The journey back to the Island passed in stunned silence. Terren walked slowly, clearly exhausted, with Katia and Arrah supporting him on either side. Matt walked next to them, his face still paper-white. Molly and Beilenya walked together, and Jack, Annie and Fiona trailed along behind the rest. No one said anything until they reached the Gate, and everyone passed through as quickly as possible. Everyone wanted to leave Aislinn Park behind them.
The late afternoon sunlight streaming into the Great Hall through the tall windows seemed, somehow, false and inappropriate. It took a lot of effort on Jack's part to remember that what they'd seen half an hour ago had happened two *days* past. Still, the image seemed uncomfortably near, unpleasantly real. He tried to put it out of his mind, to think of something else, but the mental image of Marya Bico's mangled body still remained with him. He wondered whether it would ever go away.
::...what a moment ago had been merely dark shapes became a hungry force surging after her. She could feel it at her back. She could feel its hunger, an alien savagery from a mind she could not comprehend, and she dared not try...::
He shuddered, shook his head as if he could shake the image from his mind, rid himself of the memroy of the dark, slinking *things* lurking in Aislinn Park, and lurking around the edges of his memory.
::Those things killed Dad,:: he thought, watching Arrah as she stood staring around at them. She looked as shaken as he felt, possibly more. He dared not meet eyes with his mother.
"Matt?" The Watcher looked up when Arrah said his name, as if surprised to find other people in the room.
"I need to know what you know about this. And now." Areahannah was pale, and she seemed torn between the situation and concern for Terren, who for his part seemed close to collapsing again. Jack stole a glance at Annie and saw her fighting to conceal the same state. He surreptitiously stepped closer to her, just in case she actually *did* collapse like she'd done before; he saw Lann standing close to her other side, apparently with the same plan in mind. He envied neither Terren nor Annie - this was not a "Gift" he would want.
"Not *now*," said Katia sternly, so sternly that Arrah glanced at her with obvious surprise. "Right *now*, you are going to bed for two hours. That's an order."
Arrah started to protest: "Katia, there's no time. If this is as bad as Matt says it is, we've got to call an Assembly, and warn the Delegates, and someone needs to--"
"Oh, no, you don't," Katia interrupted her. "In medical matters I *outrank* you, First Guardian -- unless you plan to change that?" She gave Arrah a challenging glare, and the First seemed to shrink back slightly, and shake her head. "I'm telling you that *he* needs rest --" she nodded in Terren's direction, "-- and isn't going to get it passed out alone in your rooms. The Delegates can handle it without you for two hours - and it will take that long to get the other Watchers together, won't it, Matt?" She looked sharply at Matt, who was watching the entire exchange as if without seeing it. He actually jumped when Katia addressed him.
"Yes, yes, of course," he said, and Katia turned back to Arrah.
"There, you see? Now go to bed before I get someone to carry you there."
Areahannah seemed about to say something more, but she seemed to think better of it, and sighed. "All right," she said reluctantly. "Two hours." She turned and walked slowly from the Great Hall, Terren leaning heavily into her arm.
"I'm timing you!" Katia called after them. Then she turned on the remainder of the expedition. "And as for the rest of you--"
"Don't tell me, I'm already going," said Beilenya, halfway out the door. She beckoned to Molly. "I'll toss Molly into a room on my way past."
Katia set her glare on Molly, who went without further argument. That left only Jack, Annie, and Fiona - and Matt, still leaning against the table, looking pale and disturbed.
"You three," Katia said, "Especially you, Annie - Fiona, can you take them to your room? There's plenty of space in there, and I get the feeling that the place is going to fill up pretty fast in the next two hours."
Fiona nodded. "There's five times as much room as I've ever needed," she said, shrugging. "Come on, guys." She started out, and Jack followed a bit more slowly, half-carrying Annie, who by this time was beginning to stumble every other step. Katia nodded approvingly, then turned to Matt.
"I've got to notify the others, Kay," he said, holding up his hands before she could order him to bed. "I promise I'll pass out in an appropriate place immediately after I do - though I don't know if I'll be able to sleep."
Katia crossed back to the table and put her arms around him, her expression softening to one of concern. "Don't worry," she said quietly, kissing him on the cheek. "You'll sleep - even if I have to nudge you into unconsciousness."
Matt sighed. "You're too good to me," he said wryly.
Jack couldn't help but smile as they left the Hall.
By the time they reached Fiona's rooms, Jack was carrying Annie - in fact he stopped to scoop her up not five minutes after they left the Hall. Annie made a token attempt at protest, but was soon half-dozing against his chest. Jack tried not to notice just how light she was - it was like carrying a child.
"Is she going to be okay?" he asked his sister uncertainly over Annie's head. Fiona glanced over her shoulder at the slumbering Annie and shrugged, shooting him an encouraging smile.
"Aside from one heck of a headache when she wakes up? She'll be fine. Don't worry." Then she stopped, and set her hand on the join between one of many identical sets of carven double doors along the hallway they were standing in. The door creaked, then swung ponderously open. Jack blinked at it, and followed Fiona into her rooms without a single comment.
As the doors closed behind them, Jack looked around, and decided that "rooms" was not an adequate description. The plural certainly applied, though perhaps "suite" would be more accurate. Tall windows faced him from the opposite wall, and to the left and right opened wide, brief corridors - one of which led to what was obviously a bedroom. This room, the living room, was scattered with low, squashy-looking furniture and cushions - Jack set Annie gently down on something that vaguely ressembled a futon, and straightened up just in time to catch a stack of blankets that Fiona threw at him from the bedroom door. Two pillows followed.
"You can leave her there," Fiona said. "There's a sort of a little nook... thing... through there." She pointed down the other corridor, which, when Jack looked, proved to terminate with a long windowseat, also covered in squashy cushions. "She won't be waking up for a couple of hours, at least."
Jack stared down at Annie, who seemed quite peacefully asleep. "I don't know if I'll be able to," he said doubtfully, "Sleep, I mean." He looked up to see Fiona give him a knowing look.
"I used to feel that way after... well, after things like this," she said, yawning. "Take my word for it. You only feel that way until you hit the pillow. Good night, Jack." She turned and vanished through the door, waving absently at him over her shoulder until the door closed behind her.
Jack turned back to the couch. Annie was halfway through sitting up, looking at him with eyes half-open. "Oh," she said as Jack came closer. "Hey, Jack."
"Annie, you should go to sleep..."
"C'mere," she said, gesturing to him. Her words were slurred as if she were intoxicated - but Jack knew over-extension well enough to know that this was merely the effect of over-using one's powers. It was a state very much like intoxication - judgement was impaired, motor skills...
Jack sat down, and was very much surprised when Annie pounced him like a small child, latching onto his arm. "I didn't like it, Jack," she said in a low voice. "It was... I didn't like it." She was shaking her head, and her eyes were fixed on some point beyond the open window.
"What you saw... in the park, you mean?" he asked. Annie nodded.
"I know I wanted... something. I'm not a mundane anymore, but now this... I always felt bad for Terren. I actually thought... anything but that." She turned her head suddenly, looked at him. "It must be like he doesn't even have privacy in his own thoughts. Even in dreams. All the things he sees... they're always there. He can't get away."
Most of Annie's weight was settled on his shoulder now, and as she looked at him he saw, through the haze of exhaustion, real fear in her eyes. He recognized it abruptly as something he'd seen in his own face several months earlier.
"You were scared too, weren't you, Jack?" she asked. Jack blinked at her.
“I was...” he blinked down at her, finding her looking at him with great intensity. "Annie... Kay said you should sleep--"
“You don't want to talk about it. That's okay. You never want to talk about it.” She snuggled into his arm, and Jack found himself relieved that he was no longer the object of her direct scrutiny. Another side-effect of this state was that shields often became unstable, and while he didn't worry much about picking up something Annie would rather keep to herself – Annie wasn't much for secrets at the best of times – he himself was close enough to exhausted to have little confidence in his own shields.
“Really, Annie,” he said again, nudging her slightly. “If you don't sleep, Katia will know, and I think I'm the only one she'll skin alive...”
"Oh, she'll be too busy with Matt," Annie said matter-of-factly. "Even though she *says* she'll knock him out, she almost never really does. She doesn't like using her powers that way."
Jack looked down at the top of Annie's head. She sounded almost lucid. "Then how does she..."
"Oh, you know," Annie's voice held a knowing tone, and he could tell she was smiling even though he couldn't see her face. Jack felt himself growing warm with embarrassment. Annie pushed herself up on one elbow and looked at him for a moment.
"Jack," she said with amusement in her voice, "You're blushing!" She giggled softly before settling back down. "I bet I could make you blush redder if I tried," she said. "I mean, here I am, at your mercy..."
"Oh, stop being such a gentleman," she chided him, yawning. "You're always like that. Makes me feel like I'd be..." she yawned again, "...taking advantage of you. If I did anything..."
She fell silent, then, and presently Jack realized that she was asleep – in his lap, quite immovable. He stared down at her slumbering form, frozen with surprise. Had she just said what he thought she'd just said?
After a while his discomfort ebbed, as exhaustion finally overtook him. He fell asleep just as the light of sunrise began to creep across the sky.