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Childish Things

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One's friends are that part of the human race with which one can be human.
George Santayana

Angel could hear them down in the lobby of the Hyperion. Wesley and Cordelia were bickering mildly about something. Angel effortlessly tuned them in; his hearing able to pick up even their distant voices. The coffee? Cordelia had forgotten to buy filters again. The coffee tasted bitter. Coffee was meant to be bitter.

Well, I want tea.

You’re such an old woman, Wesley.

Coming from a woman isn’t that an odd choice of insult? Does that mean you actually consider yours the inferior gender? Ow! Ow! Cordelia!

In the past, before Angel had gone darkside, fired them all, then been forced to wheedle his way back into their affections, that would have been the point when Wesley would have called out to Angel for arbitration. He would have been hearing that one word suits all occasions ‘An-gel!’ that meant ‘Tell her!’ or ‘Tell him!’ or ‘Make them stop!’ which really made it clear how long Wesley had been in the kind of institutions where there was always a prefect or a teacher to complain to about someone being mean to you. The wonder was that he didn't still raise his hand before answering a question.

In the past, Angel had tried not to be play too much into the parental dynamic with Wesley, trying to be slightly stern and aloof when he went all whiney kid on him, even though secretly he thought it was cute, because Wesley really was too old for that act. Unfortunately, there was a part of him that really liked Cordelia, Gunn, and Wesley acting like his kids and him having to sigh wearily and parentally admonish and calm them. Equally unfortunately that part of him had been completely buried by the whole Darla obsession thing and he’d gone from saying a mild ‘Children, stop fighting’ or being genuinely upset that they were disagreeing and trying to get them to play nice, to turning into the father from hell who demanded that his offspring grew up now, at once, this minute, got the hell out of his life and got themselves a job.

They had done so. Picked up their belongings, put aside their differences, gone out there and fought the good fight with no assistance from him, and were now all grown up. Pretty soon Angel had found himself in the position of a previously good father who, having run off with another woman, only got to peer longingly at his kids through the school gates. He knew he should be proud of them and at heart he was. He really was proud of the way Cordelia shouldered the burden of the visions, and Wesley had shouldered the burden of leadership, even when he was having to do so from a wheelchair, and the way Gunn – who had been only slightly bound to the group through his connection with Angel – had stepped up to the plate and taken on the responsibility of being these people’s protector. The guy who was all about showing other people he didn’t take orders from them and made his own decisions, and who had always made it clear to the two hundred and fifty year old vampire that he was his own man, now called Wesley ‘Boss’. That was one hell of a concession from Gunn and most certainly a sign of great maturity. And although Wesley had rubbed it into Angel that Angel now worked for them, on Cordelia’s behalf as well as his own, Angel realized, he was tactful and responsible about dividing responsibilities between himself and Gunn, and listening to Gunn’s input.

It still felt wrong to Angel that he wasn’t the person in charge, and it also felt wrong to him that they should have grown up so fast while his attention was diverted. He would never have admitted it aloud but, proud though he was of them, he really did miss being the parent of this particular dysfunctional family.

Sighing, he made his way down to the lobby. Gunn had arrived and was putting in his two cents worth as they clustered around the front desk.

“It’s too early in the morning for me to listen to you two bitching and whining.”

“I don’t whine!” Cordelia retorted.

“No – you bitch, Wesley whines, and between the two of you, you are driving me buggo!”

Wesley rolled his eyes in protest. “All I wanted was a cup of tea.”

“You dissed my coffee!” Cordelia retorted fiercely.

“Only because it was undrinkable,” Wesley returned as if that made it better.

Angel thought about telling them not to quarrel, and then realized sadly that he’d forfeited the right to tell them to do anything for a while. He missed that. He missed everyone remembering that he was the old wise super strong guy and looking to him for commonsense and protection. Supposing they ever had, which he was now wondering about. He definitely remembered a time when Wesley had trusted his judgement and looked to him for orders and thought Angel was pretty much the noblest champion in this or any other dimension. And he thought Cordelia has been inclined to think the best of him as well. Even Gunn hadn’t thought he was a complete waste of space.

“This Angel Investigations?”

Angel turned to see a delivery guy carrying two small parcels.

“Yes.” He looked over his shoulder at Wesley. “More books?”

Wesley shook his head. “I wish, but we can’t afford any more at present.”

Gunn looked at Cordelia. “More shoes?”

She snorted. “Like I’d buy those by mail order when we live in a city of a thousand shoe shops.”

The delivery man pushed a clipboard under Angel’s nose. “You Angel? Sign here.” As Angel did so the delivery man handed over one of the parcels and then turned to look at the others. “And which one of you is Wesley Wyndam-Pryce?”

Standing between the very female Cordelia and a Wesley who was sipping his tea aggrievedly, Gunn just looked at the delivery man. “Take a wild guess.”

The delivery man crossed over to where Wesley was and handed him a pen before holding out the clipboard. “Sign here.”

“How come only you and Angel get goodies?” Cordelia demanded.

“Perhaps because Santa loves us best.” Wesley signed with a quiet flourish every syllable of his double-barrelled name.

Looking between them as if he thought they were slightly insane, the deliveryman handed Wesley a parcel and went out shaking his head.

“Well, I bet it’s something boring or lethal,” Cordelia said. “And I’ll standing over here while you open it.”

Wesley smiled in a superior fashion. “You’re just jealous because you didn’t get a mysterious parcel and Angel and I both did.”

“Maybe because they’re going to save killing me for later,” she retorted. “So, that after your ticking timebomb explodes Gunn and I are still left standing to clean up the gloop.”

Wesley paused and put the parcel to his ear carefully. “It’s not ticking.”

“Does it smell edible?” Gunn enquired. “Because I'm hungry.”

“Mine doesn’t smell of anything.” Angel gingerly began to unwrap the box. It didn’t feel very heavy and there was no return address anywhere. The label had been hand-printed in clear black print but he didn’t recognize the handwriting.

“I bet it’s from Wolfram & Hart,” Cordelia added. “They’ve already tried to kill Wesley once.”

“They weren’t trying to kill me specifically,” Wesley pointed out. “Just to separate Angel from his links to humanity.”

Gunn frowned. “Which would be us, right?”

“That bomb not having your actual stuffy English name on it didn’t stop it blowing you halfway to hell,” Cordelia pointed out.

“Yes, but I wasn’t targeted in the way that you were. I think it’s perfectly possible that the people at Wolfram & Hart don’t even know how to spell my actual stuffy English name.”

Cordelia rolled her eyes. “Wes, I don’t know how to spell your name, but I still know who you are.”

Wesley held up the parcel. “But the person who sent this did know how to spell my name, Cordelia. No ‘h’ in ‘Wyndam’ and Pryce with a ‘y’. Do you know how rare it is for someone to get that right?”

Angel put in quietly, “Wes, Wolfram & Hart are the people who are most likely to get your name right. They have access to files that other people don’t.”

“Or it could be my Aunt Cynthia sending me some new socks,” Wesley protested.

Angel held up his parcel. “Would she be sending me socks too?” He motioned to the others to get back behind the front desk. “Let me open mine and if I get vaporized, don’t open yours.”

Wesley sighed but did reluctantly begin to move behind the desk along with Cordelia and Gunn. “Just for once it would be nice if someone was sending us parcels because they liked us.”

Cordelia took Wesley’s elbow and moved him firmly behind the protection of the counter. “Like I told you before, no one likes a smartass rogue demon hunter, and given all the nasty things that keep happening to us, that must go extra for Vision Girl, the Dark Avenger and Hubcap Harry here.”

Gunn rolled his eyes. “You all get to sound like Superheroes from a Marvel Comic and I get ‘Hubcap Harry’?”

“Get yourself a proper axe and maybe we can talk again about that name.”

Angel glanced across at them. “I'm opening the possibly lethal parcel in a selflessly self sacrificing gesture now – if any of you want to stop squabbling for long enough to notice.”

“Sorry!” Wesley called back.

“We’re very impressed by your bravery,” Gunn added.

“And we’d be even more impressed if you speeded it up a bit,” Cordelia added. “The suspense is killing us.”

“Although hopefully not in a very real and very literal sense,” Wesley murmured.

Angel opened the box and peered inside. There was a lot of bubble-wrap, which seemed rather a mundane way to send something that was promising all kinds of excitingly lethal death. Pulling back the bubble-wrap he found there was some tissue paper and inside the tissue paper a small and rather unimpressive bronze amulet. He touched it carefully, waiting for a fizzing or explosion to happen. Nothing did. He picked it up by the chain and it glinted benignly under the hotel lighting. A somewhat insignificant-looking amulet with some carvings on it.

“What is it?” Cordelia demanded.

“An amulet.” Angel held it up for inspection and they cautiously emerged from behind the counter.

“Someone’s sending Angel jewellery?” Gunn enquired.

“Mystical jewellery?” Wesley peered at the amulet curiously.

“Made in Taiwan type jewellery going by the look of it,” Cordelia sniffed. “Looks like a cheap hunk of crap to me.” She caught Gunn’s sleeve. “You know what this means?”

“What?”

“Someone is sending Angel and Wesley his’n’his matching amulets! That’s so sweet. Do you think we should all go to Vegas for the wedding? I'm sure Lorne would be happy to sing.”

“Lorne is always happy to sing, cupcakes, but what’s the occasion?”

Holding the amulet in the palm of his hand, Angel turned to see the green demon advancing elegantly down the stairs from the front doors. He was wearing something stylish in blue silk and looked – as always – as if he were about to accept a microphone from someone and burst into radiant song.

“Wes and Angel getting hitched.” Gunn shrugged. “Apparently.”

Angel winced as he caught his palm on the edge of the amulet. “Ow!” He licked his palm and the blood was salt and rich on his tongue, the hunger flaring momentarily before he fought it back down.

“Gunn and Cordelia sulking because they didn’t get a mysterious parcel and Angel and I did,” Wesley countered.

Cordelia shrugged. “So, someone thinks you and Angel are cheap and gay? How is that enviable? You now run the risk of getting beaten up in the street but you didn’t even get good taste to go with it?”

“Children, please…” Angel murmured. Thinking how much easier it had been when they did what he said. Or didn’t. But were meant to at least. And how much he had liked being a single parent to dysfunctional adopted kids in the past.

Gunn nudged Wesley. “Open your parcel. Let’s see if you really did get matching amulets.”

“Can I see the inscription on yours first, Angel?” Wesley enquired. Angel suspected that Wesley was just trying to put off the evil moment when it would be revealed that someone really had sent them matching amulets and they were therefore going to be teased about it endlessly by Cordelia and Gunn.

“No.” Cordelia nudged Wesley much harder in the ribs, making him wince and clutch his still tender abdomen. “Open your parcel. Lorne can decipher the Made in Hong Kong symbols while you’re wrestling with bubble-wrap.”

Angel handed the amulet to Lorne who examined it curiously under the lights. “Ancient Tibetan Wish Amulet, kids.” Lorne shrugged. “Nothing particularly unusual about it. Except when I say 'Ancient' I mean knocked out last Wednesday and when I say 'Tibetan' I mean never been near Lhasa in its lifetime and when I say 'Wish' I mean you wish it would work and when I say Amulet I mean, well…actually the 'amulet' part is pretty accurate.”

“I bet Wesley has one the same.” Cordelia took five steps backwards towards the stairs. “But just in case it’s something scarier, I think I’ll go and stand over here.”

“I think I’ll stand over here.” Gunn moved towards the front desk.

Wesley rolled his eyes. “You’re both overreacting absurdly.” Nevertheless, Angel could hear his heart was beating rather faster than usual as he peeled back another layer of bubble-wrap to reveal… “Well, it’s not an amulet.”

“It’s a bomb, isn’t it?” Cordelia asked faintly.

“It’s an orb of some kind.” Wesley picked it out of the tissue paper and held it up for inspection. “Rather pretty. I could do with a paperweight.”

“Isn’t there a note with it, crumpet?” Lorne enquired uneasily. “Some explanation of why someone is sending you these mystical gee-gaws?”

Wesley shrugged. “No, nothing. It must be a reward for our nice manners and clear diction. Explaining why the Americans didn’t get any.” His glance at Angel made it clear that he was more than a little rattled but trying not to show it.

“Can I see it?” Angel held out a hand, forgetting about the cut on his palm until the solid weight of the orb pressed against it and made him wince. “It’s heavy.”

“It’s glowing!” Gunn added in some alarm.

“Switch it off!” Cordelia told him quickly.

“How?” Angel demanded. The orb was indeed glowing now, a swirling mist appearing in the centre of it like a fortune-teller’s crystal ball. As he turned it in his hands, trying to find some kind of symbols on it that could possibly tell him how to stop it doing whatever it was now doing, a ray of light shot out from it and hit the amulet Lorne was holding, immediately refracting from the amulet in four bolts of light, the first hit Gunn and enveloped him in light, the second, Cordelia, the third, Wesley, and then a fraction after the others, the fourth hit Angel but instead of enveloping him in light as with the others, it immediately died, causing the other lights to cut off at the same time.

“What the hell was…?” Angel turned around to see how the others were faring and his jaw dropped in disbelief.

“Mystical munchkins,” Lorne murmured.

Angel gazed in horror at what were now standing in the places where his associates had recently been. “Tell me I'm dreaming.”

Lorne reached across and pinched him, hard. “Wide awake I'm afraid, cream puff, and it looks like you just became a Daddy.” He turned around slowly. “Three times over.”

Where a moment before six feet four of twenty-something Gunn had been standing, there was now a belligerent-looking child of no more than four, enveloped in clothes from which he was struggling angrily to emerge. A six year old girl, swamped in her designer frock, her small feet lost in Cordelia’s elegant pumps, was standing with her mouth open, clearly torn between wailing in dismay and throwing a full out tantrum. Next to Angel a thin shocked-looking Wesley of perhaps eight years old was gazing up at Angel in horror through glasses far too big for his pinched little face. His trousers and underpants were around his ankles, which didn’t much matter as his shirt now fell way below his knees.

“What happened?” he said breathlessly.

Angel crouched down in front of him. “Do you know who I am?”

“I think so.” Wesley looked around the hotel in confusion. “Everything’s fuzzy.” He looked down at himself, reaching up automatically to hold onto his glasses and then saw what had happened, gasping in horror. “Did a spell happen?”

“And how, bitesize.” Lorne also crouched down to Wesley’s eye level. “But don’t worry, we’re going to fix this.” He gently removed the glasses that were now far too big for him from Wesley’s face. “And these.”

“How?” Wesley’s lower lip was trembling and he looked ready to burst into tears. He said rapidly: “I don’t want to be a child again. Angel, I don’t want to be small!”

Cordelia’s wail cut through Wesley’s panic like a police siren and Angel could just tell that this was a sound she could keep up for some considerable time. “I don’t like this! I'm not me! Why don’t my shoes fit me?” As she tried to take a step, she fell out of her pumps and landed with a bump on the floor. Lorne hurried to help her up but her wailing only went up another scale.

“There there, Cordy Junior.” Lorne hastily gathered her into his arms. “We’ll have you back to magnificent life size in no time. Right, Angel?”

Angel patted Wesley reassuringly on his scarily thin little shoulder and hurried over to where Gunn was still fighting clothing as if it was a sewer demon, punching and kicking angrily at the folds that were smothering him. “Let me help you out of there…” He picked the little boy up out of his jeans and boots, revealing a cross little four year old, ridiculously cute in a hugely oversized red sweatshirt.

Little Gunn promptly kicked Angel hard in his family jewels. “Put me down! I'm not a little kid!”

“Yes, you are,” said Wesley sadly. “We all are.”

Gunn stabbed a finger at Angel. “I’m not doing what you say just because you’re bigger than me. So there.”

Lorne, still patting Cordelia on the back while she wailed in his arms, looked at Angel. “Oh my god, is that too cute for words or…?”

Gunn bunched his hand into a tiny fist. “One more word and I'm going to punch you on the nose, Lorne!” Then he looked at how small his fist was, gave up the unequal fight between memory and biology, and drummed his bare feet furiously into Angel’s abdomen in what was undoubtedly a full out small child paddy.

Wesley sat down on the floor and put his hands up to his face. “I don’t want to be a child again,” he said quietly, closing his eyes and clearly wishing for all he was worth. “Please don’t make me be a child again.” He opened his eyes and looked down at himself hopefully, and then his face fell.

Angel carried the still kicking Gunn over to where Wesley was and crouched down next to him. “Wes, are you still you? Do you still know what you know as an adult?”

“Sort of.” Wesley looked up at him and his blue eyes looked enormous in his child-sized face. The adult Wesley was skinny – although only Cordelia was usually tactless enough to mention it – but it was offset by the fact that he was also fit and leanly muscled, however he really did make for a painfully thin little boy. “But I think it will fade quite quickly, Angel. The biological imperative of being this size will inevitably overwhelm all other factors.”

“You still sound just the same,” Angel pointed out.

“I'm not though.” Wesley looked down at himself again in dismay. “And as I only have a child-sized brain now I probably won’t be able to remember everything I did as an adult. Gunn will regress even faster because he seems to have lost even more years than I did.”

“Don’t wanna regress!” Gunn kicked Angel angrily again while Cordelia’s wailing got louder.

“I don’t think we have a choice,” said Wesley faintly, trying to pull back his sleeves far enough to find his hands. Once he had finally pushed back enough cloth to find them he looked at them in misery, his heart rate increasing as he gulped at the air.

“Gunn, stop kicking me,” Angel told him firmly. “Cordy, stop crying. Wes, stop panicking. Lorne and I are going to figure this out and put you back how you were, okay?”

“But you’re just a stupid vampire!” Gunn shouted at Angel, still drumming his toes against his abdomen. “Wes is the smart one and he’s just a kid now! We’re going to be stuck like this forever. How can I fight demons like this?”

“Stop. Kicking. Me,” Angel said through gritted teeth.

Still in Lorne’s arms, Cordelia pointed piteously at her new pumps. “My shoes! None of my shoes will fit me! My beautiful shoes!”

“But think of all those new outfits you’ll be able to get into, princess,” said Lorne desperately.

“Angel is a hundred years out of date!” Cordelia wailed. “He’ll probably make me wear pinafore dresses and bobby sox!”

“Actually little girls wore silk and lace and lots of petticoats when I was growing up,” Angel observed. “They looked lovely.”

Cordelia stared at him for a moment and then wailed louder. “I'm going to be a freak!”

“I'm not going back to school again for anyone!” Gunn shouted at Angel. “You can’t make me go to school and if you do I'm not doing my homework!”

“School.” Wesley clasped his hands together tightly, clearly fighting the urge to rock only by a great effort. “Having to learn everything all over again.”

“No sex!” Gunn shouted.

Angel put a hand over his mouth. “Don’t say things like that. One, because we’re going to fix this, and, two, because you’re four years old and it’s too freaky.”

“No sex?” Cordelia looked at Gunn aghast. “No shopping by myself? No wearing my own clothes for ten years! Just kill me now. I don’t even want to live.”

Wesley wrapped his arms around his knees and looked up at Angel fearfully. “Social services won’t let you keep us. They’ll take us away and send us back to our parents.”

“My parents are dead.” Gunn stopped kicking Angel at last. “They’ll put me up for adoption.”

“My father’s in prison and my mother’s having a long slow breakdown.” Cordelia clung onto Lorne a little tighter, as if she needed the comfort of someone familiar. He rocked her automatically while patting her on the arm.

“My parents are alive,” said Wesley faintly. “My father could spend the next ten years telling me how badly I turned out the first time.”

“That is not going to happen.” Angel tightened his grip on Gunn protectively.

Lorne looked across at him. “The munchkins have a point, Angelcakes. You could pass as Cordy and Wes’s father maybe, if we could get you some fake papers, but no one is going to buy you as our sawn off TotGunn’s biological father.”

“My second wife was African-American.”

“So, where is she?” Lorne enquired. “And come to that where’s your first wife too? And how come neither of them ever visits their kids? The kids you haven’t registered in any school in LA? And why does Cordelia have an American accent but Wesley doesn’t?”

“We just arrived from England. Wesley’s mother was English. That’s why he sounds like that.”

“So, how many wives have you had, Angel? What are you, Bluebeard? And where’s your passport?” Lorne sighed. “It’s not as if you don’t have enemies. If Wolfram & Hart get a sniff of what’s happened to our kindergarten chums here they’re going to be contacting social services within the hour. Is there anywhere you can take them where you can work on reversing this spell in peace?”

“Sunnydale,” said Wesley quietly.

Angel looked down at him. “What?”

“Giles might be able to help and if I turn completely into an eight year old we’re going to need someone else who can do research as well as you.”

“Wesley’s right.” Cordelia wiped her eyes. “You suck at research.”

“Buffy.” Angel sighed. He had been trying so hard to avoid seeing her; trying not to add to their pain at being separated and her pain at having just lost her mother. “I’ll have to ask her to take us in for a while.”

“No!” Cordelia’s shriek made Lorne flinch and almost drop her.

“Sweetheart, you’re going to perforate my eardrum.”

“I can’t go to Sunnydale looking like this!” Cordelia shouted. “Xander will see me! He’ll make fun of me!”

Wesley sighed. “Cordy, I'm not exactly relishing the prospect of going back to a place where everyone despised and disliked me either – especially as I'm now a small child – but I don’t think there’s any choice. I don’t know anyone except Giles who might be able to help us.” He looked up at Angel and although he’d sounded very adult for a moment there his big blue eyes were full of an eight year-old’s anxiety. “Do you?”

Angel shook his head. “Wes is right. We need to go to Sunnydale. I’ll call Giles now. Lorne? Can you go and buy the…children some clothes? We can get Wesley some new glasses in Sunnydale but they’re going to need underwear, pyjamas, socks, shoes, toothbrushes, everything you can think of. Take my wallet. Do you need to measure them first?” He looked at the three of them uncertainly.

Lorne put Cordelia down gently and she sank down on the floor next to Wesley who wordlessly put out his hand to her. Angel noticed the way she took it and held on tightly. Lorne said, “I think we both have their new dimensions pretty much burned into our disbelieving brains, Daddy-o. There’s a store that’s cool with demons and humans where I can get them fitted out – the store owner owes me for a reading that averted a domestic situation the like of which you don’t even want to know about but suffice to say it would have made your homelife with Darla look like the Waltons – so he should give me a big discount. But nothing I buy Wesley is going to fit him properly unless there’s a Refugee Kids R Us around here and any clothes Cordelia would consent to be dressed in you can’t afford.”

Angel crouched down next to them, placing Gunn on the floor next to Wesley as he did so. “Kids, I want you to remember that you’re going to be adults again very soon. In the meantime, Cordy you’re going to have to wear clothes for little girls that weren’t designed by anyone in particular and, Wes, we’re probably going to have to use some safety pins to keep your pants up. Gunn, you’re going to have to face the fact that you’re at the insanely cute age when even total strangers will stop in the street to coo over you and even scowling won’t help you. But this is temporary, okay?” Gunn scowled up at him but Angel noticed the way he inched closer to Wesley and Wesley put his right arm around him, the fingers of his left hand still tightly interlocked with Cordelia.

Angel wasn’t sure he could reverse this, although nothing short of torture was going to make him admit it, but he was damned sure that no harm was going to come to these three while he was undead to prevent it, and nothing and no one was going to separate them as long as they wanted to be together. He tossed his wallet to Lorne. “Get what you think they need. I want to get them out of here as soon as the sun goes down.”

As Lorne nodded and took his leave, Angel looked down at the three children, Wesley and Cordelia still with their hands clasped, and Gunn cuddled mournfully up against Wesley. “It’s going to be okay, I promise,” he told them gently. “Keep out of sight and I’ll be right back.”

He had known Giles would be less than thrilled by the idea of him seeing Buffy again. He wasn’t too happy about it himself, but this was an emergency and he was determined to make Giles see that.

“She has enough on her plate right now, Angel. Dawn. Glory. Her mother’s death. Seeing you again is the last thing she needs.”

“Giles, this isn’t my idea of fun either but I don’t have a choice. The three people who work for me have been hexed into being small vulnerable children and the evil law firm just across the way that spends its days trying to drive me crazy is going to phone Social Services and get them taken into care the second it gets wind of what’s happening here. For all I know they manufactured the situation, have someone watching us, and have already started making calls. I have to get them out of LA tonight and I need someone to help me reverse the spell.”

Giles sighed heavily. “Let me talk to Buffy.”

“I’ll wait.”

“I was planning to call you back.”

“I’ll wait,” Angel repeated grimly.

There was a pause when he could hear the far off mumble of conversation. He thought he heard Willow and Xander as well as the quiet sound of Buffy’s voice. It was strange to think of her there in that house, where he had once slept beside her bed, her life continuing just as his continued while the thread between them became more and more stretched.

“Angel…?”

The shock of her voice still made him catch his breath; even though he didn't need to breathe, somehow she could make him remember he'd once had lungs that needed to inhale and exhale. “Buffy?”

“Bring them. Giles and Willow are researching reversal spells. You can all stay here until they’re cured.”

“Thank you.” He couldn’t tell her how wonderful she was, but he hoped she could hear the warmth and relief in his voice. “Can you ask Xander not to…?”

“Tease Cordelia? No one is making any promises on that, Angel. Or Wesley either.” He could imagine how her smile would look right now, the way it would be there in her eyes, in the warmth she had that was so vital it even made someone without a heartbeat feel warmed inside as well. “You’ve got to let us have some fun.”

“You’re perfect,” he told her. Not what he’d been meaning to say but what he was thinking.

“Oh, I know. I reek of perfection. Ask anyone who doesn’t actually know me.”

“I know you.”

“I know. Better than anyone.” The smile was still there but the tenderness made him catch his breath. “Giles says don’t forgot to bring the amulet and orb. Xander says to tell Cordelia he’s buying more film for the camera.”

“I’ll be with you – be in Sunnydale tonight.” He put down the phone and imagined Giles in the background shaking his head, Xander and Willow exchanging those ‘fasten your seatbelts’ expressions. But this trip to Sunnydale wasn’t about him and Buffy and their Love That Could Not Be. It was about his friends. Keeping them safe and getting them back.

He plastered a bright smile onto his face and walked back into the lobby. Gunn was sucking his thumb, he noticed, doing nothing to downplay the cute factor that was undoubtedly going to be the bane of the demon killer’s days until he was adult-sized again. Wesley looked skinny and scared and determined. Angel could actually see him squaring those narrow shoulders against what was coming next, still protectively holding onto Cordelia and Gunn as he did so. He had gone from only child to eldest child in a heartbeat and already seemed to be weighed under with the responsibility of his new position. Cordelia was an impossibly pretty little girl, all big brown eyes, and a pouting mouth. She had her head on Wesley’s shoulder and was whimpering quietly about how she was never going to be able to wear her new clothes and how could she be Vision Girl when she couldn’t even understand what she was seeing?

“Angel will find a way to reverse it,” said Wesley softly. “And then we can go back to being who we really are.”

“What if this is who we really are now?” Cordelia asked sadly. “What if we’re being punished for not living our lives right the first time and the Powers That Be are going to make us redo it over and over again until we get it right?”

Wesley shuddered and tightened his grip on Gunn. “Why would they? We’re not that bad.”

“Aren’t we?” Cordelia slumped against him. “Perhaps we are. I think I was.”

“I'm not being four years old again,” Gunn mumbled crossly, before taking his thumb out of his mouth and looking at it accusingly. “I can’t reach anything and even real shortasses are taller than me now. And no way in hell am I going through puberty twice.”

Wesley groaned and bowed his head. “I'm going to forget everything that makes me…me. I'm going to be that stupid boy again. The one who knocks things over and who gets things wrong and whom no one likes.”

Cordelia said softly, “Wes, you knock things over and get things wrong all the time, but we still like you.”

“You weren’t around when I was growing up.”

“This time we will be,” Gunn observed glumly.

Wesley tightened his grip on them, trying to be brave and looking very small and fragile in his oversized shirt. “Well then, perhaps it won’t be so bad this time.”

Angel cleared his throat. “Giles and Willow are already researching reversal spells and Buffy says we’re welcome to stay with her. Why don’t I get you something to drink? There’s Coke in the fridge.” He edged away but kept listening to their conversation, feeling so sorry for them it hurt as they slumped in the lobby so despondently.

“I bet they’re all loving this,” Cordelia said bitterly.

“Buffy’s mother only died a few months ago, Cordy,” said Wesley gently. “I doubt they’re loving anything right now. Seeing as Buffy never liked me and doesn’t know Gunn I think it’s kind of her to take us in.”

Cordelia muttered something unladylike under her breath and Gunn took his thumb out of his mouth again to say, “Should you be saying things like that in front of me? And if this Buffy chick doesn’t like Wes I'm not going to like her.”

“She’s a vampire slayer and a very pretty girl,” Wesley told him wearily. “You’ll probably be in love with her two steps across the threshold. Well, until she coos over how cute you are and tries to take a picture of you sucking your thumb, of course…”

Gunn hit Wesley on the arm. “Shut up.”

“It would be just like Buffy to make a big fuss of Gunn and ignore me.” Cordelia looked down her nose at Gunn. “I always knew I’d hate to have a younger brother who got all the attention and was spoilt by everyone and I think I was so right.”

“Like you weren’t spoilt,” Gunn retorted.

“Don’t fight,” Wesley said. “Angel will get cross.”

“We’re too little to get cross with,” Cordelia returned triumphantly.

“It doesn’t work like that,” Wesley sighed.

Angel felt a chill go through him. Pouring them some Coke in assorted mugs and cups, he carried them back out to the lobby and crouched down with them. “This is just temporary, remember?”

Wesley’s blue eyes begged him to be telling the truth but out loud he only said, “Of course it is.” But Angel saw the way his and Cordelia’s fingers intertwined a little more tightly and Gunn put his thumb back in his mouth before cuddling up against Wesley for comfort.

Angel guessed that the only people who could really know how it felt to be them right now was them but he mentally promised that if Xander Harris started making fun of any of his munchkins, he was going to throw him through a window without bothering to open it first.

***

Xander had to admit he was enjoying the prospect of seeing Cordelia and Wesley as little kids. It was freaky, of course. Truly freaky. But Cordelia had been Miss Snotty Princess for most of his formative years and their break up hadn’t exactly been painless. And Wesley had been a pompous English twerp who had been prepared to sacrifice Willow for the sake of following the Watcher Handbook, and who had tried to steal his ex-girlfriend through underhanded use of an English accent, a surface layer of suave sophistication, and the unfair advantage of being an adult. He didn’t know Gunn, but given the company he kept he doubted he would have liked him much, so perhaps being turned into a small child was something he deserved too.

“This must be very difficult for them.” Giles sounded grave and responsible but Xander suspected he was trying not to smirk as he took off his glasses to clean them. “Let’s try not to make it harder than it already is.”

Xander peered out of the window again. They should be here any minute, barring accidents. Angel would have had to take them to the bathroom on the way down. That was funny. He couldn’t believe anyone didn’t find that funny.

“I know what you’re thinking,” Buffy told him. “And I'm going to smack you if you keep thinking it.”

“Angel having to babysit Cordelia? Don’t tell me that isn’t funny?” Xander looked across at Willow. “You remember what Cordy was like as a little girl, right, Will? She used to throw tantrums if the teacher tried to make her use finger paints that didn’t coordinate with her outfit.”

“I wonder what Wesley was like as a child,” Willow mused.

“Very proper and English,” Buffy put in. “I bet he always did his homework the second he got home.”

Giles thought of Roger Wyndam-Pryce and frowned. “I imagine his father would have insisted on it.”

“You know Wesley’s father?” Xander looked at him in surprise.

Giles shrugged. “I’ve met him. I wouldn’t say I know him. Rather an austere man as I recall. Not very easy to please. I remember someone congratulating him when Wesley was made Head Boy of the Watcher’s Academy. His response was to say that there couldn’t have been very much competition that year.”

Xander’s face fell. “He sounds like my father. Don’t go making me feel sorry for Wesley. I was happy in my gloating place.”

“They’re here,” said Tara quietly. “Or someone is in a big black convertible.”

“That will be Angel,” Xander sniffed. “Always has to make the big entrance.”

Giles took the dignified approach of standing back while Xander and Willow unashamedly peered from behind the drapes. Buffy took a deep breath, called to Dawn that the visitors were here and then went to the door.

Xander watched as Angel got out of the car then went around and opened the passenger door. In the streetlight, he caught a glimpse of a thin pale little boy in clothes that were too big for him who went to the back of the car to open the door for a little girl dressed in a pale frock. Cordelia. Unexpectedly he got a lump in his throat. She was so small. And scared. She was lifting her chin in that defiant way he remembered from the past, tossing her head back so anyone peering from behind the drapes wouldn’t know how scared she was but he knew her too well, and he could see it in her spine, in her eyes. She held on tight to the hand of the boy next to her and he tried to equate these two with Wesley making sheep’s eyes at Cordelia while she embarrassed herself trying to get him to help her with her homework. He could see how painfully aware they were of their size; how tall the lampposts looked to them, how the houses loomed.

Buffy had the door open and they heard the boy who had to be Wesley say quietly, “It’s all right, Cordelia. These people are your friends, remember?”

“I don’t care,” she said defiantly. “I'm not scared of them.”

He smiled at her weakly. “Good, that means at least one of us isn’t.”

“I'm not scared of anyone.” A small coffee-coloured child who had to be Gunn jumped out of the car and landed with a belligerent thump on the sidewalk. He looked up at Angel. “Your driving sucks.”

“If you’d eaten less ice cream you might not have felt so sick,” Angel returned levelly, picking him up.

“Where’s my axe?” Gunn demanded.

Wesley gazed up at him. “Charles, you can’t even lift it. Wait until you’re big again.”

“You brought your book!”

“I can still read my book. And it might be useful in reversing the spell. Please, don’t make a scene. Everyone’s watching.”

“Let them watch.” Cordelia tried to toss her hair back defiantly, but it was too short and just swung prettily. Xander noticed she was still gripping Wesley’s hand.

Wesley gave Angel a begging look and the vampire rested his hand on his shoulder. “It’s going to be fine,” he told him. “Giles and Willow will reverse the spell and everyone in that house is a friend.”

“I hate being small,” Wesley murmured.

“Try being my size,” Gunn retorted crossly.

“Try having to wear off the rack clothes that make you look like Pollyanna,” Cordelia returned. “I thought better of Lorne.”

“You look very nice,” Wesley told her. “And Lorne had a lot of things to buy with very little money.”

Xander noticed that even with a belt cinched tight on its last hole, Wesley’s trousers were too big for him and he had his shirt cuffs folded back several times and secured with safety pins.

Unexpectedly, Cordelia reached out and straightened his collar for him. “You’re smarter than any of them,” she told him rapidly. “Don’t let them pick on you.”

“Is that what they think of us?” Xander demanded of Willow in an undertone. “They think we fight vampires by night and bully small children by day?”

“They’re so small,” Willow breathed. “I never thought I’d want to cuddle Cordelia but now I really do.”

“We did kind of bully Wesley when he was here as an adult,” Buffy admitted.

“He was annoying,” Xander returned. “And not just a little bit annoying. He was off the scale annoying.”

“I know.” But she sounded a little sorry all the same.

They had gathered in the hallway to welcome them in; Angel and his strange family; and the resemblance to refugees was hard to avoid. Angel was carrying Gunn in his right arm, the small boy belligerently sucking his thumb at them; the vampire’s other hand available for Wesley to grip onto, which the boy seemed to be doing with all his might. Wesley was trying not to stagger under the weight of a leather shoulder bag while holding Cordelia’s hand in his left.

“Hi,” Buffy said awkwardly. “How was the trip down?”

“Fine, thank you,” said Wesley politely. “Thank you for taking us in. I'm sorry for your loss.”

It was strange to hear him sound so adult but it occurred to Xander that the child Wesley had been might have said exactly the same thing. Buffy was saying something welcoming, he noticed, and Giles was making introductions of a kind.

Cordelia looked at him uncertainly and Xander stepped forward. “Hello, Cordelia, it’s good to see you again. Hello, Wesley. This must be Gunn?”

“Charles Gunn.” The little boy stuck out a hand from his place on Angel’s shoulder and Xander shook it gravely. Gunn looked at Wesley. “Which one is he?”

“Xander.” Cordelia looked up at him a little shyly.

Xander crouched down to be her level. “I’d forgotten what a cute little girl you were, Cordy. You’re going to let me take pictures, right?”

“Only if Buffy will take me shopping first.” She plucked at her frock despondently. “This is so…not me.”

“Oh, Cordy,” Willow gasped. “You’re so…adorable. Can Tara and I take you shopping tomorrow? There is this dress in town that is the cutest thing I’ve ever seen and you would look so sweet in it.”

Cordy looked up at her. “Willow, you know I love you, right, but I wouldn’t be buried in any of the clothes you wear.”

“This is so you. You have to trust me.” Willow took her hand. “Hi again, Wesley. Nice to meet you, Gunn. Come and meet Tara, Cordy.”

“Oh my God!” That breathy squeal from Dawn made everyone jump.

Angel had been murmuring something apologetic to Buffy about being sorry to impose but even he jumped like a scalded cat at that sound and automatically looked over his shoulder. “What?”

Dawn was coming down the stairs as if mesmerized, her gaze fixed on Gunn. “Omigod, you are so cute.”

Wesley looked up at the little boy and sighed. “I told you.”

Gunn was still sucking his thumb and looking, Xander had to admit, like the poster child for cuteness. He glowered at Dawn, which unfortunately only made him look cuter.

“Let me have him.” She plucked Gunn out of Angel’s arms and sat him on her hip. “Want to come and watch cartoons with me?”

“Dawn…” Buffy breathed. “He’s older than you are, remember?”

Gunn looked at her sulkily for a moment and then tugged his thumb out of his mouth and said, “Okay. But only because you’re too young for me to be rude to you.”

“You’re the most adorable thing ever!” Dawn gave another squeal and hugged him. “Tomorrow, you have to meet all my friends.”

“He’s not a toy!” Angel shouted after her. “He kills demons for a…” But Dawn had whisked Gunn away to the living room. Angel and Wesley exchanged a glance of resignation and Angel held out a hand for the bag Wesley was carrying. “Let me take that, Wes. It’s heavy.”

“I’ve got it,” Xander said quickly. He gently took it from Wesley’s shoulder. The kid was so thin it made him have to breathe around something that hurt him inside. Cordelia, except for the short hair, looked exactly as he remembered Cordy looking at that age, when she’d used to pull his hair in Elementary School. So, this must have been how Wesley was at eight; this thin and pale and quiet. His dark hair was spiky and tousled, unlike the brylcreemed style he remembered him having, and the kid was clearly half-blind without his glasses, the blue eyes looking huge as he gazed around at what seemed to be a succession of blurs.

“Be careful with it,” Wesley said. “The amulet and orb are in there. And a couple of the research books I thought might be useful. There are some more in the car.” He looked up at Giles for the first time, as if having to steel himself to do so. “Hello again, Mr. Giles.”

“Hello, Wesley,” said Giles gravely. “Interesting spell you appear to have fallen victim too. I'm sure we’ll be able to reverse it without too much trouble.”

“I hope so.” Wesley tried to smile but it went nowhere near his eyes. “I really don’t want to have to attend the Watcher’s Academy twice. Pleasedon’ttellmyfather.” That was one breathless word.

Xander started and looked at Giles who was looking at Angel. The vampire put a reassuring hand on Wesley’s shoulder. “Giles wouldn’t do that. No one would do that.” His eyes were fixed on Giles and seemed to be trying to tell a whole story. Xander didn’t get the fine details but the cold feeling inside didn’t go away.

“Not if Wesley doesn’t want me to.” Giles took the bag from Xander. “Shall we get you settled in?”

“What about food?” Xander said breathlessly. “You eat food right, Wesley?”

Wesley looked up at him in confusion. “Yes.”

“Well, why don’t we get you a whole boatload of that. Right now. Pizza?” He looked at Angel. “Are they allowed pizza?”

“They can have what they like,” Angel replied. “They’re adults.”

“If we regress you’ll have to have a policy,” Wesley said wearily as he followed Giles into the living room. “A four year old Gunn on a sugar high probably wouldn’t be a pretty sight. Come to think of it an adult Gunn on a sugar high can be a little…taxing.”

Xander caught Buffy’s eye. “I'm going to go and buy pizza. Lots and lots of pizza. Possibly Chinese food as well. Maybe Mexican too. Want to come with?”

She looked at Angel questioningly. “You remember where everything is? Will you be okay while we get the food?”

“Sure.” He nodded at her and his gaze rested briefly on Xander with something approaching liking. “It’s kind of you both.”

 

As they closed the front door behind them, Xander said, “So…Angel and his rugrats. Have to admit I’m finding that whole situation a little…”

“Freak-making?” Buffy returned.

“I was going for ‘strange and disturbing’.” He darted her a sideways glance. “Is it tough seeing Angel again?”

“It’s always tough seeing Angel.”

“And some people think he’s easy on the eye.” Xander shook his head. “Given that you’re not actually dating at the moment and he’s doing that whole being doting and fatherly to the little people thing that some girls inexplicably find attractive in a brooding dark avengery type – even those with questionable hair care decisions – would this be the moment to point out that snuggling with a vampire is technically necrophilia?”

Buffy rolled her eyes. “Thank you so much for that image for which…eww. I don’t need to be reminded that Angel and I getting groiny doesn’t lead to hugs and puppies.”

“Just checking. We all know what rebounds can do.”

“Yes, Cordy rebounded from you to Wesley Whines-and-Snipes. You rebounded from Cordy to a vengeance demon famous for dismembering men for kicks. Drusilla, as I think we all remember from the ninety seven times Spike insisted on telling the world about it, took up with a chaos demon, and Willow became a lesbian. I think we’re all clear that rebounds are not of the Good.”

“I’m not saying the word ‘Parker’,” Xander observed conversationally. “But I am thinking it really loudly. Also Cavegirl Buffy and the beer that time forgot.”

Buffy glared at him but then continued evenly: “Still getting my head around Cordy being so…”

“Small.”

“Have to admit that Gunn is very…”

“Cute.”

“But Wesley is disturbingly…”

“Skinny.” Xander nodded. “Right there with you.”

“I'm not sure bringing them to the Hellmouth was the best idea in the world. What if something happens to them?”

“Something already has happened to them, Buff. Hence the smallage of them. But, honestly, have you ever seen a kid that thin that wasn’t in some Give Money Now charity appeal? Do you think his parents only fed him if he successfully translated a new passage on vampire killing or something? Do Watcher Kids work for food?”

“He never rebelled,” Buffy sighed. “Giles did. He had a grand old rebellion and got it out of his system – regressing spells excepted. Wesley seems to have spent his life doing what he’s told.”

“Hence his waste of spaceness when they sent him here.”

“I never gave him a chance.” She looked down at the sidewalk. “He looked at me like he thought I was going to sock him or something. I know I was a bitch to him but I wasn’t a bitch to him, was I?”

“I was right with you every step of the way, Buff,” Xander assured her. “Wesley was a jerk.”

They walked on for a moment in silence before Buffy said, “He was pretty thin when he was in Sunnydale. He just used to wear a lot of layers to cover it. Willow told me that when she went to see him in the hospital. Without his vest and his shirt and his waistcoat and his jacket with the padded shoulders – pretty skinny guy, she said. She said it was kind of sad that we made him feel like he needed to be bigger for us to listen to him. I didn’t go and see him in the hospital, of course, because I didn’t care.”

“Why should you?” Xander countered. “He was a jerk, Buffy. He really truly was.”

“And now he’s a skinny little eight year old boy who’s afraid he’s going to forget everything he knows and everything he is and who only remembers that the last time he was in Sunnydale everyone treated him like crap.” Buffy grimaced. “And yet I feel like a bitch. How strange is that?”

“Why do you think I'm buying him pizza? I didn’t go and see him in the hospital either. And I was glad it didn’t work out with him and Cordelia. I was glad the Council fired him. I assumed he’d go back to England and I hoped I’d never see him again.”

“I'm sure he felt the same way about us. But he’s stuck here with us anyway.”

“So, we expiate our irrational guilt by feeding him and reversing the spell.” Xander shrugged. “Atonement cheap at half the price.”

Buffy managed a wan smile. “Redemption through tacos. Sounds good to me.”

***

As he and Angel showed him around the house, Giles was watching Wesley carefully, trying to marry up this thin serious little boy with the man who had so exasperated him on his previous stay in Sunnydale. Cordelia was shrieking with laughter in another room with Willow and Tara, who seemed to be playing dress up with her using Dawn’s old clothes. Gunn was giggling away on the sofa with Dawn over a cartoon; the giggles occasionally turning into gurgles and yells as she evidently tickled him, just because.

Giles looked at Angel. “Do you mind Dawn doing that to your colleague?”

Angel shrugged. “Everyone has. Us included. MiniGunn’s too cute not to tickle.”

Giles noticed that as they passed the stairs, or rather the cupboard beneath them, Wesley flinched and pressed closer to Angel.

“Wes,” said Angel gently. “You’re not really a kid, remember? You’re still you. This isn’t going to be a replay of your childhood.”

“I know,” said Wesley faintly, but he sounded less than convinced to Giles.

Giles frowned at him. “Would that be such a terrible thing, Wesley?”

Wesley pressed even closer to Angel who put a protective arm around his shoulders. “Once was enough,” Wesley whispered.

Angel sank down on the floor and took the little boy by the shoulders, turning him to face him. “Wes, it’s not the same. No one did a time spell. You’re you. You’re just temporarily…little.”

“I'm a child, Angel,” Wesley said quietly, his small face serious and intent. “Soon, I’ll probably forget what being an adult was like, and more importantly you’ll forget I was an adult too. It won’t be relevant any more anyway as that won’t be what I am any more. You’ll respond to me as if I were a child. The way people responded to me when I was a child…”

Angel’s eyes widened in comprehension and his fingers tightened on the boy’s shoulders. “That is not going to happen.”

“I’ll be the way I was.” Wesley hung his head.

“There was nothing wrong with the way you were.” Angel shook him gently. “Wes! Look at me.”

The boy did so, facing him squarely.

Angel reached up and cupped his face with his hand. “There was nothing wrong with the way you were,” Angel repeated gently. “Just with the people you were with.”

Wesley looked at the floor. “It’s natural to love your children, Angel. It just happens. Unless the child is fundamentally unlovable…”

“Or the father is fundamentally incapable of showing affection to any one or anything.” Angel rose to his feet, taking Wesley’s hand in his. “You’re tired and you’re hungry. Things will look better in the morning.”

“They’ll still all be taking place several feet above my head,” the boy said quietly.

“We come bearing food!” Xander erupted into the hall in a wave of spicy foodsmells, he and Buffy both weighed down with bags leaking sauce, and pizza boxes smelling deliciously of melted cheese.

“We’d better lay the table.” Wesley flashed Angel a guilty look. “We should have done it while they were out.”

“We don’t live here,” Angel shrugged. “Tara and Willow should have laid the table, so they’re bad witches but we’re in the clear.”

Wesley managed a faint smile that Giles was relieved to see and then Gunn was thundering into the hall, shouting “Food! Food!”

“Your friend certainly seems to have regressed quickly,” Giles observed.

“It may be because the spell hit him first,” Wesley explained.

“What regression?” Angel countered. “He sounds the same to me.”

Gunn ran up to Wesley and grinned at him, holding up his arms. “Hey, English. Pick me up.”

“You’re too heavy,” Wesley told him but picked him up anyway, grunting as he hauled the small boy up.

“Why are you making Wesley pick you up when every girl in the place is dying to give you a cuddle?” Angel enquired.

Gunn looked at Wesley fondly. “Because Wes is picking me up because of who I really am not because of what I look like now.”

Angel shrugged. “Told you he hadn’t regressed. But you’re going to put Wesley’s back out again.” Angel plucked Gunn from Wesley’s arms and put him on his hip. “Wes, want to see if you can find some cushions to put on the chairs for ShortGunn and MiniCordy?”

As Wesley obediently went off to do so, Giles realized that this really could be the future for these three. If they couldn’t find a way to reverse it then they were going to have to go through the whole process of growing up again.

“I'm taller than you,” Gunn pointed out to Angel.

“Not now you’re not. You’re shorter than everyone. Which is probably character building for you.”

“I can reach your hair from here.”

“Touch it and you die.”

“You’re bluffing.”

“I used to eat babies. Try me.”

Giles left Angel and Gunn wrangling and passed the room where Tara and Willow were still plaiting Cordelia’s hair with little shells wound into the braids, something he was quite sure that the adult Cordelia would never have allowed them to do. “Supper has arrived,” he told them and then went into the kitchen.

He somehow wasn’t surprised to see that Wesley was conscientiously arranging cutlery on the table and had already placed cushions onto two chairs in readiness. “I couldn’t find any napkins.” He looked at Giles a little fearfully, as if the man was going to scold him for that oversight.

Xander dumped another bag of food onto the table and opened a drawer for Wesley. “They’re in here.”

Giles saw the look Xander darted at Wesley as the boy collected the napkins and was surprised by the level of unhappiness in Xander’s eyes. It wasn’t as if he’d ever liked Wesley. In fact he’d probably liked him the least out of all of them. Xander plastered a smile onto his face with difficulty as Wesley turned around. “Do you want to sit with Gunn and Cordy, Wesley? Or do you want a break from them?”

“I’ll sit with them.” Wesley solemnly placed a napkin by each place setting. “It’s probably a bit strange for them to not be able to reach things. Especially Gunn.”

“Can you see okay without your glasses, Wesley?” Buffy asked gently in between putting food onto plates.

He looked at her in mild confusion, clearly wrong-footed by her being nice to him. “No. Everything’s blurry. But Angel said someone might be able to get me a pair that fit tomorrow.” He grunted in surprise as Gunn, unwisely released by Angel, charged into him and grabbed him around the waist, knocking him against the chair. Xander caught Wesley by the shoulders and held him up.

“Go, easy,” he told Gunn. “You’re going to knock him over.”

“You’re a really skinny kid, Wes,” Gunn observed.

“And you’re a really bratty one,” Angel pointed out.

“He has the cute factor,” Dawn explained. “He can get away with anything.”

“He may be surprised,” Angel told Gunn grimly.

Gunn immediately held up his arms to Wesley again. “Pick me up.”

“No.” Angel grabbed him before Wesley could and hauled him up quickly enough to make Gunn gasp and then giggle. He deposited Gunn on the chair with the cushion and looked at Wesley. “Do you want a break from the brat?”

Wesley smiled. “I owe the brat. I’ll sit with him.”

“Wes!” Cordelia charged into the room barefoot but now wearing what seemed to be a fancy dress costume of an angel, complete with lacy wings, and her shell-braided hair. “Look at me!” She did a perfect pirouette and Wesley, Angel, Buffy and Xander dutifully applauded.

Giles looked down his nose at Tara and Willow as they came into the room. “Someone’s been having fun.”

“Well, it’s years since Dawn was little enough to let us dress her up,” Willow pointed out.

“You look lovely,” Wesley told Cordelia quietly, indicating her chair. “I put you a cushion.”

“Great, now we look like we’re not just small, we also all have haemorrhoids.”

“Bet you can’t spell that now,” Gunn observed to her.

“Bet you never could.” She turned to Wesley. “I'm not sitting next to Gunn now he’s a little brat.”

As Gunn reached across to hit her, Wesley caught his arm and folded it carefully across his chest. “Don’t hit girls, Charles. You’ll only feel bad about it later. I’ll sit in between you. Try not to knock anything over.” He moved the cushion onto the next chair and took the one in between them.

“You’re the one who knocks things over,” Cordelia reminded him, depositing her tulle and winged body onto her chair with surprising grace.

“I know. And that can only get worse now I'm a child again.” Wesley looked as if he were carrying all the burdens of the world upon his shoulders.

Gunn seemed full of enthusiasm for the plate of food Buffy put down in front of him and reached for the knife and fork, dropping his napkin on the floor heedlessly. Angel sat on the other side of him while Tara grabbed the chair next to Cordelia a second before Willow got to it, giving her a sly smile of triumph. Wesley got down from his chair, picked up Gunn’s napkin and put it back on his lap. Gunn beamed at him and then held out his knife and fork. “Can you cut up my pizza for me?”

Wesley nodded, took the knife and fork from him and began to saw the pizza into bite-sized pieces.

“I want Wesley to cut up my pizza,” Cordelia pouted.

“Let me do his first, he’s smaller than us,” Wesley said gently.

Tara quietly asked Cordelia if she couldn’t cut her pizza up for her and after another pout from Cordelia she agreed. Buffy passed the water jug around and Giles tried to make small talk to cover the way they were all watching Wesley gamely sawing through Gunn’s pizza for him while his own cooled rapidly.

“I can do that for him, Wes,” Angel said.

“No, you can’t.” Gunn shook his head. “You don’t even eat food.”

“I'm eating food right now,” Angel pointed out.

“Angel’s a very good cook,” Wesley added in between cutting. “He makes the best eggs I’ve ever tasted. Is that small enough for you, Charles?”

“Yes.” Gunn took the knife and fork back from him. “Thank you.” He took one bite and then said, “Do you still have your scar?”

Wesley looked at him in surprise. “I don’t know.”

“Let me see.” Gunn reached across and pulled up Wesley’s shirt.

“Don’t.” Wesley grabbed his hand. “There are ladies present.”

“But you’re just a little kid now so no one cares.” Gunn pulled his hand free and yanked up the shirt to peer at Wesley’s abdomen with close attention. “Wow. It’s smaller but it’s still there.”

“Oh, let me see.” Cordelia craned her neck to look while Wesley gently but firmly pushed them away and pulled down his shirt.

“Can we please eat supper now?” he enquired. “I'm hungry.”

“Wesley’s right.” Angel glared at Gunn ominously. “Eat now. Irritate people later.”

“Who knew Gunn was such an annoying little brat?” Cordelia observed conversationally.

“Who knew you were such a spoilt princess?” Gunn countered. “Oh, that’s right – everyone.”

“Don’t fight,” said Wesley wearily, a moment before Angel could. “You’re giving me a headache.”

“Not having your glasses is giving you a headache,” Cordelia told him. “On a scale of one to ten how blurry am I to you right now?”

Wesley looked at her for a moment and then shrugged. “Very.”

“So, how much was it worth when you told me I looked lovely then?”

“Let Wesley eat, Cordy,” Xander said. “Christ knows he looks as if he could do with a square meal or twenty.” As everyone looked at Xander he winced apologetically at Wesley. “Sorry.”

Wesley shrugged resignedly. “I don’t mind. It did take me a little longer than the other boys at my school to fill out.”

Cordelia snorted. “Wes, you still haven’t filled out.”

“Yes, I have.”

“No, you haven’t.” Cordelia rolled her eyes. “You just learnt to wear more layers and clothes that are too big for you. That isn’t filling out. That’s covering up.”

Wesley sawed off a piece of pizza then said quietly, “I have muscles now.”

“You’re skin and bone,” she assured him. “And I still think we should be paying you in food instead of money that you just squander on books.”

Gunn had motored through his pizza in the time it had taken Wesley to saw off a piece of his own and carefully chew and swallow it and now turned to him again. “Will you cut up my taco?”

“No.” Angel firmly took the knife and fork from Gunn. “I’ll cut up your taco while Wesley eats. Stop being a brat.”

“I like being a brat,” Gunn explained. “And I didn’t get to be one when I was this size the first time around because I was the eldest. Now I'm the youngest and everyone has to look after me. It’s kind of cool.”

“And you’re going to get kind of smothered if you don’t knock it off,” Angel assured him.

“You and Wes are the ones who opened your stupid parcels and turned us into munchkins.”

Wesley winced guiltily. “Gunn has a point, Angel.”

“Gunn’s the manipulative bratspawn from Hell, Wesley. Ignore him.”

“And you have no idea where the amulet and orb came from?” Giles enquired.

Wesley finished chewing and swallowing before politely saying, “No idea at all. We didn’t recognize the handwriting.”

Xander said crossly to Giles, “Don’t ask Wesley questions when he’s eating.” He turned back to Wesley. “Is that pizza hot enough for you? I can put it in the microwave?”

Wesley looked surprised at the question. “It’s fine, thank you. Very nice.”

“You can eat with your fingers if you like, Wesley,” Buffy offered. “I am.”

Wesley looked even more surprised at the suggestion. “I don’t think I should in front of Gunn in case he stays little and has to grow up all over again.”

“Where did you learn to be the perfect older brother?” Cordelia demanded. “You’re like the dictionary definition of an only child.”

Wesley sighed and went back to cutting up his pizza while keeping his elbows into his sides. “From Angel.”

“I think of myself more as the father figure,” Angel admitted, finishing cutting up Gunn’s taco and giving him a warning look that told him he’d better not ask for anything else. “Of course, it was nicer when there were just the two kids around. Gunn so wasn’t planned.”

“I wasn’t planned either,” Dawn said to Gunn. “We often turn out best.”

“You’re going to give him a complex,” Wesley told Angel.

“I'll make him pay for my therapy,” Gunn assured Wesley. “Can I have a glass of water?”

Wesley looked at the heavy water jug and the breakable glasses and winced. “You’d better ask a grown up.”

“You’re a grown up.”

“My motor skills aren’t though.”

“I’ll do it.” Xander hastily got to his feet and picked up the water jug. “Just keep eating, Wesley.”

Xander poured water for everyone and placed the glasses where they could reach them, still watching Wesley out of the corner of his eye to see if he was eating. Giles could sympathize. Wesley was meticulous about cutting up his food with his knife and fork held just so, his elbows into his sides so there was less danger of him spilling anything, chewing everything very carefully with his mouth closed and then swallowing. He suspected that for Wesley meal times had always been formal occasions and eating with the fingers or talking with one’s mouth full had been strictly forbidden.

Before Xander had got all the way around the table with the water jug, Gunn had accidentally joggled his elbow into his own glass and knocked it over, causing a gushing of water onto Angel’s plate and accompanying shattering of glass.

In the moment of shocked silence, Wesley said hastily, “He didn’t do it on purpose, Angel. It was an accident.”

Angel had turned to Gunn with what definitely looked like annoyance on his face but at the sight of Wesley’s worried expression said, “It’s okay. Accidents happen.”

“My food’s wet!” Gunn’s wail didn’t sound manipulative to Giles, this time. More like a four year old shocked by a breakage and the possibility of a scolding narrowly averted. The way Gunn immediately climbed onto Wesley’s lap seemed to prove it. Wesley sighed and sat Gunn down more comfortably, then put the forkful of food he had been about to eat in front of Gunn’s mouth instead.

“It’s okay. It wasn’t your fault.” He looked at Angel again. “Shall I mop it up?”

“I’ll do it.” Angel got to his feet. “You look after the brat.”

“My sleeve’s wet,” Gunn said mournfully, wringing it out.

“I can change his clothes!” Dawn leapt to her feet at the prospect. “Oh! He should have a bath!”

“I don’t think he’d like to be bathed by a girl,” Wesley said gently to Dawn. “No offence.”

“I don’t mind.” Gunn looked up mischievously. “I’ve been bathed by girls before.”

Wesley sighed. “But if you turn back into an adult, Dawn will still be fourteen and you’ll feel like a pervert.”

“No, I won’t,” Gunn insisted.

Dawn grinned delightedly and looked at Buffy. “Can I give Gunn a bath and read him a story?”

“Ask Angel,” she said.

Dawn gave Angel a begging look and the vampire looked up from his mopping to shrug. “Sure, knock yourself out. Or knock him out, which would probably a better idea.”

Gunn stuck his tongue out at Angel. “I knew there was a reason I always liked Wesley better than I like you.”

“Yes, he’s a pushover and I'm not.” Angel nodded to Dawn. “His stuff is in the suitcase in the bedroom next to yours. His are the cartoon animal pyjamas and the red toothbrush.”

As Dawn scooped up Gunn and whisked him away, making him giggle hysterically as she evidently tickled him all the way up the stairs, Wesley gave Angel a reproachful look. “I don’t think you’re taking your parental responsibilities very seriously where Gunn’s concerned.”

“He’s a brat!” Angel countered.

Wesley said quietly, “A brat whose parents had their throats ripped out by vampires when he was twelve and who had to stake his own sister last year, remember? Don’t you think he’s entitled to act up a little?”

Giles winced and looked at Angel for confirmation. The vampire sighed. “Okay, I’ll be endlessly patient. But I don’t see why he’s making you run around after him as well as me.”

Wesley bent back to his pizza. “He ran around after me enough when I was in a wheelchair and I couldn’t get up any stairs or in and out of a car without him carrying me.”

“I carried you too,” Angel said quietly. “And you were only in that wheelchair because you took a bullet that was meant for him.”

“You were shot?” Xander looked at Wesley in shock. The Wesley he had known had been such a physical coward and had made such a fuss about even the prospect of pain that he would have expected him to tell them about it the second he was over the threshold. But this Wesley, despite being twenty years younger than the other one in appearance, seemed to have undergone some significant period of growing up.

“By a zombie policeman. There was blood everywhere.” Cordelia pushed her plate away. “I don’t want to eat any more.”

Wesley murmured to her, “Buffy and Xander went out and got that food especially…”

“It’s okay,” Buffy said quickly. “No one has to eat if they don’t want to.”

“Except for Wesley, who does,” Xander insisted. As all the adults looked at him he rolled his eyes. “I'm sorry but the kid is thin.” He glared at Angel. “What do you pay your people in anyway, buttons?”

“I'm not in charge of the agency any more,” Angel shrugged. “Wesley is.”

Giles felt as if his world had slightly tipped off its normal axis. “You work for Wesley?”

“Yes. He’s the boss. He says where we go, and what we do when we get there. It usually involves Cordy having a vision of a smelly demon with attitude, Wesley identifying aforementioned demon through research and coming up with a strategy for tackling it and then me, Gunn and Wes going in there and hacking.” Angel shrugged. “What it may lack in subtlety it makes up for in simplicity.”

“Angel went all dark side and loonytune on us and fired us,” Cordelia explained helpfully. “So we had to set up by ourselves. We elected Wesley to be leader because we…” She looked at Wesley for a moment. “Why did we do that again?”

“I have no idea,” he returned equably. “Too much tequila?”

She held up a small finger. “Oh no, that’s right, it was because when I got a vision when were all totally junk-faced and incapable of walking a straight line, you were the one who took charge and saved the girl from being eaten by a demon.”

“Yes, by the very cunning ruse of letting it bite me until Gunn killed it.” Wesley took a sip of water. “Another great plan from the man who brought you the ‘let’s stop Gunn getting beaten up by the police by being shot by them’ strategy.”

“You delivered a rousing speech in that alley which I don’t actually remember right now but I know it made me climb up a very dirty drainpipe to a place where I knew there was a big scary demon with teeth and claws so it must have been pretty damned good.”

Wesley frowned. “I don’t think you can say ‘damned’ now you’re six. You probably have to say ‘dashed’ or ‘dratted’.”

“Oh, can I say ‘fuck’?”

Wesley grinned at her. “Almost certainly not, I’d say. Besides, I don’t think Willow knows words like that. Probably best for her not to learn them.”

“Hey!” Willow looked up. “I so do know words like that. I'm just not allowed to say them in front of Dawn. Or you now. So, stop saying them too.”

Tara whispered to Cordelia, “She doesn’t know words like that. Wesley was right.”

Cordelia beamed up at Tara, revealing a slightly goofier version of her adult thousand watt smile. On the adult Cordelia it had always been impressive but even Giles had to privately admit that on a six-year-old Cordelia it was quite simply adorable. Cordelia addressed the table, “Does anyone know if it’s still cool to be raised by a single sex couple or is being brought up by lesbians out of fashion again?”

“You want Willow and Tara to adopt you?” Angel demanded in a hurt voice.

Cordelia shrugged. “Look at this way, Angel. If Willow adopts me, I get Tara as a stepmom. If you adopt me, I get Darla. Who would you choose to be wrapping your presents on Christmas Eve?”

“I was hoping to keep the family together.” Angel shrugged. “But, hey, if you want to have to wear hippy clothes like Willow and spend your time breathing in scented candles and feeling the aura of crystals you go right ahead and heartlessly abandon me and your brothers.”

“I don’t wear ‘hippy clothes’,” Willow protested.

Cordelia looked at her. “Yes, you do. Angel has a point.”

“I’d miss you,” Wesley said. “You know how to stop Angel getting cranky.”

“Yeah, I rule at that. He’d always be yelling at you boys.”

“I would not yell at them,” Angel retorted. “Well, okay, I’d probably yell at Gunn, but I wouldn’t yell at Wesley.”

“Good, because I’d bite you if you did.” Cordelia flashed her smile at him again. “And I have really good teeth.”

“You can’t yell at Gunn,” Buffy said in horror. “He’s like the UberCute. He’s the essence of cuteness that other cute kids just aspire to reach.”

“You noticed that when he was breaking your glassware and drowning my food, did you?”

Buffy shrugged. “You have to admit he did it really cutely.”

“You’re going to get such a shock when he’s returned to normal,” Cordelia shook her head. “Because then he’s just six feet four of twenty-something demon killing male with a slim but buff body, boyish good looks and the kind of smile that makes strong women…” She broke off. “Okay, I'm not saying it would entirely be a disappointment for the non-lesbian contingent but it would still be a shock.”

Buffy looked worried. “You don’t think this spell could just wear off by itself, do you? Because Dawn is bathing him right now…”

“Well, that would certainly save you having to make any of those tedious birds and the bees explanations, Buffy,” Giles observed.

“I'm thinking we should keep him.” Buffy popped some pizza into her mouth. “It sounds to me like a win-win scenario. We either get the cutest kid on the planet to play with or a really hot guy to…whatever.”

“Pervert,” Xander told her.

“I was just thinking aloud.”

“No one is getting my kids,” Angel said firmly. “The family that slays together stays together. And even if we can’t reverse the spell, give it twenty years and I’ll still be this age and Wes and Gunn will be useful demon killers again. Of course, you’ll all be old and wrinkly…”

“Let’s pelt him with bread rolls?” Buffy suggested.

Wesley looked across at Giles for the first time, squaring his narrow shoulders as he did so. “Do you think you can reverse it, Mr. Giles?”

Giles decided to be honest. “I don’t know. I haven’t encountered a spell like it before and my initial research suggests that a successful age reversal spell is a somewhat rare occurrence, but I'm sure that if I have a few days to study the amulet and the orb I will be able to make some progress, and I can promise you that I won’t give up until I’ve found some kind of explanation for what happened to you.”

Wesley nodded. “Thank you. Perhaps, tomorrow, if someone could get me some glasses that fit, and if my brains haven’t entirely turned to mush, I could help you with the research?”

Giles thought about it and then inclined his head. “Thank you, Wesley. I’d appreciate the help.”

“Are you tired, Wes?” Angel touched his shoulder gently. “Do you want to get some sleep? Supposing Gunn let’s us get any sleep and doesn’t kick us all night long.”

“Where am I sleeping?” Cordelia demanded.

“We thought you could share with Dawn,” Willow explained. “And Angel, Gunn and Wesley can all share a bed.”

“I want a bath too,” Cordelia’s lower lip began to tremble. “And I want to share with Willow and Tara. Dawn likes Gunn best. Just because he’s all shortassy now.”

“Don’t be difficult, Cordy,” Wesley pleaded, darting an anxious look at Angel. “Buffy and the others are giving up a lot of their time and space to us.”

“But I want to stay with Willow!” Cordelia wailed. “I know Willow. I picked on Willow at school for years. She’s comforting.”

“Let’s get everyone into the bath and then into their jammies,” Buffy suggested getting to her feet. “We can worry about who sleeps where afterwards.”

“We don’t mind.” Willow looked at Tara who quickly nodded. Willow continued swiftly: “We can look after Cordelia. And tomorrow we can take her shopping for shoes.”

Giles personally thought that was a masterstroke on Willow’s part as if the combination of ‘shopping’ and ‘shoes’ didn’t pull Cordelia back from the brink of her temper tantrum, nothing would.

Clearly the words had lost none of their charm as Cordelia went from the edge of tears to the edge of a smile. “Shopping? For shoes?”

“Yes, and we can have ice cream too,” Tara added quickly.

“You two are way too good at this,” Giles observed to Tara who smiled secretively.

“You have to see this!”

The squawk from Dawn made them all rush into the hall, Angel pushing Wesley behind him to keep him safe as Xander did the same with Cordy.

The sight that greeted them was a slightly damp, widely beaming four year old Gunn in his brand new cartoon pyjamas, all warm and contented from the bath, standing at the top of the stairs, holding onto a delighted Dawn’s hand.

“Oh my god,” said Buffy faintly. “He’s so cute.”

“He redefines cute,” Xander admitted.

Willow nodded. “It’s like someone took the cute bar and moved it up to a new Olympic record height.”

Cordelia plucked sulkily at Wesley’s sleeve. “What are we, chopped liver?”

Wesley smiled at her gently. “You have to admit, Gunn does look kind of sweet in his pyjamas.” Seeing her expression he amended hastily, “But not as sweet as you in that angel costume.”

“That would mean so much more if I wasn’t a blur to you right now,” she muttered at him but Giles saw the glimmer of a smile all the same.

“Isn’t he the cutest thing ever?” Dawn demanded.

“It’s just because he’s small,” Angel returned. “No one thinks Gunn’s cute normally.”

“Shows all you know.” Gunn stuck his tongue out at Angel.

“No one’s going to think you’re cute when you’re going through puberty again and you’re all zits and hormones.”

“Don’t even talk about that.” Buffy told Angel before she headed up the stairs. “Just drink in the cuteness that is Gunn now.”

Cordelia shrugged sulkily. “Watch him clean demon pus out of his ears a few times, then see how cute you think he is.”

“Gunn's going to stay with me tonight,” Dawn explained. “I'm going to read him a story and I think he should have someone with him in case he has nightmares.”

“What story are you planning to read him, Dawnie?” Xander enquired. “The Murders in the Rue Morgue?”

“Sounds cool.” Gunn looked up at Dawn hopefully. “Can we have that one?”

“You can have Winnie the Pooh and like it,” Buffy told him sternly as she picked him up. “And, Dawn, you have to remember that Gunn is a person, not a puppy, which I'm certainly bearing in mind as I tickle him like this…”

As the rest of her sentence was drowned in Gunn’s delighted squeals and giggling, Cordelia looked at Wesley again, “You don’t think Gunn’s cuter than me, do you?”

“No one’s cuter than you, Cord,” Xander told her, picking her up.

“Hey! No touching!” she protested.

“What, you don’t want me to do this…?” Xander tossed her up into the air and then caught her. She shrieked with glee and then told him unconvincingly to put her down right now; clearly nothing other than pleased when he ignored her to toss her up into the air and catch her again while Willow and Tara laughingly remonstrated.

Angel shook his head. “Serves him right if she throws up on him.” He looked down at Wesley. “These people have serious child substitute issues.”

 

It surprised no one that, when bedtime came around, Gunn was carried off by Dawn – albeit after a spirited battle with Buffy. Angel’s hearing was good enough for him to pick up Dawn’s voice reading of the arrival of Tigger in the Hundred Acre Wood. He had waited for Gunn to demand an adult book or to express some boredom at this choice of bedtime reading, but he had seemed entirely enraptured. Angel wondered how long it was since Gunn had known something approximating to ‘normal’ family life. He had been forced to grow up so very fast after the death of his parents, shuffled from shelter to shelter until he had taken to the streets on a self-appointed mission to clean up LA from demons and keep his sister safe. So far he had failed agonizingly at one of those tasks and was probably making less headway than he’d hoped on the other, so perhaps it wasn’t so surprising that at least a part of him was quite enjoying being too small to have the weight of the world resting on his shoulders. Perhaps he needed a break from being a grown up more than any of them.

Angel didn’t know if the young man he knew as a fearless – and sometimes downright reckless – demon killer had reverted so completely to being a child because of the biological imperative of being crammed into the body of a four-year old, or if the adult part of Gunn had just decided to let go for a while; to indulge himself in a childhood that had happened so long ago in terms of life experience that it must feel almost as distant as Angel’s own. Perhaps the best holiday for a guy with a death-wish and all that anger inside him, was some time being the child he had never had a chance to be, with no responsibilities and an older sister who took care of him.

Cordelia had insisted that she should be allowed to spend the night with Willow and Tara with a view to scoping them out as possible adoptive parents. Angel had counter-insisted that he would launch a vicious custody battle for Cordelia if Willow and Tara attempted to steal her from him but had told Dawn she could keep Gunn for as long as she wanted as long as she didn’t break him by too vigorous tickling. Gunn’s response had been to stick his tongue out at him while cuddling up to Dawn triumphantly.

“You’re going to give him a complex,” Wesley repeated in an urgent whisper.

Angel waved aside his concerns. “Hellbrat knows I love him really. You ready for your bath?”

“I can have a bath myself,” Wesley insisted.

“I know. But let me run it for you…”

Angel had ended up hovering near the bathroom door, which he insisted Wesley left unlocked, occasionally peering in to make sure that Wesley was okay, the little boy his friend had now become solemnly soaping himself and rinsing whenever he looked in, occasionally pausing to gaze mournfully at his stick thin little arms. Angel hadn’t thought of the adult Wesley as having the kind of physique someone would pine after, but child Wesley evidently did, and it was true that adult Wesley, for all his thinness, was perfectly capable of reaching a high shelf, picking up a heavy book, hefting a lethal weapon and decapitating a demon, all things it was now impossible for little Wesley to do.

“Do you need any help washing your hair?” Angel called into him.

Wesley shook his head stubbornly. He eyed up the showerhead, then evidently decided the risk of it spraying water everywhere was too great and settled for upending a jug of water over the shampooed hair, rinsing off the suds thoroughly. Angel felt that tight feeling in his chest give another little spasm, because Wesley was so determined to be good and no trouble, and he couldn’t help wishing it came from a happy place rather than what he feared was probably a trying-to-avert-for-as-long-as-possible-the-moment-when-no-one-would-love-him place.

As Wesley washed himself, Angel could hear Cordelia giggling in Tara and Willow’s room. He suspected that a part of Cordelia, of any size, was desperate for some female companionship. He knew she had grown a lot closer to Wesley and Gunn over the past few months and that the guys, in their way, did try to be good company for her, but he doubted they could hold their own in a conversation about fashion or shoes or – presumably – boys, while even Lorne’s taste was conspicuously different from Cordelia’s. Pride might have prevented her from admitting that she would have liked nothing more than an evening in with other girls talking about something inconsequential rather than another evening spent trying to balance the books, flinching from the aftermath of another vision headache, or out trying not to get herself impaled on demon talons. He knew that she was ashamed of how shallow her interests had been in the past, but that didn’t mean she was now an entirely new human being. She might have a purpose she had never had in the past, but he suspected that there were things she couldn’t discuss with any of them in the way she could with another woman. Not the least of which was probably how annoying they could all be at times just for being male and therefore woefully ignorant on so many matters that another woman would have understood in a word. Being back in Sunnydale was reminding him of a lot of things, not the least of which was how very different Cordelia had been when living here. It was hard to believe that girl, however much she had grown as a person, could really be satisfied spending evening after evening watching the same six movies with Wesley and Gunn, or nights in with a headache and Phantom Dennis.

“You don't know her at all. For months now you haven't cared to. Otherwise you might have realized that our Cordelia has become a very solitary girl. She's not the vain, carefree creature she once was... It's the visions, you see. The visions that were meant to guide you. You could turn away from them. She doesn't have that luxury. She knows and experiences the pain in this city, and because of who she is, she feels compelled to do something about it. It's left her little time for anything else. You'd have known that – if you hadn't had you head firmly up your... place that isn't on top of your neck.….”

He got that now, he really did. He still wasn’t certain that he had the right to drag vulnerable humans onto the treadmill of his redemption along with him. He had done terrible things, and if he wanted to atone by trying to do some good to make up for all the evil he had done that was his choice. It felt fitting that the Powers should send him impossible tasks and he should do his best to carry them out, a modern day vampire Hercules, albeit – he liked to think – better groomed, and hopefully a little brighter. But Cordelia, Wesley, and Gunn had nothing to atone for. They had made mistakes, certainly, and other people had suffered because of them, but they had never set out to do harm; their mistakes certainly could not compare with his. Doyle had told him that he needed contact with human beings to connect him to the world, and he knew now that he had been right. Separated from them, he became someone else; someone with free rein to deal with evil as he saw fit, certainly, but someone whose moral compass just kept spinning out of control without them to anchor him to magnetic north. There was no question in his mind now that he needed these people and that he was a greater force for good in their company than without it, but did they need the constant danger, physical pain, and emotional stress that went with being his anchors to the human world? He had agonised about that for a long time before he had driven to their new office and asked if he could help.

The fact was they had made their choice. He had given them a way out. He had fired them and freed them from all their obligations to him by acting like the world’s biggest undead asshole. Their response had been to do the same job without him at a considerably higher risk to their own lives. Wesley had almost died, and there must have been other dangers that they’d faced that could have claimed any one of them. He had been very lucky to get them back alive, he knew that, and there wasn’t a day right now when he wasn’t grateful that they had still been there for him to come back to, especially given how close they had all come to losing Wesley. If they were going to fight demons with him or without him it was better if they did it with him, where at least he had a chance to help keep them in one piece while they were doing it.

Glancing back across at Wesley, the boy looked as soaped, rinsed, and ready for bed as one could reasonably expect of anyone who had been six feet two in the morning and was four foot four now. In trying to get used to the places that he now no longer had, he had probably missed a few spots here and there but he was a lot cleaner than any of them usually were by this time of night and was at least unusually free of demon goop. Watching Wesley automatically feel his chin to see if he needed to shave and then grimace at the size of his hand and smoothness of his skin, Angel felt another pang of sympathy for him.

“Can you get out okay?” Angel asked him.

“I'm fine,” Wesley assured him, but when he stood up in the slippery bath he lost his footing and caught his hip hard on the side of the bath. Angel’s attention had been temporarily diverted by the sight of Xander – who he had imagined had gone home hours before – carrying mugs of hot chocolate towards the room shared by Willow, Tara and now Cordelia. He heard the ominous thump of body on porcelain and wheeled around at once.

“Wes…?”

When there was no answer, he hurried into the bathroom to find Wesley biting his lip hard to keep from crying out, tears bright in his eyes.

“Are you okay?” Angel lifted him out of the bath and hastily wrapped him in a towel. “What happened?”

“I slipped.” Wesley looked up at him, eyes still watering. “I was clumsy.”

“Let me see.” Angel anxiously lifted aside the towel and looked at the red mark on Wesley’s hip that was going to be a spectacular bruise in the morning. “Let’s put some arnica on that.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Wesley said quickly.

“Of course it matters.” Angel wrapped him up more warmly in the towel and sat him on the chair in the bathroom, before going through the cabinet. He wasn’t surprised to find that there was still an array of First Aid equipment there that would not have looked out of place in an ER, including arnica cream, and squeezed some of the cool ointment onto the bruise.

He rubbed Wesley’s hair gently with another towel and then shook out the plain blue PJs that Lorne had bought for Wesley. The green demon had done pretty well, Angel thought, buying Wesley conservative clothes in greys and blues that drew as little attention to their wearer as possible while making sure Cordelia had sweet frocks with frills, and Gunn had tough little kid clothes with plenty of extra seams and pockets and padded elbows and knees, and thick soles with extra grippy rubber grips on his even tougher little trainers. These navy blue cotton pyjamas were very Wesley, and Lorne had even managed to find a narrower than usual cut so they didn’t hang on him too awkwardly. A quick turn up of the pants and a fold back of the sleeves and they almost fitted him. Angel put some tissues into his pocket and promised him again that someone would get him some glasses that fitted him tomorrow.

“Have you brushed your teeth?” Angel asked, trying not to enjoy it quite as much as he was, but loving this, he had to admit, all the parental rituals that other people took for granted that were usually denied to him.

Wesley held up his toothbrush and Angel lifted him up so he could look in the mirror. It was strange to see the little boy suspended there as if by magic and Angel had that usual pang when a mirror refused to reflect him. In the past it had made him wonder if there was some connection between looking glasses and God, as if they were disdaining him from some higher command. Sometimes he still remembered the feel of that crucifix sizzling on his skin.

God doesn’t want you, but I still do.…

Cordelia was right about that anyway. As stepmothers went, Darla was not a suitable candidate.

Wesley spat delicately into the wash basin, and when Angel set him back down, struggled with the taps before pouring himself a tumbler of water to solemnly rinse. Ritual seemed to be important to the child Wesley had become. Perhaps that was boarding school, or perhaps it had been dinned into him at home, either way it made for a child who was almost too easy, too well behaved, too easy to forget because he would never be any trouble and therefore didn’t need any attention.

“Do you want some hot chocolate?” Angel asked him.

Wesley’s face lit up momentarily and then he shook his head. “We might wake someone up.”

“We can be really quiet,” Angel insisted. “And you’re having a story before bedtime whether you want one or not. I don’t get too many chances to indulge my frustrated parental yearnings so I'm intending to pamper myself.” He gave Wesley’s hair a last rub that made it stick up in a way that Wesley would no doubt have hated if he was aware of it but which Angel found particularly cute, helped him into his sombre tartan robe, the belt of which would have gone around his waist three times with no difficulty, belted it as well as he could and then took his hand.

“Do you really have frustrated parental yearnings?” Wesley asked as they reached the corridor.

Angel tightened his grip on his hand. “Sometimes. It’s like anything you can’t have. You think about it sometimes.”

“But if the Shanshu prophecy is right then maybe you can one day.”

Angel looked down into Wesley’s earnest upturned face, big blue eyes trying to focus on the blur that he must be, and realized that he wanted this more than he’d ever allowed himself to admit; wanted to be human and able to offer Buffy a normal life with normal kids; except she could never be normal either, she had her mythic destiny to fulfil as the saviour of mankind and he had his undead atonement to work through. “Maybe,” he said gently. “But in the meantime, I have the three of you.”

Hearing a giggle from Dawn’s room that proved Gunn was still awake, Angel rolled his eyes and let go of Wesley’s hand.

“He’s just over excited,” Wesley said quickly. “It’s strange being a child again, Angel. He isn’t trying to be naughty.”

Angel opened his mouth to remonstrate and saw Wesley twisting his fingers nervously. “Wes, no one is going to get angry with any of you, okay? Not really angry. Everyone knows this is weird for you.”

“It’s just… He’s only four. I know we remember being grown up, but we don’t feel grown up. Our bodies don’t work like they feel they should do. Everything is in the wrong place and nothing is where it should be, especially us.”

“I know,” Angel said gently. “But he needs to go to sleep so I'm going to tell him that. I'm not going to…” He didn’t know what Wesley thought he was going to do, yell, presumably, or spank, or lock up in the dark. “I'm not going to get cross,” he finished lamely.

Wesley didn’t look very reassured, and he also looked small and thin and damp standing in the corridor by himself. Angel could feel his protective instincts where these three were concerned – already in overdrive after coming so close to losing them all through his own stupidity – crank up another dangerous notch. Angel knocked quietly on Dawn’s door. “Are you decent?”

An outbreak of giggling and then Dawn called back an affirmative. Angel opened the door and looked in at a Gunn who was cuddled up in Dawn’s bed, clutching her teddy bear, sucking his thumb, smears of chocolate on his hands, and silver paper on the bed that revealed they had been having a mini-midnight feast. “Don’t come crying to me if he’s sick on you,” Angel told her.

Gunn just giggled again and cuddled up closer to Dawn who gazed down at him dotingly. She was also wearing pyjamas and looked besotted. “He’s so cute,” she breathed to Angel. “And he can read really well for a four year old.”

“Perhaps because he’s actually twenty-three,” Angel returned.

Gunn sucked his thumb at him in a way that denoted contempt and dismissal. Angel rolled his eyes and turned to Dawn. “Tell me this isn’t a schoolnight for you?”

“Buffy said I could skip school tomorrow on account of being sick.”

“I suppose wanting to play with Gunn all day could be considered a form of illness,” Angel said dryly. “Just don’t let him get overtired or he’ll throw a tantrum.”

“You wouldn’t throw a tantrum, would you?” Dawn looked dotingly at Gunn who gazed back at her with a blink blink of innocence out of big brown eyes that Angel couldn’t believe would fool anyone with a ‘y’ chromosome – although it seemed to work perfectly on Dawn.

“Not unless it was cute,” Gunn took his thumb out of his mouth to say.

“I bet he throws the cutest tantrums,” she sighed.

“We’d better find a way to reverse this because if he stays a kid you are laying up so much trouble for yourself for later, Dawn.” Shaking his head, Angel started to back out of the door. He turned around in time to see Xander tip-toeing out of Willow’s room with the now empty mugs on his tray. Still not attuned to there being people below chest height, he backed straight into Wesley, stumbled, and dropped the tray, crockery smashing everywhere.

Wesley backed into the wall, saying rapidly, “I'm sorry, I'm sorry…”

Xander looked up at him in shock from amidst the broken crockery. “It’s okay, Wesley,” he said at once. “My fault. I didn’t see you there. Are you okay? Did I hurt you?”

“The cups are broken,” Wesley said faintly. He dropped down onto his hands and knees and began to stack the smashed pieces onto the tray.

When the door opened and Buffy came out of her room the look he gave her was one of sheer panic. “Is everyone okay?” she enquired.

“I dropped the tray,” Xander told her quickly. “My fault. Sorry. Go back to bed.” He turned back to where Wesley was snatching up the broken crockery rapidly while trying to mop at the spilled cocoa dregs with the handkerchief from his pocket, still saying ‘sorry’ over and over as he did so. “Wesley, it’s okay. It wasn’t your fault. It was my fault. Hey…” Xander caught his wrist gently, and took the crockery from his fingers. “This is sharp - you could cut yourself. Let me do it.”

Angel stepped back into Dawn’s room, leaving the door open a crack and putting a finger to his lips to Dawn and Gunn to be quiet, which, somewhat to his surprise, they obeyed.

Buffy hurried down the corridor in her pyjamas and robe. “Are you okay, Wesley?” she asked anxiously. “Did you get knocked over?”

“The cups are broken,” he repeated in a small voice.

“They were old cups,” she told him. “We didn’t even like those cups, and we have other cups. Better cups. Some of them with handles. Do you want some hot chocolate? I want hot chocolate.”

“Me too.” Xander stacked the rest of the broken crockery onto the tray, stood up and held out a hand to Wesley. “Want to come and help us drink our hot chocolate?”

Wesley looked around. “I think I should wait for Angel.”

“It’s not a very big house,” Buffy told him gently. “I'm sure Angel will be able to find us in the kitchen.” She also held out a hand to Wesley. “Come on. Hot chocolate is like Disney films, you have to have a child around as an alibi for indulging yourself. Did you get Disney films in England? I'm not sure Giles knows who Mickey Mouse is…”

Angel watched as she coaxed Wesley to come with her, Xander, while juggling the tray and broken crockery, took his other hand. Wesley tentatively murmured that he liked Fantasia but hadn’t seen it in years and Buffy promised to let him watch it with Gunn tomorrow.

“…You can act long suffering, if you like. I used to do that with Dawn all the time when she was watching some cartoon I thought I was too old to enjoy but which I really wanted to see.”

“Now Dawn does that with me,” Xander explained.

“Do you like marshmallows?” Buffy added as they went down the stairs. “I'm feeling a midnight feast craving coming on…”

Angel waved goodnight to Dawn and Gunn, the latter, he noted, now having to fight to keep his eyes open and already starting to slump sleepily against Dawn. “Sweet dreams,” he told her.

She cuddled down in the bed, pulling Gunn up against her as if he were a teddy bear and Angel backed out of their room and closed the door quietly. He wondered exactly how she and Gunn were ever going to be able to look each other in the eye if he did turn back into his usual shape again. Gunn wasn’t incoherent and clumsy around women the way Wesley was, but he was thoroughly gentlemanly and only mildly flirtatious. Angel suspected he was going to be mortified about the barefaced cheek of spoilt Child Gunn once he was Adult Gunn again. But given what a brat Child Gunn was, Angel also kind of thought he had it coming.

He gave Xander and Buffy ten minutes alone with Wesley before wandering into the kitchen as if he hadn’t been hovering outside watching them make Wesley hot chocolate and marshmallows and sit with him and coax him into talking to them.

“You’re spoiling all my fun,” he told Buffy. “I wanted to make him hot chocolate.”

“I’ll tell Giles to go-slow on that spell reversal,” she shrugged. “Then you can make tomorrow night’s hot chocolate.”

“I don’t think Mr. Giles will be able to reverse it in a day.” Wesley surreptitiously licked marshmallow from his fingers. “I tried to look it up on the drive down but it was difficult to read the books without my glasses and it made me car sick. I didn’t see anything about de-ageing spells except that people are always trying to do them and they never work. It may take him weeks.”

“So, you get to be a kid for a few weeks,” Xander said cheerfully. “That just means you get to do kid things.”

“ ‘Kid things’?” Wesley looked at him warily. “Like what?”

“You tell me, Wes,” Angel said quietly. “What did you want to do when you were a kid that you couldn’t?”

“Make Daddy proud of me.” Wesley tried to smile to show it was a joke but there was a frozen look on his face that made Angel want to punch a wall, or a man back in England, very hard. “Get picked first when people were choosing teams. Not be always falling over and breaking things. Not be afraid of the dark.”

Xander’s expression had changed during Wesley’s words from confusion to grim comprehension but he managed to say lightly: “Your childhood sounds a lot like mine, Wesley. But there are other kid things one can do that don’t involve ritual humiliation. They would involve playing with toys, watching way too much television, eating more chocolate than the human body should logically be able to consume…. The list is pretty much endless.”

“Tomorrow we’ll take you out and get you some new glasses,” Buffy told him comfortingly. “Then you’ll at least be able to see the television and chocolate and so on.”

“And help Mister Giles with the research.” Wesley brightened at the prospect of being useful.

Buffy and Xander exchanged a look and then Xander nodded. “That too. Although, if you don’t give me an excuse to dig out my Star Wars tapes and watch them again on the pretext of showing them to you, I will sulk.”

Wesley managed a faint smile. “I expect I could manage to do both.”

“Are you ready for bed?” Angel asked him.

Wesley nodded and got to his feet, swaying as he did so. Xander caught him gently by the shoulders and held him steady. “Easy there, Wesley. It’s been a long day for you guys.”

“Do you want me to carry you?” Angel asked him.

Wesley looked a little ashamed but gazing up at the staircase nodded dumbly.

“I thought you’d never let me,” Angel grinned at him and scooped him up into his arms. He felt terrifyingly light and breakable. Angel had a sudden memory as he did so of a bruised and bleeding Wesley unconscious in the burning wreckage of their offices and tightened his grip protectively. “It’s going to be okay, Wes. Giles will reverse the spell and you can be who you are again. But in the meantime, just try to make the best of this, okay?”

Wesley nodded again. “Yes, Angel.”

“And think of all the blackmail material we’re going to have on Gunn by the time it’s over.”

A genuine smile from Wesley at last. “That’s a very good point.”

“What do you want me to read to you?” Angel looked over his shoulder at Buffy. “There are only girls’ books in our room.”

She rolled her eyes at him. “Well, there are only girls in this house. What’s wrong with The Secret Garden anyway? Or A Hundred And One Dalmatians?”

“Oh,” Wesley lit up at that. “I like both of those.”

Angel shrugged. “Dalmatians it is.”

“You can read to me from a grown up book if you want. I don’t mind.”

“I know you don’t, Wes,” Angel said gently. “But I do. Kid things, remember?”

Wesley managed a smile. “Kid things it is.” He looked over Angel’s shoulder and said politely, “Good night, Buffy. Good night, Xander.”

As they said their goodnights, Angel looked back at their faces and saw the same lump in the throat expressions on their faces that he was trying so hard to keep off his own. Gunn was too cute to induce anything except doting looks, Cordelia so adorable she invited smiles as wide as her own, but Wesley made one feel pinched inside, painfully aware of all the love no one had ever shown him and which he didn’t expect to receive. As they headed up the stairs, Angel pressed a kiss into his damp hair and didn’t care who saw it.

***

Rupert Giles moved the orb out of the range of his elbow, compared the amulet in his hand with the illustration in the book for the second time and then conceded defeat. It did not match. Just as it had not matched with any of the last thirty-six pictures of amulets with which he had made a comparison. It was probably in here somewhere. He had another three hundred or so amulets with which to compare it in this volume of Mystical Amulets & Pendants of the Ancient Far East alone. But finding it was not going to be fun.

Usually he would have had at least Willow to help him and quite possibly an entire quotient of ‘Scoobies’, but since the arrival of Angel and his ‘children’ everyone was otherwise engaged. Willow and Tara were currently taking Cordelia around every shoe and clothes shop in Sunnydale in between buying her foodstuffs that Giles was quite certain would not be good for her beautiful teeth. Dawn was having a Disney cartoon marathon with Gunn while Angel supervised in an adult fashion, and Xander and Buffy were daring the daylight which made Angel an impossibility for this particular errand, taking Wesley out to get some new glasses.

Giles had tried to make a show of disappointment on the phone to Buffy that morning about not being needed for any of these particular chores but had evidently failed as she had said witheringly: “Faker. You are so not gutted about not being needed to take care of the rugrats.”

“Do watch your double negatives, Buffy,” he told her. “Now there are children in the house you really will have to be careful of your grammar.”

“I'm making a rude gesture down the phone at you right now, Giles. You can’t see it, but trust me, it’s there.”

“Something else you probably shouldn’t be doing in front of Angel’s new family. Children of that age are so receptive,” he told her smugly, before putting down the phone.

That had been four hours ago and he presumed the children would now be getting lunch, probably something sweet and bad for them. He hoped that Xander could overcome his need to force-feed poor Wesley. The child couldn’t help being thin. Child. Giles winced. Man, rather, mystically shrunk to child-like proportions. He thought of how important it had been to the adult Wesley he had known to appear to be in charge, that neat tie and suit, his impeccably combed hair. Perhaps those had been the trappings to disguise panic all the time, but Giles hadn’t really picked up on more than that the man was a pompous twerp who was probably compensating for something.

The knock on the door was for once an agreeable distraction. He opened it to find Buffy standing on his doorstep looking like a movie star in her sunglasses and windswept hair and Xander looking nothing at all like a movie star in his sunglasses and windswept hair. In between the two of them, holding onto Buffy’s hand, was a Wesley who, in the penetrating light of day, was even thinner and paler than Giles remembered him being.

“Wesley’s come to help you with the research.” Buffy indicated his glasses proudly. “See. The world’s all in focus again.”

Wesley smiled at her shyly. “Thank you, Buffy.”

“You’re so welcome.” She made to ruffle his hair, remembered in time that he was actually older than she was, and made a conscious effort to stop herself, just patting him tentatively on the shoulder.

Giles held open the door for them to come in. “I'm very glad to see you, Wesley. I could do with some help.”

“The old are so fickle,” Xander sighed to Buffy. “And to think that last week we were his favourite research assistants.”

“Actually you were never my favourite research assistants,” Giles assured them. “Willow was and is.” He turned to the little boy who was gazing up at his books wistfully. “Can I get you a cup of tea, Wesley?”

“Thank you.” The boy relaxed a fraction. “I’d love a cup of tea.”

“Tea.” Xander hit Buffy lightly on the arm. “Why didn’t we think of tea?”

“Because we were too busy trying to cram chocolate milkshakes down him?” she shrugged. “Do you have any cookies?”

“I have biscuits,” Giles stressed the word. “But haven’t you just had lunch?”

“Eating after meals is good. That means you’re not ruining your appetite. Just keeping it in training,” Xander explained.

Rolling his eyes, Giles made tea, gave Xander the biscuit tin, and invited Wesley to sit down on the couch. He handed him the tea carefully so that Wesley could take it by the handle, noticing the care with which Wesley steered it to his mouth. “It really doesn’t matter if you spill it,” Giles assured him. “After years of Buffy and Xander invading my personal space I hardly flinch at all now when another personal possession goes west.”

Buffy beamed at Wesley cheerily, biscuit already in hand. “He loves us really. He just hides it in front of visitors.”

Xander flopped down in a chair. “And indeed when there are no witnesses of any kind.”

Buffy nodded. “He’s inscrutable like that.”

“You two, drink your tea, and then clear off. Wesley and I have important Watcher research to do.”

“Fine. Throw us out into the snow.”

“It’s eighty degrees in the shade, Buffy.”

“Quibbler.” Buffy popped another biscuit into her mouth. “These are good, what are they?”

Giles took the tin from her. “Chocolate hob-nobs, imported at vast expense from the mother country. And anyone, except Wesley, who touches my Jaffa cakes, dies. They are completely wasted on you colonials.”

Wesley looked up with more interest. “You have Jaffa cakes?”

“The moment those two are out the door, I’ll open a packet,” Giles promised. “Come on, Buffy, Xander, drink up.”

“They’re being all cliquey and boys clubby and British and Watchery,” Buffy observed to Xander. “But we don’t care. We can go home and watch Walt Disney cartoons while pretending we’re babysitting Gunn.”

“We could have a Simpsons Marathon!” Xander finished his tea in two gulps.

Buffy gazed anxiously at Wesley. “Are you sure you want to stay here and do boring old research with boring old – “

“Don’t say it,” Giles warned her.

“Boring old books when you could be having fun with the rest of us?”

Wesley grimaced. “Given Dawn’s complete inability to say ‘no’ to Gunn about anything, I imagine he’s now on the crest of a sugar high that will have Angel threatening to bite people and meaning it. I think I’ll be much happier here with Mr. Giles.”

“Please call me 'Giles', Wesley. It makes me feel as if I’m a hundred and fifty every time you call me ‘Mister Giles’.” As the boy looked at him in confusion, he added: “Which I'm not, by the way.”

“You call Gunn ‘Gunn’,” Xander pointed out. “It’s the same thing.”

Buffy smiled seraphically. “I wonder what Angel is calling Gunn right now.”

Xander got to his feet. “Let’s go and find out, shall we?”

“I want to know how many pairs of shoes Little Cordy has persuaded Willow to buy for her,” Buffy added brightly. “If it’s more than six you’d better hold back on undoing that spell for a while, Giles, or Cordelia will never get a chance to wear them all.”

“Cordelia may have to live with that particular disappointment,” Giles returned. “I think Wesley has probably had quite enough of being small.”

Wesley smiled faintly. “I had enough of being small twenty years ago. Like bad British sitcoms it’s not something that improves in reruns.”

“You have bad British sitcoms?” Xander paused in the doorway. “I thought all your television rocked?”

Giles and Wesley exchanged a look of mutual understanding. “Perhaps a short sharp dose of ‘On The Buses’ might correct that delusion?” Giles observed to Wesley. “Or there’s always ‘George and Mildred’.”

“I remember that almost anything with vicars in it was usually very bad,” Wesley added.

Giles passed a hand in front of his eyes. “Was ‘Love Thy Neighbour’ just a nightmare I had or did it actually exist?”

“Stop spoiling our illusions about England being the font of all culture.” Buffy stabbed an accusing finger at Giles. “An illusion, incidentally, that you’ve been peddling for all you’re worth since you arrived here.”

“We have Shakespeare,” Giles told her smugly. “And consequently will always win the culture war. In fact he really reduces it to little more than a skirmish.”

“We have Walt Whitman and his grassy…leaves,” Buffy retorted. “And lots of other important American writers whose names are temporarily escaping me.”

Giles shrugged dismissively. “When it comes to dead gay poets we also have you beaten hollow.”

Wesley nodded. “Yes, we can see that Whitman and raise you an Auden, an Owen and a Housman.”

“Emily Dickinson!” Buffy said triumphantly. “Another important American writer, and one whose poetry I even read once, briefly, when I was trying to impress a boy, but that’s not important, I remembered her name.”

“Children, please,” said Xander soothingly. “The question before us here is surely not whether we want to debate the merits of our relative cultural achievements but whether we want to see Angel having to cope with a four year old Gunn, who is too cute to scold, on a serious sugar high?”

Buffy patted Xander on the chest. “As always, Mister Harris, you cut to the heart of the important stuff while Giles gets bogged down in the…not so important stuff.”

“Fine.” Giles held open the door for them. “Wesley and I will just research the very complicated and arcane magic that must have been utilized to bring about the metamorphosis of adults into children while you do the serious important work of watching Gunn get even more spoiled than one would believe was humanly possible.”

Buffy paused in the doorway, the remains of a chocolate hob-nob still in her fingers. “You’re just jealous because we’re the ones having fun.”

Her grin was infectious but Giles did manage to hold out until she and Xander were the other side of a closed door before letting his amusement show. “I was going to reassure Angel last night that even very small children eventually grow up, but then I thought about Buffy and Xander and realized that sometimes ‘eventually’ can be a very long time.”

“Do you think Angel is angry with Gunn?” Wesley looked anxiously at the telephone. “Perhaps I should call…?”

“I'm sure he isn’t,” Giles reassured him. “Much as it pains me to admit it, I imagine it is in fact impossible to be angry with Gunn in his present incarnation, however hard one might try.”

Wesley smiled. “He is pretty cute.”

“Deplorably so,” Giles conceded. “Now, how about those Jaffa cakes…?”

***

Collins handed the binoculars to Smith. “What do you think?”

The man adjusted the focus and looked. He saw two pretty young women, one with glorious red hair, the other with light brown locks, and in between them a little girl with brown hair cut into a bob. He knew who they were. Everyone associated with the Slayer had a file with the Council somewhere, so he knew the two women were a couple. He was hoping they might kiss while he still had the binoculars but unfortunately they weren’t even holding hands, only the hands of the little girl.

“Alternative parenting,” he shrugged. “Happens a lot these days. I'm not against it on principal.”

“Are they kissing?” Weatherby demanded from the back. He was still sulking about having to sit in the back and next time Smith thought it would probably be easier to just let him have the passenger seat. Weatherby could sulk for a long time over slights real and imagined and he bore grudges as if in training for an Olympic event.

“I mean what do you think in reference to the information we were given?” Collins said wearily.

“Oh.” Smith looked back through the binoculars. They were standing at the gates of a house with a long drive; somewhere that looked very expensive.

The redhead was saying anxiously, “I knew it wasn’t a good idea to come here. Cordy, are you okay?”

“I miss my pony,” the little girl said weepily. Adjusting the focus, Smith saw tears were trickling down her face. “I miss Keanu.”

“I knew we shouldn’t have let her come here,” the redhead said to the other woman. “It’s bound to bring back unhappy memories.”

“Do you see what I see?” Collins enquired.

Weatherby shrugged. “Two women with a little girl. So what?”

“Don’t you ever do your homework? A crying little girl all upset because she’s looking at the house Cordelia Chase used to live in. That’s something like confirmation as far as I'm concerned.”

“You believe that cock and bull story the Wolfram & Hart lawyer told you?”

Collins looked over his shoulder. “I believe Angelus locked those lawyers into that wine cellar. Don’t you? And that makes him culpable in the death of a number of humans and that makes him a legitimate target.”

Smith said tentatively, “But…a lawyer who works for Wolfram & Hart…?”

“Just because someone is dyed-in-the-wool evil doesn’t mean they don’t occasionally tell the truth. Or that they don’t have an ordinary grudge that makes them go against company policy enough to tell us what’s going on. And this isn’t any lawyer, my friends, this is Lilah Morgan; one of only two survivors of the wine cellar massacre at Holland Manners’ place. She said their psychics picked up a major mystical disturbance in the Hyperion Hotel where Angelus has made his base and that right afterwards a horned demon called The Host, a known ally of Angelus and his ragbag of human minions, was seen shopping for children’s clothes, for two boys and a girl. And no one has seen the Chase girl, the associate known as Gunn, or our old friend Wesley since then. What has been seen is Angelus getting into his convertible along with three children, two boys, one girl.”

“It’s beyond far-fetched,” Smith complained. “I’d be embarrassed to put it in a report.”

“I was embarrassed to have to put in a report that a rogue slayer, a vampire, and that little ponce Pryce screwed up our entire mission,” Weatherby snarled. “But I still had to do it.”

The little girl wiped her eyes. “Can we go and see Wesley? I want to show him around town. I never got the chance before.”

“He’s working with Giles today, Cordy,” the one called Tara said gently. “But I'm sure you’ll be able to show him around town tomorrow.”

“I’d call that confirmation.” Collins took the binoculars from Smith. “I doubt there are too many people in California called ‘Wesley’, especially ones who happen to be friends with little girls who are moping around in the grounds of Cordelia Chase’s old house. I think it’s time we paid a visit to our old friend Rupert Giles.”

“I can’t believe any of this,” Smith returned stolidly. “But going to see Giles to tell him about the lawyers in the wine cellar is probably a good idea anyway.”

“Let’s make one thing clear,” Collins said coolly. “We’re here to obtain information, not impart it, and as far as I'm concerned anyone who allies himself or herself with a vampire deserves to be treated like a vampire.”

“What are those men doing?”

Smith turned his head in shock to see that the party of women and child had drawn much closer and the little girl was frowning accusingly at them as she peered into the car.

“Why do they have binoculars? Are they spying on us? Do you think they’re perverts? I think we should call the police.”

“Move it,” said Weatherby urgently to Collins. “I don’t want to have to explain to some PC Plod about the Watchers' Council.”

“Those men are creepy…”

Collins had already started the engine and they pulled away from the kerb at speed. “Do you think she recognized us?” Smith enquired anxious.

“Recognized us from when?” Collins returned imperturbably. “We didn’t meet her, only Wyndam Pryce, the vampire, and his matching pair of slayettes.”

“But if she tells Rupert Giles there were three men hanging around he may make the connection…” Smith began.

Collins gave him a sharkish smile. “All the more reason to go straight to our fellow Watcher’s place without delay…”

***

It was strange to be researching with Wesley again. Giles had surreptitiously piled a couple of cushions onto a chair so the boy could sit up to the table, and kept an eye on him to make sure the books weren’t too heavy for him to manage. Wesley looked very small to be dealing with some of the larger leatherbound volumes, having to use both hands to open them on more than one occasion, but his brain did not appear to have turned to ‘mush’ as he had phrased it, and he was an odd sort of child-adult mixture at present that made for surprisingly restful company.

He still seemed to have retained his academic knowledge of demons but had reverted to a child’s anxieties, making him extremely polite, quiet, and well-behaved. As a childless Englishman, Giles had to admit that he was all for children being all of those things, but as the hours ticked past and Wesley was so absolutely no trouble at all it did begin to worry him slightly.

“Can I get you anything, Wesley?” he asked. “A…coke? Something to eat?”

“I still have some left, thank you.” Wesley pointed to the Jaffa cake which he had only half eaten that was still sitting on its plate on the coffee table by the couch along with Wesley’s half drunk cup of tea.

“Do you want your tea up here?” Giles pressed.

Wesley gave him a shocked look and automatically put his hands behind his back. “Not near the books.”

Giles looked at the way he had clenched his right hand protectively over his knuckles and had a sudden unpleasant jolt of realization about the kind of punishment Wesley’s father had probably doled out for spillages. “Accidents happen, you know, Wesley, to everyone.”

“That’s why one should never have any food or drink near the books. Because little boys are too stupid and clumsy to be safe around them.”

Giles had never much liked Roger Wyndam-Pryce, he was too much of a cold fish to engender affection in anyone, he had always thought, except for his nearest and dearest. Now he found himself moving from indifference to positive dislike. “Shall we take a break? I’d like another cup of tea myself.”

He was torn between leaving the man Wesley had been his natural dignity and helping the small boy he had become to get down from his cushion-piled chair, eventually opting for the latter, murmuring, “Let me help you with that…” Lifting Wesley shocked him, as the boy seemed to weigh nothing at all. He didn’t know if all small children were as thin as Wesley was or if he was unusual but he sympathized a little more with Xander’s neurotic force-feeding regime.

He made more tea, throwing away Wesley’s half drunk cup and making him a fresh one, while Wesley used the bathroom again. Giles could hear him conscientiously washing his hands, something he had done after handling his Jaffa cakes and before he touched the books as well. Normally he would have been happy to have a little boy around who was so sensitive to the protection of his books but he didn’t like the way he suspected this lesson had been learned. Try as he might to tell himself that this was the adult Wesley showing an adult’s care for something valuable and useful, he felt instinctively this had a lot more to do with young Wesley’s childhood conditioning by someone who seemed to have been as fast to criticize as he was slow to praise.

“You were Head Boy, weren’t you, Wesley?” Giles handed him his tea as he sat down beside him on the couch, Wesley’s shoes not at any point touching the soft furnishings despite having been very carefully wiped on the mat on entering Giles’s house. “At the Academy?”

“Yes.” Wesley briefly lit up at the realization that Giles knew.

“At seventeen? That’s quite something.”

“It was a lot of work,” Wesley admitted.

“Your father must have been proud?” Giles watched him carefully.

Wesley looked at his feet. “He never mentioned it if he was. I expect he would have mentioned how disappointed he was fast enough if I hadn’t managed it though.”

For the first time Giles wondered how Wesley’s father had reacted to his being fired by the Council. Not well, he suspected. “When you left Sunnydale did your father…?”

Wesley looked at up him and although it was a little boy’s face, his eyes looked old. “He told me I’d made him a laughing stock and not to bother coming home.”

Giles picked his words carefully. “Working for Angel… for a vampire…? It’s not just a way of getting back at your father, is it?”

Wesley looked surprised at the question. “No. At least, I don’t think so. No, I think it’s… It just feels like the right thing to do. The best way to do good. And that’s all we’re for, isn’t it? People like you and me, with a hereditary calling, like Buffy and…Faith, and all the other Slayers that came before them and will come after them. We’re just here to do some good.”

“I still hope that Buffy can have a life one day. A life that isn’t just this.”

Wesley glanced up at him again. He seemed to need to gather his courage before talking to Giles, whereas he remembered the man he had been before being positively eager to venture an opinion, whether it was welcome or not. Giles had the unpleasant feeling that he might be reminding Wesley of his father. He wondered if he had reminded Wesley of him in the past, also, and if that was why he had been such an insufferable little shit – a way of getting at his father that hadn’t involved having to actually take on the wrath of Roger Wyndam-Pryce – or if Wesley’s reaction to him had been dictated by the total lack of cooperation or kindness he had received from Giles, Buffy and the others.

Wesley ventured tentatively: “And what about you? Do you think you might be able to have a life one day?”

“I don’t know. The one is dependent on the other. This is my life. Being Buffy’s Watcher. It’s what I do and who I am.” Giles held out the biscuit plate and smiled in a way he hoped was encouraging.

Although Wesley politely turned down the biscuit he did give him a tentative smile in return. “That’s how I feel about working for Angel. As if my life was just waiting to begin until I arrived in LA, and then it did.”

Giles sighed. “I know that devoting one’s life to the support of a young girl with a deplorable grasp of the English language who occasionally elevates frivolity in her calling to a new and dangerous level may seem a little unwise, but Buffy has at least always been on the side of the…”

“Angels?” Wesley smiled gently. “Angel wants to atone, Giles. Even though it was Angelus who did those things and not him, he wants to make up for what was done by the demon who stole his body. I would have liked to be a better Watcher to Buffy than I was. I would have liked to be some help to Faith before she ended up with those deaths on her conscience. But I didn’t manage to do that. I messed up.”

“I think we all messed up where Faith is concerned,” Giles began.

Wesley shook his head. “There was a moment where Angel could have reached her and I was the one who stopped that from happening.”

“The Council were the ones who gave you the orders, Wesley. You were raised to believe that the Council were as close to infallible as any earthly organization can be. You were young and it was your first job as a Watcher and you did what you were told. As great crimes go, that wasn’t one of them.” Giles felt a stab of guilt as he realized this must have been festering on Wesley’s conscience for all this time. They should certainly have talked about it before now, but he had been so angry with him at the time and then it would have seemed churlish to bring it up. He picked his words with care: “Whatever the outcome, your intentions were good, and if you made a mistake you were certainly made to pay for it. The Council fired you and Faith tortured you. I think that’s plenty of atonement for just doing your job. Now, drink your tea and let’s get back to our research.”

Wesley smiled. “You must be very eager for us to be restored. Poor Buffy. A house full of monstrous brats.”

“My fear is more that if the three of you stay children for too long that no one is going to want to change you back.” Giles admitted, taking Wesley’s teacup from him. “Willow and Tara are having far too much fun playing with their dress up Cordelia doll. Dawn is probably going to have to be bribed to give up Gunn at all, and you… well, you’re in serious danger of making me forget that I don’t actually like small children.”

Wesley looked genuinely amused as well as very surprised. “And you an Englishman and a Watcher?”

“Exactly.” Giles rose to his feet. “My world view is being challenged. We can’t have that.”

“Angel thinks he’s never going to be a father,” Wesley said sadly as he clambered back up onto his pile of cushions.

“Angel’s right.” Giles decided there was no point in beating around the bush. “The three of you being temporarily transformed is the nearest he’s ever going to get. Another reason why we should change you back quickly. I think it’s only going to make him melancholy for what might have been. Although it might be worth pointing out to him that he only knows Buffy at all because he was turned into a vampire two and a half centuries ago…”

“Two hundred and forty-seven years ago,” Wesley corrected. “He’s sensitive about his age.”

“My point is that if he had remained human he would be bones and dust by now and they would never have met. I'm not saying the hand Fate dealt him was a particularly kind one but it has enabled him to do things that the rest of us never will.”

“And things that the rest of us would never want to have done,” Wesley added.

Giles looked at him curiously. “You don’t see them as crimes Angel committed, do you? Just burdens he has to bear?”

“I think about it sometimes. What it would feel like to wake up from a long dream and realize that you’d killed hundreds of people; that you can hear them screaming in your mind even though you, the person you are now, would never have done that, couldn’t have done it.”

“Are you so sure that it’s that simple?” Giles asked gently. “That the darkness in Angelus isn’t also in Angel?”

Wesley looked up at him, those adult eyes in his thin little face very disconcerting. “I know that darkness is in Angel. He knows it too. That’s why he needs us. That’s why it’s important that we help him. Otherwise only the darkness wins.”

***

Angel had a headache. He was tempted to call it ‘Gunn’ as it seemed so appropriate. What was really bugging him the most about Gunn was that he was quite sure that the charging around and yelling, not to mention clambering on the furniture and kicking Angel accidentally on purpose every time he passed him, was something he could have switched off like that if Wesley had asked him to. He was being as naughty as he could possibly be partly because he was four years old and had been fed more sugar than an adult body was meant to hold, but also just because he could.

“Why don’t you just smother him?” Cordelia demanded. She held up a cushion. “Here you are. I’ll hold him down for you.”

Despite being very cross indeed, Cordelia was looking enchanting. She was wearing a dress of some kind of patchwork blue and green silk material with matching shoes, and her hair had been rebraided with glass beading in it in a style that looked very complicated and very pretty. The dress had a deliberately ragged edge and she looked not unlike a flower fairy. She was all huge brown eyes and unconscious preening every time she caught a glimpse of her reflection. Willow had mentioned her getting a little upset when she saw her old house but that seemed to have passed now. It probably helped that her annoyance at Gunn had drowned out almost every other emotion.

Angel said, “You have to remember that Gunn’s your little brother now.”

“I don’t want Gunn for a little brother!” she shouted. “I just want Wesley!”

“Were they like this…before?” Tara asked diffidently.

She was so shy it was difficult to get a word out of her, Angel found, although she was perfectly relaxed and happy when he saw her either alone with Willow or with the children. Only she and Angel sharing childminding duties had coaxed her out of her usual shyness into talking to him.

“No.” Angel picked Cordelia up and sat her down next to him on the couch, automatically offering her the jumbo sized packet of chips he’d been munching his way through on a reflex since Gunn had first started yelling at him. Even though the food didn’t satisfy him, didn’t even taste the way it was meant to, there was still something comforting about the simple act of eating it. “When they were adults, Wesley and Cordy used to fight like eight year olds, and so did Wesley and Gunn. Now that Wesley is an eight year old he acts like a grown up.” He took another handful of chips and offered the bag to Tara. “I'm never going to understand kids.”

“We didn’t fight all the time,” Cordelia protested, twisting around to grab some more chips.

“I remember a discussion about some brownies and a certain knife…”

“Oh, Wesley and his stupid old extinct demon knife! Saying my cooking was corrosive.”

Angel raised an eyebrow and looked across at Tara. “You see.”

Tara said gently, “Have you thought about… I just meant… If Giles can’t…”

“I'm trying not to,” Angel admitted.

“Because we’re such bratty little monsters?” Cordelia reached across to hit Gunn with a pillow as he ran past making what was presumably a fire engine noise, although Angel couldn’t be sure. It was loud anyway. “Or Gunn is anyway. Shut up, Gunn! Angel, you need to smack him!”

“I don’t believe in smacking small children.” Angel stuck out his leg and intercepted Gunn’s run, before grabbing him and hauling him up onto the sofa. He turned into vamp face and tried to look as scary as possible. “Eating them however…”

Gunn shrieked delightedly: “Angel’s a vampire! Angel’s a vampire!”

“And in other news, the continents drifted apart and marsupials died out in most of South America,” Xander observed, coming into the room. “Are you not keeping up on current events, Rugrat No.3? Wow, Cordy, cool threads. Willow and Tara have like totally…girly taste in clothes.”

Gunn was feeling Angel’s brow ridge curiously and tapping at his fangs. “You look really stupid and ugly like that,” he told him. “No one cool has yellow eyes.”

“No one cool is three foot six,” Angel retorted.

“What about Frodo?” Gunn countered. “He saved the whole of Middle Earth.”

“Oh, so you remember The Lord of the Rings, but you don’t remember your manners?”

“Do you mind?” Willow demanded of Xander. “Our taste in clothes is so much more than just…girly. It’s unique and extraordinary and oh so incredibly stylish.”

“They’re going to turn you into a hippy wicca, Cordy,” Angel reiterated, holding Gunn under the arms while he bounced excitedly on the arm of the couch. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you.” He turned back to Tara, face changing back into his human countenance as he did so. “No, amazing as it must seem to anyone who has spent three minutes in the company of the Hellbrat here, I'm trying not to think about it in case I start wanting them to stay like this.”

Gunn abruptly stopped bouncing and Cordelia turned a shocked face on him, eyes huge and mouth open. Gunn stuck his thumb in his mouth and also gazed at Angel in surprise.

“I mean I love them, as adults,” Angel continued, not looking at them. “I really do. I miss having the adults to talk to. But this is the closest I'm ever going to get to having kids. And Wesley’s childhood sucked. Really, really sucked. It’s difficult not to think about how it would have been if I’d brought him up instead of his asshole of a father.”

Gunn took his thumb out of his mouth to look past Angel to Willow. “Angel said ‘asshole’, Willow. Tell him he can’t say that in front of us.”

“He would have turned out differently, Angel,” Willow said gently. “That’s the point, isn’t it? We’re what we are at least in part because of the way we were brought up. If you change Wesley’s childhood you make him someone else. Not the person you know. Not the person you love.”

“I'm telling Wesley that you love him,” Gunn told Angel.

Xander raised an eyebrow. “Sounds like a good idea to me. Wesley strikes me as the kind of kid who can’t hear that too often.”

Gunn glowered at Xander. “You’re no fun.”

“You are so wrong you are taking a wrong turning out of Wrongsville in a Wrongsmobile right now, young man,” Xander countered. “I am the most fun anyone can have in this town with their clothes on.”

“We’re little kids!” Gunn stamped his foot. “You can’t say things like that to us! You have to talk to us properly.”

“When they talk to you as if you’re little kids you complain that they’re not remembering that you’re adults,” Angel pointed out.

“I'm four!” Gunn shouted at him. “I don’t have to be consistent!”

Angel sighed and put Gunn down on the floor. “Cordelia, take your little brother away and…smother him.”

“He means with kindness,” Tara put her arms around Gunn hastily before Cordelia could obey. “Doesn’t he?”

Angel sighed under the force of Tara’s reproachful look. “Oh yes. I so do.”

Cordelia glared at Gunn. “You’re lucky I love you and have a mission to keep you safe from harm or I would so be beating your stupid noisy little head in with an axe right now.”

Gunn stuck his tongue out at her. “I bet you didn’t even remember to bring your weakass Ladysmith axe with you.”

“Maybe I didn’t, but at least it isn’t made out of an old hubcap….”

Angel rolled his eyes at Willow. “And these are the two that don’t usually fight. Cordy, try being as nice as you look. And, Gunn, try to be less of a brat.”

“Where’s Wesley?” Gunn demanded. “Why isn’t he here?”

Cordelia turned on Angel. “Yes, he should be looking after Gunn, not me. He’s the eldest.”

“He’s trying to work out how to make you all big again,” Willow explained patiently. “Remember? He’s with Giles.”

“I want him here.” Gunn looked around plaintively. “Where’s Dawn?”

“You are such a spoilt cry-baby,” Cordelia told him fiercely. “You just want someone to fuss over you.”

“He’s only four, Cordy,” Willow reminded her gently. “Didn’t you want someone to fuss over you when you were four?”

“Cordy wants someone to fuss over her all the time,” Gunn muttered. “She never wants me or Wesley getting any attention.”

Tara picked Gunn up and placed him gently on her knee. “Are you tired, Charles?”

“Yes.” He laid his head sulkily against her chest. “Angel and Cordy suck. I want Wesley.”

“I do not suck!” Cordelia pinched him.

He hit her back. “You so do!”

“Children…” Angel growled ominously. “Stop fighting.”

“I want Wesley!” Gunn shouted at him. “You’re not in charge. He is. I'm only doing what Wesley says.”

“He’s eight years old,” Angel pointed out.

“I don’t care,” Gunn retorted. “I don’t take orders from people without a pulse.”

“I have a pulse,” Tara told him. “Listen.” She held his head gently against her heart and he listened to it beating in obvious fascination.

“You’re nice.” He snuggled in against her and began sucking his thumb.

“Spoilt little BabyGunn,” Cordelia muttered, clearly very unwilling to share Tara or Willow with anyone else.

Willow hastily lifted her onto her lap and straightened the folds of her dress. “What shall we do tomorrow, Cordy? Is there somewhere you’d like to go?”

“Can I come?” Gunn asked at once.

Cordelia made a face at him. “You won’t be able to keep up on your stupid little shortass legs.”

“Then someone can carry me,” he retorted.

“If he’s coming, Wesley has to come too,” Cordelia insisted. “Wesley was a Watcher. He likes doing boring, responsible things, so he can look after Gunn. I have to be a free spirit.”

“We’ll ask him when he comes back,” Tara promised. “It would be nice to take the three of you out for the day.” She darted Willow an apologetic look but the witch only smiled tolerantly.

“Yes, it would.”

“That’s a new and different usage of the word ‘nice’,” Xander observed. “Tara, are you a secret masochist, because if so I think we should be told?”

“Why isn’t Wesley here?” Gunn wailed.

“Because he’s busy,” Angel told him. “Working hard while you goof off and watch cartoons. He’s also, I have to say, been very smart about getting himself the easy gig wrestling with research while the rest of us have to babysit you.”

Gunn sulkily kicked Angel on the knee. “I bet he misses me. I bet he’d like to come home now and watch cartoons with me.”

Angel rolled his eyes and grabbed another handful of potato chips. “I really wouldn’t bank on it,” he murmured. “I think he’s probably having a lot more fun right where he is...”

 

***

When the next knock on the door sounded through the house, Giles assumed it must be Willow or Buffy coming to collect Wesley. As it wouldn’t be dark for several hours he knew it couldn’t be Angel.

“I think I’ve found it.” Wesley looked up in shock.

“What?” Ignoring the knocking on the door for a moment, Giles hurried over to the table where Wesley was still bent over the books. He had the amulet lying on the page and his finger pointing at an illustration. Looking between the two, Giles could see that they were identical. “Well done, Wesley,” he said warmly, squeezing his shoulder. “That’s it.”

Wesley beamed up at him and Giles was struck by how he lit up when he was praised. As another impatient knock came on the door and he went to answer it, he wished that he had praised Wesley a little more when the man had been in Sunnydale before; perhaps that would have been the key to getting him to unwind a little and be more responsive to the people around him. Of course back then the Watcher’s Council had loomed so large in Wesley’s thinking that –

Giles opened the door to find three men on his doorstep – ones he was in no way pleased to see, and had not been pleased to see on the last occasion he had found them in his home.

“Hello, Rupert,” Collins said heartily.

“Collins,” Wesley breathed softly behind him.

He turned to see the boy looking horrified, although he did try to wrestle his expression into some neutrality at Giles’s warning look.

Giles turned back to his unwelcome visitors. “What do you want?”

“We need some information and as you’re the Council’s representative in the area we naturally came to you. Can we come in?” Not waiting for Giles’s response, Collins pushed past him with a thin veneer of politeness in his cheerful smile, Weatherby made no attempt to pretend he was anything other than barging past, while Smith did have the grace to look apologetic as he also inched past Giles into his house.

Giles turned around wearily, closing the door, then realized that Weatherby was gazing malevolently at Wesley. Thinking quickly, Giles said, “This is my nephew…Nicholas.”

“I can see the family resemblance,” Collins smiled at him again. It was a shark smile and it did absolutely nothing to reassure Giles, especially when the man immediately went over to where the book lay open on the table, the amulet on top of the page.

Wesley darted a look at the amulet and then at Giles who gestured at him to stay calm. He could see that Wesley was trying hard not to panic but his clenched fists revealed that he was wound tight with tension.

Collins reached out and ruffled Wesley’s hair. “Been helping your uncle with his research, have you?”

“Just for fun.” Wesley ducked away from his hand, trying to get back to where Giles was.

Weatherby intercepted him, his fingers closing on his shoulder and tightening. “Looked like you recognized us to me, sonny.”

Wesley darted a look up at him. “Uncle Rupert took me into the Watcher’s Council Headquarters once to look at the books. I must have seen you then.”

“Must have at that,” said Collins equably, but Weatherby made no attempt to let Wesley go.

“What do you want?” Giles demanded.

“Information.” Collins was still reading the open book with close attention as he talked. “We’re hearing that Angelus has gone bad again and needs to be taken out. Do you have any information on that?”

Wesley’s gasp of horror made Weatherby looked down at him with a spiteful expression on his face that made Giles very uneasy. “Know about Angelus, do you?” Weatherby demanded.

“He’s a friend of Buffy’s,” Wesley replied, voice sounding calm although Giles suspected his heart was probably hammering in his chest.

“I'm asking, Rupert,” Collins looked up at Giles again. “Because all our reports say he’s here in Sunnydale. Staying with the Slayer again.”

“So, what if he is?” Giles countered. “He has a soul and he fights on the side of good. And what the Slayer does with her private life is none of the Council’s business. She’s her own woman, remember?”

He gritted his teeth as Collins picked up the amulet and turned to the beginning of the book. Giles tried to remember if the book was one of his or of Wesley’s. He had a horrible feeling it was Wesley’s and the man had written his name neatly inside it. Sure enough, as Collins turned back to the flyleaf there were Wesley’s initials.

Collins looked at Giles in what Giles was pretty sure was mock-surprise. “Wyndam-Pryce came to Sunnydale with Angelus, did he?”

“As I said,” Giles said frostily. “The Slayer’s private life is her own business.”

“It becomes our business when Angelus starts killing again and she’s still harbouring him.”

“What do you mean ‘killing again’?” Giles darted a glance at Wesley but Weatherby still had hold of him, fingers digging spitefully into the boy’s thin shoulder, while looking at him as if he wanted to twist his head off.

“A room full of lawyers from Wolfram & Hart. Apparently Angelus arranged to help out two of his old cronies from his soulless days – Darla and Drusilla – the three of them had a feeding frenzy.”

“That isn’t what happened,” Wesley said at once.

“Our reports say it is,” Collins returned still equably.

“Your reports are wrong,” Wesley insisted.

“You sound very sure about that, for a little boy from England,” Collins smiled at him.

“We’re a family of strong held opinions.” Giles crossed to where Weatherby was. “I suggest you let go of my nephew, right now, Weatherby.”

Weatherby held up his hands. “Just making nice,” but the expression in his eyes was truly malevolent and Giles gently pushed Wesley behind him.

“I’ve told you, I can’t help you. If Buffy is seeing Angel again, that’s her business, not mine.”

Collins held up the amulet in front of the light. “Killed your girlfriend, didn’t he? Angelus?”

Wesley darted Giles a fearful look and Giles gritted his teeth. “Angel isn’t Angelus.”

“It’s Wyndam-Pryce that Weatherby really wants to see.” Collins smiled again, another smile with absolutely no warmth in it. “He has a bone to pick with him.”

Weatherby glared down at Wesley as if he knew exactly who he was; in fact Giles had a horrible feeling that he did although he wasn’t sure how. Making leaps of lateral thinking had never exactly been a strong point of Council goons.

“A really big bone.” Weatherby held up a fist. “The little shit stuck me full of a sedative that could have killed me and then punched me in the face. The next time I see him he’d better pray that vampire he’s working for has a really good dental plan.”

Giles tightened his grip on Wesley’s hand, being reminded of just how much Wesley hated being small and why that could be such a problem, because any moron who happened to have been on the planet for ten years longer than you had was going to be taller than you and stronger than you and could hurt you very easily however much smarter than him you might happen to be.

“As I understand it you were planning to assassinate an eighteen year old girl,” Giles said shortly. “As she’s now in prison through her own choice and may well end up becoming a useful member of society I would have thought you would be grateful to Buffy, Angel and Wesley for ensuring you don’t have a murder on your consciences.”

Collins closed the book at last and turned around to look at Giles properly, the amulet still swinging from his fingers. “Weatherby nearly died from that sedative Wyndam-Pryce injected him with and Smith here got thrown out of a moving helicopter by your Slayer’s favourite vampire – very nasty impact with the ground he had. And I really didn’t appreciate your Slayer’s treatment of me either.”

“I doubt she appreciated you trying to shoot her either,” Giles retorted.

“The Council were right to fire you, Giles,” Weatherby sneered. “You got in too deep. Got emotionally invested.”

“The Council sit on their…behinds over there in England, sending half-trained Watchers into the front line, with no idea of what is going to be awaiting them in the field. And I include myself amongst those who were clueless. Some of us recognize how ill-prepared we really are and do something to correct it. The rest of you just keep following Council orders straight to hell.”

“A lot of people died because of Angel,” Smith put in. “The Council have good reason to regard him as a target.”

“They died because of Angelus.” Giles made himself say it, even though it hurt and he wanted to blame Angel for Jenny’s death as much as the next man – presuming the next man was Xander and not Wesley – he knew in his heart that it was true. “Angel is a different person.”

“He’s Ted Bundy and Jack the Ripper combined and multiplied in evil to the power of a hundred,” Collins said quietly. “Read the file.”

“I’ve read the file. I'm sure Cordelia and Wesley have too. The fact remains that Angel is not Angelus and he works on the side of good.”

Collins tossed a file onto the table. “Those are the police photographs of what the scene looked like in that wine cellar, Giles. A lot of dead lawyers, drained by vampires with a connection to Angelus, one of them his sire, the other sired by him, whom he signally failed to kill.”

“He tried,” Wesley put in quietly.

Collins put his head on one side. “You know, for a little boy you do seem to be awfully well informed.” He held up the amulet and gazed at Giles. “I see you’ve been researching spells for adults being turned into children. That’s fairy tale stuff, isn’t it?”

“Just curious,” Giles shrugged. “Who hasn’t wondered if it was possible to be young again?”

Collins swung the amulet idly. “A Wish Amulet and a focusing orb. Not thinking of leaving us, are you, Giles?”

“Yeah, you should think that one through.” Weatherby loomed over Wesley. “I hear sometimes being a little kid can really suck.”

“There are things we need to know about Angelus.” Smith looked uneasily between Weatherby and Wesley. “His routine. His weaknesses.”

“So you can kill him?” Giles enquired.

Collins was urbanely reassuring. “Just in case we might need that information later. We hear he’s been associating with demons. Hanging out in demon bars. Wolfram & Hart brought in Darla and Drusilla to push him over the edge and by all the accounts we’ve heard they succeeded.”

“Then your accounts are wrong,” Giles insisted.

“We heard he fired his crew and left them swinging in the breeze.” Weatherby abruptly grabbed Wesley’s shoulder and yanked him away from Giles. “Is that right?”

“Let him go,” Giles started forward and Collins moved in between them.

“We’re here to verify a few things. A fact-finding mission. There’s no reason for anyone to get hurt.”

“If you don’t get out of my way and tell your colleague to release my nephew immediately, I can assure you that people certainly will be getting hurt.”

Weatherby yanked up Wesley’s shirt. “Heard Wyndam-Pryce got shot in the gut. Well, what have we here…?”

As Giles tried to grab Weatherby he found a pistol pressed against his jaw by Collins who said, “Let’s not do anything hasty, shall we?”

“Are you willing to use that?” Giles said softly. “Because you’d better be if you’re going to point it at me.”

“Look.” Weatherby spun Wesley around by the shoulders. “Scar right where Wyndam Nancy Boy Pryce took a bullet. I told you it was him.”

Collins pressed the gun to Giles’s temple. “Who is that kid really?”

“I told you,” Giles said through gritted teeth. “My nephew, Nicholas. That’s his appendectomy scar.”

Collins cocked the gun and looked down at Wesley. “Is that right? Because I have to tell you, Rupert, old man, I have no problem with using this on a renegade watcher and blaming it on the vampire you’re so keen to protect. You crossed the line a long time ago as far as I'm concerned and if you’re not with the Council you’re against them. So, who is the boy?”

“My nephew,” Giles insisted.

As Collins made to press his finger to the trigger, Wesley said quickly, “I'm Wesley Wyndam-Pryce.” He pulled loose from Weatherby’s grip, straightening his shirt with what dignity he could muster as a child. “Giles doesn’t know anything. I'm the one who works with Angel. I'm the one you need to talk to.”

Smith stared at him in disbelief. “Well, I’ll be…”

“I'm sure you will be if you’re a party to hurting what is effectively an eight year old boy,” Giles told him swiftly.

Collins removed the gun from Giles’s temple. “So, it’s true, Angelus’s pet humans all got turned into children?”

“What business is it of yours?” Giles demanded, pulling away from the man. “Are you really here on official business, Collins, or is this just you and Weatherby wanting to settle a few old scores?”

Collins nodded to Smith. “Hand me that orb.”

“That’s my property and you have no right to touch it,” Giles said through gritted teeth.

Smith fetched the glass ball from the table and handed it to Collins who weighed it in his hand. “Is that right?” He abruptly hurled it against the wall, making Giles and Wesley both duck instinctively. The crystal shattered, glass spraying everywhere and Wesley visibly swayed in shock and horror. “I figure they’ll be a lot easier to question as children. Starting with this one.”

As at a signal from Collins, Smith made to grab Wesley.

“Get away from him!” Giles landed a punch that sent Smith reeling; only to turn back onto a savage blow from Collins, the man snatching up the poker to finish the job.

“Get off him!” Wesley grabbed Collins’s arm and yanked on it with all his strength.

Collins swung his arm and Giles saw with horror that the man either didn’t care that Wesley was so much lighter than an adult now or else had just miscalculated, for the jerk of Collins’ arm sent Wesley smacking hard into the wall, the little boy crumpling semi-conscious.

“You bastard!” As Giles dived at Collins, he became aware that Weatherby was closing in on him a millisecond too late to avoid a morningstar of pain in his head. He hit the ground and had enough experience of being hit very hard by yet another blunt instrument to know he was only still conscious at all by the skin of his teeth, and that one movement would probably send him spiralling into darkness. Blood trickled from a cut on his head into his eye and he blinked to clear it, seeing Smith easing the dazed Wesley up with something that looked like concern.

“He’s alive,” Smith said, “But he’s not looking too well.”

“Good.” Weatherby grabbed Wesley by the shoulder roughly and shook him. “Wake up, Wyndam-Pryce, you little bastard, and start talking.”

“He’s just a kid,” Smith protested.

“No, he isn’t,” Collins stepped over Giles. “He’s a renegade Watcher who now works for a vampire, who has betrayed his calling, and who played us for fools the last time we met up.”

Wesley gazed up at them and Giles thought he could see the man he was visible in the boy he had become in the stubborn set of his jaw. “I'm not telling you anything.”

“We’ll see about that.” Weatherby grabbed him by the hair and yanked him towards the door.

Giles desperately tried to get to his feet and Collins, hearing him move, turned around and came back to where he was lying. “Thanks for your help, Rupert. It’s much appreciated.”

Then a boot hit his jaw and white light exploded in his head.

***

“Why don’t you sit in the front, Weatherby?” Smith suggested, looking around anxiously as he did so. He presumed, living on a Hellmouth as they did, that the residents of Sunnydale must be used to strange occurrences, but that didn’t mean they wouldn’t intervene if they saw three grown men manhandling a dazed little boy. He was hoping to separate Weatherby from Wesley as he didn’t trust to the man’s ability to keep his spite and bad temper in check.

“Why don’t you shut up and get in the car?” Weatherby countered, yanking open the back door and practically throwing Wesley onto the back seat.

Smith saw the boy skid across the leather and hit the far door. The speed with which he grabbed the door handle and twisted it suggested that for all the bruise on his cheekbone and cut on his forehead he still had his wits about him.

From the pavement, Collins slammed the door closed as Wesley tried to get it open. “I don’t think so, son. Not until you’ve answered our questions. Weatherby…?”

“I’ve got him.” Weatherby slid into the other side of the car and grabbed Wesley by the collar, yanking him back close enough to twist his arm spitefully. “Sit down and shut up or I’ll make you wish you’d never been born.”

Smith heard the boy stifle a cry of pain and winced. “He’s just a kid, Weatherby,” he protested. “Knock it off with the strong arm tactics.”

“No, he looks like a kid, he’s still Wyndam Sodding Pryce in there and I’m going to make him pay for what Wyndam Sodding Pryce did to me.”

Collins started the car and pulled out with great precision and economy, nothing in his driving likely to attract the attention of the police. “Not while we’re in public sight, you’re not, Weatherby,” he said calmly. He glanced in his rear view mirror. “Don’t do anything stupid, Wesley, like trying to attract attention to yourself or call for help. There’s no reason for this to get ugly as long as you cooperate.”

“You just bludgeoned Rupert Giles into unconsciousness,” Wesley said tersely. “I think it’s already got ugly.”

“Shut up.” Weatherby smacked him around the back of the head.

“I know your father,” Collins continued evenly. “And I'm quite sure you know all about little boys needing to be seen and not heard and not answering back and generally being polite and respectful to their elders if they don’t want to suffer the consequences.”

Smith saw Wesley grit his teeth. He was obviously having to fight very hard not to cry, but there was a stubborn set to his jaw that suggested however scared or hurt he was he still wasn’t going to make life easy for them. Smith felt his unease grow. However this went, he didn’t think it was going to end well.

 

The house had been abandoned some time before. Going by the bloodstains they had found on the parquet, Smith suspected the inhabitants had probably been eaten by something. Proof, he supposed, that the Slayer wasn’t really doing her job here in Sunnydale, or that living on a Hellmouth just caused too many problems for one girl to solve alone.

It had once been a rather grand place but it was musty with neglect now. They had set up in it as soon as they arrived in Sunnydale and knew that it was far enough into the good end of town – where the houses stood in their own grounds and were less inclined to be overlooked by neighbours – for them to be able to carry out their business unobserved.

Right now, Smith wasn’t sure how good a thing that was. Knowing intellectually that this was Wesley Wyndam-Pryce, ally of vampires, and betrayer of his calling, didn’t stop him looking like a thin, pale, little boy whom his colleague was now bullying spitefully. He saw the boy wince, tears in his eyes, as Weatherby twisted his arm again, as he dragged him into the house.

“Stop doing that,” Smith told Weatherby. “I don’t care who he used to be. You can’t torture a little boy.” He turned to Collins. “There are lines we don’t cross.”

Collins shrugged. “Agreed. No one is going to be torturing any children.”

Weatherby looked up in disappointment. “Why not?”

“We’re meant to be the good guys, remember?” Smith pointed out.

Collins led the way into the neglected sitting room. They had got rid of most of the cobwebs but the furniture still smelt as if mice had been nesting it. Collins pointed to a chair. “Sit down, Wesley.” He crossed to where he had the video camera set up, aimed it at Wesley and switched it on.

Weatherby reluctantly released Wesley’s arm and shoved him in the direction of the chair. “You try anything and I'm going to break your arms,” he told him.

“We just want to ask you a few questions, Wesley,” Collins continued calmly. “I hope you’re going to be sensible and help us?”

Wesley looked up at them. He had a cut on his forehead from his nasty collision with the wall and a bruise on his cheekbone from where Weatherby had hit him, his shirt was no longer tucked into his trousers and Collins could see Weatherby’s spiteful fingers had already begun to leave bruises on his wrists. His expression, however, was defiant.

“Oh yes. Why wouldn’t I want to help three gun-toting maniacs who’ve already proven themselves to be liars and would-be murderers?”

Weatherby smacked him across the face before Smith could grab him. He turned on Collins angrily, “Make him stop or I will.”

“Weatherby, that’s enough. Wesley, I suggest you remember your manners before I have to lose my temper with you.”

When Wesley lifted his head there was blood running from his mouth and Smith looked up at the ceiling. “For God’s sake, Weatherby!” He took a handkerchief out of his pocket and handed it to Wesley.

“Thank you,” the little boy said quietly, pressing the handkerchief to his mouth.

“I owe him!” Weatherby protested.

“You owe the man he was. Wait until he’s an adult again before you do that.”

“I don’t think that will be an option,” said Collins comfortably. “Wesley isn’t going to be an adult again. Well, not for a good few years yet. I destroyed the focusing orb that was necessary for the reversal of the spell. So, bearing that in mind, Wesley, I think you’d better think very hard about your future.”

“And your present,” Weatherby told him nastily.

Collins continued evenly: “We know a lot about you. Thanks to your father.”

Wesley looked up in shock and Smith saw that the jibe had gone home. Had they been dealing with the adult Wyndam-Pryce he might even have felt some satisfaction but this was too much like bullying for him to take any pleasure from it.

Wesley licked the blood from his mouth then said quietly, “If you want information about me my father is the last person you should be asking. He doesn’t know anything about me and never has.”

“I disagree,” Collins returned. “You see, after you turned renegade, betrayed your calling and set up as the errand boy for a vampire, we had to report your traitorous conduct to the Council. Your father was deeply grieved, of course, but he did his duty and agreed that as you were now an enemy of everything the Council stood for he would be happy to furnish the Council with information about you that might be useful, the same way he would have done with any other enemy of those who oppose the forces of darkness.”

Wesley swallowed. He looked even paler than before but his voice was even: “I hear a lot from the Council about how they oppose the ‘forces of darkness’ but I don’t see them out there every night risking their lives. I see Buffy in Sunnydale and I see Angel in LA. Where was the Watcher’s Council when the Mayor was ascending? Oh that’s right, sitting safely on their asses back in London while a group of American High School children fought the good fight on their behalf.”

This time Smith managed to grab Weatherby before he hit the boy again. “Stop it,” he said fiercely.

Weatherby looked at him in surprise. “What’s got into you?”

“I saw Buffy there,” Wesley continued relentlessly. “Risking her neck as always. I saw Giles there. I saw Willow and Xander and Cordelia and Oz and Angel. Didn’t see any of you.”

“Do you really think the only battles out there are the ones you happen to witness?” Collins demanded.

“No.” Wesley looked up at him unblinkingly. “But I know how little action I saw when being trained as a Watcher and how much actual good I’ve had a chance to do since working with Buffy and with Angel.”

“Buffy wouldn’t give you the time of day!” Weatherby told him angrily.

Wesley shrugged, a curiously grown up gesture for that narrow little child’s body. “She still saved my life. That’s what she does. Every day. Saves people. So does Angel. What do you three do?”

Weatherby turned to Collins. “You’ve got to let me smack him a few times.”

“No need.” Collins unbuckled his belt deliberately. “There are ways children can be punished that don’t violate any moral codes.”

“You haven’t even asked him anything,” Smith protested. “At least give him a chance to cooperate.”

“Just to make things clear, Wesley.” Collins pulled his belt loose from its keepers. “We will be contacting your father. We will be taking you back to England with us. We will be handing you over to him. Perhaps this time he’ll make a better job of bringing you up as someone who shows loyalty to your own kind.”

Wesley shuddered and dropped his gaze. Smith saw the way all the defiance drained out of him in that moment and he was just a pale scared little boy faced with what seemed to be close to his worst fear.

Collins continued relentlessly: “Having had the pleasure of your father’s company and knowing his views on childcare, I imagine that you will be getting some serious discipline on your return to his care. And going by the way you’ve turned out, not a moment too soon.”

Still with his head bowed, Wesley snatched another panicky breath. Smith hoped the kid didn’t have a history of asthma attacks or he thought he was going to spring a full blown one any minute.

“Or,” Collins added, “you can be tell me about Angelus. Did he kill those lawyers?”

“No.” Wesley snatched another breath. “Darla and Drusilla killed them.”

“But he helped.”

“No.”

“He was involved.”

Wesley looked up and although he was still ghostly pale and looked as if he might be about to be sick any moment his expression was unflinching. “Do you consider yourself involved?”

“What does that mean?”

“At the time those lawyers were being eaten, what were you doing to save them?”

Collins narrowed his eyes. “I didn’t know about it. Our reports say that Angel did. Our reports say that Angel locked those people in with them.”

Wesley faced him, still breathing quickly, but defiance written in his body language. “Do your reports say that I was there?”

“No.”

“So, why are you asking me?”

“Did he fire you?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“Last time Wolfram & Hart came after him, Cordelia and I were the ones who ended up in the hospital. He felt that separating himself from the rest of us was the best way to keep us safe.”

“Is that what you tell yourself?” Weatherby sneered. “That he did it for your own good?”

Wesley faced him unblinkingly. “No, it’s what I'm telling you. Did you get it the first time or would you like me to repeat it?”

“Don’t!” Smith held onto Weatherby’s arm. “I mean it. I don’t care who he used to be, he’s just a little boy now and I'm not letting you hit him in front of me.”

“Get out then,” Weatherby suggested.

“I'm not leaving you alone with him either.” Smith looked at Collins. “Either of you.”

“I knew you’d go soft,” Weatherby sneered. “You were always useless.”

“Where was Angel when you were getting shot, Wesley?” Collins enquired conversationally.

“Trying to find out who was controlling the zombie policemen,” Wesley answered without a pause. “Where were you? Oh, that’s right. Sitting on your backsides in London. As usual.”

“You can’t do good by allying yourself with evil,” Collins retorted.

Wesley looked at Smith. “Words to live by.” He turned back to Collins. “Angel isn’t evil. The demon that possessed his body after he was murdered was evil. That isn’t who he is. That was never who he is. He just got left to carry the can for that demon’s crimes. Think about it. Do you really think Wolfram & Hart are good people? Now think about how much effort they’ve put into trying to derail Angel from his destiny. Doesn’t that suggest to you that Angel’s destiny must be to do a lot of good?”

“He’s a vampire,” Weatherby snarled. “He should be dust and you should have been the guy who dusted him by now. Any Watcher worth his salt would have done.”

“Well, I wasn’t worth my salt, was I?” Wesley returned evenly. “That’s why the Council fired me.”

“It’s not too late, Wesley,” Collins said. “You can retrain. Your father would give you another chance. So would the Council. You’ve made mistakes, it’s true, but, unlike most people, you’ve been given a chance to live your life over again. This time you could be a Watcher your father could be proud of.”

Smith saw the words go home, saw the wince, but Wesley held up his chin defiantly. “Oh yes, because the way things are now I'm no longer able to have the honour of calling people like you my colleagues. I have to settle for a man who’s been fighting vampires from the age when the worst problem most Watchers have to deal with is memorizing their Latin prep, a woman who has given up every other aspect of her life to be a conduit for the extremely painful visions of the Powers That Be just in the hope of helping some of the people out there who are suffering, and a vampire who has done more good for humanity in the past few years that any member of the Watcher’s Council has done in a lifetime. What a tragedy for me.”

“You will be going back to England, Wesley,” Collins returned calmly. “And that kind of an attitude isn’t going to do you any good. I’d hate to have to tell your father about how badly you’ve been behaving.” He shook out the belt and it snapped threateningly.

“No,” Smith said quietly.

“Shut it,” Weatherby told him.

Smith ignored him to look at Collins. “No.”

“No, what?”

“No, I'm not going to let you hit him with that.”

Wesley looked up at Smith in surprise while Collins only shrugged. “Who says I was intending to?”

“Oh, come on,” Weatherby protested. “He deserves a belting and more.”

“I tend to agree with you.” Collins caught Wesley by the shoulder and yanked him to his feet. “But he won’t be getting it from me. I'm not an unreasonable man and I'm happy to give Wesley some space and quiet to think about his attitude and how he might like to improve it.” He spun Wesley around and pulled his arms behind his back, lashing his wrists together with the belt, and pulling it tight enough to make the little boy wince.

“Just wait until Daddy finds out what a bad little boy you’ve turned into,” Weatherby sneered. “You’re not going to see daylight until your voice breaks.”

Grabbing Wesley by the shoulder again, Collins pulled him towards the hallway.

“What are you doing?” Smith pressed.

“I'm going to give Wesley some time to think about his behaviour and see if he wouldn’t like to be a lot more cooperative to people who are only trying to help him.”

“Help me to betray my friends?” Wesley stumbled as the man shoved him rapidly across the parquet floor of the hallway and only Collins’ iron grip on his shirt held him up. “That’s never going to happen.”

“We’ll see.” Collins smiled as he reached the cupboard under the stairs, pulling open the door with a flourish. The place was revealed to be dank, dark and cobwebby. Something skittering away from the light as the door opened that sounded very rat-like.

Smith saw Wesley visibly blanche. “I won’t tell you anything,” he said in a small voice but he was already trembling.

Collins’ smile grew wider. “Oh, I think you will. After a few hours. Or days if necessary. Your father really was very helpful.” Then he shoved Wesley hard into the dark space and slammed the door on him. “Just call out when you’re ready to come out.” He bolted the door and turned around, dusting his hands. “A couple of hours and I think we’ll see a result.”

“You should have belted him,” Weatherby complained darkly.

“Trust me,” Collins patted Weatherby on the shoulder as he passed him. “This is better.”

Smith looked back at the bolted door and thought about that skinny little boy huddled in the dark, probably trying to tell himself that those gleams in the shadows weren’t the eyes of rats after all. At least this way no one was hitting him, he just wished he could have shaken off the feeling that if it came to being locked up in the dark or suffering the worst beating in the world, Wesley would have chosen the beating every time.…

***

Although he knew it was foolish, Angel was counting the minutes until the sun went down. He wanted Wesley back with the other two and it wasn’t just because Gunn kept complaining that he would only take orders from him. He always felt protective of his people and for a good reason. Being close to him put them in danger. He’d felt that so acutely after Doyle had died, and felt it again when he’d looked down at a Wesley who was unconscious, bruised, burnt and cut, hooked up to an IV while a machine bleeped his vitals and no one could promise that he would ever wake up. He could still acutely remember the sensation of helplessness that had swept over him when he gazed at a Cordelia whose mind appeared to have snapped, despair in her eyes as she tugged feebly at the restraints in her hospital bed, exhausted from physical and mental torment and getting closer to death with each moment that went past.

“Giles won’t let any harm come to Wesley,” Buffy said gently.

He turned to find her sitting on the arm of his chair, looking at him with a soft expression in her eyes. “Am I that easy to read?”

“To me.” She reached out and straightened his collar. “You have chocolate on your shirt.”

“Gunn…” Angel rolled his eyes. “He got some on Cordy’s new dress half an hour ago. I still don’t know how we averted bloodshed.”

“Tomorrow I get to take Cordelia shopping,” Buffy said cheerfully. “Well, if I win that game of Risk tonight. Otherwise Willow and Tara get to take everyone to some boring place with a fairground and zoo and things that would be so much less fun than me getting to buy kiddy clothes again.”

“Why don’t we just keep them home tomorrow?” Angel suggested. “Let them have a rest. Wesley could watch some TV. I don’t think there was a TV in his house when he was growing up so it would be a nice change for him. Fairgrounds can be dangerous, and as for zoo animals? Remember when Xander became a hyaena?”

Buffy considered him for a moment. “You’re going to be one of those anxious parents, are you? The kind who has hysterics every time they graze their knee?”

“No, I.... One of them grazed a knee? When?”

She patted him gently on the shoulder. “That will happen, Angel. Little boys fall over. But they usually get up again.”

“Gunn’s so small.” Angel looked despondent. “And Cordy’s so fragile and Wesley’s so...”

“Unbelievably thin,” Xander supplied.

“Anxious to be good,” Angel sighed.

“Why is that?” Buffy asked. “He was like that when he was here. Must do what the Watcher’s Council tell me. Must follow the rules. Must wear my tie at all times and never ever unbend even an inch.”

“He was brought up that way. Told that higher authority was something to be obeyed without question. I got him out of that.”

Xander nodded. “By helping him to make his own decisions?”

“Mostly by being such a prick even Wesley couldn’t kid himself I deserved to stay up there on my pedestal,” Angel shrugged. “I got him as soon as he was in LA. I didn’t get him here but once I spent a little time with him, one on one, I got who he was and it wasn’t the guy you met when he was here. The weird thing about Wes is that he spent all that time and energy pretending to be someone he wasn’t when he actually was that guy all the time, he just didn’t know it – so afraid of humiliating himself that he kept doing it; so afraid of being a coward that he turned into one. That isn’t who he is. When he came to LA he could barely feed himself but he was still trying to do the right thing. He tried telling me he was a rogue demon hunter and worked best alone and knew what he was doing and was still oh so in charge – for about ten minutes, and then he sort of fell apart and I realized how scared he was of screwing up, and what low self esteem he had, and how all the bluster and baggage was just a cover up for a crushing inferiority complex. Once you know that about him, he makes a lot more sense.”

“Is he still trying to make Daddy proud, do you think?” Xander asked.

“I think he knows in his heart that it isn’t going to happen. He may still be trying though.”

“But if you’re Daddy...?” Buffy said gently.

Angel conceded the point. “I'm already proud of him. That’s why it was so much harder for him than for Cordy and Gunn to grow up because if I just stayed his father substitute forever then he could fix the things about his childhood that were wrong by reliving it. But he did it anyway – grew up, I mean. He’s not like this as an adult, any more, not really. It’s just being turned back into a kid that’s made him revert. Which isn’t to say that we don’t have a terrible power over him, but I hope it won’t ever turn around and bite him in the ass.”

“What terrible power?” Xander frowned.

“Gunn, Cordy and I are the first people who ever loved him. I don’t think he’d ever known that before he came to LA. Not from his parents. Not from friends at school. I'm not sure he ever even had any friends at school. We’re it. His experience of being loved unconditionally. If he ever lost that…” Angel shook his head. “He’s never going to lose that.”

Buffy shivered. “You’re so…intense.”

“I'm a vampire. We’re meant to be intense.”

“No, ‘you’ plural. The four of you. So wrapped up in one another and your mission.”

“Oh, and like you, Giles, Willow and Xander aren’t?” Angel countered.

She looked at him for a moment and then said, “Gunn has a point about your hair, you know. It is kind of dumb.”

“Well, that was a crushing comeback.”

“At least we have lives that aren’t just about each other. We date. We… Xander, tell Angel some of the other things we do that aren’t all cliquey and obsessive?”

Xander opened his mouth and then closed it again. “Um… well… There would be… Did Buffy mention that I have a girlfriend now? Someone who isn’t part of the whole incestuous Scooby vibe?”

“Oh.” Angel looked at him. “With your track record I imagine she’s a demon of some kind?”

Xander made a face. “Ex-demon actually.”

“So, not someone you met at Sunnydale High then?”

“Well…yes, but.... Was there some point we were meant to be making here, Buff, because I'm not sure I'm your best candidate for making it?”

“Willow has Tara and she didn’t meet her at Sunnydale High,” Buffy pointed out quickly.

“No,” said Angel patiently. “She met her at UC Sunnydale. Big breakthrough there.” He suddenly became aware of the silence. “Where’s Gunn?”

“Watching TV,” Xander said.

Angel got to his feet. “Not giggling? Not annoying Cordy? Not yelling about anything? Did you leave the potato chips where he could reach them? Do you know how easily a kid can choke on a…?”

A Gunn-sized giggle from the living room made him break off in embarrassment. “Okay. Maybe he hasn’t choked then.”

“You are seriously paranoid,” Xander observed.

“Angel, you need to crank down the stress levels,” Buffy assured him. “You can’t be like this twenty four seven about three kids. You’ll go nuts.”

“I'm new to this,” Angel complained.

“No, you’re not. You’ve been doing this for two years. They were just bigger kids.”

“And one of them died. Doyle died. Right in front of me. And he was adult-sized and had demon strength. Cordy, Wes, and Gunn are so vulnerable.”

“All little kids are vulnerable, Angel,” Xander reminded him. “But a surprising amount of them live to become teenagers. And an even more surprising amount of them survive that too. Even in Sunnydale.”

Angel looked out of the window. “Sun’s going down. Let’s go and get Wes.”

“Wesley!” Gunn ran into the hall and launched himself at Angel who had this vampire reflexes to thank for being able to catch him.

“Do you know how dangerous that is?” Angel demanded. “What if I’d dropped you?”

“I’d’ve cried and you would have felt really bad.”

“Are we getting Wesley now?” Cordelia also ran into the hall. “I want to show him my new dress. Not that he ever notices when I have a new dress.…”

“Yes, we’re getting Wesley now.” Angel sat Gunn on his hip and took Cordelia’s hand.

“Why does he get to be carried and I have to walk?” she demanded.

“Because he’s got little short legs and you have beautiful new shoes that I can’t see properly unless you’re walking in them.”

As Cordelia preened and stepped out like a thoroughbred with a lot of dainty toe pointing so everyone could see her shoes, Willow nudged Angel gently. “You’re getting way too good at this managing Little Cordy business.”

“It’s really not so different from managing Big Cordy, to be honest.”

“Let’s all go to get Wesley,” Xander suggested. “We can make Giles come back with us and buy food on the way home.”

“Food would be good,” Buffy nodded.

Angel looked over his shoulder at them. “You can throw food into Wesley until the cows come home, guys, it’s not going to make any difference. He was a skinny kid who grew up to be a skinny adult. That’s the way it is.”

“We don’t accept defeat that easily,” Buffy assured him. “So far we’ve only tried Mexican, Italian and Chinese. There is a world of foodstuffs out there that could do the trick.”

They piled into two cars. Dawn insisting on sitting with Gunn and Cordelia in the back of Angel’s convertible while Buffy took the front seat, and Xander drove Willow and Tara in his father’s car.

“Wesley’s going to love your new dress, Cordy,” Dawn assured the little girl.

“Wesley never notices if I have new clothes unless I hit him,” Cordy returned.

Buffy cast an enquiring look at Angel. “You let the children hit each other?”

“She means when he’s an adult.”

“They were all smoochy together last time I saw them.”

Angel grinned. “That wore off very fast. They’re strictly siblings these days. The squabbling kind.”

“We know nothing about that,” Dawn put in, deadpan, from the back seat. “Right, Buffy?”

“Sibling squabbling? A closed book to us,” Buffy assured him.

“Wes and Cordy fight all the time,” Gunn took his thumb out of his mouth to say. “Drives me buggo.”

Cordelia pinched Gunn on the arm. “We don’t mean it.”

“You do too,” he hit her back.

“You two, stop it,” Angel told them firmly.

“She started it.”

“He was annoying me!”

“Do you want to come with me to get Wesley or do you want me to take you back to Buffy’s house?” He used his sternest voice and was relieved to see it seemed to have an effect as Cordelia subsided sulkily and Gunn put his thumb back in his mouth.

“Jeez, lighten up,” Cordelia muttered.

“Yeah, take a chill pill, granddad,” Gunn murmured around his thumb.

“I am going to be so glad to have Wes back,” Angel murmured. “And to finally be able to have an adult conversation.”

Dawn leant forward. “You think Giles will have been able to come up with a spell to reverse it so soon?”

Angel grimaced at her apologetically. “I meant eight year old Wes. He’s starting to seem adult to me now....” It was a relief to see the familiar outline of Giles’s house and he pulled into the best parking place a few seconds before Xander could bag it.

Willow headed for the door while he was still collecting up the children. Dawn picking up Gunn before anyone else could. “Want to watch cartoons with Wesley!” he said excitedly.

“Maybe one before you go to bed,” Angel locked the car while Buffy took Cordelia’s hand, bending down to straighten out any possible creases in the silky fabric.

“Wesley is going to love your dress, Cordy,” she assured her.

“Giles…?” Willow tapped on the door and then frowned as it opened at her touch. “Giles…?” Angel smelt the faint odour of blood and his heart flipped in his chest; he didn’t care that it didn’t beat; that it was dried up and shrivelled and no longer pumped blood around his body; it was still the centre of who he was and what he felt, and what he was feeling right now was panic, because if he lost another of his people, particularly lost him when he was like this, so vulnerable and fragile, he didn’t think he could survive it.

“Giles…!”

Xander pushed past Willow, murmuring ‘Oh my god....”

And then Angel was across the threshold, eyes adjusting to the dim light even before Xander hastily switched on a lamp, and he could see Giles lying on the floor, head sticky with blood. Willow was turning Giles over carefully, Buffy giving Cordelia to Tara and asking her to wait outside before running to his side. “Giles…?” she gasped. “Giles, you have to wake up. You have to...”

Not be dead.

Angel knew how that felt. He was feeling it right now.

Giles gasped and opened his eyes. Buffy said, “Giles, what happened? Are you okay?”

“They took Wesley,” the man managed hoarsely, a hand clamped to his obviously thumping head. He had a bruise on his jaw and a cut that was trickling blood from his temple. “Council goons. The same ones that tried to kill Buffy that time. They knew who he was. They wanted information about Angel. They…”

“They’re dead,” said Angel flatly. “If they’ve harmed a hair on his head....”

“They wouldn’t,” Buffy said quickly. “He’s just a little boy. They wouldn’t do that.”

“Did you see where they went?” Xander demanded. “Do you have any idea where they would have taken him?”

Giles shook his head and then very obviously wished he hadn’t. “I'm afraid I was busy being unconscious. I should never have let them take him.”

“Not your fault,” Angel managed with difficulty. He took in the bruises on Giles’s face, the cut still oozing blood. “I know you would have done everything you could to protect Wesley. Now we have to find him and the people who took him.”

“Are they the men in the car?” Cordelia asked in a small voice.

They all turned to look at her in confusion. Angel sank down in front of her. “What do you mean, Cordy?”

Willow looked up at Tara. “The ones with the binoculars?”

Tara nodded. “Cordelia said they were spying on us. Cordy did you see where they went? When they drove off?”

“Towards the Palmers,” Cordelia said at once.

Willow and Tara exchanged a look. “Are you sure?” Willow asked. “I lost sight of them when they went around the corner.”

“So did I, but I saw them again a few minutes later going to the Palmers.”

Willow grimaced apologetically at Angel. “I don’t know if that was the same car.”

“Makes sense if it was.” Xander picked up Cordelia, just seeming to need to hold her protectively. “The Palmers were killed six months ago and as far as I know no one’s bought their place. The blood on the walls didn’t tend to be too much of a selling point.”

Angel nodded decisively. “Willow? Tara? Dawn? Will you stay here with the kids and take care of Giles…? Buffy, Xander and I will…”

“I'm coming....”

Giles and Gunn both said it in unison and then looked at one another. Giles held out a hand and Buffy took it, she and Willow helping Giles to his feet, but Buffy’s eyes were raw with anxiety. “Giles, you look concussed. You need to lie down.”

“I need to kick Collins very hard in the head,” the man replied crisply. “That is definitely the only cure for this headache.”

“I'm coming too!” Gunn insisted.

“And me!” Cordelia started to cry. “I might get a vision. I could help!”

“We don’t have time to argue this,” Angel said urgently.

“Then let’s give in.” Dawn kissed Gunn. “Splitting up is never a good idea anyway. For all you know, while you’re off getting Wesley they could be kidnapping Gunn and Cordy. Let’s stick together.”

“Sounds like a plan to me,” Xander looked at Angel. “But it’s your call. These are your kids.”

Everyone was so shocked by Xander being supportive of Angel that they stared at him open mouthed. He rolled his eyes at them. “What? They’re his kids. Doesn’t mean I suddenly like his hair.”

“We all go.” Angel looped Giles’ arm over one shoulder while Buffy did the same, both of them supporting his weight.

Gunn muttered, “If I was really his kid I’d stake both of us…”

Dawn kissed him again as she carried him out to the car, whispering, “We’re going to get Wesley back.”

“And kill the people who hurt him?” Gunn demanded.

“We don’t kill humans.” Xander looked between Angel and Buffy. “Right?”

Buffy looked at the blood trickling down Giles’s forehead. “Under special circumstances we might.”

“Under special circumstances,” Angel added through gritted teeth. “We might pull their heads off and use them for a football. Like if they’ve hurt Wesley. At all.” If he had a beating heart he knew it would be hammering in his chest right now. He had made a tacit promise to Wesley that being small wasn’t going to bite him in the ass, this time, that he wasn’t going to be pushed around and bullied just because he was a child again. And now Wesley had been grabbed by three Council goons with a grudge.

“This is my fault.” Giles would have stumbled if Angel and Buffy hadn’t both been holding up. “I should have been more careful. I should have…”

“It’s not your fault,” Angel told him. “You did what you...”

“Collins hit him.” Giles looked bleak. “And Weatherby has always been a nasty little shit.”

“We’re going to get him back, Giles,” Buffy told him. “They won’t hurt a little boy. Not like they would have hurt Wesley if he’d been an adult. This could be the only thing keeping Wesley safe right now. And we’re going to find him and we’re going to take him home and he’s going to be fine.” There was a slight tremble in her voice that made Angel wince and he knew she was as scared as he was. She had been a teenage girl when they had been perfectly willing to kill her. They had thought she was Faith at the time, certainly, but Faith was a year younger than Buffy. These were not people who had a problem with murder.

“He won’t be able to fight back,” Angel gritted his teeth. “You may not know it, not having seen Adult Wes in a while, but he could clean their clocks for them these days. He was fighting Skilosh demons from his wheelchair – dusting vampires when he was still walking with a stick. Last time he and Weatherby clashed, Weatherby had a submachine gun and Wes still took him out. And now he’s trapped in the body of an eight year old and any bastard who wants to can push him around for the fun of it…”

“Smith still has some shreds of decency left.” Giles winced as he bent his head to get into the car, any movement obviously sending white lights and jagged shards of colour strobing through his brain. “I think he’d protect a little boy if push came to shove.”

Xander put Cordelia into the back of his car and ushered in Dawn and Tara to sit with her and Gunn, Willow getting into the passenger seat, her beautiful hair a blaze of warming colour under the streetlight. “I know the way,” Xander called to Angel. “Just follow us.”

“Wesley’s going to be fine, Angel,” Willow added firmly. “And I’m telling you that as a witch.” But her pallor suggested she was not as confident as she sounded. As Xander’s car pulled out, Angel could see Dawn holding tightly onto Gunn, and Tara with a crying Cordelia in her arms, gently trying to soothe her.

Angel pulled out after them, torn between wanting Xander to break all speed records and driving with extreme care, given that two of his kids were in the back. He hoped Dawn and Tara had their seatbelts on. Checking in the rearview mirror he saw that Giles looked not just deathly white but positively greenish. “Giles, if you need to throw up, try to do it outside the car.”

“I’ll endeavour to avoid the upholstery, Angel,” Giles assured him grimly as he got into the back, pressing a handkerchief to his head as he did so.

Buffy looked at him anxiously. “If you have serious head trauma and you’re not telling me…?”

“I’ll soon be able to escape into a coma where even your nagging can’t reach me,” Giles assured her, gripping the side of the car as Angel roared out into the street. “But I don’t think I have serious head trauma, just serious issues with Collins and Weatherby that can probably only be involved by some ugly violence from which I expect you, Buffy, to avert your eyes.”

“I’ll be holding them down for you,” she assured him.

“If they’ve hurt Wesley they’re going to be in pieces before either of you can reach them,” Angel growled softly. “No one hurts my kids and lives.”

Giles pinched the bridge of his nose, placing his head back on the seat. “Well done, Angel, you now sound exactly like every other parent on the planet. Start having a few sleepless nights over their SAT scores and you will definitely be a fully fledged father.”

 

The car parked outside the otherwise abandoned house made it clear that Cordelia had been right. Tara pressed a kiss into her hair and Xander said quietly, “Cord, you totally rule.”

“Is Wesley going to be okay?” she asked quietly.

“Sure he is.” Xander tried and failed to smile. “We’ll have him back in no time flat.”

Gunn looked up at Dawn for reassurance and she hugged him. “Tara and I are going to wait in the car with you and Cordelia, Charles, while Angel and the others go and get Wesley.” Dawn nodded to Xander, mouthing: ‘We’ll be fine. Just go.’

Outside the car, Willow and Xander looked at Buffy and Angel. “How do you want to do this?” Xander asked.

“Pretty much like this....” Angel strode up to the door, looked through the letterbox to check Wesley wasn’t on the other side of it, and then kicked the door off its hinges into shattered shards of splintered wood. “Anyone home…?” he called grimly.

“So, I guess we’re not going for covert then?” Buffy observed to Willow.

“Well, if we are, I don’t think we’re doing it right,” Willow whispered back.

As Collins came around the corner carrying a submachine gun, Xander pulled Willow out of firing range, a precaution that turned out to be unnecessary as Angel ran straight at the man, yanking the gun out of his hand and grabbing Collins by the throat as he did so. “Where’s Wesley?” he demanded.

“Now let’s not do anything hasty.” Collins managed with difficulty.

“I wasn’t planning to,” Angel assured him, baring his teeth in a vicious smile. “Killing you slowly was more what I had in mind.”

As Weatherby rushed Angel with a stake, Buffy grabbed him by the wrist, twisted it hard enough to make him drop the stake and then yanked his arm behind his back. “You know, both of the last times I’ve met you, you’ve tried to kill me. That isn’t giving me the warm fuzzies right now.” She pushed his arm a little higher up his back. “So, why don’t you answer the extremely pissed vampire and tell us where Wesley is?”

As Smith made to rush Buffy, Xander grabbed him and slammed him into the nearest wall. He took the revolver from the man’s hand and looked him in the eye. “Listen to me very carefully. If you’ve read the file you know what Angel is capable of and if you know anything about Slayer strength you know what Buffy is capable of. They’re not in a very good mood right now and Willow and I are probably the only thing that is going to stop them pulling your heads straight off your shoulders – and even then I’d say you have about ten seconds, tops, if you don’t produce Wesley, unharmed, right now.”

Willow and Giles were searching the place, Willow picking up a video camera from one room, while Giles searched another, calling for the boy as he did so.

“Actually, I’ve changed my mind. I'm trying to give up torturing people to death – part of the whole reformed vampire thing – so now you’ve got two seconds before I break your neck,” Angel snarled softly in Collins’ ear. “Now, where is he?”

“Angel…?”

The vampire heard that faint sound and wheeled around at once. “Wes?”

Xander looked at Smith. “Where is he?”

Smith reluctantly dragged his gaze over to the stairs and then nodded once, briefly, in the direction of the cupboard.

Angel hauled Collins over to the cupboard under the stairs and looked at the bolted door. “If Wes is in there I'm going to kill you.” He looked around for Xander and then tossed him the submachine gun. “Watch these two. Buffy, hang onto that one.”

Giles took Collins from Angel, shoved him against the wall and gave him a chilling smile. “Please, do give me a reason to hit you.”

“The Council will hear about…”

“The Council can go do something very painful to themselves with a pointy stake,” Buffy hissed at him through gritted teeth.

“Wes…?” Angel pulled back the bolts on the door and wrenched it open. “Wes…?”

“Angel…?” A voice said breathlessly.

The light from the hallway fell in a rectangle, illuminating part of the dusty cupboard. Angel saw cobwebs and the squeak and scuttle of something darting away, and then pushed the door open wider so that the light revealed the feet, legs and finally pale face of a small boy.

“Wes…!” He reached in and grabbed him, pulling him into his arms and out of that dismal place. “Are you okay?” he breathed.

“I am now.” Wesley tried to smile at him, but when Angel pulled back to look at him he saw that he had a bruised cut on his forehead, another bruise around his left eye and cheekbone and a cut across his mouth. His face was dirty, and the tears from where he had obviously been crying had left tracks through the grime. There was blood from his mouth on his shirt.

Despite the rage that flared in his breast at the sight of Wesley’s condition, Angel was careful to hug him gently. “You’re okay now,” he told him. “You’re going to be fine.”

“Is he okay?” Buffy grimaced as she saw the belt around Wesley’s wrists and hurried to untie it. “Wesley?”

“Yes,” he said faintly. “Is Giles…?”

“I'm fine, Wesley,” Giles said quietly. “And very glad to see you again.”

Buffy pulled the belt loose and then turned Wesley in Angel’s arms so she could look at him. At the sight of the bruises on his face, she wheeled furiously on Collins. “You hit him?”

Angel was also looking at Collins and the expression in his eyes was murderous. “Willow, take Wesley out to the car and wait for me, will you?”

The elfin redhead came over and picked Wesley up, hugging him tightly and then kissing him on the cheek. “You scared us all, really a lot,” she told him, tears in her eyes. “And I, for one, would really appreciate it if you didn’t do it again.”

“What’s Angel going to do?” he asked her anxiously.

She looked at the expression on Angel and Buffy’s faces. “Something…that maybe we don’t actually want to watch them doing….”

“Xander, go with them,” Angel added, still looking at Collins. “Make sure everyone is okay.” Then he yanked Collins out of Giles’ grasp and hit him so hard they all heard bone crack. At the same time, Buffy kicked Weatherby into the wall.

“Angel, don’t!” Wesley wriggled loose from Willow’s gentle grip and ran to where the vampire was, grabbing his sleeve. “They’re human.” Collins was slithering down the wall, blood running from his nose.

Angel was in full vamp face and his eyes glowed yellow with rage. “I don’t care.”

“Buffy! You have to stop him.”

Buffy grabbed Weatherby and slammed him back against the wall. “I don’t even want to stop myself.”

“You can’t kill humans,” Wesley reminded her. “It’s…wrong.”

“Wesley’s right.” Giving Smith a warning glance to stay put, Xander came forward. “I understand how you two feel, but these guys are technically human, even if they’re from the sewage end of the food chain, and you can’t kill them without…losing part of your humanity too. And they’re not worth that.”

“Already lost mine,” Angel said through a mouthful of fangs.

“No, you didn’t. And you don’t need to do this.” Wesley gazed up at Angel wide-eyed.

Xander looked across at the older Englishmen for backing. “Giles, you could chip in any time now.”

Giles sighed. “I was going to let Buffy and Angel hit them a few more times first.”

Xander put a hand on Buffy’s shoulder. “They’re not worth it. And you’re a Slayer. It wouldn’t be a fair fight.”

“How fair a fight was it when they were beating up a little boy?” she retorted.

“No one is saying they’re not pond scum, Buff,” Xander said quietly. “But that doesn’t make it okay for you to kill them.”

She wheeled around. “So, that’s it? They’re allowed to get away with nearly killing Giles, kidnapping, and child battering just because they happen to be human?”

“Those are kind of the rules,” Xander said. “But I didn’t say they were going to get away with it, I just said that it wouldn’t be fair for you and Deadboy to beat them to death.”

“But beating them to death is so what I want to do right now.” Buffy gazed into Weatherby’s eyes with loathing.

“Smith didn’t do anything,” Wesley added quickly. “He protected me from the other two.”

“Looks like it.” Angel gazed at Wesley’s bruised face.

“Angel...”

Angel knew if he turned and looked into those earnest blue eyes he was going to be lost. Sighing he turned and looked and there was that expression he knew so well. Intense Wes being his Jiminy Cricket, willing him to be as good and noble as Wesley thought he was.

Right now, the three of us are the only thing standing between you and real darkness.…

Yes, that was the look and he couldn’t withstand it twice. The real miracle was that he’d managed to withstand it once. “Couldn’t I just kill them and then feel really bad about it afterwards?” Angel pleaded. “Well, probably not very bad, come to think of it. But a slight twinge of remorse?”

“No.” Wesley took his hand, the cuff of his shirt slipping down to reveal red marks where the belt had bitten and bruised his thin wrists. “Let’s just go.”

“Buffy…” Xander looked at her. “You can’t do this. Willow, back me up.”

Willow said: “Killing people, bad; Slayer, good. But, Xander, hurting little kids that can’t defend themselves – very bad too. So, I'm not really sure Buffy can’t do this, and I do know that if she wants to there isn’t really anything we can do to stop her.”

Xander and Wesley both looked at her in shock. “Willow!”

She shrugged. “I'm just saying how I feel.”

Buffy slammed Weatherby back into the wall again and took a step back. “If I see you again, I will kill you and pretend I thought you were a vampire. Don’t think even for a second that I won’t do it.”

“All I’d expect from you, Slayer,” he sneered but he still looked scared.

Angel looked down at Collins, who was vainly trying to stop the flow of blood from his broken nose. “If I ever see you again, you’re dead. In LA, in Sunnydale, if I should happen to take a trip to London and you’re shopping in the same street as me – anywhere I see you, I’ll kill you; and I’ll rip out your intestines and then strangle you with them slowly if you come within a hundred miles of any of my people again. Do I make myself clear?”

Collins nodded. “Crystal clear, but you’re now on the Council’s hit list.”

“I already was.”

Wesley tightened his grip on Angel’s hand and looked up at him approvingly. “Can we go now?”

Angel swept him up into his arms, breathing in his scent and getting how scared the little boy had been and how relieved he was now. “Yes.”

As Collins made to get up, Giles held out a hand, helped him to his feet and then slammed him back into the wall. “Vampires and Slayers hitting you – not fair,” he said with another wolfish grin. “But I'm human and I also have a grudge.”

Xander was waiting for Weatherby to get to his feet and the expression on his face was as ugly as a handsome man could manage. “Yeah. I didn’t want Buffy killing you because you’re not worth giving her a sleepless night, but beating the crap out of you myself? I have no problem with that at all.”

Willow looked across at Smith who was still pressed against the wall. “Wesley, did that other one really try to protect you?”

“Yes, he did,” Wesley looked across at Smith. “He’s just…in the wrong company.”

She jerked a thumb at the outside world. “Then you can go, if you run quickly, before I change my mind and start doing some of those very bad witchy things that I could do if I wanted to.”

Smith looked at Xander then at Giles, took one last look at Wesley and then darted for freedom. Behind him they heard the sound of Xander punching Weatherby with what sounded like a lot of pent up rage.

“Can’t I even trip him?” Buffy asked Wesley as Smith went by.

“No.” He looked down at her from his vantage point in Angel’s arms. “You’re the good slayer, remember?”

“I always suspected bad slayers got to have more fun,” she muttered darkly.

As they rounded the corner, they found Smith on the ground and Dawn standing with one foot on his chest and a crossbow pointing at his head. “This one was trying to escape,” she said. “I tripped him.”

“Now even Dawn gets to have more fun than me!" Buffy protested.

“We let him go.” Angel shrugged. “Wesley made us do it.”

“Oh.” Dawn took her foot off his chest and lifted the crossbow. Seeing Smith still lying there, she jerked a thumb at him. “Go!” He did, swiftly, and with only a brief apologetic look at Wesley who gave him a rueful wave goodbye. “Where are Xander and Giles?” Dawn looked around for them.

“Hitting people,” Buffy said sulkily. “Apparently they’re allowed to.”

“Wesley!” Cordelia shrieked and jumped out of the car, Gunn only a scramble behind her.

“Wes!” Gunn shouted.

“He’s okay.” Angel reassured them. “He just needs some TLC and a bath and some food and never ever to be allowed out of my sight again.” He put Wesley down on the ground carefully and Cordelia immediately hugged him tightly, Gunn charging into him in what was also evidently meant to be a hug.

“I thought you were dead!” Cordelia burst into tears then shook him crossly. “Wesley Wyndam-Pryce, don’t you ever frighten me like that again!”

“I didn’t do it on purpose.” Wesley protested, keeping his feet with difficulty as Gunn clung onto him more tightly.

“You scared me!” Gunn thumped him. “Don’t do that again!”

“Ow!” Wesley looked to Angel for rescue while Dawn picked up Gunn. “I'm sorry.”

“You’d better be sorry,” Cordelia told him and then hugged him again. “Oh, Wesley, I thought you were dead!”

“I'm not,” he said gently. “No one’s dead.”

“Except for Angel,” Gunn put in. “And he’s always dead.”

Giles and Xander came out of the house, Giles shaking his hand and Xander thoughtfully licking his knuckles.

“That was disturbingly enjoyable,” Giles admitted.

“For me too.” Xander shrugged.

“Did you hit them?” Dawn asked.

“Repeatedly,” Giles observed.

Dawn grinned at him. “You are so cool.”

“We could have been cool,” Buffy observed. “We could have been really cool and extremely violent.”

“Your poor face,” Tara said gently to Wesley. “We’ll get you some ice for that eye as soon as we get home.”

“They locked him in a cupboard.” Xander looked over his shoulder in disgust.

Cordy looked up at Wesley in sympathy. “An under-the-stairs kind of cupboard?”

He nodded, trying and failing not to shudder. “Yes.”

Cordelia turned to Angel. “Go back in and kill them.”

Angel looked hopefully at Wesley. “See, Cordy wants me to as well.”

“Angel…”

Angel glanced across at Buffy. “This is what my life is like now. I'm never allowed to have any fun.”

“I want you to kill them too.” Gunn looked up at Wesley’s bruised face. “And then I think you should make them vampires so you can kill them again.”

“Why didn’t we think of that?” Buffy hit Angel on the shoulder lightly. “If they were vampires we could kill them.”

“No, Angel,” Wesley said at once. “You can’t. Buffy, don’t encourage him.”

Buffy crouched down in front of Wesley and straightened his blood stained shirt. “No more research for you. From now on you have to stay indoors and veg out in front of the TV like a normal child. Now, let’s go home and all eat more ice cream than the human body was meant to hold.”

“Sounds like a plan.” Xander held open the back door. “Who wants to ride with Wesley?”

“Me!”

“Me!”

Gunn and Cordelia both shouted at the same time. Buffy also held up her hand. “I want to ride with Wesley too.”

“I want to ride with Giles.” Wesley looked up at the man. “I'm glad you’re not dead.”

“I'm rather glad about that myself.” Giles held open the back door for the children who immediately scrambled in. “And equally relieved that you’re not, Wesley.”

“How come you get all the children?” Willow demanded of Angel.

He smiled smugly. “My kids. Giles, don’t be a hero, take the passenger seat. Buffy, you’re on babysitting duty. Wesley, watch Buffy and make sure she’s doing it right. Gunn and Cordy, Wes and Giles have headaches so try to be very very quiet on the journey home. Okay?”

Cordelia and Gunn nodded and tip-toed into the car with exaggerated care. Buffy found herself squashed into the corner as they insisted on Wesley being in between them, both of them clinging to him possessively. Wesley put one arm around each of his adopted siblings and took a deep breath.

“You okay?” Buffy asked him quietly.

He nodded. “Yes, I really think I am.”

“Was it terrible?” Cordelia asked him softly as Angel started up the car. “Being locked under the stairs again?”

“Not so bad,” he said. “It was different from before. Different from when I was a child before, I mean.”

“Why?” Angel looked over his shoulder to ask.

Wesley smiled at him. “This time I knew someone was coming to get me out.”

***

Wesley was quietly insistent on their return to Buffy’s house that the first thing he wanted was a bath. Given how grimy he was, Angel couldn’t exactly object, but he was as eager to start applying ointment to Wesley’s cuts and bruises as Xander was to start shovelling food into him. “Just a quick one then,” he said. “But I get to hover anxiously outside the door.”

“Me too! I want a bath too!” Gunn said at once. “We can share.”

“Me three!” Cordelia said.

Wesley and Willow both looked at her and grimaced. Wesley said gently, “I don’t think that’s a very good idea, Cordy.”

“Why not?” she pouted. “Just because I'm a girl.”

“Yes,” Wesley persisted. “Just because you’re a girl. And when we’re grown up you’d be mortified about having shared a bath with us.”

Xander and Willow exchanged a glance and Willow murmured, “It’s not that embarrassing….”

Not hearing her, Wesley continued gently: “But you can have a bath first if you want and Gunn and I can go afterwards.”

“Why don’t you mind sharing a bath with Gunn? You’ll be all embarrassed about that when you grow up again, won’t you?”

Wesley and Gunn exchanged a glance of their own and Wesley sheepishly held up a toy submarine supplied from Xander’s old toy closet. “We need someone to play with.”

Gunn held up a pirate boat. “Otherwise it’s not so much fun.”

“It’s not fair!” Cordelia stamped her foot. “I want to play boats too!”

“Why don’t you come and watch a cartoon with me?” Tara invited gently. “Then Wesley and Gunn can have a very quick bath and Wesley can have some ointment put on his bruises and then we can all eat far too much food.”

Cordelia considered for a moment and then nodded. “Cartoons are better than boats anyway.”

Angel ran the bath for his two male charges and then did, as promised, hover anxiously in the doorway, while Gunn insisted on huge quantities of bubbles and lots of splashing, as well as making very loud and realistic gurgling noises every time a boat was sunk. Angel knew Wesley must be traumatized by what had happened to him but thought he was probably wise to get the dust and grime of that closet washed out of his hair as soon as possible, and Gunn was certainly diverting, although it was strange to hear a little boy making references to movies he wasn’t old enough to have seen. Angel realized that if they couldn’t reverse this spell and his ‘children’ did end up going to school again, people were going to think he was the most irresponsible father ever, one who allowed them to watch all kinds of unsuitable movies and…

…Who never met them at the school gates…

…Came to school plays held in the evening but not school sports days held during the afternoon…

There were so many things he wasn’t going to be able to do. But if Cordy, Wes and Gunn stayed children he would find a way around it; find a way to hang onto them and keep them safe even if they had to move from place to place and he had to temporarily shelve his mission to help others. Or he might have to move back to Sunnydale where there would be a support system, but he would find a way to keep them. He wasn’t giving them up to anyone or for anything.

Even as he thought it he knew it wouldn’t be best for them. They had struggled their way to adulthood, painfully and slowly, they didn’t deserve to have to go through that twice, as though their experiences didn’t count for anything, and yet it was so tempting. To put everything back to some neutral new beginning. To a place where their bad memories would fade as they became more and more the children they physically appeared to be, where Wesley might forget that he had grown up under the tyranny of an emotionally abusive father, where Gunn might not spend every day thinking about the sister he had been forced to kill, where Cordelia could learn to be carefree again. He didn’t think he was the best father in the world, but he wouldn’t spoil Cordelia the way her own father had done, or never ask her to think about others; he had no intention of leaving Gunn unprotected in a world of demons, and he would never tell Wesley that he would never amount to anything or lock him under the stairs for some imagined failure of his studies.

“What’s it like?” he asked the two splashing boys in the tub. “Being kids again? Is it fun?”

“No.” Wesley sent the submarine under the waves so it could come up under Gunn’s bobbing pirate ship.

“Why not?” Angel coaxed. “You look like you’re having fun.”

“We’re not children.” Wesley had the submarine surface dramatically, making Gunn squeal with glee. “Not really.”

Angel sighed. He was wanting them to stay like this more and more.

“Are you hungry?” Wesley asked Gunn.

“Yes!” The little boy could hardly have been more emphatic.

“We can’t eat until we get out of the bath.”

“Why can’t we stay here and have Angel bring the food up to us?” Gunn demanded.

“Because the food would get wet and you’d cry.”

Gunn splashed Wesley. “I would not cry!”

“You would if you were about to take a bite out of a really scrummy pizza and it fell into the bath and was ruined.”

“I’d cry about that,” Xander observed from just behind Angel. “Who wouldn’t?”

The vampire turned around in surprise, not realizing how caught up he’d been in watching the two of them.

Xander took out his notebook with a flourish. “I'm here to take your orders, Messieurs, on the understanding that by the time Buffy and I get back you will be dried off, in your jammies, and waiting to eat.”

“Pizza!” Gunn said at once.

“Whatever’s easiest.” Wesley’s blackening eye didn’t look any less painful when he smiled but it did take off some of the tragic aspect. “I'm hungry enough to eat anything.”

“Anything?” Gunn enquired. “What about me?”

“As long as I could cook you first,” Wesley shrugged. “I don’t like sushi.”

Xander shook his head. “Sad. A few days with a vampire for a father and the kid turns into a cannibal.”

“I'm not a fish,” Gunn protested. “Sushi is fish.”

“If you stay in that bath much longer you will be,” Xander assured him. “Take it from someone who almost turned into a fish.”

Gunn looked at him open-mouthed. “You’re making that up.”

“Nope. All true. When I was on the swimming team I started becoming a fish. All part of the whole growing-up-on-a-hellmouth experience. Ask Giles.”

As Gunn immediately scrambled out of the bath and started running towards the door, shouting, “Giles! Giles! Did Xander almost turn into a fish?” Angel grabbed him and picked him up.

“Ask Giles when you’re not dripping wet and naked.”

“I want to know now!”

“Well, the faster you get dry and get dressed in your night clothes, the faster you can add to the thumping pain in Uncle Giles’s head.”

Xander tossed Angel a towel for Gunn and held out another one for Wesley. “Mr. Wyndam-Pryce…”

Wesley grinned up at him and climbed very carefully out of the bath. Xander and Angel both saw the bruises across his back and arms where he had been manhandled and exchanged a grim look before Xander enveloped him in the warm folds of the towel. “Are you ticklish?”

Wesley darted him a wary look. “No…”

“Are you fibbing?”

“Yes…” He giggled as Xander tickled him – very gently – and wrapped the towel around him closely.

Xander picked him up and hugged him briefly. “You gave us a fright today, Wesley.”

“I didn’t do it in purpose,” Wesley looked at him cautiously from under his eyelashes.

“Well, I'm not convinced. The only way you’re going to convince me that you didn’t do it on purpose is if you eat so much food this evening that exploding is a real possibility.”

“That makes no logical sense,” Wesley observed.

Xander shrugged. “Who says adults have to be reasonable?”

Wesley sighed in a long-suffering fashion. “What is it about being around small children that makes grown ups act so immaturely?”

“Can’t imagine.” Angel observed before pretending to bite Gunn’s tummy, making him scream delightedly, while Xander tickled Wesley again.

“What are you doing?” Willow rushed up anxiously.

Xander stopped tickling Wesley, hastily setting him on his feet, while Angel looked up guiltily from making ‘arrghh!’ pretend bites at Gunn’s stomach.

“Nothing,” Xander quickly grabbed another towel and rubbed Wesley’s hair with it.

“Just getting them dried off,” Angel reassured her.

“He was eating me!” Gunn held out his arms to Willow. “Save me from the bad vampire!”

Willow got that melting look in her eyes which always happened with Gunn laid on the cute and held out her arms to him. “Do you want to come and see Dawnie, Gunn?”

“Yes!” he shouted triumphantly.

“She has your jammies waiting for you…”

“I have his jammies,” Angel held them up.

She and Gunn both looked down their noses at his choice of night attire. Willow shook her head. “It really needs a woman’s touch when it comes to hundred percent cotton and cartoon animals.”

As Willow whisked Gunn away, Xander sighed and stopped drying Wesley’s hair, giving Angel a sympathetic look. “You do know, don’t you, that you’re never getting out of Sunnydale with those kids? The only way you get to take Cordy, Wes and Gunn home is as adults.”

“But they’re my kids,” Angel protested. He shook out Wesley’s pyjamas. “These are okay, right? You’ll wear these?”

Wesley nodded and took them from him. “As Cordelia has often pointed out, Angel, I'm not as fussy about my appearance as the other two.”

“They may possibly have been ‘your kids’ before you brought them across this threshold,” Xander told him. “Now it’s a free for all. Remember there are three adult women and an adolescent girl in this household and there’s no telling when those biological clocks could kick in. You’re just lucky my Anya is away right now on a buying trip for the Magic Box and doesn’t like small children when she is here.”

“I'm not letting them be raised on a Hellmouth,” Angel protested, while automatically untwisting the sleeve of Wesley’s pyjamas for him as he pulled on the jacket.

Xander shrugged. “Willow and I were raised on a Hellmouth. Never did us any harm.”

“What about almost getting turned into a fish? Not to mention the times you’ve both ended up in intensive care?”

“I'm just telling you, what with Willow and Tara’s witch powers and Buffy’s Slayer strength you’ll be lucky to get these kids back to LA without being turned into a newt in the process.”

Angel held out Wesley’s robe for him while glowering at Xander. “I might consider some kind of shared parenting scheme.”

“Or turning us back into adults,” Wesley observed patiently, while belting his robe. “Which would solve all these problems at a stroke, and incidentally free Cordelia, Gunn and I from the spectre of having to attend school again.”

Angel and Xander exchanged another glance and Angel sighed. “Or that would work too.”

“Except there isn’t a focusing orb any more.” Wesley looked down at his small body in its tartan robe. “So that might not be possible.”

“There’s more than one focusing orb in the world, Wesley,” Giles said kindly from the doorway. He looked at Xander, “And aren’t you supposed to be driving Buffy to one of those appalling fast food places round about now so we can all fill up on stodge and starch?”

“On my way,” Xander hurried off.

“Do you still have a headache?” Wesley asked Giles.

Giles shrugged. “Several, but it comes with being a surrogate parent to a group of unruly children. Right, Angel?”

Angel scooped Wesley up into his arms and sat him on his hip. “My kids are going to turn out so much better than yours.”

“Oh, is that a fact?” Giles looked mildly amused.

“And go to much better Universities. I think Wesley should get into Oxford no trouble at all.”

“Angel, I already went to University,” Wesley pointed out uneasily. “I got firsts in everything. I don’t want to have to write all those essays all over again.”

“And I'm not going to let them risk their necks dating the undead either,” Angel added forcefully to Giles as he carried Wesley past him. “What were you thinking, letting Buffy do that?”

Giles sighed wearily. “I can’t imagine…”

***

It was gone midnight before Wesley’s eyelids finally closed. Usual sleeping arrangements had gone by the board as both Gunn and Cordelia had refused to be separated from him, so now Wesley was in Angel’s bed with Cordelia hugging him from one side and Gunn from the other. Where the sleeve of his pyjamas had been folded back, Angel could see the bruise around his painfully thin little wrist from where he had been grabbed and tied up. The bruise around his left eye and cheekbone also still looked spectacular and the cut on his forehead was now nestling amidst a purplish contusion. He was definitely not going to be able to leave the house for a few days if they didn’t want social services asking a lot of awkward questions, and although Angel knew he should feel relieved that he wasn’t ending the day with human blood on his hands, he didn’t feel glad about it. Looking at those bruises on the little kid Wesley now was, he didn’t feel glad about it at all.

“Angel…?”

He looked around to find Giles standing in the doorway, also looking at Wesley with a soft expression in his eyes.

“What is it?” Angel breathed, not wanting to wake up the children.

Giles beckoned him into the corridor. “There’s something I think you ought to see.”

Unwilling to leave the children even for a moment but knowing that they were safe and that Giles would not demand his attention for anything that wasn’t important, Angel reluctantly followed him.

On reaching the living room, Giles took the video camera from Willow and handed it to Angel. “I think you should see this.”

He pressed the ‘play’ button and looked into the viewfinder, taken aback to see that it was Wesley’s interrogation they must have filmed. It was a shock to see him sitting there, so small and scared looking.

“…I know how little action I saw when being trained as a Watcher and how much actual good I’ve had a chance to do since working with Buffy and with Angel.”

“Buffy wouldn’t give you the time of day!”

“She still saved my life. That’s what she does. Every day. Saves people. So does Angel. What do you three do?”

“He was so brave,” Willow gazed at the camera mournfully. “Even though he was so little.”

Giles looked at her affectionately. “I’ve often thought the same thing about you, Willow.”

“Oh.” She lit up at that and smiled at him.

“…We will be contacting your father. We will be taking you back to England with us. We will be handing you over to him. Perhaps this time he’ll make a better job of bringing you up as someone who shows loyalty to your own kind.”

Angel watched Wesley go pale and look as if he might be able to throw up or faint.

“I’ve got to ask what the deal is with his father?” Xander asked quietly.

“I’d like to know that too,” Buffy added.

Angel put down the camera for a moment, trying to control the anger and fear he felt at how easily Wesley had been snatched and how completely they had been able to intimidate him. “He certainly emotionally abused him for years. Told him all the things he was getting wrong. How bad at everything he was. And I know he used to punish him by locking him under the stairs. I don’t know if he hit him. I’ve never asked. I don’t think Wesley would tell me if I did. He’s too ashamed of the way his father treated him. I think he thinks it’s his fault. That if he’d been…better at everything, his father would have loved him the way fathers are supposed to.”

“Does Wesley still love him?” Willow grimaced.

“I don’t know.” Angel shrugged. “I think he still hopes he might be able to make him proud of him, show him what he’s achieved. Working with me probably isn’t doing a lot to help on that front.”

“So, if Roger Wyndam-Pryce turned up in LA…?” Giles gave Angel a searching look.

“I’d be as polite to him as I could possibly be, for Wesley’s sake. Doesn’t mean I wouldn’t be grinding my fangs down to little stumps though.”

“Good.” Giles nodded. “Because he is a senior Watcher and someone of some importance in the Council, Angel, and I think if you…”

“I know, and I wouldn’t care if he didn’t happen to be Wesley’s father but as he’s Wesley’s father he gets to live.” Angel looked back at the video camera. “Even if he doesn’t deserve to.”

“There isn’t a manual for childcare, Angel. It may be that Wesley’s father was just trying to prepare him for the world. Wesley did do very well at the Academy. His marks were exemplary. I don’t think he’s as natural an all-round scholar as Willow but…”

“Giles,” said Buffy fondly, “You don’t think anyone on the planet is as natural an all-round scholar as Willow is. And you’re right, because there isn’t.”

Giles couldn’t help gazing at Willow affectionately before continuing as if affronted even though he obviously wasn’t, “…but he still managed to finish top in almost every one of his classes. His maths and science weren’t quite as strong as Willow’s but as a linguist he really was quite remarkable…”

Angel looked at him in disbelief. “You’ve been comparing your kids’ marks with mine?”

“Actually, Angel, when Cordelia got her really excellent SAT scores she was one of my ‘kids’.”

Buffy looked at Willow and Xander in disbelief. “I don’t believe this. They’re going to fight over who has the most prodigal prodigy.”

“…All I'm saying is that Wesley doesn’t have Willow’s innate magical powers or the benefit of having been raised on a Hellmouth but he has still performed the spells we needed on a number of occasions with no trouble whatsoever…”

“…I don’t think it was being ‘raised on a Hellmouth’ that won Willow an acceptance from every college in the country that matters…!”

“…Gunn never got to finish High School because he was busy trying to save LA from vampires. I think he has a lot of untapped potential there and I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say that if I know Wesley is weaker in a couple of areas that he could have extra coaching…”

Buffy growled in a pretty good impression of Angel on a bad day and they broke off in surprise to look at her.

“You two are pathetic,” she told them. “In fact you’re beyond pathetic. Giles stop doing the proud parent thing – it’s kinda sweet but also mucho creepy. And, Angel, your kids aren’t kids, they’re adults, who we’re going to find a way to change back, remember? And even if they stay kids you are not going to spend the next ten years of their lives piling on the pressure about their SAT scores!”

Angel looked at her for a moment and then grimaced. “I'm just…thinking ahead.”

“You’re just obsessing like a maniac.”

“They’re so small.” Angel slumped onto the couch despondently. “And the world’s so big.”

“Wait until they start dating,” Buffy sat down next to him and patted him soothingly on the hand. “Then you’ll really know what stress is.”

“They won’t be dating,” Angel assured her. “Ever. Especially Cordelia. She was impregnated by a demon the last time she went on a date, and Wesley lets women pick him up in bars if he has too many Bloody Marys. The last one wasn’t even a natural blonde. And what does Gunn know about dating? He’s been killing vampires for much too long to know anything about women. Or men. Oh God, people always think Wes is gay. I bet men try to pick him up in bars too. There was that demon in Caritas that time… I can never let them go out alone.”

Buffy looked at Giles and grimaced. “You have got to find a way to reverse this spell, Giles, or those poor kids are going to have the worst adolescence ever.”

“I think that’s a given.” Giles took the video camera from Angel and held it up. “And I think we’re all agreed that the next time any representatives from the Council feel like catching up on old times with Wesley that we want him to be large enough to hold a flame thrower.”

“I'm not letting them near open flames!” Angel looked aghast.

“Angel,” said Xander patiently, “they’d be adults, remember? As adults you let Gunn and Wesley go out and mix it up with big stinky demons. Is that ringing any bells with you at all?”

“Didn’t Cordy say that Gunn as a grown up is like…six feet four?” Willow added soothingly. “And I remember Wesley being tall too. Of course I don’t remember him being able to fight at all, but I guess that’s changed now…?”

“Yes.” Angel took a deep breath. “He’s changed.”

Giles said quietly, “Those kind of changes tend to be hard won.”

Buffy looked up at the Englishman. “I think we all know Wesley doesn’t enjoy being a child again.”

“I was kind of hoping that he would,” Angel admitted. “He had such a crappy time the first time around. I wanted to make it better for him.”

“But this isn’t who he is,” said Buffy gently. “He’s a grown man with all those life experiences he fought really hard to gain.”

Xander nodded. “Angel, it’s no secret that my family wouldn’t win any good parenting prizes but that doesn’t mean I want to go back to being eight years old again. And my past is part of who I am, what’s made me…me. I'm proud of reaching this age. I certainly wouldn’t want to go back and do it all over again even if I had a chance to do it better. I want to move onto the next thing now. Wesley’s making the best of it because he doesn’t know if this is going to be his life now. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t hate it.”

“Gunn’s happy,” Angel pointed out.

“Was he unhappy before?”

“He was…less giggly. And he didn’t have a family.”

“Yes, he did,” Buffy put in. “He had you, Wesley and Cordelia. Aren’t you his family now?”

Angel looked around for an argument. “Well, Cordy…”

Xander held up a finger. “Just stopping you right there, Angel. Kind of an expert on Cordelia. And she was desperate to be old enough to wear designer fashions the whole time she was kid. You can’t fool me she doesn’t want to be able to get back into her grown up clothes again.”

“I think she and Gunn are okay because it’s a novelty to them and they’ve regressed further than Wesley has,” Willow added. “But don’t you think it’s going to be weird for them, being children but not? Having had a whole life before this that they have to pretend doesn’t exist but still remember? I think ultimately, having those kind of conflicts would affect their test scores.”

Angel sighed in defeat and Giles handed him back the video camera. “Tell me Wesley looks like he’s having fun as a child on this tape, Angel, and then remind yourself that as someone associated with you he’s always going to be a target.”

“I'm not saying I don’t want them turned back. I'm just trying to make the most of a bad situation if they can’t be turned back.”

“Angel, you’re picking out colleges,” Xander pointed out.

Buffy patted his hand again. “You have to let go.”

“You have to let them be who they are,” Giles looked at Angel intently. “Whoever they may happen to be. Even if that means they say and do things you don’t like. Take paths you wish they hadn’t chosen. They’re entitled to that. They’ve earned that. I’ve called Anya and asked her to bring me a selection of focusing orbs, and with Willow and Wesley’s assistance I'm sure we can work out what happened. And once we know that, I'm confident I can reverse the spell. It would be nice if you were happy for them.”

“I will be,” Angel promised. “I will. I miss them. The adult them. I just wish…”

“You could keep the child versions too?” Willow sighed. “Me too.”

Buffy looked glum. “Dawn is going to miss MiniGunn so much. I'm going to have to buy her a puppy after this.”

Angel looked up the stairs. “I’d better get back to them. Wesley might have nightmares. I should be there.”

Xander nodded to Giles, “You and I should go. I think Tara and Willow are camping out here again but we can’t really do the whole pyjama party thing.”

“Oh woe,” Giles observed.

“But we’ll be back early,” Xander added. “Just in case you need reinforcements.”

“I don’t think those Council goons will be back,” Buffy assured him.

“I meant trying to get Cordy to eat her breakfast cereal.”

“Ah.” Buffy nodded. “For that we could do with reinforcements.”

“I’ll be back after breakfast,” Giles observed. “Probably a good hour or so after just in case there are stragglers.”

“We’ll leave the washing up for you,” Buffy told him brightly then seeing his disapproving expression added, “Or not. We’ll in fact move around very quietly while you do the difficult important research so as not to make your head ache worse than it obviously already does.”

“Appreciated.” Giles headed for the door. “Good night, Angel. Try not to hyperventilate too much over your young charges. I always think that looks so foolish on an entity that doesn’t actually need to breathe.”

Angel mechanically made his good nights to everyone, hardly noticing when the front door closed behind Xander and Giles. As he climbed back up the stairs, he was thinking about his adult friends. The Wesley he had carried out of the wreckage of their first office, the Cordelia who had seen all the pain in the world, the Gunn who had been leading his own crew against the vampires. They had all paid a high price for helping Angel in his quest for redemption and he wasn’t always sure that he had appreciated them as much as he could. Them being turned into children might be a gift for him, the guy who couldn’t ever have kids of his own, but it was just another thing that hanging around with a vampire had cost them.

He went into the bedroom where Wesley and Cordelia were curled up facing one another, Gunn having wriggled his way in between them, the human hot water bottle around which they were both warming themselves. Wesley’s black eye and bruised cheekbone were clearly visible, as were the finger bruises around his thin wrist. Angel bent over them and kissed Cordelia on the forehead.

“I do want you back,” he whispered to them. “I want you all back. I miss you.”

“We missed you too, Angel,” Wesley murmured sleepily. “We’re glad you came back.”

Angel carefully moved them over a little and slid into the bed next to Wesley where he could listen to their heartbeats all night and know that however dead he might be, they were all still safe and alive and protected.

***

Although Giles could understand why Angel wanted the children kept in the house after what had happened to Wesley, after three days of being cooped up indoors, Gunn and Cordelia seemed on the point of internally combusting. Nor was it easy to research when there was a frustrated four year old charging around the house making fire engine noises. Or possibly police siren noises. Giles wasn’t sure. Pinching the bridge of his nose he looked across the kitchen table at Wesley who also seemed to be fighting a headache.

Giles had brought a supply of Jaffa cakes, chocolate hob nobs and English Breakfast tea to try to alleviate some of the tedium of their task, but the general sense of uproar in the house which Gunn seemed to be creating almost single-handed was definitely taking a toll.

“Perhaps if Buffy went with them…?” Giles suggested.

“Slayer strength.” Wesley nodded. “And Xander is pretty good in a fight.”

“Willow and Tara have those witch powers, which aren’t to be sneezed at.”

“No.” Angel wandered into the kitchen, drinking blood from a container as he did so.

“They’re really bored, Angel,” Wesley protested. “And Gunn’s only four, you can’t expect him to stay indoors all the time.” He didn’t add that he couldn’t imagine the adult Gunn being happy staying indoors for four days either, but it was true. The man was used to keeping himself going on a few hours sleep and whatever food could be ‘liberated’ from market stalls, and he still had the energy to fight vampires and usually beat Wesley at Risk afterwards. Hyped up on sugar and confined to a house, even the adult Gunn would have been scaling the walls by now; his four year old self must be ready to spontaneously combust.

“All you have to do is look in the mirror to see why he should be staying indoors all the time.”

Wesley grimaced and put a hand up to his still multi-coloured cheekbone. “They’re just so fed up.”

“Which is why we’re taking them out.” Buffy came into the kitchen and gave Angel her best ‘brooking no argument’ glare. “We’re taking them to the fairground, a public place where anyone trying to snatch them would get arrested. This solves the problem of your children destroying my house, of them both going insane with boredom, and Wesley and Giles having permanent migraines from having to work with a constant din in the background.”

“They’re my kids and...”

“And you’re completely paranoid,” Xander told him, coming in behind Buffy. “And therefore we’re temporarily declaring you an unfit parent and taking the children into protective fun custody.”

“Why can’t we take them this evening when the sun’s gone down?” Angel looked sulky but Giles had a feeling he was about to crack. Even he couldn’t be kidding himself that a hyperactive Gunn and a permanently cross Cordelia were having a good time.

“Because Gunn’s too little to stay up late,” Buffy pointed out patiently. “And because they need some time away from you and your constant hovering.”

“I don’t hover!”

“Angel, hovercraft could learn from you,” Xander assured him. “The kids need a break from you and this house, and Giles and Wesley need a break from them. Stay here and guard Wesley from the monsters under the bed while the four of us get the kids some fresh air and ice cream.”

“Ice cream!” Gunn charged into the kitchen and threw himself at Xander who caught him on reflex and sat him on his hip.

“Yes, there may be ice cream. It depends on how well behaved you are.”

“What monsters under the bed? Can I see them? Show me!”

Xander sighed. “Figure of speech, Munchkin Number Three. Although, come to think of it, as we live on a Hellmouth…”

He carried Gunn off as Cordelia ran into the kitchen, saying brightly: “New shoes! I get new shoes!” Giles couldn’t decide if this was the adult Cordelia or the child Cordelia speaking. Gunn seemed to be almost entirely a child but Cordelia vacillated between the two, seeming to depend what mood she was in, whereas Wesley showed his child-like status really only in increased anxiety.

“You’re bribing my children now?” Angel demanded of Willow.

She looked a little sheepish until Wesley marked the place in his book and said, “Gosh, where have I seen that strategy used before?”

“That was different,” Angel said at once.

“How?”

“It just was.”

Willow said, “Just one more pair. Because she has to take care of Gunn.”

Cordelia sighed in her best long suffering fashion. “Even though he’s a little brat.” She looked at Wesley beseechingly. “Don’t you want to leave those stuffy old books for an hour and come with us? Then you could look after him and I could have fun.”

For a moment he looked very tempted and then he put his hand up to his bruised cheekbone, clearly deciding that he would attract too much attention. “I can’t. But maybe I can go another time.”

Cordelia automatically straightened the cuff of his shirt. “You’re being a really boring kid, Wes.”

“Well, how else am I going to grow up into a really boring adult? It takes practise, you know.”

She touched his bruised cheekbone gently. “Look out, girls, this one can’t be tamed…”

They grinned at one another and Giles thought how remarkably similar they looked with their dark hair, long lean limbs and perfect teeth. “At least you get to avoid the hell of dating for a few more years,” Wesley pointed out.

“I ruled at dating,” she reminded him. “I was the dating queen.”

“You went out with Xander.”

She slapped him lightly on the arm. “That was an aberration!”

“You went out with me.”

“Rebound insanity.” She touched her hair, checking to see it was properly in place. “Now, if you’d just learned to kiss a little earlier, not to mention worn those leather pants to work a few times…”

“You would still eventually have come to your senses,” Wesley told her good-humouredly.

“You’re much less snippy as a kid,” she observed.

“I have to be. Everyone’s bigger than me.”

She hugged him, resting her cheek against his briefly. “When we’re big again I think we should go and chop up a nasty smelly demon into little bitty pieces just because we can.”

“It’s a date,” he assured her.

She peered at the book he was reading. “You know I have complete faith in you and Giles to reverse this, right?”

“I know.”

“But, just to help you focus… If we stay kids Angel is going to send us to summer school for every single subject in which we don’t get an ‘A’, and he’s going to make us learn an instrument each. I think I get the violin, you get the cello, and Gunn gets the saxophone. He’s also talking about ballet being good for boys and girls because it helps with coordination.”

“It does,” Angel protested.

Wesley rolled his eyes at Cordelia. “Oh yes, let me just walk from my cello lesson to my ballet lesson past the line of boys queuing to beat me to a pulp.”

“And as the sister of the boy with the cello, the glasses, and the ballet lessons how uncool would I be?” Cordelia said in wonder.

“And we’d have to stay late every single evening waiting for it to get dark so Angel could pick us up – which wouldn’t be a problem because no doubt Gunn would be in detention every single evening for fighting people who’d pointed out that his adopted brother was a sissy and his adopted sister was an airhead.”

Cordelia smacked Wesley on the arm. “No, I'm not.”

“We’re talking about nasty bullying boys of low character and poor perception,” Wesley rubbed his arm. “And…ow.”

Giles said gently, “We’re going to reverse this, children, I promise.”

“Please,” Cordelia gave him a begging look. “I mean I love you all, and Tara and Willow – best moms ever – but I had a life. It was a life that sucked, admittedly, and involved me having lots of blinding headaches and lonely evenings in with Phantom Dennis, my slightly neurotic ghost, but it was my life and I want it back. Even the sucky parts.” She looked at Angel over her shoulder. “And I am not learning the violin.”

“What about the piano?” Angel pleaded. “You could all have piano lessons.”

She took a hob nob from Wesley’s plate and said, “Give it up, Angel. We’re not going to be perfect children out of some perfect child manual. We’re going to be us. Wesley is going to be a geeky kid with no friends who drops things and has anxiety attacks about his grades, I'm going to be spoilt and shallow yet bewitchingly pretty and with perfect hair, and Gunn’s going to be a juvenile delinquent. Deal.” She gave Angel a dazzling smile and then took Willow’s hand. “Shall we go?”

“Juvenile delinquent…?” Angel echoed.

“Oh yes, I forgot you weren’t there when Detective Lockley was reading out Gunn’s rap sheet. Quite an impressive document.” Wesley took a sip of his tea. “But I'm sure we’ll never be short of hubcaps.”

“Are you dissing my munchkin?” Xander demanded, coming back into the room, still carrying Gunn. “And are you to ready to go, Princess Cordissima?”

“He’s my munchkin,” Angel protested.

“Dawn’s munchkin I’d say,” Buffy observed, coming into the room. “And I think she has a wooden stake somewhere that proves it.”

“I hate the way they all fight over Gunn,” Cordelia pouted.

“Just be grateful someone else wants him.” Wesley bent back to his research. “Otherwise you and I would be stuck with him all the time.” As the little boy looked hurt, Wesley hastily amended: “I mean ‘stuck with’ in its most positive sense.”

Gunn curled up against Xander’s chest, keeping a hurt expression on his face and continuing to gaze at Wesley reproachfully. Giles wondered if Wesley, as a child himself – of sorts – might prove better at standing up against this onslaught, but Wesley proved himself to be a pushover by immediately looking stricken and saying, “Oh, Charles, you know I didn’t mean it. Of course Cordelia and I both love you.”

“Speak for yourself,” Cordy muttered but then as Gunn transferred the reproachful gaze to her, crumpled almost as fast as Wesley, hurrying over to where Xander was holding him and holding up her arms. “Let me carry him.”

“He’s too heavy for you, Cord,” Xander assured her. “Why don’t you hold my hand though and we can go on out to the car…”

Giles waited with what he felt was remarkable patience for Buffy to get herself, Willow, Tara, Xander and their two young charges out of the door. It seemed to involve a lot of last minute clothing changes by everyone female, a great deal of dithering about whether or not coats would be necessary which he would have thought quite reasonable in England but which seemed laughable in Southern California, many reassurances to Cordelia that the clips in her hair did not make her look silly, and that her hair was indeed in perfect order. Then there were the excessive amounts of fussing from Angel about them knowing where the nearest hospitals were and how to get to them, not to mention assurances that everyone was well versed in the Heimlich Manoeuvre and that they would call him at once if there was any trouble.

While they were getting out of the door, Wesley had almost knocked over a vase on his way to the bathroom, Gunn had demanded chocolate, and almost come to blows with Cordelia about whether they were buying her shoes first or taking him to the fairground. That Cordelia had won had probably surprised no one. Cuteness could only carry a small boy so far, and when it came to shoes she was immovable. Xander had bribed Gunn away from a temper tantrum with the demanded chocolate – which the little boy had then done his best to get on Cordelia’s new dress, involving much changing of seating in the car to keep them apart and safe.

As the door finally closed, Giles looked up at Angel. “I think you had better accept now that Cordelia was absolutely right and Wesley will always be clumsy and anxious, Cordelia will always be spoilt and demanding, and Gunn will blatantly manipulate everyone around him by being ‘cute’ at every opportunity.”

“Cordelia isn’t spoilt any more. Not very anyway,” Angel returned defensively. “And Gunn is a really well adjusted guy who just likes to mix it up with demons and stake a few vampires before bedtime. And Wesley isn’t that anxious any more. And he doesn’t knock as many things over these days either.”

“Oh, really?” Giles turned back to his books. “Sounds as if we’d all have a much easier time if they were adults then. Not to mention saving a fortune in chocolate.”

“Gunn still likes chocolate.” Wesley came back in and clambered up onto his kitchen chair. “Cordy still likes shoes. I still dream I have a test the next day and I haven’t studied for it. We can reach the light switches a lot more easily though.”

“Presumably Angel is slightly less neurotic about you, too?” Giles suggested.

Wesley shrugged. “About me and Gunn, yes. But he did chop someone’s hand off for trying to thwart him getting a cure for Cordelia.”

“You think I wouldn’t chop someone’s hand off for you?” Angel demanded, hurt.

Wesley glanced up at him in mild concern. “Because nothing says ‘I love you’ like a ritual dismemberment?”

“Hey, you weren’t there when Cordy and I were going crazy trying to work out where Faith had taken you.”

“No,” said Wesley patiently. “I was busy being tied to a chair and tortured by the woman for whom you later bought doughnuts.”

There was an uncomfortable silence before Giles said with a shrug, “One of the crosses a Watcher has to bear, Wesley. Buffy was quick enough to buy pig’s blood for the person who tortured me too. It doesn’t mean they don’t care about us.”

“Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pile on the guilt from time to time either,” Wesley murmured as he reapplied himself to the book in front of him.

“Giles, you know I… Wes, I was only trying to…” Angel slumped into the chair despondently. “So, is there any particularly dull research you want me to do?”

They both reached for a green-leather-bound volume and pushed it towards him. “‘Properties of the orbs of Demonica’,” Giles observed.

“It’s a page turner.” Wesley turned a page of his own book.

“Where’s the orb to compare with the illustrations?” Angel enquired.

“Smashed.” Wesley looked up. “But you remember how it looked?”

“I saw it for about ten seconds before you all got turned into children.”

“The orb itself doesn’t matter that much I don’t think. Just the properties of orbs in general when used in conjunction with this amulet.” Giles turned the page of his own book. “What we’re trying to work out is how the spell was cast, and presumably the person who sent both must have had some kind of precedent for his or her spell casting. Somewhere there has to be a reference to using that amulet with the orb that was smashed to achieve the result that you witnessed.”

“And how the person who sent the amulet and orb guaranteed it would be cast,” Wesley added. “That’s the stumbling block so far.”

“Why?”

Giles marked the page of the book he was reading. “According to all the reports Wesley and I have found, the particular amulet that was sent to you is weak in magical properties unless activated by the blood of an unclean. We’ve both tried handling it and although it does have a rough edge at the moment we’re not clear how it managed to cut you right on cue.”

“Maybe it’s made to only cut vampires?” Angel suggested.

Wesley handed it over. “I suppose you could try it and see.”

Angel gingerly picked up the amulet and then as nothing happened, grasped it more firmly. He tried it with the other hand, then took it in his right again. Then shrugged. “Nothing.”

Giles sighed. “I knew it couldn’t be that easy. More research then.”

Wesley nodded and turned another page. “Lucky for us that research is such a pulse racer.”

Giles also nodded. “Absolutely.” Out of the corner of his eye he saw Angel slump despondently in his chair and turn another page of his big dull book.

 

Three hours later

“I'm going cross-eyed,” Wesley sighed.

Giles also looked up from the book and tried to ease a particularly painful crick out of his neck. “Let’s recap what we have so far.”

Angel closed his own book. “There are far too many orbs in the world and they all look the same.”

“Yes, thank you, Angel. Most instructive.” Giles turned to his other research assistant. “Wesley?”

The little boy sat back in his chair, eyes serious behind his glasses. “The amulet sent to Angel is weak in magical properties. The orb sent to me seems to have been stronger in magical properties but is still only a focusing orb – a means of channelling a magical spell and directing it, much like a crystal. What I'm not finding is any specific spell trigger.”

“Exactly.” Giles nodded. “Angel’s blood activated the amulet, the orb focused the power of the amulet, but where does the actual spell come from?”

“The carvings in the amulet?” Angel suggested.

Wesley shook his head. “We’ve already double checked them against the illustrations of the amulet in several reference books and they’re the standard markings, as one would buy them in any magic shop. Willow did a revealing spell last night to try and see if there were any hidden sigils and there was nothing. This appears to be a perfectly ordinary amulet with nothing unusual about it.”

“What’s really perplexing me is how the person who sent it could have known it would have the effect it did?” Giles took off his glasses and cleaned them. “How could he have known you and Angel would open your parcels at the same time and in the same place? You might have been out on a case. You might have taken your parcel home with you to open in your flat.”

“What would have happened then?” Angel pressed.

Wesley shrugged. “Nothing as far as we can tell. You would have had a pretty amulet. I would have had a pretty orb and…I wonder if we’ve been looking at this in entirely the wrong way.”

“What do you mean?” Giles put his glasses back on, Wesley coming back into focus as he did so.

Wesley gazed up at him, excitement in his eyes. “We’ve been assuming the intent of the person who sent us these things was malevolent. What if it wasn’t?”

“Accidental?” Giles had to take a moment to absorb such a dramatically new thought. “Just bad luck that you and Angel opened your parcels at the same time and that Angel happened to cut himself? But that doesn’t explain why you were turned into children. That isn’t an inherent property of the amulet.”

“It’s wish amulet.” Wesley looked at Giles. “What if someone made a wish? The amulet was activated by Angel’s blood, and the focusing orb would have the power to make the wish happen if it happened to be in the right place at the time, which, by unfortunate coincidence, it was.”

“But that would mean...” Giles and Wesley both turned to look at Angel at the same time. “That Angel must have been the one to make the wish.”

Angel gaped at them in horror. “I didn’t.... I would never....” He frowned as he tried to remember. “Well, I may have just idly...in passing....”

“Are you out of your mind?” Wesley demanded. “You’re standing there holding a focusing orb a foot away from a wish amulet onto which you have already bled your demonic blood and you start ‘idly...in passing’ thinking how nice it would be if we were all children and had to do what you said?”

“I didn’t think it would be good if you had to do what I said!” Angel protested. “I was just thinking how you used to act more...kidlike and how I sort of...missed it...but I never....”

“Well, well....” Giles tossed his pen onto the table. “We’ve been trying to work out who the evil culprit was who turned the three of you into children and all the time it was Angel.”

“I knew you had a problem with taking orders from me.” Wesley stabbed an accusing finger at Angel.

“I didn’t! I mean I don’t! I just....”

“You’re just the control freak to end all control freaks!” Cordelia stood in the doorway, hand on her small hips. From Xander’s arms Gunn was also gazing at Angel in open-mouthed accusation.

The three researchers had been so caught up in solving the mystery that not even Angel had heard the others return. Now he found himself faced by far too many pairs of accusing eyes.

“I didn’t do it on purpose!” Angel protested.

“If you weren’t already dead I would so be threatening you with death right now,” Buffy told him.

“Where’s a spatula?” Cordelia demanded.

Clearly thinking quickly, Angel said, “That doesn’t explain who sent the amulet and the orb. They’re the real culprit here and I think it’s important we focus on that.”

“Oh, we solved that one.” Xander came in and plonked Gunn down on Angel’s lap; the small boy still fixing Angel with a look of betrayal and disbelief that could have felled someone with a much hardier conscience at twenty paces. He held up his cell. “I checked my messages. There was one from Anya. Who, I think I should remind everyone, is the woman I love. You, Giles, left her a message a few days ago asking her to get a few focusing orbs while on her restocking expedition for the Magic Box. She just got back to me to ask if you wanted the same kind that she’s been sending out to potential clients or if it needs to be a different variety.”

“What?” Giles looked up at Xander in disbelief. “Anya has been…sending out focusing orbs to potential clients?”

“Yes, and magical amulets – cheap ones apparently, and you know what’s really got her pissed about this situation? The fact she forgot to put a Magic Box card in on the first dozen she sent out. As she told me, that’s all a deficit in the outgoings column and nothing coming back.” He turned to Wesley. “Apparently in with your pretty, magical, child-making orb you should have had a nice little card saying ‘Compliments of The Magic Box, look for us online for all your magical equipment needs’.”

“That would certainly have explained a lot,” Wesley admitted slowly.

“I think I'm going to kill her,” Giles observed.

“Woman I love, remember?” Xander reminded him.

Giles sat back in his chair and tossed his pencil on the table. “Well, talk about the enemy within. We’ve been giving ourselves nervous breakdowns here trying to track down the archfiend who turned Angel’s associates into children and all the time it was Angel’s emotional immaturity and Anya’s rampant greed that were to blame.”

Gunn thumped Angel hard in the chest, making him wince. “I knew there was a good reason why I wanted to kick you!”

“I'm sorry,” Angel told him hastily. “I didn’t do it on purpose. I promise I’ll make it up to you.”

“How?” Wesley demanded. “By cancelling the ballet lessons?” He looked at Cordelia and Gunn. “Who wants to put themselves up for adoption?” Two hands shot up and Wesley added his own, looking at Angel with narrowed eyes. “Carried unanimously.”

“Wes...Cordy... Gunn... You know I never meant for this to happen. Do you really think I would ever do anything to endanger you?”

Giles suspected that everyone – except possibly Buffy – had forgotten that Angel had his own arsenal of manipulation, and had to admit that even he, not a great fan of Angel, felt the impact of the ‘puppy dog eyes’ Angel was now using to show his remorse and hurt feelings.

Wesley was the first to fold, muttering, “We know you didn’t do it on purpose.”

“Hold on,” Cordelia protested. “How do we know that? He made the wish.”

“But he didn’t know that was what he was doing.”

“He still thought it!”

Giles looked at Cordelia over his spectacles. “Am I talking to the woman who plunged Sunnydale into a vampire-overrun dystopia with a careless wish of her own?” As Cordelia had the grace to look a little sheepish, Giles added: “You killed Xander and Willow with your wish and goodness knows how many other people as well, out of a completely unjust desire to blame Buffy for your romantic disappointments. At least Angel’s wish was benevolent and protective and only arose from his – admittedly somewhat misguided – affection for you all.”

“Why can’t he like us as adults?” Gunn demanded.

“I do.” Angel gazed at the little boy with unmistakable sincerity in his expressive brown eyes. “You know I do.”

“You fired us!”

“Water under the bridge,” Wesley said hastily. “We don’t need to go over that again.”

“You always let him off!” Cordelia turned on Wesley and Giles couldn’t decide if this was the child Cordelia or the adult Cordelia talking. Whichever one it was she was clearly frustrated. “Angel turns into Angelus and is a complete bitch to everyone – disses my acting performance and totally smacks you into a wall – and you don’t even make him grovel before you’re telling him it’s not his fault. And you sneaked in there as soon as my back was turned and unchained him.”

“He was no danger to anyone.”

“Do the words ‘payback’ mean nothing to you?”

“As to what happened recently...Angel was grieving over what was done to Darla and he went a little – okay a lot – off the deep end, but the poor woman was finally ready to accept her death, to feel remorse for what she’d done and find some kind of peace and salvation, and Wolfram & Hart – having dragged her back from hell for no reason other than to torment Angel – then dammed her all over again. I'm not excusing what Angel did but I can’t say Wolfram & Hart did not on some level have it coming.”

“You didn’t have it coming and you got shot.” Gunn glared up at Wesley. “You nearly died. If we hadn’t managed to get you to the hospital when we did...”

“And the reason you could get me to the hospital was because the zombies were deactivated – because of Angel. Gunn, you know I know how much I owe you but the fact remains that if Angel hadn’t done his part then...”

“I know.” The child looked between Angel and Wesley in obvious annoyance. “But he left us hanging out there. Cordy was still getting her visions from the Powers That Be and you’d told him we were going to be responding to the call when it came in. He knew what was out there and he knew we were facing it.”

“And he saved us from the Skilosh demons.” Wesley appeared to be patience personified.

“You always defend him,” Cordelia pointed out.

“And if I didn’t you would, and if you didn’t, Gunn would. You only have the luxury of complaining about him right now because I'm doing the defending.”

Cordelia looked at Wesley in disbelief. “You’re telling him that?”

Wesley shrugged. “He may as well know the truth.”

“We don’t want him knowing the truth.” Gunn rolled his eyes at Wesley. “We want him feeling bad and buying us ice cream.”

“I do feel bad,” Angel assured them. “And I’ll buy you all the ice cream you can eat.”

“If it helps at all,” Giles told Cordelia and Gunn. “Now that I know how it was caused, I'm confident that I can reverse the spell.”

Cordelia looked at him with something like admiration. “That helps a lot.”

“You get all the cool points in the world – even with the whole tweed thing you’ve got going,” Gunn added.

“You can change them back?” No one had heard Dawn come in from school but the look on her face was one of dismay. “But not for a while, right? It’ll take some time to double check all your findings and go out and find the ingredients? And you’ll need to wait for the full moon, right? There always has to be a full moon.”

“Well, actually…” Giles began.

Dawn snatched up Gunn from Angel’s lap into her arms before giving Giles an anguished look. “Tell me it could take weeks?”

Giles grimaced, torn between wanting to let her down lightly and the needs of the three adults who were currently trapped in these child forms. “Well, days perhaps…”

Dawn gave an inarticulate cry and hugged Gunn more tightly. “Want to come and watch cartoons with me?” she asked brokenly.

“Okay,” Gunn stroked her hair tentatively. “You want me to get better, don’t you?”

“You’re perfect as you are,” she murmured.

“Dawn…” Buffy winced. “That’s not who Gunn is.”

“But I like him like this!”

“He has a whole life…”

“He does dangerous things. I can’t keep him safe once he goes back to LA.” She had tears in her eyes as she looked across at her sister. “We could protect him here.”

“He can protect himself,” Buffy said gently. “That’s the point.”

Sighing Dawn carried Gunn off to the living room. Buffy exchanged a grimace with Giles. “Oh dear. Poor Dawn.”

“I know how she feels.” Willow slumped onto one of the kitchen chairs, Tara automatically moving behind her to massage her stiff shoulders. “I mean… I want them to get better, of course I do, and I know it must be frustrating for them… but there were all the museums I wanted to take them too… and the stores… there are so many cute outfits for little girls and Cordy would look so adorable in them and…”

Giles took off his glasses. “I must confess that even I have enjoyed Wesley’s company considerably more than I anticipated, and will feel a small pang...”

Cordelia rolled her eyes at Wesley. “Can we say serious child substitute issues or what?”

“Would we have been any better if the things were reversed?” Wesley shrugged. “Supposing Buffy had turned up on our doorstep with a child-sized Willow, Xander and Giles in tow…”

“Oh boy.” Cordelia’s eyes lit up. “Willow had no taste at all when she was my size the first time around. I could totally re-educate her from like kindergarten up. And – oh my god! – Xander! We could actually bring him up to be cool – well, not you obviously, Wes, but Angel and I together could work a miracle – and oh – Giles – we’d find out if he was stuffy from when he was really small or if it just came on him later.”

Buffy smiled across at Giles. “Don’tcha just love Cordy when she’s being empathetic?”

“It’s always a treat,” Giles observed.

Wesley gazed across at Giles. “You really think you can reverse this spell?”

“Yes, absolutely. I know how the original spell was cast now, and what the activating elements were. As soon as Anya returns with the focusing orb I'm confident I can restore you all to your adult forms.”

Buffy looked at them cheerfully. “So, temporary munchkins, if there is anything really immature you’ve always wanted to do, you’d better schedule it for the next few days.”

“I just want to be big again,” Wesley said wistfully.

Buffy and Angel exchanged a glance. “Kind of missing the whole ‘second childhood – opportunity of a lifetime’ thing, isn’t he?” she observed.

“Wes, can’t you unwind for just a couple of days?” Angel pleaded.

Wesley looked up at him intently. “Angel, you know better than anyone how hard it’s been for me to become who I am. The last thing I want to do now or at any other time is revert to any previous version of myself.”

Cordelia leaned across and kissed him on his bruised cheekbone. “I liked the previous version of you.”

Wesley returned her gaze affectionately. “Was it the whole screaming like a woman thing that did it for you or the tripping over my own feet? Oh, wait, there was the caving at the first sign of danger and being prepared to sell Angel out to the first nasty demon that threatened my kneecaps. I can see how that was sexy, certainly. And yes, abducting Faith from Angel’s place just as he was getting through to her, thereby completely alienating her, before allowing her to escape. That was probably a real knee-trembler too.”

Cordelia grabbed his hair and yanked his head back, making him wince. “Listen to me, small boy who is dissing my friend, that was never everything that you were. You saved me from vamp Willow when she was evil and skanky. And you were only trying to follow the Council orders over Faith. It wasn’t your fault the Council was made up of boring old British guys who had the one brain to go around the whole bunch of them and at the time you were in Sunnydale had lost it behind the back of the couch. And if I thought you were a catch then you were a catch because – in case you’re forgetting – never wrong here.”

“Ouch, Cordelia, hurting me quite a lot now.…”

“Want to be beaten to a pulp or do you want to accept that you had good qualities before you came to LA?”

“Yes, okay, anything you say. None of the stupid things I did were my fault. I was an irresistible stud muffin and the real mystery was why I wasn’t also having to fight off advances from Buffy and Willow. Happy now?”

Cordelia let him go and kissed him again triumphantly. “Perfectly.”

“You looked really nice in a tuxedo,” Buffy offered.

“I noticed that too,” Willow put in. “Really nice. Kind of James Bondy. Only not so big with the killing and the gadgets and the cocktails.”

“And yet you let me get away.” Wesley shook his head in mock confusion. “I'm still reeling from the surprise of that one.” He jumped down from the chair, looking purposeful.

“What are you doing?” Angel asked quickly.

“Going to watch cartoons with Gunn and Dawn. I only get to be a child for a few days longer, so apparently I should make the most of it.”

As Wesley went into the living room, Cordelia sighed. “He did look great in a tuxedo. Couldn’t kiss worth a damn back then though.”

“I heard that…” Wesley called back from the other room. “And I think it only fair to warn you that as a child I think I'm entitled to pull your hair quite hard.”

“You try it, buster! See how many of those first teeth you have left when I'm done with you!” Cordelia marched into the next room purposefully and they heard what sounded remarkably like a squeal, probably in response to a pinch, followed by some serious scuffling and muted thumping accompanied by much giggling.

The ever over-anxious Angel hurried into the hall to see what was going on and then came back in. “They’re hitting each other with your couch cushions. Dawn’s just letting them get on with it.”

“Well, Dawn still hits me with the couch cushions,” Buffy explained. “She’s probably training Gunn in cushion usage techniques. When he’s big again, if you come across a demon that can only be beaten to death using soft furnishings, he’ll definitely be your guy.”

Giles closed the book in front of him. “It’s been an exciting day – what with learning that this whole farrago could have been avoided if Angel and Anya had an ounce of emotional maturity between them. And much as I hate to miss the fun-packed thrill ride that is getting the children into their baths and pyjamas followed by persuading them to brush their teeth and then go to bed without being read to from something that would frighten a forty year old, I think I'm going home.”

“You just want to miss out on all the good stuff, don’t you?” Xander observed. “Personally, as I only have a few more days in which to fulfil my self-proclaimed mission to stuff Wesley full of unhealthy American fast food before he’s big enough to tell me where to shove my French fries and tacos, I'm heading for Starch’n’Sugar express to buy lots of things that cause diabetes. Who’s with me?”

“Oh, me!” Willow held up a hand. “And Tara too. I love watching Wesley eat. Not that he does it in a particularly funny way or anything, but it’s just reassuring to know that he does.”

“I'm going to run their bath.” Buffy sighed and held up what seemed to be a twelve inch long model of a full-rigged schooner. “They only have a little while left to play with this.”

“Actually they’ll probably go on playing with it once they’re big,” Angel called after the sorrowing adults as they went off on their self-appointed tasks. Left alone with Giles, he shrugged. “Wes and Gunn can be a little immature at times. You should see them play Risk. And although I haven’t actually caught them sliding down the banisters in the Hyperion, I think they do it when I'm not looking.”

“Making me all the more confused as to why you felt the need to turn them into children.” Giles held up a hand. “I know you didn’t do it on purpose, Angel. But, you may want to reconsider your feelings about Wesley’s leadership. If you really have this much of a problem not being the person in charge of the agency that bears your name then it might be an idea to sit down and discuss it with him – man to well, vampire.”

“I don’t.” As Angel said it he realized that he meant it. “I think Wesley’s become a good leader. He and Cordelia fight like cat and dog sometimes but they have a lot of respect for each other, and he’s earned Gunn’s trust. When it counted those three were there for each other. I wasn’t. And, to be honest, Giles, this isn’t just about atonement, it’s about what Wesley was trained to be, and that wasn’t a research assistant to a vampire.”

“What is he meant to be?”

“A Watcher, like you. And, we both know at least part of the reason why Wesley didn’t work out here as Buffy’s Watcher was because she never gave him a chance. Not the chances she gave you. It was all theoretical with him. He didn’t have the field experience. But he would have got it. Unfortunately for him, he was being compared with a guy who was everything Buffy wanted from a Watcher, and who’d already had a chance to make his mistakes.”

“I'm sure I have more mistakes to come,” Giles returned quietly. “But I take your point. And I freely admit I wasn’t feeling very well disposed towards Wesley back then either.”

“The thing is, Wes had it in him to be a really good Watcher. His bastard father and his own need to try to get the guy to give him some praise mean that Wesley really did do his homework back at the Academy. He knows more languages, can identify more demons, understands more spells, than I ever could, and I’ve been alive – well, undead – two hundred and twenty years longer than he has. It’s all in his head. It always was. He just didn’t have the people skills to communicate it or the experience of actually dealing with any of the things he’d read about to make that jump from theory to practise. In LA, he has. But you know as well as anyone that a Watcher can’t function to the best of his ability if no one takes his advice or listens to his suggestions. When I was in charge of the agency I used to ignore Wesley if what he was saying didn’t fit in with my wishes. Now, I can’t do that. And you know what? It’s good for me. It’s good for Cordy and Gunn, and it’s good for the people we’re trying to help. As long as Wes doesn’t have a phone conversation with his father just before a mission, I don’t think Angel Investigations could have a better leader than the one it has right now.”

Smiling, Giles cleared his throat and nodded to the door. Angel turned to find three children looking at him solemnly. Gunn was the first one to give him a slow handclap. “What do you know,” he said. “The vampire’s talking sense for a change.”

“Yes, Angel.” Cordelia nodded. “I have to admit that sounded suspiciously like wisdom.”

Angel narrowed his eyes. “The vampire can totally kick your ass right now…” He turned into vamp face, yellow eyes glaring. “Last one in the bath gets eaten…”

As Gunn and Cordelia squealed delightedly and ran to Dawn demanding protection, Wesley lingered behind for a moment longer. “Thank you for what you said, Angel. It means a lot that you said it but perhaps if neither of us ever refer to it again, particularly in public, that would be best all round?”

Angel returned to his ordinary face and nodded in relief. “Definitely.”

Wesley paused in the doorway. “And will you read me a story tonight?”

Recognising that this was as close as Wesley was going to get for coming out and saying that he understood and forgave what Angel had done and the reasons why he had done it. Angel smiled at him gently. “Be glad to.”

***

Chapter Text

Gunn was still high on his morning cereal sugar rush when Anya arrived at the house, and he cannoned into her as she made her way to the kitchen, making her drop her parcels.

“Go away, small clumsy boy,” she told him fiercely, making ‘shoo’ing motions. “Go and play with something. Have you ever, for instance, wondered what happens if you insert an eating implement into an electrical outlet?”

Xander hastily steered her into the kitchen and away from the children, where she was glared at by everyone who had overheard her. “What?” she retorted.

Buffy turned to Xander. “Promise me you and Anya aren’t planning to have children?”

Angel hurried after Gunn to make sure he wasn’t trying out Anya’s suggestion for a fun game and then came back in no better temper with her. “You just sent out mystical objects to random people all over the country?”

“No.” She placed her parcels on the kitchen table. “I sent them out to carefully selected people who I thought would be likely to need a good deal of magical equipment throughout the year and who for some inexplicable reason weren’t buying it from us when they should have been.”

Angel gaped at her. “You expect me to mail order my magical equipment from you every time I have a crisis? When we need something we always need it straight away.”

“It sounds to me as if you’re not planning ahead,” Anya shrugged. “If you kept a stock of the things that you were most likely to need then you wouldn’t need to be rushing around to inferior magical suppliers at short notice. And before you write off the idea I think you should look at our prices, which are very competitive.” She handed Angel a price list.

Angel turned to Xander. “Doesn’t she have any shame?”

“Not so as you’d notice.” Xander put his arm around Anya. “Just one of the things I love about her.”

No one who knew Anya was particularly surprised at her unwillingness to accept any share of the blame for what had transpired with Angel and his associates in the Hyperion. She waved away Angel’s impassioned protests, and Xander’s more tactful protests with the same airy lack of interest.

“You made a silly wish. If you’re in the habit of making silly wishes I really don’t think it matters where you got your wish amulet from. Now, if it had been in the old days when I used to encourage scorned women to make wishes and your friends had been hurt by one of those I would at least pretend to feel sorry about it.”

“They got turned into children at least in part because of you!”

“But, really, their essence wasn’t altered, was it? They’re just shorter and louder people than they were before. They probably consume less food and can fit into considerably more compact spaces as well. You could purchase a smaller car, thereby saving on gasoline consumption and helping the environment.”

“I don’t need associates I can flat pack. We fight demons for a living.”

Anya looked down her nose at him. “I find that speciesist of you. There are some very nice demons in the world.”

“We fight non-nice ones.”

She sniffed. “As I understand it you weren’t a very nice demon yourself so what gives you the right to decide on the niceness or lack of niceness of other demons? Given your hair care decisions I'm suspecting that your judgement can occasionally be faulty.”

Buffy jerked her head at Xander. “Shall we break this up before it gets scary?”

“I'm already scared,” he confessed. “Anya, my sweet. Why don’t you go and show Tara, the eternally tolerant, all the exciting and potentially dangerous things you’ve bought for the Magic Box while I lure Angel away with a nice cup of blood…”

Angel’s only revenge option was to insist that Anya stayed for the reversing ceremony, meaning she had to be in the house with Wesley, Cordelia and Gunn. She was obviously uncomfortable around children, regarding them with the same horror that someone who lived in an all cream apartment might have regarded a muddy spaniel. No one thought it was coincidence that Giles had chosen to be late on the day when Anya had returned home, especially as his record of punctuality – barring mystical transformations – was pretty much unblemished.

“He is such a coward,” Buffy muttered as she once again received no answer from his house. “He’s laying low until Angel and Anya have finished yelling at one another.”

“I kind of wish I’d followed his example,” Willow admitted.

“Thank god for Tara,” Buffy added, thinking of the way the ever-patient witch had allowed Anya to give her the hard sell on her new purchases for an uninterrupted hour of peace for the rest of them.

However, even the new purchases could not keep Anya separated from the children forever. When Cordelia fell over in the yard and scraped her knee and ran crying to the first available adult, Anya visibly blanched. Patting her awkwardly on the head, she said, “There, there, small girl. Why don’t you go and talk to Tara? She likes children even when they have glutinous substances running out of their noses...”

Watching from the kitchen window as Tara hurried out to scoop Cordelia up, Willow said to Xander, “You’re really not going to have children with Anya, are you, Xander? Because you know you’d have to leave her alone with them sometime.”

“She’d be different with her own,” he said, although not with any great conviction.

“How do you know you wouldn’t come home one day to find she’d eaten her young on the grounds that it was more economically cost efficient?”

As they watched Tara lead Cordelia away, Gunn charged up to her a second time, waving a complicated Lego object at her and demanding that she help him put it back together. Bending down she hissed at him fiercely, “Go away, small child, or I’ll be forced to turn into a demon and hex you.”

Gunn looked up at her wide eyed. “Cool! Do it now! Do it now! Wes! The skinny chick says she can do demony things!”

“‘Skinny chick’?” Anya echoed in outrage. “I’ll have you know that my size and weight are considered ideal for my height within the context of the fashions of this area and era.”

Gunn shrugged. “Compared with Cordelia you look kind of flat-chested to me.”

If Anya had been capable of turning back into a demon, Xander was quite certain she would have done so at that point. Hurrying out there to intervene, he heard her hiss: “As I recall, entire mountain ranges would have appeared ‘flat-chested’ when compared to Cordelia.”

“Anya, let the small child go.” Xander pleaded soothingly. She had grabbed Gunn’s arm and showed every inclination of twisting it off.

“It’s a very annoying small child,” she pointed out.

“That’s kind of in the job description for boys below a certain age.” Xander took Gunn’s other arm. “Really not a good idea to dent the rugrats, An. Angel’s a little on the psychotically protective side. And then there’s…”

“What are you doing?”

The shriek of outrage was so loud that it made several neighbourhood dogs begin to bark.

Xander grimaced. “As I was saying… And then there’s Dawn…”

Dawn snatched Gunn away from Anya and up into her arms, eyes blazing with fury. She stabbed an accusing finger at Anya and said, “You’re a bad bad person and I hope Xander comes to his senses in time!”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Anya retorted.

“Exactly what it sounds like! Dating Cordelia was Xander’s previous all time low but you even have that beat!”

“Ladies, please…” Xander pleaded ineffectually.

With her hands on her hips Anya said, “I think we all know you’re just jealous because you have a silly schoolgirl crush on Xander.”

Clasping Gunn to her protectively, Dawn retorted: “And I think we all know that he’s only going out with you because you have good sex with him!”

Buffy arrived in the kitchen at that point and exchanged a glance with Willow. “This could get ugly.”

“Yes, someone really ought to break that up.” Willow plucked a chocolate from the box on the side and pushed it to Buffy. “Or we could just stand here and watch.”

“It’s Xander I feel sorry for.”

“Xander needs to get over his really bad taste in girlfriends.”

“I heard that!”

They turned around to find Cordelia and Tara in the doorway. Tara winced at them apologetically.

“Oh, I didn’t mean you, Cordy!” Willow said breathlessly.

“Yes, you did!”

“No, no, I really didn’t. Look – chocolate.”

The scowl on Cordelia’s face vanished to be replaced by one of cautious interest. “Is it good chocolate?”

“Godiva,” Buffy assured her. “Here. Have lots.”

Cordelia carefully selected one for her, one for Wesley, and one for Gunn, then put them back and took the box. “I think I will.”

Buffy and Willow sadly watched the chocolates leave. “I'm starting to go off having kids around,” Buffy observed.

Tara looked at Willow sideways. “Maybe not the best time to talk about the adoption plan I had last night then?”

Buffy glanced out of the window again where Dawn was still telling Anya what she thought of her. “Wow, my sister really doesn’t need to breathe like ordinary human beings, does she?”

“Do you think we should do something?” Tara asked tentatively.

As they were thinking it, Cordelia marched decisively to the back door and shouted, “Gunn! Chocolate! And Wesley is ageing in there waiting for you to watch the Disney cartoon with him. He’d like to see it before he has to start studying for his SATs.”

Gunn immediately wriggled down from Dawn’s arms, took her hand firmly in his and began to tug her rapidly in the direction of the chocolates. “Come on, Dawnie. Play with the not scary flat-chested demon lady later. We need to watch Fantasia with Wesley. Does it have any explosions?”

Distracted from her argument with Anya, Dawn gazed down into big brown eyes in a face of impossible cuteness and entirely lost the thread of her latest insult. “It has dancing hippos.”

“Cool. What about car chases?”

“Not so many of those really. But there are dinosaurs. And flying horses.”

“Does it have any sword fights?”

“It has Mickey Mouse…”

As they reached the door, Cordelia held out the chocolate box and Dawn’s eyes lit up. “Oh! Godiva chocolates. Buffy never lets me have those. She says they’re wasted on the young.”

“That’s so ageist.” Cordelia firmly took Dawn’s other hand in hers and led her away from the garden and back to the cartoon.

“Cordelia, the Peacemaker.” Buffy shook her head, already wanting another chocolate and wishing she’d had the sense to grab one before Cordelia took the box. “Who would have thunked it?”

“Don’t use bad grammar in front of my kids.” Angel wandered into the kitchen. Seeing Anya outside gesticulating frantically at Xander and stamping her foot, he frowned. “Did I miss anything?”

“Nothing,” Willow said hastily. “Definitely not any threats of bodily harm to Gunn in particular.”

Buffy said gently, “Willow – if you’re thinking of a life in the secret service as a double agent – probably time to rethink it.”

“Where are my kids?” Angel looked around anxiously.

“Watching Fantasia with Dawn.” Tara pointed to the living room. “See.”

Buffy cupped a hand to her ear. “Yes, hear that? It’s the happy sound of children squabbling over who gets the soft centres.”

Angel went to the door to check. “Gunn, don’t get chocolate on the cushions. Cordy, don’t hit Wesley with the cushions before or after Gunn gets chocolate on them. Dawn, stop spoiling Gunn. Wesley, don’t let Cordy bully you just because she’s a girl.”

“Why not?” Wesley called back faintly. “I let her bully me just because she’s a girl when we’re normal sized.”

Angel acknowledged the point with a shrug. “True. Cordy, stop bullying Wesley.”

“It’s character building for him,” she called back.

“Well, build his character with less pinching and hair pulling. Gunn, what did I just say about the cushions…?”

Buffy raised an eyebrow as she looked at Tara and Willow. “We need to remember these moments when we’re thinking about how cute they looked in their jammies.”

“Oh…” Willow’s face fell. “If Giles does the spell today that means we won’t get to see another bath time or read them any more stories. And we won’t get to see Gunn sucking his thumb or wearing those cute little P.J.s with the little tiny Piglets and Tiggers on them.”

“Unless he does that when he’s an adult, which seems unlikely.” Buffy sighed. “You know, if we’re going to face the hideous prospect of a kid-free future, I think we need to buy more chocolate.”

“Definitely.” Willow nodded. “Given the level of trauma we’re currently suffering, I think we’d be justified in going to that place with the really expensive imported chocolate and oh yes, as Giles will be traumatized too, we should buy him donuts.”

“The jelly ones.” Buffy reached for her purse. “We should get on that.”

“And the fact that it gets us out of the house while Anya is in a really bad mood…?” Tara murmured.

Buffy looked as innocent as she was capable of looking. “Just a happy bonus.”

***

Angel heard the sound of crying first. It was a soft, plaintive sob but his hearing was acute, while even Wesley heard the sniffing that followed it. They looked at one another and grimaced and then Angel tentatively eased open the door to the sitting room a fraction and looked inside.

Anya was sitting on the couch, surrounded by her new magical purchases, crying quietly, and wiping her eyes on her sleeve.

“I refuse to feel guilty,” Angel whispered fiercely to Wesley.

Wesley murmured mildly, “And yet you’re so good at it.” Before drawing a deep breath and then boldly opening the door. “Hello,” he said. “I'm Wesley.”

Anya wiped her eyes again and looked at him. “You’re one of those small annoying children.”

“I'm not quite as small as the other two. And I like to think I'm slightly less annoying.” Wesley indicated the place on the couch next to her. “May I?”

As she unwillingly inclined her head, he carefully cleared some of her boxes out of the way and sat down. “You sent me an orb,” he said. “It was very pretty.”

“It was pretty, wasn’t it?” she returned at once. “And it was free. Which, in a capitalist society is a very unusual occurrence. Which, certainly if taken to excess could have a detrimental effect on free trade but is widely regarded as a useful tool in retail.”

“Absolutely.” Wesley nodded solemnly. “A sound method of demonstrating the quality of your goods and winning goodwill while expanding your existing customer base.”

“Exactly! Why can’t other people see that?”

“Could I have a look at your catalogue?” Wesley asked tentatively.

“Can you read?”

“I'm actually an adult. And in any case I could read quite well by this age the first time around, and in more than one language.”

She handed him the catalogue. “It’s not glossy. I would like it to be glossy but Giles doesn’t yet understand the importance of advertising.”

“So few people do.” Wesley looked through the catalogue with what Angel thought was genuine interest. “You have a special offer on chicken feet this month?”

“We have a page of special offers.” Anya proudly pointed to the page. “And here are the end of stock items we’re selling off.”

“Won’t you be stocking mandrake root any more?” He looked up at her in surprise.

“Yes, we will, but in different quantities and from a different supplier. Those novelty mandrake kegs just aren’t moving as I would like.”

“But they have inscriptions from the Malleus Maleficarum around the rim.” Wesley peered at them closely. “And the silver engraving of a hanged man too – which is historically appropriate. I think they’re very…classy.”

“I chose them. But so few people seem to want to keep their mandrake in a novelty keg these days. And these handblown glass jars to keep one’s dried snakeskin in are made entirely from recycled glass so they’re environmentally friendly as well as useful and decorative.”

“I had no idea the Magic Box had such an extensive stock.”

“We can get you anything at all.” Anya was actually smiling now, Angel was amused to note. “I search on the Internet for the most competitive supplier and can have it sent to you by mail order – usually within 24 hours. The problem with most ordinary necromancers is that they just won’t stock up properly. They think their newt eyes are going to curdle in their brine but in fact newt eyes have a remarkably long shelf life.”

“I didn’t know that about newt eyes. I must remember to stock up, especially as I see you have some on offer. You sell books too.” Wesley definitely did not seem to be faking his interest. “Can you get some of the more obscure titles for people if they need them?”

“For special customers whose motives we know to be pure, yes, certainly.” Anya was positively beaming at Wesley now. “Giles can be a little difficult about putting dangerous magical texts into the hands of ritual sacrificing warlocks – even though all it means is that they put their money into the hands of people who use it for bad reasons instead of giving it to us who battle evil. I’ve tried to talk to him about it several times but he just won’t listen to reason.”

“Well, we Watchers can be a little pernickety. Do you have the orb in here that you sent me? I’d like to get another one. The Council smashed my last one.”

“It’s a new line, not in the catalogue yet.” Anya plucked a cardboard box from the bag at her feet. “But here’s a free replacement. And a copy of the catalogue.”

“Thank you very much. That’s very kind of you. I was thinking I could keep it on the reception desk of the Hyperion and then everyone who comes in could see it.” Wesley explained. “Perhaps if you gave me some of your business cards I could prop them up next to it in a conspicuous fashion?”

“What an excellent head for business you have, small boy.” She patted him on the head a little awkwardly. “Here is a box of our cards and another box of catalogues. Make sure you tell people that we deal over the Internet and can get them most magical ingredients sent to their doors in plain wrappings within twenty four hours.”

“I’ll be sure to do that,” Wesley assured her, carefully collecting up his new orb, catalogues and the box of business cards. “And thank you very much for getting my name right when you sent me that orb. Not very many people do.”

“What a polite little boy you are,” Anya observed fondly. “It seems almost a pity that you have to be changed back into an ordinary human male who will no doubt wreak havoc upon unsuspecting women in the usual callous manner of your sex.”

Wesley had to have a few attempts at answering that as the air had obviously gushed out of his body at the shock of being accused of being a heartless Lothario. “I'm not really known for my havoc wreaking. More my entirely failing to get any kind of action at all er…wreaking.”

Cordelia pushed past Angel to peer into the room. “Wesley has the pick up technique of a British Watcher, Anya. You know, like Giles Mark 2…?”

“Oh.” Anya grimaced at Wesley sympathetically. “I'm sorry.”

“Are we getting a commission on any sales you get through our free advertising of your store?”

Wesley hastily backed out of the room as Cordelia plonked herself down on the couch next to Anya.

“Given that Giles is changing you back into adults entirely free of charge…”

“Well, given that we wouldn’t need changing back if your dangerous free samples hadn’t made us children and we could probably sue… I'm thinking we get a ten percent discount on everything and in exchange we’ll be sure to send as many customers to you as we can. And we know someone who runs a demon karaoke bar…”

Angel patted Wesley on the shoulder as the boy reached him. “Well done. You get a gold star in sucking up. You have some really difficult aunts, don’t you?”

“However did you guess? Aunt Phyllida alone would make your average vengeance demon look like goodwill to humanity personified. Do you think we should stay and keep an eye on the situation?”

“No, I think we should escape quickly while those two haggle themselves to a standstill.”

“You’re expecting bloodshed?” Wesley looked over his shoulder anxiously.

Angel urged him gently away from the hard bargaining going on behind them. “Only if they start comparing notes on Xander…”

***

“You so stayed away on purpose,” Buffy hissed at Giles accusingly as he got out of his car. Giles and the others had arrived back at Buffy’s house at the same time, both staggering up to the door weighted down by various goods.

He raised an eyebrow at her boxes of purchases. “While you presumably had some urgent important reason for being at Chocoholics Anonymous?”

Willow said quickly, “We bought you jelly donuts.”

“Do you know how much of a pain Anya has been all morning?” Buffy demanded.

“I can guess.”

“And yet you stayed away!”

Giles shook his head. “I'm astounded myself. What can I have been thinking? I was actually researching and for some reason always find that easier when not surrounded by utter chaos.”

“If there is bloodshed in there, I'm going to blame you.”

“On the grounds that because Anya works in The Magic Box I am therefore responsible for her every action?”

“No, because you’re a responsible grown up and should have been here to supervise.” Buffy inserted the key in the door and turned it smartly.

“Do I need to point out at this point that Angel is a good two hundred years older than I am? I think he can claim seniority.”

“Did I mention the donuts?” Willow said hopefully, holding up the bag.

“Jelly ones,” Tara added.

Buffy pulled open the door and they all listened carefully for sounds of mayhem.

“No one seems to be crying,” Willow offered. “That must be a good sign.”

“Dawn isn’t yelling.”

“No blood on the walls either,” Buffy conceded. “Wait! Is that dust?”

Tara stooped to examine it. “Yes, but there are also cobwebs, Buffy.”

They examined the dust in silence. “It doesn’t look like a pile,” Willow said. “More a...gathering.”

“I always assumed Angel would leave more dust than that,” Giles added comfortingly.

Buffy looked at him askance. “You think about how much dust Angel would leave?”

“Well, only when particularly bored. Anyway, that isn’t the point. The point is…”

“Why are you all whispering in the hallway like a bunch of retards?”

They turned to find Cordelia looking up at them in disbelief.

“No reason,” Giles said hastily. “And I'm thrilled to see that being reduced in size has in no way made you a slave to political correctness, Cordelia. Or indeed to basic politeness.”

“Is everything okay?” Buffy asked.

Cordelia put her hands on her hips. “You went away and left us when you thought everything might not be okay?”

“We needed chocolate.” Willow grimaced an apology.

“Oh good, because Gunn has hardly been sick enough today.”

“Gunn’s sick?” Giles frowned in anxiety. “As a side effect of the age reduction or...?”

“As a side effect of eating his own weight in chocolates,” Cordelia retorted.

“He ate all the Godivas...?” Buffy said faintly.

“No, he only ate half of them, the rest he brought up again, on your couch cushions. And I have to tell you – little kid vomit – not a pleasant odour in a closed room.”

“Thank you, Cordelia, we get the picture.” Giles held up his hands. “I would like to be able to hang onto my appetite if at all possible.”

She stood on tiptoe to look at their purchases. “You brought donuts?”

Putting his finger and thumb to his already throbbing temples, Giles murmured, “And yet I stayed away from this all morning. The mystery deepens.”

“Can you reverse the spell or can’t you?” Cordelia demanded. “Because if Wesley was life size and had access to all his usual reference books he would have worked it out by now.”

“Actually, I do believe I have come up with a spell of reversal.” Giles looked at her frostily. “And it can be implemented as soon as…”

“Not yet.” Dawn appeared in the hallway with Gunn clasped in her arms. They were both looking woebegone and in his case somewhat smeared with chocolate. “You can’t reverse the spell yet.”

Giles looked at her sympathetically. “I fear that I can, Dawn, and in fairness to the adults these children really are, I think that I should do so.”

“I won’t be able to keep him safe,” she said pitifully.

Buffy went forward and touched her hand gently. “Dawnie, you know what the situation is with Glory right now. We’re not sure that we can keep ourselves safe, never mind anyone else. She’s left us alone for a few days but there’s no guarantee it will last. We have to let them go. We have to let them be who they really are.”

“I want to be big again,” Gunn sniffed unhappily. “I never felt this sick when I was big.”

Giles lifted the little boy from Dawn’s arms, holding him somewhat awkwardly. “I doubt that you stuffed yourself with chocolate when you were big either, young man.”

“Don’t count on it,” Cordelia observed. “When he and Wes have been demon slaying they’d eat the couch cushions if you put some mayonnaise on them first. Oh, and Giles, we get a ten percent discount on all our online purchases from The Magic Box by the way.”

“On what grounds?” the man demanded as he carried Gunn into the sitting room.

“On the sound financial footing grounds that they will be promoting our store to potential customers,” Anya told him cheerfully.

“Will they indeed?” Giles looked at Cordelia again.

“And apparently they know many people who dabble in the black arts on a regular basis and who will always be in need of supplies.”

Giles looked over Gunn’s head at Angel who had followed them into the sitting room somewhat sheepishly. “Do they? Well, isn’t that reassuring.”

“The little girl has a surprisingly good grasp of profit margins,” Anya added approvingly.

Sighing, Giles said, “Angel, would you like to take your somewhat sticky young charge?”

Angel plucked Gunn from Giles’ arms. “How do you want to do this?”

“It seems to be fairly straightforward. We form a circle, place the children, the amulet and the focusing orb within it. Mix a potion. Say an incantation, and Bob’s your uncle, hey presto, abracadabra etcetera. Do you have some suitable clothing for them to wear?”

“Bathrobes.” Wesley appeared in the doorway with Xander, both of them carrying clothing of various hues.

Xander nodded. “Angel brought some day clothes for the adult them – which wasn’t bad for a vampire in total shock – but didn’t think to bring night attire. So, Cordy gets Buffy’s bathrobe, Gunn gets mine, and Wesley gets Angel’s duster because we kind of ran out of suitable bathrobes at that point. Of course, getting that coat away from Angel was no picnic either. Talk about clingy.”

“Well, last time Wesley borrowed Angel’s coat, he got laid,” Cordelia shrugged. “None of us are looking for a repeat performance of that.”

“Did something bad happen?” Buffy darted an anxious look at Wesley, thinking of the disastrous consequences of her own first night of passion.

“No,” Cordelia conceded. “Actually we got quite a lot of clients out it, but as the rest of us aren’t getting any we don’t see why Wes should either.”

“Is talking about sex now acceptable in front of small children?” Anya enquired with a frown. “Because Xander expressly told me that...”

“No,” Tara said forcefully. She took Cordelia’s hand. “Cordy, come with me and I’ll get you into your bathrobe.”

Buffy nodded. “Angel, you and Xander get Wesley and Gunn changed – you might want to wash some of the Godivas off Gunn first. We’ll start setting up the hocus pocus part of the proceedings.” Seeing how pale Wesley looked, she said quickly, “Giles knows what he’s doing and Willow is the best witch ever.”

“I know.” He looked surprised at her reassurance.

Realizing her mistake, she grimaced. “You’re always that pale, aren’t you?”

He conceded the point with a shrug. “It’s a British thing.”

“Let’s get you changed into Angel’s incredibly pretentious coat, Wes.”

Xander’s cheerful voice didn’t entirely offset the anxiety in his brown eyes, and Buffy felt just the same way. What if something went wrong? At present Wesley, Cordy and Gunn were all sound and well; mentally in good shape and for the most part able to remember their pasts. Gunn seemed to have forgotten rather more than the other two and no doubt the others were not quite the people they had been either; what Giles called the ‘biological imperative’ of being children gradually overwhelming their previous selves. But they were happy and healthy and it was scary to put them through a procedure that might do them harm.

As if reading her mind, Giles said quietly, “There’s always an element of risk, Buffy. But I have been over this spell with great care and I see no reason why it shouldn’t work with no side effects of any kind.”

“My palms are sweating,” Buffy admitted faintly. “It’s not that I don’t have complete faith in you and Willow – I do. It’s just that…if anything was to happen to them.”

“I know.” Giles took off his glasses and cleaned them. “They’re so vulnerable right now.”

“I don’t mean just for their sakes.” She took his arm gently. “I mean you and Willow. You’ve never had to perform a spell on children before. It ups the ante. I don’t want either of you having to carry the burden of something that isn’t your fault.”

Buffy felt a hand slip into hers and turned to see Dawn looking pale enough to pass out. “Where’s Gunn?” she asked faintly.

“Just changing into clothes he can grow big in,” Buffy told her gently. “It’s going to be okay, Dawn. He’s going to be fine.”

“He’s going to be stop being the Gunn I know and become someone else.” She sighed. “And I know it’s the right thing to do. But I'm going to miss him so much.”

“We’re all going to miss them, Dawn,” Giles told her. “But Angel will get his friends back and they, more importantly, will get their real lives back.”

 

Everyone looked sombre as they took their places for the ritual. Tara had carried Cordelia in first, dressed in a bathrobe that entirely swamped her, hands invisible inside hanging sleeves. Tara placed her in the centre of the circle, the bathrobe arranged carefully so that it covered her modesty but wasn’t belted tight enough to cut into an adult, a yard of material completely hiding her bare feet. Gunn looked ludicrous in the huge folds of Xander’s bathrobe. As Xander carried him in, Dawn rushed forward, pulled him into a last hug and kiss and said, “It’ll be fine, Gunn. You’ll be all big again in a minute.” The tears in her eyes and the quaver in her voice unfortunately offsetting some of the reassurance she had evidently been aiming for. Sat down in the circle next to Cordelia, Gunn put his thumb in his mouth and looked mournful. Draped in Angel’s duster, which the vampire had carefully buttoned up at the front for him, Wesley looked like a pale stick of big-eyed humanity. He gently unprised his hand from Angel’s grip. “Angel...?”

The vampire looked rigid with tension. “It’ll be fine, Wes,” he said automatically.

“Yes, it will,” he said gently. “But you have to let go of my hand.”

Angel did so, stepping back, then stepped forward to remove his glasses gently from his face and say, “Wes...”

“Angel, it will be fine,” Wesley told him soothingly. He hitched up the duster, having to haul up several feet of material before he could walk without tripping, and sat himself down cross-legged in the circle. Gunn and Cordelia immediately scrambled to be each side of him. He held out his hands and they held on tightly.

“We’ll soon be big again now,” he told them. “Giles and Willow know what they’re doing.” He looked up at Giles with complete confidence and then smiled at Willow.

Willow snatched a deep breath and looked at Giles. “He’s actually right, you know. We do.”

Giles nodded. “Good point. Would everyone like to take their place outside the circle and hold hands…?”

They positioned themselves around the circle while Willow handed the amulet to Angel. “You have to take back your wish.”

Nodding, he cut his hand on the edge of the amulet, grasped it, and wished that Wesley, Gunn and Cordelia would be adults again, then she handed him the focusing orb and he tentatively put his bloodied palm over the top of it. At once it began to glow. She took them from him and placed both amulet and orb in the circle in front of the children, then pulled Angel out of the circle. “The energy of the orb has to stay within the circle,” she explained. “If we did it right.”

“That twice blessed sage,” Xander murmured tautly. “Always a boy’s best friend.”

“What happens if they all end up getting turned into kids too?” Cordelia enquired.

“Try not to think of things like that, Cordelia, dear,” Tara said tautly.

“Especially not while in close proximity to a vampire-blood-activated wish amulet,” Xander muttered. “Are you two going to get with the Latin any time soon?”

“As soon as you shut up, yes,” Giles returned, before beginning to say the incantation that he had tracked down that morning.

As always Buffy thought that Latin was not a pretty language especially when it was intoned and made the air go all crackly. She could feel how tense Dawn was beside her; terrified that some harm was going to come to Gunn. Giles and Willow were both intoning sombrely, and the orb was glowing brighter and brighter, the children gripping each other’s hands so tightly that they were white. She tried to concentrate on them, wondering if she had any Slayer strength she could lend them to help them through the trauma of their bodies being ripped out of one shape and forced into another, trying to send them positive energy, knowing she should be keeping her mind pure and clear and properly spell-sensitive but finding she just wanted to murmur keep them safe, keep them safe, keep them safe over and over again.

There was a blinding flash of light. Dawn yelped next to her and jumped, and Buffy found she couldn’t see the children, they were enveloped by the light and nothing more than dim shapes.

“Is it working?” Dawn breathed in her ear. “Are they okay?”

“I don’t know…” Buffy whispered back.

And then the light flashed again and where there had been three children in oversized clothes, there were three shocked-looking adults with flash photography eyes, still holding onto each other’s hands and looking at one another in confusion.

Xander was the first to speak. “Well, what do you know – Wesley really is just as skinny as an adult, after all.”

Dawn’s jaw dropped in shock as she gazed at the young man now sitting in the place of the child she had bathed, cuddled, and taken to bed with her. Then she blushed a bright scarlet, got to her feet, and ran out of the room.

Wesley snatched a shocked breath, still having to get his bearings back. He looked first at Cordelia and then at Gunn. “Are you okay?”

“What does my hair look like?” Cordelia pressed.

“Blurry,” Wesley admitted. “Gunn...?”

“I’d say Cordy is definitely back to her old self.”

“And you?”

Gunn nodded dazedly. “I...seem to be me.”

Wesley looked in the direction where Giles had been. “Thank you. All of you.”

The relief on Giles and Willow’s faces might have been comical if it hadn’t revealed just how much pressure they had really been feeling. “Oh...” Willow waved a hand breathlessly. “It was nothing.”

“Just terrifying from start to finish,” Giles conceded.

Angel tentatively handed Wesley the adult-sized version of his glasses. “Are you okay?”

“Well, I'm still mad at you,” Cordy told him. “So I reckon I must be cured.”

Wesley looked at her anxiously. “I thought we were going to...”

Cordelia rose majestically to her feet, clasping the bathrobe around her as if it was a fur coat and she was a nineteen forties movie star. “Be all magnanimous and forgivey? You never learn, do you? If you’d played your cards right last time Angel screwed us over you could have got that DVD player you wanted a month ago.”

Xander got to his feet. “I’d say we have full restoration, folks. Personality defects and all.” But he was beaming at her all the same.

Cordelia tossed back her hair and grinned back at him. “Hey, Prom Dress Guy. Who are you calling defective?”

Xander looked her up and down. “From where I'm standing, Cord, you appear to be in perfect working order.”

“Is this flirtation?” Anya demanded.

“No, no,” Wesley hastily got to his feet and offered a hand to Gunn. “Simple friendship, I assure you.”

As Gunn stood up, Buffy’s eyes widened. “He really is the tallest.”

Willow also looked up at him. “He’s very tall. And very...not a little boy at all.”

Gunn belted Xander’s bathrobe hastily. “Some of recent events are a little fuzzy, but would I be right in thinking I was...?”

“An utter bratty pest and a nuisance to everyone in this house?” Cordelia supplied. “Yeah. Pretty much. And you know how we’ve sometimes said it was a pity we didn’t meet up earlier – well, it so wasn’t.”

“Cordelia...” Wesley reproached quietly. “I really don’t think that Gunn can be held accountable for the actions of his four year old self.”

Gunn looked around the room in incipient horror. “Where’s Dawn?”

Cordelia was ruthless. “Oh, you mean the fourteen year old girl whose bed you’ve been sleeping in for the best part of a week? That Dawn?”

“Oh God...” Gunn staggered backwards. “I let her give me a bath. Lots of baths.”

“I did try to warn you,” Wesley said, not unsympathetically.

“He’s really tall.” Buffy was still gazing up at him.

“And really handsome.” Willow looked quickly at Tara. “I'm just saying.”

“Very handsome,” Tara admitted.

“Did we cover tall yet?” Buffy asked a little breathlessly. “And handsome...?”

“I need to apologize to her. I need to...lock myself up as a total pervert!” Gunn put his hands to his face in horror.

“You were a little boy,” Giles told him. “It’s really as if you and Dawn are meeting for the first time in this...incarnation.”

“Yeah, try telling that to the judge,” Cordelia snorted.

“Cordy, really not helping with your friend’s trauma here,” Xander pointed out.

“He got chocolate on my new dress on purpose. I figure he has it coming.”

Giles turned to Buffy, Willow and Tara in exasperation. “Would you three stop salivating for a moment and say something helpful? Willow, I expect Buffy to turn into a puddle of hormones every time a passably good looking man crosses her path but I don’t really see any excuse for you and Tara.”

“He’s just so tall,” Willow said helplessly. “And Gunn was so little. Other Gunn, I mean. And he was such a little kid. All cute in his jammies and sucking his thumb and... He’s just so tall.”

“And handsome,” Tara supplied helpfully.

Giles turned to Angel. “Would you like to chime in with something helpful?”

“Please don’t stake me, I'm sorry?” Angel offered.

“No one is staking anyone.” Wesley stepped awkwardly out of the circle. “Angel, it was an honest mistake and no one blames you, and anyone saying that they do is just trying to emotionally blackmail consumer goods out of you so I suggest that you ignore her.” He looked pointedly at Cordelia. “I think the important thing here is to – get Gunn into therapy – and then thank Buffy and her friends properly for their unbelievable tolerance and patience over the past few days.”

“Even as a human male of ordinary age and dimensions he shows excellent manners,” Anya observed. She turned to Xander. “I hope that you would behave equally well if the circumstances were reversed.”

Wesley said with feeling, “No one could have behaved better than Xander has. Given that the last time I was here I wasn’t exactly… Well, given that he and I didn’t really hit it off and I was…”

“Doing your best to steal my girl with your suave sophistication and unfairly clear diction.” Xander nodded. “What can I say? I'm a prince.”

“You really are,” Wesley told him warmly.

“I let her give me a bath....” Gunn was still standing in the circle gazing into space.

Wesley reached out and took his hand again, coaxing him gently out of the circle. “Really, Gunn, there were extenuating circumstances.”

Gunn looked at him in horror. “She’s fourteen!”

“You know if you want to feel bad about something it should really be about getting chocolate on my dress,” Cordelia told him.

Giles nudged Buffy. “Dawn’s your sister, say something reassuring.”

Buffy said faintly, “He’s so tall. And handsome.”

“Oh for goodness sake.” Giles rolled his eyes. “Gunn – you were four years old. Snap out of it. Angel, say something useful. Wesley, you’re entirely welcome and I'm glad I could be of service. Cordelia, fetching as you look in that bathrobe, I don’t think it’s escaped anyone’s attention that you and Buffy are rather different shapes. Perhaps some clothing might be in order?”

Cordelia looked down at her escaping décolletage and looked horrified. “Powder blue? I'm wearing a powder blue bathrobe that seems to have come from the bargain bin at Walmart? Angel, where are my clothes?”

He pointed to a bag on the floor. She snatched it up and disappeared at speed in the direction of the bathroom.

“I see that whole being a conduit for the visions thing has really changed Cordy’s priorities,” Xander observed.

Wesley winced. “She really is a much less shallow person these days, you know.”

“I need a hairbrush. Now!” Cordelia shouted from the bathroom.

Wesley grimaced. “Of course, in times of stress, some reversion is probably inevitable....”

“I let her give me a bath....”

“Angel…” Wesley hissed at him. “Say something to Gunn.”

Angel shrugged helplessly. “You looked really cute in your Winnie the Pooh pyjamas.”

“Oh god.” Gunn sank down onto the couch.

Anya looked at him curiously. “In some cultures, fourteen would be considered a marriageable age.”

“In the Everglades it probably still is,” Xander said brightly.

“Oh for goodness sake, he could barely tie his own shoelaces without adult supervision. I don’t think we need to be comparing him with Jerry Lee Lewis just yet.” Giles hit Angel on the arm. “Say something useful.”

“Giles is right, Gunn.” Angel patted him awkwardly on the shoulder. “You were just a little kid. You didn’t do anything wrong. Well, except for kicking me on purpose and trying to get chocolate on Cordy’s new dress, and maybe being sick on the couch but…”

“Thank you, Angel.” Wesley looked at him hard. “Not helpful.”

“I was making a point,” Angel retorted. “Gunn, think about it. You acted like a kid. A four year old kid. Which is what you were. Four year olds get bathed by people older than them. It’s entirely innocent. Right, Buffy?” As they all glanced at Buffy, she giggled awkwardly and twisted her finger in her hair before self-consciously straightening her dress and then glancing at Gunn again.

Giles took her by the arm and led her firmly away from the couch. “Go and find Dawn,” he suggested. “Tell her she didn’t do anything wrong and that she doesn’t need to worry about it. And don’t come back until you can be in the same room as Gunn without simpering like an adolescent schoolgirl.” As she opened her mouth he held up a warning finger, “And if anyone happens to mention Gunn’s height or looks to me again, I swear I will snap like a rotten twig....”

***

“How are they doing?” Gunn whispered.

Wesley edged back to the door and opened it a crack, peering through into the kitchen. He grimaced. “Willow and Tara are gazing mournfully at Small Cordelia’s shoes. Buffy is holding Small Gunn’s Winnie the Pooh pyjama jacket while eating chocolate. Giles is…oh…” Wesley raised an eyebrow in surprise. “Giles is examining my junior-sized glasses. Angel appears to be brooding. No sign of Dawn, Xander or Anya.” They had all changed into their adult clothes, hoping the time that had taken would give everyone else a chance to deal but so far there still seemed to be a general air of mourning pervading the house.

“It’s hit them hard.” Cordelia sat down on the couch next to Gunn. “I feel badly now. We should have been less lovable.”

“I certainly gave it the good old college try.” Gunn ran a hand over his newly shaven head. “I was the brat from hell.”

“You were cute, Charles.” Wesley glanced over his shoulder. “You were cute enough to stop a stampeding elephant in its tracks.”

Cordelia shrugged. “I didn’t think he was that cute.”

“Try telling that to the women in there mourning never getting to see him wear his Tigger jammies again.”

Cordelia sniffed. “I think Willow and Tara are much more upset about losing me. Little girl me, I mean. There’s no fun buying boys’ clothes. They only fall over and get them dirty and rip them. Look at you and Gunn. Even if I met some billionaire tomorrow, married him in a whirlwind weekend romance, had access to his bank account by the next working day and bought you designer clothes, would you keep them nice?”

“Probably not while battling sewer demons.” Wesley closed the door and backed away carefully.

Anya’s voice wafted in from the garden: “…but what likelihood would there be that any small children we produced would resemble Wesley? It seems to me that only by breeding with the adult version could there be any guarantee of success… No, Xander, I'm not suggesting that I leave you for Wesley, I'm merely pointing out the flaw in your plan and the very real possibility that I might, in fact, be left to bring up the kind of small children that are annoying and sticky-fingered and have unpleasant emissions from their noses instead of the polite quiet ones…”

“Anya, I kind of think you’re missing the point here. They would be our children, that’s the point. And most children aren’t like Wesley was when he was a kid because most children don’t get locked in dark cupboards just because they happened to step on a squeaky floorboard when there’s an ‘R’ in the month… Most children are like Gunn, only not quite so cute…”

“Have you considered the very real economic benefits of the vasectomy…?”

Cordelia hastily closed the window and pulled the drapes across. “Okay. Just as a matter of interest. I was never that tactless, right?”

“No.” Wesley shook his head. “Never.”

“Because you know that when I say things to you that might sound completely insensitive and even cruel, it’s only because I'm doing it for your own good, or maybe working some subtle reverse psychology, or possibly thinking about something else at the time, right? And I don’t even need to go near time of the month now, do I?”

Wesley nodded. “Oh, absolutely not, and please don’t.”

Cordelia looked at Gunn. “You can come in with the rousing agreement any time now.”

“What? Oh, right. Sure. We know that when you say things that would make anyone else cut out their own tongue in shame that it’s just part of your unique charm.”

“Good.” She nodded. “So, I know you’re going to take this the right way then when I tell you that you need to stop sitting there wallowing in self-pity and go and fix things with Dawn.”

“What?” Gunn looked up at her in shock.

“Last time I checked you were twenty-three again and had at least some world experience. She’s fourteen and doesn’t. If you’re a little wigged by recent events how do you think she’s feeling?”

“But…” Gunn looked towards the yard. “I… I was thinking maybe someone else… Or maybe....”

“Or maybe nothing, you big wuss. You need to make sure that she doesn’t think she did anything for which she needs to wake up in a cold sweat in the wee small hours thinking ‘kill me, kill me now’.”

Wesley grimaced. “Cordelia has a point, Gunn. Not that I have any experience of them – at all really – but I understand that things matter a great deal to girls of that age and they can sometimes get things blown up out of proportion. She did seem pretty upset and it’s possible she thinks she did something wrong. I don’t think anyone except you can tell her that she didn’t.”

Gunn sighed. “You’re saying I have to act like I don’t feel weird about how totally weird this situation is so she won’t think it’s weird?”

Cordelia nodded emphatically. “Exactly. Because if ever a situation needed de-weirding – this would be it.”

Wesley glanced back into the kitchen. “They all look so miserable. Do you think it’s really because we were likeable children or just because we’re really unlikeable adults?”

Cordelia gave him one of her ‘looks’. “Good to see you left that insecurity about being unlovable way back there in your childhood, Wes. Can you try not being such a walking therapy case?”

“I'm a ‘walking therapy’ case? Which one of us has a hair fetish that makes it impossible for her to walk past a mirror without checking her coiffure?”

“Well, someone in the firm has to care about their appearance, because let’s face it – you and Gunn – not going to be winning any Best Dressed Demon Killer awards any time soon.”

“High fashion being such an important part of dismembering slime monsters, of course.”

“Angel manages to do battle with the undead in a way that’s stylish. As do I. It’s only you and Gunn letting the side down.”

“Because that’s what’s really important when a six-clawed slargal beast is trying to rip out one’s intestines. Just remind me, exactly how many times have lives been saved by a monster deciding against trying to devour someone because of his or her Gucci labels?”

“Children…”

They both turned around to find the kitchen door open and Angel standing there with his arms folded, grinning at them.

“That’s so strange,” Buffy said in awe. “They really did wait until they were adults again to start squabbling like eight year olds.”

“We do not squabble like…” Wesley began with dignity and then shrugged. “Well, anyway, Cordelia started it.”

“And I would have finished it too, buster, if we hadn’t been interrupted, because the day you win an argument with me – let’s just say there will be demons lacing on their ice skates in hell before that happens.”

Angel’s grin got wider and he turned to Buffy and Giles with every sign of pride. “God, I missed this. They’re so cute when they fight.”

“You hate it when we fight,” Cordelia pointed out.

“I know. But I'm nostalgic for it now. It’s been too long.”

Wesley and Cordelia exchanged a glance. “It’s no fun if he likes it.” Cordelia shook back her hair. “Truce?”

“Truce.” He leant across and kissed her on the cheek.

She touched his bruised cheekbone gently. “You’re all still beaten up looking, even though you’re big again.”

“But no one will call social services and get us taken into care because of it,” he pointed out cheerfully.

“True. They’ll just think you’re a victim of domestic violence.”

“I don’t think you look the abusive type.”

She smacked him on the arm. “Not me, dumbass! Angel would be the obvious suspect. You look the battered boyfriend type. Hey! People will think we’re here as an intervention.”

Wesley rubbed his arm. “I was obviously wrong about you not being the abusive type.”

“Hey, if I was abusing you, sunshine, I’d do it in places that didn’t show and do it so well you’d be too scared to tell anyone.”

“I believe you. Bondage Cordelia, Marchioness de Sade, now lives in my imagination.”

“If in another dimension there’s an evil vamp Willow who’s into that stuff you can bet your skinny British ass there’s an evil me out there somewhere too.”

Wesley frowned. “You mean you’re not the Evil Cordy of the universe...?”

“Okay, now there will be pain.” Cordelia gave his ear a sharp twist.

“Ow! Ow! Cordelia!”

Angel sighed happily. “This is where I came in. Wesley was sniping. Cordelia was bullying him. Gunn was complaining about the sniping and bullying. Happy days.”

Buffy looked at him sideways. “You’re a really disturbed dysfunctional unit up there in LA, aren’t you?”

“You haven’t even met the Host yet.” Angel was still smiling fondly. “Our emotional well being and spiritual guidance rests in the hands of a green-skinned red-eyed anagogic demon with a taste for Sea Breezes and the courage to wear sky blue and tangerine in close conjunction. We’d be lost without him.”

Willow gasped in shock at the sight of Cordelia twisting Wesley’s ear. “Didn’t Cordelia become adult properly? Did a part of her stay regressed?”

“Only the part that already was,” Wesley managed. “Ow!”

“Cordy!” Tara said in shock. “What are you doing to Wesley?”

At once Cordelia let him go and stepped back. “Nothing. And he asked for it. And anyway – it was his fault.”

Wesley rubbed his earlobe sulkily. “If I wasn’t a gentleman I’d…” As Cordelia loomed at him threateningly he said hastily: “Have to kiss you for looking so lovely in that fetching new outfit.”

“Hah! You don’t soft soap your way out of this one, buddy.” Cordelia caught a glimpse of her reflection. “What do you mean ‘new outfit’? I’ve had this for years.”

“But on you it looks brand new,” he assured her. “It’s the way you wear them.”

“You’re really scared of me, aren’t you?”

Wesley cradled his ear protectively. “Well, you have very long fingernails.”

“I rule.” She preened.

“It’s all right for Gunn,” Wesley muttered. “You can’t reach his ears unless you’re wearing heels. Where is he anyway?”

As they all looked around for the missing man, Buffy gave a little gasp. “Oh, there he is.”

They followed her gaze out into the yard where he was cautiously approaching a despondent looking Dawn.

“It looks like Gunn is taking your advice, Cordelia,” Wesley observed.

Cordelia shrugged. “Of course. As I said, I rule.”

Wesley fingered his sore ear again. “With an iron fist.”

***

No one even noticed the ring on the doorbell. Dawn was hiding in her room when she heard it but everyone was busy in the kitchen mourning the loss of the children or else no longer being children in another room. Whenever she thought about Gunn as he was now she felt a hot white flame of shame sear her from her toes to the very top of her head; then spread downwards again in a slow red tide of humiliation before flaring up once more as it reached the soles of her feet again. The last thing she wanted to do was go downstairs at all for any reason, but there was the vague possibility that the ring on the door could be Craig Thornton come to ask her to go to the Fair with him, which would be the only thing that could possibly salvage today. Liz McDonald had been all over him for a week while all Dawn could do was sigh at him hopelessly from a distance. She didn’t know why Liz had it in for her so much, but she did, always making comments about how Dawn was going to end up being taken into care as her flake of a sister couldn’t look after her properly, how she was going to flunk every subject there was, how her whole family was weird.

You have no idea just how weird, Dawn thought bitterly. The only normal thing that had ever happened to her in her entire life was her mother dying of an aneurism. That was how much her life utterly sucked.

Hearing the ring again, Dawn slipped downstairs quietly, keeping her head lowered so as not to meet anyone’s eye. If she could just get out of the house it wouldn’t be so bad, and perhaps when she got back from the Fair the people from LA would be gone and no one would ever have to mention them or her behaviour again. In five years or so she might even be able to think about bathing the little boy everyone had warned her wasn’t a little boy really without wanting to die of shame.

Dawn opened the door and almost fell over in amazement when she saw that it really was Craig Thornton on her doorstep, just as she’d imagined him a thousand times in various classroom fantasies. He looked like a million dollars. He also looked a little bored, and next to him was Liz, beaming at Dawn in malicious triumph.

“Hi, Dawn!” She gave her a wide false smile. “We wondered if you wanted to come to the Fair with us?”

Dawn almost felt detached from her own misery; it was so extreme and so acute, but she had already been in a place where there seemed to be no light at the end of any tunnel, where she wasn’t really human, just a cosmic joke played on the people around her, didn’t really have the right to grieve for the mother she’d never had whose loss was ripping her apart, and the only good things that had helped her to keep her head above the water of her own misery had been the thought that Craig might ask her out, and the fun she’d had playing with Gunn. It had been impossible to feel so sad when Craig was in the classroom with her, looking so handsome, and the possibility had still existed that he might be secretly in love with her. It had been even more impossible to feel down when there had been Gunn to cuddle and tell stories to and who giggled at her jokes and looked up at her as if she were not just cool and funny but a place of safety he could come home to. He’d made her feel not just better but necessary. Someone who could make someone else’s life better for a change, instead of just making it a dangerous lie.

“Oh, thanks.” She felt so faint with misery she couldn’t even find the necessary anguish to react as Liz wanted. That was the only saving grace. That she hadn’t curled up and died on the doorstep the way Liz had obviously been hoping. “But we have company.”

“Oh really?” On any other day Liz’s smug little smile of disbelief and triumph would have stabbed straight through her. Today she felt almost too numb to care. “That’s a pity. Oh well, if you change your mind you know where we’ll be.”

“Thanks for the offer.” Dawn closed the door and her eyes, tears leeching out from under her lids before she could stop them. She heard Craig say ‘What did you want her to come for anyway? I thought it was going to be me and you?’ Dawn snatched a breath, trying to inhale around the lump of misery in her chest but everything hurt too much, even breathing. I just want to be dead, she thought. And although she knew that if there had been anyone around to hear her they would have told her that things always felt so intense when you were fourteen, and it passed, and blah blah blah, but that didn’t help her now. She was living now and she was living this life. And this life sucked beyond all bearing sometimes.

Hearing footsteps in the hall and knowing anyone who saw her would see at once that she’d been crying and would want to know why and be kind to her and she just couldn’t bear it right now, she bolted for the yard and some privacy away from the crowd.

 

Gunn approached the girl slowly, trying to think. He’d heard her come downstairs and slipped out into the hallway to talk to her, then when he saw her friends on the doorstep had moved out of sight so as to not leave her with any embarrassing introductions she might have to make. That was when he’d realized that these people weren’t friends at all, just some girl displaying her catch of the day to the person who hadn’t got it. He wondered how teenagers here had the energy to be this petty and spiteful when their town was continually on the brink of being sucked into hell; he also wondered why anyone would want to pick on a girl whose mother had just died and who was as nice a person as Dawn.

He had gathered from overheard conversations between other adults, passing him from hip to hip, that Dawn was not perceived by others the way he perceived her. Buffy loved her; that was clear; loved her more than anything on the planet probably, even Angel, even Willow, Xander or Giles, but she still thought of her as something that had to be protected; something that was a danger to herself, whose judgement couldn’t be trusted. But he’d met Dawn as his four year old self, and to him she’d been warmth and comfort and protection and kindness. He’d felt absolutely safe when he was with her, despite the way the world had spiralled away from him, leaving him at hip height while everything else became a skyscraper. It had been a terrible shock to him to be confronted with the reality that she was just a teenage girl and at first his own feelings of disquiet about the intimacy they had shared had overwhelmed any other consideration. But overhearing that conversation on the doorstep had made his older brother instincts kick in; made him think about Alonna and how he would have hated someone to come and rub her nose in the fact that they had evidently stolen a guy she had been interested in.

That was the moment when he realized that Cordelia was right and this was a problem that he had to make the first move to solving. If he thought of Dawn as a younger sister, it immediately became a much easier problem to deal with.

Moving out into the yard, he approached her slowly, trying to step on a few fallen twigs so she would hear him coming. Going by the tension in her shoulders he guessed that he had succeeded, just as the hastily wiped eyes told him that she had been crying.

“Hello,” he said quietly.

She turned around, eyes still a little bright. “Hello.”

He held out a hand. “I'm Charles Gunn.”

She only hesitated for a second before taking it. “Dawn Summers.”

He shook her hand. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

She glanced up at him a little shyly. “You too.”

He leant on the fence next to her so they wouldn’t have to keep gazing into each other’s eyes while talking, especially as he knew – from Cordelia frequently telling him so – that people as tall as him gave women persistent neck aches if they insisted on holding conversations while standing upright.

“Nice to be in Sunnydale at last,” he observed conversationally. “Heard a lot about it from Angel, Wes, and Cordy.”

She winced. “I don’t suppose Wesley gave you a very good impression of us.”

“Actually, he said the Council had a lot to learn from the teenagers of Sunnydale.”

“That was gracious of him. We didn’t treat him very well.” She glanced up at Gunn tentatively.

He nodded. “Yeah, I heard that too. Not from him. From Cordy. Although she missed out the part about her having a girly crush on him. Angel told me that. Wes said his contribution to events was to scream and fall over then whimper about how much everything hurt. I find that kind of impossible to believe though.”

Dawn grimaced. “Well, I suppose… It was brave of him to go against the Council. And they did sort of throw him in at the deep end.”

“Poor Wes.” Gunn shook his head. “The guy I know puts his life on the line every day. He took a bullet for me and never said squat about how much it hurt. He never ducks a fight. I would have said he didn’t have it in him.”

Dawn said tentatively: “Are you going to think badly of him now that you know he wasn’t always like that?”

“No. I'm probably going to buy him a drink. It takes courage to change from who you are. I'm having to do that myself. Cordy made me see I had a death wish after my sister died. That I went out looking for trouble just so I wouldn’t have to go on living with the guilt. That’s what we’re all about in LA, you see.” He inclined his head in acknowledgement. “Living with the guilt. Living with who we used to be and didn’t much like. Not just Angel, all of us.”

Dawn smiled faintly. “Not so much roasting marshmallows and Christmas carols then?”

“No, we pretty much have the brooding down to a fine art though. And on occasion I do get to kick Wes’s ass at Risk. Sometimes Cordy even gets a date that doesn’t end up with her being knocked up with demon spawn – ” Remembering Dawn’s age he clapped a hand to his mouth. “Sorry.”

She actually grinned. “It’s okay. I won’t tell.” She glanced at him sideways then said carefully: “I'm not sure I was as careful with my language as I should have been around the small children we recently had in the house.”

“You had kids here?” Gunn said in mock surprise. “That must have been a real drag.”

“They were very nice children,” she assured him. “One in particular was quite adorable.”

She darted him a quick look as she said it, testing the quicksand between them. He shook his head. “Yeah, Wes was okay as a kid. A bit on the quiet side. Cordy was kinda spoilt though, didn’t you think?”

“Maybe a little.”

“The worst one had to be that bratty noisy little kid though. God, he was a pain.”

“He was not!” Dawn spoke with what seemed to be genuine warmth. “He was the cutest thing ever.”

“Well, he was lucky that he had such a patient person to take care of him.” Gunn looked at her gently. “He never really got much of that Winnie the Pooh and Disney movies the first time around. It made for some nice memories.”

“For me too.” Dawn looked up at him quickly. “Real ones as well.”

He frowned. “As opposed to…?”

“Never mind. I just mean… it was nice for me too. Even though I miss him. I'm glad I got to spend some time with him.”

“He’s glad he got to spend some time with you too.”

After another pause she said, “I'm sorry about your sister. That must have been awful. I couldn’t bear it if I lost Buffy.”

“It was the worst.” Gunn nodded. “It was one of those things that was so bad I knew if it ever happened I’d never be able to survive it. But here I am.” He looked at her. “You’d make it too. You’re strong. I can tell.”

“Me?” Dawn looked at him incredulously. “I'm the weakest person I know.”

He shook his head. “No, you’re strong. I can tell. I hang around with a superhero too. Can make you feel like you’re less than you are sometimes. To be honest, I liked it when Angel was away. I was scared when Wes got shot that we were going to lose him, but once I knew he was okay, I looked around the office and I realized that I was it now, I was the guy who had to take care of him and Cordy. I'm not saying it didn’t scare me, but there was a part of me glad I didn’t have to keep competing with a vampire any more.”

Dawn nodded. “I know what you mean. I love Buffy. I really do. But there are days when I can’t help wishing she was just an ordinary girl – that I didn’t always have to be the sister of the Slayer.”

“Yeah, I wouldn’t mind Angel shanshuing his ass over to normalville either.”

Dawn gave him a sideways look. “So… were you saying that you and Angel fight over Wesley?”

“No! Not like that.” Seeing her grin he said, “I'm just saying that I didn’t hate being the big strong guy who got to protect the rest of my crew. Of course, those two never really got that we should have changed the name to the Gunn Agency for some reason. I don’t know why not. And I’ve got to tell you, Angel – when he got all Epiphanied up and came crawling back to us with his tail between his legs – not too happy about Wes and I having bonded.”

“Sounds to me like you fight over who gets to be best friends with Wesley.” Dawn grinned secretively. “Do you have arguments about who gets to sit with him at lunch?”

“No, we…” He returned her grin. “Hey, I don’t even care. Growing up, Wes never had too many friends as far as I can tell so maybe Angel and I should fight over him a little bit more.”

“Sounds like maybe you should. As long as you let the rest of us make suggestive comments about it, of course…”

“I’d forgotten how bratty little sisters can be.” But he was grinning at her. “Hey, talking of bratty – and just tell me to butt out if I'm overstepping the mark – but that girl who called for you today – would I be right in thinking she’s not exactly a bosom pal?”

Dawn nodded. “Not exactly a pal at all. Just someone who wanted to show me that she’s got the guy I had a crush on and yah boo sucks to me.”

“That’s kind of what I figured. Guy must need a seeing-eye dog choosing a skanky looking girl like that over you, but that just means you’re better off without him.”

“And give it a few tubs of ice cream and I may be able to say that with some conviction myself.”

Gunn rubbed his chin. “I don’t know if it’s just having recently been a kid or if I was always this immature, but I have a kind of childish suggestion to make.”

“I'm all for childish suggestions. Kind of a part of the whole still being a child deal.”

“You and me – we could go to the Fair too. That would show wonderboy that you don’t need him to have a good time and it would probably drive your not-pal crazy wondering how come there’s a new guy in town she doesn’t know about. Would that be really immature?”

“Totally.” Dawn’s eyes widened. “Let’s do it.”

“Okay. Let me go and glam myself up for you.”

She grinned. “I’ll do the same. You’re sure you don’t mind?”

Gunn shrugged. “Hey, I figure after all that chocolate and those bedtime stories, it’s the least I can do.”

As they went back into the house, he found Buffy waiting for him in the kitchen. She beckoned to him as Dawn scampered up the stairs.

“You okay with this?” Gunn asked her quietly.

“We all need to go. Dawn has…enemies. It’s complicated but to be honest with you I think something normal is exactly what she needs right now. And thank you for what you said to her. It was nice. I get so hung up on how sucky it is being a Slayer that I don’t always remember that not being a Slayer can also have its share of the suck.” Buffy called up the stairs. “Dawnie? If we promise not to crowd your pretend date with Gunn is it okay if the rest of us tag along too?”

“As long as you walk at least ten paces behind us and don’t say anything embarrassing,” Dawn called back.

“What, you mean I can’t ask you loudly about birth control in public places?”

Dawn looked down at her from over the stairs. “That depends on whether or not you want to live to see another day.”

Buffy saluted. “I can be good. And non-smothering. And not embarrassing. Really.”

“Hah!” Dawn went back into her room, humming as she did so.

“Is everything okay now?” Cordelia asked Gunn sotto voce.

He looked at her levelly. “You do know that you trying to talk quietly actually carries louder than a fog horn, right, Cordy?”

She rolled her eyes. “I'm an actress. We naturally have good projection. Now answer the question before I'm forced to hurt Wesley again.”

“Why me?” Wesley demanded.

“I can’t reach his ears.”

Wesley nudged Gunn. “Answer the woman, quickly.”

“Everything’s fine. Dawn and I are going to the Fair. Buffy’s going to tag along because she’s even more paranoid than Angel, and if you two want to come along you can as long as you don’t embarrass me in public.”

“You cradle snatcher, you,” Cordelia said in outrage.

“Relax. It’s a pretend date to piss off Dawn’s nasty non-friend and her not worth her time anyway non-boyfriend.”

“Oh now that is a cause I can get behind.” Cordelia nodded. “I remember how spiteful and bitchy some people can be in High School.”

“Do you indeed, Cordy?” Buffy said drily.

“That reminds me.” Cordelia looked around. “I need to talk to Willow.”

Wesley frowned in confusion as Cordelia went off. “Willow was spiteful and bitchy at High School? But she always seemed like such a nice girl.”

***

She found Willow in her bedroom, the slender redhead had laid out the child Cordelia’s new clothes on the bed and was wistfully straightening out the creases. Cordelia knocked on the door gently before going in.

“Hey, Willow.”

“Hey, Cordy.” Willow sighed again as she began to collect up the clothing.

“Where’s Tara?”

“She thought it would be less upsetting if she took the shoes back to the store.” Willow looked up wide-eyed and apologetic. “Not that we’re upset that you’re all big again. We’re really not. It’s great that you’re you again and…”

“It’s okay, Willow.” Cordelia sat down on the bed and picked up the blue and green dress with the silk patches and fashionably ragged edge. “I’ve never loved any item of clothing in my wardrobe as much as I loved this dress. And happy as I am to be my real size again there is a part of me that’s gutted that I can’t ever wear it again.”

“Really?” Willow lit up. “You’re not just saying that?”

Cordelia snorted. “Remember who you’re talking to? When did you know me employ tact in any shape or form?” She put the dress back down reluctantly. “Or basic human kindness.”

“Oh, Cordy.” Willow sat down next to her and tentatively patted her hand.

Cordelia sighed. “I’ve been thinking so much about what you were like as a little girl. And my god you were adorable. You were like a little elf, with those big green eyes and that little snub nose and that incredible hair – this isn’t a come-on by the way, you know that, right?”

Willow laughed. “I know.”

“Because I would never do that to Tara.” Cordelia took a deep breath. “My point is that you were a really nice little girl, Willow. You were always kind to people – even total losers like Xander. You didn’t judge them on how much their father earned or how big their house was or what kind of a car their mother drove or whether or not they were a member of the tennis club. You treated everyone the same just because they were human. And you were so smart and you never showed off about it, not once, but it made you so happy when you got something right. And all I ever did was try to make you feel bad about yourself because you had prettier hair than I did.”

Willow gasped as if Cordelia had said something blasphemous. “But, you… You said that if you’d been born with red hair you’d have drowned yourself!”

“Yeah. I was full of life-affirming little speeches back then, wasn’t I? Gee, you must have been so happy to grow up with me. You have beautiful hair, Willow. I used to sit there in class when it was raining and we were all so bored and the only bright spot of colour in the whole damned room used to be your hair. And you had this capacity for happiness that I really wished I possessed, because all I seemed to be back then was discontented. I was always worrying my position might slip a notch or I might be perceived as uncool or some new girl would turn up with more money and more designer labels than me.” Cordelia sighed and shook back her hair. “And maybe Tara wasn’t around then but you were. You remember what I was like. You remember all the times I picked on you and tried to humiliate you in front of other people or make you feel bad about yourself.”

“It was a long time ago,” Willow said hastily.

Cordelia gave her a level look. “Come on, Willow, it was about two years ago.”

“Well, there was that whole business with Xander. And I'm so sorry about that. I was trying to do a spell to stop us and then Xander got hit on the head and I thought he was dying and we knew we were trapped there and we thought we’d never get out and then… And there’s no excuse, because it was a terrible bad thing we did and you were nearly killed and I'm so sorry.”

Cordelia put her head on one side. “You have the strangest speech patterns, do you know that? You just breathe in all the wrong places. Have you ever thought about taking drama lessons because that would probably fix that and make you appear less, you know – out there…” She collected herself quickly. “What I mean to say is that I was a bitch to you when you were a little kid. When I was turned into a little kid you had a chance for payback and you were the sweetest person in the world to me and I wanted to thank you and I wanted to say sorry for how I treated you before.”

Willow gaped at her open mouthed for a minute. “Okay. Except, Cordy… It’s not the same. When I was a little kid you were a little kid. All little kids do mean things.”

“You never did.”

“Yes, I did. I…” Willow thought hard, clearly trying to recollect something. “Well, anyway, I know that I did, and I don’t think I should be held responsible for it now. I refuse accountability for any mean actions of mine when I was a small child and I think you should do the same.”

Cordelia leant across and kissed her on the forehead before straightening back up. “Still not a come on, by the way. I just wanted to say ‘thank you’. Being a kid again could have been a nightmare. You made it happy and fun and…safe. I was so scared about how big the world had suddenly gotten and you and Tara made me feel safe every single minute I was with you. I’d forgotten what that feels like. It’s been so long.”

Willow looked up at her wide-eyed. “Is it dangerous what you do, Cordy?”

She nodded. “Yes. Sometimes it’s terrifying. And if anything happened to any of them, it would always feel like my fault. I'm the one who gets the visions and sometimes they’re not very clear but even when they are… I'm the one that tells them the danger’s out there and they have to go and stop it. And maybe one day one of them isn’t going to come back and I'm going to wish I’d never told them. I'm going to know I was the one with her hand clutched to her head saying ‘Go’ that sent them off to die.”

She didn’t know she was crying until Willow put her arm around her and said, “Shshh. It’s okay. Don’t you think Giles feels like it every day he had to send Buffy out to fight with big scaly things with teeth and claws? She was the Slayer, I know, but she was still just a little girl. And I know Angel is the best fighter in the world – except for Buffy – and I'm sure Gunn is good and maybe even Wesley is…well, okay, too, and you’re all trying to make the world a better place. And that’s good. But they’re also just your friends and you love them, so of course you don’t want them getting hurt.”

“I saw all the pain and suffering in the world once. I was cursed to get the visions of not just one person but all people who needed our help, and there were so many of them. And then I woke up in my hospital bed and there was Angel, who’d risked his life to get that scroll back that they needed to reverse the spell, and there was Wesley with cuts and burns all over him, sitting in a wheelchair, still hooked up to an IV, and I remembered him saying ‘Unbind’ and the light and then I was me again. And I knew there was nothing they wouldn’t do for me, that these were the people who were always going to be on my side whatever happened. And that’s the same people I'm sending out into the dark, into danger, to help some stranger who I really want to help but who doesn’t mean a damn to me compared with them.” Cordelia took the tissue that Willow handed her and wiped her eyes carefully so as not to disturb her make up. “It’s not conducive to good mental health. That’s all I'm saying. And it was just plain selfish of Wesley to get himself shot because that was the biggest freak out of all. He needs to lay off with the getting kidnapped and tortured and blown up and shot schtick pretty damned fast.”

“Should Wesley really be out there in the field?” Willow asked tentatively. “Wouldn’t it be better maybe if Angel and Gunn did the chopping things up and he did the research?”

“Oh, you mean…” Cordelia opened her mouth in comprehension. “Oh, he’s not… You know it’s weird, because I kind of get now why you thought it was odd that I had a thing for him. I mean, I can see now what you could all see then. Because he is a dork. I mean I love him like a brother and I would kill anyone who hurt him stone dead and scrape their innards off my shoes without a twinge of remorse, but he has the coordination of an ostrich wearing roller blades. I couldn’t see the dork part back then when you all could. I could just see the good looks – God, did I just say I thought Wes was good-looking? that is so never leaving this room – and the suit and hear the accent, you know, and rebounds are crazy. Every frog looks like a prince. But…now that I see the stuff that made you all think he was such a total doofus, ironically he’s actually a lot more like my idea of him than your idea of him. Does that make sense?”

Willow winced apologetically. “Well, not in this language perhaps, but hey, there could be others where… No, I don’t really get what you’re saying. But that’s okay. You love Wesley because he’s your friend and that’s cool. And you should love your friends. That’s good too. As long as there’s not a formal wear problem whereby a tuxedo can make you do bad things you wouldn’t ever normally do.”

Cordelia kissed Willow on the cheek as she got up. “Will, I'm sure you know what you’re talking about and, like you said, as long as one of us does, I think that’s all that matters.”

***

Giles was never going to admit that just for a while – a very short while – he had found himself thinking that if no reversal spell could be found and Angel’s associates were forced to grow up as children once again that it might be an idea for him to become Wesley’s guardian. It wasn’t as if he had hugged the idea to him like a miser with the family silver. He had just contemplated it from a position of emotional neutrality. For Wesley to be returned to his real parents seemed to be out of the question. Even the thought of it had terrified the boy. Angel, for all his possessive paranoia, could not bring three children up by himself. Giles doubted that he had any legal documentation of his own so him attempting to get documentation for these child-adults would be problematic at best. And there was also the matter of Wesley’s true identity. It seemed all wrong that someone who had remained so resolutely British should be subsumed into the culture of Southern California. He would need some kind of touchstone to remind him of who he truly was – a trained Watcher and an Englishman. And it probably wouldn’t be too difficult for Giles to get some kind of papers made up that passed Wesley off as his late sister’s son, of whom he had guardianship since her death until he reached eighteen. That was plausible enough…

So, yes, he had thought about it. And if he was honest he did feel a slight pang of loss at the moment. It was a beautiful evening, dark and unusually clear, the lights of the fairground a multi-coloured swirl in the distance. It was one of those directions his life could have taken that would have brought enormous trouble and inconvenience but it would also have forced him into what might perhaps have been a positive change. And, of course, it had been an absurd idea. He was a Watcher. He didn’t have the time or the right to adopt a child – not any child anyway, but Wesley had hardly been any child – he had been someone whom perhaps only Giles could really understand. Anyway, there was some relief, and there was some regret, but for better or worse that was not now a direction his life was going to take.

Angel and Buffy were walking next to one another. To strangers they probably looked like a couple. They were laughing, not too intense despite that ever-present connection between them. Xander and Anya were behind him, Xander trying to explain more about the human world. Giles sometimes thought Xander was on a hiding to nothing there. Tara and Willow were hand in hand, every light they passed appearing to seize on Willow’s hair with relish; turning it a different shade of red with each different blare of neon. Autumn always carried in her hair. It reminded him of Westonbirt and he thought how absurd it was to be homesick for an English arboretum, here, when the majority of its most spectacular trees were North American in origin. At the front of their little group, Cordelia was making Wesley buy her things. Sticky food mostly which she then made him carry. They were sniping and giggling; and it was hard to believe that this was the girl who had reduced Wesley Wyndam-Pryce to stuttering incoherence every time she looked at him, and this was the same man whom Cordelia had gone all out to seduce with no conspicuous success. Now, they were completely the siblings that he could never have imagined them becoming back then; teasing and nudging and arguing amicably. A good ten yards ahead of them were Gunn and Dawn. Gunn was wearing something that made him look very tall and very handsome, and which had caused Buffy to have another spasm of adolescent regression in the hallway. Dawn was looking very pretty in a dress which she had borrowed from her older sister’s wardrobe and which Buffy had told her she would damage at the cost of her life.

Their object in coming to the fair had already been accomplished. While the rest of them lurked at a safe distance, Dawn had proudly paraded Gunn past her not-friend – as Gunn described her – and the unlikeable young man who had been so foolish as to prefer another girl to Dawn. The not-friend had been consumed with very obvious curiosity and some envy and the young man had looked put out, not to mention short, pimply and undercooked by comparison with Gunn.

Now they could just enjoy themselves, with only a few sighs over soft toys that a week ago could have been purchased for Gunn and which now he was attempting to win for Dawn on the rifle range.

“You should let Wes do it,” Cordelia called across to him. “You know he’s the sharpshooter on the team.”

Gunn gave Dawn an apologetic shrug. “I'm really better with an axe.”

Wesley picked up the rifle and drilled neat holes in the hapless cardboard ducks with no visible sign of effort. “It’s a pity there are so few demons that are susceptible to gunfire.” He handed Dawn the soft toy of her choice with what Giles was surprised to see was genuine modesty. “Most of them need the standard slice and dice. Gunn’s rather better at that than I am.”

“Don’t I get a soft toy?” Cordelia demanded.

“What would you do with it if you had it?” he returned patiently.

“I don’t know. I just want one.”

“If I get you one you have to carry it, and when we get back to LA no one will sympathize if Phantom Dennis sneers at you.”

Cordelia was persuaded with difficulty to give up the soft toy idea but made Wesley buy her lots of obnoxiously pink candyfloss in compensation.

“It will get in your hair,” he told her as he handed it over. “And we will never hear the end of it. And you will probably blame me.”

“Well, that goes without saying,” she assured him.

“And yet she’s single,” he murmured. “Ow!” That was in response to a particularly sharp jab from Cordelia’s elbow. Giles couldn’t help wondering if there was some residual emotional immaturity from Cordelia there as he couldn’t imagine her being this physically abusive to her co-workers on a regular basis.

Wesley was still wincing as he straightened up, reminding him a lot more of the Wesley of old, who always made a big fuss over the slightest injury.

Looking at him, Cordelia went pale. “Oh my god! Your stitches!”

“I don’t have stitches any more.” Wesley was quick to reassure her. “No stitches. All gone. Healed up.”

“You went a funny colour. Let me see.” Cordelia yanked up his shirt while he ineffectually protested. She peered closely at his side and probed at his abdomen while he flinched and looked embarrassed.

“Cordelia, you’re going to get us arrested for an act of indecency if you don’t get your head up soon.”

“Well, as long as you don’t get your head…”

“Dawn is with us, remember?”

Cordelia quickly swallowed the end of her sentence and straightened up. “Okay. No stitches. I believe you. But you still went a funny colour.”

“How about you don’t viciously jab me in my recently healed wounds and then I won’t?”

“How about you don’t annoy me and then I won’t want to elbow you quite so often, Mister Smarty Pants?”

“How about…”

“How about you both stop squabbling right now?” Angel used an ominously paternal voice that he had never once used on them when they really had been children, and gave them a dark glare over his shoulder.

Wesley and Cordelia skittered a bit and looked mutinous. “He started it,” Cordelia offered, tossing back her hair.

“I did not.”

“You did too.”

“Children!”

Wesley actually jumped at that sharp tone from Angel while Cordelia settled for giving him a sulky shove. Giles shook his head in disbelief. It was hard to believe the very grown up little boy that Wesley had been could have become half of this emotionally immature constantly bickering duo.

“We’re only talking,” Cordelia muttered mutinously.

“Yes, we’re discussing the relative merits of…something relevant to fairgrounds.”

“Do it without arguing like a pair of six year olds then.”

Cordelia stuck her tongue out at the back of Angel’s head and looked up at Wesley. “He never wants us to have any fun.”

Willow whispered anxiously to Giles: “Do you think we only changed their physical form and they’re mentally still regressed?”

“No. I think they’re exactly how they used to be. The level of mental regression is all their own work.”

“But Wesley was so sensible,” Tara whispered.

Giles smiled. “Well, children always want to be treated like grown ups, don’t they? Once you’re an adult you don’t need to prove that you are any more so you can afford to be as infantile as you like. Which in Wesley and Cordelia’s case is obviously – very infantile indeed.”

“I wish I’d seen them when they were falling in love.” Tara looked at them fondly. “They must have been so sweet.”

“It wasn’t ‘love’, it was hormones,” Willow assured her. “Lots and lots of hormones.”

“And they were both exceedingly embarrassing and annoying to be around as I recall,” Giles assured her. “You really didn’t miss a thing.”

 

Buffy caught sight of the rings as they walked past the booth and stopped in her tracks. Friendship rings. She had to snatch a quick breath and, Angel, seeing them, moved her gently out of the flow of passers by, making it look as if they were just examining the jewellery.

“Are you okay?” he asked after a minute.

She inhaled quickly and then looked up at him and then, as that hurt too much, past him. About a hundred yards ahead of them now were Gunn and Dawn. She had her arm looped comfortably between his and they were laughing together at something. Proud teenager out with chivalrous handsome older boyfriend. Perfectly normal stuff. Except for Dawn being a key to another world fashioned into human form by mystical monks. Catching up with Dawn and Gunn were Wesley and Cordelia, they must have made up again as she had her head resting briefly on his shoulder, and he put an arm around her, both of them leaning into one another as if they were used to taking the other one’s weight at times of crisis. That looked the most normal of all. If she squeezed her memory into a long tunnel, blocked out so much of what had happened in between, she could make herself believe that it was the time of Graduation again. Here they all were, alive and well, so they had defeated the Mayor, Wesley had finally got up the courage to ask Cordelia out on a date, and there they were, dating; the Council had reinstated Giles after their sterling work in thwarting the ascension and asked Wesley to stay on in Sunnydale as his assistant. Perhaps there was a June wedding planned.

But when she turned her head there was Tara where Oz would have been if the last year or so hadn’t happened. And the edifice crumbled then. Her mother was still dead and she and Angel hadn’t found a way to make it work in Sunnydale. They were never going to be together unless a miracle intervened. Very soon he was going to go back to LA. Back to his new life that didn’t include her, while she struggled on with her new increasingly dangerous and complicated life that didn’t include him.

“Buffy…?”

She looked up into his brown eyes and almost hated him for being able to make her feel better, just like that, with a look, with a touch. He had made her be too strong in the past; having to kill him was the hardest thing she had ever had to do; gazing into his eyes now she realized with horror that she couldn’t have done it now; not even if the world had depended on it; she was too deeply scarred from the last time; could never willingly give him up again; not to death and hell and eternal damnation. It was hard enough to give him up to a different town and a different life and to friends who loved him.

“Can people just crack open?” She looked down at her palm and wondered why it didn’t show; her mother’s death; her constant fear for Dawn; there should be veins of light running just under the skin; it should be obvious just by looking at her how close she was to being torn asunder.

“Buffy?” He bent his head to look at her intently, not realizing that when he looked at her like that, with so much care and so much love, he just made everything a hundred times worse. Or perhaps he did realize, and that was why he lived in LA these days, instead of here with her.

She averted her eyes so he wouldn’t see how much she was still in love with him, gazing past him to look at Dawn, her sister giggling over something Gunn had said, happy; despite everything still having the capacity to be happy. The young were so flexible. But I'm young, Buffy thought. But she no longer had that emotional elasticity of Dawn’s. Too many things to bounce back from; each time she could only pull herself a smaller and smaller distance away from the epicentre of the trauma. Then she saw them, moving so fast they could only be vampires, figures in blue robes with ridged foreheads and yellow eyes pouncing from the side of the booths, heading straight for Dawn. And suddenly everything made sense because she could do this, kill demons; it didn’t involve decision-making or loss, just instinct and reflexes; except as she pulled the stake out of her jacket she realized she was too far away and by the time she reached Dawn the vampires would already have killed her.

 

Giles saw it a fraction after Buffy; the vampires pounce, making for Dawn, always going for the young girl if there was a young girl around. Hard to know if the literature had followed the habit or the habit was now in place because of the literature; too many vampires who in their human or post-human days had taken to reading Bram Stoker. He hated himself for having the kind of mind that could be debating the post-modernist aspects of vampirism while a girl he loved like a daughter was about to have her throat torn out before his eyes, but that was the way his mind had always worked, compartmentalizing events into those that could be analysed and those that could not be borne.

As the vampire went to throw Gunn carelessly out of the way, the man elbowed it hard in the head, before spinning and kicking it hard in the groin, yelling ‘Wes!’ as he did so. It went down, groaning, but a second vampire threw Gunn hard into the booth, reducing it to splinters of wood and a pink and white spewing of stuffed animals. He cracked his head on the booth hard enough for them all to hear it and crumpled, looking out for the count. The vampire lunged at Dawn who screamed, but although Buffy was running flat out with Angel only a little behind here she could not possibly get there in time.

A tall figure came out of nowhere and grabbed the vampire by the jacket, yanking him away from Dawn, ducking the savage blow it aimed at him and snatching up one of the broken shards of wood from the ground as he did so. The vampire hit him hard with the second attempt, knocking him to the ground and then pounced on him. Its intended victim stabbed up hard and the vampire was dust. A tall woman with dark hair held out a hand and pulled him to his feet as if they’d done this particular two-step a hundred times before. As the second vampire sprang back up, the man pulled the woman out of danger, and punched it hard on the jaw, ducked its return blow then staked it before it could get in a third punch. Then he leant down and held out a hand to Gunn who was blearily coming around.

“Are you okay?”

Wesley’s voice. Of course it was Wesley. Giles could see now that he looked at him, that it had always been Wesley, but he hadn’t moved like Wesley or acted like Wesley.

Gunn groaned and put a hand to his head. “Only my pride is damaged.”

Cordelia handed him a handkerchief. “Well, the back of your head seems to be bleeding in sympathy.”

Buffy and Angel both slowed from a sprint to a walk, surveying the scene, in confusion in Buffy’s case, with close attention in Angel’s. Only the stitch in his side alerted Giles to the fact that he must also have been running, and looking around he saw Tara with her hair loose and her eyes anxious in her pale pretty face, and Willow looking as shaken up as Giles felt. Xander and Anya also arrived at a run.

Gunn was saying anxiously to Dawn, “Are you okay?”

She nodded. “Yes. Fine. Thank you.” Each word came out as a little gulp of air, but she did manage to speak.

Wesley turned to Angel, face intent and serious. “You saw their clothing?”

Angel nodded. “Blue robes.”

Cordelia put a hand to her head. “This is all my fault. I should never have let Harmony go.”

“I seriously doubt Harmony could motivate anyone, Cordelia,” Wesley reassured her. “A lot of those vampires got away. Some of them much higher up in the organisation than her. We should have expected them to try to set up business somewhere else.”

“Who were they?” Buffy demanded.

“Did Wesley just…?” Xander pointed at the dust on the floor. “I mean…? Two? Without turning a hair…?”

“We have to find them.” Wesley looked at Angel. “They could already have their food bank in place. I expect it’s somewhere local but we need to find it quickly. Angel, you go east – that’s the direction those two came from, see if you can track them. Have you got your cellphone?”

Angel held it up. “Right here.”

“Is it switched on?” Cordelia demanded. “And have you recharged it any time in the last month?”

“Yes and yes.” He held it out to her for inspection. “Lorne already gave me that lecture when we left LA.”

“Well, thank god you listen to him more than you listen us.” Cordelia took Gunn’s arm. “Come on, concussion boy. I guess we get the parkers to check out?”

Wesley nodded. “I would expect there to be several of these attack parties, working in groups. Keep in touch. I’ll try south. The first one to score a blank with their search area, try north.” He turned around and seemed to remember Buffy and the others for the first time. “Oh, sorry. It’s just that – time is somewhat of the essence. Perhaps you should take Dawn and the others home, Buffy?”

Buffy looked at him levelly. “Slayer? Ringing any bells with you? As in person who slays? There’s a reason it doesn’t say in the Watcher’s Handbook: When the going gets tough, the Slayer goes home and bakes cookies.”

Wesley took a deep breath. “My apologies. These particular vampires are part of a kind of cult. They have a philosophy of turning two victims and grabbing a third to stockpile for food. They keep the humans in a cage while they look for new recruits to their cause and give each other excruciatingly dull lectures on how they can all maximise their personal growth potential in a style first originated by a now happily deceased self-styled ‘life coach’.”

Cordelia chimed in: “Basically, Sunnydale’s already scary mortality rate is just about to get a lot scarier.”

Angel nodded. “‘Turn two the rest is food’.” He indicated the Fair. “Lot of food here.”

“And he’s speaking as one who knows,” Xander observed.

“Will you take Dawn and Anya home?” Buffy asked him urgently.

“And Tara,” said Willow quickly. As the young woman looked hurt she added hastily, “So that Dawn has you with her, not just because I'm paranoid and my life would be over if anything happened to you. Oh dear, no.”

Xander glanced briefly at Wesley and the others who were still unaware of Dawn’s real condition. “Do you think sending the only friend of yours who doesn’t have super powers is really the best…?”

“Glory follows the protection. She’ll assume that if you’re not protected you’re not the key. That’s what I'm thinking anyway. Please?”

Xander nodded and beckoned to Tara and Anya. “I guess we’re on keeping the home fires burning patrol, girls.”

“Sending out for pizza would be good too.” Buffy touched him briefly on the shoulder in gratitude. “Slayage is bound to make us hungry.”

“We can do that.” Xander led the girls away, Dawn looking over her shoulder at her sister as they did so.

Buffy turned back to Wesley who was waiting with thinly veiled impatience. “So, the plan is…?”

“You three cover the north.” He held up his cellphone. “Keep in touch. Anyone in robes, assume they’re up to no good.” Then he was gone, walking swiftly between the booths.

“I liked him so much better when he was a little kid,” Buffy observed as she, Willow and Giles headed north.

“But if Wesley had still been a little kid then Dawn would be dead now.” Willow picked up two of the broken spars of wood from the ground and handed one to Giles. “I'm still… They were so fast. They just came out of nowhere. It all seemed to be happening so far away but in close-up.”

“I know.” Buffy took her stake out of her jacket pocket in readiness. “I just can’t – it takes some getting used to.”

“What, that people change?” Giles enquired.

“That my sister could die in front of my eyes and there be nothing I could do about it.” Buffy snatched a breath. “I didn’t even say ‘thank you’ to Wesley.”

“Let’s hope you get another chance.”

“I'm still in shock from Angel taking orders from him,” Willow admitted. “I keep looking around expecting there to be dogs and cats living together right in front of me.”

“These are certainly scary times,” Buffy nodded.

 

They found evidence of a vampire attack behind the trucks for the fair; blood on the ground and churned up mud. They were surveying the scene in grim silence when the ring of Buffy’s phone made them all jump. She collected herself. “Hello?”

Angel’s voice sounded loud and terse: “Wes told me to tell you, I’ve followed the trail to the road but then it peters out. They must have been dropped off from a vehicle. Cordy and Gunn found three smashed car windows where the parkers hang out and lots of blood. No real trail to speak of. Wes was checking out a parking lot and will phone back if he gets anything. He suggested that if you don’t have a clear trail either that you head back to the cars and we try driving around to see if we can see anything suspicious. Obviously if come across any more of them try to find out where their base is.”

“Okay. Ten four. Over and out. Roger Wilko.” Buffy switched off the phone and responded to Giles’s expression with a shrug. “They're just so…terse about it. It’s all jump there, do that.”

“I like to think we can be dynamic and decisive ourselves,” Giles returned as they began to follow their footsteps back to the main body of the fair.

“Yes, I think we have snapped to it ourselves with the honed precision of a military… thingummy from time to time.” Willow nodded. “Especially when Riley was…” She broke off awkwardly to look at Buffy. “Sorry.”

She winced at the memory of Riley, who would undoubtedly have loved this operation and would have been as happy to throw around the military strategy as the All Adult New Improved Wesley or Xander in a Halloween costume. “I just don’t see Angel’s little Gang of Four ever taking the time to stop for donuts. They’re not even seeing the donuts for the demons. And all staking and no baking makes Wesley an uptight British guy. I’ve got to ask – where’s the fun?”

“Please do mangle a few more proverbs, Buffy, I think you only wounded one of them. Look it’s limping off into the woods now. If you run you could probably catch it.”

Buffy glanced across at Willow. “They talk about the tea drinking and the tweed wearing, but whoever calls them on the snippiness? I blame their weather.”

“I don’t remember Angel being a barrel of laughs himself,” Giles observed. “Perhaps he’s the one setting the tone for the LA Branch of demon-killers anonymous?”

“Yes, but then there would just be general brooding and brow furrowing. What I'm seeing is more of a shoulders-back, stand-up-straight kind of gloominess. It’s like a private school education hit a boatload of Catholic guilt and then went down with all hands.”

Willow nodded. “I think they really need Cordelia to bring in the shallow happy up there.”

“And Gunn.” Buffy automatically touched her hair to see if it was tidy.

“I saw that.” Giles smiled smugly.

Willow nodded again. “It’s like the way Xander used to twitch every time anyone mentioned Faith. It’s Pavlovian.”

Buffy rolled her eyes. “So? So? He’s handsome. I noticed.”

“We noticed you noticed,” Giles observed dryly.

“We noticed you noticed a lot.”

“If I owned a car and if I was the one who’d driven us here, this is the point where I would be telling you two that you were walking home.” Buffy stabbed a finger at them. “And that threat would have carried a lot more weight in a tense other than the future perfect. Or the future imperfect? And is that a tense or just a general philosophy of life?”

Giles looked across at Willow. “He’s very tall, too, you know.”

Buffy held up her stake. “Don’t think I won’t use this.” As a yellow-robed figure lunged out of the bushes at her she stabbed him smartly and straightened up for applause. Only to find Willow wincing at her. “What?”

“Weren’t we supposed to be trying to take one alive so we could question him?”

Buffy looked down at the dust on her shoes.

Giles said helpfully, “The word you’re looking for now is ‘bother’.”

As another vampire lunged at him, she stabbed swiftly with the stake and was already wincing as she withdrew it. “I know! I know! It’s a reflex. I see fanged things trying to eat my friends I tend to kill them first and ask questions later.”

Giles flicked the dust from his jacket. “I think you may need to raise that ‘bother’ to a ‘bugger’ and hope that Wesley had a little more luck finding a live one.”

 

Wesley heard the woman screaming as he reached the car park. One piercing shriek and then the sound was smothered, either by a hand over her mouth or fangs in her throat. Hoping desperately for the former, he sprinted as silently as he could for the place from which the screaming had appeared to be coming.

He saw the two vampires ahead of him, the women being dragged between them, one with a hand over her mouth. His first instinct was to rescue her, but he had to remind himself that there could be a great many other victims being held prisoner somewhere, and that if he could follow these two vampires undetected, he could find the nest from which they were operating, perhaps saving a score of lives in the process. If they turned this woman or drained her dry before they reached their destination then her death was always going to be on his conscience, but he hoped that she was destined for their food bank. He remembered that Doug Sanders had clearly delineated Gunn and Wesley as prisoners to be turned into vampires and Cordelia as a candidate for the food bank. Presumably males were more useful to them as part of their growing vampire army or else perhaps women were just more palatable to them as food; that actually made more sense as a female vampire was as strong as a male, in Darla’s case probably stronger.

Crossing his fingers and hoping that he wasn’t condemning this woman to an unlife as a soulless killer or standing idly by while her blood was drained from her body, he followed them at a discreet distance. It hurt to hear the fear in her breathing, that rasping panicked sound to every inhalation; being back in Sunnydale was reminding him of just how afraid he had been. His father had taught him to be afraid of pain while ashamed of his own cowardice; the man calling him a disgrace if he whimpered because he was afraid of the dark. He had always folded when under the gaze of authority figures, so terrified of making a fool of himself, of making them ashamed of him, that it had seemed to guarantee that of course he would. All those years training to be a Watcher, to be ready for the first time he went into the field and then he had messed up every way that a man could; totally unprepared despite all that preparation. It had taken him a while to realize that one couldn’t prepare for pain, or fear, or panic. He’d had to retrain himself from scratch to deal with them, and had done so, ruthlessly, after leaving Sunnydale. He couldn’t have made a new man of himself there; feeling too conspicuously a failure. He’d had to travel to where nobody knew him to decide who it was that he wanted to be. Then he’d thrown himself into combat situations, knowing he would sink or swim but at least it wouldn’t be under the critical eye of someone who would tell the Watcher’s Council or his father. He might die alone, but he would also trip over his own feet alone or drop his weapon at the critical juncture alone.

He had done rather better than he had expected. His first kill had been a Zekan demon; human-sized, vicious, not especially clever, trusting to its scaly armour to keep it safe, while he knew very well about that gap in its overlapping plates at the throat into which a long thin sword could be inserted. He was good at fencing. Had taken it at school. The Zekan had hurt him and scared him, thrown him around, clawed him, left him bruised and dazed and bloodied and shaking, but amidst the mind-freezing panic of finding himself alone in the Zekan lair with only the sword he was clutching onto for dear life for company, and somewhere during the tripping over an oil can and so alerting it to his presence, getting thrown ten feet across the dirty basement into a very unyielding wall, dropping his sword, and feeling its open jaws and hot fetid breath heading for his throat, he had also managed to snatch up his sword at the critical juncture and jab the blade home.

Certainly, he had vomited up everything in his stomach a minute afterwards. Clung to the wall and heaved, Zekan blood in his hair and eyes and – disgustingly – his mouth. He had pulled every muscle in his body and felt that moment when its teeth had been grazing his throat a hundred times in the hours afterwards as he lay still fully-clothed and slime and blood-spattered on the bed in his motel room, gazing sightlessly at the ceiling and thinking about how close he had come to being dead in a basement where no one would have found him until the smell of his corpse attracted a neighbour. But he had done it. He had heard that something evil was living in that deserted basement, tracked the creature to its lair, killed it, and lived to tell the tale. There was no one to tell it to, unfortunately, as his father wasn’t actually speaking to him at that time, and he didn’t have a single friend in the benighted country in which his own incompetence and the Council’s parsimony had stranded him. But he had done it. Killed a demon. Saved some lives.

He could have called it quits then. Decided that he had made up for any failures of his in Sunnydale, found a job for a few months and saved up enough for his passage home, but lying there, aching and still half stunned with terror, he had realized that this was what he wanted to do. Even if it killed him. He wanted to use all his training to help others, and if there was no Slayer that was willing to let him use his expertise to assist her then he would go it alone. He would track down dangerous demons and he would kill them before they could kill others. That was who he was now. That was what he did.

It was still who he was and what he did, but he usually had friends at his side while he was doing it, and he was somewhat more efficient at it these days. It was still a little chilling to be back here again; Sunnydale, the place where he had practically fallen over in terror the first time he’d been threatened with physical pain. Only Giles had witnessed how cravenly useless he’d been, of course, and he seemed to have been too much of a gentleman to tell anyone else, but it was certainly branded onto Wesley’s memory in burning images of shame. He had thought he had left those feelings of inadequacy behind but he knew that one phonecall to his father and they would all come flooding back again. Probably always would, however many years passed. The man could undermine him with a word, and usually did.

Wesley gave himself a mental shake. He couldn’t afford to start feeling inadequate and unprepared now when people’s lives were dependent upon him justifying his position as the leader of Angel Investigations. He had to follow these vampires to their nest.

Taking out his cell-phone, he dialled Angel’s number and when he answered whispered: “Angel, it’s Wesley. I’ve located two of the vampires near the western edge of the park. They have a woman prisoner. They’re driving a white van, the license plate is blacked out. It’s a closed van with a ladder. I'm going to try to board it unobserved. I’ll call you as soon as we reach our destination and give you the address. Tell the others.” Just before he switched off the phone, he was aware of Angel saying ‘Wes! Wes! Wait…!’ but determinedly dropped the phone back in his jacket pocket. He didn’t need Angel to tell him it was dangerous or to advise him to wait for reinforcements. He knew there was a risk involved but he felt it was an acceptable one. There was no telling how many people these vampires had already turned or captured and if he lost their trail now he might never be able to get it back.

He waited for the vampires to drag the petrified woman into the cab of the van and then made a sprint for it. They were driving away at speed as he reached the kerb and he had to throw himself onto the ladder, clinging onto it as the van careered out into the road. He braced his body against the ladder as well as he could while the vampires sped down the road at such a pace he hoped that they would miss any curious glances from passers-by. Clinging on tightly, even with his fingers white around the metal strut of the ladder, the shock of each corner nearly threw him off, his hip slamming painfully against the back doors while he could only pray that the noise didn’t make the vampires stop and investigate.

When they stopped on the far corner of the park, Wesley thought this was probably it. The engine kept revving but there was a long silence apart from that in which he was sure that enhanced vampire hearing would be able to hear the hammering of his heart. Especially when the door opened and the driver got out, peered around intently and seemed about to take a stroll around the van. Only the sight of a group of people approaching, ten or twelve of them and so presumably too large a group to attack, made the vampire get back into the van and drive off again. Breathing again, Wesley hoped that the confused looks of the passers-by wouldn’t alert the drivers to his presence.

They repeated the exercise at another corner a half a mile further one. Lurched to an ugly halt, making Wesley brace every muscle in his body in an attempt not to slam noisily into the side of the van. The driver got out, lit a cigarette, smoked it, swore, demanded to know where the others were, stamped out his cigarette, got back into the van, drove off again at breakneck speed.

“Dust, I sincerely hope,” Wesley murmured as they lurched around another corner on two wheels and he wondered what his body would look like after an asphalt impact at this velocity.

He wasn’t surprised when they turned out of the centre of town and began to head for the less populated areas. He thought about snagging his phone out his jacket pocket but realized that it would leave him hanging on by one hand only, which was probably a fast track to concussion. Hanging on grimly, he was jolted and jarred along a road full of potholes to a place he surprised himself by recognising. This was the old factory where there had been a vampire nest in the past. That was good as it was somewhere to which he could actually direct Angel without much trouble.

He pulled himself up onto the roof of the van and lay flat on it as the vampires climbed out, dragging the still terrified woman with them. He held his breath as they walked past, snarling to one another about the loss of their companions as they did so.

“Damned Slayer. I heard there was one in this town…”

Exhaling, Wesley cautiously drew out his phone and switched it on. “Angel, it’s Wesley.”

“Wesley? Where are you?”

Angel sounded terse and seemed to be in a vehicle, which was good. Less time wasted before he supplied the reinforcements.

“I'm at the old factory. I think this must be their food bank. Hang on.” Dropping the phone in his pocket, Wesley judged the gap between the roof of the van and one of the old fire escape ladders on the side of the building and then jumped for it. He climbed up cautiously until he reached the roof, trying not to present a silhouette to anyone down below as he peered cautiously through the dirty panes of the skylight. It was as he had feared. There were a confusion of blue, green and yellow-robed figures milling around in the warehouse, and in the corner a huge cage in which there were a number of frightened-looking people, the majority of them teenagers although there were some twenty and thirty-somethings as well; mostly girls but with a few boys to make up the numbers. The good news was that the woman he had seen them drag past earlier was amongst the living food rather than the turned undead.

“Damn.” Wesley fished the phone back out of his pocket. “Angel, are you still there?”

“Yes. What’s going on?”

“You need to stop off to get weapons. There are about forty vampires here, and maybe twenty-five or thirty prisoners. I think they must be taking two for food and only turning one. Maybe they don’t want the competition.”

“Doug would be miffed they were deviating from his masterplan,” Cordelia observed.

“Are the others with you?” Wesley whispered.

“Yes. We’re all in the car. All on our way to help out. Don’t do anything until we get there.”

Wesley sighed. “Yes, because I was so planning to take on forty pissed off vampires single-handed.”

“Hey, English, I know what you’re like when your blood’s up,” Gunn observed.

“How’s your head?” Wesley whispered.

“Still attached to my body. Make sure you keep yours the same way.”

“I will…” Wesley suddenly became aware that he no longer had this roof to himself. Shoving his phone into his pocket he reached for the stake in his jacket, but before he could do so he was yanked to his feet by the collar.

A yellow-eyed vampire in very angry game face, hissed: “Well, if it isn’t Arnaud Amaury.”

“Nice of you to remember.” As Wesley grabbed at the stake in his jacket, the vampire punched him hard in the guts and he went down wheezing.

“I ought to kick you straight off this roof,” the vampire snarled ominously. “But I like my meat tender. How’s that wound of yours doing now?” He punctuated the question with a kick in Wesley’s abdomen that sent him skittering dangerously close to the skylight.

Barely able to breathe, Wesley tightened his grip on the stake and stabbed upwards; unable to stifle a cry as the vampire grabbed his wrist, twisted it viciously to make him drop the stake, and then punched him on the jaw, slamming him into the top of the fire escape.

“You’d better tell me everything there is to know about the Slayer in this town or you’re going to wish you were dead.” The vampire yanked Wesley up by the hair and spun him around. “Want to walk off this roof or fly off it?”

Wesley spat the blood out of his mouth and straightened up. “The grounds pretty soft. I’ll take my chance.”

The vampire punched him again and Wesley was knocked backwards, for a moment he lurched sickeningly over a drop and then the vampire yanked him back. “No way am I letting you escape that easily. You’re going to be conscious for a good long time. You’re just going to wish that you weren’t…”

 

They had all packed themselves into Angel’s car. Giles, Willow and Buffy in the back; Gunn and Cordelia squeezed in next to Angel who was driving, very fast, and not particularly safely, in the direction of the old factory.

No one was saying anything. They were just listening – and occasionally flinching – to the phone that Gunn was still holding in his hand. The sounds were slightly muffled – the phone was presumably in Wesley’s pocket and as he had made no effort to impart any new information to them it seemed likely that he thought it was off – but they could hear very well what was happening. They had heard Wesley make several attempts to get away and be brutally pounded for each one; the slam of a body into hard surfaces, the noise metal walls made when they were impacted; the sound of a fist striking flesh; the gasp that followed a solid blow to the solar plexus, the stifled groan of pain that followed a twisted arm, a punched jaw.

They heard the sound of Wesley’s hitched painful breathing as he seemed to be flung down somewhere, the noise of footsteps, the angry murmur of approaching vampires. In the background could be heard the sound of people sobbing and pleading. The captives in the cage he had described, presumably.

“Remember this guy?” the first vampire demanded. “He was one of those bastards in LA who dusted Doug.”

“Come on, the man had it coming,” Wesley said a little breathlessly. “His affirmation speeches alone merited death.” A thump and a gasp as punishment was evidently meted out.

Through gritted teeth, Gunn hissed: “Shut up, Wes.”

“ ‘You’re all special?’ Why? Because you were stupid enough to get bitten by blood sucking losers? Oh, and let’s not forget: ‘I tune out mental roadblocks’? Only in California could one possibly get away with peddling such utter crap even to dullards of the lowest mental capacity.”

Angel could imagine Wesley looking up at them from his kneeling position on the ground, blood running from his mouth, he suspected, unsquashably defiant despite being scared, and Angel knew he was scared, because anyone who wasn’t scared when the prisoner of forty murderous soulless vampires would be an idiot and Wesley was very far from being that.

“Is he saying we’re stupid?” One demanded.

“Sorry, did I use too many long words?”

They all flinched in unison at the sound of brutal impact and a gasp of pain.

“Wes…” Gunn breathed. “Shut. The Fuck. Up.”

“He’s trying to get them to see him as food, not a potential ally,” Angel said tersely. “He wants them to put him in the cage.”

“I don’t think he’s making too many friends,” Willow said faintly.

Cordelia looked at Angel accusingly. “You couldn’t give him some kind of a lecture before he ever got himself into this position about how when you’re the hostage of a lot of nasty evil creeps you don’t – I don’t know – smart mouth your way into a coma?”

“When you’re a vampire you see it as a privileged position.” Angel put his foot down even harder on the gas pedal despite the way they were already breaking all kinds of speed records. “Wes knows that. He wants them to dislike him way too much to ever gift him with immortality.”

“Immortality not looking like too much of a problem for him right now,” Buffy said shortly. “I’d be more worried about his chances of surviving the next five minutes.”

Giles said nothing. Trying to match up this young man with the one who had rolled over so quickly when threatened with torture on the first occasion of his capture. Oddly enough it was the little boy Wesley he kept thinking of now. The one who had sidestepped those questions about Angel’s guilt with such dexterity; refusing to condemn him even though Giles suspected that Angel had probably merited condemnation. Showing the same kind of courage this Wesley was showing now.

There was another gasp of pain from Wesley which Angel thought he recognized as the noise a human made when you grabbed them by the hair and yanked their head back viciously. He had a lot of experience in identifying the different noises humans made when you did different painful things to him and that was what that one sounded like. Wesley seemed to be on his knees right now with someone’s fingers in his hair; one twist away from a broken neck.

“The Slayer?” A vampire demanded angrily. “Tell us about her.”

“Well, I must admit her CD collection is not entirely to my taste and just between you and me I think she could cut back on the mascara. But in other news she will kill you all at some point. It’s just a matter of time really.”

“Are you in contact with her?” Another gasp from Wesley as they presumably hurt him again. “Does she know about us?”

“Oh, you mean the parading around a crowded fairground in your very easy to identify robes was you travelling incognito?”

“These are symbols of our ascension through the ranks!” A different voice; young and not too bright, but even the dimmest vampire bulb was going to have more punching power than Wesley right now.

“Ah yes, because it’s so deeply meaningful if you have a green robe or a yellow one when getting the most out of your unlife.”

“The Slayer! Where does she live?”

“Cleveland. I hear the commute is a bitch.”

Angel flinched as they all heard that blow connect. There was no sound from Wesley for a moment except snatched breaths, the painful kind, trying to inhale when what you really wanted to do was sob.

“I’ll ask you again...”

“Where she lives isn’t relevant, it’s when you’re going to die that matters.”

And that was a pounding. Not as scientific as Angelus would have been; vampires too brutal or too angry to bother with the subtleties of inflicting pain with sadistic precision. It sounded like they were just punching and kicking.

“Enough!” The first vampire. The one who had identified Wesley in the first place. They heard Wesley gasp as air evidently whooshed back into his lungs; it sounded as if he’d been pulled back up from a huddled position. The vampire spoke softly: “I can keep you alive for a good long time, and I will. Let’s see how cooperative you feel after you’ve fed us a couple of dozen times.”

Angel heard Wesley snatch another breath, still trying to breathe around the pain as he was evidently manhandled to his feet. He was picturing him as he’d found him when Faith had been torturing him, in a ragged blood stained shirt, face mottled with bruising. It was strange how quietly cultured Wesley still sounded even after being pounded halfway to unconsciousness:

“What a disappointment it must be to you. All those Anne Rice novels and when you become a vampire you’re still the same boring little accountant you ever were. Only with worse teeth.”

There was the sound of something fizzing, a noise Gunn recognized but couldn’t at first identify. He knew he had heard it recently, something to do with Wes, and vampires and caged people and –

A jolt of sound followed by a cry from Wesley and Gunn knew what that noise was after all.

“Cattle prod,” he breathed.

“What’s wrong, smartass? Did that hurt?” A physical exertion of some kind, yanking Wesley about no doubt, and that hitch of painful breath from Wesley that made them all flinch. “Where’s the Slayer in this town?”

“Look for the bat signal then just follow it back to the source.”

That cry ripped through all of them. A sustained jolt of electricity that time and Gunn just knew it had been jabbed into Wesley’s old gunshot wound. More fizzing, more groans of pain.

“We kill them all, right?” Cordelia looked at Angel. “No survivors?”

“None.” The vampire wrenched the car around the corner on two wheels.

“Put him in the cage.”

There was the sound of more brutal manhandling, more fizzing of the cattle prod, those snatched breaths from Wesley who now sounded in pretty bad shape; a stumble of feet, then the sound of metal grating against metal, the clang of bars, a thud of impact. A stranger saying quietly:

“Are you okay?”

“Fine.” That was Wesley. “Is everyone in here all right?”

“We’re all going to die.” A different voice again. “We’re vampire food and you just got them really pissed.”

“Has anyone fed them recently?” Wesley snatched another breath. He sounded out on his feet but he was obviously still on his feet. They heard the clank of the bars and Angel realized he must be holding himself up with them as he stumbled around the perimeter. “Does anyone need medical help?”

“Sheila. They fed from Sheila.” A girl’s voice this time. She sounded small and scared.

“It’s going to be okay. Keep her warm. That’s good that you’ve given her your jacket. Can you keep her arm up? That’s great. You’re doing well. We’re all going to get out of here, I promise you.”

“If you were the rescue committee, I'm not feeling too saved right now.”

“Don’t worry, I'm not.” They heard the sound of impact on the phone and realized Wesley must be reaching for it. Then there was a beep as he stabbed at the button and another beep. “Angel?”

“We’re almost with you,” Angel told him. “Hang in there.”

“Stop mouthing off to the vampires, you dumbass, Wesley!” Cordelia shouted at him.

There was a breathless silence before Wesley said faintly, “You heard…?” Then he collected himself and whispered rapidly: “They’re guarding the main door and the back exit. You need to attack on both fronts at once. They have axes, crossbows and swords. There are six people in here with wounds, some of them with three of four. I suggest you call an ambulance for them now.” Then the phone clicked off and there was finally silence.

Angel and Gunn exchanged a glance. “How’s your head?” Angel asked.

“Never better,” said Gunn grimly.

Angel switched off the engine so they did a silent running down the last hundred yards of track to the factory before applying the handbrake hard. “Want to kill a lot of vampires very dead?”

Gunn picked up his axe. “Just show me where they’re at.”

“You have a plan of some kind?” Giles enquired.

Angel snatched a breath, the anger coming off him in waves. “I was thinking Buffy takes the back door, Gunn and I take the front door. Giles, Willow and Cordy wait for us to clear a path and then go and get the people out of the cage.”

“So, you’re just going to confront all forty of them head on?”

“Yes.” Angel didn’t even blink. “And then there will be the killing them very dead part.”

Gunn opened the car door. “That’s my favorite part.”

“Mine too.” Cordelia snatched up a stake.

Gunn and Angel both looked at her. “You’re the rescue committee, remember?” Angel told her.

“I need to stake a vampire right now and if you don’t get out of my way you’re going to be the only one within stabbing distance.”

As Giles waited for Angel to remonstrate with her, he became aware that six foot four of demon killer and six foot plus of two hundred and forty seven year old vampire with a soul were quickly stepping back out of her reach.

“Wesley is in that cage too, Cordy,” Willow said breathlessly. “Let’s rescue him and the others first and then kill vampires afterwards.”

“Supposing there are any left.” Buffy held up a stake as she pushed open the back door. “I'm feeling a party mood coming on. I don’t like people beating up my friends.”

“Speaking as one of your friends,” Willow assured her. “We don’t like it much either.”

Buffy nodded to Angel. “Give me a count of twenty to get around to the back of the factory.”

Angel picked up a sword. “Your cue will be me kicking the door off its hinges before doing lots of very violent things.”

“You need to wait for me,” she told him firmly. “This is my town. That means I get the big entrance. Besides, if they’re all looking at my shiny new pumps you can stake them in the back that much more easily.”

Cordelia noticed Buffy’s shoes for the first time. “Buffy, I hate to break it to you but they scream ‘knock off’.”

Buffy shrugged. “But what I lack in Manolo Blahniks I make up for in quippage.” She held up her stake. “And slayage.”

As Buffy went off, Cordelia shook her head. “Clutching her mythic destiny to her like an old shawl as compensation for inferior footwear. That’s so sad.”

Gunn glanced at Angel. “Are we at twenty yet?”

Willow caught Gunn’s sleeve and said gently, “I know you’re upset about Wesley but you haven’t really seen the real Buffy yet. When she’s cranky – she’s scary. And right now, trust me, she’s really cranky.”

Gunn grimaced. “I know about this whole Slayer thing as a concept and I'm buying it, I am, but what I'm seeing is – skinny little white chick.”

Giles snatched a breath. “Oh you’re so lucky you didn’t say that in her hearing.”

Willow nodded. “We’d have to turn you back into a little kid again, just to keep you safe.”

Angel looked at Gunn. “The real reason I wanted us to get to go in first? I'm worried Buffy’s not going to leave us anything to kill.”

They moved to the doors and peered through, Angel gently but firmly pushing Willow and Cordelia away after they’d looked through the gap. As he did so, they all heard a clear voice say cheerfully:

“Hi, were you looking for me? I'm Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I'm here to help you maximise your actualisation as really really dead people.”

As Angel kicked open the doors hard enough to make them slam back dramatically and tear off half their hinges, they saw Buffy standing on the far side of the factory waving away the cloud of dust that was swirling gently to the ground in front of her.

As two vampires came out of their stunned confusion and ran at her, she kicked one agilely in the stomach, spun around, elbowed another in the head, did a hand spring over another that was attempting to rush her and landed agilely on the balls of her feet in the perfect place to stake a yellow-robed acolyte attempting to give orders.

Willow nodded. “Yep. She’s cranky all right.”

Giles grabbed Willow and ushered her out of the way of the fighting as Angel and Gunn rushed the vampires attempting to attack them. Cordelia was already marching purposefully towards the cage and as a vampire rushed at her, she stabbed it hard with a stake. Giles wasn’t sure if he or the vampire was the more surprised as it dissolved into a pile of dust.

Willow whispered to him: “I think Cordelia’s a little cranky too.”

Behind them, Angel was cutting off vampire heads with his sword; spinning and turning with savage grace and power; Buffy was athletically staking, while Gunn was swinging a borrowed axe over his head, moving with speed and precision. When vampires rushed him, he elbowed them off, took a punch to the jaw as if it had been thrown by a toddler rather than an empowered member of the undead, and retaliated with a vicious slice that sent the vampire’s head spinning ten feet away before it dissolved.

“Wesley Wyndam-Pryce! Do you have any idea how much trouble you’re in right now?”

That yell from Cordelia even made a few of the nearby vampires flinch while Wesley started like someone had fired a gun next to his head.

Cordelia slammed her hand on the cage door. “When I get you out of here you’re going to wish those vampires had killed you.”

Wesley came forward a little tentatively from amongst the shadow-eyed ‘food bank’ victims who were all watching the battle open mouthed. Willow and Giles both flinched from his battered condition. His bruised cheekbone had now been joined by a black eye, bleeding lip, and bruised jaw. There was blood on his shirt and Giles guessed that the rest of his body probably had more than its fair share of bruises too.

“I was just trying to…” Wesley reached through the bars quickly to yank her out of the way of an approaching vampire.

Giles darted forward and hit it hard across the back of the head. As it staggered away from the cage, Gunn swung around and chopped off its head with casual savagery.

Undeterred, Cordelia had barely paused for breath: “Don’t give me that ‘I was just trying to.…’ They could have beaten you to death while I had to listen to it. Did you leave something in your will to pay for my therapy? I don’t think so! If I ever find out that you’ve been mouthing off like that again to someone who’s holding you prisoner then you’re going to need a live-in chiropractor just so you can brush your teeth in the morning. Supposing I even leave you any teeth! Is that clear?” She held up her stake. “Do you have any idea where I’m going to make you wear this if you ever try a stupid stunt like.…”

“Cordelia, I really don’t think is the time or the place for…” As he attempted to remonstrate with her, Giles was knocked aside by a blue-robed vampire who rushed at Cordelia.

“Cordy!” Willow shouted.

She spun around and the vampire slammed on the brakes a millimetre from the point of her stake.

“Do you mind?” Cordelia demanded. “I'm talking here.” She jammed the stake into his heart and then spun around, coughing irritably as the dust clogged her throat. “Ugh! That is so unhygienic. Now, where was I...?”

“Breaking us out of the cage?” Wesley pleaded. “Please, Cordelia. You can lecture me later but some of these people need medical treatment now.”

“If you knew how pissed I am with you right now, you’d want to stay in there. You’d want to stay in there for a good long time. In fact you wouldn’t even want to think about coming out of there without an armed police escort.” As another vampire ran at them, Cordelia spun around furiously. “Okay, enough with the interruptions!” She fingered his robe contemptuously. “Man-made fibres? Could you be any lamer? And what’s with all the creases? You’re too Evil Dead to plug in an iron?”

The vampire fingered its blue robe defensively. “They’re drip dry.”

Giles staked it impatiently and waved aside the inevitable dust. “Cordelia! If you’ve quite finished critiquing everyone’s fashion choices, we need to help these people.”

Cordelia shrugged but conceded the ground to Willow, although not without muttering: “If I was critiquing your fashion choices, Giles, we’d be here until next month.”

“She’s really cranky,” Willow murmured to Giles. But she was already pulling out the blessed sage, feverfew, mandrake root and dried snakescales necessary for the spell to dissolve iron. “I think I just need to...”

Cordelia swooped and picked up something from the floor. “Use the key?”

Giles snatched it from her quickly and jammed it into the lock. The fight was still going on in the background; Buffy, Gunn and Angel relentlessly hacking, slashing, staking and punching their way to what was looking very like not so much victory as utter slaughter. The vampires might have preternatural strength on their side, but they definitely didn’t have the focused rage of their opponents. Giles pulled open the cage door and he and Willow immediately had to hold up the stumbling dazed victims of the vampires. Many of them had bite wounds on their arms and looked in need of glucose, rest, and possibly some serious therapy.

“They’re…vampires…” One of them muttered dazedly.

“You were expecting the Easter Bunny?” For all her words, Cordelia had already wrapped her coat around the shoulders of one girl and was holding the arm of another, saying gently: “There’s an ambulance coming and you’re all going to be okay now, I promise.” She jabbed a finger at Wesley who had picked up the girl who had been drunk from last and was carrying her towards the approaching siren. “Except for you. You’re not going to be okay. Because you’re still in more trouble than you have ever even dreamed of in your very worst nightmares.”

“Sheila’s going to be okay, isn’t she?” A girl of little more than twelve with a pale dirty face looked up at the girl Wesley was carrying anxiously.

Cordelia put her arm around her. “She’s going to be fine, sweetheart.”

Giles kept an eye on the situation as he helped usher the wounded and dazed out to the waiting ambulance, murmuring soothing platitudes to people as he assisted them into the ambulance, while glancing back from time to time to see how Buffy was doing. He couldn’t help a paternal twinge of pride as he saw her scissorkick one vampire onto a jagged crate, a shard of wood finding its heart in the process, before gracefully elbowing one hard enough in the head to send it reeling. There really was something balletic in her fighting style at its best that certainly justified all those endless hours of sometimes painful training.

He was used to how unstoppable Angel became when he morphed into vampire face; spinning and slashing with his sword in a way that also had its own grace. Gunn was utterly fearless, throwing himself into the thick of the fight with his axe swinging and a look of focused concentration on his face. It was obvious that he wasn’t just good in a fight, he was invaluable in a fight, and seemed to be enjoying himself immensely.

“Get the Slayer!”

At the sound of that voice – and Giles recognized it himself – Gunn, Angel and Buffy all turned and looked at the yellow-robed vampire. Their expressions reminded him somewhat of the ones Xander and those other children had worn when infected by the spirit of evil hyaenas. For a moment he believed that Buffy’s power could be demonic in origin, was reminded that Angel’s undoubtedly was, and, as he looked at Gunn, that sometimes the gap between human and demon was so narrow as to be invisible. For all their preternatural abilities, it was Gunn who got to him first. Two vampires were closing in on Buffy in response to their leader’s orders and Angel spun around to help her.

“You the one who hit my friend?” Gunn hefted his axe from hand to hand.

The vampire sneered at him. “Back off now, human, and I may let you live.”

Gunn smiled in a chilling way, and although he undoubtedly still looked both tall and handsome, he had only a surface resemblance to the boyish young man who had escorted Dawn to the fair. “I hate having to repeat myself but I get that you vamps are usually too stupid to understand a question the first time so I’ll ask you once again. Are you the one who hit my friend?”

The vampire drew itself up to its full height; broad-chested and long-haired it looked perfectly capable of pulling Gunn’s head off and using it for a football. “So, what if I did?”

Gunn shrugged. “So, this.” He swung the axe so hard and so fast that the vampire still seemed to be trying to come up with a retort as its head and body exploded into a pillar of dust.

Angel arrived at the run. “He was mine!” he protested petulantly.

“Tough,” Gunn told him with no visible signs of remorse.

“But this one was a vampire! I'm allowed to kill vampires!”

“So am I,” Gunn retorted.

“Last time I wasn’t allowed because they were stupid humans.”

“Well, last time I couldn’t because I was a stupid little kid.”

Giles hastened to intervene. “You did get to kill a lot of other vampires, Angel.”

“But he was the one who hit Wesley.”

“I wanted to kill him!” Buffy came up, stake still in hand. “How come I didn’t get to kill him?”

“Because Wes is my friend,” Gunn insisted.

“He’s my friend too.” Angel wiped his sword on his coat and then realized there was no blood on it.

“Well, you can avenge him next time.”

“There isn’t going to be a next time.” They turned around to see Cordelia standing in the doorway with her arms folded. She glared at the man next to her who had evidently delivered the wounded girl to the paramedics before being marched back by Cordelia. “Right, Wesley?”

“Yes, Cordelia,” he murmured. “I mean, No, Cordelia.”

“Wes!” Angel rushed over to him. “Are you okay?”

“English, my man. How are you doin’?” Gunn patted him gently on the shoulder. “You did good, finding out where they were keeping the prisoners, but just for future reference – ever do that again – take off by yourself to a vampire nest – and I’ll belt you myself.”

“Yes, fine.” He darted a nervous glance at Cordelia. “Thank you for…massacring everyone.”

“It was nothing.” Buffy put away her stake. “Where are the food bank people?”

“The ambulance took them away,” Willow said. “They wanted to take Wesley away too but he said he was okay.” She also darted a nervous look at Cordelia. “You heard that, right, Cordy? That Wesley is okay?”

“No thanks to him,” she retorted.

“What you did was really dumb,” Buffy told Wesley. “Brave but dumb, and if you were still my Watcher I would so be kicking your ass right now. No way would I let Giles pull a crazy stunt like that.”

“You think we let him do things like that?” Cordelia demanded. “He is so not allowed to do things like that. Ever.”

“Just as a matter of interest, how precisely would you prevent me from ‘pulling a crazy stunt like that’?” Giles enquired.

Buffy was unflinching. “There would be pain and possibly bondage of some kind.”

Willow put her hands up to ears. “Not listening! Not listening!”

“Pain and bondage.” Cordelia nodded. “I don’t think there’s been enough of that back at Angel Investigations recently. I really need to fix that.”

Angel looked between Wesley and a still dangerous-looking Cordelia. “Let’s go home, shall we? Get Wes patched up?” He took the man’s arm and gently steered him towards the car.

Giles heard Wesley whisper breathlessly, “Angel, you have to save me from Cordelia.”

“Why don’t you sit in the front with me, Cordy?” Gunn said quickly. “Let Wes go in the back with...” He looked at the scowling Buffy, scowling Cordelia, and anxious looking Willow. “Willow. And Giles.” Under his breath he added: “The nice, non scary people in the car.”

“Yes, okay.” Wesley almost dived into the back seat after Willow while Giles smoothly intercepted Buffy and sat on the other side of Wesley.

“No room,” Giles told her blandly. “You’ll have to sit on Gunn’s lap.”

Willow giggled and then quickly clasped a hand to her mouth. “Yes, you better had, Buffy,” she managed through an obvious wish to laugh.

Seeing that Cordelia was wedged into the front seat between Angel and Gunn and there was nowhere else to sit, Buffy gave Giles and Willow laser eyes of death before tentatively approaching Gunn. “Can I…?”

“Of course.” He seemed completely unfazed by her request. “You got enough room?”

“He has a truck,” Cordelia explained. “We have to scootch up in it a lot. I can truthfully say there isn’t a guy in our little group whose lap I haven’t sat on at some point.”

“We haven’t got around to putting that on our business cards yet.” Angel put the keys in the ignition. “We’re saving it for the flyers.”

Blushing bright red, Buffy lowered herself onto Gunn’s lap while Angel started the car. Behind her Willow barely smothered another giggle.

“He’s very tall, you know…” Giles murmured conversationally.

“I still have a stake,” Buffy warned them.

Surprised, Gunn said, “Hey, Buffy’s a lot lighter than...” Then at a warning look from Angel and the realization of what a yawning precipice of danger awaited him if he finished that sentence he pulled back from the brink with such rapidity that Giles could almost hear the tires squealing. “...you’d think. Her being a Slayer and all. I thought she’d have...heavier bones.”

“You’re so dead,” Cordelia told him. “And not a quick tidy death. We’re talking messy and protracted.”

“You’re very tough on them, Cordy,” Willow protested mildly. “Have you ever thought that maybe…?”

“Excuse me? Am I hearing from the woman who totally failed to train up Xander Harris during his formative years? These are men, Willow. They don’t understand kindness. They understand terror and donuts. You give them an inch and they’re getting themselves tortured or beaten or spilling things on your clothes. You have to be tough.”

“But fair?” Buffy offered, hoping that it didn’t show in her voice how painfully aware she was of the fact she was sitting on the lap of a very good looking man she barely knew, of whose charms she was not exactly unaware. She supposed it was just as well that women didn’t give the same outward signs of arousal that men did. Then wondered if there was some kind of scent she might be giving off that Angel could smell. She was afraid to move even a fraction in case she ground against something painful for Gunn and too intimate for her to contemplate without turning the colour of a tinned tomato.

Cordelia looked at her in confusion. “Where does fair come into it?”

 

As they walked wearily back into Buffy’s house, Xander’s jaw dropped as he took in Wesley’s appearance. “Man, you look like...”

Cordelia glared at him. “And the First Aid kit isn’t in my hands right now because…?”

Xander jumped and positively scurried to get it. Cordelia pointed after him and turned to Willow. “You see? They can be trained. A little firmness, that’s all it takes.”

Cordelia grabbed Wesley’s arm as he swayed, while Angel quickly took him by the shoulders and gently steered him into a kitchen chair. “Did you crack any ribs?” Angel asked.

Wesley darted a look at Cordelia. “No.”

“Pretend Cordy’s not here, Wes,” Angel said patiently.

“Man, he’s got a bad case of the deer in headlights.” Gunn bent down to gaze at him. “Wes? How bad are you hurt?”

“Just bruised.” But he was still looking at Cordelia warily.

She rolled her eyes. “Oh for goodness sake! You got beaten half to death by a cult of crazed vampires and you’re scared of me?”

“Actually...yes.”

“Oh.” She considered that for a moment and then preened. “That’s kind of cool. But silly. Wesley, I'm not angry. I just want to know how badly you’re hurt so we can fix it.”

“You sounded angry,” he said tentatively.

“I'm over it now,” she assured him. “Just lift up your shirt. Let us take a look.”

As he still warily did so, they all took one look at his multi coloured ribcage and breathed in sharply, even Angel, who didn’t need to.

“Wes, I told you not to take off alone.”

“English, what the hell were you thinking?”

“Wesley Wyndam-Pryce, you are totally grounded!”

Xander paused in the doorway. “Oh, great bedside manner, people. Harangue the beaten up guy. That’ll fix his cracked ribs, black eye, multiple bruising, split lip – What the hell happened to you, Wesley?”

“He saved a lot of people’s lives at the risk of his own,” Giles put in quietly. “That often comes at a price. When his associates stop beating him up for getting beaten up I'm sure they’ll remember to mention to him that they’re actually rather glad he’s still alive. And not a vampire, which he most certainly would have been if he hadn’t acted the way he did.”

Cordelia glared at Xander and snatched the First Aid kit from him. “Give me that.” She sloshed antiseptic onto a piece of cotton waste and dabbed it to Wesley’s cut cheekbone gently. “You’d tell me if you had double vision, right?”

“Yes.”

“Yes, you’d tell me or yes you have it?”

“Yes, I’d tell you. No, I don’t have it.”

Angel was gently feeling his ribs. “There’s a lot of heat here, Wes. Did you hear anything crack?”

“Above my whimpers of pain, you mean? Not really.”

Gunn ran a sponge under the cold tap, squeezed it out and then held it to his black eye, putting Wesley’s hand over it to hold it. “You missing that wheelchair, English? Trying to get yourself one permanently?”

“It just felt like the right thing to do,” he protested weakly.

“It was,” Giles told him. “You did absolutely the right thing, Wesley. Your associates are just unreasonable, over-protective, and borderline paranoid.”

Wesley brightened in relief. “That explains so much.”

Cordelia very gently cleaned out a cut on his face and then said, “And in a few days Giles will still be here in Sunnydale and you’ll be home with us – your unreasonable, over-protective and borderline paranoid associates – in LA. Think about that, Wesley.”

Wesley slumped back in his chair in defeat. Cordelia continued to gently clean his wounds, surprising those who had known her back in Sunnydale with how expertly and carefully she was doing so. “So, Wesley…?” she said with deceptive kindness. “Next time you’re in that situation, what do you do?”

He looked up at Angel, Gunn and Cordelia and sighed. “Um…Well… I don’t actually know, Cordelia.”

She gazed into his face intently. “Whatever you damned well want, dumbass! You’re the boss, remember? Just bear in mind that if doing what seems best to you gets you beaten or killed, you’ll be hearing about it from me for the foreseeable future.”

Xander looked at Giles. “I don’t think I ever appreciated Buffy’s style of leadership enough. She is nothing like as scary as Cordelia.”

“But I have a role model now.” Buffy had found a bag of fries and was eating them ravenously. “I’ve studied Cordelia’s technique. Now, no one is safe.”

Dawn arrived in the kitchen at a run. “Is everyone okay?” Her gaze went first to Buffy then to Gunn before screeching to a halt on Wesley. “What happened?”

“We found the nest of vampires,” Giles explained. “Or rather Wesley did. He kept them busy until reinforcements arrived. They’re all dead now.”

“We kicked ass,” Buffy added in between another mouthful of fries. “Is there pizza?”

“There’s food?” Gunn looked up with interest.

Buffy offered him some of her fries while Cordelia continued to tend to Wesley with a gentle concern that entirely belied her bullying manner with him earlier. Angel was strapping up his ribs with the efficiency of someone who had strapped up his own many times in the past.

Buffy gratefully accepted the pizza box that Tara handed her, propping it open on the table between her and Gunn so they could share. “So, does Wesley get beaten up this often at home or is this unusual?”

Gunn considered the point in between mouthfuls of pizza. “Well, I’ve known the guy less than a year and he’s been in Intensive Care twice.”

“Wow,” Buffy glanced over at Wesley. “Careless.”

Gunn nodded at Giles. “So, is it a Watcher thing or is Wes a unique case?”

Buffy considered the point while still sharing her fries with Gunn. “Come to think of it, Giles does get knocked unconscious a lot. Really, a lot.”

Gunn shrugged. “Must be a Watcher thing.”

“Or an English thing.” Buffy held out the pizza box. “Could be that.”

“That fancy private school education.” Gunn gratefully took a piece of pizza. “Maybe getting beaten up a lot is part of the curriculum?”

“I imagine it’s pretty much mandatory.” Buffy chewed on her pizza ravenously. “What is it about staking vamps that gets one so hungry?”

“Not to mention horny,” Gunn nodded, then, noticing everyone looking at him, winced. “Did I just say that out loud?”

“You did.” Giles rose to his feet. “And thank you so much for sharing.”

“You’re leaving?” Wesley flashed Giles a desperate look. “Now? Leaving here?”

Giles looked at Angel and Cordelia. “I imagine that your friends don’t need me to remind them that in view of your numerous injuries you deserve to be treated with some kindness and sympathy.”

“But Cordelia doesn’t do kindness and…” Wesley hastily swallowed the end of his sentence. “You’ll come back tomorrow?”

“To say goodbye.” Giles nodded.

“They’re leaving?” Buffy looked between Angel and Gunn. “You’re leaving?”

“They have their own battles to fight, Buffy,” Giles said gently. “As do we.”

“But, it’s nice having them here,” Dawn said tentatively.

Giles sighed. “And where do you propose that they sleep? It’s too late for Tara and Willow to go back to their room at the college now so that’s one bedroom spoken for and you have something of a full house.”

Dawn opened her mouth, remembered Gunn snuggling up in her bed as a four year old, Cordelia sharing with Willow and Tara, and Wesley curled up against Angel’s chest, and closed it again. She exchanged a glance with Buffy. “Um…that could be a problem.”

Buffy looked across at Tara. “Tara...? You’re the sensible member of the family. What do we do?”

The witch said tentatively, “Couldn’t Dawn share with you, and Cordelia have Dawn’s bed? Gunn gets the couch and…” She looked at Wesley. “I don’t want to be melodramatic, but Wesley could be concussed so someone should stay with him anyway. Could Angel...?”

Angel nodded. “Yes, no problem.” Gunn sniggered and Angel glared at him. “What?”

“It’s just that the next time you sing, Lorne’s going to know you spent a week sharing a bed with Wesley.”

“And the next time you sing he’s going to know you spent a week sharing with a fourteen year old girl. Gee, seeing as how Lorne thinks Wesley is cute, and paedophiles are bottom feeding scum suckers, I wonder which of us he’ll think is the most pervy?”

Cordelia finished gently taping gauze over the cut on Wesley’s temple. “You are both losers of the first order. I spent the week sharing a bed with two lesbian witches so I get all the cool points in the world and you both suck and not even in an interesting gay way. End of discussion, I think.” She straightened Wesley’s collar. “There, now, and modelling this year’s ‘just mugged in an alley’ look is Mr Wyndam-Pryce.”

“Thank you.” Wesley felt the gauze taped to his cheekbone and temple cautiously and then ran a finger over the cut across the bridge of his nose. “It doesn’t look as bad as it feels, right?”

“That depends.” Cordelia shrugged.

"On what?"

"On whether or not it feels as if you just got hit with a wrecking ball."

“We’re going.” Xander jerked a thumb at the door. “Anya and I. Leaving for my place.”

“To have sex,” Anya supplied helpfully. “Which we like to do after we have been separated for some days. Sometimes many different times in the same night.”

Gunn gazed at her for a moment and then nodded. “O-kay.”

“Anya likes to share these things,” Willow said helpfully. “It’s a vengeance demon thing.”

“Ex-vengeance demon, Will.” Xander took Anya’s arm and led her away. “See you guys tomorrow.”

Everyone waved and made vague noises of farewell. Only after the front door had closed did Gunn say, “Even from an adult sized perspective, that is a scary chick.” He looked at Buffy. “Do you have beer?”

Giles glanced across at Willow. “Oh yes, that wouldn’t lead to complications at all.”

Willow nodded innocently. “Yes, indeed. Let’s get drunk with the guy we’re attracted to after we’ve both admitted we’re all post-battle horny. That would never lead to any kind of morning after embarrassment…”

“You could leave now,” Buffy told Giles sternly.

Cordelia frowned at Angel. “Wait. Lorne thinks Wesley is cute? Why didn’t I know this?”

Angel shrugged. “Angel Investigations according to Lorne: I'm sexy and cool, Gunn’s brave but stubborn, you’re a delectable hotty, and Wes is smart yet cute. You should pay attention.”

“Well, he got the delectable hotty part right, anyway.”

Buffy looked at Angel sideways. “You flirt with a red-horned empath demon?”

“I don’t flirt with Lorne – ”

Gunn snorted. “Yeah, you do.”

Wesley grimaced. “I think it could be regarded as flirting, Angel.”

Buffy looked at Willow. “It’s always the same with guys when they move to LA. West Hollywood all the way.”

“Yes, whereas changing your orientation in Sunnydale – that takes a little more class,” Willow nodded.

“He does flirt with Lorne, now you mention it.” Cordelia looked at Angel narrowly. “You start getting groiny with Wesley, I want a pay rise, because that would just be – disturbing.”

“Yeah, me too,” Gunn nodded.

Wesley looked up. “I would have thought the only person who deserved a pay rise under those circumstances would be me. What would you two be doing for the money?”

“No one is getting ‘groiny’…” Angel looked across at Buffy. “What do they mean you’re attracted to Gunn?”

Giles picked up his coat. “Well, good night all. Don’t let the bed bugs or any kind of slavering killer demon bite.”

Buffy darted a quick embarrassed look at Gunn. “They’re just – kidding around.”

“No, I was perfectly serious, I assure you,” Giles observed.

Buffy sprang to her feet and propelled him rapidly towards the door. “Good night, Giles.”

 

While Buffy and Gunn continued to consume the lion’s share of the food and to drink several bottles of beer that no one would own up to buying, Angel quietly got Wesley some painkillers while Cordelia made him a cup of tea. “It’s a comfort thing for him,” she explained to Willow.

“I know.” The witch nodded. “We have to make tea for Giles too. I think maybe their nannies used to give them tea cosies as comforters in their cribs. Or maybe just old tea bags to chew on when they were teething.” Cordelia didn’t fail to notice the way that, after about ten minutes of socializing with the rest of them, Willow slipped away to where Tara was waiting for her. They were kissing before they even started scurrying up the stairs. She guessed that having had her stuck in their bed for a week they were probably feeling a little in need of…well, having a bed to themselves for reasons other than sleeping, right now. She wondered how that worked. What exactly one did and who would…?

Cordelia gave her head a quick shake. “I need some sleep. Are there any studies on sleep deprivation making you gay?” She looked at Angel with his moussed hair and stylish coat and Wesley with his plaid and corduroy clothing. “Look who I'm talking to. Okay, guys, I'm out of here. Gunn, don’t do anything stupider than you have to. Buffy, thanks for the rescue and all but your taste in men – not getting any better. Wes, if you could go one day without someone beating you up, I think we’d all appreciate it. Angel, I have nothing to say to you except for a very coherent and well reasoned argument about how you making us into kids should mean we get more comp time but as Wesley is in charge of the agency now I guess I can’t use it. Night all.”

“Goodnight, Cordelia…” Wesley watched her go in confusion. “Do you think the visions could be affecting Cordelia’s sanity?”

“I think it would be hard to tell,” Angel admitted.

After drinking his tea and swallowing his painkillers, Wesley kept protesting that he was fine and perfectly able to walk upstairs to bed unaided until it came to standing up, whereupon every bruise in his back decided to lock hold of a muscle and twang all the way up his spine. “Ow…”

“Here you go.” Angel looped Wesley’s arm around his neck, put his arm around the man’s waist and supported him across the room. “We’re going to bed,” he told Gunn and Buffy, while still regarding them with suspicion.

“Okay.” Buffy took another piece of pizza.

“Where are you putting all that food?” Gunn demanded. “You got hollow legs or something?”

“I can eat you under the table any day,” she told him.

“Do you think you should be drinking all that beer?” Angel enquired.

Gunn and Buffy gave him a dismissive look and clinked their bottles together.

“He is such a killjoy,” Buffy observed.

“Always is,” Gunn agreed. “Just cause he can’t get laid he doesn’t think anyone else should have any fun either.”

“I'm standing right here,” Angel pointed out.

“Oh.” They both swivelled their heads round to look at him. “We thought you’d gone to bed,” Buffy explained. “With Wesley.” She giggled helplessly as Gunn also snorted in merriment. She made an effort to collect herself. “Sorry. It’s just...First a Slayer then a Watcher. You do realize the only next logical step would be Quentin Travers?”

“Wes and I are not...” Angel broke off. “Okay, fine. We are. That’s what we’re going to go and do right now. The next sound you hear will be our headboard banging.”

“It will?” Wesley looked at him in shock.

Angel hauled Wesley towards the stairs, muttering darkly under his breath about the kind of hangover he hoped they both had in the morning.

“It’s just that my back really hurts,” Wesley explained. “Not that I'm not flattered but...” As Angel looked at him, he grimaced. “Just – winding up Buffy and Gunn, right?”

“Yes. Because oddly enough, not being an evil soulless demon any more, I'm not actually in the habit of molesting my friends when they’re half-dead and doped up on painkillers.”

Wesley managed an apologetic smile. “Good to know for future reference. Or wait, do you mean that if I wasn’t half-dead and...”

“I mean your virtue is safe in my hands, Wes.” Angel grimaced. “Or rather not in my hands. Basically there will be no handling of any kind. Not the bad kind anyway. Or the good kind if you wanted to look at it that way – anyway – What was the question?”

Wesley gritted his teeth as they reached the top of the stairs. He hung onto the handrail. “Never mind.”

“So, you get that I won’t...?”

“No, I'm just in too much pain to care.” Wesley limped to the bedroom door and leant against it for a moment; wincing as he did so.

“We saved a lot of people today,” Angel reminded him.

Wesley groaned and rested his bruised forehead against the door. “I have a cousin – Roderick – nice fellow, didn’t become a Watcher, didn’t get coshed or tortured by his own Slayer, blown up, shot, or turned into a child. Instead he married a nice girl called Caroline whose father owns a good section of Sussex, and got down to the important business of breeding his two point four children. But I can comfort myself with the thought that I always got much better marks than him in school. Isn’t that special?”

“We like you,” Angel offered.

Wesley turned around carefully so he could rest his aching back against the door. “What?”

“Cordy and Gunn and me. We like you. Probably just as much as your cousin’s wife likes him. Just not in a breeding two point four children way. But, hey, you don’t have the in-laws problem.”

“True.” Wesley pressed a hand to his back. “Mostly because you ate your parents, Gunn’s were killed by vampires, and Cordelia’s father is in prison, of course.”

“But at least they’re not visiting every Sunday and forcing you to make small talk,” Angel held him up as he opened the bedroom door. “You’ve got to look on the bright side.”

He helped Wesley limp over to the bed where the Englishman collapsed, looking very woebegone. Angel found it odd to look at him now and still see in him the little boy he’d been only the day before. He gazed down at the pyjamas Lorne had bought for Child Wesley. They were still neatly folded on the bed from where Wesley had taken them off that morning. Wesley always folded his clothes. Angel had never realized that until now. He shook them out and hung the shirt on the back of any chair he could find, and folded everything else. Angel picked up the pyjamas now and looked at them.

“You’re not sorry?” Wesley asked tentatively. “That we’re adults again?”

“No, it’s just...” Angel put them down again. “It’s hard to believe how small you all were. Here, let me help you with that.” He pulled Wesley’s shoes and socks off for him and then helped him wriggle out of his corduroy pants; not without some embarrassed squirming from Wesley and some eye rolling from Angel. “Wes, I do know what a guy looks like under his clothes.”

“Yes, but my knowing that you know what I look like under my clothes doesn’t make it less embarrassing when you’re actually removing my clothes.” Wesley dug around in the bag Angel had packed for him and found a pair of sweatpants. “Can I have these?”

Angel shrugged. “Sure. Sleeping naked doesn’t bother me.”

Wesley blanched. “It’s going to bother me if we’re in the same bed.”

“Aren’t men who were brought up in dormitories supposed to be more laid back about seeing other guys naked?”

Wesley pulled on the sweat pants, hastily and not without some whimpering. “Just because I spent my formative years having to shower, dress, and sleep in the same room as a lot of other sweaty adolescent males doesn’t mean I enjoyed the experience.” He rummaged through the bag and found two other pairs of sweat pants. He gave Angel a narrow eyed look. “You knew they were there.”

Angel grinned at him and caught the pair Wesley threw him before picking up another pair, walking to the door and tossing them down the stairs for Gunn, calling to him as he did so. The grunt of reply from down below sounded as if Gunn had heard although whether or not he’d understood was debateable.

“He and Buffy wouldn’t really…” Wesley tried to wriggle out of his shirt. “They just wouldn’t, Angel. Don’t worry about it. Oh god… Just knock me out now, will you?”

Angel grimaced in sympathy. “Let me help.” He unbuttoned the shirt he had so carefully buttoned back up in the kitchen at Wesley’s insistence and then eased it off carefully. Angel’s strapping was supporting Wesley’s ribcage pretty well but there were still bruises clearly visible on his shoulders, back, and abdomen.

Wesley crawled across the bed, still making whimpering noises under his breath.

“The painkillers are going to kick in any minute,” Angel assured him. He picked up the child-sized robe Wesley had been wearing the night before and sighed.

“You do mind, don’t you?” Wesley said sadly.

“It’s not that.” Angel pulled off his own clothes with a complete lack of unselfconsciousness he only became aware of when Wesley gave him an aghast look. “Sorry.” He hastily pulled on the sweat pants and sat down on the bed next to Wesley. “It’s just...”

“What...?” Wesley looked at him sympathetically. He had tried very hard to be tougher with Angel since the vampire had come back to join them. He had taken his cue from Cordelia wherever possible, whose feelings had been the most hurt by Angel’s abandonment of them. But left to his own devices, he found it difficult not to slip back into their old relationship and that included a constant awareness on his part of how difficult a hand Angel had been dealt by fate and how well he usually shouldered the burden of it. Part of that burden, of course, being the fact that a man with as strong a parental instinct as Angel was never going to get to be a father.

Angel picked up the book that lay next to the bed. “We never got to finish this.”

Wesley glanced across at the closed bedroom door. “I know.”

Angel also darted a look that way. “This wasn’t written when I was a kid. And we only had a couple of chapters left. Do the Dearlys realize Pongo and the others are Dalmatians under the soot or not?”

“It’s been a while since I read it myself,” Wesley admitted. “I'm sure it ends happily, of course, but I wouldn’t mind just being sure.”

“So, would it matter if…?” Angel held up the book. “I mean I could just read it myself but I was enjoying…”

“Pretend I'm still eight.” Wesley tugged the pillow into position. “Everything hurts and I would want my Mummy right now if that wouldn’t involve having to be in England and seeing my father and having a truly horrible time, so being read to would be a perfect way to achieve infantile regression without the need for a plane ticket or magical amulets of any kind.” He grimaced and tried to press his spine back into alignment.

“Okay.” Angel smiled and climbed under the covers next to Wesley. The man, of course, immediately became all British and elbows jammed into his sides about the fact there was another male in the bed with him. Angel rolled his eyes and mentally counted to ten before saying patiently, “Wes, it’s a big bed. We’re not touching at any point.”

Wesley darted him an embarrassed look. “You do know that Cordy and Gunn are going to tease us about this for months?”

Angel shrugged. “Let them.”

“It’s just that... What with the Anne Rice novels and the general decadent ambience that hovers around the cult of vampirism, people might...”

Angel shrugged again. “Adds mystery.”

“I don’t want to be mysterious,” Wesley protested. “I want not to be called a pansy assed British guy every time Gunn and Cordelia have too much to drink.”

“Wesley,” Angel said firmly. “Stop being such an uptight British guy and the pansy assed thing will take care of itself. And, anyway, now you’re in charge of Angel Investigations I'm the one who would look bad for sleeping with the boss. Now, do you want to know if the Dalmatians get let back into the house or not?”

Wesley went to protest and then evidently remembered the cliffhanger at which they had been forced to leave the book at the end of the last chapter. Sighing, he conceded: “I want to know if they get back into the house. And if any of the puppies are Perdita’s. And I still only make it a hundred with the ninety seven pups and Pongo, Missus, and Perdita.”

Angel turned to the place where they had left the story. He arranged the pillows for Wesley so the man was in a position that didn’t make him constantly whimper with pain – as much for his sake as Wesley’s as he was going to be listening to him doing all that night otherwise – and shoved a pillow behind his own shoulders so he could sit up comfortably. “Chapter Seventeen: ‘Who Are these Strange Black Dogs?’.”

“Is there a picture?” Wesley asked.

“Couple of pages on, you have to wait for it.” Angel slapped Wesley’s hand as he tried to pull the book around to look at it. “I’ll show it to you when we get there. Sit still and listen.”

“Just remember to show me the illustrations when you get to them.”

Angel rolled his eyes. “Stop whining and listen. Okay, Chapter Seventeen it is. ‘The Dearlys, the Nannies, and Perdita had spent a sad Christmas Eve. They had all been very kind to each other. Perdita had washed the humans so much that they all had chapped hands and had to use gallons of hand lotion. Fortunately, Perdita quite liked the taste of this.… ’”

 

There was heat. Charles Gunn could not deny that there was considerable heat between this Slayer chick and himself, even though she was Angel’s reward and all that; even though every time she and Angel looked at one another it was like wailing violins started playing and a breeze blew in a bunch of roses still attached to their thorns. But, even though Gunn and her didn’t have the violins or the rose petals, they had heat. It was that post-battle, you look damned good to me right now, kind of heat, but that didn’t make it something that didn’t have the power to burn both of them if they let it.

Them both having got drunk as skunks wasn’t really helping the situation either. They stumbled out into the hall together, ostensibly to listen to see if everything was okay upstairs, but their inebriated condition meant that it was necessary to hold onto one another to stay upright. Touching, after the fighting, and the looking, was a little like adding a lighted match to gasoline. Thinking of that made Gunn wince, because that was what Angel had done, not so long ago, to people who had got him pissed. He caught Buffy by the elbow when she stumbled and she gave a little inhalation of breath, evidently feeling the heat of his fingers through the thin silk of her blouse, and he couldn’t help seeing the way her nipples were erect through that thin silk, and how if he just bent his head and...

“Gunn! These are for you!”

A pair of dark blue sweat pants thudded dully onto the stairs and then slithered down into the hall. Gunn and Buffy sprang apart. Gunn managed some kind of response, not actually using human words, but a sound denoting acceptance or agreement or pants acknowledgement of some kind. He and Buffy looked at one another and she said breathlessly: “I just broke up with someone. He left me.”

“That sucks.” He gave her a sympathetic grimace. “No one in his right mind would leave you.”

“Angel left me.” She looked young when she said that. Not so much Slayer as lost little girl. It made him want to put his arms around her, but if he did that then her breasts would be touching his body and other parts of him would be touching her body and there would be general body contact and that was going to lead to lip contact if they weren’t very careful indeed.

“Proves it,” he returned. “Angel’s never been in his right mind.”

She looked up the stairs. “You don’t really think he and Wesley would...? They don’t usually, do they...?”

Gunn wondered how big a blow your self-confidence had to have taken when you looked like Buffy and were threatened by, of all people, Wesley. “Well, if they do, they’ve been keeping it damned quiet.”

She listened intently. “Not that quiet. The bed is sort of creaking.”

“No, I mean in LA. I mean...” He also listened. “It’s the wrong kind of creaking. That’s just getting comfortable creaking. Not...the other kind. That would be rhythmic.” He found he and Buffy were gazing into each other’s eyes again, she looking up at him and the breath from their mouths making a heat against the other’s lips. So he must be bending down to be this close to her. Must have his head bent the way you did when you were going to...

She started, looking up the stairs. “That could have been a rhythmic creak.”

Gunn closed his eyes and thought about rhythmic creaking in relation to Buffy. In that storage closet. Or on the couch. No. No. No. Angel’s chick. Angel’s chick. Angel’s chick. Angel being a potentially psychotic vampire lest anyone forgot, who might rip his head off and then say ‘Oops! My bad!’ afterwards. Damn, if Wes took the son of a bitch back into the fold after he’d done that Gunn’s ghost would not be happy with him. He needed to think about something ughy and fast so he stopped thinking about – erect nipples visible through thin silk blouse, erect for him, and that smell of half-dissolved perfume and still warm oddly fragrant sweat of woman after exertion, which meant their skin tasted slightly salt when you licked it...

Wes and Angel. Wes and Angel. Wes and Angel. Doing rhythmic squelchy ughy stuff upstairs. If that wasn’t a passion killer, he didn’t know what was. Except damn – Angel had better not be. That would just be taking advantage of Wes’s skinny white inability to stand up to the guy; not to mention him probably being all confused and easy pickings from his boarding school education. And being British. That put him at a disadvantage in the straight stakes right from the off. And who could tell what a vampire was going to do next? One minute they were helping the helpless, the next minute they were locking lawyers into wine cellars with crazed vampire bitches from hell. And didn’t they have those mindwhammy abilities to make people invite them in when they didn’t even want to and maybe to get virgins to offer them their necks and stuff? Not that Wes was a virgin because of Virginia. And perhaps even people before Virginia. Please God let there have been women before Virginia because otherwise that was just too sad for words. But then there was that whole Vampire Lestat thing to worry about. Maybe Anne Rice had done her homework.

There was another bed creak from upstairs. Could just be a guy with a bad back trying to get comfortable. Could be Angel putting the moves on a doped up Wes. He and Buffy exchanged another glance.

“That undead son of a bitch had better not be...” Gunn exclaimed.

“Oh, come on,” Buffy hissed at him as they made their way a little unsteadily and very unstealthily up the stairs. “It would be Wesley giving Angel the big blue poor ickle me eyes if it did happen. Angel was always a sucker for a damsel in distress.”

“Wes is not a...”

“I know,” Buffy conceded with a sigh. “He’s very brave and manly and all the rest of it. But I don’t see why he had to get all…pretty as soon as he was in LA. Couldn’t he have become all rogue demon hunter guy while still looking like a dork?”

“Look, there is no way...” They were upstairs now and both shushed each other with exaggerated finger to lip gestures. Gunn couldn’t help noticing how plump and kissable Buffy’s lips looked when she smushed them up with her finger like that. He had to give himself a mental shake before getting back to the urgent issue of whether or not Wesley’s virtue was in danger. They tip toed along the hallway to the right bedroom and Gunn pressed his ear to the door, listened intently and then looked at Buffy in confusion.

“Are they asleep?” she whispered.

“Angel’s reading a kid’s book to Wes.” Gunn raised an eyebrow. “Man, those two are weird.”

“They’re not having sex then?” Buffy pressed.

Gunn looked at her as if he had never entertained the idea for a minute because how dumb would that make him? “You seriously jealous of Wesley because I got to tell you for a girl who looks like you that is so out there as to be – ” He gestured vaguely in the direction of the sky. “I can’t even see it any more it’s so out there. NASA couldn’t even track it with their great big telescopes in space it’s so not even slightly here any more.”

“No. Don’t be silly. Of course not.” Buffy listened at the door. “But do you really think Wesley’s straight? Because when he was in Sunnydale no one thought he was. I know I didn’t. And we never really did find out why it all went wrong for him and Cordelia because they were going great guns at the Prom and then suddenly it’s all ‘bye’ and ‘write to me from England’ so I wondered if maybe he’d realized he was… Was that a rhythmic creak? I thought that sounded rhythmic.”

“Remember what brought us down here in the first place? Wes is a kid substitute, remember? Not a…Slayer substitute. Anyway, didn’t you see the state of Wes’s ribcage? No way is that boy having sex for a month. Vampire mindwhammy or no vampire mindwhammy.” That actually made sense. If he’d though of that downstairs, they’d still be…downstairs. Together. Standing very close. Instead of here, outside Angel and Wesley’s bedroom, standing very close. Gunn listened again. “Oh, turns out Cruella DeVille’s furs got shredded. Serves her right if you ask me. That broad was a B-I-T-C-H.”

“Why are you spelling it?” Buffy hissed.

“I don’t want Dawnie to hear.”

“So, you and me trying to work out if Angel and Wesley are doing…squelchy stuff is okay for her to hear but that isn’t?”

Gunn pressed his ear to the door again. “Oh, the cat’s going to stay with the Dearlys too. That’s nice.”

“I love that movie.” Buffy sighed. “I should have watched it while you were all little kids and pretended I was just babysitting.”

Gunn got a sudden embarrassing flashback of being four years old and being tickled by Buffy. Going by the expression on her face she seemed to be getting the same mental image. Him sucking his thumb. Her sticking a finger through the gap in his pyjama jacket to tickle his tummy while making cooing noises at him and telling him he was the cutesie wutsiest ickle boy in the whole wide world. They exchanged a horrified glance and then both took a step away from one another.

“Well, goodnight then,” Buffy said breathlessly.

Gunn nodded. “You too.”

“I hope you find the couch comfortable.”

“I'm sure it will be fine. Night.”

“Night.”

She backed into her room, fumbling for the doorhandle as she did so, while he made his way downstairs, despondently picked up the sweat pants and trudged into the sitting room. Upstairs there was another slight creak from the room Angel and Wesley were sharing. Gunn kind of wished he was sharing with them too now. Certainly, the possibilities for sex would have been non-existent unless someone first sucked out his brains through a straw and brainwashed the big empty cavity that was left for a month. But that way at least he would have gotten a bedtime story.

***

Willow gingerly closed the door into the living room and backed away, a look of disappointment on her face.

"Do you think Xander is only friends with us because…"

"He doesn't have any male friends?" Buffy pushed the door back open and looked into the room again.

Willow grimaced. “I think he’s missing Riley.”

Buffy thought about pointing out that Xander wasn’t the only one but swallowed it instead. It still hurt too much to think about Riley. She knew she had taken him for granted. She knew from his point of view he had probably been right to leave, but from her point of view it had been painfully wrong and she still kept turning around in search of his solidity and comfort, only to remember that he was gone. Angel being here wasn’t helping. He was also much too comforting, and yet as unreachable in his way as Riley. There were times when it was difficult to see how much more her life could be Of The Suck.

“And Oz…” Willow added with a sigh. “I know he’s missing him too.”

Buffy gave her a look of reproach. “Well, I refuse to feel guilty about breaking up with Riley and you shouldn’t feel guilty about dating Tara. Xander should find his own friends without relying on us to date guys just to give him people to watch guy movies with.”

Xander, Gunn and Wesley were all sitting on her couch, drinking beer and watching The Terminator. The realization that this was their last day in Sunnydale seemed to have caused the younger males in the family to all undergo a second regression. They had got up extra early so they could watch Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back and The Return of the Jedi and showed every intention of going straight from this one to Terminator 2 with barely a pause to replenish their beer and chips. The Alien movies were apparently on the agenda for later. Angel and Giles's disinclination to join them had been greeted with surprise and scorn. No women had been invited.

Cordelia glared in the direction of the living room. "I swear if Xander is leading those two astray…"

"It's only people being killed by robots," Willow said quickly. "Not…porn or anything."

"You'd think, growing up on a Hellmouth, Xander would have enough of robots and killing," Cordelia observed witheringly.

They couldn't drive back to LA until the sun had set, of course, unless Angel was willing to travel under a blanket – which he very emphatically wasn't. As soon as he had confirmed that they wouldn't be leaving until sunset, Xander had produced his stack of videos, commandeered the couch, Wesley, and Gunn, and they had proceeded to go all y-chromosomey together.

Buffy had also noticed that Xander had seemed rather worryingly happy to have some male friends to talk to and with whom he could make inappropriate comments about Princess Leia's costume without getting withering looks.

"It's more likely to be your two leading Xander astray," Buffy countered. "They can hang out with each other on an everyday basis – Xander usually gets female company and nothing else. Now he's going to be all discontented."

"Do you think he won't want to watch Bollywood musicals with us any more?" Willow asked anxiously.

Buffy looked at her friend's concerned face. "I don't think he's going to hang out on street corners asking guys to come home with him just so he has someone to watch The Guns of Navarone with."

"I can watch that with him," Willow said at once. "If he wants me to, that is."

Cordelia made a dismissive 'pfft' noise. "That's a slippery slope, Willow. You start letting them think they can choose the night's movie and before you know it you're on your sixth consecutive viewing of something slimy and awful and, hey, I get that in my head whether I want it or not."

"I just don't want Xander getting used to this." Buffy peered back into the room.

"Well, I don't want Gunn and Wesley doing any more of that male bonding crap because we get way too much of that in LA."

Willow and Buffy both looked at the two men speculatively before exchanging a glance. "How bondy exactly do they get?" Buffy enquired.

"Pre-tty damned bondy."

"Naked bondy?" Willow pressed.

Cordelia shrugged. "Who knows? They could be playing strip Risk every night for all I know."

"I don't want Xander playing strip Risk," said Willow in shock. "It's bad enough hearing what he and Anya do every night."

Wesley said clearly: "Would you mind discussing us somewhere else? We're trying to watch a film and your character assassination of us is somewhat interfering with our concentration."

Xander looked between them. "'Strip Risk'?"

Gunn shrugged and pulled the top off another beer. "Only when we're really bored."

Cordelia glowered at them as she, Willow, and Buffy moved away from the door. She knew Gunn was lying and she knew Wesley was as uptight as they came over matters of naked sweaty maleness; they were just trying to freak her out for fun. Well, they would pay for that by getting some gay porn in their Christmas stockings if they didn’t watch out. She shut the door but her expression was ominous. "Just wait until I get them home."

 

Packing was a strange process. Cordelia felt an almost physical pain at the thought of leaving behind those pairs of new shoes that would never again fit her. Not just because they were pretty – although they were – but because they had come to represent something to her she was loath to give up. She wasn’t exactly sure what, she just knew she didn’t want to leave it behind. Innocence? Childhood? Forgiveness? Perhaps it was just to do with having the freedom to be irresponsible again. She much preferred the person she was now, certainly. She had never known how empty she felt in the past until she stopped feeling that way. The visions gave her purpose and direction and a sense of belonging to something greater and more magnificent than any one person. This wasn’t just about helping one guy – even one very special guy – find his redemption; this was about helping people who needed it. This wasn’t just about Angel. This was about the people who Angel had been brought back from hell to help. It was important to her to make that distinction, to herself and to others, because otherwise she was just one of those sappy true believers following a cult leader. Maybe it was just as well that Angel had gone all…brooding menace on them over Darla; separated himself from the mission so that they realized for themselves that it was the mission they were following, not just Angel. And boy was it so much better now he was back. Better than it had ever been, in fact, as now Wesley was in charge there was some kind of buffer zone between them and Angel’s stupidest irrational impulses, but they still had the benefit of all that vampire strength and determination. As long as Wes didn’t go crazy on them and start leading them up a blind alley they were pretty much set up to be the best possible help the helpless were going to get...

But… Okay, it had been nice to take some time off from carrying the woes of the world on her shoulders. To be spoilt and not feel this time around that it was hurting anyone else; that maybe she had earned this week of being fussed over in a way she never had earned all that fussing she’d had in the past. Because when you came right down to it – not their fault they’d been turned into kids, were too little to do chores, or slay demons, or save the helpless. Angel’s wish; their consequences. And it had touched her, she had to admit, to meet with so much kindness from people she had thought of as not really liking her. It felt different to be at the center of a family of people who loved you; loved you unconditionally too; who you could have fights with and say really mean things to but they’d still be there for you if you were in danger or physical or emotional pain, because that was what family was. Except hers never had been, and she’d only really glimpsed that with Xander. She’d let herself think he was someone who was really there for her, really worth investing in, and then he’d hurt her so badly. Boy, she didn’t want to think about that even now, how much that had hurt. She’d left Sunnydale feeling as if she’d made no friends, made no impression, not friends that counted, not the kind of impression that was going to lead to lasting love or affection or a wonderful career. She’d felt as if she didn’t even matter, and what kind of a person must she be to grow up in a place for eighteen years and not leave a dent behind when she left it?

So it had really meant something to find friendship in LA with Angel, and Doyle, and now Wesley and Gunn. And it had meant something else to come back here and find people greeting her kindly and wanting to take care of her. That was what these shoes were, she supposed, proof that she hadn’t been all bad, after all, maybe, and maybe she knew that anyway these days and didn’t need them. And maybe it would make a lot more sense to put them back in their boxes with their till receipts and go back there and get a refund for Tara and Willow, who probably couldn’t afford them in the first place and had spent way more than they should buying her things these past few days….

With new determination, Cordelia packed the shoes into their tissue paper and boxes, put each one back into the store carrier it had come in and gathered them up, four bags in each hand. There was no point in suggesting Willow did this, she’d always let store assistants walk all over her; this was definitely a job for the Queen Bitch of Sunnydale High.

 

Willow knew she ought to return the dresses. Apart from the one Gunn had got chocolate on, they looked hardly worn. Of course the one he’d gotten chocolate on was her personal favourite, the green and blue diamond ragged edge flower fairy one. And she was so relieved that Cordy, Wesley, and not-at-all-little Gunn were all lifesize and adult again but she also really missed that little girl she and Tara had been able to take care of for a week. It had just felt right to have little Cordy with them, the world all fresh and new again because they were showing it to a child; even if it was a child who was the same age they were somewhere inside.

“Dresses – now.”

Cordelia was standing in the doorway, hands full of carrier bag handles, looking all tall and imperious and more than a little scary.

“Those need to go back to the stores.”

Tara gave a little cry and picked up the flower fairy dress. “This one has chocolate on it,” she said breathlessly. “We can’t return this one.”

“No, not that one,” Willow said quickly.

Cordelia gazed at the dress and her expression was unexpectedly wistful. Aloud all she said was, “Gunn was such a brat. I need to hurt him for that when we get home.”

“Are you going to be extra nice to Wesley because he was so extra nice to both of you when he was a kid?” Willow countered.

Cordelia looked at her as if she were challenged. “Are you nuts?”

“Well, then it isn’t really fair to blame Gunn, is it? If you’re being just and consistent?”

“But I'm not intending to be just and consistent, Willow. I'm intending to make Gunn pay and pay for being a brat and still be as mean to Wesley as I usually am. It’s what they expect. If I started being nice to them – trust me – it would only confuse them. For instance – last time I made Wesley a sandwich, it really just scared him.”

Tara folded a non-chocolate-stained dress carefully back into its tissue paper. “But if you beat them, starve them, and harangue them…?”

“It’s their comfort zone.” Cordelia gave them a beaming smile.

“Cordy, anyone but you and I’d know you were joking,” Willow admitted.

“Hey, there is no beating and starving. Maybe some haranguing. I actually keep them from starving by having the laceratingly painful visions that – very occasionally – lead to paying customers. I am also the only one who understands the finances and makes sure their wages get paid. Wesley has an apartment because of me, instead of sleeping in a bus shelter or whatever the hell he was doing when he first turned up in LA. I am good for those guys. They just don’t always appreciate it.”

“Odd, given that you remind us so often.” Wesley grinned at her from the doorway.

Cordelia glanced up at him and then nodded to Willow. “You see, if I wasn’t here to tell him, Wes wouldn’t even know those clothes make him look like a big old dork.”

“Blame Angel, he brought them for me.”

“They’re the clothes you were wearing when you got bratified.”

“Oh, so that means the ones your wearing must be your choice too? That would explain the push up bra, dress that could double as a belt, and totally unsuitable shoes.”

“You know what these shoes are suitable for, skinned weasel boy?”

Wesley backed out of stomping range so quickly that Willow feared Cordelia might have used her stilettos as a dangerous weapon in the past.

“Tell Willow and Tara how good I am for you or I’ll hurt you.”

Wesley said quickly, “Yes, indeed, Cordelia is very good for us. Couldn’t be better. And she manages the finances and the filing with the focused accuracy of…”

“A sawn off shotgun wielded by a drunken blind man in a snit?” Gunn suggested.

Cordelia smiled sweetly. “Shall we recap on who decides whether or not you two get paid and therefore whether or not you eat?”

Wesley nudged Gunn who hastily amended: “Just joking. Cordelia is the business when it comes to finances and when it comes to filing…”

He looked at Wesley who said quickly, “She’s proven time and again that alphabetisation is an outmoded system which really has very little to offer. Apart from being able to find things in a hurry and – who really needs that?”

“You didn’t mention how decorative I am or the womanly touch I bring to the office.” Cordelia collected up yet more carrier bags. “But I’ll let you off just this once.

"Don't you want to watch a video with us?" Wesley enquired.

Cordelia regarded him narrowly. "We both know you're only asking me now because you two have just remembered that there's going to be no Xander for you to play with once we're back in LA and I have the nicest couch for TV viewing – not to mention the best TV set."

Gunn looked sheepishly at Buffy. "Cordy has surround sound."

"So if you don't ask me and I get tetchy about it you may not be able to bring your three DVDs over to my place and watch them there. Right? So, this is basically just a cynical attempt to keep in my good books and has nothing to do with really wanting my company?"

Wesley and Gunn exchanged a glance. "Pretty much."

Gunn added, "But only because girls want to watch chick flicks – not because we don't like your company. If girls had better taste in movies we'd rather watch with them because… they take up less room on the couch."

Cordelia turned to Buffy. "Isn't it just a miracle and a half that no woman has snapped these two up?"

Gunn looked down at the flower fairy dress. “Did you know there are chocolate stains on that one?”

Wesley looked at Cordelia’s face and then grabbed Gunn by the arm, quoting breathlessly: “Come with me if you want to live.”

Cordelia waited until they had escaped before turning to Willow and Tara. “Do you want a lesson in how to get a refund from even the snottiest store assistants?”

Tara nodded. “That could be…interesting.”

“And educational,” said Willow brightly.

Cordy gave them a beaming smile in return. “Prepare to be educated…”

***

"So...LA...?" It wasn't really a question. Buffy doubted she could have said what she meant by it. It was just a way to fill the silence. They had done okay for most of the day. Tara and Willow had been around, tactfully ensuring they weren't stuck together gazing into each other's eyes in a star crossed lovers fashion for most of the morning.

There had been the background hum of the television running, not to mention the occasional interjections from the people watching it; a permanent reminder that they weren't really alone, that anything meaningful they tried to say could be overheard or interrupted. Then Willow, Tara and Cordelia had gone out and it had all become perilously quiet for a while. The Alien or Aliens didn't seem to be eating anyone noisily on the TV and Xander, Gunn, and Wesley weren't discussing how cool Ripley was or how much they wanted their very own flame thrower for at least a few moments.

That was when it got difficult. That was when it was impossible not to start thinking about all the might have beens. The maybe could be somedays. But that would be the worst thing of all. To start kidding themselves with hope.

"Yes?" Angel looked at her across the kitchen table. The room darkened by closed blinds, of course, because the everyday health-giving life-giving depression-averting goodness that was sunlight would turn him to burning dust in a heartbeat. Except he didn't have one, of course, a heart, to beat or not to beat...

"What's it like?"

He shrugged. "You know, big, crowded, full of demons."

"Lucky you're such a people person, I guess."

They exchanged a mutual smirk over that. He leant back in his chair, looking absurdly stylish with his hair and his coat and that black shirt, and the body underneath it… and how did he manage to look like that without ever being able to look in a mirror anyway? It was one of the eternal mysteries.

"I'm working on it," he insisted. "Empathising. Communicating. Working on my listening skills."

"And how is that going so far?"

"It's…a work in progress. How about you?"

"Well, I haven't been kicked out of college yet."

"And…other stuff…?"

Buffy automatically reached for the cookies. "Oh yeah, I can see those communication skills are getting honed now."

"Giles filled me in on the whole Glory situation. Wish you'd let me stay and help."

"I don't think that's a good idea."

"But I…"

She looked across at him, because it was true, no one knew her like Angel knew her, it was starting to look depressingly like no one ever would. "Angel, do you know what I've been doing since you went to LA?"

He averted his eyes, hurt and anger in them which he didn't want her to see; as if she wouldn't have known exactly how he was feeling from the set of his shoulders, the flicker of his jaw. She knew him like she knew herself. They weren't just a romantic disaster area because of a gypsy curse and the whole Vampire-Slayer thing, they were practically masturbatory, they were so much the two parts of a divided whole.

"Moving on?" he said bitterly.

"I wish." She touched his arm so he had to turn around and look at her, see how frustrated she was by what they had done to one another. "You know the first thing I did to get over you? I slept with a guy who used me for a one night stand and then told his friends about how good I wasn't."

"What?" His eyes began to go yellow before he stopped himself. "Want me to kill him for you?"

"No. Well – at the time, maybe – but, no. The point is I was trying so hard to make everything not be about you that all I did was make it about you. Every guy I was involved with was the NotAngel. Hey, he has a pulse, he breathes, his heart beats, I can have sex with him without him turning into an evil soulless killer who stalks all my friends. Everything was about you. Sometimes I'm scared it always will be."

"But you had that new guy in your life…? Riley…?"

"Oh yes, that would be the one I drove crazy when he realized I didn't really love him and who ended up hanging around with vampire whores letting them drink from him?"

Angel winced. "I'm sorry." He must have sensed her cynicism because he reached across and took her hand. "I really am. I left because I wanted you to have a normal life. I didn't want you…waiting for me. There's nothing to wait for." He said that as if he were trying to convince himself. "I'm never going to be… I'm always going to be what I am." He lowered his voice then, darting a glance over her shoulder as he said it, evidently not wanting to be heard by the people in the living room. "And even if there was some…light at the end of the tunnel, it could be decades away. You already have enough obstacles between you and a normal life. I don't want to be another one. That's why I left."

"I know."

"It wasn't because I wanted to leave you. It wasn't because I didn't want to see you every day. Touch you. Taste you. See you smile." He swallowed, even though he didn't need to breathe.

She shrugged. "Well, if it's any consolation, I mostly look like crap these days – what with the constant Glory problem there's not much time for personal grooming, so the smelling thing wouldn't be too special anyway. And smiles – pretty much in short supply around here."

He also shrugged although she rather suspected he might have done it with more style. Of course, he was wearing Armani. That had to up the style factor. "Whereas in LA, of course, we're just fun fuelled party animals from dusk to dawn."

"That's what I figured. Hobnobbing with the glitterati. Rubbing shoulders with celebrities. All tinsel town shallow happy funtime."

"Absolutely. Except for the odd occasions when Wolfram & Hart are trying to drive me insane by bringing back old flames from hell or trying to kill Wes and Cordy. Oh and the times when we get the crap kicked out of us by the evil undead or one of us gets hurt. Apart from that it's partying all the way."

"I bet that's something they don't put in the Super Heroes Handbook. Right after the 'be sure to wear a stupid costume that will make you stick out like a sore thumb' there should be at least a paragraph on the lines of 'Oh and by the way, your life will utterly suck and however much evil you dust you never ever ever get time off for good behavior'."

"You should get time off." His hands were cool against hers, just the way she remembered them. That ought to make every other guy feel warm and comforting, but it didn't; she just missed that cool smoothness of his skin; that was what felt normal to her. It had felt subtly wrong sometimes when she laid her head on Riley's chest and there was that strange thumping noise it had taken her a moment to realize was the beat of his heart. "You haven't done anything wrong." He was still looking at her hand and she looked at it too. It looked small next to his. Odd to think that hers was actually stronger. This was the hand that had held the sword whose blade had…

She pulled her hand away. "Loving you wasn't a good idea. We both know that. I just can't seem to stop myself. I don't think I ever will. You’re like one of those stupid catchy jingles I can't get out of my head and however much other music I play you're always still there – jingling."

"I think of myself more as the grand operatic theme." He frowned. "Verdian maybe. Possible Wagnerian."

He was, of course, damn him for knowing it too. "I don't like opera."

"That's because you're a cultural philistine," he explained helpfully.

"I like figure skating."

"It's not exactly Les Sylphides, is it?"

"It might be. I don't know what that is." She pointed a finger. "You see, cultural chasm between us. And then there's the age gap."

"The me being dead, you being alive thing."

"Slayer – vampire. Never a good mix. I should really only sleep with vampires I don't mind staking. Disposal vampires. Just in case I get testy or go into auto-slay mode."

"Or human beings," Angel suggested gently. "That being the whole point of my incredibly selfless and heroic sacrifice, remember? That you got to have a normal life with a normal human guy?"

"They feel too hot." She dropped her voice and her gaze. "Like they have a fever. And the beat of their heart sounds so loud in the darkness. I miss the quiet, the way your chest didn't move, the way you didn't tick away in the silence like a broken alarm clock, the way your skin was always cool even when everything else was too hot to bear."

"It's better this way." Angel bent his head to meet her gaze. "Your mother wanted it this way. Your mother was usually right about most things."

"It's difficult to live without hope."

"You do have hope."

"What hope do I have?" she demanded. "That you'll wake up one day and be human and every other vampire on earth will have withered to dust in the night?"

"You found a life for yourself that wasn't to do with me. I've found one that isn't to do with you. We can survive without one another." Angel sighed. "It's the way it has to be, Buffy."

"I know it. I just don't have to like it." She sighed and then decided to shake off this depression, because what was the point in having this conversation again, ever? "So, your life in LA. Is it okay?"

He nodded. "It really is."

"Your friends seem nice. Even Cordelia which is kind of…freaky. And Wesley seems to have been de-dorkified as well. I didn't even know there was a cure for that."

"He can still be dorky. Cordy can still be…Cordyesque. But, they're…family. Of course, with my track record, that may not be such a good thing."

She shook her head. "You love them. You wouldn't hurt them."

"I loved my sister but I still ate her. I love – loved you but I still…"

"This is different. Now you know what the dangers are. You'll keep them safe. I know you will."

"If I ever turn and they have time to call you..."

She smiled then and reached across to push his hair up, so it was even more him than it had been a moment before. "They wouldn't call me, Angel. I might have what it takes to kill you and they'd never want that."

"No, they would, they know the dangers, they know..."

"They'd call Willow." Buffy closed her eyes and tried not to inhale, not that he had any scent really, or any warmth to be warmed by, but even the creak of his leather was familiar, comforting. "They may not have what it takes to stake you but I think they've got what it takes to get you back again. Given all the stupid things you've done to them this year and the fact they're still planning to ride back in your posermobile tonight, I'd say you pretty much have them where you want them. You have a horrible gift for that."

"For what?" He frowned at her in confusion and she thought how annoying it was to still love him so much with that first bright painful first pang of first love. It should feel like chewed up old old old love by now yet it still had power enough to just make her love him even more when he looked like a complete dope.

"Making people love you."

He gazed at her with those puppy dog brown eyes that still had way too much power to turn her to mush. "I don't mean to."

"I know. You just do it anyway. There should be a warning on your forehead."

He turned into vamp face; shocking when it was so sudden, out of nowhere, ridged brow, yellow eyes, pointy fangs. "Like this."

She shook her head. "It’s not enough."

“It should be.” He sighed and changed back. "They don't love me. They're mean to me. They make me have the office in the elevator and get them coffee."

"Harsh." She nodded. "But you always knew atonement would be…"

"A bitch. Yes, I know."

"Did someone call my name?" Cordelia breezed into the kitchen, loaded up with as many shopping bags as when she'd left.

Buffy looked at her shopping in confusion. "They didn't cave?"

"Oh, they caved." Willow came in behind her with Tara in tow. "They said we could only have an exchange of goods, not a refund. So, Cordy picked us all out really cool shoes. Look!" She held them up. "Totally impractical for all occasions."

Tara also held up a pair. "Mine are even more frivolous."

"Willow and Tara had no dress shoes." Cordelia dumped her bags on the table and looked at Angel. "Can you believe that? I mean – none."

"Now we have dangerous strappy ones with teeny weeny very high heels – guaranteed to break your ankle if you lose concentration even for a second." Willow gazed at her pair with a kind of awe.

Buffy examined them closely. "Do you think the people who make these could be in league with the evil undead? The noise those heels make would send out a 'come eat me' message to every vampire within six blocks and no one could ever run in them."

Willow nodded cheerfully. "They should really come with a free stake."

"Maybe they do." Tara pretended to delve into the tissue paper of her shoe box.

"Hah." Cordelia grabbed the chair in between Angel and Buffy and sat in it. "You two get dressed up, put on those shoes, and tell me if you even make it out of the door before you're U-turning for the bedroom."

"I didn't need that visual," Buffy told her.

"I enjoyed it," Angel admitted.

Tara and Willow exchanged a glance and then looked back at their shoes with more interest.

Cordelia nodded. "Trust me, girls, you will definitely score in those shoes."

Willow looked sheepish. "Actually – where Tara's concerned, I'm pretty much a sure thing."

Tara looked at her sideways. "You hussy, you."

Cordelia nodded her head at the living room. "Did those three remember to eat today?"

"Xander on self-appointed mission to get Wesley's weight up from anorexic to something approaching normal, remember?" Buffy reminded her. "They sent out for pizza and chicken wings."

"Wes isn't that thin," Angel protested. "We'd have noticed."

"I did," Cordelia reminded him. "You're just used to it."

"I don't think he's thin," Angel insisted. "He's just…not fat."

"You're 'not fat'," Cordelia countered. "Gunn's 'not fat'. Wesley's skinny."

"It must have happened since you were running the agency without me." Angel shrugged. "He was fine when I was bringing in the paying clients."

"He was emaciated!" Cordelia retorted.

"But I used to cook him breakfast. You only tried to force-feed him inedible brownies at knife point."

Buffy gazed at Angel intently. "You used to cook Wesley breakfast? Why are all my alcohol-fuelled suspicions suddenly returning at full strength?"

"He cooked me breakfast too." Cordelia looked around the kitchen. "This talk of food is making me hungry. Where are the donuts?"

Buffy looked at Willow. "Anyone else getting squicky threesome images they would rather be without?"

Tara grimaced. "I don't really find the image of Angel and Wesley squicky…"

"It's kind of hot actually," Willow admitted.

"It so isn't!" Cordelia protested. "And as for threesomes, Buffy, that include me and those two – brain-bleach time!"

Willow said hopefully, "Did you ever cook Gunn breakfast too?"

"Oh." Buffy looked around at that. "Angel, Wesley and Gunn…? That could be… Willow, why are you looking like that? Are you taking the day off from being a lesbian or something?"

"I don't know why I find it hot but I just…do." The witch looked at Tara apologetically.

Tara shrugged. "I find it hot too."

"You're all sick," Angel told them.

"Why is no one giving me donuts?" Cordelia demanded.

"There are donuts?"

Buffy started guiltily as Xander came into the kitchen, closely followed by Gunn and Wesley. She and Gunn exchanged a slightly embarrassed smile.

"Why are you all looking like that?" Xander demanded. He caught sight of Willow and Tara exchanging a guilty glance and smirked. "Okay, you two were smooching, weren't you? And I missed it."

Angel smirked. "Actually they were discussing…"

Buffy picked up a kitchen knife and glared at him. "Why don't you find some donuts for Cordelia, right now, Angel."

He patted his jacket. "Do I look like I'm hiding them?"

"On the shelf behind you, dumbass," Cordelia told him impatiently. "Where's that super vampire smell sense when it's deep fried dough and sugar, eh? You're fast enough to get it out when you're trying to work out who Wes was in bed with the night before."

As everyone looked between Angel and Wesley with renewed interest, Angel rolled his eyes. "I was making a point."

"That point being…?" Buffy coaxed.

"That Wesley sleeps with bleached blondes," Cordelia supplied helpfully. "He has like this whole secret life as…well…the easiest guy on the planet, I guess."

Wesley looked mortified. "Cordelia…"

"The point I was making was that I knew I was right about Dietta Kramer being Darla because of her scent," Angel retorted with exaggerated patience. "It had nothing to do with Wesley's sleeping arrangements. That was just an example."

"He is kind of easy though," Cordelia observed through a mouthful of donut. "I mean how long had you known Virginia before you were putting out, Wesley? Three hours? Four? Is the word 'no' even in your vocabulary or are you just a big fat – well, big thin – slut?"

"And yet he turned you down on numerous occasions right in front of us," Xander observed. "Extraordinary."

"Hey!" Cordelia stabbed a finger at him. "There was no turning down."

"You did sort of ask him out to dinner and he did sort of…not go out to dinner with you at all," Buffy observed.

Gunn looked between his co-workers in disbelief. "Cordelia used to hit on Wesley and he used to turn her down? What kind of freaky Hellmouth town is this anyway?"

"He never 'turned me down'!" Cordelia retorted. "He was clearly tempted but trying to do the gentlemanly thing, isn't that right, Wesley? And remember who you'll be going home with tonight and it's a very long car ride."

"You did just call me a slut, Cordelia." As she began to take off her dangerously pointy-looking shoe, he said hastily, "Or rather, absolutely right. I was very tempted but was trying to do the gentlemanly thing on account of Cordelia being so many years younger than I am. Definitely no 'turning down' of any kind."

"Wuss," Gunn told him.

Wesley cradled his side reflexively. "I’ve already been shot by a zombie policeman this year, remember? Not looking to get a stiletto heel there as well."

Cordelia held out the bag. "Donut, Wesley?"

"Thank you." He took one.

"No one else gets one," she told them helpfully as they all looked at her expectantly. "Shopping always gives me a sugar craving."

Xander said, "Cordy, I don't want to get violent, but I want a donut and I'll mug Wesley for his if you don't hand one over."

She rolled her eyes and held out the container. "Like I was really going to eat them all. How many are you taking? Give me them back right now. Don't make me come over there, Xander Harris!"

"Did Cordelia regress again?" Giles enquired wearily, as he came in through with Dawn.

Xander looked behind him. "Anya isn't with you?"

"She's making her daily sacrifice to the gods of retail." As everyone looked at him in horror, Giles sighed again. "Balancing the books, checking the till receipts and so on."

Xander put a hand over his heart as if to check that it was still beating. "Don't joke about things like that."

"She did send greetings to Wesley though." Giles nodded to him. "Apparently she doesn’t like any of the rest of you. Well, except for Xander. Incidentally, Xander, if you could impress upon Anya that hell will have frozen over before I want to hear anything about your sex life, I would be eternally grateful."

Cordelia put her head on one side. "Isn't it kind of weird that the only people who have a sex life these days are all geeks, losers and dorks? Shouldn't the cool people – like me – be having a sex life?"

Gunn and Buffy exchanged a glance. "I can see how she's grown as a person," said Buffy dryly.

"I said that," Angel pointed out.

Cordelia showed no sign of shame. "You know I'm right. There's no justice. Angel is kind of cool in a brooding socially retarded kind of way but he can't get laid without going psycho. Every time I make a connection with a guy with a stock portfolio I end up impregnated with demon spawn. Buffy's always had the worst taste in boyfriends ever, and Gunn, who is moderately attractive in the right kind of lighting and doesn't actually trip over his own tongue every time he talks to a woman like some people not a million miles away from him, has about as much chance of getting laid as Xander does of developing any dress sense. Willow was the nerd girl of the universe and she's got the best relationship ever. Xander is a born loser but he's getting lots of sex with Anya, and Wesley – bizarrely – seems to have turned into some kind of chick magnet since he arrived in LA. How is any of that fair or reasonable? The only person in this room one would expect not to be getting any who really isn't getting any is Giles."

Giles rolled his eyes. "Thank you, Cordelia."

"You're welcome," she told him through a mouthful of donut.

Wesley looked around the room. "Is there anyone here she hasn't insulted yet? Just trying to keep score."

Dawn held up a hand. "Me."

Gunn looked at his watch. "And if we leave now maybe we can keep it that way." He glared at Cordelia. "You diss my Dawnie and you and me are going to be having words."

"We should get more pizza first," Xander said hastily. "Have a last meal."

Angel sighed. "Xander, we do feed Wesley in LA, I promise."

"I'm not seeing any evidence of that."

"Think about it, you've been stuffing food into him since we got here. Does he look any less skinny to you than when we arrived?"

Everyone took a moment to look at Wesley critically while he shifted self-consciously under their scrutiny.

Buffy took a donut for herself, head on one side. "It's difficult to tell. He was a kid when he arrived."

"Yes, we can't really say." Willow nodded.

"I don't think of myself as 'skinny'," Wesley protested.

Cordelia snorted. "Well, everyone else in the world does, Wes."

"More…leanly muscled."

Gunn raised an eyebrow. "You have muscles?"

"Yes."

"Where?"

"Here." Wesley flexed his arm in annoyance and Gunn felt his bicep through the thin material of his sweater.

Buffy and Willow exchanged a look which Cordelia saw. "Oh eww, stop it, you two!"

Gunn snatched his hand away from Wesley. "What? I wasn't doing anything!"

"Not you two, brain donor patrol, those two, Buffy and Willow, having the thoughts again."

"No, we weren't," said Willow hastily. "And anyway – I'm a lesbian, so why – why would I be?"

Angel peered out of the window. "The sun's setting."

Giles said a heartfelt: "Thank god." At their expressions, he said: "Not that I want to be rid of you particularly, and indeed I'm going to miss Wesley's company rather more than I would normally admit, but I really can't take much more of watching Buffy and Willow behaving like hormonal teenagers."

"Why?" Buffy enquired. "We were hormonal teenagers when you first met us."

"Yes, but I was hoping there was some light at the end of that particular tunnel."

Buffy licked sugar from her fingers. "He loves us really."

Giles could only sigh again, as the truth was that, of course, he did love them deeply, but that didn't stop them being exasperating at times. Diverting as this interlude had been, with a rogue goddess out there determined to track down the key that was Buffy's sister, he really did want them to have their full attention brought to bear on that problem rather than trying to turn Angel's associates into adults or – God forbid – imagining the now adult Wesley and Gunn naked.

"Did you two remember to pack?" Cordelia demanded of Wesley and Gunn.

"Of course," Wesley said smugly, holding up his suitcase and what Cordelia persisted in referring to as his 'man purse' shoulder bag.

Gunn also lifted up a bag but jerked a thumb at Wesley. "He folds like a girl. And he made me repack everything twice."

"You'll thank me when you don't have to iron anything when we get back to LA."

Willow and Buffy exchanged another look. 'So married' Buffy mouthed at Willow who nodded her agreement.

"What did you do with your little kid stuff?"

"I have it," Angel said a little sheepishly. As everyone looked at him he rolled his eyes. "Just so I can get a refund on it."

"You'd better be telling the truth," Cordelia warned him. "If I come into work one day and find you sighing over Gunn's Winnie the Pooh PJs I'm walking straight out that door and taking my visions with me."

"Oh, talking of nostalgia, this is for you." Tara held out a paper bag to Cordelia. "It's the dress we couldn't return. We thought you might like to…"

"Yes, I would." Cordelia clasped the parcel to her protectively. "Thank you, thank you, both."

"So, if you wanted to keep that dress and you can only keep it because it's got a stain on it, didn't I do you a favor?" Gunn enquired.

Wesley gave him a pitying look. "You'd think so, wouldn't you? But it doesn't actually work like that."

"They really have to go?" Dawn looked between them wistfully.

Xander also sighed. "It was nice having some…" Seeing Willow's anguished expression he amended hastily: "Other people here as well as the people who are already here. Who are also great. Wonderful, in fact. Make that – unsurpassably perfect."

"Faker," said Willow sadly. "I knew you wanted boy friends."

"I knew it. They're sowing the seeds of discontent. They must be banished forthwith." Buffy resolutely opened the kitchen door and waved them towards the hallway.

Xander grimaced and looked hastily between Gunn and Wesley. "What Will is saying there is 'boy' – one word – 'friends' – other word. Not 'boyfriends' – which I so don't want."

"We don't either," Wesley assured him. "Not even slightly."

Gunn sighed. "One day, Wes, I just know you're going to get all cool and sophisticated, right?"

"Don't hold your breath." Cordelia swept past with her suitcase in one hand and the dress still clasped protectively to her breast.

Wesley took the suitcase from her automatically. "Allow me."

She beamed at him over her shoulder. "You may be a dork, but you are a gentleman."

He inclined his head in weary acknowledgement that this was as close to praise as he was going to get from her.

Buffy looked at Angel and thought about what kissing him would be like; remembered how it had been before; how good it always felt; human face; vamp face; human teeth or vamp fangs, his lips always felt the same, as if the only right place for them was against her mouth. She sighed. "Time for us to throw them out into the snow."

"It's a mild summer evening, Buffy," Giles pointed out.

"The house is going to feel so empty," Dawn said sadly. "First we lose the children and now we're losing the adults."

"I could sleep over?" Xander suggested.

"We could do that too if it would help?" Tara suggested diffidently.

"We'll have a pyjama party to console ourselves," Buffy assured her. "There will be dips, chips, popcorn and chocolate."

"Okay." Dawn beamed.

Gunn sighed. "How soon they forget us."

"Why can't we have pyjama parties?" Wesley enquired.

"Because Angel's too cool to do anything fun?" Cordelia suggested over her shoulder. There was no question about who would be sitting in the front next to Angel, of course. Wesley and Gunn were already resigned to having to sit in the back.

"We could have one without him." Wesley brightened at the idea. "Cordelia can we…?"

"Yes, you saddoes, you can stay over at my place, but you bring your own chips, dips, and beer, and if you puke, you die."

Wesley and Gunn beamed at one another before Gunn remembered that he was supposed to be cooler than Wesley and gave a casual shrug. "I suppose it could be okay, I guess."

"You don't have to come," Cordelia called to him while chivvying Angel to open the trunk quickly so her suitcase could be placed carefully in prime position.

"No, it's cool," Gunn said quickly.

"How come I'm not even invited?" Angel demanded, obediently opening the trunk.

Cordelia snorted. "Like you'd even know how to have a pyjama party. Did they even have pyjamas in Olden Times? Put it there, Wesley, where Angel's ratty old bag can protect it if we go over a bump."

"They had nightgowns." Wesley carefully placed the suitcase where he was told.

Gunn frowned. "Didn't that make the wind whistle right up your…?" Remembering Dawn he turned the end of his sentence into a cough.

Dawn looked at Buffy. "Aren't they sweet?"

"Adorable. They're like the Tamagotchi detectives. Every home should have one."

"I have pyjamas," Angel insisted. "I can wear pyjamas."

Cordelia sighed and looked across at Buffy. "Have you thought about some kind of exchange program? You know, I lend you my guys when Xander wants to watch some boring war movie, you lend me your girls when I want to have a proper pyjama party with nail polish application and bitching about old boyfriends and eating cookie-dough?"

"We could bitch about your old boyfriends," Gunn put in. "Well, okay, I couldn't because I've only met one of them and I like him, no, hang on, two, if you count Wes, and I like both of them, but I'm right there with you on the cookie dough."

"I could bitch about Wilson Christopher," Angel insisted. "I met him. I hit him. And I met that other one, Pierce. He was kind of an asshole."

"There was the frat party guy too," Xander put in. "The one who tried to sacrifice her to a snake demon so he could get all rich and powerful."

"Oh!" Buffy looked up. "And the one who came back as Frankenstein's Monster."

"Daryl Epps," Willow supplied helpfully.

"Oh yes," Dawn remembered. "And then there was…"

Cordelia looked at Wesley and Gunn. "You two – not looking so bad now as pyjama party candidates."

"We don't have to wear nail varnish, do we?" Wesley enquired.

She rolled her eyes and looked around at the town. "Just taking a moment here to remember when I had cool friends. Actually, come to think of it, they were pretty much shallow airheads with a shoe fetish – don't even think about saying it, Wesley, unless you want to get used to pain – and the people here who were worth bothering about I never really appreciated until now." She looked at Willow and then sighed. "That's you, by the way, Willow. And okay, the rest of you, too. I'm going to miss you." Her voice gave a little quaver over that last sentence and Wesley and Gunn hastily averted their eyes so as to give her a moment to get herself back under control.

Willow enveloped her in a hug. "We're going to miss you too."

"Thanks for everything," Cordelia said tearfully.

Wesley and Gunn darted sideways looks to monitor the situation as Cordelia hugged everyone in turn, even rather awkwardly, Giles. "Happy slaying," she told Buffy in a voice that definitely sounded a little choked up. "And that god-bitch – I just know you're going to kick her skanky omnipotent ass."

Gunn stepped forward as Cordelia turned away to wipe her eyes. "More of a manly handshake kind of guy." He put out his hand and shook everyone's solemnly in turn.

Angel looked at Wesley. "I hate goodbyes."

Buffy made a point of giving Wesley a hug. He looked surprised but not at all unhappy about it, murmuring, "Oh…" as she hugged him.

"Take care of yourself, Wesley," she told him. "No more getting yourself tortured or shot or beaten up by vamps."

"You too," he said.

Willow and Tara also hugged him fondly, while Dawn gave him a peck on the cheek. He looked very confused by the attention but extremely touched. Xander stuck out a hand. "Sorry about last time – being such a bastard to you."

"Sorry about being such a colossal jerk and general waste of space," Wesley responded cheerfully.

"That's okay. Remember to eat, won't you?"

"You too. And thanks for…well, everything." Wesley turned to Giles and smiled at him tentatively. "I don't really know what to say. I feel I owe you a great deal."

"I feel that as Englishmen we're probably best suited to avoiding anything that might be construed as an emotional farewell."

Wesley smiled in relief and nodded. "Absolutely. So – thanks for the tea and Jaffa cakes – oh yes and for taking a concussion on my behalf and restoring me to adult size. Good luck with the evil deity from a hell dimension and let's hope England can repeat last year's showing in the Test Match."

"We can only hope." Giles shook his hand gently. "Good luck, Wesley. May your chosen one prove considerably less problematic to Watch for than mine."

"I'm not holding my breath on that score but thank you for the sentiment." Wesley stepped back, nodded to everyone, and then slipped into the back of the car in which Gunn had already taken refuge.

Angel brightened. "I'm your Chosen One?"

"No, you're the Chosen One of the Powers That… Oh never mind. The point is that I ran out of Slayers," Wesley told him through the half open window. "And you were the only other Champion left – well, who doesn't reside in Gotham City."

"Cat Woman." Gunn sighed happily. "Wonder if she needs a Watcher? And a friend of a Watcher with a really cool axe?"

"Sheesh, what is it about guys and girls in tight fitting leather costumes?" Cordelia demanded from the front seat. "I mean when Wes turned up in LA wearing… Okay, bad example."

"What happened?" Gunn enquired.

"I wasn't checking him out," Angel said at once.

Cordelia rolled her eyes. "No, I kissed him, you doofus, but it wasn't because of the leather pants – not that they weren't a good look for him – it was because of the... Oh never mind. Go and get the big romantic angsty farewell scene out of the way so we can go home and feel sorry for ourselves." As she waved Angel away she said to the two in the back: "You two, don't look. The real miracle is that some string quartet hasn't started up."

"How bad is the whole star-crossed lovers thing with those two?" Gunn asked Cordelia in a stage whisper that carried further than a shout.

"About as bad as it gets." She turned around in the seat to talk to him better. "Romeo and Juliet have nothing on these two. I mean, okay – dead for love, boo hoo – but compared with the whole 'I'm a vampire, you're a Slayer, my gypsy curse will keep us apart for all eternity and if it doesn't – look out, world, human kebab time' I don't think they were such a big deal. And then there's the whole 'had to send him to hell to save the world' thing. And there's the first love thing and the 'oh I had no purpose until I saw you from my place in the sewers eating rats' thing. Basically, it's complicated and being around it – well, imagine you're stuck in a really bad seat at the opera, one behind a pillar, and the soprano has a cold and the tenor is like really fat, and when people die they die for real and it's the opera that never ends – kind of what it's like being around those two."

As Gunn and Wesley both automatically went to look out of the window to see how the tragic farewell was progressing, Cordelia hissed, "Don't look!"

"How will we know when it's over?" Wesley asked reasonably.

"Because I get into the car like this." Angel closed the door behind him and looked at their surprised faces. "Not like it's our first goodbye. We've pretty much got it down by now."

"But don't they usually involve a big production number?" Cordelia frowned. "Don't you have to trash your surroundings or each other or something?"

"Sometimes we just say 'goodbye'." Angel switched on the ignition, looking so sad as he did so that Wesley and Gunn both exchanged a wincing look of sympathy for him and Cordelia leant across to kiss his cheek.

"You still have us. And we know you love us because of all the fussing over us you did when we were kids. So, that's better than nothing, right?"

For all her confidence she looked insecure as she said it, brown eyes uncertain, still clasping that parcel from Willow and Tara to her chest. He gazed at her and then turned around to look at Wesley and Gunn. "It's a lot better than nothing," he told them emphatically. "And sometimes it's damned near everything."

They drove away from Sunnydale with a forlorn party watching them go and waving goodbye from the sidewalk while Wesley, Gunn and Cordelia all suddenly found that they had something in their eye.

***

The End