Title: Apocalypse Aftermath 1/8
Rating: 13 for violence plus 1 21 Scene
Summary: Van Helsing disappears, and it's up to Willow and the Scoobies to find him.
Pairing: Van Helsing / Willow
Feedback: Yes, please! Post or send to firstname.lastname@example.org
Posting: Anyone who already has my work, just let me know you're taking it; If you're new, email me - I'm sure I'll say yes!
Disclaimer: All the BtVS characters belong to Joss Whedon, ME; Van Helsing belongs to Universal, Steven Sommers, and lots of other high-powered people. I mean no harm, and get no money from this, just loads of fun.
Spoilers: Buffy Season 7
A/N: Though I'd love to go some day, I've never been to Rome, so my geography is all from Internet maps ;-)
Apocalypse Aftermath - Chapter 1
Willow Rosenberg sank down onto a bench in the waiting area after making her way through the Leonardo da Vinci-Fiumicino Airport's International Customs in Rome. Fighting back tears of exhaustion, she thought dully that she really ought to be getting used to being abandoned at airports by now.
You'd think that after a month apart, Van Helsing would have made a special effort to meet her here, but no, he hadn't even bothered to show up. She waited, and then waited some more. After half an hour she shook herself, still unhappy but trying desperately to actually feel the 'resolve face' she was wearing. She shouldn't take this personally, at least not yet. There were lots of reasons why he wouldn't have shown. After all, he could have... Or he might have...
She sighed. There was really only one thing for her to do: Find a phone in this extremely crowded and noisy place, call him, and ask him. She pulled herself to her feet and looked around. The last time she'd come through here, she hadn't needed to find anything - the entire Scooby gang had gathered in Madrid and had arrived in here Rome together, to be greeted right over - there - by an ecstatic Buffy and Dawn. And then they'd been taken straight to a hotel, with a nice soft bed to nap in, and a nice deep tub to wallow in, before being thrown straight into fighting another apocalypse... Willow braked her train of thought right there. That track led straight to thoughts of Mr. Gabriel Van Helsing, and he was the last thing she needed to be concentrating on right now. Too distracting, he was. She sighed mentally before chivvying her wandering wits back to the subject at hand.
Okay. Phones. Find the phones. If I were a phone, she thought whimsically, where would I be? After another quick visual pan across the lounge, she figured she'd better just start walking. Sooner or later she'd find a phone, of that there was no doubt. The real question was: Would she know how to use it? Oh, blast. She didn't have any Italian money.
Tears threatened again, and she stopped to lean against the wall with her eyes closed. After her experience a couple of years ago, when she'd arrived in Sunnydale seemingly invisible, she'd become fairly sensitive about feeling discarded. Okay, Rosenberg, she told herself firmly, pull yourself together. So what if you've been traveling - in Coach - for over 14 hours? So what if you're tired to the point of falling asleep right on the floor in front of you? So what if no one seems to know or care that you're here?
Right. Plan. Make a plan. Start with number one: Check with Information to see if there's a message. Then number two: If there isn't a message, then get some money. Find a phone. That's number three. Number four is to use that phone you unearth to call Gabriel and find out why he's left you stranded. Okay. She now had a plan. And a pretty good one, too, considering her current condition. Nodding, she pushed herself up again and started out.
Luckily she found the money-exchange booth only two gates further down the wide hallway, and she was able to walk straight up to the cashier. He kindly checked with Information for her but found no messages for a Willow Rosenberg, or any variation of that name. After changing enough money to both call Gabriel and hopefully make it to a hotel via taxicab, if necessary, she asked where the nearest telephones were. When the cashier pointed them out, she smiled as brightly as she could and thanked him sincerely. He winked and grinned back before turning to the next customer.
Willow dragged her carry-on over to the bank of phones, thinking that she really needed to get to the baggage pickup area to grab her luggage before someone carted them off as abandoned, ergo suspected bombs. She slid her carry-on under the phone and dug into her purse for money and address book. After staring at the coins for a moment, she realized that she hadn't remembered to ask the cashier to tell her the correct denominations for the phone. She peered at the implement to check for the price, and thanked every deity she could think of that it was clearly marked. Poking through the coins in her hand, she found the correct ones, and sent another little prayer upward that her call wouldn't be considered long distance.
She fed the coins into the slot and dialed the number Gabriel had given her. It rang. And rang. And rang. Leaning her head against the cold metal, she counted twenty of the funny tones before hanging up. After a couple of seconds of total mental blankness, she dug the address book out again and looked up the number for Buffy Summers. This time she was lucky. After only three rings, the phone was picked up. And by a live person, to her eternal gratitude.
"Hello?" The voice on the other end sounded a bit out of breath.
"Buffy? It's Willow." She suddenly couldn't keep the slight shake out of her voice. Funny. All this time of being adult, and mature, and strong, and all it took was feeling abandoned to turn her right back into the timid little sophomore she'd been all those years ago.
"Will? Where are you?" Buffy's voice sharpened. "What's wrong? You sound - "
"I'm okay, really. It's just... I'm at the airport, and no one's here, and I'm tired, and I need - " Willow took a deep breath and started again. This was not the time to spazz out. "Something's happened to the best-laid plans, I guess," she said wryly. "And I need a ride somewhere, maybe a hotel or something."
"Hotel, my - foot," Buffy responded. "You can stay here with me. We've got, believe it or not, a three-bedroom apartment that we can actually afford, finally. And with Dawn over in England taking that new Watcher aptitude exam, I'm alone and wanting company. I've even been bored enough to spend most of my time Training. This is great. Let me get unsweatied; I'll be about half an hour. If you wait outside the main exit, down just past the taxicab stand, I'll pick you up there."
"Oh, thanks." Willow wilted with sudden relief. "I'll be there. Thanks."
"Okay, Will, don't worry. I won't keep you on the phone. Just relax, and I'll be there soon. Bye."
"Thanks. Bye." Willow hung up, then rested her elbows on the little tray under the phone while she took a few deep breaths. Now all she had to do was go get her bags and make her way to the taxicab ranks, where her best friend would pick her up and make everything better. She grinned tiredly, and a little sardonically, as she straightened up and headed down the hallway for the baggage claim. Checking her watch, she realized that it had been almost an hour since her plane had landed. She quickened her pace, hoping that her bags would still be there.
Arriving at the baggage claim, she looked around but didn't see any gold-buckled blocks of bright green anywhere. Refusing to give in to despair, she walked up to the nearest uniformed person and asked plaintively if he spoke either English or Spanish. When he responded in Spanish, she almost skipped with slightly punchy joy, and asked him what would be done with bags that were late being picked up. He grinned at her and escorted her over to a caged-in area that was half-full of bags. She spotted her two immediately, and thanked him for his help. He waved her words away with a smile and a 'de nada' before turning back to help the next person who was clamoring for his attention.
Willow showed her ticket to the guard in front of the cage and claimed her bags, thanking providence again that she'd bought a new set, with wheels, for this trip. It took a moment for her to remember exactly how to organize two large rolling bags and one small one, considering that she had had three sets of wheels and only two hands, but she finally managed and headed for the exit. After locating the taxicab ranks, she walked past them and almost collapsed onto the first bench she came to. Closing her eyes, she sank into a meditative state as she waited.
The raucous blat of a European car horn startled her aware and she raised her eyelids to see Buffy pulling in to the empty spot right in front of her. She grinned with relief and stood up to stretch mightily before grabbing her bags and trundling them over to Buffy's smart little car.
Buffy gave her a concerned look and pulled her close for a huge hug. "No talking right now, Will, just stuff the bags in the back and park yourself in the passenger seat." She grinned happily. "And brace yourself; I'm not that good Roman traffic-wise, but we'll get there, I promise."
Willow shuddered. She'd actually managed to forget - or was that block out? - Buffy's complete lack of driving ability. It was no wonder that Dawn spent most of her time behind the wheel now that she'd gotten her license. And, surprisingly enough, the kid had become quite a good driver. Even Buffy admitted that Dawn could handle the Roman traffic much better than she could. "A born pedestrian" was how Buffy described herself, and everyone agreed with that assessment; though a few would kindly add that she also made a pretty good passenger.
Gulping slightly, Willow slid gingerly into the passenger seat. She had a feeling that she'd be wide-awake by the time they reached Buffy's apartment, and she was right. What she hadn't banked on was being completely exhausted along with being hyperactively alert after the series of narrow misses that was Buffy's idea of driving in Rome. It was a rather nasty combination; she was starting to feel like a punch-drunk fighter as they walked up the path to the building's entrance. She couldn't even muster the energy to admire the carved stone façade, or to greet the gargoyles that flanked the archway.
After a quick ride to the top floor, with Willow blessing the inventor of the elevator all the way, they arrived at Buffy's apartment. Buffy grinned at Willow understandingly, saying, "Just a couple more seconds," as she pulled the suitcases through the door, with Willow marching on autopilot behind her.
Buffy led the way to the guest room and parked her bag next to the closet, leaving the redhead to make a beeline for the bed.
"You rest," Buffy said, tucking the exhausted Willow under the covers. "I'll wake you up in an hour."
The Witch's only response was a sotto voce hum, as she half-acknowledged Buffy's words. Buffy grinned and softly closed the door behind her.
* * * * *
Willow yawned an hour later as she wandered back into the living room where Buffy was waiting expectantly.
"Hey, Will, feeling more human-y? Want some tea?"
"Please." Willow flopped down into the puffy chair as Buffy slipped into the kitchen, to return moments later with a packed tray. She set the tray down in front of the Witch, who cranked her eyes open enough to see the array of fruit, cheese, and meat slices arranged around the fancy teapot. "Wow. That's nice."
"Good. Get some food into you, and then tell me what's happening. Last I heard, everything was set and going mega-smooth."
"Yeah." Willow tucked into the food, speaking in quick sentences between famished bites. "It was. Or I thought so, anyway. I talked to Gabriel about ten days ago. He had a short assignment. But he'd be back in a couple of days." She sniffled for a second before eating another strawberry. "He knew the flight number. I left a message on his answering machine, anyway. Just in case. That was a couple of days ago." After a last bite of turkey she leaned back, replete, and shrugged. "I don't know what happened, he just didn't show up. And there's no answer at his number."
"That's not of the good." Buffy poured them both another cup of tea. "Okay, so what's the plan?"
Willow shrugged again, feeling the tension in her shoulders. "I don't know. I guess I could try Jacob. Maybe he'll know something."
"Perfect." Buffy jumped up and ran for the phone. "Here ya go. One phone, at your service."
Willow took the implement gingerly. "Okaay. What's the hurry? You're acting like an overcharged Energizer Bunny."
"I just don't want you to worry any longer than you have to, that's all." Buffy put on her most innocent face.
"Uh-huh. You have any other reasons, like wanting to see Jacob, maybe?" Willow gave Buffy a wicked, if slightly wilted, grin.
"Me? No way!" Buffy did return the grin, though. "I'm just trying to keep the communication channels open while Dawn's gone. Just in case."
"Uh-huh." Willow repeated. "Dawn and Jacob? You still on that?"
"Sure, why not? He's good for her."
"Okay, okay." Holding up her hands, Willow capitulated. "Whatever works." She dug into her purse again and pulled out her address book, only to search through it in vain. "Um, you don't happen to have Jacob's number, do you?"
Buffy produced it with a flourish. "Of course I do. You think I wouldn't have the number of the guy who's practically living with my sister?"
Willow snorted. "Right." Taking the number, she dialed it quickly.
Jacob answered on the second ring. "Hello."
"Jacob, it's Willow."
"Well, hello. What can I do for you?" There was a startled silence. "Goodness, are you calling all the way from Rio? You sound as if you're next door."
She laughed. "I am. Almost, anyway. I'm at Buffy's."
"Why ever are you there? When did you arrive?"
"I landed in Rome a couple of hours ago, and I'm at Buffy's because Gabriel didn't meet me at the airport."
"Oh. Was he supposed to? Because he didn't say anything to me, and he's out of town on an assignment right now. Heavens, I would have met you myself, if I'd known. I am sorry."
His tone gave her a sudden mental picture of him with his face scrunched up in sympathy, and she immediately felt both better and worse. "Right," she responded, nibbling on her lower lip. "Now I'm worried. When did he leave?"
"About ten days ago, I think."
"Damn. Then it is the same case. He told me it was guaranteed to only take two or three days, maximum." Real concern thickened her voice.
"Really? Hmm. He isn't usually so direct unless he's absolutely sure. Now I'm also worried, thank you very much."
Willow grinned. "Good. That means I'm not alone."
"Definitely not alone. I'll check and see if he's filed any reports. Not that that's really likely, knowing him. But I'll check anyway, just to be thorough." Another hesitation. "Would Buffy mind if I came over there? Perhaps it would be better if we meet on your ground - "
Willow grinned at his tact. "I agree. I don't really think the Powers That Be at the Vatican would approve of a Witch roaming their halls."
Jacob coughed. "Oh. Um. Precisely. I'll be there in about an hour. Hold the fort, and try not to worry too much."
The phone went dead in Willow's hand. Looking over at Buffy, she smiled. "Jacob's loosened up a little, hasn't he?"
"Three weeks of Dawn would be enough to loosen up a full monk, let alone 'just a friar'," Buffy replied sarcastically.
Willow's answering laugh faded quickly to silence. The friends looked at each other with the same troubled thought foremost in their minds: Why was Gabriel so long overdue?
* * * * *
27 DAYS AGO
"Here, let me get that." Jacob reached for the duffel bag that Van Helsing had slung over his shoulder. No matter how inured they were to travel, a flight halfway around the world from Los Angeles to Rome was enough to drain away any energy that wasn't already earmarked for simple existence. And Jacob knew the Hunter still hadn't recovered from the flight over to L.A. and then a pitched battle to stop the latest Apocalypse, immediately followed by a Werewolf bite and the subsequent Change. Dear Lord, it was hard to believe that the fight had taken place only the day before. At least on their internal clocks, he reminded himself. In reality, they were already in what he considered to be tomorrow.
"Thanks, I am tired." Van Helsing, whose tall, well-built frame normally towered over the shorter, slighter friar, was actually slumping from an uncharacteristic weariness.
"Hmm. Tell me, is it from the Change, or from last night?" Thinking to lighten the atmosphere, Jacob smirked slightly as he stuffed the bags into the trunk of the Vatican's sedan.
"Don't be crass." Van Helsing couldn't avoid grinning a little at his assistant's cheekiness, and at the memory of last night with Willow. "And for your information, it's a little of both, really."
"Oh. Right." Jacob hadn't expected his question to be answered so honestly. They climbed into the back seat of the auto and the driver headed out. "Do you mind telling me," he asked hesitantly. "What does it feel like?"
"What does what feel like?"
"The Change, of course." The friar blushed.
Van Helsing shivered a bit, the remembrance of that sensation masking any amusement at his friend's confusion.
Noticing, Jacob back-pedaled quickly. "If you don't want to talk about it, it's alright. It's just that Great-Grandfather Carl's notes don't address the issue, and I didn't know whether - "
"It's alright, Jacob. I don't mind talking about it, now."
"Oh. Good. Then what is it like?"
"Like nothing I've ever felt before. It's a Calling, and a Drawing, and a terrible internal grinding that feels as if I'm being torn apart and pasted back together differently." He paused, and Jacob swallowed. "Strangely enough, though it hurts, it's not as painful as you'd think. The Calling of the Moon seems to override the pain."
"The Calling. How does that feel?"
"Hard to describe." Van Helsing's brownish-hazel eyes turned a strange green-gold as the sun over the Vatican's high walls caught them. "Everything you ever wanted, every desire you've ever had, is there - right in front of you: There for the taking. The glow speaks - no, it whispers - of strength and power, speed and freedom. All you have to do is give in to it." He shivered again. "I don't think it's possible to resist. Once you see that silver disk in the sky above, you're lost."
"That sounds quite nasty." Jacob grimaced as he thought about the loss of control. For someone like him, who lived mostly through the intellect, the idea of losing the mastery of his own mind was appalling.
Van Helsing looked over at him and grinned. "It is. But only in retrospect. At the time, it's the most wonderful feeling in the world."
"I'll remember that."
"Please do. And dodge, very quickly."
"I'll remember that, too."
Van Helsing laughed out loud, but before he could reply they arrived at the entrance to the Order's headquarters and an acolyte was opening the car's door while another emptied the trunk, taking immediate possession of the bag containing magical implements and scurrying off.
"Sir, if you would like to refresh yourself, the Cardinal will see you at 2 PM." The remaining acolyte assisted Jacob to alight as he spoke to Van Helsing.
Raising an eyebrow at the command, for command it obviously was, Van Helsing didn't bother to reply. Jacob, slightly rebelliously, took his cue from the Hunter and remained silent as well. They followed the acolyte down the corridor until they reached the staircase that led to the Order's personal quarters. There they peeled off to head down the two levels of steps that would take them to Van Helsing's rooms, where Jacob finally erupted.
"That only gives you an hour, for the love of God. No time to rest at all."
Van Helsing shrugged. "Of course, what else do you expect? The Cardinal isn't going to await my convenience."
"But - "
"And besides, he likes having the advantage."
"That's - "
"Yes?" Removing his shirt and boots, Van Helsing headed for the bathroom to take a quick shower.
"An excellent power play, I suppose." Jacob sighed at the games required in the higher levels. Again, he thanked the Lord that he was one of the little cogs, rather than being an engine, like Van Helsing. "I'll have some food sent down."
"Thanks." The Hunter's voice was muffled as he closed the shower door.
* * * * *
"Enter." The voice from within the room crackled over the speaker even before Van Helsing knocked. He often wondered where the camera was hidden, but he'd never managed to locate its lens among all the carvings on the wainscoting. Taking a deep breath, he opened the door and walked calmly across the bare tiled floor. Cardinal Jannone, gray-haired and stocky in his scarlet robes, sat behind the imposing desk that was set facing the door on the far side of the vast, echoing room. As a test of courage, the setting of the desk was extremely effective. Strong men had been known to shrink into pygmies during the long march to face the man sitting there.
"Sit." The Cardinal was eyeing him in a way that Van Helsing didn't really like. It was a measuring look, assessing and almost judgmental. He raised an eyebrow in return as he obeyed.
The Cardinal's expression lightened slightly. Much as he preferred instant obedience from those under him, he couldn't help having a slightly soft spot for Van Helsing, who had been their strongest warrior for longer than he cared to think about. Of course, that didn't mean he would accept any defiance from the Hunter: Even the favorite must toe the line.
Jannone leaned back in his oversized chair and crossed his arms over his chest. "So, I understand that you consider your mission to have been fairly successful."
"Consider? Fairly? It was a complete success." Van Helsing kept his voice level and quiet. He wasn't sure where this was going, but he did know that he probably wasn't going to like it. Whenever the Cardinal started a conversation with such an ambiguous statement, it meant he was marshalling his forces for a concerted attack. Somewhere. Now all Van Helsing had to do was figure out where the main sally was going to be aimed so he could shore up his defenses. It was a game he despised, but had had a considerable amount of practice at, since every one of the five Cardinals he'd worked for over the last 120 or so years had seemed to relish using him as nothing but a marker on a game board.
"Was it?" Jannone paused dramatically before raising his right hand to point directly at Van Helsing. "In a manner, yes, it was. You succeeded in averting a rather nasty Apocalypse. For that, you have our thanks. However." He shook his finger. "We are not pleased with your manner of doing so."
Grimacing, Van Helsing muttered, "When are you ever?"
The Cardinal raised his eyebrows. "You spoke?"
"No. I muttered a comment that I preferred not to speak aloud." Van Helsing grinned cynically. "Now, tell me, sir, what exactly didn't you like about my 'manner of doing so'?"
Jannone's eyes narrowed. His Hunter was getting out of line. Best to nip this insubordination in the bud: His plans for the future couldn't be jeopardized by rebelliousness. Not now. Not when they were so close to fruition.
On the other hand, he must tread a fine line. To steer Van Helsing the way he wanted him to go would be difficult enough, but if he became too heavy-handed the Hunter would be fully capable of walking away. Now that Van Helsing had worked with those who exercised a considerable amount of freedom, he would be more intractable than ever.
"Very well. We will play your game, Hunter. Three things were displeasing to us: One, that you appropriated the Grey Grimoire and the Carpathian Orb without our knowledge or permission. This must not happen again. Such items are too dangerous to have them in the field without someone in authority knowing that they are out there."
Van Helsing nodded. "All right. I'll accept that."
"I am glad to hear it." Jannone's voice dripped sarcasm, and Van Helsing grinned in return. "Number two: You included people in the battle who were not on the list of warriors we sent you to recruit."
Blinking in surprise, Van Helsing stumbled mentally. Of all the transgressions that could have been laid at his door, adding an extra Slayer and her companion to the ranks of his battle companions was the most unexpected. "I don't understand. She was a Slayer. Should I have turned her away? Having Faith and Robin with us almost doubled our chances of survival."
"Your chances of survival were irrelevant." Watching Van Helsing's surprised look melt into disgust, the Cardinal smiled. "However, as with the appropriations of the magickal instruments, the transgression was not so much in adding those people as it was in not seeking approval for such a major alteration in the plan."
Van Helsing shook his head. "Sorry, I won't allow myself to be tied down like that. I'll take my chances with your disapproval, but if I decide I need extra assistance, and especially if it drops into my lap, I'm going to take it."
"You risk much."
"I always do."
Jannone's lips twitched. "Indeed. And that brings us to the meat of the matter."
"Sin number three, right? Is it mortal or venial?" The light tone of Van Helsing's voice was in direct counterpoint to the mocking expression on his face.
"Enough." The Cardinal's voice sharpened before he could control himself. Never before had he met someone who could make him come even close to losing control. Van Helsing had that most unique ability. "It is more than mortal. It is completely unacceptable. For centuries we have worked in secret. For centuries no one has known of our existence. We cannot be thrust into the bright light of day. It is impossible." Jannone gathered the rags of his temper and knit them together, moderating his tone with difficulty. "You have been aware for decades of our mission. How long do you think your ability to fight evil would last if the world knew of our existence, and of your unique qualifications? You would be hunted down and captured, to be imprisoned and studied by those who would use you as a weapon for their own advancement. Can you think otherwise?"
Van Helsing stilled, and the Cardinal congratulated himself on getting through to him. That was enough on that subject. Van Helsing could always be coaxed, but seldom driven. Now it was time to see how committed the Hunter really was to his new friends. The success of the Seven's plans would depend upon the next few minutes. "These people, the Slayers and their companions. What is to stop them from telling others of our existence?"
"They've worked in secret for centuries. How long have you known about them?" Glad he had an answer for that broadside, Van Helsing shook himself mentally. This was going to be a nasty ride, he could tell already.
"For as long as they've existed," Jannone replied. "We knew about them, but they did not know about us. Now they do, thanks to you."
"Well, they're used to keeping secrets. What makes you think they won't keep this one?"
"Because they have stopped being so secret. Never before has there been a Slayer who has had friends. They have always walked alone."
"And died quickly," Van Helsing countered. "This one has lived longer than any other. And her 'friends' have been nothing but an asset." He struck with his biggest shot. "And they've kept the secret of her existence completely. As you are well aware. Why are we even talking about this?"
"Because, again, you have taken it upon yourself to make decisions that are not yours to make." Jannone's voice sharpened again.
"The situation was far from normal. Besides, you were the one who told me to do anything I had to do to get their cooperation. That was something I had to do."
"You could have temporized. There was no reason to tell them everything."
"That's where you're wrong, sir." Van Helsing almost sighed. "They wouldn't have cooperated. I could feel her backing off whenever I wasn't completely straight."
"Her?" The Cardinal was pleased. Now that Van Helsing had put the Witch out on the table, as it were, their relationship was fair game.
Wincing internally, Van Helsing cursed his unruly tongue. Here it came: The real reason for the mini-inquisition. "Yes, sir. Her. I'm sure you're aware of the entire situation." He kept his voice dry and emotionless - he wasn't about to cry craven; not now, not about this.
"Indeed. We are aware. And we do not approve."
"Of what? That I've found someone I care about? Or that she's Wicca?" It was time to grasp the bull's horns. The next few minutes would decide his future, and he wasn't about to give in on all points. He didn't realize that he was echoing the Cardinal's own thoughts.
"Both. You were sent to fight evil, not to spend your time dallying with Witches."
"I can do both. My 'dalliance', as you call it, didn't stop me from doing a damned good job on this assignment, and you know it."
"Do not curse at me. I accept that you completed this assignment, but what of the future? Do you intend to continue your relationship?"
"Yes." One word, flatly spoken.
"And while you continue this relationship, do you believe you can also continue your duties to God and to the Order?"
"Yes." Again, terse and quiet.
"How do you plan to do this? You cannot bring that woman into the Order's Place. A woman, and a Wicca, in the Vatican? Have you taken leave of your senses?"
Van Helsing counted silently to ten while he stared at the Cardinal, before suddenly relaxing as he realized he had already won the fight - if fight there ever had been. His eyes narrowed at a sudden random thought: Jannone wouldn't have asked him about plans if he'd been totally opposed to Van Helsing suddenly developing a life. But why would the Cardinal approve of his relationship with Willow? He had no idea, and no time to try to work it out; right now, he had to stay focused.
"No, sir," he stated firmly. "I've actually found my senses. All I ask is that you provide me with a drawing account so I can live outside the Place. I won't inflict a Wiccan on the delicate sensibilities of the Order." Grinning internally at the Cardinal's sour expression, he continued, "I'll still be available for assignments; I can spend all day every day here, if necessary." After a moment's thought, he qualified the last statement. "With a little time off, of course. I haven't had a vacation in 120 years. I think I deserve a few days grace."
The Cardinal paused, as if deep in thought. "So," he finally said. "You will not reconsider your relationship with this Witch?"
"No. I won't."
Jannone sighed. "Very well. So be it." He pressed the top of the intercom sitting on the painfully tidy surface of his desk. "Accounting."
As they waited for the connection, Van Helsing wondered whether he was about to be fired; then he realized that it didn't really matter that much. He couldn't go back to being nothing but the 'Left Hand of God'. Now that he'd found a real person to care about, he had suddenly opened up to the world in a way he'd forgotten was even possible.
The intercom blinked, and Jannone accepted the call. "Accounting? I wish to set up a drawing account in the name of Gabriel Van Helsing. The account is to be credited each week with the salary of a professional field operative, and he is to be compensated immediately with twenty weeks worth of back-credited vacation pay at that same rate. Do you understand?"
"Yes, sir. It will be done." The voice betrayed no surprise. They were used to unusual requests from this Cardinal; they even ran a monthly pool to choose the oddest demand and this one would be high on the list.
Van Helsing was incapable of speech. Never before had he managed to turn the Cardinal's mind, never before had he won a debate with his superior so readily. He was too surprised to even remember his earlier reservations as Jannone nodded to him and said, "That will be all. You may go."
The Hunter walked slowly from the room. Since his back was turned, he didn't see the Cardinal's triumphant smile. As soon as Van Helsing closed the door, Jannone keyed the intercom again. "Contact the Seven. We meet immediately." He followed Van Helsing out the door, arriving at the Chamber within five minutes.
"So, Jannone, from your expression, I assume you were successful?" Cardinal Sabatino opened the conversation.
"I was." Jannone almost radiated satisfaction as he sat at the head of the conference table. "The time has come, my friends."
"Are you sure?" The monk Daishin still had reservations about the Cardinal's plan; reservations he wasn't shy about expressing. Though Cardinal Jannone was the de facto leader of their group, all were allowed an equal say. "Is he being coerced in any way?"
"There must be no force used against him." Swami Chauhan of India agreed.
Jannone shook his head. Finally, he would be able to set at rest any reservations his six companions might have. "There is no force, no coercion. He came to me after forging the relationship on his own."
Ndomba, representative from the Bantu people, asked the next question. "And who is this woman who meets with your approval?"
"Her name is Willow Rosenberg." With a nod to Rabbi Engelman, who grinned merrily in reply, Jannone started to take the next, most crucial step. Before he could speak, Al-Khalifa took the conversational ball away from him, as the Moslem mufti tended to do.
"Am I to assume that you, a Christian, actually approve of your man wedding a Jew?"
Laughing, Rabbi Engelman batted the ball back into center court. "And how many of us sitting in this room actually accept any strictures that our respective religions might put upon us?"
Ndomba snorted. "I believe that it is mostly the Christians who have a problem with other faiths."
Cardinal Sabatino took exception. "I can give you the names of many other religions that think they're the only way to God." He looked at Al-Khalifa, who bristled.
Daishin coughed softly, breaking the moment. "You are all, sadly, correct. There are few religions that accept that there are many paths to God. Each one is sure it is the only true faith." He sighed. "It is a great sadness to those of us who believe in the divinity of all paths."
Jannone snatched the ball back before the others got over their momentary shock. "Enough. If any of us sitting here had any problem with religions that are not our own, we would not be here." He looked severely around the room. In a way, Al-Khalifa had handed him a wonderful opening. After that, let any of them take too much exception. They would not dare; or at least that was his hope. He threw the next words out as a challenge. "She is not Jewish, though she was raised in that faith," and he bowed to Engelman. "In her adulthood, she has embraced the Nature religion of Wicca." He sat back and waited for the explosion. It wasn't long in coming; and when it did, it came from the direction he'd expected.
"You cannot be serious!" Al-Khalifa's voice overrode the expostulations of both Engelman and Sabatino.
Jannone looked at Daishin, Chauhan, and Ndomba. All three nodded back. The Buddhist, Hindu and African members had no objection, Ndomba least of all. His own religion was closer to Nature than any of the others.
"I am entirely serious. What, exactly, is your objection?" Jannone spoke with deadly significance.
The three immediately backed off, with sheepish glances at the others.
"My apologies," said the Rabbi. "I was caught by surprise." After a quick glance at his fellow protesters, he asked quietly, "What makes you think this woman is suitable?"
"To start with, she is the first woman to catch more than the momentary interest of the Hunter in decades, and the first one to return his interest with enough strength to accept who he is. Second, she is a member of the Vampire Slayer's new Watcher Council." He waited for the excitement to subside before continuing. "Yes. She is used to keeping secrets. And third, as a practicing White Witch, she is sworn to the Light, and that is one qualification we must have."
"What makes you think she'll last the course?" Sabatino was still unsure.
"She will. They have made plans to meet here in Rome in a few weeks. She has contacted her Council and requested a transfer."
"Van Helsing told you this?" Daishin exhibited an uncharacteristic surprise. In his experience, the Hunter was not exactly forthcoming about personal matters.
"Of course not." Jannone was amused rather than offended at the question. "I already knew. Why do you think I had them stay at Brigham's Hotel in Los Angeles? I wanted a watch on them."
"Excellent." Chauhan added his final question. "Now, about her breeding potential. Is it known whether she is fertile?"
"No. That is something we must take on faith, my friends. We cannot even be sure that Van Helsing is capable of fathering children." Jannone held the eyes of each member for a moment before adding soberly, "For two thousand years, the Hunter has worked for us. He has died in God's service on a dozen occasions, and been recalled by the Lord each time. Each rebirth leaves him with no active memory, only a renewed faith in his mission."
He paused as Daishin spoke. "I have talked with him many times. Not knowing anything of his past is like a sliver of hot metal in his side. It burns him. Why can you not tell him of God's plan?"
Ndomba shook his head before Jannone could answer. "You know that would not be kind, my friend. Would it be a good thing to let him know he is Fallen? That this is his punishment for his attempted interference in God's plan to create the necessary martyrs at Masada two thousand years ago? That he has no family? No possibility of resting? That all he is, all he has ever been in this world, and all he will be for another eight thousand years, is The Left Hand of God?"
Daishin subsided unhappily. His feelings were like the grasshopper, caught between the brush fire on one side and the deep lake water on the other. Either way could only lead to pain.
Jannone nodded. "I agree. No matter what he once was, he must remain as he is now: A man with at least some semblance of hope to keep him going. He has fought all manner of Evil and always prevailed. However, we know that someday his punishment will be complete; or that God may relent at any time; or that somehow, someone - or some Thing - will manage to destroy him in this world, and when that day comes, we must have a replacement. We have been unable to find one, and God has sent us no sign that another will be provided. So, on the principle that 'God helps those who help themselves', if there is no replacement, then we must breed one."
The others nodded. On that point, they were in total agreement.