Chapter 1: Grandpa Giles' Dinner Theater
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.
Chapter 2: Making a List and Checking it Twice
Vega's first Sate Dinner in months started out as a slow, quiet affair. Awkwardly silent, truth be told; cue sound of actual silverware scraping against priceless antique china. The sound was almost like the clink of a chisel against a stone tablet chronicling the birth of the written word and the dawn of recorded time. Almost that of some fateful list being created, like the ten commandments, the list of crimes and punishments in Hammurabi's Code, or a list of nominees for the 2019 Headline Awards.
Indeed, it was as if some unspoken law had been passed forbidding conversation. Everyone stared at Willow and Giles while trying to look as though they weren't staring. Except for David Whele, who (other than a brief look down Willow's low cut blouse) stared openly, almost hostilely at no one but Rupert Giles. And William Whele, who was staring at his father (brow furrowed Gilesishly) trying to figure out what was going on, which made Willow want very much to like him, without actually becoming the least bit less wary of him.
Willow understood why the two of them did as they did. Clearly David knew that Giles was his father and William did not. Both were feeling out the situation accordingly. What she didn't understand was why the other guests were holding their tongues.
Half of these people had been present when Michael and Thorn had presented them to Lord Riesen like a gift basket. They had been full of questions then. Now stilted greetings/introductions that dead-ended short of any substantive conversation or even small talk seemed to be the best that they could muster. In particular, no one seemed to want to refer to the fact that Willow and Giles were in anyway foreign to this time and place, though that had been all they could talk about on the prior occasion.
But then, perhaps their reticence had something to do with David Whele too. Early on, Willow had tried, tentatively to start a discussion of the weather, which seemed like a safe enough topic. When that faltered for apparent lack of interest, Giles road valiantly to her rescue with an obvious comment about how much drier Vega was than London. David cut this off with the wry observation, that the weather was probably the only thing that hadn't changed since Before the War, implying without committing to the idea that it was thus an utterly pointless thing to discuss.
To everyone's palpable relief (except for Giles and the ever perplexed William Whele) that closed the topic completely. Willow was probably the most relieved of all, and would have been more so, had it not been for the smug look of triumph that had settled on David's face and the exasperated look Giles was trying guiltily not to give him in return.
Half an hour of uneasy relative silence followed. As Willow thought about it, it became increasingly clear to her that, yes, the other guests definitely were following David's lead. It was as though they had all ceded to him their right to interact with the not-quite-hostages. Either that or they were all diving for cover, to keep out of the crossfire of whatever silent conflict the Wheles were clearly having with the Reisens, wedding plans notwithstanding.
For Willow, the silent scrutiny was becoming unbearable. Between the bizarre tasting, intentionally cold, bright green soup and the otherwise-ordinary salad topped with some kind of crispy, parched corn kernels; Willow turned to Giles, longing for reassurance that she was not as far out of her social depth as it appeared, or at least that there was a lifeguard on duty. The half-smile he shot back at her might have been reassuring, if he hadn't looked quite so ill.
Finally, William Whele seemed to take pity on Willow. Or possibly he just couldn't contain his curiosity a moment longer. He tugged at her sleeve like a child asking to go to the bathroom, more or less obligating her to make direct eye contact with him for the first time in the still young evening. “Have you seen the Ocean,” he asked quietly, with earnest, hopeful coals of not-quite extinguished excitement burning in the depths of his eyes. “I've always wanted to see it.”
Willow nodded. “I—we—sort of practically lived there,” she admitted half apologetically, as though she'd somehow had this priceless experience at his expense. “Just a few miles away anyway.” There was a pause. William looked at her longingly, as if begging for a scrap of the life that she had once lived, pre-apocolypse, freely moving about the country. Or having the option to, anyway. “I should have gone there more,” she murmured, looking down at her plate again.
“Well but, it's not like our honored guests are the only people who've ever been anywhere,” David piped in, cheerfully deriding his son. “I grew up on the gulf coast; you never ask me about the ocean.”
At that Giles's exasperation seemed to get the better of his guilt. “Begging your pardon,” he loosed his tongue at last, politely of course, “but I do believe, our young friends were merely making dinner conversation. In which you are, no doubt, clearly free to join. If you'd like to regale us with your own seafaring adventures, I for one would love to hear them.”
Giles smiled with his teeth and glowered with his eyes down the whole length of the table. The other guests looked even more worried than before. Honestly, that look even scared Willow a little. Especially when Giles finished with the table in general, and fixed his gaze squarely upon his son, who was wearing a similar expression. In that moment, they both looked like very dangerous men.
More so than at any time in her life, Willow longed to escape, to be anywhere-but-here. At that moment she honestly didn't care if it was eating ziti in Italy with John Cusack, back in Sunnydale sitting in class with Xander and Buffy, back upstairs in bed with Giles, or sailing through cyberspace to https://www.theheadlineawards.com/ .
She would even have traded places with the author of this story and happily reminded her readers that nominations for the 2019 Headline Awards open in just four day, on January 1, 2019. She would have reminded everyone that now is the time to make your lists of nomination worthy fanfic/fanworks featuring Anthony Head and the many wonderful characters he has portrayed over the years. She would have encouraged them to literally check their lists twice; once against the particulars of categories to be judged, and again against the list of past winners of the awards, which of course, could also be found at the aforementioned website.
But even without that means of escape, the evening was about to get a lot less quiet, and certainly a lot less dull, though no less tense, awkward, or confusing. Because at that exact moment, the dinner table was shaken and the chandlers tinkled like wind chimes as a motorcycle roared down a nearby hallway inside the citadel of House Reisen, formerly know as Caesar's Palace Hotel and Casino.
Chapter 3: Split Seconds
The Protector paced before the Great Fire in the Council Room, her movements graceful but agitated, like a cat with it's fur stood up and it's tail twitching. “I'm asking you for the third time,” she warned, her voice calm and heavy with the weight of her controlled anger, “Where is my husband, and what is he up to?”
Huxley opened his mouth, tried in vain to speak, and closed it again without a sound. This happened at least three times. The Protector was growing impatient. Her glare had deepened to a glower.
Realizing this, Huxley cringed just a little. He couldn't help it. Immediately he regretted it. She crossed her arms. If he'd have dared to look into her eyes, would he have seen them roll? There was nothing that made her madder than being feared, by her own people anyway. She seemed to take it as a personal insult.
Even if he could have spoken, he hardly knew whether to answer her, to refuse her an answer, or to announce that the 2019 Headline awards are now open for nominations at https://www.theheadlineawards.com/ . He was stuck between a rock and a hard place, that was for sure. He had only two choices, disobey the Commander or Defy the Protector.
Given their individual dispositions and their relative proximity, the choice was obvious. Inevitable really. Huxley comforted himself with the thought that the Commander must surely have know that all along. He must have expected exactly this to happen and taken it into account when making his plans.
Wrapping the Commander's probable forgiveness around himself like a warm blanket, Huxley gave in to the inevitable. “He's gone into The City,” he gasped, sagging with relief, only realizing that he had been holding his breath for nearly a minute when he felt the sweet rush of life-giving oxygenated air into his lungs. The Protector's posture softened just a bit, but her arms remained crossed, her eyes expectant.
“It's a 'rescue mission',” Huxley continued to explain, not daring to wait for further prompting. “That's what he called it anyway. Only he wouldn't say who he was rescuing. And I tried reminding him of the whole 'Bastille Day' thing, but he just said this was different and wouldn't explain.”
The Protector turned away, shaking her head in furious mock disbelief. “Why am I even surprised?!” She declared aloud, as if to the Heavens or to some other unseen observer, perhaps even a TV viewing audience. Clearly, she was exasperated beyond all measure. Where the Protector was concerned, that emotion could be at least as deadly as all the coldblooded hatred in the world.
Huxley was on the point of apologizing. If only he could have gotten his mouth to open and words to come out. Thankfully, she saved him the trouble. He wasn't the one she was fed up with, obviously. He wasn't important enough to agitate her to this extent all on his own.
“Alexander Fucking Harris, you Goddamned Son-of-a-Weasel!” She seethed, pacing again, Huxley's presence completely forgotten. Or so he thought, until she asked, much more calmly but in an earnest and dangerously determined voice, “Did he say how many?” At Huxley's confused look, she clarified. “How many people did he say he was going to rescue.”
Still no answer from Huxley but a badly suppressed whimper, which even she could hardly begrudge him at this point. Their faces were inches apart and, as she now realized, she had been moving ever towards him for the last couple of minutes, until he stood with his back flat against the wall and nowhere else to go.
Buffy took a big step back, took a couple of deep breaths, and then moved back another step or two. “One or two,” she prompted more calmly and, she hoped, more gently. “People or person? He, She, Them?”
Huxley raised up one shaking finger and in a tremulous voice said, “She.”
The roaring was getting louder. The invaders were out in the hallway, screaming down it's carpeted floor towards the ballroom. The fact that they had penetrated so deep inside the tower became less of a mystery as they approached closely enough for the sound of silenced gunshots to echo through the corridor. That and the screams of dying Guards. And their short, infrequent bursts of return fire.
More Guards poured into the ballroom from half-a-dozen doors at once. They circled around the banquet table and took up positions along the side of the room nearest to the disturbance. Meanwhile, the assembled dignitaries scrambled up from the table and lined up to be ushered, by another group of Guards, into a nearby Panic Room, with such a minimum of screaming and shouting that this might have been a weekly occurrence.
Indeed, Willow seemed to be the only person present who was truly panicked. She was very near tears and talking some kind of nonsense that Giles hadn't the time to try and decipher just now. She was clinging to his arm as he was trying to rise, but she would not put her feet on the floor and stand up.
Worse still, she had them tucked under her and wrapped around one of the braces of the chair. As it was, he could not even pull her to her feet without risking a bad fall for both of them and possibly breaking both her legs. All in a room that was about to be a very literal battlefield, probably within a matter of seconds. Possibly less.
Giles looked across the table, tentatively hoping to ask David for help, but he was long gone. Somehow, he had already disappeared into the Safe Room, even though the orderly, clearly practiced lining up had begun at the other end of the table. Reisen and his daughter were just going in now.
Claire cast a worried look over her shoulder as her father and a couple of Guards pressured her to keep moving, sometimes quite literally pushing and pulling her, though not for the same reason they might need to push Willow. Claire was not panicked. She too had noticed the problem with Willow and wanted to help.
Of course, Giles realized that those same Guards probably intended to come back and help him in a minute or so, but it seemed increasingly doubtful that they would have that much time to wait. Just then, like a miracle from God, a young man in a priest's collar turned away from the open door to safety and ran to help him. It was none other than his very grown-up grandson, William Whele.
Giles nodded gratefully and without a word they each wrapped an arm around Willow and picked her up chair and all, steering her in the direction that everyone else had gone. They would have made it too. Giles was sure of that. If it had not been for a much less welcome visitor from his slightly more recent past.
“Hold your fire!” a voice out in the hallway ordered firmly, and with great authority. And fire was held. And breath. On both sides of the almost paper thin wall separating the two warring factions. It was that sort of voice. And yet, it was the voice of Xander Harris. That only became more obvious as, into the relative stillness that he had spoken into being, Xander added. “She's close. No mistakes.”
These words seemed to break the spell that his earlier words had wrought. A great many incongruent and otherwise unfortunate things began to happen at the same time. The Vega Guards opened fire with a slew of fully automatic weapons, blasting away at the wall in front of them as if it wasn't even there. Willow dropped her chair and sprang from the entirely supporting and not at all confining arms of her would be rescuers. She landed on her knees but recovered quickly, running towards the front of the battle as if she had no idea what was happening.
Giles lunged after her, every bit as recklessly, neglecting to note the position of the fallen chair in his desperation to stop her. He tumbled to the floor in a heap of tangled limbs, both wood and flesh. As he began to untangle his own limbs from those of the chair, William knelt beside him behind the relative cover of the now overturned banquet table and pulled a handgun from the pocket of his clerical vestments.
“Don't...” Giles began, but in one serious look from the Principate's gentle yet strangely piercing eyes, he saw the truth. It was no use telling the young man to and save himself. The both of them, indeed the three of them, had lost their means of retreat. The door was already closed, leaving them no room to panic.
They were all combatants now, if only by happenstance. And they had best get it together if they meant to survive. As unsettling as it was to know that Xander was on the other side of that wall and quite probably dead by now; in the midst of an armed assault was no time to start carefully considering the merits of the cause on each side. The enemy were the chaps shooting at you, and that was that.
As he finally struggled to his feet (and at William's quiet urging crouched down again) Giles scoured the crowd in front of him for Willow. His stomach was balled into a fist of dread, sure that she lay crumpled and bleeding on the floor somewhere. Instead he saw two Guards holding her between them, forcibly dragging her out of harm's way.
Their efforts were by no means appreciated. Willow cursed and kicked them, still trying to get to Xander, damn the torpedoes, dead or alive. Giles was shocked to feel a sudden blastwave of anger, not at the Vega Guards, or even Xander Harris, but at Willow. An hour ago, she had been declaring her love for him. But now that Xander Harris had come battering down the door like Agamemnon attacking Troy, she had changed her colors in a heartbeat, not even bothering to look back when she had left him in a battered heap on the floor.
Chapter 4: Foreign and Domestic
It happened fast, the way violence usually does. Some kind of chemical weapon was hurtled into the room through the ragged holes that the Guards themselves had shot through the doors and the wall. Thick clouds of odorless yellow smoke, or mist more probably, billowed from the dozen or so canisters that sailed into the room. In a matter of seconds most of the room was obscured from view.
A few green young men among the Guards approached the smoking canisters, shirts pulled up over their noses, meaning to stop them in some way. Or maybe to toss them back to their rightful owners. None got closer than three of four feet without collapsing to the floor.
William pulled Rupert's head down until his nose was flattened against the floor. Which was where all the clean air was, of course. Not that it would stay that way for long.
Giles rolled his eyes upward trying to get a sense of what was happening without lifting his head. He couldn't see much, but based on the sheer number of writhing and quivering bodies at eye level; virtually all the Guards were face down on the floor now. Some had probably assumed that position voluntarily, just as he and William had. Most clearly had not.
Giles moved his head from side to side to see a wider swath of the floor. He began searching for Willow once again, his heart in his throat. At last, he saw her. Thank God, she too was face down on the floor and crawling back towards them.
The Guards who had been trying to restrain her were nowhere in sight. Presumably, they were among the mass of casualties strewn about the room. Meanwhile, a much smaller force, gas masks covering their entire faces, came in from somewhere behind Rupert and William (guns already firing ) to replace them. They were not a moment too soon in arriving.
In less than two minutes, the gas had made it's way down to the floor where it began to overcome all those still struggling to breathe. Rupert's eyes watered, his head swam, and he began to choke. Willow was coughing as well, her progress slowing. Giles resisted the foolish urge to rise to at least his knees and rush over to her. Willow could barely manage for herself without his dead weight to try and drag around.
William was not coughing. Giles turned his eyes to him, worried he would find him unconscious or even dead. Their was a dread in the pit of his stomach like nothing he had ever felt before. Not for Willow. Not for Buffy. Not for anyone. Vague revelations teased at the back of his disordered mind. Something about his father that had to do with empathy and regret.
But William was not dead or unconscious. He had something on his face, like the grill of a very, very small car anchored to his nose. I must be hallucinating, Rupert thought. Until, William knelt over him and shoved something into his nostrils.
Sweet, clean, well filtered air filled his lungs and he could think again. It even seemed to help his still stinging and watery eyes focus a bit better, letting him peer a little more deeply into the yellow murk and make out just a bit more of his immediate surroundings. But he could not speak without letting the poison back in.
Giles rose to his elbows but no higher, mindful of the bullets still flying overhead. He could see at a glance that Willow had succumbed to the gas. He gestured towards her, beckoning William to follow and help him drag her now motionless body behind the table and possibly out a back door. William nodded very slightly and they began to scramble towards her; low, fast, and quiet.
They were still a good two yards short of her when two motorcycles roared through the shredded wall, as if it were a beaded curtain. The bikes ran straight at the masked Veganites knocking two of them to the floor and rolling right over them. Blood gushed from their torn and crushed bodies, spraying across the many bodies lying all around them.
William pulled Rupert back down again an instant before the two biker strafed the room with their own automatic weapons. The sound of their guns was deafening now, the silencers long since worn out. Their sweeps were wide, low, and thorough. Professional. Nothing more than eighteen inches off the floor could have possibly survived.
The bikers dismounted. They were big, strong men. In the thick, yellow fog, nothing else about them was discernible.
The slightly thinner one took a handgun from his belt and began picking off the surviving gas-masked men, but not the much larger group of Guards who had preceded them. The more solid-looking one bent to retrieve the gas masks off of two men who had fallen near his feet and tossed them out to his comrades still in the hallway.
The second pair of riders roared in on their own bikes and remained astride them, covered from head to toe in so much body armor that the first two looked half naked by comparison. Giles tried to imagine one of them as Xander Harris, but it was impossible to say which one. Each rider was merely a man. Or something shaped like one.
Events kept up their pace, speeding forward like a bullet from a gun. Again and again, four times, then a few seconds later five; the biker with the gun killed each survivor of the gas masked security team with a single, well placed, shot. In almost every case, the victim loosed several rounds of automatic gunfire as the dealer of death drew near enough to make out in the fog. For some reason, that didn't seem to make a difference.
And then the shooting was over. Not five minutes had passed since the first shot was fired inside the banquet hall. Already the yellow fog was beginning to dissipate. The gunman could now be differentiated from his brothers in arms by the unnatural blondness of his high, spiky hair rather than merely a subtle differences body type.
None of the fallen seemed to be waking from their drug-induced sleep, but their breathing had become deep and slow and steady. So, it seemed probable that they weren't dying at least. Of course not, Giles realized. Xander Harris was calling the shots, and somehow, he knew Willow was here. He would never have allowed his forces to put her in any more danger than was absolutely necessary to effect her—
Giles slammed hard against the obvious implications of the events of the last few minutes. This raid had nothing to do with Vega. They were here for Willow. To capture her. Or 'rescue' her as Xander would no doubt see it. He'd always had trouble understanding when something or someone didn't belong to him.
Giles worked hard at actively denying that, given the choice, Willow might have quite liked to be rescued by Xander. Because, in point of fact, she was not being given a choice. And being dragged outside the city walls into a desert full of bloodthirsty demons did not, in his opinion, qualify as being rescued.
But doing anything about it, of course, was another matter. Giles glanced over at William. Seeking, he supposed, reassurance or guidance, or something. All he got was a queasy look of manfully suppressed terror from the only living citizen of Vega in the room who still had a gun in his hand.
Horror gripped Giles so tightly that it was impossible to think. Impossible to weigh the danger of facing the blond assassin with a gun in ones hand against the danger of facing him without it. The danger of trying to take William's gun from him against the selfishness of letting him keep it. The absurdity of killing or being killed by Xander Harris against the incomprehensibility of switching sides mid-battle, betraying and abandoning his own flesh and blood once again.
Giles could not even grope in the direction of a course of action. Until he heard the blond thing speak. “All clear!” Spike declared in exactly the same affected, intentionally low-class London accent that Rupert had cultivated in his Ripper days, and which he had probably acquired in much the same way. The falseness of it still grated, but he hardly paid it any mind. Who they were facing, that was the important thing.
Giles acted without another moment's hesitation. He wrenched the gun from William's surprised, and therefore minimally resisting grasp and, with a mighty shove, sent it sliding along the floor to the other end of the banquet table. William looked shocked and wounded, but there was no time to deal with that now.
“What was that?” Spike's raiding partner asked rhetorically, already turned and moving in their direction. His voice sent a chill down Rupert's spine. Angel. Alive and well. Or walking and talking anyway.
Walking, talking, killing people, and coming after Willow. At the behest of Xander Harris, road warrior. Worse than that, there was no way of knowing whether he was dealing with his old ally, the murderous demon that shared the same body, or something else altogether. The presence of Spike and Angel's indifference to the carnage he had just participated in seemed like bad signs.
Giles wondered if they had perhaps landed in a sort of Hell dimension after all. Maybe more wished than wondered. Not wanting any of this to be entirely real. And then, just when everything seemed darkest, fate proved, once again, that things can always get worse.
At last, when the air was almost completely clear, Commander Harris took off his gas mask with a dramatic toss of his long, thick, glossy mane of silver hair. Vain as ever, Giles thought. But that hardly mattered now. This was the moment he had waited for.
“Don't shoot,” he pleaded, as clearly and calmly as he could, getting hastily to his feet before William had a chance to try and stop him. He held his hand over his head like a good captive, without even being asked.
“Ira,” Xander shouted, jerking his chin in the direction of the fourth biker, then inclining his head towards Willow, clearly meaning for the still masked man to collect her. Giles couldn't quite deal with that right now. These moments were too critical for him and for William. And it was clear Xander would no sooner have killed Willow than his own hairstylist.
“Please,” Giles reiterated, “it's only me and one other unarmed civilian who was only here for dinner.”
Xander cracked a smile. The only one in the room. Giles supposed it was probably at least partly occasioned by the absurdly nasal quality of his voice. He pulled the air-filter-thing out of his nose, and dropped his self consciously in the pocket of his dinner jacket. Xander's smile only widened.
It was an impish, teasing smile, vintage Xander Harris, but neither harsh nor cruel. That in itself was a bit unsettling given that the room was strewn with the corpses of dozens of people who had been killed on his orders in the last quarter of an hour. But then, Xander had always had a talent for setting unpleasant things aside and not thinking about them.
“Since when were you ever a civilian, Rupert?” the now much older man teased gently. Giles's involuntary blinking in surprise at hearing his former pupil call him by his first name made Xander laugh out loud. “G-man!” he exclaimed with genuine enthusiasm and good humor. “Wow. Long-time-no-being alive at the same time! Time-travel looks good on you. Maybe I should give it a try, huh.”
There was an awkward pause. “Well,” Giles ventured at last, “it does seem that you've aged well though, haven't you?”
Xander gave him an odd, searching look, and then burst out laughing again. “Seriously, though,” he added a moment later, his composure instantly regained, “If you and your friend are coming with us, we'd better get going. We've got about three more minutes before the Archangel Corps comes riding in like the U.S. Cavalry and all hell breaks loose again.”
Coming with us? Suddenly a lot of tiny absurdities merged into one very big one. But time would not stand still for Rupert's revelations. By now, 'Ira', still wearing his gas mask, had brought Willow around to Xander's side of the room, cradling her in his arms like a giant baby, and was trying to situate her more, or less in Xander's lap, where he could hold her safely on board his soon-to-be-fast-moving bike.
This was all happening much too fast. What were his options here? He couldn't let them take her. Realistically, he couldn't stop them either. Not that he was the least bit inclined to go with them, just as William clearly wasn't. He was reluctant enough even to stand up, as Giles was now urging him to do, and as Xander clearly expected.
Giles silently cursed himself, Xander Harris, all the angels in Heaven and Hell, David Whele, Maurice Reilly, Ed Walker, Nathan Wallace, Stephan Caudwell, James the Dentist, Mr. Gently Benevolent, Herc Shipwright, PM Michael Whatsit, the git from the Coffee Commercials, Uther Pendragon and all his household, and Anthony Head himself. Then he threw in a few extra special curses for the organizer's of the Head Award for Father of the Year, and even the organizers of the 2019 Headline Awards for Good measure.
If it weren't for those bloody awards and all the magical shuttling around in space and time that went with them, he and Willow could be safe at home in Sunnydale right now. Or right sometime anyway. But no, he had to be here, waist deep in carnage and conflicting loyalties; all so that the writer of this fic could encourage her fellow Head Cases to go to https://www.theheadlineawards.com/ before January 20th and nominate their favorite works of fanfic and fan art featuring Anthony Head and all the coincidentally identical people he had met at the Father of the Year Awards Ceremony.
But despite all that, here he was. And there was nothing for it. He was just going to have to talk things through with Xander—very,very quickly—and figure out the least terrible way forward. To that end, he finally prevailed upon William to stand up, take out his nose plug, and let Xander and his... well, demonic minions, see that he was no one to be feared. That was the idea, anyway.
As William got hesitantly to his feet, arms held high, Giles began to try to explain that while William needed to stay here, that was no reason to view him as a threat. He thought that this was a better place to start a dialog than declaring that he himself was not going anywhere with them and neither was Willow.
For a moment, Giles thought his words were having an effect. A strange and terrible effect. Suddenly, a look a deep loathing and disgust came over the faces of Xander and his two unmasked companions. Spike actually slipped into his demonic form and growled menacingly.
All of that was unsettling, at least for the fraction of a second to took shock and mortal dread to drive mere uneasiness from his heart. In that moment, Giles thought he might literally die of fear and consternation as Xander Harris pointed a very large handgun in his general direction and snarled with contempt, “You! You Son-of-a—”
Xander's last word was drowned out by the sound of his gun firing. It took Giles a moment to realize that he had not been shot and to square that with the anomalous fact that his face, clothes, and glasses were covered in blood and a gray, lumpy substance that might have been made up of bone, brain-matter or both.
By the time he had worked out the fact that the nearly headless body lying nearest to him was that of William Whele, whom he had just been getting used to thinking of as his grandson, he found that, in the meantime, he had been shot after all. He hadn't seen a tranquilizer gun. He didn't know who had fired it. But the sting of the dart and the tidal wave of chemical sleep that followed were familiar and unmistakable.
Giles only just managed to sit down before he fell down. The last sound he heard as he was sucked into the void of temporary oblivion was the sound of motorcycle engines, telling him that when he woke, Willow would be gone. The brightest, bravest, kindest student he had ever worked with, his only true friend in Vega, and the woman he had just gotten used to thinking of as the one he loved would be in (and quite possible of) a warring camp of Vega's enemies. The girl who had woken up in his bed this morning might wake up tomorrow in the bed of William's murderer.
And he would have to answer to his son.
Chapter 5: Asleep on the Job
Rupert awoke in a cool, dark room. At least he supposed it was dark. He had a cold compress on his head and a sleep mask over his eyes. So probably not, actually. Presumably the mask was there for a reason.
For a moment he could not discern where he was, nor remember why he should be there. He was lying in bed, he knew that much. But the mattress was far firmer than the one he had shared with Willow.
Willow. Dear God, oh sweet Willow! Rupert's heart was beating faster now. Gradually, though not gradually enough to soften its edges much, the memory of the last days and weeks and hours came back to him. Pleasant, cozy companionship that promised to lead to more and diligent familiar research and investigation leading to uncomfortable truths, knotted and twisted around self-doubt, betrayal, and ugly death. All stoking that old familiar feeling of total failure on all fronts.
He tried to sit up in bed but was not successful. That dart must have delivered something besides phenobarbital. His body was almost completely paralyzed. Even his head would not turn. On the plus side, his heart was still beating and he didn't seem to have any trouble breathing on his own; so evidently, his internal organs were not compromised.
Giles tried to speak—or to curse, more accurately—but all he managed was a sort of forceful, frustrated sigh. Such was the product of a perfectly good diaphragm forcing air through a fully functional respiratory tract over an idle tongue an derelict lips who refused to do their jobs.
“Don't bother,” said a hard, bitterly amused voice that sent a chill down Rupert's otherwise useless spine. “You won't be able to talk for another day or two yet,” David Whele explained. His voice was cold and smooth as ice, with just a hint of possible sharp edges glinting along it's surface.
Another day or two. Giles let out a completely involuntary groan. That much, at least, he could do. Even if he didn't really want to. He hated to think how Whele might interpret it. Until he realized that that miscommunication was the least of his worries where David Whele was concerned.
David chuckled at his father's half successful efforts to control his breathing, to keep from panicking. “'dyou finally work out there's been some changes while you were taking your little siesta?”
Giles felt the older man's large callused hands on his face as the universe exploded with violently bright light. Thank God, he was able to blink at least. As his eyes adjusted to the excess of light in the gleaming white room, he could see David staring down at him mock-pensively, clearly enjoying the fact that he had him completely at his mercy.
“Don't worry,” David advised, seeming surprisingly serious, “you're my guest now, so you don't have to concern yourself with Riesen and his agenda anymore.” His tone was the essence of sincerity, but with what degree of irony, it was hard to say. Almost total, Giles thought. Though he had to admit, it was hard to tell. He might only have been projecting. He barely knew Whele at all.
Still, the signs did not bode well. Least of all the implication that he had been unconscious for days and was no where near to done being paralyzed. What day was it now, he wondered. It had been the 12th of January, at least by Vega's reckoning, when—
Rupert's pulse and breathing quickened again. Whele's smile seemed suddenly all the more menacing for it's semblance of pleasantness. At some point in the very recent past he had gotten this man's last remaining son shot to death for the crime of trying to help him instead of saving his own ass. This fresh wrong could not have eased the inevitable resentment David must have already felt for the father who had abandoned him a lifetime ago in a world that now seemed far far away.
“It's the 26th,” David supplied at last, guessing at a very small fraction of what Rupert was thinking. “You missed the Winter Solstice. Which is too bad. It's always a pretty good excuse to get drunk off your ass and 'accidentally' end up in bed with someone. For some reason I wasn't in the mood this year,” David continued conversationally. “Can't imagine why.”
The City of Vega had arranged it's calendar so that the Winter Solstice occurred on the 20th of January. He couldn't imagine why. For all he knew, it could be because the 2019 Headline Awards had closed for nominations on that date. Not that there was any such thing as the Headline Awards, nor any such thing as 2019, for that matter.
Regardless, he had missed it. Like the busy, distracted, and frankly somewhat lazy writer of this fanfic, he had let the days pass him by. Admittedly, he had a better excuse, what with being paralyzed by his... well... frankly... enemy on the field of battle. But what he had failed to do was far more serious than announcing that the final list of nominees for the 2019 Headline awards can be found at https://www.theheadlineawards.com/ where every fan among us is invited cast their votes for their favorite fanworks between now and February 19th.
He had failed to save Willow from being rendered unconscious and dragged away by force to a place where Xander Harris was a silver haired Strongman who kept company with vampires. Who commanded vampires. He had failed to save his son's son from being gunned down in cold blood with his hands raised in surrender, after he had personally disarmed him and convinced him that surrender was the their best option.
Just one more in a long lists of reasons, he supposed, why no one would likely have voted for him as Father of the Year.
Chapter 6: Mixed Doubles
Morgan was still staring into the rippling pool, the one deep below the castle where she and Arthur and their servants had killed the avanc a couple of years back. Merlin was by her side. Standing to close to her for Uther's comfort as he quietly approached the two from behind, trying to hear what they were whispering to each other before they noticed he was there.
He hoped she realized that just because this boy had magic that rivaled her own, just because the were collaborating to solve a very urgent problem facing the kingdom, did not mean that he was her equal. Especially where matter matrimonial were concerned. What matter if Merlin had changed his appearance, wearing clothes of a respectable young tradesman now that his trade was once again respectable? He was still a peasant for all that.
He already knew there was some kind of nonsense going on between his son and that seamstress-servant-whatever with whom Morgana was entirely too friendly. That was all well and good for a young nobleman. Getting that sort of thing out of your system was part of growing up.
But Morgana and Merlin would be a different matter altogether. He'd just now truly gotten his daughter back after many long years of secret but very real estrangement. To lose her now to a quarrel over matters of the heart and their relevance to a royal marriage, worse still, to see her disgraced, her chastity compromised; it would have been too much to bear.
To Uther's relief, as he approached nearer, he could hear that they were talking about nothing more than the ways and means of using magic to fight magic. What's more, they actually seemed to be disagreeing. “No, you can't do,” Merlin insisted vehemently, no longer whispering. “It's dangers, and you said yourself that it may not even work!”
“But it will work if we send enough of them through!” Morgan insisted.
“No,” Merlin replied, shaking his head. “Even if it does work. It's not right and I want no part of it!”
“Then I will do it without you,” Morgana replied, her voice going ice cold with determination. “I'm going to do what ever it takes to protect this kingdom.” Uther felt a thrill of paternal pride as she added, “Nothing could possibly be more right than that.”
“No,” Merlin insisted. “I'll go straight to Uther if I have to.”
Uther could not help but smile at the boy's near comic startlement as he heard the King, not two feet behind him, say, “Come to me about what?”
Willow wasn't sure if the world was spinning or had just come to a stop. She opened her eyes to try to anchor herself in space. She closed them again, her unfamiliar surroundings reminding her that space was not so much the problem as time was. She was just steeling herself to open them again and face all the things that needed facing when a strikingly familiar voice struck her so hard her heart almost stopped.
“Of course I'm glad she's alive,” Buffy both grumbled and scolded. “That's not the point.” Willow had to make a conscious effort to keep her breathing slow and quiet while her heart pounded and her mind raced. Her relief that Buffy was alive, her instinctive feeling that she would therefore be safe here, conflicted with the feeling that something very, very wrong had happened and might still be happening. In spite of the huge guilt it caused, listening under the cover of presumed unconsciousness seemed like the smart thing to do.
“Come on, Buff,” Xander both cajoled and disputed. Xander! Yes, there had been Xander, not in a dream as she had half assumed but live and in person, in the midst of the violence and chaos that had actually happened and might still be happening, though it was clearly not happening here. Here there was only the quiet strife of two lifelong friends at odds over something important.
“What was I supposed to do?” Xander contenued, “Just leave her there in that, that place, with that thing supposedly watching over her. If you'd have seen...” here there was a reasonable facsimile of a catch in his voice, one that might have fooled anyone but Willow. “I knew she'd be in danger, and I was right. There wasn't time to, to talk it to death!” he finished, with equally well feigned righteous anger.
Good Lord! He was making it sound like he'd found her chained to a wall or something. Granted she had not been free to leave, and that was not okay with her, and God knew she was no fan of dinner parties; but she doubted if they counted as torture, strictly speaking. And she hadn't been in any eminent danger until Xander and his posse had shown up throwing gas grenades and shooting at people. Xander had to have realized that by now. And besides—
“Oh, but it was safe enough for you to leave Giles?” Buffy shot back, stealing the words that had just been forming in Willow's mind.
“I told you,” Xander insisted, just a bit heatedly, either laying it on a shade thicker or actually getting angry that his lies weren't quite convincing her. Probably both. “He was already gone. Probably to one of their fifty million saferooms. You know how they are.”
“Yeah,” Buffy countered, clearly far from convinced that Xander was being in any way truthful with her, “They're careful and smart, that's how they are. And they have eachother's backs, even when they hate eachother's guts like Whele and Riesen. We could stand to have a little more of that around here if you ask me. They would never run off and leave that smarmy little High Priest of theirs to get “accidentally” shot in the head, any more than my ex-husband would bail on your ex-wife just to get his own ass into a saferoom!”
Thwump! Another wave of confusing reality smacked Willow in the face. She only realized that she had made a strangled little squeak of shock when Buffy and Xander reacted to it.
Both of them suddenly fell silent in mid-argument. A long half second passed before they rushed to either side of Willow's narrow, hospital-type bed, full of relief that that she was awake at last and thinly concealed worry that she might have overhead more than they were comfortable with.
Willow pretended to have only awoken at that very moment. It seemed the polite thing to do. They both accepted it gratefully and without question, or seemed to. Meanwhile, Willow had seen their faces, which was a whole other kind of shock from anything they had said.
Xander could have been his Grandpa Harris, if it wasn't for his mother's eyes. … Or, well, eye. One warm brown eye, slightly red and baggy from chronic lack of sleep, peered at her with love and concern from a face that was deeply lined and wore a disconcertingly serious expression. Far from frail, he looked strong and dignified and confident in a way that made Willow's pulse quicken and reminded her why the idea that they had been married at one time wasn't all that shocking after all. And his relieved smile at her look of recognition was very, very Xander.
Xander's other 'eye' was different matter. It was a creepy, unmoving plastic ball with a photo-realistic representation of an unnaturally still iris and pupil on the front. Willow tried not to look directly at it. Almost as hard as she was trying not to think about Xander lying to Buffy, Giles lying on top of Buffy, and the mercifully unclear picture she had gotten of whatever had happened at the dinner party from hell.
But all of these shocks and wonders paled in comparison to Buffy herself. She was still her slim, petite, blond, little self with the same flashing green eyes and kitten nose. Her muscle tone and definition had improved, and she too held herself, and her expression like someone who was comfortable and confident in her vast experience in advanced adulting under difficult circumstances. Other than that, she looked exactly the same as she ever had. She hadn't aged a day.
“Oh this?” Buffy laughed, catching her staring, understanding what it meant. “You noticed my suntan.” At Willow's puzzled look she giggled outright and Xander grinned widely. “It's a long story,” Buffy less than half explained lightly. “But don't worry, I am still Grade A USDA Certified one hundred percent human.”
Xander's small, confident nod affirmed this, and Willow felt instantly relieved. But the adoring quality of the look he gave Buffy as he nodded made her uncomfortable for a whole different reason. They were together, of course they were. They couldn't have fought the way they had been fighting, then instantly tabled the whole thing to calmly deal with something else together if they had been anything less than a long established item.
It was an old story Willow realized. Two more-or-less best-friendly couples, in more or less the pairs that, within reason, they had always known that they were bound to pair into. And then life happened. And death too probably, weird as it was to think so. The universe was playing a different tune now, and everyone had switched partners.
“I need to go to the bathroom,” Willow said abruptly, then flushed with embarrassment, realizing how childish she must have sounded to these two very grown-up grownups, blurting it out like that. Xander gave her an odd look that she couldn't quite identify, seeming to hold both misgiving and concern, with maybe a hint of reciprocal embarrassment that she might only have been imaging. But Buffy bounced up on the balls of her feet and stepped back from the bed to help her up. Willow did not resist her offer of assistance, but leaned on Buffy and was glad to do it.
She still felt a little groggy from whatever it was Xander had knocked her out with. In fact, her head was just now becoming clear enough to begin be properly freaked out about that aspect of how everything had gone down. Her ex-husband had knocked her unconscious and dragged her off to his... whatever this place was, deliberately leaving her probably boyfriend in a not-so-safe location, and now he was lying to his wife about it. Her mother would not have approved, and Willow was pretty sure she didn't either, even if he was Xander.
But that was just one of many, many things pressing down on Willow's overloaded brain and making her long for the brief antisuffocating solitude of locking herself in the bathroom for a few minutes up to maybe a year or so. She just had to get away from them for a minute, to be literally anywhere but here.
Oddly, she noticed for the first time, 'here' seemed to be a weird combination of a hospital and a roadside motel room with ancient, frayed carpet and clean white everything else but the thick, flowered drapes. Whatever. Either way, there was a bathroom door just past the out-of-place-looking double sinks, and Willow got herself on the other side of it, locked it, and leaned against it, breathing heavily, as if she had just made it into the safety of her own home, one step ahead of a vampire.
At last, Willow was alone. Unwatched. It made her feel safe, or at least that she might be safe, just for a little while. That was all she needed, and then she would be able to think. About Giles. About Xander and Buffy. About all of it.
“Willow,” the sober, feminine, so-not-Buffy voice addressed her from what seemed like inches away. “Willow, open your eyes.”
Willow opened her eyes and saw none other than Morgan La Fay, or Morgana as she seemed to prefer, staring up at her from the rippling, silvery surface of the brimming full bathtub. She surprised herself when she let out a scream that she was afraid would have Buffy breaking down the door.
“Don't worry,” Morgana advised her offhandedly, “They can't hear you or me. We are in our own space here, our own time.”
“What?” Willow demanded. “This again! Listen here, missy, I don't care who you are! You, you just can't go pulling people out of space and time like this all willy-nilly!”
“Not again,” Morgana informed her calmly but very seriously, “still.” Now that she had Willow's attention, she continued to explain, “We thought the spell was over when the trophy was given out. Merlin and I both did, and Mr. Giles agreed. But that was just the beginning of the end. When the doors opened, we should have all gone through our own doors. Because some of us didn't, the spell's matrix is still in place, but without it's focal object, it is increasingly unstable.”
“Of course!” Willow realized out-loud, silently chastising herself for all of the reasons that she clearly should have known it all along even though Morgana, Merlin, and even Giles had not.
“Exactly,” Morgana responded, seeming relived. Quickly, urgently, she added, “Merlin and I are working on it here, trying to put the worlds back in alignment, but we're running out of time. We need your help!”
Willow blinked. She was beyond disbelieving, beyond flattered. She was floored. “Of course!” she managed to say after a moment, “What do you need me to do?”
“Get in the bathtub,” Morgana instructed her with a sort of odd, waiting intensity that Willow was sure she was imagining. “Now lay down in the water until all of you is completely covered.” Willow hesitated. She was wearing a thin white nightgown that was about to be completely see-through. She was sure she had other reasons for hesitating as well, but at the moment should not remember what any of them were.
It didn't matter. She had no will to resist. She would do as Morgana said. Slowly, carefully, gathering her gown around her, Willow lay down in the water until she disappeared beneath its surface.
Suddenly, strong arms, arms covered in chainmail, were pulling her downward. Except that down was suddenly up. As Willow broke the surface of a very different pool, one in a dank, dark, echoy stone chamber that had to be deep under a castle somewhere; she could see King Uther disappearing down into the pool the way she had come. There was a grim smile on his face that she did not like at all.
Minutes passed and kept passing. Five of them. Then ten. Buffy and Xander sat next to each other on Willow's hospital bed in awkward silence, staring at the bathroom door. “I don't hear any water running,” Buffy said at last with quiet worry.
“Will?” Xander called not quite as casually as he would have liked, “You okay in there?”
No response. Not when he called again. Not when Buffy called.
Within a minute, they were banging on the door. Screaming her name. Begging her to open up. Afraid to admit what they were both afraid of finding when they finally got the door open.
“She's not crying,” Xander half whispered. “If she was too upset to speak, she'd be crying by now.” Terror filled his voice and his eyes. No one had to tell Buffy why. These events were too familiar.
“That's It!” Buffy declared. Xander nodded and stepped back as she kicked open the door.
The bathroom was empty. Weirdly, the tub was full. Floating on it's surface was a parchment scroll that read:
THE WINNERS OF THE 2019 HEADLINE AWARDS ARE NOW UP!
You can see them at:
BIG THANKS TO ALL THE HEADCASES THAT MAKE THESE AWARDS POSSIBLE.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY TONY. WE ALL WISH YOU FUN, PRESENTS, AND CAKE.