~ The Dreamers ~
The college of his choice. A wonderful girlfriend. Most important of all, his family gathered round him, loving and supportive, voices ringing out with familiarity, filled with light and laughter.
He should be happy. And he is. Yet the faint specter of memory hangs over the dinner table like a dark cloud smeared against the backdrop of bluest summer sky. So near, so familiar. He can feel a tingle at the base of his spine, tiny hairs lifting in response to… what, exactly?
For an instant he can almost see it, almost taste it and smell the memory. A feeling like smoke and mirrors, smelling of stale rooms and orange blossoms. Bearing guilt and covered in blood, the specter lives for a moment in that space, breathes for an instant in his heart, like a shadow of the past long lost and best forgotten. Its skin is bright candy coating that is cancerous beneath.
Piercing blue eyes narrow, sharp and dangerous for an instant, and then his brow smoothes, the near memory vanishing as an arm comes around him and hugs him close.
Those strange thoughts, those dark feelings… with a touch, they are made but a memory of a memory. He could never associate such things with the man who holds him now. This man is everything that those feelings are not.
This man. His father.
And if something moves outside the window, something dark and shadowy that bears that smell of stale years and heartbreak, he pretends he does not notice.
She floats within a hazy gray mist, her spirit neither here nor there. A precious piece caught here, a fragment of memory there. These sweet and cherished gifts are all that remain to her now, and none of them tell her who she is.
She has forgotten who she is. How she lived. If she lived. What she dreamed. If she loved. But she is only aware of these concepts in the vaguest of senses, and thus barely feels the loss of them.
Every now and then, she thinks she can almost see them, and then they slip beyond her grasp, forgotten almost instantly.
But there is a part of her that will not surrender completely to the void that beckons. A part of her that still knows enough not to leap willingly into the arms of death. Every now and then a crystal shard of memory ignites with bright white light, shining rainbows on what remains, and for an instant, she remembers… she knows.
She knows she has lost something. Something very important. Perhaps the only thing that was ever important.
A face. Her own? Someone else's? Then another, and another. A parading flash of memory too fast and too thin to be seen properly. The moment of knowing hovers on the verge of her mind like a word at the tip of her tongue… and then the moment passes, the gray returns, and mist like cotton candy spirals through the corridors of her mind again.
And so it goes, and so it goes.
He doesn't know exactly what he saw up there. All he knows is that he wants it in a big way. Worse, perhaps, than he's ever wanted anything.
He knows it wasn't some shiny, glittery, Hollywood style present wrapped in gaudy paper that would find itself curled in the gutter the next day, used up and empty, ribbons wreathed around it like the corpses of dead stardom dreams. This was not a trinket pulled from the bag of tricks he'd expected Wolfram and Hart to offer up.
No. This was far more than that, and also far less. A spiritual roar and echo, the curling green leaves of a jungle of possibilities reflected in golden eyes. What he'd seen up there was a promise yet to be fulfilled. A promise that Wolfram and Hart, ultimately, had nothing to do with. It was the promise of potential. The promise of the man he might yet be.
Charles Gunn had never aspired to greatness. Born into streets, he had accepted his lot in life, had understood the extent of his influence, early on. He'd known that dreams of greatness belonged to those with more money and paler skin. As the years had flown by, he'd changed his mind about a great many things. But not that. Never that.
And now, everything was different. The possibility had dangled before him like a luscious, overripe fruit.
He had taken a deep breath… and reached for it.
And the voice inside his mind had said,
This is where it begins.
The Rationals +
She'd watched as they'd come in, impressed despite their intentions not to be, mental barriers raised high, hackles bristling at every word she spoke. She'd watched as they'd relaxed from suspicion into caution, each lulled by the safety of weapons, the perfection of their handpicked guides. So easy. They knew they were being played, like strings beneath the bow of her ambition, and yet they couldn't help themselves.
Angel had expected lies, distractions made of shiny objects—and true, she'd thrown in a few toys, so as not to make him too suspicious. Oh, the delicious irony. She'd actually had to trick him into thinking he was being deceived so he would believe the deal. She wondered if he would have appreciated the humor in that? It didn't matter, in the end. Once the cards seemed on the table, it hadn't taken much to awaken that noble, self-sacrificing spirit. His son had only been one string to pull. The easiest. But not, by far, the only.
Later, she'd watched as they'd returned, one by one, eyes full of stars and shining with naïve hope. She'd watched as they'd placated, cajoled, and justified themselves into believing, for whatever reasons, that this was the right thing. And she'd smiled big and pretty, smirking beneath her new, kinder, gentler façade. And she'd known it was going to work.
It was ingenious, really. The simplest plans always were.
Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.
So true. Lilah smiles and scratches at her neck absently. After all, she should know.
It was a good plan, he'd give it that.
He'd even been taken in by it, initially. He'd believed that Wolfram and Hart wanted to lure him into their service, had believed that the books they'd offered were truly their idea of temptation. He'd thought himself so smart, outwitting them. He'd come for one reason.
He'd wanted to free her, felt guilty for the part he and the others unwittingly played in her death. Still, despite his feelings, his mind skirts the idea of love as easily now as it had when he'd first slept with her. There might be a touch of his romantic core still intact, but it's surrounded by toughness now, a hardened shell marked by detached practicality.
If there's one thing Wesley has learned, it's that you cannot trust anyone.
Angel taught him that.
He smirks and eyes his surroundings, thinking how handy that practicality has proven since its inception. He sees no wariness in the eyes of the others, not even Angel's, anymore. He wonders at that. Surely he trusts Wolfram and Hart even less than Wesley does?
They'd each come in suspicious, and in turn, each of their suspicions has been laid aside in favor of the temptation, the ability to good. Even he has set aside his doubts, but he has not forgotten.
He thinks about how Lilah had known he'd go for the files… but she'd thought he wanted secrets, power… she hadn't known why.
He'd bet money that the Senior Partners had known all along.
* The Effervescent *
Okay, so call him shallow, but he is loving this set-up.
High-profile, big money, big stars, limos, a wet bar in virtually every office. And hey, resources to save the world from almost any kind of evil, super-genius to single-celled. What's not to love?
Okay, it's not worth his soul or anything—no matter how styling his soul is going look in an Armani suit—but he figures all they have to do is keep their eyes open, watch out for any traps. Keep the balance, like he'd told Fred. Simple enough.
Of course, he's going to be crazy busy meeting with clients, so it's pretty much gonna be up to the others to keep an eye out for big evil, but he knows they're up to the task.
Unless they're distracted by their own meetings and research. The thought rises up slowly, breaking the vivacious surface of his mind like a bubble of tar. Meeting with stars, big name clients… which, when you thought about it, was just fancy talk for hobnobbing. Not a lot of room for fighting evil, there. Then again, given the amount of famous psychics and mediums employed by more neurotic stars, they could prove valuable. Hmm… Was there balance there?
Only the kind barely held up by shaky justification.
That's it! They're trying to distract us from our cause—
His jaw drops open as he surveys his planner.
"Meeting with Barbara Streisand?"
Oh, they're really playing hardball. But he's strong. He'll stand resolute.
Still… one little lunch couldn't hurt.
She takes a deep breath and wonders if the grin pasted on her face makes her look like a fool. She just can't help it. This place is so exciting, so full of possibilities, the kind she's always dreamed of but knew she'd never have.
She could do so much here! A chance for her to devote herself to research, give something back to the world. And yes, okay, so it was coming in evil Wolfram and Hart packaging... but that didn't mean the gift had to be bad, did it? Besides, if they were laying this opportunity on her doorstep with the hopes of corrupting her, they were way off their game. Winifred Burkle only used her powers for good.
And, oh! The things she will do with them!
Okay, she thinks, and reins herself in. If she doesn't get a grip she's going to start babbling and if she does that then Lilah will give her that look. The one that makes her feel like a bug pinned to glass. Of course, that cart with the guns isn't all that far away…
It's a joke, meant to be funny, but somehow it comes out in her head all wrong. She thinks of Professor Seidel… of Gunn… and the bubbles of her giddy buzz pop, leaving her feeling flat and stale.
It was only that one time, she reassures herself. Only once she'd slipped and used her 'powers' for something self-serving and ultimately wrong.
Never again. Silly to even think it.
Right. Of course.
^ The Guardian ^
The limo smells of leather and money and charlatanism, and to Angel, it couldn't smell worse if it were full of rotting corpses. To think that he has this—that he has Wolfram & Hart, of all people—to thank for his son's salvation leaves a bitter taste in his mouth. And yet… he can't keep a tiny smile from tugging at the corner of his mouth. His son, all grown up, happy and successful, the world about to be at his feet, surrounded by all the love Angel had wanted to give the boy.
He toys with the pendant Lilah gave him as the limo pulls away from the house, and tries not to think about what he's leaving behind.
Ahead of him lies Sunnydale… Buffy… things that he'd known once, had depended on, hadn't known if he could live without… and yet he'd left there, left her, come here to LA and started anew. He'd formed a family… Cordelia, Wesley, Fred, Gunn, even Lorne… and Connor most of all. They'd been his pillar, the thing he had come to love and protect above all. Gone. Destroyed.
Connor, gone. Cordelia, gone. What does he have left?
The words echo hauntingly in his ears, and he thinks of a time, not so long ago, when he'd asked Buffy a similar question.
"Take all that away, and what's left?"
"Me", she'd said.
Himself. He is changeless, eternal, ever fixed, and he will do what he always does…
He will go on.
But he will never forget.