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The Honor of the Hellmouth

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Summary: Honor Harrington, Shannon Foraker and friends in pre-Diaspora Sunnydale. Will the town ever be the same again?

Categories Author Rating Chapters Words Recs Reviews Hits Published Updated Complete
Literature > Sci-Fi > Honor Harrington SeriesSmegheadFR18214,9261326,15912 Jan 047 Apr 04No

Some Days, It Just Doesn't Pay...

The Honor of the Hellmouth

Author: Robert Cox (smeghead_76@dodo.com.au)

Rating: MA-15+ (Australian system), for all the usual reasons

Disclaimer: Buffy belongs to Joss, as I'm sure everyone knows by now. Honor Harrington belongs to David Weber, and the excellent series of novels. If you haven't read them, why not? :)

Summary: As the peace talks with Haven break down, and the war starts again, a chance encounter between Honor and Shannon Foraker has interesting ramifications, but before they can get to Manticore to tell anyone, things go pear-shaped, and they - along with a handful of survivors - somehow end up on pre-Diaspora Earth... specifically, Sunnydale. What happens next is kind of inevitable...

Timeline: S7 Buffy/post-'War of Honor', with spoilers for both of them. Hell, I might as well throw in the rest of the smeggin' Honorverse as well, including the short stories.

Addendum to timeline: Better make it post-'Crown of Slaves', as well, since it seems to take place at the same time as 'War of Honor'. Just in case, mind you...

Pairing: Brace yourself... B/S. Yeah, yeah, I know - it's, at best, mildly nauseating. Bear with me, though, since there is method to my madness. Oh, and recently, my muse has been whispering things like, 'Make it Xander/Dawn... you know you want to...'

Character Bashing: None, in my opinion, but some of Joss' characters are not going to be portrayed in the most favorable light.

Feedback: Please? Pretty please? Even if it's to tell me what I'm doing wrong.

AN: Finally, Final Fantasy X-2's finished. Now, all I have to do is resist the temptation to play it again in order to get the 100% completion rate and the 'perfect' ending...

AN2: Once again, thanks go to Greywizard for putting his sanity on the line by beta-reading this :)

Beta reader's note: Sanity? Oh yeah, I had some of that around here, somewhere, once? Oh well, never really had that much of a use for it? Going back to reading more of the good stuff now.

AN3: HonorH: Yeah, I know David Weber has requested that no fanfic be written until he's finished the series (as stated an the alt.books.david-weber FAQ), but that's more to cover his backside regarding the possibility of a fanfic author claiming that an idea of theirs was 'stolen'. Frankly, if anything I write inspires David Weber, I'd be too astonished to do much of anything :)

****

The Invictus returned to the universe - well, a universe, anyway.

This is a brief sentence, and fully fails to provide any sort of detail as to what happened over the next ten to fifteen minutes. Later, much later, when things had calmed down somewhat, the survivors attempted to construct some sort of timeline for the events immediately following the Invictus' reversion into n-space.

It was an effort that was never going to be very successful for one simple reason:

There weren't very many survivors...

****

Honor fought down the sudden rush of nausea, and heard the strangled coughing noises that indicated that at least one other person had lost the struggle. She was no stranger to the nausea and general discomfort that inevitably accompanied all but the most gentle translations from the alpha band of hyperspace back to normal space, but what had just happened had felt more like a wormhole transit, which begged the question of how they had missed it on the way in-system and, perhaps more importantly, where they were now.

Unknown to Honor, what had happened was this: by entering the wormhole on a vector that was almost, but not quite, precisely correct, some of its more esoteric properties had been called into effect. The fact that the Invictus' Warshawski sails had been milliseconds from activating has simply assured this. Instead of simply being transported to the other end of the wormhole, the Invictus was unceremoniously dumped into another reality... or universe, or dimension.

Naturally, it was different from the one they'd left behind. Just as evolution is nature's way of exploring the phase-space of life, the multiverse is the exploration of all possible - and a few that would be considered impossible - universal configurations. In natural selection, the genome is what separates one species from another, while the thing that changes from universe to universe is a series of values called the 'fundamental constant', which defines the very basis of reality for a particular universe. Not all of them are nice. Some have ceased to exist. Some never got to the point where life could exists. Most of the universes where life does exist, however, have a number of things in common, which is only to be expected, since the requirements for life tend to remain fairly constant.

That being said, though, the universe in which the Invictus found itself wasn't all that different in ways that were easily noticeable - most of the differences existed at the sub-atomic level - except for two rather important respects. The first was a slight change in the fundamental constant. Of course, over the course of fifteen billion years, it was enough of a change to shift the Invictus' position by just over two thousand years in time and several hundred light-years in space. Minor stuff, really, when you look at the Big Picture.

The second difference was that this particular universe had a abnormally high number of inter-dimensional connections - the cosmological equivalent of the housing development that has easy access to every major transportation route in the area. Some of the dimensions these connections linked to this universe were hostile in the extreme, barely able to support life, which stamped its own set of influences on the life that did manage to exist. Basically, it meant that pretty much of all said life-forms were extremely hostile themselves, and determined to escape to more hospitable environments by any means necessary. Their actions gave rise to legends of vampires and other demons, which were true in every major respect, even if belief in them had all but vanished.

Even if Honor had known all this, it would have been of only secondary concern at that precise moment in time, since she had a number of more pressing concerns. First and foremost at the moment were the impeller nodes.

Able to take the output from the Invictus' fusion reactors and transform them into the stressed gravity bands that provided propulsion, the reverse was also true. In other words, under the right - or wrong circumstances - they could take a source of gravitic energy and convert it into something that could be used by the ship's more conventional systems. In a normal situation, this was nothing but a good thing, as a ship in hyperspace could use its Warshawski sails to provide power without placing any load on the reactors; a considerable saving in bunkerage requirements. However, in this situation, that ability became a two-edged sword, since the nodes had just encountered a gravitic source about a thousand times more powerful than even the wildest expectations of the most radical hyper physicist, with inevitable results.

Before each and every node was vaporised by the incredible power surge, they managed to pass on about a quarter of the induced load into the ship's power circuits. The results were as devastating as they were predictable.

Delicate molecular circuitry was ravaged, circuit breakers, surge suppressors and power sumps were overwhelmed, the inertial compensator failed instantly - only the fact that the Invictus was at zero acceleration saved the crew from being laminated to the rear bulkheads of whatever compartments they were in - and, perhaps worst of all, the containment fields for all four of Invictus' fusion bottles started to fluctuate alarmingly.

Honor hadn't even begun to react to the situation when every single light, display panel and hologrpahic display on the bridge suddenly went blank. Some of the lights and displays came back on, driven by redundant back-up systems, but not many. Most of the internal communication links had also been melted into uselessness, but the backups for the most critical links - Bridge, Damage Control and Engineering - managed to stay active, since the backups were primitive optical fibre, which were more robust than the molycirc primary links.

One of the secondary displays at her stations flickered to life, repeating the status panel in Damage Control. It made for grim viewing, since four-fifths of the compartments were either the black of 'no information received', the red of 'serious damage', or the flashing red of 'critical failure imminent'. Most of the rest was the yellow of 'moderate damage', with only a few showing green.

Deciding that she needed more information than the repeater display could show, Honor activated the comlink. "Damage Control, Bridge."

"Damage Control," the slightly distorted voice replied.

"The information that's on my secondary display," Honor said. "How accurate is it?"

"Fairly accurate, Ma'am. Allowing for some loss in detail due to the difference in the size of the screens involved, you're seeing the same thing that I am."

"Loss of detail?" Honor knew from sometimes-painful experience that the small details could make all the difference.

"Well, Ma'am, I'm getting some strange readings from the superconducting capacitor rings - both fore and aft. In fact, I've only ever seen readings like this once before..." the DCO's voice trailed off.

"And that was?" Honor prompted when the silence started to stretch out.

"Oh, sorry, Ma'am. As I was saying, the only time I've seen readings like this before was in a worst-case scenario sim. If I recall correctly, both rings exploded, causing catastrophic damage to the ship about fifteen minutes later."

Honor went pale at the thought, and Nimitz reared back in his harness in reaction to the emotions suddenly flowing through her mind. "Well, in that case, I think abandoning ship would be a good idea."

At his post at the entrance to the bridge, unnoticed in the sudden flurry of activity, Andrew LaFollet nodded decisively and, activating his personal com, started issuing orders to the travel detachment of armsmen that, under Grayson law, had to accompany their Steadholder whenever she went off-planet. He didn't have to issue too many, since Simon Mattingly - his second-in-command, and recently transferred from Allison Harrington's security team - and himself had hand-picked each of the ten other armsmen from the fifty-strong Harrington Steadholder Guard, and they'd chosen only the best.

That taken care of, he returned to his on-duty stance and waited for what would inevitably come next. It didn't take long.

"Andrew."

"Yes, My Lady?"

"Can I assume that you've already ordered the rest of your team to assist in passing the word to abandon ship to those members of the crew that are currently out of communication?"

"You may, My Lady," he replied, knowing what was going to come next.

"Then why aren't you helping them?" Honor asked, raising one eyebrow.

"My Lady, Grayson law requires that -" Andrew started, but was interrupted - as he'd expected.

"I think I'm safe from assassins on the bridge of my own ship, Andrew," Honor told him in a dry voice. "And if the ship happens to explode while I'm still on it, I don't think there's a great deal you can do about it, correct?"

"Yes, My Lady," Andrew replied. "If you'll excuse me..." he added, turning towards the hatch, only to be stopped when Honor spoke up again.

"Are you feeling all right, Andrew?" she said with a small smile. "Normally, it takes longer to convince you."

"Quite all right, My Lady," Andrew replied with a matching smile. "But under these circumstances, it would probably be better if I simply assumed from the start that you'll out-stubborn me and concede with good grace at the start." With that said, he turned and left.

Beside her, Rafe was chuckling quietly. "And just what do you find so amusing, Rafe?"

"Oh, the fact that this time it only took you a few seconds to convince Andrew of something, rather than the usual time. Generally, it's quite interesting to watch when Sphinx stubbornness meets Grayson stubbornness."

"I'm glad that you can find something amusing in this situation, Rafe," Honor said dryly. "However, I think we should be leaving now."

"Of course, Ma'am. After you." Rafe started to suit actions to words, before speaking up again as something occurred to him. "Who's going to tell Scotty and Shannon, though?"

"I think Andrew's got that covered."

****

"Well, that shouldn't have happened," Scotty observed as his stomach churned. He'd been assigned as liaison officer to the Havenite prisoners of war and, as part of his duties had been spending a considerable amount of time in their company, ensuring that their treatment was as specified under the Deneb Accords - not that Admiral Harrington would even consider doing otherwise, but Scotty took his duties seriously - which included at least an hour a day spent conferring with Admiral Foraker, discussing any problems that might have cropped up, and anything that had the potential to become a problem.

"That wasn't like any entry to hyperspace that I've ever experienced," Shannon commented.

"No, that was more like a wormhole transit," Scotty agreed. "But, as far as we know, there isn't a junction in the area - apart from the Trevor's Star terminus, of course."

"Not as far as we know, either," Shannon agreed in turn. "Which means that the ship must have hit an uncharted junction." Both naval officers shuddered as a thought occurred to both of them at the same time. The entry vectors for a wormhole were very carefully calculated, and for a good reason.

Before the uncomfortable line of speculation could be continued, the admittance alert chimed, and seconds later, the door opened to reveal Simon Mattingly. "Sorry to intrude, Sir, Ma'am, but the Steadholder's ordered 'abandon ship', and the internal communication system's down." It was a measure of his agitation that the normally unflappable armsman used the Admiral's Grayson title, and a sure sign that the situation was serious. He turned to leave, but Scotty interrupted him.

"Do you know where the Admiral is headed?" Scotty asked, trying to remain as calm as possible.

"Boat Bay Two, Sir," Simon replied, before dashing off.

Scotty turned to Shannon. "I think it would be a good idea to go," he said dryly.

"I couldn't agree more," Shannon replied. "But I want to make sure that my people are being included in the evacuation, though."

Scotty thought for a moment. Chief Harkness would probably already be carrying out some sort of pre-flight check-list - although, under these circumstances, it would probably be somewhat abbreviated; 'ensure that engines are physically attached to the pinnace and that the fission pile is present and correctly functioning' would probably be the extent of it - which meant that his presence on the pinnace's flight deck probably wasn't strictly required right now. "Of course."

****

His message delivered, Simon's next stop was the small armoury used to store the armsman detachment's weapons. Rapidly tapping in the access code, he went straight for the small-arms rack and strapped on a harness laden with fletchette gun ammunition, and hesitated briefly before grabbing three more and throwing them on loosely over the first one and grabbing two fletchette guns, knowing that Major LaFollet would be too busy looking after the Steadholder to grab a weapon himself.

Slinging one across his back, he kept the other one in his hand. Not that he expected to have to use it, but ingrained habits died hard. In this case, it was the habit of an experienced infantry soldier to keep his weapon close to hand once it had been issued.

There was one more stop he had to make before he could join Major LaFollet and the Steadholder in Boat Bay Two.

****

Surgeon Captain Fritz Montoya had just completed post-op procedures when Simon burst into sickbay. He took in the weapons and ammunition the armsman was carrying with a raised eyebrow and a quizzical expression. "I trust there's a reason for this, Corporal."

"Sorry, Doc, but 'abandon ship's been ordered, and I've got to make sure you make it to safety," Simon replied.

Fritz paled at that brusquely delivered statement. He'd noticed the unusually strong hyperspace event, but had been too involved in trying to save the life of a Havenite officer to take much notice.

"Abandon ship?" he repeated incredulously. "In hyperspace?"

Simon shook his head. "We never entered h-space in the first place, Doc," he said bluntly. "No-one knows what happened, but best guess is that we hit a wormhole of some sort... and took serious damage in the process."

"But... my patients," Fritz stammered. He knew that, while some of the less seriously injured would probably be able to make it to the life pods, there weren't very many of them, and if the ship succumbed to its damage, none of the seriously injured would survive.

But he had a duty to them, dammit! He'd sworn an oath on the day he completed his training at Bassingford - with Surgeon Commander Alfred Harrington as one of his instructors - to heal the wounded, to provide them with the best medical care that he could. For nearly twenty years, he'd done that, even under fire and under conditions that would have appalled his fellow doctors.

And now he was expected to abandon them, to save his own life. The rational part of his brain understood the reasoning behind that line of thought, but the part of him that would always be a doctor recoiled from it. How could he be expected to do this?

Simon solved his dilemma in the most simple way possible - by grabbing his arm and dragging him towards Boat Bay Two. "Sorry, Sir," Simon said. "But we didn't have time for you to resolve your crisis. Hopefully, the Tester will understand."

****

Scotty and Shannon never made it to where the Havenite POWs were being accommodated. Instead, they ran into Honor, Rafe and the other bridge crew. "I see you obviously got the message," Honor said.

"Er, yes, Ma'am," Scotty replied. "In fact, we were just on our way to check up on the Havenite-"

"Don't worry about it, Scotty," Honor interrupted. "Andrew's already sent someone down to get them to life pods. I think your talents would be best utilised pre-flighting one of the pinnaces."

"Yes, Ma'am," Scotty said, knowing that there wasn't a great deal else he could have said.

When the newly-expanded group arrived in Boat Bay Two a couple of minutes later, they arrived to a scene of purposeful action, with an overlay of slight confusion. Everyone was going through the procedures for such an occasion, but were obviously wondering why the situation had arisen. They were going to make a fairly routine hop through hyperspace to Trevor's Star, followed by an equally routine junction transit back to Manticore, right? So why the emergency?

Honor saw this, but of somewhat more pressing concern at the moment was the fact that, out of all of the small craft in the bay, only two pinnaces weren't festooned with the red tags that meant 'out of service', although that probably *did* explain why there were only a few people present - everyone else had reported to the nearest life pod launching area. Looking around for someone to explain the situation, she saw the familiar sight of Chief Warrant Officer Sir Horace Harkness standing by the airstair of one of the pinnaces. "What's going on, Chief?" she asked, making her way over to him.

"Well, Ma'am, it seems that every other small craft was plugged into the ship's power systems when whatever it was hit, and what isn't fried is simply melted," Harkness replied. "I suppose we're lucky that none of the containment bottles let go."

Even though the latest generation of Manticoran small craft used fission piles instead of fusion bottles, which meant that containment failure wouldn't result in a catastrophic explosion, the result would still be pretty nasty.

Honor simply nodded, accepting the explanation. Harkness had been involved with the new small craft ever since their inception, and his experience made him one of the foremost experts on their operation. He hiked a thumb in the direction of the two Marine sergeants standing behind him and added, "These two have been helping me check out the two pinnaces that are still working. They're not too bad... for jarheads," he added in a slightly dismissive tone.

Instead of being offended, the Marines simply grinned.

Even before he masterminded the breakout from the Tepes, Harkness had been something of a legend within the Navy. The first reason had been the sheer number of times he had been promoted to Senior Chief Petty Officer before losing said rank, generally due to what he saw as officers unsympathetic to the need of fellow crew members' needs for a few 'luxury items' to make deployments just that little bit more comfortable. The fact that Harkness had made a tidy little income from these humanitarian endeavours was simply a bonus.

The second reason was that, in the past, he'd seemed incapable of passing a Marine uniform in a bar without trying to render the wearer unconscious - a habit which had also resulted in its fair share of demotions. These days, he limited his efforts to prove the Navy's superiority over Marines to the practice mats for one very simple reason; his wife, a Marine herself, frowned on such a practice.

With that in mind, Honor cast a measuring glance towards the two sergeants. One had the sort of build that would require an insane amount of working out with weights to achieve... in anyone else but a native of San Martin, that is. The inhabitants of that world, the heaviest-grav world settled during the Diaspora, were forced to live on high mountain plateaux by the fact that their planet's high gravity produced a lethal sea-level atmospheric pressure. Fortunately, San Martin's active geology had resulted in a lot of said plateaux for people to live on.

One of San Martin's other claims to fame was the legendary stubbornness of its people. Honor had always supposed that was a result of the environment in which they lived. After all, if you lived somewhere where simply moving around was twice the effort of virtually everywhere else, the sort of attitude that was required to stick it out was simple to transfer to just about everything else, as well. Their other claim to fame was a near-fanatical hatred for the People's Republic of Haven and all of its works - a hatred which had been transferred to the post-Committee of Public Safety Republic of Haven.

Given that Trevor's Star had been the last conquest of the then-People's Republic, it was easy to understand why such a hatred would exist. As a result, large numbers of San Martinos had enlisted in the armed forces of the only star nation they saw as being willing to stand up to Haven's rapacious appetite - Manticore - and more had enlisted since San Martin's voluntary annexation into the Star Kingdom. Judging by his age and rank, the sergeant had been one of those fortunate enough to escape either the invasion itself or the occupation, possibly even in the last refugee convoy through the Trevor's Star terminus of the Manticore Wormhole Junction that then-Commodore, now-President Jesus Ramirez had been thought to have been killed covering the escape of.

"Sergeant Juan Garcia reporting, Admiral," the sergeant said, coming to attention and saluting. Honor returned the salute and the sergeant returned to the attention position.

The other sergeant was obviously from Gryphon; he even had that subtle air of stubborn pride about him that indicated that he was from the Attica Mountains - the notorious Highlands, which produced some of the most inveterate duellists and vendettas in human space. They also had an intense contempt for hereditary aristocracy, which made their strong and unwavering support for the Crown something of a mystery... until it was taken into account that ever since Gryphon was opened for settlement, the Crown had supported the planet's yeomanry against the depredations of the local aristocracy. Which, in turn, explained why half of Gryphon's aristocrats were members in good standing of the Conservative Association. The percentage would be higher, but the *true* Gryphon conservative thought the Association was far too namby-pamby and liberal.

Of course, the current Manticoran monarch could be just as stubborn as any Highlander. It was often said that Elizabeth was easily capable to holding a grudge until it died of old age, then having it stuffed and mounted. Having spent an increasing amount of time in Elizabeth's company of late, Honor could attest that, if anything, that statement understated things considerably.

"Sergeant Michael Anderson reporting, Admiral," he said, copying Garcia's actions.

"At ease, sergeants," Honor told them, before return her attention to Harkness. "Is the pinnace ready to go, Chief?" she asked.

Harkness nodded. "Yes, Ma'am," he replied. "Both of them are."

Honor hesitated. As much as she wanted to wait to see if anybody else showed up, she knew that it would do nobody any good - least of all her - if she stayed until the ship exploded. She was dragged from her thoughts by a brief sting in her ear. It was easy to work out who the culprit was, especially when she felt the exasperated affection through her link with Nimitz. "I know, Stinker," she told him, reaching up to rub his head between his ears. Well, then," she continued, turning back to Harkness, "in that case, let's be -"

The entrance of the docking bay opened, and Andrew and Simon hustled through. Andrew was burdened down with some of Honor's possessions, including the Harrington Sword slung across his back and the flat case which held the Harrington Key. In his arms was Sylvester, who'd obviously been too apathetic to resist Andrew picking him up.

Simon was festooned with weapons and ammunition, and Honor had to restrain a sigh at the guard-dog mentality that caused him to load up on weapons before seeing to his own safety. It was depressingly easy to restrain that sigh, though, for an equally depressing reason; enough people had tried to kill her - apart from in battle, that is - for it to be necessary. She next had to restrain a small smile as Simon dragged a protesting Fritz Montoya through the doors.

She could understand the reasons behind Fritz's protests, since the personality that made him such an effective doctor also meant that he would be reluctant - at best - to leave his patients. Simon had obviously resolved any potential confrontation by simply dragging Fritz along with him.

On seeing Honor, Fritz shook off Simon's hand and stalked over, his expression and emotions betraying his extreme unhappiness. "Is it your fault that I was dragged away from my patients?" he demanded as Simon handed a fletchette gun and two ammunition harnesses to Andrew.

"No," Honor replied, shaking her head. "But now that you're here, you might as well get on one of the pinnaces."

Fritz drew himself up, probably to start blustering, but obviously decided against it, and his shoulder slumped in an attitude of defeat. "I really don't have much choice, do I?"

"No," Honor agreed sadly as she led him up the airstair. "I'm afraid not."

****

Having claimed the co-pilot's chair by virtue of her rank and previous piloting experience, Honor cast an eye back towards the passenger compartment. Directly behind her, having claimed the flight engineer's position, was Harkness, who was adjusting some of the controls. Although the pinnace had been checked and declared flight-worthy, he claimed to have doubts about some of the systems, particularly the counter-grav.

Honor was in two minds about that pronouncement. The counter-grav was crucial to the ability of the pinnace to land, after all, and as such, any problems with that system were treated very seriously. On the other hand, nothing was showing up on the instruments, despite the near-continuous diagnostic tests that both Harkness and she were running.

Deciding to leave that potential problem in Harkness' capable hands for now, she glanced back at the passenger compartment. Andrew and Simon had claimed the front row of seats, their unhappiness at being unable to properly stand post clearly evident. Between them, propped up in a seat, was the Harrington Sword, and in another seat, Sylvester was curled up, with Nimitz offering what support he could.

Behind them, the pinnace was much less than half-full, as the boarding process had become somewhat confused, with most of the people in the boat bay ending up on the other pinnace. In the end, only a dozen people had ended up boarding a craft with room for four times that number - and that was counting the two treecats.

As Scotty concentrated on flying the pinnace, Honor turned one of the visual sensors back towards the Invictus. At its maximum acceleration of nearly seven hundred gravities, the pinnace had started to open up a respectable distance from the severely damaged superdreadnought, but even from this distance, the extent of the damage was clearly visible, and Honor had to wonder if the universe was out to get her; virtually every ship she'd commanded, or had had assigned to her as a squadron or task force flagship, had ended up suffering severe battle damage. And now, her first Fleet flagship had joined that list.

Despite her instincts telling her otherwise, she hoped that the Invictus wouldn't end up being destroyed, although with most of the internal systems melted to slag, the ship would probably end up being scrapped, anyway-

The end, when it came, was swift and brutal, and completely without warning.

The Invictus heaved and broke into three segments as the superconducting capacitor rings finally gave out under the immense strain they had been subjected to. Essentially massive batteries, they stored power for the energy weapons - lasers and grasers - that provided the close-range punch for any warship, and also helped ease the drain of the Warshawski generators on the fusion plants. Since the capacitor rings were directly connected to the fusion plants, when they overloaded, they sent a massive surge along what was probably the only intact molycirc system on the ship, with predictable results.

All four of the Invictus' fusion reactors suffered from catastrophic decontainment in virtually the same instant. In plain language, that meant they blew up - spectacularly, sending a wave-front of plasma expanding outwards at relativistic - a significant fraction of the speed of light - velocities, swallowing up the shoal of launched life pods before the occupants had time to realise what had happened.

Acting with the speed that her genetically-engineered reflexes allowed, Honor slapped the switches that activated the pinnace's sternwall, causing Scotty to curse briefly as the acceleration dropped to zero, but he soon fell silent as the realisation of what had just happened sank in.

The crew of the other pinnace wasn't so lucky, and the plasma front, attenuated by the distance the two small craft had managed to travel before the Invictus' spectacular destruction, ripped into the wide-open kilt of its wedge.

Although attenuated, the plasma was still hot enough, and moving fast enough, that the pinnace vanished in a puff of vapour made up of the alloys that it was constructed from, along with its passengers and crew.

Honor slumped in her chair, tears trickling down her cheeks, as the pinnace bucked from the energy slamming into its sternwall. Although well above the tolerances it was designed for, the sternwall absorbed enough of the energy that, instead of being instantly destroyed, the damage was limited to the after impeller ring losing half of its nodes. Beside her, with the immediate crisis passed, Scotty sat bolt upright in his chair, staring blankly ahead as the implications of what had just happened sank in. In a pair of heartbeats, thousands of people had died, and the only survivors of the crews of two superdreadnoughts were on this pinnace.

From the passenger compartment, there was a shocked silence, broken only by Nimitz's heart-rending keening, fuelled by grief and prompted by the wave of emotion that hammered at him through his empathic sense.

****

Near Manchester, England

The stately manor house perched majestically among the carefully maintained greenery of its grounds, somehow managing to blend in perfectly with its surroundings as if it had been created at the same time as them. Even by the standards of the country, where stately manor houses were a common sight in the rural areas, this would have drawn attention. More than a few had been converted to cosy bed-and-breakfast tourist accommodation, but this particular manor house resisted that trend, which was the cause of some idle discussion in the nearby village that provided it food, and where some of the staff could be seen at the local pub of an evening, indulging in a few relaxing ales.

Careful questioning by the locals had drawn only a few facts, one of them being that the manor dated back to the Norman Conquest, and had remained the property of one family in all that time. What was not mentioned, however, was that the manor house had not been built by a member of the Norman nobility to oversee land granted to him by William the Conqueror. In fact, the manor house had been built under far more secretive circumstances, by a group relocating from a strife-torn continent in the hope that the newly-conquered land would prove to be a more secure base for their operations.

In that, the Council of Watchers would be proven to be both right and wrong. By and large, they had remained relatively untouched by the turmoil that would sweep the nation on a semi-regular basis, although a brief skirmish between Royalist and Parliamentarian troops had been fought in the grounds as the Roundheads hunted down the last remnants of the Cavalier army fleeing the aftermath of Marsden Moor, and once the halls and rooms of the manor house itself had rang to the sounds of combat during an attempted coup d'etat.

But, during all that time, the Council had kept up its sole charge - the training and guidance of the Slayer, and the search for those who would, one day, replace the current Slayer. Even in a nation which - usually - prided itself on maintaining their traditions, this would be considered an impressive effort... if anyone had found out about it, of course. The Council maintained its privacy through a series of carefully maintained contacts in both the law enforcement and intelligence agencies of Great Britain.

On more than one occasion in the last millennium, rumours of the Council's existence had almost come to the attention of the general populace, requiring the use of those carefully maintained contacts. Not to quash the rumours, of course; that would be the next best thing to confirming them. Instead the rumours had been carefully guided and nudged into paths leading away from the Council, so subtly that their existence remained a secret outside of those people whom the Council chose to confide their existence in.

Another thing not revealed about the manor house was its true extent. Although no modifications had been made to its exterior since the late nineteenth century, a series of chambers had been dug underneath the manor house, most being stringently climate-controlled rooms used to store documents dating back to the formation of the Council, nearly three thousand years ago, and beyond. Other rooms contained artefacts that had been acquired one way or another, and that were considered too dangerous to allow to remain in general circulation, but also too dangerous to simply destroy. Still more rooms contained more modern equipment, intended for use by the Council's other... departments.

All of this, however, went unnoticed by either the local villagers or the occasional tourist who paused to admire the blend of architecture styles and take a few photographs before continuing on their way.

So when the manor house suddenly exploded one fine autumn night, it came as a complete shock to everyone in the area including, very briefly, the occupants. The subsequent investigation turned up nothing that hinted at who was responsible. Discreet contacts with what was left of the IRA resulted in denials so vehement that the New Scotland Yard investigators were forced to come to the conclusion that they did, indeed, have nothing to do with it. More recent terrorist threats were considered and discarded for lack of motive in targeting that particular building.

The case would be pursued, on and off, for a number of years, but no definitive answer would ever be forthcoming.

****

Up-state New York

The young woman wiped the blood from the short sword she carried before returning it to its scabbard. It was an almost-reflex action, one bred into her during almost two years of training, which meant that she didn't have to watch what she was doing.

She surveyed the handful of bodies scattered on the front lawn of the house. Who are they? Why did they attack us? And how did they manage to fight as well as they did with their eyes and mouth sewn shut?

Just then, her gaze fell upon the slumped figure nailed to one of the trees by the simple expedient of a sword through the torso. Letting out a shocked gasp, she ran over to the man who'd been not just her trainer, but also acted as a father ever since the tragic death of her parents in a car accident.

"Mister Argus!" she exclaimed. "Don't die... please!"

Jeffery Argus opened his eyes and coughed weakly. Even in the weak half-light of early evening, the blood that started trickling from his mouth was obvious. "I'm not dead yet," he said softly. "But I probably will be soon."

"No!" the young woman protested. "You can't die! There's so much I need to learn!"

"Trust me, it's not an idea I'm too happy with either," Jeffery said dryly. "But it's inevitable at this point, and it will probably be my last lesson for you - that there are some things you just can't stop."

As the young woman started sobbing softly, he managed to smile gently.

"If you receive the full measure of your gift - and if God is kind you won't; not because I don't believe you will be capable of carrying out the duty that comes with the gift, but because in order for you to receive it, some other young woman has to die - there will be times when, no matter how strong you become, when you cannot save everybody.

"If that ever happens, you will most probably start to doubt yourself. But know this, Amanda Thomson; every night that you save even one human life is a victory to be cherished." Jeffery coughed again, a pain-filled sound that caused more blood to start trickling from his mouth.

"I couldn't even do that tonight!" Amanda wailed, tears starting to flow freely.

"You did manage to save a life tonight," Jeffery disagreed. "Yours. You were the main target for these creatures. I merely got in their way. The fact that you managed to survive speaks well of your potential."

Amanda felt even more guilty. "But I..."

"But me no buts, young lady," Jeffery interrupted. "There's one more thing I have to tell you," he continued, his voice growing weaker as more of his blood flowed from his wounds. "Go to Sunnydale. Go to the Slayer and her Watcher. Buffy Summers and Rupert Giles; they will know what to do. And let me add that is has been an honour and a pleasure being your Wat...cher..."

It took a moment for Amanda to realise that Jeffery Argus had died, and when it finally sank in, she dropped to her knees beside the tree that propped up his body, her shoulders shaking as she gave in to her emotions.

For some time, she simply cried as she mourned.

"I love you, Dad," she whispered, saying the words that she'd often wanted to, but had never had the courage to say. But somehow, he'd known that she felt that way; she was certain of it. She just wished that she'd been able to say it while hugging him, to hear him say, "I love you, too," while returning the hug.

Wiping away the tears, she rose unsteadily to her feet. If she was going to survive, she would have to leave straight away. First of all, she'd probably need a couple of changes of clothes, since it would take a few days to make the cross-country trek. There was a stash of money for emergencies - this definitely qualified as such - which would have to stretch to transport, accommodation and food during the trip.

Amanda Thomson, potential Vampire Slayer, headed into the house to pack and make preparations for what would be the longest trip of her life, at the ripe old age of fourteen years and eight months.

****

Sunnydale, California

Xander Harris sat on the back porch of his house, sipping a soft drink and looking at the stars. Under normal circumstances - he snorted gently at his definition of 'normal'; one, he suspected, that would be radically different from most peoples' - he would have been patrolling Sunnydale's many cemeteries with Buffy, doing his bit to ensure that the world kept running as normal... well, his bit of it, anyway.

The hubris in that thought was good for another snort.

As if I could ever save the world by myself, he thought as he took another sip of his drink. But then again, I did manage to talk Willow out of destroying the world a few months ago, and then there was that time with Jack O'Toole in the school boiler room...

But mostly he thought about people, and how they changed.

First up, there was Buffy. Apparently, before she moved from Los Angeles, she was pretty much the stereotypical high-school cheerleader. That was before she became a Vampire Slayer, and before she'd slept with not one, but two vampires, much to his annoyance. He'd kept his silence - mostly - because it was her life to live, but sometimes it had been a real struggle. That time at Spike's crypt last year was one occasion that stood out in particular.

Naked push-ups, my ass, he thought contemptuously. Just how stupid do they think I am? It was obvious that he was having sex with Buffy. And you'd think he'd have at least the common courtesy to stop while I was trying to talk to him!

There were some other issues involved in the relationship that bothered him - namely Spike's attempted rape of Buffy. But whenever he tried to discuss it, she brushed him off with a "He didn't have his soul then. But he does now," as if that suddenly made him a good guy. Obviously, she didn't watch the news much.

There was Willow, his oldest friend. His oldest surviving friend, he corrected himself. Originally a shy computer geek, over the years, she'd become first an increasingly-powerful witch, then she'd become a lesbian, and most recently, she'd become someone who, in the grip of grief and rage over the death of her lover, had attempted to destroy the world with the magic she'd stolen from Giles. Luckily, he'd managed to talk her out of it, but not without a price, he reflected as he absently rubbed his shirt over his chest. More specifically, over his chest where the scars left by Willow's magical attacks were.

And him? The former high-school outcast who'd been the first to learn of Buffy's calling and offer his services to help had also changed a lot over the years. He'd become more confident, more assured, for a start. And instead of living in his parents' basement - and getting charged rent for it - he now had his own house, paid for by his foreman's job with a local construction company.

More than that, his feelings for Buffy had changed, as well. First had been the hormone-soaked crush, which had become something more powerful. But of late, the relationship had started to fray, and he wasn't certain why. The reason that he could even tell the relationship was starting to fray was probably the biggest change in him of all, and it probably had something to do with the magic Willow had hit him with during her bout of 'channelling the Emperor,' when he'd got in between her and the temple she was using her magic to raise.

He could sense people's emotions.

It was as simple as that. For the first few days, he'd wondered if it was anything like the time that Buffy had become a mind-reader, but decided against it - she'd been able to hear actual thoughts, whereas he could only get a general feeling for emotions. It had also been interesting to finally know what was actually going through his friends' minds. Giles' emotions had been tightly focused, as he concentrated on his Watcher duties. Buffy's mind had been something of a tangled mess, but one of the two emotions he'd been able to pick up on clearly had been that it was entirely possible that she actually *loved* Spike, as difficult as that might seem to believe. The other seemed to be a powerful resentment aimed at both Willow and himself. If he had to guess, it was probably something to do with the way they'd resurrected her. But that was insane... wasn't it?

Unless Willow had made a mistake, and Buffy hadn't been rescued from Hell, after all.

Willow's emotions were fairly easy to sort out. Guilt, and lots of it, from the way she'd come so close to destroying the world, and the way she'd attacked her oldest friend. Ever since that fateful day on Kingman's Bluff, he'd talked to her regularly, trying to break through that guilt. So far, he hadn't met with much success, but he was determined to keep on trying.

The other thing that had come as a result of stepping into Willow's magic was that he seemed to be able to see into the future. Not to the extent of, say, knowing next weekend's winning lottery numbers, but a few seconds. Not that that was completely useless, however, since it had enabled him to dodge a vampire's attack on more than one occasion, along with being able to precisely place an arrow or a stake.

Not that any of the others had any idea of why he was now able to do that. They simply chalked it up to the fact that his skills had grown with experience and, to an extent, that was true. But not all of it.

He wondered if he should tell them, but it was how they might react that made him reconsider every time. Giles probably wouldn't overreact, but it was Willow's and, especially, Buffy's reaction that was the prime concern.

Stifling a yawn, he suddenly realised how late it had gotten. Draining the last of the soft drink, he crumpled the can and tossed it into the recycling bin. As he turned to go into his house, he glanced at the sky one last time, and saw a new pinprick of light where he was fairly sure one hadn't been before. In case it was a shooting star, he made a wish... but silently.

After all, you never knew when there was a vengeance demon lurking around.

The End?

You have reached the end of "The Honor of the Hellmouth" – so far. This story is incomplete and the last chapter was posted on 7 Apr 04.

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