Faith turned on one elbow to check on her baby girls. Their chests moved with the steady rhythm of sleep. Their faces displayed tiny smiles, thin as their father's. Their bodies seemed to hover above the fur coat Loki had given her. The fur adjusted to the heat of the season when Faith wore it. Maybe it was keeping the girls cool. Maybe it also made them feel safe. It was from a home they might never know.
Streams of chatter washed around Faith and mixed with the smell of ripe apples and the smoke of the fire the Potentials built. It made the leaves of the orchard dance with light.
Faith rolled back to two elbows and let the night sky fill her vision, looking beyond the flickering shadows to the stars. She wondered if a constellation was named for Loki. He was probably too mobile and fast to be star system material... not permanent enough, a small voice nagged at her. She pushed away the doubt and anger that had once been her entire life. She had to trust him. She wondered if he was looking down at her from somewhere in the endless darkness
The murmur of Potential voices sharpened and pulled Faith out of her thoughts. The Potentials created a continual symphony of voices, some big like horns, some tiny like those little flutes, especially the girls trying new words. They had spent most of the day outdoors, training to fight, practicing magic, cooking and eating, lying around, and spoiling the babies. It was such a good time that when the sun went down, none of them wanted to go back into the house. They had their movies and games there, the kitchen with its view of the lake, the interior rooms built for lounging and talking or reading. Still, the world seemed so much larger and less restrictive when they were outside.
Being with the Potentials was like a prolonged slumber party, or what she thought a slumber party was supposed to be. She'd never actually been to one. She didn't count the time she bunked down with Potentials to battle the First. Even then, she kept apart when she couldn't slumber with the guys.
Or maybe being with the Potentials was like a Girl Scout thing, though she'd never done that, either. Some neighbor woman pestered her mom into agreeing that Faith could join the Brownies, but when Faith reminded her, she got a smack on the face and called stupid. How did Faith ever fool herself her mom was gonna spring for a uniform when ciggies and off-label vodka were sitting on store shelves?
The campout idea fit. All along, PROTIS had been sending food to a place called "Camp Ginnungagap," which Faith thought was a local, Native word. The girls called the place "Last Gap."
The house had its own drone that PROTIS sent to the market in Greenville. It was loaded down once a week with supplies. The drone slotted into the house. Runners distributed the goods. It worked fine when it was just Faith, but with Willow and nine potentials, PROTIS was looking at running the drone around the clock.
When the girls first got to Greenville, they naturally stopped at the market. They found the owner was expecting them. She had a trailer of food ready for them to bring to some camp none of them had heard of. The owner told them the camp director, Willow, had arranged it. In true Slayer fashion, they rolled with it.
"I wondered who was up there," the owner was reported as saying. "Seemed like just one person, a kind of weird -- or maybe bizarre -- survivalist, living alone in the wilderness, having pizza and ice cream flow in."
"It's not all pizza," Faith grumbled.
"Let us tell the story," Val replied.
"You can't even remember if its 'weird' or 'bizarre,'" Faith countered. "And, besides, survivalists live off the land."
"The ones I knew stored cans and boxes of food for the End Days," Talitha commented.
The store owner had asked the girls, "You affiliated with any group?"
Talitha named the church she'd grown up in. It must have been a group you didn't mess with, because the owner stopped asking. She just said, “Glad to see a new camp in the area. Tourism's down to nothing since the Dark Hour."
That was where Willow was now, at the market in Greenville picking up food for Last Gap. Willow volunteered to get the second large shipment. Faith figured she wanted to contact Buffy. Willow couldn't get phone reception at Last Gap.
Kimber was with Willow. She'd been dying to go to Greenville. She wanted to call some guy.
That was what started the argument that pulled Faith out of her dream state. Faith tried to focus on the conversation, but all she saw was a bunch of teenagers shooting their mouths off, punctuated by the word "Kimber."
Faith marveled that she now had a seemingly permanent collection of Potentials around her. They followed her everywhere except the bathroom. The strangest thing was that she didn't mind. They were as messy as Faith, but they cleaned up when she asked them. More importantly, they carried the babies for her, changed them, talked to them, and played with their hands and feet. They had different ways of dealing with the babies, ways that filled the holes Faith was afraid she carried, not having much of a mother herself. All of them together probably made a decent parent.
Faith had been worried she was gonna be wicked sad after the babies were born, the kind of soul-sucking depression that would have been bad for the girls. She had worried she'd never come out of it. Not to mention she hardly had nurturing skills for herself, let alone two babies. What kind of a role model could she be?
But with the Potentials, she didn't have time to be down on herself or feel things were hopeless. There was always somebody there to help. She didn't confide her sorrows or concerns to them, of course. She still had the Slayer's isolation. She still had the wall she put up to keep others from getting too close. The mistrust, it was still there, in spades.
Some of the Potentials were like that, too. She didn't push. She didn't give them don'ts and shoulds. She just tried to listen. Eventually, they wanted to talk to her. She was grateful for that. She never thought of herself as a people person. Slayers were meant to be loners and she learned the hard way that alone was best for her. There had only ever been one long-term exception, and that didn't exactly pan out the way she hoped. Being with Loki, it was difficult all along, and then it ended, without an explanation. It seemed that getting his trust was impossible. But with the Potentials, it seemed so simple.
And with Willow and Kimber gone, the stress simply drained out of the house. The remaining Potentials didn't agreed on everything, but being so young, they were not super set in their ways.
"Kimber will never learn," Day stated firmly.
Ames voiced this thought. "Cut her some slack, Holiday. Every person makes mistakes."
"So you do, too, Country?"
Ames nearly grinned. "No, not me."
They all laughed, and even Faith smiled in surprise. Ames reminded Faith of her lost daughter, Helen. She was beyond serious, the kind of drop-dead that people usually made fun of.
"You have no faults?" Darna directed her question to Day. Darna had education, courtesy of a hired personal teacher from the United States. She spoke the best English of the non-U.S. Potentials. She never hesitated to jump into conversations.
"I'm better than perfect," Day answered with exaggerated pride. She had the showiest confidence in the group.
"Do tell," Val commented as she rolled her eyes in a playful way. Val was short for "Valeria," or "Valley Girl," as Day liked to call her. Val flat-out announced she hero-worshipped Day. Faith could see there was a little more than that going on. She found it interesting that the nature of their relationship flew right by Willow, but then again, Faith never saw Willow looking for action. She probably couldn't recognize interest until it hit on her with a sledgehammer, like Kennedy coming out and telling her.
"I deal with my problems head-on," Day asserted. "I run my game on my own."
She hadn't done the best job, Faith thought, but she had survived, mostly on her terms, which included being an underage stripper for a time. Faith thought Day was going to be the problem Potential. The first words Faith said to her were, "No smoking in the house." Day got a "you don't impress me" look that Faith practically lived in as a teenager. But thereafter, nobody smoked at Faith's place. That was because Holiday turned out to be as steady as Ames. Day was born to lead and she stepped effortlessly into the role. She was extroverted and forceful.
Holiday's real name was Holly, named after an actress on the old Jump Street show. Weird that Day's parents were as old as Faith. Holiday was a working name, but Day preferred it because she said her first name was too weird. She never gave a last name. Faith was sure if she did, it would be a fake.
Day was a California girl who looked and dressed like she walked out of a fashion magazine. Despite her elegant, high-class appearance, she had a goofy grin and a voice made hoarse by smoking, drinking and laughing.
She moved out of her mom's house when she turned 14. Her parents were out of work. A wave of automation killed about half the jobs in the U.S. Her dad was spiraling down on losing his job. He left the family to find work anywhere he could. Her mom eked out a survival on unemployment, doing nails on the side, before entering the junk collecting business like so many others. Technology didn't build an easy, workless society the way its promoters envisioned, but hey, the creators got rich, so no worries!
Even Day's teachers were computerized. All they did was measure how she scored on tests. She didn't have the equipment to study at home. She didn't see the point in studying when there were no jobs. So, she spent more time running around than she did at school.
Faith thought Day could have been her sister; they both grew up living close to the edge. But while Faith became The Slayer, Day just got deeper in trouble.
She started living out of dumpsters. Finally, an older girl she met invited her to move into her apartment and onto her couch. Even though her benefactor was twelve years' older, the senior girl had a relationship in mind. She got Day at a vulnerable time: no family, no home, no money. The woman gave her clothes and cosmetics, and made sure Day went to school, the whole Pretty Woman scene. The woman was jealous and controlling, however. When Day finally told her to back off, the woman flipped and told her to leave.
Day had saved enough for a fake ID that aged her five years. She got a job at a club that didn't ask questions. Some jobs still needed the personal touch, although in-home delivery had decreased the number of customers. Day held onto her nice clothes like a lifeline, keeping them in her locker at work.
She met Val at a homeless shelter where Val worked the soup line. Day went there every afternoon before her shift. Val would take a break to sit with Day while she ate. Even though their life experiences were totally different, they were the same age and they managed to strike up a friendship.
One day, Day handed Val a letter. It was from "Rupert Giles." He wrote that Day was a Potential Slayer who was in danger and needed to come to San Francisco for help. It mentioned Buffy Summers. Day had heard about Buffy from Harmony's reality TV show.
"I got a letter, too!" Val told Day. "It's like Hogwarts!"
"Right -- street kids are secretly wizards." But Day had a sense that things were about to go down heavy in L.A. "You wanna skid to Frisco?"
"How do we get there, Valley?"
"You have a problem with my van?"
Val was an odd combo of a sheltered free spirit who couldn’t be kept caged, though there might have been a mental hospital in her past -- Faith wasn't sure she heard correctly -- not that that was a bad thing or all that unusual. Val dressed like a classic Seventies punk: torn black jeans, tattered black t-shirt, and black jacket with the name "The Girl For Me" painted in white on the back. She had one foot in being a tomboy, but her clothes managed to cover all her figure and still leave nothing to the imagination. She had half her head shaved and the other half in snake-like, multicolored strands. One arm was filled with tattoos of Disney characters tricked out like gangsters, all her designs. The bluebirds of happiness had switchblades in their mouths, that kind of thing. Her face was covered with piercings. She had a striking look, make-up to the nines, too much eye liner for eyes that refused to cry. She had a scowl that dared anyone to try something.
Her body said tough, but she was really an upper middle class girl who liked to hang out in gritty L.A. instead of her home in the bland burbs. She helped out at the homeless shelter, which got her food and a parking space for her van. Computers had taken over serving meals to the poor, but the Sanctuary was a hold-out, insisting other places served sawdust with gravy, unlike them.
Working in the shelter gave Val's life structure, that and her band. She was a screw-up in school, but not in her music. Her band practiced in a studio near the shelter, close enough to local all-ages clubs and the underground scene that was still happening in L.A.
Unfortunately, the other people in the band rarely had time for practice. They were living their normal lives, which meant hanging on to service jobs that barely put credits in their accounts. Their jobs could call at any hour, and they had to go. Meanwhile, Val was living La Vida 24-7. She slept in the van most nights. She practiced guitar continuously.
Fortunately, she had money. Her parents owned a company that developed robots. They basically bought her off to stay away from them. She was always causing trouble, starting fires, trashing their yard. They said they'd buy her a car and give her a gas card. She had them buy an ancient white-paneled van made of sketch held together by stubborn. It was the kind of anonymous van you heard about in police reports. The others in the band wanted Val to paint it with their band name, Milk Made, but she liked the fact that the van was a blank. It was the vehicle she learned to drive in, but she never bothered to get a license. She imagined her parents were paying insurance on it, since it was in their names. She never asked.
When Holiday came into her life, she got more responsible about the details. Now, she and Day were a couple of 16 year old girls, the oldest and wildest in Faith's group of Potentials. They had clothes and a van and they had each other, but beyond that, they barely had a clue. Kind of like Faith.
Even so, Day took the challenge of Last Gap head-on. Faith in the same spot would have been floundering, not feeling like she had the authority to decide anything. Day organized the big projects, like cleaning the house and holding regular training. Meanwhile, Ames revived the garden and the orchard. Ames was about a connection to Earth whereas Holiday was about connection to others. Day started English lessons for those who weren't native speakers. She got Kimber to teach the classes. Kimber like to tell people what to do.
One of those students, Sayara, spoke up for Kimber. "She had a bad thing, Day. Why do you ... make bad? Is ... good... she believe in a world."
It was amazing that Sayara had the heart to feel sorry for Kimber. Sayara's life had been so much harder, according to what Darna told Faith. Sayara was sold into marriage by her father at age twelve to a much older man in a nearby town, a man who had survived other young wives. Fearing the worst, her mother bundled up Sayara in the night and took her to a trader. Her mother used her savings to pay the trader to bring Sayara to the mother's brother in the city. The brother owned a company that sold raw materials to growing countries. He was filthy rich.
When Sayara reached the city, her uncle didn't put out the welcome mat. He said she brought shame on their family by not marrying the old guy. But her uncle had sons and a wife whose station in life had been better than his. His wife grew up with servants. So, Sayara became their cook, cleaner, babysitter, and if she was lucky, errand-runner.
Basically, she was their slave. She worked all day and was locked in her room at night. She didn't go to school. She had to obey her younger, spoiled nephews as well as their parents.
One day, she was rushing to the post office with some parcels. It was rare that she was let out of the house, and she ran through the streets to show she could be trusted.
Some guy, Darna said a local baker, came up to Sayara and stopped her in the street, grabbing her arm. She broke away, quickly checking to see if anyone was around who could report it to her uncle, who would blame her and call her a harlot. When she was sure nobody noticed, she set off again, trying to dodge the rude creep.
But he came after her, saying he was a friend. He yelled Giles' message at her. He added more quietly that he would help her if she followed him.
Sayara knew it was crazy, but her uncle always said the baker was honest, so she went with him. She was raised to be obedient, but she was also her mother's daughter.
The baker took her to some professor who taught at the local university. She stayed in the professor's house in her own room, where the servants delivered food to her with pinched faces. Even though Sayara spoke French, one of many languages she learned so she could serve her uncle's guests, she was uncomfortable in the professor's house. After a week, when the fuss over her disappearance died down, the professor took her to the airport.
Taking a long trip in the air, landing in the hubbub of an airport, having to reach her connecting flight, and doing these things alone -- Sayara was filled with terror. And once on the ground, she had to take a taxi with the professor's money and recite Buffy's address from a piece of paper. Giles spoke a few of her languages, at least, so she had that foothold in a foreign culture.
Sayara was a modest girl who was beautiful even though she covered up so much. She wore more clothes than the other Potentials, who except for Val and maybe Darna, dressed conservatively. Sayara was also a watchful girl who tended to stand apart from the others. Faith didn't blame her. Maybe she trusted Kimber because the older girl taught her English. Maybe that's why she spoke up when Kimber was gone.
Day responded to Sayara with, "Kimber creates her own troubles."
Kimber was the Potential who reminded Faith of Buffy. When she first met Buffy, it was all boy problems. But Kimber's troubles had been nowhere near as drastic as those of Buffy, or anyone else sitting in the circle in the yard. Kimber just got herself plastered nude all over the Internet. Faith could understand why that was traumatic for a kid, but honestly, a bad decision was every night for Faith when she was Kimber's age. Nude pics were the inevitable raw egg in the Tabasco. Most of the consequences Faith tried to shrug off.
But there was this older guy, when Faith was even younger than Kimber that used to hang around the school and give kids cigarettes and beers. The kids thought he was cool because he treated them like adults. One afternoon, he had her drinking with him in the alley by the side of the school. She got out of it real fast. He took her behind a dumpster and did what he wanted, then he left her there.
When she got home, even though Faith didn't say nothing, her mom looked at her like she knew what happened and it just confirmed that Faith was no good. Faith felt completely alone and confused. She wondered if was inevitable, if maybe she deserved it.
A few days later, some kids were going to the alley. She pulled one away, someone who was sort-of OK to her. She told him there was something not right about an older guy hanging with grade school kids. He laughed and told her to grow up. After that, kids at school treated her like even more like she was out of her mind, like she was some uptight chick out to jam the guy up. She switched schools pretty soon, anyway, so it didn't matter.
Faith thought she should be famous for her straight run of loser boyfriends. She'd convince herself everything was good, but they cheated in one way or another. She always left first. The thing was, she was so turned around in her mind, she didn't know what was what. She thought she was the one who had the responsibility. She didn't have confidence in her own feelings.
Kimber was going through the same things. That was probably why Kimber and Holiday didn't get along, or why Day saw Kimber as weak and full of delusion. Day thought Kimber was caught up in being a victim, like she hadn't learned from being betrayed and was still looking for ways to get hurt. Day owned her experiences and made them a part of her identity, the same way Faith thought she had, believing she had power and choice when, if she sat down and got real, that might not have been the whole deal. Pushing off emotions and deep thinking was a way to survive and to have control, but it didn't always lead to healthy decisions or deep-down happiness. It led her to build walls so thick she wanted to die behind them rather than risk being seen in her true, ugly failed-ness. It led Faith to some brutal actions she still had to live with.
When Faith became a Slayer, her Watcher told her it was her job to protect innocent people. So, one of the first things she did was go back to that school. The older guy was still around. She made sure he didn't hurt kids again. She never told anyone. She never regretted it.
Kimber wasn't like Faith at her age, though. First off, instead of just being out for a good time, she had a massive crush on the guy she gave the picture to, one of those teen do or die things. Second, Kimber took the picture because he asked her for it, which... obviously, she wasn't thinking with her head. Thirteen-year-old Faith could have told Kimber that as soon as Romeo got whatever he could, he was gone.
But this guy posted the picture to a blog on Yamblr, along with a bunch of lies about how he got it. He even included a score for performance. Boys in his circle followed up with nasty comments, then girls started posting lies, girls that Kimber thought liked her.
She couldn't go to her mother, who was the queen of denial -- probably where Kimber got her Pollyanna attitude. Kimber's father was out of the picture. He was a politician in Washington, D.C., on his third marriage. Because of his job, the nude photo got picked up by gossip outlets. Soon, it was everywhere. Kimber told her side of the story. Her father distanced himself even further from her, saying no harm was done, she was trying to destroy a boy's life. It got to where Kimber didn't know what to believe, like maybe she was the wrong one.
Her mom had enough money to take her out of her private school and get a home tutor. Still, Kimber couldn't get over the humiliation, and it was all there on the Web for her to revisit, which she did again and again. It was only after coming to Faith's house that she stopped worrying about it, probably because PROTIS shut down the Internet connection.
When Kimber got the letter from Giles, she thought it was a hoax to drag her out of mom's place and in front of the cameras. She ignored it. Then one afternoon, her bedroom turned dark. She had this feeling someone was coming to kill her. With her mother out of the house, Kimber ran out the back and drove off in one of her mom's cars. She drove to San Francisco.
At Buffy's, she learned that her mom's house had blown up. Kimber was presumed dead. Her mom smiled bravely on the national news. She blinked back dramatic tears as she said, "Kimber had so many troubles. She just didn't fit in with the students at her new school. Of course, I'm shocked she did this to herself. She's in a happier place now."
Kimber called her mother. Her mom told her to stay at her friend's house and she could come to San Francisco. Kimber waited, but her mother didn't show up.
She called her father. He said she was on her own.
So Kimber settled into Buffy's place. She had a new start. She was optimistic about life as a rule, and why not? She was a cute, blond girl with a naturally sunny disposition, smiley and bouncy. She always had a quip ready. She didn't have much to talk about that wasn't light and funny, which made a change from the more assertive Potentials who always argued.
Kimber had used her mom's credit card on the way to California. It came up on the news one day that the police were looking for Kimber. Buffy decided to ship her off to Maine.
"Who is this guy she's calling?" Faith asked.
"A figment of her imagination," Talitha offered.
Val grinned and added, "Basically. She met him at a hair salon. Like, he was way too old for her, and he didn't seem interested in robbing the cradle. But the dude was nice. He treated her like a normal person. That was enough for her to pine after him. He probably doesn't even realize she likes him."
Faith hoped that's what was going on and he wasn't like the lost causes she knew at that age. They never wanted normal from her. She always thought she was taking more than she was giving, but nothing plus nothing still adds up to zero.
Beth sounded bitter about Kimber's obsession. "She had a chance here, so why'd she go? To call someone who doesn’t know she exists? We have a good thing in Last Gap. Who cares what he thinks? What is she afraid of?"
Day replied, "That girl can deal with her own life. It's her problem. It ain't my problem."
"What if she brings world back to home?" Ling added. Faith could feel the mood of the group sink.
She was surprised Ling was the one to say something negative. Like Kimber, she tended to be optimistic. She was set on becoming a doctor, even though she was only fourteen and far away from home with no money, even though, Faith learned, most diagnoses and treatments were handled by computers, sort-of the way PROTIS took care of her until Ames and Ling stepped in. There were a few hold-outs like Willow, who didn't believe in digital diagnosis, but most people didn't have a choice.
Ling was raised in what remained of the People's Republic by a woman who took in orphaned girls. Ling got a good basic education. She even learned some English. She expected to spend the rest of her life in her village, providing health care for local workers, perhaps helping the parents she had never known.
One day, Ling was walking home from school when she heard a woman cry out for help. Ling ran to a house and found a woman deep in the throes of labor. She helped the woman through a difficult birth. She had no idea what she was doing, but she kept her head and made the right decisions.
The woman was old enough to be Ling's mother. She was married to a local official who always frowned at her. Ling never felt comfortable around him. He had left his wife alone that day, despite her advanced stage of pregnancy. When he came home, he was not overly concerned about his wife's health or the new daughter his wife had given birth to. He watched Ling with a hostility she was not used to.
The woman was impressed with Ling, however, and arranged for her to assist a local nurse. She paid the nurse to teach the young girl how to be a midwife. She gave Ling small amounts of money from time to time, calling them loans.
Ling's patron also had connections in Beijing. Through her, Ling received the letter from Giles.
The woman gave her the funds to travel to Hong Kong and directions to a friend's house. The friend helped her get passage to San Francisco. Ling found Buffy and showed her Giles' letter. To her relief, Giles came to the door and greeted her in Mandarin.
Still, there was nothing for Ling to do in Buffy's house. She had been useful in China. And even with a large Chinese population in San Francisco, Ling felt out of place in a metropolitan area. She was told to stay near Buffy's building, anyway. Then she found she was going to travel across the United States with eight other Potentials in a large, white van.
She and Ames were drawn to each other and had remained friends, despite the language and cultural barriers. It was hard to say they were real close, because Ames held people at arm's length. But she and Ling were quiet, serious, practical people. Faith figured this was why Ling wondered aloud about Kimber possibly bringing trouble to the group.
"PROTIS is tops when it comes to keeping this place off the radar," Faith assured her. "Plus, we got a crazy group of Slayers here."
"You're a Slayer," Talitha interjected. "We aren’t."
"Yeah, but you've all got the makings. I mean, Buffy wouldn't have sent you here if you didn't."
Talitha made a sour face. "Buffy sent us here because we have all the lackings. We were the most useless, the misfits and juvies. Those who aren't don't speak English."
Faith had to turn away. She had already confronted Willow about that. "They are the screw-ups, aren't they? The ones Buffy didn't want to deal with."
"You weren't so straight yourself at one time."
"I've batted a thousand compared to these girls."
"Sure, what with the unwed motherhood and the general lack of direction..."
"Are you saying something against my kids?"
"Of course not," Willow assured her. She took a breath, "Well, sure, it's possible these girls are from bad situations. They all need support. But maybe Buffy sent them to you because you are able to help them. It might be easier for you to understand them."
Faith didn't know how to take that. She was already feeling bad about bursting out and putting them down. And since that conversation, Faith wondered if she should watch over the girls a little more.
On the other hand, Faith couldn't be bothered to tell others how to live their lives. She tried to give them what she could, but what did she know? Sometimes she felt like she should be their mom, they were so young. She didn't look much older than they did, but she'd seen a lot. She at least made it to high school. She guessed she was an elder. It felt strange.
Faith responded to Talitha's dismissal of the group as rejects. "You just described every Slayer that's ever existed -- mostly. How do you think girls are chosen to be Slayers? We are the ones who have the most to prove and the least to lose."
Just as the words came out of her mouth, eight pairs of eyes focused on Faith. It was something that happened whenever she mentioned the Slayer legacy. She never got used to it. She touched the Braid of Souls on her finger. She hadn't told them about it. Buffy hadn't told them about the first Slayer, Sineya. All they knew from Buffy and Faith was, "Train and fight."
These Potentials were half of all those who'd been with Buffy. Faith was shocked they were the only ones left, or at least, the only ones Giles could find. The ones in Faith’s care were so young, from age twelve to sixteen.
"Talitha’s right," Beth said, turning her eyes back to Ripper’s big head as she stroked his floppy ear. The black dog was always by her side, looking sleepy but snapping to when anything unexpected happened. "We’re the unwanted Potentials. The ones Buffy kept are older and follow her orders without any, you know, backtalk."
"Hey, you're not in the army," Faith corrected. That was the difference between her and Buffy. Buffy could make the hard decisions and distance herself from the Potentials, looking at them as assets. Buffy was made to be a general. Faith, on the other hand, had always cared too much about the Potentials she was forced to lead. It was a drawback to getting things done. When she should have been looking at situations with a cold eye and moving the girls into battle, all she thought about was how she wanted them to be happy and safe... and she could do the job better by herself, anyway.
Talitha asked, "Wouldn't it be more effective to fight as if we were soldiers? There's no room for individuality and sentiment when you fight evil."
Faith wondered what "evil" meant for Talitha. She was raised in a strict religious home that taught her to sacrifice for her church, which forbade the things she was really interested in.
Faith knew Chimera picked the Slayers, though she didn't know how. Chimera probably liked to mix it up, keep things interesting. Still, Faith didn't know why she chose Talitha. Girl was a computer whiz, not a brawler. She was a Willow, not a Buffy. She was so into digital life that the real world probably didn’t exist for her. Her hero was Tony Stark, for one thing, which caused the other Potentials to give her the side-eye. And like Stark, she worked all the time. She never paid attention to mealtimes. When she ate, it was quick garbage snacks. Sure, Faith ate like that -- especially in England, where she practically survived on the cheap, Irish equivalent of the chip butty -- but in London, Faith wasn’t a growing girl. Talitha was fourteen.
Talitha understood PROTIS like nobody else. She was even working on concepts she developed with him, which blew Faith away. Faith was sure PROTIS had given Talitha Internet access. Even worse, they were keeping it a secret from Faith.
Talitha's parents were small-town people with a strong faith. Their lives revolved around their religion. They sold cleaning goods from their home in what sounded like a pyramid scheme organized by their church. The family was tight and insular, encouraged to turn away from the technology overtaking the world.
The father was the absolute ruler of the family and made decisions for his wife and daughter, including how they fixed their hair and what clothes they wore. He decided that Talitha should be schooled with other church children in an education that relied heavily on religious obedience and less on scientific questioning. Despite that, she understood how appliances in her home worked and fixed them when they broke.
Talitha's mother was the one who got her started reading at the local public library. The church permitted the women to meet once a week for a break from their normal, regulated lives. Her mother picked out books for her daughter to read while she swapped recipes and stuff. Soon Talitha realized she wasn't being watched and she could read whatever she wanted.
She read about computers, science and math. The library had desktops no-one used in the day, so she made herself at home. A friendly librarian offered to let her bring a laptop home overnight and she did, without telling her parents. Nobody bothered her as long as she was quiet. She hacked into a neighbor’s wireless and began to spend a lot of time in online chatrooms using the name Talik.
That led to her to a boy in a neighboring town, Ramon, though he called himself Ray. They would chat on the boards of a local booster site, Nebraska is for Lovers. His username was NB4lzrz.
Ray was a funny, skinny, Latino, openly gay teen in a town that worshipped big, white, straight male athletes. As her parents were terrified of the “militant homosexual agenda,” Talitha knew that if her parents found out about Ray, the worst of the punishments that would inevitable come down would be cutting her off from her friend.
Talitha and Ray only met in person once in all the time they talked online. He gave her an old laptop so she didn’t have to rely on the library. He was the one who forwarded the letter from Giles to an account they shared. Apparently, Giles had sent a physical letter, but Talitha never received it. That explained why her parents started searching her room.
She was lucky they didn't freak altogether, but they had no way of knowing what a Slayer was. It probably seemed like an angel thing to them. Still, when Talitha’s father discovered the laptop and destroyed it, he accused her of demon-possession. (When Talitha told the Potentials this, it also drew a lot of sideways glances from them.)
Talitha's parents decided to send her to a boarding school the church set up in another state. She had heard about it: girls got up at five for two hours of slaughtering and butchering chickens; then cooking, cleaning, and sewing until nine; boxing and labeling the church’s cleaning products until noon; non-stop classes in religion the rest of the day; prayer and forced sharing until bedtime at nine. The boys did hard labor in the fields and on the property, and made the church’s cleaning products. Sexes were strictly segregated. Electronics were nowhere to be found. No friendships were allowed in the compound, and no communication was allowed to the outside world. Those who disobeyed disappeared for months, to return skinnier and quieter. Locked in her parents' house, Talitha felt she was already halfway living in that place.
Ray, not having heard from his friend, decided to contact her. He waited until her parents left the house to knock at her window. He looked beat up and out-of-it, but all he said was that he had noticed something odd around town, stranger than normal.
Talitha and Ray ran away to San Francisco in his mother's tiny, mostly-unused car that Talitha hot-wired. Neither of them could drive, but she picked it up away. Ray had a little money. He asked for handouts in gas stations. Talitha was too embarrassed to ask how. When they got to the Bay Area, Ray dumped the car over an embankment on a hillside filled with redwoods. They walked out of the forest and hitchhiked to Buffy’s.
Ray wasn't exactly welcomed with open arms, but it was OK. He was star-struck by San Francisco. He soon disappeared into the city, never to come back. Talitha missed him and worried about him. Faith knew what that was like. She asked PROTIS to look for him, but even PROTIS turned up nothing.
Talitha had a knack with machines. She was able to get Darna's music player working again. Everyone was impressed by that. And, when Ames was taking apart a motor, Talitha sat nearby, named every part, explaining what it did or why it needed to be fixed. Finally, Ames stared at her and asked, "Have you ever taken one of these apart?" Talitha answered, "No." Ames handed the tools to her and said, "Get started." Talitha did, getting everyone involved.
It was no surprise she was trying to figure out how Slayers worked.
Faith answered, "My first trainer told me the most important part of being a Slayer is saving humans from supernaturals that are stronger and want to hurt them. Whatever you do to get that job done is OK by me. Whatever works."
"Supernaturals? You mean like us, like the ones the government is hunting? Or like the thing that’s hunting us?"
Beth was worked up. She could get hysterical. She was real young, like Sayara, who was the closest in the group to Beth, but a lot more calm. Sayara said something about Ripper, which redirected Beth’s attention and chilled out the flighty kid. Not that Faith blamed Beth for being insecure.
Anyone looking in on Beth’s family from the outside would have thought it normal, but inside the house, her father was unpredictable and violent. She learned to tip-toe around him but still could never avoid his sudden roars of rage and flying fists. Even so, when a neighbor’s dog had puppies, Beth brought one home with a small sliver of hope that her dad would like it.
The father mistreated the puppy from the day it came into the house, the same way he did her and her mother. The puppy was too young to understand that it was doing nothing wrong. It was too friendly to get out of his way the way Beth tried to.
One night, the dog, no longer small, growled and showed his teeth at her father when he was coming to hit Beth. Her dad backed off in a hurry, then recovered his composure and yelled, "That's it: the mutt has to go. I'm calling the pound tomorrow. A dog that turns on his master is no good."
She ran away with the dog that night. Ripper led her to a railroad yard where some older kids were sitting around. When she told them about her dad and the dog, they said they were going to California and she could come with them if she wanted.
The older kids looked after her. They showed her how to jump trains, how to beg for food, how to hide in plain sight. If anyone got funny, the dog was right there. They renamed him Ripper from his original name, Robby, though he’d never bitten anyone.
When they got to San Francisco, Ripper pulled her towards Buffy's house. Buffy took her in without a word and hauled her to the bathtub. Ripper followed and Buffy didn't object, dirty as the dog was.
Beth said Buffy was nice enough, but she seemed uncomfortable around the dog. She was also concerned that Beth was away from her parents at such a young age.
As soon as Beth met Sayara, they became inseparable. They bonded over the dog and how small they both were. Beth had been teaching Sayara English and learning phrases in the languages Sayara spoke. The girl from the Philippines, Darna, also hung out almost exclusively with Beth and Sayara.
"By supernaturals, I mean vampires and demons that live off people," Faith answered. "You’ve been hunted?"
"By humans, yeah," Day confirmed.
"Well, not hunted with, you know, guns and stuff, "Val corrected, "but there are, like, checkpoints everywhere, and Summers’ house was watched all the time by surveillance and this vigilante group."
"The people in that group weren’t very smart," Talitha added. "I used to go out and talk to them. I understand them, the fear, the stereotyping, the anger and urge to control. I grew up with that, believing the fantasy even though the truth is staring you in the face."
"Taal made fools of them," Darna added with a hint of awe. "She learned much."
"I told them I was Buffy’s sister’s friend, staying the summer. I offered to give them information on the house and its inhabitants. I told them some wild stories and had them running around chasing each other. Of course, I never let on that I held positive feelings about supernaturals, and nobody’d ever seriously suspect me as a threat."
Faith was impressed at how resourceful Talitha was. She mighta been better than Faith thought at surviving on her own. In fact, when Faith looked at her motley crew of Potentials, she was proud of all of them for having the guts to strike out into the unknown, almost all alone. Faith's Watcher found her and took her in, which was a little different. Of course, the Watcher was killed too soon. Faith had to watch her die. When Faith got away, she practically flew to Sunnydale, more in fear than hope. She never really found safety anywhere. Her Potentials, though... she wanted to give them safety.
"Talitha also broke the other watcher," Darna stated.
"You mean the demon that was chasing you?" Faith asked, very confused. The girls looked down, faces drawn down in concerned frowns. Nobody spoke.
Holiday grabbed a bag of marshmallows. Noticing this, Val opened a big bar of chocolate and passed it around with a box of graham crackers. The girls gratefully started putting together s'mores. Day flipped her hand at the fire pit a few times, reciting "ignis apparebit."
Faith almost burst out laughing. The words sounded like a curse Elmer Fudd would say to Bugs Bunny. Needless to say, Faith never got that spell to work. It didn't work for Day, either.
Darna made the same motion that Day made, but different, more dancer-like. When she said the words, the fire in the pit lit up.
Day mumbled a glum "thank you" and put her marshmallow on a stick. The heavenly smell of burnt sugar filled the air.
Faith glanced at the two babies. They were now fully awake, watching with wide eyes the magic-making Potentials. Faith hefted the closest, Ash, into her lap and lifted her t-shirt to let the baby fasten onto her breast. Embarr turned her attention to her sister, envy and longing on her face.
Darna giggled at her success in lighting the fire. She picked up her earlier statement with, "Taal, she conquered the machine. Talinghaga."
Talitha smiled shyly. "No, I just fixed their programming so they didn't see us, especially when we left Buffy's."
"Yeah, there's spies everywhere these days. For our own protection, they say, from, you know, supernaturals." Val made an exaggerated scared face, all googly eyes and a deep frown. The girls laughed.
Talitha explained, "Buffy decided we all had to move. I told the Watchers to register nothing unusual from the minute we left the house 'til we got to Stockton. I mean, Willow probably could have magicked them dead, but my way was non-lethal." Faith knew that Buffy had taken her group of Potentials to a stronghold in Santa Rosita, but she hadn't known the details of the get-away.
"Stop talking about them like they're human," Day requested in a disgusted tone.
"So, what are they, the Watchers?"
"That's what they call the surveillance systems," Beth explained.
"Like it's supposed to be watching over us. Like it's a good thing," Val added with bitter sarcasm.
There was so much Faith didn't know any more about life on Earth. She supposed she had been protected, staying in Maine with PROTIS watching out for her. It was jarring, though. She was only gone, like, maybe three years. It felt like a hundred.
"PROTIS has been pretty good for me," Faith mused.
"PROTIS is us here in the wild, though, where he can't hurt anyone," Day answered. "Check it. Computers have put people out of work on a massive scale. Social inequality is worse than ever."
"And not just here. Poor countries produce raw materials to make tech, but even in those countries, robots are now cheaper than humans to do the work," Val stated.
"Meanwhile, the wealthy modify the genes of their kids."
"Creating a new sort of superhuman," Talitha added.
"That's what Kimber is, you know... an early adopter of the brave new world," Day asserted.
"Not her fault her parents make her that way," Darna grumbled.
"Oh, man, don't get me started on the parents of those super kids -- they're behind the drive to identify the superhumans who weren't pre-selected by their special doctors."
"I don't think so," Beth inserted in a quiet voice.
"No, I'm right. We are the ones who threaten their social position. They were born into it, but we took it for ourselves."
"Well, we didn't completely have a choice." Faith was having trouble following Day's logic.
Val jumped in. "She's not talking about Slayers. The rich aren't the only ones to use computers and gene modification to get ahead."
"There's another fringe," Ames remarked. "Most people rely on gadgets for daily life, but they don't make the rules."
"That's right," Talitha agreed. "It's the middle class that's down, with no babies and no jobs. Meanwhile, the poor, when not living in trash mounds, are out there doing the dirty work for the wealthy techno-elite."
"You would know," Day said with a sardonic smile.
"Much as I love a good fight, this isn't one," Faith suggested. "People do a lot of crappy things when they feel they don't have a choice. Talitha's not one of them. Let's agree on that and move on."
Day raised her arms and hands in a gesture of reconciliation. Val rolled her eyes and said, "Robots turned out to be cheaper for oppressing people, too, even if Ultron made robot servitude dead uncertain."
Beth piped in with, "Utron's servants had no say in what they did."
Talitha added, "Current programmers are more careful to make the new generation of robots like microwaves, easy to turn on and off, with no sense of anything but their function. PROTIS is unusual."
"Handy for a world where robots spent their time disarming bombs and tracking down superhumans."
Faith wondered what happened after the Dark Hour to make technology jump so far ahead of where it used to be.
"Getting back to these Watchers, couldn't Willow deprogram them? She used to be good at computers," Faith observed.
"She is not Taal!" Darna exclaimed, gathering up the sticks around the campfire and setting up more s'mores.
Holiday had given the job of leading the housecleaning to Darna, who organized the girls using music. She was a massive fan of something called "M-Pop" or "TBOM," a form of electronic music that emerged while Faith had been in Jotunheim.
Faith was surprised to hear that musicians fell on hard times when the End of Magic happened. Nobody was buying music. In fact, the few labels still in business had to close. They threw away all the masters, or deleted them, because what good were they? Musicians had no concept of what they used to do for a living and had no idea what to do with themselves. With magic gone, machines created a background noise that was piped in everywhere. It was geared towards keeping people passive and eager to buy.
When magic returned, people began to recreate their own sounds. They called it "The Bonds of Melody" or "TBOM" in the East and, in the West, "Meat-Pop" or "M-Pop." The good thing was artists were paid royalties that were automatically credited each time a tune played. But it all sounded like machine music to Faith. It was all programming, made with computers, no live playing. There were only a few throwback bands like Val's, located in larger cities that could support them.
Faith hadn't realized it, but PROTIS had probably built one of the largest archives of "old" music on Earth. Faith wondered if the collection was Loki's idea. He knew how much she loved music. She usually had the radio on when they had a car. She sang along to the songs. But even without that, she was always singing some song or other, totally out of context, like her life has a soundtrack. When things were good, Loki would smile with affection. Sometimes she'd even dance for him. Eventually, he'd join her. He had great moves.
Thinking of those times made her tear up. She swallowed a couple of times and looked over at Darna. She worried about her more than the others.
Darna came from Manila. Her father was a police detective. They had a comfortable life, but her father was strict and suspicious. He even did a background check on the parents of a classmate Darna brought over once to play. He didn't like the results, so he told Darna she couldn't be friends with the girl.
Darna did a deep dive into the new TBOM/M-Pop to deal with her father's paranoia. She dreamt of becoming a backup dancer in the videos broadcast on Manila's large screens, maybe being discovered and groomed to be a star. She stayed well-dressed but street-ready, clothed in the "fight with style" fashions of the videos she loved, especially the hard-edge and futuristic Manila band, "Death to Boredom."
One day, Darna woke up to hear yelling and banging. She came out of her room as the police dragged her father out the door. Her hysterical mother explained he was being taken to jail. He was charged with corruption. He had provided protection and laundered money for drug and human trafficking rings. A new computer program set up to audit police activity found him with his pants open.
Human guards found him hanging in his cell the morning after they arrested him.
Darna soon learned that everything she took for granted was built on graft. She and her mother were set to lose their home and credit, though no-one made a move to take the family savings. Still, she lost the music tutor her father hired after Darna practically begged and threatened for months.
Darna's mother had never worked outside the house. After the death, her mother didn't want to be seen by others. She believed people were talking about her. Darna had to take care of the home. Her only escape was her music and dreams.
When Darna received Giles' letter, she didn't know what she could do about it, since she had to look after her mother. A few weeks after the letter came, however, her mother left the house and died after stepping into traffic. The doctor said she was distracted, not paying attention.
Her mother's sister came to stay with Darna while the funeral was organized. She stayed in their apartment and settled the bills. The aunt withdrew her mother's remaining money from the bank and planned to take Darna back to her town.
Instead, Darna took the money, which she considered her inheritance, and left. She went to her tutor's house and showed her the letter from San Francisco. She said she had enough money to buy a ticket. Her teacher arranged for the flight. In return, Darna left all her music with the teacher, who said it was a shame she was leaving and she wished there was another choice. She shouldn't have to give up her music, but Darna replied that if she kept it, she would end up buried in a small town.
Darna was in California two days after meeting with her teacher. She had nothing but a purse full of pesos and the clothes on her back. She was thirteen.
Her teacher kept her promise and saved Darna's collection of music. PROTIS was able to retrieve it somehow. It formed the constant backdrop when people worked around the house.
Faith asked PROTIS to find more recordings, whatever was around, as a gift to all the Potentials, but mostly to Darna. The growing collection also provided a satisfying source of frustration for Willow, who could not get PROTIS to provide access to the outside world for their phones or Faith's computer. PROTIS said granting access was too dangerous. Even Faith knew that a call could be routed through so many sites it would become untraceable, but she didn't mind being cut off from the world. She figured that collecting music for Darna would not put them at risk.
Faith was more watchful over Darna than the others because her parents had killed themselves. Darna showed no signs of giving up, though. In fact, when Faith looked at the Potentials who were collected under her roof, she was amazed that they had survived so much, that they weren't more damaged, that they avoided the choices Faith felt she, and probably Holiday, had to make. She didn't know about Ames, who never talked about her life. Faith was used to being called negative all her life; she thought she was being realistic. Being accused of negativity was like an automatic rejection by others, and since that never felt good, Faith steered clear of them. Some people were born looking on the dark side, Michael J. Fox even said so. That was why she was kinda happy the Potentials were there. She had to be strong for them and there was no time to dwell.
It was funny that the house formed into natural divisions. There was Holiday who was leading with enthusiasm on one side. Even though she put everything down in that world-weary way, she was full of life and wanted to have an impact on the world. Then there was the group that gathered around a reluctant Ames. She dealt with the natural world with extreme and almost-resigned patience. Ames and Day seemed to respect each other, even if they didn't get on like fire. They acted like they respected Faith even more. As long as that was the case, she had the upper hand and things went smoothly.
But if Day was like Faith in the showy and cynical, Ames was the strong, silent type, the type Faith thought she should settle down with some day. Then she fell in love with Loki. He was anything but a hero from a Western. Sure, he was silent sometimes - actually, when he closed himself off. But Loki would rather rage or throw himself into work than herd sheep or lay down rows of seeds and watch them grow. He was no Ames. He wasn't a drink of water on a dry day. At his best, he was a bottle of rare champagne, making her feel light and excited, or he was like a fine wine that she could sip and contemplate, making her feel warm and open, or he was like some real sassy whiskey that went down smooth, making her feel aware of everything and liberated. At his worst, he made her feel dizzy and ill.
Faith realized she was solid thirsty. She hadn't had a drink since she found out she was pregnant.
She put the sleepy Aisling down and picked up the eager Embarr. Emb gave her mother a curious look and instead of feeding, reached out for the fire, which was a safe distance away. The Potentials laughed. The babies had the girls wrapped around their fingers. They were always running to see why they were crying, dangling toys in front of them, watching them to see what they would do next.
Faith gazed down at the dark hair and green eyes of her child, who began to nurse in a distracted way. She worried she'd eventually forget what Loki looked like. With the girls, that would never happen.
They were the size of five-year-olds, though only weeks old. Fortunately, while the girls all marveled that the babies were unusually big for their age, nobody speculated any further than maybe big babies were a Slayer thing. That was something Ames suggested.
Day nudged Val, saying, "Stoke up the fire." Val did something that looked like jazz hands. Faith glanced down at Embarr, who was smiling. Aisling threw her pudgy little hands in the air and waved them back and forth.
Day never stopped trying to do magic. She and Val were about as hopeless at it as Faith was. Darna made a casual, graceful movement with her hands. The fire leapt up in a roar of bright light. Darna was the success story of the group.
Faith told Willow she wanted the Potentials to learn magic. She said it would give them something to keep their mind off monsters. She thought it would keep Willow busy, too.
"Willow, I was thinking."
Willow looked up from her book to eye Faith with suspicion.
"Why don't you teach me and the girls a little magic? It would be good for us."
"Not everyone can do magic," Willow warned. "It's not something you can just pick up overnight. It requires discipline and a... an understanding of worldly phenomena. It's not a game of Parcheesi."
Even though Faith didn't know what Parcheesi was, she wanted to roll her eyes. Instead she shrugged her shoulders. "I'd rather do WeeGee."
Willow hesitated. "I should be getting back to Buffy."
"If we learn a few spells, we can defend ourselves better when you're gone."
So Willow started teaching them. But Willow's method was way different than Loki's. Loki pulled the magic out of his surroundings, but it was also like a blanket that held him together. Willow used formulas and ingredients and rules, like she carried a notebook and went to the grocery store to buy off a list. Loki tried to get Faith to feel the magic around her, while Willow pointed at it with words and gestures and artefacts. Her way was like using a manual to drive a car, while Loki was speed and motion and the car itself, and the road.
Still, Faith had to admit that Loki's way hadn't worked with her. Maybe books and equipment were what she needed. And thank goodness that was what Willow wanted to use. She had been powerful enough to end the world, but that was Willow on steroids. She no longer had access to that kind of magic. She was saving her magical energy.
Learning from Willow turned out to be too much like school for Faith. She got restless, despite her interest. Willow didn't explain why things worked the way they did and she wouldn't demonstrate or apply the lessons to real-life scrapes. Instead, she'd describe something, then talk some more about it. Sometimes she'd assign reading from one of the huge books in the library
She wanted the girls to learn old languages. Faith couldn't pronounce the words. If she hadn't actually done some magic, she'd think she was a total loser.
Even the Potentials who paid attention sucked, though some had glimmerings of being good at magic. Some took notes, especially Beth and Talitha, who seemed to be writing whole books. Faith was tempted to copy off them, but she didn't even know where to start with the information.
When Faith privately suggested a more hands-on approach to teaching, Willow retorted that, "This was your idea. I warned you not many people can use magic."
So Faith started asking questions during lessons like, "This cloaking spell, can you use it when a vampire is following you, and there's eight cops standing on the corner so you can just dust the vamp right there without the cops knowing?"
Willow put on her patient voice. "First you have to learn the technique, and before that, you have to know the words. That's what I'm teaching."
"I was just wondering: when do we use this spell?"
"Well, it all depends. This cloaking spell only covers vision. Some demons can smell you. Some can hear your heart beating."
"What good is it, then?"
"Most humans wouldn't be able to smell or hear you."
"We don't fight humans."
"You're not always fighting, Faith. You might be gathering information. Or you might be trying to get away from those eight cops." She smiled at the class.
The smile disappeared. "Please save your questions until after the class. Sure, there are more complex cloaking spells, but you have to learn to crawl before you can walk."
"I dig that, but why do we have to say words? Can't you just feel it happen?"
"Maybe, after you practice the technique for a long time, it will become second nature. Like Slaying. When you first pick up a knife, you don't know what to do with it, but if you practice enough, you know exactly how it behaves and what to do with it. I mean, you can't learn how to use a bow and arrow right away, right?"
"OK," Faith said. She didn't add that handling knives had always been natural for her. Just having one in her hand felt right. Bows and arrows turned out to be no sweat. That was one of the benes of being a Slayer: you got Chimera's instincts, and she was a trained and dedicated warrior. But Faith kept her mouth shut. Not everyone there might have learned like her, even if they were Potentials who supposedly were born with the aptitude to fight and kill. And magic wasn't like Slaying.
When Willow told the girls to demonstrate the cloaking spell at the end of that class, they didn't have a grasp of how to do it, or enough of a memory of Willow fake-showing them how. It reminded Faith of that Harry Potter movie, where the students were thrown into it first day and left to their own devices. Willow wasn't walking around like a yoga teacher showing people how to improve their body positions. She stood rigidly in front of the class, like she was terrified to move. Faith figured this was how Willow learned in school and everything she really liked she got on her own outside of school. Willow was more of a doer than a show-er. Faith knew Willow used assistants once or twice, but Willow walked them through everything. The assistants weren't independent. Even Giles deferred to her now.
The girls tried to help each other with the cloaking spell, without knowing what they were doing, it was pathetic. The only exception was Darna, the Hermione of the class. She managed to disappear with a less-complicated motion. She explained she thought the words in her language and the movement was better suited to her body. Willow still insisted her way was better.
Ames was closed off in that class, as usual. She always acted aloof, like it was beneath her to be there, but Faith had seen Ames and Ling raise fire and levitate leaves in the orchard when they thought no-one was looking. Even though Willow seemed pleased at Darna's progress, Ames still didn't trust Willow.
Faith had also seen her babies imitate Ames that day in the woods and levitate some leaves into the air. A moment later, the leaves exploded into flames. Faith knew that if her daughters were magical, she didn't want to be left behind. It was bad enough she didn't have normal schooling. It's like your kids learning math and you can't help them with their homework. Ames was there for the girls, but she stood back and observed, too. Faith wondered if she trusted them.
Ames was old before her time. She didn't talk much and rarely initiated a conversation. The only thing she and Ames could really discuss in depth was baseball, and even then, Ames was pulling for a team that consistently lost both before and after the End of Magic. The Red Sox were never that bad.
But mostly, Ames liked to be outdoors tending to the garden or the orchard. Faith thought if Ames had some animals, then she would have been happy. The more serious girls liked her. And while most of the girls dressed down, you wouldn't have known Ames was a girl to look at her. It was like she was trying to obliterate any femininity she had, like that was her invisibility cloak.
Ames would have rather been in the garage than the kitchen. She showed the girls how tools worked, how to take them apart, how to clean them, how to fix them. Soon, almost everyone was watching her. By the time she got to the last implement, others were helping her or trying the tools on their own. They all wanted to learn.
These girls weren't like Faith was at their age. Faith just skated through life. The Potentials looked for a chance to do something more important, maybe because they weren't really Slayers. Watching the girls teach each other, Faith got to thinking she should organize lots of classes for them. She thought they could do much more, but like her, maybe none of them saw a long life in their future. She suspected even Kimber expected to die young, and her obsession with boys and forced cheerfulness where her way of compensating. Faith wanted to plant the hope in them that they could do something more than wait to die or have other people tell them how to act. Ames had shown them how to do that by just getting on with life like it was normal. Again, she reminded Faith of Helen, with her quiet determination and spooky calm.
As if Ames knew that Faith was thinking about her, she took the s’more that she made off the stick and handed it to Faith. So good, Faith thought, as the buttery chocolate, coarse graham crackers and melted marshmallow dissolved in her mouth. Embarr reached for the cookie. Faith wondered if they were ready to eat solid food. Ames said they might be ready, but Willow insisted they couldn’t be.
Faith felt sad that she was ticked off at Willow. She overheard Willow talking to Kimber when they were getting together a list of things to pick up in Greenville.
Kimber complained, "… the other girls. You know what I mean. It’s hard to make her understand."
"Try using smaller words," Willow replied, "you know, simple words."
Kimber left. Faith stepped out to block Willow's exit.
"Talking me up to the girls again? Saying I'm simple?"
Willow's eyes got wide. "No, not at all! We were talking about..."
"She's fourteen years old. I know all the words she knows... nearly."
"Yeah, but... you have to be patient with her. She got in a lot of trouble..."
"That photo thing is trouble?"
Willow shrugged and said, "Why do you twist everything I say? Why are you so defensive?"
Faith was nearly apoplectic. She wasn't the one with the problem. But appalled at having criticized Kimber, who was just a kid, she dialed it back. "Look, it's just that I'm tired and scatterbrained, what with the babies and all these strangers in the house, people I have to take care of."
"That's completely understandable."
"And here you are, undermiring me."
Willow smiled brightly, the edges of her mouth all wiggly. "Faith, nobody's undermiring you."
"What I meant was you are taking away my authority, making the girls think I'm stupid."
"They don't think you're stupid."
"You think I'm stupid."
"No, I don't." Giving her the big, innocent eyes.
Faith figured both Willow and Kimber were happy to go to Greenville and get some distance. Willow was gonna leave soon, Faith knew that. Kimber... Faith was just going to have to deal with her. But they were all pretty uncomfortable as they packed their things and said "See you later," leaving Faith with her resentment.
It had been Willow's idea to bring the Potentials to Maine. Willow was always trying to protect Buffy. They both just assumed Faith was there to do whatever they wanted, have strangers show up with hardly any notice or consideration, dragging who knows what after them, dragging her back into a fight against an enemy they hadn't been able to defeat or even identify. Buffy assumed she could give orders and Faith would follow them. She never thought Faith might have other responsibilities or maybe she didn't want to fight. She certainly didn't want her daughters in danger.
She wondered what would have happened if her life had been different. What if she'd been with Loki and the babies had already been born? What if she had left Maine? What if she'd gone evil or something?
Not even a phone call. Willow just showed up and expected Faith to accept it. She wondered when she got the rep for being a pushover.
She was also relieved that Willow was gone because Willow noticed the babies paying attention as she taught magic. Willow said it was like cats, attracted to motion and noise. Faith wondered if that was what she really thought. She hadn't mentioned how big they were.
Faith returned to the topic of electronic monitors. "When you said Watcher, I was a little confused. You know that Slayers used to have Watchers."
The faces in the circle fell into "duh" expressions, complete with eyeball rolls.
Faith continued, "So, these Watchers hunt supernaturals? How does that work?"
"It's not the machines doing the hunting," Beth explained.
"They don't have to," Day remarked bitterly. "Humans do it for them."
Beth added. "Most people don't have jobs. They have time to hunt."
"They're getting paid for it?" Faith asked incredulously.
"Hardly. That's the sick part. They'd probably do it for free," Day replied.
"Is fear," Sayara said. "Is fear and have person for hate."
"The world started changing so fast after that alien attack on New York, and then suddenly there were superhumans," Val added, "so people associate bad things with all that. Then that bonehead Stark flew in..."
"Tony Stark isn't superhuman," Talitha corrected.
"He created Ultron."
"Yeah, but he also defeated Ultron."
"With the Avengers," Beth corrected.
Day put her hand up to stop Talitha right there. "Stark greased our slide into this glorious tech future where humans have no reason to live. It's Ultron's dream without the blood."
"Stark is a hero."
"Sure he is," Day sneered. "Like Hulk. Destroys more than he saves."
Ling came into the discussion. "Thanks to Stark, people eat in United States. All people eat."
"They just don't do anything else, like work," Day retorted, "unless they build their masters."
That was Val's cue to add, "Who built the Watchers?"
Day added, "Yeah. Don't forget whose side he's on in the drive against supernaturals."
"He doesn't want them killed! He just wants them identified."
"You down with that, Tally?" Day asked.
Talitha looked down and stammered, "N-no, not really."
Darna asserted, "Taal stopped the Watcher. She helped us. She is our friend."
"I thought we were arguing about Kimber," Faith said, innocently. Everyone turned to stare at her, and when she smiled, they burst out laughing.
"I get worked up over drama," Day admitted.
"And I get too involved, too," Talitha replied. "But look at PROTIS. He helps us. He's not out to kill us."
Faith had to admit it was true they all got along with PROTIS, and he could talk to them, even the ones who didn't speak English. He counseled them on English with a patience that only a machine could have. He kept them entertained. He was practically Kimber's confessor. A few, like Ames, didn't go face-to-face with him if they didn't have to. He wasn't part of their necessary existence. But the rest took him for granted in a way Faith never could. Maybe they grew up with more technology than she had. And despite the Watchers, they trusted PROTIS without question.
They also trusted her, which blew her away. She wouldn't have trusted her if she was in their situation.
Ames uncharacteristically spoke up. "Day's right. Why be a Slayer when the people you're trying to save hunt you down?"
Faith tried to stamp down the negative part of her that agreed with Ames. She had to be a role model for these girls. So she said with as much conviction as she could muster, "People are innocent."
Sayara added, "Kimber attacked by people. She innocent."
"Then there's my dad, who attacked everyone," Beth mumbled.
"People are weak," Ames stated.
Faith put Embarr down so she could emphasize what she was saying with her hands. "Yeah, but ... people need to be protected because stronger creatures will take advantage."
Talitha said, "Humans don't protect the weak. They take advantage of them. They line up behind a bully because they feel it gives them protection and power. They'd tear down their protectors if it got them to safety in their minds. Nobody's innocent."
"Slow down, Hobbes!" Faith exclaimed. She got confused faces all around. "Not the tiger." That made them even more baffled. "You know, the one who thought people needed a strong king?"
"The last thing we need is a king!" Beth shouted.
Faith hated being the voice of wisdom. "What I'm saying is, you can't expect that people will screw you over. You can't go into life expecting that, or that's all you're going to find. I know, 'cause I did that for a long time. Then I decided it was better to work for those who can't help themselves. Trust is part of that.
"Look, life is hard no matter what choices you make, and sometimes, you're lucky to even be able to make choices. I've been on the other side of hurting others. I used to think being a Slayer made me better, because I was stronger and faster. I used to take whatever I wanted, anything and everything. I slept with lots of people and then I moved on, probably the only thing I did right. I thought I had it all under control, killing demons, gettin' high, gettin' laid."
The youngest Potentials blushed and looked away. She plunged on, trying not to ramble so much.
"Anyway, I ran into Buffy's crowd and I realized that I had nothing, no friends, no place, no love. All those people I used or hurt, they weren't gonna wait around for me to come back and do it again.
"You probably know I went to prison." They were all staring at her now, wrapped up. "I turned myself in.
"I guess what I'm trying to say is that you can't assume that people are your enemy. And even if they are, they're still the ones you are fighting for. You gotta stand up and fight back. You don't want to become the demons you're working to get rid of."
There was general silence, until Beth said, completely inappropriately, "Did you know the father of your kids? I mean he was a normal guy, right?"
That threw Faith for a loop. She supposed they all wanted to know. They'd never asked. Maybe a single mom with a load of dough in the middle of the woods was every day to them. But, since she was opening up, well...
"We were together, and yeah, he was a guy, mostly, well, obviously. As for normal... I mean, define normal. The important thing was how we felt about each other and how far we would go for each other. We were together in every way possible. And he was special."
"So, where is he now?"
Faith sighed, "He made a sacrifice to keep his family safe." She could feel those damned tears again.
A few nodded in understanding. The ones who leaned forward ready to ask more were quelled by Day, who coughed and gave them a round of looks.
"I like it here," Beth stated.
"Do you think we can have kids?" Val asked. "We're not really Slayers."
"I honestly don't know," Faith replied. "You can get tattoos, which Slayers can't get, at least not the human way, so ... maybe?"
Val shook her head, "All my tattoos are real old. And you have one, too."
"Yeah... it's also old. But I don't want to lie. It can be hard being a Slayer. The life means being alone. You can't have a relationship because nobody understands you. Nobody satisfies you. Even Buffy. The only ones she really connected with were vampires..." Their eyes all got round, so Faith quickly backtracked, "Or something like that. Supernaturals."
Faith thought that there was really no reason for her to still be a Slayer. When the Potentials came along, she thought that was the moment that anyone could seize their own power and they didn't have to take it from someone else. But just as the Potentials turned to Buffy for protection, they had to do it again with her. Survival was what it was all about. And these were kids. They didn't deserve to be hunted, not by demons, not by the anti-supernaturals, the so-called normal people, the ones they were trying to protect.
"Buffy dates vampires?"
"Um... you'd have to ask Willow." That slowed their roll to a grinding standstill. "Taking her side, it's hard to meet someone who can keep up with a Slayer, or anyone powerful. Kennedy chose Willow, you know. That's how tough a person has to be. Guys, especially, are going to be bigger disappointments than usual."
"We got everything we need here, without boys," Day stated.
"Boys are good for something," Val mused. She put her finger up to Embarr, who curled her little hand around it with a look of concentration. The enraptured baby gurgled up a tiny bubble on her bottom lip.
Faith began with a tentative, "I know you all have reason to mistrust men, starting with your fathers."
They looked at each other with surprised expressions, except for Ling, who glanced down with glum concentration.
"Men may seem like your enemies, not just individual guys, but the way they act when they're together. But that doesn't mean they are all going to hurt you. It's like Tally's friend -- he helped her. So did Beth's friends.
"It boils down to, you've got to act like people will stand up, like things are gonna to your way." Faith could feel the resistance from most of the Potentials. She was so bad at the motivation thing. "You're Potentials. You're built to survive, to fight -- you just have to figure out what's worth fighting for.'"
Holiday rolled her eyes.
Faith soldiered on. "I'm dead serious here. I get that there are people who are going to hurt you. Let's face it, there's a demon out there who has a knife or some kind of ritual axe with your name on it, but that's not gonna hurt as much as the person who lets you down. Maybe that person has problems you don't know about.
"You take all the people you know. How many of them are evil? Sure, some of them are weak or afraid, some are stupid. But, look around you right now. I trust every one of us. Isn't the life of everyone here worth fighting for? The Potential organizations that used to exist, like Kennedy's or the group I worked with in London, they were stronger because we worked together."
"Those Potentials were destroyed by the demon that's hunting us."
Faith's mothering pep-talk fizzled as the mood grew more serious. She had asked Willow about the demon that was hunting them and got vague answers. These girls hadn't brought it up at all. Might as well jump.
"So, what's the deal with this demon?"
There was a period of silence, then Beth whispered, "It's like a shadow. You can't hide from a shadow, not even in the dark."
"I thought I felt it once," Holiday said.
Faith asked, "Did it take the shape of a person you knew?"
"No. It was just a creepy feeling. I got outta there mad rush."
"So how does it kill? Knife?"
"People just disappear, kind-of into the shadow."
Ames stated, "It sucks the life out of a girl and leaves nothing but a shell."
"Like a vampire?" It didn't sound like Zompires, vampires with mad cow disease. They were easy enough to kill. Flesh-eating bacteria, nanotechnology -- these were things Willow mentioned, none of which Faith wanted around her kids. "If it's hungry, why does it only attack Potentials?"
Nobody had an answer.
Beth grumbled, "No-one's been able to fight it. All you can do is run for it."
"You can't fight it," Ames confirmed.
"Come on. You can fight anything," Faith countered.
They all started telling variations of the same story.
"You know that Buffy went after it once, with a group of girls? One of them was killed."
"It went for one of the Potentials Buffy had with her. It left Buffy alone."
"I heard Buffy tried to attack it, but she couldn't get near it. It threw up some kind of barrier."
"It was dust. Buffy couldn't see through it."
Faith remarked, "If it's what I'm thinking, yeah, it's hard to guard against. It finds out who you care about and takes that shape, so you don't attack. But you can. You can kill it. Just throw a knife at it."
"I heard Buffy's weapons were no good, passed through the cloud and disappeared."
"No kidding. It can do that?"
Ames said, "I saw it. After the dust rolled away, Potential was just lying there on the ground, dead."
"You never told us you were there."
"No point scaring people for no reason."
"OK, that's intense," Faith agreed, "but I've seen worse. Buffy doesn't give up."
Ames grimaced. "Guess that's why Willow wants to go back to San Francisco. Supposed to be working on a spell or something."
Day grumbled, "Willow must not have a spell, or she doesn't want to test it. She left us pretty quick on the way here."
Beth added, "She said she'd go on ahead, and then we lost her."
Talitha explained, "It was Willow's idea to split us up, make the demon do a little work."
Faith said cheerily, "Seems to be working so far." But her words sounded flat to her own ears.
"Before Summers faced it, the weather changed. Ferocious winds, water spouts on the Bay. Only place felt safe was Casa Buffy, and still, one of us died. They figured it was time to get us out of town."
"Demons not on land," Ling added. "Not compete with killer."
Faith thought maybe they were fine if they stayed in the house with a full Slayer.
There was a period of muted thought, then Darna finally asked, "So, what do we do?"
The moon was full, but as soon as Faith noticed its bright glow, it went behind a cloud. It got as dark as the woods can get in Maine, dark like the Void. And yet, a hot wind blew over the group, more arid and quiet than the Maine summer. Despite its warmth, Faith felt a chill. She gathered her daughters in her arms. Close-up, in the firelight, she could see they were staring into the woods bordering the clearing.
"Sirocco," Sayara remarked.
"We call it a Santa Ana," Val replied.
The lights went out in the house, but the moon came back. "I call it time to go into the house," Faith said with determination. "It's late and the kids need sleep. Pick up your trash and bring it. We'll train tomorrow."
The girls moved quickly and quietly. Ames trampled the fire. Darna gathered up left-over litter. Val and Ling trailed Faith to her room. All the girls put the babies to bed at night, a ritual that reflected the family they had become.
As the last Potential cleared the entrance, Faith hung back and said, "PROTIS, is there anyone outside the house?"
PROTIS didn't answer.