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Keep on going, pt. 10b







The word "Hum" is a word used, in this universe, by mutants and less frequently by the Gifted, to denote the lack of mutations or similar powers. The full term is "humdrum", connoting, obviously, mundanity and normality, usually in a detrimental way. It originally came into use in reaction to the term "mutie," used by anti-mutant groups as a slur. Most polite people don't use either word, though among Delegates it's lost its offensive connotation, for the most part, and in any case, Maggie and Miranda are very young, and grew up, after all, in the States, where there are no mutants... at least, not anymore.



---



The first thing Jack registered as he stepped out of the Gate the next morning, dirty and weary, were his cousins, barelling across the floor of the Great Hall toward him at top speed.



For several long moments he stood staring - he hadn't seen Maggie or Miranda for over a year, and although he had assumed that they would be brought to the Island during such a mission (this mission, especially), he had not expected them. His indecision kept him frozen just long enough for the twins to tackle him, laughing.



"Jack!" they cried in unison, then commenced chattering enthusiastically in tandem.



"Oh, don't be such a baby," Maggie scolded cheerfully, when he winced. "We asked Mom,"



"And she said you weren't hurt," said Miranda.



"Which is why we greeted you first," finished Maggie. "Hi, Jack!"



"Hi, brats," Jack said, a little winded, trying to get up and succeeding, finally, only through the careful application of tickling. The twins shrieked and leapt off him.



He was momentarily taken aback by their cheerful composure - Maggie and Miranda were young, it was true, but given recent events he wondered that they could be so carefree. Delegate children, he knew, lived most of their lives with the constant knowledge that life was not safe, with the everpresent subtle reminder that parents, family, and any kind of security could be pulled away at any moment.



Then again, he thought, maybe that made appreciation of the good times even more important. Certainly the adults around him seemed to be mimicking Maggie and Miranda's attitude.



He regarded his young cousins with some puzzlement for a moment; something about them seemed different, something that he could not quite place. They were dressed in traditional Circle garb, lightweight gauze-like chemises in cream and white under sleeveless tunics and jackets in green, blue, and brown, decorated in simplistic geometric patterns. Both children wore soft, laced mocassin-like boots. More often children wore traditional garb than did adults, children being more frequently contained within Circle life than adults, who spent much of their time in the outside world. Still, many adults reverted to traditional clothing when within the confines of Crystallis. Typically children dressed this way when training; the tradition of Circle clothing had evolved over millennia from the dozens of human cultures that comprised it, and for the most part it lent itself well to practical pursuits such as martial training. The vast majority of Delegate children regarded their Circle wardrobe as a source of pride; it wasn't surprising, Jack supposed, considering the lack, in Circle philosophy of many other such boasts.



Maggie and Miranda were no exception, and indeed he remembered his mother telling him that they'd recently gone through a growth spurt; he caught Maggie admiring the toe of one supposedly new boot for a moment before she looked back up at him with a grin.



Then he realized the difference - both girls were not only looking at him, but touching his shields gently, in the waiting, attentive (albeit ever so slightly overzealous) mental posture associated with the young and Gifted.



"Wait. You two have--"



"Manifested!" chorused both girls joyfully, Miranda doing a little twirl, and Maggie clenching her fists before her with excitement. Jack wasn't sure if he'd imagined it or not, but he could have sworn that a slight breeze whooshed past them as Miranda twirled.



"Last night!" said Maggie, looking at her sister.



"Mom woke us up and shielded us, and then--" agreed Miranda enthusiastically,



"--and we could feel something sort of pushing from outside, which was impossible, 'cause we were in the Fortress, so obviously that couldn't happen--"



"--but she said the monster was trying to find us so she told us to concentrate on being closed off, and she said that even if we weren't gifted we could still shield a little--"



"--and so we pushed out and then there was this sort of roaring and then there was a really big roar, and then all of a sudden there was all this noise--"



"--and then the shield just sort of jumped up out of nowhere and then Mom looked at us and she said--"



"--she said 'Girls!' and she looked scared and surprised but really, really happy--"



"--and then she passed out. And that was scary, but--"



"--but when she woke up all the other moms and dads were sort of pushed in next to us and she looked at us and she started crying and said she was really, really proud--"



"--and now we're not Hums anymore!" finished Miranda, in a pitch that had just about exceeded Jack's ability to hear it, and paused for breath while Jack looked from one another in surprise.



"You... manifested," he said.



"Yup!" they affirmed, in unison.



"Last night," he said.



Both girls nodded so hard he thought their heads might snap off and roll away across the marble floor.



"While we were... oh. Wow." He shook his head.



Maggie looked puzzled. "What's wrong?"



"Nothing." He grinned. "Just thinking how there's absolutely no doubt that you two are related to my sister, is all."



"Come on, Jack," Miranda said then, pulling on one hand while Maggie took charge of the other. "Mom wanted you and Auntie Molly to come up to our rooms as soon as you got here."



Jack looked up to see his mother already being led down the hallway that led to private quarters by a pair of garb-clad boys Jack didn't recognise, but who looked about eight and Jack could only assume had assigned themselved impromptu pages.



Jack allowed himself to be led, and they were halfway to the stairs before something Maggie had said earlier finally registered. "Uh, Maggie," he said hesitantly, his jubilant and triumphant mood fading, "You said you asked your Mom and she said I wasn't hurt?"



"Yup," Maggie said, nodding and sending her sister a strange look. "We didn't want to jump on you if you had broken bones, or something. We're not stupid, you know," she said, grinning, though the expression held a trifle less cheer than it had a few minutes ago.



"Did she tell you anything else? Is everyone else..."



Maggie and Miranda slowed - so slightly that if he were not accustomed to children of such clever and resourceful (and sometimes downright manipulative) natures, he might not have caught it (and sensing the faint change in their moods helped) - and looked at each other again, then looked up at him.



"Oh," said Maggie, more soberly, which sent Jack's stomach plummetting pre-emptively southwards.



::They wouldn't have been told first, if it were anything serious,:: a little voice in his head reminded him sternly.



"Nobody told you?" Miranda said, not letting go of his hand.



"Tell me what happened," he said firmly, willing himself to remain calm, and wondering that he managed.






Sunnydale had ceased to exist.



What had been a small town, relegated to suburbian mundanity - with the notable exception of more resident vampires, per capita, than any other town in the continental United States - was now a rubble-filled crater, the Wal-Mart sign still faintly visible from the edge, nearly a mile above. The crater was a perfect circle, and neither the Delegates ringing the crater or the small troupe of Sunnydale natives now winging their way South along the interstate could have said whether that was as a result of the witch's spell, or because of the shield the Delegates had set to protect the surrounding countryside.



At the moment, however, none of them were paying much attention to the unsettling symmetry of the disaster.



"Mina, wait for us!" shouted Alan Saras, pushing dark-rimmed glasses distractedly up his nose as the panicked teenager quickened her steps, outdistancing he and Trisha. Finally Trisha broke into a run to catch up.



"I can't wait!" Mina called back, voice high and urgent. "He's hurt, and he's not answering me."



At the climax of the spell, as the witches in Sunnydale had completed their work and the hellmouth, half-open, had surged with something like frustration, the ground had begun to shake, creating a quake that had thrown most of them off their feet. It had also collapsed a rockface at the north side of the town, near the place where Annie Thelen and Jason Quade, Mina's brother, had been standing.



The others had tried to warn them, that the quake was travelling along the ground, that the rockface was unstable - but the magic heavy in the air, the energy being drawn to and released from the shield and the hellmouth, had combined to make communication at that distance impossible. They had all watched helplessly as the cliff vanished in a plume of dust. There had been a burst of terror and surprise from both teenagers, and then - nothing.



Now Delegates were converging on the spot, Mina leading the group. She didn't wait for Trisha and Alan, but sprinted on ahead. She reached the spot first, and stood frozen in terror as the others reached her. Before her was a pile of of broken stone and dust, and no sign of Annie or her brother.



She had her eyes closed and was straining, once more, to reach him, when a hand fell on her shoulder. It was Helena.



"I can't hear him," Mina said desperately, moving forward, but Helena held her back, gently.



"Mina - is he alive?" the older woman asked, eyes calm.



Mina bit her lip, nodded.



"Then he may be merely unconscious," Helena said, turning as the others clustered around them, Chayson at the forefront. Next to him, one hand on his shoulder as if being led, Jeri wore a look of abstracted concentration, face turned toward the rubble.



"They're definitely alive," she said softly, eyes unfocused. "But they're out - and there's a lot of rock on top of them," she snapped back into focus and shuddered, looking at Mina, who tried to take Jeri's words as reassurance. Among her other gifts Jeri also had Healing abilities - nothing compared to Katia, but she was skilled and also possessed a powerful, if not always consistent, prescience. She got her strongest visions in debilitating, seizure-like attacks - but her "feelings" about things were generally reliable.



Jeri did not seem to be panicking. Mina, therefore, took a deep breath - as deep as she could manage in the dust-choked air - and forced herself to be calm.



"Ideas?" Chayson asked briskly, looking around at the assembled Delegates.



"Are there enough strong TKs among us to lift it?" asked Alan Saras.



"Everyone who can lift more than twenty kilos raise your hand," Chayson said.



Andrew Llwellyn raised his hand. No others came up after it. "And I can't do it myself," he pointed out. "I'd get halfway into the pile and run out of juice."



"There goes that idea," Chayson said, sighing.



"Megan?" Helena said, looking at her niece, who gave the rockpile a speculative look, and shook her head, slowly. "I couldn't possibly carry them out," she admitted. Megan Llwellyn was in her mid-thirties, but a hair under five feet tall. Her primary gift was an ability to phase herself, and others, through solid objects. "Maybe Annie," she said, "But she'd be dead weight, unconscious, and Jason outmasses me by a good ten kilos, at least."



"And there's no way I can teleport them," Chayson finished, shaking his head. "I can't touch them, and even if Megan got me within touching distance, I can't do it phased."



"I guess that leaves us the old-fashioned way," Victoria Llwellyn said, rolling up her sleeves, twisting her wild, curly black hair into an untidy topknot, and starting forward.



Mina felt a rush of gratitude toward her old friend, and followed, dropping her jacket on the ground behind her.



Some fifteen minutes later, Trisha, digging furiously with both hands, called out that she'd found an arm, and the others converged on that spot. Slowly they uncovered the prone forms of Annie and Jason, and lying between them, paws over his ears, was Laan, so covered in dust that he looked yellow. The panther looked cautiously up at the rescue party, drew himself up into a sitting position with great dignity, and then sneezed. And sneezed again. Then he turned to nosing, gently, at Annie's unconscious face, making mewing noises more suited to a housecat than the huge jungle cat he was. Helena gently shooed him away; Laan subsided with a low rumble, and padded over to sit a few feet away, watching the proceedings intently with his tail curled around his paws.



They carefully extracted Annie and Jason from the rubble, and then Mina crouched over her brother as Jeri checked them both for injuries.



"They've both got concussions; I can't tell how severe," she said. "No spinal cord injuries, but there are broken bones - neither of them's going to be walking to the Gate."



There ensued a five-minute debate on whether or not the others should put them on pallets and take them back to the Gate on foot. Mina bent over Jason, still trying to reach him, but he was still unconscious; as was Annie, when she checked. Victoria came to crouch next to her.



"Are you up to the hike, if they go for option B?" she asked, and Mina frowned, shaking her head.



"I should stay with them," she said.



"Are you okay?" Victoria asked, frowning, herself, then the frown deepened.



"It is not your fault," she said firmly. Mina started; Victoria must have caught the fleeting edge of her thoughts.



She didn't look up from Jason's still face. "Chayson only re-assigned her because I made her go back into town," she muttered. "It was stupid, Vicky. If we hadn't, we would have been on the other side of the crater, and Jason would have been with your mum."



"Mina," Victoria said, her voice pitched uncannily like her mother's; practical and no-nonsense. "You heard Jeri. They'll get them back to the Island and Kay will see them and they'll be fine."



"I know," Mina acknowledged, softly. "It's just scary, Vicky." She wiped the dust from Jason's face with the edge of her sleeve. "I'm supposed to take care of him."



Vicky put an arm around her shoulders and squeezed.



"All right," said Chayson as the debate dispersed. "I won't be long." He straightened, stepped back from the others a few steps, and vanished in a flash of violet light.



Mina looked up at Jeri and Helena, who were bent in conference. "What's going on?"



"He's going to get a couple more strong teleporters and send them back here, Mina," Jeri said, smiling reassuringly. "It won't be long. Then we can follow them back through the Gate." Few Delegates aside from the Guardians could teleport, and even the Eight tired quickly. Chayson was among the strongest, but even he didn't 'port outside emergencies. The fact that they were resorting to it now did nothing to shore up Mina's certainty that everything was fine.



"It's just a precaution, Mina," Victoria reminded her. "Protocol. You know that."



Mina nodded uncertainly. She did know - knew that if it were really urgently serious, if their lives were in immediate danger (providing Sunnydale weren't now a crater and the site of the disaster attracting a suspicious lack of emergency vehicles), that they would have resorted to civilian hospitals. And she knew that in this life, people got hurt. She knew that Jason knew that - that Annie probably did, too.



None of that made her feel any better.






Jack found his aunt reclining at her ease in the large, windowed and balconied chamber known as the sunroom. She was not alone; she was surrounded by half a dozen school-age children, several cradling infants or playing with toddlers. Probably their parents had been out in the field, with the shielding teams - and it occurred to Jack suddenly, with a jolt that passed quickly, that many of their parents might not be coming back, at all. He'd been told, as they left Aislinn Park in the early hours of the morning, that eleven Delegates had died in the previous night.



Next to his aunt was his mother, who was smiling in a very quiet way, head bowed slightly. Jack was careful not to look at her as Melinda noticed him.



"Jack!" she greeted, holding out her arms to hug him. Jack submitted to the embrace with only a twinge of hesitation, most of that from the corresponding twinge in his lower back. He hadn't really realized it, but now that the adrenaline was fading, he was aching all over. His aunt saw it, and gave him a chiding look. "Have you been checked over by a Healer?" she asked, one eyebrow raised.



Almost by reflex, he sent a pleading look in his mother's direction; his mother half-smiled and shook her head. "Katia checked everyone before we came back," she said.



"I don't know," Melinda said dubiously. "He flinched. I saw him."



"I'm just sore," Jack said, "Not hurt."



"We checked," added Miranda, grinning.



Melinda regarded her daughters mock-critically. "Well, then he must be fine, given your method of checking," she said. Both girls giggled.



A chorus of corresponding giggles rose from the assembled room of children, and Melinda craned her neck to see why; Jack turned to see two of the older children leading a tottering toddler carefully across the floor, to the delight of her older brother.



Melinda sighed and reached for an empty mug at her elbow. Peering inside, she heaved herself to her feet. "Can you take over for me, Molly?" she asked, indicating the room full of children. "I need more coffee."



Molly nodded, settling herself in the seat her sister in-law had abandoned. Melinda started for the door, looking back as she reached it. "Walk me to the kitchen, Jack?"



Jack blinked in puzzlement, and with a look back over his shoulder at his mother, who shrugged, followed.



The architecture of the Island was a baffling hodge-podge of several thousand different years of styles, and the common kitchen was no exception. The big room had been converted, fifty years ago or so, into kitchen, by way of wiring and counters and a big, rectangular table in the middle that was mostly used for baking during large gatherings. The newest additions reflected a 1950s sort of flair, speckled formica and all, though the appliances were mostly less than five years old, probably for the sake of efficiency; Crystallis's electricity came mostly from solar and wind-powered generators, and although the technology had undergone a great deal of advancment in the past decade or so, thanks to the technology standards projects instituted by the Union in its own first decade, out here, isolated as they were, it was still prudent to use as little as possible.



Melinda reached for the coffee pot just as rain began spattering against the bubbly glass panes of the wide, Victorian-style windows that took up half the East wall. Jack took it as a good sign, though couldn't be sure exactly why.



"Aunt Melinda," Jack said, watching his aunt add cream and honey to her coffee mug. "Maggie and Miranda... they said..."



Melinda looked up at him, spoon turning in the cup of its own accord, and Jack took it as a sign of personal growth that this did not even make him flinch. "Yes, dear?"



"I heard people were hurt... in Sunnydale." Jack wasn't sure how, but he had gone from distantly calm to rigidly terrified in the space of about four seconds.



This was not helped by the way his aunt froze, and turned to look at him very carefully. "What did you hear?"



"Nothing." He shrugged. "They told us, before they came back, that eleven people died... last night."



Melinda sighed, shoulders drooping in relief. "Oh, Jack. You had me worried you'd heard something I hadn't. She was hurt, but Annie's fine, honey." She squeezed his upper arm, then, shaking her head, reached for her coffee. The cup was white with a leaf pattern and the words "Oregon Shakespeare Festival" blazoned across the side. He started at the mention of Annie's name, not aware until just that moment how worried he had been - how the thought had been lurking at the back of his mind for the past hour and a half.



"I must seem unforgivably morbid to you, mustn't I? Smiling and making jokes," Melinda said, shaking her head again. "I'm sorry, dear. Eleven must sound like a lot - but relatively speaking... we got off easy." She patted his arm again. "We learn to be grateful," she added.



Jack took a deep breath, steadying himself, trying to stay awake - he suddenly felt very, very tired.



Melinda crossed the kitchen, sagged into a wooden chair next to the table. "Come here, Jack," she said, patting the chair next to her.



Jack crossed the flagstoned floor and sat down next to her. "I wanted to talk to you," his aunt said. "I wanted to tell you how proud of you I am."



Jack blinked at her in surprise. "You..."



Melinda smiled at him. "We all are. Your mother especially, though I don't think she's quite up to saying it, yet."



Jack didn't answer. Mention of his mother in this context still woke in him a tide of accusation; his aunt must have sensed it, because she tilted her head at him quizzically. "It's understandable, sweetheart."



"What is?"



"You're still angry," Melinda said simply, and Jack opened his mouth to reply, but his aunt stopped him with a finger to his lips. "I know she never talked to you," she said. "That was a mistake; she made a great many mistakes. She knows that, dear. She hasn't said so because she is where you get your stubbornness."



Jack, again, said nothing, only stared sullenly.



"Oh, your father was plenty stubborn, too - if he hadn't been, he would quite possibly still be alive."



She sent him an apologetic look as he started, staring at her, blurted: "He'd still be alive if Mom hadn't--"



Melinda shook her head, cutting him off again. "Sweetheart, I loved your father dearly - he was my big brother. He was senior in our family. We deferred to him. But what he did that night was foolish, and if our mother had been alive, she would have tied him to a chair rather than let him go. Unfortunately Arrah didn't have that luxury..." she shook her head, staring into space. "Imagine - she was such a little girl at the time. Your father knew his duty, he listened to her as much as he helped her; but I think that when the moment came and she told him to wait - he decided to think of her a child. Because you were his child, because you and Fiona were in danger, and... he didn't think. He couldn't think." She shook her head again, this time sadly. "In his mind, there was no choice."



Jack stared at his feet. "There are some bonds even duty can't change," Melinda said. "Between the Way and his children - at that moment it was only a choice of which could spare him better."



"Mom came last," Jack murmured.



"Of three? Yes. But she knew that, Jack," she reminded him.



He shook his head. "Fi says she never really did."



Jack looked up to see his aunt looking thoughtful. "That's probably true," she said. "Your mother... she loved your father, so much. They were... you've seen Areahannah and Terren together?" Jack nodded. "Like that. From the moment they met. Our mother saw it."



"That's why she gave them those rings."



Melinda nodded. "She was so in love with him... yes, maybe she was blinded, a little. She felt it - I know she felt it, felt the meadhon, felt what it meant to him... but Molly... I don't think she'd had that in her life before. Nothing even close. Not that much comes close." His aunt smiled fondly. "Most of us are lucky enough that we don't have to learn it. We're just born to it. It's harder for Adoptees, especially ones like your mom. She'd been so unhappy, and then she met your dad, and suddenly there was this whole other world... but... no. I'm not sure she ever really understood it."



She sipped from her mug. "She wasn't used to it. She still thought of it, I think, as... religion, or something similar. That didn't really apply to real life. The first time she saw him in danger... it frightened her. I remember, because Rick had me bring her back here. She just grew more and more frightened." Melinda shook her head. "We'd had peace for so long... if things hadn't happened the way they did, when they did, I think she'd have adapted."



"Did it bother Dad?" Jack asked, quietly.



"I think he hoped - no, he believed she'd manage, eventually. He kept saying that all she needed was time. She loved this life so much, after all... even if she didn't really comprehend it right away. She does now, though."



Jack looked at her skeptically, but then suddenly remembered his mother, the previous evening, the look on her face, the composed calm, the sense of purpose... he reached for the athame on his belt, held it in his hands. Melinda made a little noise of wonder. "I wasn't sure she'd have kept that," she said, tone sad and happy all at once. "I'm glad she did. It was our mother's."



Jack weighed it in his hand. "I guess it should go to Fi."



He looked up to see his aunt regarding him thoughtfully. "Traditionally it goes to daughters - your dad got it first because he had children first. But... you keep it. I'm sure Fi won't mind. In any case, you've blooded it. It's yours now, anyway."



They were both silent for a moment, listening to the rain spattering against the window. Then Jack looked at his aunt again. "You said... Mom loved this life."



Melinda smiled. "It was a grand adventure for her at first, Jack," she told him. "She was seventeen when he brought her here, the first time. She glowed every time she came." The smile turned warmer. "When you were born - I don't know which one of them was more proud. Your mother... I think she was in a state of delirium, emotionally, for a solid week. When they brought you - well, you've seen us with new babies."



Jack smiled and ducked his head. The event of a new child, a new "family" member, meant a solid week of celebration and sleeplessness - not for the child, who invariably spent the time being cradled, cuddled, and swaddled by any one of a dozen new family members, godparents, quasi-siblings, and others, while everyone else surrounded them, talking, greeting, and generally filling the place with welcome and goodwill and... Jack could almost, if he tried, locate in the muddled collection of memories from early childhood the feeling, if not the event, of being surrounded by dozens, if not hundreds, of welcoming, warm and loving minds. Though he had difficulty imagining his mother, much younger, flushed with praise and happiness.



Melinda, grinning for a moment, provided him the image willingly.



"Your father was so proud, Jack," she said. "He was so... *happy*. Happy that there was something of him in the world that would go on, even without him. Happy he could teach you the things that he cared about." Her voice was soft, a little distant, warm with nostalgia. "That's what children are about, I suppose. Passing on the best parts of yourself. He'd be so proud of you, Jack. I can't even tell you how much."



Jack was startled into looking at her, his vision blurred slightly because of the tears in his eyes. He swiped them away quickly. "I keep thinking I wish he'd been there," he whispered.



Melinda smiled again. "Oh, sweetheart - he loved you so much. But it's all right to be angry with him. It's as fair as being angry with your mother."



"He knew, didn't he?" Jack asked, voice hoarse. "When he left that night. He knew he was going to die."



His aunt sighed. "Oh, honey - I've never been a prescient. Neither was he. But he knew he might. He accepted the possibility. We all do," she placed a hand on his shoulder, looked very seriously into his eyes, "we all do. Even if he hadn't, that night - even if he'd lived to this day... in a lot of ways, dying young is the same as accepting that you might, very well. The difference is hesitation - if you fear it, if you resent it, it ruins what time you have. He never hesitated."



"Neither has Fiona," Jack said.



"No," Melinda said, her tone, this time, unreadable. "she hasn't."



"But I'll tell you a secret," Melinda said, a moment later. "Until I was about ten years old, it scared the hell out of me."



Jack looked up, found her grinning. "I got over it," she added, "when I manifested, and came here with my eyes and ears open."



"You got over it," Jack repeated, and his aunt nodded, clasping his hand around the handle of the dagger. He remembered, a year ago, his first glimpse of Arrah, with the walls around his mind finally gone. Slowly, he smiled, if only a little.



"Yeah," he said. "Me too."






Annie awoke less than half an hour after her whirlwind trip back to the infirmary, and was deeply regretful at having slept through her first teleport. The regret fled quickly when the headache from her concussion made itself known, and she'd laid with her eyes tightly shut and her arm flung across her face until Katia finally laid gentle fingers against her temples and quickly made the pain a distant memory.



Annie's right leg was broken, in two places, and aside from a few scrapes and bruises, she was otherwise unharmed. Jason had escaped unscathed except for a few cracked ribs and a hairline fracture in his left forearm.



Katia - with the help of her chief assistant, a young man named Kellin Brody - was able to heal most of their minor injuries, but broken bones took more than a few minutes to heal, and as it turned out, they would have to wait until later. She splinted and bandaged Jason's arm, and set Annie's leg to heal the old-fashioned way; a temporary measure, she assured Annie, until she could get back to it. Annie remained astonished at the speed with which the pain in her head had been defeated; she still wasn't used to Healers and just how quickly they could work. Although Katia also assured her that Healing or not, her leg was going to be out of service for a few weeks, at least.



It was nearly evening again before everyone coming arrived back at the Island, and Annie and Jason were temporarily discharged from the infirmary - with strict orders that they *were* to spend the night there, "just in case" - only because they were stable, if not exactly ambulatory, and the infirmary was beginning to overflow with the injured among the returning Delegates.



Privately Annie suspected that Katia just didn't want them there when they started bringing back the bodies of those who had not been so lucky as to survive the night. Eleven, she'd been told, was a low number for a mission on this scale.



Still, she shuddered to think about it. Eleven.



Matt having vanished into the ether, Katia assigned Mina "bodyguard" (to Jason's great chagrin) and loaded Annie into a wheelchair that she was "not, under any circumstances, to attempt to vacate". Katia had delivered this strict prescription while somehow managing to level a glare on all three of them at once. Annie and Jason had cringed appropriately on their way out; Mina, on the other hand, seemed to take the order as a holy mandate and walked out with her head held high, pacing her brother and pushing Annie in the chair.



"She's enjoying this way, way too much," Jason muttered to Annie as they left the infirmary.



Mina made a face at him and turned Annie's chair in the direction of the private quarters. Annie looked back at her. "Where are we going?"



"Well, since Fi has vanished - presumably with Matt and Belle - I figured I'd lend you a change of clothes."



Annie looked down at herself and agreed; her clothes were coated in dust and torn in several places. "Thanks," she said.



"Besides," said Mina, grinning, "You'll want to dress up a little for tonight."



Annie blinked, then stared up at her friend. "'Tonight?'"



Brother and sister shared a look full of anticipation. "Night after a big mission," Jason said.



"Party," Mina finished, grinning again. With a whoop, she broke into a run, then rode the back of Annie's chair as they sped down the corridor, Jason struggling to keep up.

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