The celebration that took place in the well-titled Big Room that night rivalled any Jack had ever attended. The room was almost the size of the Great Hall, which was fortunate because almost as many people were squeezed into it.
In reality Jack knew that there were probably only a hundred or so people here, but the jubilant mood that prevailed made the place seem fuller than it was. Jack stood a few minutes in the doorway, watching and wondering that the night before could even have happened. Delegates crowded each other familiarly, laughing, drinking, and half-watching the impromptu show holding forth on the low stage at one end of the room, that had probably originally been meant for other purposes, but was serving its new destiny well. At the moment a group of Delegate children ranging from seven to twelve were cheerfully rendering "When Irish Eyes are Smiling", with varying degrees of skill. But the parents and other Delegates clustered around the stage were enjoying it to the hilt, regardless. The children were playing to a chorus of cheers and applause, even when - or especially when - they faltered.
Jack drifted into the room slowly, stepping around people standing, sitting, or sprawling in groups of varying size, on divans, cushions, or the bare carpet. He made his way toward the opposite corner, where in a window seat, Annie and Jason Quade, under Mina's watchful eye, were being regaled by oldsters and fawned over by children. Their "adventure" of the previous day had had several hours to percolate among the Delegates, and they were the centre of attention. They were also being plied with food and drink and dessert, which as far as Jack could tell, the younger children were competing to give them. As Jack approached he heard Arthur Brody telling both teenagers about "the time Rick and I sprung a rather potent artifact right out from under the British Museum's nose," to Jason's great amusement. Annie was laughing hard enough that she couldn't really speak much. But the story ended as she looked up and sighted Jack, motioning him closer.
"I haven't seen you all day," she said, faintly accusing, but smiling, and reached for him as he threaded his way through three layers of surrounding people to reach her. She reached up and grabbed his hand.
"They wouldn't let me in to see you until this afternoon, and then you were already gone..." he said.
"The infirmary got crowded, so Katia let us out," Jason told him, oddly cheerful considering Jason's usual distant scorn towards him. "We still have to go back later, though," he said, scowling, but was quickly distracted by the enthusiastic chatter of a younger girl to his right.
Annie smiled beatifically up at him. "I'm glad you're here, Jack." She sipped from a mug that someone handed her without even looking, then sputtered, coughed, and laughed. "That'll teach me," she said. "Everyone's talking about you." She gave his arm a tug, causing him to overbalance and plop down onto the cushions next to her. He noticed a wheelchair folded and tucked under the seat, and Annie's leg, enclosed in a polyfoam cast, propped up on a stack of pillows half as tall as she was. She must have noticed him looking, because she patted his arm.
"It's just broken," she assured him. "Katia says a few weeks, at least, but if this is the treatment I get 'til then, I think I can stand it."
Jack laughed, surprising himself. The cast was covered in writing, already, though she couldn't have been out of the infirmary more than a few hours. "You have fans, I see," he said, and she laughed.
"Look at what Fi drew," she said, pointing. Jack bent down, peering: his sister had drawn the road-side symbol that meant "watch out for falling rocks".
"Where is Fi, anyway?" he asked, and Annie pointed. Jack craned his neck; Fi was ensconced at a map-covered corner table with Matt and Beilenya, surrounded by half a dozen adult Delegates who seemed to be doing little more than nodding at odd intervals, given their inability to get a word in edgewise, between Fi and Matt talking animatedly and Belle interjecting enthusiastically every few seconds.
"They've been there for at least an hour," Annie said. "Plotting, or so I'm told. Something to do with Sunnydale."
Whatever they were doing, Jack decided, they were certainly enjoying themselves.
As was his mother, he noticed with some surprise, as she passed him, spinning; the music had picked up into a lively reel and many of the adults and no few of the teenagers and children were dancing. His mother was being jigged enthusiastically across the room by first Terren Kurk, then a man Jack knew, distantly, as Ben Carlton, and then a tall, smiling black man Jack had not met directly but knew vaguely to be a member of the King family. In any case she was, most definitely, enjoying herself. She was as flushed and laughing with elation as Jack remembered seeing her, in his aunt's mind, on the day of his birth.
Something niggled, at the back of his mind, then - a reminder that not all was settled. For the moment, however, he was content to sit with Annie and Jason and watch the celebration, drinking in the warmth and togetherness of the room and wondering how he could ever have thought ill of these people, how he could ever think he could live without them.
A few minutes later someone on the stage called out a demand that Molly give them a song; Molly demurred, unconvincingly, until a press of friendly hands all but carried her up to the stage. She was hoisted up to the microphone, and laughed a moment before she finally acquiesced.
"All right," she agreed, still laughing. "But only on the condition that my daughters get up here and join me.
"Oh, no," Annie giggled, as eyes turned to Fiona and Kellin Brody muscled his way through the crowd to scoop Annie up and hand her up to the stage. Jack watched Annie balance herself on Molly's shoulder as Fiona whispered in her mother's ear. Molly smiled, produced a guitar from somewhere behind her, and nodded.
As the opening bars of "One in a Million" sounded, harmonized by a bass guitar, a set of Northumbrian pipes, and half a dozen flutes, whistles, and at least two bodhrans, Jack leaned back into the cushions and took a deep, relaxed breath.
Halfway through the song, he became aware of someone standing over him; and when he finally looked up, he was surprised, because not only hadn't he felt her approach, but neither had anyone seemed to notice her presence. Arrah, at the moment, he realized then, seemed to give the impression of being just one more Delegate, looking a little tired, but unremarkable among the others.
He decided it was a matter of situation, and realized, with sudden clarity, that Areahannah had the rather disconcerting ability to be two different people. One was the commanding, inspiring figure that led them - the other was the girl now standing over him, smiling.
"Feeling better?" she asked, tucking a strand of hair behind one ear.
"Much," he acknowledged, after a moment. He spent a moment longer wondering at the difference, then nodded, as if to confirm it. "Is this... standard?" he asked, gesturing to encompass the entire room. She followed the gesture, then laughed, easily.
"More or less," she admitted, "we tend to take the good times when we can get them."
"Yeah," he said. "That's what my aunt said. But when does anybody ever sleep?"
Areahannah laughed. "When they get tired," she said. "But I expect the mood will keep them awake for hours, yet."
Jack was shaking his head in some wonderment, still grinning, when she tilted her head in his direction, as if asking a question. "Come for a walk with me, Jack?" she asked.
Jack tore his eyes away from his mother and sister and Annie, up on the stage, to look at Areahannah's face, half-afraid to see some grim expression there, but there was only gentle questioning. "Uh... sure," he said, and standing, followed her out onto the wide balcony adjoining the room.
Outside the moonlight was bright and almost tangible, lighting on the carved stone surfaces of the balcony, the benches, the plants in boxes along the wall, bright and white and solid. He almost felt he could reach out and touch it and his fingers would come away white. It was a suiting counterpoint to the celebrations inside, its warm yellow light spilling out onto the cobbles.
"I mostly wanted to tell you what Fiona and Matt are planning," she told him, setting her elbows against the carven railing on the edge wall.
"Oh - it's something to do with Sunnydale, isn't it?" he said. She nodded.
"We're sending a... I suppose appropriately, a delegation."
Jack laughed; she smiled in response. "You know about the Schism," she began, and he nodded an affirmative. "Well, Matt and Fiona have proposed we invite them back."
"What - the Watchers?" Jack said, surprised. "I thought they didn't much like... us." He blinked, surprised at the feeling that including himself, now, felt right.
Areahannah shrugged. "That was a long time ago," she said. "Many thousands of years. And there aren't many of them left, now. We also intend to invite the Slayers to join us. I'm sure you know they can be a lot more effective with our resources."
"Yeah," he said. "I guess that makes sense."
"Matt's going, of course - it seemed wiser not to send a Guardian right away; we don't want to give the impression we're trying to pressure them. But we have to send some Delegates with him, and since Fi has done at least half the planning for this grand scheme of theirs, Belle thought she and you should be the ones to represent the Families."
Jack gaped at her. "You want - you want me to go?" Going on a mission with a team of experienced adults was one thing - sending Fi, he understood. But he, himself, in what sounded like a position of actual responsibility? He wasn't sure if he were terrified by the prospect, proud that they proposed to trust him with it, or a combination of both.
Arrah was smiling at him, and Jack thought he spied a hint of amusement at his shock in her expression. "It's a big job," she confirmed. "Probably quite safe, but not necessarily easy. The Slayer is known to be rather... stubborn. Of course most of the negotiations will focus on her Watcher, Mr. Giles."
"I thought the Slayer was... Buffy Summers?" She nodded. "I thought she was the one who led the attack on the Hellmouth...?"
Again, Arrah nodded. "She was. But after last night... whatever they did seems to have redistributed their power."
"What does that mean?"
She looked distant, thoughtful. "Well, before, there was one Slayer. Dozens, hundreds of Potentials." Jack nodded. "Now it seems that the Potentials are all... Slayers."
"That sounds sort of dangerous," Jack observed. She shrugged.
"Not much more dangerous than the thousands of young mutants that manifest by surprise," Areahannah observed. "There are Watchers we know are level-headed, that we know we can trust, who will listen when we offer them this; resources, alliance - the Potentials will mostly follow them. And if we link the Slayer magic to the meadhon... it will be better for everyone."
"What about the Slayer, though?" he asked, referring to Buffy Summers.
Areahannah sighed. "I expect she'll object," she said tiredly, rubbing the bridge of her nose. "But if we manage to convince Giles, there will be very little she can do about it. The worst that can happen is that she refuses to have any part of us, and from what I'm told, I'd rather deal with Rupert Giles than Buffy Summers."
Jack saw the long-suffering look on her face, and couldn't help but laugh. "I'm sorry," he said.
She shook her head, smiling. "You've earned the right to laugh at my whining," she said. "Your dad always did."
Her expression sobered a little, then, as if realizing having said something she shouldn't. "No," he said. "It's okay. I'm... I'm okay with it... with Dad."
Arrah's face was even funnier, then, blank with surprise for a moment before she smiled again. "I'm glad," she said, then: "I miss him, especially at times like this."
"Me, too," he echoed.
He turned to see her looking at him with uncertainty. "I just can't remember if I ever told you that I was sorry."
Jack stared at her, shook his head. "I can't remember either," he told her, "but you don't need to."
She tilted her head, a faintly puzzled smile on her face. Then she turned her head; Jack followed her gaze. The sea was calm, and he could hear the tide coming in, far below. "My father died when I was eighteen," she said quietly. "I mean, my adopted father. I never knew my real father."
"I'm sorry," he began, but she waved her hand in dismissal.
"It was a long time ago," she said. "But... I wasn't there. When he died. I was here." She shook her head. "I missed it. That was the first time I wanted to find you."
She tucked hair behind her ear again. "The last thing your mother said to me, after he died... she said 'you took him away from me.'" She sighed. "My father was murdered. I remembered thinking the same thing about the people that killed him."
"At Freedom Square."
That sounded familiar; Jack rifled his memory until it surrendered what he was looking for. "Your father was Peter MacPine," he said with surprise.
Her face, for a moment, transformed. She smiled, and almost glowed with pride as she said: "Yes." Then she turned to him, with some surprise of her own. "I wasn't sure you'd have heard of him. I thought the Stateside news services went out of their way to keep the Hype riots outside the borders."
"Well, I didn't--" he shrugged. "I mean, they did. Until a few years ago I didn't keep up with much, and when I started paying attention I noticed how hard it was..."
"...which of course made you all the more eager to find out all you possibly could," Areahannah finished, smiling.
"...yeah, sort of," Jack said, shrugging. "It's sort of a hobby. But even in the States it's hard not not to know Peter MacPine. He's probably the second most famous Canadian ever."
"The first being Fiona MacLeod?" She smiled again, and this time the smile was a little more sad than proud. "I spent my childhood on picket lines," she said. "He was so crucial to making me everything I am; everything I believe, everything I ever fought for, I could not have done without him. After he died I only felt angry - and then I felt guilty. Later I felt... I don't know. Grateful."
"To both of them. My father, and yours."
"You said that before," he said after a moment. "That you were grateful to him. That he helped you."
"He did," she said. "I was a child when I came here, Jack. I understood it, but I had no idea what I was doing, and it was... frightening."
"Why frightening?" he asked, actually curious.
"Because of what it means to them - what I meant to them. Believe it or not, it can be rather intimidating." She grew serious, for a moment. "Terrifying, actually. I had had people die for me, before - but never with so little hesitation."
"Dad never hesitated." She looked at him with some surprise. "Aunt Melinda said," he explained. He frowned. "So did you just... get used to it?"
"No... not exactly," she said. "I simply... came to understand them. It came to make sense to me. That was your father's doing."
She was quiet a moment, as if thinking how to phrase something. He saved her the trouble.
"You mean... when he died."
She almost started, but seemed to stop herself. She looked at him, with an expression that was half fascination, half accusation. "It is sometimes disturbing just how much you remind me of your father," she said slowly. "Not often, but when it does happen it's always as if you planned it." She raised an eyebrow at him and smiled very faintly. "Storing up all that directness and saving it for a special occasion, or something." She shook her head and turned her face back to the sea.
"I used to wonder... if I had to, if I could do that. If I could... sacrifice myself, like that. And I used be afraid that maybe, when the time came - and after a while, I became sure that it was 'when', not 'if' - I'd be afraid... unable to do it. Most of all I was afraid of people dying for me. Of them giving everything for me and then finding I wasn't what they thought I was - that I'd fail them. That I was a fraud. But... they never doubted me. I wondered sometimes if they knew something I didn't, but mostly I just thought they'd got the wrong girl." She sighed. "And then he died."
She was quiet for a moment, then said: "All the explaining in the world didn't do it, Jack. But that's when I understood."
"What I was." She shrugged. "Why. That if it came to it, I could do the same thing. If I had to." She placed a hand on his arm. "Without your father... I don't think I could have done that. I don't think I would be sane. And it took a long time - at first I couldn't accept that it had been worthwhile: that I had been worth dying for. Until I realised that I wasn't. But this..." she held out her other arm, in one sweeping gesture encompassing the sea, the wall, the party behind them, and implicity, he knew, herself, the others, the meadhon, itself, "...was."
Despite himself, Jack shivered a little, not unpleasantly. Arrah looked at him again. "And he always knew that."
"I know that," Jack said, quietly. Arrah, for once, said nothing. "Mom knows, too," he said then, and found himself staring at his hands where they rested on the wall.
"You sound surprised."
"I am," he snapped, before he could stop himself, then sighed.
"You're still angry with your mother."
Jack blinked. "Now that was an artful segue," he said.
She shook her head a little. "Empaths don't need segues."
"I guess not."
She leaned against the wall, propped her chin on one hand. "You've gotten used to it," she observed.
Jack looked at her, finding her matter-of-fact tone rather annoying but unable to find the energy to summon any real anger. He shrugged, helplessly. "She was wrong," he said. "I know she knows that, and everyone says she's changed, and even Fi's forgiven her, even Aunt Melinda, but... I just can't help thinking that none of that makes it better, really."
"Jack," she said, gently, "nothing ever will make it better."
He tried to decide whether or not to look at her with bafflement, but she went on before he could decide. "Nothing will ever change what happened. That's not the point."
He stared at her, one eyebrow raised. "There's a point?"
"The funny thing about forgiveness," she said, slowly, "is that it can be simultaneously the most sensible and the least logical human act."
"How can it be both?" he asked. "If nothing can change it... it almost feels like... like..."
"...like forgiving her would be unfair?"
"Yes!" he blurted, throwing his hands into the air. "Like it means... that I don't care. But I do care. I should care, shouldn't I?"
Areahannah seemed to study him for a moment, then crossed her arms and leaned back a little. "You're always going to care, Jack," she said, again gently. "The difference is in how you exercise it." She shrugged. "Sometimes you just... have to forgive. Even if it doesn't make sense, because at that point it's not about what's right, or what makes sense... it's about getting the anger out of you so you can live your life." She smiled at his skeptical look. "Anger serves its purpose. But after a while, staying angry is useless. And exhausting."
"Unbelievably," she said, rolling her eyes. "It takes patience, and attention, and maintenance, to stay angry forever. I have no doubt you could, if you tried. But it's not healthy. It's never healthy. It sticks you in place, so you can't move. And you can even convince yourself that it's where you want to be. But sometimes it gets to be so much a part of why you do everything that it takes away all your choices. And then you can't do both. At that point you have to just decide what's more important: making it right, or going on, anyway."
For the past several minutes Jack had felt as if all the air were being drained out of him, and now he stood, somewhat hollow and feeling as if a stiff breeze could blow him away. With a sudden wash of clarity, he said: "I don't actually remember not being angry. Not... not ever."
"Oh, Jack," she said, sighing. "That's what I mean."
He drummed his fingers on the wall. "But what about the right thing? Doesn't it matter?"
"Of course it matters!" Areahannah said, with a hint of exasperation in her tone. "But you're mortal, Jack. Mortals have to pick their battles."
Jack glared at nothing in particular. "I'm not sure I trust my judgement in that area, anymore."
"So start over," she suggested, so casually that he boggled at her. She shrugged.
"It's all very well to rage against the injustices of the world," she said, "to try and fix everything and try and make everyone understand - it's well, and admirable - but it's exhausting. Take my word for it. It's how I spent the first twenty years of my life. The most efficient way to go about it, in my experience, is to make yourself right, and the rest follows."
They were both quiet for a while, listening to the party, behind them, and a new song start up on the stage. Listening, Jack could hear his mother's voice, in harmony with about a dozen others, and then more, as the room joined in.
"Starting over," he said, eyes on the sea. "Is it so easy?"
When she didn't answer right away, he turned to look at her - she looked, for some reason, amused.
"Not easy," she said, finally. "But simple - it is simple."
Molly sang until impending hoarseness allowed her to beg her escape from the stage. Fiona returned to her place at the planning table; Annie was carried back to her seat of honour. Jack met his mother as she made her way to the drink table near the door.
"Jack, honey! I haven't seen you in hours!" she said, surprised, and still filled with enough elation and adrenaline that his serious expression did not immediately register. When it did, he almost felt guilty, because the warm aura of excitement and security that had surrounded her dimmed, a little, her expression reflecting worry and grim resignation. "What's wrong?"
Jack didn't meet her eyes. "I want to talk to you."
They threaded their way back across the room and went out onto the balcony; Jack stood, as before, against the wall, and took a deep breath before turning to face his mother.
"I understand it," he said, finally.
His mother blinked, clearly confused. "Understand what?"
Jack shook his head, still looking at his feet, at the ground; "What you did. Why you did it."
Molly seemed to wilt, a little. "Oh," she said.
"No," Jack said hurriedly. "I get it, now. At least, as much as I ever think I will." He shook his head. "This is stupid," he said, then, sagging tiredly against the wall.
"I realized something today," he said, quietly. "That I was mad at Dad my whole life for doing exactly what I would have done in his place. At least, I would now. I know I would. It makes sense to me now, the way it never could, before. I didn't understand it, before, because I was a stupid kid and no one ever really explained it. Because you didn't."
He spared a glance for his mother, who was watching him soberly, very little expression visible on her face.
"And last year," he went on, "After I knew better, I was mad at you - for doing something stupid because... because you didn't know, because you didn't understand... the weird thing is that I think I do understand it, now. Same as I understand that you're different than you were, then. That you haven't really been that person for... a long time. I've been angry for this long at someone I never even met." He shook his head. "And that's stupid. So... I forgive you, Mom." He looked at his shoes. "When Aunt Melinda talked about Dad... about you coming here when I was born... she talked about it like something she missed. She showed me you... after I was born, and everyone was so... you were so..."
"I was happy," she provided, softly, stepping closer to him. "That was the part I understood the best."
"Yeah," he said, voice choked. "And we can't be like that if we're still angry at each other, so..."
He stopped as his mother hugged him, hard, pushing the last words out of him in a sigh. He hugged her back, fiercely, feeling very, very young and very, very relieved and very glad that he wasn't crying yet. "I missed you, Mom," he said.
"I missed you too, baby," she whispered back. "Hell of a road to get here, huh?"
Jack laughed, the sound muffled.
When they both saw Rick, standing against the wall at the balcony's edge, neither spoke of it. Molly had no reason to believe that her son could see his father's "ghost". Jack supposed he only imagined seeing him. But both felt a sense of peaceful finality when Rick smiled, raised a hand in farewell, and disappeared, slowly, into the moonlight.
The second Assembly Annie attended was posessed of a drastically different atmosphere than her first. The air was thick with triumph and exhaustion, bizarrely mingled with elation and excitement. The first three she understood; the fourth she had to assume was simply beyond her comprehension at the moment.
With a broken leg (in two places - she was actually strangely proud), she obviously couldn't walk, and had been told that morning, by Katia and one of her assistants, a young healer named Kellin Brody, that alternate transportation would be arranged.
When said transportation arrived in the form of Presskin MacLeod, Arrah's brother and just about the only Guardian with whom Annie had never actually carried on a conversation, Annie had been completely unsure of what to say to the man. He had a reputation (well deserved, she'd thought from her limited observation) for being rather silent and cold, possessing an unpleasant temper.
Presskin, however, took control of what could have otherwise been an awkward situation by starting the conversation for her. "You're Annie?" he asked, with a rather unexpected grin. She nodded, and, with a slight bow, he scooped her up off the bed.
Annie squeaked a little in surprise, but had to laugh as he inclined his head respectfully to her, and announced: "I'm your ride."
"Presskin, right?" she said.
"Right," he confirmed. "Nice to meet you."
Annie was pleasantly surprised to find Presskin's public mind friendly and quick-witted, if a little enclosed; but then Arrah was much the same. Open with what she was willing to share, but fanatically private about everything else. Annie sensed in him a certain degree of self-protective arrogance, which struck her as strangely familiar until she remembered Tilia comparing Jack to Presskin, and laughed at the aptness of the description. Presskin, who had been navigating them carefully through the infirmary door, gave her a strange look. "Dare I ask?" he asked, raising an eyebrow.
Annie blushed and shook her head, smiling.
"So I'm told you had a resoundingly successful first mission," he said, smiling, and Annie decided she must be very tired, because it took a full three seconds before the sarcasm reached her.
She rolled her eyes. "Oh, yes. Katia spent an hour and a half after I woke up telling me how a few broken bones actually qualify as 'getting off light,' although I think she was being sarcastic 'cause she said it five or six times."
Presskin laughed. "Some of the older Delegates never tire of telling us how lucky we are to have so many properly-trained Healers on hand, and then going on at great length about severed limbs and missing eyes... which I'm sure in some context qualifies as a very serious moral lesson, but over someone's birthday cake, surrounded by pastel balloons, and with Charlotte Diamond playing in the background, is a little less... shall we say: meaningful?"
Annie grinned. "Also Kellin was making faces behind her back every few minutes."
Presskin smiled, and sighed. "Kay means it, you know - she has a medical obligation to yell at us for hurting ourselves. Although sometimes I think she enjoys it too much."
Annie knew they were nearing the Great Hall when the noise level of hundreds of voices began drowning out their conversation. "Well, into the breach," Presskin said, as they entered the room.
On the injured list, Annie found herself in a position of honour: in the front box with Jeri, Terren, and Matt, in the row of seats closest to the floor and nearest the great table. Next to her was Jason, who was flushed and very much awake, being fussed over by his sister. Mina greeted Annie cheerfully as Presskin set her down, then stared at the Guardian's departing back as he picked his way back through the crowd toward the table.
"Okay, I'm impressed," Mina said, looking at Annie and momentarily letting Jason be - to Jason's great evident relief.
Annie blinked at her in surprise. "By what?"
"You were having an actual conversation with Presskin!" Mina said.
Annie shrugged. "He's not so bad."
Mina waved a hand. "I know he isn't, really, but he's not much for actually... y'know... talking. To much of anyone but Areahannah, anyway. He must like you." Mina grinned at her, and Annie blushed. But then she drew herself up straighter, and stuck out her chin.
"Well, I'm likeable," she said, then made a face at her friend.
The sudden drop in the noise level, then, told them that the meeting was starting. Mina kissed her brother on the cheek, waved at Annie, then made her way up the tiers toward her seat. Jason rubbed at his cheek, scowling, then gave Annie a long-suffering look. "She's been like that since yesterday," he complained. "Hovering over me like I'm going to fall over, or something."
"I'm afraid you're in for a few more days of that. Maybe weeks," Annie whispered, grinning, as complete silence fell.
Annie looked up, and saw Arrah, Terren and Katia entering from the great doors. The other Guardians already stood behind their seats, waiting. As Arrah reached the table and sat down, the others took their seats. A moment later Arrah stood up again, and clasped her hands before her.
"Another long night has passed," she said, and Annie was surprised to realize that Arrah was speaking quite quietly, and yet she could hear every word easily. She had been able to hear just as easily from much further back, where the Phillipses were now sitting, and suddenly she wondered whether this were by virtue of the architecture, or the result of some other aspect of Crystallis's own odd nature.
"And this has been much longer than only yesterday, and the day before - this is a night that has followed us for a very long time, taking many lives in the process. We have lost many friends this past night; but they went willingly and in full knowledge of the reasons. And now it is over; and we thank them."
Annie's eyes widened a little as there was a tangible upwelling of relief, from all around her. Arrah smiled, and bowed her head, and any murmuring that had been going on dropped away. The Assembly fell silent, and Annie could hardly hear anyone breathing; but the sentiment reached her, and she bowed her own head, and closed her eyes.
::For those that have given for us,:: came a voice in her head, ::And for those that will follow after.::
"Thank you," came Areahannah's voice, a moment later. "I know that you are all tired, and we have little business to discuss; those of you who know what comes next already have your orders. And for the moment, we have a much more pleasant task." She turned to look at the box where Annie was sitting. "We have new family to welcome, and I see no reason to delay it further."
Annie suddenly found herself sitting up straighter as Presskin rose from the table and crossed the floor. She looked up at him as he stood over her, a moment, smiling a little at her nervousness.
"Ready?" he whispered.
With effort, she nodded, and let him pick her up again. He carried her back to the table, set her on her one foot, and stood at her left as the other Guardians, and then the entire room, rose to their feet. She started a little when she realized just how many eyes were on her.
"Will the sponsor come forth, please?" said Arrah, looking up into the seats, and Annie followed her line of sight to see Molly, laying one hand on each of her children's shoulders as she went, maneuvering her way out onto the staircase and down onto the floor. She approached the table smiling, somehow lighter, free of the weight that she had been carrying since before Annie met her. Annie found the change pleasing, and smiled back.
"I'm here," she said, sliding one arm behind Annie's shoulders, to steady her.
Areahannah placed her hand on a slightly darker square of wood before her seat; the other Guardians followed suit, and a moment later, the floating screen materialized, this time empty and transparent. She nodded to Molly, who leaned forward slightly and placed her own hand on the surface of the table; Annie mimicked her, nervously. When something inside the table beeped in ackowledgement, she jumped, stifled a giggle.
"Scan Delegate," said Beilenya, who was closest.
"Recognized: Phillips, Molly. Covenant: Eire," came an androgynous voice, even and uninterested. "Second individual: not recognized. Instruct?"
"Create profile," Areahannah told it, then looked at Annie. "Say your name, clearly and loudly," she whispered.
"Annie Thelen," Annie said, eyes on the screen. A moment later, her own image appeared there, along with several lines of text.
The computer was silent a few moments, and then announced: "Recognized: Thelen, Annie. Covenant: Eire."
Annie shivered, and dropped her hand to her side as Molly did, then looked at Arrah as the screen disappeared.
"For many thousands of years," she began, "actually, for longer than anyone remembers, the Circle has existed to protect Mankind from the worst qualities in himself. Greed, hatred, ignorance. Thousands of years ago, we were made part of that communion; the Guardians were made inseperable from it, not only the mistakes and triumphs of Man but of all life on this Earth. The Delegates," she continued, with a smile and a nod to the Assembly, "are people who strive to bring about the better qualities in themselves, and others. For millennia they have given of their time, their devotion, their lives... their children." She paused, taking a deep breath. "There can be no getting around the fact that this life is a sacrifice; that many of us do not live to a venerable old age. But there is also no question that those of us who die for it, too young, have lived better than those who never knew this life. And because of the gravity of that distinction, it has always been a choice - a choice that even those born among us must make again, when they are judged old enough and responsible enough to make it. The choice is even more complex for those who come to us from the outside; and there are very few who can manage it, who can understand what is being asked of them, and just what it is we are, to what they are committing themselves. For that reason," she said, "and because sometimes the choice is made too rashly, for the wrong reasons, we try to ensure that understanding is there. May we show you, Annie?" Arrah asked this of her directly, and Annie nodded.
Molly, after a squeeze, slipped her left arm from Annie's shoulders, then clasped her right hand with her own left. Chayson reached to take her left hand, and around the table, all those standing joined hands. "Close your eyes," came a soft voice from her right - she thought Molly. She did, lowering her shields as she did so.
It hit her all at once, with light and heat and force, and as she turned her head she saw, in her other sight, that they were glowing, all of them, but no one more than the Guardians around her. Arrah was brightest, not only glowing but almost burning, and Annie smiled as everything she was, unshielded, unhindered by normal senses, was drawn inexorably towards her, towards the surging brightness that was the meadhon, that shone out through Areahannah like the sun through a keyhole. It wasn't only power; it was sentience, it was birth and death, it was... everything.
The connection dropped away, and she opened her eyes, staggering slightly from the jolt until Molly's arm steadied her again. She felt herself smiling; she looked up and met Areahannah's eyes.
The older woman was smiling, too, eyes bright and vigorous as if she and Annie had shared an incredible secret.
"I understand," Annie said, her voice hushed and a little hoarse. Areahannah nodded.
"Do you remember the words?" whispered Molly, and Annie nodded, drawing herself up straight.
As Annie spoke the words of her oath, the Assembly smiled down on her, their own emotions filling the room with welcome and happiness until it was almost intoxicating, and indeed, as she finished, and the room burst into cheering and applause that almost made the floor shake, she swayed a little from the force of it.
For the feeling, Annie found she had no comparison.
Jack wrestled a half-dozen others out of the privilege to walk Annie back to the infirmary; in reality he was only pushing her wheelchair, which someone had produced and unfolded from under a row of seats.
"You look happy," he said to her, as they left the Great Hall.
Annie leaned back in the chair, eyes half-closed. "I've never been so happy," she said simply.
They were quiet again until they reached the infirmary, which was miraculously still empty, probably because the others were still lingering in the Great Hall. Jack wheeled her inside and maneuvered her across the floor.
"Help me up into the bed?" she asked, and Jack nodded, slipping an arm behind her shoulders. She tightened an arm around his neck.
He hoisted her up out of the chair, and with a great deal of cursing on Annie's part, for the inconvenient nature of the cast, they got her arranged on the bed, propped up against several pillows. She sighed and leaned back again.
"Are you okay?" Jack asked with concern as she sagged, slightly.
Annie shook her head. "I'm just tired. Kellin said the painkillers might do that. I don't mind, really - I'm just glad they didn't kick in during the party last night."
"Come to that, you've had a tiring couple of days," Jack noted, sitting down on the edge of the bed.
"No kidding," she agreed. "It was worth it, though."
"Yeah," he echoed, sighing of his own accord.
He looked up to see Annie staring at him.
"What?" he demanded, with mock rancor, when she said nothing, only stared, an expression of puzzlement on her face.
"There's something different about you," she told him, reaching out to touch his cheek. Jack was surprised, and didn't move, and a moment later she dropped her hand, astonishment and delight written on her features.
"What?" he asked again, a little alarmed by her behaviour.
"You're happy!" she said, the tone almost accusing, but she was smiling, still.
"I--" he wasn't quite sure how to respond, so he glared. "So what?"
"I've..." she laughed. "I've never seen you happy, Jack. Not really. But you are!"
He closed his mouth, then slowly, shrugged. "Yeah," he said. "I guess I am."
"I'm sorry," she apologized, still grinning. "It's just... it's different. I like it," she amended.
"You-- uh-- good? I guess," he agreed, feeling his face grow warm.
"No, I do," she continued, her voice dropping in volume. "I'm happy for you."
Jack stared at his hands. How did Annie's presence always manage to turn the his most straightforward moments into a situation where he was blushing and confused? Faintly, it annoyed him, but at the same time, emboldened him, and before he could talk himself out of it, he leaned forward and kissed her.
Annie made a little noise of surprise, but an instant later he felt her smiling against his lips, and she kissed him back, warmly. Jack pulled away, a few seconds later, ears roaring, and trying to remember exactly what had possessed him to do that.
Annie, although at the moment a fetching shade of pink, was just smiling at him. Sometimes, he reflected, she was infuriating.
Mostly not, though.
Definitely not when she was smiling at him quite like that.
"Thanks," she murmured, tucking a strand of hair behind one ear.
"Um... yeah," he answered, not trusting himself to say anything else.
Jack felt dizzy and stupid and strangely thrilled, at once disinclined to go anywhere and yet anxious to leave before he could do anything stupid and ruin the moment. So he excused himself, stuttering, Annie grinning with, bafflingly, absolutely no sign of embarassment and a sort of grace and amusement that he had to assume was a trait unique only to girls.
"Good luck," she called after him as he left, radiating affection. He smiled as he closed the door behind him.
He stepped into the corridor with a lighter heart, realizing, as he passed the open windows, sea air rushing against his face, that Annie was right: for the first time in years he was happy. All was not right with the world, but all was right in his world. That was what Arrah had meant, he realized. ::Make yourself right, and the rest follows.::
Smiling and ready, he started down the stairs that led to the Gate, where his mission, and his future, were waiting.