Blue veins ran through her pale skin, ending in purple and yellow bruises in too many places. Faith’s eyes followed the bruises from her jawline down. She took a long minute to study the jagged scar marring the skin where her neck met her left shoulder. Memories of the man who put it there fluttered to the surface of her mind, but she blinked them back. Her eyes continued their journey over prominent collarbones and the full breasts with their soft, pale pink nipples. The taut muscles of her abdomen twitched reflexively as her eyes swept down and Faith winced at the slight pull on her ever-healing ribs.
Her gaze settled on the thick vertical line that stood out against her belly. Her fingers hovered over it before she clenched them into a fist. She gripped the countertop with her other hand. Thought of the scars she couldn’t see.
Faith had told them everything tonight that she hadn’t before been able to put into words. Her mind had been clearer than it had ever been when she and Buffy came out of that trance.
Althenea’s lyrical voice and blue-gray eyes had put her at ease.
She told them about her patrols, and she told them about her dreams: the demon that appeared so frequently; Dylan; Willow; the waterfall in the forest.
She thought she’d feel better afterwards, thought she’d be determined to lend every hand she had in whatever battles were coming, but she simply felt drained and exhausted.
Faith ran a hand through her wet hair and took one last look at herself in the mirror before throwing on a clean tank top and a pair of cotton shorts. She took a breath and let it out slowly; tilted her head to the left and cracked her neck before gathering her toiletries in her arms and leaving the humid bathroom. She skirted down the hall, past the dining room and the voices drifting toward her to head upstairs.
“Hey,” she breathed, recovering her composure.
“Hey,” Faith replied, awkwardly shifting the toiletries in her arms. “Did I leave you enough hot water?” She gestured to the darkened bathroom with her chin. “I know I was in there for awhile.”
“Oh, yeah. We had a super industrial-strength water heater installed after Rona and Vi moved in. Four women, one and a half bathrooms. Coulda been ugly.” Buffy shrugged, smiling nervously.
“Right,” Faith nodded. She waited for Buffy to make a move, to speak again, but was met with charged silence. Taking a deep breath and a step forward, Faith decided to take some initiative. “So, um, should we… talk?”
Buffy sighed and tilted her head back. The expression on her face told Faith that she was expecting this but hoping Faith would let it go. She pouted briefly at the ceiling. After a moment she tucked her chin against her chest and tried and failed to make eye contact with Faith. “Yeah, we probably should.”
Faith gestured to the door to her room across the hall and Buffy followed her in. She shut the door gently behind them as Faith busied herself putting her shampoo, conditioner, lotion and other toiletries away.
“You know, you can leave that stuff in one of the bathrooms. You’re pretty much living here now.”
Faith paused before slowly placing the toothpaste in her hand down on the dresser. “Yeah, I – habit, I guess.” She turned to face the other Slayer and gestured wordlessly for her to sit down. Buffy nodded and sat rigidly on the edge of the bottom bunk bed. Faith looked briefly at the armchair in the corner of the room but decided against it. She sat down on the bed next to the blonde and stared at the windowsill, gathering her thoughts.
“So did I miss anything?”
Buffy looked at her, confused.
Buffy grimaced at the imagery but forged ahead with the conversation. “Um, no, not much. Althenea confirmed what I think you and I already knew: I’m really preg… pregnant, it’s really ours and it’s one-hundred percent human. She’s going over all of Giles’ research on the ‘Slayer natural born’ stuff with him, and Dawn had a bunch of questions about biology: how can I be pregnant by you with no sperm, all that stuff.” Buffy sighed, a small frown wrinkling her forehead. “Xander took Sani and Bidelia down to the basement to see Dylan. Kennedy, Vi and Rona took Sulwyn to check out the spot in the woods you told us about. Other than that….” She shrugged and scooted back on the bed, trying to find a more comfortable position.
Faith absorbed the information, nodding slowly. A thread had come loose on the hem of her shorts and she absently wrapped it around her index finger. “They know yet if it’s a boy or a girl?” she asked quietly. Buffy shook her head, staring at the floor with wide eyes.
“You’re what, like three months along now, huh?” Faith tried to catch Buffy’s eye, to no avail. She continued anyway, unsure if the blonde was really listening or not. “Guess we should take you back to the doctor, get an ultrasound, vitamins, all that stuff, yeah?”
Buffy grimaced, shrinking in on herself. “Yeah, I guess.” Her voice turned pleading. “I just – I don’t know anything about raising a kid.”
“You raised Dawn,” Faith pointed out.
Buffy shook her head. “Mom raised Dawn. I kept Dawn from getting killed and flunking out of school.”
“And that’s different how?” Faith prodded.
Buffy looked at her incredulously. “Faith, I don’t even know how to change a diaper!”
“Then I’ll teach ya,” Faith shrugged, a small smile perking the corners of her mouth.
Buffy stared at her, mouth agape and eyes wide. Faith rolled her eyes in response.
“Contrary to popular belief, I was not raised by wolves. I had little cousins growin’ up that I babysat sometimes, aight?” She paused, taking in a deep breath and shaking off the defensiveness that had crept up her shoulders. “Look, whatever happens, I’m here. We’ll figure it out together, okay?”
“Thanks,” Buffy conceded quietly. Faith’s head bobbed in an unconscious nod as she sorted her thoughts. Buffy watched the way her mouth moved when she spoke again.
“You gonna keep working?”
“God, I don’t think I can. Coming back from summer break pregnant and single? That will not go over well in this town.” She shook her head and swallowed the lump forming in her throat. “There’ll just be too many questions I can’t answer.”
Faith nodded in understanding. “I hear that.” She glanced down at their hands side by side on the bed, scooting hers across the comforter until her pinky finger nudged against Buffy’s.
Buffy surprised her, turning her hand over and opening her palm, allowing their fingers to tangle together.
“Giles’ll hook you up with Council money, I’m sure.” Faith’s voice had grown thick in the passing minutes.
Buffy stared at their entwined hands, transfixed. “Faith,” she breathed.
“Yeah, B?” Faith’s thumb began to rub soft circles over the back of Buffy’s hand.
“What’re we doing?”
Faith stared at the side of Buffy’s face; noted the dark circles and premature wrinkles around her eyes; watched the way Buffy’s jaw worked as she waited for a response. She willed the blonde to meet her eyes, squeezing her hand with a gentleness that startled her. Watery hazel stared back at her and Faith found herself leaning in.
“Does it matter?” she whispered against Buffy’s lips. Tightness spread across her chest and the breath caught in her throat as Buffy let her eyes slip closed.
“It matters to me,” Buffy whispered back, reaching a hand up to tangle in Faith’s hair. Tingles erupted along Faith’s scalp.
“Yeah.” Faith swallowed hard. She gripped Buffy’s thigh for support. “Yeah, me too,” she whispered before fusing their mouths together and silencing any further conversation.
The words in the books before her had long since bled together, but Dawn still stared at them, willing them to give her the information they so desperately needed. The clock on the wall read 2:17 and Dawn had a feeling that they were going to pull an all-nighter. Giles’ voice, scratchy and tight, droned on across the table. He was determined to make sure Althenea had every scrap of information about the prophecies they had found so far, and had roped Dawn into helping while the others were otherwise occupied.
Dawn instantly perked up. “Giles, where did you read that?”
Giles frowned across the table at her, annoyed at the interruption. “In the Codex,” he replied flippantly before turning back to Althenea.
“Lemme see,” Dawn demanded, waving her hand impatiently at the stack of books in front of Giles. With an exasperated sigh, Giles handed over the slim black book. Dawn immediately flipped to the marked pages, reading carefully. “Is this the original translation?”
“N-no, the Latin there was transcribed,” Giles replied slowly. “But it is the most complete version of events Andrew and I were able to find and –”
“What was the original, then? The Slavic?” Dawn began rooting through the pages without waiting for a reply.
“Y-Yes. Dawn, what are you suggesting?” Giles stood and made his way around the table to stand at her side.
Dawn frowned down at the pages in front of her. “I’ll tell you when I find… Here!” She held up a sheet of parchment. “Look, Giles, this doesn’t say the natural born Slayer will be the end of the Slayer line: it says ‘rebirth.’”
“What, are you sure?”
“These extracurriculars probably won’t get me into any decent colleges, at least not in this realm, but yeah. I’m sure.”
Peering over Dawn’s shoulder, Giles adjusted his glasses and gingerly took the parchment from her. He read over the text again, cross-referencing with two, three, four other sources before showing them to Althenea. Dawn watched them tensely as they read together, heads bowed, deep in concentration. She let out a breath in a relieved whoosh when Althenea nodded slowly. As Giles looked up at Dawn and opened his mouth to speak, the phone rang.
They stared at each other through three rings before Dawn pushed herself up from the table. She felt Giles blinking at her back as she picked up the cordless just as the answering machine cycled on. She huffed out a breath before bringing the receiver to her ear.
“Hello?” The greeting she received back was immediate, high-pitched and full of run-on sentences. Dawn could only attempt to keep up her end of the conversation. “Andrew – What? Cherno-what? Slow down. Fantasia? Yeah, I’ve seen Fantasia. What does that have to –? What? You’re sure? Okay, yeah, I’ll tell Giles.”
The call cut off and Dawn blinked down at the phone. She looked up at Giles and Althenea staring at her expectantly. “So that was Andrew. He says hi and also that he’s insane.”
“What did he say, Dawn?” Giles asked with as much patience as he could muster. Dawn rolled her eyes and sat back down at the table.
“He’s apparently been using his Mythical Creatures students as research assistants, which, whatever. One of them found references in an old fairytale book about The Summoner.”
“What about The Summoner, Dawn?” Althenea coaxed.
Dawn thought back to Andrew’s jumbled message as she slumped back into her seat and recited the most coherent piece of it. “The book called it Chernobog, the Black God, ruler of Nav.”
Giles sat heavily in his chair, visibly paling. He shared a look with Althenea that Dawn couldn’t decipher.
“What’s ‘Nav,’ Giles?” Dawn asked anxiously.
“The World of the Dead.” Giles reached up and removed his glasses. He lowered them to the table and rubbed the bridge of his nose absently. “Dawn, go upstairs and get Buffy. And Faith.”
“What, together?” Panic flared in Dawn’s chest, the disturbing revelation from Andrew momentarily forgotten. “But what if they’re, you know. Together?”
“Then I suggest you knock,” Giles replied impatiently. “This is important, Dawn. I think you can handle five minutes of embarrassment. Now please, go and fetch them.”
“More like five lifetimes of embarrassment,” Dawn huffed, standing stiffly. Every muscle in her legs and back protested the sudden movement. She ignored Giles’ agitated reprimand and headed for the stairs.
She paused on the first step, listening for any tell-tale sounds coming from the bedrooms above her, but the only sounds she could hear were Giles’ and Althenea’s worried voices and the shuffling of books and papers. Her gut churned around too much coffee and the ham and pickle sandwich she had as a midnight snack. Sweat trickled down her spine. Dawn took in a deep breath, the air stagnant in her lungs, and started up the stairs.
The door to Buffy’s room was ajar. Dawn could see that from the end of the hall. The lights were off and it felt empty, but she poked her head in anyway.
“Buffy?” she called, but was met with silence.
“Faith? It’s Dawn.”
There was no reply. Her hand clutched the doorknob and she listened through the wood. After several minutes, hearing nothing but her own breathing, she turned the handle and peeked inside, taking in the two Slayers on the bed. Buffy blinked up at her, bleary-eyed and barely awake. Angry red hickeys stood out on Buffy’s neck and collarbone and Dawn fixated on them.
“Dawn?” Buffy whispered, her voice thick with exhaustion. Slowly, she pushed herself up to sitting. Faith, curled in on herself on her side facing the wall, began to stir. Dawn watched them curiously until Buffy called her name again.
“Oh, um, Giles. Needs you downstairs, both of you.” Dawn shifted on her feet, her eyes looking everywhere but the bed. “I’m sorry to wake you, he says it’s important. It’s about the prophecies and the...” Dawn heaved out a nervous breath. “And the baby.”
“Okay,” Buffy said softly, still sounding half-asleep. “We’ll be down in a minute.”
Nearly twenty minutes later, Buffy and Faith made their way downstairs. Everyone else was already there, gathered and restless in the living room. Faith looked around the room at the others, embarrassment fanning hot and quick across her chest at the sight she and Buffy must have made. She reached up to run a hand through her tangled hair. Buffy had pulled hers back into a ponytail in an attempt to tame it, but flyaways stuck out from the crown of her head anyway. Both of them were still wearing now-wrinkled sleep clothes and Faith felt exposed in a way she hadn’t since she was a child.
“Are we all here?”
Faith startled at the sudden steel in Buffy’s voice. After so many weeks of moping and avoiding their present situation, Faith had gotten used to the soft, whining tones in Buffy’s voice. She made brief eye contact with Kennedy, who simply arched an eyebrow across the room.
Giles hummed an affirmative response and Faith’s attention was drawn to the clock on the wall. 3:02 AM.
“Dawn, would you care to begin?”
Dawn stood slowly from her perch at the arm of the couch next to Rona. She swept her eyes around the room and settled her gaze on the marks on her sister’s neck. Buffy shifted uncomfortably next to Faith and crossed her arms over her chest. Faith, for her part, took in the others as Dawn began speaking, noticing the exhaustion permeating the room, the bags under lidded eyes, the rumpled clothing and affected posture.
“Right, so, Andrew called. He found our Summoner guy. Chernobog, the Black God, Ruler of Nav.” Dawn recited the titles in a tired voice, but commanded the room nonetheless. “I personally don't see what the big deal is. I mean, a little sunlight and some church bells were all it took to get rid of him in Fantasia, so he can't be that bad, right?” She looked to Giles to elaborate and sat back down. Giles cleared his throat.
“Um, well, Walt Disney and company have never been known for sticking with the source material. Chernobog, in Slavic myth, is the guardian and ruler of the world of the dead. Now that we know who, or-or more precisely what we will be facing, we can focus our efforts and our research.”
“Not to be rude or anything here, but this couldn’t have waited until morning?”
Faith noticed Xander for the first time since coming downstairs. He sat at the edge of the living room near Sulwyn in one of the chairs dragged in from the dining table. He looked haggard, more worn out than Faith could ever remember seeing him. Stubble from at least a three-day beard peppered his cheeks and his face was pale and drawn.
“I mean, I love Fantasia as much as the next guy,” he continued, “but...”
“There is one more item to address,” Althenea said, coming to stand next to Giles at the front of the room.
“Yes, thank you.” Giles shuffled, stalling for time, searching for the right words.
Buffy huffed and walked deeper into the room. “Giles. What is it?” Her words were clipped and impatient. Whatever energy she had left would not be wasted on sugar-coating.
Giles nodded, as if understanding Buffy’s tone. “We’ve determined that the Slayer line as we know it has been altered.”
A general rumble echoed throughout the room before Rona spoke up. “We knew that already!” she cried, exasperated. “The line went through Buffy until she died, then Kendra, then Faith. This isn’t news.” Vi nodded next to her, her face a picture of concern and confusion.
“You’re absolutely right,” Althenea conceded.
“However.” The room stilled, waiting for Althenea to continue. “What Rupert means is that the old lineage died when all of you –” she looked to each Slayer in turn then “ –were empowered as Slayers, and will die out completely when you all expire.”
“No more Slayer at all,” Kennedy finished for her.
Althenea nodded. “That would be the case, had recent events not transpired. We’ve discovered the origin of the new line in the Slavic prophecies.”
Faith flitted her eyes across the expanse of Buffy’s tense shoulders, feeling her own muscles knot and bunch at the sight. She feared she knew the answer already, but Rona needed clarification.
“And that is…?”
“The baby,” Buffy breathed, her right hand coming up to curl protectively over her midsection.
“Buffy, you see why it is imperative you carry the child to term,” Althenea was saying over the roaring in Faith’s ears. It stopped Faith short and she shifted her gaze to the back of Buffy’s head, her eyes hard. She watched as Buffy nodded slowly.
Dawn stood, crossing her arms. Her brow furrowed at the swirl of new information. “But wait, if the line went through Faith before…” she gesticulated with a hand, searching for the right words. “…all of this, shouldn’t she be the Slayer in the prophecy? The ‘Slayer natural born’ one, I mean.”
Faith felt her stomach drop like a stone. The roaring in her ears was overwhelming as all eyes turned to her. She raised a shaking hand to her forehead, sweeping tendrils of hair out of her eyes. Her tongue darted out to wet her chapped lips and it felt like sandpaper. Buffy watched her pensively. Giles was saying something about the Slayer line, about the prophecy and how it should’ve been Faith all along and she cut him off, tired suddenly of so much conjecture.
“’Cause I can’t.” Her voice was thick and low and bruised around the edges.
“You can’t what?” Buffy’s voice was soft and calming, the steel from earlier still there but dampened by concern.
Anger rose up in Faith in a rush. Her throat swelled around it and she forced herself to spit the words out, never taking her eyes off of Buffy’s. “I can’t get pregnant.”
Buffy’s eyes widened and immediately fell to Faith’s abdomen, to the scar she couldn’t see through Faith’s tank top, the mountain between them. Faith covered the spot with her hand, gripping the material of her top until her knuckles turned white, but still she placated Buffy. “Not because of anything you did, B. It was… before that.”
“What happened, Faith?” Giles’ voice spread between them, an unwelcome intrusion.
Faith shook her head, fighting tears. She set her jaw and squeezed her left hand in her right, cracking her knuckles.
“Got stupid one night in Boston, didn’t use protection.”
Xander sat up in his seat and Buffy caught on faster than Faith expected. “Faith, you don’t have to do this.”
“S’alright, B,” Faith shrugged. “It’s just like group share in Murder Rehab.” The others shifted uncomfortably in their seats, but Faith barely noticed them. She noticed the way Buffy’s pupils dilated and constricted in the low lamplight. She noticed the sweat coating her palms and the acid in the back of her throat. She forged ahead with clenched fists. “Anyway. Went to a clinic, but I guess they did somethin’ wrong ‘cause the first full physical I had in the pen, and they told me ‘clean bill of health, better’n most we see here, but….’” She paused, head still shaking back and forth, to crack the knuckles of her other hand. A rueful chuckle escaped her throat and Buffy dropped her gaze. “Even if that prophecy was meant for me, no way I could fulfill it.”
Buffy stepped forward. “Faith I’m so sor –”
“Don’t.” Faith held up a hand. Buffy froze. “Nothin’ to be sorry for, anyway.”
At the edge of her peripheral vision, Faith saw Althenea moving toward them, hands out in front of her body. “Faith.” She waited until the Slayer faced her and held her gaze for a long moment.
“You may not be able to fulfill this prophecy as written, but you are still connected to it. You are linked to Chernobog, not through this child, but through your dreams. If we can channel those energies, we can determine how close he is to his full strength and perhaps prevent a war before it even begins.”
Side conversations started up around the room, volume and intensity rising as new theories were proposed and struck down in succession. Giles stepped forward and suggested rest was the most imperative option for the group.
The room buzzed with activity for the briefest of moments as one by one, mystics and humans and Slayers alike moved to other rooms in search of books or papers or sleeping quarters.
Buffy found Faith and wrapped her hand around Faith’s wrist. Dawn watched them disappear up the stairs hand-in-hand, avoiding eye contact, as Xander tugged her up to standing. Within moments, the house was quiet and dark, sleep overtaking them all.