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Keep on going, pt. 4c






Author's Note:



I strongly suspect that the majority of potential readers will feel as if they're coming into this story in the middle - mostly because you are. This is, in case you hadn't already noticed, a crossover. A three-way crossover, with elements from all three universes meshed together. One of them is an original one, belonging to me, which is where all this interesting nonsense is taking place. For a more complete history of the composite universe as it currently stands, I strongly reccommend you read the previous stories, Cold Comforts and O, Brave New World, crossovers between my original universe and a show that no longer exists, as it was eaten by Disney. If you do, everything will make much more sense, I promise.



I tell you this because after To Paint the Silence, which after this has only on more part, things are going to get much, much more complicated. ;)






---




::...listen.::



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...



::...listen?::



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."

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