by Morgan R
For the sword outwears its sheath, And the soul outwears the breast, And the heart must pause to breathe, And love itself have rest. (George Gordon Noel Byron, Sixth Baron Byron)
Angel looked up as Cordelia walked into his office. After throwing down a file on his desk, she let out an exasperated sigh and put her hands on her hips. "I knew it. You're not working, you're brooding. As usual. I sit out there, typing and organizing, and you hide in your office and brood. What sort of employer are you, hiring an eighteen year old girl with nothing more than a high school diploma and a great pair of legs and then making her do all the work? You're a disgrace."
Angel said nothing in response.
"Fine. Don't deign to reply, O Pensive One. Just try to look like you actually do some sort of work when Willow gets here, okay?" She turned on her heel and walked to the door. Angel's voice stopped her before she crossed the threshold.
"Thank you, Cordelia."
She nodded, and returned to her desk. He had thought he was doing her a favor when he had hired her, but she had turned out to be an incredible asset to him and his work, apart from bringing a bit of normalcy into his all too depressing world. Opening the file on his desk, he did what he usually did when Cordelia gave him an order.
Cordelia looked up as Willow entered the outer office. "Willow! I'm so glad you're here!" If the warm welcome was a little surprising, Willow was too polite to let it show.
"Cordelia, hi. You look great."
"You're a much better liar than you used to be. That's good-- it will probably come in handy. Let's go into Angel's office, and we'll explain everything to you, okay?"
Angel smiled as Cordelia brought Willow in. "Here she is, boss." The two girls sat down in chairs opposite Angel's desk.
"So, Angel," Willow said as they all settled in. "What is it you need my help with? Cordelia was pretty vague on the phone. Is it a spell or something?"
"No, it isn't a spell," he replied. "Let me start at the beginning. Did Buffy ever tell you what she did last summer, right before she came back?"
"Um, something about a hell vortex with runaways and demons. I do know that it was very bad."
"Right. Well, Cordelia, Doyle and I have been hearing some strange things recently. Rumors about new portals being opened, all very vague, as usual. Most of it has been traced to one man, a man named Taylor. It turns out he was one of the people Buffy helped escape, but he had been there awhile-"
"Which explains why he's basically a loon," Cordelia interrupted.
"Cordelia, as usual, has summed it up perfectly. He is definitely not all there, which makes it that much more frightening that he's messing around with the fabric of reality."
"Okay, so a crazy person is opening portals that traverse time and space," Willow said finally. "Why exactly do you need my help?"
"Angel has a pla-an," Cordelia sang. Angel shot her a look before replying. "Our Mr. Taylor has a weakness. Most of the time he plays it pretty close to the chest, but when he's around a beautiful woman, he tends to lack...concentration. Unfortunately, he already knows Cordelia, so she's out of the question. In perfect honesty, I didn't feel up to asking Buffy, which really only left you, Willow."
Willow looked at him in shock. "You asked me to come help me because you need a pretty face?"
Angel grimaced. "I know it may sound insulting, and I wouldn't have asked if I hadn't..."
Willow wasn't listening. "You think I have a pretty face?"
"No, I think you have a beautiful face. Does that mean you'll help?"
"Angel, look at the grin. That's answer enough, I'd say. Besides, when was the last time Willow said no to anybody?" Cordelia pointed out as she stood up. "Okay. Here's the plan. Angel, you will stay here and work, not brood, until sunset. Willow, you will come with me and I will deck you out in an outfit that's a little more...distracting. We'll rendezvous out front after sundown and you two can go stop the crazy. Good plan?"
"Good plan," they both responded simultaneously. Cordelia and Willow left the office together. Angel listened as they laughed out in the main office. Having Willow around couldn't help but remind him of everything he had given up, especially the blonde slayer he had forced himself to leave behind...
He jumped as Cordelia popped her head back in his door with a fierce "Work! Not! Brood!" Chuckling to himself, he devoted his full attention to the file before him.
Willow watched from the bed as Cordelia went through her closet. "How do you like working with Angel, Cordy?"
"It's cool, I guess. I mean, he still has his Buffy days, but sometimes, he's actually fun to be around..."
"His 'Buffy days'?" Willow asked.
"Yeah. He gets that look, and I know he's thinking about her. Wondering how she's feeling, what she's doing, whether or not she's kissing that guy you all tried to not let him find out about-"
"Yeah, him. And I can't really object. If anyone ever had more than enough reasons to ponder the twists of fate, it's Angel. It's just, every once in awhile, he escapes it. He stops thinking about the pain and the loss and the demons and the night, and he's...fun. He's not a laugh a minute, but he smiles, and I've even known him to tell a joke."
"Freaky." Willow smiled at the thought of Angel making people laugh.
"I'll say. So, how is everyone?" she asked oh-so-casually.
"Xander's fine, Cordelia. And no, he's not seeing anyone." Cordelia threw a shirt at her head, and all seriousness was lost as they dissolved into giggles.
It was almost as if they weren't hunters of demons. It was almost as if they were...teenage girls.
What a thought.
Willow smiled up at Angel nervously as they stood in front of Taylor's door. Angel put a comforting arm around her shoulder. "It'll be fine, Willow. He's only a little crazy, not evil. And you look lovely."
"Flattery will make me less scared."
"I know." Truth be told, it wasn't flattery. Cordelia may have complained over her inability to buy the clothes she wanted, but she had found the perfect outfit for Willow to wear on their 'mission'. Cordelia had decided that it would be useless for Willow to try playing a seductress, especially in her nervous state. Instead, Willow's clothes all seemed to be part of a perfectly demure outfit gone awry.
She was wearing a gauzy floral wraparound skirt that fell just above her knees, and it had looked completely modest on a hanger. The material of the skirt, however, clung to Willow's body like a second skin. Furthermore, the edge tended to slip open, exposing a large amount of Willow's right thigh.
On top, she was wearing a simple white tank top. Of course, the tank top belonged to Cordelia, whose clothes were a few sizes larger than Willow's. This meant that the straps of the top were constantly slipping off her pale shoulders, exposing the fuchsia straps of her bra. The neckline dipped dangerously low, in front and back.
Cordelia had given her a blouse to wear over the tank top, but it covered nothing up, due to its being transparent. Furthermore, it was slightly shimmery, and it made Willow's skin look like it was glowing. Despite her 'perfectly modest' attire, Willow looked like she was about to fall out of her clothes at any second. She felt practically naked, which was, of course, what Cordelia had intended all along.
Willow cast one final nervous glance at Angel before the door opened.
Willow yawned behind her hand as she leaned up against a blank wall. She and Angel had been in Taylor's house for hours, and they had learned nothing useful. 'It's probably me,' she thought gloomily. 'Anyone else would be able to charm the information out of him, but not me.' She absentmindedly adjusted her skirt, which was yet again slipping to reveal her upper leg. She didn't notice Taylor staring at her aforementioned leg, but Angel did.
Taylor had been more elusive than he had expected, but he was sure something would slip before they left. As the strap of Willow's shirt began travelling down her shoulder yet again, Angel began asking more questions.
"Have you ever heard of 'The Family Home', Taylor?"
Taylor never took his eyes off Willow's shoulder as he answered. "Mmmm-hmmm."
"I heard something about some guy there- Ken, I think his name was."
"Right." Taylor hardly seemed to notice Angel's presence.
"He went around, looking for runaways to take in?" Angel moved around beside Willow so he could see Taylor's face.
"Runaways?" Taylor replied vaguely.
That was when Willow felt it. There was no way she could possibly have described what 'it' was-- a sudden foreboding, a stirring in her blood, an instinctive sense of danger. She even thought she could feel the hint of something soft against her cheek. "Angel-" she began.
But she was too late.
The distracted look disappeared from Taylor's face as he grinned at the two of them. "Oh, this is exciting. If I was less of a coward, I'd go myself, but as it is..."
Angel tried to leap at him, realizing too late that they had been trapped. Angel found that his feet wouldn't move, though he was still able to grab Willow's hand and hold it tightly. "What are you going to do?" he asked harshly.
"Well, I opened a new one," Taylor replied. "But I don't know where it goes! So, since you're so interested in the topic, I figure you can explore for me."
Willow gasped as the feeling of strangeness grew and Angel began to growl. "Fine, I'll go explore, whatever, just let Willow go."
Taylor shook his head. "Oh, no. What if it's daytime when you get there? You can't tell me anything if you turn into a pile of dust. Besides, a girl can't wear an outfit like that without expecting some sort of consequences." Willow glared at him, and the material of her skirt stirred in an almost nonexistent breeze. Angel's grip on her hand grew tighter, and she looked up at him in fear. In looking at him, however, she saw something out of the corner of her eye. She gasped as she saw that the blank wall was no longer quite so blank. It had become a sort of black opening, completely blank and incredibly frightening. Actually, it was less an opening and more a maw, in her mind.
Willow looked back at Angel in panic. "I'm sorry, Willow," he whispered.
The breeze became a wind, and the two of them were engulfed in black.
As they were surrounded and filled with darkness, Willow no longer felt the grip of Angel's hand, and the howling of the wind drowned out any sound of his voice...
It wasn't the sound of voices that woke Willow up, though they were speaking in hushed tones as she dragged herself into consciousness. It was the feeling of a warm breeze on her cheek, though once awake she wasn't sure whether or not she had dreamed it.
Her ears began functioning before she managed to raise her eyelids, and she slowly began to focus on the conversation being conducted in hushed tones very nearby.
"...don't think it's right. She shouldn't be some sort of olive branch for the sake of the country. She's a living breathing and lovely girl, not a peace offering," a sympathetic voice whispered.
"She isn't just any girl, she's royalty. And royalty's got obligations, as sure as they've got blue blood." The second voice was not unkind, but it held a harsh edge of reality. Willow wondered about the unnamed girl they were discussing. She was fairly sure she was able to open her eyes, but kept them shut, hoping to hear more of the discussion.
"Whatever color her blood is, she has a heart, and to see it wasted on a scoundrel like that boy-" the first voice insisted.
"Not very respectful words, considering he's your future king."
"Pah! She's my present princess, and I don't want to see her spoiled by the likes of him."
Willow found herself more and more interested. So, she was in a land of royalty. That was fairly exciting.
"Think of the lives that will be saved," the down-to-earth voice pointed out. Willow heard the other woman snort in response. "Yes, and only think of how her life will be ruined."
Willow was fascinated by her eavesdropping, but the urge to open her eyes and see her surroundings overwhelmed her desire to hear more. She moaned ever so softly as her eyes fluttered open.
The first thing she saw was the heavily brocaded canopy that blocked her view of the ceiling. Looking down at herself, she found the disobedient tank top gone, replaced by a nightshirt of forget-me-not satin. The eiderdown quilt that covered her was a deep maroon, with patches of darkness fading in and out in the flickering light of a large fireplace.
Her contemplation of her surroundings was cut off as two women immediately flanked her bedside. They looked similar in age--late forties. One had once had blonde hair, hair which had been more white than gold for at least a few years. The other was a former brunette, but gray had been encroaching as time had passed. Each had faces with abundant smile lines, though there were marks of repeated sadnesses as well.
Most of all, Willow found them comforting.
"Well, look who's awake," the blonde woman smiled as she brushed a strand away from Willow's face.
"We've been worried, since you fainted at the banquet last night." the brunette added.
Willow judged it best to say nothing, since she had absolutely no idea what they were talking about.
"Welcome back to the land of the living, Your Highness," the first woman said.
A startled look crossed Willow's face at the sound of the word 'highness'.
This was so very not good.
Willow sat in her dressing gown, staring rather dully into the fire. She had finally convinced Marie and Gwen (blonde and brunette, respectively) that she didn't need ladies-in-waiting to hover as she sat in a chair.
Ladies-in-waiting. No, no, no, no, and no.
"This isn't possible," Willow said out loud to no one in particular. Technically, she should have been right. It shouldn't be possible for an eighteen year old college student to go help a friend in LA and be sucked through a mysterious portal only to discover that she was still an eighteen year old, but instead of a college student, she was the only daughter of an aging king and betrothed to the son of their long time enemy.
Yet, there she was...
Willow had done her best to find out what was going on, but it was difficult, since Marie and Gwen had no idea that anything out of the ordinary had occurred. She had mostly gathered that the foreign king and his son were considered barbarians by her father, which is why the two countries had been at war for as long as there had been history. Unfortunately, barbarians or not, they were good at warfare, and a peace agreement had finally been reached. Each king, weary of a stalemate that was no less bloody for its lack of change, would give up that which they held most dear.
Of course, the fact that the children were adults did not change the fact that they were forced to submit to the wills of men who were not just their fathers, but their monarchs besides.
So it was that Her Royal Highness Aurelia Celestyn Isolde Leoline Meridel Solenne Wilona Yolanthe was engaged to be married to His Royal Highness Alaric Calhoun Garrard Jarlath Nealon Raynor Thedric Ware.
Willow moaned again at the thought. Betrothed? She had agreed to help Angel, but holy matrimony to a strange prince was a bit more than she had anticipated...
Suddenly, she sat straight up in her chair. Where was Angel? Was he even alive? She thought they had arrived in the night, but there was no way to be sure. How would he find blood to eat? What if someone saw his 'grr' face and tried to kill him? How was she ever going to find him if she was stuck in the Royal Palace all day?
Slumping back in her seat, she let out a frustrated sigh. If she had been a...dairymaid, or some other variation on a peasant girl theme, she would have been able to look for him. As it was, in the midst of the machinations of an upcoming Royal Wedding, she would simply have to hope he was somewhere nearby.
A timid knock came from the huge carved door. "Yes?" she answered wearily. Marie came in quietly.
"Willow, dearest, what's the matter?" Willow looked at her strangely for a moment.
"You called me Willow." Having the same name would definitely make things easier, but she was sure it hadn't been one of the eight carefully selected royal monikers she now possessed.
"Ever since you learned how to speak," Marie replied.
"Tell me the story again," Willow asked, hoping she had heard it before. Fortunately, Marie smiled, making Willow think the tale was commonly repeated.
"You were only twelve months old," Marie began, "and you were just learning how to speak. You never replied to your name, however. We called you Princess, we called you Aurelia, but you paid us no mind.
One day, I sat you on my knee and began telling you about your christening. You looked up at me with those huge green eyes, and I could have sworn you understood every word I said. When I got to the part about naming you, I imitated the priest who had performed the ceremony. He had said all your names, so I named them as well-- 'Princess Aurelia Celestyn Isolde Leoline Meridel Solenne Wilona Yolanthe'. You had been listening till then, but your eyes just lit up when I said all your names. Well, one in particular, it turns out. A few moments later, you spoke, repeating back the second to last name. Actually, you couldn't manage the 'n', so it just came out 'Willow'. Ever since that day, you refused to be called anything else." Marie smiled, taking hold of Willow's hand.
"What does it mean? Wilona?" Willow asked.
"Desired," Marie replied. "Your father had wanted a child for so long, that the name seemed completely suitable. He chose all of your names for the meanings-- Aurelia means golden, and even as a newborn your hair seemed to glow. Furthermore, he has always said you are more precious than gold to him. Celestyn means heavenly, Isolde means fair lady, Leoline means lion. We could all tell how brave you were, even then. Meridel is a form of Mary, and it was given to you to honor me, so close was I to your mother. Solenne means sunshine, and that is what you have always been to everyone around you. Finally, Yolanthe means violet flower. That may not mean much to most people, but your mother loved violets, and your father loved her, so he gave you that name." Willow was looking forward to meeting her father, a man who loved his wife and daughter so much, yet would give his daughter away to an enemy prince...
"Marie?" she asked. "What is Prince Alaric like?" Marie frowned but did not speak, so Willow tried again. "Never mind. What do his names mean?" Marie's frown deepened.
"His names mean that his father has delusions of grandeur, mostly. Alaric means ruler of all, if that gives you any indication. The rest are as bad if not worse. Calhoun means warrior, and Garrard means 'with a mighty spear', of all things. Jarlath means man of control, which is typical of how they run their country's affairs. Nealon means champion, Raynor means mighty army, Thedric means ruler of the people, and Ware means defender.
All in all, his names mean that he's the crown prince of a country full of bloodthirsty barbarians. I honestly don't know much about the son, but if the father is any indication..." Marie broke off, realizing that she was hardly assuaging the fears of a young girl being forced into an arranged marriage. "But what do I know? For all I know, he may be very...kind," she finished lamely. Her voice betrayed her thoughts, and Willow sensed that she should expect no kindness from her fiance.
Marie left her with a comforting pat on her shoulder, and Willow groaned yet again. She had never missed the Hellmouth so much.
Angel woke slowly, feeling much more sluggish than usual. For a moment, he thought he felt a gentle breeze on his face, but it disappeared as soon as he felt it. His face merely felt warm, but he couldn't tell why, as his eyes were particularly disinclined to open.
He heard brisk footsteps approaching, then entering the room. "How is he?" a harsh voice asked.
"Better, your Majesty," was the hushed response.
"Woken up yet?"
"Inform me when he does." Angel again heard the footsteps, this time leaving the room. Finally, and with great effort, he managed to drag open his eyelids.
That was when he discovered why he felt so warm.
He was bathed in sunlight.
With a blinding speed and a muffled yell, he leaped out of the bed. As he retreated from the sunny window, he panted heavily, barely registering the sounds of surprise coming from the person who had been caring for him.
Angel realized there were more than a few things wrong with the picture before him. There was the fact that the room he was in consisted entirely of stone, with walls covered with tapestries and armor. There was the fact that he was dressed in a nightshirt such as one would find in history books. Most of all, there was the fact that his skin was still intact after prolonged sun exposure, besides which, he was panting. As in breathing. Furthermore, he almost fell over as he looked across the room and saw someone in the mirror.
He could be forgiven for fainting, in such shocking cirumstances. He could be, but he won't, because he didn't faint. Instead, he ran to the mirror, looking at his face for the first time in two and a half centuries. It was like seeing someone and recognizing them, without really knowing who they are. He grinned as he reexamined his long-lost face, until another thought hit him and he dashed away from the mirror. He jumped back onto the bed, throwing open the window and laughing out loud as he basked in the morning sun. He had always sworn that if he ever found humanity again, he wouldn't waste it like he had the first time. So he hung out the window, laughing like an idiot, practically inebriated with joy as he sunbathed in his nightgown.
He almost fell out when he felt a hesitant hand on his back, but managed to retain his grip on the sill. He reluctantly pulled his head inside to discover the person who had witnessed his recent antics. He saw a young man about his age ('Age! I have age!' A voice in his head cried), arms crossed, with a quizzical expression on his face.
"Feeling better, are we?" he asked wryly.
"You have no idea," Angel replied sincerely. The other man smiled in response. "Come on, Angel, let's get you dressed." He gestured towards a chair, and Angel walked over to see what he would be wearing. He smiled again at the difference between the clothes he began putting on and what he usually wore in his own world.
Here there were no silk shirts or long mysterious dusters. Black was usually only for mourning, and there were absolutely none of the white t-shirts he had worn in the past.
His breeches were leather, but not at all like the pants Angelus had preferred, being soft and tan. He pulled a full-sleeved shirt over his head that laced up at his neck, then shrugged into a velvet doublet. Once his leather boots were on, he walked over to the mirror again, convinced that he would never tire of looking at his reflection.
'That's me,' he thought. 'That's what other people have been seeing all these years. Those are my eyes, that's my nose, that's my mouth, that's-- whoa, what is up with my hair?' His thoughts were interrupted, however, as his companion grabbed him by the arm.
"C'mon, Angel, let's go. Oh, wait, I guess I should ask if you're feeling well enough to leave your room."
Angel nodded. "Fine, fine, let's go." He was hoping they would be going outside...in the sun...during the _daytime_...
As they left his bedchamber, they passed an older woman in a maid's uniform. "Hey, Aggie, where's the king?" She smiled fondly. "He went out to resolve the final details of the peace agreement, so you all can probably break your fast in peace, Garwin." She had not seen Angel behind him, but dropped into a curtsy as he stepped out into the hallway. "Are you feeling better, highness?"
Angel frowned at Garwin, not liking the implications of the curtsy or the word 'highness'.
"He's feeling much better, Aggie," Garwin answered, looking oddly at Angel. She straightened up, still smiling.
"You had us all a bit worried there, Prince Alaric."
Angel sighed again as he stabbed his fork at the ham on his plate. It was the first time in over two hundred and forty years that he was eating food for nourishment instead of entertainment, and he couldn't enjoy it.
Perhaps he was overreacting. He was thrilled to be merely human, so maybe it didn't matter that he was...royalty. The only thing he really missed from his old life (using the term loosely) was Buffy, and he missed her anyway, since he had moved to LA. He at least seemed to have friends here...
He practically choked at the thought. Here he was, so excited about being human and confused about being a prince that he hadn't remembered her until now. Where was she? Was she alright? He was responsible for her well-being, and he didn't even know where she was. How would he find her?
Coming out of his frantic thought-processes, he saw Garwin looking at him strangely.
"What?" Angel asked.
"You've been acting oddly all day, Angel. What's wrong with you?"
Angel couldn't figure out a way to avoid the question, so he ignored it instead. "Why does Aggie call me Alaric if you call me Angel?" Garwin looked surprised at the question, answering nonetheless.
"Alaric is one of your real names, Angel is what your mother called you before she died, so your friends call you that as well. There was a time you answered to nothing else. Your father, of course, beats anyone he hears calling you by your 'insipid nickname', as he refers to it. He doesn't feel it lives up to the names he gave you. They're all about war and power, and not many people are going to be frightened of a warrior named Angel."
Not unless they have good reason to, Angel thought.
"You already know all this, Angel," Garwin continued. "Why all the questions you could answer yourself?"
"I...I just want to hear your version of it, that's all."
"Right. So shall we go visit your horse? She's been worried about you."
Angel, resigning himself to the fact that he would have to look for Willow later, rose from his chair. "Let's go."
He followed Garwin through the castle courtyard, trying not to stop and sunbathe.
"So, are you looking forward to meeting your bride tonight?" Garwin asked. Angel froze, and for a few timeless moments, even the sun was forgotten.
Angel stood in the stables, brushing down his horse's side for the fourth time. He was a gorgeous stallion (the horse, not the prince), a huge but somehow graceful animal the color of his master's eyes. His name was Bishop.
Angel sighed as he ran the brush over Bishop's broad flank. Being a prince hadn't been that bad. Being betrothed, now that was simply unacceptable. But what was he supposed to do about it? The wedding was mending an age-old rift between two countries. If he even attempted to cry off, it would mean war all over again. He would be sacrificing hundreds and even thousands of lives for his own emotions, and the righteous fighter of evil in him could not allow that to happen.
His heart, however, was having serious problems with the new situation. He had been in love with Buffy since the first moment he saw her. She had been his everything, and anything good he had ever done had really been in her name. She had inspired him, and he couldn't really remember how he had existed before loving her.
The devil's advocate in his head argued that no one expected him to find love in a marriage of state, and some cultures considered affection for one's spouse to be in bad taste. Still, he didn't want to marry a complete stranger. If he couldn't have Buffy, he didn't want anyone.
But 'not having anyone' was no longer an option, and he knew it, which was why he was still standing in the palace stables and mindlessly brushing his increasingly confused horse.
Willow walked through the royal gardens listlessly. Her attendants looked at one another uneasily, having no idea how to deal with the overly pensive princess. Finally, she dismissed them all, knowing they would never be more than a hedge away if she needed anything.
Sighing, she sat down on an ornamental bench. Normally, she would try to put a brave face on, no matter how grim things seemed. This time, though, she couldn't seem to find a bright side.
Maybe the trouble was that things weren't grim enough. An apocalypse, or the hellmouth, or an ascension, or a master vampire hunting down her best friend-- these were things she considered herself equipped to deal with. But marriage to a complete stranger? That was a frightening prospect that she had never even considered.
And that very night, she was meeting him. She was meeting the man that she would marry in two weeks time, the man she was expected to have children with, the man who would become her master and monarch for the rest of her life...
No. She couldn't accept it. There was always a spell, or a portal, or a helpful demon. And if she couldn't find one, she would use her unending supply of spunk to make up the difference. After all, she had stopped frightening things before.
A reputedly chauvinistic fiance couldn't be any worse.
Willow met her mother and father about five minutes before they entered the banquet hall where she was scheduled to be introduced to Prince Alaric.
Her father was white-haired, though he looked no older than fifty. Her mother looked the same age as Marie, though she had a more regal bearing. The fondness in their eyes when they looked at their only daughter made Willow blush, and left her with more than a little feeling of melancholy. Her real parents had never looked at her like that, never looked at her like she was the most beautiful thing they had ever seen, like she was their most exalted accomplishment in their all-too-short lives...
Shaking herself, Willow held up her chin. It wouldn't do to burst into tears before seeing the entire court, as well as the man who would call her wife.
Bravely, she stepped through the carved oak doors held open by the heralds in bright livery.
Angel cast a nervous glance at Garwin as they prepared to be announced.
"Don't worry An- um, Alaric, everything will work out." Angel's father glared at the two young men.
"Just for once, Alaric, try not to disappoint me." He stalked away with his attendants, leaving Angel rather crestfallen. True, he had only met the king that afternoon, but he felt some sort of compulsion to please him already.
Garwin clapped him on the shoulder encouragingly. "Don't listen to him. And don't worry about the princess. I'm sure none of the rumors are true."
Angel looked at him sharply. "Rumors?"
Garwin winced. "Yeah, you know. She can't be as stupid as they say."
Angel sighed. This evening couldn't be any more fun.
Willow stood as the heralds opened the main doors and blew their trumpets. Her parents stood behind her on the dais, and Marie was at her right hand. Her mind was whirling as the king and his son were announced, but she barely registered the words as the majordomo cried out their names. She heard a 'majesty', a 'highness' and a few of the prince's eight names, but she could only hear one name in her mind.
It was him. Across the Great Hall, in a doublet of midnight blue velvet ornamented with jewels of state and silvery gray hose, it was him. His permanently haphazard hair was covered with a small crown of beaten gold, but it was him. Surrounded by servants and his father's men, it was him.
It was Angel.
Angel's eyes were drawn to the thrones on the raised dais all draped with purple watered silk, hoping to see his future bride, and when he saw her, he almost laughed in relief. He would recognize that red hair anywhere, and her barely suppressed grin of recognition precluded any doubt that it was her.
She was so bright it almost hurt to look at her for long, her scarlet hair glowing against the sapphire brocade of her bodice. Her full skirt was a slightly darker blue, open at the front to reveal her ivory kirtle. Topping everything was the pearl circlet that dipped down into her forehead, emphasizing the heart shape of her face.
She was a princess, but she was still Willow. His day was looking up.
"Welcome, Prince Alaric," Willow said, trying to keep the ironic tone out of her voice.
"We meet at last, Princess Aurelia," he replied, his eyes twinkling madly as he leaned over to kiss her extended hand.
"At long last." Garwin was startled at the sarcasm that seemed to drip from her innocent statement, but no one else seemed to notice. Taking Willow's arm, Angel led her out to the dance floor as the court musicians began to play. Under cover of music and the chattering nobles, they were finally able to speak.
"This is unbelievable," Willow began.
"You're telling me. One day, I own a private detective agency in LA with a former prom queen as my surprisingly capable secretary, the next I'm a crown prince, engaged to be married, I'm human, and I find out that my betrothed is my ex-girlfriend's best friend-"
Willow cut him off, a startled look in her eyes. "What did you say?"
"Ex-girlfriend's best friend?"
"Human?" she squeaked. Angel grinned in response.
"Oh, definitely. I went outside. In the sun, no less. It was wonderful."
"Angel, I'm so happy for you! I want to hug you, but I think half the royal court would die of shock."
"You're probably right. In any case, I appreciate the sentiment."
"Too bad it had to happen after passing through the vortex thingy, instead of back in Sunnydale. That would have solved a whole lot of problems."
He nodded ruefully. "Things never happens like they should. I think that's my motto in life." A few moments later, the dance ended and dinner was served.
"So Willow," Angel said oh-so-casually, "did you know that I now eat food for its nutritional value?" Willow found that after such a statement, she didn't care what might or might not be proper for a princess. She laughed out loud.
Angel put his lips to Willow's delicate hand. "Goodnight, Princess Aurelia." There was a warm smile on his face as he looked up at her, a smile which she was glad to reciprocate.
"Goodnight, Prince Alaric." She withdrew her hand slowly, wishing they could stay together. It had done her a world of good to find him in this new reality, and they really needed to talk over their rather interesting situation.
Especially the part with the marriage.
But it would have to wait, because there was no way two young nobles would be able to meet in secret. So Angel reluctantly left for his suite, Garwin at his side. At the doors of the Great Hall, he looked back at Willow, standing so straight and firm. Her eyes were on him still, like he was the only thing keeping her sane. It made sense, since he knew the feeling himself.
Willow yawned as Marie helped her out of her gown, occasionally sending a longing glance at her bed, with its silken sheets, and its down pillows, and the quilt that was so soft and warm she could almost-
"Willow?" Marie's voice hesitantly broke into her reverie.
"Mmmm?" was Willow's incredibly eloquent reply.
"You really liked Alaric, didn't you?"
Willow smiled to herself at Marie's question. "It's as if I've known him for years," she said wryly.
"I'm glad you like him, Willow. I'm glad, very glad." Willow heard an undertone of uncertainty in Marie's voice, and she turned to look at her. "What is it, Marie? What is it you're trying so hard not to say to me?"
Marie sighed, and the sound practically brought tears to Willow's eyes, a fact which at least one corner of her brain considered absurd. Yet something in that sigh was so forlorn, so helpless, so mournful, even, that Willow looked at the blonde in sympathy.
"I want you to be careful, my dear. That's all. A girl's heart is so tender, so easily damaged. I don't want that to happen to you because you give it away too soon. Guard your heart, darling. Watch over it, and no matter how charming Alaric may seem, don't let him shred you the way-" Marie cut herself off suddenly, and Willow thought her face looked pale in the firelight.
"Don't worry, Marie, Alaric can be trusted. He is a good man, a good man. I can tell you that-"
"You can tell nothing. However you perceive him now, he comes from a horrible place. I don't want you to be dragged there, marriage or not. Marriage doesn't have to touch your heart, Willow. Beware your heart, Willow. Be very aware." With that comment, Marie stood and quickly left the room.
Willow stared at the door she had passed through in shock. She had only known Marie for a day, but she knew her well enough to realize that this was in no way her normal behavior. Willow couldn't understand it. Marie seemed determined that Alaric was a scoundrel, and even more determined that Willow should not be harmed by him.
'But it's Angel!' her mind cried out in protest. Angel was a perfect gentleman and a loyal friend, and he in no way resembled the cad that Marie imagined him to be.
Crawling into bed at last, Willow's mind was filled with conflicting thoughts as she drifted off to sleep.
Angel was looking in the mirror yet again as Garwin regarded him in amusement. "Yeah, your face is still there. Shocking, I know."
"You can say that again," Angel replied without thinking first. He decided that he would simply hope that Alaric was supposed to have an obscure sense of humor. As he looked at Garwin in the reflection, he saw unanswered questions in his dark green eyes.
Garwin spoke suddenly. "You're quite taken with her, aren't you? The Princess?"
Angel smiled. "She's quite a girl."
Garwin nodded, his lips almost imperceptibly tight. "Well that's wonderful. I hope you'll both be very happy." His voice was strained, and Angel thought he could see a slight thread of bitterness in Garwin's usually cheerful face.
"Garwin? What's wrong?"
"What's wrong, Garwin?"
"It doesn't matter."
"Okay, that just contradicted your 'nothing', so let's try again. What's wrong? Did you not like the Princess? She really is wonderful, I'm sure you'll learn to love her."
Garwin laughed softly. "I'm sure I will." Angel walked over to him and seized his broad shoulders. "Garwin, talk to me."
Garwin stared at the ground, his voice halting as he began to speak. "You'll marry the princess, and you'll settle down to produce heirs and learn to be a good king. You'll live here, because your father's castle is really no place for newlyweds. You'll settle here, and the people will learn to love you once they realize that you are nothing like your tyrannical father. You'll become king one day, a king in love with his beautiful queen, a king with lovely children, a king adored by his adopted country as well as his father's subjects, a king who understands the art of ruling inherently. You'll live your idyllic life, and I'll be happy for you, but it will be from a distance, and I'm selfish enough to say that I wish you didn't have to get married and that maybe then you could stay at home..."
Angel looked at him in extreme confusion. "Garwin, what are you talking about? What do you mean, 'from a distance'?"
Garwin's eyes were already lonely as he looked up at his prince. "Oh, come on, Angel. You know your father will drag me back with him. He took me in as a foundling, and as such, I'm bound to him. He's never liked us being so close, and I'm sure he's relishing ending our companionship."
"A foundling," Angel stated, trying to understand.
"I was abandoned on the castle doorstep, four months after you were born. The king, out of what he refers to as 'the goodness of his heart', a doubtful title as he has neither goodness nor heart, allowed me to be raised in the castle. Aggie raised me, and though the king didn't like it, you and I grew up side by side. While your mother was alive, she loved our friendship, and when she died, she told the king to let us be.
But now, there's really no hope. You may insist that I stay here, but he is my monarch, and he may command me as the bastard foundling I am. I will never be able to marry, because no noblewoman would look twice at a man of unknown lineage, whether or not he be a friend of the prince. I have been raised on ladies, and cannot honestly see myself marrying a common wench. I have some degree of snobbery instilled in me, though a good deal of it is aimed at myself.
So I will return with your father after the wedding, and as I doubt he plans on visiting you too often, this is the end. Perhaps I sound melodramatic, but you were the only thing protecting me from him all these years." Garwin's eyes were bright, though his tears would never make it down his cheeks. "I'm glad you'll be happy with her, Angel. It's just that if you had despised each other on sight, I could have consoled myself with the idea that we would both be miserable for the rest of our lives."
He dropped his head in his hands, clutching at his wavy chestnut hair. "I told you I was selfish."
Angel looked at him helplessly, having no idea what to say. He glanced again at his reflection, but his image there was as silent as himself.
Angel awoke as someone briskly shook his shoulder.
"Rrrrnnngghh," he said, demonstrating his incredible talent for conversation. "No...sleep."
"Angel, wake up," a voice replied.
"Sleep," he said with great assurance.
"Wake up, you big lump of royalty. We'll miss it!"
Angel finally recognized the voice as Garwin's. He cracked open his eyelids to glare at his disgustingly awake compatriot. "Miss what? This had better be good."
"Well, it's just, you were so excited about being in the sun yesterday, that, I guess I thought you might like to see the sunrise. You can go back to sleep if you don't want--"
Angel threw back the blankets and dashed for the door. "Let's go, let's go!"
"Angel!" Garwin's voice arrested him. "I did allow enough time for you to get dressed."
With a sigh, Angel turned back to throw on his clothes in great haste.
He had never really witnessed the dawn, the first time he had been human. He sometimes stayed out carousing until the wee hours, but he was too drunk and caught up in the pleasures of the flesh to care about something as commonplace as the dawn.
He had been mistaken.
There are occasions in life where the feeling of anticipation overwhelms every sense in the body. It happens to children when they wake up on Christmas morning, it happens to actors right before the curtain goes up. Adrenaline sings hymns in their veins, they breathe faster in excitement.
Angel felt all this and then some as the first grey streaks of dawn tinged the dark early morning sky. He could hear songbirds begin to sing in the distance as they sensed the morning coming, and their song was the same of his overflowing spirit. In the capitol city, cocks were crowing, and the world was coming to life. But he remained frozen amongst the spires of the royal palace, willing the sun to rise sooner so that his heart wouldn't leap from his chest.
Slowly, ever slowly, the sky lightened, promising a beautiful day. Garwin heard his prince gasp as the sky caught fire, flaming into amber and violet and gold. The clouds were everchanging masterpieces, shifting in a faraway wind.
Angel's knuckles were white with clutching as the sun himself finally crested the horizon. It was nothing and exactly like he remembered. It began to dry up the morning dew and Angel let out the breath he hadn't known he was holding in.
Finally he turned to the man at his side, a look of incredible gratitude in his eyes.
"Thank you, Garwin."
Garwin looked at him for a moment, his green eyes unreadable in the morning light. Finally, he nodded, leaving Angel alone with his sunrise for company.
Willow was awakened by the sun streaking through her window. She stretched luxuriously, smiling sleepily as she saw Marie was sitting beside her bed. "Morning, Marie. How are you?"
Marie smiled at the newly awakened princess, brushing her tousled red hair away from her face. "I'm fine, Willow. You need to get up and put on your habit now, love."
Willow looked at her in tired confusion. "My habit?"
"Your riding habit, dear." Marie gestured to the plum colored garment laid across the foot of the bed. "You and Prince Alaric are going riding this morning."
Willow looked at her in shock. "Prince Alaric? Riding? With me?"
Marie looked out the window. "I suggested it to your mother. She thought it would be a good way for the two of you to get to know one another."
"I thought you didn't trust him."
Marie said nothing for a long moment. "I don't really know him, my dear. He may be nothing at all like-" With a hasty look at Willow, she amended her statement. "Like, like the sort of man who would do you harm. Now quickly, you need to eat your breakfast and get dressed. You are meeting Alaric in the stables in one hour."
Willow gave her a smile as bright as the morning sun as she threw back her blankets. "Thank you Marie. I will be glad to spend some time alone with-"
"I didn't say you would be alone, Willow. That would hardly be appropriate. His man Garwin will accompany you."
Her statement gave Willow pause. Garwin had watched her like a hawk at the banquet the night before, and only Angel's presence at her side had made his scrutiny bearable. Still, if it meant she would be able to talk with Angel, she would be able to deal with Garwin's company. If Angel liked him, he couldn't really be bad at all. Besides, she had more immediate concerns to think about.
How on earth was she going to ride a horse?
Angel and Garwin were already saddling the horses by the time Willow arrived in the palace stables. She looked like a gem, her hair flaming like the recent sunrise against the dark purple of her fitted riding habit, but Angel mostly noticed the expression on her face.
He smothered a laugh as she scanned the horses with wide green eyes. This was a girl who had been raised on a Hellmouth, who had fought against vampires for the past three years, a girl who had fought countless demons and random nasties, a girl who was best friends with a Vampire Slayer, a girl who was dating a werewolf, a girl who had seen Xander eat. Yet here she was, looking for all the world like she had never seen anything more frightening than a gently whickering mare.
"I'm told you're exceptionally fond of riding, Princess," he said with a wry smile upon his lips.
She glared at him, but nervousness severely reduced the steel in her gaze. "Yes, well, horses..." she trailed off.
Angel shook his head wonderingly, turning to see Garwin looking at her quizzically. "Garwin, I don't think you've actually met the Princess yet. Your Highness, this is my lifelong friend Garwin. Garwin, this is Princess Aurelia, as you already know."
Willow almost stuck her hand out to shake in greeting, but stopped herself as she saw Garwin bowing respectfully. Biting her lip, she did her best to curtsy. "I'm so glad to meet you, Garwin. Thank you for accompanying us on our ride today. It is much nicer to have you than some anonymous groom."
Garwin looked at her with some degree of surprise. Angel didn't know if it was because she was being so gracious or because she had used polysyllabic words like 'accompanying' and 'anonymous'.
"It is my pleasure, Highness. Now, can I help you mount?"
Realizing that Garwin would notice instantly that she was no horsewoman, Angel stepped in. "Oh, allow me. Please." Taking Willow's hand, he led her to the curious mare, all the while whispering in a low voice. "Your horse's name is Salla. She is fast but steady, and she thinks she knows you. She will follow my horse until you learn to control her. Just hold the reins and pretend you know what you're doing. It's easier than it looks." With that, they were at Salla's side, and Angel was cupping his hands to boost Willow up.
With a sigh of extreme trepidation, she placed her foot in his hands.
Garwin was confused. Anything he had ever heard about this Princess had been disappointing at least. She was supposed to be plain, dull, and foolish. Instead she was a vivacious bundle of loveliness and sweetness, treating him like an equal instead of the servant he essentially was.
Suddenly, Willow gasped and pointed to some indistinguishable spot amongst the trees. "Did you see that? Did you see that?"
"What?" Angel and Garwin asked simultaneously.
"That," she began, still pointing and somewhat in shock, " was Colibri coruscans. Colibri coruscans! Here!"
"Yes. And what, pray, is a Colibiri coruscans?" Angel asked.
"A sparkling violet-ear!" she replied in great excitement.
"A sparkling...violet...ear." Angel said slowly.
"It's a hummingbird," she explained patiently. "But the thing is, they live in Ecuador. How on earth can one live in this sort of habitat? I mean, the difference in temperature alone would seem to be prohibitive to their survival, but what could it possibly be eating here? There's quite a difference between an equatorial rainforest and a deciduous forest, yet here it is, flying around for all the world like this is it's natural biome. Amazing." Shaking her head in amazement and an overload of scientific facts, she rode ahead of the two men, who looked at each other in confusion. Eventually, Angel rode on to catch up with Willow, while Garwin continued to trail behind.
"Guess she's not stupid," he muttered softly, no one hearing him save one curious sparkling violet-ear.
Angel couldn't decide whether he was perfectly happy or extremely frustrated. Part of him was overjoyed that he was riding a responsive horse through a forest trail dappled in golden sunlight and living amongst diurnal creatures yet again. Another part of him wanted desperately to talk to Willow alone, a feat that would be nearly impossible to accomplish.
Meanwhile, Willow was doing her best to make friends with Garwin. She liked the unnaturally silent man, who had Angel's build and a few of his mannerisms. She liked the way he watched Angel, making sure his friend was alright. She even liked the way he didn't immediately trust her, knowing all too well that best friends adopted significant others with difficulty. As a result, she really, really wanted Garwin to like her in return, and not just because of Angel's good opinion.
"So, Garwin, are you enjoying your stay at the palace?"
"Of course, Your Highness. His Majesty your father is a gracious host."
"Please," she asked beseechingly, "Don't let's be so formal out here. You don't have to call me Willow, if you'd rather not, but at least use one of my many superfluous names. I might not remember to answer to most of them, but it would be fun to see which ones I actually recognize as my own."
Garwin smiled in spite of himself.
"Now really, all graciousness and decorum aside, how do you like our court?"
"I thought the decoration of the dais was a little ostentatious, but I was raised in a more Spartan environment, so I might be exposing my lack of sophistication. The banquet was exquisite, though I thought the game a little tough and at least one of the sauces overtart. With that in mind, I am constantly impressed by the level of courtesy that abounds under your father's rule. No one has cut me because of my low position, which is a delightful surprise, unmerited though it may be."
"I agree about the dais. It was overly stagey, however lovely the overall effect. I thought it was more an attempt to impress your party, rather than to welcome you. I actually didn't touch the game last night, and only tried certain sauces at Angel's insistence. Furthermore, anyone who would be rude to you deserves the same treatment themselves. Royalty has an obligation to treat everyone with respect. Nobility is nine tenths self-importance and snobbery anyway."
Garwin looked at her, noting the complete ease and honesty in her manner. Nodding as he quickly came to a decision, he pulled up on the reins of his horse. Noticing that he had stopped, Willow and Angel both halted their steeds. "Is something the matter, Garwin?" Angel asked.
"I'm afraid we forgot something terribly important."
"What?" Willow asked.
"Neither of you have any provisions in your saddlebags, do you? Nor do I. I obviously can't go back to the palace, but I believe there is a village not far from here. If you two are capable of riding on alone, I can go procure some luncheon for us."
Willow looked at Angel in delight, knowing that he wanted to talk about their situation as much as she did, but Angel's eyes were still fixed on Garwin.
Giving his prince half a smile and a lazy wink, Garwin spurred his horse into the woods.
"So, Angel," Willow began, "It's not that I'm not enjoying this ride, but, well, we're engaged."
"I would have to agree."
"Is this what you and Cordelia do regularly?"
He laughed. "No, I have never been forced to get married to Cordelia on any of our cases. We have occasionally masqueraded as a married couple, but it wasn't real. It wasn't a time/reality portal that landed us in nonexistent countries."
"Do you think we're even on earth?" she asked as the thought struck her.
"I have no idea. I really don't know what we should do in this situation. We can't tell anyone who we really are, because they would never believe us."
"What I wouldn't give for the internet and a stack of Giles's books right now. When it comes to that, what I wouldn't give for Giles right now."
"Yeah," Angel answered vaguely. Willow heard a decidedly noncommittal tone in his voice, and she searched his face, but only his face, as his eyes refused to meet hers. "Angel?" he looked down the path, though it was doubtful his mind was occupied by the view.
It was then that Willow realized something she had known already. "You like it here, don't you?"
His eyes remained focused on some distant point, and only the clenching of his jaw betrayed the emotions stirred by her quiet question.
"Yes," he finally responded, "I like it here. I like...breathing. I like rediscovering the feel of sunlight on my face, and knowing that eventually, my skin will darken. I like getting hungry for food, instead of someone's life-essence. I _love_ garlic.
I like meeting somebody and not feeling like a fraud when they assume I'm human. I like talking to people without being distracted by the sound of their blood rushing through their veins. Furthermore, I like having a pulse again, and I like knowing that the blood within me is my own.
I like the fact that I'm already forgetting what it feels like to do battle with a demon living inside me. I like knowing that I can get upset without worrying that my face might change into something frightening. I like having this face finally be my _real_ face. I like knowing what my face looks like, because I have a reflection again. I like the fact that I've stopped thinking there's someone else in the room when I see myself in the mirror.
I like waking up in the morning in warm sheets, sheets that are warmed by my body, which is finally above room temperature. I like getting out of bed with the knowledge that I'm a day older than I was yesterday, and then running outside to see the morning sun. I saw the sun rise this morning, did you know that? I witnessed the dawn.
I like having normal strength. I like sneezing when I walk into dusty rooms, and shivering when I walk into cold ones. I like never running into invisible barriers that guard places I haven't been invited. I like touching crosses.
I like never having to frantically search for a stake. I like knowing that no one in this world has ever known the feeling of fangs piercing their neck. I like the fact that none of the horrible things I did exist in this world." He paused. There were so many emotions in his quiet voice, emotions ranging from bitterness to long-awaited hope.
He continued, but his voice was a husky whisper. "The only thing I loved in that world was Buffy, and I had to leave her. Ever so slowly, just being around her was making me happy, and so I left her and all possible joy.
But now I'm here. I don't know why and I don't know how, but here, maybe I could someday find happiness without her, and that happiness would be a blessing instead of a clause in an ancient curse." Willow, having no words to contribute, placed a gentle hand on his forearm. He finally looked at her, and his eyes were full of conflict.
"Yes, Willow. I like it here. I like it so much that I'm worried. I'm worried that if we don't find a way back soon, I won't be willing to take it when we do."
"You could stay here. I could go back alone," she offered.
A small smile lifted the corners of his mouth. "Somehow, I don't think that's allowed. Nothing about this situation has been random, and I doubt either of us can choose independently of the other." Mustering up some of his earlier cheer, he grabbed her hand and squeezed comfortingly.
"Don't worry, Willow. It's my fault we're here, and if you want to go back, we'll find a way back. For now, though, let's play royalty, and enjoy our scandalously unchaperoned ride through the Royal Forest." With an increasingly common grin, he kicked his horse into a gallop and Willow squealed as her mare followed suit.
Once Garwin returned with luncheon, the three of them picnicked on a patch of moss next to a crystal brook. Willow gave Angel an evil grin as she turned to Garwin. "So, Garwin, tell me what Angel was like when he was little."
Garwin smiled at her, and his smile was not unlike the one she had given Angel. "Well, let me see. I bet you didn't know, for example, that Angel has a deep seated fear of squirrels."
Angel snorted, practically spraying wine all over himself. Garwin continued undaunted as Willow prompted him with a laugh. "You see, one day, long ago, as six year old Angel wandered about the castle garden, he saw some squirrels frolicking among the seedlings. Being a naturally generous fellow, he decided to share a snack with the boisterous creatures. He had some nuts, and had been informed that squirrels love nuts. He did his best to draw them closer, but the squirrels kept running away. Eventually, he hit upon the idea of laying down a trail of nuts. The squirrels, seeing that he meant no harm, crept ever closer.
Finally, one of them came close enough to eat from his hand. Angel found this very exciting, especially once the first squirrel's compatriots joined in the feast. Unfortunately, one of the squirrels, possibly with a case of shortsightedness, mistook one of Angel's tender digits for one of the nuts he was offering. In its haste to devour all the nuts, the squirrel bit Angel's middle finger.
You should have seen His Royal Highness, tearing into the castle with tears streaming down his cheeks and blood dripping from his poor, chewed upon finger."
Willow laughed in sympathy, and Angel looked at her in amusement.
"Such an experience," Garwin continued melodramatically, "would almost certainly scar any young monarch for life. But alas for poor Prince Alaric, this was not his last run-in with the dreaded beasts. Oh no, four years later, by then a manly ten year old, he was again attacked by one of the monsters. He and I were playing hide and seek in a small patch of forest. I was counting against a tree while Angel hid himself. I had been looking for no more than two and a half minutes when I heard a yell. Angel suddenly fell out of the tree in which he had been hiding, fortunately landing in a small bed of pine needles. As I rushed over to my friend's side, I noticed what looked like a small piece of fur attached to his neck.
It was, of course, a squirrel. Apparently disturbed by an intruder in its sylvan home, it had grabbed onto the back of his neck, clinging to him with its tiny yet sharp claws. I helped Angel free himself from the grasp of the creature, and together we ran to Aggie, our nursemaid, knowing she would fix him. She did indeed bandage his neck, but there are some wounds that go too deep for healing, and ever since, your future husband has been leery indeed of the bushy tailed marauders that respect not his crown." His story ended with a flourish, he finally cracked the smile he had been holding in, and the three of them laughed together like old friends.
Which, in fact, whether indirectly or no, they were.
Upon returning to the palace, Angel had been dragged away to some royal council, so Willow was left to her own devices to find some amusement. After changing out of her dusty riding habit and donning a bright white kirtle covered by a lavender colored bliaut, she decided to go exploring.
She found her way to the Great Hall by memory, determined to learn some of the geography of the palace. There were no visible signs of the recent festivities, and Willow made her way towards a large doorway on the far side of the huge chamber. Passing through the elaborately carved door, she found herself in a series of long galleries, each more magnificent than the one preceding it.
The first gallery held armor, brightly polished suits accompanied by all their requisite accessories. It was a bit too militaristic for Willow to understand the purposes of much of it, but she couldn't help but be fascinated by the variations each knight made in designing his defensive suit. Most of all, she loved looking at all of the different shields. She knew that a shield was often the only thing to save a knight from death, but the patterns on each one were as interesting as the knights themselves must have been. Some depicted towers and fortresses, grand constructions that certainly had a great deal of meaning for the men who immortalized them in metal. Some were more fanciful, containing griffins, manticores, undulating serpents, and one even had a unicorn.
The ones that interested Willow most of all were the ones with beautifully scripted words covering their surfaces. Some were in ancient languages she couldn't even begin to understand, with words consisting of runes that she had never seen. Others, however, were in varied forms of Latin, and even with her basic knowledge of the language, she could figure out at least some of their meanings. There were strong words of protection and blessings placed on those shields, words containing power. She ran her hand lightly over them, and she knew that if she had been a knight, she would have wanted one of those shields. Willow, of all people, knew the power of words.
Upon reaching the end of the gallery, she moved into the next with a gasp of delight. The room was made of vast stone walls, but she could hardly see them, for almost every inch was covered in magnificent tapestries. She could only guess at their immense weight, even as she was dazzled by their color and incredible detail. Moving closer to one, she hardly dared breathe, unconsciously hesitant to disturb the tiny figures made of brightly colored thread.
Entire lives were lived in each patch of woven history, and Willow was enthralled by the incredible detail. She couldn't decide if the weaver's greater talent had been in pure artistry, or in the insightful telling of the many tales she was seeing. She saw miniature dukes proposing to beautiful ladies in the middle of rose arbors. She saw great treaties being signed between powerful nations, she saw said treaties being broken, and she saw the wars that resulted. She saw men dying by the thousands on battlefields made of silk, with their woven blood flowing in frozen rivulets past fallen horses and generals.
She saw women dying in childbirth, and women who lived to watch their children grow old. She saw death and mourning, and she saw joy occurring for no reason at all but that people wished for its existence. She saw castles from long ago, courtiers flirting and insinuating with words, even as footmen and maids kissed in the servants' passages.
She saw valiant knights who rode out against great dragons, with some emerging victorious, and some being charred in the attempt. She saw sorcerers who strove for anarchy, wizards who upheld the law, and the populace forever caught in the middle.
She saw a young girl, clad all in magnificent white, given away by her father at the altar. The magnificence of the royal wedding was caught forever in the strands, but the girl's face could not be seen as she was passed into her husband's care. Willow wanted so much to see her expression, to know if she was happy to be married, or if it meant an end of herself...
Standing abruptly, Willow shook her head to clear away her suddenly disturbing thoughts. Perhaps Marie's harsh words from before were finally catching up with her. Deciding she had had enough of tapestries, Willow quickly moved into the next gallery.
She suddenly felt very self conscious as hundreds of eyes stared at her.
Catching her breath, Willow almost laughed in relief as she realized that there were no people in the room; rather, she had entered the hall of Royal Portraits. Her former curiosity restored, Willow began working her way through the paintings, staring intently at the images of the ancestors of her other self.
There were a few redheads, and many green eyes, but the common factor between most of the portraits was the expression of extreme intelligence in every ancient face. Their costumes were rich and varied, but they all had that look in their eyes, the look of knowledge within, the look of an active mind that works incessantly. They might not have vocalized the constant stream of mental activity the way Willow did, but she could see it had happened internally nonetheless.
Willow didn't know them, but in a strange way, she still felt that they were her family. Not just that they were part of her bloodline, but that she belonged among them.
"Ridiculous," she muttered, turning quickly to find her way out. But she paused at the door, looking back at all of her great great great great grandmothers and uncles and cousins. She was their legacy. She was part of their line.
She was very nervous.
Determined not to revert to old habits, Angel stifled his instinct to growl as the chancellor of his soon-to-be father-in-law began yet another speech. Every possible benefit of his marriage to the princess had been covered several times already, but no one else seemed to object to hearing them again. They were all so delighted that the betrothal was in place, that none of them seemed to think it necessary that he spend any time with his bride-to-be until she was actually his bride.
Meanwhile, he was going slowly mad as everyone recycled the same speech by putting emphasis on different words. "...and the GREAT advantages of this union are not ONLY manifest in the aspects of CHANGE..."
Angel's foot went to sleep.
Admittedly, at least some part of him was thrilled by the tiny reminder that he was human. However, as reminders go, it was certainly one of the less enjoyable. He really couldn't put up with their nonsense for much longer.
The chancellor finally finished, beaming at those seated near him. Angel could see that another councilor was about to stand, and unable to bear it any longer, he leaped to his feet first. The table fell deadly silent at the sight of the standing prince. Praying that his talent for improvisation had not left him, Angel spread his arms.
"Your Majesty," he began, nodding at the king who continued to look at him in surprise, "and gentlemen of the court. I am indeed honored by not only your gracious welcome into your country, but your welcome into your royal family as well. I had heard many tales of the princess' beauty, charm, and wit, but not a one approached the truth. It is with the greatest of care that I will attempt to be something close to the husband that she deserves."
The king beamed at Angel's words, and he knew that flattering Willow had definitely been the proper way to begin. "I know that our kingdoms have histories that some might say stand in the way of this union, histories of war and betrayal. But I will not speak of the details." In fact, he wouldn't have been able to if he had tried. He knew none of the histories he hinted at.
"All that I can give to you," he continued, his voice echoing strongly and his eyes blazing with sincerity, "is my word, my word that not only will I care for your princess with all the respect that she should be afforded and more, but that I will care for your people. I do not mean I will provide for them, because you have taught them to do that themselves. I mean that I will care for them, I will consider their welfare as important a thing to be preserved as my own. When I marry Her Royal Highness, I do not just wed a woman. I wed her family, I wed her country.
You have no reason to believe that I am trustworthy, and I will never fault any of you for being wary of me. But I swear that I will watch over your people with a vigilance as great as your own. I embrace the responsibility you are affording to me, and I thank you for it.
There is a day in the future I am looking for, a day that I must create myself. On that day, you will trust me as one of your own people. You will not regard me as a foreigner, but you will embrace me," Angel looked around the table, making eye contact with every man there, "...as a son." He sat down slowly, wondering if he had been just a little too melodramatic.
That was when the table erupted in applause and cheers, men standing to express their appreciation. Angel allowed them a humble smile, though he was grinning madly within. "Overexcited much?" he thought, feeling a pang as he thought of his absent secretary. He had no time to wonder about Cordelia, however, as everyone in the room rushed at him in an effort to shake his hand and welcome him properly.
He didn't notice his
father, sitting in the chair where he had been all along. He alone did
not stand, did not applaud, did not smile. He had watched his son through
narrowed eyes, scowling at him through the length of his encouraging speech.
As Angel smiled and chatted with his father's former enemies, he stood
and stalked out, a look of disgust twisting his grizzled face.