|To Paint the Silence|
|By Chandri MacLeod|
|Fandom: Buffy the Vampire Slayer|
|Categories: drama, action/adventure|
|Summary: Giles returned, brimming with power, and Evil Willow promptly sucked him dry. But where did Giles find such incredible power, and how did he know where to look?|
|Disclaimer: They're not mine, alas. I'm just using them for fun.|
|Authorís Note: This is a companion and sequel to O, Brave New World, parts taking place immediately after the series finale. A crossover with my Paxverse; all original characters and concepts are mine.|
|One: On Power|
|Two: On Ripper|
|Three: On Fear|
|Four: On Revelation|
|Five: On Genesis|
"I'm not so sure about this."
The young woman sitting next to Rupert Giles seemed hesitant, and most profoundly unhappy. Dark green eyes gleamed out from under long, messy dark hair that shone red in the sun. Her already-pale complexion was flushed, and her eyebrows were drawn together in concern.
Giles turned to look at her sideways. "I suppose you have a better idea?"
She held his eyes a moment, then sighed, looking away. "No. I wish I did, but I don't."
"She has to be stopped."
"I know. But if you fail--"
"But if you do--"
"If I fail, it won't really matter now, will it?"
For a moment, she glared half-heartedly at him. "No. You're right. I know. I know. Damnit."
There was a moment of silence. Giles, elbows resting on his knees, ran a hand back through his hair.
The two of them sat back-against a rockface, on a grassy ledge that looked out over a deep, cool green valley. The sun, just westering, cast almost heavenly shafts of light down through the clouds, lighting Giles and his companion in yellow, and cutting a white swath through the misty cedars that trooped up the mountainside. The entire setting had a feeling of unreality about it, which was only fitting.
"If it helps, I wish I were wrong."
Giles turned to look at her again, but she shook her head. "You're not. I know you're not. I've known it for a while now."
"You knew this would happen?" Giles looked at her askance.
She shook her head again in denial. "Not-- not this. But... something would have happened, sooner or later. Something, to tip the balance. To..."
"To send her over the edge," Giles finished.
She closed her mouth, and nodded. "I'm sorry it had to be this way." Her voice was very quiet, honestly apologetic.
Both were silent for a moment, the tension rising incrementally. Giles clenched his fists. "I still think - you should have done something - but --"
"I couldn't have known--" She sat up straighter, her own hands clenched in her lap.
"I know, I know." He waved off her protests. "I know. I do." He sighed. "I wish I didn't. It would make this easier. On everyone."
She looked out over the valley. "Is it time yet?"
He nodded. "Has to be soon."
"All right." She got to her feet, offering him a hand up. "Let's get it over with. The others must be waiting for you."
Giles stood, suddenly towering a foot and a half over her.
"You must understand - if you fail..." She let the words trail away.
She held his eyes again, this time searching. "You must be sure about this."
His voice held no hesitation. "I am."
Slowly, she nodded. Her bearing shifting slightly - shoulders straighter, so that she seemed, if not taller, but somehow... brighter. He couldn't quite fathom the change, but he saw suddenly, as he had many times before, what it was in her that made her what she was, and felt, without really anything more definitive than instinct, what it was that made her followers worship her the way they did.
"I am certain, Guardian. Do it."
Their gazes linked, he suddenly felt something take hold of him, deep inside. She lifted her hand, and pressed it to his chest, just above the solar plexus. And though he didn't blink, there was a moment where his vision failed - or rather, shifted: for a moment, for a single moment, he was everywhere, everything, his senses screaming with the overload... then it was gone, and the sense of hold was gone. Her hand hung at her side. Inside him, the gift thrummed like a pulse; outside, it clung closely to his skin. No; it wasn't gone, just blurred, dimmed. He wondered, with a sense of mild awe, if this was anything like what she felt, day by day. He wondered how it did not drive her mad.
She stumbled, catching herself against the rockface. He reached out a hand to steady her. "Are you--"
"I'll be fine. It was just... the shock." She shrugged, then looked up into his eyes again. "You must succeed, Giles. I don't think I have to tell you what would happen if you fail."
"No. That, Guardian, I know." His smile was weak and grim. "I have to go now. Time is wasting."
She nodded. "Remember - no cost too great."
He began to fade, then, and her bearing shifted again - now it was almost regal. Legendary, he thought. He smiled to himself.
"Good luck, Watcher," she said.
"Good luck to us all," he answered, but it was lost on the wind.
Someone caught his shoulders, held him almost upright as he came back to himself. Another set of hands touched his face, waved something strong-smelling under his nostrils. In a moment, he was choking and sneezing, his eyes watering.
"I'm awake! I'm awake! Get that bloody stuff away from me!"
Blinking tears from his eyes, Giles looked around him. The circle of witches stared at him with wide, awestruck eyes. "Did it work?" asked the nearest, the one who had waved the smelling-salts under his nose.
Giles nodded, with care for the spinning of the room. "It worked. I have it."
There was a scattered chorus of congratulations, muted by the severity of the situation.
"All back in one piece, I take it?" Asked another member of the coven, the young woman holding him.
"More or less," Giles replied, sitting up and swiping his sleeve across his damp forehead. Slowly, his eyes squeezed shut, he got to his feet. The circle rose with him.
"Time to go," he said.
The coven nodded as one, and the young woman disappeared through the nearest door to make final arrangements.
"Can I ask you a question, Mr. Giles? Before you go?" This was the first young man, eager eyes wide and serious.
Giles looked at him. He couldn't have been more than nineteen. "What?"
"What was she like?"
All the coven was listening now. They were her devotees, after all, and this uninitiated Watcher had seen her, instead of them. Powerful though the Lady was, she hardly matched up quite with the image that legend had painted of her. But still; that was not the kind of thing you tried to explain to a group of people who had been raised to follow her since early childhood; especially when you had an apocalypse to avert.
Giles smiled. "Exactly as she should be," he said quietly.
He had been seventeen, he remembered, when his father had told him. That he was going to be a Watcher, more, that he had to be. That it was passed from father to son, and so this was what was expected of him. His father had insisted.
But then-seventeen-year-old Rupert Giles had wanted other things - argument ensued, animosity that lasted years. And finally, four years later, while studying at Oxford, the pressure of his destiny finally became too much. He dropped out, went to London, and fell in with the worst crowd that would have him. They called him Ripper.
The demon, the one they summoned for their highs, would posess one of their group. Then they would exorcise it. One night they lost control - they had to kill the posessed boy, Randall, to rid themselves of it.
Afterward, Giles was shaken, disillusioned, and uncertain. The monster had shown him something he had never realized - it had shattered the illusion of the very young, the illusion that he was immortal. It had made him realize that he could not stay in London. But where could he go? He had no desire to return to the crushing tedium of Oxford, to be forced into a lifetime of tweed-jacketed doldrum like his father, and his father before him. The prospect even frightened him. So one night, he'd gotten very, very drunk and gone wandering the streets of London.
He couldn't have said how long he'd walked - he had vague recollections of the Tube and a streetcar or two - but somehow, hours later, he found himself along the bank of the Thames, the Bridge in sight upstream, throwing stones into the river and shouting semi-drunkenly into the misty London night.
That was when she came.
He'd looked up, and seen her standing there - it had been enough of a surprise that he slipped and nearly fell headlong into the Thames, but saved himself (just barely) from a ducking by catching himself on his hands. The bottle, however, had not been so lucky. He'd watched it float off downstream with a sensation of what he suspected was greatly disproportionate loss, before he turned his head.
He found that she was still there, was not a hallucination. Which seemed altogether unlikely, as she'd appeared as if from nowhere. The only way down to the bank was the path down which he'd come, and it had been in plain sight. Would have been in plain sight.
He got slowly to his feet, wincing at bruised palms, as she stood there looking at him with an expression that inspired dual sensations of both awe and annoyance. The annoyance, he could readily explain. The awe, he couldn't quite. She stepped down from the path and approached him all the same, her booted feet crunching quite normally in the gravel on the bank. She stopped again a few feet away, tilted her head at him. "Rupert Giles," she said, holding out one hand.
For no reason he could discern, he stepped back in alarm. "Who are you?" he asked. "How did you--"
She looked at him and dropped her arm to her side. The previously serene expression (which he'd thought looked rather forced in the first place) vanished from her face, to be replaced by annoyance mirroring his own. "They told me you'd be difficult," she muttered, apparently to herself.
He glared at her. "Who told you?" he demanded. "Look, if my father sent you, you can just sod off." He turned on his heel, meaning to storm dramatically off down the river bank but stumbling instead - apparently the alcohol hadn't gotten quite so thoroughly through his system as he'd thought. He heard a chuckle from behind him, whipped around to see the woman smiling.
"Graceful," she observed.
"Hey, look - " He steadied his rather unsteady feet, clenched his fists at his sides, and concentrated on looking menacing. "I didn't ask for your opinion. You're treading on bloody dangerous ground here, bird, so just--"
"Excuse me - "bird"?" She stopped looking amused and placed her hands on her hips. "You listen to me, kid. Where I come from, that is not how you talk to a lady."
"Kid?" he stuttered, and then realized that stuttering was not a very macho thing to do. "What do you mean--" he stopped, looked at her more closely. He realized abruptly that she was older than he'd first thought - though he couldn't tell by how much. Her appearance was indeterminate, but by her bearing she must have been older - older than him, certainly.
"How old are you?" he asked, staring in a bewildered sort of way. She glared.
That was something, anyway. Her accent was strange - maybe American, but not quite. He decided he couldn't place that, either, which only annoyed him more. Nothing about her was normal or recognisable, except that she seemed to hold him in at least mild contempt. It annoyed him mostly because it all made it very difficult to work out what to say or do to make her stop bothering him and leave him the hell alone.
"So, you are Rupert Giles, aren't you?" she asked then, interrupting his train of thought, and he looked up.
"What's it to you?" he asked with a glare, his last feeble attempt at machismo.
"I was just wondering," she said conversationally, "whether you plan on staying in London or going back to Oxford."
"How do you--"
"Never mind. Which is it?"
He blinked at her for a moment, then turned to look down the river, in the direction his bottle had gone. He briefly considered going after it, then decided it was too cold for a swim, and he'd probably drown in his current condition. Which on second thought, might not be so bad.
"Those are not very healthy thoughts," she observed, her tone grave.
He stiffened, looked at her again. "What are you," he growled, "reading my mind?"
She let no expression cross her features, but shook her head. "Only what you're shouting at the top of your proverbial lungs," she said. "It's a bit hard to miss, you know. But I guess you don't, or you wouldn't be doing it."
"Well, stop it," he snarled. "Bloody telepaths. No concept of privacy. Listen - why don't you go violate somebody else's thoughts and leave me the hell alone, all right?"
She shook her head. "Can't, I'm afraid."
"Well why the hell not?"
"Because you need to go back."
That did it - his over-burdened (and somewhat liquor-weakened) patience reached its breaking point, and he turned toward her; he had a vague, half-formed intention of pitching her into the river, but the thought never progressed that far. He took one step, two, three--
--and found himself suspended in mid-air, unable to move, limbs frozen in a most ungraceful pose. The woman held one hand before her, fingers crooked, one eyebrow raised into her short fawn hair.
He roared in frustration and tried to move, but couldn't. She let him writhe for a while before asking him whether he was finished. Grudgingly, he nodded, and she let him down. He crouched where he'd fallen, head bowed, breathing hard, and strangely exhausted.
"That was my doing," he heard her say as she moved to sit down beside him. "I'm sorry. Well. No, I'm not. You were behaving like an ass."
"What do you... what do you want?" he demanded again.
"Did I say 'was'?"
He managed to catch his breath, and found that the adrenaline had cleared his head some. "Are you a witch?"
"Close, but not quite. Actually, not all that close, but in the right ballpark. Do you know what a Guardian is, Rupert?"
"Ripper," he corrected her automatically.
"All right, Ripper. Do you know what a Guardian is, Ripper?"
He turned his head to look at her, shrugged. "The underworld's full of things naming themselves with audible capitals. Bloody annoying, really."
She smiled at him, faintly. "We're not talking underworld here, kid. We're talking about the Circle of Crystallis, Octo Custos, protectors-of-humanity-since-the-beginning-of-recorded-history kind. Pretty much the opposite of 'underworld'."
He shook his head.
She looked disappointed, even concerned. "They don't teach you that, huh? That's a pity. I hadn't thought they were so self-posessed as to pretend we didn't even exist."
"So you're one of these 'Guardians'?"
"Yes. My name is Menya."
"Humility's not one of your things, then, huh?"
She looked briefly confused, then grinned at him. "Not even slightly. Not me, anyway."
"So what do you want with me?" He was most definitely beginning to sober up, and not enjoying it. He longed for his poor bottle, lost at sea.
"'What do you want with an Oxford dropout', you mean? Or 'what do you want with a slightly inebriated witch gone A.W.O.L. from Watcher school?'"
He blinked at her, but didn't bother to summon surprise. "Either. Both."
She studied him, laced her fingers together on her knees, before she replied. "You believe in Fate, don't you, Ripper?"
He scowled. "Hell, no. Bollocks. A lot of poofy old men telling people what they *should* be whether they like it or not."
"I don't mean your fate as ordained by your elders, Ripper. I mean... Fate. Big, vague, mystical Fate. With a capital 'F'. Fate of nations, move of tides, march of time, that sort of thing."
He shrugged. "I suppose. Doesn't really have much to do with me."
She shook her head. "You're wrong," she insisted. "You... the Watchers, for example. Do you really understand what a job that is? What... what it means to witness and record history? You were studying history, Ripper. Those who forget their history..."
"D'you have a point, or are you just going to bore me with dusty proverbs all night? Or can I leave?" He started to get up, but something pushed him back down. He turned to glare at her and found her eyes on him.
"Your Watchers --"
"They're bloody not my Watchers!"
"-- their methods might be questionable, but they are important. The Slayer - I don't think you really understand the importance of what you were born into, Ripper. I know it chafes to be told "this is what you have to do". But sometimes... sometimes you have to."
"Well, I don't sodding feel like it. So can you let me up out of this hocus pocus you've got on me and bugger--"
"No. I can't. And I won't. You have to understand. You have to go back. If you don't... if you don't, then people are going to die. A lot of people. Maybe... maybe everyone."
He looked back at her and found her looking at him earnestly.
"What do you mean?"
"You said you believe in Fate. Then believe that everyone has one - that everyone has a place and a purpose. Yours is back there - doing what you were told to do, not because you were told to do it, but because you're needed to do it."
And then she reached out one hand, and touched his face.
Suddenly he was seized with overwhelming terror - loss, guilt, pain, claustrophobia, desperation, sudden certainty that there was nothing he could do and it was over, too late --
--and then he was back on the riverbank, the Guardian's eyes staring into his.
He jerked back convulsively, managing to land on his back. He struggled up to his hands and knees. "What the hell was that? You keep away from--"
The images slowly stopped spinning wildly and incoherently about in his head, and a moment later he was left with only a shadow. He got slowly to his feet and saw her watching him. Something about her, now, was different - some sense left over from a moment before, as if his eyes were drawn to her, as if she radiated more power than anyone he'd ever encountered, and that it was older than anything he'd ever even heard of, but the sensation was shoved rudely aside by the dizzy, terrified feeling in his stomach.
"What was that?" His voice sounded faint to his own ears.
"That," she said slowly, standing, "is what will happen if you don't go back. I told you - people will die. You're needed, back there. You're needed to keep bad things from happening."
He felt cold. "But -- why me?"
"That's not something I can tell you."
"Because I don't know."
She stepped closer to him. "You're not a bad person, Ripper. We both know that. No matter how hard you've been trying to pretend otherwise. Stupid, maybe, but not bad." She smiled briefly.
"All I know is that if you stay here, that will come true. That, and you'll end up an attractive, leather-clad corpse within the week, with the state you're in."
He flushed as he realized just how close to an unfortunate and distasteful end he'd really come. His father - his father hadn't been right. But neither had he.
"And if I go back - that... that won't..." He gestured vaguely, trying to supress the dizzy, nauseous feeling in his chest.
She shook her head. "I don't know. It's not as simple as 'will it, won't it'. But if you don't go back..."
"All right, all right. I get it." He swiped a sleeve across his damp forehead, and sat down abruptly on the ground. He felt like throwing up.
"That happens sometimes," she said from above him. "I'm sorry. I should have warned you."
He waved one hand dismissively and concentrated very hard on not being sick. "Is this how you always convince people? Reach into their heads and squeeze?"
"Not often," she said with some amusment in her tone. "Only with self-titled macho men who don't know what's good for them."
He managed a chuckle, and looked up. "Has anyone ever told you that you're a real--"
He blinked. And turned. And turned back.
She was gone.
"'Ello?" he called out, but his voice echoed up and down the bank with no answer. He was alone.
Getting laboriously to his feet with a few stern words to his stomach, he looked around again, but there was nothing. No mysterious harpie.
He stood there for what must have been several minutes, trying to decide whether or not it had all been an alcohol-induced hallucination or not.
But the memory was still there. A sense of dread, becoming more vague by the second, still filled him. And some indescribable certainty that...
He had to go back.
Grimly, he began to make his way up the bank, wondering idly about his bottle.
"One thing," he muttered to himself, as unheeded, the sounds of night creatures slowly resumed, "I'm not wearing one of those damn tweed coats."
Behind him, the river Thames roared toward the sea, as if laughing to itself.
Willow Rosenburg stared out over the empty field, waiting for something to happen. Something did, though not quite what she expected.
"It's not out there."
The voice from behind her did not startle Willow - she only smiled faintly and turned her head. "I know."
The speaker came to stand next to her - a young woman who superficially, looked younger than Willow herself, but by bearing and stance and by her eyes, she was older. Though her face and her body and her long, dark hair showed no signs of age, her eyes were of a green muddied by time and life and pain. It was not something most people noticed - but then most people did not have frequent contact with the First Guardian of Earth.
"So; you're going back?"
Willow nodded, turned back to the view. "Giles thinks I'm ready."
"But you don't?"
The witch turned and looked up at Areahannah. "I don't know what I think," she said. "It's all... it's really fast. I'm not sure. I don't..."
"You don't trust yourself?"
Willow let Arrah hold her eyes as she sat down next to her. "If you're reading my mind," Willow said uncertainly, "I wish you wouldn't. It's kinda creepy."
"Well, then," said Arrah, "I won't show you with mine what I planned to."
There was a brief silence, while Areahannah stared thoughtfully out over the field. "Do you know how old I was when I found out what I was, Willow?"
Willow shook her head.
"I was fifteen."
The other girl stared, wide-eyed. "You were... you were fifteen? But how did you... I mean, how did you keep from..."
"Losing it?" Areahannah smiled wryly. "I almost didn't. But... I adapted. I had no other choice. Suddenly I was the custodian of something a thousand times bigger and more important than I was. It wasn't a responsibility I would have chosen, but it was mine anyway."
She laced her hands together, looked down into her lap. "You have every reason to be terrified, Willow."
Willow quirked one eyebrow. "Oh, that's uber-reassuring. I feel much better now."
Areahannah shook her head and gave a serious look. "I'm not going to lie to you - I don't believe in it. Look - I know you're scared. I can't help but know it. But you have every reason to be. Power is always frightening - and in your case, it's especially justified. I know what it feels like. At the risk of sounding egotistical, I'm probably the only one who does."
Willow stared at her, brows drawing together. "If this was supposed to be a pep talk, it needs some work."
Areahannah smiled again. "Sorry. I just mean... the fear, that's natural. And since it's natural, accept it. Don't fear it."
Willow grinned mischeviously. "Don't fear the fear? Isn't that awfully Martin Luther King for a mythical construct?"
The Guardian shook her head. "Fear... it's like pain. It's only information. It's just... something smarter than you telling you something that without it, you wouldn't know. That you wouldn't let yourself know, because you're all caught up in the outside world. Fear, in this case, reminds you that it isn't easy. Reminds you that when it's hard that doesn't mean it's impossible. That fear is what keeps people in power from going crazy - from going... bad."
The grin faded from Willow's face. "I guess that makes sense. Real fear that the Universe is going to hit you on the nose with a rolled-up newspaper if you go too far..."
Arrah shrugged, looked out over the field again. "Power is very tempting, Willow. That, you know. It's just as tempting, sometimes, with that much power, to just... take whatever you want - regardless of whether you should, whether you deserve it. Whether it's right. Even by your own standards. It makes it hard to remember things you thought you'd never forget - like that you're human. Not that you're only human, but that you're still human. And... there's a difference."
Watching the Guardian's profile, Willow nodded, slowly. "That... that makes sense."
She saw the Guardian smile, then. "I'm glad you think so," she said, looking sideways at Willow. "I thought I was babbling. I usually do."
"Nah. Lots of sense." Willow tilted her head to one side, considering the woman who sat next to her.
"I think..." She trailed off, waited until Areahannah turned to look at her, quizzically.
"...I think," continued Willow, "That people who... help people, people who are just... like that... when they do their thing, it maybe kinda feels like it doesn't have anything to do with them. Like something else is just sort of telling you what to say, or you're letting it do its thing, and you're just letting your mouth run. But... maybe that's just instinct. Maybe that's what it means."
Willow saw something change in the Guardian's eyes - something shift, something smile. Areahannah smiled, accordingly, albeit faintly.
"You help people. It's what you do. I can tell. Even if you can't."
The smile didn't widen, but it seemed a little warmer - a little more like she was smiling instead of letting herself smile. There was a difference, after all.
"Good luck, Willow," was all she said, and when Willow looked again, she was gone.
Rupert Giles looked up from shovelling rubble to stare out over the crater of what had, up until recently, been known as Sunnydale, California. Something had briefly caught his attention, seemed to demand it. Something had suddenly seemed terribly important about it. Something had told him that he must stop, that he must...
Giles ran a hand through his hair, realized he was staring into space. Xander came up beside him, shirt tucked into his belt, shovel slung over one shoulder and looking, with the possible exception of the eyepatch, every inch the All American Boy, and stared across the crater. "What's up, G-man? Something shiny I missed getting distracted by?"
Giles blinked a few more times. "What? No. I... I don't know." He took off his glasses, wiped the lenses, then stared at them a moment before placing them in their case and stowing them away in a pocket. "For a moment there was something... I don't quite know. But it's gone now."
He turned to look at Xander and found the younger man eyeing him strangely, one eyebrow raised. "Whatever you say," he said, shrugging. "I guess we're all entitled to a bit of mental... um... departure."
Giles glared. "I wasn't imagining things," he said, annoyed. "I was just..." he turned to stare out over the crater again, uncertain. "Well, I don't know what I was doing, actually. I just..."
Xander just grinned enigmatically, clapped him on the shoulder, and marched off down the edge of the crater, arms swinging. Giles stared a moment longer, still dwelling on a vague and inexplicable sensation of urgency, before going back to work.
A day or so later, a mile South of what had once been Sunnydale, California, at the base of a crag of stone five stories high, an otherwise featureless area of the rockface began, suddenly, to glow. A shape similar to a wide, arched doorway appeared, gradually, as the graven shapes surrounding it took on a faint blue light. Then, the space within the door-shape rippled, almost imperceptibly.
A girl stepped through, moving quickly a few steps away from the rock, and stood looking out across the desert. She was greeted only by the virtually blank horizon, broken occasionally by other worn-down crags of rock, jutting skyward, and a cactus, here and there. Otherwise, it was flat and featureless. Nonetheless, the girl's face took on an expression of anticipation.
Behind her, the doorway rippled again, and a boy a little older than herself - eighteen, or thereabouts - appeared, followed closely by an older man in glasses. As he passed through, the doorway rippled one more time, then faded, the rockface becoming blank once more.
They came to stand on either side of the girl, who was standing, hands on hips, looking to the North.
"Which way?" asked the boy.
The girl pointed in the direction she'd been staring. "That way," she said, looking to her companions. "Ready?"
"For years, now," said the man, grinning.
"You're cheerful," observed the boy, somewhat dubiously.
"Not just cheerful," said the man, clapping him on the shoulder and grinning wider. "Optimistic."
"They can't possibly be expecting us," said the girl, smiling.
"Not in a million years," agreed the man, then arched one eyebrow, amused. "Or should I say, ten thousand?"
As one, the three set off northwards across the desert.
His moment of prescience - something that had not happened to him since his early youth - was quickly forgotten, overtly, though the feeling of anticipation stayed with him throughout the next day. If anything, he came, later, only to wish that the feeling had been more specific.
He had been ignoring the others throughout the morning; it was now mid-afternoon, and he knew they had to be starting to wonder about him. He hadn't even spoken as they'd stopped and set up camp for the evening, merely retreated. The truth was that he needed time to think.
Not about his decision - he'd put all doubt about that behind him before he'd made it.
::You aren't in charge any more, Buffy.::
No; what he needed to think about was what to do, now.
He'd known at the time that Buffy would not listen; otherwise he wouldn't have had to take the measures he had taken, parting ways with Buffy and taking Willow, Xander, Faith, and the other young Slayers that had followed North, and hopefully to safety.
Where Buffy was going would not be safe, no matter what she thought. Her anger had been borne out of nothing better than bitterness and - he had to admit to himself - stubbornness, which he supposed should have come as no great surprise. She'd made her decision for the wrong reasons, but the decision had been hers to make. She was an adult now, however often she belied that.
None of this stopped him from worrying. And not just about Buffy. She'd taken Dawn, Andrew, and several young Slayers with her. There was no telling whether she would remain rational enough to protect them, and they'd need protection, if half of what they'd been picking up over the last two days over international radio were true; that massive earthquakes like the on in Sunnydale had happened all over the continent, all over the world; in localized areas, some isolated, some not...
...and all centred on what had to be Hellmouths.
The Unionized countries seemed to be handling the situation fairly well; for one thing they built against such eventualities, and their emergency response services were second to none in efficiency.
The United States, however, as he already knew, was not faring so well. They'd passed three small towns since leaving Sunnydale three days ago, and all had been abandoned, the people having fled so quickly that even the stores had not been looted.
He knew the American government had been deteriorating over the past several years; he knew that since the formation of the world government this country had become more and more inward-focused, alarmist. He knew that what remained of the federal administration was deteriorating, day by day, into factional bickering. He knew, best of all, from recent experience, that it could be days, even weeks, or months, before any help was sent to the stricken areas surrounding the Hellmouths, especially the one in Southern California. They certainly hadn't seen a single emergency vehicle in the two days they'd been travelling; Giles didn't expect one any time soon. As a matter of fact, he felt safer not seeing any; he had become less and less enamoured of American officials lately, and he worried about what they might think of their little caravan if they came across them.
As he sat at the fold-out table in the trailer that currently served as his makeshift office, studying a massive road map and trying to determine the best route to the Canadian border without encountering the authorities, when one of his young charges entered - Alison, he thought. She was carrying a deer rifle propped against one shoulder, and drummed the fingers of her left hand against the wooden butt as she told him, with some bemusement: "You've got... uh... visitors."
Giles looked up, took off his glasses. "Sorry? Visitors?"
"We're as confused as you are, believe me."
Giles stood, pushing back from the table. "You're sure they aren't merely lost?"
The young Slayer shook her head. "They asked for you by name. Also quoted address and phone number." She hand him a much folded and rather grubby piece of paper, which indeed bore his full name, address (itself now at the bottom of the crater, a mile behind them) and phone number (likewise).
He followed Alison out into the avenue between two trailers, silently thanking, for a moment, the automotive dealer who had seen fit to abandon an entire lot of recreational vehicles for their little caravan to appropriate.
It had seemed almost too convenient, at first, but he'd assumed that the dealer had just fled in panic when the quake started. Buffy had surveyed the abandoned dealership with suspicion and scepticism.
"I don't think it's a good idea," she'd said, not looking at him. "It's too obvious. We'll stick out too much."
Giles had sighed. "As opposed to the stolen school bus?"
Buffy had shrugged, still not looking at him. They'd been travelling only a few hours when the bus had begun showing signs of breakdown; they'd pulled over at a rest stop - also deserted - and discovered that the gas tank was almost empty.
"We have to change vehicles," he'd pointed out, reasonably. "And we are going to be travelling for a day or two more, at least. I don't fancy driving straight North without stopping. For one thing, we haven't the funds."
Buffy had walked out into the dusty lot, arms crossed. "So we find another way," she'd said, voice low.
"Buffy, what exactly is the problem?"
"We shouldn't be settling in!" she snapped, spinning around to face him. "This--" she'd swept her arm across the yard, "--it's too comfortable. Like we're turning into gypsies. This is a temporary measure, Giles. We're not a travelling caravan. We need a home base. Somewhere permanent and safe."
He'd regarded her soberly. "Permanent and safe may not be an option, Buffy. You know that."
"Why not?" she'd demanded, scowling.
"Because the things we recently regarded as permanent are currently in pieces at the bottom of that crater," he'd told her, voice even, with effort. "And until we regain some balance, find the others--"
"The others," she'd said, mockingly. "The Watchers, right? Yeah. Because they've been a big help."
"The Watchers have been a significant force for thousands of years--" he'd begun, but she'd cut him off.
"The Watchers are out of the picture, Giles," Buffy said, coldly. "It's us, now. Slayers. We don't need another Watchers' Council. We need to take care of ourselves."
Giles had stared at her, feeling tired, and angry. "Buffy, you cannot do this alone - and even now, the Council's resources could be useful to--"
"I'm a general, Giles," she'd interrupted him, voice angry and cold. "I've done this alone. And I will. If you don't want to help me..."
She'd let the sentence trail off into silence as Giles shook his head, and then glared and stalked off across the lot.
"Why do I get the feeling all that 'general' stuff is going to her head?" had said a low voice beside him, and he'd turned to see Faith standing there, one eyebrow arched upwards, staring after Buffy. "I'd say you've got yourself a problem."
Giles hadn't said so, but silently he'd agreed.
He wondered now, as they made their way toward the day's central area - also, unsurprisingly, between trailers - who the "visitor" could possibly be. He'd been more or less convinced )and in fact, that had been among the primary determining factors for their route) that no one could be reasonably expected to locate any o fthem, with no previous address, no forwarding address, and (many of them) no legal identities in the first place. Which suggested an individual with unreasonable resources.
Could the Council have come looking for them?
They came out into the open, and Giles was surprised by the terribly mundane appearance of their guests - for there were, in actuality, three of them. They were fairly easy to spot, surrounded by Slayers all holding some kind of weapon, though none looked especially nervous, least of all the oldest, a tall, lean, bespectacled man in his early thirties, with sand-coloured hair: he looked positively relaxed.
There were two younger people accompanying him; teenagers, a boy and a younger girl, both dark-haired and blue-eyed, though the boy was older by two or three years older and had curly hair where the girl's was straight. They were alike enough in appearance to be brother and sister, and the girl seemed more at ease than the boy, who looked nervous and faintly tense.
"Ah, Mr. Giles," said the man as he saw Giles, stepping forward a little, stopping when the ring of girls raised weapons in reaction. He raised his hands.
"I'm not armed," he called, appealing to Giles over their heads.
Giles turned as Willow and Xander came up behind him. "What's goin' on, G-Man?" asked Xander, hands in his pockets. "Interlopers?"
Giles turned to Willow. "What do you see, Willow?"
The young witch was already looking, eyes distant and narrowed. "Nothing bad from the guy with the glasses - just lots of self-confidence and... nothing else. He's got a solid shield." She tilted her head a little to the right, then straightened suddenly, turning back to Giles. "The kids, Giles."
"What is it?"
"There's magic all over them. Coming off of them, like a residue. Like..."
"Any unpleasant... emanations?"
Willow shook her head, looking bemused. "No, more like... raw. not bad, but not like anything I've felt before. Or maybe--" she paused, sighed. "--I have, but I can't remember."
As bemused as Willow, Giles continued forward. The girls parted as he approached, and he stopped, a little short of five feet away from the young man who was clearly the leader.
"I understand you're looking for me?" Giles said, crossing his arms.
The man held out a hand in greeting, which Giles inspected before accepting. "I have been looking for you, yes, for a couple of days. my name is Matthew Hamilton, Mr. Giles." He looked around. "Is there anywhere we can sit down?"
As they sat down in the shadow of the massed trailers in stolen plastic lawn furniture, Giles tried to place the strange, half-familiar sensation that the three visitors inspired in him. Willow was right; it did feel familiar, if faintly. Like a language he'd once known and forgotten, almost. He couldn't quite place it, but it felt important. It bothered him. It felt as if he were being drawn.
The bespectacled man smiled at him quite cordially s the girls trickled away in ones and twos, leaving Giles, Willow and Xander alone with the strangers.
Giles felt unpleasantly like the plateau had been pre-determined. Hamilton sat at his ease, arms folded over one knee, smiling faintly. The two teenagers stood just slightly behind him, casually attentive but quite clearly in a flanking position. Something about their bearing struck a familiar chord with Giles, and it bothered him that he could not place it. His own position was nearly identical. Willow stood behind him, hands resting on the back of the plastic chair, Xander next to her. Giles, however felt significantly less calm than the visitors, although he felt no danger from them. It was really more like annoyance. He'd been on edge for a full day. Ever since Buffy left.
"You'll pardon me for being somewhat suspicious," he said first.
Hamilton shrugged. "We didn't exactly expect a warm welcome," he said. "All things considered, I think we expected a chillier one."
"'All things considered'?" Annoyance was definitely in the forefront, just now; the man clearly knew a great deal about their situation, but Giles knew nothing about them. It was unsettling and irritating.
"How do you know me?" Giles finally demanded, his voice sharp, and he felt Willow start slightly behind him. "You seem to have known exactly where to find us. Since you approached us unarmed, openly, I'm forced to assume that you knew what you were expecting before you came. Which brings us to another pertinent question--"
"I'm very sorry, Mr. Giles," Hamilton interrupted him, and Giles stopped short as the younger man held up both hands, a placating gesture, sitting up straighter in his chair. "You're right. I should explain - and apologise. This is an unusual situation for us, as well. This isn't generally the way things are done."
Giles was silent, simmering, waiting for Hamilton to continue.
"This is an extraordinary situation," Hamilton explained, "and we're sort of making this up as we go along."
Giles raised an eyebrow. "Extraordinary in what sense?"
Hamilton sighed, and glanced at the young girl to his right, who rolled her eyes and shrugged. Hamilton turned back to him, leaned forward slightly in his chair. "We are representatives of the Circle, Mr. Giles."
Giles frowned at them, the reference, at first, not registering. But as he replayed the words in his head, the audible capitals Hamilton had attached to the word did register, and two trains of thought connected with a faint click.
He looked at the visitors. Hamilton was calm, patient; the boy was inscrutable; the young girl, however, was watching him, a faint smile playing about her lips.
"You're... her people." It wasn't quite a question, but it wasn't a statement, either.
As he spoke, Hamilton smiled, nodded, slowly, with faint relief.
Suddenly the magic around them, the strange power Willow could not recognise, but almost did, the slightly irritating confidence, and half a dozen puzzling qualities of the strangers made sense.
Giles shook his head. "I should have guessed," he said, half to himself.
"You mean, the Guardians?" Willow echoed, softly. Giles looked up at her. He hadn't known that Willow had been visited by any of the Eight, but he found it unsurprising.
::She of all people would know the effect of that power on someone unprepared for it,:: he thought. Likely the Lady herself.
Xander stirred restlessly, and a moment later, in an annoyed tone, asked: "Could you guys maybe bring me into the loop, here?"
Xander's irritation awoke Giles' own. "Gladly," he said, turning his attention back to the strangers, but speaking over his shoulder as he did so. "You remember last year... Willow's... lapse."
"Way too well," Xander confirmed, as Willow shifted uncomfortably.
"The magic I took from Giles... it was theirs," Willow said, voice low, eyes uncertain.
Xander looked at the three people across from them, expression still puzzled. "...oh." He blinked, turned back to Willow. "What?"
Giles crossed his arms. "What Willow took from me was a direct connection to the very life force of the Earth," he told Xander. "A connection I... 'borrowed' from the Guardians. The Circle protects it."
"Among other things," Hamilton agreed, still calm and genial. "After Mr. Harris here solved the immediate problem, Miss Rosenburg released it and it snapped back to its natural focus. As I recall, she had a reaction headache for days."
The girl behind him, though still smiling faintly, raised her eyebrows questioningly. Hamilton nodded in response, as if to say "yes, I'm going."
"The Una Custos," he said, cadence shifting suddenly into something more formal, although the smile remained, "and the Circle, wish to offer you a proposition."
"What sort of proposition?" Giles asked, frowning.
The girl nudged Hamilton sharply. "Oh, I'm sorry," he said, half-turning in his chair. "Rupert Giles, Willow Rosenburg, and Alexander Harris, may I introduce Jack Phillips--" the boy nodded politely, "--and his sister, Fiona, who knows this story at least as well as I do." Fiona grinned.
"Am I the only one disturbed by them knowing all our names?" asked Xander, then, in a stage whisper.
"The Circle makes it its business to keep track of the Slayer and her friends," Hamilton said, "usually with the help of a few well-placed friends on the Watchers' Council... which itself has become difficult, lately."
"You're with the Council?" Xander asked, his tone puzzled.
"No, we're not," Hamilton said, shaking his head. "We're accustomed to using their information network to keep track of the big wigs of the arcana, but for the most part they like to pretend that we don't exist. Isn't that right, Mr. Giles?"
Giles nodded. "My training mentioned the Circle only in passing, despite its being one of the most powerful and influential powers in the world. Its age rivals that of the Council, of the Slayers themselves."
"Rivalry is one of the reasons we're here," Hamilton said then, folding his hands together again. "And the explanation is rather involved."
"Explanation?" Willow asked.
"To explain our reason for being here, I have to explain some rather complex and ancient history," Matt told her, leaning back in his chair. "It goes back almost ten thousand years, to the time the Guardians became what they are."
Out of the corner of his eye, Giles saw Xander shift, raising one hand. "Question first, for those of us that didn't go to Watcher school and don't have superpowers?"
Hamilton looked at him, still patient. "Yes?"
"Guardians?" asked Xander.
"Oh," Hamilton said, chuckling. "I'm sorry, Mr. Harris. You're right." He grew thoughtful. "The Guardians... the Guardians are the protectors of the Earth, simply put."
Xander scowled. "Wow. All cleared up. Thanks."
"I thought that was what a Slayer was for," Willow said, brow furrowed.
Hamilton shook his head, slowly. "To be precise," he said, "the Slayer's power is offensive, not defensive. And the power itself is... insular."
"You mean the Reservoir!" Willow exclaimed.
"Yes," Hamilton agreed. "That's a good name for it." He smiled. "The difference between the Slayer and the Guardians is that the Slayer's power comes from a... Reservoir," he smiled at Willow, "that has been drawn from the greater current of energy, the field that permeates the world, and isolated, to serve a specific purpose.
"The Circle's magic comes from the meadhon. The field itself."
"Think of a tapestry," said Fiona suddenly, and Giles looked at her in surprise. "The world is like the picture in the middle. People, animals, living things, everything. The Eight - the Guardians - are like the knots at the edges. They aren't the whole of the image, but they're essential to keeping the image together. And if something happens to the knots..."
"...the tapestry unravels," finished Willow, shuddering a little. Fiona nodded.
"They're people?" Xander queried, and Hamilton nodded.
"They are indeed," he agreed. "Very important people."
Xander whistled. "How do you get that gig?"
"You're born to it," Hamilton told him, shrugging. "The actual mechanics of why are unknown, as are the reasons for their existence in the first place."
"We know the Guardians haven't always existed - but how they came to be..." Fiona Phillips shrugged, looking wistful. "Even our histories can't tell us that. But there are always eight Chosen at any given time, and always four male, four female."
"Usually of similar ages," added Matt, "and most frequently they appear within the Circle, but it has happened that a Chosen cropped up somewhere out in the wide world, unexpectedly, and outside the Circle."
"The Guardians serve as points of balance," Giles said then, and Hamilton nodded at him. "Of focus."
"Of what?" asked Xander.
"Of life," answered Willow, quietly, dawning comprehension in her tone. "Isn't that it? Of life force. Of everything."
"Exactly," said Hamilton.
"So this was going to be an explanation of why you're here?" prompted Xander.
"Ah, yes," Hamilton said, slumping more comfortably in his chair.
"When the Guardians first rose, one of the first things they did was make alliances."
"With who?" asked Xander.
"With the greatest magical powers of the time," Hamilton said. "The wisest and most powerful, all over the world. Over the course of a century or so, twelve major alliances were made - we call these the Covenants. We believe that originally these covenants were made with small groups within greater cultures, probably clusters of families who followed traditions of great wisdom and responsibility. You see," he smiled, the expression almost reverent, "the Guardians sent messengers offering mere alliance. An exchange of information, of protection. What they got was fealty.
"The people they approached recognised them for what they were, what they meant... and pledged themselves - and in most cases, their whole lines - to the service of the Circle. Those people, appropriately enough, are called Delegates." He grinned, and gestured to his young companions. "Fiona and Jack are members of a Delegate family whose service goes back twenty-seven--"
"Twenty-nine," Fiona corrected him.
"--twenty-nine generations, directly," Hamilton agreed, without missing a beat. "Of the Second Covenant, of Eire. Ireland. And there are other families whose service goes back significantly further." He tilted his head to one side, thoughtfully. "Most of them living their lives in normal society, and serving only when needed. All over the world."
"So what does this have to do with us, exactly?" Xander asked.
"Well..." Hamilton scratched the back of his neck. "At the time of the Covenants, a similar alliance was offered to the contemporary equivalent of the Watchers' Council. At the time they were among the most powerful forces in the world, and it only made sense to include them."
"So what happened?" Willow asked, and Giles could hear the curiosity in her tone.
Hamilton sighed, shrugged. "They refused. Adamantly. Didn't feel they needed alliance with anyone."
"Ooh. Colour me surprised," Xander muttered, amused. "So what happened after that?"
Hamilton looked at Giles. "Mr. Giles?"
"The Great Schism happened, as I recall," he said, slowly, trying to remember what little he had been taught, years ago. "Watchers' Council was split, and half their numbers disappeared." He frowned. "I didn't know it was because of the Guardians."
"I doubt they would have wanted you to know," Hamilton observed dryly. He looked up at Xander and Willow. "The Watchers, at that time, were well established. In certain circles they were reknowned - most particularly as historians, which was why the Circle approached them in the first place.
"But the Watchers refused the overtures of Delegates for decades, and finally they gave up."
"Which was hailed as a victory," Giles said, shaking his head. "That control of the Slayer had been kept within the Council."
Willow and Xander both scoffed. "'Cause that went over really well," Willow muttered to Xander.
Hamilton nodded. "The Council refused; the leaders, at any rate. But many Watchers disagreed with them, recognising, as other Covenants had done, who and what the Guardians were, and what it meant, and feeling it was their duty to join them.
"And many of them - roughly half, mostly the younger and more idealistic - left the old Council and became part of the Circle. Those first ones started the chronicling traditions we still use."
"Which work wonderfully when we're not being pillaged," muttered Fiona, darkly.
"And the Council never spoke of it again," Giles finished, again, half to himself. He was amazed. He knew that the Council kept things from its initiates - had known since he was very young, specifically, that as a matter of policy, they played down the importance of the Circle when teaching trainees, only mentioning it at all because it could not be ignored. But that the great rift between them had been borne of a thousands-of-years-old grudge...
::...more arrogant and proud than even I thought,:: he thought in disgusted wonder, shaking his head.
"But even after that," Matt was saying, "especially in times of magical upheaval, we watched the Council, because there was no better way to keep track of the Slayer, something that we did need to know about, for our own protection. Which is how we know all we know about you."
"Wait... we?" Giles said, frowning again.
"Oh," said Matt, blinking innocently with the hint of a grin on his face. "Didn't I mention that? I'm a Watcher."
As Giles retired to his trailer to make a much-needed cup of tea, he could not help but imagine what Buffy would think of Hamilton's "proposition". He supposed she'd probably have been angry.
::Raving furious is more like it.::
He shook his head, reaching for the electric kettle.
They'd been travelling more than a day, and Buffy had been sitting in the front of the lead trailer, glowering silently, not speaking to anyone. Finally she turned to him and told him to pull over, offering no other exlanation, but said it so quietly and with so little emotion that concern had made him acquiesce without asking why. They found a rest stop, as deserted as everything else, and glancing at the location sign as he pulled in he realized that they were still within fifty miles of Sunnydale. The circuitous route that Willow had plotted, to keep them away from towns, people, and the authorities, had taken them five times longer than the direct route, but they'd had to change direction three times, already, to avoid unpleasant attention. He knew the apparently fruitless travelling in circles had been wearing on her, but he'd patiently repeated, over and over again, that they had no choice.
After he'd shut off the engine, she'd sat there, hands on the dashboard, leaning forward and looking out through the windshield. A moment later, without saying anything, she'd opened the door and slipped outside, slamming the door behind her.
Giles had sighed, then followed her.
He found her standing just inside the shelter that housed the restrooms, in front of the vending machines, trying to wrestle a bag of chips from the dispensing mechanism, where it had stuck. She was just short of attacking it with her fists when he approached her, gave the machine a considering look, and then issued one well-calculated kick. The bag of chips fell obediently into the tray at the bottom. Buffy stared at it.
"I'm tired of this, Giles," she said, quietly.
He said nothing, looking at her tiredly.
"I know it hasn't been long," she said, "but this feels... like the wrong direction."
"What do you mean?"
"We're putting it off, Giles, and I don't want to."
"Putting it off."
And then Buffy hit the machine. It wobbled, and then glass tinkled slowly onto the pavement.
"I think we should go to LA," she said, still not looking at him.
She shrugged. "Angel's there, and he's got connections... he could help us until we get back on our feet."
"I don't want to hear it, Giles." She looked at him, then, eyes hard. "That there are other ways. We have to do this our own way."
"Ignoring their resources, ones that will be readily open to us, strikes me as foolish," he said, striving to keep his voice even. "In Los Angeles, we will be fugitives; one more thing that will make things harder. It's unnecessary."
"It's not unnecessary," she growled. "We have to do this, Giles. We can't do things the old way. The old way is why this happened."
"This happened because it was destined to happen, Buffy," he said again. "You know that."
"I don't care." Anger crept into her tone, and she shook her head. "I'm responsible for them. I decide what we do, and I say we do this ourselves. We can't trust the Watchers. I don't trust them. I trust me."
"You don't trust me either, then, I suppose?"
She finally looked at him, then, really looked at him, and he spied a hint of regret in her eyes, as if she'd spoken without thinking. "Giles..." her tone was almost pleading.
He stared at her. He felt, above all, tired. And even regret didn't rise in his mind, weighed down by fatigue and what he knew was final, desperate decision, as he framed his next words.
"You aren't in charge any more, Buffy."
He said it quietly, into a suddenly resonating silence, and Buffy's face froze.
He sighed, feeling himself sag. "We cannot continue this way," he said. "You know that we can't. We cannot keep avoiding moving forward, thinking something simpler will present itself. It won't."
"How dare you?" she said finally, voice almost a whisper. "After everything I've done--"
"Things are different now," he interrupted her. "We no longer have an excuse to live isolated, thinking only of ourselves. There are people out there counting on us."
"Which is exactly why we have to stick together..."
"Buffy, this is not about you!" he finally snapped, and Buffy took half a step backward.
"What are you talking about?" she demanded angrily.
"You know what he's talking about, Buffy," came a hesitant voice from the edge of the shelter. Both of them looked up to see Willow there, hands clenched together, Xander just behind her, arms crossed.
"Oh, what - you, too?" Buffy turned her back on them both.
"Hey!" Willow said, stepping forward. "Hey! Don't you act like this is some big betrayal! We were there too, remember?"
"They've got a point, Buff," Xander said, quietly.
"What are you talking about?" demanded Buffy, spinning around to face them.
"Well..." Xander looked at the ground. "Nothing personal, Buffy... it was fine when there was the big crisis, and we had to keep an eye on the prize, and everything, but... now?" He shrugged. "You have been kind of... intense."
"I'm just trying to get us somewhere safe!"
"No, you're not!" Willow said, now angry herself, and all three of them jumped in surprise. "You're not trying to do anything! Not really! If you were, you'd listen to Giles! You'd let people help us. You'd let us help you. But you're not. You still think it's just you, still a general, still in charge of everything without anyone helping you, and it's NOT! We're here and we're not stupid, and we're not weak, and you don't get to act like we're useless!"
She stopped, then, catching her breath, and Buffy stared, in shock.
"I never said that," she said, hoarsely.
"Well, you're acting like it," Willow said. "And I'm sick of it."
"I can't believe I'm hearing this!" Buffy said, almost shouting. "After everything I've done--"
"You didn't do it by yourself," Willow grated.
Buffy turned cold eyes on her, arms stiff at her sides. "Well," she said, "maybe I should have."
Without another word, she stalked past them, walking back toward the caravan.
Within an hour Buffy had moved all of her meagre belongings to the second-largest trailer, along with the half-dozen or so Slayers who had decided to go with her to LA. To Willow's dismay, Kennedy was among them.
"It's nothing personal," she'd said, giving Willow, who stood stiffly throughout, a hug and a parting kiss on the cheek, "but I've had enough of Watchers to last me a lifetime."
Dawn watched the proceedings wearing an expression that was a combination of disbelief and outrage, most of it directed at her sister. "I don't want to go," she'd said, mostly to Giles, but loudly enough for everyone to hear. "I hate LA. I want to stay here."
"Too bad," Buffy said, pushing her into the front of the RV and shutting the door firmly behind her. Andrew sent an apologetic look in Giles' direction and followed.
They were gone by mid-afternoon; Giles, Xander, Willow, Faith, and the dozen-or-so remaining Slayers remained an hour longer, and then set out, going North, and avoiding major cities. They agreed to stop only for supplies.
"You're Willow, right?"
Willow turned her head to take in the young Phillips girl, standing in the doorway of the store.
"Uh, yeah." Willow dusted off her hands and contrived to appear as if she hadn' been going through the cash register. Then she blinked, shook her head, and chided herself. Habit.
The owners of the store had fled days ago - no one was coming back for either the money in the register or the goods that several of the young Slayers, in Willow's charge, were currently engaged in pillaging. Their little group could certainly use both more than some nameless franchise owner, whose insurance had probably already covered the loss - assuming the owner was still alive, Willow reminded herself morbidly. A fair portion of the building had collapsed in the quake and they hadn't tried sifting through the rubble, yet.
From what they'd seen in the two days since Sunnydale, half of California had to be in ruins. And yet they'd seen not a single rescue vehicle.
::Must be some truth to the things we've been hearing about the outside.:: It had been more than three years since Willow, at any rate, had seen a single American newscast that even mentioned the outside world, let alone commented accurately on the state thereof.
But if what she'd heard through Giles and on the internet were indeed true, and half the American states were no longer a part of America...
::...it's no wonder they haven't sent help,:: she mused. ::They've got bigger problems to worry about.::
Willow grinned at the girl. "Sorry. I keep thinking I shouldn't be, like, setting a bad example," she said. "'Cause you're like, what - fifteen?"
Fiona nodded. "Almost sixteen."
"But I guess I don't have to worry about it with you, huh?"
"Nah. I'm already corrupt," Fiona agreed, shrugging. "You stocking up?"
Willow finished transferring what little cash she'd found from the register to the strong box she'd found under the counter. "Well, there's eighteen of us, including the girls," she said, "and the whole state's been declared a disaster area. So we figure we better."
There was a crash from the back of the store. Several silver aluminum cans rolled across the floor and out into the dusty street.
"Hey! What did I say about beer?" Willow shouted back. "Or do we need to hear the cave-Slayer story again?"
A few moments later there came a faint "sorry!" Willow shook her head.
"So, I have a question," Fiona said.
Willow looked up from counting money. "Question away."
"Matt said that you're a witch - right?"
"Last time I checked," Willow replied, somewhat uneasily. "Why?"
"Oh, I was just curious. Matt told me - well, sort of told me, after I pestered him for, like, two days, about how you were, uh... that you... that the reason Arrah contacted Mr. Giles last year is 'cause you, uh... went-evil-and-tried-to-destroy-the-world." The last part was said very quickly and then Fiona stared at her somewhat nervously.
Willow blinked at her uncomfortably. "Technically, yes. But I'm not evil now," she said quickly.
"Oh, I know," Fiona said, sithing, her nervousness vanishing.
"Oh, yeah." Fiona waved a hand dismissively.
"Well, you're not. You can tell." She said it as though it were obvious.
There were a few moments of silence, then, punctuated only by the chatter of the Slayers in the back of the store.
"Uh," said Willow eventually, "was that your question?"
"Oh, no." Fiona crossed from the door and leaned against the counter. "I wanted to ask your orientation."
Willow blinked at her. "My--"
"Like, Celtic or Gaulish?" She tucked a lock of hair behind one ear. "I guess your family's Jewish - so I'm betting Gaulish, right?"
"Um. No. Celtic. At least recently. I mean, it's all pretty broad-spectrum, but I stick close to Brid these days."
"Huh." Fiona looked disappointed. "Well there goes my theory."
"Oh - I have this ongoing argument with Belle - that's Beilenya; she's one of the Guardians - that Neo-Pagans tend to stick close to their roots, at least in parallel. Like... people from Jewish families lean toward Gaulish Wicca, 'cause it's the original template - Gaul's where the Celts came from, originally, you know..."
Willow nodded, interested. "So ones raised Christian would end up in Celtic Wicca. That's reasonable."
Fiona sighed. "Yeah, except I think I keep getting proven wrong. And Belle's awful when she wins an argument."
Willow was thoughtful. "I don't know. Most of the Wiccans I knew when I was your age started out Christian - 'course, most of those were bigtime wannabes."
Fiona grinned. "Arrah calls them 'quickies'."
Willow returned the grin. "Yeah. Those. Really teh only reason I ended up in the Celtic camp was because that's what Giles practices. I used to steal his books."
Fiona nodded, thoughtfully. "I also guess the same rules don't apply to people raised in teh Circle. The magic's too different." She clapped her hands. "I'll show Belle." She grinned. "I'm training as a chronicler, you know. She studied history, so she's always tossing stuff like this in my lap. I don't know if it's 'cause she wants to see if I can do the job or 'cause she just likes seeing me squirm."
Willow let Fiona finish her sentence before she asked the question that had been on her mind since they'd arrived. "Fiona--"
"Fi," Fiona insisted.
"Fi, then. How does your magic work? I mean, I know that's kind of a big question, but I've been wondering since you first got here. I mean, I can tell it's not conventional witchcraft. But you and your brother practically glow with magical energy, and I can't really pinpoint it. I've never felt anything like it."
For a moment, Fiona looked concerned. "I'm leaking? Damn." She seemed to concentrate a moment, and the bright tint of magic about her dimmed significantly - almost tot eh poin where Willow could no longer sense her presence. I twas as if a tap had been turned off.
Willow blinked. "How did you..."
"My fault - and Mrs. Rudy would have my butt if she knew." At Willow's puzzled look, she explained. "We had some trouble on our way here... some guy who - well, I think he was some kind of lizard... thing. Said something about wanting Jack's liver. I think." She looked faintly, briefly, green.
"There are a lot of demons making for the hills," Willow nodded. "I bet you saw a Comag demon. They, uh... like their meals rare."
"Ew," said Fiona, decisively. "Anyway, we managed to ward him off, but we had to tap into a node to do it. He took us by surprise." She looked annoyed with herself. "I guess I didn't close the link afterward. Stupid of me." She shrugged.
"Node?" Willow echoed faintly.
Fiona nodded. "Yeah - I remember reading somewhere that the main difference between what we do and conventional witchcraft is generation of energy. You don't tap nodes, do you? You have to summon power from gods and... things. Right?"
Fiona shook her head. "We just take what's offered. See?" Without hesitation she reached to Willow mentally and showed her. Willow shrank back instinctively - what Fiona showed her was unfettered power, uncontrolled, wild. A direct connection to the very life force of the Earth.
"But I thought only naturally magical creatures could use that kind of power!" Willow was astonished.
"Human beings are naturally magical creatures." Fiona shrugged. "But it's raw energy, really, really raw. I guess it'd be overwhelming without the connection through the Circle. Through Arrah."
"Arrah," Willow repeated softly. ::Areahannah. The Guardian.::
Fiona looked at her, smiling. "She said you'd met. Somethin', isn't she?"
"Does she do that to everyone?" Willow asked. Fiona grinned.
Fiona left Willow Rosenburg feeling slightly superior, and aware of the irony. She also felt, though, ever so slightly sad for the young witch. It had been a long time since she'd been in contact with users of arcane magic; she remembered being astonished by the difference, the painfully inefficient and tainted nature of arcane magic, at least from her perspective. No one using natural magic was ever turned bad by the usage, for instance.
She shivered, for a moment, in sympathy. She'd been using Circle magic so long that anything else seemed... wrong. Strange.
She found Jack sitting on the fence bordering the store parking lot, legs swinging slowly as he stared out at the dusk. "Where's Matt?" she asked, climbing up next to him.
Jack hooked a thumb back over his shoulder, towards the cluster of RVs behind him. "He went to talk to Mr. Giles again," he said. "It's been an hour."
Fiona nodded. After their initial discussion Giles had asked an hour to consider things, disappearing into his trailer, Fiona suspected for a stiff drink. The man had seemed to be suffering from mild shock, though he hid it well. "Do you think he'll come?" Jack asked, not looking at her. She looked over at her brother, amused. Jack seemed more relaxed than she'd seen him in years; even happy.
"I think so," Fi agreed. "He seemed to take our visit better than the others did." Earlier attempts at contact with other Watchers and Slayers had been worse than merely unsuccessful, their arrival met, in most cases, with cynicism and fear, although admittedly at the time the Delegates had been working with little information and under more urgent circumstances; tracking the deaths of the Potentials before the opening of the Hellmouths had been what clued the Circle into the Slayers' and Watchers' situation in the first place, and they'd tried early to bring the disparate groups together, mostly for their own protection, but had been, mostly, ignored at every turn.
Jack shook his head, smiling faintly. "What?" asked Fiona.
"Nothing," he told his sister. "After more than a year, I'm still getting used to the fact that you're a lot better at this than I am."
Fiona laughed. "You'll catch up," she said. "You just got a late start." They sat there in silence for a few minutes, Fiona swinging her legs against the fence.
"You're worried," he said quietly, after a time.
She shook her head. "Not exactly worried. Just..." She turned her head slightly, took in the group of Slayers, aided by Xander Harris, who were currently gathered around a makeshift stove, preparing an evening meal. "It occurred to me that maybe we were getting ahead of ourselves," she said.
"What do you mean?"
She shrugged. "Thinking this was going to be... not exactly easy, I don't think, but... we didn't really consider the full extent of it. Have you talked to them much, Jack?"
Jack shrugged as well, following her line of sight. "Not much. Why?"
Fiona turned back to the road. "I was talking to Willow before - the witch?" She sighed. "We're very different, you know. Us and them."
Jack turned back as well. "Ah," he said. "I see what you mean, I guess."
"Try not to look so surprised," he said, making a face at her, then appearing thoughtful. "I was thinking about it on the way here. Most of them..."
"Most of them have never even been out of the country," Fiona said. "Which, I mean... not really that much of a surprise, what with the fact that most of the Potentials that actually reached here before the big thing were American. Most of them are still scattered, out there... and most of the ones that reached here were never even called into service at all."
"You're not worried about legal stuff?" he sounded puzzled.
She shook her head. "Oh, no. Nothing like that. It's just... these people, here, Giles and Willow and... what's his name... Alexander Harris, over there... they're the core. I don't think Mr. Giles will go without the other two, or they wouldn't let him, and they're Americans."
"We're Americans," he pointed out.
"Technically," she admitted, "but you know we're not nearly as isolated as most. We've been ignoring the Insulation Act for years, now, wandering in and out of the country whenever we feel like it. They, however..." and she gestured back over her shoulder, "...haven't left Sunnydale in years, let alone the States. Most of them have barely even heard of the Union."
"I guess I see your point," he said. "The mindset has gotten kind of self-centred, the last few years."
"In the U.S., at least," she agreed. "With the inter-state regs, a lot of them barely left their home towns before this. How are they going to deal with the big wide world? We can't really ignore it. They won't be able to ignore it. Not if they do this."
"You said yourself that the majority of them aren't American."
"I know." She sighed. "But a lot of them are. I think it's going to be hardest on them." She laughed, suddenly, and he gave her another puzzled look.
"I just think it's kind of funny," she told him. "Worrying about them adapting to two totally new cultural paradigms - Union and Circle. A few years ago I hit the same thing myself, and didn't even think about it until I was already acclimated. And you managed pretty well, didn't you?"
He shrugged again. "I did all right," he said, "but remember, we do live pretty close to the border, and anyway I was paying attention to the outside world long before we really got to see it."
"Maybe it's just that we're weird," she mused. "Maybe that bodes well for the rest of them. They're certainly not normal, strictly speaking."
"Hey... 'We're weird?'" he protested. "Don't go lumping me in with you." He grinned.
"May I remind you that we come from a common gene pool?" she said, arching one eyebrow.
"All that means is that if it's genetic, I might have to medicate for it."
"Hey!" she said, grinning back, and punched him in the upper arm. Jack overbalanced and landed with an "oof!" in the dust under the fence.
"Love you too, sis," he grumbled. Fiona, smiling, ignored him.
"So, any idea?" Xander asked, looking to his left. Willow, next to him, shrugged.
"I don't know," she said. "I don't think Giles was sure."
"Well, do you think he'll accept their offer?" Xander's knee was bouncing nervously up and down.
Willow tilted her head thoughtfully to one side. "I'm sure he'll tell us when he decides."
"Well, yeah, but--" Xander paused as Willow reached out one hand and stilled his knee, looked at her. "What would you do?"
Willow gave him an odd look, long and deep and full of some knowledge he couldn't quite touch - and that couldn't be explained, or she would have tried, he knew. "They could help us," she admitted. "I trust them."
"You do?" Xander was surprised.
"You didn't meet her, Xander." Her eyes went momentarily distant. "They're bigger than... than us. They wouldn't lie. They're... I think... they're good. And if what Fiona told me is true... that kind of power... it can't go wrong."
"I guess I can see how that would appeal," Xander acknowledged. She looked at him again, cheeks flushing.
"What about you?"
Xander sighed, leaned back. "I don't know," he said. "But there's something to be said, I guess, for belonging, like that. And it would be nice, for a change, to have people watching our backs who we know aren't going to, like... go crazy, or get posessed, or run off on a well-paid killing spree in sparkly jeans, or anything. Or to be reasonably sure. Y'know." He shrugged. "Also wouldn't mind not living like this forever. Having to steal supplies every time the apocalypse comes up is getting kind of old."
Both of them sat up straighter as Matt Hamilton approached the same trailer door they'd been watching, knocked, and after waiting a moment, went inside.
"Five bucks says he takes the deal," Xander said, fumbling in one pocket.
Willow shook her head. "Sucker bet," she said.
The tentative knock on the back door of the trailer startled Giles out of his contemplation. He looked up to see Matthew Hamilton standing in the half-open door, glasses reflecting the sunset and hiding his eyes.
"You sent for me?" the younger man said, expression easy and yet careful.
Giles removed his own glasses, reached into his pocket for a hankerchief, and began polishing the lenses slowly and with great concentration as he spoke.
"I gather," he said, slowly, "That in coming here you expected to find me, in charge."
"Not expected, exactly," said Hamilton, tilting his head to one side, "more like hoped."
Giles looked up, suspiciously, but Hamilton only shrugged. "We were given to understand that if presented with this same offer, Miss Summers would have been..." he paused, then concluded,diplomatically, "difficult."
"I dare say she would have, at that," Giles agreed after a moment. "In fact that might be putting it mildly. Your research was certainly thorough."
"Had to be," replied the other Watcher simply. "This was a very complicated situation, as important to us as it is to you."
Giles raised one eyebrow. "Is that so?"
Hamilton's expression reflected frank honesty and at once a sort of buried desperation, spreading his hands. "Way back when, we lost as much as we gained," he said, seriously. "The Circle gave us a purpose we thought overshadowed the Slayer. But if there's one thing we share, Mr. Giles, it's history - and that's something the Circle has lost, more than once. And anyway," the right corner of his mouth quirked upward, "I know you've been wondering about the same things we have - like what to do in twenty years when you've half as many Slayers and no way to make new ones."
"I thought you weren't a telepath?" Giles said, with a bit of irritation.
"I'm not," Hamilton said. "But I was a doctor for a long time, and I got used to reading people." He was quiet a moment, studying him. "You're very protective of them," he said, more quietly. "It's admirable."
"It's necessary," Giles corrected him, and leaning back, laced his fingers together. "Before I decide this... I want to meet her."
"Yes," agreed Hamilton, evenly. "She thought you might."
Giles looked up again, replacing his glasses, and said, rather peevishly: "You knew everything I would do, didn't you?"
The other man shrugged. "Not word for word, move for move, but we knew what your choices were." Another shrug, and an impudent grin. "We're the best choice."
"That remains to be seen," Giles reminded him, getting to his feet. "And before we go, there is one thing I require from you."
Hamilton's expression became immediately guarded. "What would that be?"
Giles crossed his arms. "A guarantee of safe passage."
"Oh." Hamilton looked relieved. "Of course." He reached behind him for the door handle.
"Where are you going?"
"To tell Jack and Fiona," he said. "I also figured you'd want me out of here so you can make your own arrangements."
"Oh." Giles nodded, slowly, thought he hadn't actually considered what to tell the others. "Of course."
"We leave at dawn," Hamilton said then, and left, closing the door behind him.
When Xander and Willow saw Matt Hamilton leave the trailer and with a nod to the two impatiently waiting Scoobies, make his way back toward the common area (and Xander thought for a moment that the older man winked at them as he passed), both were on their feet and halfway to the door by the time it opened, and Giles appeared, looking tired, and beckoned them inside.
Xander nudged the door shut behind them as Giles leaned back against his makeshift desk and regarded both of them soberly.
"I'm leaving Faith in charge," he said, without preamble or explanation.
Xander blinked and Willow stared, then turned to look at Xander. "Did I miss the whole conversation leading up to that?" she asked, pointing at Giles.
"No, I'm pretty sure that was just plain random, Wil," Xander answered, perplexed. "Could we get a little more sense than that?" he said to Giles.
"Tomorrow, I am going..." he looked thoughtful for a moment, then continued: "Well, quite honestly I'm not sure of where, exactly. But when our visitors leave, I am going with them."
"So, we're doing it?" Willow said, "You accepted?" Listening, Xander could not tell whether the prospect fascinated and excited her or terrified her.
::Probably both,:: he thought.
"I haven't given them my answer," Giles told her. "I told Hamilton I wanted to meet the First Guardian before I decide, to discuss this with her myself." He crossed his arms. "He's agreed to take us - he's guaranteed our safe passage. Not that I fear much for our safety, but it seemed prudent to ask."
Xander's brain, dwelling still on the vagueness of where, exactly, Giles expected to be going, screeched suddenly to a halt on one point, as Giles continued, frowning: "He agreed to the journey rather quickly. I think he expected me to ask."
"Hold on," said Xander, waving his hands to halt the older man's train of thought. "You said 'we'?"
Giles, calmly, blinked at him. "Yes," he said. "Myself, and the two of you."
"You want us to go with you to fairyland?"
"As I understand it, Crystallis exists in something similar to a pocket dimension - which is why we need a guide. Apparently it is a difficult place to approach, not already knowing the way." He levelled on Xander a very patient look over the top of his glasses. "Not 'fairyland'."
"It's generally unwise to enter an unknown situation, particularly a negotiation, alone. I supposed Willow to be the most suitable candidate to accompany me," he nodded to Willow, who had still not spoken, then looked back to Xander. "And I assumed you would complain if left behind."
Xander considered that for a moment. "Oh," he said. "All right, then."
"I will be leaving Faith in charge of the others," Giles went on, glancing backward at his map-strewn desk. "There are several Watchers and a smaller group of Slayers gathering in Vancouver City - they'll be safe there, in Union territory, and we can meet them there, in a few days, one way or the other." Giles looked momentarily contemplative, into which silence Willow murmured:
"What would the Union think of Slayers, I wonder?"
Giles shrugged. "I have thus far failed to grasp this new government's policy on such things."
"Well, why wouldn't it?" asked Xander. "Ours does." He saw Willow nod at the reference to the Initiative. Giles just looked cynical.
"I have heard rumours that the Guardians may have some influence."
"Is this something we should be worried about?" Xander asked, seeing Giles frown, but the older man shook his head.
"When do we leave, then?" Willow asked, voice slightly nervous. "Tomorrow?"
"At dawn, apparently," Giles confirmed, nodding but looking none too pleased with the prospect.
"Dawn?" squeaked Willow, then sighed, amending: "Yay," in a faint voice.
"Dinner!" came the call, then, from outside. Giles motioned for the others to go ahead.
"I've some things to take care of," he told them.
"Sure," Xander agreed, opening the door, and allowing Willow to precede him. "And don't worry, we'll make sure there's something left to eat by the time you get there."
The door closed behind them with a decisive click.
Morning came unseasonably chilly for summer in California, and Willow, woken early by the change-of-watch, shivered as she dressed. Not knowing the climate of their destination, she decided on layers, zipping a hooded cardigan over a t-shirt and carrying a quilted jacket over one arm as she emerged into the cool morning air, satchel slung across one shoulder.
It was still only barely light, but around the fire she saw most of the camp was awake, and marvelled once more at the apparent disinterest the authorities had shown in them since the quake, ignoring even the smoke rising from their nightly campfires - in brushfire season, no less. If nothing else that would have worried her, made her suspect that not only were things elsewhere in the country as bad as she'd been hearing, over the Net, they were probably worse.
She was not, however, surprised that the people of Sunnydale had seemed unaware that the government was in danger of imminent collapse; the major news stations had done a good job of downplaying the situation - they always did - and in any case the people of Sunnydale had always had a talent for oblivion. Most of them, when evacuating, had fled East, where things were worst.
Approaching the fire, she saw Fiona standing next to the stove, holding out a plate for Faith to pile it with scrambled eggs. They were laughing about something, and as she saw Willow, Fi looked u and grinned. Willow smiled back, setting down her things and reaching for a plate.
She was relieved to notice that Fiona's mind was, this morning, blank to her, as was her brother Jack, standing a few paces away, silently working his way through breakfast. The wonder inspired in her by their magic had been overshadowed, yesterday, by her own instinctive reaction of smothered panic - even now, she was still rather gun-shy, although she knew, when she admitted it to herself, that too much fear was just as dangerous as overconfidence.
::You said it to Xander,:: she reminded herself. ::That kind of magic can't go bad.::
::But it's never the *magic* that goes bad,:: some part of herself whispered.
She perched on the rail surrounding the fire pit and chewed thoughtfully as she watched the others. ::Maybe,:: she thought, ::I just did it wrong, the first time. She said...:: Willow remembered the Guardian's advice, ::She said it was about balance.::
And knowing the difference between fear and caution, she supposed, but still, she couldn't quite shake a feeling of... not foreboding, exactly, but something like anticipation, although that made as little sense.
Willow sighed, and standing, went back for seconds.
Although he had been, on some level, expecting it, Giles had to strive to hide his irritation when their little group, gathered at the edge of the camp, was joined by the Delegates, all of whom looked more awake than he felt.
Hamilton greeted them brightly; to Giles' annoyance, none of the three strangers carried any baggage, save a small courier bag slung across Fiona's back, although Giles and his two charges had been advised to expect an absence of a few days. On the positive end of things, though, he supposed, that probably meant that wherever they were going, it wasn't far.
"Ready?" asked Hamilton, fastening the light jacket he wore.
"Will we be walking, then?" Giles asked, gesturing to indicate the wide, empty expanse of the desert beyond the parking lot.
Hamilton gave him a surprised look, then grinned. "Not for too long," he said. "We'll be under cover before it gets too hot, at any rate," he added, and without further elaboration, set out into the scrub, followed by Jack and Fiona Phillips. The others, after sharing a puzzled glance, followed.
Giles brought up the rear.
It wasn't quite six when they stopped - they'd been walking nearly an hour, and when Hamilton, who'd been leading, setting a brisk, patient sort of pace, did stop, Giles could not fathom why. He looked around, but could see only scrubby desert; they stood near a copse of cactus and thorny brush, indistinguishable from the hundred others just like it they'd passed over the last hour except that this one was dominated by a particularly massive formation of sun-bleached rock.
Giles looked expectantly at Hamilton, to find that the younger man was watching him with amusement.
"Just wait," said Hamilton, nodding to the Phillips boy, who approached the huge rock and moved around it, disappearing around the other side.
"What--" was as far as he got. If he hadn't been watching, he might have missed it; abruptly a large part of the rock, lower and slightly smoother than the rest, was gone. The weathered surface of the rock melted away like smoke and in its place rested one of the oddest vehicles Giles had ever seen. He heard Willow gasp.
It was lower to the ground that seemed mechanically feasible - too low, it seemed, to allow space for wheels, or tires. In fact, it seemed to have no wheels at all. It seemed almost foreshortened, as well. Gradually it dawned that there was no engine, at least not in either of the places one generally expects to find one. The length and width of it were taken up with seating, although a control panel and a steering column were mounted on the shallow dashboard. The outside panelling, interrupted by windows on the roof and the sides from about halfway up, was dark and opaque, but reflective. Solar panelling? The bottom quarter of the vehicle was encased in darker panelling, itself full of what looked like ventilation holes, nearly a hand's-width apiece, inset evenly along the bottom edge.
"Was that..." murmured Xander.
"Not magic," Fiona told him. "Machinery." Jack reappeared around the side of the car. "It's an optical illusion."
"Like a hologram?" asked Xander, cautiously enthusiastic.
Fiona grinned. "Something like."
Hamilton met Giles' quizzical look with a shrug. "We couldn't very well drive it along the interstate," he said, which was true.
It was, Giles decided, an electric car - or at least a close approximation, though if he recalled correctly this type of vehicle was driven by forced air and electromagnetics: a pneumatic car, he supposed. He'd read about them - pneumatics were part of the Union's widespread technological advancement campaigns. He'd even ridden an electric train, his last time in London; but hte Transit application in London had involved mostly upgrades on the old system, and the only real difference lay in the conveyance itself. The system map had remained almost identical. Private vehicles had long been obsolete within the city, and their use was now carefully controlled in Union countries, generally used only under special circumstances, and available only to citizens; he'd never had occasion to use one.
His suspicions were confirmed when Hamilton, opening a side-door and reaching inside, touched a control and a polymer-encased cusion, previously hidden by the lower casing, began to inflate with a low hiss. The car rose six or seven inches, until it rested on the inflated pad, silently awaiting its passengers.
"It's so quiet," said Willow with surprise.
"It's efficient," agreed Hamilton. "Noise is wasted energy, you know."
Giles was sure she did know, but she continued to stare - as well she might, thought Giles; pneumatic and electric cars were not only unheard-of in the United States, they were virtually illegal. Their introduction, and the abandonment of fossil fuels, had been one of the main reasons for the American refusal of Union membership. Certainly they couldn't have driven it up the interstate.
The sun, rising slowly, was beginning to cast darker shadows. Hamilton, glancing at the sky, apparently decided it was time to go, because he lifted the other door, leaving the whole side open.
With the doors shut, they fit snugly, although not uncomfortably. Theh car was larger inside than Giles had expected, largely because conventional vehicles were surrounded by panelling almost a foot thick. The outer shell of the pneumatic car was thin, mo more than a few inches in thickness, although sturdy and solid. THe doors closed with more of a click than a slam. Hamilton touched another control and the car came to life.
Even running, the engine emitted only a faint hum, and Giles didn't realize they were moving until the rock vanished from the right-side window. They'd risen a few more inches when the engine had been started, and looking back, Giles was surprised to see the vehicle left virtually no trail - he had half-expected a billowing cloud of dust, but the car disturbed the ground - and the air, as well, it seemed, as listening, he could barely hear the wind whistling past them - far less than an ordinary car. The craft cut easily and swiftly across the desert, seeming to meet almost no resistance, this last largely due, he guessed, to the design of its shell.
"Shall we be stopping for the night?" he asked, watching the desert flash past.
"Oh, no," said Hamilton. "We should reach Sunnydale well before noon."
"We were a day out from Sunnydale last night," Giles said, disbelieving.
"Yes," agreed the other Watcher, "via internal combustion."
Giles was silent. Willow, tone puzzled, asked: "We're going back to Sunnydale? But... there's nothing left."
Hamilton was quiet a moment before replying: "Not precisely," and Giles saw Fiona grinning mischeviously back at them in the rearview mirror.
It was a rock.
It was almost eleven o'clock and the sun was becoming yellow and warm - it had taken them less than half the time to cover the distance that had taken the caravan most of a day. Xander had been so absorbed in watching the ground blur past as they skimmed across the desert, avoiding the roads, that he almost hadn't noticed the outlying ruins of SUnnydale rising up to the east of them as they passed it, at a distance of a few miles. When he had, he'd started watching ahead. After everything that had been said the day before, he hadn't been quite sure what to expect.
He hadn't expected a rock.
Xander stood staring at it, head tilted slightly to one side, as the others climbed out behind him. Vaguely he registered some conversation among the Delegates, and peripherally he saw the car being maneuvered around the far side of the rock, supposedly to be melted back into invisibility via the cloaking device. It was all so Star Trek, he thought, taking a few steps to the left to examine the rock from a different angle. He wasn't sure what he was looking for - a button, a keypad, a big, flashing sign...
Fiona came to stand beside him. He looked down at her from a good foot above, and pointed. "It's a rock," he said.
She looked, then nodded at him. "Yup," she agreed, "definitely a rock."
"Do you guys just really like rocks, or are we hopping a rock-shaped spaceship, here?"
Fiona giggled. "No, no spaceships," she said. "Sorry," she added, and Xander crossed his arms, realizing belatedly that he had felt briefly disappointed. "Don't worry, though," she consoled. "It's much cooler than a space ship."
Xander stared at her, stared at the rock. ::Teenagers,:: he thought. ::Why do I only know teenagers with super powers?::
"Ready to go?" asked Hamilton then, and Xander turned to see the Watcher approaching them, guiding Giles and followed by Jack Phillips. Willow came to stand next to Xander.
He leaned forward a little. No, he decided, still a rock.
"Where are we going, exactly?" asked Giles.
"Or, actually, how?" added Willow.
It was a rather large rock, Xander supposed, stepping back again. Four times his height, and bleached whiter than some of the others they'd passed this morning. It was weathered and cracked like the others, but the weathering seemed, somehow, to have assumed a different pattern, here. The rockface was scored with pockmarks and cracks, but the damage all seemed to frame the area directly in front of them. He stepped back a little more; there was a part of the rockface that seemed to have remained unaffected by the passage of time, smoother and unmolested in comparison to the surrounding stone. In fact, it was almost as if the damage had been deflected; looking up, he followed, with his eyes, a crack that seemed to have begun at the top of the rockface, carrying on diagonally toward the ground, that actually seemed to have stopped at once side, and then continued on the other, as if without interruption. Tilting his head, he squinted; the smooth area almost seemed to form the shape of... a door. Arched at the top and taller than him by a foot or so, a little wider than his outstretched arms... it was a door.
"Is that..." he looked at Fiona again, but the girl was stepping forward to lay one hand on the smooth stone, right at the edge of the weathered area. She looked back over her shoulder, and grinned.
"Watch this," she said, and turned back, closing her eyes.
Xander didn't quite catch all the words, but Fiona murmured something - a few sentences in a flowing, smooth language that he'd never heard before - and then there was a moment where the air around them seemed to thicken and stretch...
Willow grabbed his arm, reacting convulsively, as something - something powerful, because even Xander could feel it, distantly - deep beneath them surged for an instant. There was a flash of bright blue light.
When Xander looked again - he found he had closed his eyes instinctively - the smooth area on the rockface... he had to look again, because for a moment his eyes were fooling him.
The smooth area on the rock, now clearly outlined in faintly-glowing blue, seemed to have vanished. Or changed, he couldn't decide. The door - for it was, now obviously, a door - was surrounded by a dozen or so symbols, none of which he recognized (and stealing a glance at Willow, he saw that she didn't, either). The area within the archway, itself, was... rippling.
Not exactly rippling. But it seemed to have been altered, so that the smooth stone now appeared to be liquid, or fluid, and was moving, very slowly, as if moved by a current. Xander felt suddenly drawn to touch it, even as his common sense reminded him firmly to stay the hell back.
"Now that," Fiona told Xander, looking amused, "is magic."
"That's... a lamius andron," exclaimed Giles, behind him, in a hushed voice.
"A what?" Xander turned to look at him.
Giles stared for a moment before blinking and looking at him: "It's... it translates loosely to... 'corridor of wizards'. It's also known as a pius porta - 'holy door' - or--"
"Or terra porta," provided Fiona, as Giles turned to look at her with surprise. She smiled. "Though we just call them Earth Gates. Or Gates. The big latin names get a bit wordy for regular usage."
Giles nodded, slowly, his eyes drifting back to the door itself. "In the ancient world, they were said to be used by wizards, by gods... engraved in stone, in ancient trees, secreted away in the hearts of fallen castles, that sort of thing. But I thought they were only legend."
Xander laughed, as did Willow. Giles gave them a tolerant look. "Yes, well. This is rather one of the big ones. The legend long predates any documentation. It survives largely through oral history."
"As is the case for us, I'm afraid," said Hamilton. "The Circle has been using the Gates for generations, but even we don't know who made them, in the first place. But there are hundreds of them, in the damndest places, too."
"Like in the bowels of the Calgary sewer system," Fiona said, shuddering.
"And we're going to go through that..." Willow pointed at the doorway, "to get where we're going?" Her voice sounded a little high and strained. Xander sympathised.
"It's perfectly safe, and confidentially, a hell of a lot faster than our other options," Hamilton told them.
Xander turned to look at Giles, whose attention had been drawn back to the open Gate. "I never thought I'd step through one myself."
"It's your call, G-man," Xander said, shrugging, though casting an uneasy glance toward the Gate. But Giles was already stepping forward, not even bothering to glare at him for the nickname.
"Okay, then," muttered Xander, as Jack Phillips preceded them, stepping through the door and vanishing, with nary a ripple to the dark space within the arch. Willow paused at the threshold, reaching out one hand to touch the not-quite-fluid space of the doorway.
"It feels... warm," said Willow, sounding surprised. "Like water."
Fiona nodded. "It feels a bit like that once you're in, too - no resistance." She saw Willow's hesitation, and gestured her forward. "It doesn't hurt, or anything," the younger girl assured them both. "Just remember - the trip only lasts a second or two. You'll feel like you've lost your balance but it's really more like you're stepping straight through to the other end. So don't flail or anything or you'll fall on your face when you come out."
"And try to breathe normally," added Hamilton. "It feels like water, but it isn't, really - you aren't going to drown. Just focus on the destination."
"What if we lose our concentration? Mightn't we end up somewhere else?" Giles asked.
Hamilton shook his head. "No - this isn't teleportation, where knowledge of the destination depends on the traveller. This is a stable portal - a corridor, as you said. The origin and destination are set - hardwired, you might say," he said, with a smile for Willow. "This door is connected to the other end - that's what the spell is for: what Fiona did when she activated it."
"All right, then," said Giles, stepping up to the door, and Xander saw that he was as eager as he was nervous - he wished he could say the same. "Wish me luck."
Then, fists clenched at his sides - and Xander could have sworn he heard the older man take a deep breath - Giles stepped forward, and disappeared, like slipping underwater.
Willow stiffened next to him. He squeezed her hand. "No problem, Wil," he told her, trying to sound more self-assured than he felt and quite certain that she saw right through it. "On three." They stepped up to the Gate together. "One, two..."
"..three!" They stepped forward, and were swallowed by darkness.
Fiona bent down to retrieve her bag, slung it over one shoulder, and smiled, broadly. "That went well," she observed, and was rewarded with a smile from Matt, who dropped an arm around her shoulders and squeezed.
"Yes, Fi," he agreed, as they stepped up to the Gate, "I would say that most definitely went well."
He looked back, taking in the empty stretch of desert, the hulking ruin of Sunnydale on the horizon, and the pale and cloudless sky. Fiona followed his gaze. "An excellent beginning," he said. "Now the hard part begins."
Together they stepped through the Gate, vanishing after the others.
Gradually, the glowing outline of the Gate dulled to nothing, and the empty doorway faded back to its natural state of weathered stone. A few seconds later, nothing remained of their presence but footprints and the dust of their passage, hanging heavy in the morning air.
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