'So what's a girl like you doing in a place like that?'
'The demon bar. The thrills? The rush? The money? Or...' Faith tipped her head, giving Tara a once-over. 'You're not a demon in disguise, are you? You're not gonna grow claws and horns, and try to disembowel me when I'm not looking, are you?'
Tara flinched. 'A-a-actually...' She took a deep breath. 'Actually, I'm a witch.'
'A witch?' Faith's eyebrow arched. 'Cool. So what /are/ you doing there?'
'I'm... I'm just t-trying to decide what t-to do with my life.' Tara said. 'And getting s-some income in for Dawnie and me... a s-student loan doesn't go /t-that/ far...'
'Dawnie?' Faith asked.
'My s-sister. S-she was in the bar last night.'
'That klutz was your sister?' Faith's other eyebrow arched. 'She a witch too? Should I expect my head to explode all over the room anytime soon?'
Tara shook her head. 'N-no. M-my mother w-was a witch - I t-take after her. B-but Dawnie takes more after Dad.'
'Runs in the family, huh?' Faith considered. 'So... how's it go? They take you aside and say "Listen, kiddo, you're gonna be a witch, and there's absolutely nothing you can do about it"?'
Tara had the distinct - and guilty - pleasure of seeing Faith double-take. Whatever else the Slayer had been expecting, it *wasn't* total honesty.
Tara shrugged. 'I've known ever since I was little. It's like...' She thought for a moment. '...like giving a kid an atomic bomb to play with. It's /that/ dangerous. Which is why you have to be trained, to know what you're doing with it.'
'W-what about being the S-slayer? Did you have to-'
Faith shook her head. 'Nah, nothin' like that. Y'see, tweedboys can't keep track of /every/ possible Slayer-wannabe out there, so a lot slip through the cracks.'
She grinned. 'Like what happened to me. Sleeping stark naked in my bed, and *whoomph*, I get this massive /surge/ of energy. Now I know /I/ didn't do anything to make it happen, haven't got the faintest /clue/ what's goin' on... next thing I know, stick my head out the door, three vamps are crashing through the place because one thing they /don't/ mention on the Slayer manifest? Pretty much a vamp magnet. Even naked, couple of minutes, they're dust, and couple of hours later, this lady's at my door, saying you are the Chosen One, yadda yadda, the Slayer, yadda yadda...'
Her grin grew wider. 'First time I ever got first choice on anything in my /life/, gotta tell you.'
Tara couldn't stop herself grinning at that one - Faith's enthusiasm was proving infectious.
'So w-what about Sunnydale?'
'I-i t-thought t-that was w-why you wanted t-to talk.'
'Oh, right.' Faith thought for a moment. 'Okay. Sunnydale. Small town up the coast from here. Kinda town where nothin' ever happens, y'know the kinda place.'
'I /t-think/ I do...'
''Cept *this* town's a major demon magnet. Has been for ages. Sittin' on some kind of mystical nexus called the Hellmouth.'
Tara's face paled.
'Few years back, major badass vamp - calls himself the Master - comes outta nowhere, and makes the town his own personal snack bar. /Eventually/-'
'The W-watchers send down two S-slayers...' Tara whispered.
'And they get sent back in a casket.' Faith completed. 'Now, when it gets to /me/, they say "Go take care of Sunnydale", and /I/ say "Go swivel on it, okay?". 'Cause I wanna /see/ my next birthday, yeah? So I come down here, hear about this place called Caritas, in the mood for some karaoke, and first thing I see when I get there...?'
'Spike.' Tara finished.
'Yeah. And I /don't/ intend to go down to Sunnydale till I know what this Master wants, what's going down. There's a guy down that way, /he's/ pretty clued in...' Faith looked thoughtful. 'Hey, could /you/ take-'
Tara was already shaking her head. 'No. Magic only works on someone if they're in close range - or you have something of theirs.'
'Scratch that, then.' Faith's thoughtful expression remained. 'Hey, T...'
'Have you noticed that when you talk magic, you don't stutter?'
'Nope. Just thought I'd point it out.'
'So...' Faith said. 'You want in on this?'
Tara nodded, slowly.
Tara blinked. 'W-why?'
'Yeah. Why? /I'm/ in this to clear it up, make sure the next girl doesn't get landed with it. Why're /you/ getting involved? You've got the klutz to look out for...' Faith's eyes were appraising, assessing.
'B-because...' Tara took a deep breath. 'Because I don't w-want t-to s-see someone die, and know I c-could've done something about it. B-because I felt s-something...' She fumbled for the words. 'Because I felt s-something /wrong/, s-something out of /balance/ about t-the place.'
'Out of balance?' Faith repeated.
'I-I c-can't put it any better t-than that. Something... /w-wrong/. Unbalanced.'
Faith looked sceptical. 'And why's that matter?'
'B-because I'm a /w-witch/. And we took an oath, a long time ago, to uphold the balance - life and death, light and darkness.'
'So what stopped you?'
'Because I've got Dawn to look after. Because... and this is selfish, I know... I wanted a life of my own. I w-wanted to make s-sure that Dawn and I were safe. And because...' Tara looked down. 'I didn't know w-what was down t-there, didn't know w-what was wrong. Didn't /w-want/ t-to know, since t-that might draw its attention.
'B-but I /can't/ let s-someone go down t-there alone. N-not knowing w-what's down there...'
Faith took it in.
Then she stuck her hand out.
Tara looked at it, uncomprehending.
'Shake,' Faith prompted.
Tentatively, Tara took Faith's hand, and shook it gently.
When she looked up, the Slayer was grinning.
'Welcome to the club.'
Rupert Giles sat down at the kitchen table and let out a long breath.
He looked up at the clock. Half past one.
It was odd, he reflected, how you became more aware of time as you grew older. As you learned to watch, and wait.
That things /could/ be better, could always be better.
He knew that. Perhaps better than anyone else, he knew that.
It was what he'd struggled for, over the years. His oaths to the Council would not allow otherwise.
Even if the Council had abandoned this town, and the people within -
-he could not abandon his responsibilities.
Could never abandon them.
And so he remained here, year in, year out.
He remained, while those who fought alongside him...
At best, they lived and died.
He wondered, more and more often these days, if this wasn't some elaborate game of theirs. If they had decided to let him live, condemned him to see the young people around him live, fight and die in this endless battle, while he went on, watching, always watching.
Because they knew - they /knew/ - he would not abandon this town. That he had /chosen/ not to walk away from the responsibility.
Not even his home town. But still... he could not walk away.
Could not let what the others had fought for come to waste.
The door opened.
He looked up.
'Ah, you're back.'
The young woman who'd entered scowled. 'Of course I am. And /you're/ still moping at this table.'
'How /is/ university life?'
She slumped on the table. 'Boring. Boring. And boring. And may I point out, /you/ were the one who recommended this.'
'We had little in the way of alternative.' Giles reminded her. 'Hot cocoa? I've dredged up one of my old recipes - a particularly good one, if I say so myself...'
Her face lit up. '/Cocoa/? Ooh..!'
'I'll put some on, then.'
Could not walk away from this.
Did not /want/ to.
Almost like a daughter to him, sometimes. Others had come, gone... but she had remained.
Too old to be a parent, he had thought. But he had found himself a surrogate parent, nevertheless. To all who passed through his house. And he had wondered, each time, if this was how their true parent felt. Had felt. Knowing what must come.
Sending them out there.
To their fates.
He poured the cocoa out into two mugs and brought them to the table.
'Mm. Thank you.'
And more and more often, he mused, it was she who broke him out of his depression. Her acute observations, her eye for details, her ear for language... an invaluable asset in research. Willing and able to point out his errors, what he'd overlooked. Her willingness to say whatever was on her mind, and her clarity of vision. His greatest critic, and his oldest ally.
Like no-one else he'd ever met.
Perhaps that was /why/ he found her so refreshing to be with.
'What's so funny?'
He sipped his drink, and set it down.
'Hmm? Oh, nothing, Anya. Just an idle thought.'
The ex-demon eyed him, and went back to her drink.
Tara leaned back against her apartment door, and breathed out.
She'd barely had time to catch her breath the past few days. Things were going so /fast/...
A job. A job at a demon bar, no less.
Committing herself to Faith's objective. To learning about Sunnydale, and confronting what lurked there.
The future is /not/ on schedule. The Powers That Be are improvising with what they have...
Something went horribly wrong somewhere. Things are out of balance...
She closed her eyes. Not even home was a refuge, not any more...
Had it ever been?
Her eyes flew open.
For a moment there, for a moment-
No. It was gone.
She shook her head.
Most people would have written it off as a figment of their imaginations.
She had the feeling that doing that would be exactly the /wrong/ thing to do.
Stay normal. Stay normal.
Keep it down.
She opened the door.
And started giggling.
Spike looked up from his position on the bed. 'What's so funny?'
'N-nothing. /Really/. N-nothing...'
The sight of the blond vampire lying back on her bed, watching "Passions" on the little TV, was one that was going to stay with her for a very long time.
In a good way.
Although it /would/ be best not to mention that to Spike...
'Wonderful.' Spike muttered. 'Giggly witches and nosey klutzes. Just what I need to round off an absolutely /perfect/ day...' He looked up. 'So how'd it go with the Slayer-slut? Managed to get her to stake herself?'
'I-i agreed to h-help her out.' Tara said.
'What, in getting her a new wardrobe?' He looked Tara up and down. 'Though /your/ fashion sense could do with an upgrade.'
'I keep telling her to get a makeover. She never listens.' Dawn stuck in, from her position on the floor.
'Yeah, I can see how we wouldn't wanna lose the "doormat" look...'
Tara sighed, and wondered just what she'd done to deserve this. This /had/ to be karma for /something/ she'd done...
'Helping her w-with S-sunnydale.'
Spike's eyes flickered. 'Well, hurray for /you/. Why don't the two of you get yourselves killed while we're at it?'
Dawn looked innocent. 'So how'd /you/ manage to avoid dying, if you can't hurt humans?'
'My charm and good looks. What do /you/ think?' Spike snarled.
'Wow.' Dawn remarked. 'And here I was, thinking you broke into blood banks and drank the blood...'
Tara hid a tiny little grin. Score one for Dawn's side.
'Stake me now.' Spike muttered. 'Just stake me now.'
'We could always open the curtains.' Dawn suggested.
'Thanks, but no thanks.'
'So why'd you ask?'
Dawn looked up into her sister's face.
'Um. Homework. Yeah. Gotta get started. Right about now should do...'
Anya frowned, and drummed her fingers.
Giles refused to learn how to use the computer, on the grounds he was /already/ mired in the infernal, thank you so very much, and had no wish to descend any deeper. Which had left it down to her, as always, to sort it out.
This /wasn't/ one of the - not infrequent - emails for further information. Or their usual spam.
She leaned back in her chair.
'GILES! I THINK YOU NEED TO SEE THIS!'
Shortly afterwards came the sounds of a middle-aged Englishman panting up the stairs.
'What is it, Anya? If it's another of those free credit schemes-'
Anya indicated the screen.
Jen gave me this email address. Hope it's still active, 'cause I don't have anything else.
Jen told me you were the only guy who knew what was going down Sunnydale way... so I'm calling in.
Don't worry, tweedboys don't know I'm talking to you. If they did, they'd have coronaries. It's just me.
You still out there, G-man? If you are, give me a shout.
Faith (the Chosen One, the Slayer, you know the drill by now)
Giles' eyes widened.
'It's a Hotmail account. Lets her post from any computer.' Anya helpfully explained.
'Can you check if this thing is... authentic?' Giles asked.
Anya shook her head. 'Not encrypted. Could be from anyone, anywhere.'
Giles reread the email.
'Jen... Jennifer. I remember... I /remember/ her. She sent me a couple of letters informing me about her Slayer, and asking for more information. It must have taken her a lot to slip those past Travers...'
'Idiot.' Anya sniffed.
'While I /would/ agree with your assessment of Travers' intelligence,' Giles said, 'I need to know. /Could/ this be the Slayer?'
'The only way to find out is if we meet her.' Anya pointed out.
'Not the only way.' Giles said. 'Save that... that thing. It looks as if I'll be in the back room for the next hour or so...'
The Host eyed her carefully. 'You getting enough sleep, sugar plum?'
'S-sorry,' Tara apologised. 'I-i've just b-been rushed off my feet l-lately...'
The Host nodded. 'That /would/ be a problem... Don't worry. Last night of the week. Once it's over, go home, take a /long/ bubble bath, and listen to some Smokey. Lord knows you deserve it.'
Tara nodded gratefully. 'T-thank you.'
Something caught his attention by the entrance. 'Listen. You stay here, take a little breather, 'kay? Anyone complains, talk to me.' He bustled off.
'What the hell was /that/ about?' Spike wondered, leaning forward on the bar. 'He remember an appointment to have his tailor killed?'
'How do you /live/ with that brat?'
Tara blinked. 'Dawn? S-she's a b-bit clumsy, I know-'
'I don't mean that. I mean the whole "secret agent" thing, poking her nose in everywhere! Always on at you, asking this, asking that... Does she ever shut /up/?!'
A very strange thought occured to Tara then.
She looked at Spike again.
It /was/ possible...
'What? What is it?' Spike demanded.
'I-I think...' Tara began.
'Yeah? Spit it out, willya?!'
'I t-think s-she sees you as a p-potential big brother.'
'Say /what/?' Spike growled. 'No /way/ am I playing boyfriend-'
Tara shook her head. 'I d-didn't mean /b-boyfriend/. I m-meant /b-big brother/. Older b-brother.'
'Come off it!'
Spike sighed. 'Listen, do I haveta get into the bloodbag/vampire distinction again?'
An even odder idea occured to Tara.
Spike was /embarrassed/.
Having a 14 year old human girl get curious about him went completely against the whole Big Bad thing he'd built up. He didn't know what to /do/.
He couldn't hurt Dawn, couldn't tell her to go away...
For once in his life, Spike was at a /loss/.
That couldn't be it...
Tara stored the ideas away for closer examination.
And then she saw the look on Spike's face.
He looked as if his greatest dream - or his worst nightmare - had come true.
And he didn't know which it was.
She followed his gaze.
The Host was talking to a man in his late twenties, casual dress, his brown hair growing out of a short cut, back into a wave, his eyes obscured by the shadows. There was a guitar resting in his hand - a wannabe musician, at least.
The blonde woman standing behind them was watching them, an ironic cast to her eyes... as well as something else, an expression Tara couldn't identify, not from where she was sitting. Something that seemed to wear at the woman, at the sharp lines of her face. Her clothes were those of someone who'd never quite got the hang of that "relaxing" thing, even as a teenager.
And standing a little apart from them was a short girl- girl? woman? Tara couldn't pin it down. Something... almost fey... about her features. Long, dark brown hair trailing down her back. High forehead. Dark eyes.
The dress she wore was almost archaic - a black, full-length dress, the sleeves stretching down to cover the length of her arms. The silver filigree caught the overhead light, sparkled.
Tara would have thought she was showing a couple of friends around her haunts, if it weren't for the fact she wasn't human.
/That/, she could sense all too clearly.
She wasn't human.
Tara risked a look at Spike.
'Eurydice...' he murmured. 'My Eurydice.'
Eurydice. Wife of Orpheus in Greek myth, for whose sake he entered Hades, to retrieve her from the Underworld... only to lose her when he looked back as he left.
She wouldn't have thought Spike was that much of a reader.
But watching the woman, and watching the /way/ he saw her, she could well believe that he /would/ do that - and more.
'My dark princess. I would have pulled the stars from the heavens, and given them to you, had these hands the power...'
Reverie. Caught in reverie - in /remembering/.
The woman glided towards them, her movements on just this side of graceful.
'Dru...' Spike whispered.
Tara looked between the two of them.
Saw them. /Saw/ both of them.
'Surprised, Spike?' Dru said, raising her hand to his face. 'I /did/ promise I would see you again.'
'You did, love. You did.'
'If I had the boldest, bravest knight in all the land... I could take him with a kiss, and make him mine...'
'What /are/ you...?' Tara whispered.
Dru's eyes turned to her. 'Tell me, Keeper. Tell me what I am.'
Tara's voice was quiet. 'You have a human soul.'
Dru chuckled. 'You see, but you do not have the Sight.
'And neither do I. Not any longer. The price I paid for what they sold me...'
Whispering from the tables around them.
'Dru...?' Spike whispered. 'No... No. /Impossible/.'
Dru's voice was sing-song, soft. 'Nothing is impossible, if you know how it may be done.
'Did you think you were the only one with a curse, my pet?'
'But I am.' She leaned in closer to him. 'Broken and remade once more. As have you been.'
'Vampire. Souled.' Tara murmured. 'A vampire with a human soul.'
The whispers around her intensified.
'And myself, once again. Angelus broke me once, before /he/ was broken, and then the darkness came, and built me up, and broke me once more.' Dru laughed again, not unkindly. 'Because in the End of Days must there be a vampire with a soul... and the queen had outlived her usefulness. And so the darkness offered me to the light, and the light accepted.
'Accepted me, as it had rejected you.'
'/No./' Tara's voice was harsh. 'If you have a soul, *then leave him be*.'
Dru's eyes returned to Tara. 'When I found him, the light had cast him out, sent him falling headlong from the skies. I took him in, and made him mine. They had rejected him - *him*, his poet's soul, his human words. I took him, turned him, and remade him.
'That, I do not regret.
'Shall I tell you what I /do/ regret?
'That I never saw him with human eyes. With eyes that could know his soul.
'Of all the things I have lost, these hundred and forty years gone, their loss I most regret.'
Tara didn't look - didn't /listen/ - to Spike. Couldn't.
'You knew he would be here.' she accused.
'I did.' Dru acknowledged. 'Sweet child of mine... I could feel him wheresoever I was... and once he entered this city, I knew there would be a meeting.
'And a meeting with you, Gatekeeper.'
'/What/?' Tara demanded.
'Where there is a Gate, there is a Key. And a Beast.'
'You /lost/ the Sight.' Tara snapped.
'How long ago do you think that was? I /remember/ what I saw. My curse.'
For a moment, Dru's distant eyes came into focus.
'You two kids having fun?'
The Host raised an eyebrow. 'Obviously not. Not /my/ first choice for the vampire with a soul... but it's done and dusted. Tara, hon, mind if I get you alone for a moment?'
Spike turned his back on the bar, ostensibly going over the bottles at the back, while Dru and the blonde woman found a table.
Tara allowed the Host to lead her to another table as the man who'd entered with Dru got up on stage.
'Major, *major* anger coming off you back there,' the Host said. 'I think you need a time out, right about now.'
Tara's voice simmered with rage. 'She has a soul - *she* has a soul - and she can /hurt/ him like that?'
'Tell me. Which d'you think is worse? Letting him go on, believing she's dead? Or coming back, and letting him know what happened? No rush.'
'She threw it in his f-face. She /t-told/ him - t-to his /face/ - she never s-saw the man he was.'
'Never /knew/.' the Host corrected. 'They've got a history, sweetie. Over a hundred /years'/ worth of history together. Having a soul adds that extra layer of emotional complexity to the mix. And it's still new to her. She's been soulless far longer than she's been souled. Still some stuff she's gotta work through. Top all that off with the fact she's been crazier than Hendrix on acid for the last hundred-odd years... of /course/ it's gonna get nasty.'
'Broken and remade...' Tara said. '/T-that's/ w-what it meant.'
'Yep. Been rebuilt a bit - at least /halfway/ sane, probably better - then they resouled her. It's painful even when you've /remained/ sane. With the Sight, and the whole insanity thing...' The Host shuddered. 'I'd rather listen to Manilow. For a /week/.'
'W-why? W-why a vampire w-with a soul?'
The Host shrugged. 'Got me there, hon. /Especially/ now. Looks like somebody ain't been keeping up with the PTB...'
Tara turned to him. 'W-why? /Why/ are t-things unbalanced? W-what happened?'
The Host's mouth twisted upwards. 'Sweetie... like they say, love changes everything. Even thwarted love.'
'A-and... w-why don't vampires have a human s-soul? I s-saw it, s-saw the d-difference between t-them... but why?'
''Cause the soul goes when they get turned. Best I understand it, when a vamp gets turned, the soul moves out, hungry demon-animal moves in.' The Host tapped his head. 'The /mind/ still stays - so if you're insane /beforehand/, let's just say you're not gonna have much luck afterwards.'
'T-they're the same... but /n-not/ t-the same...' Tara said. 'T-they w-want blood... and t-the m-mind tells t-them how t-to get it. And t-they have no c-/conscience/, they don't /c-care/ about it. /Hungry/...'
'Pretty much. 'Course, that ain't the way the Watchers have it. Like every good story.- close enough to the truth that you don't worry. Makes it a bit easier for the Slayer - and them -to sleep nights.'
Tara's eyes were pale and horrified.
'Which's easier to kill - an evil demon wearing a human body? Or a soulless human who listens to the demon... and knows exactly what they're doing?'
'Oh no...' Tara whispered.
Copyright 2002 Imran Inayat.