New All Over
by Wyndhamfan (miliandrah @hotmail.com)
Category: Action/Adventure, Angst
Spoilers: Through Season 3, post-"Tomorrow"
Disclaimer: Angel, Wesley and all the characters of the show do not belong to me. I mean, I wish they did, but reality doesn't work that way, does it? And yeah, I don't have any rights to them. This fiction is not for profit.
Summary: Post season 3. Wesley descends deeper into darkness when he does something unthinkable to himself. Meanwhile, Gunn and Fred tries to keep Angel Investigations going as they search for Angel and Cordelia. Unfortunately their search is interrupted by some new demon thugs in the neighbourhood.
"So - your former boss has a soul and you're losing yours. Why, you're just new all over, aren't ya?"
Wesley heard her say the words, but it left him feeling oddly hollow. He returned Lilah's twisted smirk with a disinterested stare and watched as she picked up her clothes and sashayed out of his apartment. He turned his gaze to the ceiling and only took his eyes off when he heard the door click shut.
He got up slowly -- like an old man -- from his bed. He walked to the windows, staring at the grimy streets below, not bothering to cover himself.
As he watched an old woman push a shopping trolley across the road, he ran a hand through his hair and sighed.
How low could you go, Wesley?
Apparently, quite low, he mused, thinking about his misguided night of passion with the Wolfram and Hart lawyer. It had been so easy then -- she was there, and he had a need -- to feel again; anything except the black bitterness and despair that had been eating him alive for weeks.
The blackness stayed away for about 10 seconds in Lilah's arms. The sex was good for about that long -- then it became a desperate act of pushing back the darkness with mindless sex. The whole experience left him with a sour taste in his mouth.
His need was simple. He wanted to feel something good once more, something that could resurrect that old Wesley, the Wesley he was before he lost Connor.
The thought of what he did brought familiar stabs of pain and regret into his heart. It usually set off a chain reaction of dark thoughts -- of Angel's attempt to suffocate him to death; of Gunn and Fred's abandonment; of Cordelia's casual dismissal of his existence. But he stopped it this time. Why? Because he was tired, damn it. Tired of sitting around and letting the blackness eat him. Tired of fighting the good fight but always failing.
He had tried to be a good Watcher to Buffy and Faith; sure that doing things by the book would ensure that success. He failed.
He tried hunting down rogue demons -- that was a laughable attempt at best. Then came Angel, and for a while his dreams seem to come true. He found acceptance and a life mission. For once, his aimless life had a path to follow. He may have faced bullet wounds, stabbings, torture and mutilation at the hands of demons, vampires, zombies, rogue slayers and near-apocalypses; but as long as he had Gunn, Angel, Fred and Cordelia, life was just peachy.
He should have recognized the signs of his impending doom. There was Darla, then came Sahjhan, then Connor; Holtz, Justine ... then the *bloody* prophecies. For goodness sakes, he should have realized his fate when he worked with the undead and fraternized with demons and semi-demons.
If he had a sane thought in his noggin and was not obsessed with a bleedin' noble cause, he would have hightailed the hell out of LA and headed straight back to merry old England. He would have been an English teacher with an unusual amount of knowledge in demonology in some godforsaken but quaint village in the moors.
Instead, he had to stay in sunny Los Angeles -- despite the bombings, gunshot wounds and numerous near death experiences at the hands of ghouls -- to fight the good fight.
*Who am I kidding? What good fight? Father was right. I am a failure. I will never-*
"Stop it, you bloody idiot!" he said out loud. He was momentarily startled by the strange, grating voice that came from his scarred throat. Funny -- it had been weeks, and he was still not used to the change. It wasn?t so much the injury that caused the change -- but the strange darkness that hid behind it.
Wesley headed for the bathroom and stared at his reflection. He took in the disheveled hair, the unshaven appearance and the deep frown. Wesley Wyndham-Pryce would have been shocked at his appearance. He was a Watcher, and a Watcher always had himself together. He is always ready for anything and everything. He had to train slayers, slay demons and get the right spells ready -- all in an immaculate suit and with nary a hair out of place.
Who was this man staring back at him? He lifted an eyebrow. The sight amused him and he found himself grinning stupidly at himself.
"Oh Wesley, maybe Lilah was right. Only the world's most evil law firm would take you in now. After all, you look a bloody mess - like a man without a soul," he said to his reflection and chuckled. His chuckle turned into sardonic laughter and then into painful sobs.
He turned away when he felt the pain of unshed tears behind his eyes. He could not bear seeing himself breaking down. Don't you dare cry, Wesley, his father used to rail at him. A Watcher cannot be moved by his emotions. Never let your emotions rule over you! They will ruin you!
He was right. He was right ...
He choked back a sob and tried to push the tears back. He sat down on the toilet seat, gripping his head as if he wanted to crush the emotion out of it.
*Oh Lord, I am tired. So tired of fighting, of trying to know what's the best thing to do ... the memories haunt me. They're killing me, drinking me alive. I don't want to be concerned anymore. I'm tired. I'm sick of it all. I've had enough of all this shit-*
After a while, he gathered himself enough to walk into his excuse of a living room. He stared at the scattered debris of food stuff, ancient manuscripts and books on the floor. Then at the door. And then a thought occurred to him:
He had invited Angel in.
He remembered -- was it last year? After he was shot by the zombie cop and was reduced to a man in a wheelchair. Angel had just had his epiphany after sleeping with Darla and had decided to come rescue him from vengeful Skilosh demons.
He recalled Angel's bumbling attempts at reconciliation after the whole "You're fired" episode with an amused smile. Wesley didn't think that he could win Cordelia back with a few articles of designer clothing though. Nor would he be so easily forgiven by the others like Angel.
So, Angel could waltz in here to finish the job he started in the hospital anytime. He hadn't though -- second thoughts perhaps? Or just plain 'don't-care-Wesley-doesn't-exist-anymore' attitude?
Worse, Gunn and Fred knew where he lived too. His face soured at the memory of Gunn visiting him; only to remind him that he didn't want to have anything to do with him anymore and, oh, by the way -- do you happen to know a way to get rid of this slug demon?
He was sick of them. He was sick of himself. It was time to change. Move on and forget the whole Angel Investigation episode of his life.
Ah ... like Angel, he just had an epiphany.
And frankly, he couldn't believe how stupid he had been to not think of this sooner.
"You're movin' house?" Mrs. DeLores exclaimed. Her white, curly hair bounced a little in her astonishment. Then she lowered her voice, "Was it because of the mugging?" her eyes shifted to his neck.
He fingered his scar absently for a while and shrugged.
"I need a change. To leave some people behind so that they don't bother me anymore."
"Those damn street thugs," Mrs. DeLores sniffed, dabbing her eyes with a handkerchief that magically appeared out of nowhere. "You are such a sweet, young man. When I heard about what happened to you, it nearly made my heart stop. I hate to see anything else happen to you. But I also hate to see such a good tenant leave," she sighed dramatically.
Wesley just stared at her. He spoke to the woman only three times since he moved here three years ago. First, to find out if the apartment was available, second to get the key, and third to vacate the apartment. Their monthly dealings involved rental payment reminder notes and cheques slipped under the door.
Mrs. DeLores was unperturbed at his scrutiny. "Have you found a place?"
He gave her a small smile. "Not yet, but I did hear about a potential neighborhood."
SIX DAYS AGO
"Avarice is the worst place to live in the whole of California."
Wesley turned to see who spoke. He was only half interested in the conversation. He would've ignored it completely if not for the tantalizing sight of Bob, the greasy cook behind the counter, flipping meat patties.
The speaker was a disgruntled looking man in work overalls. As he sat at his table in the diner, he gave the waitress -- Myrtle, was it? -- a sour look.
"If I work there another day, I'm gonna go nuts."
"What's with the place, Joe?" Myrtle asked, only half interested. She patted her peroxide blonde hairdo absently as she readied her notebook for his order. "And do you want your usual or do you want my coffee surprise?"
"Yeah, my usual, and your coffee is a surprise only because Bob allowed you to serve it to us for so long."
This made some of the diners at Bob's Side Café laugh.
Myrtle hit Joe with her notebook. "Get on with the story," she complained. By then, Joe had some of the diners interested - they shifted in their seats to look at him.
"Well, you wouldn't believe the crime rate for one. People go missing there like you won't believe. Muggings, lootings - Yeah, you would expect it for a place called Avarice -- who think up these stupid names anyway? Anyway, so I'm working at my construction site, right? And Bob told me that another guy went missing again."
"Hey, you did tell us that someone went missing last week, right?" A man spoke up from a corner.
Joe turned to look at the man. "Yeah, it was Herman."
"Herman?" Myrtle piped up. "Alice's Herman?"
"Yeah. Poor guy. They found him like four days ago -- apparently he had some bite marks on his neck. Police say it's some kind of animal. Near tore his throat out. Not a drop of blood left in him -- or anywhere around him for that matter. Weird, for a wound like that."
"Oh man, no shit?" said another guy.
"You're kidding, right?" Myrtle said.
"Nope. And now, Harry's missing. I don't want to be next, you know?"
The crowd murmured in agreement.
Wesley returned to his very bad coffee and thought to himself: Vampires. Avarice had a bad vampire problem, if he was not mistaken. It was not an area Angel Investigations liked to frequent -- despite their line of work. They were investigators getting assignments from the Powers That Be, not Vampire Slayers. Los Angeles had other pockets of demon activity that they were more concerned about.
"Frankly, I have no idea why they're building something there," Joe was saying. "Nobody wants to live there. But it's the cheapest place to live in LA -- if you don't mind getting your throat ripped out."
"Avarice?" the petite red-headed woman stared at him, stunned, before quickly replacing her shock with a smile that was too bright to be true. "You've come to the right place. We have several houses that you might be interested in," she said, leading him to her desk.
Wesley sat in the uncomfortable plastic chair and looked around the office. The real estate office was mostly empty except for Mona -- the petite woman serving him -- and a near-catatonic receptionist near the door. The walls were filled with pictures of outdated architecture harking back to the 50s, and the furniture were the type you cobbled together from those DIY sections in hypermarts.
Norston Realtors was run down, like many of the offices at the fringes of Avarice. It would seem that nobody wanted to live *near* Avarice either.
"No, I don't want a house. I want something bigger. Much bigger," he said, giving Mona a small smile.
Mona could not hide her shock this time. "There are no mansions in Avarice," she said pointedly.
*She probably thinks that this British guy is an eccentric recluse along the lines of Howard Hughes. If life could be that simple.* Wesley mused.
"No, not mansions. Warehouses."
"Warehouses?" she echoed stupidly.
"You know, buildings where they keep things?"
"Oh!" Mona laughed nervously and then giggled. "Warehouses. Right. Plenty of them in Avarice. Of course that's why you're interested in Avarice. It's not as if you're going to-" Mona visibly gulped as she realized that she might have said too much.
Wesley knew what she was getting at, but he wanted to needle her just a bit. He had not had this much fun since ... well, ever. "Going to what?"
"Nothing," she gave him a big smile and disappeared under the desk, presumably to look for files.
Wesley tried to see what she was doing. "Going to what?" he repeated.
Mona came up from below her desk with a file. Then she sighed dramatically. "Live there," she said, exasperated.
"Well," Wesley drawled. "That *was* my idea."
"Oh ... er ... live there? In a converted warehouse?"
"I need space. Lots of it. For weapons practice."
Mona stared, then burst out laughing. "Of course. Hah! Weapons practice," she chortled as she flipped through her file. She turned the file over to his side.
"Here's one you might be interested in -- a former warehouse that stored plastic goods."
Wesley studied the black and white building and then the note 'Vacant since 1998' at the side. It had clean lines and enough space to store a 600 pound Garmak demon and its entire spawn.
"It's too sterile. It reminds me of lawyers. I hate lawyers."
"Okay..." Mona drawled and flashed him an odd look before she flipped a few pages further to show him another. And another.
"Does every warehouse remind you of lawyers?" Mona asked 20 warehouses later, annoyed.
"It's the modern architecture and glass windows. As cold and attractive as a certain she-lawyer I know. May I have a look?" he reached out for the file. Mona let him have it reluctantly.
He flipped through a few more until he finally caught something he truly liked. He felt his lips tugging into a big smile. He didn't know why anyone bothered to put Grecian columns to flank the entrance of a warehouse, but he liked it -- along with the row of Georgian windows that lined the second storey of the building. The walls were a very faded yellow that could formerly be white. Overgrown grass flanked the property.
He read the notes at the side of the faded black and white photograph: Built, circa 1920. Vacant since 1985. Shifted hands numerous times; the frequency increasing as the 80s approached. It was sometime after the vampire infestation began, he supposed.
Mona saw him staring at the photo, but she did not look overjoyed.
"Sir ... Mr. Pryce?"
"Wyndham-Pryce," he corrected her, his eyes still on the photograph.
"Mr. Wyndham-Pryce, I cannot recommend you Baylor House."
"Baylor House? It sounds rather elegant. When can we visit it?"
"I don't think you'd like living in that neighbourhood," Mona was saying.
"And the price? Can I have the quotation?"
"Call me Wesley. My surname can be quite a mouthful," he said, still staring at Baylor House.
"Why don't we look at another potential place?" Mona reached over and tried to tug the file from his hands. He gave her a glare and she sat back with a nervous smile and continued, "I have a great looking warehouse -- with no glass windows or hint of modern architecture in sight -- somewhere outside Avarice..." she trailed off when she noticed the thin line around his neck. Her lips pulled back in a grimace when she realized that it was a recently healed scar of a knife wound.
Wesley closed the file with a loud snap. It made Mona jump.
"I like this one."
After a beat, Wesley said, "I'm truly puzzled here. I'm giving you a sale, after all."
"Sir ... alright. I don?t like selling places to people when the places are not..."
He lifted an eyebrow.
Mona sighed deeply. "It's haunted."
He perked up. "Oh really? With what?"
Mona truly looked confused now. "Excuse me?"
"Is it a ghost? Vampires? Garnak demons? Maybe the occasional Juju spirit?"
He squinted at her. "Or maybe you're possessed?"
Mona came to her senses. "O-Kay. Here's a weird British customer!" She pointed at him accusingly. "You're probably a serial killer aren't you?"
Before he could answer, Mona flung her hands upward.
"Why couldn't I get a job in LA like any other decent real estate graduate? Maybe I should have accepted Jonah's offer to open a firm in Sunnydale like he suggested," she trailed off, distracted.
"I wouldn't advise that. The Hellmouth is there. And the property in Sunnydale never appreciates."
Mona stared at him long and hard before saying, "Mr. Wyndham-Pryce, if I was anyone else, I would've sold you that property in a snap. It has been sitting in our files for years. But I don't like selling people houses where they can be killed in. People have died in that house. There's even talk about vampires living there -- as if they exist! Not only is it haunted, Baylor House is in the worst section of the worst neighbourhood in LA. Do you know what that means?"
"That you're an honest woman, and I like that," he said sincerely.
Mona blushed at his unexpected praise. "Sir-"
"Wesley; and as a reward for your honesty, I would like to relieve you of that piece of property as soon as possible. Please."
Mona looked as if she still couldn't believe it. "Sure. Eat your heart out, but I did warn you. Why in the world do you want a haunted house in a bad neighborhood anyway?"
Wesley gave her a ghost of a smile. "To see who dies first -- the vampires or me."
After his little speech about vampires and dying, Mona wasn't very enthusiastic about accompanying him to Baylor House. She gave him the keys, showed him the door and asked him to call if he wanted the place. Then she bolted the office door and shut the windows. At 2pm in the afternoon.
He was now at Furton Street, and Baylor House stood before him, tall and imposing. Compared to the other warehouses that Mona showed him, Baylor was comparatively small. The other buildings around Baylor House were very much abandoned - exposed windows appeared as baleful eyes glaring at his intrusion.
After some research, he discovered that Mona was correct -- a few bodies had appeared around Baylor house since the early 80s. The total body count so far: 20. And Wesley noted the condition of the bodies discovered: drained of blood, strange bite marks on the neck.
Police officers that have ventured into the house to investigate often reported strange noises and movements in the basement. None had dared to venture into the cavernous depths of Baylor House's basement. In 1984, two policemen disappeared, never to be seen again. It had gotten so bad that people began to leave Furton street in droves. By 1991, Furton Street was a ghost street.
Charging into the house unprepared was probably a very bad idea.
Frankly, Wesley was surprised that Baylor House was not abandoned by the owner. It looked like the owner was willing to settle with anything, as long as he got something out of the dump. That something amounted to $4,240. An amazingly ridiculous price that would make sane people look twice. Wesley, however, was nowhere near sane right now.
After all, he planned to wipe the vampire nest in Baylor House all by himself. He was not a Slayer, just an ex-Watcher who happens to know a few ways to kill a vampire. But he also knew an avenue that could turn him into something close to a Slayer.
His name was Gavin Rice, and he was, by profession, a warlock. Unlike many of his line, he didn't go for the white or black magic label. He liked to call himself a practicer of neutral magics; though with a little monetary persuasion he could go a little dark once in a while.
The door creaked open. Gavin lifted a blonde eyebrow and watched as his visitor walked in. His other eyebrow shot up when he realized who it was. He shifted a little on his velvet settee and placed his glass of bourbon on the side table beside him.
"My, my, my ... I never thought I'd have the likes of you in my abode twice in my lifetime -- all 500 years of it," he said, his upper-crust English accent smooth as honey.
His visitor looked around the plushy surroundings absently before gesturing towards the swords hanging on the wall on the far right.
"The swords of Amondias. Quite a catch. Did you bribe it off a customer?"
"Nothing so crass, my dear Mr. Watcher. Oh, I must apologize. It's Mr. Big Boss of Angel Investigations now, isn't it??
Wesley gave him a sharp glare.
"Oh, has that changed too?" Gavin asked innocently. "News travels a little slow around these magically shifting parts. So?" he picked up his wineglass once more, "-who are you now? Frankly, it's tiring to keep track of you do-gooder types-"
"Shut up Rice. You know what I want," Wesley hissed.
"Do I?" he took a big gulp of the drink and settled it down. He got up and walked towards the ex-Watcher who flinched when he came too close.
"Granted I have significant powers in mind reading, and my mind reading talents tell me this. I sense much darkness in you, Wesley," Gavin said gravely, his brow heavy with a frown. Then he smiled brightly. "That was my Yoda impression. Good eh?"
"I'm not here to banter with you, Rice. I want..." Wesley swallowed and turned away abruptly.
"That's a good boy, Wesley. Turn away while you still can."
Wesley quickly turned back. "I'm not going to."
"Why not? Because what you're proposing is quite insane, by the way. I may be a beigish sort of warlock, but this will destroy you for certain."
"Since when were you concerned about my welfare?"
"You're right. Why am I concerned? Oh wait, how about I don't want you to come back and bite me in my arse when this is all over?"
"Hah!" Gavin clapped his hands and laughed out loud. "So says the man who proposes to dabble in magics he has no understanding of." His tone became serious. "I was not lying when I said that you have a lot of darkness in you. I've not seen such anger, hatred and bitterness in a man for a long while -- maybe in Hitler, and see how *he* turned out? I can see it in my mind now," he closed his eyes. "-a big, swirling ... fire. Green fire at that. Never a good sign, green fire. The most uncontrollable of the lot, you know."
"Are you going to open me or not Gavin?" Wesley snapped, impatient.
Gavin's eyes flew open and the warlock stared at him, speechless for a moment at Wesley's tone.
"Well," he finally said after a while. "Let it be stated in the contract that I did warn you. It's not going to be a pleasant experience, by the way."
"I know," Wesley said softly. His hands turned cold at the thought of what he would endure.
Gavin broke into a strange smile and shook his head, his long, blonde hair tossing around him eerily. Magic crackled around him as he did so -- this man was soaked in magic, Wesley thought.
"Not as much as you think, Wesley. This-" he snapped his fingers and a flash of light erupted; "-is just static. Now, before I 'open' you up, there is a matter of monies?"
"I have it."
"Angel Investigations paying you that well, Wesley?"
Wesley removed something from his long coat, and Gavin was honestly taken aback by what he produced. He touched the long blade reverently. "The blade of Karnak. How?"
"Questions later." Wesley placed the knife back into the confines of his long coat. Gavin watched the knife longingly, then gave a small laugh.
"Dear boy ... you have changed, haven't you? When I first saw you, you were a reed of a Watcher, you and that Rupert fellow. You were trembling in your boots when both of you came to me for some 'information'," Gavin mused, tilting his head aside. "I wonder what has brought you to such desperation? If it is that undead creature and those pathetic mortals you 'hang' with, I have some news for you. They are not worth this trouble. If it is revenge you want, I can cook you up a decent cocktail of unpleasant illnesses or even call my good friend D'Hoffryn for a few of his vengeance gals. This is really madness, Wesley," his voice turned strangely gentle. He placed a hand on Wesley's shoulder. "Turn back now."
Wesley stared at the hand on his shoulder and smiled humorlessly. "Do you want the blade of Karnak or not?"
Gavin removed his hand as if he just touched acid. "Right then. When shall we begin?"
Fred didn't think she would visit Wesley again. She had been hurt by his betrayal. His actions had cost Connor his childhood and his bond with Angel. It hurt her. No, it made her furious. They were happy and Wesley ruined it all for them.
But now, with Angel gone for a month and Cordelia too -- perspective returned and she realized that the family she lived with after returning from Pylea had fallen apart. She only had Gunn now.
And maybe Wesley too.
But she found that she could not knock on his door. Closing her eyes, she remembered another occasion like this. He had been tainted by Billy's blood and she wanted to make him feel better after the episode. He had been in despair for nearly hurting her. Her lips thinned and she shook her head. It was hard. So hard to pretend that Wesley never existed during those bleak weeks after he was exiled from Angel Investigations. She had played along, partly because she was hurt and furious herself, and partly because she didn't want to remind Angel of the man responsible for stealing his shred of happiness that was Connor.
"Can I help you?"
The voice startled her and she turned to see an elderly woman with a shock of white curls in a flower print summer dress staring at her in puzzlement.
"Oh ... ah, yes. I ... I'm a friend of Wesley, and I want to see if he was here," she gave the woman a smile.
"Oh. I'm Janice DeLores by the way," she gave Fred her hand.
"Winnifred Burke. Just call me Fred," she returned, shaking her hand.
"Fred? Girls these days. It's all about equality now, isn't it?"
Not sure whether Janice was saying something nice or insulting, Fred said, "Where is Wesley?"
"Ah. I was about to tell you that he's not here anymore, dear. The poor boy, after that mugging he wasn't really the same. Stayed in his apartment all the time, looking like he never got much sleep."
Fred swallowed, unable to quench the guilt she felt. Then she realized what DeLores just said.
"You mean he's-"
"He moved away two days ago. Took most of his things."
"Did he say where he went?"
"No," DeLores shook her head sadly. "He said that he wanted to leave some people behind so that they won't bother him anymore. Can't say I blame him. Street thugs. This neighbourhood is going to the dogs," she hurrumphed.
Fred blinked away unexpected tears. She knew who he wanted to leave behind. Why should she be sad, though? Why?
"Are you alright my dear?" DeLores asked gently.
Fred realized that tears she was trying so hard to hold back were rolling down her cheeks. Embarrassed, she quickly wiped them away.
"I'm sorry. I just didn't expect him to...leave. Somehow I thought he'd always be here."
"Oh dear," DeLores placed a gentle hand on Fred's shoulder. "Is he your ex-boyfriend?"
"Uh ... no, no ... just a friend."
"Well, if you do care for him so much, I'm sure you will find him eventually."
Fred gave her a weak smile. "Thanks. Can I ... uh, go into his apartment?"
"Why, are you interested in it?"
"Yeah," she said, hoping she sounded convincing -- it wasn't really a lie, after all. She *was* interested in what she could find in the apartment -- some clues to where he went, for one.
DeLores let her in the apartment, and left her there, saying that she would be back in a few minutes.
When Fred saw the apartment, she was taken aback by its emptiness. For a moment, she could picture him at his desk next to the window, studying one of his moldy books. She could almost see him now, looking up and smiling at her. His blue eyes laughing with his smile, he would gesture her over...
Fred walked in, closing the door behind her.
The furniture was still there, and the normally filled to the brim bookshelves were desolately empty. Fred clenched her hands at the sudden grief she felt in her chest.
He was gone. Really gone.
Fred saw something sparkling in a corner near the window. She walked hesitantly towards it and saw that it was glass shards ... and something else.
She bent down and gently brushed the shards away. Photo frames. Two of them. The simple plastic frames were badly cracked, as if someone threw them down with great force or stomped on them. Behind the shattered glass panels of the frames were photographs -- familiar photographs. Photographs of happier times.
One was of Wesley, Angel and Cordelia. Didn't Cordelia have a similar photo? The other was of Gunn, herself and Wesley.
This time, she couldn't stop her tears. She sat down amidst the shards, the torn photographs in her hands, and sobbed.
"I'm sorry Wesley. I'm so sorry," she whispered, her voice echoing hollowly in the abandoned apartment.
"I'm sorry Wesley. I should have warned you that it would take hours."
Gavin felt quite sorry for the young man. Enduring such agony for six hours was inhuman, he knew, but Wesley had been insistent. It was foolhardy of him, Gavin thought -- but the man is clearly on the edge of insanity now -- if he wasn't there before.
Wesley was still quivering, his eyes rolled up into his head. Gavin could see the elemental energies whipping inside the man's body, wrecking havoc with his pain centers.
"Uncontrollable," Gavin whispered. "Fire may be the strongest of the elements, but it is also the most uncontrollable."
Wesley chose that moment to cry out in pain. With a last shudder, he forced himself to sit up. After several attempts, his eyes opened and began to focus.
"Feeling better?" Gavin asked lamely.
"It burns," Wesley whispered, his voice guttural with the force of the magic.
"Yes ... that's what you get when you deal with fire," Gavin mused. Then sighing, he helped the man up, ignoring the elemental energy that tried to prick his shields.
"You didn't tell me that you were bound," Gavin accused.
Wesley didn't answer - or couldn't.
"Bindings are notoriously stubborn. If it weren't for the binding, the pain would've lasted only two hours -- tops."
He settled Wesley onto his velvet settee.
"Now, my payment-"
The flash of light startled him, but Gavin recovered quickly enough to catch the Blade of Karnak that materialized before him before it fell.
"Careful!" Gavin hissed. "Do not engage in elemental magic unnecessarily! Goodness, Wyndham-Pryce, you know better than anyone that elemental energies are highly unstable. The more you use them-"
"-the more I become the Element. I know," Wesley wheezed. "And I didn't do that. Or ... at least I didn't think I did. Could I..." he took a deep breath. "Could I do that unconsciously?"
Gavin sighed. "Yes. That's a big warning not to use your newfound 'openness' unless very, very necessary. It's also a bloody revelation. The things you have been hiding from your friends ... the Watcher's Council. You are more deceptive than I thought!"
"Be quiet, Gavin," Wesley whispered, trying to stand up.
Gavin flinched, expecting a spell. But it didn't come -- thank goodness. Wesley had restrained himself. He was more than a match for Wesley, but now that the man was open to elemental energies, Wesley was raw with power and highly unstable. He didn't want to deal with a mad Elemental just yet.
Gavin gave Wesley a year before he spontaneously combusted into Kingdom Come, or whatever dimension he blew himself into. Unless he was a Natural, which was preposterous. Hadn't been one in 600 years. And they're rare breeds, Naturals. So rare that the Watcher's Council would snag those kiddies with the talent and lock them up forever. At least ... he didn't think that Wesley was a natural channeler ... if he was, boy, were they in deep-
"Where is the door?" Wesley slurred.
Distracted, Gavin flicked a hand, and muttered, "Reveal".
The door appeared and Wesley stumbled towards it.
"Oh. A word of caution."
Wesley turned drunkenly towards him.
"Or at least, another word or two. Be careful of the Element, Wesley. It will sing to you and seduce you into using it. Remember, fire can be your servant, but let loose -- she is your enemy. She is traitorous ... as traitorous as you," he gave Wesley a sardonic smile.
He barely had his full shields up when Wesley reacted, hitting him in the jaw. Wesley was so filled with supernatural strength that despite his shield, Gavin flew clear across the room to land heavily on the opposite wall. Thankfully, the shielding worked in time to cushion him from the brunt of it, but the unexpected attack left him winded.
He saw Wesley's blue eyes turn a glowing green. Smoke began to rise from Gavin's expensive Persian carpets, and the air around Wesley began distort.
"Suck it in, Wesley -- or you can say bye-bye to whatever kooky revenge you planned," Gavin barked.
This seem to shake Wesley out of his stupor. Slowly, the glow faded from his eyes and the heat in the room began to dissipate.
He looked shaken and more than a little frightened.
"I did warn you," Gavin snarled, rising to his feet. "You're in over your head here. So another piece of advice -- take anger management classes. You will need it."
Wesley stared at him for a while before walking out. His hair was plastered with sweat, and he was breathing heavily, as if he just ran a marathon.
Gavin watched the man go, suddenly uncomfortable that he may have let his greed go to his head this time and released something really bad into the world.
The Blade of Karnak sparkled prettily for him. He took it and studied its sheen -- yes, it was the real one alright. With this beauty, he could slice open conduits and drink up magic energy like a sponge.
"But you are worth any trouble, aren't you my pretty? What's a mad Elemental anyway? So they tend to kill millions once in a while. Big deal. Now, where shall I hang you?"
When he was alive, Gordon would have busted guys who jaywalked. That was the highlight of his career as a cop -- the occasional speeding ticket and jaywalking. Heck, back in the 70s, Avarice was a relatively decent neighbourhood -- unpaid parking tickets were exciting. Then things got worse -- bad hats started moving in; the big projects became slums and then -- the vampires began to rule.
He didn't know that then, of course. He didn't even believe in them. Until that fateful night when his squad was called to investigate a body found in Baylor House.
While there, his squad team egged him to investigate the famous basement, and he remembered being afraid. Then John Maskins said he would, and he decided -- why the hell not?
Well, it certainly paid off. Four vamps came out of the darkness and took them. Gordon was fortunate enough to be turned. John was sucked dry and his body used for a dartboard for the next few weeks.
Life as a vamp certainly had its perks. First, there wasn't any pesky conscience to deal with, so he was pretty much happy to do the things he hadn't been able to do before like killing lots of people and torturing few and there when he was in the mood. And then there were the fringe benefits like super strength and immortality. He had a gang to hang out with and he lived in a posh, albeit a bit run down, warehouse.
So, when you find out that this peaceful existence is going to be disturbed, you're not exactly happy are you?
"I mean, this guy's stupid. Haven't we killed enough people to tell them -- hey, this is our pad, no touch?" said Arnold Thomas, a recently turned vamp.
Gordon watched as the movers began moving boxes into the first floor. The two of them looked nervous, as if they really didn't want to be here.
The smell of the blood running beneath their skins was intoxicating. Gordon sighed in happiness.
"Shall we get 'em?" Arnold asked.
"Why not?" Gordon replied.
Surprised, the two vampires turned.
"Oh ... hey April."
The leader of their gang, April, walked from the shadows.
"I don't want to scare our visitor, guys. I want to have fun with him -- so let's wait till he moves in, shall we?"
There were many smiles under the basement at Baylor House that day.
He found that he had slept for a long time in his motel room. When Wesley finally got off his bed, feeling a little like his normal self, he found a pile of newspapers at his doorway.
When he checked the dates, he realized that he had slept for three days.
However, he was glad for it. The pain was nearly gone -- and so was the uncontrollable energy that was coursing through his body. He felt almost normal, no hint of magic around him.
He stumbled to the bathroom and looked at himself in the mirror. He looked ... very terrible. There were dark circles beneath his eyes; his hair was limp and his skin pasty. Wesley bet vampires looked better than he did now.
As he washed up and brushed his teeth, he tried not to think about what he had done.
It was the only way, he reasoned. Fighting vampires alone without backup was foolhardy -- and what backup did he have now? So the only way was to have the strength of a Slayer or something better. He decided to give himself some power.
He looked in the mirror again once he cleaned up. Presentable, but not exactly great either. Old Wesley would still be appalled. Old Wesley would also be shocked at what he just did to himself.
He knew very well that Elemental magic would burn him out one day. It was something every Watcher knew -- of all the magics in the world, Elemental magic was the strongest -- and the most destructive to its wielder. Which is why no sane witch would touch it, even with a ten yard pole. Occasionally, some did attempt it -- and history recorded grisly deaths for all of them. Only very few could wield elemental magic for long and survive. They were called Naturals, or Elementals; wizards like Merlin, Othego, Ayas. But they were extremely rare, and Wesley doubted he even had a smidgen of their ability. He wasn't even very well versed in magic to begin with; he was just a typical 'by the book' magic dabbler that didn't have much power to dip in. That was why he needed power.
He needed power to do what he must do. He needed the strength to make sure that Sahjhan wouldn't succeed. His friends -- sorry, his former partners, have no idea how to deal with the monster. But he did.
So, what's done is done. And now, it was time to act.
He opened the weapons bag he had hastily packed from his apartment and took out a crossbow, a few stakes and then his favourite sword. He looked at the sword, gazing at his distorted reflection on the blade and smiled humorously.
Let the games begin.
Fred walked into the Hyperion and realized that she didn't really want to be here right now. But where could she go to anyway? She looked around the huge lobby sadly. It used to be the center of activity for AI, and now it was just painfully empty.
"Hey, you're back," she heard Gunn say.
She turned to see him sitting on the table Wesley used to sit when he did his research. Not only that -- he was doing what Wesley used to do; leafing through old, worn books.
She lifted an eyebrow. "What are you doing?" she asked, puzzled.
"What do you think I'm doing? Trying to figure out what's up with those green horny things we fought two days ago."
"Oh, you mean the two green horny things we ran from two days ago?" Fred reminded him, taking a seat beside him. She took a look at the book he was reading and realized that it was in one of the many languages that no one but Wesley could read.
"Hmm ... what do you think that is? Ancient Sumerian or Babylonian?" she wondered out loud.
Gunn sighed and closed the book with a thud. It released a cloud of dust. Fred sneezed.
"You okay, baby?"
"Yeah," she lied. She still felt depressed. Gunn wasn't buying it though -- he saw her drooping shoulders and her teary eyes as big indications that Fred Was Upset.
"Okay. What's wrong?" Gunn said in a tone that meant business. Fred gave him a weak smile and gestured to the book.
"We're lousy at this, you know."
Gunn sighed heavily. They'd had these conversations before, and it never ended well. It always ended with Fred bringing up that man's name.
"Now, don't start with me-" Gunn started to stand up.
"Hey. At least let me finish!" Fred snapped.
Surprised at her sudden burst of temper, Gunn sat down.
"I'm sorry. But I don't want to have anything to do with him anymore and you know that," Gunn said as gently as he could.
"Yes, and I also know that we're useless at reading extinct languages and pinpointing demon species!"
"So, what are you saying? We need to call Wesley? Ask him - hey man, we know you betrayed us and all, but we need you to translate this for us?"
Fred couldn't answer him.
"Because, I used to think that Wesley wasn't the type to kidnap the boss' son and hand him to Holtz-"
"He didn't do that," Fred said.
"Yeah? But why didn't he tell us, huh? Why didn't he say something? He betrayed us, Fred! We can't trust anyone like that!"
"Newsflash, Gunn. Didn't Angel betray you guys once?"
Gunn looked away. "That was different. It wasn't about betrayal. He was just ... protecting us, that's all."
"Well, so was Wesley. He was trying to protect Connor," Fred found herself trying to convince herself as well.
"Are you defending him?" Gunn asked in disbelief.
There was something in his tone that made Fred uncomfortable. It took her a moment to realize that he was jealous. Why in the world for?
"Wesley's gone," she said, deciding to get to the point.
"What?" Gunn looked shocked, though he tried his best to hide it.
"His apartment is empty. He's gone."
"You visited him?" Now he really sounded jealous.
Fred lifted her head, determined to ignore his jealousy. "Maybe he went back to England," she continued bravely.
Gunn snorted and left his chair. He put his hands on his hips and looked out the exit, imagining Wesley packing up his stuff and flying back to England. Strangely, it left him feeling pained.
"Yeah? Well, he did something right for once," he muttered hollowly.
The sudden bang behind him startled him and he turned back to see the table overturned, the books on the floor. He looked at Fred in shock -- she was livid and tears were trailing down her cheeks.
"I'm sick of this, Charles! I don't know what I feel about Wesley. I don't know why I'm defending him. I don't even know if I can forgive him for what he did! All I know is that the family I was so happy with for the past year is gone! Lorne and Groo left, Angel is missing, Connor and Cordy too and now Wesley!"
She covered her face with her hands and begin to cry.
Pained, Gunn went to her and hugged her, at a loss of what to say. She buried her face into his jacket.
"What's happening to us, Gunn? What can we do without them?" she moaned, her voice muffled.
"I don't know. But you have me, Fred. You have me."
She tightened her grip around him.
Noon. The sun was harsh and stark on the deserted lanes of Furton street, but it never seem to penetrate the cold dampness of Baylor House.
The main doors to Baylor House groaned loudly as it opened and Wesley found himself in a large space -- perhaps around 3,000 sq feet or so. Windows lined the sides of the warehouse, making the hall look longer than it seemed. Most of the windows had been boarded up. Streams of sunlight came from somewhere above. When Wesley looked up, he noticed a skylight. That too was covered -- but not very well. A tarp was hastily hammered around it. It looked as if it was going to come off any second.
He noticed a spiral staircase at the far left side, leading to the second storey - which wasn't really a floor at all but a walkway around the warehouse.
*More than enough space for my bed,* Wesley mused. *Bookshelves there-* his gaze shifted to the bay windows beside the spiral staircase. And then at the long hall before him:
"And a great place to practice archery," he said out loud. His voice bounced eerily around the empty warehouse.
Only, he knew very well that Baylor House was not empty. Great efforts had been made to make the place habitable to sun shy creatures of the night during the day, so they are in here alright.
*Probably watching and stalking me, thinking I'm a good meal.*
They were right of course. Only an idiot would venture into a vampire's lair alone.
He was more than an idiot. He was an insane idiot.
"Come out, come out wherever you are," he sang. He walked to the first window and yanked out the boards covering it. It was surprisingly easy to do. He looked on with amazement at the wooden plank in his hand.
*New strength. New all over.* He smiled. He threw the board aside.
The second window. He ran his gloved fist through the boards. It splintered apart like cheese sticks. He felt a surge of exhilaration tinged with fear of what he had become, and realized, perversely, that he liked it. It made him feel good. And he hadn't felt this good in a long time.
Third window -- he ripped out the boards and threw it against the wall. They broke into pieces.
Sunlight streamed into the darkened hall. He turned to see the still empty hall.
*They're taking their time. I hate procrastinators. They're so tardy.*
With that, he ran his fist into the fourth boarded window.
"What's he doing?" Arnold cried out, alarmed.
"Ripping the place apart!" Gordon said, sharing Arnold's alarm. He wasn't used to prey that ripped things apart. He wasn't used to prey that had super strength either. The man took out the tightly nailed boards from the windows like they were made of papier mâché.
A thought occurred to him. "Say ... er, April. What if he's a Slayer?"
April appeared beside him, peeking at the activity going on behind the wall. Her face was vamped out, and she was ready for action. Unlike many of them, April wasn't recently turned. She was at least a hundred years old, but you wouldn't know that by looking at her. When she had her human face on, she was what Arnold called 'Baby Spice with fangs'. She had long blonde hair, baby blue eyes and a rosebud mouth. When she smiled at her victims, they thought she was there to comfort them.
"Don't be stupid," she said in her lilting voice. "Slayers are women. Unless our visitor had a sex change operation. Which, if it's the case..." she smiled to herself. "...is a very good one."
"Are you saying he's cute? At a time like this?" Arnold snorted.
"I'm saying that he?s something else. Prepare the rest. We're going to meet our friend soon."
"Outside?" Gordon said, alarmed at the thought of being singed by the sun.
"No, we wait for him here, like we always do. Strength in numbers and in darkness, my dear," she laughed and bounded away into the depths of the basement.
After removing the final board from the last window, Wesley had had enough. If the noise didn't alert the vampires to his presence and had them charging out, it meant that they were waiting for him elsewhere. And that elsewhere is the basement.
"How inconvenient," he muttered, stepping reluctantly to the entrance of the basement. It was tucked beneath the stairs, and he gazed at the narrow door with a sigh. With a quick motion, he kicked the door open.
The door broke from its hinges and fell to the floor.
Narrow stairs ran to the impenetrable darkness below.
He hated this. The basement is probably full of vermin (besides the vampiric kind) and cockroaches. He fumbled for his torchlight and shone it into the darkness. Nothing, just more stairs.
"Who built this place anyway?" he muttered as he descended the stairs.
The stairs creaked eerily as he walked down. Eventually, his eyes adjusted to the darkness and he could make out the faint online of objects in the basement. Like the hall above, the basement was huge. It could house a LOT of vampires.
When his feet finally landed on solid ground at the bottom of the stairs, he heard a chuckle beside him.
He whirled, and the light shone on a vampire -- a man who probably died in his early twenties -- and probably in the 80s, judging from the Duran Duran tee shirt he wore.
"I see you have great taste in music," he mocked.
The vampire snarled and leapt at him.
Adrenaline kicked in then. Wesley reached for the stake in his coat pocket and drove it into the vamp's chest as he was almost on top of him. The vamp exploded into a shower of dust.
At that, he heard more noises -- hisses and snarls behind him. He whirled around again, and his torchlight shone on the most angelic looking woman he had seen. She was dressed in a white, gauzy dress and her blonde hair was tied in two braids. She smiled at him sweetly.
"You don't happen to be fans of Duran Duran too, are you? Because I'm sorry if I insulted your taste," he said with a grin.
The woman smiled. She had been a teenager when she was killed, Wesley realized. What was she like before she was turned? He wondered.
"So you're the new tenant of Baylor House. It is good to have someone from England again. These Yanks have no taste, as you might have seen," said the girl. Judging from the accent, she was probably Irish.
"Well, I wouldn't hold out against them. They are a young nation," he answered absently. As she spoke, more figures shifted around her. They grew to an alarming number and Wesley realized that he was not dealing with a handful of vampires here but a possible army.
"And I see you have company. Lots of it," he mused.
"Well, it can get quite lonely down here. A lady needs company. And food," the innocent face disappeared as the vampire revealed her true face.
"You know," he said as he backed up the stairs. "I don't think there's enough of me to go around. Perhaps you should get used to the fact that I'm here to destroy you," he said, curiously unmoved by his impending death.
"Get him!" she snarled.
The shadowy figures behind her turned into a tide, and Wesley saw yellow eyes and fangs as they descended on him.
He unslung his crossbow and muttered, "Well, this is fun."
"Oh no. Not you again."
"Come on Earl, I can't look that bad!" Gunn said throwing his hands wide for a hug.
"Forget it. And keep your icky paws off me. You guys caused me enough trouble already. Don't think I don't know what happened to your last informant! I'm not going to end up in li'l chopped pieces like he did! And how in the 27th level of hell did you find me anyway? I thought I left you guys behind for good."
"Well, I have sources. Like you have," Gunn stressed.
The green skinned demon rolled his eyes. "Well, you scared them all off. You happy? And hey-" Earl noticed Fred in a corner. "-you brought your girl with you? Is she an offering?"
Gunn's expression darkened.
Earl raised his hands in protest. "Can't you guys laugh when you hear a joke? Sheesh!"
"I need information on a pair of demons."
Gunn sighed. "I need to know what they are," and went on to explain how the demons looked like.
"Wow. You're desperate, aren't you? Don't you guys have people that do this? That British guy?"
Fred looked away, biting her lower lip.
"Oh wait ... I remember. A friend of mine told me you guys had some kinda falling out. He okay?"
"Shut up and tell me." Gunn snapped.
"Hey! Mind your manners. You know, that's the problem with you and Angel. No manners. Not like that English guy -- he knew how to appreciate good help like me. Hey, once he even-"
"Earl," Gunn warned.
"Okay! Getting on with it. For free. Again. Just to let ya know, it's because I like you guys."
Gunn shifted impatiently on his feet.
Gunn waited for more, but Earl was silent. "And?" he prompted.
"That'll be $100."
Gunn moved threateningly towards Earl, but before he could do anything, Fred moved to intercept a possible confrontation.
"Please," Fred put on her best winning smile. "It's Anne, you know, at the shelter house? These demons are stalking her."
Earl looked puzzled. "So? Am I supposed to be touched here? Hey, I'm a demon. I don't care about gooey stuff."
Fred put a restraining hand on Gunn. Then reluctantly she reached into her purse and gave him a fifty.
"That's all I have," she looked at him morosely.
Earl took the note quickly and said, "Don't look at me like that. A guy needs his dough."
"Sure you do," Gunn said bitterly.
"Alright. Gurnak demons. If they're stalking her, it means that they want her for a sacrifice. Means that a female Gurnak is giving birth soon and Junior has to be fed."
"So they chose females as sacrifices? Really, this is discrimination!" Fred protested.
"Especially blondes. Real blondes. And you can't get more blondes in California," Earl said with a big smile.
"So we have demons with a blonde fetish," Gunn said dryly.
"Well, yeah -- it's a preference thing. You guys better move fast though -- usually these sacrifices take place during a full moon, and there's one comin' up in two weeks."
"Only the full moon?"
"Yeah. Only then. If the sacrifice is made after, Junior can get a li'l testy and eat mommy."
"Great. Maybe we can keep Annie safe until it happens. How can we shake them off?" Gunn turned expectantly to Earl.
"Hey. Do I look like I know how to kill every single demon out there? It's not my style to hand out ways to kill my own kind. Ask your British guy," Earl snorted. With that, he made a quick beeline out of the alley into the night.
He took out three vampires with his crossbow easily enough, and for a while the horde stood back uncertainly. He used the time to make his way further up the stairs.
"I didn't take the lot of you to be cowards," he commented dryly.
At that, the pack of vamps snarled once more and surged forward.
Wesley tossed his crossbow aside and took out another stake. He dusted the first foolish vampire up the stairs, and then another.
"His feet! Get his feet!" he heard someone shout.
Too late -- someone snagged his feet and pulled him down the stairs. His head slammed on the stairs, and for a while Wesley saw only stars. Then his vision cleared, and he realized that he was on his back.
"Hello pretty," said the angelic vampire. Her cronies leered around her.
"Can we eat him now, April?" asked the vampire beside him.
The female vampire, April, shrugged. "Sure. But leave the neck for me. It's smooth and nice ... and warm," she crooned, stroking his neck. He jerked away, but she only clamped his hand around his neck.
"What's this? You've been bitten before! By a knife, unfortunately," she murmured, tracing his scar. "I'll be more gentle, my pet," she whispered, bending forward.
He heard a snarl, then a sharp pain on his thigh. Wesley bit back a cry and fought to get to his feet, but the vampires held him in a viselike grip.
"What were you thinking anyway?" asked April, so close they could almost kiss. "Comin' all alone likes, my lamb" Don't you have any friends?"
Wesley felt another sharp pain -- this time on his right wrist. He was starting to feel light-headed.
The vampiress reached out with a pale hand to brush a lock of his hair aside. "Maybe I shall turn you and we can be playmates forever ... my beautiful, warm, English dove," she crooned in her sweet, sing song voice.
"No thank you," he whispered, wincing against the pain. "I don't date females who call me names." He gathered his will and hissed: "Dego!"
April shrieked when she was flung away by the spell. She barreled into the vampires standing behind her, and they dropped together in a heap.
Distracted by the spell, the feeding vamps released their hold on him.
Wesley took the chance to move, and he did, bursting out of the mass of vampires surrounding him to float seven feet off the floor.
"Oh man! He's a warlock!"
Wesley did not hear that. He could only hear the voice of the Fire Element as she whispered suggestions on what he could do; he could only feel the savage strength coursing through his veins and filling his being with magical energy. And he felt fury. Fury!
His eyes snapped open. They were glowing a furious green.
"Now. Who bit me?"
Two vampires tried to discreetly creep away.
"Estrudo!" he snarled, flinging a ball of energy towards them. The ball barreled into them and crushed them through a wall of the basement. The vampires stared at the hole in shock, then back at Wesley. Some started to back away, hissing apprehensively.
He landed gently in the circle they created, his eyes on the female vampire.
"I'm here to cleanse this place of your filth. After all, it's now my house. But first. We need light."
He motioned towards the ceiling of the basement and clenched his fist. There was a rumble and then the floorboards above began to crack. With a loud groan it gave way, showering splinters of wood and plaster on all of them.
The vampires shrieked in terror and covered their faces, sure that the blazing noon sun would fry them. Then-
Wesley looked up in astonishment. At the same time, he heard the rumble of thunder. It was raining, and from what he could see from the hole he made in the ceiling, very dark.
"Drat," he muttered.
"Get him!" April shrieked. "Don't let him speak!"
"I thought you said the hotel was infested with demon slugs once."
"Oh, that was a long time ago," Gunn reassured her.
Anne looked around the lobby uncertainly, still clutching her overnight bag.
"I don't know. I don't feel safe leaving the shelter-"
"Your helpers will take care of the place," Fred said, placing her hand reassuringly on Anne's shoulder. "Plus, we thought you could take some time off from work and hang with us! We have cable! Well...at least sometimes, when we hit the TV right." She gave Anne an overly bright smile.
Annie smiled weakly at Fred's attempt to comfort her and stepped into the lobby, looking around. Paper littered the main reception where Cordy used to rule. The table where Gunn did his best imitation of research was still overturned; the books still on the floor. A light was failing; flickering on and off in its death throes.
"Wow. You guys did some changes to the place. I mean, it looks kinda ... empty." Anne frowned and looked at Gunn uncertainly. "Where's everyone?"
Fred shrugged. "Away."
"Away? Where's Angel? Or Wesley-"
"He doesn't work here anymore," Gunn said quickly.
Before Anne could say anything, Fred took her hand and ushered her to the stairs. "Here, let me show you your room."
As they went up the stairs, Fred gave Gunn a sad glance. He only looked away.
Or rather, he flew and found himself above the basement, peering down at the vampires through the hole he made. He heard snarls to his right and saw that some of them have run up the stairs already.
Curiously, he felt no fear. This should scare him, or at least freak him out in a bad way. After all, he was outnumbered 1 to 50 by the undead. Once, he would have screamed like a girl.
He whirled and kicked a vamp in the head. Its head flew away and the rest of the body disintegrated into dust.
It should have pleased him, but it didn't. It only filled him with rage, the only emotion he seemed to feel with any clarity these days.
"What did they do to me?!" he snarled at the nearest vampire. The vamp screeched to a halt and stared at him puzzlement.
Fed up, Wes threw a stake at its chest, straight into its heart. It yelled in surprise and disintegrated.
"I was loyal! I fought by their side! I did everything for them!" he punched another in the face and staked him too.
"Hell, I even took a bullet for that sodding ingrate!" he grabbed one and hurled him easily against a pack of vamps standing to his right. They went down like toy soliders.
"I thought they were my friends! I thought they would listen to my side of the story!" he screamed. He hurled himself at a vamp. The vamp yelled in surprise, but the cry died halfway when he landed on a broken piece of wood from one of the boards that once covered the windows.
Wesley screamed in rage when a vampire took a bite of his leg. He grabbed the vampire by the cuff of his neck and with a quick twist, broke his neck. Furious, he tossed the vampire violently through the bay windows by the stairs.
The vampire screamed in agony as it burst into flames.
"I'm not a traitor! I'm not Judas!!" his voice was at an unnatural shriek now. The vampires looked around in shock when the building began to vibrate.
He fought mindlessly, grabbing vamp after vamp, staking one after another. They became a blur of fangs and dust; some tried to bite him and some succeeded, but none lasted long. It was a whirl in his mind, and he remembered yelling, "Burn!" and seeing flames shoot up from some of them, but it didn't matter whether it was real or not because all he wanted was to drive the darkness away.
But it didn't go back. It consumed him.
"I'm not evil! I'm not going to Wolfram and Hart! I'm not evil!"
He was hitting someone -- a vampire -- of course, just hitting and hitting and hitting till his hands became bloody. The vampire's face was bloody too, and it was still, but it was still alive, not dusted. It lay there looking at him from half shut eyes. The blue eyes were filled with terror. A vampire was looking at him in terror. Imagine that.
"I'm not evil..." he whispered, staring at the face that he had mutilated. Its blonde hair was bloody too. How long had he been at it?
Slowly, he raised his bloody hands and stared.
"I'm not," he said pathetically.
He realized that the vampire was making funny noises. He looked down.
"Please ... please don't hurt me anymore," it croaked through swollen lips.
That voice ... it was...
"Fred?" he whispered.
Fred's bloody face looked up at him. Terror in her eyes. Just like that time when Billy...
"Please," she slurred, blood dribbling from her lips.
How did she get in here? Was she trying to help him slay the vampires? He must've grabbed her and- No, she can't be dying!
He gripped her shoulders and shook her. "Don't die. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to. I didn't see you. I don't kill my friends," he whispered, his voice shaking, his eyes blurring with tears.
"You're ... you're crazy!" Fred croaked.
Wesley stared at her in pain and suddenly, she wasn't Fred anymore but April, the vampiress with the angelic face. Only, it was no longer so angelic. It was more of a bloody pulp.
"It's you," he said dumbly.
"Let me go," April begged. "I swear I won't bother you again," she begged.
He stared at her in horror, drawing back fitfully. April looked monstrous, and her once pristine white dress was now splattered with blood. He did this. He made a monster beg.
"No you won't," he agreed. "Because I'm setting you free." April's eyes widened as the stake came down.
Perversely, as the leader of the gang of vampires that terrorized Avarice turned into dust, the sun returned and bathed Baylor House in its light.
Wesley finally got a good look at the carnage that he had made. Piles of dust littered the floor, windows were cracked, walls were ripped of plaster...
*I did this*, he mused, looking down at his bloody hands.
He could still feel the Element coursing through him, and the rush of its strength deadened the pain he felt from the numerous cuts and bruises he had obtained.
"Suck it in, dear boy. It makes you mad, doesn't it? Mad with power. Fire is like that. Strong but uncontrollable. Don't let it take you away, dear boy..." Gavin taunted.
Absently, he looked around, although he knew that the warlock was not here.
"I did this to myself," he murmured, staring at his hands again. "Wow. Am I moving on," he grinned. And then he laughed crazily.
"Hey! You're supposed to be asleep," Gunn said at Anne's doorway.
Anne sighed and tossed the John Grisham book she had been trying to read on the side table. "It's not easy to sleep when you know that there are demons stalking you and hoping to make you into a sacrifice."
"Okay. I dig," he sighed and sat beside her on the bed.
"Gunn. What the hell happened?" Anne asked softly.
Gunn knew what she meant, but he just shrugged. "I guess the demons thought you'd make a nice blonde sacrifice."
"Shut up, Gunn. You know what I mean."
Gunn looked away and stared at his hands. After a beat, he said, "Hell, I don't know. Things just got ... wild, you know. Wesley ... he kidnapped Connor-"
"Angel's kid?" Anne asked in disbelief.
"Yeah. And ended up with his throat slit-"
"What?!" Anne cried out in horror.
"-and Connor ended up in a hell dimension with this vampire hunter and then Connor came back-"
"Whoa, whoa, whoa! Rewind! Slow down!"
Gunn just stared at her.
"Wesley ... is he dead then?"
Gunn frowned. "Nah. He survived."
"Is he still in the hospital?"
His frown deepened. ?No. He bailed out some time ago."
"And you're not with him?"
Gunn sighed. "What's up with you females? He betrayed us!"
"I'm just checking to see if he's okay...I mean, he seemed like such a nice guy. I don't think he had a reason to kidnap-"
"Look Annie. It's nice to see you again and all, but I'm rather tired and I don't like to talk about Wes. Okay?"
He walked to the door, and as he was about to close it, he felt guilty at snapping at Anne like that.
"I'm sorry Annie," he said, turning around.
Anne nodded. "I don't know the whole picture," she agreed.
"But I know this. He took a bullet for you. A guy like that don't just do things without a good reason. He cares for you Gunn."
Gunn shook his head. "Yeah. Yeah, I know. It doesn't change a thing though."
And he closed the door.
After the violence it had witnessed when the sun was high in the sky, it seemed ironic that peace finally settled into Baylor House at midnight; a time where the creatures of the night reigned supreme on the streets of Avarice.
And for the first time in many years, light glowed in Baylor House. It looked very lonely on a street full of dead buildings.
"It's never easy - the pull of divided loyalties - Whatever choice we do end up making we feel as though we've betrayed someone," said a voice in the dimly lighted hall of the House.
Life is full of ironies, and that remark was one of them. He remembered saying that to Gunn after his former gang went on a demon hunting rampage and nearly got them all killed.
Wesley chuckled and swallowed. He closed his eyes and sighed as the liquor burned down his throat. He lay on the sofa he managed to salvage from one of the many abandoned buildings around the area and sighed.
With contentment? Tiredness? Despair?
He lifted his glass and stared at the light it reflected from the oil lamp next to him.
*I feel dead.*
Well, partly from all that sweeping he had to do. Nothing like some domestic work to put you in your place and give you some extra aches and pains. Then there was the scrounging around for furniture bit that managed to unsettle four vampires in the neighbouring building. It got him so fed up that he simply threw them all out of the fourth floor of the building, watching with a satisfied gleam in his eyes when they burst into flames on the way down.
*A man needs his rest, you know? Can't go around getting disturbed by the undead ALL the time*
He looked up at the now exposed skylight. It showed nothing but inky blackness.
He heard his voice from the past; full of self-righteousness and indignation:
"If you ever withhold information or attempt to subvert me again, I will fire you. I can't have any one member of the team compromising the safety of the group, no matter who it is. If you do it again you will be dismissed, bag and baggage, out of a job onto the streets."
Wesley found that incredibly funny now. He placed a hand on his mouth and began to giggle; and the giggles turned into full blown laughter. His hysterical laughter echoed in the empty warehouse and spilled into the empty street outside. It also startled a few vampires in the building opposite who had been keeping watch on Baylor House. They slunk back into the darkness, not sure whether they want the new owner of Baylor House to know of their existence.
"Oh Wesley, you bloody wanker! You're full of ironies! You're so funny! You're a bleeding entertainment troupe by yourself!" he said loudly, collapsing backwards on the sofa. Mirth bubbled again from the bitterness inside. It threatened to make him giggle like a schoolboy again, and Wesley didn't think his giggles were particularly attractive.
That set him off again. He threw the glass he had in his hands on the floor. It broke apart in a shower of sparkling shards.
He tossed himself one side to stare at the remains of the wineglass. The pieces seem to sparkle with an orange light.
"Look at you ... you're like little pieces of fire..." he murmured, suddenly intoxicated by the sight.
Fire ... fire ... it was seductive, the strength it had promised him.
*We can do all things together,* the Element had whispered. *I will destroy all that desire to destroy you. I will give you the justice you seek. I will show you everything that you need to know.*
Wesley gasped, bolting upright.
What was he doing?
He ran a hand through his unruly hair and walked hurriedly to the dilapidated bathroom at the back of the hall. Through the flickering light, he stared at his reflection on the cracked mirror, willing some sanity back into himself.
He looked frightening. There was something in his eyes that make him quiver with fear inside. He looked feral and wild, as if something had been let loose inside that he could not control.
Don't let it control you. The Element thinks that it could play you. Don't even let it think that way. Aren't you tired of people playing you?
"I'm not going mad," he told his reflection. "Not yet. I have too much to do. Get a grip of yourself," he snarled. Quickly, he washed his face and not letting himself pause to think, he marched into the hall towards a stack of boxes and sank to his knees. He went to work immediately, ripping apart the boxes in his desperation to get to their contents.
His removed his mouldy tomes from the ripped apart box and strided to lone table in the hall and dragged a chair from next to the sofa to it. Quickly, he opened the volumes before him, not caring whether it had nothing to do with his research.
He sat and looked at the mass of books before him, breathing hard. His hands were shaking badly. Swallowing convulsively, he reached for the notebook where he had scrawled the prophecies relating to Angel and Connor.
Fred felt the bed sink beside her and turned automatically to snuggle closer.
"How is Anne?" she murmured, her voice heavy with sleep.
"She's fine," Gunn said, but his voice was grim.
Fred blinked sleepily and peered at him. "What's wrong?"
Gunn sighed and snuggled closer to her. "You're right."
"About life being a mess right now."
"Oh that. I thought you meant the equations I was trying to crack this morning."
Gunn laughed. "You can always make me laugh. You're amazing, you know that?"
"Hmm," Fred snuggled closer and gave him a peck on his cheek. "I know because you tell me that every time I smother honey on my pancake."
"How are we gonna kill the demons?" Gunn wondered out loud.
"Slice and dice?" Fred suggested.
"It usually works with most demons ... but it didn't work on these, remember?"
"Oh, yeah ... you cut off his head-"
"And he said 'it tickles'."
Fred was pensive. "Do you think if we cut them into little pieces they would say "Ow...?"
"Maybe you were right about Wesley too."
Fred stiffened and then studied his eyes.
"We need him," Gunn said.
When Fred didn't answer him, he said, "In an emotions unattached kind of way."
"Charles..." Fred said after a moment, "...if I did something like Wesley did, would you close me out and hate me too?" she asked in a small voice.
Gunn was shocked. "No! You'd never do something like that!"
"How do you know that?"
"What?" Gunn frowned.
"I mean, we didn't know Wesley would do the things he did, did we? So how do you know if I won't betray you one day?"
"Because I'm your girlfriend? Please, Charles. Do you know me that well?"
"Fred ... don't talk like that."
Fred sniffed, turned away and snuggled deeper into the blanket. "Sorry. I...don't know what got into me. I just ... I guess I just miss him. A little. Very little. Like maybe 10% little."
Fred shifted, and soon after, her breathing evened out and grew slower. She was sound asleep.
Gunn had more trouble sleeping. He lay his head on the pillow and stared at the ceiling.
He wanted Wesley out of his life. Permanently. But his ghost was around, bothering him and Fred.
The loud, pounding music of the discotheque did nothing to drown out the smug, smooth tones of Lilah Morgan's voice.
He didn't bother to entertain her with an answer. Instead, he stared at the mass of revelers below, nursing his tenth shot of liquor.
"Mine if I join you?" she purred seductively.
He got up and moved away.
"You know," said Lilah who caught up with him, "I was trying to start a conversation here," she said coyly.
Wesley stopped and leaned against the banister. He lifted his shot and downed it.
"I'm trying to end it," he grated.
"My, you're in a bad mood today," Lilah teased.
He glared at her.
She ran a hand up his arm, bringing back unpleasant memories of their sweaty tryst. "I thought, after the little nasties we whispered to each other the other night, we would have some kind of connection..." her hand caressed his neck, tracing his scar. "...but here you go, leaving me without a forwarding address."
He gripped her roving hand in a tight grasp.
Against her will, Lilah gasped, her face pale. She stared at his hand with a mix of puzzlement and fear, but quickly tried to look nonchalant.
"Been working out?"
Instead of answering her, Wesley gripped her waist and flung her to a nearby wall. He placed his hands on her shoulders and pinned her to the wall.
"Watch those dirty looks," Lilah whispered, staring into his stormy blue eyes. "You're getting me going again," she said.
She would never admit this to him, but she couldn't stay away. She knew he was the key to Angel, but there was something else there that she could not identify. Something that was drawing her to him. Lust? Who would have thought that the English pain in the ass would be so good in bed?
Her eyes widened when his hand traveled down her body to-
She closed her eyes and bit her lip in pleasure.
"Do you want entertainment, Lilah?" Wesley whispered harshly. "Because I'm up for some cheap entertainment," he mocked.
Lilah stiffened and willed herself to smile. "In your new place? So we can break in your new bed?"
"I just cleaned the place. Don't want to bring filth in so soon," he responded smoothly.
Lilah flinched. He could talk nasty alright. Sometimes his words pricked more than she wanted them to.
He didn't let her say anything more. He crushed her against the wall and moved in for the kill.
So smooth. Her neck lay exposed to his touch, and he traced the contours of her vulnerable neck slowly with a finger, surprised that she did not even stir.
Just a little pressure; and it would all be over.
He found his hands around her neck...
Her eyes shot open in surprise.
"What are you doing?" she cried out, reaching for his hands.
He tightened his grip.
Lilah gasped in shock. Then she began to writhe in his grasp, gasping for breath. Her eyes pleaded for him to stop, but he couldn't -- he could only see her eyes stare at his in terror; the capillaries in them bursting, spilling red into the whites of her eyes-
Wesley awoke with a strangled gasp. He looked around fearfully at the strange surroundings, and then at the figure sprawled beside him on the bed.
For a frightening moment, he thought he had done it; he had strangled Lilah Morgan to death.
But he saw her chest rise and fall slowly, and sighed in relief.
How ironic. I am glad she is alive.
He threw the bedcovers aside and reached for his jeans, which he had thrown on the dressing table. Then he put on his rumpled shirt and began buttoning it, all the while watching Lilah as she slept.
Last night was better than their first together. It was pure mindlessness, and he had not allowed himself to think this time. He did not feel the sinking feeling he had felt before.
Could he be so ill? To enjoy having sex with a twisted lawyer that had made life hell for AI for so long?
He tucked his shirt in slowly, recalling their frantic attempts to get at each other's clothes and how he had literally ripped the clothes off her.
Like a beast. Like an animal.
But he had felt something. Feeling something was good.
Wesley reached for his car keys and headed for the exit.
When the door slammed shut, Lilah allowed her eyes to open.
Last night was ... harsh.
She lifted herself on her elbows, watching him head towards his car through the partially obscured window. When he finally drove away, she allowed herself to groan from the aches and pains of yesterday.
"Wesley, you're just different now, aren't you?" she rasped, massaging her aching arm. She looked at her bruised shoulder, remembering how paranormally strong his grip had been.
"You did something didn't you? Increased strength does not happen overnight," she murmured to herself. She wondered what it was -- or why he did it. Perhaps the man was just loosing it; madmen do have above average strength when driven to it.
But she wasn't going to just sit here and do nothing and be surprised in the end. Bending over the side of the bed, she rummaged through her fallen handbag and found her cell phone.
It was late evening. Had he been with Lilah that long? The thought sickened him. He wrapped the long coat tighter around him, wishing he could get the feel of her hands off him.
*Don't be a prissy, Wesley. You were the one that initiated it. Like the last time.*
What had he become? That he could casually use a woman -- even if she was a heartless bitch -- for his pleasure and discard her like a sack of trash? It wasn't in him.
Oh really? He heard a voice mock him. Strangely, it was Ryan -- the boy who nearly drove a cross through his neck two years ago.
Remember Billy? He just brought what was in there to the surface. You're just like father anyway -- no matter how many times he locked you under the stairs, you still never learn-
"Shut up!" he growled.
A wino looked up from his corner in the alley, wine bottle in mid air. He stared at Wesley as if he was about to do something bad to him.
He looked away and continued to walk. He had left his car at Bob?s diner because he had too much restless energy and needed to work it off with a long walk.
Something was behind him. It added extra footsteps in the empty alley.
*Scratch. Scratch. Scratch.*
A scuffle of a foot. Then-
"Hey. You look all lonesome here tonight."
The figure was hidden by the shadows, but he didn't have to do much guessing to figure out what he was facing. For goodness sakes, couldn't a man have a walk without being bothered by creatures of the night?
"I'm not up for a meal right now. Especially if I'm the main course," he said in a low voice.
"Ooh, and you have a fancy accent too."
"It's British, you ignorant Yank!" he snapped, his patience at an all time low.
"You heard that Roy? He dissed me!" the figure said, amused.
He felt someone behind him. Before he could react, he felt strong hands grip his shoulders and turn him around.
He faced one of the ugliest vampires he had ever seen. The ridge brows were especially pronounced in this one, and his yellow eyes were mere slits as they glared at him. The vampire had a row of sharp teeth that looked unnaturally large for his small mouth and-
"-your breath stinks!" he declared, scrunching up his nose.
"Mavin. This guy dissed me too," Roy was as amazed as Mavin was. "I thought prey was supposed to yell, kick and scream."
Wesley glared at Roy. "You don't want to do this now. I'm in a very bad mood, and I really don't think I'll be especially kind to your kind tonight." A pause. "Not that I ever was."
"And he just gave me a speech!" Roy laughed, just as Wesley gave Roy a powerful right hook to his chin.
Roy yelped and hit a nearby wall hard, sliding slowly to the street with a befuddled expression on his face.
"It is rude to talk about a man when he is standing right before you," he growled.
Roy got up as Mavin stepped closer towards him. Wesley noted that he didn't look much better than Roy.
"That was some right hook," Roy muttered. Then frowned, increasing his general ugliness. "Hey. I'm not even supposed to feel that right hook." He gave Wesley a puzzled look. "But you're a guy..."
Wesley realized what he meant. "Oh, a Slayer? I wish I was one. At least my life would have been laid out before me -- kill vampires and demons and then die. But males aren't really afforded that choice, are we?"
"He talks too much," Mavin muttered. "Get him!"
Roy pounced on him before Wesley could react. The vampire slammed him against the wall and bared his fangs to take a bite out of his neck, but Wesley grabbed Roy's neck and pushed the vampire away from him. The vamp stumbled backwards and nearly collided with Mavin.
"You're really strong," Roy murmured when he regained his footing. He hunched low and hissed at him.
Wesley spotted a crate nearby and kicked it hard, sending it splintering into pieces against the wall. The two vamps flinched visibly at the sound then turned to glare at him.
Mavin wasted no time. He lunged forward, fangs ready --
Wesley picked a splinter of wood and kneeled; tripping a surprised Mavin.
The vampire went down.
That was the last thing Mavin said before Wesley plunged the improvised stake into his chest.
Mavin did not have the time to properly disintegrate when Roy attacked. He grabbed Wesley by the shoulders and threw him across the alley. Wesley fell to the dirty alley street heavily. Before he could get to his feet, Roy kicked him hard at the ribs.
Wesley gasped and doubled over in pain.
"You killed Roy! Sure, he smells -- but he's funny and an all-around evil guy. I'm pissed!" Roy snarled, and hauled Wesley up to his feet.
"This is for Roy. You stinkin' human!"
The punch sent Wesley flying. He crashed against a wall, but caught himself before he slid down the wall. Head ringing, he squinted at the figure before him, breathing heavily.
"You're not so tough are you? Huh. Poor Mavin. Taken by a puny-" his tirade broke off when Wesley reached out to clamp his hand around the vampire's throat. His strength surprised the vampire, who could only try vainly to pry Wesley's fingers off his throat.
Wesley stood up, slowly lifting Roy by the throat until he was inches off the floor.
"Wait ... ack! I ... ack ... okay, maybe ... (gasp) ... not puny ... maybe-"
"Shut up," Wesley growled.
Roy's eyes widened when he saw Wesley's eyes begin to glow. In his relatively short career as a blood sucking fiend (10 years of glorious havoc), he had never been afraid of a human. Humans were like cows; ready to be milked by the next vampire. But he was afraid now. Because this human wasn't really human.
"Okay ... sorry ... didn't know you were ... demon, so let's-"
Wesley tightened his grip. Roy's eyes bulged out from the pressure.
"I'm human," he hissed. "If I was a demon, I wouldn't have to live with the shit I have to live with now. And which part of shut up do you not understand?"
Roy was beginning to feel alarmed now. Smoke was hissing around them from some unseen heat source; and Roy had a pretty good idea where it was coming from. He struggled wildly in the man's grasp, but the man was paranormally strong -- maybe stronger than a Slayer. He couldn't get free! Then he saw a change in the man's eyes. They had stopped glowing, but there was a look of steely determination in them that didn't give Roy a good feeling. Roy knew he was in trouble now.
"Wait!" he protested.
Wesley didn't wait. He quickly brought his other hand to the vampire's throat and twisted sharply. The force of the motion decapitated the vampire.
"Oh Roy ... I knew him well," Wesley murmured, staring at the head in his hands. It burst into a shower of dust.
"But now he's no more..." he whispered, letting the dust fall from between his fingers.
He allowed himself to feel some satisfaction at the job well done. Killing vampires seem amazingly easy now; especially after having dispatched fifty of them yesterday.
"I feel better already," he murmured to himself. Wesley brushed the dust from his hands and wrapped his long coat more snugly around him. As he walked away from the two piles of dust in the alley, he whistled a little tune.
When the alley was finally dark and quiet, a figure emerged from behind the large trash bin at the corner. The form studied the departing figure intently before quietly following Wesley.
Night settled at the Hyperion. Midnight arrived, and the people from the nearby cafes began to dwindle in number. When the clock struck one, the Hyperion was alone -- without a living soul on the streets. Only a lone window at the Hyperion was lighted, but it was shut off soon after.
On the streets below, not a soul stirred.
But a demon did.
Disembodied yellow eyes were riveted to a window on the fourth floor of the former hotel. More yellow eyes appeared, and they watched the same window.
They watched 'til daylight.
Two Days Later
"Tell me why I shouldn't kill you right now."
Arnold Swanson gulped, and turned around slowly to face the man he had come to see. His bodyguards -- he should have them fired, the good the lot did protecting him -- stood around him, pointing their guns at Mr. Wesley Wyndham-Pryce.
Logically, none of them should be threatened by Wyndham-Pryce's presence. He was of slighter build than his three bodyguards. They had guns. He had no weapon he could see of. Dressed in faded jeans and a rumpled shirt, the man looked about as dangerous as an annoyed librarian-
Swanson changed his mind when Wyndham-Pryce shifted his glare from his bodyguards to him. All he did was narrow his icy-blue eyes, but Swanson could almost feel the room growing a few degrees colder from the glare.
Wyndham-Pryce might look unassuming, but a man who took a mere day to kill a lair of vampires -- sixty, if his hired wizard was correct -- should not be underestimated.
"I am sorry we dropped in unannounced, Mr. Wyndham-Pryce, but I was curious about you."
Swanson cleared his throat and rocked on his heels -- just to demonstrate that he was not nervous, despite the sweat that beaded on his brow and the nervous tick of his eyebrow.
"You cleaned the place up well," he said, gesturing in the general direction of the hall.
"I used to own Baylor House. When I found out that someone bought it, I thought it was a joke. So imagine my surprise when I heard that the vampires that controlled this building were wiped out in a day."
A mere lift of an eyebrow.
Swanson played with his tie before continuing. "Okay, I'll cut to the chase. I want to hire you, Mr. Wyndham Pryce. You're obviously good at what you do. You see, my grandfather made some bad investments in property in Avarice. They got infested with vampires, as you know, and I really want to reclaim my family heritage."
"And I'll pay you ... er, $5,000 for your efforts."
"Out," the word was spoken in a low hiss.
"Mr Wyndham-Pryce ... please reconsider-"
"I bought this dump for that amount, whoever you are. If you want to hire me, try better." The man gestured towards the door and said, "Out."
"$10,000," Swanson choked out.
"Not interested," Wyndham-Pryce grabbed his arm to lead him out. The bodyguards made an attempt to separate them, but Wyndham-Pryce only glared to send them backing away.
When they almost neared the door, Swanson struggled out of his grasp. "Okay!" he whispered harshly. "I'll pay you whatever it takes!"
This made Wesley pause. "You are desperate, aren't you?"
At this, Swanson reddened. "My family has been trying to get back the houses for almost a century. We almost bought it back ten years ago, then the vampires got it. It's very important to us," his voice ended on a pleading note.
Wesley's natural curiosity began to kick in at what Swanson said. Important? How important? Perhaps there's buried treasure, a dimensional portal -- maybe even an ancient relic in the building? But best not show his curiosity to the man. It would scare the man off -- and the idea of cash wasn't unappealing at all.
"So, er name your price," Swanson said bravely.
Swanson reddened and composed himself. "Okay. Done -- the houses are nearby actually-"
"I want half the amount today. Cash. No cheques."
"W-What?" Swanson blubbered.
"What makes you think I believe you are who you claim you are? You could be someone masquerading as Mr. Arnold Swanson, with nary a penny to give me after I've done your dirty work," he said, remembering how Angel was once tricked this way.
Swanson gave him a nervous smile then laughed shortly. "Oh, you're crafty. Sure, sure," he snapped his fingers at one of the bodyguards. It was then that Wesley realized he carried a briefcase.
"We came prepared. But er ... we don't have the amount you requested. But it should be enough. $15,000."
He lifted an eyebrow at that. "And your starting offer was $5000?"
"I'm a businessman, Mr Wyndham-Pryce. We always try to look for bargains," he snickered -- then paled when he realized what he just said.
Wesley laughed sardonically and slung his arm around Swanson's round shoulders. "I like you, Swanson. There's a healthy sleaziness in you that you don't bother to hide. You're a breath of fresh air," he declared, slapping the man on the shoulder. Still holding Swanson, he gestured to the bodyguard holding the briefcase.
He did, and there was indeed money in it. He let go of Swanson and studied the money - none of it fake; the man was too desperate. And that usually meant a good mystery.
He tossed the money back into the case. "Alright, Swanson. I accept your offer. Now, tell me your story."
Two Weeks Later : Noon
Anne could not help being curious about 'the room noone wants to go into unless very necessary': a.k.a. Wesley's ex-office. Anne noticed how Fred and Gunn studiously avoided looking at the office each time they passed it.
Like the rest of the Hyperion, it was in disarray. Books were left opened on the table, and judging from the layer of dust on them -- they had not been touched for weeks.
Looking around to make sure that neither Fred or Gunn was around, Anne snuck in. She wasn't usually this much of a busy body. But two days sitting around doing nothing was driving her crazy. Worse, two days sitting around doing nothing with Gunn and Fred avoiding the issue of 'what happened this year' was driving her over the edge. Her curiosity just demanded to be satisfied, even if it meant doing underhanded things like sneaking around and going where she shouldn't.
It was a very traditional looking study. Row upon row of leather bound books lined the bookshelves -- and from the look of some of them, they were probably older than her. She spotted a potted plant near the table, but it looked half dead.
Anne frowned. She still remembered the guy. He was a nice guy -- even if he was a little on the bookish side. She still remembered how horrified she was at seeing him wounded during the Night of the Living Dead Cops. Since then, he had come to the shelter off an on to drop off some stuff, but his visits petered off this year. She had not seen him for the past ten months, actually.
Her eye caught a photo frame lying face down on one of the old books. She picked it up and saw that it was a photograph of Wesley, Angel, Gunn, Fred and Cordelia. They looked as if they were goofing around when they took this picture -- all of them had a sparkle of mischief in their eyes. She frowned -- they looked so happy together. What happened to tear Angel Investigations apart? What did Wesley do to have him ostracized like this? And why I am hunted by demons? Isn't life crazy enough?
Anne gasped and dropped the frame. She winced when it landed on the hard, uncarpeted floor with a loud thwack. She gave Fred a guilty look.
Fred picked the frame up and frowned at the picture. Thankfully, the frame was plastic -- it didn't look damaged.
Fred brushed the frame, as if getting rid of the dust on it. She gave Anne a sad smile.
"We took this just before Darla came back to us with news of Angel's baby. Wesley wanted to try out the new digital camera he bought and Gunn kept making faces till we all cracked up," Fred laughed at the memory. "We were so ... relaxed that day."
"You mean happy?" Anne crossed her arms.
Fred looked puzzled. "Huh?"
"Why don't you say it? You were happy together. Why are you and Gunn pretending that you don't care for Wesley?"
"Because we don't!" Fred found herself saying. She flushed at her curt remark, and walked quickly to Wes's table to return the frame to its former position -- face down, on the book.
"He took away Connor. Because of that, Connor grew up in a hell dimension. He took Angel's happiness away from him. He hurt all of us," Fred said. But tears were in her eyes. She blinked them furiously away.
"Yes, Gunn told me about it," Anne said tiredly.
"You don't know how it's like -- to trust someone only to have them do this to you."
"No I don't. But ... have you guys asked him why he did it?"
"It was all because of a prophecy. It was false. It was all for nothing," Fred winced at the sound of the words. They were the exact words she said to Wesley. She had told him never to come back again.
"So he didn't do it for a bad reason," Anne summarized.
Fred pursed her lips. "Angel thinks he gave Connor to Holtz. Gunn has no idea what to think. I think he was misled. But it doesn't make it all better, Anne," she said defensively.
Anne gave a big sigh. "Yes, yes, that's what Gunn told me too. Frankly all this 'don't tell Anne what happened' business is making me crazy. I have a healthy curiosity too, you know."
At least Fred looked guilty at what she said. "Gunn and I thought you wouldn't be able to digest what we would tell you."
Anne crossed her arms. "I don't know. A few years ago I didn't know vampires exist. Now I'm living in a hotel owned by one. You tell me."
Fred smiled. It would be good to have someone to confide in. Someone who didn't have the emotional baggage caused by Wesley's actions to deal with.
"Maybe we can get lunch while we're at it?" she suggested.
"Yo G, haven't seen you in awhile. What's up bro?"
Gunn walked up to a young black man lounging on the stairs leading to an apartment complex. He sat beside him.
"Hey J-Bob. I need your help," he said after a moment's pause.
The man paused while lighting his cigarette. "You? Mr. Detective wants my help?"
Gunn sighed with annoyance. "When are y'all gonna stop beating me up over this Angel Investigations thing?"
"Like never," said a voice behind them.
A young Hispanic woman stood there with hands on her hips, giving him an amused look. "Yeah, we know you doin' good with Angel Investigations. S'okay. But we like to see you riled up," she gave J-Bob a high-five and settled beside Gunn, chuckling.
"Hey Lisle. You okay?"
"Doin' good," said Lisle with a smile. "So what's the help that you need?" she asked.
"I need some men. With demon fightin' experience."
J-Bob and Lisle exchanged an amused look.
"Hmm. I guess we're it," J-Bob said with a snort.
"Just the two of you?" Gunn said with more than a tinge of shock.
"Well, there's this thing with Gio-" J-Bob began.
"Being dead and all," Lisle volunteered. Gunn pursed his lips and nodded.
"Then Rondell's gone to Alaska with this chick-"
"They're getting married," Lisle added.
"Huh? Alaska? Marriage?" Gunn wondered out loud.
"Then Janet got signed on by Virgin Records-" J-Bob smiled big.
"No kidding?" Gunn was amazed.
"She sang 'What's up, vamp face'," Lisle said.
"Oh yeah ... heard that one. Thought it had a mighty familiar story-" Gunn reminisced.
"Billy Bob went off to college-" J-Bob ticked two fingers off his left hand.
"Doing Health sciences. Scholarship. Mom's really proud," said Lisle.
"Then Tony and Mary Sue are in Hawaii for a holiday. They won tickets," J-Bob finally said.
Gunn could only stare at them, floored, but then smiled big. "Well, looks like y'all havin' a good time while I'm..." he trailed off, thinking about the hellish few months they've had.
"...slaying demons?" J-Bob helped add.
"Well. Yeah," Gunn sighed. "But uh, we're kinda tapped now. On manpower, that is. So we need some hands at the hotel-"
He explained Anne's situation, and Angel, Cordelia, Connor being missing. He studiously avoided mentioning Wesley. Not that it stopped his friends.
"What about that British guy?" Lisle asked.
"He's out," he said shortly.
Lisle and J-Bob exchanged another look.
"You guys fought," Lisle concluded. "Pity, I like him. He's cute and he has that fancy accent."
Gunn gave Lisle a look.
"I know," J-Bob said, catching Gunn's look. "I tell her that true-blue Americans are the way to go too, but the chick never listens."
Lisle elbowed him.
"So, you still want us, or are we not it?" J-Bob asked.
"You guys helpin' would be great. It's just that we're fightin' demons that don't get hurt if we chop 'em up."
"Oh, that kind," Lisle chuckled nervously.
"Damn. How did Anne get in this mess?" J-Bob asked.
"She's blonde. The demons have a fetish."
"Man, suddenly I'm glad for my Mayan roots," Lisle smiled, running her hand through her dark locks.
"Somehow, we managed to ditch them for the past two weeks. But I have this bad feeling that they're just buying time, that they know where we live and don't want to go chasin' us around till the right time. Want Annie where they can get her. As it is I'm scared of leavin' Fred and Annie alone at the hotel. But Earl said they don't come out in sunlight. Every night we wait for them to attack. Barely slept in weeks," Gunn sighed in frustration, running a hand over his head.
Lisle and J-Bob each gave him a sympathetic pat on the shoulder.
"Tell ya what. Maybe we know someone who could really help you," J-Bob said suddenly.
Gunn's interest was piqued.
Lisle seem to realize what J-Bob was getting at. "Oh, *him*! Gosh, he's hot."
J-Bob rolled his eyes at Lisle and returned his gaze to Gunn. "There's this guy -- he's new in town. And word has it that the vamps are afraid of him."
"He hunts them like you won't believe. We were staking out this group of vamps and we heard them talking. Seems that he wiped out an entire nest all by himself in one day. And this is not your average nest. This was like a nest of army proportions," Lisle said excitedly.
"Lisle had a close encounter with Mr. Mysterious," J-Bob added sheepishly.
"Yeah," Lisle's eyes began to take on a dreamy cast. "I was attacked by two vamps and he swooped out of the darkness and took them out. Bam! Bam!" she mimicked staking vamps. "And they're dust. They didn't even have time to look surprised. Then there's this amazing thing. Another one jumped out from an alley and he just grabbed him by the throat, lifted him up like a teddy bear and tossed him waaaay across the street. The vamp got the message and ran for his undead life."
"The guy has freaky strength," J-Bob agreed.
"What he look like?" Gunn asked.
"He was in the shadows, so I didn't have a good look at him. But he looked cute."
"And you could see that?" J-Bob said sarcastically.
"He feels cute, okay, Mr. Oh-so-jealous? Well, he was carrying a crossbow too. And he had a neat accent. British."
Gunn became suspicious. Could it be? Nah ... Holtz was too old for this kinda stuff now, wasn't he? And last time he checked, he had normal strength like everyone else. Anyway, didn't hear about him after everyone went missing. He hoped that Holtz didn't have anything to do with Connor, Cordelia and Angel missing. Please, no.
"He said, 'Are you suicidal, young lady? The streets of Avarice are not Disneyland'," Lisle giggled.
"You're disgusting," J-Bob complained.
"So, naturally I got curious about the Vampire Hunter ...because that's what he is. I asked around a little more, and I found out some stuff about him."
"He's like a mercenary. Heard that some big industrialist guy hired him to clean out some warehouses in Avarice. Did a good job, and the guy was paid a lot of money for it," J-Bob said.
"Great, the last thing we need now is a mercenary. We're not just tapped out of people, we're clean out of money."
"I'm sure he'll help you guys once he knows about Anne," Lisle said hopefully. "I didn't pay him to rescue me."
Gunn nodded. "Maybe you're right. Even if you're right -- how do we find him?"
Lisle thought for a while then smiled, "Easy. We go back to Avarice. There's where he rescued me."
"Oh, brilliant plan, Lisle," J-Bob said in a very bad English accent. "Avarice is the vamp nest of LA. Maybe some nutcase like Mr. British Vampire Hunter with Super Strength can patrol the streets at midnight alone, but I'm not gonna be stupid enough to do it," J-Bob said with finality.
They fell silent.
Then Gunn said, "Still, a guy with freaky strength and tons of vampire hunting experience could be a valuable addition to the team."
Lisle and J-Bob exchanged another look.
"Oh great," J-Bob muttered.
St Luke's Cross was in a more habitable area of Avarice, but the lone apartment complex in the area was barely occupied. It should not even have been considered an apartment complex anymore -- its walls were nearly grey from dirt and its corridors were littered with winos, junkies and trash. Most of its apartments were abandoned. The ones occupied were heavily barricaded from the inside at all times. Its residents just did not have the means to leave.
A figure emerged from the near-ruins of the complex's lobby. He cut a strange figure; not because he wore all black despite the heat, but because he carried a large, black longbow with his right hand.
The man stepped over a junkie and walked up the apartment stairs. When he reached his desired floor, he entered an empty unit and stood at the window, watching the warehouse across the street. He dropped the bow gently by his side and took out something from his leather jacket.
"Wonderful. Ten vampires. Having a party. In a warehouse full of holes. In the middle of the afternoon. Don't they make them smart anymore?" he muttered, his voice heavy with cynicism.
Gloved hands replaced the binoculars in his jacket. They reached for the longbow at his side and for several arrows next to it.
"Who should go first? Should I take out the man with the Britney Spears tee-shirt or should I send the man with his hair standing up to hell first?" he reminisced.
Wesley squinted at his target as he mounted the arrow and stretched the bow string.
"Eeny, meeny, mienie..."
He released the arrow.
The arrow traveled swiftly and pierced the heart of the vampire with spiky hair. He reared back in shock, stared at the arrow, then cried out in horror before exploding in a shower of dust. His other vampire friends scuttled away into the relative darkness of the warehouse and gestured wildly at the hole made by the arrow.
"Sorry old fellow. You remind me of someone who tried to smother me to death once," Wesley said as he prepared another arrow.
"I think you're next, Britney fan," he murmured. "I like the girl, but you insult her by wearing the shirt."
Another vamp biting the dust.
"What's your agenda, Mr. Swanson?"
Another arrow. This time it was a female vampire.
"I've cleaned out four of your warehouses, and they were such easy kills I'm beginning to suspect something."
He released another arrow.
"Or perhaps I'm paranoid, like that Thesulac demon said those many naïve months ago. Oh wait, it was last year when I actually thought I had a purpose."
Another vampire dead. More dead, sorry.
"Hmm. Perhaps it's a standard assignment. Nothing to worry about. Play demon exterminator. Cash for job well done. But why are my alarm bells ringing? Why do I feel as if there's something more to you, Mr. Swanson? What game are you trying to play?"
Two more dusted. Six gone, four more to go.
"Granted you're paying me an obscene amount of money. More money than I've earned with Angel Investigations. Good lord, how I loathe that word now. Angel. Angelic. Hmm. Why are you hiding behind the beam, dear boy? Don't make me go down there and ruin my jacket."
Two more gone. They didn't know how to hide like that marginally smarter vampire.
"Did your family have such abysmal luck that they ended up buying so much property in Avarice? What game are you playing, Mr. Swanson?" he murmured. He quickly shot the ninth vampire to ashes.
The last vampire was still huddled behind the beam. And not making a move, it looked like.
Wesley hissed in annoyance and slung his bow over his shoulder. He took out a stake from his jacket and ran down the stairs. While he did so, his mind was buzzing with questions and theories. For a supposedly shrewd businessman, Swanson was too eager to part with his money. He did put up a fight, but it was a pathetic attempt at bravado than anything else.
Wesley was being used for some shady purpose. He could feel it.
The afternoon sunlight nearly blinded him, but he ignored the brief darkness of his vision and walked purposely to the front doors of the warehouse. With a quick flick of his wrist, he snapped the chain that held the doors of the warehouse bolted. It came apart, releasing the doors. Wesley kicked it open and stepped through.
Loud music assaulted him. One of those screaming numbers devoid of sense and rhythm. As he looked around the warehouse he saw piles of dust, some already being blown away by the hot, afternoon breeze that filtered through the numerous holes he had made with his arrows.
"Hey, don't stake me man!" a frightened voice begged him.
He took his earlier remark back. This man was not marginally smarter. Maybe microscopically so. Wesley walked towards the sound of the voice, lifting his stake.
"I mean, what did I do to you?"
Wesley did not bother giving him a reply. He frowned, inching towards the beam where he knew the vampire was hiding.
"I mean, we were in the middle of lunch!" the vampire yelled.
Something was not right. Wesley stopped.
"So that was really rude."
Wesley whirled in surprise -- just in time to feel something sharp stab him in the side. He gasped, dropping the stake in shock. He looked at the penknife sticking at his side in fascination, then at the vampire that stood before him. Without thinking he asked -
"How did you-?"
The vampire backhanded him across the face.
Surprised at the attack, Wesley stumbled back and hit the pillar. That sent waves of nausea from the wound. Grunting in pain, he pulled the penknife out. That brought another wave of pain, but he was glad to see that it didn't bleed too much. It was just a flesh wound.
"I was a ventriloquist. I learnt how to throw my voice. Neat, huh? Guess my human phase wasn't such a total loss after all."
The vampire lunged and caught Wesley around the throat. Wesley clutched the penknife in his right hand and brought it to the vampire's chest-
"And I'm going to crush your pathetic throat like-"
The creature's eyes widened suddenly. Then he said, "Cripes" -- and dissolved into a shower of dust.
A figure emerged from the cloud of dust.
"Do they always talk this much?" the figure asked.
Wesley could only stare at his saviour. He was young -- just a teenager. His brown hair was a wild mess of locks; his eyes hard and cold for one so young. No, Wesley was not surprised that his rescuer was young. He had seen him fight before after all.
Wesley threw the penknife aside, clutched his wounded side and continue to stare at the young man in amazement.
It was Connor.
"Umm. Pizza," Anne remarked, admiring the slice pepperoni pizza in her hands. She took a bite and said while munching -- to hell with manners -- "Though, it'd be better if we ate it in an *actual* pizza place."
They were seated in the living room of Fred and Gunn?s converted apartment. It was quite neat really -- in the past month with Angel and Connor missing, Gunn had occupied his time doing, as Fred called it, 'macho man renovation work'. Thankfully, in Gunn's case -- he was actually quite good at home improvement. He had converted a few rooms on the fourth floor into their own abode. Fred had her own study, which looked like a labyrinth of technological equipment Anne was sure she could not name. Gunn had added decorating touches to the apartment too -- mostly posters of baseball players.
"Sorry," Fred was saying. "Gunn said he couldn't risk them finding you."
"I feel like a prisoner," Anne moaned, then took another bite.
"It'll be over soon. The full moon phase will be over in a few days and then you'll be free."
At least for now, Fred thought worriedly. But she flashed Anne a big smile to reassure her.
They were taking a breather from Fred's long narration of the year's events. It felt good to unload everything on Anne, who didn't appear to mind. When she told Anne how Angel nearly suffocated Wesley to death, she nearly cried and admitted to Anne how horrified she had been.
"Because a part of me wanted to do it to Wesley before Angel did it for me, but I didn't really want to do it -- but when I saw Angel nearly kill Wes, I thought -- what the hell happened? What's going on? What have we become? I want things to be the way they were. I want Connor back!" she had babbled.
Anne had just hugged her and said that it was okay to feel that way; they were only human after all.
Funny, thought Fred. You'd think that with a soul, people could be better than demons and vampires, but it was never that way. They had pricked and stabbed each other with their hurt feelings and now it might be too late to do anything.
"Hey," said a voice from the doorway.
Anne gasped and nearly fell of her chair. At the same time, Fred grabbed her fork and tried to wield it like a weapon-
Gunn chuckled. "Honey, I surrender," he raised his hands in mock defeat.
A man and a woman appeared behind Gunn. The woman gave Fred her hand. "Hey. I'm Lisle."
The guy was J-Bob.
"They're ... protection," Gunn said.
"Wow, I need bodyguards," Anne smiled. However, her expression said that she was not really comfortable with the idea.
"It's okay, Annie. Just a couple of days and it'll be all over," Gunn reassured her, unconsciously echoing Fred. He then gestured to Fred who went to his side.
"What is it Charles?" Fred asked after she made sure that Anne was occupied with Lisle and J-Bob.
Gunn told her about the mysterious vampire hunter that stalked the streets of Avarice.
"Wow. Sounds heroic. What makes you think he'll help us?"
"I don't know, Fred. But we need all the help me need, and I don't mind begging the man for it."
"You mean like asking him for a discount?"
Gunn winced. "Well more like an I.O.U. Or better - F.O.C."
Fred smiled at that, but she grew serious again.
"So, how do we get in touch with this guy? From the sound of it, he doesn't really have a forwarding address."
Gunn shrugged and looked uncomfortable. "We stalk the streets he stalks. If we're lucky we'll bump into him."
Fred made a face. "Or bump into something with a bumpy forehead."
He shouldn't be here, hanging out with the man who sent him to hell.
But he was here, alive, well, and bristling with restlessness; looking at Wesley as if he needed answers.
The last time Wesley held him was when Justine slit his throat. He remembered the heartbreaking pain of losing him to the enemy, and he could only imagine the pain Angel had gone through.
Now he felt a mixture of emotions. Pride -- that Connor staked the vampire so efficiently. Sorrow -- that he was no longer the cherubic innocent baby he remembered. Grief -- that *he* was the one who took that innocence from him. And finally, curiosity -- what in the world was Connor doing here in this warehouse, staking a vampire, in the streets of Avarice?
Connor waited for him to react. The stake, which he twirled with ease, was still in his hand. It was as if he wanted Wesley to know that he could use it on him if he wanted to.
Wesley straightened himself and stared into Connor's eyes. They were so much like his father's. Stormy and filled with a deep sorrow no one could understand.
"Well, are you going to say thank you? Or stand there and rot?" Connor finally asked. His voice was heavy with sarcasm.
And it looked like Connor shared Angel's humour too. "For staking the vampire, or for shadowing me the past two weeks?" Wesley grated out.
Connor had the grace to look surprised. "You noticed that? I am good. I know that."
Wesley walked towards his fallen longbow, but his eyes were still on Connor. "Yes you were," he agreed, picking up the bow. "Sometimes I did not notice you. But sometimes you slipped."
Connor looked offended at that. "It's this world," he snarled. "Full of strange things. They ... unsettle me."
Wesley had to grin at that. "I find a television display playing Barney the Purple Dinosaur unsettling too."
Connor visibly flushed at that -- he probably remembered that slip up with painful detail.
Wesley decided to spare the teenager's ego. He decided to go straight to the point.
"Why have you been following me?"
Connor raised his head -- as if in defiance -- but he didn't answer him.
"Alright then. Come back to me when you're tired of playing this game."
Slinging his bow over his shoulder, Wesley walked to the exit.
"Wait!" Connor called out from behind.
Wesley turned and saw a chagrined Connor.
"I have been watching you," Connor hesitated, looking at his stake.
"And?" Wesley prompted.
"You remind me of someone. That's why I followed you," Connor said softly, looking at him with vulnerable eyes.
Wesley flinched at that. Someone. Certainly not Angel. Angel did not hunt vampires with a gusto like he did. Somehow it pained him to be compared to someone whose life revolved around slaying vampires every night just to stay sane. It reminded him that he was no longer the man he was.
He walked away.
"Hey!" Footsteps ran towards him. A rough hand turned him around. Strong. Like his father too.
Wesley grabbed Connor's hand, but found that he did not have the heart to treat him roughly. He moved it away gently.
"I'm not this person -- whoever he is," he reminded the young man.
"No, you're not," Connor agreed, and pursed his lips. "But both of you share the same cause. And I want to be part of it."
Wesley could almost hear the unspoken 'again'. He studied the teenager's earnest young eyes and found himself aching to reach out and tell him how glad he was that he was alive; how glad he was that he was back here in this dimension -- back with his family again. How he had missed the boy --
But Connor was reunited with his father -- he saw them fighting together that night. Wesley did not think Angel would appreciate Connor hanging out with the man responsible for parting them. And Wesley did not want to face Angel's wrath. Not when he had so little time to do what he had to do.
"Where's your father, boy?" Wesley murmured.
Connor's expression darkened. "My father's dead!"
His heart clenched unexpectedly. Angel, dead? No one keeps him updated with anything anymore.
Connor did not miss his show of surprise. "He was killed by a vampire," he spat, tossing the stake aside.
Wesley was confused now. A vampire? Then he realized what Connor meant.
"Your father's name...?"
"Holtz," he said, sounding strangely hopeful. "Perhaps you knew him a few years ... I mean, months ago. He was a vampire hunter then. He had a team of hunters. He was magnificent," Connor said dreamily. "I wish I had fought alongside him then."
Holtz. Connor's father. The bastard had raised Angel's son. And Wesley was sure that he did not croon lovely words of praise about Connor's true father. He would have taught the boy to hate Angel. Just like Holtz. The perfect revenge.
But he saw Angel and Connor together. Fighting together like father and son...
*He was killed by a vampire.* Wesley frowned. Could Angel have killed Holtz? It was too much to process right now, but Connor's words kept haunting him.
*You remind me of someone ...*
Wesley felt his gut wrench in despair. There was no doubt now who he had meant, for Connor only had a man, a vampire hunter, for company in the hell dimension. Holtz... To be compared to that man... *What have I done?*
Wesley brushed aside the despair that threatened to engulf him and fixed Connor with a steely glare.
"Yes. I knew him. But he wasn't as magnificent as you think," He said bitterly. With that, Wesley marched towards the door, fists clenched. His head was pounding with rage and despair, both emotions threatening to release something in him that he did not want Connor to see.
"What do you mean? Answer me! He was a good man! He killed demons! Demons like Angelus!" Connor cried out behind him.
*Angelus*. Wesley shut his eyes as the blazing afternoon sun greeted him.
He dreamt of the sun.
It was strange, because for over two centuries there was nothing he feared more than the burning sensation of sunlight on his skin. Now, he could only think of it, remember it, hang on its cruel image as if his life depended on it.
Sometimes, when the blackness became too unbearable, he longed to be released by the killing rays of the sun.
He opened his eyes -- or maybe that too was in his imagination. It was hard to tell in this everlasting darkness. The hunger that had gnawed on him had transformed into a kind of mania he could not express. He remembered screaming himself hoarse one time, but he wasn't sure when he did that. Days ago? Weeks? Months? Maybe years?
The thought of spending a century in this box was enough to send him on another fit. He began to sob, but his arms could not lift to wipe the tears that fell from his eyes. He was surprised that there was that much moisture left in him. He felt dry, paper-thin.
"Connor..." he moaned. He sounded frightening, like an animal ... or the demon that he was. He tried to remember good times, but the good times were Connor, and Connor were bad memories too. There was only one good memory he had the past year.
"Cordelia," he whispered. Then he closed his eyes and willed himself to dream of the sun.
In the higher plane where the Oracles dwelt and the Powers that Be had form, two glowing eyes opened in answer.
Avarice, 12:34 PM
"We have to put a stop to this! We can't go on living like this!" a voice muttered in the dimly lit confines of warehouse. Several heads nodded at this.
"Hate to put a dampner on everyone, but we're dead."
Growls were the only response to that comment.
"Hey, just a joke," the vampire said weakly.
"Four lairs. Wiped out in two weeks. The guy's worse than a Slayer. At least the Slayer don't go on berseko kills!" complained one.
"He's right! The man kills not because he has to -- he kills because he likes to!"
The crowd of vampires growled in agreement.
"And him being a warlock doesn't help," complained another. "If this continues, Avarice will be full of happy humans again. And us not being able to have any of them!"
"Do not worry. A plan has already been executed to counter this problem. And so far, it has been working to our advantage," said a voice with a heavy Slavic accent.
Koskov Nureyev, the man who spoke walked into the circle created by the vampires. Unlike the others, he did not wear his game face. His hair was jet black, and it trailed to his shoulders in an unruly mess. His eyes were cold and flat, his cheekbones high and commanding. When he was alive, Koskov was not a pleasant fellow. He was a sorcerer and hitman for the Russian secret police -- back in the days where Tsars ruled -- and when he was vamped, he was three times as cruel.
"And if our plans work out well, this vampire hunter will no longer trouble us."
Suddenly, the door to the warehouse crashed open. The gathered vampires burst into activity like a tightly wound spring, all of them in their vamp face now, ready to kill the intruder.
It was another vampire. She looked terrified and blood ran from a gash on her forehead. "He's here! He-"
She didn't have a chance to explain because she burst into flames. Screaming, the vampire tried to beat the flames out, but it was futile. Barely a minute later, she was a pile of dust.
The vampires moved then. Some crashed through the glass windows, others ran for the back exit. Some foolhardy ones like Koskov remained behind to confront the man.
Koskov casually picked something that was not completely burnt away near the pile of ash. It was a charred arrow. The trademark of the Vampire Hunter-
-just as the two vampires standing beside him burst into flames and disintegrated into ash. The remaining vampires decided that they'd had enough and disappeared along with the fleeing vampires.
Koskov regarded the man in black that stepped over the pile of ash that was the female's. Koskov was disappointed. He expected the man to be taller, larger. Hopefully Slavic like him, because only a man from the steppes could hunt so viciously and cravenly. Instead, all he saw was a slightly-built man -- dishevelled at that -- who was fortunately tall, but not tall enough to match Koskov's 6 foot 5.
"And you're not running because?" said the Hunter in a clipped, British accent.
Koskov felt his disappointment increasing. "Because I was curious. I wanted to see the man who wiped out a hundred vampires in two weeks. Now ... I'm disappointed."
"Glad to disappoint you. Now ... you were saying about me not being a problem anymore?" the Hunter raised his crossbow and aimed the wooden arrow at his heart.
Koskov only looked on, amused. "And what do I get in return?"
"A few more days of undead life."
Koskov chuckled. "Unlike the other worthless creatures, I know what you are, Hunter. I know the magics that you use. I know your weaknesses."
The man's eyes narrowed.
"Elemental magic, isn't it?" Koskov volunteered. "It's not hard to figure out," Koskov said when Wesley's eyes widened slightly in surprise. "Especially when I'm a sorcerer," Koskov murmured.
The Hunter did not respond.
"And of all the elements that you are open to ... Fire has chosen you. It is flattering to be chosen by the most powerful Element, but it carries grave weaknesses, as you must know. So ... I must advice you to back away from Avarice before it is too late.?
At this the Vampire Hunter laughed sardonically. "Too late. It's already too late for me. I will kill every single one of you until you're wiped out from these streets."
"Ah. Don't tell me I did not warn you."
Before Wesley could react, the vampire disappeared in a burst of light. Teleportation.
"Perhaps you should go after the others ... who knows what they know?" the Russian vampire's disembodied voice mocked him.
Wesley hissed in anger. If he could see himself, he would be shocked to realise that his eyes glowed a brilliant green.
Avarice, 1:00 AM
"You cold, baby?"
"Yeah Charles. I'm shivering because of the summer heat. Or maybe because vampires are around the corner," she answered sarcastically, crossing her arms before her.
"You're snarky tonight," Gunn said, but he had a smile on his face.
"Well, it's not everyday that I volunteer to be bait. I don't know ... I don't really like the sensation," Fred complained. "I'm better at hiding than walking around saying 'Eat me!'"
Gunn tried his best not to smile at that.
"Are you smiling? Do you think this is funny?" Fred said, miffed.
Gunn shook his head quickly. Not a good idea to make Fred snarkier.
"I mean, how *long* does it take for a vampire hunter to notice two helpless-"
"-not helpless," he interrupted.
Fred threw him a glare.
"Right, helpless. A little," he corrected.
"Helpless. Defenceless human beings with rich, hot blood pumping in their veins walking these abandoned streets all alone, with no stakes in sight, or anything sharp for that matter! Hey, vampires? Blood here!" her voice rose with each word.
Gunn looked around nervously.
Somewhere a cricket chirped.
Fred's shoulders slumped in defeat.
"It's been two hours. How long are we going to walk? There must be an easier way to find him," Fred sighed.
"Are they avoiding us? Doesn't sound very vampire-y of them." Fred wondered.
Gunn was about to answer her when he heard a growl behind them. Instinctively, he reached for the stake hidden in his pocket and turned-
-in time to see the vampire running away from them. And another. And another.
Their heads went from left to right, trailing one fleeing vamp after another. "Wow. Look at them run," Fred murmured in astonishment.
"They're like, totally ignoring food here," Gunn said, just as another vamp ran past them in total panic. Only this time, the vamp did not escape like the rest. With a bloodcurdling scream, the vamp began to convulse. Fred watched in horrified fascination as veins of light formed beneath his skin. His lips opened to scream, but flames shot out instead. His eyes began to melt-
Fred and Gunn stumbled back a few steps. "I think we better-" Gunn began.
The vampire burst into a shower of flames and ash.
"-move back," he finished lamely, coughing as some vampire ash got too near.
"Oh my God Charles! Look!" Fred whispered suddenly, her voice tight with horror.
And he looked, and wished he hadn't.
It suddenly became apparent to him that the still night was no longer still. It was filled with the terrified screams of vampires, who ran towards them in alarming numbers. From their position the figures were dark and ghostlike, running at incredible speeds. However, that wasn't the thing that creeped them out.
What really scared them was that the ghostlike figures were bursting into flames one by one, as if hit by an invisible ray gun. What if the ray gun didn't know the difference between humans and vamps?
"Run!" he grabbed Fred's hand and began to run with the vampires.
Fred cried out when a vamp running beside her disintegrated in flames. It was too close.
The air was thick with fear and something else -- swooshing sounds from the sky. Fred looked up and saw arrows that moved too fast to see where they came from heading towards the vampires. When they bit their targets, they burst into flames. Fred watched in fascination as the missiles streaked the night sky with fire.
"This way!" Gunn yelled, pulling her into an alley. They ran into the darkened alley, looking for a place to hide. Gunn found it. A fire escape led to a partially hidden nook on the first storey. They took it hastily, climbing noisily to the top.
When they were finally in the nook, four vampires ran into the alley, panting hard.
"He killed all of them!" a female vampire cried out. "I'm scared," she whimpered. "I don't want to die like them. I don't want to burn. I don't like to burn."
Gunn found himself sympathising with her.
"We got to find a way out!" a male vampire said.
One of them looked at the spot they were hiding in. Fred and Gunn huddled closer together, hoping that they were well hidden.
"There!" said the vampire. "Up the fire escape!"
Fred shivered. They were trapped!
Suddenly, she heard a whistle and then a very loud thunk.
The vampire heading towards the fire escape cried out in agony and turned into ash. The other three whirled in fear, their gaze directed at the mouth of the alley.
Gunn and Fred followed their stares.
A dark figure stood there, his features hidden in the shadows. In his hand was a crossbow, but it was pointed at the floor.
"You will tell me what I need to know," the man said.
His voice was low and harsh. Fred winced at the coldness she sensed in it. Could they ask this man for help?
"Anything, anything!" the female vampire cried.
"Shut up! We can't-"
"You shut up!" the female vampire yelled back. "I want to live!"
The Hunter laughed shortly at that and walked slowly towards the trio, who backed deeper into the alley nervously.
"I've always found it funny that vampires say that. It's not as if you are alive," he said, his voice heavy with sarcasm. The British accent was precise and cultured, just like Wesley's. She winced at that memory, but something tugged at her consciousness...
The man stopped. The vampires froze with him.
Gunn was amazed at the man's ability to put fear into the creatures. Lisle and J-Bob were right. The vamps were terrified of the Vampire Hunter. He didn't remember anyone inspiring fear in vamps before.
"Now, tell me what that vampire said," the Vampire Hunter growled, his voice deep with menace.
"He said ... he said that he had a p-plan," the woman stammered.
"Yeah, a plan!" the third vamp, pitched in. "He said that he had a plan to er ... put you out of..." the vamp hesitated.
"-trouble?" the Hunter volunteered.
"Y-yes," the female vampire said nervously. "Please, let us go. We told you what you wanted to know."
"That's not all," the man growled. "What else did he tell you?"
"Nothing! He didn't tell us anything else!" the male vampire protested.
The man flung his crossbow against the wall. It splintered apart. He took a few long steps and grabbed the vampire by the throat who yelped in protest.
The Vampire Hunter was obviously seriously pissed.
"Hey man! I don't know nothin'! We swear that's all he said. Then you busted in!"
The man lifted the vampire up by the neck. "You LIE!" he snarled.
"Please ... please don't make me burn. I don't want to die like that!" the vampire begged, kicking furiously in terror.
Gunn saw that the other vampires were sneaking away.
So did the Hunter. His head turned towards them quickly and -- this made both Fred and Gunn freeze in shock -- the man's eyes began to glow a furious green.
Fred gasped at that, but quickly clasped a hand over her mouth, praying that the man had not heard her.
The vampires were suddenly lifted off their feet and tossed violently back into the alley where they landed before the Hunter in a tangled heap. They groaned in pain and tried to scramble away from him, but an unseen force slammed them back down. The female vampire began to cry.
"We don't know anything else. Please," the female begged.
They were yanked off their feet again. This time they were flung against the wall of the building. They stayed there, pinned a few feet above ground.
Okay. Obviously they were not dealing with a Vampire Hunter of the human variety. Demon. Glowing eyes. Firestarter. You know, like the one Drew Barrymore played when she was a kid. Telekinetic to boot. Also, has a really bad temper. Gotcha. Not good.
Gunn frowned and exchanged a worried look with Fred. She returned with an anxious look of her own and bit her lower lip.
It was the kind of help they needed with Anne, but the man was far too dangerous and temperamental. But what choice did they have?
Fred probably shared the same thoughts, from the look of it. The guy may be a doubtful help at best.
They returned their gaze to the Vampire Hunter.
Fire sang to him. *That's good Wesley. It feels good to let me come into you, to let me nourish you with my strength and wisdom. They must be destroyed. All of them. Vermin. Parasites-*
"Leeches," he growled, tossing the vampire he held aside. The vampire scrambled into the safety of the shadows, whimpering pathetically.
He had needed to escape the feelings of hopelessness and despair that had drowned him after his meeting with Connor. He had hunted vampires mercilessly after that, killing so many until he was covered with wounds and bruises he could not remember getting. Then, he couldn't remember when, the Element took over. It whispered suggestions in his head, and at some point he forgot to resist them.
Somewhere inside his power-flooded mind was a terrified Watcher. That Watcher knew that he was loosing his mind, and he was begging Wesley to stop. He could feel the Element leeching into him, wrestling control from him bit by bit, filling his mind with Its reasoning, Its desires and Its thoughts.
Kill. Purify. Destroy.
"How much of me is left?" he found himself asking out loud.
The vampire on the ground looked at him in confusion. "Huh?"
Control, Wesley. Pull it back. Don't let It come too far.
But hadn't he allowed the Element too much liberty already? He remembered the incredible exhilaration he felt when he made the vampires burn. It was almost as if he became the flames and tasted what the fire ate. The thrill of it made him shiver with longing.
Return to the present, Wesley. Focus.
His glazed eyes focused. "Tell me his name," he directed his question at the vampire at his feet.
"Koskov," he willingly answered.
"Where can I find him?"
"At the warehouse on St. Bernard street. He has a lair there!" the female yelled. "Please let us go. We gave you what you wanted," she begged.
Wesley found himself considering. It used to be simple. Kill vampires before they kill you. Back then, he was so weak. So defenceless. Now ... He found himself hesitating. He had hounded, terrorised and tortured them...surely they deserved ... what was this? Insanity? They were vampires!
Sympathy never brought him any good. It brought him pain,
betrayal -- a slit throat. **Never feel! Never be concerned!** his mind screamed.
He was suddenly blinded with a vision. He reeled from it; his head snapped back with the force of it. For a moment, all he could see were the vampires writhing in pain. Their scream of agony deafened him, but he couldn't shut them out. Nor could he shut out the vision of their skin cracking up, drying like parchment as the fire burnt them slowly inside, organ by organ, minute by excruciating minute -- it took them so long to die.
Wesley gasped and clutched his head. The pain soon subsided, but a long moment he didn't dare look around because he was terrified that he had done it; he had tortured the vampires mercilessly like the vision suggested. After a while, he managed to lift his eyes.
They were still around him. The two vampires were still pinned to the wall.
**Please stop.** He heard the Watcher say. **Or else it will be too late!**
Wesley closed his eyes and willed the Element back. It was a terrible struggle this time. He shook with the effort of it, his eyes rolled up behind his head and he began to sway. He thought it would never obey, but the Element retreated -- only this time Wesley got the impression that it slunk back with a satisfied smile. When it came back next, the Element would gain a stronger foothold in his mind, he was sure of that.
The world returned to him in a rush. Suddenly, he felt the aches and pains of numerous wounds and the exhaustion of ten long hours of combat. He could barely keep on his feet now, and he swayed unsteadily and caught himself against the wall, slumping against it in exhaustion.
At the same time, the two vamps shrieked as they fell four feet to the ground.
The moment they realised that he was distracted, the three vampires got to their feet and ran, never looking back. As their footfalls faded into silence, Wesley collected himself and got to his feet. The weakness was already fading and his sanity had returned. The world began to make sense again and the relentless fury that followed him for so many hours dulled.
Wesley walked towards his broken crossbow that lay in pieces near the mouth of the alley. He stared morosely at the crossbow, which was a souvenier from his time at Angel Investigations, and turned away, heading back into the alley. It was the last remnant of his life from AI, and with it destroyed he felt as if his ties to AI and the life he had led have finally been severed.
As he walked deeper into the alley, he had a strong feeling that he was not alone. He frowned and looked around, his gaze finally resting on the fire escape. His eyes looked to where it led and he finally saw them, thanks to his heightened senses.
"You can come down now. Quickly, before I decide that you're vampires," he told them.
The man was still standing in the same spot, waiting for them, when they came down. They were both nervous at the prospect of talking to a very cranky man (or demon) who could make vampires spontaneously combust.
Gunn winced when the man directed a torchlight at their faces. "Hey dude, easy with the light there, okay? You're blindin' me," he protested. Instinctively, he pulled Fred into a protective embrace.
The light stayed on them for a few seconds before the man turned it off. The Vampire Hunter was still hidden by the darkness.
"Now that you've taken a good look at us, maybe you could do the same for us," Gunn said.
"Charles," Fred warned, her eyes still on the figure.
The man made no reply. He just stood there, watching them with eyes that glinted slightly in the low light of the alley. His eyes no longer glowed, and although they witnessed how he visibly weakened a few minutes ago, Gunn was not about to take chances with this guy. He steeled himself for a battle.
It was Fred who broke the uncomfortable silence. "You're probably wondering why we're here," she began nervously, wringing her hands unconsciously. The man did not react. He did not even bother to answer.
Uncomfortable at his unresponsiveness, Fred continued, "We need your help. We heard that you hunted vampires and we really need someone like that on our side right now," she said. She quickly explained Anne's situation -- how the demons could not be killed by normal means and how they wanted her as a sacrifice.
When Fred finished explaining, the man turned his head to regard Gunn, then back to Fred again.
Then he laughed.
It was a low, scornful laugh, and it reminded Gunn of the mad wino that used to laugh to himself near his place - back when he was hunting vampires with his gang. He shifted Fred closer to him.
"This is priceless," the man said after his laughter died off. His rough voice was laced with bitterness. "You don't know what you're asking for, because if you did, you'd be thinking 'irony of ironies'," the man said dryly.
Gunn felt Fred tense beside him. But when he saw the look on her face, Gunn saw the intense look she wore when she was on to a puzzle. She knew something.
The man began to walk towards them. His boot crunched ominously on the sandy ground. "The irony of it! You need me. Wouldn't father be pleased?" the man laughed shortly, kicking aside a rusty can in his path.
Gunn shifted uncomfortably as he felt a prickling of unease. Not just because the man was sounding more and more like a madman on the verge of a killing spree, but also because the man seemed familiar -- the way he moved, the way he spoke -- but he couldn't put a finger on it.
"I thought I could escape the both of you. The whole bleeding world! But look where Destiny has brought us," the vampire hunter said sardonically.
"Isn't life grand?" said the man as his face was revealed to them in the dim light.
Fred gasped, her eyes widening in shock.
Wesley Wyndham-Pryce leaned casually against a wall and gave them a crooked grin. "Welcome to Avarice, children," he said.
She couldn't believe it. She could not believe it. She knew that Wesley was capable of many things -- he'd performed a few spells before -- but nothing like this. He didn't kill vampires like that, burning them to ashes, hunting them down like a madman. Wesley wasn't like that ... he was never cruel. Until now...
"Wesley," Fred whispered as her eyes took in his changed appearance.
He looked frightening. There was a hardness to his eyes that made Fred wary, and he was dishevelled; his hair was longer and he looked as if he had not shaven in days. His voice had changed too -- no doubt from the attack. It had grown deeper and coarser, so unlike the gentle tones they were used to. No wonder they did not recognise his voice. But it was his eyes that frightened her. They were dark; dark with hatred and anger -- all directed at them. She felt her heart clench with a mixture of guilt, fear and confusion at his gaze.
"You," she heard Gunn say. His lips curved into a scowl. "Oh, just great. Great!" he flung his arms and turned away, pacing.
Wesley merely lifted an eyebrow. "Disappointed to see me?" he asked, amused.
"You think?" Gunn shot back.
"Charles!" Fred said firmly. He shot her a frustrated look before returning to his pacing. She turned her gaze to Wesley, who regarded her with an unreadable expression.
"We need your help," she said softly. It was difficult to say it after everything that had happened between them and she realised that it was probably more difficult for Wesley to listen to it. His eyes narrowed with anger at her words.
"Forget it, Fred!" Gunn snapped.
Wesley's expression turned darker as he shifted his gaze to Gunn's angry countenance.
"I don't want help from someone who betrayed us," Gunn muttered, returning Wesley's glare with a glare of his own.
Wesley pushed himself off the wall and took a few steps towards them. His eyes flashed a brilliant green.
Fred stumbled back in fear. Gunn only paused, but he steeled his resolve and refused to show any emotion. For a moment, Gunn thought that the guy was going to lose his cool again and do some damage. Instead, Wesley merely ignored Gunn's attempt at bravado.
"How's your thirst?" Wesley asked Fred casually.
Fred flinched in surprise. She immediately knew what he meant -- one of the demon slugs that invaded the Hyperion had gone into her and it nearly killed her because it tried to drink her alive. Then Gunn made her well again. Only it wasn't just Gunn, was it? She shot Gunn an accusing look. He looked away guiltily.
"It's fine ... thank you for your help," she meant it sincerely, but it didn't seem to affect Wesley, who continued to look at her with an unreadable expression.
"Wesley. Angel has disappeared. Cordelia too. Everyone is gone. There is just the two of us now. It has been hard-"
"We handle things fine," Gunn interjected.
Wesley spared him a disinterested look, then smiled. "I'm sure you have. Which is why you need my help," he said, amused. The news that Angel and Cordelia was missing did not seem to disturb him.
"We don't need your help!" Gunn retorted. "You showed me how helpful you were the last time I went to you for help!"
"Charles-" Fred tried to stop him, but he went on.
"Putting on that attitude of yours and telling me that we should've listened to your side of the story -- hah! We know that side, alright. You gave Connor to Holtz! You-"
Gunn didn't finish his sentence because the windows of the building behind him suddenly burst into splinters of glass. Fred shrieked and covered her head while Gunn covered her protectively with his body as shards of glass showered around them.
"Is that what you believed?" Wesley's low voice was deep with hurt and anger. "After all that we've been through ... you believed that..." he trailed off. He looked at Fred. "Did you believe the same?" he narrowed his eyes.
Gunn stepped into his line of vision, shoving Fred protectively behind him. "Lorne told us that you went to see Holtz behind our back," he growled.
"But he didn't tell you why, did he? What a useless tattle tale," he mocked.
"Shut your yap!" Gunn said, furious that he could insult Lorne like that. "You hit him. What the hell were we supposed to think? Then Holtz came in and tried to put a stake through Angel's heart. Didn't care if he had to put it through ours first to get to him! Both of you made a deal didn't you? What did he promise you, huh? Money? A sacred text? What?"
Gunn stopped, breathing hard, staring at Wesley with blazing eyes. Wesley let him stew a little before replying.
"Gunn, you pitiful fool. You still don't know anything," he said scornfully.
"Stop it both of you!" Fred cried out, stepping between them. "What happened these past few months was hard on all of us. But we need to put this behind us! We need to work together and remember our mission again!" she pleaded with Wesley.
"How convenient," Wesley retorted, his voice dripping with venom. "Put everything behind us? Shake hands on that, roll up our sleeves, put on big smiley faces and maybe have tea together? Grow up, Fred," he snapped.
Fred winced at his sharp words.
"We can never be together again," Wesley snapped. "Your boyfriend made it clear. Angel made it clear when he tried to kill me. Cordelia made it clear when she turned her back on me. Hell, my dear, even you told me the same."
Fred looked down, clenching her fists. *Don't come back to the hotel -- ever.* her words echoed in her head. She blinked away tears, and she hastily tried to wipe them away with the back of her hand. If she had observed his eyes then, she would have seen the sudden flare of concern in them. But it disappeared as quickly as it came.
"Don't go back on your word, Winnifred. At least Gunn did not. He always keeps his word, don't you Gunn?"
Gunn refused to take his bait and he sure as hell wasn't about to let Wesley get away from making Fred cry like that. "You son of a bitch! You leave her out of this. Don't you dare diss my girl in front of me!"
Strangely, this seem to soften Wesley's hard expression. He gave Gunn a small smile and for a moment, he looked like the Wesley they remembered; the capable leader of Angel Investigations, the man they knew would always do the right thing.
"I'm glad you kept your word, Gunn," Wesley said softly, his voice suddenly gentle. "I knew you would take care of her." He met Gunn's eyes briefly before he turned and walked away.
However, Wesley stopped after a few paces and turned his head slightly towards their direction.
"Return to the hotel, Gunn. Anne needs you," he said. At that, he returned to the dark streets of Avarice, not sparing them another glance.
They sat in silence for the half hour journey back to the Hyperion. Finally, he could not stand it anymore. "I'm sorry, okay?" he mumbled, looking at her sideways.
Fred gave him a brief look before focusing on the road. "You lied to me. You told me that he didn't want to talk to you. That you figured out the cure yourself!"
Gunn clenched his jaw. "I didn't lie to you. He didn't want to talk to me. And I didn't say that I figured out the cure."
Fred glared at that. "It was implied," she said, her voice brittle.
"Look -- it was complicated, okay?" Gunn said desperately, back pedalling. "I went behind Angel's back to get help-"
"From Wesley," he agreed, nodding. "It was like reopening a wound, Fred. I want to leave it be. Forget about it. Don't wanna dig up any bad stuff, things being shitty as it was," Gunn muttered.
"It doesn't make things better, Charles. Why do you keep thinking that forgetting about stuff, pretending that it didn't happen would fix things?" Fred demanded.
"Because that's how I deal with things, Fred!" he said, his voice rising. "It's the only thing you can do where I came from! When my sister was vamped -- I had to forget that it ever happened. She died in that alley that night. She wasn't vamped! That's the only way I could deal with the shit in my life!" he yelled.
Gunn wanted to hit something then. He didn't want to loose his cool like that before Fred but he didn't know how to explain to her why he did what he did. Hell, sometimes he didn't understand why he behaved the way he did towards Wesley. He had always been black and white with his emotions. Wesley betrayed them. That meant he hated Wesley. End of story.
They finally reached the Hyperion. Gunn parked the car by the curb, but neither of them made the first move to get out. They ended up sitting in silence in the vehicle. The silence was deafening.
This time it was Fred who broke the silence. "Wesley did something to himself," she said.
"Did something?" he snorted. "I would say he did something," he muttered.
"I have not seen him like this before. I'm worried for him, Charles. I think he's using dark magic."
"Or he's been lying to us again. Maybe he's been a warlock all along."
"Stop it, Charles!" Fred snapped.
Gunn bit his lip at that. He avoided her intense stare and kept his eyes on the road before him.
Fred frowned heavily. "Are you jealous of him, Charles?"
That startled him. "W-what?" he looked at her nervously.
"If that's the reason why you're doing all this-"
"Don't be stu ... don't talk like that, Fred," he snapped. He opened his side door and made a move to get out, but Fred caught his hand, stopping him.
"I'm right, aren't I? You want to make sure he stays away. From me," she accused.
Gunn sat back into his seat and gave her a firm look. "I want him to stay the hell away from us because he stole Connor away and gave him to Holtz. Who knows what else he's capable of? He doesn't care about us! He only cares about his moldy prophecies!"
Fred released her grip on his hand. "You know what I realised this long summer? What I finally realised when I saw Wesley tonight? We are no better than the vampires he burnt. We have souls, Charles. But we don't know how to forgive. We don't even know what forgiveness is. It would have been better if we had no souls. At least then we'd have an excuse!"
At that she got of the car and slammed the door shut. Gunn stared at his knuckles, thinking furiously. Jealous? Him? As if Wesley had any chance with Fred!
Gunn frowned. He knew that he was lying to himself. At the bottom of his primal heart -- the one that had everything to do with Fred -- he did feel threatened by Wesley. Especially after that night when Wesley made him promise to take care of Fred.
He knew then that Wesley had felt the same away about Fred. Gunn had felt confused then. On one hand, he was delirious with joy that Fred loved him. On the other hand, he felt crushed that he was the cause of Wesley's misery. Another side of him, however, was wary. Another side of him was sharpening knives at the thought of Wesley coming near Fred. That side of him secretly planned ways to ensure that Wesley stayed away. It was the same side that secretly rejoiced when Wesley was estranged from them. How convenient. How easy. Finally he and Fred could be together without Wesley around to threaten Gunn's claim on Fred.
Gunn sighed. Was he angry at Wesley because he betrayed them...or was he angry that he was a threat to his relationship with Fred?
He didn't have time to think of the answer because someone screamed then.
They were in a meadow full of yellow flowers. He could see snow-capped mountains in the distance and hear the sounds of a bubbling brook nearby. The meadow reminded him of his village in Ireland, and he felt peaceful, despite the bright sun on him.
Cordelia gave him a small, sad smile when he said her name. Her hair was long and dark again and she wore a white, gauzy dress with long sleeves that seem to be made out of the softest of silk. It fluttered around her like wisps of cotton. Her eyes, always full of mischief and humour before, were subdued.
"Angel," she acknowledged.
He looked around. The world felt real; he could feel the soft texture of the daisies; could smell the cold, sharp air and feel the heat of the sun. He knew he was dreaming, and yet he knew that Cordelia was real. What was happening? Was he finally really dead?
Cordelia shrugged. "I thought you'd be more comfortable here," she said, as if she just read his mind -- which she probably did.
He had thought of her so much during the hellish long months imprisoned in the box. How he had regretted not telling her what he felt.
"I miss you," he murmured.
Cordelia looked down. "Me too."
He had to say it now, before the dream ended and he's back in that horrible prison. "Cordelia, I lo-"
"No, don't," she said abruptly and reached out to touch his hand. It felt warm, real. Alive. "Things are different now, Angel. I'm different now. I-"
"You don't love me," he muttered, looking down. He sounded like a little kid denied of his favourite toy, but he didn't care how he sounded.
Cordelia lifted his chin with a gentle brush of her hand. "Not that. I can't love you."
"The curse," he said, and felt his hopes dying with him.
She shook her head. "Not the curse. I'm somewhere else now, Angel. I'm not even human anymore."
"You're a demon. I know that."
"No..." she blinked away sudden tears. "I'm not even that anymore. I'm not even supposed to be here, talking to you. They wouldn't be happy if they found out."
"They?" he frowned. "The Powers That Be?"
He grew alarmed. "What did they do to you? Where did they take you?"
Cordelia brushed his face gently with her hand. "Shh," she whispered. "It's okay. I have things to do now. And you have things to do as well. I know what Connor did to you," she frowned heavily.
He winced, trying not to remember his dank, dark cell.
"I'm going to help you get free, but I want you to promise me something."
Angel merely stared into her eyes. They seemed to glow.
"Don't look for me, okay?"
He felt a dull pain in his chest -- which seemed strange since he didn't have a beating heart.
"Cordelia, no..." he shook his head and grabbed her shoulders. "I don't want to loose you too. We're a family!"
She gave him a small smile. "I know. But I'll always be watching you."
"I want you by my side!" he demanded.
"You have people down there. People like Fred, Gunn, Connor and ... Wesley."
"I don't want to have anything to do with him!" he growled.
"You have to forgive him, Angel. I don't know what The Powers That Be intend, I don't know what the future holds, but I can sense what's going to happen. If you don't forgive him, there will be a terrible price to pay," she trailed off, shaking her head. "I'm saying too much already."
"Please. Come back," he begged, clutching her hand.
Cordelia looked stricken. "Please don't make it any more difficult than it is. Just remember what I said, Angel."
Then the sunlight disappeared, and with that so did the meadow, the snow-capped mountains and Cordelia.
"Cordelia!" he screamed.
Then he felt water rushing into his mouth and when he opened his eyes, he saw blue light around him. His body was rushing to the surface, pushed by some supernatural power. And then cold air slapped him in the face.
Sound returned. He heard the crashing waves, the cry of a lone seagull. The full moon stared down at him.
Angel was free.
Gunn thought it was Fred who screamed, but he saw her running into the Hyperion. Alarmed at the thought of her facing whatever it was inside alone, Gunn speeded up, and ended up being the first through the door.
He burst into the lobby, prepared for Gurnak demons, vampires, zombies, whatever. He certainly wasn't prepared for the sight of Anne hitting a green skinned demon with her handbag.
"Honey! I'm telling you I'm a friend of the family's!" the green-skinned demon protested.
Meanwhile, J-Bob and Lisle, waving their big bats, were yelling madly at Anne to get away so that they could skewer the demon.
Gunn was just plain happy.
"Lorne, you're back!" Fred yelled, taking the words right out his mouth.
"Anne!" Gunn yelled, sprinting towards the pair. "It's okay. He's a friend!" he pulled a stunned Anne away from Lorne.
"Well, gee whiz. That's what I've been telling blondie here for the past two minutes!" Lorne protested, finally free of the handbag. He straightened his yellow coat indignantly. "I mean, you would think a demon would get a better welcome home party." He gave Anne a miffed look.
Anne only stared at Lorne in shock. "But he's a demon," she told Gunn as he steered her to a couch.
"Yeah, he is."
"He has green skin, pointy horns and red eyes."
"Hey! I'm proud of them, thanks!" Lorne protested from his spot.
"Yeah," Gunn answered Anne, giving Lorne a broad grin as he did so. "It's nice to have our green-skinned friend at our side again."
Lisle and J-Bob walked to his side, looking at him with confused expressions.
"What happened to you, man? I mean, how come you friends with a demon?" J-Bob complained.
"It's a long story, J-Bob. Really."
"Man, you really changed," Lisle said. "Don't you kill them anymore?"
"You see, this is what I mean by demon discrimination," Lorne piped up, walking towards them. "I mean, a decent demon like me can't get a break with all this misrepresentation going on."
"You telling me that there are good demons?" J-Bob asked Lorne, but he backed away just in case.
"Well. Good is such a subjective word-" Lorne was cut off when Fred flung her arms around him, hugging him tightly.
"Easy sweetcheeks. I need to breathe once in a while," he said, smiling. "Yeah, I missed you too," he said, patting Fred on the back.
"Gosh. I miss the smell of..." Lorne looked around the Hyperion's darkened courtyard, "...mold in summer?" he gave Fred and Gunn a puzzled look. "Haven't you guys done any upkeep? I mean, the pond is like a mess! What happened to the little fishies?" he peered into the murky fountain basin. "We had little fishies didn't we?"
"Lorne," Fred began.
"And where's everybody? Is Connor out with Angel cakes?"
"Lorne," Gunn interrupted.
"I mean, yeah, it is Saturday night..." he looked at his watch. "...sorry, Sunday morning after all. What's a hunky souled-up vampire to do with his just-back-from-a-hell-dimension son?"
"Lorne, will you listen already?" Gunn said.
Lorne blinked his red eyes. "You know, your aura said bad news. All greyish and everything. I already knew you were going to say something bad. Just didn't want to hear it."
Fred took his hand and squeezed it. "We're glad you're back. You don't know how much, but you have to hear this," she said.
They told him everything. And it took them nearly half an hour for them to get to the part where they met Wesley at the alley in Avarice. Lorne's expression changed to one of disdain when they told him how Wesley had walked away.
"Huh. He still owes me one for scratching my face. It took weeks to heal. And now you're telling me he moved house," he complained.
"What do you think he's usin'?" Gunn asked.
"Wesley? Black magic, most likely. Black magic I've not seen before, that's for sure. Oh, I mean, fire starting, throwing people around -- pretty much standard witchcraft stuff. But glowing green eyes? That smells weird. I know Kovarkian demons manifest that trait when they teleport, but humans? I don't know -- I'm not much of a whiz in the wizardry department. Wesley was," Lorne shrugged, looking sad.
"Why is he using black magic? Why is he hunting vampires?" Fred wondered out loud, her voice heavy with anxiety.
"Why did he take Connor? Why didn't he tell us? Sorry, sweetie. That guy is hard to figure out. The last time I saw him, he was a mess. Then he hit me. Can you imagine what he'll do to me this time?"
"He looked like hell, Lorne. Please tell me that you at least care," she demanded, her voice flat.
"Care? For Wes?" Lorne met her conflicted gaze. "Honey, he was my friend. Yeah, I care. Despite what he did. But he is-"
"A traitor," Fred finished for him tiredly, leaning her chin on her palm.
"No. More like angry. He's angry at us, we're angry at him, Angel wants to kill him. Messy, much?"
"Look, Fred. Now is not the time to talk about this. We have to figure out a way to deal with these Gurnak demons," Gunn interrupted.
Lorne got up, looking into the hall where Anne sat with J-Bob and Lisle. "Yeah, we should soon," Lorne said, his voice dropping.
Fred suddenly felt cold. "Lorne, what is it?" she whispered.
"Gurnak demons ... they're not exactly very, how shall I put it ... hygienic. Thanks to my demon senses, I can smell them a mile away," he said, still looking at Anne.
Gunn tensed up, looking around. "You smell them nearby?"
"Uh-huh," Lorne nodded.
"Are they like a mile away?" Fred asked.
"Nope. They're like a few yards away."
Just then, Anne screamed.
An Hour Previously
The whiskey burnt his throat, but it always made him forget.
Wesley downed his tenth shot and then waited for it to affect him. Nothing. Damn it.
It was damnable that he had high tolerance for alcohol. It was a quirk of his, a trait that he had used to show off to his mates back in the silly days of Watcher training. Unfortunately, right now, it was a quirk he'd rather do without. Trying to get drunk was getting damnably expensive.
Gunn. Fred. He'd thought he'd exorcised his feelings for them, but when he saw them in that dark alley, hope had flared in him and a part of him, that shred of him that still had some naiveté, had hoped that they had forgiven him. Then Fred spoke the magic words -- We need you. Just your knowledge. Nothing else. Again they only needed him when there were monsters to slay. Nothing else mattered. The words were salt in his still raw wounds.
First Connor. Then Gunn and Fred. He wouldn't be surprised if Angel walked through his door soon -- despite the dire news that Fred delivered about him being missing. It looked as if fate was laughing at his attempt of breaking away from Angel Investigations.
*You think it'd be that easy?* it seemed to say. *We're going to bring back reminders of your failures again and again and again. We're not going to let you forget, you little traitor.*
"Traitor. Judas Iscariot, reserved for the lowest pit of hell," he muttered, pouring himself another shot.
"I was there. I don't remember anyone by that name."
Wesley whirled towards the sound of the voice.
Connor sat in his beaten up sofa, a long, wicked-looking dagger in his hand. He flipped it from hand to hand casually.
Wesley downed his shot of liquor. "You've improved. I didn't hear you this time," he muttered.
Connor did not answer. Instead he lifted his eyes slowly from the dagger and said in a low voice, "You killed twenty vampires tonight."
Wesley laughed ruefully. "Was it that many? I barely remember. Too busy. Too crazy..." he muttered and twirled the glass in his hand.
Connor's expression darkened. Slowly, he got up from the couch and walked towards Wesley, the dagger pointed at Wesley at all times. "Are you a demon?" the boy demanded.
Wesley laughed at that. He clutched a beam for balance. This was too much. "Everyone has been saying that," Wesley said dryly. "Is it my rumpled shirt or my torn jeans? Or my charming British wit?" he said, giving the boy a grin.
He didn't faze Connor. "You made them burn. Your eyes glowed. You're a demon," he said in a steely voice.
*Your eyes glowed.* That got a reaction out of Wesley. He looked at Connor in wonder.
"Now, that was a side effect I never expected. Glowing eyes?" he walked unsteadily towards the couch Connor just vacated and dumped himself there, hooking one leg up an armrest. He squinted at Connor.
"Did I look pretty?" Wesley asked. That made him laugh some more. He had a vision of himself, all glowy-eyed, prancing around in a frilly tutu.
Connor frowned in confusion at Wesley's reaction to his threats. He wasn't used to laughter. Until he punched through Quo-thoth to land on this strange world, he didn't even know that one could laugh. Laughter unsettled him.
He shifted his balance from foot to foot, unsure whether he should attack or stay put. "But you killed vampires," he finally said. Connor sounded as if he was trying to convince himself.
"Hmm. So I did," Wesley slurred, resting his head on the suddenly very comfortable sofa. Just like his body to choose a time like this to succumb to the charms of liquor. "Vampires ... they're leeches. Not good to have leeches around you know," he slurred.
"Yes. They deserved to die. All of them," Connor frowned heavily, staring at his reflection on the dagger.
It was something about the way Connor said that phrase that made Wesley finally realise something. What surprised him was that he actually cared for that realisation.
Suddenly clear-headed, Wesley got to his feet, staring at Connor. "What did you do to Angel?" he demanded.
Connor's eyes snapped from the blade to meet his. They were wide with shock and something else ... guilt? "You knew him. Like Gunn and Fred. You called him Angel. Not Angelus," Connor hissed, backing away.
Wesley made no move to stop him. "Were you responsible for Cordelia's disappearance as well?" Wesley's voice dipped dangerously. "If you are, I'm not sure whether I can predict what I'm going to do next," he murmured, watching Connor as he moved away from him slowly.
"Cordelia? No ... I wouldn't do anything to her," Connor murmured, his eyes narrowing as he kept an eye on Wesley.
"But you did something to your father."
"He IS NOT my father!" Connor yelled. Unexpectedly, his blue eyes teared. Connor blinked them away furiously. "Holtz was my father. Not Angelus," he whispered.
"It must be difficult," Wesley said suddenly.
Connor glared at him warily.
"It is difficult to hate and love your father at once, isn't it?" Wesley walked to his desk casually and picked up a book, flipping through its pages. Connor watched him carefully as he moved, his grip on his dagger tightening.
"I don't love him," Connor hissed.
"You're his son. And he is your father. Some part of you will want to love him. I know that, having had some experience hating my own. No matter what he did to you, there is still some sordid part of you that wants him to say, 'Good boy. Well done'. Am I right, Connor?"
"Steven," Connor snapped. "And you don't know me!"
Wesley settled the book down. "No. I don't know you. And you don't know many things, Steven. Your father ... whatever Holtz told you about Angel may have been true. He was an evil and cruel bastard. But when he received his soul, he changed. And when he had you in his arms..." he trailed off, remembering Angel's smile that night so long ago; that night when he had decided to take Connor away...
Wesley looked up. "I was there when you were born, Steven. I remembered how he looked at you -- as if you were heaven sent. He loves you."
Tears reappeared in Connor's eyes, but he quickly brushed them away. "He killed my father. I will never forgive him for it!" he snarled.
"What did you do to Angel?" Wesley demanded again.
Connor looked as if he wanted to run away. Finally, he said, "Nothing he deserves more."
"A life of undead torment, I suspect?" Wesley said.
Connor looked away.
"He will survive whatever you did to him," Wesley said after a pause, his tone resigned. "After all, he plays an important role in the prophecies, so he will survive to meet his destiny," he gave a low laugh before continuing,
"You see Connor, if there's one thing I learnt in these long months of isolation it is this: prophecies always come true. You can never stop them, no matter how hard you try. If you try -- you become the catalyst of its fulfilment," he murmured. His eyes glazed as memories played behind his eyes. He shifted his gaze to Connor's turbulent eyes.
"I wonder what events did you set forth?"
Connor avoided his gaze and started pacing restlessly. "He deserved it," he muttered.
Lost in thought, Wesley shifted his gaze to the skylight. There it was, the full moon.
Wesley stared at it for a while, remembering Fred and Gunn's words. Jaw working, he turned away and paced around uncertainly. Making up his mind, he headed for his weapon chest by the basement stairs. He took out his longbow, then frowned, realising it was an inappropriate weapon for what he was about to do and returned it to the box. He took out a long sword instead and tested its weight in his hands. Satisfied, he got up.
When he turned, he saw Connor braced as if for an attack. Wesley merely ignored him and headed for the ramshackle cupboard he had salvaged from a nearby building last week.
"What are you doing?" Connor finally asked.
Wesley afforded him a brief glance. "Getting ready to fight demons," he said, searching through the vials of herbs and other ingredients in the cupboard.
"Demons?" Connor echoed.
"Gurnak demons to be precise. They're notoriously resilient, but they can be killed if you have the right ingredients. Aah..." Wesley smiled in satisfaction as he found the right vials. He slipped them into his jacket pocket and headed for the door.
"Coming?" he asked Connor when he opened the door.
Connor looked at him uncertainly, then nodded. "I feel like killing something."
Wesley gave him a lopsided grin. "These days? I feel like that every day."
Ten Gurnak demons. In the middle of the group, a very pregnant female who sat casually in one of the hotel lobby couches looking at her painted fingernails.
"Now, be a nice blonde and be quiet while we sacrifice you," said a Gurnak who called himself Bob.
Anne grimaced and hid behind Gunn.
"Now Bob," said the pregnant Gurnak. "We don't want the food to spoil early. We still have twenty minutes to go before Junior comes out." She flicked her purple shoulder length hair over her shoulder and returned her gaze to her fingernails.
"Right sweetie. Want it fresh for Junior," Bob drawled, placing his hands on his hips.
Unlike Bob and his girl, the rest of the Gurnaks did not wear clothes. And unlike the two, who looked almost human except for the spikes on their backs and their yellow slitted eyes, the other Gurnaks had thick, brown hides and spikes down their backs and on their heads. Also, they did not even look remotely intelligent. They crouched on all fours, snarling at them, leaving yellow drool all over the Hyperion's marble floors.
Gunn stared defiantly at the pack of Gurnaks, shifting back and forth on his feet nervously. The flimsy bat he had in his hands felt as effective as a limp french fry against the hulking beasts. They were so huge that they were probably 12 feet tall if they stood on their legs. His heart thudded wildly in his chest.
"Don't mind the grunts. Lower-class Gurnaks are not talkative, but they are very helpful," said Bob. "So, where's the blonde? Junior needs his food," Bob said eagerly, rubbing his hands together.
"You come near Anne and I will...I'll cut off your head and stomp on it!" Gunn snarled (at the same time amazed at the kindergarten standard taunt that came out from his lips).
"Oh, will ya?" Bob said, amused at his thin threat. "You know, I'm a nice guy. I didn't kill you for beheading me last time. I mean, it tickles and everything, but re-attaching your head is a nuisance, y'know. But, like I said, I'm a nice demon. So, I'm going to give you a choice here. You stay still while I get the blonde, or I get the grunts here to tear you apart while you try, stupidly, to stop me."
Gunn, Fred, Lorne, Lisle and J-Bob lifted their weapons.
"Oh well, I did give you a choice. Boys?" With a snarl, the Gurnaks attacked as one, loping towards them, their needle-like fangs bared.
The pack screeched to a halt at the sound of the voice.
Gunn had enough time to see a silver vial arch through the air and shatter on the floor.
"Um met ferunot telavo nadim!" shouted another voice. An achingly familiar voice.
At once there was an explosion of light; it forced Gunn to look away. He heard the Gurnaks bugle out a cry of pain.
When he could finally open his eyes, a cloud of noxious blue smoke had surrounded the Gurnaks -- including Bob. The demons hacked loudly, some shook their heads and wheeled around confusingly. Others just stood there panting.
"What the-" Bob began. But he didn't have time to finish his sentence because a blade sliced clean through his neck and beheaded him. This time, Bob did not feel ticklish. The Gurnak demon's headless body fell to the floor unmoving.
Gunn's eyes widened when Steven walked through the front doors of the Hyperion.
"Steven!" Fred cried gladly.
Angel's boy stood at the doorway, holding a dangerous looking sword, now dripping with Gurnak blood. He merely looked at them expressionlessly when Fred called his name.
Then his eyes caught the sight of a black-clad figure standing quietly beside Connor.
"Oh man," Gunn could only say.
"Remember what I told you Steven," he heard Wesley say to the boy. "We have little time."
Steven nodded, lifting his sword. With a yell, he somersaulted into the pack of Gurnak demons and immediately plunged his dagger into the belly of the nearest Gurnak. It howled in agony and collapsed, suddenly still.
This snapped the Gurnaks out of their confusion. They snarled and began to circle around the humans. "Bobbie! Bobbie! Stop playing now!" the female Gurnak was screaming, shaking Bob the headless corpse frantically. When she realised that Bob was not reanimating anytime soon, her yellow eyes blackened and she snarled at Wesley.
"It's you. Your fault. We were supposed to go to Rio with Junior tonight!" she screamed.
Wesley shrugged. "Could you settle for a hell dimension instead?" he suggested.
The female Gurnak snarled. "What the hell are you waiting for?" she screamed at the grunts. "Kill them all!"
The Gurnaks growled at her command and began to warily stalk towards the group.
"Gunn..." Fred whispered, her voice shaking. But she lifted her heavy sword higher anyway.
Beside Gunn, Anne whimpered, her eyes tearing. "Oh God," she whispered. Lisle threw a protective arm around Anne. "We're gonna get 'em, aren't we J-Bob? These demons don't scare us," she muttered.
Who the hell was she kidding? They were scared shitless.
"Get 'em!" J-Bob yelled suddenly, brandishing his sword, making a move to attack them.
**Do not move.**
Wesley's voice, or rather, his mental voice, startled them all. Fred visibly jumped, and inched towards Gunn unconsciously, her widened eyes fixed on Wesley.
"Yo dude ... how did he-?" J-Bob began. Gunn just shushed him and returned his gaze to Wesley. Their eyes met. Blue with brown. Wesley met his former best friend's eyes steadily, letting not a drop of emotion seep in them.
**Do not let them separate you. They will try to box us in.** Wesley said.
On cue, the Gurnaks started to move around them.
**They are vulnerable now.** Wesley returned his gaze towards the demons. **But only for twenty minutes. At most.** he looked at Gunn again, his blue eyes hard.
"How do we kill 'em?" Gunn whispered harshly.
Wesley gave him a lopsided grin. "Hack and slash," he said.
For a moment, it felt like old times. They had this conversation so many times before over the past two years, both of them side by side as they battled one demon creature after another. It almost made Gunn return Wesley's smile.
Wesley turned towards Anne, who cowered in a corner. **Anne. Go upstairs.**
Anne flinched and then shot the Gurnaks a nervous look. "But they-" she whispered.
**I will handle them. Go.**
She nodded, swallowing convulsively a few times. Then she closed her eyes and with a shriek, ran towards the stairs.
A Gurnak growled and loped towards Annie.
No magic. Easier said than done when furious Elemental energy is running in your veins, begging to be let out. So when Wesley saw the Gurnak leaping after Anne, he had only one option left.
He jumped, meeting the 500-pound (or more) Gurnak in mid air. The impact of it stole his breath away. When they landed on the hard marble floor, he felt as if he was broken in two.
"Wesley!" he heard Fred scream. Fred was screaming for him?
Momentarily dazed, he didn't fight back when the Gurnak brought down a heavy paw on his chest. He doubled over in pain, but the pain was enough to bring him back to his senses. Just in time to twist away from the Gurnak's gaping maw. It howled in protest as its teeth cracked against the floor.
At the same time, he heard the sounds of battle around him. He had hoped for a more organised fight, but he supposed getting down and dirty worked as well. With that, he pushed the Gurnak away with all his enhanced strength.
The beast flew through the air and landed heavily on the ground a few feet away on its back. A shower of broken marble tiles burst from the impact.
Wesley got shakily to his feet and turned to the stairs. Anne was gone, hopefully, hiding in one of the many rooms upstairs. Their job now was to ensure that not one of the beasts got up there.
The team was scattered around the hall. It made the situation dangerous. One by one the Gurnaks would finish them off -- unless they regroup together.
"Get together!" he shouted above the din. "Don't let them corner you!"
Gunn nodded frantically at Wesley's orders as he tried to avoid the Gurnak's snapping jaws. Somehow he had managed to wrest a sword out of the weapons cabinet and was swinging his sword at the Gurnak. He had managed to nick the beast's underbelly already, but it didn't seem to slow him down.
"Damn it, when are you going to die already?" he snapped, his patience running thin. With a roar, he plunged the sword into the demon's shoulder. It howled when Gunn tore the sword off, but snarled at him as viciously before. Its snarl, however, was cut off when someone punched it in the face.
"What a jaw," someone complained in clipped, British tones.
Wesley was suddenly at Gunn's side, holding his sword high. "Try to cut the head off, it works all the time," Wesley said.
Gunn ducked when the Gurnak swung a clawed paw at him. "You saw how thick that thing's neck is? Hell, I don't even see a neck."
Wesley's sword cut deep into the Gurnak's shoulder. "You're right," he said as he yanked his sword out and ducked to avoid a spurt of yellow blood. "Maybe they don't have necks. We'll try another tactic."
They exchanged an amused look. "Hack it to pieces," they both said at once. This time, Gunn returned Wesley's grin.
Raising their swords high, the two of them yelled out a battle cry and charged.
"Alright. What's a Gurnak when you have rover beasts on Pylea? I mean, cousin whathisname from the whatsthenameclan use to hunt them for fun all the time. They're twice the size of these losers, and not as pretty too."
Lisle frowned. "Don't you ever shut up?"
Lorne looked at the stalking Gurnak in stark terror. "Honey, if I go, I would like to go talkin'."
"Shut up and lift that stupid sword of yours!" Lisle barked.
"Okay, okay! I mean..." he swallowed as the Gurnak bared its fangs. "...I did kill a rabbit once."
"Oh gunk," Gunn complained, wiping off yellow mucous/blood from his jacket. "For once, just once, I'd like demons with Evian water for blood. Is that too much to ask?"
Wesley and Gunn stood over the dismembered and chopped-up pieces of the Gurnak. Wesley was bent down and lifted the Gurnak?s head by the ears, turning it this way and that, studying it in fascination.
"Yo, this ain't no time for biology lessons. We are in the middle of a battle here," Gunn muttered, disturbed at how absorbed Wesley seemed in his task.
Hell, he wasn't just disturbed at Wesley's sudden interest in the Demon's jugular -- which was hanging in little strips from its decapitated head -- but at how he had fought just now. The Wesley he remembered didn't have the strength to rip off a hulking giant of a demon's head before.
Come to think of it, he didn't have the ability to set people on fire either.
Wesley let the head drop and met Gunn's eyes. His pale face was smeared with demon blood; his eyes were blank. And they scared Gunn.
"Wesley?" Gunn asked hesitantly.
Suddenly, Wesley's eyes rolled up.
"Hey!" Gunn cried out, grabbing Wesley by the shoulders. He shook the ex-Watcher violently by the shoulders. "Snap out of it!" he yelled.
Wesley coughed and opened his eyes. His breathing was slow -- too slow. The man tried to focus his eyes as he looked at Gunn. "She's so strong. I don't think I can't keep her away," he whispered, his voice laced with wonder.
"Who is-? Wait, we don't have time for this. The Gurnaks-"
Just then, they heard Fred scream.
Fred whimpered as a Gurnak moved towards her, belly low on the ground, yellow eyes gleaming menacingly. She gripped her sword tightly, trying to control the shivering of her arms. The sword was amazingly heavy; but that wasn't all - despite her time in Pylea and later with Angel Investigations, Fred had not done much combat in her life. She didn't know how she could stand against the huge Gurnak with everyone else occupied with Gurnaks of their own.
"A-aim for their bellies," she whispered to herself, staring at the creature's thick hided belly. It looked inches thick. She wondered if she had the strength to even poke it.
"Oh God," she whispered fearfully and then let out a full-throated scream when the Gurnak leaped-
Something pushed her aside. Surprised, Fred looked up to see Wesley wrestling with the beast. Eyes wide, she could only watch helplessly as the Gurnak lay two heavy paws around his chest as if to squeeze him.
"Wesley!" she grabbed her sword and ran towards the struggling pair, but they were rolling about too much for her to get a good aim. Then the worst happened.
The Gurnak sank its fangs into Wesley's shoulder.
Fred's eyes widened in horror.
Wesley screamed. Instinctively, he threw the Gurnak away from him, but too weakened by the bite, he could only push the Gurnak beside him.
Gasping, Welsey got to his knees, blinking as the world swayed around him.
"Wesley! Over here!" Wesley tottered to his feet and saw, just in time, Fred throwing his sword at him. He grabbed it-
"Wesley, look out!" Fred screamed.
-and twisted around quickly to plunge his sword through the Gurnak. It screamed in pain and fell to the ground, clawing at the sword. Quickly, Wesley yanked his sword free, twisted and plunged the sword through its belly. When it still moved, Wesley broke the creature's neck with a quick twist of his hands.
"Whoa. Superman," Lisle murmured in admiration when she saw what Wesley did.
"Superman? More like ..." Lorne frowned, trying to decipher what he saw before him. Besides the future, which he could see after a person bared his soul through song, Lorne could see a person's aura by sight. What he saw around Wesley made him freeze -- with fear, worry, curiosity -- and forget about the rampaging Gurnaks.
"What did you do to yourself, Wesley?" he whispered.
As if he heard him, Wesley whirled about to face Lorne. Wesley's blue eyes bored into his and everything slowed down for Lorne then. It was rare, but sometimes he could see into the future without song, but what he saw made him gasp out loud.
Lorne lost his vision when Lisle flung herself on him and pinned him to the ground -- just in time to avoid a Gurnak pummelling into him. It landed before Wesley who gave it a vicious kick to the head. The Gurnak's head snapped up from the force, the sound of it echoing in the noisy hall.
*Snap* The Gurnak's head titled at a strange angle. Neck broken, it collapsed.
The powder worked. But it would wear off soon. He did not have enough of the Amsha powder to render the Gurnaks vulnerable for more than twenty minutes. Already the three remaining Gurnaks were showing signs of returning invulnerability.
Nearby, Gunn and J-Bob had stabbed a Gurnak in the stomach several times but it did not show signs of pain anymore.
**Why are you holding back?**
Time stopped. His vision slowed. The voice was clear this time. Female too, and seductively convincing. But he knew it for what it was. The Fire Element.
**You know what we need to do.**
Wesley closed his eyes.
Lorne yelled in his high-pitched way of his, but the Gurnak was either deaf or unfazed. It stalked Lorne slowly, snarling at the demon.
Fred managed to stab a beast at its shoulder, but it easily moved away, snarling. She was clearly shaking with fear, but with a determined frown, she lifted her sword to attack again.
**You know what you need to do**
When she attacked the second time, the Gurnak was prepared for her. It raised its claws and swiped at Fred. She screamed when one of the claws scoured her back.
**Do you want her to die instead?**
Wesley's eyes widened and flared a brilliant green.
"Fred!" Gunn screamed when she saw her fall. He tried to push the Gurnak away but it pushed him back -- with more force than he anticipated. The next thing he knew, he was flat on his back with the Gurnak's stinking maw barely an inch from his face.
"Gunn! Hold on!" J-Bob yelled. Using his body weight, J-Bob plunged his sword through the Gurnak's neck.
This time, it finally yowled in pain. The Gurnak reeled away, tottered on its feet for a few seconds and slumped to the floor, dead.
"You okay Gunn?" J-Bob yelled, offering him his hand.
Gunn took it, cursed loudly and yelled, "Fred!" He turned towards Fred, expecting to see the horrifying sight of Gurnaks attacking his beloved, but all he saw was-
"Oh, man!" J-Bob shouted above the din of the snarling Gurnaks. His eyes were wide with amazement, his mouth big.
The two remaining Gurnaks were suspended in the air. They trashed mindlessly but the invisible hands that held them in the air did not lessen their hold. Below them, Connor circled around restlessly, watching the floating Gurnaks suspiciously. His gaze shifted from the Gurnaks to-
"Wesley," Gunn whispered.
Wesley walked slowly to the centre of the hall, his face expressionless. He turned around studied them carefully, as if checking them over for injuries. When Wesley met his eyes, Gunn saw that Wesley's eyes were blank -- like the last time. It felt as if Gunn wasn't looking at the man that was once his friend, but something else entirely. That chilled him to the bone.
Wesley turned away and stood in the middle of the circle made by the floating Gurnaks.
"My God," said a voice. Lorne stepped up beside him. "That crazy, deluded..." he trailed off.
"What did you do?" Connor demanded, going to his side.
"I don't know," Wesley replied, his voice strange. He sounded confused. That unnerved Connor.
"We have to destroy them," Connor reminded him.
Wesley nodded. "We have to," he agreed. Then, abruptly, he said: "The coffin's open."
Connor flinched. "What are you talking about?" his voice hard.
"I saw it open. Which is funny. Why would the water tell me that?"
Connor grabbed him by the shoulders and forced the man to look at him. ?What's wrong with you? Finish it!"
Wesley frowned. His frown deepened into a grimace and then he groaned, clutching his head. "Oh lord," he whispered, his voice shaky. "It's so horrible. There's a hole in the ceiling." His gaze shifted to a spot somewhere above them.
When he looked at him, there were tears in his eyes. He touched Connor's cheek with a hand and whispered, "You slept with your eyes open. Sometimes the dead will come alive beneath you and drag you down..."
"Stop that," Connor growled.
"It was so dark there. You were just a baby!" Wesley cried out, clutching at Connor's shoulder.
"...why did I do that? Why did I steal you away?"
"I said stop that!" Connor shook him harder this time. If he had shaken any harder, his supernatural strength would have broken Wesley's neck, but Wesley just blinked. He stared long and hard at Connor then shifted his gaze at the floating Gurnaks.
He dropped his hands from Connor's shoulders and walked around -- as if seeing the floating Gurnaks for the first time.
He turned to look at the people, and they were all staring at him.
They didn't say a word. Just stared. Fred had a hand over her mouth and her eyes were wet with tears. He made her cry again.
Gunn -- Gunn was just looking at him with the same look he had given him when that zombie cop shot him. Why was that?
They all thought he was crazy.
Well, he was now, wasn't he?
Connor was right. He had to finish it. Why not? What's there to lose? He turned his back on them and focused his eyes on the Gurnaks.
The rush of Elemental fire in his veins was a welcome relief. He could feel it rushing out of him to surround the Gurnaks and when they began to burn, he could almost taste the tang of their deaths.
"What did you do?" he heard himself saying.
Wesley saw him suddenly, standing beside him. It was funny really -- because it was another Wesley. Him. Only that Wesley was wearing a starched up proper suit. His glasses were firmly on his nose, his face clean shaven, his hair the 'correct' length.
*Wow Wesley. You are really losing it. I mean, you are talking to yourself now.* He giggled a little at that thought.
Wesley the Watcher watched anxiously as the Gurnaks burned. Worry turned to fascination when he saw how long it took them to die. "The powder had worn off. They'll, er, take some time to die," the Watcher said.
"They're like torches," he found himself saying to that Watcher.
Wesley the Watcher gave him a look. It was a cross between puzzlement and worry. "This is wrong," the Watcher said, pointing towards the blazing fireballs. "We're not supposed to do this. I'm not supposed to be this," he accused, pointing at him.
"What am I supposed to do? I couldn't stop the Element!" he said defensively.
"Well, you could've not opened yourself up to begin with! What the hell do you think you were doing?" Wesley the Watcher pushed up his glasses irritably.
"Meeting my destiny," he returned forcefully.
"Destiny?" the Watcher scoffed.
"The destiny father denied me," he said, determined to prove his point to this haunting reflection.
The Watcher's expression hardened. "What father did -- he wanted to protect us! I mean, me! We, I mean, *I* wouldn't have had a normal life if he didn't-"
"What?" he snarled. "Lock us up in the basement? For hours? Days?"
The Watcher blanched. "It wasn't ... always days."
Wesley watched the burning Gurnaks again. "I've always failed. In everything I do. I'm getting tired of it. Aren't you tired?"
The Watcher pursed his lips. He didn't realise how prissy that made him look. Must stop that.
"We have a responsibility ... Wesley. It did hurt when they turned their backs on me..." Wesley the Watcher turned to regard Fred and Gunn, whom, Wesley noticed with fascination, was saying something to him (but he couldn't quite hear what they were saying).
"...but this is not the way," pleaded the Watcher. "We can leave LA. Go away," he said plaintively.
"I wish I could," he answered sorrowfully. "But I read the prophecies. You know what's to come. How can they face it? They're not even prepared."
"It's not ... it's not our responsibility."
"Don't be a blithering idiot. You know we have a role."
The Watcher looked at him impassively. "So you've decided to become a pawn of prophecy?"
"I've always been a pawn," he shifted his gaze to Connor, who was shaking him. Funny. He didn't feel anything. And why was everything upside down?
"I'm sorry life couldn't be the same again, Wesley," Wesley told his reflection. "We're long past that. So long past that." The Watcher took off his glasses and sighed, gazing at them sadly. He cleaned them slowly, then with a sad look, let them drop and shatter on the ground.
And then the world spun crazily around him.
"Oh Charles! He's burning up!" Fred cried. Fred rested her hand on Wesley's forehead. He felt like a furnace.
But that didn't frighten Gunn. What really frightened him was that Wesley's eyes were staring sightlessly out at nothing. He was barely breathing now, and although the convulsions had stopped, this eerie stillness was something worse. Was he in a coma? Or was he already brain-dead?
"J-Bob's gone to call the ambulance," Lisle huffed, running to his side. "Oh man. Gosh he looks-"
"Don't say it," Gunn snapped. "Come on, man. Come on English! Wake up!" he shook Wesley, but the man didn't even bat an eyelash or twitch a muscle. Gunn was tempted to slap him awake, but he didn't -- maybe Wes had some kinda brain seizure, so who knew what damage that could do to him?
After Wesley began talking freaky and burnt the Gurnaks like two piñatas on fire, he had looked at Connor for a long time, still as a statue. Eventually, that freaked Connor out enough to begin shaking him up again, and that was when all of them snapped out of their shock and ran towards the two -- burning Gurnaks or not.
Then, bam! Wesley dropped like a stone on the floor, his eyes rolled up into his head. That had frightened Fred so much that she began to cry in earnest and J-Bob began saying something about a heart attack.
And then things got worse when Wesley started convulsing. They tried to hold him down -- Gunn yelled for J-Bob to go call someone for goodness sakes -- and try to keep his head from smashing on the floor. It was hard to hold him down. The guy was so strong. Then the convulsions passed and Wesley opened his eyes. Only he wasn't really there. There was nothing behind his eyes.
"Maybe he fried a circuit," Lisle said.
Gunn threw her a dirty look. She shut up immediately.
"Is he taking drugs?" That was Anne. She must've come down.
"Hell, I don't know what he has been doing for the past few months. Steven?" he turned to regard the teenager.
Connor shook his head. "I don't know. What are drugs?"
Gunn sighed in frustration.
Wesley was still catatonic. His eyes were staring at them unblinkingly, his mouth slack.
It was then that Gunn realised that they had a near-expert on all things supernatural in the lobby. "Lorne!" he yelled.
Lorne walked cautiously to Wesley's side, staring down at him anxiously.
"What's going on, Lorne? What's wrong with him?" Gunn demanded.
Fred took Wesley's hand in hers and looked at Lorne with fear-filled eyes.
"I saw ... I mean, I saw..." Lorne visibly collected himself and began again. "Elemental magic. He was using Elemental magic."
"And that's bad?" Gunn prompted.
"Oh yeah," he said, nodding his head vigorously. "It's not only bad, it's nuts."
"Is this why he's-" she looked at Wesley's slack face, gulping hard.
Lorne knelt down. "I think so. No one can handle Elemental magic. Not even the strongest witch. It's like drinking juiced up water spiked with LSD and cocaine and whatever drugs you guys have here. It may take them longer to die, but eventually they will die. Normal humans like Wesley on the other hand ..." he trailed off.
"No one's dying!" Fred yelled. "He just got back!" Her mouth thinned to a determined line.
"Don't worry sweetie," Lorne said quickly. "Saw something back there. He's got a future alright. Not a future I'd like anyone to have, but he's got one."
"Okay, so what can we do?" Gunn asked, his voice tense.
Lorne shook his head and sighed heavily. "Nothing. I'm sorry...I'm no healer. I don't even know if a witch doctor could help him now."
The group was stunned to silence. Then, Fred shook her head and said, "We don't say never in Angel Investigations, remember? What was it that Angel once told Wes? We're not in the business of giving up on people? We got Connor back from a hell dimension-" she shot Connor a discreet look, "-so we can bring Wesley back too."
Lorne was about to answer when a blood-curdling scream smashed his thoughts to a million pieces. They whirled around to see the female Gurnak standing at the doorway. She was shaking visibly, holding her swollen belly.
"Junior's coming soon!" she yelled, her yellow eyes wide. She raised a shaking hand to her mouth as if to stifle a scream. Then she whimpered. "Please ... please help me!"
"Er guys? Why isn't she happy-lookin'?" J-Bob asked.
"Oh-oh," Lorne said in response. At the same time he started to back away.
"Oh-Oh? What the hell is that supposed to mean?" Gunn snapped.
Everyone rose to their feet and stared as the female Gurnak began to stumble down the stairs towards them, arms outstretched.
"I need the sacrifice! I need the sacrifice!" she screamed, her yellow eyes wide with terror. "Please! He needs to eat!"
"Annie," Gunn called, reaching out to pull her to his side. She took his hand and hid behind his back while J-Bob and Lisle formed a protective circle around her. Together, they started to back away.
"No. No!" the Female Gurnak cried, clutching her belly. She doubled over and landed on her knees groaning. The groaning turned to shrieks as she clutched her stomach convulsively, digging her fingers into belly as if trying to rip out whatever thing that was in there.
J-Bob winced. "Oh gross. I've not even seen human childbirth. I'm not sure whether-"
"Oh tough guy, you wouldn't want to see this. Not in a million centuries," Lorne said. "Gurnak births are messy and did I tell you-"
The female Gurnak's eyes screams turned desperate as she fell to the floor, rolling on the ground in agony. Then an ear-piercing shriek forced them to cover their ears. It ended abruptly when she toppled to her side, still.
"That wasn't so bad," Lisle said with an audible sigh of relief.
The female Gurnak's body jerked. They jumped.
"As I was saying, Gurnak births can get a little dangerous for everyone," Lorne said, swallowing.
The female Gurnak began to slowly fold in half. "Oh-oh," Lorne said, then, looking at Gunn. "Take cover."
This time the body convulsed in earnest, legs and arms flopping wildly around. "Or rather, take weapons. Now," Lorne said, reaching for a fallen sword.
As one, the group scrambled for their weapons. But they couldn't help but watch in horror as the body on the ground began to contort into impossible shapes. The leg jerked right up to the female's head then folded into two. The head followed, twisting all the way round, Linda Blair, Exorcist style.
"Euw," Fred said quietly.
With a sharp snap, the spine snapped and the body folded in half. "Euw," J-Bob and Lisle said together with a wince.
More crunching noises followed as the limbs began to break and fold. "Junior's reeeaaallly hungry," Lorne muttered.
Without warning, the body disappeared in an explosion of fat, yellow tentacles.
He was so hungry.
"So, Joe was telling me about his assignment, and how he got it from Laura, you know, that med student?"
"No way? She's dealing in exam papers?"
"Way," said the woman. "Wait 'til the dean finds out, she'll be so expelled."
He was shivering with it now. As the two women approached the pier, Angel found the demon taking over, the fangs coming out. Gotta eat.
"So, what else have you been doing?" asked the other woman.
"Cheerleading tryouts, boring stuff."
Blood is not boring. He could smell it boiling beneath their skins.
"Hey ... is that a ... guy?" the Brunette frowned and leaned forward, staring at the tarp he hid under.
It took him a moment to realise that they were talking about him. He tried to sink back into the darkness, but he had no will to do so. He was just so hungry. It drove him mad with it. Cautiously, he looked up, staring at the throbbing jugulars at their necks. He licked his lips. The moment he realised that he did that, he wrung his hands in despair. Somehow it was important for him not to give in, but he barely remembered why.
The demon retreated.
"Hey," said the blonde. The cheerleader. "You okay?" She scrunched her forehead together. She looked cute that way.
"Hey, he's all wet. And ... damn, he's..." she wrinkled her nose. "He smells like seaweed. You think he fell from a yacht?"
They wore pastels. Bright yellow slippers with flowers on them. Flowery wraparounds. They smelled like lavender. Must focus on those ... cannot think of blood.
"He's shivering. Hey, guy, we're calling an ambulance, okay?" tentatively the blonde reached out and touched his shoulder.
The touch felt like live electricity. The smell of blood became overpowering and he lost himself. He grabbed her hand and brought it to his nose. The smell of blood...
The blonde realised that being a good Samaritan was a big mistake. "Hey! Hey! Stop that! The guy's-"
Angel felt the demon come out.
The blonde screamed.
He sank his fangs into her wrist.
"Hack and slash, hack and slash!" Gunn yelled over the yells of his teammates. The tentacles wrapped around his ankles and tried to drag him down but Gunn hacked it off before it could. Yellow goo splatted liberally around them. "How long is it going to do this?" he yelled at Lorne.
"Until it's full! Depends on its caste!" Lorne yelled back.
"What?!" Lisle shrieked as she hacked off another tentacle wrapped around her ankle.
"Well, if it's like mom and dad, he just needs one blonde. If he's like the big belugas floating above us, he's going to need lots of us. Probably doesn't mind brunettes. Or demons," Lorne grimaced.
Nearby, Wesley's body lay still and peaceful amidst the chaos in the Hyperion reception. His blue eyes stared sightlessly at the charred remains of the Gurnaks that still floated above them.
Then an eyelid twitched. Then the other.
Above, the red flames around the charred remains flared a brilliant yellow. Below, smoke began to hiss around Wesley's body. Suddenly, the Gurnak husks exploded in a shower of ashes and swirled in place, held by the fire.
Then the fire turned green.
The smoke around Wesley's body thickened until it obscured him. Then little green flames appeared on Wesley's body. They danced and crept up his pants, spreading slowly but surely to his entire body. In a sudden burst, they travelled rapidly up his legs and then his chest ... then his neck...
Wesley's eyes flickered. Flames appeared on his hair. They spread until he was was completely on fire, burning quietly while the team fought desperately with the Gurnak hatchling.
More little green flames sprouted from the floor and travelled slowly, but determinedly, towards the group of desperate people battling the Gurnak spawn. And in the riot of flames that engulfed Wesley's body, two eyes opened slowly. They widened.
They were surrounded. Or rather, they were pinned to a corner. The only thing they could do was hope for the best as the Gurnak spawn approached their corner. The only hope they had was to go out fighting hard.
Fred took his hand and simply said, "Charles."
Gunn clutched her hand tight and gave her a tight smile. "Not going to be the end, baby. We're going to hack it as long as we can."
The tentacles were only a foot away. Fred and Anne scooted as far as they could, but met with solid wall after backing away two inches.
Anne shrieked when a tentacle wrapped itself around her ankle. She tried to kick it away but it hung on.
This is it, Gunn thought. The final showdown. The big goodbye. He lifted his sword and plunged it down, knowing that he'd be the next target. He just hoped that he hacked enough Gurnak pieces before he went. And he hoped that Fred didn't have to suffer too much.
The moment his sword landed on the tentacle, something weird happened. The tentacle dissolved.
"Huh?" he found himself saying out loud as he stared at the pile of ash where the tentacle was. As his eyes travelled further, he realised that the writhing, stinky, yellow mess of tentacles were gone, replaced by a distinctly octopus-looking pile of ash. It happened so fast and so quietly that Gunn wondered whether he had imagined it all, or that he was dead and he was in some kind of hell dimension where he was forced to relive the final moments of his life again and again. But nothing happened. The pile of ash did not move nor did he feel the flames of hell licking at his ankles.
"Where did it go?" J-Bob said, echoing his thoughts.
"What the hell happened?" Lisle said, dropping her heavy sword. "It looks like it had an instant cremation," she huffed.
Realisation dawned on him then. "Wesley," Gunn said immediately, looking around.
"We left him!" Fred realised. She pushed away from the wall and ran to the centre of the hall where they left him. Her footsteps screeched to a sudden halt.
"Baby?" Gunn called, running to her side...and then stared.
"Oh no," Fred whispered.
The rest of the team stared at the floor Wesley had been ... or rather, now rested.
There was only a smoking, charred impression of a human body on the floor.
Fred gasped out loud and covered her mouth, squeezing her eyes shut. Anne wrapped her arms around her, looking away.
"Shit," J-Bob said quietly. "That stinks man ... I mean," he cast an apologetic look at Gunn who ignored him, still staring at the charred spot. "I'm sorry man," he said, placing his hand on Gunn's shoulder.
"He..." Lorne looked at his hands, reluctant to look at the smoking spot. "He must've lost control ... and combusted. It happens," he cleared his throat and rubbed his forehead tiredly. "It happens in the end for Element users," he continued and sighed. "But I saw a future..." he trailed off.
Suddenly, snow fell on them.
No, it wasn't snow. Lorne looked up. It was the remains of the Gurnaks raining down on them.
It only took moments for the ashes to bury whatever was left of Wesley.
Lorne then realised something. "Where's Connor?"
There were only hamburgers tonight. Half-eaten ones. Not bad. Some days you could get a whole meal. Must be some dieter or some anorexic gal, throwing the food away before mommy and daddy found out, he reasoned.
The wino grabbed his half-eaten burger, wincing at the slightly-rancid taste of the bread and hoping that the squishy sounds that came from his chewing were not the results of him chewing on some hapless maggots. Brushing away strands of his matted brown hair from his eyes, he peered at the hamburger suspiciously.
"What the hell," he muttered and took another bite. Then he sniffed and looked accusingly at the fast food joint's back door. He thought the Doublemeat Palace should be closed by now, but apparently someone was doing overtime slinging burgers in there. And not doing a good job of it. The meat patties smelled burnt.
Hurrumphing, Humprey turned back to the alley entrance - and nearly threw up. He'd had some pretty weird hallucinations when he was dead drunk, but he wasn't dead drunk right now, and he never thought he could imagine this up.
A burning man stood before him.
Humprey stopped chewing. In fact, he forgot that there was stuff in his mouth.
The flames were green, he noted. How weird. And he could see what the man looked like -- and it didn't seem as if he was burning despite him being engulfed by the flames. Almost as if he was inside some kinda protective shielding. "Are you ... some kinda alien?" he found himself asking.
The figure titled his head.
Humprey wanted to pee in his pants, but he kinda forgot how.
"I passed the test," the burning man said.
"Huh?" Humprey said weakly. Aliens, he realised, apparently had English accents.
"I'm not dead. Or maybe, I am dead. Is this Hell?"
Humprey opened his mouth, closed it, then opened it again. "Well, er, this place is called Earth. And, er, we're in LA, and uh, please don't kill me," he said, surprised at how calm he sounded.
Quick as a flash, the flames disappeared and a normal man stood before him.
Humprey began to chew again. The man before him was young -- maybe in his early thirties. Scruffy looking, with hair that probably had not seen the end of a barber's scissors for months. And he had a funny expression on his face as well, as if he was about to cry and laugh at the same time. Humprey wasn't sure whether he should stay to see that.
"Er, you okay fella?" he found himself asking. Now, why in the world would he do that -- act concerned to a burning guy?
The man stared at him as if seeing him for the first time, then a small smile appeared on his face. "I don't know," the man said softly. Then he did it. He cried. Bawled like a baby. The stranger covered his face with his hands, his shoulders shaking from his sobs.
"Hey, it's okay. LA is not such a bad place. Maybe you can visit China instead? No smog," Humprey assured him. Very pathetically, unfortunately. Man, he was babbling. But what do you say to an alien/ghost/zombie/demon anyway?
The man sank to his knees, still crying, and Humprey realised with fascination that the ground beneath him was smoking.
*I really need to get out of here*, he thought.
The man gathered himself and managed to stop crying, but when he looked up, his eyes were wet with tears. "What did I do to myself?" he asked.
*How the hell do I know?* Humprey wanted to say. Instead he said: "Gmfk." Or something to that effect.
The man giggled at his answer. The giggle turned into laughter, and then into an all out laughing fest.
Humprey'd had enough. He bolted out of that alley as fast as he could and swore never to touch another double meat burger again.
Alone in the alley, and on his knees, Wesley stared at the streams of smoke hissing out from the cracks of the road. He reached out to touch them, but they dissipated at his touch -- as if they were repelled by him.
His thoughts ran in little circles; his mind was a mouse caught in a maze, an amusement for The Powers That Be as he scampered and scooted to find the block of cheese they so efficiently hid and so cruelly enticed him with.
Wesley shook his head, wishing everything would go away. He seemed to remember a simpler time when it was just Wesley with a Purpose, Wesley the ex-Watcher at Angel Investigations. Bloody lovely how it all turned out. Why couldn't he have just walked away? Why did he have to do this?
He couldn't remember why he opened himself. Some vague notions of fulfilling some stupid prophecy. Some vague, noble intentions of saving the world, killing bad things.
He felt something building up inside of him. He whimpered and clutched his chest, feeling it rising up his throat. Guilt, rage, pain, hopelessness, despair, they fought to come of him all at once. The feelings turned to sharp stabs of pain and he gasped in surprise at the pain of it. He could only clutch his head feebly, wondering what he did wrong this time.
Then the pain became worse -- so bad until he fell to his side, clutching his head in agony. Then he couldn't fight it anymore. He screamed.
"Good Lord, is she alright?"
The English-accented voice cut into her mind and Willow Rosenberg jerked awake only to find herself staring at a pair of concerned, very familiar eyes. She reddened immediately. "Did I say something wrong?" she wondered out loud.
Giles sighed in relief. "No you didn't. But you screamed a little."
Something told her that it wasn't 'little'. Giles had a way of understating things, what with his 'quite this' and 'rather that'. Willow reddened further -- especially when she realised that a concerned British Airways stewardess was looking at her anxiously. She couldn't imagine how many passengers were staring at her right now.
"Should I get her a cup of tea, sir?" asked the stewardess.
Giles shook his head in a negative and placed a reassuring hand on Willow's shoulder. "She'll be alright. It's nerves, that's all. She's afraid of flying, I'm afraid," he explained.
The stewardess' face brightened with understanding. "Buckle up then. We're reaching Los Angeles in ten minutes. It'll be over in just a jiffy, Ms. Rosenberg," reassured the stewardess.
Willow gave her a weak smile. When she was gone, Willow finally asked Giles: "Was it loud?"
"Well," he removed his glasses and started to wipe them with his handkerchief. That told Willow enough. She sighed heavily and sank into her seat in defeat.
"What was it?"
Willow look at him from the corner of her eye. "It was a nightmare. I was burning alive. Funny, you would think I'd dream about being skinned alive instead."
Giles was quiet a while before speaking. "Are you alright, Willow?" he finally asked, his voice gentle. "Do you need to center yourself or focus your energies right now?"
Good old Giles. Always so concerned and fatherly ... despite what she did to him four months ago. She winced at the flood of memories. She could almost hear his groans of pain again.
"Willow?" it was Giles.
She blinked, snapping herself out of it and gave him a weak smile. "Sorry. Drifted again."
Giles was looking at her with his big, concerned eyes. Willow just couldn't take it right then. Like how she couldn't take him being so nice to her the past few months, bringing her to the Devon coven instead of imprisoning her in some hell dimension or some other inescapable place.
Giles frowned and locked his eyes with hers. "Remember what Esmelda said."
"Centre yourself, I know." No, she did not know. Life was more complicating than centering yourself. Life involved facing the friends you nearly gleefully butchered again. Life meant trying to get their forgiveness and facing the possibility of never getting it. Life meant a life without Tara.
"But it's not that, is it?" Giles prompted. He was also perceptive, Giles.
She shook her head. "They're never going to forgive me, you know," she whispered, her voice brittle.
"No, I don't know. And you know it's not true."
She pursed her lips. "Why didn't you lock me up and throw away the key like you should have done? Why are you being so ..." she couldn't think of an appropriate adjective.
"Because I know you can do this, Willow."
She met his eyes reluctantly; they'd had this conversation before -- on their first day in the Sanctuary. But she was too out of it to care -- or believe.
She shook her head and looked out of the little window at her side and fixed her eyes on the clouds outside.
"Magic is not something you can discard now, Willow," he continued despite her disinterest. "I know you can use it ... for the good of others now."
Willow closed her eyes. Why did he have such faith in her? It put too much pressure on her. Too much pressure not to mess up again.
She closed her eyes - only to suddenly feel immense heat surround her. She gasped and opened her eyes, and let out a small cry when she saw fire licking at her boots. She stumbled back in horror and looked around, but all she saw was fire. Only it was green. Green fire?
"Hello?" she called out nervously. Did she teleport by accident? Or was it some kinda demon? She didn't have the strength to deal with anything so melodramatic right now.
Then she felt it.
Willow gasped when someone shook her. Reality shifted once more. The plane returned, and she suddenly found herself seating on the soft but awkwardly angled seat in the Economy class. Somehow the aches and pains of hours of sitting were welcome now.
Better than thinking you were finally sent to hell for your sins.
"What is it? Was it a nightmare?" Giles was really worried now.
"Did I fall asleep?" she asked anxiously.
"You nodded off, yes," Giles said.
She shook her head feebly. "I don't know," and she was truly puzzled. "For a moment there, I felt ... an echo. Then there was fire. Green fire."
"Echo? Green fire?"
She shrugged. "It's hard to figure out. I felt this rush of emotions. It was like a big huge honking snowball coming my way. Only the snowball was kinda hot and weird and ... I can't describe it. But I remember one emotion clearly enough."
Giles just waited patiently for her to continue.
"Pain," she frowned at the memory of it. "So much pain. As if he was going to burn with it."
"He?" Giles prompted.
Willow blinked. "I did say that didn't I? And burn. They're important somehow."
Giles only looked ... concerned. Didn't he have any other looks?
When she tried to recall more details she couldn't. In fact, she could barely remember what she had just told Giles. She frowned and shook her head. "It's all gone now. I can't seem to hold on to the details of the dream ... weird. I guess it was just a dream..." she murmured, crossing her arms.
"It could be," Giles said in his understated way.
After a while, the pilot announced that they were going to land in LA, and that everyone should buckle up. As she fumbled with her seat belt, Willow turned to Giles and said: "When we're in LA, I'm going to get lots of sugar. Donuts. I need donuts!"
Lilah hated working nights, but it seemed like the only way to get what she wanted these days. Unfortunately, this time she was doing the waiting. Hissing in anger, she paced her expensively-decorated office and studied her well-manicured nails, wondering why the Shilosh wizards were taking so long.
And speak of the devil, they suddenly appeared before her in a cloud of smoke.
Coughing, she waved her hand before her face to clear the air. "Dramatic, much? You're wasting all that smoke on me. Not impressed," she muttered.
The Shilosh wizard merely bowed. It was a grotesque little thing -- about three feet or so; covered entirely in sores that Lilah did not even want to look at, let alone touch. But she needed their services.
"What did you find out?"
"He is a user of magic," the Shilosh said in his warbly voice.
"You took six hours to find that out?" she snorted.
The Shilosh wizard bowed lower. The grovelling creature. Funny what a few thousand years of forced servitude by Wolfram and Hart could do to a race. "But it isn't just ordinary magic, my Lady. It is Elemental magic, and the most powerful kind -- Green Fire."
Lilah lifted an eyebrow at that ... then she gave a short laugh. "My, my, my. Wesley has gone up the ladder. Hmm ... any way we could bend him to our advantage?"
The Shilosh bowed lower -- if that was possible. "None, my lady."
That silenced her for a while. "What? We don't understand the word 'None' in Wolfram and Hart, or have you forgotten?"
"I am sorry, my Lady. But an Elemental cannot be forced to follow anyone's will. Especially a Green Fire Elemental."
That stumped her for a long time. Then she tossed her head and flicked her brown hair irritably. "So what the hell is an Elemental, exactly?"
Percy Mason was an Englishman in Los Angeles, to put it very simply. However, what many people did not realise is that behind the watch shop that he operated in Brooklyn was a little study filled with a huge library of mouldering books dedicated to his lifelong passion.
Right now, his lifelong passion was coming to life.
"You are certain? My word! To imagine that we get to see it in our time! Did you realise that the last one was during the Fire of London? You didn't? Well, of course you didn't, old chap, but thank you anyway."
When Percy replaced the receiver of his telephone, he was buzzing with excitement. He got up, paced a little, and sat down. But the drumming of his fingers drove him nuts, so he got up again, wringing his hands. An acquaintance of his in Bath, who was in the know with higher ups in the Council of Watchers, had told him the most splendid news that night.
The orb had awoken.
Now, of course, that was not very significant to normal men -- and for a few days, the Council had been perplexed themselves at why the orb -- which they'd thought was a mere memento, a paperweight really, from the ancient days of the Council -- had come to life. Then Percy's acquaintance remembered his old lectures at the Academy about the Orb.
"My word. After 500 years ... another one has emerged! And it's green. Oh lord, not good. But still! What a rare opportunity to study one for myself! If only I knew where it is now!" Percy muttered.
Angel ran madly. The taste of blood -- that was all it was, a taste. Somehow he found the strength to fight the demon off, but it was difficult, so difficult. He had run from the girls, leaving one unconscious, only to run into this mad, dark neighbourhood where no one lived.
The Hyperion. He had to get to the Hyperion. Connor would be there. So would Cordelia and Fred and Gunn... his family. Where was the Hyperion? Where was he?
He tripped and fell again. He tried to come to his feet again, but he felt so shaky, so weak. He moaned pitifully.
Resigned, he let himself lie on the muddy ground with the rotting garbage.
The voice woke him up. He struggled with his uncooperating muscles to see who it was, but he could only manage to lift his head high enough to see the man's boots.
"The water told me you were here. I'm not sure why it bothered," said the voice. He knew the voice. It sounded different, but yes, he knew it.
"Wesley," he said hoarsely.
Wesley knelt and tipped Angel's chin up with a finger. And for the first time in months, Angel saw the face of the man who had shattered his life. Wesley's blue eyes twinkled in the dim light and he smiled crookedly, as if he just saw something deliciously funny. What the hell did he have to smile about?
"Don't touch me," he snarled.
"Believe me, I don't want to," Wesley said softly. "You're peeling. Bits and chunks of you gone and eaten away. Do you have any idea how awful you look, dear boy?"
There was something strange in Wesley's voice. Something unstable and dark. Angel felt a momentary flare of concern but squashed it down quickly to glare at the ex-Watcher. "Go to hell," he hissed.
"Already been there. It was nice," Wesley said. He stood up suddenly and casually nudged him over to his back with a foot. The casualness of the act infuriated Angel, but he could not stop it because he was too spent already. He could only glare madly at Wesley who looked down at him.
Suddenly, Wesley knelt down by his side and lifted him up by his collar. "I gave my life to you," he said, his voice flat. For a long time they stared at each other -- or rather, glared at one another, blue against brown.
Wesley then tightened his grip. "I told him to take my life instead," he hissed. "He didn't. Because he wanted you to suffer. Long and hard, and did he achieve it through your darling boy? Yes he did, but my goodness is he going to make YOU suffer!"
Angel tried to stare defiantly at Wesley, but he found himself increasingly ... worried by the look in Wesley's eyes. Something unstable. Something dark.
"Then she slit my throat, and my best friend tried to smother me when I could barely lift a finger and I had to ask myself, why bother? So tell me, vampire-with-a-shiny-soul, why bother?" he shook Angel violently. Angel gritted his teeth in pain as his head smacked the ground.
"Why bother with this? One less vampire in the world -- what do I care? What? You have a soul? What the hell does that mean? Nothing, you idiot! It doesn't mean a bleeding difference! You've been deluding yourself all this while, haven't you? Noble vampire! Redemption, indeed! Hah, what a laugh!" His voice rose and then ended with a bitter laugh.
Wesley was getting increasingly volatile -- his eyes were wide and blank, his mouth stretched to a bitter line. Angel brought his hands up to push him away, but he couldn't, just couldn't.
Wesley casually batted his hands away. "Don't worry Angel. I don't kill defenceless vampires. You know what I'm going to do? That Watcher -- the old me, is standing beside me now saying that I have to do this and that; My word, was I so bleeding annoying? I do pity you having to deal with him. But here I am, with something special for you," he gave Angel a maniacal grin as he reached for something in his coat and thrust it to him. It was a bottle.
Angrily, Angel collected enough strength to push Wesley away. The bottle bounced on the alley floor.
Stumbling back a little, Wesley looked at the fallen bottle then at Angel. He frowned heavily. "That was rude. Is that any way to say thanks?"
He found his gaze inadvertently travelling back to the bottle on the ground. Even from here he could smell the blood. The hunger became maddening.
Suddenly, Wesley grabbed the bottle and opened the top and quickly thrust it to him. Angel flinched from the suddenness of his movements, but the smell of blood hit him full force.
"Drink," Wesley commanded.
Angel looked at him defiantly.
Wesley sighed and knelt beside him. "For goodness sakes, Angel, drink! Or he won't stop talking to me. 'Do make sure that Angel gets at least three quarts of blood. Not too much at once, mind you, or he'll choke'," he said, his voice high and simpering like the old Wesley he knew so long ago.
He placed his hands on Angel's and lifted the bottle up to his lips. "Isn't he annoying? Poor Rupert had to listen to his drivel day in day out before. Now it's my turn," he rolled his eyes.
The man was mad.
Angel's eyes widened. Wesley was insane. He felt the familiar rush of guilt. *Wesley's insane ... because of me.*
*No! He took my son!*
*He trusted me, and I drove him insane. Like Drusilla.*
*HE is a traitor! How can you even care for him?*
He remembered the old Wesley, smiling at him from his office table. He remembered Wesley telling him that he was unique and special; that he had a cause and a reason to go on living.
And now he was insane.
Angel lifted the bottle to his lips and drank, keeping an eye on Wesley as he did so.
"That's a good boy," Wesley said -- as if he was talking to a dog. He watched him a little longer with a smile then suddenly went rigid as if in pain. He hissed sharply and clutched his head. He covered his face with his hands, making small sounds of pain as he stumbled to his feet, walking away from him.
Angel could only go on drinking and staring.
The man managed to reach a wall and brace himself there. In what seemed like many minutes, Wesley removed his hands from his face and stared at him.
Angel threw the bottle aside. The blood was rushing so fast into his system that it made him dizzy. But already he felt the strength returning.
"Are you better now?"
Angel started at that. Wesley's tone was different now -- it was, in one word, lucid. The dark madness was gone from his voice -- and his face, as if it was never there.
"You could always nod your head if you find talking to me so abominable."
He licked dry, chapped lips and shook his head. "I don't find you abominable."?
Wesley lifted an eyebrow.
"I just hate you," he said through clenched teeth.
Wesley gave him a small smile. He was still braced against the wall. ?Well, I'm glad to know that," he said pleasantly. Then he carefully stood on his feet, as if uncertain of his strength. When he was more confident he began to walk towards Angel.
"I on the other hand, have no idea what to feel about you. I wish I was as clear-cut as you are," he said wistfully, looking to his left at something. Then abruptly, he said: "Would you like a lift?"
That shocked Angel so much that he couldn't answer.
"No Angel," Wesley said softly in response to his shock. "I am not feeling charitable towards you. Nor do I want to be on the side of the Angels anymore, pardon the pun. I am doing this because I have a duty and that's what Watchers are trained to do -- to do their duties." He bent down and with strength that surprised Angel, pulled him up.
Grabbing his collar, Wesley brought Angel close and stared down his eyes. "By the by, these days, I kill vampires for fun, and I don't think I can tell them apart anymore -- so stay away from me before you get a piece of the redwood forest in your heart, alright?" his voice lilted, a touch of his previous madness returning.
"Don't worry Pryce. I don't even plan to think about you in the next few minutes," Angel hissed.
"Hah ... just what I told Lilah. But did she listen?" Before Angel could comprehend what he meant by that, Wesley threw him one of his not-so-quite-together grins and supporting most of his weight, hauled and dragged him to his SUV nearby.
"Come on kiddies, let's get home to mommy and daddy," Wesley sang.
"Jonathan. Lord, please, he's only a little boy!"
His father grabbed him by the hand roughly and pulled him away. Wesley was confused and more than a little frightened now. Father had been acting strange around him the past few weeks. No more sitting on his lap to hear stories about the Council. No more bed time stories about Peter Rabbit. No more wrestling in front of the telly. Father was mad at him all the time now, always shouting, "No, Wesley!" each time he did It.
It's not as if he wanted to. It just happened. He didn't know how to tell Father that.
Mother was following them now, and she kept saying that he was a little boy -- only, he wasn't you see? He was big and strong, like Father said he was.
But he was scared.
"Father, please, I'm scared," he whimpered.
He was pulled roughly into the house and they headed towards the stairs. Then his father pulled open the basement door and hauled him in. Wesley thought Father would follow him in, but he didn't, he only stood at the doorway staring at him.
Wesley was guilty now. He was being punished, but he didn't know why.
"Don't you ever do that again, do you hear me, boy?" his father said roughly.
Wesley shook his head. He was too terrified to say anything else.
Mother appeared next to Father, her blue eyes streaming with tears. "Jonathan, for God's sakes, please stop!"
"We have to do this Margaret. You know we have to," his Father said, his chin up -- the way he spoke to Uncle Lewe and Uncle Nod when they came on Council business.
"He's just a boy. He's afraid of the dark."
"Then he'll have to outgrow it. He'll be a Watcher one day, Margaret, nothing else. Do you realise what the Council will do to him if they found out what he is?" Father's voice turned small and quiet, and Wesley saw that his Father's eyes were wet too. Was he crying? He thought men did not cry. Father said men should not.
"Father, I don't like the dark," he said in a small voice.
Mother and Father looked at him, their eyes were the same. So wet and big. "Wesley," his mother whispered. Then she bit her lip and with a small sigh, walked slowly away.
"Mother? Mommy?" he lost his strength to speak. He shifted his gaze to Father and pleaded with his eyes. But Father only looked at him, his face impassive.
"Father please ... Daddy ... please don't leave me here. I'm scared. There are monsters in the basement."
"Yes there are," his Father said, his voice flat. "Remember that when you light another fire."
Then Father closed the door, and he was alone in the dark with the monsters.
"Are you ... alive?"
He opened his eyes.
He wanted to say something sarcastic. He usually did after someone asked him such a silly question, but after feeling the strange heaviness that weighed down his limbs, Wesley wasn't quite sure anymore.
Connor ... or Steven, whatever, was watching him with an unreadable expression -- something between anxiety and wariness.
He realised that he was lying on his stomach on something hard, and that his arms hung limply by his sides. No wonder the boy thought he was dead.
Wesley got up carefully, adjusting to the brief moment of dizziness the movement cost him. When things began to steady around him, he looked at Connor, who was still studying him impassively. "Where am I?" he wondered out loud, looking around.
"Some abandoned warehouse," Connor answered shortly.
Wesley frowned. He did not remember getting here. Better, he barely remembered what happened last night. He was at the Hyperion, fighting the Gurnaks. Then there was fire ... and Angel? And the Hyperion again?
He gingerly rubbed his forehead with his hand, wondering whether what he remembered were dreams or reality. "What happened?" Wesley asked tentatively.
Connor shrugged -- the way teenagers do -- as if to say, 'who cares?' "I followed you after you burnt the Gurnaks."
"I..." he swallowed. "I burnt them?"
"Yeah. And you did a lot of other stuff too," he glowered, his eyes narrowing. "You passed out-"
"-and then set yourself on fire."
"What?" his voice rose a little.
But Connor was not finished. "Then you got up, a burning pillar of fire, and disappeared. You are a demon aren't you?"
"Well, I'm surprised you took so long to figure that out," Wesley said dryly. But beneath his sarcasm, was fear. He remembered vaguely what had happened, but they seemed distant; in fact, his dream about being locked in the basement seemed more real than his recollections of the day before. But if his dreams were real, then ...
"Angel is back," he said shortly, giving Connor a pointed look. The boy only straightened and tipped his chin up in defiance. It reminded him of his father for some reason. "So you buried him in the ocean? There is a cruel streak in you that seems familiar," he murmured, getting down from the low table he was lying on.
"He deserved it. He killed my father!" Connor responded hotly.
"I doubt it."
Connor flinched at that. Then, he said hesitantly. "Why are you so sure?"
"Because if he wanted to kill your father, he would have done it before. He had plenty of chances and plenty of reasons."
He walked around gingerly, testing his strength. He didn't appear to have much, because the world started spinning once more.
Then he felt someone hold his elbow. "Don't pass out again. I wouldn't know what to do if anything burns," Connor said flatly.
*You could lock me in the closet.*
The thought came unbidden into his mind. It made him flinch; as memories of hours in the dark basement with ghouls came flooding back into his mind. He decided to focus on Connor instead. "Why are you still with me?"
Connor's face was expressionless. "Does it matter?"
Wesley grinned at that answer. "At some point it will," he answered.
Suddenly, Connor's face blurred and his vision darkened. Suppressing a groan, Wesley reached out to the nearest wall to brace himself.
"Are you going to pass out now?"
Wesley had to smile at that. He wanted to pass out. Anything better than existing right now. "Help me back," he whispered to the boy.
And to his surprise, Connor obeyed.
Fred swept the Hyperion floors dispiritedly. Despite the ick factor of the ash being former Gurnak demons, Fred ignored the sticky clumps of ash that stuck to her boots, shirt, hair...
"Where's the vacuum?" she heard Gunn say.
She looked up to see Gunn puttering busily about, ducking under this and that, lifting this and that -- as if a vacuum could be hiding under a pile of books. He was rattled, that's all, she knew. Just like how everyone was.
Lorne, meanwhile, was sitting on the couch, looking uncharacteristically morose. She dropped the broom and went to him.
"Hey sweetcakes," Lorne said absently as she sat next to him.
All she could do was put a hand on his arm -- which he patted.
"I just can't figure it out," he said, looking at the soot covered area at the center of the hall. Fred didn't want to look. Wesley used to be there. "I saw a future for him, Fred. He can't be dead. He has a role to play -- in the Apocalypse."
Fred felt blank and drained.
"I can't be wrong."
"He's dead," she heard Gunn say flatly. This time, she did look up. Gunn's eyes were hard and ... determined? It made her frown, disturbed by what she saw.
"And there's nothing we can do to change that. Now, all we have to do is pick up, vacuum this shit up and move on," he said firmly.
Firmly? Or gladly? Fred thought. Was Gunn glad that Wesley was gone? Finally? The thoughts were too disturbing to contemplate. Without a word, Fred got up and headed up the stairs.
"Baby?" she heard Gunn call.
She didn't want to answer. She was no one's baby.
Upstairs, Fred walked around the corridors absently. So many rooms, yet so empty. It used to full of life and a heck of a lot of noise. Wesley and Cordelia bickering downstairs. Gunn showing off his fighting moves, sometimes upsetting a potted plant or something -- which set Wesley and Cordelia off again. Angel telling them all to calm down and not disturb his afternoon slumber ... And then Connor was here, and he was always crying or chuckling in that baby way of his. Fred missed all that. Fred wanted it all back.
She found herself wandering into Angel's apartments. She stared at the blackened walls -- gouged out by the fire that nearly got Connor and Angel. This was where it must've happened -- when Wesley decided to take Connor -- and changed everything.
Then her eyes shifted to the bed.
Her eyes widened.
"Please, don't hurt me."
Despite his wavering vision, Wesley aimed his gun at Mr. Swanson's chest. "You set a trap for me, didn't you Mr Swanson?"
Mr Swanson was sweating profusely, and his face was white. He lifted his trembling hands in an effort to placate Wesley and stammered: "Look, I can explain."
"Five minutes," Wesley said curtly.
"He said he would kill them," at that Mr. Swanson burst into tears, letting them flow freely down his cheeks.
The unexpected display of emotion disconcerted Wesley. He unconsciously shifted his feet. But he remained quiet.
"He said that if I told you what to do -- where to go, they'll be alive. They'll be okay," he whispered.
"Who?" Wesley asked, his brows knitted in a heavy frown.
"My girls. My daughters. He has my daughters. K-Koskov. He's -- he's a vampire," Swanson murmured. At that he turned away and covered his face, his shoulders shaking with silent sobs. "I didn't even know there were vampires until a few weeks ago. I am just a businessman, damn it!" Swanson cursed.
Wesley lowered his gun -- only to have Connor stop its descent. "He's lying," he hissed.
Wesley frowned and looked at the young man's face. "Yes," he agreed.
Swanson must've heard what he said because he whirled around, despair etched on his face. "You don't believe me," he whispered.
Wesley sighed and walked towards the man. "No. You're lying -- but you don't know that you are."
"W-what?" he blubbered, backing away as Wesley approached him.
Wesley did not give him an answer. Instead, he looked at his gun and pensively caressed it as he contemplated what he had to do next. Connor, however, knew what he was thinking.
"He is leading you into a trap. Don't be an idiot," Connor hissed.
Wesley gave him a sideways glance.
"Please help me. I'll pay you anything. I don't want my girls...I don't want him to hurt my girls."
"Don't," Connor said, he reached out and clasped his arm -- as if to physically prevent him from going.
"Connor," Wesley whispered.
A resigned look came over Connor's face. He gave Wesley a light push and threw his sword to a corner. It clattered loudly, the sound travelling in Wesley's empty warehouse. "You're going to regret it," he muttered as he walked out of the house.
And he was right.
A Week Later
"Firefighters say that the fire started at 4am last Saturday. Police believe that the fire was started by arsonists. However, the intention seems unclear. The warehouse belongs to the Swanson Corporation and sources believe that Mr. Swanson was in the building when the fire broke out. Whether he survived the fire or not also remains unclear."
"Strangely, one of Mr. Swanson's 10-year-old twin daughters were found at the warehouse. Police refuse to comment on her condition, or how she came to be there, but she is currently believed to be in state custody."
This time Angel did turn away from the television. It was Fred, holding a tray with a glass of blood on it. She gave him a nervous smile.
"Blood?" she asked, her voice a little on the over-perky side.
He returned his gaze to the television.
"Meanwhile, unexpected fires have broken out in several parts of LA since the Swanson fire. Could these fires have been set off by the same arsonist?"
Fred sighed and knelt by his side. Nervously, she touched his shoulder. This made him flinch, which made Fred jump a little. Guiltily, she withdrew her hand.
"You need to take some blood Angel. You haven't had any since yesterday afternoon," she said.
"You should go away, Fred."
Fred flinched. Then, pursing her lips, she shook her head. "No."
Angel gave her a hard glare. "I lose everyone close to me. I don't want to lose anyone else."
"Angel," she whispered, risking a touch to his hand. It was icy cold -- colder than usual. "You didn't leave me in Pylea, and I won't leave you either. You got me?" she said firmly.
Angel removed his hand from hers and returned his gaze to the television.
"The arsons seem random. So far seven people have been killed by the fires. Police believe that we now have a serial arsonist in our midst. How our arsonist sets the fire, however, is a complete --"
The television screen went blank. Fred stood before it, remote control in her hands.
"It was actually starting to get interesting," he commented dryly.
Fred threw the remote aside and knelt before him, clutching his hands as if she was afraid he'd get up and run away. Not that that would've stopped him. "Angel, look at me. We're going to get through this. We're going to find Cordelia, and Connor, and everything's going to be fine!"
Her voice wavered and shook, and Angel was reminded of the less than stable Fred in Pylea. Concerned, he met her eyes -- and realised that she was crying. "Fred-"
"When I found you in your room, did you know how freaked out I was? I thought you were dead! Not in the ashy kind of way -- we had so much of that that day but-"
"Shut up and listen to me," she snapped.
Surprised, Angel did what he was told.
"Since you came back, you haven't told us what happened to you. Who brought you back. Where you went. Who did this to you. You're barely eating, barely recovering and you're watching Oprah."
Angel merely stared at the blank screen.
"Okay. She has something to say once in a while. She can be entertaining. B-but I thought we lost you for good. We missed you. And we're glad you're back. But you're not back. Not really."
Angel met her eyes again reluctantly.
"Please come back to us," she whispered.
"Fred...I-" his eyes narrowed. Then he frowned heavily, suspicion clouding his eyes.
Fred frowned herself. This was more than Angel being anti-social. "What is it?"
With shocking speed, Angel got off his armchair, whirled around and pointed his hidden weapon (what was he doing with one?) at-
"Hey! Hey! Take it easy!" the intruder protested as Angel stuck the point of his crossbow up his chin.
Angel backed away, surprise in his features. "Earl?" he said incredulously.
The demon informant brushed off the cross bow and petulantly adjusted his coat. "Yeah. Earl. Your informant. Your buddy," he huffed.
Before Angel could put a word in, Earl began his barrage of words: "You better tell your pal -- sorry ex-pal -- Pryce that he's gone off his rocker and he has no right doing the things he does, bustin' into people's homes and turning them into fried enchilada just because they said they don't know. Ten. TEN people have died because of his crazy quest -- some were not even demons, just plain ordinary people, leading normal, achingly boring lives. What did they do? Ka-boom, that's what they did. Hiroshima. Why? Who the freaking 37th hell knows? Why I just heard from Myrtle the other day-"
"Earl," Angel interrupted.
"-that he didn't even ask his stupid question before frying one guy. That man is off his rocker, real crazy, and I put the blame on you guys. Yeah, even you, pretty stick thing at the back holding that tray. Drove the man up the wall with your holier-than-thou attitude-"
"Earl," Angel grated.
"-about him stealin' some baby. Yup, it's all over the grapevine, what he did. Wow, we demon folk thought it was super of him to just save the baby's neck, but no, you, Mr. vamp with a soul decides to smother him to death, which by the way is a pretty lame thing to do to a guy who nearly had his head sawn off. So I'd think you-"
"EARL!" Angel roared and clamped a hand around the green-skinned demon's neck and lifted him a few inches off the ground.
"Shut up," Angel growled.
Earl let out an 'eep' and promptly shut up.
"Now, tell me why you're here," he growled.
"Well," Earl said in a little choked voice. "Boy wonder here said I was useful."
"Boy wonder?" Fred asked, now beside Angel.
It was then that Connor walked casually through the door, hands in his tattered jeans pockets. The trio stared at him -- Earl with relief, Fred and Angel in shock.
Connor gave Angel a smirk bereft of any humour. "Hey, dad. Had a good swim?"
They had been in LA for a week. Willow called it a vacation. Giles called it stalling.
"I mean, I have not been to LA like for ages, a-and wow, did you see that Wicca supply shop? It's like Tesco for Witches."
They were in Ben & Jerry's - something Willow laughably called 'soul food shop' and she had just consumed shocking amounts of sugar-high ice-cream. About three huge bowls so far.
"Hey lady -- two minutes to closing, okay?" said the man behind the counter. His eyes travelled to the bowls on her table and he shook his head wryly.
"Boyfriend left her?" the man asked when Giles went to the counter to pay the bill.
"Well. Um. You could say that." Giles risked a small glance to Willow, who had her back to him.
"Well, just tell that pretty thing that there's more men in the sea. He is not worth gaining a hundred pounds for, eh?" he gave Giles his change.
Giles gave him a tight smile. "I'll be sure to tell her that."
The man chuckled and leaned down to close the refrigerated units which held the ice-cream. His smile faltered. "What the?" he exclaimed, backing away from the unit.
Curious, Giles looked at what he was staring at. "My word..." he murmured.
The ice-cream -- all twenty vats of them -- were now pools of multi-coloured liquid goo. Some were even bubbling. He read the temperature gauge at the side of the box.
His eyebrows lifted. Giles frowned. "Cooling problems?"
The man was about to answer when a deep growl from the entrance interrupted. Giles stiffened. Especially when he saw the shade of white the man turned into.
<Vampires!> Willow mind-shouted into his brain. He winced at the force of it -- caught an apologetic look from the witch -- and slowly turned.
Four vamps -- in game face mode -- stared at them, fangs bared. One -- a female in a tattered, dust-covered black dress, which signalled that she was newly risen, hissed at him.
"Food," the female growled. "Hungry."
One of the male vampires looked annoyed. "I didn't realise newly risen meant zero IQ," he muttered.
Another male vamp, who dressed as if he was going to a Rolling Stone concert -- in the 70s -- shrugged. "She was pretty. I didn't choose her for her IQ."
"Hey, can you two losers stop your male talk and start thinking what we're going to do with these folks?" a female shoved between the two vamps a few steps closer to Giles.
"I think this old guy is yummy," she said saucily, licking her lips.
"Old?" Giles couldn't keep the offended tone out of his voice.
The female looked surprised at being interrupted. "Aren't you afraid?" she asked frankly.
Giles managed a shrug while scanning the room discreetly for wooden objects in the shop. Metal, plastic, and more plastic. Wonderful.
<Giles. What do we do?> Willow asked.
The thought was so strong that both Willow and Giles cried out in surprise, covering their ears.
<Who said that?> it was Willow this time. Giles shook his head. He didn't know.
The female vampire started backing away. "Oh shit! He's here!"
Giles and Willow exchanged a look. But they knew.
"What? How long is he going to keep tracking us? Shit!" he swore and took the newly-sired female vamp's hand. "Come Abigail, we'll find food some other time."
"Hungry," Abigail mewled.
"Dang, newly risen and she has had no food for a day. I remember what it's like," the other male vamp muttered.
"Shut your-" the female began.
<WHERE ARE THEY?> The alien voice came again, deep and guttural.
"Let's get out of here," the female took an about turn - only to scream as a stake flew from out of nowhere to imbed itself solidly in her dead heart.
When the female vampire disintegrated, the one called Abigail lost it. She let go of the male vamp's hand and charged towards Willow.
"Dego!" Willow shouted, making a swiping motion with her hand. With a bloodcurdling cry, Abigail flew backwards and crashed through the see-through glass front of the shop.
"Forget it," muttered one of the vamps and made a break for it.
But there was no way he could've made it because a dark figure, his face obscured by shadows, suddenly appeared at the entrance, blocking his way. The vamps backed away slowly -- one of them raising their hands.
"Hey, look -- we didn't do anything."
"Where is the mother?"
"How many times do I have to tell you, I don't --"
The figure dragged something from behind him. It was a demon, struggling vainly to free himself from the man's grasp.
"Sam?" the vampire asked. Then his deeply ridged brows furrowed deeper. "You turned us in?!"
"H-he made me, man?" the demon protested weakly. His red eyes batted nervously.
"Where is the mother?"
"Someone took it away. Now leave us alone, okay?" growled Rolling Stones vamp.
The figure seemed to take that into consideration. But then, with a burst of unimaginable speed, the man lunged forward. Giles had only the time to pull Willow away before he saw the glint of silver from a long blade and the sight of the Rolling Stone vamp flying through the air headless.
He dragged Willow to hide behind a fallen table. All he could see from his vantage point were shadows and swirls of dust. They were moving at impossibly high speeds -- faster than even vamps. He heard only growls and the painful thudding of bodies hitting concrete.
Then all was silent.
Footsteps moving towards them. Then it stopped. "Lemme alone!" a voice protested. Giles recognised it as the demon's. Another thud. Footsteps coming their way. Very close now.
He exchanged a worried look with Willow. At the same time, his hand wrapped around the broken leg of the table. It must've snapped off when it was hurled into the wall by all the fighting.
The footsteps stopped just mere inches before them.
Giles stiffened, lifting the piece of metal in his hands. He could hear Willow muttering a spell.
The table was tossed aside like paper.
Giles got ready to plunge the metal in the creature's -- well, whatever that came his way first -- but he stopped because he saw its face. He could only stare while Willow let out a long-drawn gasp.
"Rupert?" said the apparition before them. "Rupert Giles?" the familiar voice rose with excitement. In his excitement, he dropped the demon from his clutches. "My word! It has been, what-"
"Nearly four years," Giles found himself answering.
"Four?" cried Wesley, as if he couldn't believe it. The demon began to crawl away. Wesley sighed in annoyance and brought his foot down on the creature's back. It yowled in pain as it was pinned to the ground. Which seemed rather impossible, as the demon should have had the strength to break Wesley into a few pieces.
"Are you-" Giles shifted his gaze discreetly to the pinned demon "-quite alright old chap?"
"Oh, right as rain," Wesley answered cheerfully. With a casual twist of his wrist, he sent the bloody sword in his hand flying into the wall, its tip buried between the eyes of Mr Happy Burger Ice Cream.
"Oh look. Burger-cide." With that, he howled with laughter, his knees nearly buckled. "Burger-cide. Oh, why didn't I think of that when I spoke to the Loa the last time?"
"You spoke to the Loa? Why-"
"Giles," Willow interrupted him, her voice grave. "There's something wrong-"
Wesley interrupted her. "Because I wanted to prevent the prophecy. But I was silly, Rupert. You were right. I think too much of myself, sometimes," he murmured, rising to his feet. "Oh, wait. Excuse me while I deal with this problem." Wesley smiled and returned to the sprawled demon.
"Willow," Giles prompted, lowering his voice to a whisper while Wesley is distracted.
"There's magic pouring off him like hot molten lava. But magic I've not seen before," she whispered.
"Hey man!" the demon protested and struggled feebly as he was lifted off his feet again. "Look, I did nothing, okay? So what if I'm a Vornak demon? So what if I hung out with the vampires? They play great pool, okay? I am really harmless, honest!"
Wesley smiled. "Funny demon trying to lie to me." With that, he clamped his hands around the demon's neck. Willow winced as she heard the demon gagging, which barely concealed the faint popping sounds that came along with the act.
Giles could only stare and think about Willow's safety and the guy behind the counter's. The man was currently staring at Wesley with his mouth open, rooted and frozen to his spot.
Wesley Wyndam-Pryce was, to put it succinctly, changed.
Gone was the well-groomed, starched-up Watcher that first graced their presence with irritating probing and upper-lip snobbery. Gone was the well-trimmed hair, the suit, the glasses, the --
Everything. The man before him wore a dusty leather coat, a not too well-ironed shirt and tattered jeans. His hair looked as if it had not met the end of a comb (or scissors) for months.
<My word. He looks...>
<Roguish> came the thought from Willow. Giles gave her a discreet puzzled look, which she returned with an apologetic look. Apparently, he wasn't supposed to have heard that.
Yes, there was something wrong with Wesley Wyndam-Pryce. A lot can happen to change a man in four years, but the man he remembered was not this violent. Nor was he this strong. Or that skilful in dispatching four vampires in a few minutes.
"Wesley. I believe he is right. His species is quite harmless really. More of the merchant class-"
Wesley glared at Giles. Willow gasped when his eyes glowed green. "I need to cleanse this city from filth," he said, his voice guttural.
"Please man! I swear I didn't do anything! I've got kids-" the demon choked out.
Wesley lifted the demon higher. It squealed and kicked his legs. "Where's the Mother?"
"What? M-my mother? Well, she's in-"
Angry, Wesley threw the demon aside. He threw him so hard that he flew through the wall to land on the street outside. The man behind the counter yelped and ran out of the door.
"Wesley. Stop it," Giles said firmly, stepping forward. He felt Willow's cold hands on his -- possibly trying to restrain him.
Wesley narrowed his glowing eyes, his expression saying that he wasn't quite pleased with his suggestion.
Green. Glowing green. Heat. Melting ice-cream. Familiar, so familiar.
"Tell me what happened," he said as he slowly walked towards him, his hands up in a placating gesture.
"Giles," Willow whispered.
"It's alright, Willow. We're old friends, aren't we, Wesley?"
Wesley's green eyes narrowed further to glowing slits. "Don't talk to me like I'm a git," he hissed.
"Then tell me what happened," Giles replied, unperturbed.
Wesley tilted his head aside at that and after a while, gave him an amused smile. "It won't work with me, Rupert. This circling and probing. This teasing," he drawled.
"I just want to find out what happened, Wesley," Giles murmured in the reassuring way of his. Willow tensed when she saw the peculiar magic swirling more violently around Wesley. She didn't think Wesley bought into Giles's reasoning.
"Giles, be careful," she whispered. Mentally, she prepared herself to chant a protection spell -- even if it meant losing control of magic once more.
"I'll tell you what happened," Wesley said bitterly. "My life has been a lie."
Giles remained quiet, staring at the man.
"Haven't you wondered why we are Watchers, Rupert? Don't you feel cheated of your true destiny?"
"Being a watcher is my destiny," Giles replied firmly.
"Don't lie, Rupert. If you had a choice, you wouldn't choose this destiny."
"No. I am not lying. It is my destiny."
"Oh, balderdash. This coming from the man who was called Ripper!"
Giles flinched. "That was in the past," he muttered.
"I'll tell you what's in your past, present and future, Rupert Giles. Your destiny is to be a tool for the Powers that Be! Just like the bleeding rest of us!" With that, Wesley threw his fist into the wall next to him. The wall crumbled apart like paper and then exploded in a sudden burst of green fire.
Wesley cried out at that, his knees buckling. He fell to his knees, clutching his head and moaning.
Now Willow! Willow told herself. Chanting quickly, she unfurled a barrier around Wesley. It built up astonishingly fast -- faster than she had ever done before. The effortlessness of it all scared her, but it served her now.
Wesley reached out to touch the barrier. When he found it there, his eyes glowed a furious green. "What have I done to you, Willow?" he asked, his voice sounding hurt. "Wait -- you're still sore that I suggested you be sacrificed for the greater good, aren't you?"
It took Willow a while to remember the horrific graduation day where so many were killed at Sunnydale High. She just shook her head in denial. "We're here to help you, Wesley. You're -- you're not well."
Giles came to her side to study the ex-Watcher. She could see the question in his eyes, the amazement. The last time they saw Wesley, he was being wheeled into the ambulance, not exactly Mr. Action Man after being taken out at the first stroke. Now he apparently had Slayer strength, skills, plus more. He had been annoying, yes, but then he was wholly dedicated to the Watcher's cause, with clear knowledge of what was acceptable and what was not when it came to dealing with the supernatural world. This was not acceptable. Worse, he was not making a whole lot of sense.
They say LA can do that to people.
"Maybe we should ask Angel what happened to him?" Willow suggested, her voice soft.
"Angel?" Wesley interrupted before Giles could formulate an answer. "I think you better not. I think he still has too much water in his system," he gave them a big smile before breaking into laughter. It was high and uncontrollable, the laughter of a madman.
Giles placed his hands in his pockets to prevent them from reaching for his glasses. "I think you're right, Willow. A visit to Angel Investigations seems appropriate right now."
Wesley rose to his feet, giving them a piercing stare with his glowing eyes. "It's rude to talk about people when they're around," he snapped. With that, he hurled a fist into the barrier-
"He shouldn't be able to-" Willow began.
- and it shattered, sending a backlash of energy that whipped into Willow. She fell to the ground, her head impacting the ground hard.
Quickly, Giles went to her side. Willow looked dazed but otherwise unhurt. Quickly, he shifted his eyes back to Wesley. The ex-watcher was walking towards them, but Giles saw something different this time. His eyes were now normal -- no longer glowing. His expression -- serious and ... sad?
"Giles?" Willow breathed, struggling to get up. He could sense her trying to build her energies to formulate a spell. He placed a restraining hand on her shoulder.
"It's alright Willow," he reassured her.
Was it really alright? As Wesley stopped two feet away from them, he prayed that he was right.
Wesley stared at them for a long time before replying. "I'm sorry," he said flatly. This voice, Giles recognised.
"Wesley. You must stop," he said softly. Stop what? Giles wasn't really sure, but he had a feeling that it was sound advice nevertheless.
Wesley gave him a sad smile. "I'm sick, Giles. And there's no cure," he said, averting his eyes from them. "And if you try to help me, you'll only get burnt."
"Sick? Perhaps you can tell me-"
Wesley gave him a low laugh. Giles feared the return of the instability that he saw earlier, but when their eyes met, he saw a calmness that was both reassuring and frightening.
"I have work to do. I must find the Mother. Only she can release me from this prison," he replied calmly. With that, he walked away, stepping over debris and ash.
"Wesley!" Giles called out. What was going on? He wanted to shout out, but somehow he knew that Wesley wouldn't answer that.
Wesley halted, gave him a sidelong glance and then a small nod. "Goodbye Giles." Then a look at Willow. "Good to see you again, Willow."
Then he was out of the shattered remains of the glass door, his figure slowly receding into the inky darkness.
"The Mother? Something tells me he's not referring to his mom," Willow murmured after Wesley disappeared from view.
"No. He is certainly not. Because I know what the Mother is. Every Watcher does," he said gravely. "It's time for a little tête-à-tête with a certain vampire with a soul."
"Connor!" Fred cried out, stepping towards him. But she was stopped by Angel, who held out a restraining arm. This puzzled Fred, but she backed away obediently nevertheless.
Connor sighed, hunched his shoulders and dug his hands into his jeans' pocket.
"So, what? Do you wanna kill me now and get it over with?" Connor said, his tone dripping with derision.
"You know I can never do that," Angel said flatly.
"He said you wouldn't," Connor agreed.
Angel narrowed his eyes. He? He wanted to ask. Somehow he knew who 'he' was.
"Why are you here?" Angel finally asked. "Certainly not to apologise."
Connor lifted his head in challenge. "Maybe a little."
"A little?" Angel's voice rose. "What you did to me ... was unbelievable."
"Angel? What do you mean?" Fred asked, her voice soft.
Connor merely smiled. "Nothing less than what you deserved."
Fred shifted her gaze to Connor, realisation dawning. "You...you were the reason why Angel was missing? What did you do to him?" she took a step forward, as if to manhandle him -- but Angel just placed a restraining hand on her shoulders.
"I gave him a bath," he mocked.
Angel felt his heart lurch with a mixture grief, hurt, anger, hatred -- all directed at the child he once held lovingly in his hands. The child that was taken away by his best friend and turned into -- this.
"Get out," he said. But it was a feeble attempt at best. He wanted so much, despite all that he had suffered at the hands of his son, to have him stay -- preferably in his old room. With posters of whatever demented rock band decorating his walls.
Connor looked at him in surprise. "You don't even want to know why I'm here?"
Angel didn't answer him.
"Look," Connor said this to Fred. "You can kill me later. Right now, we got to stop him. The fires that you see on television? It was his doing."
"Who?" Fred asked.
Connor gave Angel a bitter smile. "The man you nearly smothered to death. Dad."
Another stab in his heart. Guilt, anger, hatred, sadness.
For a moment he stared numbly at Connor while Fred peppered him with questions. His mind was too busy remembering the feeling of soft pillow beneath his hands, the feeble, grasping hands that tried to push him away --
"What are you talking about? Is it Wesley? Is Wesley alive?" her voice rose.
"Yeah," said his son from a distance. "But screwed up like you won't believe. After his meeting with Koskov, he went off the rails. I told him not to go, that it was a trap, but he wouldn't listen. And he fell in the trap that the creature set for him. Fell hard. Went mad." his voice became hard.
Connor and Wesley. Hanging out together? It seemed ironic -- but poetic at the same time. Connor and Wesley, side by side, fighting -- Wesley, usurping his position as father --
"What happened? Connor, how did he get this way?" Fred was insisting. Angel was still staring at a spot vaguely above Connor's head.
"Why don't you start at the beginning?" a new voice interrupted.
This time, Angel did focus -- to look at the face of Rupert Giles. The ex-Watcher stood at the doorway with his hands in his pockets, standing there as if it was the most natural place for him to be. He gave Connor a puzzled look and looked at Angel as if he was trying to grasp his relationship with Connor. Angel figured he probably strode in in time to hear Connor calling him Dad.
Willow Rosenberg appeared beside him then, her pale face puckered up with worry.
"Hi Angel," she said softly.
Angel didn't have the strength to return the greeting.
"Well now. Now that we're all together. Perhaps we could sit down and finally explain the mystery that is Wesley Wyndham-Pryce?" Giles said, removing his glasses to clean them.
"Who are you?" Connor growled, backing away. Earl backed away too -- only from Connor. He took a seat on the far end of the sofa, away from all the crazy humans.
"I can ask you the same question, but apparently we don't have time. If what you?re saying is true -- that Wesley is...mad, we must act quickly. Especially since he is an Elemental," he said, taking a seat beside Earl -- who hastily added space between him and the Watcher.
Everyone gave him blank glances except Willow.
"But that's like... the Phoenix or somethin'. They're not -- it's like a myth!" Willow exclaimed.
"No Willow. Legend. Actually, fact. Took me a while to put two and two together. But thanks to my studies at the Watcher's Academy under a very eccentric professor, I remember what Elementals are very well."
"What's an Elemental?" Angel found himself asking. Somewhere inside, interest was rekindling, and he was not exactly sure why. For a week now he had been in a dazed stupor; uninterested in anything except Oprah.
"Simply put, the personification of the elements. Fire, Water, Earth, Wind -- in Human form. This is an oversimplification. There's more to it than that. But right now. I need to know what happened. Start from the beginning," Giles was firm, his voice turning cold. "I especially want to know the interesting bit about Angel smothering Wesley nearly to death." He gave Angel a contemptuous look.
Angel looked away, stung despite himself. Giles never did trusted him. How could he when he -- no Angelus - killed Jenny Calendar? Or tortured him nearly to death? What he did to Wesley cemented Giles' view of him: cold-blooded murderer -- with or without the soul.
He felt so tired suddenly.
"He took away my son," Angel replied, tracing his fingers over the intricate carvings above the fireplace.
If he had turned then, he would've seen Connor's confused expression.
"If it's the beginning you want. The beginning you'll get," he muttered.
He took out picture #13 and stared at the funny face he made at the camera. What in the world was he doing sticking out his tongue at the camera? He did strange things back then. The Wesley now wouldn't even have the time, nor the inclination, to have that much fun.
He let #13 go and watch it float gently down.
"Hey, what are you doing there?"
Surprised, Wesley turned to see a security guard shining a light at him.
"Oh shit. A jumper. Look mister, whatever it is you're thinking about, it's not worth jumping okay?" the man took out his walkie talkie and muttered something into it.
Wesley merely shrugged and returned his gaze to the street below. Strange how small everything looked fifty stories up.
Picture #14 was a picture of his apartment. He turned it and saw a hastily written scrawl: 'Shit happens'
He chuckled and put it aside. He must've taken it when he returned from the hospital that day, alone and abandoned.
"Hey, er, look I'm going to get help, okay?"
"Great, great. You just stay there, 'k? Just wonderful," he heard the man mutter to himself. "Friday night and I get a jumper. I need another job."
Soon, he was alone with the stars, and the air.
Wesley breathed deeply and closed his eyes. At times like these, he could imagine that his life had turned out differently. His most persistent fantasy was of him as an English teacher in some indistinct high school, with a wife, kids and a Golden Retriever. The fantasy was comforting, too comforting, and sometimes he realised that he drifted away so much that he lost hours.
It frightened him how much he had changed. Looking at the photos did not ease the pain of his change. He wanted to be that silly old Wesley again, despite his ineffectiveness and idiocy. At least back then he had Cordelia and Angel.
When he opened his eyes, he realised that his cheeks were wet. Oh, this wouldn't do. Crying like a pansy-assed British guy -- like Gunn used to say.
But he made no effort to wipe them away.
<Look father. I'm embracing my destiny. The destiny you tried to prevent me from having by having me binded. I never did blame you for it. But I don't care now. I believe if I saw you now, I would burn you -- even if it hurt so much now.>
Koskov's spell was powerful. He remembered the sensation of needles in his lungs when he fell into the water enchanted with the Element of Water. With two warring Elements in his body, he was falling apart, dying a little at a time, day by day. His sanity was unravelling faster than before. Lucidity was a luxury, reserved for quiet moments like this.
In those moments where he lost himself, life went by on a strange, twisted logic. His reasoning was skewed to one focus: to purify. And during those hazy, mad times, he knew what he needed to do. What grand mission it was that he was given to do. But the moment he came to himself, it all faded away and everything that he thought was logical before, became insanity.
He wasn't sure if it was the Element controlling him or whether a part of him that was controlling the Element. Maybe there existed something in him, something dark and twisted, that relished the power the Element gave to him.
He wouldn't know.
He turned to see a man -- casually dressed with a cop's badge at his belt. Wesley merely gave him a blank look.
"My name's Roger," the man volunteered. He looked amiable, eager to please.
"I'm Wesley," he replied.
"Well," Roger hunkered down a safe distance away from him. "Care to tell me what this is all about?"
Wesley gave him a small smile. "I'm taking a bit of fresh air." It was the truth.
"Where are you from? Certainly not from around here."
Another small smile. "My family moved a lot. But my ancestral home is in Wales."
"It's at Golaghun Manor."
Roger lifted his eyebrows, clearly impressed.
"Passed down for six generations." Wesley returned his gaze to the LA skyline. "I'm the seventh."
"Look, I'm here to help you," Roger said after a while. "I know things must be hard for you."
"You have no idea how hard, Roger," Wesley murmured.
"This is not worth it."
"It is," Wesley nodded.
"Tell me what happened," Roger said.
"My best friend tried to kill me. I had a slit throat and he covered my face with a pillow and smothered me. Then my friends abandoned me." Wesley told him casually. His voice sounded robotic to his ears. "Funny, I don't seem to feel anything right now."
That made the cop a little mad somehow. "Did they nab him?"
Roger caught sight of the pile of photos by his side.
"And that is?"
"Memories to throw," he volunteered.
"Ah. Maybe you can show me the pictures? Tell me something about them."
"What part of 'memories to throw' didn't you understand?"
"Look. I'm going to cut to the chase here. Jumping, throwing your life away isn't worth it."
Wesley returned his gaze to Roger and tilted his head. "What makes you think I'm here to jump?"
Roger lifted his eyebrows -- took in the sight of him perched on the precarious ledge of the building -- and then said: "You telling me you're just taking a breath of fresh air?"
"That's partly the truth."
"And the other part?"
Suddenly, Wesley's hand shot out to grasp Roger's in a vise-like grip. The man gasped, his eyes became round with alarm as he unsuccessfully tried to pull his hand away.
"I was waiting here for you. Roger," Wesley smiled, his eyes glinting in the dim moonlight.
"Henry! Henry, the guy's nuts!" Roger called out, scrabbling backwards.
Wesley sensed people behind Roger running towards them. He narrowed his eyes and pulled Roger towards him. "You may fool them, but you do not fool me," Wesley hissed. The Element of Fire roared into being -- but with a sickening lurch, it retreated. It made Wesley dizzy, and he felt the warm trickle of blood trailing from his nose.
"Let me go you sick f-"
"Where is she?"
"Let me go!"
"Roger! Oh shit! He's got a grip on him!" Running footsteps. "No hold up! HE could jump!"
"Where is she?!"
"Look, I don't know what you're talking-"
The Element of Fire struggled to come forth and for a while it succeeded, appearing in Wesley's eyes. Wesley disappeared -- it was the Element now.
As his eyes began to glow, Roger's eyes widened more and more. He grimaced -- then his grimace slowly curved into a sly smile.
Their eyes met, and there was no more pretence.
The Element turned. It saw the one called Henry reaching with a hand towards the Beast, and the Element knew that the Beast would reach out for that hand only to pull the human to his death. Just for spite, just like what they were born to do. The Element couldn't care less about the loss of human life. But his persona, the one called Wesley, cared. So it did what Wesley would want. He pulled the Beast away from Henry.
"Oh my god! Roger!!" Henry screamed.
They fell, but the Element/Wesley clasped the body of the Beast to him, making sure that it wouldn't flee. He could only stare at Henry's anguished face as they fell slowly fifty stories down, wondering: Why does one weep for the Beast?
Wesley closed his eyes as the ground came to meet them.
"I see," said Giles - his biggest understatement yet. Even Willow had to take a seat to process everything that Angel, and then Connor told them.
Angel had a son? With his sire Darla? Cordelia was a half-demon and was now missing? Wesley stole the baby, and Holtz, a man centuries dead and resurrected by a demon, stole it from Wesley who in turn got his throat slit by Justine, a Holtz minion. And then Holtz took Connor into a hell dimension where the boy grew up into a moody 18-year-old. After which he returned to the world he was born in -- two weeks after he was stolen.
"Did anyone keep a timeline?" Willow asked no one in particular.
Connor's story was at least, more 'down to earth' so to speak. Apparently Wesley decided to save a businessman's two daughters from a powerful sorcerer/vampire. It backfired badly because Wesley fell into Koskov's trap.
"One moment we were in the warehouse facing Koskov and the twin daughters, the next moment the floor fell apart and we were swimming." Connor's eyes darkened at the memory. "I swam out easily enough, but Wesley ..."
A Week Ago
Wesley broke the surface of the water again, his breath coming in desperate gasps. Connor caught sight of frightened blue eyes before they sank beneath the clear water.
Connor didn't understand what was wrong. The pool was shallow -- barely six feet deep -- it should be an easy swim -- but Wesley acted as if he was drowning in an ocean.
"Wesley! Swim up!" he yelled.
"Don't bother young man," drawled the vampire, coming towards him without a fear in his old bones. "The Element of Water and the Element of Fire are fighting for control over his body. I think it's a little painful for him to bother with your calls."
Ignoring Koskov, Connor dove into the pool and easily got hold of Wesley. When he finally pulled the ex-Watcher out of the pool, Wesley could only lie on his side, gasping and coughing. Connor was shocked to see blood flowing freely from his nose and from the corner of his lips.
"Wesley..." he whispered, touching him tentatively. At his touch, Wesley shivered, pulling his knees to his chest. His eyes rolled back until only the whites of his eyes showed. To his horror, Connor saw Wesley's eyes turning red as the capillaries in his eyes burst.
"What did you do to him?" Connor hissed. But he did not get an answer. Instead, Koskov punched him.
Startled, Connor fell back hard. When his vision cleared, two identical blonde girls were looking down at him. This must be the man's daughters. The daughters that Wesley went to so much trouble for.
"Not so brave now, are you?" Koskov mocked. He appeared beside the girls stroking their long blonde hair with his hands.
Koskov whirled to see Swanson running towards them recklessly, his eyes fixed only on his daughters.
"Hmm. I nearly forgot the man," Koskov murmured.
Koskov only watched as Swanson embraced his daughters, who only stood strangely still.
Connor took that moment to stand up. It was then that he realised what had happened to the girls.
Quickly, ignoring Koskov, he lunged towards Swanson and separated him from them. He pulled Swanson a safe distance away, but he made it difficult, struggling and protesting all the way.
"Shut up!" he finally yelled, his eyes still on Koskov and the twin girls. "They're not your daughters anymore!"
"What are you talking about?" Swanson said, his voice rising to a desperate plea. He was sweating profusely, his whole body trembling. "They're there, they're there!"
One of the girls took a step forward and smiled at Swanson. "Daddy. You took a long time to come. I was so hungry. And scared," she said. She looked confused and scared.
"Oh Chloe, I tried, I --"
And ridges formed on Chloe's forehead as she smiled her fang-filled smile. "But I'm not now," Chloe sang, her childish voice so out of place with the monster they saw before him. "I'm happy now. But I'm still hungry. And Shirley wasn't enough."
Connor shot a look towards the other girl. He finally took in her unhealthy appearance, the dark circles under her eyes and the blankness in them. She was still alive. Somehow Koskov kept her alive. Enraged, he met Koskov's eyes.
"What can I say. I like the romantic notion of a pair of twins -- separated by the wide gulf of immortality. One, an evil beauty, kissed by eternity-"
Chloe smiled, her face still hideous.
"-the other," he murmured, running his hands down Shirley's long hair, "-condemned to rot by her sister's hands--"
"NO!!" Swanson screamed in anguish, falling to his knees. "No, no, no, no..." he whimpered, covering his face with shaky hands.
Koskov smiled at Connor. "I know what you're thinking now. You're thinking that you can take me. That because you have the strength of a Slayer, you can dust me. And I'm all alone here."
Connor merely glowered.
"But I'm not just a vampire. I-" Suddenly, his expression changed to one of surprise. His mouth curved into a surprised 'O' and he disappeared into a cloud of dust.
"But you talk too much," said Wesley, holding a stake in his hands.
Connor smiled at Wesley gladly - even though the man still looked a mess. Blood still flowed from his nose, and his eyes were still blood-red, the pupils barely visible.
"Chloe-" Swanson reached for his daughter, who merely growled at him. She backed away from her father and cast Wesley a furtive glance.
Connor held the man back, then asked Wesley: "What are we going to do with her?"
Swanson sat back on his heels, staring vacantly at his vampire daughter. Shirley was still at the same spot she was beside Koskov, her empty expression unchanged. Now that he could see Shirley up close, he could see raw bite marks on her neck -- they were partially hidden by her long hair. Connor felt a twinge of pain at the sight of the girl. He could not imagine the pain she had been going through the past few weeks, witnessing her sister's death and her awakening ... he even felt guilty when he remembered telling Wesley to not go to their rescue -- but he was used to pain, having lived in a hell dimension. Sometimes, one has to go through pain for the bigger picture.
When the man did not respond, Connor frowned and asked, "Wesley?"
"Why must everyone look at me for answers?" Wesley murmured, his voice taking on an annoyed tone. "They never appreciate me for my efforts, you know," he said, his voice low with sadness. "It's always, 'Wesley what do you know?' or 'Wesley, we need your help'."
Wesley's bloody eyes moistened and a bloody tear trickled down his cheek. "They even asked for my help after they told me never to come back. But they could come to me. Just don't come to us, we'll come to you!" he sang, then laughed.
"What are you talking about?"
"I'm talking about wasting time, that's what," he said. Then he began humming a tune, twirling the stake in his hand. "Wasting, wasting ..."
Oh great, thought Connor. He's having a crazy episode. Wesley had been warning him about this happening.
"Look," Connor went to Wesley's side, "we have to get these people out of here."
They stared at each other. Connor felt the seconds tick by as Wesley weighed the decision he would've usually made in a snap.
"No," Wesley said playfully. With that, he tapped Connor's chest with a finger.
Connor did not expect the strength behind that simple tap. He found himself flying into the pool, crashing through the surface painfully. He swam up quickly, sputtering his surprise. By the time he came up, Wesley was gone, the only mark of his presence the fading laughter from a distance.
"When I saw what he did on TV later, I knew that he had gone over the edge. Big time," Connor said as he finished the story.
"What happened to the girl?"
All heads turned to Earl, who twitched at the scrutiny. "Hey I'm a demon, doesn't mean I don't have a heart," he protested.
"I dusted her," Connor said after a beat. "Swanson..." he sighed. "...begged me not to do it, so I had to lock him up in a closet with Shirley and ... I dusted her," he shrugged. "It had to be done, you know."
"Yeah, I know how that feels," said Gunn from the doorway. "What's this? Some kinda white hat gathering?"
"He's dangerous sane. Now that he's insane ..." Giles sighed, then cast Gunn a distracted glance. "Hello," he murmured.
"What's this guy?" Gunn muttered, looking at Giles suspiciously. He turned to Angel for answers.
"Do you think we should?" Willow asked, ignoring Gunn's presence. Usually she wouldn't, but she was too rattled by everything that she had heard. Dealing with another apocalypse wasn't her idea of 'recovery time'.
Giles lifted a questioning eyebrow.
"Stop him I mean," Willow clarified.
Now it was her turn to be scrutinised. Willow nervously shifted in her seat but went on bravely. "I-I mean, from what I read -- and it's not that I'm like an expert on it or anything; I was just curious, you know like, that time I was reading the Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and I was at the letter E -- what I mean is, I think they're like some kinda thing that is there. You know, they're not exactly bad guys."
"And you have that on record?" Gunn demanded.
"Uh-huh. Whystone's Witchcraft Compendium, and uh, hi," she said, giving him a sheepish smile and a wave.
"What does a bunch of scholar folk know anyway?" Gunn demanded, ignoring her friendly overture.
Giles cleared his throat, looking offended.
"Charles," Fred chided.
"I'm not sayin' sorry, not after what I saw," Gunn said, the set of his jaw firm. "Wesley -- we gotta kill him, that's what I say."
"Charles, stop it. We're going to help him, aren't we Angel?" Fred asked, looking hopefully at the vampire.
Angel merely met her eyes without a word.
"Oh, like how he helped us when he stole Connor?"
"Let it rest already, big guy," Earl said, snorting.
Again, all eyes rested on Earl.
Earl shrugged uncomfortably, giving Willow a sheepish look. "I mean, I thought good guys forgive and everything. Sooorry if I'm wrong," he drawled.
"What did you see?" Angel asked quietly, ignoring Earl's words.
"Can't describe it. You gotta see it," at that, Gunn walked to the door, looking back just once to make sure Angel followed.
At the Offices of Wolfram & Hart
"I see. Our client is very specific about this. Hmm ... are you sure? Well, track him down, damnit! That's why we sacrificed two men for that spell!"
Lilah replaced the phone with a heavy sigh. She flicked her carefully coiffed hair irritably with a hand and tried her best to not look rattled. "Sorcerers. The excuses they give ..." she gave the client a perfect smile. "But don't worry, everything is going according to plan. The wheels are moving as we speak and the Elemental ... well, let's just say we have the work done for us."
The client smiled.
"Wesley couldn't have done this," Fred said quietly.
There were too many people in the charred apartment. Somehow, the police had left, leaving the crime scene full of yellow tape criss-crossing the small place. Now they were clumsily barging into a crime scene. Giles and Willow kept their distance from the group, observing quietly.
It was an apartment in the low-end area of LA. The area was full of high rise apartments, catered to the lower middle class. Blue-collared folks; people with families... this area was full of families.
Angel's boot crunched on something. He carefully removed a boot. It was a charred Barbie Doll. A single blue eye, strangely untouched by the terrible fire, stared up at him.
"This is not the only thing he did, Fred," Gunn said stoicly. He moved ahead to the master bedroom, located at the far right. He stood at the door, jaw working as he stared inside.
"Figured that the cops got spooked by what they saw and left in a big hurry. Probably to hug their wife and kids back home. I would too," he met Fred's eyes meaningfully.
Angel stopped at the doorway and stared. Just two seconds later he was walking out, walking past Giles, Willow, Fred and Gunn.
"Angel? What?" Fred stared after the retreating figure in confusion. Hesitantly, she approached the room -- and saw.
Her eyes teared and she covered her mouth with a trembling hand to keep herself from screaming - and throwing up.
"Oh my God," Willow whispered behind her.
The family had retreated into the bedroom, desperate to escape the threat that invaded their little apartment. The mother had held her baby to her chest in a vain attempt to protect it while the father stood before her and his two children -- a boy and a girl who cowered behind his legs -- bravely facing the monster that did this to them.
His bravery, however, did not disguise the agony in his face from being burnt to death. The children were the same, their eyes wide open in terror, their mouths twisted in agony. Even the baby, so young and uncomprehending, had howled in silent pain.
Now, all that was left of them was ash. It had been so hot that the ash had fused, turning into some kind of glassy rock. Some bits of flesh, however, survived the inferno -- the mother's face, turned into her baby's was still raw and black. A wisp of her hair fluttered in the slight breeze from the blasted windows.
"He's got to die," Gunn said quietly. "Because he's mad with power or some shit. And he doesn't care anymore."
Fred regained her composure and removed her hand from her mouth. An iciness crept into her heart where it once held regret and guilt for her former friend.
"Yeah. We've got to kill him," she said, her voice low.
The doorbell to the store rang noisily and Giles flinched involuntarily.
"Hello?" he began. The musty volumes in the shop muffled his voice and didn't carry far.
"You sure he lives here?" Angel demanded.
"Well, musty books. Old Victorian furniture. Yup. Watcher marks," Willow said, nodding. Giles gave her a look.
"I've been observing," Willow answered seriously.
Before he could say something, an elderly man appeared from the opened doorway at the back of the shop. Giles found himself unconsciously straightening up and nervously placed his hands to his back. Willow saw all this and covered her smile.
"Ah, ah ... Professor Mason?" Giles asked.
Percy Mason squinted and then scrambled for his glasses, which hung around his neck. Giles could see that the lenses were much thicker than they were before -- in his days teaching at the Academy.
Mason's eyes widened in surprise when he finally realised who it was.
"Rupert Giles? From Demon Anatomy?"
"Well, um, yes," Giles found himself shuffling his feet. He wasn't exactly one of Mason's star students in the class.
"Yes, yes," Mason murmured. "You planted the heart of a Skilosh demon in the Academy lunch hall. They called me in the middle of the night because they thought it was the heart of a Baynot demon. Thought it was sprouting newborn."
Willow eyed him as discreetly as she could, which wasn't much.
"And then on your second year you sprung two hell beasts loose from their underground cages. Frightened Mrs. Potts' knickers off. And got detention 'til the next year. Hmm ..." he removed his glasses and cleaned them with the end of his shirt.
"Hmm," Willow murmured amusedly at the familiar gesture.
Giles cleared his throat and tried not to turn a shade of red. Judging from Angel's forced expression, he wasn't succeeding. "Well, um, yes, you, uh, still remember that."
"Yes, yes. Of course. One does not forget the students that stand out. Especially one called the 'Terrible One' by the faculty," he drawled, shuffling to his desk. "Now, I'm afraid you caught me at my worst. Doing some research you see, lots of developments the last few days."
"Yes," Giles piped up, perhaps a little too cheerily. "And I think we could help you with that."
Mason lifted a bushy white brow. Giles found himself blanching, an old habit of his from Academy days when confronted with one of Mason's withering glares.
"Help me, can you?"
"The Elemental," Angel interrupted. "We know who it is."
Mason couldn't hide his surprise this time. "Do you?"
Giles gave Angel a discreet look, hoping that he would rein his impatience just a while. Mason did not like to be rushed into anything. "Sir, you're the expert on Elementals. We need to know everything you know about it, presumptuous as it sounds."
"And why do you need this encyclopaedic knowledge, Rupert?" Mason queried, his voice low with sarcasm.
"Because ... because we need to find a way to stop it," Giles answered lamely, partly because he knew what Mason's reaction would be and partly because he knew what Mason would say.
"Rupert! You weren't paying attention, were you? Nothing can stop an Elemental! They are on Earth at their appointed time for a reason, and they don't go anywhere until they accomplish it! Stop an Elemental indeed."
Angel growled low in his throat and went to Mason's desk, placing his hands on the book Mason tried to lift up. Surprised, Mason met Angel's eyes.
"You're a vampire," he murmured, a tinge of surprise in his tone. He sent Giles a curious look.
"We can explain this later, and it's a long story, sir," Giles said. However, before he could explain further, Angel barrelled ahead.
"Look. The Elemental is killing people. Innocent civilians. So far he has killed ten people already. I don't know about you, but that isn't a noble reason for it to be on Earth!"
Mason sent Angel his infamous withering glare. From the look of it, however, Angel was not even aware that the look was withering. "You know very little about Elementals, vampire. How do you know they were innocent?"
"Children, Mason. He killed three children! An entire family!" Angel hissed.
This quietened Mason, who sighed heavily. He gestured impatiently, "Sit, sit, all of you," he muttered.
They did, dragging chairs from all corners of the shop to form a line before Mason's ancient oak table in the middle of the store.
"It doesn't surprise me, the violence. But children ... ah, children dying. That shocks me all the time," he gave Giles a sad look. "This is a fire elemental. A green fire elemental. Usually it means terrible trouble."
Mason lifted a thick, dusty volume from his right on the table and opened it, thumbing the pages till he found the right spot.
Willow leaned forward and saw a page full of arcane symbols, none of which she could recognise except for the symbols of fire, water, earth and wind -- trademark Wicca symbols.
Mason pointed to the fire symbol. "Fire elementals. The strongest embodiment of them all. Unfortunately, the most unstable. Giles, I hope you explained to these two folk what Elementals are?"
"Yes ... uh, yes, I did."
"Good. Saved me some time. Good boy."
Willow smirked. Not exactly a good time to do so, but always amusing to see Giles cowering before a former schoolmaster.
"When the Element of Green Fire -- a fancy way of saying mystical fire really -- takes human form and personality, it is so powerful that it usually, no always, drives its human counterpart insane. The human mind just cannot take such vast amounts of power."
"Why did it come?" Angel butted in.
Giles sighed. Mason hated to be interrupted. Especially when he was 'teaching'.
Mason closed the book with a bang, sending clouds of dust into Angel's face. Thankfully, the vampire didn't have to breathe, so his lungs were spared. Not so Giles' or Willow's.
Eyes smarting, Giles gave Mason a placating smile. "Well, didn't you once say that the Elementals have specific purpose according to what element they represent?"
Mason smiled, pleased. "Very good. You were paying attention -- at least a little bit. Good to see that your brain was not dedicated to the hell you raised then."
Giles cleared his throat and prayed that he was not blushing.
Mason reached for another book, opened it and got the right page. This time the words were in English. Willow could read it easily.
"Water ... to nurture. Air ... to guide. Earth ... to build. Fire ... to purify," she read.
"So, to answer your question, vampire. The Fire elemental appeared now to purify something. To cleanse. Green fire usually signifies the cleansing of mystical forces. Simply put, it's here to get rid of mystical forces," he answered.
"Good or evil?" Angel asked, butting in again.
Mason did not seem to mind this time. "Good or evil?" he laughed. "My, my. That's oversimplifying it. How do you define good and evil? Ayas was the last known Green Fire elemental. She wiped out hundreds of thousands of people in the Aztec civilisation. Whole cities, in fact. We don't know why she did it, but Watcher researchers claim that the cities that she wiped out experimented with gateways to Hell dimensions -- they wanted to bring Hell on Earth, so to speak. Now tell me, is she evil or good? Nothing is that simple, vampire. How about Merlin, an Elemental of Air? Sole purpose was to guide. Clearly good you say? How about the fact that he also orchestrated the downfall of Arthur's father -- including his death? Sorry, wasn't included in the fairytales, was it? The answer is: nobody knows what their purposes are. We don't even know who sends them. We only know they are here to restore balance in whatever way they can and stopping them would be folly. You hear?"
Angel snarled and got up. "This is useless," he hissed.
"Angel," Giles said testily.
"He's not going to help us. He's seeing the Elemental through a scholar's eyes. Not through our eyes. He didn't see the bodies!" he snapped.
"You said you know who the Elemental is?" Mason interrupted suddenly.
Giles returned his attention to the aged Watcher. "So do you, sir. In fact, I believe he came to you a few days ago, regarding the Mother."
Mason's eyes widened. "Oh my. Wesley Wyndham-Pryce."
Mason seemed to loosen a little after the revelation of the Elemental's identity. To the point of bringing them pots of tea and a plate of biscuits.
"Well ... he was rather preoccupied, but when it came to doing his research he zeroed in as usual. Sharp student, he was. Giles, how many?"
Giles blinked and saw that Mason was holding a cup full of sugar cubes. "Um, two, thank you."
Giles could see that Angel was about to refuse the tea, so he sent him a warning look which Angel caught. Reluctantly, the vampire took the teacup.
"Sorry, ran out of blood," Mason said dryly. Angel gave him a very dry smile.
After giving Willow her tea, he sat down on an armchair, looking exhausted. "Well, you're partially right about him coming to me. But not about the Mother," he murmured, stirring his tea. After taking a sip, he continued: "He came to me months ago, during the summer."
"I see," Giles murmured, not sure what he was getting at.
"But it makes sense now, don't you see?" Mason said, suddenly animated. "He kept going on about destiny and how one has to embrace it, and how prophecies are meant to be fulfilled, not broken. Poor old chap, I wondered what happened to him to drive him to such a fix. He was dishevelled, looked as if he barely slept, had a nasty scar right about here-" Mason pointed to his neck "- and I thought I should help him, desperate as he was."
"The truth was he came to me about Binding spells."
"Binding spells?" Willow asked, surprised. "But ... but isn't that used on bad ... witches?" her voice trailed off as she shared a look with Giles. It was her greatest fear, to be cut off from the source of magic. It either meant a slow, painful death, or a quick, painful death. Either way, she would end up six feet under. After what she did to Warren and her efforts to end the world, she thought she was heading there. Instead ... she got mercy. She still did not understand why.
"I thought he wanted to use it on one, honestly. But he wanted to break the spell. To which point I asked, 'Whatever for?'"
Two Months Ago
"Because sometimes it wasn't cast for the right reason," Wesley answered, his voice low.
"I see," Mason murmured, then sighed. "Unless you're more specific, I'm not going to help you, Wesley. You know the Watcher's Code."
Wesley's eyes hardened, but he did not volunteer anything.
"Good then. See you next time," he got up to leave, but was stopped by Wesley who caught his hand.
"Please ..." he looked away, then reluctantly met his eyes again. "It's for me."
If someone told him that the Hellmouth had disappeared from Sunnydale, he wouldn't be as shocked as he was now. "What? Binding spells are for --"
"Users of magic. To cut them off from the source of magic," Wesley answered, his tone robotic.
"But I knew you. You spent 12 years at the Watcher's Academy. Straight-laced, even made it to Head Boy. Always managed to get your spells wrong in Alberta's Basic Magic. Not a drop of magical talent in you."
The ex-Watcher smiled at the memory. For a moment, he forgot his troubles and remembered only the carefree days of his time at the Watcher's Academy, where all he had to do was excel at his studies. "I was Bound when I was a child," he finally explained.
This horrified Mason further. A Binding spell on one so young ... it should've killed him! He sat down with a thump in his armchair. "Why?" he could only ask, horrified at the thought of young Wesley suffering so much pain at a young age.
Wesley gave him a bitter smile. "My father thought he could save me. He wanted me to be a Watcher. For a while ... I thought he did save me."
"There must be a reason ..." Mason trailed off. No. Binding spells are only reserved for criminal witches or warlocks. They are not for children.
"If I don't remove this Binding spell, I will die," Wesley gave Mason a steely glare. "I can feel it moving inside of me again. Waiting to be let out. One day, it won't bother waiting and I will be consumed."
"Wesley. I hate to say this. Your father - unscrupulous as his methods are to the Council -- is a logical man. He would not have done this if there was a good reason. Do you know what he was trying to cut off from you?"
"My destiny," Wesley replied dryly.
"After that, he wasn't very cooperative. To tell you the truth, he wasn't very logical or ... sane. In the end, I could only refer him to a disreputable warlock who has some knowledge of breaking binding spells and wished him luck. Wesley was not pleased, but he said that he understood. Good Lord, Rupert. What happened to the man? I didn't recognise him anymore."
Giles sighed, wondering the same thing. He was not close to Wesley -- for obvious reasons -- but during the time they spent apart, he in Sunnydale and England, Wesley in LA, they managed to form a kind of working relationship, backing each other up on research. Over time, old animosities began to erode a little. He had even thought of paying Wesley a visit with Willow before leaving for Sunnydale.
"Do you know why he's looking for The Mother?"
"The Mother is sought after by everyone and everything, Giles. It's a source of incredible power, imbibing its user with godlike abilities. Your guess is as --"
"He wants to use it to be more powerful," Angel surmised.
"He said The Mother would release him from his prison," Giles murmured, light dawning. "Would he-"
"-try to shuck off his mortal body and become something more?" Mason finished for Giles.
"Oh great, a more powerful Elemental. That sounds ..." Willow trailed off when she saw how grave Giles looked. "Um. Is the Mother listed in the Yellow Pages by any chance?"
"Well, denizens of the deep and nasty should know about its whereabouts. But you can't get to it. Word is, it's being guarded by powerful demons and in a place you won't expect," Mason gave Giles a playful smile.
"Sunnydale. Right. Look, is the package coming here or not? What? Like I have the time to go to Ohio. Don't tell me it's some top secret thingy, because my life is top secret and I don't tell people to come to Sunnydale to get packages. Hello? Hel--" Buffy groaned and put the phone down. "Next time, remind me to not call Riley for favours," she muttered, plonking herself down on the sofa.
"So. Are you still up for mall-shopping?" Dawn asked hopefully, rocking on her heels.
Buffy looked at her sister guiltily. "Sorry. Sun's down."
"Vampire slayin' time," piped Xander as he emerged from the kitchen. "So, Slayer friend of mine, is it going to be Ben & Jerry's or 'I'm-going-to-get-dusty' time?"
"You know what my answer is, Xander," Buffy said, sighing, as she opened the weapons chest and took out a stake.
"It's always Mr Pointy," Dawn complained.
"Not always, Dawnie," Buffy said, giving her a meaningful smile -- which Dawn, thankfully returned, Buffy reflected. "But Megan Ryes was a friend of mine and I don't want her running around vamping people. Or worse, joining Harmony and forming a gang," she said shuddering.
"The vampire ex-cheerleaders coalition," Xander proposed.
"Funny. I'm like so laughing out loud now," Buffy said as she put on her coat and headed out.
After a moment, Dawn called out from the stairs.
"Xander, I think I'll pass the mall. But, could you do something for me?" Dawn smiled sweetly.
"Women and their need for ice-cream. I just don't get it," Xander complained to himself as he stood in line.
"Yeah, tell me about it," chimed a guy at the back. Xander grimaced. Didn't think he was that loud.
He tapped the clear top of the ice-cream display and was in the middle of contemplating the all-important question: Is chocolate more soothing or vanilla? When he saw someone walk past the shop window.
"What in the Robin-Batman ex-demon parade is he doing here?" Xander said out loud. Forgetting the ice-cream, he rushed out and was in time to stand in front of the man.
The man looked startled, but not as startled as Xander. The guy was like -- different. Stubble and he had this 'roguish' look going about him that worked really well. And was that a ...
His gaze zoomed to the angry-looking scar at his neck. "Musta hurt," he said out loud.
"Xander," said Wesley. The ex-Watcher gave him a delighted smile and asked, his eyes curiously glassy, "How's Buffy?"
Willow and Giles were seated at a table in Percy Mason's dusty library, a circle of books around them. Willow was hooked on the 'net via a laptop while Giles was scribbling furiously on a notebook. Occasionally he stopped and referred to one of the heavy leather tomes before returning to more scribbling. Fred assisted them by leafing through some of the books, but was visibly overwhelmed by what they were reading. After a while, she just got up and made coffee.
"It's like ancient Mesopotamian or something," Fred said to Angel as she handed a cup of coffee to Giles.
"It's an extinct demonic language, actually. Written by one of their great sorcerers," Giles replied distractedly.
Willow sat up straighter, delight on her face. "Found something," she said happily to Giles.
Angel and Fred left their corners to see what she had on the screen.
"It says here that the Elements that are opposed to each other will fight for domination until both are destroyed," Willow frowned at that. "Doesn't sound like a happy ending."
"Fire with Water, Wind with Earth. Hmm ...," Giles squinted. "Meaning, if two were to meet-"
"Bad things will happen?" Fred volunteered.
"Quite right," he agreed.
"So sorcerers throughout the ages have theorised that Elementals could be stopped by opposing Elementals, but since only one seems to appear every age, that plan is bunk," Willow said wryly.
"They're not good guys. Or from The Powers That Be," Fred sounded as if she was trying to convince herself. "I mean why try stop them if they're on the side of good?" Fred asked.
"I think that's a simplistic theorisation," Giles said at that.
Willow looked at the chastened Fred uncomfortably and tried to lighten the mood by saying chirpily. "Yes, people have tried to stop them -- only no one ever succeeded," Willow said with a wince. "Read some more stuff -- the only recorded attempt to stop an Elemental by a group of wizards ended in disaster."
"What happened?" Fred wondered out loud. Willow just showed her the image on her computer.
"Oh. They got buried alive. How ... nice," Fred winced.
"By the Elemental of Earth. But these wizards were up to no good in the first place. They wanted to destroy the Elemental of Earth because well, the Elemental was trying to stop them from unearthing an ancient Nordic temple."
"So, what are you saying? That Wesley has a good reason for burning up people?" Angel's voice came suddenly.
Willow met Angel's eyes reluctantly while Giles sighed, took off his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose.
"We're saying that no one has stopped an Elemental yet. And we're not sure if we can," he said quietly. "We're not even sure what exactly an Elemental is, whether Wesley is a helpless host to this force or a user of this force! So we can't just simply-" his voice rose.
"I can't believe you're on his side, especially after what you saw," Gunn said accusingly as he walked into the room.
Giles frowned. "Appearances are always deceiving," he said gruffly.
"And I say we're wastin' time talking about it," Gunn snapped. "What if he already has this Mother thing?"
"And you've not explained what The Mother is," Angel added, crossing his arms and leaning against a wall of books.
Giles sighed and nodded tiredly. "Legend has it that a powerful demon poured her essence into a jewel in order to grant her son great power. The son used the jewel to rid his enemies and rule the world. Over the centuries, after the demons left, it was used to grant its user whatever their hearts desire -- and over the years, it has traded many hands, but the desire of humanity has remained the same. Power."
"So this is like a magic lamp? Except, no genie?"
"Well, Mr. Gunn, to put it quite succinctly, yes."
"How come if this thing's so powerful no one has tried to steal it yet?" Gunn demanded.
"Oh they have. Some succeeded. Like the First Emperor of China before he lost it to a peasant. That peasant rose to form an empire -- but unfortunately, his efforts at world domination were stopped when another peasant stole the jewel from him," Giles smiled a small, bitter smile. "Always the same purpose. Power. Over time, The Mother became lost. The Watcher's Council back then began to track it down and discovered it in the hands of Luloth demons."
Angel groaned, rubbing his forehead.
"What?" Fred wondered. "They're fierce and scary?"
"Try territorial and selfish," Angel volunteered. "They're also amazingly annoying."
"Yes, rather. Their sole purpose in life is to hoard as much rare treasures as they can. Fortunately, they are also incredibly ruthless when anyone tries to steal their treasure, so no one in their right mind has tried. Yet. The Council, and the entire demon population, has been keeping an eye on them as they shifted their lair around the world. But recently, they've relocated. The Professor is looking it up now."
"So, we got to stop Wesley from gettin' it and beat him to it!" Gunn said out loud. "What other reason does he have than to get powerful?"
Giles sighed heavily and slammed his fist on the table. That startled Willow so much that she nearly dropped the mug she was holding. "Something isn't right here!" Giles barked. "We need more time! We need to find out more!"
"And what? Wait until something happens to confirm what we've known all along? That Wesley's destroying more people as we speak? Who knows what the hell Wesley's been up to? Maybe he's destroying half of LA right now," Angel snapped.
"I'm back," Connor announced suddenly.
Startled, Angel looked at his son and saw that he was carrying a stack of leather bound books. Unlike the books on the table, they looked new.
"I sent Connor to get Wesley's journals. Hopefully we'll find a clue to what he's trying to do," Giles said.
"You sent my son?" Angel's voice was dark. Then he shook off his melancholy and demanded, "We don't need these journals to know what's Wesley up to. We don't need to know his reasons -- we need to stop him. Find a way to stop him instead. That's better research!" Angel's voice rose.
Giles looked at Angel sharply. "Perhaps your time would be better spent tracking down Wesley than berating me about what I should do. If you want a solution, you'll let me do what I do best."
Angel stared daggers into Giles eyes then backed away angrily. Without a word, he left the room. Gunn sighed and followed him soon after. Connor, in a fit of annoyance, got out as well -- but most probably back on the streets away from his father.
"I'm sorry," Fred said quietly when they were finally gone. She gave Willow a sad smile. "After what happened with Connor, Angel's just ... a little mad at Wesley," she sighed.
"A little? I thought he wantwd to eat him. Figuratively of course," Willow said. Then she paused before saying, "I seem to think that you guys are mad at him too."
Fred shrugged, as if that gesture could play down the animosity they felt for the former Watcher. "I ... I was at first. Everything was perfect before ..." she gave Willow a self-conscious look. "Now I just want the killing to stop. So does Angel."
"Kill first, ask questions later. A terrible plan no matter the time," Giles sighed at that. "I know the urgency ... but my gut feeling tells me that there's more to this than meets the eye."
"Do you really think Wesley can be saved?" Fred asked suddenly.
Giles looked at her mutely.
Fred sat heavily on the dusty sofa beside Giles. "I want to save him ... but after seeing what he did to the family -- I don't think the Wesley I knew is in there anymore. He's dangerous."
Giles kept quiet.
"What if it was your family? Your lover that was killed?"
Willow looked up sharply. That one hit too close to the heart. Giles' lips thinned. Willow could imagine Giles remembering Jenny Calendar.
"We can't give him more chances to do that. You two research more. I'll look for ways to stop him. Just in case. Hopefully we don't have to use it." Fred said softly and moved away.
Giles and Willow could only look at each other. Mutely, Willow took one of Wesley's journals.
"I'll look through his journals. You can look up other things ... like weapons against Elementals," she said softly.
Giles nodded and walked to a nearby shelf. He stopped midway and looked reluctantly at the stack of journals on the table.
"So what brings you to Sunnydale?"
Wesley looked at Xander Harris tiredly and forced a smile. They were walking down a quiet tree-lined street towards the Summers house. Wesley did not really want to talk about the real reason why he was here. He was experiencing a rare moment of lucidity, and he wanted to enjoy it as long as he could.
"I'm looking for something," he finally said, keeping his voice as neutral as possible.
"Really? Maybe I can help," Xander offered. "Unless it's something slimy and ugly. Then, no. I've had my share of slimy and ugly for the past few years. And can I say that the past few years have done you good?" Xander eyed the ex-Watcher. "I mean, wow, looking ... er ..." Xander wasn't sure what to say that won't be misinterpreted.
Wesley merely smiled. "LA matures you quickly," he said quietly. His eyes wandered at the sight of two children playing in the playground then shook his head. "They shouldn't be out so late," he murmured.
"So you're gonna drop by at Casa Summers?"
Wesley lifted an eyebrow at Xander's sudden question.
"You know, for old time's sakes," Xander smiled hugely.
Wesley couldn't help but laugh sardonically. "My, I'm suddenly welcomed in Sunnydale.?
"Oh, that," Xander said almost immediately, looking chagrined. "I mean, we're way past that now, right? You and Angel have this gig in LA; it's in the past, water under the bridge and all that," he said nervously.
"In the past," Wesley murmured, feeling his mind begin to wander again. Stiffening, he reined his skittering thoughts hard and forced himself to concentrate on Xander's chatter.
"What?" he found himself asking. "What did you say?"
Xander gave Wesley a puzzled look. "I was just askin' how come Angel's not here too?" he asked hopefully.
Wesley stopped abruptly, which puzzled Xander.
He shook his head and continued walking. "He didn't have to come here. I can do this myself," he murmured.
"Oh ... yeah, well, with Buffy and everything, things could get complicated."
Wesley nodded distractedly. "Yes, of course." He realised that they had stopped again. Turning, he was shocked to see the Summers home. He stared at it, unsure what to do.
"Well, do you want to come in?" Xander was already at the doorstep.
He merely stayed beneath the shade of the tree at the lawn, staring at the house where the Slayer lived. This was where it all started. Sunnydale. He looked at the house like an old friend, allowing himself a small smile.
"Hey Xander, did you get the ice-cream?" Dawn's voice.
Xander blocked the girl, so he couldn't see Dawn. He was a little relieved at that. Dawn was annoyed with him most of the time during his tenure here. She only communicated whenever she had something cutting to say about him.
"Well, I kinda got distracted," Xander was saying as Dawn appeared at the door.
Dawn crossed her arms. "Let me guess, does the thing start with a G?"
"You mean like Golf?"
Dawn rolled her eyes.
"No, no, not a girl. I mean, I wouldn't forget ice-cream for the world! I mean, look who's here-" Xander turned, about to invite Wesley up the porch when he realised that he was no longer there.
Dawn peered at the spot curiously. "Is the 'who' invisible?"
"You're going through his journals."
Giles shifted his glasses then took them off, restraining his hands from cleaning them. Instead, he rubbed the bridge of his nose and sighed. "I feel like a voyeur."
Willow shrugged and scooted her chair next to his. "You are," she said with a lopsided grin. "Did you find anything?"
He gave her a pained smile. "His entries are meticulous, and up to April, his entries were normal -- if you can call records on various demon manifestations normal. Then came the slide. He wrote about a prophecy concerning Angel and his son, and how Angel was supposed to have killed Connor after a few signs. Then he met the Loa ... and after that, he did not write anything for a period of a few weeks -- presumably, that was when his throat was slit."
"And then he started writing again, but his writings were ..." Giles cleared his throat and put on his glasses again. "...despairing to say the least. He went over the prophecy concerning Angel and his son over and over again. Writing down every twist and turn, trying to decipher what went wrong. Then ... this entry: 'We are mere pawns of prophecy. And I let it use me.'"
"He blamed himself," Willow said softly. "He wanted to correct what he did wrong."
"But ... he couldn't. And it drove him over the edge, made him do something desperate. He wrote about meeting Professor Mason, then later a wizard -- Gavin, the bastard."
At Willow's surprised look, Giles muttered, "Never mind."
"His entries after that were not detailed," he continued. "In fact, they worsened to the point where they became nothing but ramblings. Mad ramblings that I could hardly figure out. Sometimes he wrote in demonic languages, sometimes just indecipherable scribbles. The only entries I could make out concerned 'destiny' and 'giving fate what it wanted'."
"He went crazy?"
Giles shrugged. "I don't know, honestly. But it is possible that the presence of the Element in his system slowly drove him mad, yes."
"Mad enough to kill innocent people?" Willow wondered.
Giles sighed. "I have to say ... yes, again."
"Giles, we have to stop him. The last Green Fire Elemental destroyed a civilisation. They -- the people in the civilization - can't all be bad."
"But Ayas came with a purpose. She destroyed the Builders of the Gate-"
"I'll have a raincheck on the 'builders of the gate' thingy, but, bookmark: she destroyed thousands, maybe millions of people in the process. Women, children, cats, dogs ..." Willow's face blanched at the thought. "We need a weapon."
"I don't know where to begin looking for this said weapon, Willow!? Giles said in frustration.
"Well, we have a clue in the opposing Elements thingy. And Connor said that Wesley was hurt when he fell into the pool of water in the warehouse -- I bet it was charged with the Element of Water. Maybe we can do the same: charge a weapon with the Element of Water."
Giles stood up suddenly. "I can't believe that we're discussing how to kill Wesley."
"Not kill," Willow stood up as well. "Injure him bad enough to trap him. I could devise a shield-"
"Which he can break through like paper-"
"But not when he's weakened. We have to take the chance. It's the only chance we have. I'll figure out a tougher prison for him. Then when he's inside, we can figure out how to get the Element out of him."
Giles nodded. "Gavin," his voice dripping with menace.
"Riiight," Willow agreed, watching Giles curiously. There was serious vibes between Giles and this Gavin guy. "Look Giles... you didn't give up on me when I wanted to destroy the world."
He looked at her furtively, as if embarrassed by what she said.
"So what gives me the right to give up on Wesley, right?" she smiled brightly, though the cheerfulness was forced at best.
When she received no response, Willow glanced back at the ex-Watcher. He was looking at Wesley's journal with a very concerned expression on his face.
"What is it?" she came towards him. Giles gave her the book, took off his glasses and indicated an entry of the journal absently. Her eyes widened when she realised what it meant.
"Oh," she said faintly.
Hello Giles. Did you have a nice time reading my thoughts?
Buffy knew that the moment she hit the ugly big demon, she was going to royally piss it off. And boy was she right. Six times over.
"Oomph!" Buffy huffed when she crashed through a tombstone.
There she was, covered with dust after a slay, casually walking down a path when she happened to chance upon a hole in the ground. From the looks of it, it was blasted open. It looked like something worth investigating, so she hopped in and found a tunnel of some sorts filled with lots of glittery things. It's like the stories you read when you were a kid. Go into some cave and you find treasure. Exactamondo. Only, the stories didn't say that the treasure cave looked as if it just endured a big trashing. And that big, ugly demony bodies were lying around in various painful death positions. Or that there were still some alive and were now attacking her.
"Okay guys, I don't want your nice things," Buffy said as she ducked a blow.
The big, grey ugly demon just snarled. "My thing! Go!"
"Well, I'm trying to!" she snapped as she avoided another swipe from a big, clawed hand.
She gave one of the demons a roundhouse kick, but it merely backed a few steps and showed its fangs at her. Distracted, she did not notice two demons behind her. By the time she did, they had pounced on her and had her hands pinned behind her back. As she struggled valiantly to free herself, the other demon got read to plunge its claws into her gut.
Buffy struggled wildly, but they held her fast. "Don't!" she screamed.
It didn't faze the demon. With a roar, it plunged its claws into her belly-
Buffy closed her eyes, preparing for the all-consuming pain of a slit-open gut.
It didn't come. "Huh?" she muttered, opening her eyes.
The demon was gone, on the floor with a thick arrow between its eyes.
The other two demons stared dumbly at their companion's sudden death. Buffy didn't wait for them to take out their frustrations on her. With a grunt, she hoisted herself up and kicked, with both feet, as hard as she could on what she assumed were their knees.
The demons let her go with a grunt, but almost immediately reached for her again. Not letting them have the chance, she punched one in the face.
Its face didn't even move. And boy did her fist hurt.
Angry, the demon shoved her hard against the wall, which stunned her momentarily. Again Buffy gave it a violent kick, but it only distracted the demon.
When it reached out for Buffy again, Buffy was prepared to deck him one between the eyes -- hoping that was its weak spot -- when the demon grunted once and then fell.
Buffy's eyes widened when she saw a long, gold encrusted sword protruding from its back.
"Why didn't I think of that?" she muttered out loud. Then lifted her eyes to see-
Her mouth hung open in shock.
"And a good evening to you too, Buffy," Wesley said, his voice flat and devoid of humour.
"We ... wuh ... what?" Buffy asked, flustered.
"There will be more coming. Luloth demons are very territorial. It's best we move out," Wesley said calmly. With one fluid move, he yanked the sword from the creature's back.
Buffy could only stare, bug-eyed, as Wesley circled the area, looking into the deep recesses of the cave. Like some kinda pro. Like some kinda demon hunter. He wasn't screaming like a girl. Nor did he look the least bit scared. Aside from the obvious change in appearance, there was an assuredness about him that was not there when he first came to Sunnydale. Honestly, the change was amazing. They say LA does things to people ... but this...
When Wesley looked back, his face held a mixture of disappointment and anger. "The Mother is gone," he said bitterly.
Buffy frowned. "Whose mother?"
Wesley spared her a brief glance before taking a golden, shimmering thing from the pile of gold at his feet and tossing it to her. It was another sword. Surprised by the move, Buffy caught the sword before it could fall tip first on her foot.
The man, meanwhile, moved towards the gaping hole high above them.
"I'm sorry to be abrupt and everything, but, what the hell are you doing in Sunnydale?"
"I'm looking for something," Wesley murmured as he studied the hole above.
"Huh," Buffy muttered and followed Wesley's gaze upwards. "It's too high. Let me give you a --"
Without a word, Wesley leapt, easily making his way out of the hole. After a few moments, he peered at her from above. "Are you coming?"
"Colour me stunned," Buffy muttered, looking up in amazement. She followed suit, more eager to get some answers about Wesley's sudden super-poweredness than to escape a horde of demons.
But she didn't have a chance. A kick to her face was her welcome above ground.
When she fell on her back, a Luloth demon snarled at her, all fangs. She quickly curled her legs and kicked with all her might. This time, at least, it sent the demon staggering some distance back. She bounced back to her feet quickly and made a quick grab for the sword.
"Their weakness is between the eyes and in the back!" Wesley called from somewhere.
Buffy hoisted her sword and shifted to a battle stance. Two Luloth demons crept towards her. "Bring it on," she muttered.
When Angel and Gunn returned from their fruitless search, they found Willow and Giles sitting pensively at the table in Percy Mason's library.
"Found anything?" Gunn asked. He sat heavily in Mason's favourite chair.
"He knows what we're doing," Giles said. "He probably knows we're tracking him now."
Angel frowned. "How-"
Giles merely handed him the journal with the page entry. Angel closed the book with a loud snap, looking angry. "We have to stop sitting around!" he said in frustration.
"Yes, I agree," came Percy Mason's voice. He came in through the front door of the shop, where he gave his coat to Fred who helpfully hung it up.
"I found where the Luloth demons are nesting." Mason met Giles' eyes and said heavily, "It's Sunnydale."
Angel's frown turned into shock, then fear. "Buffy," he whispered. He began fumbling for his cell phone and walked a distance away to make his call.
"Do you think he's there?" Fred asked.
"Undoubtedly," Mason said calmly as he settled into a rickety chair by the table. "Elementals have a way of accomplishing their tasks."
Willow began leafing desperately through a book, looking fruitlessly for something. "I can't figure it out," she said desperately. "We're never going to build a weapon this fast. We don't have time!"
"Are you still planning to stop Wesley?" Mason demanded, surprised. Seeing their determined faces, he sighed dramatically. "Nobody listens to me. I think we're making a big mistake, but I'll help you -- just to prevent him from hurting innocent civilians. Give me the book," he snapped his fingers at Willow, who quickly handed it to him.
"Willow, I need you to teleport us to Sunnydale. If we're to make it there on time ..." Giles trailed off.
"But the weapon-"
"I'll do the research," Mason said gruffly. "I know more of Elementals than you can know in a short while."
Willow looked at Giles, a frown etched on her face. "It'll be really uncomfortable-"
"We can handle it," Angel snapped, striding back into the library. Throwing Gunn and Fred a quick look, he said, "Both of you stay here. In case Wes makes a surprise visit." Then to the rest he said, "Xander says that he saw him in Sunnydale. We have to be there, now."
"Give me a moment," Willow said, heading towards Mason's bathroom. "Got to charm some water with the Element of Water. We need something that could make him at least pause."
"Use the Element of White Water," Mason said, not taking his eyes off the book. "It's the antithesis of Green Fire. More effective. Damn, I hope we're doing the right thing," he muttered.
"Are you alright?"
"Oh, peachy," Buffy muttered as she yanked the sword from the Luloth's head. Although stained with gunk, it still sparkled. "Wow, how much is this worth?"
"Easily twenty million dollars," Wesley said with a smile as he came to her side.
Her eyes went as wide as saucers, but before she could say anything, Wes said, "Best to throw it back into the pit. It'll attract Luloth demons to you from all over the world."
Buffy dropped it like as if it was crawling with fat maggots. When she looked up, she realised that Wesley had walked away, having dropped his sword beside hers.
"Hey, wait up!" she ran to him, and stopped him with a hand to his shoulder.
He looked surprised to be stopped -- as if he didn't expect her to do that. What startled her were Wesley's eyes -- they were pools of ... sadness ... Buffy wondered what caused it.
Sliding her hands into her jeans pockets, Buffy gave Wesley a small self-conscious smile. "I didn't say thanks for saving my butt."
"You're welcome," he looked as if he wanted to turn and leave, then appeared to change his mind and said awkwardly, "Have you been well?"
"Well ... as well as a resurrected girl can be," she said quietly, reflecting back on the year that was Spike, the Troika, Willow going bad and more badness. She just gave him a wry smile. "I'm really ... glad to see you. It's been a long time."
Wes shifted his glace to the ground. "Likewise," he murmured. "Sunnydale reminds me of a time where things were simpler."
"And now it isn't?"
Wesley shrugged and gave Buffy a lopsided grin. "Not by a long stretch, no."
That was when Buffy spotted the scar than ran vividly across one side of his neck. It stood up angrily on his tanned skin, and it looked relatively recent. Shocked, she looked at him for an explanation, but Wesley shifted up the collar of his black jacket to hide it.
"It's complicated," he muttered as he walked away.
"Hey ..." she caught up to him. "Is everything okay in LA? Angel-"
"-is fine," Wesley answered, his voice strangely flat. "Why I'm here doesn't concern him. Though I wager he'll be here soon."
"What's going on?" her voice was hard, demanding.
"You wouldn't understand. And no, you can't help me." At that he paused and gently, if hesitantly, placed a hand on her shoulder. "I was never a good Watcher to you, Buffy, and I caused a lot of difficulties, especially where Faith was concerned. So I'll be damned if something happens to you because of ... my task. So ... leave me alone," he said, suddenly brusque, as he removed his hand. With that, he left her standing alone in the deserted graveyard.
Buffy had a lot to think about on her walk back home, so when she opened the door to her home and hung her coat, she wasn't concentrating much on things that went around her. Which was why she nearly shrieked when she saw Angel in her hall.
*I'll wager he'll be here soon.* she remembered Wesley saying.
Angel had other people with him. An angry-looking African American, Giles and Willow.
Her eyes widened. "Willow!" Her first instinct was to run to her and hug her. Which she did.
Caught off guard, Willow placed her arms hesitantly around her best friend. "Hi, Buffy."
"Are you okay? Are you ..." what? Not crazy? Not evil? Not bent on destroying the world anymore?
Willow seemed to understand. "I'm fine. And hey, look, it's Angel!" she said with false enthusiasm. She probably thought to lessen Angel's pain at being ignored, but Buffy had to choose -- it was her just-returned-from-being-evil best friend or ex-boyfriend-vampire.
"Angel," she said in what she hoped was a warm voice. At the back of her mind, she hoped that Spike was nowhere around. When he had returned from Africa, he barely recognised her. He grew better over the months, but he still had the tendency of spouting the weirdest things. And ... she still did not know what she felt for him, now that he had a soul. Spike was a complication that neither of them needed.
"Did you see Wesley?" he asked abruptly.
"I see you're going to answer my questions." At Angel's confused look, Buffy said. "He said to expect you."
Angel's expression darkened at that.
"And he was throwing off weird vibes ... obviously something happened in LA. Something that he wouldn't tell me."
The African-American sighed. "So, who's going to start this round of story-telling?"
"Make it quick," Angel said gruffly.
"Cindy! Are you in bed?"
Cindy served her china doll tea and said, "Now, you be good today and I'll give you more tea tomorrow."
The six-year-old blonde girl quickly hid her toys in the box, closed it, scampered to her bed and scooted under the covers.
The door opened and her mother ... her foster mother ... peeked in. Mrs Robinson smiled brightly at the sight. Cindy, for all appearances, appeared to be asleep.
"What a little angel," Mrs Robinson murmured. She closed the door.
After a while, Cindy giggled, carefully climbed off her bed and ran to her toy chest near the window. She loved the toys that Mommy got her. She just wanted to see them one more time before she fell asleep.
When she opened the toy chest, she caught a look at something at the window.
She frowned. She could only make out a dark shape.
Mommy said there was no bogeyman.
She just stared.
The two glowing green eyes flared in the darkness.
Cindy's eyes widened.
Buffy sat down with a thump.
"Whoa," Dawn said for her.
"Double whoa," said Xander who sat beside Buffy in bewilderment. "Why must we have an apocalypse every year? It's like a sitcom."
"What are you talking about? It's Giles The Next Generation-"
Giles looked pained at the reference.
"-going postal." Dawn finished with a flustered wave of her hands. "I mean, who would've thought that he could go all bad on us?" Her eyes went wide when she realised what she just said. She turned to Willow, ready to apologise, but Willow was doing some magic thing with her hands, oblivious to the reference Dawn just made. White clouds swam around her hands as she turned them around.
"What are you doing?" asked Gunn.
"I figured something out. A tracking device. Just magicked something to detect mass concentrations of green fire element."
Suddenly, the ball flared green. They jumped, edging away from Willow.
"It's on the scent," Willow murmured, concentrating. Buffy frowned. She wasn't really comfortable with Willow using magic so soon, but she trusted her. Hopefully, that was enough.
The green ball floated around them for a while, then moved away, eventually phasing through the door. Wordlessly, they followed it. Eventually they had to quicken their steps because it began to move faster and faster. In the end, they had to run to keep up.
"It's getting stronger!" Willow yelled. "The concentration of green fire element must be humongous to make it run like-"
She was so intent on following the tracker that she didn't look where she was going. She ended up bumping into something hard and solid.
Angel. Colouring with embarrassment, Willow was about to apologise when she realised that he was looking at something intently. Actually, so was everyone else.
She followed their gaze and gasped.
It was Wesley. He stood calmly on the roof, his eyes glowing green. But that's not what was scary. What was scary was that he was holding up a little girl by her nightgown. And it looked like he was ready to strangle her.
*I knew they would come.* Wesley mused, staring at the group below.
He saw Buffy walking tentatively towards the house. "Let her go," she said levelly, her eyes calmly watching his. Curious. There was no hate there or hostility -- unlike Gunn's and Angel's. He found that refreshing.
Wesley didn't bother to answer. Since they did not bother to find out why he did what he did, why give the pleasure of an answer? Instead, he turned and looked at the deceptively innocent girl.
"Where have you hidden it?" he demanded, his voice guttural with the Element's influence.
Cindy, for that was her name (how cute), shook her head wildly, her petrified eyes staring up at him.
"I can see through your act. Why bother staging it?"
Cindy's eyes scrunched up, then she began to cry -- great choking sobs of fear that made her shake.
Ordinarily, Wes would've been aghast at eliciting such a response from a child. But now, he was more concerned about the bigger picture. And the bigger picture was --
He looked at the crowd below, who was discussing heatedly among themselves.
He turned back to Cindy. "Very clever. The act is for them. So here they are, here to rescue you."
He turned to look at Buffy.
"Don't do this!" she begged. Angel stepped forward to say something, but she restrained him with a hand on his chest.
Atta girl, Buffy.
"Why are you doing this?"
Wes rolled his eyes. The old-fashioned way to stall for time. He wasn't buying it.
Quickly, he encircled Cindy's frail neck with his hands, ready to-
He wasn't buying it. She knew that the moment she let the words out. Whatever psychosis he was under, it didn't imbue him with added ego -- a fault so many baddies had -- or diminish his intelligence. So he was obviously going for the kill.
She hoped that Wes, however, bought the distraction.
Without a sound, Willow suddenly disappeared, only to reappear on the roof. That surprised Wes, who brought up his hand to-
Well, no time to think. Just act, Buffy.
Together, Buffy and Angel leapt to the roof, which distracted Wes further. He removed his gaze from Cindy, just in time for Willow to encircle the little girl in her arms. Together, they teleported away -- goodness knows where -- Willow said that it would be better if they didn't know. She didn't want the Elemental to force it out of them later.
Wes roared with fury. How could they? He was so close!
Annoyed, he backhanded Buffy and reached out instinctively to where Willow was. Perhaps if the trail was fresh enough, he could follow --
But obviously, Angel thought the same, so the vampire threw his weight on Wesley. The force sent Wesley flying off the roof with Angel. When they landed on the ground, it knocked the breath out of him for a while but he got up quickly. With a peevish gesture, he pushed Angel away from him, hurtling him yards away and into the wall of Cindy's house.
"Is that what you were looking for?" Buffy demanded, her tone icy. "Little girls to kill? What kind of sick quest are you on?"
Wes turned in time to see a long something -- a bat? -- head for his face. He turned fast enough for it to graze his forehead.
It stung, but it didn't hurt as much as he thought -- thanks to the strength he got from the Elemental.
Buffy swung again, but this time he caught the tree branch she wielded easily.
"You don't know anything," he growled, green eyes meeting blue angry ones. He pushed her back. Buffy rolled on the ground for a few yards before coming to a halt. She got shakily to her feet.
"You're like Angel. You don't want to know. You just judged. I'm hurt."
"You're hurt?" she asked incredulously. "You were going to kill an innocent girl!"
At that, he laughed. "What makes you think she's innocent? Oh, Buffy. After all these years fighting evil ... don't you realise that evil does not wear a convenient face?"
That made her pause -- obviously, that remark hit a note in her.
"Shut up!" Angel came from nowhere, his fist meeting with his jaw. The force barely snapped his head back, but it made him lose his train of thought. Angry now, Wesley grabbed Angel's neck and lifted him high up, staring up balefully at him.
All he need now is to twist his wrist, and Angel would be a few inches shorter.
But Angel's look of surprise at being handled so easily stopped him ... strangely enough, Wes felt a twinge of guilt. He looked at Angel's eyes uncertainly, his brow creasing in a confused frown. Angel saw that -- his eyes narrowed with equal confusion.
Have we come to this? That I will snap the neck of my best friend without a thought?
Resigned that they would never understand what he had to do, Wesley let Angel go, watching him fall in a surprised heap at his feet. He turned to walk away but Buffy wouldn't let him.
She came to him in a flurry of kicks and fists -- all which he easily avoided. Finally he saw an opening and lightly pushed her away. The 'light' push made her fly a few yards.
Angel roared in reaction at what he did. And typical Angel, he charged at Wesley blindly, stupidly, carelessly, hatefully ...
The last word made him mad. He returned Angel's action with a roar of his own. He leapt and met Angel in midair. This surprised Angel so much that he didn't fight back when their collective weight plunged them to the ground with a painful thud.
"What does it take?" he growled at the vampire. Blinded by anger, he slugged him in the chin, quickly knocking him out. Fed up, he got up and walked away. All he felt was frustration -- frustration at being so close to his goal and denied by the very ones he was trying to save.
"Angel!" Buffy yelled. Angel groggily tried to sit up, but he still looked winded.
He felt depressed when he saw Buffy rush towards Angel to help him. The looks on their faces said that they were ready to rush him again. Damn it, didn't they know that he wasn't their enemy? Is that how much they hated him?
*I suppose my friendship with Angel wasn't enough.*
"Enough thinking," a voice barked. Another Wesley appeared at his side. This time, it wasn't the stuffy Watcher of earlier years -- this time it was the ex-Watcher who lay dying in the field with a slit throat. He stared morbidly at the weeping wound.
"Thinking will get us nowhere," said the apparition in a scratchy voice. "The girl is running. The Mother is gone. The time is drawing near."
Wesley watched with fascination as blood ran down the wraith's shoulder. Then he laughed at the ridiculousness of it all, stumbling away from Angel and Buffy.
Wesley disappeared in a cloud of fire, leaving Buffy staring in shock.
Willow felt a twitch of sympathy when Cindy began to cry. They had just rematerialised from the teleport, and it was making Cindy more than winded. Willow also suspected that she was still terrified from her near-death experience.
Bending down to the little girl's level, Willow smoothed her blonde hair and whispered reassuringly, "It's okay, Cindy. Everything will be alright."
Cindy didn't look as if she believed her a bit. Her blue limpid eyes stared unblinkingly at Willow.
"Au contraire, mademoiselle," came a smooth, mocking voice.
Shocked, because Willow thought she had covered her tracks so well that it is impossible anyone could've followed her trail, she met the eyes of a tall brunette woman dressed in a smart, corporate suit.
But it wasn't her that interested Willow. It was the four, tall indentical-looking demons in robes behind her.
"Okay boys. Take care of the witch."
As one, the four demons advanced on them, chanting something under her breath. Willow started to chant something in return, but a huge force pummelled her from nowhere, pinning her to the ground. She couldn't move.
"Cindy!" she cried out helplessly, trying to crane her neck up to see the girl.
Lilah Morgan strutted towards Cindy, who stared with huge eyes, a big smile on her flawless face.
"Now, why don't we go somewhere ... fun?"
Angel came awake with a jerk when he felt a sharp sting on his chin.
"Relax," came a voice.
"Buffy?" he croaked, opening his eyes to the glare of the hall lights. Buffy was dabbing a piece of cloth to a cut on his chin, her delicate features pinched into worry.
"He dented you a little," Buffy murmured as she placed the bloodied cloth in the basin on a side table next to the sofa. "How are you doin'?"
Angel rubbed his chin. "Not bad," he muttered.
Buffy gave him a small nod as she dabbed his cut further. "A son, huh?"
He wasn't sure what to say to that. He merely nodded. Buffy merely gave him a humourless smile.
"I leave you for a few years ..." she murmured with a small smile.
"Buffy," he murmured. But he didn't know what to say.
She just shrugged. "People change," she simply said.
He met her eyes and saw something in there. Something which explained the scent of Spike on her. It was something he didn't even want to think about with Wesley running amok back at the house. Now that that was over, he still didn't want to know. Really.
"Wesley?" he asked, turning away from her ministrations. That was it, case closed.
Buffy straightened up at his tone. A look of hurt passed her features, but it was gone quickly. "Gone."
"I have to find him," Angel got up, but was sidetracked by a wave of dizziness. It didn't stop him long. He walked unsteadily towards the door.
"Wait ... Angel!" when that didn't stop him, Buffy ran to him and grabbed his hand. Surprised ... and strangely touched, he found himself squeezing her hand. He met her blue eyes and saw the pleading look in them. It, however, did not prepare him for her words.
"I think ... I think there's something going on here," she said.
Angel stared at her as if she just announced that she was the Virgin Mary. "Yeah, I would think so," he said levelly.
"No," she shook her head, her eyes serious. "It got me thinking ... the things Wesley could do ... he could've killed us any time, Angel, but he didn't. I mean, he helped me fend off the Luloth demons and he said some things-"
Angel could see the logic of her words, but that didn't mean he liked where it was going. "He tried to kill a child!" he snapped.
Buffy blinked, then placed her hands up in the air as if in agreement. "I know. But he got me thinking. He was right. Evil doesn't wear a convenient face."
"You think the girl is evil?" Angel said in disbelief.
"No, I mean ..." she sighed. "I don't think we're seeing the whole picture here. And unless we do, we're going to lose the battle," she said gravely. "I've gone through enough apocalypses to know."
Angel frowned at that. It annoyed him, her claim of expertise -- as if his years waging and going through apocalypses didn't count. "So have I. More than you can imagine. And you know what I learnt?"
Buffy opened her mouth to say something, but Angel went on before she could say anything.
"Wasting time is deadly. And I'm wasting enough already."
A flicker of hurt flashed on her face again. Angel winced at that and wanted to apologise, but everything is just a mess. There was just too damn much on his mind now. Cordelia. Connor. Wesley. Now this missing girl. He turned to leave.
"You know, you're full of shit."
Angel stopped in his tracks, but did not turn around.
"That's right," Buffy said, walking a few steps towards him. "Going on this holy crusade being angry at the man who wronged you. Being so righteous and all."
This time, he turned, growing fury etched on his face.
"You can be angry with me. That's fine. You can be angry with Wesley. That's fine too. But being righteous and unforgiving? That's pure BS. Because, what gives you the right?"
Angel clenched his fists, looking away.
"Jenny Calendar. Torturing my friends. Turning Drusilla-"
"-taking the only person Giles loved. Killing countless people. Unleashing hell on Earth-"
"I said, shut up." His voice did not rise, but it had an edge to it. As if it she didn't stop soon, he would do something. That realisation made him freeze in horror. What had he become?
"You let anger control you? You let unforgiveness take root? Then I don't know if you're Angel or Angelus."
"What? I'm no saint. I still haven't forgiven that shop assistant in LA for giving me a size 6 instead of a 3, but hey, I'm trying. You? You're determined not to."
"You don't understand-"
"I don't need to. The only way you can get over this -- is to look at Wesley. Really look at him. Not through some hate-filled eyes."
Angel clenched his jaw as if he wanted to stop himself from saying something. Then he whirled around, barged through the door, thinking that perhaps if he walked fast enough, he could escape her words.
Buffy was tempted to stop him, but she had a big feeling that this was not her battle anymore. She wondered whether she had the right to say those things just now, but she felt such bitterness and anger coming from Angel that she knew she had to say something to shake him from this self-imposed emotional myopia. She probably didn't have the right. It could drive anyone bitter: being buried in the sea for the summer, losing his son and - she knew he'd rather die (well, shrivel to dust) than admit this -- losing a best friend.
"Good luck," she whispered at the retreating back.
He didn't arrive at Hyperion fast enough, because when he burst through its gilded doors, he saw Fred and Gunn's worried faces. They directed their gaze to Willow's slumped figure on one of the sofas. She gave him a bleary gaze and didn't appear to have any strength to even give him a trademark sheepish smile.
"It was Wolfram & Hart," Fred murmured, as if that explained everything.
"The bitch on heels had some demon folks suck Willow's energy. She nearly died," Gunn almost growled the words out. "But somehow she managed to teleport here. I think she would've died otherwise."
"No sign. But, er, good news. The professor said he needs to see us. I think he found a weapon," Fred gave him a shaky smile.
Angel walked to the weapons closet, got a sword -- what good would it do against an Elemental, honestly -- and tossed an axe to Gunn.
"I'll stay," she said immediately, understanding what needed to be done.
"At least until she's recovered."
Gunn quickly stepped to her and gave her a kiss. "We'll be back for supper."
Fred gave him a tight smile in return. "I'll make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches."
With that, her boys left to fight the bad guy. She returned her attention to Willow. At least, she thought she believed she knew who the bad guy was ...
Gunn and Angel froze, staring at what was once Percy Mason. The professor's face was one of shock, his empty eye-sockets staring at his killer. At the killer that bore a familiar face, and who incinerated him without a second thought.
"Damn. I wish I could teleport too," Gunn said weakly.
The shop was left mostly unscathed. Somehow Wesley only burnt Mason, leaving his body a mountain of human-shaped ash.
Tentatively, Angel reached towards the book that Mason's ashy hand rested on. Reluctantly, he pulled the book from the corpse's grasp, knowing what would happen.
With a quiet sigh, Mason became a cloud of dust. Gunn, who had the inconvenient habit of breathing, began to gag and cough violently.
"Sorry," Angel muttered, looking at the page. The cloud of dust settled, as he added: "And she still gives Wesley the benefit of doubt."
"Who?" Gunn asked hoarsely.
"Never mind," Angel was too busy studying the text before him to explain.
"Is there a weapon in there somewhere?"
Angel nodded, opening to the page Mason bookmarked before ... "The sword of Arjosa. Great. We have to find it." He tossed the silver foil which served as the bookmark away.
"Where is it? Can't be that hard."
"It's in a hell dimension that has a name I can't even pronounce."
"Great. Things are looking up already." Frustrated, Gunn kicked a stack of books which went sprawling to the floor, kicking up another cloud of ash. Gunn coughed some more.
Suddenly, Angel looked up. "What's that?"
"Professor got into my lungs," Gunn complained.
"No, it's something-" He didn't get to finish what he wanted to say.
"The Bokan symbol. Aurelian nighthawk. Portal ... time ... time?"
"Got anything?" Buffy slid next to him on the neighbouring chair, handing him a cup of coffee. She took a sneak look at Wesley's journals and came up blank -- it was a bunch of squiggles and pictures. If Giles had a hard time trying to read Wesley's ramblings, she wouldn't even try.
"He seems obsessed with time. And dimensions. Thank you, Buffy," he took a sip of the coffee.
"Ah wait. I think I got something. It's in ancient Torellian-"
Buffy gave him a blank look.
"Another extinct demon language.?
"Right. Aren't they always," she nodded, as if it meant something. She was 'escorting' Giles back to LA, and she reckoned that because he was so excited and anxious and everything, he could get himself into a serious accident if she didn't drive him. But in the end, after much arguing, he agreed that she could come along -- in another car -- and return to Sunnydale halfway.
"You're needed in Sunnydale, Buffy. And I don't want to distract you."
Distract her? Couldn't he see help when it was yelling at his face?
"What does it say?" she asked after a while, poking her slimy hamburger.
"Bokan of the ..." Giles frowned in concentration. "...bayonet?"
Buffy frowned too. That was a mighty inventive name.
"No. Bay'ne. As in bai-nai."
"Weird. So who is he?"
"Um. It is sexless. The guardian of time. A powerful deity. It doesn't make sense ... apparently Wesley tried to break through time and failed. The Bay'ne was too powerful for him." Again, another frown. "He fought the Bay'ne?" he sounded flabbergasted.
"And ... that's a bad thing??
"No. I mean ... he survived. He shouldn't have. It shows me how powerful he is. If he had defeated the Bay'ne, I have no idea what would have happened to the fabric of time."
Giles read some more and ran a finger down the indecipherable -- at least to her -- text and shook his head. "Why would he want to break through time? What could he possibly want to do?"
"Why do people want to time travel? Change things, of course."
Giles frowned. "He did mention Quor-toth in his ramblings."
Buffy could see that Giles was putting two and two together in his head. As far as she was concerned, the jigsaw puzzles was still scattered in her head.
After a little more reading, flipping through the pages at random, Giles came up, his expression grave. "This isn't right at all. There are just too many pieces ... I can't make head or tails out of anything. Willow said he killed three people -- totally unrelated to each other. Why did he kill them? And what has time travel and Quor-toth got to do with any of this?" he slammed the journal shut and frowned heavily, a hand on his forehead as if easing an ache there.
"Giles. What if he doesn't have a reason? What if these are the actions of a madman?"
Giles shook his head. "It doesn't seem so. At least my hunch says otherwise."
"Yeah," she looked down at her uneaten hamburger. "My hunch says so too. But the facts ..."
"...say otherwise," he continued for her, staring at his coffee. "I have to go Buffy. I think I'm wasting too much time already. Don't bother to follow. Remember what I told you." With that, he left, bursting through the doors and scaring a few customers.
Buffy merely sighed and took an adventurous bite of her hamburger. "Does everyone hate wasting time these days?" she muttered.
Giles arrived a little while after Angel did, looking extremely worried and flustered. He zoomed straight to Willow who was sleeping on the couch.
"She seems okay," Fred told Giles. "Just tired."
"I'll take her up to a ... do you have an extra room?"
"All hundred of them." She led Giles to one of the extra rooms and watched as he placed her on the bed.
"She can't perform magic. Not like this. It's too dangerous for her."
"Not to mention that she won't stay awake to do it," Fred said, only to be met with an inscrutable look from Giles. "Sorry," she said lamely.
"Angel and Charles went off to see the Professor. Lorne and Connor ... actually, I'm not really sure what they're doing."
"Ah, I remember. I asked them to check on some things for me."
"Connor and research? Doesn't seem like a good combination."
"I asked them to search through Wesley's house for more clues. They?re not back yet?"
"Not yet. No. I hope something didn't happen to them."
Giles didn't know what to say to make her feel better. Right now, he was too confused to form a straight thought.
Just then, they heard something unusual.
"Is that ... a bell ringing?" Giles asked, puzzled.
Fred listened, puzzled herself, until she placed what made it.
"Oh, it's a bell that Charles bought at this street market -- he thought it looked cute so he hung it near the reception area -- thought it'd be cute if we had clients and they rang it. Unfortunately, we didn't really have clients so-"
The bell was more insistent this time. Giles gave her another deadpan look.
"Right, so I get the bell."
Giles followed her down the stairs and nearly bowled into her when she suddenly stopped halfway.
"Oh great," she moaned.
Giles wondered what was the big deal. After all, the clients looked smartly-dressed, particularly the woman in front -- quite attractive at that.
"Lilah," Fred said, her voice dripping venom.
"Well, hello to you too, Fred," the woman returned derisively.
"I'll offer you a deal. After all, we're all after the same goal. Rescue Cindy."
Fred considered this for a while, then straightened up as if steeling herself. They were seated at the lobby. Lilah has comfortably perched herself on one of the sofas, her goons staying protectively by her side.
"He has her?" Fred asked.
Lilah's cheeks became flushed, the only hint that she was embarrassed. "Yeah. Broke through our magical shields like papier mâch&eactue; and grabbed the girl."
"What makes you think that she's alive?" Giles interrupted.
Lilah looked at Giles curiously then smiled. "Of course, Rupert Giles. How's the Slayer?"
His gaze narrowed at her knowledge, but he pressed on: "What makes you think that she's alive?"
"We kept a sort of tracking device on her. Life indicators on full. For some reason, he's keeping her alive. Like how he's keeping Angel and that Gunn person alive."
Fred's eyes widened. "He has-"
"Yeah. Torched Percy Mason and grabbed the two. Why? You ask me, I don't know how crazy people think."
Fred wrung her hands together, imagining Gunn as a pillar of-
*Stop it Fred! Be rational, take charge!*
"What's the deal?"
"Fred," Giles warned.
"What's the deal?" Fred repeated, with more force this time.
"Alright. Here it is. We can't hurt the Elemental, only you can."
"What?" Fred didn't buy that.
Lilah rolled her eyes. "Are you guys this thick? It's amazing how long you've survived doing what you do. He doesn't burn you to a crisp, didn't you notice? He has a thing for all of you." She gave her a sly smile. "Though I think he has a thing for you most."
Fred realised what she meant, but she didn't have the time to deal with the implication that Wes was in love with her all this while.
"So, you're the only person who could get close to Wesley," Lilah said with finality.
"And do what?" Fred was afraid to know.
A satisfied smile broke through the lawyer's flawless features. The cat has gotten the canary. She clapped her hands once and the goon behind her stepped up and presented Fred with a scabbard.
Giles recognised it at once. "The Sword of Arjosa. How? It was supposed to be lost!"
Lilah shrugged nonchalantly. "Oh, just a little something one of my colleagues got while on a business trip in a hell dimension a while back."
Fred took it tentatively. "This will ... kill..."
"That's right, honey bun. This belonged to the Elemental of White Water, Anosa. Gotta love the name. She threw this to another dimension and froze herself to death. Elementals are so dramatic, don't you think?"
When she saw only blank faces, Lilah sighed. "Yup. This will do it. Nothing is more deadly to a green fire elemental than the white water elemental. Their Achilles Heel."
"Why are you doing this?" Giles said, his voice heavy with skepticism.
"Because I want Cindy. And you can get Cindy for me."
"Why is she so important?" Giles prodded.
"That's for us to know, and for you to never find out," Lilah?s voice became hard.
"Why would you let us rescue her? It's not as if we're going to hand her to you on a silver platter," Fred said, her voice equally hard.
"Oh, that's where you're wrong. We'll be there waiting to snatch her from you, just you wait." she winked.
Fred gripped the sword in her hands, trembling with indecision. Then she looked up, determined.
"Where are they?"
"I thought you'd never ask." Lilah gave her a sweet smile.
"Giles," Fred said as gently and firmly as she could. "I have to. You have to stay here."
Giles opened his mouth to protest.
"If anything happens to me, at least you'll be around to do something," she whispered.
"Wow," Lilah said after a moment of silence, smirking. "What a hero."
He was tied up. Angel fought against his chains, puzzled that they wouldn't break. Usually they would -- if he used enough strength. Must be made of some kind of magical alloy.
He couldn't see Gunn. He must be tied up somewhere else.
He snapped up, and his eyes narrowed in anger when Wesley stepped into view. He looked so deceptively normal -- dressed as he was in a crisp black jacket and white shirt and pants. His blue eyes were clear, his hair neatly combed -- no one would've suspected that his screws were loose. Perhaps, until he said:
"Look at you. All tied up."
"As if you didn't have anything to do with it," he growled.
Wesley shook his head. "No I didn't."
"So what, you've come to rescue me?" he sneered.
"How perceptive," Wesley said sardonically.
"I don't believe you. You killed Mason, and now -- hell, now I have no idea what your twisted mind wants with me. Or Gunn."
Wesley didn't answer him, merely stared at him stoically. "You're involved in something much bigger than you know," he said after a while. "And they played you like a puppet on a string. Can't you see that?"
"Let Gunn go," Angel said, ignoring Wesley's rants.
Something flickered in Wesley's eyes -- hurt?
"No. I guess you can't see that. You're seeing something else, aren't you, Angel?" A pause, then, "They have him tied in another room. Upstairs. I wonder why."
"I didn't do this to you," Wesley said again, an edge to his voice.
"And I'm supposed to trust you?" he shot back.
"If you had trusted me, this wouldn't have happened."
Angel narrowed his eyes again. "At what point was I supposed to trust you?"
Wesley walked up to him slowly, his eyes unreadable. "We were friends."
"And that's supposed to be enough?"
"I thought it was."
"Yeah, I thought so too. Until you stole my son."
Pain flashed across the man's features. "I thought about that everyday. Until my heart bled. Until I didn't know what to do. Until I realised that there was only one thing to do. Be what I am."
Angel struggled from his restraints, but to no avail. "Oh yeah, and what is that? A child-killing monster."
Wesley's glowing green eyes seem to sparkle. He gave Angel a madness-tinged smile. "An elemental. A Fire elemental. What I've always been. My father thought he could take it away from me, shut it out of me with a spell. But the Elemental had a mission to complete, and it would burn itself out of me one day anyway. So I decided to help it."
Angel glared at him. "To do what? Destroy the world?"
Wesley frowned. "You really think that?"
"Isn't it obvious?" Angel growled out his words. "You killed innocent people. That family in-"
"I did not kill them." Wesley muttered. "Neither did I kill Professor Mason. I may be insane, but I have a goal. And killing innocent people isn't in the agenda."
Angel didn't buy it. "You killed a cop, a young woman and a man -- no connection to each other. Just random people-"
"Not as random as you think, Angel," Wesley sounded annoyed. "Obviously, your research skills are as simplistic as ever. And I don't have to justify myself to anyone."
"Listen to you. Going on about how innocent you are. You think I buy this hero act? You think it'll erase what you've done?!" Angel was trembling with fury, wishing he could kill the man he once called friend. However, the moment the thought left his mind, he realised how hypocritical it sounded. Those words he had just uttered could've burst out from Giles, Buffy and other countless people he had tortured and mutilated.
"No. It wouldn't," Wesley murmured.
Wesley looked embarrassed -- or guilty, he couldn't tell. But the sight of it held no pleasure for him, only disgust -- for himself. He felt it then -- a softening, a pang of guilt at causing Wesley to feel pain.
Had it come that far? That he would rejoice when a friend was in pain? *You let unforgiveness take root? You let Anger control you? Then I don't know if you?re Angel or Angelus.*
He tried to shake Buffy's words away, but found himself thinking about it. Yes ... she was right. He had no right to behave this way. It stung to admit it, but she was right. And when his eyes met Wesley's, he only saw the love of Connor stolen from him. By an act -
- of desperation by a friend who wanted to save the one person he loved more than Buffy.
Wesley suddenly shrugged, pacing from left to right. His eyes began to lose focus, and his hands became restless. It told Angel that the madness that plagued him was back again. "But I'm powerful. You know how much? I could level whole cities. Destroy evil with a thought. Rip through dimensions ..." he trailed off, suddenly biting his nails.
*Look at him. Not through hate-filled eyes. But really look at him* Buffy's voice urged.
And it hit him like a four-tonne truck. And he felt horror ... horror that all this destruction waged by Wesley ... was really for him. "You ..." his voice failed for a while, but he managed to gain some measure of control. "You ... you wanted to get to Quor-toth."
Wesley smiled, a smile of a lunatic. He was still nibbling his fingers as if it could help him focus somehow.
"It was the only way. I thought ... well, what did I think? I can't really remember, but I thought I could somehow do that... You know, rip through time and dimensions to heroicly rescue Connor from the pit of hell. Then ..." he shrugged, and his eyes went sideways as if distracted by something. "... then I couldn't." His voice was bitter. "The Powers that Be wouldn't let me. The Elemental wouldn't let me. You see, I had other important things to do." His hands fluttered before him, and Angel saw that madness had finally taken complete hold of his friend.
His friend. *Angel. You're full of shit.* Buffy muttered.
It was true then. He had caused this. His unforgiveness, his anger, had driven Wes to do this -- again, in another misguided attempt to help. He had truly driven his friend mad.
*I don't know if you're Angel or Angelus.*
And it was then that he remembered Cordelia's words. If you don't forgive him ... something bad will happen. Isn't that what she had said? Was it too late?
"Wes," he began.
"So Connor grew up in Quor-toth, and it was all for nothing," Wes continued, ignoring Angel. Bitterness tinged his words. "I was so angry at first. That I failed again. That I-I become this thing for nothing! I could feel myself slipping away, like some kind of sand on ... on ..." Wes? thoughts wandered, his eyes glazing over.
"Wes. Listen to me."
Glowing green eyes shifted to him.
What the hell could he say to him? What words could he say to make him feel better? To undone all the stupid things he'd said? "You have to stop this. Only you can."
Wes looked surprised. Then it became astonishment. Then he laughed, a high-pitched laugh of the mad. "The vampire with a soul thinks it could stop us!"
"If anyone can stop this. You can."
Wes blinked, then said, "Why are you being so nice to me?"
It was such a child-like question that Angel didn't know how to answer at first. "I realised some things," he said, knowing how lame it sounded.
Wesley's eyes searched furtively across the room as if it could give him an answer to Angel's behaviour. Then his eyes met his again. "I can't let them escape."
"The Aman-yar. That's why I'm here. Sorry. That's why we're here. They will reach their zenith tomorrow. And ... and they will use the Mother to fulfil their desires. Can't let that happen," he whispered, looking at his restless hands.
"You're calling me Wes. That's nice. For a while I thought you forgot my name. So you see... I was a fool. A pawn of prophecy once more. I thought I could use the Elemental. But I'm letting it use me instead." He shrugged. "I guess an old dog cannot learn new tricks."
"Wesley, let me help you."
"Angel," he whispered, his voice suddenly whispery and fearful. It made Angel's heart clench at the sound of it. And he wanted to make Wes feel better -- something he didn't think he'd desire again. But before he could say anything, Wesley looked at Angel with pleading eyes. They were tears in them, Angel realised.
"I think something bad is going to happen to me. And I can't stop it," he whispered, his voice so fearful, so soft that his vampire hearing could barely pick it up. Wesley then bent forward and whispered in his ear. "If that happens. You have to stop them. Promise me." Wes reached behind him and touched his chains.
Then with a swiftness that made Angel gasp out loud, the chains that had trapped him disappeared in a flash of heat. He felt his wrists for burns, but there were none. "You can stop this," Angel said again, desperately. "You can make the Elemental go away."
Wes's green eyes glowed. He shook his head angrily. "You cannot stop me. You will only die trying!" he growled, his voice rising.
Angel grabbed Wes by the shoulders, shaking him. "You can!"
"And I say to you..." the ex-watcher's voice deepened into an unnatural growl. "You cannot stop us." The green in Wesley's eyes shone brighter, and with a start, Angel realised that it was not Wesley talking. It was the Elemental.
"Let him go," he hissed, his hands tightening his grip on Wesley's shoulders.
The Elemental did not answer. It stared at him balefully, the green in Wesley's eyes growing brighter and brighter.
Steam rose from Angel's hands as they began to burn. He tried to hold on to Wesley and met his eyes, only to see a flicker of fear in the glowing depths which quickly disappeared. Crying out in pain, Angel let go.
And then he heard someone screaming and Wesley lurched forward as if he was pushed from behind. He doubled over in surprise, and when he looked up, the glowing green presence was gone from Wesley's eyes. He looked relieved. "I'm me again," Wesley said in surprise, a small trembling smile on his face.
Angel smiled and reached out for him. "I knew you could-"
The relief on Wesley's face turned into a grimace of pain. He slowly sank down, and would have fallen if Angel had not grabbed him.
That was when he smelled it. Blood. He looked down. Horrified, he realised that a sharp point of a sword protruded from Wesley's side.
Wesley's pained expression seems to say, "I told you so". Then he gave the vampire a shadow of a wry grin before it collapsed in pain.
He looked up and saw who did it, and he couldn't understand it at first. It was Fred, standing there confused but determined. Horror was on her face, but she looked justified, as if she realised she had to do it for the right reasons.
Only this wasn't the right reason.
*Something bad is going to happen to me. And I can't stop it,* Wesley had whispered.
Wesley became limp in his grasp and Angel realised that he had lost consciousness. His body slumped forward, and Angel caught it, desperately searching for a pulse. It was there -- thready but weak. Smoke rose from his wound and Angel heard a hissing sound. Like the sound of acid burning ... flesh.
Horrified, he glanced down and saw rivulets of blood spreading upwards -- not downwards like it should. He ripped Wesley's shirt open and gasped when he saw tendrils of blood snaking quickly towards his heart. The blood leaked from beneath his skin, staining his chest. Something in the sword was entering his veins -- and with horror he realised that it had to be the Element of Water, there to work its deadly magic on Wesley.
"Pull it out," he told Fred, his eyes still on the carnage.
Fred looked at him in confusion and was about to protest but Angel yelled, "Damn it, pull it out!"
"I'll do it," Gunn said from somewhere. "I don't know why you're-"
"Shut up. It was all a scam," he didn't want to elaborate because Wesley was waking up, making small whimpering sounds of pain. Damn it. It was the wrong time to do so. If Wesley wasn't in such a bad shape already, he would've tried to knock him out.
Gunn did not give any warning when he pulled the sword out. It caught Wesley by surprise, and he cried out in pain, clutching Angel's coat with bloodied fingers. He stared at Angel, his blue eyes wide with hurt and surprise, then they rolled back in his head and he went limp again.
"Wes? Wes?" he called, knowing he would not get an answer. A gush of blood was dripping on Angel's pants, where Wesley's back rested. He felt for his pulse again, and was relieved to find it there -- even if it was weaker than before. He glanced down and saw that the bloody trail had slowed down its deadly track to Wesley's heart. But more ruptured veins were appearing on his skin.
"What the hell is going on?" Gunn asked, his voice low because he realised that something bad had just happened -- even though this was what they were working towards all this while.
To kill Wes.
"I'll tell you why. In fact, I really want to," came a smooth, saccharine-sweet voice.
Lilah Morgan stepped into view and made sure they saw the retinue behind her. Four robed demons and a squad of Wolfram & Hart goons, there to ensure that nothing untoward would happen to Lady M.
"Look at all of you. It's amazing. Little chess pieces all lined up for the play. And congratulations Angel. Oh wait, Fred," she shifted her gaze to Fred, whose confusion was starting to give way to horror. "That's right. It's Fred isn't it? Who pulled the killing blow? And the Bishop takes the King!" she laughed, clapping her hands.
"You know," she said when met with stony silence, "I didn't think it would work at first. I mean, psychological manipulation isn't my forte. I don't excel in it, but my client does. So she set up the plan; and because you're so damn predictable-" Lilah sounded disappointed, "-and so damn petty, you fell for it, hook, line and sinker." Her gaze shifted to Wesley and something flickered in her eyes. Regret? Couldn't be.
She returned her gaze to all of them. "All it took was your anger and resentment towards Wesley, some burnt corpses -- thanks to the Four Musketeers behind me -- and a little girl. Frankly, I'm disappointed." And she sounded like it. There was no gloating behind her voice at all. As if she expected more and was let down.
"We know we couldn't kill the Elemental. One look and he'd fry us to a crisp. But his friends?"
Fred looked away, tears running down her cheeks. She was beginning to tremble.
"His friends ... that's another story. He'd do anything for them. He won't lay a finger on them. He'd even drive himself mad for them. Wes is such a ..."
Angel dared her with a look to say what she wanted to say.
"...loyalist," she smiled, her smile surprisingly gentle. "It's something we at Wolfram & Hart appreciate, so I'm not putting him down here," she said seriously. "But hey, it's nothing personal. Business is business."
"Who is your client?" Angel said, his voice taut.
"Ah. The mastermind. It's up to her if she wants to show herself to you."
The voice. Wesley was right. Damn you Angel. He was right all along.
Cindy came towards them, gently guided by a Wolfram & Hart suit. She was dressed in a fine, pink silk frock, with white lace ribbons tying her blonde hair in place. The picture of innocence.
"I am glad you were who you were," Cindy said giving him an angelic smile. "Or else, I wouldn't have accomplished what I have. And the Aman-yar thanks you for your cooperation." She gave him a curtsy, her blue eyes glinting with the evil he saw too late.
"I will stop you," he hissed.
"I'm sure you want to," Cindy said in agreement. "But can you stop me when you turn to ashes?"
They heard the four demons chanting. Almost immediately, steam began to rise from the floor. Fred gasped looking around desperately. Gunn reached out and held her close.
"I'm sorry it'll have to end this way," Lilah said. "We were good ... sparring partners."
"Lilah?" Cindy asked, tugging on her skirt.
The lawyer bent down and gave the girl an indulgent smile.
"I think I want a Baskin Robbins sundae. It's getting hot," she said petulantly.
"Sure. Bye guys," Lilah gave them a smile, took Cindy by the hand and walked away from them. Before they exited the warehouse, Cindy gave them a wave.
Flames erupted around them, obscuring Cindy's face. Soon, it formed a circular prison of flames so high and thick that it was impossible for them to escape. The heavy smoke reduced Fred and Gunn to coughing wrecks, writhing on the floor. The chanting stopped, and they could see through the flicker of flames, the four robbed figures gliding away.
"Angel!" Fred called out, then coughed violently.
Angel could only hold on to Wesley's bloodied figure protectively. Too little, too late.
The flames were too high, too much for him to run through. He would turn into ashes before he could cross over. And then there was Fred and Gunn, who'd probably burn to death first - and Wesley, who would not even last a second out there.
"We're trapped," he whispered.
"Not really," came a voice.
Soft, yellow light encircled them. Angel watched in wonder as the fire around them disappeared, to be replaced by the white glow. It was familiar, the glow, he'd seen it before.
Suddenly, they were not in the warehouse anymore. They were outside on the street, facing the burning building. Angel stared stupidly at the spectacle until someone came into his view. He heard Gunn exclaim something and Fred gasping. He could only smile.
For the first time, he was at peace. All the grief, pain, confusion, guilt ... all gone. He felt as if he was floating in a weightless void, drifting towards an uncertain destination. No worries to be guilty about, no cause to follow or mission to fulfil. Everything was simple again, like it was before ... when he was a child of four, before his father sent a warlock to bind him.
They wanted him to see the message.
It was written on the table, out of Mason's ashes. Beside the note were two snap shots. One was a photo of Angel, the other, Gunn. And they were tied up with their hands above their heads with chains.
He could feel the one called Cindy -- but she was well-protected, beneath some kind of shields. What game were they playing?
And he realised that Wolfram & Hart knew him well. And that he would go to Angel even when he knew that it could put him in danger. He was that predictable.
But now, that didn't matter. Not anymore. The Element had retreated, shrinking away from the Elemental of Water that invaded his body. When he had felt the sword pierce his body, he had felt strangely relieved. And glad that it was all over. That the path he had set himself on would be over.
Pain flared suddenly from nowhere, and he found himself fighting valiantly to escape its clutches. Unfortunately, pain was winning.
Then came cold ...and heat, and pain so severe that it robbed him of breath. With a gasp, his eyes shot open. His body was trembling -- from cold? But he felt hot ... He found himself looking at something. A hand? Voices floated around him, but he found it hard to concentrate.
*Where am I?* He wanted to ask. *Am in hell already?*
The dark place shifted suddenly, and Wesley found himself gasping from the pain. The pain made him tremble all over, and he suspected that he was deep in shock already. *I don't want to die. Not when everything is unresolved. Not when evil is at my door.*
Then the dark place shifted a little, and he saw eyes staring down at him. He made out a face, and the face was trying to speak to him. Light suddenly flickered around him and his half-opened eyes sagged close. The voice spoke to him again, but the effort to understand was too difficult.
But he had to say something to the face. The light was bothering him -- it flickered in and out and he could see it from beneath his eyelids. Close the door so that he could sleep in peace, he thought.
"It's going to be okay," she said, brushing the hair that partially covered his eyes. "Everything's going to be alright."
The voice was familiar and it forced him to open his eyes to look at the face again. She smiled, pleased that he was awake.
"Hi, Wesley. Just hang on, okay?"
Then he smiled because he remembered her name. "Cordelia," he said, surprised.
Cordelia smiled in return, a nervous worried smile that reminded him of a time when she did the same before -- when he was shot.
"I thought you were lost," he whispered.
Tendrils of light surrounded her, enveloping her in an ethereal light that made her look angelic. That's right, she was gone for a while ... nobody knew why. Nobody knew where. But now she was back, speaking to him ... there was a time, after Connor, where he thought she'd preferred not to have known him at all. Knowing that he was wrong -- or that she had changed her mind -- eased the hurt in him somewhat.
"The light hurts," he muttered when a sudden flash of light nearly blinded him.
The light around Cordelia faded and she whispered, "Sorry."
Somehow her hand found itself in his, and he squeezed it. "I'm not," he said. He closed his eyes, letting darkness take him.
"We have to get him to the hospital," Cordelia said needlessly as she moved away from Wesley. For a moment, she stared at her bloody hands distractedly and then wiped her hands on her white dress dismissively.
When she found everyone staring at her, she snapped, "What the hell are you looking at me for? Help him!"
"Gunn," Angel said shortly and moved to Wesley's side. The vampire's face went slack when he saw Wesley pale, bloodied and unmoving. When Gunn moved beside him to help, he shook his head and said, "I'll do it."
As gently as he could, he lifted Wesley into his arms. Wesley's body was limp in his arms; he held him close -- for what little good it could do.
"I thought I warned you," Cordelia said, her voice low and quiet as she caught up and walked beside him.
Angel didn't know what to say except to walk blindly towards a destination he didn't know.
She shook her head, as if in response to his silence. "I don't blame you. I'm in no position to judge anyone. I'm not exactly spotless myself," she muttered.
"Where were you?" Angel whispered.
"In the Higher Realms. Watching. Just watching. That's all I could freaking do," her voice was heavy with distaste. "Life as a higher being isn't what it's made out to be. So I bailed out. On the condition that I lose all my powers -- and my memory of the higher realms, and that's fine by me. See ... can't even remember how I got you out of the burning whatever already," she muttered.
"Where are we going?" Gunn asked when he caught up with them.
"There's a van, not far from here. We'll take it," she said, not explaining how she knew.
Gunn fell back, waiting for Fred. When she did not follow, Gunn turned back only to see her staring at the ground, where the bloody sword was.
"I killed him," she whispered.
"Fred," he took her hand and tugged it. "Come on, we have to go."
She shook her head furiously, tears trickling down her cheeks. "I killed him. I killed him!"
He grabbed her firmly by the shoulders, and gave Fred a shake. "He's alive. There's still a chance, but we have to go. Now."
Than seemed to snap her out of her daze. She nodded jerkily and took his hand. And together they ran into the darkness.
He was trembling. Whether from blood loss or pain, Wesley was trembling hard in his arms. Angel was trying desperately to inject some warmth into Wesley's broken body the best he could - first covering Wesley with his coat, then when that didn't work - Fred's.
"Please hurry," Fred was whispering beside him. She was staring ahead at the back of Gunn's head, but not really looking at it. Her hands were in tight, still-bloodied fists, the knuckles white from strain. Her face had taken on a vacant, emotionless expression which was only interrupted each time Wesley let out an involuntary gasp of pain.
"We're almost there!" Gunn said in what must've been the tenth time. Angel only held Wesley tighter, meeting Cordelia's desperate eyes as she peered from the front seat. She and Gunn had gone through this desperate time once, when Wesley was shot by zombie cops. But this time it was much, much worse. Not only could they not stop his bleeding, the magicked sword, according to Fred, had held the Element of White Water, the antithesis of the Element of Green Fire, which was now causing havoc in the former Watcher's body. It was bursting blood vessels systematically in each organ. Sometimes, Angel could see a vein appear dark on Wesley's pale skin and then suddenly lose its shape. He was slipping in and out of consciousness, barely lucid.
"You didn't leave me," came the soft, whispery voice.
Surprised, Angel looked down at Wesley's pale face. Sweat beaded Wesley's forehead despite the chilly night. A dark vein ran from his forehead down to his neck. It looked ready to burst. His blue eyes were dilated to the point that his pupils were invisible.
"No, I didn't," he agreed, holding him close and ignoring the intoxicating smell of Wesley's blood. He could feel it seeping into his shirt, where Wesley's back rested.
Wesley blinked languorously and whispered, "I'm glad."
Angel just kept silent.
"Connor is a good boy, isn't he?" Wesley said after pausing a while to catch his breath.
He nodded, "Yeah," but couldn't stop the catch from forming in his voice - especially after his acute hearing began to register Wesley's too-fast heartbeats and wheezing breaths. He knew the sound, having heard the same noises when he drained his victims dry. Wesley was too near that end.
"Just hang on, okay?" he pleaded. AT least, until he made everything he'd done wrong right again.
Wesley smiled, as if pleased to hear what he was saying. His glazed eyes met Angel's then he said softly, "Is it behind us?"
Angel didn't have to guess what 'it' was. All that anguish, bitterness and pain between them. The sting of betrayal on both sides ... "It's behind us," he answered firmly.
The van jerked to a stop, causing Wesley to weakly cry out in pain. Angel was about to yell at Gunn when he was beat to it by the man.
"We're here!" Gunn leapt out from his side and quickly flung the van doors open. Angel did not have to be told what to do. He lifted Wesley in his arms and got down, trying to ignore Wesley's moans as the sharp movements jostled the man, only thinking of the Emergency room that lay ahead.
"We've got someone hurt here!" Gunn yelled, rushing in. This startled the sprinkle of patients waiting in the corridor - cuts and bruises mostly, though a girl held an arm as if it was broken. The shocked nurse sprang to action when she saw Angel carrying Wesley. Drops of blood followed his path and some patients stared morbidly at it.
Quickly, Wesley was placed on a gurney and wheeled to the emergency room.
"Wesley? Wesley?" Cordelia was calling. Angel shook his head, seeing that Wesley didn't really hear them. He was already in deep shock, staring at the lights above them as if hypnotised. Blood was quickly staining the white cloth of the gurney beneath him. So much blood. Why wasn't his bleeding stopping?
"He's going to be alright," he said, needing desperately to believe it.
Cordelia only nodded jerkily.
"Sir? Ma'am. This is as far as you go," the nurse said. Cordelia stayed obediently behind, but Angel pushed ahead.
"Hey! Wait!" the nurse called when Angel went ahead with the gurney.
"What is he doing here?" the doctor demanded when Angel appeared by Wesley's side.
Angel merely gave the doctor a sharp look that demanded no refusal.
Resigned, but still annoyed, the doctor barked: "Please, at least stand aside so we can do our work."
A nurse quickly placed an oxygen mask over Wesley while another nurse read his vitals. "Blood pressure 60 on 40. Heart beat 160 and climbing."
Slowly, Wesley turned, his half-closed eyes meeting his.
Angel could only watch numbly as the flurry of activity around Wesley increased.
"Doctor, his blood pressure is dropping."
A memory came -- from the few fateful days before he lost his baby to Quor-toth.
**"Angel - you're the reason we've all come together. It's your mission which animates us," Wesley had said, looking tired yet confident of his words. "We each contribute, it's true, but you - you're unique." **
The Doctor looked up from his ministrations, his expression grave. A red splotch of blood on his white coat. "He's lost too much blood. Type him. Wait ... sir? Sir?"
Angel snapped out of his reverie. "What?"
"Do you know his blood type?"
"I don't know," he answered, his tongue heavy. He had made a point trying not to know what blood type his employees had.
"Type him," the doctor told a nurse quickly.
Then he was back in another hospital room, and he was looking down at Wesley once more. But he was furious, so furious. Wes had an IV in the back of his left hand and a bandage around his throat. His eyes were closed until he came towards him. The look in his eyes -- guilty and numb at the same time -- was not enough to cull the anger from him. All he could think of was Connor. The only son he would have --
And like a slow nightmare, he heard himself telling Wes that he understood why he did it -- take Connor, that is.
**"I know about the prophecies and I know how hard it must have been for you to - do what you did. You thought I was gonna turn evil and kill my son. I didn't. It's important you know that. This isn't Angelus talking. It's me, Angel. You know that, right?"**
"Doctor, his heart rate has gone up to 180-"
**"You son of a bitch, you're gonna pay for what you did! You took my son! You son of a bitch! You bastard!"**
Wesley was still staring at him, but his eyes had glazed over.
**"You think I'd forgive you?!"**
"Ready? Clear!" Wesley's body jerked.
**"No! Never! You're gonna die! You hear me?"**
**"You're gonna pay!"**
"Time of death?"
"5.20am," the nurse answered, looking at Angel sadly.
He looked peaceful, despite the wide bloody pool beneath him and his deathly pallor. His eyes were slightly opened, his mouth in a thin, unsmiling line -- but composed and calm, as if he was satisfied at something. A smudge of blood on his cheek was the only colour on his white skin.
"Umm. Doctor?" the nurse called, giving Angel a sideways glance.
The Doctor saw Angel, who was still staring numbly at Wesley's body. "Sir?" The doctor said softly, his voice low with sympathy. "I'm sorry. There was ... he lost too much blood."
Angel didn't move.
"We couldn't stop his bleeding. The weapon must have hit an ..."
The doctor returned his gaze to the still body and sighed. Despite seeing this once too often, he still didn't know how to deal with this. How could you comfort the friends and loved ones of people who died so brutally?
He took hold of a sheet and started covering the body, but just as he was about to cover the man's face, his friend stopped him with a firm grasp to his hand. Surprised at the iciness of the grip, the doctor jerked his hand away. Composing himself, his mind quickly formulated a reason for the iciness: Shock. The man's in shock, the doctor thought sadly. Naturally. Sighing, the doctor decided to leave Angel alone. With the body.
Angel removed the sheet that partially covered Wesley's face. The finality that it symbolised ... hurt.
"I didn't mean what I said."
The blue eyes stared glassily ahead.
"I don't hate you. That night in the alley after you rescued me. I was grateful. And happy at seeing you again. But I was just being a jerk you know?"
Slowly, he closed Wesley's eyes. Now, he looked as if he was sleeping.
Angel's face scrunched up in grief. Too late. Always too late.
With a roar, he ran his hand through the wall above Wesley's body.
"Dr Rogers, please come to Surgery Ward five, thank you," said the nurse's voice over the intercom. It was the third call, and the nurse's voice had a distinct annoyed edge to it.
Gunn felt an edge too. Right now there was a growing tension him and he wanted to lash out and hit something. Anything. It had been half an hour now, and he hated not knowing, not being there when-
When what, Gunn? I mean, you should be happy and all. I mean, you've been wishing him to go away for some time now. Now you've got the wish. Be happy and make merry, man!
Gunn ignored the mocking voice inside his head and focused his attention on Fred, who had been sitting, like a statue, in that uncomfortable plastic chair for half an hour now. He was worried -- he saw something in her eyes that he had not seen in a long time. The same distant look she had worn in Pylea, where little she said had made sense. She couldn't be going back there now.
They made a mistake. Damn it, they were duped! Idiots!
Again, he had the urge to kick something.
Maybe Cordelia caught wind of his intentions when she gave him a sharp look. She had stopped bothering to hide her tears for some time now. In her hand was a crumpled tissue, something the nurse gave when she saw her state.
Just then the doors to the Emergency Room flung open and all three of them stood up at once. Angel walked towards them, his face unreadable. But his shoulders held an undeniable stoop of defeat that none of them wanted to see.
"Angel?" Cordelia whispered. "Wes? Tell me-"
Angel just shook his head shortly and looked to his right, at nothing Gunn could see. The vampire just didn't want to meet their eyes.
"He ..." Angel's voice shook and when he returned his gaze towards them, they were wet with tears. "He ... it was too hard. I'm sorry."
"Too hard?" Cordelia asked, her voice taking on a shrill edge. "What the hell do you mean?!" she gave him a sharp look before running into the emergency room, pushing aside a nurse who wanted to stop her.
Gunn wanted to go to her, to see Wes, to see for himself whether it was true, but Fred had collapsed to her knees on the floor. The vacant look in her eyes had deepened, and Gunn was desperate to reach her.
"Fred?" he whispered. Then shook her a little. She didn't even blink.
"Baby, come on."
Suddenly, she got up, pushed him away and ran down the hall. She ran so fast that she was gone from his sight when he finally got his legs back. He turned to ask Angel something, but the vampire was gone too -- leaving Gunn alone in the emergency room waiting area.
"Get away from him!" Cordelia growled, pushing away the aide.
"Hey lady, you shouldn't be here," the man protested, keeping a firm hold on the gurney where Wesley's shrouded body lay.
"And he shouldn't be here, you get it?" Cordelia yelled, not caring if she sounded like a crazy person or not. "He wasn't supposed to die! I mean ... he wasn't..." It was important. Somehow she knew that it was all wrong, that it wasn't Wesley's fate to die this way -- or this early. It wasn't fair. The Powers that Be were taking away her memories so quickly. It wasn't fair not to know!
The aide nodded, as if he understood. "Okay. I'll give you a few minutes ... but I'm sorry, ma'am. His body-" he faltered when he saw her sharp glare.
"I mean... the coroner will want to see him," he said after an awkward silence. Then he reluctantly walked away, throwing back glances as he moved to a spot to give her some privacy.
When she was finally alone, Cordelia managed to work up the nerve to remove the sheet. She stared at Wesley's still face and at his motionless chest where so much blood now lay.
She was really stupid sometimes. Who was she kidding? She was an idiot most of the time! It took her an ascension to realise how much Wesley was suffering after Connor's abduction. But by then, it was too late to do anything. All she could do was watch as he destroyed himself -- and as his friends stood by to watch.
And she was one of them.
How she hated him after what he did to Angel. Then, she was so myopic in her love for Angel that she had blocked Wesley out of her mind. He didn't exist to her, and she didn't want to care.
"Wes. You can't be dead," she whispered, touching his cheek tentatively.
It was ice cold.
Gasping, she closed her eyes, her slight body trembling. This couldn't be happening.
Shocked, Cordelia opened her eyes, expecting Wesley's blue ones to look up at her, but they were still closed. Dead. He was really dead.
She felt a hand on her shoulder, but she wasn't alarmed. It was familiar. She held the hand and squeezed it. It seemed like ages ago when they were together in a situation like this; watching over a dying Wesley as he lay on the couch bleeding to death from a gunshot wound. But now ...
"He's really gone," Cordelia whispered plaintively.
"I know," Gunn said, his voice low.
All Cordy could do was stare at Wesley. Then, she lifted up a cold, bloodied hand, and leaned against it. "I'm sorry Wesley. For being too late."
Gunn looked away, knowing that there was nothing he could say that would make things better.
It was just too late for that now.
The door opened with a bang, startling Giles and Willow out of their reverie. The watcher stood up sharply, prepared for the worst as he aimed his bow at the intruder. He sighed in relief when he realised it was Angel. "Angel? Is Fred-?"
Angel didn't answer. Instead, he seemed bent on something. His motions were taut, angry. With quick, sharp motions, he opened the weapons cabinet and took out a sword and slammed it shut.
"Angel? Stop. What happened?" Giles demanded, racing to Angel's side.
He was surprised that Angel actually stopped to consider him. With trembling lips he said, "We were such idiots!" he hissed, his voice heavy with self-recrimination.
"What happened?" Giles demanded firmly.
Angel closed his eyes at that. "Wesley's dead."
Although Giles was not surprised -- it was what Fred left to do after all -- Willow, who didn't know about that, gasped and swayed to her feet. "How?"
It was clear that the vampire had no intention of answering her when he continued his walk to the exit, but Giles was fed up of people rushing off bull-headedly without thinking.
"Damn you, Angel. You will stop now, and you will explain what is going on before anyone else gets killed!" he barked.
That got his attention. With a furious motion, Angel swung around and threw his sword. Giles flinched when the sword impaled a pillar near the stairs. The dull thud echoed eerily in the cavernous, mostly-empty hotel. Then with a suddenness that shocked the former watcher, Angel sank to his knees and wept. Tentatively, Giles placed a shaky hand on the vampire's shoulders, not knowing what to do. He had never seen the vampire lose control before. Never.
Willow met his eyes, fear and sorrow in them -- because they now know that they had been right all this time -- they had not seen the whole picture.
"You need to rest. All of you," Giles told the dispirited AI gang as they sat in the lounge area of the Hyperion. Nobody bothered to acknowledge his statement. Lorne sat slumped in the sofa, looking ridiculous in his bright-yellow suit, clutching the files he had scavenged from Baylor House to his chest like a kid would've done.
Giles winced at the memory of Lorne's exuberant entrance just a few minutes ago.
"I think we've got something. Wonder boy here dug some of Wesley's old files that could shed some light to all this nonsense about him killing people," Lorne had thrown Connor a big smile, who had returned it in kind.
But their smiles faltered when they saw the expression on Angel and Gunn's face. And when Lorne saw Cordelia, he was about to break into another exuberant greeting when Cordelia smacked it flat.
"Wesley's dead, Lorne."
Connor's eyes widened and then he immediately shot Angel an accusing look. The vampire didn't bother to respond.
"You killed him," the boy spat. "I knew you would. I knew it!" With that, he ran away, nearly breaking the exit doors apart in his haste to leave them.
"But ..." Lorne was saying. "These ... files. They ..."
Finally despondent, Lorne had joined the rest of the gang on the seat, clutching the now-useless files to his chest.
"Rest," Giles repeated, "If we're to fight this ... threat we're going to need our energy. And Lorne, the files are not useless. Give them to me."
Mechanically, the demon handed the files to him. Giles leafed through them, not really reading the contents. He was still too shocked to concentrate properly. But among the rest, he was the one who was probably the most clear-headed right now. The only one, he mused, that had no emotional link to Wesley blinding his focus.
Currently, Angel Investigations was mired with guilt, grief and regret -- none of these emotions beneficial in getting to the thick of things. What they needed was to pull themselves together and refocus.
Believing that they would rest and see sense in what he said, Giles retreated to Wesley's former office, laying out the files and its contents on the desk. Methodically, as he was trained to do, he began cross correlating them in his mind. However, Wesley had made it ridiculously easy for him, peppering his notes with Watcher symbols that aided research immensely. He felt, rather than saw, Willow join him, silently opening one of the files.
"I can't believe he's gone," Willow said after a long while of pawing through the files.
"Things happen," Giles said, hoping he did not sound too cold.
Willow seemed to understand that this was his way of disconnecting from what happened to better focus on the situation at hand. She just nodded.
"They were used. Used to kill one of their own. It's difficult to live down," she murmured, drawing from first-hand experience -- only she wasn't used in any way.
"But they have to," he said shortly. Then gently added, "We have to help them do it. Starting with finding out about the Aman-yar."
Suddenly, a thick book landed on his pile of files. Surprised, Giles looked up to see Fred.
"I know who they are," she said, her voice flat.
"They're called the Soulless Ones. Not vampires," Giles murmured, as he went through the Aman-ot-ohp Chronicles. "Humans. Without souls."
"Is such a thing possible?" Willow asked incredulously from her seat, looking up from her notebook for a while.
"If you were spawned by a demon, yes," Giles answered.
His gaze shifted to Wesley's journal -- the last journal he wrote. One entry was dated shortly after Connor's kidnapping. In fact -- just a few days after he returned from the hospital.
**I see visions. That's strange. Is it the Powers That Be? Or am I finally going mad? Flashes of faces ... people ... strangers. Who are they? And a voice kept whispering something I cannot make out. Am I losing my mind?**
Wesley's voice seemed to echo pleadingly from the page. Giles could sense the despair in his words, the desperation .. He shook his head and sighed. A few weeks later, Wesley had written:
**I finally hear it. Aman-yar. Along with that understanding, came other visions. Visions of fire. And I can feel something else inside me as well. Something waiting to burst out of me. I don't understand what is going on ... and it did not help matters that Gunn came last night to seek my help after swearing never to have anything to do with me ever again. Life is full of ironies.
I did it only for Fred.**
Giles shifted in his seat uncomfortably. He hated going through these journals -- even if Wesley was now gone. Wesley's words were filled with too much pain -- the pain of a man wracked with guilt and fear. It wasn't something Wesley should be remembered for. He thumbed through some of Wesley's disjointed sketches hoping to distract himself. Faces of people, strange symbols, alien words were scrawled across the pages in a haphazard manner. Giles stopped when he came across the picture of Cindy. Ever the Watcher, Wesley had carefully noted down the date he received the vision.
"A week after he returned from the hospital," he murmured. Perhaps it was his traumatic near-death that triggered the change in Wesley. Perhaps by almost dying, the Elemental was awakened. "Who knows?" Giles murmured.
At Willow's puzzled look, Giles cleared his throat self-consciously. "Wesley had visions before he even became an Elemental. He left detailed notes on them in these files. It's no wonder that Lorne and Connor ignored them at first. They looked like gibberish. Unless you knew what to look for."
"The first book he referred to were the Andulian Prophecies. An ancient tome where this symbol appears-" He took out a page with a strange symbol -- a circle filled with elaborate demonic language -- and showed it to her.
"The Andulian prophecies said that the Aman-yar were created from the union of a demon and human being. The demon was Amopholas, who was banished by Kas-kuv, a priestess of the order of Natanyah. Unfortunately, before she banished him ... he raped her. And she had a child -- a normal child. Kas-kuv couldn't bring herself to kill her child, so she let it live.
"But the seed of this demon emerges sporadically. So, when the first Aman-yar appeared, Kas-kuv was long dead. Basically, you don't get a soulless human all the time, only once in a few hundred years. They look completely human, but the Aman-yar are the most evil men and women you'd know. Hitler was Aman-yar. And he's one of the nicer versions," he said.
"But the Andulian prophecies also say that there will be a time where these spawnings will increase in frequency," explained Giles.
"And the time is now," Fred said. Giles and Willow jumped. Fred had sequestered herself at the corner of the room and had gone so quiet that they had all but forgotten about her.
"Wesley ..." Fred's voice wavered for a while, but she regained her resolve, "According to Wesley the Aman-yar has reached its zenith."
She came to the table and pawed through the files that were laid on the it. When she found what she was looking for, she gave it to Giles.
When he opened the file, he saw that Wesley had hastily scrawled the word 'Gathering' over the first page.
"It's a list of names," he murmured.
"I don't know how he came to identify these people, but I suspect it was the Elemental who helped him. When I looked at these names closely, and researched their backgrounds, I discovered that there were some unexplained deaths in their past," Fred said.
Shuffling sounds announced Angel's presence. As one, they turned to see the vampire leaning against the doorjamb, an unreadable look on his face.
"Any progress?" his voice was tired, dead.
"Enough," Fred said shortly, then lowered her head as if her bold statement was embarrassing.
Angel barely glanced her way. Giles explained as best as he could what he found in Wesley's files.
"I can't explain the demon mythology of the Aman-yar in full detail, but essentially the ancient demon Amopholas is living through its soulless spawn, using them to achieve whatever twisted purpose it wants. Perhaps to even reappear in this dimension. And now, it has enough numbers on Earth to wreck havoc," Giles murmured. "And number one on its agenda-"
"The Mother," Angel said. The pieces were falling together. "The Aman-yar wants to use the Mother to gain power."
"Wesley wrote 'Gathering' here," Fred murmured, her eyes still lowered. "I suspect that the Aman-yar will gather, and together, they will use the Mother. After all, they're essentially the channels of one demon."
"And that's why the Elemental of Green Fire was sent. To destroy the Aman-yar and its numbers before they could achieve whatever it is," Willow said in response.
"We'll stop them," Angel said quietly, his tone brooking no argument.
"Where are we going to find this gathering thingy anyway?" Gunn asked, suddenly appearing at the doorway. Fred gave Gunn a cold, sardonic smile. It made Gunn squirm in a painful way.
"You know, Wesley did everything with a reason and for a purpose. That's why he moved into Avarice. It wasn't to clean up vampires, it wasn't because the property market was deflated and he needed a new home," she said, her voice low.
"Because the Gathering will happen in Avarice," Angel murmured.
And he opened the file marked 'Vision' where, amidst the complex calculations and symbols, Wesley had scrawled this word: Avarice.
The morgue attendants lay dead on the floor.
Better clean that up, thought John Patience.
Patience liked to do his work neatly; clean up the mess, no blood traces -- not even a DNA strand to pick up. He did it well, which is why Wolfram & Hart sent him to take out many of its major 'inconveniences'.
However, this was the first time he was instructed to take out a body.
"Job's already done, I don't get it," piped a voice beside him.
It was also the first time he was instructed to take a W&H lawyer with him on the job.
"Shutup," he muttered.
The lawyer, a snivelly-looking, overpaid creature in Armani called Lawrence, curled his lip at the assassin. "Do you have any idea-"
"I don't. And I don't care. What I care is that you're making enough racket to get us both noticed. So shut up before I decide to use this axe against you."
Lawrence had enough brain power to flinch. Good, Patience thought.
He studied the corpse on the trolley before him. It looked like an ordinary corpse -- no fang marks, so not a vamp-to-be. Died of a bad stab wound at the side. What the heck is so special about it?
Well, he wasn't paid to wonder.
"Ms. Morgan said that we have to make sure the corpse is totally dismembered and if possible, ground."
Patience glared at Lawrence again. "Don't make me repeat myself," he growled.
Lawrence just stood up straighter. He lifted his axe to-
"Hey, do you smell something?"
Patience was about to turn, tell him that 'of course there's a smell, it's a damn morgue' when the smell hit him too.
It was acrid and sulphuric. And it was coming from the-
He didn't finish his thought.
For a gathering of a thousand or more Aman-yar, Avarice was surprisingly deserted.
"What did you expect, tour busses?" Lorne muttered out loud.
Unfortunately, his voice carried sharply in the empty warehouse, causing the others -- Angel, Gunn, Fred, Cordelia, Giles and Willow -- to turn around in surprise.
"Sorry," Lorne said self-consciously.
Something was up, and they all knew it. They'd followed Wesley's detailed diagrams and had ended up here, the supposed epicentre of the meeting. But there was no one around.
Angel told them to stay sharp. But he didn't want to admit his fear that they could've read the map wrong. Giles, however, cut to the chase and told them that he couldn't be wrong about the map. This was the place.
That didn't make him feel any better because they were being lured into a trap -- or were probably already in one.
Meanwhile, Gunn and Fred were wiring the place with explosives. They had decided to split up -- classic horror movie cliché -- and always a bad idea, but they had no choice.
"Anything?" Willow asked.
Giles looked warily around the empty warehouse. "How do a thousand people hide themselves?"
"I've checked the place for invisibility spells -- I don't detect anything," she said.
Suddenly, they heard a startled scream.
"That sounded like Lorne!"
Giles and Willow ran towards the direction of the sound, but before they could reach it, a body came flying across their path and landed heavily on a stack of boxes.
"Gunn!" Willow cried out in shock. But not letting that distract her, Willow armed herself with magic, preparing to nix the culprit.
No one was there.
"Fred? Angel?" she called out.
Giles cast her a worried look. Could the Aman-yar have gotten to them so fast?
The movement came so fast he didn't register it until he landed heavily on the floor ten feet away. Winded, Giles looked up blearily, only to be met with a blow to his chin. His vision blurred, his glasses broken, Giles could only gasp and struggle vainly to get up.
Willow instinctively struck out at the invisible being, and for a moment, she could make out a human shape lighted by her blast. It didn't even flinch as it raised an arm to strike her.
She avoided the blow easily, but the figure moved so quickly that she could not avoid the second blow. It threw her fifteen feet away and she landed with a heavy thud on a wall, to slide down bonelessly to her floor.
Before her vision faded, she saw the figure rematerialise. A young woman, about her age, smiled at her.
Then everything went black.
"Welcome back. You weren't such a challenge, were you?"
Angel blinked to clear her vision. Cindy stood before him, all blonde and angelic, wearing a pink floral dress. When his vision cleared some more, he realised that a number of people were standing behind her.
An elderly woman, in her forties, wearing a business suit. A teenage girl, about Dawn's age, chewing on bubble gum, wearing a hipster and a baby-T. A grandfatherly man smoking a pipe. A fashionable woman, wearing a tank top and a mini skirt. The Aman-yar, empty human shells, vessels to one demon.
"Hello Amopholas," he gritted out.
Cindy raised an eyebrow. "Well, aren't you smart," she said derisively. "But I don't think you discovered it all by yourself. I bet it was the Watcher, wasn't it? Rupert Giles?"
He heard a sound to his right. A furtive glance and he saw Giles coming to. He realised then that they were in a cage of some sort. Giles was the only one among the group that was coming around. The rest were slumped around the cage, unconscious.
"How do you like my children, vampire?" the teenage girl asked. She walked towards him, holding the bars of the cage seductively as she pouted. "I come in many shapes and sizes ... and now, thanks to the Mother ... I have more than human vessels."
To prove her point, she started bending the bars she held just a little bit.
Giles stumbled beside Angel, his eyes widening. "You have used the Mother."
"You're too late," came the grandfatherly man. "But that is not what we're after ... ultimately."
Cindy smiled wide. "I think it's time for me to come home," she said, her blue eyes sparkling.
Fire. An Element that filled ancient man with wonder. It was worshipped, used as a tool for life, a tool for death, and a tool of suffering. It was not good. Neither was it evil. But its purpose had always been the same: to purify, be it for good reasons or bad.
The Elementals existed at the birth of the world. They were there -- raw power without will or desire. They were the Guardians who kept the world in balance. But in times of peril, they are Awakened, and choose to inhabit a human vessel to carry out its mission, whatever it is. For the human is the only creature that could give it will and personality; its soul ensures that.
Now the Elemental of Green Fire is the strongest of them all; too strong, some say, because it inevitably drives its vessel to madness. It is not a good thing to be a vessel to such power.
Only twice has the Elemental of Green Fire taken form; first, Ayas, who was worshipped for her awesome power, and who in turn destroyed the civilisation which she came from.
The second time the Elemental of Green Fire appeared, it took the form of someone I knew -- and I suppose it is something every scholar desires, a legend coming alive before them. Unfortunately, I did not find the experience at all enjoyable.
The second time the Elemental of Green Fire appeared, it inhabited in the body of a young boy in the Southern part of England. His name was Wesley. It hid in him for a time, thwarted for a brief while by the interference of men -- but it came out nevertheless, when Wesley was 35.
It empowered him. It drove him mad. It eventually killed him.
And enslaved his soul.
- From the journals of Rupert Giles
Alanna fought as long as she could, but the vampires were too strong for her. Screaming what would probably be her last scream, Alanna then braced for the end.
But the vampires were suddenly distracted.
"Hey! We're being watched," snarled one.
The vampires turned as one to see a lone figure standing in the alley. Alanna took that moment to try escape, but the vampires anticipated her; one of them grabbed her by the neck and pinned her to the wall.
She could only watch her end rushing towards her.
Honestly, Gondo was having a bad day. He hadn't had a meal for more than seven hours; the worse was having to share that lone catch with the other two losers -- Josh and Bob. Then while they were about to have her, they were interrupted by some bozo who decided to come and watch.
The figure stood in the alley, seemingly undisturbed by the spectacle.
"Beat it! Or else you're next!" Josh snapped.
Gondo gave him a disbelieving look. Chase away a meal? Dumb and slow.
To make sure that the quarry was human, Gondo sniffed. And was taken aback. There was something wrong with the guy -- human, yeah, but the smell of blood was wrong. Rancid. Like it had gone bad. And he did not hear a heart beat, so the guy was obviously no longer alive.
But he wasn't a vampire either. He could sense that immediately.
"Zombie?" Bob asked. He was quicker than Josh by light years.
At that, the girl squealed in horror.
"Beat it! I'm in no mood to deal with walking dead men now, get it!" Josh yelled.
"Just ignore him, Josh! Zombies are dumb, slow things. Probably wants the girl. Fresh meat and all. Ever since that stupid vamp hunter came to Avarice, humans have been hard to come by."
The girl squealed some more.
Then the zombie did something unexpected. It moved.
But its movements were unnatural -- not the slow, lumbering gait of the zombie -- it was super-fast, jerky, as if their eyes couldn't process the movements fast enough, only allowing them glimpses of the creature. As a result, the zombie looked as if he was appearing and disappearing in places, its head whirling at impossible speeds.
Voices whispered around them. Disjointed, ghostly ...
**What is that? Where are they? Vampires. Filth. I'm dead.**
The girl screamed in earnest this time. Josh was so shocked by the zombie that he didn't bother to muffle her this time.
Then in another millisecond, the zombie was before him. It floated in the air, hair floating wildly about it, stirred by an unnatural wind. And Josh noticed something else -- an incredible heat rising from the body.
Another spasm of movement, a quick whirl of the head and the face turned towards him.
Josh yelled in shock.
It was the vampire hunter. The one that had been hunting the vampire population in Avarice mercilessly the past few months. But he looked dead. Milky blue eyes stared at him, his skin was grey blue and so were his lips. Hell, he was dead.
Josh had heard about the vamp hunter. Saw him in action once. Heard that he was some kinda sorcerer with fire starting powers or something. He'd thought the stories were all bull. What he had seen was great gymnastics with the bow and arrow that was all.
The girl screamed again, her eyes wide and staring, when she saw the zombie's face.
He didn't think they were bull now.
At the sound, the vampire hunter looked at the girl, his eyes glowing green.
Numbed by fear, Josh let the girl go, backing away. "Hey man ... okay, we're letting her go."
**Don't hurt her! Filth. Destroy. It's time to gather. Time to purify. Let me go.**
The voices came again -- one pleading, another emotionless and raw with power.
Josh had only a moment to realise that Bob and Gondo were strangely silent. He realised that they were beside him -- as ashes. He didn't have time to scream as the Elemental reached out with blinding speed to decapitate him with a lightning-quick movement of his hand.
As Josh's head flew in the air, the Elemental shifted its gaze towards the girl, who sat slumped on the dirty alley floor in horror.
It dismissed her presence as unimportant, and turned away.
Alanna could only manage a croak when the dead man burst into flames the colour of fluorescent green. With a burst of sound, the creature disappeared from her sight, as if it had never been there.
The Elemental only cared that its mission was accomplished. A dead vessel did not stop it -- it only needed to trap the soul in the body to reappear again, to have the mind necessary to accomplish its mission.
But the soul was terrified, more terrified that it ever had been in its short corporeal life. At the moment when it was time for it to leave its dead body, the Elemental had reappeared, dragging it back into its dead body, forcing it to experience the sensation of a rotting body, of cold, congealed blood, of breathless lungs and an unbeating heart. It had recoiled in horror, writhed violently to escape the Elemental's grasp, but the Elemental did not care -- it did not have ability to care or empathise - for the mission was more important.
The soul, in essence, was just pure energy, a mysterious force that powered a human vessel. Its reasoning, personality and the importance of Wesley's memories had faded away with its death. Now, it was more like a formless being with only one purpose: to escape.
The Elemental ignored it and increased its speed. It ran down the streets of Avarice, a blinding blur of green fire which infected the neighbouring buildings with flame.
**The Gathering is near. The time is too close. We have wasted too much time already.**
Along the way, it was distracted by the denizens of the night that had crept out of the darkness to escape the flames. Without skipping a beat, it moved with blinding speed to kill them all -- a sharp look sent a vampire burning from within into dust; a quick snap of a hand decapitated a demon it didn't bother to identify; a sharp blow to the chest impaled another- they were all dead in less than a minute.
And it flew across Avarice, waging a streak of violence in its path, destroying the filth it was summoned to destroy -- all without losing sight of its original purpose: to destroy the Aman-yar.
"Now see, that's where we have a problem," Angel said.
Cindy, or rather Amopholas, frowned at the unexpected words. "What did you say?"
"We're not going to sit around and wait for you to do that," he crossed his arms, trying not to grin too smugly. No point aggravating the enemy too much.
The demon spawn grinned, her sweet expression soured by malice. "And you're going to stop me from behind bars?"
"Not really," said Willow.
Cindy's head jerked to where Willow's unconscious form still lay sprawled in the cell. Her forehead creased with confusion but just before she could voice her bewilderment, something shoved her violently one side. As she slid down the wall, she saw the Angel Investigations team ... outside the cell.
The witch answered her silent question, her face bright with mirth. "That's what you get when you have powerful witch and a glamour spell."
The other demon spawns lay unconscious -- some obviously dead -- around them. Cindy looked around in anger and rose shakily to her feet. "You know. You think you've done something important ... but how do you think to beat a thousand of us?" she sneered.
Shadows moved around them, materialising one by one to reveal deceptively ordinary people. They looked at the team expressionlessly, but it was obvious what they intended.
"I don't care if we die! I'll be glad just taking as many as I can with me!" Fred yelled, her eyes sparkling with rage. If not for Gunn who held her back with a firm grip on her shoulders, she would have lunged at Cindy.
The little girl shrugged nonchalantly. "Go ahead. I could use a little fun before I become corporeal again."
To Fred -- it became a mission to destroy as many of them as possible. It became a mission to erase what she did to Wesley; she could not live knowing that Wesley's killers lived -- and that included her. And so if she died doing this, better -- she was the one who dealt the final blow after all.
She drove her sword into a woman that could easily be her mom - all pastel flower-print dress, motherly face and all -- except this 'mom' tried to ram her fist through her gut.
She wiped her blood off her hands, but that moment of reprieve proved too costly. Someone punched her in the face with such force that she flew into the air to land stunned a few feet away.
"How does that feel, darling?" an elderly woman asked, her grandmotherly face distorted with a sneer.
Fred spat out blood and smiled. "Bracing," she muttered as she slowly rose to her feet.
"You were the one, weren't you? The one who fell for the trick?" said Grandma, her voice dripping with saccharine sweetness. "How did that feel? Plunging that sword into the back of your friend?"
Fred paled, but refused to let Grandma distract her. In a move that surprised the woman, Fred tackled her, knocking her to the ground. And without mercy, Fred plunged her dagger into the spawn's chest.
They were dripping with gore, and the Aman-yar kept coming. Given The Mother's magic, they had superhuman strength. Angel and the rest were tiring, and Amopholas gloated over that, taunting them from the throats of its vessels.
"How long are you going to keep this up, Angel?" asked Cindy. The girl sat above a barrel, her little lace-stockinged legs swinging cheerily, an innocuous presence amidst the chaos. "You're going to die, you know. Just like your Wesley," she sang, clapping her hands.
Angel vamped and growled. "Don't say his name."
"Weeeesley. Wesley, Wesley, Wesley!" Cindy taunted, her blue eyes sparkling. "I will say his name. And more." In her hand she lifted something shimmery. "It's time for me to return."
"No," Angel breathed, watching the jewel warily. It had to be the Mother.
"Before you want to charge and save the day, think -- I can give you power when I return to this world."
"Shut up," he took a step.
Cindy clutched The Mother in a threatening manner. "Ah-ah -- I see you drive a hard bargain. How about -- Las Vegas?"
Angel eyed The Mother. Snatching it out of Cindy's hands would be an easy matter -- but how fast would the Mother work. Could he beat the speed of thought?
"I suppose you'd want LA. Las Vegas is too gaudy, after all."
He did not answer. Growling, he made a gamble -- he leapt.
And Cindy laughed at his bravado and said: "Mother, grant me my wish. Bring me home!"
And he was slammed to the ground. He groaned as he felt -- no, heard -- his bones crackle under the enormous pressure.
*We're too late. We're too late!* Angel thought frantically as the bone-crushing power tried its best to ground him into the floor. He couldn't see beyond the bright light around them. All he could hear was the laughter of hundreds of Amopholas' spawn.
**IT IS TIME.**
The voice was so powerful that Angel cried out in pain, covering his ears with his hands. The laughter immediately died out. Then cries of anger. He risked his sight by opening his eyes -- the light around him was not as bright as before and he could make out the frantic figures around him. Of the others, he could not see --
Cindy suddenly came into his line of sight, her angelic face hideous with her rage. She stamped her little feet and twirled around. "Where are you?" she screamed. "You can't stop me!"
Wesley was suddenly there, engulfed in green flames. Angel vaguely noted that Amophalos' spawn were disintegrating left and right, not bothering to even utter so much as a whimper as they were turned to ashes. The gladness that rose in his chest was abruptly crushed when Wesley's dead eyes met his.
Only the Elemental was there, Angel realised. Wesley was gone, only his body was there.
"Damn you," he snarled at the Elemental as despair settled into his heart. "You have no right-"
The Elemental ignored him and turned towards Cindy. She made a valiant effort to stand up, but she disintegrated before she could do anything. The power of her destruction flung the Mother from her hands. It arched into the air and landed at Angel's feet with a loud clang.
Surprisingly, the Elemental did not react when Angel bent down to pick The Mother up. It merely watched him with milky eyes as he stared into the transparent jewel.
It looked deceptively ordinary. More like a plastic imitation of a crystal than a true gem.
"Liam, my darling."
The green glow from the Elemental faded. He heard the chirping of birds, and could smell the scent of roses. His mother -- she loved roses. She grew them around the house and spent hours tending them.
"And what has my Liam been up to?" asked his mother.
It would be natural, of course, for the Mother to assume this form. A long time ago, it had been a mother so devoted to its spawn that it had poured its essence into a gem so that it could be used for power.
"My boy means well. Don't listen to your da, Liam. He doesn't know what I know -- what a sweet boy you are."
And suddenly she was next to him, caressing his cheek with her too-real hands. "I want what's best for you Liam. Tell your ma what you want and I'll do it for you."
"Don't do it, Angel."
The voice startled him. He broke away from his 'mother' and saw Wesley standing there, watching him sadly. It wasn't a corpse - it was Wesley, as he was before he died, his hair a careless tangle around his neck, his blue eyes a pool of sadness.
The Watcher looked away as if the sound of his voice hurt him. When he returned his gaze to Angel once more, he managed a small smile.
"Not for long," he said. His face turned grim. "Don't listen to her. Bringing me back would not change anything. You know what you need to do. Angel."
"Liam," his mother whispered at his side. He felt her dry hand slide into his. "Listen to me, my darling. I can give you, everything you desire."
"Wesley," he whispered. The Watcher's expression was blank.
"You need to do what is right," Wesley hesitantly said. "It does not-"
**IT DOES NOT BELONG TO YOU.**
Abruptly he was back at the warehouse, and the only thing he saw was flames and Wesley's flame-ringed reanimated corpse. The abrubt shift of realities made him stumble and nearly drop The Mother.
The Elemental raised Wesley's dead arms and bent his fingers repeatedly. It took a while for Angel to realize what it meant - that it wanted what Angel had in his hands.
**It does not belong to you,** The ELemental said once more.
He gripped it in his hands, looking down at the sparkling temptation.
[You could do so many things with me,] whispered the Mother. [You could even bring your best friend back.]
And he stared at the Elemental.
[He will be alive again, and he will be your friend once more and you won't have to be in pain anymore. Wish that, Angel ...] the Mother whispered. Was it his imagination, or did she sound desperate?
**It does not belong to you,** came the Elemental's voice once more.
[You can say sorry to him, Angel, and correct what you have done wrong.] the Mother sang.
The jewel seemed to sparkle then and he almost wished. But he shut his eyes and turned away - he knew the consequences of resurrecting someone - Buffy was a stark reminder of what could happen to someone if they were brought back against their will. And bringing back Wesley ... could be the final straw that would break Wesley's already fragile mind. Blinking back tears, he unclenched his fingers.
The jewel floated out of his palm gently, sparkling and twisting as it headed towards the Elemental. Wesley's dead eyes met his, and he willed himself to stare into its eyes. It felt as if the Elemental was acknowledging the sacrifice he was making - he felt as if it approved ... then again, it could just be wishful thinking as the Elemental reached out and grabbed the Mother in its palm without even glancing his way.
**Finally, it is done,** whispered the voice.
The burst of energy surprised him. It hurtled him in through the air, and if he hadn't been dead already, he would've been when he crashed through the brick wall of the warehouse to land rolling a few feet away from the warehouse on the dirty street outside.
He didn't have time to recover. There was a burst of light so bright that it nearly singed his vampire eyes - he had to turn away; he yelled for everyone to close their eyes because he was sure that the light would blind them all. A roaring sound filled his ears and he had to cup his hands to protect his ears from the howl.
Then suddenly, there was silence.
He heard Gunn swear, and Fred sob. Cordelia was shouting something - it was then that he realized that it was safe to open his eyes.
The warehouse had crumpled into itself. Somehow, the blast had spread to the nearby water tower and toppled it over, spilling the contents of the water tank on to the warehouse. However, even all that water couldn't quench the supernatural green fire that consumed the place.
Then he saw him.
"No," Angel gasped.
Wesley lay half-buried in the debris. His body peeked through a pile of bricks and metal sheeting. An arm stretched out towards Angel and Wesley's glazed eyes stared into his; water lapped at his white lips as the water rose higher, threatening to drown his body in a watery grave. The Elemental had seemingly abandoned its vessel - right now it took its natural form, a pillar of green fire as itcleansed the polluted earth where the demon once dwelt.
He made a move to go towards him, but even from here the heat was intense. The water was boiling and steaming, and it made him recoil to think what the hot water was doing to Wesley's body.
"Angel. We have to go."
Gunn. His voice quiet and flat. Angel could imagine him staring at the same thing he's looking at ... thing ... Angel shook his head. Wesley ... is a thing ... isn't that what he is now? Reduced to a thing that a magical force could manipulate, and now that it has had its fill using the thing, it discards it like yesterday's newspaper.
More insistent now. This time he felt a hand on his shoulder. Angel could only stare at Wesley's half-opened dead eyes and the water that was quickly rising to cover them. Then he couldn't stand it anymore. He broke free from Gunn's grip and reached out, determined to pull Wesley from his watery grave, not caring if he burnt into ashes in the process.
He should not be left like this - like some useless thing!
"Angel, don't!" Someone screamed. Willow? Fred? He wasn't sure, but his quick vampire reflexes took over before he could process another coherent thought. He leapt aside before he was turned into ashes by a sudden flare of green fire. Soon, the fire was the only thing he could see. Wesley was gone. Really gone.
It was over then. Gone. The world was safe, but Wesley was dead. But it didn't matter because a mission was fulfilled. It didn't matter to the Powers That Be that they'd allowed this to happen ... for Wesley's friends to abandon and later murder him because in the end ... the world was safe again.
The world was safe again. When they returned to the building, they felt traitorous as they unpacked and cleaned themselves up, as if they were just completing a client-paying mission. Giles and Willow tried his best to reorder things around; he cleaned the weapons while Willow made a valiant effort to pick up fallen books or chairs and return some semblance of normalcy to the reception area. If the AI team noticed their help, they didn't say anything. Each went their seperate ways into the old hotel. Fred to her room, Gunn to the showers, Cordelia to Wesley's office and Angel ... he was wandering about. Nobody knew where he was.
Giles and Willow exchanged sad looks and returned stoicly to their work.
Wesley appeared before him clad in the clothes Angel best remembered him in: the starched shirt and pants, the tie and his ever-present glasses. His hair was civilly cropped, his smile the familiar tolerant smile Angel was used to - not the sardonic one of recent months.
"Cordelia said that if I didn't forgive you, it would be ..."
Wesley gave him a small smile. "Bad?"
Angel could only stare at this figment of his imagination silently. Just a memory, not real. The real Wesley lay rotting - or most probably, in ashes - in the still-burning warehouse in Avarice.
"You couldn't stop this from happening," Wesley explained in that reasonable way of his. "What did you think I would do if you helped me instead? Did you think I would stop and be reasonable?"
"You could still be alive."
Wesley shrugged nonchalantly. "You can't stop fate."
Angel ignored what he said. "If I had helped you earlier you wouldn't have opened yourself to the Elements ..."
"Could you really? Help me?"
"You wouldn't have opened yourself to the Element if I hadn't driven you to it."
"Why do you think it always has to be about you?" Wesley rocked on his heels, and shot him a wry grin. "Don't you think I can make up my own mind? Maybe it was my fate."
"Maybe it was my destiny," Wesley said, his voice teasing.
"Stop reasoning with me."
"You mean, stop justifying your actions?" Wesley shrugged. "Sometimes, you can't stop fate," he said.
"Screw fate," Angel hissed. "I'm sick of The Powers That Be. I'm sick of them dictating-"
Wesley sighed theatrically. "That's what you always do when things go wrong. You blame. You sulk. And brood. What is that going to accomplish? What would 'what ifs' accomplish? Stop moaning and help your remaining friends."
Angel looked sharply up at the apparition. Wesley looked at him seriously. "Don't do to them what you did to me. Don't wait until your friends destroy themselves."
Then there was nothing but the empty room and the carcass of memory.
"You're not going anywhere."
Startled, Willow nearly dropped a book she was shelving. She found Cordelia staring up the stairs, her face unreadable.
Fred stopped in mid-step, then slowly placed her foot on the step below. She stared at him for a long time, her red-rimmed eyes inscrutable. Then she just said one word: "Why?"
"Because I'm not going to let you destroy yourself."
It was Angel, suddenly at the stairs behind her. He had said the words in what he hoped to be a strong, firm voice despite the shakiness he felt inside. Then he added quietly, "...like I did Wesley."
She shifted her teary eyes away from his, blinking back tears. "Look Angel, you didn't kill him. It's not your fault."
"And it isn't yours."
She looked down. How many times in the night had she tried to convince herself that? And how many times had she failed in that exercise?
"You were tricked. We were tricked," he said firmly.
"No, you don't understand. I stabbed him in the back!" she cried shrilly, her tears falling now. "He bled to death because I believed that bitch Lilah when I should've known better! I should've known that Wesley would never do anything evil, or hurt innocent people or do anything without a reason! I betrayed him!" she sobbed, covering her face.
"You want someone to blame?" Cordelia's voice rang out sharply.
Stunned, they met her stony expression.
"We are all guilty," she snapped, her voice hard.
Fred looked crushed.
"All of us. For shoving him aside and letting him do this to himself. I was busy being a divine being, Angel was busy grieving for Connor - we were hurt and we let our family fall apart when it should've stayed together. But you know what? It's never going to bring Wesley back." Her face fell, and her calm façade wavered. It was as if, after uttering the damning statement, Cordelia realised the gravity of what had happened.
"He's gone," she said softly. "And Angel's right. We're going to stick together now."
Fred looked uncertain, meeting Angel's eyes briefly. Then she dropped her suitcase and came down the stairs - walked straight to the exit and then turned back briefly. "I'm going for a walk."
The doors closed behind her.
"Angel?" Willow asked uncertainly. "Where is she going?"
Angel and Cordelia's expressions were hard. Cordelia was the first to break, looking down at her trembling hands. In a shaky voice, she whispered: "She's turning herself in."
"And you let her?" Gunn cried out. He rushed down the stairs, gave Cordy and Angel a sharp glare and ran out of the exit to go after Fred.
A long silence before Angel murmured: "He won't make it."
Then he turned away, heading upstairs.
"It's the craziest thing," said Detective Frankfurt. 20 years on the force, and he had never seen it happen before. This stuff happened only on TV. Like on CSI, NYPD Blue or something.
"Tell me about it," murmmured Sandra Lokeman, his partner. She shook her head and spied the woman as discreetly as possible from the corner of her left eye.
"You think she's legit?"
"Hard to say. Then again, she brought in the murder weapon."
"Wrapped in newspaper."
"You think she's covering up for a boyfriend or something?"
Frankfurt sighed dramatically. "Hell, it's been a couple of weird few days, ain't it? We have the wrong side of LA burning up and crime rate dropping to nearly zero. Criminals scared shitless about some glowing bogeyman burning people up. She-" he pointed at the woman. She turned to look at him, her face expresionless. "-is the most normal thing I've seen so far."
"Calls herself Fred."
"Ah. Well, let's process her."
And the two detectives got up to begin their day.
Two Days Later
Wesley's mother had called. She'd said that she had heard about the fire and wanted to know if Wesley, thanks to the nature of his job, was all right. He remembered being silent for close to two minutes before the clipped imperious voice demanded: "Well?"
"I'm... I'm sorry, Mrs Wyndham-Price-"
"What are you trying to tell me?"
There it was. That edge of panic in her proper and cultured voice. A mother picks up on these things. They always do.
So he told her. Sorry, your son's dead. She went silent. Then the phone went dead. He sat at the reception counter after that, hoping that she would call back but she didn't. He wondered whether she would be making funeral arrangements or if she'd decided to let him do it instead.
"No open casket? Okay, our cremation-"
"There's no body. The fire-" he said quietly.
"Oh...I'm so sorry. Of course," the undertaker said politely.
Gunn sighed, closed his eyes and gripped his knees, as if it would make his job easier.
After a respectable silence, the undertaker quietly told him about the memorial services the funeral home ran. Respectable, quiet ... something 'I'm sure, Wesley would have liked.'
He blinked, wondering what kind of funeral Wesley would've liked.
"I think he'd like that," Gunn answered, not very sure of himself.
The undertaker gave him a small smile. "I'll have it arranged, sir."
Cordelia nodded and gave Buffy a weak smile. Giles had called her immediately after Fred left. Thought that perhaps she could "settle things" at AI. She did, a little. Angel was coming out of his room now at least.
"Yeah." She took the leather-worn book from Buffy's hands and placed it in the box. "Do you think the Council would want these ... or does he have a close cousin who would love to have it?"
Buffy looked uncomfortable at the question. "How about his dad?"
Cordelia wrinkled her nose. "He wasn't very super with his dad. He, like, mentioned him five times the past four years and they were not usually very good mentions."
She sniffed, blinking away tears. "He's gone. I just don't get it. But I should," she quickly said before Buffy could interrupt. "I mean, we were a mess last year and we thought he was a traitor and we cast him aside."
"Cordy. You can't go blaming yourself for Wesley's death."
"Believe me, I'm not strong on the blaming myself part. I'm just thinking on logic here."
"No. He had a choice. And he chose to do what he did. Nobody else was responsible for what he did."
"At least we could've been there."
"No point going back there," Buffy said, her voice firm. Cordelia flinched at her words. "But you tried in the end. You were there with him before he died. He didn't die alone, Cordelia. And that's important."
"Yeah, it's a biggie," she laughed through her tears. She placed the book in the box. AS she closed the flaps of the box shut, she asked Buffy quietly. "Do you have some tape? I have to seal this up."
"Are you sure this is what you want to do?"
Fred nodded behind the glass panel and gave Angel a weak smile. "I can't reverse things. But ... I can admit I've done something. I can't hide what I've done, Angel. I can't live with the lie that my life would become."
Angel looked at her grimly and closed his eyes. "I could-"
"No," she said firmly. She knew what he suggested - breaking her out. "Besides, I have Faith for company. I mean, I think she's nice and all, despite being a former rogue slayer and everything."
She nodded. "I told her. That I killed him. And she just stared at me. I think she didn't know what she wanted to do with me. Then she said that killing me would be too melodramatic. Then she walked away." She shrugged. "You think I have a friend there?"
"She knows that she's not in the position to judge. Give her time," he said. It sounded lame to his ears. Everything sounded lame these days.
"I heard that you're going to do a memorial for Wesley," she tried to sound as natural as she could but her tearing eyes betrayed her emotions.
"His parents refuse to come. His mother wanted to but ..." he trailed off. "I think she is taking it hard."
Tears fell. They made her smile look grotesque.
"I'm so sorry," she whispered.
Angel let his forehead fall to the glass. Fred reached out to touch the glass in return.
"Me too," he said softly.
The thing about being a socialite is that every time you want to do something good, your daddy's press secretary will make sure that the whole world knows about it.
"Here, here - that's a good picture isn't it? Homeless guy getting food? Huh? Cliched, maybe, but it gets the point across-"
Lola Briston rolled her eyes and tried to ignore her father's pet weasel as best as she could, but he was making things hard by coming to her side every five seconds for a photo op. Lola told herself that the next time he came to her side, he was going to give him a photo op that would make daddy proud - a big slap across the face.
She had tried to be discreet, even sneaking out at night to make sure no one saw her. However, the weasel did and arranged all the media circus around them now. She was acutely embarassed by it, but she knew that for the mission it was perhaps a good thing. Maybe people would notice and come by to help.
The burning down of Avarice had left hundreds homeless. The people of Avarice - all they had were their homes, and even that was a small comfort as the high rate of crime there prevented it from being a truly welcoming one. When the fire razed Avarice, hundreds came running towards neighbouring Onasko, and the middle-class folk tried their best to accomodate the ragtag refugees, but it was clearly not enough. Half the refugees had severe burns, some were obviously traumatised. A warehouse was opened up as a temporary shelter and Lola spent the past two nights there listening to their tales. A woman lost her son in the apartment fire. A man is trying to find his wife and son - had they seen her? Then there was this man, who was so traumatised that he seemed almost catatonic. He spent most of his time huddled in the far right corner of the shelter, his blue eyes staring at nothing. Whenever anyone tried to approach him, he would freeze up and wedge himself deeper into the corner. Only Lola had any success in approaching him.
They had found him wandering in just an hour ago. His shirt was matted with old blood, and he stank of something rotten. They tried to get him changed, but he kept flinching whenever anyone tried to approach him. So they placed a clean sweatshirt and pants a few steps away from him. He stared at it for a long time. Then he took the bundle up and hugged it to his chest, the vacant look back in his eyes.
So, here she was, back in the corner, hoping that the Weasel would not find her here and scare him away.
"Hi," she said softly.
The man cast a tentative look at her.
"Are you hungry? I have some bread-" she opened the container she had in her hands. The man flinched, his arms cradling the bundle in his hands protectively.
"I'm not going to hurt you. I'm here to help you ... see?" she slowly let him see the contents of the container.
He seemed to be considering something ... then hunger apparently won out as he reached towards the piece of bread and snatched it away. He gobbled it down frantically, as if afraid she'd snatch it from his hands.
The flash of a camera going off startled both of them. It startled the man more as he shrieked and buried his head under his arms.
Lola knew who it immediately. With a growl, she got up and swiftly gave Louis Pencker one between the eyes.
"Ow! What the hell was that for?!" he squealed. The camera man beside him slowly removed his eye from the lens and stared at her.
"Do you have any idea what you've just done? Get out of here before I tell daddy to fire your ass!"
Pencker knew that was no idle threat and scuttled away, dragging the reluctant camera man away.
Sighing, Lola returned her gaze to the man ... but he was gone.
"Oh shit," she cursed. She ran out of the shelter, looking frantically about for him. Yes, she decided, if he was gone, Pecker would get his ass on the unemployment lines.
Then she saw him, standing in middle of the crowd of refugees, looking at the commotion around him as if it he only just noticed it.
She approached him catiously, like how she would approach a cornered cat. she whispered softly, "Hey ..."
He turned slowly to look at her, and she saw, instead of the terrified looks he had given her the past hour, confusion. Then confusion gave way to despair.
"Where am I?"
His voice - he had an English accent - was soft and gentle, hardly what she had expected. Right now it was trembling with fear, yet she found herself frowning at the fammiliarity of his voice. A name danced in her head, but she couldn't grasp it.
"You're at a shelter. At Onasko."
"I'm not in hell?"
For a moment she didn't know what to say to that, then she quickly said: "No. You're safe." He was traumatised. Who knows what had happened to him back in Avarice? She heard some wild tales from some of the people back at the warehouse - something about vampires, a burning man and green fire. Avarice could be hell in his mind.
He shuddered suddenly and would have fallen if she had not reached out to support him. "Are you okay?"
Stupid, Lola. Does he look okay to you?
"Yes, you are," gentle voice, but don't speak to him like he's retarded.
"I wasn't. They killed me."
He's traumatised, Lola. But it made her look at the big bloody stain on his shirt. "Are you hurt?" she asked worriedly. Dumb, just dumb - he could be bleeding to death!
He hesitantly unbottoned his shirt. Not a scratch. Where did the blood come from?
Then he whispered, "I'm scared."
That's when she remembered who it was, and it floored her how much he had changed. The last time she saw him, he was a dapper man who stood at Virginia Bryce's side. Always immaculately groomed, proper to a T.
Now he looked like a man on the verge of a breakdown. Or maybe he had a breakdown already.
"Wesley. Wesley Wyndham-Pryce, right?"
He looked startled at the name, then slowly nodded. Then he hugged himself as if he was freezing.
"Why don't we get you into those clothes, huh?" Then I'll call Virginia, she thought.
She swore later that she just turned around for a second to ask Maurice, a fellow helper, if the showers were available. When she turned back next - he was gone.
Wesley hugged the bundle to his chest. He didn't know why he did it, but it made him feel safe. He walked and walked, until everything changed around him. It wasn't grimy anymore, but people stared at him a lot. He observed from the corner of his eyes, well-heeled executives sipping lattes whispering and pointing, a man in a sports car, openly gaping at him.
Flashes of thoughts and memories floated in his head, but it was too much to think about right now. He was alive. Did that make him happy?
Maybe ... some part of him was glad that he had escaped death. Another part was howling with terror ... he remembered something terrifying, about being trapped in something rotten. Like being buried in maggots. He shuddered at the memory.
"I don't know what I want," he murmmured. He sat down against a wall of a building and vaguely heard someone say, "Hey, you can't stay here!"
Angel. Fred ...
Something sharp going into his back. Angel's anguished face before everything went black. The beeping of the monitors. Everything going cold.
He shuddered again.
He was in Angel's arms, and he remembered how badly he wanted to say sorry for the mess he had caused, that he didn't want anyone to get hurt. It was his fault that the Green Elemental gained control, he didn't blame anyone for trying to stop him. But it hurt to know that he would die at Fred's hands. It seemed poetic, to be pierced by the person you loved.
"Hey. You okay?"
A tentative voice. Wesley lifted his head from his knees and saw a girl staring down at him, her face worried. "Did you come from Avarice? Do you need help? Are you okay?"
He wasn't sure what question to answer first ... then he said softly. "I think I'm okay now."
He was alive again. He knew that he had died, but somehow he was back again. And this time ... he do things differently.
"Do you have friends? Family? Someone I can contact?"
Wesley considered that. Then slowly, he said: "No. I'm alone."
He'd had a life once, with a vampire with a soul. He'd left everything because he thought he was fighting the good fight, and he was sure it was the right decision. He'd thought, even after he was killed, that it was the right decision, but the sacrifice and the price had been too much. He didn't want it anymore, he didn't want to know them anymore.
He sat at the riverbank staring at the placid waters and realised how far LA was from this place. And he plucked the grass and threw shreds of it in the water as if to scold it for making him remember his past.
But still, he had a feeling that no matter how far he ran, his past would refuse to let go. It came nagging at him when he went through the sums with the children or when they ran shrieking around him with delight at his latest story. It made him laugh, his current life - once upon a time, he did sardonically tell himself that perhaps he should retreat to a village and teach. Which was exactly what he had done.
Of course Father found him immediately, coming in one day after the class was empty. They spent a long minute considering each other before his father finally asked Wesley whether he wanted one of his mother's blue berry pies. Mother had wondered when he would visit the manor again, Father had said. In his own proud way, his father was trying to make amends. Wesley was not sure how to answer him. Instead he said, "Maybe Christmas." That was eleven months away. His father respected that and left him pretty much alone.
"Are you going to keep staring at me, or are you going to say something?" Wesley said as he threw an acorn into the river. The image of the moon rippled again.
Angel sighed and awkwardly sat beside him, crossing his legs. "You're probably wondering how I knew you were alive."
Wesley considered that, and then said: "No. I wasn't." Another acorn into the river.
"Look ... I know I have no excuse to be here-"
"No, you don't," Wesley said queitly. There were a million things he wanted to say to the vampire, and he'd had these three months to sort them all out. His journals were thick with frantic scribblings and pensive sentences - but he had given up trying to figure out what to do with his past. He'd thought, perhaps, he'd just let it be.
"Wesley-" Angel began.
"Shh," he chided, his voice surprisingly gentle in his ears. "You're going to ruin the moment. Watch."
And a minute later, the water rippled and they could see the silvery backs of fish as they frolicked beneath the waters. "They're not really fish you know," Wesley said matter-of-factly in explanation. "Water sprites," he said, giving Angel a smile. "When I was a boy, I always tried to catch one, but touching them always gave me hives."
Angel watched Wesley quietly. In truth he was absorbing the smile he was just given, and hope rose inside him, that perhaps Wesley would forgive him.
A long moment of quiet, then Wesley said: "We did good things together in the past." He was trying to convince himself that it was true. Or perhaps Angel.
Angel looked down, didn't answer.
"And we did horrible things to each other," the vampire said a while later.
Wesley pursed his lips and threw a piece of dry, broken bread from the brown bag beside him. The fish hungrily leapt up for a bite.
"Why ruin this moment anyway," Wesley said in resignation. Then he offered the brown bag to him. "Make sure you throw them into the river. The water sprites will turn into something nasty if they come on shore."
And Angel made sure he did as he was told.
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