Apocalypse, Again Chapter 2
"Well, here goes nothing." Van Helsing made a face at Jacob as he knocked on Buffy's door at 8:00 that evening. He had hoped that someone would have shown up at his door to let him know the score; too bad he had to be the one to do the asking - it would put his authority on shaky ground.
"What will you do if they turn you down?" Jacob asked as he set his heavy duffel bag on the floor beside the door.
"Go anyway. You know that." Van Helsing knocked again. "But you won't be coming with me."
"I most certainly will." The friar squared his shoulders and glared. "Or do you think me such a liability? Do I get in your way? Perhaps I should stay behind all the time."
Van Helsing flinched. He seemed to be infected with a nasty case of foot-in-mouth disease these last few days. God forbid that he should drive off his only friend. "That wasn't what I meant. If these people won't come with us, there's no reason for both of us to die. The Order will need you more than ever."
"If you die, then that means the battle will continue. And the Warlocks will fight. And the end of the world will come. And I will bloody well die anyway. So I might as well do what I can at your side. Right?"
Smiling grimly, Van Helsing capitulated. "Right." He raised his hand to knock again just as the door opened, and he had to pull back quickly to avoid rapping Dawn on the forehead. "Sorry."
"Come on in. Giles! They're here." She stepped away from the door and gestured for them to enter before heading back to her room, a door leading from the left side of the main suite.
Giles walked into the main room from the right, carrying an overnight bag. Van Helsing glanced at it in relief before turning his attention back to the Englishman, who shook his head.
"This doesn't mean anything, yet. There are a few things that must be cleared up before we get on that plane."
Van Helsing was beginning to think that this entire operation was a mistake. He wasn't used to working with others, especially others who had their own separate chain of command and their own agenda. He set his own bag on the floor. "And what exactly must we clear up?"
"I did some checking on you. And what I found, was, at the very least, interesting." Giles removed his glasses and started to polish them, giving Van Helsing a penetrating look as he did so.
"And are you going to tell me what it was that you found so interesting?" Van Helsing knew that sarcasm wouldn't really help, but he couldn't seem to stop himself. He could hear Jacob muttering in disgust behind him. He ignored it.
"The Council have checked their records and found tales of a Hunter known as Van Helsing as far back as the late 1800s. Can you explain?"
"I can, I suppose. But I don't really see why I should have to." Better to have the showdown now, while he still had time to work out another plan should it become necessary.
"If there is nothing underhanded about the situation, then w-why do you hesitate to tell me?" Giles wasn't about to back off.
"There is nothing underhanded, but the information is private and personal." Now he would see if this Watcher would be willing to except his command.
"The tales all assure us that the Hunter fought against evil. That he was a man of honor. Without asking for any details, without demanding explanation, will you at least tell me if this person in the recorded stories has always been you?"
Van Helsing supposed he could compromise at least that far. "Yes." No details, no explanations, as requested.
Giles grinned in a surprisingly youthful manner. "I suppose I asked for that." He walked over to the door that Dawn had disappeared through. "Buffy, are you ready? We're leaving."
He had barely finished speaking when another door on the far side of the suite opened and disgorged Willow and Xander, overnight bags in hand. The young man was still scowling, an interesting counterpoint to Willow's open smile as she caught sight of Van Helsing. He had time to smile back before Buffy and Dawn erupted from their room, both carrying rather large suitcases, which they set on the floor beside Jacob's bag.
Dawn grinned. "I guess that means we're heading home?"
Buffy looked at her in concern. "L.A. is still 'home'? Dawn..."
"Oh, come on, Buffy. You know what I mean. We lived in California for what - 20 years? And we've only been here for a year. Of course I still call L.A. home. And I will for quite a while yet. Quit with the mother hen."
Buffy grimaced. "Sorry, sis. I guess I'm still in worry mode. I'll get over it. I promise." Then she grinned. "Someday."
Dawn rolled her eyes as the others in the room chuckled. Grabbing her suitcase again, she headed for the door. "After such a big rush, isn't anyone else coming?"
The others obediently reached for their bags and followed her out the door.
* * * * *
"So, do you get to ride in this puppy every time you go somewhere?" Xander was impressed at his first sight of their conveyance, in spite of his desire to remain aloof. The plane was impressive. A corporate jet, it looked sleek and fast.
"Unfortunately, no. I usually end up on trains. Once even a bus." Van Helsing shrugged. "My superiors keep a tight hold on the purse strings. But, since I can't very well take a train across the ocean, and getting the equipment we're carrying through the security scanners of a commercial airline would be impossible, they've allowed the use of the jet. Consider yourself lucky."
"Oh, I do."
Van Helsing couldn't decide whether Xander was being snide or not, so he let the comment slide. He was beginning to think that Xander was the kind of person who hid his true self behind sarcasm and derisive comments. Perhaps it would be best to give him the benefit of the doubt, at least where speech was concerned. He didn't want to waste his time trying to make the boy learn manners. All he really needed on this assignment was obedience. And if he could get that by allowing a little verbal insubordination, then he was willing to put up with Xander's mouth. For a while. Not too long. He didn't think he would be able to stop himself from slapping the loudmouth down, hard, if he kept it up permanently.
Maybe a talk with Willow would clear up a few things about Xander. Yeah. That was a good thought. He had no idea that his expression was completely transparent as he gazed at the redheaded witch; at least it was to his old friend, who had been keeping a judicious eye on him.
Jacob wasn't sure whether to be happy about Van Helsing's obvious attraction, or worried about him becoming distracted at a critical moment. It had been much too long since the Hunter had allowed himself more than minimal human contact, but the timing wasn't exactly great. Deciding to shelve the decision for lack of hard data, he winced at his inadvertent mental word-choice as he followed the others up the steps to the jet's open door.
Van Helsing dumped his bag in the rearmost seat of the passenger compartment. He hoped that the others would prefer seats a little farther forward. It was going to be interesting, to say the least, to try to cope with the proximity of others in such a confined space. The jet was designed to carry eighteen, nine on each side of the fuselage in banks of two, with a spare at the bow; they were seven, including him, and while that left them each a set of seats of their own, it was still fairly close quarters for two groups of strangers. If they even chose to use the extra space: Buffy and Dawn were sitting together in the left foremost set. Well, once they took off the passengers could rearrange themselves as they liked. He was planning on getting some sleep.
Or he had been, until he realized that Willow had placed her bag in the set of seats beside his. She sat down and firmly buckled her seatbelt, and only when she was completely settled did she even look at him; a quick glance out of the corner of her eye.
He smiled back. If he'd had to choose which one of them to have close for the full length of the trip, she was the one he'd've picked. Nice that she seemed to feel the same way. The last person he'd felt this close to this quickly had been Anna Valerious - and that had been over a hundred years ago. He sobered. And it hadn't ended well. At all. Her death at his own hands, accidental though it was, had been devastating.
He turned away with a sigh. Maybe, after they were finished with this assignment, he could show some interest. Maybe. Would it be fair to Willow to even try to tie her to a man whose job, whose life, could take him from her at any moment? Or was he getting completely ahead of himself? Was her interest simply friendship? Or was it more? And how was he to know without making a move? His head started to ache, and he decided, like Jacob, to shelve the question for later. He didn't notice Willow's expression slide first into hurt, then into speculation as he turned away.
Willow was determined to get to know him better. She hadn't felt so attracted to anyone in a long time. And since she and Kennedy had parted ways a couple of months ago, she was feeling simultaneously lonely and completely free.
By the time the pilot came on and announced that the jet was in line for takeoff, they had arranged themselves to allow a little more space. Buffy remained in her portside front seat, but Dawn had moved across the aisle to the starboard set. Giles sat behind Buffy, with Xander behind Dawn. Jacob had elected to sit behind Xander, and Willow was behind him, across from Van Helsing, who sat in the rearmost portside seat.
That left the bank in front of Van Helsing empty, which he liked. He didn't have to worry about someone leaning the seat back into his face. Being tall could be a disadvantage sometimes, and public transport emphasized the difficulties; at least this jet had some excellent legroom in it. He stretched out and closed his eyes. He never could get used to the feeling of the takeoff and landing; it gave him the creeps every time, knowing that they were at the mercy of the power of the engines. Having lived for so long before the technological revolution came about, he still tended to distrust it slightly. He didn't think he'd ever be completely comfortable with the mechanization of society. Though he used the equipment, he still preferred straight fighting; or simpler machines, anyway. The modern technology tended to be fairly fragile - or at least it was in his hands. He did have to admit that he wasn't easy on his gear; he was always in too much of a hurry to use it to worry about how careful he was being. As far as he was concerned, if the equipment couldn't stand up to his treatment of it, then it wasn't any good to him. And he wasn't about to change his tune on that. It was one of the few bones of contention between him and Jacob. The friar thought he should be more careful with his equipment; Van Helsing thought the equipment was there to keep him alive, not the other way around.
"Okay, now that we're stuck on this thing for the next twelve hours, is there any plan to feed us?" Xander's complaint woke Van Helsing, and he realized, to his horror, that he'd actually fallen asleep during the takeoff and ascent. Maybe he was getting used to technology. The thought made him shudder a little. He much preferred relying on his own strength and ingenuity.
Van Helsing shook himself and stretched, then stood. "There's no staff on the plane, but there's a fully-stocked kitchenette forward. Knock yourself out."
Xander practically leaped to his feet. "Thank God. I'm starving. Had lunch on the plane heading to Rome, and haven't had any supper." He stopped for a moment and looked back at them. "What do you think happens to Jet Lag when you bounce from one side of the world to the other, then back again, without stopping?"
"I think it gets lost and can't catch up with you." Willow's dry rejoinder pulled a laugh from the rest of them, as they all began moving around the cabin, familiarizing themselves with the amenities.
Four hours later, they were all bored and exhausted. Even though they were heading west, and they would end up landing, by the clock, only about 3 hours after they took off, for them it was almost one in the morning and they were all ready to collapse. Van Helsing had refused to talk about the coming fight, saying that it was useless to do so: they didn't have the weapons or the information they needed to do any constructive planning. Both were waiting for them in Los Angeles, and there would be plenty of time once they arrived to familiarize themselves with the armaments and finalize the arrangements. In actuality, he simply didn't want to get into any hassles while in the close confines of the airplane.
"If you'll sit in alternating seats, they'll lay back almost all the way," he said, demonstrating on Buffy's aisle seat. When he leaned it back, it was three-quarters of the way into Giles' row. If Giles sat in the window seat, he could lean his back all the way into the row behind him. Granted, it would make it difficult for him to get out, but if he were asleep, it wouldn't matter much. It didn't take long for all seven of them to be sound asleep.
After a couple of hours, Willow woke suddenly. There was something strange... She realized that she could hear someone muttering. Not coherently, not as if conversing, or even Spelling, but more as if... Pulling herself up so she could see around, she realized that she didn't have far to look. The soft voice was coming from across the aisle. Van Helsing was having a dream. And not a nice one, from the sound of it. More like a nightmare. She slid out of her seat and crossed the aisle, to slip into the seat next to Van Helsing. Then she had to decide how to wake him. The one time she'd tried to wake Xander from a nightmare, she'd almost been rewarded with a bloody nose. They were only ten at the time, but she'd never forgotten it.
After a slight hesitation, she spoke quietly. "Van Helsing? Can you hear me? You need to wake up now."
She didn't realize that her voice, combined with her movement, had woken Jacob. He peered over the top of his seat at her. His first thought was to interfere; he knew what Van Helsing was capable of if he were startled too badly. But then he realized that Willow was completely aware of what she was doing; her watchful demeanor spoke volumes. Jacob relaxed and determined to go back to sleep. If Willow was sensitive enough to Van Helsing's aura that she automatically knew how to react to it, then there was nothing to worry about. He figured that his friend would be in good hands with the redheaded witch. Well, God alone knew what the Order was going to say, but as far as Jacob was concerned, they had his blessing. For what it was worth.
"Van Helsing? You need to wake up." The gentle voice gradually bored through the fog in his mind. Van Helsing tensed. Something was wrong. He was trapped. He couldn't move, or speak, or even think. He was a prisoner. And he knew that it wasn't real. But he could still feel it. The helplessness. The terror. Was it a memory, or simply a nightmare born of his own fears? He didn't know. All he knew was that he wanted out. He had to get out. Then the voice came again. Gentle, serene, but laced through with Power. He latched onto it as a drowning man grabs a lifebelt, following it up through the haze. He opened his eyes.
"Hey." Willow was smiling at him.
He blinked a couple of times to bring her into focus. "Hey, yourself," he responded creakily, before clearing his throat. "What?"
"You were having a nightmare," she said. "And a pretty world-class one, from the sound of it."
He grimaced. "Damn. Was I yelling?" He gave a quick look around the cabin, where everyone else seemed to be sleeping peacefully. "I guess not."
"No. You weren't yelling. Whispering quietly. But it sounded horrible."
Cocking his head, he looked at her in confusion. "It did? I don't remember."
"Nothing? You don't remember anything about it?" She reached out and smoothed the tumbled hair from his forehead.
"No." He shrugged. "I seldom do. No details, anyway. Just a feeling of helplessness." Their eyes met: searching, unsure, but that very unsureness bred the surety that something was happening between them. Something that might lead to a future, if they survived the next day.
Xander muttered in his sleep, breaking the connection. Willow blushed pink, and Van Helsing smiled slightly sheepishly. The last thing they needed was to allow personal feelings to take over. They had a job to do; plenty of time after that to explore the relationship that was building. Right now, he had to concentrate exclusively on the job. Yeah, right, his id responded sarcastically. Like there'll be time afterwards. We're probably all going to die.
By the time the pilot came on the overhead a few hours later, to announce that they were nearing Los Angeles, he was almost wishing they would - and right now. A quick landing in Philadelphia to refuel had awakened the others, and they'd not had any desire to go back to sleep. Which meant he'd been stuck on a plane with a bunch of rambunctious twenty-somethings who had too little to do and a difficult combination of too much energy and too much leftover exhaustion to cope with.
After a few minutes of watching Giles try to keep the peace, he'd dug a pack of cards from his emergency stash and handed it to Buffy with the suggestion that she either use them for their intended purpose or alternatively, gag Dawn and Xander with them. She'd grinned at him before bearing the cards triumphantly towards the battle.
Van Helsing retreated with relief to his seat at the back, nodding for Jacob to join him. They'd spent the next few hours consulting with Rome on the situation, Jacob's new satellite phone actually proving to live up to its advertising. The bursts of hilarity from the front of the plane made him wince constantly, and he began to wish that the fight would take place as soon as they landed - he was ready to kill something right now. Jacob suggested a tranquilizer, causing Van Helsing to growl at him. The friar grinned, then sighed happily as the pilot announced their imminent return to earth. Even his equable temper was starting to feel the strain.
* * * * *
The hotel they entered late that evening wasn't exactly four-star, but it wasn't bad, either. Brigham's was a small hotel, having only about fifty rooms on 7 floors, but it had been in existence for over eighty years. The décor showed it. The lobby was full of couches, chairs and small end-tables, with some very odd feathery-ferny plantlike things arranged around them.
Everywhere they looked, the vivid colors made their tired eyes wince as the enamel surfaces reflected the planes of the Tiffany lamps to perfection. The furniture was a strange combination of angularity and sleekness, with inlaid mother-of-pearl and other completely unidentifiable components in the marquetry.
"Good grief." Of course, it would be Xander. But this time, the others chimed in as well.
"Whaaat?" From Dawn.
"Good heavens." Giles.
"Um." Willow's contribution didn't even make it into the classification of 'word'. She glanced quickly behind her, wondering if they'd somehow walked through a time-warp or something.
"I believe the fashion is known as 'Art Deco'," Jacob supplied helpfully.
Van Helsing gave him a baleful look. "What the hell was Rome thinking? This isn't exactly our style. We stand out like neon lights at a funeral home in this place."
"On the contrary. We're not attracting any attention, are we?"
Van Helsing looked around. Jacob was right. They weren't getting even a first look, let alone a second one from anyone in the lobby. "Okay. Tell me," he sighed.
"You haven't figured it out?"
Another malevolent look from Van Helsing.
"Oh, alright. It's owned by the Order. They use it whenever they need something low-profile done."
The others shook their heads. "Well, I guess we can stand it for one night," Buffy said. "Right now, all I want is a bed to go flat on. If it has a comfortable mattress and a soft pillow, I can put up with the frou-frous."
"Me, too." Dawn yawned in emphasis. "I want sleep, and I want it now."
Van Helsing headed over to the check-in counter. "We need seven rooms. Name of Van Helsing."
The man behind the counter swallowed, then quickly checked his list. "Yes, sir. Floor six is yours, sir. You won't be disturbed. The elevator is over there." He pointed with a slightly shaking hand to the far side of the lobby before passing a bunch of keys to Jacob.
Giles took note of the receptionist's nervousness. Wondering whether he should start watching out for treachery, he glanced over at Van Helsing. What he saw reassured him somewhat. While it was obvious that the Hunter wasn't happy with the man's fear, he didn't seem to think there was anything unusual in it. Perhaps the receptionist was simply afraid of Van Helsing on general principles. It would seem that a reputation wasn't always a comfortable thing to have to deal with. Especially one of being dangerous. Giles wondered for a moment what it would be like to inspire that sort of fear, simply by being, and decided that he wouldn't like it.
Jacob started towards the elevators, determined to get this motley group to a more private place. There was no telling what they'd get up to if they didn't get some rest. Even Van Helsing, with his seemingly inexhaustible stamina, was starting to look a little frayed around the edges. The Hunter didn't usually pay much attention to others' reactions to him, and his tight response to the receptionist's fear had been anomalous. Time for rest. A lot of it.
"Okay," he said as they crowded on to the lift. "Do you want to pick, or should we simply pass them out blind?"
"Are they all together?" Giles asked.
"Actually, I think they're the entire floor," Jacob confessed. "When he said we have the sixth floor, he meant it. It isn't a very big hotel."
"That's good," Van Helsing said through a yawn. "Just deal 'em out. We're all close enough to each other that it won't matter."
"Right you are." Jacob did a little surreptitious shuffling. "Giles, next to the elevator; Dawn, in the middle; Buffy at the back, next to the window; Xander across from her; then me, coming back; then Willow; and finally Van Helsing, across from the elevator. That puts the most vulnerable ones in the middle, with strong guards at both ends. Sound good?" His innocent expression dared everyone, even Xander, to take exception. No one did.
* * * * *
Less than an hour later, Van Helsing was awakened by someone moving across the room. He was reaching for the pistol on the bedside table when a whiff of strawberries reached his nostrils. Willow. No one else smelled quite like her. He had noticed over the years that his sense of smell was very acute; perhaps as a leftover from the werewolf bites. It was one side-effect he was usually happy to have kept. Gave him an advantage in identifying people.
She seemed to become aware that he was awake. "Hey."
"Hey, yourself," he responded quietly.
"I'm sorry, did I wake you?"
"Yeah, but it's okay. What is it? Something wrong? Can I do anything?" Becoming aware that he was starting to babble, Van Helsing shut his mouth firmly and pulled himself to a sitting position. After Xander's little visit before they went to bed, he wasn't sure he knew any more what was going on with her.
She walked the rest of the way over to the bed and perched on the edge. "I - I couldn't sleep."
"Are you worried about tomorrow?" Van Helsing reached out to take her hand, discovering it was icy cold. "You're freezing." He scooped her up and deposited her beside him at the head of the bed, then wrapped her in the comforter. After a short struggle with his better self, he succumbed to temptation and held her tightly. After all, he needed to get her warm. And body heat was the best way. Wasn't it? And if she preferred women, then there was nothing wrong with it. Right?
He felt her smile against his chest as she snuggled close.
"This is nice. Thanks."
For the first time in decades he felt his pulse speed up. It was a pleasant feeling. She was a pleasant feeling.
After a few minutes of comfort, Willow finally spoke quietly. "I am worried about tomorrow, yeah. Who wouldn't be? But there's more."
He gave her a slight squeeze. "What's that?" His voice was slightly hoarse.
She smiled in feminine delight. She was getting to him. Yay her. Time to up the ante, since he was too much a gentleman to 'take advantage'. Good thing she wasn't a gentleman - or even a lady, she snickered to herself. Not any more. She wasn't above using every advantage she had. And judging from his reactions, she was doing pretty well. It had been quite a while since she'd been interested in a man. Since Oz, actually. But there was something about Van Helsing that touched her; she hadn't really felt this way about anyone other than Tara. Oz had been her first love, a very sweet and giving love. Tara had been her everything. But Tara had died at the hands of an out-of-control multiple-murderer, and Willow had been devastated. Kennedy had been excitement, and learning to live again. But Kennedy's bad-girl persona had started to grate after a while, and they'd decided that they weren't right for each other. It had ended up being a relief to be able to walk away without a scene. And now...
She sat up, shrugging the comforter away, coincidentally allowing the strap of her nightgown to slip down her shoulder. His eyes followed the movement of the satin as if glued to the cloth, before he took a deep breath and tore his gaze away to focus on her face again as she began to speak.
"I saw Xander leave. He looked pretty happy with himself."
"He was." Van Helsing didn't really want to go down this road. It was painful enough to hold her and know he couldn't have her, but to talk about it was going to hurt even more.
"I guess he told you about me." She wasn't about to let him off the hook.
"He did." Maybe if he kept things short and not so sweet she'd quit confusing him.
"He doesn't know everything." She brushed his hair back from his forehead, as she'd done on the plane, and he closed his eyes against the feeling. "He never has."
He opened his eyes again, to look directly at her in confusion. "I don't - "
"I've learned a lot about myself in these last couple of years. I've learned that I can go crazy and try to end the world." His eyes widened. "I've learned that I can get past losing the one person I'd've given my life for a million times, get past the loss and finally start living again. And I've learned that what's inside a person is so much more important than what the external equipment is." She smiled. "Can you accept that about me?"
Van Helsing grabbed her and pulled her close. "Oh, yeah. I can. As long as the 'equipment' you're interested in right now is mine, of course."
She sat up and grinned. "I wouldn't be here if it weren't." She leaned in and kissed him gently. It didn't stay gentle for long.
* * * * *
A/N: If you like sex scenes, read Chapter 3. If you don't, you can skip it; Chapter 4 will pick up in the morning.