liz_marcs (liz_marcs) wrote,
liz_marcs
liz_marcs

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Water Hold Me Down, Part 45

Warning: Disturbing imagery, character deaths (original characters), extreme violence. If dead children disturb you, this is a definite warning to approach with caution.

No song download with this part. For obvious reasons.

[Note: Reposted because of LJ chaos.]

All previous parts can be found here.

Continued from Part 44.

Shivers traveled up Xander’s spine as he followed Faith up the street to the old dance hall. Most of his fighting in recent years had been from a distance, with very little actual hand-to-hand. In those the rare instances when he’d gone mano a mano with the pointy tooth set, he’d done it because he didn’t have much of a choice.

It just so happened that the waterfront back when it was still alive had been the scene of every single one of those rare instances.

He could count the number of times a hand-to-hand situation had cropped up on one hand—okay, maybe two, but definitely no more—in the 7 years he’d lived in Zihuataneo. No matter what mirror-Xander thought about him, Xander wasn’t stupid. Going hand-to-hand with something faster and stronger than him was a one-way ticket to deadsville, a fact that mirror-Xander obviously forgot somewhere along the way. Xander wondered if it was because mirror-Xander was so used to fighting with a Slayer—Slayers, plural, still wrapping my head around that—watching his back.

Considering how many times he’d jumped into the fray without thinking back when he was a dumb kid in Sunnydale, it was a wonder he got out alive at all. While his current method of picking off vampires one-by-one with archery wasn’t going to make him a hero to anyone but himself, it had the big benefit of keeping him alive and bruise-free.

The trill of fear he felt following Faith into what was almost certainly a vampire lair imparted an unwelcome sense of déjà vu and Xander was hard pressed to remember a time he thought following a Slayer on a mission was at all fun or thrilling. He must’ve thought that once upon a time, though, otherwise he wouldn’t be here now. He wondered if mirror-Xander defined something like this as fun. Probably not, given his reaction upon seeing the waterfront. Then again, Xander had to accept that he had no clue what went on in the other man’s head. For all he knew, something like this might just be another day at the office.

Faith edged through the sprung metal security gate in front of the dance hall and the gaping open doorway into the interior as quick and silent as a cat. Xander clumsily followed, weighted down by the materials they’d need to burn this place to the ground if they had to. Faith wasn’t kidding when she made him be the designated pack mule.

He hesitated a moment just beyond the security gate and cast a quick glance behind him to make sure no vampires were in evidence on the street. He didn’t like the fact that they were walking into the abandoned building after dark. It meant that any vampire in the area could follow them wherever they went. Faith’s rental car, which they had tucked in the sheltered carport of an abandoned cottage located a half-a-block down, suddenly seemed too far away.

As he moved to follow Faith inside, he spotted the old dance hall’s missing heavy door lying on its side just inside the building. It looked like it had been ripped off its hinges and tossed aside like a toy. He didn’t want to know if it was a case of something trying to get out, or something trying to get in.

By the time he stepped over the threshold, Faith was already halfway up the stairs to the second floor. Xander wished he could be as certain as she was that none of the bad guys were lurking in the first floor shadows. As he moved to follow the Slayer, he kept scanning around him on the off chance he might spot any suspicious movement. Thankfully, his very human eyesight didn’t see anything. He could feel the Mag-Lite weighing heavy in his hand, but fought the urge to turn it on. Even though he knew he was already target-bait to anything with supernatural eyesight, he didn’t want to give Faith’s position away.

Xander was only halfway up the stairs by the time Faith noiselessly jumped the top few steps and scurried deeper into the upper floor. He bit back the warning that Faith watch herself, because if memory served, there were plenty of shadowed corners for vampires to hide up there. Lord knows he and Anya had made use of the cubbyholes once or twice on their rare nights out to hear whatever past-their-prime band had played here.

He paused a moment, ears straining for any sound of movement or any exclamation of surprise. He nervously glanced behind him, just to make sure that the first floor was still devoid of life, or unlife, as the case may be. When he saw that all was still quiet on the Xander-shaped front, he flicked on the Mag-Lite’s switch so he could spare himself more comical stumbling up the staircase, and finished his ascent.

When he finally reached the top floor, he again uncertainly paused. The boards from one of the windows had been removed and the exposed window’s glass had been shattered. The waning half-moon shone with just enough light through the broken window to make the splintered and abandoned furniture scattered around the space stand out in sharp relief to the shadows.

Then the smell hit him. He hadn’t ever seen a Kansas City slaughterhouse, but on an instinctual level he suspected that this smell had a lot in common with one. His heart picked up a heavy beat as he stared fixedly at the window. He was too afraid to actually look for the source because then he’d have to actually think about what it might mean.

Faith was nowhere to be seen.

“Aw, fuck,” came the whispered curse.

Xander startled and jerked around to find Faith. His flashlight beam bounced around until it settled on the kneeling the Slayer. She looked up and shielded her eyes. “Turn that the fuck off,” she ordered.

Something in her tone—not pissed off exactly, more like angry-scared—forced him to comply. “What is it?” he asked as he clutched the now darkened Mag-Lite in his hand.

“Don’t come over here,” Faith said.

Xander took several defiant steps forward. “Why?”

“You don’t want to see this. Shit. No one should be seeing this.”

“Hello? Grew up in Sunnydale right here. Trust me, there isn’t too much I haven’t seen already,” Xander said stubbornly as he took several more steps forward.

That’s when he realized that Faith was kneeling over bodies.

A sense of unreality took over as his feet continued to slowly carry him across the floor. So that’s where the smell is coming from. Whaddya know, looks like I found something I haven’t seen before. The crazy thoughts, the movement of his body, the heavy feel of the bag slung across his back, and the weight of the Mag-Lite in his hand seemed disconnected from his reality.

Faith was on her feet and holding her hands out, as if she actually wanted to get him to stop. “I said stay the fuck back.

Too late. I already smelled it, Xander thought. He stopped short of Faith’s outstretched hands and silently thanked whatever gods happened to be listening that the Mag-Lite was off, especially since it seemed like his vision had sharpened to the point that the tableau in front of him was horribly clear.

Joey, the oldest by a few months and usually the instigator for whatever adventure Haley and her friends decided to try, had been broken and tossed aside like a rag. His head was twisted so violently around, that it looked like he was facing straight behind him. He was at least recognizable, although Xander wasn’t entirely sure whether that was a blessing. Head twist-around and splayed limbs aside, Joey didn’t look too beat up. A few puncture wounds in the neck, a few visible bruises, but that was it.

Tommy and Bethany on the other hand…

Maybe it was a good thing that their bodies were so torn apart he couldn’t tell which was which.

Not unless he really wanted to look.

And no, he really didn’t.

“Jesus, how long were they here before the other one got here and yanked Haley out?” Xander asked quietly. Stupid. Dumb. An incredibly odd thing to say, but saying anything more right now would include a lot of screaming.

Faith’s hands dropped, probably because she knew there was no point in keeping him at bay since he’d already seen the worst. She jerked her head in Joey’s direction. “He died quick at least.”

“I’m not seeing this. I’m not smelling this,” Xander whispered, his eyes not leaving the corpses even though his brain was having a hard time connecting the bodies to the too-much-energy kids that had been in his house, watched his television, took over his kitchen table for some bit of school work or another, and raided his fridge. “There’s no way I’m awake.”

Faith bit her lip and almost, but not quite, looked at the other two bodies. “Those two ain’t been dead as long as the other one.”

“Tommy and Bethany. Joey’s the other one,” Xander corrected. “And what the hell are you saying?”

“Not sure.” Faith’s voice was hushed. “I don’t think any of ’em were turned. If there’s any mercy here, there’s that much, at least. The bodies are too trashed. If they were planning to turn them, the bodies’d be neater. Bruised yeah, but not...” Her voice trailed off as if she couldn’t bear to finish the sentence any more than Xander could bear to hear it.

“They’ve all been dead at least a day, day-and-a-half,” Xander insisted.

“I’ve seen enough dead bodies to know.” Faith sounded very shaken. “Those two ain’t been dead for no day. A few hours maybe, a half-day at the outside, though fuck knows how long some of those wounds have been…I’m just sayin’ they was tied up. They took a long fucking time to die.”

Xander tore his eyes of the corpses and saw that Faith was dancing around the same thought he was dancing around. He violently shoved it away. He could believe a lot of things about mirror-Xander, but this? This was just a step beyond what was possible. “You’re wrong,” he stated.

“He couldda been mistaken,” Faith quickly agreed with frighteningly visible relief. “It was probably crazy-making when he got here and thought he saw one thing when really he saw another and jumped to a conclusion. No fault on him for that, what with him just havin’ one eye and all so he probably couldn’t see too clear. That’s probably it, hunh?”

“Has to be,” Xander emphatically agreed. He shook his head as his mind gratefully latched on to something that had nothing to do with the here and now. “Wait, one eye? The other one has one—”

Next thing he knew, Faith leapt forward and shoved him aside. He stumbled and fell, landing hard enough on the wooden floor that the heavy bag slammed into his back and knocked the breath out of him. The Mag-Lite clattered out of his hand and rolled away. When he could focus, he realized that he landed very close to one of the mutilated bodies—Bethany, she’s the one that had long hair, ohgodohgodohgod—and he shimmied back on his stomach as he fought the sour bile rising in his throat.

He heard a roar and an explosion behind him, and he scrambled to get into an upright sitting position to see what was going on.

Faith had a stake in one hand as she spun around in a kick to a vampire’s midsection. The vampire flew back and Faith followed with a snarl that sounded more like a wounded animal than a furious one. The vampire was just getting to his feet when Faith flashed out another kick that caught the vampire square on the right kneecap. There was a sickening crack as the vampire went down with a howl. Not satisfied with the damage she’d already inflicted, Faith stomped down and crunched the other knee under her boot. The sound of breaking bone crackled in the enclosed space and threatened to help that bile Xander fought to keep at bay rise into his mouth.

Faith reached down and dragged the vampire upright. “You and me, sweetie. We’re going to have ourselves a little pow-wow.” Her sibilant hiss struck fear into Xander’s heart, even though he wasn’t even the target. The vampire had to be pissing his pants.

“Fuck you,” the vampire said just before he spit in her face.

Faith immediately rabbit kicked him, the one-two strike landing squarely on both broken knees. As the vampire howled again, she tossed him face forward across the floor like he was a bowling ball.

Faith grinned a crazy grin. “Wrong answer,” she said as she high-stepped to her target. “Now, I think I should do that truth in disclosure thing, hunh? This is the part where I tell you that I got questions and that you’re going to answer them.”

The vampire groaned in pain as he attempted to flip himself over.

“Now, I know what you’re thinking,” Faith said as she crouched just out of reach next to her future victim. “You’re thinking, ‘If I cooperate, I can crawl my ass out of here ’cause she’ll let me go.’ Lemme put that thought to rest. Fuck, no. Only way you’re leaving is as dust on the wind.” She snorted and looked back at Xander’s general direction. “See what I did there? ‘Dust on the wind.’ I crack me up sometimes.”

“Unh,” Xander stupidly responded. This was going just a little too fast for him to handle. Faith now was 180-degrees from the Faith that was a few minutes ago.

Faith turned back to the downed vampire. “I can make it quick, or I can make it slow. All comes down to your cooperation. You answer me straight? I dust you fast. You play with me, I play with you.” She reached over and flipped the vampire on his back so that he was staring up at her. Her grin got wider when she got a load of the naked fear on his face and she added, “Please. I want you to give me lots and lots of trouble because I gotta tell you, I love playing. Got me a whole system for playing.”

Xander slowly crawled to his feet. He probably should be worried that Crazy Faith was coming to the fore; because god knows what she’d do once she was done ‘playing.’ Given the three dead kids behind him—Haley’s best friends and three 12-year-olds who were murdered in a way he wouldn’t wish on his worst enemy—he found that he just didn’t give a flying fuck how crazy Faith got.

Faith then dropped on top of the vampire and straddled him across his midsection. When the vampire made an attempt to ward her off with his hands, she dropped the stake, reached out and then twisted his arms almost out of their sockets. Xander once more fought nausea as the sound of breaking bones echoed and the vampire screamed in pain.

As Faith forced the now-useless arms over the vampire’s head, she added sweetly, “I can play all night and all day and still be up for more. And you with broken knees, broken arms, and broken shoulders? You’ll be playing for as long as I want. I should tell you, I don’t exactly bore easy, especially since I got some new routines to try out. I’m getting all wet and excited just thinkin’ about the fun we’re gonna have.” Faith again turned that crazy smile on Xander. “Is it getting hot in here? Or am I just getting turned on?”

Xander was torn. Half of him wanted to rip off his jacket and throw it over one of the corpses out of some insane misguided notion that their dead eyes, or at least what was left of their dead eyes, shouldn’t have to see this. The other half wanted to just run out of the building and not look back. Yet, strangely, he was frozen to the spot. He wished he could blame the heavy bag slung across his back for keeping him rooted to the floor.

Faith reached out and grabbed her stake. “Now. First question. What’s a dumbass like you doing in a place like this?”

Instead of answering the question, the vampire said, “He’s dead! I saw it! How—”

Faith blinked at the emotional outburst. Xander half expected Faith to do something violent, because fang face wasn’t following the rules. He was a little surprised when she decided to just go with it.

“Who?” she demanded.

The vampire strained his neck in an effort to get a better look at Xander. If he didn’t know any better, he’d think the vampire was spooked. Xander was right there with him. Here was the proof that Faith was right. Mirror-Xander was attacked and three kids were dead because of mistaken identity. He was the target all along.

“Him?” Faith laughed as she twirled the stake. “Oh, so wrong-o. I don’t know what your big plan was, but you failed. If you wanna know the truth, you nailed the wrong guy. You and your buddies took down his twin, who is very much alive, awake, and pissed as all hell.”

In another time and place, Xander might almost admire the way Faith lied with gusto.

“Or maybe this one is the twin, hunh?” the vampire insisted. “I know Archer was here. He knew how to fight. That one’s heartbeat is too fast and too scared to be Archer.”

“Archer?” Xander quietly asked with a sinking feeling. Ohgodohgodohgod…

“Yo, believe what you want,” Faith shrugged. “The twins’ve been dusting longer than me, would you believe. The one you put in the hospital is even more hardcore than the guy who’s here. The one who’s here now—Whatchya call him? Archer?—is the actual Archer. The one you nailed is the Watcher.”

“Watcher,” the vampire repeated in a voice that sounded distinctly sick.

“Yup. Even if I let you walk outta here, the Council is gonna be mighty pissed you put the hurt on one of their best and brightest,” Faith sounded rhapsodic. “And when his Slayers find out—yup, that’s Slayers as in plural by the way—they’re going to go ape. They’ll hunt you down one way or another, and they got some bad-ass witch in their crew who’d just love to help ’em. So, even if you escape a staking now, you’ll be staked real soon. His girls are fierce. I don’t fuck with ’em, and I’m the oldest Slayer around.”

“The Source,” the vampire whispered. If possible, the vampire sounded like he was ready to throw himself on Faith’s stake upon finding out just who was straddling him.

Faith paused and looked down, and for a flash Xander thought she looked irritated because the vampire interrupted her riff. “La-La Land,” she snarled. “Only one goddamn place on the planet calls me ‘the Source.’ What’s a Wolfram & Hart tit-sucker doing in a nothing town like this?”

“Wolfram & Hart?” Xander asked.

“You remember Wes the weed from Sunnydale, right?” Faith growled the question. “Wolfram & Hart is Wes’s post-Council gig. I’ll explain later. Should’ve fucking killed him when I had him tied down.”

Why do I think I don’t want to know? Xander thought.

Faith again focused on her captive vampire. “If you’re here, you pissed off someone real important at Wolfram & Hart. If you know that ‘Source’ shit, you was once high enough to be meeting with the Big Man himself. Probably had been even doing jobs for these guys. LA is primo real estate. You don’t even got a sniff of a magic ho-hah or ho-ho in this berg. That’s some serious exile you and your crew got for screwing up.”

The vampire glared at her with his yellow eyes.

“Ah. I see where I went wrong. Didn’t phrase that as a question,” Faith grimly said. “Lemme try again. What’re your crew doing here? And if you were bad-ass enough to be working for the real big guns, how’d we take you out so easy?”

“Screw you,” the vampire spit.

“Right. Complicated questions. I could dumb it down for ya.” Faith reached down her shirt and drew out her cross. She then reached behind her neck to undo the clasp. “Or, I could see if you know how to sing.”

The vampire began to squirm in an effort to get away, which was Faith’s cue to stun him with a sharp backhanded crack across the temple.

Xander cleared his throat. “Don’t know if this is going to help connect any dots, but if you say he’s from originally from LA, I’d guess that he moved into town with his buddies a little over two months ago.”

Faith gave him a sly, but strangely encouraging look. “The hell, you say.”

Xander took a deep breath. “The murder rates…” He resisted turning around to look behind him. “Unh…look, there’s not a lot of action Slay-wise in this town. Usually. I mean, there’s low-level chaos, but I guess that’s everywhere now, that’s if the other one, I mean my twin, was telling the truth. Half the time I’m just doing recon or following up on something.”

“Get to the point, Har—I mean Archer,” Faith said casually as she finished removing the cross from her neck. She dangled it by its chain six inches above the vampire’s face.

“Getting to that,” Xander said. “About two months ago, there was this big jump in the murder and missing person rate. If you’re wondering why the cops were jumpy back at the hospital, that’s why. They’re just catching on that it isn’t just another blip on the murder-rate radar. They’re afraid that there’s some kind of gang warfare going on and they’re trying to figure out who to arrest. Anyway, about two months ago, my maybe-once-a-week dusting turned into an almost every night dusting with occasional multiple dusts a night.”

“Now, that is an interesting bit of information, even if it don’t explain why one guy with an archery set-up can pick ’em off so easy.” Faith looked down at her captive vampire almost fondly. “I bet your crew was involved in that little clusterfuck in Malibu. That must’ve sucked for you, hunh? Wolfram & Hart gets their ass handed to them by a Neut and it puts a real hurt on some of their plans. Heard that a lot of their special shock troops bought it in the fallout. If I’da known your crew was involved in that and that you guys moved here, I wouldda sent you a fruit basket.”

“What are you talking about?” Xander demanded. Just the thought that Faith was even playing at cozying up to this thing brought a spike of anger. “Fruit basket? For this bunch of animals?”

“Story for another day,” Faith said. “I’m feeling almost warm and fuzzy about the screw-up here, enough so that if he cooperates, I’ll dust him so fast that he won’t even know he’s been dusted when I do it.”

Xander again resisted the urge to look over his shoulder at his daughter’s dead friends. He was more than a little disconcerted to realize that some part of him really needed to see Crazy Faith go to town.

“So much information already on the table, so much more to go,” Faith began to swing the cross back and forth. “And you didn’t even have to open that ugly mouth of yours. But now, we got ourselves an issue. I want more, and only you can give it. Was it just your crew after Archer here? Or was there more?”

The vampire’s eyes were fixed on the cross. “He has enemies.”

Xander felt a shiver up his back. Mirror-Xander had guessed right again. He hadn’t been careful enough. He had been noticed. On the one hand, definitely a big pride moment that the local monsters saw him as their personal monster. On the other, scared shitless because he had no clue that he almost walked right into a buzz saw. This is scary. On some level, I bought into the whole ‘no one notices you’ thing and then started counting on it. How the hell was I supposed to know?

The hell of it was that he had no idea if he would’ve done anything different even if he had known.

“Didn’t ask if he had enemies,” Faith said. “I asked how many of you mooks, or hell, any other mooks in this berg, are actively gunning for him.”

The vampire glared.

“Right!” Faith announced. She stabbed the cross into the vampire’s left eye and he screamed holy hell. Xander slapped a hand over his mouth and nose as, improbably, the smell of burning flesh managed to break through the smell of death behind him.

Faith pulled the cross out, leaving behind the vampire’s ruined eye socket and its surrounding blossom of blood. “You’re now short one eye. We could go two for two, if you don’t answer the question.”

The vampire shook his head as he made a painful keening sound.

“Well,” Faith demanded

“Only ones. We were…only ones,” the vampire got out.

Something in Xander relaxed. He suspected he was going to pay dearly for that little bit of comfort. God knows mirror-Xander and the three kids behind him already had and Haley nearly did.

“How many in your crew?” Faith threateningly held the dangling cross up, just to remind her captive that she wasn’t above doing it again.

The vampire deflated. “All gone. I’m the last one.”

Xander sagged slightly, guiltily accepting the flood of relief. Meanwhile, Faith looked like she didn’t believe him.

“It’s true, it’s true!” the vampire protested. “Plan was to come back here and wait for the others, in case we had to scatter. I told Chris that everyone was gone, but he said no. Someone else had to survive. He swore he saw someone else running so we came back here! No one else came back! It was just us!”

“Well that explains why you did the stupid thing by coming back,” Faith conceded. “Still don’t explain why you’re still here. Been dark for hours, yet here you are.”

“We were busy,” the vampire sullenly said. “We were going to leave really soon. Almost had Chris convinced there was no one else and that we should leave.”

Faith seemed frozen. “Busy,” she said in a deep voice.

Don’t ask Faith, Xander mentally pleaded. What we see is bad enough. Please, don’t ask.

“Busy. Doing. What?” Faith carefully annunciated.

The vampire grinned and in a heart-sickening second Xander knew that question would be answered.

“Those two were nice and tight,” the vampire said.

That was it. Xander slapped a hand over his mouth and bolted for the opposite side of the room. He didn’t quite make it and he stumbled to his hands and knees under the weight of the bag on his back as he vomited. He could dimly hear someone pounding something against the floor over the roar in his ears. Held-at-bay memories flooded his head, forcing him to gag and dry-heave.

Joey showing off in front of Haley who’s still totally oblivious…Tommy digging through the fridge and demanding to know who drank all the Coke…Bethany and Haley giggling over the romantic lead in some teen movie…the three of them staying for dinner because they were working on a class project and I wouldn’t let them walk home…apologizing later to their parents for getting them home on the late side because driving after dark was safer…

Those kids trusted him to look out for them. Their parents trusted him. They always knew they could drop by at any time and hang out. Their parents knew he’d always drive them home and were relieved, even if they joked that he was such a mother hen. He watched them growing up. He worried about the day Haley would notice Joey showing off for her. He was actually looking forward to seeing them in high school, and winter dances, and proms, and graduation.

He wanted to see what they’d look like at 18 and ready to take on college and work, convinced that the world was wide open and theirs just for the taking. He wanted to see that moment before reality collapsed inward and the options narrowed down to responsibilities.

That whole dream, all those possibilities, ended before they ever started in a filthy, abandoned building destined for scrap wood and broken bricks. It all happened for no good reason whatsoever he could see. The world narrowed down to nothing for Tommy, Bethany, and Joey. The world constricted responsibility around Harley.

It happened too goddamn soon because anytime before age 150 is the exact wrong age for anything like this to happen.

The worst thing of all, the absolute worst thing, is remembering how many funerals he went to in Sunnydale because of fuckers just like Angelus and Spike and knowing that it was somehow wrong even before he knew things like Angelus and Spike were possible. How many classmates died because they didn’t stake or kill something in high school? How many classmates died at graduation to stop the mayor?

Then there was Jesse “running away” courtesy of an accidental staking and the guilt he felt every time he saw Jesse’s parents on the street. How he’d just eventually avoid them if he saw them coming because he couldn’t take the questions they’d always ask. Have you ever heard from him? Did he say anything before he ran away? Did you know he was unhappy?

Because, yeah, honesty was so not the best policy. “Well, your son said he was connected to all the evil in the world and could hear the worms moving in ground, which was a plus I guess. Then he decided not to turn me after all and kill me instead because I messed up his Cordelia action. Long story, short. I staked him. Total accident. Sorry about that, by the way. On the upside, he really enjoyed his short career as a vampire.”

Did he ever really joke about the latest awful? Did he actually joke about Sunnydale High staying number one in the cross-town body count competition? Because right now, he’d like to go back in time and strangle the shit out of his heartless high school self.

Shit. Crying was really bad. Throwing up, bad enough. Sobbing like he was 5 in front of Faith? Worse.

“—get me angry. Go ahead, piss me off some more, fucker.” Faith was screaming, which was somehow strange, considering her body count.

But then again, he was pretty sure Faith’s victims were on the older side.

“You don’t need to give me no goddamn details on what you did.” Faith was panting now, like she was trying to bring herself under control. “I got eyes, you son of a bitch. I guessed that much already.”

Xander crawled away from his mess before landing again in a sitting position with a view of Faith’s back. He bit into his arm to stifle the threat of more sobbing and forced himself to calm down and listen. Somewhere in here, he was at least partially responsible. He might as well know how deep the guilt went.

“We was led to believe they were already dead when my buddy got here. You callin’ him a liar?” Faith demanded.

“He knew,” the vampire protested between whimpers.

Faith raised a fist, like she was about to jackhammer down on the vampire’s face.

“He saw them!” the vampire protested quickly. “Couldn’t miss it! They were yelling at him for help when he grabbed the fourth one and ran! That’s how we knew they knew who Archer was and how we could find him!”

Something inside Xander simply collapsed under weight of it.

Faith dropped her fist and her shoulders slumped in a thoroughly defeated way.

“We made them tell!” the vampire was shouting his confession now. Faith must’ve whaled on him at some point, because he sounded terrified. “They wouldn’t, so we broke one of their necks. The other two couldn’t talk fast enough!”

Faith looked up to the ceiling, like she wanted to blame any god she could find instead of the vampire underneath her. “Why?”

Xander was pretty sure she wasn’t asking the vampire that question.

“For him. Archer. When he woke up. He’d be hungry!”

“They were dinner,” Faith quietly added.

Xander went numb at the cold statement. All circuits were officially overloaded and there was nothing left but shock.

“So, when no one came back, you figured, why the fuck not,” Faith shook her head.

“We waited!” the vampire protested.

“Which makes it so much better,” Xander roughly spoke up.

“Hot for Archer. You were hot for Archer. Not that it makes a damn bit of difference now, but I want to know why this shit happened,” Faith said.

The vampire didn’t answer.

Xander figured Faith had broken out the cross again, because the silence was followed by a muffled scream and the smell of burning flesh.

“I’ll go all night and all day if I have to.” Faith sounded bone tired.

“We lost.—” the vampire’s voice was broken by feeling pain noises. “We lost our strongest. Chased out of LA. Disgraced. He was strong and—”

“Stop,” Faith ordered. “I’ve seen this one two or three times. Tends to work as a plan, so not a stupid idea. Fucking heroes tend to get blindsided by this crap, so yeah it works. But if you were here two months and it took you that long to track Archer, you did it all stupid. Looks like your Malibu adventure took out your brain trust, too.”

Now Xander was completely lost. Seen what a few times before? What plan? And what the hell happened in Malibu? He remembered something about a gas explosion that took out a few blocks, but since it didn’t happen in town he didn’t really pay it much mind. Plus, he was pretty sure that happened more than two months ago. He thought. He wasn’t sure.

“Almost had him earlier this week in a cemetery,” the vampire protested, as if this information made him and his now-dusted crew sound so much smarter. “Something interfered.”

“Figured that was a trap,” Faith said wearily. “The something that interfered was the Watcher. Took out three of your boys that were waiting to spring your trap so nice and neat that I was pretty impressed. You got played but good.”

Xander’s jaw dropped. Swan Point Cemetery. He had noticed that a lot of vampires had been congregating there lately, but they’d all taken off when they saw him coming, except for the last time he was there. That last time was weird, but he figured they were probably sick of him interrupting whatever fun they’d been planning and were trying to overwhelm him with numbers.

But a trap? It was a for real trap? Just to get him?

He knew mirror-Xander had somehow followed him and saw what happened, but he had no idea Faith was there, too. And he had no idea that mirror-Xander had helped by dusting vampires he didn’t even know were there.

You know what happens when you get unlucky with vampires, right? Suddenly mirror-Xander’s cold fury when he asked that mocking question made a hell of a lot more sense.

Yeah, because mirror-Xander had a whole lot of fucking room to talk. He was maybe a screw-up, but mirror-Xander was a lying screw-up. He handed Haley the guilt and responsibility for what had happened here without even a thought and by god, he was going to make mirror-Xander come clean to his daughter about who was really responsible, one way or the other.

“I’m done,” Faith said. Her arm arced down and there was an explosion of dust between her legs. She fell forward on her hands. “I’m done,” she repeated quietly.

Xander waited because, really, there was nothing to say.

Faith collapsed sidewise and landed on her butt facing Xander. Her clothes and face were splattered with blood, a sure sign that while he was curled up in the corner, she was taking care of the business.

“Yeah, I’m done,” she repeated again, almost as if she was trying to convince herself of that fact.

Xander’s voice sounded brittle to his own ears. “First time you’ve seen something like…” his voice trailed off as he waved a helpless hand in the general direction of the bodies.

Faith looked old, way older than she should. “No,” she quietly said. “Ain’t common, but…no.”

“Does it get better?” Xander asked. He knew immediately it was a stupid question because, no, he suspected it really didn’t.

“No,” Faith confirmed. She gave herself a shake. “Fuck. Let’s get out of here. We got what we came for and there ain’t nothing else we can do. For them, I mean. I need to get drunk. Blind, piss, can’t stand-up drunk off my ass. Passing out’s the only way I’m sleeping without nightmares tonight.”

As she got to her feet, Xander said, “Wait.”

Faith looked at him.

“Their parents—” Xander began. He shook his head. “I’ve seen—if they’re found like this, Faith—it’s bad enough they’re—but like this.”

Faith looked around her. From the expression on her face, Xander could tell that he didn’t need to elaborate; that she didn’t want him to elaborate. “Yeah,” she agreed to Xander’s unspoken proposal. “Let’s burn this fucker to the ground.”

Xander shakily crawled to his feet. He didn’t need to see the future to know that what happened after they were done cleaning the mess was going to be hell on earth for god knows how many people. It didn’t help that every question everyone was going to ask would be the wrong question and that the blame would fall on the dead for being stupid, for being kids, for being stupid kids who were victims of Darwinism in action.

The hell of it was this: this lie was far better than this truth.

As Xander took the bag off his back, and dropped it to the floor without a word, even he could see that this was at best a rough and strange mercy.

And yet, try as he might, he couldn’t find any comfort in that.

 

Continued in Part 46a

 

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