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.
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