liz_marcs (liz_marcs) wrote,
liz_marcs
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FIC: Contrite Spirits (Pt. 2)

Continued from here





Faith hops off her perch with a grin. “C’mon. I could do some more exploring. You game? Or is your head going to explode if we go back inside?”

“So what’s the deal with your miracle statue?” he asks as he falls into step next to her.

“It’s supposed to be a healing deal,” Faith vaguely says. “Not too clear on the details, but I remember my mom talking about it once. She was big on saints. You name it; she knew what saint was for what. Supposedly St. Anne is one of those saints that heal people and this,” her hand sweeps the expanse of the cathedral’s stone wall, “is like one of her main churches.” The Slayer stops and tilts her head, eyes narrowing in thought. “It’s funny.”

“What is?”

Faith’s mouth tics. “Mom hung out in the Boston area her entire life. But me? I’ve been all over. Even made it out of the country to Canada.” She gives Xander a friendly nudge. “Not as far as Africa, though. If I got that far, I’d be talking about it all the time. How come you never do?”

He doesn’t? He could swear…no. He just thinks about it a lot, but he never talks about it. He wasn’t unhappy. He wasn’t happy. He just was. He saw a lot. He learned a lot. He’s just not entirely sure what, if anything, it was supposed to mean. He knows that when Giles asked him to come back, he agreed it was time to return and face painfully familiar faces. But once he landed at Heathrow, he had to deal with the reality that he didn’t really have anywhere to call home and that familiar faces were nowhere to be seen. What he got instead is an apartment in London that he doesn’t actually live in, a partner he’s still not sure is a good fit given both their histories, and a load of uncertainty that he didn’t seem to have when all he had was him.

“I don’t know,” Xander finally admits. “I guess I just don’t want to bore people.”

Faith chuckles at that. “If you got more stories like the one you just told, trust me, I won’t get bored hearing about Africa any time soon.”

Something inside him shies away from the invitation. He knows why and it’s nothing to do with boring people. Telling stories would mean making himself vulnerable and he just can’t do it, especially not for Faith. Instead of taking her up on the offer, he says, “We going in to take a closer look at this statue or not?”

Faith studies him a moment before saying, “Yeah. Okay.”

Just as they reach the door Xander asks, “So how does it work?”

“What work?”

“The statue.”

Faith’s forehead scrunches. “You ask her, I guess.”

“Guess?”

“This ain’t spell-time with Willow-ween, you know,” Faith sounds irritated. “No chanting, no dancing naked, and definitely no killing furry things.”

“Hey,” Xander responds with irritation of his own, “I didn’t figure it was like that. I was just wondering if there was a special prayer or something. I’m not completely clueless on the religion front. And I resent the implication we killed fury things whenever Willow cast a spell.”

“Couldda fooled me,” Faith says shortly as she opens the door.

Xander squelches a response and curses himself for being an idiot. Two things people should never talk about: politics and religion. Of course, as far as Faith is concerned, he should add anything and everything as a third category to avoid talking about.

When they walk into the cathedral they’re behind the statue, or rather the gold sunburst backing. In a fit of childish pique, he decides the metalwork is definitely over-the-top.

“I’m gonna check out the other altars.” Faith still sounds annoyed, although her voice has dropped to a whisper.

“Altars?” he asks. “Plural? As in more than one?”

Faith jerks her head at the passageway the tourists went into earlier. “They’re behind the main one.”

Now that Faith’s pointed it out, he can see the row of tiny altars laid side by side as they stretch along the length of the passageway and curve out of sight behind the main altar. He’s bothered that the passageway is shadowed, thanks to instinct honed by almost nine years’ worth of experience as Xander Harris, the klutzy vampire hunter. If he weren’t in a church, he’d pull out the silver cross Giles gave him the night before he went to Africa from under his shirt and slip the stake concealed in his jacket sleeve into his right hand.

What are you worried about? You got an actual experienced Slayer with you. If there’s something lurking back there, she’s not going to run off and leave you to feed the baddies.

Hunh. He wonders when he realized that about Faith.

Xander follows Faith as she pads into the passageway. She pauses at each altar and studies it with a practiced eye. He has to admit they are fascinating to look at, if only because they’re such a contrast from the altar in the main cathedral. Here in these nooks Jesus seems to be an afterthought. This is about whatever saint the altar happens to be dedicated to.

If he could figure out who was whom and the stories behind each, he could probably guess which small god was hiding behind the respectable mask. If he couldn’t guess, then Willow’d probably be able to figure it out. If Willow didn’t know, then Giles definitely would.

He’s almost tempted to ask Faith, but decides against it. Crazy African gods are one thing, but he suspects suggesting that the saints in this church may be anything other than what Faith believes them to be would be just a step too far for the Slayer to take.

When they reach one particular altar, Faith draws a deep, surprised breath and steps back against him. He immediately wants to push her away, but the accidental full-body contact is the most warmth he’s felt since Sunnydale died.

True, there was that UN relief worker in Central Africa he was with for a month; a woman he found out was married when her husband turned up out of the clear blue African skies. Then there was the prostitute in Paris who bore a frightening resemblance to Cordelia that happened just the once. Neither of those liaisons comes close to this one moment of grace hidden behind the main altar. He feels guilty for stealing something he’s got no right to accept.

“Hey, you got two bucks?” Faith asks quietly. She isn’t moving away from him like she should.

Xander does what Faith won’t and physically backs off, mentally shoving the loss of contact as far away from himself as he can. “American or Canadian? And why?” He’s very proud of the fact that his voice remains steady.

“Doesn’t matter. I wanna light a candle.”

He raises his eyebrows at more Catholic mumbo jumbo from Faith, who’s turning out to be more Catholic than probably even she suspects. Without a word he digs out his wallet and turns over two American greenbacks.

“Thanks,” she grins as she salutes him with the dollar bills. She forces the money into a collection slot and gets busy lighting one of the many candles.

“So who’s this?” he nods at the altar. He’s curious about the saint that seems to inspire this gesture from Faith of all people.

She blows out the long wick she used to light her candle, letting the smoke curl in front of her eyes. “St. Anyanka.”

Xander’s heart stops at the unexpected answer and he can feel hysterical laughter bubbling dangerously at the back of his throat.

“S’my mom’s all-time favorite saint,” Faith says as she sticks the wick into the sand and steps back. “Can’t believe they got an altar to her here. Thought they de-sainted her awhile ago because they couldn’t prove she really existed.”

He can feel the smirk on his face and he hates himself for it. It would be so easy right now to point out the big flaw in the system of Catholic saints.

“Hey, stop that,” she snaps, but there’s no heat in it. “I know it’s a little retarded, but it’s for old time’s sake.”

“Old time’s sake,” he deadpans. What he really wants to say is that he knows for a fact that Anya would be pretty put out that he just wasted two bucks on a stupid candle in a stupid church instead of investing it and doubling his money.

Faith’s voice reveals a broken sadness that Xander understands all to well. “I know my mom wasn’t the greatest, you know? But when she was straight, she was pretty okay. Her being sober got less and less when I got older, so the okay times pretty much disappeared by the time my Watcher took me in.”

Xander’s confused. Faith is veering away from their safe little script of ‘business only’ that had been meticulously followed for six months. If he thinks about it, Faith actually started down this path just about the time they first laid eyes on the cathedral. He doesn’t understand the whys of this and he’s afraid to ask what’s prompted her go into share mode.

It’s a scary thing to realize that he’s learned more about Faith in this church than he has in the past six months and that their running conversation in the precincts of Ste-Anne-de-Beaupre have been more intimate than the one time they got biblical.

Faith’s still talking, but Xander’s not entirely sure if she’s talking to him, St. Anyanka, or herself. “Looking back, she didn’t have it easy. My life is sweet compared to what she had, being a single mom with a taste for the cheap sh—I mean booze.”

“You haven’t had it easy either, you know,” Xander gently reminds her.

“I know, but I got pretty good life just the same. Better than anyone has a right to expect, including me.”

Xander has no idea what to say to that as he watches Faith lean against the railing, her eyes not leaving the statue that doesn’t look the littlest bit like Anya.

“Mom always prayed to St. Anyanka. This one time…” Faith lets the thought hang. “Forget it. It’s stupid.”

“What’s stupid?”

Faith turns to face him and she looks at him through lowered lashes. “Promise not to laugh?”

The question is enough to drive all trace of the funny from the situation. He suspects that Anya is about to give him one final kick in the balls and he’s powerless to stop it. All he can do is dumbly nod.

“Way back when she got preggers with me she told the guy she was seeing that she was in the family way,” Xander notices that there’s no danger of the word ‘father’ getting anywhere close to this conversation, “well, first he tells her that there’s no way he’s responsible for her getting knocked up and then he accuses her of cheating on him. Then she finds out that he’s been dick—I mean sleeping around.”

Xander shudders. He knows how this is going to end. A lit candle, a whispered word, and St. Anyanka exacts vengeance.

He wants to stop Faith, tell her that he doesn’t want to know; that he never, ever wants to know.

And somewhere in the cathedral that damn woman is giggling again.

It’s the giggling that stops the words from ever reaching his lips.

“So, she gets herself to a church, because abortion is totally out,” Faith can’t hear the giggling, she doesn’t notice how quiet he’s gotten, “and she starts praying to every saint she can find. She gets to St. Anyanka’s statue and makes the same ‘help me’ prayer. ’Cept, unlike with all the other saints, she gets an answer.”

He backs up until he can feel the stone pillar at his back. His heart goes into free-fall and his body thrums in the knowledge that it’s going to hurt like hell when it lands, assuming he survives the impact. He wants to beg for mercy—Please stop. Please.—but he already knows he won’t get it. Worse, he knows he doesn’t deserve it.

“Now my mom swore up and down that it really was St. Anyanka. Me,” Faith shrugs, “I don’t know so much. I figure she either fell asleep or was probably hallucinating ’cause she was high on something. Anyway, my mom swore she had a talk with this saint about men and how much they su—I mean stink. She just let my mom unload all her problems on her.”

“And then your mother made a wish,” Xander whispers. The confession seems to bounce and echo off unyielding stone walls before it is carried upwards into the dome. It reverberates there before it overlaps and blends in with all the other trapped shattered illusions.

Faith’s face should be suspicious, he thinks. She should glare at him for interrupting. She should be giving him a sharp look and asking him how the hell he knows that.

But Faith’s face doesn’t do any of that. Instead it looks like the sun has burst out from behind cloud cover and she blesses him with the most beautiful smile he’s ever seen. “Hey, you really were listening to me back there about the miracle statue.”

Say it! Just say it! His mind shouts him. Tell her how you know!

“So, St. Anyanka asks her what she wants,” Faith says, her eyes tracking to the statue that looks nothing like a vengeance demon about to grant to wish. “My mom lays it on her: She hopes the son of a…gun gets what’s coming to him. She don’t care how. And she wants her kid to be stronger and tougher than any guy who’d try to take advantage of it, well, of me as it turns out.”

Xander wants to scream, but it comes out more as a low groan.

“Hey,” Faith focuses tightly on him. “Just some story my mom told me. Less teeth in it than a ghost story.”

“What happened?” How he manages to ask, he just doesn’t know. He can feel the desperate unspoken plea: Tell me nothing happened. Tell me it was just a dream.

“My mom claimed that the guy who knocked her up got tossed into Bridgewater for some serial rape charge about a week after this conversation and winds up shived to death a week after that,” Faith says. She leaves unsaid that the kid who’d be stronger than any guy grew up to be a Slayer.

“Do you believe it?” He needs to know and he doesn’t want to know.

Faith bites her lip; eyes studying fake Anya. “I dunno. It’s like our miracle statue back there. Or your two African gods. Maybe it’s true. Maybe it ain’t. But sometimes things happen that make you wonder just a little.”

Xander doesn’t wonder. No, he doesn’t wonder at all.

She ducks her head, hair falling in her face. “Maybe that’s why I can’t quite let go, hunh? With the genuflecting and the kneeling and the candles. It’s that little bit of doubt, see? It’s dumb and I know it’s dumb.”

“It’s not dumb.”

Faith studies him sidewise, trying to figure out if he’s sincere. She apparently decides he is. “From you? That’s something.” She checks her watch. “I better stand look out. Coming?”

“In a sec,” he says numbly. As the Slayer turns to leave, he adds, “I’m sorry.”

Faith gives him a what-the-hell look. “For what?”

“For your mom. For what happened. To her. To you. I’m sorry.”

Faith steps closer to study his face and Xander realizes he can’t breathe. “You weren’t there,” she says slowly, “and you didn’t knock my mother up, you didn’t tell her pray to St. Anyanka, and you didn’t make St. Anyanka answer. It happened long before you ever came into the picture.”

She knows? How long has she known, he wonders.

“Before you ask, yeah, my mom really did claim it happened.” She gives him a sad smile. “Looks like you think it could’ve happened too, and you probably should know better than anyone.”

Xander closes his eyes and waits for that right cross that he well and truly deserves. Instead there’s a gentle touch on his cheek and Faith’s voice saying, “You’re a good man, Xander Harris.”

When he finally gets the courage to open his eyes, Faith’s already gone.

He sinks to the ground. It’s unfair, he thinks, feeling the weight of 1,200 years of guilt that doesn’t belong to him. It belongs to her, but since she’s not around anymore it falls to him, the guy who offered St. Anyanka unending worship of a more carnal kind, to carry this. He doesn’t want to think about how many of St. Anyanka’s victims may have unknowingly crossed his path. It must be a lot. If you consider just how long St. Anyanka ran rampant through human history, there probably isn’t a single human alive who hasn’t been touched by her work.

Including him. Maybe most especially him.

This is St. Anyanka’s—no—Anya’s legacy. A world re-made, people molded into new shapes, and a tapestry of human experience testifying to the price vengeance exacts on the innocent. It’s a masterpiece, one that will live for eternity. Even he can see that.

Whatever the roots of where they all are now, they can’t blame St. Anyanka any more. Whatever goes wrong from here on out is their fault, not hers, and it’s up to them—no, to him—to pull some good out of this.

He crawls back to his feet and studies the altar. It’s worth trying, he decides, even if it costs him his life, it’s worth trying.

From your lips to God’s ears. He remembers Rory saying that. It seems to fit.

It’s with a shaky hand that he lights a candle in memory of Sunnydale, in memory of Anya, in memory of Faith’s mother wherever she may be, and in memory of the victims of vengeance demons living and dead. He shoves a ten-dollar bill into the slot in exchange for the prayer he can’t voice and whispers, “Keep the change.”

He leaves the back altars on unsteady feet unable to lift his eyes and nearly stumbles into the open cathedral, landing somewhere near the foot of the pedestal holding the so-called miracle statue aloft. He peers up into the statue’s face and notes that yet another change in angle means yet another change in expression. Instead of fiercely protective or merely interested, this one is somehow kinder and more understanding of the human frailty at her feet.

The thought pops into his head: Can you fix me? Can you fix Faith? It’s a silent challenge to the saint or goddess or god or demon or supernatural anything hiding behind that cool, plaster façade.

At the edge of his hearing he again hears that warm giggle. Instead of nagging and teasing, this time it seems to promise something else: Only if you let me let you heal yourselves.

Typical. It’s just the answer he’d expect.

As he turns away he hears someone kindly whisper in his ear: “It’s okay. Things change. This will someday pass. I can wait.”

He looks around for the source, but there’s no one nearby. It’s just him and St. Anne. He suspiciously peers up at this odd saint and is surprisingly disappointed to see that there’s no reaction from her—no, from it—at all. As he turns away, a trick of the light in the corner of his one good eye almost fools him into thinking St. Anne—the statue, he forcibly reminds himself—has winked at him.

Faith is standing right at the crossroads in the center of the cathedral when Xander catches up with her. She gives no sign that she even remembers their conversation as her eyes scan the smattering of people entering the church to attend the 4 o’clock mass. She spots their Slayer before he does. “Right there.”

“Which nun?” he whispers back.

“She’s with the ones with the black habits and the white dresses. Carmelites, if I remember,” Faith says. “The youngest one. She’s a novice, right?”

“You ready?” he asks.

She looks at him and he can see in her eyes that she doesn’t want to do this any more than he does. She knows what he knows: they’re going to destroy this young woman’s life and she’s going to let them.

Like how St. Anyanka destroyed the life of Faith’s mother, and how Faith’s mother let her do it with a single wish. No. Not St. Anyanka. Anya. He can’t let himself forget that ever again.

The fact they’re in complete wordless agreement on this point does nothing to comfort him.

“Let’s go,” he says softly. He gathers up his courage and makes his way up the aisle.

Their Slayer spots them before they even get close and Xander can see her eyes widen in surprise and then settle into recognition before pitching headfirst into resignation.

The other nuns back away as he and Faith stop right in front of the novice.

“Sister Jeanne?” Faith asks.

“You’re here,” is all she says in English as the now never-to-be nun clutches the edge of the pew in her right hand.

And the sound of wood cracking echoes through the cathedral.

END





A little post-script:

This one is story is a short one (for me).

Inspired by musesfool’s Psalm challenge to a large extent. It loosely ties in with that Homicide/Buffy cross I pick at between Living History bouts and finishing Ishmael Sings of the White Whale for the Faithfic Challenge. Think of it as a prequel.

Just a quick note:

Yes, Ste-Anne-de-Beaupre really does exist and yes, it is believed the good saint herself bestows healing on believers and non-believers alike when they stop by to visit. The description of the grounds, the gift shop, the priest-in-a-box, the cathedral, the altars, and the statue are exactly as laid out in the story. And yes, the cathedral is really staffed by priests in the Redemptionist order. I couldn’t make that up if I tried. The curious can take a virtual tour here

I also couldn’t make up Legba and Eshu if I tried. Thank you Google for helping me find two West African trickster gods when I really needed them.

To an extent, this is one of those stories that have been patiently waiting to be written. The key scene near the end has been hanging around on my hard drive in one form or another for approximately a year. I never thought I’d get a chance to use it, but thanks to musesfool, I got my hook.

The cathedral is real, but the characters aren’t. They’re owned by Fox and Mutant Enemy. Don’t sue.

In my own head this story is a PG. But because of the religious nature of the running discussion between Xander and Faith, plus the fact I was unable to resist playing on Faith’s name, I’m boosting it to a PG-13. Damn my Catholic-raised, currently Unitarian sensibilities.

People who are religious might find this mildly insulting since the story is told from the point of view of someone who is most definitely not a believer. People who are not religious may find this mildly insulting because of the little bit of hanging doubt that runs through the piece. In short, if you’re overly sensitive about religious issues--pro or con--don’t say I didn’t warn you.
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