Chapter Twenty-Two: Self-Rescuing Damsels
SATURDAY, JUNE 8, 2002, 7:08 PM (GMT)
A SECURE LOCATION
Faith wasn't sure whether she felt more disappointed, worried, or relieved to open her eyes again after downing that goblet full of poison to find herself back on the dark, featureless plain where the avatar of the Powers had taunted her with a pair of disturbing visions. The heavy, crushing weight that had made it so hard to breathe and stolen the strength from her muscles had evaporated away in the time it had taken to blink; she felt five by five again... except for the small fact that her heart didn't seem to be beating, and she felt cold clear through, like she'd just gone for a swim in an icy lake.
A hand flew up to her chest as the stillness and unnatural quiet registered. She hadn't realized how strange it would feel for the constant background pulse of her life to stop; did it weird vampires out when they first woke up dead, or were they just too caught up in the raging blood lust to really notice? She clutched at her necklace, riding out the spike of adrenaline-fueled panic curdling in her gut. She'd had nightmares that started like that before-- she wouldn't be surprised if most Slayers did-- but none that felt so freakishly real.
Had she drunk the poison after all? Or had she just been dreaming this whole time?
A cool, steel-blue light began to glow from between her fingers, and Faith swallowed as a burst of magic washed up her arm, pushing the dregs of the panic away. It felt like stepping into a warm shower, letting the tension bleed out of bruised muscles; or maybe what one of Wesley's private, appreciative smiles might feel like, condensed down to its essence to keep her company while they were apart.
Okay, then, she thought, re-centered by that mental image. No need to go all crazy just yet. She made a tight fist with her free hand, then consciously relaxed it again, releasing the last of her fear with it. Then she turned in a slow circle, scanning the chill, starlit emptiness all around her for some sign what she was supposed to do next, reminding herself just why she'd taken such a crazy risk in the first place.
Wes had told her the enchanted silver necklace would protect her in "direst circumstances", and not just because it was a symbol of faith she could wield against a vampire if she lost her other weapons: the Christogram that had been used as a battle standard in Roman times, probably even more appropriate for a Slayer than Buffy's silver cross. There was nowhere Faith could go that it wouldn't bring Wes to her; no line she could cross that he couldn't pull her back from. Which meant, if it was more than just a flowery romantic line, that the choice his adoptive father had given her wasn't as simple as "bend the neck or die". She'd had a third option old Rich hadn't known about, one Wes had had a backup plan for.
At least, in theory. She'd staked a lot on that gamble.
Faith hadn't trusted a lot of people in her life, and most of those she did had let her down at one point or another. This thing with Wes, though, the common ground they'd found once they'd put old regrets away and taken a look behind each other's masks, the understanding they'd built brick by brick since: it meant as much to her as Angel giving her a chance after she nearly killed him, as Buffy inviting her under the same roof again after everything she'd done to the other Slayer and her family. She'd learned the hard way never to let anyone else control her life... but if there was ever a time to play the legit damsel in distress and hope for her prince to come, she'd finally reached that moment.
So far, so... well, if not good, at least not bad. Hence the relief; and, yeah, the disappointment too. She had to admit, it had crossed her mind that if she had to go out, that warm, peaceful place Buffy had spoken of so longingly didn't sound bad at all; she wouldn't mind waiting there for whatever came next. But she didn't think she'd earned that golden ticket just yet. The blonde Slayer might not actually be the Little Miss Righteous Faith had taken her for in the early days, but she'd also made the kind of selfless sacrifices mostly found in old, heroic legends. So really, the fact that Faith didn't feel flames tickling her toes already put her one step ahead of what she probably deserved.
...Right? Surely the Powers would have let her know if she'd got things wrong...?
Faith tightened her grip on the necklace again, feeling the points and smooth upper curve of the labarum press into her palm as a wave of vertigo assaulted her. It reminded her of what she imagined a sensory deprivation room would be like, with nothing but herself and the distant stars to focus on, and the endless quiet was starting to make her lose her grip. She'd learned patience in her time behind bars, but the frozen stillness around her was more than even Buffy's Zen werewolf buddy could probably handle. Wasn't someone going to come taunt her again, give her cryptic warnings or some shit? Show her how her choice had changed the visions? Surely she wasn't going to be stuck there forever...?
Dread splashed into her soul, like a drop of blood falling into a still pond: unfurling from her center to stain everything it touched, coiling in her gut and sending ugly tendrils out to knees and wrists and even toes, leaving her wobbly on her feet with a sudden drain of energy. How long was it going to take Wes to come for her, anyway? What if he'd been wrong? What if he couldn't find her?
"C'mon, lover," she said, voice cracking slightly as she spoke. "What are you waiting for? Just this once, I promise I won't make any princess jokes when you come riding to the rescue and I end up saving your fine ass instead."
The silence grew deeper after her voice stopped echoing, like a muffling blanket around her; she shivered, then opened her mouth again, moved by an irresistible urge to shout--
--but before she could, the featureless plain shook, and her nose twitched at the sharp scent of ozone. An indistinct murmur broke the silence instead, like a conversation heard through a door. Faith held her breath-- not that she really seemed to need it anyway-- and listened, hoping against hope.
The words grew clearer as she focused, and for a moment, she almost thought... but no; it was a woman's voice, not Wesley's. Not Dawn's, though, either; nor anyone else Faith might have thought the Powers would use as an avatar. It sounded like that Lydia chick, actually; the one from before. And... she could hear someone else replying, a younger British dude whose voice she didn't recognize.
"...no effect when the null field was released?" she thought he was saying.
"No; but there was a noticeable gathering of energy when the seeking spell was recast. It must be the necklace; something about it is preventing the transference of the Slayer Calling," Lydia Chalmers replied, her voice clearer than the other Watcher's.
Faith's brow furrowed. Had that energy been what brought the voices back? She couldn't see anything, not like the last time she'd watched someone loom over her sleeping body. But then, she wasn't really sleeping this time, was she? She closed her eyes, concentrating harder, and thought she felt a very faint warmth, like a trickle of energy just over her breastbone. Was someone else touching the necklace too?
"...wants it removed and studied," the boy confirmed, and she felt something else touch her at the words, a more muted energy that sent another shiver through her--
"Carefully," the female Watcher cautioned him; and after a moment, the shivery sensation went away. "There may be failsafes worked into the chain to prevent an unauthorized removal; this is, after all, an enchantment placed by a man who has known connections to a necromantic sorceress, a white witch, a Janus worshipper, and an elemental mage."
Funny how much scarier the Scoobies and company sounded when you described 'em that way. Was Lydia right? She'd been trying to get Faith out of there earlier; was she lying to the guy? Was she trying to get Faith to wake up? Would it even work, if she wasn't Wes? Though that trickle of energy did feel kinda nice, alleviating the dull, heavy ache growing behind her breastbone again....
As soon as she became aware of it, the pain that had choked all the air out of her lungs roared back from wherever it had gone when she'd entered the between-place, drowning out most of the second watcher's reply. "...then perhaps... think Travers should... Wait...!"
Faith flinched, regaining awareness just long enough to find herself on her knees in the dreamspace, curled forward around the anvil crushing her chest, reaching out for a necklace that felt like it had just been ripped from her fingers. They ached, all of her ached with the sudden increase in cold as she lost contact with the enchanted silver... what the fuck...?
"Fortis," she seemed to hear Wes say, the single word echoing loudly enough to blot out everything else going on; it was the only clear thing she could hear over the roaring in her ears. She still couldn't breathe, but she felt a gathering sense of energy again, a lot like what she'd felt that time she'd meditated with Wes to track Buffy in the Wolfram and Hart building, and then--
Faith's vision whited out as a lance of pure energy seemed to spear her through the chest; warmth, and light, and strength following the same path chill dread had taken through her veins, only three times as strong, driving everything out that didn't belong and leaving every nerve tingling in its wake. She felt her back arch, and a gasping breath dragged its way into her lungs--
"Wes," she croaked hoarsely as her heart lurched into motion again. She felt like she'd been kicked by a mule, but-- she also felt warm again. Whole. She blinked her eyes open to find herself flat on her back, staring into the face of a startled, bespectacled young man. Who wasn't her lover.
There was a ceiling behind him: a bland creamy color replacing the dim vault of stars. Did that mean she was alive again? Was she still in England? Faith struggled to make sense of what she was seeing, feeling heavy and sore and a little stupid, like the early days of Slaying when she'd woken out of nightmares about Kakistos after her latest futile attempt to drink and fuck the memories away.
The boy-Watcher gasped as she met his gaze, staggering back away from her, reaching for something on a side table and then making a swift, stabbing motion in her direction.
Faith blocked instinctively, feeling every muscle protest as she did: sore, yes, but back to her usual strength and quickness, thank fuck. Or... maybe a little more? Not that that made any sense. Or did it? Apocryphal stories about her sister Slayer's drowning experience fluttered in the back of her thoughts as she knocked his hand away and planted a bare foot in the middle of the kid's chest.
Bare? Yeah, someone had taken her boots off; and messed with her clothes, too. Her pants were still on, just unbuttoned, but her shirt had been torn open, nearly to the waist; the place where the necklace had rested was clearly visible between her naked breasts, a red mark burned on her chest in the shape of the Chi-Rho symbol. Anger pierced through her confusion, clearing her mind like the sharp, clear scent of Wes' favorite incense, and she shoved the guy off, kicking him all the way across the room. His head made a clearly audible thud as he impacted with the wall. Something small and cylindrical rolled away from limp, outstretched fingers.
"Wes?" Faith said again, hoarsely, glancing wildly around the room.
Lydia Chalmers uncurled from her crouched, self-protecting position against the wall, giving Faith a wary look behind her old maid's glasses. The broken chain from Faith's necklace dangled from her right hand, and there was a bright brand-mark across her palm, too. "I'm sorry; he isn't here. Faith...."
"What? Then how did you...." Faith coughed, feeling a faint echo of the earlier pain shoot through her, and pressed the heel of her hand against the new scar as she kicked her feet over the edge of the bed to push herself upright. "Damn; I feel like five miles of bad road. Where is he?"
Lydia just shook her head, stumbling over to her fellow Watcher's side on unsteady feet; she dropped to her knees again when she reached him, then caught up the syringe Faith had knocked from his hand and stabbed it into his leg. "I don't know; when Travers mentioned the necklace-- well, I wasn't even sure it would work, if Wesley still used the same triggers for preset enchantments as he did back at the Academy, but I had to do something. You have to get out of here while they're all busy, before they test the Potential Slayers again or send someone else in here to check Percy's work."
The boy-Watcher-- Percy? Really?-- groaned as the drug went into his thigh; his eyes fluttered open as he made a feeble attempt to swat Lydia's hand away, then rolled back in his head again as he slumped further against the wall.
"Get out...?" Faith repeated blankly, then pushed herself away from the bed with more urgency as she caught the other woman's meaning, looking around for her boots. If Travers and company found out she was up again before she got out of spell-casting range, her whole purpose in swallowing the poison in the first place would be wasted. Why the hell hadn't the woman just waited for Wes to wake Faith, then, or at least get her body out of the building first? Things had to be pretty dire if she was taking that risk.
"Right-- you said the Potentials were here?" she added, struck by a sudden thought as she finished straightening her clothes as best she could. "And that's where all the other Watchers are right now, the ones who're in this with Travers and ol' Dick?"
Lydia looked scandalized, but nodded in the affirmative as she got back to her feet. "All of Travers' cronies; though there are, of course, several others of the rank and file, elsewhere. Mostly the younger Watchers, and the special operations squads, who've been impatient with the Council's stagnant policies of late. Even most of those assigned to the Potentials; it's been several years now since a new Slayer was activated, and many of the field Watchers have been... restless." She took off her jacket as she spoke, handing it to Faith and carefully smoothing the wrinkles out of the pale blouse she'd worn beneath it.
Well, if Slayers had really been dropping like flies for most of the Council's existence... it did make a sick sort of sense. "You mean, they were getting impatient waiting for me to die," she said flatly, shrugging out of her ripped shirt and sliding her arms into the jacket. It was a tweedy monstrosity, a little long in the torso and snug under her breasts, exposing a deep vee of cleavage above the topmost button; but hell, call it a style update, at least it was better than letting the girls swing in the breeze.
Lydia nodded again. "I know Mr. Giles and your-- Wesley-- have pushed for reform in recent years, but I don't think this is the sort of reform they had in mind."
Faith snorted. "Yeah. No. So-- while they're distracted, what say we do something about that? Otherwise-- what's to stop 'em from just picking up where they left off and killing the next girl, too? "
"But what if they raise the null field again?" Lydia wrung her hands. "You'll be trapped!"
"Only this time I won't be drugged, unarmed, or locked away out of sight, out of mind." Faith turned out Percy's pockets, palming his knife and stake, then grinned and looked Lydia in the eye, still buoyed by Wes' spell and the Slayer energy zinging through her. How'd that quote of Xander's go...?
"I'm not the one who'll be trapped... they'll be the ones trapped here with me."
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