Connor dreams of Faith and awakes heartsore. The air in his bedroom is salty and stale. He stumbles blind from bed and goes to the sink in the bathroom where he runs the tap and splashes water on his face.
Towel in hand, he looks at himself in the semi-light of morning. He’s shaved his beard. He needs a haircut. His T-shirt – faded blue and washed to buttery soft – has a line of oblong holes at the neck, like an abalone shell. Rich as he is, he can afford a hundred blue T-shirts. He likes this one and can’t be bothered.
He’s not aging. His eyes are old. He can’t look at them, so he looks instead at his hands. He flexes his fingers and feels for a moment like he’s floating, disembodied, a cloud, a wisp…
He hears his therapist’s voice, an echo. “What is your fear?” she asks. She’s an Indian woman named Nadi. He dwarfs her. When she smiles, though it’s seldom, her eyes are like chocolate buttons folded in crinkled saffron cloth.
His answer never varies.
“What if I’m not here?” he asks.
She laughs when he says this.
“Where would you be?” she says.
Connor risks a glance at his eyes. In the mirror, in the morning light, they are depthless disks of blue – a stranger’s eyes.
“Where would I be?” he asks. His voice cracks.
Connor wonders, when will he fall apart?
His house is a husk, a shell, a ridiculous behemoth cantilevered into the viny hillside like a beast staked out to die. He bought it thinking – what the hell was he thinking? He bought it for the sweep of Pacific panoramic sunset the house gave him every night, but he’d not enjoyed it. Not like he thought he would.
He lost track of the months since moving in, when Connor had stood in the cavernous main room – all glass and echoes – and watched that first radiant gold and cerulean sunset. How proud they were, his parents, the Reillys. Their son, a doctor, a Stanford graduate, had bought his first home. The sheer size of it suggested a level of prosperity beyond their dreams.
Arm in arm with his father, his mother had sighed, “Oh, Connor. This place will be perfect for a family.”
“When he’s ready for that, dear,” his father hastened to add, chucking Connor’s shoulder and smiling.
Superimposed over this scene was the image of his Dad – of Angel – when he died on the Circle beneath Stonehenge. Connor knew that this house was precisely the kind of place his Dad would have loved, with its exposed steel girders and ultra-modern lines. For a moment Connor felt a wave of guilt, as if he somehow betrayed them both: Angel, and the man who thought he’d raised him.
Connor moved everything from his dorm to the Hillside House, as he referred to it now in his head. It all fit into one room. The rest of the house remained: empty.
Connor showers. He has carefully trained himself to ignore the puckered pink scar that runs from his sternum to his navel. Doesn’t touch it as he towels off. Doesn’t acknowledge it exists. He dresses in his rumpled blue T-shirt, a plaid flannel over it, jeans, and Frys work boots. He eats breakfast, though he never feels hungry.
He’s equally passionless about his job at JPL. He was hired by Jet Propulsion Laboratories before he finished his undergrad work in applied physics. Officially, Connor’s job title was so long and convoluted, it wouldn’t fit on the plaque by his door. Unofficially, the Council had ensured his position in order to secretly undermine JPL research into the creation of a machine that can open dimensional gaps.
He drives along Highway One before the sun has peeled away the gauze of morning mist. His car is the one thing about his life that he finds unfailingly enjoyable. It’s a silver Jaguar – all feline and muscular. He drives with the nuance of a maestro conducting a symphony, pushing through the momentum of each curve, accelerating beyond what was safe. For normal people.
It’s still dark, and the car pulls the fog to tattered rags as he goes. Again he has the sensation of floating, of flying in a low orbit, not really attached to anything.
To prove him wrong, his iPhone buzzes in its cradle on the console, its screen glowing with startling brightness to indicate the incoming call.
The number on the screen is a 512 area code, one he doesn’t recognize. He hesitates before thumbing the connect tab on the screen.
There’s a crackle, and then a Southern sweet-iced-tea voice.
“Is this Connor?”
Her voice startles him. He eases off the accelerator. “Maya?”
“I thought you wouldn’t remember me,” she answers, sounding relieved.
“Of course I remember you,” he says in a gruff whisper. He realizes his hands are shaking.
He senses her holding back, but before he can encourage her, she spills it. “I wish there was a better reason to call, but I have news.”
This only makes him feel more panicked. Immediately, his thoughts fly to Faith, and he can think of nothing else, even as she begins to explain.
“Dawn has asked me to contact you. There’s been a break-in at the Council in London,” Maya says. “Some very specific items were taken…”
Connor’s driving on autopilot while his mind catches up to finally process her words. “How is that even possible?” he asks. “Andrew and I worked on the algorithms for the security matrix ourselves. It’s…”
“Yes, we know,” Maya cut in. “That’s why I’m calling. Only a select handful of folk know how to get in to the Council, and even fewer know how to get at what got taken.”
“What got taken?” Connor asks, and a trickle of cold fear drips into his gut.
“Kostzchie venom,” Maya says. “And Kostzchie anti-venom.”
Maya pauses. Connor can picture her wringing her small white hands. She says, “You betcha. And you probably see why we called.”
A white shape springs in front of the car. It happens so fast, even his reflexes couldn’t swerve from hitting it. A horrifying crunch shakes the car as the figure flashes over the hood and vanishes.
Connor slams the brakes and pulls to the roadside. Maya is frantic over the phone, but Connor drops it into the passenger seat as he hurtles from of the car. He scans the road, which is opaqued with a chilly fog. A moment’s searching and he sees her sprawled facedown in a scraggle of weeds. The white of her skin looks ghostly against the blackness of the road.
Connor covers his mouth as he approaches her. Dimly, he can hear Maya’s tinny voice calling to him. He ignores her. He sees the body – black jeans, sleeveless red top, pale, muscular arms, a swirl of dark hair in a ponytail swept back from her neck…
Connor realizes two things simultaneously. One, the bite mark on her neck and the purplish bruises indicating a fight.
The other thing – her resemblance to Faith.
Connor is running before sense can catch him. As he reaches her, as he turns her over, he scarcely registers relief at seeing her face when the sharp pain stabs his neck.
As his knees buckle and his consciousness fades, he feels elated. It’s not her, he thinks, as his body crumples beside the dead girl. It’s not Faith.
Faith yanks a bottle from behind the bar, twists off the cap in haste, all the while keeping an eye trained on the man in the gray suit. Jim, the bartender, is a friend of hers – sometimes informant, sometimes client, always about three-fourths in love with her, a fact she exploits as often as necessary.
Right now, Jim is trying to keep his cool, but he knows the kind of man the gray suit represents means bad, really bad, things for him, for Faith, for the bar, for all of New York…
Jim glances at her. She acknowledges with the barest nod. Turning to him and away from the gray suit, she unhooks three of the already straining clasps on her red blouse. She catches a glimpse of herself in the mirror behind the bar: cleavage – present; slutty hip-hugging hot pants – hell yeah; and her lips – a devilish shade of I-can-make-you-squirm-like-you’ve-never-dreamed red.
“Two glasses, Jimmyface,” she says. As he slides them down the bar in her direction, she checks the mirror again.
“Faith,” he whispers. “Don’t.”
She decides to undo one more clasp, which reveals the curve of her black leather bustier. She can see that he already knows her well enough to guess that things are about to get dicey.
“Whatever it is,” he continues. “Don’t.”
Faith touches his lips with the fingers of her free hand. “Don’t wait up,” she says, blowing him a kiss. She picks up the glasses with a fatalistic clink and crosses the gritty floor to join the gray suit at his table – glasses in one hand, tequila in the other.
As she crosses the room, Faith watches the dark eyes of the thin, hard man in the gray suit. He’s got skills, that’s plain; confidence, too, and concealed weapons – whole package. His presence means one thing: work. Her kind of work.
These days, Faith did jobs of, you could say, questionable nature. Her skill set wasn’t exactly the kind that lent itself to desk work. She sometimes pulled security jobs for certain groups of investors around town. Didn’t pay to scratch deeper than the surface, though, so she ran afoul of criminal elements from time to time.
Other times, she played bodyguard to this musician, or that well-connected debutante. They belonged to a label or family, or family label. Details were fuzzy on count of she didn’t care.
Money was money.
And this guy smelled of cash.
Faith sets the bottle on the table. She wrenches the chair out, twists it around, sits astride. Gray Suit keeps his eyes on hers, even as she slides forward, her obviously lithe legs spread wide around the back of the chair. She slams the glasses down, intentionally loud, trying to shake him. The other patrons, the late-evening gamblers and drinkers, lift their heads but stolidly ignore them. Gray Suit responds by stifling a yawn with the back of his hand.
Faith leans forward, pouring two shots, making a showcase of her ample curves. This gets an uncomfortable shift from the man, who discreetly adjusts his pant’s leg.
Faith smirks inwardly at this. She’d half written him off as both tedious and gay.
“Drink up,” she orders. She runs her tongue slowly over her bottom lip. “I never take a job dry.”
The guy lifts the shot glass to his lips and downs it.
“Hot damn,” Faith says. She slugs hers, too, and pours another round.
“Whatcha got?” she asks, nodding to his glass.
Gray Suit waves it off. He leans forward and quietly, succinctly, says, “Council business.”
This brings her up short. She reels back before she can catch herself. Out of the corner of her eye, she sees Jim go for the snubnose Colt under the register. She knows that Stan, the other bartender, is watching, too, so she’s quick to signal with a splayed palm on her thigh that it’s not kill time.
Faith takes another second and a half to re-appraise the man in the gray suit. Like as not, he’s one of the new breed of Watchers – or rather, a return to the old breed – that Rachel Greenspan has been enlisting to the Council. “Reformed” criminals, hackers, and thieves had been drafted into the Council, on Greenspan’s and Wells’ assertion that the underground element already had their connections hardwired and ready for use.
This guy has the look of gun runner, say, or maybe a mid-level courier for a Columbian drug cartel. The only thing spoiling the image is the fine gray suit and cultured English accent.
“Here I took you for the front man of a common thug,” Faith said.
“Timothy Deitsch,” the man says, pulling a card from an inside pocket. He slides it across the table, until its edge sticks under the shot glass.
Faith looks at it, sniffs. Black-edged, the card has the Watcher’s eye and crest embossed in its center above his name in Gothic print.
She shrugs. “Good for you, lapdog. Just makes you the uncommon breed of thug. I prefer to call you…”
Deitsch cuts her off. “The Council seeks to enlist your services,” he begins.
Faith sits back on the edge of her seat and laughs darkly.
“Dude, I quit that outfit so long ago…”
“I realize that, Miss Lehane. We all do.” He seems legit in his sympathy, too.
But Faith scowls both at the use of her formal name and the use of the collective pronoun. It’s so Watcher, it makes her scalp crawl.
“Look, we’re done here,” she purrs, shoving away from the table in a long, slow stroke. She turns and walks away. Over her shoulder, she says, “You best clear out…”
Jim takes this as his cue to round the bar. He’s got the snubnose in the waistband of his jeans, and she knows from experience he’ll pull a trigger if the sitch gets thick.
“It’s Connor,” Deitsch says.
Faith stops cold.
“He’s disappeared,” Deitsch continues. “Last contact was fourteen hours ago, by cell phone. He was in his car on his way to work when…”
Faith turns back to Deitsch. “So?” she says, though even to her own ears it doesn’t ring true. “I ain’t seen him in four years.”
It takes a lot of will, but she manages to turn and walk the few remaining steps to the bar. She hopes it looks like she’s dismissing the Watcher. She hopes her hammering heart isn’t giving her away.
But the damn Watcher follows her. He joins her at the bar, ignoring Jim and his piece.
Speaking with muffled urgency, Deitsch says, “He’s in trouble, Miss Lehane. We have reason to believe he’s been targeted by a terrorist organization due to his research at JPL…”
Faith grabs the man by the back of his hair and gives it a hard twist. He responds with a tight grimace, and Faith recognizes that he’s that kind of guy: the kind into pain and torture and kinks.
Jim, on the other hand, responds by pulling the gun, which causes more of a stir than she finds comfortable as all of the patrons cease their slovenly conversations, deals, and drinking to turn their eyes upon the more interesting conflict at the bar.
“Look, Suit,” Faith growls. “I. Don’t. Care. Got me?”
She releases him, turns to Jim, who lowers the gun when he sees her face.
Behind her, Deitsch makes a show of straightening his sleeves and the cut of his jacket.
“Well, I made my attempt,” he says. “Good day, Miss Lehane.”
The bell on the front door announces when he’s gone. In moments, the crowd resumes its din as if nothing has passed, but the tension hangs on Faith’s shoulders like a heavy bag.
Jim puts the pistol back in its spot under the bar. Faith presses her lips into a hard, sullen line.
“Take me home, Jimmyface?” It’s half-question, half-demand.
Without hesitation, he calls to Stan at the other end of the bar – Stan, who hates Faith and says she uses Jim, and is 100 percent correct – to let him know he’s heading out for the night.
In minutes, they’re walking to his motorcycle. Faith feels herself eaten up by nerves, eaten to the bone, like a body staked out over an anthill, and she just can’t stand it anymore.
Faith pulls Jim into the back corner of the parking lot. She practically climbs him, she’s so desperate for the touch. He’s baffled, but answers, puts her back against the chain link, arms above her head, rips her best red blouse and then attacks the leather of her bra with his teeth. She smiles, wryly, thinking gentle Jim’s got a bit of monster in him.
At that thought, her mood sours and she feels cold and empty. She wants so bad to have it, to have something. She wants so bad.
Despair curdles to anger as she drives her body down on him – again, again, again – until he comes.
And he smiles.
He’s sweet, that Jim, with his wide bottle-green eyes, square jaw, and open grin, all strawberry blond curls atop that side-of-beef build.
He’s sweet, and he loves her.
Faith feels nauseated, but figures she’s gotta settle the score. There’s been too many nights Jim watched her back or paid her bills or let her drink for free. She’s got one night to pay up, so she intends to do it big. Faith doesn’t like to leave with someone to owe.
“What you did back there, with the gun,” Faith pants. He nods, dumbly, like the blood in his head’s gone elsewhere. “Was hot,” she finishes. “Get me home, cowboy. I’ll ride you till sunup and make you beg for more.”
He buys it.
Half hour later, they start things in the dirty elevator of his tenement building. They’re squirming like crazed rats in a burlap sack, all the way down the hall to his apartment, where she slams the door and him against it.
She winds up against the wall when she breaks. It begins with a ragged, animal sound she knows he misconstrues as a moan of pleasure.
But it’s not pleasure. She’s in agony. As she looks beyond Jim, over his shoulder and into the shabby living room, Faith wonders how she ever came to this state of lowliness. How had she ever let herself slide to this squalid depth again, after all she has survived?
Suddenly, Faith wants nothing more than to be away. She can’t bear the touch of this man, or his dusky scent, or the taste of his lips. His kisses sicken her, his love sickens her. And it’s not him; she knows that.
Faith tears away and leaves in a furious storm, grabbing her clothes on the run. She dresses on the way, pulling on her pants and shirt in the hall. He calls after her; she ignores him. She stomps her wet feet into her boots when she reaches the elevator. She hears him pursuing her. Faith waits a hundred heartbeats before the elevator doors slide open.
She steps in, pounds the button for ground floor with her fist, and leaves him behind.
In the chilled night, she runs blind, until the part of her brain that’s wired to fight kicks in. When it does, she knows exactly where she’s heading. She’s known since old Gray Suit said his name.
Connor was missing in California; Faith was on her way west to find him.
Connor awakes in a haze and learns as he tries to breathe that his chest is constricted, like he’s lying beneath a blanket of lead. His eyes are open; he cannot see anything save for the vague impression of misty light somewhere behind him and to his left. And there’s a sound: a low, constant, trickling hiss.
Panic expands in him, panic like drops of ice in his blood. He cannot move. Not his arms, not his legs… And he’s cold.
Connor tries to do what he always does when confronted with this kind of mind-effacing fear. He attempts what comes naturally, and that’s to draw a deep breath. But he finds that he can’t.
Awareness begins to creep into the gaps and spaces around him. He realizes, slowly, numbly, that he is trapped.
It’s a dream, his mind answers, a nightmare. And as he tries to shake himself back to consciousness, he feels the dull throb of pain in his neck.
And he remembers.
A voice, disembodied, hovering beyond sight, chooses that moment to speak.
“You are, of course, encased in concrete,” it says.
Connor feels his heartbeat lurch into his throat as he realizes the truth. He lowers his eyes, which seem to have trouble focusing, and sees that his upper torso terminates in a blurred and bumpy gray plane that extends in front of him perhaps two feet in diameter, before ending in what looks like the lip of a Rubberneck trash can.
The voice speaks again. Closer this time, it says, “You see, I’ve done my homework. It’s ironic, considering how I avoided it in high school, but now I see its usefulness. For instance, having read your files I know that your strength is equal to that of a vampire, and that you have the healing factor of a Slayer. You’re skilled in many styles of combat, though you have never been formally trained. Not by anyone in this plane of existence, anyway. And there has only been one instance on record when you’ve even come close to death. That was by poison. Kostzchie poison, to be more specific…”
Connor can feel his pulse quicken, but he knows he has to reign in his panic response, unless he wants to hyperventilate within the confines of his concrete cocoon. Normally, he would knead his fists, he would initiate a series of visualizations his therapist taught him, he would pace, or he would get in his car and drive for endless, mindless hours…
But this wasn’t “normally.” Fists and pacing weren’t options, and he needed to focus on his captor if he wanted to escape.
Connor thinks, What does he know about this mysterious kidnapper, other than the fact that he once despised homework?
It’s a he, for one thing. A he who has had access to Connor’s profile at the Watcher’s Council, for another. That substantially narrows the playing field. Connor abruptly remembers the phone call just before the accident, the phone call with Maya. She had said something about a break in at the Council and the items that were taken.
“The dart,” Connor wheezes. His voice sounds thin. “You poisoned me.”
“Yeah I did,” the voice continues. “But I brought you back, too.”
Connor considers this before he speaks, and the man attached to the voice merely waits, as if he’s counting to see how long it takes for Connor to figure it out.
A bitter laugh escapes from Connor’s chest, and it hurts. He says, “You poisoned me to trap me, but you need me alive.”
“Bing bing!” the voice sings out. “Give a prize to the boy in the cement suit. Now an added bonus if you can guess why.”
Connor’s thoughts swerve from the “why” to the “who” instead. Who would know about his vulnerability to Kostzchie venom and be able to break the access codes into the Watcher’s Ancient Text Storage Vault?
Whoever it was had proven to know Connor’s daily routine by finding him on that barren stretch of highway. Therefore, it would stand to reason that the man knew about Connor’s position at JPL, and probably had an inkling about the research he’d done toward creating an engine that would enable humankind to open dimensional portals between worlds.
His first thought is Thellian, but the quip about homework ruled him out. Besides, the voice and patterns of speech were all wrong. It sounds more like…
“Xander?” Connor marvels, disbelieving.
The voice responds with a tittering hyena’s laugh, so forceful and full of high pitch, it bruises Connor’s sensitive ears.
“It’s funny. No one calls me that anymore,” the voice says, just before stepping into view.
It’s Xander, or at least, it was. He’s far more menacing, with his twisted sneer and super-lean frame. The worn patch still covers his eye, but there’s a vertical slash scarring that side of his face, further contorting his marred features. He wears his black hair slicked back, and there’s a blood-red stone on a cord around his neck. But it’s the sense of consuming rage that makes the most striking impression. Anger pervades every molecule of what once was a normal man.
Connor can’t read auras, but he knows enough to identify the creature that Xander has become.
“Wh-what do they call you?” Connor manages to whisper.
“They call me ‘Sir’,” Xander said, leering. “Amazing, huh? What power does. No one ever called me that in Sunnydale.”
Connor ignores the last remark. He says, “That’s what you want, then? Power.”
Xander comes closer still, until he blocks out the light to make his form nothing but a blurred silhouette. Connor can smell him. The scent of rubbing alcohol and iodine are unmistakable. Connor feels a chilled sweat break out on his forehead, his arms, his legs, and he wonders how far Xander will go to get what he wants.
“It’s what we all want, Connor,” Xander says, almost regretfully. “You have a machine, and I need it…”
“No,” Connor bites out. His heart thumps in his chest, painfully thudding against the immoveable concrete.
“Yeah, see, I’m the one with the power now, and you’re the tool,” Xander says. “Cool thing about it: you’re in no position to bargain. You have no one, Connor. No one’s coming to save you. So here are your choices: A) You can resist, and eventually, you’ll starve and die, and I’ll dump your nifty superhuman-healing body in the river. Neither of us have any clue how long starvation might take. I’d be willing to place a wager on, say, three whole weeks.
“Then there’s option B,” Xander goes on. He reaches forward to heft something off the ground. Xander swings it around to bear, leveling it in Connor’s line of sight. It’s a sledgehammer. “We like option B. It’s the one where you tell me where your machine is. You give my scientific team the specs on how to run it. And then, I let you go.”
Connor manages a half-smiling grimace. “You let me go, I kill you…”
Xander kneels down so that he’s face to face with Connor, and that’s when Connor sees another figure in the indefinable space beyond the limit of his vision. This one’s wearing clothing of a dingy, uniform green – a surgeon’s scrubs. The figure makes some imperceptible movement, and Connor has to guess that this is part of Xander’s so-called team.
“That’s Jules,” Xander mutters, conspiratorially. “He’s a licensed medical professional, though I’m not certain he’s legal in the US. ’S not important, but he knows his way around a poison dart. You know, it’s always good to have back-up. I learned that, all those years with the Scoobies. See? Not all wasted.”
Xander raps the rim of the trashcan with the palm of his hand. “I’ll let you think on it. Meanwhile, I’ve got a belly full of empty. Just might round up Morna and hit the town. I’m in the mood for Mexican…”
Faith hates to admit it, but the hours with Jim were costly ones. By 2 a.m., exhausted, she’s hitched her way to The Bronx, to a biker bar called the Angel’s Nest.
Upstairs, in a cramped, low-ceilinged area above the bar, a woman named Moe runs a game of high-stakes poker.
But when Faith strides in wearing her leather coat, the Scythe slung over her back, the four rough-looking players at the table unceremoniously clear out.
Moe’s not happy about it, and tends to be rather creative in verbally expressing her displeasure. She shuts it when she reads the desperation in Faith’s eyes. In years passed, Moe has seen Faith’s limited range of emotion – from blind rage to simmering fury – but never has she seen the girl look so dead-eyed with worry.
Moe is crippled with rheumatoid arthritis; her fingers hook into swollen claws and getting to her feet is a chore, but she stands to greet Faith. Across the table, the two women exchange wordless understanding.
“Moe, I gotta head west,” Faith says. “Fast-like.”
Faith shakes her head. “I need a bike.”
“Shit,” Moe swears. “Figgers.”
“Wouldn’t ask, if…”
“Hell, girl,” Moe says, cutting her off. “I owe ya. I got Harold’s Harley out back. As it stands, he owes me.”
Faith is visibly relieved, but no less unsettled.
“You should eat. You got that hollow look,” Moe says. “There’s cold chicken in the fridge.”
But Faith shakes her head, tossing her damp, tangled hair out of her eyes.
Moe shrugs. She hobbles to a stand-alone bar in the corner and pulls a key from a dog tag chain around her neck. She inserts the key into the locked top drawer and slides it open. She rifles through the contents – rolls of cash, bullets, a switchblade, land deeds – until she finds a set of keys on a pewter skull-and-crossbones chain. She fishes them out and tosses them to Faith, who catches them without a blink.
“Thanks, Moe,” Faith says, turning already to leave.
“Faith,” Moe calls. “Don’t go all Horse-woman of the Apocalypse, okay?”
Faith’s lips press into a grim line before she says, “No guarantees.”
As Faith thunders across the American Midwest in the blushing hours of dawn, she finds her thoughts drifting backward through the sepia filter of time. She remembers first the weeks after they left London. Had to be done, what with the whole town crawling with Watchers and Slayers, all wanting information about Connor – how he’d survived, how he’d become possessed in the first place, how she’d broken the hold of the Glass.
They’d pissed her off. One night after weeks of therapy and endless questioning, Faith and good Doc Chapman broke curfew and several international statutes to spring Connor.
Thus began Connor’s and Faith’s “relationship.”
Even now, she views it as something outside her regular life, parenthetical, unreal, unreliable, impermanent. The “relationship” with him began as her guiding him to recovery. This was bust from the start; Faith sucked as nursemaid. One thing led to several others, and soon they were sharing a bed.
Faith had rationalized it as therapy of another kind. Nothing a nice spank in the sheets couldn’t solve, and the kid had promise.
Soon he was better than good, and then was all the way to bad. And stamina? She sometimes ached for days. God, the things they did…
Somewhere in Colorado, as Faith maneuvers the grumbling bike through mountain passes just breaking free of winter’s grip, she comes to the realization that she had fallen for Connor in ways she never intended.
At the top of Loveland Pass, Faith almost turns around. So Connor was missing. He could fend for himself; he was a big boy. Strong, tough, smart. He had goddamned vampires for parents. Why the hell did they need her to save him?
Faith looks out over the pink granite hills wrapped with unbroken sheaves of snow and remembers the smooth planes of his chest and arms, and how they were divided by a cleft she’d made – a daunting, puckered, anger-red scar that bisected his youthful body, the way a freeway scars a field of new wheat.
She forces herself to remember their first night when he, alone in her bed, in her Brooklyn apartment, awoke from a nightmare to find her perched in the chair, watching him, her chin on her knees.
“What is it?” she had asked.
“What if I’m not here?” he had answered.
Faith had carefully, cautiously approached the bed, had slid in beside him under the sheets. She remembered he had mumbled something like a surprised protest or question, but she, consumed with need, had pressed her mouth to his.
In those early days, with her always astride him, he wore a blue T-shirt to hide the scar she had made. In those early days, she led and called the shots; and he, amazed, bewildered, ecstatic, let her do things to him. Wild, breathless, unthinkable things. Things he had never dreamed.
Months passed before he turned tables on her, before he took the lead. He was playful, cautious, a puppy learning new tricks. He would flip her onto her back, or roll her sideways, and she humored him, even though, inside, her heart pounded as she lost control and felt… she felt like she was drowning, like she couldn’t bear to breathe.
Then one night, he pinned her against the wall, with the window open and spilling the early-spring scent of cherry blossoms into the room. He guided her hands over the scar on his chest. She recoiled from the smooth, pink ridge of the mark. The scar felt hot, a brand against her palm. She didn’t want to feel.
His sweaty cheek to her cheek, his sweet breath on her face, his hair damp from exertion, he panted, “No. It’s okay…”
Faith felt a thread of panic pull through her. “Babe, you’re spoiling the mood,” she groaned, tightening her sinewy legs around him, pulling him deeper into her body.
His eyes rolled back with pleasure, but he re-focused. He had this wigged-out habit of staring right into her eyes, which freaked her. But it was Connor. He was all eager and kid-like, so she let it slide.
“I’m here,” he said, all throaty and breathless. “Really here.”
She laughed. “Well, yeah. Where the hell else would you be?”
He laughed, too, and she melted at the sound of it. At the feel of it, a deep rumble she felt through her skin and in her chest. Had she ever heard him laugh? Ever?
Faith knew she’d gone over for him then and there; gone over like a girl goes for a cup of mint chocolate chunk. But she didn’t – couldn’t – let him see. Throwing in some extra swivelly-hip action, she said, “You gonna do me right and proper, or do I have to finish this job myself? C’mon, boy. I got needs.”
Connor had released her hand and finished the job with every ounce of his unguarded fervor.
Soon after, mended body and soul, he left and she let him.
Four years ago.
Faith knows she has no business riding in to save him. She has no idea where to begin, having burned the Watcher bridge before even knowing where it led.
Which is just like her…
She curses herself, and pulls the visor of the helmet back down before kicking the Harley back to life. Guessing she’ll figure it out as she goes, Faith turns the bike back onto the highway and heads west. It occurs to her that she doesn’t even know if Connor’s in trouble. Maybe Connor went camping, and the Council’s freaking por nada.
Faith’s been a Slayer long enough to know it’s nothing like that. Her instincts tell her they’ve been without real grief too long. Connor has found it. Now she was going to find him.
Connor has lost feeling in his legs and fingers. His eyes are red and they sting and straggles of his hair keep stabbing down against his corneas; he’s powerless against them – Sampson once more undone by his hair.
This is all better than before, when he ached: skin, bones, joints, muscles. Even his teeth ached. He had nothing then but an uninterrupted desire to stretch.
He knows the depth of his trouble. He knows he has no leverage in his legs. The concrete set while he was unconscious. It sealed him in tight; no room to wiggle. Not even his pinkie; not even his toes.
Then there’s an odor of odd, unspecified ruin. He’s certain it’s him. His body, breaking down beneath him, buried.
Connor imagines himself like a hatchling trapped within an egg, neither possessing the strength nor the coordination to unfurl his tiny wings and limbs to free himself. And as he thinks this, he understands that his fragile sanity might be fracturing to pieces within the shell of his brain. He sees himself then as an egg within an egg, nested each inside the other.
He blinks to clear these thoughts, and his tousled hair slips into his eyes again. He wishes, inertly, that he had gotten it cut before all of this madness began.
Connor’s ears alert him to Xander’s return long before the vampire comes into view. He’s accompanied by at least one other, as Connor can tell by the shuffling of footsteps. He guesses that it’s Jules, the doctor, Xander’s insurance policy, presumably the one with the poison dart aimed at Connor’s throat. The idea of the dart causes an inflaming itch to spread on Connor’s neck, where it struck him previously. Connor tries valiantly to ignore it, because Connor wants to present himself as imperturbable. He wants to appear calm, even if he is actually the farthest thing from it.
Xander appears, wearing jeans and a black-and-aqua bowling shirt. He looks benign in the ambivalent light. He looks like the good guy he once was. Connor has known enough villains to understand this boy-next-door exterior makes him the most dangerous sort.
Still, he’s Xander. Connor knows that becoming a vampire does not equal becoming a super-genius, even if it does mean acquiring the fighting skills of a Tae Kwon Do master.
As Xander approaches, Connor tries to focus his scattering thoughts. He tries to calculate an angle. He thinks, what do I know about Xander, other than he was once Buffy’s BFF, a member of the Scooby gang, and a slacker in high school?
Connor remembers that Xander once lost an eye fighting The First. Connor knows this, but can’t figure how he might turn it to his advantage.
Xander also hated Angel, Connor’s Dad. But that was another dead end.
And now it was too late for strategy, because Xander drops to his knees in front of Connor’s concrete tomb, so that they are eye to one-eye. Connor’s vision is still blurred; Xander’s features appear smeared and hazy. Xander’s breath is fetid; it smells of clotted blood and decay. Instinct tells Connor to draw back, but the impossibility of it infuriates him.
Connor is powerless. He’s at Xander’s mercy.
Knowing this, Xander smiles.
“You’ve thought about my proposal,” Xander says. “I mean, it’s not like there’s anything else to do. This thing’s not wired for cable.”
A stray hair drifts into Connor’s eye; he blows it from his face. It gives an impression of petulance. Xander narrows his good eye, fixing it on Connor.
“Don’t even pretend to have an ace up your sleeve,” Xander says, his tone turning to a razor’s edge. “I control the aces and the sleeves. You will give me what I need.”
Connor thinks for a moment before settling on what to say.
“Or,” he begins, surprised at how rusty his voice sounds. “Or, I can die.”
“Pht,” Xander says. He gets to his feet and practically dances backward. It’s clear Xander predicted this response, and has a retort all lined up.
“You say that now,” Xander says, holding up one long, white finger. “But you,” he points to Connor, “unlike me –” and now he jolts his thumbs backward at his chest, “Are mortal.”
Xander steeples his fingers in front of his face, clearly enjoying the chance to perform. He leers at Connor as he begins to explain. “You are super human, as we’ve established, but still bound and subject to all the basic needs of man. I imagine thirst will strike first. Followed then by hunger. There are other needs as well, ones less savory. I won’t describe them, except to say that you have very, very little room for… comfort.”
Xander swoops down again, uncomfortably close, resting his elbows on the rim of the trashcan. “Now that I mention it, you are beginning to smell a little ripe…”
On pure impulse, Connor gnashes his teeth in Xander’s direction. Connor falls pitifully short of his mark, but Xander trips backward, reeling away almost comically, revealing to Connor one vital shred of information.
Bound as Connor is, Xander still fears him.
That could be useful.
“Look… Connor,” Xander says, laughing it off. “You knew me way back when, and so you must remember how I was…”
“Not particularly,” Connor cuts in, affecting boredom.
Xander’s face twitches. He sniffs. “Oh right. You were too busy mugging down with the Slayer’s sister on the eve of an Apocalypse. I forgot. How self-absorbed of me.”
Connor simply stares at him. His hair falls again into his eyes; he blows a jet of air from the corner of his mouth to blow it out.
“And then you went traipsing all over Hell and back to kill the man who killed your Dad,” Xander says. “You failed, by the way. Which leads us back ’round to me.”
Connor lifts his eyes to Xander’s face, studying him. “Thellian did this?”
Xander chuckles, though his expression is far from amused. “Thellian started it. Morna finished. She saw in me great potential. I see in her great…” Xander picks over the words until he settles on one, “Pleasure. She’s along for the ride, anyway. We have places to be, and you’re the guy who can get us there.”
Connor decides he’s heard enough. He says, “Judging by your quip about hating homework in high school, I’m certain your reading comprehension level must be pretty low. If you’d read my Council file in depth, you would have seen…” he has to pause here, because he’s run out of breath. The concrete restricts his lungs so much, he can’t even pull off a decent rant. Xander smirks, but lets Connor catch his breath.
Connor swallows and soon his heartbeats steady. He continues. “You would have seen that I’m at JPL to debunk their work. I’m there to make sure that machine is never operational.”
Xander bows his head, like he’s conversing with an old friend. “Ah, but the machine exists. And you know how to make it work.”
“But I will never…” the hair drifts into his eyes again; frustrated, Connor blows it away.
“Argh!” Xander screams. “Jules, can you take care of the man’s hair? It’s driving us both Tom Cruise over here.”
Connor’s heart races as he hears Jules pad up behind him, and he can do nothing as the doctor roughly grips his hair and with five loud shunks! from a pair of heavy shears, his hair falls around him in limp drifts.
Connor tries to focus on the little uneven piles around him, but his eyes refuse to see. Connor feels sure this is meant to frighten or humiliate him. And he so lifts his eyes to Xander’s, and in what he hopes sounds like relief, says, “Thanks. I needed that.”
Xander presses his lips into a thin line. “Don’t mention it,” he says.
“Boss?” Jules says. “Tom Cruise?”
“Euphemism for crazy,” Xander says.
“I’da gone with Jack Nicholson,” Jules puts in.
“Too cliché,” Xander says. “Everyone and their grandma has said at one time ‘Don’t go all Jack Nicholson on me.”
“Not so,” Jules continues, and Connor can’t believe they are simply debating this literally right over his head. “Maybe Jack Torrance. But Nicholson. No.”
“Potato, potahto,” Xander says.
Connor rolls his eyes. “Look, he has a point,” he wheezes. “Jack Nicholson’s the more identifiable loony. If you were making a reference to religious fanatics, Tom Cruise is your man.”
Xander sputters, indignant. “Nobody invited you into this discussion, Blocky. I’m the king of pop culture references…”
“Blocky’s all you could come up with?” Connor interrupts. “I’m disappointed. I’d think a ‘sleeps with the fishes’ Godfather reference would be better than that. Perhaps a reference to Pink Floyd – I’m just another brick in The Wall. Or maybe an oblique nod to 50s Cold War era: Bunker Man?”
Jules titters at that, then falls silent, presumably at a withering look from Xander which Connor can’t see for himself.
Xander drops down to eye level in front of Connor. He stares into his eyes, and the anger is clear on his face.
“You just keep on thinking you’re so clever,” Xander said. “But remember, I’m the guy who caught you.”
Then Xander scrubbed a cold hand over the jagged stubble of Connor’s shorn head. “Stay,” he says. With a laugh, Xander leaves, pulling Jules along with him, and Connor is alone once more.
A full day after Faith took Harold’s bike from the greasy parking lot behind her building, Moe receives a call on her old landline phone.
Moe’s got her regular crowd of rowdies, and so she almost misses its tinny ring among the raucous conversations of her poker gang. It’s Harold himself who picks up the ancient phone’s receiver, theatrically stretching the curlicue cord, as if he’s never seen a phone before.
“Hey Moe,” Harold guffaws. “What’s this antique thing? Haven’t you got a cell?”
But Moe wobbles over to the teetering phone stand and snatches the receiver from his hand, the way a mother would yank a foolishly curious child’s hand away from a hot stove top.
Few people have the number to this line. And all of them only call if they have something important to say.
Moe answers apologetically. “Never mind him,” she says. “He’s mentally challenged.”
“It’s quite all right,” the voice on the other end responds. “Am I speaking to Madame?”
“And Faith paid you a visit last night?” The voice is female, briskly American but seasoned with a hint of British – just the right amount to make you want to sit up straighter and make sure your collar has been properly starched and ironed.
“She did,” Moe replies. “She left on Harold’s bike.”
Harold balks at this, but Moe raps him solidly on the head with one clawed fist.
“And does Harold’s bike have a tracker?”
Moe grins, and in the light of her parlor lamp, she looks positively scheming. “You betcher ass,” Moe says.
“Very good,” the voice on the other end says. “Now, could you do me the honor of supplying the code for this bike?”
“I could indeed.” Moe fiddles in the drawer of the side table, until her fingers pinch onto a pewter skull. She draws it out and holds it close to her nose. Her eyes cross as she reads the series of numbers and letters engraved along the inside of its jawline.
Harold reaches for the keychain. Moe smacks him again, this time behind the ear. She can tell by the hurt look in his eye that it smarts like a bitch, but she’s not sorry.
“Got it,” the voice on the other end of the line says. “And this tracker, is it on the bike itself?”
“Better than even that,” Moe says, patting Harold’s cheek. “It’s on the keys.”
Faith stumbles into the lobby of the Sun Vista Motel at 1:17, half-starved and sunblind. The guy behind the desk manages to ogle her breasts for the entire three minutes of check in.
“You have cold water here, right?” she says over her shoulder at him. He’s too busy slobbering to do anything but nod.
She gets into the room and strips off her jacket, tossing the Scythe onto the bed, tossing the keys with a clatter onto the endtable. The room is choked with dust and cigarette smoke. It smells of hard sex and hard liquor. There are knife marks on the headboard. It’s passable by her standards. She runs a shower so hot it scalds her hands as she turns the taps, but she peels off her clothes and steps into the burning spray.
The water washes the road dirt from her skin. She lets it work down into her pores, into the follicles of her hair; she lets the steam seep into her lungs. She is exhausted, and can’t keep up her defenses against her memories.
Memories of a simple life. Memories of a second-floor walk-up. Memories of walking hand in hand from the subway to their place. Memories of rented movies, a hundred of them, but they never saw the endings because they wound up making out on their sofa. Making out like hard up teenage kids.
The sofa they bought together from a thrift shop on Pacific Avenue. The sofa that matched their bookshelves.
This life was not her life. Was never her life. The hotel room beyond the clouds of curtained steam – that was Faith’s life.
Filthy and ill-used.
With the small ovoid of hotel soap, Faith rubs her skin raw. She shuts off the shower and stands in the lingering haze until the air turns cold.
It’s then she hears the rustling sound of someone, something in the adjacent room. She strains to listen, thinking at first of the possibility of rats. Wouldn’t be the first time.
But then something clatters, and she hears a muffled curse. Someone then.
She wears only a towel as she steps from the bathroom, but the kick is well-timed and true. Trouble is, her leg goes right through the intruder and she lands in a crouch in the middle of the room.
She spins to find the flickering form of Andrew standing in the middle of her bed. He’s in a suit, and for a moment, he fusses over his tie.
“Is this thing working?” he says. A disembodied hand and forearm appears, also fusses with the tie, and the image grows more crisp, more focused. Andrew looks embarrassed and grateful.
“Cool,” Andrew says. “Okay. Hello? Faith, hello?”
Faith stands. As she does so, the image of Andrew dents just above his beltline, and he looks down, displeased.
“Do ya mind?” he says.
She steps aside, and the image is whole again. She darts a glance to the endtable and sees the wavering beams of light shooting forth from the skull-eyes of her keychain.
“Tracker,” Andrew says. “Niftsville, right? Noob Council tech, doubles as a holo-projector. And there’s a bottle opener in the jaw, y’know, in case you need a frosty cold one after a hard day’s slay.”
“Andrew, what the fuck do you want?”
Andrew rolls his eyes. “Okay, fine,” he says. “GPS says you’re in LA, which can only mean you accepted Deitsch’s assignment…”
“I did not accept…”
“Whatevs, Faith,” Andrew says, cutting her off. “You’re in LA for the Hollywood Homes Tour. While you’re there, you might find it useful to know that Connor’s most likely somewhere in the warehouse district.”
Andrew holds up his hand and the round cutout of a map appears, showing a gridwork of streets abutting the shoreline and a series of docks.
“How do you know?” Faith says. She eyes the map sidewise, committing street names to memory: Century Boulevard, Ipswich, Deauville St., Epinard and Haviland.
“Latest intel says there’s been an increase in vamp stuff in this area. Plus, there’s crime: muggings, disappearances, drug deals, general rudeness. All in the last few months, like some big shot’s moved in and set up shop.”
“Vamp activity?” Faith says. “What about your Slayers?”
“Coupla Dana’s girls got themselves real hurt real recent-like, so…”
“So they’re the capable kind of vamp coven,” Faith says. “Y’all thinking Thellian?”
Andrew’s expression clouds. “No, we know where he is.” But he says nothing more on the subject.
“A split-off faction?” Faith says.
“Most like,” Andrew says, recovering. “Pretty ambitious if they go after Connor.”
“You should prolly know, they knew what they were doing.”
Andrew relays the facts as the Council knows them – the break in, the stolen Kostzchie venom and antidote, the call from Maya, the disconnect and subsequent air silence. Faith goes cold at the mention of the venom, recalling the night she spent at his side after their stand-off against the squishy little frog-imps whose poison almost took him down.
“Bastards,” Faith swears.
“Mais oui, mon amis,” Andrew says. “So you in or what? I got important Council business to attend to.”
She resents that he’s trying to give her the brush off, especially since she can see it for the ploy that it is – a weak attempt to push her into action.
“Like coming over all Obi Wan Kenobi, with your stupid holo-thingie?”
He scowls. “It’s Princess Leia who sends the holo-message to General Kenobi. And stop being all aloof and dodgy.”
“I’m not being aloof and dodgy,” she says. “I just don’t see what all this has to do with me. What is it about ‘retired’ you Council pricks don’t get?”
She turns from the projected image and picks up the skull keyring. The holographic image of Andrew jostles and wavers as she tries to figure out how to shut it off.
“He needs you, Faith,” Andrew says.
Faith drops the keychain on the floor. Andrew raises his hands in mock surrender as she pulls the Scythe into her grip.
“The Council may need me. But Connor doesn’t. He made that clear four years ago.”
She brings the Scythe down in a clean arc, cleaving the keychain in half. The image sputters and disappears.
She could use some food. She could use a change of clothes. She could, arguably, use a night in a decent bed.
Instead, she ambles along a back alley near Killgore Street and South Ridge Avenue. It’s early evening, and the streets are empty, except for a few rats the size of Chihuahuas. She wears the Scythe across her back, which draws looks from the few shipyard guys who pass her on their way to the bars.
She’s used to that, the staring, wary eyes of people who pass her by. She’s never cared because isolation comes part and parcel with the Slayer gig.
She used to relish it, that separation, that solitude. People are ignorant. They are stupid. They are worse than dogs that run around with their tongues lolling from their dumb mouths, distracted by every shiny thing.
She spent a lot of energy, hating and wanting to protect them with equal fierceness. Now, though, she wondered, as she walked the desolate street, What is the point of it all?
In the end, they all die.
These thoughts swallow her up, and though she can smell a peculiar scent – like blood and flowers – she fails to make the connection until he steps into her path.
The relief she feels at seeing him overwhelms her, and before she has the sense to stop herself, she grapples him in a tight hug.
She feels the laugh deep in his chest as he folds into the embrace. And then she steps back.
“My God,” she says, stepping back to take him in. “You look fantastic. How the hell are you?”
“Good,” he says. “Good.” He smiles so broadly his cheek displaces his eyepatch. Distractedly, he puts it back in place. “You here on Council business, too?”
“Uh, yeah,” she says. “They didn’t tell me they were sending anyone else.”
Xander grins again. He shrugs. “They didn’t really send me. The Buffster and I are kinda freelance these days.” He lifts his eyebrows. “Rogue agents. Pretty cool, huh?”
“Supercool.” She laughs. It feels alien in her heart to be so glad at reuniting with someone.
She and Xander fall in stride together. He tucks his hands into his pockets. “So,” he says. “Got any leads?”
She feels a tell-tale prickle of tension as they tread deeper into the alleyway, into the darker shadows between the hulking warehouses. “Andrew sent me this way, on count of some sketchy intel about vamp activity. Plus, my Slayer senses are tingling.”
“Andrew,” Xander says, his lip curling into a sneer.
Faith shrugs. “Gotta say. The boy’s cleaned up right and proper. Makes a pretty convincing Suit. Maybe it’s Dawn’s influence. Is he still with Dawn?”
“Yes, and excuse me while I lose my dinner,” Xander says. “I never got what she sees in Wonder Twerp…”
“What I don’t get is why vamps would want Connor?” Faith says.
They near the terminus of the alley, which is clogged with old mattresses and appliances. Faith feels the tension in her abdomen tighten.
“We’re close,” she says.
He steps forward, and his one eye glitters in the fading light. Faith feels a pulling sensation as she stares at him and undeniable attraction.
“I always hoped so,” he says. He lays a cool hand on her arm, and for a moment she is transfixed by the way the silk of his shirt falls across the sinew beneath it.
“No no no,” he says, touching a fingertip to her lips. “Don’t go spoiling it.”
“There’s always been this connection between us,” he whispers. “No need to deny it, and if two crazy kids like Buffy and Spike can work things out, well then…”
Faith pushes away and encounters a surprising level of resistance in his grip.
The truth of it dawns on her and Xander recognizes immediately. His grin stretches wider over his glittering teeth.
Faith mirrors his smile. “Look at you, joining the ranks of the Big Bads.”
Faith suppresses an involuntary shudder. She cups his jaw with her hand. “You know it, Xand.” She runs her hand down to his chest. “I’ve always had a thing for naughty types.”
She steps in closer, pressing her body to his, silently cursing herself for not seeing him for what he had become. Xander seems to buy it for half a heartbeat, but then he catches her wrist.
“Ah, Faith. What’s a relationship if it’s not based on honesty?”
She wrenches free of him, draws the Scythe. “Where is he?”
Xander chuckles. “Sheesh, fickle much?”
She swings the blade edge and he leaps away, into the dark. She hears his voice, taunting from above. “One sec your bumping that hot body against mine…”
She feels the rush of his attack and manages to parry with the haft of the Scythe before he vanishes again in the gloom.
“The next, you’re pining for your ex.”
Faith sees a glint of movement far above, where Xander perches on a jutting metal ledge.
“What have you done with him?”
Xander’s laughter rains down on her. “I never thought you’d come to find him. I think he’d be flattered that you care.”
She screams, “What have you done with him?”
But Xander is gone.
Connor has lost consciousness again. Time has blurred, doubled in on him, so that he no longer knows if he is awake or sleeping.
His body is numb. This is a small mercy, but somewhere, enveloped in what is left of his cracking sanity, he knows that numbness of limb is a bad thing.
Somehow he finds it hard to care.
He awakes to the sounds of commotion in the room, shouting and breaking glass, the sound of impact, of objects skittering across the floor, of footsteps running forward, of others in retreat.
Xander comes into view. He runs full on at Connor and drops down in front of his trashcan prison. His lips curl back from bared fangs, and Connor struggles to keep his heart rate from ratcheting into the upper 200s.
“Oh look,” Connor says, breathless. “Your angry face.”
“Shut the fuck up,” Xander hisses. “Change of plans, Stephen Hawking. We’re leaving.”
As if on cue, Connor hears the grumble of a diesel engine start up somewhere behind him.
“That’s right. You didn’t want to play here, well, I got other playgrounds, other strongholds,” Xander is on his feet again, raking a hand through his hair. “Could’ve ended here. Share what you know, return to your nice, big house, no harm, no foul, but no...”
“Someone’s coming,” Connor says, and his heart swells painfully at the thought of it.
Xander’s hands shot out faster than Connor thought possible, even for a vampire. They crushed around Connor’s throat, cutting off his already restricted supply of oxygen.
“Maybe I should just kill you now,” Xander seethes. “Leave you as a lovely parting gift for her to crack open. Connor the Concrete Pinata. You like the sound that makes?”
Connor feels his eyes rolling back as he struggled to remain conscious. His thoughts skip and collide across the surface of his mind. Xander’s fingers dig into the skin of his throat like icy blades.
Someone is coming, Connor thinks. She. A Slayer.
The rumble of a vehicle grows loud in his ears. Xander releases Connor and backs away as the forks of a lift rise on either side of the barrel. Connor feels a wave of nausea as the forks lift him in his concrete encasement from the floor. The forklift carries him forward, toward the bay doors that begin parting as he nears it. He can hear the whirr of the electric door mechanisms, and beyond it, people speaking, calling orders back and forth, and in moments, a panel truck backs into place in front of the open bay.
He wriggles his fingers and toes in a vain attempt to break free, and for one brief moment, he thinks he can feel cement crumbling beneath his nails.
But it’s not enough. Not enough, and he starts to scream when he realizes they will load him into a truck and take him some other place beyond his control, and he’s delirious in his indignation.
Suddenly, Connor hears a heavy thwack and the forklift shudders to a stop. Connor strains his neck to see what’s going on behind him. But it’s useless and he has to rely on his ears.
“Okay,” Connor hears Xander say, “So you found us. And in record time. Go you. But we were just leaving…”
Connor hears her footsteps, measured, even footsteps as she crosses the warehouse floor.
She says, “Is that right?”
Connors heart skips at the sound of her voice. He hears another thwack and a familiar wailing sound. He sees Xander leap sideways from a platform to land just out of Connor’s peripheral vision. He hears Xander scrambling for cover just as several of Xander’s guards plunge in through the open bay doors. Connor makes a weak attempt at shouting to the Slayer, but only a wheeze escapes his throat.
They swarm in, guns blazing, actual guns, and for a long while, all Connor hears is the sound of gunfire and ricocheting bullets. The air fills with smoke. His eyes blear. His ears ring. The forklift pitches forward into gear, and the bay doors once again grow nearer.
The chaos grows fevered behind him. A stake screams past his ear and a second later, the forklift lurches over the edge of the loading ramp. The whole thing topples, sending Connor crashing with a jolt to the warehouse floor.
Sparks crowd his vision as he rolls over and over until he collides with something and he’s
stranded, staring face up into the sodium lights 30 feet up.
After what feels like forever, the gunshots grow sporadic and then finally cease.
Connor strains to hold up his neck. He blinks his eyes in the glare of the lights. He feels the blood throbbing in his brainpan.
Xander’s voice echoes from across the warehouse. “You know what. It’s clear we’ve reached an impasse. So, I’ve decided… you can have him.”
“I had him the moment I walked in,” the Slayer says. “You’re the one I want now, Xander Harris. What are you up to? Why do you need him?”
Connor thinks he recognizes her voice, but it’s impossible with the buzzing in his ears.
Xander says, “One thing I learned as a faithful Scoobie is that the villains always talk too much. They always give themselves away. I’m not like that, Faith. I’m not even certain I’m the villain. Therefore, I’m not… gonna… tell you.”
Xander moves closer, and from the corner of his right eye, Connor perceives a movement.
“You think you’re gettin’ outta here?” she says. “And here I thought you understood me.”
Then Xander stands over him, and Connor is staring up at his captor. Xander smiles down at Connor, and swings the head of the sledgehammer onto his shoulder.
He says, “Oh I think I understand you perfectly.”
The Slayer says, “Put it down, Xander.”
“Let’s have a little test of Faith, shall we?”
Connor’s eyes roll back. “Faith?” he says, but it’s a groan that escapes his lips.
Xander raises the hammer over his head.
“Do it and I kill you.”
“So what? He’ll be dead first. I’m fast enough to pull it off.”
Connor hears a hesitant footstep in his direction. He sees the muscle tense in Xander’s shoulder, and Connor flinches, sure that he is seconds from having his head pulped.
“I don’t doubt that,” she says. Another step forward.
“Not another move,” Xander says. “I’ll do it.”
Connor’s neck pulses with a pain that shoots down into his arms and fingertips. He cringes as Xander hefts the hammer over his head and swings…
“Stop,” she cries out, and she leaps forward, a blurred form that streaks over him and collides with Xander, sending him soaring backward. The hammer falls inches from his face. Its handle strikes the side of his face before clattering to the floor.
There is a scrambling clamor behind him, followed by a silence perforated only by the shallow exhalations of Connor’s breathing.
He is alone and terrified. He tries to call out, but the weight of the concrete around him and the angle of his neck… it’s all he can do to breathe. As he stares up at the light, he wonders how he ever came to this state of lowliness. How he could be reduced to this depth of dependence again, after all he had survived?
When she appears, she eclipses the light that has blinded him. He blinks away the tears that warp and blur her, and he’s sure it’s a dream, an illusion created by the blood in his head. He watches as she bends down, careful not to touch him, but instead takes the handle of the sledgehammer into her hands.
She disappears again, but he can hear her as she walks to the foot of the barrel that imprisons him.
“Faith?” he says.
And in the next moment, she stands over him, the sledgehammer held high above her head. Time folds back on itself, and he sees her as he saw her before, with the Scythe poised in her grip, as she brought it down and split him open to break the hold of the Glass. To kill him. To save him. “Please,” he says.
She brings the hammer down. He closes his eyes against the impact…
But it’s not like it was before with the Scythe and his flesh. The plastic outer shell of the trashcan splits apart, but the hardened concrete holds against the hammer’s blow.
He sees her face, white with rage, as she hits strikes again and again until she is screaming, and at last the cylinder fractures around him, falling away from his arms and legs in chunks of rubble.
But he is too weak to move.
Faith drops the sledgehammer, letting the handle rattle to the floor.
Connor wriggles his fingers and feels the pebbled dust against his palms. He breathes in and his ribs ache with relief.
Faith kneels at his feet. She looks across the crumbled remains of his prison, through the straggles of her sweat-soaked hair.
“Okay, I freed you,” she says. Her voice is hoarse, ragged with exertion and swallowed tears.
Connor reaches for her. She stands, and he sees her leave. Connor tries to sit up, fails. He closes his eyes, just for a moment, and he feels again the sensation of floating, unmoored, adrift among shadows. He thinks he can feel her breath on his skin and he remembers her, the warmth of her, her scent in his hair, on his clothes. He remembers the knowledge of his place in the world. He remembers… a connection. No sooner than he feels it, he awakens.
It’s a hospital room this time. His mother and father are there, as well as Nadi, his therapist. They speak to him, and he listens, detached. His parents – the Reillys – want to know who could do such a thing to him. They want justice. They want answers. Connor has none.
All the while, he’s gaining strength. The doctors marvel at the speed of his recovery.
At dawn on the third day, Connor dresses before the nurses change shifts. They’ve shaved his beard. He needs a haircut. As he works the buttons on the shirt his father brought for him, Connor feels the scar beneath his fingertips. The indelible mark she left on him.
He opens the shirt and stares at the scar in the mirror, and then at his face. He’s not aging. His eyes are old. He stares into them, and feels for a moment like he’s floating, disembodied. But he knows what he wants to tether him here.
He re-buttoned the shirt and left the hospital without a word.
Her face in profile is unmistakable, even from this distance, and in these conditions. Snow falls in stinging bursts from dark clouds, but she perches on a column four stories up, the Scythe at the ready. He watches as she descends, dropping through the air with the grace of a hawk, and he witnesses the death she visits upon her prey. In seconds, four vampires disintegrate, their dust mingling with the falling snow.
She straightens. She sheaths the Scythe in its shoulder scabbard and disappears again into the darkness.
He watches as she swings up into the rigging of the fire escape and then catapults herself onto the rooftop, where she strikes out, leaping from building to building, west bound for the park.
Connor matches her, leap for leap, feeling at last that he will catch her. Feeling with elation the cold burn of his breath in his lungs, feeling the pendulous motion of his arms and legs, he felt the exultant pulse of his life surging through him. All that he had been, all that he left behind, all paled compared to this moment of singular pursuit.
She pauses a moment before dropping from the roof to the street below. He knows that if she does, he will lose her amongst the pedestrian crowds again. He bursts forward, gambling everything in his last jump.
But she surprises him by turning to meet him.
He digs into the gathered snow, sliding across the rooftop the last few meters before landing at her feet.
She glowers down at him, hands on hips. She says, “Why are you here?”
Panting, he answers, “You freed me.”
Connor gets to his feet and realizes with a mixture of joy and horror that he is trembling like a child.
“So,” he says. “So it’s my turn.”
And even though he has practiced what he would say to her if ever he caught her, all of it evaporates under the smoldering contempt of her gaze.
“You never got it,” she says, and then she screams, “I am free.”
She stalks away, leaving tracks in the snow. She goes to the edge of the rooftop, but merely stares over at the people below – all of them so ignorant to the struggles beyond their small lives.
Connor comes to stand beside her, and together, they watch in silence as the press of humanity meanders along the city streets, all just trying to make their way home.
“I let him go,” Faith admits. She doesn’t look up at Connor. “Xander,” she continues. “I let him go.”
“You’re pursuing him now?”
“The whole Council knows what he’s become. They thought Xander died. They thought he was dead, and now… He’s their problem now.”
“He’s our problem, Faith,” Connor says. “I know what he wants.”
She whirls on him. “No. I’m quit of that gig.”
“You’re a Slayer. You can’t change that.”
“What’s the point, huh?” Faith shoves him. He stands his ground. “Can you tell me that? What the hell is the point?”
“The point of what?” he says.
She shoves him harder this time, but he catches her arms and holds her at a distance so she can’t hit him again.
“All of it,” she struggles to break free of him, but she knows, she knows, he’s the only one who can restrain her. “We live. We die. We all die. No amount of the fight can keep it from happening.”
“Faith,” he says. “The point is the fight.”
Her arms go slack against his. She reels away, returning again to the ledge to watch the people below.
In a voice that is scarcely louder than a breath, she whispers, “I’m tired of the fight. I’m tired of losing. I don’t want to be apart from everything, all the time.” Faith turns to face him. “And you…”
“And me?” he says.
“I’m tired of losing you.”
He steps forward. “I’m here,” he says. “I’m right here.”
Her back is rigid as he pulls her into his arms, but as they stand together in the swirling snow, she melts against him. She feels his soft, resonate laugh as it reverberates through him, into her skin and her bones and she knows she has never in her whole life been so glad to be lost.