When Willow and Giles walked into the formal dining room, hand in hand, they found forty people (hosts and guests) already seated around a long mahogany table. They were in a traditional boy-girl-boy-girl arrangement, with Lord Riesen at the head of the table, of course. Claire sat at his right hand and Consul Thorn at his left, with David Whele just to the left of her.
The way each and every one of these people was looking at Willow and Giles, they might have been the evening's entertainment rather than fellow guests. It was as though they expected them to explode, or foam at the mouth, or sing; something horrible but fascinating like that.
The Archangel Michael was nowhere to be seen. Whether or not that was typical of these occasions, Willow had no idea. Typical or not, she had not expected his absence. It left her with a paradoxical feeling of relief and trepidation. It also made her even more glad that Giles was at her side, additional confusing and conflicting emotions not withstanding.
Even without the somber gaze of the Archangel, the weight of forty pairs of eyes silently judging her, as if she were a piece of fanfic or art entered into the 2019 Headline Awards, was oppressive. Willow was glad that she had Giles to share the burden of that scrutiny, but she could not help wishing that Buffy and Xander could be here with them to help share the load as well. Because sometimes a situation (say judging a large number of Anthony-Stewart-Head-related fanworks, for example) can be overwhelming for one or two people and yet easy and fun for three or four.
But here and now, Willow and Giles were facing the judging alone. If only they could have sent out a call across time and space to Buffy, and Xander, and Faith, and Oz; heck, even Anya and Cordelia, she was sure they would have come and helped, whether it was as difficult as stopping the annual pseudo-apocolypse or as simple as going to the brand new Headline Awards Website at https://www.theheadlineawards.com/ and signing up to be a judge for the 2019 Headline Awards.
Willow tried to focus on something, anything, else; to calm her nerves. The table was draped in elegant, intricately embroidered white linen; a prewar artifact no doubt, but well cared for and still beautiful. But there were only so many thoughts you could think about a table cloth, and Willow had run through pretty much all of them in two or three seconds.
She meant to think about the dishes next (china, crystal, silver, that sort of thing) but that looped her back around to those eighty staring eyes faster than you could say fishbowl. Before each person (all waiting in various states along the spectrum from bored impatience to hushed anticipation) sat a plate with a round, stainless steal cover, like the one's you get with room service. Exactly like.
Waste not; want not, Willow thought. Especially when no one is likely to be making many more of well... anything. Probably most of the tableware was left over from the old world rather than made in Vega. This should have been a fruitful topic for self distraction, except for one thing. Not a single cover had been removed from any of the plates. Not a fork lifted. Not a napkin taken from it's ring.
They had waited, these pillars of the Vega City State. They had waited and were still waiting, for the General's most highly honored guests to take their places. And now that these excitingly mysterious and mystical strangers had arrived at last, all eyes were on them and would remain so all evening.
Willow blushed deeply. How long had they both been standing here, stunned like two deer caught in forty pairs of headlights? Probably less than a minute, but it felt like an eternity. At one and the same moment, they both began to move forward again as if awakened from a dream.
Giles started to pull his hand away from Willow's, apparently feeling as self-conscious as she was. It was probably the right thing to do etiquette wise, but she held on tight and he relented, giving her hand a firm, reassuring squeeze instead. Even that, at least in Willow's imagination, incited further scrutiny.
They hadn't intended to make a Dramatic entrance, but to her mild horror, Willow realized that was exactly what they had done. And here she was in this form-fitting, attention-getting dress she suddenly wished she could hide under a coat.
When the General half rose and invited them to take their seats, indicating the two empty chairs just to the right of his daughter, Willow wanted to hide under the table. Of Course, Giles would be seated directly across the table from David Whele. Fate wouldn't risk it's hard won reputation for perversity by letting that opportunity get past it.
But at least as uncomfortably, for Willow anyway, the young...ish (probably late twenties) man seated to her right was terribly familiar to her. She had met him on that strange and eventful night, which had been several weeks ago for her but hadn't even happened to him, at least not yet. He had been there to support his father's cruelly ironic nomination for Father of the Year. He was William Whele. Which made him Giles's grandson.