The Garden - 1
~ UC Sunnydale, Friday, 10:30 p.m. ~
Willow sighed piteously, yet another Friday night with nothing to show for it. Buffy had insisted that she get out of bed and see the sights of campus, which meant being dragged to a frat party, losing Buffy, having a beer dropped on her, and retreating back to the safety of her dorm room after only fifteen minutes. “You know you’re all alone. Your friends, they aren’t home. Everybody’s gone…” Willow’s internal monologue left much to be desired.
She couldn’t help it; it wasn’t fun to be the dumpee. Just two weeks ago she was happily, okay, happily might be a bit too much, but she could say solidly, in a relationship, with the most wonderful werewolf ever, and now… well, now she was alone on a Friday night. She glanced around her lonely dorm room, and could swear even Mr. Gordo was feeling sorry for her. Buffy was right, she needed to get out, just not to a frat party. Throwing a stake, a cross, some holy water, and a blank journal into her backpack, Willow resolved to go to the campus gardens.
Walking down the white gravel path, Willow realized just how foolish it was wandering alone in a secluded area after dark in Sunnydale, but hey, carpe diem. Sure, last time she said that, she was nearly vamp chow, but on the other hand, if she hadn’t have done that, Buffy wouldn’t have saved her, and who knows how long it would have taken Buffy to admit to being the slayer if it weren’t for the whole life save-age thing, and high school would have been much duller if she hadn’t known Buffy, so yeah, carpe diem… Willow’s thoughts wandered like her path, until she saw her destination: the Tree of Wisdom. Okay, maybe not wisdom, but it was old and gnarled, and looked exactly like a tree of wisdom should look. Her parents used to take her to the campus gardens for wine and cheese picnics with their colleagues, and this was the tree she would always climb to get away from that creepy Allen kid her parents used to stick her with.
Testing a low branch, Willow smiled to see that it would still hold her up. Climbing gingerly, Willow soon found herself higher than she’d ever been as a little girl. Granted, it was barely ten feet off the ground, but it had seemed like a mile high when she was five. Carefully balancing between branches, she pulled out the journal and a pen and began illustrating her new spell book.
~ UC Sunnydale, Friday 11:00 p.m. ~
One of these days, Asher would say ‘no’ to the Council; this was ridiculous. Why should he care if the US military was currently hunting down vampires and torturing them? Only the American vampires would be daft enough to appeal to the Vampire Council to defend their human rights. They were vampires not humans, and it’s not as though this could be any worse than the Holy Inquisition. But no, the Americans insisted on drawing the Council’s attention to their plight, as if the Council would offer aid. They would have had better luck appealing to the courts of this country. Ha! The day the Supreme Court recognized vampires would be the day… well, the day he would finally make amends with Jean-Claude… like that would ever happen.
The American vampires had succeeded in drawing attention from the Council, but Asher’s job was hardly what the Americans had asked for. He was charged with the mission of uncovering the military’s technology for capturing the stray vampires and bringing it back to his sire, provided of course, that it wasn’t too tacky for the likes of Belle Morte. Asher gave a half hearted sigh as he silently followed behind his host, a vampire old enough to remember the Civil War, but not old enough to realize there had been more than one Civil War in the history of humankind.
“Shh! I hear a heartbeat.” The minion behind him whispered. Asher rolled his eyes. Any worthwhile vampire would have noticed that there were six heartbeats in their vicinity. Five of them were in the process of making a ring around them, and one was up in a tree. “I think it’s coming from there.” The minion pointed just right of the tree where the loudest heartbeat was coming from.
‘As you look into the trees, you can look but can not see.’ Asher mused. He looked up at the large tree where the heartbeat was coming from. High up in the branches, there sat a young woman, apparently reading. The nearly full moon reflected off her pale skin, and Asher was surprised his companions had not caught sight of the girl yet. Of course, they had yet to detect the ambush that was closing in on them as well.
“Those bushes.” Asher spoke, pointing towards where the leader of the ambush was hidden. As his host and the minion turned towards the rustling bush, Asher used the distraction to fly up into the sky, floating silently to the girl in the tree. Coming up behind her, he wrapped his hand around her mouth to prevent her from screaming out.
“Shh, my lovely, your heart beats too fast. It is important that you do not make a noise. You see, below you, there is about to be a fight, and I would hate for you to get caught up in a war that is not your own.” Asher’s voice went right to Willow’s spine, sending eerily pleasant shivers down her back.
Willow could feel her pounding heart slow at the calm whisper, but she still felt like panicking. The man- no, vampire- had wrapped one arm around her torso, holding her arms tightly so she could not reach her bag. “Don’t look down, don’t look down.” Willow whispered to herself suddenly realizing that there were no possible branches for this vampire to be standing on.
“You can look down all you want, just make no noise.” Asher answered, though her sentence had barely been louder than a breath. As the two stayed frozen in the trees, there was a large yelp, and suddenly the noise of five guns going off at once. Peering down through the branches, Willow saw blue lightening strike two men standing directly below her tree. The men collapsed and were quickly swarmed by more men, wearing ski masks and army uniforms. One of the fallen men tried to stand, and Willow could see the shadowy ridges of a vampire, before he was quickly hit with another bolt of lightening.
“Where’d the third go?!” One of the commandos shouted.
“He’s not on our radar. He must have run away.” Another one answered.
“Our perimeter was set. He couldn’t have gotten away.” The first commando frowned, scanning the ground around him. “It just makes no sense. Why were three of them together if there’s not even a trace of bait in the area?”
A third commando interrupted. “Well, he’s not here now, and these two are feisty. Let’s just bring these in and try to find the other later.” That seemed to pass for an order, since all of the commandos reacted. Two men carried each of the vampires and the remaining man carefully swept through the brush, holding a heat sensor in front of him as they went.
Asher waited until the heartbeats of the commandos could no longer be heard, then slowly pulled away his hand. Willow took a big gulp of breath to scream, and Asher immediately replaced his hand. “Tsk, tsk. One comes to the gardens at night to be alone. Why waste that by drawing attention to yourself? You would have to leave your perch then and abandon your lovely drawing.” Asher looked over her shoulder. “That is very good, but the flowers seem to tease you. You draw them as though they were in sunlight, but they are hidden in shadows now.” Feeling her heartbeat slow, Asher once again pulled his hand away. “I will not hurt you as long as you behave reasonably.”
“I know what you are.” Willow hissed.
“I know what you are too, ma petite, but I do not know who you are, nor do you know who I am.” Asher answered with a smirk. He had found quite a pretty little kitten here stuck up the tree.
“Well, maybe I don’t want to know who you are.” Willow retorted. In her head she could tell that it was a weak comeback, but now that she had said it, there was no way to take it back. How could this vampire unsettle her so much? After all her patrols with Buffy, she thought she’d gotten better at the snappy comebacks.
“Maybe I want to know who you are.” Asher smiled. “What is a beautiful woman doing in a tree, when there are so many people elsewhere? I passed several parties on my way here. Everybody’s there, but you don’t seem to care. So why are you here, in the garden?”
Carefully, Willow reached her hand down the branch, hoping to get to her backpack and the cross inside. “Your skin is so pale, your figure so delicate, surely if you were in search of companionship, it would have been easy for you to find a boy.” Asher admired the girl, catching her sly movements out of the corner of his eye. “No, you came here seeking solitude, did you not? You want me to leave then?” His voice was playing havoc with her nerves.
“Yes, I want you to leave. You should go. Right now.” Willow frowned. Buffy was going to kill her if this vampire didn’t get her first. Just a few more inches, and her fingers would reach the backpack. Would it be too late?
“And if I were to leave what would you do? Stay up in this tree and draw some more? These paths are hardly safe at night, but then you know that.” Asher smiled knowingly, seeing her pull something from her backpack.
“Aah!” Willow yelped, swinging the cross at the vampire. He flinched back, but nothing happened. Well, nothing happened except for Willow losing her balance and falling out of the tree.
Asher followed her down to the ground, looking at the heap of Willow. He could hear her heart furiously pounding, and could not smell any blood beyond a few scrapes, so he knew she was okay, but still it was disturbing. She had hit him with a cross, and nothing happened. “Excuse me, mademoiselle, but are you alright?”
“I hit you with a cross! You should be all fizzle by now! I don’t get it. It’s not like the cross is defective; Giles’ just used this one last week.” Willow whimpered.
“Oui, I too am surprised, but I wonder. You are not Catholic, eh?”
“Me? Catholic? Little Willow Rosenberg? My grandparents would turn in their graves if they thought I wasn’t Jewish anymore.” Willow’s harsh laugh got cut off by a weak, “Ow.”
“Ah, so you do not have the faith to back up the symbol. I guess that is just as well. Are you well? That was quite a fall.” Asher asked, concerned that this girl had not gotten up yet.
“What is with you? Being caught alone, in this garden, by a vampire, unable to run away, it’s like this night has turned into my worst phobia. And yet, here you are asking if I’m okay? Why aren’t you biting me?” Willow asked, sounding angry, but Asher could hear the fear in her words.
“I do not need to feed now, especially on such unwilling prey.” Asher answered honestly. “However, we do need to get you away from here because I do not think the younger ones have such control, so near a Hellmouth. Can you stand?”
Willow sighed with relief. What were the odds, to be caught by a vampire that had already eaten? Okay, maybe that wasn’t the best direction for her thoughts to take. She tried to stand, but found that she could put no weight on her left leg. In fact, now that she was thinking normally, all she could think of was the pain from her left side. “Ow. Ow, ow, ow.”
“I take it that is a no.”
“Maybe it’s sprained and I can walk it off?” Willow said, more to encourage herself than to answer the awfully nice vampire in front of her.
“Let me see.” Asher knelt in front of her, and carefully felt along her ankle and then a short ways up her leg, until Willow yelped in extreme pain. “It appears to be a broken bone. I do not recommend you trying to walk it off.” Asher answered abruptly. “I will get your backpack, and then we shall go to someplace safe.”
Willow watched her captor, companion, random stranger, whatever float back up to the tree branches. He was a complete mystery. Even getting a good look at him, she had not gotten a good look at him. The shadows seemed to move with him, covering up his face, sheltering his body. The only part of him that she could truly make out was the long, silky, blonde hair. Only supermodels had hair like that; maybe he was a model, like from the cover of a romance novel? No, it was quite clear he was a vampire. He had as much as admitted it to her, but he acted like no vampire she had ever met. His voice held gentle concern, and yet there was some underlying sense of lifetimes of angst and bitterness. He sounded like Angel, the more she thought about it. Maybe he had a soul too? He was certainly unique among the vampires she had met; after all, she had never seen them fly before. Goddess, Buffy was going to hate the day she had to fight a flying vampire; it was completely an unfair advantage.
Asher studied the girl studying him as he gently alighted with her backpack in tow. “Here, wrap an arm around my neck.” Asher instructed gently, bending down to pick her up. Willow soon found herself in his very strong arms; she couldn’t help but blush. “Where are we going?” He asked.
Willow thought carefully. There was no guarantee that Buffy would be home. Giles on the other hand was always home. She gave the vampire Giles’ address, hoping the watcher wouldn’t mind.
“That is very good, but I do not know where that address is. Could you please give me directions?” Asher smiled curiously.
Willow knew there had to be something up, just from the knowing smirk on the vampire’s face, but she was helpless in the gardens. At least the road to Giles’ house was well lit. Willow directed Asher to the main path from the gardens to the street leading away from campus. “So new in town, eh?” She asked. “What brings you to the Hellmouth?”
“Ah yes, the Hellmouth, a crazy man’s utopia. I am afraid I am not allowed to explain my presence here.” Asher once again cursed the Council in his head.
“Let me guess, you want to end the world, and the one relic that you need is buried in a tomb somewhere in one of our many scenic graveyards.” Willow groaned. No wonder he was not interested in her neck. He was just another megalomaniac.
“Not quite.” Asher couldn’t help but smile at the girl. “Tell me, is everyone here so casual about my kind?”
“If you tell me why you’re here, I’ll answer your question.” Willow bargained, even though technically she was in no position to argue, with a broken leg, in the middle of nowhere, well after dark.
“I am here because my sire has heard news of recent occurrences here, and she would like to have them investigated.”
“Ah, a spy, or rather a minion.”
“Be careful girl, I am no minion. I am a master in my own right.” Asher answered. “I have seen and done things you haven’t even dreamed about.”
“Okay, fine you’re a master. But, you’re still new to the area. If you’re lost no one can show ya…ow.” Willow’s taunt was cut short as Asher shifted her weight, “accidentally” bumping her leg.
“But I do have someone to show me around. I have you.” He replied, letting the moonlight flash off his fangs for effect.
“Eep, gee, well it sure was nice to know ya, but I just remembered I’m not supposed to speak to strangers...” Willow looked up at Asher, feeling fairly queasy. Maybe this was not such a nice vampire.
“Relax Mademoiselle Rosenberg. I already said I would bring you to safety, and I rarely go back on my word.”
“Rarely?” Willow asked skeptically.
“When you get to be my age, you learn that absolute statements are the same as lies. Now, you have not answered my question.”
“Oh, Elm Street, we turn left here.” Willow looked out at the street sign happily. They were within a few blocks now. “Um, what was your question?”
“The people in this town, are they all as knowledgeable as you?”
“If I say no, do you swear not to go on a murderous rampage on all the unsuspecting ignorant people?” Willow asked feeling a little dizzy. Her leg hurt so much it was hard to keep focused on the gorgeous hunk of …. Yikes, that train of thought needed to get off the tracks quickly.
“I already told you, I do not feed off of the unwilling.” Asher answered.
“You find that many willing?” Willow’s eyes widened as the thoughts swirled through her head.
“Oui, there are many women who find me irresistible.” Asher wisely kept quiet about the need for enthralling his pommes de sang first.
“And humble too, I suppose.” Willow commented wryly. “Most of the town is ignorant that they are living on the Hellmouth, and all that it entails. It was just hard for me not to notice when my good friend became a vampire a few years ago.” Willow was happy with that answer. It wasn’t a lie; it just wasn’t the complete truth. Buffy’s secret identity was safe with her.
“I would think the rest of the town would notice.”
“You’d be surprised what people are willing to risk. Only poor boys take chances that smart boys do without. This is perhaps the cheapest housing in Southern California. There are a lot of people willing to move here without questioning the sticker price, just to be close to L.A.”
“Ah, I see. And this Monsieur Giles that we are going to see, is he ignorant?”
“No. He’s a librarian.” Willow answered cheekily. “It’s that house up on the left.” Willow was surprised by how fast they had gotten to Giles’ house, but she guessed vampiric strength and speed had its advantages.
Asher stepped up to the door and let Willow knock since he had his arms full. He kept her cradled close to his body, enjoying the scents of the woman in his arms. He could feel her flowers as they wrapped around the heady aroma of her shampoo combined with the fresh air of the garden.
They watched as a light went on in the bedroom. The trail of lights flickering on continued down the stairwell, to the front hallway, where the door was opened just a crack. “Who is it?” Giles called out gruffly.
“Please monsieur, are you Monsieur Giles?” Asher asked politely.
“I asked first.” Giles answered “And if you don’t identify yourself, I demand that you leave.”
“No! Wait, Giles!” Willow called out, as he began closing the door.
“Willow?” He asked tiredly.
“Oui. I need a place to set Mademoiselle Rosenberg down.” Asher added quickly. There was a brief pause as Giles closed the door. They could hear the chain slide in the lock, and the door opened fully.
“Good heavens, Willow! What happened?” The librarian, barely awake, quickly noticed the scrapes and bruises along Willow’s left side, as well as the leg that was swelling considerably.
“It’s a long story.” She frowned.
“She fell out of a tree.” Asher replied quickly.
“Okay, not so long of a story.” Willow sighed, grimacing as pain shot up her leg again. “Can I use your first aid kit?”
“Yes, Of course. You can find it all inside.” Giles held the door open for the pair, but they stayed outside. “Oh good lord, surely you don’t mean…” Giles wiped his eyes, hoping that when he opened them, the pair would no longer be stuck at the threshold. “Willow, is he a…”
“Yes, I think so. But he’s nice like Angel.” Giles shuddered at Willow’s reply. It was only seeing Willow in such pain that overcame Giles’ need to wrestle with his pride enough to keep the door open. He was not going to let another vampire ruin his life like that. “No you aren’t losing your mind.” Willow answered the question Giles’ hadn’t yet asked. “He carried me all the way from campus, and didn’t once try to nibble. I think he’s safe.” She caught Giles’ nervous glance at her collar.
“Please, sir, if you do not want to invite me in, I understand. However, I would request you provide transportation for us to the nearest medical facility. I believe her leg is broken.”
“Very well, let me grab my keys.” Giles mumbled, turning back into his house. The watcher ran back up into his room and quickly got dressed, being sure to pack extra stakes. He helped them into the backseat of his little car so that Willow would have space to stretch out a bit. “So, what is your name and how did you meet Willow?” Giles figured he could use the driving time to get some questions answered. He nervously glanced in the rearview mirror, disturbed not to see the man sitting behind him.
“My name is Asher. I did not intend to meet Mademoiselle Rosenberg.” The vampire began.
“He was just in the garden at the same time I was.” Willow cut in, wanting to stand up for the vampire.
“Ah, I see. You went to the gardens after dark. How delightful. And when did you develop a death wish? Nevermind, don’t answer that; I don’t think I want to know.” They fell into an uneasy silence for a few moments, when Giles finally sighed loudly. “I hate to sound terribly rude, but Mr. Asher, would you mind talking for the duration of this trip? It would let my mind rest easier to know your mouth was occupied.”
“Do you frequently make such requests of my kind?” Asher asked, amused at the audacity of this Brit. “It is rather bold of you, but under the circumstances, I can understand. Very well then, where do I start this monologue?” Asher sighed.
“Um, how about you tell us why you’re in Sunnydale?” Willow asked through her gritted teeth. The leg just seemed to be getting more and more painful as the adrenaline left her system.
“Ah, you are indeed an inquisitive girl. Stay that way; it will do you more good than harm.” Asher brushed a stray strand of hair from Willow’s forehead. “As I started telling Ms. Rosenberg earlier, I have come to observe a local military group’s activity in the area.” Asher glanced out the window to see signs to the hospital, so he knew they were close. “I should probably not be saying this to you. I have no way of knowing that you are not tied to that group, I only doubt that since Mademoiselle Rosenberg seemed an unintentional witness for tonight’s demonstration.”
“Willow, is that why your leg is broken?” Giles asked nervously. Buffy had mentioned sighting commandos a few times, but they had no idea as to the group’s intentions. “What did the commandos do?”
“Um, yes, no? I don’t know.” Willow frowned in concentration.
“The men did not attack Willow, but they did attack the two companions I had been traveling with.” Asher answered.
“And your companions?” Giles raised a brow in speculation.
“I barely knew them. They were assigned to show me around town, but they were quite inept. They couldn’t lead you to yourself if you gave them a map. I am not surprised they were captured. I was not at all concerned to be relieved of their company, especially with the prospect of such a lovely native available to provide directions. Unfortunately, I startled Ms. Rosenberg when I approached her with my proposition and she fell from her perch in the tree.”
“So you expect me to believe that you simply wanted to ask Willow for directions? That is hard to believe.”
“Believe what you will, I had no further intentions of harm. In fact, I still would appreciate her guidance for this town. She seems to be quite comfortable with the nightlife in the area.” Asher replied smugly.
“I am afraid you are mistaken on that point.” Giles answered coolly, pulling into a parking space near the ER entrance.
“Then perhaps you could assist me?” Asher asked. “You seem to be thoughtful, and I sense the militia men are a concern for you as well, although I do not see why a librarian should concern himself with such matters.”
“Please get out of my car.” Giles instructed bitterly. He was not about to let another vampire try to dictate his life. He was a Watcher; Watchers did not make deals with the undead. If he had learned one thing from the Angel experience, it was that the undead were not to be trusted no matter what their original intentions.
“Of course, this is the hospital.” Asher got out, and quickly picked up Willow, not quite ready to part with their company yet. He carried her inside, and stayed with them until Willow had been brought to a private room. “Unfortunately, dawn will be here shortly so I must take my leave. I was serious, Monsieur Giles. I sense that you are as curious about the activities in this town as I am. We could share information.”
“I shall consider it, but I highly doubt that will be the case.” Giles answered brusquely. His icy demeanor however was undercut by an enormous yawn.
“Best of luck, mademoiselle; I wish you quick healing.”
“Thank you, Asher.” Willow waved goodbye to the vampire as he disappeared around the corner. Giles’ yawn was contagious, and soon Willow felt very tired. “He seemed like a nice guy.” She said tiredly.
“Willow, he is a vampire.” Giles hissed at her, nervously glancing at the nurses and doctors, walking past them without a second glance.
“Well, yeah, there’s that.” She frowned, fiddling with the corner of her flimsy hospital gown. “But he may not be that bad. You should look him up in your books, since you know his name and all.”
“We only know the name he gave us; there is no guarantee that is his real name.” Giles answered, not wanting to admit Willow was right. His gut instinct was telling him that Asher could be trusted, but his mind was wary of his instincts.
“Well, I suppose, but…” Willow’s thought was cut off as her doctor approached with the x-rays. Four hours later, Willow and Giles pulled into his driveway. They had given up speaking when their yawns interrupted every other word. Carefully, Giles helped Willow with her crutches to his living room sofa where she promptly fell asleep.