Justice League Xander:
Choices We Make
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 :)
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.
“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.”
“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.”
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.
“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.”
“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.”
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.”
“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.”
“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?”
“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.