CHAPTER NINE: GATHERING EBONY (PART A)

AUTHOR'S NOTES:

First off, I've split this chapter in two, because it's gotten very, very big and I have just realized how long it's been between parts. I've split it in two rather than making the next part a separate part because I actually have everything plotted out by chapter now, and making a new chapter would just confuse me, which at this time of the semester, let's face it, could cause my head to actually explode, and picking my brain out of the keyboard is an onerous task I wish on no one.

Yes, it's almost finals time. Why do you ask?

Anyway.

Okay: there are some things that should be explained before we continue, mostly regarding this composite universe's timeline. I wouldn't bother, because it's quite complex and not a little confusing, but as I'm taking the tail end of this story and hooking it into further fic involving more Buffyverse and Paxverse characters, anything else would only lead to more confusion. If you're reading this only for the So Weird, and Buffy (and more of my own Original prattling) does not interest you, then carry on straight to the story. After this, only one more part to go.

We are now sitting in a triply combined universe of So Weird (which plotwise was very isolated from its own universe and didn't have much of a timeline to go on), Buffy the Vampire Slayer (which kind of has a timeline but can be moved around year-wise), and the Paxverse, which is the universe inhabited by the Guardians, the Circle, the Global Union, and other associated phenomena.

The Paxverse, perhaps more than Buffy and So Weird, has a very strict, set timeline. Even so I've fudged it a little for this story, but it's concrete enough that I decided to work the other two into it rather than the other way 'round. (I thought about the other ways, believe me: I have a piece of paper somewhere setting out events in Buffyverse and Paxverse on an hour-to-hour basis.) The Paxverse is also immensely complex, ridiculously huge, and spans several thousand years in great detail in either direction from this story.

In the Paxverse, there is a world government (which I believe has been mentioned in previous parts), called the Global Union. The Global Union comes into existence around 2005. At the time of the story, every nation on Earth is a part of the Union with the exception of Russia and the United States. The Global Union is a socialist democratic system with what is essentially an elected monarchy. Every social program is nationalised, the economy is standardised, and after there is little interaction and no commerce between Union and non-Union nations: which means that Russia and especially the United States became politically, economically, and culturally isolationist. Of course, all of the So Weird characters are Americans, so this presented an issue. None of them are Union citizens, and although there are other American Delegates, the Circle and the Union are closely tied (in secret).

In Paxverse terms, this story takes place in a time when the Union has been around not quite a decade. As I've fudged things a bit to make everything fit (not in the least regarding years and specific dates, because in the Paxverse the United States government collapses in 2012, and I've delayed/ignored this for this story). So here's how things are:

The United States is isolated from the rest of the world in almost every way. There's still travel between nations but very little of it by Americans, mostly because the U.S. government refuses to acknowledge the authority of the world government and so the Union has to take special precautions with American tourists. (Ironic, ne?)

The woman who formed the Union was named Fiona MacLeod. She died, in Paxverse canon, more than twenty years after its formation. A great deal of the Union's survival hinged on the strength of her personality, and when she died, the Union nearly collapsed, but didn't, quite.

The years leading up to the formation of the Union were very, very tumultuous. There were a couple of wars, a few crazy dictators, and among other disasters the world's oil supplies were almost entirely destroyed, creating serious global ecological problems and creating one of the main reasons for the American Isolation. The world's population was reduced, over that period, by nearly three billion. Virtually none of those casualties was American. Most of them were European, Middle Eastern, and African, thanks to something called the Middle Eastern Collapse and the deeply twisted efforts of a short-lived dictatorship under the leadership of a man named Ignatzio Caesar, who burned and pillaged his way up Central Europe for a period of eight to ten months before the rest of the world turned around and swatted him like a bug.

Finally, this world has also got mutants. Yes, I originally stole this idea from Marvel, but in this world, mutancy, or Hyper-Evolution, as the scientific community refers to it, came into the public consciousness almost suddenly, when a pair of mutant teenagers were beaten to death in an Athens square. After it was formed the Global Union took drastic steps to make discrimination/violence against mutants (Hypes) illegal, but in non-Union states the governmental reaction was pretty much whatever the hell people in charge wanted. In some places, the U.S. more than Russia, there were one of two official reactions. One was to refuse to acknowledge Hyper-Evolution altogether. The other was to quietly remove the offending mutants from their midst, this made much easier by the fact that about halfway into the first administration of President Jacob Wallace, the first President after the formation of the Union, the Republican government began to erode into a bi-factional system of religious totalitarianism and capitalist neo-feudalism (for those of you not up on political terms, that means that the separation of church and state thing finally, really broke down; the religious and capitalist sides started infighting, and things got more and more tense).

As the result of this, and several other political things, there was a series of exoduses of Americans out of the States and into Union nations, mostly Canada, some overseas, and some into the quickly-growing number of U.S. states that secede from the country in order to gain Union membership. By the time this story happens, about half of the border states (both borders) have left the American union, many on the coasts (California, Oregon, and Washington State are among the first five to leave, within the first three years of the Union's existence.), and more are threatening to do so as time passes. This is something that the U.S. media keeps very, very quiet and underrated, and so a lot of normal American citizens have very little idea of how serious things are becoming, and are encouraged not to worry about it.

Which is how I explain that few symptoms of this appear in either the So Weird or Buffy universes, because Buffy and co. never bloody leave Sunnydale, and So Weird has precious little in the way of political commentary. Essentially, the American government is going out of its way to make everything appear Very, Very Normal.

However, the Phillipses, and Annie, have spent the last few years in constant contact with the Circle, most of which is very, very involved in politics. Which means that they are more aware than their fellow citizens of what is really going on in the world. This may become more pronounced in following chapters.

Just thought I should warn you.

Oh; and the Paxverse? Mine, mine, MINE, beyond the telling of it. Steal from me and I will find you. ominous glare

And as always, neither So Weird nor Buffy characters belong to me, la la la.


CHAPTER NINE: GATHERING EBONY

Rick's twin had never kept in close contact after he died, and to be honest with herself, Molly had been grateful. Rachel had always been somewhat inscrutable, and Molly couldn't even have imagined what to say to her.

So when she'd heard that Rachel had died, two years ago, she hadn't been sure what to feel. Relief seemed vulgar, and grief almost trite. So she'd settled, reulcutantly, on regret.

Melinda, maybe by virtue of being youngest, had always been more friendly with her brother's wife, but if anything was more difficult to intuit. Melinda alone of all her siblings had any trace of diplomacy. When they'd visited with the show, she'd done so thorough a job of respecting Molly's wishes that even Fiona hadn't suspected much - until she'd found that damned book, anyway. Molly had suspected Melinda's hand in that, at first - that she'd maneuvered it into Fi's path - but that wasn't really like her. Though it also wasn't like Melinda to leave important things unsaid: Molly had been "back" more than a year, now, and in all that time had not even seen Melinda, let alone spoken with her.

So she was understandably nervous when she saw her sister-in-law approaching her from across the room.

"Hello," she said, smiling. She'd cut her hair, since last Molly had seen her, and it curled around her face - making her seem almost too healthy and awake, given the hour and the situation.

Molly relized, belatedly, that Melinda was leaning forward, and when she hugged her, Molly stood stiff and surprised, arms hanging woodenly at her sides. Finally, with an effort, she brought her arms up to hold Melinda's shouders, only a moment before she pulled away, then stpped back, looking at her with concern.

"Uh," she said, rather ineloquently, "Sorry. Fi warned me not to, but..."

"No, it's all right," said Molly hurriedly, finding her voice. "you just... surprised me. I didn't... I didn't see you in the seats."

"Oh, I wasn't," Melinda said, shaking her head. "I was in the Fortress."

"...oh." Molly remembered the Fortress - the large, fortified room that had, in generations past, been used as a hiding-place for Delegate royalty during times of upheaval. Although she wondered what business Melinda could have had, there--

"That wasn't why I surprised you, was it, Molly?" Melinda said then, interrupting her train of thought. "You must have figured I'd be here. You were just hoping I wouldn't find you."

It was anything but a question - Melinda was looking at her with a closed expression she'd seen often on Rick's face. Molly sighed and looked away.

"No," said Melinda, more quietly, "You thought I wouldn't want to. Didn't you?"

"You've been talking to Fiona," muttered Molly.

"Fairly frequently," admitted Melinda. "Though she didn't have to tell me you're unhappy here."

"No! I--" she looked up into Melinda's face: "I just..." she continued, with less urgency, then sighed again, "...I heard about Rachel. I'm sorry."

It was a roundabout way of coming at the conversation, and Molly quickly regretted the mention, when Melinda's face momentarily froze, then slackened as she shook her head, slowly.

"Had you talked much, before...?" Molly asked, hesitantly, after several seconds had passed and melinda had said nothing.

Looking up, Melinda sighed. "No - no one had, really, though. Not even her contacts. She, uh... she's been different, Molly. She was..." She crossed her arms. "You know... she was never the same, after Rick died. She still did her job, this one and the mundane, but she just withdrew. Even from me. When she got sick... it was cancer. Lymphoma. In her blood."

"It wasn't treatable?"

"Oh... it might have been. But she... she wouldn't take a Healer. Not even Katia."

"...oh." It was said quietly.

Melinda shrugged. "I think she wanted to go, Molly. She just... faded away. Maybe it was better that way. Though I think it scared the girls."

"How are they?" asked Molly, wanting to draw Melinda out of her dark contemplation. Indeed, she looked up, and gave a faint smile. "They're fine. Though... they haven't manifested, yet, and they're almost thirteen, now. I think Rachel worried we might be the last." And her smile warmed. "It's a pity she's not here to see this, even with what's happening." She shot a glance over her shoulder. "We've still got Jack and Fi. It's a good thing, Molly. And thatyou're here." She squeezed Molly's shoulder, and Molly tried to smile back.

Maggie and Miranda, Melinda's twins - nearly thirteen and still showing no signs of any Gifts. Molly could see this troubled their mother as much as it had her sister. Thirteen was late, as manifestation went - and although unGifted Delegates were still Delegates, they still tended toward less intimate involvement than their gifted counterparts.

Then Melinda looked at her again, with concern. "What?" Molly asked.

"Oh--" Melinda shook her head. "I've been thinking about Jack. He seems - angry."

Molly felt hefself flush. "He's been angry for a year, now."

"He blames you." It was said with so little preamble that Molly blinked at her with surprise, and suddenly very tired, she sagged back against the wall behind her. "Have you talked to him?"

Molly shook her head. "He doesn't want to - and I don't know what to say. For the longest time, he blamed Areahannah. But now..."

Melinda looked thoughtful. "Maybe he should talk to Arrah."

There was a call, then, from across the room: all the other groups had gone, and the Aislinn Park expedition was getting ready to move out. Molly started to cross the floor, and stopped, looking back at Melinda.

"Aren't you coming?"

"Nope - I'm assigned to the Fortress." When Molly looked at her in puzzlement, she summoned a grim smile. "Over the past ten years or so, we've taken to gathering family kids in one place - we put them in the Fortress and set guards, just in case."

"Just in case," echoed Molly, faintly.

Melinda nodded, face closed gain. "Fidelitas Domus," she said. "But I'll be there when it counts, don't you worry." And then, still smiling grimly, she turned and strode out through the big doors. Molly watched her go with a strange mix of relief and foreboding.


Annie had never much liked Southern California - and she'd been here enough times to form an opinion. It was, she'd decided, overwhelmingly stark, unpleasantly dry, and frequently, dusty enough to choke several dozen horses, and set Annie sneezing.

There was also the heat. Annie emerged from the Gate with Lann at her heels and was immediately struck by a wave of hot, dry air - at least it was dry, she reflected to herself - as the others exited behind her.

::I've been spoiled,:: she scolded herself next. ::Grew up trudging through jungles. I've been spoiled by all that clean crisp mountain air.:: For a moment, she grinned.

The nearest Gate to Sunnydale was carved into a rockface six miles out into the desert, a few hours from the town. Annie could only stare for a few long moments, at the endless expanse of sand and brush and the apparent absence of anything living - but this desert, she knew well enough, was quite alive. She could faintly sense the sluggish currents of sleeping wildlife, the narrow reservoirs of force beneath her feet - she could feel, even, the pull of that current, running with heady swiftness in the direction of the town in the distance. Too swift, she realized. It reminded her of a flash flood she'd once just barely escaped. She'd been nine. A narrow canyon, a torrent of mud, and the river vanishing into the ground... this felt like that. for a moment, she swayed with the force of it - Lann leant into her to steady her.

"Annie?" She looked up to see Helena Lwellyn looking at her with concern. "You're all right?"

Annie nodded. "The node - it feels almost like being dizzy - when you stand up too fast?"

Helena nodded. "It's being drained - best to keep shielded, good and tight. Otherwise you might get drained with it."

She moved on as Annie nodded. As she observed the flow again from behind her shields, she realized how easily she could be swept away, and shuddered.

"Annie!" That was Jeri, and Annie looked up in time to catch her pack as it was tossed in her direction. The other packs came flying through, then, and a few seconds later the Gate was closed, and they were alone in the desert.

The other dozen-or-so members of their group seemed unperturbed - either by the distant roaring of the leylines, or the very real roar of the desert wind, that seemed to be getting worse the longer they stood there. Annie slipped her arms through the straps of her pack as the others did the same. She made her way over to Jeri and Chayson - there had been a Guardian assigned to most of the more important groups, though Annie rather thought he must have drawn the short straw - both looked up as she and Lann approached.

"All right, Annie?" Chayson asked her, pulling on a pair of goggles which he left pushed up over his forehead. They'd come prepared, expecting the storm. Annie reached for her own pair, and pulled them on, but left them hanging about her neck, as Jeri had.

"Why does everyone keep asking me that?" she asked, faintly annoyed by now that everyone seemed to be treating her like spun glass.

Chayson blinked down at her, and as always failed to appear innocent. Jeri rolled her eyes at him, then shrugged down at Annie apologetically.

"It isn't out of doubt of your competence, Annie," she said. "Promise. It's just... some of us - most of us know how overwhelming an experience it is just manifesting something relatively easy to handle, like telepathy or plain sight, which we get so often the training's almost standardized, now. But Touch..."

"Nobody treads this softly around Terren," Annie countered.

"Terren's had his Gift since he was a little, Annie," Chayson reminded her. "He's been doing this for years. He's used to it - at least as much as you can be. You've just had this sprung on you, and it's going to be difficult at first. We're just trying to keep it from being any more difficult than it has to be - and make sure you don't pass out too many times before you get the hang of it. Besides," he added with a roll of his eyes, as Annie nodded in grudging understanding, "We do watch Terren, just as carefully as you. He just won't stand for us doing it openly."

"Well, neither will I," Annie said impulsively. "I'm not going to wipe myself out - not by accident, anyway."

"All right, Annie," Jeri said, and her tone told Annie they'd still be watching her like hawks, regardless. "If you say so."

Annie sighed as Chayson grinned at her and called out to the rest of the group to form up and get ready to move - they got into pairs and moved off across the desert as the wind began to kick up. Annie ended up paired off with Mina Quade, who said little as they started walking.

In the distance, the town of Sunnydale beckoned like a shadow.


The park was, rather unsurprisingly, even less pleasant in early evening than it had been in full daylight. What had been a faint foreboding a day ago was now a pressing, almost physical sensation of stifling, heavy anticipation. Jack felt almost as if he were walking through water, pushing, as though the air had become thick and heavy. When the gate closed behind them, his ears actually popped, as if he'd been sealed into a bottle.

Next to him, his sister was pale and drawn, though her face was grim and set.

::You all right?:: it wasn't asked in words, not quite, but she looked up at him and nodded.

"Not fantastic." She shrugged.

Jack was surprised by an impression of sudden frailty in his sister - no, he decided a moment later: not frailty. Vulnerability. He was again surprised by his own rush of protectiveness - something with which he hadn't bothered for years, now. Fiona had long been able to look out for herself, despite his past protests to the contrary.

And he could only assume that any appearance of vulnerability, now, was only a result of her not paying attention.

Fiona wasn't just tired, he realized. She was scared.

The realizaton struck him to the core.

Fiona was carrying a sword.

Jack tried very hard not to stare, especially as Fiona seemed rather accustomed to the thing, but seeing a sword slung over his sister's back still gave him a bit of a turn. Certainly he knew that bladed weapons were used widely among the Delegates, and he'd supposed Fiona had trained with them.

But still. A sword.

He himself was unarmed, at least physically. He had his shields so tightly shut that his own biorhythms sounded unusually loud to his ears: heartbeat, breath. As if he were sealed inside a spacesuit, making his way through the trees under the pull of a lighter gravity, placing his feet carefully. And he was. For all the closeness of the air, everyone around him seemed slightly further away than he knew they really were.

He could feel the crater. It was like a pulse itself, and that was perhaps the most disturbing aspect of its existence. It was so like a pulse that he was reminded of the feel of Crystallis. Like a gigantic heart-muscle, drawing and driving... something.

But this was not the meadhon. That was life, pure, strong, clear. This was more like the pulling current of a polluted river. He remembered New York City and the Hudson, a year ago, standing on the bank and feeling the sense of sickness and taint, the lack of anything living or clean.

But even that had been the taint of something healthy made sick. This...

...this was the touch of something that had never been clean.

He tried to distract himself by watching the others as they walked. Fiona had fallen silent beside him. No one seemed much interested in talking.

Arranged in various groupings around them were the other members of the team. More than twenty of them, all told, had been assigned to Aislinn Park. Arrah and Terren - who had come despite the protests from both Arrah and Katia - walked just short of lead, and Arrah's expression was as indecipherable as always. Terren still looked simply exhausted. Katia herself walked on Terren's other side, with Matt to her right, and although the two were not touching Jack gained the impression that they were walking arm-in-arm. Katia's face was unreadable, although the tenseness in her shoulders was evidence enough of her mood. Matt looked openly apprehensive, but determined.

His mother walked behind them, almost alongside Ethan Llwellyn, behind whom the three younger Llwellyns who had accompanied their group walked with calm assurance. The confidence bothered Jack, probably because he was so far from imitating it.

At the rear came Tilia, openly hand-in-hand with a young man Jack had not met, though he remembered seeing him with groups of young Delegate children, usually dashing up and down the beach. He supposed he was a teacher: Delegate kids started learning defense very young, much younger than Jack himself had started. The man had a narrow face and spiky red hair, and when he saw Jack glancing back, gave an encouraging not-quite-smile. Jack stopped looking. The two were obviously together, though there was something about the man that - not exactly bothered him, except in the sense that he couldn't puzzle it out. A sense of unnatural balance, almost forced, that Jack wouldn't have noticed unless looking directly. He shook his head.

They were getting closer.

Presently he could see the red-orange light of dusk through the trees, and moments later they had cleared the forest, and stood on the open grassy plain above the crater. The crest of the hill stood between them and sight of it, but they were still moving, as one, across the grass.

A moment before he saw it he heard it, audible, pulsing, beating like a pulse. It filled every part of him, and he hoped he wasn't the only one that stumbled a little before he strengthened his shields against it. He felt as if the sound were trying to reach into him, to fill every empty place and push out his skin. He pushed it stubbornly back, back until the sound was more distant and no longer drumming against the inside of his skull. He looked around.

He was perversely glad that he wasn't the only one clutching at his head in surprise. It passed quickly, though, as everyone raised defenses against it, and they stood for only a few moments in contemplative silence before Ethan Llwellyn called out orders and his son, daughter and nephew, followed by Tilia and the young man (whom Ethan addressed as "Daniel") began making their way in opposite directions around the edge of the crater. Matt and Katia followed along the right, and Molly to the left. Fiona made her way directly toward Arrah and Terren, and Jack scrambled to catch up.

"It's just like shielding," Ethan was saying as they approached. "Projective, and a hell of a lot bigger, but still the same principles. You've done this?" That last was asked of Jack and Fiona, and Fiona nodded with somewhat more confidence than her brother. Jack had only practiced this; though managing the shield was not what was worrying him. His gaze kept straying down into the pit, which was rather less lifeless than it had been a day ago. He found himself devoutly hoping that he was imagining the writhing, slithering things he could see, vaguely, at the bottom. Privately, he doubted it.

Then he was following Fiona along the edge, and after a few seconds, when he looked, they were ranged evenly around the pit. Not for the first time he was struck by how incredibly large it was, how great a destruction: Fiona, to his left, was at least a hundred feet away, and to his right, Terren was equally distant.

::Considering the state of the ley-lines in this place, we'll have to move in sync to get enough strength to do this,:: Ethan told them all, and Jack shuddered. The force of the thing in the ground had all but severed the ley-lines leading to what had been a node beneath where they stood, and they were bleeding power out into the ground and the air like severed arteries. That was the other thing setting him on edge, Jack realised.

When Ethan signalled, he almost missed it, and was left scrambling in his reach for the merge, and then for the trailing ends of the ley-lines closest to him. When he caught them, he was so immediately grounded that he felt pulled into a crouch, fingers digging into the earth for better purchase. The power flowed into him, and through him, and into the group mind of the spell, crashed together in the middle and then filled the shape of what they were weaving like water. It built from the circle of Delegates ranged about the perfect circle of the crater, reaching up and down, and Jack saw it rising like a door closing, surrounding the great, pulsing force and covering it, reaching down, into the ground, to surround it from all sides.

Jack felt with the others a great surge of surprise, anger, hatred - except not, because this thing had never been human and Jack could only cite equivalents - before the shield closed around it completely, sealing above them, hundreds of feet up, and below them, beneath their feet within the very ground, shimmering in his other sight like a great sphere for a moment before he blinked and opened his eyes.

Everyone was shaking themselves, shaking hands and arms and most of them had fallen into a crouch like Jack, hands pressed against the ground. He felt light-headed, and was so glad when Ethan called the all-clear that for a long moment he didn't move, just knelt there with his head hanging past his knees. He wasn't tired, exactly, but dizzy wouldn't have been far off. Instead of the insidious pulse of the thing below, now he could feel the sharp, clean tang of the shield, only a few feet ahead of him. The thing in the pit was still there, but at a greater remove and Jack was grateful.

The gratitude evapoated as his head cleared and he remembered that they weren't finished. Then Fiona was there, offering him a hand up, and they made their way back to the others. It was only just nightfall, and they still had work to do.


If Annie had hoped for Sunnydale to appear more pleasant close-up, she was sorely disappointed when they came close enough to the outskirts to make out buildings and streets.

It wasn't the town, really, Annie thought as they stood waiting for those at the back of the group to catch up. Sunnydale bore striking resemblence to most small Southern Californian towns: dotted here and there with Iberian archways, sun-bleached stucco and red-tiled roofs, in reminiscence of its Spanish origins, a few hundred years back, but mostly comprised of the glaring pittstops of modern urban sprawl; Annie could see a Super-8 motel from where she stood, and in the distance a Wal-Mart sign shone in the light of the westering sun. Annie squinted. No, it wasn't the town itself. It was something under the town.

Matt had called it a Hellmouth. Annie closed her eyes and shivered. It felt less like a mouth than... She searched for a comparison. A wound, maybe. A rent torn in the fabric of the world, drawing in everything good and living around it and burying it so deep it could never see light again. Next to her, Laan growled, low in his throat.

"Are you all right?" asked a voice from behind her, and Annie turned with a scowl already on her face.

"How many times do I have to--" the annoyance died at her lips, of surprise. It was Mina Quade who had asked the question, and the girl seemed as surprised by Annie's aborted anger as Annie had been by her approach.

Annie sighed. "Sorry," she said. "It's just that everyone keeps asking me that." She sent a dark look over Mina's shoulder in the direction of Chayson, who wasn't looking.

Mina laughed easily. "Yeah, I heard that." She cocked her head to one side. "You do look a bit spooked, though."

"Oh." Annie glanced back over her own shoulder. "Well."

Mina followed her gaze. "Yeah," she agreed.

They stood in silence for several seconds, then Mina, temporarily dismissing the ominous situation, smiled again.

"I was thinking maybe I should apologise for my brother," Mina said. "He has this unfortunate habit of... well, talking, actually. Tends not to notice when he's talking around his sneaker." She rolled her eyes.

Although she smiled, Annie found herself puzzled. She and Mina had probably exchanged less than a dozen words in all their distant acquaintance, and yet Mina was addressing her with the circumstantial familiarity common between distant cousins.

"You don't really have to," Annie said. "He didn't say it to me."

"No," Mina shrugged, "But you are with the Phillipses, and Jason won't do it himself."

"Oh." 'With the Phillipses.' That explained it, Annie supposed. She was being equated with Molly, Fi, and Jack. And if Mina and Fiona were friends, that made Annie her friend by extension, at least in Mina's view.

Briefly Annie wondered what other relationships that implied, before Mina distracted her.

"Fi knows what he's like, and Molly gets a bit twitchy whenever I try to talk to her, and Jack... well, with Jack it's not really necessary." Mina's smile faded somewhat.

No, supposed Annie. With Jack it wouldn't, really, be necessary.

"They must get along," Annie said.

Mina scowled into space. "Strangely, no," she said. "Comes, I guess, of them both being so extremely, stupidly stubborn." The smile brightened. "Though Jack's a lot better than he used to be."

"Yeah," agreed Annie, "he is." Again Annie found herself feeling defensive, flushing slightly, as she had during the meeting. Mina didn't seem to notice.

"I'm glad," she continued. "Jack's a nice guy, when he's not being all gloomy and ranty."

She seemed oblivious to Annie's distance, and when Annie merely nodded, she turned back to the others as the new groups were set. "We're moving!" called Chayson, and they started walking again, setting off down several different roads. They were here for reconaissance, he reminded everyone before they got out of earshot, and nothing else.

In the most classic sense, Sunnydale was a ghost town, to the point where Annie suspected actual ghosts hovering about the gutted skeletons of the deserted buildings. She didn't miss that the rest of the team kept her more or less in the middle of the group, but didn't complain this time; she was, after all, the youngest Delegate present next to Jason Quade, and unlike Jason, this was her first real mission; not to mention that the deep shadows of the town were overriding her early indignance at being babied.

They made their way into Sunnydale some time around when sundown should have been, but wasn't. Annie, Mina, Jeri, and Alan Saras followed what seemed to be the main road down a slight slope, and after several minutes the sparsely-distributed factories and hotels gave way to grocery stores and soccer fields and baseball diamonds and massive, ancient houses too grandiose and ponserous to fit in the smaller, crowded main town. Jeri led them out of the outskirts, past a rundown building with the appearance of a quasi-legitimate dance club with the word "Bronze" worked above the door in copper, through the town square littered with boutiques and coffee shops and dead cars, past the small, distinctive shop on the other side with moons and stars painted on it in blue that Annie thought, from the name, must be some kind of electronics or television store, but smelled of magic. They made a turn at some point, up a street lined with friendly verandahed houses, and then stopped at the end before a chain-link fence, looking down a hill of rolled-out turf. Below was the stark institutional shape of a high school, terrifyingly out-of-place in its surroundings.

"Matt did say the old school was nicer, right?" Alan said with distaste, arching one black eyebrow over dark-rimmed glasses.

Jeri made a scornful noise. "God, I hope so. Why is all modern American architecture reminiscent of prisons for the criminally insane?"

Annie, as the only American present, grinned.

Annie had always found it strange, that relatively speaking, there were very few American Delegates. A good proportion were of Celtic descent (probably the majority), with even samplings of Middle Eastern, Asian, European, and Aboriginal North American. But few Americans. Annie supposed that it was partly her own fault; her own culture had led her to expect Americans to hold the centre in most situations, but oddly enough, the majority of the most prominent Delegates were Canadians. Jeri, the Quades, and all the current Llwellyns were, and all eight Guardians had grown up there.

She supposed it shouldn't have surprised her overly; the Circle and the world government were rather closely tied, and she knew that many Americans had emigrated North or overseas when the United States had refused membership in the Global Union in 2005. So much of a Delegate's work involved extensive travel, and since the Insulation it had become more and more difficult for Americans to travel easily - and contrary to popular belief, it had never been precisely easy for Americans to travel internationally. Now vague dislike had been joined by the nationalistic suspicion of the citizen for the non-citizen.

Fortunately, at times like these, it was less of an issue: there was no one around to ask questions.

They dropped quickly below the level of the fence at a word from Jeri, and hunched behind shields as below them, a small group of teenage girls, led by a man who looked to be in his early twenties and sported a patch over one eye, picked their way across the field into their field of vision. They made their way around the foundation of the school, and at a signal from one of the oldest girls, split into two groups to surround it. The Delegates, watching from the hill above, passed several minutes in silence. Finally Jeri sighed.

"Reconaissance of reconaissance," she muttered. "Looks like they're doing the same thing we are." She looked at Alan. "Check in with the other groups?"

Alan nodded and closed his eyes, his face relaxing into the expression of one in telepathic communication. He was silent a moment, and then they all heard Trisha's voice. ::All's quiet here, folks.::

::Anything at all, yet?:: asked Jeri.

They could almost feel her give the telepathic equivalent of a headshake. ::We've got a watch on the square - but nothing's moving. About an hour ago a group of teenagers and an older girl came out of the magic store and went into the suburbs. We didn't follow them, but they must have been carrying their own body weight in supplies. Looked like they were planning something big.::

::They came here,:: came Helena's voice, stronger and louder than Trisha.

::Helena?:: asked Jeri. ::Where are you?::

::Watching the Summers house,:: came the reply. ::We're bunkered down in the empty house across the street.:: There was a pause, as if Helena were conversing verbally with someone next to her. ::There must be more than twenty people in that house, most of them teenage girls.::

::Those would be Potentials,:: Chayson said, joining the conversation. ::Matt said that they've been drifting towards Sunnydale for months now, and the ones that made it are all marshalled under Buffy Summers.::

::And that other one,:: added Helena.

::Other one?:: Annie asked, bemused.

::Don't remember the name,:: Chayson said, ::Also a Slayer. A little unstable, or so Matt tells me.::

::So that's a grand total of how many adults overseeing all those kids?:: asked Jeri.

::Five, counting the witch - Willow something? - the Watcher and young Mr. Alexander Harris, who seems to do everything else,:: Trisha told them.

::What you're telling me is that the fate of the world is resting on the shoulders of a large group of teenagers?:: Chayson said, sounding amused, as well he might: the Guardians had been younger than fifteen when they'd first come into their powers.

::Hey!:: protested Mina, Annie, and Jason, almost in unison.

::Ah, and isn't that always the way?:: Helena said, radiating fondness.

They stayed stationed just long enough to witness the Sunnydale group making their way with purpose towards the high school, and slipped out of town in their wake without being seen or even detected. They assembled again at the edge of town.

"They're heading for the Hellmouth," Chayson summarised for the rest of them. "They're setting up some kind of spell, something none of us really recognise. Which unfortunately means it's also nothing we can help with."

"So what now? We just leave them to it?" Trisha said.

"Among other things," Chayson said, sighing.

"What?" Jason asked, looking around at the others. Annie looked at the faces of the older Delegates; all bore grim expressions.

"We have to shield the Hellmouth, Jason," Jeri explained.

Annie sighed, looking at her feet. Arrah had hinted at this before they'd left the Island, but she'd hoped that they wouldn't have to do it.

"You mean... seal them in," Jason said, and Chayson nodded.

"We're going to set a conditional shield," he told them. "If they succeed in what they're doing - which we have to assume involves stopping whatever is coming out of the Hellmouth - the energy release will collapse the shield."

Annie tenatively raised one hand. Chayson nodded at her. "Uh," she said, "what if they can't do it?"

Everyone looked at her. Jason paled a little. The adults, however, just looked more grim.

Chayson sighed, quietly, and met her eyes. "If they fail, Annie, that will mean that the Hellmouth has opened." He shook his head. "We won't have much choice."

Annie bit her lip. "I know that," she said. "I was just hoping we wouldn't have to..." She gestured toward the town. Chayson followed with his eyes, and nodded.

"Personally, I still am," he said, then straightened, looking around at the others and rubbing his hands together. "Let's get to work."


It had been more than an hour since they had completed the shield, and since then the others had been milling around, setting up wards and making links between those that would stand guard in the outer ring of the shield when they moved forward with the plan. Fiona had been handed the very important duty of sitting still, doing absolutely nothing, about thirty feet back from the border of the shield. Ethan had said something about making sure the beasts within the crater didn't scent her too strongly, and get too riled up before they could act, but Fi suspected her assignment had more to do with placating Jack, who had been given the same task, about a quarter of the way further around the crater. Although her senior in years, in Delegate terms Jack was still her junior, which meant that he was far less likely to protest being kept safely out of the way while preparations were made if his far more experienced younger sister were sentenced to the same temporary exile.

Regardless, Jack was sulking, arms crossed, and staring ominously at the sporadically flickering dome of the shield. But he was staying put, and that was what mattered.

Sighing, Fiona sat back on her hands, crossing her legs at the ankles. She was very, very bored. She supposed that was either a very good or a very bad sign: good in that she wasn't terrified out of her wits. Bad, in that objectively speaking, she really should have been terrified out of her wits. She knew, vaguely, that she'd shoved the fear so far back into the back of her mind that she just wasn't feeling it right now, and that she'd probably regret it later, when it caught up with her, but frankly she preferred boredom to twitchy sulking, when it came right down to it. She looked at Jack again, who had jumped nearly a foot in the air, just a moment ago, when Katia had tapped him on the shoulder, supposedly to congratulate him, with only a hint of sarcasm in her tone, on a job well done, thus far. Now he was glaring with renewed force.

Fiona sighed again. It must have been audible, for a moment later a (very) faintly amused voice observed: "Bored?"

Fiona looked up. Standing just behind and to the right of her was a lean young man with a narrow face and short, spiked red hair. Fiona shrugged. "I think it's probably a sign of dementia, but yeah."

"Nah." Shaking his head, he sat down next to her, elbows resting on his knees. "In my experience, people react to these kinds of situations one of two ways. Number one, immediate panic and disorder and general uselessness. Number two, relative calm, level-headedness, with the panic coming later." He glanced across the grass towards Jack, then raised an eyebrow at her. "Your family seems to lean towards option number two. You're Fiona."

It wasn't a question, exactly, but Fiona nodded. "You're... Daniel, right? Tilia's..."

"Yeah," Daniel said, smiling ever so faintly. "We met about a year ago. When your Mom came back."

"Yeah," agreed Fi, looking at him more closely. "Not that I don't appreciate the company, but do you have nothing better to do?"

Daniel shook his head, apparently taking no offense. "Not actually," he said, tilting his head toward the shield; the others were drifting in ones and twos away from the perimeter. "We're almost done setting up. Good thing, too."

Fiona looked; the forms visible beyond the edge of the shield were stirring, circling. They seemed almost restless, if such an emotion could be assigned to the things. "Oh, good," she muttered, under her breath.

They sat in surprisingly companionable silence for several long minutes before Fiona turned to him and squinted. "Are you always this quiet?"

"As a rule," he admitted. "I used to be quieter."

"It boggles the mind," Fiona stated, smiling. "Wait - aren't you from Sunnydale?"

She faintly recalled Tilia telling her that, or maybe she remembered Daniel standing with Matt, heads bent in conversation, a month ago when Arrah had gone missing for five days and no one older than twenty had seemed concerned. Fiona had been, because Arrah seemed to have taken it upon herself to make sure Fiona felt at home, and this was, she now knew, unusual, for Arrah, because Arrah was anything but social. Fi had come upon them in the hall, and stopped, trying to decide whether or not to eavesdrop and feeling rather ambiguous about the morality because after all, she and Arrah had been talking the day before her absence, and they'd been in a lull, all of them, and nothing unusual had been mentioned.

The decision had been made for her when Daniel had nodded, then continued on down the corridor in the opposite direction, and Matt had come toward Fiona, and stopped to squeeze her shoulder, and answered her unspoken question with "She's dealing with something. Don't worry," and moved on past her.

But after she and Belle had confronted Matt with the Chronicles and he'd admitted that Arrah had been meeting with someone in Sunnydale, it had occurred to her that maybe Daniel, who she'd met only once, maybe twice, was more closely involved than she'd first assumed.

"Originally," he acknowledged, with a nod. "I left there a few years ago."

"That's right," Fi half-murmured. "You're Adopted."

The half-smile appeared again, then faded as he nodded. "Thanks to Tilia."

"But if you're a former native, why--"

"Why wasn't I assigned to the Sunnydale group?" He shrugged, and Fiona decided, watching his face, that anyone else would have been frowning. Daniel had a very strange face that managed to express a great deal despite the fact that he failed to display most of the typical facial expressions. Nonetheless, Fi gained the impression that he was repressing an inconvenient emotion. "It would have been... awkward, especially if we actually ran into any of the current natives."

"But I thought Arrah said all the civilians left weeks ago--" She paused, as Daniel nodded. "--oh. You know the Slayer?"

One corner of his mouth quirked up briefly. "You're looking at an honorary former member of the Scooby Gang." At her confused look, he waved one hand in dismissal. "Never mind. Private joke. We went to high school together."

"Oh. So you were friends?"

"Peripherally, anyway," he agreed. He looked at her. "I had to leave, under some kind of... awkward circumstances. And my showing up could make things... complicated."

Fi sighed. "Everything's already pretty complicated."

Almost another minute ticked by, before Daniel said: "Is this a stony silence sort of thing?"

Fiona had been glaring in Jack's direction. Jack, for his part, didn't even look up. She sighed again. "You know about... what happened to my dad. What my mom did."

She saw him nod out of the corner of her eye.

"Well, it's been almost - I think more than - a year since he found out. He never knew, not until Arrah told him. He was always mad at Dad - since then he's been angry with Mom. I don't think he's eased up since."

"That's a long time to stay angry," Daniel said quietly, after a while.

"Oh, that's nothing," Fiona said weakly. "I was angry with her before I even knew. Because all that time I knew she was hiding something and wouldn't tell me."

"Sounds tiring."

"You have no idea," she agreed.

"You're not angry anymore?"

"I-- no." She looked at him. "I couldn't give you a real reason. I just decided not to be. It's not that I... learned anything new, or changed my mind about anything, or realized that it wasn't really her fault, or anything. That would have made sense. But it was her fault. I know it was her fault. She caused it to happen. I understand it, I forgave her, but it was her fault. I just couldn't be mad at her anymore. I think maybe Jack can."

"You sound worried."

"Annoyed, actually," she said. "Worried, too. Just... can I ask you a question? As a more or less objective observer?"

Daniel straightened his legs, leaned back. "Shoot."

"Can you ever really forgive someone... for taking things away you can never get back?" She looked at him, saw him considering the question with a distant look.

At length, he tilted his head to one side. "It kinda depends," he said.

"On what?"

"On what was taken," he said, quietly. "On who took it. And how important both of those things were to you, before."

Fiona thought about that for a moment, looking back across the grass at her brother. "Damn," she said, in a very faint voice.