ImMortal part 14: Dissention in the Ranks

Though there was ample seating available, everyone chose to stand in Angel's office. Many wore faces wrought with concern and all stared in disbelief.

“What do you mean gone?” Willow asked fretfully and the crowd waited with bated breath for an answer. The vampire sat forward, elbows planted on his desk and chin resting on his woven fingers arching above.

“Harmony said Buffy left the premises around noon …”

“How could you just let her go?” Xander asked the blonde vampire assistant.

“I thought she was going to lunch,” Harmony defended. “You know… as you humans are known to do. Since when is Slayer babysitting part of my job description?”

Angel raised a hand to avert the unnecessary tiff threatening to start. “Let's not panic...”

“It's a bit late for that,” Anya said bluntly.

“I have people working on locating her. She won't stay gone long. Besides, she's not our main concern at this point…”

“What do you mean ‘not our main concern'? Of course she is.” Xander interrupted. “Buffy could be out there, hurting and alone. We need to…”

“Stop Illyria . This is our top priority. From the wrap sheet Wes offered up, we have a god-like being possibly tearing her way through our world and she's kidnapped the face of someone we all care about. Let's get her back, people.” Angel ordered. Not one person moved.

“You think we can still save Dawn?” Wesley asked, uncertain.

“I don't know. One thing I've learned in all my years is that death may be certain but doesn't necessarily have to be permanent.” He searched the gang's faces for support. “I think you guys know what I mean.”

“What about Giles?” Anya asked. “Is he evil or just seriously confused?”

“We don't know yet. He's secured in Fred's lab and though he hasn't tried getting out, he's being uncooperative.”

“Define uncooperative,” Xander pressed.

“He's refusing to sing for Lorne and refusing to talk to anyone.”

“You mean refusing to talk to any of you,” Willow corrected. “He's talked to me.”

“Look, I don't know what's gotten into him but I gotta say it's not looking good.”

“And you would know because you are the master of all that is good,” Xander mumbled under his breath.

“Yeah, I would. And the last thing I need is an evil vampire souped up on dark magicks lounging about around here making things worse then they already are.”

“I told you, Giles isn't evil!” Willow insisted. “I know a little about evil too, you know. And he's not it.”

“Well I'd say my murdered friend Gunn and my beaten face says different.”

Xander let out an exasperated chuckle, “Funny thing is that even before facing off against Illyria, Giles' was sporting the oddly familiar signs of going a few rounds. Whatcha say, Angel… get any satisfying quickies lately?”

“I'm not the bad guy here,” Angel growled at the accusation.

“Could have fooled me,” Anya responded flippantly.

“He's not,” Cordelia assured them with an easy smile. “I'd know, trust me.”

“That's the thing, we don't. We don't know who to trust anymore,” Xander admitted with frustration. “No one is telling us what's going on. Now Dawn is dead, Buffy's gone and Giles is making with the magicks…”

“That's why I need Willow,” Angel interrupted.

“Who… me?” The redhead's eyes went wide with suddenly being in the spotlight. “What can I do?”

“I want you to drain Giles' battery.”

“What?” She squeaked.

“Wesley says you can do it. You've done it before.”

“Yeah but… but that was different. Hello… not in the bad place now. *So* don't want to go there again.”

“It could be the magicks causing Giles' uncharacteristic behavior, Willow ,” Wesley suggested. “If you could harness those energies, take them from him… perhaps we could prevent further degradation.”

“I get the why… it's the how that's not acceptable. You don't understand, Wes. You weren't there. What you're asking me to do is willingly accept what I've worked for over a year to stay away from. I'm sorry but I just can't.”

Xander placed his hand to her shoulder in a show of camaraderie.

“Even if it means losing Giles?” Angel posed the question with a sympathetic gaze and Xander's hand fell away.

“You don't know it will come to that,” Willow shook her head, wounded that he'd suggest such a thing.

Angel forced a sigh as he stood and came around his desk, approaching her as he spoke.

“I know none of you wants to hear it but he's slipping. Willow, I feel it. I know darkness when I see it and when I look into his eyes I can see it swallowing him whole. And if it does…” The vampire stopped before her, his dark eyes staring down with a hardened resolve, “I'll stake him myself.”

“Oh you'd love a chance at that, wouldn't you?” Xander sneered, pushing his way in-between the two to regain the personal space Willow had lost. Cordelia nudged her way in to challenge Xander.

“This isn't helping!”

Xander stepped back, shaking his head in disappointment. “You know, Cordy, I remember a time when you cared about Giles. Or was that all just a show to get in good with dead boy, here?”

Cordy charged after Xander only to be held back by Angel's quick grab. She gave up her pursuit and backing off.

“Don't you dare judge me or any of us, Harris! You can't even begin to understand what we've been through here,” she said, her voice straining with emotion.

“Think we get the gist, don't we, guys? While you self-proclaimed hero-types have been sunning is up in LA, schmoozing the Hollywood crowd and getting all snuggly with the local evil empire, we've were fighting to save the world.”

Wesley stepped in to break up the argument. “Misguided accusations based on faulty assumptions will get us nowhere…”

“Tell that to Miss Faulty Ass herself!” Xander shouted, directing a stern finger toward Cordy.

“What does that mean?” Cordy huffed.

“I don't know!” he yelled, clearly frustrated.

“Everyone just shut up!” Fred yelled harshly, stunning everyone to silence. She shied away a little with the realization that she was suddenly the center of attention. “Look, I know this is hard for all of us. So much has happened that we're all hurting and in shock and striking out at the very people we need most right now.”

She paused to examine the long faces of Angel, Cordelia, Wesley, Willow , Xander, Anya and Lorne.

“We've lost friends, family. Now we're all in pain and we need each others help,” she pleaded. “And we aren't going to do it bickering over the past so get over it already, okay?”

“This isn't personal, Xander,” Angel said with muted anger. “Personal would be beheading Giles when I found out he impregnated the woman I thought I loved. Personal would have been to stake him when he tried to take away my only chance at humanity. Personal would be to burn him to ashes when he murdered Gunn.”

“Then exactly what is this, Angel?” Willow asked skeptically.

“Business,” Angel answered curtly. “The same business I've been doing for years now, saving lives, your lives. And I'm going to do it again by stopping this would-be god before she has her way with our dimension. But I can't do that if Giles is on the verge of going soulless mystic on all of us. I'm asking for your help.”

There was a doubtful silence hanging in the room as the congregation of people exchanged worried glances.

Angel's gaze shifted back to Willow. “Now I'm giving you a choice. Drain Giles of his magicks or I'll take the only other measure left at my disposal.”

“We're not losing Giles,” Willow said solemnly, crossing her arms in determination. Xander followed suit as well as Anya, all staring defiantly at the vampire.

“Then 'll take that as a yes. Good.” The vampire's expression relaxed a little. “But first, Harm, whip up a batch of your special recipe Bloody Mary's for Giles. Lorne can play waiter and when he's good and numb see if you can get him to hum a few bars. I don't want them going in blind.”

“You got it, boss-man,” Lorne gave a wave to Harmony and they exited together to tend to their appointed task.

“Wes, Fred… you're with me.”

Fred jostled to her feet, still reeling from the tension in the room. “Um, okay… where?”

Angel marched through the parting group of suspect allies and turned back with a hardened glare. “To hunt us down a runaway god.”

“Pleased to report that our resident English muffin not only accepted Harm's irresistible concoction, I caught a few passing notes of ‘Pleasantly Numb' and he's primed and ready for pumping by the original Hellmouth Heroes.” Lorne's green face blushed with his choice of phrase. “You get the not-so-sexually-intentioned-drift, right?”

“Thank you, Lorne. We'll take it from here,” Anya directed confidently, almost enjoying having a chance to send the demon on his way.

“Hold it right there. I can feel the stress train a mile down the track. You're practically ringing with alarms here, my little boxcars. You go roaring in there and you're bound to set him back to critical.” Lorne followed along as the threesome made their way toward the laboratory. “Anything I can do to lessen the load here? Any liquid refreshment to tame the tummy tension?”

“Thanks but I don't think you can help,” Xander said, finding it hard to keep up with Willow 's quick strides. “Though we wouldn't say no to a round of tea.”

“The good stuff,” Anya amended. “Not the cheap kind with the paper tags and strings…”

“I know the brand, cupcake. Coming right up with a hearty helping of biscuits and well wishes to boot.”

“Lorne,” Xander stopped, interrupting the demon's retreat with a grip of his arm. “Look, all the stuff that was said back there…”

“All troubled waters under the sturdy bridge, kittens. We don't have time for grudges around here, too busy earning our self-proclaimed titles as heroes.” And with a smirk and a wink, the green demon hurried off to fetch the requested refreshments.

A few turns more and they reached the laboratory. All three came through the doors and marched down the stairs side by side, stopping as they reached the metal bars dividing the room. Willow approached the barrier slightly lifting her hand and closing her eyes for a moment. Xander recognized the gesture, she was reaching out with her magicks. He and Anya inspected the cage for any sign of the prisoner within. It was difficult to make out anything within the thick shadows.

“I don't see him,” Anya said, breaking the quiet of the room and startling Xander in the process. “Maybe he escaped to exact vengeance on more suspicious Wolfram and Hart employees.”

"Props to us not being on the payroll," Xander said under his breath.

"Recently hired on, thank you," Willow corrected.

"Oh... right. Been nice knowing you," he smirked as he leaned forward to get a closer look.

“I've had my fill of vengeance for the time being, thank you,” came a smooth voice from somewhere in the shadows, triggering Xander to retreat a little.

“Hi Giles… I'm back,” Willow gave a friendly wave and motioned to her companions. “And I brought company.”

His eyes having finally grown accustomed to the dimness, Xander noticed the chains barely visible securing Giles and he whispered with disappointment, “Deja vu.”

“Good, I'm not the only one,” Willow whispered back.

“This is a lot like the basement back in Sunnydale,” Anya observed bluntly. “Just how long are you planning to continue with the self imposed imprisonment this time, Giles?”

“How's Buffy?” His voice had changed in pitch, concerned and gentle.

“Um… she's coping as she does.” Xander explained. “Keeping to herself mostly.”

“Yes, it's as if she's not even here,” Anya added with an awkward chuckle.

“She blames me, doesn't she?”

“For what?” Willow asked.

“For Dawn's death. If only I'd been here…”

“There was nothing any of us could have done,” Xander insisted.

“You don't know that,” Giles sighed. There was a long pause as they tried to compose a suitable response.

“Yeah, I guess we don't but it sounded good, didn't it?” He shrugged helplessly, offering an apologetic smile.

There was a sound of shifting boots and rattling chains as Giles stepped out into the lighted section of the cage, stopping as he reached the limitations of his shackles. His green eyes stared calmly at Willow, a faint smile curling along his pale lips.

“I know why you're here,” he said placidly.

She nodded, returning a knowing smile. “Thought you might.”

“I'm sorry it's come to this. You should never have to…”

“You're right, I shouldn't,” she interrupted in a harsh tone. “But it's you, Giles. I've got to do this.”

“I suppose you do. Come on then, let's give it a try.” The shackles clanked loudly as Giles folded his hands together before him and knelt to the floor, resuming the position he'd been reduced to the last time he'd faced Willow's draining touch.

Xander motioned quizzically to the gate. “But the bars…”

With a insignificant gesture of Giles' fingers, the bars began to vibrate as a low hum rose to a rumble then a roar. After a moment, the metal began to bow, arching out to allow them entry.

Anya smiled, impressed and was the first to cross through. “So much for security.”

“They're fools, scarcely any concept of true magicks,” Giles growled with disdain.

“Don't hold back, Giles. Tell us what you really think,” Xander teased.

“This is a treacherous institution that should be denied existence,” the vampire snarled. “Candid enough for you?”

“Yeah. Way to go.”

With a nod from the Willow, Xander and Anya took up position behind her as she approached Giles, stopping within arms distance.

Anya glanced nervously at the witch. “Willow , do you remember how to…?”

“Everything… I remember everything,” she interrupted, her eyes filled with regrets as she stared down at Giles. He encouraged her with a mild smile as she lifted her hand, fingers outstretched and ready to capture him with a mystical link. A moment later, her fingers curled with apprehension and her hand returned to her side.

“I can't do this,” her voice held such fragility and doubt. Giles smile spread with her compassion.

“Willow, you activated a world full of Slayers. Your will is the only thing stopping you from reaching the heavens and your heart is the only thing keeping you from scorching them from the sky. I trust you, implicitly. I know you can do this.”

Giles' hand lifted to take hers and with a tender squeeze, he brought it to his chest and placed it solidly against the worn and bloodstained shirt.

“Give them what they want,” he whispered. “It means nothing anymore.”

A tear pooled and trickled from the corner of her eye.

“I'm sorry, Giles,” she whispered.

“Don't be.”

With a steady breath, Willow 's fingers clamped down and the thunder of her energies invading his flesh sent a bolt of pain ripping through him. From his fingertips to his toes, his heart to his soul, the magicks boiled as they were drawn to that aching place she touched. Searing his skin as they withdrew, the dark energies splattered, sparking out to dance between them. The potent pull increased until soon, it was as if his very afterlife was being torn away. The final thing he heard was the sound of Willow's euphoric gasp as all went from a brilliant white to black and then nothing at all.

“She's been here,” Wesley said with certainty as he crossed the laboratory to reach the sarcophagus.

“How do you know?” Fred asked as she and Angel followed along after the determined Watcher.

“These symbols, they've altered from their original position recorded soon after the incident with Dawn. And the stone…” Wes' gaze fell to a small dusting of dirt near the base of the box, “It's changed.” He reached out and brazenly scratched a finger along the etchings. Angel protectively snatched his hand away, casting a disapproving eye with the gesture.

“It's harmless, Angel. The spirit inside found the host it needed,” Wes explained as he rubbed his fingers together, examining the feel of the residue left from touching the stone. “And something more.”

“Hey, I tried getting a sample from it before and it was indestructible,” Fred explained. “Even a laser scalpel was useless.”

“Yes… Illyria must have returned to it for some reason. And since the objects invulnerability has waned, I'd wager she got what she came for.” Wes shot a glance to Angel.

“So now what? How are we going to find her?” Angel asked.

“One of the crystals is missing, there…” Wesley motioned to a freshly scarred section in the stone. He dislodged another crystal from the sarcophagus and tossed it to Angel who caught it and gave it a narrow look of examination.

“Let's see what this thing can tell us,” Angel handed it over to Fred who quickly raced over to her equipment and started working.

Cordelia came through the door to Willow 's office and closed it gently behind her. Willow lay asleep but restless on a plush cushioned couch. Xander sat on the very edge, tending to his ailing friend with damp rags while keeping her safe from tumbling unwittingly off. Anya stood by, handing off freshly dampened rags to Xander and casting unwelcoming glares to the intruder.

“How is she?” Cordelia asked with a whisper as she approached.

“Too early to tell,” Xander responded coolly, dabbing a rag to Willow's feverish brow. The young woman's sallow complexion was riddled with webbing purplish veins pulsing from faint to invisible and back to a richer, menacing tone.

“What's wrong with her?” Cordy frowned at the unconscious but pained expression of her old friend. “This didn't happen before.”

“How would you know?” Anya asked suspiciously. “You weren't there. None of you were.”

Cordy offered a sheepish smile. “Let's just say I'm getting awfully familiar with the IT department here and a patented Chase flirt goes a long way into getting the local Bill Gates to scrounge up the archived files of hacked Watcher's Council reports pertaining to the deal with Willow and her major mood swings.”

“No, this didn't happen before,” Xander answered dismally. “I mean, I don't know what happened with her and Giles after they skipped town to holiday in the mother country. I guess she coulda had an episode similar.”

“What did your ethically questionable and dubiously obtained files have to say about what happened before?” Anya asked, taking away the soiled rag and replacing it with a fresh one.

“They said that Willow suffered symptoms similar to withdrawals. I guess that could be what we're seeing. Only she got a super-sized serving of magicks, right? It's not like she's being deprived. So why the sickness?”

“Maybe because this is a super-sized serving of rancid magicks, like mystical food poisoning,” Xander suggested.

“We need a fresh supply of towels. I'll be back with more shortly,” Anya directed and quickly made her exit, leaving the former friends alone.

“So you think Giles' magicks weren't all minty-fresh with cleanly goodness,” Cordy asked.

“Angel was right. There was a definite dark-side-of-the-force going on with the bookman,” Xander confessed quietly.

“Ouch. That had to hurt,” Cordy teased gently. “You need to lie down now?”

“Hey, I'm not admitting wrongness in what I said before,” Xander defended quickly. “My opinion stands. Dead boy never liked Giles and there is good reason for the feeling to be mutual.”

“I could argue support on both accounts,” she suggested sympathetically. “How is Giles?”

“Do you care?”

She shot him a wounded look, biting back her bitterness with the question. “I really do.”

“Again, don't know. Hard to tell. He was out like a light the second things got hairy in there. And since he's already dead, not so much telling with the vitals, if you know what I mean.” Xander's face was grim with worry. He heaved a weighty sigh. “We've come so close to losing him, Cordy. Actually did a few times now. I don't know what I'd do if he actually…” he choked back his emotions and fell silent for a long moment. “The last time almost killed me.”

“You know, I hate to admit this, but I always pegged him as a sort of a father figure,” Cordy said softly. “I know I had a real father but Giles was always what I'd wished I'd had rather than the crap dad I ended up with. With your rich family tradition of general dysfunction, I always wondered if maybe you felt the same…”

“No,” Xander answered quickly. “Giles is much more.”

Cordy could see the fear hiding in her old friend's eyes and she reached out, placing a tender hand to Xander's shoulder. “Yeah, you're right, he is.”

part 15...