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Willow sat bolt upright; panicked, expecting to be choking, coughing up lung-fulls of water. She wasn't. She was lying in a bed, not a bathtub, bone dry. For a moment, she she dared to hope the whole thing had been a dream, from spell to spell; but she knew better.

The dim, small, industrially furnished motel room in which she had just awoken was full of kick-nacks and homey touches. Switching on the surprisingly bright lamp by her bedside was enough to confirm that it was the kind of “lived in” that was most definitely a euphemism for messy. The way Xander's room always was and Buffy's probably would have been if not for Joyce.

Were they really together? Had the four of them really done the pathetically clichéd musical spouses thing? Could she at least have dreamed that part? Please?

Bits and pieces of the recent past came back to her, but not a wisp of memory connected Willow to the room itself. There were both men's and women's shoes on the floor. And a familiar photograph taped to the dresser mirror. Three kids standing on a pier. On the edge of the vast Pacific. On the edge of adulthood. Sun and wind and sea. A picture of a lost world with only two people left in it.

Willow didn't need a memory to tell her that this was their room, Buffy's and Xander's. In which they lived together. As a couple. The kind that had sex and possibly babies.

Willow knew it as surely as she knew that nominations were now open for the 2020 Headline Awards at https://www.theheadlineawards.com. As surely as the fact that now through January 20th is the time to nominate all of your favorite Anthony Head related fic, vid, and art.

It hurt. So much it startled her. Even if she did have Giles.

Giles! Did she have Giles? Could Xander really have left him? There was no assuming or figuring. Her brain was too druggy, her dreams and memories too muddled up. She needed to see him, to touch him, in order to know that he had not been left behind, or worse, killed. Nothing else mattered. Nothing but him.

“Giles!?!” Willow called. Then screamed. Then sobbed. Sick with dread and panic. She rushed to the door, half expecting to find herself locked in, and pulled it open so hard she almost lost her footing.

Willow lurched out into the hallway, Buffy, Xander, and a couple of other people were hurrying towards her, faces full of concern. Willow half collapsed, hanging onto the wall, weeping uncontrollably, desperate to find the man she loved. Still screaming his name. “Giles! Giles!”

“Wil, it's alright,” really-old-Xander whispered gently, enfolding her in large and very-very strong arms while weirdly-unold-Buffy and a much younger man (who might have been Buffy's son?) hovered near them, not sure what to do.

Willow did not feel comforted by her old friend's embrace. She felt trapped. Restrained. Frozen with dread in the arms of what felt like an unpleasantly possessive stranger who was at pains to make sure she was 'resting' rather than wandering freely. She felt as much a captive as she ever had in Vega.

For one thing, assuming she even half understood what was happening, he had physically incapacitated her so that he could bring her here, if not 'against her will' per se, then certainly without regard to her will. Or anyone else's. For example Buffy's. For another, there had definitely been some killing involved in that process, though how much or of whom Willow was not entirely certain.

Suddenly, she needed to be. Though she never in her life would have imagined Xander could actually hurt Giles; this was almost literally Bizzaro World. Anything seemed terrifyingly possible here; even the insanity of Xander shooting Giles. Or his son. Or his grandson. For a moment, Willow almost thought she remembered one of those things happening even.

Granted the last couple of days (or weeks, she honestly wasn't sure) had been a distorted blur of hallucinations, vivid dreams, and other cognitive effects of whatever the hell had been in those canisters, but most of that had mostly stopped. It wouldn't have mattered if it hadn't. All that mattered was the answer to one question.

“Where the Hell is Giles!?!” she demanded.

Awkward and slightly bitter looks were exchanges. Buffy looked away. Both angry and hiding her eyes. But Xander made a point of lifting Willow's chin so that he could look fiercely into her eyes and let her know the depth of his sincerity.

“I asked him, Wil,” he assured her. “I practically begged him. He wouldn't come with us. He said he needed to stay with his son.”

The younger man, who maybe looked a little bit like Giles, flinched. Almost as if he had been struck. Buffy stood with her hands on her hips, looking up at the ceiling. Which meant she didn't believe him either, but wasn't going to call him out in front of Willow without proof.

“Giles isn't here,” Willow stated definitively. Feeling calmer for having wrapped her brain around the truth at last.

“Giles isn't here,” Buffy acknowledged with a kind of casual resignation.

“Well then we'd better go and get him!” Willow insisted, putting on her resolved face. “There isn't much point to any of this without him!”

Silence. Hung in the air. Silence and doubt.

*****

Uther broke the surface of the pool yet again, cursing and spitting water. Merlin tried to help him to his feet, but he batted the peasant's only coincidentally washed hands away, letting Morgana help him instead.

“I can't quite... grip on to the place,” he fumed and groped for words at the same time, mad as an old wet king who is being forced to admit he is out of his depth, choking on pride as well as water.

Morgana cursed in sympathetic frustration. Merlin was tempted to say something encouraging, or try to lighten the mood or something. Against all instinct, the young wizard held his tongue. Mainly because he liked it where it was. In his head.