I’d have an excuse to go off. That’d make this easy. I could be an ass. Snide, irritable, priggish… But now…?
People are way more comfortable couching this crap in metaphors, cryptic doubletalk and colorful euphemisms. I can’t really say anything else without spinning it. Or I could just tell her a dirty joke.
Yeah, that’d be helpful. I wonder if she’s heard the one about the janitor and the priest.
Or here’s another solution, I could try owning up to how things were. That’d be different. Otherwise I’m stuck. I can’t really tell her about Alicia without telling her about…
“Look, B., with stuff like this…it doesn’t so much matter what happened. What matters is how we take it,” I say. What a great recovery. Except that I’m getting ahead of myself. I need to back up so she’ll understand.
“This wasn’t as bad as it sounds. It scared me at first, I mean…of course, but then I just felt stupid. He used me. I felt like I’d been played.” I get that out and reach for door handle. This is going to make me crazy if I don’t do something. “But I guess it wasn’t just that. I was ashamed too, like maybe somehow I’d asked for it.” I open the door. “I thought it was my fault.”
Taking my hand, she asks, “Where are you going?”
I reply, “I’m dying for a smoke.” It’d be nice if she’d just cut me some slack, but that might be too much to hope for. I’m halfway out of the car and she’s hanging on.
She doesn’t let go. I already got the ‘no smoking in the car speech,’ so… Now she says, “It’s fine. Just roll the window down.” Wonder what’s up with that.
I sit back and shut my door. It takes me a few to get settled. I have to remember which pocket my cigarettes were in, roll the window down and get one lit. While I’m screwing with that, I mumble, “God, I don’t even remember the bastard’s name. I think it was Carl. But whatever, there were so many. Who could keep track?”
What hurts most about this has almost nothing to do with my so-called childhood. Anyone could say the same shit about me now. And I’d be plastered too if wasn’t for B. The only real difference between me and dear old Mom is that I was never dumb enough to get saddled with a kid. And that…
Part of that’s on Carl, or Clyde, or Cal, or Cary or whatever-the-hell the bastard’s name was.
I want to call this. Maybe I could change the subject?
Nice thought, but I have no clue how.
No. I really can’t, so I dig a little deeper. “I got hurt. Typical kid shit. I scraped my knee and he tried to help. Or that’s what I thought he was doing. I didn’t understand. Things got out of hand. And Mom was passed out, so…” I bite my lip. Here’s the part that really sucks. I was so goddamned gullible. “I just wanted him to like me. That’s the real reason it happened.”
I take a drag and blow the smoke out the window. It’s a good excuse not to face her. “He…” I’m fresh out of euphemisms, but the gesture works just fine. It’s either that or…
Whoever came up with ‘confession’s good for the soul’ was probably never molested.
“I was scared, so I ran. I locked myself in the bathroom and didn’t come out till morning.” That sounds way too familiar, but she doesn’t say a word. This is pointless. It’s ancient history. I’m over it. All except for…
And that’s just too pathetic for words. I give up. I can’t finish. Hot air blows in through the vents. I don’t see how she’s not sweltering. My face and hands are chilly, but the rest of me…
When I glance at the dash, she goes for the controls, turning the blower off. I guess she hadn’t noticed.
This is so sad. I wish she’d do something, but we’re both locked in. She’s waiting on me, being patient, giving me space, going for that ‘understanding’ vibe… She’s doing all the right things and I’m…
I just had to dredge this up. But what else could I do? Normally, I’d have to be in a really shitty space to even go here. Now I’m just kind of stuck. I have to figure out how to say what I need to without sharing the rest.
Truth is, it scared the hell out of me. All I could come up with was that he was sick. I thought I might get sick. I didn’t know how anything worked, so thought he’d peed, but it didn’t feel or smell right. It was too… That seems so stupid now, but not really. With the kind of skeazy guys Mom brought around…
I wanted to wash up, but I could hear him. The last thing I wanted was to be in the tub. I kept thinking he’d pop the lock and…
He never did. I used a washcloth to wipe most of it off except for what was in my hair. That was hopeless. It was such a tiny place. Something kind of snapped that night as I listened to him fumble around. My mind ran riot over all of the…
I know I’m not the only little girl to spend a night huddled in a box. Hell, that image is practically a pop culture staple. The boxes may be different…under the bathroom sink, in a closet, beneath the floor…and the classic under the bed…but it’s all the same.
I’m probably not the only one to come up with a weird phobia over something like this either. I bet there are a lot of claustrophobics. That’d be normal. But me…I just can’t be normal.
“I’m practically a poster child for safe sex,” I whisper and shrug, knowing that she won’t have a clue. The double meaning hits me a second too late. “I mean, besides the obvious.” Yeah, who wouldn’t want a kid like me? But that’s not the point. “I don’t know. I just think its weird how that worked out. All of those things got mixed together. It’s all the same to me.”
She stammers, “Huh?”
I have to look. Her window’s open. She’s sitting with her back to the door. Well, that explains how she’s not burning up, but the rest is just…
She’s actually blushing. Confusion’s expected, but… She hangs her head. Unbelievable. How’s she—?
Uh, well…I guess that fits. The B. I first met would’ve turned twelve dazzling shades of red over any of this shit.
So, there’s some of her left? It’s hard for me to see that now after…but okay, whatever, I’m over it. I might even think it was cute if I didn’t feel like…
Getting hit by a car was easier.
Alright, so…time to salvage this mess. This might actually mean something to her, so I clear things up, “If it’s not wrapped in latex, I won’t touch it.” Her brow crinkles. I give her another moment to connect the dots. When that doesn’t go so well, I add, “Not the whole package, just the…” She fills in the second ‘package.’ I should really have a camera with me for stuff like this. Her expression’s precious.
Not to ruin a good thing, but—
“That goes for everything, oral sex too. But I usually won’t even go there. That’s just not something I do unless the guy really means something to me. And so few of them do. That’s almost never been an issue.”
“But what about…?” Her voice is really weak. Now we’re getting somewhere. I pencil the ‘me’ in for her. That’s where she was headed. I can’t see her arriving at dental dams without some serious help, so…
It hurts a little, but I admit the truth, “I’d like to tell you that it didn’t bother me, but it was a serious stretch. I didn’t know if I could do it. It actually scared me. I didn’t want to lead you on.”
I already have an answer for that. I don’t even have to think about it. “I love everything about you, B. It wasn’t a stretch for long. I got over it.”
“You got over it?” She has this cute little grin on her face. She’s still sheepish, but that question…
For a rerun, that’s pretty dangerous stuff. I don’t think she’d ever get over the idea that I tolerate oral sex just to make her happy. “I’m really over it,” I reply. I stare at the car in front of us. It’s funny. I put on my best wolfish grin for just a sec and then hang my head. My hair hides my face. It’s a good act.
But it’s mostly not an act. I’m the one who’s blushing now. I can practically taste her. She’s still wearing the same jeans. It’d be so easy to…
If that wasn’t so damned hard. Today was a complete nightmare. She has to be thinking—
“You love everything about me?” Or maybe she isn’t. That much is good, but she really needs to get over repeating what I say. Especially when she’s just fishing.
I turn to look at her. Bet I can make that smirk go away. “Well, everything except for that self righteous streak you’ve got going on.” Yeah. Made her pout. This is just too easy. “But even that’s kind of cute sometimes.” Not to mention, fun. “It depends on how preachy you get.”
“Mostly, I just find it funny.”
“Don’t mention it.”
My smoke’s a total loss. That’s okay. I ditch it. This is so much better. One moment I’m telling her about one of the worst experiences of my life, the next we’re laughing and trading barbs. And there’s nothing fake about any of it. This is so rare. I have to enjoy it for another moment. Basking can be good.
I reach out and touch her lightly under her chin. When I lift up, she faces me. And the next moment she’s kissing me, like she really means it, like I really matter. She actually cares. That’s a beautiful thing. I think I get why I love her.
B.’s holding my hand. We’re walking together. We round the corner by the chili place and the wind dies down. It’s easier to hear her when she says, “But yeah, I think we have a real shot if we can put all that behind us.”
We’re almost home and I really, really, really want to be there. I’m tempted to pick her up and just go for it. I want to be warm and safe in bed, holding her. I long to feel her body pressed against mine. I want hear her whisper, instead of almost shouting. I need to feel her breath caress my ear as she talks, not this bitter wind.
I don’t really even need anything else. Just that’d be fine.
Boy, don’t I sound—?
“I really like you, Faith,” she says. “Even with all that other stuff, I guess I always have. Or I wanted to. It hurt. And you really pissed me off, but—” The pause is funny. I remember this. She’s so cute. Finally, she adds, “Noticing a theme?”
She’s looking right at me, waiting for me to snark, “Drawn to the bad?”
“Not exactly a positive theme,” she replies like clockwork, but her smile’s so sweet…
A little sap can be nice. I wish I could let myself get sucked in. This was so good. But I can’t shake the feeling that something awful’s about to happen. I try to shrug it off. I play my part. I have no choice but to think that it isn’t. I have to point out, “You do know that you can’t save us, right?”
But we’re not alone. And if my hunch is right, that’s only going to get worse. I recognize the older black guy who’s huddled in a guard shack behind the chili place. It’s the same guy from the graveyard. And he gives me the same wicked case of the creeps. But still I nod to him before I say, “Not all of us, at least. It’s not the healthiest thing to even try.”
He’s not supposed to notice us. That’s how this went down. But now he turns to me, meets my eyes and says, “I don’t think Buffy’s the problem. It’s her.” His face changes as he speaks. It isn’t the old man who’s looking at me now. It’s Wood.
Completely unaffected, Buffy follows the script, “I know.” She’s not really here. She doesn’t know what’s happening.
I guess it’s good she doesn’t see the hatred in his eyes.
But he’s not indifferent to her. He actually looks right at her when he says, “I wouldn’t count on anything that bitch says. Give it few months. She’ll walk away and leave you hanging too. That’s all she’s good for.”
I blink. When my eyes open, he’s strung up by his neck from a rafter in the little shack. His head’s wrapped in duct tape. The guard uniform is gone. All he has on is a pair of blood soaked red shorts and a grubby white tee-shirt. The insides of his thighs are crusted with blood.
I need to be sick, but I can’t. I’m not in control. I wait to blink again, praying that he’ll go away. And when my eyelids flutter, I actually catch a break. He does. The guard sits there, normal as you please. And he’s not interested in us at all. Something down the alley across the street has his attention. He leans forward, straining to see what it is.
I should follow his example, but instead I ask right on cue, “So what part of that was hard to understand?”
Why’d I say that? It was so unnecessary. God, I need to—
“None of it, I guess,” she replies.
The guard’s eyes are bugged out. He’s on the right page. Or close. He’s still not running. We should all be—
I’m frozen. Locked in. And my heart’s somewhere around my shoes. I’m having one those empty, vacant ‘oh shit’ moments. Holding my breath, hanging on, waiting for my world to come apart…
But her hand’s in mine and part of me feels happy. I walk like I haven’t got a care in the world. On the surface, I’m contented. Underneath, I need to scream.
Her heels clicking against the pavement, like the second hand of a watch. Counting down…
It’s killing me. I can’t make my voice work. I can’t—
We need to move!
The thicket we cut through to get home is just right there. Another three yards and we’ll be okay. We can make it if we run.
We need to—!
My arm yanks tight. She whips me around. I don’t know how I keep hold. My shoulder wrenches and pops as my feet leave the ground. The backs of my legs smack something solid. My head snaps forward. It feels like she grabbed hold of a passing train.
My eyes are shut. I don’t remember closing them. I’m just glad I did. Shit hits my head, my arms, my back, my legs…
I lose track. But the random flashes of pain fade after a brief eternity and I find enough control to lift my head.
The guard shack’s a pile of kindling, cracked boards and twisted metal. And there was a fence on that one side.
But we’re not—
The shack’s not that far away. I should be…
We should be in the next county.
The guard springs to his feet. He was buried in the pile. I’m amazed he’s moving. Moving’s right. His hair could be on fire and he’d—
My right boot touches down. Whatever it hits makes a hollow metallic thud. Funny, I hear that. Nothing else gets through. A car horn blares. I look down just as my calves slam into the windshield of a white truck.
Something gouges my side. The guard runs into the middle of the street as I spin.
My free hand touches something. No clue what, but I latch hold. It’s something smooth and cold…something metal and it feels pretty solid. A thin part, like a wire or—cuts into the side of my middle finger as my arms pull tight. We stop, but only just barely. The snapping pressure on my shoulders and arms—
I groan or…almost drowning out B. when she says, “Oh, I dunno. I’d say she’s doing alright.”
But it’s not really B. Or it is, but it’s not my B. She’s stretched out somewhere between me and whatever this thing is that has us.
The other B.—half of my impromptu, out-of-context pep squad…who lean casually against the back of a red Dodge parked across from us—
This is half-past twisted and getting worse. The car horn sounds muffed. Everything’s—
I’m not even gonna think about Willow. She’s—
I’m not sure—
Maybe I’m just screwed in the head, but she looks like the Ice Queen, Winter Witch, White Witch…or whatever else from every classic fairytale on the planet. The only thing spoiling the look is her clothes. She should be dressed like some ren-faire reject. But wardrobe really blew it this time. She’s wearing a blue sweater, jeans and white tennies.
That’s trippy, but Buffy’s even worse. The last time I saw that face was in a mirror. The black tank top and brown pleather pants she wears…I picked out. The red lipstick—that was me too. She’d never wear that shade. Her hair’s not really fixed either, not like she’d do it. I just picked the tangles out, clipped it back, slapped on a little war paint and went. I was kind of in a hurry that night.
If this is some sort of headtrip—major points to the prick who thought it up—it’s totally working. Seeing that face makes me feel more like shit than I already did. And that’s quite a feat.
Hearing her defend me…
My B…her hand slips in mine. I almost let go of the metal thing, but she clamps down.
My hand pops. She may’ve broken it, but that doesn’t matter. I’m glad she did. I want to stop this, but losing her isn’t an option.
Spectator B. says, “Yeah, that looks like it’s gonna suck.”
I have no clue what she’s going on about. All I’ve seen so far is her and—
“You’re not seriously buying this act?” Wood taunts. I can’t see him, but he’s close. “That’s how things were with us at first too. She cared so much.” He has to be somewhere around this truck. I want to find him, but instead, I look up.
Judging from B.’s expression—the one I’m clinging to for dear life—we’re screwed. I peer past her, hoping I can tell what’s got us. The angle’s bad. All I see are feet. There are lots of things with feet.
This thing with feet says, “It’s touching to see you girls getting along so well.” If the lugged soles of his boots didn’t give him away, the metallic rasp of his voice does. It’s Sparky. I should’ve guessed. And if I’d had a moment’s—
“Why didn’t you let go?” Willow asks.
I wish I could answer. But I, umm…
She’s seriously freaking me out. Being this close to her makes me feel like I’m standing next to a power transformer. And not one of those wimpy things they mount to the poles. The kind they have in the relay stations outside of town. She’s just plain scary. All of the fine hairs on my body prickle, my skin tingles…
It’s messed up. And that’s only part of it. Sparky’s trying to draw and quarter me. Or draw and half me? Something like that.
My arms shake with the strain. But it’s not right. This only lasted a few seconds. But that’s—
Anyway, Willow isn’t helping.
And like I don’t have enough to deal with, spectator Buffy chimes in, asking the same damned thing, “Yeah, why didn’t you just let go, Faith?” I kick, looking for something to snag hold of, but my legs are— “It would’ve been so much easier. You could’ve dropped to the ground and walked away. No big.”
What is this? Are we gonna have a moment? I know…let’s all share our feelings. That’d be—
How ’bout not? I’m a little busy now. This kick is taking for-goddamned-ever. It’s like I’m stuck in molasses. Or a rerun of The Bionic Woman. Can I put this off till the next time I get off? Now’s not really a moment I want to savor.
But somehow hearing the question from her makes it different. I still can’t answer, but I can’t brush her off either. How do I explain that it makes me—?
My boot finally strikes metal. I get that I had to try, but that couldn’t have be more pointless. And I’m still stuck, waiting for my legs to…
Her question’s hanging too. And even considering why makes me panic. How should I answer? What would she believe?
Can I even answer? I try to say ‘I don’t know,’ but Wood has to get in another shot.
He says something about me just ‘doing what comes natural.’ And I guess if I’m honest, he might have a point.
But I miss most of that because Willow talks right over him, “It’d leave a great big gaping hole in your chest, wouldn’t it?”
It’d be great if she’d just say it. I might have a chance to deal. But she doesn’t. It’s the same story as before. She’s not really talking. The line’s even kind of stale. She said something close when she wasn’t talking about that other thing.
The funny part…I feel better after she says it. Or doesn’t say it. That’s just—
But someone else understands.
I understand. Yeah, needing to fight was probably part of it. I don’t take shit like this lying down. But that’s not it. This is when it happened. This was the moment I really knew. I couldn’t let go. I knew that it’d be like cutting a piece of myself off if I did. I had to stay with B. What it might cost me didn’t even enter in. I didn’t care.
Spectator Buffy looks me over. It takes her a long, uncomfortable moment to size me up.
I catch a little slack. My head tilts up toward my B. as the other B. goes off, “Look, Wood, I’m sorry for what happened to you. I really am. It sucks. But sticking your head out during a shit storm—” from the pause, I’m guessing there’s a face “—you should expect to get some on ya.”
She’s not the only one. I still can’t believe she’s defending me. “Whatever else was up really doesn’t…” Sparky picks a fine time to yank our arms “…matter.”
And time picks the same time to unglitch. “You should’ve stayed in your bunk and you know it,” she concludes as I check out what’s ‘gonna suck.’ I’ve been clinging to a goddamned bicycle wheel, like that’s gonna do a damn bit of good.
We’re so screwed. The bike’s mounted upside-down to the roof of one huge boat of a sport-ute. Morons. Shit makes no sense. They get eight gallons to the mile driving the family assault vehicle to the—
I’m the moron. While I’m on that, bad things go down. As the rim ovals, spokes pop and bend. I don’t let go quick enough and my hand gets folded in the stupid thing. It does suck. The metal cracks when it folds. Sparky surges forward, ripping my hand free and open.
I end up like the teddy bear that kid with the glasses had in Peter Pan, dangling along for the ride. As the streetlights at the back of the parking lot whiz past, everything goes back to normal. The car alarm blares. And that stupid guard gets his shit together. He’s finally headed the right way.
I swing around and reach up, hoping for a handhold. I find the belt of B.’s coat and latch onto the knot.
Wonder what he’ll tell the cops. Should be goo—
A tree limb whacks my shins.
Air whooshes past me the wrong way. My stomach’s in my throat.
I’m falling. And my hand—
The stop should rattle my teeth. I brace for it, but—
My legs don’t even flex when I land. I’m in an alley. I don’t even feel like I fell. I’m fine. My legs are fine. It’s everything else—
I know exactly where I am, but it’s not anything about where I am that gives it away. I recognize stuff, but—
It’s not Buffy either…or the fact that she’s crouched over someone.
My heart’s got the right idea. It runs rabbit. I want to join it. Instead, I stand frozen, numb…like an idiot, repeating the same three pointless words, “I didn’t know.”
The stake I held clatters against the concrete. The sound sends a chill down my spine. Ants crawl over my skin. The tension breaks enough for me to—
As I turn, Allan Finch says, “You people are kidding yourselves if you think she’ll ever be anything more that a filthy, stinking, mindless animal.”
What is it with you guys?
But he might have a point. I froze up like one. The flight response takes over and I bolt like one. My heart just got there first.
B. talks right over him, repeating the same stuff I remember, telling him not to move. But when she notices I’ve gone, she shouts, “Faith, wait!” a little too soon.
I don’t. I know I should. I know that’s—
Leaving early doesn’t change much. I sprint down the alley the same way we did. I dodge the same old trash. The sirens are just a little farther away. And she’s not with me, trying to talk sense. When I don’t stop, she reverts, saying, “I need a rag…something to…” But I barely hear her over my lungs laboring to suck in the same stale air…
The rattle of chain link as I hop the fence…
My feet pounding the pavement…
Not that it matters now, but I was right. What B. didn’t get is that the moment they figured this out, it’s gonna be game over. If something didn’t change, they’d use this to take us both out. The powers in this town weren’t stupid. They were just waiting—
But something did happen. I betrayed her.
As I duck around the first corner, Willow shouts, “Faith!” from somewhere behind me.
I glance over my shoulder and run headlong into that other guy. Hell if I can even remember his name.
He grabs my upper arms, looks me straight in the eye and says, “She’s a coldblooded killer. That’s all she’ll ever be.”
He’s right. My hands are sticky with his blood. I want to wipe it off, but I—
This guy wasn’t like Finch. That fucker was dirty. This guy’s just some scientist. The mayor wasn’t even sure he’d be a problem, but what he knew was inconvenient. It was the possibility that got him…
I was only doing what I was told. I—
Turning, I jerk my arms away, push past him and run. This isn’t the way I went, but I hang a left at the next intersection. A long alleyway reaches between two vacant warehouses. It isn’t very wide and there’s a bunch of crap blocking my path. I weave past trash heaps, skids, a dumpster…
What I needed—why I—
None of that makes one single bit of difference.
The fact is, I did. And I didn’t care that there were people who loved him. I didn’t know. I still don’t. I’ve never had the courage to check. He probably had kids. And they had kids. And they all miss him. I caused them the same misery I—
Why can’t I even remember his name?
There’s some chick at the end of the alley. I’m running right at her. I have no—
While I’m checking her out, someone snatches hold of my arm. I whip around and draw back. I can’t stop.
Angel doesn’t even try to avoid it. I slug him and he doubles over. His hands go to his thighs. It takes him a sec, but when he recovers enough to look up and say, “So am I,” I couldn’t feel more like shit.
Or that’s what I think until I glance over my shoulder. That chick at the end of the alley…I’m pretty sure it’s B. Her hair threw me. It’s at least two shades too dark. But that could just be the light. Or maybe it’s the way she’s done it up. She almost never wears it back like that.
I find a nice piece of trash to examine while Angel goes on, “I’ve been called all of those things and more. But you can’t let that effect you. You’ve done some real good.”
So, either Dingoes are playing the Bronze or some kid lost their dog. The paper’s too far gone for me to tell which. I move on to the next ruined scrap as he lifts himself up, still talking, “Willow’s right. You need to get control. If you don’t, this thing’s going to eat you alive.”
Talking sense doesn’t gain him much this time. I’ve got no clue about most of that and we’re not gonna get into it. I can’t even face him. He’s here again, trying to help me. He’s always trying to help me. I’m like his pet project. I have been for—
Fuck, I dunno…going on six years now he’s been trying to steer me right. He’s been like a brother to me. And how do I pay him back?
I glance at B. and turn away. Yeah, that’s her. She closed in enough for me to—
Just how many faces can one person wear in a dream? My skin tingles, but I shrug it off.
I’ve got so little reason to tweak. This isn’t the same B. I saw back in the alley. And she wasn’t the same as the B. whose hand I held in the parking lot…or the B. who was leaning against the car. It’s crazy.
But none of that means a damned thing. I can’t face any of them now. Why didn’t I see this before? It’s only the oldest story in the book.
The pressure behind my eyes makes me feel like my head’s gonna burst. But I’m not gonna cry. I refuse to. A lump hangs in my throat. It doesn’t budge when I swallow. That’s as useful as anything else I’ve done. I dart past Angel, back the way I came. I don’t care what happens. They can have me.
B. wraps her legs around me. The strain and the pressure on my ribs throw me off. I’m back where I was. Funny, I still hear Angel calling my name. But that fades as she pulls me up. We’re towed through next batch of branches. They whack my legs so hard I have to clench my jaw to hold in a yelp.
So much for not crying. My eyes leak as we’re batted around like a piņata. The cold makes them sting. But they’re nothing compared with my legs. I try to lift them, but they just get smacked around. It’s useless. I can’t avoid this. After a few seconds or minutes, or…hell, I don’t know. I have no clue what’s up with them. They’re one big burning…
But I guess I know what happened now. Above my legs, B.’s pretty much got me covered which means…
She’s still trying to protect me. I really wish she wouldn’t. Things might’ve turned out different if she’d just worried about herself.
Sparky doesn’t even want her. It’s me the bastard’s after. She should just let go. She could probably get away if he had to double back for me. But that’s not like her.
She adjusts her grip. Following her cues, I grab hold of her wrist. The sharp pain’s a solid clue that my hand is broken. Like I care.
I keep expecting to get dropped—hoping it’ll happen—but it doesn’t.
This is about damage. He sticks to the small stuff. Nothing hits hard enough to even threaten to tear us apart. A big limb would. That’s just a fact. After a while, the constant battering just gets monotonous.
That’s what this has all been about. Whoever’s doing this is trying to wear me down. The moment one thing lets up, I jump to the next. It’s been non-stop fun and games.
And to think I thought this was amateurish.
Well, the first part was, but whoever’s doing the rest is a master. They’ve played on all my fears and doubts. They’ve put me through…
Yeah. It’s been a total blast.
What’s worse, I feel better having her with me. I’m relieved that, whatever happens, we’ll be together. In spite of the pain, the contact is comforting.
And that feeling makes me sick. I can’t shake it. It’s part of the memory. I didn’t know then what I know now.
As the beating lets up, I hear trains screech in the distance. I can’t see much except for B.’s stomach, but guess we’re getting closer to—
This was planned.
She slips away and I drop like a rock.
Whatever I crash into makes one hell of a noise. The clinking glass and clattering crap goes well with the splat.
I’m not alone. I roll half on top of someone else. We fall again. Before we even hit the ground, the rage takes hold. I feel—
Hot pressure burns inside my skull. My muscles feel like coiled springs. Ready to bust loose and—
And again…I know exactly where I am. Another alley. I swear, I spend half my life—
It figures I’d end up in this particular alley, what with Willow…
Desperation chews at my heels…if I slow down…
But I don’t have to do shit. Just deal. Deal with being on my feet seconds after that fall.
I barely feel it. Tomorrow I will, but now—
Now I have to deal with seething…screaming, “You’re gonna die!” in Angel’s face.
Deal with shoving him to the ground.
Deal with kicking him when he tries to get up.
Deal with that cheap-ass move.
Tomorrow’s not gonna—
But tomorrow does happen. It’s a total bitch. Trust me. I was there.
Angel isn’t like me. He hits the wall. I grab him and yell, “You hear me?” kicking him under the chin. He’s got this real Yoda complex. All ‘do or do not’…discipline and training. I get a second shot in straight to his ribs. B.’s the same way. They’re a couple of regular workaholics.
Me? I just knock the piss out of stuff. Avoid the worst, look for openings and…
He’s giving me way too many. I could back off, but—
This isn’t working. I’m just too—
I grab him and toss him at the wall, shouting, “You don't know what evil is!”
I need to think. The easiest way is to go with the flow. Control the emotions. Work around them.
Deal with shouting, “I'm bad!” as I wail on him. Punch after punch and he just lets me through. I lose track. Rain falls. “Fight back!” I demand. Don’t you do this to me, you bastard!
I can’t deal. He’s not doing shit!
I had this all planned. Grab Wesley, rough him up a little, just enough to scare him…break a few fingers. No big.
Angel should’ve come charging in to save the day. I thought he’d have no choice. He’d see what I’d done and do what he does. He’s the big hero.
I’m all out of options. I could let the Council catch up. Wouldn’t that be fun?
Yeah, no…I’ll pass. If they’d just man up, it’d be…
But they’re way too flippin’ British for that. I’ve had enough of their games.
There’s nothing for me here. I don’t have a life. They have lives. No one gives a rat’s ass what I…
I can’t afford a moment’s peace and—
Stop! Just stop!
Angel grabs me. He wrenches my shoulder. “Nice try, Faith,” he says as he shoves me away.
I don’t get it. I tumble across the pavement. He’s coming after me.
He’s not! That’s not how this goes down.
He says, “I know what you want.” I didn’t get this then. When he gives me another shot, I play right in.
Now it makes all kinds of sense. He’s screwing with me. I leave myself open and he sends me flying.
As I smack the asphalt and tumble, my chin throbs. I see stars. My ears ring. My head feels two sizes too big, but—
I know he told me he was done. That he wasn’t gonna do it. I wait for a capper that doesn’t come.
Getting clocked by him sucks, but I should be on my feet again, in his face. I’m twice as—
“I don’t believe that you appreciate the problems you’ve caused.”
A piece of concrete gouges my cheek as I tilt my head up and open my eyes. That wasn’t Angel.
The brick wall that comes vaguely into focus isn’t much help. But I’m not soaked anymore and my legs are toast. Good bet I’ve moved on.
What really cinches it is B. Right next to me, moving away fast, she replies, “Yeah, sorry to screw up your plans.” Between breaths and light thuds, she continues, “I’ve been known to do that.” Something crashes. Sparky growls. “I get that it’s insensitive.” I tilt my head a little more, looking almost straight up. She evades and tumbles, finally finishing her thought, “But I just can’t help myself, y’know?”
Well, not so much ‘straight up’ as into the center of the room. I traveled about two thousand miles, but I haven’t moved much. And the way I feel, I’m not sure I can. I catch sight of Sparky.
Okay, well…I see two of him, both blurry. Anyway, I’m back where I started—in that place—the warehouse. There’s no hole in the floor, but—
I lose track when he rushes the corner to my left, seething, “You silly little girl—”
B. laughs as she whips past me. It almost feels like she brushes me. It’s just the wind. The hole in the wall’s right there, at my feet. Why’d she pass me? She could’ve bailed. She could be—
She’s on my right, hauling ass, still goading him, “Me? I’m not the one dressed up for Halloween. You do get that it’s March, right?”
Jesus Christ, B…enough of the small talk. Please, just run!
She doesn’t. As Sparky stops right in front of me, she asks, “What’re you supposed to be, anyway?”
I stare at the toes of his boots. This close they’re almost in focus. He says, “You have no idea what I’m talking about, do you?” Obviously tracking her, he pivots on the balls of his feet. “You’ve created an imbalance that can only end one way.” He stops, so she must’ve stopped too.
She should keep going. Engaging him by replying, “Huh?” really isn’t the thing to do. She could probably lure him from in front of the hole. She has a chance. She could still get out of here.
Talk about ‘a chance.’ She might stand one if I wasn’t so goddamned useless.
Moving my legs is pointless. I was right. I’m done. It only gets me—
“You raised an army,” he says, rushing her.
Something’s cutting into my knee. I can’t—if I fold my legs, it just—
You know what? Screw it. I’m pathetic.
“An army?” she exclaims as she vaults over him. “You mean the—?” Her question’s cut short when he tags her. She’s moving with the punch, so…
It’s hard to tell how bad it is. But she hits the ground, sliding right at me.
She grinds to a halt and I shout, “Go!” Or try. It comes out more of a squeak. Yeah, I’m a complete waste.
She’s not going anywhere. Not that I expect her to. I see it in her eyes before she says, “I’m not leaving you.”
She rolls, picking herself up on her hands and knees. Sparky must be waiting. I turn to look just before she launches herself.
Giving her a moment to breathe costs him. I miss most of it, but what do see…looks suspiciously like her ducking his punch and clobbering him. He confirms my suspicions by flying past me out the hole. Jerk almost hits me.
She comes to stop. Go figure. Her hand’s on her hip.
It takes him a sec, but after a few he calls in through the hole, “Yes, I mean your ridiculous girls.” Maybe he had to cough up a few teeth. “Don’t tell me you expected that to end well.” Can’t hurt to dream.
He flies over me. But she stands her ground long enough to say, “It’s not like I had a choice.” He almost reaches her before she lunges sideways.
He stays with her, not more than a few steps behind, still running his goddamn mouth, “There’s always a choice.”
Even trying to brush the crap from my face is useless. I rest my cheek on my hand as she replies, “Yeah, the end.”
He cuts her off. She tries to dive underneath him, but I from the sound of things, I don’t think it works out. B. says though a chuckle, “Y’know, curtains, the big finish…” Even pinned down, she’s the same old B. When he doesn’t respond, she gets indignant, “Oh, for crying out loud! And you think I’m challenged?”
Sparky smacks B. The crack makes me flinch. But it doesn’t set her back much. It only takes her a few seconds to snark, “You’ve heard of an apocalypse before, haven’t you?”
I feel a little better when he grunts. She must’ve taken a poke too.
“I wasn’t the only one to play the army card. The First brought its own army to the party. We just did what we had to.” The ‘whatever’ couldn’t be clearer from her tone. She’s given up. That last shot obviously did it. If only she’d run…
I wish I could at least see her face, but I’m stuck with a view of his back. I’m sure her expression’s precious.
She draws in a deep breath, but he chokes her off. She struggles to say, “You think—” coughing “—it’s bad now?” He must let up because her voice gets stronger. “Things could be so much worse.”
Okay…maybe not. I’m not sure I can take much of this. This is… Things only get worse from here. She didn’t run.
“Perhaps, but you’ve only prolonged the inevitable.”
Thing is, I could swear that as Sparky gets preachy, B. stands up.
“You’ve created chaos.”
It’s gotta be wishful thinking. She moves right through him. My eyes are obviously useless too. As I shut the stupid things, something next to my head crunches. I—
I open my eyes and see feet. It’s a pretty safe bet that Sparky doesn’t paint his toenails. Or if he does, he probably wouldn’t pick that particular shade of pink.
B. sits down. Folding her legs, she lifts my head onto her lap. “It’s okay. This’ll be over soon,” she says as she rubs the grime from my cheek. Her brow scrunches like she’s considering something. She starts to turn, asking, “You don’t want to watch, right? This is more of a ‘listen’ sort of thing.”
I shake my head.
I get that we’ve all got an agenda. But I swear, you’d think this bastard would get sick of his own voice. “Right now a significant number of your girls remain at large.” I am. “Are you naīve enough to believe they’re going door-to-door selling coo—?”
The B. who holds me says through a giggle, “But I dunno…you might want to see this.” She twists just enough so I can look.
From Sparky’s pose…curled up fetal and moaning and her sudden mobility—the other her—my guess, she bludgeoned the family jewels.
Couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy. But that isn’t—
I’m not even gonna go there. Instead, I ask, “Since when do you fight dirty?”
“Sometimes,” she says through a bashful grin. “I don’t know. There are just certain people who bring out the worst in me, y’know?”
Do I ever…
She blocks my view again. I turn my head, paying attention to her, trying to ignore—
“They sow discord. They pit the public against you,” he rants. Something wooden cracks and she groans. “You delude yourself to believe you have any chance at all.” He sounds completely unaffected. Not that it’d be obvious through the distortion. “Even the armies of men turn against you. Be assured, your days are numbered.”
In the background she’s in trouble. Part of me wants to look, but—
“Those petty human affairs are nothing compared to the effect you’ve had on the preternatural,” he says.
She resists, but it’s really no contest. He’s just biding his time like he did with me. I can imagine what he said then.
I won’t do it. I won’t make the same mistake twice.
What he says now…
“Your little stunt has caused creatures to amass that would normally be solitary.”
It makes a little too much sense. And that’s just irritating.
And the pauses…?
This asshole’s flair for the dramatic really is bordering on tedious.
“Congratulations. You’ve inspired the underworld to cooperate.” There’s another pause before he asks, “Do you understand exactly what that means?”
I want to think ‘more drama.’ I’d love to write him off, but Kako’s what’s really on my mind. It means things like her.
But I still don’t see how that’s anyone’s fault. We’re just trying to deal too. If this fucker has a suggestion, I wish he’d quit playing around and make it. This bullshit of ‘both ends against the middle’ really ain’t cutting it.
My eyes drift shut as he says, “Even a simpleton…”
Her snapping, “Hey!” makes them pop back open. Even as thrashed as I am, she gets a chuckle.
Shame, Sparky’s the only one who seems immune. He doesn’t miss a beat. “…such as yourself should be able to see how this ends.”
Funny, even after all of that, she still has attitude. “So, besides being a total jerk…” she gasps “…how do you fit in?” It’s pretty obvious he has her pinned again. Her voice is weak. She struggles for breath before she asks, “Concerned citizen?” I couldn’t love her more. I grin at the B. who holds me as the other B. suggests, “Lemme guess, you represent a new upstart group: People for the Ethical Treatment of Vamp—?”
It’s obvious from the clap and how she cuts off that he hit her. I want him dead.
“I’m the one who intends to stop you,” he replies, punctuating by breaking a whole lot of shit.
The B. who’s with me mouths, “That’s it. Now don’t you think you’ve had enough?”
Or maybe she said it. Sparky the not-so human wrecking ball pretty much drowns everything out.
The rumble ends. A single board clatters onto the floor below. One final piece. Like she said, that must be it. I mumble, “I should’ve done—”
She stops me by resting her finger over my mouth and asking the obvious, “What?” Her finger slips away, brushing my chin and neck as she says, “This guy was smart. He knew that the two of us would be a handful.”
That just kind of slipped out. I have no clue how to follow it up, so…
And this is just my luck. She’s downright grumpy. “Faith, look,” she says. “Your left ankle’s broken. You have a fractured femur, a concussion, a dislocated shoulder…both of your hands are broken.” She pauses to let that sink in before she asks, “Want me to go on?”
She lifts my head from her lap and pivots onto her knees. I guess we’re leaving. I’ve been looking forward to this. But I get a temporary reprieve. She’s not done lecturing. “If anyone gets this, it’s you. You’ve seen both sides. Caring for people can make you vulnerable. It’s not your fault that he used that.”
I’m no help, but she gets me on my feet. The head rush almost takes us both down. She’s right about my ankle. It’s toast. Just shifting positions sucks, but putting weight on it to try and stop the fall—that’s a real treat.
“We’ve got this if you want to get ready,” Willow says from behind us.
“Yeah, sure, Will. Thanks,” B. says as Willow supports my left shoulder. It sucks, but I grit my teeth and bear it. I’d like to know who—
The red drapes are back. I wonder when that happened. Buffy passes through them as Willow says, “You really had us worried.”
I must be missing something. Who was worried and why?
How are you even involved? And who’s—?
Angel slips underneath my right arm, answering that last question and taking a lot of stress off of…
I can almost think straight now.
Well, I guess he knows, so…I stammer, “I’m sorry, I—”
“It’s okay,” Angel says, brushing me off as we move steadily toward the drapes to our right. “Buffy called. She was pretty upset.”
I’m just along for the ride. No control.
Willow picks up his thought, “We just did what we do when one of our own is in trouble.”
It’s a little strange hearing that from her, but I let it slide. I’d like to know what prompted B. to make the call.
I don’t even get there. We stop at the drapes and Willow says, “The last step’s yours. We can’t help.” The pressure on my shoulder eases as she parts the draperies and steps through. All that’s behind them is a whole lot of nothing. As it swallows her, she says, “Just give in to the darkness.”
Taking hold of my sides, Angel steadies me as he turns away from his duty as a human crutch. He lets go, careful to give me time to adjust.
It’s my right femur. Putting weight on either leg’s a major problem, but the right one’s the best.
“Well, I guess this is it,” he says, glancing over his shoulder. “Take care of yourself.”
I want to say something about B., but I can’t think of how to begin. How do I even—?
He rests his hand on my shoulder and stresses, “It’s okay.” Before I can get a word in, he flits past the drapes and disappears.
Well, looks like it’s just me. No pressure. I know that hole’s behind me. We passed right by it. I’m really tempted to take a peek, but I’m not even sure I can get there.
It’s not hard to figure that Kako’s one floor down waiting. We were set up. Sparky was just the delivery boy. Why he came back is the only thing that still bugs, but I’m not gonna learn that here. And if I stick around, I might get sucked back in. It’s my turn to play punching bag.
Yeah. That’s it. I’m just gonna do what Willow said. It’d be great if it made sense, but that’s Willow for ya.
Besides, if there’s more to this than just one really wicked nightmare—and there probably is what with the pain and the—I should probably take the out. I part the drapes and limp past them half expecting to step into B.’s bedroom. I don’t. Willow’s right. It’s dark.
Now I’m supposed to ‘give in to the darkness,’ whatever the hell that means. Sounds like witchy doubletalk for ‘just chill.’
That’s kind of a tall order, but as I do my best to relax, it gets easier. The pain fades. It feels like I’m drifting, then it doesn’t. Stuff comes into focus. Arms are wrapped around me. Hands are pressed over the backs of my own, fingers laced, holding them tight. And legs…they’re tangled with mine.
B. lies behind me, clinging to me like she’s afraid I’m going to get away. The layers of fabric between us are…I can’t tell which of us has what on, but the shirt I’m wearing feels like it’s twisted around me three times.
I open my eyes. As I turn and crane my neck to get a look, she stammers, “I’m sorry. I—” Quickly gaining control, she arrives at her point, “You were hurting yourself. I had to.”
Well, that might explain part of it. It’s a funny thing though…that’s not—
My head’s surprisingly clear. I should have a million questions. I really should care about all of this, everything. But I don’t. In the dark, right here, now, in her bed, what occurs to me is really out of left field…and arguably kind of stupid. It has nothing to do with anything.
That probably just means I’m insane, but—
As her grip loosens, the arm and leg that are pinned beneath me still feel hard and dense. She looks soft. Her skin’s soft, but she’s like me. Over the years we’ve hardened.
And not just figuratively. Our bodies have changed. The difference isn’t huge. What most people think of as tensed, we see as relaxed. The well meant suggestions can get a little annoying, but otherwise…
None of the new girls are like us. It’s just so subtle. It took them for me to even notice. And with her…
I move with her, rolling onto my back. “There’s no need,” I say as a lift my ass up. Seeing her face makes me smile. My legs ache but nothing like they did. I straighten out my tee-shirt and shorts. Wearing clothes I don’t remember putting on is a little strange, but that’s the least of it.
I let myself down and kick back. Yeah, I’m okay. A little sore, but—
So, questions…? Looks like she’s expecting them. I hate this feeling. I remember what happened, but I’m not sure. There are too many things that don’t add up. I guess I could start by asking what day it is. That’s always fun. I could—
Yeah, she’ll get around to filling me in. What should do is say I’m sorry. But this is probably way too complicated for a simple sorry. I could try that, but—
I have no idea. I bunch my pillow up, tucking my arm beneath it. “Y’know that little voice,” I whisper, “the one that nags you when you do something wrong?”
Dealing with a guilty conscience by talking about my guilty conscience—not exactly genius, but it might be place to start.
No, this is good. I may be able to apologize without ever using those stupid words. I just have to find the nerve.
Her brow furrows. She twists away from me and reaches up, looking at something above the bed. She has a glass of water in her hand when I next see it. She sits just enough to take a sip and offers it to me. As I accept it, she offers helpfully, “You mean your conscience?”
It’s completely messed up. All I can think as she goes through that, is I want a place for us with real furniture. I’m sick of cleaning up spills. You’d think all this grace would count for something.
I take a drink and pass the glass back. Maybe we’ll remember this one.
Whatever, I need to stop pretending I’m a regular chick. The whole ‘nesting’ thing really isn’t me. I haven’t had a place of my own since—
“Yeah, that,” I reply, cutting myself off and getting back on track. We both kind of settle in as I explain, “I like ‘little voice’ better because it feels like that. Like those old cartoons…an angel perched on your shoulder, whispering in your ear.” She rests her head on my shoulder. It just kind of happens. And that’s pretty cool.
“That makes it sound detached,” I whisper, pausing to clear my throat. “And I think it is. It’s something we’re taught. Or mostly taught. Some of it just happens.” I snicker. “The guilt…that part just happens. But I think some of what we feel guilty about is learned.”
I hope she gets this. It’s not exactly to the point.
I think she will. It isn’t exactly an ingenious code either.
“That can get twisted up,” I say, feeling a sheepish smile coming on. I’m damned to do anything about it, so I just let it ride. That doesn’t mean I have to face her…or that I even can. What I see through the skylights is sort of grayish and murky, but close enough…it’s dawn. Another day, another…hell, if I know.
I mumble, “My little angel got bored and flew away.” There’s no reason for me get upset, but my eyes burn anyway. This shit just sort of is. It’s an uncomfortable fact of my past. Nothing more. I wipe the moisture from their corners with my fingertips.
“Funny thing about that little voice,” I say through a sigh. “You ignore it long enough, eventually you push too far and it becomes a scream.”
She says, “It’s okay, Faith. You don’t have to—”
“Yes, I do,” I reply. I need to. But I need to just do it. No more screwing around.
“Look, B., I’m not asking for forgiveness,” I say. “You don’t get to make amends for the things I’ve done. I know it’s not like that.” I swallow, wishing she’d pass me that glass of water again. My mouth feels nasty. My throat’s—
And I don’t give a shit. So what if my voice cracks. I stare at the stupid ceiling and make myself say the words, “All I’ve got…the best I can hope for is that one of these days—” As predicted, my voice isn’t cooperating. It cracks. Not just once, but twice. “When people look back—” Three times. I’m a wreck, but I clear my throat. “When they remember who I was, they’ll see something besides a monster.” And somehow I make it through.
I rub my eyes. Figures they’re wet and slimy this time. Telling myself, ‘I won’t cry,’ rarely works.
I add, “That’s the best I can hope for, y’know?” It just slips out. Goddamn nervous tic. Tensing my jaw, I force myself to shut the hell up.
It’s fuckin’ retarded. Can’t get going for shit. It takes every ounce of everything I’ve got. But once I get started, I’m a total motor mouth.
She turns her head to speak, but nothing comes out. It wasn’t fair for me to put that off on her. She doesn’t know. She can’t. She looks away.
I should say something…or do something. I don’t know. The silence is worse. There has to be—
She faces me again. I don’t want to see her expression. I know she’s gonna look…
And the gray coming in through the skylights is only getting grayer.
She touches my chin, coaxing me to turn. I’m not sure I can. I compromise, shutting my eyes as I let her have her way.
She’s so close. Her breath caresses my lips as she whispers, “You’re not a monster.” A tear drop clings to her cheek. It wets the tip of my nose when she kisses me.
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