As Giles retired to his trailer to make a much-needed cup of tea, he could not help but imagine what Buffy would think of Hamilton's "proposition". He supposed she'd probably have been angry.
::Raving furious is more like it.::
He shook his head, reaching for the electric kettle.
They'd been travelling more than a day, and Buffy had been sitting in the front of the lead trailer, glowering silently, not speaking to anyone. Finally she turned to him and told him to pull over, offering no other exlanation, but said it so quietly and with so little emotion that concern had made him acquiesce without asking why. They found a rest stop, as deserted as everything else, and glancing at the location sign as he pulled in he realized that they were still within fifty miles of Sunnydale. The circuitous route that Willow had plotted, to keep them away from towns, people, and the authorities, had taken them five times longer than the direct route, but they'd had to change direction three times, already, to avoid unpleasant attention. He knew the apparently fruitless travelling in circles had been wearing on her, but he'd patiently repeated, over and over again, that they had no choice.
After he'd shut off the engine, she'd sat there, hands on the dashboard, leaning forward and looking out through the windshield. A moment later, without saying anything, she'd opened the door and slipped outside, slamming the door behind her.
Giles had sighed, then followed her.
He found her standing just inside the shelter that housed the restrooms, in front of the vending machines, trying to wrestle a bag of chips from the dispensing mechanism, where it had stuck. She was just short of attacking it with her fists when he approached her, gave the machine a considering look, and then issued one well-calculated kick. The bag of chips fell obediently into the tray at the bottom. Buffy stared at it.
"I'm tired of this, Giles," she said, quietly.
He said nothing, looking at her tiredly.
"I know it hasn't been long," she said, "but this feels... like the wrong direction."
"What do you mean?"
"We're putting it off, Giles, and I don't want to."
"Putting it off."
And then Buffy hit the machine. It wobbled, and then glass tinkled slowly onto the pavement.
"I think we should go to LA," she said, still not looking at him.
She shrugged. "Angel's there, and he's got connections... he could help us until we get back on our feet."
"I don't want to hear it, Giles." She looked at him, then, eyes hard. "That there are other ways. We have to do this our own way."
"Ignoring their resources, ones that will be readily open to us, strikes me as foolish," he said, striving to keep his voice even. "In Los Angeles, we will be fugitives; one more thing that will make things harder. It's unnecessary."
"It's not unnecessary," she growled. "We have to do this, Giles. We can't do things the old way. The old way is why this happened."
"This happened because it was destined to happen, Buffy," he said again. "You know that."
"I don't care." Anger crept into her tone, and she shook her head. "I'm responsible for them. I decide what we do, and I say we do this ourselves. We can't trust the Watchers. I don't trust them. I trust me."
"You don't trust me either, then, I suppose?"
She finally looked at him, then, really looked at him, and he spied a hint of regret in her eyes, as if she'd spoken without thinking. "Giles..." her tone was almost pleading.
He stared at her. He felt, above all, tired. And even regret didn't rise in his mind, weighed down by fatigue and what he knew was final, desperate decision, as he framed his next words.
"You aren't in charge any more, Buffy."
He said it quietly, into a suddenly resonating silence, and Buffy's face froze.
He sighed, feeling himself sag. "We cannot continue this way," he said. "You know that we can't. We cannot keep avoiding moving forward, thinking something simpler will present itself. It won't."
"How dare you?" she said finally, voice almost a whisper. "After everything I've done--"
"Things are different now," he interrupted her. "We no longer have an excuse to live isolated, thinking only of ourselves. There are people out there counting on us."
"Which is exactly why we have to stick together..."
"Buffy, this is not about you!" he finally snapped, and Buffy took half a step backward.
"What are you talking about?" she demanded angrily.
"You know what he's talking about, Buffy," came a hesitant voice from the edge of the shelter. Both of them looked up to see Willow there, hands clenched together, Xander just behind her, arms crossed.
"Oh, what - you, too?" Buffy turned her back on them both.
"Hey!" Willow said, stepping forward. "Hey! Don't you act like this is some big betrayal! We were there too, remember?"
"They've got a point, Buff," Xander said, quietly.
"What are you talking about?" demanded Buffy, spinning around to face them.
"Well..." Xander looked at the ground. "Nothing personal, Buffy... it was fine when there was the big crisis, and we had to keep an eye on the prize, and everything, but... now?" He shrugged. "You have been kind of... intense."
"I'm just trying to get us somewhere safe!"
"No, you're not!" Willow said, now angry herself, and all three of them jumped in surprise. "You're not trying to do anything! Not really! If you were, you'd listen to Giles! You'd let people help us. You'd let us help you. But you're not. You still think it's just you, still a general, still in charge of everything without anyone helping you, and it's NOT! We're here and we're not stupid, and we're not weak, and you don't get to act like we're useless!"
She stopped, then, catching her breath, and Buffy stared, in shock.
"I never said that," she said, hoarsely.
"Well, you're acting like it," Willow said. "And I'm sick of it."
"I can't believe I'm hearing this!" Buffy said, almost shouting. "After everything I've done--"
"You didn't do it by yourself," Willow grated.
Buffy turned cold eyes on her, arms stiff at her sides. "Well," she said, "maybe I should have."
Without another word, she stalked past them, walking back toward the caravan.
Within an hour Buffy had moved all of her meagre belongings to the second-largest trailer, along with the half-dozen or so Slayers who had decided to go with her to LA. To Willow's dismay, Kennedy was among them.
"It's nothing personal," she'd said, giving Willow, who stood stiffly throughout, a hug and a parting kiss on the cheek, "but I've had enough of Watchers to last me a lifetime."
Dawn watched the proceedings wearing an expression that was a combination of disbelief and outrage, most of it directed at her sister. "I don't want to go," she'd said, mostly to Giles, but loudly enough for everyone to hear. "I hate LA. I want to stay here."
"Too bad," Buffy said, pushing her into the front of the RV and shutting the door firmly behind her. Andrew sent an apologetic look in Giles' direction and followed.
They were gone by mid-afternoon; Giles, Xander, Willow, Faith, and the dozen-or-so remaining Slayers remained an hour longer, and then set out, going North, and avoiding major cities. They agreed to stop only for supplies.
"You're Willow, right?"
Willow turned her head to take in the young Phillips girl, standing in the doorway of the store.
"Uh, yeah." Willow dusted off her hands and contrived to appear as if she hadn' been going through the cash register. Then she blinked, shook her head, and chided herself. Habit.
The owners of the store had fled days ago - no one was coming back for either the money in the register or the goods that several of the young Slayers, in Willow's charge, were currently engaged in pillaging. Their little group could certainly use both more than some nameless franchise owner, whose insurance had probably already covered the loss - assuming the owner was still alive, Willow reminded herself morbidly. A fair portion of the building had collapsed in the quake and they hadn't tried sifting through the rubble, yet.
From what they'd seen in the two days since Sunnydale, half of California had to be in ruins. And yet they'd seen not a single rescue vehicle.
::Must be some truth to the things we've been hearing about the outside.:: It had been more than three years since Willow, at any rate, had seen a single American newscast that even mentioned the outside world, let alone commented accurately on the state thereof.
But if what she'd heard through Giles and on the internet were indeed true, and half the American states were no longer a part of America...
::...it's no wonder they haven't sent help,:: she mused. ::They've got bigger problems to worry about.::
Willow grinned at the girl. "Sorry. I keep thinking I shouldn't be, like, setting a bad example," she said. "'Cause you're like, what - fifteen?"
Fiona nodded. "Almost sixteen."
"But I guess I don't have to worry about it with you, huh?"
"Nah. I'm already corrupt," Fiona agreed, shrugging. "You stocking up?"
Willow finished transferring what little cash she'd found from the register to the strong box she'd found under the counter. "Well, there's eighteen of us, including the girls," she said, "and the whole state's been declared a disaster area. So we figure we better."
There was a crash from the back of the store. Several silver aluminum cans rolled across the floor and out into the dusty street.
"Hey! What did I say about beer?" Willow shouted back. "Or do we need to hear the cave-Slayer story again?"
A few moments later there came a faint "sorry!" Willow shook her head.
"So, I have a question," Fiona said.
Willow looked up from counting money. "Question away."
"Matt said that you're a witch - right?"
"Last time I checked," Willow replied, somewhat uneasily. "Why?"
"Oh, I was just curious. Matt told me - well, sort of told me, after I pestered him for, like, two days, about how you were, uh... that you... that the reason Arrah contacted Mr. Giles last year is 'cause you, uh... went-evil-and-tried-to-destroy-the-world.
Willow blinked at her uncomfortably. "Technically, yes. But I'm not evil now," she said quickly.
"Oh, I know," Fiona said, sithing, her nervousness vanishing.
"Oh, yeah." Fiona waved a hand dismissively.
"Well, you're not. You can tell." She said it as though it were obvious.
There were a few moments of silence, then, punctuated only by the chatter of the Slayers in the back of the store.
"Uh," said Willow eventually, "was that your question?"
"Oh, no." Fiona crossed from the door and leaned against the counter. "I wanted to ask your orientation."
Willow blinked at her. "My--"
"Like, Celtic or Gaulish?" She tucked a lock of hair behind one ear. "I guess your family's Jewish - so I'm betting Gaulish, right?"
"Um. No. Celtic. At least recently. I mean, it's all pretty broad-spectrum, but I stick close to Brid these days."
"Huh." Fiona looked disappointed. "Well there goes my theory."
"Oh - I have this ongoing argument with Belle - that's Beilenya; she's one of the Guardians - that Neo-Pagans tend to stick close to their roots, at least in parallel. Like... people from Jewish families lean toward Gaulish Wicca, 'cause it's the original template - Gaul's where the Celts came from, originally, you know..."
Willow nodded, interested. "So ones raised Christian would end up in Celtic Wicca. That's reasonable."
Fiona sighed. "Yeah, except I think I keep getting proven wrong. And Belle's awful when she wins an argument."
Willow was thoughtful. "I don't know. Most of the Wiccans I knew when I was your age started out Christian - 'course, most of those were bigtime wannabes."
Fiona grinned. "Arrah calls them 'quickies'."
Willow returned the grin. "Yeah. Those. Really teh only reason I ended up in the Celtic camp was because that's what Giles practices. I used to steal his books."
Fiona nodded, thoughtfully. "I also guess the same rules don't apply to people raised in teh Circle. The magic's too different." She clapped her hands. "I'll show Belle." She grinned. "I'm training as a chronicler, you know. She studied history, so she's always tossing stuff like this in my lap. I don't know if it's 'cause she wants to see if I can do the job or 'cause she just likes seeing me squirm."
Willow let Fiona finish her sentence before she asked the question that had been on her mind since they'd arrived. "Fiona--"
"Fi," Fiona insisted.
"Fi, then. How does your magic work? I mean, I know that's kind of a big question, but I've been wondering since you first got here. I mean, I can tell it's not conventional witchcraft. But you and your brother practically glow with magical energy, and I can't really pinpoint it. I've never felt anything like it."
For a moment, Fiona looked concerned. "I'm leaking? Damn." She seemed to concentrate a moment, and the bright tint of magic about her dimmed significantly - almost tot eh poin where Willow could no longer sense her presence. I twas as if a tap had been turned off.
Willow blinked. "How did you..."
"My fault - and Mrs. Rudy would have my butt if she knew." At Willow's puzzled look, she explained. "We had some trouble on our way here... some guy who - well, I think he was some kind of lizard... thing. Said something about wanting Jack's liver. I think." She looked faintly, briefly, green.
"There are a lot of demons making for the hills," Willow nodded. "I bet you saw a Comag demon. They, uh... like their meals rare."
"Ew," said Fiona, decisively. "Anyway, we managed to ward him off, but we had to tap into a node to do it. He took us by surprise." She looked annoyed with herself. "I guess I didn't close the link afterward. Stupid of me." She shrugged.
"Node?" Willow echoed faintly.
Fiona nodded. "Yeah - I remember reading somewhere that the main difference between what we do and conventional witchcraft is generation of energy. You don't tap nodes, do you? You have to summon power from gods and... things. Right?"
Fiona shook her head. "We just take what's offered. See?" Without hesitation she reached to Willow mentally and showed her. Willow shrank back instinctively - what Fiona showed her was unfettered power, uncontrolled, wild. A direct connection to the very life force of the Earth.
"But I thought only naturally magical creatures could use that kind of power!" Willow was astonished.
"Human beings are naturally magical creatures." Fiona shrugged. "But it's raw energy, really, really raw. I guess it'd be overwhelming without the connection through the Circle. Through Arrah."
"Arrah," Willow repeated softly. ::Areahannah. The Guardian.::
Fiona looked at her, smiling. "She said you'd met. Somethin', isn't she?"
"Does she do that to everyone?" Willow asked. Fiona grinned.
Fiona left Willow Rosenburg feeling slightly superior, and aware of the irony. She also felt, though, ever so slightly sad for the young witch. It had been a long time since she'd been in contact with users of arcane magic; she remembered being astonished by the difference, the painfully inefficient and tainted nature of arcane magic, at least from her perspective. No one using natural magic was ever turned bad by the usage, for instance.
She shivered, for a moment, in sympathy. She'd been using Circle magic so long that anything else seemed... wrong. Strange.
She found Jack sitting on the fence bordering the store parking lot, legs swinging slowly as he stared out at the dusk. "Where's Matt?" she asked, climbing up next to him.
Jack hooked a thumb back over his shoulder, towards the cluster of RVs behind him. "He went to talk to Mr. Giles again," he said. "It's been an hour."
Fiona nodded. After their initial discussion Giles had asked an hour to consider things, disappearing into his trailer, Fiona suspected for a stiff drink. The man had seemed to be suffering from mild shock, though he hid it well. "Do you think he'll come?" Jack asked, not looking at her. She looked over at her brother, amused. Jack seemed more relaxed than she'd seen him in years; even happy.
"I think so," Fi agreed. "He seemed to take our visit better than the others did." Earlier attempts at contact with other Watchers and Slayers had been worse than merely unsuccessful, their arrival met, in most cases, with cynicism and fear, although admittedly at the time the Delegates had been working with little information and under more urgent circumstances; tracking the deaths of the Potentials before the opening of the Hellmouths had been what clued the Circle into the Slayers' and Watchers' situation in the first place, and they'd tried early to bring the disparate groups together, mostly for their own protection, but had been, mostly, ignored at every turn.
Jack shook his head, smiling faintly. "What?" asked Fiona.
"Nothing," he told his sister. "After more than a year, I'm still getting used to the fact that you're a lot better at this than I am."
Fiona laughed. "You'll catch up," she said. "You just got a late start." They sat there in silence for a few minutes, Fiona swinging her legs against the fence.
"You're worried," he said quietly, after a time.
She shook her head. "Not exactly worried. Just..." She turned her head slightly, took in the group of Slayers, aided by Xander Harris, who were currently gathered around a makeshift stove, preparing an evening meal. "It occurred to me that maybe we were getting ahead of ourselves," she said.
"What do you mean?"
She shrugged. "Thinking this was going to be... not exactly easy, I don't think, but... we didn't really consider the full extent of it. Have you talked to them much, Jack?"
Jack shrugged as well, following her line of sight. "Not much. Why?"
Fiona turned back to the road. "I was talking to Willow before - the witch?" She sighed. "We're very different, you know. Us and them."
Jack turned back as well. "Ah," he said. "I see what you mean, I guess."
"Try not to look so surprised," he said, making a face at her, then appearing thoughtful. "I was thinking about it on the way here. Most of them..."
"Most of them have never even been out of the country," Fiona said. "Which, I mean... not really that much of a surprise, what with the fact that most of the Potentials that actually reached here before the big thing were American. Most of them are still scattered, out there... and most of the ones that reached here were never even called into service at all."
"You're not worried about legal stuff?" he sounded puzzled.
She shook her head. "Oh, no. Nothing like that. It's just... these people, here, Giles and Willow and... what's his name... Alexander Harris, over there... they're the core. I don't think Mr. Giles will go without the other two, or they wouldn't let him, and they're Americans."
"We're Americans," he pointed out.
"Technically," she admitted, "but you know we're not nearly as isolated as most. We've been ignoring the Insulation Act for years, now, wandering in and out of the country whenever we feel like it. They, however..." and she gestured back over her shoulder, "...haven't left Sunnydale in years, let alone the States. Most of them have barely even heard of the Union."
"I guess I see your point," he said. "The mindset has gotten kind of self-centred, the last few years."
"In the U.S., at least," she agreed. "With the inter-state regs, a lot of them barely left their home towns before this. How are they going to deal with the big wide world? We can't really ignore it. They won't be able to ignore it. Not if they do this."
"You said yourself that the majority of them aren't American."
"I know." She sighed. "But a lot of them are. I think it's going to be hardest on them." She laughed, suddenly, and he gave her another puzzled look.
"I just think it's kind of funny," she told him. "Worrying about them adapting to two totally new cultural paradigms - Union and Circle. A few years ago I hit the same thing myself, and didn't even think about it until I was already acclimated. And you managed pretty well, didn't you?"
He shrugged again. "I did all right," he said, "but remember, we do live pretty close to the border, and anyway I was paying attention to the outside world long before we really got to see it."
"Maybe it's just that we're weird," she mused. "Maybe that bodes well for the rest of them. They're certainly not normal, strictly speaking."
"Hey... 'We're weird?'" he protested. "Don't go lumping me in with you." He grinned.
"May I remind you that we come from a common gene pool?" she said, arching one eyebrow.
"All that means is that if it's genetic, I might have to medicate for it."
"Hey!" she said, grinning back, and punched him in the upper arm. Jack overbalanced and landed with an "oof!" in the dust under the fence.
"Love you too, sis," he grumbled. Fiona, smiling, ignored him.
"So, any idea?" Xander asked, looking to his left. Willow, next to him, shrugged.
"I don't know," she said. "I don't think Giles was sure."
"Well, do you think he'll accept their offer?" Xander's knee was bouncing nervously up and down.
Willow tilted her head thoughtfully to one side. "I'm sure he'll tell us when he decides."
"Well, yeah, but--" Xander paused as Willow reached out one hand and stilled his knee, looked at her. "What would you do?"
Willow gave him an odd look, long and deep and full of some knowledge he couldn't quite touch - and that couldn't be explained, or she would have tried, he knew. "They could help us," she admitted. "I trust them."
"You do?" Xander was surprised.
"You didn't meet her, Xander." Her eyes went momentarily distant. "They're bigger than... than us. They wouldn't lie. They're... I think... they're good. And if what Fiona told me is true... that kind of power... it can't go wrong."
"I guess I can see how that would appeal," Xander acknowledged. She looked at him again, cheeks flushing.
"What about you?"
Xander sighed, leaned back. "I don't know," he said. "But there's something to be said, I guess, for belonging, like that. And it would be nice, for a change, to have people watching our backs who we know aren't going to, like... go crazy, or get posessed, or run off on a well-paid killing spree in sparkly jeans, or anything. Or to be reasonably sure. Y'know." He shrugged. "Also wouldn't mind not living like this forever. Having to steal supplies every time the apocalypse comes up is getting kind of old."
Both of them sat up straighter as Matt Hamilton approached the same trailer door they'd been watching, knocked, and after waiting a moment, went inside.
"Five bucks says he takes the deal," Xander said, fumbling in one pocket.
Willow shook her head. "Sucker bet," she said.
The tentative knock on the back door of the trailer startled Giles out of his contemplation. He looked up to see Matthew Hamilton standing in the half-open door, glasses reflecting the sunset and hiding his eyes.
"You sent for me?" the younger man said, expression easy and yet careful.
Giles removed his own glasses, reached into his pocket for a hankerchief, and began polishing the lenses slowly and with great concentration as he spoke.
"I gather," he said, slowly, "That in coming here you expected to find me, in charge."
"Not expected, exactly," said Hamilton, tilting his head to one side, "more like hoped."
Giles looked up, suspiciously, but Hamilton only shrugged. "We were given to understand that if presented with this same offer, Miss Summers would have been..." he paused, then concluded,diplomatically, "difficult."
"I dare say she would have, at that," Giles agreed after a moment. "In fact that might be putting it mildly. Your research was certainly thorough."
"Had to be," replied the other Watcher simply. "This was a very complicated situation, as important to us as it is to you."
Giles raised one eyebrow. "Is that so?"
Hamilton's expression reflected frank honesty and at once a sort of buried desperation, spreading his hands. "Way back when, we lost as much as we gained," he said, seriously. "The Circle gave us a purpose we thought overshadowed the Slayer. But if there's one thing we share, Mr. Giles, it's history - and that's something the Circle has lost, more than once. And anyway," the right corner of his mouth quirked upward, "I know you've been wondering about the same things we have - like what to do in twenty years when you've half as many Slayers and no way to make new ones."
"I thought you weren't a telepath?" Giles said, with a bit of irritation.
"I'm not," Hamilton said. "But I was a doctor for a long time, and I got used to reading people." He was quiet a moment, studying him. "You're very protective of them," he said, more quietly. "It's admirable."
"It's necessary," Giles corrected him, and leaning back, laced his fingers together. "Before I decide this... I want to meet her."
"Yes," agreed Hamilton, evenly. "She thought you might."
Giles looked up again, replacing his glasses, and said, rather peevishly: "You knew everything I would do, didn't you?"
The other man shrugged. "Not word for word, move for move, but we knew what your choices were." Another shrug, and an impudent grin. "We're the best choice."
"That remains to be seen," Giles reminded him, getting to his feet. "And before we go, there is one thing I require from you."
Hamilton's expression became immediately guarded. "What would that be?"
Giles crossed his arms. "A guarantee of safe passage."
"Oh." Hamilton looked relieved. "Of course." He reached behind him for the door handle.
"Where are you going?"
"To tell Jack and Fiona," he said. "I also figured you'd want me out of here so you can make your own arrangements."
"Oh." Giles nodded, slowly, thought he hadn't actually considered what to tell the others. "Of course."
"We leave at dawn," Hamilton said then, and left, closing the door behind him.
When Xander and Willow saw Matt Hamilton leave the trailer and with a nod to the two impatiently waiting Scoobies, make his way back toward the common area (and Xander thought for a moment that the older man winked at them as he passed), both were on their feet and halfway to the door by the time it opened, and Giles appeared, looking tired, and beckoned them inside.
Xander nudged the door shut behind them as Giles leaned back against his makeshift desk and regarded both of them soberly.
"I'm leaving Faith in charge," he said, without preamble or explanation.
Xander blinked and Willow stared, then turned to look at Xander. "Did I miss the whole conversation leading up to that?" she asked, pointing at Giles.
"No, I'm pretty sure that was just plain random, Wil," Xander answered, perplexed. "Could we get a little more sense than that?" he said to Giles.
"Tomorrow, I am going..." he looked thoughtful for a moment, then continued: "Well, quite honestly I'm not sure of where, exactly. But when our visitors leave, I am going with them."
"So, we're doing it?" Willow said, "You accepted?" Listening, Xander could not tell whether the prospect fascinated and excited her or terrified her.
::Probably both,:: he thought.
"I haven't given them my answer," Giles told her. "I told Hamilton I wanted to meet the First Guardian before I decide, to discuss this with her myself." He crossed his arms. "He's agreed to take us - he's guaranteed our safe passage. Not that I fear much for our safety, but it seemed prudent to ask."
Xander's brain, dwelling still on the vagueness of where, exactly, Giles expected to be going, screeched suddenly to a halt on one point, as Giles continued, frowning: "He agreed to the journey rather quickly. I think he expected me to ask."
"Hold on," said Xander, waving his hands to halt the older man's train of thought. "You said 'we'?"
Giles, calmly, blinked at him. "Yes," he said. "Myself, and the two of you."
"You want us to go with you to fairyland?"
"As I understand it, Crystallis exists in something similar to a pocket dimension - which is why we need a guide. Apparently it is a difficult place to approach, not already knowing the way." He levelled on Xander a very patient look over the top of his glasses. "Not 'fairyland'."
"It's generally unwise to enter an unknown situation, particularly a negotiation, alone. I supposed Willow to be the most suitable candidate to accompany me," he nodded to Willow, who had still not spoken, then looked back to Xander. "And I assumed you would complain if left behind."
Xander considered that for a moment. "Oh," he said. "All right, then."
"I will be leaving Faith in charge of the others," Giles went on, glancing backward at his map-strewn desk. "There are several Watchers and a smaller group of Slayers gathering in Vancouver City - they'll be safe there, in Union territory, and we can meet them there, in a few days, one way or the other." Giles looked momentarily contemplative, into which silence Willow murmured:
"What would the Union think of Slayers, I wonder?"
Giles shrugged. "I have thus far failed to grasp this new government's policy on such things."
"Well, why wouldn't it?" asked Xander. "Ours does." He saw Willow nod at the reference to the Initiative. Giles just looked cynical.
"I have heard rumours that the Guardians may have some influence."
"Is this something we should be worried about?" Xander asked, seeing Giles frown, but the older man shook his head.
"When do we leave, then?" Willow asked, voice slightly nervous. "Tomorrow?"
"At dawn, apparently," Giles confirmed, nodding but looking none too pleased with the prospect.
"Dawn?" squeaked Willow, then sighed, amending: "Yay," in a faint voice.
"Dinner!" came the call, then, from outside. Giles motioned for the others to go ahead.
"I've some things to take care of," he told them.
"Sure," Xander agreed, opening the door, and allowing Willow to precede him. "And don't worry, we'll make sure there's something left to eat by the time you get there."
The door closed behind them with a decisive click.
Morning came unseasonably chilly for summer in California, and Willow, woken early by the change-of-watch, shivered as she dressed. Not knowing the climate of their destination, she decided on layers, zipping a hooded cardigan over a t-shirt and carrying a quilted jacket over one arm as she emerged into the cool morning air, satchel slung across one shoulder.
It was still only barely light, but around the fire she saw most of the camp was awake, and marvelled once more at the apparent disinterest the authorities had shown in them since the quake, ignoring even the smoke rising from their nightly campfires - in brushfire season, no less. If nothing else that would have worried her, made her suspect that not only were things elsewhere in the country as bad as she'd been hearing, over the Net, they were probably worse.
She was not, however, surprised that the people of Sunnydale had seemed unaware that the government was in danger of imminent collapse; the major news stations had done a good job of downplaying the situation - they always did - and in any case the people of Sunnydale had always had a talent for oblivion. Most of them, when evacuating, had fled East, where things were worst.
Approaching the fire, she saw Fiona standing next to the stove, holding out a plate for Faith to pile it with scrambled eggs. They were laughing about something, and as she saw Willow, Fi looked u and grinned. Willow smiled back, setting down her things and reaching for a plate.
She was relieved to notice that Fiona's mind was, this morning, blank to her, as was her brother Jack, standing a few paces away, silently working his way through breakfast. The wonder inspired in her by their magic had been overshadowed, yesterday, by her own instinctive reaction of smothered panic - even now, she was still rather gun-shy, although she knew, when she admitted it to herself, that too much fear was just as dangerous as overconfidence.
::You said it to Xander,:: she reminded herself. ::That kind of magic can't go bad.::
::But it's never the *magic* that goes bad,:: some part of herself whispered.
She perched on the rail surrounding the fire pit and chewed thoughtfully as she watched the others. ::Maybe,:: she thought, ::I just did it wrong, the first time. She said...:: Willow remembered the Guardian's advice, ::She said it was about balance.::
And knowing the difference between fear and caution, she supposed, but still, she couldn't quite shake a feeling of... not foreboding, exactly, but something like anticipation, although that made as little sense.
Willow sighed, and standing, went back for seconds.
Although he had been, on some level, expecting it, Giles had to strive to hide his irritation when their little group, gathered at the edge of the camp, was joined by the Delegates, all of whom looked more awake than he felt.
Hamilton greeted them brightly; to Giles' annoyance, none of the three strangers carried any baggage, save a small courier bag slung across Fiona's back, although Giles and his two charges had been advised to expect an absence of a few days. On the positive end of things, though, he supposed, that probably meant that wherever they were going, it wasn't far.
"Ready?" asked Hamilton, fastening the light jacket he wore.
"Will we be walking, then?" Giles asked, gesturing to indicate the wide, empty expanse of the desert beyond the parking lot.
Hamilton gave him a surprised look, then grinned. "Not for too long," he said. "We'll be under cover before it gets too hot, at any rate," he added, and without further elaboration, set out into the scrub, followed by Jack and Fiona Phillips. The others, after sharing a puzzled glance, followed.
Giles brought up the rear.
It wasn't quite six when they stopped - they'd been walking nearly an hour, and when Hamilton, who'd been leading, setting a brisk, patient sort of pace, did stop, Giles could not fathom why. He looked around, but could see only scrubby desert; they stood near a copse of cactus and thorny brush, indistinguishable from the hundred others just like it they'd passed over the last hour except that this one was dominated by a particularly massive formation of sun-bleached rock.
Giles looked expectantly at Hamilton, to find that the younger man was watching him with amusement.
"Just wait," said Hamilton, nodding to the Phillips boy, who approached the huge rock and moved around it, disappearing around the other side.
"What--" was as far as he got. If he hadn't been watching, he might have missed it; abruptly a large part of the rock, lower and slightly smoother than the rest, was gone. The weathered surface of the rock melted away like smoke and in its place rested one of the oddest vehicles Giles had ever seen. He heard Willow gasp.
It was lower to the ground that seemed mechanically feasible - too low, it seemed, to allow space for wheels, or tires. In fact, it seemed to have no wheels at all. It seemed almost foreshortened, as well. Gradually it dawned that there was no engine, at least not in either of the places one generally expects to find one. The length and width of it were taken up with seating, although a control panel and a steering column were mounted on the shallow dashboard. The outside panelling, interrupted by windows on the roof and the sides from about halfway up, was dark and opaque, but reflective. Solar panelling? The bottom quarter of the vehicle was encased in darker panelling, itself full of what looked like ventilation holes, nearly a hand's-width apiece, inset evenly along the bottom edge.
"Was that..." murmured Xander.
"Not magic," Fiona told him. "Machinery." Jack reappeared around the side of the car. "It's an optical illusion."
"Like a hologram?" asked Xander, cautiously enthusiastic.
Fiona grinned. "Something like."
Hamilton met Giles' quizzical look with a shrug. "We couldn't very well drive it along the interstate," he said, which was true.
It was, Giles decided, an electric car - or at least a close approximation, though if he recalled correctly this type of vehicle was driven by forced air and electromagnetics: a pneumatic car, he supposed. He'd read about them - pneumatics were part of the Union's widespread technological advancement campaigns. He'd even ridden an electric train, his last time in London; but hte Transit application in London had involved mostly upgrades on the old system, and the only real difference lay in the conveyance itself. The system map had remained almost identical. Private vehicles had long been obsolete within the city, and their use was now carefully controlled in Union countries, generally used only under special circumstances, and available only to citizens; he'd never had occasion to use one.
His suspicions were confirmed when Hamilton, opening a side-door and reaching inside, touched a control and a polymer-encased cusion, previously hidden by the lower casing, began to inflate with a low hiss. The car rose six or seven inches, until it rested on the inflated pad, silently awaiting its passengers.
"It's so quiet," said Willow with surprise.
"It's efficient," agreed Hamilton. "Noise is wasted energy, you know."
Giles was sure she did know, but she continued to stare - as well she might, thought Giles; pneumatic and electric cars were not only unheard-of in the United States, they were virtually illegal. Their introduction, and the abandonment of fossil fuels, had been one of the main reasons for the American refusal of Union membership. Certainly they couldn't have driven it up the interstate.
The sun, rising slowly, was beginning to cast darker shadows. Hamilton, glancing at the sky, apparently decided it was time to go, because he lifted the other door, leaving the whole side open.
With the doors shut, they fit snugly, although not uncomfortably. Theh car was larger inside than Giles had expected, largely because conventional vehicles were surrounded by panelling almost a foot thick. The outer shell of the pneumatic car was thin, mo more than a few inches in thickness, although sturdy and solid. THe doors closed with more of a click than a slam. Hamilton touched another control and the car came to life.
Even running, the engine emitted only a faint hum, and Giles didn't realize they were moving until the rock vanished from the right-side window. They'd risen a few more inches when the engine had been started, and looking back, Giles was surprised to see the vehicle left virtually no trail - he had half-expected a billowing cloud of dust, but the car disturbed the ground - and the air, as well, it seemed, as listening, he could barely hear the wind whistling past them - far less than an ordinary car. The craft cut easily and swiftly across the desert, seeming to meet almost no resistance, this last largely due, he guessed, to the design of its shell.
"Shall we be stopping for the night?" he asked, watching the desert flash past.
"Oh, no," said Hamilton. "We should reach Sunnydale well before noon."
"We were a day out from Sunnydale last night," Giles said, disbelieving.
"Yes," agreed the other Watcher, "via internal combustion."
Giles was silent. Willow, tone puzzled, asked: "We're going back to Sunnydale? But... there's nothing left."
Hamilton was quiet a moment before replying: "Not precisely," and Giles saw Fiona grinning mischeviously back at them in the rearview mirror.
It was a rock.
It was almost eleven o'clock and the sun was becoming yellow and warm - it had taken them less than half the time to cover the distance that had taken the caravan most of a day. Xander had been so absorbed in watching the ground blur past as they skimmed across the desert, avoiding the roads, that he almost hadn't noticed the outlying ruins of SUnnydale rising up to the east of them as they passed it, at a distance of a few miles. When he had, he'd started watching ahead. After everything that had been said the day before, he hadn't been quite sure what to expect.
He hadn't expected a rock.
Xander stood staring at it, head tilted slightly to one side, as the others climbed out behind him. Vaguely he registered some conversation among the Delegates, and peripherally he saw the car being maneuvered around the far side of the rock, supposedly to be melted back into invisibility via the cloaking device. It was all so Star Trek, he thought, taking a few steps to the left to examine the rock from a different angle. He wasn't sure what he was looking for - a button, a keypad, a big, flashing sign...
Fiona came to stand beside him. He looked down at her from a good foot above, and pointed. "It's a rock," he said.
She looked, then nodded at him. "Yup," she agreed, "definitely a rock."
"Do you guys just really like rocks, or are we hopping a rock-shaped spaceship, here?"
Fiona giggled. "No, no spaceships," she said. "Sorry," she added, and Xander crossed his arms, realizing belatedly that he had felt briefly disappointed. "Don't worry, though," she consoled. "It's much cooler than a space ship."
Xander stared at her, stared at the rock. ::Teenagers,:: he thought. ::Why do I only know teenagers with super powers?::
"Ready to go?" asked Hamilton then, and Xander turned to see the Watcher approaching them, guiding Giles and followed by Jack Phillips. Willow came to stand next to Xander.
He leaned forward a little. No, he decided, still a rock.
"Where are we going, exactly?" asked Giles.
"Or, actually, how?" added Willow.
It was a rather large rock, Xander supposed, stepping back again. Four times his height, and bleached whiter than some of the others they'd passed this morning. It was weathered and cracked like the others, but the weathering seemed, somehow, to have assumed a different pattern, here. The rockface was scored with pockmarks and cracks, but the damage all seemed to frame the area directly in front of them. He stepped back a little more; there was a part of the rockface that seemed to have remained unaffected by the passage of time, smoother and unmolested in comparison to the surrounding stone. In fact, it was almost as if the damage had been deflected; looking up, he followed, with his eyes, a crack that seemed to have begun at the top of the rockface, carrying on diagonally toward the ground, that actually seemed to have stopped at once side, and then continued on the other, as if without interruption. Tilting his head, he squinted; the smooth area almost seemed to form the shape of... a door. Arched at the top and taller than him by a foot or so, a little wider than his outstretched arms... it was a door.
"Is that..." he looked at Fiona again, but the girl was stepping forward to lay one hand on the smooth stone, right at the edge of the weathered area. She looked back over her shoulder, and grinned.
"Watch this," she said, and turned back, closing her eyes.
Xander didn't quite catch all the words, but Fiona murmured something - a few sentences in a flowing, smooth language that he'd never heard before - and then there was a moment where the air around them seemed to thicken and stretch...
Willow grabbed his arm, reacting convulsively, as something - something powerful, because even Xander could feel it, distantly - deep beneath them surged for an instant. There was a flash of bright blue light.
When Xander looked again - he found he had closed his eyes instinctively - the smooth area on the rockface... he had to look again, because for a moment his eyes were fooling him.
The smooth area on the rock, now clearly outlined in faintly-glowing blue, seemed to have vanished. Or changed, he couldn't decide. The door - for it was, now obviously, a door - was surrounded by a dozen or so symbols, none of which he recognized (and stealing a glance at Willow, he saw that she didn't, either). The area within the archway, itself, was... rippling.
Not exactly rippling. But it seemed to have been altered, so that the smooth stone now appeared to be liquid, or fluid, and was moving, very slowly, as if moved by a current. Xander felt suddenly drawn to touch it, even as his common sense reminded him firmly to stay the hell back.
"Now that," Fiona told Xander, looking amused, "is magic."
"That's... a lamius andron," exclaimed Giles, behind him, in a hushed voice.
"A what?" Xander turned to look at him.
Giles stared for a moment before blinking and looking at him: "It's... it translates loosely to... 'corridor of wizards'. It's also known as a pius porta - 'holy door' - or--"
"Or terra porta," provided Fiona, as Giles turned to look at her with surprise. She smiled. "Though we just call them Earth Gates. Or Gates. The big latin names get a bit wordy for regular usage."
Giles nodded, slowly, his eyes drifting back to the door itself. "In the ancient world, they were said to be used by wizards, by gods... engraved in stone, in ancient trees, secreted away in the hearts of fallen castles, that sort of thing. But I thought they were only legend."
Xander laughed, as did Willow. Giles gave them a tolerant look. "Yes, well. This is rather one of the big ones. The legend long predates any documentation. It survives largely through oral history."
"As is the case for us, I'm afraid," said Hamilton. "The Circle has been using the Gates for generations, but even we don't know who made them, in the first place. But there are hundreds of them, in the damndest places, too."
"Like in the bowels of the Calgary sewer system," Fiona said, shuddering.
"And we're going to go through that..." Willow pointed at the doorway, "to get where we're going?" Her voice sounded a little high and strained. Xander sympathised.
"It's perfectly safe, and confidentially, a hell of a lot faster than our other options," Hamilton told them.
Xander turned to look at Giles, whose attention had been drawn back to the open Gate. "I never thought I'd step through one myself."
"It's your call, G-man," Xander said, shrugging, though casting an uneasy glance toward the Gate. But Giles was already stepping forward, not even bothering to glare at him for the nickname.
"Okay, then," muttered Xander, as Jack Phillips preceded them, stepping through the door and vanishing, with nary a ripple to the dark space within the arch. Willow paused at the threshold, reaching out one hand to touch the not-quite-fluid space of the doorway.
"It feels... warm," said Willow, sounding surprised. "Like water."
Fiona nodded. "It feels a bit like that once you're in, too - no resistance." She saw Willow's hesitation, and gestured her forward. "It doesn't hurt, or anything," the younger girl assured them both. "Just remember - the trip only lasts a second or two. You'll feel like you've lost your balance but it's really more like you're stepping straight through to the other end. So don't flail or anything or you'll fall on your face when you come out."
"And try to breathe normally," added Hamilton. "It feels like water, but it isn't, really - you aren't going to drown. Just focus on the destination."
"What if we lose our concentration? Mightn't we end up somewhere else?" Giles asked.
Hamilton shook his head. "No - this isn't teleportation, where knowledge of the destination depends on the traveller. This is a stable portal - a corridor, as you said. The origin and destination are set - hardwired, you might say," he said, with a smile for Willow. "This door is connected to the other end - that's what the spell is for: what Fiona did when she activated it."
"All right, then," said Giles, stepping up to the door, and Xander saw that he was as eager as he was nervous - he wished he could say the same. "Wish me luck."
Then, fists clenched at his sides - and Xander could have sworn he heard the older man take a deep breath - Giles stepped forward, and disappeared, like slipping underwater.
Willow stiffened next to him. He squeezed her hand. "No problem, Wil," he told her, trying to sound more self-assured than he felt and quite certain that she saw right through it. "On three." They stepped up to the Gate together. "One, two..."
"..three!" They stepped forward, and were swallowed by darkness.
Fiona bent down to retrieve her bag, slung it over one shoulder, and smiled, broadly. "That went well," she observed, and was rewarded with a smile from Matt, who dropped an arm around her shoulders and squeezed.
"Yes, Fi," he agreed, as they stepped up to the Gate, "I would say that most definitely went well."
He looked back, taking in the empty stretch of desert, the hulking ruin of Sunnydale on the horizon, and the pale and cloudless sky. Fiona followed his gaze. "An excellent beginning," he said. "Now the hard part begins."
Together they stepped through the Gate, vanishing after the others.
Gradually, the glowing outline of the Gate dulled to nothing, and the empty doorway faded back to its natural state of weathered stone. A few seconds later, nothing remained of their presence but footprints and the dust of their passage, hanging heavy in the morning air.