So many bright lights to cast a shadow
She was on a sweep through the Midwest when Andrew called.
The entire operation had been stretched as thin and tight as a rubber band after Willow's spell, and she would never have picked her to be a face of slayer operations, would never have given herself the task of talking down scared kids and disbelieving parents, but Giles had been pretty resolute. A part of her had wondered if it just wasn't too much trouble getting her out of the country, but he'd shaken his head and given her a passport, smelling of plastic and bureaucracy, and told her she was totally invited for Christmas. It hadn't, truth be told, completely sucked.
She'd bought a battered F-150 from someone in a coven that Giles had visited with, a half-day's drive from Tuscaloosa. It was baby-blue, girlier than she might have liked, but the woman who sold it to her, Elizabeth, had a long, grey braid down her back, and skin the colour of tan leather, and when Faith stood next to her, dust swirling at their ankles, the air had buzzed clean with rightness. Anyone who could throw out that kind of power could totally rock a pastel truck, and she kind of liked being the next woman in that chain.
She'd loaded her weapons in, and the duffel of clothes and boots, and the scary silver case with the electronics that Andrew had prepped for her. The boy had a serious case of the Bruce Waynes, but she had to admit that it was just easier to find shit out when she had a laptop, and a sat-phone, and a couple of pieces of shiny that she was fairly certain he'd ganked from some kind of military lab.
She'd felt stupid as fuck when she first tried to open the case, and work out what everything did. She hadn't even been able to find the button that turned her laptop on, and she had wanted to throw it into the dirt and kick it to shit, but she'd packed it away in its case, and five hundred miles down the road she'd noticed a poster for a computers for dummies course at a public library. She'd always felt like computers were another world, but the woman in the library had just kept explaining until something clicked, and Faith realised that they just made sense, in the same way that kicking and punching did.
It wasn't like she was ready to join Anonymous, but she had some game when it came to technology now. She started cruising technology blogs when she had downtime, sitting cross-legged on her bed with a cold beer sweating on the nightstand. She emailed Andrew when she came across hot technology gossip that she thought he might like, and they'd snaked at each other a little in the comments on Slashdot.
Christmas hadn't been a total, tragic disaster. The castle had been cold, but no colder than Boston. Buffy had hugged her when she'd arrived, held on longer than she needed to, until Faith had shivered with the warmth and the closeness. The baby slayers that had come to Scotland had seemed pleased to see her, and it was unexpectedly gratifying when they wanted to show her the kata they'd learned, faces all serious under the bright lights of the training room. Andrew had dragged her and Willow into one of the classrooms, and shown her this program they'd been writing, half code and half spell, and she'd watched the doubt fade from Willow's face, as she made a couple of comments on what the GUI might look like, and be replaced by enthusiasm. All in all, it had been the best Christmas she'd ever had.
Giles had called her into his study the day before she flew back to America. It was her least favourite room in the castle, somehow, full of books and old furniture, and things she didn't understand.
He had been standing next to the fire, like something out of a film. The kind of film she flipped past if it was showing on TV. "We have a problem."
It hadn't been what Faith was expecting. She was half-expecting atta-girls, or you've done very well, Faith, which was the Giles version. Or,at the very least, some kind of awkward Giles pep-talk, the kind that you only really got once it was finished and you'd had time to think about it a little.
"Sit down." He'd waved at the chair that sat in front of his desk, something that looked at least five hundred years old, and she'd bitten back her irritation at the order, and sat.
He'd sat down in his big, black desk chair, and sipped his tea, and she pushed her hands down on her knee to step herself from bouncing her leg.
"You know that the blood and bone of slayers has mystical properties?" He rattled his cup into its saucer, the sound thin and sharp in the quiet of the room.
She'd nodded. Gripped the arms of the chair.
"The fact that there are now an abundance of slayers has, er, reinvigorated the interest of the occult and esoteric black marketeers in slayer, er, biologicals."
She'd raised an eyebrow. "Okay."
"Andrew has been tracking the communications of likely dealers. They have so far been frustrated by, well, the fact that slayers are difficult to take captive." He'd rubbed his brow, delicately.
"Andrew needs to work less."
"What?" He'd looked at her, like he'd expected the conversation to be less of a conversation and more of a briefing, and it was a lot, Giles' undivided attention.
"He's always online, even when it's the middle of the night here." She'd tilted her head. "He's looking pretty tired."
"We're all tired, Faith." His tone had been mild, but the words were enough to send a buzz up her spine. "Redemption comes in many forms."
And there it had been, the thing that lurked, coiled like a snare, in the middle of all conversations. Hotcoldloudsharpblunt. Because it couldn't be about a scared kid, wanting to earn all of their approval. It had to be that Andrew wanted his soul to chart some kind of meaningful fucking journey.
"So," she'd said, and the look of regret on his face told her that he hadn't been fooled at all, "team slayer is under some new threat?"
He'd pushed a couple of buttons on the keyboard in front of him, and the picture above the fireplace had turned into a screen, with a picture of a woman wearing sunglasses and a black floppy hat. Faith had swallowed both a bitchy comment about fluffy white cats, and the smirk that went with it, because some of the things Andrew had come up with werefucking cool.
"This is Bela Talbot." Giles had pressed another button, and the photo changed. "So is this." He clicked again. "And this."
The woman on the screen had been pretty, in a kind of blank-faced way. Faith had looked back at Giles.
"I'll email you the photos." Giles had picked up his teacup again. "Ms Talbot has been peddling her wares in the Middle East for the past few years. She's recently popped up in Spain, and Andrew understands that she's planning a sojourn to your side of the Atlantic."
"Want me to take her out?" She'd meant to be flippant, but she'd heard the sincerity in her own voice.
"No," he'd shaken his head, studying her face. She'd looked away. "Andrew will call when she's in America. Your mission is to stop her."
"Accepted." She'd swung her legs out from under the chair, and hopped to her feet. "Thanks for having me, Giles."
"There's always a home for you here, Faith."
She'd shrugged almost before her brain caught up with the words, her chest tight.
"There's something else." He'd opened his desk drawer, and handed her a black velvet drawstring bag.
She'd looked doubtfully at Giles, but he'd nodded, eyes on the bag. She'd undone the knots holding it closed, and slid out its contents. The most beautiful knife she'd ever seen, silvery, and somehow delicate. She'd turned it over in her palm, testing its blade, feeling its mojo.
She'd given a thought, which stung like the brush of a nettle, to the knife that had given her the scar on her belly. The knife that was rubbing shoulders with the rest of the weapons in the armory in the castle, and it had burned, just a little, when Andrew showed her that Xander had just made it a place on the pegboard, next to something shiny and Japanese.
Giles had nodded, and she'd slid the knife into the small of her back, in the waistband of her jeans, where it hummed contentedly, warm against her skin. She'd wanted, irrationally, to kneel. It'd felt like getting her spurs, getting a blessing that she'd never looked to Giles to give her.
He'd nodded, again, like he was making sure of something. "Have a safe flight."
Bela Talbot had been cautious, efficient, and precise, but she hadn't been any match for the combined forces of Andrew and Willow.
Through some totally bizarre statistical anomaly, which had apparently made Willow go to her special geeky place, there had been seven slayers called in one hamlet-sized Kansas town. Faith had passed through the little town the previous year. She'd managed to get four of them out, two of them to the castle, and two of them to Xander in Cleveland.
Of the three that had been left behind, one had just been found with her throat cut, and her blood drained, in an abandoned grain silo. Faith scouted it out, slipping silently across the field near the silo, and there were sigils spray-painted on the beam that they'd hung the slayer from. They were awkwardly drawn, somehow, like they'd been copied from a diagram instead of being made by someone who really knew what they were doing. It probably wouldn't be that helpful, but she hung upside down on the beam, legs tight against the steel, and took photos with the tiny camera from the silver case.
After she sent the photos to Andrew, and hit up all the stores in town that sold spraypaint, for security footage, there had been nothing to do but wait. Andrew and Willow had set up a bunch of electronic and magical tripwires, and it kind of took the fun out of it that Faith would know that Bela was in town almost before she knew herself.
She didn't mind the waiting so much anymore. She had a plan, honed like she'd whittled it with a knife, and she'd let the fury fade to resolution before she'd even set foot across the threshold of the low-charm, low-budget motel by the highway.
On the third evening, with Bela still a state away, she went out the town's single bar, and ordered a cheeseburger and a Sam Adams. The bartender looked at her like she'd asked him for a French Martini, and slid a Bud across the bar. It was cold, at least, and the bubbles of the second bottle took the edge off the grease of the burger. She scrunched up her napkin, and wiped her fingers on her jeans. The bartender raised his eyebrows at her, and she nodded.
She turned round in her stool, third beer in hand, and scanned the crowd. The place had kind of filled up while she was eating, with locals in workshirts and dirty caps with the logos of local businesses. There wasn't anything ugly under the hum of conversation and the click of pool balls, though, and she leaned back against the bar.
"Buy you a drink?" She could feel the guy's breath on her cheek. Had clocked him peeling off from his group of buddies, clustered round the jukebox, and walking towards her.
She didn't look up from the pool game happening across the bar. "No, thanks."
She raised one eyebrow. Didn't give the dicksmack the satisfaction of actually looking at him. He walked away.
The guy at the stool next to her put his bottle down. "That was lovely."
She shrugged. "I've heard worse."
"I'm sure you have." She couldn't read the inflection in his voice.
She looked at him then. "That supposed to be funny?"
He smiled, lazy and slow, and picked a little at the edge of the label on his bottle. "Just that the clientele in these type of places can be a mite rough round the edges."
A mite? Suffering fuck. He was pretty enough, though, all eyes and lips and chiseled jaw, like he might be pulled off the street to play the quarterback in a movie about a gutsy high-school football team.
She took a pull on her beer, considering. She'd been with sturdy Midwestern guys before. Guys who'd promised a lot in a bar, and then hadn't proven to be much between the sheets. It wasn't like she minded getting herself off as a general point of principle, but some boys just hadn't been taught that it was ladies first. She kind of expected this one to be all hat and no cattle as well. The knowing look in his eye was full of promise, but his hair looked high-maintenance, and that usually meant a guy too busy performing for his own special hits collection to be bothered about the girl lying under him.
Who was she kidding? The idea had flickered across her brain, and now there was heat pooling along the seam of her jeans, rapidly blooming into an ache.
He smiled against the neck of his bottle. "Okay what."
"Okay, let's go and slip into something more comfortable." She gave him a half-smile.
He raised both eyebrows. "Sweetheart—" Faith opened her mouth and slid it over the neck of the bottle, tonguing the glass. He stuttered. Cheap but effective. "Your place okay?"
"Sure thing." She ignored the arm he was half-offering, and jumped down from the stool.
She could pick a vampire out of a lineup blindfold at that point, but she sneaked a peek at him in the window of the convenience store as they passed, just to be sure. His coat wasn't lying quite right, and she felt the prickle along her hairline.
"You carrying a piece, dude?" She slid a finger under the hem, but he managed to back off faster than she would have given him credit for.
"Christo." His face was impassive.
She frowned. "What the what now?"
He slid a flask out of his jeans, and threw something on her. She blinked. Stuck out her tongue, and caught a drop from her upper lip.
"You're throwing holy water on me?" She reached for her knife. "The fuck?"
He stood, hand in the small of his back, like he wasn't sure what to do.
"You wanna explain why you think I'm the frickin' boogie-monster?" She was kind of pissed. Mostly because she was still horny, and she couldn't figure out how they were going to get from glaring at each other in the main street of a one-horse town, to bed.
"You a hunter?" His voice seemed rougher, darker.
What the fuck is a hunter? "What the fuck is a hunter?"
He jerked his chin. "We get rid of the boogie-monsters."
She took that in. She'd met Gunn. Heard about the kids he ran with, and the stuff that they did. "For shits and giggles?"
"Because someone has to." He was on surer ground now, she could see it in the line of his shoulders.
"Just you, gorgeous?" She flicked the corner of her mouth. "Against the darkness?"
He stilled, and it wasn't like he was moving before. "So, if you're not a hunter—"
She made a quick decision. "I'm a slayer."
"And I'm the relief pitcher for the Red Sox."
She kind of wanted to punch him across the street, watch his body fly through the air like a rag doll, but that was kind of mean, so she just yanked his shirt into her fist, picked him up one-handed, and held him over her head. He flailed a little bit, worn boots catching her side.
"Hey, watch it." She shook him a little for emphasis. "This shirt was just clean on."
He lingered in the doorway of her room, and she realised that the fourteen million questions he'd asked between the square of sidewalk she'd put him down on, and her motel, hadn't exactly given him the reassurance he needed.
"I'm not gonna bite," she said, throwing her jacket down on the chair. "Even if you want me to."
It was true. She'd been so wet during Hotcoldloudsharpblunt that it still made her feel a shudder of shame. Even knowing that Angel had smelled it on her couldn't make her force the words passed her lips. It had been the last time she'd ever let herself near that edge, because she'd fallen over it so spectacularly it was a miracle she'd survived, like she was a cartoon character who had bounced back from a mile drop to the bottom of a ravine.
He huffed a laugh. "Did every girl who ever came home with me feel like this?"
She gave him a look. "Probably."
She pulled her shirt over her head. He swallowed. Reached out a thumb, and smoothed it over the skin just above her bra and his fingers were warm and surprisingly gentle.
He kissed her, and it was kind of a surprise. She didn't, usually, but his mouth tasted of clean hops and his tongue was kind of friendly, and it felt strangely companionable. She slid her hands around to his back, and lifted the Colt out of his jeans and put it on the nightstand.
She expected them to fuck against the wall, pants pushed down to their knees, and she kind of liked it like that, the rawness and the heat. He stripped her clothes off her, though, not like he was unwrapping a Christmas present, but like they'd staggered home drunk and he was helping her out. He took his off in between, his shirt for her shirt, his pants for her pants, and she didn't mind being the only one naked, but there was something she liked about the way he was doing it.
He took his time, his tongue flat against her nipple, his fingers fluttering on her clit, and then he kind of pushed her towards the pillow and slid down the bed. And, oh, that was something that no one had done for her in a while. She could feel him breathe his way down her ribcage, and then his lips touched her stomach, and it felt like her scar was on fire. She froze, under him, just for a second, and he moved on like she'd given him instructions, lips soft and sure against her thigh.
He was fucking good at it, you had to give him that, and she wondered if some country girl had spent a summer propped against a hay bale, giving him lessons. He dragged an honest-to-God pornstar moan out of her, and she felt him smile against her. And then his fingers were sliding into her, and she couldn't tell where the pleasure was coming from, it was just everywhere, and almost too much, and then she was just coming against his face while he fucked her with his tongue.
He crawled back up her body, with a shit-eating smile on his face, his chin slick with her juices, and she kissed him hard. She was almost too sloppy limbed to watch him put the condom on, but she hadn't made it to her age without a pregnancy or trip to the clap clinic by being lax, and so she rolled over onto her side and watched while he suited himself up.
He climbed back into bed, and half-rolled, half-climbed on top of her. His hands were on her wrists, fingers loose, and it was too much, too heavy. She pulled herself out of his grip, and there must have been something on her face because he stilled for a minute. "This okay?"
He looked so earnest that she smiled. "Yeah." She flipped them over. "But this is better."
He put up a good effort but she knew what the ripple of slayer muscle could do, like a hot fist around his cock, and she watched his face tighten and then slacken into a grin, and felt a strange spasm of pride.
The Bela part of the gig was almost an anti-climax. A little bit of kicking and knife throwing, but Bela was a human, so it was just enough to get across that Faith could and would kick every square inch of her ass if she didn't hand over the coolbox she was carrying.
She checked the contents. Bags of blood, and the sight of them made her want to give Bela the beating of her fucking life, because they were the product of one of her - fuck it - sisters dying scared and alone. She took a breath. Took another, because she still had spots dancing in front of her eyes.
She tied Bela up, and couldn't find it in her heart to care that she'd pulled the rope tight enough to cut into her wrists. To give her credit, Bela took it like a champ, and from the pissy look in her eyes Faith figured that the next time they saw each other someone was going to die. Obviously Bela, but still.
Her truck was parked next to a sweet-ass Chevy in the lot, and she wasn't entirely surprised that bar hunter guy was loading a skanky looking duffel into it when she carted out the cooler and her own bag.
"Taking a picnic?" He blinked into the sunlight.
"It's slayer blood." She lifted the cooler into the cab of the truck, and covered it with a blanket.
He bit his lip. "The exsanguinated girl?"
She nodded, jerky. "Yeah, one of us. It's good for potions and shit. The blood."
He frowned, with his whole body. "I'm sorry."
"Sure." She leaned against her truck, the metal pleasantly hot against her skin. "Say, do you know a Bela Talbot?"
"Yeah." He laughed. "What unimaginably crazy shit has she done now?"
"She's tied up in my room."
He raised his eyebrows.
"Not like that." She smiled, and she was surprised by how much she meant it. "She's all yours."
He put his hands in his pockets. "The gift that keeps on giving."
"Yeah, well." She pushed herself off the side of her truck. "Duty calls."
"See you on the flipside." He turned back towards the motel, and didn't look back.
She climbed into the driver's seat and put her keys in the ignition. She was definitely going to stop in the next town and express deliver a bag of the slayer blood to Fred in Los Angeles.