Cold Comforts
By Chandri MacLeod

Fandom: So Weird
Rating: PG-13
Pairing: none
Categories: drama
Warnings: none
Wordcount: 27,000
Summary: When a stranger from the past of the Phillips family appears, asking for help, everyone is forced to do some soul-searching into Rick's death; was Fi right all along?
Disclaimer: All recognisable characters are the property of Disney and Joss Whedon. They're not mine, I'm just using them for fun.
Author’s Note: This story, and its sequel, took about two years to complete. A crossover with my Paxverse; all original characters and concepts are mine.

Chapter One: His Quandry
Chapter Two: Glass House
Chapter Three: Weathervane
Chapter Four: Guarded Green
Chapter Five: It Rained
Chapter Six: Burning Bridges
Chapter Seven: Shaded Bright
Chapter Eight: Stone and Mortar
Epilogue: Ghost of a Smile

Chapter One: His Quandry

“You know, Annie, that’s so Fi. Skip the logical and go straight for the impossible.”

Annie looked up from the board, her eyes stinging. Not from tears, but but she had been staring intently at the surface of the board. Jack sat across from her, eyes narrowed, poised to leap to his feet and storm out of the room. A moment later, when she didn’t answer, he did just that.

Annie rubbed her eyes, somewhat confused by what had just happened. She actually couldn’t remember hearing any of Jack’s preceding tirade, but saw, looking down at the Talking Board, just what had distracted her.

The lens in the pointer rested firmly over the word DANGER, and the block letters on their orange oval looked warped through the lens.

A chill tickled Annie’s spine. Thinking suddenly that the dire prediction might have to do with her suddenly-departed almost-brother, she set her fingers on the pointer. As it slid across the board, she watched it paintakingly select ten letters, spelling out a word she had never seen before.

C-R-Y-S-T-A-L-L-I-S. Annie stared, trying to fit the letters together and form some recognisable word that she could express as sounds.

“What is...” she began to muse to herself, but was suddenly interrupted by a loud crash from down the hall - more specifically, from Jack’s room. She leapt to her feet, heart pounding, afraid that perhaps her prediction had brought about some terrible event...

There had been a brush of moving air, a stirring of power that she couldn’t quite explain. A sound in Jack’s room, following the crash. Voices. Jack’s voice, shouting, and one other, quieter. As Annie neared the door, she could make out words.

“...dare you just blip in here, out of nowhere, like you had a right to be here. Mom was right about you people.”

Annie paused outside the door, holding her breath. Jack was shouting at someone. But who?

“And precisely what was she right about, Jack?” That was a girl’s voice. A girl?

Jack’s furious silence practically oozed out from under the door. Annie cringed.

“I did not kill your father, Jack. Nor did I lead him to his death. He went of his own free will. Chose that path. He knew the risks when he chose it, just as your sister did. Your mother, Jack. What was she right about? Denying you and Fiona your birthright? Nearly forcing your father to choose between duty and family? In laying the blame on a friend, when the far more dangerous culprit is still at large, watching you?”

Jack made no reply.

“I asked nothing of you, Jack. I merely offer. I can’t force you to do anything against your will. Fiona had good intentions, Jack, but little scope in this. I’m only saying that you should know what you’re giving up before you turn your back on us completely. Your father--”

“I’m not my father.”

Annie felt an involontary shudder. Jack’s voice was low, and deadly, and quite obviously threatening. The stranger seemed to notice too, and changed her tactics, as if she’d known what to expect.

“You’re not your mother, either.”

Annie bent down and looked through the keyhole. Standing in the middle of the room was Jack, and two or three feet facing him was a short, dark-haired woman. She looked scarcely older than Annie herself, but her words and her stance showed that she was a good deal older - ten years, at least. Jack topped her by at least two feet.

Jack presently turned away from her, his arms crossed. Annie only now thought to wonder how she had gotten there. The window was closed and the blinds drawn. She hadn’t come in by the door. It was as if she had materialised in the room from nowhere.

As that thought occured to Annie, the woman suddenly looked sharply at the door. She seemed to meet Annie’s eye. Annie was sudenly absolutley certain that she could see her, as easily as if the door wasn’t there at all.

Annie gasped and stumbled backwards, falling to her rear. She was still sitting in the middle of the hallway when the door flew suddenly open. The woman stood framed by the door, looking at Annie, the expression on her face a mixture of surprise and annoyance.

“I... I...” Annie stuttered, trying to think of something to say that wouldn’t sound too utterly inadequate in the face of this strange woman’s totally unreadable mood.

The woman placed her hands on her hips, and raised one eyebrow.

“You... were eavesdropping?” she suggested.

Annie shut her mouth, and slowly, nodded.

The woman, still unreadable, looked Annie up and down as Jack appeared at her shoulder.

“Annie! What are you doing?”

Annie stared helplessly at Jack as she squirmed under the stranger’s gaze.

“This is Annie?” The woman’s posture relaxed, and she offered Annie a hand up. “Damn,” she swore. “We weren’t supposed to come for you yet...”

“What? Come for me...?” Annie stared in confusion as Jack heard the words and turned on the woman in anger.

“No,” he said firmly. “No. Leave her out of it. She’s got nothing to do with this...”

The woman uttered a long-suffering sigh. “Actually, Jack, she s, or would have been , eventually. She’s in teh line as well. She just wasn’t supposed to be brought in this soon, but now that she’s seen me...”

“No!” Jack’s voice was angry, and stubborn. “You can’t drag everyone into this fantasy world of yours! Some people need to live normal lives!”


Annie’s plea was quiet, but the woman’s own words were not.

“By the gods, Jack, stop.” She actualy sounded somewhat angry, now, and on a deep-down level, Annie was just a little frightened, somehow cetain that angering this woman was not omething she ought to be doing, nor was alienating her, as Jack seemed so set on doing.

“This is not something that can just be ignored, Jack.” Her voice was annoyed, but earnest. “We’re following our own rules, ones established millennia ago. Those, of course, change over time, as the world changes, but the basis remains the same.” She turned her gaze on Annie. “We must continue to try, because we believe our mission is noble, and worth our sacrifices to its end. But we can’t force others to take up that mission, to follow it, or fight for it. That must be a choice made willingly, and always has been; anything else would corrupt us, and render us villains in our own right.”

Under any other circumstances, Annie would have laughed at the deflated expression Jack wore. At the moment, he looked neither pompous nor threatening, just afraid, and conflicted.

She looked sideways over her shoulder at Jack, and said tiredly, “I’ll come back.” she then, quite abruptly, wasn’t there anymore. There was an odd shifting of shadows, as if the angle of the light had momentarily changed, but an instant later, there was no sign that she had ever even been there, save for the open door. Annie blinked for a moment, then stared in shock at Jack.

“Who was that? What was she --”

The hurt and hateful look on Jack’s face stopped her short.

“That’s the woman who killed my father.”

He nearly knocked Annie down in his haste to storm out of the room.

When Annie woke up the next morning, rain was falling heavily outside, beating on the windowpanes and turning them to blurry rivulets. She sat up in bed, brushing bits of hair out of her face, and blinked sleepily at the laptop on her desk, which was making alarmed bleeping noises.

After a moment, when the significance of the sounds registered, and Annie leapt out of bed, sitting down at the desk, and called up the chat program she had left open all night. Fi was online.

[[Rockerbaby]] Hey Annie, I’m here now; what’s up?
[Catseyes] I had a question that I think only you can answer.
[[Rockerbaby]] raises eyebrows Fire away.
[Catseyes] It’s gonna sound weird.
[[Rockerbaby]] laughs You’re kidding me, right? This is me. Just ask.
[Catseyes] Okay, if you say so.
[Catseyes] Do you know anyone named Areahannah?

Several minutes elapsed.

[Catseyes] Fi? You still there?
[[Rockerbaby]] Sorry; you just caught me by surprise. How did you know about Areahannah?
[Catseyes] Then you do know her?
[[Rockerbaby]] Yeah, I do.
[Catseyes] She was here yesterday. Talking to Jack - he got really angry. He said some things about her, and now I don’t know what to think.
[[Rockerbaby]] What did he say?
[Catseyes] He said she killed your dad.
[Catseyes] Is that true?
[[Rockerbaby]] scowls No; that’s not true. Jack’s an idiot. Just like Mom. Typical.
[Catseyes] So who is she?
[Rockerbaby] Annie, have you ever heard of the Guardians?
[Catseyes] rolls eyes You’ll have to be more specific.
[Rockerbaby] They’re sort of... I don’t know how to explain it, really. They protect people. They’ve been around for centuries - and Areahannah was a friend of my parents’ when I was really little.
[Catseyes] Why do I get the impression she’s not a friend now?
[Rockerbaby] sighs Mom hates her - she thinks it’s Arrah’s fault, what happened to dad. And Jack feels the same way. Even though he really has no idea of the facts.
[Catseyes] So what are the facts?
[Rockerbaby] It’s complicated - but basically, our family was one of their allies for a long, long time - Mom and Dad were their friends, and helped them. But there was this thing - a - a monster, I guess. A spirit. And it was after us. Me and Jack. Our family was special, and whatever they were fighting wanted Mom and Dad and the other ally families out of the way. It killed Dad. And...
[Catseyes] And Molly blamed Areahannah?
[Rockerbaby] sigh Yeah. Exactly. And it was stupid, because it wasn’t her fault. She was just doing her job, just like Dad did. But they haven’t spoken since.
[Rockerbaby] Why was she there?
[Catseyes] She said something about you.
[Rockerbaby] ...oh. Damn. I guess I should’ve seen that coming.
[Catseyes] Seen what coming?
[Rockerbaby] It doesn’t matter much - just that I sort of took myself out of the game. I didn’t really think about the Guardians at the time, I guess. That was stupid of me, huh?
[Catseyes] So there’s no one in your family, now, helping them?
[Rockerbaby] ...
[Rockerbaby] No; I guess not. The word they use is Delegate. The last one from our family was me - but I guess... maybe she came to ask Jack.
[Catseyes] I think she’s got her work cut out for her.
[Rockerbaby] No kidding.
[Rockerbaby] Annie?
[Catseyes] Yeah?
[Rockerbaby] Don’t let Jack scare you, when he gets all towering and blustery like that - he’s just scared, himself.
[Catseyes] I know.
[Rockerbaby] And be careful - she doesn’t mean to, but Arrah sort of brings trouble with her. If she’s around now, it’s because they need help. And if they need help, it’s got to be big. And dangerous.
[Catseyes] I’ll be careful, Fi. And thanks.
[Rockerbaby] No prob, Annie. Good luck. And keep in touch.

And then the chat program closed - Fi had gone offline.

Chapter Two: Glass House

Breakfast was a silent affair, with Jack shooting Annie warning glances every few minutes. And every time Annie tried to start a conversation, to ask Jack a question, to bring up the topic of the night before, Molly would come in, interrupting her.

::She’s going to start thinking we’re keeping secrets from her, with the way we stop talking every time she comes in.:: Annie reflected more than once. ::Then again,:: she’d realized ::we are.::

Not only that, but Jack didn’t seem overly inclined to talk about it. And when Annie did bring up the topic, he either became angry or stalked away. Or both. Later on in the day, Annie kept trying to track him down to one place and keep him there long enough to ask a question. Finally, she resorted to knocking on Jack’s bedroom door.

She wasn’t really sure whether he would actually answer the door. She had rather expected for him to go on sulking, silently, inside his room, without giving any sign as evidence that he was even there.

As such, she was a bit taken aback when he threw open the door, and stood glowering down upon her as she stood before him.

“What?” he demanded.


Jack stared unimpressedly at her until she found her voice.

“I need to talk to you,” she finally blurted out.

Jack crossed his arms, obviously doing his absolute best to maintain the facade of Large, Intimidating and Annoyed. Annie remembered Fi’s assurances, though, and pushed bravely on.

“About what?”

“About what she said - the Guardian. It’s important, Jack,” she insisted as he began to scowl. “I need to know. And so do you.”

Finally he sighed loudly, and stepped aside. “Come in,” he said. “But don’t get your hopes up.”

Annie edged gingerly past him, and sat down on the first piece of furniture that caught her eye - Jack’s desk chair. She swivelled around, watching as he closed the door and came to sit heavily down on the bed. Settled, he turned his head to glower quizzically at her. “What is it that’s so important?” he asked. “You should mind your own business, Annie.”

“It is my business!” she protested, fists clenching on her lap. She had to keep herself from leaping dramatically to her feet. “I live here now. And she said I’m involved too. Or will be. Jack, I need to know. Is it true, what she said?”

Jack looked away, glaring sullenly at the bedspread.

“And more importantly, is it true, what you said about her?

Jack started, looking up, and met Annie’s widened eyes. She was looking at him with pleading in her eyes. And as he felt her eyes on his, his shoulders fell.

“No,” he said softly, this time without looking away. “No, it’s not true, not exactly.” He sighed, dropping his eyes. “She didn’t exactly kill him.” And now he looked up again, eyes smouldering. “But it was her fault - if it wasn’t for her, he never would have been in the car. Dad... Dad was doing something for her when he had his crash.”

“But if it wasn’t her fault, then why--”

“It WAS her fault!” Jack raged, jumping to his feet. “She... she... he left... us... deserted us... because of her. Because of her STUPID fantasy world, her imaginary war. Chasing aliens and angels and ghosts. That’s why he was away from us, all the time. That’s why Mom wanted him to stay away from her and all her ideas. Why she asked him to. And he said he would. Promised he would. But that night, that one night - I don’t know. He told her he would be back in a few hours. Just going for a drive. A few hours later, Mom got a call from the police. He never came home. He went out and got himself smashed into a truck chasing a THEORY! He lied to Mom! He broke his promise! All for something that just doesn’t exist! And it was HER idea! HER fault!”

Annie was pressed back into the chair, stiff with the force of Jack’s anger. She took a deep breath, stilling her heart. “But Jack,” she said quietly into the oppressive silence that followed his tirade, “Arrah... she said it was --”

“She was lying.” He said it with certainty, low and gruff.

“How do you know that?”

“Because Mom said--” he began, but then the question seemed to really register, and he pulled up short on a point he’d failed to consider. “Because... Mom always said... she said so.” He was speaking very quietly now, eyes distant and confused. “Mom never told us - except that he... but she never told us, exactly, and she never told us about them, and she never... I guess I must have overheard, or something.”

Annie looked at him - he was shaking his head as he spoke, as if he were trying to make sense of the things inside his head. “Jack; did you ever ask her? Did you ever ask anyone what happened? Ever?”

“I... no.” He ended on a quiet note, his face reddening. “It was just always... I thought I knew. I...”

“Jack, maybe you should try to find out for yourself. Maybe --”

He passed a hand over his eyes. “I don’t care what she says, Annie.” He seemed to be trying to regain his previous resolve. “I don’t believe her. I know...”

He stiffened, then, and looked up, suddenly, to the doorway. Annie turned; Areahannah stood there, hair tied back and looking serious.

“Yes,” she said. “Maybe it’s time we did talk.”

Annie looked quickly between Jack and Arrah, and then stood up. “I’ll go,” she said, but neither of them seemed to notice her leave, eyes locked on one another.

“I said I’d come back,” she said, coming into the room and closing the door behind her.

“Did Mom see you?” Jack asked.

Areahannah hung her head for a moment, and a shadow of pain crossed her face, though it was gone as quickly as it had appeared. “No. I didn’t think it was a very good idea.”

She sat down in the chair Annie had abandoned and leaned forward, forearms resting on knees. “Can I ask you a question, Jack?”

She must have taken his glaring as an affirmative, because she went on. “Do you remember your father? At all?”

He stared at her, warily. “Not really.”

She sighed, wincing a little. “That’s too bad. You would have gotten along quite well, I think. Even if you aren’t much like him.”

Jack was annoyed. “What do you mean?”

Areahannah made an abortive gesture of throwing her hands in the air. “Well... Fiona is so much like him. So faithful. So... just so... I don’t even know how to describe it. But I suppose you’re more like your mother, that way. Though you both look more like Rick.” Her eyes dropped downward, to her hands, which she clasped together in her lap. “He was a good man, Jack. I miss him, too.”

“You have no right to even say his name.”

Her head snapped up, a flash of anger in her eyes. “What?”

“He died because of you.” Jack’s voice was steady, his expression guarded, watching her for a reaction. The only one he saw was a moment of tension where her fists clenched, and then relaxed.

“I suppose your mother told you that.”

“It doesn’t matter if she did. It’s true, isn’t it?”

He watched as she paled slightly, swallowed, and stood up. “It’s not as simple as all that, Jack.” She was turned away from him now, shoulders hunched. “It’s complicated. It always has been.”

“It’s not complicated! Either it was you or it wasn’t!

“Let’s get one thing straight, Jack -” she turned around, and he saw that she had her arms crossed over her chest, as if she was holding something in. “It wasn’t me who killed your father. I may have been part of the reason, but I didn’t kill him. I... he was my friend. And he was doing what he thought he had to do. That’s why he died.” Her arms had dropped to her sides by this point, and her shoulders sagged. Then she looked up at him again. “He died for what he believed in.”

Jack’s burning glare was steady. “You never give up, do you? Trying to make it seem like some big romantic sacrifice. A car accident...”

He’d expected her to react, to reply, and surprised when she didn’t, he looked up and met her eyes. What he saw there in her pale visage was shock and a little horror, and a dawning understanding.

“She never told you,” she pronounced in a whisper. “You don’t know - she never told you how he really died.”

“Of course she told me,” Jack spat. “He died in a car accident.”

“No,” she looked a little horrified, but more certain, and just a bit annoyed - even really angry, but that part was carefully controlled. “No, no, he didn’t. That’s how it was made to look, that’s what the police told her, but your mother knows as well as I do that it wasn’t true.”

Jack’s expression was all denial and defence. “You’re lying.”

“I don’t lie, Jack,” she said sternly, but returned quickly to earnest. “When Fiona knew, I thought for certain that you did too - he was murdered.”

“No; he died in a car accident --”

“No.” Areahannah shook her head solemnly. “He didn’t die in any accident. He...” She shook her head again, this time in disbelief.

“I can’t believe she never told you.”

“Told me WHAT?”

She started at his threatening tone, glancing up. “Jack...” She sat down rather abruptly, running a hand over her face and sighing. “Just after you were born, something happened; that was nearly an accident, and your father was nearly killed. Your mother... she was angry, and frightened that something else, something worse, could happen, so she... she left us. She denounced the Circle and anything connected to it... but your father didn’t; though he never told her.”

Jack was silent.

“He was a good man, your father; a good friend. And loyal to a fault, to us, and to his family. When we found out that He was after you..”

Jack’s eyes narrowed. “Who was after me?”

She raised an eyebrow. “Something... I guess you could call it a spirit. It was the servant of our greatest enemy, and it had been following your family for centuries, as long as you had been a part of the Circle. And that... that is a long time. Something happened, something that destroyed the defences that had been built against it, and it...”

“What?” Jack demanded as she trailed off uncertainly.

“It went after you, or would have. After you and Fiona. You were only a toddler then, and Fiona an infant. When I found that out... I told him. I realise now that that was my mistake, but hindsight is twenty-twenty, and... well, he decided to go out and stop it by himself. He couldn’t tell your mother, or ask for her help, because of what she’d decided. She would have been angry and frightened. He didn’t want to inflict that on her.”

“So instead, he went out and got himself killed. Real classy.”

She looked at him sadly, and a moment later, there was guilt there too. “Don’t speak so hatefully, Jack; he was only trying to protect you - and maybe me. I told him not to go, pleaded with him to wait, and he said he would, but in the end, I suppose he felt it would be better if he dealt with it alone - he went in secret. He never should have done it, and if he had only waited, there would have been help, though... if he had waited, I suspect you and Fiona would be dead now.”

Her head drooped, and her hands laced themselves tightly together. “I couldn’t have foreseen what would happen, and neither could he. If I made any mistake, committed any sin, it was in telling him about the threat to you instead of going myself; that would have suited better, I suppose. But I think he probably would have found out anyway.”

“What was it?”


“What was it? The thing that killed him?”

She looked uncomfortable. “We’re really not certain. Even now. We only know that it was created by very, very old dark magic. Your sister has encountered it before. It calls itself Bricru... it’s very powerful. He might even have defeated it, but not alone.”

Jack was staring silently at the Guardian with an expression of smothered horror. “Mom. He couldn’t do it without Mom. And she...” He trailed off.

She looked away again. “Yes. I suppose that’s one interpretation of it.”

“You mean... when Mom left you, she broke those defence things? It was because she gave up all that...”

Areahannah was silent, and was beginning to look very unhappy. “We can’t be sure of that.”

“Oh my god...”

“We still don’t know exactly what happened, but we do know that he didn’t die in a damned car accident. He was dead before the car ever hit.”

Jack stared at her, and as close as they were standing, might have seemed for a moment by his posture as if he were about to strike her - but instead, he surged past her and out of the room, tearing open the door with such force that it swung around and knocked a dent in the wall.

Areahannah sighed shakily and vanished.

Molly was tuning her guitar when he came in, plucking the A string slowly in repetition. Her eyes were closed, listening to the note and its pitch. When Jack entered, the slam of the sliding door being thrown open made her start. The guitar string snapped with a loud twang and flew across the room, silently past Jack’s shoulder. Molly looked up and saw a thin trickle of blood running down the side of his face where the string had passed by him.

Molly leapt to her feet. Something was wrong - she could sense it in the air, in Jack’s bearing, in the sound of the lingering vibrations of the broken string. Something was terribly, deeply wrong. Her suspicions were confirmed when, moving forward to dab the blood from Jack’s face, she was pushed away.

“Honey?” Meeting Jack’s eyes, for a moment, frightened her, and she dropped her arms to her sides. There was something bordering on unreadable there - but not to his mother. His mother saw fear, and betrayal, and maybe even hatred in her son’s eyes. And when he spoke, the fear solidified into a lump of ice in the pit of her stomach, a sharp spike of dark anticipation in her spine. His voice was completely cold. Molly fell back into her seat.

“Mom, let me ask you a question.”

Bravely, Molly met his eyes again. “Yeah, honey?” She strived to keep her voice casual, not to betray the tremor she felt.

“How old is she? The Guardian?”

Molly’s face contorted for an instant, then smoothed out. “I didn’t know you’d met her.” The words could have been taken as a question, but when Jack didn’t answer, Molly sighed, then straightened, obviously making mental calculations. “When you were two, she was fifteen; so... I guess she’s about twenty-eight, twenty-nine.” Molly eyed her son suspiciously. “Why?”

The cold in the room suddenly became thinly-veiled animosity. “She doesn’t look that old.”

“Why are you asking about her?” Molly’s voice had a dangerous edge to it.

“She told me something, Mom,” Jack said, crossing his arms. “She said Dad was murdered.” Jack wasn’t certain how to feel; his throat was tight and his face was burning, and he couldn’t feel the pain of the blood running down his cheek. He was too numb. He suspected that he ought to be angry, but the anger was warring frantically with newly-woken grief and outright confusion.

Molly’s expression, though, was now all anger. “She told... it isn’t true.”

The tremble in his mother’s voice was all Jack needed. “You’re lying,” he said in astonishment. “You lied about how he died. You lied to me! To Fi!”

“Jack --” Molly rose again to her feet.

“No!” Jack threw off her reaching hands. “Everything you told us was a lie! Fiona’s been right all this time!” He shook his head. “You made her out to be some kind of raving conspiracy theorist. She was just - just a kid! Younger than me!”

“Yes, but --”

“You didn’t think that I should have knonw, in all this time, that what Fi said was true? That there really was a Covenant, and that we were supposed to be helping them? That maybe even people might be dying because we weren’t there?”

Apparently in desperation, Molly had affected her “angry mom” face, her hands on her hips. “Actually, we don’t belong to “them” anymore. We haven’t for a long time.”

“Yeah, she told me that. And she said that it was you deserting them that made the things protecting us break down, and that dad couldn’t fight that ... thing without you. That’s why he died - because you wouldn’t help him!”

Molly went red, then white.

“I never,” she said in a harsh whisper, “Imagined that even they would stoop so low. To say something like that...”

“Tell me it’s not true, Mom.” this was said without emotion the first time, but the second, it was shouted. “Go on - tell me!”

Molly stared into her son’s eyes for an instant longer, and then looked away. She didn’t even bother to call to Jack as he stormed silently from the room.

It took Annie a moment to notice Jack standing in the doorway - although “looming” might have been a better description. It might just have been his quiet that threw her off, given that he usually knocked, or said her name, or made some noise to get her attention. The fact that he hovered respectfully in the doorway just waiting for her to notice him was downright bizarre. And when she finally did look up and meet his eyes, he flinched momentarily as if she’d caused him some pain. It was that apparent pain that made Annie get to her feet.

“Jack? Is something wrong?”

He stared at the floor, and then his eyes darted up to meet hers. “Want to go for a walk?” he asked. “I need to talk to you.”

Outside, the sun was setting, and the wind in the trees behind the house was almost deafening. At lest, it was until they passed under the trees - at that moment, a giant hand might have reached down and stilled the trees, because the wind fell all but silent. Jack turned to her once they were out of sight of the house.

“Annie, I - my mother lied to me. About a lot of things. And it’s started to make me wonder about a lot of things I grew up believing were true. One of them involves my dad, and me and Fi, and --”

“The Guardians?” Annie volunteered, and Jack stopped in his tracks, his shoulders tense.

“Yeah. them.” He turned to look at her, warring emotions in his eyes. “The Guardian - I mean Areahannah --” he shook his head, “She’s been telling the truth, I think, all this time, and...” he swallowed, “I think Fi was right. And that means that you were right, too.”

Annie stared. Such an admission from Jack was unheard of, especially when the admission was one of his own fault. And now he was searching her face for something - forgiveness?

“I made a mistake,” he finally blurted. “I was a jerk - I’m sorry.”

Then Annie found her voice. “Jack, I--” She closed her mouth, opened it, shook her head. “Forget it,” she said. “But what changed your mind?”

He stared at the ground. “Areahannah did. She told me some things. About my dad. At first, I didn’t believe her. But she said that if I needed proof, to ask Mom. I did.”

Annie saw his right hand clenching and unclenching, a sure sign that he was distraught.

“She couldn’t deny it. And...” He trailed off, eyes focused somewhere over her shoulder.

Annie reached out one hand to touch his arm. “What is it, Jack?” she asked softly. “What did she tell you?”

There was an uneasy moment of silence before Jack’s eyes snapped back to hers. “My mom always told us he died in a car accident, Annie,” he said, his voice shaking. “She told us it was an accident. But Fi never believed that. She said... she said that it had to be something more than that, otherwise why wouldn’t Mom talk about it, or about what Dad was like? She... she was right all along. He was murdered. My father was murdered, Annie! And she knew it all along and didn’t tell us! How can you not tell your own children that their father was murdered?”

He was shouting again now - and there were tears in his eyes. Annie was aghast. For a moment she just stood and listened: there was total silence surrounding them, as if Jack’s distress had quieted the forest itself.

“Jack,” she finally whispered, squeezing his arm. “Listen.”

Jack looked at her in surprise, and as he lifted his gaze to look around them, a tear escaped his eye, and ran down his cheek, mingling with the blood that was already there. Annie saw that and started.

“What happened?” Annie asked in soft concern, touching his face. Her fingers came away red with blood.

Jack touched his cheek. “Oh;” he said, staring numbly at his hand. Annie pulled out a tissue, and pressed it into his hand as they both listened to the silence. He wiped away the blood. “It happened when I talked to Mom,” he said. “One of her guitar strings snapped.”

They stood listening to the silence a moment more before he looked down at her. “It’s so quiet. I don’t understand.”

“I think it was you, Jack,” Annie whispered, afraid to disturb the silence. “You did it. I don’t know how, but...”

Jack looked at her. Annie fell silent, reddening. “Sorry,” she mumbled. “You probably think that was stupid.”

“No,” he said, quickly. “Not stupid. It’s just... a week ago I wouldn’t have even thought that could possibly be true, but now it...” he laughed bitterly. “Listen to me. I sound like Fiona.”

A sudden gust of wind suddenly tore past them, stealing their breath. When it subsided, Annie said: “Is that a bad thing?”

Jack looked down. “I don’t know anymore,” he said honestly. “Not long ago I would have answered you yes - but now that she might have been right. Annie, I don’t know.”

“Jack...” Annie took a deep, steadying breath. “You said that Fi believed the was something special about your family. What did she mean?”

For a moment his face froze in the old expression of scepticism, of unspoken ridicule. “If you think that means I’ve got some kind of magic powers...”

“Areahannah said that your family was part of some kind of Covenant. That you were one of a lot of families wo were their allies. What do you think that means?”

Jack looked uncertain, but Annie continued, seeing that he ws beginning to bend. “Areahannah just blipped into your room. You can’t tell me you don’t think there’s something... paranormal about her. Even you, Jack, can’t ignore that. She can do things. You know she can.”

He slowly shook his head. “Maybe,” he finally admitted. “But that doesn’t mean I--”

Annie pushed on, not letting his doubt gain any footholds. “And Areahannah said things about your mum and dad, and you know that at least part of that had to be true.”

Jack was standing in the uncomfortable silence of one who knows they’re being out- reasoned. Annie paused for a moment, and stepped forward just enough to force him to look her in the eye.

“And Jack, I know Fi can do it too.”

Jack started and fell back a few steps. “What -- how did you know about Fi?”

Annie held up her hand. The silver ring gleamed on her thumb. “When I first got here, Fi gave me this ring. She told me the carving had worn off.”

Jack peered at the ring. The carving was completely intact. “But--”

“I know - and when I put it on, the carving was perfect, fine, just as it should have been. Even though I could have sworn that the ring was blank when Fi took it off her hand.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Jack, it re-appeared when I put it on! Areahannah told us that Fiona had done something - cast some spell - to try to protect you and your mother. That it involved some kind of symbolic sacrifice on her part. What if Fi gave up her powers... whatever... in order to do it?”

“How would that change the ring?”

“Where did the rings come from, Jack?” Annie clenched her right fist in front of his face. He stared at it, and said in a hushed voice:

“Great-grandma Fiona gave them to my parents when they got married.” He dropped his eyes in a motion of surrender. “They’ve been in the family for centuries.”

Annie dropped her arm. “Jack, do you know what Fi once told me about you?”

He looked up. “What?”

“She said that if ever even half of what she believed about your family was true,” Annie laid a hand on Jack’s arm, “That you were probably a hundred times more powerful than she could ever be.”

Jack searched her eyes. “What are you saying?” he asked.

Annie tilted her head to one side. “Jack, when you walked outside, the wind was going miles an hour. When you lost your temper, it went dead still.”

“You’re saying I’m making the wind blow?”

“I’m saying you’re influencing the weather, somehow, some way. I can’t explain it - I only know that it’s true.”

Jack abruptly looked irritated again. “Annie, that’s bull! It - it’s insane!” He shook his head. “I can’t believe I let you coax me so far. Lead me. Damnit --”

“Jack...” Annie’s voice held a note of mild panic.

“...just like Fiona. I can’t believe I listened to you at all. This is all a pile of --”


“What?” He looked at her and stopped shouting just as a clap of thunder, followed closely by a blade of bright lightning, tore across the sky.

And then, with a blast of wind, it began to pour.

Jack looked up, and then at Annie. For her part, Annie had trouble keeping herself from laughing as he glared at her, rain dripping off the end of his nose.

“Oh, shut up.”

Chapter Three: Weathervane

Jack could fairly easily remember Fi’s dealings with Areahannah, only a short year or so ago, when Fi would vanish for a few days at a time and reappear either exhausted or elated, to collapse into bed and come down to breakfast the next morning as if nothing had happened. Jack hadn’t been sure, at the time, what was going on - only that his mother had decided to pretend that whatever was going on, wasn’t, and that Molly had quite determinedly decided to avoid any and all conversation on the topic. It had been both confusing and demoralizing, for the first few weeks of it, to see Fi appear on one of those mornings where she was excited, obviously having accomplished something she felt proud of, to begin a conversation with the words: “Guess what happened” or “Know what I did?” and to see their mother answer with only a stern, icy glare before falling into silence or in some cases, changing the subject altogether. It was the only time Jack had ever seen his mother behave that way, silence Fi with such a cold expression, and it had been disturbing to watch it, and almost as disturbing when on those days Molly would lavish the extra attention she had denied Fi on Jack himself. It didn’t happen often, he remembered, but it was terrible when it did - it had seemed at times as if Molly were a different person, behaving like a petty child who didn’t want to face an argument, but then returning to her normal patterns of behaviour, treating Fiona as normally and kindly as usual without any reference to the earlier incidents.

Jack had never been sure what to make of it - he had thought that maybe Fi had done something wrong, something embarassing that Molly didn’t want him involved in - but then why would Fi be so eager to share her infrequent news about whatever it was, and seem so downcast when her mother displayed such a definite, and almost disgusted lack of interest? There had been abundant theories among Jack, Clu and Carey as to the reasons, for everyone had noticed the every-now-and-then changes in Molly’s moods. Even Menopause had been suggested as a possible explanation - and after Jack had smacked Clu over the head for suggesting it, they had discounted that idea.

And then Jack had been at a loss, again, to explain the changes in his mother - it almost seemed as if she had been reminded, in Fi, of something she would rather not be reminded of, and almost resented her for it. Now, thinking back, Jack realized that that had, indeed, been the case.

He remembered meeting the Guardian for the first time, when he had been about Fi’s age - as the older sibling, she had come to him first, when he had been fifteen, but she had never laid out the explanations and the reasonings and the rules so simply for him as she had for Fiona - he supposed she had never had the chance. Molly had somehow known she was contacting him, and he had been much younger. There had been three meetings before Molly put an end to it. One, when he’d sighted her at one of his baseball games, and known, somehow, that there was something odd about her. The second, she had introduced herself to him backstage at one of Molly’s concerts as an old friend of his parents - Jack hadn’t been able to figure out how she’d gotten back there in the first place. It wasn’t until the third time that she had begun to tell him who she really was - but she had only gotten a few words in before Molly had appeared and ordered her to leave. Never before that moment had Jack ever seen hate in his mother’s eyes, or such desperate fear.

Molly had been afraid for him, as she was later for Fiona; it didn’t take a psychologist to see that some of his mother’s strange moods were rooted in some kind of smothered fear. At the time, he hadn’t been able to fathom why - he had never understood even to the degree of the mis-informed inkling he’d gained later until Areahannah had come to Fiona, and since Fiona had Called her, with a spell out of their father’s old “magic” book, Molly had not had the right to send her away again. (In fact, he gathered, now, that Molly had never had the right to send her away in the first place, really, when she’d come for him.) He hadn’t been present for the initial confrontation, but he did remember his mother’s face when she had stormed past him, away from the scene, afterward. And then he’d begun, he supposed, to build up some picture of the Guardian in his mind, some idea of who she was, which he now realized was at best biased on the basis of Molly’s anger, and at worst completely wrong. Now, all the tiny, incomplete facts he’d thought formed a real picture seemed hazy and insubstantial. He admitted it to himself now - that he had never really tried to understand beyond what he had incorrectly inferred. He supposed that he wanted someone to blame, just like his mother.

::Just like Mom,:: he thought bitterly to himself now, sitting on the back porch staring out into the trees, knees pulled up to his chin. ::I was pretty stupid.:: He sighed, leaning back into the swinging chair which was suspended from the roof by three chains. It creaked in protest, but he ignored it. ::I wonder if Fi ever knew that Areahannah came to me first? That there was a whole other level of this going on before she was even old enough to get it? Probably not.::

The storm from earlier was just now beginning to die down, just as he was. He dismissed the vague spark of excitement that line of thought caused - he wasn’t quite ready, yet, to face the possibility that he had magical powers or was able to control the weather. It was too much like something out of a comic book.

::And I don’t look anything like Ororo Munroe,:: he thought, rolling his eyes.

Another gust of damp wind tore past him, throwing dust and bits of dirt into his eyes, and he had to blink repeatedly until he could see again. When he looked up, eyes watering, he felt an odd shifting of... something, off in the distance beneath the trees. He craned his neck, trying to separate any recognizable shape or shadow from the black, green and brown of the trees, but there was nothing. At least not right away. A moment later, the strange sensation vanished, and Jack was left staring perplexedly off into the trees with less than no idea of what had just happened. He got to his feet, leaned against the railing of the porch, still staring off into the darkness. He was there when Annie came outside, closing the door gently behind her, and came to stand beside him.

When he paid her absolutely no heed, she touched his arm gently, and said: “Jack? What’s wrong?”

He started and looked down at her - she was beginning to be almost as adept at reading his body language as Fi was. When he shook his head a little and looked back toward the trees, she said: “Was it that weird flash? Did you feel it too?”

He looked down at her again - Annie never ceased to amaze him. “What do you mean, too? You felt something?”

Annie shrugged. “Something’s coming,” she said. “Whatever, whoever it was, it wanted us to know it was coming. That’s for sure.”

::What does she mean, “that’s for sure?”:: Jack just stared - he had an ascerbic remark right on the tip of his tongue, but stopped it just in time. Antagonism had no point right now. He simply shrugged, instead. Annie looked at him speculatively before turning to look into the trees as well, but he watched her for a moment, wondering if maybe the strange sensation he’d always felt around Annie, of being constantly watched, was some kind of magic, too. It was strange, certainly - especially since it had never seemed to originate from Annie herself (which would have at least made some sense, considering how Jack had treated her when she’d first arrived), but rather seemed as if there was someone else in the room with them. It had lessened over time, but for the first few months, there had been an almost hostile feeling behind whatever watching eyes were there. But as it had lessened, so had his sense of it being there at all, and he had eventually dismissed it as ridiculous, not only that he was being watched, but that he would be able to feel it even if he was.

But now he wasn’t so sure. It occurred to him now that he’d never thought to simply ask, either.

His thoughts were distracted by Annie suddenly tugging on his arm. “Jack, look!” She said it in a whisper, and Jack found himself feeling very glad that his mother wasn’t home. Because a strange man had just appeared from under the cover of the trees, and was walking across the lawn, clearly heading directly for them.

For some reason, Jack felt no apprehension, no instinct to run, or even to go back inside. He felt a strange sense of calm and expectancy, and instead watched the man approach. He was of average height; in fact, Jack was probably an inch or two taller than he was, and he hardly seemed bulky or even muscular beyond a healthy tone, though he was in reasonable shape. His hair was red-blond and totally at odds with his almost-black brown eyes and the olive tint to his skin. Jack would have thought he had someting distantly Native American in him, if not for his hair.

He also moved with a quiet, confident gait that scarcely seemed to disturb the ground he walked over - he hardly even seemed to leave footprints in the raindrops still hovering on the blades of grass on the lawn. If he did, Jack thought, the grass certainly sprung back up quickly enough. Jack was so engrossed in watching the man’s feet that he almost didn’t notice when he’d come near enough to speak. He was almost at the steps before Jack met his eyes.

“Jack Phillips?” he asked, with a good-natured yet cautious smile. “And I presume you’re Annie Thelen?” He had stopped at the foot of the steps, looking up at them.

Both Annie and Jack started, and Jack fell back a pace. “How do you know who we are?” Annie was the first to break through her surprise, and certainly she bore less traces of suspicion than Jack felt. The man looked at him then, though, and for some reason he couldn’t bring himself to distrust him.

The man cocked his head to one side as he regarded them both, but kept his eyes trained mostly on Jack. “I’m a... friend of Areahannah’s,” he said.

Jack would have raised an eyebrow if he hadn’t thought it would seem so obvious. The particular inflection the man put on the word “friend” made it clear that he and the Guardian were more than just that. But he quickly forgot that as the man took Annie’s hand, did a comical little bow over it that made her blush, and then grinned at her. “My name is Terren Kurk,” he said genially. He dropped Annie’s hand, and shook Jack’s amiably. “It’s good to meet you,” he said. “I’ve heard a lot about you.”

“From who?” Jack asked, narrowing his eyes slightly.

Terren started slightly, but barely noticably, at Jack’s reaction. “Why, Areahannah, and of course your sister.” He smiled. “She spoke pretty well of you.”

“You know Fi?” Annie asked.

He shrugged. “I know most of the current Delegates, at least the ones that visit as often as Fiona used to. It’s a pity she hasn’t come in such a long time.” He turned his eyes to Jack, then, who instantly read the vague intention that the man displayed so openly in his face.

Jack couldn’t suppress a glare. “Don’t get the idea that I’m going to replace her, just because I’m here,” he said acidly. He saw the instant surprise in the man’s face, and even a little hurt, and dropped his eyes, reddening a little. But he kept the hard tone in his voice, even if he dulled it a little. “I never said I was joining up.”

There was a moment of uneasy silence while Terren studied him, and Jack looked up to see something equating sympathy in his eyes. “No one ever said you had to, Jack,” he said quietly, shrugging. He sighed. “Look - to be honest, I probably shouldn’t be here. Arrah doesn’t know I’m here. And she’d probably skin me alive if she knew I was out lobbying on her behalf. But listen, kid...” he seemed to grope for words for a moment, and his eyes flicked to Annie. “Annie, could you excuse us for a moment? Please?” He flashed her a charming smile. “Don’t worry - I’m not excluding you - I just need to talk to Jack alone.”

Jack turned to look at Annie, who was only looking at Terren. She flushed pleasantly, then regained her composure and nodded. “No problem,” she said, and let herself back into the house.

Jack, less than impressed by the man’s charm, sat back down in his chair as Terren ascended to the porch and perched on the railing. “I never knew your father, Jack,” he began. Jack crossed his arms nonchalantly. It was a strange enough way to start a conversation. “All I know of him is what I get told by the others who were around back then - I didn’t become Circle until a few years ago, quite a bit after that particular chaos. But from what I understand of it, he was a good man, brave, honest, trustworthy, loyal... all the qualities that tend to be inherent in those of us who get chosen for the honor of risking our lives for the sake of the oblivious majority.” He chuckled. “It’s funny, I often think, that so many of us, especially those of us raised in families known to and knowing of the Circle, consider it such an honour to be chosen, even though taking on the job means that your life loses essentially any semblance of normality, predictability, and being part of the Circle means that your life can pretty much constantly be in danger. I won’t lie to you, kid - it’s a dangerous passtime, this life we lead. And most of us, especially the Eight themselves, the Guardians, don’t live to a ripe old age.” He stared at Jack until he uncrossed his arms. “But -- all that aside, it is an honour to be chosen. You know why?”

He obviously expected Jack to give some answer - what, Jack had no idea, and the expectancy in the man’s demeanor annoyed him for no reason. “No,” he said, striving the keep the petulance out of his tone. “Why?”

Terren smiled slightly. “Because,” he said slowly, “It means that you get to be part of something really important, really make a difference.”

“Why don’t you just join the Army, then? Or become a politician?” Jack couldn’t keep the cynicism out of his voice that time, and Terren chuckled.

“Valid questions, both,” he said. “Of course there are other reasons. But do you really not know what they are?”

Soundlessly, Jack stared at him, then shook his head. “Fi sure seemed to understand it. I don’t.”

Terren then looked at him, for a brief instant. There was a momentary sensation of something brushing over him, ever so softly, so soft that it wasn’t even tactile. It wasn’t even enough to make him jump. But then Terren was looking perplexedly at him again.

“What is that?” The question was muttered, but Jack heard it anyway.

“What is what?” Jack asked, confused that there was something going on on a level he obviously wasn’t privy to.

Terren’s eyes had been slightly out of focus, but they snapped back to awareness when Jack spoke. “There’s something very strange about you, Jack, and I think I just figured out what it is,” he said, a vague trace of anger apparent in his features. “Did your mother ever do anything, when you were little? A patterned touch on your hand, or on your face? Maybe when you were asleep?”

“What?” Jack was all at once irritated and confused, even as the words triggered memories of early childhood, of how his mother would soothe him to sleep that way. He looked at Terren. “How did you...”

Terren shook his head, then stepped forward, and gently but firmly seized Jack’s forearm. Before he knew what was happening, everything went hazy, and the world disappeared.

He was plunged into a warm, pleasant instant, and within a few seconds, he knew what it was. Cracking his eyes open, he saw his mother, more than a decade younger, sitting beside the bed, an open book on her lap. She looked at him fondly, and when she saw that he was asleep, she reached out and took his right hand, laying it in her lap. Then, with a frown of confliction, she traced some kind of pattern on his palm, over and over again.

She had done this countless times when he was little, to help him sleep, the best example of touch therapy Jack had ever known. It was what she had done when Jack had nightmares in the first months after his father’s death. He had never thought about it very much before - but now, as he watched, re-experienced it through more adult eyes, he could see his mother’s relaxed posture, the concentration in her puckered brow, and on another level he could sense something else - a flow of power, energy, pressure, between his mother and his younger self on the bed. She was doing something, building something, but what he couldn’t fathom. And slowly his sense of awareness slipped away as he drifted off to sleep...

He opened his eyes with a jolt, yanking his arm out of the older man’s grasp and leaping to his feet. Terren, for his part, squeezed his eyes shut and for a moment, leaned heavily into the nearest wall before he opened his eyes to look at the slightly-trembling Jack.

“What the hell did you do?” Jack demanded, half-accusing, half in awe.

Terren fell into a nearby chair. “I don’t suppose you’ve ever heard of Touch, hmm?”

Jack furrowed his brow. The capital letter was as audible as if Terren had written it in the air. “No.”

“Well, that’s my thing,” said Terren. “It’s what I do - I can... invoke memories, sometimes, see through the eyes of others, or just help them to see. Or I can see through the eyes of a person who last touched an inanimate object, if the emotions tied to the event are strong enough.” He rubbed his closed eyelids, then looked at Jack again. “But damn, she’s done something strong to your Gift, Jack.”

Again, the capital letters were audible. Jack sat back down in the suspended chair. “Who’s done something? What do you mean?” he asked, even though he was fairly certain that he knew exactly what Terren meant.

Terren sighed. “You’re not going to want to hear this, Jack, but your mother did something... blocked your Gift somehow, so that you couldn’t use it, couldn’t consciously sense it... it explains a lot. I expect she thought she was protecting you.” Another sigh. “I don’t know your mother very well, Jack, but I think she’s a lot like someone I know.” He scowled briefly. “Unfortunately, I’m not a Healer like our dear Katia, just a doctor, and probably not technically even that, anymore. It’s been a long time.” He grinned lopsidedly. “So I’m afraid there’s not much I can do to help. You’d have to have someone who’s better at this, or stronger, which I’m not. You might be able to do it yourself.” He sighed a third and final time. “But of course, that’s your choice, too.”

Jack sat still, considering the implications of all that. His mother had done something to his mind? To protect him? To block him? It sounded like something his mother might do, even something he might have done in a less-than-reasonable state of mind. And his mother couldn’t have been in a particularly rational state of mind during that period.

Terren interrupted his train of thought, saying: “Gifts, or Talent, or whatever you want to call it with whatever various capitalizations, are usually inherited from parent to child, Jack. And given that both your parents had some measure of a Gift... it was an almost iron-clad certainty that at least one of you would have something, too. And it’s hardly surprising that both of you do.”

Jack shook his head. This was simply too much for him to process right now. And he could feel the old Jack - strange, that he was beginning to think of his admittedly rigid former mindset at the “old Jack” - rearing his head in the back of his mind, pushing a wave of annoyance and frustration across his mind. He covered his face with both hands. “Look,” he said, looking up. “I don’t want to be rude, or anything, but --”

“I know, it’s a lot to process,” Terren said unexpectedly, laying one hand on his shoulder. “If you’d rather I left you to think for a while - given that I’m not really even supposed to be here...”

Jack nodded almost gratefully. Terren nodded and dropped his hand, and turned to leave, but stopped halfway down the steps, and turned back. “Say goodbye to Annie for me, will you?” Jack nodded, and Terren winked at him, then set off across the lawn.

For some reason, Jack didn’t find it strange that the older man intended to wander off on foot back into the woods, in the middle of the night, to return to wherever he’d come from. It only ocurred to him a few minutes later, after he’d felt a repeate of the same sensation he’d felt that must have been Terren’s initial appearance, that maybe he couldn’t move about the way Areahannah did, and had to come and go some other way. He had said that she was more powerful than he was - or had he?

Jack shook his head bemusedly. He was feeling the beginnings of a headache, and he went back inside, in search of some asprin and some really meaningless television program to dull the clanking and rushing of the train of thought inside his head. He didn’t want to think about this until tomorrow.

Chapter Four: Guarded Green

He could only just remember it, if he tried hard enough, grasping after the disjointed fragments of memory as they floated on the edges of thought. The memory came slowly and in pieces as he concentrated on it - a sensation of distant warmth, of bright light behind a closed door, so that he could only see, it, feel it, shining through the cracks at the edges. Voices behind the door, first quiet, hushed, then gradually louder, arguing in that harsh whisper that people use when they are trying to be quiet but also be louder than whoever they’re speaking to. The door was slightly open, just a crevice, really, so that the baby could be heard, should she cry. Open, he could push it, silent on its hinges, until he could see inside.

His mother and father, a decade younger, stnding in the middle of the room. She had her back to him, arms crossed, expression angry, hurt, afraid. As he watched, his father put a hand on each of her shoulders, placatingly, lovingly, trying to soothe her. He put his arms around her, kissed her hair, and for a moment it seemed it would work, but then she shrugged him off, spun around.

He couldn’t hear the words - that is, he could hear them, but they were garbled, seeming far away and high above his head. He saw her mouth the words “How dare you?” and then the rest of the tirade was lost in confusion. He couldn’t really understand the conversation, but he understood the moods of them both, the postures, the expressions. He was doing something, or had done something, that she didn’t want him to do. Something that scared her. It scared him, too, but he was held by a deeper calm that said he knew it had to be done anyway.

Finally, he sighed, held out his hands quietly in defeat. She smiled, the security of victory playing over her features, and let him take her in his arms. As he held her, though, Jack saw the expression on his face - he had lied, and though the guilt of the lie was hurting him, the certainty was still there, of what he knew he had to do. His eyes flickered off somewhere, mind elsewhere.

For a moment, that seemed like a conclusion, but he found momentarily that it was only a moment of transition - for that was when he saw him in the doorway, and the embrace was broken as his mother turned, and sighted him as well. She put a hand to her mouth in surprise, and then she stepped forward, gathering him in her arms, and with scarcely a backward glance, carried him off down the hall, toward his bed, as if trying to hide him from something she feared was coming.

His mother didn’t see it - but faced to the door as he was, he both saw and felt it as his father turned his head, and there was some kind of motion, and with that instant he realized that there was someone else - two someones - present in the room. One of them, dark and smooth and looming, was invisible to his eyes - the other, the source, he was sure, of that distant warm and light he had sensed, stepped out from behind the door in the form of a small, dark-haired girl with brilliant green eyes. She stood beside his father, peering around the door at his mother’s retreating back, an expression of guarded pain and worry on her face. Just before the picture was lost to the darkness, she dropped her face, and disappeared.

Sweating, gasping for breath, Jack sat bolt upright, hands tangled in the sheets. ::A nightmare. It was only a nightmare.:: He spent several moments trying to convince himself of that, waiting for the images to dissipate, to fade away into distance as nightmares tend to do, but when that didn’t happen, he threw off the sheets and got out of bed. Moving over to his dresser, he stood staring into his own eyes in the mirror.

::No. Not only a nightmare. Not only anything.::

He had felt small in the dream - was it a memory? Something he’d so long forgotten or wanted to forget that he’d seen, because of what his mother had done, maybe, or because he’d been afraid of what it might mean.

The girl was Areahannah - she had to be. He’d seen the Guardian, much younger, with his father. Had his mother known she was there, while they were arguing? No - or she wouldn’t have been so easily placated.

He had remembered the night o fhis father’s death before - but he had never remembered that. And now, Jack was sure of the memory - that was the night. Before, it had always begun and ended with the police coming to the door, so early it was still dark, and raining. His memory of that night, that day, had been limited to his mother’s view of things - which in retrospect, he now realized, explained a lot. He had been just old enough to feel what everyone around him felt, but not old enough to understand, to sort through the tangled mess of emotions of those first few weeks.

But even though his younger self had been so smothered and lost in the reactions of everyone else, Jack remembered, now, that there was in some way, a greater sense, understanding of something else. Like having learned a second language and then lost his first - he had a vague remembrance of soft touches, quiet words, songs that as an infant and even a toddler he had felt rather than heard. For a long time he had dismissed the significance of those half-memories as something mis-understood through the only partially-developed senses of a very young child. But now...

:;Damn it, what did she do to me?::

Now the memories seemed clearer, maybe more accessible, maybe because of what Terren had done to him, let him see. Now he could more clearly remember what it had been like, to see, hear, feel with more than just his eyes, and ears and sense of touch. He remembered feeling so much more, more easily - and as he thought about it more, considered it, remembered it, filling in the gaps with words and pictures, the more angry he became.

He felt violated. Infuriated. His mother had taken from him something he had been born with. She might as well have cut out his eyes, or cut off his legs. The idea that he had been shut off from a world taht he’d had a right to see... and that then she had gone a step further, and pushed him further and further away from that world, until eventually he’d forgotten that it had ever been there, that he had ever known it, until he didn’t want it anymore. something he’d been born to, been meant to have, to be able to do - it was worse than dishonesty, worse than abuse. It was brainwashing.

::She took it away from me. Manipulated me. Who the hell does she think she is?::

Shaking with anger, he slammed his fists hard enough into the top of the dresser to make the mirror rattle. At the same time, pain shot up both his arms, into his shoulders.

Rubbing his arms to get the tingling to stop, he stumbled back, fell onto the bed. He was sitting like that, still shaking, face in his hands, when a timid knock made the door creak open.

He knew it was Annie - they were the only ones in the house. Everyone else had gone to a gig at a club a few hours away, and wouldn’t be back until tomorrow. He also knew he was crying, but he didn’t care - he was too angry to be embarassed.

He heard her turn on the desk lamp, and dim light shone through his fingers. He didn’t acknowledge her, though, until he felt her weight settle next to him on the bed. Then he wiped his eyes with a fold of his t-shirt, and looked at her. She looked worried - her hair was mussed, and she was wrapped in a thick robe several sizes too big for her.

Annie took in the rumpled bedclothes, the scattered objects on the dresser, and then met his eyes. “Did you have a bad dream, Jack?” she asked, with none of the half-mocking tone he would have expected.

He shook his head. “Not exactly,” he said, his anger draining out of him in the face of her concern.

“Then what’s wrong?” she asked. “Aside from the obvious, I mean.”

Jack breathed a heavy sigh. “He was right, Annie,” was all he said.

She shook her head, not understanding. “You mean Terren? Right about what?”

Jack raked damp black curls out of his face. “Fi’s always had this sort of... thing about her, Annie,” he said, eyes turned skyward as if the answer was there. “That thing that drives her to do what she does all the time - to chase after all the stuff I always thought was stupid, to believe in it no matter what anybody else told her. I guess you could say faith. That’s what he called it.”

He laughed briefly, a short bark of bitter laughter, and looked at her. “I could never understand it. And he... he tried to explain it to me, Annie. He tried to explain to me why they do it - why they follow her, the... Circle...” Jack threw his hands up in the air. “It was like watching someone try to explain light to a blind man. It was... I don’t know. Maybe I just didn’t get it. But he tried. And maybe it did make sense. Just not to me. And then he looked at me, and said that the reason I couldn’t get it was because Mom did something to me... blocked my Gift, he said. Closed it off so I couldn’t use it, somehow.”

He looked at her again, and there was pain in his eyes. “He showed it to me, Annie. How she did it - whatever she did. How she covered it up, inside my head, somehow, so I couldn’t use it anymore. And then I started to remember what it was like before - the stuff I could see and hear when I was little that I always thought I’d imagined. But it was real, Annie!” He pounded his fists into the bedspread. “It was real! It was all real! And Fi was right all along, and Mom lied to me! She not only lied, but she fixed it so I couldn’t find out! She... she...”

The silence lengthened until it was uncomfortable. “She probably thought she was protecting you, Jack,” Annie said, but there was very little certainty in her voice. Jack shook his head.

“That’s what he said. But it didn’t give her any right! And even if it’s true, then why me and not Fi? Why change me and not her?”

Annie shrugged helplessly. “I don’t think even that would have stopped Fi anyway, Jack,” she said. “It’s just... you were older. Maybe she thought Fi wouldn’t remember.”

Jack’s shoulders sagged, his eyes on the floor again. “When you first met Areahannah, Annie, what did you feel?”

Annie was momentarily confused. “Feel?”

“Yes, feel. What did you feel? Everyone gets a feeling the first time they meet someone. What did you feel?”

Annie looked contemplative for a moment, and then her eyes were distant. “It was... it was different than anything else I’d ever felt, Jack,” she said finally. “It was like she was... not just what she looked like. Like she was just the shell for something brighter and huge. It was like...” Annie seemed momentarily lost for words. “I don’t know how to describe it.”

Jack nodded solemnly. “I remember that, Annie,” he said quietly. “When I was really little, I remember - the night Dad died, she was there. And I felt that. I felt her. I was little, though - I guess it was something I didn’t think to question. Why would I? But... from what I remember... maybe that’s why I couldn’t understand.” He shook his head. “It’s been so long... maybe I’ve forgotten how to believe in anything.”

He was so surprised, then, to hear her laugh, that all he could do was stare at her in shock. “What’s so funny?” he demanded with wounded pride.

She just threw her arms around his neck and hugged him, to his immense surprise. “If Fi could see you now, Jack,” she laughed. “You should know better - you can’t forget something like that. Not completely.” She sat back and looked soberly at him. “You’ll just have to learn again.”

Chapter Five: It Rained

It was raining.

It seemed that water was all around her, and it streamed down her face and arms and ran into her eyes - she couldn’t see past the amorphous blurs of trees and branches and the undergrowth that shadowed ominously beneath her feet, trying to trip her up. She swiped at her watering eyes, trying to clear them, to let her see.

It was coming.

She couldn’t be sure of what it was, even though she could feel it at her heels, and feel its hot, greedy breath on the back of her neck. Any second now, she would trip, and it would catch her, and...

She gasped as it swept past her with a wash of foul-smelling air. And then she did stumble, and as she went head-over-heels into the brush and the mud, she found it only a little strange that she felt no pain.

She hauled herself to her feet - it didn’t want her! It was after someone else.

::No!:: A sob rose up from somewhere deep inside her as she broke into a stumbling run again, her breath coming in short gasps. But she still felt no pain, only an aching terror that something terrible was about to happen.

He was ahead of her, so far ahead of her - he didn’t even know she was there - she wondered if she actually was. She could feel its anticipation as it neared him, laughing at his attempts to fend it off. She could feel those attempts, drawing power from beneath their feet and throwing it, burning, into the air. She could sense the flow of fire-bright energy and life between him and the ground and the pools of magic, far below. She could sense it beginning to run out...

::No! Not yet!::

She tried to run faster - but even as she neared them she knew that it would be too late. She heard a scream - his scream. The sob escaped, hovering in the night air as she ran past. And then she was crying, sobbing, pleading with something, anything, anyone, to STOP THIS...

He was running again - certain, somehow that he would never escape. Firm in his decision to fight it to its end or his, thoughts of his wife and children on the surface of his desperate thoughts. He was running, and now she could hear his feet crunching on gravel, stumbling, falling to his knees, and then getting to his feet and opening the door of a car...

The squeal of the car’s tires as it sped out of the parking lot and onto the deserted highway could have been heard for miles. Every sound seemed somehow amplified, maybe by the atmosphere of the released power nearby. And then there was darkness, and she stood on the edge of the road, blinking in the glare of the streetlights. The sound of the car approaching was from the left - she looked, and saw it coming, swerving - it was there, in the car with him, next to him, whispering in his ear, its fingers around his throat, revelling in the last moments...

There was a stomach-twisting upheaval of the world around her, and she fell to her knees, lifting her face and cursing the unreality of the dream - she couldn’t feel it, only knew that it was there, the pain, the incomparable PAIN as he died, as his soul was torn from his body...

There was a squeal, and a crash, and then another crash. The sound of honking penetrated her brain. She thought that she should have been able to smell smoke. She looked up.

She saw the car - no; she saw him. She saw it, then - and she saw it smile before it disappeared--

There was no overt sign that she had woken, though if anyone had been present they might have seen her body jerk as she was startled from her dream. She was lying still now, covers pulled tightly over her shoulders, which were trembling.

Fiona was crying, her face buried in the pillow. She was sobbing with exhaustion and confusion and hurt - this was hardly the first time she’d had this dream. In fact, since she’d moved in with her aunt, she’d been having it with more and more frequency. In the past week, it had been every night, and every night it became clearer, more detailed. Every night she woke up feeling the pain of what she’d seen in the dream and was unable to get back to sleep until the sun rose. Every night she sobbed into her pillow until the trembling subsided, until she was able to think clearly enough past the hurt to concentrate on lying still again.

She’d learned early on not to tell her aunt about her dreams - they only worried her, and when there was nothing she could do, anyway, Fi felt guilty for bringing it to her. Now she lay in the dark, slightly calmer and staring at the ceiling, covers still pulled up to her chin.

“This isn’t really fair, you know,” she whispered into the darkness with a rough voice. “It’s not fair you’re pulling all this on me now. Why explain it all to me now? Why not...” She stopped as a new sob rose up in her throat, swallowed it down, and took a deep breath. “I turned it off, okay? I closed the door, took myself out of the game, whatever. I gave up all... I gave up so much for it. And for all that I’m still seeing this? Why?”

Fi wasn’t sure exactly who she was talking to, only that she was heartsick and sleep-deprived and desperately wanted an explanation. Seeing her father’s death every night for months, in ever-increasing detail, seemed hardly fair compensation for taking the risk she had in giving up all her ties to the Circle in favour of protecting her family. She’d been so sure, at the time, that what she’d done was the right thing. So absolutely certain.

::Then again...::

Bricru was hardly one to be trusted. Quite the contrary... Fi bit down a surge of bitterness and hatred - whatever Bricru was, it had been at the very least involved in whatever had happened to her father. Was it possible that he had simply wanted a way to render her helpless? Powerless? No, because she had sensed the change when she’d done that spell - felt the walls rise around her, Jack, her mother. She was sure that she had accomplished at least that much. But if she had given up her Gift, then why was she still having these dreams? She hadn’t been there - she couldn’t be remembering - could she? No... it had to be something else...

Fi covered her face with her hands, sighing. She had wanted to solve problems, not create them. And...

She paused as a strange, non-existent pressure washed over her, up and down her spine - something was wrong. Very wrong. She remembered that feeling, and it was never good. She didn’t wonder how she was feeling it, but she leapt to her feet and was halfway to her dresser before she realised several things - one, she was thousands of miles from home, and whatever she was feeling... even if it involved her family, she was hardly in a position to do anything about it. Two, she had cut all contacts with the Circle, and she had never told Arrah what she’d done, only left home. The Guardian, she reflected, couldn’t have been overly pleased. Third, and maybe most important, it was three-thirty in the morning, and she didn’t have a car.

Fi stood in the middle of the room, cursing the inconvenient nature of space and time. Then her computer started beeping.

True to form, Fi took the distance between bed and desk in a single leap, and noted the unusual icon blinking in the corner of the screen - a simple dark-coloured ring. A circle.

She stared at the screen for several seconds before the significance registered, and then, with a muttered curse, double-clicked the circle icon and read the message, in simple block letters, that appeared on the suddenly-black screen.

Tha feum againn dha’a’thusa. Tha mi feith an taobh a muigh.

Fi blinked some more. That was Gaelic, she was sure - but it was in Scots Gaelic, the language the Circle tended to use in messages like this. While she’d spent a few months deciphering messages sent to her in that tongue, her very small amount of expertise in Gaelic was still limited to Irish, rather than Scottish.

She muttered to herself, trying to figure out what it meant, while ignoring a nagging voice that told her she’d gotten behind in studying, gotten lazy.

“Tha,” she said out loud. That meant... it meant... it meant am, or is, or... it was an affirmative. Thusa was the dependent form of “you”. But that word in the middle... it had to be a verb, she knew, for the sentence to make any kind of sense...

With a sigh of surrender, she took down the Gaelic/English dictionary from the shelf, and flipped through the F section in search of the word. Finding the correct page, she skimmed down with her finger until she found it.

“Need,” she said out loud. Then she looked back at the screen, feeling it all click into its proper place. “We need you.” The second part of the sentence she had seen before, and needed no translation. “I’m waiting outside.”

Drawing in a hasty breath, Fi set down the book and hurried to get dressed.

Sneaking out through the window at home, or the window of her room on the tour bus, was something Fiona had done so often in recent years that she’d had it down to a science - an easy science. Slipping out the window here proved, however, to be somewhat more difficult. She was on the second floor, for one thing, and although there was a handy oak tree leaning fairly close to the edge of the roof, it had been raining and the roof was probably slippery.

Fi sighed for what she guessed would not be the last time that night, and peeled off her socks, tucking them in her pocket. Her shoes she tied together by the laces and slung over her shoulder. Then she pushed open the window, clambered over the windowsill, and stepped out onto the sloping roof.

She stopped to close the window, peering inside one last time as she did to make sure the note she’d left her aunt was propped against the pillow just right - just noticable for someone to see it if they ripped the bed apart looking for her, and just unobtrusive for someone to miss it if they just walked in and didn’t find her first try. Fi rolled her eyes skyward as she crept across the roof, imagining what Jack would say if he could see her now. It probably would be less than flattering.

She reached the edge of the roof with little mishap and reached out toward the nearest branch of the massive oak, a sturdy-enough looking one that was just a little bit out of her reach. She found herself glad she’d come out barefoot, even if it was rather cold, because the leap she had to make to gain proper footing would have slipped if she’d been wearing shoes. For a moment, Fi clung to the branch, eyes closed, and then she cracked open one eye to look down. Berating herself for stupidity, she then opened both eyes and resolved to keep them pointed anywhere but down at where the ground was shifting unpleasantly back and forth.

She got halfway down the tree before it happened - she reached a branch that seemed only just sturdy enough, only planning to be there long enough to make the reach to the next one, a few feet below her. But the branch chose that inopertune moment to decide that it didn’t feel like carrying her weight anymore - it snapped, and Fi got the wind knocked out of her by the branch below on her way down. She just managed to catch onto the same branch with now-aching fingers, and dangled dangerously in the air, only vaguely noting that her shoes had preceded her to the ground. She was just starting to panic, and wondering how she was going to get down from the tree before her fingers grew tired and she got down the hard way, when a voice called up from below.

“Fiona? That you?”

Fi breathed a huge sigh of relief - she wasn’t sure why. “No, Terren, I’m just really big kitten. Gimme a hand?”

She heard him chuckling quietly somewhere below her. “You’re not that far up, you know. If you let go, you probably wouldn’t even be bruised.”

She glared downwards, not even sure that he could see her in the dark, but he must have sensed just how un-impressed she was with that idea, because he gave a mock-sigh. “If you can get down to that branch just underneath you,” he suggested, “you can drop from that one, and I’ll catch you.”

Fi pondered that for a moment, and squinted down at the branch. It wasn’t that far down, she decided, and reached out with one foot to find a foothold big enough to hold her. She made it down to the branch, after a few scrapes and near-misses, and then dangled again, the only difference being that she was now a bit closer to the ground. She felt Terren touch her bare foot.

“You can drop, now,” he said.

More than a little uncertain about the wisdom of this plan, but lacking anything better, she let go.

Probably less than a second later, Terren caught her. To his credit, he stumbled a bit, but managed to stay upright. He grinned at her in his arms. “Hi,” he said cheefully.

Fi raised an eyebrow as he set her down in the damp grass. “Hi,” she said. “Am I missing something? Or are you awfully cheerful for having called me out on an alert? Speaking of which...”

Terren interrupted her flow of questions. “I know, I know, you gave up your powers. You do know that doesn’t mean you aren’t part of the Circle anymore, don’t you? Or did you think that only Gifted get to be part of our little club?”

He was watching her with a raised eyebrow and what she suspected was carefully-concealed annoyance and even a little hurt. But he was keeping it well-hidden, just waiting for her to answer.

“I...” she faltered. “I guess I thought...” She dropped her eyes. “Sorry. I thought I was doing the right thing.”

“Yeah, well...” he seemed to consider, and then opened his arms to her. “You’re forgiven, brat. But don’t pull that kind of crap again, all right?”

Fi smiled weakly and hugged him back. Then she stepped back and looked at him. “I’m forgiven? Really? I thought...”

“You’re not in trouble, Fi. It’s volontary, remember?” He laughed. “We started to think you didn’t like us anymore.” He affected an expression of mock-hurt that held a tone or two of the actual sentiment. “We were a bit worried, to tell the truth. And you’ve still got some explaining to do... to Arrah.”

Fi flinched. “I know. I--”

He interrupted again. “Not that I don’t think she already knows all about it, but... you know how she is...” Terren shared a conspiratorial wink with her, and then looked down at her feet. Fi looked as well.

“Oh; I dropped them when I fell. They should be around here somewhere.”

He nodded and turned away to search around one side of the tree, while Fi looked on the other.

“Just out of curiosity - you did call me out here for a reason, right?”

“Yup,” was all he said. Fi rolled her eyes.

“So... if it’s not an emergency, which it’s obviously not, what is going on?”

“Ah hah!” Terren emerged from the rosebushes, somewhat the worse for wear, holding her sneakers by the knotted laces. He handed them to her, and then put a finger to his lips. “It’s a surprise,” he said. “And a secret.” He waited for her to put her shoes back on before continuing, taking her arm and setting off, Fi presumed, down the street towards the smallish wooded area a few blocks away, where she knew there was a Gate - these were the portals, usually carved in stone, and were the method by which which the Guardians and their contemporaries travelled from place to place.

Most of the Guardians could do that really disturbing thing where they appeared out of nowhere and disappear the same way, but that particular method of travel was, according to Areahannah, extremely tiring and in any case, very few others could do it. The doors were always carved in something solid, always stood in isolated areas (in some of the strangest and most unlikely spots), and some even had stone or wood filling the space where in a normal door, there would have been empty space. But with little more than mysterious muttering and some effort, they always opened to where you wanted them to. Fi still couldn’t figure out how they worked.

“A surprise?” she asked as they walked, passing out of the light of the last streetlights. “What are you talking about?”

Terren smiled. “I’ll tell you on the way.”

Chapter Six: Burning Bridges

Molly Phillips, widow and mother of two, had been having trouble sleeping for almost fifteen years.

It was the kind of thing you’d expect to develop after a person lost her husband and her faith in the same night, left with two young children who had no idea who or what their father had really been. Molly had made sure of that. She had made equally sure that neither her son nor her daughter would ever know. Or at least, she thought she had.

The precautions she had taken with Jack - the building of external shields, protections around him when he was very young, had, over time, blocked the abilities, inherited from his mother and father, that would have become apparent in later years. She had been certain, at the time, that she was protecting her children. She had done what she believed was the right thing. Fiona, at that age, had not displayed any evidences that she had inherited the same senses as her brother. And over time, as Jack’s development slowed and eventually stopped, Molly had almost forgotten about it. They had both grown into healthy, normal young people. Or at least that was what she had believed, until Fiona turned twelve and learned to use her computer, the internet, learned to start asking questions, learned to start wondering what, exactly, had really happened on that night.

Fi had only been about two when Rick had died - she had been asleep the whole night, and she couldn’t possibly have remembered anything about it. That had been another brick in Molly’s complacency - she had let herself get too secure, let herself believe that things were safe. That they were safe. Never mind Areahannah’s warnings, even before Rick’s death, that drawing away into safety could put her and her children into more danger than living the life she had previously chosen, the life with no certainty, with no security. Molly had scoffed at the girl after Rick’s first accident, not believing or not wanting to believe her. She had been cruel, she knew that, and the girl had been so young at the time. Areahannah had been given the world at the age of fifteen, and Molly hadn’t thought her capable of dealing with it. Even on the rare occasions when her “mission” seemed at all genuine. Most of the time, Molly had harboured a suspicion that all of Areahannah’s warnings and suspicions were nothing but well-fleshed-out conspiracy theories. That the whole thing was little more than an elaborate hoax perpetrated out of boredom, if not something worse.

After she’d left them, she’d made Rick promise to do the same. They’d fought over that, for weeks, for months, him accusing her of abandonment while she accused him of childishness, of disloyalty to their family. Maybe it was her anger and her fear and her spite in the wake of his incident that had finally forced him to make the promise she’d known it pained him to make. He’d said he was making a sacrifice - she’d said he was avoiding one.

When she’d made him promise, she supposed that she’d never really considered the consequences. It had never ocurred to her (or at least, if it had, she’d swiftly dismissed the thought) that if something happened, if “they” needed him, if Areahannah asked him to, he’d go back to them. That he’d feel obligated to go back to them, no matter what he’d promised his own wife. She supposed that she’d never really understood his devotion to them, to the child Areahannah had been, to their cause. She’d known when they’d gotten married that he’d give his life for them, if the need arose. She’d known it. But maybe she hadn’t really understood it.

No; that wasn’t true. The same had once been true about Molly, too.

::I got scared, I guess,:: Molly sipped from a steaming mug that contained, ridiculously enough, warm milk with a dusting of nutmeg. She’d never hear the end of it if Irene found out she was resorting to warm milk, now, to get to sleep. But her manager didn’t really understand, and never had. Rick had only been her friend, as he had been Ned’s friend. And as long as they’d known him, they’d never really known the truth about him, or Molly.

::And they never bloody will.::

After Rick’s death, Molly had swept her children into a haze of attention and diversion, hoping to distract them from the sorrow that at that age, they were still able to evade to some degree. Jack had suffered nightmares, but after time, they’d passed, and things had started to settle down into something resembling normal. The crisis was over - but Rick was still gone. They were safe - but Rick was still gone. It would never happen again, but Rick was still gone.

It always came back to that. It always would, she knew - every thought terminated with some echo of that sentiment. Rick was still gone. Rick was still dead. He had still died for something stupid, and childish, and non-existent...

::Stop,:: she firmly told herself, as her eyes began to mist up. It didn’t matter, anymore, why or how Rick had died. Just that he was gone, and she had to move on.

She had been moving on for almost twenty years, now.

And now there was that nagging doubt, that growing fear, that maybe she had been at least half wrong. It wasn’t over. They weren’t safe. Things were going wrong again.

::And it’s ALL HER FAULT...::

Biting her tongue to keep an infuriated and pain-filled sob from escaping, she slammed the mug down onto the low coffee table, milk slopping over the edge onto the smooth, polished wood. Molly cursed and intercepted the puddle of milk with the sleeve of her robe before it could gain the floor.

::What am I going to do?:: she wondered, letting now lukewarm milk seep into her sleeve. Her face felt hot and flushed with panic, anger, grief, embarassment - what could she do, really, if now even Jack had chosen to go his father’s way? Fi had been going that way for a long time - Molly had seen it coming and had been unable to stop it, unable to see the abilities growing inside her daughter that she hadn’t seen early enough to stop, as she had in Jack. And even Jack... she’d been so sure, when she’d forbidden Areahannah to return, years ago when she had first come for Jack, that it had been ended, finally. There had been little argument, just fury and hurt in the Guardian’s eyes. Jack hadn’t understood enough of what she’d said to remember it later, or so she’d thought. It had been bare minutes before Molly found her, standing backstage, talking to her son. And she had stopped it. She had been so certain that she’d stopped it.

She had been wrong.

Molly cursed again and slammed one fist into the hardwood table, regretting the action an instant later when pain shot up her arm. Well, she certainly knew where Jack had gotten his temper from.

::Fi thought I didn’t know what she’d done - she thought I had no idea what was going on when she came and told me she was leaving, and Annie was staying. She thought I didn’t know that she had given up - everything - the thing that connected her to Rick, made her a part of him. At least she grew up knowing what it was like to see through more than just two eyes and ears. At least she understood what it felt like...:: Molly bit her lip. She had always felt more than a little guilty for what she had done to Jack - of course, she’d told herself that she was doing the right thing, the safe thing, to keep him from danger and the Circle’s reach. But had she been denying him something worth so much more than his safety? Had she, perhaps, done it out of selfishness, wanting only, out of shock and grief and spite, to sever any connection between herself, her children, and the Circle? Maybe. Maybe it had been her greatest mistake. If nothing else, she had certainly thought she’d burned all her bridges behind her.

Fi had always understood - though she certainly didn’t approve. She had been gone long before she’d left home. That was Molly’s own fault, she knew. But what could she really do? The damage had been done, and apologies were impossible now. Even if it had been a long time, she still blamed the Circle, blamed Areahannah for what had happened, for all the hurt, and the interferences. She still wanted to hate her, wanted it to be her fault, even though she’d only been a child...

::I never asked her,:: Molly admitted to herself, quietly, in the back of her thoughts. ::I didn’t care. And I still don’t... do I?::

Molly sighed, tears welling up in her eyes. ::It isn’t fair,:: she thought, for the umpteenth time in twenty years. ::It wasn’t fair. To any of us. I wasn’t finished being happy, to have it all be taken away like that... I hadn’t even started yet...::

The sound of socked feet padding down the hall, toward the door behind her, made Molly sit up straight and try to dab the tears out of her eyes. She turned and saw Annie appear in the doorway, wearing an oversized t-shirt and a pair of flannel pants a few sizes too big for her. She rubbed her eyes sleepily, and looked at her. “You’re back,” she said, her voice thick with sleep.

“Did I wake you up?” Molly asked, hoping her brief attack on the table hadn’t been heard by the entire household.

Annie shook her head and came a few steps into the room, leaning on the back of the couch. “No; I got up to go to the bathroom and your robe wasn’t on my doorknob anymore. I figured you’d gotten back and reclaimed it.” She grinned lopsidedly. “Sorry I keep stealing your stuff.”

“Don’t worry about it, Annie,” said Molly. “It doesn’t matter.” She turned back to the window she’d been staring out of so morosely, and Annie followed her gaze.

“It’s a pretty view, especially at night,” she remarked casually, and then asked: “When did you get back?”

“About three hours ago,” Molly answered, not looking away from the huge window. “I couldn’t sleep.”

“Ah,” Annie said wisely. “Mind if I ask why not?”

The tone was still casual, but Molly’s head snapped around to look sharply at the girl. Annie, however wasn’t even looking at her, her gaze fixed still on the world outside the window. Still, there had been something about the question...

“No; just too tired to sleep, you know? And I was wired from the show.”

Annie nodded. “I know. It’s hard to sleep when you’re worried.”

Again, the tone was casual, but Molly could just feel the ulterior motive lurking behind the words. “What makes you think I’m worried?” she asked, striving to keep her voice even.

Annie shrugged. “Never said you were,” she said. “I’m just saying... sometimes, when you worry too much about something you can’t change, you end up worrying about things that might not even be true. Even things that you think are bad but not might be as bad as you think. Worrying messes up your mind, and keeps you from thinking straight. Kind of like being scared, you know?”

Molly said nothing, but Annie quickly shrugged, turned to her, and kissed her on the cheek. “It’s pretty late - I’m going back to bed. Just wanted to say good night.”

Molly gave her a quick hug. “Good night, Annie,” she said as the girl stood up and headed for the door. She stopped a last time before disappearing down the hallway, turned her head.

“Don’t worry, Molly,” she said, a half-smile on her face along with some sympathy. “It’ll be okay.”

Molly sat in silent confusion after Annie left, then finally turned back to stare out the window. If Annie shared any similarities with Fiona, it was that both of them tended to seem inexplicably perceptive and even, at times, cryptic. Not that Molly had any trouble decoding the meaning of Annie’s words. Even if she didn’t know what was going on, she certainly must have noticed the prevalent mood in the house over the past few days.

Yes; that was all.

Molly sighed again, and tried to dismiss what the girl had said. She didn’t know what she was talking about, not really, she just didn’t like to see Molly and Jack unhappy, or angry with each other. That was all. It was just ignorant concern that had made Annie say those things. She wasn’t even right.

She couldn’t be right. She had no idea what she was talking about.

Molly kept repeating that to herself, trying harder and harder to make it sound convincing - but all the while, Annie’s words echoed in the back of her mind as she drifted off to sleep, nestled into the couch cushions that smelled ever-so-slightly like vanilla and pine.

Chapter Seven: Shaded Bright

She closed her eyes, lifting her face into the wind, letting it lift her long, red-brown hair away from her shoulders and fly out behind her. The cool breeze dried the fresh tears on her cheeks into chill streaks, and she wiped them away as she started to feel colder. It was beginning to rain as the temperature dropped and night deepened, and she still had so much to do before she could sleep.

First Guardian of the Circle of Crystallis and arguably one of the most powerful people on the planet, Areahannah had never considered herself a very emotional person. Even when she’d led a normal life, she’d been this way - closed, by some definitions cold and even unfeeling. Strange, she often thought, that her own feelings should show so little when her chief Gift was empathy - the ability to sense the emotions of others, sometimes so strongly that they affected her more than her own. The tendency to keep herself closed, to keep her own emotions and those of others from affecting the way she lived her life, carried out her duties, had become a necessity over time as her Gift had developed to its full strength. And the abrupt sensation of feeling the entire planet constantly on the edge of her senses when she’d first come into contact with Crystallis had even emphasized her already-powerful Gift to a point that had almost rendered her comatose for several weeks. But she had learned to control it - learning to control her own feelings had been a kind of side-effect, a necessary one if she was to keep from losing her mind.

Though more than once in the past, this tactic had been, perhaps, mis-interpreted. Molly’s hatred of her, for example - she had been so very angry with Areahannah for such a long time, for more reasons than one. And Areahannah’s seeming lack of emotion over the death of a man she had called friend had probably contributed greatly to that anger. But Molly had never seen her when she was alone, later, seen her venting the pain she felt, almost equalling Molly’s own, but hidden away where others couldn’t see it, where the others in the Circle who depended on Arrah’s strength and courage wouldn’t be made uneasy and uncertain by the apparent weakness on the part of the First Guardian. It was a trap she’d locked herself into, she knew - that letting others believe what she tried to project, that she was inpenetrable, unmovable, would lead to them expecting the same from her forever. She’d known that when she’d taken the job - she knew it now with an almost painful certainty. Just as she knew that Molly would never trust her again - and that perhaps, whispered a voice in the back of her mind, she shouldn’t, and neither should anyone else.

::Having a crisis of faith again, love?:: came the soft voice from behind her. She felt the wash of warmth and nearness as he approached her, emerging from the Gate, far beyond them in the trees. She felt equally, and with a wash of gratitude, the gentle touch of his mind on hers.

She didn’t miss the tinge of concern, of worry. ::It’s nothing, Terren.::

She heard the sound of a branch snapping under someone’s weight - but intentionally relaxed her suddenly tense posture. It was only Terren.

When the mental warmth became physical warmth, and she felt him right behind her, she relaxed and leant back into him as he slipped his arms around her waist. “I’ve never known you to lie, Arrah,” he whispered into her ear, chin resting on her shoulder. She tensed for an instant, then relaxed, sighing.

“You must not have been paying attention this last week, then,” she whispered, her voice low and strained.

He turned his head toward her, looking into her eyes quizzically. “I get the feeling I missed something.”

She flicked her eyes toward his, close as they were. “I lied to him, Terren.”

Terren blinked. “You mean Jack?”

She nodded, her posture becoming stiff again as she tended to do when she felt vulnerable.

“I don’t understand. What did you... oh.” He tightened his arms around her waist as he sensed the wisp of quickly-smothered pain/guilt/loss/guilt that crossed over her thoughts. He pulled her back against him, not missing the fact that her lower lip was trembling, ever so slightly.

“It wasn’t your fault, Arrah,” he said softly into her ear, holding her firmly. “You know it wasn’t.”

She clenched her jaw - only Terren knew that meant she was holding back something like tears. She pulled out of his embrace and took a few steps away from him, arms wrapped around herself.

“How do I know that, Terren?” She shook her head. “I don’t. You don’t.” She bit her lip, turning towards him. “That night Rick died... I was there.”

Terren froze. “Ah,” he said, beginning to understand. He resisted the urge to take her into her arms, because he knew she would only bat him off. “But how does that made it your fault?”

She stared off into the trees. “I felt it happening - even from that far away, I could feel it. And... I reached out to him, and I...” a gust of wind whipped her hair up around her shoulders, making her seem ephermal, wild. “I felt it killing him, Terren. I felt it chasing him, and I felt it find him, and I felt it... I felt him die.” She clenched her jaw again, and Terren stood stiff and awkward before her, unsure of what to say.

“Why didn’t you ever tell me that?” he asked gently. “The others?”

She shook her head. “What good would it have done? To tell them that I’d been frightened out of doing my job?”

Terren considered that for a moment, and then said: “Okay, sorry, but you lost me again.”

“I felt it,” she said. “I felt it in his mind. I reached out to him, and it - it saw me.”

“It saw you? How-- oh.”

She nodded. “I was in his mind, and he was telling me, screaming at me to go, to leave, to get away before it could get me too - and it... it touched me.” She gave a visible shudder. “It looked into me, sliced past my shields like they weren’t there, went far down where no one should ever go... To the things I don’t even...”

She was struggling to remain calm, to keep her breathing even, but shallow gasps showed she was fighting against tears. Terren stepped forward now, put a hand on each shoulder. “This would be that bit you don’t even let me see, wouldn’t it?” His voice was quiet. She nodded.

“I ran away, Terren.” Her voice was full of shame.

He looked at her in surprise. “So what? If it would have done to you what it did to him...”

She shook her head fiercely, backing away. “That thing posed no threat to me!” she said, self-disgust evident in the tone. “I was a dozen times its equal! And it was distracted! I could have destroyed it with a thought, if I’d tried. But instead, I ran away, because it saw something about me I didn’t like, and because it scared me.”

Terren regarded her sternly. “That doesn’t make it your fault, Arrah. Even if you had...”

“If I had, he would have had a chance. I could have given him a chance and I didn’t.”

“Arrah... don’t start believing Molly Phillips. You didn’t kill him.” He said that more softly, with concern.

She winced. “Maybe I didn’t tear the soul from his body, but I allowed it to happen. I could have done more to stop him.”

Terren threw his hands in the air. “What? Lock him up on the Island? Let the thing go after his kids? You know you couldn’t have done that. And you couldn’t have gone with him. There were other things - you told me as much. You told him to wait. He didn’t. Someone had to go. He did what he had to, what anyone would have. It’s not your fault.”

She looked at him, and now there was a suspicious-looking gleam in her eyes. “I just don’t know, Terren. I don’t know.”

She had a desperate, uncertain expression now, and Terren took the moment to wrap her in his arms and hold her until she’d stopped trembling.

“It’s okay,” he said, smoothing over the roughened edges of her emotions with a gentle touch as he stroked the back of her head. “You can’t do everything, you know. You’re only human.”

“Mostly,” she said into his shoulder, her voice muffled. “But gods help us if anyone ever found out.”

Jack waited, sitting on the steps at the back of the house, the hood of his jacket pulled up against the cold and damp. He had gone from rubbing his hands together to sitting on them fifteen minutes ago - neither seemed to be keeping him any warmer, even if the sun was ponderously close to rising.

He hadn’t really been sure, when he’d done it, what would happen. Making an actual request for Areahannah’s help had seemed traitorous, despite the things he’d learned over the last several days. But he’d done it anyway, he’d needed to - he needed to know, for certain, if it were all true, if he wanted back what had been taken from him.

He did - but he needed it back in order to be sure.

But still, he waited, not sure of who, exactly was coming, not sure of what would happen. He’d slipped out of bed and out of the house as soon as the opportunity had presented itself, and with any luck he’d left Annie sleeping. He assumed she’d gone back to bed after she’d left his room - it was the middle of the night, after all. Jack, however, hadn’t seen his mother’s car parked out front, and didn’t know she’d returned.

“Jack? What are you doing out here?”

Jack started and leapt to his feet, wheeling to face his mother, clad in the same robe Annie had been wearing and looking very tired. She was barefoot, and she must have come straight from sleep.

“I didn’t know you were back,” he said, dropping his arms to his sides.

“I got in around midnight,” she said, her posture tense. “Jack, what are you doing out here? It’s almost sunrise - you should get back to bed. It’s cold.”

She had reverted back to old mannerisms, Jack noticed, as if their confrontation had never happened, as if he’d never been angry with her, never questioned her. She’d done it many times before, Jack realized. Her way of smoothing over arguments without ever facing them.

“I’m fine,” he said. “I’m going somewhere pretty soon.”

“What?” her voice was close to panic. “Where?”

He kept his face carefully blank. “I think you know,” he said.

He saw the blood drain out of her face. “No,” she said.

“Why’d you do it, Mom?” he asked. “Why’d you lie to us? Why’d you block me, so I’d never know what really happened?”

Molly shook her head, lost for words.

“You had no right, Mom,” he said.

“I was only trying to protect you,” she said. “I didn’t want you to end up like your dad. I--” she swallowed.

“You lied, Mom,” he said flatly.

“I’m sorry.” Her voice was thin, wavering, desperate. “I didn’t want to. I didn’t want anything to happen to you, that’s all. Baby, you know that I only wanted to keep you safe.”

Sadly, Jack shook his head. “No, Mom, I don’t think even you believe that anymore. You don’t lie to people you love. You don’t freeze them out, like you did Fi. You just don’t. And you did.”

Molly stiffened, hands curled into tight fists at her sides. There were tears in her eyes. “Jack, baby, please don’t do this...”

“I have to, Mom.” He leaned forward and kissed her pale cheek. “I think I get Fi, now. Why she always had to do stuff the way she did. I’m starting to understand. And I need to understand.”

“I won’t let you,” she said suddenly, tears on her cheeks. Jack looked down; she was grasping his sleeve with white-knuckled fingers, trying to hold him. As gently as he could, he pried her fingers loose.

“You can’t stop me,” he said.

An unreadable expression came over her face, and she turned even whiter. Then she turned without another word and disappeared into the house, slamming the door behind her. Jack only sighed, too determined now to even summon anger against her, and sat back down on the steps to wait - for what, he still wasn’t sure.

He didn’t have to wait long - within minutes, as the first grey light of sunrise began to inch its way across the yard, Jack spied a small figure approaching from the woods. For a moment, he thought it was Areahannah - but the hair wasn’t long enough, wasn’t dark enough. And she didn’t move like Areahannah.

Jack stood up as he saw a flash of colour - she wore a dark red sweatshirt, one of the tour’s crew shirts, with the stylized “MP” on the back and the word “crew” on the front in white block letters. He couldn’t read it from here, but he recognized it.

“Can’t be,” he whispered, but ran towards her all the same. He stopped a few feet away, staring in dumbfounded shock, not caring that there were tears running freely down his face, because there were tears on her face as well.

Fiona laughed, observing him, and shook her head. “Never thought I’d see this day, Big Brother,” she said, smiling. Then she threw herself at him, her arms around his neck, and Jack hugged his sister, lifting her up into the air. He finally set her down, hands still on her shoulders, while Fi looked appraisingly up at him, a smirk on her face disguising the joy she obviously felt.

“How’s Mom?” she asked, the smile, for a moment, all but disappearing.

He shrugged. “To be honest, right now, I don’t care. I just...” he shook his head. “How did you get here?”

Fiona laughed again, her smile returning. “That’s the first of a whole lot of big questions, Jack,” she said. “And I can’t believe it took you so long to start asking.”

She caught up his hand and tugged him toward the trees. “Come on,” she said. “They’re waiting. There’s a whole world out there, and this is only the beginning.”

Chapter Eight: Stone and Mortar

Behind his eyes, it was like an old, stone wall, and it held him inside. It had been there a long time, as long as he could remember. The wall loomed over him, above him, shadowing him. It had been there for so long, in fact, that he had stopped noticing it. Because he could pass through it, always, but not without leaving something behind. Over time, he had learned to live beyond the wall, without ever thinking about what was left of him behind it. He had forgotten it was there.

Now that he knew the wall was there, though, things were different. Now that he could feel it, see it, just barely touch it, it felt more and more restrictive, claustrophobic. More and more he wanted to beat against it until it fell down on his head or his fists were bloody, whichever came first.

He had spent the last hour throwing himself against that wall, but to no avail - he had succeeded only in exhausting himself, and the wall held.

With a loud exhalation, Jack collapsed forward to lean over his knees. Then he sat upright, driving his fists into the marble bench on either side of him. “Damnit,” he cursed under his breath. “I can’t do it.”

He stared - glared, rather - down at the bench, as if it had something to do with it. Marble. Marble benches. This place was so ancient and ornate that it was ridiculous.

He had been left to his own devices for the last several hours - he had been told to wait. He hadn’t, exactly, been told why. Now he sat on some kind of balcony, carved in a strange, opaque kind of stone, that jutted out of the outer wall, looking down on the ocean below him.

His mind had been spinning for the longest time now, and tonight’s journey was still baffling him anyway. After Fiona’s appearance, she had led him into the woods, past places he had been a thousand times, but then made a turn he’d never expected - straight into a wall of solid rock. He was only lucky that he’d been nearly lost at the time - she’d given him no warning, just pulled him right through - otherwise, he might have balked at the idea and not ended up coming at all... to... wherever this place was. He’d gone from standing in the middle of the woods behind his house to standing in the middle of a huge, round, marble-floored room. The contrast had been enough that his knees had felt momentarily weak from shock. He’d gotten control over himself quickly, though, and had been able to follow Fi out of the big round room, down a narrow hallway into a wider one, and then, when the floor had gone from wood back to stone, out onto this balcony. In a strange, uncharacteristic daze, he’d asked no questions.

He still couldn’t figure out how he’d gone from being hours inland to a seacoast in the space of an instant.

But then, he’d resolved that trying to logic this out was a rather futile exercise.

And he was so frustrated now that his temples were beginning to throb, as a prelude to what promised to be one of the worst headaches he’d ever had. Because just outside that constricting wall, he could almost, but not quite, feel something. Power was there, incomparable power and life. And there was something else, beckoning to him in a whisper, that refused his flimsy denials, that he just couldn’t, even though he wanted, so much, to know what it was...

It was rather like trying to remember a name he’d forgotten, and it was driving him crazy. He felt as if he was in the eye of a hurricane, here, but that out in the storm there was something wonderful, something daring him to come and find it. And he couldn’t, because he was trapped inside himself, inside this damned WALL...

He was startled when a hand was laid softly between his shoulders. He turned his head, and saw Fi standing there, a soft, amused smile on her face.

“Arrah said she could feel you from the Great Hall,” she said, sitting down next to him. “What’s wrong?”

Jack scowled at the floor. “You know what’s wrong,” he said. Then he looked her in the eyes, and saw a fleeting trace of guilt in them. “You always knew, didn’t you? What Mom did to me?”

Fi stiffened for an instant, then sighed, and nodded.

“Why didn’t you ever tell me?”

She shrugged. “Would it have done any good? You wouldn’t have believed me.”

Jack managed a half-smile. “No, I guess not.” There was a brief silence. “Why did you do... what you did, Fi? I don’t understand. If it’s anything like what I think I would feel if I could...”

Fi’s eyes dropped from his. “I was trying to protect you, and Mom, I guess. I didn’t really think about the consequences beyond that - but I guess what I did isn’t much better than what Mom did.”

“Can you go back?”

She stared at him, for the first time letting a little uncertainty show. “I don’t know.”

He wasn’t sure of what to say, so instead, he asked: “So are they done... whatever they were doing?”

The uncertainty vanishing, she nodded. “There was a Council meeting,” she explained.

“Council?” Jack was beginning to become mildly annoyed with all the audible caps these people kept bandying about.

“The Council of Nations,” she said. “Not full Council, because they were just talking about... well, you.”

She grinned at his startlement. “We’re pretty important to them, Jack. I tried to tell you. Everyone who knew Mom and Dad was there. Most of them still are - which reminds me - I’m supposed to bring you back. They made a decision.”

Jack didn’t have time to ask, with some nettle, what kind of decision had been made and whether he was to have any say in it.

Fiona retraced their steps from several hours ago, bringing them back to the huge, rounded room he had first seen. He made her stop on the threshold, though, marvelling at the sheer number of people in the room. There had to be more than a dozen people in there - and that enormous wooden table looked like it could have held hundreds.

“Uh, Fi? You said this wasn’t full Council. Just how many is full Council?”

Fi turned to look at him. Even his voice was a bit pale. She grinned. “Last I was at one, three hundred eighty-four.”

Before he had a chance to recover, Fi pulled him into the room.

It took a few moments for anyone to notice them, standing just off to the edge of things. Jack was struggling to keep a mask of calm over his shock, but what happened next almost shattered it. A woman of about forty detached from the throng and approached them - she had black hair with stripes of white throughout it, almost transparent blue eyes, and bore a striking resemblance to several of Jack’s elementary school teachers. She stopped just facing them, smiling carefully.

“I don’t suppose you remember me, do you, boy?” she asked, wearing an expression of obvious amusement.

Fi pushed him forward. “Jack, this is Helena Llwellyn. She was a friend of Mom and Dad’s.”

Helena shook his hand vigorously. “I’m not surprised you don’t remember me - you were only a tot last time I saw you.”

“No... I think I kind of do remember,” Jack said, his mind racing back over a decade. Helena had been a close friend of their parents, and always brought him candies and gifts. She had been one of the people he remembered inside that wall, speaking to him without speaking. Now that he thought of it, there were a few pictures in his mother’s mismatched albums in which he could remember seeing a much-younger Helena.

Now that he thought of it, he could remember, if only vaguely, quite a few of the other people in this room. Many of them had been regular visitors when he was little, when Fi was only a baby, in that short time when his father was still there. He could remember them only as part of a short time that had been taken from him, long ago, one he didn’t really feel part of, anymore.

Helena smiled warmly and moved away, and Jack took the brief respite to look around the room they’d walked into. The floor was grey marble, the walls stone and the high ceilings the same. The windows were narrow, but tall, and all eight were spaced around the round room with what seemed to be mathematical precision. Turning his gaze back toward the centre of the room, he saw that same huge wooden table surrounded by countless chairs, and behind it, that door he’d come through - which now seemed nothing more than an ornate carved arch in a solid stone wall.

“Jack?” He belatedly noticed that the crowd had shifted towards himself and Fiona, and that Areahannah was standing in front of him.

He looked at her. “I’m sorry,” he said quietly. “I--”

She shook her head, forestalling the rest of his apology. “It doesn’t matter now. What matters is that you’re here.” She turned her head and beckoned to someone in the crowd. A moment later, a woman in her mid-to-late twenties edged her way out of the crowd and approached them. She had softly-curling dark blonde hair that reached her jaw, and her eyes were a muddled blue.

“Jack, this is Katia. She’s a doctor.”

Jack blinked. “Yeah; Terren mentioned her.”

Arrah gave him a strange look, and Jack rather abruptly had the feeling he’d gotten the older man in trouble - but that was quickly forgotten as Katia shook his hand, and he felt a strange sensation - she looked briefly, deeply into his eyes, and he could feel her inside his head, gently probing the edges of that wall he’d spent the last few hours trying to breach. “It’s good to meet you, Jack,” she said, with what she obviously thought was a surreptitious glance at the First Guardian.

“Can you do it?” he asked, with a tinge of impatience - apparently, the earnest in his voice kept it from rudeness.

Katia raised an eyebrow at him. “You’ve been paying more attention than we thought, eh, Jack?” she laughed, then glanced at Arrah again, who nodded her on. “I think I might be able to do something about that block of yours - provided you’re still willing.”

Jack nodded quickly, trying not to seem too eager. He didn’t fool Fi, though, and he felt her squeeze his arm. “All these people,” she said into his ear, “Are old friends of Mom and Dad - when they were both still a part of all of this.”

Areahannah caught his eye. “Shall we go somewhere a little more quiet?” she said, nodding to Katia. The four of them moved off through a third doorway, this one narrower than either of the others. Jack felt a room of eyes on him as they went.

The hallway she led them through was wood-paneled for only a few feet - then they passed through a small alcove and stepped into a new corridor made of the same strange, opaque - it almost looked like some kind of quartz - stone that the balcony had been. The walls here were carved with endlessly intricate pictures, scenes from what looked like long ago. They seemed to go back in time the further they went.

And then eventually, the hallway widened out, and the dimness vanished. There was a new corridor, slightly wider than the last, made of the same stone, but here the walls were lined with plain, round pillars and the stone blocks in the walls seemed larger and rougher. There was also some kind of power here that made the hair on Jack’s arms stand on end. Neither of the other three seemed to notice it, though - they were watching him, instead.

“Can you feel that, Jack?” Arrah asked, glancing at Katia, who shrugged.

“Maybe the block’s not as complete as we thought,” she ventured. “Or maybe it’s eroded over time. Just knowing it was there would make him distantly aware of some things - but just enough to drive him batty, I suspect.” She winked at Jack. “That’s how Gifts work, Arrah - you know that.”

Arrah shrugged ruefully, and smiled. “It’s been a while, Kay.”

Moving on down the hallway, the reached exact mid point in a few steps, and then Areahannah motioned for them to stop. “From this point on, we have to go one at a time - this bridge is built to take only one person at a time - if we push it, it might collapse.”

She went on ahead, and Jack turned curiously to his sister. “To repel invaders,” she explained. “The room we’re going into is the most important on the Island - if anyone untoward got in it could be really bad. They hardly ever let anyone but the Eight inside it. I’ve never even been in here before.”

That was the second time someone had referred to this place as an island - and Jack disregarded the comment for later inspection when he could make sense of it. Fi seemed excited at the prospect, anyway. Jack watched as Arrah took a few more steps, then held up her hand. It seemed almost as if she had laid her palm along a shining, translucent blue wall. In fact, the air between the four walls shimmered for an instant before dissolving into sparks and vanishing. Then she stepped past, and motioned for them to follow her, one at a time. Katia, the last one through, repeated the motion from the other side, supposedly re-establishing the... shield, or whatever it was.

Jack was beginning to really wonder just what kind of decision had been made in that meeting - and he was beginning to fervently hope that this was the most amazing thing that happened to him today - he wasn’t sure if he could handle any more.

Fi turned and gave him an apologetic smile as he reached the next archway, and then they were inside.

The walls, carved in yet more intricate patterns, were a greenish-white like green onyx, and stretched up, and up, and up to meet the sky. The ceiling was higher than he could really see, with the sun shining down through what seemed to be a perfectly round window, hundreds of feet up. This room was round as the Great Hall had been, but much smaller - only large enough to hold a fairly small, rather strange round stone table that was rooted to the floor as if the entire room had been carved out of solid rock.

Jack inspected the table. Oh; it had.

The table itself was probably not the strangest thing about this room, but it was certainly up there - it was divided evenly into eight pie-shaped sections with straight lines carved into its surface - and within each section was a tiny, scrawled symbol, none of which he recognized, and two hand-shaped impressions, right in the surface of the table as if they’d been pressed into wet clay.

::But that’s solid stone... or crystal... whatever.::

In the centre of the table was another circle, slightly raised from the rest of the table, bearing another, triangular symbol - a small circle in its exact centre with lines running from each corner of the triangle. That one, he could remember having seen before, but couldn’t figure out where.

He suddenly remembered - Annie thrusting her hand into his face, the ring plain to see on her thumb, the odd little triangular symbol glittering, even among the complicated knotting patterns...

“Oh,” he said, mostly to himself. It seemed too small a word to express all of this.

“We’re inside the Spire,” Fi said as Areahannah and Katia moved to the table. “I’ll show it to you from the outside later, I promise - but this room - it’s called the Heart Chamber. It might be sort of magical, but it’s also a really complicated and advanced computer system. Kind of a combination of the two - which is what makes Crystallis so special and unique.”

Jack looked at her askance. “A computer? But...”

“Don’t ask me where it came from, Big Brother,” Fi said, with a lopsided grin. “Later. I don’t know if you’d be able to handle it right now.”

Katia beckoned him over to the table. “There’s something I need you to do, Jack,” she said. “If you want to be able to use you Gift again - it’s hard, and it might hurt a bit. But you should know before you try - you need to want it, Jack. You need to be sure.”

Strangely enough, Jack answered without hesitation. “I do. Tell me what to do.”

Katia started a little, then smiled. “Who knew?” she said. When Jack looked at her curiously, she shook her head, still smiling. “For a second, you could have been your dad, Jack.”

Jack didn’t know what to say - fortunately, he was saved from needing to reply, as Katia told him to brace himself against the table, and close his eyes.

She explained to him what he needed to do - and for several minutes he struggled. It seemed to require a combination of concentration and relaxation that he wasn’t sure he could manage. But then he felt Fi take his hand, and he could feel what he needed to do, and he did it.

He was suddenly no longer in the Heart Chamber, but standing in the corner of a small bedroom. Looking up, he saw himself, only a few years old, asleep on the bed, and his mother sitting next to him, holding his hand. And he could feel it, abruptly - he could see it, what she was doing to him as he slept, feel the tightening of the bindings around him, inside him, as she wove whatever spell she was using.

He felt a hand on his shoulder. ::Not a spell, Jack,:: said Katia’s voice, and he didn’t need to turn to look at her - he had the feeling that she wouldn’t look quite the same here, like this. ::Make it stop, Jack.::

::I don’t understand...::

::It’s your memory, Jack. Shadows of what once were. Just stop the picture.::

Jack concentrated - the picture stilled. He walked forward, bent down, looked into his mother’s face. There were tears on her cheeks. He felt a pang of something unidentifiable before Katia was beside him again.

::Now close your eyes again,:: she told him.

He was somewhere else, even though he didn’t remember moving at all. He stood in the middle of a tiny room with a sanded wooden floor. The light was so dim it was almost black. For some reason, it didn’t seem right this way. It wasn’t supposed to be this dark. Then he looked up, and came face to face with the wall.

It was made of sturdy stone blocks, and what little light there was came from cracks in the mortar.

Suddenly he knew where he was.

He laid a hand on the wall - it was warm, as if there was a fire burning behind it. And the room was cold. He suddenly wanted very much to go outside of the wall to where that warmth was. He turned desperately to Katia.

He had been right - she didn’t look quite the same here. She was obviously herself, but younger-looking, and surrounded by a bright, green-gold aura of warmth and power that radiated off of her. Her hair was longer, and her eyes...

...her eyes were almost glowing, no longer muddied but the blue of sapphires.

He briefly wondered if this was the same thing Annie had seen in Areahannah.

She came to stand next to him, set her hand next to his. ::Mom’s wall?:: he ventured, but she shook her head.

::Your mother may have built it, Jack, but you helped it stand for all this time. You kept it standing. It’s your wall, now.::

::But that’s not fair--::

::No, it’s not.:: She looked at him. ::It’s in your mind, Jack. It’s yours. And you have to break it down. I can only show you how.::

Jack felt, after a moment, almost afraid. ::You said it would hurt,:: he realized, with resignation.

She nodded. ::There’s no other way.::

Jack stared at the wall; it stared right back. ::Show me how,:: he said decisively.

She handed him, to his surprise, a hammer and chisel. He stared at her. The wall was huge, heavy, impenetrable. This could take forever...

::Once you’ve made a hole big enough, the rest will come crashing down.::

Without another word, he set the chisel against the wall, and drove the hammer down against it with all his might.

A loud metallic sound resounded through the chamber, and for a moment it seemed as if he’d made no difference. But after a few more strikes, a chunk of mortar fell away with a cloud of dust, and light speared into the room through the space he’d made. Encouraged, he continued. But when he’d made a hole the size of his hand, he was already exhausted. Panting, he leaned against the wall.

::It’s too hard,:: he said.

::You have to want it, Jack,:: she reminded him. ::You have to need it. It’s as much intent as action, here. Everything you do is symbolic. Just... want it, and push!::

As if to demonstrate, she slammed the flat of one hand against the wall, and the same metallic clang thrummed through the room again. At the same time, something flashed across the walls, like the shield from the hallway before. Jack jumped up, standing close to the wall, and pressed his hand against the stones, then against the mortar between them. Something was there, holding it all together, like a web of tiny filaments of light.

Watching him, Katia repeated her words. ::Just want it, Jack.::

He threw aside the hammer and chisel, and attacked the wall with his bare hands. The web flashed again and again - several tries at this brought nothing, and so he stopped, and again pressed his hands into the wall, then closed them into fists, as if he was clutching the web in his fingers.

A flash of memory raced through him - a distant sensation of pain, of grief, of loss. Images; of a speeding car, of fire, of a darkened face hovering on the edge of his vision, of his mother crying, of Fi, only a baby, shrieking in her crib because she knew, somehow - he opened his eyes - his hands were glowing as if they were aflame.

And then, gritting his teeth, he pulled--

It hurt. There was a searing slash of pain as the webbing shredded in his hands, and something broke free in his mind, pouring power and images and memories and feelings into the long-empty channels he could now feel, there. And then he could see it, as tiny cracks appeared and spread across the wall, growing larger and larger until he could see the light from outside shining through. And then it began to crumble, falling away, and he was almost blinded by how bright it was. Then something snapped, and he gasped as he was filled to the brim with something burning-warm and wonderful and...

He opened his eyes. The first thing he saw was Fi, staring concernedly down at him. He opened his mouth to tell her it was all right, that he was all right, that everything was the same as ever - but it wasn’t.

He gradually realized that the wall was gone - and that now, he could feel everything he had been able to barely, almost feel, sharp and clear and definitely there - he wasn’t imagining this. It was real.

Someone - he guessed Katia - helped him to his feet, his eyes locked the whole time with his sister. Fi was smiling, tears in her eyes. He’d run out of words.

“I told you so,” she said smugly, but then she flung her arms around his neck and hugged him tightly. “I told you.”

He hugged her back, and they turned as one to the two Guardians - Katia looked a little pale, as he suspected he did. She leaned against the table, hand closed around the odd pendant that both of the Guardians wore, an ovular red jewel set in silver, the thing that he’d distantly noted must be a symbol of the Guardians themselves. He felt like he was going to collapse any minute with exhaustion. And from her he could sense that same sensation of contained power that he had “seen” inside, before. “I--” It was a radically uncharacteristic moment for Jack - he stuttered, with no idea of what to say. Fi looked at Katia, then, a look of almost-pleading in her eyes.

Katia sighed dramatically. “I’ll get you for this, Fiona,” she said mock-sternly, but put a hand on Fi’s forehead anyway.

That elsewhere-frown creased her forehead again, her eyes unfocused, and then she looked at Fi. “Lucky for you, it’s not as bad as Jack,” she said. “You can damned well do it yourself, though - there. Right there. I’m too tired.”

Jack could see what Katia had done - he saw it superimposed on his sight, where the presence that was Fi was surrounded in misty white, nothing quite like the wall that had surrounded him.

Katia dropped her hand, and Fiona closed her eyes for a brief instant, a look of concentration on her face. He felt something distant, not quite a snapping but more of a building heat, like sunlight burning away morning fog - and then he could feel her, too, sense her as a warm presence at the back of his mind, see her as a sort of hovering figure existing somewhat parallel to her physical body. He blinked at her.

Then he looked at Arrah.

From the instant the wall had fallen, and that hot light had poured into him, he had been able to feel himself gravitating toward some kind of focal point for it all, one that hovered just on the edges of his sensing. Something huge, and old, and powerful. It seemed to be coming from all around him - maybe from the place itself - but also from a single, glowing point. Now he realized that that focus was Areahannah - that she drew and focused that power from herself like a compass needle. He could feel it - that all that power and light and warmth was coming, in a sense, from her.

Now he understood what Terren had tried to explain to him - and in a moment that brought him close to tears again, he suddenly understood what his father had died for.

It felt right - more than anything else he had ever known. It felt right.

He felt the tears burn their way down his reddened cheeks as he realized, gradually, that maybe he might have done the same.

He heard Katia chuckle tiredly. “I think we might have shocked him into silence.”

“Amazing,” he heard Fiona mutter jokingly.

He turned to his sister. “I... I was an idiot,” he said.

She smiled, placed a finger on his lips. “You don’t have to say it, genius,” she told him, shaking her head, and he could hear her, feel her on the edge of his mind. ::That was the whole point.::

She said it almost scoldingly, but the gentle warmth behind the words took the sting out of them.

“Look at you, standing here blubbering like a baby,” she said, laughingly. Jack felt his face grow hot and he wiped the tears away, but didn’t really take the rebuke seriously. She punched him gently in the shoulder. “I was joking, you big baby,” she said.

He turned back to Areahannah, but suddenly knew that the apology he was about to voice, again, was needless. “I’m an empath, Jack,” she supplied quietly. “Do you know what that means?”

Jack nodded, slowly. “I... think so.”

She sighed. “It means I can tell how you feel - and I always understood - you don’t have to say it. And you’ve felt it for the past week. It doesn’t matter anymore.”

“What about my Mom?” he asked, his mind going back to the expression on his mother’s face when she’d realized he was leaving.

“Don’t worry about that right now,” Areahannah answered reassuringly. “There’s something else you both have to do first. Or rather, something I have to do.”

Jack glanced bemusedly at Fiona - but she seemed to have no more idea what Arrah meant than he did. Looking back at the First Guardian, though, he saw her drop her eyes as she seemed to suddenly be in pain. “I...” she sighed. “I never told your mother I was sorry for what happened to Rick,” she said, her voice quieting. “I tried to, you know - but she didn’t want to hear it - she blamed me, and... maybe she had reason to.”

He saw Katia set a hand on her arm, but Arrah shook her head, pushing her off. “The problem with my job, Jack, is that no matter how well my people know the risks, no matter how willingly they take it up, no matter how much they want to, it... they’re still my responsibility, to some degree. To some degree, everyone is. And your dad was one of my people. He was my friend. And even though I was a teenager at the time and him a grown man with a wife and two children, I still had a responsibility to him, a duty, to protect him as he had a responsibility to me. And I... I always felt as if I’d failed him.” Her voice wasn’t much more than a whisper now, and her eyes were turned down to the table.

For an instant, Jack wasn’t sure what he was feeling. He had almost managed to convince himself that all his mother had said was untrue, spoken in the spite of grief and pain. But was Areahannah admitting a wrong? Was she confirming it? Denying it? She’d said she hadn’t killed his father - no, Jack still believed that. And he could feel something, now, and while he wasn’t sure yet of himself... was guilt. But not the guilt of someone who’d committed a wrong - the guilt of someone who thought they had. The guilt of someone who felt they could have done more, felt they should have, felt... felt... it felt confused. Self-destructive guilt, the kind that grows in the place of explanations. And Jack muddled through it all, trying to sort it out into words to tell her, but Fi beat him to it, wrapping her fingers around his.

“It wasn’t your fault,” she said. And then he felt Fi sort of reach out her hand to him, but it really wasn’t her hand, but he took it anyway, and together they sorted the muddle of shared grief and loss and understanding and reassurance into something cohesive, and then they... Jack wasn’t sure what they did - but Fi was directing it, and he felt himself reach, like he was shouting.

Areahannah looked up in surprise, her eyes wide. “How did --”

“It wasn’t your fault,” Jack repeated, with conviction.

She seemed more surprised by his words than by Fi’s, even though they were identical. And as she searched his eyes, seemingly analyzing the feelings there, he saw the bulk of the pain vanish from her face - it was the first real smile he’d seen on her face. And that life and power shone right through it, making her seem, to his inner eye, like she was glowing.

“There’s a reason I brought you two here,” she said finally. “One that didn’t involve the reason you called us, Jack.” She placed her hands into the handprints on the table directly in front of her - which seemed, oddly enough, to fit her hands exactly - and a brief flash of light sparked out of the carved lines. Then the table began to - not exactly hum, but that was how it sounded with his other senses. The smaller raised circle in the middle of the table and its symbol didn’t exactly glow, either, but seemed as if it were beneath somehow more and brighter sun than the rest of the room. The light arced up, just like the unexpected glare of sunlight, and formed itself into a softly-glowing pillar that finally flattened out and slipped off the edge of the table, and to Jack’s combined fascination and mild shock, began to shape itself into what seemed to be a humanoid figure. As it gained more detail and texture, he saw it was a man, a man with dark hair, and a beard, and...

The picture resolved itself. It was his father, smiling and standing right there in front of him.

“People talk about this place being haunted,” he heard Arrah’s voice say. “And theoretically, everyone who comes here leaves a little of themselves behind. Crystallis is almost alive, in a way, because of that. Hell; it may very well be haunted. But another thing that might have contributed to the legend is that everyone who is a part of the Circle, Delegates especially, is a part of Crystallis, in a small way. And...”

Jack heard a noise that was half-electronic and half-musical. “Your dad left you both a message,” she said. “I had to show it to both of you - as per the promise I made him. The system is set not to play unless you were both present, anyway. And... now that you both are, I think it’s about time you heard it.”

Jack felt Fi’s arm slip around his waist, and he put an arm around her shoulders. Together, like that, they nodded to Areahannah, and for the first time, heard their father speak.

Epilogue: Ghost of a Smile

When the sun came up, she didn’t see it, because she was no longer behind her eyes.

She was somewhere else, instead, staring down at her own face. She critically observed the just-barely-visible lines at the corners of her eyes and mouth, the hair that had a few more grey than a month ago, the hands that weren’t as flexible as they had once been when they’d played the song that had won Rick Krane’s heart. She looked old. She frowned irritably to herself. She was totally unprepared for the hand that touched her shoulder, or the voice that spoke suddenly out of nowhere right by her ear.

“You didn’t win my heart, Molly - I gave it to you.”

She started, whirled around - and stared into a pair of deep brown eyes that shone with tears.

“Rick? How--”

“Don’t ask silly questions, m’love - now’s a time for listening.”

“I don’t understand. I wanted --”

“I know.” He enfolded her in his arms, and she sagged against him, suddenly sobbing uncontrollably, trembling against his chest.

“Why did you -- I never -- I wanted --”

“I know.”

“Why did you go?” she asked into his shirt.

“You know why. You know I had to. You used to feel it too. You still do.”

She raised a tear-stained face to her husband’s. “You promised.”

The words sounded feeble, but he answered them without scorn. “I’d made another promise first,” he told her.

She hung her head. “I’m sorry.”

“So am I.”

It was almost as if she’d gone back in time - Rick was there, holding her, tied to her inside, part of her. That piece of her that had dropped away into nothingness with his death was back as if it had never left. She felt momentarily whole, again. And warm. And she didn’t want it to stop.

Even though she knew it would, and soon. A sense of urgency nagged at her.

“How are you here?” she finally thought to ask.

“You know how,” he said, nodding over her shoulder at her sleeping body. “You wanted me here - here I am. You used to know how.”

She felt her face grow hot with embarrassment and shame. “I still know. I just don’t.”

Again, “I know.” In this state she could keep nothing from him, could hide behind the bulwark of false strength she kept up for Fiona and Jack’s benefit - not that she ever could. He knew her, as surely as he knew himself, as if they were a part of each other. Because they were.

“Things are changing, Molly,” he said softly into her hair. “It’s time to go back.”

She stiffened, but then forced herself to relax. “I don’t want to.”

He leaned back far enough to look into her eyes. “That’s not true, and you know it. You’re afraid.”

She almost denied it, then gave up the effort as tears spilled down her face again. “I miss you. I don’t know if I can.”

“You can.” He said it with such conviction that she almost believed it, herself. “And I’m always here. And there.”

She stared at him, for a moment not understanding, but then she paled. “Oh, God,” she whispered. “I’d forgotten.” She shook her head. “All this time, you were --”

“I still am, in a way,” he said, pulling her close again. “You closed me out, Molly,” he said. “I could always come back - but you didn’t want me to.”

She stood in shamed silence as she realized that this was true. She hadn’t wanted him back - she’d been too angry, felt too betrayed, and in all of that mess she’d forgotten the obvious fact that she’d missed him, needed him. But then the anger had come back, starting a vicious sort of circle that had fed on itself for years and years, until finally she was at this point. But now...

“It’s time to go back,” she agreed, quietly. “If they’ll have me.”

He laughed softly. “They’ll always have you, my love. You’re a part of them. Of her. You used to understand.” He kissed her hair. “You still do.”

She nodded. “I love you,” she said. “I’m sorry.”

“So am I,” he said. “And I love you, too.”

He put a finger under her chin, tilted her face up, and kissed her. She leaned into him; the kiss was soft, gentle, yet somehow still sad.

She felt a soft, warm feeling flicker over her thoughts, and then spread. Soft - it was so soft, and this was so right... even if it was the last time...

She opened her eyes. The sun was fully above the horizon now, and it was very early morning. She pulled herself upright - she’d fallen asleep on the hanging deck chair, wrapped in a thick blanket, staring out at the woods in hope of Jack’s return. It had been hours - she must have slept through the whole night.

Molly wondered why she wasn’t cold. It certainly must have been cold last night, and under normal circumstances she’d have woken up from the cold midway through the night, and gone back in. But she wasn’t cold, not even chilled. In fact, she was, if anything, warm. And there was a vague recollection hovering at the edge of her thoughts, like a half-forgotten dream.

No; not like a dream. It had been a dream. A dream about...


It came flooding back, and tears sprang to her eyes. She swallowed them back and drew a deep breath, reaching for that warmth again. It was all right. It was all going to be all right, again. Somehow. Somehow...

She closed her eyes, reached, and pushed.

It wasn’t very dramatic, for all the work she’d put into setting it up. The shield, however, slid obediently away, leaving her raw and open for the first time in a long time. Gingerly, she prodded at those long-dormant senses, feeling them slowly awaken. It was like stretching after a long nap, or opening her eyes after being blindfolded - right. She held back a relieved sigh, opened her eyes.

Just as something crept into the range of her sensing, appearing ahead of her like blips on a radar screen. Warm and there, more than one, and one of them, to her eyes, was glowing.

Molly’s senses had never been very specific as far as this went - but she could easily recognize her son. Jack was coming back, restored, full of power, and Areahannah was with him. So was...

Molly got to her feet, leant against the railing, seeing them appear from under the trees.



She broke into a run towards the house, and Molly only just reached the foot of the steps before Fiona cannoned into her, laughing. “Hi, Mom. I’m back.”

Molly clung to her daughter, staring over the top of her head at Jack, who stood a few paces behind Fi, arms crossed and face unreadable. Molly tried, casually, to look and see what his mood was, but she’d never been very good at reading emotions - and in any case, Jack was shielded to her. She turned her gaze to Areahannah, who stood a respectable distance away, overshadowed by a young man with red-blond hair and an olive complexion that didn’t seem to match at all. The Guardian herself was watching Molly, eyes bright but not quite discernable.

Finally, Fi stood back, and gave Jack a look. Jack stared right back, then looked startled, then shamed. Molly recognized the expressions on both their faces - the sign that they were speaking without words. She’d once done it fairly often.

Molly held out her arms to him, and he walked into them.

And then Areahannah smiled, relief evident in her features. Molly looked up from the top of Jack’s head, and smiled back.

Annie awoke, confused at the early hour. Usually she slept until well past nine or ten o’clock in the morning. Glancing at the clock, she saw it was barely past five. She got up on her knees to look out her window - something warm and wonderful was happening outside, somehow defying all logic against her being able to tell that, at all. She ignored the foolish voice that was supporting logic and pulled open the curtains.

Jack had returned - she’d heard him sneak past her door late last night, probably hoping to leave without waking anyone. But Annie had still been awake. She’d also heard Molly and Jack’s voices, angry, on the porch under her window, shortly after. Now it seemed as if everything had come properly together - everything seemed marvellously fixed, and Jack was hugging his mother. Arrah and Terren stood off to one side a part of but not a part of the reunion, and Fi stood beaming next to her brother and mother.

::Where did Fi come from?:: she wondered idly. ::Oh, well. I guess that was to be expected - given as she was the only one capable of knocking any real sense into him.:: Annie smiled to herself, watching them all. She felt a little bit proud of herself. They were back together again, they way they were supposed to be, the way she’d just known they had to be, with no traces of the recrimination and blame and bitter, self-destructive grief and loss that had kept them apart before. The grief, that was still there - it probably always would be. But it had changed, somehow, softened, until it was no longer the thing keeping them apart and at odds, but rather the thing binding them together.

It was rather as if she had been staring at a huge, complicated puzzle with missing pieces. And when all the pieces had come back together, it had only taken a little nudge on her part to settle it all into place into a harmonious whole.

As Annie watched the ground below, she saw Terren look up to her window - she could have sworn he winked.

Annie grinned, and let herself fall back onto the bed. She stretched, pushing the covers away as she did.

She almost jumped out of her skin when her foot came into contact with something solid, and quite warm.

She bit back an alarmed squeak by clapping a hand over her mouth - then she sat still for a moment. There was nothing dangerous or hostile in this room - she’d have been able to tell that, as she always had. No, it was more as if something she’d been seeing out of the corner of her eye for a long time had decided to present itself to her, face-on. Annie felt a tentative touch at the back of her mind, full of tenderness and curiosity and even - dared she even think it? - affection. Love. Devotion.

Holding her breath, she threw back the covers.

Lying at the foot of her bed was a large, sleepy-looking panther. It blinked big yellow eyes at her languidly and yawned toothily, its tongue lolling out of its mouth. Then it looked at her.

Annie bit back another squeak, opting instead for scrambling backwards until her back met the headboard. The panther, for its - ::No, his,:: Annie decided - part, stretched, then looked at her again, the end of his pale pink tongue still sticking out of his mouth.

When it didn’t seem as if she were going to be devoured alive - not that she’d really thought so in the first place - Annie crept forward until she was only a few inches away from the panther. He was warm, and most definitely there, even though there was no hair on the white sheets underneath him.

As Annie was reflecting on this, the panther bent his head forward and, opening a huge mouth, licked her, the rough tongue dragging up her cheek. Annie started, touching the now-damp skin. Which was damp. Really. The panther almost seemed to be wearing a smug, self-satisfied grin, or at least as close as a giant cat could come to one.

::The panther is real,:: she reminded herself, joy rising within her in place of apprehension.

“I thought I was going crazy, for a while there,” she muttered, thinking out loud.

Another of those friendly mind-touches followed, and that settled all doubts. Annie threw her arms around his massive neck and hugged him. The panther purred, snuggling into her neck like a kitten, for all that he was roughly six times the size of one.

“You’re here for me, aren’t you? To protect me? And you’ll never leave?”

The warm rumble of assent was all she needed.

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