Chapter 1: God Forsaken
“You know,” Giles called cheerfully over his shoulder to the two girls behind him, “for a transdimensional enthralling spell that didn't go so terribly. At least we all got out of it in one piece, and without doing anything too awfully humiliating. I more than half expected that we'd emerge into yet another alternative nightmare world where we'd be expected to stand for more awards or, or use the internet. There'd be some web address cleverly spelled out in the diamond stars above like http://tonyhead-awards.livejournal.com/ and we'd have to go there to find clues as to how to get home, possibly by nominating our favorite works of fan art and fan fiction for the 2016 Headline Awards. But, thankfully, it's nothing like that. Here we all are back in the desert east of Sunnydale, ready to fight another day.”
“Um... I guess,” Willow answered hesitantly, her voice edged with characteristic worry, “Except for one tiny thing.” She forced a strangled little laugh.
“What is it?” Giles asked, catching a little (but only a little) of her nervousness himself. Until he turned to face her and she took the words right out of his gaping mouth.
Giles turned in a circle, peering in all direction across the flat, nearly featureless desert landscape. Nothing but distant mountains stood against the horizon as far as the eye could see, which under the light of a full moon and a thousand glittering stars was actually pretty far. There was no point in calling out. Nowhere she might have gone. It was as if the Slayer had vanished into thin air.
“Well...” Giles began, chuckling nervously himself. “This is certainly quite...” he took his glasses off and began polishing them absently with his handkerchief as his mind groped for an appropriate adjective. But all he came up with after much too long a pause was “... unexpected.”
“Unhuh,” Willow squeaked, eyes wide, near panic.
But there was no time for panic. They were standing in the middle of the desert with nothing but the clothes on there backs. From the warmth still radiating up from the sand it was clear that the sun had only just set. If they stayed here, they would have an entire night to survive before it came up again. And the weather could easily be predicted. Freezing cold with a strong chance of vampires and possibly a few scattered werewolves.
Sighing deeply, Giles reached an inevitable conclusion. “She'll be alright,” he insisted firmly, projecting calm and certainty as best he could without feeling a single iota of either, stammering his way towards what he had to ask of Willow, trying to keep her calm, or at least no more rattled than she was already. “She probably just... arrived at a slightly different spot that we did. These, these... transdimensional... portals, or what have you, do tend to be a bit... unpredictable. I suggest we make our way back to Sunnydale and trust Buffy to do the same. If we don't hear from her shortly then... we'll get proper supplies and search for her... erm... properly.”
Willow favored him with a doubtful look. She was probably trying to smile, but if so she was failing. Badly. “Um, Giles?” she asked, voice going high and reedy with anxiety, “How, exactly, do we make our way back to Sunnydale?”
This was it, the thing he dreaded. He had to tell her. For once valor would have to get the better of discretion. “We're going to teleport there,” he explained matter-of-factly. “By magic.”
“But, but, Giles!” Willow objected frantically, “I don't have that kind of power! I, I, I can only summon two of the four elements. And, and, my potions come out... soup, and, and—”
“Willow,” Giles said gently but very firmly, gripping her by the shoulders and forcing her to meet his steady, anchoring gaze, “You summoned the human soul of a vampire from the aether to indwell his body once again. You created living flame for the destruction of the Glove of Myhnegon. You defeated the Mayor's magical safeguards to gain access to the Box of Gavrox. Of all the beings from every dimension gathered in that auditorium tonight, Merlin the Magician chose you, Willow Rosenberg, to help him defeat one of the most powerful spells that Morgan La Fay, greatest witch in the history of witchcraft could throw at him! You have the power to do this.”
“But, but,” Willow stammered, seeming more rattled than ever by his attempts at reassurance, “I don't know how to teleport!” she squealed miserably.
“Yes,” he conceded, smiling softly, half amused despite himself by her strangely endearing underestimation of herself. “But I do,” he reminded her reassuringly. “With my knowledge and your power, we can do just about anything. All we need is a little faith and a little luck.”
“Right,” she agreed, nodding shakily, beginning to calm down already. “You know. You always know. You know everything.” Her confidence in him was humbling, and yet it inspired within him a sense of pride and affection that he would have had to describe as almost fatherly. “Okay, so, my body is your instrument; what do you want me to do?” The key word being almost.
Giles took his glasses off again and peered down at them, the better to hide his inappropriate, but most certainly idle thoughts. Thoughts he'd been doing his very poor best to extinguish ever since that fateful night a few weeks ago, the night she had dressed up in leather and lace to foil her evil … well foil. Ever since she had innocently command him 'hey look at those!' and he had thoughtlessly obeyed. And now she was tilting her head sideways at him, somewhere between puzzlement and worry. “Giles, are you okay?”
“What? Me? Oh, uhm, yes. Never better.”
“Are you sure? Because you seemed... distracted. Or, well... sort of. For a second.” She looked up at him with such trust and hope, so sure that if anything was wrong he knew how to make it right. An expectation upon which he had better make good. And fast. It was getting colder out here. And he could hear something howling that he was fairly sure was not a coyote. It might only have been that peculiar semi-zombie chap from the awards ceremony. And then again it very well might not.
“Take my hands,” he instructed her, keeping his voice quiet, calm and businesslike. Willow, of course, faithfully complied. “Now repeat after me and concentrate all of your intention into the words as you say them.” She nodded resolutely and, true to her nod, began repeating every word he said with almost unimaginable gravity.
They began with a simple homing spell, an incantation calling upon the nearest available and kindly inclined god or goddess to help them slide around the dimensions of the physical world through the aether to the birthplace of the more powerful of the two supplicants. Nothing happened. Almost less than nothing. The air did not so much as stir. Giles walked Willow through a dozen other spells, each calling on different gods or spirits. They tried for well over an hour, running through every incantation and benediction Giles could think of. Finally, desperately, they even tried calling upon Christian saints. But Saint Christopher made them no more answer than Winged Mercury and the Virgin Mary was as deaf to their cries as the vengeful Hecate.
“It must be my fault,” Willow apologized. “See, I told you I wasn't that powerful.”
“No, no, I don't think so,” Giles assured her his voice not rising above a whisper now. “There's something... off here. Can't you feel it?”
Willow stood for a moment. Shivering. Contemplating. “Your right,” she said at last, in a voice even quieter than his own. A small, tremulous voice that made him want to shelter her in his arms to keep her safe and warm. “It feels... empty.”
“Well...” Giles suggested, throwing out his last idea, otherwise stumped. “I suppose you could try someone erm a bit, well, closer to home?”
For a moment, Willow was puzzled. Then she breathed a tiny, derisive puff of air out through her nostrils, shaking her head and giving him a bit of a glare, together with an incredulous tilt of her head. “Him?” she scoffed. “I called on Him for fifteen years and got bupkis. Trust me, if I knew how to get His attention I'd have been the world's first astronaut Supreme Court Justice by the time I was five.” Her voice rose steadily in pitch and volume until it became something between a shout and a wail, and every word edged with bitter irony.
“I could have stopped Jesse from being killed!” she screamed at the desert sky. “And Sheila! And Debbie! Even Pete! But no! Someone's too good to answer prayers unless you're absolutely perfect and pure and clean! I mean, if He was listening. If my faith had been enough for Him! I could have closed the Hellmouth myself!” As she cried out, Willow reeled around in an unsteady circle, hands lifted upon high.
“Don't believe me!?!” she challenged, though Giles had said nothing, only stood there with his mouth gaping, having no idea what to make of her unprecedented emotional state. “Here, watch this!” she shouted. “Barukh ata Adonai Eloheinu, melekh ha'olam, hagomel lahayavim tovot, sheg'molani kol tov! Amen. Mi sheg'molayikh kol tov, hu yigmolayikh kol tov. Selah! See! Bupkis!”
“Willow! Willow!” Giles grabbed her by the shoulders. For a moment she tried to pull away from him, but when he folded his arms around her, she collapsed into them willingly. Either that, or she was just too broken to resist. Sobbing against his suit front, the young Talent wailed her vernacular litany for the dead of Sunnydale. “It's all right,” he found himself whispering into her soft red hair, over and over, soothingly, senselessly, “It's all right. It's alright.”
“No!” She shouted, suddenly pulling so forcefully away that she knocked him on his tweed clad ass in the desert sand. “Damn it, no! Giles, it is not alright!”
“Oh for the love of Mike!” he shouted, suddenly losing patience with her hysterics. “Get a hold of yourself!” The middle of a life-threatening crisis was no time to panic.
“Oh to hell with Mike!” she shouted right back at him, sense having little place in her ranting any longer, emotion taking the place of reason entirely. “If Mike's such hot stuff then why doesn't he come get us out of this desert and back to civilization right now!”
The desert night remained still. Not so much as a cricket chirped. Then, suddenly, the still night air was ever so slightly disturbed, as if by the slow, ponderous beating of very heavy wings. “Who are you?” a voice from above demanded, startling Willow and Giles alike. They looked up into the stern, battle hardened face of a man... who happened to have wings. “Why do you call upon my name in this desert place?”
Chapter 2: When the Hell Are We?
As much as Willow warned herself not to look down, she couldn't help herself, and for the most part, she was glad. As terrified as she was of falling, the view of the desert night flashing by below her, scattered settlements twinkling like stars, was spectacular. Majestic even. The wind rushing over her face, whipping her hair about even as she was securely held by Michael's strong right arm around her waist. Something about him (his power, his certainty, the warmth of his solid body, something) made her feel entirely safe and at peace in his hands. And why shouldn't she? In whose hands should anyone feel safer than the Archangel Michael, God's right hand man.
Giles, on the other hand, seemed anything but comforted in being held just as closely to the Archangel's other side. His grim and steady frown looked about equal parts put upon, resigned to being put upon, and apprehensive of being put upon further. Well, and that wasn't really surprising either. Not given the fact that, as he had made abundantly clear, he no more believed their winged rescuer to be an archangel than the man in the moon. So, naturally he had been skeptical of his promise to take them to “one of the few human cities in the Cradle”, the City of Vega. The City over which he served as guardian.
But Willow had no such doubts. From the moment she'd seen him, the moment she'd heard him speak, her wavering faith had been restored, bringing a flood of joy to her soul. For the Prince of the Angel's of the Lord God, no introduction was needed. It hardly mattered whether he'd found them on an alien planet or on some mirror Earth in an odd corner of the multiverse. It hardly mattered how vast the dark desert stretching below them was or who or what it might be called the “Cradle” of. Michael was Michael. She'd have known him anywhere.
And then it happened. Just as they began to fly over the ruins, the broken, twisted, burned out detritus of a once modern city. “Good Lord,” Giles gasped in a way that gave Willow the firm impression that he'd have been seconds away from cleaning his glasses if he hadn't instead been clutching them desperately in place with the hand that wasn't locked tightly around Michael's infolding arm. “I'd swear that's the City of Los Vegas down there, and yet... My God, what's happened to it.”
Michael stiffened. His palpable disapproval made Willow uneasy. After all, he wasn't Chief Warrior of Heaven and Avenger of God for nothing. And though Giles hadn't come close to mentioning the actual holy four letter name of The Most High God, his references to Him had been decidedly in vain, more expletives than supplications.
“Um, he doesn't mean any disrespect,” Willow ventured apologetically. “He's just...” but she hardly knew what to say he was. A Gentile? An unbeliever? Either way it sounded like both a moral judgment against Giles and a lame excuse to give to Michael. That simply wouldn't do.
“Excuse me,” Giles interrupted sharply, saving her from her dilemma, but hardly making things any better. “But I can speak for myself, thank you very much, and … Bloody Hell! Look at the size of those walls! It's like some imagined Distopia. And yet, I'd swear.... Yes! Yes it is! That's the MGM Grand! Good Lord! That's the Stratosphere. Alright Mr. 'Archangel', if this isn't Los Vegas, if you and your kind, whatever you happen to be, haven't just destroyed this city and erected you fortress here with all of those impressive searchlights, then you tell me; where the hell are we?”
Michael flew on in grim silence. But Willow could not help but look at the wreckage below them with new eyes. There were broken and abandoned landmarks everywhere outside the walls of 'Vega' and inside, once glittering hotels gave the vague but definite impression of being utterly repurposed. This was not the work of hours and days but of years, of decades. “Um, Giles?” Willow suggested nervously, “I think your asking the wrong question.”
“Beg pardon?” he replied, noticing but not quite understanding the heavy sense of significance with which she spoke.
“Not where,” she explained as the Archangel came to rest on a window ledge of what was undeniably the penthouse suite of the Stratosphere and ushered them both inside, “when.” Steeling her courage, Willow turned to the Angel and asked, “Michael, what year is it?”
But it seemed as though he hadn't heard her. “By Father's Justice!” he gasped, staring at Giles in utter amazement. “Two could be one and yet... by what name are you called?”
Giles straightened his back and made a point of speaking boldly and plainly, telegraphing fearlessness as only a quite frightened but none the less brave person can. “I am called Rupert Edmond Giles, a name I suspect I have far more claim to than the one you've chosen.” Willow looked worriedly from one handsome but war-hardened face to the other. The two tall figures brooded silently at one another for a long moment as Michael refused to answer the charge of fraud and Giles refused to retract it.
“Alright then,” the Watcher offered at last, “Call yourself whatever you like, so long as you answer Willow's question and mine. Where are we and when?”
“Please,” Willow added hastily, “if you wouldn't mind.”
“So like him,” Michael murmured, still speaking on his own chosen topic, “down to the lines furrowed in his brow by care and scheming, though not so deep with age.”
“Now listen here, you... you... you—!” Giles began to object indignantly.
But he was cut short by the archangel's graved ruminations which seemed to use up all of the air in the room, preventing competing speech. “Something of his attitude as well,” Michael observed, sounding a bit unkind in his criticism. “His self righteousness certainly, though none of his poise.”
“Alright!” Giles half shouted, sounding and looking strangely petulant and small to Willow's eyes and ears, more like a child than a man. “I've had just about enough of this! Now I demand an answer! Where are we, when are we, and who the bloody hell are you blathering on about!?!”
“Giles,” Willow 'whispered' aside and through clenched teeth but not quietly at all, “I don't think you should talk to him like that. That armour isn't just for looks you know.”
Suddenly Michael looked at the two of them again, almost as if he were seeing them for the first time. For a moment the way he narrowed his eyes and tilted his head reminded Willow more of a bird than a man. But when he spoke next, his voice was warm and gentle. “Don't be afraid,” he said. “I think I can better explain what's become of this world than how you've come to be here and not to know these things; but then, the Realms of Father's creation are vast and strange.”
“Well, that much is true,” Giles admitted, seeming once again prepared to be civil if by no means pleased to find himself where he was. “The Universe is a vast, strange place.”
“What year is this?” Willow repeated, seizing the moment of relative detente.
Michael tilted his head again and gave the middle distance a slow, thoughtful look. “You might say that it is 5801 years since the creation of the world; but of course this world is far older than that...” the Archangel turned his head slowly to look more at Giles without quite letting Willow out of the line of his gaze. “... as I suspect you know.”
Willow nodded anyway, her head spinning with math she couldn't quite believe. “That makes it 2040 or '41,” she half whispered to Giles, her chest fluttering with terror.
“I had worked that out,” he half whispered back, his voice tight and straining to contain some emotion she couldn't quite identify. And then, sounding not so much relieved as determined to be relieved, with all of the definiteness of a man with no basis upon which to be certain, Giles declared, “It's an alternate reality. Some slightly more hell nigh world than our own. We, we must have picked the wrong door out of the Albert Hall and now we're stuck in the reality of one of my doppelgangers!”
At that Michael looked genuinely surprised and puzzled. “Oh, an evil witch from an alternate dimension, Morgan Le Fay, put us under a transdimensional enthralling spell. When it was over there were all these portals, but...” Willow let the sentence trail off into nothing feeling embarrassed by how silly she must sound presuming to explain anything to Michael the Archangel.
“A world where Morgan Le Fay is an evil witch?” Michael murmured, the vaguest hint of a smile tugging at the corner of his lip. “That must have been a very strange place indeed.” Then he paused and was suddenly back to his usual grim-faced self. “Or it may have been when Father and Mother were having one of their fallings out.”
“Ummmm...” At a loss for words, Willow looked nervously at Giles.
“Tell me,” Giles said to Michael, “Whom were you speaking of just now? Someone who looks like me. Which one? What was his name?”
“You, Mr. Giles, are the spitting image of Consul David Whele. Except that your fifteen or twenty years younger. If I didn't know better I'd say he was your father.”
“Well,” Giles offered with a pale shadow of a laugh, “if we've really traveled over forty years into the future, then I suppose I might just as well be his father.” Then he frowned as if suddenly finding the joke far less funny than he'd originally thought.
“But we haven't just traveled forward in time,” Willow reminded him. “We've also traveled sideways, or well, sort of. I mean David Whele is the guy, the American guy, the one from the theater, right?” Giles nodded. “So here we are in his world, and meanwhile he's gone with those other two London guys to theirs.”
Willow thought she saw a shadow of puzzlement cross Michael's face again, but it seemed to lift just as quickly, and if something was bothering him, he didn't share. Instead, he tersely explained the recent history of the now endangered Homo-Sapiens. Willow listened in shock to the tale, more than half expecting to here that it had all been started by the ascension of a small-town mayor in California to the rank of demon. But what she heard was far more jarring. “Gabriel?” she gasped out once, hardly believing her ears.
Michael nodded curtly and went on, taking them through the Extermination War to the recent resurgence of Eightball activity in the area around Vega and the hope the People of Vega held out that the Chosen One would soon be revealed. “But surely you must know who she is,” Giles pointed out. “Otherwise how could you have saved her.”
Michael gave Giles another of his soul-piercing looks of appraisal but said nothing more except, “Stay here,” before walking out of the room, leaving the two transdimensional wayfarers alone in a hotel suite dominated by a giant bed.
Willow sat down on the bed, still reeling, still trying to absorb the new reality. Giles sagged down next to her and ran a hand absently through his flaxen hair. Well, he said, with a sheepish half smile, “It seems we shall have to do a bit more than log on to http://tonyhead-awards.livejournal.com/ by January 20th and nominate our favorite Anthony Head fanworks for the 2016 headline awards to find our way home.
Chapter 3: Coffee Anyone?
Willow sighed. Giles was right of course. They were in quite a pickle. A pickle she couldn't quite help thinking of as her fault, even though the clear and obvious answer to her recurrent internal question of 'Why oh why did I agree for Buffy to nominate Giles for that stupid award?' was 'because Morgan LeFay so wished.' It didn't matter that many, many people, most of them older and wiser than Willow had fallen under the legendary witch's powerful spell. Somehow her over developed sense of guilt still insisted that she should have know, should have been able to stop it.
“So...” Willow ventured, ready to change the topic of her thoughts to almost anything else, “Where do you think Michael went?”
“Probably to speak to the Martian High Command about our execution I expect,” Giles 'joked' acerbically. “How should I know?”
“Okay, okay,” Willow rejoined defensively. “I was just asking. You don't have to bite my head off. I'm stuck here too you know.”
Giles sighed and half apologized, “Quite so. At any rate, there's no good in arguing amongst ourselves.” Willow nodded. They both sat in glum silence another moment before Giles added, “If I had to guess I'd say he's gone to see this Whele chap to see what he has to say on the matter. However, I've no idea what will happen when he finds the man and his son gone. After all, they must be persons of some importance. While realizing that we know nothing of the governing structure of this place, the title of 'Consul' is hardly likely to equate to the Third Deputy Minister of Silly Walks, is it?”
Giles laughed a bit to himself over that little joke. Willow felt a sigh rising in her chest but pushed it down, keeping her eyes carefully unrolled. “And the son appeared to be some sort of cleric,” she agreed instead, keeping the conversation constructive. “Probably a high ranking one from the was the soldiers seemed to defer to him.”
Then a terrible thought struck her. “Giles,” she blurted out suddenly, “You don't think Michael will blame us for their disappearance do you?”
Giles frowned and rubbed his chin for a moment. “I honestly don't know what to think,” he admitted. “I suppose it's no secret by now that I'm not even convinced that he is who he says he is, and even if he were, I don't know what he plans to tell the remaining leadership of this city or the Whele family about us or how any of them might react. So, truth be told, I think it's best to assume that you and I are on our own against this world until proven otherwise. That, and that whatever is about to happen could be quite unpleasant indeed.”
Willow nodded, still thinking, still deciding what and what not to say. She was completely convinced that Michael was the Archangel of the Lord God, but she didn't see any real point in trying to convince Giles of that, especially when he was being so stubbornly closed minded about it.
Assuming that everything Michael had said was true, then God had departed for dimensions unknown, leaving only his various creatures behind to inhabit (and fight over) the Earth. They varied in powers, attributes, origins, and motives; but no single one was truly the chief among them. The universe, in other words, was left to lurch forward by a combination of old plans already set in motion and random, ungoverned chance.
Which meant that this world now matched Giles's operational view of the Cosmos to the point that the details were hardly worth arguing over. Not unless they could be shown to have some direct bearing on how to pierce the dimensional veil and return to their own world. Still, Willow had to say something. Giles had been looking at her expectantly for far too many seconds. “I wish we at least had something to eat,” she said. “If I'd known he was gonna leave us locked up in here so long, I'd have asked for something before he left.”
“Hmm,” Giles pondered a moment. “ I suppose it wouldn't hurt to check those cabinets over there.” He nodded to a small kitchenesque area tucked into a corner that Willow hadn’t noticed before. Besides the cabinets, there was a sink, hotplate, and electric kettle.
“Do you think he drinks hot tea?” she asked, pointing her chin at the kettle specifically.
Giles smiled just a bit before pulling an absurdly straight face. “I bloody well hope not,” he averred with all semblance of gravity. “What I'd really like in a cup of Coffee. I've got to give up these overnight flights. I'm Completely knackered.”
Willow wanted to say something cool or clever or coy or maybe even slightly naughty like, 'I'm just going to assume that doesn't mean anything dirty', or... well... something like that anyway. Instead, she caught herself wanting to and blushed. As casually as she could, she turned away to hide her face and then obscured her motives by heading over to the cabinets and poking around inside.
“Are you alright?” Giles asked, sounding both worried and puzzled. “Was it something I said?”
Willow laughed much to long and loudly with nervousness. “Of course not!” she said much to sharply. Then, with another nervous laugh and a weak smile, she added, “It's probably just my irrational fear of being locked in hotel rooms in the heart of besieged post-apocalyptic cities by avenging angels.”
“Touché,” Giles Murmured sheepishly, then opened his mouth as if he'd thought of more to say on the subject.
“Oh look!” Willow declared with extremely genuine relief. “Coffee!”
“Indeed,” Giles agreed, actually seeming sort of grateful. As he came over to stand next to Willow, she opened the cabinet door wider so that they could both ponder the options. There appeared to be a rather wide selection of instant coffee blends to choose from.
“The Best Thing Since Rainbows?” Giles read aloud from one of the labels. “Well now, that seems just a bit pretentious, doesn’t it?”
Willow shrugged and made a sort of pained/apologetic face. “Depends on your relationship to rainbows,” she pointed out. That met with a slight head tilt of acknowledgment from Giles. Given whose room they were supposedly in and what he had told them about 'Father's' disappearance, he could hardly deny she had a point.
“Yeesh, listen to these,” Willow offered, “Mystic Convergence, Over Our Head, Hydra?”
“Well, at least all of those sound better than this one,” Giles pointed out, indicating a container that was labeled 'Legal Assassin'.
“I really agree,” Willow agreed, making another face, this time not so much pained/apologetic as unsettled and chagrined. It was almost a silent acknowledgment, Giles thought. A tacit admission that even if this Michael really was who he claimed to be, that was certainly no evidence that he could really be trusted by two mere mortals who were at his mercy. That if, in fact, some of the fanciful names apparently given to beverage flavors in this strange world described not their contents but the people who enjoyed them, then Legal Assassin might well be an apt name for the Archangel's special blend.
“Oh, uh... look at this one!” Willow said her feigned enthusiasm doing little to hide her hurry to change the subject. Never the less, Giles looked. Before he caught himself, his lips curled into much too wide a smile. The container was labeled 'Imagine You and Me'. And for a moment he couldn't help but do so.
Until, that is, Willow blushed beet red, making it abundantly clear that she knew exactly what he was thinking. With a start that he could hardly label as pleasant or unpleasant, Giles realized something of great importance. As little as had been said, if she knew what he was thinking, then he wasn't the only one thinking it.
Not knowing quite what to do with that realization, especially under these fraught circumstances, Giles turned his attention back to the cupboard. At last he saw a label that had at least a familiar ring to it, even if the packaging was otherwise all wrong. “Gold Blend,” he pointed out cheerfully, reaching a grabbing the canister. “I used to drink this years ago in London.”
“Assuming it's even the same thing,” Willow pointed out with gloomy skepticism, “and not just another coffee of the same name.”
Frowning at the thought, Giles opened the canister, peered inside and then sniffed. It smelled like instant coffee. Beyond that he couldn't say. It had been too many years. “Well, one way to find out,” he declared brashly as he began to fill the kettle.
“I suppose we should just be glad their isn't one labeled 'Only Ten Days Left to Nominate Fanworks for the 2016 Headline Awards',” Willow more than half joked.
“Yes, and urging us to visit http://tonyhead-awards.livejournal.com/ before January 20th,” Giles laughed.
“Well but maybe this is all some kind of code,” Willow continued the joke, feeling a bit cheered by it and wanting it to last.
“Yes,” Giles agreed, playing along. “Perhaps all of these labels are the names of the categories that still desperately need nomination in order to make this year's awards a rousing success like last year's were.”
“And maybe...” Willow tried to think of something, but the joke was really completely played out. Mercifully, the kettle boiled, saving her from having to try and complete her sentence. “Wow, that was fast!” she said instead.
Giles shrugged, “It's probably something to do with this universe we're in,” he pointed out. “Maybe here everything boils at the speed of plot.
Chapter 4: Safe as a Guardian Angel
Willow and Giles sipped their coffee, but it made them feel no less tired. If anything, just the opposite. “Must be decaf,” Giles yawned.
“Umm hum,” Willow agreed sleepily, eyelids already drooping.
“If I didn't know better,” Giles joked dryly, “I'd swear it was Irish Coffee.”
“Hmm?” Willow asked, too sleepy to really follow what he was saying, “Is that a kind of coffee that makes you sleepy or something?” With a long, lazy yawn of her own she lay down upon the Archangel's massive bed, just a bit left of center, and pulled a big fluffy blanket up under her chin.
“Or something,” Giles murmured, feeling slightly embarrassed without really understanding why. “Well at least it didn't lead to us acting out an advertising spot about the Headline Awards,” he joked selfconsciously. When that got a sleepy little giggle from Willow, Giles laughed a bit himself, feeling a bit relieved. “Yes,” he went on, “Just imagine! We could could be saying things like 'Only two days left to nominate your favorite fanworks.' And visit http://tonyhead-awards.livejournal.com/ by January 20th to participate.'”
Willow yawned again, but she was still smiling. “Either I'm too sleepy to appreciate a good joke or your too tired to be funny,” she told him. “Why don't we both try to get some sleep while we can? Who knows what might happen in the morning.”
Giles stood looking around uncertainly for a moment. He kept talking to cover his nervousness about the ever deepening realization that there were in fact two of them and only one bed. “Yes, I suppose when it's discovered that this Whele chap is missing I might find myself staring in a high stakes revival of The Prisoner of Zenda... or something like that.”
“Just as long as you don't have to play Rupert,” Willow yawned. “I don't think I'd like you near as much as a villain. Come on,” she added with just a bit of a pout in her voice, “I'm tired. Let's get some sleep.”
Giles hesitated another moment, stepped towards the bed and then hesitated again. “I suppose, if I could just get one of those quilts and a couple of pillows...” he began half-heartedly.
Willow laughed and patted the space next to her on the bed. At his mildly horrified look she opened her eyes the rest of the way, sat up, and laughed even harder. “I'll try to behave myself,” she teased, smiling and yawning again.
“What? Oh, right, of course. How silly of me,” Giles babbled sheepishly. He stretched out on the bed next to Willow, near enough to feel the heat of her body but not the softness of her flesh. There were plenty of quilts and pillows without anyone having to share. And if either of the two weary travelers harbored any hopes that they might share anyway, certainly neither was bold enough to suggest it.
Although in Willow's case, Giles realized, it might not be so much a case of boldness as in simply not perceiving any possible threat of romantic advances. Sighing happily, she lay back against the Archangel's silken sheets, seeming totally at ease and ready for a trip to dreamland. In moments she was fast asleep.
She trusted him that much. A fact which made him feel both deeply happy and strangely calm. Her trust made him feel safe with her and with a set of boundaries which were established and understood so well that they could pass the night in a single (very large) bed without the need for any apprehension of crossed signals. Because he was not Rupert to her, he was Giles.
And so, they slept. And as they slept, the Archangel Michael returned to them and kept watch over them the whole long night. And the evening of their last day in Sunnydale gave way to the morning of their first day in Vega.
Chapter 5: Tea and Irony
“Good morning,” Michael said cordially, almost warmly and yet with the same solid, marble-cool gravity that underlay all of his pronouncements. It was some subtle combination of the tenor of his voice and his ominously steady gaze. He spoke with all the authority and all the sadness of millions of years of living. He spoke like the Angel of the Lord.
Giles sighed with disappointment that it hadn't all been just a bad dream after all. He glanced over at Willow who was still sleeping peacefully. Michael nodded. “Let her sleep,” he said quietly, in a tone that indicated agreement rather than suggestion. At Giles' puzzled frown the Archangel clarified, “No, Rupert, I cannot read your mind. I just have a lot of experience with people.”
“Indeed,” said Giles stiffly as he took the liberty of putting the kettle on for more coffee, and probably not the 'Gold Blend'. “But mostly experience killing people, if you are who you say you are. Been opening any seals lately, 'Michael'? Because if you don't mind my saying so, from what I've seen and heard so far, this whole world looks rather postapocalyptic to me.”
Michael favored him with a calm serious expression too flat to be a called smile and too untroubled to be called a frown. “For a given value of 'apocalypse',” he conceded more or less affably. “But as I told you last night, the devastation of the Extinction War was caused by my brother Gabriel and his legions of lower angels.”
“Ah yes, 'lower angels',” Giles rejoined, his cordial tone perhaps a trifle less convincing than the Archangel's, with a bit of anger and irony showing through. “I suppose that would be your word for demons, yes?”
“The two have often been confused,” Michael answered, just as calmly, just as cryptically. “But then, even some of my bothers and sisters have been called devils and demons in their time. I dare say I have. In my time.”
“But this time was all your evil twin's doing of course,” Giles scoffed a bit more openly.
“I would never speak of Gabriel in those terms,” Michael replied, calmly as ever, though maybe a bit more regretfully. “Evil is a matter of intention. He's wrong. That not the same thing.”
“I beg your pardon,” Giles rejoined sardonically, “but the two look rather similar from where I'm sitting.”
That got the first genuine smile of the day from Michael. A little, crooked smile. “Do they? I suppose they might. When it's your species being threatened with extinction.”
Giles smiled grimly himself. “Your very good at this sort of verbal fencing, aren't you, 'Michael'. Using your enemy's words against him. I believe you do have quite a lot of experience with people, whatever you are. I suppose you wear whatever persona fits best for dazzling the eyes of your current marks.”
“The kettle's boiling,” Michael said. “Do you want tea or coffee, Rupert Giles?”
Giles sighed and let the matter drop. His mysterious host was obviously through playing his guessing game for now, and no one to be forced to anything. The thing to do was to relax, to remain calm. Which meant it was no use making himself any more tense. “Earl Grey?” he requested hopefully.
“It's all the same Vega tea, from the Agritowers,” Michael explained without a hint of apology. “I have green or black.”
“Black,” Giles replied.
The angel nodded his approval and drew a tea ball, ancient looking earthen jar, and a can of loose tea from the depths of a cabinet and set to work getting it steeping. “Here,” he said at length, handing Giles a warm, steaming mug. It was as modern looking as the jar from which he filled it was primitive. Giles smiled grimly at the slogan, which he doubted was randomly chosen, either for Michael's collection or for him personally. 'COME THE RAPTURE, I'M STAYING TO FINISH MY COFFEE'. Which he supposed was just a bit better than, 'THANK YOU ALL FOR NOMINATING YOUR FAVORITE FANWORKS FOR THE 2016 HEADLINE AWARDS AT http://tonyhead-awards.livejournal.com/' if only because it fit better on a coffee mug.
Nonetheless, Giles took the cup gratefully, even despite the disquieting circumstances surrounding his not altogether voluntary stay in the other being's quarters. He sipped it readily too, and with much appreciation for its simple, rich, entirely tea-like flavor. After all, he reasoned, if this creature had wanted to harm him, it had already had ample opportunity. Instead, Michael poured himself a cup and gestured towards a couple of chairs. In which they sat. And drank tea together. In silence. For far too long.
When their cups were empty, Michael poured fresh ones. When those were empty, Giles felt forced to speak. “What are your plans for us?” He asked matter-of-factly.
Michael raised an eyebrow. “It was you, I believe, who called me,” he pointed out conversationally. But his tone became just a hair superior as he added, “My only plan was to save you from dying in the desert. Or being possessed. I've done that. And I've spoken with someone who can introduce you to the Senate, put the best case forward that you deserve to be classified something other than V-1.”
“One of you 'angels'?” Giles guessed. “Someone as interested in keeping an eye on us as you seem to be?”
“No,” Michael countered, finally seeming to get just a bit impatient, “Consul Thorn, the third most powerful person in Vega. She'll be here in an hour to take you under her protection to prevent your being automatically shot for entering this City uninvited in the dead of night. And I suggest that you don't take such a hostile tone with her. Your lucky to have found two such important friends upon arriving in this city out of no where. I wouldn't count on finding a third. The people of Vega are cautious. I'd say to a fault if it wasn't the only thing keeping them alive.”
Chapter 6: Seeing Double
Willow fought the urge to squirm. The room was silent, but the gaze of those assembled... It was a deafening glare. Like being shouted at by two dozen pairs of eyes. No, not exactly two dozen. Twenty-six. The history buff in Willow found relief in this little pocket of familiarity in an otherwise alien world. Twenty-six, as in two times thirteen. The Senate, harking back to ancient times, and not just the Roman ones.
Except that in the midst of them, seated in front of Willow and Giles, facing both the determined woman standing between them and the semicircle of Senators that ringed them on three sides was General Edward Risen, Lord of the City. And as everything and everyone around him clearly indicated, General Risen was no Senator. He was, to put the best possible spin on it, an executive of some kind. Which left twenty-five members of that familiarly named legislative body.
Willow swallowed a sigh but the lump in her throat failed to go down with it. Twenty-five Senators. It was a disappointingly meaningless, slightly roundish number. Probably chosen because, given the population and whatever else was relevant here, twenty wouldn't be enough and thirty would be too many.
But wait! There were two empty seats, one at the tip of either wing of the crescent, Left and Right. Two Consuls. Rebecca Thorn, who stood between them, ready to speak on their behalf was one.... And the other, the missing twenty-sixth Senator? Willow literally trembled. She could practically hear her knees knocking together. She looked to Giles for reassurance, but he looked pale and grim in a way she'd never seen before... except when he'd been fighting giant horrifying demons.
A sudden realization seemed to drain all of the air from the room. Willow feared she would faint. Giles was scared. Rupert Giles. Because at any moment this already quietly hostile crowd of extremely powerful people, would realize that the appearance of these mysterious strangers coincided perfectly with the disappearance of the twenty-sixth Senator, Consul David Whele. And so, Willow realized, her world spinning, Giles was terrified. Because he didn't know what to do!
If this really had been the continuation of that previous night's festivities that they kept joking about, the doppelganger in question would have no doubt appeared out of nowhere shouting something like, “Only a few hours left to vote in the 2016 Headline Awards! Go to http://tonyhead-awards.livejournal.com/ by midnight in the Westernmost US timezone to vote for your favorites!”
But then it happened. That exact thing, and yet, something completely different. And it was no joke. With the heavy, ominous clank of a great metal door, in strode David Whele, looking Giles up and down with stunned, yet somehow still smug, fascination. As if he'd never seen him before in his life.