See Chapter One for Disclaimer
Faith squinted against the brightness, realizing even as she did so that the glare wasn't as bad as it could have been, as it was being filtered through green leaves overhead. Only occasional shafts of undiluted light were striking her face, let through as the branches above her were jostled about by the cool, gentle breeze. With a groan she turned her head away, shifting her body slightly in an attempt to get comfortable once more. A sharp, clean smell filled her nose as she took a deep breath, and she froze. Where--?
She lifted her head and looked around. She was curled up in a hollow beneath a broad-leafed tree, so the bed of soft pine needles underneath her had to have been put there by someone. For that matter, she herself had to have been put there by someone, because this definitely was not where she'd fallen asleep. She sat up, pushing the unruly brown tangles of hair back from her face. I feel better; better than I should, anyway.
She lifted her fingers to her face, probing the knot on her forehead, then felt for the slice her arm had taken; both injuries were all but healed. Gee, that was fast. I woulda thought it would take a couple or three-
Someone was coming. She stared out from the sun-dappled shade of her refuge, across the bright, grassy verge that separated the forest from the lake. A ways off to her right was the elevated promontory where she'd burned the deer, and it was from there that someone was approaching. It was a human figure, but for some reason her eyes weren't working quite right. The outline she saw was blurred, shifting and changing like she was looking through a veil of swirling water. She rubbed at the faint bump on her head again, and scrunched her eyes shut hard before opening them and giving the figure another look. This time they worked perfectly, and she saw who it was.
The old Indian, of course. He was a lot closer, now, and when she started to get up he waved her back.
"Hey, that's okay, stay there if you want." He strode into the shade, then stopped a few feet short of where she sat. "How are you, Slayer girl?"
She shrugged, and the motion turned into a joint-popping stretch and yawn. His eyebrows rose, and she gave him an apologetic smile.
"Sorry. Um," She looked down at herself. Her jacket had apparently been spread over her as a blanket, but she still wore the same pants and top that she'd had on the night before. She put a hand though the tear over her side, but the wound underneath the cloth was closed and at least half-healed. She tilted her head a bit to one side and considered him thoughtfully.
"I'm okay; pretty good, actually."
"Glad to hear it." He held her backpack in his hand, she noticed. He saw the direction of her gaze, and lay it down next to her. "I went back for this; I figured it was the least I could do."
She nodded. It would be nice to change into something a little cleaner; after her fight, not to mention all the hiking, what she had on was getting pretty grimy.
"Thanks." She fingered the nearly-invisible wound on her arm again. Other than a somewhat puffy red line, there was almost no sign that it had ever been hurt. "Did you do something to help me heal up, too. 'Cause it would usually take more than a few hours for something like this to go away."
He'd sat himself down on the ground beside her while he spoke, his feet tucked under him in, well, Indian fashion. Now he glanced at the spot on her arm she indicated, and shook his head.
"No, I didn't help you heal; you did that on your own." He gestured at where she sat, the Faith-shaped depression in the surprisingly comfortable bed of pine needles. "You've been sleeping there for more than a few hours. That's why you're nearly recovered from what you went through."
She blinked, still rubbing at the faint remains of the cut, which was itching a little.
He made a depreciating gesture with one hand.
"Today is the third since you destroyed the SpiritBeast."
Faith looked at him in shock. Not that she was totally freaked or anything; she'd suspected it might be something like that. Still, three days of laying here, with bears and cougars and god-knew what else walking by and sniffing at her while she was unconscious; unable to even defend herself if they decided to take a bite out of her….
There was also a more mundane question to that immediately occurred to her.
"How come my bladder didn't explode?" He grinned, and she scowled back at him. "No, really. I should be swelled up like a balloon or something. Hell, I should be starving, and dying for a drink of water; but I'm not. How come?"
The old man held up a hand and wiggled his fingers at her.
"Magic." He laughed at the wary expression she couldn't help but show. "Really; I've got some tricks that the best Las Vegas magician would kill to know, and of course the spirits of this place now consider themselves very much in your debt." He leaned forward a little, and his voice lowered. "Believe me; between them watching over you, and my protection, you were safer here than you've ever been in your life."
Faith nodded, but looked out over the lake.
"Well, that's not saying much." That came out surly, and he didn't deserve that from her. "But thanks. Thanks for watching out for me. I'm not real at home out here in the sticks, y'know?"
"I know. And you're welcome."
She sighed, noticing again that it was a really pretty day. The grass was green, the sky was blue, and the lake was a funny in-between color; not really either one, but with a bit of silvery-gray mixed in. It was nice here; clean and stuff, which wasn't something she would have thought before, when she thought about a nature spot like this.
"You said the spirits like me now?" She said, and he nodded.
"Very much. After all, you did save this entire area from utter destruction." He smiled then, scratching alongside his nose with one long finger. "They have long memories, too, so don't be surprised if they try and do you the occasional favor. Like that, for instance."
Faith twisted half-around, following his gaze. There, beside the tree trunk, was a smooth stone the size of her fist. Beneath it, pinned there against the errant breeze, was a good-sized stack of green bills. She reached out, carefully setting the stone aside and grabbing the cash before the wind could take it.
"Holy crap." She muttered, leafing through them. "There must be a thousand bucks here."
The old man nodded, looking a little embarrassed.
"Well, it seems that at least one of them saw what you did out by the highway; the pick-pocketing." She darted a glance at him, but he wasn't accusing her of anything, just stating a fact. "So for the last few days, anyone from the lodge over yonder who goes out hiking or hunting stands a better than average chance of 'accidentally' losing any cash he or she might be carrying." He looked at her, one eyebrow arched wryly. "Leave it to you to teach the little people bad habits."
Faith immediately raised her hands; one of them still clutching the loot.
"Hey! Don't blame me for what they
decided to go and-"
"Relax; I'm not blaming you." He jerked a thumb towards the far end of the lake. "Those types can afford to contribute to the cause. After all, you did save their playground, even if they'll never know. And you can buy yourself something nice when you get back; some new clothes, maybe."
She nodded, rolling the bills up and stuffing them into her backpack. You bet your ass I'll buy some stuff. Clothes, a new jacket; a boom box for my room at the hotel.
She frowned, suddenly struck by something. I could get a real apartment; someplace nice…. Nah. That would use this up in just a couple of months, and Giles would want to know where I got the money. Better to use it a little at a time, to fill out what the Council's 'allowance' don't cover.
"Beauty. Could you, uh-" She waved at the scene in general. "-Could you tell 'em thanks?"
"There's no need; they know." The old man joined her in looking out over the lake. "You deserve more than just money, you know. What you did…." He shook his head slowly. "That was something beyond price. You've exceeded my wildest hopes."
Faith leaned back against the tree, too comfy to move just yet.
"Didn't think I could beat that thing, didja?"
He gave her a sidelong look, then shrugged.
That was a little too honest for her; it touched off the bitter resentment that had been slowly growing in her for weeks.
"Then I guess you were really hoping for Buffy to show up here and fight your monster for you." She plucked a few pine needles from the bed of them she was sitting on and rolled them back and forth between her fingers. She focused on their texture, needing something, anything to distract her from how she was feeling.
The old Indian, however, was looking a little impatient with her.
"The other Slayer couldn't have beaten the SpiritBeast, Faith. At least, not in the way that you did."
She stared at him, wondering how she could feel so awful now, when just moments ago she'd been feeling fine, even… peaceful. It was so beautiful here, and she'd done a good thing for once, and still there was so much darkness in her. The slightest prodding brought it up to the surface, where it stood poised to overwhelm her once more.
"But she would have killed it, right? She could have taken it out the way you meant for it to be done, without destroyin' anything, or, or-" She had to stop; the words were getting tangled up in her throat as she recalled the utter desperation that had engulfed her during the battle. "I-" She swallowed, then tried again. "I don't see how you could have expected me to have a chance in hell against something like that. If I hadn't figured out how those things, those artifacts worked, how to link them together-"
"That's exactly the point, Faith." He interrupted her. Neither one of them was looking out at the pretty lake now. They were staring at each other; her with a bitter fury that had now totally replaced the tranquility she'd woken up with, and he with a strange mix of earnestness and… satisfaction?
"There was a chance, and granted, it was a slim one, that you could defeat that creature." He wasn't making apologies, and she had to admit that he'd told her before the fight that it would be rough. "If you could have prevented it from killing any of those people in the first minutes, it wouldn't have been able to sustain itself in this world. If you had destroyed all of the artifacts at the same time --by throwing them into the bonfire, for example-- then the backwash of mystical power might well have swept the Beast back into its prison, at least for a time."
She was a bit stunned, wondering why neither of those ideas had occurred to her at the time. Maybe because I was too busy trying not to get fucking
killed by the damned thing!
"Either of those probably would have worked, and there are a couple more options that were at least possible. Perhaps your sister Slayer would have used one of them to banish the creature once more; we'll never know that now. But-" He reached out and poked her in the thigh with a finger to get her full attention. "-But; there was absolutely no chance at all that either she or you could out and out kill
that entity." He sat back and regarded her from an expressionless face. "None at all."
Faith wasn't sure now if she were mad or not.
"But I did kill it."
He nodded, and there was no doubt now about the satisfaction he was emanating.
"Yes, you did."
She frowned, trying to figure out where this was supposed to be leading.
"Well, then I guess it wasn't impossible after all, was it?"
"Wrong." He watched her blink, then went on. "Let me explain a couple of things to you. Number one; while you would have been able to destroy those artifacts, at least at that time, and in that place, there was no way you could have made use of them. They were made by the People, for use by the People." He gestured at her face, and she was reminded that her European features were anything but Indian. "You could have used the spear as a spear, but you could never have awakened the power within any of those objects."
"But I did!" Faith protested. She had been there, she certainly knew what she'd done.
Rather than argue with her, he only nodded.
"But you did. Leaving that aside for the moment, there is the fact that no individual, no matter how powerful their magic, can use more than one of the artifacts at the same time."
"Yes, I know." He gave her a penetrating look. "Hush now; I'm not trying to piss you off, I'm trying to tell you something important." She settled back, closing her mouth reluctantly, and he nodded. "Good. Now, there's just couple more impossible things that you managed to do." He started ticking them off on the fingers of one hand. "Wielding the tools without the proper blood in your veins; that's one. Using three tools at once; that's two. Linking the power of three into one, thereby vastly amplifying the energy at your disposal; impossibility number three."
Faith shifted uncomfortably at that.
"Uh, listen. I didn't know I was going to break your ancient relics or anything when I did that-"
He brushed that aside.
"Not important, I forgive you, and I said 'Hush'." Faith briefly debated the pros and cons of getting up and kicking his ass, but he'd already rolled onwards. "Lastly; you should not have been able to use blood magic against that being. If anything, such power should have made it stronger, but instead you succeeded in destroying the Beast utterly."
He looked at her, and she wondered what she was supposed to say. 'Sorry, I should have just lay down and died instead of fighting'?
"Did I break some kind of rule or something?" She asked instead. "You never said anything about there being rules."
He looked grimmer than before, if that was possible.
"There are always rules, and yes; you broke several of them." She was just starting to get worried when his face broke into a wide grin. "Don't you remember what I told you when we first met? I like
to break the rules. That's what they're there for, after all."
Faith smiled in relief.
"Oh. Well, cool." And it was, too. Except… if what he said was true, then what did it mean?
"If all that stuff I did was so impossible," She began, "And I know I'm not any kind of Shaman, or Sorcerer who can do heavy magic, then how come I was able to do it?"
He scratched at his chin, considering.
"You were able to do those things because it's in you to be able to do them; it's in your nature. And," A sidelong look at her with those black, fathomless eyes. "-No matter what her power and skill as a Slayer, this is something that your bright sister would never be able to accomplish; no more than she could manage to fly by flapping her arms. It simply isn't in her."
Faith stared down at her bare feet, digesting that. I can do something Buffy can't do. I don't know how I did it, but there it is.
Of course, that got her wondering about just what all of this was about, and why the old man was so interested in her.
He must have seen her suspicions in her look.
"Do you recall, that night by the pool, when you asked me what my purpose was in being there? I told you that I would tell you later. Well," He glanced up at the sun, marking its position. "Later is now."
She crossed her legs at the ankle and folded her hands across her tummy, staring at him expectantly.
"Okay then; lay it all out for me."
He seemed amused by her attitude.
"All right, I'll try. Though you likely won't grasp the truth of what I'm saying for quite some time." He paused, gathering his thoughts. "Okay; try this. Change; it's a universal constant. 'The only thing that stays the same is change'; ever hear that one?" She nodded, still waiting for him to dazzle her. "Well, sometimes change comes slow, and sometimes it comes as a wave that up and washes away everything in its path. Take the People, for example." He looked out at the lake, and at the mountains which surrounded it. "They were here… for a long time. Nice folks, mostly; I liked 'em." He looked back to her, and she saw that his eyes had gone all black again. "Then, almost before anyone knew it was happening, they were gone. Killed off, or driven off to some lousy bit of land and fenced in, so's they can just sit there and rot. I don't think they'll ever heal from that."
Faith chewed at her lip for a moment before speaking up.
"That didn't happen overnight. It took, like, a couple hundred years for the Indians to be screwed over."
He just looked at her.
"Like I said; an eye blink. They were set in their ways, I suppose; too slow to adapt to what was happening." He stared off into space for a moment more, then brought that disturbing gaze back to her. "I'm an advocate of change, Faith; I promote it, I think it's necessary. But I don't like it when change leads to needless suffering. And there are ways to help keep that from happening."
She was starting to get an uneasy feeling, kind of like the one she'd gotten when Ms. Northam has walked up to her that very first day, and started talking about vampires.
"What ways?" She asked cautiously.
He looked at her, seeming to gauge her somehow.
"Do the words 'Nexus' or 'Avatar' mean anything to you?"
Faith thought about it for a moment, then shook her head. If Buffy thought that she was the least-educated Slayer in history, well, she hadn't been around when the Boston-born girl had been introduced to the books. It had been hate at first sight, actually.
"No idea." She said, and left it at that.
"That's all right, neither one really gets the idea across very well. What you are, or at least have the potential to become, is…." He stared at her obviously struggling with something.
"Yeah, I can become…?" She prompted.
He scowled, one hand making an impatient gesture.
"Crap, this language just doesn't work for explaining, not when I'm already simplifying to the point where the explanation is all but meaningless."
Now she was feeling a little cheated. She'd gone through this shit for a reason, and it was time she knew what it was.
"C'mon, don't you dare wimp out on me now! You said you were going to tell-"
"There might not be
a way, Faith." He ran his hand across the grass before him, watching as the green stalks sprang back upright in the wake of its passage. "You want words? Very well. You will be a living weapon, something so deadly that anyone near you will be able to hear the Reaper whispering in their ear. You will be a rudder, the only hope for a foundering ship the size of a world. You will be a light that is cursed as darkness, and a darkness that is worshipped as the light. Warmth in the freezing cold, a blaze that consumes what many hold dear." He took in her confused gaze and shrugged. "I told you. Want me to keep going?"
She shook her head, a little dazed at what he'd said. If any of that was true… well, she didn't know what it meant, but not all of it sounded good.
"No, that's enough, thanks."
"Yeah. I think we're better off skipping this part for now."
They sat there in silence for a few minutes, and Faith tried hard not to get too crazy about what he'd told her. I did something that was impossible, something nobody should have been able to do, and that means… what? That I'm going to do something else? Something that's part 'darkness' and part 'light'? What the hell am I supposed to think about that?
She breathed deeply of the cool, clean air, and watched a hawk circling high above the trees across the way. I could tell Giles about all this, maybe he could explain it to me.
Almost before she'd thought it Faith dismissed that option. No. No way am I going to run to him and be the nice little Slayer, not when he's been such a total prick to me, almost since day one. And that means no telling Buffy or anybody else there about this, either. They'd tell him, and he'd tell the Council. I already know that they don't trust me; they don't believe in me. If they found out that there's something weird going on, they might drag me to England and strap me to a table; do some magic experiments on me and see what makes me tick.
No thanks. I think I'll keep all of this stuff to myself. If it's even real; all I have is this guy's word on it, and who knows what he really is.
"That's probably for the best." The old man said quietly. Faith felt her lips pull back from her teeth in a snarl; she was sick and tired of this smart-ass doing that little mind reading trick!
"Listen; I've done what you wanted, I ran through the woods barefoot, I saw the visions, I fought the fucking unkillable Beast… and now I want you to stop-
"Want to know what your Totem is?" He inserted smoothly. She froze for a second or two, the closed her mouth and cleared her throat.
"I've got one? I mean, I passed the test, or quest, or whatever?"
He nodded solemnly.
"Yes, you passed. It's not really a pass or fail kind of thing, you know, but there's no doubt at all about this one. I was watching you while you did all those things you spoke of, and your totem showed through very clearly."
Faith sat upright, intensely curious about what her spirit animal might be.
"Is it something cool, like an eagle or a wolf?" He shook his head, and she felt a twinge of worry. "God, don't tell me it's something stupid, like a dog. Or a duck; it's a duck, isn't it?"
His lips twitched, and he shook his head again.
"Not a duck, though I have to admit that's an image I find strangely appealing."
She was getting seriously annoyed with him, and she made sure he saw it in her eyes.
"Well, quit screwing around and tell me."
He hesitated, drawing it out for a few more seconds, but when she reached for her backpack (whether to get up and leave or just club him with, she wasn't quite sure which) he finally relented.
"Most of the time, someone's totem does take the form of an animal; animals are the easiest thing for us to relate to. They have qualities and attributes that we can understand; personalities that mean something to us." He eyed her closely, a peculiar gleam in those black orbs he used to see with. "But some people, a very few people, don't associate with any of the animal totems. Instead, their essence matches most closely with something even deeper, more primal. The sun, for example, or the moon; both are things that are older than life on this world, and they have even deeper meanings within the human psyche than the animals man knows."
Faith nodded; that made sense to her. Buffy; even I know that Buffy is the Sun. Anybody could see that about her.
"So, what am I?"
Instead of answering immediately, he held out his hand to her. Unsure of what he wanted, she hesitantly held out her own; her left one. He took it, closing his larger hand about her own.
"You, you magnificent child, are something I am very glad I found. Forget about what I told you earlier; don't let it trouble you. All you need know is that you are special; above and beyond being called as a Slayer, though never doubt that there was a reason for that as well." His hand shifted slightly around hers, as if he were looking for just the right grip. She waited, still wondering if he were going to surprise her and rip it off at the wrist. "You are someone who can shatter rules which have held since the beginning, and never know or care. You are transformation and transfiguration, destruction and creation bound up together." He squeezed her hand now, applying pressure with gentle, firm strength, and she felt a brief shock run through the very bones there. "You want to know your totem? You wish to know what aspect of the universe mirrors the innermost truth of your soul?"
She nodded minutely. Any answers, any certainty about her place in things would be welcome indeed.
The old man smiled.
"Very well. You, Faith, are Fire."
Something in her changed, then. Oh, it wasn't a recreation of everything she was, she didn't suddenly become another person or anything. It was just… he was right, and some part of her recognized that fact. That was all.
Even if the rest of her was still a little confused about the whole thing.
"Fire? I'm Fire?" She asked. He nodded gravely, releasing her hand. She took it back, laying it in her lap as she mulled things over for a minute. "Um. You sure about that?"
He smiled faintly.
"I'm sure. If you could only see yourself when you're fighting; the way battle kindles something inside of you. Or the way you burn so brightly all the time, blazing with either fury or passion, and yet never realizing it, or knowing how others feel it affect them."
She didn't know about any of that, but still….
"Fire destroys stuff; it can hurt people. That's not… good, is it?"
He nodded, his mobile face shifting into sympathetic lines.
"True, it does destroy, if handled carelessly. Of all the elements, Fire can be the hardest to coexist with. That doesn't make it evil." He raised his hand, one finger pointing. "Look, there." Across the lake, two or three miles distant, she saw the thickly-forested mountain that rose to the east of where they sat. As she watched, a flicker of lightning leapt between the high forest there and the base of a looming thunderhead. At first nothing else happened except for the low roll of thunder that reached their ears many seconds later. Then, her far-seeing eyes caught sight of a faint wisp of smoke.
In the distance, the forest was burning.
"Fire." He turned again to face her. "It will burn for a few hours, before the rainfall and the terrain bring it to an end, but what it burns won't be destroyed; it will be renewed, transformed."
Faith was still looking up the mountain.
"I always thought burning stuff just meant it was gone."
He sighed at that.
"For some things yes; it does mean that. But out here, fire has a place; a purpose. It's a part of the natural order; something to be wary of, respectful of, but not something to be feared without reason."
"Oh." Well, she could live with that. Fire; that's me. Wicked.
Now all she was left wondering was….
"What now?" She looked at him, waiting for him to finish spelling it out for her.
Instead, he was playing dumb.
"What do you mean?"
She shrugged, looking down at the scuffed and battered leather of her pants. Definitely buying a new pair when I get back. Maybe two.
"I mean, what do you want from me now?" She clarified. "You told me what I am, how glad you are that I turned up on your doorstep, you spooked me with that riff about what I'll become someday… so now what? Do I work for you or something? Got something you need 'firegirl' to burn for you?" She held up her left hand, showing him the rings there. "This bird one; that's yours, right? Some kinda mark of ownership, so everybody'll know who I belong to?" The 'bird one', the one with the tiny image that shifted as the ring turned, it was still there, still the same as the last time she'd looked, but the other one….
The other ring, which had been a plain copper band, was now decorated with a delicate tracery of flames. She paused, staring at the exquisite workmanship, turning the circle around and around on her finger, watching as the outlines etched into the metal seemed to shift and flow like real, living tongues of fire. She could almost feel the gentle heat coming off of it, a reassuring warmth on a hand that had been uncomfortably cold without her even realizing it….
"To hell with this; to hell with you."
She started to pull the rings off, but he reached out and put his hands on hers, preventing her.
"Ho there, wait just a second." Faith stopped, but she also used her fiercest glare to pin him in place. He grimaced, but didn't pull away. "Yes, that 'bird' is mine. But you're wrong if you think I'm trying to own you." He looked a bit reluctant to go farther than that, but under her unrelenting glare he finally did. "It is a sort of claiming, though. Not," He hastened to add. "I repeat; not as my property, more as… a mark of protection. This is a way of showing certain other… entities, that I'm keeping an eye on you, and that they'd better not try anything cute with you."
Faith sat back from him, still fiddling with the ring but no longer in a hurry to remove it.
"'Cute' like what?"
He gave her a bleak look.
"Let's just say that even though it's not permitted for the 'Powers that Be' to directly interfere in mortal affairs, they have been know to 'remove' certain individuals if they consider it justified. And if they think they can get away with it." She considered that, but he wasn't done. "As for you working for me; that's not how it goes. I don't want to tell you what to do; I wouldn't know where to start. All I need from you is for you to do what you want, when you want. I know what you are now, and just by existing you serve my purposes… such as they are."
Faith watched him as he said that, and again thought that either he was completely sincere… or the best liar on the planet.
She reflected that whatever she was, Fire or something else, she would always be a sucker for an earnest face. And for someone who looked to be telling her something straight out.
She looked around once more, at the sunlit grass out beyond the shade where they sat, at the glittering surface of the lake and the green trees beyond it, and sighed. Guess I'm done here. Time to head back.
She dug into her pack and pulled out her shoes. Checking first to make sure nothing had crawled into them, she slipped them on to her feet. Across from her, the old man was watching her.
"Where you going now?" He asked, carefully.
Faith shrugged, not looking up from what she was doing.
"Where do you think? Back to Sunnyhell."
She glanced up at him, but he'd turned slightly, and seemed to be staring off at something along the lakeshore. Following his gaze, she couldn't see anything special over there.
"Why?" He sounded like he was only idly curious, but there was something…. "Why go back there? You don't like it much, that's obvious." Faith didn't answer; she was lacing up her shoes and devoting maybe a little more attention to the task than it really deserved. Despite her silence, he wouldn't let it alone. "You certainly know that there is more than one place for a Warr-" He made a funny noise, and she glanced up at him. Rubbing at his nose like he'd been about to sneeze and then found he hadn't had to after all, he started again. "More than one place for a Slayer to ply her trade. There are other battles that need fighting, and Sunnydale already has a champion."
Faith finished up the one shoe, then turned to the other.
"Yeah, I know. But…." She chewed at her lip for a few moments, fiddling with the laces, before looking over at him. "I have to go back. There's someone waiting for me there. Or maybe I'm waiting for her." Damn, but she'd never had so much trouble tying a shoe. It was like her brain wasn't connected to her fingers at all. Shaking her head in irritation, she started picking at the laces, trying to undo the knotted mess she'd managed to put them into.
"Are you sure she's worth it?" He asked, causing her to look up with a frown.
"What the fuck is that supposed to mean?"
He didn't react to her angry tone, he just gazed at her with what looked like simple curiosity, but she knew better than to believe that. Whatever he was, it wasn't ever 'simple'.
"I'm just wondering if this girl feels something towards you; if she returns the feelings you obviously have for her."
She cocked her head, considering that. It seemed like a legitimate question… the trouble was, she didn't have a good answer for him.
"I'm not sure. Is that what you want to hear?" Her shoes were laced up now, so she leaned over and grabbed hold of her backpack, pulling it into her lap. "I don't know what to think about her; that's the problem." Flipping open the flap of the pack, she peered inside. A change of clothes was in there, and it would be nice, but first she'd have to get to some kind of civilization and get cleaned up. No way was she putting on her last clean things while she was still this filthy. "I mean, she doesn't even like me; not really. I annoy her, I annoy her friends, and she cares for them a helluva lot more than she does me, so whenever it comes down to choosing where she's going to spend her day, well…."
He was leaning forward a little, she saw from the corner of her eye, paying a lot more attention to the details of this crap than really seemed proper.
"Well?" He asked, still sounding only mildly interested, despite what his body language said. "Doesn't that tell you something?"
Faith shook her head in irritation, still poking around in the depths of the backpack for no real reason other than it gave her something to do besides look at him.
"No, it doesn't tell me anything. Because even with all of that, she still… she still cares about me. She treats me like shit sometimes, and I don't think she even knows it when she does, but I think she cares." She wasn't seeing the pack now, she wasn't seeing anything around her. "Not… not a lot, really. Not as much as I wish she did, but it's there." Faith blinked, bringing herself back to the here and now with difficulty. She raised her head, looking the old man in the eye almost defiantly. "She saved my life; she didn't like me being there, she didn't much like me,
but she helped me fight the vampire that killed my friend. She didn't have to do that. Nobody would have known if she'd just walked away and let him finish smashing me into the floor. But she stayed. For me."
He looked profoundly uncomfortable all of a sudden, and for the life of her she couldn't figure out why. For that matter, she wasn't sure what he was trying to get at, but there did seem to be something….
"Faith, she did that because that's what she does, because that's what she is."
He sounded like he was trying to explain something to a small child, and this when he
was the one who just didn't get it.
"Don't you understand?" She asked. "She's the only one who's never asked me for anything, who's never used me to get something. The Watchers wanted something from me; hell, even you wanted something from me, isn't that right?" He didn't reply, but one wasn't necessary. "Well, Buffy hasn't. She could; her mom wants me to take over the Hellmouth duty while her little girl goes off and plays college girl. But B never asked me to do it." She took a deep breath, remembering the tension she'd felt, waiting for the older girl to bring it up. Now, though, she realized something. "And she never will. Never. That's not who she is."
He shook his head slightly.
"You can't be sure of that, Faith. Maybe she's just waiting until the time is right."
"No." She was sure, absolutely sure. "She's not going to try and trick me, don't you see? Buffy has never lied to me; ever. She's not going to start now."
There, right there, she saw something cross his face. Some weight, some pain seemed to tear at him, and even though he hid it quickly, Faith knew what she'd seen.
"What? What is it?"
He didn't answer her, and for the life of her she couldn't figure out what it could mean. Grabbing up her pack, she stood.
"All right then, if you're through talking I'll just head on back to the highway. See ya."
She strode out of the shade, into the bright morning sunlight. Turning in place, she shaded her eyes with one hand and scanned the terrain as it rose upwards towards the ridge. There might be a route back that wouldn't be quite as winding as the one she'd taken on the way in.
"Faith." She ignored him, using her more-than-human eyesight to examine a likely-looking dip in the hill off to her right. The old man growled something under his breath that she didn't quite catch, and stood up.
"Listen; I'm not trying to tell you what to do here, I'm just-" She turned her head towards him, one brow raised, and he broke off with a sigh of frustration. "I know you're not a big believer in fate, or foretelling, and you're right not to be." The Slayer swung her backpack idly from hand to hand as she tried to figure out where this
topic had come from. He'd folded his arms across his chest and was now looking at the ground before him as he spoke. "Ninety-five percent of the time, anything a prophet tells you is utter bullshit. The only time 'visions of the future' are right even half the time is if the 'future' you're looking at is only a few hours way. The closer the better, too, because if you start looking very far 'ahead', then only the incredibly profound stuff is going to show through the static."
He looked at her, apparently expecting some kind of response, but all she could come up with was:
Arms still folded, he glanced away.
"If you go back to Sunnydale, bad things will happen."
Her mind was effectively blank; what was she supposed to think when he said something like that?
"Bad." He shifted his shoulders, not quite in a shrug, more like they were tense and he was trying to work a kink out of them. "That place holds pain for you; near future, middle, and far future too. All the way out to a couple of years from now, as far as I can see with any clarity at all." He hesitated, struggling with something he apparently didn't want to say. Or maybe something he thought he shouldn't
say. "Maybe it would be better if you didn't go back there."
She eyed him warily, not sure how to take this sudden advice. Especially coming so soon after he'd promised not to interfere with what she did or how she lived her life.
"Are you supposed to be doing this? I mean, 'actively interfering' with a mortal like me an' shit?"
He gave her a sour look, but didn't argue with her insinuation that he wasn't mortal himself.
"No, I'm not supposed to be doing this, and it's a better rule than most of them; I shouldn't be breaking this one, for your sake at the very least." He turned and walked a few paces away, and when he spoke again only her Slayer ears let her catch the words. "But… I like you. I don't want you to get hurt when it could be avoided."
She blinked at that, then grinned. Despite herself, she felt just a touch of the warm and fuzzies.
"Thanks. But this stuff you're talkin' about, it's not definitely going to happen, is it?"
"No, not definitely," He admitted. "But you and Buffy-"
Faith interrupted before he could start bashing the older Slayer again.
"Me an' Buff will take on whatever's looking to fuck with us. Don't worry; she saved me before, she'll help me again." She grinned wider, imagining how cool it would be to fight against some big uber-nasty while standing shoulder to shoulder with the blonde girl. "Whatever this thing is, it'll be toast before it causes any of this horrible pain you see."
He gave her a totally unreadable look, and after a few seconds nodded resignedly.
"Hokay then." He said softly. She frowned then, suddenly a bit unsure.
"You don't think we'll make it?"
He started to answer, caught himself, then spoke with great care.
"All I can say is that I believe you have a greater chance of surviving this than any other who now lives."
Faith's grin came back.
"That's exactly what you said to me right before I went to fight that Beast."
He nodded, the faint smile on his lips still not reaching his eyes.
"Yes, and see how that turned out." She laughed out loud at that, and his eyes finally caught up with the smile. "Well, you lived, didn't you?"
She nodded, giving her backpack a little snap upwards with her wrist that sent it sailing fifty feet or more into the clear mountain air.
"Yep, I lived. And it doesn't suck."
The pack came down, and she caught it easily. The old man walked over then, stopping just in front of her. She stood there, wondering what he was doing as he reached over her shoulder, but when he pulled her hair forward she knew.
There, tied into the dark brown strands, were three black feathers. The first two she'd seen before, the newest one was tied into place with what looked like long strands of pure white. Instinctively she recognized them as hairs from the coat of the white hart. She looked up from the feather, meeting his gaze. At this range the solid black eyes could have seemed really creepy, but they weren't. Strange-looking or not, there was caring there. He tapped the feather.
"That's three; more than most find the strength to bear, especially so young. I think, though, that you'll be earning quite a few more of these." He stepped away. "I'll be watching you, from time to time. Warding you, too, but not against anything you'll ever see."
She nodded, perhaps understanding more than he knew.
"Like that lighting bolt?" She tilted her head towards the far side of the valley, where the smoke from the fire up there was now clearly visible. "You wouldn't start a fire just to prove a point, would you?" He narrowed his eyes, and she grinned smugly. "Didn't think so. Somebody 'up there' didn't like what you were saying. They tried to fry me right where I was sitting, didn't they?"
He just looked at her, his face revealing nothing.
"What I can't do is protect you from things here, things originating on this level."
"Like what? Vamps and stuff? Don't worry, I can take care of myself."
He nodded slowly.
"Yes, I suppose you can." He turned, pointing towards the southern end of the lake. She glanced in that direction, but her attention was mostly centered upon his braid. Long enough to reach the small of his back, she'd noticed before that even in the darkness it had seemed unusually black for someone of his apparent age. Now, in bright sunlight, the glossy strands again caught at her attention. Something was nagging her….
"You don't have to hike out of here. There's a lodge a mile or so in that direction, you can see it from further down the shore." He didn't look pleased about the human intrusion into such a beautiful, maybe even holy place, but when he looked back at her there was no anger there. Of course he's not angry; it's just more change, more transformation. It isn't evil in itself, even if it's intrusive. It just
"You can hitch a ride out with some rich tourist, I'm sure."
She nodded, but her mind was on other things.
"Yeah, but I think I'm gonna walk." She'd been gone for days, one more wouldn't hurt anything. "I've got time. 'Sides, I kind of like it here."
He smiled at her.
"I know what you mean. All right, then. Time for me to go." And with nothing more than that, he turned away and started walking towards the edge of the forest. As she watched him, Faith suddenly realized what it was about his braid. Her eyes, the eyes of a Slayer, and also whatever else she was or would one day become, suddenly saw deeper. That glossy, utterly black braid wasn't made up of hair… it was made from feathers. Tiny black feathers, so small that there must be thousands of them there, tens or hundreds of thousands, mimicking the outline of the braid almost perfectly. The old man passed through the first of the trees, and between one moment and the next he was simply gone.
Gone from view, but as she stood there on the grass, Faith felt a giant buffeting, and heard a sound as if of vast wings beating. The water behind her stood up in ripples all across the surface of the lake, and it continued to do so until the sound gradually faded away.
Looking down at her left hand, she considered the two rings; one with the tracery of delicate flames, the other with the bird, a Raven, forever in flight. Both of them, in some way, reflected what she was, but it was up to her to figure out just what that might mean. And that's a good point. If Giles sees these, he might know what they are, and ask me where I got 'em. That could cause trouble all down the line, and I'm sure-
She frowned, turning her hand from side to side. A moment earlier the bright sunlight had been reflecting from the rich coppery metal, but now it was shining from a pair of plain silver rings, unremarkable in every way. Faith ran a finger across the one, and it responded by shifting back to copper. A moment's concentration, and it was silver once more. Cool! I wonder if--
She tried turning her right shoe into a sandal, and when that didn't work she tried for a different color of material. Neither one worked, and she sighed. Okay, it's the rings, not me. Oh well, it's still a good trick.
The sun was warm, and the morning chill was fading rapidly from the breeze as well. Standing on the shore of the bright lake, she found herself reluctant to start a day-long hike while she was still grungy and smelly. She glanced around, but there was no sign of anyone from the distant lodge. Neither was there any feel of compulsion, as there had been that night when the spirits wanted her to dive in a little spring-fed pool for some kind of pre-quest ritual cleansing. Fuck cleansing, I just wanna get clean!
Quick as that she was pulling off her shoes and shucking her pants. When she'd added her top to the pile she wasted no time in wading into the water. It was cold, but she could handle it easily; after all, she was Fire, wasn't she?
Faith laughed out loud, diving briefly beneath the surface and swimming a few dozen yards before coming up once more. And I've got all these naughty thoughts of Buffy to keep me warm, too.
She spun slowly in place a few times, relaxing back into the water and letting it support her as she took in the beauty of her surroundings. When I get back, it's going to be the Chosen Two, as often as I can manage it. If Giles doesn't like it, if he wants to try and stay with us all the time to keep an eye on things; fine. Let him try keeping up with the two of us for more than a couple of days. We're both young, and strong, and Slayers; he's just an old guy in tweed with some really outdated ideas about how people like me and her are supposed to act.
She wasn't going to give up on this. Not because Giles didn't like it, and for damn sure not because Willow didn't. Red thinks I'm trying to steal her girl? Okay then, that's what I'll do. Because she does care about me. And when I gross her out, well, at least she tells me.
Faith splashed some water away, then started swimming with long strokes towards the far side of the lake. As long as she's honest with me, as long as I don't have to second-guess where I stand with her, I'll be okay. It's enough to make a start.
From somewhere high overhead, a Raven uttered a mournful cry which echoes from lake to mountain and back again.
* * * * *