"Hot showers, yes, absolutely. Separate rooms for boys and girls. I wouldn't have it any other way," Anne Steele told the voice on the phone. If she seemed more interested in the handsome man painting her walls, the caller had no way of knowing, or could see the dreamy way her eyes traveled up the back of her painter's impressive frame.
"We keep kids from all sorts of backgrounds, sure we can get them to court if they need to. We've actually got free legal counsel here at East Hills. Yeah," she winked at the man when he turned around on his ladder to look at her. "He's a new addition to our crew." Her smile turned fond and somber. "He doesn't care about making money. He wants to give something back to the kids."
When she hung up the phone, she walked over to the wall covered with fresh paint. "You missed a spot."
Gunn jumped down from the ladder and right in front of her, causing her to giggle. "You gonna show me?"
"Right here," she whispered, and gently wiped off the spatter of yellow paint on his nose with the corner of her sleeve.
Gunn glanced around the room. "You're gonna love this when it's done. This color will brighten up the whole place, give the kids something nice to wake up to."
"Lucky kids," she murmured. "What about me?"
He looked back down at her and smiled, wrapped his hand loosely around her waist. "You don't gotta worry 'bout a thing."
Anne leaned against him and breathed against his shirt. "That's good to know."
"One thing, though," he said, resting his head on hers. "You might wanna watch how you plug your new legal eagle, Annie."
Her arms slipped around him and snugged into his back pockets. "You change your mind?"
"Nah, I don't know my mind, is all. Who knows how long until that speed-read education I got goes flying out of my head? I didn't earn it, got no reason to keep it."
Anne poked her head up. "Then you better use it in as many good ways as you can before it's gone."
Gunn pulled her close and grinned. "Yes, ma'am." He leaned in to kiss her on the lips when the phone rang noisily, effectively interrupting them.
"So goes the life of the public servant," she laughed and skipped over to the desk to answer the phone.
"East Hills Teen Center." She listened for a minute, then handed the receiver out to Gunn with a puzzled expression on her face. "Some guy wants to know if you still patrol."
Gunn wiped his hands on his jeans and fairly leapt for the phone. "Somebody forgot who he's calling."
"Well, ain't this old home week," Lorne said from behind the bar as Wesley entered the quickly-filling club. The buffet already had a line and tables were filling rapidly.
"Hello, Lorne," Wes greeted him with a grin. "I know it's been a while."
"I'll see your 'in a while' and raise you an 'in a dog's age,'" he said, holding out his hand for Wesley to shake. "Didn't know I'd be hosting the whole Sunnydale hit parade tonight."
Wes shook back. “Ah, you mean Buffy, I take it. She was in here?”
“Ms. Short Blonde and Punchy spent the better part of the day with me," he said, rubbing his nose gingerly. “Officially, for her Council, looking in to the dead nutjob who tried to kill us both."
"Yes," Wes nodded. "The Council of Watchers is required to investigate all Slayer-related activities. Especially their murders.” He glanced at Lorne. "You said officially. Something unofficial about her business?"
Lorne hesitated. "I gotta say, I took a shine to the kid. Still, I think she took on the Council biz as a big ole means to what she hoped would be her vamp-happy-ending."
"Really?" Wes murmured. "You mean she came after Angel?" His heart quickened with hope. "Or Spike?"
“Buddy, can you spare a dime? I'll flip."
"Oh, dear," Wesley replied. “Sounds as though she hoped to make a connection with either of them. That must have made for a rather emotional visit. For all parties concerned." He looked over at Lorne with a detached interest. "Any idea how it turned out?"
"Well, she came in alone and unhappy and cleaned me out of coconut rum," Lorne said, mixing a Sea Breeze and holding up a toast to Wes. "You wanna drink to that?"
"No," he sighed glumly. "I suppose I'd rather not.”
Wesley glanced at his watch. A minute before six o'clock. Still time to change his mind.
Instead, he drained his gratis pink cocktail in two quick gulps. He followed with a paid-for scotch on the rocks, merely to cleanse the palate, of course.
He stared forwards dully, past his tired eyes reflected in the wall of mirrors behind the bar and to the crowd behind him. In the reflection, he saw demons and humans dancing to the piped-in music, groups of friends carousing, milling around the buffet table, embracing, laughing, and enjoying themselves in a way that Wesley could not touch. Still, he could not help glancing at the reflection with a small smile. Lorne had returned to running his club without as much as a pause and had likewise returned to his former success, even without his gift of reading. If he missed his empath powers, he certainly put on a good show to prove otherwise.
Then again, Wes thought bitterly, haven't we all?
"It almost looks real, doesn't it?" said a familiar voice behind him: the mysterious stranger from the telephone call.
Wesley stared in the mirror and saw no one at his side. Likewise, he saw no one out of the corner of his eye.
"It is real," Wes answered with a sigh. "All of that is happening in this room. It's just…beyond me."
He turned around and saw the pitifully shriveled and balding demon behind him. He tried not to draw back in revulsion when the man held out his hand – a scrawny, skeletal claw with skin like cracked leather and in the color of fresh blood.
Before Wes had a chance to react, the thing latched on to Wes' hand that rested by his side and Wes instantly felt his body lurch inside from the iciness of the man's grip. Then from his power. Wesley had rarely felt such a surge of magical energy from a mere touch. It hit him like the sudden rush of a drug, leaving him enervated and slightly sick. The release of the handshake brought him relief and disappointment both.
"Greetings, Mr. Pryce. I must say that it is a pleasure to meet you at last. Your reputation, as it is said, precedes you." He laughed, a vacant and dismal sound that echoed chillingly in Wesley's ears.
"You know me," Wes frowned. "How exactly?"
The two burly demons who served as bodyguards glared at Wesley menacingly, kept their hairy paws clutched to the handles of the old demon's wheelchair. The chair had been outfitted with a kind of intricate IV system, though the rusty and mustard-colored liquids looked nothing like the healing hospital fluids Wes had ever seen. Or, he shuddered internally, nothing like what Leah had administered to him.
The man waved his hand as though in dismissal. "It is the obligation of any decent sorcerer to know his competition. You've done the odd spell in your time, young man, with more success than you'll admit." One eye winked up at him.
Wes stiffened. "You're a sorcerer."
"Cyvus Vail, son, and don't bother with a pleasant lie that you've heard of me. You haven't. I have taken great pains to make sure of it."
Wesley clapped his mouth shut.
"Are you ready to discuss business?" Vail asked.
"I'm afraid we've met at a bad time," Wes murmured, feeling a bead of sweat form on his forehead. He hadn't been prepared for meeting someone like Vail. It would be like doing business with the devil.
He cleared his throat and gestured around the room. "It appears that this is Caritas' busiest hour. We'll never find a quiet corner, never mind a table."
Vail snorted. "Is that the greatest of your concerns? This is the ideal time for our meeting. Do you wish to see why?"
Without waiting for Wesley to answer, Vail lifted his hands in the air, palms to the ceiling. In a flash, one of the last empty chairs slid across the room to Wesley's side – right before an attractive brunette in a gray business suit was about to sit in it.
Her eyes narrowed at Wes and Vail. "Hey!" she began, in a petulant tone.
Wesley didn't hear the rest of what she had to say. In fact, he stopped hearing anything in the room at all. Everyone and everything had come to a complete standstill.
"You still wish to have a table?" the old demon hissed.
Wes shook his head quickly.
"Please," Vail said, gesturing to the empty chair in front of him. "You see that we have all the privacy in the world now."
"What –" Wes stammered, easing himself carefully into the chair. "Whatever have you done?"
"A mere temporal disturbance. You'd be surprised how often they happen. Oh, the patrons are fine. But I needed their energy to bring about this little pause."
"Energy. You sought out this crowd."
"Yes," Vail nodded. "Humans especially buzz with all that your minds and bodies never accomplish, never knowing what you are capable of. You're living batteries." He did not smile. Wesley knew that Vail completely believed in his theory. His magic, strong enough to temporarily suspend Lorne’s sanctuary spell, depended on it.
"What do you want?"
Vail snickered. "A man who gets right to the point. Not interested in the sorcery necessary to bring about a hiatus in time, are you? Very well. But it is not just a matter of what I want, but what you want. I believe her name is Winifred Burkle."
"Now see here," Wesley leaned over to the man, after first glancing upwards to make sure that Vail's bodyguards were likewise suspended in time. "I won't be party to any kind of blackmail. You threaten Miss Burkle or her safety in any way and you die now."
"You will perish here in this limbo with me then," Vail yawned. "Mr. Pryce, save your petty intimidation for the likes of Wolfram & Hart. What we will arrange here is an exchange."
He rustled in his thick maroon robes for a moment and produced a glowing cube, made of some kind of translucent material – something like frosted glass crossed with cotton sheeting.
"When I asked whether this looked real, I didn't mean the reflection. Unless to say, that we are the reflection even outside of the mirror. We are trapped in a living mirror, a reflection of reality that has almost been lost to us." His eyes glinted. "Almost. Take a look. See for yourself."
What Wesley saw next could have been downloaded from his deepest, most personal dreams. Fred, beautiful Fred, standing before him with eyes turned up at him – him at last! – wearing a look of utter infatuation.
"You're just going to go, aren't you?" she asked him, wide-eyed and full of obvious anguish at his apparent retreat toward a door. How the Wesley in that screen could not know what she laid bare before him, he couldn't fathom. Then again, the man in that world looked as stricken by Fred as he himself had felt in this world, so many times.
"Fred – " the Wesley-on-screen started, his voice full of sense and sensibility. Practicality. Fear.
"Haven't you been... sensing anything lately... about me... coming from me? Uh... didn't occur to you that... something might have changed? That—I'm looking at you in a different— Oh, screw it," she gasped finally and leaned into him with hands on his cheeks, drawing him toward what looked like the sweetest kiss he'd ever felt. As he watched himself with Fred, he felt his lips tingle from the ghost lips of hers lingering on his…sometime, somewhere...
"Do you wish to see more?" Vail asked.
"Yes," Wesley breathed, unable to tear his eyes away.
He caught himself.
"I mean, no."
He shook his head and the images faded from the screen. He scowled at Vail. "What lovely magic you do."
Cyvus Vail laughed then – an utterance of horrifying amusement that quickly degenerated into a phlegm-lodged, choking cough.
"Oh, my boy," he wheezed. "You truly do not know the half of it. But I assure you, the only magic I perform on this cube is your ability to see what exists on the plane outside of our own. A plane where I am a respected employee of Wolfram & Hart and you are the beloved beau of Winifred Burkle. We've been shafted, you and I. We're living in a mirror world. A funhouse mirror at that. Or what else would you call her lover? That bleached blonde, faux-Cockney, nicotine-ridden, foul-mouthed vampire?"
"Spike," Wes muttered, all of his anger and disappointment poured into that one word.
A thought occurred to him. "What is he to her there?"
"A friend. A confidante. Nothing more." His voice dropped. "Much like you are here."
Wesley eyed the demon suspiciously. He had no reason to discount anything Vail said – and had no reason to believe him, either. He rubbed his eyes tiredly.
"How does this even exist?"
Vail smacked his lips with pleasure. "You remember Connor now, do you not? Angel’s son.”
Wes looked up at him with a sudden realization. "Yes, I do."
"His new life with new memories, concealing all that you knew of him and he of himself, that was my creation. Or should I say, my distortion. It was meant to be a simple glamour, a mere ripple in the fabric of time." He leveled Wesley with a chilling stare. “Now that all your memories of him have returned, the glamour has taken on a life of its own."
Vail gestured up to the bar, to the bottle of scotch that the bartender had placed next to Wesley's glass after refilling it.
"Go on. Drink."
"Any ordinary human or demon boy would have enjoyed his life in suburbia, ensconced with his replacement family, happily ever after, as they say. Never to give pause to his roots, to his true horrific nature," Vail continued. "Connor, as I think you recall, is not your ordinary boy."
"No," Wes said softly, draining his glass and filling it again. "He never was that." He sunk into the chair.
"He is stronger than I – than any of us anticipated. His pretty mist of happy memories still lingers but not for long. When it lifts, I promise you, Mr. Pryce, the result will pour a flood of chaos upon us all, the likes of which you have not seen. Your tussles with the Beast," he chuckled, "will be a puppet show in comparison."
Wesley's lips turned dry. "You want—you're asking me to kill Connor?"
"No!" Vail croaked. "The die has been cast. Killing him will only seal the destruction. You see, Mr. Pryce, we all exist here but for him. When he remembers who – and what he is – this world ceases to hold purpose. We will bleed away into the worst sort of apocalypse. The end of a world that never should have been."
Wesley dragged his eyes to the now dim cube resting in Vail's lap.
"What about the world you showed me there?" he couldn't help himself from asking.
Vail met his gaze eagerly. "I can facilitate it for you to go back, back far enough to change Angel's mind. Back to the precise moment that he chose to whitewash his son's life and take over Wolfram & Hart. That is what you have seen: a world without Connor, a world in which Fred Burkle loves you. Without any need for this glamour, everything here as you see it will also revert to its true nature, the world I have shown you in that screen. What you are living today will disappear, as though a dream upon waking."
"You've shown me roughly thirty seconds of a kiss," Wesley said flatly. "I'm required to make a decision on the future of an entire dimension based on that?"
Vail winked at him. "Mere mortals have destroyed universes for less."
"You're very likely lying. Whatever could you want in exchange?"
"As I said to you on the telephone, what is mine, although it belongs to me as much as it belongs to you. Secreted in the vaults of Wolfram & Hart, Angel has hidden away the one gem that allows the average human demonologist or part-time wizard the ability to cross time and dimensions. Ask your dear friend, Ms. Burkle, if perhaps she has seen it. It is our key for ending this lie we are living." He shook his head. "I merely wish to undo what I have so foolishly done. I am too weak and sick to make such a journey myself. It was in my best interest, you see, to choose a man who has so much to potentially gain, and lose."
"You're a sorcerer," Wesley spat out. "You're a former employee of Wolfram & Hart which means an untold propensity for evil."
"You see? We share so much in common."
Affronted, Wes jumped up and pushed his chair back.
"We have both done our share of evil deeds. This world," he nodded gravely, "is the whole of their parts. The ultimate forgery. The consummate fabrication. It will end, as surely as we speak here now. The question remains of how you wish it to end? Embracing the love of your life or listening to her screams of death?"
"Enough," Wesley held his hand up, watching it tremble. "I have heard quite enough from you."
"You have," Vail agreed. "Now you must hear from others. Listen to any hints from them that this life and all in it has left them somewhat…betrayed. They may be eager to join you in your quest.”
He returned the glowing cube to the folds of his cloak. "Take all the time you wish, Mr. Pryce. That's all that you have to bargain with, is time."
Wesley heard the snap of fingers and in the next instant, the flood of sound and activity of the bar returned to him in a dizzying rush. He glanced at his watch to see it reading a minute past six o'clock, not a second more. The bottle of scotch still rested next to his glass, although his ice cubes were now dry. He glanced around him but Vail and his guards had disappeared.
Frowning, he wondered how much he had merely imagined of it all. Foolishly drinking following his morphine detox had to cause some side effects, hallucinations couldn't be the least of them. He'd get out of Caritas quickly before the real man on the telephone had a chance to arrive.
"Hey, jerk-off," an annoyed female voice came from across the room. A ticked-off brunette in a gray business suit strode toward him.
"No need to magic it up, Potter. You want a chair, all you have to do is ask."
Flustered, Wesley looked down to see the club chair at his knees, blocking his exit. The same chair that Vail had spirited over for him. Wes hadn’t imagined that conversation, after all; he’d lived it. He hadn’t had the presence of mind to absolutely refuse Vail’s bargain, either.
"Terribly sorry," Wes stammered. He pushed the chair out of his path and made his way to the door. "I'm afraid I've made a horrible mistake.”
“You understand now why we ramped up your training, darling?” the clipped female British voice asked Willow on the phone. “What appears to be unfolding in Los Angeles is directly in your wheelhouse.”
“Yeah,” Willow looked at the magical map spread across her bed. “Sure looks like it.”
“So it’s clear why you’re the ideal witch for the job?”
“Oh, yeah,” Will frowned. “Crystal.”
“Then why the long face?”
Willow glanced at the phone. “How can you see my face?”
“I don’t have to see it, I can hear it. Should these signals be correct, you’re going to complete another curve of your redemptive arc. Why aren’t you looking forward to it?”
“Because of Buffy. I feel like I’m setting her up,” Willow admitted.
“Willow,” the voice chided her. “Your dear Slayer friend decided to go to Los Angeles at exactly the same time we began sensing initial disturbances. Do you really think that’s a coincidence?”
Willow chewed on a fingernail. “I don’t know. Buffy hasn’t even patrolled in a while. I didn’t think her Slayer senses were all that hot these days.”
“On the contrary, if she’s putting her physical abilities on the back burner, her psychic senses may be overcompensating and screaming for attention. Slayers aren’t meant to be idle.”
“Lysandra, I should have said something! Warned her - anything!” Willow cried.
The woman exhaled into the phone. “Said what? Warned her about what? Variations in weather patterns, cosmic imbalances, dark forces rising, temporal shifts?”
“Well,” Willow thought a moment. “Yeah!” she exclaimed.
“Darling, that would be akin to warning a city about an impending tornado based on a light breeze. We didn’t know - and we still don’t - the full impact of all that’s unfolding in Los Angeles. Buffy’s strong, has excellent instincts, and will, of course, inform you should trouble arise. Her ignorance is our greatest asset.”
“Is she okay?” Dawn’s face peeked into Willow’s room the minute Willow ended the call.
“Hey, Dawnie, go back to bed. That wasn’t Buffy.”
Dawn looked disappointed. “I wish we knew more, that we could help her.”
“I know. We will. Once we know how.”
Dawn’s face perked up. “If Buffy hasn’t sensed or seen anything, than maybe the coven is wrong.”
“Maybe,” Willow sighed. She thought of the map she had just put away with all the little glowing magical beads and how several of them pulsed continuously over the Los Angeles area.
“We should tell her to come back.”
“She’s not finished with her investigation. Besides, if something does come up, she needs to be there. They’ll need a Slayer.”
“Even one who isn’t actively slaying?”
“You know your sister can handle herself.”
Dawn shook her head. “Willow, this feels icky. Like we’re using her as bait. Can’t we tell her to be on the lookout?”
Willow couldn’t help but be reminded of the telephone conversation she’d just had, Dawn now playing Willow’s part and Willow now needing to be the steadying, calming voice of the witch, Lysandra.
“For what?” Willow asked and held up her hand to count on her fingers: “The alternate reality spell, the instability in its temporal fold, the dark entity fog that grows stronger by the day? Those are just the biggies. The coven said these disturbances may be incidental - not tied to anything specific and may clear up.”
“Or,” Willow winced. “They may all roll up and make an end of L.A. burrito.”
“Will!” Dawn cried.
“Look, Lysandra said - and I agree with her - that if we tell Buffy to go looking for something, that’s exactly what she’ll do - before we’re even ready to help her.”
“So we just wait?”
“For the record? This still feels icky,” Dawn told her, walking out of the room.
Willow made sure she was out of earshot before she muttered, “Oh sweetie, you don’t know from icky.”