Justice League Xander:

Choices We Make

 

By Paradox761

Paradox761@mail.com

http://members.tripod.com/~Paradox761

 

Disclaimer: I do not own any of these characters, nor do I claim to. No copyright infringement is intended so please don't sue, I don't have any money anyway.

 

Spoilers: “Double Date” (JLU)

 

Summary: “When your world view changes and you start questioning everything, how long before you start questioning yourself as well?” Xander finds himself pondering this, with some old friends and some new enemies along for the ride.

 

Author's note: This story is part of the Justice League Xander series, and a direct sequel to “No Answers, Just Questions” (http://members.tripod.com/~parabeast1761/NAJQ.htm) so that story should be read before you read this one. The rest of the series, along with all my other stories, can be found at my website (link above). Enjoy :)   Special thanks to Torbin Pace, Tenhawk, Rob Clark, nutjobb82, Hatten, Robert Jackson, Vlad the Impish, Dennis Sicz, Garg oyl, Bill, Riana1 and Bobboky for all the feedback and support. It's greatly appreciated.

 

*

(1/3)

What is it that defines us as good or evil? Are some people just born one way or the other? Is it genetic? Is it our environment? These were the questions that I kept asking myself as I delved deeper into the seedy underbelly of human depravity that is Hub City. I had been fighting Evil with a capital ‘E’ for so long that I had forgotten one very important fundamental truth about human beings. We are all good, and we are all evil. The choices we make every day are what define us, and on any given day any one of us can choose either path. Our environment or our genetics may influence those choices sometimes, but at the end of the day we all have free will. And that’s what makes each and every one of us responsible for our own souls. Sometimes it’s black and white, and sometimes it’s gray and slightly less gray. Every day brings new choices. I just hope that I’m making the right ones.

*

“Phone for you, Xander! It’s Giles!” Tamika yelled from downstairs.

Xander was upstairs in the library of his very own slayer HQ in Hub City, or as he and his slayers called it, the dorm. Spread out before him on the table he was seated at were books and newspapers and various other printouts of things that he was pouring over. He took his attention away from them and picked up the cordless phone that sat next to him. He pushed the talk button and put it to his ear.

“Giles?”

Xander, hello,” Giles’ voice came back. “It’s early, I called your apartment first thinking you’d be there.”

“Just getting a jump on some research,” Xander said, not bothering to tell the elder Watcher that he hadn’t even been to bed yet. “What’s up?”

“Well, there’s a bit of a situation that I wanted to make you aware of.”

“Apocalypse?”

“No, nothing like that. It’s Faith, we’ve lost track of her.”

“Faith? Isn’t she in Metropolis?”

“She was, up until about a month ago as near as we can tell. She failed to check in, and when we tried to contact her we found that her phone number had been disconnected. A few of the Watchers in Metropolis tried to find her, but her apartment was cleaned out too. Most people here think she just burned out, got tired of it all and decided to disappear.”

“But you’re not so sure,” Xander said.

“No, I’m not. She hasn’t been showing any signs of increased stress lately, nothing that would make me think she was being overworked. And if she did decide that she no longer wished to work for the Council, why wouldn’t she just tell someone?”

“Any signs of foul play?”

“None. Just last week in fact she was spotted on the street in Gotham City by one of the local Watchers. When he identified himself to her, she took off running and disappeared into the crowd.”

“So whatever she’s up to she’s trying to keep the Council out of it,” Xander said. “You’re not thinking...”

“That she’s gone rogue again? I sincerely hope not, but I can’t ignore the possibility. I’m telling you all of this in case she contacts you. If she truly has just grown weary of the Council and decided to leave our fold, I just want her to know that she doesn’t have to fear any reprisal from us. But if she is in some kind of trouble...” Giles said, trailing off.

“You’re really worried about her, aren’t you?” Xander asked. He had almost forgotten until just then that after the Sunnydale hellmouth was closed, Faith had stayed on with Giles in London while the rest of the Scoobies scattered to the four winds on various assignments. Giles even started training Faith again. There may have been a small amount of guilt involved Xander speculated, on both sides. Giles had always partially blamed himself for Faith’s turn to the dark side, wondering what more he could have done as her Watcher to prevent it. And Faith certainly had enough guilt to go around. The two of them bonded during that time, grew closer. Faith learned to trust again, and Giles felt needed again.

“More than a little, yes,” Giles admitted.

“Okay, I’ll keep my ear to the ground and let you know what I hear,” Xander said.

“Thank you Xander, I appreciate that. I have a few more phone calls to make, so I’ll leave you to your research.”

“Sure thing. You’ll let me know if you hear anything more?

“Of course. Goodbye Xander.”

“Bye Giles.”

Xander turned the phone off and set it back down on the table. He put his elbows up on the table and let his chin rest on his folded hands. Thoughts tumbled through his head like clothes in a dryer.

“So what’s up? The world coming to an end again?”

Xander looked up to see Tamika standing just inside the library. Giles’ call had obviously peaked her curiosity. He shook his head. “It’s Faith, she’s fallen off the Council’s radar. Giles is worried about her, wanted me to keep my eyes and ears open.”

“Faith, huh? Never met her but from what I’ve heard isn’t possible she just decided to move on?”

“Maybe,” Xander said, still looking lost in thought. “But part of me can’t help but feel like this is just another piece of the puzzle.”

“Oh, here we go, the puzzle analogy again. You’ve been spending too much time with Rodor, you’re starting to think that everything is a conspiracy.”

“Not a conspiracy, just connected somehow,” Xander said. “It’s hard not to. I feel like my eyes have been opened, and I’m seeing everything in a completely different light now. When you make no assumptions about what’s possible and what isn’t, information just has a way of...fitting together.” Xander looked up and saw Tamika looking at him skeptically. “Maybe you’re right, I am starting to sound like Tot,” he said, using the nickname that he had given the scientist.

“You know what I think it is?” Tamika asked rhetorically. “Information overload. You sit here and stare at all this stuff for hours on end, some of it is bound to run together. When was the last time you slept?”

“Mika, I appreciate your concern, but I’m fine, I promise.”

“No you’re not fine. You spend all your days in here researching, demons and rituals, crime syndicates and now this Huntress character that’s shown up,” she said, looking down at one of the newspaper headlines on the table. “And you spend all your nights out there as the Question, dealing with the human filth in this city while we deal with the demonic. You hardly sleep anymore, you don’t eat anything but take-out. You can’t keep this pace up much longer, you’re going to burn out. Xander, please, we’re all worried about you. Especially the girls that don’t know anything about your extra curricular activities. You have to slow down.”

Xander rubbed his face. Tamika was right, he knew that, he was exhausted. But he was close to something, he could feel it. He didn’t know what it was, but he felt like he was on the verge of putting it all together. “Okay, I’ll make you a deal. You sit down and let me bounce a few ideas off of you for a while, and I promise to go home and get at least five hours sleep before I go out tonight.”

“Eight hours,” Tamika counter offered.

“Six.”

“Deal,” she said, pulling out a chair and sitting down across from Xander. “So, what are you looking at?”

Xander tossed her a newspaper across the table. “The Huntress,” he said. The front page of the paper had an artist’s conception based on eye witness accounts of a tall, leggy, raven-haired woman in a purple outfit with a cape and mask. “She intrigues me,” he said.

“Oh, I bet she does,” Tamika said, looking at the drawing. “She looks like your type.” Xander shot her a look but she didn’t even notice. She just shook her head as she looked at the paper. “I will never understand this country’s obsession with these mask and cape types, no offense,” she said, looking up at Xander. He just nodded, indicating that none was taken. “My father was a firefighter in this city for twenty-five years, saved probably hundreds of lives, and the only time his picture was in the paper was for his obituary. But some clown in long underwear and a mask saves a kitten in a tree and it’s front page news? I just don’t get it.”

It’s flash and substance,” Xander said. “And flash sells more papers than substance. It doesn’t make your father, or you for that matter, any less of a hero. Everyone who matters knows that.”

“So which are you, deep down? Flash or substance? The Question or Xander Harris?”

“There’s nothing that says I can’t be both. It all depends on what choices I make that day, which mask I put on.”

“So what is it that intrigues you about her? You think she might be both too?”

“Let me put it to you this way. When a person decides what they want to do with their lives, and they decide that they want to help people, to make a difference, what does a normal person do? They become a cop, or a firefighter, or join the Peace Corps, right? Or maybe, like us, something chooses them and they become part of something bigger. But if you decide to put on a mask and a costume and hit the streets to risk your life and not get paid for it, the way I see it it’s for one of two reasons. One, headlines, publicity, celebrity. Those types don’t usually last too long, they figure out pretty quick that the trade off isn’t worth it. Or two, you’ve got something to hide. Doesn’t always have to be something sinister, I think most times it’s some kind of deep dark inner pain that pushes you, makes you strive for vengeance or justice or whatever else you may be after.”

Xander grabbed another newspaper from his pile and thumbed through it for a moment until he found what he was looking for. He folded it over and passed it to Tamika. “Take a look at this,” he said. “It was taken by a witness with a camera phone.” Tamika looked, it was a photo of the Huntress. She was running away, her cape spread out behind her, but she just happened to look over her shoulder when the picture was snapped. Her cape obscured most of her face, but her eyes were clear. “Look at those eyes,” Xander said. “That’s determination. That’s the same look that I’ve seen in the eyes of every slayer I’ve ever met. She’s after something, and I don’t think it’s publicity or celebrity.”

“So what do you think it is? Vengeance, justice, or something else?”

Xander bit his lower lip as he thought. “I don’t know, and that’s what worries me.”

“Why?”

“Because if the day ever comes where I have to stand between her and what she’s after, that’s a fight that I don’t think I can win.”

Xander.”

The two looked to the library door to see Dr. Aristotle Rodor standing in the doorway, holding a manila envelope thick with papers. His gray hair was unkempt, and the bags under his eyes testified that he was just as sleep deprived as Xander was.

“Tot, come in, sit down,” Xander said with a smile. “You look like hell.”

“Really?” Rodor asked, crossing the room and taking a seat. “I was just about to say the same thing to you.”

“Touché,” Xander offered. “I guess we’ve all been working weird hours lately. How’s the job search coming?”

“Unsurprisingly, not very good. Pharmaceutical companies are rather reluctant to hire a known whistle blower, and my reputation as a conspiracy nut makes it hard to get a research grant.”

“I’m sure you’ll find something soon, Doctor,” Tamika said.

“Thank you Tamika, I hope so. In the meantime, I have that research you asked me to look into for you Xander. It seems your theory was correct.”

“What theory?” Tamika asked.

Rodor set the envelope down on the table. “I looked into all of the known activities of the Huntress, and so far every one of her targets has been related to, or an operation of none other than Steven Mandragora.”

Jabba the Mobster?” Tamika asked. “What’s his relation to this?”

“I don’t know yet,” Xander said. “But I started having my suspicions when I noticed that Huntress had taken out a lot of local mob hangouts. And with Mandragora turning state’s evidence, that can’t be just a coincidence.”

“Yeah, he’s got himself a real sweetheart deal with the Feds to testify against Rupert Thorne,” Rodor said. “And rumor has it that they’ve got him stashed in a safe house right here in Hub City until the trial. No doubt he’s still running his businesses, right under their noses.”

“Assuming that the Huntress has reached that same conclusion, and she’s got some kind of beef against Hub City’s resident lard ass albino mafia don, she could be shaking down his guys looking for someone who knows where that safe house is,” Xander surmised.

“My thoughts exactly,” Rodor agreed.

“Don’t take this the wrong way guys, but so what?” Tamika said. “Even if she does find the safe house, he’ll be surrounded by FBI. And even if she does kill him, not to sound callous, but I doubt a lot of tears are going to be shed by anyone. Is this really something we need to be looking into?”

Mandragora isn’t the one I’m worried about,” Xander said. He put his hand on his chin and seemed lost in thought for a moment.

After a minute or so he pulled some papers together into a pile and stood up. “Thanks for your help with this Tot, I really appreciate it,” he said, reaching out and shaking the other man’s hand. “I’m going to go home and get some sleep, as ordered,” he said, glancing at Tamika. “You should do the same, you deserve it. Mika, I’ll be back tonight before patrol, I’ll see you then.” Tamika nodded as Xander left the room and headed out of the house.

“I wonder what that was about,” Rodor said. “He seemed...distracted.”

“That brain of his has latched onto something,” Tamika said. “And it’s going a mile a minute, I’m sure. No offense Doc, but I think you’re a bad influence on him.”

*

I lied to Tamika. I only got about three hours of sleep that day. A couple of puzzle pieces were starting to fit together, and I had more research to do. I didn’t want to tell Mika or Tot what I was thinking, I could have just as easily been wrong. My brain seeing connections where there weren’t any, just like my senior slayer had told me. But I wasn’t wrong. And with every piece of the puzzle that came together, I started to get more and more scared. Dealing with the Huntress was going to be far more dangerous than I had thought.

*

The Huntress dodged another punch, grabbing her attacker’s arm and tossing him over her shoulder like a rag doll. He collided with the wall of the barroom and slumped to the floor. Two more thugs came at her swinging. She dodged and weaved away from the blows expertly, but then another man grabbed her from behind. Of course she was outnumbered, she was always outnumbered, but still it wasn’t like her to lose control of a fight this much. They had been ready for her as soon as she walked in the room. She should have expected that, she had been taking out Mandragora’s operations one by one all over the city, she should have known that they’d be expecting her. It didn’t matter though, she was determined to get what she’d come after, and no amount of mindless mafia goons were going to stop her.

She reached back and grabbed the thug behind her, flipping him over her head and throwing him to the floor. He landed with a thud and a groan. Huntress looked up to see who was next, and that’s when she heard it. The sound of a gun cocking from behind her. She was fast, but not fast enough to turn around before whoever had gotten the drop on her could pull the trigger. She was done and she knew it. But the shot never came, instead there was the sound of cracking wood, a cry of pain, and the thud of a body hitting the floor. When she turned around, she saw a man with no face. He wore a long blue coat and a fedora, and he was holding what was left of a broken wooden chair standing over an unconscious goon. He dropped the chair and leaned down to pick up the man’s fallen gun, slipping into his pocket.

“You should be more careful,” he said. At least, she assumed he was the one who had said it, his chin was moving up and down. “These guys play rough.”

Huntress smiled. “That’s just the way I like it,” she said with a lascivious grin. Then without turning away from the Question, her fist lashed out to the side, colliding with the jaw of a thug that thought he was sneaking up on her. He fell to the floor, and just like that, the fight was on again.

The two vigilantes made quick work of the remaining hoods, and soon found themselves to be the only ones left standing. Huntress turned to Question, offering him another smile. It was confident and disarming, with no trace of any genuine emotion. A mask underneath the mask, Question thought wryly. “I know you,” she said. “I heard about you on the news. The Statement, right? No, that’s not it, The Prepositional Phrase.”

“Cute,” Question responded.

The leggy vigilante smirked. “Thanks for the assist,” she said. “Not that I needed it, I had things under control.”

“Of course,” Question replied. He knew better than to get between a slayer and her ego.

“I figured we’d run into each other sooner or later. I bet you’re wondering what I’m doing here.”

“You’re looking for someone who knows where the Feds have Steven Mandragora stashed,” the Question answered casually. The confident, disarming smile disappeared. “Why don’t we have this conversation someplace a little more private,” he said. He started toward the club’s back door, which led out into an alley. When Huntress didn’t follow, he turned and looked at her over his shoulder. “Come on, these guys aren’t going anywhere for a while.”

Her momentary lapse of attitude over, Huntress followed him out into the alley with a confident swagger and an expression that said she was all business. “What do you know about Mandragora?” she asked.

“Quite a bit actually,” Question replied. “I know he made his bones up in Boston, working as muscle for the Bertinelli crime family. I know that even then, his lust for power and money consumed him. He murdered Guido Bertinelli, the head of the family, and his wife Carmela in front of their six-year-old daughter. He killed anyone that got in his way as he rose through the ranks of the mafia. From Boston to Gotham, where he became Rupert Thorne’s chief enforcer, and from Gotham to Hub, where he started his own crime syndicate. He’s held this city in a stranglehold of violence and corruption ever since. That is until a month ago, when he seemingly for no reason turned himself over to the Feds and decided to testify against Thorne in exchange for full immunity and a lifetime of witness protection.

“That’s when you showed up in Hub and started taking his businesses apart one by one. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the effort, it’s a job that needs to be done and you seem well suited for it. But I just have to question your motives. Personal vendettas have a way of getting...messy.”

“You might know a lot about Mandragora, but you don’t know dick about me!” Huntress spat.

The Question paused for a moment. “That’s where you’re wrong, Faith,” he said. “I know more about you than you know.”

The color drained from Huntress’ face as the mask under her mask all but disappeared. “But...how...”

The Question continued, his tone soft, almost gentle. “I know that you were adopted by Frank and Elizabeth LeHane when you were seven years old. Two years after that Frank was killed in a car accident. Elizabeth became depressed, started drinking. The less said about the years that followed the better, I think. Then when you were seventeen you were called, you became a slayer. You fought in Boston for a while, until your watcher was killed. Then you moved to Sunnydale, fought along side the slayer there for a while until you accidentally killed a man during a fight in an alley. You got scared, your so-called friends weren’t there to support you, so you turned on them, started working for the mayor. Eventually Buffy stabbed you, you ended up in a coma, woke up a year later, tormented Buffy and her friends for a bit before heading up to L.A. where the vampire Angel took you in. Turned yourself in, spent some time in prison, broke out to help Angel, ended up back in Sunnydale helping to defeat the First Evil, then London, then Metropolis, and now here. Does that about cover it?”

Huntress was wearing a glare that could melt steel. “So you think you know everything then?” she hissed.

“Well, that was the abridged version, I’ll admit. And I left out the most important part, the beginning. You were born Faith Bertinelli, and when you were six years old, you watched Steven Mandragora murder your parents.”

Huntress just stood there, her fists clenched, like she was daring him to say one more word.

“I’m not saying all of this to be cruel, Faith. I’m just trying to be up front with you about what I know. Faith disappeared around the same time the Huntress showed up. All it took was a little research into your adoption records to put the rest of it together.”

“So what do you want from me?” Huntress asked, finally bringing herself to speak again. “You trying to save that fat bag of shit’s life?”

“No Faith, I’m trying to save yours. You’ve worked so hard to earn your second chance. Do you really want to blow it all now and end up in prison again?”

“You think I’m scared of prison? You think I put this mask on to protect me from the cops?”

“No. I think you put it on because you’re afraid what your friends would think if they knew what you were doing, that they would think you’ve turned again. Because what they think of you means more to you then you’d ever admit, even to yourself.”

“Maybe you should call yourself The Answer, because you seem to think that you’ve got them all. So you think you’re just going to come in, sweep me onto the back of a big white horse and rescue me from myself like some big hero.” She paused. “Don’t you remember what happened the last time you tried that, Xander?” she asked, with an expression that said ‘take that!’

“I’m not trying to rescue you, Faith. I never was. You’re the only person that can do that. I’m just trying to show you that you’re someone worth rescuing.”

Faith just looked at him, mouth agape, speechless for the third time that night.

“What? Was I supposed to be surprised that you figured out who I am? Was that your big trump card? Did I spoil it for you?” She just stared at him. “That’s one of the things that I always admired about you, Faith. You judge people based on their actions, you don’t make assumptions about them based on how they present themselves. If anyone was going to figure it out, it’d be you. I knew that when I came here tonight.” He paused. “Plus, you saw me fight. That had to have been a dead giveaway.”

She actually smiled at that. “You’re not a bad scrapper, X. It might not be pretty, but you get the job done.”

Question rubbed his sore jaw and wondered what kind of damage he’d find later when he took his mask off as he thought about that. “Maybe,” he said. “My point is that I trust you, and you can trust me. I’m not going to tell the Council about any of this, I’m not going to turn you over to the cops, I’m not even going to try to stop you. It has to be your decision, or else it doesn’t mean anything. I’m only going to ask you to do two things. Consider what I’ve said tonight. Mandragora is not worth throwing your life away.”

“And the second thing?”

“Call Giles, let him know that you’re okay. He’s worried sick about you.” And with that, the Question tucked his hands in his coat pockets, turned around and started toward the end of the alley. Leaving the Huntress alone with her thoughts.

*

I thought the direct approach was the best way to go with Faith. Lay all the cards on the table. I needed her to trust me, and if she caught me concealing something I knew, that would have gone out the window. After our encounter though, I was starting to rethink that. I think to her it felt like I was attacking her with her past, that I was judging her. Maybe I should have told her who I was right away, instead of letting her figure it out and trying to convince her that I knew she would. Maybe I should have hit her with the Giles thing first instead of last, let her know right away that there were people who were worried about her. I kept thinking about that night in her motel room all those years ago, the last time I had tried to help her, and how disastrously that had gone. So far I wasn’t doing too much better.

I was second guessing myself. I’d been doing that a lot lately, ever since I started putting on that mask and suit and going out to try and deal with some of the human evil in the world. I was walking the line between good and evil, and every night it felt like it was getting harder and harder not to step over it. It’s real easy to pretend your not responsible for your actions when you’re just an anonymous figure in the dark, when there’s no face to look at in the mirror. But at the end of the day, the mask has to come off, and all you’re left with is yourself.

Flash and substance, that’s what I told Tamika. I told myself that I could be both, but maybe I was just trying to have my cake and eat it too. To be the responsible Watcher by day, who took care of his slayers and kept them alive, and the impulsive vigilante at night, who took chances regardless of the consequences. Was I really trying to make a difference, or was I just giving in to the lure of violence with anonymity?

Or maybe all this self doubt was just inevitable. After all, when your world view changes and you start questioning everything, how long before you start questioning yourself as well? All of this was running through my head as I thought about Faith, and how I was going to help her. But the ball was in her court now, so all I could do was wait for her next move.

*

Xander sat at the table in the library in the slayer dorm, pouring over some ancient tome, trying to find some information on a demon that one of his slayers had run into the previous night. What he was really trying to do was not think about Faith. It had been two days since the night he ran into her, and no one had heard from her or the Huntress since. Which meant one of two things Xander surmised. She was either keeping a low enough profile to stay off his radar now that she knew that he knew what she was doing, or she was thinking about what he had said to her. He was hoping that it was the latter, but he honestly didn’t know what to think anymore.

Xander was so distracted with his own thoughts that he didn’t notice one of his slayers, Trish, standing in the doorway of the library. She rapped her knuckles on the door jam lightly to get his attention. Xander.”

“Oh, hey Trish,” Xander said, looking up. “What is it?”

“There’s a woman here to see you, she says it’s important.”

“Uh, okay,” Xander said, thinking it was rather odd. Who would know to find him here? “Send her up.”

Trish nodded and disappeared down the hall. A moment later, Xander got an even bigger surprise when Faith walked into the library. She was dressed simply in jeans and a tee-shirt, nothing as tight or revealing as what she normally wore. She was trying to not stand out, Xander realized. She held something in her hand as she nervously crossed her arms in front of herself. “Faith,” he said, standing up. “How did you know where to find me?”

“I got the address from the Watchers’ records before I left Metropolis, just in case I...ever needed it. Anyway, I’ve been thinking about what you said,” she said, crossing the room. She put the object she was holding down on the table. Xander looked down and saw that it was the purple mask she wore as the Huntress. “And I want you to know that I’m not going to hide behind this mask anymore. I’m going to take responsibility for my actions, and when this is all over I’ll turn myself in.”

Xander sighed. “Faith, that’s not what I...this isn’t about taking responsibility, it’s about not throwing your life away for the sake of revenge. Let the law take care of Mandragora.”

“How can you, of all people, say that? You know as well as I do that the law can’t do a damn thing against guys like Mandragora, especially in Hub. That’s why you put on that suit and that mask every night, to take care of what the law can’t or won’t, and bring a little justice to this city. I’m just trying to do the same thing.”

“It’s not the same thing. What I do might not be within the letter of the law, but what you’re talking about is murder. There’s a difference between walking the line and stepping over it. You’re not looking for justice, you’re looking for revenge.”

“And so what if I am? Aren’t I entitled to some after what he did to me?! The Feds are giving him immunity and a lifetime of witness protection, where’s the justice in that?!”

“Maybe there isn’t any, but if you kill him, it doesn’t matter what he’s done, it’s still murder. And you’re better than that, Faith.”

Faith looked at the floor. “Maybe I’m not,” she said in a soft voice. After a moment she lifted her head and met Xander’s eyes again. “I heard the whispers back at Watcher HQ in London. I saw the sidelong glances and the tense body language whenever I was around. And why shouldn’t they? It’s not like I’ve ever given anyone a reason to trust me. Maybe what they all said about me is true, I’m just a killer. It’s the only thing I’ve ever been good at.”

“I don’t believe that for a second Faith, and I don’t think you do either. Who gives a shit what those stuffed tweed jackets think about you, they’re wrong. You made mistakes, but you paid your debt, and you have earned our trust. Everyone who matters knows that.”

“Why should they trust me, why should anyone? I was conspiring with the enemy, I betrayed you all. I hurt people Xander, I hurt you. For God’s sake, I almost killed you!”

“And I forgave you, a long time ago, we all have. You’ve been given a second chance Faith, not many people get that. Don’t squander it just because a few people who don’t know any better think you don’t deserve it. Don’t prove them right by turning your back on the people who believe in you.”

“You did?”

“I did what?”

“You forgave me?”

Xander looked into Faith’s eyes and he saw something there that he never expected to see from the brunette slayer. He saw fear, and uncertainty. He saw a scared little girl, just looking for approval. “I...yes. Yes I did.”

“Why didn’t you ever say anything before?” she asked.

Xander paused. “I guess...I guess I didn’t think that you needed that from me. You always seemed so sure of yourself, I guess I just thought you had come to terms with that part of your life, that you had moved past it. I didn’t want to reopen old wounds.”

But of course, she hadn’t moved past it Xander realized. It was something that she carried with her always. The guilt, the shame, hidden just beneath the surface under the mask of self-confidence that she showed to the world. That was something Xander knew a lot about, hiding behind masks. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I should have said something sooner.”

Faith cleared her throat and flipped a lock of hair out of her face. “No big,” she said, the figurative mask slipping on again.

“No, it is big,” Xander disagreed. “I should have realized...how much it mattered.”

“What matters is that Mandragora gets what’s coming to him,” Faith said, changing the subject. “And I’m not getting anywhere leaning on his two bit thugs.”

“What are you getting at?” Xander asked, not liking where this conversation was turning.

“Word on the street is that if anyone can figure out where he is, it’s the Question.”

“Faith...”

“You told me the other night that you weren’t going to turn me in. You said it had to be my decision, or it wouldn’t mean anything. Now did you really mean that or were you just blowing smoke up my ass?”

“Of course I meant it.”

“Fine, so you want to help me? Help me find Mandragora.”

“And if I do? What are you going to do then?”

“I’m not making any promises, X.”

Xander frowned. This wasn’t exactly the kind of help that he had in mind. But he told her that he trusted her, and he did. Ultimately in his heart of hearts he believed that she would make the right decision in the end. But if he did this, if he helped her find Mandragora, wouldn’t he just be making it easier for her to go through with it? But if he refused her, he would be admitting that he didn’t trust her, and that he didn’t believe in her as he claimed he did. Therefore why should she believe anything that he told her? It was quite the conundrum. But in the end, Xander only saw one solution.

“Tonight, ten o’clock, under the E Street bridge,” he said in a deadpan. He wanted her to know that he wasn’t happy about her asking him to do this. But if he expected her to trust him, he had to show trust in her.

Faith smiled. “Thank you, Xander,” she said. “I’ll owe you big for this.” She turned to go but Xander stopped her.

“Faith, wait.” She turned. Xander picked the purple mask up from the table and held it out. “Take it,” he said. “You might need it.”

Faith took the mask back and gave Xander another half smile and a nod of thanks before turning and walking out of the room.

Xander sat back down and let his head fall into his hands. He did not have a good feeling about this. A moment later he heard another light tap on the doorway of the library. He looked up and saw Tamika, a concerned look on her face.

“I heard raised voices, is everything okay?” she asked.

Xander nodded. “It was Faith.”

“Faith? She’s here, in Hub City?”

“Yup,” Xander said. “And she’s the Huntress,” he continued, not seeing any reason to hide the information from his senior slayer. He knew he could trust her. If he asked her not to say anything to anyone, she wouldn’t.

Tamika’s eyes got wide. “What? She’s...what?!”

“Faith is the Huntress. Mandragora killed her parents when she was six. When she heard about his new arrangement with the Feds...” he trailed off, knowing that Tamika could figure out the rest.

She pulled a chair out and sat down. “I can’t believe it,” she said. “What are you going to do?”

“I’m going to help her find him.”

“What?! Why would you...are you insane?!”

“It’s a distinct possibility,” Xander deadpanned.

“You’re going to help her kill him?”

“No,” Xander insisted, his voice becoming slightly more forceful. “She won’t go through with it, I know she won’t. Even if she doesn’t.”

“So why are you helping her?”

“Because she has to know. She has to know that it was her decision, or she’ll spend the rest of her life wondering what she would have done had she been given the opportunity. She still thinks of herself as a killer, and the only way that’s going to end is if she looks him in the eye and doesn’t do it.”

“And what if you’re wrong? What if she does kill him?”

“She won’t.”

“But what if she does?”

Xander looked up for the first time since Tamika walked in the room and locked eyes with her. “If I’m wrong, if my judgment is that flawed that I could misjudge her so much, then I have no business being the Question or a Watcher.”

Tamika just stared at Xander as the implications of what he said sank in. After a moment of silence, Xander stood and walked out of the room. He had a lot of legwork to do before ten o’clock.

*

I don’t know why I told Tamika. Maybe I just needed confirmation that what I was doing was really as crazy as I thought it was. And she confirmed it all right. Maybe using Faith’s situation as a litmus test for how sound my judgment was wasn’t fair to her. Or maybe the decision itself was enough to prove how unsound it was. But at the time I didn’t see any other choice that I could make. Was it right to risk a man’s life over it? Maybe not, but Steven Mandragora’s life was never really a priority of mine. The fact was, I meant what I said. If I really was that wrong about Faith, then I had my own set of problems to worry about. It was time to stop questioning myself and find out for sure, one way or the other. And if I was wrong, could I really do it? Could I hang up my spurs and give up the only lifestyle I’d known since I was fifteen? To be honest, at the moment I wasn’t thinking about that too much. I was thinking about Faith, and trying like Hell to make sure that I didn’t let her down this time. This time she was going to have someone in her corner, helping her to make the right choices. I was going to make sure of that.

*

The Huntress paced back and forth on the sidewalk under the E Street bridge. She checked her watch again and frowned. She didn't think Xander would stand her up, but she was starting to get nervous. She felt vulnerable and exposed just standing in one place like this in her costume. She was about to check her watch again when she heard a sound that peaked her interest. It was the low rumble of a throaty V8 engine. She looked down the street and saw a pair of headlights appear. The car sped closer and closer until it finally screeched to a stop just a few feet away from her. The engine idled as she let out a whistle of appreciation at the fine piece of machinery that sat before her. It was a '68 Pontiac GTO, with an electric purple paint job and a black top. She leaned over and looked through the passenger side window and saw the Question sitting behind the wheel looking at her. At least, she assumed he was looking at her. She didn't like admitting it, but the faceless mask unnerved her a bit. But then that was the point she supposed.

“You're late,” she said.

“You're watch is fast,” the Question deadpanned in return.

She smirked. “Sweet ride you got here Q, where'd you get it?”

“Are we going to do this or do you want to stand out here and yak all night? We're burning moonlight.”

“All right already,” Huntress said, getting into the car. “But just for the record, I usually prefer my dates to have a...” Question stepped on the gas and the engine revved to life. The car lurched forward, pushing Huntress back into her seat. “Face,” she finished. “You testing a new set of fuel injectors or are you just trying to impress me?”

“I'm not happy about you asking me to do this,” he answered.

“I know,” she said, almost sympathetically.

“But I'm here because you're my friend, and you asked for my help.”

“And I appreciate that, I really do.”

“There's still time to back out. You don't have to do this.”

“Yes, I do.” She paused. “What he did to me, it shaped my entire life, it made me the person I am. He's got this coming to him.”

“The person you *were*,” Question corrected. “You made bad choices, but that doesn't mean you still can't make the right ones now. You're not that person anymore, you paid for your crimes.”

“And now it's time for Mandragora to pay for his,” Huntress insisted.

Question turned his eyes back to the road and let that statement just hang there in the air. She had revenge in her heart, and nothing he could say now was going to dissuade her from that. Like he had said to her before, the choice had to be hers.

The silence stretched on for a few minutes until finally Huntress couldn't take it anymore. “So are we going to have quiet time this whole ride or are you going to tell me where you got this car?” she asked, trying to lighten the mood a little.

“You heard about what happened with Twain Labs?” Question asked.

“Sure, every slayer has heard that story by now, you really saved our butts. I'm not so sure that scumbag Twain got what he deserved, but he was stopped and the mole in the Watchers Council was found, that's the important thing.”

“This car used to belong to one of the executives at Twain Labs. He wrote it off on his taxes as a company car, so when the government confiscated all the company's assets, they took the car too. It's been sitting in the parking garage under the Pepperdine Building. When the Watchers took over Twain Labs, there was so much to sort through, I doubt they ever knew it was even there. So I figured as long as no one was going to miss it...”

“Wait a minute, you mean you just took it? You didn't even clear it with Giles first?”

“This is the Question's car now, and Giles doesn't know that I'm the Question. I'd like to keep it that way,” he said, turning his head slightly to look at the Huntress. His silent request that she keep his secret received, she just nodded slightly. Not that the Question felt he even had to ask, he trusted her.

“So why do you do it?” Huntress asked after a moment. “Why did you become the Question?”

Question glanced at her again, but he didn't say anything at first. For a moment she thought he wasn't going to answer. “It started as just a disguise, to get into the Pepperdine building to get the evidence we needed against Twain. That's when I saw it for the first time, the gap between what the police can do and what we can do as watchers and slayers. Twain was about to fall through that gap, and I just couldn't let it happen.” The Question paused. “But I have to admit, my motives aren't entirely noble. It was when I decided to confront Twain personally that night, that's when I felt it for the first time. Power. And as I'm sure you know, power can become addictive. There's power in not having a face. Your enemies can't see your fear, or nervousness, or tell when you're lying and when you're telling the truth. They can project anything onto this mask, including their own worst nightmares. You just have to know how to exploit that.” He paused. “And then there's the anonymity. It makes you feel like you don't have to be responsible for what you do, because there are no consequences. It's addictive, but more than that it's dangerous. I haven't stepped over that line yet, but if I don't stay diligent, who knows what could happen.”

“You wouldn't...you couldn't,” Huntress replied. “You're a good man, you don't have that in you.”

Question blew a breath out of his nose. Huntress couldn't tell, but she thought he was smiling. “Aren't we a pair,” he mused. “Both of us hiding behind masks, sometimes real and sometimes not. Both of us so confident in the virtues of the other, with absolutely no confidence in ourselves. No wonder we're so screwed up.”

The pair rode in silence for the rest of the drive.

*

Somewhere in Hub City, on the roof of a tenement building, two figures stood by the edge of the roof looking across an alley through binoculars at a group of rundown row homes. “What am I looking for?” Huntress asked.

“Second house on the left, first floor window. Just keep your eyes on it, you'll see,” The Question answered.

Huntress kept the binoculars trained on the window in question and watched. From what she could see inside the house, it was a kitchen. She could see a table and part of the counter. She watched for a few minutes longer, and just as she was about to protest that they were wasting their time, a figure entered the room and sat down at the table. A very large and rather pale looking figure. “Holy shit that's him, that's Mandragora!” she exclaimed.

“Try not to sound so surprised, I told you I'd help you,” Question deadpanned, still holding his own binoculars to his face. Three other men walked into the room behind the mobster, all wearing dark suits. One sat down at the table across from Mandragora while the other two stood by the door. “And here come his babysitters for the evening. There are probably at least a half a dozen more agents watching the rest of the house, I doubt they're taking any chances with someone like Mandragora.”

“No offense Q, but I've been running around this city for nearly a month shaking down all of Mandragora's guys and getting absolutely nowhere, and you found him in one afternoon?” Huntress asked.

Mandragora is too smart for that,” Question said. “If he's still running things from here, which I'm sure he is, he's doing it with a smuggled cell phone or something similar. I doubt any of his people know where he is right now, it's just too risky.”

“So how did you find him?”

“Those agents in there, with their dark suits and dour expressions, not to mention the bulges their guns make in their jackets. They just scream law enforcement, don't you think? I knew they'd stand out, especially in a neighborhood like this. And they can't stay in that house 24/7, lord knows our friend in there is sure to be racking up one hell of a grocery bill. So I asked around. Found someone who knew someone who saw something, followed the lead and ended up here. Staked the place out, spotted Mandragora, and here we are.”

“Your reputation in this city is well earned, you do good work,” Huntress commented.

“I do my homework, that's all. Something Giles used to say that always stuck with me; at the end of the day the winner doesn't always have to be the strongest or the smartest, he just has to be the most prepared. Speaking of which, you have a plan?”

“Yeah, I'm going to walk in there and put a crossbow bolt right between his fucking eyes,” Huntress replied, still peering through the binoculars.

“Did you miss the part where I mentioned those Feds' obvious gun bulges? I don't think they'll take too kindly to you killing their star witness.”

You offering to help me?”

“I said I'd help you find him, nothing more. Doesn't mean I want to see you do something stupid and get killed though.”

“So what would you suggest I do?”

Question reached into his overcoat pocket and pulled something out. “Get some intel first,” he said.

“With an iPod?” Huntress asked, looking down at what he was holding in his hand.

“It's a listening device. I planted a bug on that window when I was here earlier today.” Question unwrapped the pair of ear buds from the device and handed one of them to Huntress, taking the other and placing it into his own ear.

Unsurprisingly, the first sound Huntress heard through the ear bud was the sound of someone chewing. “If you can spare a moment of your time Mr. Mandragora,” an authoritative yet exasperated voice spoke. “I'd like to ask you a few questions about Rupert Thorne.”

“Please Agent Faraday, can't this wait until I'm finished eating?” the corpulent mobster replied. His voice slithered into Huntress's ear and sent shivers down her spine. She could almost hear the smirk that was surely on his face.

“There's just one problem with that,” Faraday said. “You're always eating! Or sleeping, or bathing, or doing God knows what else in that bathroom for hours at a time. I thought we had a deal, Mandragora. Witness protection and immunity in exchange for information on Thorne. And thus far, you haven't told us a single thing.”

“Patience, my good Agent Faraday, is a virtue. All will be revealed when the time is right. I must first make sure that certain assurances are in place before I can speak against my former employer.”

“What assurances? We've given you everything you've asked for! You're walking away scott free from federal RICO charges in exchange for your testimony, we're giving you a lifetime of witness protection, and so far you haven't given us one iota of evidence that ties Thorne to anything illegal. You better not be jerking us around here, Mandragora!”

“I promise you, I'm doing nothing of the sort.”

“Curious,” Question spoke, shaking Huntress out of the daze that Mandragora's creepy, melodic voice had lulled her into. She turned to look at her partner for the evening. “Why do you suppose he hasn't given them anything yet? If the Feds didn't have such a hardon for Thorne they wouldn't even be giving him such a sweetheart deal, and yet he's not talking. So what's he even doing here if he doesn't want to talk?”

“I don't know, and I don't care!” Huntress proclaimed, angrily pulling the ear bud out of her ear and letting it fall to the ground. “After tonight, it won't matter anymore.”

“It does matter,” Question insisted. “It's a piece to the puzzle, and without it we can't see the whole picture.”

“Another pearl of wisdom culled from Giles?” she spat. She meant it as in insult, but if Question took it as such he gave no indication.

“No, that one I came upon myself,” he said. “How can you be sure you're making the right decision without all the information, and how can you get all the information if you don't ask the right questions?”

“You're talking in circles, trying to stall me!” Huntress exclaimed.

“I'm trying to help you make a decision that will affect the rest of your life. I want you to be sure that this is really what you want to do.”

“I'm more sure than anything I've ever...” Huntress stopped in mid sentence, her head quickly turning back to the street. “Do you hear that?”

Question didn't hear anything, but he wasn't surprised. Slayers often forgot that their senses were keener than that of normal humans. Huntress picked her binoculars back up and trained them back toward the row homes. She scanned back and forth for a moment before stopping. “There!” she said, pointing at the corner about a half a block from the safe house. Question switched the night vision on his binoculars on and looked where she had pointed. Three black SUV's came rocketing around the corner and screeched to a halt right in front of the house. All three vehicles were filled with shady looking characters. “Recognize anybody?” Huntress asked.

Question looked closer at their faces. “Yeah, a couple of them, from the bar the other night. They're Mandragora's men.” Just then, the driver of the first car lifted a gun into view a slapped a clip into the bottom of the handle. Question dropped his binoculars. “We have to...” But Huntress was already moving before he could even get half of his sentence out. She ran to the edge of the roof and leaped off. Question rushed to the ledge just in time to watch her catch the edge of the fire escape and swing down to the next level before jumping to the ground and taking off running toward the house. “Shit!” the faceless vigilante exclaimed, before running to the fire escape himself and hurrying down the stairs.

*

(2/3)

The driver of the first car slapped a clip into his gun and pulled back the slide. “All right guys, let's make this fast and...” His sentence was cut off by the sound of two loud thuds and a pop, followed by a long hissing noise. He looked out of his window and down to see two crossbow bolts sticking out of his door and another one sticking out from the front tire, which was quickly going flat. He opened the door and stepped out. “What the...” Again, his sentence was interrupted but this time is was by a kick to the face. A flurry of punches and kicks rained down on him as all he saw was a blur of purple and black that seemed to come out of nowhere. He tried to raise his gun to fire it, only to be spun around and slammed against the back door of the SUV just as the man seated there was trying to open it. The door slammed shut on his hand and he screamed out in pain. The driver's head was swimming, but he raised his hand again and fired twice, blindly into the night. He heard another pop and the sound of glass breaking. When his vision finally cleared he saw that he had hit the back tire of his own truck, and the back window as well. He had just enough time to register this before another punch rocked his face and sent his head crashing through the window to the backseat.

All of this happened in a matter of seconds. Question rocketed toward the SUV's, moving as fast as his legs would carry him. Assessing the situation along the way, he could see that there were three men in the first SUV, two in the second, and another two in the third. Huntress was already taking care of the thugs in the first truck, and Question could see the driver of the second, a man with a shaved head, look up as he heard the shot ring out. He opened his door and raised his gun just as the Question made it to the truck and barreled into him, tackling him back onto the driver's seat. He pinned his gun hand against the dash board with one hand and delivered a fierce right cross with the other. The gun went off, putting a hole through the windshield as Question continued to pummel the man. The goon in the passenger seat just looked on in shock for a second, until Question looked up and met his gaze.

“It's the Question, and that bitch from the bar the other night!” the man yelled out.

Question reached up and grabbed the man's collar. Lowering his own head, he yanked the man forward and slammed it into his face, knocking his hat off and breaking the thug's nose in the process. Blood gushed out of the man's nose and he clutched his face and cried out in pain. That's when Question heard shots coming from the direction of the safe house. He knew the commotion would attract the Feds' attention sooner or later. In fact, he was counting on it. He grabbed his hat and dove out of the open passenger side window. Hitting the ground, he tumbled and pushed himself back up against the car for cover. The Feds were trading rounds with the men from the third SUV now, and when Question turned to look at the first truck he saw the blond haired man that had been sitting in the passenger seat with his gun out, using the vehicle for cover while Huntress was still grappling with the other two men.

“Huntress, get down!” Question yelled. If she heard him, she gave no indication.

That's when the man with the broken nose put his arm through the car window and pointed his gun at Huntress. Whether he had forgotten about Question or just didn't realize he was so close was unclear, but what was clear was that he had just made his last mistake for the night. Question reached up and grabbed his his arm, wrenching it back until he heard the bone snap and the gun clattered to the pavement. He stood up and kicked the gun under the truck, then used his free hand to grab the back of the man's neck and slam his face into the dashboard a few times until he finally slumped over, unconscious.

Question turned his attention back to the first SUV, where the blond haired man with the gun still stood with it trained on Huntress. He was about to shout out another warning when suddenly the man she was fighting with was vaulted over the hood of the car, colliding with the other man and sending them both crashing to the ground.

That's when the front door of the safe house flew open, and 450 pounds of albino flesh waddled out. Using his shear girth, Mandragora bowled over the FBI agents on the porch, knocking two of them over the railing and one down the stairs. He made his way down the stairs himself and headed for the second SUV. The gunfire was silent now, and an almost eerie calm seemed to settle over everything. Question watched as Huntress and Mandragora locked eyes, almost like it was happening in slow motion. He could see the smug satisfaction on the rotund mob leader's face, and the hatred that boiled just behind Huntress's eyes. She pulled her crossbow out from her belt and in that exact moment, all he could think was, 'I failed. It's over.'

And then the silence was broken by the sound of a gun cocking. It was the man with the shaved head, he had recovered from the Question's earlier attack, and now had his gun trained on the vengeful slayer. Again, time seemed to almost stop. To her credit, Huntress didn't do anything stupid. She just stood there, her fists clenched with rage.

“Sorry my dear, perhaps another time,” Mandragora oozed as he got into the back seat of the SUV. “I have an appointment to keep.” The driver got in slowly, keeping his gun on Huntress the whole time. The engine roared to life and the truck took off down the street. The third SUV pulled forward, stopping just long enough for the walking wounded to drag the unconscious into the back seat, and then it was gone too. Around the corner with a screech of their tires and a puff of exhaust.

“Damn it!” Huntress cried out, her crossbow still in her hand. “I had him! I HAD HIM!!” she half yelled and half cried.

“Ma'am, put the crossbow down please. And hands on your head, both of you.”

The two vigilantes turned to see three FBI agents standing there with their guns pointed at them. “You have got to be kidding me!” Huntress exclaimed.

“There's gratitude for you,” Question quipped, putting his hands on his head.

*

“How the hell did he get out of the kitchen?!” Faraday bellowed. A room full of FBI agents looked sheepishly at their shoes.

“I was securing the room, when...”

“Let me guess, you turned your back on him.” The junior agent just hung his head. “You're lucky he didn't get your weapon.” If Faraday noticed one of his agents entering the room with two costumed vigilantes in tow, he gave no indication. “Bunch of goldbrickin' yahoos. I don't suppose anyone caught the license plates on those SUV's, did they?”

“The plates had been removed,” Question spoke up. All eyes turned to him. “The cars were probably stolen anyway, and they're sure to have changed vehicles by now, and dropped their wounded off someplace safe.” The silence in the room stretched for a few seconds while everyone continued to stare. “Not for any altruistic reason, to keep from slowing them down. I wouldn't bother checking the hospitals though, at least not tonight. They were careful not to leave anyone behind, that can only mean Mandragora is afraid of them being interrogated and revealing his plan.” Again, silence.

“Right,” Faraday said after a moment, seemingly considering what Question had said. “All the same, someone get a hold of the local PD and give them a description, have them put out an APB.” One of his men nodded and scurried out of the room.

Faraday turned his attention back to the Question. “I'm guessing I have you to thank for that ruckus out there. Why did I have a feeling that I was going to see you again today after our earlier conversation?”

“Because you're a smart man Agent Faraday, you knew as well as I did that Mandragora was planning something.”

“Still, your timing is interesting.”

“We were just in the neighborhood, I assure you.”

“Do you want me to take them into custody, Sir?” the agent who led the pair into the room asked.

“And charge them with what, Agent? If it wasn't for them, we would have been ambushed here tonight, and we'd be looking at a lot more casualties than a few sprained ankles and bruised egos.” Faraday paused, thinking. “Don't you all have work to do?! Or did you join the FBI so you could stand around in a safe house kitchen and stare at the floor?! Let's go, let's go, we've got a witness to find!”

The room emptied quickly, leaving just the senior FBI agent and the two vigilantes. “I made some calls after our conversation today,” Faraday said after a moment. “Did some research you could say. And everyone I talked to said the same thing. They might not approve of your methods necessarily, but they all said that you're a straight shooter. So I want you to be straight with me now. Did you know what was going to happen here tonight?”

“I had a feeling that Mandragora would make his move soon, but I didn't know it would be tonight,” Question answered.

Faraday nodded. “They also tell me that nobody knows Hub City like you. And if I have any chance of getting Mandragora back before he disappears for good...I guess I'm going to have to trust you. But if you find him, you call me, understand? He's still a government witness, and that puts him under my jurisdiction.”

Question nodded. “I still have the number you gave me earlier,” he said.

“All right, get out of here before I change my mind.”

Question tipped his hat, and the two vigilantes turned and left.

*

Huntress waited until they were on the front lawn of the safe house before she let him have it. “What the hell was that about?! You talked to him today?!”

“I told you I was here,” Question replied. “How else do you think I planted that bug?”

“What did you tell him?!”

“You want to keep your voice down,” Question advised, leading her further away from the house. “Do you honestly think that if I told him what you were planning to do that he would have let us go?” Huntress had to admit, he was right. “All I told him was that I thought Mandragora was up to something. His response was basically, 'No shit.' I wanted to see if he knew anything that we didn't.”

“And did he?”

“Not that he told me. But still, it never hurts to make friends with the enemy of your enemy. If I hadn't, then he wouldn't have done his homework on me and he probably wouldn't have let us go so quickly.”

“So what do we do now?” Huntress asked.

“Well, thanks to you, Mandragora inadvertently left us a clue,” Question said, indicating the SUV with the two flat tires that was parked in front of them.

“Does that mean that you're still helping me?” Huntress asked.

“I may not want to see you kill him, but that doesn't mean that I want to see him get away with whatever scheme he's trying to pull here any more than you do. Besides, I told you I'd find him for you, and that's exactly what I intend to do. Come on, we'd better do this quickly before the Feds remember that this thing is still out here.”

The pair walked over to the SUV and started rummaging through it. “What are we looking for exactly?” Huntress asked.

“Anything that can tell us where they've been or where they're going. No nav system,” Question observed. “I guess that would have been too easy.”

“Come on, you can't just expect clues to just fall out of the sky,” Huntress said, flipping down the passenger side sun visor. A piece of paper fell out and landed on the seat.

“Or maybe we can,” Question said, picking it up.

“What is it?”

“It's a shipping schedule,” Question said as he continued to read. “Interesting.”

“What?”

“According to this, there's one ship coming in tonight at 11:30, slip 17. It's a cargo ship, country of origin: Austria. Isn't that where Mandragora is from?

“You think he's trying to leave the country? Why a container ship, why not a plane?”

“The Feds would be expecting that, they'd be watching the airports.”

“That's got to be it then, that's where he's going, the marina. Well come on then, let's go!”

“Huntress, wait,” Question called out. She turned and he tossed her a set of keys. “Why don't you go get the car and come back here and pick me up, it'll be faster.”

Huntress looked down at the keys and then back up. “You trust me to come back for you?”

“I've trusted you with my life, I think I can trust you with my car,” Question answered. Huntress just smiled before turning and taking off in a full run to get the car.

Question waited until she was out of sight before reaching into his coat pocket and pulling out his cell phone. He scrolled though the address list quickly before hitting send and placing the phone against his ear. “Hey, it's me. Tonight, 11:30, the marina, slip 17. I'm going to need your help.”

*

(3/3)

 

The drive to the marina was short and mostly quiet.  Short, because Huntress had her foot to the floor the entire time.  And quiet, because there really wasn’t anything left for either of them to say.  The Question had made his case, and Huntress had made her choice.  And as he stared out the car window, he found himself once again questioning the choices that he had made that had led them to this point.  He had never felt so helpless in his life.  But then, that wasn’t true, he realized.  Another moment from his past came to mind.  That day on Kingman’s Bluff, kneeling on the ground holding his best friend as she cried.  Willow was in so much pain, and there wasn’t anything that he could do to take it away.  He saw first hand what taking a human life had done to her, and now he feared he was about to go through it all again with another person that he cared about.  Something Willow had once said to him suddenly came to mind.

 

“Revenge doesn’t make the pain go away.”

 

“And what Hallmark card did you get that little nugget of wisdom from?” Huntress asked, not taking her eyes from the road.

 

Her voice shook him out of his daze.  He hadn’t even realized that he had said it out loud.  “Something Willow said to me once, actually.  You heard about what happened to her girlfriend Tara, right?”

 

“I know she killed the son of a bitch that did it,” Huntress answered.  “Good for her.”

 

“And when his death didn’t quell the fire that burned in her soul, she tried to end the world.”

 

This time Huntress did take her eyes of the road for a second, glancing over at him.  “But you stopped her,” she said.

 

Question shook his head.  “I told her that I loved her.  She made the choice to stop.  The anger and hatred that she was going to unleash on the world turned inward, and it almost consumed her.  There are days when that thought alone makes me wish that I hadn’t interfered.  She spent months with the coven in Devon, learning how to control her magic, and how to live with what she had done.  From what she told me, it was the latter of the two that was the most difficult.  The hardest thing, she said, was learning to accept that what she had done did not define who she was.  Once she had done that, she knew that she was ready to come home.  If you let your sins define you, you’ll never escape from them.”

 

The rest of the ride passed in silence until they reached the marina.  Huntress maneuvered the muscle car through the parking area, bringing it to a screeching halt in front of a chain link fence and a small sign that read ‘Slip 17’.  She had one hand on the door handle already as she shut the engine off and held the keys out for Question to take.  He put his hand over hers, causing her to turn and look at him.  “The road to being a better person starts with a single choice,” he said.  Then he took the keys and got out of the car without waiting for a response.

 

He had done all he could, he thought.  The rest was up to her.

 

*

 

Mandragora’s distinctive silhouette was easy to pick out standing at the end of the dock, flanked by eight of his men.  They were all looking up at the ship that was just starting to dock, so none of them saw Question and Huntress approach.

 

Mandragora!” Huntress shouted, drawing her crossbow from the holster on her thigh.

 

Question rolled his eye under his mask as the group of men all turned.  “So much for the element of surprise,” he mumbled.

 

Contrary to Mandragora’s playful demeanor outside of the safe house, his face betrayed his obvious irritation.  “We don’t have time for this!” he growled to his men.  “Take care of them!”  The man standing closest to the albino mobster reached into his jacket.  “No, no guns,” Mandragora said.  “We can’t afford to draw any unwanted attention.”

 

The thug just smiled and cracked his knuckles.  “No problem,” he said.

 

Question rolled his eye again as the group of henchmen started toward the two vigilantes.  “You’re just going to make her madder,” Question warned.  Mandragora didn’t respond, he just turned back to face the ship.  Huntress actually smiled as she slipped her crossbow back into its holster.

 

The first goon to reach Huntress threw a haymaker, which she easily dodged.  She swung and caught him just under the chin with a punch that lifted him off the ground, sending him sprawled out onto the dock.  The crack of his jaw breaking seemed to echo through the night.  There was a brief moment of stunned silence, followed by complete chaos.

 

The hoodlums rushed the pair, no doubt thinking that even if the two vigilantes were better fighters, they could overwhelm them.  Of course, not knowing anything about slayers, they had no idea what they were really up against.  Huntress started tossing them around like rag dolls.  One of the men took a swing at Question.  He caught his arm and spun around, throwing him into another thug and sending them both to the ground.  Question was worried.  Not about fighting, but he knew that pretty soon the henchmen would realize the mistake they had made and one of them would pull their gun, regardless of what their boss had said.  He tried to keep his eye out for any sudden movements toward a possible concealed weapon, but that was rather difficult to do while he was under attack.  He dodged another punch and returned with one of his own, splitting his would-be assailant’s lip in the process.  He cast a glance toward Huntress.  Most of the men surrounding her were now cradling broken limbs and wearing pained expressions on their faces. 

 

That’s when Question saw the gun.  The creep was behind Huntress, picking himself up off the ground and pulling a small pistol out of a holster strapped to his ankle.  Unfortunately what Question didn’t see was the fist coming straight at his head.  He was just about to shout a warning to Huntress when his head suddenly felt like it was trying to escape from his body.  He staggered, but he stayed on his feet.  His ears were still ringing when he looked up and saw the thug that had delivered the blow making a lunge at him.  He managed to get out of the way and grab the man’s shirt as he passed, throwing him head first into a nearby cargo crate.  The hood slumped to the ground, unconscious.  When Question looked back up the henchman behind Huntress was standing now and starting to raise his gun.  His head was still swimming, but there wasn’t enough time to shout a warning even if his brain could form one.  The gun cocked, and Huntress’s ears perked up when she heard the sound.  She started to turn, but it was too late.  The thug’s finger squeezed the trigger just as a foot intersected with his hand, sending it flying up into the air.  The gun went off and the bullet flew upward, tearing through a rope that was holding a nearby cargo crate suspended from a crane before shattering a window in the wheelhouse of the ship.  Mandragora turned back toward the melee with a frown.  For a moment, everything stopped again.  The sound of the gunshot had drawn everyone’s attention to the newcomer in the fray.  It was a young African-American woman, wearing cargo pants and a hooded sweatshirt.

 

“Sorry I’m late,” she quipped when she realized that everyone was staring at her.  Under his mask, Question smiled and silently thanked every god that he had ever heard of that Tamika had answered her phone earlier that night.

 

Huntress instantly knew that whoever this was, she was a slayer.  “I’d say you were right on time,” she responded with a grin of her own.

 

And just like that, the fight was on again.  The thugs concentrated mainly on the slayers this time, recognizing them as the primary threat.  This gave Question a chance to look around for Mandragora.  He spotted the rotund mobster still standing near the ship, watching as the gangplank was slowly lowered into place.  Question may not have wanted Huntress to kill him, but that didn’t mean that he wanted to see the son of a bitch get away either.  He quickly made his way down the dock toward the ship where Mandragora stood with his back turned.  Question jumped onto his back and wrapped his arms around Mandragora’s neck, yanking hard to try and bring the mob boss to the ground.  He may as well have been trying to down a hippo with his bare hands, Mandragora didn’t budge.  At first, Question wasn’t even sure if the albino had even noticed him there.  Then he felt a pair of hands latch onto his arms, and he silently wondered what the hell he had been thinking when he jumped onto the mobster’s back.  Mandragora yelled as he ran backwards and slammed Question between himself and a nearby stack of cargo crates.  All of the air that he thought he owned was expelled from his body, and when he tried to inhale again he found that he couldn’t.  Mandragora let go and Question slumped to the ground.  His vision started to close in and he knew that he was going to pass out if he didn’t start breathing again soon.  After what seemed like an eternity he inhaled sharply and winced at the pain that he was sure was from one or two cracked ribs.

 

Mandragora turned around and found himself staring down the business end of a crossbow.  The fight was over.  Mandragora’s men were all either unconscious or wishing that they were.  Question picked himself up off the ground as his head started to clear and took a few steps away.  Behind Huntress he could see Tamika standing silently with a stunned look on her face.

 

“End of the line,” Huntress said softly.  “No more tricks, no more lies, no one left to stand between you and what you’ve got coming to you.”  Mandragora looked nervous, but he didn’t say anything.  “What’s the matter?  First time in your life you don’t have anything to say?”

 

The silence stretched for a moment before it was broken by the sound of footsteps running down the metal gangplank of the ship.  Question turned to see a chubby little boy with white hair and pink eyes running off of the ship.  “Papa!” he shouted.  Mandragora turned and lowered himself to one knee, catching the boy in a hug.

 

“Edgar,” Mandragora said with a smile as he hugged the child.  It wasn’t the cunning grin of a snake oil salesman that Question had come to expect from the mobster, which unnerved him all the more.  It was a smile of real affection and relief.  Question swallowed hard.  Things had just gotten a whole lot more complicated.

 

If Tamika looked scared before, now she looked terrified.  Huntress kept readjusting her grip on her crossbow and nervously licking her lips.  Now, she was the one who was at a loss for words.  Mandragora stood up and pushed the boy behind his legs.  “During my last trip to the old country, an old rival of mine had my son kidnapped,” he said.  “It took me this long to arrange for his release.”

 

Huntress’s eyes locked onto the little boy peeking out from behind his father’s legs.  And all she could think about was that little girl that she had once been, hiding in the closet while her parents were being murdered.  How terrified she had been, and the path that that one defining moment had set her life on.  And now here she was, repeating the cycle.  Is that really what she wanted?  Her whole life after that point, no one expected anything from her other than trouble, and she more than delivered.  She told herself that that was just who she was, a bad seed, and there wasn’t anything that she could do about it.  But that was a cop out.  She made the choices that kept her on that road, and no matter what had happened to her in the past she had to take responsibility for that if she wanted to change.  That was the real question.  Not what kind of person was she, but what kind of person did she want to be.  The choice was hers.  It always had been.

 

On the outside, Huntress’s expression remained unreadable.  Mandragora motioned for his son to get out of harm’s way, pushing him toward the same stack of cargo crates that he had slammed Question against moments before.  Edgar obeyed his father with a sad look on his face and ran behind the crates.  For a moment, no one moved and time seemed to stand still.

 

Huntress took a step back, raised her arm higher into the air and pulled the trigger.  The crossbow bolt flew through the air, sailing over Mandragora’s head and slicing through the same frayed rope that the bullet that had been meant for Huntress had struck earlier.  This time, the rope snapped.  Mandragora looked up just in time to see the large crate the rope had been holding coming down straight toward him.  The crate crashed into him and broke open on the dock.  When the dust cleared, Mandragora was half buried in bricks and broken wood.  He was dazed and bleeding from the head, but he was still alive.

 

Question made his way over to Huntress as she slipped her crossbow back into the holster on her leg.  She stared at the mob boss a moment longer before she seemed satisfied that he wasn’t going anywhere.  “Give me your phone,” she said when she finally turned to Question.  He pulled his phone out of his coat pocket and handed it to her.  She flipped it open, found the name she was looking for in the directory and hit send.  “Agent Faraday, this is the Huntress.  You might want to come down to the marina, slip 17.  I’ve got a present for you.  I even gift wrapped it.”  She clicked the phone shut before the FBI agent had a chance to respond and handed it back to Question.

 

“Unless you want to answer a lot of awkward questions from the Feds, I suggest we make our exit,” Question said, slipping the phone back into his pocket.

 

Huntress looked at Mandragora again, almost wistfully.  Nothing she did to him would ever make her feel better about what he had done to her, she realized that now.  “Yeah,” she said softly.  “Okay.”

 

“We can regroup on the roof of that building,” Question said, pointing to a nearby warehouse.  “Plan our next move from there.”  He reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a handful of flex cuffs.  “Mika, if you wouldn’t mind, cuff the rest of these guys up and meet us up there.”

 

“You got it, Boss,” Tamika said with a smile.

 

*

 

Question stood at the edge of a warehouse rooftop overlooking the marina.  He watched as a group of paramedics tried to extricate Mandragora from under the pieces of the broken cargo crate that had crashed down on him.  A couple of FBI agents stood back and watched as they checked the corpulent mobster for injuries.  The marina was crawling with cops, rounding up stragglers and trying to figure out what had happened.  He heard the squeak of the metal security door behind him and turned to see Tamika crossing the roof. 

 

“I finished gift wrapping the rest of Mandragora’s goons for the HCPD,” she said.  “I made it to the building before any of the cops saw me.”  She joined Question at the edge of the roof, looking down on the organized chaos.  “This vigilante thing is pretty fun, I can see why you like it so much.  Sure beats the hell out of fighting demons.  If you ever need back-up again, just let me know.”

 

“I may have to take you up on that, you did a great job down there,” Question said, turning to face his senior slayer.

 

“Can you take that mask off now, it’s starting to creep me out.”

 

Question reached into his pocket and fished out the aerosol of de-bonding solution.  “It’s funny,” he said.  “When I first put this mask on, it scared me.  I was afraid that I was going to lose myself behind it.”  Question sprayed the aerosol on his face, releasing the Pseudoderm mask from his skin.  The chemical reaction spread to his clothes, turning them back to their original colors.  He reached up and peeled the mask off.  “Now I forget I’m even wearing it half the time,” Xander said.  “I think that scares me even more.”

 

Tamika put her arm around her watcher and friend.  “You won’t get lost,” she said.  “Not as long as you have me around.  I’ll come find you if you do, that’s a promise.”

 

Xander put his arm around her and squeezed.  “Thanks Mika,” he said, giving her a smile.  “That means a lot coming from you.”

 

“So, where’s Faith?” Tamika asked after a moment.

 

“Oh, she found a private spot to get changed.  She keeps a spare change of clothes in a secret pocket in her cape.  I figured we’d be less conspicuous if we made our exit sans costumes.”

 

“What about me, I wasn’t wearing a costume?  Somebody might spot me,” Tamika pointed out.

 

Xander thought about that for a second, then he took his fedora off dropped it onto the slayer’s head.  “Here you go,” he said with a grin.

 

Tamika chuckled.  “Thanks Xander, you’re all heart.”

 

“It looks good on you,” he said.  He looked thoughtfully at her for a moment.  “Maybe some day I’ll give it to you for real.”

 

Tamika looked surprised as the implications of what Xander said sank in.  Then she smiled.  “Maybe someday I’ll accept it,” she said.  Xander just smiled back.

 

“It does look good on you,” another voice said.  Xander and Tamika both turned to see Faith walking across the roof.  She was wearing a simple black tee-shirt and stretch pants.  “You were pretty good down there,” she said to Tamika.

 

“You two haven’t been formally introduced yet, have you?” Xander asked.  “Tamika, this is Faith Lehane, slayer extraordinaire.  Faith, this is Tamika Watson, she’s the senior slayer here in Hub City, and a very good friend.”

 

“I knew there had to be somebody in this city keeping you in line, Xander,” Faith said, holding her hand out.  Tamika laughed.  “It’s good to meet you.”

 

“You too,” she said, shaking the elder slayer’s hand.  “You were…amazing tonight.  I mean, Xander has told us stories about you, but they just don’t do you justice.  You more than live up to your reputation.”

 

Faith looked at Xander and smiled.  “I do all right,” she said.  “When the right watcher is watching my back.”

 

“I’m glad Xander was right about you,” Tamika said.  “You don’t know how glad.  I was *not* looking forward to having to break in a new watcher, I’ll tell you that much.”

 

Faith’s brow furrowed.  “What are you talking about?”

 

Tamika looked back and forth between Faith and Xander.  “You didn’t tell her?”

 

Xander shrugged.  “I didn’t think she needed to know.  She had to make her decision for the right reason.”

 

“Know what?” Faith demanded.  Xander didn’t answer, so she looked to Tamika who was now nervously chewing on her bottom lip.

 

“He told me that he was so sure that you would do the right thing, that if he was wrong he was going to quit.  Being a watcher, the Question, everything.  He was *that* sure that he was right about you.”

 

Faith looked at Xander and just stared at him for what seemed like an eternity.  A myriad of emotions crossed her face.  Shock, anger, confusion, amazement.  “How?” she finally said.  “How could you be that sure?  Why would you risk so much, for *me* of all people?!” she half yelled and half cried.

 

“I told you that you had people who believed in you, Faith.  People who care about you.”  Xander paused and glanced over at Tamika.  “Sometimes that’s all you need to keep you on the right path.”

 

Faith calmly closed the distance between her and Xander, wrapped her arms around him and pulled him into a kiss.  Xander was surprised at first, but after a moment he began returning the kiss in earnest.

 

Tamika smiled at first, but as the kiss continued longer and longer she cleared her throat.  “Okay, this is passing cute and starting to venture into awkward.”  She pulled down the brim of Xander’s fedora until it covered her eyes.  “I’m going home, you two crazy kids have fun.  Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”  She paused.  “Seriously.  Don’t.”  If Xander and Faith heard her they gave no indication.  She sighed, pushed the brim of the hat back up and made her way to the door.

 

A moment later, Faith broke the kiss.  She grabbed Xander’s tie and started pulling him toward the door.  “Where are we going?” he asked.

 

“Don’t ask so many questions.”

 

*

 

The next morning, Xander and Tamika were sitting in the library at the slayer dorm, a stack of books between them as they did research on a demon that one of the other slayers had spotted on patrol the night before.  “I think this is it,” Tamika said as she pushed an open book across the table to Xander.  “Trish said the horns were swept back and the legs looked dog-like.  And she said it smelled like…”

 

“Rotting meat, right.  This looks like our guy,” Xander said, skimming over the description in the book.  “We better make sure we have plenty of blessed silver in the weapons cabinet.  And while we’re at it, somebody should make a holy water run to St. Anthony’s.”

 

“I’ll add it to the chore wheel on the fridge.  Why don’t we send Beth and Kirsten on that patrol route tonight, they should be able to handle it.”

 

Xander nodded.  “Sounds good.”

 

“Look at you two,” a voice said coming from the library door.  Xander and Tamika looked up to see Dr. Rodor entering the library, a newspaper under his arm.  “Last night you took down the biggest mobster in the city, both figuratively and literally, and today it’s business as usual.”

 

“When business as usual is demons and vampires, beating up a bunch of thugs hardly seems like front page news,” Xander said, motioning for Rodor to take a seat.

 

“I take it you haven’t seen this morning’s edition,” Rodor said, taking the paper from under his arm and dropping it on the table.  The picture on the front page was of six paramedics attempting to drag a dazed looking Steven Mandragora onto a gurney.

 

“Now there’s a picture that’s worth a thousand words,” Tamika said.  “And possibly several thousand dollars.”

 

Xander chuckled.  “The photographer better use the money to hire someone to start his car for him for a while.”

 

“The article says that Mandragora suffered a concussion and a broken collar bone,” Rodor said.  “It also says that the Feds are so embarrassed by the whole situation that their deal with Mandragora is off, and they’re starting to build a case against him.  Apparently a few of the men the police picked up last night have started questioning their career choice in organized crime.”

 

“Yeah, tangling with two slayers will make you question all kinds of things,” Xander said.

 

“Not to mention a certain faceless vigilante,” Tamika added with a smile.  Xander smiled back.

 

“So what brings you here this morning, Tot?  You get a new job as a paperboy?”

 

“Very funny, but no.  I just happened to be in the neighborhood so I thought I’d drop by and bring my favorite heroes coffee and donuts.”

 

“So where are the coffee and donuts?” Tamika asked.

 

“Six of my favorite heroes confiscated them from me downstairs,” Rodor said.  Xander laughed again.  “Speaking of, are they doing what I think they’re doing down there?”

 

“If you think they’re watching Saturday morning cartoons, then yes,” Xander answered.

 

It’s a little tradition that Xander started,” Tamika said.

 

It’s a few hours every week when nothing is asked of them, where they can just relax and have fun and forget that the fate of the world rests on their collective shoulders.  It’s the least they deserve.”

 

“I still find it remarkable how matter-of-fact you all are about all of this.  I’m only peripherally involved and still there are days when I wake up that I can scarcely believe that it’s all real.  Don’t you ever just stop and stand back in awe of it all?”

 

“It’s been my experience that if you stop, you’ll never get started again,” Xander said.  “I leave the big picture to people who are better suited for it.  I’m just a soldier.”  Xander paused.  “I guess, in a way, we all are.  Whether we know it or not.”

 

“What do you mean?” Rodor asked.

 

“There’s no such thing as peripherally involved, Tot.  Not with this war.  You’re either involved, or you’re not involved, and you are involved.  And we’re damn lucky to have you, I might add.”

 

“That’s very kind of you to say Xander, thank you.”

 

“Which brings me to a question that I’ve been meaning to ask you,” Xander continued.  “Did you honestly think with the Watchers running Twain Labs now that I wasn’t going to get you your job back?”

 

“I hadn’t really considered…well, I suppose it crossed my mind, but I couldn’t…you got me my job back?!” Rodor babbled, finishing with a wide smile.

 

“No,” Xander answered.  Rodor’s smile fell.  “I got you a better job,” Xander said after a dramatic pause.  “How does head of research and development sound?  With a seat on the board of directors, a hefty stock package, and the funds to greenlight any research project you want.”

 

Rodor’s jaw practically hit the floor.  “That sounds…nice,” he said, clearly stunned.  “Are you serious?  Head of R&D?!”

 

“With a corner office and a state of the art lab, the works,” Xander added.

 

“Xander, I…I don’t know what to say?  How can I ever thank you?”

 

“There’s no need Tot, you more than deserve it.  You risked everything to blow the whistle on Twain and come to us, and you saved the lives of who knows how many slayers.  It’s the least we can do.”

 

“Damn straight,” Tamika added.  She held her hand out to Dr. Rodor.  “Congratulations, Doctor.”

 

Rodor shook it.  “Thank you, Ms. Watson.  I will find a way to thank you for this Xander, I promise you that.”

 

“You just make sure that Twain Labs keeps working on things to keep slayers alive, that’ll be more than thanks enough.”

 

Rodor smiled so wide Xander thought his face was going to crack in half.  He reached over the table to shake Xander’s hand.  “You’ve got a deal.  In fact, I have some ideas.  I’ll need to go over my notes…Oh, and I’ll need to get my suit pressed, want to make sure I make a good impression.  There’s so much I have to do to prepare…”  Rodor trailed off and he wandered out of the room, barely looking where he was going as he continued to mumble to himself about everything he had to do.

 

“That was fun,” Xander said to Tamika with a smile.  Tamika laughed.

 

They both turned back to their books and a few minutes later there was a soft knocking on the doorway of the library.  Xander looked up to see sheepish looking Faith standing there.  “Hey, Faith,” he said with a smile.

 

Xander, Tamika,” she said in greeting.  “A short blonde haired girl in Scooby Doo pajamas let me in, and then I just passed an old guy in the hall who was mumbling to himself.  What kind of place are you running here, X?” she asked playfully.

 

Tamika cleared her throat and pushed herself up from the table.  “Speaking of which, I better get downstairs before all the donuts are gone.  I’ll see you later Xander.  Faith,” she said with a nod before quickly ducking out of the room.

 

“What’s up with her?” Faith asked.

 

“She thinks we bumped uglies last night and this is the awkward morning after.”

 

“Ah,” Faith said in realization.  “Did you tell her that we didn’t?”

 

“I did, but I don’t think she believed me.”

 

“Did you tell her that I wanted to but you said no because you said it took you eight years to earn my respect again after the first time and you didn’t want to jump into anything without thinking and mess all of that up?”

 

“No, I think I left that part out.”

 

“Ever the gentleman.”

 

Xander just shrugged.  “Did you see the paper?” he asked, pushing the newspaper that Rodor left across the table.  “And people say there’s no good news anymore.”

 

Faith smiled as she looked down at the front page.  “Maybe public humiliation and life in prison is a fate worse than death.  That is, if the Feds can make a case against him.”

 

“You know, Madragora was never charged for what he did to your parents.  You could testify against him.  There’s no statute of limitation on murder.”

 

“I’ve thought about it.  I don’t know if I can live through that again in court.  I don’t know if I can face him again without…doing something that I’ll regret.”

 

“Whatever you decide, I’ll support you.  I’ll be right there with you, if that’s what you want.”

 

Faith smiled.  “I know you will.  Thank you.”

 

“Have you talked to Giles yet?”

 

“This morning.  I called him and told him pretty much everything.  He was surprised at first, and I could tell by his voice that he was disappointed in me.”  Faith paused.  Xander could tell that she was fighting back tears.  “But then he told me that he was proud of me for making the right decision.  He told me to give you his thanks, too.  He said that he was glad that you were here for me.”

 

Xander stood and crossed the room, enveloping Faith in a hug.  “I’m glad I was here, too,” he said softly as the hug broke.  “So what’s next?  Back to Metropolis?”

 

“No, Giles and I discussed it and we both agreed that I shouldn’t be on my own again just yet.  Not that he doesn’t trust me, he just thinks that I would do better with a tighter support system around me right now.”

 

“So back to London then?”

 

“Not exactly.  Giles suggested, and I agreed, that I should be assigned a watcher.  I never really had a relationship with a watcher that didn’t end in disaster.  Kakistos killed my fist watcher, Gwendolyn Post turned out to be evil, Welsey turned me over to the watchers and then years later I almost tortured him to death.  Giles said that if it’s the right person, and if I give it a chance, the relationship between a slayer and her watcher can be the most rewarding relationship either will ever have.”

 

Xander smiled as he thought about his slayers.  “I’ll say,” he agreed.  “Wait a minute, you actually agreed to take a watcher?”

 

Faith grinned.  Under one condition, that I get to chose who.”

 

“Ah, well that makes more sense.  Do you have someone in mind?”

 

“Yup,” she answered cryptically.

 

“So?  Don’t keep me in suspense, where are you headed?”

 

“Nowhere.”

 

“What?”

 

“Boy, you’re thick,” Faith giggled.  “I chose you, doofus.  I want you to be my watcher.  That is, if you’ll have me.”

 

“Faith, I…I would be honored.  Does Giles know about this?”

 

“He thinks it’s a great idea.”

 

“I…I don’t know what to say, Faith.  You’re putting a lot of trust in me, and for you I know that’s not a decision you take lightly.”

 

Faith smiled again.  “Well, somebody once told me that the road to being a better person starts with a single choice.  So I figured I’d better make it a good one.”

 

*

 

Free will.  They say that it’s what makes human beings so special.  It’s our capacity for anger and hatred that make the ethical choices we make all the more meaningful.  Likewise, it’s our ability to feel love and compassion that makes our immoral misdeeds all the more wicked.  But perhaps even more puzzling is our ability to be both good and evil at the same time.  To do the right thing for the wrong reason, or vice versa.  I’ve been so consumed with questioning my deeds and their motives that I never stopped to really examine what was in my heart.  To have faith in myself.  Faith was so sure of the person she was, that she never stopped to think about the person she could be.  The person she wanted to be.  It’s true, that anyone is capable of making any choice.  But maybe it’s what happens after the choice that’s important.  It’s the choices that we make consistently that define our character.

 

As for Faith and I, we’ve got each other to remind us of who we are, and who we can be.  So I think we’re going to be okay.

 

The End

 

 

Xander and Faith will return as The Question and Huntress in…

 

“Q is for Quarry”

 

Summary: As Xander and Faith spend more time together keeping the streets of Hub City clean from demonic and human evil alike, Faith finds herself falling in love with her new watcher.  And Xander finds himself caught between his feelings and his responsibilities.

 

And then…

 

“Question Everything”

 

Summary: When Xander uncovers a conspiracy involving Cadmus and time travel, he gets a look at his own dark future.  And the more he unravels this evil plot for world domination, the more the dark path his life has been set on seems inevitable.  How much will he sacrifice to save the world?