“I want to be a man of the world, blood in my veins and a hurt in my heart, hide in the street with the noise and the dirt, and the one still looking for a brand new start. Oh, I’ve been sleeping far too long, hiding out in a palace of gold. Show me one thing before I’m gone that can’t be bought and can’t be sold. Show me how to come alive, show me how to make you mine. ‘Cause if you’d only be my girl, I could be a man of the world.” ~Marc Cohn, “Man of the World”
“When one door closes another door opens; but we so often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door, that we do not see the ones which open for us.” ~Alexander Graham Bell
Wesley rifled through his papers desperately, looking for the one piece of information that would show him the right direction. Everything had gone to hell; he had nothing left. Nothing except a strong desire to make things right.
He couldn’t look at Illyria without seeing Fred, the woman he had loved. She was gone, destroyed by the thing that wore her body. He had held her dying form in his arms. He had—
Wesley shook off the thoughts. Grief would not help him now; it would only cloud his mind, make it impossible for him to make things right.
He glanced up to see Angel in the doorway. They didn’t speak much these days, not now that Wesley had regained his memories, not now that they both knew what had gone on between them.
Angel had been one of his best friends. That was just as painful a loss to bear.
“Angel. What are you doing here?”
“We missed you at the meeting today,” Angel replied.
Wesley waved to the books surrounding him in piles all around the office. “I had some information to find. Information on Illyria. I thought you wanted me to make that a priority.”
The vampire didn’t appear to be appeased. “I didn’t want you to neglect your other duties either, Wes.”
“Forgive me,” Wesley replied stiffly. “I’ll make it to the next one.”
“Fine.” Angel turned to go and then paused. “Are you sure you’re alright?”
“I’m fine,” Wesley said. “It just takes some adjusting, that’s all.”
“Of course.” Angel looked as though he wanted to say something else, but he merely shook his head and left Wesley to his books.
Wesley understood the sentiment. He didn’t particularly like being with himself at the moment either. It was just that he needed to find the solution. Everything he’d found so far suggested that any route he might take would lead to near-certain death, but he wasn’t sure he cared.
No, that wasn’t true. Wesley knew he didn’t care, as long as he survived for long enough to put things to rights. That’s all that mattered now.
“What are you doing?”
Her cold voice was so different than Fred’s warm, honey-laced tones. Fred, who had shown him for the briefest of moments what it meant to love and be loved in return. Everything had been perfect—and then he had lost her.
Wesley would do anything to get her back.
“I’m looking for something.”
“What are you looking for?”
“What does it matter?” Wesley demanded bitterly. “Why do you care?”
“I do not care,” Illyria responded. “I simply want to know what drives you. You have not slept, and your weak form requires it.”
“My weak form requires a lot less of it than you might think,” Wesley returned. “Shouldn’t you be with Spike?”
Illyria gazed at him a moment more, then turned and left without another word, apparently growing tired of his company. Just like everyone else.
Wesley stifled the urge to call her back. Being with the god-king was painful, and yet there were times he craved her company. When the reminder of Fred was more desirable than painful.
It wouldn’t be long now, though. Wesley would find a way to fix things, to make it so that Fred never had to die, so that Holtz never took Connor.
Wesley would put right everything he’d managed to destroy.
The spell was black magic, the sort that put a person’s soul in jeopardy. Wesley didn’t care; he figured that he was already damned. It didn’t matter what happened to him, as long as Fred was safe.
Wesley didn’t plan on surviving this anyway. Even if the spell didn’t kill him, there was a good chance that he wouldn’t live through his attempt at stopping Holtz and Sahjhan from taking Connor.
That’s where it had all gone wrong, he’d decided. If Connor had never been taken, Angel would never have gone to Wolfram & Hart, and if Angel had never made his deal with the law firm, Illyria would never have been released. All he had to do was to prevent Holtz from stealing Angel’s son.
Turning back time was never an easy task, however; few demons or even demi-gods could manage it, and calling the right one was a monumental effort for one of Wesley’s limited abilities.
He had returned to the Hyperion for this spell, to where it had all begun. Wesley knew he was less likely to be interrupted here, less likely to have anyone stop him. No one would expect him to come back here.
The spell called for blood, and Wesley didn’t hesitate to draw the ceremonial blade across the palm of his left hand, allowing his own blood to spill into the circle drawn on the floor of the Hyperion. It was a more potent sacrifice to use one’s own blood, and since the spell didn’t call for, say, the blood of an animal, there was nothing preventing him from doing so.
Besides, Wesley really didn’t want to be the cause of another death.
He chanted the ancient demon language that no one but a few scholars remembered, watching the flames of the candles gutter as the magic gathered force and focus. Hoping that the protective circle would hold long enough for him to make his request, he finished the spell, his voice rising as he shouted out the last words.
There was a whirlwind of light and sound, and Wesley shielded his face with his arm, waiting until it died down before looking to see what he had conjured.
It wasn’t anything like he’d expected.
The being that stood before him—no, floated before him—was a creature of beauty. Neither male nor female, it gazed upon him with a depth of compassion that Wesley felt in his soul. There was nothing dark or evil about it, and he had no idea what had happened.
This creature would not request his soul, but Wesley just might offer it anyway.
“You have called upon forces too strong for you,” it said in a musical voice.
Wesley swallowed hard. “I have to save her.” His carefully prepared speech went out of his mind; he couldn’t remember what it was he was supposed to say, the plea he had been prepared to make.
“You wish to save the woman whose soul was destroyed. We wish to preserve the balance. You will be our tool.”
“The balance?” Wesley asked, not comprehending. “I made a mistake, and it hurt my friends. I need to make things right.”
“You are short-sighted, and you do not see,” the being replied. “This world teeters on the brink of destruction. The vampire called Angel will set forces in motion that he cannot hope to stop, and it will plunge this world into darkness. You will preserve the balance between darkness and light.”
Wesley could not look at it. He had fixed his eyes on the floor after the initial glimpse, its sheer radiance bringing tears to his eyes for an unknown reason. “I’ll do anything if I can save her, if I can save Connor. I will be your tool if that is what is required.”
“Poor, foolish mortal,” it said, its voice a whisper in his ears. “You think you are sacrificing all. It is only by losing everything that you will save anything.”
A roar filled Wesley’s ears, the sound of a thousand waves crashing against a thousand shores. He was being broken; he was being remade. He was nothing; he was all things.
He was holding a baby.
Wesley returned to himself slowly, gripping the child out of an instinct he’d never known he possessed. Lorne’s voice reached his ears, but he couldn’t hear the words. Connor was fussing a bit, and he hummed, more out of reflex than anything else.
It was the shock in Lorne’s tone. It hit him like a splash of cold water in the face, and Wesley remembered why he was there, what he had to do.
He turned to see the demon staring at him in alarm, his red eyes wide. “Take Connor,” Wesley said.
Lorne made no move, and Wesley shoved the baby into his arms. The demon took Connor automatically, having been stunned by the thoughts and emotions rolling off of Wesley. “What are you doing?”
“I have to fix things,” Wesley replied. He dropped Connor’s bags on the floor.
Lorne really didn’t want to let Wesley out of his sight, especially after what he’d just picked up. The man was positively suicidal. “Wait for Angel,” he urged. “You need backup, Wes.” Wesley shook his head, heading towards the entrance to the hotel. “If you go alone, you’re not going to make it out alive!”
The doors swung shut behind him.
Angel came back to the hotel after meeting with Lilah feeling more confused than ever. It seemed that he had a sworn enemy he’d never even heard of orchestrating everything with Holtz. Wes would be the one to ask, and Angel just hoped that he’d be able to get some answers out of those enormous tomes of his.
Lorne leaped up from his seat in the lobby, where he held Connor, trying to soothe the fussy infant. “Angel, thank goodness. You have to go after Wesley. He’s planning on getting himself killed.”
“He what?” Angel asked, keeping his distance from his son. He still didn’t trust himself around Connor yet, not until he was sure that the baby’s blood was out of his system. “Wait. What is Wes planning on doing?”
“He’s going after Holtz by himself,” Lorne said. “He’s—he’s not completely sane, Angel. I’m not sure what happened, but—I think he might have done some time traveling.”
Angel shook his head, trying to process what Lorne was telling him. Wesley had looked pretty bad the last couple of days, and had said he wasn’t sleeping very well, but Angel hadn’t detected any signs that he was planning on a suicide mission.
“Do you know where he’s headed?” Angel asked, deciding that figuring out Wesley’s motivation could wait until later. There was no way he was going to let his best friend do something that stupid.
“His place first, I think,” Lorne replied. “If you can prevent him from getting to Holtz, that would be good. I don’t think he’ll make it out of there alive otherwise.”
Angel nodded, already planning his next move. “Can you watch Connor?”
“I’d be happy to,” Lorne responded, adding, “Angel, be careful. Wesley really doesn’t like you right now. I think it has something to do with that time traveling I mentioned.”
Angel nodded, indicating that he’d heard, but he didn’t give it much more thought than that. After all, this was Wesley they were talking about. They might not have always liked each other, but Wes had never hated him.
Wesley had forgotten that he’d only owned one semi-automatic at this point. It wasn’t until after Angel had effectively exiled him that he had purchased the second gun. Still, he wasn’t planning on needing more than one. The first step was to neutralize Justine, who would be coming for him. She wouldn’t catch him unawares this time.
He held the small, blanket-swaddled pillow close, as he would have been holding Connor, watching as Justine came stumbling towards him out of the darkness. Her face was bruised, and she held out a pleading hand towards him. Once before, Wesley might have felt some small measure of pity for her, even after she had slashed his throat.
Wesley hadn’t the strength for pity now.
He played along for a moment, approaching her with caution but without showing any weapons. “Justine? What happened?”
“Holtz,” Justine responded. “He took everyone, and he’s going after the kid. I tried to stop him, but—”
“Did you really?” Wesley murmured, his tone chilly.
Her eyes widened as she realized that he wasn’t holding a baby. “Angel will kill that kid.”
“No, he really won’t.” Wesley backhanded her across the face, kicking the knife out of her hand and pinning her to the ground. “You see, Justine, the prophecy was a fake, planted by Sahjhan because Connor is destined to kill him. I’m going to make sure that he gets a chance to grow up and do so.”
She glared at him, her eyes burning with hatred and contempt. “Angel will betray you,” she stated.
Wesley simply smiled. “He already has. That is the difference between us.” He drew his gun, seeing the fear in her eyes before he brought the butt of the pistol down on her temple.
He dragged her unconscious body to the deeper shadows where no one would see her, and then pulled out his cell phone. He was grateful he’d left it at his apartment and not at the hotel. Every moment counted, and Wesley knew he didn’t have the time to go back inside to use the land line. Lorne picked up on the third ring, and Wesley said quickly, “Holtz is coming for Connor. You need to get out of the hotel now.”
“Wes?” Lorne asked. “Don’t do this. Wait for Angel. If you go alone—”
“I know,” Wesley said quietly, pausing. He’d never wanted to harm the demon, who had always been kind. “Lorne, please—get Connor out of the hotel. Make sure Fred and Gunn get out as well. I don’t want anyone there when Holtz turns up.”
“Wesley, be careful.”
He ended the call without replying, using the remote on his keychain to unlock the car. Everything was ready for his escape, but Wesley wasn’t escaping this time. This time, he was facing the enemy head-on.
“We’re doing what?” Gunn asked.
“We’re leaving,” Lorne said, handing Connor to Fred as he grabbed the diaper bag. “Wesley just called and said that Holtz was on his way to take Connor, and Angel went after Wes.”
Fred jiggled the baby instinctively, soothing him. “Why did Angel go after Wesley? Is he in trouble?”
“He’s gone after Holtz on his own,” Lorne said. “I’ll explain on the way. We really need to get out of here. From what I got out of Wes, things are going to get really bad if we don’t do what he said.”
Gunn led them out the back to his truck, starting the engine just in time to hear Holtz yelling at his gang to follow them. He gunned it, tires squealing as he pulled away from the hotel, glancing back over his shoulder at the demon-hunters.
“Okay, so how did Wes know Holtz was coming?” Gunn asked.
“I don’t know,” Lorne replied irritably. He was still trying to sort out the jumbled images he’d received from Wesley’s head. There was Connor, but not as an infant, instead as a young man, Wolfram & Hart; grief over Fred; a sense of betrayal so deep that it coated Lorne’s mouth with a bitter after-taste. Two sets of memories overlaying each other, creating a montage he couldn’t sort out—not without the appropriate cues.
“One minute, Wesley’s telling me that he’s taking Connor for the night, and the next…” Lorne trailed off. It had been as if the Wesley he’d known had disappeared, replaced by a stranger wearing the same skin. “I told Angel that I thought there might be some time traveling involved. Other than that, we’re just going to have to wait for the man himself to explain.”
“Time traveling?” Fred asked, bewildered. “But why? I mean, he’s seemed…different lately, distracted, but…” She glanced over at Gunn. “Do you know why Wes would do something like that?”
“The man is a mystery lately,” Gunn replied. Actually, he had a pretty good idea that Wesley was still smarting over the fact that Fred had chosen him. Not that he could blame Wes, but Gunn wasn’t about to give Fred up for anybody, nor was he ready to tone things down just for Wesley’s sake.
All was fair in love and war, after all.
“So where are we going?” Gunn asked Lorne, wondering what Wesley wanted them to do.
Lorne shook his head, looking down at the baby, now sleeping in Fred’s arms. “I don’t know. I think we should wait to hear from Angel or Wes. The hotel isn’t safe right now.”
Gunn nodded, not voicing his thoughts—that nowhere was safe right now, and he wondered if it would ever be again.
Wesley’s plan was simple; really, simple was always best. If a plan became too complicated, it was that much easier for something to go wrong.
So, he was going to wait for Holtz at his lair, and when he did return, Wesley was going to kill him.
Sahjhan was another matter altogether.
Holtz had the urn he needed to trap Sahjhan’s essence inside, but Wesley knew that he didn’t have the time for that. Holtz was corporeal, and therefore a bigger threat than the demon. Angel had managed to figure it out the first time around; Wesley would just have to hope that he’d figure it out again.
Wesley wasn’t planning on being around for it.
He was fairly sure that killing Holtz would be like removing the head from a snake. The backlash from Holtz’s followers would probably kill him, but once Holtz was dead the group would disintegrate.
That’s what had happened last time.
He waited patiently, his gun out and ready, the safety already off. Wesley had no intention of giving Holtz time to react to his presence. It really wasn’t very smart of him to have left only one guard behind. Wesley had no problem dispatching him quickly.
Holtz swept through the door a few minutes later, his long coat swirling around him. “Find Justine!” he ordered. “I want to know why she didn’t finish her mission.”
“That would be my fault,” Wesley said, his face like stone. “So you really shouldn’t blame her.” He felt the recoil of the gun as he fired three times, hitting Holtz twice in the chest and once between the eyes—just to make sure. He got off another three shots, taking down two of Holtz’s followers and injuring the third before someone tackled him from behind.
Wesley fought grimly, his only goal to take out as many as he could before he was overwhelmed. The crossbow bolt caught him high in the shoulder and he dropped his gun, unable to hold onto it. Fists and boots struck his back and stomach, and Wesley curled into a ball out of reflex.
They were going to beat him to death. He supposed he should have expected it.
He was barely conscious when he heard the cries of pain begin. The barrage ended abruptly, and Wesley tried to hang onto consciousness, hearing Angel’s voice. He had to tell him—something. What was it that Angel needed to know?
“Wes?” Angel’s hands were gentle as he rolled him onto his back, and Wesley cracked an eye to see him. It was the only one he could open. Someone’s boot had caught the other side of his face, and the right eye was already swollen shut. “Just hang on, okay? I’m going to get you to the hospital.”
“You have to…” Wesley coughed, and pain lanced through his side. He could feel blood on his lips, and he knew they’d punctured a lung. Angel needed to know about Sahjhan and about the urn, he remembered. That the demon had to be stopped, because he would come after Connor. “Sahjhan. You have to stop him.”
“Easy,” Angel said, sounding worried, speaking rapidly into the cell phone that he’d miraculously remembered to bring. “Gunn? It’s Angel. I’m at 2239 Santa Elena. Wes is hurt, and we need to get him to the hospital…Calling an ambulance is out. I don’t want him connected to the bodies…Yeah, bodies, plural. Just get here.”
Wesley clutched at Angel’s hand. “Angel—the Rhizikian Urn. Trap him.”
“I will,” Angel replied, his tone placating. “I’ll take care of it, Wesley, just lie still. Gunn is going to be here soon.”
The bodies had to be disposed of if Wesley was going to escape murder charges, and the gun would have to be hidden as well. Once Gunn arrived, Angel would let them take the man to the hospital. He would make sure the bodies were hidden so that no one would be able to connect Wesley to the killings. It had been self-defense.
No, this had been for Connor. For him. Angel didn’t understand, but he loved Wesley for it.
“Not soon enough,” Wesley replied, the blood bubbling up from his lips. He could feel himself fading. He yearned for the release. “I’m sorry, Angel.”
“Don’t be sorry,” Angel said fiercely. “You saved Connor.”
“This time,” Wesley whispered. He couldn’t draw in enough air to speak. He couldn’t tell Angel to be careful, to watch out for Wolfram & Hart. They wouldn’t know the right books to look in to know that Connor was destined to kill Sahjhan.
Wesley knew he was out of time.
“It is not the critic that counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled, or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes short again and again, who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause, who at best knows achievement and who at the worst if he fails at least fails while daring greatly so that his place shall never be with the cold and timid soul who knows neither victory nor defeat.” ~Theodore Roosevelt
He hurt, which was strange. Dead people weren’t supposed to hurt.
The steady beeping filled his senses, marking time and seconds. It made no sense. Wesley was certain that he was dead. He was supposed to die; that had been his entire purpose—it was a suicide mission to the past to save Connor, and thus Fred, but not himself.
Wesley hadn’t been interested in saving himself.
“Hey there.” Cordelia’s voice washed over him, and Wesley’s eyes fluttered open. She was alive. He’d almost forgotten that she was alive in this time.
He wanted to speak, but found himself unable to do so. The only sound that came out was a harsh croak, and Cordelia put a straw to his lips. “Just little sips,” she warned him.
“Cordy?” he whispered once his parched throat was eased.
“In the flesh,” she replied. “Angel called me and told me what happened.”
She had been on vacation, with the Groosalug. He remembered now.
His joy at seeing her alive and well faded as he remembered that he hadn’t wanted to be here. Wesley hadn’t wanted Angel to save him.
Pain swept over him. This wasn’t what he’d wanted.
“You should get some more sleep,” Cordelia urged. “Those guys really did a number on you.”
Wesley closed his eyes, unable to respond. All he could feel was a sense of bitter disappointment at being alive.
“So how is he?” Angel asked, jiggling Connor, who burbled at him.
Cordelia sighed. “I don’t know, Angel. The doctor said that he was still in serious condition.”
“But he talked to you?”
“He said my name,” Cordelia replied. “That was pretty much it. Wesley was only conscious for a few minutes.”
Angel sighed. They had been picking through Wesley’s notes, trying to figure out what it was he was trying to accomplish by going after Holtz alone. What he had done—it didn’t seem to fit with the Wesley they all knew.
When Gunn had arrived, Angel had put Wesley in the back of the truck, then he had seen to the bodies. He’d discovered what Wes had meant by the Rhizikian Urn by sheer accident. After Angel had moved the bodies and gotten rid of the gun, he’d returned to ensure that all other evidence was gone; he didn’t want anything to tie Wesley to the scene.
Angel had searched through Holtz’s things and had found something that looked like an urn. Thinking he would bring it back to the hotel so that Wesley could explain what he’d meant by trapping Sahjhan in it once he was conscious again, Angel turned to leave.
And walked right through the demon.
Sahjhan had cursed, and he’d made some threats against Connor. Angel hadn’t believed it would be that easy, but he’d opened the urn anyway, thinking he could at least give it a try.
Amazingly enough, it really was that easy.
Now, the urn with Sahjhan trapped inside was sitting inside the safe in Angel’s office, and they were trying to figure out what to do next. Angel knew that Wolfram & Hart was still interested in his son, and so he was unwilling to leave Connor with anyone right now, not until they knew he’d be safe.
At least Holtz was out of the picture.
“Gunn, Fred, have you guys found anything?”
Fred shook her head. “Wesley’s notes were pretty clear. He found a prophecy that said you were going to kill Connor, but that doesn’t fit with what he did. It, well, it almost looks like he was planning on taking Connor away somewhere, but he went after Holtz instead.”
“If you ask me, it looks like Wes might have jumped off the deep end,” Gunn inserted. “It’s great that he took Holtz out, sure, but that’s not Wesley.”
“Gunn is right,” Cordelia agreed. “Wesley doesn’t do suicide missions, and he doesn’t… He doesn’t kill people like that.”
“From what I got, Wesley knew that Holtz was going to take Connor. That’s why I think there was time travel involved, because he seemed to know things about the future,” Lorne put in. “Wesley didn’t think he had a choice.”
Angel looked down at Connor, who had fallen asleep in his arms. “Frankly, I don’t care why Wesley did it. With Holtz out of the way, it’s one less enemy we have to worry about, and right now we’ve got plenty of them.” Angel couldn’t express the relief he felt at knowing that he wouldn’t have to worry about Holtz and his gang any longer. There was a part of him that had wanted to take Holtz out as Wesley had—one quick strike and the man would have been dead. The guilt he’d felt over killing the vampire-hunter’s family had stayed his hand.
Angel knew that he might have deserved anything Holtz meted out, but Connor didn’t. Connor was an innocent in all of this.
“What should I do?”
Groo’s quiet voice broke in on the conversation, and Cordelia winced when she realized she’d completely forgotten about his presence. “Nothing, Groo,” she replied. “There really isn’t—” Cordy stopped. “Wait, maybe you could watch over Wesley at the hospital?” She looked over at Angel. “You said that some of Holtz’s gang survived. They might go after him.”
Angel grimaced, having forgotten all about the possibility. If something happened to Wesley while he was helpless, he’d never forgive himself. “That would be great,” he said.
“And if they come for him?” the Groosalug asked. He was a warrior; guarding their leader from harm was the least he could do for his princess.
Even if he was starting to think that she wasn’t his princess.
“Make sure they don’t hurt him,” Cordelia said. “But don’t kill anybody unless you have to.”
“As you wish, princess,” Groo replied.
They waited until he was gone, and then Gunn spoke. “We’re going to need to set up a rotation or something. At least until we’re sure that none of Holtz’s gang are going to be coming after him.”
“I can take the night shift after today,” Angel replied. He glanced at Gunn. “I want at least two people with Connor at all times, though. I want him to be safe.”
“Connor’s our first priority, Angel,” Cordelia agreed. “I’m sure Wesley knows that. That was the whole reason he went after Holtz in the first place.”
When Wesley woke again, the Groosalug was standing near the door—standing guard. He recognized the stance immediately. Groo often looked like that when he was around Cordy, protecting her from danger. Wesley wondered what it was they thought he needed protection from.
Although he’d wanted to die—quite badly—Wesley had no plan to kill himself now. There seemed to be something vaguely wrong with it, and the others wouldn’t understand. Besides, it was only a matter of time before this line of work resulted in his death anyway. Wesley could wait a little while.
“You are awake.”
“Why are you here?”
“The others believed you might be in some danger from those remaining of the band you attacked,” Groo replied. “They sent me to guard you while they remained with Connor.”
“Of course,” Wesley murmured. He wondered if he ought to warn Groo of Cordelia’s changing affections, but thought better of it. In the past, Groo had worked it out for himself. Wesley never had discovered what had happened to the man.
“Do you need anything?”
Wesley looked over at the glass of water on the bedside table and thought about reaching for it, but an aborted try had him thinking better of the idea. It felt as though he’d been run over by a truck, which he supposed made sense, given what had happened.
If only Angel had been just a little later.
Groo caught the look and the movement, and interpreted it correctly. He moved gracefully across the small room, picking up the glass and putting the straw to Wesley’s lips. “Thank you.”
“You are most welcome.” Groo watched him carefully, and Wesley could see the wheels turning in the other man’s head, trying to work something out. “Why do you wish to die so badly?”
The question came as a shock. Wesley had expected the question from Lorne, or perhaps Angel, but not Groo, who was entirely caught up in Cordy. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” He still hadn’t decided how much to tell the others, if anything. There was a part of him that never wanted them to know what he was capable of.
There was another part that wanted to spill the whole ugly truth so they would know, so they would understand, that he was not the man they believed him to be. Wesley wasn’t sure he was capable of living a lie.
“I sought out the most fearsome creatures my world held,” Groo said softly. “I fought them in the hope that they would kill me and end my existence and my shame. I became a champion against my will, wishing only for an honorable ending. Is that not what you sought?”
Wesley swallowed hard. “I am not the person you think I am. I returned only to correct a mistake. I was never supposed to stay.”
“And yet you are here.” Groo looked off, out the small window, and then back at Wesley. “Do you know if my princess loves me?”
Wesley found that he couldn’t lie, not to the Groosalug’s honest face, his dark, inhuman eyes pleading. “Yes. I do.” He hoped that Groo would manage to read his expression so that he didn’t have to speak the words out loud. Wesley knew all too well the pain of loving someone who loved a person that was not you.
“I see.” Groo smiled sadly. “She asked me to guard you. I will stay until you are well, and then…”
“You wouldn’t have to leave,” Wesley replied. “We could use a man like you.”
“I do not think so.”
It was Wesley’s turn to read between the lines, and he understood. As hard as it might be to have love unrequited, it was harder still to watch another’s love unfold.
He closed his eyes. He’d nearly forgotten in the struggle to save Connor and thus Fred—she was in love with Gunn. Perhaps, in this time, she always would be.
“Would you like me to call someone?” Groo asked. “The woman who came earlier said she could bring something for the pain when you awoke.”
“No,” Wesley replied. “It wouldn’t help.”
“Then I will stand guard outside your door,” Groo said. “Unless you would like me to stay.”
“You can leave,” Wesley said. “I’ll be safe enough here.”
“I don’t think so.” Groo almost sounded apologetic. “She asked me to stay, you know.”
Wesley just sighed. “I know.”
Angel moved silently through the hallways. It was after visiting hours, but no one seemed to notice him. Groo was standing stiffly outside Wesley’s hospital room, and the vampire felt himself softening a little bit towards the warrior.
Really, it wasn’t that he disliked Groo. It was just that Groo had something he wanted, and Angel was a little jealous.
Okay. More than a little jealous.
“How is he?” Angel asked softly, not wanting to call too much attention to their presence lest the nurses tried to chase them off.
Groo hesitated. “He seemed weary.”
Angel nodded. He couldn’t quite figure out what had happened to Wesley, what had changed. That night they’d gone to the ballet, they had all been happy. There had been a sense of camaraderie, but recently Wes had seemed to pull away from them. Now that they knew about the prophecy that he’d been translating, and a little about his concerns, it made more sense. Angel had a feeling that there was more to it, though.
“Why don’t you head back to the hotel?” he suggested. “Cordelia said she’d stay there with Connor tonight.”
Groo nodded. “Of course.”
Angel watched him leave, wondering if he’d misread the look in the other man’s eyes. It was almost like jealousy. That was crazy, though. There was no reason for Groo to be jealous of him.
He slipped inside Wesley’s room, settling into the chair next to the bed. Angel watched as Wesley’s eyes fluttered open, and he frowned as he saw the man’s instant fear, swiftly subdued. “Wes? It’s just me. Angel. You okay? You want me to get you something?”
“No,” Wesley whispered, his voice hoarse. “What are you doing here?”
“I came to see you,” Angel replied, a little bewildered. He wondered why Wesley would be so surprised to see him. “Justine and a few others from Holtz’s gang are still on the loose. I wanted to be sure they didn’t try to come after you here.”
Wesley looked away from him. “Thank you.”
Angel didn’t think he sounded all that sincere. “I’ll let you sleep.” Silence filled the room, and Angel knew that Wesley was still awake. When Angel began to think that Wesley was going to remain awake for a while, he spoke. “Why did you do it?”
“I had to.” Angel thought that he wasn’t going to explain further for a long moment, and then Wesley asked, “What did Lorne tell you?”
“He said you’d possibly gone forward in time, or come back. He wasn’t too sure.”
“Lorne was right.” Wesley sucked in a breath, wincing at the pain. “Where I came from, it’s two years in the future. Holtz took Connor and raised him in a hell dimension, Cordelia and Fred were killed, and you became the head of Wolfram & Hart in order to save your son. I needed to fix things.”
Angel gripped the blanket on Wesley’s bed. “Why you, Wes? Why didn’t I do it?”
“Because it was my mistake,” Wesley said hoarsely. “I was the one who allowed Connor to be taken. I was wrong about the prophecy. It was planted by Sahjhan, and I was the fool who believed.”
Angel stared at him, seeing the anguish on Wesley’s face through the darkness. “You saved him, Wes. It doesn’t matter now.”
“It matters.” Wesley could tell that Angel didn’t understand. How could he? Connor was safe; his friend hadn’t betrayed him. Holtz was dead. All was well. In this world, Wesley was the hero who had saved Connor; Angel would not try to kill him, wouldn’t even dream of doing so.
This was why Wesley hadn’t wanted to survive. He was now stuck inside a life that didn’t fit him anymore, knowing what he knew.
“What else happened?”
“Too much to explain,” Wesley replied. “All that matters is that it won’t happen now.”
Angel reached for his arm, gripped his hand. “I don’t understand what you’ve been through. I know that, but…” He trailed off, uncertain of how to explain. Wesley had done what he’d needed to do and couldn’t. “I won’t forget it.”
Wesley wondered why that didn’t make him feel better.
The next day brought Gunn and Fred, which was just as painful as Wesley had expected it to be. They were obviously happy together—in the first bloom of love—and knowing that somewhere down the road it might end didn’t make it better. The events that had led to Fred’s changed feelings would never happen now. He might wait years for something that would never come, something that he’d had once upon a time, however briefly.
Wesley had gotten a lot better at hiding his feelings over the last few years, which was a talent that no one here knew he had. He was able to smile, to put them off with half-truths. No one would know that he’d come back specifically to save Fred, or that she had loved him.
No one would know how painful it was for him to merely be alive.
“We’ve been looking for Justine and the rest of them,” Fred said, sitting next to the bed. “Angel’s still kinda worried that she might come after you, but he’s looking.”
Wesley managed the ghost of a smile. “I’m sure he’s doing everything he can.”
“Do you want us to stay?” Gunn asked. “We can be here as long as you need us, but—”
“No,” Wesley said quickly. “I’m sure you have better things to do.”
“I wouldn’t say that,” Fred said, glancing up at Gunn, sensing the tension and not knowing how to alleviate it. “We told Angel we would stay.”
“No one is going to come in during the day,” Wesley replied. “There are too many witnesses.”
Fred didn’t appear to be convinced, but it was good enough for Gunn. “Of course there are,” Gunn agreed. “I’m sure Wes will be fine. Someone will be by later.”
“Thank you.” Wesley watched them leave with a sigh of relief. He had no idea how he was supposed to be around them all the time. That had been the one good thing about his exile: he hadn’t had to watch Gunn and Fred together.
He must have fallen asleep briefly, because the next thing Wesley heard was a voice waking him.
“So this is where you ended up.”
Wesley’s eyes shot open when he heard her voice. It was a familiar sound; he’d gotten to know Justine’s voice quite well during the summer when Angel had been at the bottom of the ocean. “You found me.”
“You had to know I would.” She smirked. “You think they’d show a little more appreciation by keeping someone here, just in case I came by.”
“I sent them away.” Wesley smiled gently. “I knew you would come.”
“Do you have some kind of death wish?” she demanded.
“No, not ‘some kind of death wish,’” Wesley replied easily. “I want to be done with it all.”
She was torn; he could see it in her face. “What? I’m going to kill you and give you what you want?”
“Perhaps, or perhaps you’ll get your revenge by leaving me alive,” Wesley replied disinterestedly. “I have no idea at the moment.”
Justine held up a knife. “I could do it, you know. One quick slice, and no one would be able to save you, even if you are in a hospital.”
“Let’s see you do it.”
She would have done it, Wesley knew. He could see it in her eyes. Grief and rage had caused her to go a bit mad, and she was planning on going for the jugular.
Apparently, the Groosalug had taken Cordelia’s command to protect him fairly seriously, however, because he’d shown up that morning as soon as it had appeared that Cordy was going to spend most of her day with Connor and Angel. If he couldn’t be useful at the hotel, he would guard Wesley at the hospital.
He moved soundlessly from the doorway to Justine’s side, grabbing her wrist and twisting it behind her back, squeezing until the pain caused her to drop the weapon. She began screaming immediately. “I’m going to kill you! He’ll betray you! He’s nothing but an animal! A demon!”
Security came bursting into the room, drawn by the sounds of screaming. “What’s going on here?” one guard, a burly young man, demanded.
“She tried to kill my friend,” Groo replied simply. “She had a knife.”
It didn’t take long for security to restrain her and drag her away. By that point, she was more subdued, and it seemed that the fight had drained out of her. Wesley knew that he ought to feel some pity for her, but he found himself incapable.
“What are you doing here, Groo?” Wesley asked.
“Cordelia asked me to protect you,” he replied. “She’s with Angel now.”
“I see.” Wesley sighed, a little disappointed that Groo’s timing was so impeccable. “I suppose I ought to thank you.”
“Thank me when you wish to live again,” Groo said. “Would you like me to stay outside?”
Wesley shook his head slowly. “No. I think I would prefer the company. Perhaps you could tell me a little more about how things were going in Pylea? I don’t believe I had the chance to talk to you about that.”
“The harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly; it is dearness only that gives everything its value. I love the man that can smile in trouble, that can gather strength from distress and grow brave by reflection. ‘Tis the business of little minds to shrink; but he whose heart is firm, and whose conscience approves his conduct, will pursue his principles unto death.” ~Thomas Paine
He was still moving like an old man. The doctor had informed him that it would be weeks before he was completely recovered, given the extent of the damage. Two broken and four cracked ribs, a fractured collarbone, and a hole in his shoulder from the crossbow bolt, not to mention some internal bleeding—it was a miracle he was alive, the doctors kept saying.
Wesley thought it was just too bad.
Not that he was planning on going out and killing himself, not now. He’d come to terms with his survival over the last few days in the hospital. He’d had time to adjust to the idea of sticking around in this new world. It wasn’t what he’d wanted, but Wesley had gotten pretty good at accepting things he hadn’t wanted.
There was a part of him that wondered when payment would come due. The creature that had answered his call had declared him a tool of the Powers. While he hadn’t been able to give it much thought at the time, the echo of its words haunted his dreams. What would it require of him next? What more could he possibly give?
“So, what are you in here for?”
The voice startled him, as he didn’t recognize it. “Pardon me?”
She’d come up to stand next to him as he stood in the lounge. Cordelia had been kind enough to bring him his robe, and a few other essentials, and the doctor had encouraged him to begin moving around a bit. Wesley had been tired of his bed, and had been anxious to get out of the hospital room.
He’d had enough of hospitals.
“What are you in here for?” she repeated. The woman was on the tall side of average, a little on the heavy side—the kind of woman Rubens had painted. “Please tell me you got attacked by clowns.”
The request was so absurd, Wesley found a smile forming in spite of himself. “Why would you want me to tell you that?”
“I have a baseless fear of clowns, so I’m always looking for justification,” she replied, twin dimples forming as she grinned at him. “If clowns had trampled you, I thought it would be a pretty good indication that they were dangerous and ought to be excluded from civilized society.”
“I’m afraid I can’t help you,” he replied. “They weren’t clowns.”
“Elephants, then?” she suggested.
Wesley raised an eyebrow. “Do you have a fear of circuses in general?”
“Oh, no, I like elephants. You just look like elephants walked all over you.”
“I’m a private detective,” Wesley replied, not knowing why he was even telling her this. “I was injured while working on a case.”
She wrinkled her nose. “Really? I didn’t even know that private detectives existed outside the movies.”
“We’re a specialized firm,” Wesley said. “We deal with unusual cases.”
“Interesting.” She stuck out her hand. “I’m Tuff.”
Wesley took her hand. “Wesley Wyndam-Pryce,” he replied automatically. “And ‘Tuff?’”
“It’s short for Tiffany, but the only people who ever call me that are the relatives I’m not allowed to kill.” Tuff grinned at him. “Do I look like a Tiffany?”
Since the correct answer to that question was obviously “no,” that’s the one that Wesley gave, even though he really had no opinion on the matter. “I broke my arm when I was five, and I didn’t cry, mostly because I was in too much shock,” she continued. “My brother said I wasn’t Tiff, I was Tuff. It stuck.”
Wesley felt just a little overwhelmed by her ebullience. “I see. That makes perfect sense, then.”
“Don’t hospitals bore you to tears?” she asked. “I mean, you looked bored, which is why I thought I’d say hello.”
Wesley nodded. “I am a bit bored.”
“Tuff? Ready to go?” Wesley looked over at the entrance to the lounge, where Dr. Myers, one of his physicians, was standing. “Hello, Wesley. Don’t tire yourself out now.”
“I’m eating lunch with my dad,” Tuff explained. “I’ll see if I can’t pick something up to alleviate the boredom on our way back, though. It was nice to meet you!”
She was gone before Wesley could even frame a reply. He contemplated sitting down, as he found himself suddenly exhausted, but the molded plastic chairs with their minimal padding weren’t inviting. His bed suddenly seemed the better option.
Even though Tuff had promised to bring something, Wesley couldn’t bring himself to believe her. She was a stranger, after all. She had no reason to show him kindness. Why should she care when his friends did not?
Wesley cursed himself in the next moment. It was so hard to remember sometimes that this was a different time. The only reason no one had visited him was because they’d had to deal with one of Cordelia’s visions. Lorne was the only one who had gotten any rest, and it really wasn’t a good idea for the demon to come by the hospital, where he might scare the other patients.
He hadn’t been abandoned; it wasn’t fair to hold actions they’d never technically committed against them.
Wesley levered himself into the hospital bed painfully, careful of the IV line that still went into his hand. He closed his eyes and allowed sleep to overcome him, wishing that he had a better idea of how to relate to this new life of his.
When Wesley awoke several hours later, he found a plastic grocery sack full of books on the table next to his bed. He sat up slowly, reaching for the bag with a grunt of pain. “Bugger it,” he snarled, tired of the constant ache.
Gritting his teeth, Wesley got the bag to the bed, and he pulled out the note, scribbled on a piece of scrap paper. “Hope one of these appeals to you. Feel free to keep them or leave them at the hospital when you’re discharged. Tuff.” Below her signature was a phone number.
He frowned, then laid the note on the bed, touched at her thoughtfulness, as he began to pull out the books. There was quite a diverse selection: two westerns, one romance novel (which Wesley greeted with a raised eyebrow), a Charles Dickens, a Jane Austen, and three fantasy novels.
Opening Pride and Prejudice, he read the note written inside the front cover. “I have to confess that I’ve read this book exactly eighteen times. Each time I’m amazed that Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy fall in love. Have you read it? I know it’s probably a girlie book, but it’s a literary staple.”
Intrigued, he opened the covers of all the books, and each one had a note inside the front cover—what she liked, what she didn’t, what characters she wanted to strangle by the end. It was obvious that she’d raided her shelves for books to donate with no thought to having them returned.
He put the other books back in the bag, and opened Pride and Prejudice. Wesley was deeply into the story when he heard the sound of a throat being cleared. Dr. Myers stood next to his bed, and it was apparent that he’d been trying to get Wesley’s attention for some time. “I take it Tuff was right in thinking you were a book person.”
“Actually, yes,” Wesley replied, putting the book down. “You’ll have to thank her for me.”
He smiled. “I’ll do that. Let’s see how you’re doing, shall we?” The doctor conducted a careful examination of Wesley’s healing ribs, and the bruising on his chest and back. “It looks like you’re coming along. I want to keep you one more night, but I think I might be able to let you go home tomorrow.”
“That would be good,” Wesley said sincerely. “No offense, but I’m a bit tired of being here.”
Dr. Myers chuckled. “None taken. Do you have someone who can stay with you?”
Wesley hoped his face didn’t give anything away. “I have friends who would be happy to help out.”
The older man gave him a sharp look. “That would stay with you?” he pressed.
It was obvious that the doctor didn’t believe him, but he nodded. “Very well. You’re going to need to avoid any kind of strenuous activity for a month at least. No heavy lifting or any physical altercations. You’ll need to give your body time to fully heal, particularly those ribs.”
“I understand,” Wesley said. At the expression on the doctor’s face, he added, “I promise.”
“Good. Then I’ll see you in the morning.”
Wesley leaned back into his pillows, picking up the novel again. It was a pleasure to remember what an escape words could provide; it had been so long since he’d had the time to read for pleasure.
He chuckled darkly and remembered the doctor’s orders. It looked like he would have plenty of time to revisit the pleasure.
Wesley dialed the number for the hotel, listening as the answering machine picked up. “Hello, this is Angel Investigations. We help the helpless…”
“This is Wesley,” he stated. “The doctor released me, but as no one is there, I suppose I’ll just take a cab. I’ll be at my place.”
“Okay, you know the nurses aren’t going to let you take a cab,” Tuff said from the doorway behind him. “They’ll wheel you out in the wheelchair, and then they’ll laugh at you for even thinking about getting away with it. You’re supposed to have someone staying with you.”
“They’ll meet me at my apartment as soon as they get the message.” He turned to face her. “And thank you for the loan of the books. I can return them to you now if you like.”
“Keep them,” she replied. “Give me a call when you’ve finished them if you want.” She grimaced. “Although, I do want to assure you that I don’t normally try to pick up strange men in hospitals.” There was a pause, and then she turned bright red. “Actually, I don’t usually try to pick strange men up anywhere, but…” Tuff laughed, sounding embarrassed. “Do you want a ride home?”
“I wouldn’t want to put you out,” Wesley protested. “I’m sure you have somewhere to be.”
“Work,” Tuff agreed. “That’s one of the nice things about working here, though. If I tell them I’m giving a friend a ride home from the hospital, they’ll be fine with that. I don’t have much on my plate this afternoon anyway.”
Wesley hesitated. “I really can’t accept—”
“Tell you what,” Tuff said. “If you ride with me, I’ll make sure that they don’t insist on the wheelchair.”
Wesley nodded, liking that idea. “I’ll get my things.”
Tuff helped him with the paperwork, and then she led him through the corridors, down the elevator, and out a little-used entrance. “I’m sure you think I’m pretty bold.”
“No, it’s fine,” Wesley said quickly. “I appreciate all your help. Are you a doctor as well?”
“Are you kidding?” she asked. “That many years of school? Not on your life. Actually, I work in human resources, so hospital administration. I admire my father, but I wanted to have a life.”
Wesley smiled, the expression holding a bitterness he didn’t intend to reveal. “A life, huh?”
“Let me guess, you don’t know what that is either,” Tuff said. “I guess you’re getting a mandatory vacation now, though.”
“I suppose I will be.” It was ironic; Wesley realized that he was going to spend what would probably end up being weeks alone in his apartment. Again. At least this time it wouldn’t be because Angel would try to kill him if he showed up at the Hyperion.
She followed his directions, but otherwise let the silence hang. It was, oddly enough, not uncomfortable. “Here we are,” Tuff announced as she pulled up in front of his apartment building. “If I offered to help, would you take it?”
“Probably not,” Wesley admitted. “Thank you, though.”
“Do you have my number?” Tuff asked. “If you want to call, get out of your apartment for a couple of hours, let me know.”
He touched his jacket pocket. “I have your number. I need to return your books, if nothing else.”
“I hope that’s not the only reason you call me.”
Wesley was unused to having a woman pursue him so intently. Her dark eyes were open and frankly admiring. “I—I don’t…”
She smiled. “Yeah, figures. One of the people you work with?”
“No,” Wesley quickly said. “There’s no one.”
Tuff nodded, although she didn’t seem to be buying it. “Give me a call when you want to return the books,” she said. “We can talk about them.” Her dimples flashed again. “I can’t wait to hear what you have to say about the romance novel.”
“What makes you think I’ll read that one?” he asked.
“Because you’re secure enough in your masculinity to not be threatened?” Tuff guessed. “And because you won’t want to miss my commentary, I promise.”
“I’ll call you,” he promised. “Thank you again.”
“Anytime, Mr. Wesley Wyndam-Pryce.”
He was still thinking about her words hours later. It wasn’t surprising, really, given the fact that he was reading one of her books. Wesley couldn’t help but wonder why she had been so persistent. He had no idea what she had seen to cause her interest.
The knock on the door had him grimacing. “Just a minute!”
“It’s me, Wes,” Cordelia called. “I’ll just use my key. Don’t move.”
He settled back on his couch with a sigh, grateful that he didn’t have to try and get up. His ribs were protesting the day’s activity already.
Cordelia came breezing into his apartment, coming to stand in front of him with her hands on her hips. “You couldn’t have waited?”
“I didn’t know when you’d be back,” Wesley protested. “I really didn’t want to be there any longer.”
She frowned, then rolled her eyes. “I guess I can understand that.” Cordelia settled down next to him. “Did you really take a cab?”
“I got a ride from a friend,” Wesley replied.
She raised an eyebrow. “Really? What friend?”
“Just someone I ran into.” Wesley knew he was being evasive, but he didn’t want to explain. He was certain that Cordelia would take it the wrong way.
“Fine, be Mr. Mysterious,” Cordy said, teasing him. She sobered. “Groo left.”
“You knew he was going to leave.”
It was a statement, not a question, and Wesley simply nodded. “He sensed how you felt about Angel.”
“Did he tell you where he was going?” Cordelia asked.
“No, I’m sorry.” Wesley gave her a sympathetic look.
Cordelia sighed. “Really, it’s not that I’m in love with Angel. It’s just that Connor needs me right now. We’re friends. That’s all.” When she caught the look on Wesley’s face, Cordy gave him a gentle smack on the arm. “Shut up.”
“Did I say anything?” he asked, a smile beginning to form. Cordelia, of all of them, was the easiest to be with. There weren’t any bad memories here. She was simply Cordelia.
She turned to face him. “Angel told me what you said. You didn’t give him the whole story.”
“No, I didn’t.” He wasn’t sure he wanted to tell her any more than he’d already told Angel.
Cordelia touched his arm gently. “Wes, tell me. What really happened?” He shook his head. Wesley didn’t even know where to begin. “Angel said that I’d been killed? And Fred?”
Wesley hesitated, then nodded. “Yes. First you, and then Fred.”
“He also said that Holtz took Connor,” Cordy prodded.
“I went to talk to him,” Wesley whispered. “I knew that if—if things kept on the way they were, people would die. People I cared about. I found the prophecy that said ‘the father will kill the son,’ and I believed that it meant Angel would kill Connor. I thought I was doing what was right.”
“What happened then?”
And so it went. Wesley spilled the whole sorry tale to her, not sparing himself. He somehow knew that Cordelia would understand, or at least accept. She had seen him at his worst, and she had still offered him her friendship.
In many ways, they had grown up together.
Cordelia offered gentle prompts when he stopped, keeping her hand on his arm. When his voice grew hoarse and he began to cough, she rose to get him a glass of water. “That’s why I had to kill Holtz,” Wesley finished. “I knew that it was the only way to stop it all from happening. I had to—I had to save her.”
“Wes,” Cordy said. “I’m sorry. I never—Fred being with Gunn. I didn’t see that one coming, and normally my radar is pretty good for that kind of thing.”
“It’s okay,” Wesley replied, knowing that it really wasn’t. “I knew what I was coming back to.”
He could see it in her eyes; Cordelia knew that he hadn’t meant to survive the encounter with Holtz. “And then Angel has to go and save your life.”
“You should really come back to the hotel,” she suggested. “Until you’re recovered, anyway.”
Wesley shook his head. “I can’t, Cordy. I can’t be around them right now.” He left it up to her to decide who he was referring to.
“Well, okay,” she declared. “I guess you’ll just be stuck with me, then.”
He frowned. “What about Angel? Connor—”
“He can live without me,” Cordelia replied. “I’m staying here until you’re settled for the night. We can order take-out, and I can tell you all about what’s been happening while you were in the hospital.” When it looked like he was about to protest, she held up a hand. “How long has it been since you’ve seen me where you’ve been? Or when you’ve been, I guess.”
Wesley swallowed hard. “Months,” he admitted. “It feels like years, though.”
“How do you feel about Thai food?” Cordelia asked.
“That would be fine,” Wesley replied.
“Good,” she said, sounding determinedly cheerful. “And I want you to tell me every mistake that Angel makes in the future, because I plan on making sure that he avoids all of them.”
“Absolutely,” Wesley replied.
For the first time, Wesley thought that there might be some advantages to not dying.
“A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears towards a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the ‘why’ for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any ‘how.’” ~Viktor Frankl
It was strange to be back, to stand in the center of the hotel lobby, where the marble was unmarked by signs of dark magic. “Wesley!” Lorne exclaimed. It was the first time the demon had seen him since he’d handed Connor over. Wesley knew how bad he looked.
Although the bruises had faded quite a bit over the last couple of weeks.
“Lorne.” It was good to know that he hadn’t been forced to hurt the demon this time around, that there were no bad feelings between them. “How are you?”
“Better than you are,” he replied. “Sit down before you fall down.” Lorne ushered him back to the office. “Fred did some cleaning while you were gone. She made sure Cordelia wasn’t the one sorting your papers.”
Wesley winced at the memory—Fred coming to the hospital, telling him never to return. She hadn’t meant it to sound so cruel, he was certain. She’d been hurt, though. He’d betrayed her and Angel, and the vampire had meant to kill him. It had been better that he stay away; that’s all she had meant.
They had never gotten a chance to talk about it, though, not really. By the time he’d begun helping Angel and the others, the impending apocalypse had precluded any kind of conversation about the events of the previous year. Maybe they could have talked about it later, but then Angel had done the memory spell, and neither of them had recalled the conversation.
Now, of course, it would never happen. Wesley may have resigned himself to the loss, but it still stung.
“I’m fine,” Wesley said. “I look worse than I feel.”
Lorne wasn’t convinced. “Wes, remember who you’re talking to.”
He took a deep breath. It still hurt to do that. He somehow had a feeling that it was going to take longer than a month before he was ready for field work. “Very well. I probably feel worse than I look, but I will be fine.”
Lorne sat down across from him. “I think I got enough from you to put together what happened, especially after Angel filled us in.”
Wesley picked up a pen, fiddled with it a bit. “I had to do it.”
“Do you know what you saw?” Lorne asked. “The being that sent you back here?”
He hesitated, then nodded. “I’ve been doing some research. That wasn’t what I called on.”
Lorne nodded. “As long as you know. You’re marked now, Wesley. Maybe the others can’t see it, but anybody with an ounce of psychic power will.”
Wesley wasn’t sure what to think about that. He had done some research, enough to know that the being that had manifested was one of the Powers That Be, although not a rogue like Jasmine. They sought to maintain the balance, and while they couldn’t necessarily be called “good,” Wesley knew that they certainly weren’t evil.
“Marked how?” he asked.
Lorne sighed. “You’re one of theirs now, Wes. Maybe you’re a different sort of Champion, but you’ve definitely been chosen.”
Wesley resisted the urge to ask whether he hadn’t done enough. “I suppose we’ll just have to see what else they require of me, then.”
Lorne nodded, his expression understanding. “You want me to get you anything?”
“No, I’m just going to look over a few files,” Wesley replied.
“I’ll be here,” Lorne responded.
“How’s my boy?” Angel cooed. “Such a big boy you are.”
Cordelia watched from the doorway. She loved seeing them together—Angel was so different around Connor, a better father than she’d ever expected him to be. Their lives had already changed so much with the baby’s presence, and looking into the future, she wondered what might happen.
Holtz might have been neutralized, but Wolfram & Hart was probably still scheming. It was just too bad that Wesley didn’t know what was going to happen next now that he’d changed everything.
“Wesley’s here,” she said.
Angel straightened. “He is? I thought he was supposed to take it easy.”
“He is. I’ve got Lorne downstairs with strict instructions to make sure he doesn’t work too hard,” she replied. Cordy raised her eyebrows. “Aren’t you going to see him?”
“What am I supposed to say to him, Cordy?” Angel asked. “It’s obvious that he isn’t comfortable in my presence.”
“Maybe you could take Connor down.” It wasn’t so much a suggestion as a command. “Wes came back to fix things, Angel, and he came back to die. It’s our job to make sure he doesn’t do something that stupid again.”
Angel knew there was no arguing with her when she used that tone of voice. “I’m going,” he said, changing his grip on Connor so that the baby was tucked into the crook of one arm. “Do you want to see Uncle Wes?” he asked, jiggling him a bit. “I’ll bet you do. Let’s go see your Uncle Wes.”
Cordelia just shook her head, following Angel, listening to him babble at Connor the entire time. It really was endearing.
She had been wondering when Wesley would show up at the hotel. While he’d been ordered to rest, Cordelia knew Wesley well enough to know that his staying at home was more a result of his dread of coming back than of any real pain. Even after he’d gotten blown up, he’d been right back at the books. Or when he was shot, and barely able to get around, he’d still been at the office as soon as he could physically manage it. The fact that it had taken him a week to make it in after being discharged from the hospital told Cordelia everything she needed to know about his state of mind.
Now the only question was how she was going to smooth things over.
“There’s Uncle Wes,” Angel said, trying for cheerful and sounding slightly strained. “Connor wanted to say hello.”
Cordelia watched as Wesley visibly hesitated before taking the child from Angel. Once in Wesley’s hands, Connor began gurgling at him, and Wesley’s face softened considerably. “I think he’s grown in the last couple of weeks.”
“He has,” Angel said enthusiastically. Any discomfort dissipated at the introduction of Angel’s favorite subject. “I think he’s gained a few ounces. We’ve got another check-up coming. Cordy said she’d come with me, but that was because we didn’t know if you’d be around.”
Angel was doing his best to make Wesley feel welcome again. Cordelia knew that they were all having a difficult time grasping the fact that this wasn’t their Wesley. He was a familiar stranger, one who had risked everything to save them.
Wesley shook his head. “No, you should take Cordy, but thank you.” His face softened as he looked down at the baby, and he held out a finger. Connor grabbed it, hanging on tightly.
Cordelia breathed a sigh of relief. She’d seen Wesley’s despair, but maybe it would all work out. Maybe there would be enough to tie him here.
If there was one thing that Wesley was certain of, it was that he had no desire to remain at the hotel for longer than he had to. It was one thing to be around Lorne and Cordelia. There were no mixed feelings there. Holding Connor had reminded him of why he’d felt it necessary to risk his very soul to change things. Wesley had seen what Connor could grow up to be, away from Holtz’s influence, and he had every hope that it would happen now.
Being around Angel, though—it was hard. Angel had betrayed him deeply, not necessarily by trying to kill him, but by erasing his memories. Wesley could understand it, but he wasn’t sure he’d ever be able to forgive it.
Wesley couldn’t help but feel that Angel expected him to react as he had in the past. In that other world, the other time, their friendship had been damaged beyond all recognition. That wasn’t the case here, now, but Wesley couldn’t reconcile these actions in his mind.
That would have been bad enough, but being around Fred and Gunn was nearly impossible.
They had come into the hotel together after having gone out to lunch, laughing. Fred had been leaning in close, and Gunn had touched her shoulder.
Wesley hadn’t been able to watch them. He’d had Fred; he’d been that man for all-too-brief a time. How could he even be here, around them, knowing what he knew? Knowing that, in saving her, he’d most likely thrown away any chance he’d ever had?
He’d left after that, without telling the others. Wesley didn’t think himself capable of speaking to anyone. He was halfway back to his apartment when Cordelia called him. “Are you okay?” she demanded.
“I’m fine,” he replied. “Just tired, that’s all.”
Her voice dropped. “Does your leaving have anything to do with the fact that Gunn and Fred just came back?”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Wesley responded stiffly.
“Stop it, Wesley,” Cordelia snapped. “This is me. We go a long way back.”
“Then you tell me how I can be there.”
“I can’t,” she admitted. “Wes…” He could hear the dismay in her voice. Cordelia was caught between being happy for the couple on the one hand, and pity for him on the other.
“Don’t worry about me,” he said gently. “I’ll get over it. I just needed to get away.”
She sighed. “Okay. Do you want me to come by tonight? Bring you something?”
“You picked up groceries for me the other day,” Wesley reminded her. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“I’d better,” she warned. “Otherwise, I’m going to hunt you down.”
“I’ll be there,” Wesley promised. He closed the mobile with a snap and sighed. Running away was sounding better and better. Surely there was somewhere he could go where no one would look for him. He could just disappear for awhile.
His apartment was dark and quiet, and Wesley looked around, trying to decide what to do with the rest of his afternoon. He was sick of his bed, tired of the couch, tired of the pain.
Wesley hurt—body and soul—and he couldn’t remember a time when he hadn’t.
His eyes lit on the stack of books on the coffee table, and he thought about the note that he’d tucked into his wallet for safe-keeping. He’d finished them within the first few days of his convalescence, even the romance novel.
Although he’d enjoyed the book far more for the sarcastic commentary scribbled in the margins than for the story itself.
Wesley had put off calling, however. He wanted to return the books, but he wasn’t quite sure what he’d be getting himself into by seeing Tuff again. On the other hand, perhaps a conversation with someone who wasn’t intimately connected with Angel Investigations was exactly what he needed.
Before he could change his mind, or lose his courage, Wesley took out his cell, dialing the number he’d somehow managed to memorize without knowing it.
“This is Tuff.”
“Ah, hello, this is—”
“Wesley.” He could hear the smile in her voice. “How are you feeling?”
“Much better, thank you,” he replied. “I just wanted to let you know that I finished your books, and would be happy to return them to you.”
“Did you read all of them?”
Wesley hesitated. “I did.”
She laughed. “Good for you. I’ve got some time this evening if you want to meet somewhere. Unless you’re not feeling good enough for that,” Tuff quickly said. “I could come to you.”
“No, I think I’d like to get out, if you don’t mind.”
“Not a bit,” she said. “Okay, there’s a little bistro near your place. The Chef’s Corner? It’s pretty good. How does that sound?”
“I know the place. That would be nice,” Wesley said. “It would be a pleasure not to eat my own cooking.”
“I microwave dinners.”
She laughed again, and Wesley could feel some of her good humor infecting him over the phone. “How does six sound?”
“I’ll be there.” Wesley hung up, feeling a little lighter.
He stripped, removing clothing and bandages, stepping into the shower and letting the hot water wash over him. Running away wasn’t an option, of course. He’d have to find some way of dealing with Fred and Gunn on a daily basis. “Get a grip, man,” he muttered. “You knew what was coming.”
Except that he hadn’t. Not really. He hadn’t known how to prepare himself for something like this.
Wesley wiped the steam off the mirror, staring at his unfamiliar reflection. He touched his throat where the knife-scar ought to have been; the skin was unmarked. His damp hair curled a bit, and he reminded himself to get a haircut. Running a hand over the three-day beard, he contemplated shaving, and then discarded the idea. It would be too much like a date that way, and he wasn’t interested in a relationship.
He dressed carelessly, deliberately throwing on whatever clean clothing came immediately to hand. Then, to take his mind off things, Wesley began working on one of the more difficult translations sitting on his desk. It was a rather ancient demon guide, and most of the information was outdated, but there were bits and pieces that could prove helpful.
Besides, it took all his concentration, and Wesley needed the distraction.
Tuff sighed and wondered if she was being stupid. Her father often accused her of being impulsive, which was probably true at times. She’d seen him standing there, though, and—well, she’d wanted to talk to him. Of course, the last guy she’d felt drawn to like this had turned out to be a complete jerk. She really knew how to pick them. So far, her record was about half and half. Half great guys who just didn’t work out, and half assholes.
She would bet her entire clothing budget that Wesley Wyndam-Pryce fell into the first category, although she was hoping that if it worked at all, it would work out.
At least for awhile. She was due some fun.
She saw him come into the bistro, looking around. It had been over a week since she’d given him a ride home, and although the bruises had faded, Tuff didn’t think he looked any better rested. Although, that didn’t decrease the attractiveness. There weren’t many men who could carry off the scruffy look, but Wesley definitely could.
When he didn’t see her right away, Tuff raised a hand, signaling him. She caught his eye, and he began making his way through the crowded restaurant to her table. “Hello.”
“Hey!” she said brightly. “I was beginning to wonder if you were going to make it.”
Wesley looked embarrassed. “Forgive me. I got caught up in some work, and—”
“Don’t worry about it,” Tuff said, waving off his apology. She’d been known to get caught up in something herself. Although she might appear flighty, it was only because it took a lot to catch her interest. Once caught, however, Tuff had been compared—unfavorably—to a bulldog.
Wesley had definitely caught her interest. She thought it might be something about his eyes.
When she’d first seen him standing in the hospital lounge, Tuff had wanted to talk to him because he appeared lonely and maybe a little lost. When she’d met his eyes, however, she’d suddenly wanted to get to know him better.
Okay, so maybe she was impulsive a lot of the time.
He took the chair across from her, and she could see that he was still moving slowly. “How are you doing?”
Wesley shrugged, then winced. “Better, although I keep forgetting not to move.”
“That would be easy to forget.” She paused. “Speaking of forgetting…”
He seemed to get what she was referring to immediately. “I left the books in my car, if that’s alright. I didn’t want to carry them inside.”
“Sounds reasonable.” Tuff picked up a menu. “I have to tell you that I’m starving.”
Wesley nodded. “As am I. I didn’t eat lunch today.”
Tuff didn’t comment on that, but she thought that Wesley looked like he couldn’t really afford to miss any meals, not like her. “So tell me about yourself,” she invited.
He laughed, but the sound held an edge of bitterness that she couldn’t quite understand. “There isn’t much to tell.”
“How did you get into the private detective business?” Tuff asked. “Is it what you wanted to be when you grew up, or was it something you fell into?”
“I fell into it,” Wesley admitted. “My previous employer had let me go, and I needed something. A friend of mine was kind enough to offer me a position, and I’ve been there ever since.”
There were obvious gaps in the story. Tuff wasn’t naïve, but she also knew that pushing would be a bad idea. “Do you like it?”
“Most of the time,” Wesley replied. “These last few months have been difficult.” The expression on his face was such that Tuff knew he hadn’t meant to say that.
Cardinal rule of first dates: when things get uncomfortable, change the subject. “What part of England are you from?” she asked.
“London, mostly,” Wesley replied. “Although my family owns a residence in Kent. London is where I attended school, though. What about you?”
“L.A., born and bred,” Tuff replied. “You’ve met my dad. My mom is a doctor’s wife. She works on a bunch of different boards, but she was a teacher before they met.”
“You said you had a brother?” Wesley asked, wanting to keep the focus off himself.
She grinned. “Five years older than me. I made his life hell. I still do whenever I can get away with it, although now I mostly just spoil his kids rotten. Do you like kids?”
“Yes,” Wesley replied. “In fact my friend, the one who hired me, just had his first.”
“Aren’t they great?” she asked. “Although, personally, I like being able to give them back at the end of the day.”
“That part is nice,” Wesley agreed. “May I ask you a question?”
“Why on earth did you write all those things in the margins of that book?”
Tuff laughed delightedly. “Because it was really awful.”
“Then why read it?” Wesley asked, then answered his own question. “Let me guess. It was too awful to put down.”
She grinned. “It was fun, wasn’t it?”
Wesley met her eyes. “It was.” He looked as though he was about to say something, and then changed his mind. “Do you read everything?”
“Pretty much,” Tuff replied, sensing that he’d just made a decision, although she wasn’t sure what it might be. Any guy willing to give The Lady and the Lion a shot because of her comments in the margins, however, was definitely worth a second date. “Tell me what you thought of Pride and Prejudice.”
“The grand essentials of happiness are: something to do, something to love, and something to hope for.” ~Allan K. Chalmers
Lilah Morgan tapped one perfectly manicured nail against the lacquered top of her desk. Nothing was working out quite the way it was supposed to. Wolfram & Hart should have had control of Connor by now, preferably after reducing Angel to a big pile of dust. No matter what the consensus among the Senior Partners might be about the benefit of having Angel alive—or undead—none of them would survive long if they took Connor without getting the vampire out of the picture.
Angel had made that point very clear when he’d broken into the office and threatened Linwood’s life.
That didn’t mean that the law firm had actually given up. It just appeared that it would be better to let things lie, at least for a time.
No, Lilah was concerned with other matters, particularly the fact that the seers had been going a little crazy the last two weeks. They kept insisting that “things had changed,” that nothing they had foreseen was still a possibility. Someone, it seemed, had altered the fabric of time itself. The theories ranged from divine intervention to time travel, but no one could give her a straight answer.
She had to wonder if that’s what had caused the disappearances of Holtz and a number of his followers. No one knew where he might have gone, but Lilah had seen his kind before. Religious fanaticism of that nature couldn’t be dissuaded by anything short of death. Somehow, she didn’t see Angel doing the deed.
The question remained as to who among Angel’s crew would have the balls to kill a man. Lilah didn’t see any of those do-gooders committing what was tantamount to murder, unless possibly their lives depended on it.
She grimaced. Well, except for Cordelia. That girl had guts.
Her informants had told her that Wesley Wyndam-Pryce had been in the hospital for a week, so that might explain things. It was entirely possible that Holtz had gone after the kid, hurting Wesley in the process and causing Angel to retaliate. Although Lilah couldn’t see Angel killing a human in cold blood, she had the feeling he’d do it to protect one of his own. The medical files she’d had stolen indicated that the man had been nearly beaten to death. That certainly could have sent Angel over the edge.
Lilah needed more information, though. She needed to know who and what had changed, and she needed to rethink everything she knew about Angel and his friends. Then, when she learned who was responsible for this supposedly new timeline, she would be able to plan her next move, and possibly how to get her hands on Angel’s kid without getting herself killed.
Maybe she would even rate a promotion in the process.
Wesley knew better than to make Cordelia wait. She expected to see him at the Hyperion, and the last thing he wanted to do was to worry her any more than he already had. He arrived at nine on the dot, nodding at Fred and Gunn in greeting, carefully keeping any sign of discomfort from his face.
“Hey, Wes,” Gunn said. “How’s it going?”
“It’s going,” Wesley replied, managing to inject a note of wry humor into his voice. “I’m afraid it takes a little longer than I’d like to recover from nearly getting stomped to death.”
“Yeah, I’ll bet,” Gunn replied. “You back to work for good now?”
Wesley nodded. “Yes, barring further injuries.”
“You get yourself hurt that badly again, and I’ll hurt you,” Cordelia said from behind him. She fixed him with a glare. “Have you eaten yet this morning?”
Wesley shrugged. “No, but—”
“I’ll get you a donut,” she announced, heading behind the counter. “Why don’t you sit down?”
Wesley knew better than to argue. “Fine.”
“Cordelia, I’m perfectly capable of getting my own coffee.”
“Yeah? Well, I’m in the mood to pamper you a little. I’d suggest you deal with it.” Cordelia’s words were sharp, but Wesley could see the humor in her eyes, and he was reminded of her brusque care after he’d nearly been blown up by Vocah.
He was walking back towards his office when Fred’s voice stopped him. “I’m glad you’re back, Wesley.”
He schooled his face into a pleasant expression as he turned to smile at her. “Thank you, Fred. It’s good to be back.”
Once Wesley was in the office, he stopped, leaning heavily on the desk as he took a deep breath. Her voice—she was Fred again. She was close enough to touch, and she wasn’t his.
“Sit.” Cordelia’s voice was gentle.
Wesley took a seat on the couch; his desk chair was comfortable, but only when he wasn’t still bruised bone-deep in a dozen places. He took the jelly donut and mug of coffee from her. “Thank you.”
“I saved that one for you,” Cordelia said. “I know how much you like the jelly ones.”
Wesley nodded, taking a bite when it didn’t look as though she was going anywhere until he started eating. “Thank you,” he repeated.
“Look,” Cordelia said in a low voice. “Everybody knows that things are going to be weird. I told Angel a little bit more, but Fred and Gunn don’t know everything. I thought you probably wanted to keep some things to yourself.”
“It’s appreciated,” Wesley replied.
“So are you just going to hole up in here all day?”
“I had thought about it.” Wesley looked over at her. “Cordy…”
“I know.” She gave him a bright smile. “It’s going to get better, Wes.”
She left him alone then, and Wesley found himself wishing that he could believe her.
Wesley busied himself with his books. It was decidedly odd to be back in the Hyperion again, back behind his desk, knowing that the others all thought of him as belonging here. Knowing that they thought of him as the boss, technically at least.
That was something he wanted to change as soon as possible.
Once, Wesley had been pleased and proud to be the head of the agency; he’d relished the opportunity to demonstrate that he was capable of leading, but he’d failed miserably. Perhaps he wouldn’t make the same mistakes again, but that didn’t mean he wouldn’t still manage to ruin everything. More than that, Wesley wasn’t sure he was strong enough to shoulder the burden.
A soft knock on the door had him looking up to see Fred standing there. “Are you hungry? Charles and I are going to grab lunch.”
“Not really,” Wesley replied truthfully. “Don’t bother about me.”
Fred hesitated, then said, “Cordelia said you were supposed to eat.”
Wesley sighed. Fred sounded apologetic, but they both knew that he wasn’t going to get out of eating. He’d be willing to bet that until all the bruises had faded, and Cordelia’s anxiety had settled, she was going to be watching him like a hawk.
Wesley had forgotten how solicitous she could be when she wanted to.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said quietly. “Get whatever looks good.”
Fred nodded. She turned to leave, pausing to look back at him. “Are you angry with me, Wesley?”
“No,” he replied honestly. “I’m not angry with you, Fred.”
She gripped the doorframe, poised to leave. Wesley realized that she looked younger, less mature, perhaps. The years between Connor’s kidnapping and her death had been hard on all of them. He imagined that he might look a bit younger, less weathered to those who knew him in the future. Wesley honestly couldn’t tell.
“Okay,” she finally said reluctantly, looking a little hurt that he hadn’t given her any other explanation.
In truth, Wesley wasn’t sure how he could explain the fact that just the sight of her hurt terribly.
He leaned back into the couch, remembering the previous evening with Tuff. She was an innocent; it was a novel experience to talk to someone who knew nothing of the world he regularly inhabited. Really, it had been years since Wesley had had extensive contact with someone who had no idea of the existence of demons or vampires.
Wesley had gotten around that as neatly as he could by asking her questions about herself and talking about his childhood when she asked. Tuff had seemed to sense his desire not to talk about the recent past, and had asked questions about his upbringing, his education, books he’d read and movies he’d seen instead.
She admitted to reading everything she could get her hands on, but liked the classics the best. Tuff preferred old movies and eschewed television, saying that there was never anything good on anyway.
In short, it had been a truly pleasant evening. Wesley had walked her to her car at the end, reluctant to have their time together end. Being with her was a relief; she didn’t expect him to be someone he wasn’t anymore.
At the same time, Wesley wasn’t certain that it would be a good idea to continue their relationship. He lived in a dangerous world, and sooner or later it was sure to spill over onto her. He didn’t want to be the one to reveal what the darkness held.
Tuff had taken a deep breath and said, “I’d really like it if you gave me your phone number, but if you don’t want to, I’ll understand.”
“It’s not that I don’t want to.”
“Then why are you looking at me like you’re planning on never seeing me again?” she had asked.
“Because I’m not sure that I should see you again.”
“Okay.” She’d smiled wistfully and turned back to her car.
“I’d like to see you again.” Wesley had blurted out the words before he could rethink his decision. He would have to be very careful, that was all. He wanted someone to talk to, someone who knew him only as the man he was now. Although there was a need to keep the truth of what he did a secret from Tuff, Wesley didn’t believe that would be nearly as difficult as hiding his feelings from Fred, Gunn, and Angel.
Tuff had grinned at him and pulled out her cell phone, quickly programming in his number. “I’ll call you,” she’d promised.
Wesley wondered how long it would be. He wondered what she saw in him.
He wondered how long it would be before she realized that he wasn’t what he seemed to be.
With that thought, he turned back to his books.
Fred fidgeted, craning her neck to see inside the office. From this angle, she would have been able to see Wesley if he’d been sitting behind his desk, but he was on the couch. She was a little worried about him, and more than a little concerned that he was angry with her. After all, she and Gunn had left him alone in the hospital; if Groo hadn’t shown up when he did, Justine would have killed Wesley.
She still felt guilty about that.
“What’s up?” Gunn asked, leaning closer.
Shaking her head, Fred responded, “Nothing. I’m just trying to peek in on Wesley. He’s been really quiet today.”
“That’s what comes of getting the shit kicked out of you,” Gunn said wisely. “Give him some time. I’m sure he’ll bounce back.”
Fred wasn’t so certain. “I don’t know. Haven’t you noticed how nice Cordy’s being? It’s almost like she thinks he’s going to die or something.”
Gunn remembered how solicitous of Wesley she’d been after the man had gotten shot. “He almost did die,” he reminded her. No matter what kind of distance had sprung up between them, Wesley was his friend—or he had been. This Wesley… Gunn wasn’t too sure about him.
Fred turned back to her boyfriend. “Do you think he’s mad at us? You know, for leaving him in the hospital?”
He winced. Whether or not Wesley was angry, Cordelia had read them the riot act when the Groosalug had told her what happened. Gunn felt more than a little guilty about the whole thing. Still, he didn’t want Fred to worry. “No. All’s well that ends well, right?”
“I guess,” she replied, her tone dubious. “Don’t you think it’s a little weird, though?”
“That Wes just went in and…” Fred mimed pulling the trigger on an imaginary weapon. She couldn’t even say the words; it didn’t match the image of Wesley that she carried.
Gunn didn’t know how to reply. It was strange to think about. “I don’t know. I guess he was just doing what he thought was the right thing, that’s all.” He looked up to see Wesley standing there, jacket in hand.
“I just thought I’d let you know that I’m leaving for a while.” Wesley’s face was inscrutable, and Gunn couldn’t tell if the other man had heard them talking or not. “I should be back shortly.”
“Do you want any help?” Gunn offered. “Cordelia said she didn’t want you overdoing it.”
“I know my own limitations,” Wesley replied. “Thank you.”
They both watched him leave, then Fred looked at him. “Okay, now tell me that Wesley isn’t mad us.”
Gunn shook his head, reconsidering that theory himself. “I wish I could.”
Wesley’s main errand involved a trip to his favorite bookstore. The owner knew him on sight, and the older woman greeted him with a wave and a nod. “Anything in particular you’re looking for today?”
“This book,” he responded, handing her a piece of paper. “I was wondering if you knew anyone who might own a copy. I’d be willing to purchase it for a reasonable price.”
Greta raised her eyebrows when she saw the title. “What’s reasonable to you? This isn’t a cheap book.”
“Is any book I buy here cheap?” Wesley countered with a smile. Greta drove a hard bargain, but she was fair, and they had a solid professional relationship.
She sniffed. “Less expensive than you’d probably find elsewhere. I’ll ask around. Do you want me to call you before making any deals?”
“That would be appreciated,” Wesley replied. He wanted the book, but there was a limit to what he was able to pay. If he couldn’t locate or purchase the volume, he’d have to find another way to get the information he needed.
All of his research pointed in this direction. Wesley had a very good idea of what he had called up, and what kind of bargain he had made, but he wanted to know what else might be required of him.
Not that he regretted his decision for a moment. Not when it appeared that he’d managed to save Connor, and hopefully Cordelia and Fred as a result.
After his trip to the bookstore, Wesley dropped by his preferred herbalist to stock up on certain spell components he regarded as staples. He’d gotten better with magic in the last couple of years, and he planned on using that hard won expertise as much as possible.
There was a part of him that wished he was back at Wolfram & Hart again. He hadn’t particularly enjoyed working there, but he’d at least had the luxury of locking himself in his office and not speaking to anyone for long periods of time. Wesley knew he couldn’t get away with that at the hotel.
On the other hand, he had missed the camaraderie of being at the Hyperion while working at the law firm. Wesley supposed that just illustrated the fact that the grass was always greener.
By the time he returned to the hotel, Fred and Gunn were nowhere to be seen, and Wesley breathed out a sigh of relief. Perhaps he would be able to get some work done without looking up to see the two of them together every few minutes. There really was only so much of that sort of thing a man could take.
“Hey, Wes,” Angel said as he came down the stairs. “Did you get what you needed?”
Wesley glanced down at the bags in his hands. “Ah, yes, Angel. I did. I was wondering if I might talk to you.”
“Sure,” the vampire said quickly. “Whatever you need.”
Wesley looked around the lobby. “Where are the others?”
“Gunn and Fred went to meet a client,” Angel responded. “We got a call right after you left. Cordelia’s upstairs with Connor, and I think Lorne mentioned meeting with someone who might have a new opportunity for him.”
Wesley nodded, grateful that they weren’t going to be interrupted. “Perhaps we could go into the office?” he suggested. He sat down on the couch, watching as Angel took the chair across from the desk. “I wanted to discuss my position here.”
Angel’s eyes widened. “You’re not thinking about leaving are you?” he asked, sounding alarmed. “Wes, whatever happened, it doesn’t matter. If you need anything, you know all you have to do is ask.”
Wesley shook his head, emotion suddenly choking him. How often had he wished for just such a conversation after his exile? After Fred’s death? After the return of his memories? He’d wanted this—the friendship he’d come to depend on.
Even now, he wanted it, but Wesley knew he didn’t dare depend on it. Not really.
“No,” he said. “I don’t want to leave the agency. I simply think that—”
Cordelia’s voice cut him off, and the vampire was on his feet and out into the lobby in seconds. “What’s wrong?”
“We’ve got trouble,” she said quickly, holding Connor. “There’s a big nasty all ready to start munching on some kids in Beverly Hills. It looked like one of them was stupid enough to call up a demon.”
Angel nodded, his face grim. “Wes? Can you look after Connor?”
Wesley nodded, knowing he’d be no help at all against the demon in his current condition. “Certainly.”
“Great.” Angel grabbed an assortment of weapons, watching as Cordelia handed the baby to Wesley, grabbing a sword for herself. “You going to be okay here?”
“Yes, of course.” Wesley watched them go, then looked down at the infant in his arms. Connor frowned at him as though deep in thought. “I guess it’s just the two of us, little man.”
Connor grinned suddenly, waving one pudgy fist in the air. In response, Wesley held out his finger to be gripped. “Let’s see what the books have to say, shall we?” he asked. “We can occupy ourselves just fine while your father kills the monsters.”
His cell phone rang just then, and Wesley fumbled to get it out of his pocket. “Hello?”
“Tuff,” he replied, recognizing her voice. “What can I do for you?”
“How do you feel about Shakespeare?”
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” she responded. “It’s playing in two nights at the community theater near my parents’ place. My mom’s a big sponsor, so we can usually get tickets. What do you say?”
This had all the makings of a date. Wesley wasn’t quite sure what to do about that.
As though sensing his hesitation, Tuff added, “This doesn’t have to be a date, Wesley. It could just be an evening out with a friend.”
“I’d like that,” he said sincerely. “There was—that is, I don’t think—”
“It’s okay. The play starts at 8, so can I pick you up at 5?” she asked. “We can grab something to eat on the way, if we’re hungry.”
“That would be fine,” Wesley replied. They exchanged a few more pleasantries, and then Wesley hung up, looking down at Connor. “What am I getting myself into?” he asked.
Connor just grinned toothlessly.
“The world is round and the place which may seem like the end may also be the beginning.” ~Ivy Baker Priest
“Ugh.” Cordelia held her jacket out in front of her, grimacing. She was used to getting dirty at this point, but that didn’t mean she enjoyed that aspect of her job. “I still don’t get why all demons can’t just turn to dust like vampires.”
Angel shrugged. He wasn’t nearly as bothered by the smell as Cordelia was, mostly because he didn’t have to breathe, strictly speaking. Besides, she’d taken the worst of the splatter when he’d hit the demon from behind with his ax. Luckily, the jacket had taken most of the mess, which meant that she’d at least been able to put that article of clothing in the trunk for the drive back.
Of course, that didn’t mean she hadn’t complained the whole way.
“I guess if we’d gotten Wesley to figure out what kind of demon you saw before we left, you might have been able to avoid the trouble, but you didn’t want to wait,” Angel pointed out.
“We couldn’t wait,” she retorted. “There wasn’t time, so don’t go blaming this on me.”
They entered the hotel through the back, immediately spotting Fred and Gunn by the front desk. “What happened to you?” Gunn asked as soon as he saw the state of Cordelia’s clothing.
“There was a vision,” she replied. “Unfortunately, there was no warning about the gore.”
Fred wrinkled her nose. “Maybe you’d better shower here,” she suggested. “That stuff looks pretty nasty. Are you sure it isn’t dangerous?”
Cordelia’s eyes widened in alarm. “I hadn’t thought about that. Maybe we should get Wesley to look it up now.”
“Where is Wes?” Angel asked. He wanted to make sure everything had gone okay with Connor. Wesley was moving around better, but the vampire hadn’t really thought about what might happen if there was another attempt to kidnap Connor while they were gone.
Of course, there hadn’t been time to consider other alternatives. He’d just assumed that Wesley would be okay, and that Fred and Gunn would return to the hotel shortly. They were all sticking as close to the Hyperion as possible for the baby’s sake.
Gunn shrugged. “I don’t know. I thought he’d gone home. We didn’t see him when we came in.”
“He wouldn’t have left,” Angel insisted. “He was supposed to be staying with Connor.” Alarm began to set in. “Are you sure he’s not here?”
Gunn and Fred exchanged a look. “We just assumed he wasn’t when we didn’t see him,” Fred replied. “He’s still recovering, so we figured…”
Cordelia rolled her eyes. “Angel, calm down,” she ordered, reading his panicked look effortlessly. “Did you guys check the office?” When they all just stared at her, she sighed. “And you call yourselves detectives,” she muttered.
She headed straight back for the office, Angel on her heels. Sure enough, there was Wesley, asleep on the couch with Connor in his arms. There was a patch of baby drool on his front where Connor had slobbered on him.
Cordelia smiled at the sight, kneeling by the couch to wake the sleeping man, hopefully without disturbing Connor. “Wes. We’re back.”
Wesley’s eyes fluttered open. “What?”
“We’re back,” she repeated. “Maybe you should stay here tonight. It might not be a good idea for you to drive when you’re this tired.”
He pushed himself to a sitting position, catching sight of Angel, Fred, and Gunn, all of them watching him. “Forgive me,” he murmured. “I didn’t mean to fall asleep. I should have been more alert.”
Connor started to fuss as he spoke, and Wesley attempted to struggle to his feet. “I should—”
“I’ve got him,” Angel said quickly, taking the baby. “Don’t worry about it, Wes. I think he needs to be changed. Cordy’s right. You should stay here tonight.” He left the office, ushering Fred and Gunn out ahead of him.
“I shouldn’t have gone to sleep,” Wesley said. Anything could have happened, anyone could have entered the hotel and harmed Connor. He’d come back to the past to fix his mistakes, not to make new ones.
Cordelia gave him one of her patented looks. “Wesley, it’s okay. Nothing happened.”
“It could have.” He closed his eyes, still exhausted, even after his brief nap. Wesley had been reading, refreshing his memory with one of the demon compendiums in his library. Connor had been sleeping, and Wesley had felt his own eyes growing heavy. There had been something about feeling the rhythm of the infant’s breathing that had been soporific. He’d only meant to close his eyes for a moment.
“Don’t,” Cordelia said sharply. “We all have to sleep sometime, Wes.”
“Of course,” Wesley replied, managing a smile for her. “What are you covered in?”
“Demon goop,” Cordelia replied. “Fred thought it might be hazardous.”
“What did the demon look like?”
“Big, ugly, and a distinctive odor. Pretty much like the one I’m wearing now.”
Wesley frowned, picking up the book he’d been reading, and flipping through the pages. “Was this it?”
She looked at the picture, nodding. “That’s the one.”
“I was reading about it this evening, as luck would have it. The smell is quite distinctive, and there’s nothing hazardous about it.” He snapped the volume shut. “So, I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Cordelia rolled her eyes at his obstinacy. “I think you should stay here tonight.”
“I’ll be fine,” he insisted. The last thing he wanted to do was to stay, knowing full well that Gunn and Fred would be just down the hall from him.
She sighed, knowing that Wesley could be just as stubborn as she was when he wanted to be. “Okay, but I want you to call when you get back to your apartment.”
Wesley frowned. Cordelia had been uncommonly considerate of late, but he’d thought she’d go back to normal in time. Not that she was typically uncaring, but her concern seemed rather excessive. “Cordy—”
“Just humor me, Wes.”
“If you insist.”
“I do.” She smiled at him. “Someone has to look after you.”
He nodded. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Wes?” Cordy called as he walked out of the office. She seemed to rethink whatever she’d planned to say when he turned, something in his eyes warning her not to utter reassurances Wesley wouldn’t believe. “Never mind. I’ll see you in the morning.”
He smiled at her, but the expression didn’t reach his eyes.
Tuff had been buoyed up by Wesley’s acceptance of her invitation, even if she’d had to qualify it as a friendly outing. Their dinner together had indicated that her initial reaction to Wesley had been correct. They had quite a bit in common, and she’d seen no sign that he wasn’t a truly decent guy. In her experience, you didn’t let men like him go without a fight. If nothing else, they made good friends.
Tuff had learned a long time ago that relationships were transient. Life was a series of brief connections, swiftly broken. Sometimes you got lucky and founded a permanent bond, but it didn’t happen often. That really wasn’t the point, though. The point was in the meeting, touching and being touched, and hopefully leaving each other the richer for it.
That had always been her philosophy, at least. It had mostly served her well.
She knocked on Wesley’s door, looking forward to the evening. What wasn’t to enjoy? Her favorite play, and the company of a potential friend; it didn’t get much better than that.
Well, the possibility of something more at the end of the evening would have been nice.
“Come in,” he said, opening the door. Wesley looked as though she’d caught him in the middle of getting dressed, since he wore only a t-shirt and black slacks. “I’ll just be a moment.”
Tuff raised an eyebrow, looking around the dim interior. It didn’t look as if he got much light in here, but it suited her impression of him. Books were scattered everywhere, and the furniture was well-used and sparse. Wesley had disappeared back into the apartment, leaving her to poke around.
Not that she planned on doing much poking. Wesley struck her as a private kind of guy, and Tuff could respect that. If she had been a little more sure of where they stood, it would have been different, but this was the beginning. Tuff tried not to screw things up from the beginning.
“Sorry about that,” she heard him say as he emerged from his bedroom. “I got caught at work and couldn’t get away.”
“That’s fine,” Tuff replied, turning. She nearly lost her voice. Sometime during the last few days, Wesley had gotten a haircut, so it was spiky, rather than shaggy. The bruising on his face was gone, but he’d left the stubble, and in the suit he looked…
Well, Tuff could honestly say that none of her previous boyfriends had been quite so good looking.
“You cut your hair,” was about the only intelligible thing she could say, and she watched as Wesley ran his hand over his hair self-consciously.
“It looks good,” she offered.
He smiled, seeming to get some of his equilibrium back. “You look wonderful yourself.”
Tuff looked down at the plum-colored dress she wore. It was hard to find dresses that she both liked and liked herself in, and this was one of the few. “Thanks. Shall we go?”
She was pleased when he didn’t say anything about her driving. Some guys got weird about letting another person drive, but Wesley wasn’t one of them apparently.
“Somehow I didn’t picture you in a truck,” Wesley commented. Although he’d ridden with her before, he hadn’t really known her well enough to form an opinion at the time.
Tuff shrugged. “I wanted a Mini, but I always seem to have a friend who needs help hauling something, or I need a piece of furniture picked up. It made more sense.”
“I like it,” Wesley said. “I bought an SUV recently myself.”
“I had a motorcycle,” he admitted. “I needed something with more space, particularly to haul things.”
Tuff sighed nostalgically. “I had a boyfriend with a Harley once. It was fun.” She grinned at him. “The music is in the glove box, if you want to pick a CD.”
Wesley pulled out the case, and started flipping through the pages. “I’m afraid I don’t recognize any of these bands.”
“If you’re brave enough, you could just pick one, and we’ll take our chances.” Tuff kept her eyes on the road as Wesley studied his options, finally selecting one at random and popping it in. The mellow sounds of one of her favorite indie folk artists filtered through the speakers.
“What kind of music do you normally listen to?” Wesley asked.
Tuff shrugged. “It depends on my mood. I’m not real picky. What about you?”
Wesley hesitated before admitting, “I don’t listen to much music, I’m afraid. It wasn’t a large part of my education, although I do enjoy it. I just don’t really know what I enjoy.”
She glanced over at him. “You sound like you grew up under a rock.”
“That’s not too far from the truth.” He looked out the window, rather than at her, watching the scenery zip by. “My father wanted to be sure I got a first-rate education, but that was about all I got.”
“Do you talk to them much?”
“Your parents.” She glanced at him, keeping an eye out for their exit, but trying to get a read on his face. He looked as though he was caught up in old memories, and not pleasant ones.
Wesley shrugged, smiling half-heartedly. “On occasion. I haven’t been back to England in years, and they’ve never visited me.”
Tuff honestly couldn’t imagine that. She’d lived nearby her parents her whole life, not even going out of state to college. Her older brother lived only an hour’s drive away, and there were other relatives in the area as well. Not that they all got along, or even liked one another, but they were family.
“Do you have any other family?” she asked, thinking that perhaps her first impression of Wesley wasn’t so far off the mark after all. He struck her as being incredibly lonely.
“No. Yes,” he said, changing his answer. “My co-workers are family, really. We’re a very close-knit group.”
Tuff didn’t think he sounded as though he meant it, but she didn’t say anything. She got the sense that it was a touchy subject, and now was not the time to push.
Pulling into the theater’s parking lot, Tuff said, “I hope you like Italian. I usually just go across the street; my family’s been eating there for years, and the owner is a good friend of my dad’s.”
“That’s fine,” Wesley replied. “I don’t mind at all.”
Tuff wondered if Wesley minded anything. He seemed rather easy-going, but she had the sense that it was mostly a façade. The question would be how far she could push him before the mask dropped away.
Not that Tuff wanted to push him, although it was tempting. She could be a little contrary that way.
The restaurant was hopping when they entered, and Wesley leaned in close to her. “Are you sure we’ll be able to get a table?”
“Oh, yeah,” Tuff replied when she saw Marco approaching.
“Tuff!” He engulfed her in a bear hug. “It’s been too long.”
“I know,” she replied. “Blame my mom for hogging the tickets.”
“Where are your parents tonight? Your mama loves Shakespeare,” Marco said, grabbing a couple of menus and leading them to the back of the restaurant.
“My dad finally has a night off, and he said the last thing he wanted to do was to dress up and go out.” Tuff laughed. “You know how dad is.”
“I do.” Marco led them to a small table for two. “You two have a nice evening.”
Tuff flushed with pleasure as Wesley held her seat for her. This might not be a date, but it looked like she was still going to get the red carpet treatment. Bonus points there, since he apparently wasn’t trying to get her to sleep with him.
At least, she didn’t think that was in the plans.
“Do you mind if we get the lasagna?” she asked. “It’s huge, and I never order much more than a salad when I’m by myself.”
“That’s fine,” Wesley replied. “You know what’s good here.”
“Everything,” Tuff replied promptly. “You’ll have to come back again and try something else, because it’s all good.”
“Perhaps I will,” he agreed.
Tuff just hoped he would come back with her.
Wesley had nearly forgotten what it was like to have a good time. He hadn’t been out on a date like this since dating Virginia, and that had been years ago. Tuff had managed to keep up a lively stream of conversation all through dinner, which had been as good as she’d promised. The play was well done, and he’d found himself laughing at the antics of Bottom and the other unfortunate lovers. It felt like an age since he’d laughed.
There were no demons, no vampires, no lost prophecies. It was merely an evening out, and by the end of it, Wesley was more relaxed than he’d been in months.
Tuff pulled up in front of his apartment, both of them laughing over a joke she’d told. As the car came to a halt, Wesley looked over at her. “I had a very nice time tonight.”
She smiled, suddenly appearing shy. “Really? I’m glad. You looked like you needed one.”
He hesitated, wanting to give her something, some understanding of why he was being so hesitant to embark on any kind of relationship. Besides the fact that she had no knowledge of the more outré side of his life, there was also the reality that Wesley wasn’t yet done with his grief over Fred, and he knew he couldn’t offer her anything substantial. Not right now.
“There was a friend of mine who was killed,” he said quietly. “Quite recently. She and I were—well, we were—”
“You loved her.”
“I did. Very much.” Wesley met her eyes. “You understand.”
Tuff nodded. “I do.” More than that, she couldn’t fault him for it, nor could she compete with a dead woman.
“I’d still like to see you again,” Wesley said. “I just wanted you to know why…”
Tuff nodded. “I’d really like to see you again.”
“Okay.” He breathed out a sigh of relief. The explanation had been easier than he’d thought it would be. “I’ll give you a call.”
“I’ll look forward to it.” Tuff leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. Wesley gave her a quick smile and got out of the car, watching her drive away.
He was too busy thinking about his evening to notice anything strange about the van across the street.
“Here are the reports you asked for, Ms. Morgan.”
The runner dropped the files on Lilah’s desk. She’d ordered surveillance on everyone in Angel’s gang, hoping that something interesting would turn up; so far, there hadn’t been much. Wesley Wyndam-Pryce’s medical records had probably been the most intriguing piece of the puzzle, since it appeared that he’d been shot and then nearly beaten to death.
Holtz hadn’t turned up, but she had discovered a report of hospital security taking custody of his lieutenant, Justine. The woman had apparently shown up at Wyndam-Pryce’s hospital room with the intention of killing him. That would seem to indicate that Holtz was dead, and that Wyndam-Pryce had been involved in it somehow.
It still didn’t fit, though. Nothing did. Lilah had a dozen pieces of a puzzle, and none of them made any sense. She was missing something—something big.
Picking up her phone, she made a call. “I need to know if anyone’s done a reading on Angel’s employee, Wesley Wyndam-Pryce…No?...I want it taken care of ASAP. See if you can get someone close enough to figure out what’s going on here. He seems to be in the middle of things.”
Gavin poked his head in as soon as Lilah hung up. “Are we making any progress?”
Lilah sneered at him. “We aren’t doing anything. I am doing my best to figure out what sent the seers into a frenzy and hopefully to find a way to get Angel’s kid.”
Gavin shrugged, the movement eloquent, and Lilah wished she had an excuse to smack him. It wasn’t so long ago that he’d nearly killed her. Of course, he had the excuse of being under the influence of Billy’s blood; that didn’t mean that a part of him hadn’t enjoyed it, however, and Lilah was waiting for an opportunity to stab him in the back.
She missed Lindsey. At least he never had a problem telling you exactly where you stood with him.
“You keep looking,” Gavin replied smugly. “Linwood’s waiting for answers, and I’ve heard he’s not real patient.”
“Then maybe he can try to grab the baby,” Lilah suggested. “Or you can. If you’re so sure it can be done, why don’t you take a team of men in there and snatch the brat?” At Gavin’s silence, she laughed. “That’s what I thought. So back off.”
No one wanted this job. The risks for failure were too great, but the payoff for success was nearly equal. Lilah knew if she pulled this one off, she’d be the darling of the Senior Partners.
And if she couldn’t pull it off, then she’d just have to find a way to justify it, find a way to wait. Maybe it would be better to let the kid grow up some before stole him from Angel. Or maybe the vampire would do them all a favor and get himself dusted. Either way, Lilah planned on surviving this, and maybe getting a promotion out of the deal as well.
She was just going to take her time.
“Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born.” ~Anaïs Nin
“Angel? Can I speak with you?”
Angel glanced up to see Wesley standing at the doorway of his room. In truth, he was surprised to see him there; the ex-Watcher had been rather scarce the past two weeks. He spent most of his time in his office, and while he’d come out if coaxed or watch Connor if asked, for the most part Wesley had been completely stand-offish. Cordelia seemed to be the only one capable of reaching him, and she’d warned the others to let Wesley have his space and take his time.
Gunn and Fred didn’t understand, but they were willing to let Cordy call the shots. Angel knew more, and he still wasn’t sure that he completely understood.
They all realized that this Wesley was not the man they’d known.
“Yeah, come in, Wes.” Angel watched him closely, noting that his movements appeared easier. He didn’t hold himself quite so stiffly, and when he sat down in the chair, he didn’t clutch at the arms to guide himself into a sitting position. “What’s up?”
“We never got to finish our conversation regarding my position here,” Wesley replied, his voice low.
Angel sighed. He had been hoping that Wesley had forgotten all about it. “You’re not thinking about leaving are you?”
“Where would I go?” Wesley’s expression was rueful. “I’m not qualified to do anything else.”
Angel noticed that he didn’t say he wanted to stay. “If you don’t want to leave, what are you concerned about?”
“I don’t want to be the head of the agency any longer.”
If Angel hadn’t already seen signs of change, enough to know that Wesley was a different person, this would have clinched it; the Wesley of his memory had been pleased and proud to be responsible for running Angel Investigations. He’d taken his position very seriously—perhaps too seriously—but Angel had seen his potential. He hadn’t minded Wesley being in charge.
Most of the time, anyway.
“Why?” Angel asked.
Wesley shook his head. “You know why, Angel.”
“No, I don’t.” He sat down on the bed. They were alone in the hotel. Cordelia had taken Connor to the park, and Fred and Gunn had gone out on a date, because things around the hotel were slow. “Spell it out for me.”
“I’m not cut out for this position,” Wesley responded. “You know that.”
“Actually, I don’t know that at all.” Angel raised his eyebrows. “You’ve got room for improvement, but everybody does, Wes. What’s really going on?”
“I made a serious error in judgment, Angel,” Wesley replied. “Surely you see that I shouldn’t be in this position. This is your agency. You should be in charge.”
Angel shook his head slowly. “I can’t make that decision. Cordelia, Gunn, and Fred would have to agree, and I’m not sure that they will. Whatever you might think, you’re still the boss.”
He rose. “Just think about it, and talk to the others. Let me know what you decide.”
“Wait,” Angel called to him. Wesley paused in his flight, and Angel crossed the room to touch his shoulder. “Look, I know it’s going to take you some time. Cordy told me what happened, and even though I don’t know what it must have been like for you, you’re still my friend. You’re still part of the team.”
“No, I’m not,” Wesley said hoarsely, speaking words that wouldn’t be denied any longer. “I haven’t been a part of the team for a long time, Angel. You might not remember it, but it’s not something I can forget.”
“You tried to kill me, Angel, though for good cause. You wiped my memories. I watched people I loved die. I wanted to die, and you saved me.” Wesley’s eyes were haunted. “I’m honestly not sure I can forgive you for that.”
Angel gripped his shoulders. “Wesley, we can’t do without you. I’m sorry for what I did to you, but I’m not the same person. You gave all of us a second chance.”
He could see the longing in Wesley’s gaze before the feeling was wiped clean. He’d seen it though, and now that he had, Angel knew that it was only a matter of time. Wesley wanted to be here; he wanted to be with them. “I should go back downstairs. I still have that translation to work on.”
Angel sighed. “You do that. Do you want some company? I know I probably won’t be much help.”
Wesley visibly hesitated before nodding. “If you’d like,” he said stiffly.
“I’ll be right down,” Angel promised. He watched Wesley leave, wishing there was something he could do to speed up the process for his friend.
Wesley wasn’t quite sure how to react. He’d finally been able to speak with Angel; the last two weeks hadn’t afforded any opportunity for a private conversation. Honestly, he had expected Angel to acquiesce immediately to his request to be released from his position. Wesley believed that everyone had seen how unsuited he was to a leadership role.
Instead, Angel had been understanding—kind, even. Wesley wasn’t quite sure what to do with that.
This was the Angel who had invited him to stay for breakfast, who had given him a job and a purpose. Who had worried over him and Cordy after Vocah’s attack.
The same Angel who was perusing a book in the chair across from him, simply keeping him company.
Wesley kept most of his attention on the text he was translating. He’d seen a reference to it during his time at Wolfram & Hart and had known it would be valuable; of course, now he had to translate it himself, since he didn’t have the templates that had been available to him at the law firm.
After a while, Wesley became completely absorbed in his work, forgetting that Angel was even in the same room with him. The wording was very important, and he wanted to be sure he got it exactly right. He was so deep in thought that the ringing of his cell phone startled him, and Wesley looked up to see Angel watching him, an amused expression on his face.
Wesley quickly fumbled for his phone, not bothering to look at the caller ID. “Hello?”
He recognized Tuff’s voice immediately. They had gone out twice more after seeing the play. Wesley enjoyed her company immensely, and he always looked forward to their time together. “Hello. How are you?”
“Is this a bad time?”
Wesley glanced at Angel, who appeared to be rather intent on his book. “No, but I’m at work.”
“You mean you’re not alone.”
He heard her sigh. “Wesley, it’s Saturday. Do you ever take a day off? Or a weekend off?”
“When I can,” he replied. “Did you have something in mind?”
“Come play hooky with me today,” Tuff ordered. “It’s beautiful outside. We’ll go down to the Promenade. Maybe get some seafood.”
Wesley grimaced, looking down at the translation. He still had hours to go—more like days or weeks, really—and if Cordelia had a vision, he should be available in case they needed research done. “I don’t know. Perhaps tomorrow—”
“It could be raining tomorrow,” Tuff pointed out. “There’s no time like the present. Face it, Wes, you need me to keep you from completely stultifying.”
Wesley found himself smiling reluctantly. “When should I meet you?”
“In an hour? On the corner of Broadway?”
“That sounds fine,” he replied. “I’ll see you then.” Wesley hung up the phone and looked up to see Angel watching him. He put the phone away, waiting to see if the vampire would say anything.
“You should get out,” Angel said quietly. “Have some fun.”
Wesley looked away. “Yes, well, if you need me, I’ll have my phone.”
“She makes you smile,” Angel observed.
Wesley swallowed. “Yes, she does.”
“Does she know?”
“She knows I’m a private investigator,” Wesley said. “No more than that.”
Angel nodded slowly. “Be careful, Wes.”
Wesley met Angel’s eyes, seeing nothing but warm concern. “I will.”
Cordelia huffed impatiently. “Honestly, Angel, I can’t believe you didn’t get any more information than that.”
“This was the first conversation he’s initiated with me since he—whatever. I wasn’t going to risk scaring him off,” Angel protested. “Why don’t you ask him what you want to know when he gets back?”
“Are you kidding me?” Cordy demanded. “I can’t just come out and ask Wes if he’s dating someone on the sly. He’ll get pissed off and yell at me.”
“Maybe that would be good for him,” Angel suggested. “He’s been kind of distant.”
Cordelia sighed, tired from her afternoon outdoors. Connor was napping, and so it was just her and Angel in the hotel. “I don’t want to risk it. He seems kind of…fragile lately.”
Angel nodded slowly, sitting down next to her on the bed. He could hear Connor’s deep, even breaths; once the baby was out, it took quite a bit to wake him up—which was probably a good thing, given what could and did pass through the hotel at all hours of the day and night. “I know. He wants me to take over the agency again.”
Cordelia couldn’t say she was surprised by that. “What did you tell him?”
“I told him I’d have to talk to the rest of you, and that I wasn’t sure anyone would agree.”
“They probably will,” Cordy said softly. “At least, I think Fred and Gunn would. They know how uncomfortable Wesley is around them, and I don’t know that they trust him completely.”
Angel shook his head. “Why wouldn’t they trust him, Cordy? He nearly got himself killed to save Connor. From what he said, he did it to save all of us.”
“And he can’t stand to be in the same room with the two of them for more than an hour at a time, if that,” Cordy responded. “Don’t tell me you haven’t noticed.”
Angel had noticed. He’d been paying as close attention to Wesley as he could lately without being too conspicuous about it. From what the man had told Cordy—and what Cordy had then relayed to him—that had been part of the problem the first time around; no one had noticed much outside their own little bubbles.
Angel knew he could be as oblivious as the next person, but he did try to learn from his mistakes. The question was what he could do about it. “I’ve noticed. What am I supposed to do about it?”
“Nothing,” Cordy replied. “There’s nothing you can do. We just need to give him some time, that’s all.”
“Which is what I was saying,” Angel insisted. “Why change things now? Everything is going just fine. If Wes steps down, he might not be able to take charge next time.”
Cordelia looked at him, surprise written large on her face. “Do you not want to be in charge? I thought you missed that.”
“I do,” Angel said frankly. “But right now I think Wes might need it more than I do.” He looked a little sheepish. “Besides, I don’t have to worry about the paperwork anymore.”
She gave him a look. “Angel, you never worried about the paperwork. I did most of that.”
“Yeah, but now you can’t nag me about it either.”
Cordy smacked him upside the head with a pillow.
Tuff was waiting for him, wearing a long, loose skirt and tank top. Her dark hair hung around her shoulders, and Wesley thought she looked a bit like a gypsy. She grinned when she saw him, coming over to greet him with enthusiasm. “I’m glad you came.”
She was always saying things like that, Wesley thought. Always telling him that she enjoyed being with him, talking with him, going out with him. “I’m glad you called,” he admitted. “I could use an afternoon off.”
“When was the last one you had?” Tuff asked, tucking her hand through his arm.
Wesley thought for a moment. His life had become consumed with work, were he to be honest with himself. Work interspersed with a few brief moments of pleasure. It had been after he’d taken Connor that things had changed; suddenly, there had been nothing and no one, and work had been his only respite from the boredom and the loneliness.
Well, work and Lilah Morgan, but that was done. No, it would never be in this world. Wesley wasn’t sure if he regretted that fact or not.
These days, work was a refuge from the thoughts that seemed to press in on him, the despair that still threatened more often than he would like.
“I don’t remember,” Wesley admitted.
Tuff frowned at him. “I know I might be out of line here, Wesley, but what’s wrong with the people you work with? Surely they have to know that it’s good for you to get out of the office occasionally. They aren’t keeping you there, are they?”
“No,” he quickly said. “No, technically I’m the boss, so that isn’t at issue.” He hesitated, not quite sure how to explain it. “Two of my co-workers just started dating, and another had his first child.”
Tuff nodded slowly, beginning to understand. “So they’re busy with their own lives, and no one notices that you’re drowning, huh?”
“Cordelia notices,” Wesley said. “To be fair, I think Angel does as well. It’s just…”
“Does this have anything to do with why you were in the hospital?”
“Yes.” Wesley wasn’t sure what else he could tell her. “The last few months have been difficult for all of us.”
Tuff smiled at him. “Then your job today is to forget all of that, and just enjoy yourself.”
“That isn’t difficult when I’m with you,” Wesley confessed.
She graced him with a brilliant smile, her dimples flashing. “Sweet talker.”
Wesley shrugged, realizing that the flirting was getting a little more serious than he was ready for. “What’s the plan for today?”
“Wandering aimlessly,” Tuff announced. “That’s always the best way to do it. No plans, no itinerary, just being.”
“You’re very good at that,” Wesley commented.
Tuff smiled. “Thank you.”
The Promenade was full of people enjoying the warm weather, which was just bordering on hot. “We’ll have to come early some Saturday,” she suggested. “The farmer’s market has some really great stuff.”
“Do you come often?”
“Oh, once a month or so,” Tuff replied. “I like to eat, and I can’t really eat out all the time, so I learned how to cook out of self-defense. Plus, my mom regarded it as an essential skill.”
“Are you any good?” Wesley teased.
Tuff shrugged. “I’ll cook for you some night, and you can decide for yourself.”
Wesley grimaced. “I’m afraid I wouldn’t be able to return the favor. Cooking is not something I’ve ever learned to do.”
“You’re a smart guy,” Tuff replied. “I’ll bet I could teach you.”
He hesitated only briefly before saying, “Alright. I may take you up on that.”
“Good.” She pointed. “Oh, look!”
Wesley willingly went along as Tuff dragged him to a table full of hand-made jewelry. From there, they visited more vendors and stores, Tuff keeping up a running commentary the entire time. In truth, Wesley had never much cared for shopping, unless it was in a book store or magic shop, but with Tuff it was a bit different.
He just liked being with her.
“Okay, did you see that woman?” she asked at one point. The woman in question had been wearing silver—halter top, mini skirt, and boots—not to mention a bright green wig. “If I ever dress like that, you have to promise to tie me up until I come to my senses.”
“I promise,” he replied solemnly.
After a while, Wesley relaxed enough to get into the spirit of things, making his own comments about passers-by. Upon seeing a man with his dog, he asked, “Do you think they’re related?”
Tuff looked over to see the heavy-set man walking his round-bellied Scotty, their beards nearly the same color and length. “I don’t know. Brothers, I would think.”
They were deep into a discussion on the use of symbolism in the modern novel when Wesley felt someone grab his arm and swing him around. “Hey!” he protested.
He was armed. Wesley never went anywhere without some sort of weapon on his person these days, but his assailant was apparently human, and he couldn’t do much in a crowd of people. The man caught his eyes, and Wesley knew instantly what the man was doing. Deliberately, he brought his foot down on the man’s instep and pulled away, making sure that Tuff was behind him. In the next moment, the man had disappeared into the crowd.
It had all happened in a matter of seconds, so quickly that it almost seemed as though he’d imagined it. “Wesley? What was that about?”
“I have no idea,” Wesley lied, taking a deep breath to compose himself before meeting Tuff’s eyes. “Perhaps he thought that I was someone else.”
Her eyes narrowed. “Please don’t lie to me. If you can’t tell me, or you don’t want to tell me, that’s fine. I don’t want to pry into your life.”
He sighed. “I’m not sure what that was about, Tuff. I have a guess or two, but it’s not something that I can do anything about. I’d rather pretend that it didn’t happen.”
“Then that’s what we’ll do,” she replied. “Just—please don’t lie to me.”
Wesley’s face softened, and he nodded, appreciating both her request and her understanding that he might not be able to tell her everything. “Very well.” He glanced around at the crowded sidewalks. “Would you mind if we got something to eat? I think I’m ready to get out of the sun for a bit.”
“No, not at all,” Tuff said. “Let’s grab dinner; then, if you’re not in a hurry to get home, we could go to a movie?”
“That sounds perfect.” The relaxed mood had been broken for Wesley, however. He’d recognized the man from one of the first employee sweeps they’d done at Wolfram & Hart when Angel had taken over. The man had been one of their readers, employed for his ability to skim the surface thoughts of another’s mind when in physical contact.
It just reminded him that he was never safe.
“Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired, and success achieved.” ~Helen Keller
Lilah raised an eyebrow. “That’s it? That’s all you got from him?”
Randolph shrugged. “He knew what I was, and he was thinking about killing me. I thought it might be better to get out of there. Whatever your sources might have said about him being the weak link, they were wrong.”
She shook her head. “So all he was thinking about was the girl.”
“That’s pretty much it. Good looking woman, though, so I can’t say I blame him,” the psychic commented. “A little on the chunky side for my taste, but to each their own.”
Lilah sighed. “I suppose I’ll need to do further investigation on this woman, then. She hasn’t had any contact with Angel or the others, so I didn’t think she was important.”
“She’s important to your mark.” Randolph rose. “Let me know if you need me to do a read on someone else. Preferably someone who isn’t armed at all times.”
Lilah considered what the psychic had told her. She’d wanted confirmation on Holtz’s death, thinking that Wesley Wyndam-Pryce would be the easiest target; with Cordelia’s visions, there was no telling what a psychic might get out of her, and the other woman—Fred—was never alone. Angel would be impossible to read as a vampire, and Gunn seemed the most volatile.
That left Wesley, but he was proving to be a slippery target.
That in itself was intriguing, however. He was proving to be more than she expected, which seemed to indicate that she needed to dig a little deeper.
Lilah smiled. First things first. She needed to find out just who this woman was that was taking up all of Wesley’s thoughts.
They had ended up seeing a movie about a British code-cracker during World War II, which Wesley had found interesting. Although there had been plenty of other options, including some foreign films, Tuff had vetoed most of them as either too fluffy or too depressing. For Wesley, who was interested in history, the movie seemed the perfect compromise.
“Besides,” Tuff had added, teasing him. “There are handsome men with British accents. Something for both of us.”
Not even the excellent meal and the movie afterward had dulled his anxiety, however. Wesley didn’t like the idea of Wolfram & Hart showing an interest in him; he remembered all too well what had transpired last time. He had no intention of allowing himself to get sucked in—there was no reason this time around—but the idea troubled him.
After all, Wesley might have saved Connor in this timeline, but the law firm could easily find another means of getting their hands on the infant.
Holtz wouldn’t touch the child, however. That was some comfort.
Wesley knew that Tuff sensed his concern, because she’d touched his arm before they parted, giving it a quick squeeze. “Be careful, Wesley. Call me when you can.”
Because Tuff was the kind of woman who appreciated physical contact, Wesley had brushed his hand against her cheek. “I’ll be careful. Thank you, Tuff.” He didn’t specify what he was thanking her for, but he thought she’d understood.
She had shown a great deal of respect for his privacy, and Wesley could appreciate the restraint she was exercising.
Although he would have preferred to go back to his apartment, Wesley went straight to the hotel. He knew that Angel needed to be told about this new development with Wolfram & Hart; they couldn’t afford to drop their guard where it concerned Connor.
Lorne was the only one at the Hyperion when Wesley arrived, however. “Wesley,” the demon greeted him. “How are you feeling?”
“Much better,” Wesley replied. It was only half of the truth; while he was feeling better physically, his heart seemed to ache every moment of every day. Not even seeing Fred and Cordelia alive, or seeing Angel with Connor, could assuage it.
Lorne’s expression was skeptical, although he didn’t argue. “Angel said you had a date.”
“It wasn’t a date,” Wesley corrected him. “I was just meeting a friend.”
“A friend of the female variety?” Lorne inquired.
Wesley grimaced. Once it got out that he had a friend that he was seeing on a regular basis—who just so happened to be a woman—he’d never hear the end of it. “Yes. We met while I was in the hospital. It’s not important.”
Lorne seemed to accept Wesley’s statement at face value once again. “So what are the worried vibes I’m getting from you, Wes? Because you might as well be wearing a big, neon sign.”
Wesley sighed. “I was stopped by one of Wolfram & Hart’s readers while on the Promenade today.”
“One of their psychics?” Lorne clarified. “Were you being followed?”
“I’m almost certain of it,” Wesley replied. “I had expected them to continue to keep watch on us, of course. It would be foolish to think that Angel’s threats would hold them off forever.”
Lorne sighed. “I know. I don’t like to think about it, but you’re right. I’m guessing you wanted to talk to Angel about this.”
“It would be nice,” Wesley affirmed. “Do you know where he is?”
“He and Cordelia are downstairs, training,” Lorne replied. “Fred and Gunn—” He stopped, thinking that Wesley probably didn’t want to know that the two of them had gone up to bed early. “—are around here somewhere,” he finished.
“Don’t worry about sparing my feelings,” Wesley said. “Where is Connor?”
“Sleeping,” the demon replied, nodding towards the baby monitor. “Angel has one in the basement, too.”
Wesley nodded, knowing that there wasn’t any way into the hotel that wouldn’t require someone to pass either Angel or Lorne. “When Angel comes back up would you tell him I’d like to speak with him?”
“Sure thing.” Lorne watched as Wesley disappeared back into the office, then shook his head. Cordelia had been saying that she thought that Wesley was getting better; Lorne hated to burst her bubble, but he didn’t think that was the case. Not that the man’s mood was quite as bleak—he was certainly saner than he had been—but he walked around with a black cloud constantly hanging around him.
And Lorne honestly didn’t see that changing soon.
Gunn sat on the edge of the bed, looking down at a sleeping Fred. He still couldn’t quite believe that she was his, that she’d chosen him over Wesley. Standing slowly, Gunn began to pull on his clothing; sleep was elusive tonight, with the earlier conversation with Angel weighing on his mind.
Wesley wanted out of the leadership position; that’s what Angel had said. It was obvious to Gunn that Angel wasn’t terribly enthusiastic about taking over again, although he would. He’d gotten the impression that the vampire was concerned about Wesley’s motives for abdicating responsibility, and that Angel preferred to be the one saying “I told you so” rather than the one making the big decisions.
Given what Wesley had divulged about what the future held, Gunn wasn’t sure that he blamed him.
He wandered down to the lobby, seeing Lorne at the front desk, sipping a Sea Breeze and flipping through one of Cordelia’s magazines. “Cordy and Angel still downstairs?”
Lorne glanced up. “Yeah. They haven’t come back up yet.”
Gunn shifted uncomfortably. He liked Lorne, but he wasn’t sure how the demon felt about him after all the damage his old gang had done to Caritas. “Wesley back?” he asked, seeing the light in the office.
“He’s waiting for Angel,” Lorne said. “He seemed pretty tense when he came in.”
Gunn considered for a moment. His friendship with Wesley had been solid; Wes had been like a brother to him, and now there was a distance there that Gunn had no idea how to bridge. Sure, he’d won the girl, but he hadn’t wanted it to be at the expense of their relationship, even though he’d known it was a possibility.
Somehow, he thought there might be more to it than that, though. Something deeper than the fact that Gunn was dating Fred.
“Maybe I’ll go see if he needs some help,” Gunn commented.
Lorne gave him a piercing look. “Just remember that Wes came back to save all of us, and he gave up a lot to do it.”
Gunn nodded, not knowing how to reply to that. Wesley was the one who had to make the hard decisions; he knew that. He also knew how that worked.
Gunn had made a few hard decisions of his own.
Wesley looked up from his book; he’d been scribbling notes on a yellow legal pad, but laid his pencil aside. “Gunn. How are you?”
His words were measured, perfectly controlled, and cold. Gunn almost turned around and left, but decided that giving up wasn’t going to get him any answers and instead sat down in the chair across from the desk. “I’m good. I was about to ask you the same question.” He smiled. “How was your date tonight?”
A little of the old Wesley seemed to break out then as the man let out an exasperated breath. “It wasn’t a date,” he insisted. “How many times do I have to say it?”
“I’ve only heard it once,” Gunn pointed out.
“Then you can pass the word along so I don’t have to repeat myself,” Wesley said, irritation thick in his voice. There was a spark of humor in his eyes that gave Gunn the confidence to press the issue.
“So who is this non-date?” he asked.
Wesley’s face closed down again. “She’s a friend. That’s all.” Gunn watched as Wesley closed his eyes, the expression on his face one of discomfort. When he met Gunn’s eyes again, he seemed to have come to a decision. “We met while I was in the hospital.”
Gunn shifted. “Wes, about that—”
“Forget it,” Wesley said quietly. “I encouraged you to leave.”
“Yeah, but I was supposed to be watching your back,” Gunn insisted. “I should have been there.”
Wesley shook his head. “It turned out well enough.”
“Then you’re not upset about it?” Gunn pressed. Maybe Wes was just pissed off about his relationship with Fred, and it wasn’t anything else.
“No.” The word was quiet, firm, almost gentle. “It’s not that, Gunn.”
That only left one option, and there wasn’t anything Gunn was willing to do about that. “Right.”
“It’s actually not that either,” Wesley said quietly.
Gunn knew his face reflected his surprise. He hadn’t expected Wes to address it so openly. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Of course you do,” Wesley replied. “You’re an intelligent man. You have to understand that I have watched nearly everyone I loved die. I have done things I’m not proud of. I’m not the man you knew.”
Gunn raised an eyebrow. “Then you’re not the guy that took a bullet for me?”
Wesley looked away. “Perhaps I still am. A lot has changed since then.”
“You really want out of this position?” Gunn asked.
Wesley nodded slowly. “I do. I won’t risk repeating my mistakes.”
Gunn looked at him for a long moment, weighing his words, the weariness in his face and posture. Now that he was here, sitting across from his friend, really paying attention for the first time—he could see the changes.
But it was still Wesley.
“You ever thought about the fact that you need to be in charge because you won’t repeat your mistakes, Wes?” Gunn asked, rising. “You’re the only one who knows what’s coming. Maybe that means you’re the only man for the job.” When it looked as though he was going to argue, Gunn shook his head. “Just think about it, huh?”
Gunn left the office, leaving silence in his wake. He walked over to the front desk and leaned up against it heavily, ignoring Lorne’s knowing look. He couldn’t help but wonder what it was that Wesley hadn’t told him. Cordelia knew—of that Gunn was nearly certain. It would explain her attitude towards Wesley these days, treating him as though he was fragile.
Maybe he was. Hell, maybe they all were.
Angel trudged up the stairs behind Cordelia. “I still think that was a cheap shot.”
“Oh, please, Angel,” she replied. “You’d totally be applauding me if I’d used that in a fight with someone else.”
That was besides the point, and he told her so. “It was a sucker punch.”
“Then maybe you shouldn’t be a sucker,” she shot back, her tone teasing.
Angel didn’t know quite what to say to that, so he changed the subject, wanting to get the focus off of his shortcomings. “Hey, Lorne.”
“Wesley got back in about an hour ago,” Lorne said without preamble. “The worry was coming off of him like you wouldn’t believe, and he said he wanted to talk to you.”
Angel exchanged a look with Cordy. “I think I’m going to take a shower,” she said, deciding that it might be better for the two men to work things out on their own. She knew that she couldn’t act as a buffer between them forever.
The vampire nodded, heading past Lorne into the office. “Hey, Wes. What’s up?”
“One of the psychics from Wolfram and Hart tried to read me today,” Wesley informed him. “I don’t know what they were looking for, but it would seem to indicate that they haven’t lost interest in Connor. It would greatly surprise me if they’ve given up on taking him.”
“Yeah, that would surprise me too,” Angel replied, sitting down across from him. “What would you suggest?”
“I don’t know.” Wesley ran a hand over his face, and Angel could tell that he still wasn’t looking very well rested. “This isn’t something I’ve had experience with, Angel. Persuading evil law firms to leave me alone has never been my strong suit.”
Angel’s lips twitched. Wes just sounded so irritated; he’d always enjoyed winding the man up. Of course, this wasn’t a laughing matter, since they were talking about his son’s safety. “Did it ruin your date?”
“As I’ve explained to a number of people, it wasn’t a date,” he snapped. Angel just raised an eyebrow, waiting. “I think I’m going to go home,” Wesley announced.
“Maybe you should take tomorrow off,” Angel suggested. “You look like you could use the break.”
Wesley nodded. “Perhaps you’re right. I’ve got some work I could—”
“Wes. I meant take the day off. Do something fun.” Angel smiled. “Maybe you could call that girlfriend of yours.”
“She’s not my girlfriend.”
“She’s a girl, and she’s a friend,” Angel pointed out. “That pretty much makes her a girlfriend.”
Wesley stared at him, obviously exasperated. An unwilling grin broke out over his face. “Fine.”
“Are you doing okay?” Angel asked quietly.
For a moment, the mask dropped, and he could see the emotion that Wesley was spending so much of his energy hiding. It was like that, Angel suddenly realized; the man they saw was only the tip of the iceberg. Angel had once been able to read him like a book, and now he was a mystery.
“Okay?” Wesley asked. “No, not really.”
“Is there anything I can do?”
Something in Wesley’s eyes warmed. “No, but thank you.”
Angel watched him leave, wishing that there was a magic cure, that there was something he could do to fix things.
Angel owed him.
“So how are things going with Wesley?”
That was the one thing Tuff didn’t like about working at the hospital. She loved her father; they had a great relationship, but he had the nasty habit of asking questions to which she had no answers. Usually at the very moment she was thinking the questions.
Tuff had been going over and over the afternoon at the Promenade in her head. They’d had fun; she was certain of that much, although Wesley had gotten really quiet after the stranger had grabbed his arm. When he’d turned back to her, before he’d had the chance to hide it completely, Tuff had seen the danger.
She hadn’t really thought about it like that before, but she knew now that Wesley could be very dangerous if he wanted to be. Oddly enough, in many ways that just made her feel safer.
Of course, Tuff had always had a thing for bad boys.
There had been something very strange about the whole thing, though. Tuff knew that he wasn’t telling her everything, that there was a lot more to his job than she’d probably ever know about. But that one glimpse had given her a feeling that it was more than just the danger.
She couldn’t define the feeling, and she didn’t try. She’d always gone with her gut.
No, the thing that was really bothering her was their goodbye. She’d been worried enough to tell him to be careful, although Tuff hadn’t been sure how he’d react. Some guys got a little huffy, as though you didn’t trust them or something. Wesley had brushed her cheek with his hand, which was the first physical contact he’d actually initiated.
So now, of course, she was analyzing it to death, which was why her father’s question was just a little bit annoying. Tuff had no idea how things were going with Wesley.
“I don’t know,” she replied. “We have a lot of fun together, but I don’t think it’s any more than that.”
David Myers took a seat. “Maybe that’s for the best, Tuff,” he suggested. “He has a dangerous profession.”
Tuff rolled her eyes. She might be an adult and long out on her own, but to her father she would always be his little girl. “Dad, this is L.A. He might have been mugged and wound up here. Hell, I could get hit by a bus tomorrow. Life is unpredictable.”
Her father sighed; it was an old conversation. “I don’t want you to get hurt.”
“I’m not going to get hurt.” Tuff shook her head. “I don’t know what’s going on, Dad. I like him, though. I like him a lot.”
“Then I hope for your sake—and his—that he stays out of this place,” David replied. He stood, coming over to drop a kiss on her head. “Will you be over for dinner this weekend?”
“Yeah, I think so,” she replied. Her father left, and Tuff went back to analyzing their day together, wondering if she couldn’t unravel the mystery that was Wesley Wyndam-Pryce.
Somehow, she didn’t think she ever would.
“We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aid, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn.” ~Henry David Thoreau
Fred watched from the doorway as Wesley scribbled in his notebook, going back and forth between texts and lexicons. She hated to interrupt while he was obviously so deep in thought, but she didn’t think he’d appreciate missing this phone call. “Wesley?”
“Yes?” he asked automatically, his eyes still focused on the words in front of him.
“You’ve got a phone call.” She waited for him to acknowledge her message. When he still didn’t look up, Fred added, “It’s Greta from the book shop. She said to tell you that she found the book you wanted.”
That got his attention. Wesley’s head shot up, and he fixed Fred with an intense gaze. “Is she still on the line?” When she nodded, he picked up the office phone, punching the button to select the incoming call. “Greta?”
Fred lingered in the doorway, listening, knowing that she probably shouldn’t. Wesley seemed so much more closed off these days, so secretive. He was impossible to read, and Fred had no idea how he felt about her—about them. All of them.
“I can do that,” Wesley said. “I’ll be by tomorrow to pick it up.”
“Was it something you needed?” Fred asked when he’d hung up the phone.
Wesley glanced up absent-mindedly, his attention already back on his translation. “Hmm? Oh, just a book I think might be helpful to me.”
“Is there anything I can do to help?” Fred asked wistfully. Gunn and Angel had gone out, and Cordelia was busy shopping. It was Lorne’s turn to stay with Connor, and he was upstairs making phone calls to various people. He had received a few offers from associates in show business, and one of them had offered him his own show in Las Vegas. At the moment, it appeared that the demon would take them up on the deal. Fred wasn’t sure how to feel about that; Lorne was part of the team, and it wouldn’t be the same without him around the hotel.
Wesley glanced up at her, and the expression on his face was so strange that Fred felt her breath catch. He was looking at her as though he’d never seen her before—or maybe like he’d thought he would never see her again. Fred wasn’t sure she wanted to think about what that meant.
“You could keep me company if you like,” Wesley finally said after some hesitation. “There really isn’t much else to do.”
She didn’t want to be alone, so she sat down across the desk, watching as he worked. Fred had noticed that he was different—Wesley even looked different, with his rumpled clothing and spiky hair. He seemed to care less about his appearance these days, to care less about being with any of them, or being in charge.
He wasn’t the same man she’d known. It was a little scary, in a way, watching a person change so completely in such a short period of time. While Fred knew it had been longer for him, it didn’t feel that way from the outside looking in.
Not for the first time, she wondered about the physics of the change. How had the being Wesley called on done it? Had his consciousness been transferred back through time? Or was it simply an imparting of knowledge? Was anything really transported other than information, and if it had been, where was the old Wesley?
Fred wished she had some way of finding out, but there didn’t seem to be any way to run an experiment.
She leaned forward, snagging a book that he didn’t appear to be using, flipping through the pages while keeping his place marked with her finger. The language was one she didn’t recognize, and Fred frowned. There might be a way she could help; there were computer programs to translate texts like this. Of course, the algorithms were amazingly complex, and there was no guarantee she’d be able to come up with a program that would give them the accuracy needed.
But it might be fun to try.
Wesley didn’t say anything when she left the office to grab her laptop, bringing it back and beginning to play around with ideas.
They worked in silence, both of them immersed in the task at hand. Fred focused on working out the basics of a translating program, rather than the specifics. Each language would have its own sets of specifications, but once the parameters of a particular language had been determined, she could input them and go from there.
“Are—are you okay, Wes?”
She watched as he froze, all movement stilled. “I’m quite alright,” he finally replied.
“You’ve been avoiding us,” Fred pointed out. “Gunn and I, anyway.” Angel had spoken to them about Wesley’s request that he not be in charge anymore. Gunn had said he thought Wes should stay in the position, although if he wanted out that badly, that was different. Angel didn’t want to be in charge again; Cordelia thought that things were fine as they were.
Fred—well, Fred didn’t really have an opinion. Wesley had been in charge for as long as she’d been at the hotel, so she couldn’t say that it would be better if someone else was making the decisions.
She’d noticed that he was avoiding her, though. Gunn, too, but it was mostly her. Anytime she was in the room, Wesley seemed to freeze up, and then he found an excuse to leave as soon as possible. At first, Fred had thought it was just about the fact that Wesley had watched her die sometime in the future. Now, she wasn’t so sure. According to Cordelia, she’d died too, and Wesley didn’t have the same problem with the other woman.
Wesley was silent for so long after she’d asked her question, Fred was afraid that he wasn’t going to answer. That he was simply going to ignore her.
“It’s better that you don’t know everything that happens in the future,” Wesley said quietly. “If I seem strange, it’s because there are things that I haven’t told you.”
“I don’t understand,” Fred replied unhappily. She still felt as though she had done something to create this distance between them.
Wesley met her eyes, and she realized with a jolt that it was the first time he’d done so since all of this had happened, since he’d become another person. Fred could see the anguish in his gaze, and she suddenly realized exactly why Wesley might be uncomfortable around her and Gunn. Why he’d been angry when they had first started dating.
Why it seemed as though he couldn’t even bear to look at her at times.
“Oh,” she whispered.
He shook his head. “Let’s just forget about it, Fred. There’s no point in dwelling on things you can’t change.”
Fred knew that she wouldn’t be able to forget about it.
Lilah went through the folder with growing impatience. There was nothing here, nothing that would give any indication of exactly what was going on with Wesley Wyndam-Pryce. The only real connection between him and the woman was that she worked at the same hospital he’d stayed at after he’d been injured. And the woman—
Well, she was boring. Utterly mundane.
Normal family, average student, average job. Her father had been one of Wesley’s doctors at the hospital. Although there were a few doctors there that Wolfram & Hart represented, David Myers was not one of them. He and his wife were known as pillars of the community, patrons of the arts, and general philanthropists. What was worse was that there was no hint of hypocrisy.
They were genuinely nice people, as was their daughter, apparently. It seemed that Wesley had found himself a nice, normal woman to go out with on occasion. As far as surveillance went, there was no indication that either of them had spent the night yet. All evidence pointed to friendship, rather than romance.
She frowned. It was time to pull in the big guns. Perhaps Wesley wasn’t the weak link that she’d thought him, but that didn’t have to mean anything. In fact, it could be an indication that he was more important than they’d believed. It might be time to dig a little deeper.
And if her digging didn’t take her anywhere, Lilah had other avenues.
After all, Angel had been rather upset when Lilah had targeted Cordelia; Wesley might be persuaded to cooperate if they went after Tiffany Myers, particularly if she was as normal as she appeared.
She doubted Wesley wanted his new friend to learn about his profession the hard way.
The knock on Tuff’s door had her turning in her chair, expecting to see her father, since he was usually the one who came to visit. Instead, Wesley was leaning against the doorway, watching her with his intense stare. “Wesley. What are you doing here?”
“Is this not a good time?” he asked. “I could leave.”
“Don’t you dare!” Tuff shot back. “It’s perfect timing, if you don’t mind waiting a few minutes while I finish up this paperwork. I was almost ready to leave.” She paused. “This is the first time you’ve visited me at work.”
Actually, it was the first time he’d sought her out like this. Normally, she called him and they set up a time to get together, although Wesley had called her once or twice. This was the first time he’d just stopped by, however, and Tuff couldn’t help getting her hopes up.
She really liked him.
He shrugged. “I had to pick up a book, and I was in the area.” The expression on his face was difficult to read. “I had this sudden urge to see you, and I thought we could go out to dinner.”
Tuff didn’t know if she was pushing things, but she decided to ask anyway. “You know, I was planning on cooking tonight. If you want, we could go back to my place. I did promise I’d make dinner for you sometime.”
He hesitated, and then seemed to come to some kind of a decision. “That would be nice.”
Wesley took a seat in her spare chair, and Tuff turned back to her paperwork. She found it nearly impossible to concentrate with Wesley there. She wanted to know what had brought him by, if there had been some change in his feelings for her. If his sudden, unexplained appearance meant something more than friendship.
There were times when Tuff definitely hated her tendency to over-analyze things.
“Tuff?” This time it was her dad at the door, and she watched as he recognized Wesley. “Ah, Wesley.” David Myers reacted with commendable aplomb. “You’re looking much better than the last time I saw you.”
“I’m feeling much better, thank you,” Wesley replied, shaking the proffered hand. “It’s nice to see you again.”
David nodded, then looked at his daughter. “I was going to let you know that I’ll be staying late tonight, but it seems you’ve already made plans.”
“I heard through the grapevine that you had your hands full,” Tuff responded. “I’d planned on having a night in, anyway.”
David nodded, looking from her to Wesley and back again. “Be sure to invite Wesley to dinner on Sunday, sweetheart.” He gave her a kiss goodbye and left.
Tuff glanced over at Wesley, who had an expression of ill-concealed longing on his face. She had to wonder if it had something to do with his own relationship with his parents. Tuff had a hard time believing that there wasn’t some problem there, since he hadn’t seen his parents in years.
“What’s Sunday?” Wesley asked before she could say anything.
Tuff shrugged. “My birthday, actually. We’re doing the traditional family gathering.”
He frowned. “It’s your birthday? I didn’t realize.”
“I didn’t tell you,” she responded. “It’s not really a big deal. Well, it is in our family, but—I didn’t know if we were there yet.”
“If we were where?” he asked, clearly confused.
“You know, at the point in our friendship where we know about birthdays and anniversaries and stuff,” she said. “It always seems like you’ve hit the next stage when that happens.”
Tuff could tell that he was taken aback by that idea, but he nodded slowly. “That makes sense.”
She couldn’t quite get a read on his expression or tone of voice, and Tuff asked, “So when is your birthday?”
“It isn’t important,” Wesley replied.
“You know when mine is,” she said. “And I want to know.”
He hesitated, then admitted, “It’s the twelfth of September.”
“Good,” Tuff responded, satisfied. “I’ve got plenty of time to make plans, then.” At his expression she added, “Unless you have a problem with that.”
“No!” Wesley shook his head, still staring at her. “No, it’s just—that’s fine.”
There was something that he wasn’t saying, but Tuff decided not to press. She knew him well enough at this point to know that Wesley couldn’t be pushed. He could, however, be coaxed. One of these days she’d try to get him drunk and see if that didn’t loosen him up a bit. For now, though, she would let things lie.
She hit save on her computer files and then shut the machine down. “Let’s get out of here.”
Wesley wasn’t quite sure why he’d decided to visit Tuff at the hospital instead of immediately going back to his apartment to begin his research with the new text. After his discussion with Fred, he wanted to avoid the hotel for a while, at least until he was sure that his revelation wasn’t going to cause things to be even more strained between him and Fred, or him and Gunn.
Wesley remembered how the tension had escalated after Fred had found out how he’d felt while they’d been fighting the Beast. Whatever his feelings were for her now, he had no desire to cause that sort of trouble.
Besides, it was finally beginning to hurt less. At least it didn’t feel like he’d been gut-punched every time he saw Fred and Gunn together.
After he’d left the bookstore, it had hit him that he was only a few minutes away from the hospital, and that Tuff should be getting off work soon. Once he’d thought about it, the desire to see her had been too strong to resist. The pleased surprise on her face had been reward enough for his showing up; the promise of a home-cooked meal was just a bonus.
Although, most of Wesley’s recent experience with others’ cooking was with Cordelia’s, which was something he tried to avoid if at all possible. Even if the food wasn’t good, Wesley figured he’d do the same thing that he’d done for Cordy—lie through his teeth.
He pulled up behind her in front of a modest apartment complex, parking on the street. Wesley noted with interest that it wasn’t too far from Cordelia’s apartment, and the thought crossed his mind that Cordy and Tuff would probably get along quite well.
Not that he was planning on introducing them any time soon.
Wesley followed her into the building and up three flights of stairs. “Sorry about the hike,” Tuff apologized. “The elevator is a little scary, though.”
“I don’t mind,” he assured her.
She laughed. “Yeah, I imagine you’re in better shape than I am.”
“I don’t know. I like your shape.” Wesley couldn’t quite believe that those words had come out of his mouth. Actually, if he’d been the man he was three years before, they probably wouldn’t have, but he’d loosened up quite a bit.
Watching the flush creep up her neck, and seeing the pleased embarrassment on her face when she turned to look at him made him appreciate that in a new way. “Thank you,” she said quietly.
Her apartment fit her, Wesley decided when he entered. There were large windows with gauzy, brightly colored curtains, and her furniture was overstuffed in mixed neutral and bright colors. There were bookshelves along every wall, crammed with books, seemingly with no order; it was clean, but cluttered, obviously well lived-in, an inviting sort of space.
“I like it,” Wesley said.
She smiled, her dimples showing. “Thanks. Give me a minute. I’m going to get changed, and then we can start dinner.”
Wesley wandered around, running his hands over the spines of the books, recognizing a pattern after a few minutes, separate genres on separate shelves. It made quite a bit of sense when he thought about it, particularly if you couldn’t recall the title or author of the book you were looking for.
“See something you’d like to borrow?”
Wesley straightened and turned. “I imagine I would, given time. You do like books, don’t you?”
“They’re a girl’s best friends,” Tuff replied. “I know they say it’s diamonds, but it’s kind of a pain to take a diamond to bed with you.”
She’d changed into jeans and a t-shirt, and Wesley realized that he had no desire to go back to his empty apartment that night, to begin another round of research that would only prompt another string of questions he couldn’t answer. Not when he could be here. “Books do provide an escape,” he acknowledged, reading between the lines.
“What is it that you wanted to escape from?” Tuff asked, beginning to pull foodstuffs out of the refrigerator.
Wesley leaned against the counter, watching her. “Duty, rules, life in general. You?”
“Stupid people,” she responded. “When you’re on the chunky side, people aren’t always kind.”
“Ah.” Wesley wasn’t quite sure what to say to that, particularly since he was certain that she wasn’t fishing for compliments. “People don’t always need an excuse to be cruel.”
“No, they don’t,” Tuff replied. “It wasn’t so bad. I had some good friends, so it wasn’t like I was the kid everybody picked on, but it was easier to lose myself in a book sometimes.”
“Yes.” Wesley considered his next words carefully. “You seem to have a close relationship with your parents.”
“We are close,” she admitted. “Speaking of, you are invited this weekend, just in case I didn’t make it clear.”
“I’d like to come,” Wesley replied, and meant it.
She looked over at him. “How are you with a knife?”
“Not bad,” Wesley replied.
“Good. You can chop.” Tuff handed him a knife and pointed him in the direction of the cutting board she’d set out in front of the vegetables. “It’s just pasta and a salad,” she said, “but the sauce is homemade.”
“It sounds fine,” Wesley replied.
“You aren’t close to your parents,” Tuff commented. “Any particular reason?”
“I’m a terrible disappointment.” Wesley had no idea why he’d said that out loud. He’d never really been that blunt with Angel or the others, although he imagined that they probably had gotten a partial picture from the hints he’d let drop. They had never asked, though, perhaps because they had their own pasts to deal with.
Tuff laughed, and then stopped abruptly when she realized that he wasn’t joking. “You’re kidding, right?” she asked. Turning from the stove where she’d just put the pasta on to boil, she stared at him. “You can’t possibly be serious.”
“Very serious,” Wesley replied. “I was fired from the position my father got for me for gross incompetence, and then I decided to become a private detective.” It wasn’t a complete lie. In fact, it was the truth, although a much edited version of it.
“But—” Tuff blinked. “You’re his son, Wesley.”
“And that makes it even more difficult for him.” He got a sort of perverse pleasure out of laying it out so starkly.
Her dark eyes studied him for a long moment, and then she finally nodded slowly. “Yeah. I get that.”
Wesley thought it might be time to change the subject. “So what kind of sauce is that?”
“Roasted tomato,” Tuff replied, sounding determinedly cheerful. “My mom gets these cooking magazines, and then she hands them off to me. She’s always trying new things out on my dad.”
“Will she be there on Sunday?” Wesley asked.
“Yeah, and you’ll get to meet my brother and his family, too.” Tuff gave him an apologetic look. “I’ll warn you now that it’s going to be chaos, and everyone will probably ask a dozen questions.”
“Including your father?”
“My dad might actually be on your side,” she replied. “He seems to like you.”
Wesley nodded absently, wondering if Dr. Myers would feel the same if he knew everything. “That’s nice.”
“Do you want a glass of wine with dinner?” she asked. “There’s a bottle in the fridge, if you want to open it.”
He turned to look at her, and the expression on her face told him that she wanted him. The feeling was mutual, although Wesley knew that he was entering into dangerous territory. It was one thing to get involved with a woman like Lilah Morgan, who knew that sex between them would likely never be much more than a physical exercise—even if it had become something different in time.
Tuff, he suspected, wanted something more, something Wesley wasn’t sure he could give her.
He wondered what kind of man he was that he would take what she offered him anyway.
“Courage, it would seem, is nothing less than the power to overcome danger, misfortune, fear, injustice, while continuing to affirm inwardly that life with all its sorrows is good; that everything is meaningful even if in a sense beyond our understanding; and that there is always tomorrow.” ~Dorothy Thompson
Wesley woke from his nightmare tangled in sheets and limbs, his breathing harsh in the silence of the room.
Her voice startled him; for a moment, he couldn’t remember where he was, or whom he was with. Tuff’s warm hand caressed his back in soothing circles, and he relaxed suddenly, remembering. They’d had dinner—which had been as good as she’d promised—and they had drunk the bottle of wine between the two of them. Then they’d gone to bed together.
Wesley wasn’t sure what to call what they’d done. It was more than sex, less than love—somewhere in between friendship and desire. He didn’t know what she wanted from their relationship, and he had no desire to hurt her, even though it seemed inevitable.
“I’m fine,” he said, realizing that she was waiting for a response from him.
“That must have been some nightmare,” she responded, reaching over to flip on the light on the table next to the bed. “Do you want to talk about it?”
“Not really,” he replied honestly.
“Okay.” She laid back down, looking up at him. “Are you going to stay?”
He glanced at the clock, the glowing red numbers indicating that the sun would not be up for a few hours yet. “I don’t know that I should.”
Tuff nodded slowly, then spoke with characteristic directness. “Wesley, I really like you.”
He winced. “Tuff—”
“We’re friends, aren’t we?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Then that’s okay.”
Wesley reached for her, his hands encountering warm, soft flesh. She was so open; her eyes held no secrets, no traps for the unwary. “I don’t want you to get hurt.”
“Are you planning on hurting me?” she asked.
“No, of course not.” He sighed, thinking that perhaps it would be better if he left now, but she tugged him down to lie next to her. “I like you very much,” he admitted.
“Good.” Tuff sighed. “Wesley, I’m not asking you to make a commitment. I know that’s not what you want right now, and it’s fine. I’m a big girl, and I know what I’m doing.”
He certainly hoped so, but he didn’t want to talk about it anymore. Instead, he kissed her shoulder, her neck, her lips, feeling her hands caressing his face and shoulders. “I’ll stay.”
It took them a while to get back to sleep.
Angel raised his eyebrows as Wesley entered the hotel. He knew exactly what the man had been up to; his nose told him that much. For the first time in weeks—no, months—the other man looked happy. In fact, if Angel’s ears didn’t deceive him, Wesley was humming something under his breath.
Considering how well a vampire could hear, chances were pretty good that he was hearing correctly.
“You look relaxed,” he commented.
Wesley glared at him. “I really wish you wouldn’t do that.”
“Do what?” Angel asked innocently.
Wesley’s eyes narrowed. “Never mind.”
“I thought you said that she wasn’t your girlfriend.”
“That’s what I meant,” he said, not answering Angel’s question. “It’s really quite disturbing.”
“What’s disturbing?” Cordelia asked as she came down the stairs holding Connor.
Wesley shook his head. “It doesn’t matter.” He knew quite well what Cordy would do with this sort of information.
Cordelia frowned. “Sure it does. What is Angel doing that’s disturbing?” She rounded on the vampire. “You’re not being mean to Wesley, are you?”
“What? No!” Angel exclaimed, wondering how this had gotten turned around so quickly. “Wesley has a girlfriend.” He felt a little guilty for selling Wes out, but there was no way he wanted Cordelia mad at him.
Especially for something he didn’t do.
Cordy turned back to Wesley. “You have a girlfriend?”
“I—yes,” he said firmly. “But it’s more that we’re good friends than anything else.”
She frowned, obviously trying to work out what about Wesley having a girlfriend would be disturbing in connection with Angel. She wrinkled her nose. “You did the smelling thing again, didn’t you?” she asked him.
Angel shrugged, reaching for his son, hoping that if he could disappear upstairs, she’d grill Wes for a while, rather than giving him a hard time for smelling out Wesley’s activities. “He was humming, too.”
That seemed to do it. “Alright, Wes. I need a name.”
Wesley looked a bit panicked. “Cordelia, I don’t think—”
“You were humming.”
“Who was humming?”
Gunn’s question, with Fred as an interested on-looker, had Wesley straightening. “I think I have some phone calls to make,” he announced, and beat a strategic retreat into the back office.
“What was that about?” Gunn asked.
“Wesley apparently has a girlfriend, and he was humming when he came into the hotel, according to Angel,” Cordelia replied.
Fred frowned. “He has a girlfriend?” she echoed. She wasn’t quite sure what to think of that, given his revelation a few days before. Of course, it was probably a good thing that there was someone who could take Wesley’s mind off her, since it could only ease the tension. Right?
Gunn grinned, pleased for his friend, especially since he knew that Wesley had had his eye on Fred. If Wesley had a new girl on the line, then he didn’t have to worry about Wes making a move on his girl; not that he thought Wesley would do that, but he still felt better. “So Wesley got lucky last night, huh?”
“Ask Angel,” Cordy said. “He’s the one who saw Wesley come in.”
Angel shrugged. “He just seemed like he was in a better mood today.” While he had no problem giving Wesley a hard time about his night’s activities, there was no way he was going to announce to the world at large that the man had spent the night having sex. He had a feeling that Wesley would never forgive him for that.
“You guys leave him alone,” Cordelia ordered, conveniently forgetting that she’d been the one doing the grilling. “If he’s in a good mood, then it’s probably best just to let him be.”
“I wasn’t going to bug him,” Angel said, heading upstairs with Connor.
Gunn shrugged. “We were just checking in to see if you had anything for us today.”
Fred smiled. “We thought maybe we could go to the beach.”
“Yeah, you guys do that,” Cordelia said. “Wes is around if we need someone, and he should be good to go out if trouble comes calling before the sun goes down.” She waited until she was sure that Angel was upstairs with Connor and that Fred and Gunn were gone before going into the office.
As she’d suspected, Wesley wasn’t doing anything on the phone. “I need a name, Wesley.”
“You don’t know her,” he said firmly.
Cordelia sat down across from him, feeling a sense of hurt. “And you’re going to make sure it stays that way, huh?”
Wesley looked up at her, startled by the sharpness of her tone. “Cordy…”
“Are we that awful, Wesley?”
“Of course not!” he shot back. “Cordy, she doesn’t know about any of this. She has no idea.”
Cordelia sighed. “Fine.”
She started to rise, but Wesley’s voice stopped her. “Her name is Tuff.”
“Short for Tiffany.” Wesley now had some idea what Tuff had meant when she said that she didn’t look like a “Tiffany.”
Cordelia settled back into her chair. “Do you like her?”
“Very much.” He leaned back, giving her a rueful smile. “I don’t know that I like her as much as she likes me.”
Cordy winced. “Does she know?”
He shrugged. “I think she sees our relationship as friendship with benefits.”
“What do you think of it as?”
“I don’t know,” he confessed. “How can it ever be anything more? I don’t want her involved in our world, Cordy. I don’t want her hurt.”
“Maybe it would hurt her more if you keep her out,” Cordelia suggested.
Wesley shook his head. “I don’t want her involved,” he repeated.
Cordy knew how stubborn Wesley could be. “Maybe you should just let things happen,” she suggested. “She likes you, you like her. Let the rest of it come.” Cordelia leaned across the desk to grab his hand. “You look happier than you have in months, Wesley. She’s obviously good for you.”
Wesley smiled. “I think you’d like her.”
“I want to meet her,” Cordelia said, adding, “And you know I can keep my mouth shut. We’ve all dealt with people who don’t know about our world before.”
Wesley nodded. “Alright. Perhaps dinner sometime, then.” He squeezed her hand. “Thank you.”
She smiled. “Any time.”
Lorne entered the Hyperion, feeling truly cheerful for the first time in a long time. The Vegas deal was a bust. He’d gone to Aggie to talk it over and she had nixed the idea quickly, seeing nothing but darkness there. If there was anybody that Lorne trusted to tell him what the future might hold, it was Aggie.
What he did have was an offer from an old friend who had decided to remodel his bar. He wanted something a little more like Caritas, although a little edgier. Less karaoke and more live bands, but Orrick had asked him to take charge of the entertainment side of things. For the first time in months, Lorne felt as though he had a purpose.
Of course, he was going to insist on some kind of barrier spell, as well as the usual sanctuary spells. There was no way he wanted to watch his hard work go up in flames again.
Lorne glanced up as Angel came down the stairs, holding Connor. “Hey, Lorne. What’s up?”
“I’m moving out,” Lorne replied. “I got an offer to go into partnership with an old acquaintance, and it sounds like a good deal.”
Angel looked like he didn’t know whether to be pleased or disappointed. “That’s great, Lorne. I mean, it’s really good for you.”
“I think so,” the demon replied. “Don’t worry, I’ll be around. Once this deal is off the ground, you’ll probably be seeing a lot more of me, but I’m going to be pretty busy until then.” Lorne fixed him with a look. “I thought I probably ought to clear up a couple of things before I go.”
“Okay,” Angel replied, sounding wary.
Lorne sighed. “Let’s sit down, shall we?” He led the way over to the lobby couch. “Look, the way you feel about Cordelia is pretty much the exact same way she feels about you. Wes’s little time-trick smoothed out a lot of rough patches. He gave you guys a chance to do things right the first time around. Maybe it’s time you took the first step.”
Angel shook his head. “Lorne, Cordy and I are friends, but—”
“You two are so obviously connected,” Lorne interrupted. “You finish each other’s sentences, laugh at the same jokes, share the same passions. She hurts when you hurt, and I’m pretty sure the same can be said for you.” His red eyes were intense. “Don’t pass up this opportunity, Angel. We’re talking once in a lifetime here.”
The vampire glanced down at the child in his arms, thought about how natural Cordelia looked with him, how easy it was to be with her. How she was the one person he trusted more than anyone else, with the possible exception of Wesley. “I don’t know how to tell her.”
“Just tell her,” Lorne advised. “The right words will come. Leave the kid with someone tonight, and then go do something together. Take your opportunity when it comes, because it might not come around again.”
He stood, looking around the lobby. Although he knew it probably wasn’t going to be the last time, Lorne still felt it was like an ending. As much as he liked Angel and his crew, he was ready to move on to bigger and better things.
Or at least less dangerous things. Lorne was ready for a break from the hero-gig.
“I already left the new number with Wesley,” Lorne stated. “He knows how to get in touch with me if you need me.”
“Lorne,” Angel said, rising. “Thanks. And good luck.”
“I’ll see you around, Angel-cakes,” Lorne replied. “Bring the little nipper by sometime, huh?”
Angel watched him leave, and then looked back at the office, where a light still burned. He headed back, knocking briefly on the doorframe before entering. “You knew Lorne was leaving?” he asked.
“He told me yesterday,” Wesley replied, looking up from the invoices he’d been going over. “He said he was going to talk to you about it, too.”
Angel nodded, taking a seat. “He just left. I didn’t know he was planning on moving out.”
Wesley hadn’t been surprised at all; in fact, he’d been the one to urge Lorne to get a second opinion on the Vegas offer because he vaguely remembered that it hadn’t worked out well the first time around. Of course, he hadn’t been an integral member of the group at that time, and so he wasn’t certain why it hadn’t worked out.
He’d known that Lorne would eventually leave, however, that he was happiest while entertaining. While the green-skinned demon was capable of heroics, Lorne didn’t regard it as his true calling. Wesley honestly envied him; at this point, he was a little tired of the heroics himself, although—unlike Lorne—he didn’t have anything he’d rather be doing.
“He’s happier when he’s entertaining, Angel,” Wesley reminded him. “Lorne has never hidden the fact that being here was no more than a brief stop.”
“I’d been hoping he would make it permanent,” Angel admitted, then looked up at Wesley. “There’s something you’ve never told me.”
“Do Cordy and I work out?”
“No,” Wesley said bluntly. “I think you two might have had a chance, though. Did Lorne talk to you?”
“Yeah, he did.” Angel was silent for a long moment. “So what’s her name?”
“Cordelia didn’t give you all the details?” Wesley asked with a raised eyebrow.
“She said it wasn’t any of my business.”
“It isn’t.” Wesley unbent slightly. “Her name is Tuff, and her father was one of my doctors. She’s nice.”
“That’s good,” Angel said. “That she’s nice. Are you seeing her again soon?”
Wesley wasn’t sure how he felt about the fact that his two lives were beginning to intersect; he thought of his relationship with Tuff as completely separate from his work. Talking about their relationship brought the two dangerously close together, and it reminded Wesley that he might not be able to keep them separate forever.
And then he would have to deal with one more loss.
Still, Angel was asking, and Wesley wanted this—he wanted this friendship. The loss had been painful, and he was beginning to believe that he might have given himself a second chance. Perhaps this time he would manage to hang on to all that he held dear.
“Sunday,” Wesley admitted. “It’s her birthday. I’m still not quite sure what I should get her.”
“What does she like?”
“Books,” he replied, smiling at the memory of Tuff in the kitchen, her short robe barely coming to mid-thigh as she foraged in the kitchen for coffee and something to offer him for breakfast. She’d told him to rummage on her shelves for something to borrow if he liked, but Wesley had been too busy watching her.
Angel raised an eyebrow. “So you have that in common.”
“I wouldn’t know where to begin,” Wesley admitted. “She has quite a few already. Although…” He trailed off, remembering a particular book on his own shelves. He had a feeling that Tuff might appreciate it.
“Angel!” Cordelia’s voice echoed through the lobby and into the office. “Audra Wilson is on the phone! She wants to talk to you.”
Angel was about ready to shift Connor, but Wesley stood. “I’ll take him.”
Connor woke, beginning to fuss a little. “I think he’s wet,” Angel warned.
“I don’t mind,” Wesley replied, jiggling Connor a little to comfort him. “Let’s go get you cleaned up,” he said, soothing the infant as he headed out of the office.
Angel watched him leave, then picked up the phone, listening to Audra Wilson’s complaints about the vampire bats returning. He’d tried to convince her that they were simply normal bats, and that she should call Animal Control, but she kept insisting that they had red eyes and were waiting to suck her blood. While Angel felt bad taking her money for a job like this, he wasn’t going to say no, either. After assuring her that he would be over shortly, he hung up and went to join Cordelia at the front desk.
“Did you ask Wesley to take Connor tonight?” Cordelia asked.
Angel shook his head. “No, he offered to change him.” Suddenly realizing that he’d been presented with a golden opportunity, he said, “You want to go with me to take care of Mrs. Wilson’s bat problems? Maybe we could get something to eat afterwards. Wesley will probably watch Connor.”
Cordelia gave him a strange look, and then she nodded. “Okay, but if we’re going out, I want to stop at home first to get changed.”
“Okay,” Angel agreed. “Although you look great right now.”
Cordelia’s expression turned speculative, but her only reply was, “Thank you. And duh.”
“Consciously or unconsciously, we all strive to make the kind of a world we like.” ~Oliver Wendell Holmes
Connor was sleeping peacefully in his crib, the dim light of the reading lamp too low to disturb his slumber. Although Wesley had planned on looking at the new text he’d purchased—because he still hadn’t been able to find time to begin his research—looking into Angel’s curse seemed more important at the moment.
Wesley honestly didn’t mind watching the baby while Angel was out with Cordelia. Even knowing that Gunn and Fred were also out on a date didn’t trouble him too much, not with the memory of the evening with Tuff fresh in his mind. Wesley still cared for Fred, and the events of the past two years still weighed heavily on him at times, but it was all beginning to feel rather dream-like.
Sitting here, in Angel’s hotel room, trying to find some way to anchor the vampire’s soul, when he was the only one who remembered his failures—it was hard to believe that any of it had ever happened.
Wesley touched his fingers to his throat, where he’d once been able to feel the scar left by Justine’s knife. It seemed strange not to even have the scars to show for those days anymore.
He carefully turned the page of the ancient text and wondered why he’d never thought to look for a way to anchor Angel’s soul while at Wolfram & Hart. Perhaps it was merely because they’d always had some other emergency to focus on. Or perhaps they had blithely assumed that there was no way to anchor Angel’s soul. The gypsy curse had returned it to the vampire by force, and only happiness would lift it. They’d never considered lifting the curse by anchoring his soul.
After their last experience with Angelus, however—after nearly sacrificing Faith in order to recapture him—Wesley was quite ready to be done with the bastard. However mixed his feelings for Angel might be, Wesley was certain of one thing: he never wanted to encounter Angelus again.
Wesley closed his eyes, leaning his head back against the chair. He still had to figure out what he was going to get Tuff for her birthday on Sunday. It was almost ridiculous how much he was looking forward to seeing her again, particularly when he suspected that their relationship couldn’t last. Not when he was forced to hide so much from her.
It was possible that it would work out; however, he still remembered the expression on Virginia’s face when she had asked him if he would consider doing something different, and she had known about demons and vampires from the very beginning. Tuff had no idea, and Wesley wanted to keep it that way. He wanted to protect her.
He’d lost too many people he loved already.
With a sigh, he went back to his text. At least he’d figured out what he would give Tuff; Wesley wanted to give her something of himself, something he knew she’d love.
And when the worst happened, she would have something to remember him by.
Cordelia hadn’t shrieked when the bats flew at her head, which she thought was a huge step for her. Of course, Mrs. Wilson was doing enough shrieking for the both of them. The bat problem was fairly easily dealt with, however. The woman had greatly exaggerated her “infestation,” and there were only three bats; with Angel’s quick reflexes, he managed to catch them in no time.
Leaving them plenty of time to enjoy their evening.
Wesley had promised to watch Connor, and Cordelia couldn’t help but feel as though they were on a real date, particularly when Angel took her to get something to eat and then drove down to the beach. The top was down on the convertible, and the wind played with her short hair. She was planning on growing it out again; cutting it had been an interesting mistake.
They rode in silence for the most part, both of them a little wary of what conversation might bring. It felt momentous—the whole night felt as though it had the potential to change their lives.
Angel pulled the car to a stop at one of the promontories, looking out over the ocean. The silence hung like a thick blanket over them. Cordelia looked up at the stars, wishing that she could see more of them. The stars you could see in Los Angeles were either satellites—or those found on the big screen.
It was funny, but the one thing almost dying had taught her was that an acting career had never suited her. Cordelia thought that she might have enjoyed it, that she might have felt fulfilled if that had been the only life she’d known, but what she had now couldn’t begin to compare.
“Are you happy?”
Angel’s question came out of the blue, his voice soft. Cordelia kept her eyes on the sky. “Yeah, I am.”
She sensed rather than saw his shift towards her, his arm slung over the seat back. Their positions reminded her of the dozens of times she’d been in her own car, a boy in the seat next to her. She’d never spent much time talking in cars back then, but even at that, it had been years since she’d made out in one. Cordy wondered what it would be like with Angel.
“What about you?” she asked.
Angel nodded. “Yeah, happier than I’ve been in a long time.” Cordelia turned to him, lifting an eyebrow in silent question. “Not that happy.”
She smiled in response. “Just checking.”
Silence fell again, and while it felt big, it wasn’t uncomfortable; it was amazing how comfortable she was with Angel, really.
“I wanted to talk to you,” he confessed.
“I guessed it was something like that,” Cordy teased.
Angel’s expression grew sheepish. “Did Lorne talk to you?”
“No, but Wesley has.” She smiled. “I got a preview of the future. It didn’t look very bright.”
She could hear him swallow. “Did that scare you off?”
“Hardly,” Cordelia scoffed. “When have you ever known me to be scared?”
“The day after never,” Angel replied. “You’re one of the bravest people I know.”
Impulsively, she leaned forward, brushing his lips with her own. Cordelia pulled back, watching him carefully to gauge his reaction. In response, Angel reached up to touch her cheek, then pulled her towards him for another kiss, this one longer and not quite as chaste.
“I guess that answers my question,” he murmured when they’d broken it off.
She smiled. “What was the question?”
Angel sighed. “You’re going to make me say it, aren’t you?”
“It wouldn’t be nearly as fun otherwise.”
“I love you,” he said. “Do you?”
“Yes.” The word was definitely impatient.
“Yes.” Cordy pulled him back in for another kiss.
“What are you thinking about?” Gunn asked. He could see Fred’s face in the light from the neon signs and streetlamps. She was looking out the window, and her expression seemed more wistful than he’d have expected after a day of fun on the beach.
“Nothing,” Fred said, starting a little as his voice pulled her out of her thoughts.
Gunn turned his eyes back to the road, feeling as though he’d been rebuffed. She was so hard to read sometimes, and he was never quite sure what was going on in her head. There were times when he wondered what she saw in a man like him—a roughneck from the wrong side of the tracks. He loved her; there was no doubt about that.
But sometimes he had his doubts about how she felt about him.
“You’re lookin’ awful serious,” he said, hoping to get a smile out of her, or possibly coax an explanation for that look on her face.
She turned and gave him a half-hearted smile. “I was just thinking.”
Gunn was a little scared to push. If she was this hesitant about telling him what was on her mind, maybe he didn’t want to know. He settled for teasing her. “Looks like hard work.”
Fred didn’t rise to the bait. “It’s just something Wesley said.”
“Yeah? When was that?” Gunn didn’t like the sound of that.
“The other day, when you and Angel were gone.”
Gunn frowned. “He didn’t—”
“No!” Fred quickly said, cutting him off. “It wasn’t anything inappropriate at all.” She looked hurt that he’d even think that. “No, it’s just that I asked him if he was mad, and from what he said…” She sighed. “I can’t help but wonder what’s coming.”
“Wesley fixed it, though,” Gunn objected.
Fred shook her head. “He fixed what went wrong before, but that doesn’t mean other things won’t go wrong.”
“Fred, we don’t know what the future is going to hold,” Gunn said. “If you’d told me a couple of years ago that I’d be working with a vampire, I’d have said you were nuts. Some things fall apart; some things stay the same. Don’t know that ‘til you get there.”
“Yeah, sure,” Fred replied, shaking her head as if to clear it of the thoughts that were causing this shift in mood. “I’m just being silly; that’s all.”
“You ain’t never silly,” Gunn assured her. “It’s only natural to wonder ‘bout what’s coming when someone you know’s seen the future.”
“That’s all it is,” Fred said. “Just wondering.”
Silence fell again, and this time Gunn let it hang, wondering whether his words would do anything to reassure her. He couldn’t help but wonder whether Wesley, in trying to save Fred and Cordy, had doomed their relationship.
“Okay, so how do you want to do this?”
Wesley raised his eyebrows, leaning back in the passenger seat of Tuff’s truck. “How are we going to do what?”
“Today,” Tuff replied. “I figure we’ve got two choices. You can come as my friend, which means that there’ll be lots of questions about what you do and where you’re from. If you come as my date, I can probably manage the evil death glare, and the questions will be more subtle. Maybe.”
Wesley thought about it for a moment, then asked, “What would you prefer?”
“I want you to be comfortable,” Tuff replied.
He leaned forward, giving her a soft, slow kiss. “Happy birthday, by the way,” he murmured. “And I imagine I’d better come as your date if we’re going to be kissing.”
Wesley watched, fascinated, as the flush crept slowly up her face. “That works for me,” she replied.
“Do you want to open your present now or later?” he asked, handing her the wrapped gift, smiling as he watched the wheels turn in her head.
She suddenly laughed. “Now. I never could wait.” Tuff tore into the paper, but stopped abruptly as she saw what she held. “Oh, Wesley…”
“It belonged to an uncle of mine,” he explained softly. “Dickens was one of his favorites, and he passed the book along to me when I graduated from—from school.” He couldn’t very well tell her he’d graduated from the Watcher’s Academy. The book was one more reminder of his past failures, rather than the treasured possession that he knew Tuff would consider it to be.
“It’s not a true first edition. It’s the first printed in one volume, but…” Wesley trailed off, realizing that she had tears in her eyes. “Tuff?”
She swallowed. “This is an amazing gift, but it’s too much. It’s from family, and—”
“I want you to have it,” he said firmly. He gave her a rueful smile. “It’s what they had for me, you know. Great expectations. I know you’ll treasure it, and it ought to be valued.”
Tuff stroked the cloth-bound cover, tracing the letters in the title. “I love it. Thank you.”
“You’re quite welcome.” Wesley held her gaze as her hand came up to stroke his face, her dark eyes serious and somehow sad.
Tuff smiled, tucking the book behind her seat where it would be safe. “We need to get going. I probably shouldn’t be late to my own party.”
She was a little nervous about bringing Wesley to dinner, if she were to be honest. Tuff wasn’t worried about him embarrassing her or anything like that; if anything, she was concerned about her family scaring Wesley off, because they could be overwhelming.
Tuff was still feeling a little overwhelmed by his gift. There was no way he could have known that Great Expectations was one of her favorite books, which made it even more meaningful. She wanted to know what had caused him so much pain that he would willingly give away that kind of treasure. There was a part of her that still wanted to give it back, because it felt like too much. As a book buff, she had some idea of how much a book like that was worth, but she knew that Wesley wasn’t thinking about monetary value.
She also wondered whether by giving her the book he was saying goodbye, as though he was giving her something to hold onto that would last because he didn’t believe that their relationship would.
Deliberately, she pushed those thought to the back of her mind. It was her birthday, and Wesley had given her an amazing gift. Whatever it might mean. She was going to have a good time and worry about the future later.
There was certainly no point in worrying about it now.
“Tuff!” Her mother was the first to greet her, enveloping her in a hug. “Happy birthday!”
“Thanks, Mom,” Tuff replied, squeezing tight. Pulling back, she turned to Wesley. “Mom, this is Wesley Wyndam-Pryce. Wesley, this is my mom, Helen.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” he said, shaking her hand.
Tuff hid a sigh as her mother gave him the once-over, a look of approval on her face. “It’s nice to meet you. Come in. There are appetizers in the living room, and dinner should be ready in about an hour.” Helen turned to her daughter. “Perhaps you’d like to get Wesley a drink?”
It was an ill-concealed attempt to get Tuff alone for long enough to find out exactly what her relationship with Wesley was. Really, Tuff loved her mother dearly, but sometimes she could be so—motherly.
“Do you want a beer?” she asked.
“Please,” he replied, looking completely relaxed.
Tuff was impressed. Here she was, abandoning him to the wolves, and he looked like he was at a tea party. She felt a smug grin pull at her lips, knowing that her brother especially was going to find himself stymied in his attempts to intimidate Wesley. “Be right back,” she promised, pointing the way to the living room and following her mother into the kitchen.
“That was cruel, you know,” she said as soon as they’d reached the big kitchen. She opened the refrigerator for the beer she knew was there. “Leaving him alone with Tony this early in the game.”
“I talked to your brother,” Helen replied complacently. “He promised to restrain himself since it was your birthday.”
“That was kind of him,” Tuff said, unable to keep the sarcasm from her voice.
Helen sighed and fixed her daughter with a quelling look. “You know what, and you didn’t tell me he was that good-looking.”
“I’m not that shallow,” Tuff protested. “Wesley’s more than a pretty face.” At her mother’s raised eyebrow, she couldn’t help but giggle. “Okay, I’m a little shallow, and he came as my boyfriend.”
Helen smiled, but there was concern in her eyes. “Tuff, sweetheart—”
“We’re friends, Mom,” Tuff said simply.
She sighed and nodded. “As long as you’re happy, dear.”
“I am,” Tuff said firmly. She just had to figure out how to keep it that way.
Wesley was a little more nervous than he looked, although only a little more. He’d already met Tuff’s father, after all, and that was half the battle.
After meeting Helen Myers, Wesley had some idea of what Tuff might look like in another twenty-five years. She was a pretty, heavy-set woman who appeared to be aging gracefully; the lines around her mouth and eyes speaking more of laughter than anything else.
David Myers greeted him genially and introduced Wesley to Tuff’s brother and his wife, Sadie. Their two oldest children were napping, but Sadie was holding the youngest, who looked to be about Connor’s age. Wesley’s experience with Angel and Connor had taught him that parents were generally easily distracted with questions about their children, and he filled up the time until Tuff returned easily enough.
It felt strange to be here with Tuff and her family, who all seemed happy to have him there and glad to be together. In a way, it reminded Wesley of when Fred’s parents had visited. There had been the same comfortable feel of family, of being around people who had known each other for years, and who liked each other as much as they loved each other.
Tuff had been right about her evil death glare, because the one time Tony started to ask him about his family and background, she’d shut him up quite efficiently, quickly turning the conversation to other topics.
They had finished up lunch by the time the two older children woke from their naps, full of energy. Wesley couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like when Connor was that age. Watching them, he had a feeling that not even Angel’s enhanced speed would be quite enough.
“Hey, mister?” Wesley looked down to see the oldest boy, Thomas, tugging at his pant leg.
Wesley smiled. The little boy looked very serious for a five-year-old. “Yes?”
“Have you had sex?”
A stunned silence fell, and then Sadie was on her feet, apologizing profusely. “I’m so sorry, Wesley. I have no idea where he picked that up. He just—Thomas Myers! You know what I’ve said about asking people that question!” She picked him up and carried him out of the room, over Thomas’ loud protests that “I just wanted to know!”
Tony appeared highly embarrassed. “We think he got that from a friend in pre-school. Really, we’ve talked to him about this sort of thing.”
Wesley started laughing, shaking his head and waving off Tony’s apology. “It’s fine. Children will find some way to embarrass you.”
Next to him, Tuff wasn’t doing a very good job of controlling her snickering, and both her parents had very smug grins on their faces. Judging from their expressions, they were remembering moments when they had been embarrassed by their own children; they were enjoying the payback, apparently.
As if to confirm his suspicions, Tony glared at his parents. “Go ahead and laugh. He asked the head of my department why there was hair growing out of his nose at the faculty picnic.”
David and Helen exchanged smiles. “That’s nothing, darling,” Helen replied, smiling. “You overheard your father and I getting ready for bed one night and repeated his proposition to one of the girls in your kindergarten. Luckily, your teacher and the girl’s parents had a very good sense of humor.”
Tuff grinned broadly. “You know what they say, Tony.” She glanced at Zoë, who appeared to be ignoring all of them in favor of her dolls. “About payback.”
Tony just smiled in the superior way of all older siblings. “Just wait until you have kids, Tuff. You’ll be singing a different tune then.”
“My children will take after me and be perfect angels,” Tuff shot back.
Her parents’ immediate laughter seemed to suggest that she wasn’t telling the whole truth. “I’ve got a few stories,” David said. “I’m sure Wesley wouldn’t mind hearing them.”
“And on that note,” Tuff said, rising from her seat. “We should probably be going.”
The goodbyes took a while, and Wesley quickly figured out why Tuff had suggested leaving when she did. By the time they got out the door, it was nearly an hour later, and Tony and Sadie followed them out with the children.
“It was good to meet you, Wesley,” Tony called. “We should get together for a beer sometime.”
“That would be nice,” he replied, not knowing that it would be anything of the sort. Although he liked Tony, getting close to Tuff’s family seemed counterproductive. There would just be that many more people to lose when the truth came out.
Tuff grinned at him when they got back into the vehicle. “So what did you think?”
“You have a very nice family,” Wesley replied.
Her eyes turned serious again, and she nodded. “Yeah, I really do. Sometimes I forget how great they are. I’m really glad you came.”
Wesley smiled, feeling a lingering sadness. “I am, too.”
“I have memories—but only a fool stores his past in the future.” ~David Gerrold
“Do you want to come in?” Wesley asked, his hand on the door.
Tuff grimaced. “Want? Yes, but I’ve got work in the morning, so I’d better not.” She leaned over to him, pleased when he met her halfway for a kiss. “Soon, though. You’ll call me?”
“Tomorrow,” Wesley promised. “I don’t know how busy I’ll be this week. Things tend to come up with no warning, but I think we’ll manage.”
“I love my present,” Tuff said. “Thank you.”
“It was my pleasure.”
She watched him getting out of the truck with a regretful sigh. There was nothing she would have liked more than to go in with him and spend the night, but she had an early morning ahead, and a full day at work. If she’d had a change of clothing with her, it would have been a different story, though.
Tuff pulled away from the curb and was halfway down the block when she spotted something suspicious in her rearview mirror. Applying the brake, she slowed down, seeing activity near Wesley’s building. She frowned, watching as someone was thrust into the light of a streetlamp, and then quickly moved back into the shadows.
Making a quick decision, Tuff turned right at the next corner, planning to circle the block. If there was more suspicious movement, she’d stop and make sure that Wesley had made it into his apartment okay. She would have to make up some excuse for why she was knocking on his door right after saying goodnight, but she was good at that. Tuff would rather look like a ditz than ignore her gut instinct and risk something bad happening.
She pulled up to the curb again, quickly rummaging in her glove compartment for her mace. Her father had given her self-defense lessons for her eighteenth birthday, and she was generally pretty good at taking care of herself.
Tuff just hoped that she wasn’t getting in over her head on this one.
She slammed the door of the truck hard, hoping that if there was an attack going on, the sound would scare them off.
And that no one had a gun.
Tuff strode towards the entrance, her heart tripping wildly, clutching her mace and praying that she wasn’t doing something amazingly stupid. This was one of those times when her impulsive tendencies could get her into some deep shit.
Her footsteps seemed to echo off the pavement, and she watched as three figures detached themselves from the shadows, one shrouded in something. For one, endless moment, Tuff was sure they were going to come towards her, but instead all three men ran across the street, dodging the scant traffic, heading for a black van she hadn’t noticed until just then.
Tuff swallowed hard, continuing towards the building. She could just make out a slumped form, and she half-ran the last few steps. “Are you okay?” she called, not immediately recognizing who it was.
It only took a second to figure out that it was Wesley, and then Tuff fumbled clumsily for a pulse, her heart racing once again. “Come on, Wesley,” she muttered. Breathing a sigh of relief when she found it, strong and steady, under her fingertips, she began checking him over for injuries.
Judging from the lump on his forehead and the thin trickle of blood from the cut, someone had knocked him a good one. Tuff reached for her cell phone, beginning to dial 911 when she heard him moan.
After a moment’s hesitation, she put her phone away without completing the call. “Wesley?” Tuff had a feeling that if he had to go to the hospital, he’d probably rather not have the ambulance ride.
“Tuff?” Her voice seemed to bring him around slightly. “What—Are you alright?”
“I’m fine,” she said, her tone sharp with relief. “You’re the one who has the head wound.”
“Ran off when I approached.” He opened his mouth to say something, but Tuff cut him off; she could make a good guess as to what was going to come out of his mouth next. “I know it was stupid, but I was worried. We should get you to the hospital.”
“No hospitals,” Wesley insisted. “I’ll be fine.”
She frowned. “They hit you over the head, Wesley. You should probably have x-rays.”
“I’ve had a concussion before,” Wesley said. “This doesn’t feel like one.”
Tuff helped him up, steadying him when he began to sway alarmingly. She knew she probably should insist that he go to the hospital, but he sounded lucid, and Tuff knew the signs of a concussion as well. “Okay,” she agreed reluctantly. “But I’m staying with you tonight to make sure they didn’t do any damage to your head.”
“I’m sure I’ll be fine,” Wesley said.
“Don’t argue with me,” Tuff snapped. “I just chased off three guys who were trying to kill you.”
“They weren’t—” he stopped. “Let’s get inside.”
Tuff felt him leaning on her, and that alone told her that he was probably hurt worse than he was letting on. She’d get him inside, and if she thought it necessary, she would call the ambulance, whether Wesley Wyndam-Pryce wanted her to or not.
Once inside his apartment, Tuff helped him over to the couch, sitting him down. “Hold still,” she ordered, turning his head so she could see the bump. “It doesn’t look too bad.”
“It’s not,” he assured her. “Trust me, Tuff. I do not need a doctor. If you could get me some aspirin, though…”
She nodded. “Yeah, sure. Where is it?”
“Kitchen cabinet, next to the fridge,” Wesley replied. “Glasses are above the sink.”
Tuff quickly found the bottle of aspirin and filled a glass of water. Once he’d downed a couple of tablets, she sat down next to him on the couch. “Do you want to tell me what that was about?”
“I can’t.” His tone was so regretful that Tuff could forgive him. “I’m sorry, love.”
“Yes.” Wesley rolled his head to look at her. “I’m afraid we’ve made a number of enemies over the years.”
“That’s what you get for being the good guy, huh?”
“You’re probably wondering what you’re doing with me.”
Tuff blinked. “Um, no. Where did that come from?” At the expression on his face, she glared at him. “You are not breaking up with me.”
“No, but I thought—”
“Don’t think, then, if that’s where it takes you,” Tuff replied. “I met you in the hospital, Wesley. I saw you, remember? I knew what you did was dangerous, so don’t give me that.” She sighed. “Did somebody else dump you because of this kind of thing?”
He shrugged. “She had good reason.”
Tuff snorted. She had yet to find a good reason to dump Wesley. “I’m sure she did.” She didn’t bother to hide the sarcasm in her voice. Adrenalin always tended to make her a little bitchy.
“I should probably call Angel,” Wesley said. “He’ll want to know what happened.”
“You make that call,” Tuff said. “Do you want anything?”
“Tea would be nice,” Wesley said. “I don’t have any of the bags, though, so you’ll have to—”
Tuff cut him off with a kiss. “I know how to make a pot of tea, Wesley. I have many talents you haven’t seen yet.” She walked into the kitchen, wanting to give him a little privacy to make his call, even if the apartment wasn’t that big.
She gripped the counter, taking a deep breath. Tuff really wanted to be angry at Wesley for getting hurt in the first place, and for not telling her exactly who and what seemed to be after him. It was irrational, however, and she’d known from the beginning what she was getting into by allowing herself to fall for a guy like Wesley.
It was one of the problems with being impulsive. There were always consequences.
Angel and Gunn strode back into the hotel after dealing with one of Cordelia’s visions arguing amiably over who had actually made the kill. “It was the ax,” Gunn said. “Nothing survives an ax to the head. You don’t know where that thing’s heart was, so you can’t say you got it in the heart.”
“You don’t know how thick that thing’s skull was,” Angel said. “Besides, I got it with the sword first, and it was going down. The ax was overkill.”
“The ax was—”
“Guys!” Cordelia interrupted their argument. “Angel, Wesley called. You need to go over to his place now. He got jumped by some of the goons from Wolfram and Hart when he got home.”
Gunn frowned. “They hurt him?”
“Just a bump on the head,” Cordelia said. “I think Tuff might have been with him, though, so he couldn’t give me the whole story.”
Angel handed his sword to Gunn. “I’ll head over and give you guys a call if we need to move on this tonight.”
“Be careful,” Cordy called as he left.
It didn’t take Angel long to reach Wesley’s place; he was a little surprised when a woman answered the door, having forgotten that Cordy had said that Wesley’s new girlfriend was with him. “Hi. You must be Angel.”
He blinked. “Hi. You’re Tuff, right?”
“Yeah, come on in. I wouldn’t let him get up,” she said. “Every time he tries, he falls over, but he still refuses to go to the hospital.”
“There’s nothing they can tell me other than take two aspirin and call them in the morning,” Wesley said, sounding a little exasperated.
Angel sat down next to Wesley on the couch. “You want to tell me what happened?”
Wesley hesitated, and Tuff announced, “You know, I think I’m going to make another pot of tea. Angel?”
“Sure,” he said, watching her withdraw into the small kitchen area. She was just far enough away that she probably wouldn’t be able to make out their words if they kept their voices down. “So?”
“Wolfram and Hart,” Wesley confirmed, his tone low.
Angel frowned. “What did they want?”
Wesley hesitated. “They sent a psychic this time, a demon. They weren’t just trying for a surface reading; they wanted answers.”
Angel’s eyes widened. “That’s why you don’t want to go to the hospital.”
“It’s not the head wound that’s making me dizzy,” Wesley agreed. His eyes darkened, and Angel caught a glimpse of raw fury behind his calm mask. It was a side of Wesley he hadn’t glimpsed often. “They dug deep, Angel.”
Angel gripped his shoulder in a gesture of wordless comfort. “We’ll figure out how to stop them. What do you think they got from you?”
“I haven’t any idea,” he replied. “They might have gotten everything or nothing at all. I’m honestly not sure what they could do with the information, even if they had all of it,” Wesley said. “The future is just as grim for them as it is for us.”
“That’s some good news,” Angel joked. “You going to be okay?”
“I think so,” Wesley said. “I feel like a bit of an idiot for letting them get the jump on me like that.”
“Don’t,” Angel said. “It happens to the best of us.”
“Do you guys want tea, or should I find something else to do in the kitchen?” Tuff called.
Angel tried unsuccessfully to hide a smile. “Tea would be great,” he said, looking at Wesley.
The other man sighed. “We’re done talking business now, Tuff.”
She came in, smiling sweetly. “Good, because Wesley should probably try getting some sleep.”
“I didn’t think you were going to let me sleep for fear of concussion,” Wesley said.
Tuff set the tea tray on the coffee table and perched on the arm of the couch next to him. “I think you’re safe. You’re too hard-headed to be in much danger.”
Angel snickered. “Looks like she’s got your number, Wes.”
“Look who’s talking,” Wesley shot back.
Tuff leaned against the couch. “So Wesley’s always this stubborn?”
“Only when he thinks he’s right,” Angel said. “Which is pretty much all the time.”
Wesley looked highly affronted. “Excuse me? I believe you’re talking about yourself.”
Tuff laughed. “You just had a baby, right?” she asked, deciding to take pity on Wesley and change the subject.
Angel immediately brightened. “I did.”
“Do you have any pictures?”
He reached for his wallet. “Yeah, I do. Do you want to see?”
“I wouldn’t have asked otherwise,” Tuff responded. Wesley moved so she could sit next to Angel in order to properly exclaim over Connor’s handsomeness.
“I should go,” Angel said after he’d shown her the pictures and he’d talked about Connor’s growth and progress. “You’ll call tomorrow, Wes?”
“I’ll be in tomorrow,” Wesley corrected him.
“Take your time,” Angel replied. “It was nice to meet you, Tuff.”
“Same here. Though next time we should probably try for better circumstances.”
She closed the door behind him, and Angel grinned. It seemed as though Wesley was in very capable hands.
Amazingly enough, Tuff didn’t hover, nor did she push too hard for an explanation as to what exactly had happened. She seemed to take it for granted that if Angel wasn’t going to insist that he go to the hospital, Wesley was probably going to be okay.
Tuff woke him shortly before dawn to make sure he was fine, and let him know she was leaving. “Call me when you get up, okay?”
“Alright,” Wesley agreed, rousing himself enough for a goodbye kiss and then promptly went back to sleep for several hours. He might have slept longer, but the ringing of the phone woke him, and he groped for it without opening his eyes. “’lo?”
“Wesley?” Cordelia’s voice was concerned. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” he replied with a sigh. “I was just sleeping.”
“Sorry,” she quickly apologized. “It’s just that you’re usually one of the first ones here, so when you didn’t show up by lunchtime, we started to get worried.”
Wesley propped himself up, blinking at the clock to make the numbers clear. It was nearly one o’clock, and Cordelia was right; he was typically at the hotel much earlier. “I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
“There’s no hurry,” she assured him. “We just wanted to be sure you were okay.”
Wesley could faintly hear Angel’s voice in the background. “I told her you would be sleeping.”
“Ignore him,” Cordelia said. “He was worried, too. We’ll see you whenever you get here.”
Wesley chuckled; then, remembering his promise, he dialed Tuff’s number. “Are you finally awake, or did you just forget to call?” she asked immediately.
“I just woke up,” he assured her. “Cordelia called and woke me, otherwise I might still be sleeping.”
“Are you feeling better?”
“I think so,” he replied. “I haven’t tried getting out of bed yet.”
Wesley could hear the smile in Tuff’s voice. “Maybe you should stay in bed,” she suggested. “I could come join you there. I could probably manage to get off a little early today.”
“I should probably at least make an appearance,” Wesley said. “And I have a few things to get done today.”
“Don’t overdo it,” she ordered him.
“I won’t,” Wesley promised. “I’ll call you later. Perhaps you could join me in bed tonight.”
“It’s a date,” Tuff said. “I’ll see you later.”
Wesley snapped his phone shut and leaned back on his pillows. He’d slept better last night than he had in ages, which surprised him. What he hadn’t been able to tell Angel with Tuff there was that the reading the demon had performed on him had hurt. It had felt as though something cold and hard had gripped his mind—and then it was gone, just as quickly.
It also infuriated him that someone would invade his privacy like that; it was a violation of the worst kind.
Wesley hadn’t thought he’d be able to sleep after that, but there had been something about having Tuff next to him, her arm across his middle and her head on his shoulder, that had been soothing.
He swallowed hard, rubbing a hand over his face. She was getting involved in every area of his life at this point; it was a little frightening.
It was always a little scary when you discovered that you needed someone.
Lilah glared at the team she’d sent after Wesley. “What do you mean, you couldn’t get a good read on him?”
The demon chattered something unintelligible, and she raised her eyebrows, waiting for one of the humans to translate. “He said there was something blocking his ability to get any more than the present thoughts. There was no way to reach the man’s memories.” The demon said something else, and the translator continued, “He said he got burned.”
“What does that mean?” Lilah demanded. “Burned?”
“Psychically burned,” the other operative said. “It typically means that the target is somehow shielded against a reading. Our friend here couldn’t get past that barrier, and when he tried, it literally ejected him from the man’s mind.”
“Is there any other way to get the information we want?” Lilah asked.
The demon chattered away again, and the first man—whose name Lilah didn’t know or care about—said, “I think you might have another problem, actually. He says that something’s put its mark on the guy. He’s being protected somehow.”
Lilah leaned back in her chair. “Alright. If I have something else for you, I’ll let you know.” This was something new; Wesley had protection, which meant that he was a player. Was it possible he had been the one to do something about Holtz? Psychic protection was top-notch stuff, and it typically required the kind of bargain that Wolfram & Hart employees made when they reached the upper ranks. It would take at least that much to fend off a Labo demon’s probe.
It wasn’t the information that she’d been hoping for, but it was something. Not to mention the fact that Ms. Myers had been with him. Perhaps they were closer than Lilah had previously believed, which meant that Wesley’s girlfriend might have the information they needed.
She looked down at the slim file, which held everything her team had been able to get from Wesley Wyndam-Pryce. She opened the folder and re-read the memo, which consisted of only three lines. “You will be our tool. Preserve the balance. You must lose everything to save anything.”
“Typical psychic gibberish,” Lilah muttered, thrusting it to one side before picking up the phone. “Hello? Yes, I need a tail put on someone…Tiffany Myers. Thank you.”
Satisfied, she put the phone down. One way or another, Lilah Morgan would have her answers.
“One isn’t necessarily born with courage, but one is born with potential. Without courage, we cannot practice any other virtue with consistency. We can’t be kind, true, merciful, generous, or honest.” ~Maya Angelou
“What do you think they want?” Angel asked.
“I don’t know,” Wesley admitted. “For some reason, Wolfram and Hart seems to think that I have the answers to their questions.”
Angel frowned. “You feeling okay today?”
“Much better,” Wesley assured him. “I’m not experiencing any after-effects from the reading, but my concern is still that they might have gotten more information than we want them to have.” He rubbed his eyes; he was still tired, even after all the sleep he’d gotten. “Bloody hell. I should have been paying more attention.”
“It’s not your fault, Wes,” Angel insisted. “They’ve never targeted you before; there was no reason to think they’d start now.” He stood. “Maybe you should take it easy today.”
“I plan on going home early.” Wesley glanced at the clock. He still had a couple of hours before Tuff got off work.
“Got another date?” Angel asked with a smirk. “You’re seeing a lot of her.”
“She had a shock last night,” Wesley defended himself. “She was worried about me.”
Angel snickered. “I’m giving you a hard time, Wes. You know, you’re really easy.”
Wesley shot him a sour look. “Speaking of dating, Angel, I’m working on your curse, some way to close that loophole. I don’t think I have to remind you what could happen if you get too happy.”
“No, you don’t.” The vampire looked disgruntled, then sighed, sitting back down again. “I appreciate you looking into it, though. Cordy and I haven’t really talked about it, but—we’re going slow.”
“I have several promising lines of research,” Wesley said. “It’s only a matter of time before I find some way of dealing with the curse, but I’d rather not have that research interrupted by Angelus. Last time—”
Angel leaned forward. “What about last time?”
“Let’s just say that the last time we had to deal with your worse half, I had to break Faith out of prison, and she nearly died bringing you in. It wasn’t pleasant.” Wesley hoped that, by laying matters out so starkly, Angel would be reminded of the importance of restraint.
He winced. “That bad, huh?”
“It wasn’t pleasant.” He looked away, remembering those dark days. It had been one thing after another—searching for Angel, then Cordelia; trying to get Cordy’s memories back; the Beast, Angelus, Cordelia, Jasmine. Lilah, her death, his grim duty. It was macabre image after image, a hundred memories that no one shared with him any longer. Before, the memories had been lost, but now the events hadn’t even occurred.
If Wesley had anything to say about it, they never would.
Angel’s voice broke into his thoughts. “You okay?”
“Just remembering,” he said. “It’s nothing.”
Angel nodded, deciding not to press. “You’re going to have to be careful. I don’t like the idea of Wolfram and Hart coming after you.”
“Neither do I,” Wesley replied, sounding rueful. “I’ll keep a sharp eye out.”
Angel rose from his seat. “Good. I’ll let you get back to your research.”
Although Wesley had every intention of closing the books early, circumstances did have a tendency to act against him. A client walked through the door around four in the afternoon with a report of being stalked by something very large and very hairy. Wesley sent Fred and Gunn out to deal with that one, since he planned on leaving in an hour and Angel was stuck inside with the daylight.
At quarter after five, Cordelia had a vision of trouble in Chinatown, and since Gunn and Fred weren’t back yet, that left Wesley and Cordy to deal with the demon. Angel wasn’t very happy about it, but he didn’t have a choice with his sunlight problems.
Wesley let Cordelia drive, and he called Tuff on the way over. “Let me guess,” she said as soon as she picked up the phone. “You’ve got trouble.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “Something came up, and I really don’t have a choice.”
“It’s okay, Wesley,” Tuff replied. “I do understand. When do you think you’ll be off?”
“I have no idea.” Wesley gripped the door as Cordelia took a sharp corner. “I’ll call you as soon as I get a free moment. Maybe I can drop by your place later tonight.”
“I’ll see you later, then,” Tuff said.
Wesley put his phone back in his pocket, watching as Cordelia looked at him out of the corner of her eye. “What?”
“This seems like a little more than friendship, Wes,” she observed. “You’re spending a lot of time with her.”
“I enjoy her company,” Wesley replied. “Why shouldn’t I?”
Cordelia hesitated. “It’s just that you didn’t even call Virginia this much.”
Wesley hadn’t even thought about that fact, but Cordelia was right; he hadn’t spent that much time with Virginia, nor had he called her very often. Of course, they were both rather independent individuals, and she had known about his profession. Plus, he had been dealing with Angel and his antics, which had taken up quite a bit of time.
“We were trying to get the new office up and running then,” Wesley pointed out.
Cordelia snorted in disbelief. “Wesley, we weren’t any busier then than we are now. You really like this woman.”
He shifted uncomfortably. “I told you that I like being with her. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
Cordy rolled her eyes. “You keep telling yourself that.”
Wesley decided that it was past time to change the subject. “What about you and Angel?”
“We’re taking things slow.” She paused. “I wanted to thank you for looking into the curse. I was going to ask, but I wasn’t sure there was anything we could really do about it.”
“I don’t know that there is,” Wesley admitted, “but I’ll continue to look.”
Cordelia sighed. “Thanks. It’s—it’s hard.”
“I’m sure it is.” They looked at each other, understanding passing between them.
Tuff wasn’t sure she was doing the right thing. After all, Wesley definitely had not invited her to see where he worked, but she was curious, and Angel Investigations was in the phone book. All she really wanted was to stop in and see for herself that he was doing okay. If he was busy, Tuff wouldn’t bother him for too long, but she needed the reassurance.
The old hotel was the last thing she was expecting, however, and she walked into the lobby slowly, feeling certain that she was in the wrong place. Surely the phone book was mistaken, because this certainly didn’t look like a detective agency. Tuff had been expecting a small office of some kind—not this.
“Hello?” she called as she entered the lobby uncertainly, ready to turn and run.
Angel entered the lobby from an office that had likely been used by the hotel manager at some point in the distant past. He was holding a baby that Tuff recognized as Connor from the photos Angel had shown her the previous night.
Any discomfort she might have felt disappeared when Angel smiled, looking as though he was genuinely happy to see her. “Tuff, hey. Was Wesley expecting you? Because he just left a little while ago.”
“No,” Tuff replied, approaching him to get a better look at the baby. “In fact, he just called and told me that something had come up. I thought I’d surprise him.”
Angel caught her peering at Connor. “Do you want to hold him?” he offered. “I’ve got to get a bottle for him.”
“Sure,” Tuff replied. “I love kids; my brother has three of them, and they’re great.”
Angel handed the baby over. “He’s been a little fussy this afternoon,” he warned. “Every time I put him down, he starts to cry, and fixing a bottle takes two hands.”
Connor looked like he was about ready to start screaming when Tuff took him, but she began bouncing him expertly, humming underneath her breath to settle him down.
Angel watched over her shoulder as Lorne entered the hotel, and his eyes widened as he realized that there was a ready-made disaster waiting to happen. He shook his head frantically, waving at Lorne to back up as subtly as he could.
Tuff looked up at him. “Is something wrong?”
“No,” Angel said quickly. “Nothing’s wrong. I just thought I might have seen someone outside. Sometimes clients are a little shy about coming in; I think I’ll go check.”
It was late enough in the day where there was a little shade out by the front doors, and Angel ducked outside to see Lorne standing there. “I take it that’s Wesley’s girlfriend,” he commented.
Angel nodded. “He still hasn’t told her about—well, anything.”
Lorne sighed. “I can’t blame the poor guy for not wanting to jeopardize his happiness.”
Angel suddenly realized that the anagogic demon had probably heard her humming. “Did you hear?”
“I heard.” Lorne smiled. “Sweet girl, although if Wesley waits too much longer to spill the beans, she’s going to end up giving him hell.”
“How are things going for you?” Angel asked.
Lorne shrugged. “We’ve got the remodeling done, which is why I came by. The grand opening is in a couple of weeks, and I thought I’d invite anyone who wants to come.”
“Let us know when and where, and we’ll be there,” Angel promised.
Lorne gave him a sharp look. “You and Cordy?”
“We talked,” he admitted. “We’re taking things slow, and Wesley is working on something to make sure nothing happens with my soul.”
“Good luck on that one.” Lorne glanced at his watch. “Well, I’d stay and chat, but you’ve got company.”
“Sorry about that,” Angel apologized.
“Don’t be.” Lorne shrugged. “I don’t think either one of us wants to be the one to screw up Wes’s new relationship. I’ll come by some other time.”
Angel watched as Lorne turned and left, then headed back inside the hotel. Tuff was sitting on the couch in the lobby, holding Connor, who had settled down considerably. She was talking to him, telling him what a handsome young man he was, and how big he was going to be some day.
“Was that a client?” Tuff inquired innocently.
Angel shook his head. “No, they were at the wrong place. They had a couple numbers in the address confused.”
“I thought I had the wrong address,” Tuff admitted. “This wasn’t quite what I was expecting.”
“Our last office got blown up,” Angel said, without thinking.
Her eyes widened. “Blown up?”
Angel winced, realizing that probably wasn’t something he should have shared. “We were having an interesting year.”
“Do you ever have boring years?” she asked. “Because it’s beginning to sound as if you’ve got people trying to kill you every time you turn around.”
“Not exactly,” Angel hedged. “Things get exciting on occasion, but we’ve always pulled through.”
Tuff glanced down at Connor, who had grasped a fistful of her long hair. “That’s good to know.”
Angel sat down next to her. “Wesley really likes you.”
She smiled. “I really like him.”
“You’ve been good for him.” He wanted to tell her not to be worried about Wesley, that his friend could take care of himself—and that Angel would keep him safe. Unfortunately, they were empty promises, and there was no guarantee that Angel would be able to do anything of the sort. Instead, all he said was, “He’s been a lot happier lately.”
“He said that someone he loved died,” Tuff stated softly. “Did you know her?”
Angel swallowed, knowing that he was treading on dangerous ground. “Yeah, I did.”
“I take it they were close.”
“I think so,” Angel replied.
“Was it something to do with your work?”
“She got sick.” He hesitated, then added, “It was sudden.”
Tuff stroked Connor’s soft baby cheek. “I’d wondered.”
“I know Wes hasn’t told you everything,” Angel began. “It’s just that this job…”
Tuff sighed. “I know, Angel. My dad’s a doctor, so I get the whole confidentiality thing. You can’t always talk about your job when you’ve got secrets to keep.”
She didn’t know the half of it, but Angel let it go. “I’m glad you understand. So, you want a tour?”
Tuff grinned. “That would be great.”
Wesley wasn’t sure whether he was walking into his best dream or worst nightmare. On the one hand, he was glad that Tuff seemed to get along so well with his friends. On the other, however, he was deathly afraid that someone was going to let something slip.
“Hey, Wes,” Angel said. He was the first to spot Wesley and Cordelia, looking much the worse for wear. “We were about ready to send out the troops.”
“You guys have troops?” Tuff asked.
“That would be us,” Gunn inserted. “What happened to you guys?”
Cordelia made a face. “There were a few complications.”
“That involved dumpster diving?” Tuff asked, taking another bite of take-out.
Wesley shook his head wearily, deciding that he didn’t care that Tuff looked as though she belonged with the others. Not that it was a huge surprise that she’d made friends; Wesley had a feeling that everyone was disposed to like her since he seemed to enjoy her company.
Besides, with her naturally bubbly nature, she was hard to dislike.
“Sewers, actually,” he said. “It got ugly.”
“Do I want to know why there were sewers involved?” she asked.
“You really don’t,” Cordelia said firmly. “You really, really don’t. I’m Cordelia, by the way. I’m guessing you’re Tuff?”
“That’s right,” she said, giving Wesley a speculative look. “I guess Wesley’s mentioned me.”
Cordelia waved her hand airily. “Only after we forced the information out of him. You know how closed-mouthed he can be, but when he came in humming, we had to know all about you.”
“Cordy!” Wesley protested. “Can we not spill all my secrets?”
“Someone has to,” Cordelia said. “So, did anyone order take-out for us? Because I’m starving.”
Angel wordlessly handed over his carton of food, and Tuff asked, “What do you want, Wesley? We’ve got plenty left over.”
He shook his head. “I’m really not hungry.”
“Do you want to get out of here?” Tuff asked. “I could give you a ride home if you don’t want to drive.”
Wesley opened his mouth to turn down the offer, and then reconsidered. “Actually, that would be nice. Thank you.” He could sense the others’ looks, but ignored them as best he was able.
They were in her truck and on the way back to his apartment when Tuff observed, “You know, if I spent the night, I could give you a ride to work tomorrow.”
Wesley glanced over at her. “Not that I mind if you do stay, but won’t you need to go back to your place eventually for clean clothing?”
Tuff smiled. “See, that’s where you underestimate me, Mr. Wyndam-Pryce. I planned on taking advantage of you this evening, and I prepared accordingly.”
Wesley laughed. “Is that right?”
“That’s absolutely right.” She grinned at him. “I have a bag packed.”
“Then it’s a good thing for both of us that you’re so conscientious.”
“Hey, I was a Girl Scout.” Tuff gave him an smug smile. “We’re prepared for every contingency.”
“Target is approaching Mr. Wyndam-Pryce’s apartment. Do you want us to approach?”
“No, not tonight,” Lilah replied. “Just watch. Has she gone anywhere other than his apartment and her place of employment today?”
“They just came from the hotel,” the nameless voice replied. “She was there for quite a while.”
“Without Wesley, or with?”
“Without, for the most part.”
Lilah leaned back in her chair, a thoughtful smile on her face. It appeared as though Tiffany Myers might be more involved in Angel Investigations than she’d previously believed. Men told their girlfriends a lot; it was possible that Wesley had spilled his secrets already.
Of course, she would have to be careful. This wasn’t someone who didn’t have any contacts; if Tiffany Myers disappeared, it would most likely lead to a city-wide search. Her father was a well-respected doctor, and he had a number of highly-placed friends.
Lilah’s smile turned cruel. Of course, if killing her became necessary, the boyfriend was usually the primary suspect, and it wouldn’t be difficult to make sure the police looked very hard at Wesley Wyndam-Pryce.
First, however, she would gather all the information she could, because Angel would definitely try coming after her if she made one of his people a target. He’d been upset enough when she went after Cordelia; Lilah didn’t want to experience his anger if and when she harmed his right-hand man.
Not only that, but Lilah wanted to be sure that when she had the information she needed, her path to promotion was free and clear. Linwood and Gavin would most certainly put up a fight, or take credit for what she had done. Lilah had gone out on a limb with this assignment, and she planned to take every bit of the glory.
Or, if necessary, pass on the blame.
“Friendship is certainly the finest balm for the pangs of disappointed love.” ~Jane Austen
Wesley scribbled quickly, feeling a sense of excitement bubbling up. He was finally on the right track; he’d finally managed to crack the curse and discover exactly how to close up the loophole. It had taken him six weeks, but he had wanted to be certain that the spell would be successful. More likely than not, Angel wouldn’t notice a difference—until he had a moment of perfect happiness, and then it could prove to be too late to fix his mistake if he made one.
That was why Wesley was determined to not make one.
He’d been working on the problem every free moment he had, knowing that both Cordy and Angel were getting tired of being patient. Wesley couldn’t blame them; they had Gunn and Fred around most of the time, reminding them of what a happy couple could be doing, with him and Tuff only slightly more discreet.
That was something else that was making him nervous. Wesley knew he was nearing the moment where he would have to come clean with Tuff, although he had hopes of easing her in gently.
He’d been very careful not to lie to her, either giving her only part of the truth or simply saying that he couldn’t talk about it. Tuff seemed content with that, realizing that he couldn’t tell her everything, and so she didn’t push him.
Still, there was going to come a day when a demon or something else would come strolling through the doors of the hotel while she was there, and that would be that. Tuff would leave, and Wesley had no desire to speed that day’s occurrence.
He was too afraid to hope for anything else.
Wesley made his final notation, looking over the anchoring spell one more time, and going over every possible contingency in his mind. It was possible that he was wrong, possible that Angel could lose his soul through the spell itself, possible that it simply wouldn’t work, and they wouldn’t know about it until Angelus resurfaced.
Of course, with a child still at risk from enemies unknown, Wolfram & Hart still sneaking about, and any number of other emergencies arising on a daily basis, Angel might not have to worry about having a moment of perfect happiness for a long time to come.
Wesley really didn’t want to take that risk, however.
He reached for yet another book, hoping that he remembered correctly. He’d thought there was a spell to induce pure bliss in there somewhere. If not, he might be able to procure some of that drug the actress had used on Angel. That sort of thing was a last resort on his part, because he didn’t want to risk getting caught.
Using magical means in the same way wasn’t against the law, after all.
When the phone rang, Wesley reached for it automatically. “Angel Investigations, Wyndam-Pryce speaking.”
“You know, you have a very sexy phone voice. Have I mentioned that before?”
Wesley felt a smile begin to form and leaned back in his chair. “No, I don’t believe you have.”
“Well, you do. I’m sure I could think of some way to put it to use, too,” Tuff teased.
“And why would you want to do that when you can get the real thing?” he returned, his smile widening as she laughed.
“Are you free tonight?” she asked. “I’ve got a new recipe and a bottle of wine I want to try out on you.”
Wesley thought longingly of the promised meal and likely after-dinner activities, and then glanced back over at the pile of books. He really ought to finish this, and get the spell done; it wasn’t fair to make Angel and Cordelia wait while he went out with his girlfriend, confined as they were to much more sedate activities.
“I can’t,” he finally said regretfully. “I’m nearing the end of a project, and I really should finish it tonight.”
Tuff sighed audibly. “Well, I guess I’ll just have to spend the night with Harry, then.”
Wesley sat up just a little straighter. “Harry?” he asked, his tone a touch sharper than he’d meant it to be.
Tuff laughed, clearly delighted to have gotten a rise out of him. “Harry Potter, Wes. The books.” Her tone was smug. “I knew I could make you jealous.”
“I am not jealous,” Wesley said, although he was; the thought of Tuff with another man sent a bolt of emotion through him that he was all-too-familiar with.
“You keep telling yourself that,” she replied. “Will I see you tomorrow?”
“I think that can be arranged,” Wesley said, glancing at the calendar on his desk. The following day was Friday, which meant that they would have an entire weekend to spend with one another if he could possibly manage it.
“See you then,” she said cheerfully.
Wesley hung up the phone, bringing his mind forcibly back to the task at hand. He really did need to finish this tonight, if only because he was so close to being done, and he’d promised Angel and Cordelia a way around their difficulties. It was only fair.
He looked up to see Fred standing in the doorway. “Hello, Fred. Is there something you needed?”
“Cordelia and I are going to run some errands and pick up dinner on our way back,” she replied. “Do you want anything?”
“What’s on the menu?” Wesley asked.
“Gunn and Angel don’t have an opinion, and Cordelia wants to go to the deli. My vote is for tacos, so you’re the tie-breaker.”
Wesley knew that Gunn probably didn’t have an opinion because he wanted the deli and didn’t want to be the one to disappoint Fred; he was still a little reluctant to tell Fred “no,” but Wesley didn’t have any trouble with it. “I think I’ll have to vote on a sandwich,” Wesley said. “My usual is fine.”
Fred made a face, then sighed. “We’ll be back in a little while.”
Wesley went back to his notes; he really was very close to being done. With any luck, he’d work out the remaining problems over the course of the afternoon, get the ingredients that night, and then do the spell the next day. By Friday evening, he’d have the whole business sewn up, and he could spend the weekend with Tuff, barring emergencies.
His pen coming to an abrupt stop, Wesley realized that sometime during the last few weeks, something had changed; seeing Fred no longer hurt, nor did the increasingly-dim memories of their time together. Perhaps, if he hadn’t met Tuff, being around Fred would have continued to be painful for quite some time.
He and Fred had had so little time together, though, that it was difficult to know whether or not their relationship would have lasted in the long run. Wesley had believed that it was forever at the time, that he’d never care for anyone again.
Maybe he wouldn’t. He might never love anyone quite like he had loved Fred, but he knew that he was coming to care deeply for Tuff. Given time, he might even fall in love with her.
Tuff hated to think that she was being paranoid; she kept telling herself that it was just because she was dating a private detective—she saw bad guys around every corner. Still, everywhere she went, she could see a black van, and while black vans weren’t rare, she didn’t think they were that prevalent, either.
She knew that Wesley had said he’d be busy, and she hated to bother him, but it was really beginning to bother her. Tuff didn’t remember when she’d started seeing the vehicle, but she’d thought it had been there for a while—weeks, probably. It had only been a few days since the fact that it never went away truly registered, though.
Telling herself that if the van didn’t follow her home, she would assume that it wasn’t shadowing her, Tuff drove to her apartment, going right past it when the car still showed up in her rearview mirror.
Making a quick decision, Tuff found the right number stored in her cell phone. She and Cordelia had hit it off the second time she’d dropped by the hotel. Wesley had asked her to pick him up after work, since his vehicle had been damaged in a work-related accident; he hadn’t been there when she arrived, but Cordelia had been kind enough to keep her company. Although it couldn’t be said that Cordy was a book person, she and Tuff shared a passion for clothes and shoes. They had talked about going shopping together at some point, but hadn’t done it yet.
Now Tuff thought she might need advice of a different kind, and Cordelia worked for a detective agency, too.
“Cordelia? It’s Tuff. How are you?”
“Just fine,” she replied. “I’m thinking that you probably didn’t call to talk about the weather, though.”
Tuff hesitated. “It’s just that I know Wesley is busy, and I didn’t want to bother him.”
“What’s up?” Cordelia asked, sounding concerned.
“I’ve got this car following me,” Tuff admitted. “At least, I think it’s following me. I really hope that I’m not being completely paranoid.”
Cordelia sniffed. “Please. A little paranoia will keep a girl alive, is what I always say. What does it look like?”
“It’s a black van,” Tuff replied. “At least, I think it’s the same one that’s been following me, but it could just be me seeing things that aren’t really there.”
“After what happened to Wesley, you have every right to be worried,” Cordelia said. “Do you know that delicatessen near the Hyperion? The one with the bright green roof?”
“I know the one,” Tuff replied, having driven by it several times.
“Fred and I are there now,” Cordelia said. “Meet us here. I’m going to call Gunn, and maybe we can turn the tables on these watchers of yours.”
“I’ll be there in twenty minutes,” Tuff promised, turning at the next corner, peering into her rearview.
The van was still there.
Gunn was the first to arrive, although that wasn’t too surprising since the Hyperion was just around the corner. He sauntered in, sitting down at the small table where Fred and Cordy were waiting. “So what’s up?”
“Tuff thinks she’s being followed,” Cordelia replied. “She didn’t want to bother Wesley because he’s in the middle of that thing, so she called me.”
“And you called me,” Gunn said. “You thinking lawyers?”
“That’s who came after Wesley last month,” Cordelia observed. “It would be just like them to follow Tuff around.”
Fred frowned. “But why? It’s not like she’s a demon fighter or anything. Tuff doesn’t know anything.”
“They don’t know that,” Cordelia pointed out. “And men tell their girlfriends a lot. They might think she’s gotten information from Wesley.”
“And she’s the easier target,” Gunn added.
Fred sighed. “What are we going to do if it is those lawyers? It’s not like we can prove anything, or stop them.”
Gunn raised an eyebrow, glancing over at Cordy. “And who wants to be the one to tell Wesley?”
“If it comes to that, I will,” Cordelia said with a sigh.
Tuff came in just then, spotting Cordelia and the others with relief on her face. “Thanks for doing this,” she said. “I just want to know that I’m not imagining things—or that I am. Either way, I’ll at least know whether or not to ignore it.”
Gunn gave her a reassuring smile. “You ladies just sit tight. I’m going to see what I can see.”
Tuff sighed. “I feel stupid now.”
“Don’t feel stupid,” Cordelia ordered her. “In our line of work, it’s way better to be safe than sorry.”
“And while bad guys aren’t everywhere, there’s enough of them to warrant a little paranoia,” Fred added.
Gunn came back into the sandwich shop, the bell overhead signaling his entrance. “Well?” Tuff asked. “What’s the verdict? Am I crazy?”
He hesitated. “You might want to come back to the hotel with us.”
“Wesley would never forgive us if we let something happen to you,” Gunn said. “Besides, if it comes down to it, you can always hang with us while he does his research. I just think that it might be better if you came back to the hotel.”
Wesley hadn’t paid much attention to the ringing of the phone; Gunn had grabbed it on the second ring, and then had said something to Angel, who had been playing with Connor as the baby lay in his carrier.
He was nearing the end now, just putting the finishing touches on his shopping list and double-checking to make sure he hadn’t missed anything. Wesley was fairly sure that he’d be able to do the spell, even though he knew he didn’t have much power. It would be enough to anchor Angel’s soul, at least.
His head shot up as he heard Tuff’s voice, and he was out of his seat in a moment; Wesley knew Tuff well enough to know that she wouldn’t have shown up at the hotel unless there was something seriously wrong. She was very good about respecting the fact that he couldn’t always control his hours, just as he was with her. There had been a few occasions when he’d suggested a night out, but she’d already made plans with girlfriends or her family.
“Is everything alright?” Wesley asked.
Gunn gave him a look. “We have a small problem. It looks like Wolfram and Hart might be following Tuff.”
Wesley felt a flash of nearly uncontrollable anger, and his hands clenched into fists. Restraining himself with a visible effort, he nodded. “I see. Where are they now?”
“Left them at the deli,” Gunn said.
“I called Cordelia,” Tuff said. “I’m sorry, Wesley. I know you’re busy, but—”
“Nonsense,” he replied, putting his hands on her shoulders. “I’m never too busy for something like this.”
Angel moved to join the group, sharing a look with Wesley. “Do you want me to have a talk with them?”
“Not yet,” Wesley replied, his tone grim. “I’d rather surprise them.”
Tuff cleared her throat. “So, is anyone going to tell me what’s going on?”
“Let’s go into my office,” he suggested, putting his hand on her back. Wesley could feel her leaning into his touch slightly and was reassured that she wasn’t upset with him; even so, he felt as though he ought to have expected this, planned for it.
Wesley sat down on the couch, pulling her down beside him. “I’m sorry about this.”
“Why?” she asked. “It’s not like you asked them to follow me, right?”
“Yes, well…” He trailed off. “No, I didn’t, but I suppose I should have expected something like this. We have a tendency to put their clients in a very bad light on a regular basis. You could say that we have something of a rivalry going on.”
Tuff frowned. “What do they think they’re going to get from me?”
“I don’t know,” Wesley replied. “They might think you have information, that I might have told you things they’d like to know.”
He saw the fear in her eyes. “Would they come after me?”
Wesley shook his head. “I don’t see how they could. You are someone who would be missed, and Wolfram and Hart is invested in keeping a low profile. They might simply be trying to provoke me by frightening you.”
“Is it working?”
“Yes. Rather too well.” When she laid her head on his shoulder, Wesley put his arm around her. “I never meant for you to get involved.”
“It’s not your fault, Wesley. You can’t blame yourself for everything that happens.”
He didn’t bother replying. While Wesley could acknowledge that he wasn’t responsible for everything that happened, he had a difficult time believing it, particularly when someone he cared about was at risk. “I’ll stay with you tonight.”
“No,” Tuff said firmly. “You have that project to get done; you don’t need to baby-sit me.”
Wesley raised an eyebrow. “And you wouldn’t feel better if I stayed?”
“I always feel better when you’re with me,” she replied. “But that’s not the point. I can ask Cordelia to stay, or I’ll make up an excuse and stay with my parents tonight.”
He was about to argue, but then thought better of it; if Cordelia stayed with Tuff, or vice versa, she would surely be safe, and he would be free to make certain that Wolfram & Hart knew not to mess with her. “That might be the best option.”
She raised her head, frowning at him. “You’re not going to do something really stupid and heroic, are you?”
Wesley smiled. “Why would I do that?”
Tuff sighed. “Never mind. Just please don’t get hurt.”
“I have no plans for that,” Wesley said.
But he had plans; it was time to revisit his old stomping grounds.
“You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.” ~Winston Churchill
“So let me get this straight,” Angel said. “Cordy’s going to stay with Tuff tonight, and that will allow us to scare Wolfram and Hart’s goons off.”
Wesley gave him a thin smile. “Not exactly. That will allow you to scare the goons off; I’m going straight to the source.”
“Wait a minute,” Gunn objected. “That leaves me here with Connor.”
“I want you and Fred to remain behind with the baby,” Wesley said. “I won’t put him at risk. It would be just like Lilah to try something like this to draw us out and then attack from behind.”
Angel’s eyes narrowed. “You sound like you know her pretty well.”
“I used to,” Wesley said. “Right now, I know her better than she knows me, and I believe we can use that to our benefit.”
Gunn slouched in his seat. “I still don’t understand why I get baby-sitting duty. No offense, Angel, I love the kid, but—”
“Angel can be slightly more intimidating,” Wesley pointed out apologetically.
“How?” Gunn demanded. “I can bring my ax.”
Angel’s face shifted, and he grinned toothily. “I don’t have to bring anything at all.”
“The face of a demon is often more compelling, even for someone who may be expecting it,” Wesley said. “And I believe Lilah will see me, while she might not consent to deal with anyone else. That leaves Connor.”
“Who can’t be left alone,” Gunn said with a sigh. “And Cordy’s with Tuff. I get that. Doesn’t mean I have to like it, though.” He gave Wesley a sharp look. “What about you? There’s nothing to stop Lilah from taking you out when you walk through those doors. She could decide that she’s better off without you.”
“She could,” Wesley acknowledged. “I don’t believe she will, however. That’s not the type of person Lilah Morgan is. She has a certain—honor; if I ask for a meeting, she’ll respect that.”
Angel nodded. “You know best, Wes. What are you going to do if she won’t deal?”
“I don’t know,” he confessed. “I suppose I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it.”
Gunn stood. “I’d better let Fred know that we’re staying in this evening.”
Angel and Wesley watched him leave. The three women were standing around the front desk, cooing over Connor, who looked to be enjoying the attention. “How well did you get to know Lilah Morgan?” Angel asked.
Wesley didn’t look at him, instead keeping his eyes on Tuff, who was laughing at something that one of the others had said. She hadn’t even blinked when Wesley asked to speak to Angel and Gunn alone, although Cordelia had glared at him. She didn’t like being left out of the planning, but then, she’d already agreed to stay with Tuff for the night, so it wasn’t as if she didn’t know what her role was going to be.
“You have to understand that no one was talking to me,” Wesley finally said. “Not unless you wanted something. Lilah wanted me to come work for the law firm. Of course, I said no, but she was persistent.”
Angel frowned. “You went to work for her?”
Wesley looked at him in surprise. “No. I merely meant that she was very persistent, in that she kept returning. Then—well, I suppose we were both trying to convert the other, to a certain extent.”
Wesley couldn’t completely hide his emotions on the matter, and he knew that Angel had managed to read his expression. “You were in love with her.”
“It wasn’t love,” Wesley said softly. “But I had feelings for her.”
“What happened to her?” Angel asked.
Wesley sighed. “She was killed, and we believed it was by vampires. I took steps to ensure that she wouldn’t rise again. I saw her briefly later on, just before we took over Wolfram and Hart; her contract extended beyond the grave.”
“I see,” Angel said softly, beginning to think that he might. “And now you’re going to use what you know against her.”
“It was what we did,” Wesley murmured. “It was like a game that we played. The difference this time is that I’m the one who knows all the rules.”
Angel didn’t have a reply to that.
“I really appreciate you staying with me, Cordelia,” Tuff said.
Cordelia shrugged off the other woman’s thanks. She probably would have invited Tuff to stay at her place, but Dennis made that difficult; her ghost was usually pretty good about not letting onto his presence when asked, but even he could make mistakes, and no one wanted to be the one to spill the beans to Tuff.
If she did freak out, no one wanted to be responsible for Wesley’s relationship ending.
“It’s okay,” Cordy replied. “You have a nice place.”
Tuff smiled. “I like it. It was my first apartment, once I graduated from college.”
“Wow,” Cordelia said. “This is a lot nicer than my first apartment.”
Tuff laughed. “Well, my parents were a little worried about their baby girl finding a decent place, and Dad offered to help me out with rent, just to make sure I wasn’t living in a dangerous area of town. The job at the hospital paid pretty good, though, so I managed, even though things were tight for the first year or so.”
“Must be nice to be so close to your parents,” Cordelia said.
“You’re not?” Tuff asked, catching the wistful note in her voice.
Cordelia shrugged. “Not really. I never was, I guess, even back in high school when my parents had money. When they lost it all, they pretty much disappeared from my life.”
Tuff gave her a sympathetic look. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay,” Cordelia replied. “I have a family.”
“You and Wesley seem really close.”
“We are.” Cordelia suddenly giggled. “We tried to date once, but it was all wrong. I mean, the dating was fine, but the kiss was bad. He slobbered all over my chin.”
Tuff stared at her. “You’re kidding me!” she exclaimed. “Wesley is…” She trailed off. “Well, he must have gotten a lot better.” She pulled out a carton of ice cream from the freezer. “Do you want some?”
“Absolutely,” Cordelia responded. “I think maybe it just wasn’t meant to be. He’s a good friend.”
“I can believe that,” Tuff said, sitting down at the table and handing Cordelia a second spoon. “Did you know the woman who died?” she asked. “He said that someone he loved had died, but I wasn’t sure if you knew her.”
Cordelia realized that she was risking getting herself into a very sticky discussion. “I didn’t know her very well.” That much was true, since she had no idea how much Fred had changed; besides, this way, Tuff couldn’t ask questions that Cordelia wouldn’t be able to answer. “He’s been a lot happier recently, though.”
Tuff’s face brightened. “Really? I thought maybe he had, but I couldn’t be sure.”
“He’s definitely happier.” Cordelia decided that now would be a very good time to change the subject. “So, where’s your favorite place to buy shoes?”
Angel watched from the shadows as the black van pulled up in front of Tuff’s apartment building. After a moment, the driver cut the engine and the lights, but no one exited the vehicle. If someone didn’t know that it didn’t belong there, it would just be another parked car along a quiet side street.
Of course, Angel knew better.
He didn’t plan on killing the occupants of the van, not unless Wolfram & Hart had hired demons or vampires for this job. Actually, Angel was hoping that they weren’t human; in that case, he could get rid of them with a clear conscience. The law firm tended to hire your standard bad guys for jobs like this, however, and so Angel didn’t have a lot of hope.
Still, there was something to be said for optimism.
Slipping away from the shadow of the building where he’d hidden himself, Angel approached the van cautiously. Once he got a little closer, Angel could see the darkened windows that had been camouflaged to look like panels, making it impossible to either see in or know whether anyone was looking out. The driver had apparently moved into the back of the van, because Angel couldn’t see anyone through the passenger window, and he was grateful that he’d chosen to approach it from the front.
Trying to look as though he was out for an evening stroll, Angel stuck his hands in his pockets and sauntered up, wondering if they’d spotted him yet.
He kept up the pretense until he was just past the van and then turned, grabbing the handle of the rear door and pulling. The handle came off in his hand and, with a growl, he grabbed the edge of the door, hearing the lock snap as he pulled it open with sheer brute strength.
The expressions of surprise on the faces of the men inside the back of the van were highly satisfying. Angel reached in and grabbed the nearest man by the collar, hauling him out and slamming him up against the intact door of the vehicle. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” he demanded.
“Let him go,” the second man said, holding a gun on him.
Angel snorted. “That’s not going to help you.” He let the demon come forward. “Bullets won’t kill me; they’ll just piss me off.” He quickly shifted so that he was using the first man’s body as a shield. “I want to know what you’re doing here.”
There was a long pause as the two men considered their options, and Angel tightened his grip, causing the first man to gasp out, “Just tell him, Orman.”
Orman lowered his gun slowly, looking extremely reluctant. “We’re getting paid to watch the girl. It’s just a job, nothing personal.”
“Too bad I’m taking it personally,” Angel replied, smirking. “You’re just supposed to watch? Nothing else?”
“We’re just watching,” Orman assured Angel. “No one’s supposed to get hurt.”
“Who are you reporting to?” Angel pressed. When Orman hesitated, the vampire squeezed just a little harder, feeling the man struggle against his hold. “Who?”
“Lilah Morgan,” the man gasped out.
Angel let up a bit so the man could breathe easier. “That’s what I thought. I’m going to take your word for it that this wasn’t personal, but if I see you hanging around here again, I’m going to forget that I don’t eat humans anymore.” He released his captive, shoving him against the back of the van again. “Get out of here before I change my mind.”
He could see them debating whether or not to leave, whether to defy orders or try to defy him. It was fairly obvious that they weren’t equipped to take on a pissed off vampire, and Angel was counting on their common sense taking over.
Sure enough, after a few seconds, the two scrambled back into the van and it took off, the back door swinging a bit.
Angel smirked, pleased with himself. He didn’t think it would last forever, of course, just until they were more scared of Lilah Morgan than they were of him. On the other hand, if Wesley did manage to convince Lilah that it was in her best interests not to be following Tuff, she wouldn’t have to worry about anyone following her anymore.
Angel looked at the apartment building thoughtfully, wondering if he was right about Tuff; she seemed to be made of sterner material than Wesley was giving her credit for. Somehow he thought that his friend would be better off letting her know what was truly going on now, rather than later, but it was Wesley’s choice.
He just hoped that for Wesley’s sake, Tuff took it well.
Wesley knew every entrance and exit into Wolfram & Hart’s offices at this point; he’d spent the better part of a year there, after all. There was a little-used entrance through the parking garage, one that most of the attorneys and other employees used after hours.
Although Lilah probably would have been intrigued enough to meet with him if he’d called for an appointment, Wesley wanted to catch her off-guard if he could. He wanted to show her exactly who she was dealing with; he wasn’t Angel’s research assistant any longer—he’d become something else altogether.
He watched as a young lawyer exited through the door, waiting until just before it shut to catch it and slip inside. Wesley adjusted his tie, striding confidently down the hallway, nodding pleasantly to a passing woman. It was unlikely that anyone would recognize him, unlikelier still that anyone would know that he didn’t belong; the firm was huge, and it was rare for people to socialize outside their own departments.
That was something else he’d learned during his time at Wolfram & Hart.
There was no trouble locating Lilah’s office; her name had still been on the door when Angel took over, and it had been impossible for him to forget where she had spent so much of her time.
He could remember all of it now, everything they had been to each other, everything they had done, how it had felt to remove her head from her body. None of that had been clear before he’d broken the Orlon Window; the memories had been there, but they had been robbed of their full context.
Context was everything.
The support staff had gone for the day, and no one looked twice at a man in a suit in this office, not when he looked like he knew where he was going. Wesley walked down the hall from the elevator towards Lilah’s office, opening the door without knocking and closing it behind him.
Wesley turned to face her, smiling coldly in greeting, remembering the man he’d been. The man he was. “Hello, Lilah.”
“Wesley Wyndam-Pryce,” Lilah said. “Where’s your pet vampire?”
“This is between you and me,” he replied. “You’re following my friend; I don’t appreciate it.”
“How else am I supposed to get information?” Lilah asked, leaning back in her chair, smirking at him. “I knew that the surveillance would bring someone in, sooner or later. I was betting on Angel, but I was hoping you’d have the balls to come.”
Wesley unbuttoned his suit jacket as he sat down, letting her see the twin pistols he wore. “I think you might be surprised at what I have the balls to do.”
Lilah lost a little bit of her smug demeanor. “What are you going to do, shoot me?”
“Not unless I have to,” Wesley replied. “I want to know what you want.”
“I’d like to know what happened to Holtz,” Lilah said. “He was our main competition for Connor.”
“You won’t get Connor,” Wesley warned, “and you needn’t worry about Holtz. He’s been taken care of.”
“Your doing?” Lilah asked. “I hadn’t expected it of you.”
“I’m just full of surprises.” Wesley leaned forward, letting his anger show. “You will leave Miss Myers out of this. She knows nothing.”
Lilah smiled coldly, recognizing a worthy opponent when she saw one. “That’s the problem, Wesley. We can’t get at what you know, and a man will tell his girlfriend things he won’t tell anyone else. If we can’t get inside your head, we’ll be forced to look elsewhere for information.”
“What do you want to know so badly?” Wesley demanded.
“I want to know what caused the timeline to shift so drastically. The seers were rather upset when all their predictions went to hell overnight. That doesn’t just happen.” Lilah met his gaze. “What did you make a deal with, Wesley? You sold your soul for something to get the kind of protection that would protect you from a probe. I want to know what that was, and I want to know all about Connor. Give me the information I need, and I’ll take the tail off your friend.”
“Go to hell,” Wesley replied, his voice even. “You can’t possibly expect me to betray Angel in such a way.”
Lilah’s eyes narrowed. “Is that right? You braved the lion’s den tonight for a girl, Wesley. You came to me personally, which tells me just how important she is to you. It would be a shame for anything to happen to her, wouldn’t it?”
“Leave her out of this.” Wesley had known what would happen when he came here. Lilah was no pushover; he’d only hoped that she would want information he felt comfortable giving her. He might have told her about the future, why the timeline had changed, about her own potential ending that had now likely been averted. Wesley would have given her information about any of those things in order to make certain that Tuff would be spared. What he would not do was give her anything about Connor.
Wesley wouldn’t betray Angel again, even if it meant losing Tuff.
“Hit a button, didn’t I?” Lilah asked, delighted to see his cool exterior crack a bit. “She doesn’t know, does she? She doesn’t know about any of this, about what you really do. I wonder what would happen if she found out the hard way, walking home some night.” Lilah smiled. “She’s not very careful, you know. She has no idea what comes out after dark, but she’s going to find out.”
“If you harm her, I will make sure that you lose everything.” Wesley stood, leaning across the desk, getting up in her face. “I know what you most fear, and I will make sure that every nightmare comes true.”
Lilah scoffed. “Please. You have—”
“Your mother?” Wesley murmured. “Or perhaps I’ll simply make sure that Gavin has all the information he needs to show the Senior Partners how inept you are.”
She stood abruptly, sneering at him. “Go ahead, but I’ll make sure that girlfriend of yours learns all about your dark secrets first, and I’ll take you down with me.”
“You don’t have the first idea about my secrets,” Wesley said. “And you never will. You’ll never know why the future has been altered, and you will never touch a hair on Connor’s head. Back off now, and perhaps you’ll survive a bit longer than you would have otherwise.”
Lilah was nearly snarling. “You’re going to regret this,” she promised. “You can’t come in here and threaten me and think that I’ll let that go.”
Wesley raised an eyebrow. “Oh, really? I think you want to retain your position more than you want the answers.”
He began walking towards the door, knowing that they were at a stalemate. The only possible means to ensure that Lilah wouldn’t carry out her threat would be to kill her, and Wesley wasn’t quite ready to do that yet.
It had been hard enough to take her head off when she was already dead, and some of that feeling still remained.
“You’d better keep an eye on your friend, Wesley,” Lilah called after him. “She’s going to find out about what you do the hard way. I just hope that you’re a big enough hero to make sure she lives to regret it.”
Wesley didn’t reply, knowing that there was nothing he could do to prevent the end from coming.
On the other hand, he was fairly certain that between him and Angel, Tuff wouldn’t have anyone following her anymore. He just had to make sure he was there when Lilah chose to spring her trap.
“The beauty of the world has two edges, one of laughter, one of anguish, cutting the heart asunder.” ~Virginia Woolf
Cordelia exchanged a look with Angel, then went back to watching Wesley unpack his supplies. “Maybe you should just tell her, Wes. It would probably make it easier on her, hearing it from you.”
“I plan on telling her, Cordelia,” Wesley said, his precise words telling her exactly how annoyed he was at the moment. “I don’t have any desire to bring an end to our relationship any sooner than necessary, however.”
“You don’t know that it’ll end,” Cordelia said. “Tell him, Angel.”
Angel raised an eyebrow. “Tell him what?”
“You’ve met Tuff,” she said. “I doubt she’s going to freak out.”
Angel considered that for a moment. “She might,” he pointed out.
Cordy glared at him. “You’re not helping.”
Fred and Gunn had been silent onlookers up to this point, but now Fred spoke up, “My parents took it pretty good,” she pointed out. “Maybe it’ll be fine.”
“Sure,” Gunn said, adding his two cents. “She’s cool, Wes. She’d probably be a lot more pissed at you if you don’t tell her yourself.”
Wesley looked at them with impartial irritability. “Could we stop discussing my relationship?” he demanded. “I will tell her, in my own time and my own way, and I do not need you lot meddling unnecessarily.”
“We wouldn’t meddle ‘unnecessarily,’” Cordelia said, mimicking him. “We only meddle when absolutely necessary.”
The expression on Wesley’s face had Gunn and Fred standing up. “You know, I think I’m feeling the need for a cup of coffee,” Gunn said. “Anybody else?”
“Why don’t you go with them, Cordy?” Angel asked. “I’ll bet Connor would enjoy the sunshine.” He handed the baby to her, and left to get Connor’s stroller.
She gave his departing figure a look that said she was none-too-happy about being dismissed from the conversation. “How much longer, Wes?”
“At least an hour,” he replied, obviously attempting to control his annoyance. Wesley knew his temper was short, both due to his conversation with Lilah Morgan and his sleepless night. He’d gone straight from Wolfram & Hart to his supplier, where he’d picked up everything he needed for the spell. He’d then spent the remainder of the night ensuring that he had what he needed to guarantee that the spell worked, as well as making the last-minute adjustments. “I still need to get everything set up.”
“You want coffee, Wesley?” Fred asked.
“If you wouldn’t mind,” he replied. “But no whipped cream, please. Just coffee.”
“You got it,” she replied cheerfully, following Gunn out of the hotel into the bright morning sunshine.
Cordelia looked like she wanted to say one more thing, but instead she sighed, rolled her eyes, and wheeled Connor’s stroller out.
“Don’t.” Wesley didn’t bother looking at Angel; he knew his friend well enough to know what the expression on his face would be.
“Did I say anything?” Angel asked.
“You were going to.”
“No, I wasn’t.” Angel leaned against the counter. “Cordelia’s said it all.”
Wesley chuckled, gripping the counter. “She does seem to know best.”
“I wanted to thank you for doing this,” Angel said quietly. “You didn’t have to.”
“Why wouldn’t I?” Wesley asked, a little surprised at his words. “This will make all of us safer, including your son.” He met Angel’s eyes. “This gives you a chance at real happiness.”
Angel smiled wistfully. “There would be some who would say that I don’t deserve it.”
“There are those who might have said the same about me,” Wesley replied.
Angel gave him a keen look. “And you aren’t doing the same for yourself now, Wes?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said flatly.
“Cordelia’s right,” he said softly. “There’s no reason to think that Tuff would take it that badly, and you know we’d help explain things to her. Do you really think knowing the truth will change how she feels about you?”
“I don’t know,” Wesley said hoarsely. “But there’s no guarantee that it won’t, and I don’t know that I have the strength to lose her.”
Angel gripped his shoulder. “You have the strength, Wes. I just hope that you don’t have to use it.”
Wesley was experiencing a strong sense of déjà vu as he finished his preparations for the spell that would hopefully anchor Angel’s soul. He’d marked his circle in the hotel lobby in chalk and sand. This was not dark magic, as the actual curse was; Wesley had instead managed to find and alter what was essentially a protection spell. With luck, it wouldn’t take so much out of him that he wouldn’t be able to meet Tuff when she got off of work.
The best-case scenario was that he’d actually have enough power to succeed with the spell; the back-up plan was to call Willow in if it turned out he couldn’t do it.
He heard Fred asking in the background, “How is this going to work?”
“If the spell works as I expect it to, Angel’s soul will be anchored, and nothing will knock it loose, short of death,” Wesley replied, even though he knew she wasn’t asking him. “You might want to stand back.”
“Are you expecting an explosion?” Cordelia asked acerbically, still unhappy with him for not listening to her earlier.
Wesley raised an eyebrow. “I’m not sure what to expect, to be honest.”
“How are we gonna know that it worked?” Gunn asked. “If Angel loses his soul, it’s a little too late to figure that out.”
“It’s taken care of,” Wesley assured him. “I procured a drug that worked to produce artificial happiness in the past; the effect is temporary, but it should work well enough for us to know that the spell was a success.”
“And if Angelus decides to lay low?” Cordelia asked. “He’s sneaky.”
“Angelus would rub the failure in Wesley’s face,” Angel corrected her. “Wes already talked to me about it, and we agreed.”
There were no more objections, and Wesley took a deep breath. “You’ll need to step into the circle, Angel.”
The vampire did as he was directed, his expression calm and unruffled. Their eyes met across the distance, and Wesley recalled Angel’s words after he’d explained the rest of the plan, before the others returned. “It’s okay, Wes. I trust you.”
Those words had meant something, but the achievement was hollow, in a way; in this world, Angel had never lost his trust, because Wesley had never betrayed him. That was why he’d come back, however, so Wesley simply had to live with whatever lingering disappointment there might be. This had been the only way to make it right.
And with this spell, he was taking one more step towards that end.
The spell was in Sumerian, which Wesley spoke fluently—as fluently as anyone spoke a dead language, anyway. He could feel the power moving through him steadily, and he began to think that he might be successful.
About halfway through the spell, Angel dropped to his knees, gasping in pain, and Wesley could hear Cordelia call out to him. He ignored her, unable to spare the energy to reassure the rest of them with even a glance. Wesley could feel the spell taking its toll on him, and he realized suddenly that he wouldn’t be able to complete it; he was going to run out of power, and nothing would be accomplished. They would have to call Willow.
Wesley reached deep for the power in one last desperate attempt to make it work, and felt the magic flow through him in a rushing torrent. He’d felt this before, when he’d gone back in time; the power felt the same—both painful and pure, as though he were being taken apart and put back together.
He had a sudden realization of what had been done to him—what had been given, and what had been taken away. Wesley knew in that moment that he had been called, that his life was no longer his own…and that he’d been given a gift.
Even if he had wished to leave this life, it would no longer be possible for him to do so.
Wesley completed the spell, shouting out the last few words through the pain and dropping to his knees as the power left him.
“You alright?” Wesley heard Gunn ask as the world grayed out around him. “Hey, English. You okay?”
Wesley nodded, strength coming back to him. “Fine. I just need a moment.”
Fred and Gunn helped him up, supporting him to the couch. “Did it work?” Fred asked.
Cordelia jiggled a crying Connor as Angel tried to shake off the pain that the spell had brought on. “It felt like it worked,” Angel replied. “If not, that was a lot of hurt for nothing.”
“It worked,” Wesley said, slumping on the couch, the last of the pain receding.
“How can you tell?” Cordelia asked.
Wesley shook his head. “I can tell.”
“Do we still use the happy pill?” Gunn asked.
“I know I’d feel more comfortable,” Cordelia replied. “No offense, Wes, but if it didn’t work, I’m going to be the one waking up next to Angelus.”
Wesley winced. “Of course; it’s always best to double-check this sort of thing. Give me a moment, and I’ll get it.”
Fred was looking at him intently. “What just happened, Wesley?”
He looked up at her. “What do you mean?”
“You looked—different, while you were doing the spell.” She looked a little frightened.
Wesley glanced at Gunn, who looked away uncomfortably, and then at Cordelia, who seemed to be engrossed in her efforts to comfort Connor. He turned to Angel, who met his eyes, unafraid. “You were kind of glowing.”
“Oh.” Wesley sighed. “I suppose it’s an after-effect of the other spell I did.” He pushed himself up. “I’ll go get those pills.”
He went back into the office, pausing inside the doorway and wondering if they would always look at him like that—if this was just going to be one more reason he didn’t quite fit with his friends anymore.
“I thought it was pretty cool,” Gunn said from behind him.
“The glowing. It was just unexpected, you know?”
Wesley turned to look at him. “When I did the spell, to come back in time, the being I called told me that I had been chosen. I wasn’t sure what they meant until now; I never would have been able to do that spell before.”
“Then maybe it’s a good thing, whatever happened,” Gunn replied. “It’s just going to take some getting used to. I mean, it’s not like it’s a big deal. We work with a vampire, and Cordy’s half demon; the fact that you glow anytime you’re doin’ a spell isn’t really that special.”
Wesley laughed, shaking his head. “I suppose you have a point.”
“’Course I do,” Gunn retorted. “You ready to do this?”
Wesley nodded, reaching into the pocket of the suit jacket he’d slung over the back of his chair. “You’d better get the tranquilizer gun.”
“You got it.”
Wesley’s hand closed over the small bag of pills, and he smiled. If there was one thing he couldn’t regret, it was being able to repair his relationship with Gunn, or at least make a beginning on it.
It certainly didn’t hurt that they weren’t after the same woman this time around.
“Okay, remind me to send Wesley flowers. Or maybe I should bake him something.” At the expression on Angel’s face, Cordelia sighed, “Okay, buy something that I didn’t bake.” She was draped over his bare chest, both of them sprawled on his bed.
Angel lifted his head. “Why are we talking about Wesley right now?” he asked plaintively. They had just spent the last several hours enjoying the fact that his soul was now secure; it hadn’t taken but a few minutes before the drugs began to take effect, and Angel had remembered the sensations well. Unlike last time, however, when Rebecca Lowell had slipped him a dose in his drink, Angel’s soul was right there.
Angel had merely felt really, really good for a while, and very interested in the free babysitting that Fred and Gunn had offered when they’d realized that his soul was safe.
Spur of the moment as it was, Angel couldn’t have planned it better if he’d had more time. Although, knowing Cordelia, he’d probably better start making plans pretty soon.
“We’re talking about Wesley because he’s the guy that made tonight happen,” Cordelia pointed out patiently. “I’m just saying we should get him something nice to say thank you.”
Angel considered that for a moment. “Fine, but can we talk about it later? Preferably after the others get back with Connor. I don’t want to waste another moment.”
Cordelia propped herself up on one elbow. “I thought you needed a minute to recover.”
Angel rolled them both over so that he was above her. “We took a minute.”
She laughed delightedly. “God bless vampire stamina.”
“You’d better believe it.”
Cordelia forgot all about a thank-you gift for Wesley.
It was Wednesday before Tuff realized that something was wrong. When Wesley showed up at her office on Friday afternoon and suggested they spend the evening together, she’d quickly agreed. He’d spent Saturday and Sunday with her as well, and while they had both gone back to work Monday morning, they’d gone to a movie that night, and out to dinner on Tuesday.
At first, Tuff had chalked it up to him simply wanting to spend time with her—which it might still be. She was beginning to suspect that there was a little more to it than that, though. Tuff thought she’d wait to see if Wesley said anything to her on Wednesday, but when he went on as usual, and then showed up at the hospital once again on Thursday, she knew she had to say something.
“Okay, Wesley, what’s up?” she asked over appetizers at one of her favorite bistros.
“What do you mean?” he asked, looking perfectly innocent.
Tuff glared at him. “Don’t do that. You know exactly what I mean. You’ve insisted on spending every free moment with me for the last week, and while I’m definitely not complaining, I know there’s a little more to it than you wanting to spend time with me.”
“Why does there have to be more to it?” he asked, appearing hurt. “I like spending time with you.”
“You also have a job where you work very irregular hours,” Tuff pointed out. “Often during the evening, and yet you’ve been with me every night. Again, definitely not complaining, but there’s something going on.” When he winced, Tuff felt a thrill of fear. “Is it something to do with the people following me? I know you said that you took care of it, but—”
“It’s taken care of,” he assured her, reaching across the table to take her hand. “I promise, it’s nothing to do with you.”
Tuff wanted to shout at him out of frustration. She liked Wesley—no, she loved him—and she honestly didn’t mind that he couldn’t or wouldn’t discuss his work with her. She could appreciate that much of what he did had to remain confidential, but that didn’t mean she liked feeling as though he was lying to her. “Wesley—” she began.
He cut her off. “I’m sorry.” His voice was low, and he sounded genuinely apologetic. “There’s something I’ve been trying to get up the nerve to tell you, but I’m afraid I’m something of a coward.”
“You’re not a coward,” Tuff shot back. “I know that for a fact. As long as it doesn’t have anything to do with you dating other women, I think I can take it.”
“No, there’s no one else,” he said, giving her a half-hearted smile. “It’s difficult, though. There’s so much about my life that you don’t know.”
Tuff squeezed his hand. “You think I don’t know that, Wesley? I know that you haven’t told me everything, but we haven’t been dating that long. I figured it would come in time.”
“Yes, well, it seems that time has come,” Wesley said. “And I don’t know how to say it.”
She hesitated, then said, “I was meaning to ask you this, but I wasn’t sure you could take the time off. My parents have this time-share condo in Malibu. It’s free this weekend, and I thought maybe we could use it, since they can’t get away. We could go, and then you’d have the whole weekend to talk. No pressure.”
Wesley appeared relieved. “Thank you. I think I might take you up on that offer; it’s—well, it’s a long story, although I don’t know that you’ll believe half of it.”
“You’d be surprised at what I’d believe,” Tuff replied. “Truth is always stranger than fiction, right?”
She didn’t know how right she was.
Wesley had been spending as much time as possible with Tuff for two reasons. The first was his fear of what Lilah might try; he didn’t want Tuff facing whatever Wolfram & Hart might throw at her alone. The second was that he was certain that once she knew the truth, she wouldn’t want to risk a relationship with him, and Wesley wanted to spend every moment he could with her before that inevitable end.
He’d wanted to wait for the right time to bring it up, to tell her that he hadn’t told her the whole truth about what he did for a living, nor how he’d grown up. He’d wanted to spill the whole ugly truth in her lap, but he hadn’t been able to hope for the best.
Cordelia had called him on it when he’d shown up at the Hyperion again on Monday morning, after having spent the weekend with Tuff. “I wanted to thank you,” she’d said, catching him off guard. “For what you did for Angel.”
“It was nothing, Cordy,” he replied. “It was the right thing to do.”
“Yeah, it was, but you have a lot on your plate right now,” she said. “Especially after turning into a big, English light bulb.”
Wesley looked away. “Yes, well…”
“It’s okay, Wes. I think everybody was a little surprised, but we got over it.” She sat down across from him. “You really like her, don’t you?”
“Tuff. You wouldn’t be hesitating to tell her the truth if you weren’t so afraid of losing her.”
Wesley took his glasses off, rubbing his eyes tiredly. “I like her a great deal.”
“You love her,” Cordelia corrected him.
Wesley stood, unwilling to face her. “I think I could love her very easily,” he replied. “She’s an easy person to love.”
“But?” Cordelia prompted.
Wesley shook his head. “It was never meant to be permanent. She didn’t know about my life; I’d hoped she wouldn’t find out. I never thought…”
“You never thought you would care for someone after losing Fred?” Cordelia asked.
“Something like that.” Wesley turned to her. “I’m going to tell her. I just—I want to spend a little more time with her first.”
Cordelia’s expression was unusually somber. “Well, I hope she surprises you, Wes.”
“Me, too,” he’d replied. He’d been disappointed far too often to truly have hope, however.
Tuff surprised him, though, first by pointing out that something was wrong, and then with her patience. She seemed to instinctively understand that he needed a little more time, and while he could see her frustration, it seemed as though she wasn’t going to push him.
Wesley wondered how much of that was because she cared about him; he dared not think that she loved him. He wondered if he was taking advantage of her affection by putting this off yet again.
He would tell her this weekend; Wesley wouldn’t delay it any longer than that. He would meet his fate, and he would live with the consequences.
They were both quiet on the drive back to her apartment, and Wesley was still preoccupied when he pulled up in front of Tuff’s building. “I’ll walk you in.”
“You can’t stay?”
“I’d better not,” Wesley replied regretfully. “As you said, I haven’t been spending many evenings at the hotel, and if I’m going to be gone this weekend, I’d probably better make an appearance.”
Tuff nodded. “You don’t have to walk me in, Wesley. I’ll be fine.”
“Humor me,” he replied.
She rolled her eyes at him good-naturedly. “Fine, but just this once.”
Wesley went around to the passenger side, opening her door for her and taking her elbow to assist her out, even though he knew she didn’t need it. Truthfully, he just liked the excuse to touch her, and he had been raised with good manners.
It was one of the few things his father had given him that Wesley had no hard feelings about.
They were nearly to the door, Tuff pulling out her keys, when the vampires attacked. There were three of them, yellow eyes glowing in the darkness and teeth bared, and Wesley didn’t stop to think about what he was doing; automatically, he pulled a stake out of his jacket pocket, shoving Tuff behind him.
He heard her scream, and knew for the first time that she’d seen their faces clearly. Wesley ducked the first one’s punch, staking him smoothly before turning to face the other two.
They both charged at once, and Wesley let them grab him, carrying him away from Tuff. “Get inside!” he ordered.
She was fumbling with her cell phone. “Wesley—”
“Get inside!” he repeated, more forcefully still. “You’ll be safe in there.”
Wesley was relieved when she moved to unlock the door, taking his eyes from her for long enough to twist one arm free and punch one of the vampires in the gut. When the creature doubled over reflexively, Wesley brought his elbow down on the back of his neck.
He heard the jingle of keys and the click of the door closing just as the second vampire bore him to the ground. Wesley landed on top of the first one and thrust his stake through its heart, then swung his head up, feeling a sharp pain when the back of his skull connected with the remaining vampire’s nose.
The vampire gave a cry of pain, falling away from Wesley and clutching at his face. Grateful he hadn’t lost his stake in the fray, Wesley staked the third vampire, watching as he turned to dust.
He dropped his weapon and pushed himself to his feet, looking up to see that Tuff had come back out of her apartment building and was standing uncertainly a few feet away. “Are you okay?” she asked.
“I should be asking you that,” Wesley replied, taking a step closer to her.
“I wasn’t the one doing the fighting.” Tuff’s face twisted, and he realized that she was about to burst into tears.
Wesley moved quickly, pulling her into his arms. “It’s going to be fine,” he murmured. “They can’t hurt you now.”
“You—what did I just see?” she asked, her whole body trembling.
Wesley hesitated. “Let’s go inside.”
“I want to know!” she said, nearly shouting.
“You will,” he promised. “But let’s go inside.”
Wesley followed her up the stairs, his thoughts bleak; he had a feeling that she wasn’t taking this well, and that it wasn’t going to get any easier. As soon as they were inside and Tuff had locked the door behind them, she asked, “What were they? And don’t lie to me.”
“I wasn’t going to lie to you,” he replied, feeling a flash of hurt. “They were vampires.”
“Vampires?” Tuff asked, laughing, an edge of hysteria in her voice. “You’re not serious.”
“What do you want me to tell you?” Wesley asked. “Vampires and demons are real; you just watched me stake three of them.”
Tuff took a step back from him, understanding beginning to dawn on her face. “This is what you do. When you said your firm deals with unusual cases, you weren’t kidding, were you?”
“No,” Wesley said. “I wasn’t. I didn’t lie to you, Tuff. I may not have told you the entire truth, but you can see why I wouldn’t.”
She shook her head impatiently. “So this is what you do? You fight demons and vampires. Do your friends know? Are they in on it, too?”
“We’re all ‘in on it,’” Wesley replied gently. “We take the cases that the police aren’t equipped to handle. I wanted to tell you, but I didn’t know how.”
“And the law firm? Do they take ‘unusual cases,’ too?” Tuff asked.
Wesley nodded. “Yes, they do, although they’re on the other side. Let’s sit down,” he suggested. “We can talk about this as much as you like, and I’ll answer any questions you have.”
Tuff backed up. “I think you should leave.”
“Tuff, it’s going to be fine,” Wesley said, hearing the desperation in his own voice.
“No, it’s really not going to be,” she replied. “I think you should leave, Wesley. I need—I need some time. I don’t think I can be around you right now, not after seeing—” She paused, visibly bringing herself under control. “You have to leave now.”
“I’ll go,” he said, not wanting to upset her anymore than she already was, and yet not wanting to leave her alone, either. “Please call me if you want to talk.”
Tuff just stared at him silently, and Wesley turned and left, feeling as though everything he’d ever wanted was slipping through his fingers.
“How is one to live a moral and compassionate existence when one is fully aware of the blood, the horror inherent in life, when one finds darkness not only in one's culture but within oneself? If there is a stage at which an individual life becomes truly adult, it must be when one grasps the irony in its unfolding and accepts responsibility for a life lived in the midst of such paradox. One must live in the middle of contradiction, because if all contradiction were eliminated at once life would collapse. There are simply no answers to some of the great pressing questions. You continue to live them out, making your life a worthy expression of leaning into the light.” ~Barry Lopez
Fred had been left in charge of Connor while the others went out to deal with one of Cordelia’s visions. Wesley had promised to come back to the hotel once he’d finished dinner with Tuff, so the others had decided that it would be okay to leave her on her own.
Angel didn’t seem quite as concerned about Wolfram & Hart’s attempts to take Connor these days, particularly since Lilah’s attention had been redirected to Wesley.
Poor Wesley. He’d been distracted all week, wandering around in something of a daze. It was clear that this thing with Tuff had been bothering him; he still hadn’t told her anything, and he was obviously torn about it.
Fred was still trying to reconcile the Wesley who had effectively told her that he was in love with her—she suspected that he’d been with her—with the man who was terrified of losing Tuff. Not that she blamed him, really, since she’d given no indication that she was going to break up with Gunn.
No matter how Fred turned it over in her mind, she just didn’t feel that way about Wesley. She couldn’t discount the chance that she could reciprocate, given time and the right circumstances, but not as things stood now.
Wesley hadn’t told her what happened between her and Gunn, and Fred hadn’t wanted to ask, afraid that it would put him in the middle. In a way, it had been a relief to have Wesley so interested in someone else; Fred didn’t have to feel quite so bad about not returning his feelings. She could be happy with Gunn, and Wesley could be happy with Tuff.
As if her thoughts had conjured him, Wesley came through the front doors into the lobby. “Hey, Wesley,” she said. “Cordy had a vision, and we’re on Connor-duty. I hope you don’t mind.” When he didn’t reply right away, Fred came around the front desk. “Wes? Are you okay?”
He shook his head silently. “It doesn’t matter. Where’s Connor?”
“Upstairs, asleep,” Fred said. “I’ve got the baby monitor right here, and he hasn’t made a sound.”
Wesley nodded absently. “Good. I’ll just go up and check on him.”
She watched him go, frowning slightly. He seemed even more distracted than usual, but Fred let it go, not knowing how to broach the subject with him. She went back to her computer, playing around with the translation program. She was making progress; some of the algorithms needed more work, but it was turning out the occasional error-free sentence.
Absorbed in her work, Fred didn’t notice that he hadn’t come back down until she heard the sounds of Connor fussing over the baby monitor and then Wesley’s voice, trying to soothe the infant. Fred smiled; she liked just watching Connor sleep sometimes, too. It made her wonder what it would be like to have a baby of her own.
Absently wondering if Wesley ever had the same dreams, she turned back to her computer.
Angel still hadn’t been able to wipe the smile from his face. The past week had been one of the most amazing in his life; he had everything he had ever wanted, and then some. Cordelia loved him, and they could finally be together in every way that mattered; Connor was healthy and happy, and the business was beginning to flourish.
Wesley was the only one who wasn’t happy at the moment, and Angel couldn’t really blame him. In some small way, he could understand; after all, he hadn’t told Buffy he was a vampire for the very same reasons that Wesley didn’t want to tell Tuff that he was a demon hunter.
Angel knew he could be oblivious at times, but he saw more than people gave him credit for, and on this occasion he realized that Wesley was struggling. He’d lost nearly everything, and Angel didn’t know that the ex-Watcher could handle one more loss, no matter what he’d said to Wes in an attempt to comfort.
The monster from Cordy’s vision hadn’t been easy to kill; there might have been a faster way to go about it, but Wesley hadn’t been available to fill them in on the creature’s vulnerabilities. All they’d known was that it was big and had a lot of teeth—in unusual places, too. Angel was still limping just a bit, although thankfully Gunn had gotten to it with his ax before it could do much damage.
As they entered the hotel, everyone congregated around the front desk, as was typical. “How’s Connor?” Angel asked. “Still sleeping?”
“He woke up a little while ago,” Fred responded. “Wesley was upstairs, though, and he took care of it.”
“Did he tell her?” Cordelia asked.
Fred shook her head. “I don’t think so. He still seemed really distracted when he came in tonight.”
“Cut the man some slack, Cordy,” Gunn advised. “That isn’t gonna be an easy conversation to have.”
Angel motioned for silence. “He’s coming down.”
“So, how’s that computer program coming, Fred?” Cordelia asked brightly. “Any progress?”
“Not much,” Fred confessed. “I still have a few bugs to work out before it’s anywhere near as accurate as Wesley.”
“Speak of the devil,” Gunn commented as Wesley came down the stairs. “How was dinner, Wes?”
“Good.” Wesley smiled, but Angel noted that it didn’t reach his eyes. “It went well.”
Cordelia raised an eyebrow. “And the conversation?”
“We talked about getting away for the weekend,” Wesley replied. “I was planning on telling her then.”
“Maybe that’s the best way,” Gunn encouraged. “She’s got to sit still for the explanation then, right?”
“Right. I think I’ll head home,” he said. “It’s been a long day.”
Angel could smell a faint trace of blood, and he was fairly sure he saw a trace of vampire dust on Wesley’s jacket, which told him that something was seriously wrong. That and Wesley’s eyes—he hadn’t seen Wesley look that haunted for the last few weeks. “You going to come in tomorrow?”
“Of course,” Wesley replied. “I’ll see you tomorrow morning.”
As soon as he was gone, Cordelia announced, “Something’s wrong.”
“He was hurt,” Angel agreed.
“Hurt?” Cordelia asked. “I just meant that something was wrong.”
“There was blood and vamp dust,” Angel replied.
She glared at him. “Angel, if he was hurt—”
“Not badly,” Angel said defensively. “Just a scratch probably.”
Fred was looking from Angel to Cordelia anxiously. “You think something went wrong?”
“I’ll ask him tomorrow,” Cordelia said. “I know Wesley. If something happened between him and Tuff, it’s better to give him his space right now. We can ambush him tomorrow.”
When she gave him a look, Angel raised his hands defensively. “Don’t look at me,” he said. “I’m the last person who should be giving relationship advice.”
Cordelia considered that for a moment, then nodded. “You’re right. I’ll stock up on jelly donuts tomorrow morning, and hopefully I’ll pry something out of him that way.”
“Good luck,” Gunn commented. “That man has been more closed-mouthed lately than I’ve ever seen him before.”
Angel shook his head thoughtfully. “That’s because it’s easy to forget he’s not the person he was before.” He glanced back at the door Wesley had just gone through. It was easy to forget that this Wesley wasn’t the one they’d known. It was hard to say how he would handle another loss, another rejection. He might bounce back.
Or they might lose him for good.
Tuff had managed to keep herself under control until the door had closed behind Wesley, and then she’d burst into tears. She couldn’t quite process what she’d seen; vampires didn’t exist, but Wesley had just killed three of them.
Wesley had killed three of them while she’d done nothing. What if they had bitten him? If he got bitten, didn’t that mean he would become a vampire? He could have been killed while she’d been paralyzed with fear.
Maybe she was still in shock; Tuff didn’t know what else to call what she was feeling. It felt as though her entire world had been turned upside down, as though everything she’d thought was true was now called into question. A few hours ago, she’d been dating a guy who had a slightly unconventional job and a few secrets.
Now she was dating a superhero. If they were still dating.
Tuff retreated to her bedroom, stripping down and pulling on her favorite pajamas before crawling into bed. The sheets still smelled of Wesley; he’d been there so much the last week, probably worried about her, or about telling her.
Burying her face in her pillow, she tried to block the images from her mind, but the scene kept replaying over and over again. Tuff managed to get to sleep in the early hours of the morning, only to wake when her alarm went off.
She reached for her phone immediately, dialing her office. “Hey, Karen, it’s Tuff. I’m not feeling very good today…I probably sound like I feel…Sure, you too. Bye.” Tuff hung up, pulling her pillow over her head to block out the faint morning light, and dozed off again.
She was still trying to sleep hours later when the phone rang again, and Tuff let the call ring through to the machine. “Tuff, it’s your father. Since I’m a doctor, I feel it’s my parental and professional duty to make sure I don’t need to come over there. If you’re awake, pick up, and if you’re sleeping through this, I want you to call me as soon as you get up.”
Sighing, Tuff reached for the phone, knowing that her father wouldn’t hesitate to come to her apartment if he got too worried. “Hey, Dad.”
“I hear you’re sick. Anything serious?”
Tuff hesitated, then admitted, “I’m okay. It’s just—Wesley and I got mugged last night.” Great. She was already lying to her dad. And though it gave her a taste of how Wesley had had to dance around the truth, Tuff hadn’t lied to her father since she was a child.
“Are you okay?” David demanded. “Did you call the police?”
“The muggers ran off,” Tuff replied. “We weren’t hurt, and they didn’t get anything. Wesley—Wesley was great. He was like one of those superheroes out of the movies.”
“Is he with you now?” David asked.
“No, I kind of freaked out on him last night,” Tuff admitted. “Dad, he was amazing, and I didn’t do anything. I’ve had self-defense lessons; I should have helped, or done something, and I just stood there.”
“Was he angry about that?” her father asked gently.
Tuff laughed. “No; he was great about that, too. It’s just that I’m dating a hero, and he’s with me? Why would he be with me? He could have anybody he wanted.”
“Maybe he doesn’t want just anybody.” She heard him sigh. “Do you love him, sweetheart?”
“Yes,” she replied in a very small voice.
“Then why don’t you let him figure out his side of things?” Now he sounded firm. “You’re a beautiful girl, Tiffany Myers, and even a hero would be lucky to have you.”
Tuff laughed, although she had tears in her eyes. “You have to say that. You’re my dad.” They were the same words she’d always used.
“I’m your dad; that means I’m right,” he replied, completing the ritual. “Call me later, okay?”
“Soon as I figure out what the heck I’m doing,” she promised. Tuff put the phone down and ran a hand through her hair. After the way she’d left things last night, Wesley probably thought she hated him for not telling her the truth, which wasn’t the case at all; she might be a little angry at him, but this wasn’t breaking-up material. She’d just—fallen apart. It was stupid, and Tuff had always told herself that she wasn’t going to be one of those girls; she wasn’t going to fly off the handle and blame it all on the guy.
Wesley might have found a better way to tell her, that was for sure, but the freaking out was all her.
She would shower, and get herself under control, and then she’d call Wesley and ask if he still wanted to get away for the weekend. They had a lot to talk about, and a lot to talk through, but she still wanted to give it a shot.
Wesley knew something was up as soon as Cordelia entered the office with a box of pastries. Although she’d greeted him with donuts right after he’d returned to work from being in the hospital, Cordelia had largely backed off the last few weeks, returning to her usual level of care. Which was to say that while she cared, she certainly wasn’t bringing him donuts in the morning.
“I’m fine, Cordelia,” Wesley said automatically. He really had no desire to talk about the events of the previous evening.
She ignored him and opened the box. “Jelly?”
Sighing, he picked up a donut and took a bite, hoping that would satisfy her. “I really should get to work on this.”
“Come on, Wes, I know something is up.” Cordelia fixed him with a stare. “It’s all your fault, you know.”
“What’s all my fault?” he asked automatically.
“I might have left you alone once upon a time,” she pointed out. “Then we find out how badly things get screwed up, and we aren’t about to leave you on your own again. So, it’s all your fault.”
Wesley stared down at his pastry; he wasn’t terribly hungry, though it was past lunchtime and he knew he probably should eat. Tuff liked to tease him, saying that she liked to eat too much, and he didn’t like to eat enough. “We’re like Jack Sprat and his wife,” she had joked.
He couldn’t believe he’d lost her.
“Wesley, you need to talk about it,” Cordelia urged gently. “What happened?”
“We went out to dinner last night,” he admitted. “She asked me what was wrong; she said she knew that something had been bothering me. We agreed to go away for the weekend, and I promised I would tell her everything. I meant to do it, Cordy.”
“I know you did,” Cordelia said. “So you had plans…”
“I was going to walk her inside,” he said. “I wanted to make sure she was safe, and we were attacked. Vampires, three of them.”
Cordelia winced. “Was she hurt?”
“No,” Wesley said hoarsely. “But she watched me stake them. We—we went inside, and she asked me what they were. I told her, and she told me I needed to leave and that she needed time.”
Cordelia blinked. “That’s it?”
Wesley stared at her. “What are you talking about? She never wants to see me again!”
“Wesley, she said she needed time,” Cordelia said. “If she never wanted to see you again, that’s what she would have said. She was probably just in shock.”
Wesley shook his head. “You didn’t see her face, Cordelia,” he argued. “She was upset. She must hate me now. I betrayed her. I lied to her, and—”
“Wes, shut up,” Cordelia ordered affectionately. “Trust me. She was upset, but I don’t think it would be possible for her to hate you. You didn’t betray her; you saved her life. You need to go talk to her.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Wesley said. “I don’t want to crowd her.”
Cordelia sighed. “Wes, I think I have a pretty good idea of what kind of person Tuff is. If you’re crowding her, she’ll let you know. Go talk to her.”
Wesley wanted to believe Cordelia. He wanted to believe that it was the shock of the moment that had her ordering him out, rather than a result of her deciding that she couldn’t be around him any longer.
Cordelia took the donut out of his hand and looked him straight in the eyes. “Go.”
Wesley nearly turned around and left when he reached her apartment building. Perhaps he should have picked up some flowers before just showing up on her doorstep. Or maybe he should have called first.
He looked at the clock on the dash and sighed. He’d driven around for the last couple of hours after realizing that Tuff would most likely still be at work. If she’d come straight home from the hospital, she would be there by now. Wesley caught sight of her truck parked where she normally left it, and he knew he couldn’t put this off any longer.
Taking a deep breath, he got out of the SUV, heading towards the secure entrance, hoping that Tuff would buzz him in and hear him out, at least. As he approached the building, however, one of the other residents was coming out; Wesley still had his keys in his hand, and the woman gave him a smile and held the door open for him. He supposed he’d been there often enough recently to look vaguely familiar, and if not, it was a big building.
Of course, that didn’t make him feel terribly happy about the security.
Wesley took the stairs two at a time, wanting to get this confrontation over with. He would talk to her, and Tuff would decide that she wanted nothing to do with him, and then he would move on with his life. He’d done it before, after all. There was nothing to say that he couldn’t do it again.
He froze when he reached her door out of a different sort of fear. It was slightly ajar, and Tuff was a good L.A. girl; she was religious about locking up after herself. Wesley pushed the door open farther, calling, “Tuff?”
Entering the apartment, he could see signs of a struggle. Her favorite vase lay broken on the floor, shards everywhere. One of her kitchen chairs was overturned, and he could see a small trace of blood on the floor nearby.
“No,” he whispered, feeling panic begin to clutch at his heart; he hadn’t been quite this scared since he’d held Fred’s trembling body as Illyria took over, knowing that there was nothing he could do to save her.
Wesley’s eyes burned. There was nothing stopping him from saving Tuff.
“Let me tell you the secret that has led me to my goal: my strength lies solely in my tenacity.” ~Louis Pasteur
Tuff glared at the woman who stood in front of her; she was too angry to be scared right now, and she was hanging onto that fury with every ounce of strength she had. Instinctively she knew that if she let go, if she allowed herself to feel the fear that threatened, she would be paralyzed. Instead, Tuff focused on her outrage, on the fact that these people had barged into her home, had managed to kidnap her in broad daylight, and no one had done anything.
“So, you’re the woman who’s been on Wesley’s mind.” The woman was wearing an immaculate gray suit, her hair was perfect, and she oozed chic sensuality.
Tuff hated her already.
“What do you want?” she gritted out.
The woman smiled at her, and Tuff was reminded of one of the girls she’d gone to high school with—the girl who smiled just like that before she verbally gutted you. “I want to know what it is that Wesley Wyndam-Pryce is hiding. He seemed very interested in keeping you safe; I wanted to see what he’d do to keep you alive.”
Tuff’s eyes narrowed. If they hadn’t handcuffed her hands behind her, she would have decked the bitch by now. She’d put up a pretty good fight when the three men had broken into her apartment, even if she had wimped out with the vampires the previous night; of course, that meant that they weren’t going to trust her to sit quietly on her own. Just as soon as she got free, though, she’d show them that they’d messed with the wrong woman.
“Wesley isn’t going to do anything for you,” Tuff said. “Last I heard, the good guys didn’t negotiate with evil bitches.”
The woman smiled as though she’d just been complemented; as far as Tuff knew, she had been. “I think he will. The good guys never let the innocents suffer. Given the choice of watching you die and giving me what I want, I think he’ll give me what I want.” She walked over to the door of the small, bare room. “We’ll just see how long it takes him to figure out you’ve gone missing. I’ve got all the time in the world.” She left, the guard who had accompanied her following closely.
Tuff watched the door close and then cursed, taking deep breaths to fight down the fear. She had no doubt that Wesley would find her; she was equally sure that he would find a way to save her. If he could fight off the monsters she’d seen last night, he could beat some crazy woman.
The only problem was that Tuff had tossed him out the night before, and he might not realize that she was missing for quite a while, if he waited for her to call him. Her dad might raise an alarm, but she had the tendency to retreat from the world to lick her wounds when a relationship ended, so he might not try to contact her until Monday, when she was supposed to show up for work.
It was Friday evening; Tuff had no desire to be stuck here for the next two days.
She wondered if there was any way she could get her hands in front of her body, since they were behind her back. Tuff stood up from the chair they’d forced her to sit on and walked over to the single window; it appeared as though they were in an empty apartment of some kind, or maybe a house. Tuff couldn’t see anything except a square of sky and more featureless buildings, which told her nothing about their location.
Sitting down on the floor, Tuff tried to get her hands in front of her but gave up after nearly pulling her shoulder out of its socket. It was a lot harder than it looked on TV, that was for sure, and she wasn’t nearly as fit as most of those actors and actresses who made it look so easy. Either that, or they knew a trick she didn’t.
For one moment, Tuff let the fear take her, and then she took a deep breath. She was going to survive this; she liked life way too much to let some bitch in an expensive suit take it from her.
Lilah hadn’t expected the woman to be quite so tough. Tiffany Myers certainly didn’t act like some innocent who had no concept of the darker side of life. She didn’t act like a Tiffany either; Lilah had expected crying, or possibly demands for release. Maybe threats that her father would be looking for her.
The Vice President of Special Projects didn’t have any illusions about what she was going to have to do. After Wesley had confronted her in her office, Lilah had known that she needed to find something to keep him busy, while at the same time getting the information she desired. She had the gut feeling that all of this centered in the ex-Watcher, and if she could just get into his head, Lilah would have all the information she needed to get Connor.
After their confrontation, Wesley had attached himself to the woman’s side, and it had been impossible to snatch the bait she wanted to use. Lilah hadn’t sent the vampires, but the man she’d hired to watch the woman had seen the whole thing, including Wesley leaving the building immediately after seeing her upstairs; it had taken her a few hours to get everything set up, and then she’d sent the team in to grab the woman.
The plan was really fairly simple. Wesley would come after his girlfriend; even if he wasn’t in love with her, he was one of the good guys, and he wouldn’t allow her to get hurt because of her involvement with him. Lilah would be waiting, and she would have a Briklin demon with her. The Briklin would suck his mind dry, she would dispose of his body as well as his girlfriend’s, and she’d make it look like a murder-suicide.
Armed with the information from Wesley’s brain, and with Angel’s team in shambles over Wesley’s death and the publicity she would make sure it received, Lilah would have no trouble grabbing both Connor and the promotion she was angling for.
Particularly since Wesley was going to find it very difficult to get help from anyone else, given how busy they were going to be.
Wesley cursed a blue streak when the traffic slowed once again. He’d thought he’d left his magic supplies at his apartment, but he’d forgotten that he’d moved most of that to the hotel. Even though he was usually the one spending the night at Tuff’s, rather than the other way around, Wesley hadn’t wanted to risk her coming across his occult supplies.
Unfortunately, that meant that he’d wasted a trip to his place when he could have gone straight to the Hyperion.
He finally got around the car accident that was slowing traffic so badly and stepped on the gas, keeping his speed just a little over the legal limit. With the way his luck had been lately, he’d end up getting pulled over if he went too fast.
Pulling up into his usual spot in front of the hotel, Wesley hit the ground at a run, rushing inside the front doors.
“Wes?” Cordelia called, surprise in her voice. “I thought you were going to see Tuff. Didn’t you—”
“She wasn’t there,” he replied brusquely. “Someone took her.”
Angel came out of the office with Connor in his arms. “What?”
“I think Wolfram and Hart is responsible, probably Lilah Morgan. She wants what I have,” Wesley said grimly. “I need to do a locator spell.”
Gunn and Fred came in through the back. “A locator spell?” Gunn asked. “I didn’t know you could do one of those.”
“I can now,” Wesley said. “And I don’t have time to waste on more mundane methods of locating her.”
“We’ll help,” Angel announced. “I can call Lorne; maybe he’ll stay with Connor tonight.”
“You’re going to have to call Lorne, but I don’t think we can do anything about Tuff,” Cordelia said. “We’ve got a swarm of demons in a park, heading for a Girl Scout troop. I think it’s going to take all of us to deal with.”
Angel looked between his girlfriend and his best friend. “How long do we have?”
“Probably just enough time to get Lorne here,” Cordelia replied, meeting Wesley’s eyes. “I’m sorry, Wes, but—”
“She’s just one person,” Wesley filled in. “I can’t wait, though. Unless—” He swallowed hard. “Do you need me?” He couldn’t spare the time; even if Lilah hadn’t harmed Tuff, she would be frightened. Wesley needed to find her with a ferocity that alarmed him.
Cordy shook her head. “No, but you shouldn’t go by yourself, Wes.”
“It’s gotta be a trap, man,” Gunn added. “You’ll be giving them exactly what they want.”
“How can I do less?” Wesley demanded. “I got her into this.” If only he hadn’t continued to go out with her, knowing where it would lead; if only he’d ignored her order for him to leave last night and stayed, knowing what Lilah had threatened.
Angel put the phone down. “Lorne’s on his way now; he should be here in a few minutes. He said something about having a hunch we’d need him tonight.” Angel jiggled Connor a little as he started to fuss, sensing the tension. “Are you sure you can’t wait, Wes?”
Wesley shook his head. “You’d do the same.”
Angel nodded, acknowledging the truth of that statement. “Be careful. We’ll wrap this up as soon as we can.”
Wesley didn’t reply to that; his safety meant nothing if he couldn’t save Tuff.
It had only been a few weeks since Lorne had seen Wesley; the last time he’d stopped by to see the others and check in on Connor, the man had been out with his new girl. She’d obviously been good for him, because the cloud of despair that had followed him constantly was gone.
Of course, the worried vibes coming off him were overwhelming.
The ex-Watcher was finishing the set-up for the locator spell, and he sat down on the floor of the lobby with the map in front of him. Connor was asleep in Lorne’s arms, and he envied the baby’s ability to escape from the world. Lorne thought about his life before meeting Angel a little wistfully; he’d still had problems, but they had been minor in comparison to flying fiery barrels, gangs of gunmen, and babies.
Lorne glanced down at Connor. Well, the baby wasn’t so bad.
Wesley didn’t even look up as he began the chant, his voice steady and sure. The demon happened to know that locator spells didn’t require a lot of power, unless you were doing some long-distance work; they did require a great deal of focus, however, and Lorne had to wonder how Wesley was managing that with the waves of anxiety he was emitting.
The glowing point of light formed over the map and then began traveling east, soon stopping to hover over a particular point that Wesley noted before he spoke the words ending the spell. He stood, heading over to the computer and beginning to type quickly. “What are you doing?” Lorne asked.
“I’m doing a search on the properties Wolfram and Hart owns in the South Gate area,” Wesley replied. “I’ve narrowed it down, but the spell isn’t exact, and I’d like a street address.”
“Then what?” Lorne asked bluntly. “Walk in with guns blazing?”
“Do you have a better idea?” Wesley didn’t look up from the screen. “I’m not leaving Tuff in their hands any longer than I have to.”
Lorne sighed. “At least give me the address. Angel said he’d call when they were done, and they can join you there. Remember what happened the last time you rushed in?”
“I remember,” Wesley said. “I also recall what it feels like to lose someone I care about. I won’t let it happen again.” He found the list he was looking for in the files. Ever since they’d tried to find Drusilla using this method, Wesley had been keeping a list of Wolfram & Hart’s properties, updating it whenever he could manage to do so. He’d asked Cordelia to work on it just last week; although he hadn’t known that the law firm would try something like this, Wesley had wanted to be prepared for every contingency.
There were three properties owned by the firm in that general area, and Wesley didn’t know what to do other than go to each location and watch for suspicious activity. All of the residences were grouped closely together, so at least he wouldn’t have much travel time once he hit the first one.
Wesley scribbled down the three addressed and tucked the piece of paper in his pocket, then made a copy for Lorne. “I’ll call when I identify the exact location,” he said. “Tell Angel that I’m visiting them in that order, so if he doesn’t hear from me, he’ll know where to start looking.”
Lorne took the piece of paper reluctantly. “Try not to do anything stupid.”
Wesley didn’t reply to that, and Lorne wondered if his refusal to promise meant anything.
Tuff was actually pretty proud of herself; not only had she (mostly) kept her cool, she’d also successfully negotiated a trip to the bathroom and managed to get her hands in front of her. She didn’t have any misconceptions about their intentions towards her, however; in the movies, the bad guys always planned on killing the hostages.
She was pretty sure that the only reason they’d grabbed her was as bait for Wesley; she had no idea why they’d sent a man in to stare at her for a few minutes then report that she didn’t know anything, but it had seemed to piss the woman off for some reason. “Ms. Morgan” was what they called her, with a great deal of deference.
With so much time to think about things, Tuff had been weighing her options for when she got out of this mess; she wouldn’t allow herself to doubt that she would. If this was going to be how it was, maybe it would be better for her not to see Wesley; as much as she liked him—loved him—this wasn’t what she’d signed up for. Vampires, evil lawyers, kidnapping: it was a lot to deal with.
On the other hand, Tuff could honestly say that she’d never felt for anyone what she felt for him. He was smart and sweet and really, really hot. All in all, his secret life was a lot more compatible with her lifestyle than her first boyfriend’s. Of course, he’d broken up with her because he was gay, so that wasn’t saying much.
Up until now, Tuff never would have guessed the true nature of Wesley’s work; other than the vampires the other night, and the kidnapping, his fighting the monsters hadn’t truly affected her.
And Tuff’s rather vivid imagination could come up with all manner of scenarios where she’d be put in danger even if Wesley’s foes had been human, or un-supernatural, at least.
Just then, the door burst open and Wesley appeared. “Are you okay?” he demanded immediately.
“I’m fine,” she assured him. “There were at least two guards and a woman. Did you—”
“The guards are taken care of,” he said. “I didn’t see a woman.” Wesley caught sight of the handcuffs and grimaced. “I’ll be right back.” He left the room and came back shortly with a key.
Tuff breathed a sigh of relief once he’d unlocked the cuffs. “How did you find me?”
“I’ll explain later,” he promised. “We should get out of here.”
She frowned, realizing that it was only Wesley, and that none of his friends were with him. “You came alone?”
“The others had an emergency to take care of,” he explained. “I didn’t want to wait.”
Tuff didn’t like the sound of that. If it was just Wesley and her—and a fat lot of help she’d be—it had been too easy. She was pretty sure that she’d seen at least five different men, which led her to wonder where the others were—not to mention where Ms. Morgan was hiding. “Okay,” she said, swallowing her fears. It was Wesley’s job to get her out of there; she just had to trust that he knew what he was doing.
He led her through the small condo towards the door, and Tuff began to think that they might actually make it. Wesley pulled a gun out of the holster under his jacket, taking her hand in his free one as they approached the exit. The door was ajar, and he poked his head out cautiously.
The sound of a pistol being cocked echoed loudly in the silence.
Wesley kept her behind him as he retreated into the condo, his hands raised, a well-built man holding the gun firmly to his forehead.
“How nice of you to join us,” Ms. Morgan said as she followed the guard into the apartment, a second man and a shrouded creature entering behind her. “It’s about time. I was expecting you hours ago.”
“My invitation must have gotten lost in the mail,” Wesley said as the first guard disarmed him.
Tuff was amazed that Wesley’s voice was so steady and cold; how he maintained his cool while he had a gun to his head was beyond her, and the woman seemed similarly impressed. “You know, I was wrong about you,” she commented. “I expected you to be a little easier to intimidate.”
“You don’t know me very well,” Wesley replied. “Let her go. You have what you want now, Lilah.”
“I don’t think I do,” Lilah responded. “Grab her.”
Given the fact that the second man who had followed the lawyer in had a gun—a really big one, in her opinion—she didn’t put up a struggle. Besides, she wasn’t going to do anything to get Wesley killed. She could see the fear and anger in his eyes, and she knew that Wesley’s concern was for her, rather than for himself.
“You have something I want,” Lilah said. “I asked you nicely, but you were the one who wanted to do this the hard way. Just think how much easier this would have been if you had told me what I wanted to know.”
Wesley glared at her. “I already gave you my answer; I have no intention of changing my mind now.”
Lilah gave him a pleased smile. “That’s what I thought you’d say.”
Tuff had no idea what they were talking about, but she was certain that the thing that pushed its hood back wasn’t human; the grayish skin and strange bone-structure gave that much away. She swallowed her scream as it turned hungry eyes on Wesley. Maybe she wouldn’t have been quite so scared, but she could see the sheer terror in Wesley’s eyes; since he hadn’t exhibited that level of fear until now, Tuff knew that this was going to be bad.
“I see you know what my friend is,” Lilah said.
Wesley’s jaw tightened. “I do. Let her go, Lilah. You’ll get what you want from me; she doesn’t need to be a part of this.”
“She’s already a part of this,” Lilah replied. “You know I can’t let her go now.”
“Tuff won’t go to the police,” Wesley stated. “She’s smarter than that.”
Lilah raised an eyebrow. “I can’t take the chance. Besides, you’re not going to be in any shape to care very soon.” She turned to the creature. “Do it.”
Tuff began to struggle against the man’s hold. “No!” she called out, not knowing what the thing was going to do, but certain that she didn’t want it to happen. Wesley’s eyes met hers for a brief moment, and she could see the apology there.
Then the creature touched him, and he screamed in pain. Fear and anguish twisted Tuff’s stomach as she watched Wesley’s body spasm; whatever the thing was doing, it looked like it was killing him. “No!” she screamed.
Suddenly, a bright light filled the room, and the man holding Tuff released her. She threw an arm up over her face, dropping it only when the light had faded. The creature was gone; there was only a black mark on the floor where it had been. Lilah, the two guards, and Wesley were all slumped on the floor, apparently unconscious.
Tuff didn’t hesitate, moving to kneel beside Wesley’s still body. “Wesley?” she murmured, checking for a pulse with trembling fingers. His pulse was fast, but steady, and Tuff breathed a sigh of relief. She glanced around the room, knowing that they needed to get out of there, but she didn’t have a prayer of moving him by herself.
She searched his pockets, finding his cell phone and quickly searching the phone book for the entry marked, “Angel.” Saying a quick prayer, hoping that her luck had changed, she hit the call button. Tuff recognized the gruff voice immediately. “Angel, it’s Tuff.”
“Where’s Wesley?” he demanded.
“He’s with me, but he got knocked out,” Tuff said, feeling the tears threatening. Sniffing impatiently, she tried to force the tears back.
“Are you okay?” Angel asked, a little more gently.
Tuff let out a teary laugh. “Yes, I think so, but Wesley—I don’t know what they did to him.”
“Just stay there,” he said. “We’ll come find you. We’re already on our way.”
“Okay,” she promised, putting the phone in her own pocket when Angel ended the call. Tuff rose shakily, then proceeded to gather up all the weapons in the room, hanging on to one gun awkwardly and putting the other two next to her on the floor where she sat next to Wesley’s still body. Putting her hand on his chest so she could feel him breathe and know that he was still alive, she waited for the cavalry to come.
“For one human being to love another: that is perhaps the most difficult of our tasks; the ultimate, the last test and proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation.” ~ Rainer Maria Rilke
Wesley awoke slowly, his eyes blinking open slowly to see two pairs of dark eyes watching him worriedly. He was most concerned for Tuff, however. “Are you—”
“I’m fine,” she replied, touching his forehead hesitantly, then withdrawing. “I need to make a phone call.”
She disappeared from view, and Wesley looked around, realizing that he was in his own bedroom. “How did I get here?” he asked Angel.
“Tuff called me,” the vampire explained. “We were on our way when she phoned, and we drove you back here. After she told us what happened, we didn’t think the hospital would be your best option.”
“No,” Wesley agreed, pushing himself into a sitting position with some difficulty. He still felt weak from the Briklin’s onslaught, and he had no idea how he’d managed to survive. The demons fed on emotions and memories, and he remembered feeling its touch before losing consciousness from the resulting pain.
He still couldn’t believe he’d been stupid enough to get caught; Wesley had known what Lilah’s intentions were. If he’d waited for Angel and the others, he wouldn’t have risked Tuff being killed. “What happened?” he asked quietly.
“We were hoping you could tell us,” Angel replied. “Tuff said some demon touched you, and she thought you were dying. The next thing she knew, there was a bright light in the room and everyone was unconscious except for her.”
“I don’t know what exactly happened; if I had to guess, I would say that the Powers want to be sure that my knowledge regarding the future stays right where it is, and they’ve taken steps to ensure that it does.” He swung his legs over the side of the bed, moving slowly, though he otherwise felt fine. “I should speak with Tuff. I’m sure—”
“She said to tell you she was going to head home,” Cordelia said, hearing the last part of his sentence as she stuck her head through the doorway. “Tuff said she was exhausted, and that she’d call tomorrow.” Cordelia was looking at him with a great deal of sympathy, which told Wesley everything he needed to know.
If Tuff had had her doubts before this fiasco, there was certainly no way she’d want to be with him now.
“Of course,” Wesley replied with a strained smile, glancing at the clock. The sun would be coming up soon, and he sighed. “You’d better get back to the hotel before sunrise,” he told Angel. “There’s no point in staying.”
“Are you sure?” Angel asked. “Fred and Gunn are watching Connor, Wes. We can stay as long as you need us.”
“I’m quite sure. I think I’m just going to get cleaned up and then sleep a while longer.” Wesley managed to make his voice sound firm.
“If you’re sure you’ll be okay,” Cordelia said, leaning into Angel when the vampire came to stand next to her.
If anything, that only helped cement Wesley’s desires; as glad as he was for his friends, he didn’t think he could stand to be around a happy couple right now. “I’ll be fine.”
They left then, and Wesley buried his face in his hands. He knew that he might have handled things better. He should have made certain that Lilah couldn’t harm Tuff; he should have waited for Angel and the others. His fear had clouded his mind, however, preventing him from thinking straight.
Hell, he’d known he was walking into a trap, and he’d done it anyway, putting himself exactly where Lilah Morgan had wanted him. Wesley hadn’t even asked Angel what had happened to the lawyer or the guards; he assumed that they hadn’t presented an obstacle to their leaving, but whether that was because they were dead or merely incapacitated, he wasn’t sure.
He rose slowly from the bed, making his way to the bathroom, feeling the familiar weight of grief. When he’d lost Fred, Wesley had mourned for lost opportunities he’d never have a chance to seize; in losing Tuff, he knew he would mourn both the present and the future. He knew exactly what he’d be giving up.
Too late, Wesley had realized that he loved her.
Perhaps it was better this way. She was certainly safer without him in her life. He was a fool to have allowed himself to be with her in the first place, of that much he was certain.
He showered, then dressed; although he was still exhausted, and felt slightly hung over from the Briklin’s touch, Wesley didn’t think he’d sleep. He didn’t think he wanted to sleep, not wanting to face the dreams that might be waiting for him.
Instead, Wesley pulled out the book he’d avoided looking at for weeks now. There had never been the time to begin his research, what with trying to anchor Angel’s soul and dealing with Wolfram & Hart. He opened the heavy tome and began reading, scanning the pages to find some reference to what he was presently dealing with.
There seemed to be no answers; the book was filled with vague references to sacrifices and chosen warriors that were no help at all. Wesley wanted to know what they’d done to him, and what he could expect in the future.
Then, about halfway through, Wesley found a reference to a spell that could be done to call the Powers—or at least one of their intermediaries. The spell was remarkably similar to the one he’d performed to go back in time, which was probably why he’d managed to call one of the Powers That Be rather than the demon or demi-god he’d been expecting.
It had apparently decided to answer his incomplete call for reasons of its own.
This spell was simpler, and could be performed by anyone, although there was no guarantee that anything would respond. Wesley had everything he needed to attempt the spell now; perhaps he would get the answers he wanted.
Or maybe it would kill him for his impertinence. Wesley didn’t know that he cared.
He cleared the floor in his small living area, pushing everything back against the wall and sprinkling the salt for a binding circle. Measuring the herbs with precision, Wesley cut the palm of his hand again, letting the blood drip down into the small bowl over the rest of the ingredients.
Reading from the text, he spoke the words of the spell with a steady voice, feeling a sense of disappointment when nothing happened. Last time, there had been light and wind, and the power of the magic had been obvious.
Wesley closed his eyes, taking a deep breath. He’d known it was a long shot; he supposed it shouldn’t be a surprise when it didn’t work.
Then he opened his eyes and nearly fell backwards when he saw what was in front of him.
As far as he could tell, it was the same lovely creature who had come the first time, telling him that he’d been chosen, that he would be its tool. That he would have to lose everything in order to save anything.
“Why did you call again?” it asked. “Have you not saved your friends? The future is open, and hope is secure.”
“You did something to me,” Wesley challenged. “You changed me.”
“We protected you,” it replied, its voice musical, giving the air of laughter. “Your knowledge of the future must be protected. They will not bother you again; the woman will not remember what she wanted with you. Her ambitions have been redirected.”
Wesley swallowed hard, closing his eyes against its brilliance. “I see. What do you still want with me?”
Now the creature did laugh, sounding like chimes, and Wesley felt its touch on his forehead. “Be well, mortal. You have done all we required. You have restored the balance; be at peace, and use your gifts well and wisely.”
This time the wind was a spring breeze caressing his face. When Wesley opened his eyes again, he saw Tuff standing in front of him. Her eyes were wide as she stared at the spot where the creature had been floating.
“Tuff,” Wesley breathed. Her timing really couldn’t be worse.
“I wanted to talk to you,” she said faintly. “Your door was open, so I—” She took a deep breath. “Will you please tell me what that was?”
Lilah woke with a horrible headache, and with no idea how she had gotten where she was. It had something to do with Wesley Wyndam-Pryce—she’d needed information from him, but…
She shook her head. That couldn’t be right. Wesley didn’t know anything; he’d come to her office the previous week, and she’d had him scanned. The psychics hadn’t sensed anything special about him. Lilah was wasting her time when she ought to be ensuring that her position within Wolfram & Hart was secure.
Of course, it would be stupid to go after Angel’s son now; not only would the vampire come after her with a vengeance, but what could you do with a baby, anyway? It made a lot more sense to let Angel raise the brat and try again later, when he was older. Who knew? She might even be able to discover some way of corrupting him, some way to bring the kid over to their side.
Lilah looked around the small room, seeing the still forms of the guards on the floor as she pushed herself up. She didn’t bother checking to see if they were still alive; if they weren’t dead, they were definitely fired. It had been their job to make sure something like this didn’t happen, and they’d failed miserably.
She wasn’t quite sure what it was that they were supposed to be doing, but that she wasn’t going to reveal. That would be a show of weakness.
Lilah pulled out her cell phone and called a cab, recognizing her location as one of the properties owned by Wolfram & Hart. Apparently, she’d been here on company business. While it bothered her not to remember, Lilah shoved the irritation aside; she could figure it out later, after she’d had a chance to change clothes. She always kept notes about her appointments at home, where no one else would be able to find them.
After all, a smart woman made sure she covered her ass, and that the means to do so didn’t fall into the wrong hands.
By the time the taxi pulled up in front of the condominium, Lilah had already dismissed the odd circumstances surrounding her awakening, too busy plotting her next move.
One thing was for sure: she had to get rid of Linwood and Gavin.
“So that’s it?” Gunn asked, absent-mindedly tickling Connor until he giggled. “Wes glows and the bad guys get knocked out?”
“Something like that,” Angel replied. He was itching to hold his son, but he knew that the others liked to have their turns. Connor definitely wasn’t being shorted on love.
Fred grimaced. “And he and Tuff aren’t together anymore?”
“That’s what it looked like.” Cordelia leaned back into Angel’s chest, feeling horrible for her friend. It really wasn’t fair; they’d all liked Tuff, and she was great for Wesley. Unfortunately, not everyone could deal with the kind of life they led. “She was pretty quiet when she left; I think she was still in shock.”
“You can’t blame her there,” Gunn said. “First time I saw a vamp, I about wet myself.”
Fred nodded. “Maybe one of us should talk to her. I mean, I could. I know what it’s like to have your normal life turned upside down.”
“Leave it alone,” Angel said quietly. “Wesley and Tuff have to work things out on their own. He doesn’t need us interfering.”
“It wouldn’t be interfering if we helped,” Fred said.
Cordelia shook her head. “Give it a couple of days,” she advised. “If they haven’t worked things out by then, we can think about meddling.”
There wasn’t much to say after that, and Fred and Gunn soon left to fill Fred’s seemingly-bottomless stomach. Connor was gurgling happily from his swinging chair in Angel’s suite, and Angel settled down on the bed with Cordelia.
Cordelia glanced over at Angel. “It’s going to be bad, isn’t it?”
“It could be.” Angel sighed. “I don’t know, Cordy. You’re probably the person closest to him.”
She sighed. “Two weeks ago, I would have told you that there was no way Wesley would go back to wishing he was dead. Today, I’m not so sure about that.”
Angel tugged her closer. “When are you going to move in here?” he asked, deliberately changing the subject.
“I can’t leave Dennis,” she pointed out. “That wouldn’t be fair to him.”
“But if we could find someone else to move in?” Angel asked. “I’m sure there would be somebody who would be happy with a ghost for a roommate.”
Cordelia wrinkled her nose. “Let me think about it. If we can find someone, and Dennis is okay with it, maybe.”
“You don’t want to move in?” Angel asked, giving her a mock-pout.
“Did I say that?” Cordelia asked. “You have Connor, and I have Dennis. You know I have to take care of him. I feel responsible.” Her expression turned thoughtful. “Wesley said he didn’t know what happened to him in the future. I wonder if Dennis found a decent roommate.”
“Now you don’t have to worry about it,” Angel pointed out. “You can find one for him.”
“Mmm,” Cordelia replied, enjoying Angel’s lips on hers. Maybe that’s what she could do to thank Wesley for anchoring Angel’s soul—find some way to convince Tuff to give him a second chance. “We should wait until Connor goes to sleep,” she reminded him.
With one last kiss, Angel broke off, laying back on the bed, Cordelia’s head resting on his shoulder. As they both lay in contented silence, he couldn’t help but wonder what the future held; Angel couldn’t help but think it looked pretty bright for the three of them.
Wesley stared at her, his heart in his throat. “Tuff—”
“What was it?” she asked, stepping the rest of the way inside his apartment and closing the door behind her. “I mean, it looked kind of like an angel, or what I think of when I think of an angel. Are there angels?”
“I don’t know,” he admitted. “It was—it was a being.”
“A good one?”
“I think so.” Wesley swallowed. “I was trying to get some answers about what happened. I thought—I thought you went home.”
“I did,” Tuff replied. “I had to call my dad and let him know I was okay, and I wanted to get out of those clothes.”
“Oh. Right.” Wesley looked away from her, and the clock caught his eye. Hours had passed while he’d tried communicating with the Powers, though it had felt like only moments. “You—did you tell your dad about what happened?”
“Well, I had to tell him something,” Tuff replied. “After I called in sick to work on Friday, he threatened to come over. I told him we’d been mugged, and that you took care of things.”
“I’m sorry,” Wesley said, his voice rough. “I never meant for you to get hurt.”
“I didn’t get hurt.” Tuff took a step closer. “You were the one who—what did that thing do to you?”
“It sucks a person’s mind dry,” Wesley replied. “It’s a bit painful.”
“And then what happened?” she asked.
“I—it’s a long story.”
Wesley realized that his breathing was ragged. “Are you staying?”
Tuff looked at him steadily. “Do you want me to? I ran away the other night; I’m not much help in a fight.”
“I don’t care about that,” Wesley said, somewhat incredulously. “I’d prefer you stay out of the fighting, if you don’t mind.”
“Not at all.” She took a step closer. “So, are you going to tell me everything?”
Wesley reached out and caught one of her curls in his fingers, feeling the dampness of her hair. “Yes.”
It took him hours of explanation; Tuff had a hundred questions, and she didn’t hesitate to interrupt him when she found something confusing. They ordered pizza when she insisted they eat. When he’d told her about losing Fred, about wanting to die, she had stopped his words with a kiss that seemed endless.
Now they lay in his bed, sticky limbs tangled together, his head on her full breasts. Wesley could feel her fingers combing through his hair. “So let me get this straight,” she said. “You kidnapped Connor to save him, and that’s what started this whole thing. That’s what you came back to fix.”
Wesley gave a grunt of assent. He’d talked himself out, and he was too comfortable to move, much less to speak.
“And you were in love with Fred.” Her hand stopped moving through his hair. “It is ‘were,’ right?”
“It’s past tense,” he assured her. “She’s in love with Gunn, and in this world, she might always be.”
“And Cordelia was dead,” Tuff continued, still trying to wrap her mind around Wesley’s story. It sounded like a science-fiction novel, and not a particularly good one; the good ones had happy endings, in her opinion.
Okay, so maybe it was a good one.
“What about that woman?” Tuff asked, her voice dripping with disdain.
That was the one thing that Wesley had left out; somehow, he didn’t think it was a great idea to tell Tuff he’d had an affair with the woman who had kidnapped her and nearly killed them both. He wondered about that; she’d had something of a fixation on him in that other future, too.
“She died,” Wesley said softly. “She tried to help in the end.”
Tuff let out a harsh breath. “I don’t care. I want to hold a grudge. She almost killed you!”
She sounded so outraged that Wesley couldn’t help but chuckle. “She nearly killed you, too,” he pointed out.
“I was way more worried about you right then,” Tuff replied. Wesley fell silent, stiffening slightly. Tuff went back to stroking his hair, sensing the tension. “What is it?”
“I was just wondering if this was goodbye.”
“I was thinking it seemed more like hello.”
“After everything, I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t want to be with me,” he said softly. “I put you in danger. I don’t think it will happen again, but I can’t promise you that it won’t.”
Tuff sighed. “No, I guess you can’t.” She pushed at Wesley until he moved off of her, and she laid down on her side so she could look him in the eyes. “I’m sorry I kicked you out the other night.”
“You had every reason—” he began.
“It wasn’t just about the fact that they were vampires,” Tuff said quietly. “That was bad, don’t get me wrong, and I’m still just a little freaked out about the fact that the monsters under the bed are real, but… It was more about the fact that you’re a hero.”
“No, I’m not,” Wesley replied, frowning. “I’m just a man trying to do what’s right. That’s all. There’s nothing especially heroic about that.”
She smiled, touching his face. “We can argue about that later. The fact is that you’re the hero, and I’m not the hero’s girl.” When his face darkened and he pulled back from her, Tuff reached out to grasp his hand. “You don’t get it, Wes. I’m not the type guys like you normally go for.”
Wesley shook his head. “I don’t understand.”
“I’m not very brave,” Tuff said, listing off the reasons as she saw them. “While I can take care of myself, I’m not a fighter. I completely froze when those vampires attacked us. As soon as you left that night, I burst into tears, and I was crying when Angel showed up, too.” She sighed. “I can’t figure out what you could possibly see in me. Before I knew you were a hero, I just figured that I got lucky somehow, and after that, I thought it was only a matter of time before you decided you didn’t need me holding you back.”
Wesley’s face had cleared as she spoke, and when she finished, he chuckled ruefully. “Remind me to argue with you about that later.”
“Why you think you’re not the type ‘heroes’ normally go for,” Wesley replied. “As to holding me back, that couldn’t be further from the truth. You make me want to press on.”
Tuff blinked. That was about the nicest thing anyone had ever said to her. “Oh.”
“Why did you come back?” Wesley asked gently, tracing patterns on her bare arm.
She smiled with heart-breaking sweetness. “Because I think I love you, and I knew if I walked away without giving it a shot, I’d hate myself for it.”
Wesley felt his own smile growing. “I’m glad you came back, because if you hadn’t, I’d have been tempted to kidnap you myself until I could convince you to give me a chance.”
There wasn’t much to be said after that.
“Whoso loves, believes the impossible.” ~Elizabeth Barrett Browning
“Wesley! Get out here! You have to see this!”
He scrambled out from behind his desk, wondering what the bloody hell Angel was going on about now. He’d been right in the middle of a very tricky sentence, trying to figure out the correct tense for the key verb, and he didn’t appreciate having his concentration interrupted.
Wesley forgot all about his annoyance when he saw the reason for Angel’s shouting, however.
Connor was standing next to the lobby couch, one pudgy fist hanging onto the fabric, a look of great concentration on his face. “Come on, son,” Angel encouraged. “That’s right. You can do it.”
Wesley knew he had a foolish grin on his face as he watched Connor let go of the couch, taking one shaky step, then two, before falling down on his rear end. The little boy looked anxiously between Wesley and Angel, as though to see if he should be hurt, but grinned when he saw their expressions. Connor gave a squeal of delight when Angel swept him up into the air.
“Did you see that?” Angel crowed. “He walked! He took his first steps! Who’s the big boy?” he cooed to Connor, cuddling him to his chest.
Connor wriggled to be let down, eager to try his new talent again. Angel complied, watching in rapt fascination as the boy hauled himself up using the couch once again. “Look at that!” he said, laughing. “And the pediatrician said it was too early!”
Wesley couldn’t reply, struggling against the lump in his throat. It still hit him sometimes—the difference that had been made. Angel was watching his son take his first steps; all was as it should be.
“Wes? You okay?”
Angel’s voice sounded concerned, and Wesley nodded, not wanting to interrupt his friend’s joyous moment. “Of course,” he replied, clearing his throat. “It’s just remarkable, really. Although I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised at Connor’s prowess, considering who his father is.”
Angel beamed. “Yeah, he’s a prodigy, alright.” His face softened. “Thanks, Wes. We wouldn’t be here without you.”
Wesley was spared from having to reply by Cordelia’s sweeping entrance into the hotel. “You know, demons are better mannered than the women at Bloomie’s today. It’s like the word ‘clearance’ sends people into a frenzy.” She dropped her bags and picked Connor up in response to his raised arms and insistent squeals.
“Good thing we were up to the challenge,” Tuff added. “Cordy has a very powerful elbow.”
Cordelia smiled magnanimously. “All for the greater good. Those jeans were made for you.”
Fred set her own bags down on the counter. “I think I prefer dealing with demons,” she commented. “At least you can use a crossbow on them. Where’s Charles?”
“Out running errands,” Wesley replied. “He said something about picking up a few things.”
Fred glanced at Cordelia. “I’d better give him a call. I need him to pick up something for me. Something important,” she stressed, using the tone of voice that all women reserve for delicate issues—and that all men recognize immediately.
“Why don’t you use the phone in the office, then?” Wesley suggested. “You’ll have more privacy.”
“So what had you two grinning like idiots?” Cordelia asked.
Angel beamed. “Connor took his first steps!”
Cordelia glanced at Wesley to get confirmation; when he nodded, she got a disappointed expression on her face. “Darn. I can’t believe I missed it.”
“I think he’s getting the hang of it now,” Wesley said. “I’m sure you can get him to do it again.”
Connor, however, wanted Cordelia to hold him more than he wanted to try for a repeat performance; when she tried to put him down, he clung to her neck insistently. She sighed. “I guess we’ll have to wait until next time.”
Tuff smiled. “My brother’s son was like that. He’d only walk for his mom because he wanted Tony to hold him when he was home.”
“Why don’t you bring out the camera?” Wesley suggested. The little boy loved to pose for the camera, possibly because it put him squarely at the center of attention.
“Great idea, Wes,” Cordy said, heading behind the lobby desk, where they kept the camera.
“We’d better get going,” Tuff said. “I want to get this stuff put away.” She looked over at Wesley. “Are you coming?”
He hesitated, looking back at his office and thinking of the translation he’d been working on before the interruption. “I should really finish—”
“Does it have to be done today?” Tuff asked, knowing exactly which questions to ask at this point.
“No,” Wesley admitted, conceding defeat.
She smiled smugly. “That’s what I thought. See you guys later,” she called cheerfully, handing her bags to Wesley before heading out to his car. “We’re still on for dinner with my parents tomorrow, right?”
“Of course,” he replied. “Although I don’t want them to feel obligated. It’s really no big deal.”
“Wesley, it’s your birthday,” Tuff said, rolling her eyes. They’d been having this same conversation for the last couple of weeks. “It’s a big deal, especially since your parents aren’t around. Besides, they like you.”
“I like them,” he replied. Wesley still wasn’t quite used to the concept of enjoyable dinners with parental figures. Tuff generally had Sunday dinner with her parents at least once a month, and often met them for a meal or drinks in between. Wesley was a frequent addition at this point, but it still seemed odd that they would want to celebrate his birthday, particularly when he knew he’d be lucky to get a card or a phone call from his own parents.
Of course, Tuff had what Fred did—normal parents who cared about their children and their children’s friends.
David and Helen didn’t know anything about his real work; shortly after Wesley had told Tuff everything, they had discussed what, if anything, to tell her parents. She’d been uncomfortable lying to them, even by omission, and Wesley had left it up to her. “They’re your parents,” he’d said. “You have to decide how much you want them to know.”
In the end, she’d told them nothing, explaining to Wesley, “Dad might know. He’s worked in trauma for years, so I’m sure he’s seen some pretty strange things, but he’s never said anything. It just doesn’t seem like a good idea. I’m still not always comfortable knowing.”
Tuff didn’t ask many questions about his work. In many ways, they had gone back to the way things had been before she’d known the truth about the ‘monsters under the bed,’ as she put it. Wesley wasn’t trying to hide anything, however, and there were occasions when she brought it up, but most of the time they ignored it.
He asked her about that once, and she’d replied, “I think about you going out night after night, fighting the monsters, and I’m both proud of you and scared to death. Sometimes it’s easier not thinking about it.”
There were days when Wesley wondered how long this relationship could possibly last. He had a terrible track record where it concerned romantic relationships, and Tuff—while certainly not perfect—was a very good person to have in your corner. They were nearing the six-month mark, and she showed no signs of wanting to leave.
In fact, she seemed interested in sticking around for a very long time to come.
“Cordelia asked if I wanted her apartment today,” Tuff said out of the blue. “She’s been having trouble finding a good roommate for Dennis.”
“Are you going to take her up on it?” Wesley asked.
Tuff shrugged. “I don’t know. I like Dennis a lot, but having my parents over could be a little strange. Besides, I’m not sure that I want to move, even though it’s a beautiful place. I can’t see myself staying there forever.”
“I thought Cordelia had talked to Gunn and Fred about taking over her apartment.”
Tuff suddenly giggled. “She did, and Fred is okay with it, but Gunn finds the idea of a ghost around a little disconcerting. Especially since he and Fred would be sharing a bedroom.”
Wesley chuckled. “I didn’t think Dennis minded when Cordelia has guests over.”
“He doesn’t,” Tuff replied. “Gunn just has issues.”
“And you don’t?”
She shrugged. “Well, it’s not like I would know whether or not he was ‘watching,’ and I’m sure if I asked nicely he’d give me my privacy.” Tuff hesitated. “It’s just—I don’t want kids for a while, but maybe someday, you know? And then that place would definitely be too small, and we’d have to leave Dennis again. I would feel bad.”
Wesley made a noncommittal sound, not knowing exactly how to reply to that. It was too early to be talking about making their relationship permanent, but Tuff had used “we” a number of times in reference to the future, obviously assuming that he would be a part of her life for a long time to come.
Not that he had any problems with that at all.
“Did you see that article in the paper yesterday?” Tuff asked, changing the subject as he pulled up in front of her apartment building.
Wesley frowned. “I’m afraid you’ll have to be a little more specific than that.”
“About that woman?” Tuff was still holding a grudge; she was very good at it.
“Lilah Morgan?” Wesley clarified. “No, I didn’t.”
“She got promoted!” Tuff sounded outraged. “Something about the death of one of the presidents or partners, or whatever. I can never keep corporate structures straight. She had her picture in the paper.”
Wesley raised an eyebrow, wondering if Lilah had decapitated Linwood this time around as well. He wouldn’t be surprised if she had; she’d always had quite a bit of ambition. He and Tuff were lucky that the Powers had decided to channel those energies in a different direction, rather than allowing her to continue in her pursuit of what was in his head; they had been rather clear, however, on their desire not to let that information get into the wrong hands.
He’d noticed over the past months that everyone seemed to be getting fuzzy on the details of what he’d prevented from occurring. They still remembered that he’d been in the future, and that he had risked his life to fix things, but that was about it.
In fact, Wesley found that his own memories seemed less real these days; it was as though he found himself remembering a book he’d once read, or a movie he’d once seen. It was only on days like today, seeing Connor take his first steps, that the reality of it all hit him with renewed impact.
Days like today, Wesley was immeasurably grateful for the second chance he’d been given.
“I’m sure she’ll get what’s coming to her,” Wesley finally said, remembering the contract that bound her to Wolfram & Hart even after death. Maybe he had been willing to sell his soul, but Lilah had actually done it.
Tuff sniffed. “That’s what people always say. I’d really prefer it if she got what’s coming to her now.”
“Vengeful, aren’t we?” Wesley asked, opening her door for her and allowing her to precede him into the apartment.
“Have you forgotten that she tried to kill you?” Tuff asked.
“Hardly.” Wesley sat down on her couch. “Do you need any help?”
She smiled at him. “No, you just sit and relax; I’m going to get into my comfy clothes, and then I’ll start dinner. You hungry?”
“Starving,” he replied, having forgotten to eat lunch in the midst of his research.
“That’s what I thought.” Tuff pressed a brief kiss to his lips. “Call it a slightly early birthday dinner.”
Wesley did as he was told, lying back on the couch and closing his eyes, hearing the sounds of Tuff rustling around her bedroom. He found himself drifting off to sounds of her humming, more content than he’d been for years.
“Is he going to pick it up?” Cordelia asked.
Fred nodded. “Gunn said it was on his way, so he could get it.”
Cordelia started pulling party decorations out of one of her bags, prominently labeled “Bloomingdale’s.” “It’s a good thing Wesley isn’t nosy enough to want to see what we bought.”
“Well, we did go shopping, and Tuff did find a new pair of jeans,” Fred pointed out. “And the crazy shoppers were out in full force.”
“True,” Cordelia replied. “Still, if it had been Angel, he would have wanted to see everything.”
“But I knew what was really in the bags,” Angel pointed out, entering the office with Connor tucked under one arm.
Cordelia gave him a smug smile. “Well, I did pick a little something up for you, but it’ll have to wait until later.” She gave the little boy a significant look. “Much later.”
From the expression on Angel’s face, it was clear that he didn’t particularly care for the thought of waiting. “When are we supposed to call?”
“Tuff said to wait until they’ve eaten first,” Fred replied. “So around seven. No later than that, though; otherwise, Wesley’s going to wonder why dessert’s taking so long.”
“Hey! I got the cake!” Gunn’s voice filtered through the lobby of the hotel.
“Connor took his first steps today,” Angel announced as he came out of the office.
“And you couldn’t have gotten it on camera,” Cordelia said, still miffed that she’d missed it.
Gunn ignored Cordy’s complaint. “Yeah? That’s great! That’s gotta be a new record, right? Nine months?”
“The pediatrician said it was early, but not that early,” Cordelia said. Seeing the look on Angel’s face, she added hastily, “Of course, that doesn’t mean he isn’t a prodigy.”
Fred leaned over the cake, grimacing in dismay. “That’s not right. They spelled ‘Wesley’ wrong.”
“How did they spell it?” Cordelia asked, coming over to look herself.
The cake was simple—white frosting and blue lettering—but sure enough, they’d left out the second “e.” “Just scrape off the last two letters,” Angel suggested.
Cordelia scowled down at the less-than-perfect cake. “Then he’ll know something was wrong with it.”
“It’s not a bad idea,” Gunn said. “Wes isn’t going to care if the cake isn’t perfect, not when he sees the sword Angel got him.”
“Maybe if we’re real careful,” Fred added. “Mom had to do that for me one year when they spelled somethin’ wrong. It wasn’t that bad.”
“Let’s see if we can get it fixed,” Cordelia said, taking the cake back towards the kitchen with Fred following.
“I want to see the new trick,” Gunn said. He knelt on the floor when Angel set Connor down, hanging on to the boy’s hands. “Come on, Connor,” he encouraged. “Come see Uncle Gunn.”
Connor took one shaky step, then two, before wavering heavily. Gunn scooped him up before he could fall, laughing. “Better watch out, Angel. Once he gets going, he’s going to be impossible to keep up with. My cousin’s kid was walking within a week of taking her first step, and she was climbing before too long. Nearly gave my cousin a heart attack when she figured out how to get on top of the fridge.”
Angel swallowed. “The fridge?”
Wesley had absolutely no desire to answer the phone when it rang; a nice dinner and a couple of glasses of wine had him tremendously relaxed. Of course, being with Tuff usually had that effect on him, as well.
“Go ahead and answer it,” Tuff said, amused. “You know they’ll just keep calling if you don’t.”
He sighed and reached for his cell phone. “What?”
“I’m sorry, Wes, but it’s an emergency,” Fred’s voice said apologetically. “Cordy had a vision, and we need you.”
“I’ll be there shortly.” Wesley looked at Tuff with regret. “I’m sorry, sweetheart, but—”
“Say no more,” she replied. “Evil doesn’t rest, even for your birthday. Do you want me to come with you? I don’t mind staying with Connor, in case Angel needs a babysitter.”
“That’s probably not a bad idea,” he acknowledged. “If you don’t mind.”
Tuff shrugged. “Like I’ve said before, I like kids. With any luck, this won’t take long and we can pick up where we left off.”
“With the dishes?” Wesley teased.
She snorted. “If that’s how you really want to spend your evening…”
“The dishes can wait.”
The hotel was dark when they arrived, and Wesley felt a flash of fear. What if something had happened? What if something had come to the Hyperion? He hadn’t been fast enough—he had failed once again, and—
The sudden flare of lights and sound caused Wesley to nearly jump out of his skin and make an aborted attempt to reach for a weapon. Thankfully, he realized what was going on before anyone noticed, and swallowed hard before asking, “What’s this?”
“It’s a surprise birthday party,” Cordelia said, in a tone that plainly said she thought he was being stupid. “I think we managed the surprise part.”
Wesley couldn’t help the pleased grin that formed when he saw the streamers and the cake; although he might have preferred it to be a little less of a surprise, he couldn’t help but appreciate the effort everyone had gone to. He glanced over at Tuff. “Your doing, I presume?”
“I had help,” was all she would say. “Now you know why I didn’t make dessert tonight.”
Wesley was still reeling a couple of hours later, after the cake had been consumed and presents opened. It was Connor’s first run-in with birthday cake, and he’d managed to smear quite a bit over himself, so Angel had taken him upstairs to get cleaned up. Wesley was listening in on the others’ conversation, smiling as Fred regaled Tuff with the story of her parents’ first trip to L.A.
“I have to say, you’re looking a lot happier,” Lorne said, coming over to stand next to Wesley.
Wesley’s eyes were fixed on Tuff, who was listening with wide eyes as Fred told her about splitting open the demon’s head to release the bug demons’ young. “I have good reason to be happy.”
“What happened to being ‘just friends?’” Lorne asked with a smile.
Wesley raised an eyebrow, turning to look at the demon. “She changed my mind.”
“You did good, you know,” Lorne said.
Wesley followed the direction of his gaze and saw Angel coming down the stairs with a cleaned-up Connor. “I suppose I did.”
His eyes widened in alarm as he heard Cordelia say, “Has Wesley ever told you about how we ran into him in L.A. that first time?”
“We really should be going,” he announced. “I’m sure Tuff doesn’t want to hear about that.”
Tuff raised her eyebrows, easily picking up on the panicked note in Wesley’s voice. “I think we have time for one more story.”
Wesley’s eyes narrowed, deciding it might be time to pull out the big guns. “Yes, well, if we have time for that story, then I think we might have time for the story about Cordelia’s run-in with a Brangler demon.”
Cordelia knew exactly what Wesley was talking about, and plastered a big grin on her face. “You know, you two should get going. The night’s still young, and I’m sure you have plans.”
Wesley gave her a smug grin. “Actually, we do. Good night, everyone.”
“We still on for Monday night, Wes?” Gunn asked.
“Absolutely,” Wesley replied. “I have every intention of kicking your arse.”
“You keep dreamin’,” Gunn replied.
The others called out their good nights, and they wandered out into the night air. “What was that about?” Tuff asked.
Wesley flushed slightly. “We’re having a game of Risk.”
Tuff decided that it would be mean to laugh at him on his birthday and stifled her snickers. “You two are just like kids, you know that?”
His expression softened. “Yes, well, it’s been good to have our friendship back.”
Tuff leaned into his side. “Did you have a good time tonight?”
“Yes, thank you.” Wesley leaned down to kiss her. “I think I know who’s responsible for that.”
“You deserved it.” Tuff leaned against Wesley’s SUV, not caring that she was probably getting her new jeans dirty—not when she was kissing him. “So can I ask you a question?” she asked when the kiss broke off momentarily.
“Ask away,” he murmured, nibbling at her ear, thinking that they probably ought to get going. Or perhaps they should go parking again; Tuff had insisted on it a few weeks ago when she’d discovered that he’d never done it.
It was an experience Wesley wouldn’t mind repeating.
“Are you happy to be alive?”
Wesley pulled back, searching her face for a long moment; it wasn’t something he’d thought about, but maybe that was answer enough. “Yes,” he finally answered. “Very much so.” At the unspoken question in her eyes, he added, “Thanks to you.”
It was amazing what a second chance could do for a person.