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Independent 32 – That Thing You Do

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That Thing You Do
(the Dark in the City Remix)
by Aadler
Copyright December 2019


Disclaimer: Characters from Buffy the Vampire Slayer are property of Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, Kuzui Enterprises, Sandollar Television, the WB, and UPN.


This story is a remix (done for Round 9 of the Circle of Friends Remix, of “What He Does”, by M. Scott Eiland.


 
This was a setup, it had to be. Dara couldn’t figure the shape of it, but she had no doubt at all regarding its basic nature.

Faith sauntered ahead of her, moving in a loose, leisurely rhythm substantially toned down from her usual blaring look at me! body language. Nobody would mistake her for a Catholic schoolgirl, but neither would they immediately spot what was so clear to Dara’s eyes. After spending weeks around other Slayers, she’d got to where the signs were unmistakable, and in Faith’s case they’d never been exactly subtle. Confidence, ease, a fundamental knowing: what she was, what she could do, what she would never have to fear again and what feared her (or would, if it had any sense).

Tonight … this was subtle, for Faith, and it was creeping Dara out.

Kids darted around them on roller skates, squealing delight. The air was thick with the smell of cotton candy, corn dogs, funnel cake. A man in a stall, wearing a stylized derby hat, was drizzling strings of melted sugar-caramel onto a greased glass sheet, skillful loops and twists forming intricate designs that he would then separate from the sheet and mount onto lollipop sticks for onlookers to admire before consuming them. Somewhere nearby, an honest to God polka band was swinging into a zesty performance, the opening music punctuated by an amplified voice from half a block over declaiming the next coming event.

Street carnival, in who-the-hell-knew-where (Faith had loaded her onto the train for the jaunt over from Cleveland, but Dara had been so determinedly uninterested that she hadn’t even noted the length of the trip): something with lots of sausages — and bagels, for some reason — and mini-parades and floats and speeches and crazy little contests that seemed to try to outdo each other in absurdity. Dara would have expected Faith to scorn this kind of scene, but the taller girl was taking it all in with seemingly unfeigned delight, wheeling from one sight or event to the next as if this was just the keenest thing ever.

Setup. And, knowing it, Dara still couldn’t do anything but wait for whatever axe was set to fall.

“ ’S’matter, kid?” Faith was looking back at her, the characteristic daredevil grin either mocking or inviting her to share a joke. “Feelin’ overwhelmed in the big city?”

Dara snorted at that. Big? Even Cleveland was small shakes after Chicago, and this burg was barely a pimple on the map. Or maybe that was the joke: shunt her into ever-smaller venues, try out the big-fish-in-a-small-pond deal? It … sort of tried to make sense, but didn’t quite hit the mark. “Look,” she said with very careful patience, “I’m happy and all to get away from the den mothers, but just what the crap are we doing here?”

Faith widened her eyes in an obvious burlesque of surprise. “What? C’mon, where else are we gonna find a Chocoberry Orie?”

Dara stared. “Choco–… the hell?”

The response this time was a laugh. “Whoa, so I’ve got me a gen-u-wine carnival virgin. Kid, you ain’t lived yet, and I’m here to show you how.”

“Fine,” Dara said. “So let’s get to it.”

“Nah.” Faith shook her head. “I wanna break you in slow. I throw all the goodies at you at once, you won’t appreciate ’em right. Or maybe just OD, it could go either way … and I want you on your toes when we get to the Inside-Out Caramel Apple.”

Anyone who’d seen Faith for more than a few seconds at a time already knew she was not exactly the poster girl for predictable. This, though, this was just lunacy. Was she on drugs? “I’m supposed to learn from you,” Dara said. “I’m here. I’m paying attention. I just can’t figure out what there is to learn from this.”

“Maybe I wanna teach you ta roll with the punches,” Faith observed amiably, then winked. “Or maybe I’m just screwin’ with ya for the pure hell of it.”

Okay, that part did sound like Faith. Still, there had to be something more here, and Dara still couldn’t get any sense of the shape of it.

She sorted through memories and assessments while she followed the older Slayer, keeping her inner rebellion under control and (mostly) concealed. She wasn’t a troublemaker, she wasn’t a screw-up, she didn’t refuse any of the programs or disrupt the lessons or refuse to stick with the basic rules. Not a joiner, but not a snarling lone-wolf maverick, either; low to low-middle on any congeniality scale, she was still less extreme than Faith herself, or even that stuck-up bitch Simone. She’d been getting by okay on the streets when the new organization found her, and — even before the Slayer abilities had landed on her — she’d managed it as much by not-causing trouble as by avoiding it. Being picked out for an object lesson … she honestly couldn’t see anything she’d done to elicit that kind of response.

And Faith wasn’t who you called in to smack someone on the hand with a ruler; she was a definite big gun (and a known loose cannon), something nobody was going to unlimber without good reason. Which there wasn’t one.

Dara hurried to catch up with the other Slayer, not because she was that eager to stay close but because they had to clear the street ahead of what appeared to be a baby-buggy race. By people dressed as Alice in Wonderland characters. And, somewhere very near, she could hear either an extremely good cover of Blues Traveler or (who knew? why not?) the actual band itself.

This was bizarre.

Maybe she was on drugs.

But would drugs be as surreal as this?

The two Slayers threaded between a pair of jugglers — juggling bagels, and what was the deal with bagels here? — and Faith drew up to look back at her with a corner-tilt smile and a lifted eyebrow. “So tell me, what’re you seein’ here?” she asked Dara.

“Craziness,” Dara answered without hesitation.

Faith shook her head, her eyes still holding that dancing amusement. “Nah, you’re lettin’ the switch of scenery throw ya. If you saw this in Cleveland, or even in Chi-town, what would you be thinkin’ then?”

Opportunity, was the thought that sprang to Dara’s mind. Back in Chicago, before the transition to her current life, this kind of gathering would have meant unguarded wallets, anonymous food that could be surreptitiously snagged, other possibilities that arose whenever people were preoccupied with something else. Her more recent experiences, in Cleveland, would have had her keeping an eye out for people (or otherwise) who were watching for opportunities —

She looked again, and the activity around her fell into a different set of patterns. “Hunting ground,” she said to Faith. Then, “… maybe?”

Faith shrugged. “So what’d work for that, an’ what’d count against it?”

“Crowds,” Dara said after a moment. “People working outside their normal routine. New faces, maybe — got to be some folks that come in from out of town for something like this — and the fancy-dress and other changes could help hide things that would stick out as not-normal anywhere else.” She frowned. “That’s for. Against … well, everything’s out in public, any predators would need a way to cut targets out of the crowds without catching any notice.” A shrug. “Plus, too much sunlight for vampires.”

Faith nodded to that, but said only, “For how long?”

That brought Dara up short for a moment. “Uh … two, three hours?”

“Maybe ninety minutes,” Faith corrected. “You gotta remember sunset times, or learn to feel it comin’, or both. So maybe somebody in thick clothes — like a costume — and hella sunblock, an’ stickin’ to shade, an’ bidin’ his time, could get himself set up for some nice little snackies once the sun got low enough.”

Okay. But, “Is that what we’re here for?” Dara asked.

Another shrug. “Somethin’ to do. Can’t spend all our time on Gator Nuggets with Swamp Sauce.”

Dara refused to gape at the other Slayer this time. “I’m starting to think you’re making up most of this stuff.”

And the reckless grin came back. “Why bother, when the real thing is just that weird?”

At an abbreviated version of a midway, Faith stopped to drop a dollar on a try at the ring-toss. Either she wasn’t concentrating or her depth perception was seriously out of whack, because she missed wide on every try. Then something about the languid relaxation of her body language caught Dara’s attention, and she looked closer. Well: this wasn’t random distribution, the senior Slayer had snagged some kind of target on every toss: monkey’s arm, doll’s head, one ring had landed vertically in the lip of the milk bottle in a fashion that should have fallen over in a moment but instead perched as if glued there. Faith took another round, repeating the prior performance but again without any kind of official score, then stood regarding the array ahead of her with airy unconcern. Deciding this was a hint, or even a challenge, Dara stepped up to take a turn. She missed on the first try (as in, the ring landed square around the neck of the milk bottle), but the next settled perfectly level with the necks of four bottles supporting it equally, and the last lodged between the muzzle and bowtie of a teddy bear. Then the two girls alternated, racking up — except for Dara’s single bobble — precisely zero score while competing for the most imaginative virtuosity.

They moved on, Faith smiling in a way that wasn’t exactly approval but more like the satisfaction of a properly shared joke. Though their progress seemed aimless, Dara was positive there was deliberate purpose behind it; this was semi-confirmed when Faith changed directions suddenly to home in on a stall labeled ZANADO FRIES, where she bought two of the signature concoction and passed one over to Dara. “Here ya go, kid. Time to start in on the first round.”

It looked interesting, smelled good, and Dara had reasonable confidence that nobody would be openly selling something poisonous in a public venue (plus, Faith launched into hers with gusto). It appeared to be sliced potatoes, rather than strictly fries, with lots of toppings; Dara peeled off a couple, tried a bite, then stared at Faith. “What … this tastes like pizza!”

“Uh-huh,” Faith replied, munching cheerfully. “Tornado potatoes — s’posed to be Korean, I heard — with mozzarella cheese, pepperoni, pizza sauce … an’ when it’s done right, which tastes like these are, they’re heated up with a blowtorch. Pure cuisine art.”

“So …” Dara thought about it. “All that off-the-wall stuff you were reeling off, you were serious about that.”

“Damn straight.” Faith took another massive bite. “Best fun there is that don’t include killin’ or screwin’.”

In a way she couldn’t articulate, this left Dara even more bewildered. The dark Slayer wasn’t simply throwing off-kilter curveballs her way, some of what she was saying actually had fact behind it. Which meant now Dara had to work out which parts were true.

(She disregarded the possibility that all of it was straightforward. Whatever else was going on here, some kind of agenda was in motion, even if it remained opaque to her.)

Decidedly non-effusive before, Dara was even more reserved now, and she went where Faith led, watching warily for clues or pitfalls. Any such remained unrevealed. There was a novelty walk where the challenge was to cross a winding path paved with spinning disks; the two Slayers subtly contested to see which could most skillfully maintain balance while looking as hilariously dizzy as their fellow revelers (Faith got that one, mainly because she had no concern for her own dignity). There were darts, wherein they drew patterns in misses: Dara’s geometric and precise, Faith’s suggestively pornographic without ever quite becoming explicit. There were ice cream burritos: Faith bought one, then a cloud of cotton candy, and wound the latter around the former to produce a hybrid monstrosity that should have killed by the sugar punch alone.

There was an oh-my-God-are-you-serious? carousel. Faith set herself backward on one of the horses, facing Dara and grinning like a stripper who’d snuck into a convent; Dara gritted her teeth and sat stoically, watching and waiting for the hammer to come down.

Because there had to be a hammer. Faith did fun, Faith did reckless and spontaneous, but Faith didn’t do baby-sitting without a reason; and, Slayer or not, Dara knew she was definitely in the junior league on that scale …

As they left the carousel Faith abruptly challenged, “Whadda ya hear?”

Dara had been paying attention (mostly to her companion, but that alertness hadn’t been pinpoint-focused so she’d got a fair sense of the general picture around her), and consequently wasn’t caught off-balance. “Band’s changed back at the square,” she answered. “Other sounds, might be another little parade starting up.” She gestured. “And those kids there? more hyped than the others I’ve been seeing.”

“Ahright.” Faith nodded. “If somebody’d told ya ta look out, where’d you be lookin’?”

“Uh …” Dara couldn’t guess what was supposed to be the right answer, so she went with the truth. “The kids.”

“Why?” The response wasn’t sharp, but it was instant.

Dara didn’t know why, but there had been a reason she’d come back with that, so “I don’t know, just, whatever’s got ’em excited could be distracting them from anything else. That might give an opening to, to something.”

Faith nodded again. “Okay, go with that. You’re watchin’ ’em. What’re you watching for? What danger points?”

Dara hated the sense of being put on the spot — too much like being singled out in a classroom — but any Slayer knew this was serious subject matter. She’d been going with instinct, but now she looked at the children scrambling around each other in some shrieking game that involved pinwheels and streamers-on-sticks. As Faith had predicted, the sun had sunk low, but not below the horizon yet and the kids were still in the light with plenty of adults around them, some actually watching them, so fairly safe in the main … “Those storm drains,” Dara said. “Not to go all Stephen King, but something could reach out from there and grab a kid that got close enough. Enough noise and movement going on, people might not even notice.”

“Yeah, that’d suck,” Faith agreed. “Decent thinkin’ there.”

“Great,” Dara retorted. “So what’s the point?”

Faith smiled at her, and Dara’s step faltered. “Everything’s the point,” Faith returned with a mildness that prickled the other Slayer’s scalp. “Or more like, stuff can come atcha from so many different places, you kinda got ta keep a low-grade watch on everything, alla time, just to be ready.”

Not trusting her voice in a reply (when had her throat gone so dry?), Dara just nodded. Faith took that without comment, and forged away from their former semi-aimless path with Dara trailing her in bewilderment. They’d been sticking with the crowds and the entertainment, the events that melded to form whatever festival the town was engaged in; now, they cut across less populated streets and into a green tree-bordered area that was probably a park of some kind. The shadows had lengthened until they joined, it must be sunset or close to it, and in the new quiet around them Faith called back to her, “What’s ahead of us?”

Dara listened, couldn’t pick out anything beyond the ever-more-faint crowd noise behind them. She saw the water tower, however, remembered spotting it when they left the terminal, and made a quick calculation and quicker guess. “Uh, train yards, I think.”

“Looks like,” Faith agreed. “And that’d matter why?”

The questions had come seemingly at random, but none had been arbitrary or meaningless. Looking to everything that had come before as context, Dara said, “Anything new to town, if it didn’t want to be noticed, might come in from that direction instead of on the highways. Go at the crowds from the edges, instead of passing through the middle where it could be seen.”

“Makes sense,” Faith acknowledged. “Plus, there’d be warehouses and freight areas out that way. Spots where them as wanted to could lie up and wait out the sun …” She stopped, and Dara didn’t run into her because she’d pulled up short as well. “See?” Faith said, the grin coming through her voice even though her back was to Dara. “What’d I tell ya?”

The seven figures fanning out ahead of them could have been a church youth group, but they weren’t. Even though none of them were showing demon-face, Dara simply knew it, she’d been steering away from things like this in Chicago from sheer primitive survival instinct before the Slayer call ever came to her. Four male, three female, apparent ages from thirteen to maybe twenty, as wholesome and corn-fed and clean-cut-casual as you could ask for … but they regarded the two-who-weren’t-them with an expressionless fixity of focus only seen in predators, of one type or another, and if they weren’t vampires then they were things that gathered and hunted in the same type of group. One of the females, a maybe-fifteen-year-old with chestnut hair and feathered bangs, said softly, “Jaz?” Not uncertainty, Dara realized, but getting confirmation and permission, because others were likewise spreading out to flank the two Slayers, and the Greg Brady type in the denim jacket answered, “Yeah, this’ll do.”

Faith turned slightly, to track the movement and to shoot a quick glance at her companion. Dara had stakes, of course — you never went anywhere without stakes — but it had been ingrained into the new-called that you didn’t show a weapon till you were about to use it, so she kept her hands clear. Faith checked the other girl’s stance, nodded approval, and told her, “Relax, kid. I got this.”

Dara took in the hunters in front of them; she was confident she could take on any vampire that wasn’t a master, and liked her odds even against two, and she was with Faith so she’d been tense but not actually afraid at seeing seven … facing them together was one thing, though, and seven-to-one a different matter entirely. “Are you sure?” she asked.

Faith was no longer looking at her, all her concentration now on the enemy. “All mine,” she told Dara firmly. “Don’t make me say it twice.”

Then she moved, and the next forty seconds were … educational.

Dara had seen Slayers train. She’d seen them spar, seen them fight. She’d seen Faith herself do these things. What she was seeing now was on an entirely different plane. This was savagery and grace, brutality and precision, total no-holds-barred heedless commitment and perfect concentrated focus. This was like … like a tornado, dynamite blast, and lightning strike combined, all hitting at the same time, all different parts of the same thing. Seven vampires? in those moments of awful, transcendent lethality, it seemed entirely plausible for Faith to tear through five times that many.

(Stakes were fast, precise, the Slayer’s weapon of choice for a reason, and Faith used hers with jaw-dropping adroitness … but, against numbers, there was undeniably a certain psychological advantage to be gained from ripping off an enemy’s arms as the lead-in to the kill. At least, it seemed to have that effect on the vamps she was facing …)

Faith stopped, straightened, checked the immediate area for any other theoretical enemies, checked herself for any heretofore unnoticed wounds, all in the space of seconds. Then she looked back to Dara, one eyebrow arched. “Looked ta me, just for a sec, like you were about to jump in.”

Dara shook her head, found her voice. “No, one of them was shaping to make a break for it, and I wasn’t going to let her get away. Didn’t come to that, she misjudged your reach.”

Faith considered it. “Okay, yeah, that one.” She shrugged. “Good call, not messin’ with my fun and bein’ ready to pick off a runner. You’re rackin’ up some points tanight.”

The chill from watching the fight — correction, the pretty much one-sided slaughter — was increasing rather than dissipating. “I’ve heard …” Dara stopped, cleared her throat, went on. “People say you’ve fought Buffy three times. I mean, actual fights, back when you were —” She stopped again.

“Back when I was what I was,” Faith finished for her. “Yeah, you heard right.”

“And … she beat you.”

“Worse every time,” Faith agreed gaily. “We’re talkin’ epic ass-kickin’.”

“What I just saw,” Dara went on, still unbelieving but unable to let it go. “… could you do that, back then?”

Faith laughed. “Nah, I was all over the place in those days. I’m lots better now.” She gave Dara a sly smile. “But B, she’s improved even more’n that.”

“More than that?” Dara felt like the blood had drained from her face. “Oh my God.”

“Yeah.” Another laugh. “That ’n’ then some.”

The older Slayer started walking again, though less … less purposefully, somehow. Again, Dara followed. After not quite a minute, Dara found herself asking, “The vamps … did you know they were here?”

A quick negative head-shake. “Nope, just goin’ with my gut. I mean, if there were any bloodsuckers, that was about the right place for ’em about then. Worth checkin’, and turned up jackpot. One’a those things you learn.” She glanced back Dara’s way. “And you’ll learn, count on it.”

Dara’s jaw clenched. “So if it wasn’t that, then why are we here?”

The head-tilt came back, and Faith’s smile had the same relaxed amiability that had set off Dara’s alarms from the beginning. “Our little girls’-day-out, I been feelin’ my way toward somethin’,” Faith said mildly. “Workin’ off instinct, just like with the vamps. You sure you want to push me ahead, get me to start off before I managed to make it there myself?”

“I just want to know,” Dara said mulishly. “Whatever this is, I want to know.”

“Okay.” Nothing changed in Faith’s stance or expression, but all the same there was a ‘getting down to business’ shift. “We have girls come in from all over, an’ we go out and find more that didn’t find their way to us; you were one’a those, you know how it works. And you’ve seen who’s on the roster back at Slayer Central: all different kindsa personalities, which means we gotta deal with ’em in different ways.”

Dara nodded, thinking of Polly, whose biggest obstacle had been finding somebody to convince her that this new reality wasn’t just her having a psychotic break; or Simone, who seemed to be trying to work her way to whatever was the Slayer-Watcher Council version of a court-martial. “I know what you mean, yeah. And?”

“There are big problems that’re pretty easy to deal with,” Faith went on. “And other problems that ain’t that big but take some figuring. You haven’t been a problem; you didn’t buy in right away, but you came along, listened, asked questions, started the training, kept going when you hit snags … you got some rough edges, you got some stubborn, but you don’t cause trouble and you ain’t afraid ta work, and you think about things and then decide what to do, ’stead’a just reacting. Alla this is good.”

“Uh-huh,” Dara said. “And I know there’s a truck-sized ‘but’ coming, so let’s skip the compliments and get to that.”

“You got one little thing about you,” Faith said, still the same brisk-casual. “One thing you do, every now ’n’ then, that just kinda slides in and takes a quick nip and then ducks down again. Not big, not bad enough to call for any special meetings, not even something most people would notice or feel like they had ta do anything about. But I caught it, an’ watched for more, and more came along, so now it’s you and me, here.”

Dara had been listening, and weighing what she heard, but still wasn’t oriented yet. “Not really bad, you say. Okay, that’s … encouraging, I guess. But it was enough to bring us here, and I honestly don’t know what you mean.”

Without fading, Faith’s smile settled into something else. “Three times, I’ve heard you make little cracks about Xander, plus another time that somebody else mentioned to me. So at least four.” Her stance was perfectly nonchalant, not at all reassuring to someone who had witnessed what she could do if she chose, and her tone was still level and casual. “That stops.”

Dara frowned, honestly mystified. “Xander? He’s just —”

“He’s somebody you don’t know enough about to have an opinion that matters worth shit,” Faith said flatly, all easiness vanished. “So you need to be not-talkin’ about something you don’t come close to understanding.”

Dara was no fool, this was a warning and she took it seriously. She didn’t understand, though, and she wanted to. “But … the others, they’re always —”

“Yeah, they got their jokes,” Faith cut in. “That’s them, B ’n’ Giles ’n’ Red and even Little D sometimes. But those are jokes they make to Xander, ’cause it’s something they share with him and he understands … and you notice I’m sayin’ them ’cause I see it but I’m not really part of it, not like they are. Whatever they say to him comes from their history, and I don’t have it, and sure as shit you don’t have it. Which is why even if you were sayin’ exactly the same things — which you ain’t been — you wouldn’t be sendin’ the same message. So, you’re gonna cut it out.”

“Oh,” Dara said. “Okay. Yes, I will.”

One eyebrow lifted a little, and Faith’s smile had an odd slant to it. “Uh-huh. So I mentioned different types’a new Slayers, and you knew what I meant. Which means you probably noticed that the senior staff, the people in charge, they got their own differences ’n’ specialties. Now, if you had ta make a guess, would you figure my specialty was heart-to-heart motivational talks?”

Dara had a growing sense of where this might be going, and it was not at all appealing. “No,” she whispered.

“Didn’t think so.” Faith hooked her thumbs into the pockets of her cut-offs. “So what’d my specialties be, then?”

Dara didn’t trust herself to speak, so she just made a brief, choppy gesture toward the area they had left behind, where very sharp eyes might have been able to pick out the outlines of bodies that had gone to dust, or might not.

“Yeah, that’d be about right for me.” Faith still stood with the total ease that, Dara had already seen, could transition to explosive movement in an instant. “Killing things. Or bein’ there so ever’body knows there’s somebody really damn good at killing things. Or, short’a that, beatin’ the holy livin’ shit outta somebody when it’s needed.”

Dara swallowed. “… Like now?”

Faith smiled, shrugged. “Different people got different learning styles,” she said. “And I already said you had some stubborn in you; I figure you for the type that don’t really learn something deep-down — and I want this one to go deep down — till it’s been drummed into you on a muscle ’n’ bone level.” She looked to Dara with an expression that held nothing like threat, only a determination that would not be swerved. “Me? I’m here ta be the drummer. ’Cause that’s the thing I do.”

This all felt like some kind of insane dream to Dara, and at the same time a reality that was overwhelming, inescapable. She had fought for her life more than once, and this wasn’t going to be that, but awareness and tension and readiness had kicked into hyperdrive. Slayer instincts scrambling to match what they could sense in front of them? Whatever, it all came down to one thing: this was happening. Now.

“Well, okay, then.” Dara set herself (like that would make any difference!), and with a calmness that was as unreal as all the rest she said, “If that’s how it is, let’s get to it.”

At which point, the mountain fell on her.

*               *               *

Faith leaned back on the bench, kicking her feet in front of her. “Kid, you got stones,” she declared cheerily. “I like you.”

Everything hurt, including moving her lips, but Dara made it happen anyhow. “Got a funny way of showing it,” she mumbled.

The older girl grinned. “Didn’t break anything Slayer healing couldn’t fix in half an hour,” she said. “As for the straight-on pain, well, you brought that on yourself.”

Dara glared at her. That hurt, too. “How do you figure?”

“You kept comin’,” Faith told her. “You could’a stopped it anytime, just given up; you were beat an’ you knew it, knew it before you started, but you wouldn’t quit.” She shook her head, still grinning. “Gotta tell you, that impressed me.”

“Yeah,” Dara answered, past teeth that were, yes, somewhat better rooted than they’d been even ten minutes ago. “Every square inch of me can tell how impressed you were.”

“Go ahead ’n’ bitch,” Faith said. “Know I would if I was you, an’ I’d damn well mean it, too. But I was serious.” She laughed suddenly. “That part where you head-butted my knee, ’cause you couldn’t raise up enough to reach anything else … I nearly pissed myself when you did that, it was so funny. That was hard-core. Warmed the heart.”

Dara shifted on her own bench, trying without hope to find a position that made her even a bit less miserable; along with everything else, Faith had literally kicked her ass, almost scientifically brutalizing every accessible portion of the younger Slayer’s anatomy. It had been a form of artistry, targeted and deliberate, the very thoroughness of it a part of the larger lesson. “Right. That would be the point where you brought your other knee around and broke my nose.”

“Well, sure,” Faith agreed. “But I did it with respect.” And there was real humor there, but no mockery.

Dara sighed. “If that was respect, I could have done with less of it.”

“Yep, you coulda.” Faith was regarding her with what truly did seem to be approval. “But, like I said, you wouldn’t quit.”

Dara didn’t have the energy to try and argue any more. “So what now?”

“Depends.” Faith interlaced her fingers behind her head. “You gonna be dissin’ Xander from here on out?”

“Not till I think I’m ready to take you on again,” Dara said. “If I ever am. But … why does it matter so much?”

Faith gave her a long, considering look. “Answer ta that depends on what kinda question you’re askin’.”

“I mean I don’t know why.” Dara grimaced in frustration (grimacing hurt). “Is it because he matters that much to you? because you owe him? because he’s special? because he’s too dangerous to mess with? because he’s got a delicate ego and needs to be protected? because he’s so important to everybody else that I’ll make unnecessary enemies if I don’t watch my step?” Another sigh (sighing hurt). “You want to not see any more disrespect. Okay. But I … I can do that better if I know what I’m supposed to be respecting.”

Faith was nodding. “Ahright. Fair point. And the answer is: pretty much alla those reasons. More on some, less on others, none of ’em totally off the board.” She looked out into the night. “I was never much for books, but I wound up with a lotta free time in Stockton. By the end, I was readin’ just about anything I could get my hands on. And there was this one thing, I forget where I saw it: some guy started tryin’ to use statistics to figure out how to make his sports team better; basketball, I think. All kindsa different stuff, but he ran across this one player … decent in his own stats but nothin’ spectacular, only you look close enough and you could see that whenever he was playin’, everybody else’s scores went up.”

She stopped there. Dara thought about it in the growing silence. “This is Xander?” she asked.

“It’s one theory, anyhow.” Faith looked to her. “Me and him, we were the ones who brought you in, made first contact and talked you inta givin’ the program a shot. What’d you think of him then?”

Dara tried to remember, tried to wipe away later impressions and remember that first one. “I don’t know. He … he just came across as somebody who meant what he was saying, enough that I was willing to take a chance even when I knew by then not to trust anybody. It was like he knew something I needed to know, and wanted to see that I learned it, but wasn’t going to push too hard. He was …” She looked to Faith, trying to find the words. “Solid?”

“Uh-huh.” Faith stretched her arms above her head, rolled her shoulders. “Good a word as any. Look, kid, I don’t know why you started puttin’ in your little digs at him … or about him, to other people, which was a hell of a lot riskier. If you thought it made you look tough, if you really believed he was that goofy, if you thought you’d fit in better … didn’t matter, it had ta stop right the hell now.” She shook her head. “But there’s one more possibility, and that’d call for a different kinda talk.”

“Okay,” Dara said. “I’m all ears.” (Her ears hurt.)

“Most guys outgrow it after they’re twelve years old,” Faith said. “An’ most girls just never see things that way in the first place. Slayers, though, they don’t exactly fit the normal rules.” She looked to Dara. “Ever’ now and then, usually in grade school, you’ll see a guy suddenly decide he likes some girl, and he seems ta think the best way to impress her is to yank on her pigtails.”

Dara felt her face go expressionless. (No-expression hurt.) “Pigtails,” she said.

“Yeah,” Faith acknowledged. “Notice I’m not askin’. It’s just, if anything like that was goin’ on, you’d be needin’ ta keep some things in mind.”

Dara let seconds go by while she decided on a response. “Well,” she said at last, “you pretty much set out to educate me. I guess this would count for that.”

Faith started to answer, then stopped, cocking her head. Dara heard it a moment later: a soft shirr-ing sound, humming of tires on pavement. They had seen when they emerged from the depths of the park (Faith half-supporting, half-carrying Dara) that the streetlights had come up, and from their vantage point at the border where green landscaping gave over to smooth-glazed brick, they now watched the shadow sweeping swiftly toward them. It resolved itself into a figure on a bicycle, a young woman, and as she drew near enough they could make out the uniform and the hostered pistol: bike cop, maybe part of the normal setup here or maybe brought in for extra duty in the town’s festival. She drew up near the two Slayers, but not too close, and regarded them with cordial alertness. “Evening, ladies,” she said.

“Evenin’, officer,” Faith returned, the picture of relaxed unconcern.

Dara had laid her forearms on her thighs and let herself slump forward, hoping the angle would prevent a direct look at the bruises she was still showing; Faith had been right about the lighter bones having time to knit, but that just meant a Slayer’s metabolism hadn’t been able to spare equal attention to repairing lesser but more visible damage. At least they’d washed off the blood. Most of it. Enough of it, maybe. She willed herself to unnoticeability, a talent she’d honed on the streets, but that worked better in crowds and with someone paying less attention; the very effort to avoid drawing notice could be noticed, and it seemed it was doing so now. The cop was studying Dara, taking in detail and impression. “Everything okay here?” she asked.

“We’re fine,” Dara said without looking up, hoping the distortion of words pushed past swollen lips wasn’t as obvious as it seemed to her. “Been a long day, is all.”

The cop continued to study her, and Dara approved the way she kept Faith in her peripheral vision even while wishing they were dealing with someone less competent. “The city has resources,” the young woman said, voice dropping a register to something that wouldn’t sound demanding or threatening. “Shelters, support groups, outreach programs. If you needed anything, I could point you that way.”

“I said I’m fine,” Dara insisted, wishing her own voice didn’t sound sullen. “We’re not even from here, we just came in for the jamboree —”

“Dara.” Faith was still leaning back in the bench, making sure she didn’t present any appearance of threat. “The nice officer is worried about you. She doesn’t want to go home tonight wondering if she let somebody slip away who needed saving. Why don’t you, just to make her feel better, walk maybe half a block down thataway with her? enough that she knows you could get away from me if that was what you wanted, and talk with her a bit to set her mind at ease. ’Cause you may know you don’t need help, but she doesn’t.”

It was a risk, but Dara could feel the sense of it: defuse the situation, rather than trying to muscle through it. “Okay,” she said, standing as un-creakily as she could and still trying to keep her face out of the light. “Sorry, I wasn’t meaning to be rude. Let’s go, I could stand to stretch out a little anyway.” She started off in the direction Faith had indicated, noting that the casual suggestion served to move her away from the streetlamps rather than toward them.

The cop paced her evenly on the bicycle, pulled up just before Dara would have stopped. She was, Dara realized, really not much older than Faith, and had a whisper of the same personal focus. The dusk wasn’t as great a shield as they needed; she studied Dara’s face, and asked quietly, “Who did that to you?”

Dara sighed, made a negligent gesture. “It’s not what you’re thinking. I’m trying to get into MMA, mostly self-defense but I really think I could compete. She’s training me. She thinks I’m pushing too hard, I tried to show her she didn’t have to keep coddling me.” Dara rubbed (gently!) at a cheek that was no longer fractured but still tender. “I think she was a smidge more right than I was, so I might back off a little … but just a little, and just for a while, and I’m not about to quit.”

The cop studied her, thinking, weighing Dara’s demeanor as much as her words. “I meant it about the programs. If you need something, we can find something.”

Dara nodded. “If I need something, I’ll know this is a place to look. But I really am good.”

The cop glanced back to where Faith still waited back at the bench, returned her gaze to Dara. “You have a place to stay?”

“This was a day trip,” Dara said. “We have a couple more hours to look around, then we’re on the train back to the city.” (Didn’t say which city.) She met the cop’s eyes, projecting no guile, no defiance, nothing to hide. “I’d like to go rejoin my friend now, if that’s all right.”

The cop rode back alongside her, gave Faith one more lookover. “You girls be careful,” she said. “This is a nice town, but there are a few rough spots here and there.”

“We’ll watch ourselves,” Faith assured her. “Thanks.”

The cop nodded, resumed her patrol. When she was far enough away, Dara looked to Faith. “There are so many ways that could have gone wrong.”

“You were the one set off her alarms,” Faith said with a shrug. “Had to be you convincing her everything was cool. Otherwise, we’d’ve had problems.”

“And if I hadn’t been able to pull it off?”

Another shrug. “Then, we’d’ve had problems.”

Hard to argue with that. Dara sat, saying nothing, and after a moment Faith started in, seemingly where she had left off. “So, if you were maybe tryin’ to catch Xander’s attention, tryin’ to make him notice what he had in front of him, well, you’d have ta take a few things into account.”

“Such as?” Dara prompted, in a tone that was as unrevealing as she could make it.

“Such as, if you just want a fling, make sure he knows it; he can do light ’n’ fun, but it’s not his first notion. Such as he’s been in love with B for friggin’ ever, and she shrugs it off and pretends it was never there, but she could always wake up ’n’ change her mind. Such as Little D set her sights on him when she was twelve, and he’s kept her in kid-sister zone but she’s turned into a solid babe, and again for wakin’ up. Such as, you get anywhere with him and you’ll have an instant target on your back from all the other Slayers see it and go, Wait, you can do that?, an’ decide to kick off Thunderdome.”

Dara waited to see if more would come. It didn’t. She waited again, then said, “And you?”

Faith shot her an eyebrow. Dara didn’t back down. The other Slayer’s mouth set, and she said, “Anything I ever mighta coulda had with Xander — and there was a time when it was maybe not impossible — I pissed away along with a lotta other stuff. What we got now, I ain’t gonna risk that tryin’ for anything else. You ever hurt him, and what you just went through in the park is gonna seem like frolics at the beach … but, no, I ain’t competition. Of any kind.”

Dara nodded. “Good to know.” She paused. “Any other lessons coming at me tonight?”

Faith stood up. “You got any questions, you ask ’em and I’ll shoot straight. Nothing else planned, though, long as you don’t kick anything off.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.” Dara stood as well. They turned toward the distant carnival sounds, started walking that way. Dara was already feeling markedly better; Faith, thorough as she had been, had been aiming for a consummate beating, rather than anything that would put her sister Slayer out of commission more than briefly. Another hour or so, she might even be able to pass for normal …

“Pigtails,” Dara said again. “Does anybody even wear those anymore?”

Faith shrugged. “Kids these days, who knows?”

Dara let it go by; then, after another thirty seconds, she said, “So maybe — just as a maybe — it wasn’t Xander’s pigtails I was pulling.”

That brought a long moment of gaping silence, and then a huge belly-laugh. Faith regarded her with a grin that threatened to split her face. “Damn, kid! You really do like livin’ on the edge, dontcha?”

“I did say ‘maybe’.” Dara kept her expression nonchalant, matter of fact. “So maybe I’m just messing with you.”

“It’s a walk on the wild side, either way.” Faith shook her head, still grinning. “I’m ever in the mood for trollin’ jailbait, I’ll give it some thought.”

“That didn’t bother you when you were talking about Xander,” Dara shot back. “Besides, age of consent in Ohio is sixteen … which, for me, is just two more months.”

Faith laughed again. “Well, in this state it’s still twenty-one to buy alcohol, which means the deep-fried beer’s gonna have ta wait for some other time. So I guess it’s just you ’n’ me ’n’ the Cheesesteak Donut Burger. C’mon, race ya!” She took off, catching Dara off guard.

Fried beer?, Dara thought, forcing still-stiff muscles back into activity. No way, it can’t be done!

But, as she had learned — and done her best to demonstrate in return — there were some things you just had to find out for yourself.

 
end


  1. All the carnival treats Faith named are real items, as seen here. Deep-fried beer is a thing, too.
  2. The ice cream burrito wrapped in cotton candy, however, was proposed by Cornerofmadness in her Angel fic “Like Stone”.
  3. Though not proven, the events of the story very probably took place at the Mattoon Bagelfest, a yearly event in Mattoon, IL.