See Chapter Nine for Disclaimer Ms. Northam has just informed us that she has successfully located the Heir to the Beta Slayer Kendra. While this is of course excellent news, I must confess that the initial report does not sit well with me.
While she was careful not the denigrate the girl, whose name is Faith, Northam's report still makes it clear that the child is rude and impudent even beyond what we would expect of an American. She was found living in the streets like a beggar, is of lower-class upbringing, and questionable stock besides (For God's sake; her mother is apparently both a prostitute and a drug addict!).
We have no way of knowing how long Kendra will survive, but I hope she lasts long enough to negate this 'Faith' girl's window of eligibility; for nothing of her suggests that she would make a Slayer of any note.
April 23, 1998
Lord William Robert Hayden
Earl of Stapleford
First Seat of the Council
Faith leaned against the building, waiting. Alex had taken his girl inside a few minutes earlier, but the Slayer had declined his invitation to accompany them. She really had no desire to see just what-she glanced up at the sign-'A Little of Everything' actually sold. This entire street was littered with little shops and restaurants, shoehorned into old buildings that had once been nasty old places, but were now subdivided into cutesy little businesses. It was enough to make her sick. The people walking up and down the street were getting on her nerves too, all happy and bustling along, enjoying the bright sunshine… she didn't know how much longer she could stand it. Funny; she'd been feeling pretty good just a little while before. Maybe it was because she hadn't been able to finish that fight with the Asian guy the way she wanted, or perhaps it was just the depression that often followed after a donut-induced sugar rush, but she felt like crap.
Now, when she looked around at this street; all of it seemed so… fake, like it was made of plastic. The entire scene could have been a set in some Hollywood backlot. Life couldn't be as carefree as these people seemed to think, even if you did have money. Even granting that they didn't know what she knew, and hadn't seen the things she had seen, they still had to know that the darkness was all around them. It was always there, always hungry, always watching, and it was just waiting for them to make that one, fatal slip. Then it would be on them in an instant, teeth locked in their souls, and dragging them down into the abyss. No matter what you tried or how you fought, it would eventually happen to everyone, platinum MasterCard or no. Why these people were so busily pretending otherwise was something she couldn't understand at all.
Faith closed her eyes for a moment and took a deep breath. Well. That's even more morbid than usual, for me. That'll teach me to get outta bed this early.
When she looked again, it was all still there, and she could feel the tension in her head ratchet a notch tighter. There was a reason why she seldom ventured into places like this, where the normalcy was so thick and smugly self-assured that it made her want to scream. She had to do something, if only to escape the sight of the happy, brainless people walking past. Reluctantly, she turned and entered the shop.
Inside, she found a labyrinth of narrow aisles that wound through tall displays of items ranging from old clocks and ceramic figurines to heavy antique furniture. Several shelves of leather-bound books covered part of one wall, with crates of tattered paperbacks stacked nearby. Fully half of what was for sale was old clothes, some of looking like it had been made back in the sixties. Despite the cluttered layout and obvious age of most of the merchandise, everything was very clean; there was no sign of dust or cobwebs anywhere. She had only just taken all of this in when a girl emerged from behind a display of fancy rugs that were hanging off to one side.
"Hello! Can I help you find anything in particular?"
She was an almost painfully plain girl of around twenty, with unremarkable features and short blonde hair. Little wire-rimmed glasses framed her pale eyes, and her dress was all frilly and old looking. She looked like a schoolteacher… from around nineteen hundred.
"Uh, I'm looking for Alex?"
Faith could hear him, and a woman she'd never met, speaking in the far reaches of the shop. The girl nodded politely, and headed back that way.
"Of course; just follow me." She led the Slayer through the winding paths between items, glancing back as she adjusted her glasses. "My name's Rebecca, what's yours?"
Faith's hands had been trailing over an assortment of forks and spoons and table knives laid out on an ornately carved table. From the feel of it, they were real silver….
"Faith. My name's Faith."
That earned her a bright smile from the other girl.
"Nice to meet you, Faith. Especially if you're a friend of Alex's."
They eventually reached the rear of the place, which went much farther back than it had first appeared. What had seemed like a modest shop from the outside actually filled most of the building. A corner area was mostly clear of things for sale, instead being occupied by a table and chairs that were in use. Alex and Kelly were sitting next to each other-of course-and an older woman was sitting across the table from them, chatting amiably with the pair. Conversation stopped when the Slayer and her escort appeared, but only Kelly looked unhappy to see her there.
"Gran, this is Faith, Alex and Kelly's friend."
The woman smiled warmly.
"Well, he's just been telling me about you. I'm Sylvia." She was slender without being emaciated, which seemed unusual in someone who was a grandmother. Her grey hair was long, falling in a smooth cascade well past her shoulders. Her face was lined, but not all saggy and stuff, like a lot of old people Faith had seen. Hair color aside, she didn't look much older than Giles did. "Come over here, girl, so I can see you." There was just a touch of testiness in her voice, but the smile showed that she didn't mean it. She held her hands out, and after a moment's hesitation, Faith stepped closer. When she reached the table she wasn't sure what to do, but the woman solved that by gently capturing her hands with her own. "So you're Faith." She smelled like fresh bread, and laundry detergent; the Slayer had always loved that smell. "Faith. I like that. It's a good, old-fashioned name." Her dark eyes twinkled brightly as her smile widened. "It suits you."
She felt like the world was slightly out of kilter. She wasn't really comfortable with people unless she could dominate them, or in rare cases, if they dominated her, but this Sylvia didn't fit into either category.
"Okay…. Uh; thanks?"
Her name hadn't been her idea; it was strange to be complimented about something she'd had nothing to do with choosing. Face it; it was strange to be complimented about anything, period. Except maybe for having done a particularly good job at killing something, in Wesley's case, or someone, in the Mayor's.
The woman's hands were warm and dry, and when she let go of Faith the girl rubbed her own hands together self-consciously. Sylvia didn't seem to notice.
"'Becca? Didn't you have some straightening to do?" The shop-girl gave a little start, leaving off her covert staring at Faith and nodding to her grandmother.
She hurried away, just as a whistling sound emerged from an open doorway set into the back wall. Sylvia rose to her feet with surprising grace for someone her age.
"Ah, there's the water boiling. Faith, you sit there." She indicated an empty chair between her own and Kelly's. "I'll be right back with the tea." She moved through the doorway, and the sound of clinking china followed soon thereafter.
The Slayer lowered her battered pack to the floor, and then sank carefully down onto the chair. This was all very… odd. Alex gave her what was no doubt intended to be a 'don't worry' look, but it was Kelly's undisguised glare that actually reassured her. Hostility was something Faith knew how to deal with. Unreserved acceptance was quite another thing. It felt… creepy. Like those first days with Mayor Wilkins, when she was never sure if he really liked her, or if it were all some kind of act designed to make her lower her guard.
Sitting down made the gun stuck down her jeans dig painfully into her side, so she slipped it out and into her pack. After a moment's consideration, the knife followed. It didn't seem right, somehow, to be packing when you were sitting at the old woman's table. The two kids sitting next to her never noticed her covert movements; they were looking at each other. Straightening in her chair, Faith looked across at Alex, clearing her throat to get his attention.
"She owns this?" She kept her voice quiet; the woman wasn't that far away.
"Yes." He grinned a little at her expression. "Sylvia's been around for as long as anybody around here remembers. She's kind of a character, but in a good way. She helps take care of people."
He had been speaking softly as well, but when the woman came back in bearing a tray she gave him a stern look.
"Well, there's some as need more caring for than others." Deftly depositing the tray on the table, she leaned over and lightly traced the side of his face where the skin was bruised from the encounter the night before. "Nasty, this. You need to watch your step a little closer, these days." Straightening, she began to pour tea from an ornate kettle. She set the first cup in front of Faith, who looked down at it uncertainly.
Tea. She'd smelled it before, when Giles would make some on the hotplate in his library office, but he'd never offered her any. She'd never exactly been invited to his apartment for any of the occasional gatherings he'd hosted for Buffy and the gang, either. In fact, she'd barely known where he had lived. Three days ago, when she'd woken up from the coma, she had been lucky to remember his address. Looking in on all of them that night, she'd seen them drinking tea as they planned. She had smelled it as she watched them sitting there together….
She blinked, looking up at the woman sitting next to her.
Sylvia smiled gently.
"I said, 'Don't you like tea'?"
Faith looked down at the cup she held.
"I…. Not sure yet. Let me see." She took a careful sip; hot drinks weren't her usual thing. She'd been braced for the worst, but his wasn't bitter like coffee. It was sort of spicy and clean, with lemon or something in the background, and the warmth in her stomach felt kind of nice. She lowered her cup and thought it over for a moment. "I think I like it." She took another sip, and then nodded. "Yeah, I do. It's good."
The older woman nodded in agreement.
"It is, isn't it? Though I really should offer you something to eat along with it."
Alex shook his head, but Faith found herself speaking up first.
"No, that's cool. We hit a donut shop on the way over." Sylvia looked unconvinced, and feeling an unexpected need to repay the gesture of the tea, Faith leaned down and dug into her backpack. "Actually, I have some jelly-filled ones here, if you want one?" She offered the bag, and felt a peculiar satisfaction when the woman accepted one.
"What a generous child you are. Thank you."
Closing the bag again, she ignored the slightly shocked looks she was getting from Alex and Kelly. Sylvia had seen, though. Looking from them to her, she tilted her head inquisitively.
"Alex was telling me that you have been helping them? He hadn't said how, though."
The young man took a deep breath, obviously wondering where to start. Once again someone beat him to it.
"They've been seriously messing with those Japanese gangster guys!"
A boy of around twelve had just emerged from the nearest aisle leading to the front of the store. His wild thatch of red hair and freckled face gave him the look of someone who should be off planting 'taters on the farm somewhere, but there was a lively glint of intelligence in his eyes.
"Alex! Dude!" With a huge grin he bounded forward and raised his hand. "Trashin' the scum of the streets! Gimme a high five!" The older boy reluctantly raised a hand, which the youngster slapped firmly with his own. Turning to face the girl, he swept her a deep bow, spoiling it by keeping his head raised and giving her a broad wink. "Lady Kelly, how art thou, babe?" She scrunched up her face and stuck her tongue out at him, which only made him chuckle. Straightening, he nodded at the old woman. "Miss Sylvia, good morning to you. And…." His eyes came to rest on Faith, and they went suddenly wide. "This… this is her?" He half-turned to Alex, but his eyes were locked on the Slayer. "You-you're her? The girl?"
Faith wasn't sure how to answer that.
"I'm a girl, yeah…."
Sylvia gave a snort.
"Mind your manners, scamp." She glanced at Faith. "This irrepressible rascal is Jason, and he's not half as clever as he thinks he is. Not judging by the amount of trouble he manages to land himself in." The boy affected a hurt look, but she waved her hand at him in a 'don't even try and argue' gesture. Fixing her gaze on Alex, she raised one finely formed eyebrow. "However, I am now even more curious as to just what you've been up to?"
The young man gave her a guilty look.
"Ah… nothing much." That earned him a stern look, and he hurried on, nearly babbling. "Well, we weren't looking for trouble, we were trying to stay out of their way, but last night Zeke and that hulk he hangs with found us over by the highway, and they wouldn't listen to me when I tried to talk it out with them, and then they started in on me with one of their 'lessons' and that was bad but then Kelly jumped in to help me and that bastard hit her, and it was getting worse by the second-"
"And then a mysterious stranger appeared outta nowhere and beat the snot out of Kurt and Zeke both!" Jason leapt into Alex's runaway explanation with obvious glee.
Sylvia looked from one to the other, a look of consternation on her face.
"Who was this stranger, Jason?
With a grin that threatened to split his face in two, the kid pointed a finger straight at Faith.
All of them stared at her, making her freeze in the middle of drinking down the rest of her tea. Slowly, she lowered the cup and set it down on the table. Sylvia's habitual calm seemed a little strained.
"Child… you fought those two, and walked away unhurt?"
She started to shrug, but the hyperactive monkey they called Jason was already blurring into action.
"Sylvia, she didn't just fight these guys, she obliterated them!" He launched into some sort of psuedo-martial arts combination, punching and kicking at the air. "Everybody's talking about it! She trashed Kurt, and when Zeke pulled a gun on her, she throws a knife like, a hundred feet or something and puts it right through his gun hand!"
"It was only fifty feet." The protest sounded a little weak, even to her, and when the woman turned those eyes back on her she slumped down a little in her seat. "And… I hit him in the head. With a bottle, not a knife."
"Whatever." Jason didn't seem to care about the particulars. "Alex, you were there. Was it as cool as they're saying it was? Did she really strip Zeke naked right there in front of everybody?"
The older boy shook his head wearily.
"It wasn't cool at all. She didn't strip him naked, either."
"Oh yeah? That's his coat, isn't it?"
He pointed at the leather duster that Faith was still wearing. She pulled at it self-consciously.
"It's a really nice coat." She mumbled, looking anywhere in the room but at them.
Sylvia shifted her eyes to Alex, giving him a dose of the disapproving stare.
"You know this will lead to trouble, don't you?" She asked softly.
He shifted uneasily where he sat.
"It already has. Itai paid us a visit this morning."
The woman looked faintly stunned, but it was Jason who predictably reacted the loudest.
"Itai?!" He all but squeaked the name, his eyes round. "He's the one they send when they're royally pissed-off at you! How did you--?" He turned to look at Faith, his eyes roving over her. Since he wasn't quite old enough to be ogling her for the usual reasons, she supposed he was looking for wounds, or weapons; probably both. "Did you fight him, Faith?"
"Yeah, I fought him. Him and the other guys he brought along."
Her flat tone should have warned him that she didn't want to talk about it, but he didn't seem to be the sort to take a hint.
"And? C'mon, tell me! What happened?"
She gave him an irritated look.
Jason's mouth was working, but at first no sound emerged.
"Live. He'll live." He turned to the old woman. "The scariest guy on the street, with some of his boys to back him up, and she's acting like it ain't no thang." He shook his head in wonder. "She really is a mysterious stranger. This must be what it's like to live in a movie."
Sylvia took this in, and then turned her head to where Alex's girl was sitting quietly.
"Kelly?" It took a couple of seconds, but that eventually sank in, and the girl looked up. "Kelly, go and find Rebecca and she'll get you started. All right?"
With a listless nod the junkie stood and wandered off. Faith also stood, lifting her pack and setting the strap across her shoulder. As nice as it was sitting here, she really didn't want to talk about this stuff. Doing it was fine, but afterwards, it made her uncomfortable. She especially didn't want any of the details of the fight this morning coming out in front of the old woman. The mere thought of that happening made her feel… ashamed. She looked at Alex and jerked her head towards the front door.
"We should roll. Lots to do, only so long to get it done."
He started to rise, but Sylvia's raised hand put him back in his chair.
"You can sit and talk to Jason for a minute, Alex. I can tell that Faith has been wearing those clothes longer than they were meant to be worn without a good washing." She smiled warmly to show she meant no offense. "I've got some things that might fit you. Why don't we go see?"
Not profound or anything, but she didn't know what else to say. Following the woman, she soon found herself surrounded by racks of clothes in a bewildering array of styles and colors. Some of them she'd never seen before, and most looked to be older than she was. She was running her fingers down the sleeve of a royal blue pullover that seemed to be real silk when the woman returned from her rummaging.
"Here. Some of these might suit you."
Faith set down her pack, looking at all the different items.
"Wow. Some of these look really funky."
The old woman gave her a wry smile.
"In this shop we call that 'vintage', dear."
A pair of dark jeans with dozens of silvery metal studs making designs against the denim, a slinky top of some thin velvety stuff that was several shades of cranberry, more jeans, but with most of the material replaced with leather patches sewn into place with what looked like thin leather cords. There was more, and most of it was so freaky-looking, or so dated, that it might actually look good on her. Not that she had the keenest sense of fashion or anything. If it was tight enough, or skimpy enough to get her noticed, then it couldn't be far wrong; that was the basis of her dress code.
Sylvia motioned her towards a trio of painted screens that stood near the wall.
"You can try them on over there. Go on."
Faith obeyed, and was soon absorbed in finding something she would actually be willing to wear. From the other side of the shop she could hear the kid, Jason, badgering Alex for details of the morning's scuffle with the bad guys. At least they were too far away for the woman to hear.
"Did you not have any other things to wear at all?" Sylvia said, from where she stood on the other side of the screen.
"Well… I had meant to bring a couple of changes, but my sister's stuff got packed by mistake. And she's a couple of sizes smaller than I am."
"I see. Well, if you want, I can take those in trade for some things you can wear. Unless you want to keep them, to return to her."
Faith froze for a moment at the thought of just casually stopping by Buffy's house one day with an armload of clothes. "Heya Joyce, is Buffy home? No? Well, could you give these to her? I took them with me when I had her body, but I sure can't wear 'em now, can I? Okay, thanks. See you around."
"Nah, no chance of that. You can have 'em if you want."
There was movement from out where the old woman was standing, then the sound of a zipper opening. It was the zipper on her pack, where the clothes she'd just offered Sylvia were. Faith felt a sudden sinking in her stomach, even as she froze with the cranberry top half over her head. Oh… crap. The knife and gun are in there.
There was utter silence filled several seconds, then a faint rustle of clothing.
"Hm. A little plain, but cute for all that."
Faith finished pulling the top on, then leaned around the screen. Sylvia was holding up one of Buffy's ruffled tops, regarding it critically. The sheathed dagger and the pistol lay atop a small table next to where she stood. The Slayer looked up and met the woman's eyes. The level gaze she got in return gave her a glimpse of the steel inside the old lady. This was not your average grandmother.
"That looks good on you. Now how about these?" She held the studded jeans against Faith's hip, measuring them against her. "You're all leg, aren't you? Well, if they need altering then we can handle that."
Sylvia gave her a little push, sending her back to try them on. The girl obediently went back behind the screen, pitching her voice a bit to carry.
"You must like Alex, huh? I mean, you gave his girlfriend a job here, and she's kinda a flake." She perched her hip on a little stool that was handy, then bent and began tugging off her shoes. From the other side of the screen came the sound of the old woman chuckling.
"Yes, I've known him for awhile now. Ever since he got into town, actually."
With both shoes off, she was able to shuck her old jeans. The hardwood floor was an interesting texture against the soles of her feet; not cold or anything, just unusual. She firmly clamped down on the distracting data from her enhanced senses.
"Do you mind my asking why you came here, Faith?"
She paused, the new (vintage) jeans halfway on. Uh oh, here it comes.
"I wasn't trying to come here, especially. I'm really just sort of passing through town on my way west."
"I see. Well, for someone with no particular business here, you surely seem to be stirring things up a bit."
The jeans fit, after a fashion, but they were awfully snug in the inseam. If she tried to kick anyone while wearing them, she was probably going to split them wide open. While that would serve as a useful distraction, it wasn't her favorite method of throwing her opponents off balance. She pulled them back off.
"Listen; I'm sorry I did it, okay? Next time I see someone getting the crap kicked out of them, believe me, I won't lift a finger." She balled the jeans up and threw them over the screen. A moment later the denim and leather ones were draped over the top, and she pulled them down. "It isn't like these guys are as bad as you all seem to think, anyway. They sure haven't shown me much reason to be afraid of 'em."
"They've shown the rest of us, girl. Believe me when I say they have indeed shown the rest of us." Something out there creaked as the woman sat down on it, and her voice was soft when she continued. "I've lost two good friends since they arrived… old, dear, friends. And just this morning, poor Ernesto was found inside his butcher shop." She paused for a long moment, and when she continued there was a faint tremor audible in her voice. "Girl, do you know the sorts of things a truly evil person can do to a human body with what's inside a butcher shop?"
Faith pursed her lips, listening to Sylvia's breathing for a minute. Still fumbling with the waistband of the jeans, she walked slowly around the screen. The woman sat atop a low wooden chest, staring off into space. For that moment, without the force of her personality animating her features, she really did look old. She looked up at the younger woman, and the moment passed.
"Don't take this wrong, Faith. You did a good thing when you helped those two children over there. But when you did that, you changed things, you altered events that you had no knowledge of at that moment." Her strong, wrinkled hands folded the blouse she was holding without her ever glancing down at it. "Things were bad enough before, when only a few people were fighting against them. What you've done already might be enough to provoke them into even worse; though I don't know if I can even imagine what might be worse." Those old eyes held her own; focused and intent. "What I'm wondering now, what Alex is wondering, is whether or not you'll stay and see things through to the end."
Faith lifted her chin and gave the woman her best tough-girl stare.
"I'm not sure what you mean with this 'end' stuff. I'm doin' 'em a favor or two, okay? Isn't that enough?" She looked down at the jeans she was wearing, and her bare feet. "I barely know them."
Sylvia's lips thinned, and her dark eyes held Faith's own.
"I suppose we might be expecting too much. You did just meet them. But I think you know them better than you'll admit." She was looking at Faith like she was seeing a lot more than the fit of her clothes. "You know exactly what their lives are like, don't you? You know this place they're living in, though you'd never set foot here before yesterday." The Slayer looked away, unable to argue with that, but uncertain of where this was leading. "They need you, girl. They need you, and you know they need you. Why else are you still here?"
Faith found her voice, though the words that she'd meant to snarl came out hoarse and bitter.
"Yeah, I know all about it. They need help, sure. But what makes you think they need my kind of help? Or if I can even do anything?" She turned her head and glared at the woman, tossing her hair angrily. "Why should I even try? Nobody helped me when I was where they are. Why should they get special treatment, huh?"
Sylvia just looked at her, with an air of infinite patience.
"Perhaps because you remember how much you needed that help, how you so desperately needed someone to understand." She narrowed her eyes slightly in speculation. "Isn't it interesting, how you don't see yourself as being in the same situation as they are, even though you're far poorer than even the two of them."
That struck a little too close to home for comfort, but she clung to her confident mask.
"Like I said, I'm not here to stay, just passing through. A week or two from now and I'll be set up just fine."
The woman nodded.
"I believe you. Something happened to you, and whatever it was helped you to escape a place like this. What was it, if it wasn't someone showing you a way out?" It was a miracle, a one-in-a-billion prize, and a chance to be something more than just another burned-out junkie. It was a cosmic joke, a mistake the gods never noticed until it was too late to take back.
"That's none of your business."
That earned her a sigh.
"All right. But for someone who is only 'passing through', especially someone who's running away from something to begin with…. You have the look of someone who is searching for something. These young ones-" She inclined her head towards the other side of the shop. "-They're hoping that you're the answer to their prayers. Or to the dreams they've buried for so long that they've forgotten they have them." She surprised Faith with a gentle chuckle. "I can see in your face that it makes you angry when people talk about you like that, putting their expectations on you."
Faith scrubbed her palms across the fabric of the jeans.
"Well, I haven't done such a great job at living up to anyone's expectations so far." Except for the people who thought I'd never amount to shit. My mom, precious little Willow….
"Then I hope you're willing to change. Being selfish and wild may be fun while you're a child, but it does no one else any good at all. In the end it doesn't do you much good either. People need someone they can… trust in." She let out another chuckle, and the intensity in her gaze eased a bit. "You know, I nearly said 'someone they can put their faith in'. Isn't that interesting?"
The Slayer shrugged uncomfortably.
"It's just a name. It doesn't mean anything." Why is she pretending that what I do matters to anybody? At least if I live for myself, the only person I can screw up is me. All this crap about growing up and being giving and stuff, who is she trying to fool? Nothing I've ever done meant anything, after the dust settled. I can't change that.
The woman's eyes changed suddenly, growing hard and glittering even as she leaned forward.
"Wrong, girl! Wrong!" Faith took a step back, wondering what had set her off. "Things have the meaning we give them, and that's the only meaning that's important in this life. Not what other people say is important, not the labels others have put on things. Only what we, ourselves, do can define us." She pointed one long finger at Faith's chest. "If you want 'Faith' to be a name that means something, then you can make it so." She leaned back a little, and her voice grew calmer. "I can see a thing or two about you, girl. Don't think I can't. You're running from things people have asked of you, hiding from things you've done. You're strong, but you don't have your feet under you. I think maybe you've been letting other people lead you for too long. You need something different."
Faith stared at her in disbelief.
"Well you missed that one by a mile, grandma. I've always been by myself, nobody's ever led me anywhere!" The watchers. Three of them tried to train me, and look how I turned out. I should never have been a Slayer. It was all a mistake anyway. Buffy's better than me, better than I ever could be. Why even bother trying to play it her way? All I can be in that game is second best, and that's not my thing.
She gritted her teeth, all but snarling the words. "I've never needed anyone!" Mayor Wilkens, talking with her, relying on her. Hell, playing goddamned video games and miniature golf with her. He'd treated her like someone who mattered; his right-hand girl, his partner in crime….
For him she would have done anything, had done most everything. Including twisting herself into something barely human. It might not show on the outside, but the damage was there, just below the surface.
Sylvia shook her head slowly.
"No, you've never had anyone. Not someone who cared about you for the right reasons. That's not the same as not needing anyone, not by a long road. Everybody needs someone to help them stand at some time or another. There's no shame in that, so long as you don't follow them to a place you don't want to go. And being alone is nothing to be proud of, either. I wonder if that's where your trouble lies…."
She got a speculative look on her face, and Faith found herself fidgeting, tugging at the snug material of the cranberry blouse.
"Sylvia, I'm really lost, here. What are you talking about?"
Those old eyes looked like they were reading her like a book, and Faith didn't like that feeling.
"You're the only one who knows, and maybe you're not ready to figure it out yet." The woman gave a sigh. "The thing I want you to remember is this: we've been living with these murderers for half a year now, and we know exactly how dangerous they are. They act like they're our saviors, here to protect us by taking over and forcing everything they don't like to just stop." A grim smile flitted across her face and was gone. "They don't understand us crazy westerners. They can't see why we won't just roll over and let them have everything their way. They get frustrated, and they pick people to use as examples." She closed her eyes. "They kill them; not out of anger, or because they think that person is more deserving of death than a dozen others. They kill that person because they feel it's necessary, because they believe it will make us cooperate."
Faith leaned back against an old wardrobe made of some dark wood.
"Your friends; the ones who died. They-"
Sylvia opened her eyes.
"Yes. Picked because they were stubborn, and because they were convenient, and respected. I'd known them most of my life, Faith."
The Slayer stared back, folding her arms beneath her breasts.
"You make them out to be real hard cases."
"Oh, they are. And it doesn't matter to them how many of us they have to kill. We aren't people to them, not to their leaders anyway. They are from so far away, both in distance and in the way they think, that we don't count. We aren't real."
Faith had to look away at that. She knew a little something about that mindset herself. Hadn't she thought much the same thing just a little while ago? She wasn't connected to any of this, wasn't a part of it. What did it matter to her if someone died?
The old woman was watching her carefully.
"All these people are doing is preparing the way for a bloodbath. Every time they take someone else, all they manage to do is make some of our young ones, the ones with more guts than sense, want to fight them." She clasped her hands together in her lap, and her voice took on just the slightest note of pleading. "Faith, my grandson is one of those, he thinks we can force them out. I think it's only a matter of time before he and the rest get themselves killed."
She gave the Slayer an expectant look, and Faith stirred uneasily. What was she supposed to say now? "Oh, sure thing, maam. I'll go and fight all of these guys by myself, no problem." Yeah, right. After you just finished explaining to me how ready they are to kill everybody who looks at them the wrong way.
"Listen; I do kinda like Alex. Kelly I can take or leave, and you seem like an nice old lady." Actually, you're kind of a scary old broad, and you'd worry me if I didn't know I could break you over my knee like a dried-up stick.
"Yeah, I poked my nose in where it didn't belong, and maybe a little of the trouble those two are in is my fault. I'm doing what I can to help them out before I leave. The rest of this…. I don't see how it's my problem."
Sylvia nodded her gray head.
"It's only your problem if you want it to be."
Faith sighed with relief, glad to be off the hook.
The old woman nodded again, in obvious satisfaction.
There was a pause, as Faith tried to make sense of that. Somewhere along the way, she'd gotten a bit lost.
"Huh? I mean; what?"
The older woman smiled faintly.
"I told you that you're searching for something; I think you're waiting for something, too. Something to show you which way to go."
"And… I think this might be where you find it." She leaned forward, reaching out to tug at the cranberry top, then at the denim and leather jeans. Making a sound of satisfaction she stood. There was a small stack of other things beside Faith's empty pack; several more tops and pairs of jeans that looked to be the same size as the ones she was wearing, along with a couple of sets of underwear, bras and panties both.
"Wait a second, there's more there than those old ones were good for. Let me pay you-"
Sylvia caught her wrist as she reached for the pocked she'd put her money into, and then patted her hand. "The clothes are yours, child. Go and do what you need to do."
* * * * *