Garwin looked up in surprise as the king stormed out of the councilroom, a look of barely muted fury on his face. Garwin had not been allowed to attend the session due to his lack of a pedigree, but he had been able to make out Angel's speech, and been delighted to hear how well it was received. Unfortunately, it looked as though Angel's father had been somewhat less impressed. Even less fortunately, he spied Garwin sitting in the corner.
"You," he snarled, "What are you doing here, hanging around like the worthless pup you are?"
"I, I was waiting for Angel-" Garwin realized his mistake too late, and his head cracked back at the force of the king's blow to his jaw.
"What did you say?"
"I'm sorry, I meant I was waiting for Alaric-" The king's fist lashed out again, causing Garwin to stumble.
"I was waiting for His Royal Highness," Garwin mumbled through the blood in his mouth. Seizing him by the hair, the king threw Garwin to the ground. Nearby sentries stirred uneasily, but they could hardly prevent the king from disciplining his own servant.
"That's right," the king ground out, his face a mask of fury. "He...is...your...prince." Each word was accompanied by a kick to Garwin's side. Garwin could feel his ribs breaking, but didn't say a word, hoping silence would make him stop sooner.
"His mother thought it was a good thing for you two to be friends. His mother also thought 'Angel'," his face twisted in distaste at the name, "was a suitable nickname for our nation's prince and one day leader. His mother thought it was a good idea to allow you," his fist threw Garwin back against the wall, "a sniveling little forsaken bastard, to be his constant companion." Garwin's vision was becoming gray around the edges, and he closed his eyes only to see starbursts behind his eyelids. "Well, my boy, that will all change soon. You aren't going to follow the 'happy couple' around after the wedding. You don't deserve to be happy, to even witness happiness, because you don't even deserve to live. Let's never forget how worthless you really are."
That was when Garwin fainted.
Worn out from wandering aimlessly through myriad hallways, Willow paused when she heard a man's furious grunt. Curious, she looked round a corner in the direction of the noise.
There she saw Angel's father, pounding his fists into a bloody and apparently unconscious Garwin.
With a horrified gasp, she ran forward unthinkingly, grabbing the king and pulling him away from her wounded friend. Willow may have looked delicate, but years of assisting in the tasks of slaying gave her an unusual power, and the king almost fell as she threw him off Garwin's inert form. He looked at her in shock for a moment, then his face darkened in fury.
"Are you crazy?" she gasped angrily, trying at the same time to ascertain the extent of Garwin's wounds. She looked at the king in horror. "What did he do? What did he do to deserve this? You- horrible, horrible man! How could you do this to your son's best friend? He's served your family loyally his whole life, and this is how you repay him? What could he have possibly done to you?"
For a moment, she thought the king might turn on her, so menacing was his face and figure. She saw him clench his hands in incredible rage, but by some miracle, he restrained himself. His white-knuckled fists slowly uncurled, his fingers trembling in trapped emotion. Then he answered her.
"What did he do? He exists. He lives and breathes." Suddenly, he spat contemptuously on Garwin's slumped body. With a look at Willow, daring her to provoke him any further, he turned away and walked down the hall. With a flick of his wrist, he flung away a few drops of Garwin's blood that still clung to his hand.
"Good e'en, Princess," he called back without turning, his voice heavy with disgust.
Righteous ire rose in Willow's breast, but she forgot it as Garwin emitted a low moan at her feet. Heedless of his blood, she knelt beside him, her face pale and tight with worry. "Garwin? Can you hear me? It's Willow. The...the princess. Are you alright? No, that's a stupid question. Are you conscious? Oh, Garwin, please be okay. Please, wake up, say something." She clutched his hand tightly, wishing for a sign that his injuries weren't as bad as she already suspected.
"Your Highness." His voice was rough and thick with pain, but he tried to look up at her face. "I'm sorry you had to see that-" Willow interrupted him with a sound that was half sob, half laugh of relief. "Garwin, Garwin! Thank goodness. I can't believe this happened here, in my home, in my father's palace."
"It's not _your_ father I need to worry about," Garwin muttered, wry even in his battered state.
"Garwin, why didn't you try and stop him?"
"Strike my king? I may be in pain, Princess, but I didn't want to risk a hanging offense just to keep my ribs intact."
"He broke your ribs? Oh, Garwin, he belongs on the hellmouth, not here."
"Hellmouth?" He asked in confusion. Pretending not to hear him, Willow gently pressed her lips to his bloody forehead.
That was how Angel found them.
His head still reeling from all the congratulations he had received, Angel let out a sigh as he stepped into the hall. When he saw the two figures on the floor, however, the sigh was turned into a choked gasp and he flew to Willow's side.
"What happened here- Garwin?!" he recognized his friend in horror, wincing at his injuries. There was a time when the sight of so much blood would have made him weak with hunger, but that time was past, and he could only feel shock at the sight of his friend's crumpled body. "Who did this? Who laid a hand on you? I'll teach them to-"
"It was your father," Willow interrupted, her voice more sad than angry. "I found him here, beating him, but he was already on the ground. Garwin had already fallen, and he was still hitting him over and over..." Her voice began to crack, and Angel took her into his embrace, one hand still resting on Garwin's shoulder. "Garwin, we need to move you into my chambers," Angel said quietly, squeezing Willow's arm in silent support.
"That's right. We need to have him moved. I can do something about that." Willow gave Angel a grateful smile, then left the shelter of his arm to walk over to the nearest guardsman. "You," she barked harshly. "Go get help. Now." The man began walking down the hall. "RUN!" she commanded, and the man dashed away hurriedly. Stalking over to the next man, she glared up into his face, though she was more than a foot shorter than him. "What are you about, to have let this occur right under your very nose?" she demanded furiously.
"The king," the soldier began weakly, but Willow cut him off with a fierce shake of her head.
"Don't give me any weak excuses. The council room is all of two paces away, you couldn't go in and ask for help? Maybe you are forbidden to restrain the king, but my father could have helped you! Instead, you chose to stand here like a statue, to watch as my good friend was attacked by my fiance's father! What can you say in your defense? Are you so braindead that you couldn't think of any course of action more useful than pretending to be inanimate? I am disgusted by you, by all of you!" she cried, gesturing to every other guard in sight.
"Why do you think you carry weapons? As jewelry? It is your job to protect people, not watch as they are brutally beaten! I am sickened by your apathy, and by all rights, you should be flung out of the palace like the spineless scum you are."
Angel couldn't help but hearken back to the time when he himself had felt the burn of Willow's ire. Still, looking at Garwin lying helplessly on the ground, he felt no pity for the sentries.
"And yet, for all that I would wish to exact my revenge for your tremendous displays of cowardice, I am, in the end, a princess. However I may criticize you, it is my duty by blood to rise above my emotions. I know well that you may have families that might suffer if I were to discharge you in disgrace, that you may have elderly mothers who depend upon your wages. Therefore, as much as my friendship with this man screams against it, I will not discharge you. I will merely assign you to extra guard duty for the next six months, cut your rations in half and issue a proclamation that any man that acts in such a feeble manner in the future will suffer much stiffer consequences."
The soldiers imperceptibly slumped in relief. "Don't _ever_ let it happen again, understood?" Willow's voice was impossibly chilly. The men nodded frantically, and each bowed at her feet to kiss the hem of her robe before going slinking away in shame. One soldier remained, his face resigned.
"Highness, I beg of you, I must speak."
Willow glared at him. "You think my judgement too harsh for the enormity of your crime?"
"No, Princess, in fact, I think you are overly generous to me. I have no family, my mother is in good health, and I think it right that you should discharge me, for I have betrayed my duty and my intentions. I deserve no leniency, and it is not just that I should accept it."
Willow's face softened as she studied the man. He was quite young for a guard, now that she looked closer. He couldn't be more than a year or two older than herself. Back in Sunnydale, they probably would have taken classes together. "Wherefore do you seek the wrath of a princess?" she asked quietly.
"I know too well the plight of your friend there," he said softly, gesturing towards Garwin. "My stepfather used to beat me and my younger brother cruelly. I longed all my life to become a soldier so that I could be stronger than him, so that I could protect my family from his violence. When he died, he left my mother well-off, and I was free to come to the palace. I came here to become a brave man, a man who would never harm anyone who couldn't fight back...
I am ashamed, because I let my own memories stifle me just now. All the months of training, all my shiny good intentions, and none of it has done any good at all. When the king attacked, I could only see my stepfather striking my brother as he did for so many years, and as much as I wanted to stop him, I knew that if I intervened he would be able to kill me easily-" his voice faltered, and his head dropped. "I am here to stop it from happening to others, and now I have failed in the only objective of my occupation. I have failed you as my princess, your father as my king, and most of all, I have failed this man because he reminded me of myself."
Willow halted his confession by placing her hand on his sleeve. "The wounds of childhood cannot be erased. I shall not send you away, because to be perfectly honest, we need more men of your make amongst our numbers. If you truly wish to make amends, you may be Garwin's personal sentry while he recuperates. Your regular duties shall be forfeit as you guard his life with your own. You may not have saved him this time, but it is possible that you shall in the future."
The soldier looked into her eyes, and she saw that tears had made their way down his face. "Princess, I-" he stopped, eyes widening, and even from behind, Angel figured he was getting a dose of the redhead's willpower. "I would be honored."
Willow nodded at him. "You may stand guard while we wait for assistance to arrive. Forget your shame, and focus on your new esponsibilities." Releasing his arm, she walked back to kneel beside Angel.
"Check out the princess," he murmured, half teasing and half in awe.
"Yeah, well, when in Rome," she replied with a smile. "It's just like learning a foreign language, only it's still...English. Just more Giles-y."
Angel looked at her speculatively. "You seemed pretty comfortable in your authority, though. That has nothing to do with speech patterns."
Willow's eyes registered confusion when she looked into his own. "What do you mean?"
"I just-" he broke off as palace healers rushed into the hall.
"Here he is. Help him," Willow commanded, though an undercurrent of worry and helplessness surfaced in her voice. As Garwin was prodded and examined, she held his head in her lap, stroking his hair, ignoring the blood that had formed it into clumps. Seeing that there was not much he could do, Angel determined to make himself useful in a somewhat different capacity.
"Willow, Garwin, if you could excuse me, there is someone I must talk to." Willow's nod was slightly reproachful, but Garwin immediately understood Angel's veiled meaning. "Your Highness, don't-"
"Don't call me 'your highness'. Call me Angel like you're supposed to, and trust me. All may not be well, but I won't do anything too stupid." Garwin looked doubtful, but he waved his hand in dismissal. Smiling grimly at his injured friend, Willow finally understood his intentions as Angel set off to find his father.
The guard's eyes widened as he saw Angel approaching. "Your Highness, perhaps you shouldn't-"
"Is my father in?" Angel interrupted, his voice oily with politeness.
"Sir," the guard began, verging on desperation. He was never allowed to finish his thought, however, because he was cut off yet again.
"Send the boy in!" an angry voice rang out from within the royal suite, and Angel smiled grimly as the soldier blanched. They both heard the insult in the word 'boy', but Angel was angry enough that no new insults would increase his cold rage. Brushing past the petrified guard, he entered the room.
"Well, well," the king began, "your friend Garwin soiled my new shirt with his filthy blood."
Angel, refusing to be baited, merely stared at him.
"Good thing the princess showed up," he continued. "I guess that's pretty much the story of his worthless life-- totally helpless but for the protection of women." He dropped all pretense of polite conversation at that point, and the look he gave his heir would have withered plants. "Well, I wonder how interesting I can make his life once there are no more skirts to hide behind?"
"What do you think you will accomplish by threatening my friend?" Angel asked quietly.
"I don't need threats, my boy, when I have all the time in the world to make good on my plans."
"Do you honestly think I'll allow him to return with you?" Angel asked with a cocky smile, a smile that he had rarely unleashed in the many years since the return of his soul. It was a smile he had perfected over decades, capable of maddening women with lust and infuriating those he wished to torment. It was a calculated attempt at irritation, and had never failed.
"I own him," the king growled, feeling all the condescension implied in Angel's smirk.
"Hardly," Angel replied breezily. "Anyway, I inherited Mother's quick mind instead of your lust for violence, a fact for which I am constantly grateful. Don't you think I'm capable of convincing Willow's father that Garwin should stay here permanently, all the while making it seem as if it were his idea?"
The king slowly rose from his chair, glaring at his rebellious son. "I swear, boy, if you don't-"
"If I don't what? Will you hit me, try to beat me as you did Garwin? The whole palace knows about your violent temper, and though they may not have much say in how much brutality you dole out to your servants, they will not stand for you to bloody my lip, for they like me very well here. Furthermore, I, unlike Garwin," here Angel paused, sidling so close to his father that they each could feel the breath of the other on their faces, "am not afraid to hit back."
They stood at an impasse for a moment, neither backing down, neither daring to move. Angel was the first to break the silence.
"I may not be the son you wanted, milord," he murmured, his voice silky, "but in some ways, I am more like you than either of us would dare admit." He swiftly turned away, pausing at the door to look back at his seething father. "Don't ever lay hands on any of my loved ones again." With a mocking bow, he exited the room.
Garwin awoke to see Willow's extremely worried face. Some of the worry, however, turned to joy as he opened his eyes. "Garwin! You're conscious! Oh, I'm so glad!" She bent to hug him tightly, and Garwin had just enough coherent thought to spare that he noticed her firm grip didn't grip him in any of the places where he was in real pain.
"Thayne! Come here, he's awake!" Garwin had time to blink before a new face appeared. He saw a hesitating young man with gold hair and grey eyes, a pike held loosely in his right hand.
"Your Highness," Thayne said respectfully, "perhaps I should remain by the door. Lord Garwin doesn't really know me..."
"I'm not a Lord," Garwin croaked as Willow quelled Thayne's worries.
"Don't worry Thayne, I'm sure that you and Garwin will be great friends. Garwin, this is Thayne, a soldier in His Majesty's service, currently employed as your personal bodyguard."
"Good my Lord," Thayne began, bowing as best he could beside the bed.
"Still not a Lord," Garwin replied.
"Oh, Garwin, don't be silly. If he wants to call you a Lord, let him."
"I will do my utmost to see that never, under any circumstances, will you again be subjected to such disregard as you unfortunately experienced today."
"Disregard?" Garwin looked at Willow questioningly.
"Thayne feels badly because he didn't step in to stop the king."
"Indeed, milord, I swear that never again shall my own inner turmoil paralyze me as it did during today's incident-"
"STOP!" Garwin sternly said. "There is too much going on right now for a person in my position to understand it all at once. As far as I can tell, Thayne is a palace guard who is now my personal guard who insists on calling me Lord. Yes?"
"Yes, but-" Willow began.
"Princess, may I ask a favor?"
"Of course, Garwin," she replied, softening.
"Can I muddle through the explanations later? Please? My head hurts, and listening to convoluted accounts of todays events is only making it worse."
"Right you are, Garwin. You deserve to be coddled, and coddled you shall be."
"I didn't say that I wanted-"
"Coddled you shall be," Willow finished firmly. "Thayne, call a page, and send for more pillows and some broth."
Thayne bowed out of the room, casting guilty glances at Garwin all the while. Once he was gone, Garwin gave Willow a wry look. "You like protecting me, don't you? You want very much for me to like it here. Don't you know your kindness will make it that much harder when I'm forced to leave?"
Willow looked at him sadly, brushing his hair away from his forehead. "I'm sort of hoping you won't have to leave, Garwin. I think you fit here."
"So do I," a voice came form the doorway. Angel walked in slowly, reaching out his hand as Willow came to meet him halfway. Seeing the questions in their eyes, he shrugged. "I...spoke with him."
"I'm hearing less 'spoke' and more 'got in his face and tried to infuriate him," Willow commented.
"Perceptive as always," Angel smiled.
"Look at the two of you," Garwin blurted out. "Goodness, it almost makes me angry how perfectly suited you are for one another, if only because it isn't fair that you both get to be so happy."
Willow and Angel had hardly had time to exchange a look before Marie came in. "Your Highness, the banquet is soon. You had not forgotten? I had such a time finding you. Where have you been, and why are you here?" Seeing Angel, she bowed. "My Other Highness, a pleasure. And who is..." Marie looked towards the bed, her words breaking off and catching in her throat as she looked at the mutilated man under the covers.
"Do I really look that bad?" Garwin asked as Marie stared in what appeared to be horror. Feeling the curious gazes of Willow and Angel, she managed to tear her eyes away. "Willow, I will help you dress. I will be in your chambers-" the rest of her sentence was lost as she fled into the hallway.
"What was that about?" Angel asked confusedly.
"I have no idea," Willow admitted. "But I guess I should go get ready. Garwin," she crossed over and kissed his more or less intact cheek, "I hope you feel better. Thayne will help out. Angel, I'll see you at dinner. Now, I'm off to turn into a proper princess." With a smile, she glided out the door.
"Too late," Garwin murmured. "Well, Angel, you should probably go get ready as well."
"I don't want to leave you alone-"
"I have Thayne, and later maybe we can bribe a page to tell us what everyone was wearing and who danced with who. Now go!" Angel gave up with a laugh and headed out the door. Garwin had almost drifted off to sleep again when he heard fanfare in the hallway. Thayne dashed in breathlessly, somehow still balancing a bowl of soup.
"My Lord, he approaches-" Thayne began choking as he struggled to catch his breath, and an unpleasant thought crawled into Garwin's mind. Surely Angel's father wouldn't attempt to attack him again?"
That was when liveried heralds entered the room. "His Majesty the King," one bawled as Willow's father swept into the room. Garwin couldn't help but muse that he had never in his life been so popular before his cruel beating. Already, his room had contained a Princess, Prince, lady-in-waiting and his earnest guard, and now he was seeing the king.
"Forgive me, Your Majesty, I fear I am in no condition to bow to you," Garwin said respectfully.
"My boy, I, like my daughter, am deeply distressed by what happened to you today. I feel the need to make amends."
"Your Majesty, there was nothing you could have done."
"I disagree, but I will do something now. Do you feel capable of being carried in a litter?"
Garwin looked at the king in confusion. "A litter?"
"I would wish you to be our guest of honor at tonight's festivities, but methinks your chamber a bit small for the entire royal court. Therefore, the only solution is to take you to them." The king's face had not changed, but there was a tone of gentle teasing in his commanding voice. Garwin smiled in spite of himself. The smile faded as another thought occurred to him.
"I do not wish to question Your Majesty in anything, but might it not be...impolitic to bring me to a feast where His Other Majesty will be present?"
The king smiled grimly. "it is well thought of, but I spoke with him this morning before the council of my advisors. He informed me that he 'wouldn't be caught dead at any more wasteful festivities celebrating something so entirely mundane', so I think we need not worry about his presence."
"Well, in that case...to be sure, Your Majesty, I think I could be carried if my attendants can try not to jolt me too much."
"You are being pert, which I will take as a sign that you are feeling better. Very well, I will be honored to have you at my table this evening. My daughter thinks very highly of you and your Prince, so I have no choice but to love you as well. We will speak further this evening, but for now I shall leave you to your rest. Fare thee well." In a swirl of ermine and a blast of trumpets, he was gone. Looking across the room, Garwin saw a somewhat flabbergasted Thayne still clutching the bowl of broth in his hand.
"Isn't being an invalid fun?" Garwin grinned.
"So, Rajah, is there anything else your heart desires?" Angel smirked as an earnest young page brought Garwin yet another concoction of fresh fruit juice.
"Angel, so help me, once I'm mobile again," Garwin threatened vaguely. He was lounging in an extravagant litter covered in silk cushions made from every conceivable color of silk and velvet. None of them, however, could match the brilliance of the amethyst dressing gown borrowed from the king's own wardrobe. Garwin had tried to protest, but the king's valet had been quite insistent, and Garwin hoped that the honor of wearing the king's clothing outweighed how ridiculous he imagined he looked.
Willow walked over, a wide smile on her face. "Angel, it looks like these pillows could be made from your old wardrobe. Multicolored silk and velvet-- that was your Bronzing gear." Angel smiled ruefully before Garwin interrupted.
"What are you talking about? Bronzing?"
"Oh, it was just a joke. A very incomprehensible not funny at all joke. So, Garwin, is there a particular reason that Marie is so terrified of you?" She looked over to where her lady-in-waiting was sitting, her face white and her hands twisting the train of her gown. She looked everywhere in the room but at Garwin, and her eyes looked suspiciously bright.
"Have you been bullying courtiers again, you naughty boy?" Angel remonstrated.
Garwin shrugged helplessly, or as well as he could in spite of his injuries. "I've never met her, so the only thing I can guess is that the color of this robe hurts her eyes. Oh, um, Princess, don't tell your father I said that."
Willow laughed, then saw her father gesturing for her to approach the throne. "Oh, Angel, this is the ceremony of the evening. Garwin, we'll be back in a minute." She and Angel began working their way towards her father, when she suddenly stopped at Marie's chair. "Marie, Garwin was requesting some mulled wine. Could you take him a flagon please?"
Marie began to protest, but Willow had already continued on her way. "You're bad," Angel whispered. "Eighteen years on the hellmouth will do that to a girl," she replied. They reached her father, who held up his hands for silence.
"Tonight is truly a great night, my countrymen. We are celebrating a union, not only between nations, but between two truly wonderful people. Most of you must know how remarkable my daughter the Princess is, but it has been my privilege to get to know her fiance, and I can honestly say that I will be glad to welcome Prince Alaric into my family. He is an honorable and upright young man who will someday make a wonderful king. In other words, he is almost worthy of her hand." The court seemed to hold its breath at the king's audacity, but at Angel's grin, there was a swell of relieved laughter.
"The marriage is fast approaching," the king continued. "There were those who questioned the wisdom of an alliance of any sort between our two countries, but I think their worries have proved almost entirely unfounded. Here," he cried, raising his goblet, "is to the Prince and our Princess!" The hall erupted into cheers.
The silence was almost imperceptible at first, because silence by definition cannot be heard in a din. Yet slowly it spread, snaking through the crowd, and the jubilant yells died away in a wide path leading to the main doors.
For there stood Angel's father.
He was drunk and sneering, for alcohol could not change his disposition for the better. He glared around him, and the richly dressed people near him backed away as much as those behind them would allow.
"My good King Aylmar," Willow's father said calmly, "how good to have join us."
"Very good,' he replied bitterly. "You're thrilled, in fact, to see me, yes?"
"Of course," he replied.
Aylmar made his way towards the throne, stumbling occasionally. He came up the steps till he was within an arm's length of Angel. "Well, Padraic, this is a lovely scene here." Willow's father raised his eyebrow at the casual use of his name, but he made no comment. "The newlyweds," Aylmar continued. "Or, is it soon to be weds? Watch out for her, my boy," he whispered loudly to Angel. "She's violent."
"Like you?" his son asked coldly.
Shaking his head, the king laughed. "Well, I shouldn't have come. I just heard everyone having such a nice time, I thought I'd come down and look at the ridiculous show you're putting on. Parading these two around like prize horses, then marrying them off next week so your daughter can start breeding-"
"That's enough," King Padraic snapped, his voice no longer so controlled.
"Breeding royal brats even worse than these two. But, that's enough out of me. I'm a bit fey this evening, all the excitement, you understand." His voice was more poisonous than usual, and he did his best to bow mockingly. "I'll be on my way, then-" he broke off as his eyes landed on the multicolored litter where Garwin was doing his best to look like an unusually large green-eyed pillow.
"Well, I'll be damned," the king whispered. Willow winced as he began to laugh. "If that isn't too perfect. I wasn't aware it was your royal policy to shelter whores," he remarked viciously. Willow looked at Angel in confusion, but gasped as she saw the abnormally grey color of Marie's face. Running over to her, Willow barely managed to catch her before she fell to the floor.
"Lovely. A whore and her children, adoptive and abandoned. What a tableau."
Seizing his father's arm violently, Angel shook him. "What is wrong with you? Is there nothing but monster left in you? You come here with your insults and your lies-"
"No lies, my boy. If the truth is an insult, then you have to live with it. Look at her eyes, when she wakes up--the same green as his own." Ripping his arm from his son's grasp, he turned away. "I apologize, good people. Return to your festivities." His smile was full of satisfied hatred as he walked out.
Angel looked at Garwin, who glanced at him in despair before he refocused on Willow trying desperately to wake Marie up.
The celebratory ball had ended in confusion, a weak and humiliated Marie being rushed out with Willow at her side, Garwin's litter trundling him back to the room, and every shocked guest milling about having no idea how to proceed. The ballroom slowly emptied, and a horrified hush spread over the palace.
In Garwin's chambers, he stared dully ahead while Angel looked at him in concern. Angel had taken great strides in his ability to relate to people, but he couldn't find any words of comfort, and all he could offer was his supportive presence. Both men looked up as they heard women's voices in the hall. After a moment, Thayne entered with a hesitating look on his face.
"Milord," he began, bowing ever so slightly, "Her Royal Highness is here, and so is...her lady, Marie."
Garwin's brow furrowed, but he nodded, indicating that they might enter.
Marie entered first, her head held high and her cheeks streaked with tears. Willow followed, and she shrugged helplessly at Angel's questioning look.
"I would wish to explain," Marie began in a voice tight and high with emotion.
"Pray be seated milady, Your Highness," Garwin answered, his eyes never leaving the older woman's face. She complied with a grace that seemed surprising after her rather traumatic evening.
"I was raised by a farmer," she began to explain, her eyes never meeting with those of her audience. "He was a good man, a wonderful father and he raised me without ever telling me two things that would turn out to be somewhat important. One was that I was not a peasant. I was not told that I was adopted, so I had no way of knowing that my station was a bit higher than that of the common peasant wench. The other," she continued, her voice turning hard, "was that I was pretty. I may look like any woman past the blush of her youth now-- worn out, faded. But when I was young, I now know that I was a beauty. I never understood why the village boys stared so, why women got such strange looks on their faces if I smiled at their husbands. Fortunately, my adoptive father was well-off for a farmer, and he managed to keep me from any unwelcome advances until I was sixteen years of age.
It was one day as I stood beside him in one of our wheatfields that we heard horns and horses. Recognizing the sound of Royal Trumpeters, we both bowed low as the king's convoy approached. Unfortunately, I was curious, and I allowed myself a peek as the king came abreast.
That was when he stopped.
"What is your name, lass?" he asked in an almost friendly voice. I had high minded ideas about kings and how they were supposed to 'protect' their subjects, so I replied without fear. "I am called Marie, Your Majesty," I smiled up at him.
"A lovely name for a lovely girl," he answered. I never thought twice about it, because I assumed it was the sort of politeness they indulged in at court. I didn't notice the looks exchanged between his men, the smiles that were not as kind as an innocent girl would wish them to be." She paused, looking down at her hands sitting limply in her lap. "I have learned to notice more, now." She closed her eyes for a moment, waiting for her voice to regain some of its strength.
"I cannot remember exactly how it happened, but somehow the 'generous' king had offered me the great honor of a position working in his castle. I, of course, was thrilled beyond measure. A simple country girl, leaving the farm, going to the capitol city to live amongst royalty-- it was like a dream. All of my friends were jealous.
I packed up my few belongings and a few days later, was escorted by a royal guard to the palace. It was the first time I had gone more than ten miles from the house I grew up in, and to say I was excited would be a ridiculous understatement.
I won't bore you with descriptions of my first few weeks there- they were a blur to me, and so exciting I thought I would burst. The next important part of the story happened one day as I was dusting in a room that was rarely used. I suddenly heard footsteps, and the next thing I knew, the king and his entourage had entered. When he saw me, a look of recognition crossed his face.
"Marie, isn't it?" he asked. I curtsied shyly. He stared at me for a moment, then smiled. "Forgive us for interrupting your work." I had no idea how to reply, and I began to blush in confusion when he turned and left. Later that evening, as I sat with other girls over our dinner, a page came into the staff kitchen. He asked for me, and told me to follow him. He led me to a room I had never seen before, and there was the king."
Angel winced, for although he had known where the story was headed, to actually arrive there was something else entirely. He had first lived in an age when being lovely, poor, and female was asking for abuse; and he was sorry to discover that droit du seigneur could exist in any universe where men considered women to be for their use and nothing else.
"He flattered me at first, but I was so young, and I did not know what to do or where even to look. I blushed and was silent, because I was not used to handsome words or men. I think it was then that he became impatient, for I did not turn out to be the kind of girl he had anticipated. Most women would have been honored by the idea of a liaison with a king, but I was afraid of him. I was afraid of his strong hands and his rough cheek and his dark eyes. I wished to be back in the kitchen with the soft spoken women who had never thought to explain to me what my real reason for being employed in the palace was, but he held me so tightly..." Marie's eyes were screwed shut, and her breath was coming more quickly. Willow put her hand on her arm, and Marie clutched at it like a lifeline.
"Yet he let me go that night. I ran back to my room and cried like a child, hot tears of confusion and destroyed illusions soaking my pillow. I decided to leave the next day, but in the morning it seemed like I was overreacting, and I went about my chores.
The daylight convinced me to stay, and it was in the bright light of a huge bay window that he found me that afternoon. That was the day that I discovered 'divine right' isn't always to do with statescraft.
In the weeks that followed, I didn't ever think of going home. After all, there was nothing left to save myself from. At least that's what I thought, until one of the other girls remarked that I was always getting sick before breakfast. I went to a healing woman, and she told me the one thing a woman almost always already knows.
I had no idea what was to be done. I was wondering if it was even worth telling the king, when heralds were sent around the nation to announce the anticipated birth of an heir." Marie looked at Angel, and her eyes were almost tender. "Everyone was so thrilled to discover that you were coming. I figured there was no point in telling the king. My situation was ages old, but a legitimate child is always much more exciting.
That night, tired of silently weeping into my bed, I fled to the castle chapel. It was dark in the middle of the night, but I fell on my knees and let my sobbing echo around me.
I nearly jumped out of my skin when I felt a hand on my shoulder. I thought it was him and I tore myself away, only to find myself looking into the eyes of the queen. "It was Aylmar that did this, wasn't it?" she asked quietly. I was so tired, and I couldn't keep myself from falling at her feet in hysterics. "Your Majesty, please, I couldn't- I couldn't- oh please, don't send me away. I have nowhere to go. I have no one to help me," I begged.
"Of course I won't send you away. It isn't your fault," she told me. I looked up into her sad and kind eyes, and I tried to let her know how sorry I was. "I don't know how to care for a child," I whispered.
"A child?" her voice was shocked, and I realized that she had imagined nothing worse than yet another affair. Her hand absently passed over her own already swollen stomach, and her chin lifted. "I have never hated the women my husband chose," she said proudly, "because most of them were well able to understand his intentions. How old are you, dear?" she asked. I told her I was sixteen and she winced. "Well, seducing wenches is one thing that I am sad to say I am used to his doing, but deflowering maidens is not and never shall be." She gently lifted me from my place on the floor, putting her arm around my shoulders.
That night, I was placed in the care of the castle nurses, and under the queen's orders, I was to be guarded day and night. She had confronted the king, and told him that as my child was his as well as the one she was carrying, he would have to live with both children. I remember being surprised by the outpouring of sympathy from women in the palace, women who saw themselves in me, women who wished they could have protected me as no one had been able to protect them, whether from the king himself or some other man. A nurse named Agatha was my most constant guardian during those months."
"Aggie," Garwin murmured, a small smile on his face.
"Yes, Aggie. I had been told that she cared for you after- well, I'm getting there. The queen gave birth four months before I did, a beautiful baby boy. The king's advisors came up with lists of valiant names, but when she came to visit me and introduce her son, she always called him 'Angel'.
The day that I reached my ninth month, I received a letter. My father was dead, but he had written me during his illness. In it, he explained that I was not his daughter. A foreign nobleman and his wife had been captured in the course of war. The lady gave birth to a daughter in the barn of a softhearted farmer who had no interest in diplomacy, and she begged him to take the young girl. They would never had been able to escape with an infant, at least not if they wanted her to live. So that girl grew up to become a maid in the castle of the greatest enemy of her true country.
I had a second cousin here. Her name was Neile, and she was-"
"My mother," Willow gasped.
"Yes, your mother, who was by then betrothed to the king. The king who was at war with the father of my child." Marie's eyes flickered towards Garwin for a moment before returning to her lap. "Angel's mother told me that I must try and find my cousin, who would surely welcome me, as she had a reputation of kindness.
Unfortunately, I, as my mother before me, could not travel with a newborn babe, yet it was necessary that I leave as soon as possible. The Queen assured me that once I had discovered whether or not I would find myself in the good graces of my cousin, she would send my son to me.
The day that I arrived at this very palace was the day that the borders were closed. For five years, it was almost certain death to try to cross them, for it was a hideous war. I had no word of my child, and I prayed for his safety every night, fearing the wrath of his father as much as anything else. Eventually, the battles became less frequent and deeper in the countryside, and I finally received word of the queen. Word of the queen and not from the queen, because she was dead.
That was the day that I knew I would never see my son again, because no one else in the kingdom had the power to get him out of the country as long as the king did not wish it. All I could do was love my redheaded niece and dream of a dark haired baby boy with green eyes that run in the family." Marie's voice cracked with exhaustion and emotion. "When the war ended and the marriage was tentatively planned, all I could think of was that I might see him again. I did not even know his name, because I had left so soon after his birth. The queen had promised to choose one for me, but I never found out what it was...
And last night, when I heard that Aylmar had beaten a friend of the prince, for a moment I wondered if it might be him, if he was here, still suffering for the foolishness of a girl who didn't know what real life was until too late-" Marie stopped talking as Garwin moved. He crawled out of his bed, and although he couldn't stand upright, he was able to make his way towards her on hands and knees, since it wasn't a very far distance. Pulling himself up into a kneeling position by the arms of Marie's chair, he slowly wound his arms around her waist and buried his face in her lap. Her hands trembling with the separation of too many years, Marie wound her fingers through his dark hair, trying to remember the feeling of holding her son.
Willow and Angel made a mutual attempt to inconspicuously leave. Once they reached the hallway, they each let out a sigh of great relief. They made their way to the palace library and sat down together in front of a roaring fire.
"So," Willow began, "Does this mean we're related?"
Angel looked at her in surprise, then thought about it. "Well, Garwin and I are half brothers, and you and Garwin are...distant cousins? But you two are cousins through Marie, and he and I are brothers through my father, so I don't think so. Furthermore, are our bloodlines contingent upon this world, or the old one?"
"I don't know," Willow answered. "I just- well, in either case, I don't think we're related. Marriage to you is one thing, marriage to cousin you would be another."
"Willow? What exactly is marriage to me?"
She looked at Angel in surprise. "Well, I guess we're going to have to go through with it, unless we get home before then. Is that what you mean?"
"Not exactly. I was thinking more...are you worried about it? Dreading it?"
"Dreading it? Of course not! Granted, I wasn't expecting it, seeing as how I hadn't even declared a major yet back in Sunnydale, but no, I'm not dreading it. I mean, as far as freaky magical escapades go, this is relatively benign."
"Marrying me is benign. Okay, benign is good."
"No, I didn't mean it that way-"
Angel laughed at her embarrassed backpedaling. "Willow, for about two and a half centuries I was one of two things--a vicious monster or a guilt-plagued loner trying to repress a demon that wanted to kill everything in sight. Being called benign has been one of my many unrealized dreams."
Willow smiled, relieved. "So, how about you? What is marriage to me?"
"Well, at least I can keep my eye on you," he grinned.
"Oh, very funny." Willow's smile slowly faded. "I wonder how Marie is doing?"
"I was thinking the same thing about Garwin," Angel admitted. "He hasn't had it easy."
"Oh, but he had a friend like you, which had to have something to do with his turning out so well."
"And in return, I'm sure that you made Marie's difficulties easier to bear."
As Willow yawned slightly, Angel gracefully stood up. "You have had a long day, Princess. Shall I sort you to your chambers."
"La, milord, you are too kind," Willow replied, batting her eyelashes shamelessly. Taking Angel's arm, she giggled coquettishly.
"Should I be concerned that you're so good at that?" he asked mildly.
"Very," she replied in an ominous voice. As they reached the library doors, Angel stopped to face her. "All joking aside, Willow, I want you to know that we'll find a way to make this work. I don't know how long we'll be here, but I promise to do my best to prevent you from hating it here."
"I have no doubt that you will," she answered quietly. Together, they made their way towards the grand staircase.
When the palace awoke the next morning, Aylmar was gone.
He and his entire entourage, minus two sons, had somehow managed to slip away in the middle of the night. It had helped that they had been housed in a wing of the palace that was somewhat removed from those who might try to stop them or even alert Willow's father, but the fact that they had disappeared so quickly took the entire court by surprise.
Willow, Angel, Garwin, Marie, and Thayne all shared a stunned brunch after hearing the news. No one said much, until Willow, incapable of restraining herself for a moment longer, made a sound of exasperation in the back of her throat.
"What a...a...oh, I don't know, idiot, for want of a better word. Ugh! First he attacks Garwin, then he attacks Marie, then he leaves! How pathetic and utterly irritating! I'm sorry, maybe I shouldn't speak so plainly-"
Angel silenced her by placing his hand on hers and smiling. "Willow, look around you. Do you think that anyone in this room is going to disagree with you when you call my father an idiot?"
She returned his smile with a small one of her own. "I see your point. Still, isn't ignoring huge problems and putting a brave face on things one of royalty's few strengths? He would have been leaving soon anyway."
"Less than a week, yes?" Thayne asked quietly. "The wedding is next Friday. Not a long time to wait."
"No," Willow murmured. "Not a long time." She was getting married.
"What?" she asked Garwin, shaking herself out of her somewhat frightening thoughts.
"I said, do you think he intends to stop the marriage from occurring by his leaving?"
"I don't think so," Marie answered thoughtfully. "The one constant about Aylmar is that he will generally use the simplest means to get what he wants." Her voice was tinged with distaste and regret, but she continued. "This vanishing act would be accompanied by a demand that the wedding be halted, or something else equally ridiculous. The fact that he left with absolutely no word, to me says that he is turning his back on all of it. Angel, the marriage, his imagined hold on Garwin."
"Let's hope he's not also turning his back on the treaty," Angel added, his eyes worried.
"Indeed," a voice came from the doorway. Looking round, Willow saw her father. Thayne jumped up from his place at the table, realizing just how inappropriate it was that he should be eating with royalty. Garwin unwillingly pulled his hand out of Marie's grasp as she curtsied with her eyes fixed firmly on the floor.
The king laughed, a rich resonating laugh that extended to dark corners of the room. "You all look at me as if I would order your executions in a fit of temper. Marie, you need never fear to meet my gaze, for you are of my wife's blood, and I cherish you as my own kin." His words, though said cheerfully, did much to dispel her horror and shame left over from the night before. "Garwin, though I have not known you long, let me assure you that I am filled with joy that you know your mother at last. And you, young sir," here he turned to Thayne, whose knuckles were white with gripping his pike. "You are, I assume, invited by their highnesses to break your fast with them, and I firmly believe that friendship is sometimes more important that decorum." He clapped Thayne on the shoulder, and the soldier almost fell over, a combination of shock and the strength of the king's gesture.
"I, for one, see no reason to postpone the wedding. If it is Aylmar's wish, then all the more reason not to fulfill it, for he has made it quite plain that he is no fan of many of our decisions here. Furthermore, the entire country is waiting in anticipation for the joining of our two lands. To back out now would merely spread the seeds of doubt that are already rife in a land that has long been at war. I need not say that many of our citizens feel this union will be the end of terror, the beginning of a time when they need not fear sending their sons off to die.
Then again, there is the fact that many in this land are quite smitten with our handsome Prince Alaric." He smiled broadly, and the group laughed quietly.
"Well, if all of you agree with me, I will inform my councilmen that we shall proceed as originally planned. Forgive me for interrupting your meal." With a bow so courtly it would have flattered an emperor, he left the room.
There was a momentary pause which Angel then interrupted with a plaintive, "See, I could never do that!"
"Do what?" Willow asked with a smile.
"That whole...king...thing. He comes into a room and everyone just snaps to attention, hanging onto every well chosen word that he says. He's got such presence. He's swimming in presence."
"He's also about twice your age," Willow pointed out. With an odd look that only Angel understood, she shrugged at the recently incorrect statement. "Besides which, there have been a few instances when I've noticed people stare at you after one of your entrances, or I've noticed people hanging onto your every word. Remember the days when Cordelia didn't realize what you were?"
Angel laughed in remembrance, but Marie looked at Willow in confusion. "Is there a lady at court named Cordelia? The name is unfamiliar to me."
Willow winced, trying to backpedal. "Um, I don't think you ever met her. I'm actually quite sure you didn't. So, would it be awfully rude if Alaric and I were to take Thayne and go look at the rooms full of gifts downstairs? Would you two be alright alone together?"
Marie's eyes were enigmatic as she replied. "We'll be fine."
Willow took Angel's offered arm, and with Thayne leading the way, they left.
Silence reigned in the room before Garwin sighed, closing his tellingly green eyes. "I used to dream about you," he began. "They never told me anything about you, but I tried to figure out what you had been like. I wanted to know how tall you were, whether you were fat or skinny. I wanted to know how smooth your skin was, and I wanted to measure your fingers against my own hand as I sometimes saw Angel do with his mother.
I wanted to know what you smelled like. Even as a child, I knew that every woman has her own unique smell, and I wanted to memorize yours. I thought if they could just give me one piece of clothing that you had worn, then I would be able to learn it so well that I would be able to find you by your smell alone. I could have been a boy shaped bloodhound, sniffing out the mother I had never seen." In a convulsive gesture, his hand shot out and his finger quickly laced with hers.
"I think that most of all, I wanted to hear your voice. You didn't even have to talk to me, I just wanted to hear you speak." He stopped, shaking his head helplessly.
"What do you want me to say?" Marie asked, and he smiled slightly. "Would you like to hear about the way I fell asleep every night thinking of you and woke up every morning wondering where you were? I wanted to hear you cry and put up with your colic. I wanted to watch your first tooth come in, to watch your little bald head grow hair.
The years passed, and I knew I was missing you learning to speak and walk and even love. I knew that I was having no say in what you believed or who you trusted or what you thought of yourself. I didn't get to tell you bedtime stories. I never got to hear you snore.
You'll have to forgive me if I sometimes forget that you are grown, if I sometimes cradle you like a newborn, if I sometimes tell you how much I love you in front of other people."
"If it comes to that, I think you'll find that I can be surprisingly magnanimous." She laughed, bending forward to kiss his head for the forty-third time that day.
Leaving Thayne outside, Willow gasped as she and Angel entered the room filled with gifts. "There are perks to being royalty," she finally managed.
"Yeah, but I bet there aren't any blenders," Angel replied, smiling ruefully as he picked up a jeweled scepter.
"Probably not. I don't think we'll find a fondue pot, either." Willow opened a small chest, her eyes widening at the amount of gold it contained. "Wow."
"That'll teach us not to register." He slid his arms into a heavy velvet robe.
"Of course, I don't think they have department stores here," Willow answered. "Ooh, look at this," she whispered, holding up yards and yards of the most beautiful lace she had ever seen.
He slid a huge ring on his finger as she put a medallion around her neck, the lace still wrapped around her shoulders. "Do you think we could get in trouble for touching this stuff?"
"Willow, first of all, we are the authority around here, remember? Furthermore, these are our gifts. We're allowed to touch them."
"That was somewhat ponderous. Incredibly huge ruby for your thoughts?" he asked, holding out the fire-red precious stone the size of his fist.
"Fair trade. I was just wondering...are we who we are?"
"Once more, in English."
"Oh, you know what I meant!" she laughed. "I mean, here we are, called different names, living different lives, but even those closest to us haven't yet figured out that anything is different. It just seems unlikely that we fit in so perfectly."
"I know what you mean," Angel mused. "Still, I think we're definitely adapting, don't you? I still remember our world, with the vamps and the demons and everything else equally enjoyable. But sometimes, when I'm not paying attention, I think I can almost remember the life the other me had here. Did that make sense? Like I can feel and see memories that belong to Alaric."
"I actually understood that, oddly enough," Willow admitted. "I'd say it was just me trying to imagine what 'Princess Aurelia's' life might have been like, except that I somehow know details that I shouldn't be able to."
"Maybe it's just one of the quirks of travelling through mysterious portals."
"Undoubtedly," Willow replied with a smirk. She trailed along a huge table covered in an intricately worked silver and gold service, eventually coming to another door. "Oh, Angel, more presents! Let's look!"
He followed her as she passed through the doorway.
"I wonder what all this is- oh. Oh my," he heard her say. Coming into the room, he couldn't help but second the sentiment contained in that quiet 'oh my'.
In the very center of the room sat the largest and most elaborate bassinet that either of them had ever seen. The draping gauzy material covering it traveled up to the ceiling, where it hung like a gently swaying cloud. The rest of the room was filled with similarly themed items. There was a very impressive crib, carved out of mahogany. The bars contained images of unicorns and griffins, dwarves and elves all together in a massive forests, all the same color and smelling slightly of wax.
There was a christening outfit so lovely that it seemed a pity its wearer would never remember the occasion for which it would be worn. There were caps and tiny shoes, all elegant and perfect and made on a very tiny scale. There were toys as well, rocking horses that looked so real they might whicker and shy at any moment, dolls more beautiful than most real babies. There were bright shiny balls begging to be thrown and bounced, there were spinning tops and gliders and music boxes.
But all Willow could see was that bassinet.
"They're very...goal-oriented, here," she finally managed. Taking her by the elbow, Angel gently guided her back into the first room. She pulled off the necklace and the lace, and he silently slipped out of the ring and robe.
"I'm eighteen, Angel. I know that on their scale, I'm practically past my prime, but I'm only eighteen. Teen. I'm a teenager." He could hear a hint of panic in her quiet voice.
"I know, Willow. I sometimes forget, because you act so sure and confident and intelligent, but I do know that you are still young. I also know that you're not ready to get married, especially not to someone you know as little as me-"
"I wouldn't say I know you 'little'. All I'm saying is that I hadn't anticipated starting a family before I could legally drink back home."
"Don't worry, Willow. I keep saying that, and it doesn't stop the impending wedding, but I hope you know that however I may care about fulfilling my duties as a prince, making sure you are okay is my number one priority. You can ask anything of me, and if it's in my power, I'll do it. I swear."
She looked into his eyes, and was slightly overwhelmed by the reassurance she found there. She gave him a small smile. "And you say you don't have presence."
The door opened, and Thayne peeked in hesitantly. "Forgive me, Princess, but there is a woman here looking for you. She says it's urgent. Something about 'gown fittings'?" Willow sighed dramatically. "A princess must face certain things, and being poked full of holes by malicious pins is one of them. My prince, I shall see you later." With the majority of her apprehension left behind, she followed Thayne out the door leaving Angel in a state that couldn't be described as anything but bemused.
It was Friday.
The day began with
the pealing of the bells. They could be heard for miles and miles,
celebrating peace and matrimony and the happiness of a
well loved princess. The joyful cacophony rang through the entire palace, waking everyone to greet the marvelous dawn.
A certain red headed princess hadn't slept a wink all night, her stomach
tied in knots. It was ridiculous when she really
thought about it. She had dreaded being married to a complete stranger, and instead, she was getting Angel. She knew Angel, she trusted Angel, and everyone was jealous of her good fortune.
Willow winced at the
thought. Despite the fact that she was in an alternate reality, she
still had the irrational fear that Buffy would
show up and find out. It was probably just left over from her excursion into infidelity with Xander, but it didn't make the sick feeling in her
chest go away.
Sitting up, she looked
out her window. It was a beautiful day, and she was getting married
to Angel. Throwing the blankets back, she threw on
her dressing gown and walked over to the mirror. She had dark circles under her eyes and she was getting married to Angel. Running her hand
through her hair, she flopped down into a chair. Her head hurt and she was getting married to Angel.
"Get a grip, Willow."
She was talking to herself and she was getting married to Angel...
Angel had been in the
ramparts since half an hour before dawn, watching the sun rise yet again.
He wasn't sure when he would be able to see it
next, since it would definitely be remarked upon if he left the honeymoon suite in the wee hours every day.
He wasn't sure what
the day would hold for him and his bride. Well, other than the wedding.
That part would be hard to ignore. He was more
worried about the evening, worried about what he would say to her, what she would be thinking, where he was going to sleep.
It was certainly going to be a unique sort of wedding night.
Willow had been hustled
around the palace all day as preparations to make her the most beautiful
bride in the country's history exhausted her even further. Her hair
had been coifed to perfection, her skin's natural luminosity seemed to
glow, her wide green eyes were expertly emphasized
by an attendant who had a way with a brush and some shadow. Finally, she was dressed. And wearing that dress, she began to think that maybe getting married had some definite perks.
She would actually
have been hard pressed to describe it, it was so dazzling. She could
feel the incredible softness of the silk kirtle that
was against her skin, but it could hardly be seen. The overdress was a phenomenal concoction of swaths of fairy-fine lace and brocade so lush it looked like it had been carved out of marble. Sewn into the gown was an impressive amount of iridescent seed pearls. The pearls, however, were overshadowed by the diamonds.
To merely cover a dress
in oversized diamonds would be impressive, but ostentation of that sort
would be inappropriate for a wedding. Instead,
the diamonds were so small they could really only be seen by the light bouncing off of them. They were somehow woven into the cloth, and the slightest movement Willow made sent up another shower of sparkles.
A veil so light it
looked more like mist than cloth was billowing out from underneath a circlet
of beaten gold that almost seemed part of her
shining hair. She was undeniably and completely lovely.
Turning in front of
the mirror, she was almost as entranced as Angel had been the first time
he saw his own reflection. It was the inexplicable
stirring of her veil that gave her pause. She thought she could feel a breath of wind on her cheek, but that should be impossible as the room
had no windows and the door was closed...
Willow almost fell
over when she saw it. Well, more like the lack of 'it' or anything,
because the wall was gone. In it's place was the same
nothingness that had sucked her in all those weeks ago as she tried to help Angel on his mission.
She almost dove headfirst into it, thinking of home and habits and the familiarity of her old life, when another thought stopped her.
On one hand, he loved
the new world and would probably be quite content to spend the rest
of his days there. But she didn't have it in her to
just leave him alone. To leave would be a mutual decision, as would staying. She had to find him.
Marie looked up in surprise as Willow burst out of her dressing room. "Marie-" she began breathlessly.
"Oh, Willow, Your Highness, never has a girl been lovelier."
"Marie, you have to listen to me now. You have to go get Angel."
"Prince Alaric, whatever,
His Royal Highness, my fiance, my betrothed, my intended, that tall dark
haired guy with brown eyes and sometimes a
crown, I need you to find him and bring him here." There was panic in her voice. Out of the corner of her eye, she could still see the portal.
Was it just her imagination, or had it gotten smaller?
"Don't be ridiculous, dearest. You can't see him before the wedding."
"Marie, please!" There were tears now, threatening to make desperate tracks on her carefully tended face.
"Willow, what's gotten
into you? Besides, I couldn't bring him here even if I thought there
was any reason to. He's busy getting ready to get
married, just like you-"
"Marie," Willow interrupted,
grabbing the older woman's arm. "I can't explain, you wouldn't
believe me if I tried to, but you must find a way.
There has to be a way. I need him here, now." It was definitely shrinking as the seconds ticked past.
"You'll have him for
the rest of your life, dear. Now let go of my arm. You're squeezing
a bit tight. I could maybe take a message for someone
to give to him, if that would help. What do you want to tell him- Willow, what's wrong?"
Willow sank to the ground, her dress of diamond billowing out around her. The portal was only a handsbreadth now, and she watched in despair as it winked out of existence all together. A hoarse sob ripped from her throat.
Her way back home was gone.
And she was getting married to Angel.
Angel had to squint
as Willow came up the aisle, and he smiled at the gasps of delight from
the guests. He held out his arm for her to take,
and it was the trembling of her white hand that first told him something was wrong.
Looking at her face, he swore to himself, because she looked to be on the verge of tears.
'Well, big surprise there, Angel,' he thought angrily. 'You think an eighteen year old girl likes the idea of giving up the rest of her life and most of her freedom for the privilege of being your wife?' He sighed, knowing he couldn't have done anything to prevent it, wishing that he could have.
Willow barely heard the priest, and she didn't notice the worried glances Angel kept throwing in her direction. There were phrases floating about, words of commitment and forever and love. She remembered to say "I do", but her fingers were ice cold as she and her husband exchanged rings. He pulled the veil away from her face, stroking her cheek gently, trying to silently ask what was wrong. She apologized with her eyes, and he leaned over to kiss her softly. He tasted the salt of quiet tears and hated himself for making her unhappy.
Both did their best to smile as they retraced their path between the cheering guests.
Angel thanked his occasionally operative good fortune when he and Willow actually had a moment alone together after leaving the sanctuary.
"Willow, I'm so sorry. I guess I had underestimated how much you didn't want to reach this point-"
She cut him off by
bursting into tears. "No, I'm sorry, I'm so sorry, it's just that
it came and they wouldn't get you and I meant to be happy
today and I'm so so so sorry..." she lost the ability to speak as she gasped for air, Angel all the while rubbing her back to help her calm down.
"What came?" he asked as she finally regained some small amount of composure.
"I was looking in the
mirror, and I was liking the dress and the veil and thinking that
maybe it would turn out to be a pretty great day after all,
and then I felt this breeze, and in the room, on the wall, it was there. It was just like the first time, all swirly yet empty and black and nothingness and it was on the wall but I couldn't go without you and they told me that you couldn't come. I could see it shrinking and then it
disappeared and it was time to get married and I ruined our wedding because I was so upset and I'm sorry, because I feel selfish but it was
our chance and I couldn't go alone." She took a deep breath, trying to clear away the frustration and the choking sadness. Angel just stood
"You mean you finally found a way back home, and you didn't take it? Why?"
"I told you.
I couldn't go without you," she responded, looking slightlyirritated.
"You wouldn't have left without me. You don't really think I
would just jump back into our own reality without a backward glance, didyou?"
"No, I just-"
"I mean, do I seem
like the sort of person who would just abandon a goodfriend to fend for
himself in a strange world? That I would be so
excited about going home I would forget the fact that we're heretogether? Well, I feel so flattered. I just got married to a man whothinks I'm a self centered fair weather friend with no thought in my head for anyone but myself. This bodes well for wedded bliss, I would say. I can see it now. "My name is Prince Alaric, meet my wife. No need to tell her who you are, she won't remember, because she's too self-involved to notice that other people exist." We'll have a great and glorious reign, King Alaric the Valiant and Queen Aurelia the Selfish. I'm so very-"
She stopped speaking
as she heard Angel laugh. She glared at him, allher earlier listlessness
melted away in the heat of her anger. "What are
you laughing at?"
"Oh, Willow," he sighed.
"I'm so relieved. I'm not used to seeing yousad. I knew the
real you had to resurface soon. I'm also slightly
relieved to discover that your sorrow wasn't about getting married tome."
"Stop being ridiculous.
Okay, the thought of marriage itself wasdaunting, but you? Let's
end this conversation. Can we just throw
ourselves into the roles of a happily married couple?"
Her tears had mostly
dried, and the only ones remaining made her eyessparkle more than usual.
Her cheeks were rosy, courtesy of her pique,
and her usual expression of irrepressible optimism had resumed it's proper place. "Come, my prince, let us depart for the banquet. I feel
that some refreshment is in order."
Halting her for a moment, Angel looked closely into her face. "I know how much you miss home, Willow. The fact that you stayed means a lot."
She gave him a smile. "So do you. Mean a lot, I mean."
Their first domestic quarrel ended, the newlyweds walked down the hall together.
Three weeks after the
wedding, Willow and Marie were strolling through the palace gardens
after luncheon. Willow spotted Angel up on the
balcony of the library and waved. He waved back, and she could see him smiling.
Marie looked at her oddly for a moment, then put a hand on Willow's arm. "Dear, can I ask you question?"
"Of course," she answered blithely.
"Why haven't you and Alaric yet consummated your marriage?"
Willow's mouth opened and shut a few times, with no sound save a small squeak coming out. Her eyes were wide and more than a little panicked. "How did you-" she finally managed.
Steering the dumbfounded princess towards an ornamental bench, Marie sat down next to her and sighed. She didn't say anything, she merely looked at Willow, waiting for her to regain her composure.
"Angel told me this would happen eventually. I was just sort of hoping it would go away..."
"Willow, I thought you liked Alaric, and I was beginning to think that you maybe even loved him. So it leaves me somewhat confused as to why you should be waiting. The two of you sleep in the same bed every night, and yet...well, I'm guessing we won't see an heir anytime soon if you keep up this insistent celibacy."
Willow was thinking
back to the night of their marriage, when Angel had told her that the servants
would know because of certain...physical
aspects that would be, well, missing. It had been an uncomfortable yet reassuring conversation, but he had warned her that it was only a
temporary solution. Eventually, word would get beyond the servants quarters, and neither one of them wanted the king to give them a lecture
regarding the duties of royal marriages. Still, it had been a fine arrangement as long as it had lasted...
"What are you waiting for, dear?" Marie asked gently.
"I don't know.
It's just- we had only known each other three weeks ('or three years',
she thought) before the wedding, and I would really like to
get to know him better before we, well, consummated anything."
"At the risk of sounding crass, wouldn't that be one way to get to know him better?"
"Don't look at me with
that shocked expression, Willow! Part of marriage is a certain amount
of intimacy. You promised that to him and to your
country when you took your vows. You are supposed to become one with him, one mind, one flesh, one spirit. That is what marriage is supposed to be. I know that some young ladies might say that it forces to give you to give up some degree of freedom, but what you would get in return is so much greater."
Willow rubbed her temples
slowly, having no idea what to do. Suddenly, she looked at Marie
in fear. "You aren't going to tell my father, are
Marie almost laughed
out loud at Willow's expression of wide eyed fear. "Funny you should put
it like that. When most girls ask that question,
they mean the opposite. No, I'm not going to tell your father. Yet, Willow. But you can only take so long to get acclimated to marriage
before the king finds out. I'd rather he never had to- I'd much rather you and Alaric figure this out before your father feels the need to get
Willow's eyes were full of conflict as she leaned against her waiting woman.
"Talk to him about
it," Marie suggested. "I mean, you are his beautiful, intelligent
and utterly charming wife. I'm sure he wouldn't
"Oh, Marie! For heaven's sake!" Willow rolled her eyes.
Marie laughed again, giving Willow a squeeze before making her stand up and directing her towards the library.
Angel smiled as Willow came in, but he became somewhat curious as she looked around carefully before shutting and locking the door behind her.
"Secret conference?" he joked.
"You better believe it, mister. Can we sit down? We are alone here, right?"
Sitting down next to
him on one of the leather sofas, she leaned in close so that she could
speak in a low voice. "Marie talked to me today."
With that ominous statement, she sat back, awaiting his reaction.
"Doesn't Marie talk to you everyday?" he asked.
"No, Angel! She didn't talk to me! She TALKED to me! About...things. Like sheets and observant servants and royal duties."
"Oh." He sat silent for a moment, when a look of panic crossed his face. "She isn't going to tell your father, is she?"
Willow managed to smile.
"That's what I said. Then Marie pointed out that it's usually the
opposite problem that leads to that question. No,
she's not going to tell him, but she said yet. He's going to know eventually. The whole laundry already does, I'm sure, which means all
the maids, most of the kitchen staff, and the footmen are next. Once the footmen know, the underbutlers are only a matter of time, then the
valets, and once the valets get hold of gossip, well, I'm sure you can imagine how long they'll be able to keep it..."
Angel smiled at Willow's
delineation of the discovery of their secret. Her cheeks were flushed with
embarrassment and the vigor of her thought
processes. She was wearing a simple overdress of pale blue over a lavender kirtle, and the pastels of her attire merely made her hair seem
to flame brighter. Every day was revealing more and more of her princess within. She spoke with perfect aplomb to everyone but him, and she was unleashing an enormous amount of grace that might have seemed too formal in their old world.
Angel loved attending
royal functions with her. She would link her arm with his for the
whole night, and beamed up at him as was fitting for a
new bride. The whole court had applauded in delight when she had kissed him at dinner one night. When she spoke, she would touch him
occasionally, soft momentary touches that made sure he was paying attention. Even when she no longer had to pretend for onlookers, she
treated him like he was her closest friend and most trusted confidant. She had a wry sense of humor that he was more often privy to than anyone
else, and she sometimes whispered his name when she was dreaming. He wondered again why their marriage was in name only...
No. The fact
that she was so upset over Marie's finding them out was proof enough that
she wasn't ready for anything else. She loved him, but
she loved him as a companion and fellow adventurer, which was the same way he cared for her.
He was almost sure of it.
For her part, Willow
was hoping that if she just kept talking, her embarrassment over the whole
situation would just fade. She really loved
being friends with Angel, and all this discussion of intimacy was not conducive to a platonic relationship. He treated her like, well, a
princess, but it was more than that. He had changed so much from the mysterious vampire he had once been. In all fairness, she knew part of
the change was from his time in LA, but becoming human had somehow revived all the inner chivalry that he had always managed to possess.
The ladies of the court practically swooned in his presence, for all that he was lately wed. Willow was sometimes reminded of the reaction Angel had always inspired at the Bronze, if the Bronze had ever had a period dress night. Yet through all his courtesy towards every lady he met, his real concern was for Willow. He was so solicitous it sometimes made her head spin. No matter where they were, if their eyes met, he would give her a certain smile. With that smile, he told her that he was watching out for her, that he still remembered who she had been, that he was glad to be with her as she tried being someone else. That smile made her miss home less. It was the sort of smile she had always dreamed of someone reserving for her.
Of course, she was
forced to remind herself, though the smile was full of love, it wasn't
that kind of love. And why would she want that kind of
love from him anyway?
She didn't. Of
course not. Just like she didn't mind the time every night before
they fell asleep, each lying in the same bed, neither daring
to touch the other. She didn't mind the speed with which Angel disentangled himself the few times that their slumber had decimated the
carefully kept space between them.
She didn't mind that her husband didn't kiss her in private.
Angel interrupted her
increasingly disturbing thoughts. "The way I see it, Willow, there
is really only one solution. You'll simply have to
fall in love with me."
She looked at him in horror. She hadn't been vocalizing her thoughts, had she?
"I'm kidding, Willow," he gently prompted.
"Kidding! Well, yeah? Because of the...funny. Yes."
The excruciatingly uncomfortable moment was fortunately ended by a sharp knocking on the door. Angel excused himself and opened it to find a frightened looking page. "His Majesty requests your presence, Your Highness. In the War Room."
"The War Room?" Angel shot Willow a troubled look over his shoulder, then turned back to the page. "Do you know wherefore?"
"A messenger arrived
today on horseback, his steed almost running dead from his haste.
It is supposed he carried a message of grave import,
Your Highness, for the king called for his councilors upon speaking with the man."
"I will come presently." Angel shut the door again, turning back to Willow. "This sounds bad."
She nodded. "You'll tell me about it tonight, won't you?"
"Of course. I
should go. I'll see you later. Try not to worry too much, okay?"
In an action so swift it seemed completely natural, he
placed a quick kiss on her lips as he headed for the door. His footsteps slowed as he realized what he had done without thinking, but it was too
late to apologize. He decided not to worry about it as he exited the library and ran down the hall.
For her part, Willow's thoughts were not too concerned with war as she sat with her fingers lightly brushing her lips.
Angel wearily shut the door behind him as he crept into the bedroom. He was trying to be quiet so as not to wake Willow up, but the point became moot as he saw her sitting in a chair by the mostly dead fire.
Her lids were obviously
heavy in her pale face, but she had not yet succumbed to sleep. Her
velvet dressing gown glowed softly in the
flickering light, as did her luminous eyes.
"What's happening, Angel?"
"Why aren't you in bed?" he asked.
"Is it so bad that you can't even tell me?"
He moved towards her,
falling into the chair beside her own. "Well, my dear father
is, as ever, his old charming self. He's been gathering
forces for a few weeks now, and his liegemen are bringing their armor out yet again. The messenger that arrived today barely made it out of the
"Has the king declared war?"
"No, that would be
too obvious. He's getting ready, and while there is always the chance
he plans on attacking another country, I needn't
mention that no one thought that was much of a possibility. None of the other countries on his borders would ever resemble anything like a
threat." He rubbed his head violently.
"So what are we going to do?" Willow's voice was almost a whisper.
"Well, we're going
to get ready ourselves. We're going to hope it has nothing to do
with us and prepare the country for war with my father..."
with a sudden movement, he stood and hurled a tiny table that had been next to his chair across the room. It landed in a sadly splintered heap
by one of the closets, and Angel could almost hear Willow trembling as he braced himself against the fireplace mantle. The room was silent but for the crackling of the logs, and he struggled to regain control.
"I'm sorry," he said finally.
Willow looked at the back of his head. She had rarely seen him so angry.
"This was what I was
supposed to prevent. My whole point for being here was prevention
of another war. Your people loved me as much for the peace that I
represented as for anything else. And now? Now mothers have
to send their sons off to war again. Wives will lose their
husbands, children will lose their fathers, all because one father in particular has no sense of honor." His fists clenched again.
"You don't really think that, do you?" she asked after a moment.
"That my father has no honor? I certainly do."
"No, that's not what I meant. You don't really think that the people of this country only love you for the treaty?"
He shrugged noncommittally. She stood and walked up behind his tense back.
"People don't love you for anything, Angel. They love you. They think you're the greatest thing since...well, me."
He chuckled quietly,
and considering it a success, she went on. "They love you because
you are the opposite of everything they ever imagined
you to be. They love you certainly because you are handsome and charming, but also because you are kind and polite. They love you
because you love me and my family, and they love you because they can tell you have a good heart. They love you for your love of Garwin, they love you because you are nothing at all like your father. They may fear and hate him, but you are his antithesis, and they adore you for becoming such a wonderful man in spite of his parentage. Furthermore, I am their princess, and they love you because...I love you."
He turned to face her then, but backlit by the fire, she couldn't read his expression.
"You really think everyone knows how we love each other?"
'Do we know how we love each other?' Willow thought. But she couldn't find any words to return to him.
"Do you really think they aren't all resenting me right now?"
"I think the aftereffects
of a soul tortured for a century are affecting your judgement. My
father has accepted you as a son, and most of the
people who you think are judging you have already forgotten that you were any relation to Aylmar. All that they know is that they trust you."
"Trust me?" he muttered.
"Completely. Like I do." She dropped her eyes, but looked up sharply as Angel seized her by the shoulders.
"Why do you trust me?"
"Why do I have any reason not to?"
They were locked in
time for a moment, the embers of the fire washing them both in a dull red.
His hands instinctively clutched at her
shoulders, and neither seemed capable of releasing the others' gaze. Whether it was the stress of a long and disturbing day or something less
easily defined, they seemed to think they would be able to find the answer if they stared at one another long enough.
It was the sound of
a servant walking briskly down the hall that ended the moment. Angel
released Willow's shoulders as if he was in a daze,
while she pulled her dressing gown tighter around her.
"Well, I'm tired,"
she said finally. Moving blindly towards the bed, she crawled under
the covers, willing her heart to stop beating so fast,
trying to convince herself that only the threat of imminent war was capable of causing her such distress. Her husband, meanwhile, dressed
for bed, damping the fire and blowing out candles. He laid down beside her with a sigh.
"I had forgotten how tired humans get," he remarked.
"Angel?" She cursed herself for a weakling, but she was beyond the place where she might have cared how embarrassed she might be in the morning.
"Yes?" he answered. She blamed her fatigue for the fact that she thought his voice sounded hopeful.
"If you wouldn't mind, could you maybe, um, hold me? It's just been a pretty unpleasant day, and I wouldn't even ask, except that I-"
She stopped talking as his arm slid around her waist. Forgetting about consequences and repercussions and embarrassed pauses, she nestled closer and closed her eyes. The feeling of his gentle kiss in her hair was the last thing she was aware of before she fell asleep.
There are some dreams
that are so unutterably lovely, it seems like a crime to abandon them for
real life. Willow was having one, and she was
near frantic not to wake up. Nothing extraordinary was going on in the dream. In fact, anyone else would have thought it dull. She and Angel
were sitting together in front of a cheerful fire, neither one saying anything. She was dimly aware of Garwin dancing in the periphery of her
vision, and she was almost certain she saw Giles playing chess with Marie. Yet none of it interested her, and she was content to just lean
against Angel's velvet-clad side.
He kissed the top of
her head and she smiled. Then he kissed her cheek and she held her
breath. Then he kissed her jaw, and only the small
detail that they were married (even in her dreamscape) kept her from being frozen in guilt. Dream Willow could have pulled away, but just
like her dreaming counterpart, it had been too long and she had thought about it too much to not be a little more willing than might be expected
when he tilted her chin and kissed her tingling mouth.
Angel was fighting
his father in his dream. He slashed and stabbed with his sword, the
king constantly losing ground. Then the sun rose in all
its fiery glory and Aylmar exploded into dust, his sword falling uselessly onto the blood-stained battlefield.
Angel stood proud, knowing that the sun was some sort of metaphor and had not in anyway robbed him of his inevitable victory, actually feeling regal as his troops cheered behind him and the opposing army surrendered. Then a white horse galloped up to his side and he saw that Willow had somehow materialized on the front lines. She dismounted gracefully, running up to his side.
"Oh, Angel! You
did it!" she gazed up adoringly into his face. Ostensibly,
it was the typical sort of manly dream that gets made into
foolish books and worse movies, where the hero conquers all available evil and gets the beautiful girl. Yet, even in his dream, even though he
could see that his army was celebrating success by playing tag and occasionally tripping over the bodies of their dead foes, the only thing
he could see was Willow. And for all the overly typical parts of his dream, the real hero was her.
And she touched his bruised cheek and avoided his wounded side and he carefully gathered her in his arms, making sure she would not be crushed by his armor, and kissing her almost made the war worthwhile.
Sometimes parts of
the real world get incorporated into dreams. The sounds of alarm
clocks and talking people, instead of waking up the
dreamer, merely involve themselves into the random storylines created by the subconscious. So, it can't be said that this instance was too much
Everyone has resided
between dreams and reality, and most often they want to stay in the dream,
unless the reality they are slowly waking to is
more interesting. And here appears the curious dilemma of the morning. How could Willow be expected to choose between the dream Angel's kiss and the lips of her suddenly real husband? On the one hand, her dream could not compare with the genuine article. On the other, she didn't have to worry about what to say to dream Angel later, once she was fully awake.
Opting for indecision,
Willow ignored both options. Believing herself capable of blaming
it on sleep, she found herself awake, wrapped in her
husband's arms, and being kissed with a fervor that one would not expect from sleepers.
they agreed about so many things while conscious, it seems logical that
Angel had chosen the same path. An irritating part of his brain insisted
that he was extremely awake, that no dream could contain so much tactile
delight. Yet he had no inclination to stop and
apologize, and if all had been done in sleep, there could be no question of fault. To finally feel her kissing him back was the sort of gift he
was very well able to accept from his dreams.
Willow and Angel had
already experienced the intrusions of servants on their personal lives,
and that interesting morning was to be no
different. For as it became increasingly obvious (and simultaneously denied) that neither was asleep, a maidservant-in-training in the hallway
dropped a tray stacked high, and the resulting crash and shatter caused both prince and princess to jump in surprise.
'Good morning' seemed inappropriate.
Sleep was long lost,
but coherent thought was not long functioning, and it took a moment for
their situation to register. It took a moment to
notice their entwined legs, their lack of breath. It took a moment to notice Angel's hand gripping the small of Willow's back, her hand
entwined in his hair and her other hand clutching tightly at his nightshirt. (While it is true that only one of Angel's hands has been
accounted for, neither participant permitted themselves to admit that it was resting where it was, so perhaps it was never there to begin with,
and need not be mentioned.)
"Oh," Willow said.
"Um," Angel replied.
In a flurry of sheets and blushes, husband and wife escaped from their bridal bed.