For a Thursday evening, downtown Las Vegas was busier than normal. The larger than usual crowd was easily explained by the number of conventions going on and the fact that there was going to be a big race in town that weekend. Sporting events always brought in plenty of tourism. As it turned out, not everyone went to Vegas for total debauchery.
Freemont Street was packed with people and vendors alike. It made it difficult for Frank to push his shopping cart full of belongings around but he did just fine. He was used to navigating the streets even in the biggest crowds. After all, he'd been living in them for over ten years.
Staying on the main street was his best guarantee to beg some money off of strangers, but it was also a guaranteed way of getting chased away by security or the cops, or even worse, getting hauled off to jail for the night.
It wasn't that he didn't appreciate a nice dry cot, but he knew that if he had to spend the night in jail, his cart would definitely be scavenged over by the other homeless people. He didn't want to have to start from the very bottom yet again.
Noticing a rent-a-cop looking in his general direction, Frank quickly folded up his cardboard sign that read "Homeless and hungry veteran, please help" and threw it into his cart, then hobbled off down a side street that would lead him out of the public eye. He kept walking until the crowds diminished, then down an alley that cut between a hotel and a tattoo shop.
He pulled his cart over near some broken wooden pallets and slowly sat down on them, grunting with effort. His back hurt and his feet ached, and when he finished counting the change he'd scrounged up from the passersby, he grumbled to himself.
"Three dollars and seventy two cents. Can't even go to Subway for that much!"
He picked the two pennies from the handful of coins and tossed them to the ground, then pocketed the rest of the money. While he didn't have enough for Subway, he had just enough time to get to the foodbank at the local church before they closed. A belly full of lukewarm food would do him good. Maybe they'd even offer him a warm and dry place to stay for the night if they weren't full up. The fall evenings were starting to get cool and crisp.
Straining to get to his feet, Frank grabbed his cart and started pushing it down the alley once again. He was almost near the end of it when he saw a rusted and dented metal sign on the ground resting up against the tattoo shop. He tilted his head so he could read the words on it.
"Jesus Saves," he read aloud.
He stared at the sign long and hard before stepping away from the cart and fumbling with the zipper on his pants. A few moments later, a stream of urine began raining down on the sign as Frank cackled quietly to himself.
"Yeah, Jesus saves, alright. He saves me from having to find a bathroom. Thank you, Lord!"
Frank finished his business and zipped back up, then proceeded to grab his cart and began pushing it once again.
He'd made it clear through and to the next street when he stopped to take in his surroundings. The church was just two blocks away. He'd make it just in time. Reaching up to wipe the sweat from his brow, Frank paused when he realized that he wasn't hot. Whatever he was wiping wasn't sweat.
Cautiously lowering his hand, he gasped when he saw it was covered in blood. His fingertips were covered which made him concerned about a cut on his forehead, but when he saw the large gaping hole in the palm of his hand - in the palms of both his hands! - he began to panic.
"Oh god," he exclaimed quietly, his eyes wide with wonder. "God . . . shit, oh jesus!"
Help. He needed help.
Looking around anxiously, Frank couldn't seem to find anyone but another bum sleeping against a building across the street. He began to stagger down the sidewalk, hoping to make it to the church. There would be people there. They could help him, and feed him, and maybe give him some Motrin or Lortab, because it was getting . . .
The air was suddenly pulled from Frank as the pain became suddenly unbearable.
He moved to take a step, but that was when he realized that the pain had moved to both of his feet. Looking down, he noticed that blood was slowly trickling out the tops of his shoes. No, not trickling - pouring!
Overwhelmed by the pain, he stumbled to the ground in the middle of the street, falling hard as he cradled his bleeding hands against his chest.
Was this it? Was this how he was finally going to die?
With his last bit of strength, he held one arm up to the sky and prayed, blood running down his arm and soaking his shirt.
It was his first prayer in over ten years.
**(Suggested Listening: Candy by Leki)**
The music was loud and hard, just the way Faith liked it. The bass reverberated throughout her body, making her chest almost hum. She was taking a slow lap around the club, preferring to keep moving rather than pick a single spot to keep watch from like most of the bouncers did. Besides, walking helped keep her awake. She was so tired on her feet that she didn't think she'd make it back to her apartment without falling asleep at the wheel.
It wasn't that she'd been trying to avoid sleep; it was that when her mind finally gave her reprieve enough from her thoughts to fall asleep, her actual sleep was broken up and restless. She was getting maybe two or three hours a night, and when she woke up she felt worse every single day. The dark circles under her eyes were evidence of that.
Nodding at a few dancers as she passed by, she made her way toward the main stage and stopped to appreciate the scenery. Camryn was up there shaking her thing, looking like a total goddess in a matching silver g-string and bra. Okay, maybe she wasn't shaking so much as swaying and twirling and grinding and - Faith turned her head to the side as she watched Camryn slide down the brass pole - well, she didn't know what that last move was but it was awesome.
Buffy would probably be pinching Faith's elbow by that point for staring so long and so openly, but Faith knew in her heart that it was innocent. Camryn was her friend. As hot as she was, Faith would never do anything to sabotage what she had with Buffy.
Camryn looked like a goddess, but Buffy was a goddess. And more than that, she was Faith's goddess.
Faith shook her head and chuckled. Yup, she was definitely good and whupped.
She took one last glance at the stage and caught Camryn's gaze. Camryn smiled and winked, and Faith winked back before continuing her patrol for dirtbags throughout the club. She didn't get too far when she felt her cell phone vibrating away in her pocket. The sudden buzzing against her thigh startled her, especially seeing as how close it was to a, ahem, certain area.
Quickly making her way toward the back wall where it was a tiny bit quieter, Faith flipped her phone open and answered it, using her free hand to cover her other ear.
"Yeah?" she yelled over the music.
"Faith?" Father Shannon's voice yelled over the line. "I can barely hear you."
"Sorry, I'm at work!" she shouted. "I can call ya back when I'm on break if ya want."
Yeah, she usually called Buffy on her break. It was kind of a tradition and all. Still, if Father Shannon was calling, it probably meant something was up. If it wasn't important, he would have waited to call her until the following day at a more respectable hour.
"That won't be necessary," he shouted back. "Can you stop by the church tomorrow? I have something I'd like to discuss with you. Mass is at eight and ten-thirty am."
"I'll be there at eleven-thirty, or I can stop by after work tonight if it's an emergency. No skin off my back, padre."
"Tomorrow at eleven-thirty will be just fine. Thank you, Faith."
"Not a prob," she yelled before flipping the phone shut and slipping it back in her pocket.
She quickly looked around to see if she'd been caught on her phone during her shift and was relieved to see that she hadn't been spotted. Camryn's song had already ended and she was making her way to the bar, smiling at and flirting with customers as she went. Faith headed in her direction until they met up at their usual spot at the bar.
"Drink?" Faith asked, not looking at Camryn as she flagged the bartender over.
Faith held two fingers up at the bartender, then added one more when Crystal joined them. He grabbed three shot glasses and filled them, then poured Redbull into three pint glasses. Both Camryn and Crystal made faces; Faith just grinned at them.
"On three," Faith said. She counted to three and they dropped the shot glasses into the pint glasses, then downed them.
"God, I hate Jagerbombs," Crystal said, hissing and making a funny face.
"Then why did ya drink it?" Faith asked with a knowing grin.
"'Cos I have four hours of dancing left, I'm tired as all hell, and because you paid."
She smiled and winked at Faith before making her way back out onto the floor. Camryn slid her empty glass onto the bar and then turned around to look out into the club. Faith turned around too and rested her back and elbows against the bar, already feeling the drink start to kick in. The alcohol wasn't really registering but the Redbull sure was; it was her fourth or fifth of the night.
It was probably the only reason she was functioning and coherent at that point.
"You look tired," Camryn commented, then looked over to meet Faith's gaze.
Faith raised her eyebrows. "Fuck you, I look tired. I look hot!"
"True," Camryn laughed. "But tired, too. Haven't you been sleeping?"
"Here and there," Faith said with a shrug, focusing on the crowd once again. Camryn didn't seem to accept her noncommittal response though.
"Here and there?" Camryn asked. "Exactly how much is 'here and there'? You might be a slayer but you still need sleep, Faith."
"I sleep," Faith answered a bit more tersely than she'd meant. "Just been busy. And speaking of busy," she began, trying to change the subject, "got a call from your boyfriend."
Camryn laughed loudly at that and looked incredulously over at Faith.
"He's not my boyfriend. The fact that he and I talk does not a relationship make."
"I can practically feel your schoolgirl crush."
"You're wrong. He's just easy to talk to. And hey - he doesn't try to put money in my underwear. That has to count for something."
"Well that's because," Faith began and turned so that she was facing Camryn with one elbow resting up on the bar, "he wants your money in his collection basket."
Camryn groaned, "Please tell me that's not some kind of horrible innuendo."
"It is what it is," Faith replied teasingly, grinning as she faced back out into the club again.
"Well you can stop with the teasing. He's just a nice guy, Faith." Camryn stopped speaking but couldn't help the smile that crept up on her lips as she continued. "And he's cute."
Now it was Faith's turn to groan. "Dude, he's like forty-five!"
"And a priest! You can't have sex with him, Cam. It's wrong on like, seven different levels, and honestly, it's just kinda . . . gross."
"Then it's probably a good thing for all three of us that I quit sleeping with men four years ago."
And as much as it wasn't Faith's business, she had to ask. She couldn't not!
"Why'd you do that?"
Camryn seemed to think it over for a minute before smiling wryly and shrugging. "Because they started putting money in my underwear."
Faith didn't really have time to ponder that long because Camryn quickly changed the subject.
"So I'm off tomorrow but I have to come in anyway to get my paycheck. Want to meet up, grab some lunch? There's a restaurant in the Mirage that sells sandwiches with meat piled five inches high. It'll be a good distraction to keep you from going crazy until Buffy gets here."
"Sounds like a plan," Faith said. "Gotta go see your man at eleven-thirty. Meet ya here around one?"
"I'll be here," Camryn replied with a smile. She pushed off from the bar and began heading out onto the main floor but stopped a few feet away and turned to look at Faith. "And Faith? Don't tease him about me too much. He is a man of the cloth, after all."
Faith watched as she turned around and walked away. A grin spread across her face and her mood instantly brightened. Camryn should have known better by now than to warn Faith like that. As it was . . .
Faith pulled up next to the church a few minutes earlier than expected. Despite going to bed late, she'd already been awake a few hours and she was getting antsy waiting around. She was always like this on days when she got to see Buffy.
A few parishioners were still lingering around the front entrance saying goodbye to Father Shannon so Faith waited in her truck, fingers tapping the steering wheel. Didn't they have places they needed to be, like work? Who the hell went to church on a Friday morning anyway?
No sooner than she'd asked herself that question did she have a flashback to her youth, sitting in an old wooden pew between her grandparents in a church in Boston. Her grandmother was on the kneeler and whispering her prayers with her eyes closed, not seeming to notice or care that they were being heard by others.
"Grampa, why is she praying for mommy?" she whispered up to her grandfather.
"Because your mother is very sick and she needs help," he replied, smoothing her hair down her back.
"But why am I at church and not at school? Church is boring and they give me peanut butter and jelly at school."
"Well, your mother will look for you at school, kiddo. Until she gets better, we need to keep you away from her."
He hushed her up as the priest approached. Faith looked toward the aisle where the priest was standing and frowned as he splashed them all with a few drops of water from a brass bowl in his hand.
Faith quickly came to as she realized that it had started raining outside. The raindrops were ricocheting off the car door and splashing up at her face. She quickly rolled up the windows and noticed that the remaining parishioners were running to their cars, leaving the church mostly abandoned. Perfect timing.
She grabbed her keys and stepped out of the truck, making sure that the doors were locked behind her. Downtown Las Vegas wasn't exactly the safest place in the world. She jogged up to the church and stopped just inside the front doors, stomping her boots so that they didn't squeak when she walked on the polished marble floors.
"You're early," Father Shannon greeted her with a smile.
"Yeah, I'm extra efficient like that," she replied with a chuckle.
He took a step back and held out his arm, ushering her down the main aisle of the church. She nodded and stepped inside, hating how loud her boots squeaked on the floor as she walked.
"I'm sorry to have had to bother you," Father Shannon apologized, his voice gentle and friendly. "But I'm afraid I'm facing something that you may be better suited to help with than I."
"Unless you got a butt that needs to be kicked, not sure what kind of help I'll be."
"You might be surprised."
When they reached the front of the church, he held his hand out and directed Faith toward the sacristy. She hesitated for a moment but eventually made her way into the small room. Once inside, she saw a man sitting in a wheelchair at the far end of the room, a bandage around his head and a blanket draped over his shoulders.
"Faith, I'd like you to meet Frank."
"Sup Frank?" Faith said, eying the man suspiciously.
Frank smiled congenially, revealing the fact that he was missing a few teeth behind his scruffy beard. He lifted up his arm and waved . . . and that was when Faith took a big step back, her brow furrowing deeply.
"Well . . . shit, Frank. What the hell happened to your hand?"
Father Shannon cleared his throat and Faith looked over unapologetically.
"What?" she asked, her eyebrows raised. "You can't expect me to watch my mouth when I can see the guy through his hand!"
"Oh, it's not just one; it's both!" Frank interrupted, his voice chipper as he held up his other hand for Faith to see. Both hands had gaping wounds clear through the palms, though neither seemed to be bleeding at the moment. "I think they'll come in handy if I ever need to cheat at a game of hide-n-seek."
Faith regarded him for a moment before mumbling, "Sick, dude."
"Sister Patricia stumbled upon Frank when she was returning from a Bingo tournament last night," Father Shannon said, trying to get the conversation back on track. "He'd fallen over in the street and had passed out, suffering from wounds on his head, hands, and both feet as well."
"And she brought him here because . . . the church moonlights as a hospital?"
"Frank is homeless, Faith. He doesn't have insurance and it's not likely he would've been treated until they could have found a place for him at a Veterans hospital. We have a doctor who volunteers time here on the weekends. Until then, the sisters have cleaned his wounds and have given him a warm place to stay. As you can see, he's in excellent spirit."
"Well can you blame me, Father?" Frank asked, unable to keep the giddy smile from his face. "I've been chosen, just like the others. Jesus has saved me!"
"Come again?" Faith asked, looking more and more skeptical by the moment.
"His marks. He's given us his marks! Come on, I'll show you."
He spun the chair around and began heading toward a long corridor that attached the sacristy to an adjacent building. Faith looked over at Father Shannon and when he nodded at her, she began to warily follow after Frank who seemed to have no problem wheeling the chair along even with the wounds in his hands.
When she reached the end of the corridor, she stepped out into a fairly large hall filled with cots and makeshift beds. Each one held a person who, like Frank, looked to be homeless as well. A few nuns scuttled around the room, checking on the people in the beds as they went. One of the nuns was changing a bloody bandage on a man's hand, the wound appearing to be exactly the same as Frank's. Another nun hustled over to Frank, scolding him for removing the bandages from his hands once again. She grabbed the handles of his wheelchair and pushed him over to an empty cot where a fresh basin of hot water and some new bandages were waiting for him.
Faith was only able to move her gaze away from the scene before her when she sensed Father Shannon slowly walk up beside her. He was looking over the room when she glanced over at him, a troubled look upon his face.
"There were twenty-nine. Frank makes thirty. They've been coming in for weeks," he began, shaking his head lightly. "At first we thought maybe the lowlife producers of those horrible BumFight videos were back in town. After all, this all began with head wounds only. Slowly, they began coming in with hand wounds as well. Completely inexplicable. But, the world can be a cruel place, especially when it comes to those who are less fortunate. We thought it was just some cruel people preying on the homeless."
"What, you think some sickos are doin' this to these people on purpose, just because they can?"
"It was a theory we had," Father Shannon said. "But then . . . things began changing. We're used to helping the less fortunate here. The sisters provide temporary shelter from the weather, warm beds, a daily meal; sometimes we're even able to pass on clothing donations from our parishioners. That doesn't mean that the people who accept our help are devout. In fact, most of them lost their faith a long, long time ago. However, once they became afflicted with these wounds, that changed for them."
"Why would a couple of gnarly wounds make these people all holy?" Faith thought about that for a moment and had to chuckle to herself. "Pun totally not intended. I mean, I know life-or-death experiences can make people go a Coo-Coo for Jesus Puffs and shit, but it's not exactly like a hole in the hand is life-or death."
"It's because these aren't ordinary wounds. From what we've seen, I believe we may be looking at stigmata."
Faith had to let that sink in. "Seriously?"
"Yes, but something isn't right. Stigmata are rare. The Vatican confirms only a handful of cases as legitimate every year. We've had thirty cases in less than a month, and they appear to be getting worse."
"Well, we've been able to treat those afflicted right here. It began with head wounds, like the crown of thorns placed on Jesus' head. Then slowly we started seeing hand wounds, like the spikes driven through his hands and onto the cross. Frank was only the third we've see with the feet wounds. We're really testing our ability to help these people now. Still, they're not fazed by it all; they're in good spirits and don't appear to be in much pain at all once treated. They see it as a blessing. I don't know what help we'll be if anyone presents with the fifth holy wound."
"Which is?" Faith asked, her voice low as she studied Father Shannon's face.
Father Shannon brought his fingertips up and touched a spot by his lower ribs.
"The spear through his ribs. Though it can't be confirmed, there are people who believe it was what actually killed Jesus Christ on the cross."
Silence fell over them as they watched the goings-on in the room, taking in each and every person there. The room was already packed; how could they expect to treat anyone else, especially if they were even more seriously injured?
"So what exactly do you want me to do?" Faith asked quietly. "I mean, yeah, I've got some experience treating injuries and all, but I ain't exactly cut out to help here unless you want me to dress up as a sexy nurse and strut around in . . ."
"I don't want you to play nurse," Father Shannon interrupted. "This isn't right, Faith. Something unnatural is going on. Stigmata only happen to the intensely devout, and only rarely. You've dealt before with things that aren't entirely natural. I'd like you to tell me if this might be one of those things."
"Now that I can do. I'm meeting Cam in a bit but I'll put in a call to my friends, have them do some research stuff. Books and me ain't exactly best buds but I'll pound the pavement tonight, see what I can come up with. Any specific place I should start lookin'?"
"Wherever there are homeless."
Faith sighed. "So, basically everywhere."
Father Shannon smiled sadly.
Faith parked her truck outside the club and went in through the rear employee entrance. She was about a half hour early so she made her way to the bar and had a seat after she'd picked up her check from the manager's office. Logan was tending bar that afternoon and she made her way over to Faith, a flirty smile on her face. She rested her elbows on the bar and leaned in close, her plentiful cleavage on display.
"Hey Faith. Back so soon?"
"I was missing you," Faith said playfully.
"You mean you were missing your paycheck."
Logan laughed and quickly made Faith a Jack & Coke, then disappeared down to the other end of the bar to take one of the server's orders. Faith took a long sip from the glass and waited until she was sure Logan wasn't coming back before pulling out her phone. She dialed a number quickly and put the phone to her ear, sighing loudly.
This was the part that sucked about being a slayer.
The phone rang once, twice, and then a chipper voice answered.
"Has the countdown started already?"
Faith couldn't help but smile. "It started the second you walked out my front door two days ago."
"Well, we're getting close now. In approximately ten hours - with a bit of wiggle room allowed for weekend traffic - I'll be falling into your arms wearing nothing but a trench coat, your favorite pair of come-fuck-me heels, and a smile."
"Ooh, my favorite outfit," Faith practically purred. "Any reason for the awesome wardrobe? And aren't you gonna feel funny if you have to stop at a rest stop?"
"Oh, there will be no stopping. Once I'm in my car, I'm committed to staying in it until I reach your place. One stiff breeze and I'd be too embarrassed to ever leave my house again. And do I need to have a reason to dress up for you?"
"Guess not," Faith laughed, but then she remembered why she was calling and she rested her elbow on the bar so that she could rub her forehead with her hand. "But there's kinda a kink in the plans."
Now it was Buffy's turn to purr into the phone, "I've come to find that when it comes to you, there's always a bit of 'kink' in the plans."
Faith laughed aloud. "You know me too well, B. But, uh, I'm serious about plan kinkage. Father Shannon asked me to help him out. He thinks there's somethin' weird going on with the homeless people in Vegas. He's got a couple dozen of them tucked away in the church hall and all of 'em got stigmata."
"You mean like that movie with Patricia Arquette?"
"Yeah, exactly, 'cept he don't think this is the real deal. I've already got calls in to Andrew and Giles to check into weird demonic stigmata stuff or whatever."
"Ah, so that's why Giles left me with all of his afternoon sessions while he ducked out with a couple of musty old books."
"Probably. Come dark I've gotta get out on the streets, do a couple of sweeps and see if I can stir anything up."
"I can always come with," Buffy offered.
"Yeah, but you've worked all day and there's no tellin' how long you're gonna be stuck in weekend traffic. You know the freaks come to Vegas on Friday nights. Plus, I don't want you showing up in the middle of the night and having to sit around and wait for me. I love your come-fuck-me heels but I don't know if Andrew will appreciate them as much as I do."
"Knowing him, he'd probably want to try them on," Buffy said dryly, making Faith laugh. "Are you sure you can't use my help?"
Faith had to swallow and compose herself. The truth was, yes; she could use Buffy's help. She could use it twenty-four/seven, every day, every hour, and every minute. All she wanted was Buffy. It wasn't fair to make her drive all that way every other week as it was, but to ask her to help with slay-stuff on top of that just seemed completely over the top.
So as much as she wanted to tell Buffy that yes, she wanted her there like a day ago, she had to fight those words down and keep them locked up tight.
"Yeah, I'm sure. I'll try to get this taken care of tonight. You can get on the road tomorrow morning and be here by lunch time and you won't have to deal with traffic and waiting around with Andrew while I'm gone."
"Okay," Buffy replied after a few moments. "But if you think I'm wearing that outfit in the daylight, you're sorely mistaken, mister."
"Just make sure you bring it in your bag," Faith chuckled, then got more serious. "You mad?"
"Mad? Never. Disappointed? Maybe a little. But I get it. Life of a slayer."
"Life of a slayer," Faith repeated. She felt a tap on her shoulder and turned to see Camryn standing there in her street clothes, a friendly smile on her face. "Hey B, say hey to Cam."
She held out the phone and Camryn yelled a quick "Hi Buffy!" before Faith pulled it back and held it to her ear again. When she did, she heard Buffy yelling to Camryn and had to pull the phone away so she didn't go suddenly deaf.
"Hi Camryn! Take care of Faith for me until I get there. And feed her some lunch!"
"I will!" Camryn shouted back.
"She said she will," Faith told Buffy, smiling.
"And you better pay. It's the polite thing to do."
"I will. Call you later?"
"You'd better. I'll be waiting, snuggling in my pajamas and staring forlornly at my come-fuck-me heels while you're out helping Jesus." There was a moment of silence before Buffy quickly added, "Oh god. I used the words Jesus and 'eff' in the same sentence. Am I a bad person?"
Faith laughed again. "You're the best person in the entire world, Buffy. Love ya."
She could practically hear Buffy's smile on the other end of the line. "I love you too."
She closed the phone and spun her chair so she was facing Camryn.
"Well, you heard the girl. Feed me."
Now it was Camryn's turn to smile. "I will. Your treat!"
The furniture in the living room was pushed aside toward the walls to leave an empty space in the center of the room. Andrew was standing along the wall to Faith's office, watching as Sara crouched down on the floor, trying to catch her breath. Sweat trickled down her forehead but she wiped it away with a quick swipe of the back of her hand.
Andrew was waiting patiently, giving her a chance to collect herself. She figured he owed her at least that much, seeing that he had just had her run over five miles in the hot midday sun.
Drawing in a deep breath through her nose, she met his eyes quickly and nodded before tucking her head down and placing her palms flat on the carpet on either side of her shoulders. Slowly, she pushed her legs up in the air, trying to keep them as still as possible.
"Excellent," Andrew commented. "Your transition from knees to hands was flawless. Now try to straighten out."
Sara did as she was told, grunting quietly as she adjusted herself into perfect headstand form.
"Perfect," Andrew said. "Now I want you to shift your weight solely to your arms and lift up."
"That's too hard!" Sara said through gritted teeth.
"You're a slayer now. This should be like taking candy from a baby, which . . . okay, you probably shouldn't do, being as that slayers should have better morals than that. I digress. You're strong, Sara. Shift your weight to your arms and lift up. You can do it."
Instead of fighting, Sara drew in another breath and began to push up on her palms until her head slowly lifted from the ground. Her long dark hair pooled on the floor and she let out an excited little noise, her entire body began to sway.
"Concentrate!" Andrew said quickly, stepping forward as if he was going to help keep her upright.
Instead, Sara did as he said and closed her eyes, focusing all of her energy on keeping upright in a perfect handstand. After a few moments she stopped swaying altogether and stayed perfectly still as if she was made of stone. Her muscles pulsed and, okay, Andrew was right. She was strong. She was a slayer now. She could do this for days!
Her eyes shot open only when a loud ding! came from the kitchen, making Andrew jump up in excitement.
"My quiche is done!"
As he scampered off toward the kitchen, Sara lost what remained of her concentration and toppled over to the ground in the middle of the room. Her hair stuck to her sweat covered face and when she brushed it away, she couldn't help but laugh at herself.
This whole slayer thing had to get easier at some point, didn't it?
With no warning whatsoever, her body went rigid a vision began to play itself out in her mind. Her toes curled and her fingers grasped uselessly at the carpet, and she couldn't seem to get enough air no matter how much she tried.
Blood, everywhere. Bleeding hands, bleeding feet, blood-soaked faces. A gripping pain in her abdomen. A man, laughing and smiling.
People. So many people. Smiling, bleeding people, walking straight to their death.
Feeling her body suddenly relax, Sara blinked once and the vision dissipated until she saw only Andrew standing above her. He had a worried look upon his face as he shook her shoulders with his oven-mitted hands.
"Did you hit your head?" he asked, concerned.
She shook her head no and accepted his hand, pulling herself back up to her feet. She arched her back to loosen up her still stiff muscles.
"I think Faith was right. We definitely have a problem," she said after a minute. "We should probably call Giles, and maybe Faith too. And bring me some paper. I need to draw this while it's fresh in my mind."
There was so much meat on Faith's plate that she didn't know where to start. Her inner cave-slayer wanted to just pick it up with her hands and chomp it down, but civilization won out and instead she began cutting into the five-inch high sandwich with a fork and knife, eager to tuck it away.
"Told you you'd like this place," Camryn said as she munched on a pickle.
"I do. I luff it," Faith said around a mouthful of food.
They made small talk as they ate; okay, Camryn made small talk as they ate. Faith basically continued to shove food into her face, grunting here or there to keep the conversation going. Camryn kept laughing at her but Faith didn't care. Growing up without food as a steady constant in her life, she grew to appreciate it when she had it.
And damn was she appreciating the hell out of that sandwich.
When she was done polishing off her plate, she waved the waitress over and ordered another, suddenly feeling ravenous.
"Whoa, you sure that's a good idea, champ?" Camryn asked, barely half way through her own meal.
"Hell yeah. Probably won't get another chance to eat 'til later anyhow. Gotta do some footwork for your boyfriend."
Camryn blew off the little dig and asked, "So what did he need help with anyway?"
"Slayer stuff," Faith shrugged. She grabbed a pickle from the white ceramic bowl in the middle of the table and crunched into it loudly. "He's got a bingo hall full of homeless folk that are getting poked full of holes. Looks like stigmata 'cept it probably ain't cos stigmata doesn't happen this often, or, yunno - to thirty homeless people that lost their faith a long time ago."
"You're trying to tell me that there's some kind of, what, demon out there that actually does this kind of thing?"
Again, Faith had to shrug. "I dunno. Can't say for sure, but there are all kinds of demons and beasts out there that do crazy shit. One time I fought a demon that collected human hair and wove its armor out of it."
"Maybe we could find it and ask it to clean my apartment. I'm pretty sure there are a few hairballs floating around the hardwood floors," Camryn joked.
"Well, while you're screening apps for your new maid, I've gotta hit the streets tonight and see if I can find the baddie."
Camryn couldn't help but frown at that. "But isn't Buffy coming in tonight?"
"Not anymore," Faith said sullenly, putting on a fake smile as their waitress brought out another sandwich platter for her. She waited until the waitress was gone before starting to pick at the sandwich, her appetite suddenly waning. "Didn't want her to rush to get here through traffic and after working all day to have to sit around and wait for me. Told her to come tomorrow instead."
"But you know she would, right?" Camryn asked softly. "Buffy would do anything for you. That's what love's all about."
"Yeah, maybe," Faith said, shaking her head dismissively. She leaned down and took a whopping bite of her sandwich, not bothering with the knife and fork this time around.
The truth of the matter was she didn't really want to get into it. She loved Buffy so fucking much, and the craziest part was that Buffy actually loved her back. They had a good relationship. She had friends. She had a great place of her own. She had a job, and a car, and money in her pocket.
In fact, everything was good. Life was good.
Still, in the pit of her stomach, Faith knew she didn't deserve any of it. She wasn't a good person. She tried and tried; she fought the good fight, tried to help those who needed help. Hey, sometimes she was even successful and managed to save the day.
But when it came right down to it, none of that mattered. The friends, the good deeds, the love; none of that changed a god damn thing. No matter how hard she tried to do good, be good, there was something inherently bad in her that always turned her efforts to shit.
Maybe Robin's death couldn't be pinned on her. She finally understood that.
But there was still blood on her hands. Every time she closed her eyes, all she could see was flames and smell scorched flesh, hear the screams of the man whose life she took in the desert that night so long ago. She could see his eyes watching her in the rearview mirror as she pulled away, leaving him on the side of the road to burn.
The memory wouldn't fade. It was haunting her, chewing her up from the inside out while no one else knew the grief and guilt she felt every minute of every day.
"Whoa," Camryn said, pulling Faith from her thoughts. "Where did you just go?"
Faith furrowed her brow and put the sandwich back down on the plate, then finished chewing.
"Huh?" she asked.
"You just went all dark and depressed there."
"I didn't say anything."
"You didn't have to," Camryn replied softly. "I told you, I read people really well."
Faith picked up her paper napkin and wiped her mouth, then crumpled it up and tossed it back on her mostly full plate as she eyed Camryn skeptically. Her appetite was officially gone.
"I think maybe it's time we have a little talk about what that means," she said after a minute.
Then it was Camryn's turn to shrug as she leaned back in her chair and crossed her arms over her chest, not defensively but as if she was trying to protect something hidden within.
"Normal people don't just 'read' other people, Cam. Not like you do. You know stuff, and it has nothing to do with body language." She paused for a moment and then added, "I dunno what you are but you don't feel of the non-human variety."
"That's because I'm not, you dope!" Camryn said defensively. "I'm human, just like you are."
"Yeah, but I'm more than human."
"Maybe that's what I am too," Camryn said. "I don't know. It's not like anyone actually ever explained this to me. I feel things about people, ever since I was a little girl. I can see auras and feel energy. So could my grandmother, and apparently my mother too, not that I'd know that for sure. She left when I was just a kid. But the ability gets stronger the older you get. I learned how to take what people were feeling . . . and magnify it; make it more or less intense. And if someone else is emotionally saturated, I can take what they're feeling and, I don't know; pass it to someone else, I guess."
Faith frowned deeply at that. "So you can manipulate people."
"But it's not what I do!" Camryn answered quickly. "Not unless absolutely necessary. When guys get too aggressive at the club, I can tone it down. That's all it is. I don't know what I am - an empath or whatever - but I'm definitely good and human."
"But you've been lyin' to me this whole time," Faith stated rather than said.
"Hey, kettle? Stop calling me pot!"
"Don't you mean black?"
"Don't try to distract me!" Camryn scolded. "I never lied about it; I just never elaborated. You, on the other hand, are lying to everyone!"
"Hey, everyone who needs to know I'm a slayer knows already."
Camryn took a deep breath and exhaled slowly, her eyes never leaving Faith's as she shook her head.
"That's not what I'm talking about and you know it." When Faith didn't say anything, Camryn continued, "I feel your grief and your guilt, Faith. It's coming off of you in waves. And if you need proof that I don't use my abilities unless needed, I've never once tried to make you feel better unless it was just by talking to you and trying to be your friend."
"Am I supposed to thank you for that?" Faith asked warily.
Camryn ignored her and continued.
"You're not sleeping and you're barely eating. Buffy is worried. Even without my abilities it's still plain to see that something's going on. She calls me to see how you're doing - really doing - because she thinks that Andrew is on Team Faith and is covering for you."
Faith looked down at her plate and picked up the crumpled napkin, then started tearing it into little pieces. After a moment she shook her head and chuckled wryly before looking up to meet Camryn's gaze.
"I have a great place to live. A job I like. Actual friends. A girl who I love more than anything in this world. I've got everything I ever fucking wanted . . . and I don't deserve any of it."
And the thing was, Camryn knew about what had happened out on the highway the night when Faith and Buffy had defeated The Last. All of the Scoobies knew about it. Willow had done her best to work some mojo to cover it up, but it still existed in their thoughts.
Even knowing what she knew, Camryn was looking at Faith with so much sadness and empathy. She actually felt bad for Faith, which just blew Faith's mind. Couldn't anyone see just how bad she really was? What else was it going to take for them to finally pick up and abandon her for good?
"Faith," Camryn began quietly but Faith quickly cut her off.
"Hey, not lookin' for pity. It's actually the last thing I want. Don't want anyone gettin' weighed down with my shit. I just . . . I dunno. Sometimes all the good in the world doesn't outweigh the bad."
"You're not bad, Faith. I can feel the good in you. I can see it."
"Yeah? Tell that to the guy who burnt to a crisp in the middle of the desert."
The pained expression on Camryn's face was enough to make Faith feel guilty for entertaining the conversation, but hey, Camryn had asked. And now she knew the truth, pretty or not.
"You need to tell Buffy what you're going through. You can't keep her in the dark, Faith."
Faith's phone chose that moment to start ringing and as she reached into her pocket to fetch it, she leveled a serious look at Camryn.
"Yeah I can, and you're not gonna say anything either. She's got enough stress in her life. I don't want my personal shit touching her. Got it?"
Before Camryn had a chance to reply, Faith answered the call, holding the small phone up to her ear.
"You should probably come home," Andrew said. "Sara's had a vision. I think we have some new info."
"Be there in a bit," was all that Faith replied before ending the call and stuffing the phone back in her pocket. She held up her hand and flagged over the waitress who nodded and said she'd be right over.
Taking a glance back over at Camryn, Faith didn't know exactly what to say. It wasn't as bad as it could be. She knew that Cam wouldn't go blabbing to Buffy, and even if she did, she didn't know the worst of it. While she knew about Faith's guilt and grief, she didn't know about the nightmares. She didn't know that Faith felt like she was being stalked by some kind of darkness.
Or at least Faith hoped she didn't.
Shit. What if she could read minds too?
Feeling suddenly anxious, Faith tried to think about something - anything! - that would throw Camryn off.
"Jeez," Camryn finally said, rolling her eyes. "I can't read your thoughts Faith. Calm down."
"Then how the hell did you know that's what I was thinking?"
"Because I can feel your paranoia. And also? You're looking at me like I grew another head."
The waitress walked by and dropped their check on the table, then took their plates with her when she left for the kitchen. When they were alone again, Faith continued quietly.
"Well, whatever. Don't tell B, okay? I'll work something out eventually but I gotta run for now. Andy said Sara had a vision. Hopefully it'll be about the baddie and I can take care of business before it starts pokin' holes in any other homeless guys.”
"Fine," Camryn conceded after a short stare-down. "My lips are sealed. I'm not happy about it, but . . . I get it."
"And that's why you're my friend," Faith said, flashing Camryn a quick smile so she knew there was no hard feelings about their conversation. "Cool if I drop ya back off at the club now?"
"Actually," Camryn began, standing up from the table, "can you drop me off at the church? I have the day off so I should see if they could use an extra pair of hands to help with all of the injured people."
And just like that, they fell back into their regular groove. Faith grinned as she stood up, dropping a few bills down onto the table onto their check.
"Oh, I'm sure Father Shannon would love to have your hands around."
"Faith," Camryn warned.
"Around his mmmph!"
Camryn laughed and tried to keep her hand planted firmly over Faith's mouth as they stumbled out of the restaurant, picking on each other the entire way.
Almost an hour passed by before Faith got back to her apartment. When she walked in, Sara was sitting on the living room couch with a bottle of water in her hands and a dazed expression on her face. There was a pen and paper on the table in front of her and when Faith glanced at the drawing, dropping her keys and phone on the table next to it, she quickly understood why Andrew had called her home so quickly.
Without a word, she nudged Sara's shoulder with her knuckles and when Sara looked up at her, still dazed, Faith nodded her head toward the office where Andrew was already waiting with Xander and Anya. Sara nodded and stood up, grabbing the drawing from the table before following Faith into the sparsely decorated office.
Andrew was sitting at the large desk, fiddling with the laptop he'd bought for Faith months before that had been lying mostly unused since then. Faith was surprised to see Giles' face on the screen, waiting patiently while Andrew tried to adjust the angle so the built in webcam picked up mostly everyone in the room. She was hesitant to be in open view - she didn't really like being in pictures or videos- but she stayed put when she saw Buffy sitting just to the side of Giles. Her face lit up, as did Buffy's, but they only were able to give one another a quick smile and wave before Andrew got down to business.
It was obvious that he was trying his hardest to contain himself; he'd been trying to organize a webcam chat for ages. Now he finally had his chance to shine and to prove that he was living up to his Watcherly duties.
"This is what we know so far," he began. "Thirty homeless people in the downtown Las Vegas area have been afflicted with stigmata. The gentle Father Shannon has assured Faith that these cases are not of the actual legit variety. Our mission, should we choose to accept it, is to determine what type of foe has caused the affliction and if the number of afflicted is of any significance."
"That's your mission," Faith cut in. "My mission is to get out there and stop whatever's doing it. Thought you said you have new info from Sara's vision?"
"I was getting there," Andrew said, leveling a glare at Faith.
Faith dramatically swept her hand out before her. "By all means, continue."
"Thank you, I will."
He held her gaze for another moment until she finally looked away, shaking her head in amusement. She glanced over toward the laptop and saw that Buffy was trying to hide her own smile. Clearly Faith wasn't the only one waiting for Andrew to start picking up the pace.
"I believe we've both been researching what type of demon or monster could be the culprit," Andrew continued. "Sadly, I wasn't having much luck in my endeavor."
"Nor I," Giles said. "I've been through Hume's Paranormal Encyclopedia and have had some younger assistants going through other relevant texts but we've been unable to find a probable culprit."
"And I just got here," Buffy chimed in, nearly knocking Giles off his chair as she tried to get in front of the webcam. "I haven't exactly read anything yet but I'm all about the moral support."
"No matter," Andrew continued. "It seems as though we've all been on the wrong track. Well, except for Buffy. Moral support is always appreciated."
"Yes, three cheers for Buffy," Giles said, looking at her disapprovingly as he tried to work his way back into webcam range. Fixing his ruffled clothing, he turned his attention back to the webcam. "What do you mean by 'on the wrong track', Andrew?"
Andrew reached over and took the paper from Sara's hands and held it up so that it would display over the webcam. Both Buffy and Giles leaned closer toward the monitor, trying to inspect the paper.
"What exactly are we looking at, might I ask?" Giles asked, squinting.
Though Sara was far from a commissioned artist, the paper was very clear in detail. Small figures were kneeling in a cramped alleyway, arms up in praise and reaching toward a figure before them. A very human looking figure?
"This is what Sara saw in her vision. Thirty men and women, kneeling in praise - not to a demon, nor a monster, but to a man."
"Is it an invisible man?" Buffy asked, turning her head side to side as she squinted at the picture. "Because how else could he stab someone in the hands and feet without them noticing him?"
"What about a vamp with some kinda mojo?" Faith asked, sitting forward with her elbows on her knees as she studied the picture.
"That seems more probable than Buffy's invisible man theory," Giles mused.
Buffy furrowed her brow and pushed her elbow into his side, making him squirm uncomfortably.
"This is our dilemma," Andrew replied, finally holding the paper away from the webcam and passing it over to Xander and Anya who began to study it. "We need to know what human-like foe has the ability to instill faith in people, and we need to know before ten o'clock tonight."
"Why ten o'clock?" Xander asked, letting Anya take the paper from his hands as he looked warily up at Andrew.
"Because that's when he finishes it," Sara answered quietly, not entirely comfortable when all eyes focused on her. "There's one more stigmata. The spear through the ribs. At ten o'clock tonight he inflicts it on all thirty people, and then he steals their faith."
"And with a gaping wound in the abdomen and no one there to help them out of the alley in their already weakened conditions, they won't survive," Giles finished piecing in the puzzle.
"But they're all safe and sound," Faith said, shaking her head. "I just dropped Camryn off at the church and they were all there, all thirty of them. No wait, scratch that. Frank's blood pressure got too low and they had to take him to the VA hospital. But everyone else, they were there."
A shrill ringing in the other room caught their attention and when Faith stood to go and grab her phone, she could feel a pit starting to form in the bottom of her stomach. It tightened even worse when she saw Camryn's phone number flash across the caller ID. She picked up the phone and hit the power button, bringing it to her ear.
"Faith, they're gone!"
"All of them, gone!" Camryn replied, a slight sense of hysteria in her voice. "The sisters and I went to get extra supplies from the kitchen so we could change more bandages. When we came back, they were all gone!"
"Alright, calm down," Faith said though she felt anything but calm herself. "They couldn't have gotten far."
"We already checked outside, there's no sign of them. Father Shannon took his car and headed off in search, I'm about to head out on foot. Faith, we were gone for three minutes, tops."
"I know, it's not your fault. Listen, I don't want you out there. No one else either. Whatever's going down, it's happenin' tonight. Call Father Shannon; get him to come back too. Me and the guys, we'll head out and see if we can find 'em. Just stay put and call me if anyone comes back."
Taking a deep breath, Faith shoved the phone in her pocket and headed back into the office where all eyes were on her.
"Forget what I said. They're all gone. No one saw 'em leave, no one knows where they went."
"But we know where they're going," Sara said, pointing to the paper in Anya's hands. "That alley. Red brick building on one side, cinderblock building on the right. Bright green dumpster halfway down. It's our only clue."
"Then we head out in pairs," Xander said, determined. "I'll go with Sara. Faith, you take Andrew. Head down to the church and fan out from there. It's almost four o'clock so we have about six hours to find them."
"I should go with Sara, I'm her watcher," Andrew said.
"And where is Anya going?" Anya chimed in. "We're forgetting Anya!"
"Buffy and I will leave Los Angeles within the hour," Giles said, ignoring all of the commotion as he looked from his watch to Buffy. "With weekend travel, I fear we won't find a flight that will get us there any sooner than driving."
"We'll be there as soon as we can," Buffy said, her gaze locked on Faith's through the webcam.
Just when it seemed as though they were all set on what they needed to do, Anya cleared her throat dramatically until everyone was looking at her.
"I don't suppose that, what with being left out of the action and completely disregarded and all, anyone would want to hear my theory."
"Does it involve bunnies?" Xander asked.
Anya flinched and then glared at him, making him cower back a few steps. "Why would you even bring up those furry, hoppy monstrosities at a time like this?"
"Anya," Giles interrupted, his voice tired and impatient.
"Right," Anya replied, remembering herself. "Well it's not a man and it's not a vampire. If I had to guess, I'd say you're dealing with a vengeful angel."
"Uh, Ahn, I thought angels were supposed to help people, not play the Holy Pokey with them," Xander pointed out unhelpfully.
"Let Anya speak," Giles interrupted, looking as though something had piqued his interest.
"Thank you, Giles," Anya said, smiling brightly. "The angels as you know them are good, I suppose. A little too blind in their devotion, if you ask me, but good nonetheless. But like all things in Christianity, you never really have the whole truth. Sure there were good angels, but there were also the naughty little angels who jumped ship and played for the other team."
"They were gay?" Andrew asked, confused.
Anya rolled her eyes in response.
"No. They were angels of heaven and light who saw opportunity and switched to the darkness. Not many were tempted, and most that did cross over were stricken from the history books by man. They couldn't exactly teach of this awesome god if even his own angels were turning on him."
"You're speaking of the fallen angels from the War in Heaven?" Giles asked thoughtfully.
"Not exactly," Anya replied. "Those angels were named and shamed, made a lesson out of. These angels are different. They were given high posts by the Christian god and they turned their backs. Instead of naming them as foes, it was like some kind of big, ancient cover up. The first of its kind, really; possibly the second. They were written off as heroes who fulfilled their positions, and then were immediately forgotten as they rotted away in the underworld, banished from both heaven and the mortal plane."
"How is it possible that I've never heard of them?" Giles asked.
"See above, re: giant ancient cover up. I only know of them because I've seen a few in action in my time."
"If they were banished to the underworld, how did you just happen come across them?" Buffy asked.
"Because when they were banished to the underworld, they were banished there as men," Anya replied. "In the Book of Genesis, God gave men a lifespan of one hundred and twenty years, which was obviously a mistake if you ask me. Wrinkly old men making dozens of babies with their wrinkly old balls . . ."
"Anya!" several of them called out at once.
"Fine, fine. I'm sure their balls were lovely. Regardless, there was obviously some kind of loophole in the banishment because every one hundred and twenty years, the vengeful angels can enter the mortal realm for a short amount of time. When they come here, their very presence instills faith in the faithless. They try to reap enough of it so that they can ascend into heaven and . . . well, I'm not sure what happens then. None of them have ever succeeded yet. They've all ended up back in the underworld, biding their time for another one hundred and twenty years."
"How do you even kill an angel?" Faith asked, her brow furrowed. "Don't think he's gonna bat an eyelash if I come at him with a stake, and even still, I kill him and he ends up back in the underworld. Then what?"
"Then he gets another shot in one hundred and twenty years, which at that point won't be your problem," Anya answered with a shrug. "I haven't exactly kept in touch with my less-than-human companions since being reformed but I'm fairly sure that there were only one or two vengeful angels still trying to complete their plan after all these years. I saw Zadkiel in action in Berlin in 1956, I believe. That would mean you're probably looking at Jophiel."
"Ooh ooh ooh! Me! My turn!" Andrew practically yelled, hopping around with one of his arms outstretched in the air. Clearly, he hadn't liked being left out of their little discussion. "Jophiel was an angel and a prince of heaven. He was the guardian of the tree in the Garden of Eden and he kicked out Adam and Eve when they ate the fruit."
When everyone silently stared at him, he stopped jumping and composed himself once again.
"My parents made us go to religion classes when we were little," he explained quietly.
"But that makes him a good angel, am I right?" Xander asked.
"If you believe that tale, yes," Anya answered. "But that wasn't exactly how it went. Sure he kicked Adam and Eve out, but he did so at Lillith's bidding, not God's."
Again, everyone stared blankly, but instead of going off on even more of a tangent, Anya rolled her eyes again.
"Honestly, if I'm the smartest one in the room we're all doomed. We'll hold off the history lesson until later, kids. The important thing is we need to stop him from getting to those people. He always likes to collect thirty. Once he has them - and their faith - it's only a matter of waiting to see if that's enough to send him up to heaven or not."
"Then let's not let him get that far," Faith said. "We'll split up, see if we can find them. He's only got twenty-nine now cos they had to take one to the hospital, so watch your back and don't get too close."
Everyone agreed and got up, heading out of the office to get ready and start their search. Faith waited until everyone was gone to look back to the computer monitor. Buffy was still there, looking at her with worry.
"Faith, I don't think I need to remind you to be careful."
"My middle name is careful," Faith replied, trying to find a smile despite the anxiety she felt.
"Your middle name is Bridget."
Faith narrowed her eyes. "I thought we were never talking about that."
Buffy decided to conveniently ignore that.
"I'll drive as fast as I can."
"Hey, you gotta be careful too. That's part of the deal: I'm careful, you're careful."
"Okay," Buffy said, nodding slowly.
Faith wanted to reach out and touch her; to hold her in her arms and protect her from everything in the world. But part of that whole 'protecting her' thing meant that she needed to walk away from the computer and go and find a way to stop the bad guy.
"I'll see you soon," she said, putting on a fake smile.
They'd been driving for hours, Faith and Andrew constantly checking in with Xander and Sara. Anya had decided she needed to help too, so she'd gone in a car with Father Shannon and Camryn to do their own search much to Faith's dismay.
Faith couldn't even imagine the conversations that were going on in that car.
She looked down at the dashboard in her truck and when she saw the neon green readout of the clock read 9:42, she banged her palms on the wheel in frustration. They'd had absolutely zero luck. One might think that finding a group of twenty-nine injured people would be difficult, but it was a Friday night in Las Vegas. The area around Freemont Street was packed with people and even the less busy areas were still crowded with people walking to and from casinos and attractions.
"We've got eighteen minutes," she said, stopping at an intersection to let some pedestrians cross before making a right turn down the street and cruising slowly along. "Call and check in with Xander."
"I just checked in with them five minutes ago."
"Well check in again," Faith replied.
Andrew did as he was told and Faith continued to drive along, looking for any signs of the injured people or of Jophiel. She stopped at a red light and sighed with frustration. The quiet beep that came from her phone was the only thing that stopped her from tearing the steering wheel off. She opened up her phone and read the text message from Buffy.
getting close. traffic easing up. will call for directions when we're closer. 30 mins, tops. xx
Faith closed her phone and tossed it back into the center console of her truck.
She took a soothing breath and drummed her fingers anxiously on the steering wheel, idly listening to Andrew's quiet conversation. She looked up the busy street ahead of them, then down both sides of the quiet street that intersected it. The light turned green and she was about to go, but then something caught her eye about a hundred yards down the right side of the intersecting street. There was nobody walking up or down it, but there was an empty wheelchair just sitting there completely abandoned on the sidewalk.
It could have been a fluke, just something stolen or left behind by a drunken tourist, but then she squinted and noticed something else lying nearby. It was a cane.
Between that and the way the hair on the back of her neck was starting to stand up, she knew that something was definitely about to go down.
Faith nearly jumped out of her skin when the car behind them honked its horn. Instead of driving forward, she put the car in park and unbuckled her seatbelt. She was already half way out the door when she shouted to Andrew.
"Tell them we found it!"
Without giving him any more information, Faith sprinted off down the dark street, hoping beyond hope that she was right. Twenty-nine lives lay in her hands. And if Jophiel was successful and collected enough faith this time, well . . . she really didn't want to think about what could happen. She was pretty sure that his master plan would not involve raining cupcakes down from heaven.
As she got closer to the abandoned wheelchair, she noticed that it was at the mouth of a narrow alley. When she saw that the building to the left of it was red brick and the building to the right was cinderblock, she knew she was at the right place. She began to turn into the alley at full speed but had to skid to a halt to stop herself from trampling a little old lady who was trying to drag herself along on bleeding hands and knees.
Faith immediately dropped down to one knee to try to help the lady to her feet.
"C'mon, we gotta get you outta here," Faith said.
She quickly glanced up and saw the other twenty eight people at various points in the narrow alley and knew that they were out of time. Most of them were on their knees, praying or singing or just smiling like loons. A man nearby grabbed her sleeve, leaving a bloody handprint behind when she shook him off.
"You can't leave!" the man said as the old woman batted Faith away with her bloody hands. "He's coming! God's coming to bless us!"
"He ain't God, and what he wants to do?" Faith began, struggling to lift the old lady who was battling her at every turn. "Ain't a blessing. Now get your wrinkly old ass in that wheelchair so I can get you outta here, lady!"
Faith was struggling to help the lady pretty hard now, trying her best not to further injure her. She used her sleeve to wipe the perspiration from her brow, but when she pulled back her arm, she saw that it was covered in blood and not sweat.
Quickly taking a step back, Faith wiped her left hand off on her jeans until it was clean and then touched her fingertips to her forehead. Her eyes widened when she found that they were covered in blood when she examined them.
"Dammit," she said under her breath. "Not good."
"I'll thank you for being my thirtieth," a man's voice called out from down the alley.
Faith looked up and the sea of injured people parted to reveal a man of roughly thirty years, his maroon trench coat billowing gently behind him as he slowly made his way toward her. The people on either side of him reached out to touch him as he passed, shrieking in delight.
"Not a chance, Jophiel," Faith replied, though she couldn't seem to move away.
Jophiel stopped, looking briefly startled that she knew who he was. After a moment his smile found its way to back his face and he continued slowly advancing toward her once again.
"You know who I am. I am impressed. You may call me Jeff, if you like."
"God's name is Jeff?" the old lady at Faith's feet asked no one in particular.
"I don't like," Faith replied to Jophiel. "And you obviously have no idea who I am."
"But I do," Jophiel replied, smiling even bigger. "You are Faith. You are a slayer. You try to fight the darkness, though you are never quite sure that the darkness does not already claim you."
"And you forgot to mention that I'll be kicking your ass too, bub."
Suddenly Faith winced in pain and had to clench her fists. She glanced down at her hands and saw that they were covered with blood from the gaping holes that had appeared in her palms.
Between the pain in her hands, the blood dripping down into her eyes from her scalp, and the fact that Jophiel knew exactly who she was, Faith was feeling all kinds of out of sorts. She tried to keep her cool though she felt anything but calm.
Jophiel laughed pleasantly and stopped his advance, holding out his arms to either side of himself.
"You are welcome to try. It matters not. I've spent thousands of years in the underworld. Another century means nothing to me. I am not interested in the faith of these lesser beings, not this time."
"Hey!" the old lady cried out in displeasure. "Stop being a dick, Jeff!"
"Then why go through the hassle of collecting and hurting all them?" Faith asked defiantly.
"Why, to get your attention, of course," Jophiel replied, smiling. "I care not for their faith. Only yours."
"Newsflash, bro: I don't have any."
"Oh, but you do."
Faith twisted in pain as a burning sensation started in her feet. She didn't have to look down to see that her boots were filling up with blood; she could feel it between her toes and under her heel.
"You may feel faithless at times," Jophiel continued. "You may feel that you are destined to fall into the darkness that threatens to engulf you. Still, you fight. You persevere. Despite your doubts, you keep going. You are filled with faith and hope."
"And you're full of shit," Faith countered.
Jophiel smiled pleasantly. "Perhaps. But soon I shall be full of your faith as well, and you will be left to fall prey to your deepest fear."
"To what end?" Faith asked.
Gritting her teeth, she brought her right hand up under her ribs and pressed hard, feeling her skin start to split. The sticky warmth of the blood soaking through her shirt covered her hand and she dropped to her knees, no longer able to take the pain.
The old people, long since freed from whatever spell they were under, began to hobble out of the alley in fear as Jophiel took several steps backwards. His gaze was still focused solely on Faith as he spoke.
"End?" He asked and chuckled lightly. "That is not for me to know. I simply do as I'm asked."
Without another word, he began to untie his trench coat and opened it up to reveal not his body but an endless black void. It began to swirl and spin, creating a gentle suction that made Faith's hair waft around her face. It got stuck to the streaming blood from her forehead and covered her eyes so that she could barely see what was going on.
She gasped as she felt the void grasping at her, its dark tendrils tickling her skin and making her feel lightheaded.
Just when she felt she couldn't take it anymore, the smoky tendrils withdrew and she watched through her matted hair as Jophiel closed his trench coat and tied the belt securely. She needed to find her strength and fight him, but it was of no use. Between the blood loss and whatever he had done to her, she was as weak as a kitten.
Depleted of energy, she collapsed onto her side, her hand falling away from the wound over her ribs. Jophiel stepped toward her and leaned down to brush her hair away from her face, letting his fingers linger on her bloody cheek as he did so.
"Soon," he whispered, the smile never leaving his face as he disappeared into thin air.
With the threat gone, Faith finally closed her eyes and welcomed the dark of unconsciousness.
Faith slowly opened her eyes to find herself lying on the cold ground of the alley, her wounds miraculously healed over. All of the injured homeless people had scattered, leaving her alone with their discarded canes and crutches. The city was completely quiet which was completely odd, but even more odd was the fact that no one had come to her aid.
Hadn't she told Andrew to tell the others where they were?
She stood up and stretched her tired muscles, then decided to head back to her truck.
Turning around, she came face to face with a tall woman with long dark hair and blood red lips. Her black gown billowed in the wind as she reached out toward Faith and the points of her teeth gently scraped against her full bottom lip as she spoke.
Gasping, Faith opened her eyes to find that she wasn't in the alley but . . . on a bed? She looked around and heard the faint beeping and whirring of a machine next to her. The over-starched sheets were scratchy against the skin of her bare legs and she instantly knew where she was.
She never had been fond of hospitals, and especially not hospital beds. Not after spending more than half a year in one.
"Faith?" came a soft voice from the side of the hospital room.
Faith looked over and felt the tug of the oxygen tube that was stuck under her nostrils. The next thing she knew, Buffy was standing at her side, kissing her lips and her face and everywhere else she could reach. She could feel wetness against her skin and when Buffy pulled back enough to look into her eyes, Faith saw that it was from Buffy's tears.
"God, baby. You had us so scared."
Buffy's hands were cradling Faith's face, and though Faith wanted to reach up and hold her, her limbs felt like lead and were full of IVs and tubes anyhow.
"What happened?" Faith asked, her throat dry and scratchy.
"Andrew called everyone and told them where you guys were. By the time he got in your truck and drove down to you, all of the homeless people were running out of the alley. He found you there alone, lying in a . . . a pool of your own blood . . ."
Buffy brought her own hand up over her mouth to muffle the quiet sob that had escaped. Faith was able to free up her right arm enough to wrap it around Buffy and coaxed her down on the small space beside her in the bed.
"I'm going to go tell the others you're awake," came a voice from the foot of the bed. Faith looked down to see Camryn standing there, looking worried but relieved.
Faith nodded at her, and once she was gone, Faith leaned down and pressed a kiss into Buffy's hair.
"I'm okay, B. I promise."
"You lost so much blood," Buffy said, her voice thick with tears. "By the time the paramedics reached you, you barely even had a pulse. You've had two blood transfusions. It was scary, Faith. They wouldn't tell us how you were or what was going on until you were stable."
"And now you're apologizing!" Buffy said, half laughing, half sobbing.
"How long was I out for?"
"About twelve hours." Buffy stopped to wipe her tears away, then lightly smacked Faith's upper arm. "God, what were you thinking by rushing in there alone like that!"
"I just wanted to save those people," Faith replied after a minute.
She could tell that Buffy wanted to scold her, but instead Buffy laid her head back on Faith's shoulder and took a deep, soothing breath.
"So what happened anyway? The few people who were still hanging around the area after Father Shannon took the others back couldn't give us a clear answer."
Faith thought about it for a moment; about what Jophiel had said and done. Closing her eyes, she took stock of herself to see if anything felt off. Besides the soreness of her wounds and her achiness in general, everything else seemed fine. There was no reason to get everyone all fired up about nothing, especially with everything she'd already put them through that night.
"Nothing really. I smacked him around a bit. He said I was his thirtieth, but whatever he did must not have worked cos he just up and disappeared like a fart in the wind."
She closed her eyes and hoped that she was doing the right thing.
"Well hopefully he'll stay gone for the next hundred and twenty years," Buffy replied.
Buffy lifted her head up and looked her in the eye, letting her thumb trace gently over her cheek.
"Never scare me like that again."
"I won't," Faith whispered back.
Faith nodded her head and, as they leaned in and shared another kiss, she hoped beyond hope that she'd be able to keep that promise.
Jophiel rematerialized back in the underworld, the torch light feeling a comfort after spending over a month on the surface. It had only taken a few thousand years but he finally felt at home below the earth. The mortal realm was of no interest to him. It was what was above it that mattered to him the most.
And hopefully, if he did what was asked of him, he might be rewarded with that sooner than expected.
He walked briskly down a stone corridor until he arrived in a large cavern lit only by torches. A small black pool shimmered off to the side, making the firelight twinkle around the large, mostly empty space.
"Jophiel," came a feminine voice from across the cavern.
He smiled as he approached the throne and dropped to one knee, bowing his head as he did so.
"My queen. I return."
"And have you been successful in your task?"
"Excellent," the woman said. She stepped forward out of the shadows, her long dark hair and blood red lips shimmering in even the dim light. "Your sacrifice shall be rewarded in due time."
"Thank you, my queen," he replied, unable to hide the way his body trembled as her long, pale fingers touched his shoulder.
"Now rise," she encouraged him up until they were standing face to face, "and tell me everything about her."
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