There was a curtained window on the street level of the poppy den. From where she stood, leaning against a street lamp, Faith could see her dusty reflection. She lifted a hand to touch her lips, her cheekbones, a wisp of her dark hair.
She still wasn't used to the face looking back at her. President Wilkin's plastic surgeon had been incredibly talented. Sometimes she still expected to see her old slant of eyes, her old cheeks and lips. Well, the lips now were an improvement on the old ones, but for one important thing.
The love of her life had never kissed these ones.
Faith could also feel the hard insistent press of the knife hilt against her back while she leaned, waiting. She didn't wear the knife while she was driving, though it was nearby, but habit led to strapping it on the moment she exited whatever vehicle she was driving, habitually ignoring her new face in the rear-view mirror. Giles had just come and gone with a cold supper that Jenny had prepared; he saw her knife as if it were just another appendage, a limb as essential as an arm or leg.
She had had nothing to report to Giles. No sign or signal from Willow or Tara, so he had gone home.
She had already made her report to Wilkins.
She was hungry, so she had eaten. Slowly. Carefully. Just like Wilkins had taught her. The knife was a comforting weight to her; it always felt right in her hands.
It was her favourite knife. President Wilkins had given it to her.
She was a bit surprised at how much she actually missed him. He had become more a father to her than her natural father, who was currently rusting out his kidneys as an alcoholic in a maximum security prison. Wilkins understood her. What was more, Wilkins cared.
Wilkins was also the most diabolically brilliant and patient person she'd ever encountered.
The first quiet moment she had after the spectacular battle between Willow and Tara, Faith had contacted Wilkins to warn him that Tara had betrayed him. She had offered to "take care of Willow" for him, and thus negate any possibility of one of his djinn's becoming compromised, leading to a change in the overall plan.
He didn't bite.
"Haste makes waste," he had told her. "You're just not seeing the big picture."
He must have been speaking through speakerphone; she could hear the soft thock of his golf club hitting a ball in his personal office. Allan Finch would have been a sentinel nearby, never leaning.
"Then what should I do, boss?" Faith had asked.
"Patience is a virtue, even in a business like ours," he had replied, amiable as ever. Faith was not fooled by his seeming friendliness. Those he fooled and befriended often ended up dead. He went on to say that, "For one thing, we don't just kill, Faith. We destroy. And two, we don't destroy something until it's all used up. So Miss Rosenberg knows about my Tara? It will work to our advantage eventually. Patience is finding out just how. Besides, I've got you, my little Jackal, my ace in the hole. Let Miss Rosenberg be First Lieutenant, and let her think she owns the world. She doesn't know who is the head of the Drakensdvaerder Council, does she?"
Faith's answering chuckle was a little hollow.
Jackal. The name of her knife, and her own nickname, both gifts from Persia. From Wilkins.
The neighborhood this evening wasn't particularly quiet; even as she read from her red leather book her ears were always tuned for the slightest hint of action or violence. Not that there were any worthy adversaries here in the slums of Sunnydale. Her training had started long before the National Guard, long before Wilkins.
Here in Sunnydale there were street children, reeking and obnoxious, reminding her far too much of her own barren and noisome childhood. There were a few adults, world weary and distant; apathy the black thundercloud over their lives.
And there was Faith, leaning against the street lamp, reading her book, struggling to appear calm. Despite the rancid air, she breathed through her nose and murmured a mantra.
Her reflection peeked at her over the rim of the book. She looked older, quieter. Gone was the fire of her youth, the conflagration of energy and brightness of battle that had gotten her through the summer training camps, ignoring blackened eyes, cuts and scrapes. In its place was this unfamiliar woman, fettered and chained by self-hatred.
This struggle to appear calm was not so difficult now as it had been in the past. How amazing that she had learned the most from Wilkins, and not as an eager recruit of the Drakensdvaerder.
Thinking of those summer camps, the zeal she had once had for the cause, only now brought her to grief. Thinking of those summers led to thinking of the day it all ended.
It had taken time to work off the blotch on her record; no one believed that she was innocent. She was thrown from the Drakensdvaerder without mercy. Only after the requisite three years had passed to clear her record was Faith able to join the National Guard. When she had then been recruited to Wilkins personal staff, she had been headstrong, bitter, and foulmouthed.
"Does this posturing hold any purpose?" Wilkins had once asked her, mild as milk, after she had verbally and physically lambasted one of her peers. Her knuckles dripped in his blood, but it did not sate her.
The posturing was all she had. It hid the pain of the great betrayal.
Wilkins had begun teaching her moderation, in word just as much as in act or deed. Not that he was ever squeamish about ordering the occasional assassination as was the prerogative of any ruling politician, but he did command moderation even in that very act itself; a simple edict to just do it right so it only had to be done once.
"Haste makes waste," was his favourite saying. There was nothing worse than having to murder someone twice, due to unseemly haste or ineptitude. Ineptitude led to officials, and police, and bribery. He once had to shell out a million dollars to buy silence for one of her "hasty" kills. He began the taming of her hard behaviour, proving to her that boundaries had to be set and maintained.
A river, he explained, is only powerful because there are banks on each side to contain it. Just like a bullet is powerful, because there is a trajectory mandated by the barrel of the pistol.
"If you are going to be my weapon," he had said, "then you need to have boundaries as well. Trust me, follow my lead, and you will become more powerful than you can imagine. You can get back everything that was taken away from you."
There was only one thing that Faith wanted more than power, and it was something she couldn't ever get back.
Drinking to excess stopped, as did her foul language and cloudy temperament. Though she never became the neat freak that he was, she now understood the comfort and simple joy of a tidy home. He could never quite cure her of cigarets, though.
Or of mental self-flagellation concerning the person she loved. Thinking of that always led to thinking of Persia.
Persia. The cradle of the world.
Something had happened so soon after Wilkins had first hired her, when she was still rough and uncouth; no more than a brute savage. He was on a presidential tour, a diplomatic mission, of a sort, to the Shah. While there she had saved him from a very talented hassassin, earning herself a knife wound in her gut in the process. She had been only three weeks into her contract with him at the time; it was that night he gave her the knife and her nickname, both derived of the same word.
In Persian, shaghal. The Jackal.
Only later did he tell her he had ordered the hit himself, just to test her. She had been furious, lashing out at him with fists and tongue. After he had subdued her, he asked her to start meditating. "Control your outbursts," he said.
"Be a river," he said.
She became his predator instead; the desert fox, the Jackal, blessed with a new purpose in life. For now, that purpose included Willow Rosenberg, the Gyptian, and the little red book in her hands.
Dusk was falling with soft majesty. If not for the smell, she might have enjoyed having to stay here and stay calm. Despite her outward demeanor, Faith felt incredibly restless; it gave her a perverse sort of pleasure to conquer that restlessness, to deny it any power. Wilkins would be proud of her when she would make her next report. Yet as minutes passed, she nearly wished someone would come and pick a fight, just so she could work off some of her excess energy.
Nought was sent to her but rats and the smell. She crushed their skulls under her heel when she could, but she would not chase them and stomp them like some petulant child. She was a river now.
She waited. Calm. Ignoring her reflection in the window, reading her book.
It also gave her perverse pleasure to read this book, knowing the pains of reading from it were so very great. She knew she would only get stronger if she could just master this pain, as she mastered all physical pains. It was a martyr's stripe, this book, a welcoming whiplash against her back.
Besides, the words held her captive; she was enslaved by them, and this enslavement was the last thing, maybe the only thing, Wilkins did not know about. He knew the book existed, but he always respected her privacy in regards to it.
Just as she always respected the privacy of the one locked cabinet in his home office.
The person she had loved wrote these words, wrote them especially for her, in a two-way magical diary sold to the young or impressionable tourists of the Far East. Faith didn't know what magical mechanism caused it to work the way it did - it operated nearly completely similarly to a chat room via the Interlink on computer vid screens; the difference being the right variety of ink to write with.
Faith hadn't had a supply of the ink for some time now, which didn't matter anyway. The beloved person who had written these words was already dead. There was no more time for apologies.
The pages were worn and ragged with time and much use. It was easy for Faith to find the passages that hurt the most. The pain of reading the words was delicious and intense.
August 4, 20xx
Faith? Faith, are you there?
I need to talk to you.
I know you're mad. Please write back.
August 5, 20xx
Come on, Faith. Write back. It's important.
Faith, I swear by my whole box of Oreo cookies, I need to talk to you. Yes, I know it's an inappropriate time for humour, but I also know you love Oreos. If you talk to me, I'll send you a box and even put a sticky note on it proclaiming that it's entirely yours. I won't even eat out all the good white stuff in the middle.
I'm serious, Faith. Write back.
August 6, 20xx
So you're ignoring me. I get it. I deserve it.
But don't you get it, Faith? I did it because I love you!
Damn it, Faith. I love you, all right! I said it! I've always wanted to say it! Now get out your friggin pen and write back! You're still in danger!
Get out of my life, Buffy. I don't need you. I've never needed you.
Faith closed the book and closed her eyes.
There was more writing in the book, but it was too little, too late.
A soft noise whisked into her consciousness; she opened her eyes to behold Rosenberg and the djinn walking down the rickety and narrow staircase. She almost looked down at her phone to see if she had somehow missed a call, but her gaze was arrested by the sight in front of her.
They were holding hands, and the street lights that shone so callously on the detritus and refuse of the alley was gentler to them, alighting delicately, smoothing the lines of shadows on their hands. Neither of them were limping, and there was pinkness in their cheeks.
The book was still in her hands, and Rosenberg's curiosity was legendary. Faith slowly put it away, as if she didn't care that it was seen. Sudden movements would arouse her suspicion.
Anyanka must have assisted them. Rosenberg had always been talented at getting what she wanted, however she wanted it. What wheedling art had she connived to get a cure from the purveyor of poppies?
Did Tara know how manipulative Rosenberg was? What the Drakensdvaerder really did?
No, she's only a pawn, of the Marshal General and the ruling Council. Near useless, especially in the big picture Wilkins had promised.
Tara was looking at her strangely. Faith withstood her glance, holding her trust in the talents of the plastic surgeon, and in the talents of the now dead shaman who had finished the job. Faith had been a familiar face to the djinn; all collared djinns, in fact, when she worked with Wilkins.
So many sacrifices, and all rewards were brass between her teeth; bitter and ill nourishment.
So many secrets.
Despite their unnatural healing, Faith carried up the cooler of food for them, and was surprised to be pulled aside by the Apothecary. Rosenberg was sitting at the table, her face lustrous and endearing, which only made Faith hate her more. But then Tara whispered into her ear, and Faith couldn't help but smile.
She hadn't known Tara for very long, in either capacity of her work. The woman was more a vixen than Faith had anticipated.
Pretences had to be maintained. Faith left at once.