Dawn casually lifted the binoculars to her face, following the flight of a group of seagulls out over the waters of the Pacific Ocean. She'd picked an area of the park within easy viewing distance of the Golden Gate Bridge, but she wasn't paying any attention to the iconic structure; she'd already done most of her sightseeing months ago, when she and Xander had first moved to San Francisco.
Today, her attention was fixed more on what wasn't there to be seen, than what was. She watched the small flock of birds vanish, one after the other, as they crossed some arbitrary line; then she lowered the binoculars again, frowning out at the nothingness no one else seemed to have noticed. What the frilly heck was going on out there?
Of course, if it wasn't for the pull she felt-- if she hadn't found herself consistently drawn out in this direction every single time she was near the park, and started getting worried about it-- she'd probably never have noticed the invisible what-ever-it-was, either. But if it hadn't been for the fact that Buffy had destroyed the Seed of Wonder most of a year ago, she'd never have been in the city to notice. So... it couldn't be magical. But if it wasn't magical, how had she known it was there?
Her scowl deepened as she fished in her backpack for a sandwich, then unwrapped it and took a bite to maintain the fiction that she was here for an impromptu picnic. It wasn't the first afternoon she'd picked a vantage point to gaze out over the water, nor the first time she'd watched living things either vanish or mysteriously detour around the designated area. There seemed to be an official interdiction zone; all boats, helicopters, and other assorted traffic were completely avoiding whatever invisibling wall had swallowed up the birds. The people that didn't get the hint from radio traffic or filing flight plans-- both of which she'd checked on during a recent weekend trip with Xander-- were turned aside by Coast Guard ships before they got anywhere close. That meant official involvement. Which meant secrets, and the military, and eyes she really didn't want drawn back onto her family.
She probably should have told Xander she was going to be out here again. Or Buffy. Or even Spike-- which, that was an idea: if this fell through she should have him make a run with his dirigible in the middle of the night. But she didn't have any concrete proof yet, and none of them felt the pull; she'd checked. So, no sense dragging them into it until she was sure there was something to drag them into. There'd be less mocking that way. And possibly fifty percent more adventure.
The sandwich was good; turkey, cheddar, peanut butter and potato chips crunched up for texture, and Dawn finished it all before licking her fingertips and taking a long drink of iced tea from her thermos. Then she lifted the binoculars again, gazing back out at her search zone. Another flock of gulls was winging out over the water... and she'd noticed a shadow approaching over the grass from behind her. Showtime.
Whoever it was had guy-sized feet, but walked carefully, and rocked some fairly experimental hair, from the fuzzy shape of the shadow. She kept an eye on it out of her peripheral vision as she tracked the gulls, but it was at least five minutes later before it finally crossed the last few yards and its owner spoke up.
"Nice view," a male voice commented, tone heavy on the irony.
He was going to have to do better than that if he wanted to catch her off guard. "Uh huh," Dawn replied without bothering to look up. "I've lived on the California coast for most of my life, but this is definitely my favorite city."
"Lived in many others?" he asked next, shadow hands in his shadow pockets, oh so casual.
"Just LA and Sunnydale, mostly," she replied, seeing no reason to mention the time she'd spent in other countries after Sunnydale's collapse. "How about you? You from the area?"
She finally lowered the binoculars as she asked, gazing nonchalantly up at her visitor. She wasn't surprised to see that he was a looker: taller than Xander, with the previously determined spiky hair in a dark brown color, intelligent eyes mostly hidden by aviator glasses, everyday clothes with more expensive labels than she could afford, and a deceptively slouching posture. He was probably younger than Giles had been, but older than her sister... maybe forty? And despite his outfit and bearing, there was something Rileyish about his carefully balanced stance that told her he was probably military-- and probably packing.
"Just in the last few months," he drawled, quirking a smile at her. "Work transfer."
"Ah." She nodded. And what were the odds that his transfer was dated right around the arrival of the whatever it was out there in the ocean? "That makes sense, I guess."
"What does?" His eyebrows rose above the sunglasses, and his body language tensed, just a little.
She shrugged. "I dunno. Just making small talk, I guess." She turned back to the water and made to lift the glasses again, a hint of a smirk tugging at the corners of her mouth.
"Ms. Summers--" he interrupted before she could fit the eyepieces to her face.
Dawn snorted, amused. Gotcha. "Please tell me you don't go around doing this all the time, because you suck at it, you know. I definitely didn't tell you my name."
His smile turned slightly rueful in return, but he didn't seem apologetic-- almost as if he'd wanted her to catch him out. Huh. "No, you didn't. I'll tell you mine, though; I'm Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard of the U.S. Air Force. Do you know why I'm here?"
"The Air Force? Not the Army?" That surprised Dawn a little. She'd been half expecting a visit by some sort of authority, but the Air Force? She'd thought it was Riley's people, or one of the other groups that were snared into the Twilight saga, and as far as she was aware they were all infantry types.
"No, not the Army," he agreed, "though I'm sure you know it says a lot that you even asked that question. You've been asking a lot of questions, as a matter of fact, and spending a lot of time looking out past the bridge. It's been noticed."
"So they sent a lieutenant colonel to loom over a civilian girl on her lunch break?" She raised an eyebrow at him. "What if I was just a Star Trek freak here to figure out exactly where the Narada's drill had crashed down in the new movie?"
He pointed out over the water without hesitation, flashing white teeth at her. "You'd be looking over in that direction," he said. "Not out over the ocean. So what's so fascinating about that patch of sea?"
"Oooh, closet geek. I think you know what's so fascinating out there," Dawn said, warily. "And I think you're here because you want to know if I know about it."
He pursed his lips at her, thoughtfully. "You sure do a lot of thinking," he said, noncommittally.
She nearly sprained her eye muscles rolling them at that. "Let's just pretend you asked the obvious, just to speed things along. Seriously. Would I be out here making a spectacle of myself if I knew what was going on? Which, side note?" She held up an imperious finger. "I do have people who would notice if you disappeared me."
"Yeah, we know," Sheppard replied, then turned away from her, lowering himself to the grass at her side as if deliberately backing the confrontation down a step. "Your sister's... an interesting person, and so's your boyfriend, according to their records. About all we've got on you, though, is your grades, and a few collateral mentions in your sister's reports. Is that because you didn't get into as much trouble as she did, or because you're just that much better at hiding it?"
He gave her an amused sidewise look through lashes utterly ridic on a man his age as he waited for her answer. He looked a lot younger folded up like that. And... in such close proximity, he tingled just a little, lighting up Dawn's nerves the same way the Nothing out on the water did.
"A little of column A, a little of column B..." she shrugged, staring at him. Was he a demony something or other, then? Was that wall out there part of a sanctuary ship or something meant to take them somewhere with more magic?
Good luck on them opening a portal to get there, though. And that idea still didn't explain how she knew it was there. Or the vibe she was getting from him.
"So what are you hiding today?" he asked, patiently, staring out over at the water. "Seriously. You know I know you know something. Don't make this any more complicated than it has to be."
"Like, how now you know I know you know I know?" she said brightly, unable to resist, then took the opportunity to fumble her cell out and tap a quick message about where she was to Xander. Just for insurance's sake. This wasn't going as badly as she'd worried it might-- but he was stonewalling worse than Riley would have, so she wasn't going to take anything for granted.
Then she giggled at his grimace. "Sorry. Just-- you're seriously going to make me spill first?"
"I could call someone else to talk to you, if you prefer," he shrugged at her, all nonchalantly ominous.
"Okay, okay," she sighed, sobering. "I don't know anything. Really. All I know is, I feel something's there. Like, what's the word for that kinesthetic sense, how you know where your arms and legs are?"
His eyebrows shot up again as she explained, but with curiosity and a certain amount of anticipation this time. "Proprioception?" he asked.
"Yeah, that. It's not like-- I mean, if it wasn't for the birds and the ships, I'd think I was going crazy. I just know, like I know where my toes are when I'm walking down the street. Every time I drive over the bridge, I stare out over the water without even thinking."
"There is nothing like looking, if you want to find something," he murmured half to himself, as though quoting. "You certainly usually find something, if you look, but it is not always quite the something you were after." Then he shook his head, wonderingly. "You feel her, all the way out here. I don't even have that kind of range."
"Feel-- her?" Dawn swallowed, her gut swooping in sudden dread, unassuaged by the further evidence of his geekery. He hadn't batted an eye at her explanation; hadn't even made a stab at disbelieving her. He knew what she was sensing-- and it even had a gender. "Who, her?"
"That's... not important right now," Sheppard shook his head, distractedly. Then he pulled something out of his pocket, something small and metal with intricate detailing, and held it out to her. It glowed faintly blue, like a battery powered night light. "But if I'm right... here, hold this."
Dawn started at the egg-shaped thing, then at him, then cautiously cupped her hand under his and let him transfer it to her palm. The second it touched her skin, it incandesced, flaring instantly into a tiny, blue, brilliant sun. She swore and dropped it, shaking her palm-- and it faded away again immediately, the little windows in its sides going completely dark.
"Ow! What the hell was that?"
Sheppard stared at her a long moment, then ran a palm over his spiky hair. "That was the strongest reaction I've ever seen. So if you're not Trust... are you a descended Ancient? This would be the time to confess, if you are; you know we'll be able to tell when we reach the city."
She gaped at him. "What? I don't even...."
And then her brain snagged at his phrasing. The magics were totally gone, Willow said... but this guy, this totally mundane guy who didn't seem to recognize her name and therefore probably wasn't in the supernatural know, still acted like it was totally possible for something else to 'descend' to human form.
...An entity, maybe, as 'ancient' as the universe? One that used to be made out of green energy? Dawn gulped, nerves jangling as his stare sharpened. "Um? Maybe?"
"You have got to be kidding me," he spluttered incredulously. "Rodney's never going to let me hear the end of this."
"I don't know who Rodney is," Dawn rallied, "but if you don't tell me what you're talking about right now, I'm never going to let you hear the end of this."
"I just bet," he said dryly, then reached for the high-tech bluetoothy thing coiled around his ear. "Hammond? Sheppard. I need a standard non-disclosure packet, my location."
A thick file folder shimmered into being at his feet a moment later. Which... how was that possible either, without magics?
"Sign that," he gestured, "and we'll see what we see."
"You mean, what we don't see?" Dawn replied wryly, jerking her chin out toward empty water.
"We'll see," he repeated, then held out a retractable pen.
Xander was going to kill her. Never mind; Buffy was going to kill her. But if this meant... if the Key might be something more than magic, or if the Air Force somehow had access to magic despite what had happened....
Dawn bit her lip, then took the pen and the folder. She owed it to everyone to find out.