FIC: Contrite Spirits (Pt. 1)
I've cut it in half at a vague spot that makes sense.
Rating: PG-13 (content)
Characters: Xander, Faith
Summary: Faith and Xander are waiting for a newly discovered Slayer at Ste-Anne-de-Beaupre and find answers to questions they were afraid to ask.
Authors Note: Written for the Psalm Challenge set by musesfool. Special thanks to hpchick and hjdevnull for some mad last-minute beta-ing.
from Psalm 34: The LORD is nigh unto them that are of a broken heart; and saveth such as be of a contrite spirit.
…You look in my eyes and all that I felt somehow dies. No, no, no, no. Can’t you see what you’re doing to me? No, no, no, no. Don’t look at me with a smile. Don’t act like everything’s fine. Stop putting dreams in my head, when I should’ve thought of them instead. M2M
As they speed down the road to Ville Ste-Anne-de-Beaupre from Quebec City, Xander is half-tempted to ask Faith why she’s driving so fast. It isn’t like they have to be anywhere near the cathedral right this second. The newest Slayer discovery would show at either the 4 or 7:30…
“Service?” he asks.
“Catholics call it a service, right?” Xander asks.
Faith swears as a van passes her like she’s standing still.
“I guess not.” He turns his head to watch the blurred scenery rush past the passenger side window and catches glimpses of the broad river as it sparkles and flashes in the gaps between the buildings.
To say it doesn’t match his mood would be the understatement of the year.
“You’re not big on the religion thing, hunh?” Faith asks.
Xander shrugs. He really isn’t sure what he believes, if anything. Hard to have faith in gods when you’ve met a fewone Glorificus, late of Sunnydale, and two in West Africa, Legba and Eshu, sadly still around and causing chaos. To be fair the African knuckleheads weren’t so much with the evil or malicious, although they rated high on the annoyance scale since they seemed to love nothing more than to trip him up if for no other reason than it seemed to amuse them.
The way he sees it with his one eye, the point of faithor lack of faithis the uncertainty. You believe because you don’t know for sure. Once you know the little bastards are real and that they don’t much give a rat’s ass about people, it’s impossible to put any trust in them. It’s sort of like believing in your kitchen table. You know it’s real. You know it’s there. Faith in your kitchen table is immaterial to the equation since you’re going to have to deal with its reality on a regular basis.
Or a not-so-regular basis in his case. Since he’d come back from Africa seven months ago, he’d been in his spartan London apartment a grand total of three weeks. Not that it’s a great tragedy as far as he’s concerned. He feels itchy whenever he stays in one place too long. He’d been like that ever since…
No. No thinking about Sunnydale.
There’s a swerve jarring enough that he reflexively grabs the dashboard in a habit learned on some of Africa’s roughest roads.
“Maaaan, you missed it! Waterfalls at 9 o’clock,” Faith enthuses. “Niiiice.”
Xander twists his neck until he’s practically doing an imitation of an owl. “Don’t see anything.”
“That’s because it’s hiding behind that cliff back there,” Faith says.
Xander turns forward, sinks into the passenger seat, and ignores the still-stiff muscles from last night’s flight from Nashville to here. He taps the edge of the wrinkled map against the back of his left hand as in his head he tries to practice their approach to the newest Slayer.
This one is a toughie all right. Then again, every case he and Faith get is a tough case. Usually it’s either new Slayers in trouble or new Slayers abusing their powers. This tough case is unique because this Slayer didn’t fall into either category. This particular mission, whether Faith wants to believe it or notnot that he knows what Faith believes because all their conversations since they became the Slayer equivalent of Mulder and Scully six months ago pretty much centers on businessis the toughest they ever will have.
He knows it right down to the space behind his new fake eye.
They are going to shatter this new Slayer. She’s going to hate them for intruding. She’s going to resent them for the rest of her life. He knew that much when he read the dossier from the Council. The worst thing about this mission, though, is the fact she isn’t going to walk away once she knows what they know because this one is all about sacred callings and missions. He could’ve had both eyes poked out and he’d still see it even if he read the file in Braille.
He wishes he had the nerve to call Giles and tell him to forget this one and let it go. What they were about to do wasn’t in the littlest bit fair to this young woman. There is no way she is ever going run into bads, either big or small, with the life she has. The only reason he doesn’t bother is because the Council has an iron-strict policy: all found Slayers have to at least be told all the facts so they can decide for themselves.
But what happens when the Slayer in question doesn’t think she has any choice at all?
His stomach knots in the knowledge that this is going to be one long afternoon.
Faith lets out a low whistle. “That thing is fucking huge.”
Xander directs his attention through the windshield and grunts an agreement. The cathedral dominates the relatively flat landscape, backed by gently rolling hills to the left and behind. It reminds him very powerfully of European cathedrals and he wonders what possessed the natives to build a medieval house of worship on virgin territory. The fact that he can say with certainty that the Basilica of Ste-Anne-de-Beaupre looks exactly like a European cathedral is pretty much a sign how much his life has changed in the past two years.
“I heard about this place you know,” Faith says, splitting her attention between the road and the sight of the cathedral. “It’s got some sorta miracle statue that’s supposed to cure people. Don’t know how it works, but that’s gotta be something to see if it’s real.”
Something’s a little off about Faith’s delivery, Xander notices. She’s still with the rapid-fire words, the dropped ‘r’s, and working class accent, but the spice is missing, replaced by something he can’t quite name even if he can hear it in her voice.
He makes a non-committal sound only because Faith seems to expect some sort of reply. He’s not much of a talker these days. He wonders if it’s because he got used to not talking to fill up the empty spaces back when it was just him tearing around a continent all by himself in a battered jeep, or if it’s because he’s really got nothing to say to Faith beyond the basics of you ready, let’s go, here’s the dossier, you want me to carry the luggage, we need to rent a car, did you bring the Council’s AmEx, I’ll call Giles, how’d the meeting go with the new girl…
Faith finally seems to settle into his groove. She’s quiet as the cathedral gets larger and larger until it dominates the windshield. She ducks her head a little, trying to get a look at the twin spires soaring almost out of sight, but insane Quebecois drivers force her to pay attention to the road. She circles the grounds a few times until she finds a spot to park at the lee of the cathedral.
Figures Faith would find a shadowed area between the hillside and the enormous church.
He gets out of the car almost before Faith cuts the engine and revels in a full-body stretch. The vertebrae snap into place and his muscles scream a protest before letting off a physical sigh of relief. “Time?” he asks.
“Just before three,” Faith replies absently as she checks to make sure the car is locked.
He just doesn’t get it. Why so early? If he didn’t know better, he’d think that Faith wanted to take a look at that miracle statue she was talking about in the car. Faith and miracles? Please. If there was anyone on the planet who should believe in miracles less than he does the Slayer should be that someone.
“Coming? Or are we gonna stand around like mooks all day?” Faith asks.
He simply falls into step behind her as she crosses the street and zips down the walk to the stairs leading up into the cathedral. The exterior is slightly friendlier than most European cathedrals, he notices. Oh, there’s the requisite saints standing guard, a scattering of gargoyles, and other fancy cement work, but the front is slightly more welcoming than the get-in-or-go-to-hell entrances he’s seen in Paris.
Looks like the medieval didn’t quite manage to make it in the Atlantic crossing. Either that or the natives realized that virgin territory shouldn’t be despoiled by the look of too much grim.
Faith tries one of the handles on the massive wooden doors. “What the heI mean heck? It’s locked.”
Faith’s very obviously never been face-to-face with a European cathedral. Without a word, Xander walks over to a smaller door and opens it.
“I knew that. I was just testing you,” Faith casually says as she blows by him into the interior.
All he can do is shake his head and follow. Some things never change.
When they finally get all the way inside, the vision of stained glass, stone, marble, gold, tile, and bright paints nearly overwhelms him. Had he a religious bone in his body, it might inspire some kind of revelatory awe at the power and glory of one Roman Catholic Church. Next to him Faith dips her hand into something that looks vaguely like a marble ashtray and makes the sign of the cross as she awkwardly drops to one knee before standing upright again. She turns to face him with a half-embarrassed grin that quickly disappears when she sees he’s still standing at the door taking in the scenery.
She gives him a hard poke in the ribs with a snake-fast hand. “Do what I just did,” she whispers.
“You wanna look outta place or what? Just do it.”
Out of place to who? There’s barely anyone here. He shakes his head, wondering what in hell possessed Faith to go all ritual-insistent. He looks over at the ashtray-like thing, realizes that there’s water in it, and is immediately embarrassed. It’s official: he’s spent far too many days outside of California when he’s reached the point that he assumes every container is an ashtray. He peers suspiciously at the water and decides that using holy water never hurt anyone. If anything, it’s helped him on more than one occasion. No skin off his nose to do as Faith asks. A quick dip and an awkward sign of the cross and genuflection later, he’s back on his feet.
“Thanks,” Faith gives him a small, tight smile. “Guess you can’t take the Catholic outta the girl, right? Oh, and it’s mass.”
“Catholics have a mass, not a service,” Faith clarifies.
“You’re Catholic?” Why he’s surprised by this revelation, he doesn’t know. Faith’s from Boston. Her last name sounds vaguely French. A combination like that pretty much equals Catholic. He supposes it’s because Faith and religion are two things that don’t easily occupy the same space in his head.
“Sorta,” Faith wobbles a hand, the ever-present silver cross around her neck winking in the cathedral’s hushed lighting, “haven’t been in a church in so long I’m pretty sure that the statues will probably melt.”
“Even our miracle statue?”
“Don’t joke about shI mean stuff like that,” Faith hisses.
Xander stifles a grin. Faith watching her own language because she’s in a big ol’ church? And defending the idea of miracle statues? Can’t take the Catholic out of the girl, indeed.
Faith sets off down the aisle, but instead of her customary don’t-mess-with-me walk, there’s something more hesitant in her step, as if she’s afraid the whole cathedral will fall down around her ears and the statues really will melt.
As for him, his eyes are immediately drawn to the warm wood tones of the pews. He runs his hand appreciatively of the surface, feeling the grain even through the varnish. He especially likes the animals carved at the end of each row rendered in a manner that’s part realism, part illustration. He touches these carvings as well, but he can’t tell if they’re created by man or machine. He ultimately decides he doesn’t care. Their presence adds life to the unforgiving marble and stone and the cold sheen of silver and gold.
“Hey, c’mere.” Faith’s voice is a whisper, but he can hear it clear as day.
Xander tears his eyes away from the pews and is surprised to see that Faith isn’t standing close like he thought, but is halfway down the aisle. She’s planted herself at a point where the main aisle to the altar crosses with an aisle that separates the back half of the pews from the front half.
“Cool, hunh?” She’s still speaking at a whisper, but her words sound close.
Curious, he moves closer and sees that she’s standing on a cross-shaped tile smack in the center of the figurative crossroads. She toes the spot and explains, “It’s for the, watchyamacallit, acoustics.” She grins, pleased she remembered the word. “All these big churches got these markings ’cause they were built before sound systems, right? So whenever a priest stands on one of these spots, everyone can hear ’em no matter where they’re sitting.”
“How do you know this?”
Faith shrugs, half embarrassed. “CCD.”
“Unh, like Sunday school, only it’s in the middle of the week and not on Sunday.” Faith looks full on embarrassed now. “Had to know all parts of the church kinda thing. I remembered this ’cause it was so cool. They let us all take turns and try it.”
He tries to imagine a little kid Faith playing “Can you hear me now?” with a bunch of other little kids and can’t quite manage it. It’s stupid in away. Everyone was a little kid once, including bad-ass Slayers with a love for leather. Even he was a little kid once upon a time, but he can barely remember that part of his life and he doesn’t have any pictures to serve as a reminder. He really shouldn’t be surprised that his imagination has failed with respect to Faith.
“C’mon,” she tugs his arm. “Let’s go see the statue.”
He lets her lead him down the aisle. Just as they make it to the altar, a group of tourists shuffle through a side door and pool around the base of the tallest indoor pedestal Xander has seen since he visited Buffy in Rome. Since the group and pedestal are on his blindside, he has to turn his full body around to get a better look while the tour guide talks in that hard-to-understand, rapid-fire French peculiar to the Quebecois. He’s able catch the gist of what she says as his African-French tuned ears pick out a word or a phrase here and there.
Another poke in the ribs from Faith. “You understand her?”
“A little,” Xander answers absently.
“You didn’t say you spoke French.” Faith sounds accusing.
“I don’t. I can fake it really well, though.” When Faith frowns at him, he adds, “I was in Africa almost a year, remember? French is the big language over there. I can figure out what someone’s saying but I’m pretty much limited to making myself understood. Well, sometimes understood.”
“Why didn’t you say anything?”
“Different kind of French,” he shrugs. “The accent’s way different. Plus in Africa it’s got all these other words from the local language mixed in, so it’s not so much French as it is French plus something else. I think here it’s actual French.”
Faith seems mollified by this explanation. “DayumI mean, ummmhey, maybe you should invest in one of them language tapes. Just in case they send us to the French side of Canada again.”
Now that’s a thought. He mentally squashes the idea and instead tosses the challenge back at her. “Only if you use them too.”
Faith flashes a pleased, dimpled grin at him. “You’d help me learn?”
He wasn’t expecting whatever it is Faith just laid on him. “Unh, yeah. Sure. If you want. We’ll put it on the expense account.”
Grin turns into a genuine smile, one with no hint of sarcasm in it. The tour group shuffles away from the pedestal and begins making its way behind the altar via a passageway that Xander’s just noticed. The tour guide is still talking a mile minute.
“Check it out,” Faith nods at the top of the towering pedestal where a brightly colored statue crowned with something that looks like real gold and jewels holds court. From where Xander stands, the older woman looks stern bordering on fiercely protective as she looks down at the child in the crook of her right arm. The childboy or girl, it’s hard to telllistens with hands in the classic prayer position.
He can’t quite decide if the gold sunburst behind the statue is over-the-top or not.
“Now that would be St. Anne herself,” Faith leans into him as she whispers the explanation. “The kid she’s holding? That’d be Mary. So you’re basically looking at Jesus’s grandma.”
He reflexively winces.
“Lemme guess,” Faith deadpans. “Raised a bible thumper that hates the whole idea?”
“Not exactly,” Xander answers. “It just sounds a little too close to some pantheons I had to deal with. You know, and the mother goddess gave birth to the father god and then he went out and killed his dad so he could take over the throne and lord it over all the other gods while fathering a few more of his own.”
Faith studies him a minute. “You know what scares me? You probably know more about that shI mean pagan religions and stuff than you do about actual Christianity.”
“Look, the idea of saints isn’t exactly a foreign idea,” Xander protests, although he’s not sure why he’s even bothering. “Raised Episcopalian right here, ummm, sort of raised…well, actually not really raised Episcopalian.”
Faith’s trying not to laugh.
“I know I was baptized. Maybe on the first communion.” He frowns. “Not confirmed, though. I know because it was a huge deal with the minister when I asked him to marry…” He stops as something inside winces away from the ending.
“Hey, s’okay, you don’t have to flash the cred,” Faith gives him a clap on the shoulder that nearly bowls him over. “I just think it’s funny that I know more about this stuff than you do.”
“It’s your weird religion,” he shrugs off. “I stay very far away from mine.” He realizes just a little too late that he may have just insulted Faith, so he’s a little surprised to hear her giggling.
Except she’s not giggling. She does look amused, but she’s not giggling.
Xander scans the cathedral for the source. There’s a couple of people wandering around in the open, but then again there’s a whole bunch of tourists behind the altar. With the acoustics in this place it’s possible that the giggly woman is just out of sight.
But it sounded so close.
“Looks like if the statues melt it’s gonna be because of you,” Faith remarks. “Let’s get some air.” Faith grabs his arm and drags him out a side door.
He can’t resist throwing the statue and her pedestal a final look over his shoulder. Whoever made it did fine work. The change in perspective makes the statue seem intensely interested in its surroundings, including the sight of two people striding out the door without bothering to stop and pay whatever tribute to it the locals deem proper. He’s not sure whether it’s a commendable change from the distant holier-than-thou attitudes he’s seen in most icons.
Maybe it’s the idea that the statue’s eyes are fixed on his back that causes the feeling of relief when they complete their escape to the manicured grounds. He draws a deep breath, enjoying the breeze coming off the river. He thinks it might be the St. Lawrence Seaway, but he’s not sure.
Notice how everything around here is saint-this and saint-that? Is there anything around here that doesn’t have a saint attached?
It’s a little too close to some of the things he’s seen in West Africa. Every place has a spirit. Every household has a god. Doesn’t matter what the surface religion is: Christian, Islam, whatever. Dig beneath the surface of what the little people believe and there’s a pantheon grinning at the world from behind a more respectable mask.
“Wait here a sec,” Faith says.
“Where are you going?”
She touches the cross at her throat. “Never had this blessed. Might as well while I’m here.” She nods at a small building with a picture window. Inside there’s a bored-looking priest reading a paperback novel.
“You don’t need it to be blessed for it to actually work on vampires,” Xander points out.
“Yeah, I know, but maybe it’ll give the bastaI mean bloodsuckers an extra kick in the teeth.”
“Can’t hurt. Hey, maybe we can do an experiment to see if it does.”
“I got no plans to let something get close enough to find out,” Faith says as she strides over to the building, leaving Xander to follow or not.
While she’s busy inside getting her cross blessed, Xander reads the plaque on what he’s dubbed the priest-in-a-box. His French is just good enough to figure out that the order staffing the cathedral is Redemptionists, whatever that means. He can’t help but wonder what would happen if, say, souled vampires dropped in for a chat with the book-reading priest. Not that he’d expect that to happen any time soon. There are too many crosses, too much open lawn around the church, and too many opportunities to get accidentally singed.
He hears the woman giggle again. It’s the same woman, he’s pretty sure. He scans the grounds, but near as he can see he’s completely alone.
A stiff breeze off the probably Seaway gives him the shivers.
Of course it’s the breeze that causes it. It’s most definitely not the giggling.
Faith pops out of the priest-in-the-box while she’s still fixing her crosshe wonders if now that the cross is properly blessed whether he should call it a crucifixaround her neck. Her mouth is curved for mischief and that worries him a little.
“There’s a gift shop,” she announces.
There’s a familiar sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. “So?”
Mischievous smile gets a twin twinkle in her eye. “So? Let’s check it out.” She leans towards him and adds in a dramatic whisper, “Maybe they got some real kitsch, like glow-in-the-dark baby Jesuses or bobble-headed Marys.”
Faith’s weakness for tacky tourist trinkets never ceases to amaze him. Every town they go to she’s got to find the most screamingly ugly thing and buy it. Even worse, there appear to be rules. He’s slowly figuring them out. If she’s already been somewhere, she doesn’t buy. If it’s somewhere new, she’ll tear apart the town to find the ‘perfect thing.’ Right now she’s got a set of Elvis ornaments, each bearing likenesses of The King’s various eras, stashed in one of her suitcases The kicker for her is that they come with a ‘certificate of authenticity.’
He’s just grateful he was able to talk her out of the Blue Suede Golf Club Head Cover Set by pointing out that they lacked that all-important certificate. Score one for good taste and another win in the battle to spare his remaining eye from garish colors.
But a glow-in-the-dark or bobble-headed anything ranks very high in Faith’s world, as he can attest to from experience. The only thing that would rank higher would be an ashtray manufactured in Taiwan. That’s another rule: Things manufactured in Taiwan are the true sign of real kitsch quality.
He’s apparently waited too long to answer, since Faith is grabbing his arm and dragging him to his doom.
He really, really, really hopes she doesn’t march up to one of the salespeople and demand to see the Drop-Kick Me Jesus Through the Goal Posts of Life section. If she does that, he is sooooo pretending he doesn’t know her.
The gift shop is well lit and staffed by a pair of little old ladies. Although there are some plastic statues of various saints all clothed in colors that can be seen from Mars, nothing seems to pass the Faith sniff test. She dispiritedly looks over some key chains and magnets, but nothing perks her interest until she comes across a display of plain plastic containers. She waves him over.
He knows what she’s going to suggest before she even opens her mouth. “Jugs? You want to buy plastic jugs?”
“It’s a business expense.”
“How do you figure that?”
“We buy these containers, see?” Too late Xander notices that there’s a sketched outline of the cathedral with the legend ‘Ste-Anne-de-Beaupre Sanctuarie Shrine’ stamped on it, which goes a long way to explaining Faith’s sudden interest in buying. “Then we fill ’em up with water and let Father George bless the contents.”
“You know, the priest that blessed my cross for me.” Faith nudges him as she lowers her voice. “We’ll have more ammunition than redneck with a gun collection.”
She’s got him, and she knows she’s got him.
“Right, I’ll break out the Council AmEx. But you get to carry it.”
Faith’s eyes are back to their twinkle as she grabs four gallon-sized jugs.
He trudges to the counter and asks in his very bad French, “Pardon. Quel est le prix, s’il vous plait?” Since the French word for ‘jug’ has escaped him at the moment, he nods in Faith’s general direction.
“Anglais,” one of the old ladies nods at him. “I speak, eh?”
The ‘eh’ sounds more like a hiccup than the exaggerated Bob-and-Doug MacKenzie routine, but he still can’t resist a grin. “Merci. I mean my accent’s that bad, hunh?”
“Not so bad,” the woman responds in her thick accent as she studies him. “Not American, non?”
“Oui. I mean, oui I am American.”
“Accent do not sound…” the word fails her.
“I learned overseas,” Xander explains.
“Where do we fill ’em up?” Faith interrupts from her position in the shop.
The woman pauses when she sees the number and size of the containers in Faith’s hands. “That is much water. Are you going to drink that, eh?”
The unexpected question pulls a surprised laugh out of him, which he quickly tries to cover by coughing. He’s pretty sure he’s not fooling anyone because even he can hear the ‘heeee’ breaking through.
“We’re gonna get ’em blessed,” Faith says as if it’s the most natural thing in the world to buy four gallons of holy water. “They’re gifts for friends.”
Awwww, hell. She’s killing him. He sticks the AmEx between his teeth in the vain attempt to stop from howling.
“Maybe smaller bottles, non?” the woman asks.
“They’re three very good friends,” Faith’s going for broke, Xander swears it, “only one of the gallons is for us.”
So help him, if anyone mentions the word vampires, he’s going to hurt something he’ll be laughing so hard.
The woman blinks a bit. Xander has gotten pretty good at reading people. Her expression says it all: Faith’s very obviously a religious lunatic. He’s not terribly surprised at the woman’s too-careful tone, “There are taps outside.”
Faith spots her target and gives Xander a jaunty salute with a pair of jugs as she leaves.
“Tap water?” Xander asks as he hands over the credit card. He manages to sound reasonably sane despite the fact that he desperately needs to get out of the shop and cut loose.
“Spring water,” the woman corrects. “Don’t charge for the water because we can’t, eh? Pay only for the jugs.”
He composes himself enough to get through the transaction. He really can’t complain. The amount comes to less than what he’d pay in a 7-11 for a single gallon of no-name water. The little old ladies aren’t quite through with him once he’s signed the credit slip. He’s forced to endure a few tourist-y nicetiesso are you staying long, how do you like your visit, you must go see before you leavebefore he can make his escape.
As he steps outside, he realizes that he stayed in the shop just long enough so that he no longer has the urge to start cackling a loon. Even so, he can’t resist grinning when sees Faith disappear into the priest-in-a-box with four filled jugs. He can only imagine what the priest must think about this strange woman who insists that he keeps blessing things. Then again, the priest probably told her about the tourist shop in the first place.
It’s not too long before she’s back outside. She doesn’t look like she’s struggling to carry her burden or hold on to the jugs that are now balanced two-to-a-hand, but he feels like he should offer anyway.
“Here, let me get that,” he steps forward.
“Are you outta your gourd?” Faith asks. “I try to hand this off to you and something’s gonna drop on the ground, so unless you wanna cough up the cash for another jug, let me keep this until we get to the car.”
As they walk past the gift shop back the rental, Xander berates himself. He should know by now, probably even better than Giles, that Slayers tend to get insulted if they think you’ve suggested that they’re not strong enough to carry something.
When they reach the parking spot Faith mutters a swear under her breath. “The keys are in my pocket.”
“My back pocket.” There’s a definite ‘duh’ left unspoken at the end of that statement.
Oh. Since he generally doesn’t make a habit of watching Faith’s ass when she walks, he thinks he can be excused for missing the telltale bulge. “So, put the jugs down and get…”
“Xander,” she glares at him over her shoulder, “I don’t freakin’ bite. Just fish ’em out and open the trunk.”
Xander rolls his one good eye before making a professional assessment of the situation. He can’t resist. Piece of cake. Within seconds he’s got the keys and is jingling them before Faith’s surprised face.
“I didn’t even feel that!” she accuses.
“It’s a skill,” he singsongs as he tosses the keys in the air and catches them in his other hand.
Her eyes narrow in disbelief. “You don’t strike me as the pickpocket type. Ain’t no way you learned that shI mean that ‘skill’ while you were living in ’burbs.”
Xander chuckles just a little bit. He’s learned to enjoy being underestimated, especially since the reaction he gets when people realize that he’s been hiding in plain sight is so rewarding. “I picked it up from around.”
What he doesn’t tell her is he learned it from an underaged prostitute-turned-Slayer he found in Yamoussourkro. Better he doesn’t mention that the only reason why she taught him how to pick pockets was because he was pretty adamant about not accepting her real thank you ‘gift’ for spiriting her out of the city and to the Slayer training camp 40 miles south of Kandi. And the less said about how the only reason why he found her was because he nearly ran over her while running from a group of irate shopkeepers hell-bent on beating him to pulp the better, especially since Legba and Eshu were the ones that picked the fight to start with. How he wound up being blamed for what those two menaces did is anyone’s guess.
“Around?” Faith asks as he turns to unlock the trunk. “You mean Africa?”
He has to be imagining the longing in her voice. Imagination is enough to prompt him to give her the short version. “Yeah. Let’s just say it came in handy more than once while I was there.”
“Oh.” She sounds like she knows she’s not getting the full story any time soon, if ever.
While Faith loads the gallons of freshly blessed holy waterare you going to drink that, eh?Xander notices a very large flat stone, maybe six feet across, with several drinking fountain spigots sticking out of it.
“Hey,” he nods his head in the direction of the sight, “what’s that?”
Faith looks over her shoulder and replies, “A bubbler.”
Like Pavlov’s dog. Xander bites his lip to stave off yet another attack of the giggles. The first time he heard Faith call a water fountain a bubbler he exploded in laughter. Six months later he still finds the word funny as hell. It’s vaguely cruel, he knows, to goad her into saying it whenever the opportunity presents itself, but he has to admit that “bubbler” has a lot more character than “water fountain.”
What the hell, he could use the drink. He strides over to one the spigots and does that awkward sip-sip-breathe-sip-sip thing.
“You know, Father George told me that this water comes from the same spring as our holy water,” Faith says behind him.
Are you going to drink that, eh?
Xander sputters as he starts to giggle, spraying water every which way. He’s catching his breath and trying not to choke when Faith hops up to sit so that her butt lands on a dry part of the stone.
“I figured that’d crack your shI mean getchya to laugh,” Faith flashes a dimpled grin at him. “Bubbler just ain’t cuttin’ it any more.”
Xander looks down at his shoes and shuffles. Faith knew and she willingly played along on the bubbler bit. Why? Just to get him to laugh? It makes no sense that she’d do that for anyone, let alone him.
“Hey,” she kicks out lightly, tapping his thigh with her foot, “we’re cool. I don’t mind.”
He looks up and sees that she doesn’t. She really, really doesn’t.
“So, you gonna tell me what’s so funny about drinkin’ the holy water?” Faith jerks her head back in the direction of the gift shop. “I thought you were gonna bust a gut back there.”
“Long story,” Xander dismisses.
Faith reaches out and grabs his wrist. “Awww, c’mon. We got time. Besides, you got me all curious.”
He shakes his head, but already he’s forming the story in his head. At the time it wasn’t funny at all. He’d been furious, in fact. Looking back maybe it was funny, if you looked it from a very skewed perspective.
“I was in Benin heading over the Nigerian border,” he begins without preamble, “and I get this flat tire. Naturally, my spare tire was flat and my fix-it kit had gone missing. So there I am, pulled off to the side of the road, swearing my fool head off. Along comes Legba and Eshu…”
“Legba and Eshu?” Faith asks. “Who are they?”
Xander can’t resist rolling his good eye. “Two local gods of the pain-in-my-ass variety. These two had somehow, don’t ask me why, decided that the best thing in the whole wide world was to play taunt-the-Xander the whole time I was there.”
Faith cracks a smile. “You’re kidding. You got adopted by two local gods? Cool.”
Xander’s not entirely sure what to make of that. Here she is genuflecting and talking about saints and getting things blessed by priests, but she’s got no problem with the concept that there might be other gods running around who don’t neatly fit into the church looming over them.
“Not cool. Definitely not cool. Annoying. Amazingly annoying,” Xander grumps.
“Well…” Faith prompts, kicking her foot out again to give him a gentle tap, “what happened?”
“Well these two, they start bouncing around me and my jeep going, ‘Hello Harri-man! Are you stuck Harri-man? Poor Harri-man! His tire go boom!’”
“Harri-man?” Faith grins.
“Don’t start. That’s what they called me,” Xander huffs. “Anyway, they do this all freaking afternoon. By the time the sun sets I’m homicidal. I really, really wanted to kill these two.”
Faith snorts. “Good luck with that.”
“No kidding. Couldn’t catch them if I tried,” Xander agrees. “Anyway, that’s not the worst part. The worst part is that I’m getting ready to set up a little camp in the back of my jeep when I catch sight of my reflection. What do I see staring back at me? Vampire me.”
“Man, this story just gets weirder and weirder,” Faith comments. After a beat she adds, “Wait, if you turned fang-face how come…”
“I’m getting to that,” Xander interrupts. “So while I’m yelling and hollering, there’s Legba and Eshu going, ‘Harri-man is so handsome now! Harri-man will get all the girls now! Isn’t he a pretty Harri-man?’ Anyway, about this time it occurs to me: Reflection. Yay. Still breathing. Bigger yay. Look, got a pulse. Biggest yay of all. So Legba says to Eshu, ‘Oh-oh. Harri-man knows.’ And Legba says, ‘No he don’t.’ They go back and forth like this a few times while smoke’s just curling out of my ears.”
Faith starts giggling. “You know? I can picture that in my head.”
“Oh, wait. This gets even weirder. Next thing I know, Eshu reaches into the back of my jeep, grabs my canteen full of holy water and takes off with Legba hot on his heels.”
“You had a canteen of holy water?” Faith raises an eyebrow.
“You mock, but I’m telling you, it’s the best way to carry that stuff around when you’re in an unfamiliar part of the world with a lot of dark places where vampires can hide,” Xander says. “So, anyway, since I’m not at all happy with the idea of going to sleep with one of my weapons among the missing, I take off after them. So there they are, bouncing ahead of me, yelling, ‘Catch us if you can Harri-man!’”
Faith makes a ‘go on’ sign with her hands.
“So I’m running and I’m getting totally lost. I have no idea where I’m going, so I can’t just give up and go back to the jeep, especially since by this time it was starting to get dark. All I could do was hope like hell I wouldn’t get eaten before I caught up with those two,” Xander continues. “When I finally catch up to them, it’s at this tin shack in the middle of nowhere. Legba and Eshu are outside, bouncing on their feet. They were waiting for me.”
“Holy…man, what if someone saw you?” Faith asks.
“I’m getting to that,” Xander says. “So, they see me and what do they do? They yell ‘Catch!’ in stereo and toss my canteen through the door.”
“I know you’re yanking my chain now.”
“I wish,” Xander responds. “So I’m sitting there saying to myself, ‘I can’t believe they just did that!’ I’m all fang-y. There’s probably someone inside. And I need that damn canteen because that’s all the holy water I’ve got until I find another Christian outpost that actually believes in holy water.”
“Rock and a hard place,” Faith nods.
“Totally. So I figure I could probably sneak in, grab it, and run. If someone notices, all I have to say is I’ve got the mumps or some other disfiguring disease, they’ll buy it, and as a bonus they’ll stay far enough away that they won’t see my disfiguring disease includes fangs. So I make myself as small as possible and sneak through the door.”
“This oughtta be good.”
Xander can see that Faith’s getting into the story, which seems to have the odd effect of making him want to tell it. This feels good, having someone willing to listen even if it’s not about anything important.
“I get in there and everyone in the shack is looking at the opening,” Xander continues.
“You don’t know the half of it.” Xander pauses dramatically. “They’re all vampires. Every single one of them.”
“Did I just say oh-oh?” Faith’s eyes are wide. “I mean oh shiI mean crap.”
“I’m talking the patrons. I’m talking the guy behind the jury-rigged bar. Everyone,” Xander presses on as if Faith hasn’t said a word. “So I freeze. I mean, I may look the part, but they’ve gotta hear that my heart’s going a mile a minute. They don’t move. They’re just looking at me. I try to act all casual-like as I pick up my canteen and I say something stupid like, ‘I dropped my drink.’”
“Dropped your drink?”
“High on the dork-o-meter, I know,” Xander says. “Just in case they decide that they should have it, I start running my mouth off about how it’s not blood. It’s just this incredibly strong booze I picked up Parakou. If they didn’t believe me, they could take a sip.”
“You didn’t,” Faith says in a flat voice.
“I know, I know. One step too far. That’s me,” Xander waves his hands. “So naturally these guys think taking a drink is a marvelous idea before they go out and start feeding on the locals. Now at this point it occurs to me that they’re not speaking English, but they can understand me just fine and I can understand them.”
“Oh, let me guess,” Faith’s nodding, “your two friends.”
“Give the lady a prize,” Xander says. “At least, that’s what I figure happened. So it hits me that I have to come up with something really quick. I start saying, ‘Well, it’s this really powerful ju-ju for hunters and if one person has it, everyone in the room has to have it, otherwise the hunters will be Slain by the warrior women.’”
“This? This is gonna be good,” Faith remarks with a predatory gleam in her eyes. The hint of the Slayer within her is an odd contrast to the religious nature of her surroundings.
“I hear a rousing cheer from these guys because, and get this, there’s a local girl who’d been kicking their collective asses. A little protective magic? Best thing they’d heard all month.”
Faith’s mouth drops open in surprise.
“But that’s not the punch line,” Xander says with a grin. “The punch line is they start holding out their glasses to get a taste of the stuff. So I have to explain that, yes, I’m from out of town. Yes, only a little sip will do. No, you can’t drink it now. Everyone has to drink it at the same time.”
“They bought this?” Faith shakes her head.
“I know. I wish the vampires in Sunnydale were this dumb,” Xander replies. “So I pour out the water, including a some for me. When everyone’s served, there’s a toast to a good feed, and everyone slams the water back.”
Faith is already trying to stifle the laugh.
“Then, everyone slams down whatever they were drinking out of and they look confused. Someone manages to get out, ‘Hey! This tastes exactly like water,’ before they all explode at the same time.”
Faith starts guffawing. It echoes off the hillside and the stone walls of the church, circling both of them in wave after wave of delighted laughter. Xander finds himself joining in despite the fact that part of him is still angry about the whole thing. They both eventually calm down, although Faith’s still hiccupping with laughter when Xander starts talking again.
“When the dust settles, who decides to come out of the woodwork? Eshu and Legba. They’re bouncing all over the place going, ‘Fanged men explode! Boom, boom, boom! Pretty! Yay Harri-man! Clever Harri-man! Funny!’”
“C’mon, you had to have been laughing your ass off,” Faith shakes her head with a smile.
“Nope. I was too busy being pissed at them for getting me into this mess, especially since I’d used up all my holy water to get out of it alive,” Xander says. “Anyway, they ‘graciously’ offer to lead me back to my jeep. I don’t trust these two one bit, but I don’t have a choice because I’m completely lost. All the way back, they’re bouncing around me like it’s every holiday rolled into one making exploding sounds and laughing their asses off. For once they were telling me the truth and I got back to the jeep safe and sound. I’m exhausted at this point, so I crawl into the back and fall asleep. Next morning, I wake up and there’s this guy shaking me awake asking me if I’m all right. In English.”
“Disfiguring disease time, right?” Faith asks.
“Well, he’s not shying away,” Xander shrugs. “So, I’m trying to be casual as I explain that I got a flat and can’t find my kit to fix the tire. I notice that he’s with one of those relief trucks. Turns out he was delivering medical supplies for the AIDS epidemic that’s just wiping everyone out in the area. Nobody on the truck is giving me any weird looks or anything, but just in case I manage to sneak a peak at my mirror and my face is back to normal. They help me out by giving me a lift to this village where they’re going on the off chance someone there could come back and fix the jeep.”
“Wait. Let me guess. You found your local Slayer.” Faith says it with such certainty that Xander wonders who told her.
“Yeah,” he says. “How do you know?”
She nods at him as if the answer was self-evident. “You already told me you would.”
“You said that the vampires said there was a Slayer running around, so I just figured…” she trails off with a shrug.
“Unh, yeah,” Xander blinks. He shakes his head. “She wasn’t big on the cross thing because…”
“One of her gods is Legba. Or Eshu,” Faith interrupts.
“Eshu was a big deity for her, yeah,” Xander can feel his eyebrows tighten. “Now I know I’ve never told anyone this story, so how…”
“Makes sense doesn’t it.”
“I…guess.” There’s a sudden pinprick of doubt. Near as he could tell at the time, the two numbskulls just wanted to see the vampires explode for shits and giggles. If it tied him up in knots, so much the better. But what if… “No, no. They were pretty clear the whole exploding vampire schtick was just for fun. Had nothing to do with anything. Plus, they pulled a lot of other shit on me that near as I could tell usually didn’t benefit anyone but their twisted senses of humor. Like I said, I was a brand-new chew toy for the two of them.”
Faith raises an amused eyebrow. “Fine. Have it your way, big guy.”
“I know what I’m talking about,” Xander insists.
“I’m just sayin’, you might not see it now, but maybe, just maybe,” she holds thumb and forefinger close together, “there was a point to all that stuff they put you through. Or maybe it helped someone else that you don’t know about. You just don’t know, do you?”
Xander shakes his head. “Fine. Have it your way.”