Apocalypse Aftermath - Chapter 2
Buffy opened the door and greeted Jacob with a quick hug and a quirky grin. After pointing him towards Willow, who was waiting on the edge of the couch, she headed into the kitchen to make some cappuccino. When Dawn had given her the machine for Christmas, she'd been terrified: In her opinion, Buffy and appliances didn't really mix. Fortunately, it came with a very complete set of instructions, and after six months of trying, the Slayer finally got it right - and had never looked back. She now considered herself to be the Cappuccino Queen of Roma.
Jacob sat beside Willow and gazed searchingly at her. He could see both the exhaustion and the fear and he hoped that he could alleviate at least the latter. Only time and rest would help the former.
Glancing across the room to where Buffy was humming a tune in the kitchen, he raised his voice so she could hear him as well. "I don't really have any news from the Order," he confessed. "But I can tell you that there haven't been any reports of his death."
Willow gulped a little, and he patted her hand. "I really think that if anything truly dire had happened, the news would have been circulated rather quickly. As little as the mundane world knows of him, the mystical underground is well aware of his existence. If he were dead, word would have reached the Order as quickly as a lightning bolt."
The Witch nodded as she picked up the steaming cup of cappuccino Buffy proudly set in front of her. "Gotcha." She shook herself as she tasted the brew. It was much stronger than the typical American cappuccino, but it really hit the spot. "So, we go with the idea that something has happened, but that whatever it is, he's still alive."
"And probably kicking, really hard," Buffy added firmly. "After knowing him for only a couple of days, even I can tell you that he's not the kind to just sit back when something goes wrong. He's out there somewhere, and all we need to do is find him."
"Right." Willow sighed. "I'm actually too tired to even come up with any ideas. The want: Find Gabriel. The plan?" She shrugged and looked helplessly at the two of them. "I'm tapped out on that."
Jacob and Buffy traded glances. Buffy nodded at him take over; she didn't really have any idea where to begin, either. The only thing she could think of was to go out and start beating the bushes, metaphorically speaking. But which bushes, and where? That was the question.
Jacob crawled back inside his head for a moment and rooted around in the area he referred to as the 'figure it out' lobe. "Okay," he started. "First, we know that Van Helsing left ten days ago, and hasn't been seen since."
"Second, we can assume that he is alive, since there have been no triumphantly circulated reports of his death."
"Yeah." Buffy only, this time.
"Third," and this was where even Jacob was starting to lose steam. "Third, he usually does send in at least one report, when he arrives in the area for the Hunt. Not always," he added hastily, "which is why there was no worry when they didn't hear from him, but often enough that in this case, I think we can make another assumption: that he never arrived in the North, where he was to go."
"Is that a safe assumption?" Willow asked nervously. "What if he disappeared as soon as he got there, before he had a chance to call in?"
Jacob shrugged. "Then there will be a slight delay in finding him, since Rome is only the starting point for us. We do need a place to start. I don't think it's a good idea to scatter our energies too much." After pondering her words for a moment, he added, "And if he'd been taken at the other end, I think someone would have noticed. It's not as if he were heading for a big city, where he could become lost in a crowd. Which is another reason, actually, to believe that he was taken here."
"Okay. I'll buy that," Willow said. "So, what do we do? We can't very well troop over to the train station and ask if anyone saw a man being kidnapped ten days ago, can we?" She stared at the others in despair. "Damn it."
Smiling at the mental picture that evoked, Jacob agreed. "No, we can't do that. But, Willow, believe me, he is alive. I think you'd know if he weren't."
She chewed on her lower lip. Goddess, she hoped so. She sincerely hoped so.
* * * * *
12 DAYS AGO
"Gabriel, hi!" Willow pressed the phone closer to her ear as if she could bring the man closer as well.
"Hullo, love." His voice was even warmer than the Rio sun that shone onto her patio. "I'm missing you."
"Two weeks," she said forlornly. "It's too long."
"Much too long. Any word yet, or do I need to take a trip to London and start rattling a few cages?"
Willow laughed. It would almost be worth it, if she could only be a fly on the wall to see the Council's reaction to an irritated Van Helsing. Too bad it wouldn't happen. "No, I don't think that's a good idea. They're already nervous about you."
"What do they have to be nervous about? I'm not going to do anything to them. At least I won't if they'll get off their asses -"
Giggling, Willow interrupted. "They have. I was going to call you later this evening. They've found someone to take over. He'll be coming soon."
"It's about bloody time. What took them so long? I thought this new Watcher's Council was supposed to be less stuffy than the last one."
"They're not stuffy, Gabriel, don't be unkind. They just wanted to make sure they replaced me with someone who had some magickal ability. My Power has come in handy too many times over the last year for them to want to send a Mundane."
"A what? I can get them wanting a Wiccan, or at least an Adept, but what exactly is a Mundane?"
Grinning, Willow explained. "A Mundane is someone without magical ability. A normal human."
He held the phone away to stare at it in befuddlement before returning it to his ear as he replied, "I thought that was a Muggle."
"Depends on your universe. To a Potterer, it's a Muggle. To a Xanthian, it's a Mundane."
After closing his eyes and wondering just how much of an education in modern customs he was letting himself in for, he spoke with a smile in his voice. "Thanks. I'm sure you'll lend me whatever those books are one day."
"With your love of fancy language," she teased, "You'll find they're irresistible."
"Um." He suddenly remembered why he called in the first place. For some reason, talking to his Witch always seemed to scatter his wits to the four corners of the earth. Her quicksilver mind could pull him down strange roads sometimes. "Ahem. Why I called. Aside from just wanting to talk to you, of course," he added hastily.
"Of course," was her solemn reply.
He could still hear the ghost of amusement in her tone, and was glad of it. He'd had so little practice with relationships that he was afraid sometimes that he was constantly making a hash of things. "I think I've found the perfect apartment. It's in a nice area, but not too fancy. And it's big enough for the two of us to spread out, but we won't be rattling around in it, either." He hesitated. "I put a down payment on it, and got the keys, but I haven't done a permanent sign on the lease until you see it. It takes both of our signatures to make it official."
"You're a wonder, you know that?" Willow sighed happily. She didn't think she'd ever been in a relationship where the other person was so considerate of her wants and likes. Even Tara, bless her heart, had tried many times to nudge Willow in a direction she thought was 'right'. Gabriel never seemed to do that.
There was a slightly confused but definitely gratified silence from the other end.
"Never mind," she said. "The important thing is that Grayson should be here in about a week, then I can show him the ropes over the next five days after that. How about 12 days from now?"
"Another two weeks? Hell." He stopped himself. He tended to take over any situation he was in, and he constantly had to remind himself that this wasn't a situation; this was a relationship. Willow had her duties, just as he had his. "Damn. Consider me sighing. You need to take whatever time you have to to get the guy trained, but you don't mind if I'm impatient to see you again, do you?"
"Not at all," she said happily. "I'm glad of it, because I unloaded all over the Council when I found out how long it was going to take. You should have heard them. If you could hear groveling in a voice, they were lower to the ground than lizards."
He chuckled. "So they should be. I can't figure out why it took them so long in the first place. It's not like Wiccans are as rare as cross-eyed Albino Siamese Twins."
That image stopped her mental train right in its tracks. "Oh, Goddess, now I'm going to be carrying that picture around with me all week," she gasped through her laughter.
"Good. Give you something to think about that reminds you of me."
"Everything reminds me of you," she said dryly. "I love you, you know that, right?"
"And I you, my Witch. Always. You're the first thing I think of in the morning, and the last thing I think of at night. I count the days until you arrive."
"Me too. I'll see you in 12 days and counting... From right.... Now. Bye." She hung up, sighing happily. Everything was working out perfectly.
* * * * *
"All right," Jacob said firmly as he cradled the warm cup of cappuccino in his hands. "The first thing we do is go check out the apartment he found. He did tell you about it, right?"
Willow nodded. "Yeah. It sounded great."
"Right, then." Jacob gulped the last of his cappuccino and stood. "Shall we head out?"
The women rose and, grabbing purses, headed for the door, with Buffy making sure she had at least one stake - just in case. It never hurt to have a little insurance handy. Jacob trailed them down to Buffy's car, and politely, but very firmly, took the keys from her hand. With a grin, he sat in the driver's seat as the Slayer and the Witch parked themselves in the passenger seat and the back seat, respectively.
Willow blessed him for doing the driving as they headed smoothly down the narrow streets, with not one close encounter to frighten her on the entire trip. Jacob pulled up in front of a building that somehow managed to combine modernity with classic lines.
"Wow, this is nice," she said as she clambered out of the car.
Buffy agreed. "It sure is!" Staring up at the building, the Slayer almost tripped as they arrived at the steps climbing to the entrance.
"You have no idea what he went through to find this place," Jacob grinned. "Every day, even the weekend, he checked out a car and simply drove. All over the city." He looked over at Willow. "He was obsessive, he really was. It had to be perfect."
She smiled back. For someone he cared about, Van Helsing was entirely capable of moving mountains.
"It had to be in a decent area; a good size but not too big for two busy people to handle; convenient to both your workplaces: The Council Offices and the Vatican; and it had to have a nice feeling to it." Shaking his head, he chuckled. "You have no idea how many places he turned down because they just 'didn't feel right'."
"I'm glad," Willow said simply. "Neither one of us would be happy in a place with a bad aura."
"Well, any aura this place has must be very good," Jacob assured her. "He walked in, looked around, and said he'd take it." He pulled the keys from his pocket and clicked open the lock.
Willow stepped through the door and smiled involuntarily, to Jacob's relief. Even though Van Helsing had said it was perfect, Jacob hadn't been sure. It was a fairly unusual design.
Buffy came in and whistled. "Sheesh. This is super. Imagine, Will, what you could do with it."
"I am," the Witch answered. "Believe me, I am." She looked around at the seemingly vast space. The apartment was completely open, nothing but a huge loft-like room with screens and shelves blocking out various areas. Sort of like a studio apartment on steroids, she thought fancifully. It was perfect. The only closed-in section she could see was across the back wall, where there were the necessary bathroom, a large walk-in closet, a room with what looked like washer and dryer hookups, and a huge pantry that opened off the kitchen area. She walked to the center of the open space and closed her eyes. The perfect shape of the room and the balanced arrangement of the minimal furniture sent a feeling of peace and stability through her.
"It's perfect," she said. She smiled through sudden tears. "It's absolutely perfect." The sound of a throat being cleared at the front door caused all three of them to spin around, but it was only the concierge, who was gazing at them soulfully.
"The Signorina likes the apartment?"
"She loves the apartment," Willow said happily. "Is there something I need to sign?"
"Indeed," the elderly lady replied. "If the Signorina would come this way, she may complete the paperwork. All fees have been paid, she may move in at any time."
"She's moving in today." Willow looked over at Buffy, who was nodding frantically, and Jacob, who was grinning.
They followed the concierge to her office, where Willow added her signature beside Van Helsing's and received a key of her own. The concierge bowed them out, sighing deeply at the romanticism of the situation: A lady, traveling halfway around the world to be with her man, what passionate heart could resist? The redhead came close to ruining the moment by giggling, but somehow managed to control herself until they made it back into the car, where they all collapsed in laughter.
"I really needed that," Willow gasped. "Goddess, does she always croon like a lovesick pigeon?"
Jacob caught his breath. "I think you're stuck with it. She sighed all over Van Helsing, too. He almost ran like a startled deer, but the apartment was too perfect to pass up. Ah, well, at least she's kind."
"Very kind." Willow sobered. "So, what now? Obviously no clues there."
"Well, at least we know that the concierge didn't have anything to do with his disappearance. What?" Buffy frowned at the other two as they turned to stare at her. "I can make a joke, can't I?"
"Y-yes, you can," Jacob stuttered. "But what frightens me is that we never even thought of that possibility."
"Oops." Willow nibbled thoughtfully on her lower lip. "We need to be a little more careful, I think."
The others agreed, and there was a momentary silence, broken by Jacob's tentative suggestion. "Perhaps I should enlist the assistance of the Knights of the Holy Order? After all, Van Helsing has been missing for ten days now."
"Exactly," Willow said sharply. "He's been missing for ten days, and you're telling me that the Order didn't notice?"
"Well, as I said, he has neglected to check in before. And he's run overtime before." For some reason, Jacob was feeling defensive about it. Perhaps, he thought unhappily, he was feeling guilty because even he hadn't noticed Van Helsing's disappearance.
Willow was silent, so Buffy took up the cudgels. "So he's skipped check-in time before, and been a week overdue before, both on the same mission?"
"Well, no, not that I'm aware of," Jacob confessed. "I just think those two things may be why it wasn't caught."
"Maybe. But I think we have to accept that he might have been sent into a trap of some kind."
"No. That isn't possible."
"Yes it is. Think about it, Jacob. Think. Van Helsing hooks up with a woman, and a Wiccan at that, and within two weeks he's sent off on a mission that he doesn't come back from. I'm not saying that's what happened. I'm saying that's what might have happened. We just need to be careful, that's all."
"Oh, damn," Jacob whispered miserably.
* * * * *
10 DAYS AGO
Van Helsing looked up from the telephone to see Bernardo, Cardinal Jannone's aide, signaling him from the doorway. He quickly terminated the conversation with his new apartment's concierge about furnishings, or the lack thereof, and turned his attention to his visitor.
Bernardo grinned a little. "Having fun?"
"No," Van Helsing replied sourly. "Silly woman just can't accept that Willow might like to do some of the furnishing herself. Feels that it's not 'romantic' to leave the place only half done."
"Huh." The priest grunted. "Seems to me, in my no doubt wide experience," he added deprecatingly, "that the lady would like to add her own personal touches."
"That's what I think. But no," and he gave a slightly vicious glance at the now quiescent device, "I have to act like Royalty, and take her to a completely finished house. As if an apartment in Central Rome is like a huge country estate. Damn. Oh, well, what's up? And thanks, by the way, for rescuing me."
Laughing, Bernardo came to the reason for his visit. "Your phone was busy, and the Cardinal wants to see you."
"What about? I'm pretty tied up." Van Helsing looked at his desk, uncharacteristically piled high with unfinished work. He sighed. He hated the paperwork at the best of times, and this wasn't the best of times. The sooner his Willow arrived, the easier he'd find it to concentrate. At least he hoped so.
Bernardo snorted. "Tied up?" When Van Helsing glared at him, he backtracked. "Never mind. He just needs to see you for a moment."
"Okay, I'll be there in fifteen minutes."
"Sorry, His Eminence wants you now. I'm to escort you back, he said."
Van Helsing frowned. "What have I done?"
"Nothing that I'm aware of. Will you get moving? I hate it when he barks at me."
"All right. I'm coming." After a last despairing glance at the piles on his desk, Van Helsing followed the priest out of the room and to the Cardinal's office.
"I'm very glad you could take the time from your crowded schedule to fit me in." The Cardinal's honeyed tone set Van Helsing's nerves on edge.
The Hunter gritted his teeth. He supposed he really did deserve that crack. After all, he hadn't really been applying himself the last few days. "Sir. I just got your message."
"Indeed. Bernardo had to pass it along personally, I understand." Jannone shrugged. "Well, never mind that. I have an assignment for you."
"Sir, I really am very busy right now - " Van Helsing didn't get very far, but he also didn't receive the berating he expected. Instead, the Cardinal regarded him sympathetically, and spoke as if asking for a favor.
"I need you to go to the north of Italia," he said quietly. "There is a village there that is being terrorized by what they refer to as a 'cadavere camminaro'. The Walking Dead. By the description, it is what you would call a Zombie. Not difficult to kill, simply messy. And they are too frightened. You could travel up tonight, release the soul from its imprisonment in this unholy thing, and be back the next day. Two, two and a half days; that is all it should take. Then you may have all the time you need to see to your lady's arrival. These people, they beg for assistance, but they say they will understand if the Holy Father does not wish to help them."
Van Helsing winced. After hearing that, his obsession with making Willow's arrival perfect sounded almost petty. And if it really took only a couple of days, then he'd still have a week to finish up. "All right," he said wearily. "I'll go."
"Good. I will have tickets waiting for you on the 8PM night-train to Trieste; then you will travel north to a village called San Veneto, close to the Austrian and Slovenian borders."
"Right. I'll make arrangements."
After he left, Jannone sat for a while, thinking deeply about the future, and his personal regrets for the plans they had put into motion.
* * * * *
"Hullo, love, sorry you're not there." If there was one thing Van Helsing hated as much as he did Vampires, it was the unholy invention called an answering machine. He never knew what to say to it, or how. Should he be formal? Should he talk to the cold apparatus as if he were actually speaking to the person? He usually ended up compromising on stuttering, so he took a deep breath and tried his best to be coherent. "I just wanted to let you know that The Cardinal's sending me on an assignment, but it's a short one. It may take a couple of days, but I should be back in three, maximum. Love you. See you soon. Bye."
Willow listened to the message less than an hour later. Sighing, since today it had been her turn to call him, she decided to use the money earmarked for long-distance phones to talk to her oldest friend.
"Hey, Xander, how's it going?"
"Willow? Wills, is that you? Man, it's good to hear your voice!" Xander's excitement came through the lines as clearly as if he were standing right in front of her. Then the tone changed. "Is everything okay? Something's wrong. What do you need?"
She shook her head, touched. "I'm fine, Xan, nothing's wrong. Can't I call my oldest friend just to talk every once in a while?"
"That depends," he said dryly, "on whether you ever call him except when you need help."
Offended, she sniffed. "I call you a lot more often than you call me."
"Yeah, because you're heading up your division and have something called an expense account, while I'm just local muscle."
"Oh, you're more than that, and you know it."
He laughed. "Gotcha. Figured that would raise the hackles. So, old pal, old buddy, what's really up?"
"Nothing much. It was just my night to call Gabriel, and I got home only in time to hear him on the answering machine. He's heading out on an assignment, so I'm at loose ends."
"So, having nothing better to do, you think of your old friend Xander."
"Well, you didn't have to agree that I'm second string so fast."
"Why not?" she grinned. It was good to return to the backchat they used to be so comfortable with.
"Touché. We're even. So, honestly, Will, how are you doing? More to the point, do you still think you're doing the right thing?"
"I'm fine, Xan. I know I haven't known him for long, but there's a really deep connection there." She chuckled. "Maybe I knew him in a previous life or something."
"Your previous life, you mean. C'mon, Will, the guy's at least 150. What is it about you girls and your older men?"
"Huh. What about you and Anya? She was like a thousand."
"Well, yeah." That stumped Xander for a moment before he found a riposte. "But when I hooked up with her, she wasn't superhuman, or immortal, or anything extra-special. She was just regular human."
"I suppose so." Willow decided to sidestep that subject and have some fun. "Anyway, I think 150 is kinda conservative. He told me once that one of his few memories is being at Masada." At Xander's silence, she explained. "That was in 73 AD."
When his only answer was a muttered, "Yipes," she chuckled.
"Yeah. So he's pretty old. Luckily he doesn't remember much in between. Imagine having 2000 years of memories to sort through whenever you wanted to remember where you left your pen this morning." Sprawled across her bed, she twisted a strand of coppery hair thoughtfully between her fingers as she pondered. "It's funny, but I don't even think about any age difference when we're together. He doesn't act like a know-it-all or anything, so I never feel like a foolish kid when I'm with him."
"But you are. A kid, I mean." For once, Xander was simply being honest, with no real agenda. He knew that she was committed; he just wanted her to be aware of everything she was getting into. "And he doesn't age. Will, what's it going to be like forty years from now? When you're sixty, and he still looks thirty-five?"
She shrugged. "There's always a glamour. Then only the two of us will know."
Xander choked on his reply.
"And it's strange, Xan, but I really don't think it matters to him how I look. Heck, you know I'm no beauty queen."
"I'm not. I'm pretty, yeah, and I've got a good figure - "
"Dynamite, my friend. Not good; dynamite."
"Thanks." She blushed, even though there was no one else around to hear the compliment. "But the point is, with his looks, intelligence, and drive, he could have any woman he crooked his finger at. And you know it. But the moment we met, back in the hotel that day, we clicked."
"Yeah." Xander's voice was dry. "Believe me, I saw the man's face when you turned around. If I didn't already know the definition of pole-axed, I would've learned it then."
"Exactly," she agreed with a grin. "It really hit us both, Xan. Why do you think I went to talk to him that afternoon? Not just because I wanted to know who he worked for, but because I wanted to see him again, alone, to find out if what I'd felt had been just a "warning - extreme eye-candy alert" or whether it was something deeper. And it was."
"Yeah. I saw that." He laughed shortly. "And I really didn't like it. Have I ever apologized for the way I acted?"
"Well, I'm still not going to."
"Too bad. I really thought he was somebody sent to put us on the wrong side of the fight. Just because I was mistaken doesn't mean I wasn't honestly concerned."
"I know. And that's why I could forgive you for being such a jerk. And speaking of that night, what did you tell him, anyway?"
"Oops. You heard about the visit?"
"Yeah. He mentioned it, in passing."
"Ouch. Okay, really, I just told him that you were a nice girl, friendly to all, but you were firmly committed to your own sex."
"And you were so sure about that?" She was illogically annoyed with him.
"Uh, Willow, how many times has the word 'lesbian' fallen from your pretty lips?"
She had to laugh. "Many times, I guess." Then after cogitating for a moment, she added, "Usually when I'm trying to make a pushy Neanderthal back off. Some guys," she sniffed, "just can't understand a woman not wanting them unless she's gay."
Xander joined in her merriment. "Yup. So, Will, you're really happy?"
"I am, Xander, I really am. And I'm going to see him in twelve days. I hope you'll visit us." She waited. The olive branch had been extended; the next step was now up to him.
"I will, my friend. I'll check on you often." He hesitated, then took the plunge. "I know you love him, and I know he loves you too. My reservations aren't about the two of you any more, but about the outside circumstances. Okay?"
"Okay. I can live with that." Willow flopped over onto her back, stretching out like a hunting starfish. "I'm glad I haven't lost you. I'd hate that."
"You'll never lose me, my bestest buddy forever. And I'll tell you something else. If you ever need me, for anything, anytime, you just call, okay?"
"I will." She sniffed back a sudden teariness. "I love you, you know that?"
"I know. And I love you, too."
"I have to go. I'll talk to you soon, right?"
"Right. Bye, Will."
* * * * *
As Willow was hanging up the telephone, Van Helsing was striding through the Termini train station heading for the tracks at the far end, where the night train to Florence and points north was awaiting the signal for departure.
Carrying only his overnight case, he clambered aboard and showed his ticket to the waiting conductor. Once it was examined and approved, he made his way to the car containing sleeping compartments, where a quick glance at the ticket showed him that he was in berth 11, at the end on the left. He yawned and strolled down the corridor, checking out the accommodations as he passed the unused berths. It looked as if the car was fairly empty for this trip, a situation that didn't bother him at all. One trip he'd taken had been a nightmare: Four years ago, that one had been. The entire car had been filled with a football team's supporters, and they'd partied the entire night; needless to say, it had been a tired and cranky Hunter who had arrived at his destination the next morning.
He slid open the door to his berth and dumped his bag on the waiting cot. Turning to lock the door, he was suddenly overwhelmed with a sense of extreme danger, but not soon enough for him to react. He didn't even have time to catch a glimpse of his attacker before there was a sudden, sharp pain in the back of his head and the world went black.